Archive for January, 2012

Gotham Diary:
Musicales
31 January 2012

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Don’t do what I did. When you get round to this week’s New Yorker, read the story about the successful musician second, after the story about the unhappy one. Jeremy Denk, writing with the most amiable brio in the world about recording a work that he plays, as he himself says, with the fervor of a gospel preacher, Charles Ives’s fractal Concord Sonata, will take your mind off the madly brief career of a young violinist who was apparently a better musician than he thought he was.

Ian Parker tells “The Story of a Suicide” with such insistent comprehensiveness that it reads like the masterpiece that would conclude an apprenticeship to Janet Malcolm. You may recall the tragedy that appears to have occurred at Rutgers University about fifteen months ago, but you will find, as you read Parker’s piece, that what you remember about it didn’t take place. Most notoriously, Dharun Ravi did not post a video on YouTube, or anywhere else, of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, making out with another man. Nor was Clementi unaware of what Ravi was doing. The fact that Clementi took his own life, by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, a few days after Ravi’s second attempt to spy on him — a move that Clementi himself thwarted by powering down Ravi’s computer before his lover arrived in the room — may have had something to do with a conversation between the roommates that we have no record of, but, the better you get ot know Clementi, the less the foolishness with the Webcam looks like a proximate cause of his suicide. His death is very sad, but it is, even more sadly, not the end of the story, because Dharun Ravi now faces not only a stiff prison sentence but the prospect of deportation (he was born in India). Like Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, this wouldn’t be the story that it is without the commitment of bloody-minded and media-stimulated officials commited to a miscarriage of justice.

If prosecutors had been able to charge Ravi with shiftiness and bad faith — if the criminal law exactly reflected common moral judgments about kindness and reliability — then to convict him would be easy. The long indictment against Ravi can be seen as a kind of regretful commentary about the absence of such statutes. Similarly, the enduring false belief that Ravi was responsible for outing Tyler Clementi, and for putting a sex tape on the Internet, can be seen as a collective effort to balance a terrible event with a terrible cause.

In other words, there is little or nothing to prosecute here.

There is a great deal more to this story, and, now that I know as much as I do, I want to know the rest. Specifically, I want to know more about a 25 year-old man known hitherto only as “M B.” He was Tyler Clementi’s companion in the two trysts in the Rutgers dormitory that took place before Clementi killed himself. M B was not a Rutgers student; students who saw him were put off by his not looking like someone who belonged on campus. He may or may not be able to tell us something more about Tyler Clementi’s state of mind in response to what appears to have been a dangerously rapid conclusion to his belated puberty. As we follow the copious spoor of tweets and chats that Parker has reassembled (as well as more conventional conversations with Clementi’s parents), we watch a very shy young man undergo two critical developments. First, right before heading off to his freshmen year of college, he comes out to his family, a disclosure made more troubling by his mother’s attachment to an evangelical church. Then, he tries on full-blown manhood by going out to find someone to have sex with and bringing this person back to his bed. I for one had the feeling that Tyler took on too much too fast, and also that he had no choice about doing so.  Having no friends at the new school was probably his fatal vulnerability. The tomfooleries of Dharun Ravi and his old friend and fortuitous dorm neighbor, Molly Wei would have annoying at worst. You almost wish that Tyler had been more outraged about them. Having reported the spying to the residential assistant, Tyler appears to have moved on, on his pre-set course to suicide. It is not reaching too far to suppose that Tyler knew that his own death would exact a terrible revenge, by transforming an ugly prank into one with a plausibly lethal one.

The Rutgers story also brings increased clarity to my conviction that most college students would benefit by take a gap year or two after high school. By “most college students” I mean the students at most colleges. I’m not saying that every young man and woman who gets into Princeton is emotionally equipped for the challenge. But students at Rutgers carry an additional burden, a lack of academic focus, perhaps, or strained financial resources at home, a something or other that effectively prevented them from competing for more prestigious admissions. As a state university, Rutgers is more an amalgamation of institutions than a cohesive school, and to many students it offers professional training, not scholarly speculation. Everything suggests that what a university such as Rutgers requires in lieu of academic rigor is psychosocial maturity — a characteristic possessed by neither of the roommates in this case. My heart goes out to their parents — and then I want to smack their parents for having hurled their children into an abyss. How can they not have known that their sons weren’t ready to leave home? Social pressure undoubtedly accounts for their blindness, or their determination to overlook what they could see. That’s why gap years ought to be mandatory. Parents generally make a hash of the precocity of children, and they ought to be prevented from boasting that their brilliant darling has been admitted to the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen.  

Beachcombing:
“Ready to Die”
January 2012

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

¶ Jonathan Lehrer: “If the sport of football ever dies, it will die from the outside in.” High school students, whose brains are still growing, will withdraw from the game as the risk of concussion is ever more frankly addressed. Don’t expect helmets to help. (Grantland; via The Browser; 1/11) ¶ Philip Kitcher lays out a “Darwinian” approach to ethics: “a human phenomenon, permanently unfinished.” But none the less stable for that. We applaud. (Berfrois; via The Browser; 1/13) ¶ Thomas Rogers interviews Hanne Blank about Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. Briefly, Blank agrees with Cynthia Nixon, that preference is a preference. (Salon; via The Morning News; 1/24) ¶ After the initial bewilderment — for whom, exactly, is Caitlin Flanagan writing? — Maria Bustillos and David Roth consider the matter from the hubbie angle: Rob Hudnut, “Mr Flanagan,” writes Barbie specials. There you go! (The Awl; 1/25) ¶ Exorcizing the Wicked Witch of “Maybe It Will Come In Handy Someday“: Cara Kitagawa-Sellers and Doug Sellers discuss the agony of breaking the spell. (GOOD; 1/27) ¶ Historiann teaches a pilot course in American sexuality 1492-2011; students find the history depressing rather than sexy. (1/30)

¶ While we heartily agree with Amar Bhidé that what the world needs now is lots of “boring banks,” we agree even more strongly with Felix Salmon that unlimited deposit insurance would be a dim move. “If you guarantee everything, you guarantee nothing.” (NYT; 1/5) ¶ Crisis of capitalism? Nonsense, says Nige: we’re experiencing the death of (soft) socialism. (Nigeness; 1/11)

By soft socialism I mean the kind that takes money from taxpayers and spends it in a well-intentioned (and at times quite successful) attempt to make the world a better place. Then – because there’s no natural end to this project – it runs out of money, so it starts borrowing, then borrowing more, until it’s borrowing simply to service its ever-increasing debts, and eventually it runs out of road.

¶ At Dissent, Steve Fraser identifies the weak spot in Jeff Madrick’s generally masterful account of The Age of Greed: faith in the New Deal. “It is strange that progressives should become a party of the past, preoccupied with the restoration of American capitalism’s golden age. It is not an inspiring vision for those seeking a way out of this killing impasse.” (via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ And while we’re on the topic of malignant capitalism, consider Ingrid Rowland’s commentary on the Costa Concordia disaster, which may have originated in bad ideas at corporate headquarters. (NYRBlog; 1/24) ¶ You can talk about job creation as much as you like, but the simple truth is that capitalists hate to hire people. (Felix Salmon; 1/30) ¶ Chris Whalen has set up a hedge fund, Tangent Capital Partners, that will vindicate, he believes, his faith in small, traditional banks, and his conviction that the big Wall Street banks are destined to be broken up. “We don’t need to have these behemoths. It’s just a total fallacy.” When Mr Whalen was growing up, Paul Volcker was a friend of the family. (NYT)

¶ Cory Robin discusses The Conservative Mind with Philip Pilkington, in two parts, at Naked Capitalism. The second part begins with an interesting attempt to get to the bottom of the craziness that is Ayn Rand’s popularity.  (1/13) ¶ Worth looking into: Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. Maria Popova is good enough to quote Johnson’s dismantling of the nonsense term, “information overload.” (Brain Pickings; 1/19)

¶ Reviewing Jody Kantor’s book about the Obamas, David Remnick reminds us of something about the White House that the president and his wife appear to have forgotten: “The Presidency is not a career.” (New Yorker; 1/10)

While Kantor seems, on the whole, quite admiring of the Obamas, she also cites their moments of self-pity—Obama has said that he can hardly wait to begin his life as an ex-President—which sit awkwardly with their tremendous good fortune. The Obamas (particularly Michelle) grew up in modest circumstances, but they come out of a collection of privileged institutions: Punahou School, Occidental, Columbia, Princeton, Harvard Law School; their daughters are healthy and bright, students at the Chicago Lab Schools and, now, Sidwell Friends. All the talk of lost privacy, the difficulty of living in the White House, the yearning for the normalcy of Hyde Park—we read it in “The Obamas” and have read it many times before—is understandable but also a little unseemly. The Presidency is not a career. Nor is it a component piece in a greater picture of familial contentment. It is an unimaginably demanding mission that inevitably exacts a toll. To carry it out, a President is going to miss some dinners, acquire wrinkles, gray hair, and worse. But we don’t want to hear complaints. We prefer our warriors happy.

¶ The admissions process at Cambridge University (Churchill College in particular) comes across, in Jeevan Vasegar’s account, as harder on the staff than on the applicants. The essay also offers an interesting summary of Britain’s version of Affirmative Action. (Guardian; via The Morning News; 1/11) ¶ Maria Bustillos launches one of her bazookas at the idea of “value-added” teacher-testing. “What is glaringly obvious to those of us who’ve actually spent some time in schools is that teachers in this country are already hamstrung by excessive testing requirements and all the rest of the crazy demands of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that does our students far more harm than good.” (The Awl; 1/17) ¶ Ha! We always thought so. Scout’s mail bag has fewer holes than the New York Film Academy’s curriculum. (1/19)

¶ At TLS, John Barrell gives a new book about Vauxhall Gardens, London’s famed pleasure grounds for over a century, an extremely informative review. (via 3 Quarks Daily; 1/24)

¶ Steve Inskeep on Pakistan: “I wanted to capture a picture of a country that is not necessarily at war with the United States, but is at war with itself.” (Guernica; via 3 Quarks Daily; 1/10)

¶ At n + 1, Cary Sernovitz appraises Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and comes away determined, if nothing else, to deny the late manufacturer an Artists’s Exemption. Greediness has nothing to do with innovation. (via 3 Quarks Daily; 1/4) ¶ The misanthropy of Paul Kingsnorth’s ecocentricism is not explicit; we’re not sure that the environmentalist sees it himself. While we agree that human beings have done a lot of damage to Planet Earth in recent decades, we stop short of scolding; you can’t misbehave unless you know any better, and society-averse writers like Kingsnorth have absolutely nothing to tell you about behaving better as a social animal. (Orion; via The Browser; 1/5) ¶ Soon to be a major motion picture: Robert Harris’s The Fear Index, which Felix Salmon praises as the first realistic high-finance novel that he has ever seen. (1/17)

¶ Madison Smartt Bell arrived in New York (from Tennessee via Princeton) in 1979, and in “Writing the City” he reminds of the literary landscape that reflected the gritty actual one. (The Millions; 1/11)

