Archive for the ‘Gotham Diary’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Grandfather
19 February 2013

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

When Will was an infant, and then a toddler, I thought that the most exciting thing that could happen to me next would be his calling me “Doodad,” the name that I had chosen, and that had been approved by family councils, as the name that he would be brought up to call  me. I was wrong on two counts. First of all, he started out by calling me “Dadoo,” and I was afraid that this would stick, although his parents, I must point out with profound gratitude, never went with it. Eventually, he did call me “Doodad,” but I was mystified by the lack of personal satisfaction for me that his doing so entailed.

Second of all, I never guessed what it would be like when he said, as he said this morning, “You are my grandfather.” Will is old enough now to be analytical about things, and I realized that his acknowledging me as his grandfather was very like his speaking of his parents by their proper names, “Megan” and “Ryan,” as though these were secrets; he knows perfectly well that he’s not supposed to use them. Later, I would  laugh to myself — I am preternaturally this kind of humorist — at how the recognition scene might be read melodramatically. Picture Elizabeth McGovern in Tune In Tomorrow: “Only now do I find that this nice old man whom I took to be a friendly neighbor who was always there for us is [she spits]— my grandfather.” As though “Doodad” had been meant to conceal a horrible truth. Very funny. But of course that’s not how Will meant it and it’s not how I felt it. You’re my grandfather, he said, fixing our relationship in the most absolute terms conceivable. I burst with something like pride. It was like pride insofar as he was calling me his grandfather. It was unlike pride in that I felt unworthy of the role. As I believe anyone, presented with a grandson as magnficent as Will, would feel.

Pride, shmide. I’m the luckiest man in the world. Certainly one of the two luckiest grandfathers.

Gotham Diary:
Noah’s Drunkenness
18 February 2013

Monday, February 18th, 2013

At Fairway, it was almost Sunday. My sole New Year’s resolution was not to go to Fairway on Sunday, and I’ve stickled on it. I forgot that today is a holiday — an honorary Sunday, so far as the madness at Fairway is concerned. I have lived in this neighborhood for more than thirty years, so I find myself asking, where do these crazy people come from? — these abstracted men and women who look like New Yorkers but who behave like suburbanites. Where is the charitable society that will protect us all from the miserable clutter of children in strollers? When will patrons look elsewhere for charming bazaars that are hospitable to companionate shopping? More than any emporium I’ve ever been in, Fairway is a military supply center. You go in, get what you need, and get out, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. If you’re lucky, the produce section is free of gridlock. If you’re lucky, the closing elevator door does not heave into reverse because some omedhaun couldn’t wait to press the button. If you’re lucky, there are no vacant middle-aged dingleberries holding someone else’s shopping basket in the middle of an aisle. You can count on not being lucky on Sunday.

And what is it with the management at Thomas’s? Why do they continue to turn out volume packages of the dinky original English muffins when it’s obvious that everyone wants the sandwich size, introduced about thirty years ago but still hard to get? Second New Year’s resolution: send a message. Never buy the small muffins just because the large ones (perfect for sandwiches) are unavailable. Spread the word that small ones are toxic, or were Hitler’s favorite, or anything you can think of to discourage purchases of the damned things.

***

I’ve been reading the most extraordinary book, which I hope regular readers will recognize as not my way of hailing a fave. What Art Is is the latest addition to Arthur Danto’s shelf of books about art. Danto is a philosopher in his late 80s who took up art criticism (notably for The Nation) in the early Eighties, and there’s something about him that I’ve always liked, even though I have no use for philosophy, and the current book completely mystifies me. In small part, I’m mystified because there are passages that I can’t quite parse. Writing up Descartes, Danto asks,

Can I be certain of anything whatever? The answer is yes. If I am always mistaken, I must at least be thinking that to be the case that is not.

This is infelicitous at best; it’s unwise, speaking English, to put so much weight on a term (“that”) that doubles as a relative pronoun. But I am largely mystified by the urge to philosophize. I don’t understand it at all. I understand why people do all sorts of things that I don’t want to do — drive race cars, bake clafoutis, balance stock portfolios, jump from planes; the list is endless, because there really aren’t that many things that I want to do. The world would be a very strange place if I couldn’t imagine other people’s interests — especially as one of the things that do like to do, read, presents such an endless range of activities. But with every year I understand philosophy less. I cannot understand the urge to press beyond what seems to be the case in search of what is the case, especially if, as the history of thought suggests, that search is bound to end in error. I should prefer to develop better ideas of what seems to be the case, and leave what is to God (including, of course, God, who certainly does not seem to be the case). The only sense that I can make of the urge to “do philosophy” is to see philosophy as an early version of Grand Theft Auto. A game, in short, with twists and turns that are very exciting to the adept, and that also calls for wellsprings of paranoia about what’s “really” going on.

Danto claims not to be an art historian, a truth embodied in nearly every page of his book, which continually uses the historical data of “art history” — he begins with the revolution wrought by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Fountain — to unseat the rather obvious proposition that “art” is a profoundly Western concept, intimately tied to the contingencies of European history (Christianity in general and its power structures in particular) since, roughly, the Tenth Century; and to reject the corresponding notion that aesthetically charged objects from other cultures, especially those of East Asia, do not constitute the same kind of thing. Danto wants a definition of art that, with an abandon surprising in a philosopher, reeks of local historicity:

This book is intended mostly to contribute to the ontology of Art, capitalizing the term that it applies to widely — really to everything that members of art world deem worthy of being shown and studied in the great encyclopedic museums.

A stupefyingly provincial view! The ontology of art — the study of what art is, pointedly not the study of recognizing art when you see it (that’s epistemology, we’re told, or connoisseurship) — rests on the taste of the art-world elite, of the moment. In other words, what art is, is everything in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much as I adore that institution, my visits there have sharpened quite the opposite view. Most of what the Museum holds is not art, but it helps me to recognize the few things that are. But then, I am not a big-tent kind of guy. And I don’t begin to see the point of statements such as this: “Only that which belongs to all of art belongs to art as Art.”

***

In a gripping, if no less hard-to-follow discussion of the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling (of which he disapproves), Danto focuses on the artist’s narrative plan for the nine “pictures” (which, fascinated by Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, Danto presents as a doubling, as a single picture — the ceiling — of nine pictures — the narrative tableaux), and dwells on the last of the panels, which features the drunkenness of Noah, a Biblical event to which I hadn’t given much thought. Whatever I think of Danto’s philosophy, I am completely sold on his discussion of Michelangelo’s design, which in his view establishes the need for an incarnate saviour.

Possibly Noah, drunk and naked, implies the ineradicable weakness of human beings — after all, Noah, who was regarded as the one worth saving, is in the end a bad lot. Catastrophes, if there is to be any human remnant, are insufficiently radical solutions to the problem of human badness, and only the miracle of salvation is capable of overcoming the sins of our endowed substance. So the story that begins with creation ends with the need to intervene in history in a new way, by god himself taking on the attributes of the flesh and being reborn through suffering.

That’s the sort of thing that makes me pick up whatever Danto publishes. Genesis itself, however, suggests a different, if not incompatible, interpretation. Chapter 9 is taken up with God’s promise never to wreak another deluge; it is a second covenant with mankind (the first having been imposed on Adam). The last ten verses, in which Noah’s drunkenness is fleetingly mentioned, have a very tacked-on look to my eyes; I read them, and their curse of the Canaanites, as if I can see the Babylonian redactors slipping them into place here. (The Canaanites were cursed because Noah was pissed off that his son, Ham, dared to look at him when he was drunk and naked; the Canaanites descended from him. His brothers, Shem and Japhet, contrived to clothe their father with a cloth that they carried backwards, faces averted. It is the Bible at its most pruriently prudish. We’re at liberty imagine the real reasons for cursing the Canaanites.)

***

In today’s Metropolitan Diary, the Times published a report, by someone who lives in my neighborhood, about the funeral mass said at St Joseph’s Church, which I can see from my window, for a homeless man who used to camp out at the southeast corner of 87th and Second. I’m pretty sure that that’s who Lee Eisenberg is talking about; the homeless man who had a shopping cart and a dog and who nestled in a nook at the far end of the Food Emporium downstairs. Shorty, the dog, reportedly seated in the front pew at the funeral, has presumably acquired more comfortable digs since the death of Jose Perez. I always used to feel terribly sorry for the dog — what a boring life, tethered to a cart in a dark corner. I felt sorry for its owner, too, although I never gave him any money or in any way acknowledged him. I can understand running for office or driving a subway train or even writing for an advertising agency, but I can’t understand living in the street (even if only by day). My instinct is that it ought to be illegal; my urbanity counsels against butting in. Two hundred people attended Jose Perez’s funeral — to them, he was as much a part of the neighborhood as, say, the butchers at Schaller & Weber. (He seems to have been a personable man.) I am left in a tension: either my charity is limited, or charity — which Jose Perez never solicited — doesn’t come into it. Perhaps, if I were a philosopher, I would know what to think. But I’m not.

Gotham Diary:
Bluffing
15 February 2013

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Often, when Kathleen goes off on a business trip, or to spend the weekend with her father and her brother in North Carolina, I fade into an inert silence. It wasn’t so this past week, however; I was very busy with the mess in the blue room. So it was only upon her return that I collapsed — a combination of excitement at having her back, a late video (Arbitrage) and a few drops too many BV Rutherford cab. I collapsed into the arms of John Kenney, author of a new novel, Truth in Advertising. Someone was touting it somewhere on the Internet, and for once, I bit. 

