Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
May 2017 (IV)

22 and 23 May

Monday 22nd

When I was an undergraduate, someone told me that Cardinal Newman used to read Mansfield Park every summer. I was very impressed by this nugget of complex information, every part of which illuminated every other and increased the brilliance of the whole. I exaggerated the unusualness of a cardinal‘s reading novels; I knew that Newman was a convert, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant that he had started out as an English gentleman. Nevertheless, the anecdote was said of Cardinal Newman, bringing the force of a mature man’s wisdom. The anecdote suggested, moreover, that Jane Austen was singled out among all novelists for revisiting. That Cardinal Newman chose the singular unfunny title in Austen’s oeuvre, the most serious and religious-minded of her books, had the effect of transforming — transfiguring, really — the story of Fanny Price into a sort of seasonal devotion, a book of hours for long summer afternoons.

It was the ritual aspect that appealed to me, the faithful re-reading year after year, presumably in the same month, perhaps even in the same place. I will never live up to it. I have a hard-enough time remembering to listen to Bach’s Passions during Lent; for some reason, I much prefer them in the late autumn. I happen to be reading Mansfield Park at the moment, not in imitation of Newman’s example but pursuant to a more stunt-like plan: I am reading Austen in reverse. About a month ago, I gave up looking for new things to read on the Kindle, and started in on Persuasion. As I came to the end of it, I had the idea of reading Mansfield Park, and then Emma (which has always been my favorite), followed by the two antithetically-titled chestnuts. It would be perverse not to finish with Northanger Abbey. Perhaps I might go all the way and read Lady Susan for the second time. Will Austen’s greatness palpably diminish? If it does, I shall relish the satisfactions of the connoisseur. It’s always fun to play the pompous ass — as long as nobody is looking.

Mansfield Park has struck me in the past as unusually shapeless, a series of one damn thing after another. No sooner does Fanny Price arrives at Mansfield Park than Sir Thomas disappears to Antigua. Aunt Norris — the noisiest of wicked witches — arranges the Rushworth alliance, and the Crawfords arrive at the Parsonage. These developments swell into the embarrassing afternoon at Sotherton, the dull Mr Rushworth’s great house. Then, Tom Bertram, having been sent back to England ahead of his father (one needn’t wonder why), shows up with a new friend picked up at the races (or is it Weymouth?), and, next thing you know, Aunt Norris is fashioning a curtain for the “theatricals,” an amateur production of the sentimental but decidedly inappropriate play, Lovers’ Vows. Which never takes place, of course, because Sir Thomas shows up unexpectedly and puts a stop to it. Now the pace slows a bit, as if in respect of the unwise nuptials. With Maria and Julia off the scene, Fanny emerges as a pretty, if still quite timid, young woman. The occasion of her naval brother’s visit inspires Sir Thomas to give a ball at Mansfield, and Fanny shines — in her understated way.

Through all of this, there has been no sense of an impending crisis, of something that will happen and change everything. In Persuasion, we know from the start that Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth will have to come to some sort of terms, now that their lives have been thrown together again. In Emma, there is the immediate drama of snaring Mr Elton for Harriet Smith; this is followed by the murky interactions with Emma of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. In Pride and Prejudice, each of the Bennett girls seems to have her own impending crisis. But there is no early indication in Mansfield Park of a matter that must be settled. Rather, it appears that poor Fanny will just have to get used to Edmund’s eventually marrying someone else — for she can’t bring herself to expect that he will marry her, even if that is her heart’s desire. Not until the shocking chapter in which Henry Crawford boasts to his sister that he intends to leave “a small hole” in Fanny’s heart by making her love him does the crisis of Mansfield Park announce itself. And even then, Fanny cannot take it seriously. She loathes Crawford, and expects to bat him away with unwelcoming speeches. But these only excite him.

Mansfield Park is not shapeless at all: it is insidious. Step by step, Austen takes us into the nightmare garden of old-world libertinage. Henry Crawford is every bit the monster of depravity that Fanny takes him to be, but only she sees the devil behind the disguise. She does not see him with complete clarity. Aside from failing to realize that her discouragement is an aphrodisiac, she never quite grasps the grotesque impropriety of Crawford’s arranging for William’s advancement before opening his heart, or whatever simulacrum thereof he possesses, to Fanny. He saddles her with a heavy burden of gratitude that makes her rejection of his suit seem churlish. She senses it and she regrets it, but she doesn’t understand the mastery of his pinning maneuver. She would have to be older — Anne Elliot’s age — to examine Crawford with complete analytical detachment. Fanny simply wants him to go away. Exposing a virtuous maiden to the depravities of a perverted lover is one of the oldest thrills in storytelling, and Austen intensifies its horror by presenting it in a context of gracious good breeding. Everyone surrounding Fanny seems willing to regard Crawford’s pursuit of her as proof that he wants only her inspiration to repair the tarnish on his character. Even Edmund is willing to offer her up. In his “dignified musings,” Sir Thomas concludes that the best thing for Fanny is a taste of the shabby-genteel life from which he and Aunt Norris pulled her as a child. I want to save talking about Austen’s magnificent handling of this episode, which sinks the penitential in the transcendent, until I’ve read it again. But it is hard to give one’s complete attention to these humble scenes, knowing as one does of the explosion a-building in the background.


Tuesday 23rd

Good thing I decided to read the end of Mansfield Park before writing about it. “Sinks the penitential in the transcendent,” eh? On top of being wrong, it’s contradictory, for things can’t sink while they’re transcending, can they now? And it is wrong. I had it all backwards. The Fanny-in-Portsmouth episode of Mansfield Park shows Austen at her most Thatcherite. Fanny does not overcome initial misgivings to reach a greater understanding of her parents. On the contrary, she is rudely awakened from dreams of “home” and parental attachment to “bad smells,” to a father who is “dirty and gross,” and to a mother who is “a slattern.” There is nothing transcendent in this. Fanny cannot wait to leave. Scrupulous at first about referring to Mansfield Park by its name, by its county, she soon falls back on calling it home, and the shocking thing is that her parents are not offended. They have been discharged of her, and her departure gives them greater joy by relieving them of Fanny’s sister Susan. Austen has no sympathy for the Prices; as she paints them, they wouldn’t want it. They have made their soiled and pointless ways all by themselves. Mrs Price especially is not to be forgiven her imprudent marriage. The Portsmouth episode comports with the overall mixed message of the book, which is that poor people must take personal responsibility for their situations, while upper-class miscreants are discreetly translated to that era’s equivalent of a witness protection program. A hypocrite reader, I loved every minute.

And Sir Thomas’s “dignified musings” were on the ball, too; I was wrong about that. Against the backdrop of her parents’ shabbiness, Henry Crawford, when he pays his visit, is more attractive to Fanny than ever, and she is quite softened in her regard for him. Who knows what a few more visits might have done? Certainly Crawford’s subsequent folly with Mrs Rushworth cannot be accounted as a rebound; he must have known that his stock with Fanny stood higher than ever. The situation is saved by Crawford’s vanity, not by Fanny’s caution.

When Edmund and Fanny discuss the moral vacancy of Mary Crawford’s reaction to the scandal, Austen astutely avoids religious references. She leaves all of that to the reader, giving leave to the reader who is not religiously inclined to regard the novel’s judgment as purely humane. It may have been unwise of Maria Bertram to marry Mr Rushworth, but having done so, she is obliged to bear with him; she is even more obliged not to insult him by deserting him, and herself by yielding to foolish passion. Crawford is all the worse for having permitted Maria to destroy her respectability without feeling any love in return. Mary Crawford regards it all as “folly,” and so might we, but Austen insists that we see it as outright wrong. We must understand that life is big enough for Fanny, who benefits in every way from the disgrace, nonetheless grieves — even if somewhat abstractly.

I was also mistaken in thinking that Mansfield Park was written after Emma, not before it. So much for my project of reading the novels in reverse. Not that I’ll abandon the reading — I’ve already returned to Hartfield and Highbury, and witnessed the cruel abduction of Miss Taylor.


Over the weekend, I watched Contact, and for the oddest reason. The night before, I had really enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. I was struck by Jodie Foster’s ability to incorporate Masha Skorobogatov’s performance as Clarice Starling’s younger self, despite the fact that the two actresses bore no mutual resemblance whatever. I remembered Foster’s doing the same thing in Contact, her brightening eyes recapitulating Jena Malone’s earnestness at the ham radio setup. This is how one thing leads to another in my life. (I also watched Broadcast News again, because Holly Hunter does such an amazing job of showing how little Gennie James grew up.)

There is one line in Contact that has stuck with me, as an abiding thought if not as a literary motto. Astronomer Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is asked by the member of a selection committee to state the one question that she would be certain to ask if she encountered intelligent life. “How did you do it?” Arroway replies. “How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourself?”

How are we going to survive it? That humanity has been plunged into something at least as unsettling as adolescence is more obvious every day. Leaders at every level are showing themselves to resemble teenagers with poor judgment driving cars after parties. An apparently endless string of bribery charges ties up officials the world over. Why did they think they could get away with it, especially in this era of ubiquitous cameras and flashpoint news updates? It is hard to tell whether the art of keeping secrets has been lost or become impossible. There are few signs that anyone is learning to live with conditions as they are. I have always suspected that societies will not regain their balance until all the people who grew up before the new technology is properly understood have died off. That might sound like a eulogy for the Baby Boomers. But “all the people” may include everybody alive today, and yet to be born for many years. The proper understanding of technology is nowhere in sight.

The current state of play is an allergy to strangers. Technology has done just the opposite of what it was expected to do in the postwar years. It has put us all in the same space without bringing us together. The human penchant for blaming the unknown for everything that’s wrong has been given too many opportunities. We blame other people, instead of re-examining social arrangements that haven’t caught up.

In the United States, it often seems that two distinct societies are finding it difficult to establish condominium. The pairs vary: the Coasts and the Heartland, the Urban and the Rural. I wonder, though, if it is not a matter of the same society in two phases — an old American story with a history of ugliness. When immigration was overwhelmingly Northern European, established Americans discriminated against those with strange accents or foreign tongues. Then, as Southern Europeans appeared, skin color became the shibboleth. Now, of course, it is Islam that distinguishes those who are pursuing the American dream from those who feel that they have achieved it, and that somebody is trying to take it away from them.

In the past, the problem could be solved geographically, but our landmass is settled now; nobody wants to live in the empty places. Our cities suggest that we could create more territory for groups by living more densely — something that would also solve a number of environmental problems. But who is to lead this move? Where are the adults?

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (III)

15, 16, 18 and 19 May

Monday 15th

How often have I sat here on recent Mondays, with no idea of where to begin or how to proceed! The writing project is a legitimate distraction, but it doesn’t explain the knot in my tongue. To my great relief, Charles Sykes untied it yesterday, with an opinion piece in the Times’s Sunday Review.

But the real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

I don’t know why I couldn’t figure out how to say this myself, but I have been perfectly aware of it since the election. I suspect that I lack the courage to be nasty about people whom I fear, dislike, and don’t understand. It has always been easier to save my blasts for the liberal élite, which ought to know better than to do the things it does. The members of the liberal élite, them I know well.

Last week, when the Comey firing occasioned so much righteous indignation to the left of the alt-right, I frowned with dismay — at the outrage — but that’s as close as I got to grasping why I myself did not find the crisis very critical. There was nothing illegal about the deed; the worst that could be said was that the President had done something that looked bad. But looked bad to whom? It looked great to the anti-anti-Trumps — let’s call them the Auntie Grumps — precisely because of the conniptions that it provoked in the very bosoms that had bellyached about Comey all summer long, and then again right before the election. “It’s just insane actually,” Tucker Carlson giggled. I’m making up the giggling part; I’ve never seen Carlson in action. But there must have been at least the ghost of a smirk.

In today’s paper, Charles Blow tells us that the President’s approval ratings are dropping, dropping, dropping — and perhaps they are. But Americans are screwy about politics. Having been exposed to market-driven television news for so much longer than people anywhere else on earth, Americans respond schizophrenically to political figures who caper in front of the cameras. They know, and they can tell you, what’s good and bad about policies and programs. But they can’t help responding to politicians themselves as entertainers. The last truly entertaining American president was Richard Nixon, but he hated la publicité even more than Donald Trump loves to bask in it. To paraphrase CBS chief Leslie Moonves, Donald Trump is very entertaining. And one of the most entertaining things about him is — but you’re not old enough. You don’t remember Froggy, the impish puppet on the Andy Devine Show, one of the early kiddie programs. Maybe you’d better watch this first.

In this clip, the Auntie Grumps are the children laughing with delight at the self-sabotaging suggestibility of the tuba player, who can’t help picking up Froggy’s naughty interjections. Froggy is of course Donald Trump. The tuba player is you. Every time Froggy says something, you forget that Donald Trump is only pretending to be the president, and not very well. You take him seriously and explode with exasperation. The kiddies are thrilled!

The Froggy episode that sticks in my mind involved a professor of some kind, doing a demonstration.

Professor: And then you take this glass of water (pours a glass of water from a pitcher) —
Froggy: And you pour it on your head.
Professor: And you pour it on your head (does so).

One fears that the editors of the Times and The New Yorker are going to die of pneumonia.

We can’t tell yet just how autonomous Donald Trump is in the White House. What was the consensus in the West Wing when Comey was fired? We won’t know for a while. What, I’m particularly interesting in knowing, were Mike Pence’s thought on the matter? My suspicion is that nothing happens without a second opinion, without the input of a responsible adult. The President is surrounded by responsible adults. They let him play with Twitter because that is essential to his shtick as an entertainer. They let him ad lib for the same reason. But does he actually do anything on his own? It doesn’t seem to me that he does.

If the “Russia matter” is really at the bottom of the Comey firing, it, too, is a curious business. Certainly there has been a great deal of impropriety — or what would have been regarded as impropriety by the liberal élite’s predecessor, the (much smaller) power élite of the Fifties and Sixties. Remember what happened to Sherman Adams! In those days, Russia, or rather the Soviet Union, used to be our mortal enemy, and the mere suspicion of chitchat would have brought disgrace. Now Russia is just Russia, and, like the United States, it is flying on nationalist tailwinds. It’s hard to take private and no doubt conspiratorial conversations between top officials on both sides any more or less seriously than the parleys of two crime bosses. Impropriety is the least of it!

As Lenin asked — or was it Chernyshevsky? — Que faire? What is to be done? How do we react when Mount Trump erupts? Bearing in mind that Mount Trump is a concoction of plaster of Paris and kitchen cleaners, we must resist the temptation to erupt ourselves. We must not erupt. Trump’s applause is coming from goons who think we’re funny when we blow up. Maybe they don’t think it’s funny, but they’re so tickled that it is we, and not they, who are on the hotseat that they can’t help laughing.

Instead of erupting, we ought to be thinking, Where did we go wrong? Because we did go wrong. The liberal élite has almost ostentatiously failed to lead this country ever since it came to power in the late Sixties. (Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is a fine example of what has taken the place of leadership since then.) The liberal élite has given up leading and taken up catering.

If you’ll think about that for fifteen minutes, you have my permission to blow up.


Tuesday 16th

Then there is the Magazine’s cover story. The piece about “open marriage” that decorated the front of the Times Magazine on Sunday with four cute photographs: husband and wife, husband and girlfriend, wife and boyfriend, husband and wife (bis). Such depravity! (And, in my imagination, I say it with the bleak but gooey scorn of the late Fabia Drake.) As far as I’m concerned, an open marriage is either recklessly endangered or not serious. “Open marriage” is not a fit topic for public discussion, certainly not in a “family newspaper” that is so cloyingly prissy about refusing to print certain earthy words. What a heyday for the Auntie Grumps! Everything that provincial America hates about New York is right there in that collection of four photographs. It’s hard to know which is more depraved: the marriage or the publicity.

I didn’t read the story. Kathleen did, and told me that there wasn’t anything in it that surprised her. A married couple decided that the way to revive their flagging ardor was to pursue relationships with others, and to do so not with surreptitious one-night-stands but with out-in-the-open lovers. Significantly, these lovers were labeled “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” as if to avoid, by performative utterance, the Continental wickedness of “affairs.” Instead, our amatory adventurers evoked a high-school atmosphere, and the immaturity to go with it. What they want even more than good sex is unattainable youth. Not only being young and in great shape, &c &c, but being ignorant of what’s to come. Remember the good old days, when you didn’t know any better?

I keep hiccuping on the publication, the fact that the Times not only published this story but did so with the cover of its weekend magazine. The editors must believe that the objections to open marriage must be based on religious principles — principles that Times readers are presumably too sophisticated to share. Such thinking overlooks the likelihood that the religious principles involved, however gnarled by supernatural socketry, reflect existential wisdom rooted in the experience of intimacy, fidelity, and the “caring” part of charity.

Maybe bots will be the solution after all.


Thursday 18th

The other day, I received an alumni magazine in the mail. I flipped through it, almost annoyed by the smiling faces of students and teachers who had nothing to do with me. Many of the buildings in the photographs were unfamiliar. I could not imagine where they were on the campus, and in one case I couldn’t figure out what the building was for. There must have been a few shots of athletic teams, but I have a knack for not seeing those. Altogether, the magazine filled me with a desire to cancel my subscription. Better than that: could I write to the school and say that I was dead?

I don’t mean to be morbid. What’s dead here are my school days. The school itself has changed since then, but even if there were no new buildings, and even if students were still all male — if, that is to say, the alumni magazine were still in black-and-white — there would be nothing in it for me but a lot of familiar scenes. The teachers are long gone. Many of my classmates have died. But the main point is that my school days are over. They were very important while I was living them. I’m deeply grateful for the education that I received there, because it encompassed learning to teach myself. But in the moment of graduation, my connection with the school came to an end.

The pretense of its continuation was of course elaborately maintained. I was so deluded by the possible meanings of “alumnus” that, in the low years that followed graduation from college, I drove out to my old school with vague hopes of finding a job. Kindly, nobody laughed at me, but my hopes were ridiculous. I wouldn’t have hired me. Then, after my father died, I donated a modest four-figure sum, and suddenly found myself on a new invitation list. I meant to visit, but never got round to it. Kathleen was not interested. Reunions came and went without me. I was able to keep up my friendships with the two classmates whom I really liked without any reference to school.

If it hadn’t been for that old standby, my complete lack of interest in sports, it might have been different. Although everything else about a school changes, the games don’t. Football and basketball and soccer and swimming and wrestling go on featuring the same kind of competition, and I suppose they must provide an inviting portal for imaginative recollection. But I never took part in that sort of thing. It didn’t interest me at all, and I didn’t believe that it belonged in schools. I still don’t, all the more intently for understanding just how dependent schools are on sports for appeals to alumni. It’s an American cancer.

My past, my memories, like anybody’s mean a great deal to me. But they exist only in my mind. The campus on which I was educated fifty years ago is purely imaginary now, and cannot be revisited in the real world. As for the education that began there, my boast is that it shows no signs of ending. It has transferred, with all its credits, to the academy of my book room.


Friday 19th

Because the author of the piece in The New Yorker was writing about a precocious visit to a voting booth, the statement of his height at the time was not irrelevant. He was nine years old and four foot one. He wasn’t really voting, of course, but his vocation had already declared itself: Thomas Mallon would pursue a career in politics. The comparison to my grandson, who turned seven in January and who stands four foot seven, and who by the age of nine may not require a beanstalk in order to climb into the clouds, was not one that worked in my grandson’s favor. He might be taller and larger — he easily weighs more than the nine year-old Mallon’s fifty-five pounds — but insofar as he has inherited other things besides his height from me, I wish that I might instead have passed on the genes that Mallon inherited. Making every allowance for the literate man’s ability to imbue recollection with coherence, the young Mallon still comes across as an astonishingly organized boy. Smart and healthy, all he had to do was grow up, and then, just like that, he could walk into his chosen way of life. My envy overfloweth.

Not really, not really. I don’t suppose that Mallon’s progress from political official to political novelist was a walk in the park. But even if it was, I don’t envy him or anybody else, because I know that I am special. Unfortunately, my specialness suffers from locked-in syndrome. It depends not on the blinks of my eyelids but on the taps of my fingers for attestation of its existence. It must be terribly difficult to divine the nuances of emotion from the binary code of one blink or two, but as to my own meaning in life, at least as expressed in these endless entries, I wonder if it is not Debussy’s sunken cathedral, sounding massive and hardly more nuanced chords from the bottom of a murky sea.

Mallon’s piece tells us, among other things, how, as an established man of letters, he was welcomed to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and given a glance at the letter that he himself wrote to JFK way back in 1962 to express his disagreement with the President’s “support” of the Supreme Court decision in Engel v Vitale, which banned public-school prayer. Mallon had preserved the response, from a West Wing factotum, but he had not kept a copy of his own letter (indicating, to my curialist eyes, a lapse worthy of inquisition), and it piqued him to see what he had written. The President had of course supported the Supreme Court, not the argument of its decision, but “[u]nderneath all that fustian, I can in fact find something attributable to John F Kennedy, to a climactic line of his Convention acceptance speech…” Short of a limitless amount of cash, together with the sense to spend it well, I can’t imagine a more satisfying fortune than Mallon’s inheritance.

I am still trying to figure out my own.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (II)

8, 9 and 11 May

Monday 8th

As often happens, I forgot the best part. On Friday, writing about The Lake House, I ought to have added the following at the end.

But The Lake House is masterful at obliterating “technicalities.” The emotional climax of the film leads immediately to the finale. Kate is looking at Alex’s drawing of the lake house, but we’re looking at her from the wall. Behind her, Henry tells of Alex’s death. Kate’s face immediately succumbs to still, blind, weeping grief, but when Henry adds that Alex died two years ago this very day, Kate opens her eyes, and speech begins to flutter in her lips. We know what she is going to say long before she does — taking forever to form the word “where” is one of Sandra Bullock’s many triumphs as a screen actress. As soon as she hears that Alex was killed in a traffic accident at Daley Plaza — the anonymous death that we witnessed early in the film — she is out the door.


Over the weekend, I put two thick books behind me. The first was J D Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors. A measure of how much things have changed since this work first appeared in 1952 may be taken from its final, single-sentence paragraph.

Sound in her stock as competent in her institutions, instinct with life and energy, England awaited the arrival of Elizabeth.

You really can’t write this sort of thing anymore. It’s not so much the pathetic fallacy of speaking of England as “awaiting” anything at all, as the very definite attendance of something that hindsight (not quite the same thing as history) has long regarded as a glorious reign. The miracle is that Elizabeth made it through her first years, that the thicket of hostility in which she had been obliged to grow up from infancy not only failed to kill her but spontaneously disappeared with the death of her elder half-sister. Nor could it be imagined that Elizabeth would never marry, her most redoubtable achievement. Nobody could reasonably expect that the pale young woman of uncertain confession would rule as a virgin queen for forty-five years, or that by at long last executing her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, she would clear the way to the throne for Mary’s son, James. Mackie’s ending all but transforms England into the audience for a beloved movie, a cherished tale; at the same time, it transforms Mackie’s readers into proto-Elizabethans. The illusion — a confusion, really — is bewitching, which is precisely why it is no longer permissible.

The other book was Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelists. I really don’t know what to say about this tome. The book is well-written and intelligent, but there is something oblique about it, something that made me wonder why I had to plow through a hundred pages (a hundred and two, actually) about relations between Evangelical leaders and the first Bush Administration. I often had the queasy feeling, which I hate to associate with a writer whom I so admire, that Fitzgerald was telling everything that she knew in the hopes that a story would emerge.

Indeed, I sensed the presence of a number of strangled stories. First, as I said a while back, the book seems to be about the inerrantists, those who believe that what the Bible says is literally true. Not all evangelicals believe this, as Fitzgerald points out, but for most of the book the inerrantists hold her attention. And yet there is no discussion of the cherry-picking indulged by these literalists. For you cannot be a Christian inerrantist without making a few profound decisions about what in the Hebrew Bible still holds after Christ’s mission and passion. The openness of Paul to the gentiles increases the pressure. Ultimately, we want to know what makes the story of Creation so important, and just where the inerrantists find strictures against abortion with greater force than other, neglected, strictures.

Another story, broached but never explored, might have evaluated the theology of the Prosperity Gospel. Nor does Fitzgerald bring much critical thought to the Pentacostal movements, or to the role of mass excitement in American religiosity generally. So much about evangelism in this country necessarily strikes the outsider as the embarrassing endorsement of vulgar conceit, a sanctification of things as they are instead of a leadership toward what they ought to be, that mere reportage seems naïve. There is much cognitive dissonance between the rigor of Fitzgerald’s history and the slovenliness of evangelical anti-intellectualism. What a terrible waste of effort, to write so scrupulously about so many know-nothings.

I have been reading the Gospels; I am in the middle of Luke. Not a believer myself, I am usually inclined to regard Jesus as a very good man who preached a deeply humane message, one that rightly rests at the heart of Western civilization. Until I pick up the New Testament, that is.


Tuesday 9th

Work on the writing project is once again a major part of my day. I read somewhere not long ago that, when a writing project — hopefully but quite prematurely a book, in common parlance — is going well, almost everything that you read seems to throw a new ray of light on it. That is indeed happening to me. Whether it’s a book that I’ve had in my pile for months or a piece in a magazine that arrived in the mail yesterday, whatever I’m reading seems lit from within by the ideas that are already on my mind. It’s rather like the scene in A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is surrounded by panels of illuminated numbers — but I know that it’s just me. The uncanny thing is that these confirmations are reinforcing, not distracting.

I encountered another one yesterday, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Michael Walzer reviews On Betrayal, by Avishai Margalit. I’m torn between ordering a copy of the book right away and believing that I’ve already extracted all that I need from it. According to Walzer,

Two strong distinctions are central to Margalit’s arguments: first, between thick and thin human relations, and second, between ethics (which deals with the thick) and morality (which deals with the thin). Thick relations begin with family and friends but can be extended in various directions.

I have been writing about growing up as an adopted child, which for a long time I thought had blighted my life. As I grew older and more deliberate, however, I had a harder time identifying any actual damage. My childhood was unhappy, but I grew up around it and beyond it, and the longer I lived the less blighted my life felt. Now it feels quite robust. But Margalit’s distinctions remind me that the conditions of adoption were more than a little problematic. I have formed very, very few thick connections, and they most certainly didn’t begin with “family.”

My connection to my wife was thick even before she agreed to proceed beyond friendship. Now it is massive. I don’t mean to boast here. We’ve grown together, we’ve survived a few serious scrapes, but we remain entirely different, if sympathetic, people, and the thickness owes a great deal to our not feeling dominated by the other. Mutual support is now pretty much built into everyday life, so much so that I don’t have much of a sense of ethics in my behavior with Kathleen. Ethical questions just don’t come up. I’m not saying that they couldn’t, or that our relationship couldn’t be shaken to the ground in the blink of an eye — I’m too old not to have seen a few terrible things — but I’d be very surprised if it did. And yet, not entirely surprised, because I grew up without thick connections, and I don’t, as most people seem to do, take them for granted.

I’m much more aware of ethics with regard to a small handful of close friends. But I don’t find myself confronting ethical questions on every day.

Ethics, according to Margalit, governs our thick relations, our lives with lovers, friends, fellow believers, and fellow citizens.

Having dealt with love and friendship, I can quickly write off fellow believers, since I am allergic to religion — to witnessing my faith in the company of other people. But I can understand the connection that co-religionists feel. It’s the idea that my connection to fellow citizens might be thick that makes no sense. I cannot imagine standing in an ethical relationship with someone simply because we were both born in the United States.

I think of ethics as a conflict, and morality as a duty. With ethics, there is always a tension between what I want and what is best for the people near and dear to me. (Almost all of my ethical battles concern taking care of my health.) With morality, there is no decision to make, right and wrong are perfectly clear. The only question is whether I will make the effort to do what’s right, or at least to resist complaining when someone else does something wrong. (One issue that provides no end of everyday vexation to city-dwellers is the use of elevators.) Because moral imperatives, however slight, arise at every turn in city life, while ethical conundrums are quite uncommon, and because of my unusual childhood, I regard thin human connections as more important than thick ones. If Kathleen were taken from me tomorrow, I believe that I would manage to keep going. But if there were a steep rise in casual rudeness among strangers in the street, I would be utterly demoralized.

