Archive for April, 2011

Moviegoing:
Water For Elephants
Friday, 29 April 2011

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Francis Lawrence’s Water For Elephants is a very old-fashioned movie at heart — and on its sleeve as well. The darkness of life in the circus has been a movie trope since Freaks; you might almost say that movies were invented not so much take us behind the scenes as to persuade us that we want to go behind the scenes. All the glamor that circus performers know, after all, they know when they don their spangly costumes and perform. The rest is rehearsal or worse. (Tightrope artists don’t go out on the town after the show.) So why would anyone want to peer into the world of underpaid drudgery on the other side of the canvas?

The answer is, “nobody but a kid who dreams of running away with the circus.” Jacob Jankowski doesn’t run away with the circus, exactly, but when he does run away — from the void left by his loving parents’ sudden death in an automobile accident — it’s a circus train that he hops on to. Having left Cornell within an inch of graduating as a veterinarian, Jacob brings some useful skills to his new berth; as an Ivy Leaguer, he brings a gentlemanly polish that the manager and master of ceremonies finds congenial — until, of course, the manager’s wife responds to his ardent glances, whereupon the manager’s sideline as a sadist takes over. Or is it the plot of I Pagliacci? Mo matter, because — and this is what’s really old-fashioned about Water For Elephants — the film is not about the circus at all. It’s about the rescue of a lovely woman by a pure-hearted young man. And it is set in the distant past, when even roustabouts were better-dressed than most people today.

I’m going to have to see Water For Elephants a few more times before I can tell if it’s any good. Reese Witherspoon, as I say, is the reason to hold out hope. Her Marlena — an abandoned child, raised in a hell of foster homes until her escape into the circus manager’s arms — shimmers with luminous waves of goodness even when her face is set with hard smarts. When Marlena strikes her triumphant poses atop Rosie, the elephant that her husband buys in order to buoy up the circus’s fortunes, you see someone who is very pleased to be doing something well. Christoph Waltz, as August, the manager, looks perhaps too pleased to be doing what he’s doing; no one brings a more enthusiastic, authoritative glitter to the art of cruelty. What saves his performances from seeming typecast is the fact that Water For Elephants is nowhere near as much fun as Inglorious Basterds, the Quentin Taratino fable in which Mr Waltz stole every scene in which he appeared. As for Robert Pattison, the vampire heart-throb who plays Jacob, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s he who’s the mess or his part, which may have undergone unfortunate tailoring to suit the actor’s fan base. Mr Pattison has dreamy eyes, a great smile, and the frame of a genuine Hollywood Everyman. But his wounded air may not wear well; he too often seems too debilitated to withstand the hardships of circus life. It may be that his career needs a fatal accident that will seal him in imperishable amber.

Rialto Note:
Good People, at MTC

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Our evening of strong theatre and tasty dinner was mussed at the end, when we couldn’t get a taxi. The weather was lovely and it wasn’t late, but every taxi that passed by was taken. An off-duty driver who declined to take us mumbled something about President Obama, who, we would find out later, was in town for the evening. (There ought to be a law banning sitting presidents from the island of Manhattan — and they can stash the United Nations in Queens while they’re at it.) I never did figure out a connection between the president and the dearth of free taxis. By the time Kathleen finally hailed one, we were a block from the subway entrance at 51st and Lex, a long way from the theatre. If I’d known that there was going to be a problem with the taxis, I’d have shepherded us to the N train at 49th Street, and we’d have been home in no time. But there was no indication of a taxi problem, and I was sorely vexed by the stupidity of it all. I didn’t feel entitled to a taxi; what I felt entitled to, as a city dweller, was better information. Standing on a streetcorner waiting for a taxi that is never going to come seems definitionally stupid, and the worst thing about the stupidity of others is that it’s contagious; it annoys me so much that I become stupid, too. 

Stupidity was much on my mind after the performance of David Lindsay-Abaire’s new play, Good People, that we saw at MTC. One aspect of the play — it’s flawed aspect, if you ask me — is the problem that a woman from South Boston, Margaret, can’t hold a job. Without an education, Margaret can’t earn enough to pay someone reliable to look after her daughter, a grown woman in years only, born prematurely with severe impairment. This is a terrible predicament, obviously, but it is not a dramatic one, and not essential to the action. It has been laid over the real story as a kind of insurance, because of course the (affluent) audience will be disturbed (and engaged) by Margaret’s struggle to survive. That no one should be faced with such struggles is as obvious as the evil of the struggle itself. What’s stupid about Margaret’s situation is that she usually loses her job because she doesn’t show up on time. Her car has been repossessed, or her caregiver of the moment is sleeping off a hangover, or whatever. This subjects her to the moronic caprice of managers who swear by time sheets. I don’t think that the playwright wants us to meditate on the stupidity of treating workers — especially ill-paid ones — like pieces of machinery that differ from real machinery in shouldering responsibility for their own good repair. The injustice of it, perhaps. But only a stupid person would hold Margaret’s unpunctuality against her, whatever its causes, provided that Margaret otherwise did her job. It’s stupid (but widespread among the dim bulbs who manage American workers) to regard showing up on time as an important part of any menial job. This a point that doesn’t give a dramatist much to work with. Stupidity always betrays itself by its failure to be interesting. 

Margaret was played by the formidable Frances McDormand, one of the more terrifying actresses working today. With the savage impassivity of an ancient demigod, she can lead from sociable greeting to searing question from which all flinching evasion is impossible. And that is Margaret’s role in Good People: she is a nemesis brought forward to sort out the bourgeois vainglory of an old flame by the name of Mike (Tate Donovan). Mike escaped the South End by dint of scholarships, and he is now a prosperous reproductive endocrinologist, with a wife and daughter and a house in Chestnut Hill. He has fidelity issues, we learn, but there’s something more interesting the matter with him: he can’t let his Southie past go. He has become active with a boys’ club, which is how, after all these years, he gets picked up on Margaret’s radar. Otherwise, he has nothing to do with the old neighborhood itself, but he wears a romanticized version of his youth as a “hoodlum” that clearly gains him traction in the relatively rarefied professional circles in which he actually lives. His wife, Kate (Renée Elise Goldsberry), is the daughter of an eminent African-American doctor in Washington, under whom Mike trained, and she is clearly drawn to him because he had the rough life that ought to have been hers by virtue of skin color. Mike’s hubris compels him to pretend that he is still a Southie beneath the polish. 

Which is why he yields to Margaret’s challenge. Having heard about his boys’ club activities, Margaret is encouraged to visit his office for old-time’s sake and also to ask him for a job. (I am convinced that Mr Lindsay-Abaire could have thought of a less melodramatic but equally urgent pretext for Margaret’s visit; I can think of at least one very good one.) In the  course of their edgy banter — Margaret has pretty much elbowed her way into Mike’s office — it evolves that Kate is going to be throwing Mike a big birthday party in a few days. Desperately bold, Margaret asks if she can come. Perhaps, she says, one of his friends will have an opening. But then again, she adds, perhaps he would be ashamed of her. Mike is too vain to admit this — to acknowledge that he has become someone who would be embarrassed for his old Southie buddies (much less an old girlfriend) to meet his new friends and associates. There is nothing at all generous about the invitation that he eventually extends. 