Truth in Advertising belongs to the family of novels, currently headed by Dave Eggers’s A Hologram For the King, about bluffers — men who lack both the concrete agricultural, artisanal, or military skills of their fathers, and the professional training of their brothers. Longer and more richly rounded than Hologram, Truth in Advertising shares its foundation of dread and its overlay of satire. Both books are funny and terribly unnerving, sometimes simultaneously. The narrator’s situation is precarious in each. The looming danger seems less a crushing catastrophe than a fatal becalmment: these are lives like sailing ships far out at sea, in dwindling winds.

Kenney’s hero is Finbar Dolan, a Manhattan advertising copywriter with misgivings about his own abilities and a troubled family history. He has commitment issues, having broken off an engagement six months earlier and then covertly fallen in love without daring to acknowledge it to himself. He’s suave and charming, not that he has to work at either, but his life is stalling on the eve of his fortieth birthday. What recharges it is a ramped-up schedule imposed by his boss, a taskmaster who doesn’t seem to like him, and then, the insanely rushed production of a Super Bowl commercial. With smothered desperation and a vivid fantasy life, Fin struggles to make the most of what feel like last chances. Meanwhile, Fin’s father, from whom he and his siblings have long been estranged (they are bareless less estranged from each other), turns up in a Cape Cod hospital, unconscious after a heart attack. Kenney adeptly weaves his protagonist’s development from these threads, with a warp of unresolved childhood secrets and a weft of sparkling but very dry Madison-Avenue satire. The settings are assured, and the narration easily brilliant.  

So you try. You throw yourself into it. You learn. You learn the difference between writing and shooting. You learn the difference between how you hear a line of dialogue and how an actor says a line of dialogue. The line you thought was so funny turns out to be hackneyed and expected. Later, in the edit room, the takes you thought were great turn out to be not so great. You try harder next time, work longer on the script, on cutting the superfluous, on saying it better, funnier, more … real. You read plays and screenplays. You study them. You try to understand how they work. You take a writing class at the 92nd Street Y. You see plays at an off-Broadway theater. You read the scripts of award-winning commercials. You realize that advertising, at its best, tells a story. It closes the gap between the thing being sild and the person watching. The really good work, done by the best people, makes you feel something. It tells the truth. It elevates the business, transcends a mere ad to something better, more valuable. It connects with another human being, breaks through the inanity and noise to find something essential and real and lasting. Like art. Not always. Not often. But sometimes. You have seen it done. You have admired the people who do it. And you have come to the conclusion, in spot after mediocre spot, that you are not that good.

Except that John Kenney himself is. I heartily recommend Truth in Advertising.

Gotham Diary:
Conniptions
14 February 2013

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

It’s Valentine’s Day, but I have yet to see my wife. My dear Kathleen woke up in Florida this morning, flew to New York, and went straight to the office. She’s still there. I’m wondering what we’re going to have for dinner. Rib steak, definitely. Smashed new potatoes, absolutely — have to try that out! Are you with me? Did you read the Times yesterday? (What a provincial question, I know.) Did you see Melissa Clark’s expandable holiday menu, suitable for two and multiples of two? I haven’t made up my mind about the mousse yet — the mousse that’s just bittersweet chocolate and water, melted and then whisked over ice. Probably won’t do it, on the theory that Kathleen has given up chocolate for Lent, as usual. The real reason, though, is that I’ve had two conniptions today, and I’m exhausted.

The second conniption was about the rib steak. At Agata & Valentina yesterday, I asked the butcher — a new face — to saw one of their hefty rib steaks in half, making two thinner ones. When I got home, I threw the package into the freezer, because I couldn’t be sure what would happen this evening. (Kathleen was supposed to come home last night, but stayed overnight because of storm-induced delays.) I ought to have checked first, though, because the young man neglected to slip a sheet of butcher’s paper between the two steaks, so that I had to hack them apart this afternoon — not pretty.

The first conniption, which took place in two sessions, was induced by Readerware. I don’t want to talk about it. I dislike everything about Readerware except the bar code function, which is a dream, and the Help section. I loathe the Help section. It is a million times worse than utterly useless, which is why I don’t want to talk about it. Also, it’s time to cook dinner. It’s time to cook dinner because I’ve spent the afternoon uploading CDs onto iTunes (so that I can slip the discs into paper sleeves and chuck the jewel boxes, saving lots of room) and reading a delightfully sour novel, Truth in Advertising, by John Kenney. I don’t know why Crawford Doyle didn’t carry it; the book is a slam dunk for our demographic. (Did I say that right?) But they ordered it for me and now I have it. I’d much much rather read it than clean up the table and set it for dinner. But! It’s Valentine’s Day, and Kathleen will be home in an hour, and — OMG, I forgot to uncork the wine.

Gotham Diary:
Cover Story
13 February 2013

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

After I paid the bills, the other day, I stuffed the parts that you keep “for your records” into the “February” folder, removing last year’s batch, which I culled for shredding. With the February 2012 bills to be saved in hand, I went looking for the January 2012 bills, which I new to be near a manila folder containing the saved bills from 2011. But I couldn’t find them. I still haven’t found them. I’ve looked just about everywhere. I’ve opened each and every rattan storage box big enough to hold them, but in vain.

Of course, I’ve found a lot of other things, especially things to get rid of. Sometime late last year, I decided to stop saving New Yorker covers. And I did. But I didn’t bother to throw away the piles that I’d been saving for years. Several rattan boxes were filled with them. They made quite a stack, well over a foot high — and I’m sure there are more somewhere. Before pitching the lot, I decided to spend a few minutes running through them, to see if there were any that I really really wanted to save. Typically, I held on to two covers that, as official art prints, hang on the walls of the apartment, the famous “New Yorkistan” cover by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz — because I acted now, I have one of the limited-edition blow-ups, signed by both the artist and the writer. I also have Jorge Columbo’s cover for 21 September 2009, which features buildings and water towers in evening silhouette, with a plane flying in the distance (perhaps it is meant to be dawn). I bought the “art” version of that from Jen Bekman’s 20X200 project. Which means that I should just get rid of the actual covers, right? You don’t know me!

About halfway through the stack, I began to notice that Barack Obama was making frequent appearances. Going back to the bottom of the pile, I gathered a collection of twelve, not all of which show the president. There is Michelle Obama on the fashion runway (16 March 2009), and the pillars of the south portico of the White House painted in LGBT rainbow colors (21 May 2012), and Bo on the front lawn (27 April 2009). There is the figure of a man, seen from the rear, approaching the White House through the snow, tramping past drifts of red and blue leaves. Those are “honorary” Obama covers. The real ones in my possession are

  • Obama walking on water (1 February 2010)
  • Obama as George Washington (26 January 2009)
  • Obama welcoming Santa (14 December 2009)
  • Obama interviewing dogs — Bo not shown (8 December 2008)
  • Obama and Boehner (15 November 2010)
  • Barack and Michelle, outfitted to suggest terrorists (21 July 2008)

and

  • Obama and Hillary as Eustace Tilley, playing-card bashion (11 & 18 February 2008)
  • Obama and Hillary in bed, reaching for red phone (17 March 2008)

Ms NOLA straightened me out on that last one, the date of which I’d initially overlooked. I took the red phone to be the line from Putin, announcing War. How quickly we forget.

The other day, my friend Jean wrote in praise of The New Yorker‘s high-quality consistency.

Le New Yorker est un régal aussi bien pour les yeux que par la lecture des articles et la nouvelle hebdomadaire. Rien n’a changé dans la conception du New Yorker depuis 1925. Ni la typographie, ni la maquette. Et pourtant c’est un magazine toujours moderne, à la pointe de l’actualité avec ce recul nécessaire et cette légère ironie qui en fait tout le sel. La couverture est une oeuvre d’art chaque semaine, un objet de collection ainsi qu’un hommage aux illustrateurs. Sempé et François Avril y contribuent de temps en temps. La lecture du New Yorker sur le web ne remplacera jamais l’expérience de feuilleter son édition papier ou sur iPad (qui imite à la perfection l’édition papier).

I had to post a comment to the effect that, when I began reading the magazine, in 1962, there was no Table of Contents, and you had to find the end of a piece to find out who wrote it. Also: no photographs. One thing that I didn’t mention was that covers, at least during the Shawn years (the first forty-odd of my life), covers were never topical. Seasonal, yes, but topical, no. Presidents from Kennedy through Bush I simply did not appear on the cover of The New Yorker. Nor did other celebrities.

Now, it never crosses my mind that The New Yorker that I’m reading today isn’t the same magazine, essentially, that I was reading in my teens. But because there has never been anything remotely like it, considerable changes have been introduced without affronting too many sensibilities. But the shift in covers, once Tina Brown and Art Spiegelman took over, really was shocking. I was repelled by more than a few, reduced to mumbling the Times’s formula about “family” publications. Even though David Remnick’s régime has quieted things down a bit, I find that I’ve fallen into the habit of trying to decode each week’s cover before I’ve even taken it in. Sometimes I get them right away, sometimes I don’t. Quite often, I long for the good old days. Today’s covers are never, ever as clever as Saul Steinberg’s.  

The Obama covers, taken as a whole, are good-humored but steadily satirical: “We like this guy, but we know he doesn’t read us.”

Twelve! In five years! 

