Archive for November, 2011

Gotham Diary:
System 1 Note
30 November 2011

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

For some reason or other, I decided to leave Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow at home when we went to St Croix. Looking back, I think that I’d have enjoyed reading it down there. It’s a superbly entertaining book — it’s almost a book of games for clever people. If it were  a book of games, I’d have no time for it; my intellectual preference (so to speak) has no time for games at all. (Games are for children.) Kahneman, wisely, frames his puzzles as test results.

The chapter template goes something like this:

— Consider this sentence, A.
— You probably reacted in thus and such a manner, drawing conclusion Q. But (of course) Q is mistaken/improbable.
— Here’s why you erred: we tested students/professionals in Oregon/Germany/Israel and found that X.
—
Your System 1 does this. Your System 2 does or, more likely, fails to do, that. We call it the N heuristic/affect.

As I say, it’s very entertaining. But of course it’s challenging as well. Once you’re familiar with the template, you approach sentence A more and more critically. And something happens that Kahneman doesn’t account for — not that I’m faulting him! Your System 1, Kahneman’s shorthand abstraction for the bundle of processes that yield automatic cognition, is malleable when it comes to reading. Another way to put this is to say that System 1 is a fast learner when it comes to reading. Most of its habits may have been set in genetic stone on the African savannah, but its reading habits (there was no reading on the savannah) are amenable to upgrades.

On page 113 of Thining, Fast and Slow, Kahneman proposes a sentence: “In a telephone poll of 300 seniors seniors, 60% support the president.” Kahneman then asks,

If you had to summarize the message of this sentence in exactly three words, what would they be? Almost certainly you would choose “elderly support present.”

Well, excuse me, but, no; my three words would be “small sample question?” I read crappy statements like this in quantity almost every day. I have developed allergies to them. The very word “poll” throws up a red flag, signaling that what follows is likely to be tripe. (I’d like to explore the polling problem, which, as I saw last night when all of this occurred to me, is one of protocol failure: there are no rules for framing polling questions; on the contrary, there are only rules of thumb that exploit the affects and heurisitics that Kahneman is writing about, deployed in order to allow pollsters to tell their clients what they want to hear.) Something happens to my System 1 when it encounters the word “poll.” Something vaguely equivalent to the fight-or-flight response kicks in. My immediate response was that the sample was too small to be meaningful (as Kahneman points out, it would skew toward extremes), and that the actual question posed to the seniors was not presented. The question mark at the end of my three words is a way of responding not with the summary of the statement’s “story” that Kahneman asked for but with a critique of the statement as a statement.

Kahneman doubts that System 1 is capable of critical discernment; that’s System 2′s job. I’m not going to quibble; Kahneman doesn’t mean for his abstract systems to be taken too literally. All he wants to do is caution us against cognitive biases. But his book has begun to remind me that there is something very strange about reading, the visual skill that requires an almost total suppression of visual stimulus. 

So strange, that when I read the first sentence of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters — yes, I ordered it and it arrived, massively — “We are the animals that can both understand and respond to reasons,” I thought, well, yes, but what’s really important is that we are the animals that can learn to read and write. (Parfit’s understanding and response to reasons, requiring the tomes that it does, certainly depend on his ability to read and to write.) But that’s another matter. For the moment, let me just say that reading Kahneman and Parfit side by side is like taking a single journey via two modes of transportation simultaneously. Probably, in fact, not a good idea.

Beachcombing:
Beauté Tous Les Jours
November 2011

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

¶ Never mind the turkey; gratitude is good for you! Just be careful, John Tierney rightly warns, not to confuse thanksgiving with indebtedness.(NYT; 11/23)

¶ It  is very difficult to pretend to outrage over the Penn State scandal, not least because we believe that tackle football ought to be simply illegal all by itself, making what goes on in the showers only quantitatively worse. But we have no trouble endorsing Joe Nocera’s lucid recommendations for atonement. ¶ In a companion piece, David Brooks suggests that it’s very hard to reform the instinct to look away from colleagues’ bad behavior, and we agree that it’s difficult. But we also believe that it would be a lot less difficult if collegiate football were not wallowing in a pigpen of money. (NYT; 11/15)

¶ The most interesting thing about Jonah Lehrer’s Book Bench review of Thinking, Fast and Slow is, unfortunately, his failure to mention Daniel Kahneman’s stated “premise of this book”: “it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.” (11/1) ¶ Michigan Law professor William Ian Miller laments the shrinking of his brain in old age (he’s 65), but his last word is much, much too funny for a dirge. “..whatever the city was, Tangiers, Marrakesh, I forget which.” (Chron Higher Ed; via The Morning News; 11/2) ¶ Joshua Brown insists on marking the distinction between smart and stupid;  stupid people aren’t just “different.” Abnormal Returns wishes The Reformed Broker a happy third birthday, praising Josh’s generosity especially. PS: This is as close as we’re going to come to the Kardashian Kase. (11/7) And, if it to prove the point, Josh defends Zero Hedge, in an entry that’s well worth reading even if you’ve given up on the apocalyptics. (11/8) ¶ Jonah Lehrer looks at the status angle of supersizing (The Frontal Cortex; 11/9)

The larger point is that we don’t just eat to fill the void in our belly. Instead, we eat excessively to fill all sorts of empty spots, one of which is a chronic lack of status.

¶ Good advice from my friend, JR Paris: “C’est important de chercher et de trouver de la beauté tous les jours...” (Mnémoglyphes; 11/3) ¶ We don’t share Nicholas Carr’s fear that the Internet (or any other form of technology) is dumbing us down; we’re quite sure that the dumbing-down began in the era of Model Ts at the latest. But we are happy to endorse his plea (and to double it with our own) to pay attention. (Rough Type; 11/22)

¶ Jeremy Denk writes with characteristic élan about making his debut — at his parents’ assisted-living facility in New Mexico. On a Baldwin electric that either “whispered or grunted.” (Think Denk; 11/7)

¶ At The Awl, Evan Hughes weighs and considers the demerits of the Kael-Didion fight, which the accidents of publishing have made newly piquant, and concludes with regret that it never took on the real issues. (11/2)

The rivalry missed its chance to rise to the level of the great ones, despite the titans involved. Kael and Didion didn’t tussle often enough, for one, but they also didn’t fight over the right things. When a leading critical mind takes Didion’s work as a cue to pull out the cudgel that a rich person doesn’t get to be depressed, we all lose. And does Didion still feel that Kael needed “vocational guidance”? If only they had fought about the movies and what they meant to the culture during Kael’s heyday, one of cinema’s golden ages. And I’d love to see Didion assess Kael’s legacy now in more than a one-line zinger. She would do it as no one else could.

¶ In a promotional interview for his new book at Slate, Adam Gopnik takes a moment to anatomize the house style at The New Yorker; we’re inclined to believe that he gets it right, especially the part about “an openness to experience, a well-wishingness, a willingness to be wide-eyed in the face of new material even at the risk of seeming a little silly or insufficiently self-protective and knowing.” (via Arts Journal; 11/8) ¶ In a lovely interview with her mother, Kiran Desai observes that Anita Desai’s favorite poets are, like her, exiles. Where’s our copy of Clear Light of Day? Nowhere to be found! (Guardian; via 3 Quarks Daily; 11/14) ¶ Nige gives Clive James’s new book of ten-minute broadcast transcripts an inviting review. (Dabbler; 11/15) ¶ Kevin Charles Redmon discusses to books from the “Shallow South” — that would be the south of Indiana — by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead) and Frank Bill (Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories). On the evidence, the region is not a safe one for civil life. (The Rumpus; 11/22) ¶ At the Guardian, Stephen Moss interviews the “optimistic, eclectic, eternally young” Umberto Eco. Every time he publishes a novel, sales of The Name of the Rose go up. (via Arts Journal; 11/28)

¶ At The Smart Set, James Polchin amplifies some of the background (unmentioned in the catalogue) behind the current exhition, at the Frick, of early drawings by that dodgy artist, Pablo Picasso. (11/3) ¶ Tom Engelhardt explains how the foreign movies that he saw as a young teenager helped him see through the mirage of American fantasy in the Fifties. (HuffPost; via Mnémoglyphes; 11/22) ¶ We loved Margin Call, but we agree with Felix Salmon: it’s a (grim) fairy tale, one that probably “couldn’t really happen.” (11/24

¶ What could be better than unearthing a dinosaur fossil in Egyptian marble? Unearthing a protocetid — whale precursor — that’s what. This one still had a nose (of sorts), vestige of its terrestrial past. (Not Exactly Rocket Science; 11/9)

¶ Bethany McLean asks, “Did accounting help sink Corzine’s MF Global?” What she means to ask, we think, is whether mere accounting tricks kept MF Global afloat during Jon Corzine’s tenure. (Reuters; via Abnormal Returns; 11/2) ¶ Roger Lowenstein, who wrote the book on Long Term Capital Management, writes, with wry dismay, that Jon Corzine “ wanted a firm like Meriwether’s, and he got one.” (Bloomberg; via Abnormal Returns; 11/3) ¶ In the space of a brief but briskly self-evident blog entry, David Merkel anatomizes the key feature of investment bubbles: greatly increased debt financing. (The Aleph Blog; via Abnormal Returns; 11/7)

Most bubbles end with some sort of financing time-mismatch, where the inability to renew short-term indebtedness in order to hold the asset leads to a panic, which leads some to say, “This is a liquidity crisis, not a solvency crisis.”  When you hear that leaden phrase, ordinarily, it is a solvency crisis, with long-dated assets of uncertain worth, and near-term liabilities requiring cash. 

¶ Felix Salmon discusses Judge Rakoff’s rejection of the SEC-Citi settlement, which may prove to be a seminal decision. “But in hinting that the settlement might be downright unconstitutional, Rakoff has raised the stakes so high that it’s far from clear that he can ever lower them again.” (11/30)

¶ Does Anatol Lieven really recommend enmity as the better way of getting along with Pakistan? Or only post-Manichean realism? (NYT; 11/3) ¶ At Grey’s Blog, a stirring graphic indictment of the Electoral College, which has foiled the popular will in 5% of presidential elections. (11/8) ¶ Felix Salmon, writing about “Europe’s Leadership Deficit,” makes us wonder why — as well as wondering why we’re only now wondering why — Europe has not produced any European Community leaders. If anything, the Eurozone seems to have intensified everyone’s sense of nationality, the very thing that wasn’t wanted. ¶ Louis Menand’s review of a new biography of George F Kennan ably untangles what went wrong (in Kennan’s view) with “containment,” and also makes a point of showing how un-, almost anti-American this very old-fashioned American was. (emphasis supplied; The New Yorker; 11/9)

Kennan’s next posting was to Lisbon. The Ambassador, a man named Bert Fish, was a patronage appointee and rarely visited the Embassy. His sudden death, in 1943, left Kennan free to negotiate, face to face with Salazar, for the use of bases in the Azores by U.S. aircraft. In January, 1944, when the end of the war was in sight, Kennan served in the American delegation to the European Advisory Commission, in London. Bohlen (who had been in Tokyo when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and was interned for six months) remembered Kennan returning to Washington “appalled by the behavior of American soldiers—their reading of comic books, their foul language, and their obsession with sex, among other things. He wondered whether the United States was capable of being a world power.”