Nor, for the matter of that, is there anything friendly about Margaret’s acceptance. When, a day or so later, Mike calls to tell her that the party has been canceled because his daughter is sick, she doesn’t believe him; she tells her friends that she has been “disinvited.” She decides to go out to Chestnut Hill (which she has never visited before) anyway. This provides the playwright with the opportunity to write a virtuoso scene for three people, and Mr Lindsay-Abaire rises beautifully to the occasion. A digest of Margaret’s evening with Mike and Kate would yield a catalgue of dramatic peripeties that would make Aristotle hop, and yet the action flows naturally through its arduous twists. (Part of the secret is that the audience is in on all the secrets beforehand.) With only minor changes in accent and tone, this long scene might have climbed to a genuinely tragic dénouement; Mr Donovan and Ms Goldsberry would have been Ms McDormand’s equal in rendering plausible tragedy. I don’t for a minute fault the playwright for declining to pursue that option. It’s enough that he makes its possibility felt. 

For Good People is a comedy at heart — another reason why the out-of-work plot point seems heavy-handed. When she is not barging in on canceled parties, Margaret lives her days in the old neighborhood, hoping to win at Bingo. The other people in her world, aside from the offstage child, are Stevie (Patrick Carroll), the dollar store manager who’s required by his manager to fire her, Jean (Becky Ann Baker), the hotel waitress who bumps into Mike at a boys’ club affair, and Dottie, Margaret’s pepetually soused landlady, a woman with Phyllis Diller hair and a heart of stone. Estelle Parsons almost steals Good People as Dottie; Dottie is rude, vulgar, dim and self-justifying, and Estelle Parsons makes her funny at all of that. (The ghost of Mary Louise Burke’s performances in Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo lingers in the way the part has been written.) But Ms Baker and Mr Campbell managed not to be eclipsed by the clowning. Frances McDormand finds new depths to deadpan, and her Margaret, a shambolic mess on paper, is a woman to reckon with. 

John Lee Beatty’s versatile set, with its camera-shutter curtain, was beautifully lighted by Pat Collins, and David Zinn’s costumes were just right; they might have been much bleaker. Margaret’s party turnout (especially her inadequately set hair) deserves special mention.

Aubade
Lost Souls
Thursday, 28 April 2011

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

¶ We cannot believe that it has been sixteen years since we gave gym mogul David Barton a thought! Did he really get married to Susanne Bartsch in a loincloth way back in 1995? That little boy that the nudieweds held (he was wearing more than a birthday suit, thank goodness) is now approaching graduation from St Ann’s in Brooklyn. How the tempus does fugit! Tim Murphy’s profile would bring it all back, if we’d been there in the first place. ¶ Moby, now ensconced in the Hollywood Hills, is not going bankrupt anytime soon, but he finds it easier to stay off the sauce when he’s not in Manhattan. Sobriety must also have induced the “techno musician,” né Richard Melville-Hall, to answer Joyce Wadler’s probes about his interesting chilidhood — it seems to have distracted her from taking an interest in his relationships (not really). ¶ Bob Morris’s piece about Gotham’s misbehaving canines makes it clear that the brutes are merely acting out their owners’ neuroses. When doggies bite, it’s the lunk at the other end of the leash who ought to be shipped off to rehab. (Same goes when kiddies bite.)

Big Ideas:
A Question of Timing
The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian
Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Is it age? Every book that I read these days seems to be utterly remarkable, unprecedented, world-changingly important. At my age, it ought, one would think, be the other way round. Nothing new under the sun and all that. But no: I appear to have lived just long enough to glimpse the sun for the first time.

The subtitle of Brian Christian’s The Most Human has a banal and fatuous ring, just like most other subtitles these days. “What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive.” That’s comprehensive! “Talking with computers”! “Being alive”! The only way to make it sound even more portentous would be to throw in something about changing the world forever. But that’s exactly what’s already implicit: the suggestion that we wouldn’t know much about being alive if we couldn’t talk to computers — something that almost everyone knows was impossible until quite recently. The world has been changed, probably forever. To demonstrate the point, you have only to turn Christian’s subtitle into a question, and interrogate the recent past. What, in 1960, say, did talking with computers have to tell us about what it meant to be alive?

Exactly nothing. For one thing, there was no talking with computers in those days. ELIZA, the first AI program capable of dialogue, was still a few years in the future. More to the point, nobody (beyond a tiny handful of visionaries like Claude Shannon) had any idea that a machine of any kind had anything to teach about being human (which, for our purposes, is what “being alive” means). Machines were tools, and they were also threats, just as they had been since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when French workers invented sabotage by throwing their wooden sabots into looms, and Mary Shelley envisioned Dr Frankenstein’s monster. The computer was simply the latest in a string of inventions whose unanticipated powers might, many feared, bring down Promethean punishment on mankind. Computers were what made annihilation by ballistic missiles possible. They told us what it meant not to be alive.

So, if you were a bright young person in 1960, an interest in computers would probably carry you away from the pursuit of humanist wisdom that motivates the prodigious Brian Christian. (Can he really have been born in 1984?)  And if you didn’t choose cold blue steely science, you would make your mark in the wilds of the Peace Corps, then in the first flower of Rousseauvian idealism.

In 1960, computers were gigantesque, exorbitantly expensive, and not very powerful. As that changed, so did the world of business, which went from humdrum to hot in the same years that computers shrank to PC proportions. In 1985, asking a computer what it meant to be alive might very well take the form of a Lotus spreadsheet, splaying out competing mortgage options. Not very transcendent stuff, but something:  a computer might help you live a (marginally) better life. By the late Nineties, talking with a computer meant talking with the entire world. Email displayed a dark side of bad manners that the sheer clunkiness of snail mail had helped to conceal: not only did hitting “Send” prematurely expose one’s id in unflattering ways, but it also tempted your correspondent to “share” the spectacle of your bad behavior with, ultimately, everyone else with a computer. That something genuinely new was going on seems to be clearly indicated by the fact that the era’s countless flame wars, far from killing anyone, provided a global learning experience. Not only did we all learn something about self-restraint, but we learned it together.

If you want to know what a computer has to tell you about being alive today, you face the daunting threshhold problem of defining “computer.” Is your iPhone a computer? Your iPod? What about all the diagnostic tools, such as fMRI, that depend upon computational wizardry for their effectiveness? Physical gadgets will be with us for a long time, but “computers” seem to be dissolving into “computing,” something performed by many types of device. Unlike the computing of 1960, modern computing is ubiquitous and intimate; we wouldn’t want to live without it.

When I read the excerpt from The Most Human Human that appeared in The Atlantic a few months ago, I pegged Brian Christian for a forty-something journalist specializing in science and ethics, a field that ordinarily leaves me cold. I thought that, before his piece came to an end, Christian would be sounding hair-tearing alarms about the growing power of AI chatbots, which, he pointed out early on, nearly passed the Turing Test in 2008. All we need say about the Turing Test at this point is that it posits a point at which computers might be said to be capable of thought, by appearing, to a jury of human beings, to be capable of human conversation. The Turing Test became a bulwark of humanity, the breach of which by human-seeming computers would signify a Something Awful that I expected Christian to spell out in hectoring detail. What toppled instead, however, was my own expectation.

Christian turned out to be an extraordinarily well-educated young man — how right he is to dedicate his book to his teachers! — without a moping bone in his body. Far from being a passive journalist (or disgusted observer), Christian had the computer-science chops that would enable him to enter the contest himself. It’s at this point that we need to look back at his subtitle. What he does not say is that he beat the computers in the Turing Test. There are no computers, really, in The Most Human Human. There are only people “being themselves,” and other people trying to make machines simulate people being themselves.

