Archive for July, 2011

Weekend Update:
On the Eve
Sunday, 31 August

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Part of it is, I’ve gotten tired of the sound of my own voice. Part of it.

On this last day of July, I’m preoccupied by what Augsut will bring. Kathleen and I have agreed that we will aim to take the 4 PM ferry from Bayshore to Ocean Beach (why does the schedule say “Ocean Bay Park”?) to meet our landlord at the Fire Island dock. In order to do this, we will take a train from Penn Station and “change at Jamaica.” Thirty years ago, the last time we did this, that meant crossing a platform. I hope that it’s still so simple. We’ll have twenty minutes to make a five-minute taxi ride from the station to the ferry.

We expect to spend the night in the house that we’ve rented, and to return to New York early on Tuesday morning. I’ll probably return to the house on Thursday. Everyone else will arrive on Friday, some for the weekend and some for longer stays. Megan and I have blocked out a calendar that indicates who’s coming when.

Beyond that, I know nothing. I don’t know what the supermarket in Ocean Beach is like, or how long it takes to walk from the ferry to the house, which is not in Ocean Beach but Robbins Rest, a two-lane development off the western edge of Ocean Beach. I don’t know what I’ll want to bring out to use in the kitchen. I don’t know what kind of wireless reception we’ll have. I have no idea at all what I”m going to want to do with myself.  All I know is that I”m going to the beach for a month (with a few quick trips back into town), and that whole point of being at the beach is taking it easy. Which means letting go.

Letting go doesn’t come naturally to me, but it seems that I’ve been doing nothing else for weeks now. I’ve been reading instead of writing. And I’ve been reading books instead of reading feeds. I’ve sunk back into the old world of long reads and limited voices. That has perhaps inevitably meant spending time in the company of older minds, and I’m almost ashamed to say how congenial I’ve found that.

Sometimes, I think that I’m molting, shedding an old, outgrown skin. Sometimes, I think that I’m having a nervous breakdown in slow motion, too stretched-out to be painful. Sometimes, I think that I’ve undergone a Copernican revolution: I’m simply no longer at the center of my own life. My grandson is. This isn’t to say that I love him more than I love Kathleen or anyone else; it’s not really a matter of love. It’s a matter of meaning. To put it another way, Will is the future, and I’m not. They say that you don’t appreciate your mortality until your parents die. I’m finding that you appreciate it even more when your first grandchild is born. What can I give to Will that he’ll find useful to take into that future, even if its value isn’t apparent to him until long after I’m gone?

I have decided not to make a decision about posting here (or elsewhere) during August. Regularity means a great deal to me; it’s often all that gets me going. I’m thinking of posting very brief daily entries here — as one blogger years ago put it in deep shame, “What I had for dinner last night” — while keeping an ongoing diary, with the oldest stuff at the top, at Civil Pleasures. But that thought will have to contend with the realities that I encounter late tomorrow afternoon and the next morning.

Wish me luck. I wish you a cool and pleasant August.

Serenade
Fugit
Friday, 29 July 2011

Friday, July 29th, 2011

¶ We are sorry to learn that Judge Jed Rakoff has ruled that Irving Picard, the trustee who is trying to recoup the losses of Bernard Madoff’s victims, lacks standing to sue banks and other service providers for negligent enablement. Technically — and standing is always technical when it isn’t blindingly obvious — the trustee stands in Mr Madoff’s shoes, not those of his victims. This Gilded Age reasoning makes no human sense, and bankruptcy law ought to be revised forthwith to refute it.

Moviegoing:
Cowboys & Aliens
Friday, 29 July 2011

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Two things save Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens from being a total bore for anyone who has outgrown adolescence, and they are intertwined. One is Daniel Craig, and the Bond glamour that he brings to the project. (It seems to have infected cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Henry Gregson-Williams.) Craig brings an almost choreographic rigor to the routine of looking mean and tough, and he fills the movie with little moments of excitement that put me in mind of Nureyev lifting Fonteyn. Who cares if Jake Lonergan is really a good guy? Craig is really a great actor, and his winking way of reminding us that great performances don’t just fall out of bed is a trick that makes him the consummate James Bond, rendering each and every one of his predecessors, very much including Sean Connery, a clutch of pretty boys. Like Harrison Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde, we’d like Daniel Craig to hang out with us when the excitement is over, and, again like Dolarhyde, we respect the fact that the man has a higher calling.