***

Ms NOLA straightened me out about the red-phone cover when I called her to tell her about the 12! covers. I never call Ms NOLA in the evening just to chat, but had to make contact. She said that she was watching The State of the Union. Oh, with Spencer Tracy? I asked. No, with Barack Obama, she laughed. The State of the Union address. I had a momentary sense of living in an alternative universe, because in fact I do. Watching the State of the Union is a perfectly normal thing for an educated American to do, but I wouldn’t tune in unless I thought the world was coming to an end, and maybe not even then. I have become so dishabituated to television that I think of it, when I think of it, as a kind of primitive video game. A fun thing to do when I was young, but, as with smoking, I’m glad that I gave it up a long time ago.

Gotham Diary:
Working House
12 February 2013

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

When did I stop playing house? When I lost the inability to see through closet and cabinet doors. When I could still pretend that visible order authorized hidden confusion. When I no longer viewed my habitation as if I were the photo editor of a shelter magazine. That’s when I stopped playing house; that’s when I began working house.

A working household is everything at once: refuge, workplace, tea room, gallery, wardrobe. (Once upon a time, it was also a farm; now it might include a garden.) It is an expression of the person who runs it, visible as it may be to visitors.

The household is a unit, and this is new. Until now, pernicious distinctions have been made between the different parts of the home, each addressed by specialists in that area, be it cooking, sewing, decorating, designing, cleaning, or managing clothes and personal hygiene. At the back of those distinctions stood the ghosts of servants, men and women assigned to work in the various departments of the stately homes of the wealthy. Such specialization is now neither possible nor desirable. There are no servants, and, as appliances become ever more sophisticated, there is less and less need for them. Nor ought householders act like their own servants, running their kitchens as if they were cooks (trained in “home economics”) or cleaning their bathrooms as if they were janitors. Yes, meals must be prepared and toilets kept clean, but the work is not to be approached as if by a “specialist” — someone whose job it is to do such things. There are no specialties in householding. The householder must do everything. And I ought to know: I’m the compleat householder, a reader and writer who works at home.

I could argue that reading and writing are more important than cooking or cleaning. You would have to agree with me, because if it were not for my writing and your reading you would not be aware of this problem of mine — which I am trying to transform into something that is not a problem. Certainly a man in my socio-economic position, relatively speaking, would not have been expected to think about cooking and cleaning a century or even fifty years ago. The demarcation between the life of the mind and the drudgery of the mop was clear to everyone, and the worlds were as separated as castes.

(Somewhat awkwardly, I must acknowledge the very different, and thoroughly mixed — demarcation-free — experience of women who would be in my position but for the want of a Y chromosome. Such women have been my inspiration: “having at all” is a more realistic goal than (and just as rich as) climbing to the top of the tree in one of the myriad compartments of traditional masculine life, where men in my position are all specialists in something or other, and non-working life is distributed among “interests.” I have learned from women to aim for seamlessness.)

For a long time, I did so argue — that reading and writing were more important than the other things. But this didn’t work for me. My reading was scattershot and my writing inconclusive. Whenever I approached writing professionally (and I have never actually earned a penny from my writing), I dried up. Somehow, reading and writing are things that must share a plane with cooking and cleaning in order to take a point. I must write from where I live. And if I’m slacking on the cooking on the cooking and cleaning, where I live is not a great place to be.

More recently, I have wondered if my vocation — what I have been called to do, in the manner of a priest — is to discover a way of writing compellingly, and for the humane reader, about householding in all of its detail. Not, in other words, as an encyclopedia of “tips,” to be consulted in need. Just the opposite: as the study of overview of connection and interplay. How to tell, for example, what you’re going to want to prepare (and eat!) for dinner, given the kind of day ahead. How to sail into the duller household jobs with a brimming, sparkling imagination. How to live in a library. How to balance the very conflicting demands, which lie at the core of householding, of frugality and generosity. How to get away with delegating as much work as possible to appliances, information technologies (paying bills online, for example), and professional services (the dry cleaner comes to mind) — and making as much time for reading, writing, and other forms of examination as possible. Pray, do not dismiss “reading, writing, and other forms of examination” as some eccentric pursuit of mine. It is the stuff of every professional life, from lawyers to neuroscientists.

To alter Rilke: You must order your life.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Home Alone
11 February 2013

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Kathleen is in Miami, as you’ll see in a minute. Well, Hollywood. Là-bas. It was sunny here when she left, and cloudy down there. It is still a bit cloudy down there, but here it is is so overcast that lamps must be turned on during the day. A perfect day for appreciating the sadness, totally American in tone but darkly Russian in depth, of George Saunders’s new book, The Tenth of December. I was going to write about it, and I shall.

But I came home from one errand and, before going out for the other, checked the computer — against my better judgment. I do have to go out again. But my eyes will have to dry first, after tears of surprise and joy and pride. Perfectly silly: nothing remarkable happened. But Kathleen forwarded a clip of today’s NYSE opening bell, which was sent in from a remote location — Hollywood (FL). That’s where Kathleen is attending the “6th Annual Inside ETFs” conference. And there she is, front and center — in pink; you can’t miss her. Words fail in the heat of admiration. More than most, I know how much work and uncertainty and sheer grit went into her being able to stand there — as any decent husband would. But instead of making her achievement familiar, knowing it makes her superb.

Now I have to run the other errand.

***

Lots of people find George Saunders funny. He claims to want to make people laugh. I used to laugh. You know, I used to think that The Carol Burnett Show was funny. But, watching some of the great shows, recently — whole shows, not just excerpted gems on the order of Went With the Wind — I found myself laughing less and less, and the shows blaring more and more caustically. What a bunch of very unhappy women Carol Burnett played! (Including the take-off on her own mother, “Eunice.”) Reading George Saunders now, a little more than ten years after reading the title story from Pastoralia the first time, almost brings me to tears. The parts that used to be funny are now terribly pathetic. Saunders is an even greater writer than I thought he was.

I’m working my way through Tenth of December, the new collection. One story at least, “Victory Lap,” I read in The New Yorker — it was one of the last stories that I read in that magazine’s fiction department, before deciding that the advance taste wasn’t worth the price of ruining the freshness of a book (especially a novel). That was in 2009, and I didn’t get the story (which appears to have been altered, at least slightly). And I’m not sure that I really get it now. It doesn’t speak to me as powerfully as “Escape From Spiderhead” or “Al Roosten” or the story that I’m still in the middle of, “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” The latter two are heartbreaking studies of the American dream — which turns out to be a pipe dream. “Puppy” has elements of the same pathology. A character who doesn’t amount to much, who is in fact being crushed by economic mishaps, resolves to do something self-improving. “Learn guitar? Make a point of noticing the beauty of the world?” These resolutions give way immediately to intense, curlicued daydreams of a rosy future that’s certain, it seems for the moment, to follow.

Why not take kids to Europe? Kids have never been. Have never, in Alps, had hot chocolate in mountain café, served by kindly white-haired innkeeper, who finds them so sophisticated/friendly relative to usual snotty/rich American kids (who always ignore his pretty but crippled daughter w/ braids) that he shows them secret hiking path to incredible glade, kids frolic in glade, sit with crippled pretty girl on grass, later say it was the most beautiful day of their lives, keep in touch with crippled girl via email, we arrange surgery here for her, surgeon so touched that he agrees to do surgery for  free, she is on front page of our paper, we are on front page of their paper in Alps?

The question mark at the end is simply priceless. It’s as though the narrator were on the drip in “Escape From Spiderhead,” gorging on some reveriferous intravenous cocktail.

***

At lunch, I read Adam Gopnik’s piece about Galileo, in the current New Yorker. He says something terribly good about Aristotle, calling him

one of those complete thinkers, of the Heidegger or Ayn Rand kind, whose every thought must be true even if you can’t show why it is in this particular instance: it explains everything except anything.

So far as hard, physical science goes, I couldn’t agree more. On the humanities, Aristotle exhibited a sane and sound psychology that has the virtue, for us now, of highlighting continuities in human nature over an abyss of technological change. (We respond to tragedy pretty much as Aristotle says we do, whether or not that’s how Sophocles’s audiences did.) I can only hope that nobody (save scholars) will be reading Heidegger or Rand in fifty years, much less two thousand.

Gotham Diary:
Crunch
8 February 2013

Friday, February 8th, 2013

This will be brief. I had a very big day yesterday, on the go almost every minute. In the late afternoon, after a round of errands, I cleared some furniture out of the way for an evening session with Jason, the omnicompetent tech manager. Although I had a laundry list of niggling computer problems, each and every one of which he solved, I’d really asked Jason to come help me move the stereo amplifier (and its wires) from one side of the blue room to the other. In another room, I might do the job myself, but the blue room is where the cable and the router and, ipso facto, my connection to the rest of the world are hooked up, and I don’t mess with wires in here without adult supervision. I asked Ray Soleil to be on hand as well. “Do you really need me?” he asked. I really did, in the event, but I told him to think of himself as the anaethesiologist. (To complete this analogy, Jason would of course be the surgeon, the blue room the patient, and I the tumor.)

Jason even managed to get the Ion Tape Express to work. What this little device does is to tranform the contents of old cassette tapes into iTunes files. I have held on to more than fifty cassettes from the old days, all of it stuff that hasn’t been replaced on CD. For example: Janet Baker singing four Strauss songs, Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, and Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder. The recording was made in 1971, when Baker was an established artist in England seeking to widen her audience. Within a few years, she would be recording a lot of Berlioz with Colin Davis, and of course the English music that was finally beginning to gain an international audience. It’s no wonder that her recording of three German chestnuts was never reissued (in toto) on CD. But I have never in my life heard a more ecstatic, luxuriant Traüme. The tape is old and the pitch a bit wobbly, but the beauty of the performance still shines through. I’m thrilled to have it again.

