Archive for May, 2013

Gotham Diary:
No Man
31 May 2013

Friday, May 31st, 2013

There’s more to my shaking than the iced coffee that I drank at lunch: what I read while I ate. Part II of George Packer’s The Unwinding comes to a close with a rousing account of semi-organized resistance, in Tampa, Florida, to foreclosing banks. Part III opens with a Senate staffer’s dismay at newly-elected President Obama’s choice of financial ministers. Very little of Packer’s material is new to me, and most of it is quite familiar. But it is as shocking and infuriating as if it were the plot of a novel about rank injustice that I had never read before. That’s because Packer’s perspective is very different from mine. I am a disaffected offspring of the elite, my background is still elite, and that makes it hard for me to see, what Packer makes plain, the egregiousness of the elite’s betrayal of America.

Economists will say that manufacturing jobs drained from the United States to China because of free-market mechanics, and they may be right, but surely someone ought to have stepped in to plug the leak. Far from doing so, men in positions of power built a conduit, a veritable aqueduct to speed up the catastrophe, reaping huge profits and increasing their power. I have a hard time blaming ordinary Americans for having been distracted by the spectacle of television from seeing what was happening, because ordinary Americans have been not only un- but miseducated for generations, their heads stuffed with nonsense that nobody needs to know, their minds left unsharpened by critical training. Children of the elite are taught differently, and divergence between the two systems is now so extreme that what children of the elite learn most of all is that ordinary Americans are, as such, pathetic. The old paternalism was killed off long ago, but nothing has taken its place. Children of the elite can either perpetuate the new order, by working in one way or another for the benefit of what Packer calls “organized money,” or they can lead purely private lives. There is no loyal opposition to the power of organized money in running the country.

There is no loyal opposition. I don’t think that I grasped that until Packer’s book showed it to me. And yet I ought to have known. You can bet that, had I been blogging in 1998, I’d have wailed loud and strong about the repeal of Glass-Steagall; Kathleen and I talked of nothing else. But we could talk only to ourselves. There were a few warning voices, as I recall, but there was no platform from which the repeal’s dereliction of public duty could be effectively denounced. Such a platform was so absent that it couldn’t even be imagined. We were living in the era of organized money already, but we didn’t know it, because we hadn’t seen the power of organized money to disorganize everything else. It took the wreckage of millions of lives to reveal its contours.

Here’s something that seems obvious to me: the opposition of capitalists and socialists in the direction of public policy is a sideshow, obscuring more fruitful and constructive dialogues about persons, goods, and property. Here’s something else (I’ve mentioned it before): the doctrine that corporations are natural persons entitled to the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, never actually decided by the Supreme Court but attributed to it, needs to be reversed. The natural persons who control corporations ought not to be permitted to hide behind this noxious proposition.

***

Also a little shake-making was Frances Ha, which I saw this morning. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created an unforgettable movie about a young woman’s very precarious life in New York City. That’s not what the movie is supposed to be about. Frances Ha is supposed to be about a woman’s coming to terms with having outgrown a college friendship, and, to be sure, that story is told quite well, if rather elliptically. (But then, isn’t it in the nature of friendship to fade when no one is paying attention?) But in the meantime, that young woman is living “on plates of fresh air,” as the old song goes. She ekes out a living that is not quite a living while living, literally, a dream. Frances is not completely in touch with the world around her. There’s an appalling scene at a dinner party at which everything Frances says is inept at best and often inappropriate. (Grace Gummer, playing a person sitting opposite, deserves an Oscar for Best Effortless Radiation of Contempt.) In Frances’s world, however, such behavior does not lead to ejection. On the contrary, Frances comes away from the evening with access to another guest’s great little flat “in the Sixth” (Paris). Not knowing the outcome, I cringed all through the scene. When Frances went home to visit her parents at Christmas (played by Gerwig’s actual parents — very interesting to try to figure out where she gets her looks), I thought that she ought to stay there, even if it was only Sacramento. I was astonished to discover that the “college” where she met her defecting best friend was Vassar. If Greta Gerwig has a shtick, it’s the appearance of being winningly dumber than she really is.

Gotham Diary:
Becky’s Hen
30 May 2013

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

There were four labeled boxes of stuff at the uptown storage unit. I took the box whose label began with “Becky’s Hen” and set it in the stacked garden chairs that we rolled down to the van the other day. I didn’t care about the other stuff in the box, which, mildly annoyed, I had to find places for. But I wanted Becky’s hen (shown); I wanted it right at the center of our new, long, zinc-topped “salvaged beer garden table.” And there it is.

Becky’s hen is a wedding present, given to us by a friend named Becky. Somehow, it has survived more than thirty years in our break-prone household. Much of that time, it’s true, it spent out of harm’s way, atop a cabinet out on the balcony. The cabinet was discarded when the balcony was cleared last fall, so that the building could install new railings. Most of what we had out there, some of it also going back thirty years, was also discarded. Last month, we began with a relatively clean slate — and long experience with what is essentially a narrow ledge. We resolved to avoid furniture designed for suburban patios. We also wanted to avoid the clutter of accumulated stuff that I’ve almost completely banished from the interior of the apartment. But a clean slate needn’t be absolutely empty. Becky’s hen was going to be the centerpiece.

We have never been quite sure what Becky’s hen is meant to be. A planter, I suppose — but it’s so deep! An artisinal planter — there you go. We might, of course, ask Becky. Now that all this time has gone by, the question wouldn’t be rude. The very fact that we’ve held on to the hen is proof that not knowing what it’s meant to be has not been a problem for us. But, precisely because all this time has gone by, Becky would probably not remember. It’s very likely that she bought it on a whim, and the whim went with the wind. It’s not important. It’s quite enough that Becky’s hen is Becky’s hen. Being Becky’s hen is what it does.

***

It was irritating, last night, not to have received the lamp that we’ve bought to make night-reading possible outside. I was plowing through George Packer’s The Unwinding as eight o’clock came and went; I had to move to the bench, with my back to the light, to continue reading. This was unsatisfactory because, perhaps because I’d just seen The Great Gatsby, I was distracted by the fear that I might be shot in the back by a deranged pedestrian or a professional sniper. By the time Kathleen got home, it was dark, and we ate pork lo mein by candlelight.  (I’d ordered Chinese because Kathleen wasn’t certain when she’d be home. I’ve learned not to make dinner myself when this is the case.) Then we went in for the night, Kathleen to continue working and I to continue plowing.

After a while, I turned to The Leopard. I am reading a good deal of the novel in Italian as well, and last night, I came across a passage that I had to read not only in the original but aloud. I read it aloud several times. (Lost in her work, Kathleen never noticed, but she was also in another room.) The sentence begins:

Donnafugata con il suo palazzo e i suoi nuovi ricchi…

But this is the bit that I repeated:

…perché, rispetto alla immutabilità di questa contrada fuor di mano, sembravano far parte del futuro, esser ricavati non dalla pietra e dalla carne ma dalla stoffa di un sognato avvenire, estratti da una utopia vagheggiata da un Platone rustico e che per un qualsiasi minimo accidente avrebbe anche potuto conformarsi in fogge del tutto diverse o addirittura non essere…

“the longed-for utopia of a rustic Plato…” Here is the passage as Archibald Colquhoun translates it:

Donnafugata with its palace and its newly rich was only a mile or two away, but it seemed a dim memory like those landscapes sometimes glimpsed at the distant end of a railway tunnel; its troubles and splendors appeared even more insignificant than if they belonged to the past, for compared to this remote unchangeable landscape they seemed part of the future, made not of stone and flesh but of the substance of some dream of things to come, extracts from a utopia thought up by a rustic Plato and apt to change at a whim into quite different forms or even found not to exist at all; deprived thus of that charge of energy which everything in the past continues to possess, they were a bother no longer.

I had a hard time saying “alla immutabilità,” so I’m saying it over and over again. The Leopard is a wonderful novel on its surface, but for anyone who has been reading European fiction for a few decades it is also an impossibly delicious sundae; barely longer than The Great Gatsby, it concerns itself with the thoughts of an aristocrat who would not be out of place in something endless by Goncharov or Tolstoy, but who thinks with the delicacy of “the Marcel of the novel.” And why shouldn’t it? It was written by a learned old man in 1955!

***

I find that I must say another word about Emma Brockes’s She Left Me the Gun; I neglected to point out what a lovable character her mother is — the mother who didn’t leave her the gun after all. Pauline de Kiewit Brockes (“Paula,” once she got to England) might not have been so lovable in person — you wouldn’t know until it was too late — but on the page she’s a sweetheart.

She was in many ways a typical resident [of the village]. She went to yoga in the village hall. She stood in line at the post office. She made friends with the lady on the deli counter in Budgen’s and had a nice relationship with the lovely family that lived next door to us. Their young boys would come around to look at the fish in our pond. Every year I made her a homemade birthday card that depicted scenes from family life. She tacked them up on the kitchen wall, where they faded with each passing summer. I found them recently, seven in all, a memoir of my mother’s existence in the village. There she is, wonkily drawn in her yoga gear, surrounded by me, my dad, two cats, and the fish.

At the same time, it pleased her, I think, to be at a slight angle to the culture, someone who had adopted the role of a Buckinghamshire mum but who had at her disposal various superpowers — powers she had decided, on balance, to keep under her hat. (I used to think this an attitude unique to my motherr, until I moved to America and relaized that it is the standard expat consolation: in my case — a British person in New York — looking around and thinking, “You people have no idea about the true nature of reality when you don’t know what an Eccles cake is or how to get to Watford.”)