The second thing that makes Cowboys & Aliens is its opening gambit, which comes from neither of its conjoined genres but instead belongs to B-movie noirs. A guy wakes up in a strange place with a wound, a girl’s photograph, and an unexplained accessory — in Lonergan’s case, a wristwatch minus the watch and plus a lot of trans-Dick-Tracy detail. Not until deep into the movie is the ambiguity resolved, and until then we’re kept edgily wondering if Lonergan is (a) a gunman who has had a close encounter with an alien that he no longer remembers or (b) an alien who has had an even closer encounter with the human Jake Lonergan that he no longer remembers. Daniel Craig knows that the way to keep this uncertainty interesting is to make you care about him,  whoever he is. Also borrowed from the noirs is the figure of Ella Swenson, who keeps pestering Craig with offers to help him, going so far as to knock him flat when he’s about to leave town. What’s the deal with her? Once it has answered these questions, Cowboys & Aliens settles down into a textbook shootout.

The aliens are very nasty. Like the beastie in Super 8, they’re both incredibly intelligent and super slimy. The novelty here is actually a doubly shameless rip-off (from the Aliens series, of course): the last thing that any human victim will see is the monster’s suppurating abdomen opening up to reveal a pair of three-digited hands that draw their prey to a set of distinctly arthropodic mouthparts. Gross and double gross! Jon Favreau is to be thanks for treating us to this spectacle very sparingly.

Ella Swenson, who also turns out to be a [redacted], is played by Olivia Wilde, Hollywood’s It Girl of the moment. Wilde is very pretty, and doubtless capable of great things. But hers is a very tricky business, and the actress would do well to study the career of Jacqueline Bissett, a beauty of similar luminousness. I don’t mean the Darryl Zanuck part — that’s not going to be a problem for this daughter of savvy DC professionals, who reportedly found her a job with a casting agency so that she’d learn just how awful Hollywood is (she was very quickly cast herself, of course). No, what I mean is the difficulty of embodying the wildest dreams of men without being suffocated by the inviting passivity that’s such an important part of that package. Unlike all the great screen comediennes that I can think of, Wilde looks like she really admires men. It’s all right to want them and to desire them, but once you approve of men, you’ve lost your mojo. If, I mean, you have Olivia Wilde’s looks. 

Harrison Ford gets second billing to Daniel Craig — has that happened before, since the Indiana Jones films? I don’t like to think what it means. Well, here’s what it means. It means that Ford has been given a tailor-made part to play, one that pulls out all his more resonant stops and lets him do his stück. Unfortunately, that is one genre too many. For Harrison Ford, who has certainly ridden a herd of horses and grappled with a host of aliens in his time, is neither a cowboy nor an alien star. He is always an abrasive smart-ass who turns out to have the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein, even when he’s a good-natured abrasive smart-ass or an unscrupulous louse. Favreau tries hard to muss up the portrait, by introducing Woodrow Dolarhyde as the kind of cattleman who would tie a hired hand to two horses — drawing and halving, as it were — to find out what happened to his livestock. But Ford defeats the exercise by convincing you that this is the sort of thing that you have to do if you’re going to run things in the Old West; he doesn’t like it any more than you do. It’s the smart-ass part that gets in the way; when people say that Cowboys & Aliens is funny, they’ll be referring almost exclusively to Harrison Ford’s scenes, which are all faithful adaptations of other Ford vehicles. There is nothing wrong with the borrowing — that’s what made the great stars really great in the old days, when Bette Davis was always Bette Davis, right up until you wanted to push her in the Nile. But it’s not what Cowboys & Aliens is about, and you are left with the slightly embarrassing recollection that nobody ever hired Harrison Ford to play James Bond.

Anyone who employs the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the effect of seeing cowboys and aliens on the same screen is to be taken out and shot for criminal pretentiousness. There is nothing wrong with the term when it is applied correctly, but here there is no dissonance at all. The hitherto disparate elements (Old-West storefronts on dusty streets, dankly dripping laboratories run by photophobic meanies) are applied with an amazingly equalizing brush. It all hangs together beautifully — although “beautifully” is probably not a word that ought to be allowed within fifty furlongs of Favreau’s gritty souvenir. When a damaged fighter plane (looking a lot like a dragonfly) tries to outrun our horse-riding hero by flying low through an arroyo, we’re perfectly prepared for Jake to do exactly what he would do if the plane were a train — stand in his stirrups and take a flying leap. That said, fans of Glen Baxter are going to feel right at home.