¶ How Edward Burns made his latest movie, Newlyweds, for $9000, and brought it to your house for you to watch whenever. (Speakeasy; 1/14) ¶ Virginia Postrel is disappointed by The Iron Lady — she doesn’t find it particularly feminist; rather the reverse — and she decries the new Hollywood Code, which ”declares that one’s worth depends on personal relationships, not public actions, and that sacrificing family time for the sake of achievement is nothing but short-sighted selfishness.” (Bloomberg; via The Browser; 1/17) ¶ At HTMLGiant, A D Jameson asks, first, “How Many Movies Are There?” — an infinitude, he concludes — and then, somewhat more intriguingly, “How Many Movies Have You Seen?” He estimates that he has seen .7% of the total. (1/17) ¶ Andrew Dickson looks into the current popularity, in Britain, of Jacobean revenge tragedies. He never mentions “snark,” but isn’t that what it comes down to? (Guardian; via Arts Journal; 1/25) ¶ The Epicurean Dealmaker views Margin Call; thumbs up. (1/26) ¶ David Cronenberg talks about his career, raising money and writing scripts and being amazed that you could make a movie in Toronto. (LARB; via MetaFilter; 1/30)

¶ Luke Epplin considers butter a “sauce.” Luke hates all sauces. He is a Food Plainist. (The Bygone Bureau; 1/17) ¶ There’s nothing like a “simple and basic” recipe for weeknight cooking that’s published at The Awl. This week: pasta sauce. We recommend Brian Pritchett’s method highly. (1/25)

¶ Drew Demavich takes a closer look at Thomas Kinkade’s calendar for 2012 and discovers one of America’s most important conceptual artists! (The Awl; 1/23)

¶ V X Sterne, happily for him, doesn’t know how right he is about private jets. We know. (Outer Life; 1/4) ¶ The fun thing to do with “David Shapiro’s” account of DJing a New Year’s Eve party for “one of the richest men in America,” in a Lower East Side basement, is to imagine Evelyn Waugh’s version. More arrests, certainly! (The Awl; 1/5) ¶ Salon editor Sarah Hepola has an unpleasant experience at a Barnes & Noble in Dallas. We think she handled it well. (via The Morning News; 1/10)  ¶ Jonathan Gourlay, whose return from Micronesia remains indefinite, encounters a woman who was “ready to die.” (Maybe she saw Facebook coming.) (The Bygone Bureau; 1/30)

Have a Look: ¶ In the middle of a recession, what’s an architect to do? Design for fairy tales,  of course! Maria Popova finds plans for Baba Yaga’s hut, Jack’s beanstalk, and (our favorite) Rapunzel’s tower. (Brain Pickings; 1/5) ¶ Jeff Harris: A series of daily self-portraits 12 years long, uninterrupted by cancer. (Time; via MetaFilter; 1/9) ¶ Scout discovers an Adirondack chalet with a secret — a nine-storey missile silo. Where’s Hitch when you need him? (1/11) ¶ Superb fun: Doodling in Math Class @ Brainiac (1/13) ¶ Maria Popova discovers Scrap Irony. (Brain Pickings; 1/19)

Noted: ¶ “Don’t Be A Di*k During Meals With Friends.” We strongly endorse the playing of this game. (Blk.Grl.Blogging; via The Morning News; 1/5) ¶ Regretsy. (via Discoblog; 1/9) ¶ Jim Emerson’s Desert Island DVDs. (Scanners; 10/10) ¶ Where the “ivy” comes from in “Blue Ivy.” (Speakeasy) ¶ Geoff Manaugh revisits (the loss of) the Guggenheim silver, in Arthur Kill in 1903. (BLDGBLOG; 1/11) ¶ Sarah Weinman makes the case for Penelope Gilliatt. (Slate; via Arts Journal; 1/17) ¶ A Few Things That Andrew James Weatherhead Likes More Than Commenting On The Internet. (HTMLGiant; 1/23) ¶ Captain Schettino and ”the Birkenhead Drill.” (Brainiac) ¶ Grey’s Misconception Rundown. (1/24) ¶ Daniel Orozco’s Orientation. (The Millions) ¶ Bikes on the subway. (The Awl; 1/30)

Gotham Diary:
Modernism
30 January 2012

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Now, if I’d only finished the chapter on altruism in Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind before writing about it, I’d have been able to answer my own questions, posed at the end of yesterday’s Weekend Note. Robinson’s target is “that essential modernist position, that our minds are not our own.” Ah. That’s what she meant by “the exclusion of the felt life of the mind.” Also, if I’d gone on reading, I’d have encountered her astonishingly entertaining argument that what can’t be explained by natural selection can be explained by meme theory — not that she has much use for either.

She’s quite right about “that essential modernist position.” It’s the core of the bossiest school of thought in Western history. By comparison, the orthodoxy of medieval Christianity is essentially permissive: what it permits, and what modernism denies, is responsibility of knowing your own mind. Modernists, control freaks each and every one of them, insist that it’s precisely your (silly) ideas that stand between poverty and utopia. If you would only listen to them!

Still, I wonder, to borrow an uncongenial phrase, if I have a dog in this fight — this fight over the soul between thinkers like Steven Pinker and Marilynne Robinson.

Steven Pinker says, “The faculty with which we ponder the world has no ability to peer inside itself or our other faculties to see what makes them tick. That makes us the victims of an illusion: that our own psychology comes from some divine force or mysterious essence or almighty principle.” But the mind, or the brain, a part of the body just as Wilson says it is, is deeply sensitive to itself. Guilt, nostalgia, the pleasure or anticipation, even the shock of a realization, all arise out of an event that occurs entirely in the mind or brain, and they are as potent as other sensations.

Aside from a strong but not entirely coherent feeling that Pinker and Robinson are talking about apples and oranges here — to put it more fairly, Pinker is talking apples and Robinson is throwing oranges at him — I’m not sure that I care which one of them is right, or if either of them is. I have never been the “victim of an illusion” about God. When I was a child, I believed in hell, all right; it seemed like the natural continuation of the incredible tedium of everyday life. God as represented was not a figure with whom I wanted to spend much time; Jesus even less. There was nothing interesting or attractive about the religious experience for me. (The interest and attraction of religious display is another story!)

I think that it’s impertinent to say that I don’t know anything about God, and I don’t think that anyone else does, either. Even when think such things, as Mrs Clancy says, we don’t say them. What I would say is that I don’t know why anyone wants to believe in God, or draws any satisfaction from belief. Of course I’ve heard all my life about the comfort in affliction that religion provides, and I have to assume that, even though I never felt it — I have been lucky enough to know few genuine afflictions — other people really do, and that the feeling is not an illusion — as Robinson insists, it’s a mental, mindful fact. But I don’t understand it from the inside at all.

It’s a wonder I have the nerve to stand up here and write anything at all, given that I’m unresponsive to the two most powerful forces in contemporary society, religion and sport. Then again, I live in a world in which The Artist, since it opened last year, has brought in less than a third of the box office receipts garnered by The Grey in its first weekend. 

Weekend Note:
Movie Star
29 January 2012

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Last night, I watched Eric Civanyan’s Il ne faut jurer de rien (Never Say Never: 2005), an adaptation of a play by Alfred de Musset starring Gérard Jugnot, Mélanie Doutey, and Jean Dujardin. Set in 1830, during the “revolution” that sent Charles X packing and put his cousin Louis-Philippe on a more parliamentary throne, the story is a daffy farce in which a wealthy department-store owner determines to marry his ne’er-do-well nephew to a spirited but penniless baroness. It’s hard to believe that I’ve only seen M Jugnot, whose face has the knack of becoming instantly familier, in two other pictures, Les choristes and Faubourg 36, but there it is. Mlle Doutey is not just another pretty face; she has something of Annette Bening’s fierceness. Jean Dujardin plays the nephew.

M Dujardin is obviously a great comedian. Whether he is also a great actor is harder to tell, because, even more than a comedian, he is a great movie star. This makes the great-actor question irrelevant. It is obvious to me, on the basis of Il ne faut jurer de rien and OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions that The Artist was made as a showcase for Jean Dujardin’s talent, and to remind the world what a great movie star is like: a face and a (fully clothed) body capable of sustaining interest in a very familiar story without saying a word. Without M Dujardin, The Artist would be an amusing stunt, a French movie made entirely in and around Los Angeles, mashing up a passel of Hollywood chestnuts into what one Internet wag has called A Star Is Born Singin’ In the Rain on Sunset Boulevard.

Instead of being a stunt, The Artist is the study of a face. It’s an incredibly interesting face, Jean Dujardin’s, because it is very hard to pin down. What does it really look like? I don’t know how this works, exactly, but sometimes it is the mouth that you notice, and sometimes the nose (especially in profile, naturally). Then there is that smile, which is simply the biggest smile ever flashed for a camera; if it were any bigger, you could see it standing behind the man. He can narrow his eyes in steely cruelty or open them wide in ingenuous, almost idiotic delight. And what a difference a pencil moustache makes! His trademark look is possibly the one that he makes in the outgoing credits of OSS 117: affably smiling with uncertain, not-quite-clueless eyebrows. Possibly. I’ve only seen three movies, and Jean Durjardin turns 40 in June.

And here I thought I was up on current French cinema.

***

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Fairway. It would have been quicker at almost any other time; Sunday afternoon and early evening are said to be the store’s busiest hours.  I’m still amazed by the people who seem to think that they’re standing in a quaint rural grocery store, and not in a stream of human traffic that makes the city’s busiest subway stations look underused. The people who, for example, stand alongside their shopping carts, double parking as it were. I don’t mind it so much, because I’m a big guy. I can see over everybody’s head. Kathleen would feel horribly pinned. The elevators remain a challenge. I have taken to choosing one, standing nearby, and waiting for it to arrive.

If our branch of Fairway seems poorly designed, it’s hard to imagine any improvements, but there’s one thing that I would have done differently . Where is it written that fruit and vegetables are the first things that shoppers want to see? I should think they’d be among the last, and one of the things that I like best about our Gristede’s, across the street, is that produce is tucked into an alcove that you don’t have to pass through. At Fairway, I would trade produce upstairs for the bakery and dairy sections downstairs, effectively rendering the street level a convenience store.

All the while I was pushing my cart through the throng — my guilty contribution to the store’s chaos was the lazy decision to use a cart, when everything on my list wouldn’t have filled a hand basket — I was thinking about Marilynne Robinson growing up in the West — in northern Idaho. There’s an article about this in the new issue of Bookforum, a review of a collection of Robinson’s essays by Charles Petersen, who also grew up out there. He quotes a line from the title essay, “When I Was a Child I Read Books.”

I find that the hardest work in the world — it may in fact be impossible — is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling.

She wouldn’t have any trouble persuading me. I grew up in an intellectually stunting Westchester suburb, a haven of WASP purity that scowled handsomely at anything not involving a ball. I’d have thought that growing up in the West was socially crippling, though. After all, I could escape Bronxville on day trips to Manhattan, at least from the age of 12, which is about when my intellect kicked in. Where do you go in the West? You make the most of the solitude, I suppose. I don’t care for solitude as such. I spend the vast bulk of every day by myself, but I’m too busy to register the solitariness of my hours. When I’m not working, I don’t want to be alone. I love walking out into the almost always crowded street. It’s like a drink of clear cool water. Only rarely do I see anyone I know, so you could say that my solitude follows me outdoors. But I would much rather be alone in a rush of New Yorkers heading every which way for every imaginable purpose than sit by myself on the bank of a woodland stream. And I am always hoping that someone will ask me for directions.