¶ Reviewing John Lewis Gaddis’s new biography of Kennan in the Book Review, Henry Kissinger takes pains to portray Kennan as a man who could not resolve his intellectual contradictions. It seems clear to us that what Dr Kissinger is really saying is that the exercise of power is not for intellectuals. (11/14)

¶ Maria Bustillos tries to comfort David Roth as he contemplates “guillotining himself” because, in the end, he can’t sustain his outrage at Adam Gopnik’s enjoyment of a meal at La Grenouille. As always Maria is good company. (The Awl; 11/5) ¶ Amanda Hess compares Andy Rooney and Joan Didion; even though we’re antique ourselves, we share her regard for the lady while also having no use whatsoever for the gent. (GOOD; 11/6) ¶ At HTMLGiant, Katherine Karlin has some good things to say about writing workshops; she’s convinced that they made her a better writer not so much via the criticism that she received but because they forced her to pay attention to the writing of others. Also, this nugget: 

More problematic are the students whose imagination has been blunted by the formulas of television, pop fiction, movies, and video games. For these students, the safety of a collaborative environment can help them tune out the babble of sit-com dialogue and dig deep into their own creative impulses.

¶ We don’t know where to put Nick Martens’sConversations With Fruit,” but we were charmed and impressed by the piece. We cannot imagine being able to invest a pear with so much personality. (The Bygone Bureau; 11/9) ¶ Although there would be far fewer great Harrison Ford movies if scriptwriters were obliged to follow “The Truth About Violence: Three Principles of Self-Defense,” we could not agree more with Sam Harris about the foolishness of heroism. (11/14) ¶ Speaking of violence: it seems that Jane Austen died of arsenic poisoning. Almost certainly, the novelist ingested the toxin for medicinal reasons, , thinking that it would ease her rheumatism. Crime novelist Lindsay Ashford, who has more or less established the cause of death, has written a lurid tale in which Austen is actually murdered. “Unlikely,” says Cambridge Austen editor Janet Todd (and so say all of us!), adding pointedly that exhumation, whatever it might show, “would not be appreciated.” (Guardian; via Arts Journal) ¶ Speaking of stupid, Martin Amis declares, with spectacular fatuousness, that Jane Austen’s fans are in denial about her strengths and weaknesses. “ And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”).” Right-O! Persuasion is not as good as Northanger Abbey! (We disagree about Mansfield Park as well, of course; we agree with Rachel Brownstein that it may be a substantially different kind of novel from the others.)(New Yorker; 11/19)

¶ We’re glad that we didn’t read Ari Steinberg’s musings on airline-safety cards until we got back from vacation. (Paris Review; via The Morning News; 11/30)

If shit goes down, if that horrifying alarm is sounded, will your fellow passengers really calmly place oxygen masks over their faces? Will that crazy lady sitting next to you inflate her life jacket in a quiet and orderly fashion?

Have a Look: ¶ Mourir auprès de toi. (Nowness; via The Millions) ¶ The Clavilux of Thomas Wilfred. (MondoBlogo; 11/3) ¶ A Year in New York. (via MetaFilter; 11/8) ¶ The Internet is a vaster galaxy than you might think: it took from 2006 until just the other day for this astounding clip of a Lipizzaner high-stepping to hip-hop to reach Jason Kottke. (11/14) ¶ “The Worst Book Ever Is Microwave For One.” (PWxyz; via Arts Journal; 11/30)

¶ The Easter Island heads have bodies! (Follow the Money; via Abnormal Returns) ¶ Men at “Work.” (A Continuous Lean; 11/19) ¶ “A Field Guide to Your Office Nemesis.” (The Awl; 11/22) ¶ Potemkin Paris. (Strange Maps; via Mnémoglyphes; 11/28)

¶ A Cidade Branca, a tumblr of black-and-white building plans, featuring many remote monasteries (Things; 11/29)

Noted: ¶ Senescent Cells, getting rid of (Not Exactly Rocket Science) ¶ German Transport Minister cuts CD of himself playing Mozart, to counter road rage. (SeattlePI ; via Arts Journal; 11/6) ¶ What was special about the Trib: Stephen Weil wrotes about Richard Kluger’s rather out-of-print history of the Herald Tribune (The Second Pass; 11/15) ¶ At home with Andrew Sullivan. (Esquire; via The Awl; 11/19) ¶ Why the Germans? Why the Jews? (signandsight; via 3 Quarks Daily; 11/23) ¶ Mark Ames digs into Linda Katehi. (Naked Capitalism; 11/24) ¶ Walter Kirn reads the Bible. (11/30)

Gotham Diary:
Rumination
29 November 2011

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Beware Rumination. This is one of the lessons that David Brooks is abstracting from the “Life Reports” that he recently solicited from readers over the age of 70. Forget what Socrates said about the unexamined life in Plato’s Apology.

Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.

I’m inclined, against my better judgment, to agree. But I resist. Psychopaths, remember, are unsurpassed at strategic self-deception. And I’m not sure that it’s dishonest to forgive and forget.

***

Perhaps I’m missing Brooks’s point, and perhaps I’m missing it because he wrote rumination instead of nursing grudges. I don’t know where anybody finds the time or the taste for stewing over slights. I find it unpleasant to think ill of people, and so I distance myself from those who give rise to such thoughts. I keep away from them if they’re still around, and I forget about them if they’re gone. I suppose I have an unusual degree of freedom in this regard, but I take full advantage of it.

It occurred to me, on vacation, that I have two modes of self-evaluation. We’ll call them the sunny and the cloudy. The sunny mode is prompted by good feelings, and it moves me to give thanks for all the positive things that have happened to me, as well as all the advantages that I’ve enjoyed. I think I’m very lucky, in sunny mode. In cloudy mode, I feel responsible. The cloudy mode takes over when I’m not feeling good about myself or about the way things are going (the same thing, as it usually happens). It is obvious to me that I could do better, and I’m ashamed of having done worse. The result is that I take credit only for my faults, and this means that I can’t offset them with my virtues, because the virtues aren’t mine in the same way that the faults are. I’m talking about a habit of mind, not a logical process. It’s clearly illogical. But I think that it’s a healthy way of living.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Expense and Enjoyment
28 November 2011

Monday, November 28th, 2011

When I saw that the editors of the Book Review had assigned John Lewis Gaddis’s new biography to Henry Kissinger for review, my brow furrowed. I don’t know much of anything about the personal politics of American diplomacy, but I have never thought that Kennan would approve (or even begin to approve) of Dr Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik. Indeed, when I read one of Kennan’s last statements, published in an interview in the New York Review of Books, in 1999 —

This whole tendency to see ourselves [Americans] as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable.

— I thought, not of Henry Kissinger certainly, but of his political masters and the pitch that they made to the American public. Dr Kissinger worked tirelessly (in the time remaining after self-promotion, it always seemed to me) to calculate ways of making America’s narcisissm practicable, and probably did a better job of it than anyone else might have done. But Kennan would have dismissed the entire undertaking as, ultimately, undesirable.

The Kissinger review was predictably suave, friendly and forgiving. What was there to forgive? “Kennan blighted his career in government through a tendency to recoil from the implications of his views.” So says Henry Kissinger. Of the book itself:

We can be grateful to John Lewis Gaddis for bringing Kennan back to us, throughtful, human, self-centered, contradictory, inspirational — a permanent spur as consciences are wont to be. Masterfully researched, exhaustively documented, Gaddis’s moving work gives us a figure with whom, however one might differ on details, it was a privilege to be a contemporary.

The fix was in. The first review of Gaddis’s book that I encountered was Louis Menand’s, in The New Yorker.

The one puzzle in John Lewis Gaddis’s first-rate biography of the diplomat George Kennan, which Gaddis began in 1982, when his subject was seventy-eight, and waited nearly thirty years to complete, since Kennan lived to be a hundred and one, is the subtitle. The book is called George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin; $39.95), and the most peculiar thing about Kennan, a man not short on peculiarities, is that he had little love for, or even curiosity about, the country whose fortunes he devoted his life to safeguarding.

That’s a way of looking at what Kennan himself said, quoted above, but looked at from the outside. Kennan was not interested in the cultural life of the United States; to some extent, he doubted that it had one. He was always more captivated by what used to be called the “Russian soul,” and he was a passionate advocate of the proposition that the Russians would eventually have done with Communist foolishness and Stalinist barbarity. This was, indeed, the wellspring of his notion of containment. Left to themselves — unprovoked by foreign aggression, military or otherwise — and kept to themselves — encircled by firm Western alliances, the inhabitants of the Soviet Union would sooner or later, but inevitably, replace it with something more humane and workable. As in fact they did.

In a very provocative and somewhat chilling piece in the current issue of the NYRB, Frank Costigliola, the editor of Kennan’s massive diaries, challenges the “authorized” claim of Gaddis’s work. There is no doubt that Kennan authorized the project. But his diraries, over the two decades and more that followed the green light, evidence a growing pessimism about the outcome.

By 2000, Kennan, now ninety-six years old, despaired in his diary that Gaddis “had no idea of what was really at stake” in the “long battle I was waging … against the almost total militarization of Western policy toward Russia.” Looking back at the nuclear holocaust narrowely averted during the Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin crisis of 1958 to 1961, and at the costly proxy wars waged in Vietnam and elsewhere, he believed that “had my efforts been successful,” they “could have obviated vast expense, dangers, and distortions of outlook of the ensuing Cold War.”

Gaddis, Costigliola charges,

sides largely with Kennan’s critics, such as former secretary of state Dean Acheson, in the heated debate over Kennan’s advocacy in 1957-1958 for US “disengagement” from the cold war in Europe.

What kind of a life — what kind of an authorized autobiography — is that? Well, it is the kind of life that will “save” Kennan for the American cause. Gaddis (and Henry Kissinger) praise the parts of Kennan’s thought that suit their understanding of the Cold War — in retrospect, a fatuous exercise of military expense and enjoyment (to borrow from Jane Austen; in Mansfield Park, she describes the heir, Tom Bertram, as “born for expense and enjoyment,” keenly nailing enjoyment to expense) — and they rap him on the knuckles for the rest, asking us to believe that Kennan was “inconsistent.” But the importance of George Kennan, for the people of the world, is precisely that he was a greater statesman than American; he knew which was more important. Costigliola writes,

Though he captures much of the man’s complexity, Gaddis’s depiction of Kennan is ultimately clipped and flattened. Perhaps the problem is trying to frame with “an American life,” as the subtitle has it, the  biography of someone who mused that even his friends did “not know the depth of my estrangement, the depth of my repugnance of the things [the American public] lives by.” As compared to the portrait in the biography, the personality revealed in Kennan’s diaries and letters — even the figure who emerges in the transcripts of Gaddis’s interviews — was more irreverent as a collegian, more deeply identified with Russian culture as a fledgling diplomat, more ambivalent about his marriage, more alienated from American life, more inclined to conceealment, and more tortured by the limitations of old age. The Kennan of the letters and the diaries is far less conventional and more complex and elusive than the person we encounter in Gaddis’s biography.

