Gotham Diary:
Characters
June 2018 (II)

12, 13 and 15 June

Tuesday 12th

Looking for a book, a few weeks ago, I emptied a triple-decked shelf that I have not yet catalogued. I found what I was looking for, but I left the books that I’d pulled out in stacks all over the room, as a way of forcing myself to note what was where in the course of putting them back. That hasn’t happened yet, and the book room is a mess. But I’ve been doing some unexpected reading. That’s what the books are for, I suppose.

The shelf was at the top of the breakfront bookcase, and in theory it was shared by books on music and on film. (For some reason, most of these books are as hefty as, or even heftier than, history books.) Among the titles disturbed by my search for the score of Mahler’s Third Symphony was David Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. It came out at the end of 2004, right when I was beginning to keep a Web log. Is that why I didn’t get very far? (A bookmark was stuck between pages in the first chapter.) Or was it just not what I was expecting — a history of Hollywood. For it isn’t, not really. An historical meditation, perhaps. The Whole Equation assumes a familiarity with the nuts and bolts of movie history that I didn’t have fifteen years ago; even in those days, like most moviegoers, I knew what I liked, which was a lot, but that was about it. I wasn’t much interested in the business of making movies, which seemed to me to be so unlike, so almost at odds with, the movies themselves. That’s part of Thomson’s point, but I wasn’t ready to ponder it.

The title comes from the book that F Scott Fitzgerald hadn’t finished when he died, in 1940, The Last Tycoon. The narrator, a bright young woman roughly modeled on Irene Mayer Selznick, tosses it off as something that maybe only three or four men in Hollywood really understand. David Thomson doesn’t claim to know precisely what the whole equation is, but it seems to connect the many variables of gambling (with a view to winning big) to the psyches of millions of viewers sitting in dark halls, overpowered by colossal images — heads thirty feet high. Both sides of the equation are clouded by dreaming; there is a great deal of slippage between what the parties think they are doing and what they are actually doing. This distributed dreaming has the effect of absolving everyone of responsibility for the movies. No one is responsible for the box-office success or failure of a film. Nobody is responsible for the insidious effects of moviegoing on moral character. No one is responsible for the transformation of an audience into a mob. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

From the start, “no one in the race could see where it was going.” (44) The two leaders in the race were Thomas Edison and William Dickson in America and the Lumière brothers in France. Edison foresaw a profusion of kinetoscopes, each one controlled by a solitary viewer. The Frenchmen foresaw what we call the movies, with a crowd of people sitting the dark while the images fly before them, inexorably projected by an invisible power. Thomson allows that, in the end, Edison may have proved right, but it is unlikely that anything like the material in my large collection of DVDs would have been produced for a market of kinetoscopes. Right there is a point worth mulling over.

I never cared much for movie theatres. I hated crowded ones, always, especially when the crowds were diverse — which they certainly weren’t at the movie theatre on Kraft Avenue in Bronxville, or in the Engineering Auditorium at Notre Dame. In the former, I saw The King and I twice, the first repeat in my long life with the movies; in the latter, I saw a great many of the prestigious and sophisticated European films that buffs were supposed to have seen. In these venues, audiences behaved politely. Settling in Manhattan, I came to prefer sparsely-attended afternoon shows (with the result that Kathleen and I hardly ever went to the movies together), but even then I had to put up with the occasional whiner. I greeted videotapes with immense and immediate enthusiasm, for I had already learned from Million Dollar Movie that there were pictures that I wanted to see again and again. That I could also see them at will and at home seemed too good to be true, but it wasn’t. I am now content to wait for films to be released on DVD, no matter how loud the roar of approval. The last movie that I saw in the theatre was Get Out, last year — a movie that I quite agree is wasted on a solitary viewer.

By the time I began writing about movies here and at my other, earlier sites, it was fairly clear to my mind that movies were a kind of literature — which is to say that I gave no thought to movies without such literary values as structure and implication — just as serious music is another. Like books, movies and symphonies can be collected and organized and experienced in private. I find that this notional arcade that I have imagined does not accommodate the multi-year series that has become so popular. I collected the first two seasons of Mad Men, for example, but I let them ago, having lost interest in watching the show at about the beginning for the fourth season. While there are a few items in my video library that exceed by a considerable margin the conventional two-hour running time of most movies, almost everything that I have tells its story in the standard frame, a dramatic pulse to which my body as well as my mind have become thoroughly acclimated. When I sit down to watch a video, I know that, in a couple of hours, I’ll be doing something else. Thinking about the video that I’ve just seen will certainly be one of them.

The Whole Equation is like one of those advanced courses that are stamped with “prerequisites” — less-advanced courses that the student must complete first. Thomson’s take on Hollywood history is extremely impressionistic; he omits whatever doesn’t forcibly illuminate his search for the elements of the equation. Alfred Hitchcock, for example,was

a world unto himself in so many ways. Indeed, he hardly seems to have noticed the experience of being in America, beyond enjoying the more sophisticated facilities of the Hollywood studios. He was engaged in his own equation of film and suspense, as if it were a private mathematics.

How true this is! I often think of Hitchcock as a one-man studio, a master of every aspect of filmmaking who outdid the studio factories for sheer control over output. The mathematics was not entirely private, however. Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, which Thomson considers to be Hitchcock’s masterpieces, are

reflections on the very art or mathematics that obsesses Hitch. They are about looking, fantasizing, and what happens when the reality and the fantasy clash. Vertigo above all is a morbid analysis of fantasy involvement, and its resolution is not pretty or comforting. These films are something new and more disturbing than even Psycho. For they begin to ask the question: What have movies done to us? (303)

But the paragraph from which I have snipped these passages is the only one, in a book of nearly four hundred pages, in which Hitchcock is more than mentioned. Clearly, the book will be opaque to anyone who hasn’t seen a great many movies. After that, a history such as Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System — not that I can think of any “such as” — would be a helpful preliminary.

What have movies done to us? Thomson is pretty sure that they have increased the divorce rate. Not just because actors notoriously marry and remarry — their actual full-time occupation, my mother always insisted — but because every new movie promises a fresh start, a different course of action. And it seems clear to me that intelligent people learn protect themselves from flightiness by weighting the experience of seeing movies with knowledge about how they’re made, how they used to be made, changes in taste over the decades as well as a grasp of developing technology, so as to prevent the surface lightness from kiting them off to the crash of fantasy into reality. Studying film acts as a vaccine. (It can also render unusually powerful movies that rely heavily on cliché rather pathetic and ridiculous, and ultimately painful in an unintended way — I’m thinking of Titanic.) It can also act as fertilizer. Going to Woody Allen’s movies for the jokes is pretty dim; for every spoken line that’s funny there is at least one purely visual gag, often a reference to the sheer magic of the movies (in the Méliès sense), but you won’t catch it if you don’t know your movies. You can’t be dreaming if you want to feel the dream.

Many years ago, on a snowy afternoon in New York, a young woman who was my nephew’s girlfriend at the time and I left the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we had seen a big Diane Arbus show, and headed east along 82nd Street. I lapsed into a bloviation about the bourgeoisie, which so captivated that I had to be pinched by my companion in the middle of Park Avenue. “Did you see?” she whispered. “That was Woody Allen who just passed us!” Of course I hadn’t seen, but what I did see right away was that we were re-enacting a scene played out in several Allen films, in which an older man purports to instruct a younger woman. Of course, there is usually the hint that the older man harbors other designs, my utter innocence of which meant that we weren’t getting the scene quite right, but all the same, for a brief moment, Park Avenue, complete with snow, filled the interior of a sound stage.

***

Wednesday 13th

The plan was, to take some time off after the New Year, and then to get to work on an overhaul of the writing project. Instead, I relaunched the old Daily Blague, with a new focus (“the incidental housekeeper”). That’s going fairly well — yes, we’ll leave it at that: fairly well. Now, for the writing project.

There were to be three readers. One was an old friend from law school. She liked it, as I expected she would. The two others were former colleagues of Kathleen’s. I never heard back from one of them. The other spent an afternoon with me, going through the MS page by page, rigorously exposing the confusion in the text. I was grateful for his severity, really, but it wasn’t as constructive as I pretended. I wasn’t devastated, but the writing project was. Its shaky foundations gave way under my friend’s criticism. I had always sensed that he regarded me as something of a dilettante and now, without any malice, he effectively wielded the writing project as proof. I thought to myself: Well, it was awfully easy to write.

Of course, I hadn’t known, when I began the writing project, what it was supposed to be about. I complain all the time about that phrase, what the book is about. It’s — vulgar. Is Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend, “about” her taking a very large dog into her very small apartment, in a building that does not allow dogs, and running the risk of eviction? Of course not. But the dog story is an armature, on which Nunez erects overlapping meditations on men and love and men and art and men and age. Plus, of course, women having to deal with all of the foregoing. The dog story provides occasions for Nunez to come up for air, as it were, with an everyday situation that people who do not teach writing for a living can relate to. But the book is about the former lover, a suicide, whom the narrator addresses throughout The Friend.

I had created an armature for my story, but, like the tale of Apollo in The Friend, it wasn’t inherently interesting. The armature was a series of thematic chapters: schooling, working, growing up in Bronxville, sojourning in Houston, and, finally, settling in Manhattan. For many years, I had thought of writing a book with adoption at the center, as the big deal, but even before I began the writing project, two summers ago, I knew that it wasn’t the big deal. I couldn’t believe for a minute that adoption had wounded or deformed me. Quite aside from its placement in my childhood — at the beginning of the story — it wasn’t any kind of climax. So what was the point of this — this intellectual memoir, I took to calling it; but was it even that? My rigorous critic didn’t think so. I remember his saying at one point, this isn’t thinking, this is blogging. Ouch!

On most days in 2018, I have tended to think that my writing project is a dead thing. But I have never surrendered to this conclusion. If nothing else, the writing project taught me a lot about myself, or at least it raised a lot of questions. Why has it taken me so long to feel that I understand human life, and what does that understanding amount to? I won’t dilate on those issues in this entry, because so many others at this site are devoted to them. I’ll just ask one more question: is there anything specific to the life that I have lived that has predisposed me to reach the particular understanding of the human condition (the human condition of the moment, let me add) that I have settled on? And if the answer to that question is yes: I have become a housekeeper who reads and writes a lot, then so what?

Especially so what when you bear in mind my conviction that intimate personal matters are not revealing.

***

In the immediate aftermath of the writing project’s apparent collapse, I hit on the idea of beginning the rewrite with the portrait of my parents’ marriage. This would be a matter of shifting material that I had already written to the front, and I would set it up as something of a stunt, for it would only be at the end of the portrait that the presence of children would be introduced. I would show, what I had only told, that my parents had a great marriage, or at least a successful partnership, in which children were only so much distracting, unsatisfactory furniture. They would have been better without us — my younger sister and me. They would have been better without us but for the awkwardness of childlessness, very much a black mark in their world. Children were important, nay vital, accessories for an ambitious corporate executive couple. They were necessary handicaps, without which the game of Executive Suite might be too easy to play.

I did say stunt. My parents were not cynical people. But they did not understand human life very well. My father simply wasn’t curious, and my mother not only didn’t see but actively fought against seeing that her view of life was nothing but a heap of sentiment, hardly more substantial than Life According to Hallmark. She was ready and willing to do and to feel all the right things. And I don’t think that she ever felt let down by her ideals. She felt — she often said so — let down by me.

My portrait of the marriage would begin with the wedding album, with a book of photographs taken on Valentine’s Day, 1942. I would treat the album as documentary evidence, from which to extrapolate comments about the newlyweds’ families, expectations, ways of life. (I would make oblique use of the fact that no children appear in any of the pictures.) This was a simple thought at the time, last autumn, when I was still shaking a little from the reckoning and planning to set the project aside for a few months. I didn’t have to write anything down; it was easy to remember.

Gradually, however, as the year has ground on, I have come to see that, no matter how eagerly I would read such a portrait, I have no desire to write it — not again. What I’d much rather do is just describe the photographs. I have always liked looking at them, and in fact this was one of the things about me that let my mother down. It was odd. For her, the album was a keepsake, the covers a sort of box that she did not need to open. That the pictures were there, that the day had been memorialized, that was enough. Actual viewing evoked the awkward contingencies of ageing and death, not to mention the outmoded modes. That, of course, is precisely what I liked about the pictures. My uncle, always so boyish even in old age, really was a boy, barely twenty years old. My favorite aunts were so chic! And the flashbulbs revealed my mother’s mother’s bursting corsets, although I was nearly middle-aged before I figured that out. The setting was the only familiar element: the dining room and the ballroom at Siwanoy Country Club had always been familiar to me. And the loot. The last photograph in the album is of my grandmother’s dining table, loaded with wedding presents. I still have a few of the goodies. I used to have more, but it has been years since I stopped holding on to things just because they fell into my lap.

So the upshot is that my parents’ wedding album is not a souvenir. Although it is beginning to fall apart, it belongs to the present, because that is where I am when I look at it. It doesn’t take me back, even if does remind me of long-gone people having a fine old time more than 75 years ago. They don’t seem so strange — I’m 70 myself. What I see is the world I was born into. Now that I have fought my way out of it — but is fighting the right word? — I can see what I was up against. Not the least of which was how appealing it all looked, at least on a good day.

***

Friday 15th

In today’s Times, David Brooks introduces a term that’s new to me, personalism. It’s pretty much what I mean by humanism: a belief in the importance of according to everyone you encounter a life of complex, autonomous dignity. Whether you can behave accordingly is an endless challenge, but at least you have the right idea.

Personalism is a philosophic tendency built on the infinite uniqueness and depth of each person. Over the years people like Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King, William James, Peter Maurin and Wojtyla (who went on to become Pope John Paul II) have called themselves personalists, but the movement is still something of a philosophic nub. It’s not exactly famous.

As the label for a “philosophic nub,” “personalism” has pros and cons. It makes an important point that “humanism” misses, which is that we are all different. All different, but all, as human beings, worthy of the same absolute regard. It does not carry humanism’s train of contradictory religious/anti-religious baggage. In order to preach personalism, however, a bit of antiquarian etymology might be required. Rooted in persona, it is difficult to pin down. And the vulgar notion of personality threatens to cloud the understanding.

But Brooks is certainly right to say that this is what we need right now. Whether you call yourself a humanist or a personalist, calling someone else a “loser” is wrong.

***

Before going to bed last night, I read a New Yorker piece by D T Max about a new Facebook phenomenon called “SKAM Austin.” Skam is the Norwegian word for “shame,” and it is also the name of a public television show whose creator, Julie Andem, was brought to the US by Simon Powell, of American Idol fame, to collaborate with Facebook — Facebook Watch, to be precise, although I have no idea what that is beyond what Max tells me — in presenting a seemingly real-time high school drama, complete with comments and Instagram accounts. The characters in this drama do what high-school students do: they try to bury the fact that they are in school with clods of adolescent personality formation. (Let’s try to remember that “adolescent” means “becoming adult.” It is unhelpful — although I do this all the time — to use the word to describe behavior that is resolutely hostile to the idea of growing up.) According to Max, the show, which materializes in “dropped” episodes — that’s as in “dropped into the timeline” — is addictive, partly because of multiplying interactive ramifications. (Both characters and actual Facebook users post comments.) “SKAM Austin” sounds to me like a jigsaw puzzle. Once you fit two pieces together, you’re hooked. But working on a jigsaw puzzle is quiet, almost meditative. “SKAM Austin” sounds very, very noisy.

Just as I question the virtues of high school as a place for adolescents to spend time in, so I raise my eyebrows at the proposal that adolescence is interesting, or worthy of any kind of attention, especially from adolescents themselves. Until very recently, adolescent eyes were fixed firmly on the future that had been mapped out by fate; even for the privileged, options were not conspicuous. Ever since Enlightenment thinking was addressed to the circumstances of education, in the late Nineteenth Century, the best minds have been curious to find out what young people will do when given a free hand with the widest range of opportunities — only to find that the boys go in for organized brutality while the girls fiddle with eye-liner. Given choices, young people begin at home; instead of learning about the world, they study personal accessories. Before getting to the question of what you would do if you could do anything, the adolescent wants to decide on what kind of a person to be — and I’m not talking about moral fiber. Perhaps it would be better to say that the young person finds it essential to settle on a way of expressing given characteristics — sexual preference, for example. The problem with high school is that it is a cage of adolescents, an artificial hell. One of the reasons for putting adolescents to work in community service is the increased exposure to fully adult possibilities. This is a good thing about the bad old days that we ought to think about reinstating.

So long as genuinely learning about the world, and not just going through the motions, were regarded as a form of community service, as it certainly ought to be, I should have had a much better time in those awful years, with none but the other genuinely curious students in the classroom.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
De Man, DeWitt
June 2018 (I)

6, 7 and 8 June

Wednesday 6th

More about the meritocracy: in today’s Times, a review of Steven Brill’s Tailspin: The People and Forces &c. According to Jennifer Szilai’s review, Brill charges the meritocracy with having recreated itself as an aristocracy more entrenched than the old-money class that it replaced. “This argument isn’t new,” Szalai points out, going on to mention Chris Hayes 2012 Twilight of the Elites. Both of these authors make use of the image of ladders being pulled up behind the rising new élites, foreclosing opportunity to others. It’s a nasty and depressing picture. I think it’s incomplete at best.

To me, the problem with the meritocracy is that nobody knows anybody. Oh, sure, people know their classmates from Harvard and Princeton, you can be sure of that. But connections within the meritocracy are not the problem, or, rather, they wouldn’t be the problem if there weren’t such a dearth of connections between the meritocracy and the rest of America. That statement needs refining, too. The connections that we need aren’t between a monolithic élite and the American population, but between individual meritocrats and the people whose lives they affect. What’s missing is local connection.

At lunch yesterday, a friend talked about various plans to subdivide the United States into more homogenous, governable regions. Like the meritocracy (toot, toot), this is something that I’ve discussed in the past. But I find that I have moved past such proposals, although I don’t dismiss them. When I look back on the old aristocracy, I see that it was rooted in hometowns. Young men from the better families went off to school and then returned, to take over from their fathers. There was an interdependency of economy, local tradition, even plain old gossip. I don’t mean to idealize some golden past. There was a great deal of atrophy in the old dispensation. But the community’s health was protected by a degree of human accountability that is difficult even to express in today’s globalist rhetoric. The local manufacturer might have the power to sell his firm to a conglomerate, or to shift his operations abroad, but the freedom to do so would be constrained by loyalty to the town, at least so long as he and his family wished to remain in it. And, where conditions were at least moderately harmonious, townsmen took pride in local prosperity.

The meritocracy that replaced this old local aristocracy was not itself local. It operated, and still operates, only at the higher, more abstract organizational levels. Local politics has been left to dubious figures, either developers or their creatures. Or to ambitious lawyers who intend to leave the locale behind. The talented young person who settles down on and to a local scale is either not making the best use of talent or maybe not all that talented. Meritocrats go far.

Mobility, like growth, is generally thought to be an inherently good thing. I agree that everyone ought to be able to make a home in a congenial environment. But I think that making more than two long-distance moves in the course of a career is a sign of the exotic instability that used to characterize the entertainment business (where movement is now too institutionalized to be either exotic or unstable). Rather than divide the United States into constituencies that are easier to manage from the top down, I prefer to encourage communities — and, in rural settings, counties — that manage themselves from the bottom up, with business organizations scaled to match. Maybe it’s time to learn from the food revolution: build economies of local sustainable commerce.

***

Thursday 7th

In the current, fiction issue of The New Yorker, Roz Chast has a three-panel cartoon entitled “Manspreading in Art.” I don’t expect anything to happen right away, but I can hear the canons caving as the triumphs of Western imagination are interrogated for the assumption that, because I am a passionate man, what I have to say is interesting, and not only interesting but true, and you have nothing better to do than to listen to me.

The film entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey is now fifty years old. If that weren’t bewildering enough, I can remember seeing the roadshow Cinerama presentation in Houston during the summer of 1968 as if I just walked out of the theatre. There are a few nerve endings somewhere in my body that have never quite recovered from the two boulders that hurtle toward the audience in the middle of the “Mission to Jupiter” sequence. And I can remember the quasi-religious feeling that 2001 was not “just a movie.” At twenty, I was just young enough to imagine, if not quite to believe, that Kubrick’s fable might be the gateway to a radically new kind of life on Earth. I can remember being very, very impressed by the movie’s fidelity to the silence of what we used to call “outer space.”

But because I was so young, and so forth, I did not appreciate the extent to which 2001 is a silent movie, or the extent to which, when it is not silent, it derogates language by refusing to make use of a single line of interesting text. There was something reassuring, I suppose, about the polite nothings that burbled from the mouth of bureaucrat Heywood Floyd on the Space Station and at the Clavius Base. He sounded just like my father. Nor did I make much of the nearly complete lack of women. That wasn’t abnormal in a space movie, and there was something about Kubrick’s austerity that reminded us, then, that the women who did appear in space movies were usually sluts. All he gives us is a handful of suitably-Stepford stewardesses and the estimable Margaret Tyzack, playing a Russian scientist. Oh, and the filmmaker’s little daughter, Vivian, who plays Floyd’s child on the picture phone. What was extraordinary about 2001 was how gracefully Kubrick pushed utter normality into awesome incomprehensibility. We young fans did not object to that incomprehensibility at all. It was the guarantee of quality.

Not the least of the explanations for why it feels only yesterday that I saw 2001 for the first time is that I have not watched it very often since. Perhaps four times between 1968 and the other night. (I saw it at least three times during its first year.) It is as though the original viewing planted a monolith in my brain that could slumber for half a century, to be awakened by the great anniversary, or at any rate, by Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.

As books about the making of particular films go, Benson’s is good enough. Benson wisely avoids the film’s metaphysical projections and settles firmly on the material terms of its production. His account is somewhat skewed by the availability of surviving crew members, who recreate the atmosphere of a primitive village in which anxious tribesman try to conciliate a capricious god. Or, I should say, a mean god, a very mean god, as stingy with credit as he is with compensation; it’s his very occasional generosity that’s capricious. The bad habits of manspreading are usually critiqued in the context of mixed company, especially by women, but Benson’s book reminds us that full-blown manspreading is something reserved by the Kubricks of this world for the control and belittlement of other men. Kubrick not only routinely makes “impossible” demands of his costume designer and special-effects technicians but goes on to take credit for their work, so that it is he who takes home the film’s one Oscar. And yet, smoulder as they will, the crew worship him. He is the greatest filmmaker of all time, &c &c. Space Odyssey ought to be required reading for students of the psychopathology of project management in male groups.

In short, I couldn’t wait to finish the book.

I did, as I say, watch the DVD in the middle of reading it. I had thought to wait until I’d read it all, but there was so much talk of scenes that didn’t make it into the original film or were later cut before wide release that I needed to refresh my awareness of what actually happens in 2001. The film stands up very well. It does not seem dated at all; it seems period, rather. The difference is that datedness results when a style of moviemaking, including its conventions, has staled or fallen out of use. In this regard, 2001 is not so much pioneering as genre-setting. Its conventions, say, for representing landing pads, remain standard. The “period” of 2001 is a beguilingly split one, between a future that has yet to develop and a past, the filmmaker’s present, in which Pan Am was the world’s premier airline and the bell logo marked all public telephones. (Hilton — crediting with operating the hotel on Space Station 5 — is still with us.) I was especially impressed by the Dawn of Man sequence, which I had found tiresome as a youth. It used to seem very long; now, probably because I am better at watching film, it was brisk and lean. But the “Stargate” business still annoys me; I would later discover that acid trips are just as boring. What really surprised me was how fast the penultimate scene plays out. I was fascinated by the strange floorlit set when the movie was new, because I had never suspected that a decorating style that I admired could be perverted into a hellscape. For me, Dave Bowman’s final scenes were the most astounding.

Needless to say, I wanted to bash Benson’s head in every time he referred to that decorating style as Louis XIV. But, hey, it’s guys.

What I loved most about 2001 when I saw it for the first time was the fantasia of satellites floating over the earth, which had still not been seen by mortal eye, accompanied by Werner von Braun’s ideal of a space station (which we already knew from The Wonderful World of Color), an interestingly Concorde-looking transport plane, and An die schönen blauen Donau — the “Blue Danube” Waltz. I don’t think that I had ever seen anything so comprehensively beautiful, at least in motion. I sort-of recognized the extract from Shostakovich’s Gayne Ballet (which brilliantly sets the melancholy mood of the Discovery), and I had actually attended the New York première of Ligeti’s Atmosphères — I remember Leonard Bernstein’s joking that the orchestra was playing on the honor system — but I hadn’t, strangely or not, heard Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, even though, or perhaps very much because, I knew and loved his eighteenth-century operas, Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio. I was quite alarmed to read in Benson’s Space Odyssey that this music was chosen by Stanley Kubrick as “temporary,” to hold the place where the movie’s proper score, composed by Alex North, and a source of no little profit to MGM, would go. Happily, the termporary became permanent, but it gave me quite a scare nonetheless. Thinking about the movie (as distinct from the making of the movie), I realized that the music that Kubrick chose, especially the music by the Strausses and Shostakovich, represents the element that is altogether missing — visually — from 2001: civilized life on Earth.

***

Friday 8th

Anthony Lane has reviewed The President Is Missing for The New Yorker. The review won’t appear in print until next week, but I’ve read it online — well, some of it; I couldn’t care less, really, about this silly collaboration. Wondering exactly how literary partnership works, Lane comments,

Bill Clinton, who can write, has hooked up with James Patterson, who can’t, but whose works have sold more than three hundred and seventy-five million copies, most of them to happy and contented customers for whom good writing would only get in the way.

It’s a great crack. But what is good writing?

Getting about as far away from James Patterson as it is possible to go while remaining intelligible, we find Helen DeWitt, who occasionally lurches into impenetrable mathematical discussions that can be parsed if not understood. Most of what she has to say is comprehensible, but it is loaded with references and elisions that many readers, I fear, will have difficulty catching and filling. Reading Some Trick, DeWitt’s collection of thirteen stories, I was often reminded of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s rarefied manifesto, Ways of Curating. One story, “The Climbers,” a send-up of literary hipsters, seemed to send up Obrist’s idea of what constitutes an interesting aesthetic experience, but by the very fact that it breathed the same very cool air, the story seemed to be making fun of itself. Well, having fun. I was certainly laughing.

