Gotham Diary:
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:
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:
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:
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!

Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (IV)

23, 25 and 26 January

Tuesday 23rd

I don’t know about you, but as a bedeviled New Yorker I find great comic relief in Brexit coverage, especially in the London Review of Books, where it appears in the form of intelligent appraisals of books about the mess. In the current issue, Colid Kidd reviews Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem, by Tim Shipman. Like Fire and Fury, it is a “fly on the wall” assemblage of off-the-record interviews. According to Kidd, Shipman talked with “many of the dramatis personae in Theresa May’s topsy-turvy first year as prime minister,” a turn of phrase that could be applied exactly, save for the name and the office, to Michael Wolff’s book. There hasn’t been such fun since about 1720, when catastrophic financial bubbles burst almost simultaneously in Paris and London. A century from now, it will probably be a difficult to remember on which side of the Atlantic to paste “the Remainers” and on which “the Tea Party.” The role of xenophobic white supremacy in both upheavals is practically identical, which makes me wonder what, exactly, was accomplished by George Washington and his friends.

Over here, of course, the main event is the apparently self-destructive fever that is raging in both political parties. On both sides of the aisle, old centrists, fundamentally liberal in the classic sense of the term, are being sabotaged and discredited by no-longer-marginal extremes. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what “liberal in the classic sense of the term” means, but it is not liberalism itself that makes centrists so unpopular with activists (aside, that is, from the liberal willingness to compromise); rather, it is the centrists’ accommodation of business-as-usual practices. The most offensive of these, in the puritans’ eyes (and both fringes are puritan as only Americans could be), is taking money from rich donors. What makes rich donors so offensive is that they, too, have become activist: their gifts are not so much contributions as purchases. Rich people bought the Republican Party some time ago, but Democrats need money, too, and unions, the party’s traditional support, are shrinking. Whatever the source, campaign funding causes some degree of slippage between representatives and constituents. This is potentially fatal to liberal democracy, which is why I place Buckley v Valeo alongside the Dred Scott decision as an example of egregious Supreme Court error.

Colin Kidd points out that the 48% of Britons who voted to Remain no longer have any significant representation in Parliament on the issue. This is broadly true of many issues, such as housing and education, on which established elders seem deaf to the needs of the young. It’s an intriguing reversal of the situation in the Sixties, when, aside from serious differences about Vietnam and the Bomb, young people wanted little more than permission to live in a loosened-up society. We were a spoiled bunch, we boomers, and, like racists, we never understood just how spoiled we were. Our children and grandchildren are more hard-headed, but they’re having to teach themselves from scratch, because we denatured their educations in the name of — freedom, was it? Whatevs.


I came across an interesting new word the other day: paracosm. In the current issue of Harper’s, T M Luhrmann writes,

In the late 1970s, Robert Silvey, an audience researcher at the BBC started using the word “paracosm” to describe the private worlds that children create, like the North Paricific island of Gondal that Emily and Anne Brontë dreamed up when they were girls.But paracosms are not unique to children. Besotted J R R Tolkien fans, for instance, have a similar relationship with Middle-earth. … God becomes more real for people who turn their faith into a paracosm.

So the word isn’t actually new at all, just new to me. The idea, however, has been billowing in my brain for some time, in search of a name. In my application, the paracosm is simply “the real world,” the world that we believe in, with more or less force, whether we can see it or not. In my paracosm, for example, the people who live in my neighborhood, however crabby and impatient and occasionally loud, are good people. They want to be good people, anyway. Being good people in New York means accepting a pretty wide range of personal differences, or at least feeling safe among strangers. The good people of Yorkville may be individually embroiled in hateful relationships and ghastly family feuds, but as regards the people they don’t know, they’re good people. Feeling that I am living in a society, a largely invisible cloud, of good people makes me feel good.

Another element of my paracosmic reality is the belief that there is nothing imperfect about human beings. What we are is all that we can expect to be. Our complications, our contradictions, our confusion — these are features, not bugs. It is adolescent to wish otherwise. Our mortality is essential to our species. None of this is to deny for a moment my modern liberal belief that we must do everything that we can to help everyone to live a life of comfort and dignity: that, and nothing less, is the only happiness worthy of pursuing.

And yet I sit here, in my quiet apartment, reading and writing. In my paracosm — and some readers may take this to be an indictment of it — reading and writing amount to doing something. It is something that I feel that I do well, even if I have done almost nothing to spread this opinion. I try to persuade people to think, because I believe that thinking may lead them to act. I don’t believe that it is possible anymore to persuade people to act without causing them to think first. The direct connection between powerful words and meaningful active responses has been corroded or broken by decades of advertising. The only way to persuade someone to do something without inspiring them to think about it first is to do it yourself.

In another piece in Harper’s, part of the same collection of essays about persuasion, Mychal Denzel Smith writes,

The proper role of protest is to dramatize the unequal distribution of power.  What protests are not charged with is upholding reverence for the institutions that make them necessary. A brutal system of police, prosecutors, and politicians has rendered American symbols meaningless, and the onus is on the US government to restore their meaning — to convince the marchers and kneelers and petitioners and organizers of its commitment to progress. We achieve peace not by demanding hat those who expose our contradictions be silent but by pressuring the powerful to convince the rest of us that there is no reason to shout.

In other words, the élites who have been doing business as usual for the past several generations have to stop talking and start doing. My self-appointed job is to figure out what, in a liberal frame of reference, is doable, and to distinguish it from what is doable as an emergency measure. Since I only just now figured this out, I’m hardly an expert. I know little more than where to begin.


Thursday 25th

Seeing that it’s Virginia Woolf’s birthday — a hundred years ago today, she turned 36 (my father was already four years old, and my mother would be born later in the year) — I should like to revisit last Friday’s entry, in which I wrote about reading Woolf’s last novel, The Years, and really liking it, even though six months ago (not even) I discarded a copy of the novel because I’d gotten the idea that it was a failure.

After finishing Friday’s writing, I pulled out Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf and realized that it from her book that I’d heard that The Years was not a success. Worse, I made the demoralizing discovery that the entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary that had inspired me to read the novel —

The miracle is accomplished. L put down the last sheet about 12 last night, and could not speak. He was in tears. He says it is “a most remarkable book” — he likes it better than The Waves — and has not a spark of doubt that it must be published. (4 November 1936)

— was rooted in mendacity, for Leonard Woolf confessed, years after Virginia’s death, that he had not thought that The Years was very good at all, but feared that it would kill Virginia to hear this. He lied to her! I feel somewhat ridiculous, sounding shocked, shocked about something that all Woolf scholars and students must know perfectly well, and even though even I know that the essence of the marriage was that Leonard took care of Virginia. I’m grateful that Virginia’s diary at least temporarily obliterated whatever I remembered reading in Lee; I’d never have read The Years otherwise. It was interesting to read (once again, but I don’t recall the first time) that The Years was a publishing success.

So, I’m a chump who liked it.

What’s wrong with it, then? Lee writes,

Because of her horror of propaganda, her feeling that art should subsume politics, and her fear of being laughed at, a good deal of the book’s explicit argument is buried. And so The Years is a kind of crippled text, which disables itself while writing about a disabled society. As she rewrote and rewrote, struggling for a language that would “fit” what she was thinking about, she came to think of it as a kind of failure: but as a deliberate failure. (665)

It’s an interesting notion, “a disabled society.” It’s a distinctly modern idea — I want to say modernist — in its professional detachment. If there’s something wrong, then the critics will point it out, so that something can be done by the experts. The very idea of a disabled society posits the image of a healthy one, and the more that I read of and about the period 1850-1950 (to be very rough), the more palpably looms the tormented sense of a near-Eden that had come to an end with the revolutions of the late Eighteenth Century. Certainly those revolutions — political, industrial, scientific, social (the women’s revolution, which began with the others, is still burning) — disrupted traditional social arrangements. But to claim that they disabled society, as indeed most modern artists did, was to reject revolutionary aims, and another thing that becomes clearer over time is that modernism was an essentially reactionary movement. (This time, it would be the artists and intellectuals who got to carry on, living the irresponsible high life that the aristocracies of birth had earlier enjoyed.)

What was arguably “disabled” about British society in Woolf’s day was its pretension of stability. In this, most Britons were complicit, naturally responding to surprising upheavals by hunkering down with traditions. In The Years, it is the men who cling to the past, while the women itch with impatience. Woolf shows us this without telling us a thing. She shows us the succession of Kitty Lasswade’s automobiles, which get sleeker and faster; the 1914 chapter ends with an exhilarating drive from a railway station uphill to a castle, lingering over a moment of suspense on a steep grade where, in earlier cars, Kitty would have had to get out and walk. But not this time! Despite the fact that Kitty is very rich, and cars still rare, and despite the fact that the the cars that appear at the end of the book are unimpressive taxis that clog London’s traffic, any attempt to read this passage as a critique of society has to be perverse and contorted. It is the joyous celebration of a new but simple pleasure.

Something that struck me quite forcibly about the party at the end of the novel was the insouciance with which the younger people push the furniture to the walls and roll up the carpets — true, Delia, the hostess, helps them, but without comment or complaint — so that they can dance to phonograph records. Woolf leaves it entirely to the reader to savor the sheer unimaginability of such doings back at the novel’s beginning, in the double drawing room of Abel Pargiter’s house in Abercorn Terrace, c 1880. It’s not so much the dancing as the empowerment of youth. Abel’s children were more or less imprisoned in his household, ruled by an unquestioned patriarchy. This has entirely disappeared fifty years later.

At the bottom of the same page from which I have already quoted, Lee goes on,

No one in the novel is allowed to make a speech or complete a statement. Instead of “preaching,” the structure of the novel itself makes a gesture against totalitarianism. There is no hero, no tragic or climactic plot, no resolution. Instead there is open-endedness, uncertainty, collective voices. The novel, by the very method of indirection and suggestion which cost her so much to achieve, resists the agents of tyranny. Those figure repeatedly in the book: they are men saying “I, I, I”; oppressive icons of worship, loudspeakers, searchlights, hectoring voices at Speakers’ Corner…

and so on. It seems to me that Lee is describing a triumph, not a failure.


As we come to the end of the month, I can regard one new development as an overall success, and that is the revival, at the beginning of the year, of the original Daily Blague. Several years ago, I tried bringing it back to life, but it didn’t take. I have higher hopes this time. While the struggle to provide an entry every day has been beyond me, I can feel the life ot it. Although I like to think that I write about many things, it is very clear that I have two different kinds of interests, and the kind that might best be described as “housekeeping” will be the one animating the old Daily Blague. Regular readers of this site (the Daily Blague / reader) will not have to dread prolonged accounts of my ransacking the apartment in search of a missing book, but if you like to hear me laugh at myself, yesterday’s Daily Blague entry may bring a smile. I hope to write a lot of short pieces about food, ageing, and so on, but the underlying issue will be this: the secret of masculine efficiency is that most men don’t have to think about housekeeping. It’s not the doing housework that’s distracting, but the planning. And while most men will happily confess that it is not worth their time to dwell on such matters, American society appears to be drifting toward the conviction that no amount of achievement or glory justifies reducing another person to servility. To put this another way, nobody ought to be just a housekeeper, and everybody ought to be one part-time. What that would look like is pretty much the experiment of my everyday life.


Friday 26th

Even before I got to David Brooks’s column this morning, my fears for the collapse of civilization were on the boil, stirred by a paragraph in the current New Yorker.

Kushner had an interim clearance that gave him access to intelligence. He was also added to a list of recipients of the President’s Daily Brief, or P.D.B., a top-secret digest of the U.S. government’s most closely held and compartmentalized intelligence reports. By the end of the Obama Administration, seven White House officials were authorized to receive the same version of the P.D.B. that appeared on the President’s iPad. The Trump Administration expanded the number to as many as fourteen people, including Kushner. A former senior official said, of the growing P.D.B. distribution list, “It got out of control. Everybody thought it was cool. They wanted to be cool.”

This is from “Soft Target,” a piece about Jared Kushner by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos. They wanted to be cool. I presume that none of the recipients of the PDB were teenagers, but the persistence of an adolescent outlook is obvious. Real adults learn to trae in the term “cool,” and all that it stands for — I’ll let you fill in the list, but don’t forget “sexy” and whatever currently passes for automotive distinction — and settle for the relatively detached “interesting.” This is more than a change of vocabulary. Having outgrown the infantile implication of “cool,” which is “I want it now,” the adult says instead, “I’ll think about it.”

But perhaps adolescence is preferable to the cure offered by this Jordan Peterson fellow whom David Brooks writes about today. Peterson is apparently the brainy version of Tim Ferris. Life is tough, read the Stoics. Stop whining, stand up straight, take responsibility, &c &c. My problem with this sort of advice is that it presents life as an ordeal that must be undergone individually, a fraught series of rites of passage. Collective action is rejected out of hand. I’m no socialist, but I see civilized life as an essential collective action, requiring genuine commitment, not just lip service. That is certainly not Peterson’s view (according to Brooks).

All of life is perched, Peterson continues, on the point between order and chaos. Chaos is the realm without norms and rules. Chaos, he writes, is “the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.”

Chaos, the eternnal feminine. Yikes! From Goethe to Beowulf; surely progress lies in the opposite direction? It’s sickening to think of a young man wrapping up an imaginary and ignorant idea of what women are like and expelling it from his vision of humanity. And as for those “choosy maters” — I chuckled appreciatively at that extraordinary pun — cf the adage that there is no such thing as a man who cannot find a wife if he really wants one.

Adolescence is at least more sociable. The healthy adult male, in my view, can set aside what are really nothing but shocked responses to the newly maturing body, without walling himself up in defensive armor. He does not fear grizzlies in dark caves because he does not enter dark caves alone, or without plenty of illumination. He cultivates and enjoys the benefits of civilization. Other people can count on him so that he can count of them.

Adults also accept death, early on; they don’t wait for the death of a parent to spook them. They realize that they must die, to earthly existence anyway, for life to go on. Life is not a temporary possession but an open-ended organic sequence of births and deaths. For there to be a future, there must be a past. If death stops, life stops. At the highest levels of theology, all religions caution that the meaning of it all might lie beyond human understanding.

Vainglory is the shocked adolescence response to mortality, an attempt to evade it. Let me die, then, says the would-be hero, so long as my deeds are known to all men at all times. You have a better chance of winning the lottery, however, than of leading the life of a new Alexander, and, anyway, making and belonging to a happy family is more useful and more satisfying.

There! And I’ve managed not to drag in Andrew Sullivan!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Turn It Off
January 2018 (III)

18 and 19 January

Thursday 18th

Amazon claims that Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is temporarily out of stock. I don’t wonder. It got written up by David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Today it got a review by Jennifer Senior. And this is just the New York Times coverage. I’m beginning to think, however, that I’ll make do with the Kindle edition. The more I learn about Deneen’s book, the less willing I am to give it precious shelf space.

But of course I do have to read it. What does Dineen have to say about liberalism? What does he think it is? According to Senior’s review, he holds that the idea of liberalism was born 500 years ago. That seems a stretch to me, off by about two centuries. (I take it to be more recent.) So we probably don’t have the same thing in mind when we talk about liberalism.

I was tempted to quip, in response to Dineen’s title, Because that’s what liberalism does. Failure is what liberalism is good at. But I am not in a humor for framing clever paradoxes today. All I can do is suggest that liberalism fails because it always depends on the transcendent ambition of worldly-wise people to serve the common interest, and because it relies so heavily on organizational schemes to prevent governmental caprice. Liberalism requires excellent men and women — not superheroes, but something much harder to imagine — and there are never enough of them. But the alternatives — certainly including Deneen’s, if Senior does them justice — are unacceptable. Either we strive to make liberal democracy work, or we slide into tyranny and worse.


Having turned seventy, I am now, officially, a cranky old man. I don’t for a moment imagine that I can make my crankiness entertaining, so I keep it locked up in a little box. Every now and then, though, I have to open the box, for a brief exhibition of its contents. A quick blink is all it takes, because my crankiness, which is really an impatience so extreme that it would kill me if I didn’t bundle it away, is very simple. Everything that everyone is complaining about these days, from Trump to racism and misogyny, is directly attributable to the depravity of television, and by “television” I don’t mean the myriad streams of shows currently on offer but the habit of living with a screen that is on for hours at a time. Although, now that I mention it, the glamorization of crime, violence, and amorality that made highly-regarded shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men so “compelling” is pretty depraved, too. How can this not be obvious? But then, television is a lot like smoking. You don’t know how disgusting it is until you break the habit. The people who intone, “But there are good things on television” are no different from folks who believe that it’s all right to smoke if you keep it to two or three cigarettes a day.

There! I’ve closed up the box again. I just wanted to make it clear why I don’t write more than I do about the Trump problem, #MeToo, and other vibrant controversies. I know how to make them all go away, and I have just told you the secret.

I can live with the curse of television only because it does not disturb my own home. In my home there is silence. Or there is conversation, or good music. Every now and then, whenever I’m too tired to think, there is a feature film — two hours, more or less, of visual entertainment. That is almost always enough. But I am miserably aware the the curse of television is vitiating my homeland and my civilization.


Friday 19th

My literary life has always been solitary. I’ve rarely had long discussions of books with friends and others. This is not because I don’t know the right people, I suspect, but because I don’t like to talk about literature. I prefer to write about it. So I read a great deal — not just the novels but the commentaries that stream through the Reviews, and even the odd critical book — but I don’t hear very much. Which is to say that my inputs, if you’ll forgive that word, are not casual, but edited, printed, and sold to subscribers. And of course they are not written with me in mind. Writing about Henry James, Colm Tóibín, for example, is in no position to make a point that he thinks that I will find particularly interesting. I have to find those points for myself. I’m pretty good at it now, but for a long time, I was at sea, struggling just to keep my head up. How could it be otherwise? I knew very little. I hadn’t read very much. I wasn’t sure of liking anything. And I was awfully fond of fun. Robert Benchley and Edith Sitwell took up so much of my attention that sober friends could dismiss the idea of my having any taste at all.