George F Kennan: An American Straitjacket. Let’s hope that John Lewis Gaddis’s attempt to bury his subjecct in it will not succeed.

Gotham Diary:
Extremes
25 November 2011

Friday, November 25th, 2011

What was I thinking, bringing Madame Bovary on vacation? When I finished Part II, yesterday afternoon, I felt a chill that I haven’t yet been able to shake off. (I had forgotten all about Hippolyte’s club foot, and never before seen through the pharmacist Homais’s diabolical proposal that Charles attempt a “cure.”) I’m finding it impossible to laugh at Emma Bovary, for all her faults — impossible to keep her at a comic distance. The absence of any “good” characters is what reders the limitations of Flaubert’s figures so queasily all-too-human.

It is possible that the ebook experience is making Dangerous Ambition seem to be a worse book than it really is, and I’d rather not talk about it. All I can think of is bluestockings on fainting couches, wondering if “he’s the one” or if “life can go on,” or just “taffeta draperies!” The literary achievements of Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson are cursorily name-checked, explored only for evidence of states of mind customarily found in Harlequin romances. It’s hard to know which of Susan Hertog’s subjects would have hated the book more; then again, I’m not sure that either of them would have disapproved. Other times, other attitudes toward purple.

When the weather finally turned warmer, Rebecca carried her typewriter onto the broad balcony overlooking the communal garden. Moving in accord with the rhythms of nature, inspired by the push of slender shoots through the thawing soil, she worked like a demon to complete her work.

If you ask me, it’s a book written for Emma Bovary.

***

At the other end of the scale, there’s this — just let your eyes run over it, without trying to make any sense of it.

The centrality of judgment to aesthetic experience remains controversial. For Kant, Clement Greenberg, and others, it seems like there can be no such thing as an aesthetic experience without judgment, while Nietzsche and others suggest the contrary. I think the former camp is ultimately right on this, which is why I treat aesthetic categories as both discursive evaluations (“cute” as something we say, a very particular way of communicating a very particular kind of pleasure) and as objective styles (cuteness as a commodity aesthetic, as a sensuous/formal quality of objects), and try to pay close attention to the relation between them. At the same time, I don’t agree that aesthetic experience/judgment is necessarily synonymous with conviction. Or reverence, or idealization.

That’s Stanford English Professor Sianne Ngai, talking about “cute,” “zany,” and “interesting” — three “non-cathartic feelings that index situations of suspended agency.” The link at Brainiac looked promising, so I clicked through, only to land in a thicket of Theory. I have long since regarded the relationship between Kant and a certain type of intellectual disposition as analogous to that between alcohol and Native Americans; reading Ngai, I wonder if Theory isn’t the intellectual equivalent of a sexual preference, inexplicable (and possibly disgusting) to anyone otherwise orientated. At the same time, it’s a fashion for wordplay that comes and goes; in the middle ages, there was Scholasticism, a similarly ludic enterprise. When I was a child, I was entranced by the glamour of systems. (One of these days, I’ve got to see what I can recall of the Bureaucracy of Me — that’s what I’d call it now — that I spent hours devising as a teenager, in lieu of undergoing a normal puberty.) Then I realized that systems are attractive to people who have nothing left to learn. At the risk of sounding ad hominem, I remind you that Kant died insane, Nietzsche was crackers long before he died, and Greenberg was a thug. These guys are going to tell me something about the pleasure of beauty? What could anyone who never left the fine old town of Königsberg know about beauty? Only what he made up in his own head, is what. Thanks, but no thanks.

If you really want to learn something about what people mean when they call something cute, then devise a cognitive test or two. Or drag in a scanner and see what fMRI has to say. Do those parts of the brain that light up when presented with sadistic urges also fire, as Ngai suggests they will, at the sound of “cute”? Let’s not diddle in our armchairs about power and agency; let’s have a look, or at any rate the best look that we can have at the moment. Ngai’s system assumes as a matter of course that everyone is capable of making the same discursive evaluation expressive of a very particular kind of pleasure, an assumption that, to me, is utter nonsense.

(Notwithstanding my Google Reader, by the way, the Globe appears to have dumped the “Brainiac” moniker, which is a shame.)

Gotham Diary:
Giving Thanks
24 November 2011

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

At breakfast this morning, a Danish gentleman told me, in lightly-accented English, that he had only just learned that today is “a holiday for you.” “That’s why we’re here,” I said. “You’ll get to experience the meal — the turkey and trimmings — but you’ll be spared the rest of it.” The ‘rest of it’ is the folly of bringing a lot of people who have “history” and “issues” with each other together, on one special day, for the sake of playing “Family.”

But that’s not, in fact, why we’re here. We’re here, actually, to avoid the meal. Neither Kathleen nor I can look back on years of horrible Thanksgiving holidays. Dull they might sometimes have been, but never actually unpleasant. (Except, arguably, during my adolescence, when I was militantly unpleasant to everyone.) What seduced us into bailing for Thanksgiving, ten years or so ago, was the difficulty of deciding whether to have our own dinner for eight or ten (once, in our country house, we seated sixteen), or whether to accept an invitation to partake of someone else’s feast, and, if so, which one. We share a deep dislike of the traditional Thanksgiving menu — all of it. (Except for cranberries, which we enjoy throughout the colder months.) A good turkey is like a walking dog — impressive, but absolutely a lot less delicious than a good chicken.

Which reminds me of the experience that Kathleen and I had, in 2003, of Thanksgiving at Taillevent, the celebrated restaurant in Paris. Read the story here; it won’t take long. I was telling it to Ray Soleil the other day — for one reason or another, he had never heard it before — and he quickly showed me that I hadn’t understood what was going on before my very eyes! The big table with only two diners! (What big table, you ask! It’s proof that I didn’t understand the story when I wrote it down, two years later! Surely the strangest part of the story — two people seated at a table for eight, in perhaps the most exclusive eatery in town — got left out of my account because it didn’t seem integral!) An entire turkey, from which only a few slices of breast were removed! Well, said Ray — and I couldn’t believe that this had never occurred to Kathleen or to me — the older guy had clearly invited his family, or some other group of intimates, to meet his new girlfriend, and had decided to egg the lark (so to speak) by offering a custom-devised American Thanksgiving menu to his French relations. Being French, they stood him up, presumably too late for him to cancel the shindig. What bravado it must have called for, to go on with the show! No wonder the waiter who murmured, “Non, monsieur, he is not American,” seemed so shocked.  

Aside from that dinner, and an opulent lunch at La Grande Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne that also yielded some amusing anecdotes, Paris did not have much to offer in the month of November beyond some very gloomy weather, and the idea of spending Thanksgivings in Paris was dropped. For a few years, we went to Dorado Beach, in Puerto Rico, and then, in 2006, after that resort was turned into a golf condominium, we came here, and we have come back every year save one.

I give thanks for the love and companionship of my wife, for the luck of having a lovely family and many wonderful friends, and, if not for good health, exactly, then for the medical resources that allow me to simulate it. I give thanks for a mind that has given me more pleasure, and made the world a more interesting place for me, year after year. I give thanks for all of that every day, and today as well.

Today, I offer special thanks that I don’t have to eat turkey.

***

So, at lunch (fried chicken), there were these attractive ladies of a certain age (plus ten) sitting at the next table, over Kathleen’s shoulder. There was something about the one who wasn’t wearing a floppy hat that caught my eye. Then held it. The hair above her forehead had been colored in bands. A little “natural” (brown, but certainly just as dyed as the rest) and then a little “blonde.” Bands about a half-inch wide receded from her brow. When I finally managed to get Kathleen to take a look (without gaping), I was shocked to hear that this is a style that Kathleen has seen in the magazines lately, but not in person. So it must be very, very stylish. It is also very, very ridiculous, and I call it the “Ruth Madoff.”

***

You will pity me when I say that I was doing laundry on Thanksgiving, but don’t; the laundry room here is quiet and very cold. There was nobody but me, and plenty of room to lay out the Pléiade edition of Flaubert’s Oevre I (dont Madame Bovary), so that I could go back and forth. I’m not reading everything in the original, but just the passages (of which there are plenty) that strike my curiosity. How did Flaubert say that? Sometimes — rarely; let’s get real — I think that Lydia Davis might have handled things better, but mostly I’m just quietly amused by the difference between the two languages, and in one instance I stumbled upon an utterly untranslatable joke.

Charles Bovary, the dolt, has jumped on Rodolph Boulanger’s offer of a horse for exercise.

“Why won’t you accept Monsieur Boulanger’s suggestions? He’s being so gracious.”

She looked cross, contemplated a dozen excuses, and finally declared that it might seem strange.

“Well, I really don’t care!” said Charles, turning on his heel. “Health comes first. You’re quite wrong.”

“Well, how do you expect me to go riding, if I don’t have a riding habit?”

“You must order one,” he answered.

The riding habit decided her.

Of course it would. Although Emma’s carnal attraction to Rodolphe is quite genuine, it is the offer of a new suit of clothes — it would be a pair of Christian Louboutins in our day, or really any old bag from Hermès — that induces her to cross an otherwise well-policed border between propriety and im-. Emma’s a material girl, all right — in two ways at once. Flaubert’s mockery is both delicious and stunningly cruel; we can see, perhaps, why the initial installments of the book in the Revue de Paris prompted the public prosecutor to seek prior restraint. The information that it was the offer of a riding habit that decided Emma Bovary to put herself in the path of almost certain adultery is a secret that nobody really has the right to know, not, certainly, in the real world. There is a tremendous violation of privacy here. That’s what novels are for, you might say. And, if you did, you might begin to understand why there was so much resistance, in the Nineteenth Century, to the reading of novels. I had to know what “riding habit” was in French, and here’s the great joke: it’s amazone.

L’amazone la décida.

I have no idea if Flaubert’s term was facetious or slangy, or if it is really what equestrians of the day ordinarily called a riding habit for women. I’ll look into that later. But presumably the term was readily comprehensible when the book was published; Flaubert didn’t expect readers to tap their neighbors and ask “what’s an amazone, eh?” The joke is that Amazons are, if not virgins, then certainly women who prefer to avoid the company of men. An ironic vestment for Emma Bovary! And an untranslatable  bon mot.

Gotham Diary:
And Westward Flows the Thames
23 November 2011

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

From Susan Hertog’s Dangerous Ambition, a dual biography of Rebecca West (née Cicely Fairfield, it turns out) and Dorothy Thompson:

The family took pleasure in ascending the terrace overlooking the valley above the Thames, which flowed westward toward Windsor.