At the center of a particular cluster of hipsters is Gil, and at the center of Gil’s attention is Peter Dijkstra, a Dutch writer, currently in Vienna, who has just emerged from five years in a mental hospital. On a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam — honoring another disturbed Nederlander Gil impetuously purchased all of the Dijkstra books that had not yet been translated into English. These now stand on a shelf in his Tribeca loft, taking up thirteen of the eighteen inches of Gil’s collection of the author’s work. The remaining five inches are taken up by the translations that Gil is actually capable of reading. As interest in Dijkstra heats up, and Ralph, an agent who has made contact with Dijkstra, is proposing to bring Dijkstra to New York, Gil fears exposure as someone not hip enough to read Nederlands. In a meltdown, he retires to a local bar.

Ralph has learned that, although Dijkstra does not have a “book” in the works, he has filled fifty notebooks with texts in English, and written interesting words on a pile of file cards. He has sent a sample notebook and collection of file cards to Ralph, and Ralph has shown them to Gil. At a booth in the bar, Gil devises schemes for keeping Dijkstra in Vienna.

What if the normal rate for a room at this underground hotel [where one of Gil's satellites met Dijkstra, who is living there] cost $79 a night. BUT, you could get a room with notebooks & file cards on loan from Peter Dijkstra for $299 a night, and the $220 goes to Peter Dijkstra. So he can keep his room indefinitely because it is paid out of lending out his notebooks &c. AND, there are SEPARATE ENTRANCES. So you NEVER SEE Peter Dijkstra. He uses one entrance and you use another, so he can go on working without interruption, and you can sit in your room with the notebooks. This would Be. So. Great.

It would be great if you knew Peter Dijkstra’s favorite restaurant. People go to the restaurant and they can just order a meal. Or, they can order a meal plus notebook and file cards for the cost of an extra meal, which is left on account for Peter Dijkstra. Who can turn up whenever he wants and finds his meal is already paid for!

Gil could totally see himself going to a restaurant and ordering a meal and a notebook and paying extra for the notebook. It would be better than going to a restaurant and having a meal with Peter Dijkstra and paying for the meal because there was no reason to think words from the mouth would have the intensity of the ink on the grid. (101)

As she demonstrated in her second novel, Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt has a fertile imagination for schemes of this kind. Schemes that appear to serve grand purposes while appeasing craven desires. Schemes that seem, for the moment, quite plausible, as clear as soap bubbles.

Most of Some Trick, though, isn’t funny. Oddly, the two really sad stories are the ones written in laddish patois, both of them involving disaffected rock musicians. Beneath their antic stories, “Stolen Luck” and “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16k Having Once Been Young” drag a bottomless melancholy. The first ends with suicide, and we do not find Nick buying a Harley in the second. At least, I don’t think we do. I am not sure that I followed that narrative, although I did grasp that DeWitt was ventriloquizing complains that she has made elsewhere about being in it for more than fame and money. Pete, the true artist in the band, recalls his misery with a dumb eloquence.

You know, just before our US tour we were in Gibraltar and I went over to Africa ’cause I didn’t think it would take that long to get back. It was just after our second album had come out, and Steve had changed a lot of shit to make it like the first album. And that album was really popular, the fans didn’t notice, so I felt the fans were total wankers. I felt betrayed, and Steve had booked us for a whole year of gigs, just playing the same shit the same way every time.

So I walked along the beach, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought it would be better just to walk into the water and die than go through the year, and I couldn’t understand how they could do it. They turned my life into something worse than nothing, into this torture, for the sake of extra sales, well couldn’t we just have enough sales and something in it for me? And how could they just decide like that that my life didn’t matter, it didn’t matter if I was in, like, agony. But the thing is they didn’t know they were doing it. They didn’t know what they were taking away because they never had anything real to know what it was like when everything was a fake. They could get a lot of money and blag about the business. The money was the only thing there could be for them, and they’d never have anything else. (164)

In the current issue of The New Yorker, James Wood ends his review of Some Trick with a very clever turn. He is writing about “Famous Last Words,” in which a man and a woman discuss the Death of the Author in the context of the deaths of authors Voltaire and Hume. At the same time, the man puts the moves on the woman. “What is woman?” he asks. “Is this the mark of woman?” The woman comments, “[He] puts a hand on my breast, cannily pursuing sous-texte sous prétexte.” Wood can’t resist. “He’s de man. But she’s de wit.” Forgive me for my presumption, but I can’t help but see DeWitt frowning over that.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Hamlets
May 2018 (V)

29, 30, and 31 May

Tuesday 29th

The most interesting thing about Donald Trump, I’ve concluded, is his abstemiousness. The man doesn’t drink. And what’s really interesting about this is that nobody comments on it, neither friends nor foes. Nobody exclaims that the president is bold because or reckless even though he avoids alcohol.

Like everybody else, Trump acts on a braid of conscious, intuitive, instinctive, and deeply learned impulses, and there’s no saying which are more important than the others, no point in trying to trace the intentions behind his behavior. But whether Trump is a teetotaler by taste or by prudence, it’s a simple fact that he is never “incapacitated,” not even “under the weather.” He’s all there, all the time. It’s amazing to me, with my very different bundle of impulses, that he manages to be himself all the time without seeking some sort of chemical relief, but he is apparently untroubled by it. His bundle of impulses works for him.

And, I mean, it really does work: the man is in the Oval Office! What does Trump have that other presidents haven’t had? My theory is that he has an unerring sense of what doesn’t matter, and that his not drinking reflects some awareness that he has to be stone cold sober to keep this sense alive. When you’re drunk, nothing matters, everything matters — things get all mixed up. Trump is never mixed up. He is probably ignorant of many things that a normal person of his background would not want to be caught not knowing, but he is not confused. His decisions may be inconsistent over time, but they are always the right decisions for the moment, or at least never the wrong ones, because, really, how could a businessman with his history of bankruptcy and general lack of verifiable financial success get a roomful of people to support him? Much less win the Collegiate vote?

It’s not that bankruptcy doesn’t matter. It’s that it doesn’t matter that much. As much as other things. Trump can calibrate to a fine degree the context of self-presentation in which other things outweigh bankruptcy to the point of making it vanish. Building a wall, draining the swamp. Compared to these, bankruptcy is just a less-interesting abstraction.

And he also knows who matters. Right-thinking people were genuinely shocked by his dismissal of Rex Tillerson by means of a tweet, but Trump knew that neither the position of Secretary of State nor the person of Rex Tillerson meant very much to most Americans.

Rather than produce further examples of Trump’s unusual discernment — tedious if not vomitrocious reportage — I suggest that we examine what he does in the future as so much evidence that he understands the world that we’re living in better than we do, and that we can learn from him what really matters in the United States today. Instead of deploring his grandstanding, follow him as if he were a Geiger counter.

When he attacks something, we add it to our list of things that need to be fixed. It’s going to be a long list.

***

Wednesday 30

In yesterday’s Op-Ed column, David Brooks wrote about what’s wrong with the meritocracy. Having written a few things about this myself, I read it with the greatest interest. Here follow some quibbles.

Exaggerated faith in intelligence. By “intelligence,” Brooks seems to mean IQ, and he also seems to suggest that we put too much stock in aptitude and raw brainpower. This overlooks the extent to which the humanities have been denatured by ideas of efficiency. I don’t just mean tests and language labs. I mean the buzz words and the jargon that reduce intellectual effort to dog whistles. When too many teachers want to hear students say the right things, students learn to say the right things without understanding what they mean.

The best teachers learn from their students. I don’t mean that they learn anything much about the syllabus, but rather that students, as a result of the best teachers’ prodding, reveal the limitless variety of human possibility. The best teachers, in other words, do not have an exaggerated faith in their own intelligence, and this is what they teach their students.

Sometimes, I’m reminded of the medieval disconnect between theory and practice, wherein scholars drew their schemata but never handled a tool, while masons erected cathedrals without the benefit of physics equations. Americans today distinguish between a higher learning that is pursued in classrooms and an everyday commonsense morality that is picked up in cafeterias and on playing fields. Crabbed and fustian as it was, the old public-school curriculum of studying classical literature not only for mastery of Greek and Latin but for moral exemplars seems comprehensive in comparison.

Why, I wonder, does Brooks make two points out of one? Misplaced faith in autonomy and Inability to think institutionally are the same thing. The old WASP élite enjoyed a proprietary interest in its institutions and its society: it quite literally owned almost everything. Meritocrats aren’t invested in society. We haven’t learned how to replace the old ownership equity with a moral equity, with a collegial authority by which the meritocracy is enabled to judge itself. The medical and legal professions’ attempts at self-regulation are pale and often ineffective copies of the powerful back-room councils that ran things in the bad old days.

Finally, Brooks’s paragraph about the Misplaced notion of the self fails to make it clear that character is a social phenomenon, not a spiritual one. Too often, character is regarded as a sort of Superman costume that is revealed only in crisis. In fact, character is revealed by every gesture, every statement, every smile, every frown, every angry word, every kindness. Character is not a sash of merit badges but a messy array of inconsistent behaviors. The good news is that most of us behave better when surrounded by others who behave well. The central flaw in the current version of meritocracy is its postulation of individual merit. On any truly meaningful test — testing the members of a class — cheating is impossible.

***

Thursday 31st

Just when I was wondering what was going to push Philip Roth off the screen, along came Roseanne Barr with her tweet about Valerie Jarrett. It’s still too soon, I think, to comment on that — although I must say the President, with his demand that ABC apologise for all the HORRIBLE things that it has said about him, didn’t disappoint — so I’m grateful to Dara Horn for her piece in the Times‘s Sunday Review, which in its online version is entitled “What Philip Roth Didn’t Know About Woman Could Fill a Book.”

Roth’s three favorite topics — Jews, women and New Jersey — all remain socially acceptable targets of irrational public mockery, and Roth was a virtuoso at mocking the combination of all three. “What are they, after all, these Jewish women who raised us up as children?” Roth’s narrator asks in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the 1969 novel that made his reputation. “It isn’t their fault they were given a gift like speech — look, if cows could talk, they would say things just as idiotic. Yes, yes, maybe that’s the solution then: think of them as cows, who have been given the twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg.”

One could generously say that jokes like this haven’t aged well, yet they were just as cruel in 1969 — and the misogyny isn’t really the problem. After all, if one policed literature for bigotry, there would be little left to read. The problem is literary: these caricatures reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity.

**

Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth.

To which I would add that the snippet of Roth’s prose reveals the disregard for grace that’s typical of impatient, unpleasant men. “[T]he twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg” might sound funny when you say it, but it falls flat on the page.

When Dara Horn says that Roth’s curiosity is limited to Roth, it sounds like a put-down. We’ve come that far, at least. When Roth was writing Portnoy’s Complaint, though, it would have been praise. In those days, Hamlet was the greatest work of literature, and what does Hamlet do but think about himself? The language in which he does so is grandiloquent, possibly immortal, but I prefer it in extracts. As I play, Hamlet is simply depressing: the cogs of a revenge tragedy grind in their inexorably noisy way, and the only thing slowing them down is the prince’s introspection. Hamlet was the perfect model for the Postwar school of alienated, existentialist writers convinced of the absurdity of existence. As also for the school of writers who dared to subject themselves to their own variants of Freudian analysis. This was a struggle that had nothing to do with women, except insofar as women were trophies, carried off in victory. The enemy was the vast phalanx of men who cooperate in soulless routines of bureaucracy and commerce, who plot to exterminate meaning. Only by studying himself could the author find freedom.

So many things that made sense during the Cold War — that made so much sense that men developed whole personalities around them — don’t make sense anymore.

As a young man, I watched this battle, you might say, from a point outside its Overton Window. I could root for neither side. I felt a moral — aesthetic? — obligation to stand up for the writers, because they were, after all, writers, artists, thinkers, and so forth, whereas their opponents were duped robots. But I wouldn’t have wanted to see the writers put in charge of things, either. If the conformists were boring, the writers were disagreeable. They had terrible manners, and were proud of this. They were very greedy, and not just for attention. They were terrible, terrible listeners. And they were not very nice to the women who were attracted to them. And women were attracted to them. That was the worst of it.

Has that changed? Perhaps we can say that the attraction has been infused with … complications. I can’t see Dara Horn fluttering on a park bench if Philip Roth sat down beside her with a Mr Softee and eventually, like Lisa Halliday’s Alice, in Asymmetry, retiring with him to his apartment for “Operations” sex. No. I hear her saying, you always use the language of possession when talking about love. And then standing up and walking away.

In time, the old battle faded away, as antagonists grew old and died, women entered the workforce, and Hamlet began to sound solipsistic. I got rid of a lot of novels. None by Philip Roth, though. I’d never had any.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Women and Men
May 2018 (IV)

22 and 25 May

Tuesday 22nd

The anecdote appears on page 59 of Andrea Barnet’s new book, Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters Changed Our World (Ecco), in the chapter about Rachel Carson. After Carson’s The Sea Around Us appeared in the summer of 1951, a fan sent a properly-addressed letter but  began it with the salutation, “Dear Sir,” explaining that he (the fan) had

always been convinced that males possess the supreme intellectual powers of the world

and he could not now change his mind about that.

How jolly it would be to know that this sort of thinking no longer sprouted, much less flourished, in the minds of males. How nice to live in a world in which James Damore and Jordan Peterson had nothing to say!

As regular readers know, I’ve been plowing through books by and about women, if only because two very good ones, Michelle Dean’s Sharp and now Barnet’s Visionary Women, have just been published. I found myself asking just what sort of gifts women bring to the table. What special contributions do women make to the counsels of power? And how to evaluate these contributions? By the criteria established by men? By the criteria that men would endorse if they actually learned a thing or two from women? Do women fit in, or are they, as I think Peterson has it, “chaos”? Where to establish a point of view?

Probably because I sensed that I was proposing a very tedious project, I looked hard at the initial question and realized in a flash that women bring the table. Men bring the expression, the cliché, but their accessory is much more likely to be a handsaw, the better to facilitate taking away parts of something. Let’s not push the conceit. I’ve answered the question to my own satisfaction. Women bring people together, and the world with them.

Remarkable women, that is, women endowed with great critical intelligence. Women in our time, the first that has allowed women to speak. Women addressing the men of our time, who, in response to fear and uncertainty, have throughout the past century adopted the intellectual habits of the professional engineer, the applied scientist who insists on linear exactitude and dispassionate analysis. Men as gifted as the women, but men in whom the spark of humanism has been almost extinguished.

Whether the women bring something peculiar to women, or whether they insist on restoring humanist priorities, I can’t say. It doesn’t seem to be important anymore. Barnet quotes Wendell Berry’s distinction between nurture and exploitation.

The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of number, quantities, ‘hard facts,’ the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind. (444)

Women, perhaps only because they have not surrendered to the engineering outlook, understand that the gains of exploitation are, if nothing else, soon exhausted. Remarkable women remain unmoved and unimpressed by things that are done simply because they can be done, and they are disgusted by men who cannot be bothered to take care of what they have done. How much more admirable engineers would be, if, instead of designing new and “superior” airliners, they concentrated instead on reviving the vast web  of railroads in this country, and improving everything about it. Such a conversion might make America great for the first time.

On page 439 of Visionary Women, Barnet begins to present a panorama of the United States in the 1950s. It is a familiar picture, and every detail is important, so I won’t even summarize it. It’s enough for me to say that I was a child in those days, and that I remember them well, even if I didn’t understand them at the time. There seemed little to look forward to, if Walt Disney’s cartoon of Tomorrowland was anything to go by. In my town, few of the houses were genuinely old (only one or two were more than a hundred years older than I), but all were built in styles that echoed the past, and I was drawn to what had been far more than to what was to come.

The brutalism of the Fifties, happily, did not long survive the decade, and I agree with Barnet that, for all our failings and disappointments, for all the unpleasant consequences of good intentions, our world is a much better place than that of my childhood. I try to resist giving all the credit to women, but it is difficult. I wish I could be sure that the trend would continue, but the very wicked fairy who currently dominates the scene makes the techno-conformists of sixty years back look appealing by comparison. What’s clear is that women saved civilization, or at least kept it alive; now men need to learn from them how be of help. Men must become humanists.

***

Friday 25th

News of Philip Roth’s death was more interesting than I would have thought it could be, had I given it any thought. I’d have expected no more than a sigh of dismay, that Roth’s kind of writing could make anybody famous at any time. That his “themes” and “subjects” were generally — among literary journalists — could be considered the supreme American ones. Sex, death, rage, resentment, nitpicking. Well, no one praised him for nitpicking. But he did seem to be rewarded for having just been his neurotic old self, compulsively scribbling, writing in the voice of a discontented man muttering to himself. I had no use for Philip Roth.

But Ezra Blazer — I won’t go so far as to say that I found Lisa Halliday’s fictional recreation of her former lover much more appealing than his model, but Halliday at least made reading about him interesting. Had Philip Roth recommended Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness to the general public, in a Paris Review interview, say, I’d have half-guiltily shrugged it off, but when Ezra Blazer recommended the book to his girlfriend, Alice, I did think about looking for it my library, and then, within a day or two, when I came across it by chance, I did read it. Ezra Blazer’s wisdom never manifested itself to me in Philip Roth. In her very absorbing novel, Asymmetry, Halliday did what Roth could never do, making it conceivable that any woman (or other human being) could love him, even if only for a little while. The man as he presented himself was simply repulsive.

Daphne Merkin told a story a few years ago, in The New Yorker I think. She mentioned spending the night with an eminent writer at his place. I forget whether this was in the middle of an affair or just a one-night stand, but it would seem to have been the latter, because, when she was dressed and saying her goodbyes, he told her that, on her way out, she would find a box of books by the front door. His latest. Feel free to take one. Later, through the grapevine, I heard that the writer with whom Merkin had consorted was Philip Roth — no doubt about it. When I told the story to Kathleen last night, she scoffed at Roth’s self-promotion. Self-promotion? I disagreed. If ever there was a writer who needn’t promote himself, it was Philip Roth. The world took care of that for him. Largesse, rather, I thought. Even worse, said Kathleen. Once again, though, the man’s behavior is filtered and made bearable (or at least amusing) by a woman’s attention.

Philip Roth has been a large literary fixture for my entire adult life, and commensurately irritating. He was not alone. He stood in a grove of sex-addled Americans. Hemingway, Mailer, Bellow, Updike. But as the last to go, Roth bore the concentrated residue. How can I be sure that I am a man, and not just a sack of flesh with male generative equipment? What does having sex mean? Why do we have to die? With the exception of the fatally-glib Updike, these figures seemed to medicate such puerile anxieties by writing in self-important, often rather scraping tones. It is a relief to know that they are gone.

The basic question is this: are men undone by women? Or — the same question rephrased — are men undone by civilization? In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, there was a great deal of worry about this, a reaction, so they say, to the over-upholstery of bourgeois life. Muscular Christianity and organized sports were conjured to the rescue. So was World War I — a calamity of chivalry in trenches of rotting muck. After World War II, the model was updated, and stoic knighthood yielded to the capable engineer, a man of few words. A bad fit for the men of many words who aimed for the Nobel in Literature! But an opportunity to recycle all the old fears. The only challenge was this brave new world in which women were getting used to speaking for themselves.

Also new, after the two wars, was the collapse of respectability as a barrier to what young people now call hooking up. In Kafka Was All the Rage, Anatole Broyard writes beautifully but painfully about how hopeless men and women were in the dawn of this freedom. Nobody knew what to do, beyond the tab-and-slot part. Nobody knew what to say, and only women had a clue about listening. On bad days, things don’t look any better now, what with boys learning about sex from degrading videos. Incels may be the heirs of the late literary giants, raising their fists to heaven and demanding the love of beautiful women.

I find my ironic eulogy for Philip Roth in Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel, The Friend:

And not to be too cruel, she doesn’t say, but you will not be missed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
May 2018 (III)

16, 17 and 18 May

Wednesday 16th

The weather got very hot yesterday, and then very windy: it was clear even without reference to meteorology that we were in for some storms. And they came, says the Times, as if on a conveyor belt, wreaking havoc on power and transportation. (But not in Manhattan itself, of course.) The temperature dropped twenty degrees in their wake, and we are now back to the cool and somewhat gloomy weather that has marked this month of May. All in all, the perfect climate for learning of the death of Tom Wolfe.

One had rather forgotten about him. Although I consumed The Bonfire of the Vanities as quickly as my eyes could travel, I was never a fan. I looked at From Bauhaus to Our House, but I did not read it. I gave up on A Man in Full after five or ten pages. Wolfe’s excited prose made me suspect that he was one of those men for whom the word “people” doesn’t include women — a very common failing, to be sure, but unforgivable in a writer. (In a thinker, that is.) I was astonished, even somewhat embarrassed, by the Times’s two-page obituary, much of it taken up by a photograph of Wolfe leaning against a lamppost. Wolfe lived two lives, the necessarily solitary one of the writer, for which, however, he seems to have dressed like a dandy, and then that of the dandy. The writer could be savage; the dandy was by all accounts courteous. Somehow, that strikes me as completely backwards. Shouldn’t the dandy be flamboyant, and the writer sympathetic? Either way, Wolfe cut an unusually public figure for a writer, and I daresay that’s what earned him the spread in the Times.

In an op-ed piece, Kurt Andersen says that he was inspired to become a writer by Tom Wolfe — he discovered him in ninth grade — and that a great deal of his own career was spent in open imitation of the older writer. He claims that Wolfe was a great inspiration for his work at Spy Magazine. I can see what he means, but I must insist that the inspiration could only have been partial. Tom Wolfe never made me laugh, while Spy very nearly laughed me to death. There was something anhedonic about the pile-up of words in Wolfe’s prose, something never sweetened by the giggling self-ridicule that gleefully topples David Foster Wallace’s mountains of clauses. Wolfe was a satirist, Wallace a comedian; the difference is that comedians never scold.

The style of Wolfe’s dandyism was of course the particular style of the Southern gentleman, the planter. This allowed Wolfe to wear his roots as a Virginian, as an outsider in the Big Apple, while looking much more presentable than most New York writers. Of course, if he had grown a beard, he would have risked comparisons with the colonel of fried chicken.

***

Back in 1968, the word “students” still meant “men”; I had to remind myself of that as I read Mavis Gallant’s “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook,” which was published in two instalments in The New Yorker in the autumn of that year. I ordered a copy of Paris Notebooks: Essays & Reviews, at the recommendation of Lisa Elkin’s Flâneuse, an interesting book that I may have been a little hard on in the other blog. Gallant, a Canadian, was already an established Parisian by 1968; what’s more, she lived around the corner from the university. The violence did not touch her immediate neighborhood, but the disorder did, and that is the subject of the Notebooks. Although the water never stopped running, the power was only intermittently cut, and the phones usually worked, most urban amenities were suspended, as workers, inspired by students, went on strike. Although deeply upset by this uncertainty, Gallant hoped that “the events” would lead to improvements in French affairs, if only by clearing the scene of the elderly de Gaulle, and she was very depressed when everything went back to normal. In fact, she left Paris as soon as she could, for her usual vacation in Menton, on the Riviera, and she declined to cover the conclusion from afar. But the Notebooks do not end on an abandoned note.

Bouleversante conversation with woman in travel agency, Rue de Rennes, where I cancel my auto-couchette reservation for last Friday. She begins by asking what I think. We both pussyfoot around the subject, and she then says, “Don’t you think that le social followed upon something perhaps more lasting and important?” Answer, “Yes, of course.” She becomes excited, says that she, for one, will never be the same again — that she will never accept anything at its face value, that “no one can stop her now” from asking herself questions. She pulls out from under the counter two morning papers, Le Figaro and Combat, and cries what may be the justification, finally, for the massacre of the trees: “Regardez! Je lis!” She says, “Je traîne, je lis, je pense.” Says she goes to the Sorbonne, to the Odéon, to a Catholic discussion group on the Rue Gay-Lussac: “J’écoute.”I say to her, ”What did you hope would happen? What did you want?” Seems taken aback, stares at me, says, “Je ne sais pas. Quelque chose de propre.” Can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this. Say, “Une merveilleuse abstraction?” She shakes her head. Doesn’t know.

The “massacre of the trees” is indeed the most heart-rending detail in the Notebooks. Gallant cries when she comes upon trees that have been cut down to make barricades, to improvise armor. So do most of the other women who appear in the Notebooks. This felling of slow green life is regarded as a crime that only thoughtless, ignorant young men could commit, emblematic of youth’s horrifying appetite for terror. The massacre of the trees is the very opposite of quelque chose de propre — something decent. But Gallant is prepared for forgive the students, amazed as she was to hear them chanting, Nous sont tous des juifs allemands!

Musing on Gallant’s memoir, Lisa Elkin decides that it all comes down to immigrants. The events of 1968, after all, were sparked by the insolence of a stateless foreign student, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. If Elkin is right, we are all soixante-huitards, on one side or the other, even down to this day.

***

Thursday 17th

In the current issue of The Nation, which arrived on Monday morning with the Times, I read Bill McKibben’s review of Visionary Women, by Andrea Barnet. I ordered it, and it arrived yesterday afternoon. Sometimes I think Amazon knows what I’m going to buy before I do.

There are four “visionary women” in Barnet’s book: Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters. Add to these the ten women in Michelle Dean’s Sharp — Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm — and a trend emerges, a trend away from a movement. Few, if any, of these women were (or are) notable feminists. Reading about them has led me to conclude that feminism, formerly known as women’s liberation, has nothing to do with remarkable women.