I wonder if I have ever betrayed anyone. Yes, once, unforgivably. More than once, if abandoning failing relationships counts. Betrayal or not, the experience was always unpleasant enough to make me wary of risking it. Did I betray my parents? Did they betray me? Did we never quite establish the thick connection that, according to Margalit (but not to Walzer), is required for betrayal? That I’m really asking is a kind of answer.


Thursday 11th

But a day or two of further thought about betrayal obliges me to change my tune. I remember a keen reluctance, at several moments in childhood and youth, to cross lines that I would not be allowed to cross back. I see now that crossing those lines would have constituted betrayal, a violation of allegiance. Literally, a decampment — folding up my tent and setting it up somewhere else.

I hated my name. I really hated my first name, Robert. I loathed its principal nickname, and often refused to answer to it, as if I were deaf. “Keefe” was awkward. Most people heard it as “Keith,” and spelling it out wasn’t much of a help. When confronted with the difficulty on the telephone, I still recite my mother’s bit of birdsong, “K double E, F as in ‘Frank,’ E,” although I often sense bewilderment at the other end of the line. Lots of people look at it and say “Keefie.” My poor father was tormented as a boy by being called “Beefy Keefy.” The difficulty is entirely attributable to his grandfather’s decision to prune the original “O’Keeffe.”Nobody has any trouble with that.

One day, in the car — I hated being in the car, because it was boring, and I got carsick if I tried to read — I announced that I was going to change my name when I grew up. My father must have been driving, because my mother turned her upper body against the seat back and glared at me with the bronzed rage of Medusa. I had not expected anyone to be delighted by my plans, but I hadn’t expected them to be taken so seriously, either. This was not one of those occasions when I was spoiling for a fight. So I was surprised as well as alarmed by the fury I had ignited. Also, wasn’t she cheating a little? What gave my mother the right to carry on as though she came from a long line of Keefes? Whatever she said — and you would have had to be me at the time to take it all in — I was made to understand that further mention of this topic might very well lead to loss of hearth and home and indoor plumbing and regular meals and all the rest. I caved. Comfort-seeking worm that I was, I resigned myself to a foreseeable future of Bobs.

The row about homosexuality, a few years later, was a black tornado. I had come into possession of one of those physique magazines that were sold over the counter (even in Bronxville!), and its alternative world was astonishing. The world that I lived in, although relatively discreet and well-behaved, was heavily populated by women struggling to be appropriate sex objects in an environment of nonstop male commentary. Photos of bodybuilders chatting by the pool clothed only in tiny pouches or making breakfast in the altogether were intriguing in ways that had something to do with sex, certainly, but that also promised another, much nicer world, in which men were not bullies or rivals or contenders or stooges but friends.

I knew that this magazine was forbidden, but I didn’t really understand why, and I wasn’t ashamed of having it. It was only after my mother discovered it — I hadn’t hidden it very carefully — that shame erupted, the shame of being associated with the objects of her vituperative disgust. I was made to understand not only that the magazine was unspeakably filthy but that I would be thrown out of the house if anything like it showed up a second time. To be thrown out of the house: this was the price of betrayal. And the betrayal was not the vice itself but the vice revealed.

Looking back on that awful hour — I remember that I lifted up a side table, pretty much as if I were a lion tamer, trying to keep my mother from coming any closer in her wrath; if she struck me, I suspected, I would strike back — I understand the misery of closeted life in a different way. I have always thought of it as a horrible inconvenience, a constraint on the freedom to do as one would. But that is only part of it, the part that an outsider could imagine. Inside, there is the very different nightmare of betrayal, of being found out by and cut off from one’s own family. Curiously, the case of betrayal that comes to mind has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s the tale that’s told about Rod Dreher, of The Benedict Option, in the recent New Yorker profile. It seems that Dreher’s father and sister always treated him as though he did not belong to them, as if he had betrayed them simply by being born. Why? Because, it would appear, he had a critical intelligence.

No doubt, the father and the sister felt righteous. But it is they who ought to have felt ashamed. Mulling over the treatment of homosexuality as a betrayal of “family values,” I am even more appalled than I was before reading about Avishai Margalit. Ethics — what a dubious pastime. Comparison on this point to morality is enlightening. Quite often, perhaps even in most cases, at least here in the United States, the parents of homosexual children eventually come to feel that they have not been betrayed, and the breach is healed. We have certainly witnessed a massive shift in cultural ethics on the matter. Morality, in contrast, doesn’t change much. Kindness is always right.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017

2, 4 and 5 May

Tuesday 2nd

The news stories about Jean Stein’s jump from her apartment in 10 Gracie Square can’t help reminding us that Carter Cooper, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, jumped from a penthouse balcony in the same building nearly thirty years ago. Somehow, this detail seems less ghoulish than it might be, attached to the woman who (working with George Plimpton) gave us Edie, the oral history about Edie Sedgwick, in 1982. On Stein’s Wikipedia page, it says that Norman Mailer wrote of Edie, “this is the book of the Sixties that we have been waiting for. [citation needed]” It was certainly a jaw-dropping read. I had never heard of Edie Sedgwick before — I was perhaps a little too young — but I couldn’t put it down when it came out. For me, it was absolutely an Eighties book.

Jean Stein, Edie Sedgwick, the Vanderbilts — remember that picture in Vanity Fair in which Anderson Cooper looked older than his mother? — George Plimpton: these people occupied, or still occupy, a curious intersection of New York life, where inherited money meets publicity. Perhaps “publicity” isn’t the word. Perhaps what I mean is that, for some people who grew up wealthy, doors that don’t beckon to most rich people are open. Connections are easily made with influential people who aren’t “social.” Everybody benefits. There is nothing quite so fascinating as the scion of a moneyed family with an interesting mind; more than half a brain will often do. Fortune has so obviously smiled on such people that it’s almost reasonable to expect that a little of that fortune will rub off. I’m speculating, of course; I’ve never actually known anybody who lives on the corner that I’m talking about. But the existence of Vanity Fair suggests that my surmise is not entirely fanciful. And while there must be such intersections in other places, New York’s is the only one that counts.

What wouldn’t I give for a fly-on-the-wall seat at the next meeting of 10 Gracie Square’s co-op board.


Although I haven’t thought of taking a swan dive onto Eighty-Seventh Street from our balcony, I have been somewhat oppressed by a sense of the futility of speech. For one thing, I have the awful feeling that I’ve said everything twice already, and look what good it has done! More generally, the modes of exhortation appear to have been overworked, making people so stubborn that, if you urge them to come in out of the rain, they’ll stay out and catch pneumonia — gladly. Ideas fall into two categories: too familiar to bear repetition or dangerously novel. And no sooner do I say that than I read the capsule review of Shattered, a book that Amazon has been trying to get me to buy for my Kindle, in this week’s New Yorker. (Burning question: is this Bruce Eric Kaplan’s first cover for the magazine?) Shattered is a “withering account of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign”.

Robby Mook, who ran the operation, is portrayed as being obsessed with analytics and demographics, to the exclusion of the traditional politics of persuasion.

Traditional politics was just too familiar!

the Clinton campaign never had a clear picture of its own candidate or of what was coming.

In other words, Donald Trump was too insanely unlikely to take seriously; any serious plans to prevent his victory would have likewise been weird. What happens when bright young minds are faced with a choice between the tedious and the risky is a hasty retreat to numbers, to data, to the oracle of the computer.

Over the weekend, I thought of sharing a link, at Facebook, to Bret Stephens’s Op-Ed piece, printed on Saturday, against “The Climate of Complete Certainty” in environmental discussions. I’m glad that I didn’t. I’d have been tarred as a Trumpista! But I do think that the journalism of climate change does have a real Chicken Little problem, and that warnings about dire inevitabilities ought to be leavened by constructive proposals, and infused with the leadership quality to make them viable.


Thursday 4th

Currently reading James Harvey’s very important Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, Kathleen has been asking to see some old movies, either for the first time, or for a second look after immeasurable years. This week, I rented three videos that we don’t happen to own.

  • Dinner at Eight
  • It Happened One Night
  • The Thin Man

Although I may perhaps add It Happened One Night to our library, watching the other two titles convinced me that, although it sometimes seems that I have bought every DVD with a pulse, I do discriminate. If I want to see Myrna Loy and William Powell, I can always watch Libeled Lady — which will also give me a bigger helping of Jean Harlow than I’d dream of asking for. In Dinner at Eight, Harlow’s bedroom scene with Wallace Beery — a pre-Code instance of spousal abuse — is just about the most pointlessly nasty thing that I’ve seen in the movies. The contrast between the white-on-white-on-sequins luxe of the setting and the grim unhappiness of the marriage it shelters makes me seasick. The only problem with not having Dinner at Eight on call is missing Marie Dressler, whose immortal last line, addressed to Harlow, does not completely upstage the preceding scene, in which the worldly old lady counsels a disappointed, if shallow, young girl.

Watching It Happened One Night, I had one of my insights. After mulling it over for a while, I thought I’d better look at Ed Sikov’s book on the genre, Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies. I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that Sikov had not had my little insight, but what did bowl me over was how his interpretation of screwball comedies with a newspaper theme inadvertently highlights the hypocrisy of the Production Code — and of popular American culture itself.

It Happened One Night is often hailed as the first of the screwball comedies, but it doesn’t feel screwball to me at all. Of course, I’m comparing it with later films, made with a heightened consciousness of the genre’s possbilities. Actually, I doubt very much that Frank Capra thought that he was making a screwball comedy as such — neither the term itself nor the formal hallmarks of screwball would have occurred to him. To the extent that Capra had a genre in mind at all, it would have been “the newspaper movie.” And even that isn’t very likely.

Although there is a good deal of opulence at the very end of It Happened One Night, it is as empty of appeal as the Packard bedroom in Dinner at Eight. It certainly doesn’t cheer up the heroine, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert). She has just spent a few days on the road, living a very dusty and hungry life — but loving it more every minute — with Peter Warne (Clark Gable), trying to evade the search parties loosed by her immensely wealthy father (Walter Connolly). Ellie has worn one outfit for at least three days, and although it remains as fresh as her makeup throughout, it does get a bit old on the eye. There is nothing really screwball — funny — about Ellie’s road trip from Florida to New York. What is screwy is Warne’s crazy idea, anticipating the climax, of running off to New York while Ellie sleeps, shaking his editor up for some cash, and running back to bring her to town in style. It never occurs to him that she might be evicted from their motel in the middle of the night, which is of course what happens and what brings her back to her father’s house and the big wedding. Warne throws a second screwball when he tells Ellie’s father that he doesn’t want the $10,000 in reward money, just $30.69 for cash outlays on the road. Then, as if we might have missed something, Warne says, “I’m screwy myself.” If It Happened One Night is a screwball comedy, it’s one that doesn’t involve a lady.

What do I mean by calling it “a newspaper movie”? Simply this: whether a movie involving newspapermen is happy or sad, the first commandment is invariably that a good newspaperman will do anything for a story. “Anything” usually encompasses lying and cheating and other forms of deception, but as Libeled Lady shows us, it also covers being ridiculous, as William Powell’s Bill Chandler is in several ways, whether as the husband of somebody else’s fiancée or as an angler in a trout stream. Newspapermen are urban cowboys, tough guys in suits. If they will do anything to get a story, they can do anything, or almost anything, without risking their masculinity. This, I think, is the germ of screwball.

According to James Harvey, Cary Grant didn’t want to make The Awful Truth. He thought it would make him look ridiculous. Now, why was this, you may ask. Certainly, when Grant discovered that screwball capers did not make him look ridiculous, he embraced the genre with open arms, as in Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife, in both of which he exposes his highly professional inner clown to greater extent than in The Awful Truth, where Irene Dunne commits most of the nonsense. Why, though, would Cary Grant have been worried in the first place? And why — a related question, I insist — did The Awful Truth sink into oblivion, known only to connoisseurs and long unavailable on tape when all the other oldies came on the market in the early days of home video?

The answer: Jerry Warriner, Grant’s character in The Awful Truth, doesn’t have a job. He is certainly no newspaperman. He hasn’t got a license to misbehave. What makes The Awful Truth the great screwball comedy that it has become is Archie Leach’s license to be Cary Grant — a license that, as Grant knew better than anybody, had yet to be burnished in 1937.

Ed Sikov finds the roots of screwball in the Production code, and while there certainly are such roots, no question about it, Cary Grant’s squeamishness requires another explanation. While pondering that, we can consider Chapter 7 of Screwball, in which Sikov quite unironically catalogues the depravities of Wally Cook (Fredric March) in Nothing Sacred and Walter Burns (Cary Grant) in His Girl Friday. Far from regarding newspapermen as heroes of any kind, Sikov seems to agree with the doctor in Nothing Sacred, whom he quotes:

You’re a newspaperman. I can smell ‘em … The hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of depravity.

I don’t want to fault Ed Sikov for appearing to agree with this. But I think that it ought to modulate his understanding of the Production Code, which of course did little or nothing to restrain the antics of cinematic journalists. Nothing Sacred tells a very bleak story, to be sure. It tells it hilariously well, but still. One has to ask, what kind of morals-protecting regulation would permit such a film to be released? And the answer, of course is: only in America.

In other words, screwball was indeed an accommodation of the Production Code’s severe restrictions on the portrayal of carnality on screen. (One begins to wonder how the close-up kiss survived the censorship.) But it flourished because the Code punished only certain kinds of immorality. While gangsters had to come to their just ends, newspapermen might at the worst have to embark on a long cruise while clouds blew over. And by sharing the reporters’ freedom from retribution, male characters generally, up to and including playboys like Jerry Warriner, could be spared the consequences of their dubious conduct.

Just how dubious is revealed, in the way that a black hole might be revealed, at the beginning of The Awful Truth. In the second scene, we find ourselves in a grandiose house, with white-painted pilasters and paneling, and plenty of Chippendale furniture. But, aside from the housemaid, no recent occupants. Jerry Warriner has been “away,” but not where his wife thought he was. Anyone over the age of ten will not wonder if he has been playing a lot of squash at his club. As for his wife, Lucy, why, she has been to an out-of-town “junior prom,” and stuck on the road overnight by a flat tire. The flattest tire in the world couldn’t be flatter than this couple’s aliases. I don’t know how this scene got past the censors, because the innuendo is almost asphyxiating, and it leads straight to talk about the air-clearing virtues of divorce.

At the other end of the film, we once again find ourselves in a private home that, in its blandly impersonal (and old-fashioned) luxury might serve as an upper-crust clubroom. This is what Jerry and Lucy were living in before their adventures. It’s what they had to leave behind, and when they leave it behind a second time, they know what they’re doing.


Friday 5th

Striking a completely different cinematic note: after lunch, I watched a movie that has been haunting me for a while, Alejandro Agresti’s The Lake House (2006).

I watched it several times after it came out. I tried to figure out how the time-travel worked — it’s limited to letters in a mailbox — but I always got distracted by the tidal wash of melancholy that sweeps through the movie. This afternoon, I saw that the machinery was so unquestionably impossible that the characters must be killed by it, not just the one who gets saved at the last minute, but the both of them. In the final shot, the lovers walk into the eponymous house. I don’t think they will ever come out again.

That’s all right. I’m fine with the love philtre in Tristan und Isolde, too. Love is enchantment, and, as Tristan tells us, when the enchantment is complete, real life is no longer possible — and don’t ask why. Who cares? I found that the melancholy is still sweeping. Kate (Sandra Bullock) is enveloped by it from the start; Alex (Keanu Reeves) succumbs to it little by little. Reeves plays Alex with a manly optimism that lightens Kate’s sense that she is doomed to live alone, but he cannot defeat it. In the end, all he wants is to join her. Kate is the Tristan here, the one who knows that daylight — life — makes love unbearable. Instead of looking like the overtired doctor that Kate is supposed to be, Bullock radiates a beautiful hopelessness. She falls in love with Alex because he isn’t there.

What I brought to the film as a spectator was the fearful sadness that the film’s setting, Chicago and its environs, always arouses in me. Nowhere else is my imagination of what growing up would have been like without the proximity of moated Manhattan so painfully vivid.

I will say this: The Lake House would be a lot more plausible if it weren’t for the character of Henry, Alex’s brother (Enoch Moss-Bachrach). Two details, the book about their father’s architecture that Alex does not share with Henry (minor), and the meeting in Henry’s office that immediately precedes Kate’s last drive to the lake house (major), make too intrusive a wrinkle between the parallel worlds. It’s when you try to smooth this out that the host of other difficulties looms.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
28 April 2017

Friday 28th

Amazon has just notified me of a new book, Duff McDonald’s Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. I feel as if I’ve already read it.

What I have just read is Laura Kipnis’s polemic, Against Love. I remember dismissing it, on the basis of the reviews that it got in 2003, as just too cute. It’s hard now not to suspect a vast right-conspiracy of plotting to deprive Kipnis of readers. Reading Against Love now, fourteen years later, I’m fired by an unwonted revolutionary zeal. For Kipnis is not writing about love, not really; she’s writing about the economic straitjacket from which none of us can think how to escape. If you were to boil down Against Love to one priceless idea, it would be that a society instructed to work at love is being tricked into working for nothing!

Or, at any rate, for not enough. Not nearly enough.

Fourteen years, and nothing has changed. Income equality has simply gotten worse, while meaningful work has continued to evaporate. A few people are getting very rich, unimaginably rich, while the rest of us are desperately trying to maintain the status quo. At some point — will it be when the men and women who voted for Donald Trump realize that in effect they put Michael Pence in charge? — there seems certain to be some sort of outburst, some explosion, some manifestation of the betrayed voters’ rage.

I am almost certain that McDonald’s book could have been written fourteen years ago, give or take a major financial meltdown.

The failure of political imagination is astonishing, really. How can we have failed to progress beyond the squabble about capitalism versus socialism? Are these the only two economic orders that the human mind can come up with? Seriously? Another zombie polarity: government versus business. Has anyone not understood that what happened in 2008 was the inevitable consequence of what happened ten years earlier, with the repeal of Glass-Steagall? If we’re all on the same page about that, why can’t we junk the business/government argument and replace it with a competition between regulatory schemes? If the Democrats have a monopoly on regulatory proposals, then of course those proposals are going to be both stale and captured by the vested interests of current bureaucrats. Does being a Republican mean losing the ability to imagine a better way of keeping bad behavior in check?

Meanwhile, the book that will not go away: Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals. I’m nearing the end of the hundred-page chapter that covers the George W Bush administrations. There’s another hundred pages after that. It is an awful slog, let me tell you, to read about the dance of DOMA and the compulsion of right-wing politicians to splash in the Terry Schiavo case. I think that Fitzgerald ought to have done two things. Simply, she ought to have called her book The Inerrantists, because that’s what it’s about, not “evangelicals” generally; more complexly, she ought to have tried to pry loose the almost unconscious hold that free-market capitalism has had on the clerics whom she writes about. Is it because the Bible has nothing to say about capitalism (except for the parable of the talents) that conservative Christians can wallow so hypocritically in social injustice?

Anyway, I don’t know how Fitzgerald managed to spend as much time as she did with such unprepossessing and/or unattractive characters.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Music and Pleasure
April 2017

26 & 27 April

Wednesday 26th

Via The Browser, I’ve just read a lament by one Lary Wallace, at Aeon, about his age-related loss of interest in new pop music. It’s a well-written example of a familiar type of piece, but I had to ask myself why I was reading it. The answer was clear: I was reading it because I am a very bad person, tickled with glee by the misfortunes of others, at least those others who didn’t start out properly, with Bach and Mozart — music that doesn’t mark the moment but that goes on growing. There has never been any danger of my tiring of Bach or Mozart, possibly because there are at least twenty-five other serious composers who also keep me interested, but mostly because Bach and Mozart and the others keep opening up over time. And the beauties — the beauty of Brahms’s Violin Concerto is timelessly caressing. I can remember when some pieces of music were shockingly new, but I can’t tell you when those shocks occurred; the music carries no datestamps. I am grateful that my music does not remind me of adolescence, for why would anyone want to be reminded of that? I claim no virtue; I always disliked the edge of rudeness in pop music, its insolence and insistence. Rock’s adolescence must be against it: the popularity of an antisocial art form is regrettable.

Wallace writes,

I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing.

The last statement is ridiculous. Aside from shouty, monotonous garage-band rock, I like just about everything truly musical (thus excluding almost everything that passes for song on and off Broadway today, including the incomprehensible Hamilton). I have a lot of very odd recordings. But the interest of everything doesn’t get in the way of my loving the stuff that I love. I once went for a year without listening to any opera but Bellini’s I Puritani, and listening to it almost every weekend when I tidied the apartment — and I’m still crazy about it. (Unlike the Young Victoria and her suitor, I have never warmed to Norma.) At a recent concert performance of Il Segreto di Susanna, I wept with pleasure at every familiar turn. Serious music is like that old river: you never step into it twice.

I’m not trying to make a case here; I just think that I was very lucky to be granted big ears at an early age. And it’s true that music is more a matter of hearing for me than it seems to be for other people. It does not involve being anywhere; although I hear best in a quiet concert hall, I hear very well at home. I don’t much care for staged opera, because there is so much extraneous fiddle-faddle — theatre, I suppose. (Theatre is a very different, almost more puritan pleasure.) If music involves sight at all, it’s sight-reading, following scores and seeing things that I may not have heard. I adore the MP3 format because it promotes the internal voices while scrapping the ambient acoustics. Music for me is a supersaturated experience of notes expressively sounded, and nothing more.

To me, the passion for pop — taking it at all seriously — is an American disease, and that’s how I think it will be remembered in the long run.


Thursday 27th

Somewhere in this room there must a copy of Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama, which I haven’t really looked at (much less read) in decades. Ah, there it is — how handy: I didn’t even need to get out of my chair!

At the very end, one element which had not been accounted for in the form comes to its fruition: Elvira’s romantic chromatic chords are repeated and repeated twice for the finale cadence, while her own line has a new decoration, wonderfully delicate, tremulous, and warm. This brings the whole episode together in a flash; more, it brings a piercing new inflection — Elvira is no longer the same, or at least our understanding and sympathy have matured. In a single musical piece, action has been incorporated, unified, and interpreted. Resolved in itself, the little scene guides the total drama forward, for our sense of the total piece depends upon our realized impression of Elvira here.

Everything that happens in the little trio, near the beginning of Act II of Don Giovanni, happens in the score. Don Giovanni serenades Donna Elvira, who succumbs despite every resolution. Meanwhile, Leporello, dressed in Giovanni’s cloak, prepares to lead Elvira off so that his master can seduce her maid, his real target. Ever since reading Kerman’s analysis of the trio, this has been my favorite expression of sonata form. You might think that binding the vital impulses of drama to the rules of a musical form would be deadening, but what happens instead is that the form invigorates the drama with a musical vitality that changes our idea of theatre. To the extent that you hear a sonata while the three characters are singing, you are filled with the transformative enlightenment that, in the best operas, takes the place of theatre. Mozart does not decorate — I’m sorry that Kerman used that word — his librettist’s lines of verse with pretty music; rather, he articulates their meaning, with the help of changes in key that are possibly more powerful if they are not clearly understood. What any listener can hear is movement — the movement that constitutes music drama.

The best operas are not the most popular ones. Kerman’s book is notorious for its denunciation of Puccini’s Tosca as “that shabby little shocker” (p 254). Plays to which music has been added, whether with simple songs as in Broadway musicals or through-composed scores as in Tosca, are much easier to grasp that true music dramas. Indeed, the art of music drama is easy to miss. Mozart and Verdi, both accessible composers, developed sophisticated command of music drama as they matured, but they never let it obstruct their accessibility. (Except perhaps in the extraordinarily compressed Falstaff.) You can listen to little trio that Kerman writes about as if it were just a pretty thing, a charming moment in a dark comedy. You can listen to the king’s lament, “Ella giammai m’amò,” without noticing that the cello’s wailing is exactly what regal Philip has buttoned up. You can be unconscious of the best operas’ metamorphoses of spoken theatre, and still have a fairly good time. Most operagoers are and do.

This is by way of explaining my complaint, yesterday, that theatrical stage business too often gets in the way of the music in opera. I ought to have made the point clearly: in the best opera, the theatre is in the score, and there is no need for illustrative mime.


In this week’s New Yorker, there are pieces about two Americans, Elizabeth Strout and Rod Dreher, who may have very little in common but to me both emblematize the desert of intellectual pleasure that stretches from sea to shining sea — from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexica, anyway. Both writers (and very different kinds of writers they are!) seem to have followed the same trajectory, putting asphyxiating rural backgrounds behind them, only to grow strong enough, in urban environments, to reconsider and even to try to re-enter the worlds from which they came. Pleasure is not much discussed in either piece; I suspect that it has had a larger place in Strout’s life than in Dreher’s, but what matters is that their seriousness is not particularly pleasant. Maybe they have lots of fun on the side, but that doesn’t matter, either, because fun is not pleasure. “Serious fun,” a term that pops up now and then, is an oxymoron that means something like “pleasure.” “Pleasure,” meanwhile, carries a great deal of carnal baggage. Non-carnal pleasure, except in the relatively recent field of gastronomy, is almost un-American.

It’s true that pleasure, especially intellectual pleasure, is not very sociable. It is best experienced by individuals in quiet rooms — and by individuals who have experienced a lot of pleasure in the past. The art of being pleased looks like a selfish skill, and the art of discrimination, of refusing everything but the very best, seems almost inhumanly mean. But turning up one’s nose is the sign of the unformed pleasure-seeker. The formed pleasure-seeker no longer needs to seek. The world abounds in occasions for pleasure. Occasions for horror and regret may be more numerous, but pleasure is our only real hope of putting an end to them.

As Madame de Pompadour’s power and influence at the court of Louis XV grew to its summit, it occurred to the lady that all she needed for complete success was a reputation for piety. She attended services and performed good works. She seems not to have understood that, so long as she continued at court as the king’s mistress (even if she no longer slept with him), she could never be regarded as pious. And it’s a failing of institutional Christianity, with its ghastly Augustinian confusion about sex, that she couldn’t. In the New Yorker piece, Joshua Rothman isolates Rod Dreher’s refusal to accept same-sex marriage as the raison-d’être of the Benedict Option. Why, oh why, is sexuality such a big deal?

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
24 April 2017

Monday 24th

Kathleen has been reading up on the old movies, and asking to see a few. The other night, we watched Jezebel, which somehow she hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t seen it in years myself. I’d forgotten almost everything about it, except the red dress, the yellow fever, and Henry Fonda’s wooden performance. Wooden! Why, the whole thing is a piece of cardboard. Fay Bainter is very good, a study in generous respectability. “Halcyon belongs to its guests” — I’d forgotten that magnificent specimen of Dixie tripe. And Bette Davis is, as usual, extraordinary. I still think, though, that The Great Lie does a better job with similar materials, especially the ole plantation trope.

What makes Jezebel pathetic is the idea that it was supposed to compete with Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is a terrible picture that Jezebel easily surpasses on its own terms. Economically, it shows us the antebellum South, doing without the bellum. (It is set in 1852-3.) And instead of going on forever and a day, as the Selznick blockbuster does, so that we are as tired of Scarlett and Rhett as they are of one another, Jezebel ends without a resolution. Will Julie be able to nurse Press on Lazaret Island? Will he survive? Will she survive? Maybe Press’s wife will come down with the fever, too. But we will never know. “What a gyp!” cried Kathleen. I however was impressed and relieved — no more Southern accents.

(Frankly, my dear, Gone With the Wind is a screwball comedy that has been hastily embalmed in a military epic. There is nothing in it that isn’t done better by Carol Burnett’s famous parody, Went With the Wind. “I saw it in a window and I couldn’t resist.”)