“Being himself” is the very first thing that Christian decides not to do, and herein lies the glory of his undertaking. Like legions of high-school students facing aptitude tests, he is advised by the Test’s manager that there is no special training that will enhance his performance. Piffle, says Christian.

So, I must say, my intention from the start was to be as thoroughly disobedient to the organizers’ advice to “just show up at Brighton in September and ‘be myself’” as possible — spending the months leading up to the test gathering as much information, preparation, and experience aas possible ad coming to Brighton ready to give it everything I had.

Ordinarily, there wouldn’t be very much odd about this notion at all, of course — we train and prepare for tennis competitions, spelling bees, standardized tests, and the like. But given that the Turing teest is meant to evaluate how human I am, the implication seems to be that being human (and being oneself) is about more than simply showing up. I contend that it is.

Unlike Christian, I lived through the late Sixties, and I’ve been contending that just showing up is not enough for a long time now. It has been an unfashionable thing to say. But unlike Christian I came of age long before learning from AI (“computers”) was an option. It’s very hard not to be jealous of a bright young man whose timing appears to have been excellent. He can do much better than mouth plausible platitudes about contemplation and great books. He can “do the math,” and he does it in a way that any intelligent reader will grasp at once and with pleasure. If I weren’t so grateful, and if I didn’t so much admire Christian for making the most of his superlative opportunity, I’d be eaten alive by the green-eyed monster.

Aubade
The Last Consul
Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

¶ The British consulate in Florence is slated to close, bringing 450 years of English presence in that city to an end. You could take it as a story of mutual deflation: Britain is no longer grand enough to maintain a diplomatic outpost in a city that is not grand enough to require one. Or you could wave a European Union flag. ¶ Maurice Szafran, chief executive at Marianne, surmises that the French press (that is, everybody but him) “is more passionate about the story than the French people are.” What’s he talking about? The royal wedding, of course. Reporter Matthew Saltmarsh sees an opportunity to trot out the names of two pretenders to the French monarchy, Jean d’Orléans and Louis Alphonse de Bourbon. We don’t see why the French shouldn’t be ruled by German princelings just like everybody else. ¶ Looking more than a little spiteful, Harold Schaitberger, head of the International Association of Fire Fighters, has announced the cessation of political contributions, ie political contributions to Democratic candidates, who, in his view, have done precious little for unions. We couldn’t agree more, but also we can’t think of a more naturally Republican Party constituency than America’s firefighters. If they could only repackage their union as a cartel, everything would make sense.

Gotham Diary:
Under Glass
Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Our Tang Dynasty dancing-lady funerary ornament has arrived, and taken up a spot in the blue room that’s about as safe as any in the apartment. She’s under a dome, as you can see, although the base of the dome is already in the shop, having a slightly aged piece of mirror cut to fit. (I’m afraid that the camera focused on the reflected light, leaving our lady a bit floue.)

Is she real? We did not spend so much that finding out the circumstances under which she was counterfeited wouldn’t make an agreeable part of her provenance. There are many signs of repair, most notably about the neck (the poor dear was decapitated at one point). More than that, though — she’s just livelier and more graceful than the Tang figurines at the Museum. She might very well — for all we know — a Ching “reproduction,” improved as reproductions invariably are. I don’t begin to have the conoisseurship required for intelligent comment. We love her the way she is.

We’re considering two names for her. WWW, whose taste for chinoiserie is highly developed, suggested “La perle de Cathay,” which sounds like a pretty good moniker for everyday Gotham use (ie, “Poil”). Our friend Alison, who is a China scholar, contributed something more echt — and also more romantic.

How about Yang Guifei or Consort Yang, born in the early 8th c? not a happy ending, but she is one of the most famous Chinese beauties of them all (and same dynasty).

I’ve adopted this name provisionally; I want to hear the sad story of Yang Guifei before I commit. If it’s a truly sad story in the usual Chinese way, I’ll be fine with it. But it it turned out that Yang Guifei came to an end at all unspeakable, I’ll have to reconsider.

Whatever her name, I can’t really believe that she’s genuinely Tang. That would mean that she was a thousand years old while China was still ruled by emperors. That would mean that, when she was made, the works of Confucius were not fifteen hundred years old. It’s enough that she makes me think such things, and with all the grace in the world.

Gotham Diary:
Release
Monday, 25 April 2011

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Shortly after his Korean in-laws purchased a deli in Boerum Hill, a blizzard shut down New York City for a day (at least at its outlying regions), leaving Ben Ryder Howe anxious not only about those of his customers whose larders were likely to be thinly stocked but also about the impact of a unwonted holiday on the store’s momentum and the staff’s morale. 

If it were not for the roads (and the bridges, which will definitely be closed tomorrow if the forecast holds, cutting off Staten Island from the rest of the city) I would find a way to make it to the store — for the neighborhood, but also for us, because I know now that Kay was right about the hazards of closing for even one day. When you close, bad things happen. You may not lose all your customers, but you might miss an important delivery, or your food might spoil, or the cat might get angry about not getting fed and pee all over the store. Plus, if you survive taking off a single day, you might be tempted to make it two in a row. 

Because I’m a terrible note taker when reading books — I tend to underline material that would be pertinent to the last book I read on the subject, learning nothing from what I’m actually reading until the experience is complete — I had to re-read a great deal of My Korean Deli to find the passage that I’ve just quoted. I didn’t find it where I thought I would on several quick looks, and I was tantalized by similar passages, relating to Howe’s mother-in-law’s back-breaking (or, literally, heart-breaking) zeal, that nonetheless didn’t mention the crucial point, which was that taking just one day off might derail one’s enterprise completely. 

I lived with that fear almost every day for over six years before I realized — just this past weekend, when I was up to my eyeballs in other matters, such as streamlining the hall closet and preparing an Easter dinner — that I needed no longer to be afraid that letting go of a fairly rigid routine would be tantamount to letting go of this Web log. Writing for The Daily Blague is as natural a part of my day as any other, and I could no more give it up than I could give up sleep. I no longer need the external prods of making regular morning and evening entries, or regular (once daily, more recently weekly) aggregations of links, organized (vaguely) according to topic. For the past few years, The Daily Blague has followed a template that, in my now seasoned view, would work very well for a team of three or four like-minded writers, or some mix of senior and junior writers. For just one writer, however, it had become a prison, and for the blog itself the template was an obstacle, interfering with inconveniently-timed flights of inspiration. It had to go, but, before I could let that happen I had to overcome or otherwise lose my dread of sinking into inertia the moment I stopped binding myself to a regular schedule — to that particular regular schedule. 

I stopped, finally, this morning, and all at once the only thing that I had to do was to find that passage in My Korean Deli. Which I did, after lunch. It was the next item on the agenda, and there were no deadlines beyond it. I was not distracted by the many other blog-related activities that were languishing while I combed through Howe’s paragraphs — even the ones about George Plimpton and The Paris Review that would not, I was fairly sure, be where I found it. I hoped that the search wouldn’t take the entire afternoon, but if it did, so be it. What I really hoped was that it wouldn’t turn out that I’d concocted the phrase myself, twisting the text to my own case.