The other night at dinner, Kathleen mentioned “incels,” which she had just read about somewhere, and then, without a break, told me about a show that she had sat through in the back seat of a taxi. After a moment’s difficulty trying to turn off the news feature, she gave up; at least she could mute it. Presently she saw Jennifer Lopez modeling inappropriate outfits inappropriately — striking poses that could most kindly be described as “kittenish.” We agreed that some women’s lack of judgment might be a good explanation of some men’s depravity, and that in fact it might be a case of depravity on both sides. Depravity is the belief in rationalizations that make misconduct permissible. The incels, as a group, have made misogyny normative among themselves, claiming a totally spurious entitlement. The behavior of women who imitate harlots is more puzzling. I can attribute it only to a lack of self-respect.

None of the fourteen women whom I have named suffered from a lack of self-respect. Although they made the most of such opportunities as presented themselves, they did not really require any kind of liberation. They made the most of what they had (minds, mostly), and the results were impressive enough to win admiring attention.

We have recently been treated to the appalling tale of the Washington Redskins’s junket to Costa Rica. During this pleasure trip, the team’s cheerleaders were advised to go about topless and to make themselves available for friendly encounters with rich hangers-on. Do we draw a line? Or ought the line have been drawn long ago, when cheerleaders’ outfits were downsized to their current skimpiness? And who would draw that line? Something tells me that it would not be any of my fourteen smart women. I can’t imagine any of them bringing herself to comment on cheerleaders, any more than correlatively smart men would take notice of drug lords.

The smart women and the cheerleaders do share the fact that they are not common. Now that people routinely marry for love, it may be that there are more beautiful people than smart people in the world, but beautiful people — beautiful people who are also just the right shade of young — are still unusual. (Psst! Have you seen Celeste Sloman’s extraordinary photograph of Gloria Steinem?) But beautiful people have much more in common with each other than smart people do. This may explain why beautiful people face such powerful challenges to their self-respect. Consider Pauline Kael. Kael was lured into a film-production partnership with Warren Beatty that nearly cost her her professional credibility; it was a terrible mistake to swallow this bait. But the bait was unique. It would have been neither offered to nor registered by the other women in my group-that-is-not-a-group. Whereas beautiful people in general are asked, sooner or later, to take off some or all of their clothes.

The object of women’s liberation, or feminism, is to develop the self-respect of ordinary women. Extraordinary women have nothing to contribute; on the contrary, their example may be discouraging — to ordinary women. In the forty odd years since the feminist movement became impossible to ignore, beautiful women have been so many spanners in the works, terrible distractions, insoluble conundrums. Smart, sexy, or both, unusual women make it difficult for an ordinary woman to figure out how to live. It would be nice if their presence on the Internet and in other media were more muted, if they were not presented as Kewpie dolls for the incels to shoot down.

***

Friday 18th

Reading about the shootings in Santa Fe, Texas — a town not far from Galveston, which my daughter and her family plan to visit this summer —I wonder if the modern public high school is not inherently unsafe. It seems to me to create an atmosphere of hostility. I say this even though I have not set foot in a school — any school — in many years, so feel free to ignore me.

High school used to be a place in which to grow up, to come to maturity. Few people went to college, so it was expected that high school graduates would be ready to take their places in the adult world as soon as they handed in their rented gowns. High school was a rehearsal for adult life in that learning was the student’s job. Ideally, among all the facts and figures that had to be mastered in different courses, students learned about the world that they would soon be entering. Perhaps it would be better to say that they were taught a vision of what the world might be if everyone brought his or her best to bear on it. By the final year of high school, students were expected to behave, at least, like adults.

What is high school today but a ghastly holding pen? Nobody takes a place in the adult world at the end of senior year anymore. The adult world is open only to college graduates, and its full richness is foreclosed to all but those who make it through postgraduate professional training. The high school student’s job is to get into a good college. This is not a job that all high school students may be willing or prepared to undertake. The postponement of adult entry postpones the end of childhood; instead of a rehearsal for “real life,” there is only a prolonged playground. The inevitably sexualized atmosphere of high school, no longer contained by the imminence of respectable adulthood, poisons the interactions of adolescents at different stages of development. Instead of appearing to be grown up (and self-controlled), kids in high school fall back on the quixotic project of being experienced.

The supposed collapse of educational standards is not what bothers me. It’s the collapse of educational seriousness that’s frightening. High school is a bad joke.

That solution that I propose is to insert a gap of three to five years between high school and college, and to overhaul business enterprises to welcome cohorts of high-school graduates with suitable jobs, jobs that today are reserved for college grads as a matter of employers’ convenience, not because college coursework is prerequisite but because a college degree indicates workplace virtues that used to be signalled by a high-school diploma. I am not arguing that fewer people ought to go to college, but rather that no one ought to go directly to college from high school except those few students who are probably going to spend their careers in the higher reaches of academia or professional expertise. (And even those gifted ones would probably benefit from a year out of school.)

There is nothing inherent in modern life that makes it take longer than it used to do to grow up. Keeping young people in elementary school until the age of eighteen is a vast civil mistake.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Post Office Revenue
May 2018 (II)

8 and 11 May

Tuesday 8th

Lady Susan, an epistolary novel, appears to be Jane Austen’s first complete work of mature fiction. She made no attempt to publish it, however; her nephew appended the text to his 1871 memoir. So it exists in a limbo, between Austen’s juvenilia and the canon of six novels that begins with Northanger Abbey and ends with Persuasion. The Penguin edition, edited by Margaret Drabble, packages it with fragments of uncompleted projects, The Watsons and Sanditon. Austen abandoned The Watsons, but work on Sanditon was, in Drabble’s incisive phrase, “interrupted by her death.”

Although formally finished, Lady Susan ends with an abandoned air, too. There are 41 letters in all, but I suspect that there were a few more, which Austen scuttled with a Conclusion. Having brought her tale to its climax, she may have lost interest in laying out the dénouement in letters that could no longer shock or surprise. There was also the problem of a nice young man’s affections. Like those of Edwin in Mansfield Park, these required time to shift attention, from one lady to another, and the Conclusion informs us of this with a similar caginess as to how long it took. However long, it was time that the quick short term of Lady Susan didn’t have.

Lady Susan Vernon is a widow. Her father’s title is never disclosed, a detail that encompasses the mystery of how she came to be what she is. Still beautiful at 35, and more accomplished at coquetry than ever, she is in the middle of a torrid, adulterous affair when she writes the opening letter to her brother-in-law, announcing her intention to visit him. The reasons behind her decision to pay the visit are suggested in the second letter, written to a a bosom buddy in London, but Lady Susan is too intelligent to incriminate herself explicitly, so the full extent of her misconduct with Mr Manwaring, the tranquillity of whose home she has disturbed, emerges only at the end, when this lover, who like almost all the men in the novel does not write letters, is seen to be entering Lady Susan’s abode. In the third letter, we learn that Mrs Vernon, the wife of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, is unhappy to receive her, given her notorious reputation, but feels obliged to yield to her husband’s generosity. Thus Lady Susan is marked as an eighteenth-century fiction. In the Victorian era that followed, Mrs Vernon and her real-life counterparts would not suffer such oppression. We don’t know if Jane Austen lived to see the full transformation; it is, after all, Sir Thomas Bertram, and not his wife, who refuses to take the disgraced Maria back to Mansfield Park.

In the fourth letter, Mrs Vernon’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, writes to his sister to “congratulate you and Mr Vernon on being about to receive into your family, the most accomplished coquette in England.”

… but by all that I can gather, Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect. I shall be with you very soon …

Reginald’s leering, sneering tone is designed to set him up as a target of Lady Susan’s conquistatorial ambitions, and so rapid is his tumble that his father, in the twelfth letter, feels obliged to intervene. Sir Reginald’s formal understatement is almost funny.

You must be sensible that as an only son and the representative of an ancient family, your conduct in life is most interesting to your connections.

Just as almost-funny the outrage in Reginald’s climactic letter to Lady Susan:

But since it must be so, I am obliged to declare that all the accounts of your misconduct during the life and since the death of Mr Vernon which had reached me in common with the world in general, and gained my entire belief before I saw you, but which you by the exertion of your perverted abilities had made me resolve to disallow, have been unanswerably proved to me. Nay, more, I am assured that a connection, of which I had never before entertained a thought, as for some time existed, and still continues to exist between you and the man, whose family you robbed of its peace, in return for the hospitality with which you were received into it!

This from the thirty-sixth letter. In response, Lady Susan briskly dismisses Reginald with the expectation “of surviving my share in this disappointment.” The four shortish letters that follow make it clear that, with Lady Susan’s conquest of Reginald undone, the story has run out of air. Was Austen too squeamish to compose an  ending similar to that of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, upon whose Marquise de Merteuil Lady Susan seems at times to be so clearly modeled (in the tone of her ruthlessness, especially)? In that book, the beautiful villainess is disfigured by a horrible pox that, together with her public disgrace, force her to retire entirely from the world. Her partner in crime is killed in a duel. Lady Susan has no partner in crime. Austen simply does not believe in melodramatic finales: the wicked, in Austen’s world, are made ridiculous. But none of her correspondents, save perhaps Lady Susan herself, has the wit (or the malice) for ridicule. If Lady Susan is to be condemned to marry the rich and foolish Sir James, whom she intended to foist upon her daughter, Frederica, whose dullness may be attributed to Lady Susan’s mistreatment and neglect, and if Frederica is to capture the affections of Reginald, then Austen is going to have to step in and tell us all this herself, as she does in the Conclusion.

In the Conclusion, almost-funny gives way to funny.

This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer.

One is put in mind of a powerful nanny who is breaking up a tiresome children’s game and sending her charges to bed, or at least to dress for dinner. The crack about Post Office revenue is pure Austen, as we know not only from the established novels but from her youthful sketches as well. Exploding the artifice of dramatically offended respectability, it is the joke of a well-behaved lady who has taught herself to write down what she cannot say, so that when the reader laughs, she is not in the room to scold. The satisfaction of Lady Susan lies in seeing how long Austen can carry on writing prose that, like her correspondents, does not seem to know what is really going on — the enrichment of the Post Office — and in enjoying how almost-funny the temptation to tell the truth occasionally makes her.

***

Friday 11

Duly, then, we watched Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan: Love and Friendship.

It is, above all, a Whit Stillman story. The principal characters are attractive and at least apparently affluent young people, or youngish. (The only older woman, Lady de Courcy, is meltingly played by Jemma Redgrave; she sounds almost exactly like her aunt.) They are clever. Their manners are polished beyond effortlessness, to the point of unconsciousness. They regard enthusiasm as a bore. Aside from Frank Churchill, there is nobody like them in Jane Austen’s novels, not even the Crawfords.

A fair amount of the conversation is lifted from the letters, although, so far as I could tell, all the almost-funny bits were replaced by realistic remarks that weren’t even mildly amusing. Indeed, all of Love and Friendship‘s fun was invented especially for the movie itself, and put in the mouth of Sir James Martin. In Lady Susan, as I recall, we’re not given much in the way of examples, even indirect ones, of this man’s allegedly foolish speech; his boorishness is evidenced simply by his uninvited arrival at Churchill. He materializes with equal spontaneousness in the film, but then he never shuts up. He goes on and on about getting lost on the way to the Vernons’ house, because he could see the church, but not the hill; that this might be intended as wit is suggested when he collapses into mention of the great family of Blenheim, mumbling “no connection,” presumably but not certainly with reference to the Vernons. Later, when corrected about the number of Commandments — he thinks there are twelve — he wonders, then, which ones will have to go. Personally, he’d be happy without the commandment to honor the Sabbath, because it interferes with his hunting. Tom Bennett, the actor who impersonates him, punctuates Sir James’s fatuities with a perfect whinnying laugh, the likes of which I haven’t heard since Alice Brady. He’s really marvelous, but. It is impossible to surmise Jane Austen’s reaction to the cinema, but I really cannot imagine her sitting through the show.

I do wonder what she would make of Kate Beckinsale, whose Lady Susan is fetching enough but really rather harmless. She is obviously Stillman’s favorite character, and he can’t treat her harshly. The film’s sympathies turn to Lady Susan as flowers to the sun. It is she who breaks with Reginald de Courcy (an interesting, but possibly dim, Xavier Samuel). Far from suffering with Sir James, she imports the strong, silent Manwaring (upgraded to a lordship) into her immediate circle. There he is, standing alongside her, rather like — but in key ways not like — a Wooden Indian, at her daughter’s wedding reception. One wonders if the husband will ever learn that his favorite interlocutor has made him a cuckhold.

We rented Love and Friendship, and felt glad that we hadn’t bought it. It’s handsome and reasonably entertaining, and it has its funny bits. But it hangs uncertainly, like one of those rickety rope-and-plank bridges in action movies, between two aesthetic realms. Whit Stillman is no cynic; his beautiful young people face genuine moral problems, and try to do their best, even if the lamp that he burns for virtue is not as steady as Austen’s. But he is a filmmaker. No filmmaker since the Thirties, arguably, has filled his scripts with such intelligent badinage, but the point is that this badinage pours forth from men and women even more self-confident, and possibly better looking, than Myrna Loy and William Powell. As for Austen, the ruler of the land on the other side of the bridge, she is a writer. And the tale that wobbles over the chasm is the last one that she will allow her characters to dictate. Henceforth, she will tell the story, impersonal, invisible, neither rich nor beautiful perhaps but in complete command of the English language, and with a great deal more to say than any of her inventions. All that can be said for Lady Susan is that it is a milestone in Austen’s development, tremendously interesting as such but only as such. The true climax occurs only after she has rounded up all the quill pens, poured all the ink down the drain, and stated her regrets — her regrets, not those of Lady Susan or Reginald or anybody else among her correspondents — for the Post Office revenue.

Love and Friendship is the title of a late entry in the catalogue of Austen’s juvenilia; like Lady Susan it is epistolary in form, but its tone is entirely mock-gothic, and it was apparently intended to be read to the Austen family, provoking choruses of laughter. I think that it was a mistake of Whit Stillman to borrow this title for his Lady Susan — possibly a curse. The more I muse on the difference between the achievements of his film and her novella, the more like Sir James he looks. Had he consulted me, I’d have urged him to call his movie Finding Churchill instead.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
May 2018 (I)

Friday 4th

Of all her many novels, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Heat Wave is my favorite. Although on its surface an unremarkably representational narrative, generously supplied with the telling details of an accomplished English fiction, its starkly troubled depth is never out of view — or out of touch, perhaps. It vibrates off the page like the wheat that “hisses” in the summer heat; later it hums like the harvesting combine. It takes possession of the principal character, Pauline Carter, as she worries about the state of her daughter’s marriage.

Keeping this worry on the boil, Pauline, Teresa, and Teresa’s husband, Morris, are spending the summer together in a pair of attached stone cottages. The cottages stand in the middle of a field, somewhere in the South of England. Pauline bought them some time ago. She uses the smaller one, and has given Teresa the larger. This summer, Maurice, who is finishing up a book (a cheeky interrogation of local tourism), has decided to decamp to the cottage for the entire summer. I ought to mention that Teresa and Maurice have a little boy, two year-old Luke. Never has a child filled any novel with so much vivid but unconscious vulnerability.

It does not take long for the reader to discover that Pauline, who knew Maurice for several years before inviting him to a party, where he met her daughter, is not keen on her son-in-law.

Only when you know Maurice well — when you have had occasion to observe his habits over time — only then do you see that he practises a system of relentless manipulation. (20)

Pauline knows Maurice well. She does not trust him at all. She watches intently as he flirts, discreetly but unmistakably, with his editor’s girlfriend. Pauline is reminded of an earlier self, a young mother whose husband, Harry, an ambitious university professor, seemed to feed his career on the attention of female students. It is a tale that is possibly the most oft-told in modern fiction, but a great part of the pleasure of Heat Wave is watching Lively make it new. Pauline’s suffering and anger ought to be dispelling, but the genius loci keeps it fresh and cool, even as the cottages and the wheat bake in the ever-hotter sun. I don’t know how she does it, but Lively pins up against the oppressive brilliance of her setting a negative image, black as a starless night, that keens with the outrage of a Medea. There is no reason to fear that this will infect Pauline; she was long ago inoculated by it. She longs to spare her daughter the experience.

Because of other things that I’ve been reading, a line at the end of Chapter Twelve stood out in blinking bold-face. It is nothing but what guilty husbands tend to say, but this time it carried, for me, immense moral, as distinct from narrative, freight. When Pauline finally asks Harry why he’s unfaithful, “he shrugs.”

“These things happen, Pauline,” he says. “There isn’t anything I can do about it.” (154)

And I thought: that is depravity. What Harry says (as well as what he does) to Pauline is inhumane: no human being ought to be treated as he treats her, no matter how common such nastiness might be. But what he says to himself, implicitly — that he can’t do anything about it — is, to the extent that he takes it to be a true statement, depraved. Depravity is what happens when you stop treating yourself as a human being. Please note: Harry’s infidelities are not the issue here. The issue is the collapse of his responsibility for them. These things happen.

I am more and more convinced that the very idea of evil is thoroughly childish, and that adults ought to outgrow it. Evil is a thing, a blob, a vampire maybe, that can turn you into a monster. The ease with which people allow themselves to dismiss other people as monsters seems to me to be on the same order of moral turpitude as Harry’s exculpation. Evil is — exciting. The terrible things that happen in real life are rarely that. They’re grim and monotonous and wretchedly familiar. I am not talking about the horrors of psychopaths or other organically defective human beings. I’m talking about healthy men and women who let themselves get away with things, and who do it so carefully and successfully that they almost lose sight of the fact that they’re doing wrong. There is nothing monstrous about it. If they do, finally, lose sight of right and wrong, then their connection with themselves becomes depraved, a matter of lies. The difference between depravity and evil is merely poetic: we like to make evil out to be bigger and stronger than we are. Depravity is nothing but diminishment.

In the final pages of Heat Wave, Maurice says much the same thing as Harry, and what happens next is the climax.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Properly and Naturally Amassed
April 2018 (IV)

24, 25 and 27 April

Tuesday 24th

David, of course, was used to his mother’s busy people-filled life. As she liked to say, he had been brought up “on coats,” meaning she had dragged him along to the many parties and “happenings” and other events she had not wanted to miss just because she had a young child. … In fact, though he had a much stronger sense of privacy than Susan did, like her, he grew bored and restless when things were too quiet. He also had her stamina, and though he was perhaps somewhat less social than she, he was far more social than I, who already carried the seeds of the person I would become: someone who spends ninety percent of her time alone. (76)

That’s Sigrid Nunez, in Sempre Susan: A memoir of Susan Sontag. I read the book yesterday, with the greatest pleasure. I had understood it to be something of a hatchet job, but it wasn’t anything of the sort. Although Nunez itemizes Sontag’s foibles, she does not ridicule Sontag herself. She presents her rather as a mixed-up person like all of us, only much more determined to be famous. This pursuit of fame, which used to be positively admired in men, is treated by Nunez with kindness and generosity. She finds two great flaws in Sontag’s professional character. In the only passage in the memoir that I found “judgmental,” Nunez deems her subject to have been “mortally malcontented,” largely because, although famous, she wasn’t famous for her fiction. The other flaw, seemingly fatal for a writer, was that Sontag hated being alone. She had two ways of dealing with this problem, according to Nunez. She would create the undergraduate fugue state of dexedrine-fueled all-nighters, obsessively combing through piles of books in search of the mot justissime, or she would rope in a friend to play editor, and the two of them would decide where the commas belonged.

Meanwhile, Nunez was carrying those seeds.

***

I put the book down and talked about it with Kathleen — without whom I should certainly be someone who lived alone in more ways than one. I observed that I have never learned much from people directly, except, and I’ll come back to this, about who they are. What I mean here is that I’ve never learned how to live from the example of another person. I have never had a role model or a mentor. I thought for a long time that this signified a moral failing of some kind. Instead, I learn from books. And I learn, or demonstrate what I have learned, by writing. Reading and writing are something of a mining operation in which I excavate and assay myself and so find my place in the civilization around me. It is not an image that I want to push very far, but it feels like an apt description of how I have spent my life most profitably. The restless socializing, occasional thrill-seeking, the longing to find myself embedded in the alienated but romantic scenario of an Antonioni film — these were enormous, sometimes nearly catastrophic wastes of time, at least to the extent that it took so long to figure this out. The wonderful thing about being old is having outgrown, outlived all such urges.

What could be less “popular,” less “American,” less generally recommended, though, than learning about life, not from people directly, but from books. An interesting point occurs to me. Looking for wisdom in people, I would focus on one person at a time, as if interviewing prospective gurus. Nothing extraordinary about that. But with books, I was never looking for right one, the book that would unlock the secrets of the universe. (I’m amazed by the number of books that make such claims.) Certainly there were books that made an extraordinary impression at the time, but they never prevented me from reading other books, books that I never expected to be revelatory. When I say that I learned from books, I mean exactly that: from an undifferentiated pile, variously digested, of texts. It was only when I had read thousands of books — I hope that nobody takes that for a boast; it would be lame of me indeed if I could not at least make that claim — that the learning began, that the writing took on a purpose.

Kathleen — remember that we have spent more than half our lives together — agreed.

***

What I have learned from people is about them. This may have been what slowed me down in school: I learned more about teachers themselves than about what they were teaching. I’m not talking about secrets here. I learned what made people smile, what their smiles were like, what made them cross or impatient; I learned whether they were generous or mean (although almost everybody is both). I learned most about people when they were not paying attention to me — although this was another thing that it took me too long to realize. I would have learned more if I hadn’t been so fond of talking. I still like to talk, and Kathleen, bless her, insists that she likes to listen. But, more than ever, I like to watch people.

At lunch in a quiet restaurant, I am annoyed when my reading is interrupted by a telephone conversation that I cannot help overhearing half of. Sometimes, in cases of great witlessness, both halves — is there anything as passively obnoxious as activating the speakerphone option in a public place? These intrusions are never quite entertaining enough to justify the nuisance, probably because people who conduct private business in the company of strangers lack rudimentary discernment. Actual conversations between people sharing a table can be just as bothersome. The other day, I could not shut out the Elmer-Fuddish monotone of a sensible, plain-speaking Midwesterner as he lectured a younger person, who might have been his daughter but who was probably, given her animation, a more distant relative, on the virtues of an IRA account. Everything that I heard come out of the man’s mouth was worthy of the very earliest pages in some Life for Dummies handbook. No sooner had the two of them left than a woman about my age took a seat. She was not very glamorous to look at, but her voice reminded me very much of Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton at the beginning of Something’s Gotta Give, when she can’t wait to get rid of Jack Nicholson, her very laugh a sigh of dismissal. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the waitperson, with whom this customer was going to be both chummy and demanding. Not long after she had ordered, her phone rang — the “old phone” ringtone. All I could make out was that she was looking for a better package than what they were offering. If you’re going to complain like Diane Keaton, perhaps you had better look as good as she does, too.

***

Wednesday 25th

The last page of Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, a meditation on responsibility, built on interviews with Franz Stangl, the Kommandant of the Treblinka death camp, is entitled “Epilogue.” But it is actually a closing prayer. Here are the first and the last two paragraphs:

I do not believe that all men are equal, for what we are above all other things, is individual and different. But individuality and difference are not only due to the talents we happen to be born with. They depend as much on the extent to which we are allowed to expand in freedom.

Social morality is contingent upon the individual’s capacity to make responsible decisions, to make the fundamental choice between right and wrong; this capacity derives from this mysterious core – very essence of the human person.

This essence, however, cannot come into being or exist in vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense: not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole. The fact of its existence therefore – the very fact of our existence as valid individuals – is evidence of our interdependence and overall responsibility for each other.

There are no names on this page, no specifics — as befits a common prayer. Nevertheless, I take it to mean, in particular, that, had he grown up in a better world, without an abusive parent and then the social collapse into fascism, Franz Stangl would have remained a working man, as he was before and after his Nazi career as the attendant to exterminators. I don’t take it to mean that Stangl, in particular, wasn’t fully responsible for what he did, but only that we are none of us fully responsible for ourselves, and that we are all somewhat responsible for one another. Human society depends on this interdependence, but as we have seen again and again it is prone to break down when the reach of that society stretches too far, too quickly, beyond conceptions of family, community, and nation. At this very moment, thousands of American men — I hope they are only thousands — are nourishing the worst in one another, forming an adamantine opposition to the intrusion of “human society” into American life.

As it happens, I am also reading some of the essays in Lionel Trilling’s collection, The Liberal Imagination. Sadly, none of the essays bears this title, or describes what it refers to, but the opening essay, “Reality in America,” makes it clear to me that the book’s title ought to have substituted “American” for “liberal.” Writing during the Forties, Trilling could assume that ours was a liberal society, at least for the moment. He could write, in the Preface, that “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Not that he was complacent: he could project from recent European experience the lesson that “it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.” Even without the menace of a conservative movement (one that, at that very moment, ironically, was furiously developing ideas, mainly in the brain of William Buckley), there was for Trilling the crack in the liberal, or American, outlook:

Its characteristic paradox appears again, and in another form, for in the very interests of its great primal act of imagination by which it establishes its essence and existence — in the interests, that is, of its vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life —it drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.

Trilling gives this thought an almost poetic expression in “Reality in America.”

We live, understandably enough, with the sense of urgency: our clock, like Baudelaire’s, has had the hands removed and bears the legend, “It is later than you think.” But with us it is always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing. We seem to like to condemn our finest but not our worst qualities by pitting them against the exigency of time. (18)

So much has changed since Trilling wrote — which is practically the same thing as to say, during my lifetime — but not that. If anything, the tendencies outlined in that passage have, if you’ll allow me, massified, grown like the biceps of a committed weightlifter. They have done so primarily by means of broadcast television and its spawn: the biggest mistake that any media critic could make would be to downplay in the slightest degree the fact that our entertainments are mirrors distorted to flatter us. Understanding and thought are not only dull but idiosyncratic: it’s hard to understand what someone else is thinking, no matter how lucidly the thought is presented. But wrath is exciting, and what better way to wind up a sitcom episode than with a bit of moralizing? Bad enough for shows, these tendencies have wrecked the very idea of “news,” occluding complication with violence of every kind, from the automotive to the meteorological, and reducing public figures to the vocabulary of pap.