But what about Jezebel? This is the problem with growing up Catholic — no juicy Bible stories. I had encountered Jezebel and her husband, King Ahab, in Elijah, Mendelssohn’s oratorio, but only glancingly. The Bible itself isn’t much better. Split between Kings 1 and 2, Jezebel appears only twice, although we are told that she comes from Sidon and that she persecutes the prophets of the Lord. The second and final glimpse that we have of her is while she’s getting dolled up to meet Jehu, who responds to her greeting by having her eunuchs toss her out of the window. It’s all quite summary; you don’t get much of a sense of Jezebel’s motivation. She’s just bad — and she’s also a woman with a name, which means she shouldn’t even be in Scripture at all. Women with names are almost always occasions of sin. Nice women, like the widow of Zarephath who takes care of Elijah, are known only by their positions.

This may be how the Warner Bros film came by its title. The worst thing about Jezebel in the books of Kings is that she’s an idolatress, a worshiper of Baal. But in more recent times, what with idolatry fading away and all, her name was a byword for fallen women. What was the competition, Scripture-wise? How many other painted ladies are there? She was an old lady by this time. I wonder how often, in the fifteen-odd years before she died, Elizabeth I’s courtiers had to bite their tongues. The worst thing youthful Julie Marsden does is to wear a red dress to a ball. It’s hard to believe that anybody at Warner Bros, of all the studios, believed that Southern women were delicate figurines for whom the wearing of anything but virginal white would be grounds for ostracism.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
I’m not going to say it in the Header, if that’s what you’re afraid of.
21 April 2017

Friday 21st

All week, I’ve been agonizing about history. What’s the point in talking about it? Everybody hates it. Nobody knows what it is. And without it, we’re lost.

History is not “what happened.” We’ll never know what happened. We can’t even say what happened yesterday. It’s too vast, too complicated, and its implications have barely begun to unfold.

Neither is history a treasure that lies buried in archives, waiting to be discovered by research. The researcher, sorting through boxes of documents, already knows what he or she is hoping to find. Within a narrow range, the researcher is prepared for surprises. Outside of that range, what might be an enlightening surprise for another researcher with other questions is for our researcher nothing but an irrelevancy.


History is one kind of explanation. The questions that need explaining are always, basically, the same: How did we get here? Whether what you mean by that question is (a) how did the human species invent civilization or (b) what was Rudy Giuliani doing in Ankara the other day, the historical explanation is arrived at in the same way, by a likely story. The story is likely because it is based on historical evidence. Historians, the people who come up with explanations for a living, have developed a set of criteria for evaluating raw facts and determining their value as historical evidence, and that is as far as we’re going to take this adventure in circularity. History is objective in that historians observe their professional standards. But it has no existence apart from historians. Unlike Scripture, which is another kind of explanation, history depends on no higher authority for validation. I ought to point out that journalists, the people who explain Rudy Giuliani for a living, are a kind of historian; they follow pretty much the same rules of evidence.

Last night, I was reading a book that Laura Kipnis published ten years ago, The Female Thing. Kipnis is not a historian, but she has a sense of history — “a sense of history” is my subject today — and it gives her writing about feminism an uncommon ballast. I was reading the chapter on “Dirt.” Kipnis notes that, while we associate slovenliness with men these days, women used to be the dirty sex. She thinks that this changed in the Eighteenth Century — she has a wonderful way, as I hope I do, too, of accompanying such claims with the disclaimer, “Don’t hold me to it.” — and I don’t really disagree, but because I have a pet theory of my own, I would argue that the way was paved by the pious and prosperous Protestant women who, from the time of the Reformation, took up wearing black and white, reading the Bible, and, sometimes, setting the example expected of a preacher’s wife (a new role, historically); and that, furthermore, this appropriation of cleanliness, which came to be called “respectability” in English — Is Kipnis too young to have been bothered by respectability? She doesn’t mention it — lost its carnal teeth, so to speak, when women gained the political franchise. Somehow, Kipnis notes ruefully, women have gained the right to sleep around, but they’re still stuck with changing all the sheets.

How did that happen? In the blink of an eye, my pet theory produces an explanation. Women internalized the commands of respectability that governed outward appearances. They continued to scrub counters and to hoover the carpets, because everyone can see those. The commands that governed private behavior were ignored. The result, at least in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is the look of an extremely well-tended hooker. Even Mme de Pompadour would not be seen in such outfits. Not even Cleopatra, I daresay. It’s quite inexplicable — until you apply your sense of history.

There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
20 April 2017

Thursday 20th

Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation, the 1993 film adaptation of John Guare’s play (Guare also wrote the screenplay), has long been a favorite, and so has Allison Janney, still relatively unknown, a thousand years ago, when we first saw her in Blue Window and New England at MTC. Kathleen decided that seeing the Broadway revival of the play, with Janney in the most sympathetic role, would be just the birthday treat she wanted. So she got tickets. The show opens next week; we hope that it will be a hit. Everyone at the Barrymore last night seemed to have a very good time.

The play, perhaps because it is so compressed, is less amusing than the film, but it is also more exhilarating. The twists and turns of the plot are more viscerally entwined with the dramatic problem, which is Ouisa Kittredge’s growing determination to prevent her family’s experience at the hands of a very skilled imposter from decaying into mere anecdote. She is tormented, albeit probably not for the rest of her life, by her inability to do anything for a clearly gifted young man who might well be a sociopathic con — whose very pleas for help may just be his way of passing the time. He may be unworthy of the Kittredges’ attentions, but for Ouisa the sharper possibility is that they are unworthy of his.

Ouisa’s husband, Flan, is the kind of con man that goes by the name of salesman. He is also something of a fence. When rich people want to dispose of valuable paintings without attracting public notice, they come to him. Flan can put together a syndicate of investors with the money to buy a Van Gogh or a Cézanne, which they then sell at a handsome profit. These artworks are worth millions, but they are also worth whatever Flan can mesmerize his buyers into paying. Although Flan and Ouisa manage to live on Fifth Avenue and to send their children to Groton and Harvard, cash is an issue, and money most definitely an object.

How different are they, then, from the presentable black youth who staggers into their lives one night, bleeding, turning to them because he has heard such nice things about them from their children? That the Kittredge children might say anything nice about their parents is such a delicious surprise that Flan and Ouisa — admittedly, under a great deal of stress at the moment (they are entertaining a rich South African whose largesse stands between them and “going to banks”) — forget their critical faculties altogether and take the fellow at face value. And a big value it is, for the boy is Paul Poitier, the son of the celebrated actor. Paul has come down from Cambridge the night before his father’s arrival in town, and he has been mugged — mugged and stabbed in Central Park, right there outside the Kittredges’ building. Of course they take him in. Once bandaged, Paul cooks them a delightful pasta supper and charms the South African with a précis of The Catcher in the Rye. You may recall that the protagonist of Salinger’s novel is obsessed with phoneys.

The next morning, Paul is discovered, in one of the Kittredge children’s bedrooms, with a naked hustler. After a great deal of commotion, the hustler and the young man are persuaded to leave. Almost at once, Kitty and Larkin, friends of the Kittredges and parents of their children’s classmates, knock on the door with the very interesting story of their night with Paul Poitier. They’re somewhat miffed to learn that the Kittredges have a better story. This is when the experience begins to take on the gloss of an anecdote. There is still much to learn — how did Paul, or whoever he is, acquire such rich knowledge of the lives of well-heeled New Yorkers? — but when the imposture takes a fatal turn and Paul becomes a wanted man, Ouisa discovers that she is on Paul’s side, inside the experience, not outside it, where everyone else she knows is ready to treat it as a great story. She appreciates the effort behind his skillful impersonation, and feels that it must be compensated somehow. The movie ends with Stockard Channing, pert in a spring-yellow suit, walking away from a luncheon party, perhaps for a headache-clearing stroll down Park Avenue, perhaps for a new life. The new production of the play ends with Allison Janney’s enigmatic smile.

More than once, whether because of her blondish wig or the sharp stage lighting, Janney made me think that she was Lauren Bacall, not just because she looked like the late actress but because she wielded the same authority.  Janney has a powerful voice; if she were a singer, she’d be Ethel Merman. She was also, I think, the tallest member of the cast, at least in heels. All this personal strength was put to the work of rendering Ouisa’s ambivalent discomfort with the clarity of her own moral compass. What makes the play exciting is our own ambivalence, because we want to believe that someone as smart as Ouisa might figure out a way of doing the right thing while continuing to live her enviably glamorous and witty life overlooking the park and schmoozing with millionaires. Ouisa’s smile at the end is her way of acknowledging that she knows what we expect of her. It is full of rue.

Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Trip Cullman, has a large and excellent cast. If I were being paid to write this, I might feel obligated to name a few names, but the fact is that no one stands out in a cast of standouts, and to mention any would be to slight the others. John Benjamin Hickey (Flan) and Corey Hawkins (Paul) share the headlines, and they are both very good, but their parts are merely larger than the rest. If I call attention to Mark Wendland’s excellent scenic design, I do so without knowing to what extent he was realizing the playwright’s stage directions.

Do try to see it.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
J D Vance
19 April 2017

Wednesday 19th

Last week, I read J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a book that was much talked about when it came out last fall. Already somewhat concerned about the outcome of the presidential election, I wanted to pretend that hillbillies, among other types, didn’t exist, so I took no notice. But last week, casting about for something to read on the Kindle at bedtime (and worried about overexposing myself to Rachel Cusk), I thought, why not? By now, I had read a piece by Vance in one of the magazines, and found it literate if efficient. The hollers of Kentucky are not my cup of tea at all, but I trusted Vance’s crisp prose for the ride, and I was not disappointed.

Kentucky is really just a curtain-raiser. Most of Hillbilly Elegy describes the author’s childhood in Middletown, Ohio, a small city, once centered around Armco Steel, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton. Middletown is even less my cup of tea — not a cup of tea at all, really. What held my attention was the growth of Vance’s sense of self, sustained against a background of serious family dysfunction. The problem was Vance’s mother, a woman whose personal weakness allowed her to fall from a high point of high-school salutatorian into the bog of heroin addiction. Along the way, she provided her son with something like fifteen father substitutes, some of whom she married. His mother’s mother, Mamaw, a fierce person, saw him saw him through the worst of it, and he managed to spend the last three years of high school living with her. Then he did something really smart: he joined the Marines, and the Marines taught him how to take care of himself. Then he was ready for college, which he completed in twenty-three months. Yale Law followed; Vance distinguished himself there by editing the Law Review and completing a judicial clerkship. He now works, it seems, for a firm owned by Peter Thiel.

While I grasp the implications of Vance’s title, I wonder if Hillbilly Anthem might have been better, because, for all their antics, Vance is proud of his people. There is a feeling that what was clearly dysfunctional behavior in Middletown was merely erratic or unlawful in Kentucky. Leaving home, despite short-term economic prosperity, has not been good to the hillbillies. An ethos designed to cope with harsh circumstances falls apart in softer ones. Of all the voices that I have heard raised against government interference in family affairs, Vance’s is the only one that I would trust, for it is completely devoid of the self-congratulation that spoils so much conservative thinking. Vance did not do it his way. He did it the Mamaw way, and then the Marine way, and even after all of that he learned how to do it the Yale way. Vance was never too proud to learn, or to take help when it was honorably offered. I would be willing to give his call for tough medicine a try if I believed that the American government would discipline the plutocrats who have converted our economy into a financialized bazaar populated by rentiers and their servants. Vance has nothing to say about that side of things.

For all its vicissitudes, Vance recalls his childhood lovingly. There’s more than macho pride to his affection. This was as foreign to me as his experience in the Marines. I don’t look back on my childhood with affection — or with any other strong emotion, either. So detached am I now from that world (even while living in an apartment full of inherited furniture and knick-knacks) that I worried, about ten years ago, about being “on the spectrum.” Now, I certainly don’t envy Vance his childhood, however loving. It reads like a nightmare. My own was but a grey stretch, without cuts or bruises. There may have been a dark streak running through it, a perennial worry that my adoptive parents would “take me back,” even though I knew that this “couldn’t happen.” I knew that this couldn’t happen, but I also knew that my mother was at times so out of her mind with dissatisfaction that she must have thought of calling a lawyer for advice. (Maybe she did, behind my father’s back. Maybe they both called.) I don’t want to overdo this melodramatic dread, though; it was hardly something that gnawed at me every day. Most of the time, I was a comfortable brat. But now I think of it, perhaps what drove my mother crazy even more than my misbehavior (which was almost always misdemeanorish) was my lack of pride and loyalty. I took all the comfort that Bronxville had to offer, but I was ashamed of myself for doing so.

Truman Capote once said that he and Perry Smith, his subject in In Cold Blood, had grown up in the same house, but that while Capote left it by the front door (for prosperity), Smith went out by the back (and to crime). I thought of this reading Hillbilly Elegy. It was as though J D Vance walked into the front door of a big house that I had lived in long ago. I crept out of that house, taking forever to leave. The actual house that I moved into was smaller but much more suitable, but the house that I really live in is a mansion without end.

It is history, not family. We have been here a long time.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Laura Kipnis
18 April 2017

Tuesday 18th

On Sunday, we had a pleasant Easter dinner. Ms NOLA and her family joined us, as did Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil. The weather was sunny and warm, and the menu was simple — mushroom soup followed by ham, sweet potatoes, and haricots with almonds. Ray made his glorious chocolate mousse. We talked our heads off as usual. I had a bit of difficulty carving the ham — there seemed to be too many bones — but everything else went smoothly, and now, two days later, the only thing that remains is to put all the dishes back into the china cupboard. I did nothing yesterday but go to the dentist. I slept until noon this morning. I will be back to normal tomorrow. My mind, having been in quartermaster mode for several days, is resettling into its ruminative coils.

I did read a book yesterday — Laura Kipnis’s Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation. I’m intrigued by Kipnis’s façon de penser, and I plan to read more. She has a new book out, Unwanted Advances, about academic paranoia, but I want to read The Female Thing first, because I think that it will help me with my thoughts about feminism, which, like everyone else’s, are a muddle.

To try to begin to clear the air, last week, I sketched a few paragraphs about women and liberation in the form of a letter to a friend; my thoughts were nowhere near clear enough for presentation here. I began with the various liberation movements that arose around 1800, and traced the success with which women’s demands for freedom from pre-modern shackles was met, first with political enfranchisement and then with economic opportunity. Despite this, a great deal of discontent about the position of women remains. Why? That’s what I wanted to know. I surmised that it had something to do with romance, or “romance,” and I won’t be surprised if The Female Thing helps me to understand this better. Kipnis seems (on the basis of Men) to be more likely than anyone to explain how feminism, by reconstructing romance in accord with the actual desires of women, might throw everyone’s expectations of “romance” into confusion.

By far, however, the most interesting thing about my little essay, which had a few interesting things in it, was that it did not occur to me until the next day that “women’s liberation” was the name of the movement in the late Sixties and well through the Seventies. “Feminism” came later. Kathleen remembered, with a jolt, having been called a “women’s libber.” But the term had been forgotten; I could write about it without saying it. Arguably, it has been forgotten because women’s liberation has been accomplished. There’s nothing more to expect from “liberation.” Such difficulties as remain lie elsewhere.

Kipnis is a curious thinker — my favorite kind, but hard to describe. In our ever more polarized critical climate, she stands apart — she stands for candor and common sense. She has a bit of thing about épataying the bourgeoisie, and she has bitter words for capitalist plutocrats, but she doesn’t seem to have an idea of a better world. This is undoubtedly sensible, but I’d still like to know more about her hopes. The most solid piece in Men, not surprisingly, is the transcript of her debate with Harvey Mansfield, whose reactionary book about manliness got everyone stirred up a few years ago. When Mansfield remarks that men take rejection better than women do, Kipnis cocks her eyebrow and shifts the perspective.

You know, until pretty recently there were many more consequences for women when it came to sexual expression than for men. When Simone de Beauvoir, whom you discuss in your book, wrote The Second Sex, birth control was actually illegal in France — she had to go to New York to get a diaphragm. It’s been less than fifty years that women have been freed from at least some of the consequences of sexual expression. So what women are “by nature” or whether women are any more modest or equally immodest — I just think we don’t yet know. Ditto the question of what women want from men, given that economic independence from men is also a fairly recent option.

To which Mansfield replies,

As important as careers are for women, what’s been more central in feminist thinking is this obsession with sex. And that’s what so wrong about feminism, and what has caused all the difficulties we see today and all the unhappiness that women have. Because most women do want to get married, and that’s because they’re smart enough to realize that a happy marriage is the most common and easiest way for a human being to be happy.

I quote Mansfield’s response because it is so archetypally deaf to what Kipnis has just said — it’s too early to tell. And it falls back on utter fatuity: a happy marriage is the easiest way for a human being to be happy. Well, duh — if the marriage is happy already. Making a happy marriage, as Kipnis points out, is another matter. Most marriages aren’t happy. Which Mansfield would undoubtely blame on the feminist obsession with sex!

Most of Kipnis’s essays are more relaxed, or at any rate less intellectually demanding. She is funny and clever and obviously very smart, but the pieces collected in Men veer too often toward entertainment. One exception is her piece on House of Games, the kinkily wooden film about a psychiatrist and a con man that David Mamet filmed in 1987. “If I say that the storyline of House of Games involves an overly cerebral woman spying on a bunch of sleazy but sexy men and then getting her comeuppance, possibly you can see why House of Games would be a movie that makes me nervous.” Kipnis compares the movie to sex with a bad man — she has a ball while it lasts but then hates herself the next morning. Kathleen and I watched House of Games a few months ago, so it was fresh enough in memory to make Kipnis’s essay especially pleasurable.

If it’s too early to tell what women want, it’s not too soon to smash the question. If you ask what men want, the answer, pretty obviously, is having their own way, which means that there are a million things than men want, or perhaps as many different things as there are men. (Most men have no real idea of the things that you can want if you have lots of money.) When Freud asked his infamous question, he was talking about a class of human beings who were defined by their common shackles. What happens when you remove those shackles is that women become as diversely purposed as men.

I’m on the verge of proposing that the body of thought called feminism ought to be broken in two. One half would concern the multiplicity of encounters that women experience as they express their newfound liberation. Many of these encounters will not be positive, and it will be important to judge them without sentimentality for a simpler, imprisoned past. The other half would concern the new relations between the sexes — or between the genders, as I’d prefer to put it, because sexual activity would not be included here. Powerism is an awful word, but it captures what I have in mind. If there is one thing that the mere liberation of women from legal and social constraints could not change, it is the constellation of male habits of mind about the manners of power. These habits are both unconscious for those who have them and obvious to others. They must change if women are to go beyond liberation and into incorporation, into running the world alongside men, encouraging — very much as courageous men encourage — us all to pay more and better attention to each other.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Re-reading Brian Morton
12 April 2017

Wednesday 12th

This will be brief, because I’ve just written a letter to Brian Morton, mostly about his novel, A Window Across the River. Kathleen loved this book so much that I thought I might read it again myself. Brian Morton had been on my mind anyway, since Patricia Bosworth’s recent memoir stirred up memories of Bronxville. Morton, with whom I’ve enjoyed the exchange of a couple of notes, is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence, which Bosworth attended long before his time — before his birth, in fact — but I wonder if the profile of the Sarah Lawrence girl, always painted for me in lurid colors by my mother, who regarded it as a seminary for dissolute women (a view that nothing in Bosworth’s book would contradict), has changed much over the years. Now that dissoluteness is so mainstream and all.

A Window Across the River is about two creative people — a writer and a photographer — who try to revive an old affair. They drifted apart after the writer had an abortion; what kept the writer away was her terrible gift for writing devastating short stories about the people she loves. She can’t write any other kind of fiction, and once this is established, and the old friendship is resumed, we hold our breath waiting to find out how Isaac, the photographer, will respond to Nora’s inevitable story about him. (Our hopes that Nora might find a way to write a nice story about Isaac, who really is her favorite person in the world, are stifled at every turn.) Along the way, Nora and Isaac are distracted by the epiphenomena of art — the shows, the readings, the dinners, the panels, and, for Isaac, the alluring but more gifted students — that litter creative lives but make for entertaining reading. Here is Nora’s recollection of the literary life in college:

Kafka once said that a writer should cling to his desk as if to a life raft. Nora felt like she knew what he meant. And maybe, she thought, a woman writer has to cling to it with a special ferocity. Swarthmore had had a busy creative writing program, and every semester three or four visiting writers came in to give readings, lead daylong seminars, and be picturesquely literary in the coffee bar and the cafeteria. Nora tried to observe them closely. All of the successful male writers, she’d observed, were carried through their lives by a sort of rapture of egotism. Most of them were married, or had been — most had burned quickly through several wives — and many of them had children, but she got the feeling that none of them had ever let anything come between them and their work. The women were different. Most of them seemed nicer that the men — more modest, more approachable — but less obsessed. Nora found it easy to believe that their devotion to writing had always had to compete with the many varieties of caregiving with which women fill their lives. Some of the older women had long gaps in their writing lives, ten-year periods in which they’d published nothing. The single women were the only ones who seemed as fantastically devoted to writing as the men. “The lady poets must not marry, pal,” wrote John Berryman in one of his Dream Songs; more than forty years later, it still seemed to be true. (138-9)

I copied it out for two reasons. Not only is “rapture of egotism” so rich (rapture/raptor; the jet d’eau of the vowels; the insensibility brought on by the virtual-reality device of egotism), but its counterweight, “the many varieties of caregiving with which women fill their lives,” is so decidedly unmagical. Also, a more feminist statement might be, “with which women’s lives are filled,” because so many women feel that they don’t have a choice. But for Nora it is a choice. She accepts her womanliness as is; what bothers her is her poisoned pen.

When his rage cools down, Isaac’s understanding of Nora’s achievement expands.

She’d always said that her stories had no compassion, but that wasn’t quite accurate. Her portrait of him was a perfect rendering of the person he was afraid he might be. She’d intuited some of his worst fears about himself and written a story based on the premise that they were true. To write about him with such damning finality, as if he would never rise above his limitations — that, it was true, could be called cruel. But to go so deeply into his inner life that she could unearth his most intimate fears about himself — that was a large act of sympathetic imagination.  (286)

All we can do is what Nora does: hope for the best.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Camp Followers
10 April 2017

Monday 10th

Frances Fitzgerald has published a new book that, like most of her others, quickly establishes itself as Required Reading. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is a brisk but rigorous survey of a movement with primeval roots in American culture. But that word, struggle, so overused in subtitles, here eloquently attests to the difficulty that Evangelicalism has had in asserting its primacy over the culture. The United States may well be the most “religious” country in the developed world, with more of its people willing to assert a belief in God. But American religiosity is ideologically ramshackle, as is clear from its wavering and unclear relations with the more disciplined Calvinist creeds from which it derives. It is also stoutly opposed by an antagonist culture, rooted in the Western secular thought of which our Constitution is a flower, of social justice.

This is an old antagonism. A threshold decision about living in the world must be made by every person in it: is the world worthy of improvement, or is it rather a bolus of wickedness that is about to meet the divine retribution that it deserves? To put the choice in terms of Scripture alone, which are the more important pages of the New Testament, the moral teachings of Jesus or the not altogether coherent predictions of Revelation? If I bet on the Rapture, do I need health insurance? If Armageddon is at hand, should I worry about racial inequality?

American Evangelicals did not invent this duality; it runs through the entire course of heresy from the earliest days of the Christian Church. Until the Sixteenth Century, much of what Evangelicals now stand for was heresy, in the eyes of the Christian establishment at Rome. No sooner was that establishment upended in Northern Europe, however, than fratricidal doctrinal squabbles sent many protestants into exile. On the other shore of the Atlantic, exile was repackaged as paradise, a new home for new religion. Not long afterward, though, it also became a mercantile power, with cities full of the virtually godless. The soldiers of Christ have no more prevailed in the New World than they did in the Old. Strange offshoots from the Nineteenth Century, such the Oneida Community and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (one of them still very much with us), gave way in the Twentieth to glitzy, vaguely disgraceful performances by such intriguing people as Aimée Semple McPherson, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. (I’ve cheated and read ahead: Fitzgerald on the Bakkers is a feast of understatement.) Evangelicals have somehow emerged, in the Twenty-First Century, as supporters of every kind of inequality; they appear to be committed to a democracy that is limited to white heterosexual males. Whether that’s “American” or not remains, unfortunately, to be decided.

I am not a spiritual person, but I am aware of drawing great strength from a belief in “society” that has a distinctly spiritual aura, and, what’s more, is no more demonstrable, no more available to truth claims, than a belief in the Holy Trinity. I simply believe that it is there, and I should be broken if I didn’t. I believe that what’s best about human beings is their ability to cooperate and to provide mutual support — sometimes just by having fun together. What makes these achievements wonderful is their way of acknowledging the manifest inequality of born humans. At our best, we help one another out without expecting one another to share a greater likeness. (We are rarely at our best.) I am no socialist; I do not dream of making humanity harmonious. But we are mutually dependent for safety and comfort. To me, the denial of this basic proposition is clear evidence of emotional immaturity.

Sore as our unresolved inequalities of race and gender remain, we appear to be on the verge of confronting a new inequality of employability. It will be interesting to see how Evangelicals fare among the new jobless, and vice versa. The nub of the equality problem is the secular dream (shared by Jesus) of treating different people equally. It is not to say that difference is unimportant or easy to overlook; on the contrary: difference is unignorable. It is only when difference is recognized and accepted that equality can be granted. The difference that I’m talking about is not the difference of other people. It is the difference of me, the lonely uniqueness of my particular chaos in the universe. Only when I set aside imaginary groupings to which I might pretend to belong do I ache for equality, simply that I may be treated equally myself.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
The Benedict Thing
7 April 2017

Friday 7th

At lunch with my friend Eric, I was talking about the latest buzzword, “the Benedict option.” Eric knew more about it than I did. He knew, for example, about Rod Dreher, whose book of the same title has just come out. The cover is illustrated with a photograph of Mont-Saint-Michel, of course. What could be cosier than a rock-bound tower that, in the middle of a bay, is accessible only at low tide? Why don’t we all just go there and live the pure life, while cities plunge into every kind of sexual irregularity? We never liked cities anyway.

What is it about sex, that everybody thinks that it’s so important?

Animals, from what we can tell, do not, however driven, actually enjoy sexual congress. It seems to me than an ethos of generosity, such as Christianity is at its Scriptural core, would not be very interested in the carnal itch. But early Christianity was distinguished by the devotion of propertied women, widows mostly, who were attracted by the promise of first-class citizenship that, for a short time only, the new religion seemed to offer. These ladies were hardly sexual wantons; their rebellion stood for virginity. By St Augustine’s day, it was all but settled that true Christians renounced sex.

But why make everybody else renounce it? Why make it all such a big deal? I can only conclude that human beings, like animals, don’t like sex, either — especially when they’re not having any.

As for retiring to monasteries, Ron Dreher ought to be writing about Cassiodorus, the noble roman who gave monasteries their real raison d’être, which was to copy manuscripts on as large a scale as possible. Transcribing important texts is no longer as arduous as it was then, but actually reading and understanding them is more important than ever. From the quiet of the bookroom of my Upper East Side apartment, I see no need to fuss about monasteries. No need to bring sex into it!

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
6 April 2017

Thursday 6th

Although the weather is still generally lousy, spring seems determined to prevail, and, any day now, I may receive a box from White Flower Farm containing some unusual coleus plants that do well on the balcony. This year, I shall open it right away, no matter how rainy or chilly it is, and get the plants into pots, instead of letting them wither, as I did last year, waiting for the skies to clear. I have already strewn the ivy pot with morning glory seeds. Neither ivy nor morning glories have ever really thrived on my balconies, but I don’t know what else to do with the gigantic pot. Throwing it away would require filling many garbage bags with dirt first. Much easier to toss in some seeds and complain.

Meanwhile, I am learning that there is always more to cleaning the bathroom than I thought. When I started doing it myself, at holiday time, it seemed enough to soak the bath mat in a very mild bleach solution while scrubbing the tub and polishing the fixtures. After a few weeks, though, I could feel that the walls above the tub were getting scummy. How did the woman who used to do the cleaning take care of that, without getting wet? And how did she manage without bleach? (For she never asked me to stock up, although this might have been because I always have it on hand.) And how did she mop the floors? I know that she didn’t use vinegar, which is the only solvent that I can get to work for me. Everything else leaves a streaky mess.