Aubade
Endless Harmony
Friday, 29 July 2011

Friday, July 29th, 2011

¶ Censors are having a very hard time keeping the lid on Chinese outrage — the angry outpouring flooding the weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, by middle-class Chinese who might well patronize the nation’s not-quite-safe high-speed rail system — not so much to the disaster at Wenzhou as to the clumsy and ill-considered official response to it. What were railway executives thinking when they ordered a railway crew to bury one of the passenger cars? And how about this for dumb and dumber:

Last weekend, Wenzhou bureaucrats ordered local lawyers not to accept cases from families of victims without their permission. After weibos exposed them, they withdrew the order and apologized.

Oops! Like middle-class people everywhere, abstract rights are not terribly important to prosperous Chinese. This makes it difficult for them to grasp the connection between authoritarian government — which, again like middle-class people everywhere, they prefer to the alternative — and pervasive corruption. As the train crash shows, it’s easy for the authoritarian to cease to be authoritative.

Beachcombing:
Wrapping Up
July 2011/Fourth Week

Friday, July 29th, 2011

¶ Prableen Kaur’s direct and unpolished first-hand account of surviving the massacre on Utøya Island. (Eurozine; via 3 Quarks Daily)

¶ Choire Sicha’s advice for close encounters with large, deadish-looking cucarachas on the floor of your apartment. (Our latest lease renewal listed the floors on which bedbugs have been reported — ours, mercifully, not one of them.) (The Awl) ¶ The ever-modest Mike Johnston proposes a a critical method for appraising your own photographs, if you’re serious about them. (The Online Photographer) ¶ On Maria Popova’s say-so, we just ordered a copy of Langston’s Hughes’s The First Book of Jazz. Okay, so we didn’t go for the other famous-authors-for-kids books by Huxley or Sandburg or Stein. We just happen to have a very musical little relative…. (Brain Pickings) ¶ The art is, well, arm, but the book is as sweet as can be: a comics handbook for the children of men who have left their marriages for other men. Dad’s new boyfriend “liest mir was vor, schmiert mir leckere Marmeladenbrote, und tröstet mich, wenn ich Alpträume habe.” (Gay.org.uk; via MetaFilter)

Have a Look: ¶ That it’s the world’s largest wooden structure is the last thing that’s great about Seville’s beautiful Metropol Parasol. (Gedankentank; Thanks, JRParis!)

Noted: ¶ Naked Vandals destroy mailboxes, probably pee on perennial borders. Whistle Dixie! (The Awl)

Serenade
Fugit
Thursday, 28 July 2011

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

¶ The passing of time weighs heavily, if stylishly, on today’s Styles section. You can recapture your youth (if, as in Alex Williams’s case, it’s not too far behind you) by growing a beard and passing for Seth Rogin — best of all, young guys will let you hang with them! Or you can sigh meditatively and retire from the hectic business of creating hot nightspots, like Serge Becker. Some days, the Styles section is a breeze-blown shallows. Others, a stretch of mud flats. All is vanity, indeed, especially when vanity is all.

Gotham Diary:
What I Will Not Be Writing About In This Entry
Thursday, 28 July 2011

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

What I wanted to write about this afternoon was the very different lights that David Cannadine and Anna Russell shine on the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. But I’ve got to re-read Cannadine first, and there hasn’t been time. I spent the day with Ray Soleil, or the afternoon, anyway, and I’m off to babysit with Will in a little while.

Ray and I were very industrious. He measured for, and I bought, a set of Venetian blinds for the blue room. It might not appear to make much sense, buying blinds for a room that is rather dark at all times and that it’s hard to see into even from the balcony, much less another apartment, but I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to wonder how I ever lived without them.  

I had decided not to go to the movies tomorrow — I still haven’t written about the two films that I saw last Friday — but then I peeked at Movie Showtimes and saw that Cowboys and Aliens will be showing at the Orpheum at 10:20 in the morning. Pretty irresistible, even though I’m not really curious about the movie. It’s Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde that I want to see. I ought to stay home, though. There is a lot of little stuff to take care of, the kind of little stuff that I simply don’t get to if I don’t attack it first thing in the morning. And I’ve been almost operatically unproductive this week.