Who was afraid of Virginia Woolf? Without presuming to understand precisely what Edward Albee meant by that line, I’ll just say: everybody. Everybody was, back then in the Postwar years when I was growing up. The problem was simple: was she any good? Was she a “serious novelist” who deserved to read carefully and thought about? Or was she an ornamental experimentalist, an odd woman (occasionally mad and finally a suicide) who belonged to a group of effete men, the Bloomsbury Group, that had a peculiar take on Modernism? And on top of that, or rather beneath it all, Woolf was a woman. Were women capable of art? The debate was still lively in those days, and few women were recognized participants. Either way, Woolf was a risky proposition. You were putting your reputation on the line.

There had been a craze for Hermann Hesse. Some books, such as Demian, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha, had been available in English, but now everything was coming out — Narcissus and Goldmund, Magister Ludi, Beneath the Wheel. I read quite a few of these an an undergraduate, tickled for a while by what I took to be Hesse’s endorsement of my conviction that it was really stupid to study hard for exams. Just at about the point when his fiction began giving me gas pains, I read something in The New Yorker that dismissed his work with one clean sweep: “This isn’t literature, but incense.” I burped with relief, and haven’t looked at Hesse since.

Several years later, there was a Bloomsbury craze. And why not. As the flower children grew up, the fantasy of a group of élite, educated bohemians chattering away in pleasant, well-staffed houses while conducting rather irregular amorous affairs with impunity was hugely appealing. Rather than read Virginia Woolf herself, and trying to figure out what she was going on about, you could read about her and her friends. Quentin Bell wrote a two-volume biography of his aunt that was itself something a novel about Bloomsbury in its own right. (It wasn’t what he made up, but what he left out.) Inevitably, we tired of Lytton and Duncan and Dora and Ottoline; we tired of Vanessa (was she an artist?), and nobody liked Leonard to begin with. I don’t remember reading Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse in those days. I do recall romping through Orlando, and finding it strangely unsatisfying.

Time passed. Michael Cunningham published The Hours, which was presently transformed into a very powerful movie. I was in my fifties by now. Not only did I have a much clearer idea of what I liked in fiction, but, far more important, I had learned the patience to let a writer persuade me to enlarge it. Somewhere along the way, I had learned (from reading it) that To the Lighthouse is very great; two years ago I read it for the third time, and was inspired to undertake my writing project — which, by the way, I am about to reconstruct. I had read Night and Day and The Voyage Out, and liked them both. Mrs Dalloway I recognized as a success, even though it didn’t bowl me over. The Waves remained — tedious. But as for Woolf’s non-fiction, her personal memoirs and her literary criticism, I couldn’t get enough of it.

In the course of evacuating our storage unit last summer, I dealt with two of Woolf’s books differently. An old copy of The Years went into the box of donations, without my thinking twice. Somehow I had got the idea that this novel, Woolf’s last, was a failure, or at any rate a disappointment. She had tried to do something, but she hadn’t pulled it off. The book that I held onto was A Writer’s Diary, an even more ancient Signet Classic, purchased, it appears, in the summer of 1969, when she was seventeen, by the girl who would become my first wife. That’s why I couldn’t get rid of it: it wasn’t mine. But I wasn’t going to make a fuss about returning it, either. So it wound up the bathroom. Eventually, instead of just opening it anywhere, I kept to the entries for 1935 — when Woolf was writing The Years. I know that there is too much information in this paragraph, but I don’t know how else to explain why I’ve just read and loved a novel that I was sure as recently as six months ago that I would never read.

I wish that I had read it a long time ago, even though I know that I’d have disliked it, not understood it. What’s to understand? That’s the great question with Woolf: what is she going on about? There is no mystery at the textual surface: characters act and react in normal, everyday ways. And they think the kind of half-baked philosophical questions that we all think. What is life all about, and so forth. It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing happens, but most of what happens happens in between the scenes, which, as the title suggests, are set years apart. Nor is the spacing even: we go from 1880 to 1891, and thence to a cluster of eight scenes from 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1917 and 1918. The final quarter of the book is set in “Present Day,” which we can take for 1934-1936. In between, people die or go off to Africa for fifteen years. Everybody gets older. The final chapter, a riotous family party, is a very worthy homage to Proust — but it is also, like the rest of The Years, utterly lifelike. If had only read it long ao, then I could have enjoyed it so much more the second time.

Woolf’s original title was The Pargiters, the name of the family whose various members she variously displays. At the center, there are the seven children — four girls, three boys — of Abel and Rose Pargiter. To one side, there are also the daughters of Abel’s brother, Maggie and Sara. To the other stands Kitty Malone, the daughter of an Oxford eminence who rejects the Pargiter son who is in love with her in order to make a very good marriage. (Kitty is also a cousin somehow.) If there is a central figure, it is Eleanor Pargiter, the eldest of Abel’s children, but that is only because her persistent questioning about the knowability of life, experience, selfhood echo Woolf’s own concerns. The great experiment at the heart of Woolf’s fiction is the attempt to “capture” life on the page without really understanding what’s going on. (Many people go through life without ever seriously doubting that they understand what is going on, and Woolf is not for them.) The very nature of the experiment also cautions the reader against trying to figure out why, with a cornucopia to choose from, Woolf chose these particular moments for her novel, and excluded all of the others. There is a clarity both comic and formal about the very brief scene from 1918, but there is an almost uncomfortable jerk in the life of Maggie Pargiter, as 1910 gives way to 1911, that is never explained, and that feels like a loose tooth.

Woolf was probably as prone to ask why people do things as anybody, but she knew better than to expect to find out. At the end of the 1914 chapter, Kitty Lasswade (as she now is) gives a dinner party in her house in Grosvenor Square. Kitty is obviously a great lady in the world, but she is still unsure of herself; her introduction of cousin Martin to the prize debutante of the season is a dud. Throughout the dinner, but especially afterward, as the ladies wait for the men to leave the table, Kitty worries that she will miss her train. We are not told why she plans to leave her house after her own dinner party to catch a train, but we are invited, by Woolf’s reticence, to imagine an improper adventure. Finally, everyone leaves, and, without exchanging a word with her husband, Kitty proceeds from her dressing room to the car that waits at the door. She makes the train with minutes to spare. In the sleeping compartment that has been reserved for her, her things have been set out and the bed has been turned down. When she wakes up a few hours later, another car is waiting at the station where she gets off — this other car is a birthday present from her husband. The car whisks her up through the countryside to a castle — her husband’s castle. Breakfast awaits her in the morning room. Then she changes into country clothes and goes for a walk, climbing to the high point on the property. Here she throws herself on the grass — how wonderful it is to have nothing to do! I can’t tell you how satisfying I found this conclusion to the breathlessly luxurious episode.

Now, to re-read all those diary entries.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Bentley
January 2018 (II)

9, 10 and 12 January

Tuesday 9th

Ageing is not for sissies, they say. But it’s the sort of thing that gets said only the morning after, when conditions have returned normal, leaving behind nothing worse than an intensified recognition that “normal” is always inching toward death.

On Sunday morning, I awoke feeling warm enough under the covers, but disturbed by the menace of a chill. I ought, I thought, to pull another blanket over me, or perhaps just the luxurious beach towel that Kathleen and I call “the mink,” because it brings instant warmth. But I wanted to stay under the covers, so I did nothing — nothing, that is, but dwell on the impending chill, which in a little while became real enough. The occasional shiver soon gave way nonstop shaking in my arms and shoulders. Kathleen can sleep through anything, and even my mewling and whining on top of the seismics did not disturb her, so, after half an hour, I had to cry out to wake her. She covered me with more blankets, but the shivering went on unabated. Eventually, I had to go to the bathroom, where, overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability, I incidentally discovered that there was nothing wrong with my GI tract. Nor did I have a fever. Back in bed, still possessd by an upper-body tarantella, I ventured, through chattering teeth, the diagnosis that I was suffering from an anxiety attack. Kathleen had a pill for that and she gave me one. Whether it was the right pill or not, I stopped shaking almost immediately. I felt awful for the rest of day, largely from the wear and tear of all that involuntary rock ‘n’ roll, but it was clear that nothing would have happened if I hadn’t been such a sissy to begin with.

I managed to “get through Christmas.” I really did enjoy it. But I am in terrible shape and must do something about it. Just to cheer me up à la Bronx, my blood pressure, taken during this afternoon’s quarterly visit to the rheumatologist, was 124/80. Smoke and mirrors! I told the nurse that if she would come back in fifteen minutes, I could guarantee 164/105, but she didn’t take me up on it.


For some reason, a novel called Lunch With Elizabeth David, by Roger Williams (Little, Brown; 1999) has been shelved high up the living room amidst a clutch of poetry books, instead of with the novels. So I see it whenever I am sitting with Kathleen before or after dinner. Had it been with the novels, I’d probably have given it away by now, for I remember not liking it very much. I appear to have ordered it from Amazon in the UK at the tail end of an Elizabeth David craze. I can’t find either book right now, but in the mid-Nineties two biographies of the famous British food writer appeared almost simultaneously (one of them by Artemis Cooper [née Diana, after her grandmother]), and I read them back to back. Instead of going on to read David herself, however, I followed other tangents. Most memorably, I read South Wind, which I’d never heard of, by Norman Douglas, whom ditto. I disliked it rather a lot; it struck me as a sort of Lucia without the fun. There were too many maxims and too much poetical prose. Then, along came Williams’ novel, with a big, big part for Douglas and not much for David.

Before the biographies, I had been awakened to Elizabeth David by a feature in The World of Interiors devoted to the kitchens in her Chelsea house, the contents of which were about to be auctioned (the kitchens and the auction figure in Lunch almost as surrogates for David herself). Yes, two kitchens, one for summer and one for winter. The kitchens were aggressively retro, with nothing more advanced than a four-burner cooker and not an electric appliance in sight. In later years, David was said to sit at one end of an enormous kitchen table — from an old stately home, probably — and occasionally check on whatever was cooking in the oven, without having to leave her seat, or, for that matter, to put down her wineglass. Unhappy in love throughout her life — she was too good for the men who attracted her, and not attracted to good men — David drank herself, not into an early grave exactly (she made it into her eighties), but into a premature seclusion from the world that was dictated by the erosion of her charms and the deterioration of her mobility.

Eventually, I got round to reading her, and, on the page, she is eternal, the match of any writer in any field. She is one of the lasting literary feminists, women who persuade any sensible reader of the balanced equality of the sexes simply by being as interesting as any man. She had the genius to write about food like a gourmand, hitherto an exclusively masculine specialty, and only where absolutely necessary as a cook in a kitchen. She was totally guyish in the ostentatious display of a not-entirely-honest thesis that everything culinary is really easy-peasy, no sweat, once you understand it correctly. She and Julia Child had nothing but ingredients in common and, wisely, they never met. David’s recipe for veal scallops cauchoise (apples, Calvados, and cream) is indeed, as she insists, the only interesting thing that can be done with this particular cut of meat. (Wienerschnitzel works much better with chicken.) At the same time, I utterly disagree with her contempt for gadgets. An uncoordinated doofus with a knife, I need all the help I can get. Nevertheless, I read her screed against garlic presses with glee just the same.

Shirley Hazzard wrote a lovely little book about Douglas and his crowd in her memoir, Greene on Capri. Greene was an unlikely friend of Douglas, I’d have thought, but no, there was some concord of bells in their alternative modernisms. Douglas wanted to be a pagan, Greene a Christian. In Capri, they could be lapsed, and let the environment supply the baroque and the classical as needed. Hazzard features an important member of the cercle whom Williams omits, the formidable Dottoressa (lady doctor, need I say? but doctor of what?). I forget everything about this doughty Italian woman but her title, which I faintly recall to have been medical. I foresee a spell of truffle-hunting in my shelves.

Roger Williams’s novel — I’ll tell you later, in connection with another book, why I chose to re-read it now — is really rather good, if you’re willing to let him treat the lady of his title, as so many great playwrights have done, as a tantalizing offstage presence. She does appear, and not just once, but the book is “about” her only to the extent that it is about enjoying the great simple pleasures. And what would those be? In Chapter 5, Douglas and his young charge run into an inn-full of Italian emigrants to America, Pittsburgh mostly, who have returned to Apulia for the St Michael festival. Whatever their status in their newfound land, they are lords of the earth back in Italy, and they can’t imagine why anybody stays.

Douglas smiled. “How right you are. There is no fucking money here. And that is why I like it.”

The man looked at Douglas’s twinkling eyes for a moment, wondering if they were patronizing him. Then he laughed and clapped Douglas on the back. “More wine for this Mister,” he shouted, and he put his face close. “Of course you like it,” he said, “because in the land without lire the man with a soldo is king.” (80)

And there you have it: why a world of easy sophistication vanished in the era of Postwar prosperity. It costs a lot of money, relatively speaking, to make veal cauchoise nowadays. Even a good Granny Smith apple isn’t cheap.


Wednesday 10th

Oprah, Don’t Do It,” ran the headline of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times. If I had all day, I’d wonder (as Frank Bruni did in his Op-Ed column today) how long the Oprah bubble is going to float, and how we will remember it when it pops. The most interesting thing about it right now is the enormous personal authority that Ms Winfrey brings to her intersection of the political and media worlds, which might possibly pierce the former with the latter’s new insistence on the integrity of women. And her (black) life is one that matters as much as anybody’s.

Williams’s piece looked to be, like so many recent Op-Ed entries, obvious, jejune, and unnecessary. And it was, but I’m glad that I read it, because it clarified the muddle of blue-state politics down to one muddled word, and that word is “serious.” It is time to get serious about what this word means in politics, by insisting that it signify not an attitude but a platform. Mr Williams:

I am not immune to Oprah’s charms, but President Winfrey is a terrible idea. It also underscores the extent to which Trumpism — the kowtowing to celebrity and ratings, the repudiation of experience and expertise — has infected our civic life. The ideal post-Trump politician will, at the very least, be a deeply serious figure with a strong record of public service behind her. It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act.

Hmm: at the very least, be a deeply serious figure… Serious about what? Serious about what, exactly? Experience and expertise sound great, but what kind of experience and expertise are we looking for in a president? Here we can at least point to presidents who have accrued political experience and expertise in statehouses, as governors, and if I were re-writing the Constitution, no one but state governors could be elected Chief Executive. “Serious,” in contrast, doesn’t seem to mean much. A frown? A deliberative air? As I say, it can’t be a mere attitude. What are the qualities of the serious politician? And to what extent do we forgive that politician for taking his or her career seriously? These are two very serious questions raised by the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was nothing if not deeply serious.

Oprah Winfrey’s appearance on the political scene is exciting because she brings a proven gift for leadership into the discussion. Seriousness is no substitute for leadership. Seriousness is helpless, as we have seen, when confronted with leadership’s evil twin, demagoguery. And yet how exactly does leadership distinguish itself from demagoguery? Der Führer means “the leader”; how do we institutionalize, as every liberal democracy must, and yet none has yet done, protections that prevent embryo Hitlers from posing as leaders? This problem has not been solved, which is probably why Williams doesn’t talk about leadership. Twentieth-century nightmares have left everyone uneasy with leaders, so that aside from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, we have done without leadership in this country, settling instead for uneasy blends of seriousness and charm. I’m pretty sure that President Winfrey would have a self-improvement Program for every American man, woman and child that many would follow and that most would admire. But we’d be lucky to have her. Nothing in our political culture that could take credit for producing, or even nourishing her.

I hope that the Oprah bubble floats long enough for it to teach us to be more specific about what we’re looking for.


Friday 12th

A word or two about Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

First of all, why?

Because Craig Brown wrote it. We do not follow Craig Brown in America, perhaps because his humor is so deeply embedded in an ear for the varieties of spoken English that he is a virtual philologist. We do not speak English in America; we speak American, a mongrel patois. The British are not fond of mongrels. Britons seem devoted to breeding, horses or sheep or petunias or even swedes — er, turnips. The “class system” is the inevitable application of this passion for distinction to human beings, as manifested not only by accents but by manners of speaking. (It would be “such fun!” to hear the Queen talk about “our Charlie.”) For me, the philosophical question is whether English can be spoken by someone who is not invested in the class system. Craig Brown gives proof that one can listen with the coolest dispassion.

Brown is a mimic, a parodist. He listens closely, and then repeats with interesting, vaguely dissonant variations. He imagines an alternative universe in which Margaret Rose was born first, before Elizabeth, and he gives us a Christmas Message from Margaret I, dated 1977. It is not the highlight of the book, but I can imagine that English readers, few of whom can have been alive before the tap of royal bromide was turned on (by George V), must experience a frisson of dismay mixed with transgressive glee at Margaret’s closing:

And with this in mind, I’ll wish you all a very happy Christmas, not because I really want to, but because I suppose I must. (397)

It is difficult to imagine the reign of Margaret I stretching all the way to 1977. Second, where do I get that idea? I refer you to Brown’s sixty-eighth glimpse, which raises but does not explore the whole curious business of British royal-watching. He doesn’t even mention that they don’t go in for such things elsewhere, even where crowned heads still nod. I believe that the highly ambivalent pastime of following the doings of Princess Michael of Kent and the rest is itself rooted in the English language, in its peculiarly sophisticated strains of mockery, by which I mean sophisticated ways of being crude. I was thinking about a lewd joke involving Princess Margaret and an automobile that I’d otherwise forgotten, but that’s why God invented Google, so here it is, if you dare. I’m not saying that the joke wouldn’t occur, or wouldn’t work, in another language, but the funny bit is not really the chauffeur’s remark but the setup, which is the dainty confessions of the the Queen and Lady Di to the Queen Mother, after their encounter with the highwayman. It is very funny, somehow, to imagine these particular ladies speaking of “private places.” You almost expect the punchline.