I’ve been working hard at reading Marilynne Robinson’s Terry Lectures, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self. I know that its an argument against the presumptions of secular godlessness, and I enjoy seeing them treated as presumptions. But I don’t know what Robinson would put in their place, beyond a good-natured piety, a sense of stewardship for the things of the world. I’ve got that, but I sense that there’s more. What I really want to know is how Robinson feels about the notion that some people have of being able to speak for God, on the authority of Scripture or some even more intimate contact. In the second lecture, “The Strange History of Altruism,” she writes,

Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt life of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts.

What is she talking about, “the exclusion of the felt life of the mind”? I’m not aware of the “felt life of the mind” being an inadmissible topic, and I have no idea what the “varieties of thought and art that reflect” the exluding proposals look like. (Maybe I don’t think that art that seems to deny or to minimize humanity to be art at all.) Robinson’s tone is argumentative in a way that leaves me wondering if I’ve missed something. As undoubtedly I have, what with growing up in the intellectually crippling conditions the Holy Square Mile.

Gotham Diary:
Blanquette
27 January 2012

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Before I go any further, I have to confess that there was a moment in time, long before I had made blanquette de veau for myself, when I wondered if “blanquette” were not some very old loan word from the English “blanket,” the blanket of veal being the ribs. Cuddly, no? Happily, the Internet came along presently, and put an end to such armchair speculations.

I’m in a very good mood this morning, because I had such a treat last night — and not late last night, either. The minute I got home after seeing The Artist, I ordered as many Jean Dujardin videos as I could (quite a few of them are not available here and not for sale to Americans). The first to arrive was OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. I knew that it was supposed to be a spoof, but I wasn’t expecting to be amused; all I wanted was the perspective of seeing this amazing actor in another movie. As it turns out, Michel Hazanavicius, who directed both OSS 117 and The Artist (he also wrote the latter’s screenplay), borrowed a lot of business from the earlier movie for the later one. He simply removed the clowning-around. Now, I’m one of those consommateurs de rosbif who finds French clowning-around to be sillier, as a rule, than it is funny — which is to say, embarrassing. And OSS 117 starts off — after a parody of a wartime army adventure series that brings Indiana Jones to mind (also Mulholland Falls) with a somewhat dopey make-out scene that, especially given its lackluster production values, isn’t promising. It takes a little while for M Dujardin to establish the coocoo genius of his send-up of the young Sean Connery. Once he does, the pleasure of OSS 117 becomes absolutely wicked.

Jean Dujardin doesn’t look like Sean Connery, really, but then he doesn’t not look like him, either. His face, at rest, is more Gallic than Celtic, but it is just as bland. Agent 117 may be an idiot, but he is just as nonchalant as 007. Every now and then, it’s true, the sangfroid gives way to the This-is-so-cool-I-can’t-believe-it’s-happening effervescence of a twelve year-old who is not quite ready for sex, and these moments of expressive helplessness are just about the funniest thing I’ve seen in the movies in a long time. Actually, I can think of only one comedian whose work is as thrilling: Sid Caesar. When M Dujardin leans in on Mlle Béjo (also in OSS 117) and thanks her for teaching him — the mambo! the joke is almost too demented to be funny. I died laughing anyway.

And let’s not forget the scene in which Agent 117, disturbed in his slumbers by the call of a muezzin, does something about it. As he later wails, “What did I say?”

Too much fun, really. After watching the movie before dinner, I played the best bits for Kathleen before bedtime. I made another discovery. The charm of OSS 117 and The Artist flows largely from Jean Dujardin’s ability to channel the visual impact of classic cinema. Classic television as well: I’d be very surprised to learn that neither the actor nor his director is familiar with Sid Caesar’s “Aggravation Boulevard.” But while we’re looking backward, whether to the silent era or to the denatured color of the early Bond films, something unwittingly prescient happens. When M Dujardin isn’t wearing a moustache, that impossibly broad smile of his, displaying an unnervingly saurian array of teeth, Jon Hamm comes to mind.

***

I am going to recommend Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet to everyone. It makes an important argument for refashioning intellectual life in American democracy, and in all but one respects it is admirably concise. I’m going to hope, however, that someone will re-present this issue without that one respect, the argument from food. Now, I understand that many readers, especially younger ones, are going to be very effectively stimulated by the analogies that Johnson works between what we put in our stomachs and what we put in our brains. Health-conscious readers who have considered going vegan will be enthused by Johnson’s concept of infoveganism. But I find it off-putting, especially the harping on “information obesity.” In the end, food and information are not usefully comparable.

We need food to stay alive, and the food that we don’t need in order to stay alive tends to make us obese and otherwise unhealthy. There is no corresponding reason to watch your intake of information. We don’t convert information into calories; on the contrary, we expend calories in the maintenance of information. The reasons for discriminating among sources of information are intellectual, and pushing the dietary analogy tends to oversimplify what minds are for. The Information Diet has nothing to say about art and literature, which, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn, Johnson, as a political operative with a keen sense of the irrationality of sports, regards as forms of “entertainment.” It is hard to see a place for the novels of Henry James in his book’s regimen. Somebody needs to attack this vital subject without the alimentary armature.

Gotham Diary:
Morse Jag, Concluded
26 January 2012

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

The Morse jag is nearly over. I have only two episodes left to watch, “The Wench is Dead” and “Remorseful Day.” In the latter, Inspector Morse dies. Shortly after it was filmed, actor John Thaw died. Talk about getting into a role. The other night, waiting for Kathleen to come home from Florida and somewhat Morsed out, I jumped ahead to the fourth season of Lewis, the ingenious successor to Inspector Morse. It’s nice to know that Lewis is doing well; already there are twenty episodes (I’ve just ordered the fifth season). I suppose the time will come for a Lewis jag.

But not yet. Watching videos has taken its toll. I stay up to late, with all that that entails. And yet I wonder if there isn’t some method to the madness. I may be watching videos to give my mind a working holiday. Ever since I finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, I’ve sensed one of those cerebral shifts that seem momentous because they really do make the world look like a different place. The first one that I remember had to do with the subjunctive mood: I went back to the school after summer vacation and suddenly understood it. Law school occasioned another, of course. “Learning to think like a lawyer” greatly understates the essentially cyborgian transformation of the mind. Since reading Kahneman, I’ve felt that I am living in extremely primitive times. It’s as though I’ve been hurtled back several centuries to a time without interior plumbing. No wonder nothing works! Well, the miracle is that anything actually does. We are so deluded about our minds, so unaware of heuristics, confirmation bias, and cognitive dissonance.

Those terms, and the italics, come from Clay Johnson’s new book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. Maria Popova noticed it at Brain Pickings and it seemed immediately indispensable. I’m about a third of the way through, at the point where Johnson begins to use stuff that I learned from Kahneman (whom he doesn’t seem to mention) to explain the sorry state of journalism, which he has outlined in previous chapters. The first half of the book is diagnostic: we’re afflicted by an epidemic of information obesity, which is not “information overload.” We consume too much junk information. In the second half of the book, Johnson will prescribe a diet. That’s what I’m keen to read.

Regular readers will know that I take a very dim view of watching television. I try not to talk about it much; I’ve made my point. But Kahneman and Johnson are remaking the case. Watching television seems more dangerous than ever. What I mean by “watching televsion” very much excludes watching old movies or old detective series. I mean sitting in front of a screen without knowing what’s going to happen, and hoping for something exciting. It’s one thing in a movie theatre, and quite something else at home. I don’t know why; possibly it’s that, at home, the pleasure of entertainment comes coated in the self-affirmation of sitting in your own milieu. Also, in a movie theatre, you have only two options: to stay or to leave. You cannot change the movie. The power to switch channels isn’t much of a power, really — it’s a choice of roughly similar toxins — but it feels impressive, especially when there are other people in the room. Ordinarily, my objection to television is simply that you’ve surely got better things to do. Kahneman and Johnson are reminding me how angry I used to be about television, years ago, when I first read the work of Neil Postman. And anger is the last thing I need.

So, here I am, thinking deeply about the problem of watching television while — watching television. I say that it’s not watching television — watching Inspector Morse is different. But it will be better when the Morse jag is over and I’m not giving what lawyers call the appearance of impropriety. 

Gotham Diary:
Procedural
25 January 2012

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

One of the craziest things about law school — in my day, anyway — was the presence of Criminal Procedure in the first-year curriculum. I had a terrible time with the class because I could not suppress the conviction that we were not being taught things in the proper order. Criminal Procedure is, basically, Constitutional Criminal Law, meaning the body of procedural requirements ordained by interpretations of the Bill of Rights and its piecemeal superimposition upon state law. Law schools are not interested in the array of federal criminal laws, such as the Mann Act or Rule 10b-5. They’re even less interested in the states’ various criminal laws. But what’s worse about learning criminal procedure in the first year of law school is the postponement of learning about evidence to the second year. Criminal Procedure ostensibly lays out the rules for playing the Go To Trial game fairly. It’s only in Evidence that you learn how bizarre, deranged, and no-longer-just that game really is.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday as I read Adam Gopnik’s Critic At Large piece in this week’s New Yorker, The Caging of America.” Nobody who reads The New Yorker needs to be told that we have a massive prison problem, with a far higher percentage of men behind bars than any other advanced nation; or that this prison problem is also, outrageously, a race problem, with a sickening disproportion of black and Latino inmates. Adam Gopnik brings two new items to his discussion. Well, one of them was new to me, William J Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, published last year right before the Harvard professor’s death. If I heard mention of the new title, nobody went on to tell me that Stuntz came to the conclusion that it’s our Bill of Rights itself that’s the root of the prison problem. “The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles.”

This emphasis, Stunts thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place.

This is just another typical, sad result of Anglophone credulousness when it comes to playing fair. The problem with trying to play fair in a criminal trial is that it’s absolutely unnatural. We may say that everybody is innocent until proven guilty, but we don’t back it up at all with safeguards against our bone-deep doubt that a truly innocent person would ever wind up in the dock. We’re unwilling to understand that many good police officers, seasoned by experience, will outgrow the essentially adolescent modality of playing fair and turn toward seeking justice instead, procedures be damned. And we tacitly conspire, all of us, to impose the brunt of our sillier laws — Gopnik rightly singles out our marijuana-possession proscriptions — on minorities, permitting white infractors to get off lightly, thus baffling the point that the law itself makes little sense.

I said that we don’t back up our innocent-until-proven-guilty rule with “safeguards,” but this is not true; it’s worse than untrue, because the safeguards provided by our laws of evidence  were put in place by an entirely different society, a largely homogeneous one with low social mobility. It’s worth bearing in mind that the original Anglophone witnesses, back in the Middle Ages, were also the jury. Imagine rules for an emergency-health-care system that took no account of ambulences or cell phones. That’s what our jury system is like. It made sense, about a thousand years ago. What the laws of evidence serve to do today is to block a lot of common sense. And they encourage the judge and opposing counsel to engage in all manner of fancy branles and bourrées over what is and what isn’t “admissible,” not to mention the surreal demand that jurors will pretend not to have heard this or that in the courtroom.  