The liberal vision of enlargement and freedom and rationality — I would put it, the enlargement of civil freedom — is, like all hope, somewhat opportunist, ready to extrapolate success from promising signs, to expect that rackety improvisations will stabilize in time, and, ultimately, to invite disappointment. When we consider what happened in and to the United States during the forty years after Trilling’s preface, by which time only dimwits admitted to being liberal, the Columbia professor’s prescience can seem otherworldly. But I think that Trilling was simply more aware than most Americans wanted to be of the difficulty of the liberal project, and of its dependence for success upon a rigorous, not a freewheeling, imagination. The climate of life in which a human society can flourish on Earth demands much more than heartfelt commitment. That’s where things begin. From there, it is a matter of long, hard thought.

***

Friday 27th

If I have ever read everything in Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, then I have certainly forgotten it or, more likely, grown a different mind. In the past couple of days, two passages from essays in the the later pages of the collection have shocked me.

[T]here can be no doubt that a society in which homosexuality was dominant or even accepted would be different in nature and quality from one in which it was censured.

**

A prose which approaches poetry has no doubt its own values, but it cannot serve to repair the loss of a straightforward prose, rapid, masculine, and committed to events, making its effects not by the single word or by the phrase but by words properly and naturally massed.

The first comes from “The Kinsey Report” (p 241) and the second from “Art and Fortune” (p 273) Both are offensive in more ways than one. The functional equation of homosexual dominance and heterosexual acceptance is as bizarre, or gratuitous, as it is grating; the implication that the nature and quality of a society in which homosexuality is censured are superior to those of the hypothetical alternative is, among other things, evasive. This is clearly a topic about which Trilling believes that the less said is the better. He has postponed this distasteful discussion of “sexual aberrancy” almost to the essay’s final paragraphs. The other passage, which is preceded by comments on T S Eliot’s judgement of Nightwood, a novel whose name Trilling does not disclose, even though he must assume it to be common knowledge among his readers — more distaste; if you look up Djuna Barnes today, Google will tell you that Nightwood is “a classic of lesbian fiction” — yokes poetry to femininity and prose to masculinity, with the latter alone capable of “words properly and naturally massed.”

These remarks are offensive — today. Trilling, writing in the Forties, seems unaware of making controversial or exceptionable statements. His opinions are delivered with a conviction that can afford to be understated. And I do not think that he was mistaken. These are not the only instances of Trilling’s expressed belief in the salubrious superiority of maleness. (“Masculinity” is the figleaf essential to decorous writing.) It was widely if not universally shared at the time; alternative beliefs would have raised eyebrows. And yet they betray a certain unease, the “concern” that might attend efforts to extinguish a fire before it gets out of control. Kinsey and Eliot, perhaps without realizing it, are encouraging the forces of anarchy and upset. To be sure, Trilling is far more worried about the deadly substitution of ideology for ideas in American discourse, and with good reason. Very much contributing to the shocking effect of the passages that I have copied out is a tone quite unlike that of most of the text. As I say, it would seem that if Trilling could have figured out a way not to mention homosexuality at all in his critique of the Kinsey report, he would have taken it, and the entire collection is shot through with admiration for Henry James, whose sexuality was, in those days, a secret almost brutally suppressed by Leon Edel’s control over access to Harvard’s Houghton Library.

And yet I cannot help but be upset by these glancing blows. They betray the power of common, deep-rooted prejudices in a very fine mind.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Considering Privacy
April 2018 (III)

17 and 20 April

Tuesday 17th

If we want to blame our moral disasters upon the loss of dogmatic authority, we shall again find ourselves in the midst of notions which have little if any place in the great tradition of Western thought or in the history of ideas. For politically speaking, it was the fear of hell which acted as the most potent curb upon the potential criminality of human beings. And the idea that a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell should have restrained mankind from the worst crimes is no more palatable than the notion that such an intellectually unspeakably low product as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion should have had the power to influence the course of contemporary events. Yet, I am afraid these very unpalatable notions are closer to the reality with which we were confronted than any dialectic of ideas. It would lead us too far astray now, but I think it can be shown that the belief in hell is the only strictly political element in Western religion, and that this element is neither Christian nor religious in origin. If this is true, then it would follow that the politically most momentous consequence of the loss of dogmatic authority was the resulting loss of belief in rewards and punishments in a Hellfire.

To be honest, I copied out this passage* simply for the pleasure of repeating the phrase “a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell.” The Roman church’s exploitation of hellfire is arguably its most discreditable failing. We are left with a somewhat cynical question: did it work? I myself suspect that the totalitarian atrocities of the Twentieth Century would never have occurred without the many new facilities of technological convenience in communication, transportation, and manufacturing. We have no way of knowing (I suspect further) how many agents in the Holocaust and the Soviet purges found it easier to participate because they no longer feared eternal punishment. I often wonder if the hellfire element of medieval life (of which we know very little directly) wasn’t overdone, resulting in a demoralized population incapable of virtue. I wish I knew more about the paradoxes of Calvinist predestination, which  if anything re-moralized Europeans. This brings me to my other thoughtful lady.

It has been usual to treat the great school of writers who emerged from American Puritan culture in the nineteenth century as having put aside the constraints of the old faith and stepped into a larger conceptual world. But in fact the striking kinship among them suggests they found source and stimulus closer to home. Whatever else might be part of a Puritan world-view, the exalted mind is central for them as it for all these writers. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, share a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection. The Puritans spoke of their religion as experimental, that is, experiential. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention because reality is communicative and the mind is made, grace assisting exquisite effort, to experience its meaning. … The absence of shrines and rituals and processions that interpreted the world and guided understanding of it in England and Europe reflected, as absence, a sense of immanence that gave the theological meaning to anything in itself in the moment of perception — a buzzing fly, a blade of grass. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary, given discipline and desire.**

In this passage, what captivates me is the description of thinking as a communication with reality. Although Hannah Arendt belonged to an earlier generation and was trained in a very different cultural environment, I like to think that she would agree with Robinson on this point. A mind such as Robinson or Arendt’s is stuffed with learning, with highly articulated ideas of “authority” and “grace” (to pick an example from each), but the act of thinking is always an undertaking to find points of articulation by which the mind’s stock can connect with the palpable world. Connection is more important than explanation, if only because explanation is impossible without it. Both thinkers exhibit a gentle impatience with the sluggishness of connection — there is never enough of it; one is never satisfied. Arendt and Robinson combine a practical worldliness with tremendous suspicion — not unlike, say, Jonathan Edwards’s fear of religious hypocrisy — of the reduction of reality to the dimensions of a problem that can be solved.

***

Something to think about:

On the one hand, we have readers who nod deliberately when the Times intones that the President is not above the law. On the other, we have a television audience for whom those are just words, words like any others in the script, or the show, or whatever it is — the word does not exist, does it? that describes the contemporary entertainment experience, something categorically beyond symbiosis, in which the audience is part of the show, and the show is part of the real world, a world more vivid than the world perceived by the audience members when they are not watching, or, to put it better, involved with the show. One the one hand, we have political discourse. On the other, political discourse is suffocated by entertainment, entertainment that consumes all the oxygen (ie meaning) in the public space that is occupied by the audience.

Better than to say that television created this audience, to say that television inspired the audience to create this reality. The audience is wholly, morally, responsible.

*The extract is from “Challenges to Traditional Ethics: A Response to Michael Polanyi,” in Hannah Arendt, Thinking Without a Banister, ed. Jerome Kohn (Schocken, 2018), p 189-90.

** From “Old Souls, New World,” in Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), p 294-5.

***

Friday 20th

Kindly attribute my silence this week to my discretion on two points: first, that I have been thinking full-time about something that doesn’t appear to have been much thought-about by anyone (then again, I don’t get out much), and my thoughts are not yet fully fit for publication; second, an iron determination not to mention a certain German-American political thinker (1906-1975) more than once a week.

So much for her.

What I have been thinking about is privacy, and I have been thinking about it because the idea of privacy seems to me to be what’s missing from current social discourse, particularly in the context of lamentations about social media. The word “privacy” is mentioned all the time, but there is no real idea behind the word, just a bundle of legal concepts. This makes a certain sense, because our notions of privacy have their origin in jurisprudence, specifically in the arguments of Louis Brandeis and others, made around the beginning of the last century, that we all have the right to be left alone. Far from being a universal right, moreover, privacy is not only a relative novelty, apparently confined, until very recently, to the Anglophone world.

Isn’t that odd. Privacy is important to everyone — to mature adults, anyway. How can it not always have been?

In the old days, before the word “privacy” had much currency, the right to be left alone was limited to a few special cases, usually involving the word “privy.” Alone, it represented what we now call the privacy of the bathroom, although actual bathing was not covered by it, for the simple reason that bathers had to be provided with hot water by helpers capable of filling and lifting pails. At the other end of the scale — what scale, exactly, I hesitate to say — the king and his advisers met in privy council. I have a couple of scholarly to-dos to check off. When did the word “privates” come to be used as a partial euphemism for genitals, and how do we explain the positive right to privacy deriving etymologically from words denotating deprivation? But these don’t seem terribly important at the moment.

In the old days, ideas of modesty and discretion imposed the effects of privacy on everyone. And there was also an idea of the family that encompassed a large part of the idea of privacy that I’m trying to work out. It would be wrong to say that there was no need for privacy, but there was no thought of it as something that was missing from the rule book. Finally, aside from smoke signals and bonfires, there was no such thing as communicating at a distance.

The last thing I want to do is to lapse into treatise-writing mode, beginning with definitions and distinctions. That’s precisely what I’ve been doing all week. But if I have the sense to keep my doodles to myself, I still think that there is at least one worth sharing, and it’s something that I call social privacy. It is the privacy of two or more people living more or less together more or less intimately. That’s to say that they may or may not live in the same place all the time, and that they may or may not be what we’ll call lovers. They may be parents and children. They may be cousins or friends. They may be like the group of five or six former camp counselors who get together every summer in cabins on a pond in Maine (my wife being one), a gathering not to be confused with your garden-variety reunion.

The second thing that I want to say about social privacy is that it is nourishing, beneficial. Toxic relationships preclude it. Unhappy families do not enjoy it. Nor does it just happen by itself. It requires certain kinds of behavior, and working out what that behavior might be is my real concern here.

The third and last thing that I want to offer is a distinction between secrecy and privacy that might be useful. A secret is simply information that is purposefully withheld from universal knowledge. It is defined by the people who don’t know it. (Those who know that it exists together with those who don’t.) Privacy is positive, a possession really. Privacy operates on the assumption that those who don’t share it don’t exist. The right to know a secret might be disputed — it’s disputed every time friends argue about whether to tell someone about a cheating spouse. What takes place in private, however, is nobody’s business — which is why these arguments occur. Whether the social privacy of an adulterous relationship destroys the social privacy of a marriage is, I conclude from the variety of human experience, not a question to be answered by deduction from principles. I will leave this very thorny question here.

What makes these thoughts urgent is, of course, the mobile phone in all its varieties. The mobile phone has created a contested, confused space, one in which many people pursue their private lives in the company of strangers. Strangers are on record as finding this annoying, but the greater harm, it seems to me, is the nuisance to the users. Is it not foolish to detach private conversations from the affect of physically sharing a familiar interior?

That’s enough for now. Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Ladies
April 2018 (II)

Wednesday 11th

The other day, a copy of Thinking Without a Banister arrived. This collection of essays, speeches, letters, and journalism by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn, takes its title from Arendt’s description of thinking in modern times.

I have a metaphor … which I have never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a banister — in German, Denken ohne Geländer. That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so that you don’t fall down, but we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.

I’ve read only the first essay in the book, but I expect that the second, “The Great Tradition,” will describe that banister and what happened to it. I’ll let you know. For the moment, I want to say something about reading the first essay, a two-part block of seriousness in which it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Arendt is speaking for herself or crystallizing the thought of her subject, Karl Marx. Sometimes my sense of perspective, of point of view, becomes unsteady, and I can’t really follow the train of thought. Sometimes I suspect that my problem comes down to not having had a German education.

It’s more likely that my problem comes down to not having read Marx and other modern political thinkers until rather late in life. I may be accused of having cultivated patches of ignorance, a slightly paradoxical endeavor in which I simply refused to learn more about something that puts me off. In the case of modern political thought (and action), what puts me off is collectivization, bundling individual people up into indissoluble lumps and dealing with them en masse. My humanism, I now realize, has always been liberal humanism. Not Roman Catholic or Christian humanism; not atheist humanism; not even the anthropocentric humanism that underlies the whizbang triumphs of material progress. Liberal humanism can be simply described but never simply lived. As a liberal humanist, I treat each and every person with whom I come into contact as an unaffiliated individual, a person with unique resources. I like some people more than others, of course, but I don’t like or dislike anybody on account of a tribal or ethnic allegiance. Even “Trump voters”! I cannot think in terms of “classes.”

Now that I am robustly resistant to ideology of any kind — I maintain that liberal humanism is not an ideology like any other but rather a set of rules for, among other things, withstanding ideologies — it is safe for me to read about the formation of modern political ideas, forms of government, and social organizations. And I think that I have done wisely in appointing Hannah Arendt as my tutor. She can be as ponderous and obscure as any mystical German, but she can also be homely, homely in a very sophisticated manner. (This comes out strongly in her correspondence with Mary McCarthy.) Denken ohne Geländer is a fine example of her everyday style.

The lesson that I have most strenuously postponed is Arendt’s insistence that Karl Marx is the central figure. That so much of what he wrote was wrong is not the point. The point is that he alone is our link to the Western intellectual tradition that came crashing to the ground in the multiple revolutions that clustered around the year 1800. Marx was one of the last thinkers to be formed by the old tradition, and one of the first to understand that it had been wrecked beyond repair. Being Marx, he celebrated the wreckage, and went all in for the new dispensation, the previously unthinkable enfranchisement of what Arendt calls “the laboring classes.” I was brought up to find laborers uncouth, and Marx an incendiary lunatic. Now I understand that laborers often have the wisdom as well as reason to hope that their children will not be laborers, and I agree with Arendt about the centrality of Marx, despite as much as because of his confused legacy of inhumane totalitarianism.

But what am I to make of this:

The social revolution of our time is contained in the simple fact that until not much more than one hundred years ago [Arendt was writing in the Fifties], mere laborers had been denied political rights, whereas today we accept as a matter of course the opinion that a nonlaborer may not even have the right to stay alive. (37)

We do? Where? Outside the nightmare of totalitarian régimes, where have “parasites” been put to death, or denied medical attention? This is the sort of perplexity that sometimes makes it difficult to digest Arendt.

***

Karl Marx gave us the concept of “capitalism,” and it has taken me several years to understand just how profoundly the term is, or ought to be, defined by the historical developments that inspired him. Unfortunately — most unfortunately — it has become synonymous with “business” and “private ownership.”

Last summer, I read a book that I wrote about in August, before I’d quite finished reading it, William Janeway’s Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge, 2012). What I took away from Janeway’s memoir of successful investing was an understanding of capitalism as a vital preliminary phase that, if prolonged, could easily become toxic. Mature businesses don’t need to issue equity shares; if they require cash, they can issue debt, and do so all the time. (It is a commonplace to observe that the public trading in Silicon Valley’s Big Five stocks was simply a reward to early investors, a liquidation, if anything, of capital commitment.) Capitalism is a necessary instance of gambling; when and if the gamble pays off, capitalism’s contribution to the enterprise comes to an end. At this point, shareholders ought to be replaced by stakeholders. The work of legally determining what we mean by “stakeholders” remains to be done — probably in step with environmental restoration. But it seems to me that there is plenty of room for options between state ownership and public (ie rentier) ownership.

Another book that highlights the transitory nature of capitalist enterprise is Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, by Joshua Freeman (Norton, 2018). Freeman’s subject isn’t so much the factory as the really big factory, the vogue for which has come and gone within the space of two centuries. What explains the trajectory is the workforce. In case after case, the workers at impressively huge new factories consolidated the power of their numbers, and by the postwar era it was a rule of thumb for industrial giants like General Motors and General Electric to avoid enlarging existing plants and to develop new works in smaller, geographically diffuse locations. Polish and other Communist authorities learned the same lesson the hard way.

I have known, ever since I began reading about medieval trading operations years ago, that capitalists hate one thing more than all others combined: the payroll. The ideal capitalist payroll does not exist, because it is unnecessary: there are no employees. If Freeman’s behemoths had been erected in order to nourish the prosperity of their workers, many of them might still be operating, and those that weren’t might have been neatly dismantled or repurposed. Imagine: a corporation in the business  of employing people and paying them well! Rocket science?

***

Thursday 12th

A great deal of the current issue of the London Review of Books (40/7) is given over to James Meek’s report on breakdowns in health care, particularly the care of frail, elderly people, in Leicestershire, an English county beset by a familiar strain between uncongenial urban and rural populations. Well on the way to being frail and elderly myself, I read it with harrowed interest. But nothing in Meek’s piece was as shocking to me as an innocuous sentence in another article, Rosemary Hill’s essay on “frock consciousness” — the phrase is Virginia Woolf’s, and she found it difficult to define — entitled “What does she think she looks like?

Clothes, for those who could afford to choose them freely, had always been to some extent an expression of the wearer – of their status, character and taste – but it was in the popular Modernism of the interwar years, when so many men had died and women consequently found themselves with more room to manoeuvre in society, that the particular compound of woman + clothes, Woolf’s ‘frock consciousness’, became a significant aspect of female experience, a colour on the writer’s palette, a possible agent in a narrative.

Forget parsing “woman + clothes.” The electrifying phrase is this: when so many men had died and women consequently found themselves with more room to manoeuvre in society. Haven’t we all — but perhaps it’s just we men — haven’t we long looked back on the Twenties and the Thirties as the time of a Lost — dead — Generation? Hasn’t it been customary to feel sorry for all the women who couldn’t find mates? An intellectual cliché, certainly; but we couldn’t get through the day without thousands just like it. Hill’s sentence takes a scalpel to the received view and scrapes a bloody gash. Many men dead -> more room to maneuver for women.

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” No, indeed I hadn’t. And I’m not sure that the point would register so sharply if we weren’t in the #MeToo moment, when every intelligent man feels estopped from generalizing about women. I felt no such constraint forty years ago, when men were pigs, period. Those were crude times. What did women want? They seemed to know only what they didn’t want. We learn to want things from what we see, and many women saw nothing desirable except career opportunities formerly available only to men. So this was changed, but that was about it. Men certainly didn’t change. Most women decided that they couldn’t do without pigs after all; they settled down.

Now a new generation has stood up to complain about men. The complaint is vastly more focused, and yet there is a blur at the center. What does the narrator of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” want? We know what she doesn’t want. But is there a way to describe her beau idéal that would serve as a template for young men to emulate? Something that isn’t simply negative (“don’t get any ideas from porn”)?

(Interestingly, most men accused of sexual improprieties have not put up a fight, but quickly folded. So that has changed.)

It seems to me that Rosemary Hill has hit upon something positive. Room to maneuver. It is a bit vague, but it is not at all negative, except to the extent that all freedom implies the elimination of limits.

Hill devotes several paragraphs to the wardrobe of Emily Tinne. Mrs Tinne was a doctor’s wife in Liverpool; the Tinnes belonged to “the solid Liverpudlian bourgeoisie.” When Emily Tinne died, in 1966, she left behind a rather grand collection of evening dresses, some with matching “coatees.” What she did not leave behind were matching shoes or handbags. Many of the outfits still carried price tags. Hill concludes that they were never worn, if they were ever worn at all, outside of Mrs Tinne’s chamber. Perhaps she merely went through them lovingly, with her hands, like Mrs Danvers with Rebecca’s underthings. It is too late for us to scold Mrs Tinne for wasting her husband’s money on a private wardrobe; she enjoyed it while she had it. Indeed, one lesson to be drawn from the exhibition of her gowns at the National Museums, Liverpool would be that pleasure, like taste, is non disputandum.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Promotion
April 2018

2, 4 and 6 April

Tuesday 3rd

In Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, a woman agrees to adopt the Great Dane that belonged to an old friend, a man who has committed suicide, even though the lease to her apartment expressly forbids dogs. Whether or not she will be evicted by her landlord provides dramatic excitement. The woman’s friends are excited, anyway. They “stage an intervention” at one point, insisting that she cannot risk losing her apartment because of a delusional attachment.

None of that is what The Friend is really about, though. The eviction is issue is dealt with so calmly and assuredly that it becomes something of a tease; surely the reader can’t really have worried. The woman herself never seems perturbed. Several times, she blithely says that she’s hoping for a miracle, but no miracle is required, thanks to advances, sort of, in medicine. I’ll leave it there.

We could say that the woman narrates The Friend, but it would be better to say that The Friend is a letter that she writes to her dead friend. This might sound creepy, but so strong is the second person pronoun that it brings the departed squarely into view, if not quite back to life. (Indeed, the letter’s power draws from our awareness that it will never be answered: the letter is a final judgment.) We could say that writing the letter is the woman’s way of grieving the loss of her friend, but this would be arch. In fact, the woman grieves in the ordinary ways: she weeps and she remembers. Time passes. The need for a miracle disappears at just about the same time as the grief. The Great Dane has become her new friend: in the final chapter, the second person pronoun addresses the dog, not the suicide.

Everybody mentioned in the letter, with the exception of the apartment superintendent, the Great Dane — Apollo, the only creature bearing a name — and the dead man’s third wife, is a writer. Almost everybody is not only a writer but a teacher or a student of writing. The man was once the woman’s writing teacher. Then she became, more or less, his colleague. He wrote notable books, but he continued to teach, for the money: no Philip Roth he. The woman, who lives in Manhattan, can spot other writers anywhere. She can detect the complicity with which writers support the transfiguration of actual men and women, hitherto leading their private lives, into the characters who appear in published books. She quotes a famous writer who said that, when a writer is born into a family, that family is “finished.”

In the penultimate chapter, the woman sketches an alternative ending. The pronouns here are third-person. The woman visits the man, who did not die, who was saved at the last minute. He has come out of the hospital, and she is returning his dachshund, which she cared for in his absence. The two writers talk shop. The man is distressed to hear the woman announce that she has set aside what he considered a promising piece of work, a report on women living in a Victim of Trafficking refuge. These women have had horrific experiences, often having been sold into sex slavery by family members, and, in the third chapter of the letter, we are taken to the shelter and told some of those awful stories. The woman concludes:

Here is what I learned: Simon Weil was right. Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.

This was the lasst thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the new year. (76)

Weil’s observation is expressly negated by the man in the eleventh chapter — the alternative ending in which he is allowed to live.

“I find myself inclined to agree with people like Doris Lessing, who thought imagination does the better job of getting to the truth. And I don’t by this idea that fiction is no longer up to portraying reality.”

Here he breaks off into a tirade against his “self-righteous” students, for whom it doesn’t matter

“how great a writer Nabokov was, a man like that — a snob and a pervert, as they saw him, shouldn’t be on anybody’s reading list. … It upsets me how writing has become so politicized, but my students are more than okay with this. … That’s why I’ve decided not to go back to teaching. Not to be too self-pitying, but when one is so at odds with the culture and its themes of the moment, what’s the point.”

And not to be too cruel, she doesn’t say, but you will not be missed. (194)

That last line went through me like an arrow, and in fact it made me read the book all over again. As I say, this alternative ending allows the man to live, but it also denies him the right to be relevant, to engage with the future of writing. “You will not be missed” is a way of telling us that the friend is better off dead, as indeed may explain his suicide. It also tells us, of course, that the grieving is over, at least the grieving that is inspired by the death of an artist.

Reading The Friend a second time, I not only saw how beautifully woven it is, and how effortlessly it handles — without attempting to solve — the problem of priapic writers and their adoring female students. I saw that it is a conundrum, a sort of Möbius Strip. The dust jacket announces that The Friend is a novel. But it reads like a letter — at some points like one of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, or like an entry from the displaced diary, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The writer’s reflections on writing are never discursive or impersonal, but they are grave; intellectual positions are every bit as vital here as emotional states: not the stuff of regular literary fiction, much less fiction generally. The eleventh chapter is an argument, right out of a philosophical dialogue. The rigors of defined terms may be avoided, so that it really does read as two people talking, but you still have to know who Svetlana Alexievitch is and why she won the Nobel Prize. So, is the book a memoir? Did this really happen? Is Nunez exploiting a suicide? And yet, no one has a name, not the writer, not the dead friend, not Wife One, Wife Two, or Wife Three. Is that discretion or a process of enfabling?

I think that I had to go through The Friend a second time because, for such a serious book, it is awfully easy to read. And, thanks to Apollo, not without moments of great fun.

***

Wednesday 4th

In my enthusiasm for Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, yesterday, I elided direct reference to the rumbling argument that surfaces here and there in throughout the novel and before being taken up directly by the interlocutors in the eleventh chapter. It is not so much an old argument as the revival of one. Whether you call it a moral argument or an aesthetic argument probably indicates which side you’ve taken. It is proof, I think, that our literature culture (at least) has embarked on a confrontation with the “collapse of values” that characterized, or was said to characterize, the postwar years.

In the passage that I quoted yesterday, we see the man grasping the essence of the argument when he mentions Vladimir Nabokov, author, notoriously, of Lolita. Is Lolita a worthy novel or a dirty book?

It would be disingenuous to disclaim that Nabokov invites this question. Lolita is narrated not by a third person representing the values of the community, as shocked as anyone by the report, but by a pedophile. A European pedophile — a monstrous growth from foreign parts. Lolita luxuriates in its criminality, never more than in the narrator’s account of his aimless tour, both tortured and tedious, of America’s roadside motels. It would be one thing if Humbert Humbert carried Lolita off to a handsome chateau by a Swiss lake. Lolita is another thing altogether, altogether sordid. It is regarded as a triumph because the sordid details are expressed in such luminous prose.

Years and years ago, a friend and I were goofing around in a racy gift shop near Wall Street. She pointed to a nude male pinup calendar and asked, in a stage whisper, “But is it art?” “No,” I replied, “it’s Hank.”