In my mother’s case, it was a question of style. She was very much against the English way of disguising one’s intentions. One never knew what they were thinking, she said — or rather, one always knew what they were were thinking but they never came out and said it. She loved to tell the story of how, soon after moving in, she was sanding the banisters one day when a man came to the door, canvassing for the Conservatives. “He just ASSUMED,” she raged then and for years afterwards. “He just ASSUMED I WAS TORY.” She wasn’t Tory, but she wasn’t consistently liberal, either. She disapproved of people having children out of wedlock. When a child molester story line surfaced on TV, she would argue for castration, execution, and various other medieval solutions to the problem, while my dad and I sat in uncomfortable silence. She was not, by and large, in favor of silence.

Even her gardening was loud. When my parents bought the house, the garden had been a denuded quarter acre that my mother set about Africanizing. She planted pampas grass and mint. She let the grass grow wild around the swing by the shed. Along the back fence, she put in fast-growing dogwoods.

“It’s to hide your ugly house,” she said sweetly when our other neighbor complained. After that, whenever my mother was out weeding and found a snail, she would lob it, grenadelike, over the fence into the old lady’s salad patch.

There are plenty of family photographs in Brockes’s book, almost all of them showing her mother at some stage in life (but not late), and, together with the sparkling dialogue, she comes across as someone who would have to be played by Glenda Jackson or Janet Suzman. Do such cheeky dragonesses still patrol the British stage?

Gotham Diary:
Great
29 May 2013

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

What a lot of fuss there has been about Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. It surprises me that intelligent people are still so worked up about the possibility of fidelity, which is an infantile anxiety for at least three reasons. The first was well-put by LA Times critic Sam Adams: “I don’t want a movie to be great literature any more than I want a novel to be a great salad” (a tweet repeated at The Rumpus). It’s that simple. There is no real possibility of fidelity, even where the illusion of it is intense, as in the great tornado/we’re going to Europe scene in Mr & Mrs Bridge, which treats the text as an absolute scenario. The second problem is that fidelity is in the eye of the beholder, and not remotely objective. My third argument is that an adaptation is intended to refashion something for another purpose. When we go to see a film setting of The Great Gatsby, we do not expect the complete text to be flashed upon the screen. We expect to see things that Fitzgerald did not create. When I went to see The Great Gatsby this afternoon, I expected a Baz Luhrman extravaganza, and I was not disappointed. I found it to be a smashing success.

Now that I am an old man, I have no hesitation about pronouncing The Great Gatsby to be the Great American Novel, nor about refusing to argue the point (for the moment). It seems inherent in the idea of great fiction that several satisfying and plausible but mutually uncongenial, even inharmonious screen adaptations might be generated by it — and that is just as infantile to insist on the best adaptation as it is to worry about fidelity. I regard it as a sign of immaturity to carry about lists of best derivatives, such as performances of operas and, indeed, screen adaptations. I want to allow plenty of room for interpretation, and I will forgive a great deal of manifest infidelity if I am satisfied by the result. The new Gatsby affords an excellent case study in how and how not to judge. In the novel, the second chapter is the dark heart of the novel, because the party at Myrtle’s love nest is unrelievedly sordid; the rot that Fitzgerald wanted to capture is therein presented without any bedizening glamour. It is a nightmare of tedium. As such, it is not promising material for transfer to the screen. There is a Mrs McKee, “shrill, languid, handsome, and horrible.” She interrupts Catherine’s story about a trip to Monte Carlo by exclaiming, “I almost married a little kike who’d been after me for years.” About Mr Wilson, Catherine says,

“You were crazy about him for a while.”

“Crazy about him!” cried Myrtle incredulously. “Who said I was crazy about him? I never was any more crazy about him than I was about that man there.”

She pointed a finger at me, and every one looked at me accusingly.

These details and others are omitted from the 1974 Jack Clayton adaptation (screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola), as well as from the new movie. But Clayton’s version of the party is straightforwardly naturalistic. This means that we are taken to a party set in 1922 but obviously filmed in the early Seventies. Luhrman’s version could only be Luhrman, and it is a highly stylized (if merely suggestive) orgy. Luhrman omits even more details, but the point is that neither adaptation is interested in the point of the party, which is not Tom’s punching Myrtle in the nose but rather the disordered mood that makes such violence not only possible but likely.

People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away.

I don’t rule out the possibility of following the Fitzgerald’s text as closely as James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala do Evan Connell’s, but I don’t fault Clayton or Luhrman for their less literal accounts. Both movies are hugely entertaining, and both capture the poignance of Gatsby’s misbegotten hope. They deliver the weight and mass of the novel, even if these are distributed over fewer moving parts. Both films do their duty to the text, and then go on to be great movies.

I would give Luhrman the edge for casting. Everyone is superb for Jack Clayton, but Luhrman’s crew is transcendental, as fully prepared to soar beyond naturalism as is Catherine Martin’s production design. And Luhrman manages to glamorize Daisy Buchanan without worshiping her,  as Clayton seems to have done with Mia Farrow. (Something tremendously funny/disturbing happened when I watched the Clayton just now, to refresh my recollection of Myrtle’s party. Why did Karen Black’s reading of Myrtle’s little speech about falling in love with Tom on the train remind me so much of Mia Farrow? It came to me, as I left the room, that it was a case of Farrow imitating Black, about fifteen years later, as the title character’s occasionally entranced voluptuary in Woody Allen’s Alice.) Joel Edgerton is as thrilling as I expected him to be: who knew, back when Kinky Boots came out, a mere eight years ago, that its winsome ingénu would develop, in maturity, a trans-Gable degree of assured masculinity? (And yet Edgerton’s weak-kneed wince, when Tom uncovers Myrtle’s corpse, almost makes you forgive the lout everything.) Tobey Maguire is rather more damaged than Sam Waterston, and he succumbs to the madness around him, whereas Waterston (delightfully but typically) distances himself as a genial critic. Leonardo DiCaprio, for all his still smoothness, abounds in active rough edges, as Gatsby must. And Cary Mulligan is wholly substantial as Daisy; she is mortal, not an apparition. (She is also incredibly lovely — I’ve been a fan for ages, but I was almost shocked by how beautiful she is here.)

What about all the racket in the background? I liked it because, for the most part, I hated it — and isn’t it the very point of Fitzgerald’s book that Gatsby’s parties are nightmares? The whole story is a nightmare. If a gangster like Gatsby is worth more than the “rotten crowd” from across the bay, something must be terribly wrong with the world. Nightmares also accommodate extraordinary spectacles; when fireworks and music are used to such dysphoric effect, it’s hard for them to be “excessive.” Gatsby’s chateau couldn’t be more bogus, but you won’t hear any objections from me. (The Buchanan’s place across the water is more subtly off-putting, its excesses disciplined but oppressive.) Nor am I bothered by the extensive CGI footage. Like a great ballet, Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby is completely and brilliantly artificial, except when it needs not to be.

I opted against seeing the movie in 3D, at least for the first time. I didn’t feel that I was missing anything.

Gotham Diary:
Tranquilized
28 May 2013

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

So, nu? My neurotransmitters are flickering. A big holiday weekend, a scarily effective bout of house-ordering, and now, today, the restoration of the last bits of furniture to the balcony. Also, a cushion and a table were delivered, permitting Kathleen to stretch out for a nap (were she at home, and the temperature considerably higher) and me to throw away the Big John’s cardboard box that I’d been parking my drinks on (done). A visit to Gracious Home yielded a round metal outdoor table so cunning and sunshiny-yellow that Gracious Home put it in the Third Avenue window. If only it weren’t so miserable and wet outside!

***

On Saturday, when the weather was also miserable and nearly as wet, I read most of Emma Brockes’s She Left Me the Gun, one of the best-written books that I’ve ever come across. There is really no way to summarize this dual memoir without spoiling it, because it is both brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed. The raw material — the awful stuff that happened to Brockes’s mother in and around Johannesburg and the warm and loving life that she later made for herself in and around London — would be depressing and jejune by turns if Brockes didn’t know how to shape it as well as she does, or how to infuse her sentences with a crackling dry wit that keeps the sordid and the sentimental equally at bay.

After her mother’s death (from lung cancer), Brockes decides to try to fill in the blanks in her mother’s stories — and what she has is mostly blanks. What she knows of her mother’s childhood and youth is unsettling, to say the least. There was abuse, there was a prosecution, there was gunfire. Brockes seeks out her mother’s half-siblings in South Africa, which her mother left at the age of 24. One of the brothers has died. Another has emigrated to Florida, and does not want to discuss his painful family history. (One of the three sisters is barely named in the text, suggesting a disinclination even to register her distress.) This leaves two brothers and two sisters to testify to the horrors of life with an abusive father. And that becomes the story. Not the abuse, which was absolutely unremarkable — men who prey on their daughters appear to come in one, horrible size. But the testimony and the aftermath, the children’s different ways of coping with the damage. There are good stories there, and Brockes unfolds them into the texture of her search.

One of the brothers, Tony, seems never to have amounted to anything. When Brockes meets up with him, he is minding an auto-repair shop while its owner is on holiday. Tony suggests repairing to a nearby casino for a coffee. Brockes’s transcript of the conversation is the self-portrait of a failure so compleat that Tony’s shreds of decent dignity are precious salvage, even as he remarks that “I’m basically quite a rotten person. … I’m violent and a drunkard.” In Brockes’s hands, however, the humanity of his situation is not banal but overwhelming.

I have been in the casino forever forever. I am never getting out.  I have been here forever, I am never getting out, Celine Dion is never, ever going to stop singing. I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. It is dim in there, the ceiling the same midnight blue with the sparkly motif. I put the lid down and sit. How strange to be in a casino toilet, absorbing this information. The weight of detail in my uncle’s recollections is so crushing I can hardly breathe, but in the midst of my exhaustion I feel some measure of relief. Tony has corroborated  that aspect of my mother’s story I always found it hardest to believe: not that there was abuse, but that there was in, spite of it, such tenderness. I flex my cramped writing hand and go back to my uncle.