I did finish two books — more to write about, when I find the time. Although I’m going to have to re-read the thermodynamics/Maxwell’s Demon chapter of James Gleick’s The Information, because I really didn’t get it the first time around. Most of it seemed to be 100% wrong, which shows how backwards my head is screwed on about physics. I have never been able to grasp the idea of entropy; there is something unthinkable about it. On a broader frame, I had a terrible time with Gleick’s disposition to treat all information equally — to strip meaning out of the equation. I understand why Claude Shannon or any other electrical engineer would want to do that, but only instrumentally, professionally. It seems a misguided thing for anyone else to try. When I mentioned these problems, she asked if I’d been reading The Information late at night, which is to say after a few glasses of wine. I don’t think so — perhaps that would have helped. I found the book pervasively uncongenial, and positively trivial in contrast to Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human.

The other book that I finished was Judith Martin’s Venetian memoir, No Vulgar Hotel. I drew a vulgar satisfaction from watching my current-reading pile drop significantly this week, what with Christianity and The Information; you might not think so, but No Vulgar Hotel was just as fat. That’s because I couldn’t read it without having the Rizzoli Treasures of Venice near to hand, along with a foldout map. Now I can put all of that away. 

At lunch, Ray and I regaled each other with stories of all the mischief that we got into when we were boys. Ray had me weeping with laughter about the puzzlement that he and his brother caused their mother, when they took to building elaborate little structures out of shirt cardboard. But all she had to do was to ask her husband why the boys were building ”dollhouses” out of cardboard for him to perceive the gleam of pyromaniac thrill that was motivating this project. He could probably smell the smoke! ”I don’t know what they do with them after they build them,” their mother said to their father. “Do you think they’re giving them away?” The tears were popping out of my eyes,  I was laughing so hard. That’s really why I haven’t been able to get anything done this afternoon.  

Aubade
“Unthinkable No More”
Thursday, 28 July 2011

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

¶ In an amazing development, and without any hindrance from free and unfettered markets, investors are expressing doubts about bigness in banking in the most eloquent manner possible. At Dealbook, Jesse Eisinger  indirectly quotes Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil: “Bank of America trades at half of its book value (the stated value of its assets minus its liabilities), an indication that investors view its asset quality and prospects just a notch below abominable, as Jonathan Weil of Bloomberg News pointed out last week.”

Serenade
The Impressionist’s Garden
Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

¶ The Impressionist’s garden necessarily blooms in a state of paradox. Monet himself treated it as a studio — and you know what artist’s studio are like. Of her visit with James Priest, the new head gardener at Giverney — he has worked for Rothschilds and at Kew — Suzanne Daley notes that “Monet could tend to one patch or another as he painted it, while letting flowers bloom and fade elsewhere” — clearly a no-no for a public attraction that seeks to sell tickets. Complicating things somewhat, Mr Priest used to like the art of the Impressionists, but now he prefers Old Masters. He’s reduced to asking artists if the garden gives them an Impressionist feeling.  

Gotham Diary:
What to do with Google+
Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

This won’t take long. I simply want to note my perplexity in the face of Google+, which I was invited to join last week. I am told that it is a real improvement over Facebook, but I haven’t spent enough time on the site to see anything different, except perhaps the circle3s, which could come in handy. And this time, I’m going to save all the email annoucements, in one gigantic Outlook folder. I came to feel that deciding to delete the ones that Facebook sent me was an error.

I never was able to make any use of Twitter, largely because I don’t do anything that’s interesting in 140 characters or less (fewer). Maybe I read too much Henry James as a child. That’s a joke! I didn’t read any Henry James as a child, nulla. I didn’t read much of anything when I was a child, besides the Hardy Boys books, which I would devour in an hour or two, like some sort of fast food. (Fast food hadn’t really been invented back then.) But there’s no doubt that repeated readings of The Golden Bowl have stretched my semantic wingspan to a trans-Twitter reach. I just couldn’t fit in that box.