It’s the sort of sordid sexual caricature that doomed Marie Antoinette and Alexandra. In Britain, though, it has no political bite whatsoever, even when told by a republican who feel that the Firm is a waste of money. Something about the House of Windsor, interacting with something about the Twentieth Century — perhaps Wallis Simpson was the catalyst — precipitated an enormous volume of impudent and irreverent commentary, all of it written down somewhere, mostly in newspapers, about the Royal Family. A corpus of nicknames and euphemisms was developed over the generations, complete with contributions by the Royal Family itself (“the Firm,” for example). Instead of alienating the monarch and her family from her subjects, it has bound them together in a ritual disrepect — calling the Queen “Brenda,” and so forth — that drains pomposity from the ritual pomp. It is a sleight-of-hand show in which everybody knows, or thinks he knows, how it’s done.

From an early age, and quite openly once her sister was crowned, Margaret behaved like an in-house Wallis: naughty, impatient, fun-seeking, faux-bohemian. Margaret ought to have been a lollipop of a girl who professed to like everything. Instead, she dropped her middle name. She discovered that it was much funnier to say that she hated everything, whether she meant it or not, simply to overthrow the expectation. It was beyond her intellectual reach to make truly interesting comments, so she had to settle for the shock of being rude.

It’s an emblem of the enigma of Margaret — was she imaginative or dim? — that she seems to have regarded herself as more royal than her sister because, while they were both daughters of a king, only Margaret had a queen for a sister, too. There is something compelling, if hare-brained, about this conclusion.

That is why everybody knows that Margaret would have made a botch of the monarchy, and perhaps even brought it to an end.

Third, speechless. If you have doubts about the pleasures of Ma’am Darling, I suggest that you find a copy in a quiet bookshop, retire to a quiet corner, and see if you can keep it quiet while you read Glimpse Nº 70 (294)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (I)

2, 3 and 4 January 2018

Tuesday 2

Halfway through the book, I’ve already flagged a dozen passages with Post-its. Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries (hereinafter “VFD“) has turned out to be amazingly more important than I thought it would be. I expected fun, guilty pleasure, recollections of youth, that sort of thing —  vanity, in short. I dithered for weeks about buying the book at all, finally justifying its purchase as a holiday treat. I did not expect to like Tina Brown.

Whether I would like Tina Brown in person is neither here nor there. But on the page, she appeals to me as winningly as the heroine of any novel I can think of (except perhaps Emma Woodhouse, who has her own heaven). Tina Brown is smart and good in almost equal measure, and the difficulty of determining which quality is preponderant makes for suspenseful reading. Her brains are obvious — prodigious brains, three or four times more charged than my own were at the time (and I’m five years older). Of course she captures the rush, rush, rush of New York’s media life, the thrill and occasional despair of taking on a chancy publishing project (advertisers took a while to catch up with Vanity Fair‘s circulation), and I helplessly hear these dramatic passages as if Helen Mirren were reading them. But Brown’s range is as wide as any good novelist’s, and sometimes she steps back to transcribe a conversation (more likely an argument)  in which she herself does not take part. Once she becomes a mother, she reveals a streak of serenity that must always have been there. But she never spares herself. From an early entry:

Everyone at the party was so famous but unfortunately I had never heard of them. I said to Shirley MacLaine, “What do you do?” She gave me a manic, hostile stare and went on talking to Ed Epstein about how he should research a book about flying saucers. (43)

What grips me, though, is the sense that, even as she roars from success to success, Tina Brown is making a terrible mistake, in the way that we watch Isabel Archer make a terrible mistake in The Portrait of a Lady. The difference is that Brown’s mistake concerns not her personal life but American culture. The nature of the mistake glimmers in the final entry for 1984:

We are seeing the invasion of DC by California and Park Avenue, the fusion of Women’s Wear Daily values with Washington Post power watching, a cast of characters who see everything through the lens of Hollywood and Le Cirque. It’s perfect fodder for a magazine called Vanity Fair. I have been experiencing the endless round of black-tie dinners and openings as a trivial sidebar to the main event. But now it seems at this moment they are the main event, central to understanding how the money moves around and why. It could all collapse and we will see it as some fin de siècle gallery of grotesques and wish we had been more attentive. (127-8)

Attentive to what? That Tina Brown, endowed with ultra-sensitive antennae, could be missing something is hard to imagine. But her remarks betray the fact that the important thing that’s possibly being overlooked is not small. It is not elusive or difficult to track down. It is as huge as the country itself. It is the coalescence of all the various local, state, federal, professional, industrial and financial élites into one mass of equalized celebrities, held in balance by “the money.”

It is easy to dismiss glamour, but just as easy to underestimate its power, particularly when a genius like Tina Brown figures out how to bond it with seriousness to produce a brand-new compound with miraculous properties. From late 1985:

Just in from a soirée for the cabaret pianist Bobby Short. Some diamond-studded socialite crooned at me, “My dear, you have certainly found your audience, and it’s me! Vanity Fair is a society movie magazine. You don’t remember what they are, but you’re it.” She’s half-right. But it’s more the VF attitude to fame and the mix of stories that ensnare the reader with juxtaposition. We give intellectuals movie star treatment and movie stars an intellectual sheen and the same is true of the audience. Brainy people in our pages seem more glamorous and movie people seem more substantive. I love putting madcap Princess Gloria von Turn und Taxis in the same issue as Schiff’s profile of the editor of the National Review. Both of them are hidden stars in their own world, but combined in a magazine that has Dustin Hoffman on the cover, they confer fascination on each other. It’s funny how sometimes the mix takes on a life of its own and goes off the cliff. The January issue is suddenly so full of people with bald heads that I had to kill three of them today. (176)

Reading this thirty-four years later, at the beginning of the second calendar year of the Trump presidency, I gasp at the unwitting adroitness with which Tina Brown and her staff made straight in the desert a highway to the White House for the man whom she compares, in these pages, to Elvis Presley. Vanity Fair became a universal directory of notable Americans, splitting the nation into teams of those who would do almost anything to break into its pages and those who could be stoked into hatred of established institutions by carnival barkers who mocked its membership. Worse, the people with listings in Vanity Fair were distracted from their regular duties by the “trivial sidebar” of showing up to honor their hordes of peers, not to mention the stress of looking after “the money.” There are moments in VFD when Tina Brown sounds like a naval architect who has just designed a cruise ship to capsize in a tsunami.

As I say, I’m only about halfway through. I expect that I’ll have more to say. My feelings toward the heroine of VFD are forgiving. She came from a small country where the élite has for generations come from a handful of schools, and everybody has always known everybody else. With just a couple of issues under her belt, Tina Brown opined,

America is too big, too rich, too driven. America needs editing. (96)

I agree, but maybe it’s a good thing that, unlike Tina Brown, I couldn’t do anything about it.


Wednesday 3rd

Then there is that magic place, which Tina Brown calls “Transatlantica.”

That place between England and America is the only world where I can be happy now. (308)

In the kingdom of Transatlantica, well-dressed people with well-dressed minds work hard during the week but luxuriate in well-upholstered tranquillity during the weekend. There are two capitals. One is very charming, as cities go, and it is surrounded by sopping green lanes. The other is the acme of excitement, and it is within reach of one of the world’s longest beaches. A handful of grand old universities nourish rigorous learning alongside quaint, antediluvian tradition. The students are bright young people who go on to rise to the top in their professions and produce more bright young people. Transatlanticans share the general human interest in sex, but they have a peculiar passion for talk. They publish all the books printed in English, and little of cultural note happens outside of their realm.

If you ask me, it was inordinate belief in the magic of Transatlantica that put Donald Trump in the White House and that may put the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Transatlantica does not exist. Its would-be inhabitants share real-world citizenship with millions of men and women who have never heard of it, and would resent it if they did.

For some people, climate change and global warming are the big problem. For others, it’s late-stage capitalism and the unintended side-effects of a global economy. For me, it’s the tendency of every thoughtful Anglophone to find companionship if not comfort in London or New York. Or rather, it’s the tendency of Transatlanticans to imagine that the lives that they feel very lucky to enjoy would be desirable by all.

After the beauty of the [Elkhorn Ranch in Arizona] the Tucson mall was disorienting and depressing: a sprawling, characterless mess of Kmarts and gas stations and drugstores. As we drove around in the blinding rain, or cruised down the fluorescent-lit aisles of throbbing products in the gigantic pharmacy where we went to collect G’s prescriptions, I thought how this is an America I will never warm to, America as a huge, vacant, product-filled, centerless, culturally sterile parking lot. It’s fiercely alien to me and in a way I’m glad that it is. If it weren’t, I’m not sure I’d be able to successfully edit Vanity Fair. I might not have the confidence to choose with uninhibited focus what interests me to read about. (ibidem)

I am no fan of fluorescent-lit aisles. But I can remember when they didn’t exist, when American shops were dingy and poky, just like everybody else’s. I can remember when, in the Seventies, the big Targets and Kmarts went up in the center of parking lots, their merchandise plentifully arrayed on clean, brightly-lighted shelves. We were all wowed. Nobody expected Tarjay to be charming, but nobody expected it to be ubiquitous, either, and it took a while to realize that these emporia were really warehouses, the merchants having been swept away with the dust. That’s when it dawned on educated Americans that their country had become “huge, vacant, product-filled,” and so on. But it was only the educated who had these misgivings. Everyone else just parked the car, ran in for whatever was needed, paid for it, and ran back to the car again. No biggie.

Education has failed Transatlanticans in one respect. It has not helped them to live with their uneducated countrymen. To be sure, when Tina Brown was writing her diary entries, it wasn’t so obvious that education ought to have forestalled, instead of perversely feeding, the mounting contempt with which educated Britons and Americans regarded their uneducated neighbors — who, of course, soon ceased to be neighbors, as the affluent segregated themselves in expensive conclaves. Education appears to have taught that it’s the lack of education that’s the failure. I only hope that this mistake won’t turn out to be as fatal as contempt for the common people was for the French upper classes not much more than two centuries ago.

It goes without saying that I’d be a happy Transatlantican myself, if I could, if it were possible. But it isn’t. I can’t even pretend to believe in Susan Sontag’s metaphor about Manhattan, as an ocean liner tied up to the docks of America. For one thing, guess where Donald Trump has lived for most of his adult life.


Thursday 4th

Regular readers, if asked to free-associate from the name of Tina Brown, would probably sooner rather than later come up with the word “glitz.” This isn’t because Brown or her Vanity Fair were particularly glitzy, but were rather taking the whole fun of glitz way upmarket. Anybody might look at her magazine, but only educated people could read it, or would want to. That meant us. It had been a long time — more than fifty years — since the likes of us had been tempted by qualities spelled with the letter ‘z.’ When Tina Brown took over Vanity Fair, glitz is pretty much all we saw. We would not have been surprised to read Brown’s judgment of one piece that appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair before she got her hands on it: “There’s a brainy but boring Helen Vendler essay next to an Amy Clampitt poem…” (26) Helen Vendler is never boring, but she might, admittedly, be miscast in a publication devoted to the more ephemeral manifestations of wit and sophistication. We would have ironically clucked that Vendler isn’t glitzy enough for Vanity Fair, but we would have been wrong to think that that meant there was something wrong with the magazine.

There is very little glitz in VFD. Brown notes several lunches at the Four Seasons over the years — she must have sat through dozens — but it’s always for business, and such pleasure as is on offer tends toward the mordant. (The patrons are all “plotting each other’s downfall.”) The restaurant itself leaves her cold, as indeed it did me the couple of times I was there and Kathleen the many more. “So antiseptic and colorless. Why do power people want to go there?” (ibidem) Why, indeed? After a while, the bold-face names that stud the VFD entries shrink a bit into who they actually are: people Tina Brown knows and, on occasion, must put up with. And do business with. Tina Brown likes to do business, if it’s the media business. She loves competition and is always elated by success — no false world-weariness here. Her house at Quoque is a blessed asylum, but, like Horace, she would always like to be in the other place. She is onto that about herself, though, and self-pity never has a chance.

Readers who think of Tina Brown as glitzy might feel justified by the passage that I have copied out below, but I beg them to study it until it becomes clear that no merely glitzy, or even significantly glitzy writer could have composed it. It is a masterpiece of expanding view. Beginning with “what I wore” it widens by sure steps to include the full-throttle, almost hilarious vitality of a Costume Institute opening in the Eighties. I know — I went the year before. (Strictly B group.) Fashion may be vain and silly, but it is also utterly human, and virulently infectious. And I think it’s pretty clear from Brown’s tone that this is an experience that would pall if it were not always presented in new settings and with new people. There can be only one Costume Institute opening a year. And the secret, which has been lost in the social insecurity state, was that the doors were flung open much wider in those days; the event was not nearly as exclusive as it would become.

It’s also worth noting that any man who expressed such open pleasure at simply being somewhere would almost inevitably be gay. Why is that?

I borrowed a silver velvet evening coat from Jackie Rogers to wear over a thin black silk full-length evening sack she made me to hide the bulge. A professional makeup artist came to do my face, which I didn’t much like, but it made me feel suitably glam. I loved the excess and finery and ostentation of it all, teetering past the Egyptian mummies and fading frescoes in our silly heels, herding into an elevator in a clash of perfumes and rustle of silks, disembarking into the darkened Costumes of Royal India show to oohs and aahs over outsize gold mannequins swathed in glittering silks and jewel-encrusted turbans, with the appreciative murmur of visiting Indian high society and the excited chatter of Gayfryd Steinberg and her posse. The walkers were out in force — the mincing gait of Peter Schub with Lynn Hyatt one arm and bouffante Judy Peabody on the other. Reinaldo Herrera in a tux has the inverted A waist of the society man par excellence, escorting on his left hand his lofty, expensively-coiffed mother, on his right, Carolina, his Eva Peron-like wife. After dinner we wandered into the Temple of Dendur, where Peter Duchin was pounding the piano and a million candles lit the drafty spaces where the B group, who didn’t get seated, sparkled and networked and hustled. As Nick said, the bravery. This is what I appreciate most about the city at night, the life force of New York aspiration, wanting, wanting to be seen. The erratic flames of the myriad glowworms — the striving fashion assistants, makeup artists, art gallery gofers, photography apprentices, gossip stringers, all the glamour wannabes dressed up with their “looks” in place. How they danced. How they gestured and waved and admired one another’s glad rags, cutting like flamboyant tugs through the sea of jaded vessels such as the SS Jerry Zipkin and the SS Barbara Walters. This is the moment when the social energy of the city — in Diller’s word — metastasizes, when individual crassness and need are absorbed into the bedazzled, glory-seeking hum of “Look at me! I’m alive!” (179)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (III) Draft

26 and 30 December 26

Tuesday 26

Merry Christmas! I may be a little late saying that here, but that’s because I was making sure that we would have one on time, which we did. I don’t know when I was last so active, day after day. There was very little time for reading, and none at all for thinking or writing. I’m still a bit blank.

But the rush is over. We’ve had all the dinners. We’ve been to Messiah at Carnegie Hall. We even took in Harry Clarke, David Cale’s brilliant dramatic monologue, brilliantly performed by Billy Crudup, down at the Vineyard Theatre. Harry Clarke ends with a terrific pair of one-liners, delivered in two of the protagonist’s three voices, and I wish I could quote them exactly. The show is about a gay man from South Bend, called Philip Brugglestein, who assumes a North London accent when he makes his way to New York City. Harry Clarke is a Cockney alter ego into whom Philip slips when under pressure. Whereas Philip is prim and hesitant, Harry swaggers like Michael Caine or Jason Statham. The transitions between personae are usually surprising and always entertaining, but the comedy of shifting identity becomes quite dark as the evidence of psychosis piles up. Mr Crudup sizzled with smiling danger. I hope never to meet anyone like the man whom he was impersonating.

At Carnegie Hall, Kent Tritle led Musica Sacra in his austerely beautiful interpretation of Handel’s Messiah. It was at least the third time that we’ve made a point of decking out our holiday with this event, and I am finally persuaded that a smaller Messiah is not necessarily a lesser one. Stripped of posthumous ornamentation by Mozart or anyone else, the oratorio emerges as an urgent vocal meditation. The light string band — a dozen violins, three violas, and a bass consisting of cello, doublebass and bassoon, with sparingly-used pairs of oboes and trumpets (and drums at the very end) — provides the solos with unobtrusively defining harmonies and then almost disappears into a wash during the choruses. The chorus of thirty produced the sound of sixty with complete precision. Once again, Kathryn Lewek sang the soprano airs with beauty, accuracy and grace to match the chorus. It’s gratifying to see her name in the program and to think, I know that this evening’s soprano is going to hit all the high notes with impassioned charm.

Most nights, during the week, I knocked off Michael Prestwich’s Edward I. I found myself wishing for a more overtly economic analysis of Edward’s catastrophic money troubles. (The catastrophe eventually befell his son, Edward II.) Edward was not a spendthrift, but he was often at war, almost uninterruptedly so from 1294 to his death in 1307. Military operations appear to have become considerably more expensive during his reign, which began in 1272. Some of the increase was attributable to the final stages of a shift from feudal dues to money salaries, but armies also became larger, and their arms and armaments more powerful. There was no English precedent for the great and very expensive castles that Edward built in North Wales; the last of them, Beaumaris, was never finished. In the background of Prestwich’s biography, royal bureaucracy and the judiciary seem to become more institutional and professional, and commerce, especially the wool trade, grows more prosperous. And of course Parliament begins to assume a representative complexion. But for all the adumbration of modern government, Edward’s England is unquestionably medieval in character. The king was well-liked by his people, but his incessant exactions were understandably unwelcome; most of all, they suggest a misconception of needs and resources. The overall sense is one of backing into the future.


Saturday 30th

Not long after I began noticing them in The New Yorker, I learned not to read Alice Munro’s short stories. I found them terribly bleak. Everything about them was plain, or worse. The people were dull and discontent. They lived in drafty old farmhouses or airless suburban cottages. Love was apparently the subject, but I could not conceive of love, especially in its joyous aspect (which meant more to me than any other), amidst such repressive circumstances. The stories were set, for the most part, in rural Ontario, a territory that I had no desire to imagine, much less visit. My time in South Bend and Houston had replaced my childhood ignorance of country life with adult aversion; it seemed inhuman to me to persist in inhabiting such places. It still does.