We had chicken Tetrazzini for dinner last night. It was tasty, but making the sauce was a botheration, because, instead of consulting the recipe — my perfectly reliable recipe — I’d concocted it off the top of my head, and there wasn’t enough thickening flour in the roux — as I concluded later. When I set it over low heat to reduce, it didn’t burble gently in the saucepan, but popped and plumed, because, if I hadn’t used enough flour, I had used too much butter. I had also stirred in an egg yolk far too soon. It’s horrifying to find myself still vulnerable to that adolescent resentment about “following orders,” even if they’re my own. Saying “I’ll do it my way” settles nothing.

I have taken to dictating the shopping list to the iPhone. I open the shopping list note, bring up the keyboard, hit “return” and then the little microphone icon, and say “mayonnaise.” After a slight second, “Mayonnaise” appears on the screen, correctly spelled. It is true that I am (among other things) a trained radio announcer, but I’m still impressed. And yet even dictation is far from perfect. It occurred to me to put mayonnaise on the list when I was spooning a cupful of the stuff into a mini-processor, to make my version of Russian/Thousand Island dressing. Both hands were full, and I forgot to update the shopping list until Kathleen came home, and I said, “Hey, I’ve been dictating the shopping list to the iPhone.” I managed to turn the screen in her direction during that split second between my speech and the appearance of the word. She was impressed, too.

Now it’s time to change the sheets. Also, the blanket and the bedspread. I change the blanket and the bedspread when the time changes. This year’s time change, in the middle of March, took me by surprise, and then the next time that I changed the sheets, I found that when I had made the bed I had forgotten to change the blanket and the bedspread, and I was not about to undo all that work. I shall not forgot today. Also, it’s time to turn over the quilt on top of the bedspread. We had it made when we moved to this apartment. One side is predominately green, but with a multicolored pattern of half-opened fans. The other side is mostly red, in a very irregular plaid. Last fall, Kathleen noticed that I always had the plaid side facing down. It’s true that I much prefer the green. But I made a deal, to show the warm red during the cold season. Now it’s time for the breezy fans.

If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, thanks to millennia of poor decisions made by powerful men, it’s because powerful men have never had to grapple with the real problems of life.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Above Average
4 April 2017

Tuesday 4th

Ever since climbing aboard the Internet, it seems, I’ve been trying to figure out Tyler Cowen. He is certainly not a sympathetic figure, but neither is he altogether antipathetic. I can’t seem to get a grip on his economic ideas, mostly because I have no training but also because I think that most economic training is nonsense, productive of nothing but words sprayed on a page. The only thing that I really know about Cowen is that he travels a lot and is always in search of good local restaurants.

In a recent Vox interview with Ezra Klein, in fact, Cowen is shown holding chopsticks, with seven dishes of various sizes on the table behind him. Despite the chopsticks, despite the Chinese cuisine, the image is adamantly masculine. Cowen’s manliness is a thick thread that runs through everything he writes — his voice is bright with the impatience that comes of having to explain things over and over again — and I do not think that there is anything compensatory about it. Nor misogynist. If Cowen’s positions might be unhelpful to women and to others traditionally unwelcome at the high tables of power, that is incidental. Cowen would probably be the first man to stand up and welcome a woman who demonstrated the capacity to act with his manly assurance.

In the interview, Klein asked Cowen for quick comments about a slew of issues. NATO, guaranteed income, the war on drugs. I can’t say that I disagreed with much of what he said. My objections were all tonal, because I, of course, am not a manly man — I’m too skeptical about the status quo, but also too optimistic about improving on it. Early on, Cowen quipped, “I feel we need to put up a big sign on this country that says, ‘We’re for immigrants who really want to work and create’.” I shuddered with irritation, because putting “work” and “create” in the same clause makes hash of both. I wonder why he did not simply say, “… who really want to compete.”

Later, there was an even more abrasive passage.

I do believe America is an exceptional nation and should think of itself as such. And this norm weakening is one of my great worries about this current time. If you ask what makes America exceptional, it’s the embedded mix of religiosity and the high status we’re willing to give to businessmen. Our belief that our way of life is best, which of course it isn’t, but we believe it, and that’s overall a good thing. And this Puritan notion that there are individual life projects and it’s your highest calling to pursue them. And we both live by this, even though neither of us is Protestant. And I think that combination is just fantastic, though dangerous too.

At two points, Cowen undercuts himself, first when he says that our way of life isn’t the best, and then when he finds the “combination” — of what, I’m not exactly sure — dangerous. What does he really mean? That it’s a good thing to believe in an illusion — if the illusion is the particular one that we believe in? But what dispirits me far more is Cowen’s explicit belief that religiosity and businessmen are what make America exceptional. I wonder how many women, especially educated women, would agree. How many women would jump out of bed every morning with enthusiasm for prioritizing catechism and the cash register?

My own view is that America is exceptional because there used to be so much room in its thinly-populated wilderness for anti-social European misfits. I believe that American exceptionalism is a disorder from which the nation is far from recovering.


Thinking very hard, for various reasons, about feminism, I more and more want to bury the term in scare quotes and declare that we simply don’t know what it refers to. It seems more profitable to consider what feminism isn’t, what its constellation of ideas does not include. The first thing that comes to mind is competition.

In other entries, I’ve argued that pure capitalism is very important to a healthy economic life, but only in small doses and special cases. There is a vital interlacing between capitalism and innovation that keeps the economic edge sharp. But only the edge. Mature businesses do not thrive in capitalist excitement. That’s why I argue for more not-for-profit business organizations. Please tell me what is competitive, in a good way, about the supply of electric power. You can’t. The competition — the innovation, funded by capitalist speculation — was settled long ago, while Thomas Edison was still alive. Quick readers will note that I have folded “competition” into the captialist-innovation matrix. And that is indeed where I think it belongs.

The worst thing about prioritizing competition is the laziness that it encourages. I’m not being paradoxical. Competition, with its markers and its metrics, reduces the complications of personal performance to a few standard measurements. Did the tenor hit the high notes? That’s a much easier criterion to agree on than the far more important issue of a singer’s musicality. But the high notes are exceptional; most of the time, the singer is concerned not with freakish display but with tying ordinary notes together either tightly or loosely, as taste dictates. Similarly, there is nothing in genuine scholastic achievement that can be measured. Testing creates a wholly bogus region of accomplishment. Judgments of academic excellence are subject to dispute, a necessary inconvenience. Examinations sidestep the problem, but to no truly constructive purpose.

And as to commerce, it is no longer doubtable that the objective of every successful business is to narrow the field of competition to the vanishing point.

The humanist objection to the excessive emphasis on competition is that most people are insulted by it. Most people are not competitors. Most people are, by definition, close to mediocre. Most people need some kind of help from other people. Most of all, they need respect for their ordinariness. I can see that Tyler Cowen wants an America that, like Lake Wobegon, is above-average.

What this exercise teaches me is that feminism is not so much about allowing women to compete and excel as it is about creating a thriving society of dignified individuals.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
April 2017

3 April

Monday 3rd

At the Museum yesterday, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil and I passed a gallery that has been there for decades but that is now marked with the name of Leonard Lauder, not, as it was for decades, that of Lila Acheson Wallace. Quite aside from the faithlessness with which the Museum, as well as other cultural institutions, treats the names of former benefactors, there is the gossipy question, raised in a recent Vanity Fair article, of the extent to which Lauder’s promise of important Cubist paintings led the Museum’s leaders astray, namely in the acquisition of a long-term lease on the old Whitney Museum, now known as the Breuer Building (after its architect — a far better criterion for naming than moneybags). Another dubious project, the demolition and replacement of the old Wallace galleries, was halted before it began. These contretemps invite fair questions about the role of curating recent art that the Metropolitan ought to play. But they also spark tittle-tattle about the outgoing Director, Thomas Campbell.

The Times appears to be following this story with a view not to heaping disgrace on Campbell but to inspiring a reform of the Museum’s board of directors, which currently consists of a small band of executive overseers floating in a puddle of ill-informed socialites. This morning, the paper reported an amorous imbroglio involving Campbell and an employee, her name withheld to protect her (quoth the Times). It reported that the precise nature of the amour was unknown — perhaps Campbell and the lady, who have been friends since before his great elevation from the ranks of assistant curators, are just friends. But that was neither here nor there, because the problem was that, with her pal as Director, the lady, working in the digital media department, was exercising power far beyond her pay grade. She had became “hard to manage.” A new director of digital media, “lured” from the Getty, found it impossible to do her job, and, after a formal complaint, left with a handsome lagniappe.

All of this is more or less off the record. Also out of focus is the ghostly legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who ran the Museum for more than thirty years before retiring on the eve of the financial meltdown. What great timing! Because what brought his successor down, at least so far as the record is concerned, was the Museum’s finances, which have not only not recovered from the meltdown but worsened for reasons having nothing to do with it. You could say that Montebello was better at fiscal responsibility than Campbell, or you could say that Montebello ran his board. More cautious than Campbell, Montebello may have imposed his caution on the trustees. It was an arrangement that worked, but it was not a suitable arrangement, because it depended on the self-respect of the Director, not the probity of the board.

It’s hard to list all the changes wrought during Thomas Campbell’s directorship — almost all of them real improvements. I’m thinking especially of the new galleries of American painting and Islamic art, respectively. The new plaza on the Museum’s Fifth Avenue front is most welcome. These three things alone would constitute memorable signatures for any Director — and they were all achieved within ten years. But there’s more — perhaps too much. In addition to the Breuer Building lease, a rebranding campaign proved to be very unpopular. (It turns out that everybody loved the little metal buttons.) When the new logo was introduced, the price paid to develop it was an unattractive part of the picture, and it was then that a susurrus of criticism began to hum. Insiders began to talk — off the record. Gradually a new portrait of the Director unfolded. Whereas before he had been presented as a top-notch arts man, gifted with encyclopedic knowledge and elegant taste, he now became an unskilled executive, with little or no managerial experience. What didn’t change was the impassivity of the Board of Directors, which continued to behave as though Campbell and others had taken advantage of its good faith.

In the past decade, New York’s cultural life has suffered more from the negligence (and worse) of its institutional fiduciaries than from any other cause. From City Opera to Cooper Union and NYU, trustees have betrayed their public obligations by succumbing to the lure of expensive but unnecessary projects. Their personal wealth has enabled them, in the absence of reflective checks, to indulge grandiose schemes with childish thoughtlessness, usually at no personal expense. I can only hope that the Times will increase its attentiveness to such idle chicanery.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Month in Progress
April 2017

3 and 4 April

Monday 3rd: Fiduciary

At the Museum yesterday, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil and I passed a gallery that has been there for decades but that is now marked with the name of Leonard Lauder, not, as it was for decades, that of Lila Acheson Wallace. Quite aside from the faithlessness with which the Museum, as well as other cultural institutions, treats the names of former benefactors, there is the gossipy question, raised in a recent Vanity Fair article, of the extent to which Lauder’s promise of important Cubist paintings led the Museum’s leaders astray, namely in the acquisition of a long-term lease on the old Whitney Museum, now known as the Breuer Building (after its architect — a far better criterion for naming than moneybags). Another dubious project, the demolition and replacement of the old Wallace galleries, was halted before it began. These contretemps invite fair questions about the role of curating recent art that the Metropolitan ought to play. But they also spark tittle-tattle about the outgoing Director, Thomas Campbell.

The Times appears to be following this story with a view not to heaping disgrace on Campbell but to inspiring a reform of the Museum’s board of directors, which currently consists of a small band of executive overseers floating in a puddle of ill-informed socialites. This morning, the paper reported an amorous imbroglio involving Campbell and an employee, her name withheld to protect her (quoth the Times). It reported that the precise nature of the amour was unknown — perhaps Campbell and the lady, who have been friends since before his great elevation from the ranks of assistant curators, are just friends. But that was neither here nor there, because the problem was that, with her pal as Director, the lady, working in the digital media department, was exercising power far beyond her pay grade. She had became “hard to manage.” A new director of digital media, “lured” from the Getty, found it impossible to do her job, and, after a formal complaint, left with a handsome lagniappe.

All of this is more or less off the record. Also out of focus is the ghostly legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who ran the Museum for more than thirty years before retiring on the eve of the financial meltdown. What great timing! Because what brought his successor down, at least so far as the record is concerned, was the Museum’s finances, which have not only not recovered from the meltdown but worsened for reasons having nothing to do with it. You could say that Montebello was better at fiscal responsibility than Campbell, or you could say that Montebello ran his board. More cautious than Campbell, Montebello may have imposed his caution on the trustees. It was an arrangement that worked, but it was not a suitable arrangement, because it depended on the self-respect of the Director, not the probity of the board.

It’s hard to list all the changes wrought during Thomas Campbell’s directorship — almost all of them real improvements. I’m thinking especially of the new galleries of American painting and Islamic art, respectively. The new plaza on the Museum’s Fifth Avenue front is most welcome. These three things alone would constitute memorable signatures for any Director — and they were all achieved within ten years. But there’s more — perhaps too much. In addition to the Breuer Building lease, a rebranding campaign proved to be very unpopular. (It turns out that everybody loved the little metal buttons.) When the new logo was introduced, the price paid to develop it was an unattractive part of the picture, and it was then that a susurrus of criticism began to hum. Insiders began to talk — off the record. Gradually a new portrait of the Director unfolded. Whereas before he had been presented as a top-notch arts man, gifted with encyclopedic knowledge and elegant taste, he now became an unskilled executive, with little or no managerial experience. What didn’t change was the impassivity of the Board of Directors, which continued to behave as though Campbell and others had taken advantage of its good faith.

In the past decade, New York’s cultural life has suffered more from the negligence (and worse) of its institutional fiduciaries than from any other cause. From City Opera to Cooper Union and NYU, trustees have betrayed their public obligations by succumbing to the lure of expensive but unnecessary projects. Their personal wealth has enabled them, in the absence of reflective checks, to indulge grandiose schemes with childish thoughtlessness, usually at no personal expense. I can only hope that the Times will increase its attentiveness to such idle chicanery.


Tuesday 4th: Above Average

Ever since climbing aboard the Internet, it seems, I’ve been trying to figure out Tyler Cowen. He is certainly not a sympathetic figure, but neither is he altogether antipathetic. I can’t seem to get a grip on his economic ideas, mostly because I have no training but also because I think that most economic training is nonsense, productive of nothing but words sprayed on a page. The only thing that I really know about Cowen is that he travels a lot and is always in search of good local restaurants.

In a recent Vox interview with Ezra Klein, in fact, Cowen is shown holding chopsticks, with seven dishes of various sizes on the table behind him. Despite the chopsticks, despite the Chinese cuisine, the image is adamantly masculine. Cowen’s manliness is a thick thread that runs through everything he writes — his voice is bright with the impatience that comes of having to explain things over and over again — and I do not think that there is anything compensatory about it. Nor misogynist. If Cowen’s positions might be unhelpful to women and to others traditionally unwelcome at the high tables of power, that is incidental. Cowen would probably be the first man to stand up and welcome a woman who demonstrated the capacity to act with his manly assurance.

In the interview, Klein asked Cowen for quick comments about a slew of issues. NATO, guaranteed income, the war on drugs. I can’t say that I disagreed with much of what he said. My objections were all tonal, because I, of course, am not a manly man — I’m too skeptical about the status quo, but also too optimistic about improving on it. Early on, Cowen quipped, “I feel we need to put up a big sign on this country that says, ‘We’re for immigrants who really want to work and create’.” I shuddered with irritation, because putting “work” and “create” in the same clause makes hash of both. I wonder why he did not simply say, “… who really want to compete.”

Later, there was an even more abrasive passage.

I do believe America is an exceptional nation and should think of itself as such. And this norm weakening is one of my great worries about this current time. If you ask what makes America exceptional, it’s the embedded mix of religiosity and the high status we’re willing to give to businessmen. Our belief that our way of life is best, which of course it isn’t, but we believe it, and that’s overall a good thing. And this Puritan notion that there are individual life projects and it’s your highest calling to pursue them. And we both live by this, even though neither of us is Protestant. And I think that combination is just fantastic, though dangerous too.

At two points, Cowen undercuts himself, first when he says that our way of life isn’t the best, and then when he finds the “combination” — of what, I’m not exactly sure — dangerous. What does he really mean? That it’s a good thing to believe in an illusion — if the illusion is the particular one that we believe in? But what dispirits me far more is Cowen’s explicit belief that religiosity and businessmen are what make America exceptional. I wonder how many women, especially educated women, would agree. How many women would jump out of bed every morning with enthusiasm for prioritizing catechism and the cash register?

My own view is that America is exceptional because there used to be so much room in its thinly-populated wilderness for anti-social European misfits. I believe that American exceptionalism is a disorder from which the nation is far from recovering.


Thinking very hard, for various reasons, about feminism, I more and more want to bury the term in scare quotes and declare that we simply don’t know what it refers to. It seems more profitable to consider what feminism isn’t, what its constellation of ideas does not include. The first thing that comes to mind is competition.

In other entries, I’ve argued that pure capitalism is very important to a healthy economic life, but only in small doses and special cases. There is a vital interlacing between capitalism and innovation that keeps the economic edge sharp. But only the edge. Mature businesses do not thrive in capitalist excitement. That’s why I argue for more not-for-profit business organizations. Please tell me what is competitive, in a good way, about the supply of electric power. You can’t. The competition — the innovation, funded by capitalist speculation — was settled long ago, while Thomas Edison was still alive. Quick readers will note that I have folded “competition” into the captialist-innovation matrix. And that is indeed where I think it belongs.

The worst thing about prioritizing competition is the laziness that it encourages. I’m not being paradoxical. Competition, with its markers and its metrics, reduces the complications of personal performance to a few standard measurements. Did the tenor hit the high notes? That’s a much easier criterion to agree on than the far more important issue of a singer’s musicality. But the high notes are exceptional; most of the time, the singer is concerned not with freakish display but with tying ordinary notes together either tightly or loosely, as taste dictates. Similarly, there is nothing in genuine scholastic achievement that can be measured. Testing creates a wholly bogus region of accomplishment. Judgments of academic excellence are subject to dispute, a necessary inconvenience. Examinations sidestep the problem, but to no truly constructive purpose.

And as to commerce, it is no longer doubtable that the objective of every successful business is to narrow the field of competition to the vanishing point.

The humanist objection to the excessive emphasis on competition is that most people are insulted by it. Most people are not competitors. Most people are, by definition, close to mediocre. Most people need some kind of help from other people. Most of all, they need respect for their ordinariness. I can see that Tyler Cowen wants an America that, like Lake Wobegon, is above-average.

What this exercise teaches me is that feminism is not so much about allowing women to compete and excel as it is about creating a thriving society of dignified individuals.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
March 2017

1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 27, 30 and 31 March

Wednesday 1st

How curious: only a day or so after I finish re-reading Jonathan Sumption’s The Albigensian Crusade, the Times runs a front-page article about the draining vitality of charming downtown Albi, a town almost directly aligned with Paris longitudinally but situated at the other end of the country, closer to the southern border of France than the capital is to its northern one. Modern lifestyles, intertwined with the trends of modern commerce, no longer find quaint but narrow streets worth the trouble. There is a mall outside Albi, with its hypermarché and the other conveniences that go with parking lots. Just to the north of the mall, Google Maps shows me, there’s a neighborhood of suburban houses that reflects American land-use habits. The paradox of contemporary democracy is that Albi’s suburbs are likely to be inhabited by supporters of Marine le Pen who want to keep France French while at the same time abandoning its physical legacy.

It’s hard to scold. Who is to bear the cost of keeping an inconvenient legacy alive? I have heard of very remote, very small villages in the Auvergne that have been completely repopulated by artists and artisans, but beyond the gratification of knowing that such places are still inhabited, it is difficult to regard them as truly civic organisms. And yet, looking forward to economies that, out of necessity if nothing else, are more looped than growth-oriented, and thereby more synchronized to the rhythms that built Albi a thousand years ago, one hopes that the old towns will still be standing, ready to be reoccupied.


I’ve been thinking a lot about “the toilet test.” Do you know how a flush toilet works? Probably you’ve never given it much thought. You don’t, after all, need to know. At the most, you are familiar with the problem of the “running” toilet, whose tank fails to fill because the flap doesn’t close when the tank is empty. But the ingenious course that the water follows when it leaves the tank, from the bowl’s perforated inner rim to the “S” hump in the pipe that drains the bowl, may well have failed to engage your attention. (If you’re a man, you may have noticed, without thinking why, that urinals don’t involve bowls of standing water.) Proud as I was to have been aware of these features when I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s fascinating piece about our cognitive shortcomings, it took a further week for me to see that indoor plumbing constitutes the earliest domestic robotic system. Flush toilets not only perform repetitive tasks with predictable reliability but also relieve human beings of an array of disagreeable tasks, the former existence of which most of us have completely forgotten. Carrying pails of water and emptying chamber pots used to be parts of a job, for oh so much vaster a stretch of human history.

Repetitive tasks are the essence of labor. With work, in contrast, there is always an edge of unknown possibility. Sometimes, as in the writing of fiction, that edge can be vast and teeming, but for most jobs it is quiet and off in a corner. An engineer figures out, one day, a more effective configuration, but this small addition to professional knowledge rests on broad foundations of established understanding. Most work is just as repetitive as labor, but the possibility of engagement at the edge makes it intriguing. A successful working career might well be defined as one in which the frontier of the foreseeable never closes.

Long before the Industrial Revolutions, artists were self-consciously committed to this notion of work. The idea of the art-work was most explicit in the publication of music, in which compositions were gathered together and given an opus — work — number. Art was the supreme form of work. Our idea of art is shaped by the presumption that great works of art are somehow unlike all others; no matter how much labor was involved in the production of a painting, the result is quite pricelessly distinctive, as with any of Vermeer’s thirty-odd masterpieces. The pricelessness of an artwork is manifest in our sense of its significance, which is a distillation of the atmosphere of the creative edge that we can appreciate without doing any work at all.

After art, we honor design, which is an idea that can be mass-produced. Here the work — the creation of the design — and the labor — its mass-production — stand in stark contrast. At one end, we have Sir Jonathan Ive in his shop at Apple; at the other, we have the workers at FoxConn in China who are about to replaced by robots. (Let’s not forget the engineers who design the robots!) Ultimately, it seems, all labor will be performed by machines, not because human beings find it tedious and unpleasant (although they do) but because machines are better at laboring. Far be it from me to claim that work, with its imagining edge, will always remain a human exclusive. But it seems clear that meaning and significance are the projections of work that human beings find it interesting to do as well as to consider. The history of the world is the record of significant ideas and objects, only some of which are generally significant at present. Historians of the world specialize in imagining the significance that most surviving ideas and objects have lost. The true history of humanity looks more like the history of art than it does the history of war. War is perhaps merely the labor part of history.


Thursday 2nd

My respect for The New Yorker has had its ups and downs over the past fifty-five years. The variance has never been large, but I’m feeling unusually out of sorts with it these days. I can’t say that I disagree with the magazine’s assessment of Donald Trump himself, but I don’t see the need to shout it from the housetops. The New Yorker’s editors clearly do.

It occurs to me that what I disagree with them about is the answer to this question: Who won the election? Donald Trump? He’s the man in the Oval Office, certainly. But as I see it, the winner of the 2016 presidential election was the bloc of Americans who loathe the liberal élite. Now, this liberal élite used to be very shy. It was almost impossible to find anyone who would admit to belonging to it. The election changed that. The liberal élite took to the streets, howling, united in its visceral hatred of the president. The president’s supporters were thrilled by the sight, which confirmed what they thought all along. The liberal élite is not as divine, not as above-it-all, as it thought it was. It does not transcend petty passions. It’s just as raw, just as angrily human, as the Americans it deplores. When Adam Gopnik all but raged about a glitch in the simulated universe that we’re clearly living in, a bug in the Matrix, I had to chuckle. In your dreams, Adam.

Three Republican presidents were elected by the hope that they would deliver a once-and-for-all kick in the ass to the liberal élite, and all three quailed. Nixon, whose plans for the Republic were truly diabolical, installed a secret tape recorder in the place that Trump reserves for his megaphone. Reagan and Bush II were fronts for established interest groups that needed the liberal élite to serve as a decoy villain. All three were served by able students of public affairs who knew how to work the Overton window, slowly but surely. But none of these presidents had the interests of ordinary Americans at heart, and voters in the late election cycle made it clear that they knew it. They rejected all the candidates who were approved by the Republican Party and insisted on an impossible outsider. Trump may turn out to be as useless to the economic welfare of ordinary Americans as his Republican predecessors, but the sincerity of his hatred of the liberal élite is obviously genuine, and his election has enfranchised that hatred. I believe that the word is ressentiment. Ressentiment won the 2016 election, and the liberal élite has some splainin to do.

Once upon a time, there was a stretch of Three Glorious Decades. It came to an end in the 1970s, when, among other things, fossil fuels ceased to be imperial possessions that could be priced as needed. Since then, the liberal élite that oversaw the postwar economic miracle has lost its balance. That the spike in oil prices came as such a terrible shock to the Western economies shows, I suppose, that the best and the brightest who were running things did not fully understand all of their world’s moving parts. From a wider perspective, they were wrong to assume that postwar boom would go on forever: it was fundamentally a recovery, a return to the status quo ante with some important features upgrades, such as the UN and the offspring of Bretton Woods. But the cornerstone of liberal élite statecraft was that economies can expand indefinitely — indeed, that they must either grow or die! This was folly.

The wonderful thing about the Trente Glorieuses was their ideological purity: it was the economy, and nothing but the economy. You could have a welfare state if you wanted one, and your economy would still grow. When the ride came to an end, the liberal élite made a decision to continue to treat the economy as the center of social life. If the economy could be made to do well, then rising tides would lift all boats, and so on. The liberal élite decided against altering the foundation of social life to accommodate an increased and less optional contribution of non-economic ideas. The weakness of liberalism, since its birth in the ashes of the French Revolution, has always been to shore up property rights in times of crisis. (Indeed, a centerpiece of liberal policy has always been to increase ownership.) In the late Seventies, the liberal course engendered decades of financialization, the “monetization” of almost everything. Truly liberal values and their exponents were compromised by this development; the hypocrisy of liberals was obvious to everyone, which is undoubtedly why no one would admit to belonging to the class.

Liberal thinking is one of the fruits of affluent leisure; people who are very poor or very busy have no time for it. Only those who are gifted with means and imagination have the luxury of trying to understand others’ way of life. I believe that liberals are the truest humanists, not because they are the best people but because they understand and respect the force of weakness in human minds, and are less inclined than other people to stamp their feet and impatiently wish it away. Perhaps liberals shouldn’t belong to the élite at all; perhaps the existence of a liberal élite in my lifetime has been anomalous. If it has come crashing down (which I think it has done), then liberalism itself is in need of repair. Any blame ought to be directed not at its enemies but at the élite itself. As the old New Yorker cartoon had it, “Back to the drawing board!”


Monday 6th

Perhaps you’ve heard the story, too. Apparently, it’s cheaper to send Scottish salmon, or maybe shrimp, in freezer containers, to Thailand or China, for shelling or filleting, and then to ship it back, refrozen, for sale in Scottish supermarkets, than it is to process the seafood in Scotland. The amazing efficiency of container shipping, combined with the huge variance in daily wages — £5 in Scotland versus 25 or 50p in Asia — makes economic sense of the 10,000-mile round trip.

It makes a sort of economic sense. It makes economic sense only if you ignore all the other costs, some of them, like that of the oil that powers the ship and keeps the freezers cold, rather short-term figures. (Someday, someday soon, that oil may be priceless.) There is the cost to the state of offshored labor, which at a minimum is reflected in a lowering of Scottish wages (however slight). It completely ignores the degradation of the fish itself, what with two freezings and defrostings, and what with a passage of time that squashes any claim to freshness. Most of all, there is the cognitive cost of training one’s mind to regard this extraordinary routine as an intelligent choice.