The other thing that felt fresh about Gopnik’s essay was the note on which he ended it: “‘Merely chipping away at the problem by the edges’ is often the very best thing to do with a problem; keeping chipping away patiently and, eventually, you get to its heart.” This is a kind of conservative optimism, it’s true; it’s dangeously close to believing that “muddling through” will get you through any crisis.  But there was nothing muddling about the changes that brought crime rates to a national low in New York City — “just the intercession of a thousand smaller sanities.” Not enough of these sanities were located within the criminal justice system itself, however.

Elsewhere in the issue, Ryan Lizza points out that, thanks to the vast increase in self-segregation in American society since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, the divide between red and blue is not a bad dream but a political reality. Maybe it’s time for progressive thinkers to explore ways to exploit the divide. The denizens of securely-gated communities have very little reason to fear drug-addled “elements” from the wrong side of town. Why not encourage them to take the “live-and-let-live” that their seclusion, once available only to the very wealthy, now allows them?

Gotham Diary:
Whoopee
24January 2012

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

I ought to feel a lot worse. We were at the table for nearly four hours; a lot of wine was consumed. And then some grappa. And then the bar closed, or so I was told. I did not grumble. Having a good time with a woman not my wife, at a restaurant which in the past I’ve visited only with my wife, is a very sure way of pissing off the establishment’s female waitstaff. How were they to know that my companion was one of my wife’s oldest friends (going back to second grade) — and, anyway, so what? Especially when elaborate lengths were gone to to make sure that I couldn’t pay for anything? Especially when the lady all but stood on a table — let me make it clear right now that she did not actually stand on a table at any time, or on anything but the floor — and, brandishing a red silk shawl, announced that she was heading down to the Carlyle to do some serious flirting?

I had a lot of fun, but I wasn’t the demonstrative member of the party. It wasn’t my idea to request an amuse-bouche from the chef at the beginning of the meal or a zabaglione at the end. It wasn’t my idea to ask the chef to come out and meet us. No, no, no! I would never ever do such a thing. All I can say is that Kathleen’s friend has been living in a distant city, one that discretion forbids me to name, for nearly thirty years. It is different out there, less sedate somehow. Of course it is less sedate everywhere than on the Upper East Side, outside of the nation’s assisted-living communities, anyway.

We will have to go back to the restaurant soon, Kathleen and I, and Kathleen will tell the waitstaff what a good husband I am to take her oldest friend to dinner (or to let himself be taken out by her) when, owing to an unforeseen conflict, Kathleen had to be in Florida. She has seen this happen before. Up close.

Maybe I’ve told this story before; I hope not recently. For a little while, many years ago, Kathleen decided to give contact lenses one last try, so that she could wear hats. Many years ago. We were going out to dinner. Without the glasses on her face, Kathleen indulged in a whimsical experiment with eye makeup. Then she pinned a small hat with a lot of face veil into her hair, and we walked a few blocks to the regular place.

By dessert, the waitresses were all but hurling dishes onto the table. We had no idea why they were being so rude, because it never occurred to us that they thought that Kathleen was Another Woman. Oh, the peals of laughter when the veil was lifted! Oh, the weirdness of the lesson unto me! I thought that that sort of mixup happened only in comedies.

My choice of restaurant last night was a mistake, but I don’t know how I could have avoided it, as I was specifically asked to select a quiet restaurant, where we could talk, and my first choice — a restaurant that I go to with all sorts of people all the time — was ruled out, because that’s the only restaurant that our friend’s father will go to anymore, and she’s tired of it.

Did I mention that Kathleen is cutting short her Florida trip, and coming home tonight? 

Gotham Diary:
Malingering
23 January 2012

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

I spent this morning on a trip to Canada. It was a dream of course, and like all dreams, it had no beginning. I hadn’t been aware of being in Canada for very long when I was bothered by uncertainty about how long I’d been there — one night or two? — and how long I’d be staying. In actuality, I was dozing, waking up slightly every so often before sinking back into my slightly re-postured dream; but, in the dream, it was New York that was a dream. I was in Canada.

Let’s say that it was Toronto. I’ve never been to Toronto, but that didn’t get in the way. I was staying in a basement flat with several other young people who worked in publishing. Yes, I was young, too. Everyone was very nice, and at some point my dream must have decided that I was staying in Toronto, not visiting for the weekend. I may even have had a job — I certainly had work to do. And in those moments when I’d come to in my bed in New York, the work that I had to do in Toronto was much more agreeable than the work I had to do in New York. It was vague, the Toronto work — unlike the New York work. The work in Toronto was pleasant and easygoing. The New York work bristled with requirements. For example, a picture for this entry. I didn’t have one, and I still don’t. But the prospect of having to get up and work in New York became less onerous when I realized that I could write about my dream. When I got up, which was not now.

That was the other nice thing about being in Canada: I got to stay in bed. It’s a very gloomy day here in New York, plus it’s a Monday. I have to go to the Post Office at some point, to buy three-cent stamps to paste on the latest batch of postcards of Will and Kathleen. The postcard rate went up yesterday. If I had sat down an hour earlier to write out, address, and stamp the postcards on Saturday afternoon, I’d have made it under the wire, being able to shove them into the collection box inside Gracie Station. But the Post Office was closed before I even sat down. Oh, yes, staying in bed was very nice this morning, and I abandoned myself to my dream of Canada, and to moments of wakeful savoring of the dream, so completely that the voices of guilt and indignation, bidding me to get out of bed at once and get to work, were silenced by the pillows.  

Why Canada? I was reading about Singapore just before going to bed. I have never been to Singapore, either. Kathleen was there once, on her trip round the world in October 2001. Even she found the humidity hard to bear. No matter what time of day or night, no matter how recently it had rained, the air was sodden. Otherwise, however, she reported no discomforts. The corporate-totalitarian atmosphere did not oppress. She would not have described her brief visit to Singapore as William Gibon does: “Disneyland With the Death Penalty.” I don’t think that Kathleen got past the humidity.

I have always assumed, since first learning of the Lee régime’s success, that most of the people who live in Singapore are happy to be there. They’re willing to sacrifice ephemeral personal freedoms — the right to chew gum in the street, say — for solid personal prosperity. I don’t get the feeling that anyone in Singapore harbors imperial designs over the rest of the world. It really is a Confucian paradise, where father knows better and the city-state knows best. My only hope is that kids who have the mischance to grow up there without being psychologically suited to it are helped into new lives elsewhere with generous grace. Artistic kids, for example. Maybe Singapore has something like the Amish rumspringa, a period of tolerated adolescent rebellion. I’ve never heard of it, and, if they do, I expect that the running around takes place at special settlements well outside the city. In Hong Kong, perhaps.

So long as Singapore remains a prosperous city of two or three million people on the other side of the world, I have no objection to its form of government. I would caution visitors to be aware that they are taking their lives in their hands simply by setting foot in a jurisdiction prone to the draconian. But I don’t see why a city-state should set out to be generally welcoming. Singapore for the Singaporeans, I say! I wouldn’t mind seeing a dozen or so Christianist equivalents, where homophobes and racists could make themselves comfortable — at a distance. It wouldn’t work, though. First of all, Christians have been imperially-minded from the get-go. The second thing is, you know how they say that Islam has never had a Reformation (and therefore isn’t prepared for a modern, secular globe). Well, Christianity has never had a Confucius.

Weekend Note:
Snow
21-22 January 2012

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Snow.

If I go outdoors this afternoon, ought I to use a cane? One of those awful adjustable hospital things? I’ve got at least one in the closet. Do I really need to go out? Or am I just feeling a little restless, anticipating the pleasure of coming home from having been out in the cold. I’d really like to have a small steak for dinner.

Kathleen is off to Florida tomorrow afternoon for an industry confab; today, she’s taking the day off. Unlike me, she is not tempted to go outside. She is tempted to stay right where she is, under the covers. And she’s doing a fine job of giving it to it, too.

Last night, we sat with Will while his parents went out for dinner. It is clear that he calls me “Dadoo.” He’ll say “Daddy” first and then correct himself. Not only does he say “Darney” perfectly clearly, but he recognized Kathleen as such in one of the postcards that I showed him. This was before Kathleen arrived from the office. The postcard was one of the pictures that I took two weeks ago. Which reminds me: I ought to be sending them out right this minute. The postcard rate goes up tomorrow, and I have a few books of soon-to-be-insufficient self-sticks in the drawer. Anyway, Will looked at the postcard and said, “Darney.” D’you think “Dadoo” will stick? Kathleen claims to find it at least as cool as “Doodad.” I don’t. It reminds me of “Tutu,” the Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother in The Descendants.

***

The other day, I was casting about for a good read when one fell into my lap, right off my own shelf. I’d come across a receipt from Chatsworth, which I’ve never been to but from whose Web site I ordered a few books a while back. Instead of throwing the piece of paper away, I decided to tuck it into one of the books that I’d bought, all of which were either by or about Nancy Mitford. And right next to whichever one I tucked the receipt into was Wigs on the Green, which I didn’t even think I owned. The title is such a tease — whatever can it mean? Well, you find out, in the penultimate chapter or thereabouts.

Even though I recognized Eugenia Malmains as a caricature of Unity Mitford — the sister who shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany and who died of meningitis nine years later — I let the Mitford references that I got roll right off my back and didn’t go looking for others. Wigs on the Green is a sparkling but melancholy entertainment. In Waugh, who is so much darker, you’re invited to agree with the author that human beings are a depraved race. Mitford’s view is sounder, or at any rate grounded in history. Her disaffected, understating bright young things would clearly rather die than yield to a Victorian sentiment, and it’s clear that economic hardship is fermenting strange political brews. Mitford sits on the fence, laughing; she writes gleefully of geriatric Lords and MPs who “creep about the halls of Westminster like withered tortoises, seeking to warm themselves in the synthetic sunlight of each other’s approbation,” but she also shines a gimlet eye on the hysteria of ideology, particularly as embodied by Eugenia/Unity. Charlotte Mosley, in her introduction, puts it very well: ”The dark side of Unity’s character is plain enough to see: ruthlessness, naïveté and a love of showing off, combined with an attraction to violence and a desire to shock, produced moral blindess of an extreme kind.”

But Mitford is naïve, too, or at least prone to wishful thinking: how much she would have liked to have a martini-chilled romance such as Jasper and Poppy’s, in which all the satisfactions of love are assumed to flow unspoken beneath a burble of vaguely affectionate insults. Mitford could do the insults with half an eye open, but she never got the passion. The men to whom her heart was drawn were either gay or cads. Nobody ever loved Nancy the way her sisters were loved — all of them, even Unity (by Hitler, I’m convinced — although chastely). It’s arguable that Nancy loved to show off as much as Unity did. She was always begging people not to take her acidic protraits too seriously. Surely they must see her caricatures as harmless, amusing distortions that no one would ever mistake for objective representation? Something occluded Mitford’s sense of being able to hurt other people’s feelings. She liked doing it too much. Moral blindness &c.