Brockes’s mother managed to have her father prosecuted, after he assaulted a younger daughter, but the case collapsed when her stepmother retracted earlier statements. This defeat seems to have determined her mother to decamp to a new life in London — a violent and desperate uprooting for a young woman who had friends and a good job. Eventually, she married and had a daughter, the author, and was the only one of the children to die married to her first husband (or married at all, for that matter). She did not, in fact, leave “the gun” to her daughter.

Of everything she brought over with her it was the item she most wanted me to have. “This will be yours one day,” she said, long before those kinds of conversations were necessary. In the end, however, the price of a gesture can be too high to bear. In 1990, a gun amnesty was declared in Britain, and my mother decided that, after all, it might get me into trouble. Reluctantly, she laid it in a box like a dead pet and drove it to the police station. By the time she got back she’d cheered up. The female desk sergeant had squealed when she opened the box and called out to her fellow officers from the back room. It was the only contribution to the amnesty they’d had.

“They were completely intrigued,” said my mother, beaming. “I suppose I don’t look the type.”

That would be the type to drive your drunken father out of the house with five wildly mis-aimed shots from a pistol.

Long Weekend:
Obnoxious Weather
Memorial Day 2013

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

This is the year of Obnoxious Weather, 2013. I shall pass over the protracted winter, and the sketchy, belated spring. It’s bad enough to be hot to the bone, as I still am after three days of clammy, warm humidity, during a retour à l’hiver, on which temperatures plunged to a positive chill. And, I’d planned a picnic. Our first dinner party on the balcony. Phut to that! Rain and atmospheric miserableness pushed us indoors.

The picnic was a second choice. I’d wanted, originally, do an Italian menu, some pasta followed by a roast. But Kathleen said, “tomorrow will be hot: don’t do pasta.” So: picnic. The day turned out to be so not hot that I considered changing the menu altogether, even after getting the picnic underway. The marinating grilled chicken and the potato salad — well, the wonderful thing about a picnic menu is that nothing is very expensive. But I couldn’t decide on the pasta course that a revised approach would require. I considered a risotto, even. (The roast was always going to be an already not very ambitious tenderloin.) But I stuck with what I’d started, and, in the event, we had a very pleasant dinner. I preserved the most important element of a picnic: we ate on the love seats, not at the table.

My arc of errands, as announced — was it yesterday — I reversed, heading east to west, from the barber to Crawford Doyle to the Museum and then home, via a second visit to Fairway. I’d known that the European Painting (I call them “Old Master” and don’t know why the Museum doesn’t) galleries had been under some sort of reconsideration, because on my last visit, just a few weeks ago, I had to walk a narrow path through them to get to the American Wing. I’d had no idea of a total overhaul until this morning’s Times. That’s not quite correct, though: last night, at the one spring cocktail party to which I’ve been invited this year, I’d been chatting to a very nice lady who “teaches art history to inner-city kids.” When I told her about picking my way through cordoned-off galleries, she as good as told me what I read in this morning’s paper.

I had planned, as announced, to take a farewell view of three or four paintings in the Impressionist show — two Tissots, one Degas, and the Caillebotte a print of which I’d had in my dorm room sophomore year. After I’d done that (and written down the names of the gents in Tissot’s group portrait of the Cercle de la Rue Royale, shamefully absent from the show’s catalogue), I walked through the new German/Netherlandish galleries, which occupied what I used to call “the Old Master Exhibition space.” So many wonderful shows there — Van Gogh’s drawings, “Americans in Paris.” But the age of big shows from abroad is setting, if not over. I will say without reservation that the new arrangement is an improvement. But it is a great change, and it will take a few visits to grasp. Happy challenge! I certainly didn’t envy the crowds of visitors — the place was beyond packed — who didn’t know how things used to be.

***

Central Park on Memorial Day weekend! And yet we had a very good time. The Park was certainly very beautiful; this is the time of year when it looks its welcoming best. Aside from a few contests of will about the forbidden climbing of rocks, it was a very smooth visit, especially considering that we didn’t really know where the Carousel is. Kathleen thought that it was close to Fifth Avenue, but although I knew that this was not the case I had no clear idea of the actual path. In the end, I consulted my phone, something I never do. Moments later, we looked down the Mall and espied the fellow who was generating gigantic bubbles with a witches’ brew of soapsuds, two poles, and two bits of string. Will was as enchanted as can be imagined. Shortly after that, we found the Carousel, where Will was treated to two rides, the first on a horse, the second in a (non-moving) sleigh — his idea. I climbed aboard for the latter junket, which Will spent staring at the designs on the pillar at the hub.

We had been to the zoo just before. For the first time — Kathleen and I. I don’t think that we had been to the Central Park Zoo since its complete overhaul a decade or so ago. We remembered when there was an elephant, and the monkey house stank to high heaven. It is all very different now, just like the Cloisters — although perhaps it is easier for most people to see the change at the zoo. We are looking forward to the Cloisters party early next month; we’ve reserved seats on the bus. This month’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin is devoted to “the making of the Cloisters,” and I pore over the photographs with inexplicable fascination. At that cocktail party last week, I killed people with my crack about being depressed to learn that the Cloisters is not ten years older than I am, not quite. “It’s May, and I’m January.” Even though the Cloisters was built to look old, very old, it is disconcerting to be so not-much-younger than a monument that everyone takes for granted. It will get worse if I go on continuing to age: pretty soon, I’ll be moaning that the Empire State Building is a lot less than twenty years older than I am. Egregious showing-off, of course, is what it really is.

As we were taxiing home from the Park, Kathleen was inspired to tell Will about Ye Olde Days on 86th Street, when barrels of beer were rolled down the hill from the Ruppert Brewery (on Third Avenue, a few blocks north) to the East River, where they were loaded onto barges. “Why?” Will asked. The question was pro forma, so we were surprised that he took the answer so seriously. “Because there were no cars or trucks in those days,” said Kathleen. Will was genuinely shocked. He has evidently crossed the imaginative threshold beyond which it is really possible to believe that things were not always as they are. He is familiar with pictures of himself as a baby, and of Kathleen and me as obviously much younger people. But — no cars!

All I could think of was: And there were no iPads until you were three months old, either. Just wait! But I said nothing.

***

Later, there was a Simplicitas moment. That’s a reference to Unfaithfully Yours, perhaps my favorite Preston Sturges comedy. I’m not going to explain what “Simplicitas” means; if you see the movie, as you ought to do, you’ll know the folly of my believing, before the Simplicitas moment, that I could go to an electronics store and buy a flat-screen LED monitor and a VCR/DVD recorder and hook everything up, no problem. The Simplicitas moment was not fun.

But I got the thing to work. Don’t ask me how — that’s the frightening part.

It all began yesterday afternoon whilst watching Kipper. One disc of programs had come to an end and it was time to insert another. I pressed the wrong button. It was not really the wrong button, but just the wrong button at the time, because, at the time, the component whose button I pressed by mistake, through which signals passed from the DVD player that I actually use to the NEC vacuum-tube television that we bought sometime prior to 1990 and have been enjoying until recently — this intermediate machine, it went toast. It’s I/O button made noises like that of a cockroach in rigor mortis. A pale light caused the meaningless word “Auto” to flash in the display. As to the NEC, its picture had begun to deteriorate. There were all sorts of rolling effects that I don’t know how to describe any better. Although they did not make watching movies unpleasant — and that is all that this piece of consumer electronics was ever called upon to do; never was it attached to cable — they suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, we had got our money’s worth out of the thing. And then some.

There’s a wonderful line in the Fawlty Towers episode, “The Builders,” where Sybil says that “it will probably all come crashing down by lunchtime,” or somesuch. That’s how I feel about the new equipment. I shall probably have to figure, all over again, how I managed to get the flat screen to “read” the input from the DVD/VCR combo. I haven’t had the nerve to find out how the setup deals with videotapes, but I did discover that the new arrangement imitates the old in defaulting to the separate all-region DVD player whenever there is no disc in the combo tray.

On an ordinary day from the past six months, setting up a new screen/player outfit would have been a good day’s work, but today it was but an interlude in a scarily productive program. In the morning, I went through the kitchen like an Old Testament angel, casting bagsful of old food into the Hades of the garbage chute. When I had done, there was a lot of empty space in the refrigerator, more than ever before ever. I would open the door from time to time just to check: still empty. Empty-ish, anyway. Then, after a nice lunch at Demarchelier (the key to the day, I suppose) and our shopping expedition at PC Richard, and the hooking up of our catch, I tidied the bedroom and the living room. I forgot to mention!: I saw to the blue room right after breakfast; that was how I got started. At a few minutes past eight in the evening, I put the cleaning gear away, changed into fresh clothes, and sat on the balcony for a while, luxuriating in the lights coming on. Somebody in a garden-level apartment was giving a party, and although I could hardly make out the revelers, and they didn’t seem to be very numerous, the delicious racket that they put out made me intensely nostalgic. I suppose that all parties sound the same, but there is something about the sudden, surprised sound of a woman’s beautiful laugh that strikes me as stamped in Manhattan. Even when you can see that everyone is in T shirts and camisoles, everyone also sounds very grown up, and pretty much like the far more buttoned-down adults of my childhood. Fun, in this part of the world, is probably a constant.

Hearing the people down in the garden having a good time — their voices soared up to my balcony, but you couldn’t have heard them standing on the street outside their building — I didn’t wish that I was one of them, but I was hugely happy for them, and I hoped that they all had the exact wonderful time that they’d had in mind when they set out for the evening, even though I know that this can’t have happened to more than two people at most. And then I realized that I was having that good time.