The idea that art can redeem patent immorality is, like our taste for polyphony, unique to the post-medieval West. It is a notion whose prevalence in Europe and America encourages mullahs to denounce the depravity of our civilization. For quite some time, sophisticated Westerners have regarded such critics as primitive and benighted. But now, this kind of criticism is coming from Western students. They are no more impressed by the luminous language than are the mullahs. They are not saying that Lolita is not art. They don’t seem to get that far. They just don’t think, as the man in The Friend says, that Lolita belongs on a reading list.

This argument is bound up with another quarrel. Can truth be revealed by fiction? Generations of critics and literature professors have insisted that it can — that, indeed, it gets closer to the truth than any mere reportage of facts. But students — including former students, like the woman who writes the letter that is The Friend — are in open disagreement. The imagination may produce an account that is meaningful and compelling, and perhaps even morally useful. But it is not really true. It leaves things out, it alters slight details, it struggles to present a coherence that does not in fact exist.

If anything can account for this new moralism, this brisk change in the artistic climate, I think it is the failure of the sexual revolution to overpower and eliminate predatory men. Put this another way: the sexual revolution unleashed predatory men in the company of “nice” girls. Girls from good families, girls who had been to good schools, girls with professional futures. Before the sexual revolution, social norms had protected such woman from untoward advances (much less threats). It may have been conveniently forgotten by polite society, that predatory men exist. Some of these predatory men, moreover, like the suicide in The Friend, were and are nice guys. They ask politely and they don’t make gross requests. They are never coercive. But they manage to indulge their appetites. According to the man who later killed himself, “the classroom is the most erotic place in the world.” (28)

Guys who weren’t so nice (or nice-looking) took note.

***

Thursday 5th

Bob Odenkirk’s “Headlines You May Have Missed” is very amusing, but unlike most such pieces that appear in The New Yorker, I expect it to enjoy a long life in print. Its satirical view of the way we live now will be as easy to laugh at in twenty or a hundred years as it is now. Well, maybe not. But it captures our ludicrous obsession with screens, our insane conviction that the screen is the locus of reality.

It’s more than a little interesting to set Odenkirk’s mordant exaggerations next to something else that I read yesterday, this in the Times, an op-ed piece by Tim Wu arguing for the replacement, not the reform, of Facebook.

What the journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1959 of “free” TV is also true of “free” social media: It is ultimately “the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandizing.”

Wu has written a book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads. I haven’t read it, although I feel that I ought to, out of some sort of solidarity. It has long been obvious to me that promotion is the whole point of “free TV” and “free apps.” Promotions must necessarily get our attention, and do so in a very short stretch of time. Initially, broadcast television offered a series of “programs” — dramas, evening news, sports — with occasional promotions, or advertisements. Over time, every moment of broadcast television was surrendered to the promotion of something — the network itself, its stars, the excellence of its presentations, the careers of athletes; and then along came Fox News, with its relentless promotion of right-wing grievances. What Fox News effectually promotes is viewers’ anger and dissatisfaction. Where old-time ads urged members of the television audience to improve their appearance, Fox News marinates viewers in their own funk and applauds the stink. Fox News is really all about you, the viewer: that’s what it’s promoting. What an unbeatable product! What an orgy of egoism! No wonder the “you” whom Bob Odenkirk addresses in his funny piece has missed the birth of a grandchild and isn’t aware of any car trouble.

(That’s my favorite part of the piece: “The smell has to do with your brake pads. Doesn’t matter—just keep driving and ranting at the dashboard, and soon this problem, and all your problems, will end.” — and all your problems.)

The difference between persuasion and promotion is the disingenuousness of the latter, a deceptiveness that works only in the short term. Persuasion lines up the pros and the cons of an argument as objectively and comprehensively as possible. Promotion makes no such attempt. The pros are suited up like Marvel heroes, the cons look like the monstrosities in fun-house mirrors. Often the cons are simply left out, exploiting the genteel proposition that, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Promotions are rarely lengthy, even when they can afford to be, because, inevitably, infotainment begins to smell of shill, an indifference to right and wrong that is foreign to persuasion.

Has someone come up with a term that describes the behavior of people, whether at a crime scene or in the presence of a celebrity, who turn to their phones for the televised version of what’s right in front of them? The same behavior can be seen during a game at Madison Square Garden. Cameramen are the arbiters of our reality: they know what will interest us before it happens. The cession of personal judgment to professional interpreters is alarming, but I hear no alarms. More to the point, I don’t hear any discussions. No: I see couples sitting at tables for two in restaurants, each bemused by a device.

Doesn’t matter.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Vaccine
March 2018 (IV)

27, 28, 29 and 30 March

Tuesday 27th

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Alison Gopnik appraises Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, and finds it wanting — as indeed all reviews that I’ve seen have done, but far less clearly than Gopnik. Gopnik is disturbed by Pinker’s complete failure to address what the editors call “small-town values,” perhaps in a bid to appeal to readers in the flyover. For Gopnik, the problem is that Pinker has no sense of those local commitments that are characterized by peculiar, rather than rational and universal, objectives and relationships. The peculiar has always been a problem for Enlightenment thought; the philosophes appear to have believed that higher levels of education would simply float everyone above it — everyone with a brain, anyway. But people with brains have family ties to people with other strengths. They are attached to circumstances that are not optimal. Maybe Harvard is the best place to study X, but studying X at Harvard means living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least for several years. In our matrix of higher education, a stint at Harvard might require, for optimization, a few years studying X at Stanford, on the other side of the country. As Gopnik says, a scientist may well be unable to settle down to family life before the age of forty. Especially, of course, a scientist who is also a woman.

Gopnik’s piece is not very long; she doesn’t have the time to lay out the extent to which education has been infected by globalist values, or what that means when education involves moving people in the way that investors move money. People, unlike money, are not fungible; everyone is unique, and brilliant people are notably unique. Bringing a few gifted and unusually congenial minds together in the same place may be all it takes to set the Renaissance going, or, for that matter, the Enlightenment. This sort of cultural globalism was apparent in the Mediterranean world of classical antiquity, beginning with the Greeks who went to study mysticism with the Egyptians. Even in what we think of as a Dark Age, in 972, Gerbert of Aurillac, a scholar and statesman who would die as Pope Sylvester II about thirty years later, moved to Rheims, because that was where the best students of logic congregated. Their being in Rheims meant, of course, their not being anywhere else. Ever since, Europe, then the Western World, and now the planet itself have been marked by cultural capitals, outside of which everything was dismissable as provincial.

This is a problem that the Enlightenment didn’t solve, just as it didn’t solve so many others. (There were so many that it never took up.) By and large, the Enlightenment concerned itself with useful, material improvements, and Pinker is right to celebrate them. But he is obtuse to expect readers to ignore the costs. The measurable improvements that he charts throughout Enlightenment Now intensify our sense of what’s missing, the much more difficult to measure but still biting decline in the strength and reliability of personal attachments. Low crime rates and improved nutrition might well seem empty boons to people living alone in featureless environments.

There has been a strong intellectual tradition, ever since the Enlightenment, of regarding the family as a dead weight on the man who would be autonomous and self-realizing. A powerful fuel of this tradition has from the beginning been a contempt for the countervailing bourgeois tradition of regarding the family as a business enterprise requiring cooperation and commitment to collective goals. Initially a struggle of sons against fathers, it has become a resistance of individuals to family responsibilities. Our institutions, so many of them shaped by the Enlightenment and its failure to treat women equally, provide few avenues of resolution. That, Gopnik says, has to change.

One challenge for enlightenment now is to build social institutions that can bridge and balance these values. Family policy is a good example. People on both sides of the political and cultural divides in the U.S. are in rare agreement that programs like family leave and preschool deserve more support, even if the political will for such measures never seems to emerge.

The question is whether the Enlightenment can transcend its preoccupation with specialization, which rests on the observation that it is much easier to do something well if there are no distractions. Family life is a tissue of distractions. So long as Enlightenment institutions prefer people who are willing to abandon the family context, or to rely on others (women) to minister to family life, the Enlightenment project will continue to have fierce enemies.

***

Wednesday 28th

It is often quite difficult to think of writing anything here while Donald Trump occupies the White House. I am of two minds about the man, or rather, of one mind and one body. To my mind, Trump is a vaccine, untested and possibly lethal, that nevertheless might at the very least render smart people allergic to spending nonworking hours in front of screens. For over a year now, men and women who believe in the benefits of procedure, compromise, and complexity have been reeling in toxic shock; to my mind, this is a great opportunity to develop greater political respect for those who don’t, if only because the alternative might involved tumbrils and Madame Defarge.

So much for my mind. My body is, like everyone else’s, reeling in toxic shock. My mind counsels that things may very well get better. My body wants to throw up. My body is broken by the fact that the Short-Fingered Vulgarian has, not entirely unpredictably, exploited American media to make the derailment of American politics even worse than it already was. My mind argues that trains can usually be put back on the track. My body is not certain that it hasn’t been mauled by the derailment. Hush, hush, says my mind — why, you’ve hardly been out of the house. Exactly, says my body.

My body sees the man, hears the voice — nausea. And the knockdown stench of symbiosis — can his Republican and evangelical enablers ever be forgiven? Or will they kill us first?

***

Corey Robin’s “Easy Chair” essay, in the current issue of Harper’s, is one of the rare responses to Trump to indicate that the vaccine might be working; Robin, at least, has gotten beyond the allergic-to-Trump phase. Reading his essay, “Forget About It,” a second time, I wonder, actually, if Robin might have been previously inoculated. “Almost everything people found outrageous and objectionable about [Trump's] candidacy — the racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law — I’d been seeing in the right for years. Little in Trump surprised me, except for the fact that he won.”

What Robin is saying here is that the Trump vaccine ought not to have been necessary, after Nixon and Reagan — and, although he doesn’t mention him, Dick Cheney. You can argue that Nixon and Reagan are different because they held elected office prior to the presidency, but all that means is that it didn’t, and doesn’t, make a difference. You can’t argue that Nixon and Reagan were better than Trump because one of them had been a vice president and the other a governor. If Trump is in any way worse than Nixon and Reagan, that might simply owe to the destruction that they wrought on our institutions and traditions. Trump’s damage is more spectacular but also less fundamental, more superstructural.

Robin notes that friends find his plus ça change observations about Trump irritating. Sadly, they do so because they are still allergic to Trump. If we could get of Trump, they feel, everything would be fine. But that is dangerously wrong, for getting rid of Trump might simply make room for someone more capable of deploying malignancy than a repeatedly unsuccessful casino developer. It is essential that we explain Trump’s ascendancy in terms of everyday political life, not monstrous electoral aberration. “The racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law” — these characteristics are hardly limited to the conservative leadership. Nor are they necessarily signs of blinkered intelligence. The rule of law, for example, has degenerated into the rule of technicalities. Law no longer pretends to speak with deliberate intelligibility, because our complicated environment has convinced us that law, as if it were a branch of engineering, need only be understood by lawyers. I have long argued (to anyone who would listen) that one truly amazing thing about American history is how little time it took for the United States to develop the very same paralyzing surfeit of competing jurisdictions that made getting things done in medieval Europe so expensive. Regard for institutions is inevitably diminished by such bureaucratic kudzu. As for violence and racism, both express widespread existential uncertainties about masculinity in an industrial world that no longer requires manly muscle; I see zero effort to respond to this other than by scolding.

Meanwhile, everyone is staring at screens — when it’s time to man the lifeboats. That is: do something.

***

Thursday 29th

In today’s Times, there’s a story about Douglas Greenberg, ace financial planner and serial wife- and girlfriend-beater. As of publication date, Greenberg was still employed by Morgan Stanley, although the firm has been aware for some time of his domestic issues.

It’s a clarifying story, because Greenberg’s misbehavior does not involve work associates (or clients, needless to say). Greenberg was not a Human Resources problem for the banking firm. What he did at home was his business, or rather, it was not his business; it was his something else. Call it recreation if you like. Professionally, Greenberg was an untainted star.

This is a classic case of the meritocracy at work. So long as Greenberg’s “personal life” evaded criminal conviction, and his derelictions were in no way financial, Morgan Stanley could ignore them. Until #MeToo, anyway.

The other day (14 March), I wrote that the meritocracy is under attack on two fronts, by parties that are themselves mutually opposed. They are, interestingly, attacking the meritocracy for complementary reasons. The deplorables-and-proud-of-it, also known as Trump supporters, charge the meritocracy with incompetence — ruling without merit. Meanwhile, women and others who have been slighted by heteronormative privilege are calling out the meritocracy for ruling without humanity.

At a minimum, the meritocracy is going to have to do a better job, even though this will not redeem it with women, and to treat women properly, even if this would excite Trump supporters’ contempt.

***

Friday 30th

Kathleen and I often ask ourselves, whatever happened to leadership? The answer came to me yesterday: meritocracy. And how obvious. What could be less conducive to leadership than pursuing the skills required to do well on examinations — in other words, learning how to follow.

In their zeal to eliminate favoritism, nepotism, and other routes whereby the unqualified might attain political or professional power, the architects of meritocracy did what they could to prevent the replication of networks of eminent, mutually influential men in future generations. Professionalizing (quantifying) eminence was one step. Making prominence contingent on competition and mobility was another. By continuing the steeplechase of tests in the guise of publications and prizes, meritocracy made it difficult to settle down in any one place or position. Two professors, say, at Stanford and at Princeton, who might have been friends in the pre-meritocratic dispensation, sharing information about promising students on either side of the country, were now rivals for a top job at Harvard.

When my grandfather went to law school, I’m told, he wrote to say that he’d be coming. This was not in reply to an acceptance letter. The distance between his hometown, Clinton, and Davenport, both on the Iowa banks of the Mississippi River, was not great, and doubtless the authorities at St Ambrose had heard a thing or two about the young man, and were happy to welcome him. They may have had an inkling of his future, even if they could not foresee that he would become active in the Democratic Party, and instrumental in holding the Iowa delegation together in support of FDR at the 1932 national convention —for which he would be rewarded with appointment to the bench of what was then called the Customs Court.

I am fairly certain that my grandfather would have done just as well in our meritocracy. But I think the United States lost something in the surrender to academic gatekeeping. We might recall, by the way, that Roosevelt distinguished himself at Harvard neither as a student nor as an athlete, but as editor of the Crimson.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
March 2018 (III)

21 and 22 March

Wednesday 21st

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been keeping my original Web log, The Daily Blague, and writing about the things that I do around the house or in the neighborhood, all the stuff that what I’ll call the thoughtfulness of this site has driven out. I still don’t really know what I’m doing at The Daily Blague, but as I grope my way along, one question persists: Is this important? Not, is it interesting. I try never to publish anything that’s not interesting, at least to me. That’s always the important question about writing. But the nagging thing about this subject matter — housekeeping, as I generally call it, or home-making, which I find awkward but more accurate — is that it has never been considered to be much worth talking about.

There’s a good reason for this. Until very recently — in terms of human social history, the Twentieth Century is very recent — there was nothing to discuss. Housekeeping was necessary, which made it important in itself, but in much the same way that most things that happen in a bathroom are important, but not generally talked about unless something goes wrong. Housekeeping in the old days was a matter of keeping things as clean as possible and meals as nourishing as possible. Every household adhered as closely to widely acknowledged standards as the householder’s resources allowed. Women worked inside the house, tidying rooms, caring for clothes, and cooking dinners, while men worked out of doors, in stables and gardens. Wealthy people could hire servants to do all the housework for them; in most middle-class households, some family members worked alongside a servant or two. But aside from minor idiosyncrasies, everyone living in a given town or countryside observed the same standards of housekeeping,  and every household was a cooperative endeavor.

The Twentieth Century is noted for the introduction of labor-saving domestic appliances. What has received far less attention is the introduction of domestic options. For one thing, it became economically feasible for people to live entirely alone. This was as utterly novel as mobile phones would be, seventy-odd years later. Keeping a small apartment in reasonable order need not require a lot of labor, and the whole problem of meals was refigured in terms of convenience, a transformation that climaxed with the appearance of the microwave oven. But people living alone could live as they liked. They were free to ignore, if they chose, those “widely acknowledged standards” that had been observed as part and parcel of respectable life in the old days. It is clear, in retrospect, that servants had served a supplementary function: they were the conscience of the household. They would refuse to work for employers who indulged bad domestic habits or who deviated too far from what servants understood to be correct. (This was particularly true of senior female servants.) Ordinary people, now living on their own, were free of such constraints.

I could insert a paragraph here about the impact of feminism on housekeeping, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The result of modern freedoms has brought about, as one might have foreseen, the collapse of housekeeping standards, and it occurs to me that this collapse is what makes talking about housekeeping important. What does housekeeping mean, now? What does it entail? Are there many ways of keeping house, some of them inconsistent with others? Does it even make sense to speak of housekeeping in the singular?

I think it does. While it might seem reasonable to discuss housekeeping in terms of practices, most of them optional — is it necessary to press bedlinens? — I prefer to look behind the things that housekeepers do to the reasons why they do it. Now, there is no doubt that, for some people, housekeeping is a fantasy, or a neurosis, something that must be done in a certain way to satisfy cravings or to alleviate psychological anxieties. Even in these pathological cases, however, housekeeping is still a matter of caring for someone. And wherever two or more people live together, there is almost inevitably going to be one who cares, in housekeeping terms, for the other(s).

We generally reserve the word caring for situations involving either children or disabled and elderly people who are dependent on others for very basic needs, and we understandably regard this caring as a regrettable, if potential ennobling, kind of drudgery. This reflects the derelict state of the idea of housekeeping, which has become synonymous with the endless repetition of tedious labors. But while it is understandable that we seek to avoid drudgery, it is diminishing to associate caring with mindlessness. I have long believed that caring requires a great deal of thought, especially since most of the people we care for in our homes are not helpless at all, and making them comfortable — the whole point of caring — is anything but straightforward. But even caring for the helpless is not mindless, a point made brilliantly by Jill Lepore in her essay on Rachel Carson in the current issue of The New Yorker.

Carson’s father died in 1935, followed, two years later, by her older sister, leaving Carson to care for her mother and her nieces, ages eleven and twelve; she later adopted her grandnephew, when he was orphaned at the age of four. These obligations sometimes frustrated Carson, but not half as much as they frustrate her biographers. For [Linda] Lear, the author of “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature” (1997) and the editor of an excellent anthology, “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson” (1998), Carson’s familial obligations—in particular, the children—are nothing but burdens that “deprived her of privacy and drained her physical and emotional energy.” Lear means this generously, as a way of accounting for why Carson didn’t write more, and why, except for her Sun articles, she never once submitted a manuscript on time. But caring for other people brings its own knowledge. Carson came to see the world as beautiful, wild, animal, and vulnerable, each part attached to every other part, not only through prodigious scientific research but also through a lifetime of caring for the very old and the very young, wiping a dying man’s brow, tucking motherless girls into bed, heating up dinners for a lonely little boy. The domestic pervades Carson’s understanding of nature. “Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed,” she wrote in 1938, “but the home of the wildlife is also our home.” If she’d had fewer ties, she would have had less insight.

It is not inapposite to point out that the words ecology and ecosystem are rooted in the Greek word for household. So is the word economy. The first and the last were coined in the old days, when households were complex undertakings that required a great deal of cooperation. Food, for example, must not only be prepared but produced or paid for, thus connecting housework to agriculture and commerce. Any idea with the root eco- in it represents our deep sense that all things are interrelated. Our struggles to analyze and compartmentalize produce many fine insights and vital solutions, but they also tend to induce the illusion that any part is detachable from the whole. It was that illusion that inspired the widespread use of DDT, which Rachel Carson so effectively denounced.

In one view, housekeeping is a matter of ticking items off a petty list: when to drag out the vacuum cleaner, what detergent to use in the wash, and so on. In the better view, housekeeping is a matter of ensuring that the household is a home to those who dwell in it. Housekeeping is not only important, but, perhaps precisely thanks to the optionality introduced by the mod cons of the last century, it is arguably as pressing as any of the more established humanities.

***

Thursday 22nd

What is this meritocracy that I keep talking about? What makes it different from other, earlier schemes for putting the most capable people in charge of things? In a word, its impersonality.

I haven’t written much about liberalism lately. My idea of creating a Web page for this site on which I would spell out my understanding of liberalism in an organized way has not generated any hard work. Meanwhile, I have been writing about “the meritocracy,” which I finally recognize as the correct label for what journalists and demagogues so sloppily call “the élite.” For the most part, I’ve dwelt on the failings of the meritocracy, particularly the decay of its sense of mission, from serving the nation to servicing itself — the inevitable decadence of a ruling class that is answerable only to itself. When I ask what makes meritocracy different from other ways, however, and I locate the aspect of its design that sets it apart, its impersonality, I see in this impersonality a constitutional flaw. This feature has a bug.

Impersonality is a core liberal value. The liberal revolution in late seventeenth-century England instituted, for the first time, a workable solution to what I’ve called the “great men” problem, in which the relation between the crown and the magnates had to be reestablished after the coronation of every successive monarch, according to the personal attributes of all concerned. Sometimes, relations were smooth, but quite often they were not, and in any case they were always unpredictable. The great landowners who fathered liberalism might well have tried to eliminate unpredictability by imposing a new system of government, as indeed the kings of the time were doing. Instead, they repurposed a venerable institution, Parliament. The control over Parliament that these great men exercised was very great, but also somewhat vague and indirect; only a cynic would have claimed that Parliament was their puppet. And of course the magnates, even the liberal magnates, were not a unified political bloc. Liberal lords would have to submit to Parliamentary rule, along with their king and their Tory opponents. (In the event, Tories would so discredit themselves by undermining the Act of Succession that they would disappear from Parliamentary politics for fifty years.) In the impersonal system of liberal Parliamentary government, the king would be free to choose any advisers he chose, so long as those advisers had already been chosen by the Houses of Parliament.

A little over a century later, liberals expanded this impersonality into lower and wider branches of government. And although I am almost certain that nobody ever consciously thought of doing so, the magnates once again adapted a venerable institution. This time, it was the title deed. Every landowner was expected to be able to prove his title to ownership by means of documentary evidence; great landowners established muniment rooms, in which such documents were organized and preserved. Unconsciously, I suspect, liberals hit upon the notion of treating certificates of academic achievement as proof of possession of a certain kind of property — inalienable, in this case. Competitive examinations would establish and recognize the leading holders of intellectual capital. To the owners of such property would go appointments to the principal public offices. Favoritism would no longer have anything to do with advancement.

It took another century for this system to be adopted by all large institutions — universities and great business corporations as well as government offices — but by 1945 the transition was complete. Students were obliged to run a steeplechase of impersonal examinations, focusing on specific, correct answers and avoiding the stylistic, distracting, and ultimately rather personal idiosyncrasies of written essays. Achievement was quantified in scores and numeric grades. Transcripts and test results were as sacred as deeds — which is why cheating became so much more than a personal moral failing.

Thus we came to be governed by men and women who do well on tests.

If that sounds hollow — and it ought to — that’s because our tests are so scrupulously impersonal that they do not examine such important traits as character, moral acuity, or vision. They completely fail as humanistic measures of worth. Doing well on tests is probably an essential skill, but it cannot be the only one investigated, if only because students will have no compelling reason to develop other values, the absence of which in our meritocracy has become so awfully obvious.

Ask yourself if a genuine meritocracy would permit the existence of a media complex in which a man like Donald Trump would achieve wide popularity with certain sectors of the population and then garner extraordinary amounts of free news coverage as a presidential candidate. No matter what you think about her, would a genuine meritocracy have stood by while Hillary Clinton lost the election to such a man? Indeed, I believe Hillary Clinton might be a different, more appealing person in a genuine meritocracy.

She might even be Hillary Rodham period.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Merit
March 2018 (II)

14, 15 and 16 March

Wednesday 14th

So, the meritocracy is under attack on two fronts — two fronts that, under the old dispensation (which appears to have passed, just as its predecessors have done, between fifteen and twenty years into a new century) would have been at war with one another. The meritocracy, formerly unassailable, has become the softest of targets, undone by habits of smugness and decadence. Smugness blinded it to its vulnerability to populist resentment; decadence rendered it oblivious of its sexual depravity. That the populists are led by an alleged sex offender is an irony that pales in the glare of the meritocracy’s hypocrisy.

Donald Trump has never claimed to be a great orchestra conductor or a sensitive editor or an innovative architect. He has never greenlighted film projects that raised consciousness of feminist issues. He has always been merely a developer who misbehaved like one — and, so far, he has been successful at denying the misbehavior, whether or not anybody believes him. Denial is part of the developer’s package; it’s what developers do. That we tolerate developers even though we know that most their product is only superficially beneficial, tinsel really, is our sin, not theirs. But leaders in the arts and media are supposed to be the flower of the meritocracy, the men and women — but mostly men — who not only display great skills but use them to make timeless contributions to humanist understanding. When we learn that these leaders have imposed their sexual whims on less powerful colleagues and students, what infuriates us is not so much the lurid, disgusting detail as the embedded, intensifying entitlement. Not only did they think they could get away with it, but they did get away with, often it for decades — objectively, no better than developers, and subjectively much, much worse.

The current wave of exposure and termination, which is characterized by the plunge of exalted celebrities into a sea of shame, is more spectacular than the last one, which concerned teachers and priests who abused their authority over the young. But those offenders, too, were exponents of their meritocracy, just as many of their victims were potential meritocrats. We are now hearing women of a certain age declare that they didn’t make a fuss about inappropriate advances; they took them in stride, just like generations of fraternity rushes who have undergone hazing as the price of access to the meritocratic arena.

A puzzle for historians to work out would trace the roughly parallel but occasionally intersecting developments of the postwar meritocracy and the so-called sexual revolution. It is now generally conceded that one of the principal consequences of the sexual revolution, and certainly its most unintended one, was that it made it so much easier for men — especially meritocratic men — to fool around. And the women who were most available for fooling around with were also members, albeit of lower status, of the meritocracy; women outside the meritocracy long remained old-fashioned about sex.