I never followed anyone on Twitter, for the same reason. I’m not about to turn my attention — which is something of a dreadnought — to short messages of less than emergency import; it’s not worth my while. An epistle I’ll read, and happily. I got a great one this morning from the friend who invited me to Google+; it was taken up with a knockout story that it took two full paragraphs to tell well. I wish I could share it with you. I wish I could suggest it to you in a circumlocutory manner that hinted broadly without being at all specific. Henry James was very good at talking around things, and I suppose he taught me the rudiments of the craft, but I have always found that circumlocution is unpopular with today’s busy readers unless it’s fake circumlocution — unless its perfectly obvious what all the broad hints are pointing to, in which case you’re joking. 

Talking around a subjecct is very different, don’t you think, from talking until you find a subject? Now, there’s something that I ought to post about at Google+: Geoff Dyer’s very droll piece in last week’s Book Review about the academic habit of “recessive deferral.”

I realized I was reading something quite extraordinary: a masterpiece of its kind in that it takes the style of perpetual announcement of what is about to happen to extremes of deferment that have never been seen before.

Do you know how long it took me to find the “Share” button?

Aubade
Future Past
Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

¶ Is India the land of the future? The lengthy report on the business empire of Gautam Adani, by Jim Yardley and Vikas Bajaj, that begins on today’s front page chimes in with many other stories that we’ve been hearing about India — such as a recent account of the disorderly growth of Gurgaon, outside Delhi. What these stories have in common is a direct advance from pre-industrial rural economy to roaring industrial and post-industrial development sprouting in all directions, paid for entirely out of private pockets and unhampered by existing infrastructure. Governments at all levels either mute their criticism and respond with studied inaction to the inevitable nastiness that piles up at the margins of these boomtowns, or, like the Gujarat of Narendra Modi, they accommodate and applaud the big entrepreneurs, embracing their Gilded Age contempt for the little people and for the democratic processes that serve them so poorly. (Mr Modi described his most recent election victory, in 2007, as a “referendum” on his leadership. In our view, referendum stands at just a hair’s-breadth distance from acclamation, the one and only tool at the disposal of mobs.) An India composed of billionaires’ fiefdoms is a frighteningly medieval prospect, but political India appears to be mesmerized by it.

Serenade
Premature
Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

¶ It is pretty clear by now that Marshall McLuhan was a premature genius. He had a great insight, but it hit him about 25 years too soon. A professor of Renaissance rhetoric who was preoccupied, long before television blighted the airwaves, with “the influence of all kinds of communications media on individual consciousness,” McLuhan was a geeky space cadet ante lettera. The quote there comes from Douglas Coupland’s recent book on McLuhan, the subtitle of which is the battle cry of premature geniuses: You Don’t Understand My Work! And how can they? The premature genius doesn’t understand it, either. No matter how bright the name of McLuhan shines in intellectual history, his life was not an intellectually happy one.

McLuhan looked at television and somehow sensed the Internet. Crazy! (Bear in mind, though, that the technological material of the  early Internet — telephone lines, cathode-ray tubes — was already lying around, and already being forged into something by DARPA.) But by the time he died, in 1980, he had been crippled by nearly ten years of small strokes, and his utterings went beyond cryptic, and the notion of “interactive television” was right up there with pet rocks: What were we thinking? It didn’t help that his various futuristic business ventures went nowhere. It seems that he could sense the future so well because he was so firmly rooted in the past — professor, Catholic convert, would-be patriarch. True to the story of Moses, he was denied entry into the new world that he foresaw. Well, he’d have hated it. Facebook or Google+? It’s fun to imagine the fulminations. Ian Austen brings us up to date on centennial celebrations in Canada. Maybe the rule that a good idea ahead of time is no better than a bad idea with no future has an exception or two.

Reading Note:
MacCulloch on Christianity
Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is one of those books that you read because, hey, come on, it’s required. Its thousand-page length makes you sigh, but you sit down and open it up and find that it’s really very readable. You notice that its twenty-five chapters are broken up into subheadings that are rarely more than fifteen pages long, and usually shorter than that. Some of it will be familiar. Much of it won’t be. (Ethiopian Christianity, for example — you’re probably not up on that.) Never before will you have come across the bits and pieces that you do know in a single, steady-voiced context, one that makes it easy to accommodate the things are new.