But I have learned better about Alice Munro. I have been reading her collections since the beginning of this winter, and my delight is teaching me even more. Yesterday, while I was anxiously wondering when I would ever hear from Kathleen — she was flying home from a visit to her father in North Carolina — something clicked. I was in the middle of “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” (collected in The Progress of Love) when I grasped something about Munro’s fictional background. Just as Leonardo’s figures hover in misty, rocky landscapes, and Gainsborough’s take their ease in green parks, Munro’s characters slog past and away from confusion about the past. It is the same in story after story, and the cause of my old discomfort with her work. It is the illusion of an old world that is slipping into oblivion, a vanishing way of life that cannot, especially for heroines, vanish fast enough. It is an illusion because that old world is actually dying very young. It did not exist a century earlier; fifty years before that, even the people weren’t around.

The moment that illuminated this for me yesterday is almost too densely buried in the context of Munro’s story to extract without belaboring it; I hope that it’s enough to say that it involves the termination of passenger railroad service to the town in which the story takes place, about ten or fifteen years earlier. The most important consequence of this development for the brothers at the center of the story is the loss of their father. A conductor on the passenger trains — does this term, “conductor,” mean anything to younger readers? — the father was transferred to another town, from which he could visit his family by bus, which however he disliked doing. He couldn’t drive, either, and so his visits home ceased, and he died before retiring, so his widow is free to speculate that he might have returned to her eventually.

So the train is gone with the wind, and, with it, the network that bound every town of decent size to the nation at large. From now on, country people would have to spin their own webs, as their personal resources allowed. Some would have cars. Eventually, everyone would have a car, but most of Munro’s protagonists can remember not being able to afford one. Her most characteristic narrator is a woman who grew up on a farm before World War II. Sometimes, the farm might be close to enough to town to walk to, but an aspect of the illusion of Munro’s background is that Ontario is so vast that family members are prevented by distance alone from coming together for decades at a time. A cousin pays a rare visit — once — and the chore of putting up new wallpaper in the visitor’s bedroom is what really lodges in the memory. The reader may begin to imagine that the railroads, however empowering and impressive when they were built, came to be regarded as the enablers of intrusion and desertion. There is something about Munro’s towns that can’t grow, or can’t outgrow the frontier provisionality that has long since gone stale. All the boldness required for settling the province seems to have been exhausted in the opening moves; the settlers’ children exhibit the same grim tenacity that would have kept their forebears in the old country. And now, in the present moment of Munro’s fiction, nobody can remember how or why they came to be there.

At the heart of the illusion is a kind of timelessness: the farmers whose daughters long to go to university in Toronto are scions of families that never left Scotland or Ireland or Norway. For Munro’s older Ontarians, this illusion is a delusion, a response to the shock of transatlantic relocation. For several decades in the Nineteenth Century — European peasants were given an amazing new option, a grab at freedom and prosperity in North America. Steamships and railways carried them far into the new land. Then, just as quickly, the steamships and railways themselves became obsolete, replaced by cars and planes, modes of transportation that erase the middle distance. Exciting novelties became outdated clichés — in the space of a generation. The former peasants had to learn that freedom and prosperity would mean something very different to their children, especially to their daughters. The farmers would be betrayed by their dreams. But their children, Munro’s characters, would be mesmerized by the illusion of throwing off the yoke of centuries of servitude.

I am aware that the foregoing is riddled with contradictions; Munro’s ability to blend them plausibly is what gives her stories such atmospheric power. It is this atmosphere that her characters seem to be fighting the hardest. There is the desire of the settlers’ grandchildren to believe that their people have always lived in Ontario, as if since the expulsion from Eden; at the same time, these grandchildren are oppressed by the peasants’ conservatism and limited horizons that survived the transplantation intact — that, indeed, may have been intensified by it. The prospect of upward mobility is shadowed by the possibility of total loss. Tradition, as always, is both reassuring and restrictive. And the ongoing social and technological changes that were unleashed by the revolutions that closed the Eighteenth Century pile up ever higher behind the up-to-date instant, belying their actual age, their altogether recent vintage.

How can our understanding possibly keep up?

Bon week-end à tous! Happy 2018!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (II)

12, 14 and 15 December

Tuesday 12th

Maddeningly, the entry is undated. But within the past couple of weeks, The Browser published a link to a presumably recent interview at Five Books in which Jane Jelley was interviewed about Vermeer. The point of Five Books, a British site, appears to be to get the author of a recent book to recommend five “best” books on the subject, whatever it is, and to make it very easy to buy all six — the five recommendations plus the author’s own work — with “Buy” buttons that take you straight to Amazon. Despite the shilling (I’d be much happier if they replaced “Buy” with”Browse”), I like Five Books almost enough to visit it regularly; if I don’t, it’s because I don’t need inducements to be buying books. In this case, I bought Jelley’s, Tracings of Vermeer.

Jane Jelley is a painter who lives at Oxford. The flap doesn’t say what she does there, but it is clear from the book that she is a student (and possibly a master) of historical art skills. To put it briefly, she knows how to simulate the practices of a seventeenth-century Nederlander painter. She knows about linens and “sizes” (a glue), pigments and oils, pigs’ bladders and brushes, and she has the patience to wait for pre-modern paint to dry. (Three months, in the case of a newly-primed canvas.) Perhaps from years of casually reading Elizabeth David, Jelley knows how to write about all of this with a charm that paradoxically conveys immense tedium in appealing prose, and it is for her writing, more than for what she has to say about Vermeer, that she is to be most highly commended. Not that she hasn’t convinced me that she’s right about how Vermeer worked. On the contrary: it’s very much because she isn’t out to convince anybody.

The controversy is, of course, about Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura. Whether or not Vermeer made use of this device has been argued, apparently, since 1891, when American print-maker Joseph Pennell claimed that he must have done. From the start, this claim was refuted by critics who clearly regarded such use as a kind of cheating. It’s a profoundly nineteenth-century argument, loaded with disdain for “mechanical aids” and addled by contempt for the modern camera, which shares with the camera obscura nothing more than a lens. The actual camera obscura is no more and no less of a mechanical aid than a palette, and, as Jelley makes drolly clear, it would not have afforded Vermeer any shortcuts on the road to transcendence.

The camera obscura projects a doubly reversed image onto a dark surface. Upside-down and backwards, this image would be an extraordinarily unwieldy template for masterpieces. Nor is it really conceivable that a painter could apply colors in a dark room. It may well be that Vermeer’s paintings betray a focal point more rigorously fixed than that of an artist surveying the scene from behind an easel, but the idea that the artist simply traced the image thrown up on a wall by light passing through a peephole is childish. He could not have done any such thing.

Jane Jelley has effectively reoriented the discussion by looking not at the surface that we call can see but that the bottom-most layer of paint, what we might call the background but the technical name for which is “invention.” Vermeer’s inventions are revealed by x-rays to be unlike everyone else’s. There are no outlines, no rays of perspective — nothing linear at all. There is only an array of masses, dark against the light primer. The examples that Jelley provides look like very high-contrast reductions of the finished pictures. The composition is presented not in terms of lines but of light and dark. Jelley wanted to know how Vermeer did this. For an artist to see the kind of arrangements shown in Vermeer’s inventions with his naked eye struck her as implausible. But what if he traced the dark parts of a camera obscura image onto oiled (transparent) paper, using black paint, working very quickly, and transferring the traced image simply by printing it — she writes of pressing the back of the paper with a wooden spoon — onto freshly-pumiced, highly-absorbent canvas? What if Vermeer then continued to build up further layers of paint in the conventional way, out in the open with his model?

For the viewer, the question would be why Vermeer would do this. What difference could it make to me? There is something primordial about my own answer. The world is a dark place, pricked with points of light. An atmosphere of some kind of vapor is required to diffuse light in such a way that, say, a room facing north could be illuminated by sunlight shining from an invisible source. That atmospheric diffusion, precious at northern latitudes afflicted by heavy clouds of rain, is Vermeer’s principal resource. It is what he paints onto the dark. It is what penetrates his rooms, fading inevitably into shadows — shadows that are there from the start: figuratively, before the sun comes up; actually, in the masses of his invention. Every picture captures a moment’s exposure to light, to the light falling on the many different surfaces in a room. It holds together with such breathtaking force because the shadows have also been captured altogether in one moment. In this regard, yes, Vermeer “took pictures” just as we do, capturing the instant in an image. But this image was the rough preliminary of the painting that we esteem. To suggest that using a camera obscura is some kind of low, dishonest trick is no different from making the same charge about his grinding lapis lazuli into ultramarine.

As Jelley’s entertaining walk-through of her experiment with the camera obscura makes very clear, an enormous amount of trial-and-error would have been required, by Vermeer or whoever taught him (Carel Fabritius, I strongly suspect), to produce workable tracings from the projected image. Oiling the paper, choosing a brush, finding a paint that would be transferable without running, these were all problems without self-evident solutions. (In the case of the oiled paper, she found the answer in a treatise from 1390.) Capturing the instant was anything but the work of an instant.

Not quite three dozen paintings by Vermeer survive. There no drawings, sketches, watercolors, or anything else. There are not many men in the paintings, and only two mature works that look out of doors. By my quick count, at least eighteen appear to depict the northeast corners of domestic interiors, and women appear in all but two, the pair known as The Geographer and The Astronomer (almost certainly the same model). In six paintings, women are shown wearing what looks like the same yellow satin jacket, trimmed in ermine. (All were painted within six years.) It was anything but unusual for Vermeer’s contemporaries to concentrate on specialties; the concept of branding was familiar in the arts. What was peculiar to Vermeer, however, may have been too subtle to be widely appreciated at the time. It is a unity of light that bathes an arrangement of surfaces that emerge with an appreciable indistinctness from the natural dark of shadow. Vermeer’s is a world of soft-edged intelligibility, in which nothing is altogether settled. Many of his pictures capture a privacy that our looking does not violate. Jane Jelley’s Traces of Vermeer persuades me that these illusions are all based on a foundation of shadow made solid. Now I think I know why it is that I can stare at one of his walls so expectantly, as if it were about to disclose another picture altogether: the dark of night lies directly beneath it.


Thursday 14th

As usual, I didn’t read the short story in last week’s New Yorker — until just now, having read about it in the Times. That was unusual; until very recently, it has always seemed to me that the magazine and the newspaper published in strictly separate worlds, each taking no notice of the other’s contents. But here in today’s Styles section was a piece about “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, an attractive woman (sorry!) in her mid-thirties who studied for the foreign service but turned to her first love when that didn’t work out. The story is about a twenty-year old sophomore who meets an older man — late twenties at least, she thinks — at a concession stand and gives him her phone number. A flirtation conducted in text messages ensues. I hope that readers learn from Roupenian’s mighty sorrowful story what a bad idea it is to try to size up a pen pal as a potential lover.

Robert, the man in the story, is thirty-four, and he lives alone in a house with little furniture. It seems to me that these are two of the many things that Margot ought to know about Robert long before she follows him into his bedroom. But Margot is only twenty. Worse, she is a very smart twenty, a very imaginative, empathetic twenty. She doesn’t need to know Robert; she can make him up. It’s enough that he makes her laugh. But does he? It’s the exchange of texts that makes her laugh, or smile, anyway, and that invites her to indulge in romantic speculations about him. The problem with these speculations is not so much that they are wrong as that they constitute an investment. You could call it a bet, but that just makes it out to be less serious than it is.

The preliminary, fun part of Margot’s relationship with Robert comes to an end with her return from a semester break, by which point she has been in the same place with him on a total of three occasions that could be timed in minutes.

When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie, she agreed right away.

The bulk of the story is an account of the date that follows. Nothing terrible enough for the tabloids happens, but the evening is, to put it mildly, deflating and demoralizing for Margot, leaving her with the sore conviction that she doesn’t want to see Robert again. It’s not that he’s a bit pudgy and slope-shouldered; Margot has dealt with these drawbacks before he takes his clothes off. It’s that Robert’s sex life has been pornographized. In the middle of things, he slaps her thighs and cries, “You like that!” He would probably never thought of such a gesture on his own. At their third meeting, in a convenience store, Robert made Margot feel like a very special doll; now he makes her feel like a rubber doll.

Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her.

“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful and hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say” —

but you’ll have to read it for yourself. I wouldn’t dream of upstaging Roupenian’s magnificent writing.

In the Times interview, Jonah Engel Bromwich’s last question begins with a statement: “The story’s last exchange gives the clearest view of who Robert is.” Well, Bromwich said it, Roupenian didn’t. I’d like to know if she agrees. The “last exchange” is ugly but familiar. Just as Robert seemed to be following a script in bed, so he seems to be acting the troll in his text. How else do you sign off on these devices? How else do you say “Good bye the hell to you, too!“? Of course it’s better not to say anything, but it’s better not to do most of the things that Margot and Robert do in this story. Robert is sadly unattractive in a way that now seems indicative of a cultural pathology; I feel an urge to help him out just for the sake of the body politic.

Roupenian tells Bromwich:

[Margot] thinks she can see inside Robert; she believes she knows more about him than she does, and that keeps the date catapulting forward when it might otherwise have come to an end. The people I know who tend to be drawn to the most troubled men are these incredibly empathetic, imaginative young women, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a piece of it: how good they are at creating a compelling back story for men who have done nothing to earn it.

Robert is also imaginative, but like most men (or so it seems), he is not empathetic; life gives his imagination little to work with. What the “last exchange” gives us a clear view of is where Robert is stuck. Although I can feel the blow of his last text to Margot’s stomach, I know that she will recover and possibly flourish (she is only twenty!). But is there a way out for Robert? A way out of his board games and vinyl collection and lack of self-respect? Ist auf deinem Psalter, Vater der Liebe, ein Ton…?


Friday 15th

It’s likely that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I consulted Google’s Ngram Viewer just now about the use of the phrase “meaning of life.” I was reading an entry at Less Wrong that explored the meaning of life as understood by several “cultures,” for example “SJW” and “4Chan.” It was one of those pieces that make me feel both old and uncertain. Do I have a lot more experience or a lot less understanding? Forget the meaning of life — has the meaning of words undergone a shift? Does language work in a new way that I don’t hear? In this case, however, the sogginess of the author’s anxieties about the meaning of life was very familiar. Familiar in an unexpected way: could it be that I remember when concern about the meaning of life was still something new, or new-ish?

I wasn’t surprised by the results of my Ngram enquiry. The phrase made its first appearance in about 1895, and slipped out of view in 1910. Since 1920, however, it has never been out of use, and its peak popularity, a recurring point in decades thereafter, was reached about 1940. Aside from that blip in the late 1890s, the phrase was unknown to the Nineteenth Century — to all those Romantic poets and novelists, in other words. For most of the Twentieth Century, we looked hard for the meaning of life, but until the outbreak of World War II, we didn’t give it much thought.

I still don’t.

What would the meaning of life look like? What would it feel like? Would it feel like that aha! that wraps up every TED talk? Like the Less Wrong writer, who goes by the name Elo, I stopped watching TED talks a long time ago, as soon as I realized that they were simply upscale versions of those old nature and science programs on TV that left you convinced that you knew everything that there was to know about volcanoes or beetles. TED talks were shorter, wittier, and syntactically more sophisticated than the old shows, but they were (are) scripted with the same alchemy, the same psychological prestidigitation. There would be no harm in this if the results were useful, but the presentations are always too closed-ended to be fertile. They have to be, in order to be entertaining. Open-ended shows would end not with a nugget of “realization” but with a panorama of all that remains to be learned. Instead of flattering the audience with a spritz of knowingness, it would demoralize it with a burp of ignorance.

Knowledge decays. The point on which I agreed most heartily with Elo was this:

We start out wanting meaning, we start out getting meaning, and after a while we don’t really get the same thing any more. We are not designed to notice meaning wearing off – we expect it to keep being there. Until it’s well and truly worn out so bad that it’s a shock to the system. The same way that we go blind a little each day and don’t notice until we crash a car. “that’s how blind we are”.

The meaning of life, in short, would look like something that we needed to replace pretty frequently, if we didn’t embalm it. “The meaning of life” promises to explain everything forever, but of course it can’t do anything of the kind. We are always outgrowing what we know.

The “meaning of life” has nothing to do with distinguishing right from wrong. Nor can it offer an ideal of happiness that is more satisfying than the one already familiar to every thoughtful person: health, good fortune, and — here’s the part that searchers for the meaning of life ought to be working a little harder on — the company of loving family and friends. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the past century, it’s not the meaning of life but the stabilizing power of liberal democracy to enable many people to build happy lives. Whatever the meaning of life might be, the happiness of life is not something that you discover on a remote mountaintop, but something that you do your best to bring about in your life every day.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (I)

5, 6 and 8 December


Tuesday 5th

Given the state of current events, it often feels foolish to be thinking about liberalism. The current state of affairs can be summarized as a drift toward radicalism, an impatience with real-world complexities and a longing for simple, straightforward solutions. Perhaps the first thing that can be said about the liberal outlook is that it struggles to be patient and doubts the viability of simple solutions. To the liberal mind, radicalism is little more than the realism of two-year-olds.

Just like small children, radicals know what they want, and they want it now. And they are equally incapable of behaving well if they are thwarted.

It is no fun, being a grown-up around small children. It is hundreds of times less agreeable to be a liberal surrounded by radicals. Unlike small children, radicals can shoot.


In the wake of the French Revolution, or perhaps even when it was still making life hell for clever Frenchmen, a new metaphor for political life came into circulation. The vehicle for the metaphor was the amphitheatrical arrangement of political assemblies, rendered simply by the curve of a half-circle. As the new world of representative democracy took shape, political significance attached to the right, center, and left of this curve. Socialists, communists, and levelers of all kinds sat on the left. Royalists, aristocrats, and religious conservatives sat on the right. Those who sat in the middle, if only because they did not agree with the extremists, were known as centrists. Sometimes, they were called liberals. It was never very clear, in contrast to those on the left and the right, what the centrists stood for, unless it was the unprincipled opportunism of compromise.