This raises the point that it was important for me to back up my own news with a quotation — an “authority” — that, now I think of it, may have set me free. Now, if anything, what I do every day far more closely resembles Howe’s comparatively shambolic job at the old Paris Review, where disorganization, at least as catalyzed by George Plimpton, appears to have been the secret of success. But that’s precisely why I wanted what I do every day to resemble his other job, the running of a deli, with all of its quotidian problems and obligations keeping me on my toes. Even though my work was unpaid, and nobody ever registered a complaint that, say, the Grand Hours entry for a given week wasn’t complete until late Sunday night, or that (much worse) my Book Review reviews — currently the only feature appearing at Civil Pleasures, my neglected Web site — appeared not a few days after the weekend but well into the following week; even in the complete absence of external penalties, I remained almost morbidly afraid of a more laid-back, see-what-happens style of operation. 

And I was right to be afraid. It was only by withholding the right to do nothing that I learned that I could almost always do something, and of course the discipline obliged me to overlook the disinclination that accompanies the more bald patches of the learning curve. It was only by glancing through hundreds of feeds a day, and reading as many as fifteen longish ones, that I learned what sort of material really interested me and seemed important to pass on. If pressed, I would have a very hard time summarizing this sort of material; I’m still very much in the process of abstracting its essences. But I know what I don’t have to look at. All those feeds made me a far better-informed reader than I’d ever been before, and I hope to hold onto the best of that. I’m not worried, at any rate, that the sites that I stop following will immediately begin producing tremendously interesting copy the moment I look the other way. And if some of them do, I’ll find out about it eventually. One thing that I’ve always been clear about is that I am not providing a news service. A think service, I hope. But not news. 

So, here we go. The immediate change will be the disappearance of structural reference to the canonical hours that were developed in Europe’s monasteries fifteen hundred years ago, and that I appropriated a few years ago as a demanding rubric. I will miss it, but only in the way that you miss something that you have helplessly outgrown. I fell back on the canonical hours four years ago as a way of guaranteeing that I’d be busy. Eight hours a day, four and five days a week (that varied), finally came to seem too much. Now the framework itself seems busy. I’m still going to collect what, in my earliest blogging days, I called “loose links,” but I won’t be looking for “finance” or “cognitive science.” My eye will simply range over the feeds and pick out items that either are intriguing and unusual or make solid additions to my existing collections. At least, that’s what I think it’s going to do. We’ll see. 

The last thing I want to do — and this is what really marks an era, as James would put it — is trumpet the coming of changes at The Daily Blague. I  don’t expect there to be any real change in the substance of my entries; and, if there is, it will be gradual and subtle, reflecting changes in my mentality, not the blog’s format. It really doesn’t matter what the format is — now. Now that I’ve worked pretty hard for a few years interrogating, as James would not have put it, myself and the Internet, I know what I’m doing, or, at any rate, I know what I’m going to do next. I don’t need a schedule to tell me. 

Daily Office: Matins
Hiatus
Monday, 25 April 2011

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Ross Douthat’s attempt to find a few good things to say about Hell provides us, we see at once, with an ideal exit line. With this entry, we bring to a close the conceit of dressing newfangled World-Wide Web aggregation in the plumage of the canonical hours.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

Stuff (it).

Perhaps because we’re looking forward to August at the beach, we’ve been wishing that the everyday chore of glancing over hundreds of feeds (reading 25 of which is a big job) were more like beachcombing. Henceforth, we’re only going to bend to pick up the items that catch our fancy — some because they’re really unlike anything else; others because they add to our collection. We are no longer going to stalk the strand in search of edification in predetermined topics.

Daily Office: Vespers
Idiocracy “In an interview last year for this obituary”
Friday, 22 April 2011

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Presumably, the Times writer really did tell Madelyn Pugh Davis, the long-time I Love Lucy writer who died the other day at 90, why they were calling.

In an interview last year for this obituary, Ms. Davis recalled some of the many wacky situations she helped devise for Ms. Ball: standing on stilts, coping with a house overrun by baby chicks, wearing a beard and — a classic — overwhelmed by a warp-speed conveyor belt in a chocolate factory.

“Lucy would do anything we suggested,” Ms. Davis said.

Really?

“The only time she ever said she didn’t want to do something was when she saw an elephant on the set and ran up to her office,” Ms. Davis recalled.

The script called for her to retrieve $500 from under the elephant’s foot.

“Then the phone rang and it was Vivian Vance,” Ms. Davis said. “Vivian said, ‘It’s O.K., I told Lucy that if she didn’t want to do that funny thing, I’ll do it.’ And Lucy said, ‘O.K., I’ll do it.’ So she talked into the elephant’s trunk and got it to lift its foot.”

But then, Davis went to high school (and was in the fiction club) with Kurt Vonnegut. There you go.

Moviegoing:
Arthur

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

At the movies this morning, I saw the remark of Arthur, and I liked it about a million times more than I did the original. I’ll get round to saying why a little bit later today…

  1. This version of Arthur works because Russell Brand is a boy. True, he’s a very tall boy, and a boy with five-o’clock shadow. But he’s a boy, not a man. This makes the new Arthur a lot more appealing than the old one, where the title role was played by a sad short thirtysomething who wanted access to boobs more than he wanted fun.
  2. Helen Mirren. La reine des reines.
  3. Greta Gerwig. Greta Gerwig conducting a tour of Grand Central Terminal. All we could think of was her collaboration with Joe Jervis, touring Grand Central Station. The compass rose and all that. Joe’s first kiss, tickle tickle. Greta Gerwig is the poster-person for sexual honesty today, no small feat.
  4. The Pierre. Oh, and Nick Nolte, playing a thick bad guy. Fun!
  5. Jennifer Garner. Garner has the cheekbones, in several scenes, of a great Forties movie star, think Rita Hayworth except Garner is better. Her beauty jore than compensates for the fact that nobody loves her character; that, in fact her character is awful. That, HEY!, Jennifer Garner is the Bad Guy in Arthur. Obvious, yes, but thinks!
  6. What is it about boobs? Is breast-feeding the problem, or the solution? Guys!
  7. Geraldine James, whom we have never seen enough of since The Jewel in the Crown.
  8. More anon.
  9. Have you been drinking?

Daily Office: Matins
The Information
Friday, 22 April 2011

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

If we thought that convicted fraudster Lee Farkas could get past the colophon, we’d wonder if he had been reading James Gleick’s new book.

Mr. Farkas did not prove to be a very good witness on his behalf. He insisted no crime had been committed, but his understanding of the law seemed to be a little unusual.

Patrick F. Stokes, a deputy chief of the Justice Department’s criminal fraud section, asked Mr. Farkas if he thought Taylor Bean’s agreement with Colonial Bank allowed the mortgage firm “to sell fraudulent, counterfeit, fictitious loans” to the bank.

“Yeah, I believe it does,” he replied.

“It’s very common in our business to, to sell — because it’s all data, there’s really nothing but data — to sell loans that don’t exist,” he explained. “It happens all the time.”

PS: Floyd Norris filed this report. That makes the second time this week that our eye has been caught by a Times news story masquerading as a column. Trend?

PPS: What we really do wonder is whether this story belongs in our “Idiocracy” collection.

Daily Office
Grand Hours
April 2011: Third Week

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

{Blague We Must}

Matins

¶ It looks crazy now, and let’s hope it stays that way: Joseph Harris, an Emergency Financial Manager in Benton Harbor, Michigan, empowered by recent state legislation, has prohibited elected officials from doing their jobs. He, in effect, is now the local government. (AlterNet; via MetaFilter)

Lauds

¶ Writing about the latest in opera — from Tod Machover’s “robot chorus” to the Met’s goggle-less 3D — Mark Swed interposes a wise note of caution.