(The terrace is in Richmond.) At other points in the same chapter, two buildings, one of them a “stately home,” are decribed as “Georgian colonial.” Neither of these points, the flow of the Thames or the architectural style of Uppark, is really integral to the telling of Hertog’s braided tales. That’s precisely why the editorial staff at Ballantine ought to have done its job, if there is an editorial staff at Ballantine. It is very hard for me to imagine how any educated man or woman could be capable of covering the lives of foreign correspondents such as West and Thompson intelligenttly without knowing, in the way that one knows that the sun rises in the east, which way the Thames flows. As for “Georgian colonial,” the term betrays a firghtful provinciality as well as a lack of interest in architecture. Note to Ballantine: The Thames flows east, from the direction of Windsor, and there are no “Georgian colonials” in England.

Other than that, the book is breezily readable.

Gotham Diary:
Rather Rotten
22 November 2011

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

That may be the most beautiful cloud that I have ever seen or shall ever see.

Reading the digest of the Times that is served here with breakfast every morning, I found myself thinking about the body politic — actually thinking, and not just feeling queasily hopeless. Then I put down the paper and picked up Steegmuller/Flaubert. From Turkey, Flaubert wrote to his friend, Louis Bouilhet,

From time to time, in a town, I open a newspaper. Things seem to be going at a dizzy rate. We are dancing not on a volcano but on the rather rotten seat of a latrine.

That’s it, exactly, and everyone is waiting for the rotten seat to give way. Who will fall in? Who will grab an edge and clamber to safety? Nobody knows? Will the environment and the economy conspire to collapse simultaneously? Probably not, but at every turn, as we make our way from the unsustainable present to whatever future awaits us, it will be difficult to distinguish the momentous from the trivial. The only certainty is that, given the global nature of the mess, no one will arrive in the promised land before anybody else. Or perhaps the only certainty is that many people will have a lot less to lose than others. At the moment, dancing is about the only thing that makes sense.

One thing that makes no sense whatever is the Occupy movement in its current configuration. Occupy Wall Street? This ranks somewhere with the Children’s Crusade for naive nonsense. In a word: occupy Washington instead! That’s where the laws are made, after all, that, among other things, permit Wall Street and other markets to do what they do. That’s where tax policy is decided. Occupy the statehouses (as seems to have had some effect in Wisconsin). Occupy the town hall! Better yet, run for election! Create a new political party! Read The New Yorker.

I haven’t said much — it’s possible that I haven’t said anything — about the Occupy movement, because I haven’t seen much in it beyond a dreary replay of late-Sixties fatuousness. (I was there.) A lot of noise, a lot of quite juvenile provocation, and a disheartening glimpse into the persistent social rift that separates families who produce police officers from those who turn out graduate students (a rift that, I’m sure,  tears a good many families apart). Absolutely nothing in the way of a program. An atmosphere of profound fecklessness. Too depressing to think about really. Don’t the protestors at Zuccoti Park know the first thing about how things work? It seems that they don’t.  

What is to be done? What is to be fixed? What needs to be replaced? These are the questions that immobilize us now, because too many of us believe that the time for fixing things has irrecoverably passed. Do we find a more fuel efficient family car, or do we abandon the idea of family cars altogether, and scramble to provide public transport? Do we attempt to reconcile the libertarian and communitarian impulses that have brought political life to a standstill? Or do we give up on the idea of fashioning a “unum” from the “plures”?  

Gotham Diary:
Signature Malfunction
21 November 2011

Monday, November 21st, 2011

What an unpleasant surprise: there I was, reading along in Jeremy Black’s George III: America’s Last King, only to find that page 48 was followed by page 81. So, I discovered upon inspection, was page 112 — the first page 112. There I was, right in the middle of George III’s (apparently shambolic) coronation, when suddenly it became 1765, and Rockingham has just come upon the scene. I had no choice but to put the book down. Most of the political drama of the reign occurs on those missing pages! And George III was going to be my big read on this trip, my one-book-that-would-take-the-entire-vacation-to-get-through. Piffle!

So much for “the book will always be there.” As there is no ebook edition of Professor Black’s tome, I’ve downloaded John Lewis Gaddis’s biography of George Kennan onto the iPad, and Susan Hartog’s Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson onto the smartphone. These are books that I very nearly bought in paper, as I’m sure I shall do if either one of them is any good. I’ve admired Kennan all my life — a short book of his, the title of which I forget, appeared on a summer reading list at a very early age; and I’ve been curious about Thompson ever since reading Ethan Mordden’s The Guest List, which I did a year ago, in the very room I’m writing in now, come to think of it.

***

The book that I read on the flight down was Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It’s a disgrace that I hadn’t read this book before, when it came out, about a hundred years ago (2010), but I got to it at last, and I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard at 28,000 feet. From now on, I am going to read everything that Batuman publishes as it appears, no matter what I’m in the middle of. What’s most striking — and this says a lot more about literary convention c 2000 CE than it does about Batuman — is her candor about how come she’s so smart: she’s done a lot of hard work. She has gone to good schools, yes; but having put learning, not fun, at the center of her life, she has acquired a great deal of it, some of it from “adventures,” but most of it from books. That’s the other thing that’s striking, almost shocking, about Batuman: her claim that you can learn a lot from reading books! What a concept!

Regular readers will be aware of my low opinion of American education, higher and otherwise; The Possessed is something of an antidote. Take those “adventures.” It is very sporting of Batuman to apprise the reader of the grants that she put together in order to spend time in Moscow, Petersburg, Samarkand, Tashkent, and elsewhere. In the hands of almost any other writer I can think of, these travels would be passed off as escapades, rip-offs of the system, occasions for drinking and whoring, with any actual learning swept to the sidelines, no matter how much of it there might have been. The point would have been to entertain the reader with naughty extracurricular frolics and odes to shirking reading lists, because who on earth would want to read about the somewhat dreary and very strange “classes” that Batuman took in Uzbek literature?

Maybe — awful thought — it’s that Batuman is a girl, and girls can be serious about these things. That may indeed what we have come to. If so, at least Batuman is there to save us, to remind us that scholarship is not the exclusive preserve of deluded Casaubons.

***

After breakfast this morning, I wrote to my friend Eric:  At the bookshop the other day, I picked up yet another nyrb reprint that I’d never heard of before. As it happens, I’m reading Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, now out in paper, and the last time that I read the novel it was in Francis Steegmuller’s translation, so Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, which Steegmuller published in 1939, was clearly something that I ought to look into. There are three parts, the outer ones by Steegmuller, with ample extracts from Flaubert’s correspondence. They’re called “Romanticism” and “Realism,” respectively. In between: “The Purge,” which is nothing but a selection of extracts from Flaubert’s letters to his mother and to his friend Louis Bouilhet, and from Flaubert’s travel notes, as well as bits from Maxime Du Camp’s “literary souvenirs” of the two friends’ trip to the Middle East in 1850. Many of the extracts are quite racy; there is even a rather voluptuous account of some male belly dancers (so to speak) in Cairo. In 1939, the book must have seem ultra-sophisticated, if easy to read. If you have not encountered this material before (especially Flaubert’s notes), I urge you to do so. I think that you will be greatly amused — which is to say, entertained and edified all at once. Never has “orientalism” looked so charmingly naive, or naively charming, on the page. 

According to Mohammedan law, full and complete ablution is indispensable following certain bodily acts. When a husband leaves the women’s apartments, for example he must entirely submerge himself — in a pool, in a river, anywhere, so long as his head is momentarily under water. When he emerges, he raises his hands to heaven and says: “O Lord, I render thee thanks for the joys thou hast given me, and I pray thee to lead in holy ways the child dthat may be born, O my God, make me blind in the presence of unlawlful women!”

 Very often, standing on my boat at daybreak, I have seen fellahin run to the Nile, strip off their clothing, and plunge into the river. At such moments my sailors would laugh and call out to the bathers pleasantries which were, to put it mildly, indelicate.

That’s Du Camp, not Flaubert; Flaubert would not have shaped the anecdote so carefully.

Looking over this letter, I think that I would change the last word to “judiciously.” Du Camp’s account has a tidy, after-dinner character that makes me smile, reminding me, now that I think of it, of a funny note that Steegmuller extracts from Flaubert’s letter to Bouilhet of 5 June 1850 (you have to know that Pierre Corneille, the great playwright of the Seventeenth Century, is Rouen’s most celebrated son):

Tomorrow is the sixth — the birthday of Corneille! What a session at the Rouen Academy! What speeches! The fine costume of those gentlemen: white ties, pomp, sound traditions! A brief report on agriculture!

***

 

I’ve just had a note from Amazon. Another copy of George III is on the way, at no charge. No need to send back the defective copy. Which means that I’ve got to throw it away! Yes, throw a book away! I don’t think that I’ve ever done that. But I can’t see leaving the book lying around, either, to trap the unwary. I may just abandon it in the hotel room, with a small note tucked inside. The housemaids will decide….

Gotham Diary:
Low-Key
19 November 2011

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

In the middle of dinner last night, I was startled by the sudden presence of a friendly stranger who wanted to shake our hands and who was wearing, I eventually observed, a chef’s blouse. He wasn’t really a stranger; Kathleen remembered greetings on past visits. But because it is impossible to turn my head to see anything, I quite often don’t see people I’m talking to, especially waitstaff. If I nod at someone in passing, to say “good morning,” I carry away only the dimmest impressions of physiognomy, and those are soon forgotten. To fix someone’s face in my mind, I’d have to come to a complete stop, raise my head as I can do only when I’m not walking, and stare — an odd thing to do. But perhaps I ought to consider it, because this year, for some reason (it’s my fifth visit, although it feels totally umpteenth), the people in passing aren’t just saying “good morning” or “good afternoon.” They’re saying “Welcome back! Good to see you again!” People who at first blush appear to be fellow guests say this. As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I won’t be surprised if some actual guests do hail me with welcome/again cheer. I’ll have to take care not to ask them for another glass of pinot grigio.

The impression that I have been coming to the Buccaneer Inn all my life is very strong. Weirdly strong. To some extent, the hotel embodies everything familiar and agreeable from resort hotels that I’ve visited since childhood. It is “low-key,” very comfortable but not opulent; lively but not noisy. There is a vague sense of campus life; it’s possible that I would have done better in college if college hadn’t reminded me of a resort hotel. (A very Spartan resort, not at all “low-key” — although everything that I read about Princeton suggests that “low-key” is exactly the right term for undergraduate life at that university.) A small battalion of maids and groundskeepers and “people behind the desk” keep the hotel purring along smoothly, as though we were aboard a permanently-moored Cunarder from the old days. That comparison is apt, because just as the luxury liner (basically a mail coach/Chinatown bus with a thin crust of fancy staterooms on the top decks) was done in by the cruise ship (a packed stadium without a game but with much more comprehensive refreshments), so the resort hotel has been challenged by the casino. There are casinos in St Croix, but there is no gambling at the Buccaneer. That’s why the airlines put up their flight crews here.