That was the second tape to be transcribed; I oversaw it after dinner with Ray. The first tape, which I chose for my iunsuccessful attempt to get the Ion Express going, was “Renaissance Dances,” a collection of pieces ranging from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries, and one of the very first Odyssey releases. Odyssey was Columbia’s budget classical label; it was used for unusual European recordings, many from behind the Iron Curtain. The dances were recorded by the Ancient Instrument Ensemble of Zürich. I ought to remember the year in which it came out, but the best I can do is “circa 1970.” The recording itself is of course a few years older, dating probably from 1960-1965, when the “original instrument” movement was getting serious, but still a bit style-free. The sound of an ancient estampie tootling out on a distinctly unsonorous portatif organ, with the wobbly pitch of old tape, nearly turned Jason green. I chuckled; that’s exactly how most of the people I knew responded to the recording forty-odd years ago. I never played that side of the LP much myself (yes, of course I had this record on LP first, and then on cassette), but I was in love with the pavanes on the second side. Now they sound rather naive — much as stews made from recipes of that time taste almost unseasoned.

***

So today, I was good for nothing but the movies, and I went to see Side Effects, which is dandy but totally undiscussable; I won’t say a word! Except that I seem to remember recognizing Polly Draper, who plays Rooney Mara’s boss, by the sound of her voice, before I even saw her. That may not have been the case (because it may not have been possible). If you’ve seen the trailer — I’d seen it a few times — you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in the movie, but not why. Steven Soderbergh has made such a frightfully elegant movie that it’s conceivable that people will one day speak of his work as they speak of Hitchcock’s.  The supporting cast includes such delights as Mamie Gummer and Laila Robins, and also an actor new to me, but cresting with authority, Michael Nathanson. Celia Tapia is also someone to watch for. The three-and-a-half principals are incredibly engaging.

There’s an interesting moment, early on, when Jude Law’s profile is dwelt on in shadow, almost a silhouette. It’s jarring — it doesn’t look like him. But then nothing in Side Effects is what it seems.

Gotham Diary:
Workways
7 February 2013

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

The recent biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga was not on my reading list. I’m far more interested in the social expression of fashion than I am in the strange people who make fashionable things. But I’m glad that Dot McCleary persuaded me to buy a copy yesterday, when I dropped in to Crawford Doyle to see if they had Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s book about her husband’s grandmother, The Eye Must Travel (they did). “No pressure!” she whispered when I said that I’d take it — all but acknowledging my gently twisted arm. Dot spoke highly of Mary Blume, the IHT reporter and author of The Master of Us All: Balenciaga: His Workrooms, His World. I should have been impervious to the invitation to buy had I not noticed, in recent readings, that, of all the great coutouriers of the last century, Balenciaga stands out as, indeed, the master. A great designer, he was also a highly-skilled sempster, obsessed with the cut of sleeves in a way that had nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with fit. Blume’s deployment of “workrooms” in her subtitle hooked me.

I happen to know a couturière, as well as her favorite client, who happens to be Ms NOLA. You can always tell when Ms NOLA is wearing something that her mother made for her, because it suits her figure in a way that off-the-rack clothes couldn’t. Even a guy with no “fashion sense” whatever would be at least dimly aware of something special. The dresses are always quietly stylish, and would be light-years beyond Ms NOLA’s budget if she had to buy them. They give her that slightly miraculous appearance that Audrey Hepburn has in her gamine roles — how did that girl acquire that wardrobe? But even without the unmistakable glamour, Mom’s dresses are beautiful clothes. Fashion, as I say, has nothing to do with it. (Well, a little, maybe.)

Blume’s book is very much about the serious practice of a craft, and it hardly mentions the extraordinary planetary motions of dress style during Balenciaga’s long career. (He closed his house in 1968.) Since the designer himself was the most private of men, our window on his working world is one of his vendeuses, Florette Chelot — the first person he hired when he set up a studio in Paris in 1936.  (The vendeuses were the staff members who sold dresses to their own clients, in competition for commissions, “a horrible way to make a living,” as one of them put it.) Blume got to know this warm but dedicated woman in her later years, and Chelot’s portrait of her boss is admiring but not uncritical. Balenciaga himself seems to have been an expert, if somewhat paranoid, businessman; the Madrid branch kept his models on American women throughout World War II. He launched Courrèges, and provided Givenchy with top craftspeople when the younger man opened his house, but he could well afford such generosity.) For anyone interested in how things are done in the world, The Master of Us All is an engrossing read.

Genius for couture aside, Balenciaga belonged to a familiar type of uneducated but deeply pious Spaniard. As a Basque, he might have been expected to grow up with leftist political sympathies, but his underlying conservatism found harmony in working for the Spanish grandees who began summering in San Sebastián, near Balenciaga’s birthplace, in the latter Nineteenth Century, and who patronised his mother, at whose knee his skill announced itself. (His very last dress was made for Franco’s great-granddaughter.) By lights that we no longer find entirely attractive, Balenciaga was an honorable man, and his first commitment was to his craft. As biographical subjects go, he is fairly rebarbative. But, thanks to Chelot, Blume is able to create a vibrant impression of bygone workways.  

As well as a bygone way of wealth. One customer with whom Florette got to be good friends was Cécile de Rothschild.

Florette and Cécile shared a passion for gardening and all her life Florette kept a set of gardening tools Cécile had given her. She also gave Florette an insight into the lives of the very rich. “I was always very open with her, more than with the Baroness Alain because she had her outspoken ways. One day I said to her how can you and your friends spend a fortune on a dress that you wear only once, and you aren’t even that clothes-mad. For me it’s fine because it’s how I earn my living, but it seems a little outlandish. She said, Florette, you don’t rrealize that with the life we lead — the servants, the houses, the upkeep — the money we spend on clothes is just a drop in the bucket.

“I had never thought of that,” Florette said.

Gotham Diary:
Lounging
6 February 2013

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Ray Soleil and I went to the Museum this afternoon. We saw the Matisse show and the Bellows show. Ray had seen both already; I’d seen the latter. The best thing about the Matisse show was the collection of three paintings of the same hotel room in Nice, written up very nicely at The Nation by Barry Schwabsky. The Bellows show is full of marvels, but they are not the images selected for postcards and other ephemera, so I left that exhibition’s mini gift shop empty-handed. We checked out a number of miscellaneous items, including a vitrine of Fabergé treats (none of them eggs) from which I’d have had a terrible time choosing a favorite to take home. Also a lovely sketchbook page by Lancret. (The vitality imparted by chalk in the hands of eighteenth-century French artists is always surprising.) In the gift shop, I bought a couple of tote bags, for the housing of my various foreign-language reading programs. The big excitement of the visit, though, was an hour spent in the new balcony lounge, which is open to some classes of members.

The big excitement was the sheer perversity, the deranged lunacy, of hanging out sipping drinks in a room that most airport designers would find unadventurous — everything grey, and nothing on the walls but paint — when we could have been looking at great art. But you have to do everything once. I came upon what turns out to be the back door of the lounge on a recent visit, and understood from the lettering on the door that I was not eligible to enter. But that turned out to be wrong, as I found when, for the second time, I was urged today by a nice lady handing out admission pins at the membership desk to check out the new balcony lounge. This time, I tried to open the door, but it was locked. There was a small panel with a red light mounted next to the door, and it occurred to Ray and to me at the same moment that I ought to try exposing my membership card to its faint beam — how I wish I had a photograph of that! When nothing happened (duh), I asked a nearby staffer how to get in, and she kindly directed me to go around and try the front door. The front door opened easily enough, and a woman seated at a long table gestured to see my membership card, which was, happily, intelligible to her. She wrote something down on in a notebook, and we were in! Not since the palmy days of Élan, the Houston night club right across the way from my father’s apartment, have I felt so elect. The balcony lounge! We had glimpsed it through the glass back door, but not until Ray and I were looking for a nice place to sit down did we hear the faint raspberry of utter underwhelmment.

We ordered drinks from a menu and looked around some more. “It’s a trial balloon,” I said. “If people come in  and use it, then maybe somebody will pull the sofas away from the wall and hang up some art to look at.” (Whoever set this room up has never really seen a painting by Matisse.) Museum publications, and three copies of the Times, were laid out for perusal, but the lack of decoration was as studied as it is in that room where the ageing astronaut breathes his last in 2001. It will be interesting to see what the lounge is like on Friday evenings in the summer, when the Roof Garden is hopping with smart young things out on the prowl. I envision a sort of sauna experience, going from the warm and sunny rooftop to the chilly bare lounge (or vice versa). The balcony lounge is a great idea — a clubby space where you can meet someone before a concert at Grace Rainey Rogers, or take a break from conducting out-of-towners on a comprehensive tour of the Museum. But, gosh, even Frank Campbell’s is cheerier.

The drinks were fine, though, and the staff’s attitude welcoming. Considering how strangely dead the Museum was today, the balcony lounge was doing a good business, with five or six other seatings occupied. I ought to make it clear, however, that the view in the photo at the head of this entry, showing the Kravis/Petrie Court (that’s the Museum’s second façade on the right), is not the view from the balcony lounge. There is no view from the balcony lounge. Only grey. 

Gotham Diary:
Exceptionalism
5 February 2013

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Toward the end of reading Jim Sterba’s new book, Nature Wars, I was stung by a self-recognition. Sterba was writing about feral cats, and how pet owners get very unhappy when they discover that their no-longer-wanted cats and dogs are unlikely to be adopted at animal shelters, and will probably be euthanized. They believe that someone ought to want their animal, even if they no longer do. Because the dog or the cat is still healthy and loveable, &c &c.