I use the word “extraordinary” because, as soon as I thought to mention this story, I felt obliged to check it out. I am no investigative journalist, but the online evidence is not as robust as I thought it would be. Two differently-phrased Google searches produced two stories, one involving cod, dating from 2009, and one involving shrimp, and an outfit called Young’s Seafood, from 2006. (The later story references the earlier.) On the basis of these slim returns, I would hesitate to claim that this crazy tale of mercantilism in reverse was ever a normal way of doing business.

But it did happen, and, as I say, it made sense only if you squinted. In that regard, it is a classically liberal story, one that’s bound to offend almost everybody, because so much of liberal economic thinking is reflected in awkward compromises brokered by liberal politicians. On the one hand, the conservative penchant for free markets is indulged, and on a breathtaking scale. On the other, Asian poverty is eased, and nations are bound more closely together by trade, thus pleasing progressives. But neither conservatives nor progressives can reconcile themselves, in the long term, to jobs lost at home or to grotesque energy footprints. As with many liberal schemes, the social and political benefits are somewhat notional and certainly abstract, while the concrete benefits pile up in the pockets of a handful of “industrialists.” The more unfortunate upshot is that conservatives and progressives can excoriate one another with clear consciences.

It’s like Churchill said: liberal democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others. Liberals have a unique faith in compromise, a readiness to put principle behind pragmatism. But liberal pragmatism is inclined to be sneaky, to hide costs and minimize discomforts. I think that it ought to go just the other way, and, abandoning the lie that social coexistence can be altogether painless, adopt instead a policy of identifying the prices that people are willing to pay. That’s why I think that Ross Douthat’s column in Sunday’s Times was excellently liberal. Douthat proposes scrapping affirmative action programs and granting an annuity to anyone who can prove descent from an American slave. I can think of many dandy modifications, such as, to name only one, diverting annuities to slaves’ descendants who are already doing well economically, granting them instead the right to appoint the annuity to an educational endowment for scholarships. I’d like very much to see the end of affirmative action, which in my view, as an unintended consequence, undermined academic rigor and introduced toxic ideas about relative truth that have now infected our politics. In any case, Douthat’s proposal is free of the smoke and mirrors of typical liberal compromises.


Wednesday 8th

Power and superiority — how are these concepts related? I mean, how do people relate them? — for I am not at all interested in an abstract, generalized, philosophical explanation. The answer to the question is not analytical, but, necessarily, historical.

Reading Darryl Pinckney on James Baldwin yesterday, I got it: there is no “Negro,” no “African-American,” no black problem; there is only a white problem.

At the core of his message was always the assertion that there was no Negro problem; there was the problem of white people not being able to see themselves, to take responsibility for their history, and to ask themselves why they needed to invent “the nigger.”

To answer this question, it must be borne in mind that not-white people might have, and might wish to preserve, different cultures, different ways of accenting the inevitable similarities of everyday life. The black man might say to the white man, My life is different from yours, but the difference is not inherent in my genes. This would oblige the white man to reconsider his insistence, made by almost every Founder, that white-skinned men of European background were better-equipped to run things, that they were superior men. If the claim was not genetic, what was it? Why did they not instead attribute their superiority — and I am willing to concede that they were superior, these Founders, as long as it is understood that they were superior to most white-skinned men as well — to education and experience paid for by unusual wealth and/or well-connected friendships?

The white man’s anxiety about the truth of the genetic explanation was demonstrated by the prohibition against teaching slaves to read. If negroes had been genuinely inferior, knowing how to read would not have gained them much. The problem of allowing the wrong people to read is as old as the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed that untrained minds would draw the wrong conclusions from standard works, and that their unorthodoxy was a kind of inferiority. The assumption that the exercise of power ought to be reserved for the use of superior people is a natural one, but it is too contingent to tell us much about the relationship of superiority and power. Powerful people are ipso facto in a better position to define superiority to suit themselves than are those who disagree with them. The relationship becomes circular: power and superiority are different facets of a quality that may have no relation to justice. So the fear that the black man might arrive at a coherent but different view of how things ought to be if he were allowed to expand, by reading at liberty, his understanding of the world, was pegged to the objective and inarguable — and altogether irrelevant — fact of surface.

Reading Mary Beard on “Women in Power” today, I see that the classics scholar is tending toward Baldwin’s argument: the problem is not with women (and what they want) but with the need that men seem to have to regard women as different and inferior. Once again, difference is used to predicate inferiority. But the problem is somewhat richer, because men and women are different kinds of human beings, which black men and white men are not. The nature of the difference is the problem that we are grappling with today. Is it merely “biological,” a matter of hormones, body parts, and different procreative roles? Or is it that men, like the Southerners who forbade slaves to read, are unsure of themselves?

Ideally, when we talk about political power, we are not talking about the brute, coercive power of strapping, armed men. Their power is by definition not political. So what is political power? It is the ability to persuade one’s fellows to follow a particular program, to pursue a particular objective. The program may or may not involve hereditary monarchy; it may or may not mandate state-funded child-care; in every case, political action is launched by persuasion. The nature of superiority with respect to power would seem to be a characteristic of persuasiveness. Part of persuasion is the force of argument, but another part is the likelihood that the person making the argument has superior access to the right ideas — ideas that will work. The most inarguable Ciceronian oration will fall on deaf ears if delivered by a staggering drunkard. And then there are devils, those would-be persuaders whose appearance of access to the right ideas is spurious.

In theory, superiority and inferiority are relative terms, reflecting different places on the same scale. In fact, they decay into disjunctive characteristics. In vernacular thought, degree hardens into difference. When we hail Mozart’s genius, or Queen Elizabeth’s majesty, we are not thinking of all the rest of humanity that lacks these attributes. Mozart and HM are not better. They are different. Hitler is not worse than everybody else, he’s a monster. But this everyday way of speaking is not very thoughtful. In the end, we are all human beings, and there is no difference in that, not even between men and women. We are all born and we all die, and even our differences are similar. Difference in degree is even a kind unity — we are none of us too different to mate.

Near the end of her essay, Mary Beard writes,

That said, if the deep cultural structures legitimating women’s exclusion are as I have argued, gradualism is likely to take too long for me, thank you very much. We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. To put it another way, if women aren’t perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn’t it power that we need to redefine rather than women?

For of course we don’t always talk about power ideally.


Wednesday 9th

Foraging in my history bookcase, I pulled down J D Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors, a volume of the mid-century Oxford History of England. It is one of the books that I owned before I went off to college, so I think of it as one that I’ve had all my life; but I’ve never read it. The purchase remained aspirational for a very long time.

Anyway, the opening chapters, devoted to the reign of Henry VII, include one entitled “Perkin Warbeck.” When my interest in history was burgeoning, I was allergic to rebels and imposters, finding them noisily uninteresting in comparison to plausible usurpers like Henry Tudor. Henry Bolingbroke, Edward of York — the Fifteenth Century was full of genuine upstarts. Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, as you could tell by their very names, lacked aristocratic élan. They were fake fakes.Without learning more, I considered them as two peas in a pod. Which they certainly weren’t.

Reading Mackie attentively, I was surprised to discover that while Lambert Simnel — an ingenu who wound up, pardoned, serving in Henry’s kitchens — was a flash in the pan — a big flash, to be sure, with a coronation in Dublin and a military dénouement at Stoke-on-Trent — Perkin Warbeck was a nuisance for most of the 1490s. Perkin Warbeck, or Peter Osbeck, or Pierrequin Werbecque passed about a month altogether in England before his surrender, no more. Born in Tournai —the best guess — he spent his teens in Portugal, as a page, acquiring courtly polish and the art of wearing fine clothes. From there he sailed to Ireland, where, according to a confession made years later, he was acclaimed by some gentlemen of Cork as, well, obviously somebody. It was settled finally that he must be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the princes whom Richard III was believed to have had murdered in the Tower of London in 1483, and thus the rightful occupant of England’s throne.

The first step of Perkin’s Continental career was taken in France, where he was welcomed by Charles VIII. His stay did not last very long, because Charles had to send him packing as one of the terms of the Treaty of Étaples. Not to worry: he found an even warmer welcome in neighboring Burgundy (Brabant, actually), where Margaret of York, the Dowager Duchess, recognized him as her nephew. Her stepson-in-law, Maximilian (not yet Holy Roman Emperor), did the same, and his son, Philip, the actual ruler of Burgundy, followed suit for a while, until Henry, royally pissed, shut down English trade with the Netherlands. The years of luxurious plotting now came to an end.

A small fleet was assembled. The idea was not so much to invade England as to appear there. Margaret and Maximilian had convinced themselves that, as in Ireland, their protégé would be acclaimed by local worthies. In fact, however, Henry had completely uprooted the slender network of Yorkist conspirators. With only one titled aristocrat in their number, they would probably not have been able to give their king the help that he would need against Henry, but now they definitely could not, because their leaders were dead.

Even so, the fiasco of Perkin Warbeck’s invasion was a fiasco that ought to have put paid to his pretensions. It revealed that he was not a fighter. He might carry himself like a prince, but in the end, he would have to defeat Henry in battle, which his conduct in the attack on Deal, in Kent, showed to be most unlikely. He stayed on board his ship while the officers and men went ashore. While most of them were killed or imprisoned, he sailed away, back to Ireland, where his forces, such as they were, launched an attack on Waterford. Perkin did not participate in this action, either, but retired to a distance of ten miles. After the failure at Waterford, the young man now made his way into the arms of a third ruler, James IV of Scotland. This king provided his new buddy not only with a pension but with a wife, the daughter of a Highland notable. Just as the plausible rogue had hunted and played tennis with Philip of Burgundy, now he was James’s boon companion, at least until a border raid in 1496. Not only did the pretender fail to attract the support of a single English lord, but he ran away from the raping and pillaging.

Ten months later, he was put in a little boat with his wife and son and food and some horses, but no arms, and sent off to find a new haven — perhaps Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella did not believe that he was the Duke of York, but they thought it might be useful to lock him up in a palace somewhere; he had proven his worth as a pawn to anyone who wanted to irritate the King of England. (The Spanish monarchs had no intention of going fighting with Henry, but they were engaged in another form of warfare: negotiating the marriage of their daughter, Catherine, to Arthur, Prince of Wales.) Without having decided one way or the other, the claimant put ashore in Ireland, which turned out to be very chilly. Another invasion of the land that he called his own but had never seen as a man had to be undertaken.

The final chapter of the adventure was unlike the earlier ones. This time, landing in Cornwall, Richard was his own commander. Cornwall was still in turmoil after a rising the previous year, when a band of men had marched on London, and been resolutely crushed by Henry. Now calling himself King Richard IV, the pretender attracted a ragtag army of men armed with rustic implements. A rude attack on Exeter succeeding in breaching one of the town’s gates, and it is possible that men with more military experience might have made something of this. Instead, Richard begged leave to leave. On the eve of his next military encounter, he ran away, and took sanctuary at Beaulieu, near Southampton. He was persuaded to give himself up.

I’ll stop there. Intrigued by Mackie’s account, I looked for a full-length treatment of Perkin Warbeck, and found one in Ann Wroe’s The Perfect Prince: the Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England. I have just begun Chapter Seven, “Confession,” which from rummaging ahead I know is going to include the backstory of the pretender’s origins, such as can be known. Wroe has sketched this in summary fashion several times already. Noting that, according to one theory, the pretender was the son of Margaret of York (notoriously childless, by the way) and the Bishop of Cambrai, and that, if so, one would still have to decide which bishop, as there were two at the likely time, Wroe tells us that the elder bishop’s funeral was attended by thirty-six of his illegitimate children. That factoid — factette seems more respectful — is almost worth the price of admission, but it is only one of the lesser marvels of The Perfect Prince. The great marvel is Wroe’s ability to spin a very rich five-hundred page text out of thin air. Her subject is a void, noticeable only by what he occludes. The simplest way of relaying her achievement is the note at the head of her index: “For obvious reasons,” she says,

the subject of this book cannot be included here under any of his names. The entry for Richard, Duke of York, refers to the boy who was incontrovertibly the second son of Edward IV, last seen for certain in 1483.

Not to worry: “the subject” appears on almost every page. Ordinarily, I find this sort of stunt supremely annoying, but Wroe’s book is not the ordinary pile-up of surmises about a silent figure. She is not really interested in what Perkin Warbeck thought or felt about anything. What interests her is that the thoughts and feelings of such a graceful troublemaker can never be known. This is not simply because the boy didn’t keep a diary. No: for, if he had kept a diary, it would have been stuffed with formulaic entries. The men and the woman who took him up had no interest in his inner life, which they must have hoped conformed to the pattern for royal personages. Even at the end of the Fifteenth Century, it was generally assumed that, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, things were as they ought to be. It is hard not to see the naked naïveté of the period as fabulous, but Perkin Warbeck got as far as he went because he looked the part. Consider: Margaret of York commissioned a richly-illuminated account of her interesting personal experience with Jesus, who appeared to her, as the Risen Christ, during her afternoon prayers. Wroe’s summary is another one of her little marvels.

Now that Jesus was before her, Margaret was unsure how best to welcome Him. She wished only to gaze on Him in contemplation, but the court was pressing and she was too busy, among “the curiosities of the world,” quietly to enclose herself with Him. All she wished was that He might “illumine my interior eyes, that is, the faith and reason and consideration of my soul.”

After all, you can’t expect a great lady to while away the afternoon with a Visitor who is wearing nothing but a burial shroud. I have long entertained the theory that the sense of personal singularity that we take for granted in modern life is a consequence of the Reformation, which sought to supplant mediated relationships between the soul and its Creator with immediate ones; and Ann Wroe’s book does absolutely nothing to change my thinking.

The moral of the story, as I see it at this pivotal moment in The Perfect Prince, is that it’s a bad idea to murder little princes in secret. In another book from my shelves, Joan of Arc & Richard III: Sex, Saints, and Government in the Middle Ages, Charles Wood argues that Richard, the biggest bogey-man in the Queen’s family tree (she is of course not a descendant), was a bold soldier but a political bungler.

Yet what distinguishes these strokes in the end is not so much the impetuosity with which Richard sought to address unexpected developments. Rather, it is the concreteness and tangibility of the specific things to which he responded. These alone appear to have been the characteristics to which he was sensitive, and crises that embodied them appear to have been the only kind that he recognized and thought he knew how to solve. Moreover, if only definite and definable problems tended to catch his attention, usually (though not always) he tried to handle them through the use of brute force, typically applied both pure and simple. Strikingly, too, in this tendency he shows himself to be one of those people who see trees rather forests, a person never quite able to grasp the fact that events are interconnected and that actions taken in response to one event are likely to have consequences in others, often those where they are least expected. In short, he was a person who viewed the world in an incoherently fragmented way, and because he acted to contain the forces opposing him individually, without regard for potential relationships, he was to find, in the course of his reign, that matters went steadily from bad to worse. One wonders, really, whether he ever knew why.

Wood argues that Richard backed into the deposition of his nephew because it was the only way in which he could protect himself from the Woodvilles — the numerous family of the new king’s mother. Having deposed the king and imprisoned him with his brother in the Tower, he really did not know what to do next. If they died, at the hands of no matter whom, Richard could not publicize the fact, as he would be held responsible, and the world was no readier then to obey an infanticide than it is today. But the boys’ death without publicity would be an invitation to pretenders, as indeed happened. Henry’s failure to unearth and properly bury the bodies, however understandable — likely corpses were dug up in 1674, more or less inadvertently — guaranteed that he would be beset by the likes of Perkin Warbeck.

Ann Wroe writes that the people who believed that Perkin was Richard had one thing in common: they wished Henry VII ill. No one friendly to him was troubled by doubts. The upshot was that Henry emerged from the conspiracy as strong as any king might desire to be. It might have been otherwise in another country. Just as possession is nine-tenths of the law of England, so legitimacy takes second place to suitability when it comes to England’s kings. Notwithstanding a stolid preference for stable government, the English have shown great efficiency in weeding out seriously unkingly kings. Henry, who knew as anyone that everything is connected, and who did not wait for concrete manifestations to take action, had already shown his suitability before Perkin, and that is why so few were drawn to Perkin’s cause. Throughout the years of challenge, Henry’s deftly modulated responses to different degrees of malefaction, together with his awareness of the political usefulness of different malefactors, proved it. Although he was careful to speak of le garçon with unwaveringly haughty contempt, Henry took the threat very seriously, and when the pretender marched from Cornwall with his hayseeds, he faced a formidable army — or would have done, had he not run away.


Friday 10th

For a long time, two months at least, I wasn’t getting my copy of The Nation, which unlike all the other magazines, doesn’t come in the mail but is delivered every Monday with the Times. Before I could get round to looking into the problem, it came to an end, and I’m reminded why I prize The Nation. It’s for the reviews at the back. I rarely read the feature stories, for reasons I’ll discuss some other time, and I find the columnists a pack of scolds. But the reviews — genuine critical essays for the most part — are great. In the current issue, Matt Stoller considers two books that, although published before the election, are livelier reads than they were before November’s surprise. I found myself agreeing with everything that Stoller had to say, and it seems only fair to let him say it instead of bloviating myself.

For reasons that Stoller doesn’t mention (think “Dixiecrat”), I have long regarded the Democratic Party as mortally wounded. The Republican Party isn’t doing very well either, but if we are to forestall the social upheaval that Donald Trump’s campaign exposed as a real possibility, the work won’t be done by anybody but the unselfish people who tend to vote Democrat. I think that it’s important that they find another frame of operation, clearly distinct from the malodorous carcass of the institutional Democratic Party. Because I also believe that state action is far more important right now than national politics, I’d be happy to see an independent New Victory party in every state.


Monday 13th

That Fairway was a madhouse didn’t surprise me, but the line at Schaller & Weber was unexpected. There is usually a bit of a line at the House of Quality, but I’ve never seen anything like today’s. It moved along briskly until, wouldn’t you know, just before my turn; the woman ahead of me had a list that simply didn’t stop. If you’ll pardon the expression, she didn’t strike me as a housewife; perhaps she was stocking up for a blizzard party. The things that she was buying required no cooking — but that was true of my short list, too. I hadn’t planned to go to Schaller & Weber at all until Ray Soleil, who had come uptown to fix a lamp, mentioned as we were passing by that he was in the mood for some liverwurst. I’m always in the mood for liverwurst, as long as it’s cold outside, and it is very cold outside. So we went back later, after the lamp-fixing. I bought half a pound of liverwurst, half a pound of American cheese, and some macaroni salad. I haven’t had any real American cheese in ages.

But Fairway was a madhouse. All I could think of was “Superstorm Sandy,” which is what my grandson took to calling the great hurricane of 2012. We’re expecting a blizzard/Nor’easter to dump a foot or so of snow tomorrow. I don’t want to say that it’s only a foot of snow, which probably won’t fall in the city anyway, because, who knows, it could be the end of the world, but it seemed to me that anxiety was not the prevailing emotion in the madhouse at Fairway. Not real anxiety. Again, I was reminded of Will, who in a FaceTime chat a week ago Sunday told us that he was “exhausted.” (He is seven.) He put so much effort into telling us how exhausted he was that he may indeed have been a little bit tired. Similarly, the shoppers at Fairway were “stocking up for an emergency.” What they were really doing, I thought, was reveling in having something besides Donald Trump to worry about.

Okay, twenty inches. A lot of snow. (Plus an alarming memo from the building management advising us to have plenty of batteries, and a “non-electric can opener,” on hand, as if we wouldn’t all freeze to death without heat.) Stocking up is a good idea, because it will take a while to get things back to normal after the storm. I bought a box of Parmalat milk. I already had one, but I think that its sell-by date has passed. I bought some bananas, all of them still quite green. I’ve learned, inadvertently, that if you drop bananas on the floor, they ripen faster, but I have yet to try this.


Over the weekend, I read about a book that came out last year, The Wild and the Wicked, by Benjamin Hale. Hale, an environmental ethicist, argues, I was told, for an approach to nature that rests on neither the romantic nor the utilitarian approaches to our use and habitation of the planet, but simply on paying attention to what we do. I had a bit of a flash. I suddenly wondered if the development of feminism, somewhat over century ago, might have been attributable to women’s growing awareness that men weren’t paying attention to the impact of their new technologies. I have been thinking a lot about paying attention, and it seems to me that women are much better at it than men are, as, sadly, they have good reason to be. They are certainly better listeners. (As Deborah Tannen showed years ago, men avoid two-way conversation where matters of great personal concern are involved.) I remembered that, in this country, at least, environmental consciousness was launched by a woman, Rachel Carson. I began to think: is the essence of feminism nothing more (or less) than paying attention? That would certainly be a fantastic answer to Freud’s pretentious question — not to mention its challenge to his penchant for making things up.


Wednesday 15th

At the usual time, yesterday, I went downstairs to collect the mail and see if there were any packages. There was no mail, and the package room (which also doubles as a dry-cleaning outlet) was closed. But for the doorman seated at his console, the lobby was empty.

The blizzard didn’t show up, either. There was a picturesque, but not very deep fall of snow, and winds were strong enough to blow a cushion across the balcony, but, really, it was just very cold. All day long, I though of the the notice that the building management had posted by the elevators. Hope for the best, it advised, but prepare for the worst. The preparations itemized below were standard for hurricanes. Batteries, bottled water. First-aid kit. There was nothing about building campfires to save ourselves from freezing to death in the absence of the HVAC blowers.

Kathleen had planned to stay home, and she put in a long day of drafting. I was useless until the middle of the afternoon, when I found a box of soup in the pantry. After that, I stayed up. There was plenty to do in the kitchen. I baked a loaf of bread. I spatchcocked a chicken, slathered it with oil and herbs, then wrapped it up and stuck it back in the icebox. For dinner, we had spaghettini with shrimp and tomatoes, from a Giuliano Hazan recipe that I had never tried before. It was light and delicious. Once the washing-up was done, I reverted to being useless.

I was reading Allan Massie’s The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain. Ray Soleil passed it onto me after a college friend passed it on to him. The subtitle is all wrong, of course: this is a history of the family that Britain wouldn’t allow itself to be shaped by. Massie writes well enough to console me for his journalist’s disrespect for the pastness of the past, which he insists on translating into modern terms. Without it, Ray’s college friend would never have picked up the book in the first place. Massie’s kings, queen, and pretenders, no matter how odd, are all people whom you might read about it Vanity Fair. Their problems have nothing to do with the ever-expanding challenge of administering kingdoms but everything to do with the hassle of dealing with other rich and envious people. Their clothes are different and they are sometimes superstitious, but otherwise they’re as familiar as today’s celebrities. It makes for ideal sick-day reading.

I gleaned lots of tidbits. Anent Mary Queen of Scots alone, I learned that she shared a grandmother (Margaret Tudor) with her second husband, Lord Darnley. I learned how a Scots aristocrat came to bear the title Duc de Châtelherault. I looked up Loch Leven on the map. More than that sort of thing, though, I was genuinely touched by his handling of James I and VI (of England and Scotland, respectively), whom I call King James Bible. It’s hard to make sense of James as a king, because he seems so much more like an eccentric Oxford don, one with money, or at least the habit of spending money on ephemeral pleasures. But definitely a man of learning.

In these final years, he tottered about, often a little drunk, followed by a train of small dogs and hounds, talking endlessly, now about politics, now religion, then sport, the Bible, and the men and women he had known. He was a great gossip and full of jokes, some bawdy, some sly, some very much to the point, and many even funny. A scriptural analogy would be followed by a vile pun, a quotation from Horace or Virgil by an anecdote about his grim youth in Scotland, a blast against “tobacco-drunkards” by disquisitions on the art of hunting. He remained interested in everything. When he visited Stonehenge, he commanded Inigo Jones to investigate its origins. The conclusion was that it was a Roman temple to the God Caelus. (179)

Stonehenge! King James Bible at Stonehenge! From this passage, an entire theatre piece bloomed in my imagination. At first, I saw it as a one-man show, with a Beckett edge: the shambolic monarch sharing his private madness. But there were too many interesting characters itching to join in. The pretty boyfriends, the Danish queen — I didn’t know that she became a Catholic — Princess Elizabeth and the Winter King; and then, muffled up behind scrims to either side of the stage, James’s mother and his younger son, in their later years, presented in Kabuki-like routines that would climax in simultaneous beheadings. I wish I were clever enough to write it.


On Monday night, I had a minor tantrum, looking for the inexpensive catalogue of National Gallery paintings that I bought in London in 1984. It was not where it ought to be. Evidently regarding it more as cheap than useful at the time, I had relegated it to the stack of art books in a corner of the living room. The books are hard to reach, and I always forget to dust them; worse, the titles are hard to read. I found the catalogue with the help of a flashlight, only to be disappointed by what I was really looking for, the Wilton Diptych. I was hoping that Richard II’s robes would leap opulently out of the frame, but the combination of gold and vermilion is strangely neutralizing. The red buskins worn by St Edmund Martyr are far more vivid (in the reproduction). They’re altogether invisible in the black-and-white image that’s printed in Charles Wood’s Joan of Arc & Richard III.

Wood writes the kind of history that is built on an unflagging attempt to see with the eyes of the past — to be more precise, to see with the eyes of a particular moment in the past. What does this mean? In The Earlier Tudors, J D Mackie gives a nice example by explaining why precise descriptions of local conditions are rare in an age in which most people did not travel far from home: everybody knew perfectly well what the local conditions were, and couldn’t have cared less about conditions elsewhere. That would change in the Sixteenth Century, as more and more diplomats and students joined the merchants who were already on the road — not to mention all those seafaring explorers. In his brilliant study of medieval commerce, Power and Profit, Peter Spufford reproduces a portion of the schematic map drawn by (or for) Matthew Paris, in the middle of the Thirteenth Century, showing the route from London to Southern Italy. The points along the route are all man-made, buildings mostly. Mountains and rivers were not yet scenery; mountains especially were simply nuisances.

A useful key to unlocking the past is what I call Veblen’s Law. In the only passage of The Theory of the Leisure Class that I remember, Thorstein Veblen mentions the “ostentatious” use of candlelight at fashionable dinner tables. In an age of gas and electric light that marked the novelty of the new technology by creating blinding blazes of illumination, candles were found to throw a soft, subtle light that no one had ever noticed when they were the primary source of night light. Veblen’s Law would also predict that the sound of the harpsichord, which dissatisfied composers throughout the Eighteenth Century, would acquire a charm as soon as the pianoforte, which answered the composers’ prayers, was fully developed. It would also predict something that I seem to have read about twice in the past week, the absence of “devices” in classrooms at the Waldorf School in Silicon Valley.

The Wilton Diptych is a pair of panels, painted in tempera, showing four men on the left and the Virgin and Child, surrounded by eleven angels, on the right. The design is stylized, but the representation is realistic. Richard II, backed by three saints, kneels before the Virgin, his hands extended not so much in prayer as in preparation to take the Child. The saints, reading from right to left, are St John the Baptist and two kings, St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund Martyr. These figures also represent Richard’s forebears, the Black Prince, Edward III, and Edward II (who was also “martyred”). The three kings constitute an Epiphany group; 6 January was Richard II’s birthday. The right-hand panel would be a celestial vision pure and simple, if it weren’t for the banner of St George’s Cross held by an angel who is also pointing to Richard.

Wood writes about the Wilton Diptych not as an aesthetic object — its gorgeousness can be taken for granted, given his other conclusions — but as a political meditation in an age when the highest political claims were infused by religion. In other words, Wood sees the picture as an historian, not as an art historian. He has no difficulty solving the enigma of the eleven angels. Why eleven? Noting that eleven is the number of disciples surrounding images of the risen Christ, Wood asks, Who’s the Judas? Who is the “missing angel”? Who is the missing member of the Order of the Garter, of which twelve occupied the first row in St George’s Chapel? Who was the other boy who was invested on the same day in 1377? I raised my hand insistently, confident of knowing the correct answer: Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. As Wood wryly notes, “Henry was to prove a Judas who won.”