This is the spectacle of opera trying hard to be more movie-like, to retain the pleasure of the company of flesh-and-blood singers and of the live, unamplified (or possibly lightly enhanced) human voice all complemented by the immersive experience of cinema. The problem with the approach is that opera is an art form with artificial surfaces and a deep interior. Singing is not speaking but rather a projection of an inner voice. Too much exterior realism hinders the all-important suspension of disbelief.

How easily some people forget the lesson of Capriccio: “Prima la musica, dopo le parole.” (LA Times; via Arts Journal) ¶ Maybe what perennial rediscovery candidate Preston Sturges (our favorite dramaturge) needs for permanent exaltation is some zippy approval from David Foster Wallace. Faute de ça: Martha Polk’s cheeky “PRESTON STURGES CAN YOU SAVE ME NOW?What keeps this piece vital is its refusal to decide whether The Palm Beach Story is better than The Lady Eve, or vice versa. (The Hairpin)

Prime

¶ P

Tierce

¶ Elizabeth Abbott ventures to make a liberal defense of polygamy, but concludes that she cannot. Whereas free-speech protections of homophobic utterances and the recognition of same-sex marriages expand the coverage of “an existing system of rights,” polygamy threatens that system. We agree, but we wish that the argument were more strongly made. (The Walrus; via The Morning News)

Sext

¶ Every party has a pooper, but, really, can’t Christopher Hitchens do any better? His royal wedding dyspepsia does, it’s true, reach surprisingly to criticism of Her Majesty Herself, but the crimes are ancient (quashing Margaret’s first love; abandoning Charles to his father’s pedagogical mercies). Even the would-have-been Countess of Finchley would have found Hitchens’s contumely to be uninflammably Wet. (Slate; via MetaFilter) ¶ Intentionally or not, Kevin Nguyen shows how the map has succumbed to the GPS navigator. (The Bygone Bureau)

Nones

¶ Tyler Cowen perpends: “Why do Brazilians emigrate so infrequently?” Is everyone having too much fun there? Is internal migration a viable alternative? How about the Portuguese angle (it is so not the language of Latin America)? (Marginal Revolution)

Vespers

¶ Sir Thomas Browne is near the top of the list of writers whom we’d like to spend more time with, or think we would, but never quite get round to; perhaps the newly published New Directions edition of Urn Burial, sized for portability, is the answer. At The Millions, Greg Gerke writes a lovely appreciation of Browne’s baroque prose that makes us wish we had the summer off.

Compline

¶ At The Infrastructurist, Eric Jaffe reports on the growing popularity of “smart-growth” residential areas, with smaller lots and rich alternatives to automobile transport — but he notes that people like these neighborhoods for everybody else.

Have a Look

¶ HL

Noted

¶ Habit Judo. (via MetaFilter) ¶ Putting Malcolm Gladwell to the test, at no proximate cost to Malcolm Gladwell. (TampaBay.com; via The Morning News)

Daily Office: Vespers
Idiocracy Rising: Example 386T
Thursday, 21 April 2011

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

We really have no comment to make on Gail Collins’s column about anti-abortion math in today’s Times; we’re just filing it away in our Idiocracy dossier. And with our meditations at Matins in mind, we wonder what “transparency” would bring to this problem.

Welcome to the fact-free zone. This week, U.S. Senator John Cornyn gave an interview to Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune in which he claimed that the battle in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood “was really part of a larger fight about spending money we don’t have on things that aren’t essential.”

There are a lot of fiscal conservatives in the anti-abortion movement, and it’s apparently hard for them to admit that destroying Planned Parenthood is a money-loser.

There’s also a resistance to government support for contraceptive services. “There are some people in the pro-life movement who think birth control pills of all kind are abortifacients,” said Senator Bob Deuell, a Republican. “But I don’t see any medical evidence.”

Deuell is one of those rare abortion opponents who is dedicated to the cause of helping women avoid unwanted pregnancy in the first place. He says his allies in the anti-abortion movement haven’t objected to his approach, but he admitted that they haven’t been handing him any medals either.

We’re currently stuck with a politics of reproduction in which emotion is so strong that actual information becomes irrelevant. Senator Cornyn, in his interview, was reminded of the great dust-up his colleague Jon Kyl of Arizona created when he claimed that 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood did involved abortions. When challenged, Kyl’s staff said the figure “was not intended to be a factual statement.”

So did Cornyn agree that Kyl screwed up?

“I’m not so sure,” Cornyn said.

Gotham Diary:
Island Hopping

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

 

A beautiful day, finally, with so much sunlight filling the blue sky that I thought I was in Bermuda, looking out over Harrington Sound instead of Queens. On all my trips to Bermuda, I’ve never spent much time looking out over Harrington Sound, but this morning I was staring so hard at photographs of the view from a terrace that I burned through to some sense memory of actually being in the vicinity. I was trying to figure out the location of a rather imposing pile, dating from 1929 and unimaginatively called the “Manor House.” 

It began with a real estate ad in today’s online edition of the Times. The Bermuda pink of the — for Bermuda — palatial façade must have caught my eye. I could not resist the slideshow of the two-bedroom unit that has been carved out of, or perhaps created alongside, the old mansion. It wasn’t terribly interesting in itself, except as an example of grandeur cut down to modern size. But the view of a strange old tower, connected to a boathouse apparently, ignited the sort of curiosity that inevitably leads me to Google Maps. I had to know where the place was. 

Make no mistake: Kathleen and I are not in the market for a $1.3 million pied-à-terre in Bermuda. (I will omit discussion of the fact that this property can indeed be owned by foreigners rich enough to meet Bermuda’s steep net-worth requirements.) My interest in locating the Manor House was absolutely and purely idle. But it was not the less obsessive for that. I have to know where everything is nowadays. Give me an address, and I fly off on my browser’s satellite for an overhead view. It’s a bit more intrusive than a drive-by, because I can peer into backyards (and back forties), but I feel not the slightest compunction about being surprised to discover that certain affluent relations live very close to a major airport. Or happy to know that a friend’s mother will be only a block from the subway when she moves next month — which I can tell even though I’ve never been to that part of town. When there’s nothing new to snoop into, I revisit the homes of my youth, two of which have been rather unbecomingly “improved” since my day. (I’d have torn them down.) 

Harrington Sound, rather witlessly described in the Times ad, as “a scenic inland lake,” is simply a body of seawater that is almost but not entirely surrounded by the bits and pieces of volcano-top that constitute the Bermuda Islands. (Perhaps more precisely, it is a slightly submerged bit of volcano- top; but it is full of seawater and in no sense a “lake.” The reference to “inland” would be ludicrous if it weren’t necessary to make it clear that ocean beaches are not part of the deal.) With one exception, I’ve only seen the Sound from the back seat of a taxi, on interminable rides between Hamilton and St George’s. Bermuda is about as long as Manhattan, but getting from one end to the other involves roads barely wider than driveways, traveling through an extended version of Central Park’s Ramble. Harrington Sound always seems to take forever to drive around. You might see a sailboat, but usually not. It is quiet, but without being interesting or inviting. What was this Manor House place doing on Harrington Sound? And where the hell was it? 

I perused what I considered to be the likely shores, to the north and the east. There are some pretty big “properties” in those parts, but nothing correlating to the images in the slide show presented itself. In this way, an hour passed. Over and over, I coursed from Castle Harbor to Pink Beach, ignoring the Mid-Ocean Club and trying to recall the year in which the black denizens of Tucker’s Town were evacuated to make room for a golf course, surrounded by homes of the rich one of which is owned by our own Mayor Bloomberg. Nothing.