On a table in the blue room, there’s a small plastic basket loaded with stainless-steel flatware — knives, forks, and spoons, and also a host of measuring spoons. It’s all perfectly good, useful stuff, decently heavy and nicely decorated. But I don’t want it anymore; I’ve upgraded to better. Better measuring spoons, and much more stylish flatware. (Why, I like it even better than our silver!) Surely somebody wants my castoffs — there’s nothing wrong with them.

I take that back. It’s not evident to me that somebody wants my castoffs, as I’ve written recently about the collection of books that I call “my library.” So I’m not going to offer the stainless to the young people I know, who might know someone who’s just starting out, &c. I’m going to put it all in a shopping bag and take it to Goodwill on my way to lunch tomorrow. And that will be that.

But I remain stung, because, even if I know better, I rationalize my agreeable but strictly unnecessary houseware upgrades by assuring myself, in advance, that the serviceable items that I’m about to unload will find a welcome somewhere else. How generous of me to give them away!  

I’m sure that there are people in every culture who are afflicted with wobbly thinking of the foregoing stamp. But I wonder if, to the rest world, American culture itself appears to be deluded about the nature of its generosity.

***

Nature Wars is full of fun and a joy to read; I read about half of it aloud to Kathleen. It’s a reporter’s book, brimful with information but also tonally skeptical, as older reporters tend to be when they finally accept the sad fact that most people don’t share their passion to look into things. The drawback to the journalistic style, even when, as in Sterba’s hands, developments are chronologically traced, is a certain paleness in historical perspective. Sterba is writing about problems besetting Americans today — or, as in the case of Canada geese and Flight 1549, until quite recently. How we got here is of great interest to him, and he follows many pathways back through the wrinkles of time. But Nature Wars is indelibly a book about the transformation of the American landscape by a virulent plague of careless and forgetful human beings. Americans like to think that there is something in the land they inhabit that brings out the best in them. Maybe it does, but it certainly seems to have brought out the worst in their forebears. And Americans still don’t know how to pay attention; they can only obsess. Nature Wars is stuffed with enough evidence to make this case five times over, but it doesn’t interest the genial writer. He is content to show how American ideas about nature came into conflict with American housing preferences, and he does that very well.  

The big question at the outset of the book is this: why did nobody notice the reforestation of the Eastern seaboard while it was taking place? Farmers began abandoning New England in the early Nineteenth Century. Today, something like three quarters of American forests stand east of the Appalachians. As forests go, these Eastern woods are densely populated by animals and human beings alike — that’s the Nature Wars problem in a nutshell. Americans who know about Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon even before they visit have little or no idea that the oldest part of the country has reverted to the condition that it was in when it was the only part, if now with roads and houses. How come? Sterba draws an answer from Michael Williams’s Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography (1989).

So imagine what happened when farmland began to be abandoned to forest in the nineteenth century. To let precious land, cleared by backbreaking labor, go untended, unprotected from an invasion of trees, as the opposite of progress. As Michael Williams interpreted it, the process was “retrogressive, difficult to comprehend, and even sinful to contemplate.” It was an abdication of a farmer’s responsibility to be a good steward of the working landscape (although farmers themselves didn’t mind giving up scrub acreage), and as such it was largely ignored by government statisticians.

Step back for a moment, and you can see that American history went West. What happened back East ceased to matter; it even began to look suspiciously European. But, for all that farmers gave up on New England, the East was hardly abandoned. The population of the colonial states skyrocketed, and it remains both dense and high. The density, I surmise, is the problem; there’s something unamerican about density. New York may be a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Even if, from a strictly environmental point of view, it made the most sense, as indeed it does. (And there are millions of trees within the city limits, Sterba reminds us.) No, America is a nation of open spaces — where nobody lives. Go figure.

I do wish that Sterba had made more of the material that he has amassed showing that Walt Disney’s visions of nature and American life, bogus through and through, seem to have overwhelmed the more useful and correct views that one would hope to find taught in schools. That’s another problem, like the reforestation that Sterba examines so fruitfully, of which not many Americans seem to be aware. It’s a problem with education, I hasten to note, not a Disney problem. Disney is entertainment. Writing about the “denatured life” led by Americans today, out of touch (literally) with any kind of nature, Sterba touches the problem lightly:

What that meant was that early boomers were the last generation to be able to appreciate a nature presentation on film for what it was and not confuse it with the real world. They knew the difference from experience as subsequent generations could not. As a preboomer, I certainly did.  We farm kids of the late 1940s and 1950s put down our Porky Pig comic books and went out to slop the hogs. We watched Bugs Bunny on TV and then watched Dad shoot a rabbit and Mom skin and cook it for dinner. I watched Daffy Duck cartoons and also accompanied my uncle into the swamp come autumn to shoot green-headed mallards I dubbed “Daffy ducks.”

It isn’t just nature that has been denatured for Americans, but America itself. George Saunders does a fine (if disturbing) job of satirizing the results. It would be helpful for a reporter to anatomize them.

Not that I’m complaining!  

Gotham Diary:
The Classical Tradition
4 February 2013

Monday, February 4th, 2013

When The Classical Tradition was published two years ago, I picked up a hefty copy despite my fears that the book would sit on a shelf untouched — as indeed it has done until today.

I would get to it eventually, I told myself whenever my glance fell on its broad white spine. The editorial staff at The New York Review of Books must have felt the same way, because a review of The Classical Tradition appears in the current issue. Better late than never! Even as the book, a collection of essays by more than a hundred writers, bears the names of its three editors —Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, and Salvatore Settis — on the cover, so the review is signed by two critics, Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner (although only Greenblatt is named at the Review‘s web site); collaborations are easily held up by unforeseen developments. I for one am deeply grateful for the time lapse. The good reviews that accompanied publication in a more timely manner may have motivated me to buy the book, but they didn’t get me to read it. What made this good review potent enough to induce some heavy lifting (and heavy holding: do not try to read The Classical Tradition on your lap!) was the yeasty mulch of two years’ guilt. There was also the reek of smug bürgerlich contentment: why, I’ve had that book for ages! Let’s see if it’s what they say it is!

When I was done with the Times, I fetched the book and opened it to one of the sections of color plates. There were a few photos of antique sculptures, but most of the images were of objects created in post-medieval times. This didn’t really register. What registered was the presence of an essay on “Opera,” to which my hand idly turned the pages. There was, of course, no opera in the classical world, but modern opera was born of the attempt, first undertaken at the very end of the Sixteenth Century, to recreate Greek drama, which was thought to be sung, and not until Mozart’s maturity, two hundred years later, do we find a grand opera on a non-classical theme. (I’m thinking of Don Giovanni.) The older I get, the more essentially classical — true to the original baroque objectives — Verdi’s operas seem. Opera is fairly inconceivable without its foundations in the tragedies (and the comedies) of ancient Greece and Rome.

Robert Ketterer’s essay on opera focuses, reasonably enough, on the texts of operas, not the music. (There are few things in Western culture more detached from its classical antecedents than our music.) What kind of stories have been told, and with what degree of simplicity or complication? It was interesting to encounter this material, all of it very familiar to me, arranged in the perspective of “the classical tradition,” and I was able for the first time to grasp the relentlessness with which arguments for operatic “reforms” have always been grounded in appeals to (somewhat imaginary) classical standards. Metastasio (1698-1782), the great librettist whose texts were recycled and updated long after his retirement, was a reformer, and Gluck’s Orfeo is not so much a reform opera as it is a repeated reform — an umpteenth recurrence to original positions. Wagner and Berlioz were consumed by the drive to relight the classical flame, and, in Elektra, Hugo von Hofmannsthal (writing for Richard Strauss) recreated a play by Sophocles in psychoanalytic terms that Freud might have found congenial.

Ketterer suggests that one of the earliest operatic tropes, the lament of Ariadne, survives in “the grieving heroines of Verdi and Puccini,” but, as I say, Verdi at least seems more powerfully connected to the classical tradition than that. Take Don Carlo. With its sprawling, five-act action and its preoccupation with superstition and tyranny, Don Carlo doesn’t look very classical; Metastasio does not fly to mind. But turn it around, and it will be seen to complete the classical project: in this opera, the gods of mythology and their Olympian/pastoral haunts have been transformed into powerful people and historical setttings. Nothing about the incarnation in mortal flesh reduces the epic scope of the drama; on the contrary, it reveals our own sparks of divinity. The opera breathes as grand an air as any; it is, arguable, the grandest of grand operas.

I also read Anthony Grafton’s even longer essay on “Tacitus and Tacitism.” If nothing else (and there is a great deal else), the piece demonstrates the elasticity of ancient sources; just as Augustine inspired both sides of the debate about church reform, so Tacitus could be enlisted to support either the endurance of tyranny or its overthrow.  

The classical tradition has, from the moment that it was taken up by Dante and Petrarch, jostled somewhat uncomfortably alongside the official tradition of Western Christendom. Indeed, it seems more than coincidental that the climax of the Renaissance occurred so shortly before the rupture of the Reformation. 