But still, the Buccaneer is a specific place, with its own topography. And that topography is really quite unusual; at least, I’ve never been anywhere like it. The main building of the hotel, along with a string of outbuildings one of which contains the room that we’ve stayed in twice before, stands on the ridge of a foothill, hard by the sea. At the bottom of the slope, there are more accommodations and an open-air restaurant that can be used as a hall for occasions. (There is also a pro shop, serving the golf course that winds around the hill, near the entry gate; I just noticed it for the first time the other day. I knew there had to be one somewhere.) There is Up Here and Down There.

Walking up the hill is arduous, no matter what shape you’re in, and there’s no way to avoid a bit of climbing every day, because breakfast is served Up Here but midday meals, whether at the restaurant by the water or at the “grotto” by the swimming pool at the other end of the property, are available only Down There. No matter where you stay, you have to climb for or from breakfast or lunch. You can call the front desk to have a van give you a lift, but an important part of synching with the “low-key” ambiance involves stout self-reliance when it comes to getting around. (Except for golfers, of course.)

Maybe all that hill-climbing over the years has simply driven memories of earlier visits to other resort hotels to ground. (Now I really wish I’d brought along Proust.)

The self-portait in the photograph above was entirely unintentional. I was actually thinking that I ought to swipe the iPad into displaying something. It never occurred to me that I was shooting a glass, darkly.

Oh! PS! We rescued the suitcase with the craft materials in it from our aforementioned abandonment. Turned out that it was being held under my name, not Kathleen’s, even though there was nothing about the luggage tag that mentioned me. I was, apparently, the man in the traveling party. Cherchez l’homme. Anyway, it all worked out very nicely. Thanks for the good wishes.

Gotham Diary:
Arrivés
18 November 2011

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Here’s a view that changes only if I frame it differently.

Kathleen was so worn out by wondering if she’d get me here in one piece that we left a piece of luggage at the airport yesterday; retrieving it has not been an easy business, so far. It wasn’t that I was particularly difficult in transit, but rather the possibility that at any moment I might just melt down. On the flight from Miami to St Croix, which was a lot smoother than the flight from New York, Kathleen even played Sheherazade, quizzing me about the career of, of all people, Joan Crawford.

I’m puzzling over the remains of the past couple of days with forensic interest. We have the corpus delecti right here, in the entries that I wrote (and in a few letters as well). In some ways, my bitching and moaning about having to leave home, board a plane, disrupt my routines were same old same old. But it turned out that many aspects of the crisis were new, in positive ways.

Most noticeably, the crisis was extremely compressed. It was a matter of two and a half days. Until Monday morning, I simply blocked my anxiety center’s access to the coming trip. It had plenty of other things to worry about, and I concentrated on those. (And how did I manage that, for the first time ever? It occurs to me that, just as my arthritis and most of my other complaints are the result of my immune system’s not having enough in the way of genuine pathogens to fight, so my grandson is a magnificent magnet for all my free-floating anxiety, whenever he is not actually present. [And I believe that my anxiousness, like my immune system, must have been hard-wired by the time I went to school.])

Second, and even more interestingly, the more rational parts of my brain, if I may speak in what seems like such an antiquated way, were preparing for the trip in very sensible ways. I knew that on Monday, I would go to the storage unit to pick up my lightweight shirts. On Tuesday, I would get a haircut. On Wednesday, I would go to Crawford Doyle in search of fresh reading matter for the trip. (Also: when we came home from Fire Island, I put all of those adapters and cables and thingummies that you need when you travel in one drawer, knowing that I’d be needing them in nine weeks.)

The result of these two developments was that the shock of packing, once I acknowledged that it was time to get ready to go, devastated me on Monday, but that was all right, because, even if I felt terrible, I had set up a plan and didn’t have to think about what to do. I was miserable, almost seasick, for two days, but you wouldn’t have known it from my preparations. By the time I climbed into the car to go to LaGuardia, everything was in order, and I was at least completely neutral about what was going on.

The third thing that was new was the manner in which I got over my dread of taking a vacation. At Crawford Doyle, I bought Diane Keaton’s memoir, Then Again. I thought that it would be fun to read, and indeed it was, just a few hours later, when I ought to have been doing other things. Instead, I was Gchatting with Ms NOLA about bulimia, adoption, and how some people, beautiful as they are when you, get to be much better looking when they’re older. We didn’t chat for long, because I really did have to be doing other things, but it occurred to me that I could do most of those other things while watching Annie Hall.

Annie Hall is far from my favorite Woody Allen movie. I don’t dislike it, but it seems preliminary to me, which Manhattan, practically his next picture, most certainly does not. (Neither does Interiors, the intervening film; but Interiors turns out to be the first of a clutch of beautifully bleak movies that Allen has made over the years; Another Woman is my favorite, while Match Point is actually thrilling. While unmistakeably the work of Woody Allen, these titles seem to me to stand to one side of his typical output, which amounts to a response, not an homage, to the great European filmmakers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Manhattan is the first fully-formed mainstream Woody Allen movie.) The good thing about my watching other Allen films much more often is that Annie Hall is always fresh, which it really ought to be; it’s actually rather delicate — fragile. This is partly because Diane Keaton is, effectively, a child actress, younger in a way than Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Oh, she may have been biologically close to thirty, but she was barely halfway to the mature greatness, the all-American comic mastery of The Family Stone and Something’s Gotta Give. When Annie Hall was over, I had to watch Morning Glory (Keaton’s second film with Rachel McAdams, whom she mentions very favorably in her memoir). I couldn’t believe how much more than was to Diane Keaton in Morning Glory, even though it’s a supporting role, than there is in Annie Hall. That’s because Annie Hall is, of course, Woody Allen’s fantasy. Colleen Peck is a real bitch. (Albeit a real bitch with a heart of gold and a crackerjack sense of the absurd.)

By the time Morning Glory was over, I had not only packed, but done all the ironing as well. which meant that I had a supply of pressed handkerchiefs to take to St Croix.  I had organized all of the last minute (bathroom) packing on the dining table, along with books, electronics, and even the beach towel that I’ve been using as a blanket lately. (I used the beach towel to wrap up the Klipsch iPod player and the iPad keyboard deck.) When we finally went to be at 11:30, I was ready to go. We were up at 5:30, in the car at six, and at the airport by 6:30. We arrived here at about 4:30 yesterday afternoon (Atlantic Time), and Kathleen took a nap right away. It was only when she woke up, before dinner, that we missed her second suitcase, a small purple roller filled with craft items mostly. Wish us luck on that one.

Gotham Diary:
Size Matters
16 November 2011

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Well, you may ask, how did he manage to get through a thousand years of travel before all of this bitching and moaning about how he needs to stay at home to curry his craft? How did anybody put up with him?

Answer: Kathleen did put up with me, so anybody else’s willingness never came up. 

Answer: It was a James Bond-type vanity of abomidable-conceit proportions. When I traveled, I saw myself in some sort of 1960s ad for Scotch, in which I had only three lines: “Put it there,” “Thank you,” and “A Tanquery martini, up with an olive and not too dry.” Everything else was off the menu. I happened to be very good at this. Given these three handy phrases, I could go anywhere on earth and be worshiped by the locals, and I was. Generous tipping didn’t hurt. Even in places where martinis aren’t made from Scotch.

In any case, that’s what travel means to me. It means standing in a foreign hotel room that’s contrived to look like a room in your own home, smiling at somebody who has just carried something heavy across the threshold, and either signing a chit or handing over bills. Insofar as that is what travel is about, I’m very good at it. It doesn’t matter that I care for it even less than the people who are toting barges and lifting bales.

My dream of dreams is to spend a week in New York City. Not the New York City where I live, but the other NYC, where we’d stay in a hotel, dine out every night and see a show (a different show every night) — and that would be that. Then we’d retire to Yorkville, venturing forth only to the odd concert at the Museum. That’s my dream. As the old lady says to Stifler, “Focus!”

Gotham Diary:
Being There
15 November 2011

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

What with packing and preparing for our Thanksgiving break, I’m finding it difficult to hear words well enough to write them down….

The very thought of leaving this apartment for a week is horribly disturbing. I used to hate travel, and I still do. But I hate leaving home even more. It’s not quite the same thing. I hate, for example, leaving home in the evening; I don’t like to go out at night anymore. What I want to do when it gets dark: go to bed. And now, thanks to Lunesta, that’s something that I can do. And then be up at the crack of dawn. It sounds crazy, except of course that in terms of natural human life, it could not possibly be more normal.

I want to write about James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out, but first I’ve got to get a haircut, so that I don’t look too shaggy in St Croix. … And now I find that I neglected to update this entry on my way out the door. The barber thanked me for sending him a copy of the postcard that I had made of Will outside his shop (Willy’s, come to think of it) after his last haircut. I can’t say that the card was proudly displayed, but it was tucked into a shelf so that the half with Will in it showed.

James Wolcott — I mentioned a while back (last week, actually) that I picked up Lucking Out because I thought it might help me puzzle out why it is that I never pursued a career in journalism. Aside from the obvious, that is (I am much more curious about what people think than about what they do, I prefer to work in a quiet, well-appointed space, and don’t have much use for “news” as such). It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I could not have borne the locker-room atmosphere of mid-century journalism, with its insistent masculinity (a spinelessly overcompensating concession, ultimately, to the arrant philistinism of American life), and its dependence on metaphors of war and violence. All of this was embodied in “literary figures” whom I had and still have no time for: Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson. If I had tried to stick it out, I’d have died of drink and drugs before I was thirty. Of drink and drugs and dire demoralization.

But I kept reading Lucking Out, and, in the end, I enjoyed it — as a book. Wolcott is funny, modest in his way, and literate certainly; it was also a pleasure to read that the punk scene at CBGB’s, for example, was as insupportable as I’d thought it must have been. (Why anyone wants to spend a single non-excretory second in an atmosphere redolent of urine is beyond me, but Wolcott jumps right in and makes piss sound like the house champagne.) And then, there’s his friendship with Pauline Kael. Kael could be fun to read, I remember, but I never agreed with her about pictures that I’d seen, or wanted to see anything on her say-so. And I’m appalled to learn that she never saw films a second time. (The one exception, according to Wolcott, was the druggily dull McCabe and Mrs Miller.) I never know whether a picture’s any good until I’ve seen it a second time, a few months after the first. And I think that the Seventies, by and large, were gassy and unattractive, as most times of transition seem, on the historical record, to be.

I didn’t know what to make of the conceit of the fourth part’s juxtaposition of Wolcott’s interests in porn and ballet, but it was the “we were there” enthusiasm of his writing about the latter that registered another difference between us. And I’m speaking of a difference between us now, not as we were as young men (I believe that I’m vaguely older than Wolcott). I can’t find a truly apposite quote, I’m afraid, and it’s possible that there isn’t one, but I drew from Lucking Out the impression of a man who went out every night in search of memorable events. A man who now, writing about his youth, is thrilled to have encountered so many. He was there was Suzanne Farrell returned to City Ballet; he was there when Darci Kistler returned. He remembers the excitement in the audience. I wasn’t there, but I can’t imagine writing about it if I had been, unless it were to agree with or contradict a point.