From time to time, you’ll have a faintly jarring sense that the context itself is odd. Saints and popes and theologians and the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets and of course Jesus and Peter and Paul crowd the pages, but although MacCulloch’s tone is superbly respectful, he is not at all ecclesiastical: we are not in church here. Christianity is onsidered as an institution, evolving, splintered, quarrelsome, and, like every other institution, very imperfect. Although the author frowns on burning heretics at the stake and other overzealous abuses of power (we always know that they’re wrong, afterward), he does not judge the faith or the convictions of the men (and very few women) whom his story brings before us. He is at least as ambivalent about Augustine of Hippo as Augustine was himself inconsistent.

There are a few points that I’d have like to see sharpened, for example the pre-emption of high clerical offices by the aristocratic families of Europe — and the Roman Catholic Church’s ossifying complacency with that arrangement. And I’m still convinced that the imperial subsidization of “cult” underlay a lot of the doctrinal divide that so vociferously emerged when Constantine established Christianity — not the response that he was expecting! But I am never  going to write a history of Christianity, and it’s just as well that MacCulloch’s genuinely ecumenical narrative claims the canonical spot for the time being. 

There have been church histories before, but they’ve been written either by churchmen or (less often) by anti-clerical polemicists. In other words, there really haven’t been any church histories. Even most educated people still see the Roman Catholic Church as it liked to be seen during the centuries in which it controlled the history-writing: a serene, unchanging magisterium beset from time to time by noxious disobedience, until the tragedy of the Reformation, to which the Church responded by making itself even more unchanging and serene. The course of true faith was a lot bumpier than that.

With the Reformation, many of those noxiously disobedient voices attained respectable and permanent platforms, and Protestants were very quickly divided among themselves on the answer to a question that the Church had managed to muffle: is our afterlife predestined? There were many other points of difference, too, but nothing could ever be settled for long in a body of religions that shared a common foundation in apocalyptic fervor and an ever-renewed coterie of believers in the imminence of End Times. Christianity has endowed the world with an extraordinary ethic of benevolence, but implementing this ethic has always been made difficult by Christianity’s refusal to honor earthly, material ends. The world is not good enough for Christianity — it’s really that simple.

How wonderful it would be if Christian impatience stopped at the self: we would all be kept busy working on our shortcomings, especially the ones that interfere with helping others. And helping others would be the final objective. What sullies the Christian mission in my eyes is the gross, greedy, and ill-considered longing for personal resurrection. That, unfortunately, is as central to Christian doctrine as anything in the Sermon on the Mount. 

But there I go, telling you what I think. I’m just as glad that  MacCulloch refrains, for the most part, from doing so. Although the book inspired a lot of spicy thinking, I read it with a level head, every now and then knocked dumb by one of the two or three odd terms that constitute key markers for MacCulloch. These would include “Chalcedonian” and “Miaphysite.” They’re not unrelated. Quarrels about the nature of the Trinity persisted long after the Council of Nicaea, which did not, despite what you were taught, wrap things up for good. The relations between the Three Persons might have been settled, but who, really was Jesus? The Miaphysites — formerly, disrepectfully called “monophysites” — believed that Christ had a single nature, an “indwelling by the Logos.” Their opponents, the Dyophysites, known to us as Nestorians, believed that Christ’s nature was dual, containing both the divine and “the new Adam.” At Chalcedon in 451, a council endorsed a compromise definition that “left bitter discontents on either side in the Eastern Churches.” The Ethiopians were Miaphysites, as were (and are) Armenians; the Nestorians, of which Syriac Christianity is an exponent, expanded into China.

But don’t take my word for any of this; I believe that my mind has lost the vestigial organ of thought that would enable it to consider such matters to be worthy of understanding. I was surprised to see phrases such as “Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian alike” popping up in much later contexts. The ongoing battle between Calvinists and Arminians is a little easier to grasp, but I had the damnest time telling the difference between Evangelicals and Pentecostals, whom I’ve always put in the same cubbyhole. Which is a Chalcedonian thing to do, I suppose: tossing the radicals at both extremes into the same bag of mortally opposed uncompromising hotheads.  