A big piece of this puzzle is the role played by privileged men and women who qualified for membership in the meritocracy. It is my impression that relations between the sexes at the top of the modern Western social order have been considerably less unequal than at lower levels for several hundred years. Anglophone women of property were among the first anywhere to enjoy equal rights and equal access in certain areas, beginning, probably, with the dining table, at which men and women routinely sat together by the end of the Eighteenth Century. Men from privileged backgrounds are consequently somewhat less inclined to regard women as inferior, while the women among whom they have grown up are more likely to resist being treated as inferiors — making them unlikely to be victimized by predatory men. I suspect that this privileged sexuality, however attractive in itself, has given “well-born” meritocrats a perch from which to look down on their upwardly-mobile colleagues, giving them a sense of superiority within the meritocracy that would hardly encourage them to blow whistles.

***

Thursday 15th

Via The Browser, I came across a provocative piece by Justin Stover, “quondam fellow of All Souls” &c, entitled “There is No Case for the Humanities.” At first, I expected to agree with Stover, because I believe that there is indeed no “case,” no instrumentalist argument, no claim to relevance or sociality utility, to be made on behalf of “the humanities.” But I soon grasped that my idea of what the humanities are differed sharply from Stover’s. His is certainly closer to received wisdom. Mine, I see, has evolved in the pressures of contemporary society.

In a word: scholarship. Scholarship is at the heart of Stover’s conception of the humanities. It is scholarship in the context of a particularly British tradition.

The humanities have always been, just as their critics complain, self-contained, self-referential, and self-serving. Those tendencies are exactly what enabled the humanities to create a class that continued to demand them. People have read Virgil for two thousand years, and people have built institutions designed to facilitate the reading of Virgil. Some people built their lives around reading Virgil, whereas others just spent fifteen years of their childhood and adolescence learning to read Virgil, before moving on to more lucrative pursuits. For reasons high and low, people have believed that the one qualification truly necessary—for civil service, for foreign service, for politics, for medicine, for science, for law, for estate management, for ecclesiastical preferment, for a life of aristocratic leisure—was the ability to compose good Latin hexameters. They did not do this because they thought that mastering prosody was something which would directly contribute to success in other areas. They were not looking for skills or creativity or values. They did, however, believe that conjugating irregular verbs would mysteriously produce moral improvement (perhaps it did), but they were not too concerned about how. They simply believed in the humanities, and knew from experience that they would bring students above the categories of nation, vocation, and time to become members of a class constrained by no such boundaries.

It is also, as Stover makes clearly elsewhere, the scholarship of a tribe or class of academics with shared interests not just in the LRB but in — I gasped — lifestyles. Stover writes with massive complacence of the durability of his version of the humanities, “which predate the university and may well survive it”; he seems to be saying, with stereotypical donnish weariness, not to worry.

But I don’t mean to get tangled up in cultural differences. I don’t want to appear to respond to Stover’s muddlesome Oxbridge virtues with American pragmatism, or to the self-serving tribalism of the senior commons room with leveling, purposeful populism. That’s all by the way. The nub of my contention is that the humanities have little or nothing to do with academic research and disputation. In fact, as Stover obliquely argues, it has nothing to do with the university itself.

If scholars in the humanities stopped researching arcane topics, stopped publishing them in obscure journals nobody reads, and spent all their time teaching instead, the university itself would cease to exist. We would just have high schools, perhaps good high schools, but high schools nonetheless.

I quite agree. Except for that little phrase “scholars in the humanities.” In my view, there are no such personages. There are only teachers of the humanities. Presumably, they have been trained by scholars, at least in part, and have done some sort of scholarly work themselves as part of their education. But the kind of interrogation that propels scholarship is different from and perhaps even inimical to the questioning that the teacher of humanities sets out to make habitual in students. And if the price of securing solid teaching in the humanities is to forswear the glorious name of “university” and to settle for “good high schools,” I’m happy to pay it.

Let’s grant that the current state of university scholarship is at the very least satisfactory and deserving of public support. Let’s not argue about that when the pressing issue is the education of ordinary citizens at affordable prices.

An idea of education that settles for the inculcation of skill sets is one that all thinking people will reject as inadequate, especially at a time when advances in automation threaten to execute many skills far better than human beings can. What more, then, are we looking for? I believe that citizens need two habits of mind. (The difference between skills and habits of mind is roughly comparable to the difference between amorous acrobatics and love.) They need the habit of critical thinking, of evaluating propositions in context, not just at face value. And they need the habit of curiosity, of wanting to know what is happening. And these habits ought to be yoked by a body of common knowledge: knowledge, specifically, about what has happened in the past, or, in everyday usage, how the hell we got here. Some would call this body of knowledge “history,” but I think it better to leave this term to the scholars. What happened is a less formal, more open-ended way of describing the context of any event, and therefore of any thinking about it. What we mean by “the humanities” — what I mean; excuse me — is simply the grasp of present circumstances in light of what has already happened; there is nothing about this grasp that does not touch upon an aspect of human character; hence: “humanities.” The humanities are a prerequisite to the conduct of a liberal democracy. I don’t think that scholars have done a very good job of teaching them.

***

Friday 16th

Now that Robert S Mueller III has subpoenaed Trump Organization business documents, it seems to me that his investigation has arrived at a new stage of divisiveness. Critics of the President may tremble with enthusiasm, but I sense that his supporters regard the inquiry as an illegitimate waste of time. Because the division between critics and supporters is pretty much a division between meritocrats and ordinary people, it is all the more difficult for either group to understand the others’ position.

Meritocrats necessarily put great stock in compliance with the rules of the game, because that is the reason for their personal success. Cheating and other forms of dishonesty, however morally reprehensible, are perceived as evil because they undermine the procedures by which talented people attain professional status and worthwhile projects achieve institutional support.

Ordinary people are more inclined to see the rules of the game as weapons used to keep them in their place. They are understandably alert to the self-serving tendencies of meritocratic virtues, and enraged by instances of meritocratic hypocrisy — as, for example, Bill Clinton’s definition of sex. This rage is pretty self-serving, too, as is all ressentiment. But the ordinary people who support Trump don’t give much of a fig for the niceties of influence peddling. And current events have made them cynical about civil safeguards that protect the validity of elections. If Trump has violated some technicalities, he has only been doing (a) what you gotta do to get ahead and (b) what everybody goes. Trump’s supporters can see quite clearly that the meritocracy is out to get their man, period, and that it will bend the rules any whichway to do so. Mueller’s investigation is never going to gain their trust, whatever it uncovers.

Boy, do I hope I’ll be proved wrong!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Prima
March 2018 (I)

6 and 8 March

Tuesday 6th

This year, we did not watch the Academy Awards show. Kathleen wasn’t feeling well, and I was only too happy to give it a pass. Never keen on watching it anyway, I felt an extra resistance this year because of the Weinstein aftermath. While I don’t disagree that people ought to be protected, both socially and institutionally, from harassment of any kind, I dislike displays of righteousness in what are supposed to be congenial settings. I note that this year’s ratings hit a record low. (This was true, however, of the Super Bowl and the Olympics as well.)

I am also not terribly interested in what the movie industry thinks or feels about itself, which is of course what the Awards crudely measure. There’s an interesting chart in today’s Times that shows how relatively poorly Best Pictures do at the box office. (I can’t find it online.) Between 1980 and 2004, only one winner, The Last Emperor, brought in less than $100 million. Since 2005, there have been only four winners that brought in more — The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo — and none of them made more than $200 million. This is not a problem for The Industry; everybody gets paid. As long as box office receipts are not the measure of quality (and I’m certainly not suggesting that they ought to be), then I should prefer to have a truly disinterested body do the judging. Critics, for example, as with The Golden Globes.

As it happens, I went to the movies exactly once in 2017, to see Get Out, and Kathleen did not go to the movies at all. (To think that I used to go every Friday!)

***

Get Out got an Award — that’s nice, and especially nice, I’m sure for Jordan Peele, who won it for Best Original Screenplay. I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, but I still haven’t watched it, because the best thing about Get Out was watching it in a theatre with other people. Now, this is something that simply doesn’t come up with other films. I regard movies as an alternate form of literature, and I no more mind watching a movie alone than I do reading a novel. I’m aware that the viewer, like the reader, is a character, too, figuring in the fiction. But Get Out is the only great movie that I can think of where the viewer really ought to be plural. It’s rather like riding a roller coaster: when you’re screaming, it’s reassuring to hear the screams of others. In Get Out, it’s the oscillation between screaming and laughter that’s really wild. And that moment when Betty Gabriel (who ought to have won something) repeats “No” so insistently that tears pop out of her eyes — that’s really too scary to watch alone.

***

The new Vanity Fair arrived yesterday, looking very different from previous issues. (New editor, Radikha Jones.) The title was so hard to read that I had to stare it to be sure. The photograph of Jennifer Lawrence seemed artfully blurred in places, but, again, a closer look indicated strange lighting. Inside, the nomenclature remained the same (“Vanities,” “Fanfair”), but the typography was new. The impish designs that Graydon Carter brought from Spy (for which magazine I can never stop thanking him and his confederates) appeared to be suppressed. But sho ’nuff, there was a story (yet another) featuring rich Italians and their lovely villa — in this case, the family behind the shoemaker Tod’s. James Wolcott’s space was taken up by the discussion of a cable series that I shall probably never see. I read Nick Bilton’s content-free piece about Facebook — can it be saved or will it kill us all? — but I couldn’t decide how much twaddle about Jennifer Lawrence, a truly great actress, I want to have bumping around in my head.

That’s part of why I didn’t want to watch the Oscars, too. I’ve learned that attempting to satisfy one’s curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes is rarely rewarding. What’s he really like? is an inane question for strangers to ask. Publicity departments long ago learned how to dispense candy-flavored answers, and nowadays the more intelligent stars know how to invest their remarks with marks of personality that stop well short of intimacy. Mere simulacrum. It’s better to remain in the theatre audience, where I belong. There or here, reading and writing. Years ago, I had an interesting online exchange on the subject of musical structure with pianist Jeremy Denk. A few weeks later, I saw him standing a few rows ahead of us at an Orpheus concert, at Carnegie Hall. I went up and introduced myself, making a clear reference to our little discussion. That was that. The next time I saw Denk, he was onstage, accompanied by Orpheus — where he belonged.

***

Thursday 8th

Adam Gopnik has a piece about Andrew Lloyd Webber in the current New Yorker, and while it’s full of interesting insights — no small feat, given the subject — it overlooks the one technological development that explains why Broadway musicals, which used to overflow with angular, memorable tunes, have become puddles of musical insipidity: the microphone.* The microphone obliterates the limitations of distance, and it does so in two ways. Thanks to the microphone, it is no longer necessary to be in the same room with the performers to hear their music, and it is no longer necessary for the performers to fill the room with their sound. I remember reading the rather spiteful remark that the singing voice of Sammy Davis, Jr could not be heard across a small room without the aide of a mike. Inversely, opera singers heard on the radio usually impress listeners who have never been to the opera as fruity and pompous. Until the microphone came along, it was exciting to hear Ethel Merman fill a theatre with lusty singing; her very style was a remarkable expression of unaided vocalism. Happily, it’s still possibly to hear opera singers do the same thing. Waltraud Meier hasn’t got the most beautiful voice in the world, but at the Met or in Carnegie Hall, she’s a knockout. And the songs that Merman sang, as well as the operas that Meier sings, were written to be belted out.

The microphone obviously favors intimacy over assertiveness; it easily creates the illusion that the listener is alone with the singer. (For a listener stretched out in bed and equipped with headsets, the accompanying performers disappear into their music.) The microphone also alters the balance between words and music, making words, so often incomprehensible in unaided singing, almost always clear. Is this a good thing? In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, someone wrote a short comic opera called Prima la musica, dopo le parole. First the music, then the words. Richard Strauss built his final opera, Capriccio, as a debate on this proposition, but of course there is never any real debate, because anyone who “gets” music — and there are those who really don’t, and probably can’t — will put up with ridiculous words for the sake of a compelling tune, or even scrap the words altogether while whistling down the street. If words are as salient as music, the demand for good music will drop — as indeed it has, almost everywhere but at the movies.

The world of rock is full of unmusical people. Bob Dylan is usually at the head of my list. The music of Bob Dylan ranges from simpleminded to unpleasant, the unpleasantness rooted in the sound of his croaking, adenoidal voice. He sounds like someone for whom singing might be bad for his health. For his fans, it’s clear, le parole come prima. In which case, I suggest, we do without la musica altogether.

Since college days, I have been to two rock concerts, and only two. The first was given by Maria Muldaur, in Houston on tour. I had been a fan of hers for years, from back when she was Maria d’Amato, singing for Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. (Her “Richland Woman” is the most sweetly lubricious piece of music I’ve ever heard.) Now, with the big hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” she was something of a star. But, at the concert, I was surprised, and very disappointed, when the sultry nuances of her voice were lost in a blur of overamplified sound, a deafening, roaring noise. Everyone around me thought that the event was really totally cool, but I hated it.

Many years passed before I agreed to a second try. This time, I was lured by the venue, Radio City, to hear Kenny Loggins, long a favorite singer of Kathleen’s. Surely Radio City’s excellent acoustics would dampen the reliance on amplifiers, I thought, but I had forgotten what I learned the first time: most people in the audience liked, even craved, that terrible numbing racket.

A long time ago — nearly thirty years — Kathleen and I had the pleasure of sitting down with 1200 other people at a banquet in Palm Desert, California. Dinner was followed by a musical presentation for which most of the company, but not the people at ours or the surrounding tables, had to find seats set up before a makeshift stage. As a great treat, our hosts, Price Waterhouse, had imported some talent from Los Angeles to mount a chamber, abridged version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, and, lucky us, we were seated at an important partner’s table and could not quietly slip away. I cannot say that the show was unvaryingly excruciating. But it was often quite awful, and I couldn’t help noticing that the heroine’s music made her voice sound both shrill and immature. By “immature,” I mean not girlish but weirdly embryonic. Not ready to be heard. Why this should be so became somewhat more comprehensible when I read Adam Gopnik’s identification of Lloyd Webber’s music with progressive rock. There was really no place for women in progressive rock, and this, for all his emulation of Puccini, remained a stumbling block for Lloyd Webber. Phantom is still running on Broadway, though, evidence that, when washed over verbal drama and visual spectacle, shapeless music will offend few people.

I’m very much one of those people.

Bon weekend à tous!

* Please pardon my shorthand. The microphone is really just the most visible element of the chain of instruments used in the electrification — recording and playback — of sound.

Gotham Diary:
Ravished
February 2018 (IV)

27 February; 1 and 2 March

Tuesday 27th

Max Boot has written a might-have-been book about Vietnam, or at least that is how reviewers are approaching his biography of Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken. Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, makes a connection that, oddly, Boot doesn’t: Lansdale was a model for Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American, the suite of satirical vignettes published by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958.

I may not remember when The Ugly American came out, exactly, but I remember when it was new, and much talked about (it stayed on the best-seller list for over a year). I couldn’t have been less interested. Growing up in the fifties, I didn’t need to be told that Americans were ugly. And ugly wasn’t the worst of it. At least you could look the other way if a photograph of first lady Mamie Eisenhower came up — my Lord, how drab and plain and out-of-place she looked; in comparison, Eleanor Roosevelt possessed the dignified hideousness of genuine royalty — but could you shut out the braying of grown men shilling the glories of big business? No. But metaphorically, I kept my fingers in my ears until I reached the piece and quiet of boarding school. By then, President Kennedy was already setting a new style for more measured discourse and subtler enthusiasm.

Still, I wasn’t interested in Asia, certainly not in present-day Asia. I was doubly not interested. Asian civilizations didn’t appeal to me, and the value of Asian nations — aside from Thailand and Japan, all of them only recently independent of foreign domination — as pawns in the Cold War appealed to me even less. The Cold War was as obnoxious as the braying about business, even if it was conducted in winks, nods, and whispers. And although I didn’t quite grasp that the nasty hot war in Vietnam was a collaboration of ideology and project financing, I understood that it was stupid and pointless. I do wish that I’d read The Ugly American at the time — in the late Sixties, anyway. As it happens, I bought a copy a while back, and was even able to find it. Reading it was great fun. Well, I laughed a lot. But Burdick and Lederer might as well have signed their book “Cassandra,” for it was no more likely that Americans would either avoid intervention in Vietnam or that they would intervene effectively than it was that Oedipus would marry somebody not his mother.

As I read through The Ugly American, I reflected on the problems of the British in India, which seemed fundamentally similar.

  • With regard to armed conflict, the British never learned to engage with Indians on the same terms. Either they overwhelmed them with crushing, hateful force, or they wasted their bullets.
  • British civil servants in India not only lived in gated communities but enjoyed a higher standard of living than their pay would have allowed them back home. This attracted opportunists.
  • The British committed themselves, with a combination of high-mindedness and profit-seeking, to “modernizing” India. This had nothing to do with real modernization, which would have attempted to bring Indian culture into line with Enlightenment values. It was merely a program of capital development that meant little or nothing to lives of ordinary Indians. The difference is highlighted by the fact that the Subcontinent’s extensive railways were not accompanied by urban sewage systems.

It seemed to me that Burdick and Lederer were suggesting that the follies of American aid in Southeast Asia were much the same, but just in case I failed to infer this from the mordant humor, they spelled it all out in an Epilogue.

  • American military leaders ought at least to read the writing of Mao Zedong. Two central chapters (11 and 12) in The Ugly American illustrate this point with cinematic gusto. Sixty years later, the American military is not very good at guerilla war. To be sure, the greatest impediment is overcoming the tribal nature of guerilla tactics: how does a tall, strapping blonde from Alabama blend in among smaller men with different features? But it doesn’t appear that much effort has been made. We are still drilling uniformed men as if it were 1600. (Perhaps drones will make guerilla warfare obsolete.)
  • Foreign-service recruitment in Washington and elsewhere presented a garishly vulgar picture of expat life in Southeast Asia, representing it as one big cocktail party punctuated by shopping sprees at the PX. This not only appealed to “mediocrities,” as Burdick and Lederer repeatedly call them, but repelled idealists who might have put service before career advancement.
  • Southeast Asians are peasants — subsistence farmers, preoccupied by getting enough to eat — and they need the kind of agricultural aid that (you’d think) the American land-grant universities were designed to provide. Better livestock management, more efficient water pumps — cheap, small scale improvements to the lives of ordinary country people. And yet all the Americans could think of offering were highways and canals.

One truly dismal side-effect of reading The Ugly American these days is concluding that Americans didn’t even learn anything from Vietnam: the failure was indeed totally complete. There’s something about our gun-control problem that seems deeply stupid in the same way the the misadventure in Vietnam was deeply stupid — the kind of stupidity that only meritocrats like Robert McNamara can whip up.

***

***

Thursday 1st

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has been sitting at the bottom of my book pile for a few weeks. When I got it, I read a chunk of it, then set it aside. It’s dispiriting stuff, and, during the past couple of weeks, I’ve often wondered why I bought it. Surely not just because everybody else did! Michael Wolff writes very well, but the subject matter is something else, right?

A day or so ago, I saw that I must decide whether to finish the book or to toss it. If it hadn’t been as well-written as it is, I’d have tossed it. But I picked it up instead and forged on. I was surprised to discover that it was no longer so unpleasant. Indeed, it had become, somehow, excitingly revelatory. It wasn’t that there were things in Fire and Fury that I didn’t really “know.” But there was something big that I hadn’t figured out.

It is a commonplace in my part of the world to pronounce Donald Trump as unfit to be president. He’s uneducated (not for lack of tuition payments); he won’t read, he won’t learn, he won’t listen. He believes that he already knows everything that needs to be known. This is political and institutional heresy to almost everyone in his entourage. Wolff tells us that, in the early days of the administration, many White House staffers resolved their cognitive dissonance by deciding that, having won the election, Trump must know something. But it isn’t what Trump knows. Trump doesn’t need to know anything. It’s who he is. Who is he? He is John Q Public, that’s who. He represents everyone in this country, everyone in the Western world, who is sick and tired of the smoky atmosphere of secret knowledge that surrounds all the institutions of public life. When Trump asks why he can’t do something, he wants an answer that anybody could understand, in three sentences max. And then he’s going to do what he wants to do.

Trump represents the voter who isn’t interested in studying the ins and outs of governments, and who doesn’t think it should be necessary. He’s the voter who is tired of being lied to.

There has been a lot of lying. For at least two generations, politicians and other public officials have deemed the public incapable of grasping the truth about anything, which is, basically, it’s complicated, and, even more basically, we’re on the take. As I was reading Fire and Fury, I was wondering how it was that Washington, DC, with its avenues of orderly beaux-arts office buildings and its legions of capable aides like Katie Walsh, came to be regarded as a swamp. How could something so highly organized be associated with shapeless slime? The answer — my answer, anyway — it twofold. At bottom, Washington has been purchased/corrupted by business interests. Without the financial support of these interests, it would be impossible for men and women from middle-class backgrounds to attain elected office, and they would face penniless retirement when their terms came to an end. The awful truth about representative democracy is that it requires a disinterested class of independently wealthy public servants. Failing that, our government is run by the dependently wealthy.

As for the it’s complicated issue, that’s the awful truth about all large institutions. Their complexity increases and then sprawls. All institutions are abstractions designed to organize the behavior and effort of many people: they’re really nothing more than what people think they are. Looking back on a thousand years of institutional history in the West, I think it fair to say that most institutions degrade over time in a very specific way: maintaining the existence of the institution becomes more important to its officials than the quality of its output.* And, even if that doesn’t happen, the output of an institution will, over time, cease to serve its intended purpose. Society evolves, and values evolve with it. Once upon a time, gentle birth was the sine qua non of political advancement. Nowadays, it’s doing well on tests — although that’s not working so well right now. No one has yet figured out how to identify and promote, in any systematic way, intelligent men and women of strong moral character.

The good thing about having Donald Trump in the White House is that he’s bored and irritated by institutional procedure — just like everyone who isn’t already part of it. Steve Bannon could hold Trump’s attention by entertaining him, usually with apocalyptic forecasts that miraculously involved success for the President. Many voters were similarly entertained, and they paid for their entertainment with votes. They didn’t expect Donald Trump to reveal that he was made of presidential timber. They expected him to go on being just like them. Whether this is a viable development in the government of the United States remains to be seen, but we know from Trump what it is that ordinary people want. We know from him what turns them off. We might actually learn from paying attention to him how to make our institutions more responsive and effective, or indeed how to design new institutions. This is the point to which our society has evolved — it has no more patience with meritocrats. If you regard an electorate made up of millions of Trumps as hopelessly degenerate, then there is nothing for you to do for the life of this country.

*Perhaps because its output is raw, absolute power, the British Parliament, with its genius for reinvention on the fly, is an exception to this rule.

***

Friday 2nd

Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, arrived the other day, and I read the last one, “Slander,” right away. It’s about how an addiction to Fox News poisoned Robinson’s elderly mother’s relationship with her daughter.

I … a self-professed liberal, was one of those who had ruined America. I would go to hell for it, too, a fact she considered both regrettable and just.

Robinson was not deceived by this appearance of high moral ground, however.

For my mother and her friends, this was excitement, a big dose of adrenaline…

I read this with interest because a member of our family, also in the tenth decade of life, has been similarly disturbed. Even though, in our case, hell and religion don’t come into it, conducting a conversation is very difficult, notwithstanding a ban on political topics.

Robinson’s complaints are by now familiar, but it’s odd that she is still the only person making them. Perhaps not: her complaints, are, after all, entirely positive. She wants to know why we can’t see that we live in a wonderful, fortunate country. A country that’s well worth the trouble required to make it better. She can’t understand why we seem to want to destroy it. Why do we have such low opinions of ourselves? There is no doubt that, if we all saw America as Robinson sees it, we would live brighter, happier, and more sensible lives — more or less automatically. Robinson doesn’t ask us to do anything difficult. She does not call for sacrifices. She only wants us to look around and pay attention. In “Slander,” her reference to adrenaline suggests an awareness that it is more fun to tear something down in a fit of excitement than to devote thought and patience to its betterment.

Robinson attributes our failure to do ourselves justice to the fun-house mirrors of right-wing television, dominated by a pseudomoralism that has drained Christianity of its appeal to love and generosity.

Dystopian media arose with this Christianity of the Right. It would lose a great part of its market share if Christian standards were applied to its product, and then the atmosphere of this dear country would change in a week. The truth about Obama’s birthplace or Trump’s relations with Russia will never be established to the satisfaction of everyone, but Christians know truth of another order, that human beings are created in the image of God. They are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights — that is, unalienable claims on our respect. This is the truth that has made us free.

I agree, I agree — except I don’t invoke God. I understand that Robinson’s argument isn’t with the likes of me. It’s with those who profess to share her religion and her theology without manifesting concordant behavior. Nevertheless, I wish I could overcome the feeling, which inevitably accompanies the reading of Robinsons’ beautiful writing, of being an uninvited guest. By no means unwelcome — but ininvited.

***

In the title essay, Robinson embroils herself with the irritating question, What are the humanities for? The question is irritating because it cannot, ought not, be answered. A similarly dunderheaded instrumentalism animates the question, What is this book about? To the extent that the humanities are for or books are about anything, they are not very important, something that the people asking the questions seem to know.

My instinct is to claim that books and the humanities are expressions of beauty, but “beauty” trails a lot of baggage that I should then be obliged to explain. Robinson provides an anecdote that, in its starkness, does the work of beauty without appearing to have anything to do with it. It comes at the end of a paragraph that begins with Tocqueville and Keats and that ends with this almost inconsequent statement:

I talked once with a cab-driver who had spent years in prison. He said he had no idea that the world was something he could be interested in. And then he read a book.