Thinking about this made me realize why I remember so little of my own past. Our strongest memories (also our least reliable) are the ones that are reinforced by recollection itself. The reason why I’m up on a lot of dates in English history, say, is that I read a lot of English history; information that I already “possess” gets refreshed fairly regularly. But my recollections of evenings at the Houston Grand Opera are pretty threadbare. I don’t think that I could fill two pages with descriptions of what I remember, and almost everything that I said would be vague. I remember something about the harsh lighting in one of the scenes in Samuel Ramey’s Don Giovanni, for example. I remember Rudolph Nureyev prancing around in the most beautiful green costume in his pocket adaptation of Raymonda (and what fun the music was! I was mad about it for months afterward). The End.

The point is that what happend thirty, twenty, ten or even five years ago isn’t very interesting to me. It’s what’s happening right now that has my full attention — not that there’s anything the least bit exciting about writing in a room while La Valse oom-pahs in a corner. I only wish things were less exciting! But I’ve got to pack, so you’ll excuse me….

Gotham Diary:
Do Not Disturb!
14 November 2011

Monday, November 14th, 2011

A few hours’ of imprudent hankie-sharing with runny-nosed Will, on Friday, obliged me to swallow a dose of NyQuil last night, enabling me to regret my lack of backbone this morning. Worse, aside from a few hours spent on housework, on Saturday, I did absolutely nothing this weekend but read Alan Hollinghurst’s very beautiful book, The Stranger’s Child; so, not only am I spineless but I find myself swaddled in a dream of that green and sceptered isle.  

***

I’ve read two frowning reviews of The Stranger’s Child, by James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn. Both reviewers, it seems to me, want Alan Hollinghurst to do something that he’s clearly, on the evidence of the novel that he has actually written, not interested in doing. To be sure, they come to the book from opposite perspectives. To Wood, who is English but who works in the United States, the novel flirts with sentimental preciosity; it is too prettily English. To Mendelsohn, an American, the novel lacks a sympathetic core; what he doesn’t get is precisely what Wood’s afraid of: that The Stranger’s Child is about England. But the two critics unite is in a demand that the novel take a moral position on something, anything. Wood, complaining about what, to him, are stylistic curlicues:

These flecks of aspic are scarcely heinous, but cumulatively they suggest an overindulgent hospitality toward the material. Hollinghurst seems too ready to perpetuate a fond English elegy that he should, instead, be scrutinizing.

Among Mendelssohn’s numerous expressions of discontent, here’s the baldest:

You have to wonder what is being critiqued in the new book.

Do you? I thought that scrutiny and critique were critics’ tools, not novelists’. The critical habit of finding social criticism in novels is as easy to explain as the connection between the generosity of the Marshall Plan and trumped-up fears of communism in postwar America: it justifies the reading of fiction/the spending of millions. That’s to say that it appeases an anxiety about the “uselessness” of fiction — and of art generally.

But what Hollinghurst wants to do, it seems to me, is to tell a story, a particular kind of story, possibly a new kind of story — the only other example of such a story that I can think of is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It is the kind of story in which a very great deal of material is omitted. One of the characters in The Stranger’s Child, Jennifer Ralph, has an interesting parentage; her father was the child of Daphne Sawle Valance Ralph (the central character if not — and she definitely is not — the novel’s protagonist). But who was his father? That’s a question that the book chews over for moments at a time. But the man himself, this child of dubious provenance, this father of a woman whom we meet as a girl and then as an Oxford don — this man never has a name. All we know about him is that he was “in rubber” in colonial Malaysia. I don’t regard Jenny’s father’s namelessness as a negligence. I think that Hollinghurst wants us to note it, and to take it as a reminder that every story involves the back ends of countless other stories. His story has lots of such holes.

The point of a novel such as The Stranger’s Child is to work a novel out of a story full of holes; to put it more “artistically,” we might speak of a narrative that weaves content with lacuna. I don’t want to carry this idea too far; the point is never that what’s left out is as or more important than what’s put in. In Egan’s book as well as Hollinghurst’s, though, the reader is unavoidably aware of making the calculations that impose coherence on the narrative. Egan’s calculations are a little more demanding than Hollinghurst’s, possibly because her book is frankly prospective, whereas The Stranger’s Child is “all about” the past. But the work is always pleasant and intriguing, never onerous. There is nothing new, of course, about readers’ completing stories in their minds; our minds flesh out the verbal content of every sentence that we hear. This new kind of novel that Egan and Hollinghurst have explored simply makes us aware of something that we do all the time. The very old-fashioned term for it is “leaving something to the imagination.” It’s what popular bad writers make their fortunes by avoiding.

***

It seems impossible — I must be mistaken — but I clearly remember a day, in the summer of 1977, when my father and I were driven from London to Stratford-on-Avon. This was a sentimental journey for my father; he had visited what he called “Shakespeare Country” several times with my mother, who had just died, and even though I never heard either of my parents so much as speak the name of any of Shakespeare’s works, they liked the countryside. (A similar fondness for “Sound of Music Country” remained stoutly disconnected from any interest in Mozart.) I know that you can make a day trip out of Stratford, but can you also see Blenheim, walk around Oxford, and have a leisurely lunch at a country hotel not too far from Birmingham? Yes, if you were traveling with my father, you could.

That drive is my total experience of the English countryside. It differs at no point from anything that I’ve seen in the movies. (Toss-up question: have more films been shot in Manhattan or the Home Counties?) And when I read about the English countryside, even though I can’t tell a spinney from a combe, I feel that I’m on very familiar ground. (The ground that I actually grew up on, which is the same here in Manhattan, especially at the north end of the island, as it is in Westchester County, is rather more exotic, a great deal rockier, beneath all the roads and buildings, and wilder.) This is not just because I know what England looks like, however; it’s because I’ve spent so much of my life in the heads of characters who’ve spent so much of their lives walking around in it. From Forster and Woolf to Ishiguro and McEwan, I’ve walked hundreds of English miles.

The Stranger’s Child is certainly a novel of the countryside. London is a grimmish offtstage anti-presence until very near the end of the book, by which time the city has swallowed up the village in which the story begins. London may be about pomp, but it’s the country that speaks of English power.

The High Ground was an immense lawn beyond the formal gardens, from which, though the climb to it seemed slight, you got “a remarkable view of nothing,” as Dudley put it: the house itself, of course, and the slowly dropping expense of farmland towards the villages of Bampton and Brize Norton. It was an easy uncalculating view, with no undue excitement, small woods of beech and poplar greening up across the pasture-land. Somewhere a few miles off flowed the Thames, already wideish and winding, though from here you would never have guessed it. Today the High Ground was being mown, the first time of the year, the donkey in its queer rubber overshoes pulling the clattering mower, steered from behind by one of the men [it's 1926], who took off his cap to them as he approached. Really you didn’t mow at weekends, but Dudley had ordered it, doubtless so as to annoy his guests. George and Madeleine were strolling on the far side, avoiding the mowing, heads down in talk, perhaps enjoying themselves intheir own way.

This passage serves very well as a skeleton-key to Hollinghurst’s cabinet of wonders: England is very beautiful precisely because of ownership arrangements that, from time to time (if not more often) throw up monsters like Dudley. And on flows the Thames, unseen.  

Gotham Diary:
Engineer
11 November 2011

Friday, November 11th, 2011

You will have to excuse me, this morning; I’ll be spending time with this young gentleman. It’s his mother’s birthday, which means that, although she rarely gets a working holiday, the people she depends on often take the day off. So, while Megan participates in a conference call from home, I’ll take Will to the park. It’s not enough to play with him in his own room; ever since whenever, he has demonstrated that he knows when his mother is on the telephone on business — and that he doesn’t like it.

Although perhaps those days are over. He can play for hours now with his trains. When he gets tired of rolling them around on their tracks, he pushes them through the archway in the bridge, say, and sees how far his arm can follow. Or he might explore the many ways in which the trains fit and don’t fit in his other toys. If I were a mathematician, I might propose that Will is deeply involved in set theory these days. It’s quiet work.

I won’t chance it, though; I’ll take the stroller along with me. The air is a bit snappy this morning, perfect for running around the playground.

Later, I will tell you what I thought about J Edgar, or why I found it to be an unpuzzling movie full of puzzlements. If I don’t get run over by a train.

***

But before I get to that, I’d like to tell you how I spent the afternoon, once I returned from the Lower East Side and lunch, for the first time ever (amazing, really, that it has taken so long) at Veselka — where Will’s contentment at the table furthered a sense, adumbated last night over pizza, that he is once again content to sit through a meal at table. Before it was time to head downtown this morning, I read Charles Rosen’s generally favorable review of Roger Nichols’s new biography of Maurice Ravel, in the process of which Rosen characteristically ventured an appreciation of Ravel’s keyboard oeuvre. Fully a quarter of the piece is devoted to Gaspard de la Nuit, about which I have never read anything so cogent.

Gaspard de la Nuit is a suite of three piano pieces that, considering how sinister and difficult-sounding they are, ought to be more demanding, harder to listen to, than they are. You don’t really have to pay attention to the first two, “Ondine” and “Le Gibier”; the first is appropriately bathed in watery ripples, while the ostinato bell tolling at the back of the music works pretty much like moonlight, steady but fascinating just for being there. The final piece, which, as Rosen notes, has “the reputation of being technically one of the most difficult pieces ever written,” is less modest about grabbing attention, but it is never tedious — always the threat posed by “morbid romanticism.” (Rosen applies this phrase to ”Le Gibier” only, but I think that it describes Gaspard as a whole.) The suite lasts a little longer than a quarter-hour. Rosen’s program notes made me keen to hear it, and I had no trouble locating the CD of Angela Hewitt’s performance.

When I got home, I went to see what else there was in the cupboard, and quickly found Marta Argerich’s recording. Quickly found it in iTunes, that is; finding the CD was trickier, thanks to my incorrect assumption that it was issued on the Philips label, but I found it (on DG) eventually. Then I discovered that there was no more. No more in iTunes, anyway. So I ran to Arkivmusic to refresh my memory; just the other day, looking for a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13, I was reminded that I own Daniel Barenboim’s set of all the concertos. But nothing familiar turned up, so I dug deeper in my collection and found two more Gaspards, among copies that I’d made of CDs that I’d given away, back in the days before iTunes playlists — back when I played only my favorite recordings of anything. Well, at least I kept copies. On the visit to Arkivmusic, I picked up recordings by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Hewitt and Argerich play the hell out of Gaspard, but Philippe Entremont’s performance has its moments, and Monique Haas, while not great, is good enough to set a benchmark. Here’s what puzzles me still, though: why have I devoted an afternoon to listening closely to music that, upon increased familiarity, I’m prepared to agree with Charles Rosen in judging “the greatest tone poem of the school of Liszt.” (“Scarbo”) But don’t wait for me to figure this out. Read Rosen and get yourself a recording ( Hewitt’s complete Ravel would be my choice; it’s only two discs). I’ll tell you what Roger Nichols’s book is like when I read it, which, with luck, will be during the Thanksgiving break; I ordered a copy today.