I don’t think that this metaphor works anymore. For one thing, the old conservative party has completely evaporated. As defined classes, royals and aristocrats have played no political role for a very long time, and it is a mistake to associate the religious conservatives of France and England in 1800 with the evangelists and millenialists of today. Evangelists have always been reformers, not preservers. They are obviously as dissatisfied with today’s society as socialists are, and just as eager for change. The drift of many wealthy businessmen toward libertarianism is equally radical. In the old, semicircular arrangement, the left was the party of action, the center the party of moderation, and the right the party of reaction or inaction. Today’s right wing is as activist as the left. What they share is a fear and loathing of liberals, who are now, by default, the only political actors interested in maintaining social institutions that work. Liberals have become de facto conservatives.


Rather than bloviate further upon these brisk observations, I’ll direct your attention to a nifty little book that, like so many interesting things, came to my attention via The Browser. Irene Yuan Sun is a Harvard-educated consultant at McKinsey & Company. Her new book, The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment Is Reshaping Africa, is the most eloquent defense of liberal economic policy that I have ever read. It is also a collection of fascinating business stories. Thanks to Sun’s work, we are able to revisit the conditions of our own “capitalist” past, the rough and ready chancing of bygone days — for they are not bygone in Africa. If you have any interest in figuring out what “liberal economics” means in practice, Next Factory is the book for you. I hasten to add that it is a great read.

After graduation from Harvard College, Sun signed on to teach English and other subjects in a Namibian public school. Her doubts about the value of this work were intensified when she met a young Chinese businessman on a blind date. He was in the market for a wife, and not particularly appealing in any other way, either, but Sun understood that he was contributing something more immediately important to Africans than English lessons: jobs. Sun doesn’t spell out what happened next, but presumably it was her return to Harvard, this time to the Kennedy School, and her research into African industry. She tells us that it was on a research visit to Nigeria that she had her “aha! moment.”

Until she was six, Sun lived in a town in Northern China that was dominated by an automotive works. The company’s colors, a distinctive blue and white, were everywhere. Not long after she was born — and Sun is about thirty now — the factory began a cooperative project with Volkswagen to produce Audi sedans in China. Sun can remember her first ride in one; it was her first ride in any car at all. That hundreds of millions of Chinese people share Sun’s conscious memory of a first car ride is a key of sorts to the economic realities that come to life in her book. Chinese entrepreneurs are not just investing in African business, but moving to Africa and settling there, partly because it is not so very different from the China of their childhoods. They feel the hardships less keenly than ordinary Americans would, and so are less distracted by them. And they also know how China transformed itself, not by aiming for perfection but by settling for good-enough results. What was good enough for China a few decades ago and is good enough for Africa now has not been good enough for America for nearly a century, and if nothing else Sun reminds us of the forgotten costs of our standard of living. She herself woke up to them when, at the end of a tiring day of factory visits, she realized that the color scheme of the factory at her last appointment paired the distinctive blue and white that characterized her original hometown.

No ordinary American could have written Next Factory, because Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa would not have talked to them. Even if their English were good enough, they would never share their insights with outsiders. Sun herself stands on an edgy border. At a garment factory in Lesotho (which benefits from a favorable trade arrangement with the United States), the owner cannot quite make up her mind about Sun. On the plus side, Sun’s mother also comes from Shanghai, and even shares the owner’s surname. On the con side, Sun herself cannot speak Shanghainese. In general, Sun’s background makes her a privileged explicator of Chinese business culture, not only because her interlocutors are frank with her but also because she can tell when they’re not being frank. She is not a journalist but a business scholar herself, so she has a good idea of the garment factory owner’s capital costs, and can tell when they have been overestimated.

My favorite story from Next Factory comes in the second half of the book. It is an essay in humility and insight that is untainted by the air of bragging that so often leaks into the accounts of Americans abroad. Sun was working on an ambitious skills-training project in Kenya. Just when everything seemed to be coordinated, Sun and her colleagues ran into an intransigent bureaucracy. Months of work and dozens of contacts suddenly seemed wasted. Sun had to return to America and move on. Mortified by what she regarded as a complete failure, Sun did not talk about the project for over a year. When she did — she was writing Next Factory and felt that she must confront what happened — she was surprised to hear a collaborator working for the Chinese corporate partner declare that the project had succeeded in many partial ways. Nor had he ever given up on it, and, shortly thereafter an altered version of the skills-training program was launched. “Far from the stereotype that developing country actors move slowly, I [the American expert] was the holdup.”

In my view, Sun illustrates a key characteristic of the liberal mind, the willingness to settle for good-enough in order to learn from experience how to do better. Constitutionally, this outlook is directly at odds with the all-or-nothing insistence of radical ambition. It is so unpleasant to admit failure that many people simply cannot bear to do it. Most of them simply give up; a few cheat and lie about the results. (And you can always blame everything and everyone else.) Liberals understand, I think, that failure is the royal road to education; what helps them to follow this difficult path is a faith in time as an agent of change. Such change, of course, can be for the worse, and it probably will be if no one is paying attention. (This is what makes so many so-called liberals unworthy of the name — how else to explain the loss of nine hundred state-level seats during the Obama years?) The liberal advantage over the radical is the patience to get things right over time. Liberals understand what radical and small children can’t bear to hear: we have all the time in the world.


Wednesday 6th

In today’s Times, music critic Anthony Tommasini asks, “Should I put away my James Levine recordings?” I was asking myself more or less the same thing last night. The underlying question is this: will the pleasure of listening to these recordings be stunted by the allegations that have provoked the conductor’s ejection from the Metropolitan Opera? I think that everyone of a certain age had heard stories about Levine, so to some extent the news is not news. But the element of coercion was not hitherto salient. Perhaps it rarely is in gossip; while we like to hear what other people have got up to, we don’t like hearing that undue pressure was involved. (Is Harvey Weinstein still claiming that his many imbroglios were all “consensual”?) Sex isn’t fun if it’s forced, and sex that isn’t fun isn’t sex. It’s something else, something so pathetic and unpleasant that, so far, not a single former eminence has stood up and demanded, “What of it?”

As for the recordings, time will tell, as it usually does. When I was young, Richard Strauss’s reputation was still suffering, at least here in New York, from his brief association with the Nazi régime. There was an understanding that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose Nazi associations were less equivocal, would never be invited by the Met to sing the role of the Marschallin, in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, so long as manager Rudolf Bing had any say in the matter, and, indeed, she never did.* Looking forward, I’m more inclined, somewhat pessimistically I admit, to wonder if anyone at all will be listening to anybody’s recordings of Mahler’s Third in thirty years. So much of the world that has been engulfed by the harassment and abuse scandals seems almost too fragile to survive the alterations in public sympathies that have brought these scandals forward. While Anthony Tommasini and I may be asking whether Levine’s artistic achievement will shine through the tarnish, the public may be signalling simply that brilliant orchestral performances are neither interesting nor important enough for the question to be raised. It may not be the case that power has been stripped away from villainous producers and politicians; it may be, rather, that the power itself has dissipated, so that what Al Franken and Leon Wieseltier do in the way of day jobs, and what their more virtuous colleagues also do, no longer matters quite as much as it has done in the past.

In Larry McMurtry’s Moving On, published in 1970, the heroine and her husband consult a psychiatrist to see about saving their marriage. When Patsy complains that she doesn’t always want to have sex with Jim, the doctor informs her that it is simply her duty to oblige him. If she wants to remain in the marriage, she must yield to his desires, regardless of her own, because, after all, he is the man and she is the woman. Is the doctor condoning coercion? However you or I might answer, it seems clear that, in the doctor’s view, coercion has nothing to do with it. It makes no sense to speak of coercing people to do their duty; what makes sense is to speak of punishing those who won’t. To do one’s duty, if only in order to avoid punishment, is not to yield to coercion. Coercion comes into it only when one rejects the claims of duty. In the nearly fifty years since Moving On appeared, our ideas of conjugal duty have been altered at the root, but the older men who constitute the principal cohort in today’s sex scandals were all raised under the previous dispensation.They had every reason, if no right, to expect that there would be no ex post facto review of the stories that were whispered about them.


Friday 8th

As we were on our way to lunch, Ray Soleil sighed heavily and asked, “How did we get here?”

I looked right at him and said, “Reality television.” “Of course,” he said.

It’s easily forgotten, I suppose because there is immense resistance to regarding television as degrading. Television is degrading because you must sit still to watch it, still in your body but even more in your mind. (That you can “work out” while watching television proves my point.) It’s not your decision; television enforces these responses. Television cannot help being bad for you.

I once got caught up in an early season of Project Runway. Inevitably, I got sick of it, especially the urge, widely shared, to imitate Tim Gunn’s vocal tics. I thought I was very funny for a while; then I felt a perfect fool. One of the contestants reminded me of someone I’ve never much liked, and I reveled in her misfortunes. I pondered the mystery that even in a professedly feminist age, most designers seem to be men. What do they know that women don’t? Mostly, though, I frothed on cue. I would actually call up a friend to say, did you see that! Then I saw myself on the phone doing my own sort of that, and mortification put a stop to misbehavior.

So far, the reality show being broadcast from Washington has been inconsequential: nothing has actually happened. Does the transfer of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem count? Like everything else coming out of the White House, it seems symbolic, gestural, and very much the kind of excitement that whips up an audience for reality TV. Oh, look what he did now! The idea that “he” is doing it in the name of a world power means nothing, because there is no such thing in television. There is only entertainment.

The mad tax bill — mad-at-blue-states tax bill — may well be enacted, but laws don’t really happen; popular responses to them do. The audience may find itself confronted by some very unentertaining realities, realities that aren’t taking place on television. There is a lot of anxiety about nuclear warheads, but, so far, it is just that: anxiety. The dream of reality television is that things that are worried about will never quite happen, because happening will put an end to the fun, which is waiting for something to happen. There is no fulfillment in happening; immediately, a new wait must begin. I derive no small comfort from believing that the formula for soap-opera drama takes the place of imagination in the mind of Donald Trump. Not to mention attentiveness to ratings where conscience ought to be.

I wish that, instead of resigning, Al Franken had insisted on keeping his seat until the ongoing sexual inquisition deals with the president. Some might argue, as Michelle Goldberg did at the Times, that there will never be a reckoning for Trump, because he can’t be shamed. But that’s precisely why I’d like Franken to stay on. There ought to be more to this scourge than pressing decent men to admit their indecencies and then counting on them to withdraw. It’s genteel and toothless — true to reality TV, not to reality. It certainly hasn’t stopped Roy Moore. What’s the point, if only the good guys topple?

I expressed concern that younger men will conclude that female colleagues are more trouble than they’re worth. “I don’t think they’d have the legal right to act on that,” said Ray. I looked right at him.

Bon week-end à tous!

*This is incorrect. Fossil Darling informs me that Schwarzkopf sang several Rosenkavaliers at the Met in 1964.

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (IV)

28 and 30 November; 1 December

Tuesday 28th

Last night, I started reading Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s account of the “life and times” of Jann Wenner, the creator of Rolling Stone. Icky Fingers would be more like it. The reviews warned me that I would take a deep dislike to Wenner; instead, I merely find him depressing. It’s not him so much as the world that allowed him to flourish. Like Donald Trump, Jann Wenner looks to me like an opportunistic disease: he doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the weakness in our body politic that he exploited. Even before the end of the first chapter, Hagan has handily presented the central puzzle of Wenner’s career: how did a celebrity-hound preppie become the pharaoh of youthquake excitement and unkempt disaffection? Bruce Springsteen is famous for, among other things, not returning Chris Christie’s fanboy phone calls, but one of Hagan’s photo pages shows him in a smiling lineup with Wenner and two other shorter, people (Bono and Mick Jagger). How to explain? Wenner is also shown at a benefit for Grand Central (then threatened with demolition) seated next to a rather glacial Jackie Kennedy; it might have been said at the time that the flow of cachet went both ways, that Wenner was a virtual fountain of youth for the noble widow: he made her cool. Now, of course, one just feels slightly sorry for her.

Why am I reading this book? I’d be very surprised if it could be shown that, during the years when it would have been conceivable for me to do so, I bought as many as ten issues of Rolling Stone; the number might be as low as three. Whatever I liked about popular music, it wasn’t what Greil Marcus had to say about it. The boys’-club misogyny of Rolling Stone’s editorial tone was as pungent as the stink of a locker room, redolent of bullying exaggeration and supersubtle theorizing. The magazine’s cheek was always a matter of puffing up adolescent noise with bogus significance, dandifying, where possible, the louche and the stubbly. In my opinion, its heartbreaking naïveté about the power of “popular culture,” more than any other single factor, engendered the careless disregard for social reality that deluded so many supporters of Hillary Clinton into imagining that their candidate could not possibly lose an election.

Joe Hagan, it must be said, writes with polished journalistic brio. A bit of bibliomancy turns up this jewel from Chapter 13: “The critical apparatus of Rolling Stone was in turmoil in 1975. Wenner’s writers didn’t like music anymore.” I ought to be ashamed of the smirk that Sticky Fingers has plastered on my lips. Meanwhile, there’s the tragedy of an educated generation resolutely taking desultory things seriously.


Can you tell? Does it show? Immediately before starting in on Sticky Fingers, I read “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” a lecture delivered by George Santayana to the Philosophical Union of the University of California in 1911. In the following year, Santayana left the United States forever, to die in Rome forty years later. I have never before managed to keep the figure of Santayana in focus. Now that I think I can, I see that his premature retirement from Harvard and withdrawal from the country of his education might explain my difficulty: we have reciprocated by withdrawing our attention and replacing it with mystification. Immediate evidence is presented by uncertainty about his name. I shall call him George Santayana, which is how he was known here and with which name his books, all written in English, were published. But he was born in Spain, in 1863, as Jorge. (I am mortified to discover that I have long confused him with Giorgio di Santillana, an Italian-American historian of science.) Although both parents were Spanish, Santayana’s mother had been married to a member of an eminent American banking clan, and it was to provide her children by the dead George Sturgis with an American education that she settled in Boston in 1869. Jorge and his father followed a few years later, but only the boy stayed on, becoming George. So Santayana was both an insider and an outsider. William James was one of his teachers, and, later, one of his friends: James’s death in 1910 may also have deprived Santayana of a reason for sticking around Cambridge.

Santayana had a knack for aphorisms. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is certainly the best known. I came across one in “The Genteel Tradition” that struck me just as forcibly. “To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.” Without putting it so well, I have understood the truth of this since my mind began working. Consolation from what? you ask. Earlier in the same paragraph, Santayana says,

Serious poetry, profound religion (Calvinism, for instance) are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself: but when a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them by that; and since human life, in its depths, cannot then express itself openly, imagination is driven for comfort into abstract arts, where human circumstances are lost sight of, and human problems dissolve in a purer medium. The pressure of care is thus relieved, without its quietus being found in intelligence.

Again, what unhappiness? How very American to ask; for it is still somewhat inappropriate to be unhappy in this country. Unhappiness is something to be fixed, by therapy or medication or self-improvement. But Santayana, the outsider who taught himself another people’s memories, knew that this country was founded by Calvinists who regarded the human state as a fallen one, and the human condition as essentially, inevitably, unhappy. But the wilderness to which the Puritans had retired proved to be a colossal mockery, for instead of the hardship that would have provided the appropriate external accompaniment to their pious self-denial — or, at any rate, after the hardship — it opened a cornucopia of worldly riches that, when combined with the robust success of the new revolutionary nation, made austerity seem perverse.

If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is. He is convinced that he has always been, and always will be, victorious and blameless.

There is almost too much here to unpack. The victorious blamelessness that floated Americans in 1911 would be deflated by war and depression, but it would erupt with a new vigor in the 1960s, in time for Jann Wenner to preside over the renewed conversation about American renewal — and to do what he could to suppress mutterings about unhappiness. Behind this recent history, though, there weighs on my mind a paradoxical observation to which I’ve been led by Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If you were to describe Jaynes’s theory to an educated American today, you might reasonably expect it to be received with grave doubts about claim that human consciousness did not exist until three thousand years ago, but there would be no denial that the development of consciousness, whenever it occurred, was a very good thing, the capstone, perhaps, of human distinctiveness. And yet this development appears to have been experienced as a nightmare, as precisely what our religions have called the Fall of Man. I am almost paralyzed with fascination, to think that it was a tree of knowledge that caused the trouble in Genesis — the force of Jaynes’s ideas makes me wonder if I ever understood what this meant before. It is, of course, the unhappiness that must, in Santayana’s view, be consoled.

At the end of “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana exhorted his audience, “Let us be content to live in the mind.” I don’t altogether know how to take this; I am certainly not inclined to follow Santayana’s abstention from worldliness. But it does seem clear to me that understanding what we know (and what we don’t) is the only sure foundation of contentment.


Thursday 30th

It has always dismayed me to hear that the great virtue of a liberal education is its uselessness. This sounds like an Oscar Wilde witticism gone completely flat. The only people who understand what it’s supposed to mean have themselves been liberally educated, while, to the rest of the world, the “uselessness” is what resounds. Why fund such a self-declared waste of time?

But it was only the other day that I was able to come up with an alternative. A glance over recent entries will disclose the background of my thinking, which was provoked by Julian Jaynes’s 1975 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I will not recapitulate Jaynes’s theories, interesting as they are. It’s enough to say that the problems of liberal education do not figure in them. Had Jaynes written the books that he proposed to write, he might very well have had something to say about “the humanities,” as the subjects of liberal education are generally known, but as he did not, I’ve been muddling along on my own.

Liberal education makes it possible for you to understand what you know. It is hard for me, really, to imagine anything more vitally useful, especially as we proceed into an environment that forces us to choose either painstaking stewardship or social annihilation.

For illustration of the way in which consciousness transforms knowledge into understanding, I am not going to pick out an example from my school days, or from the books on my shelves, or even from the Op-Ed page of the Times. I am going to recount an anecdote from personal history and then share the astonishing and “obvious” explanation that was ventured by a friend. I have already told the story here before. This time, I will add some comments about my failure to arrive at the explanation myself.