But there’s a difference between pursuing Hitler for uplifting post-prandial fireside chats and writing funny novels. We always forgive those who make us laugh.

***

I saw The Artist yesterday and was as blown away as anybody, possibly even moreso. Nothing had prepared me for the ecstatic finale, elegant tribute to a movie that I’ve probably seen a few more times than most cinema fans, and it was only because I couldn’t decide whether to jump out of my skin or sob to death that I am here today. Sadly, I cannot discuss the movie until everybody has seen it. So see it!

*****

Kathleen flew down to Florida this afternoon, for a convention that will keep her indoors for the most part but delightful warm when she isn’t. The minute she left, I felt the air go out of my tires. I am a slow learner: when Kathleen’s about to take a trip, I think that I’ll do thus and so, as if there were things that I do that require her absence. In the event, I’m beset by a general lack of desire to do anything. Thank heaven for reading.

I plowed through to the end of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s remarkable Pulphead, and decided that it is a memoir. Nothing could be further from the “collection of essays” or miscellany of magazine articles than this book; nor could it be less conventionally journalistic, no, not even if David Foster Wallace wrote it. Sullivan doesn’t write about unusual things, he writes from amidst them. And he is not a complete outsider when he crosses the line (which he always does briskly) between “reporting” and “living.” The book’s title is more apt than I thought: it is Sullivan himself who is the pulphead. He reminds me of that stage that serious bloggers go through early on, when they do things so that they can blog about them. That’s exactly what Sullivan does. How intentionally or straightforwardly he does it is not always clear. In the final essay, “Peyton’s Place,” it is never stated that Sullivan and his pregnant wife bought a house in Wilmington, North Carolina, because  they knew that the producers of One Tree Hill had been using it as a location and would be wqilling to pay, basically, the Sullivans’ mortgage to continue to use it, but this is not denied, either. It doesn’t matter. Sullivan’s very home life is more interesting than yours or mine, because he shares it with a fictional teen-aged orphan in a bad but popular cable drama.

And, as the dislaimers at the end of “The Violence of the Lambs” remind us, Sullivan’s pieces are not always strictly non-fictional. No matter. As the book went on, I found myself less and less concerned with whatever his nominal topic was and far more interested in what he would do with it, or let it do to him. Now I have to go back and re-read the beginning of “Upon This Rock,” the book’s first and most written-about piece, because Sullivan rather nakedly lays out a completely abortive strategy for “covering” a Christian-rock festival at Lake of the Ozarks; it is so funny and at the same time creepy that you fall for an image of the writer as a naïve tyro looking for a cool angle and bombing badly. What you don’t see until much later (“American Grotesque” for me) that you see what a troublemaker Sullivan is. I wouldn’t accuse him of starting a fire so that he could write about the excitement, but only because he’s not destructive by nature. No; he’s creative.

William Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor is like Pulphead in one way only: it’s a collection of pieces published (or read) elsewhere. It is so far from Sullivan’s brand of non-fiction that some sort of triangle seems called for. If Sullivan is practicing journalism at the most advanced level, Gibson is simply sharing his thoughts about things, something that nobody would be asking him to do if he weren’t a celebrated writer of science fiction. Everything that he says is interesting, including the few things that he says about himself, but the air is thick with after-dinner smoke. The degree to which Gibson asks you to think about the world around you is approached by Sullivan in only one of his essays, “The Violence of the Lambs” — and then only remotely.

More on Gibson later. I’m just hoping that he’ll say, somewhere, that “the future is here, but unequally distributed,” so that we can source the quote.

 

Gotham Diary:
Transcendent
20 January 2012

Friday, January 20th, 2012


Metropolitan Museum of Art

What astonished me most, on my first trip through the newly installed galleries of American painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing, was the power of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 icon, Washington Crossing the Delaware. I’d been thinking about this painting ever since the Museum’s Fall 2011 Bulletin announced (to those of us who hadn’t heard the news otherwise) that this very large painting was going to occupy the pride of place in the new configuration.

It would hang alone, at the end of a long room, cased in a replica of the very imposing frame in which it was originally presented. I was very disturbed to learn all of this. I believed that the Museum ought quietly to get rid of the picture, pure kitsch in my eyes. At the very least, it ought to be mounted as far as possible from the Sargents and the Homers and the Cassatts and the Kensitts that form the backbone of a very great collection of American paintings. Instead of which, it stands in the middle of them.

But when, at the end of our tour, I finally stepped into the room, I had to stifle a sob. I was wrong. I was wrong about something. Maybe the Leutze isn’t kitsch — but I don’t think that that’s what I had wrong. More likely it’s the fact that this painting has been revered by generations of American, pored over with all the attentiveness that the Mona Lisa has ever received. The Museum has chosen to honor that interest, and remind the rest of us that pictures can be very powerful in ways that have nothing to do with art, truth, beauty, or anything else that John Keats wrote about.

The Bulletin photographs did not show the other pictures that would hang in the room; presumably, they hadn’t been put up yet. Here, too, the Museum has made an arresting decision. The other pictures are all landscapes, and landscapes, from what I gathered with a sweep of my eye, of the Far West. Mountains, mostly. (Maybe mountains exclusively.) Busts of Washington and Lincoln flank the Leutze, with other noble sculptures standing here and there between the frames. The space is almost ceremonial, as though the room were itself the recreation of an historic chamber. Everything transcendant about the American Dream is represented: the awesome spaciousness of the territory, and the boundless determination to cross it. As in a Gothic cathedral, you do not need to partake in the local orthodoxy to be abashed by its visionary power.

The photograph that I’ve lifted from the Museum’s Web site could not be more misleading in at least one way: in person, Washington Crossing the Delaware looks that small and distant only from the far end of two galleries away. If you are standing anywhere in the room with the painting, it looms immensely, overpoweringly. You walk back to what seems to be a suitable distance for appraising the picture, turn round, and find that you have miscalculated; you’re still too close to take it all in. The grandly deep frame has the air of a strange machine that might begin to whir and grind any moment — perhaps to help Washington’s men break the ice, perhaps something to more apocalyptic end. I had to ask myself, on the spot, to explain how Leutze’s large-form history painting was inferior to, say, The Raft of the Medusa; it is certainly superior to the picture that hangs opposite that work at the Louvre, also by Delacroix: the Death of Sardanaplus. (I may like to think that I’m a sophisticate, cosmopolitan member of the Transatlantic tribe, but I’m not that Continental!) The question remains open.

I look forward to revisiting the galleries many, many times. Many old friends have reappeared there, and I’ll probably make a few new ones. But I hope I never forget the shock of being so improbably awed by Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Gotham Diary:
Essays
19 January 2012

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

One of the most highly-regarded books last year was John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of magazine pieces, Pulphead, but although I was tempted by the praise, I was put off by the title, and by the kinds of things that Sullivan was said to write about. Since I first learned how to tune into the Internet and to eavesdrop on the cool kids’ table, I have wasted a lot of time and money on disappointing books — Marissa Pessi’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics will probably always be the one that comes to mind when I make this complaint, but there’s a bunch of small-press cranky stuff that has lost my interest on the first page — and am now resolved to waste no more. There is no room in my head for Christian rock festivals, no matter how well captured. And now that I am a senior citizen, I have given myself license to act on a life-long conviction, to the effect that nothing very interesting to me takes place between the Appalachian and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and very little west of the Hudson River. (I will always make an exception for Vestal McIntyre.) It was hard to imagine coming away from Pulphead with anything but a sense of emptiness, of time simply lost.

Then along came William Gibson’s collection, Distrust That Particular Flavor, and I saw a way to stand by my snobberies while yielding to desire to read Pulphead, a desire powered by the relentless cascade of admiration that, by now, must have made the life of John Jeremiah Sullivan hardly worth going on with. I would read both books, and keep a record here of my thoughts about how they compared. I have read one novel by William Gibson, Pattern Recognition, and it is unlikely that I ever read another; but I know that Gibson is important thinker, in the “for our time” sense, so it seemed that the two books would have complementary virtues — bare but useful ideas from Gibson, and lush but pointless prose from Sullivan.

So far, which isn’t very, I’d say that I’m right about Gibson. Let’s face it: William Gibson spent an unhappy childhood reading as much science fiction as he could get his hands on, and science fiction is very bad for table manners. Even the elegant Borges tends to be pompous and vain. So it would be surprising if Gibson grew up to write like — like John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose one venture into science fiction appears to have been an adolescent ”Jesus phase.” At the same time, Gibson is thoughtful enough to see that television has failed to realise its early promise — especially the promise foreseen by science fiction writers between the wars — and to note that his own diet of TV, arrived at naturally by his organism, is twelve hours per year. “While science fiction is sometimes good at predicting things, it’s seldom goo at predicting what those things might actually do to us.” Spoken like a true man of sense.

I’ve never read anyone quite like John Jeremiah Sullivan. His writing has the impact of David Foster Wallace’s, but it’s actually stronger because less histrionic. In that opening essay about the Christian-rock festival that everybody writes about, Sullivan deals with the sudden death of an older man in the food court in three moderately-long but walloping paragraphs, in the last of which he wraps things up by having “a colossal go-to-pieces.” The passage works as much on the strength of its dexterity — did that really happen? — as on that of its pathos.

“Upon This Rock” is almost extravagantly not about a Christian-rock festival. The music is dispatched with a compassion that would be condescension if it were any cooler. Sullivan sticks with the gaggle of guys from West Virginia who help him situate his ungainly RV, rented at the last minute by his editor, and what he has to say about them is what most critics have written about, and what kept me away. Even after reading about Darius and Ritter, I couldn’t say that, in spite of everything, I found them interesting. I did not. I found them sad. They’re living lives in which they will flourish only to the extent that they turn away from local society, as indeed they do on their extended hunting and camping trips. One of them has contrived to die since Sullivan met him. (That’s what dedication pages are good for.) And yet, Sullivan’s time with them prompted an observation of the first importance.

I suspect that on some level — the conscious one, say — I didn’t want to be noticing what I noticed as we went. But I’ve been to a lot of huge public events in this country, during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird implicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry about with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen. It wasn’t here. It was just not. I looked for it, and I couldn’t find it. In the three days I spent at Creation, I saw not one fight, heard not one word spoken in anger, felt at no time even mildly harassed, and in fact met many people who were exceptionally kind. Yes, they were all of the same race, all believed the same stuff, and weren’t drinking, but there were also one hundred thousand of them.

It’s enough to make me ask if I’ve got it right when I argue that society no longer needs the external authority of a divinity in order to behave itself. 

As for the book’s second essay, “Feet in Smoke,” I can only scold the critics for not making more of it. It’s a model essay, for one thing, about a highly dramatic event. But beyond all the excitement (which we get in parallel strands, since the event under discussion was covered by an early reality show hosted by William Shatner) there is the diagnostic novelty, as it were, of the exhilaratingly crazy ideas that residual voltage sparks even as it dissipates in the mind of an electrocution survivor — who happens to be the essayist’s older brother. Ardent young writers are encouraged to copy this essay out by hand.

Gotham Diary:
The Day Itself
18 January 2012

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Today would have been my father’s 98th birthday. It’s unlike me to remember such a thing on the day itself. I see it coming, and then I’m aware that it has past, but on the day itself the thought never crosses my mind.