Christianity obviously has a long-lived subject that no purely secular institution can match. No nation — except for China, and that just barely, and with interruptions — has lasted anywhere near as long. Clovis, and, with him, France, appears on page 323. The Holy Roman Empire is almost an irrelevance. It’s unusual to read a book that talks about Homer and Abraham at the beginning and Great Awakenings and Abolition near the end, but the glory of Christianity is that the connection between then and now is always palpable and always strong, even if it’s not always entirely understandable. It turns out that American Evangelicals are hardly the first bunch of Christians to take an interest in the Holy Land that’s predicated on the (very unlikely) conversion of the Jews. An Evangelical Alliance of Britons and Germans were working on a plan to repatriate Jews (and then convert them) as early as 1846. Because how can the End Times take place before the conversion of the Jews? The one little factoid that I am never going to forget is that the idea of Pre-Tribulation Rapture was first popularized by a former Anglican priest from Ireland by the name of John Nelson Darby, in 1827. Sometimes, there’s something new under the sun.

Aubade
Nightmare
Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

¶ Being monomaniacs, we’re going to blame the Rentier Economy for the nightmare that Seemona Sumasar underwent when we former boyfriend, anxious for her to drop a rape charge, set her up so intricately that she spent seven months in jail before she was vindicated. Paranoid as a matter of course, rentiers see potential criminals everywhere and sometimes can’t be bothered to wait for the potential to be realized. They infect everyone who works for them — and this gradually comes to be everyone (see Alan Blinder if you don’t believe us) — with their mistrust, to which is added a big dollop of job-security anxieties. Where better for worry and panic to flower into professional madness than in the security business, public or private. A fabulist like Jerry Ramrattan, Ms Sumasar’s ex, didn’t have to be a genius con-man to convince police and prosecutors that his accuser was holding up pedestrians at gunpoint, notwithstanding her resume of Wall Street jobs climaxing in the ownership of a restaurant franchise (which she lost, along with custody of her daughter), not to mention her cellphone alibis. He just had to make it plausible, casually rehearsing his crew of bogus victims. Once he had wrapped Ms Sumasar in an aura of suspicion, the innocent things that she did (such as driving a car to Florida and registering it in her sister’s name) made her look guilty. Presumption of innocence? Don’t be daft!

Serenade
Recall
Monday, 25 July 2011

Monday, July 25th, 2011

¶ The Vatican has recalled Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, its nuncio (ambassador) in Ireland — a dramatic and unusual gesture that seems intended to reprimand the Irish government in the wake of Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s denunciation of “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican.” How many wrong moves does Benedict XVI get to make before someone with common sense — not to mention common decency — cries mercy and takes over?  

Gotham Diary:
Somewhere
Monday, 25 July 2011

Monday, July 25th, 2011

I just watched Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Long before it ended, I wondered what I would do when it did. I was worn out by all the suspense — was something bad going to happen? It seemed unlikely, but there was nothing leisurely about the long, still shots.

At the end, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) walks away from his car (keys still in the ignition) and, presumably, from his life as a big Hollywood movie star. A long visit from his teenaged daughter (Elle Fanning) has left him burdened with the sense that his life is nothing. And no wonder! I’d had that impression since the movie began. I was beginning to think that my life was nothing. After all, I was the one sitting in my easy chair in the middle of the afternoon watching a movie.

It’s true that I wanted to see Somewhere. I’ve been waiting to be in the right mood for the sort of picture that Somewhere turns out to be — a picture where something bad happening might be a welcome development. It’s not that Somewhere is boring. No, no,  no. I didn’t develop an undergraduate crush on Antonioni’s Italian films of the Sixties because I craved action movies. Somewhere is almost thrilling, as I say, because its look at the essentially passive existence of a movie star is so intense that every little thing that Johnny actually decides to do seems to render him vulnerable and exposed to catastrophe.

Johnny is a modest, unexceptional man who happens to be very good looking. His talent is not really a craft that requires development. He tells a fan that he never studied to be an actor. He tells a Russian journalist that his workout routine is “the basics.” Johnny doesn’t presume on his celebrity; his instinct is to slink away from it. His unlimited access to women probably brings with it an unlimited access to complication. He is an utterly accidental father, amazed to find that his daughter is an accomplished ice dancer (she’s been studying it for three years, but he seems to have missed that). A friend counsels him to volunteer at something, but he sees through this: he would just be filling up the hours. If it weren’t for that face, Johnny would be a small-town loser, forever dependent on whatever family he managed to hold on to. Sometimes he is so bored that you wonder if ennui can give you a heart attack or a stroke. He drives an assertive muscle car and he hires pole dancers to entertain him in his suite at the Chateau Marmont. Staying at the Chateau Marmont is clearly the most imaginative thing that Johnny does. At the end, he checks out. Maybe it’s too interesting.