As you can see from the slides, the front of the Manor House is very unusual (for Bermuda), with its peristyle entry to an interior courtyard. I tried to guess the orientation of the building from the shadows, but all I could really tell was that the house didn’t face north. Finally, I cheated. I looked for and found other real estate listings. One of these placed the Manor in Smith’s, the parish that includes Pink Beach (which Kathleen and I visited twice, long ago) and the south shore of Harrington Sound. Further investigation revealed that the Manor is “steps away” from the Bermuda Aquarium and from a restaurant called Rustico’s, both of which are in a village the name of which no one ever mentions, perhaps because, according to the maps, it’s “Flatt’s.” 

The first time that Kathleen and I visited Pink Beach, the atmosphere of luxe was neither calm nor voluptuous enough to soften my conviction that my beard was seriously unkempt. I needed a trim! Kathleen discovered that there was a barber shop in nearby Flatt’s, and, Flatt’s’ being nearby, I suggested that we walk from the hotel. This turned out to be a memorable mistake, one that still takes up a full page in our virtual album of holiday horrors. When I called Bermuda’s roads driveways just now, I hope you didn’t think that they’re fitted with correspondingly reduced sidewalks. There are no sidewalks (not outside of Hamilton, anyway). So you are walking in a narrow lane with the traffic. You are walking in the lane because the edge of the lane is shielded by the low-lying canopy of riotous wildnerness growth that serves Bermudians as free natural fences. And because you cannot walk in the low-hanging shade, you walk in the hot sun. Every once in a while, you get a glimpse of Harrington Sound. By the time you get to your destination, after a walk that ought to have taken fifteen minutes for sheer mileage, instead of forty, you are no longer speaking to your traveling companion. She, at any rate, is not speaking to you. 

So it’s not without reason that I have no recollection of walking under the quaint footbridge that, just east of Flatt’s — not that I had any idea of being near to the end of our ordeal — connects the Manor House to the picturesque boathouse. You can see the bridge from the satellite as well as from the slideshow, and it is mentioned in a description of the Manor House that appears on the “See Smith’s” page of Bermuda-online.org. According to the Web page, the Manor House used to be called “Deepdene,” and — what a small world it is!— it turns out to have been built for “an American millionaire, Charles Ledyard Blair and his first wife who was related to the Bermudian Butterfield family. Blair was from Blairstown (New Jersey) and imported non-Bermudian architecture.” I’ll say! But let’s stop at Blairstown, which is (as regular readers know) where I went to prep school, at an institution of the same name as the builder of Deepdene. 

Finding the Manor House, I was released by a quick burst into carefree possession of the useless information that I had sought all morning. That ought to have been the end of it, but I been out in the virtual sun too long, and now the real one took me back to Bermuda as well. It has left me feeling as though I were there yesterday. I can feel the heat and smell the air and hear the lilting accents. That I would no longer ask for a Tanqueraymartiniupwithanoliveandnottoodryplease makes it even easier to be satisfied with the imaginary trip. 

I am of course not much of a traveler. I was explaining this to Tito, the Peruvian barber who keeps my beard trim, only yesterday. He asked if I had ever been to South America or if I had plans to go, and I said that, no, I didn’t travel much, and when I did, I preferred to go to Europe (although when that’s going to happen next is beyond guessing). I added that for an eighteen-month stretch, beginning in 2008, I did not leave Manhattan Island. That made him laugh. When he goes home to Lima, he told me, his friends ask him what New York is like, and he has a terrible time explaining the boroughs. Queens, for example — what is that? Tito shrugged. “New York,” he tells them, “is just Manhattan Island.” But to them, an island is something that sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and is topped by a few palm trees and grass huts. They can’t imagine that the dense forest of skyscrapers that they’ve seen in the movies actually sits on an island. 

I forgot to tell him to direct his friends to Google Maps.

Daily Office: Matins
Transparency? Feh.
Thursday, 21 April 2011

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

We don’t think much of “transparency” as a tool of good government. It’s an essentially passive technology that leaves no one to blame when it fails. Transparency has done nothing to keep the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and even, it seems, the Koch Brothers from pressing their toxic misrepresentations on anxious audiences. Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel, authors of Blind Spots, argue that transparency, like fines, denatures the ethical content of troublesome decisions.

A solution often advocated for this lack of objectivity is to increase transparency through disclosure of conflicts of interest. But a 2005 study by Daylian M. Cain, George Loewenstein and Don A. Moore found that disclosure can exacerbate such conflicts by causing people to feel absolved of their duty to be objective. Moreover, such disclosure causes its “victims” to be even more trusting, to their detriment.

Our legal system often focuses on whether unethical behavior represents “willful misconduct” or “gross negligence.” Typically people are only held accountable if their unethical decisions appear to have been intentional — and of course, if they consciously make such decisions, they should be. But unintentional influences on unethical behavior can have equally damaging outcomes.

Our confidence in our own integrity is frequently overrated. Good people unknowingly contribute to unethical actions, so reforms need to address the often hidden influences on our behavior. Auditors should only audit; they should not be allowed to sell other services or profit from pleasing their customers. Similarly, if we want credit-rating agencies to be objective, they need to keep an appropriate distance from the issuers of the securities they assess. True reform needs to go beyond fines and disclosures; if we are to truly eliminate conflicts of interest we must understand the psychology behind them.

Daily Office: Vespers
Enterotypes
Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Peer Bork, a research scientist at Heidelberg, has discovered that human being living in the developed world fall into three entereotypes, or classes of gut-harboring microbes.

“Some things are pretty obvious already,” Dr. Bork said. Doctors might be able to tailor diets or drug prescriptions to suit people’s enterotypes, for example.

Or, he speculated, doctors might be able to use enterotypes to find alternatives to antibiotics, which are becoming increasingly ineffective. Instead of trying to wipe out disease-causing bacteria that have disrupted the ecological balance of the gut, they could try to provide reinforcements for the good bacteria. “You’d try to restore the type you had before,” he said. Dr. Bork notes that more testing is necessary. Researchers will need to search for enterotypes in people from African, Chinese and other ethnic origins. He also notes that so far, all the subjects come from industrial nations, and thus eat similar foods. “This is a shortcoming,” he said. “We don’t have remote villages.”

Rialto Note:
Arcadia, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

As I watched Tom Riley play the part of Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that’s making its Broadway premieire sixteen years after its off-Broadway debut, I tried to remember what Billy Crudup was like in the role the first time round. Making this exercise doubly difficult was the presence of Mr Crudup himself on the stage, now playing the part of Bernard Nightingale. Septimus Hodge belongs to the “early” part of the action, which begins in 1809 and ends a few years later; Bernard Nightingale is our contemporary. The two time frames do not share the stage much until the action in both thickens toward the doubled climax, but every time Mr Crudup burst upon the scene he scattered his earlier persona into atoms. His long hair and sober, late-Eighteenth Century demeanor were replaced by a trim cut, a slim suit jacket, and spruce jeans, but mostly it was the smirk that did it. Septimu Hodge might smile, and his smile might drip condescension; but he doesn’t smirk. Bernard Nightingale is a smirk, even in disaster. (And how could he not be? Bill Nighy created the role, in 1993.) I knew that I had seen Billy Crudup as Hodge, but I couldn’t bring his Hodge back. 