My father didn’t live to be anything like 98. He died a little over 26 years ago, of cancer mostly, although we didn’t understand that until the autopsy. His last months, after an intestinal abscess nearly killed him, were fairly uncomfortable. His wife — his second wife — had her work cut out for her and did it valiantly, changing sheets and whatnot more or less round the clock.

My father, who was four years older, survived my mother by eight years. She, too, died of cancer, although we knew all about it. It started with a lump on her tongue and quickly became non-Hodgkins lymphoma. One of the nice things about living in New York is that it is very, very far from M D Anderson hospital, where I’m sure they do heroic things (although not for Christopher Hitchens, it seems), but a place that seemed a death camp to me when I left it the last time.

My father wanted me to stay in Houston, but that’s not why I went to the trouble of law school. I went to the only school that he would pay for that was outside the Southwest, our alma mater, his and mine both, Notre Dame. And then, a U-Haul attached to my Granada, Kathleen and I drove to Manhattan, where we have been ever since.

Even if I’d stayed in Houston, my father would have remarried. He developed a serious drinking problem after my mother died. All it took was one AA session to bring him round, but the loneliness was pervasive, and the trip that he took me on to Europe, in my just-dead mother’s place, established my inadequacy as a companion. (I was always reading.) My sister was better at it, but she had her own life, too.

Nonetheless, his remarriage came as a shock to me, because his second wife inspired a response that stopped just a hair short of outright antipathy. Having this woman, an Irish-Syrian doll who lived in the same apartment on Eighth Avenue in Park Slope her entire life — Park Slope when it wa respectable, then when it wasn’t, and finally during the rebound — and who dressed her hair in the manner of Veronica Lake even though she was in her mid-sixties, in our family felt like an insult. I was astonished by the force of my contempt, and being aware that my feelings were reprehensibly ugly didn’t make things easier. The woman who introduced my father to his second wife later conceded that she was “an adventuress.” However, she worked hard for the money during the last year, and, unlike me, she proved to be a very good companion. I never really thought that she was wrong for my father. She was just wrong for me.

I never saw her after my father died, but I got back to the hard work of growing up. Years and years later, I went to her funeral mass, even though I had a pretty good idea that reading her will would be stinging (it was). I wish them both the eternal rest that they prayed for. But I really do miss my father, and when he shows up in my dreams, they are always the sweetest ones.

Gotham Diary:
Developing
17 January 2012

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

In The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s camera lingers over the pristine Hawaiian real estate long enough for you to get used to how beautiful it is and focus, instead, on just what “pristine” means. There is a lovely beach, but there are no bathers. There are no buildings. There is nothing but Hawaii. And you want it to be left that way. There are already more than enough seaside hotels, an obscene number of golf courses. At the very least, the 25,000 acres of King Trust land that’s up for development ought to be preserved in its wilderness until we figure out how to develop it less crudely than we develop things now.

Where do developers come from, anyway? Where they ought to come from is an advanced-degree program, and they ought to be licensed like doctors and lawyers. It’s not enough to pass laws that developers will prove adept at circumventing or even flouting. It’s not enough to mark parcels of land as untouchable. The very race of developers must be reformed.

***

After months of eyeing them in the butcher’s case at Fairway, I bought a half-dozen Italian meatballs. It turns out that three meatballs are enough for Kathleen and me; she can eat only one, and two fill me up. The meatballs are quite firm, and develop a nice crust when they’re browned in butter. (They’re easier to cut with a knife than with a fork.) And they’re deliciously seasoned.

Spaghetti and meatballs — how many decades have passed since I last had spaghetti and meatballs? Kathleen and I both recall the horror that came out of a can when we were children. Tubs of the stuff in school cafeterias. (And Kraft “parmesan” in green cans.) Then — nothing. As Italian food began to be taken seriously, spaghetti and meatballs was struck from the menu. It had to be. Even if it was prepared well, it reminded everyone of the bad old days. And it is actually a bit easier, if you’re starting from scratch, to make a good ragù bolognese.

So easy, in fact, that I’m sick to death of ragù bolognese. I can’t stand my sausage and mushroom ragù anymore, either. And I’m increasingly inclined to regard pasta puttanesca as a first course — a little goes a long way. I’m still happy to eat a heap of spaghetti alla carbonara, but Kathleen doesn’t care for it. So I’ve got to find a good recipe for marinara sauce, or something even simpler, perhaps. I bought a bottled sauce, put out by Silver Palate, to accompany the first round of meatballs; now that I’m sold on the meatballs, I need a better sauce.

***

I’m still puzzling over Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Why? That’s what I’m asking. When the movie was over, it was over; it left nothing. I had been duly engrossed in paying attention to its austere understatements, but all I felt at the end was “Thank heaven that’s over.” Meaning not the movie but the Cold War. How silly it was! How utterly adolescent-male. It all came down to loyalty or dis-, played as a game of three-card monte with guns. It seems to me that counterspies were cultivated simply as a means of forestalling the endgame. And for the British, playing the game had the additional urgency of signalling (with a lot of hand-waving) that the UK still mattered in global affairs. I do want to see the movie again, though.

Weekend Note:
Wintry
14-17 January 2012

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Friday

After a bit of a relapse on Thursday, I rallied yesterday afternoon, at least enough to run across the street to the movies, to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Although it’s full of very fine performances, I’m not sure why it was made. Was the miniseries with Alec Guinness out of date? Was it thought prudent to provide younger viewers with a sexy reminder of the Cold War?

Sunday

All of a sudden, it is the middle of the afternoon, about to start getting dark. I slept in a bit — not as late as I’ve been doing, but ruinously nonetheless for my dreams of getting things done. By “getting things done,” however, I no longer mean working my way down a to-do list. I mean finding the rhythms that will make it more likely than not that to-do lists won’t grown to inordinate lengths. This entry is part of the experiment; never, in fact, has blogging felt anything like so experimental to me. In part, I’m using the blog as a scratch pad for more or less literate notes. But I’m also cultivating it as a place that I can drop in on without a great deal of self-conscious fuss. Maybe sleeping in wasn’t so ruinous, after  all.

I’ve spent an hour grappling with Marilynne Robinson’s Absense of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self. Presented as a series of lectures, the fabric of Robinson’s thought is uncommonly dense, and not always as lucid as at first appears. The gist, to far, seems to be: Not so fast! She objects to the modern penchant for assuming the humanity has crossed a threshold, beyond which old assumptions and habits of thought — most notably, belief in God — are no longer valid and must be discarded. I agree with her, that the habit is gross; terms remain undefined, the location of the threshold shifts from argument to argument, and the past is almost always misread with condescending simplification. Beyond that, however, I haven’t been able to advance.

I do believe that a threshold has been crossed, and that things are different on this side of the passage. For me, the threshold was the repudiation of Papal authority by many bands of self-styled Christians during what we call, quite misleadingly, the Reformation. Papal authority was repudiated not in favor of some other insitutional authority (however many intermediate steps marked any denomination’s departure from orthodoxy), but in recognition of something newly felt to be pressing by many European minds in the early Sixteenth Century — it had been felt earlier, but now it was felt by many — and I call this something the sacrosanct nature of every soul’s individual relationship with its Creator. I think that we’re still getting used to this remarkable idea, that each and every one of us is equally special in the eys of God — that is to say, equally distinct. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I am not significantly like you. Most of us probably don’t really accept this, especially if we’re unusually gifted, in which case it seems obvious that the talented few stand out from the crowd of ordinary people. But there is really no way to argue the protestant claim — in today’s terms, I would say that no other human being has the right to govern my understanding of and honor for the world I live in — without allowing it to every man and woman on earth, everywhere.

In the terms that Isaiah Berlin would use, establishing the paramountcy of the personal relationship with God was a freedom from. We have been looking for the corresponding freedom(s) to ever since. Many people, some of them quite gifted thinkers, have found the task of filling the space once occupied by ecclesiastical pronunciamento to be extremely taxing; many have felt despair. Is it true that, without God, everything is permitted? What kinds of truths can be admitted, if we see ourselves as accidental productions of impersonal evolutionary forces?

I would add this question: what is vital and interesting about the autonomous self? My hunch is that the answer involves the multiplicity of relationships that we forge with each other. I believe that “society” is the result of all of these relationships, something of which we all have a strong but inexorably imprecise understanding. These are notions that I will keep to the fore as I read Marilynne Robinson’s demanding book.

Also interesting, if nowhere near so taxing, was Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay in the Times Magazine, “Why Write Novels At All?” At the heart of his argument lies a book that came along “after my time,” Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. I bought a copy recently and found the book to be mercilessly cynical. Its governing idea, I gather, is to apply truisms that have always been made about pretensions of social status to the hitherto “transcendant” world of art, so that a taste for Jane Austen is morally equivalent to a taste for Jimmy Choos. I reject this idea, because I believe that a taste for Jane Austen will significantly influence the kinds of relationships that I forge with other people; to the extent that my taste for Jane Austen is a good taste — as opposed to the obviously sentimentalizing taste that “allowed” some Germans to venerate Beethoven and Goethe while herding Jews into death camps — my relationships will be better, healthier relationships: I’m not ashamed to say that I believe that. The fact that I’ve been permitted by good fortunate to develop a taste for Jane Austen in no way diminishes its virtue; nor do I derive any conscious satisfaction from the suggestion that my taste for Jane Austen is uncommon, that it makes me stand out among men. I derive only sadness from that observation. I wish that everyone shared my good fortune. Meanwhile, I’m trying to make the best of it.

Hallberg argues that what he calls the “Conversazioni group” of novelists — Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others — have only intermittently succeeded at making the case that “there are other people besides ourselves in the world, whole mysterious inner universes.” I don’t know why the exercise of imagining someone else’s inner universe is laudable or even desirable. Wouldn’t the hermeneutics of postmodernism suggest that the mere having of an idea of what it’s like to be someone else is probably a delusion, and certainly an appropriation, and imposition of yourself upon that someone else? And isn’t it simplistic to imagine that “whole mysterious universes” could be intelligibly grasped? What I want to know about other people is not what they’re “really feeling” — I’ve learned that the sense of what I’m “really feeling” is usually no more informative than a fun-house mirror — but what they’re really prepared to bring to any relationship. I’ve also learned that, if someone else doesn’t wish to have a relationship with me in the first place, I will probably never understand why.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering, in light of all of this, why I think that Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station are really good novels that everyone ought to read, even though they are so focused on individual male points of view that it’s hard to imagine Garth Risk Hallberg giving either of them the time of day. Is it just that they’re both superbly well-written? And what would that mean?