For reasons such as this, I am persuaded that Wood is correct to identify the commissioner of this painting as Richard II himself.


Friday 17th


D’you know what that means? I didn’t, when I came across it yesterday. It was actually written, “LARPing.” Here is the passage in which I encountered it:

The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.

I opened a new window, typed “LARP,” and found a quick answer. The acronym stands for “live action role playing.” You know, Civil War re-enactment, that sort of thing. “LARPing being rational” means simulating systematic thought by going through some obvious motions.

The passage comes from Scott Alexander’s review of Seeing Like a State, by James Scott. Although I followed Alexander’s Web log, Slate Star Codex, for a short while after I discovered it, I came across the review because it was picked up by The Browser. The review is longer than it ought to be, but that’s because — I think — Alexander’s persona is that of a mind at work. There is little elegance but a lot of hard-won insight. If you look at at Alexander’s aside about Jane Jacobs — how Scott’s book changed his mind about her — you’ll see what I mean.

I was haunted by larping for the rest of the day. From the moment it entered my mind (perhaps because of those High Modernists), it was inextricably bound to the conception of meritocracy that has taken hold in the West.

“Aristocracy” means, literally, “rule by the best.” Meritocracy is a derivative based on a distinction; it excludes from “the best” the aristocracy’s claims of superior birth. Merit is not a hereditable trait; you may be born with unusual intelligence, but you still have to undergo training in the use of it. Being the son or daughter of somebody special doesn’t count. More to the point, being the child of nobody special is not an impediment. Meritocracy is open to everyone with merit. It sounds like a great idea, but then so did “nobility,” once upon a time, back in the days before the word “aristocracy” was coined.

How do you decide who has merit? We rely on standardized testing. This is basically a refinement of Imperial China’s long experience with “examination hell.” Unlike the triennial ordeal that opened the door to senior service to the Chinese state, our tests were designed to require no learning, simply aptitude. Compared with the Chinese example, they did indeed require little in the way of knowledge. But it has become clear that the aptitude that they attempt to measure is not some free-floating intellectual firepower, but rather an indoctrinated accommodation to certain ways of looking at the world. At the threshold of this kind of aptitude, there is a submission not unlike the one demanded of would-be mandarins. It requires extraordinary intelligence — or, possibly, some degree of emotional impairment — to excel at our standardized tests without sincerely having made that submission. Or, as I discovered when, with a history of indifferent test scores behind me, I decided to study for the LSAT by doing endless practice exams, without a great deal of knowledge — knowledge about the test.

In other words, I did as well on the LSAT as I did because I approached it as a kind larping. I learned how to play the role of a successful test-taker. I had to override my peculiar aptitudes to do so. I thought of it as a kind of cheating, however honest, because the designers of the test were so emphatic about the lack of a need for training. Not long after my brief experience with larping, in the mid-Seventies, this honest cheating became such a big business that prestige schools lessened their reliance on the test as a benchmark, and in some cases ignored it altogether.

Now that I have “a word for it,” I see, or suspect, that a great deal of what passes for education — and education is oddly central to our conception of meritocracy — is larping. Will there be a test? If so, students will figure out how to larp their way through it. How to stuff large blocks of information into their short-term memories without troubling their long-term understanding. The minute the examination is over, they will take off their role-playing costumes of mind and revert to regular life. They will have learned very little.

Larping also explains some of the the practical differences between Republicans and Democrats. Here it is important to distinguish between larping and hypocritical behavior. Politics always requires a stiff measure of hypocrisy; that’s why nobody likes it. Larping is both more sincere and less authentic. I sense that Republicans are authentically engaged in political activity, and that Democrats are just pretending to be. I suspect that Hillary Clinton lost last November’s presidential election because too many voters (especially voters who didn’t vote) believed that she was larping.


The laying out of proposed cities on a plan of straight streets at right angles — a rectangular grid — is hardly a High Modernist discovery. The Romans designed their military colonies — towns for veterans — in that way, and so did St Louis’s engineers at the port of Aigues-Mortes. Even, come to think of it, Genji’s Kyoto. There was nothing very modernist about Manhattan’s grid, which was laid out in 1811. It looks rational, but it was in fact inspired by commercial imagination: the dream of large fortunes to be derived from maximal frontage.


Monday 20th

My bedtime reading has settled into an odd groove. I’ve discovered a genre that has a mildly soporific effect. It’s just interesting enough not to be boring or annoying; nor is it so interesting that it wakes me up. But I have to re-read pages and pages the next night, because I stop remembering long before I put the Kindle down. Re-reading is fine, it’s even more mildly soporific. On the surface, the stories in this genre, which I call “Sluttery,” are lurid and exciting. They all involve women who, once upon a time, would have died sooner than risk their reputations for respectability. Now that respectability is a thing of the past, they’re left with its artifacts — house, husband, children — and plenty of opportunities for chance encounters with dishy men. These men are usually husbands, too, but of course not theirs. The husbands’ wives usually come into the act. Whereas in the old days the other woman brandished an axe or at least a vial of poison, now she comes wrapped up in plot twists.

It needs pointing out that this genre is British. Being British, the books are better-written — no jarring mongrel Americanisms to infuriate me — and they draw some of their power from class-structure antagonisms, which are always reassuring. The only really bad Sluttery book that I’ve consumed was American — I could see the paint-by-numbers outlines.

I’ve just read Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough. There’s a classic triangle. Louise, an unhappy divorcée, meets and sheets David, an attractive stranger, only to find out the next day that he’s her new boss. It seems that David is unhappily married to Adele, a childhood sweetheart of sorts with movie-star looks. The chapters are headed, mostly, “Louise,” “Adele,” and “Then,” the last heading signalling installments of Adele’s backstory, which involves the ruins of a burned mansion, a mental hospital, and a spotty heroine addict. David is a very good-looking psychiatrist. Louise, the one you’re rooting for, is something of a cow, although once Adele befriends her — what is Adele up to? The chapters narrated in her voice hint but don’t tell — Louise takes to the gym and works off a stone or two. But you fret along with Louise when she becomes uncertain whether David or Adele is the villain.

I’m so tired and emotional all logical thinking has gone out the window. All I know is that I have to check on Adele and I’m running out of time to do it. Adam [Louise's little boy] comes back the day after tomorrow and then who knows what spare time I’ll have? It’ll definitely be more limited and I don’t want Adam dragged into this mess. I need to close a door on it. It still feels surreal, the thought of no David and no Adele. And no job. I bite back more tears. Even I’m getting bored of my crying. It’s your mess, I keep telling myself. Suck it up.

Adele, in contrast, is weird, although just how weird… OMG! Then: OMG again! The book is over, but the bizarre plot twists, which, ludicrous as they would sound if I summarized them here, are completely digestible in context, screw the tale into your brain. Pinborough’s package could not be more tidily wrapped; looking back, you wonder why you didn’t see it coming. But of course you didn’t. I daresay many of this book’s readers will be peering at their BFFs with gimlet eyes.

Literature it isn’t, but it has been sending me to sleep for more than two weeks, and I’m very grateful. Now I’ve moved onto something called The Woman Next Door.


Friday night was a personal festival. Two extraordinary events converged. I took the new subway to Carnegie Hall, making the trip from my reading chair in the bedroom to our seats on Row F in exactly twenty minutes, plus without crossing a street. And, in the second half of the program, I saw a concert performance of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna that was just as dandy.

I’d lost any hope of ever seeing Segreto. When I was first getting to know it, I daydreamed that Virginia Slims, the new cigarettes marketed for women, might sponsor a production. How other-worldly that seems now! Susanna’s secret is, indeed, that she smokes — a big deal in the 1900s, when the opera was confected. Although I’ve listened to recordings so many times that I know every note by heart, it had never occurred to me before Friday night that, dramatically, Segreto is a comic version of Otello. You have the same madly-in-love young couple. The wife does everything she can to please her husband — but nobody’s perfect. The husband is tormented by doubts that, to the wife, make no sense. The husband in Il Segreto di Susanna does not strangle his wife, of course; he smokes a cigarette with her instead. If this sounds slight and ridiculous, the music could not be more appealing. In forty-five minutes, Wolf-Ferrari gives us a classic overture, a scena for baritone, a love duet, a fight scene, and two very beautiful arias for soprano. The only thing missing is a tenor.

Perhaps it’s just my magpie mind, but everything in this masterpiece reminds me of moments in other operas. I don’t mean that it’s a puzzle of references for the careful listener to catch — although the way Beethoven’s Fifth is quoted at the end of the fight scene is drolly impertinent. It’s more a matter of suggestion, and I’m sure that at least a few of the suggestions are unintended, if only because they would have required foresight. The overture is a kissing cousin of the sparkler that Leonard Bernstein wrote for Candide, while the mimed staged business at the end, with the mute servant dashing about the stage while the orchestra follows him, is pretty much what Strauss and Hofmannsthal give us at the end of Der Rosenkavalier, which also had yet to be written. Speaking of Strauss, the soprano’s second and bigger aria, “Oh gioia, la nube leggera,” ends with one of Strauss’s trademark sounds, a hushed chord of strings sealed by a gleam of piccolos. (This aria is also heralded by a moment of rustling violins that signals the ecstasies of Tristan.) The ravishing tune that appears three times in the opera — during the scena, as a half-time intermezzo, and in the send-off duet at the end (“Tutto è fumo a questo mondo” — it could be daPonte or Boito) — is written in that grazioso, pseudo-nymphs-and-shepherds idiom that Puccini employed so effectively in the second act of Manon Lescaut. In the love duet, which is also a marvel, the husband and wife remember the garden in which they fell in love. “Io ti sfuggivo,” she sings, to which he replies, “Io t’inseguivo.” I ran from you; I followed you — the atmosphere was so heady that I could not help remembering that the very first opera of them all was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne.

Leon Botstein elicited a fine performance from TheOrchestraNow, an ensemble of graduate students at Bard College. The singers, David Kelly and Julianne Borg, seemed comfortable in the music, which they sang very well. If I single out Borg for special praise, that’s probably because her part is the better of the two; the baritone’s role is similar to that of a supporting male in ballet. Kelly started off so carefully that I was afraid that his voice wouldn’t be big enough, and he acted the part instead of letting the music do that for him, putting me in mind of Erik Rhodes in The Gay Divorcée. But he was fine once things got going. Borg’s soubrette was a little less insistent, and when she sang, the acting emerged from her voice. Everything about the performance was much better that I had dared to hope for.

The first half of the program was devoted to two lesser-known works by Ottorino Respighi, Rossiniana and Vetrate di Chiesa. I’m glad I didn’t miss them, but I can’t get the Big-Ben-like chime at the beginning of Rossiniana out of my head.


Wednesday 22nd

Let me begin with an axiom: organic creatures partake of fracticality. Do I know what this really means? Not really. What I understand it to signify is that there is a little cloud of chaos at every junction — every synapse, every valve, every metabolic breakdown — in the bodies of living things. Things can go one way or the other. They may always go just the one way, but only until they don’t, when the organic creature dies.

This indeterminacy will probably always be beyond our predictive imagination. Computers may figure it out, but that’s beside the point. Our lives (as organic creatures) are saturated in the slight chance of significant change. We are, as a result, both unpredictable and unreliable. Our social arrangements have developed accordingly, to compensate for the possibility that, when the dyke leaks, say, and little Hans is in bed with a cold, then little Frits will be available to stick his finger in the crack. We know that we cannot count on Hans absolutely, because he is a fractal being. Sometimes his fracticality presents itself as malingering: he doesn’t have a cold, but doesn’t want to get out of bed. Sometimes it’s more serious: Hans died of pneumonia during the night. However morally fraught these distinctions might be, they make no difference to our ceaseless attempt to organize around the fracticality of human beings.

Some people believe that, because of this fracticality, human beings are “imperfect.”


For most of our earthly career, we have made three kinds of things: comforts, tools, and playthings. (We have also tried to make material representations of the powers and deities that we believe in, but these objects have always been infused by mystery and awe that we do not impart to the other kinds, and so I set them aside.) Comforts ease the roughness of our physical contact with the world, and provide a measure of protection from harm — although never quite so much protection as we imagine when we take our ease. (As a result, we have developed social organizations for more reliable protection.) Tools enable us to do things beyond the powers of our unaided bodies: to pierce the skin of an animal from a distance, say, or to boil a mixture of grain and water over a fire. By themselves, tools are so inert that their proper, or intended, use is not dictated by their design. The misuse of tools sometimes leads to the development of new tools. (Thomas Edison was not interested in recording the performance of music.) Playthings allow us to embody our imaginations. Given a ball, children organize themselves into teams, and make mock war. (Toys are playthings designed for solitary amusement, which is why children fight over them as often as they share them.)

Then, somebody made a machine. What is a machine? It is an autonomous but predictable device, designed by human beings to function independently but reliably. Whereas tools enhance physical abilities, machines replace them. How did machines come about? The history of machines is unknown to most educated people, which is unfortunate because educated people tend to believe that they know all the important things. For lack of a better picture, I’m inclined to see the machine as rooted in toys — toys for adults. I might not have arrived at this idea if it were not for the attention given to the Antikythera Mechanism, a Hellenistic artifact that was discovered on the sea floor about a century ago but more recently considered as an antecedent to the digital computer. Even without the Antikythera Mechanism, though, there would be the clocks that began appearing on municipal walls at the beginning of the Fourteenth Century. The earliest clocks were neither autonomous nor predictable, and they were not really intended to be — they were toys. But a feedback loop of experience clearly led craftsmen first to believe that they ought to be and second to know how to make them so. The first really dependable clock dates from about 1650.

(No machine is completely autonomous, because the laws of physics condemn it to depending on motivating power. In the case of the clock, weights must be lifted every couple of days, so that their falling will trigger the escapement. Solar power, however, seems to provide something very close to autonomy.)

Toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, as even educated people know, two new kinds of machine were developed: the steam engine and the power loom. These inventions did not converge until several decades had passed — looms were first powered by falling water — but when they did, it was not long before the steam engine was applied to locomotion. By now, the machine was revealed to be capable of something beyond reliability: much greater speed. We are living today in the thick fallout of the industrial explosion that followed.

It would be better if smart people were taught about the origins of machinery, because then we should be spared that shocking, disgusting phrase, “meat machine.” Writers and editors would understand that machines are inherently inhuman, and that the human body, saddled or endowed with fracticality, is not mechanical. A meat machine is an impossibility; only a slob an imagine such thing.


Friday 24th

A word about metaphor.

Metaphor works for me only when the tenor — “the subject to which attributes are ascribed,” as I A Richards put it — is abstract, imaginary, or emotional. The whole point of metaphor seems to me to bring the physical world to bear on an attempt to explain the world that, so far as our senses are concerned, is not physical. Thus: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Now, thee, of course, is a physical person, but it’s precisely the impalpable attributes of his friend that Shakespeare wishes to capture with his comparisons to nice weather.

When both the tenor and the vehicle are material, though, I’m not so impressed. I’m more likely to conclude that an apt metaphor is a complaint. I haven’t read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot yet; I’m looking forward to it and I know that I’ll like it. However. According to Cathleen Schine’s very favorable review in The New York Review of Books, Batuman at one point compares the noise that a can of soda makes tumbling out of a vending machine to the sound of a body falling down a flight of stairs. This is clever; it is certainly “true,” as metaphors go. But instead of being impressed by Batuman’s literary virtuosity, I’m wondering why the designers of vending machines are such dolts. Why make such a racket? I’m grateful that my life does not at present involve vending machines. In fact, now that I think of it, the well-lived life is one in which things that happen in the material world do not remind one of other things. They are, instead, just what they are.

Once there was a metaphor that nearly drove me mad. In the swimming pool at my parents’ house in Houston, there was a contraption that kept litter from settling anywhere but in the basket over the deepest point at the bottom. Two hoses snaked from a floating head, itself tethered to the side of the pool by a long hose. Water pressure powered geared paddles that propelled the head on an endless cruise of the surface, while also shooting jets from the hoses that dragged along the bottom. The sound that the head made ought to have reminded me of a burbling fountain. Instead, it was exactly like the noise that needles scratched on phonograph records, before the music started.


My own penchant for comparisons is historical. I was very proud of myself on the day when I realized that the executive suite of the modern corporation functions much like the court of an ancien régime prince. While it would be wrong to say that executives or courtiers are idle, exactly, they don’t really do any work. At most, they arrange for work to be done by others. Meanwhile, they angle for riches in the pools of power by competing for influence.

When my father was a pipeline company executive — this is how I know about modern corporations; I learned about princely courts from books — he was responsible for negotiating a deal for the import of natural gas from Algeria. I have kept his passport from that period; he was in and out of Orly all the time. In order to be shipped, the gas had to be liquefied in Algeria and then loaded, at incredible pressures, onto special ships, easily identifiable by the half-domes on their decks. In Louisiana, the gas was deliquefied. It was all very dangerous and I’m amazed that nothing blew up, although I believe that the explosion of such a ship occurs in the film Syrianna. My point is this: my father knew no more about LNG engineering than I do. He did not design the plants or the ships; I rather doubt that he spent more than five hours talking to anybody who did. Yet somehow it all got done, because he had the diplomatic skills of an old-fashioned ambassador, combined with a good deal the authority of a prince. I’m sorry that I never got to entertain him with my argument that his everyday life was not so different from that of a duke at the Fontainebleau of Francis I. For all the difference in costume, not to mention the very different role of women — a pillar of virtue like my mother would not have been welcome at court — the exercise of power has not changed so very much.

This is not to say that there is nothing new under the sun. Anybody who thinks that has never given much thought to the toxic symbiosis of television technology and the advertising model of revenue generation, which among other things has given us Grump.

Monday 27th: Rite of Spring: Paul Taylor at Lincoln Center

At one point in The Italian Lesson — Ruth Draper’s great monologue — Mrs Clancy gets on the phone with Count Bluffsky, the portrait artist who has painted her little daughter. Because she thinks that the girl’s cheeks ought to be pinker, the hair ribbons ought to be blue. Then she tries to reassure the man: “It’s a great work of art, and we’re all crazy about the frame.” You can well imagine the Count’s delight.

What was not so funny, yesterday, was coming away from my reports of Paul Taylor dances over the years and feeling that I’d said much the same sort of thing. It seemed to me that I had never read so much unadulterated piffle. At the same time, it was no consolation that there was not very much of it to read. I am moved to apologize to every dancer whom I’ve mentioned, even the ones about whom I’ve said nothing negative.

This was our ninth season. Even saying that, “our ninth season,” sounds ridiculously grandiose. For the ninth spring in a row, we went to see a handful of Paul Taylor dances during the company’s annual New York season. Unfortunately, “ninth season” is the important part, as, I hope, “tenth season” will be, next year. Every year, the experience deepens. While the dancers who have made strong impressions in the past continue to delight, others become more familiar, making the whole company more complex somehow.

I’m reminded of my garden in the country: every year, and without actual expansion, there was more to it. There are always sixteen dancers in the Company. Their head shots appear in the Playbill, in order of seniority. We have seen a few dancers retire from the top line, as it were, with bouquets of roses. More often, dancers and their pictures have simply disappeared. In the first few years, I hardly noticed. Dancers who left the company from the middle of the ranks hadn’t made much of an impression, or I mixed them up with other dancers. I still have trouble when the women in the company wrap up their hair in caps, or don wigs, as Eran Bugge did yesterday, in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). The last time I saw this dance, several years ago, Amy Young played the role of The Mistress, and I recognized her right away. She has since retired. The Mistress’s black bob wig changed how I saw Eran Bugge’s face. Something about the costume made her look too small. So I spent a lot of the time working out that it must be Eran Bugge — by process of elimination. I also spent a lot of time peering into the pit. We were sitting in the first row, and we had a fine view of the two pianists, seated side by side at two pianos (an unusual configuration, I thought), who were playing the reduction of Stravinsky’s score. (The Rehearsal — get it?) One of the pianists was reading from an iPad that turned its own pages, so to speak, automatically, at just the right time. How did it do that?

Meanwhile, Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack were doing the long abstract dance that begins the second part of the ballet, and I was thinking that I could watch them all day, if I could only take my eyes off the pianists (which turned out to be easy). There is nothing showy about this modernist but somewhat courtly dance, seasoned, as the whole dance is, with memories of Nijinsky’s gestures (get a load of me!), but it is compelling all the same. One of the first things I learned at Paul Taylor dances was that Trusnovec and Halzack are miraculous partners; when they dance together, nothing else seems possible. I was also thinking that, in a few minutes, Halzack would be doing a very different dance, one of deranged grief, grief occasioned by the “murder,” played for laughs, of her baby doll. Paul Taylor’s take on Sacre is as loaded with mysterious narrative as the original, but the elements, instead of deriving from speculative folklore, come from nickelodeon entertainment, and the absurdity of the proceedings is brought forward. A more rigorous critic than I might complain that this levity obscures the interest of the dancing. Seeing the ballet for the third time, I knew what was going on, and could sit back and enjoy the show. Later in the afternoon, during Brandenburgs, I would see that, while narrative can get in the way of appreciating dance, it also makes it much easier to write about.

What is there to say about a dance like Brandenburgs? “It is very formal.” Indeed: if one of the three women dancers does something, then the other two will have opportunities to do something similar. Michael Trusnovec will lift each of them into the air, one-two-three. The five men in the chorus will cross the stage x-wise between the women’s dances. Aren’t you thrilled to read this? It seems closer to the spirit of the dance to talk about the swaying drape of the women’s dresses, which, with their velvet heft, spin halos of grace even when the women sashay with their hips; while Trusnovec is by contrast concealed within his tights, an Apollo in essence, a paradox of moving non-moving parts. And why not repeat what I said to Kathleen, that it’s amazing how much movement Taylor packs into the five or six minutes of the first movement of the Third Brandenburg, so that it seems incapable of reaching an end — until suddenly it does? What is the point of these remarks? What will they tell me two or three years from now, when I want to “look back” and see what I had to say? Will I be as furiously disappointed by what I’ve just now written as I was last night by earlier entries? Will I grumble that there is so much more to describe, and gnash my teeth at not having known how? Will I learn how? It seems ungracious not to mention that the three women, each wonderful in her own way, were Michelle Fleet, Parisa Khobdeh, and Eran Bugge. Why did Khobdeh’s dress have only one shoulder strap?

Yesterday’s performance was the final offering of this year’s New York season. I was expecting, with dread, that a retirement or two might be announced. At least three of the four senior men in the company, all extraordinarily strong dancers, are over forty. How much longer (I’ve asked this before) can they go on? But it was Francisco Graciano, from the middle of the pack, who retired. At the end of The Open Door, Michael Novak led him to the front of the stage, where he was pelted with roses. He had had a good dance to go out on, one of those Paul Taylor fist-fights between two men that sketch the motions of violence without the anger. His opponent was James Samson, one of the four seniors.

The Open Door was better than I was afraid it would be — much better, really. Set to an assortment of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (but not to the entire work), it presents an afternoon reception in what seemed to me to be a Park Lane drawing room with Hyde Park’s treetops outside the tall windows. The Host, danced by Michael Novak, received a miscellany of guests, one of whom was Laura Halzack in a fat suit. Although unmatched for august severity — what a pitiless Diana she would make! — Halzack will “do anything.” Last weekend, we saw her in the first dance that we ever saw her do, Danbury Mix. She plays “Lady Liberty,” larking and camping to music by Charles Ives. In the fat suit, she sat down on a chair that collapsed beneath her; several times, her plump character had to be picked up off the floor by groaning men. She whirled about, revealing red bloomers under her golden gown, with the gestures of a petite woman (which Halzack is not). The idea of Laura Halzack’s obesity was a character in the dance. It was a pantomime moment, great fun for those of us who have been watching her over the years.

In the Times, Alastair Macaulay disapproved of The Open Door, and I can see why, although it is not by any means the empty-headed disaster (get a load of me!) of Ports of Call, which we saw last week and I hope not to see again, even if Trusnovec and Samson’s crossing of the stage as if in a kayak was a nifty stunt. There’s room for more in The Open Door, and no reason not to enlarge it. Again, I’m speaking of someone who follows developments instead of appreciating each dance, each year, for just what it is right then.

Last week, we went to two Saturday performances, as is our wont. In the afternoon, we saw Airs; Lost, Found and Lost; and Syzygy. In the evening, we saw Danbury Mix, Ports of Call, and Black Tuesday. Airs, like Brandenburgs, is a “formal” ballet, set to music by Handel; I find that I can remember nothing about it now, which is what usually happens after seeing a formal ballet the first time. There is nothing to hold onto. We liked Syzygy more than we thought we would, and Black Tuesday even more than that. The former is an exuberant ensemble piece with a score by Donald York that forges Leonard Bernstein, the minimalism of Terry Riley, and Latin rhythms into a coherent workout. The latter is a serious of smaller dances set to scratchy records from the early Thirties. The last song is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” sung by Bing Crosby — it’s almost unbearable, hearing that selfish, callow, but divinely gifted singer pretend to be in need. Performances by Parisa Khobdeh and Jamie Rae Walker as a pregnant abbandonata and a tramp, respectively, stood out for vitality in what was already a depression-free dance.

The Playbill says that Lost, Found and Lost is set to “elevator music.” I know what this is supposed to mean, but it isn’t the case. The tunes themselves are all former radio hits, such as “Ebb Tide” and “Laura.” As for the settings, they are not reedy little Muzak things but sumptuous orchestrations, as if Berlioz had been hired to chart “Three O’Clock in the Morning.” I knew the title of all but one of the numbers, and I wondered why they were not listed in the program, as undoubtedly they are all copyrighted and presumably paid for. The music is almost more interesting than the dancing, which is deliberately listless (when it isn’t momentarily frantic), evocative of the special boredom that characterized glamour in the Fifties. I found the suggestion of forgettable anonymity somewhat distasteful. I’d certainly buy a recording if one were available.

What about Robert Kleinendorst? I will complain. Say something about Robert Kleinendorst. I am always wanting to think something about Robert Kleinendorst after seeing him dance, because he makes me wonder if life can really be so much fun. Never have I seen anyone with a more on-the-go metabolism. He doesn’t stand still long enough for slings and arrows to hit him, but if they did, he’d transform them into Mexican jumping beans. I realize that, offstage, Kleinendorst is a mere mortal — I don’t think about that part. I think about how he gets to take fake curtain calls in the middle of things. He did it, sort of, in Brandenburgs, when he was the last chorus dancer to leave stage and, as he did so, he threw in an extra jumping jack. He did it with a woman last weekend — they blew kisses at the audience. Would that have been in Airs? Do the other men do it, and I just don’t notice?

The subject of R K reminds me: New Head Shots! The Company could run new, or at least currently recognizable, head shots of the dancers in the Playbill. I can’t remember if Kleinendorst was wearing a beard when we first saw him eight years ago, but he shaved it off a long time ago, and that’s why Kathleen can’t recognize him when he isn’t moving.


Thursday 30th: But What Happened?

Ordinarily, I skip the fiction in The New Yorker, but I make exceptions for writers who (a) write fiction that I like and (b) seem unlikely to publish the first chapters of novels in the magazine. I like my novels wholly fresh. That Dunkirk episode that Granta published in advance nearly ruined Ian McEwan’s Atonement for me. Not to mention what happened with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

In this week’s issue, there’s a story by John Lanchester, “Signal.” It’s engrossing, because at the center of the tale is an incidental, almost unconscious millionaire. The narrator’s Cambridge friend, apparently one of those rocket scientists who went on to metastasize the disruptive powers of finance, hosts a miscellaneous New Year’s house party at his spread in Yorkshire. One of the guests — or perhaps an upper servant — takes an unwelcome interest in the narrator’s children, but, like the White Rabbit, is never available for interrogation. The billionaire seems unaware of this tall man’s existence, and all but flatly denies his presence in the house. In the final paragraphs, you discover why “Signal” may well be included in a forthcoming anthology entitled Best Ghost Stories of 2017. But the ghost is a McGuffin. The beating heart of the story remains firmly in the chest of the rich man, who would not know a ghost if he saw one. Kudos to Lanchester for the very effective appropriation of Count Dracula’s chill. But instead of creaking with spooky atmospherics, “Signal” chuckles at the conceit of its oscillating metaphor.