The recurrence of Billy Crudup in Arcadia, playing a different role — that of a somewhat older man — is arguably the most marvelous things about this production, not because the actor does a fine job (which he most certainly does) but because the recurrence itself points to the deeper meaning of the play. Arcadia is generally thought to be an intellectually demanding play (as are most of Mr Stoppard’s), and there are certainly passages of expository discussion that require the complete attention of an educated mind. But these moments are actually as rare as they are in real life, which Arcadia, for all its artistry and illusion, more closely captures than most dramas. Most of the characters are very intelligent people, and they talk about things that interest them with wit and passion. These exchanges are never as decorative as they might seem, because they always refer to the deeper meaning that I mentioned; but they are not what the play is “about,” either. 

Arcadia, as a poetic place, dates to the High Renaissance, when the baggage of the classical past was heavily recycled for modern purposes. A mountainous region of the Peloponnese peninsula lent its name to a mythological earthly paradise of nymphs, shepherds, and fragrant bowers. When Philip Sidney imagined it as a getaway for blasé courtiers, the rough edges were cleaned up, and unpleasant possibilities were wrapped up in the enigmatic phrase, Et in Arcadia ego. In lieu of a leisurely ramble through Erwin Panofsky’s famous essay on the subject of this inscription, which famously appears on one painting by Guercino and on two by Poussin, we will come straight to the point, which is that the earlier Poussin hangs at Chatsworth House, one of the most stately homes in England and home, until recently, of the playwright’s good friend Deborah Devonshire.

While it would be as silly to argue that Arcadia is “about” Chatsworth as it would be to say that the play is “about” the laws of entropy and thermodynamics, the slippages of historiography, or the art of landscaping, I became convinced that the play really is about breathing the very real “Arcadian” atmosphere that obtains at England’s great estates — especially the ones that have been held on to by the same family for centuries. It is about spending hours in rooms and beneath trees with someone who might be the Duchess of Something-or-other, and wondering what it might have been like to sit next to an earlier bearer of that title  in the very same spot, a century or two ago. Or perhaps to play with a boy called Lord Augustus. In Arcadia, there are two such boys, played by the same actor, one of them long buried in his grave, the other immured in something like autism. Above all, Arcadia is an essay in the fruitfulness of death.

The Coverly family, headed by the Lord Croom of the moment, resides at Sidley Park in Derbyshire (the home of Chatworth and also of Mr Darcy’s fictional Pemberley — a region of rough, “Arcadian” terrain). We never meet a Lord Croom, and a fine essay could be composed on the playwright’s elegant elision of several “characters” — most remarkably, Lord Byron, the play’s McGuffin — but we do meet a Lady Croom and a total of five Coverly children. Lady Croom and two young Coverlys appear in the play’s earlier time frame, set, as I’ve said, in the middle of the Napoleonic brouhaha. The principal action here is anything but: Lady Thomasina Coverly, whom we realize is a natural mathematical genius, teases her suave and handsome tutor, Septimus Hodge, while nursing a crush on him. Not much happens in the course of this period badinage, but from background, lusty Lady Croom, the poetaster Ezra Chater, whom Septimus has apparently cuckholded, a stentorian Naval officer, a landscape architect called Richard Noakes, and a portly butler all emerge to distract the tutor. A climax is reached when Septimus recognizes the enormity of Thomasina’s amateur discoveries. Thanks to the second, later time frame, we know what happens next, and this makes the end of Arcadia immensely poignant, but learning about it from characters posited two centuries later has the effect of muting the sorrow. Thus the play itself dabbles in the practice of history, contrasting events with the traces that they leave to the future. 

In the later time frame, three Coverly children are gathered at Sidley Park, Valentine, Chloë, and Gus. Also on hand are Hannah Jarvis, an unorthodox — non-academic — literary historian, and, presently, Bernard Nightgale, an altogether more conventional (and unbearable) opportunist from Sussex. Bernard is on the scent of a sensational scandal involving a duel fought long ago — during the earlier time frame. Hannah is researching “the hermit of Sidley Park,” a creature who eked out a mysterious, raving living in an ornamental structure designed and built by Noakes back in — you guessed it. Dramatic irony has never been put to such self-expressive use: as Bernard and Hannah and Valentine chatter away about what “must” have happened long ago at Sidley Park, we know what did, because we just saw it happen.

The climax here mirrors that of the earlier frame: Hannah hits on the answer to her question, and knows who the hermit was. And we’re as sure in our gut that she’s right as she is, even though none of us can be sure. Something deep has happened in the grand but spare room, giving out onto the park, on which we’ve been flies on the wall for several hours; something equally deep has happened much later: the excavation of the earlier depth. These moments are almost simultaneous, and their theatrical impact is like nothing else. The passage of time — real and dramatic — is canceled and ratified in the same instant. As if in homage to the Arcadian entertainments of the Renaissance, Mr Stoppard ends the play with two couples of nymphs and shepherds dancing a simple, wordless ballet. 

Arcadia calls for a cast of twelve, half of whom really have to be stars. The new production, directed by David Leveaux, burns with brilliant talent. Tom Riley and Billy Crudup, I’ve already mentioned, are superb as Septimus Hodge and Bernard Nightingale. (Mr Crudup may well have a corner on playing characters whom we like to dislike.) Bel Powley’s Thomasina was endearingly brash; I only wish that the makeup that she wore at the end had not brought Ann Miller to mind. I hope that we’ll get to see more of Lia Williams; she puts her own fine stamp on the role of the earthily impatient Hannah. Raul Esparza disappeared so completely into the diffident Val that I didn’t recognize him until the interval, and Margaret Colin, as Lady Croom, demonstrated that she will make a fine Lady Bracknell someday. (“But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.”) Grace Gummer, the engagingly ingénue daughter of you-know-who, and Noah Robbins held their own as Chloë and Gus Coverly. David Turner was agreeable in the thankless role of Ezra Chater. Byron Jennings, Edward James Hyland, and Glenn Fleshler all sparkled as Noakes, the butler, and the Naval officer, respectively — stock parts that only a playwright of Tom Stoppard’s stature would be permitted to include. Hildegard Bechtler, Donald Holder, and Gregory Gale rose to the challenge of giving Arcadia the sets, lighting, and costumes that a Broadway revival demands; the warm simplicity of their effects invited us all to sojourn for a while in a myth whose power we might have discounted. 

Daily Office: Matins
Gerontocracy
Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

The United States’ arguably unintentional campaign to preserve the Cuban Revolution until the very last historico topples into his grave just breezed past another milestone, with the appointment of the first non-Castro leader, 80 year-old José Ramón Machado.

Mr. Castro acknowledged that his generation had lagged in preparing young leaders, saying Cuba lacked “a reserve of substitutes with the sufficient maturity and experience to take over the principal duties of the country.”

Some analysts disputed that, saying Mr. Castro’s moves merely solidified his power against any stirrings from those who are young and perhaps too progressive.

[snip]

Aside from being a fellow combatant during the revolution, Mr. Machado may have been an attractive choice to Mr. Castro for his role overseeing the inner workings of the party, in charge of an office approving promotions and developing ties with party leaders across the island, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Denver and former political analyst in the Cuban Interior Ministry.

“Machado will be a key factor in choosing not only the successor, but also the structure of separation of powers destined to replace, within the party and between party and government, the current model of ‘Castro in command,’ ” Mr. Lopez-Levy said.

“Down the road, the old leaders just gained some time,” he said. “Will they use it wisely? The congress gave some hope to the party members and the population about a serious economic reform. Now the old generation still in power would have to respond to these expectations.”