Monday

How nice to have a three-day weekend in the middle of January, especially as one is able to appreciate it now that one has recovered a bit from holiday colds! I made a bacon breakfast, which is to say that I put a pan of thick-sliced bacon in a hot oven for an hour, turning every twenty minutes. For the first twenty minutes, I sat in the bedroom and did not read the Times. No! The best way to start the day is by writing, but the second-best is by reading anything but the New York Times — the writing just gets worse and worse. I picked up instead Peter Conrad’s Verdi and/or Wagner and read a lot of blather (I thought) about the nationalist backgrounds (or not) of the two great opera composers. There are a lot of Wagner quotes, because Wagner was a prolific writer of tracts and treatises — a genuine windbag. In contrast, Verdi, left to himself, would, I think, have gone in for sheer muteness, contributing nothing but his scores to the general conversation (and all those letters to his librettists). As a remarkable side-effect of the morning’s reading, I may have nailed the difference between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines once and for all. The original Guelphs were Braunschweiger notables who supported papal claims to imperium as a way of centralizing power in a distant city and letting geography neuter it. Later, they became the Hanoverian kings of England, and did not support the Pope in any way. Don’t take my word for any of this.

Catching up with Facebook yesterday, I learned that a friend became the father of twins on Friday. Very good news indeed! It took me back to a conversation that we had, not all that many years ago, over drinks on the terrace at the New Leaf Café, after a tour of the Cloisters. My friend talked about wanting children, and I talked about wanting grandchildren. Our difficulties were similar: neither he nor my daughter was in a relationship at the time. All that has since changed. My wish was granted two years ago, and now my friend is equally fortunate. I wish him all the best, &c — but what I really would give him if I could is the concentrated somatic supplement for all the sleep that he is going to miss in the next few years. And I hope that one of his children will make him a grandfather before he is too very ancient.  

***

I can tell you exactly why it took me forever to get round to seeing The Descendants: Hawai’i. I have only one good thing to say about Hawai’i: I hope that we give it back. On the basis of a few days in Waikiki and at the Howard Johnson motel near the airport, I can say that, given the ultimatum, I would rather live in New Jersey, and I can’t think of anything worse to say about anywhere.

We went to see the movie late this afternoon, thinking schizophrenically that the showing would be deserted because it has been at the East 85th Stree Theatre for weeks and weeks, and also that it would be crowded because of the Golden Globes. I said to Kathleen: we must leave at ten past four. We left at twenty past, and bitter recriminations, if not an outright divorce, might have been in the offing if it hadn’t been for a miraculously empty pair of seats by the aisle in the last row right as we entered the theatre.

Alexander Payne’s production values back me up about Hawai’i: everything manmade in out there is a monstrosity, or else a sad old fading stucoo villa, like the house, not very imposing, in which Matt King (George Clooney), trustee of an enormous settler windfall, has parked his family. He insists on living on the interest, not the principal, of his family’s wealth, and makes a mortal enemy of his cheating wife’s father-in-law. Given the shabbiness of his maison, it’s rich to hear his father-in-law, played by Robert Forster, complain about his cheapness, his stinginess, his refusal to spend his money. Money that Matt King, a proper New Englander however trasnplanted, doesn’t believe is his own. The miracle, of course, is that the movie makes you care, deeply, about Robert Forster’s daddy’s-girl dad. He’s a shit and a chimp, but you weep for his sorrow.

As in all Alexander Payne movies, we are treated to the way in which Americans actually behave, particularly our penchant for the crashing juxtaposition of high-mindedness and comic relief. Americans are the most professionally nice people to adorn the homo sapiens family tree, but their sweetness and patience have definite limits, and The Descendants is a kind of catalogue raisoné of closure. As in all the best George Clooney movies, we’re treated to a few moments of crazy George, stalking his wife’s lover with the autonomatic intensity of Charlie Chaplin. Matt King is a good guy, really; never once does he yield to the misery of discvoering his wife’s infidelity; never once does he seize high ground as the honorable partner. His workaholism, if that’s what it is, may have made him inattentive to his wife and daughters’ life at home; equally, you think that this is a guy who ought to have had sons — the advice that his older daughter’s marvelously cloudy boyfriend, Sid, offers when Matt asks how to deal with his girls now that their mother is in a coma and dying. (“I’d trade them in for sons, I don’t know.”) But sons are not essential. At a key moment, it’s Matt’s older daughter, played with aplomb by Shailene Woodley, who nudges her father with “Don’t be a pussy.” That’s a line that only underscores what you’re already thinking, which is that only Cary Grant could have played this role, until Clooney that is.

Only Cary Grant. The moment in the Kaui’i restaurant, after Matt has just discovered that his wife’s lover will hit it rich as the realtor connected to the development of his family’s property, when you realize that Matt just wants to throw up but must somehow sit through a family meal. Much of the excitement of The Descendants consists in Clooney’s beein joyfully less violent than you think he might be. His big tantrum involves throwing a stuffed bear across a room. The rest of the time, he is a model to us all. He hits no one and is unfailingly decent. Payne knows how to make this restraint look as heroic as it ought to do, and we are deeply in their gift.

We’ll save our talk about developers for another time.

 

 

 

Gotham Diary:
The Prince Trilling
14 January 2012

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Resisting the newspaper, I picked up The Liberal Imagination and read the essay about The Princess Casamassima, Henry James’s novel of the late 1880s. I’ve read the novel twice, but not recently. Let me be the first to admit to the seductiveness  of its title, which shows James at his worldliest. The title turns out to be hugely ironic, but you don’t know that when you pick it up the first time. Princess Casamassima would have been grand enough — what name could suggest a vaster palace? But by inserting the definite article, James raises the wonder higher, and puts the lady on a level with the Sun King. In the way of titles, that is. You want to know more.

But all I ever remember of The Princess Casamassima, aside from a blurred sense of cockney settings that aren’t, after all, the sort of thing that draws me to Henry James, is the lush description of Medley, the old house in which the tragic hero, Hyacinth Robinson, has his first taste of the “country.” The house ” was richly gray wherever it was not green with ivy and other dense creepers” — it almost seems a natural feature of the landscape. Which is of course the whole point of the very exclusive “country” that could be found here and there in the English countryside. I can’t think of another passage in James that so particularly identifies the features of a house, but then it is not usual, in James, to view architecture through the eyes of a poor young man who has never been far from London.

How appealing would the more apt title, Hyacinth Robinson, be? I have to say that “Hyacinth” sets off a cognitive muddle. It’s so fancy! Sure, the hero’s mother was a French maid. But it’s hard to imagine anyone at any social level making it through twelve years of English life with the burden of such a name. The name is also as ironic as the title: our Hyacinth is a not very floral terrorist. And “Robinson” drags in Defoe. I would have to be paid, a lot, to read Hyacinth Robinson. But I’ve read The Princess Casamassima, as I’ve said, twice, for free. Now I’m wondering if I’m in for a third visit.

Trilling’s essay is impassioned by an almost lawyerly zeal to defend a novel from Henry James’s least popular period, the middle. Between Washington Square, The American, and Portrait of a Lady at one end of his career, and the trio of thrillingly dense novels the closes it, there range a baker’s half dozen of books that only James fans and academics bother to read. It’s not that they’re bad novels, but they’re inferior as books by Henry James to the degree that they are less dramatically focused than the early works and less dazzlingly complicated than the later ones. But Trilling isn’t trying to make a case for The Princess Casamassima as “great” James. On the contrary, he locates it in the tradition of “great” European novels that runs from Le rouge et le noir through The Idiot. He describes the type as “the young man from the provinces” novel. A poor young man is wafted by chance into the precincts of wealth and power, and at the very least suffers almost fatal disillusionment.

It isn’t by virtue of being such a novel that The Princess Casamassima strikes for Trilling the note of true greatness, however. It is the book’s ”moral realism” that makes it “an incomparable representation of the spiritual circumstances of our civilization.” That’s what Trilling says. Looking over his shoulder, I wonder if it isn’t the way that James applies his moral realism to the political circumstances of his story that excites Trilling. The easiest way to describe The Princess Casamassima to someone who is otherwise well-read would be to compare it to Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. These are stories about anarchist conspiracies and assassination plots, and they were much on people’s minds toward the end of the Nneteenth Century. In the Twentieth, they would flower balefully in the crushing dictatorships that brought the world to a second hot war in the 1940s and then to a cold one, at the very beginning of which Trilling was arduously assessing the legitimacy of liberal opposition to communism. That what the following extraordinary passage is all about:

It is easy enough, by certain assumptions, to condemn Hyacinth and even to call him names. But first we must see what his position really means and what heroism there is in it. Hyacinth recognizes that few people wish to admit, that civilization has a price, and a high one. Civilizations differ from one another in what theygive up as in what they acquire; but all civilizations are alike in that they renounce something for something else. We do right to protest this in any given case that comes under our notice and we do right to get as much as possible for as little as possible, but we can never get everything for nothing. Nor, indeed, do we imagine that we can. Thus, to stay within the present context, every known theory of popular revoltuion gives up the vision of the world “raised to the richest and noblest expression.” To achieve the ideal of widespread security, popular revolutionary theory condemns the ideal of adventurous experience. It tries to avoid doing this explicitly and it even, although seldom convincingly, denies that it does it at all. But all the insincts and necessities of radical democracy are dagainst the superbness and arbitrariness which often mark great spirits. It is sometimes said in the interests of an ideal or abstract completeness that the choice need not be made, that secuirty can be imagined to go with richness and nobility of expression. But we have not seen it in the past and nobodoy really strives to imagine it in the future. Hyacinth’s choice is made under the pressure of the counterchoice made by Paul and the Princess; their “general rectification” implies a civilization from wich the idea of life raised to the richest and noblest expression will quite vanish.

 We may not need The Princess Casamassima now quite as much as Lionel Trilling did sixty-odd years ago (when the novel itself was sixty-odd years old), but we certainly need Trilling’s insistence on the kind of “superbness and arbitrariness” for which a liberal society ought to make sacrifices, and without which the superiority and aloofness of mere wealth are empty evils.

Gotham Diary:
Relapse
12 January 2012

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

It’s the same old story. I felt okay yesterday, so I ran a bunch of Wednesday- type errands. On the final stretch home, though, I noticed that I was both sweaty and chilled. I got into dry clothes as soon as I reached the flat, but the damage was done. I’m coughing a bit, and I’m only mildly congested, but I’m still cold, no matter how many sweaters I pull on. A reading day is indicated.

Happily, I’ve got books that I want to read. The life had rather gone out of my stack, possibly because we had spent too much time together in the past two weeks, my current books and I; more likely, I needed something exciting to read. That’s why I went to Crawford Doyle yesterday: maybe they had something that I hadn’t heard of. It wasn’t very likely (abominable conceit), but I was desperate. They did not in fact have anything (in fiction) that I hadn’t heard of. What they had was Lauren, a staff member who has advised me in the path. She recommended four titles, one of which was Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I remember hearing about this novel when it came out, largely because of “Atocha,” which not only was the site of horrific terrorist bombing in 2004 but also serves as the setting of the grandest scene in Verdi’s Don Carlo. (Peter Conrad’s new Verdi and/or Wagner was something that I hadn’t heard of until I saw it at Crawford Doyle yesterday; I bought it on the spot.) I think that I was put off by the review’s mention that Lerner is a poet. I allowed Lauren to quell my misgivings. And a good thing, too. Leaving the Atocha Station is funny and interesting; I want to find out if Adam, the narrator, will turn out to be a schmuck in the end. The novel very much belongs alongside Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, which I read during the holidays.