***

Ordinarily, I should have written a great deal more about my dip into The Classical Tradition this morning than in fact I did — if I hadn’t been distracted by anxiety about this afternoon’s Remicade infusion, which in the event went swimmingly. The reason for my anxiety was boring and perhaps overscrupulous, but there was a nuggest of general importance in it, for, with a proclivity to skin cancer and an inconveniencing autoimmune disease, I shuffle between occasionally incompatible therapies. Any ordinary person of my makeup, a century or more ago, would be dead already — it’s that simple. (Did I say “simple”? I’d be dead of colon cancer, which doesn’t even figure in my everyday maladies anymore.) It is not lost on me that I am living in the freshest frontier of baby-boom expense.

I hope never to find out just what the doctors and nurses mean when they warn, frowning, that if you have an infusion of Remicade while you’ve got an infection or (inference?) are taking antibiotics, not only will the Remicade not work, but you can never take it again. Sometimes I feel a bit like a child who’s being spooked into good behavior. Sometimes I feel that, when push comes to shove, as it arguably did today, the schoolroom rule will be relaxed. But I’m way too old (and old) to discount the admonition.

Ray Soleil asked me, is this something new or have people always had it? Meaning my bundle of autoimmune problems. The answer is “yes” to both, and the proof is that Rameses II, if he didn’t quite have ankylosing spondylitis, had something rather like it, just as I do, and that he had it, probably, for the same reason: upbringing in an unusually clean environment. I spent a huge chunk of my childhood in undeveloped “woods” across the street, and did plenty of burrowing and digging and dirtying. But it’s the dirt from other people that builds strong bodies twelve autoimmune ways, and that, in my Bronxville bubble, was completely missing. Once upon a time, your father had to be a pharoah to provide such a germ-free environment. All I needed was an executive with a Dow-Jones Utility.

***

And while we’re on the subject of Who’s Smarter Now?, how many Greeks and Romans, educated Greeks and Romans, d’you think knew anything about Rameses II’s health problems?

Gotham Diary:
Protocols
1 February 2013

Friday, February 1st, 2013

From Trent: What Happened at the Council (p. 210):

Another strong personality had meanwhile at last arrived at Trent, where he would from this point forward play an important role. In the General Congregation on May 21 Count Luna made his formal entrance to the council chamber and took his assigned place. He would prove a sharp thorn in the legates’ side. The long interval between Philip’s naming him for the office and his arrival was due in part to a bitter dispute with the French over precendence among the envoys, settled at last by an uneasy compromise.

John O’Malley does not provide the details of the precedence dispute, but one can imagine that it involved priorities that readers circa 2010 would dismiss as ritualistic rather than substantive, based on the competition for glory between the two crowns (those of Philip II of Spain and the the child Charles IX of France), and having nothing to do with the important business of the council. But we should not be too hasty to dismiss Luna’s standing on ceremony as an empty relic of inherited orgueuil.

The contest between France and Spain, heralded by rivalry between the kings of Aragon and the dukes of Anjou for the control of Sicily and Naples, two centuries earlier, began when the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, repulsed the last Arabs from the Iberian peninsula at the end of the Fifteenth Century and, at roughly the same time, marrried one of their daughters into the Hapsburg family. Their Most Christian Majesties, François I and his son, Henri II, were soon surrounded by the Hapsburg heir to Spain, His Most Catholic Majesty, Charles I, better known as the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The reach of Hapsburg power was not greatly diminished when Charles detached the sovereignties that had come together in his person, ceding his Central European possessions to his brother, Ferdinand, and everything else (including the Low Countries, which came into the family through the extinction of the dukes of Burgundy) to his son, Philip. Philip’s grip on Spain was about as firm as any monarch’s, but the relation between title and authority in Charles’s other domains was fluid and even conjectural. France, meanwhile, was slipping into a series of civil wars, in which religious reform served as something of an opportunistic pretext. The times, in short, were unsettled for both sides.

The thing about diplomatic protocol — who goes through the door first, who gets to sit down in front of whom, who can wear a hat and when — is that it mollifies the rankling urges of self-importance that can lead to awkward, even catastrophic physical skirmishes. Protocol settles power by obviating violence. There are always loopholes and exceptions, and doubtless Luna’s argument with the French made much of these. But established diplomatic precedents about precedence (often hammered out in treatry negotiations) made it possible for international business to be conducted without overtures of protracted jousting.

So it is with the Rules, so often maddening and counterproductive, with which our representative assemblies govern themselves — Rules about which the voting public is never invited to comment, much less make decisions. So it is with the order of business at a corporate meeting, and the parade of executives that conducts it. It is true that we have cast aside a good deal of what we think of as aristocratic posturing — behavior that reflected the old grandees’ sincere belief that they must present themselves as heroes — but when we fail to honor the procedural compromises that make political life possible, we become no less obstructionist than the intransigent nobles of the ancien régime.   

***

I don’t know anything about the annual conference at Davos beyond what I read here and there, and I’m never quite sure of its importance. But I hope that someone has been taking notes about the evolution of its diplomatic arrangements, even if no one in attendance would call them that. I gather that the meetings used to be very breezy, but then were saddled with prestige, not to mention pro-bono invitations to nice people with no money, and that now they’re getting simpler again. My leading question for the historian of protocol at Davos would be this: who has precedence, the person with the greatest personal fortune or the person who controls the greatest corporate resources? I suspect it’s the latter.

On very bad days, I fear that the new world order, one that will supplant the nations that we know, is being born at Davos.

Gotham Diary:
Felonious
31 January 2013

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Against all the self-made rules, I wrote no entry here yesterday — I never even sat down at the computer. I was fixed in my chair all day, watching all twenty episodes of what’s known here, somewhat stupidly, as The Killing — the original Danish show, starring Sophie GrÃ¥bøl and Lars Mikkelsen (who knew that Mads has an older brother?), Forbrydelsen, a somewhat unusual word, it appears, meaning “felony,” but with a Nordic root that sounds more like “forethought” or premeditation” to me. I was completely mystified by the denouement, even though the killer turned out to be exactly whom I expected him to be. But plot is not the point of this show, except as a way of catapulting the viewer through the white water of each episode’s thunderingly scored final minute, in which each of the story’s three main segments is pitched forward without dialogue, sometimes portentously, sometimes ironically, but always addictingly. Suspicion falls on almost everybody at one point or another, and the series’s byword, “trust no one,” is wickedly apt.

Forbrydelsen wouldn’t be worth the enormous time commitment if it weren’t for the characters, both as conceived by the writers and as realized by the actors. I ought to say, the characters and their relationships, because, with a dispatch that would seem shameless in a soap opera, marriages and friendships are ruptured right and left — usually to be repaired in the next episode. I’m not going to say much about it now, because it’s so easy to be fatuous when writing about television drama; it’s enough to confess that I surrendered to the show’s brooding sparkle. What I liked best — it was more relief than pleasure — was that none of the likeable characters spent too long in a jail cell, or was subjected to prolonged imprisonment by a villain. (No, what I liked best was Ann Eleonora Jørgeson’s luminous Pernille Birk Larsen, the mother of the girl who dies at the beginning. A mater dolorosa for our times.) I had a ball, and I look forward to watching, very eventually, the second and third series.

***

In other developments — but there haven’t been any other developments. I’m a bit worried that a slight skin infection, very much on the mend, might queer Monday’s Remicade scheduling. When not confronted with the absolute impenetrability of Danish (in which words seem neither to begin nor to end), I’ve been reading John O’Malley’s Trent, Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, and the new Donna Leon — the last so sporadically that I am going to have to start again from the beginning.  

Gotham Diary:
Vapors
29 January 2013

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

I thought that I’d go to the Museum today, to look at the Matisse and the Bellows, but when I woke up, I realized that I wasn’t going anywhere. It was good to be in bed. It is never good to be in bed when I am in full possession. I was not sick in the least; I was just tired. And this despite the presence of the gondola men on the balcony, jackhammering for all but for hours on end. To me it was music: the work on the balcony was progressing; soon we’d be a be able to go outside again without boarding an elevator. Hammer away! I kept drifting off into strange dreams. In one of them, Ray Soleil got married, for good business reasons. Yikes!

It’s the week before the next Remicade infusion, and I’m giving myself a time out of Barcelonian proportions. I don’t know how to put it otherwise; I’m simply enjoying life and doing as little as possible that isn’t fun. My mind is on vacation, but, mindful of Mose Allison, I hope that my mouth is not working overtime. I desperately need to listen to Tom Meglioranza’s recording of Winterreise, which I received last week in the mail and planned to listen to right away. In the event, I got as far as “Frühlingstraum.” Then something came up. So, now I have to start all over again. Which would be straightforward if I were not already caught up in watching the first season of Forbrydelsen. What I’ve heard of Tom’s singing is as great as it was when I heard him sing the cycle downtown a few years ago. Very great, in other words. Tom makes you want to know Schubert.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the SPDR launch, and Kathleen has had a few parties attend. I remember a dinner party in Bermuda, sponsored by Deloitte, at which a banker at our table said, “Why would anyone want an ETF?” That was in 2000. (I remember when thirteen years was a long time.) Discretion forestalls my saying all that I’d like about Kathleen’s achievement; although she has had something to do with most of the five funds that now hold, collectively, 90% of ETF investment today, she has a lot of stories that, naturally, can’t be told, and I don’t trust myself to talk about it. But she is, unquestionably, “the SPDR woman of Wall Street,” which is a great gag if you’re familiar with Kathleen’s sense of direction. She is also the patron saint of this Web site, in every way imaginable. Just a moment of applause is in order.