Whether I’d mention “Signal” at all if it weren’t for what kept me up all night, I can’t tell. I must confess to approaching Lanchester’s story somewhat belligerently, as if waving a red cape. Last night, I had been very upset, at an inconveniently late hour, by the final pages of Julian Barnes’s novella, The Sense of an Ending, and I was ready to put up a fuss if Lanchester dished out further helpings ofI was going to say something else, “Brit” and something that rhymes with “Brit,” but hinting is enough — cleverness.

The Sense of an Ending is a memoir that turns into a mystery. Tony Webster tells a story from his life (indicating here and there that certain people, such as his ex mother-in-law, are not part of this story). The memoir — school days, first love, romantic betrayal, suicide; followed by an account of middle life spent in agreeable mediocrity — turns into a mystery when Tony is led by his old girlfriend, anything but friendly now, to an encounter with a mentally disabled man, younger but also middle-aged. Who is this person, and what has Tony to do with him? “You just don’t get it,” the girlfriend keeps saying.

The girlfriend’s mother, it turns out, has left Tony £500 in her will. “Blood money,” the girlfriend calls this. But why?

All I really want to know is this: What did Tony Webster do? Anita Brookner, reviewing the book favorably, speaks of “a betrayal of all concerned.” Tony has inferred from the facts in front of him that his old best friend, Adrian, who took up with the girlfriend, Veronica, after Veronica and Tony broke up (and then broke up again), engendered the disabled man, who is also revealed (in Tony’s thinking) as Veronica’s half-brother. Somehow, I gather, Tony is responsible for this unwonted fathering. But how responsible? Youthfully thoughtless, Tony angrily urged Adrian (upon learning about Adrian and Veronica) to seek out Veronica’s mother. The seeds of this mystery were planted during an awkward weekend with Veronica’s family. Her father and brother were condescending, but her mother was surprisingly pleasant, and even apologised for the family rudeness. Then, when Tony waved to her as he was being driven off to the station, she made an ambiguous gesture with her hand at her waist. Can this mean that Tony, an unreliable narrator, is himself is the disabled man’s father? That, to me, is the only explanation that could warrant the heaviness of the ending, in which Tony is more or less damned forever. Blood money for what else?

Needless to say, the reviews are militantly unenlightening. Figuring out for yourself what happened is the essence of the pleasure of reading books like this, it seems, and critics are bound to refrain from giving away the secrets. My own inclination, unfortunately in this context, is to forgive Tony his mediocrity, because I reject as immoral the proposition that leading an ordinary, objectively blameless life after the ambitious convulsions of youth is tantamount to failure. I reject as immoral the idea that mediocrity and ordinariness constitute failure. The failure to achieve greatness is nothing more than that — not a negative but a neutral. It does not subtract from the positive achievement of civil functioning — raising children, mowing lawns, paying taxes, keeping in trim. I forgive Tony the self-satisfied regard of his sense of ordinariness. Unless presented with evidence of mature hypocrisy, I discharge him as innocent. If all that Tony did was to write a nasty, resentful letter, in the hot flush of jealous resentment, then The Sense of an Ending dissolves into nothing.

Several reviewers suggest that, to understand what happens in The Sense of an Ending, you have to read it very carefully and weigh every word. If so — and I’m inclined to agree, even if I still don’t get it — then it was a mistake to read the novella at bedtime. It’s one thing to flip back a few pages in the Sluttery books that I mentioned last week, and quite another to pop out of the groove of a painstakingly laid narrative.


Friday 31st: End of File

As this month comes to an end, I find myself wondering more and more what I am doing here. Not whether I ought to be, but just what. I seem to have developed a style of presentation that flaunts all the expectations of the medium (Web log) that I’m working in. It has been a long time since I heard from a reader. Meanwhile, I’ve been chewing over my writing project. Nothing much happened there, either, during the dark months. Lately, though, I think that I understand what the writing project is about, which may sound idiotic but in fact I undertook it to find out what would come out if I committed myself to a sustained piece of writing. Now I have a great deal of re-writing to do. It promises to be very austere, because I am going to renounce the conveniences of cutting and pasting. I may copy some material, but I shall be typing from scratch.

At The Browser, the “tweet” of the day is a quip by C S Lewis (hence the scare quotes): “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” As to humility, I have no opinion; of all the virtues, it bears the least discussion, so much so that one might really wonder if humility is a virtue. What I mean is that it strikes me as a quality of angels, not of humans. In Transit, which I’m reading at the moment (can you tell?), Rachel Cusk’s persona, Faye, remarks that the poverty of St Francis, which most people have taken as a sign of humility, strikes her as nihilism, and I’m inclined to agree. I also agree with Lewis that it is better to think about yourself as little as possible. I don’t mean it as a prescription; it’s just better if you don’t feel called to think about yourself.

I am discovering that making the bed and getting dressed as soon as I have finished reading the paper, and not wandering into the day in a state of déshabille, results in my thinking about myself much less. To put it another way, freedom means being your own boss — but no less of a boss for that. Nay, more.

“Nay” rhymes with “Faye.” I am indeed mesmerized by what Cusk is doing. She is taking the stuff of novels — no, wait; she’s taking the stuffing out of novels and presenting us with something limpid and refreshing that is not quite fiction. Take just an episode from one of the stories: Amanda, the disorganized woman with a career in fashion, books a weekend in Paris. At the last minute, her boyfriend, Gavin, who is really her domestic renovation contractor, declares that he has forgotten his passport, and he runs off to find it. She doesn’t hear from him for week, whereupon he pays her the expenses of the wasted trip — she didn’t go, either — in cash. The anecdote that Amanda has wrought from this disaster is almost funny; the lost weekend is over and done with and no longer exerts much emotional force. But were we to go back in time, with Amanda sitting on her suitcases, whistling “Waiting at the Church” as it might be, the affective complexion would be altogether different. Gavin’s world travel, it turns out, has been limited to Ireland; he was terrified about being “abroad” with his sophisticated girlfriend. Amanda, meanwhile, must have run through several octaves of incredulous anger. All of which would easily fill twenty or thirty pages of a standard novel. When you realize that Cusk has spared you these commonplace dramatics, it’s hard not to be grateful. In the end, though, you hope that it is fiction, because if it isn’t, Rachel Cusk isn’t going to have any friends.


I went to the movies yesterday; I went to see Get Out. It is an unusual movie — in that, while I watched it perched at the edge of my seat, scared to death, I remember it today as having been extremely funny. I hasten to add that while there is a lone comical character in the film, there is no burlesque. When the hero deals with his offenders, his righteous anger is furious, but the damage that he inflicts upon them is almost euphemized. Jordan Peele has concocted a new kind of movie, too new for a label. I will say, though, that the promise made by Catherine Keener’s presence in the cast was royally fulfilled. I’ll have more to say when the DVD comes out. For now, just go see it!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Teachers’ Homework
February 2017

2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 14, 17, 21, 22, 24 and 27 February

Tuesday 2nd

On the way from the dermatologist’s office to the barber shop, I stopped in yesterday at the Video Room, and rented a couple of discs. One was Secretariat, which we haven’t seen even though Diane Lane is in it. The other featured an even grander diva, Meryl Streep: it was the recent Florence Foster Jenkins. This we watched after dinner. (Secretariat, no longer a new release, can wait.)

I’m enormously puzzled by Florence, because the people who made it are all master craftsmen who know how to make what they set out to make. What did they have in mind here? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that they had inconsistent things in mind. At the center of the production, of course, is the spectacle of the society dame who used her wealth and the cooperation of her fellow biddies to conduct a semi-private musical career, the joke being: was there a joke about the fact that every sound coming out of her mouth was unmusical? The spectacle (according to the movie) took place when Florence, finding herself adrift in a fog of loneliness, ill-health, and patriotism, hired Carnegie Hall and distributed free tickets to her show to servicemen. This swan dive was followed almost immediately by illness and death. Florence Foster Jenkins would be an arcane footnote in the history of Gotham if she had not taken the trouble to record  performances of a number of chestnuts, accompanied by the fantastically-named pianist, Cosme McMoon. I doubt that these recordings have ever been out of print in my lifetime. They were part of the soundtrack, an occasional weir in the flood of Edith Piaf, at the mauve end of the undergraduate spectrum when I was in school. To be at all sophisticated, you had to know who she was and how bad she was.

The fascination is hard to pin down. Once you have been acquainted with the sheer fact of Jenkins’s voice, there is little pressure to explore further, because her singing is just bad. I haven’t been able to find a redeeming contour, but I haven’t tried very hard. This isn’t to say, however, that the Jenkins story isn’t interesting. It’s almost too interesting.  In 2005, Judy Kaye and Donald Corren brought Stepehen Temperley’s Souvenir to the stage. It was in its every corpuscle an evening of theatre: you had to be there. I thought that it would run forever, so perfect it was, but it didn’t. Happily, I wrote it up at Portico. I knew from the reviews that Florence Foster Jenkins would be nothing like it: I had never heard of Jenkins’s husband, St Clair Bayfield, and there was certainly no room for him in Souvenir. I found it hard to believe that Meryl Streep was going to spend a significant chunk of film time being ludicrous.

And of course she doesn’t. She does something so unusual — for her — that I’m not sure that she really did it. Two things, actually. First, she recycles an earlier performance, the one as Julia Child. Mrs Child was something of a society dame, too, but if she could actually cook she also could deal with the fact that many of her viewers found her presentations to be hysterically funny. (Maybe the laughter doesn’t hurt if it can’t be heard in the studio.) Jenkins, at least until Carnegie Hall, performed with the very reasonable expectation (unconscious, probably) that it would be unforgivably rude to guffaw. Streep has only to add a dash of cluelessness to her slyly distracted Julia to produce a convincing Florence.

Even more surprising, however, she does not attempt to steal the show from Hugh Grant, and this is where the puzzle lies. The film’s title is misleading; it ought to have been something like The Constant Husband, or perhaps The Inconstant Husband, sounding different registers of irony but identifying the heart of the story, which is the tale of a devoted (if unfaithful) husband’s determination to protect his wife’s amour propre from her ambitions. When she indulges in a song recital, he hand-picks the audience. After the performance, he assures her that she was wonderful. If necessary, he bribes newspapermen. It’s a full-time job, and of course Hugh Grant is perfectly suited to making madcap leaps from panicked frown to flashbulb smile, and to forestalling calamity with preternatural glibness. (His voice has two gears, ultra-hesistant and gush.) The difficulty with Florence Foster Jenkins is that you don’t worry about Florence; you worry about St Clair.

And yet the movie raises a great deal of pathos out of Florence’s health, a problem having little to do with her singing. Infected with syphilis by her husband as a teen bride, Florence is a survivor at the end of her ninth life. (This is very wicked of me, but when Florence’s maid — played so well by Brid Brennan that I wanted to see a movie about her — removed her lady’s wig, and replaced it with a turban, I saw that Streep’s very next role ought to be Edith Sitwell.) The movie rather helplessly kills Florence off by a bad review from which all of St Clair’s efforts couldn’t protect her. It is very dramatic, of course; the tragedy of the final farce is very well done. But did she die because Earl Wilson panned her? The puzzle is that the filmmakers ought to have known that this somewhat illegitimate  wind-up would be cinematically inevitable. The cabaret of Souvenir could end with McMoon’s narrative from the piano. But Nicholas Martin’s screenplay has to show us something, and mere after-the-show exhaustion wouldn’t be enough. So we get Meryl on the marble.

The only way to redeem this confusing exploit will be to make a film about Mrs Miller.


Friday 3rd

Last month, Daniel Barenboim conducted a cycle of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies at Carnegie Hall. I didn’t attend any of the concerts. Although I’ve known the Third Symphony since I was a freshman in college, the rest are more or less indistinguishable to me. They’re beautiful and exciting, but, more than that, they’re the same. I seem to be incapable of discriminating among them. Now I wonder if Times music critic Corinna da Fonseca Wollheim hasn’t put her finger on why. In a discussion with her colleague Zachary Woolfe that the newspaper published last week, she said something that stuck with me — something that bears on a great deal more than Bruckner.

My experience in the hall was inevitably colored by what has happened in the world, beginning with a presidential inauguration that was heavy on nationalist rhetoric. Perhaps my biggest gripe about Bruckner has been how perfectly suited his music is to communal veneration. A lot of people who love Mahler also love Bruckner, and there are similarities. But Mahler always puts the individual — the doubting, neurotic individual — at the center. In Bruckner, the triumphant hero of too many movements seems to be a “we.”

In today’s paper, David Brooks writes about the American myth that he finds represented on the dome of the Library of Congress.

In that story, America is placed at the vanguard of the great human march of progress. America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind.

This historical story was America’s true myth. When we are children, and also when we are adults, we learn our deepest truths through myth.

It seems to me that the “we” whom David Brooks has learning our deepest truths through myth is the same triumphant hero that makes da Fonseca Wollheim so uncomfortable (as it does me)

My preferred “we” is a crowd of doubting, neurotic individuals. Call it the Manhattan We. We don’t share many myths, because we disagree about most things, but we know how to walk down the street. When strangers ask, we either give good directions or we admit that we don’t know the way. Despite our differences about everything that matters, we Gothamites manage to get along in surprisingly peaceful coexistence. If anything, that is our myth.

We even put up with decades of Donald Trump.

Now, there’s a myth for you!


Monday 6th

It seems that Kathleen has just volunteered my services as a cook to produce a dinner on Thursday night for two of her Smith classmates, “if he’s up for it.” Her friends may have better ideas, involving real restaurants. Why come into the city just to sit in a quiet apartment? But I must be prepared for Kathleen’s offer to be accepted, particularly as I’ve ratified it with an email of my own.

Over the weekend, I browsed the pages of Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, a collection of pieces written for The Spectator and other periodicals, mostly during the Fifties and the Sixties. David’s writing about food casts a spellbinding illusion: all you need do to prepare a scrumptious meal is to take a nap. While you sleep, delicious ingredients will pile up in a nearby marketplace. When you wake up, just stroll down the stalls and fill your shopping basket with produce so bursting with culinary virtue that, once spread out on your rustic kitchen table, it will cook itself.

(Some of David’s books, such as English Bread and Yeast Cookery, do not bear much relation to meals at all, but seem more like craft projects that just happen to produce edible goods.)

This illusion is doubtless produced by David’s long experience of staying out of kitchens whilst other people did the cooking. She did cook herself, of course, but when I think of her at home I remember reading that she liked to sit at her rustic kitchen table with a glass of wine that was never empty. She would perch next to the oven, so that all she had to to was turn in her seat, open the oven door, and give the casserole a little stir. How the casserole was composed is not in the picture, but the glass of wine must have been part of that, too. On the cover of An Omelette and A Glass of Wine is a drawing of David, leaning against a cabinet, holding a glass of wine. She seems to be engaged with an unseen friend, and utterly relaxed. It is clear that David’s school of gastronomy holds, as a first principle, that we will eat our dinner when it is good and ready.

I learned about this approach to cooking too late in life to adapt to it, and I never had a kitchen large enough for a rustic kitchen table. The moment that separates what used to be called “cocktails,” a period that begins when guests arrive, and “sitting down” at the table has always been, for lack of a better word, decisive, because my first principle holds that, once people are seated, dinner proceeds at a reasonable pace. If there is a soup to start, then whatever follows must be on the table within twenty minutes at the utmost of clearing the bowls. Guests cannot be allowed to wonder, uncomfortably, what is going on in the kitchen. Even when it is just the two of us, and Kathleen is wholly absorbed by whatever she is reading or stitching, I am haunted by the quartermaster over my shoulder.

Although the local marketplaces are among the best in Manhattan, it would never occur to me to shop for what looks good. The very idea of such spontaneous impressionism puts me into a panic. I must be armed with plans when I walk into Agata & Valentina or Whole Foods. But plans, no matter how well drawn up, are rarely fun to follow. A few times in my life, I have thrown together delicious meals from ingredients on hand. It is like great sex: better not to count on it. I have also thrown together meals that tasted thrown together, against a brick wall somewhere.

David gives a recipe from a Tuscan inn that she calls “the lake place.” I shall certainly give it a try, but not this Thursday. (Kathleen’s offer has been declined.) It’s for spaghetti with chicken livers and lemon. Other ingredients include ham, garlic, Parmesan, and lots of egg yolks. (It sounds like a supercharged carbonara.) David talks about the size and excellence of the livers of well-fed Tuscan chickens; I wonder if I can count on Agata & Valentina for quality above and beyond the ordinary. And all those eggs! In another essay, David writes about the fame of Mme Poularde’s Mont-St-Michel omelettes. She laughs at the food writers who speculated wildly about secret ingredients. But it was probably just the eggs, very good and very fresh eggs. How fresh can an egg in Manhattan be?

There are at least two pieces about Norman Douglas in An Omelette and A Glass of Wine. I had heard of Douglas before I learned about David’s friendship with him, but only barely. On the strength of her enthusiasm, I roped in a copy of South Wind from somewhere. “Wind” was right. It reminded me of E F Benson’s Lucia books, but without the laughs. Instead, something that Mrs Lucas herself might have penned. South Wind may be a cornerstone of Anglophone Caprimania, but I’d rather read Shirley Hazzard on the subject. David herself is pretty good; after all, she makes Douglas sound interesting. One of her pieces here explodes with indignation at the witlessness of a publisher who reprinted Douglas’s Venus in the Kitchen, as if the title were not ironic, with drawings of little cupids in bathing trunks. The notion of a craftily concocted dish that will reduce anyone who eats it to indiscriminate erotic wantonness is probably as old as clay pots, but while a good meal will almost always produce good feelings, the cook must still in propria persona attract the diner from the table to the divan.

But what do I know? I don’t really associate food with love. I associate it with conversation. Without good talk, even the best food is just snacks.


Thursday 9th

It has been a quiet week. On Monday, I did nothing, aside from writing here. On Tuesday, I took the new subway down to 72nd Street, the next stop, and walked three long blocks to the Hospital for Special Surgery, where I spent the later afternoon in the Infusion Therapy Unit, connected to a Remicade drip. On the way, I discovered that there are no escalators at the northern, or 72nd Street, end of the station, only a bank of elevators. The elevators open directly onto the sidewalk, beneath a canopy. On my return, I was bemused by the rhythm of progressing upwards from the platform via three escalators and then, without a great deal of lateral travel, the elevator in which my homewards ascent was concluded.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend from out of town. We walked over to the Museum afterwards, for some reason along 83rd Street. I used to walk the block of 83rd Street between Second and Third Avenues all the time, in the days of the Green Village Market, a Korean greengrocery where I could sign for boxes of produce and have them delivered. The space has for quite a long time now been occupied by a 7-Eleven. More happily, St Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church still occupies its spot on 83rd Street. At one point, it seemed doomed by the archdiocese. It may still be at risk. But it is still there, its façade flush with its neighbors’, its gable and spire giving the sky above a European air.

At the Museum, as we walked among the Old Master paintings, my friend told me about the cousin with whom he would be having dinner. I came away with a rather Cubist notion of the lady; I know her age for sure, but other details, however individually distinct, remain only unclearly related to her. I attribute this confusion to my having interrupted my friend to point at various pictures, such as the Rubens painting that, as it happened, adorned the jacket of my first recording of Beethoven’s Seventh. (Only just now have I learned that the background was painted by the elder Brueghel.) It’s odd that the Holocaust comes into this cousin’s story, but I’m quite sure that it does.

Yesterday was a pleasant day for walking, quite unseasonably balmy. Today it is cold again but at least there is the mitigation of piles of snow. Kathleen decided to stay home, and we slept until well past noon. I got up, finally, because my dreams were disturbing me. One involved a set of miniature kitchen implements, and it needled me with questions not only about whether I had lost part or all of it but also about having invented it. If I had invented it, why something so silly and pointless? Just talking about it, I see my hand placing a small plastic fork on a piece of dark cloth. It’s not restful.

In the new New Yorker (13 & 20 February), I read two pieces about death, Thomas Mallon’s review of George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Kathryn Schulz’s essay, “Losing Streak.” I am not in a hurry to get to the novel, but I expect that I’ll read it presently. Schulz writes about losing her father; she also mentions losing the election. I’ve lost elections before, but this time the loss is different.

The morning after the election, I cried again, missing my refugee father, missing the future I had thought would unfold. In its place, other kinds of losses suddenly seemed imminent: of civil rights, personal safety, financial security, the foundational American values of respect for dissent and difference, the institutions and protections of democracy.

The sentence brought me up short, because I long ago ceased to believe in the existence of “foundational American values.” What I’ve lost in this past election is faith in the ability of intelligent Americans to protect the institutions, from law courts to power plants, that have made complex organisms such as New York City largely safe and largely predictable. This isn’t to say that I’m expecting disaster tomorrow. But too many people have been counting too heavily on things like respect for dissent and difference, taking them for granted, even. Taking things for granted is a small weakness that can open the door to great evil.


Friday 10th

Last night, I finally got to the end of Mark Greengrass’s Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648. It’s a sound history, but not a particularly captivating one, because it favors issues analysis over narrative. I had made up my mind, midway through it, that my next book would be C V Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, and I had already taken it down from the shelf, so after I closed the one I opened the other. A clipping from the Times fluttered out: a brief obituary of Wedgwood from 1997. If I’d known it, I’d forgotten how young Wedgwood was when she wrote her big book — not quite thirty.

It didn’t take long to savor the difference between the two books. Wedgwood is lucidity itself, written in the spirit of Johnsonian coherence. Greengrass seems to have something insightful but complicated to tell us; it is always just a little too complicated for the point to be made. The writing is somewhat curious: just to pick one tiny example, on page 163 the word “deception” occurs, but it makes no sense unless construed as déception, the French for “disappointment.” As I worked my way through Christendom Destroyed, I was often made aware of changes in academic fashion, as I suppose any serious reader of my age is bound to be; like anyone of my age, I’m inclined to think that the old fashions served well enough, although I suppose that Wedgwood’s confidence might strike younger minds as presumptuous. Even twenty years ago, the Times bracketed her as a “Storyteller of History.”

Sixteen pages in, Wedgwood inserts a political observation that deserves, I think, more attention: it highlights the Machiavellian impulses not of rulers but of the ruled.

Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.

The truth of this maxim is borne out by terrorism, which seeks to eliminate the comfort that a bad government can provide. Reformers also try to make us uncomfortable. The reason why it might not be a good idea to accept the comforts of a bad government is that a bad government might change its mind about you, and decide to withhold your comforts. It is certainly more prudent to enjoy moderate comfort under a good government than excessive comfort under a tyranny.

We all have different ideas of comfort, some of which cannot be harmonized with others, and that makes for political problems. But for each of us personally there is a moral question: how righteous are your comforts? The easy, adolescent answer is that comfort is never righteous. Teenagers cling to this view because they can’t find comfort anywhere. Most of us outgrow the misery of those years, but some people don’t. Some people never learn that other people have feelings, too, and that the mere fact that their feelings are different does not make them wrong.

Most of us are much more respectful of others when we are comfortable. This is a law of human nature that ought to inform political arrangements at the most basic level. There is no point in drafting a constitution that disregards the importance of comfort. Our Declaration of Independence speaks of “happiness,” which, for political purposes, seems to me to be much the same thing. If I am allowed to pursue happiness, I am unlikely to begrudge others the same freedom. The righteousness of my comforts, then, is a factor of the liberty that my behavior bestows. If my idea of comfort involves screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night, it is manifestly unrighteous. My comforts must be constrained by my neighbors’ right to the quiet enjoyment of their homes, to their comfort. Neighborly comfort is righteous.


Monday 13th

No matter how nutty they are, Transhumanists — at least, the ones Mark O’Connell writes about in this weekend’s Times Magazine — have one very attractive selling point: opposed to death in general, they’re opposed to war in particular. They argue for diverting defense budgets into advancing the technology that will make them immortal.

And they’re not really so nutty. They’re just young, or rather just old enough to grasp the terrible waste of their dying now, in the prime of life. They can’t imagine that this prime will ever come to an end, other than by premature death. Nor has the selfishness of their desire to stick around forever, leaving no room for future generations, really occurred to them; if it has, they’ve probably satisfied their conscience by supposing that, once their principal objective has been achieved, the colonization of space ad infinitem will be no problem.

Mark O’Connell’s piece is very well done, but it probably isn’t as funny as I thought it was when I encountered it, simply by turning a page in the Magazine. I had been reading a very different sort of piece, an essay about what is arguably the most complicated topic of civil conversation today, feminism. Feminism is so complicated, in fact, that it’s probably a mistake to call it “feminism,” but I’ll come back to that in a moment. The juxtaposition of a grave meditation on questions that, although addressed to women, make demands of us all, and a travelogue involving a rattling old recreational vehicle and two young guys, one of them, in the journalist’s words, “as strange a person as I had ever met, and I had met a great many strange people in the year and a half I spent reporting on transhumanists,” was as jolting as a pothole. How could the editors of the Magazine imagine for a moment that O’Connell’s clowns deserved even more column inches than Amanda Hess’s reflections?

But there you have it. A lot of women, over here, trying to imagine a more civil arrangement of human affairs. Over there, a couple of guys yakking about transcending it. If you have any kind of mind at all, you can’t help wishing that the Transhumanists will succeed — and then disappear.


In “Forces in Opposition,” Amanda Hess uses last month’s Women’s March on Washington to frame a problem that has nagged feminism since American women began to make demands that we now characterize as feminist, before the Civil War. Much bigger than the problem of women’s rights, the problem of racism, focused on and defined by African-American physiognomy, was something that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for one, wished would just go away. “In 1865,” Hess writes, “Stanton lamented having to ‘stand aside to see “Sambo” walk into the kingdom first’.” We may have arrived at last at the moment when the two struggles must be reconciled, and, going forward, prosecuted in the same terms. One such term, according to Hess, would be “intersectionality,” but the word is too new to me for me to use it. I do see that what anti-racists and feminists have in common is the conviction that physical destiny — outward appearance — is neither a support for privilege nor a justification of degradation. Although the thinkers of the Enlightenment were almost wholly devoted to enlarging the political franchise for white males only, their fundamental belief that quality of mind trumps accident of birth is the foundation of all equal-rights arguments. In other words, the white male body does not ipso facto house a superior intelligence.

Among the dreadful truths that Donald Trump’s campaign exposed (and they are truths!) is the extent to which Americans reject this enlightened idea. When it came to the vote, it was close enough to fifty-fifty to be extremely upsetting to anyone who believes in equal rights for all adults. (It ought not to have been so surprising, though.) The most striking feature of the vote was the support that white women gave to the Republican ticket. After the election, there was stream of anecdotal evidence that many of these women, while they didn’t think much of the presidential candidate himself, were comfortable with the idea of letting white men run things. Many Americans, of course, did not want one particular woman, Hillary Clinton, to run things, and I daresay that many of the women who voted for Trump would say that the real problem with feminism is that it throws women like Clinton into prominence.

It turns out that the United States was not ready to be governed by a black president. Too large a contingent of citizens simply hunkered down in absolute obstruction. It is clear now that this contingent was not so much opposed by Democrats as ignored, but then, as David Bromwich writes, in a powerful piece in the current London Review of Books, “Democrats have forgotten what it means to constitute an opposition.” At another point in “Act One, Scene One,” Bromwich sets out a calendar of Democratic Party failures to mount opposition to Republican Party advances.