The event at the core of the anecdote occurred at the great Parisian restaurant, Taillevent. The concierge of our hotel had booked a table for us in the restaurant’s outer chamber; from the door of the inner room, which was not far away, we could hear the gentle din of the gratin. Across the way, at a table set for eight or ten, a reasonably polished middle-aged gentleman was seated beside a pretty young woman. They were in festive spirits, although the young woman seemed somewhat more obliging than effervescent. Because of the exotic setting, I declined to draw conclusions from the incongruity of the happy couple’s occupation of such a large table, but when an enormous turkey was rolled out, and two thin slices cut for each of two dinner plates, whereupon the turkey was rolled back into the kitchen, I had to ask our waiter if the gentleman was an American. I was assured that he was not. No, he was French, and I didn’t doubt that the stammering waiter could have told me his name.

I forgot to tell you: in the United States, that particular Thursday in November was Thanksgiving Day. I needn’t add that turkey was not on Taillevent’s menu that evening.

Of course, the waiter wouldn’t have told me the man’s name, and of course I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask anything. I let the curious incident settle into my memory undisturbed. I’m sure that I regaled friends with it many times, making much of the great silvery cart with the rolling dome top that housed the turkey, and the sneering dispatch with which it was wheeled across the floor, but it was only when I told it to my friend Ray Soleil, years later, that the curiousness was displaced by something else — Ray’s likely story. Ray explained that the gentleman was embarking on a mésalliance (if only because his amie was so much younger), and that he had challenged his disapproving family to meet her, or to acknowledge their engagement, at a grand dinner at the grand restaurant, where he was well-known enough to command a great roast bird that must have imposed some inconvenience on the kitchen. Owing to some transatlantic connection or other — his line of work, perhaps, or a grandmother’s origins — the dinner would also celebrate the American feast.

Being French, the man’s family decided to let him make a fool of himself — for everyone in the restaurant except for Kathleen and me, who would never have dreamt of such stunts, must have known exactly what Ray Soleil guessed — and they declined to appear. Kathleen and I might have been able to imagine such an episode, but we could not imagine it actually happening right in front of us. It would have been very upsetting. We should have felt disappointed, embarrassed, and even humiliated on the couple’s behalf, whether or not they were troubled by any of these things. It would have spoiled our lovely dinner — delicious pré-salé lamb from the Pyrenees for me. I know it. What we saw was certainly very interesting, but had we had any idea of an explanation such as Ray’s, it would have been much too interesting, certainly at such a short distance.

When we heard what Ray had to say, twenty years had passed, and we were sitting at our own dining table. I can vividly remember what a great fool I felt not to have seen what was so clear to our friend. Only now, meditating on the discomforts of consciousness, can I grasp the force with which I must have resisted understanding what was going on at that table for ten. Knowing — not understanding, but knowing, from what I could see with my own eyes — that something was wrong, I delicately swaddled my analytical powers and instead soaked up everything that seemed normal — normal for Taillevent, that is. I assumed that the theatrics of the turkey on the torpédo were not normal, and dismissed them as irrelevant to the Taillevent experience.

The purpose of a liberal education is to undo the many unconscious accommodations that we make for the interment of unpleasant possibilities. We learn that our kindness might really be condescension. We learn that our generosity might be controlling. Most of all, we learn how easily our arguments become tendentious, self-serving. At the very least liberal education raises our evasions — and this is what makes Freudian therapy so liberal, however unscientific — into consciousness. Only when our pack of just-so stories have been dispelled by interpretations whose truth and usefulness is revealed by the force with which they grip us do we understand the world around us.


Friday 1st

In yesterday’s entry, I set out to say something useful about liberal education, but wound up writing an entry in which the place of a liberal education was taken by my friend, Ray Soleil. Nor was there anything particularly academic about my illustrative example. Some readers might find that these displacements mitigated, perhaps even vitiated, the force of my argument. What has dinner at a fancy restaurant got to do with studying Aristotle and Hume?

I might observe that Ray himself is a liberally-educated man, trained in critical, skeptical thinking at a fine university. But why stretch a point? The truth is that Ray is a worldly man, gifted with sophisticated understanding of things. By “sophisticated,” I mean pretty much what Socrates didn’t like about the ability to defend both sides of a case, the inclination to see conflicting interests instead of right and wrong. That, I maintain, is the objective of liberal education. I believe that distinguishing right from wrong does not require much study; for that very reason, cases of right and wrong are rare. You could, of course, pick over the Thanksgiving turkey at Taillevent looking for rights and wrongs — was the patron wrong to arrange for the feast, was his family right to stay away? — but such judgments wouldn’t have much to do with how human beings actually get along in the world. We can leave the rights and wrongs to the parties involved, and savor the incident for its blend of curiosity and familiarity. We can wonder what happened next. Did the gentleman marry the young lady? Did the family patch up the quarrel? Was Ray’s explanation in fact correct? Perhaps the key element of a liberal education is its undying agnosticism, not about the existence of God in particular but about all of our attempts at understanding. Julian Jaynes’s way of putting it was to say that consciousness is never complete.


“You don’t get to do what I’ve done if you are an asshole.”

That’s Jann Wenner on his career. The remark appears late in Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, on page 486. By that point, I had come to the conclusion that you could do what Jann Wenner did only if you were an asshole. But I hate that word and don’t intend to parse it. It’s easy to pile up the negative personal qualities that Wenner has displayed all through his life, and Hagan serves generous portions. But the overall effect paints Wenner as a man who succeeded in spite of himself, and I don’t buy it. You don’t get to do what Wenner did if you are no more than an undisciplined hedonist. That’s what’s missing from Sticky Fingers, the “more” that enabled Wenner to parley his vices — his ruthlessness, his faithlessness, his craven pursuit of celebrity — into a run of five decades. If you want to know how flawed Wenner is as a human being, this is the book for you. If you want to know how he kept Rolling Stone afloat through good times and bad — how he connected with millions of more or less literate Americans in an enterprise that often seemed as Messianic as it was mercenary — you will wonder how Hagan managed to leave that part out.

It would be wrong, though, to imply that my disappointment is very great. I am not really curious about Wenner, Rolling Stone, or the definition of a cultural cohort with which I was never in sympathy. I still don’t know why I read the book, but I do know that I was drawn by the promise of substance that wafted from all the reviews. It was clear that Sticky Fingers was a good book about something. But what?

It’s about depravity, the depravity of adolescent anarchy extended into adulthood. The depravity of lavishing attention on rock bands and rare carpets while undermining it with mind-altering drugs, the depravity of declaring that the whole mess is not only important but of world-historical significance. The depravity of attempting to fashion a better society without any actual thinking. The depravity of distracting political and cultural élites from the problems of ordinary people, the utter depravity of dismissing the ordinary as boring. The depravity that Victorian painters loved to suggest in their murals of Rome’s lascivious decline (Hogan’s are equally alluring). That’s what Sticky Fingers is about. And here is how it ends:

Jann Wenner’s oldest and dearest friends — people who had worked for him in the 1960s and after — could not help but notice the likeness between Trump and the Jann Wenner they knew. The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to celebrity and power. … “High-functioning narcissists can be incredibly effective people.” (503)

It was a relief to read this, really, because I was beginning to worry that nobody had noticed. Just a few pages earlier, Hagan was describing Wenner’s reaction to the scandal of Rolling Stone’s libelous article about rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

Wenner took a degree of comfort in his libel insurance, but he swerved between denial and confrontation. One minute he blamed the source, the next the writer, the next Will Dana [the Rolling Stone editor who made the observation about high-functioning narcissists quoted above]. One minute he described himself as checked out of Rolling Stone, fading from relevance with his rock star buddies; the next he claimed he still controlled every aspect of the magazine down to the reader mail. “What a horrible thing to have happened,” he said, sucking his teeth, a thing he did when he was anxious. “The further it recedes on the horizon, the better I feel about it. Confronted with it on a day-to-day thing, it just makes me sick.” (495)

Isn’t that a shame!

Chalk it up to my being an indoors person, but its hard for me to worry more about the fallout from environmental degradation than I do about the consequences of moral vacuity. Trump and Wenner aren’t as unusual as they’re made out to be.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
November 2017 (III)

Thursday 16th

Just the other day, a link from The Browser to Nautilus carried me away. Veronique Greenwood wrote a piece about a book from 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I could imagine what I would have thought of it when it was published (not much), but now I had to have it. Jaynes’s theory, which is that consciousness as we understand it did not exist until about three thousand years ago, makes a great deal of sense to me these days. The fact that the nature of consciousness remains somewhat mysterious even to thinkers like philosopher Daniel Dennett (who keeps “figuring it out”) and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio does not of course imply that consciousness is necessarily of recent origin, but its connections to language do. (I have long believed that true consciousness is an essentially verbal phenomenon. Perhaps it would be better to say that consciousness is shaped by verbal experience.) Jaynes hypothesizes that, before there was consciousness, there was the bicameral mind, in which the voice of gods called out from the right side of the brain to the left, human or self side. I am not going to begin to try to defend this theory, although I think that it’s probably correct.

Thanks to Amazon, a copy of the book arrived yesterday. It is fairly easy reading, at least for me, now. A great deal of it is familiar, not because I’ve read it elsewhere but because I’ve arrived at the same conclusions from experience. I’ll go into details some other time. I make the point about sailing through the book because what I’m really attending to is the marvelously peculiar prose. Here is the beginning of Chapter 2:

Thus having chiseled away some of the major misconceptions about consciousness, what then have we left? If consciousness is not all these things, if it is not so extensive as we think, not a copy of experience or the necessary focus of learning, judgment, or even thought, what is it? And as we stare into the dust and rubble of the last chapter, hoping Pygmalion-like to see consciousness newly step forth pure and pristine out of the detritus, let us ramble out and around the subject a little way as the dust settles, talking of other things.(46)

Let us speak of metaphor.

In the room, the women fairly come and go. In another passage, about thunderstorms, Jaynes writes of “bulgeous banks of burly air.” I just looked up “bulgeous” on the computer and, oh, dear, it is a word: it’s used to describe the fit of too-tight trousers at the male groin. The talk of metaphor is interesting, although I am not convinced that Jayne’s ideas are so different from those of I A Richards, who distinguished the tenor from the vehicle of metaphor, that we need new terms, metaphrand and metaphier. The important point, however, is that language is indeed largely metaphorical. We have a few words for simple things and functions — parts of the body, common objects, and basic actions — and from these we have elaborated clouds of nuance.

Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastnesses of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor which it is. Indeed, if we consider the changes in vocabulary that have occurred over the last few millennia, and project them several millennia hence, an interesting paradox arises. For if we ever achieve a language that has the power of expressing everything, then metaphor will no longer be possible. I would not say, in that case, my love is like a red, red rose, for love would have exploded into terms for its thousands of nuances, and applying the correct therm would leave the rose metaphorically dead. (51-2)

This is quite true. As I’m sure I’ve already written somewhere else, a lot of the power of ancient texts comes from the compression into single words of meanings that have long since split into words of their own. The “knowledge” that Adam and Eve digested along with the forbidden fruit is a fine example. A great deal of poetic force, if not actual poetry, owes to inarticulacy.


Consciousness is occasioned by stress. I’m not going to argue that right now, either. It’s my first law of consciousness, the second being the point about verbal origins. Consciousness is the attempt to answer questions presented by stressful situations. Many people respond to stressful situations without resorting to consciousness at all; possibly most people do. They just run, perhaps. Well, everybody runs. But the conscious person is someone who wants to analyse the problem, and no matter how richly supported by graphic aids, analysis is a communicable function. It is not a private, personal thing, but something that ought to be intelligible to any intelligent person. (The common belief that you can know what you mean even if you can’t put it into words is twaddle. You’re not talking about knowing, but about day-dreaming.) The close connection of stress and analysis means that most conscious people are critics.

The person who is neither reading, writing, listening nor talking is not conscious. Sentient, perhaps; aware, perhaps; but not conscious. Again, I think that this describes most people, most of the time. And it might explain why most people, and not just Hofstadter’s anti-intellectual Americans, dislike critics. It is not the specifics of the criticism so much as the persistence of stress. Why must the critic keep talking about a stressful situation that has been dealt with?

I often wonder about consciousness when I am listening to music, especially music that I know very well. To the extent that I am listening closely, and not following the thoughts that music can inspire, I don’t believe that I am conscious. That may be why I love music: it is a consciousness-blocker. Music somehow transfigures stress; it preserves our physical responses but eliminates agitation and fear. Even when music makes me want to dance, I remain contentedly passive. The great composers are in complete control of their complex structures: everything goes exactly where it ought to go. There is nothing for me to do but tag along, whistling.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (II)

6, 8 and 9 November

Monday 6th

Last week, Kathleen attended a Bitcoin event in Florida. While there, she had a conversation with an Austrian economist, currently in the middle of a fellowship at Harvard, who was very enthusiastic about the book he was reading. After he said a few words about it, Kathleen said, “My husband would be very interested in that.” So she wrote down the particulars. Of course, the next time we talked, she didn’t have her notes handy, but she remembered the title — and I remembered where my copy of the book was. It was The Passions and the Interests, by Albert O Hirschman. I read it for the first time four years ago.

It was another one of those magic-seeming moments, when the book that I ought to read next simply presents itself. As I recalled Hirschman’s little essay in economic history, there was a line of argument, running roughly from Bacon to Hume, and flourishing in the thought of Baron de Montesquieu and Sir James Steuart, that distinguished interests, as predictable and benign (perhaps even constructive), from passions, which were violent and unruly, and that then proposed that interests could offset, or countervail, passions. The role that this line of thinking, however implicit, played in the development of liberal politics seems obvious, so I read The Passions and the Interests again.

Subtitled Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph, Hirschman’s book takes a line of Montesquieu for its epigram:

Et il est heureux pour les hommes d’être dans une situation où, pendant que leurs passions leur inspirent la pensée d’être méchants, ils ont pourtant intérêts de ne pas l’être.

It is fortunate for men that, while their passions incline them toward wickedness, it is in their interest not to be. (Esprit des Lois, Book XXI)

What I didn’t remember until I re-read the book was that Adam Smith not only abandoned but effaced this line of thinking, replacing Montesquieu’s idea of a marketplace controlled by checks and balances with one in which unfettered self-interest singlehandedly created prosperity. He saw interests and passions as synonymous, just as thinkers prior to Bacon had done. Montesquieu’s faith in le doux commerce — an idea that Marx and Engels openly mocked — was naive at best.

Central to Hirschman’s study is the role of change in time: old circumstances generate new conditions in which it is difficult to imagine or remember the old ones. The thinkers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century who contributed to the passions/interest argument were looking, energetically and almost desperately, for a means of restraining the destructive force of aristocratic “heroism.” The partial success of their search is attested by Romantic disaffection with the commercial peace that the Enlightenment brought about. The Gothic Revival began only minutes after thinkers like Montesquieu congratulated themselves on having gotten rid of all the old barbarisms that they denounced with the label “Gothic.” Hirschman puts it pungently: In sum, capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature. (132) He cautions that, while history never repeats itself exactly, ignorance of history may condemn thinkers to recur quite precisely to ideas that have demonstrably failed in the past.

Hirschman is also engaged with the notion of the intended, but unrealized consequences of social action. We are familiar with unintended, realized consequences because they are there to see. The abuse of Facebook is perhaps the leading instance at this moment in time of unintended consequences. Hirschman considers the unintended consequences of Calvin’s doctrines of predestination upon the growth of European commerce, but only to consider at the same time the intended but unrealized consequences of the passions/interest argument — a concurrent development. If capitalism did not turn out to be inherently stabilizing, Hirschman concludes, then it is in the general interest to forget it was ever expected to be.

[W]hat social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so? (131)

Setting aside Hirschman’s particular economic case, it seems to me that his conclusion applies with grim force to the liberal Civil Rights project of the Fifties and Sixties. This was supposed to unite all Americans in a common citizenship, but the patchwork of voting, schooling, and housing laws that constituted the actual program signally failed to achieve anything of the kind. As Hirschman says on the same page, “the illusory expectations that are associated with certain social decisions at the time of their adoption help keep their real future effects from view.” If you put these observations together, you pass through the looking-glass into a world in which social objectives, despite being set aside or forgotten, continue to mask their failure. For fifty years, the Democratic Party minimized its legislative commitment to equality for black Americans while pretending that equality had been achieved. The climax of this delusion was the election of Barack Obama as President. We now  know that this remarkable event precipitated right-wing movements throughout the country that were determined to demonstrate just how little progress had been made over time. And black Americans themselves felt obliged to remind us that their lives matter.


Wednesday 8th

In September, the New York Times Book Review published an essay by Douglas Brinkley on the topic of Larry McMurtry, a writer whose short journalism I have often enjoyed but whose books I have never read. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University, was inspired to re-read the three novels that constitute McMurtry’s “Houston” trilogy. In his judgment, they had held up well. What interested me was the idea of reading a novel with whose now-distant setting I was personally familiar. McMurtry wasn’t writing historical fiction, of course, any more than (aside from one or two exotics) Trollope was. But the Houston of 1960 was already being plowed under when I arrived at the end of the decade. I thought I would give the first one, Moving On, a try. It took a while to engage me; I was not immediately attracted to the picaresque road movie that takes up the first quarter of the book. But I liked the tone of it, and the heroine, Patsy Carpenter, appealed enormously: an intelligent girl — very much a girl, no matter that she’s married and sexually candid — trying to make a place for herself in the respectable world. When the action settled in Houston, where Patsy’s husband enrolls as a graduate student in literature at Rice, I found myself reading with the keenest attentiveness.

So keen was I that when Fleming Park was mentioned, I had to have a look at Google Maps, because I couldn’t remember just where it was. It’s between the Rice campus and the neighborhood where my first mother-in-law built a modernist house, on North Boulevard. Early in my marriage to her daughter, before the house was built, this quietly formidable woman made a deal with me. Money in some form or other would come my way if I would keep the grass mowed at the empty lot. She provided me with a gas-powered lawnmower for the purpose. I was young and inexperienced enough to accept the proposition. I did not yet know myself very well; I did not understand how non-existent, except as a source of annoying guilt, that empty lot would be in my imagination. I utterly failed to keep my part of the bargain. Not long after the house was built, my wife decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore, and she took refuge at her mother’s. Many years later, my daughter told me that new owners had demolished her grandmother’s house and built something more conventional for the neighborhood.