Gotham Diary:
To the Mast
23 May 2013

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

The problem with tying myself to the mast in order to get something done — in today’s case, what I can only call a major tune-up of the blue room, which is bordering on the bordel — is that I have to do the tying myself, which means that I can untie myself, something that I am very inclined to do now that I’ve read Chris Barsanti’s review of George Packer’s new book, TheUnwinding. I have a sudden craving to consume Packer’s criticism of perfectionists Alice Waters and Oprah Winfrey, which promises to be delicious.

But being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism, positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all of her viewers began to live their best life. They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house…they were not always attuned to their divine self; they were never all that they could be. And since there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.

Wouldn’t it be nice — much nicer than reshelving books — to tootle over to Crawford Doyle to pick up a copy of the book, and then to pay a final visit to the Impressionists show at the Museum? Yes, it would. But I’ll wait until tomorrow, and I’ll begin at the Museum and work my way eastwards, from the bookstore to the barber to Agata & Valentina, where I’ll buy the fixings for dinner. (Weather permitting, there will be six of us eating al fresco tomorrow night.)

Last night, after dinner, it was much cooler on the balcony than it was indoors — the rooms still held the day’s mugginess — and I sat in my sleepies running through Wikipedia entries about the Wittelsbachs of the 17th-century Palatinate. It was delightful. I wasn’t reading, exactly, but just boning up on dates and connections. I learned (and will not forget) that the lady who has entered history simply as “Madame” (Liselotte, duchesse d’Orléans) was the great-granddaughter of James I of England and the great-grandmother of Marie-Antoinette of France. I ought to have known it long ago. Que voulez-vous? There were no tablets to enable nocturnal study in the open air.

***

George Packer’s chilly assessment of Oprah Winfrey  — I hope he doesn’t forget Martha Stewart — surprised me because I hadn’t seen Winfrey as an agent of the “personal responsibility” movement, but of course she is one. (In fact, I have never seen Oprah, or at least not her show.) The great lie about personal responsibility is that everyone has the freedom to be responsible. Most people do not. They are constrained by material shortages and indifferent educations, as well as by the lack of exceptional vigor and intelligence that enables highly unusual people like Winfrey to make the most, the very most, of any stray good luck. The lie is that everyone, working hard enough at it, could be Oprah. The personal responsibility movement is a campaign to absolve fortunate people from guilt for failing to take responsibility for the unfortunate — by denying the existence of fortune. (“Fortune” is made to mean nothing more than amassed wealth.)

The campaign is not entirely an expression of selfishness. There is a growing exasperation with government, which earlier generations had hoped to make capable of rationalizing charity by distributing goods and services evenly and equably. That hope suited simpler times, when there were far fewer goods and services, and a more austere, almost puritan notion of necessity prevailed. During the Depression, nobody was thought to need a radio, for example, in order to survive in the world. How did the bare necessities of life proliferate so quickly and so profusely after World War II? How did health care become so manifold and so complicated? We seem to have gone through a second industrial revolution, only without the industry. We might perhaps think of it as the personal revolution: within the past sixty years, expectations regarding personal consumption and well-being, as a matter of norm if not quite of right, have mushroomed, and we have yet to conceive of a program of public welfare capable of meeting them.

Hence: personal responsibility. It’s up to you, bub, to get your own flat-screen TV. Which doesn’t sound so bad, taken out of context. But the context is one of draining jobs and shuttered horizons. Hence Oprah Winfrey, who does not have the honesty to declare, as faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman so campily used to do, that she believes in miracles.

Gotham Diary:
Toys
22 May 2013

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Last night, Kathleen and I had dinner on the balcony for the first time this year — for the first time since regaining possession. The day had been warm and unpleasantly muggy, but the evening breeze was a delight. We enjoyed every minute. The food didn’t matter, although I’d put a bit of effort into chopping a few mushrooms and green onions, cooking them for a minute, and then stirring them into a bowl of steamed arborio rice — that came out well. Interesting but probably not to be repeated: chicken legs marinated for several days in Jack Daniel’s steak sauce, and then baked in a hot oven. This was a frugal offering, in that it cleared the freezer of the chicken legs and the condiment tray of the steak sauce. Kathleen asked for ice cream for dessert.

Earlier in the day, Ray Soleil and I got together for lunch, after which we walked up to Feldman’s Housewares in Carnegie Hill. All I really needed was an extension cord, but of course there were a few other things that I found I had to have, and I left with two very large shopping bags. As if my weakness for housewares weren’t bad enough, there’s Feldman’s counter of death to contend with. While waiting for your purchases to be totted up and wrapped and bagged, a lovingly leisurely process, you have all the time in the world to play with the novelty toys on display by the register. Talk about guilty pleasures! This is where I discovered the Yodeling Pickle, which, as I saw immediately, would fascinate Will inordinately. (It’s not even a nuisance to listen to anymore.) On offer yesterday was something called the Spiro-Light. An unprepossessing handheld object, the Spiro-Light recreates something of the thrill of nighttime at an amusement park when you press the button. Two soft-bladed fans whir into action. One of each fan’s blades spotted with diodes that spark on and off at staggered intervals, creating bright blinking circles of primary colors. After dinner, I showed the Spiro-Light to Kathleen, and she was so thrilled that she spent a long time trying to hunt one down on the Internet — in vain!

That’s the interesting part. This morning, I tracked down the outfit that sells the toy, Play Visions. If you visit the firm’s home page, and wait for the panel in the center to cycle through a series of promotions, you’ll see one for “Light Up Tops From Play Visions.” This suggests, without actually illustrating, a toy like the Spiro-Light. To find out more, you have to be a retailer. (Or expose yourself to Feldman’s counter of death.) Many of Play Vision’s toys are featured on the Web site, but not the Spiro-Light — not yet. It makes sense that retailers would be attracted by almost anything that isn’t available online, and a novelty impulse item that nobody has ever seen before because even the picture is not online is going to promise some old-fashioned business. (Remember when things “flew off the shelves” and “out of the stores”? No?)

I could try to take a picture myself, but that would violate all the principles of novelty impulse buying.

***

In the street, Ray asked, “Do you think the city is being taken over by black SUVs?” I replied that I didn’t think that any other kind of vehicle was still being made. At that very instant, a sleek, smallish Rolls Royce glided by. You don’t see Rolls Royces in Yorkville every day, not even every year. It seems contrary to nature, somehow. Why on earth would the driver of such an automobile — and this one, we could see, wore a cap — take 86th Street to go anywhere? Especially with the subway station construction. So much bustle and commotion and ordinariness. I thought to myself, Thank God I do not own a car. I think that every day, just as Orthodox Jewish men are said to Thank God for their XY chromosome. Then, remembering something I’d read recently about the moral opprobrium visited on the scientists who developed the atomic bomb (because they put such terrible powers in the hands of benighted mankind), I thought, what about the automobile? The automobile has done untold orders of magnitude more damage to humanity than the bomb, and the damage goes on piling up, day after day.

Albert Hirschman says something on point here. As a way of apologizing for “the danger that the dynamics I celebrated could be overdone, to the point of setting up a highly inefficient industrial structure,” Hirschman writes,

Is it not unreasonable to ask the inventor of the internal combustion engine to come up immediately with a design for pollution control and air bags?

There are people who would insist that it is not unreasonable to make such demands, and there always will be, and although (happily) they are never effective, it would be better if they saved their breath. They are the same people who expect scientists warning about climate change to develop immediate solutions. Some people, I believe, are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the fact that things develop over time, that circumstances change in unforeseen ways. Their violent alarms make it harder for patient meliorists to exercise steady vigilance. They must reduce everything to simple terms and bold initiatives.

The atomic bomb was so obviously awful (in every sense of that term) that it was immediately surrounded by sanctions (many of them paranoid, but we must hope effective). The automobile was just the opposite. Early cars were toys for grownups — rich grownups. Then, along came Henry Ford. Was he the Oppenheimer of the auto? Or was it Eisenhower, who endorsed a massive national highway project to enable defensive maneuvers that have become increasingly difficult to imagine? I can never decide whether the automobile ruined American civilization or made it. But I can rephrase the puzzle: the automobile seriously damaged the possibilities of civilization in America.

Who could have foretold this?

Gotham Diary:
Relevance
21 May 2013

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Whilst tidying the bedroom yesterday afternoon (pursuant to the current household schedule), I watched two of the St Trinian’s movies, British Lion comedies based on cartoons by Ronald Searle that were produced between 1954 and 1960. I had never seen either. First, Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957). I chose it with a purpose; I wanted to see Sabrina (née Norma Ann Sykes), the pneumatic blonde whose 41-inch chest was insured for £125,000. How did I come to be thinking about her, you may ask. I never heard of her until last week, when I read about her in the “Good Times Girls” chapter of An English Affair.

In the film Blue Murder at St Trinian’s … she was given star billing after Alistair Sim, above Terry-Thomas, Joyce Grenfell, and Terry Scott, but played a swot who stayed in bed with a book, and never spoke.

The last part of the sentence is accurate enough. Sabrina reads a book in a manner that points up her mammary endowments. Lavish waves of blonde tumble about her face, like curtains meant to distract from an undistinguished view: Sabrina looks neither pretty nor intelligent, but sour. I question Richard Davenport-Hines’s account of the movie’s credits, because surely “Terry Scott” was meant to be “George Cole” (like Grenfell, a constant in all four St Trinian’s films), and both Sim and Sabrina are given special billing at the end of the bill, not at the top. (Sim speaks, but his scene is even shorter than Sabrina’s.) But I’m grateful for the prod. I happened to have the St Trinian’s DVDs on hand — buying all four was the only way to acquire The Belles of St Trinian’s, the riot in which Alistair Sim plays both a Queen-Maryish headmistress and her con-artist brother — but I’d never got round to viewing the others. I’m enjoying postwar British comedy these days; the other night, I saw Whiskey Galore (1949), with Basil Radford and Joan Greenwood, and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945; Wendy Hiller) and Fallen Idol (1948; Ralph Richardson) are in the queue pile.