That’s it; nothing about the book itself, and nothing about where it was read. I ought to leave it there, perhaps. But I can’t resist suggesting that beauty is simply the fulcrum on which one book can reveal the whole world.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Boxtops
February 2018 (III)

20, 21 and 22 February

Tuesday 20th

Because a friend of mine was reading it, I thought I would read it, too. The subtitle was certainly intriguing: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. But there wasn’t much in David Crystal’s Making Sense for me. It is a pedagogue’s book, intended for parents and teachers who want to help children speak and write as well as they can. Frequently quite witty, it made it laugh a lot. Here are two lines from a delicious verse that Crystal quotes (they come from a poem, published in a 1924 issue of Punch, that mocks the use of Latin plurals in English):

May the man who says ‘gymnasia’
Be afflicted with aphasia!

But I did not find the book at all glamorous.

I’m not altogether sure what grammar really is. Where does grammar stop, and rhetoric begin? You can draw lines where you like, but they dissolve in the heat of use. A fluent speaker is conscious of neither. Rules governing the parts of speech and the ordering of words have been mastered and are reinforced by the everyday stream of sentences. Rhetorical strategies for persuasive argument have become instinctive. Out of grammar and rhetoric, the good writer forges a personal style, a kind of very local accent with only one speaker. The challenge is to develop a style that is pleasing, distinctive, and yet readily intelligible. There are no handbooks for that, although F R Lucas’s Style is stuffed with things to keep in mind.

Genuine rules of grammar deflect the writer from ways of saying things that will slow readers down by making comprehension difficult or impossible. Prescriptivist rules, such as the notorious ban on split infinitives, are points of style masquerading as grammar; indeed, the whole prescriptivist program betrays an attempt to infuse English with Latin manners. I acquired the rudiments of my own style at a time when splitting infinitives was not worth the trouble — the cocked-eyebrow reactions — so I learned not only to avoid splitting infinitives but to avoid the occasions of splitting them as well. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with them, except that they’re usually ungainly.

Working in radio for several years taught me to speak almost as scrupulously as I write. And writing as many as 2500 words a day on this site has taught me to write as personally as I speak — to resist the rather architectural urge to offset my native long-windedness by means of unnatural compression. (You may be sure that, in the course of reading each entry through before publishing it, I remove at least one semicolon.) More important, and more difficult, than either of these is the ongoing effort to be a better listener. Listening well is more than a virtue: it is not until we listen that we know our own minds. People who don’t listen know only what they think they think.

It’s like everything else: you become yourself by paying attention to everybody else.

***

Wednesday 21st

Reading Ronan Farrow’s latest New Yorker exposé, this one about the President and the “slim brunette” whom he met at an Apprentice party held at the Playboy Mansion, I reflected on Hugh Hefner, who probably did more than anyone else to bring us to the #MeToo moment — that is, to make #MeToo inevitable.

The premise was always ridiculous: Playboy would domesticate male sexuality. Perhaps there was something about the Cold War, that great unhinger of steady thinking, that made this objective seem possible, even desirable. In any case, the premise, stated in another way, insisted that there was nothing pornographic about Playboy‘s everyday exposure of bare breasts. On the contrary, those images of naked bosoms would nourish healthy libidos. (There really was a midcentury anxiety that men were becoming lackluster lovers.) Lounging amid the ponds of print in which Hefner’s “philosophy” and his talented writers’ hip arts criticism were made to look soberly adult, the rosy nipples of smiling beauties would arouse a response that could not really be called impure, because, after all, the walls of the great museums are covered with the same sort of thing, and as long as actual genitalia were cropped out of the shot, how erotic could Playboy be?

But Playboy was about access, not eros. You could buy the magazine, for one thing. From the start, it proclaimed itself as being a respectable publication — a somewhat ironic move at the very moment when the social architecture of respectability was beginning to collapse. Newsstands carried Playboy right next to Time — or at least somewhere in the same rack. While bringing the magazine into church might be frowned on, Playboy wasn’t something that had to be kept hidden. You could let the world know that you had access to the centerfold, to look at if not wherever then at least however you wanted to.

You could go to a Playboy Club. So much has been said about the indignity of pouring women into bunny suits and making them behave like playthings that our attention has been directed away from the fact that the clubs provided access to this kind of fun. They made it available, at least in the major metropolitan areas. It might not have been much fun for the girls, but they did the job, for whatever reasons of their own. That was their business, and all it took was money. But you weren’t buying flesh by the hour. You were buying access to the company of pretty girls, girls who smiled at you when they brought you drinks.

Playboy promised a supply of willing young ladies who might be willing to follow dinner at a romantic restaurant with a visit to your bedroom, and who then afterwards, like Karen McDougal (the slim brunette), might sweetly decline any payment. Imagine that! It’s almost as though the girls learned about the world from Playboy, too!

Now, none of this would have been news to the old Hollywood moguls. But very powerful men were rare back then, as indeed they always are, and it was not difficult for them to behave with discretion. But Playboy, however coy it was about pubic hair, threw sexual discretion to the winds, and it invited every healthy male with a modicum of disposal income to join the party. In the fleshpots of New York and Hollywood, the fun became so pervasive that the moguls themselves became brazen. I don’t think that Harvey Weinstein would have believed that he could ask Gwyneth Paltrow for a massage without being laughed at if it hadn’t been for a lifetime pickled in Playboy. If not the magazine itself, then certainly its philosophy, as American as latte grande.

When I think about all the grave discussions about Playboy that I sat through in college, debates that always ended with a judgment in favor of the magazine — it was serious, it was okay; it wasn’t prurient — I can’t decide whether to laugh or to howl in outrage. Of course, there were no women at Notre Dame back then. The women were all across the street, at St Mary’s. As I recall, Playboy was not delivered to campus mailboxes (the university had its own post office). That had been true of Time, too, at one time. Looking back, I’m glad that the school put up some resistance to Hugh Hefner, just as I’m grateful that it prohibited fraternities of any kind.

Maybe the Playmates were okay. But the fact that most of the women who appeared in Playboy were in a state of undress was not okay. And yet the confinement of women to cuddlesome contours was precisely the whisper of access that misled several generations of American men.

***

Thursday 22nd

Facebook. If it weren’t for my daughter and a friend or two, I’d cancel my account. Can you do that? In today’s Times, Farhad Manjoo warns that we may soon be living in “Alexa’s World.” I think that we’ll be giving that a pass. If Facebook can morph into the destroyer of democracy, what’s to stop Alexa from summoning armed drones to exterminate the peons?

Yesterday, I read a piece in the New Statesman about Jacob Rees-Mogg. They say that this man of archaic, not to say reactionary outlook can never lead the Conservative Party in Britain, but they said that a grabbing lout like Donald Trump could never lead the United States. It’s arguable that nobody knows anything about Western society anymore. It seems apparent that élites everywhere have provided themselves with gala echo chambers. How many Democrats, how many Remainers failed to vote because they were assured that their cause would prevail? On the other hand, say that Hillary Clinton won a couple million more votes than her opponent; does that make her more representative of the American people? How is it possible to represent a polarized body politic?

How did life-and-death issues like abortion and gun control become so divisive? How do we explain the failure of clear-headed leaders to be both more calm and more persuasive? My wife recalls a recent conversation in which a man told her that it was good to have assault weapons in the house because it would “improve the odds” when the government attacked. Whence this mad fantasy? Please point to the well-armed, innocent American who saved the lives of himself and his family from official assault. Ruby Ridge and Waco are not good examples! Whither do rogue males escape?

How long do people have to poke at an iPhone before abandoning the dream that it will surprise them with undreamed-of delights? Why does one person talking on a phone sound so much louder and more intrusive than two people talking together?

Why does everyone deny being prejudiced? How did we ever get so comfortable looking the other way?

For the answers to these and many other urgent questions, send a gold doubloon and forty boxtops to Basil Fawlty at his place in Torquay.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Awakening of Europe
February 2018 (II)

13, 15 and 16 February

Tuesday 13th

He’s a funny one, that David Brooks. He tries to end a rather apolocalyptic appraisal of today’s politics, in today’s Times, with a dose of stern hope.

Eventually, conservatives will realize: If we want to preserve conservatism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors. Liberals will realize: If we want to preserve liberalism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors.

Eventually, those who cherish the democratic way of life will realize they have to make a much more radical break than any they ever imagined. When this realization dawns the realignment begins. Even with all the structural barriers, we could end up with a European-style multiparty system.

The scarcity mentality is eventually incompatible with the philosophies that have come down through the centuries. Decent liberals and conservatives will eventually decide they need to break from it structurally. They will realize it’s time to start something new.

This is all very well, but what possible interest can it have for generations heading into a long stretch of scarcity on every front? When will this wonderful “eventually” come about? Will the authoritarianism of warrior clans have stifled the possibility of multiparty democracy? Will people still be able to read?

***

In one of the great stories in David Szalay’s All That Man Is, the protagonist is an academic whose dog-bone is the End of the Middle Ages. When did the Middle Ages end? In one way, I find the question endlessly interesting, because so many different dates can be plausibly argued, ranging from 1350 (the end of the first and most terrible wave of plague) to 1789 (the end of the ancien régime), with plenty of alternatives in between, the favorites being 1492 (Columbus) and 1500 (1492 rounded out). More seriously, though, it’s absolutely pointless to ask. The very idea of “the Middle Ages” is bogus.

“The Middle Ages” posits a certain sequence. First, there was Greece-and-Rome, or Classical Antiquity. Then there was a Dark Age, following the collapse of Roman authority. In between the Dark Age and Modern Times, which many conventionally (but unintelligently) date from something called the Renaissance, stretch the Middle Ages, an in-between time of movement from dark to light. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church provided a shelter that was inevitably outgrown and cast aside when, in Modern Times, men regained the intellectual clarity and material affluence of Classical Antiquity.

That’s one way of looking at it. It is more correct, I think, to  regard Classical Antiquity as an extremely rare and precious blossom that was unknown to the overwhelming bulk of its contemporaries. All those statues, all that poetry — well, there wasn’t very much of it, because only the rich could afford it. It was never in the sinews of everyday society. It is also important to note that Classical Antiquity was confined to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, never penetrating very far inland at any point. There were outposts of luxury, some as far away as Britain. But these were encampments in foreign territory, much like the old American settlement around the Aramco headquarters in Saudi Arabia.

By 800, about half of the Mediterranean littoral was in Islamic hands. The sea was no longer a binder but a border. The city of Rome was a shadow of its former self, its glories long since removed to Constantinople, and its empire newly placed in the hands of the Frankish upstart whom we know as Charlemagne. Cut off from the Eastern Empire, the Latin world lost touch with a great deal of its Classical inheritance. A new civilization, one that called itself Christendom, grew slowly and arduously in territories that had been wastelands in Classical times. It was weak and subject to invasion for about four hundred years, but thereafter it went from strength to strength. When Christendom fractured in the Reformation, it became more convenient to speak of this civilization as “European” or “Western.” This European world was not a continuation, in any meaningful way, of Classical Antiquity, and the so-called Middle Ages were its early years. Organically, we are still living in that world.

It is hard to be sanguine about the future of Europe — which includes most of the Americas as well as many far-flung regions (Australia, for example). In countless ways, Europe has destroyed the larger world which it developed; just one of those destructions has led to the disruptive influx of refugees into the heart of Europe, kindling xenophobic populism. The great European revolutions of circa 1800 have confused almost everything, while degrading, for the first time in human history, not just a local ecology but the planet as a whole.

Like David Brooks, I look forward to the realizations that thoughtful people are going to have to reach. Like him, I also worry that thoughtful people are among the scarcest of resources, not just in the world at large, where they have always been rare, but at the top of the tree, where they have been so extensively replaced by a mindless meritocracy.

***

Thursday 15th

Last night, I stayed up very late in order to finish Chanson Douce, the novel by French writer Leïla Slimani that has just appeared here, in translation, as The Perfect Nanny. I first heard of the book from a piece in The New Yorker by Lauren Collins, “The Killer-Nanny Novel That Conquered France.” Slimani has appropriated the rough outlines of a grisly New York story — a nanny murdered two of her charges, a little girl and her baby brother, and then tried but failed to kill herself — and refashioned it in a French setting. This is a shrewd move, placing the novel above the fray of socio-political bickering. The immigrant who committed the actual crime in New York is transformed into a blonde woman from the native lower class; it’s the mother, in the story, who comes from somewhere else. (Slimani herself was born in Morocco.) And the fact that the crime is imported detaches the novel from the hostile debates about professional women and the poorly paid surrogates who raise their children that would surround a French scandal.

Not that Gallimard, the publisher of Chanson Douce, sought complete detachment. The blurb on the back cover tells us that “beyond its detailed portraits of a young couple and of the mysterious character of the nanny, the novel reveals our society’s conceptions of love and education, of the connection between power and money, of the prejudices of class and culture.” According to Collins, Chanson Douce

is not so much about motherhood as it is about what the cultural theorist Angela McRobbie has called the “neoliberal intensification of mothering.” An activity, not a state, mothering—along with its gender-neutral version, parenting—is competitive and outsourceable. Slimani tries to put a price on the anxieties, hypocrisies, and inequalities that arise from the commodification of our most intimate relationships. “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter,” she told me. “It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” The novelist Rachel Cusk has chronicled what motherhood did to her; Slimani examines what mothering is doing to society.

Well, maybe. Chanson Douce is not nearly so analytical or programmatic as Collins suggests. It’s much better than that. The nightmare that it relates unfolds naturalistically, convincingly, horrifically. If there is a theoretical aspect to this novel, I should say that Chanson Douce is a study in the discomfort of consciousness.

Slimani begins with the immediate aftermath of the crime. (Displaying a classical sense of the sacred, she refrains from depicting its commission.) Again, a shrewd move. She may have been inspired by the awareness that, if her novel took off, most readers would know what it was about — what happens — before turning past the title page. She may also have sought to exploit Alfred Hitchcock’s wisdom about the difference between suspense and surprise. Hitchcock claimed somewhere that he made his movies to be seen at least twice, and I doubt very much that there is a fan of his artistry who hasn’t seen the major films many times more than that. Slimani’s opening gambit amounts to making the first read a second read: we know what’s going to happen right away. For some readers, that’s a disappointment. For such readers, I suppose, it’s necessary to share the characters’ ignorance in order to identify with them. Or it may be that they have no time for the uneasiness of irony.

***

Consciousness is not the same thing as awareness. Awareness is a characteristic of all living things, plants as well as animals. Human awareness is arguably more complicated than any other kind, because speech allows us to grasp aspects of reality that are not immediately present, as well as imaginary things that might or might not be real. Sometimes, consciousness is thought to be an awareness of one’s awareness, also something that is almost certainly peculiar to human beings. But I believe that consciousness is essentially ironic, that it is a special, and usually bitter, kind of awareness: the awareness of the ignorance of others. This is what Hitchcock means by his example of suspense: showing the audience that a bomb of which the characters are unaware has been activated. The audience knows something that the characters don’t, and moreover this is something that the characters really do need to know. The audience longs to share its knowledge with the unsuspecting characters. (In real life, a wicked person might cherish and take advantage of the ignorance — the innocence — of others, but I am taking good nature for granted.) Consciousness is an awareness of difference, of asymmetry, of unevenness. Its affect, we might say, is the sense of defect: there is something wrong about that difference; it’s an inequality that ought to be balanced.

(This is why you have to be in a very grounded frame of mind to peruse old photographs of yourself. Otherwise, you will be overwhelmed by the impossible urge to throw yourself on the impending future — something like an activated bomb — so as to protect the figure in the image who doesn’t know what’s coming.)

It is common to talk of consciousness as the highest, or most distinctive activity of the human mind. Perhaps it is. But it is also something that we avoid wherever possible. It is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the bit of extra information that distinguishes unconscious nakedness (in the bath, say) from shameful nudity. Adam and Eve, waking to the fact of their nakedness, were really learning that they were not one and the same person. They were two different people, each with a certain demand for privacy. Sometimes, as #MeToo has made abundantly clear, our demand for privacy forbids other people from imposing their nakedness upon us.

***

Chanson Douce is readable — bearable — because Slimani allows us to forget, from time to time, what’s going to happen; she enables us to get lost in the present awareness of the most sympathetic characters, the parents of the two children who are going to be killed. They are Paul, a recording engineer and a hearty blond, and Myriam, his maghrébine wife, an attorney who retires from a promising career when she has her children, but who soon tires of the domestic round of daycare. She is ambitious and willing to work hard — at the law. She appears to resolve her uneasiness about possibly neglecting her children by befriending Louise, the woman whom she and her husband hire to take care of them. “Befriending” is of course too strong a word, but Myriam only gradually comes to understand this, to realize that friendship with an uneducated woman who wears nail polish in vulgar colors is impossible. For his part, Paul is a more generic figure, which is no failing on Slimani’s part: most men are generic when it comes to fatherhood, wanting to do the right thing, and waiting to be told what it is.

Although we see a good deal of Louise from the moment that she takes charge of little Mila and Adam, we don’t get inside her until her employers take her with them on a Greek-island holiday. For Louise, it is an awakening to beauty. She is as transfixed by the glories of Aegean sunlight as any poet, but unlike poets and other educated types she isn’t prepared to think through the impediments to her taking up residence in Greece. All she knows is that she wants it, and so she holds on to Paul and Myriam, because they can give it to her, at least for a few days each year. If she is aware of the possibility that Paul and Myriam might not invite her to accompany them a second time, she deals with this by denial, the most common way of resisting consciousness. We learn, as the novel proceeds, that Louise is adept at denial, at believing that what she wants will be granted, despite all the evidence in her past to the contrary.

What Paul and Myriam take away from their Greek sojourn is also subconscious. They understand, but dimly and without articulation, that they have erred in blurring boundaries with Louise. Paul begins to feel a visceral dislike of Louise’s person. Myriam is not so resolute; she can’t afford to be. Louise has made herself indepensable — the children adore her — and Myriam’s career is taking off. The honeymoon, in which Louise seemed to be too good to be true — not only does Louise take excellent care of the children, she also keeps the apartment wonderfully clean and fresh — begins to feel like a trap that has shut behind Myriam.

Gradually we realize that Louise is a monster, or at least a monstrosity. Her own childhood is never discussed, but we infer, from her treatment of her own child, a “disruptive” girl called Stéphanie who, by the time of Louise’s employment by Paul and Myriam, has long since disappeared, that it must have been characterized by violence and neglect. Sensing, again unconsciously, that she may lose her job — Adam will soon be going to school — Louise resolves that Paul and Myriam must have another baby. Her pathetic attempt to bring this about is so distracting that she no longer delights the children with her dark fairy tales. In the end, she cares more about herself than she cares about them. In this moment, she realizes that she has never known how to love, and that she will be punished for not knowing. This is what gives her permission resolve an awful situation in the only way that she does know how.

***

Every grade of consciousness is manifest in Chanson Douce, from Louise’s denial to our prescience. I rather doubt that Slimani set out to write a novel about consciousness, so the matter of her intentions, of the nature of her awareness of what she was doing, is also in play. But we shall leave the meta for another time. Chanson Douce is a story about people trying not to become aware of uncomfortable truths, while denying the reader any such comfort, and in which illumination, such as it is, leads directly to disaster. It makes Myriams of us all.

***

Friday 16th

(I might as well confess right now that I wrote what follows without looking back to what I wrote on Tuesday. I didn’t mention The Making of the Middle Ages then, but of course I was reading it, and I apologize for recurring to a topic as if I hadn’t mentioned it in some time.)

The other day, scanning the bookshelves for something lightweight and agreeable to carry along on a round of errands, I pulled down R W Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages, first published in 1952. I had read it before, and I knew that it was very good, despite the title, which ought to be The Awakening of Europe. I tossed it into my bag. Later on in the day, I was reminded by something in Southern’s book of a well-told tale involving a reforming pope. On a tour of the Rhineland, the pope stage-managed the relics of a saint so effectively that a gathering of of senior ecclesiastics was spooked into confessing their sins. I had read this story recently, but where? I went back to the shelves and looked through a few likely suspects, but the story wasn’t in any of them. Had I been more patient, I would have come across it, twenty or thirty pages later, in the very book that reminded me of it. And, yes, I had read it recently: according to my library notes, I read The Making of the Middle Ages in May 2016.

But The Making of the Middle Ages is one of those special books that stand out on the history shelf, partly because they’re elegantly organized and partly because, no matter how reasonable and straightforward their syntax, they are inflected by a strong personal accent. I’m thinking of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England; I wish I could think of others. I suppose that Albert O Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests is one, too.

***

Like Hirschman’s, Southern’s book is an intellectual history, a history of the development of ideas. He begins by defining the period that he intends to study, which runs from 972 to 1204 — a little more than two centuries, but not just any two centuries. His opening date lies right beyond the edge of the confusions of Merovingian and Carolingian Francia, an epoch that closed for good with a decisive military battle in 955. His closing date, which marks the launching of the “deplorable” Latin Empire in Constantinople, only slightly precedes the establishment of Modern Europe’s political outlines.

Having discussed the geographical boundaries of Europe and the hostilities beyond it that shaped the intellectual climate, Southern settles down in the core of medieval Europe, which ran from Southern England across Northern France, stretching from there into Germany and Northern Italy. The thinkers whom he writes about roamed throughout these regions with a readiness that belies the difficulties of travel. The sense of a unified intellectual bloc, contentious to be sure but more or less “on the same page,” is enhanced by Southern’s disregard for the narrative of political history. This is not to say that Southern overlooks the secular world altogether; he spends several profitable pages on the growth of the County of Anjou under the upstart line of Fulks and Geoffreys that climaxed with the passage of the territory into the bosom of the English crown. But an intellectual history of the period is bound to be slanted toward clergymen, who were by and large the only literate Europeans, and increasingly responsible during this time for civil administration.

It was during these centuries that the Roman Catholic Church became the autonomous confraternity of celibate males that it remains to this day. The blurred frontiers of religious and secular life that characterized the less organized arrangements of earlier times were brought into sharp focus, eagerly patrolled by churchmen who were determined to take no orders from kings or emperors that did not already comport with their own views. It was also at this time that hosts of robust horsemen were transformed from gangsters into hereditary aristocrats. The dwindling power of both groups, many centuries later, is the preliminary stage of modern history.

Women are almost invisible in Southern’s world. Agnes of Poitou, a lady of the Eleventh Century who was Empress, then regent, and finally papal ally, makes an interesting appearance, as does the pre-Conquest Countess of Northumbria, Judith of Flanders. Although Southern’s concluding essay, “From Epic to Romance,” looks at the work of Chrétien de Troyes, it is devoted to the growth of what we might call passionate Christianity, a faith in which the suffering of Christ is more salient than the Resurrection. This shift marks the final acceptance of an indefinitely postponed Apocalypse. The promise of corporal afterlife was never withdrawn, but even if we are, at the end of time, to see God in our flesh, we must learn how to live until then, and the message that St Francis made as clear as anyone ever did was rehearsed by Saints Anselm and Bernard. Pity and sympathy are presented in emphatically male, if not exactly masculine, dress. Eleanor of Aquitaine, a figure of the first cultural and political importance, is not mentioned.

Reading The Making of the Middle Ages this time, I noticed something that I’ve missed until now. I have always thought of the influx of Greek learning into Europe that followed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as a longed-for illumination; for the first time, the readers of the West could read Homer’s epics (even if most did so in translation). I have, I supposed, regarded this transfer of texts as the germination of the Renaissance. But doing so overlooks the plain and dumb fact that in 1204, Southern’s end date, the Crusaders who were pillaging Constantinople had all the access to Greek texts that could be desired, and yet they were interested only in relics. Far from taking an interest in Greek culture, they tried to pave it over with their own Latin one. They were not ready for anything like a “renaissance.” And the actual Renaissance was underway long before 1453. By 1440, for example, Lorenzo Valla had completed his philological exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a fabrication on its face, as the forgery of a document that could not possibly have written in the Fourth Century. Had the Renaissance depended on inspiration from the East, it would have taken much longer for the study of Greek to spark the critical study of the New Testament that was so instrumental to religious reformers at the beginning of the next century. But of course: I had never imagined the possibility of an early thirteenth-century flowering because “Crusader” and “Renaissance” are words that cannot fit into any single thought.

By the way, the Pope was Leo IX (1049-1054), and the business with the bones of St Remigius took place at Rheims, which is not on the Rhine but on the way from the Rhineland to Rome. Southern tells the story very well.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
What Everybody Knew
February 2018 (I)

6, 7 and 8 February

Tuesday 6th

“Everybody knew,” he says in a disgusted whisper about Harvey Weinstein. “Everybody knew.”

That’s actor Tim Robbins in the Times. The same can be said about the case of James Levine: here in New York, everyone interested in serious music “knew” about the great conductor’s irregular sex life. Well, of course there were only a few people who actually knew — relative to the overall population, anyway. But most people had heard tell. And what happens, when everybody knows, is that nobody does anything. Offenses already committed go unpunished, while further offenses go unstopped.

Something beyond knowing is required. In the old days, that something was religious sanctions, often backed up by the power of law. We don’t want to go back to that. We don’t want to give anyone the power to forbid Harvey Weinstein to do things, because that power necessarily includes the power to decide what to forbid.

Back in the days when religious officials had secular clout, there was also a social institution that protected women from the Weinsteins of the world. This was called respectability, and, like religious sanctions, it had many harsh side effects. In the name of protecting women, women punished women, whenever women disregarded respectable scruples. Nineteenth-century novels are full of the heartbreaking tales of fallen women, whose shame so often seems to lead, however mysteriously, to poverty and illness, and ultimately to death. A few women braved this treatment. George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans) lived openly with a married man for years, and although the men of literary London were not ashamed to be seen at her receptions, their wives stayed away. But then, she was a very famous and successful novelist. Few women had her resources. Outside metropolitan areas, women deemed to be not respectable risked being hounded out of town. We don’t want to go back to that, either.