As long as I was “there,” I thought I’d have a look at my parent’s house, in Tanglewood, a tract that was developed in the Fifties. Tanglewood was developed rather like the Monopoly board, with the smaller houses at the south edge grading to ever-larger ones at toward the north. My parents’ house was at the rich end, on Sturbridge — just “Sturbridge,” no “road” or “drive” — and, encompassing 5500 square feet, it was not what the term “ranch house” calls to mind. Like all the homes at that end of Tanglewood, it was a low-slung building, with elements borrowed from both the English cottage — a leaded, diamond-paned bow window adorned the only stretch of the front wall that wasn’t hidden by bushes — and the Palm Beach villa.

For all its size and comfort, it always struck me as totally unimpressive. I don’t mean that it wasn’t ostentatious (although it wasn’t), only that it made no impression of any kind, except that of making no impression. A lot of brick and window and shrubbery went into the effort of being unmemorable. It wasn’t ugly, but it was, somehow, not architecture. It would take me decades to admit what the choice of this house had to tell me about my parents, because, at the time, the only message that got through was that they had no taste, and that wasn’t true. If I never looked at the house without a feeling of disappointment, that was because I didn’t know how to look at it. Now I know that, to my parents, both raised in the Midwest, the house on Sturbridge was a great relief from the pretensions of the Northeast to which they had been transplanted as young people.

When Google Maps’ street view function was introduced, I “passed” in front of the house a few times. The last time I looked, a few years ago, someone had had the very bad idea of imposing a mad portico upon the front door. I can’t remember its details, but the effect was Las Vegas. It made the façade memorable in the worst sort of way. The other night, wondering about the latest status of this mistake, I dragged the map across the screen until Tanglewood and then Sturbridge came into view. There I had a shock. There could be no doubt about it. Our house had been removed, demolished, undone. The pool and the patio were gone, too. Aside from a strip of driveway, and the crowns of some very mature trees, there was nothing but grass.

The curious part of my brain quickly learned that a number of other houses close to the now-vacant lot were not the ones that I remembered. Immediately to the west, somebody had put up a broad center-hall Colonial, with white clapboard and black shutters. It looked not terribly unlike the house that we had left behind in Bronxville, where it belonged. Much less agreeable was the house now across the street, a Southwestern confection of stucco and red tiles, with an appalling motel-like porte-cochère jutting out from the front. Already, during my last years in Houston, people were talking about “tear-downs,” perfectly nice houses that were razed to make way for bigger and better ones. My parents’ house was over sixty years old. My father had had to rewire it and replace the air-conditioning, staggering expenses. Perhaps the slab cracked. (If you don’t know what that would mean, you don’t know how lucky you are.) Things get old, and nothing is forever.

In some other part of my brain, all I was aware of was annihilation. I had not set foot inside the house since 1978, but the place where I had set my foot no longer existed to step into. A major setting of the most interesting decade of my life (in the sense of the Chinese curse) had been wiped off the surface of the earth; now it existed only in the minds of a handful of people. In fact, of course, my parents’ house had ceased to exist, except as a shell, the moment the new owners moved in, nearly forty years ago. It had been another house, for other people, for a very long time. But for most of that time, it had looked the same, which made it easy to pretend that it was still the same inside as well. I had taken the monstrous alteration to the entrance as a great insult, but utter erasure was almost impossible to comprehend.

Once upon a time, I should have had to journey back to Houston to make this discovery. The return itself would have done much to prepare me for the enormity. I haven’t been to Houston since 1991, and a great many things have changed, even if, as I suspect, it is still the town that it was when it became the fourth-largest city in the United States. A friend, if I still had friends in Houston, might have told me that the house had been torn down. But I came upon it all unsuspecting, snooping through Google Maps. I believe that it was the sheer ease of finding out that the house was gone that made its disappearance so overwhelming.

When I went back to have a second look, I noted that the street view is dated October 2015; perhaps there is a new house there now, yet to appear on the satellite photo. If you’re in the area, have a look, and drop me a line. Be sure to take a picture!


Thursday 9th

“The Paradise Papers” — how oddly appropriate this nickname is. Is it supposed to refer to Bermuda, where a law firm called Appleby and numerous corporate-services providers have been busy planting money in tax-free plots? Although quite pleasant for parts of the year, Bermuda is too hot in summer and too chilly in winter to pass for heaven. What I take the name to signify is the unrealistic fantasy of legal tax evasion. Call it a tragedy of the uncommons: when too many players park too much wealth in hidden accounts, laws will be changed.

Inevitably, the early reports were studded with boldfaced names, from Madonna to Her Majesty. But focusing on individuals is a mistake, as is worrying about getting caught. If you don’t stand so close to the problem, if you step back and see it from the ordinary person’s perspective, the Paradise Papers project a blurry galaxy of élite entitlement. Not only do élites have all the money, but they write laws that allow them to keep all the money, too. The ordinary person is a chump who’s supposed to pay taxes. The élites have created a paradise in which taxes are not imposed. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve done.

A duty-free paradise: the French aristocracy thought it lived in one, too, before the Revolution. The nobility was exempted from taxation because it provided the national defense. That was the theory, but by 1789 it had long since ceased to correspond to reality. What is expected of the American élite? What are the rewards? Liberal democracies do not recognize élites as a social or political class, and this may be a mistake, a bit of constitutional naïveté. In the absence of official status and explicit responsibilities, élites exercise their power in the shadows cast by groves of dense legislation. No wonder Donald Trump’s supporters want to chop things down.


I have been thinking about business. I’m beginning to gather some notes. It’s hard not to sound as if I were plotting out a treatise.

What is business? It’s a way of making money that can be entered into without professional training.

There seem to be three kinds of business. First, there is commerce. Trading. For a long time, this was the only kind of business, because the second, manufacturing, was not extensive enough to be differentiated from it, and because the third, extraction and development, was captured by property owners, quite often royalties. Anyway, there they are.

Commerce has experienced well-publicized vicissitudes in what we call the Information Age, particularly in the area of retail sales. It is not clear how this turbulence will settle. Whatever happens, commerce will remain the most vibrant, socially important kind of business. I include banking and transportation under this heading, and I find it useful to call commercial business organizations firms.

Extraction and development involve altering the surface and accessible contents of the planet. Although people have been building towns for millennia, and nabobs have undertaken many monumental works, development as we understand dates back to the Seventeenth Century, when property owners began sponsoring coherent building projects. The Place Vendôme in Paris is a fine example. The duc de Vendôme divided a piece of land into a central square and surrounding lots. The lots were leased to prospective builders, who were bound to erect their structures behind uniform façades; the structures themselves were not uniform. London’s Belgravia is an enlargement of the idea; the second Earl Grosvenor hired an architect and a builder (Thomas Cubitt) to produce dozens of nearly identical residences on the grounds of what had been a family estate. These happy examples of development are sadly atypical, as is New York’s Rockefeller Center.

As for extraction, it usually takes the form of mining, although forestry and large-scale, monocultural agriculture belong under the heading. As currently practiced, extraction and development usually cause environmental degradation.

Manufacturing detached itself from commerce when, around the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, it became possible to produce massive quantities of cotton cloth with mechanical looms and other devices. It must always be borne in mind that the machines did the work. Human beings were employed to tend to the machines, not to perform the machines’ labor. Although hundreds, then thousands, and even millions of people were hired to service factories, it was almost never correct to call them workers, common usage notwithstanding. The history of mass manufacturing has ever since been a matter of creating machines that required ever fewer human attendants. We speak today of robots as if there were some essential difference between the prehensile instruments found on today’s assembly lines and the spinning jenny. There isn’t: they share the essential similarity of not being human. For several decades now, the millions of factory “workers” have been giving way to thousands; upper limits of hundreds and even dozens are within view. One objective of capitalist manufacturing has always been to finance the means of reducing the number of human employees required for any operation.

What extraction and manufacturing have in common is that, between danger and tedium, they degrade the humanity of many, and possibly most, employees. Much as policy-makers regret the “loss of jobs,” it is difficult to regard mining, for example, as a desirable occupation for anyone. Indeed, it is to be pitied that extraction has not gone the way of manufacturing.

Three hundred years ago, of course, almost everyone on earth was engaged in some kind of farming. The activity of the peasant could not be distinguished from the peasant himself; one can only call it “subsistence.” Only at the smallest upper margins was it a way to make money. Farming today is either extractive or commercial (as, for example, the rooftop kitchen gardens in Brooklyn and Queens), but in either case it involves the application of “business” techniques to an area formerly devoid of them. There will be no large-scale going back to the land.

No, our only hope is to create more commercial jobs. One way is to introduce an inexpensive degree of inefficiency. Imagine, for example, that Amazon were to become a wholesaler, selling books only to tradesmen. The prices of books would rise slightly, and the convenience of delivery might decline (although in some cases it might just as easily improve); there would be many more jobs for the kind of people who have always worked in bookshops, and yet book prices would not rise very much. Similarly, Wall-Mart might stock all sorts of shops of various kinds, instead of operating its own mammoth ones. Everybody interested in this issue ought to take a look at Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

It should also be borne in mind that artisanal manufacture is a kind of commerce.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (I)

31 October; 1 and 2 November

Tuesday 31st October

What is the life of the mind? No, I mean really. I’m tempted sometimes to call it a mirage, a hope or a dream that is never to be realized. But the very word “mirage” tips me off to the real disenchantment: I’m upset that there are no ivory towers, no secure retreats in which sense can be made of the world. There is only my apartment, which is quiet enough but occupied by an unruly refrigerator and dozens of small housekeeping problems. It seems to me that most people who have pursued the life of the mind have been in a position to overlook domestic distractions, so it would be plausible to attribute my shortcomings in the mind department to my not being in that position.

But the question persists: what is the life of the mind? What does it look like, feel like? What is it good for? Can any reasonably smart person have a go at it? Or is it a vocation? If it is, who’s doing the calling?

What is an “intellectual”? What does an intellectual do? Lead the life of the mind, or something else? Are intellectuals born or made? How smart does an intellectual have to be?


These questions buzz incessantly because they are unanswerable. It’s not up to me, or to any one other person to answer them; there has to be consensus, just as there is a consensus about who is and who is not an electrical engineer. Most of us don’t have a very clear idea of what it is that electrical engineers do, and we certainly don’t know what electrical engineers know, but we trust them to stake out their territory and to keep it in order. And so it is with other professions. Am I suggesting that the life of the mind is a profession? Don’t look at me. There seems to be a widespread notion that intellectuals spend their time being intellectuals, whatever that means. If that’s what they’re doing with their days, then it looks like a profession to me. If some people think that the life of the mind is a profession, do we want to persuade them otherwise? I gather that people who believe in the existence of professional intellectuals do not think very highly of the life of the mind.

All I know is how to make it even worse. “Intellectual” is vague. “Critic” is not. Nobody likes to be criticized. But I can tell you’re getting bored. Let’s talk about rapists. There’s a piece about rapists in the Times today. Well, that’s not what they called themselves. They denied that they were rapists, although they acknowledged forcing themselves upon unconsenting women.

Most subjects in these studies freely acknowledge non-consensual sex — but that does not mean they consider it real rape. Researchers encounter this contradiction again and again.

Asked “if they had penetrated against their consent,” said Dr. Koss, the subject will say yes. Asked if he did “something like rape,” the answer is almost always no.

Studies of incarcerated rapists — even men who admit to keeping sex slaves in conflict zones — find a similar disconnect. It’s not that they deny sexual assault happens; it’s just that the crime is committed by the monster over there.

And this is not a sign that the respondents are psychopaths, said Dr. Hamby, the journal editor. It’s a sign that they are human. “No one thinks they are a bad guy,” she said.

Indeed, experts note one last trait shared by men who have raped: they do not believe they are the problem.

I like this story, because it illustrates the need for critics. No one thinks they are a bad guy. You probably assume — I’m addressing men here — that if you raped someone, you’d at least know that you’d done so, but, no, that’s not how it works, apparently. You might admit, as some of them men described in the story did, that you were paying back someone for arousing you a sort of quid pro quo thing, not rape. You would make use of a handy disconnect to distance doing a bad thing from being a bad person.

The story also illustrates the difficulty of the critic’s job, which is precisely to identify and disable all those disconnects. And the problem is not limited to convincing these men that, no, they are rapists, they have raped. The odds are that, if you gathered the families of these men and confronted them with the record, they, too, would deny that their husband or son or father or uncle was a rapist. Is the critic, to do the critic’s job, suppose to insist that nobody can leave the room until everyone accepts the truth?

And what is the truth? We create an abstraction, non-consensual coitus, say (this would only be one kind of rape), and use it as a frame. If someone’s behavior puts him in the frame, then we cut away all the irrelevant details and shove him into the pen of rapists. By simplifying things, we make it possible to impose a uniform punishment. But of course no details are irrelevant to the people living them. I don’t mean to plead extenuating circumstances, but only to point out that nobody sees himself as an abstraction. In the heat of the moment, nobody sees much of anything.

It may be argued that, for this very reason, sexual misbehavior is not a good test of critical purposes. I would reply that, where social institutions are concerned, the problem is even worse. Sex offenders do seem to know that they’ve done something wrong. Institutional grandees — politicians, CEOs, university presidents — carry on as if they were not only good guys but great guys, on top of everything and in complete command of all necessary skills. As if the protocols of leadership had been established for centuries, as if the conduct of public affairs were as straightforward as driving a car. In fact, as any critic can see, we muddle in a mist. Our traditions are largely bogus and our arrangements are undermined by secret agendas. The effectiveness of our reforms is monstrously exaggerated. We consistently blame problems on their victims, because, after all, if the victims disappeared, there would be no problems, right?

We use disconnects, too. We “forget” what we have done as a society.  History is stuff that happened on the other side of a gulf of timelessness, or once upon a time. Life is now! Help yourself to a clean slate!

There’s plenty to keep a critic busy. The life of the mind is not one of idle relaxation!


Wednesday 1st November

When I was a boy, formality was on the way out, but it was still very much a part of life, at least in my upper-middle-class corner of the world. Boys bowed slightly and girls curtsied when shaking hands. You said, not “Thank you,” but “Thank you, Miss Smith.” Thank-you notes were a trial. Everyone hated formality, not because it was tedious or onerous, although it could be both of those things, but because it was felt to be meaningless, an empty hangover of olden days. If children hated it the most, that was because we could see how doomed it was, and how pointless it was for us to learn the ins and outs. We felt about formality pretty much what children sitting in a van parked beside a beach think about adults who are slow to open the doors and let them run to the fun.

The world was going casual. Comfort, not status, was the new criterion. Ease replaced attentiveness. Intimacy could develop as quickly as two people wanted it to. And women were going to be as free as men — someday.

And now we know what that looks like. The world is everybody’s living room. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the world is everybody’s hotel room.


Most people in Europe and America today are the descendants of men and women who were peasants and small farmers in the Eighteenth Century and earlier. In the past two hundred years, we have all come up in the world, and, as is always the case with upward mobility, we have had to learn how to behave like our immediate betters. There have been many steps on the ascent, not just one or two, and each one has involved mastering a slightly different code of manners. I think it fair to say that very little reflection was ever involved. It was like learning a dance. You watch the dancers who are good at it and try to follow their steps. You don’t ask why.

Well, some people asked why. Two hundred years of incessant “improvement,” of picking up new ways of doing things only to replace them with more desirable ways, inevitably produced a feeling of rootlessness, a worry that all this good behavior might not guarantee access to a genuinely superior way of life. As early as the 1820s, Transcendentalists were protesting against “conformity.” In the middle of the century, Flaubert mordantly ridiculed the aspirations of the bourgeoisie. What the many forms of modernism had in common was a rejection of polite conventions, whether by consulting psychotherapists or drinking cocktails in the middle of the day.

So, by the time of my boyhood — the years of glorious new prosperity for everybody — the jig was up. Keeping up with the Joneses would henceforth take on a brutally materialistic aspect. The Joneses might set the standard for cars, household appliances, and lawn care, but nobody cared anymore how they behaved at home. Now that social status could be established in terms of chrome (in) and crabgrass (out), there was no need to put on an act. You could be yourself, and risk spontaneity. The only rule of behavior in America was that you ought to be “nice.”


The great unmourned casualty of this new freedom from formality was “respectability.” I don’t think that young people have any idea of what this meant, much less of how vitally important it was as a foundation of feminism. To put things very briefly, respectability was a code of conduct that allowed middle-class women who followed it assiduously to move with relative freedom outside the home without bringing dishonor upon themselves or their families. If we tend to associate the preoccupation with female chastity with non-Western cultures, that is because centuries of respectable women weaned us from the idea that a woman alone in public will inevitably inspire sexual improprieties. A side effect of this long experience was the creation of a parallel zone of private conduct, stretching between married fidelity and outright adultery, in which unattached men and women might pursue intimacy tentatively and with impunity, but until the middle of the Twentieth Century, this was a secret — the woman was punished if she was caught. But it was a secret that eventually made the public routines of respectability look ridiculous.

It would be foolish to suggest that a return to the norms of respectability would provide today’s women with increased protection from sexual harassment and assault, and in any case such returns are never possible. The motive behind respectability — the apparently universal need to assure and to be assured of female chastity — has largely evaporated, and only religious primitives in the West are concerned about it. Our current concern is for the autonomy and safety of women. But I think it worthwhile to consider aspects of respectability that might be put to new use.