The other book that I’m enjoying is — well, there ought to be a word for it: a book that you ought to have read decades ago, in college at the latest. It’s a book that you have meant to read ever since you heard about it, but that you haven’t read because it does seem awfully serious, possibly a little fustian. It is a book that you bought several years ago. You finger it from time to time. Then, finally, it bites. Or you bite. You start to read. You feel tremendously foolish. You ought to have read this decades ago, in college at the latest, &c &c. And who the hell is V L Parrington?

The book is Lionel Trilling’s collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, which appeared in 1950. Trilling clearly presumes that you know who Parrington is. “His ideas are now the accepted ones wherever the college course in American literature is given by a teacher who conceives himself to be opposed to the genteel and the academic and in alliance with the vigorous and the actual.” That’s from the first page of the first essay, ”Reality in America.” Trilling proceeds to bury Parrington beneath a heap of small compliments and dry ridicule, and he does the job so smoothly I was pretty sure at essay’s end why I’d never heard of V L Parrington. And now I had a clearer idea of why my antennae had always steered me away from Theodore Dreiser, whom Parrington admired.

At this point in my life, it’s a real memento mori to come across an unfamiliar name, borne by someone whose now-forgotten influence once spread widely over a field that I spend a lot of time in. But then, do I? Parrington was one of the founders of “American Studies,” a parcel of literary and historical work that I have endeavored to stay out of. But I have a nodding familiarity with the names of Perry Miller and F O Matthiessen, who also helped found American studies; and I certainly know the name of Sherwood Anderson, the subject of Trilling’s second (and even more crushing) essay, and the author of a book, Winesburg, Ohio, that I remember not picking up a lot.  

What I couldn’t have understood about American Studies was its grounding in a sentimental Jefforsonian agrarianism that proved to be absolutely ineffectual at steering  the country away from the lures of Gilded-Age capitalism. I haven’t quite figured out what Trilling’s agenda is; I’m conscious only of dealing with a very cagey writer. But I applaud his demonstration that, if you want to call the Robber Barons and their government agents to account, Parrington’s is not the way to do it.

 

Gotham Diary:
No Idea
11 January 2012

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Here’s news that Hostess Brands is filing for bankruptcy. Last fiscal year, it posted revenue of $2.5 billion and a net loss of $341 million. The losses, we’re told went to servicing corporate debt and obligations to pension and health-care plans. Which is to say that Hostess did not lose money making Twinkies. The debt, I’m almost certain, was incurred in the course of various restructurings, not as capital expenditures on plant.

I’d sure like to know more, because Hostess seems, if not representative of America industry overall, then afflicted with its principal illnesses. First, the benefits nightmare. I’ll be the last to say that workers don’t deserve generous pension and health-care benefits after retirement. But why do we expect individual corporations to provide them? Because it smells better than socialism, for one thing, and, less benignly, it introduces a whiff of free-marketry into the undertaking, since benefits are negotiated between corporations and unions. Why do we have unions? For the same reason that the government doesn’t provide retirement benefits directly: unions are proof that we are not socialists.  Hostess Brands has declared bankruptcy because, like the former Soviet Union, it can no longer afford to pay for the Cold War.

Then there’s that debt. The private equity firm of Ripplewood Partners is mentioned, but only as “seizing control” in 2009. Then what happened? IMy guess is that the debt was “restructured” — that is, postponed but increased. The story of the underlying debt is what I’d like to hear. Once upon a time, Interstate Bakeries, as it then was, was just a bakery. Then somebody had the bright idea of diversifying, either by buying other businesses for the bakery or by selling it to a larger outfit. One imagines a spell, lasting from the Eighties into the Nineties, when the company’s strength — popular snack-food brand names — struck executives as unspeakable banal.

Nobody needs to eat Ding Dongs, so calling Hostess a “utility” is something of a stretch. For better or worse, though, millions of Americans reach for Hostess products ($2.5 billion’s worth) when they crave whatever it is that junk food provides. They ought to be denied only if the manufacture of cupcakes becomes prohibitively expensive, or if the baking process is shown to be dangerous. The  Hostess shelves at the convenience store ought to remain well-stocked otherwise. If Twinkies disappear for any other reason, it will signifify that American leaders don’t know how to allocate costs and responsibilities, and that American businessmen are too easily distracted.

 

 

Gotham Diary:
Tablescapes
10 January 2012

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

It dawns on me that the photos that I’ve been thinking about taking this week were inspired by a funny cartoon in last week’s New Yorker. It’s by William Haefeli. A man stands by an apartment door, dressed to go out, and says to his partner (in a Haefeli drawing, you cannot infer marriage), “I’m ready to go whenever you’re through fussing with tablescapes.” It’s pretty clear that “fussing with tablescapes” is meant to be a kind of self-absorbed navel-gazing; certainly it’s not something that you ought to do when someone else is waiting to go for a walk. In fact, you had probably best be alone.

I don’t fuss with tablescapes nearly as much as you might think. During the weekly dusting, I clear the table and wipe it clean, and I take a damp cloth to whatever isn’t paper. Then I put everything back where it was. Once a year, at the most, there might be a rethink. Some things never change: the Royal Doulton statuette of a lady in riding costume (one of my mother’s treasures) has been standing in front of that Mottahedeh plate, accompanied by the two whelk shells, for twenty years at least.

What a ghastly word, tablescapes. Has “still life” come to mean only the painting of a still life?    

***

How curious it was, just now, to go to Fairway right on top of reading about it in The New Yorker — the current issue, this time. Patricia Marx has a piece about the better-known specialty food outlets in the Metropolitan Area (that’s to say that she includes Stew Leonard’s, an operation that in ten years of Connecticut weekending I never patronized once), and she manages to exclude the Balducci’s, who run, on the Upper East Side alone, Grace’s Marketplace and Agata & Valentina, the latter an indispensable resource for me, even with the new Fairway across the street. “You wouldn’t walk seven blocks to go to the Food Emporium,” she has Fairway CEO Howie Glickberg saying. “But you’d walk seven blocks to come to Fairway.” I’m very glad that I don’t have to walk seven blocks to go to Fairway; as for the Food Emporium, which is on the ground floor of my building, I have not set foot in it since the day Fairway opened, back in July.

The other day, I overheard a man in the elevator say to another man. “It’s two levels; you can’t find anything.” I could not help noting his heavy outerborough accent, which suggested that this was a guy who wasn’t going to look for anything that wasn’t where he expected it to be. But even for New York, where grocery stores are often laid out eccentrically (it goes with the real estate), Fairway presents a steep learning curve. Why is the bakery downstairs, beneath the deli, rather than the other way round? Would it kill them to carry a few dairy items on the street-level floor? Surely something a little less staple might have been shelved opposite the stockroom doors, across an already rather narrow aisle? And that downstairs organic area: in less than six months, it set up its own funky vibe, a marketplace for those who put soma ahead of savor. But, hey, I’m not complaining.

I read the Marx piece over a quiet lunch at Café d’Alsace, which I’ve rather neglected lately (and not so lately). I did not, for once, have a croque monsieur; I was afraid that it might seem too rich. I had an omelette instead, with the most delicious caramelized onions. Tempted to linger over a third glass of wine, I wisely drew the line at two, collected my things, and went to the post office, which was, as I’d hoped, deserted. I still had a few cards and calendars to mail, including two to be sent abroad; business was so slow that the clerk offered to fill out the customs forms. When I got home, I wrote down some advice for next year, which I printed out and tucked into a Mary Engelbreit Christmas book that Kathleen unearthed. This book will not be stored away. It will stay in the writing table drawer. I finally realized that, although you can and indeed must store Christmas paraphernalia in a place apart, it’s a good idea to keep the instruction manual handy.

The one piece of advice that I’d like to give, but don’t know how, would be a good tip for avoiding colds and flu at holiday time. I hope that we never go through that again!

***

I’m listening to a strange playlist, clearly more the skeleton of one than anything actually thought out. It alternates Schubert’s piano sonatas, Mozart’s wind concerti, and all of Ravel’s music for orchestra other than the two operas, with a garnish of Strauss waltzes and polkas. Strange to say, it works. I don’t think that Schubert and Ravel are alike in any musical way, but both were drawn to the unusual, and Schubert is as colorful in his way as Ravel. The interesting thing is that neither sounds odd when juxtaposed to the other; perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the obsessive sonatas and the vivid dances don’t flatten each other. Even the Strauss seems fresh and even a bit cheeky.

I’m also reading a biography of Ravel (1875-1937), by Roger Nichols. I’m not sure that I’m having any fun. I’ve got to about 1903, and Ravel has written a handful of important pieces, namely the string quartet and Jeux d’eau. He has lost two attempts at the Prix de Rome, and, really, there doesn’t seem to be anything veyr remarkable about him, except for his short, trim figure. It turns out that he was a “mediocre” pianist — how extraordinary, considering the virtuosity required to play what he wrote. The text is full of forgotten names, and there is a lot of close musical analysis that demands more than I’m willing to give at the moment. But I shall carry on, closing my eyes and thinking of Paris whenever the going gets rough. I just hope that the book doesn’t make me like Ravel less. The music, I mean. I like liking Ravel.

Gotham Diary:
What If
9 January 2012

Monday, January 9th, 2012

When Kathleen left for the office this morning, I got out of bed, where I’d spent several very comfortable hours breathing and having mildly bad dreams. On the thirteenth day of my cold, bad dreams were about as interesting as anything else in my ravaged head, and I was tempted to write about them. Happily, I picked up the Times instead.

Rachel Donadio’s story about young Greeks going “back to the land” — to the island of Chios, to be precise — was intriguing but incomplete. I wanted to know more about the new tools, particularly what the French handily call informatique, that the over-educated twenty- and thirty-somethings are bringing with them when they take up heliculture. What we would call “smart farming.” Then there’s the sad story of Edul Ahmad’s many victims, out in Queens; Guyanese immigrants, they trusted a flashy rogue wheh he misled them about the affordability of housing,  and now their mortgages are being foreclosed. David Dunlap writes about the burning of the original Equitable Building in January 1912, a disaster that would have branded itself more indelibly in the city’s sense of history if it hadn’t been for what happened at sea four months later. The ruined Second-Empire structure, claimed to be fireproof, was quickly replaced by the massive building that remains at 120 Broadway. This was where my father’s office was, the first time he brought me into the city to see where he worked. It was only about forty years old at the time, but it seemed awfully old-fashioned, with its Roman marble lobby and its thrilling elevators, each one manned by an operator.

But I would not have been more surprised by the Titanic‘s steaming into New York Harbor than I was by Bill Keller’s call for Hillary Clinton to run as Barack Obama’s Vice President in November. The idea, Keller says, “has been kicking around on the blogs for more than a year without getting any traction” — which is why I don’t read political blogs anymore. Now that Bill Keller has dragged it into the middle of the room, the prospect of Clinton’s candidacy is so attractive that Obama’s people ought to be getting on it right now. (Better yet: Obama fires all of his people and hires Clinton’s.) The scenario outlined in the Op-Ed piece is preternaturally politique: Hillary resigns from State; Biden takes State; Biden keeps State when Hillary becomes VP. Nothing less than a White House endorsement of the scheme will restore my confidence in the second technocrat in the Oval Office — a president whose record seems now to be almost as disappointing as that of the first, Herbert Hoover.