Not once do we see Johnny on a set. The work-related scenes are all tangential. There’s a photo shoot with a costar who insults him. There’s fearsome session with special-effects guys who create a mask that ages him unto sheer unrecognizability — a ripe memento mori if ever there was one. There’s a cheesy awards ceremony in Milan. Evidence of Johnny’s celebrity accumulates slowly, tilting the balance away from the strong loser impression toward something else: Johnny is lost. It seems unlikely, despite the gesture of renunciation at the end, that he will ever find his way.

When it was over, what I did was take some laundry downstairs and collect the mail. I read a few more paragraphs of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s piece in the LRB about Jerusalem; I’m very nearly done with his Christianity and will have it finished before dinner time. We’re going to eat out this evening, although Kathleen hasn’t decided where. Tomorrow, I’ll be straightening the apartment and fixing dinner for some friends with well-tune palates — wish me luck! I cannot imagine having nothing to do. But now I know what it looks like, at the deluxe end.

Aubade
Don’t Pretend
Monday, 25 July 2011

Monday, July 25th, 2011

¶ Ross Douthat wraps up his column today, about the right-wing American “pedigree” of Anders Breivik’s thinking, with a vital observation: “But extremists only grow stronger when a political system pretends that problems don’t exist.” During the decades in which the Democratic Party enjoyed the majority in the House of Representatives, opponents of its liberal views were demonized and discredited, particularly with respect to the extension of full civil rights to African-Americans. Over time, racial bigotry did indeed decline, but the withdrawal of conservatives from civic society, into gated communities and “Christian academies,” has proven to be a grievous wound that shows no sign of healing.

As we congratulate our fellow citizens who have availed themselves of the long-sought right to marry partners of the same sex, we remain mindful of other fellow citizens who regard gay marriage as an abomination. We are not going to pretend that they have been permanently vanquished by a piece of legislation. The battle for the hearts and minds of all New Yorkers has begun in earnest.

Serenade
Where’s the Task Force?
Friday, 22 July 2011

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

¶ Just as Paul Krugman marvels at the disappearance of the troublesome matter of unemployment from “elite policy discourse” (no surprise, really, if you’re tuned into the objectives of what Krugman rightly calls the Rentier Party), so we’re astonished (not) at the failure of Sean Collins Walsh’s Postal Office story to consider the USPS’s looming insolvency crisis from an operational, non-financial angle. Enough with the pension-funding tricks. Let’s talk about bulk mail. Is there any wonder that FedEx and UPS have not horned in on this money-losing market? Let’s talk about twentysomethings who have never bought a stamp: can it be said that the USPS is still manufacturing buggy whips? Fifteen years into the Age of the Internet, the USPS’s core business, as currently operated, no longer makes sense. 

Gotham Diary:
Double Feature
22 July 2011

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

I saw two movies today. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Friends With Benefits. What else was there to do in this heat? Because the two of them ate up the entire afternoon, I was left with no time to write either one up (what with shopping at Fairway for the third day in a row and having a pleasant dinner with Kathleen out on the balcony, despite the heat — but I want to reserve the space before I tuck in for the night. More tomorrow! Or eventually.

I will say that it’s great to see Mila Kunis in a role that’s almost big enough for her talent. But the face that I can’t get out of my mind — and I’m sure that everyone who sees Wayne Wang’s new film will feel something like the same impact — is that of Bingbing Li as Taitai Wei. Her performance, more of a cinematic emanation really, has left me with the first-impression false memory of having seen Olivia de Havilland play the newly-widowed Victoria. All the light has gone out of Ms Li’s character’s life, leaving the astonishing gravity of a black hole.

Aubade
Fall of the Inland Empire
Friday, 22 July 2011

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

¶ Crimes against farm property, as well as produce, are increasing in California’s Central Valley, the state’s agricultural “powerhouse” and the heart of the nation’s non-grain, non-livestock farming. The principal cause of the rural crime wave may be the precipitous decline in law-enforcement funding. Jesse McKinley inflects his report with mild humor, but armed and vigilant self-defense is not a posture that we want to encourage in private citizens, farmers or otherwise. Let’s hope that surveillance cameras will soon be assisted by nifty but nasty little robots.