Respectability was always extra-legal; its authority was drawn from the community of women. The ostracism of “fallen” women is well-known, thanks to La Traviata and the domestic life of George Eliot, but it should not be forgotten that men were disciplined, too. A man who made improper advances — among which we might class invitations to hotel rooms for any ostensible purpose — would be denied entry to respectable homes, thus making it impossible for him to contract a respectable marriage. In the court of respectability, a woman’s complaint weighed more than a man’s defense, and men took great care to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In today’s terms, a man of dubious sexual integrity might find the path to career advancement blocked. I go so far as to wonder if the concerted effort to police laddish misconduct might be a more effective propellant through the glass ceiling than mere individual ambition.

Desire being what it is, these efforts would provoke a fair amount of hypocrisy, and women would have to forego the delirium of sudden intimacy. But it would be men, now, and not women, who would have to prove themselves to be respectable.


In Jane Austen’s novels, there is a good deal of tension and humor about the use of proper names between young men and women. In two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, ambiguous extensions of the family circle allow the use of Christian names long before the milepost of engagement has been reached, creating circumstances in which familial intimacy leads to marital intimacy. And in Emma, much the same point is made in the opposite way by the heroine’s decision to go on calling the man she loves “Mr Knightley”; switching to “George” would be a move away from intimacy. But these instances are small exceptions to the vast authority of a correct usage that judged undue familiarity to be insolent and insulting. Something else to think upon.


Thursday 2nd

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a long book — much longer than its pages. Its perspective is immense, and, arguably, could be neither wider nor deeper. For it is really the history of a nation’s unwillingness and inability to reflect. The United States was founded on a Constitution in which the most advanced political theories of the Enlightenment were distilled, but within little more than a generation, its swelling population of backwoodsmen and immigrants regarded higher education with mistrust. Outside enclaves clustered in the Northeast, everyday life was crude and boisterous. The prohibition of established religion, far from encouraging a secular society, readily accommodated every variety of confessional caprice. Promoters, developers, and industrialists either single-mindedly or mindlessly pursued profits. For most of its first century, the United States was preoccupied by a bonanza of exploitation, punctuated by an appallingly bloody war that ended in exhaustion and without a significant victory. The main lesson of American history seems to be that no right is more cherished than the right to be stupid.

(Just how stupid, even I hadn’t guessed. Many of the yeoman farmers who figured in Jefferson’s agrarian dreams were ignorant of the rudiments of working the land; Hofstadter reminds us that their descendants mounted stiff resistance to the expertise offered by the land-grant universities. The trail of the pioneers was a desolation of despoiled acres.)

At the outset, Hofstadter expresses concern about “wounding the national amour-propre,” but that is something that I have never felt. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, anything I hadn’t lived through; it simply supported my conclusions with a wealth of corroborative evidence. Two sentences on, Hofstadter writes,

For all their bragging and their hypersensitivity, Americans are, if not the most self-critical, at least the most anxiously self-conscious people in the world, forever concerned about the inadequacy of something or other — their national morality, their national culture, their national purpose. (vii)

But, perhaps because self-consciousness is the trigger, Americans prefer to feel, rather than to think, their way through the questions that trouble them. Thinking is a matter of honestly asking those questions, and discriminating among the possible answers. Feeling is afraid of questions, precisely because they open on to the frightening unknown. Feeling finds its answers ready-made, packaged in the form of sentiment. Sentiment combines a picture of how things ought to be with an attitude of hostility toward other pictures. Anyone who thinks about the matter recognizes that a statue of Jefferson Davis must be offensive to all Americans. A sentimental response to the same statue is likely to hold that, since the statue has been standing for a long time, it ought to go on standing. (Of course, there is an alternative path of thought: the statue should stand because the idea of America is false.)

Living in America means getting used to living with people who mistake feeling for thinking. This is the number-one problem of democracy, and it is no longer confined to the United States. We simply have more experience with it. For a long time, people who believed in thinking — let’s call them intellectuals — professed feelings of alienation from their fellow-citizens. Alienation was still a big deal when I was growing up; it was the hallmark of a hipster. Now it just seems a silly pose, when it is not actually a mental disorder.

Perhaps the alienation is situational rather than personal. Hofstadter was inclined to believe that the American intellectual’s position is a tragic one, “either shut out or sold out.” (417) This assumes that the intellectual seeks to participate in the exercise of power. I have somewhat tentatively concluded that the intellectual has nothing to offer the public but persuasion. The intellectual who becomes an expert, at the public service, has in essence ceased to be an intellectual, at least with regard to the area of expertise; for no one consults an expert to hear his questions.

One question that Hofstadter leaves unanswered is the nature of the intellectual’s venue. Whatever it is that intellectuals do, where should they do it? Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study seems one answer to me, but I don’t know very much about it. I’ve always dreamed of Colleges, handsomely endowed institutions, rather like those artistic retreats such as Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, only permanent, and not necessarily residential. I try not to imagine the Colleges in any detail, because to do so would tie me up making imaginary arrangements that would guarantee me a place in one. But aside from a nice income, membership would provide introductions to other intellectuals. As Hofstadter suggests, intellectuals work best in solitude. But you still have to keep up.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Laundered the Costumes
October 2017 (IV)

24, 26 and 27 October

Tuesday 24th

For a long time, I put off reading the last two chapters of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. I had a good idea where he was going, and, indeed, in the ninth chapter, he went there. And how! All the great evils of the Nineteenth Century — oppression of laborers, extermination of indigenous peoples, imperial expropriation — were laid at the feet of a liberalism whose blessings were nullified by being limited to the occupants of a “sacred space,” property owners and their families. Stuffed with hypocrisy, liberalism was presented as a piñata to be repudiated and destroyed.

But the final chapter was surprising. Entitled “Liberalism and the Catastrophe of the Twentieth Century,” it seemed bound to argue that the Nazi persecution of the Jews represented a climax of liberal values, not their subversion. Losurdo had lined up the cases: since its inception at the time of the Glorious Revolution (1689), liberalism had detached whole classes of human beings from the claims of humanity. Slaves, servants, Native Americans, Aborigines, the Irish: again and again, prosperous and otherwise broad-minded élites made a point of finding people to diminish. As to the Holocaust itself, however, Losurdo seemed content to allow the reader to draw implicit conclusions. It was a great relief to be spared the flogging. By one of those strange accidents that characterize my reading life, James Whitman’s study, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, has just appeared to do the job for him, something that Losurdo might or might not have foreseen ten years ago, when Liberalism came out.

Instead, Losurdo ended on a hopeful, if still rather stern note:

[L]iberalism’s merits are far too significant and too evident for it to be necessary to credit it with imaginary ones. Among the latter is the alleged spontaneous capacity for self-correction often attributed to it. (344)

On the previous page, Losurdo had elaborated this point:

Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (the tradition of thinking that, starting with ‘radicalism’ and passing through Marx, issued in the revolutions which variously invoked him) to a far greater extent than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it.

In other words, while liberalism is not spontaneously self-correcting, it does respond to grievances, albeit for “practical” rather than lofty reasons. Losurdo regards Brown v Board of Education as such a reversal. The Cold War had altered the valence of racism. Opponents of slavery, from the age of revolutions onward, had been associated with the tyranny of radical Jacobinism, but now the Soviet Union, as the heir to the social justice tradition, could credibly claim that the United States, if it tolerated Jim Crow, must not be seriously committed to democracy. Call it optics, if you like. Liberal Americans undertook a wrenching shift, one that remains incomplete. Liberal Republicans suffered almost immediate extinction, and the Democratic Party, sixty years on, continues to incapable of stabilizing its opportunistic coalitions.

The most pointed lesson that I learned from Losurdo is that liberalism is not a philosophical or intellectual position. It is practical and realistic, and its thinkers write after the fact. Locke is usually credited with the introduction of liberalism, and he certainly argued that property owners ought to call the shots. But the specifics of liberal government were worked out on the fly, roughly in the fifty years that ended with Walpole’s ministry (c 1740), and then more minutely through to the early years of George III. Political theory had nothing to do with these developments, which were instituted by members of Parliament in the conduct of contingent affairs.

The parliamentarians’ overriding objective, it seems to me, was to solve what I call the “Great Men” problem of monarchy: to whom is the monarch bound to turn for advice? This was never a theoretical problem, for all the preaching of saintly clerics, but rather one of raw power, a contest fought again and again by kings and magnates of various skills and resources, until settled once and for all by constituting Parliament itself as the monarch’s one and only council. This is in practice pretty much the same thing as the rule of law. Not even the king is above it, but, more important, everyone knows what to expect. The great liberal achievement is the institutionalization of power. Modern civil society owes its existence to this abstraction.

Unfortunately, the dispersion of political power to institutions often leads to muddle. It requires great intelligence to operate an institution — it is almost a matter of herding cats — and where a number of institutions must function together, as is the case throughout the United States, even the most intelligent leaders must harmonize their actions. Otherwise there is noise: muddle. And muddle invites those who do not sympathize with the liberal outlook to repersonalize power. It seems to me that this is a fair statement of the state of play in America today. Our institutions appear to have wandered from their mandates, and it seems unreasonable to expect them to find their own way back.

Is this where the intellectuals come in?


Thursday 26th

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction in 1964. I’ve had an undated but posthumous edition of the Vintage paperback for many years — Hofstadter died in 1970 — but I haven’t read the book until now. I’m thinking of awarding it a prize of my own, the Kondo Prime Award. I would call it Kondo Prime because, ever since the goddess of tidying-up persuaded me that there was no point to having hundreds, perhaps thousands of books in the house that I never looked at, I have been repeatedly blessed by my decision not to throw those books away but instead to re-read them; and, in the case of books that I owned but had never opened, I’ve enjoyed on more than one occasion the delightful surprise of reading a book for the first time at exactly the right time.

Much as I scold myself for not reading Hofstadter’s book long ago, I’m aware on every page that I am getting more out of it now than I should have done before. With regard to one issue, it’s a matter of bringing something to the reading that isn’t as developed in the book as it would be today. If we lucky enough to have a writer of Hofstadter’s caliber working today, we might look to this person for a study of Anti-Intellectualism and Misogyny in America. The vulgar insinuation that thinking people are effeminate was certainly familiar to Hofstadter, and he holds up two instances for frank evaluation. The first involves George William Curtis, who in 1877 sought to reform the New York State Constitution. Educated in Germany and the editor of Harper’s, Carter was ridiculed by Roscoe Conkling as an exemplar of “man-milliners,”

a reference to the fashion articles that Curtis’s magazine had recently started to publish … The more recent attacks by Senator McCarthy and other upon the Eastern and English-oriented prep-school personnel of the State Department, associated with charges of homosexuality, are not an altogether novel element in the history of American invective. That the term “man-milliners” was understood in this light by many is suggested by the fact that though the New York Tribune reported Conkling’s speech in full, with the offending word, Conkling’s nephew dropped “man-milliners” from his account of this incident in the biography of his uncle and substituted asterisks as though he were omitting an unmistakable obscenity. (189)

The second victim is Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1952.

The New York Daily News descended to calling him Adelaide and charged that he “trilled” his speeches in a “fruity” voice. His voice and diction were converted into objects of suspicion — “teacup words,” it was said, reminiscent of “a genteel spinster who can never forget that she got an A in elocution at Miss Smith’s Finishing School.” His supporters? They were “typical Harvard lace-cuff liberals,” “lace-panty diplomats,” “pompadoured lap dogs” who wailed “in perfumed anguish” at McCarthy’s accusations and on occasions “giggled” about their own anti-Communism. Politics, Stevenson’s critics were disposed to say, is a rough game for men. (227)

Now that women are in the game — please remember that, when I was a boy (and Hofstadter was writing), Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in Congress or at the top of any Federal branch —the usefulness of the effeminate man as a target has abated. I suppose that we can hail that as a genuine improvement. But so long as politics is a rough game for chest-pounders — a leading story on the front page of today’s Times indicates that Republicans who prefer to communicate in English are on the way out — it is difficult to be sanguine about the American experiment in democracy.

Hofstadter organizes anti-intellectualism onto four fronts.

The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the “purely” theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. (45-6)

I’m about halfway through the book. Its bearing on my inquiry into liberalism is somewhat tangential, for the term “liberal” appears only in quotations from conservative anti-intellectuals, eg “intellectually mongrelized ‘Liberals’,” taken from an essay written in 1926 by the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Like the allegation of Adlai Stevenson’s “fruity” voice, the conservative application of “liberal” is far more insulting than it is meaningful, a conclusion posing as an explanation. The important questions are these: what do liberals take “liberal” to mean? and: is there a continuous liberal tradition that dates back to the late Seventeenth Century? and: if so, what are its characteristics? If these questions intersect with Hofstadter’s thesis, they lead away from it toward a hypothetical, complementary study of the role of intellect in American life, and of constructive relations (if any) between the life of the mind and the liberal outlook.

Or, not so hypothetically, to my writing project. At the moment, I’m waiting for comments from two very busy people whom I’ve asked to read a presentable draft, and aside from composing slightly amplifying clarifications that my first reader suggested, I’ve confined myself to thinking about it. But I hope there won’t be any harm in pointing out how intimate my familiarity with Hofstadter’s thesis is. Although she could never have articulated it very clearly, my mother regarded me from an early age as guilty of all four of Hofstadter’s offenses. I was cold, I was unreliable, I was impractical, and I thought I was better than she was. If she didn’t accuse me of liberalism, that was probably because she regarded politics as a rough game for adults. And when my father joked that I had more books than sense, he was compressing Hofstadter’s observation that “we sometimes say that a mind of admittedly penetrating intelligence is relatively unintellectual,” and that “we see among minds that are unmistakably intellectual a considerable range of intelligence.” (25)


Friday 27th

Another Kondo Prize goes to Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I bought this fictionalized memoir when it was reprinted by NYRB, in 2001, or not long thereafter. I had never heard of O’Brien, but the combination of an arresting cover photograph by Slim Aarons and the promise of an Introduction by Seamus Heaney, together with a well-put-together pair of paragraphs on the back sold me the book. O’Brien was apparently the child of movie stars from the Thirties who broke up when he was still a kid and who then went on to amount to nothing. I read the first chapter, and didn’t get it. For a long time, the book stood among all the other NYRB reprints, but when the shelves got crowded, it was exiled to storage — from which I rescued it three months ago. There still wasn’t room for it here, so I slipped it in horizontally, atop the others, which made it very easy to pull out last week when I was looking for something to read.

I decided to pick up where the bookmark was, in the middle of the second chapter. A woman was telling her husband to shut up about the goddammed avocados. There was a Mr Amalfitano, who was crude, and then a very refined Mr Liszt. Mr Liszt, Mr Franz Liszt, struck me as the Tongue-in-Cheek cousin of Gogol’s Nose, but I kept reading. When I got to the end of the third chapter, I went back to the beginning of the second, but not to the first, which I was afraid might put me off again. At the beginning of the fourth chapter, I began to have a good time.

At fourteen I would reach the age of reason under California law and be able to choose between parents, but at thirteen I was happy in my mother’s company, content to benefit from her closeness and from such intangible riches as might accrue to me from living in an artistic atmosphere. Also, I knew little of the history, language, and culture of the Russian race; not having the means to travel, I was satisfied that by living in the Russian’s house, I could observe first-hand his habits, customs, rituals, and perhaps prevail on him to instruct me in the rudiments of his tongue. I would gain the fruits of a voyage to a distant land, without incurring the cost or inconvenience of transportation.

Laid on with a trowel, perhaps — but quite expertly done, the parody of an ingénu out of Fielding or Goldsmith not only amusing in itself but ironically establishing the narrator as the seasoned and mordant judge of his seniors that their delinquencies have provoked him to become. A Way of Life, Like Any Other tells its rather grim and depressing tale in a fleet and edifying prose that assures us that the young man is going to come out of it in good shape.

In the seventh chapter, I had a big laugh. The young man was making a tentative visit to his father’s house. He noticed that his father was spending all his time at church, so desperate to have something to do, it seems, that the

Ladies Altar Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacramental bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member.

Aspiring writers with a streak of witty malice will benefit from the study of this sentence. The rule of three is scrupulously observed, starting out short and simple, then roaming a little freely, but finally submitting to rhythmic concision in a blowout of silliness. There would be many ways of noting that the ladies of the Altar Society took good care of the Infant of Prague doll, and I daresay that most would refer to robes or to outfits, but O’Brien settles on the one that allows him to say laundered the costumes. If you do not hear the nonsense here, you will never really understand the wit of the English language. It as much a matter of sound as it is one of sense.

In Chapter 16, the mother turns up, after a long absence in Rome. The mother, qua mother, exhibits equal influences of Ida Farange, in What Maisie Knew, and Faye Dunaway, in Mommie Dearest. She is a monstress of egotism and a prodigious liar. Having adored her as a boy, the narrator loathes her now, and when she claims to have joined AA, his skepticism is rude and impolite.

“It’s too bad,” I said. “Drinking is a part of life, isn’t it? I mean drinking and getting drunk. Making an ass of yourself. Even making things unpleasant for other people. It’s too bad if you can’t do that any more. I would feel very deprived if I thought I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mother said. “You’re very young.”

“AA sounds very boring to me,” I said. “It sounds like some half-assed evangelical sect. People sitting around talking about not drinking. Why not tie one on and go to sleep?”

“People do terrible things to their lives,” Mother said. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“I bet they do.”

“I don’t like your tone,” Mother said.

But of course his tone is exactly what the reader likes. Seamus Heaney, naturally, points out how Irish this “quicksilver” badinage is, and there is a lustiness to the verbal confrontations that one doesn’t associate with Americans. The movie star father, however, is the actual Irishman in the story — Irish-Catholic American, anyway — and he sounds pretty much like Gary Cooper imitating a Wooden Indian. We come to understand that he has the moral spark of a Wooden Indian, too: none. At the end, he tries to finagle a valuable ring out of his son, who has rightfully inherited it. When he is outmaneuvered, we are delighted to find that the book has arrived at the happiest of all possible endings.

I went into the world well-armed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2017 (III)

17, 18 and 19 October

Tuesday 17th

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Instead I wrote letters. (553)

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

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

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

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


Wednesday 18th

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Men adrift.

Thursday 19th

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Well, almost.

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

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


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

Bon week-end à tous!