With the election and partial legitimation of Trump against the massed energy of the Democratic Party, many Republicans and virtually all the mainstream media, we have witnessed a revolution of manners. Will a political revolution follow? What is ominous is the uncertainty and the leaderless state of the opposition. The Democrats are at their lowest ebb since 1920, and this is anything but a sudden misfortune: the loss of nerve started with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which surprised the Democrats and shook their confidence in the tenability of the welfare state, and the threat to mixed constitutional government was clear in the 1994 midterm election, when 367 Republican candidates signed the Contract with America, with its pledge to slash government spending in the first hundred days of a new Congress. The contract was the precursor of the Tea Party – its instigator, Newt Gingrich, has become a leading adviser to Donald Trump. The Democrats behaved persistently as if the Republican hostility to government-as-such were a curable aberration. Yet eight years of Obama have ended with his party’s loss of the presidency, its relegation to a minority in both houses of Congress and – something that happened when no one was counting – the loss of 900 seats in state legislatures. Any return to majority status must begin at the local and state levels, yet in the 50 states of the union, the Republican Party has 33 governors and now controls 32 legislatures. The losses grew steeper with every mishap, from the delay of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 to the standoff over the national debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. Yet after Obama’s re-election, as the PBS Frontline documentary Divided States of America vividly recalled, he thought he was in 2008 again, the old mandate renewed, and would say to reporters in 2012 and 2014 just as he had done in 2010: ‘the [Republican] fever will break.’

The most appalling item in this list is of course “the loss of 900 seats in state legislatures.” That is indeed where opposition must begin. And it seems important that opposition be launched by more people who are not themselves oppositional, not outsiders. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are unwelcome names in many political conversations. Why has the Democratic Party failed to groom candidates who are less “extreme”? I put the word in scare quotes because social progress is achieved in the long term by securing society’s comfort, not by assaulting it.

In the end, white men must be persuaded to bring diversities of their own to politics. They can be the enemies of “diversity,” or they can take a place in the diversity of Americans, a place to which they will rise or fall according to their individual merits. We know what their enmity looks like: it is regrettably fundamental to the “primitive” sects of all three of the Abrahamic faiths. We know that when men unite to thwart what they perceive to be a menace, they begin by assuming very unequal positions in a hierarchy rather more baroque than anything found among other animals. Inequality is the default setting; that is why the Enlightenment struggle for equality (for men!) was so protracted. The French Revolution and its aftermath showed us how spectacularly men can fail to overcome inequality — how readily, that is, they replace one form of it with another. Subsequent outbreaks of violence have confirmed the findings. In these interesting times of ours, we’re learning how tenuous equality is even in a time of peace.

Mark O’Connell’s report had little to say about the Transhumanist take on equality.


Tuesday 14th

Checking in at The Browser is slowly becoming a daily habit — slowly, because there’s a bit of confusion. I know that it’s a good thing to do, but I also (when I happen to think of it) look forward to reading the interesting, often unexpected commentary that abounds at the other end of its links. Duty and pleasure wrapped up together: unsettling!

The other day, The Browser introduced me to Slate Star Codex, a Web log kept by a doctor, Scott Alexander. In earlier days, I should have dropped everything and immersed myself in the site, but I want to avoid the hangover that always follows such infatuations. So I’ve read what I take to be the two latest entries. One is a review/consideration of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Alexander begins by saying that he read Hannah Arendt’s book at the recommendation of a friend who suggested it as a way of observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. He appears to come to it without any familiarity either with the famous trial or with Arendt and her work, and his reflections are agreeably fresh without being jejune, even in the rare passage, such as the following one, that is difficult to parse.

What eventually happened we all know too well. Other countries started closing their doors and refusing to accept Jewish refugees. Despite hearing this story a hundred times, the version in Eichmann in Jerusalem was new to me. I had always thought of countries as closing their gates to a few prescient people trying to flee Nazi Germany on their own, or to a few stragglers who managed to escape. The truth is on a much greater scale: the Nazis were willing to let every single Jew in Europe leave, they even had entire bureaucracies trying to make it happen – and the rest of the world wouldn’t cooperate. The blood on the hands of the people who wouldn’t let them in is not just that of a few escapees, but the entire six million.

The prescient people were the ones who got in, who left Germany in 1933; Arendt herself was one of the “stragglers who managed to escape.” I expect that Alexander is thinking of the passengers aboard the MS St Louis.

The other entry is titled “Considerations on Cost Disease.” Cost Disease is the mystifying tendency of things to cost more without increasing benefits. A good example is public education. Costs rise, but neither test scores nor teachers’ salaries budge. Where does the money go? Alexander considers eight possibilities, from inflation to fear of lawsuits, but he comes to no conclusions, and confesses at the end that he finds Cost Disease “really scary.”

At the start of his essay, Alexander suspects that few people know about Cost Disease, and, until I read it, I was certainly one of them. As I made my way through his survey of various sectors that are afflicted by the problem, I began to feel the pull of thoughts that I’ve been having for years now about building projects of all kinds. We build to last. We do not build to upgrade. Our approach to construction is still that of the pharaohs. In the pharaohs’ day, of course, most structures were unimportant hovels; their very flimsiness made them easy to alter. (I’m speculating here; I don’t actually know a damned thing about vernacular construction in ancient Egypt.) Buildings of interest to the ruling class, in contrast, were built to last forever, and so far that’s exactly what they’ve done.

We probably don’t intend our buildings to last forever; we certainly have a greater familiarity with the charm of ancient ruins than the Egyptians did. But we build, if not for all time, then for several generations. Or more: think of the water mains buried under the streets of Manhattan. They are old and leaky; we would not use cast iron if we were installing them today. They are also very hard to get to. Eventual replacement does not appear to have concerned the engineers who laid the pipes. Undoubtedly it occurred to some of them, but they wouldn’t have been crazy to imagine that, in the future, things would get easier. That was the story of their life, back then in the Nineteenth Century. But some things haven’t gotten easier, and replacing water mains is high on the list of projects that promise to be ruinously expensive. A big part of the difficulty is that transportation — the use of the roads beneath which the pipes are set — has become unimaginably easier in some ways. But not when it comes to diverting modern traffic when dig-we-must. Horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians would have posed a much more surmountable obstacle to maintenance.

Water mains are a hard case, but perhaps also an unusual one. More often, we are able to adapt what we’ve got to suit new circumstances. Before continuing, I want to suggest a difference between updates and upgrades. Upgrades are not adaptations; they are replacements. Updates are work-arounds. In the short term, updates are obviously cheaper than upgrades. In the long term, though, their proliferation produces complication (not complexity, which is organized), as updates are implemented without regard to other updates. And an updated update is likely to be patchier than the original work-around. Inevitably, a mess. The effectiveness of an adaptation — an update — is probably determined by the distance in time from the original creation, with effectiveness dropping as time passes. Eventually, further updating becomes impossible, and the old system, whether it be a material one such as the city’s water system or an abstraction such a code of law, is abandoned. Sometimes the abandonment is gentle; sometimes it is violent and revolutionary. In neither case, however, is the eventuality foreseen by designers.

That’s what we need to learn to change: how to upgrade a system without abandoning it or revolutionizing it. Here’s why:

Take a hospital. This institution is both material and abstract. There are buildings; there is equipment. There are the physical needs of the people who staff and who are served by them. On the abstract side, there are rules and regulations, schedules, chains of command, best practices, all of these being the same thing in different words.

Most hospitals, for all their new buildings, are institutions with histories going back decades, if not a century or more. The more venerable hospitals began as shelters for the sick, and served a function much more like that of the modern hospice. There wasn’t much that could be done for sick people, except to keep them warm and clean and fed. We reserve hospice care for the terminally ill, but its infirmary régime saved lives back in the days before modern pharmaceuticals.

The introduction of modern pharmaceuticals constitute one of the major changes to which hospitals have adapted. Another is the advance of emergency care, especially since the American War in Vietnam. When Scott Alexander muses on the the fact that, in some ways, medical care has gotten worse since his parents’ day (his father is also a doctor), what he has in mind is the fact that shifting from infirmary to emergency care, hospitals have adapted to clear beds as soon as possible. Once havens for quiet rest, hospitals are now noisy depots. But the old buildings, however heavily adapted, are still standing, and so are many of the old ideas about what a hospital ought to be. We still think of the hospital as the place where sick people ought to be. But the range of treatments, and even the very idea of illness itself, have shifted, away from the chronic to the acute. Chronic diseases are increasingly dealt with by medication that allows the sufferer to live at home. What we’ve lost is the place where someone who is not feeling well can get a much-needed rest. For the rich, this need is met by resorts. (It is interesting to compare hospitals and resorts, because money is no object for the latter. Resorts, which historically date back to spas, do not adapt old buildings, except for decorative purposes; nor do they preserve old ways of doing business.) For the ordinary person, however, a good rest is not available anymore.

And yet hospitals stagger on “as they are” partly because we think of them as “hospitals,” and partly because the complications of such heavily updated institutions require a phalanx of administrators with no interest in diminishing its compensation.

My very strong hunch is that Cost Disease would be better labeled Institutionary Disease.* I believe that the money exacted in rising costs is required to keep multiplying adaptations functional. I am certain that a similar argument could be made for American colleges and universities. Alexander is winks drolly about the “clubs/festivals/Milo” phenomenon.

But a while ago a commenter linked me to the Delta Cost Project, which scrutinizes the exact causes of increasing college tuition. Some of it is the administrative bloat that you would expect. But a lot of it is fun “student life” types of activities like clubs, festivals, and paying Milo Yiannopoulos to speak and then cleaning up after the ensuing riots. These sorts of things improve the student experience, but I’m not sure that the average student would rather go to an expensive college with clubs/festivals/Milo than a cheap college without them. More important, it doesn’t really seem like the average student is offered this choice. This kind of suggests a picture where colleges expect people will pay whatever price they set, so they set a very high price and then use the money for cool things and increasing their own prestige. Or maybe clubs/festivals/Milo become such a signal of prestige that students avoid colleges that don’t comply since they worry their degrees won’t be respected? Some people have pointed out that hospitals have switched from many-people-all-in-a-big-ward to private rooms. Once again, nobody seems to have been offered the choice between expensive hospitals with private rooms versus cheap hospitals with roommates. It’s almost as if industries have their own reasons for switching to more-bells-and-whistles services that people don’t necessarily want, and consumers just go along with it because for some reason they’re not exercising choice the same as they would in other markets.

Higher education in the United States is seriously off track (at least in the non-STEM fields), and has been since I was an undergraduate, fifty years ago, when the bizarre and perverse practice of Teacher Evaluations was introduced. The very idea of “student life” is one to which a serious university ought to give little or no thought, beyond cooperating with local police. This is true of public school districts as well. Every level of education in this country is weakened by the diversion of resources to pay for athletic activities. The connection between school and sport dates, like too many of our institutions, to ancien régime circumstances, in this case the feral environment of England’s “public schools” prior to the reforms of Thomas Arnold — the near-apocalyptic playing fields on which Wellington claimed the Battle of Waterloo had really been won. The links between an Oxford Blue and the Heisman Trophy make up a thicket of updates, swelling ever outwards and now threatening to suffocate the possibility of education. Learning how to build to upgrade — how to replace an institution without upheaval — begins with this sentence, with the hope that such a thing is possible.

*Institutionary” rather than “institutional” partly as a salute to Mansfield Park and partly as a way of suggesting multiplicity. The solution to some institutional problems is a new institution.


Friday 17th

Because I’m planning to give a small dinner party this evening, I’ve been taking it easy in the mornings this week. I did my shopping on Wednesday afternoon. Yesterday, I cleaned the kitchen and prepped a couple of things. Most of the cooking will be quickly done at the last minute, so I have to be especially focused on the steps of a couple of short-order recipes. There’s the dishwasher to think of: I don’t want the sink to pile up with clutter because I’m already running a full load. Nothing on the menu is particularly tricky (although there is always the chance that the Hollandaise might curdle), but I want everything to go smoothly and easily, and I want the food to be very good. So, for three days, I have allowed my ambitions as a host to suppress my appetite for writing.

And yet I feel obliged to punctuate the unusual silence with a note signalling my ongoing up-and-aboutness. The problem with such notes is their triviality. Hello, I’m still here! Well, so what. And I don’t think for a second that a few sentences about culinary tactics are intrinsically interesting. It’s not often that I have something to say that is briefly said. Whether that’s a failing or not I leave it to you to judge. But today I do have a chuckle to share.

Why, I don’t quite know, but when I was done with CV Wedgwood’s history of the Thirty Years War, I had a notion of re-reading The Name of the Rose for the first time. I’ve watched Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation dozens of times, but I’ve never gone back to the novel, or at any rate not read it through. I well remember my worries, back when William Weaver’s translation appeared in 1983, about whether I’d “get” it, whether I’d see the design that the famous Italian semiotician must clearly have hidden in plain sight behind his medieval whodunit. (What was the name of the rose, anyway?) In the end, I decided that it wasn’t very important — in other words, I didn’t get it. I admired Umberto Eco’s ability to load his narrative armature with heaps of lore and learning, and especially with urgent questions about the peculiarly European obsession with orthodoxy and heresy. And all that Latin! That labyrinthine library! I knew that the movie was signally unfaithful to the novel in many ways, but it was surprising that adaptation had been possible at all.

In the middle of the story, which takes place in 1327, the narrator, a Benedictine novice called Adso, encounters a young girl, in the kitchens of the monastery in which The Name of the Rose takes place, and is seduced. The movie’s very predictable approach to this congress involves lots of heavy breathing, and an angel with a dirty face to heighten the contrast of Christian Slater’s virginally pallid posterior. Although I had only read the novel the one time, this vernacular approach to sex seemed mistaken to me, and now I see why. Eco writes the scene as if he had never been outside a scriptorium, limiting Adso’s description of what he experiences to the text of the Song of Solomon. It’s pretty kinky, if you ask me; I always want to look away when I hear about those twin fawns feeding at lilies. The sheep coming from their bath? Well, it’s true that my youth was not spent in pastoral surroundings.

And then, when looking gives way to touching, and Adso barrels along toward orgasm (without, presumably, knowing what to expect), his thoughts shift to his recollections, still recent, of seeing a very holy heretic burned outside Florence. The experience of sex is as purifying as a flaming pyre; sex and death meet again. And not once does Eco slip into the actuality of the situation. The girl’s neck is the Tower of David, never a column of warm flesh. If fingers roam, they do so offscreen. The mechanics of entry and release are elided, hidden in a cloud of lucid but very literary earnest. I’m afraid that, grizzled old man that I am, I found the stunt most amusing. And refreshed, too: the tapestry of verbiage protected the couple’s modesty.

Sad to say, my signed first edition was not printed on acid-free paper. A medieval touch, perhaps, but a most unwelcome one.


Tuesday 21st

Elizabeth Drew made my weekend. At the end of a piece about the first weeks of the Trump Administration, published in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the venerable political writer speculated that, in addition to the narcissistic personality disorder that everybody talks about, the president may be afflicted by the early stages of dementia. (Apparently, his vocabulary has shrunk considerably over the past twenty years.) Dementia! I hadn’t heard that one, but it made a lot of sense. Or rather, it made no sense at all, but it was a good fit with the look and feel of the spectacle to which we have been treated for the past umpteen months. One phenomenon that seems very supportive of the dementia thesis is the proximity of the Kushners. Ivanka and Jared are more than a little like minders, don’t you think?

Another phenomenon is the Swedish outburst, which makes one wonder how long the president is going to be allowed to tweet bareback. But before I get to that, I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to any supporters of Donald Trump, except perhaps, un petit peu, for those who, while not necessarily deplorable people themselves, committed the deplorable act of casting their vote for Trump just because it would sock it to the liberal élites. I recognize that many fine Americans had good reasons for voting as they did, as well as for not voting as they didn’t, and what I have to say about Trump is not to be taken as reflecting on them in any way. Oh, and except for the Republican Party officials who — d’you really think they’d be clever enough to nominate a demented entertainer, just so that they could get rid of him after the election and put the nationally unelectable Mike Pence in his place?

It’s important to bear in mind that Donald Trump is, above all, an entertainer, a stand-up comedian with a shtick for our times. Especially, right now, if you are Sweden, and the man who appears to be the leader of the free world has just made a crack about violence in your country. Consider the source, and consider the medium, too. Twitter is nothing but a microphone that delivers one-liners in text. Also breaking news and calls for help, yes. But this was manifestly not breaking news:

“Give the public a break.“The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!”

Call for help, you decide. Whether the world is big and strong enough to cope with an insult comic in the White House is the important question, not whether the billionaire entertainer trumps the statesman.


In the same issue of The New York Review, Thomas Nagle considers the latest book by Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Dennett is still going on, it seems, about consciousness. Having published Consciousness Explained twenty-five years ago, why? According to Nagle, Dennett claims that consciousness is an illusion. I came away from Consciousness Explained — and this was in the days before the Internet was a big deal — with the conviction (unstated by Dennett, it’s true) that consciousness is a kind of software program (as one used to say) that runs, so to speak, on the motherboard of the brain. It doesn’t make sense to speak of illusion. The software is objectively manifest: it’s what allows us to communicate with each other and to determine who is mentally ill — whose software isn’t working. If all human beings are subject to the same illusion at the same time, then “illusion” is the wrong word.

Dennett is quite right to insist that the brain is not the mind. As far as I can tell, we don’t know much about the brain. We know a lot more than we used to know, within living memory, but I would venture that every little thing that we do know about the brain suggests a hundred things that we don’t. For a while, our net ignorance of the brain will increase, even as we learn more. We’re far better informed about computers, probably because we invented them. Computers are binary calculators capable of no more than switching between on and off. Massively connected, computers can be made to simulate activities, such as typing text and editing images, that human beings can comprehend. The computer does not understand text or images, and most human beings do not understand what the computer is doing. The interface, or software, mediates between the machine and the mind.

I don’t know anything, really, about neurons, but I gather that they have a binary aspect in that they fire or don’t fire. I’ll bet, though, that there’s more to neuronal activity than “on” and “off.” It doesn’t matter; I don’t have to know how the brain works. I know how my mind works, and although I can get quite carried away with the curlicues that make my mind different from yours, the fact is that my obnoxiousness on the subject is something that we can agree on, because our minds operate similarly. To me, the interesting thing about the software of consciousness, if I may be permitted the expression, is not that it allows comprehensible thoughts to bubble up from my brain, but that it allows me to write them down and send them to you.


Wednesday 22nd

Regular readers will recall my harping — cue arpeggios — on social committees of ordinary citizens devoted to thrashing out solutions to public problems and arriving at the most inclusive consensus possible. (The pedigree of this idea goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who inspired Hannah Arendt.) And that’s where, until today, my great idea stopped. I had a hunch that committees would work much better on the Internet than in meet-ups, because the end result would be a statement of the consensus, ie a text, but, beyond that, I was ready to hand off the idea to younger, more energetic minds. Having had the idea, I sat back.

But then, having read the latest entry at Slate Star Codex, where I read, last week, about “cost disease,” I sat up. Scott Alexander (not, apparently his real name, quite), the keeper of the blog, compiled a series of extracts from the comment thread to the cost disease entry. I am not a fan of comment threads, because there is too much incoming from too many left fields. But I felt obliged to see if any of the comments approximated my response (which I did not try to post as a comment at Slate Star Codex on Valentine’s Day (see above). Having read as many of the comments as I could absorb at one time, I went on to do something else, but in the evening it occurred to me that what I was seeing was a prototype of the committee that I have in mind. If readers were able to express their support for certain passages (with support by other commenters marked more emphatically), then a consensus might really be pursued.

This morning, I made my way to the end. Consensus was nowhere in sight, and my response was just as singular as the comments. That’s as it should be, initially. A hazard to bear in mind is that social committees might be clogged, even overwhelmed, by contributions designed more to attract support than to solve problems.

Two comments lingered in my mind. Someone registered as fc123, identifying himself as not a native-born American, argued that cost disease is attributable to “servicing and extending the definition of the marginal ‘customer’.” We try to help people with problems that used to doom them to neglect; fc123 suggests “the 85 year old with triple bypass, 20 week premie.” A few decades ago, it became imperative, more or less overnight, to provide wheelchair and other handicapped access to public facilities. I think about this extension of service quite often: is it worth the expense of five or six Remicade infusions a year (the cost of which is distributed to others through insurance) to spare me the pain of an auto-immune disease? Would the question sound different if I were 19 instead of 69?

The other response that reverberated came at the end of a comment by economic writer Megan McArdle.

A big part of the story is that America just isn’t very good at regulation. When you talk to people who live elsewhere about what their government does, one thing that really strikes you about those conversations is how much more competent other rich industrial governments seem to be at regulating things and delivering services. Their bureaucracies are not perfect, but they are better than ours.

That’s not to say that America could have an awesome big government. Our regulatory state has been incompetent compared to others for decades, since long before the Reagan Revolution that Democrats like to blame. There are many, many factors in this, from our immigration history (vital to understanding how modern urban bureaucracies work in this country), to the fact that we have many competing centers of power instead of a single unified government providing over a single bureaucratic hierarchy. There is no way to fix this on a national level, and even at the level of local bureaucratic reform, it’s darned near impossible.

When you talk to people who live elsewhere… when you do that, the odds are that those people are not living in an Anglophone legal climate. The legal philosophy that prevails in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, the United States might as well be Martian for all that it has in common with other legal systems. This is not the place to explain the differences; it’s enough to say that the Anglophone approach, which advertises itself as “adversarial,” probably gives defendants more of a fighting chance, which is great for innocent defendants. To continue with the clichés, we’re far more interested in seeing the better man win than we are in distinguishing right from wrong. Perhaps effective regulation is not really possible in such a legal climate. This isn’t to doom the Anglophones (although McArdle is right: fixing it is “darned near impossible”), but to wonder if perhaps Americans might study and adapt European regulatory models.


Friday 24th

A few thoughts about home cooking.

Until my generation, the craft of home cooking was handed down, mostly from mother to daughter, according to local usage or tradition. It was not given much thought. Some women were better at cooking than others, just like everything else, but the women who were good cooks upheld the traditions. They did not search out exotic recipes from faraway places. They did not familiarize themselves with foreign ingredients. They did not consider what they were doing, and wouldn’t have been rewarded for doing so if they had.

Home cooking had the objective of providing households with expected foods at expected times. For the most part, these expectations centered on nourishment, but there were cultural expectations, too — turkey at Thanksgiving, and so on. A husband who expected unusual things from his wife’s kitchen would have been as objectionable as his wife’s refusal to provide the usual.

In the two generations before mine, the commercial food producers — I would call them ‘food processors’ if that were not confusing — stressed convenience as a selling point. Basically, advertisers told housewives that it was stupid to take a lot of trouble making a dessert, say, when dumping the contents of a box of pudding mix into a pan of milk on the stove and stirring it for a few minutes would produce a reasonably tasty treat. These convenient products also tended to improve the meals served by all but the best home cooks. Women began to learn as much about cooking from advertisers (and newspaper food editors) as they did from their mothers.

Eventually, there was a reaction. A general judgment was made that, while it was permissible to serve an indifferent meal that had been made from scratch — without the help of convenient products — it was impermissible — unloving — to serve meals that, while marginally tastier, were industrially prepared. This was the end of traditional home cooking. From now on, many housewives, hooked on convenience, abandoned home cooking altogether, becoming the reheaters of fast food. Those who continued to cook, meanwhile, began to think about what they were doing.

At about the same time — a curious coincidence? — a fresh regiment of feminists argued that they were women first and housewives second. In the ensuing storm, it was recognized that thinking about what you were cooking was something that male cooks had been doing for centuries. These professional chefs worked for rich patrons; in more recent time, they ran restaurant kitchens. It was observed that they were generally rather, sometimes extremely, manly men. At least in those reaches of society that were familiar with feminists and good restaurants, it became all right for ordinary men to cook.

But what was the objective? For it was certainly not the provision of expected foods at expected times.

It’s hard for me to remember just why I took up cooking. I can think of three reasons. One, I was curious. Where do the holes in a slice of bread come from? Reasons two and three were intertwined. I liked to eat well; my mother didn’t like to cook. It is possible to cook well if you hate cooking, I suppose, but I think it fair to say that my mother’s dislike of cooking put a low upper limit on the tastiness of her dinners. She certainly knew what good food was, and she appreciated an array of dishes that she never attempted to make in her own kitchen. She might have been tempted to give curry a try if my father had not been as conservative as he was about food. He liked meat that was cooked in a broiler: steak, lamb chops, chicken. Occasionally, we had pork chops. I can’t even remember what the concessions to fish-on-Fridays were, but they definitely involved no fresh fish.

It would be wrong to say that I taught myself to cook so that I could host dinner parties, although within ten years of my first batch of whipped cream it was clear that hosting dinner parties was what kept me cooking. Ten years further on, however, hosting dinner parties got to be a bore. I had found my limits as an amateur chef and was no longer drawn to new heights. And assembling interesting parties became problematic when guests canceled at the last minute. The moral of this story was that I was not cut out to be an entertainer.

Twenty years further still, I found myself giving the occasional holiday dinner, while shambolically going about the business of everyday meals. There were many times when I wished that I had never taken up cooking. I had acquired a lot of skill, not to mention a formidable batterie de cuisine and a large cabinet of dinner plates, but no clear and distinct reason to use it.

Then we moved into an apartment with a larger kitchen, a kitchen with a window and two entrances. One of the doors connected the kitchen with the ell of the living room in which we stood our dining table. Even with the louvered doors shut, I could keep up with the dinner-table conversation. Over time, I rediscovered the joys of cooking. I developed a repertoire of dishes for two that enabled Kathleen and me to dine as well as if we were going out to nice neighborhood restaurants every night. (Given the damage that subway construction did to local businesses, restaurants included, there were some dishes that wouldn’t have been as good at local restaurants.)

By now, though, I was an old man. I moved slowly and rationed my energy. It was very, very important to think ahead, to plan and prepare. I am still learning how to do this . I gave a dinner party last Friday that was almost perfect. A slight bottleneck in the preparation of the main course kept me in the kitchen when I wanted to be at the table. I wrote a comprehensive memo about the meal, including notes that I made while prepping it, so that when I attempt the menu again — and there is no doubt about my doing that — I’ll have a good chance to work on that bottleneck, because I won’t have to think about anything else. (I even noted the china patterns used.) I am persuaded that my guests found the food to be delicious; as for me, I was challenged in just the right degree. Happy as I was, though, I had to ask:

Why did it take so long?


Monday 27th

After the Oscars, I needed something a little stronger than my nighttime tablet to calm me down. I had missed the moment of “epic flub” (Times) that spoiled the best-picture award, but that was a small mercy. When the producers of La La Land came on to accept the statuettes that weren’t, it turned out, intended for them, I left the room for a break; when I came back, Kathleen was gasping. She told me what had happened; I was transfixed by horror. Not because the mistake was so embarrassing but because it seemed that Donald Trump was already exacting his revenge.

All evening long, I was upset by the naïveté of Hollywood people — people claiming to be addressing an audience of millions around the world; but, even if this were true, it was an audience of self-selecting viewers who thought it would be cool to watch an awards presentation that lasted nearly four hours. True, Hollywood commands the power of vision. But it is a power that is more easily trumped by the power of coercion than Americans, who have not had much recent experience of the latter unless they are black, appear to grasp. Early in the evening, host Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about a “5 AM bowel movement.” It seemed insanely provocational to me.

In his Times column this morning, Paul Krugman exhorts all of us in “civil society” to resist and protest government by an administration that he denounces as illegitimate and unworthy. In other words, he sounds exactly like the commentators who screeched against Barack Obama for eight years. And no more than they does he have a plan for healing the rift in civil society, a rift that has been widening since the Sixties, between Americans uncomfortable with racial equality and Americans deluded by the notion that shaming eases discomfort.

I am waiting for that plan. Without it, protests are just ill-behaved noise, just more-of-same. Without it, Trump wins. His point all along, after all, is that we haven’t got a plan. We’ve just redistributed the goodies. Under the banner of Diversity, we have disenfranchised the men (and the women who love them) who used to regard themselves as the backbone of the nation. That may have been a good thing to do, or not, but in neither case was it politically responsible.

I want something more than the loudness of my anger and the righteousness of my indignation to address the people on the other side of the abyss. I want something other than anger and indignation to offer to them. Anger and indignation I reserve for the people on my side, the people whose hearts are in the right place but whose minds shirk the tedious homework of making America great by making it one, unum — and not “again,” but for the first time.