***

Clint Eastwood’s new movie, J Edgar, is a very glum affair. Perhaps it ought to be. It’s not so glum as to be disagreeable to watch, but I’m in no hurry to see it again. Even Leonardo DiCaprio can’t make the FBI director an engaging character; we watch his story because the man had such a baleful effect on our nation’s life. Obsessed, like most conservatives throughout the Western world, by a dread of alien Bolshevist infiltration, Hoover sounded like a time capsule by the time I was growing up, in the Sixties. (For an idea of what I’m talking about, revisit Spike Lee’s deployment of Enver Hoxha’s orations in Inside Man.) Hoover clearly outlived his usefulness by at least 25 years.

Eastwood’s point, of course, isn’t to reconcile us to Hoover’s abuse of office; on the contrary, I think that his film ought to make it more difficult than it is for righteous tones to develop uncritical momentum. In my book, Hoover is an Augustine figure, someone whose sexual peculiarities, combined with a position of authority, inspired a rule book that we’ve found it difficult to live with in the long term. it’s hard to sympathise with the pains, such as they might have been, of those peculiarities. Eastwood shows us the suffering, and Mr DiCaprio certainly projects it, but I found myself feeling the same sort of pity that the site of a cow in an abattoir would rouse. Thwarted love, dented self-awareness — these are the most terrible things that can happen to a free and healthy human being. The fact that the first director of the FBI had to endure them does not make him more attractive. The terrible thing about J Edgar Hoover is how ordinary he was in everything except persistence.

For the moment, the only thing that I want to say about the film is that its sepia coloration is ultimately rebarbative, or at least tiresome. The special effects makeup is hard to overlook. By excising Hoover’s middle age, Eastwood avoids the problem of grading his leading man into prosthesis; we have the young Hoover and the old Hoover, and never the in-between Hoover. The old-man getup is very convincing. Ditto Naomi Watts’s. Alas, I cannot say the same of whatever was done to Armie Hammer, who does such a fine job of playing Hoover’s companion, Clyde Tolson. His old-man look is utterly unpersuasive. At the best, it reminded me of Keir Dullea in 2001. Most of the time, though, I thought of C3PO in a plasma attack. There were moments when Mr Hammer looked like a strange, beautiful-eyed tropical fish in a suit. But he never looked a day over 30. It was most disconcerting. 

Of course you have to see it. I’m hoping that J Edgar will prove to be Clint Eastwood’s warm-up for more interesting mid-century biopics. George Kennan would make a great subject.

Gotham Diary:
Aruba
10 November 2011

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Since I’ve never been to the island of Aruba, my System 1, as Daniel Kahneman would call it, is free to invest the name with cognitive associations that have nothing to do with sun and sand. From now on, “Aruba” will trigger memories of the thrilling repudiation of motherhood that newly-widowed Rita Lyons announces to her shocked children toward the end of Nicky Silver’s play, The Lyons. Say “Aruba,” and I will see and hear petite Linda Lavin trumpeting, in that level monotone of hers that can splinter and spark without ever losing its deliberate, awful pace, a liberating post-maternal dismissal that, who knows, better chemistry might have made possible for Medea.  

Among other things, The Lyons is the most satisfying play as a whole that I’ve seen in a very long time. There are lots of great scenes — really, nothing but great scenes — and/but they cohere and lead to a final moment in which everything is resolved. Not for an instant did I think that the writing might have been managed better, and I can’t remember the last time I was entertained with so little personal effort. There’s a terrifying scene in the second act that you know is going to end badly, but your worst fear — that it will end tediously — is brilliantly allayed.

The other remarkable thing about The Lyons is the ferocious consistency of its comic vision. The sheer sweeping funniness of the show, which often banks off toward absurdity but never succumbs to it, dampens the audience’s instinctive need to sympathatise with somebody onstage. Sympathy is strongly discouraged by the playwright, but you’re laughing too hard to mind. This black comedy has a strong human heart, however; not a corpuscle of misanthropy will be found in its bloodstream. The Lyons are a bleak and broken family, but they’re all looking for love and terrified by it at the same time. They’re all hugely alive, even the dying head of the household (Dick Latessa). (There’s hope even for him — in the hell that he’s afraid of, no less.) You may not like any of the Lyons,  but you won’t be alienated by any of them, either, not even by creepy Curtis (Michael Esper). Nicky Silver has found a warm smile of kindness at the end of Edward Albee’s nightmare.

That smile warms the face of Kate Jennings Grant, playing Lyons daughter Lisa. Lisa has just made the profoundly believable discovery — credible both as a truth about human nature and as a bit of wisdom that someone might very well not stumble upon until middle age — that making somebody else happy can make you happy. It doesn’t always; life isn’t that easy. But maybe that’s what her mother ought to have tried to do, instead of trying to love her husband. At least Rita finally has the chance to make herself happy.

Oh, how I hope this show goes to Broadway!

Gotham Diary:
Yuk
9 November 2011

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Oops. I neglected to make note of Fido here’s particulars. I was accompanying Ray Soleil and an old friend from Crescent City through the new You-Know-What wing at the Museum. He’s probably not even a Fido.

I had a bit of a major yuk last night. There is nothing yucky about a yuk, and, to avoid confusion, yuks are always major. I learned the term from Fossil Darling, back in the days before I learned the danger of adopting his usages. The grown-up equivalent for “major yuk” is “fit of uncontrollable laughter.” I remember the first one; it hit me in eighth grade, reading Robert Benchley’s “What Is Humor — a Joke?” I did not read it in The New Yorker, where it appeared eleven years before I was born, but many, many major yuks have since been ignited by funny pieces appearing in that magazine’s pages, and last night’s was not an exception.

It was Bruce McCall’s parody of Jill Abramson’s Puppy Diaries. McCall has demonstrated, in recent decades, that he can be as funny with his pen as he is with his brushes. It is undoubtedly easier to write something down than to render it graphically, at least if you already have McCall’s smiling sense of the absurd. The parody, “Pet Books Proliferate,” was not immediately alluring, and I did not begin the first little story (there are three), “Tess, the Orphaned Earthworm,” with any anticipation of cathartic hilarity. I hummed along with a slight smile as the narrator, a housewife, unearthed some bait from her husband’s fishing tackle and adopted it as a pet, deciding that it was a she and calling her Empress Maria Theresa, “Tess for short — after the driving force behind the Diet of Worms. A lame joke, I admit, but love will do that to you; you say and do the silliest things.”

A lame joke? It can barely crawl. The last Diet of Worms — not the most famous one, but the one after that — was convened in 1545, almost three hundred years before Maria Theresa succeeded her father and sparked the War of the Austrian Succession. But what it lacks in wit it makes up for in cheek. Think of Ruth Draper’s Mrs Clancy, who wraps up the interruption of acquiring a new dog by telling her children that it would be “lovely” to name the animal after Dante, in honor of her Italian Lesson, “and we’ll call him Dan for short. Here, Danny Danny Danny. Oh, you is such a sweet Danny.” In the context of Draper’s extended recreation of a sophisticated New York society woman, Dan for short is such a quick swerve from the piously learned to the daily vulgate that it has the decompressive force of a bomb. “Tess for short” hasn’t got the same traction, but it scattered the seeds of an explosion — “lame joke” sprinkled a few more — that went off a few seconds after I read the last line of this lugubrious tale. “A few hours later, still sobbing, I carried the dangling little question mark of charred gristle that had been my Tess out to the back flower bed and gently lowered her into the earth whence she had come.”

I chuckled; I chuckled again a few times. Then I was roaring, helplessly. The absurdity of it all! The absurdity of it all, that is, corseted in the whalebone of exquisitely chosen language and made to strut about like Margaret Dumont. In between falling in love with and naming Tess, the narrator quotes from Marjorie Maude Falstaff’s “touching memoir, ‘My Life with Bert the Wonder Dew Worm’.”

O faithful earthworm, silently churning and aerating deep in the loam of the earth, that plant life my flourish! Thou hast done more good for mankind than all the dogs every whelped.

There is something very funny in the threat that these two short but florid sentences make of never coming to an end. Spare me, you automatically beg; the very word “thou” is no longer supportable. And McCall promptly does spare you, moving right on to the Diet of Worms.

I called Fossil, but after two rings I remembered that he was out for the evening. I didn’t leave a message.

Gotham Diary:
Critics
8 November 2011

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

For the sake of the mortification of my flesh, I am reading James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. Ordinarily, the reviews, with their references to Norman Mailer and to New York’s sometime gritty downtown scene &c, would have put me off, having reminded me once again that, if I did have to spend a decade in exile, at least it was the 1970s — the city’s Buttcrack Decade. It was in the Seventies that James Wolcott became a journalist. I can’t say that I ever decided not to be a journalist, but a disinclination was already in place by the time I was graduated from Notre Dame in 1970. It came down to this: I didn’t like the kind of people who were journalists. (The feeling was mutual.)

Instead, the effect of the reviews of Lucking Out was to make me wonder if this was still the case. Lucking Out seemed to be a good test: turning its pages, would I be suffused with regret at paths not taken? Would I wish that I’d had a little more backbone, and followed my dreams? Would I have liked to be one of the cool kids? I’ll let Wolcott answer the question.

There was another home-brewed brand of criticism practiced at the Voice — informal, unsolicited feedback that was delivered like a body check in hockey and intended to put you on notice. It was not uncommon for a fellow writer, in a warrior spirit of collegiality, to let you know that the piece that ran in last week’s issue or the new one teed up in the galleys carried the risk of making you look like a fool. Not simply mistaken, not merely misguided, but a fool — a dupe who made everybody else look bad. One year at the Voice Christmas party, a columnist in ambush mode, having filled his tank to excess capacity with holiday cheer, intercepted me, even though I was standing still, to put me wise that a campaign piece I had done about a presidential candidate that was set to run proved that I didn’t know a thing about politics and if it were published I would look like a fool and the editors would look like fools, a diatribe/dire prediction he delivered so close up his face nearly went out of focus. He was telling me this for my own good, he said, but nobody at the Voice ever told you anything for your own good unless they were up to no good. Another Voice staffer, whom nobody dared call a fool for fear he’d do a calypso number on their heads with his fists, speculated that the weaponized use of the word was rooted in Old Left discourse, evidenced by how often Voice writers would quote August Beble’s pronouncement “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” one of those thudnering dicta certainly inteded to stop an adversary dead in his rhino tracks. … Or perhaps “fool” simply caught on in the office because some alpha force began using it and everyone else added it to their repertoire, just as so many writers picked up on Ellen Willis’s use of “cranky” as a positive descriptive, indicating someone out of sorts with the prevailing political norms. Whatever its origin in the lingua franca, “fool” was a strangely shame-laced word, intended to make you feel like an object of ridicule based on the snickers and scowls of some invisible jury. … I resented being bullyragged for making a fool of myself because making a fool of yourself was one of the hard-earned liberties Norman Mailer had fought for in his boxing trunks. but I have to say, I don’t regret my days in gladiator school. Having your ego slapped around a bit helped the blood circulate and would prove a superb conditioning program for a future sub-career in blogging, where a tough hide would come in handy every time the Hellmouth opened. Every time I’m abused online with a battery of scurrilous remarks of a personal nature, I’m able to let them bounce off like rubber erasers, having been called an asshole by professionals, experts in the field.