Gotham Diary:
Why Don’t You…?
28 January 2013

Monday, January 28th, 2013

… set up a daily Web log, and begin each day by spouting off whatever comes into your pretty litte head? Oh, the blogger Diana Vreeland might have been! Some will argue that she might have been more at home at Twitter, and some at Tumblr, but this is to quibble. The short forms of the Internet would have suited her down to the ground, and how much more interesting to broadcast her gnomic utterances about pink and fringe and freckles and allure instead of bombarding her bewildered staff with memoranda. Vreeland believed, religiously, in the power of being maximally alive, of attending to possibilities of beauty in everyday life while not disdaining the sheer glamour  (enjoyed to some degree by herself, but unbegrudged by much luckier people) of aristocratic birth and/or great wealth. She was blind (and deaf) to a great deal in the world, but what she cherished she embraced with contagious, adorable enthusiasm. She might make you laugh at something of the things that she said (“The serpent should be on every finger and wrist … we cannot see enough of them”), you would never laugh at her. It would be as senseless as laughing at a beating heart.

Performance is all that I cared about as a child and it’s all that I care about now. I don’t go to a play to see a great play. I go to see a great interpreter. Everything is interpretation. I think stars are the only thing we have. We have a star, we follow a star … we may throw that star out tomorrow, but today, without a star, we wouldn’t move at all. Group formation’s not for me! (Allure, p. 104)

Vreeland constently argued that fashion was not art — largely, I suspect, because she associated art with Victorian ponderousness, but also because the world of art was backed up by a library of histories and theories that she didn’t have the patience to master. (Thrown out of Brearley, remember.) I think that she was right: a dress is not in itself a work of art. But it partakes of art when it is worn by a woman of style: style is the art. Style is closely allied, I believe, to ballet — it is always on the move, which is why modern fashion photographers have worked so hard to capture motion in still photography. Style is anti-monumental, anti-ideal. There is only the moment. Style is as emphemeral as a great theatrical performance: you’re either lucky enough to be there to see it, or you’re not. (Reading about the magic of performers of the past ought to sharpen our attentiveness to the wizardry of those we can be in the same room with.) But style is more available to all of us, which is why it was not fatuous of Vreeland to urge everyone to develop one. Dance and the theatre require formidable discipline of an athletic nature, but the discipline of style begins with understanding who and what you are.

Vreeland was a great curator — in today’s sense. (In the traditional sense, she was not so great, as her unwilling colleagues at the Costume Institute witnessed.) She routinely sifted through masses of objects and ideas and picked up two or three that interested her. (I remember learning about the I Ching in the pages of Vogue. I looked at my mother’s copies not because of the dresses, although the locations were often intriguing, but because of the novelty: you never knew what people were going to be talking about.) She was attracted to things that enhanced the palpability of fantasy, but “fantasy” was really just a world view. Vreeland dreaded banality above all things, but she never had much to say about it, because why would you talk about the unpleasant? As a result, you’re left wondering what actually strike her banal — banale, darling — especially given her aptitude for finding marvels in everyday things.

So it’s not what she did that we ask about Vreeland. Was she an important editor at Harper’s Bazaar? An world-significant editor at Vogue? The goddess who filled the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the grand glamour of the great palace that it was built to be? It doesn’t matter. It’s how she was, and to find that out, you need only follow her blog, if you can find it.

***

Vreeland once said, I recall, that the essence of fashion is rejection. (This is not a line that Alexandra Mackenzie Stuart’s solidly engrossing biography captures.) But I sense that Vreeland’s idea of rejection was always temporary. What you reject today, for whatever reason of suitability, you might accept tomorrow. The aphorism also reflects that brutal truth about life that, whenever we are doing something, we are not doing all sorts of other things. In the end, there is always the embrace.  

Actually, and I write this having just re-read Allure from front to back, Vreeland said something else.

“Elegance,” I said, “is refusal.”

Gotham Diary:
Dames
25 January 2013

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Reading Caroline de Margerie’s Amnerican Lady: the Life of Susan Mary Alsop a few months ago made me realize that I’ve got an interest in well-written books about well-born American women who weren’t supposed to do much of anything beyond marrying and raising children, but who became famous, which they certainly weren’t supposed to do. What they became famous for was, essentially, being themselves in a publicly interesting way: Dames. They created stylish careers to suit themselves as women; they were rarely certified professionals. (My Dames were not WASP princesses who went on to be leading doctors or lawyers. ) They were not feminists — or, rather, the women who were would have said that they weren’t. Susan Mary Alsop was a diplomat’s wife with a couturier’s dream figure who became an important Georgetown hostess, entertaining the nation’s political élite. Not without a little help from her second husband, who, to be sure, married her for her Dame potential.

That’s a thing about Dames: they generally needed to be married before they could get started on whatever it was that would make them famous. Whether their husbands provided lots of money (Bill Paley) or lots of creative support (Paul Child), they were indispensible. Dames might not be beauties, but they were attractive, and their achievements depended on important lifts from men. Some worked harder than others — nobody worked harder than Julia Child, once she got going — and some were just famous for being famous, like the beautiful, beautifully-dressed Babe Paley.

Now lands Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland, by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Like American Lady, this is the first serious biography of its subject, and I will be refining my still rather vague ideas about Dames. How many other such lives can be found on my shelves?

***

Meanwhile, who knew? It was very interesting to read, on page 15, that Emily Key Hoffman, who would become Diana Vreeland’s mother, attended the recently-established Brearley School, of which my dear Kathleen is an alumna (and, currently, a trustee). But the bombshell on page 34 — Vreeland herself, who also went to Brearley (!), was effectively thrown out by the headmaster, for not being “Brearley material” — this startling revelation put ants in my pants, and at eleven-thirty last night. I got quite excited, mulling it over. Kathleen had had no idea that DV was a Brearley girl (much less a rejected one). Had we known it and forgotten it? Unlikely — but not impossible. I must find my copy of DV, Vreeland’s “factional” memoir.

***

Kathleen, during moments of relative calm in last night’s conversation (who knew?), asked me about the Mitford sisters — were they Dames? I am pondering this. There was something so prodigious about Lord and Lady Redesdale’s brood of girls that they none of them had to endure the floudering, or at least aimlessness, of my Dames’ early adulthood. Nancy always wanted to be a writer, and Jessica seems always to have wanted to be a socialist. Unity worshiped Hitler from quite a young age, and had a lot of comfortably sexless quality time with the monster. Deborah, who did everything she could think of to avoid becoming a Dame, is perhaps the only one among the lot. In becoming a highly idiosyncratic chateleine on a grand scale, Debo was assisted not only by her husband (who came into the castle, as it were) but by the Inland Revenue and some very untimely deaths. (Q: do Inland Revenue collect death duties?) But can a Dame be a duchess? We shall have to perpend.

Gotham Diary:
Boo
24 January 2013

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

The next step is to wash the empty jars and other glass containers that have gotten very greasy on the shelf high over the stove. What was I thinking, putting them there? It was no doubt one of those final, desperate moves — There, that’s done! These last steps are never satisfactory, but they can’t be otherwise, because by the time you get to the end you can’t really think anymore. I will give the shelf space to some Creuset dutch ovens.

The real question is what to do with the jars when they’re clean, and lined up on the table with all the other empties. The real question is which ones to discard. I must be strong, because the correct answer is almost certainly all of them. I must seriously evaluate, for example, the three Hellman’s mayonnaise jars — glass jars, among the last sold. They certainly come in handy for soups and whatnot, but how many times have I retrived a mayonnaise jar from the rear of the refrigerator to find that its contents, however delicious they might have been once, are no longer edible? Too many times! Too many times! I know that I ought to put the mayonnaise jars in the recycling bin. It’s been grand. Let’s see if I do.   

***

I didn’t write about Zero Dark Thirty the other day, because I didn’t have time and I couldn’t think what to say. Some random thoughts: Jessica Chastain is almost as superb as Jennifer Lawrence at playing an unappealing person. She doesn’t have to work as hard at it, because she doesn’t have Lawrence’s creamy-gorgeous, camera-loves-you features. Chastain’s character, Maya, is determined to capture Osama bin Laden. Some would say that she is obsessed, but that’s just a dismissive medicalization. Maya is utterly sane, “a real killer,” according to one CIA report. She works very hard; she is almost never seen not working very hard, although it’s not exactly clear what she does, what her deskbound sleuthing consists of. I should have liked to know something about her immersion in Arab and Islamic cultures; the movie manifests but does not demonstrate her expertise. This kind of exposition might have gotten in the way, though.

It’s hard to believe that the film covers such a long period of time; without any outward sign, we’re slipped from the Bush terms into Obama’s first. I for one felt immensely proud (and lucky) that the capture occurred on Obama’s watch.

I was going to ask what “zero dark thirty” means, but then I remembered that that’s why there’s Wikipedia. It is a military mystification for “12:30 AM.” It’s not meant to mystify soldiers themselves, of course, but I suppose the creation of special lingo is useful to the creation of special bravery. If you’re living among people who say such things as “zero dark thirty” and “heelo” (for helicopter), then you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore. In any case, the special operation to capture bin Laden is hard to follow in the film, as I suppose it ought to be — and can afford to be, given that everyone knows how it’s going to come out. The narrative complexity might even be taken as an invitation to further reading; the movie certainly raised my interest in what actually happened that clear and starry night.

I was thrilled by the sound effect of the “heelos,” which in reality are fitted with “anti-decibel” devices that muffle the racket when the copter is not directly overhead.

Jennifer Ehle is a most favorite actress. Even with bangs and a Southern twang. When I knew that her character, Jessica, was going to come to grief, I covered my face until it was over. Jessica and Maya argue about the power of money to bribe al Qaeda operatives. Maya thinks that it’s nil — this isn’t the Cold War, she insists — and Jessica proves her right.