Blue Murder at St Trinian’s involves a diamond thief and a trip to Rome on two rickety buses operated by Terry-Thomas, but the plot is just an armature for the series’s tropes. First, the notion of a girls’ school so out of hand that the army has to be called in to police it — a school, moreover, with two classes of students, the youthful fourth formers who brandish squash rackets and scream incessantly when they’re not plotting mayhem, and the curvaceous sixth formers who wear scanty gym slips and carry on like kittenish Mayfair escorts. Second, and rather funnier, the despair of authorities from the Ministry of Education whose efforts to impose order and decency at St Trinian’s are eternally unavailing, and the plight of poor Ruby Gates (Grenfell), whose nuptials with the cold-footed Superintendant Sammy (Lloyd Lamble) can’t take place until the St Trinian’s “problem” is solved. In both Blue Murder and the final film of the series, The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s, Sammy deputizes Ruby to infiltrate the goings-on at the school, abandoning her to the clutches of dodgy lovers (Terry-Thomas, Cecil Parker) with whom she flirts and faints like a spinster whose idea of what follows marriage are wilfully cloudy. Grenfell, if you’re in the mood, is the funniest thing about these movies.

***

My French prof taught me a phrase that has sunk into the Anglophone part of my brain: de fil en aiguille. Robert’s Dictionary says that the phrase means “gradually,” but my prof used it to explain the course of a conversation, which moves from one thing to another along forgettable but coherent connections. It is the opposite, in short, of “one damned thing after another.” It is my guiding principle these days, as I hope has been palpable, if not obvious, here. It has become the principle according to which I determine the relevance of things.

“Relevance” has never been a word I’ve been fond of. It was used a great deal during my undergraduate days. I was familiar, of course, with “irrelevant,” having grown up watching Perry Mason just like everybody else. But “relevance” did not figure in everyday life until, rather suddenly, it was found to be wanting in the books that we were supposed to read for our Great Books seminar. Although no one mentioned the word “theory,” it was the dawn of a wretched period in higher education, which reversed the purpose of teaching by declaring objectives at the outset and then, rather tautologically, reading through to them. A by-product of the then-fashionable cocktail of Maoism and pseudo-physics, this totalitarian approach had no truck with uncertain outcomes or unanticipated discoveries. Even if you did bother to read Aristotle (never very agreeable on the best of the days), you failed to find anything in his texts that still had any application to life, except in terms of the broadest generality. Aristotle’s role in the history of ideas was not relevant, because history itself was not relevant. (History and science proceed according to incompatible principles.) Without knowing it, I sensed that I was living through a mild sort of Cultural Revolution. I don’t believe that higher education ever recovered. A sinking ship during the theory years, it has now dropped to the bottom of the sea: say “college,” and what comes to mind is sport, student centers, and binge drinking. But it all began with course evaluations, which transformed undergraduates from students into consumers.

“Relevance,” in American society during the past fifty years, has been a deadly corrosive, breaking down the connections between things by demanding too much clarity of them. A few weeks ago, George Packer surveyed recent books about the parlous state of the nation’s human economy, and he ended it with a powerful warning.

But Occupy turned out to be a moment of its time — a cri de coeur, stylish, media-distracted, and (to invert one of Agee’s best-known senteces) not so hardly wounded as eeasily killed. There’s no shortcut back to the thirties. Without an idea of the future that’s genuinely shared by large numbers of people — a real and lasting solution to the conditions described in these books — an arrest on Wall Street becomes one more story from an age of individuals.

Because, qua individuals, no one is really all that relevant to anyone else. (Interestingly, David Brooks uses his column today to regret the recession of community-oriented language in recent decades. This is the conservatism of Charles Murray’s latest book, but it amounts to the same complaint that Packer makes.)

At this stage of my life, I am following connections, in my library mostly (of books and movies), and keeping a written record of them here. It doesn’t matter where I began, and I’ll never reach an end. But I believe that the data base of connections that I’m compiling will show some larger ideas, and reveal a mental reality to me that is more comprehensive than anything that can be grasped in the moment. Connections are none the less important for being slight and accidental. (We begin by assuming that we don’t know enough about what’s important and why.) I can pass through these connections relatively quickly because I’ve been intellectually inhabiting an increasingly inclusive model of West Civilization for more than forty years. Something like my search needs to be conducted in what, a moment ago, I surprised myself by calling human economics: the connections between persons, goods, and property. (I believe that this is what Packer is calling for.) Otherwise, what are we all doing here?

Gotham Diary:
Principone
20 May 2013

Monday, May 20th, 2013

It just now occurs to me to ask why, for all of my life, I have been interested in monarchical dynasties and aristocratic families — in those born to rule, in those not so born who did, nevertheless, come to rule when death cleared the way; in whom was related to whom. The allure of hereditary grandeur was a draw, but it never would have held me, because so few individuals ever do live up to it. What fascinates me, literally, is the conundrum of being born to lead a certain kind of life. This is a distinctly unAmerican prospect, but a very attractive one to me, for daydreams anyway, because I have never been able to dream up a life for myself. I have simply made the best of whatever came along. I do not admire “self-made men” — they’re usually not — and, as Grace Kelly complains in Rear Window, I do (secretly) believe that people ought to be born, live, and die on the same spot. (Easy for me to say; I was born in Manhattan.) I’m aware that I cherish these luxurious possibilities precisely because that’s all that they are, in today’s world; I should chafe as irritably as anyone if obliged to pursue an unchosen career or to live in a dismal climate. But today’s world, in which everyone is tossed out of the airplane one by one without regard for the reliability of the parachutes, is, in contrast, flatly inhumane.

Kathleen does not exactly disapprove of my reading books about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but she doesn’t want to hear about them. The duchess will always be that woman to my wife. Kathleen will never feel the need to specify just what it was that that woman did to earn her opprobrium, although the sin of marrying for comfort and security will always have something to do with it; and if it is pointed out that the Windsors’ comfort and convenience were arguable, then — so much the worse! Worse to marry for flashy comfort and illusory security. The duke may have been a nitwit, but the duchess was a wicked adventuress. Dixit uxor.

Although she enjoyed my reading aloud from Lady Caroline Blackwood’s The Last of the Duchess — a book in which the duchess never appears — Kathleen was not keen when I burst out, over the weekend, with snippets from Hugo Vickers’s account of the same story, the ghoulish entrapment of Wallis Windsor by her attorney, Suzanne Blum. And when I got to the second half of Behind Closed Doors, and found myself nodding sympathetically with Vickers’s assessment of the duchess as “something of a victim,” Kathleen snapped, “Exactly why?” I fumbled a reply that was perhaps foredoomed to be unpersuasive. By that time, however, my interest had shifted to the elephant in the room, which has never attained the focus that it deserves: the abdication itself.

At the time, in late 1936, the abdication was regarded by all right-thinking people as a horror, a monstrosity, and it seems more clear every time I read about it that nobody really believed that it would happen until the last minute — except the King himself. But it did happen, and the ex-king went away, and his replacement turned out to be not only acceptable but preferable. Thus began the era of having cake and eating it, too. With the accent on “Cake,” Deborah Devonshire’s nickname for the late Queen Mother. She and her husband and her daughters made up a dream royal family and were duly loved by the populace — but the abdication remained an abomination to which the only conceivable response was chercher la femme. That woman would never be received at court. Nor would the family take any interest in her plight after the duke’s death. Several friends of the duchess approached Buckingham Palace with their doubts about the care that the duchess was receiving behind the lawyer’s closed doors, but they were rebuffed. It was her own fault. Diana Mosley was indignant about the hypocrisy.

Well, if Cake hated her spell as Q I’ll eat my hat & coat, & then how about all the Christianity & what about widows, the dying & forgiveness of sins & loving one’s enemy etc.

What is clear to me is that nobody was thinking much about the abdication anymore, not as such. The abdication was a simply a large blank token crime that legitimated (in her own view) the Queen Mother’s hatred of the duchess. Asked about this, Elizabeth claimed that she didn’t hate Wallis, because to hate someone you have to know her. That’s something worse than hatred: cold contempt.

Nobody — getting back to the abdication — expected Edward VIII to forsake his throne for the woman who, it seemed clear to one and all, did not love him, and even the King didn’t know what it would mean if he did. Does this want of foresight remind you of anyone else, class? Did someone say “Lear”? I found myself wondering yesterday why nobody ever mentions Lear in connection with Edward, because I could see, especially in Vickers’s taut telling, how naive the King was about how he and his wife would be treated by his successor. The Duke of Windsor was shocked, shocked that his wife was not to be styled “Her Royal Highness.” You may think this a small matter, but you’d be wrong to do so, if for no other reason than the duke never let it go, and went on to his dying day bemoaning the insult. Seeing to it that the understandably expected title was withheld was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s way of keeping the family feud alive. I am inclined to think that, had she died before the duke, her daughter would have put an end to it.