In short: No. No, I do not wish that I had become a journalist in the Seventies. If for no other reason: weigh and consider the violence implicit in this passage! Quite aside from the danger of calypso numbers and other manifestations of actual physical aggression, Wolcott attests to a blood-soaked state of mind that conceives of journalism as a schoolyard scrimmage. A schoolyard scrimmage, I hasten to add, that’s of no interest to non-partipants with better things to attend to. (I excised a reference to Carrie.) Having been called an asshole by professionals is unfortunately no protection against actually being one, and those who celebrate the glories of the Buttcrack Decade are perhaps uniquely destined to live in it.

***

Having been going to the movies in my semi-professional way for a few years now, on almost every Friday morning, I have developed two handy precepts. First, I don’t go to movies that I would expect to dislike. (“No action figures” covers a lot of territory, if you include comic books.) By ruling out egregiously antipathetic experiences, the first rule makes it easy to follow the second, which is to try to enjoy each movie as it was intended to be enjoyed. What kind of movie did the filmmaker want to make? I ask myself that. It is rarely a difficult question to answer. Sometimes, it’s true, a movie tries to be two or more things at the same time, resulting in a degree of incoherence. But I don’t have a problem with a degree of incoherence.  I’ve also acquired a third insight, from thinking about the recent films of Woody Allen: a movie is a magic show, a display of wonders. Every good movie is both a spectacle and a joke. Well, almost every good movie.

I thought of these rules while watching Tower Heist last week. The movie itself did not inspire these thoughts, or any other thoughts; it was Anthony Lane’s unfavorable review that raised the issue. I understand that a film critic is expected to sit through movies that he or she doesn’t care for, although why this should be so is hard to figure. Who would be the poorer if The New Yorker took no notice of Tower Heist. We might all be the poorer for missing this dandy dismissal of Brett Ratner’s “style”: “The origins of his style are unclear, but the influence of, say, early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart.” Okay, that’s funny. Why not just say that, and then move on to something else?

Tower Heist aims to be a lot of fun, and it succeeds. It tries to do several things at the same time, and it would objectionably incoherent if coherence were an element of Brett Ratner’s style, but it isn’t; Tower Heist is a deeply untroubled motion picture. Tower Heist takes place in an alternative New York that New Yorkers will probably appreciate more than most. A good deal of the movie’s spectacle, and its biggest joke, concerns the staff at The Tower, a luxury residence on Columbus Circle. The movie uses the Trump Tower — built as the Gulf & Western Building in 1970 —as its location; one part of the joke is that its battalion of impeccable service providers would be more likely to be found next door, at the new Mayflower. Another part of the joke is that, while the highly-skilled maids and doormen marshalled by Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) do exist — flourish — in our fair city, the movie’s tenantry seems imported from Los Angeles. They’re much too nice. Fortunately, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the richest of all the residents, and the man entrusted with investing the staff’s pension fund, is nice only on the surface; scratch his enamel, and he’s a bastard. When Shaw turns out to have been running a Ponzi scheme, the director knows how to rouse the audience’s inner Astoria, and we rejoice when justice is done, as it is, very sweetly. The only thing that Tower Heist lacks is a bigger, a much bigger part for Téa Leoni, who plays the FBI Special Agent who’s in charge of nabbing Shaw. At the very least, Tower Heist ought to have ended as 16 Blocks did, “two years later.” Josh and Claire ought to have had that Saturday-night date after all.

As to Anthony Lane’s diatribe/dire prediction about the future of the movies in an age of VOD, I can only say that I go to the movies in the morning because the audiences are small; more than once, I’ve been the only member. I like going to the movies principally for the popcorn (no butter), and I always take an aisle seat because I can’t make it through a feature film without a visit to the men’s room. If I were conscious of an imperative to “surrender our will,” I’d stay away. Lane is arguably the funniest writer to to have been published by The New Yorker in my lifetime, but he does have his hobby-horses. I prefer to encounter them at home, which is where I also get to know the movies I love; the element of compulsion that kept me in my seat during his homage to Ava Gardner at a bygone New Yorker festival was disagreeable. But it was theatre, in its way, and I’m glad that rules in effect since the Athens of Aeschylus are in force during staged performances. But the movies? Forget about it.

Gotham Diary:
Exactly As Photographed
7 November 2011

Monday, November 7th, 2011

After brunch on Saturday, my friend Eric took me for a walk along the High Line, which I found to be exactly as photographed. (Also, on a bright November weekend afternoon, very crowded.) As I took the photograph of the London Terrace, above, I thought of the similar picture that Kathleen took on her first visit, two years ago. The only surprise was that it took no time at all to walk the twenty-odd blocks’ length that has been developed so far. This was partly because we didn’t have to stop at every corner, of course, but it was mostly because I was quite bottomlessly interested by the conversation that Eric and I were having.

When I got home, I changed clothes and got to work on all my regualar Saturday-afternoon chores; then, in the evening, we crossed town to have dinner with Fossil Darling, Ray Soleil, and an old friend from New Orleans whom I’m hoping to show, tomorrow, the newly-opened Gallery Formerly Known As The Islamic Wing. As a result of all this activity, which followed a week of irregular amounts of running around, I was fairly depleted yesterday morning, but it wasn’t that that kept us home all day. Kathleen, even more depleted, after an unusually demanding week,  than I, succumbed to an incommoding intestinal disorder. So we did not get to go downtown to take Will out for a walk to the park. That was a disappointment all round.

I was saving the High Line for a gloomy weekday in February, when the whole project was complete. “Now I’ve ruined it for you,” lamented Eric when I confessed this plan. “Not at all,” I replied, “It’s still not finished.”  I do want to see it in wet, wintry weather, when the ghost of what it used to be will be most apparent.

***

Over the weekend, I read an Op-Ed piece by Ross Douthat that elicited my unqualified assent. In “Our Reckless Meritocracy,” Douthat argues that, while hereditary aristocracies undermine themselves by acting stupidly, and totalitarian tyrants founder on foolish obsessions, meritocracies are at risk from inexperienced conceit.

Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.

I only wish that he’d gone a little further, and taken a poke at the metrics that advance our meritocrats — the pointless examinations that test all sorts of secondary skills (such as rote memory, docility, and thinking inside the box) that can be measured, while ignoring deliberative judgment altogether. The accent on testing produces an engineering cast of mind that effectively forestalls the discovery, without formal schooling, of the unexpected lines of thought that lead to wisdom.

***

It’s hard to believe, as Philip Lopate reminds us, that the High Line was built in the Thirties (that recently), but I can vouch for the accuracy of that statement that immediately follows, in his Design Observer essay, “Above Grade: On the High Line.” “A mere 30 years later it was deemed obsolete…” I wouldn’t have known why it was obsolete, but I could see that it was, from the passenger seat of my father’s car, as we crawled along the old elevated West Side Highway, commuting to and from our Wall Street jobs. As something of a railroad buff, I morosely collected examples of disused railway in the metropolitan area. Nothing, in the middle Sixties, seemed as doomed to irrelevance as trains. But then everything about that part of town was sadly derelict in those days, included the highway itself, which would be the elevated road that got demolished. I still can’t believe, quite, that people live there now. Which, of course, only a few do — compared to the crowds that will populate the new buildings certain to sprout alongside the new, prairial promenade.

Gotham Diary:
Way Out
4 November 2011

Friday, November 4th, 2011

In the end, as all the more astute reviewers have pointed out, Blue Nights is about the double-faced problem of outliving one’s friends and relations. You mourn, and you fall apart. Joan Didion captures the awfulness of it pretty well in just one (incomplete) sentence: “Sitting in frigid waiting rooms trying to think of the name and telephone number of the person I want notified in case of an amergency.” So far as remaining family is concerned, she can choose between a brother who lives in California and a nephew who makes movies and is frequently “on location.”

Kathleen is at a funeral, this morning, of a woman who died last weekend of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was in her late seventies, and until the massive stroke felled her, she enjoyed perfect health. She wasn’t taking so much as a single prescription drug. She’d had a very happy summer with her family, and was just now settling into the fall routine. Instead, she came to a swift end. That is one way to die — I can’t help thinking that it’s the best way to die, although it’s immediately shattering to the family. Last spring, the mother of another friend died of a cancer that was quick for cancer but certainly not swift. Was that less shattering? These things can’t be compared. In the Bronx, the mother of a third friend goes on and on, an invalid for decades now, complaining, ailing, still holding onto her spot in this vale of tears.

But I digress. Joan Didion isn’t talking about different ways of dying. She would insist that she knows nothing about dying, and suggest rather that what she is not talking about, in Blue Nights, is different ways of surviving, ways of surviving the different ways in which people die. Her husband died suddenly, like the woman whose funeral Kathleen is attending — although, in the case of John Gregory Dunne, there were plenty of warnings, plenty of cardiac interventions. His death had a conventional, almost admirably masculine quality about it. They knew it was coming, and, when it came, it was fast. The death of Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, however, remains completely mysterious. It began with what seemed to a flu, passed quickly into deadly infection, and wound up with — what, brain death? We don’t spend anything like the time that The Year of Magical Thinking devoted to hospital-type situations. Didion had plenty of time to mourn her daughter before her daughter died. Then — this is another mystery; perhaps all these thoughts about adoption had gathered before — she thought about the motherhood that did not die when Quintana Roo died, and that is what Blue Nights is about. It was an odd motherhood in many ways, most of them touched only glancingly in the memoir. The one matter that Didion feels her way into is the unpleasant surprise of having trouble coming up with the name and telephone number of someone to call in case of emergency.

It’s a very sobering read, at least for someone my age. I’m only about fifteen years younger than Joan Didion, and, being a man, I will probably fall apart sooner. Heavens, I’ve been falling apart since my mid-thirties; that’s when the ankylosing spondylitis set in. (My reward for stopping smoking, come to think of it.)  I even enjoyed a stretch of Proustian invalidism while convalescing from a serious (long-neglected) bout of mononucleiosis in college.

In the kitchen, I stow the meat slicer on a high shelf. It is not a lightweight appliance. I have no trouble reaching it down, now. I wonder how long that will be the case; I wonder each time I reach it down. I keep my cellphone in my pocket at all times — except, of course, when it’s charging, and when, as right now, I forget to unplug it in the morning. I shall probably make it into the bedroom alive. But the thought of Joan Didion lying on the floor of her apartment, unable to reach any of the thirteen telephones in her house, has haunted me from the instant I read it. I know what that’s like. (My reward for giving up martinis.) And I hate to think, not of death and dying so much, but of the time when either Kathleen or I will have to find the name and telephone number of someone else to contact in case of emergency.