Daily Office: Vespers
You Never Know
Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Let the naysayers cavil, but British monarchy’s aura of grandeur remains blinding enough for many happy observers of next week’s royal nuptials to behave as if some sort of coronation were in the offing. Why else speculate on the hopes that the bride’s stepmother, the Duchess of Cornwall, may harbor for parking her own derrière on the throne?

How much Camilla cares is a matter of debate. Some of her friends believe her concern is mostly for Charles, who has always said that he sees it as his destiny to become king, and has worked restlessly to that end, with a schedule of public duties that far outstrip any other royal family member, including his mother. Others say Camilla herself is not as come-what-may about the issue as she has sometimes suggested to friends, and would like one day to be back in the abbey, seated beside Charles, as crowns are placed on their heads.

Twice in recent months, the couple has hinted that they remain hopeful of turning the tide of public favor their way on the issue of Camilla’s becoming queen. In an interview in November with Brian Williams of NBC, Charles answered hopefully when asked whether Camilla would ever be the queen. “You know, I mean, we’ll see,” he replied, as if ambushed by the question. “That could be.”

In February, it was Camilla’s turn. “Are you going to be queen one day?” a little girl asked her on a visit to a children’s center in the Wiltshire town of Chippenham. “You never know,” Camilla replied, smiling.

Reading Note:
A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

In the middle of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, a debut novel by Peter Mountford, at what might be the climax of a love affair — the moment of declaration and commitment — a young American journalist called Gabriel (who is not quite American and not really a journalist) sits with Lenka, his lady love, on her son’s neatly-made bed. Lenka happens to be the press secretary for the newly-elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and before he fell in love with her, Gabriel regarded her as a promising source of inside information. He still does. 

He … wondered how he could say what he thought he should say, that all the sweet norms of romance — the bashful presentation of flowers, the holding of hands in a dim cinema — did not seem appropriate for them. But their relationship was alive and passionate and it thrived especially in the absence of any of that pro forma schlock. Their place was up in his hotel room, with cake and wine, at a slight remove from the world below. Still, there was more — or there was potential for more. He loved her and she loved him and he was even falling for her family, and if they — he and Lenka — were an unconventional couple, so be it. Maybe it could be strange and wonderful. But he didn’t know how to say these things. Instead, he said, “I really like it here. I really do.” And he nodded earnestly as he said it, staring at the toys in Ernesto’s room.

“But he didn’t know how to say these things.” This inability, reflective of a pervasive lack of moral clarity, is as much a part of the novel’s atmosphere as  the thin air of La Paz. It is, even, an element of Peter Mountford’s style. We are told what Gabriel is thinking but also that he does not know how to put his thoughts into words. This can mean many things — Gabriel could be one of those men who is seized with doubt when called upon to make important speeches, or his thoughts might be nowhere near as clear as Mountford’s presentation of them — but it doesn’t really matter what the problem is, because the result is the same: Gabriel doesn’t tell Lenka how much he loves her, and he doesn’t tell her because he doesn’t know how. We might wonder, in the aftermath of Mountford’s very sad story, why someone as bright and clever as Gabriel should have trouble saying those three little words, but the specific explanation for that doesn’t much matter, either, because, ultimately, Gabriel’s incapacity traces back to a failure of the world in which he has been brought up to teach him what he needs to know. He’s already in Bolivia because of that larger failure, lying to everyone he talks to about what he’s doing there and trying to believe that his ends will justify his means. Gabriel’s brain is like a high-performance engine into which someone has poured a tankful of inadequately refined fuel. 

Peter Mountford has written his novel as a cautionary tale for intelligent young men who might be chafing the pressure to make more of themselves — or at any rate to make more money. Don’t do it, he urges. Don’t sell your soul to the devil because one too many of your classmates has gotten rich on Wall Street. Don’t think that you can do a bad thing for just long enough to build up a nest egg on which retire to a long life of blamelessness. Don’t try to persuade yourself that, because the victims of your crime are in pari delicto, you’re not  committing a crime. Mountford has ardently fleshed out these warnings with the story of Gabriel’s folly. And by sparing Gabriel the more melodramatic punishments — be sparing him, as might be said, any real punishment at all — the author intensifies his ultimate desolation, cut off from the two women who mean most to him. 

The artistic price of this appealing achievement is an indistinctness about Gabriel, who is callow, somewhat laddish, but likeable withal. It’s a combination that will make the novel easy to adapt for the screen, but it’s also one that diminishes the reader’s satisfaction. Gabriel is an average sensual man with a few spikes of talent. There is nothing evil about him, but his outlook is so perennially fogged by low-grade cynicism that he no longer notices the murk, and he is a largely complaisant user of other people. The confusion of his own origins, which might, in another character, inspire rigorous adherence to clear standards of conduct, makes Gabriel agile at the situational contortions of moral relativism. His Chilean mother fled her homeland under Pinochet, for Russia of all places; toward the end of her sojourn there, she became  pregnant by a Russian man whom she has never identified to the son subsequently born in the United States. Gabriel therefore has a number of ways of looking at himself at his disposal, and he has been taught by his liberal, ivy-league world to keep his options open. It is as though every vital moral inoculation has been withheld from his formation. 

This novel would have been stronger if Mountford had jumped to one side or the other of Gabriel’s fence. Making him more of a villain would have satisfied readers who believe that each of us is, in the end, responsible for his own behavior. Presenting Gabriel’s background at more generous length would, in contrast, have affirmed other readers’ belief that we are, in the end, responsible for one another. In this latter reading, the cautionary tale would have been aimed at teachers and bankers and everyone else who might have fought to stiffen Gabriel’s too-supple backbone. Making Gabriel a ruthless, stop-at-nothing industrial spy would have heightened the excitement and burnished the ending with a kind of black glee, but I don’t think that this approach was ever really available to the author. He likes Gabriel too much, and he wants us to like Gabriel, the better to enter into his miguided schemes. Most of all, he wants us to feel awful about Gabriel’s personal losses — and in this he succeeds with surpassing brilliance. In an epilogue of fewer than a dozen pages, Mountford gives us a portrait of his gentleman several years later that chills our sympathetic disposition almost to the point of tears. 

He’d given up cigarettes too when he’d quick smoking. He’d also quit coffee and other drugs. But he knew he didn’t look especially well either. Despite all the exercise and the mainly vegan diet, his complexion was sallow. His hair had thinned on top and was streaked with gray. He had lost even more weight. He had permanent dark bags under his eyes. All of this he blamed on a combination of circumstances, including perpetual jet lag, unpredictable diet, and the fact that he could never get accustomed to a bed; also the wages of aging, chronic stress, watching too much hotel television at night, and relentless loneliness.

In other words, Gabriel is aware that he is paying a high price for his promotions at the hedge fund where he now runs private equities, and for which he briefly thought, long ago and far away, that he had extracted a generous tip from his beautiful lady love. 

I can well understand an author’s shying away from trying to pin Gabriel’s misjudgments on a general social failure, but surely some of the extensive depiction of La Paz might have been traded in for more about Gabriel’s growing up. Did he pay attention in school? He seems to have worked hard on some game theory experiments as an undergraduate, but, once out in the world, his industriousness appears to have been dented — which is what made the hedge fund’s easy money so attractive. Gabriel is obviously a lost young man, and to grasp the extent of his disorientation we need more in the way of a map. Here’s hoping that our fine young writer’s next novel is somewhat less equivocal.