Hollywood is so strange. I really like Joel Edgerton — what could be more versatile than a career that comprises outstanding performances in films as different as Kinky Boots and Warrior? He’s certainly very good in Zero Dark Thirty. But screen time? Do we see him for as much as five minutes? Would his dialogue fill more than two pages of script? And yet he gets something like top billing, over Jennifer Ehle and Kyle Chandler and Faras Faras, the last an unknown (to me) actor whose brooding presence throughout the film gives Zero Dark Thirty a haunted feel. Not to mention Mark Duplass and Mark Strong and James Gandolfini. Is this what happens when a female star really owns a movie, and there’s no love interest? (Jason Clarke very much deserves his top billing.)

What do you do after you’re through crying after having captured your big target? What’s next for Maya? A corner office at Langley, I suppose — if they have such things.

Gotham Diary:
Dealing With It
23 January 2013

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Everything, every problem these days, seems to come down to bad timing. Not catastrophically bad timing, just a kind of inconvenience that we might call “incoincidence”: things don’t mesh, they’re out of joint. Weather is a huge factor behind bad timing. Who wants to go outside in a downpour, or on an icy day? Freedom is also a factor. The more you’re in charge of your own schedule, the tighter the pinch of interruptions and distractions. Age is the biggest factor of them all: I don’t have a lot of time, and it takes me longer to do almost everything aside from reading and writing. There is also the bleak side effect of age: doctors’ appointments. The only way to take the “bad timing” out of a visit to the doctor is build the entire day around it. Fun stuff!

I’m hoping that the bad-timing situation in which I find myself today owes to a less recursive matter — I really do; and yet it’s something that I write about endlessly. I need only say the word “closet,” and every regular reader will know what’s coming. The latest episode began when we took down the Christmas tree and wrapped up the ornaments and had no place to put them. This followed hard on the disorderly aftermath of my birthday party. I seem to have two characteristic modes of response to messy disruptions. Either I prioritize the restoration of orderly appearances, which leads to closets choked with mysterious bags of stuff, or I don’t, because I’m too much aware that it’s those bags of stuff that gum up the works. The second option is the path of true virtue, because life is simple only to the extent that cabinets and closets are stocked with what’s needed and nothing else. But it necessarily entails living in disorder while you figure out how to make your closets as accessible as your rooms are presentable.

During our first years in New York, Kathleen and I simply didn’t own a lot of stuff. By the time my father died, and I came into a lot of furniture, we had accumulated numerous boxes of whatnot. We took care of all that by buying a house in the country which, by the time we sold it twelve years later, was totally packed. The third phase involved a storage unit that we are beginning to decommission, as it were. because our Rent Stabilization bonanza, er, evaporated (as we’d known it would), and we can no longer fold the unit’s cost into the idea of a reasonable rent. So here we are, back where we began — in the same apartment, but without any lumber room. It is no longer feasible to say, “I’ll deal with it later.”

(Show don’t tell: yesterday, I pulled out two shopping bags of Amazon receipts. They go back to the beginning of the century, when I did not yet have the habit of copying the receipts into Quicken, making the personal finance program serve as a record of library (and video) purchases. A case can be made for “moving forward” by hurling the shopping bags and their contents down the garbage chute. The opposite case is obviously more compelling, because it occupies the high moral ground of achievement: my inner bureaucrat glows at the thought of a more complete record. But he, this bureaucrat, has a hard time finding interns to do the grunt work — don’t look at me!)

But instead of dealing with it now, I’ve got to go to the dermatologist, who scared me to death last week with biopsy results that showed the recurrence, in a spot on my chest, of a basal cell sarcoma. We agreed that trying to burn it out was preferable, at this point, to inpatient surgery. When I say “scared me to death,” I mean that I could brook no delay, although it probably wouldn’t make much difference if I had the treatment next week. I made the appointment right before our trip to Cincinnati, and also before settling down to the challenge of domestic rectification. I confirmed the appointment on Monday, after several hours of very encouraging session with the hall closet. I’d be up for it now if I hadn’t gone to the movies yesterday instead of continuing with the good work.

***

I’m not saying that I’m good for nothing after seeing a movie. That’s not true at all. But a tremendously exciting movie such as Zero Dark Thirty tends to exhaust my frontal cortex, leaving me incapable of making difficult decisions, such as what to do with two bags of Amazon receipts. So I retreated to my reading chair with my Kindle Paperwhite and gobbled up the rest of Barbara Vine’s new book, The Child’s Child. Instead of fixing pork chops for dinner, we ordered in Chinese. “Sounds like you’ve had a good day to me,” said Kathleen. But that’s just what it wasn’t: it was a lazy day. I enjoyed it, yes; but it was not good.  

Gotham Diary:
History, Not Mystery
21 January 2013

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Our friends had a lovely day for a wedding in Cincinnati. We were deeply glad to be in attendance.

There was a time when I should have filed a report about our quick trip, or at least a travelogue, but I’ve grown too discreet for such antics. In the eight years and more that I have been keeping a Web log, I’ve developed what I hope is a finer ability to locate the line between my stories and those of other people. I’ve also lost interest in writing about uncongenial encounters, à propos of which I’ll defer to Susan Sontag’s remark about living on an ocean liner tied up at the dock of the United States. I’ll add one thing: at the mention of “New York,” in response to questions about where I came from, conversation stalled if it did not stop. Gotham seemed to have a strange anti-importance in Cincinnati. I assiduously avoided all risk of having to say that I spend my day reading and writing, and that I don’t get paid to do either.

***

But when I say that I was deeply glad to be at the weddding, I mean it, because otherwise I don’t see how I could have gotten through the Mass. It has been a long time since my last experience of that service, and what made this one harder to bear was the coincidence of being in the middle of reading James O’Malley’s excellent history, Trent: What Happened at the Council. It was at that council, which met for three sessions in the middle of the Sixteenth Century, that the liturgy of the Mass was given its current form — current, that is, until the overhaul effected by another council, Vatican II. By and large, the clergymen and others who met at Trent displayed an almost obstinate inability to grasp what drove Martin Luther to break from the Church. In his summary of the canonical review of “justification” and divine grace, O’Malley puts the impasse very well:

The fundamental problem in reconciling the two positions is that they are manifestations of different intellectual cultures, the one more academic and analytical;, the other more personal and existential. The same words have different connotations and perhaps even denotations, and the emotional framework is more different still. The interpreter’s task, therefore, is to get beyond the words to the systems of which they are an expression. Luther’s justification-by-faith-alone was his eureka experience that, as he saw it, liberated him from the jaws of spiritual death. He clung to it, therefore, for dear life. Trent’s decree was the intellectuals’ emotionally cool response to Luther’s spiritual anguish.

Today’s vernacular Mass, it cannot be denied by anyone with an open mind — or, worse, well-remembered experience of the pre-Vatican II rite — is both ugly and boring. Although the reformers saw fit to throw over Latin, they permitted the celebrant to choose to recite a Eucharistic Prayer that features not one but two parades of all-but-forgotten saints’ names — Cosmas and Damian, anyone? And then there is the startlingly unmusical attempt at singing. Positively hateful is the sign of peace, which varies “according to local custom,” and might as well, to my reserved demeanor (the self-restraint of a rather large but civil man), involve snake-handling. I sat through the last third of the service, in order to be only locally consipicuous.

The next morning, at the airport, Kathleen read about Tony Flannery, a Roman Catholic priest of the Redemptorist order — for the time being. Flannery has advocated the ordination of women and generally readjusting the reactionary views of sexuality that flow so naturally from a hierarchical fraternity of celibate males. More than that, he has questioned the legitimacy of that very fraternity, and on purely historical grounds. The essay in which he sketched his doubts about any actual connection between Jesus and the hierarchy has, not surprisingly, been taken offline (if it was ever on-), but the Times report that Kathleen read at the airport, and I the next day, included a fragment.

In the letter, the Vatican objected in particular to an article published in 2010 in Reality, an Irish religious magazine. In the article, Father Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, wrote that he no longer believed that “the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus” or that he designated “a special group of his followers as priests.”

Instead, he wrote, “It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.”

This is what really got Flannery into trouble, and, according to him, this is what the Vatican has demanded that he retract. But we are not talking about miracles of mysteries of faith here. We’re talking about the historical development of the Roman Catholic Church in the earliest years of its existence — which, as Flannery suggests, is unlikely to have begun anywhere near as early as the lifetimes of those who knew Jesus personally. Long in control of literacy, the Church was able to tell its own story uncontested for well over a thousand years, but that monopoly came to a crashing end in 1945, when the Nag Hammadi library was unearthed, a collection of writings that had been banned by St Iranaeus in the late Second Century. It’s not that the Nag Hammadi writings tell us much that we didn’t know or couldn’t guess. It’s not the contents themselves, but the mere survival of documents unredacted by the orthodox. The library is evidence of a desire to preserve alternative views instead of destroying them. And whatever the ecclesiastical authorities might have done to the library if it had been discovered any sooner, the facts of modern times rendered them impotent to take any action now. And yet the hierarchy continues to parade itself as if we were living in the age of Innocent III.

Tony Flannery may not be a saint — his position on the priestly abuse of children, it seems, is not what one would wish — but it’s not sanctity that’s needed now. It’s historical rigor. If the Church requires belief in a historical account for which there is no historical evidence, then it forfeits its claim to intellectual honesty.