My wife, Kathleen, a lawyer in her mid-sixties, has never attended a meeting in a man’s hotel room. She doesn’t believe that she has ever been asked to do so, but she knows that she would have refused, or, even more likely, headed off an invitation before it was made. She says that she cannot understand why a woman would do such a thing, but then she is a graduate of Brearley, Smith, and, did I mention, a lawyer. Let’s throw in the Convent of the Sacred Heart while we’re at it: everything about Kathleen’s upbringing instilled an almost militant self-respect, a powerful deterrent to unwanted advances. Like George Eliot, she has had unusual resources. What about ordinary girls? What about girls who are naïve, or starstruck, or very ambitious, girls whose judgment, for whatever reason, is a bit faulty? What about girls who are lonely or needy, whose imperfections may make them somewhat complicit in abuses of power by those who employ them? We appear to have arrived at a new unwillingness to dismiss the bad things that happen to these girls as just desserts or business as usual. That’s great. But how do we prevent them in the first place?

And how about men? It seems to me to be absolutely typical of Anglophone culture that here’s the deal: boys will be boys, but if you get caught, we’re gonna shoot you. Viva Las Vegas! Play your cards right, you can grab at will. Miss a trick, and you lose your job, possibly forever. So far, the #MeToo conversation has not sprouted a #NotI correlative.

***

As usual, liberalism is at the heart of the problem. (Cue mordant laughter.) Although the Founders piously believed that separating Church and State would allow churches to flourish, in mutual toleration, it wound up killing them, because a tolerant church is not a religious church. That’s to say that a religion that doesn’t frighten its observers into compliance loses observers, and a church that is complacent about the noncompliant folks who attend the church across the street isn’t very frightening. The Fear of God is something that, in the secular West, only observant Jews appear to have internalized, and even in that case, life in self-segregating neighborhoods entails frightening social pressures.

Most of us don’t want to go back to that. We’re happy with the liberal convention: in exchange for observing the public laws of society, we are granted the quiet enjoyment of our privacy. The problem with this social contract is that it is still rooted in the vision of a world of benign men who are the only parties to it — the dream of Enlightenment Europe. Women have fought successfully for participatory rights, but only to find that arrangements made by roughly equal males do not easily accommodate peculiarly female difficulties. Liberal society has always presupposed a membership of men who can take care of themselves, so that it doesn’t have to. This is why liberal society has been so bad at protecting the weak, aiding the poor, and, most notoriously, freeing the enslaved.

I want to pause here to address the widespread misconception that protecting the weak and aiding the poor are “liberal values.” They are not. That is why liberals have had to pass specific laws to deal with egregious social problems; left to itself, liberal society was prepared to go on living with them. As indeed it did, even after “liberal” laws were enacted. As we are finally openly admitting, it was one thing to enact laws that granted equal access to voting booths and decent schools, and other thing to enforce them. The liberal solution to social problems is to pass a law and hope for the best. Anything more invasive would disturb that quiet enjoyment — which in awful cases involve wife-beating, and in worse ones, children locked up in basements.

What would a liberal society look like of women undertook to re-imagine it?

***

Wednesday 7th

It’s time to get back to work on my writing project, an intellectual memoir in which I try to account for the way I think. My first draft, while readable enough, was encrusted with a great deal of biographical material that wasn’t relevant to my thinking life. That this material was also incomplete and even evasive annoyed one reader.

I’m having trouble deciding what do to with this second paragraph. Should it touch on the inspiration that I’m getting from Elizabeth David’s writing about food? From re-reading two biographies of David, both of which stress her proud and insistent privacy, which rejected all attempts to elicit information that she did not deem suitable for publication? The biographies are stuffed with such information, much of it unflattering. The result, however, is that the character of Elizabeth David that emerges from the pages of her own work seems to be the real, the important woman, while the subject of the biographies is an accident of human frailty. My own life story is full of mortifying incident. Tall, glib, and headstrong, I was a grossly presumptuous young man, usually unconscious of my manipulations, but inexcusably so. I ought to have known better. The only interesting thing about my catalogue of errors is that it seems to have come to an end, perhaps for no better reason than that I outgrew it. Or, perhaps, I finally figured out what I was trying to make of my life, and stopped thrashing around in dead ends.

In the alternative, my second paragraph might have jumped ahead to what’s on my mind today, which is three aspects of my intellect that seem to have been firmly in place by the time I got to college.

First, I regarded “academic success” as just that, a notion that must be buffered with scare quotes. It did not seem to me that, sciences aside (and I was never interested in science except as a subject of intellectual inquiry with a fascinating history), anybody was the wiser for having performed well on an examination. At boarding school, examinations dropped out of the picture during my senior year, in my favorite subject, English History. Tests were replaced by “papers,” an apparently unending stream of essays of six or seven pages in which I analyzed and discussed historical issues as well as I could. These papers were not about questions and answers but about me, about how well I not only understood something but could write about it persuasively. All that I remember of that year, at least so far as schoolwork was concerned, is typing those papers, week after week.

It was obvious to me that writing essays was the heart and soul of an education. It was hard work, because, probably as a consequence of being headstrong, I always seemed to know too much about some things and not enough about others. But there was tremendous satisfaction in typing up what I’d learned in my own words.

It was also obvious that there was no connection between the work that I was putting into my papers and the practical matter of getting a job some day, unless I wanted to teach English History, which wasn’t very likely, regardless of my own inclinations, because overall “academic success” eluded me. Studying for tests was inherently pointless and boring. It wasn’t always necessary for me, but when it was, the results were disappointing.

I outgrew this fussiness later, when, seven years after graduating from Notre Dame, I went back as a law student. I studied for tests; I studied hard. And even though the examinations all took the form of essay questions, I did not necessarily do very well, because by now I had a somewhat idiosyncratic prose style, with a Jamesian distaste for straightforward writing. Nevertheless, I got through it, and subsequently passed the New York State bar exam. But although I did learn to buckle down to the weary work of of evaluating proximate causes, my conviction that there was something bogus about American education was as firm as ever. American education was not about education, but about staffing a meritocracy.

Second, I was never a “person of faith.” I never believed in God. Walking down the aisle in my white First Communion suit, I worried about being struck down by lightning, my fraudulence exposed. But even my faith in a god who would punish me for not believing in him was wobbly. Looking back from early middle age, I thought I must have been a materialist from the beginning, incapable of believing in anything I couldn’t see or touch, but now that I’m an old man I have to confess that I believe, and have always believed, in a lot of things for which there is little or no positive evidence. I believe that a society in which people treat each other reasonably well is a functional and reliable as well a happy society (or happy enough). I believe that learning is important. But I can’t even imagine believing in a supreme being of some kind. Which is to say that, if it could be somehow demonstrated to me that there is such a being, I would still dismiss the news as meaningless, because I cannot comprehend such immensity.

As a consequence, I believed that human beings are the most intelligent and capable beings in the known universe. Existence must be its own significance.

Third, I was sure that nobody knew what was going on. I am about to try to explain what I meant, just now, by saying that existence must be its own significance. What was going on, really going on, way back in, say, 1960, was an almost but not quite chaotic cascade of the consequences of the great revolutions in human life that were launched in Western Europe at the end of the Eighteenth Century. As Zhou Enlai was said to have said, it was still much too early to assess the implications of these upheavals. The meaning of life, which is to say the meaning of my life in a Westchester suburb during the Eisenhower Administrations, was nothing but the unfolding of contingencies triggered less than two hundred years earlier. Now, I didn’t know at the time that this was what was really going on. I knew that I didn’t know what was going on, either. But I was sure that people were wrong to think, as so many people seemed to do, that the world had been recreated in 1945, that the wonders of technology and the horrors of the Cold War were unprecedented novelties. Now I understand why they thought this: what adult wouldn’t have wanted to forget everything that had happened since — pick a date — 1848? 1860? 1870? 1914? 1929? 1933?

How, you may ask, can a little boy of nine or ten, no matter how smart or clever, see the emperor’s new clothes for what they are? As the Sixties would demonstrate, lots of kids had noticed the embarrassing nakedness. I never claimed to be unique.

***

Thursday 8th

It took a little while for me to order Justin Spring’s new book, The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy; eventually, I bought it for comic relief — which it amply provided. The comedy is intentional, I hasten to say, and confined largely to two chapters, one of which I’ve re-read with great glee; but more about that in a minute. I have been, as I’ve reported, reading about Elizabeth David, and it was getting to be too intense, as was reading her books themselves. I mentioned yesterday the connection that I feel between her story and mine (which has nothing to do with content or achievement); this only made the immersion more suffocating. Justin Spring provided marvelous respite. I’m not sure that this amounts to a recommendation, because reading Gourmands’ Way deepened many of the misgivings that I’d had about it before reading it. Nevertheless, it was a great treat.

My question going in was what, really, Spring’s six food writers had in common. Not even food, really, for Alexis Lichine, one of the three outliers in my view, wrote exclusively about wine, and he would have written more if he hadn’t been so busy marketing and selling it. The other two oddballs are A J Liebling, who doesn’t seem to have boiled an egg in his life, and Alice B Toklas, whose famous cookbook is a notoriously unreliable literary relic, written in conditions of dire financial distress. This leaves three figures who do form a group of sorts, Julia Child, Richard Olney, and MFK Fisher. But Fisher really doesn’t belong in such company; she has more in common, as a writer, with Toklas. Only Child and Olney can be regarded as developers of a “New Gastronomy,” although even that seems wrong, since both were students of traditional fare. The novelty, of course, was their persuading Americans to give it a try.

And this is where the “Americans in Paris” theme goes flat. Child and Olney were part of a larger Anglophone movement to respond to some social changes, most notably the disappearance of household servants, while resisting others, primarily the industrialization of food. And nobody expressed this movement’s mission better than the ultra-English Elizabeth David.

Good food is always trouble….Even more than long hours in the kitchen, fine meals require ingenious organization and experience which is a pleasure to acquire.

Lisa Chaney, who quotes this remark on page 264 of Elizabeth David, does not provide a source, but I’ll be on the lookout for it. In her television shows, Julia Child liked to assert that what she was doing was really pretty simple, but of course it would be simple only to someone who had done what she was doing — a lot. The idea that good food can be tossed off in ten minutes is irresistible, but it’s at best a gross deception, rather as it would be to say that it take only a little over a minute to play Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz. Chaney italicizes the last phrase in David’s comment, which is a pleasure to acquire. If acquiring experience in the kitchen is not a pleasure, then cooking is not for you. What surprised almost everybody during the Fifties and early Sixties was that the people who found it a pleasure constituted a substantial market.

In many ways, David spearheaded the movement, and was regarded, by Child and Olney along with everybody else, as having done so. And when we look at how and why David spearheaded it, we encounter a third element of change: travel. There had always been journalism for rich people looking for good restaurants, but David was a more serious, older kind of traveler. She actually lived on the shores of the Mediterranean, spending most of World War II in Alexandria and Cairo. She wrote her first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food, in a kind of despair. It was partly the same despair that motivated Alice Toklas (money), but much more than that it was revolting against the deprivations of food-rationed postwar Britain. David famously wrote that merely writing words like “apricot” provided “assuagement.” Child and Olney also did more than just tour Paris and Provence. They lived there, Child for a time and Olney for most of his life. A great part of the appeal of following the recipes of these writers was and is to feed either memories of visits past or dreams of visits to come — visits that included or would include a kitchen in a foreign land.

Then — to return to Gourmands’ Way — there are the fascinating people whom Spring leaves on the sidelines, like Dione Lucas and “Philippe of the Waldorf,” the latter an extraordinary operator who controlled a $2.5 million food and wine budget (in the Forties!) and who was arrested for extortion and tax evasion — a most interesting character. There’s Philippe’s sometime wife, the extraordinary Poppy Cannon, a major perpetrator of processed food. There are Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. There’s James Beard, who did for American food what Spring’s crowd did for French. There’s Simone Beck, without whom Child’s career would not have launched. These characters rumble beneath Spring’s narrative like lumps under a carpet. I wanted them in the big picture. Needless to say, Elizabeth David languishes on the sidelines as well.

Spring aims for balance, but a bias very much in favor of Richard Olney and slightly against Julia Child is evident. Olney gets the lion’s share of the narrative, creating a suspicion that Spring felt that he didn’t have enough for a stand-alone book, or that, even if he had, Olney lacked the star power to carry one. There is something strangely muted and humorless, something almost overly decent, really, about Olney; his devotion to his siblings was, to me at least, unusual. Only an American could have had his career, which combined a refined palate and knowledge of food and wine, the worldly sophistication that goes with being a painter in Paris, and a knack for building construction and renovation. While many French men combine two of these qualities, the French educational process more or less assures that few will have all three.

The fun chapter is the fourteenth, “MFK Fisher and The Cooking of Provincial France.” I am not going to quote more than a single quip. When this Time-Life production was translated into French, in 1969, it was annotated by a very conservative man who larded it with footnotes contradicting Fisher’s many mistakes and misjudgments. The book was published before anyone in New York vetted the commentary, leading to great embarrassment. Times writer John Hess wrote that The Cooking of Provincial France was “self-roasting.” Spring’s account of the whole fiasco, which sprang from the buzz that accompanied the rediscovery of Fisher’s books and the associated assumption that she knew what she was talking about, is hugely entertaining. Also as much fun is the chapter about Alice Toklas second cookbook, in which Poppy Cannon provided breezy alternatives to Toklas’s laborious recipes, right on the same page.

On page 444 of her biography, Lisa Chaney wonders why Elizabeth David never met MFK Fisher on one of the many visits that she paid to San Francisco in her later years. On page 319 of her biography, Artemis Cooper ventures an answer. But once you’ve read Justin Spring, you’ll see that it’s ridiculous even to ask the question.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
How to say “TPFDL”
January 2018 (V)

30 and 31 January; 1 February

Tuesday 30th

Juleanna Glover asks, in today’s Times, “Are Republicans Ready to Join a Third Party?” The question is interestingly phrased: join, not form. Would Republicans, in short, be willing to combine with people who aren’t Republicans? Glover proposes, just as an example, a Biden-Sasse ticket for 2020.

My question, of course, is whether this new party would have a hope of being a genuinely liberal party, and I ask it without being quite sure that liberalism remains viable, or even desirable. I’m inclined to believe that it is, but I can’t overlook the brittleness with which any given generation of liberals responds to altered circumstances. Liberals are gradualists, devoted to protecting rights and interests from state intervention, and, ultimately, from the encroachments of other interests. This has often led liberals to back the wrong horse. Liberal belief in the rights of free men was an important ideological prop to slaveholders, and George Dangerfield’s wonderful study, The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-1914 illustrates the slow-motion collapse of a great and powerful political party, undermined by the demands of rising new constituencies: labor, women, and the Irish.

Even more doubtful than the viability of liberalism as a political outlook is the viability of “liberalism” as an intelligible word. Glover writes,

There are many Republicans wary of a second term for Mr. Trump, and yet right now they are entirely reliant on the Democrats to deliver a winning centrist candidate out of a primary process that almost made Bernie Sanders their 2016 nominee. A contest between Mr. Trump and a liberal Democratic candidate like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would leave the middle up for grabs. And a big contingent of politically orphaned political strategists, academics and donors would be ready to lend support.

Elizabeth Warren may be a Democrat, but she is no liberal — because she is not a gradualist. A great deal of confusion in our political discourse would be cleared up if we all agreed that, beyond policy differences, there is the key issue of timing, which I call the “tipfiddle.”

This curious word, tipfiddle, derives from the acronym for an elaborate logistics schedule devised by the Pentagon, the Time-Phased Forces Deployment List, for the unrolling of new military campaigns. Donald Rumsfeld’s claim to infamy, I expect, will be based largely on his disregard for this schedule in embarking on the misadventure in Iraq (still something of a mess). It occurred to me not long ago that the complete lack of a tipfiddle does much to explain the disappointing aftermath of the 1960s campaign for equal civil rights. A couple of blockbuster Acts of Congress were expected to do everything, and the resulting failure of a top-down program to win the hearts and minds of white Americans, especially couple as it was with a similar failure in Vietnam, brought into the being the image of a liberal élite bogeyman that has rendered our government fairly ineffectual ever since.

Many white Southerners who hated segregation argued that the South wasn’t ready yet, in the Sixties, for equality. Liberals have a weakness for this kind of argument. Their largely healthy mistrust of abrupt change too often allows injustice to persist. Advocates of social justice can rightly claim that liberals will never get around to making necessary changes. The only liberal response lies in the preparation of tipfiddles. Looking back at civil rights, for example, we can see that there ought to have been (among many other things) some thoroughgoing consciousness-raising in the North, which, in the absence thereof was able to give itself a pass on its own deep-rooted racism. (Where was objection to busing more virulent than in Boston?)

Tipfiddles are couched in terms of actions that are staged in order to increase the effectiveness of each action. Goals are not the point, because they’re too obvious. So it is with political problems. We know what the goals are, but nothing is going to come of, say, specifying emissions caps by Year N if we don’t have a detailed and acceptable plan for achieving them. Such plans are what genuine statesmen, acting in a representative democracy, are supposed to sell to voters. It’s not easy, and it’s not glamorous, and it probably works best at the local level.

Of course, the great tipfiddle-failure story of our time is playing out with Brexit. (What’s this about Boris Johnson, of all people, wanting to build a bridge?)

***

Wednesday 31st

Since the weekend, I’ve been in a slight daze, involuntarily meditating on something that happened a long time ago, at the end of 1980. It didn’t happen to me, and I didn’t know about it until this weekend, when I read about it in a book. Here is what I read:

She did it partly to punish me for stopping wanting to fuck her and partly because she realized that I didn’t like her much. Well, I liked her as much as you could like anyone totally wrapped up in themselves and unable to tolerate the slightest competition or anything a raving lunatic could see as opposition and having to have their own way in everything all the time. Well, I expect reading between the lines there you can see that we hadn’t been getting on too well of late. Yeah, but not having her around and trying to take in the fact that she will never be around is immeasurably more crappy than having her around. I’ve had a wife for 32 years.

As I continued reading the book, and learned that the writer of the letter refused, once he understood that his wife really wasn’t ever coming back, to say anything at all nice about her. Which perhaps wouldn’t be surprising in an ordinary bloke. But Kinsley Amis, author of many novels and much nonfiction, much of it humane and humorous? When he was at home, it seems, he expected his wife to put up with his dislike, which visitors to the house toward the end of the marriage claim was palpable. He gritted his teeth. But no matter how remote he became, it seemed right to him that his wife should simply bear with the lack of affection. I’ve had a wife — interesting, that. To put it correctly, Amis had had two wives over that thirty-two year period.

And the first wife, the former Hilary Bardwell, came back to take care of him. She brought her second husband, an impecunious earl, with her, and the three of them lived happily ever after. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Jane Howard, by then the author of several novels and a figure in London’s literary life, lived alone for the rest of her life (excepting a brief fling with a con man quite late in life). Jane did not care to be alone any more than Kingsley did, but she couldn’t take life with a man whose feelings for her were rapidly approaching physical revulsion.

What makes the passage that I’ve quoted, which comes from a letter to the poet Philip Larkin and is quoted in Artemis Cooper’s new biography, Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence, so heavy for me is Amis’s perversity. Would you like to live with someone who made you grit your teeth every time she said something? Wouldn’t you be happier if she left? Wouldn’t you think of leaving? But no. Nothing personal, but you’re the wife here, lady, and you’ll stick with it. That seems to sum up his thinking. And of course it was traditional, since time out of mind, for husbands to think like that. I wonder if it occurred to Amis that he was betraying his roots. He had come from such a very traditional background, but had made it to university and achieved literary acclaim. That it might be a mistake for him to leave the future Countess of Kilmarnock for Jane Howard is suggested by Jane’s having cautioned him, during their early, lovey-dovey days, that she was not as posh as he thought she was. (Cooper writes that they came from the opposite ends of the middle class.) In their fifteen years together, he seems to have tired of her poshness, and she was at any rate posh enough to demand a reasonably affectionate husband.

Mind you, I’m not taking sides here. I’m just feeling a strange mix of pity, contempt, and disgust for Kingsley Amis, occasioned by this display of wounds of which he is not at all ashamed. It’s embarrassing to see an eminent novelist taking such a nakedly utilitarian view of marriage. Which apparently he had been doing for quite a while before Howard left him.

***

Cooper’s biography of Howard arrived while I was in the middle of re-reading her biography of Elizabeth David, to which I promptly returned and which I finished last night. A couple of interesting compare-and-contrast points stick out.

Contrast: As when I read about David the first time, I haven’t read anything written by Howard herself. I’ve ordered the five-volume series, a sort of family autobiography, about the Cazalet family, and look forward to reading it. But in the nearly twenty years since Writing at the Kitchen Table came out, I’ve acquired and read a lot of David, and I think she’s one of the great writers of modern times. She can inflect ostensibly expository prose with a wide range of dramatic attitudes without dimming her intelligibility in the slightest. And I don’t know anyone who is better at expressing speechless outrage, as she does in her introduction to the 1988 edition of her first work, A Book of Mediterranean Food.

From the hands of a publisher called Robert Hale, of whom I shall say no more than it seemed a singular misfortune to have had my books acquired by his firm, I was rescued…

The point of contrast is that David meant a great deal more to me the second time around, and in fact I kept putting down her biography to read her. I was not nearly as engaged by Howard herself, although I couldn’t put her story down. She was a character, not a creator. That will presumably change.

Comparison: In the other David biography that I’m still re-reading, by Lisa Chaney, there’s a wonderful little flash of revelation about Laurence Durell that intensified my doubts about the importance of formal education, while at the same time giving an ironic cast to the achievements of David and Howard, despite their complete lack of higher education. Of Durell, who came from a good family but whose upbringing was highly unorthodox, we’re told that some of his friends in Cairo, during the war, thought that his “lack of a classical education made him not quite ‘pukka.’ (181) With regard to Durrell himself, this is already pretty rich, since he spent his adolescence on the island of Corfu, in Greece, instead of on the island of England, belaboring ancient Greek verses. Missing out on such academic exercises doesn’t seem to have done David or Howard any harm, either. David, indeed, became a genuine scholar, teaching herself how to set up a library in the process. One has to ask what, exactly, was so indispensable about the public school/university pedigree. Beyond, of course, the boys’ club shibboleth. Nancy Mitford used to wail about not having been properly taught anything, but I suspect she was imagining that there was more to schooling than there was. In all cases — Durrell, David, Howard, and Mitford — the joy of reading appears to have sufficed.

***

Thursday 1st

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Times in which A O Scott calls on each of us to reassess our impressions of Woody Allen’s movies. He doesn’t ask for a boycott, just a recognition that some of the behavior is not so charming or innocent as we might have thought, shrugging it off, at the time. I’ve always been aware of this problematic aspect of Allen’s work; to me, it heightens the interest. (Does anyone remember when “transgressive” was a good thing?) I think of Allen primarily as a magician — his most recent films bring this to the fore — and not as a moralist, which is, to be sure, what he pretends to be. Sometimes it seems to me that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He does what he thinks he’s doing extremely well, but he’s also doing something else, almost inadvertently, and this tension is what makes his movies so appealing — so much more than merely funny. I wish I knew what this something else was. There’s a hint, perhaps, in Hollywood Ending: Woody Allen’s character keeps breaking down in conversations with his ex-wife. He cannot sustain the businesslike tone with which they begin. Without warning, he breaks into wrathful denunciations of her unfaithfulness and her poor taste in men. I sense that something like this is happening beneath the surface of each one of Allen’s films.

Consider Oedipus Wrecks, perhaps his greatest film even if nobody knows it (because it comes at the end of New York Stories, following two really awful essays in self-indulgence by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola). In Allen’s exquisite little joke, a suffocating mother disappears in the middle of a magic act — she really does disappear! — and Allen, playing the son, is thrilled. He can’t stop smiling with relief! But then she appears in the sky over New York City, telling everyone about his unattractive habits as a child. He is driven to attempt suicide. “That’s no solution,” says his shiksa fiancée (played by Mia Farrow in one of their final collaborations). Indeed! His mother’s antics break up that relationship and steer him toward Ms Right, a bogus sorceress whom he enlists to put an end to them (Julie Kavner). If you lay it all out on the table, it’s a fairly ugly psychoanalytical problem. The guy really does want his mother dead. And yet we laugh! Of course, the mother doesn’t die; she comes back to earth when Allen hooks up with Kavner. (“Now her I like.”) Happy, healthy ending. The “moral” of the story? It’s pointless to be a self-hating Jew.

Owing to an enormous change in mores, a lot of wishes that men have entertained for good times with girls have recently become as unacceptable for acting out as the Oedipus complex. I remember seeing Manhattan for the first time with my future wife. When it was revealed that the Mariel Hemingway character was a student at the Dalton School, Kathleen (a Brearley girl) blurted out, quite audibly, “Figures!” That was how we registered the inappropriateness of the girl’s relationship with an older man — indirectly. The school and the girl’s parents ought to have stepped in, but they were either too progressive or too sophisticated to interfere. The fantasy being gratified by Woody Allen’s character was not itself held up to shame. Who wouldn’t want to have a beautiful teenage girlfriend? Well, as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t, but you check matters of fact at the door when you take in a magic act.

Fossil Darling has just called with news of the latest pin to be knocked down: 84 year-old John Copley, directing a revival of Semiramide at the Met, apparently made a joke that was misunderstood by a singer whose first language was not English. Fossil, who knows Copley, told me that he was already on a plane back to Blighty. What’s going on, I think, is a genuine consciousness-raising, the thing that was supposed to happen way back in the early Seventies but couldn’t, because the Terror-like uncertainty and violence (what other word describes such sudden terminations of careers?) would never have been tolerated. What it took to get where we are was a generation of women who grew up entirely within what was supposed to be a new dispensation, what Jill Lepore calls “empowerment feminism,” which, in her view, has been a failure, because it facilitates the villainies of the Harvey Weinsteins. This generation of women was not raised to guard its own integrity, as women everywhere have always been. That’s why older people are cocking eyebrows and humming “Victims!” The young women are victims, though — victims of a social failure to prescribe appropriate conduct between the sexes, or between the powerful and the powerless. It makes the old consciousness-raising look more like obliviousness.

And if I get started on Così fan tutte, which was unacceptable for over a century because it was thought, as it is still thought by some, to be wickedly cynical about love, I’ll be here all day…

Bon week-end à tous!