Pretty soon, Her Majesty will be ninety years old; she was ten when her uncle made her father King. Perspectives have shifted. It is clearer now that David Edward Christian &c not only didn’t want to be king but wasn’t thrilled to be Prince of Wales, either. There is evidence that he was looking for the right time to propose abdication in advance, but George V, who just might have countenanced such an outcome, was in poor health long before Wallis Simpson came on the scene, and the right time for such a discussion naturally never materialized. (The Prince might easily have taken himself out of the running by converting to Roman Catholicism, no matter how insincerely. It’s easy to see, however, that Mrs Simpson’s CV made this implausible.) Had the prince been a stronger, more decisive, more self-aware man, the abdication crisis might have been obviated altogether.

This, in any case, is where the the interest lies. Wallis, with her marriages and divorces and her uncanny hold over the uncrowned king, is a red herring. Did she dream of being queen (not much)? Might she have been queen (not without an exodus among the Dominions)? How about a morganatic marriage (a proposal made too late in the day)? These questions, having been chewed over with relish for the best part of a century, ought to be swallowed once and for all; they’re not, and never were, the issue.

***

In Archibald Colqhoun’s translation of The Leopard, the Prince’s “contadina,” Mariannina, in “a moment of particular pleasure,” exclaims “My Prince!” I wondered what Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa had her say, in Il Gattopardo. “Mio principe!“? “Principe mio!“? Neither. “Principone!“, which means “big prince.” Which the Prince in every way is, not least in that way. Some things simply can’t be translated, which is why you have to have two copies of all the classics.

As long as I’ve got the book open, I might as well copy out the most famous line, which, figuring in Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction, put me in mind to re-read the novel.

Se vogliamo che tutto rimango come è, bisogna che tutto cambi.

In order for everything to stay the same, everything must change.

Gotham Diary:
Epochal
17 May 2013

Friday, May 17th, 2013

What with all the re-reading that I’ve been doing lately, it has been some time since I’ve experienced the vernacular suspense of not knowing what’s going to happen next, but that’s exactly the state to which An English Affair has reduced me. The Profumo scandal, and the ensuing trial of chatty osteopath Stephen Ward, comprised a lot of moving parts (among which Profumo himself was not terribly important), and it was all vastly more complicated than the story  that registered with me when I was a teenager, about an English call girl with two diplomatic clients from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. Richard Davenport-Hines demonstrates that it is more a story of rapaciously opportunistic British journalism. And also a story about Anglophone homophobia. Everybody in the Profumo/Ward mess was straight, but prurient curiosity about other people’s sex lives seems to have sprung from a massive anxiety about distinguishing the real men from the fruits. (It was imagined at the time that such discrimination is not only desirable but possible.) This anxiety paralleled a related worry about apparent patriots who might really be Communists.

In any case, I’ve just gotten past the trial of Johnny Edgecombe, a West Indian who knifed a rival for the affections of Christine Keeler. What this has to do with Jack Profumo and Viscount Astor and the narrow Labour victory in 1964 might not be immediately evident, but it’s already plain to see that the impending brouhaha would not originate, as did the recent Marshall and Vassall spy cases, in criminal investigations but on Fleet Street.

The dust jacket of the Harper Press edition features a slim Foreign Office type, complete with bowler, striding away from an Underground station. He looks an awful lot like actor Mark Strong to me. (And nothing at all like Profumo.)

***

Well, I was one hundred percent wrong about what was so “plain to see.” The impending brouhaha did begin, specifically, with a criminal investigation, and a very corrupt one at that, instigated by the Home Office with a view to judicially lynching poor, louche Stephen Ward in a show trial. The witch hunt was ill-conceived, because the bullet aimed at Ward went right through him and struck the Macmillan Government, and he Conservative Party as well, right in the heart.

Davenport-Hines ends, as I feared he might, with an attempt to brand the Profumo/Ward “spree” as a turning point in British history.

Traditional notions of deference had been weakening for years, but after June 1963 they became mortally sick. Authority — however disinterested, well-qualified, and experienced — was increasingly met with suspicion rather than trust. Respect and deference, even when merited, were increasingly seen as a species of snobbery. Notoriety became a money-spinner: it became profitable to behave destructively. If Keeler had been born thirty-five years later, she would have starred on Celebrity Big Brother and consulted her publicist every time her footballer boyfriend knocked her about.

Surely the death of polite deference is, or was, as the intellectuals say, overdetermined. The ease with which Profumo and Ward slipped into catastrophe is an indication of how unstable the moral climate was, how rickety the traditional arguments had become. And how tired much of the world was with Establishment ways — especially the young and the youthful. If I were more a scholar than I am, I might take the trouble to apply the cycle worked out by Albert Hirschman in Shifting Involvements: after a decade of concentrating on private improvements (pursued all the more zealously in the wake of the war and and postwar austerity), the British sought refreshment in public affairs. They did not take up activism themselves, but they supported a newly-lurid  style of tabloid journalism that manned the barricades on their behalf. The stories of Profumo (whose dalliance with Christine Keeler began and ended in 1961) and Stephen Ward just happened to be the stories to hand in the summer of 1963. It might have been anything. On this side of the Atlantic, it was the length of the Beatles’s hair that got people going. (Activism at its simplest: stop going to the barber!)

I hope that I’ll be forgiven for not taking the trouble to summarize what the “spree” was all about; it’s still not entirely clear to me how the fates of the minister and the osteopath became entwined — they appear to have met only a few times. They were linked by a pretty but otherwise unprepossessing young woman who wasn’t a prostitute exactly but who was too impatient for a career in modeling, much less actual work. She was a protégée of Ward’s, through whom she met Profumo. Perhaps I’ve said enough right there: how prudent is it for a medical practitioner to have protégées, especially pretty ones in their teens? But then Ward was also involved with MI5, apparently in an attempt to persuade a Russian naval attaché to defect. Ward was, altogether, excessively linked — linked, but not “connected.” When he was on trial (for pimping, mostly), not one of his substantial patients would testify on his behalf — to do so would have been to risk running afoul of what was obviously a show trial. Lord Astor, who had given Ward the use of a Thames-side cottage on the Cliveden estate, was so broken by the adverse publicity that the link to Ward brought upon him that he died a few years later. (Ward himself died, several days later, of poison taken on the eve of the verdict; Profumo rehabilitated himself with volunteer work in London’s East End.)

Profumo was notorious because he lied about Keeler in the House of Commons (and not because he might have been feeding her state secrets), but what kept the case on the boil was Stephen Ward’s dodginess. He seems to have been a good-natured man who made a lot of poor decisions. He certainly didn’t know when to shut up. It’s odd that he never resettled to a jurisdiction that would recognize his medical training. (He would have done very well in Hollywood.) Ward was always bound to be detested by respectable Englishmen.

An English Affair has a cast of thousands, and Richard Davenport-Hines shines particularly well as a quick portraitist. The organization of the book is also very effective. The first part, “The Cast,” features eight chapters on the characters, their associates, and their backgrounds. The second part, “Drama,” consists of three longer chapters cleverly titled “Acting Up,” “Show Trials,” and “Safety Curtain.” Having brought the reader up to speed on the gossip, high and low, the author is free to activate a breathtaking cascade of dominoes. An English Affair is a brilliant (if partisan) tightrope walk between serious history and great fun. I hope that somebody brings it out over here.

Gotham Diary:
Getting There
16 May 2013

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

What a difference a floor makes — especially outside.

I’ve already decided that one of the pieces in storage, a metal rocker, is not going to return to the balcony. It’s not in great shape, and not worth refurbishing because the balcony is not really big enough for a rocker, at least a rocker with me in it. But there are two nice chairs and a simple wooden bench, all of which will find places between the wicker chair in the foreground and the table in the background. It will be a while before everything is in place, but with the “bricks” reinstalled, the balcony is officially done. When the cushion for the bench arrives, we’ll have everything that’s really needed.

***

Days like yesterday reduce my brain to frothy pulp, and although there seemed much more to write about than I had energy to comprise last night, I can’t, today, imagine what I was thinking about. All I’m thinking about now is the juicy book that I’m reading, Richard Davenport-Hines’s An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. Did you know that John Profumo was an Italian baron — or would have been, had the Kingdom of Italy survived the War? I remember wondering how any high-class Englishman could have an Italian name, and of course a lot of high-class Englishman at the time wondered the same thing. Did you know that Profumo’s wife was the actress Valerie Hobson, who plays Edith d’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets? Nor did I know that the Profumos had a house in Chester Terrace, which I made a point of photographing when in London last year. I wanted pictures of its arches, one of which is the subject of a Pennell print that’s a jewel of our small collection of good things to look at, and there you have it: only connect. The reason why English society interests me so much more than anything American is that it’s small and relatively unicentric. There is no escaping it. The same names keeping popping up in different contexts — and in the wrong beds. A high water table of ressentiment feeds springs of sparklingly acerbic prose. Consider the following character assassination of Harrow in the Twenties (Cecil Norwood was headmaster at the time).

Norwood’s Harrow installed a smoothly-mannered duplicity. It taught boys to show outward to deference to people for whom they felt little respect. It rewarded them for giving a pleasant smile while conforming to rules that they inwardly scorned. It assured them that compliance to higher authority was the essence of English racial superiority.

That feels vaguely libelous, and also pregnant with ancient anti-Harrovian animus. I’d been thinking of reading the new biography of Nancy Astor, but after this I’m pretty sure that I won’t:

Nancy Astor, when young, was generous, bold, and funny, with quick-witted shrewdness and inexhaustible energy; but after turning fifty her sudden amusing parries turned to rash outbursts, and she became a domineering, obstinate and often hurtful spitfire.

(“If I were your husband, madam, I would drink that coffee,” Churchill is said to have replied to Nancy’s hypothetically poisoned cup.)

But it’s great fun to fill in the occasional blank.

[Bill Astor's postwar] bride, Sarah Norton, was recovering from the recent death of a much-loved mother and from a broken engagement to Dorothy Macmillan’s nephew, Billy Hartington, who had married someone else and been killed in action in quick succession.

That “someone else” was Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the eventual president’s sister. Harold Macmillan, we’re told, found the novels of Anthony Powell “witty but pointless.” He read them as “training for Proust.”

Every now and then, Davenport-Hines makes a sententious remark about the Profumo Affair as a key moment in the collapse of Establishment England. I am disinclined to take such statements seriously. English manners seem to be inclined toward brittleness; when they shatter, as they inevitably do, wails on the death of England resound. But the English classes — at least, as they’ve been configured since the Industrial Revolution created new fortunes — persist, without the appearance of fragility. As long as the public schools continue to operate, England will go on being England. The temper of the time may vary, now earnest, now fun, but until the climate becomes something other than green and pleasant (where “pleasant” means “wet”), the worlds of Jane Austen and Edward St Aubyn will be recognizably the same, united not least by a keenly felt language.

Gotham Diary:
Quelle Journée
15 May 2013

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Yes, what a day. The nub of the tale is that the mover never showed up. There we sat, with all the “porch furniture” in the scene shown above, as the quarter hours ticked by with no news. The man with a van had to report that the crew that was supposed to take care of us had had an accident — a big accident — on the West Side Highway. But the real dereliction was that he (our man) dropped out of contact for a long time, leaving us sitting in an ever more chilly loading dock with a lot of stuff that couldn’t be transported by ordinary means, not knowing what to expect or do next.

In the end, Kathleen came through with two cars. The cars brought the boxes of plastic bricks (eight in all), plus Ray Soleil and me, back to Yorkville. The bench and the chairs had to be tucked back into the storage unit for another time. The bricks were the big deal, though, and Ray spent the entire afternoon, and then some, laying them out on the floor of the balcony. They transformed the balcony from small into cozy. When Ray took a bit of a break, I got down on my knees and added a pathetically small border to his work: my knees are not what they were when I laid down the bricks ten or so years ago. I was very glad that, when the balcony had to be cleared last fall so that the railings could be replaced, I’d held onto the flooring: even moreso after Ray — who couldn’t stop talking about the beauty of the bricks that were breaking his back and abrading his hands — told me that they’re no longer available. (Hence no link.) I’d saved the bricks because they cost about $700. Little did I know that they’d become priceless.

There is much else to report, but I haven’t the energy. One bright thing that happened was the arrival of a package of books from Amazon.co.uk (Amazuke). I’ll say at the outset that I believe that the problem is American customs, but the fact is that I haven’t received a package from Amazuke since last summer. A November order simply disappeared, and various amounts were credited to my charge card. Today’s package turned out not to be my latest order, but one that was supposed to have arrived in the middle of March. In frustration, I’d ordered one of the books — about the Profumo Affair — a second time. That package was supposed to get here a week ago Monday. When it finally does, as I begin to hope that it will, I shall give the second Profumo book to Fossil Darling. Fossil Darling and I actually remember the Profumo Affair. In any case, it’s fantastic to be back in simpatico with Amazuke.

A domani.

Gotham Diary:
Rest over Motion
14 May 2013

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

After days of reading and writing and more reading — with an interval devoted to Will — I’m taking up the active life for a moment. I have never been one for the active life, and now I find it exhausting, tedious, and painfully distracting. But it seems that the balcony is about to be put into some kind of finished state, with the durable plastic bricks on the floor and the other items that we held onto after clearing the balcony last fall. At the moment, a man with a van has been engaged for tomorrow morning, to transport the stuff from the new storage unit to the apartment. Ray Soleil and I will take a taxi uptown to meet him there. I deeply hope that this will be the last time that I’m engaged in one of these hustles.

Last night, I ordered a few more things to replace things that we didn’t save — after Kathleen found them all online and sent me links. A doormat, a reading lamp, a console, and a side table. The pillows for Kathleen’s Lutyens bench arrived yesterday, and they were all in the wrong color, so I had to make a call to change the color of the cushion to match. Happily, that could be arranged. I ought to have caught the mistake when the order confirmation arrived, but I didn’t review it closely. The wrong color is navy, which is quite smart but not very festive. We need to find cushions for the chairs coming down from new storage. I have to make a run over to Eli’s, because they sell fancy Italian seeds for flowers and herbs, and I like to have a pot or two of parsley on hand.

Within a month, I hope, the balcony will be restored as a real fourth room.

I’m also off to the old storage unit today. I’ll be taking the laptop, the MiFi card, and a barcode scanner, in hopes of creating a list of the books that I’m going to donate to HousingWorks. If I can scan the books in the storage unit, I won’t have to lug them home first, but will be able to box them up nicely for pickup. Whether or not the experiment is a success, I won’t be at the storage unit for very long, because I’ll want my lunch, which will be very late, as I’ll have been to the dentist, for a very quick appointment, at two.

Oh, to be done with it all.

***

On Sunday, I dug out Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments, a book that I’ve been meaning to read ever since it came out a dozen years ago. Rothschild’s book explores the metamorphosis of The Wealth of Nations from “a very violent attack…upon the entire commercial system of Great Britain” — that’s what Adam Smith himself called it — into the founding text of the cult of 24/7 markets in everything. In other words, from a book that was regarded as somewhat seditious in the 1790s, immediately after Smith’s death, into an establishment bible. (The largish question lurking behind Rothschild’s book is of course Smiths: will I actually read The Wealth of Nations, all of it, as I was supposed to do in college? I’ve still got the Modern Library Giant here somewhere.) While searching for Rothschild, I found two other books that I’d been thinking of. One was Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I thought I might have lost, and the other was The Opposing Self, Lionel Trilling’s 1955 collection of essays. The last essay in The Opposing Self is “Mansfield Park,” and you’ve got to read it if you want to say anything sharp about Austen’s novel, because everybody else has.

I read the essay and must read it again; it’s dense, but it’s also dated. “[I]n our dreams of our right true selves we live in the country.” Is that still true? I don’t think so, nor do I feel the disgust with life that Trilling pins on the modern condition, although I certainly remember the vogue for it. One passage sailed right over the novel and struck me in the heart.

There is scarcely one of our modern pieties that [Mansfield Park] does not offend. … Most troubling of all is its preference for rest over motion. To deal with the world by condemning it, by withdrawing from it and shutting it out, by making oneself and one’s mode and principles of life the very center of existence and to live the round of one’s days in the stasis and peace thus contrived — this, in an earlier age, was one of the recognized strategies of life, but to us it seems not merely impracticable but almost wicked.

Indeed! I have never meant to shut out the world, but I certainly do believe in making the “mode and principles of life the very center of existence,” and I have often felt that this must be accounted for and excused. It is certainly “un-American.” For me, house and home are that very center, and their upkeep is the salient moral action, because it is aimed at contriving the stasis and peace in which the inevitable complexity of life is contemplated and understood. Housekeeping is only superficially a matter of cleanliness; quite literally it is the economy of possessions thought needful for life. There is always too much, and there is never enough. Because this order of housekeeping is so unfashionable, I have had to teach myself its elements. Unfashionable, as I say — but it is also new, since it is only within living memory that people who spend their days doing what I do have been obliged to see to themselves as servants did in earlier times. (Seeing to myself comprises seeing to Kathleen as well.) How to be your own servant without treating yourself as a slave is a skill that, in my experience, very few people possess.

***

Since I have been only once to the new storage unit uptown, and because the monthly rental is charged to my credit card and not, as the (much larger) downtown storage rental is, presented in a bill — and also because I visit the downtown storage unit not infrequently — the new unit assumed an air of unreality. I had to examine the credit card bill to make sure that the rent was actually being paid, and then I had to find the keys. The keys were, amazingly, exactly where they ought to have been.

Why two storage units? The idea is to empty the old one into the new one, getting rid of a good many things in the process. Books, for example. A few sticks of furniture that we needn’t hold onto. The uptown unit has, rather gloriously, a large window, so it will make a much better adjunct library than the dim downtown unit does. I hope to be fully installed uptown, and out of the downtown unit altogether, by the end of the year. That will be virtuous economy indeed.

Gotham Diary:
Contraptions
13 May 2013

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Too soon, it is the middle of May.

In the current issue of the London Review of Books, James Meek writes about the banking crisis in Cyprus, and how it has damaged quite ordinary people, aside from the Russian jillionaires that you read about. His closing paragraph is enormously powerful and its very wide scope encompasses far more than a half-Greek, half-Turk island.

In the 2000s, in the conference rooms of New York, Frankfurt and Moscow, Cyprus seemed like a small island with many issues. The UN worried about reunification of the two communities. The European Central Bank looked at the quarter-by-quarter economic numbers. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia investigated money laundering. Big Russian companies liked the country’s tax regime. None of them saw the bigger picture. The ethnic-sectarian narrative, the Yugoslavian conflict narrative and the Cyprus economy narrative were never seen holistically for what they were – three facets of a single issue, that of a tightly knit Greek Orthodox community, bound together by a sense of mutual vulnerability and a weak fourth estate into grudging acceptance of rule by oligarchic political-business families, which became skilled at playing big foreign institutions, state and commercial, off against each other for short-term gain. The karmic aspect of Cyprus’s fate may please some outside the island, but nothing has really changed in terms of Europe’s institutional inability to see a problem in the round. The continent cannot afford to be run by so many moralists who are ignorant of finance, and so many financiers who are ignorant of morals.

Nor can the world. And yet that is our very predicament. Economists stoutly reject any role for morality in their dismal science. Humanitarians can’t be bothered with costs and benefits. Opportunists exploit the absence of comprehensive oversight. The “institutional inability to see a problem in the round” is not a specifically European problem; the United States is no less afflicted. Here, you might even argue, there are checks and balances designed to preclude access to the whole picture. Congressional Republicans are not alone in refusing to enter into discussions on terms other than their own. Now that we have all learned that control of the discourse determines the outcome, we have become choreographers of dances that few care to join.

Over the weekend, I finished one book by Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction, and read another, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. The books are highly discrete case studies that, while they sound certain notes in common, bear no structural resemblance in their dealings with the history of ideas. That’s to say that they don’t form two parts of a larger whole. Shifting Involvements: Private Interests and Public Action, which I read earlier last week, is equally nonpareil. But I begin to have a sense of “what Hirschman is about.” In a nutshell, I believe, he wrote to encourage the reincorporation of economics within the humanities. His method was to undermine the “physics envy” that so many economists suffer by demonstrating that political economy, like everything else, changes over time. The world did not begin with John Stuart Mill’s 1836 definition of political economy as the science of man considered “solely as a being who desires to possess wealth,” but if it did, we’ve been living in the world for less than two centuries, and can hardly be said to understand it very well — especially when we bear in mind that for the better part of one of those centuries, from 1917 until 1989, the meaning of Mill’s claim was contested by world powers armed, ultimately, with weapons of mass destruction. Our experience of self-conscious economy is brief and inconclusive. We don’t know what we’re doing.

Much of Hirschman’s thought attacks the conservative (or reactionary) appropriation and inversion of that fact: since we don’t know what we’re doing, we’d better not do anything; this is the best of all possible worlds, and it’s going to the dogs. But he acknowledges that liberals can be equally pig-headed. At the end of Rhetoric of Reaction, in fact, he demonstrates the liberal habits of argument that correspond simplistically to those of the reactionaries.The Marxian insistence on the inevitability of social amelioration mirrors, for example, the reactionary conviction fundamental change is impossible: each party believes that the other’s policy is futile. What’s deadly about this configuration, however, is that neither will attend to the other.

There remains then a long and difficult road to be traveled from the traditional internecine, intransigent discourse to a more “democracy-friendly” kind of dialogue. For those wishing to undertake this expedition there should be value in knowing about a few danger signals, such as arguments that are in effect contraptions specifically designed to make dialogue and deliberation impossible. I have here attempted to supply a systematic and historically informed account of these arguments on one side of the traditional divide between “progressives” and “conservatives” — and have then added, much more briefly, a similar account for the other side. As compared to my original aim of exposing the simplicities of reactionary rhetoric alone, I end up with a more even-handed contribution — one that could ultimately serve a more ambitious purpose.

If he does say so himself. In fact, Hirschman’s writing is suffused with a gently ironic modesty that, together with the fractured nature of his output, explains the limits of his fame. In the books that I have read, he never states the belief that I have imputed to him, about folding economics back into the humanities. (He does rather roguishly insist upon calling himself a “social scientist,” a term that gnashes the teeth of economists.) He proposes no laws or theories that can be easily grasped out of context; his arguments must be read. (Unlike Adam Smith’s, they are brief.) The titles of his books, rendered unalterable by his death last year, betray the knottiness of his attention. To find out more about what he thought, we shall have to read Jeremy Adelman’s biography, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O Hirschman. But what’s really necessary is for every educated citizen of every nation in which citizenship means anything ought to read The Rhetoric of Reaction. And every serious economist ought to learn the history behind Mill’s reductionism, which Hirschman lays out brilliantly in The Passions and the Interests. As James Meek says, we need moral bankers and numerate moralists.

Gotham Diary:
Dizzy
10 May 2013

Friday, May 10th, 2013

Dizzy is what I am today. Dizzy and a bit stung. What I wrote here yesterday surprised me, to say the least, and when I woke up this morning it burned on my mind. Not only what I wrote, but also what occurred to me consequence, yesterday afternoon and last night. Further inventory, literally.

As if that weren’t enough, the Hirschman books arrived. These are the four titles by Albert O Hirschman that Cass Sunstein named at the start of his review of Jeremy Adelman’s new biography of Hirschman:

Hirschman is principally known for four remarkable books. The most influential, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), explores two ways to respond to unjust, exasperating, or inefficient organizations and relationships. You can leave (“exit”) or you can complain (“voice”). If you are loyal, you will not exit, and you may or may not speak out. The Passions and the Interests (1977) uncovers a long-lost argument for capitalism in general and commercial interactions in particular. The argument is that trade softens social passions and enmities, ensuring that people see one another not as members of competing tribes, but as potential trading partners. Shifting Involvements (1982) investigates the dramatically different attractions of political engagement and private life, and shows how the disappointments of one can lead to heightened interest in the other. For example, the protest movements of the 1960s were inspired, at least in part, by widespread disappointment with the experience of wealth-seeking and consumption, emphasized in the 1950s.

Finally, The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991) is a study of the reactionary’s tool kit, identifying the standard objections to any and all proposals for reform. The objections are “perversity” (the reform will make the problem even worse), “futility” (the reform will do nothing to solve the problem), and “jeopardy” (the reform will endanger some hard-won social gain). Hirschman shows that these objections are stupefying, mechanical, hyperbolic, and often wrong.

I had a look at Exit, Voice and Loyalty, and found it a bit steep — plentiful references to the assumptions of neoclassical economics. The Rhetoric of Reaction proved to be vastly more congenial. Hirschman identifies three standard arguments, or theses, against progressive policies. The first, “perversity,” argues that the proposed policy will have not just unintended consequences but the very opposite consequences to those intended. The second argument, “futility” adds insult to injury, because according to this line of thinking the unintended consequence will be no consequence. (Hirschman traces “futility” back to Sicilian pessimism.) The third thesis, “jeopardy,” holds that the proposed policy will endanger some hard-won and precious benefit of the status quo. I sped through “perversity” and “futility” in no time, thrilled, really, to have so many thoughts of my own organized by Hirschman’s powerful overview. (Shifting Involvements had the same impact.) “Jeopardy” is somewhat more complicated; Hirschman’s discussion begins with Isaiah Berlin’s famous 1958 bifurcation of liberty (freedom from and freedom to) and the recognition that some conception of liberty will almost always be put at risk by any proposed reform. (Reading about the distaste for government regulation that flourishes in Texas even in the wake of the West Fertilizer disaster, I found distinguishing between the “futility” and “jeopardy” roots of the prejudice a very close call, and decided for “jeopardy” by a hair. Either way, the Times story captured the reasons for my discomfort at sharing a polity with Texans.)

As I’m reading The Rhetoric of Reaction, I’m testing a surmise that I glanced at yesterday, over Hirschman’s shoulder as it were. Perversity, futility, and jeopardy are all standard measures in the historian’s toolkit. Looking back, the historian invariably assesses the success of historical acts in one or more of these three terms. In his classic history of the French Revolution, for example, William Doyle fastens on the secularization of the Church as the Revolution’s singularly perverse policy, because it not only sparked counterrevolution in earnest but strengthened — revived, actually — the Church itself. Such judgments are what distinguish historians from annalists, the people who simply write down what happened without much thought for the consequences. I don’t mean to suggest that historians are reactionaries, but it might be said that reactionaries are fools for trying to be historians in advance.

Oh, and another thing about yesterday. I signed up at Feedly.

Dizzy.

Gotham Diary:
In the End
9 May 2013

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

The other night, as I was talking with Kathleen at bedtime (preventing her from finishing Armadale), I said that I really must write down the first line of my book, which had occurred to me earlier in the day, perhaps at the hospital during the infusion. “This is a story that has to begin at the end.” I knew that it was the opening line the moment it came to me, but I couldn’t have told you why. Well, I might have stammered something. And, if I manage to be artful, some of that stammering will be refined into coherent introductory material. I will try to take my time about getting to the opening close, which has in fact not yet quite crystallized. By then, I think that I’ll have done a good job of expressing what’s truly odd about me — and what has made it so difficult to get going on this project, which is not a memoir.

A memoir almost always entails a journey, in time and through character development. There are notable experiences and lessons learned. As I’ve sifted through the remains of my life, I’ve seen little evidence of journeys and epiphanies. I rather feel that I haven’t moved at all, not an inch, since my days in the playpen. I have remained immobile, in, admittedly, a generally rich environment, and simply ingested whatever in the passing stream seemed suitable, with the result of simply becoming more myself. At the same time, until rather late in life I was also covered in passing debris. But that was encrusted, not ingested, and, as I became more myself, less of it stuck. There was always only one possible result for me, and it wasn’t even a result, because I began as the result. All that changed was my understanding. That developed, yes. But the history of its development is not interesting; it’s a homework assignment that I’m happy to leave undone.

To a degree not only unmanly but somewhat subhuman, I sat still and waited for the right things to come along. And they did. Two very right things came along. Kathleen first, and then the Internet. Of course, once they came along, I knew at once what they meant to me and I held them tightly. I worked hard for both, stripping away much of the false crust — which was, of course, nothing but the remainder of my half-hearted attempts to fit in and be like everyone else. Through Kathleen and, in a way that is subordinate to Kathleen, the Internet I have found my place in society, as a human among humans — and it was where I was sitting all along.

I can well understand that some readers might find this to be a horror story, and that is why I am not going to write about myself directly. Instead, I am going to take inventory.

***

I had been meaning to re-read Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland for several weeks, certainly since re-reading The Great Gatsby, and I got round to starting in on it yesterday, after putting in a long day of paperwork. There was the preliminary problem of how to re-read it. I used to have two copies of the first edition, one of them signed by the author,  but the unsigned copy seems to have disappeared in the general slimming of the library, and the signed copy is too precious to manhandle. So I bought the Kindle edition, and  I’ve been highlighting passages and making notes therein. The most remarkable thing about Netherland, aside from the lambent beauty of the writing, as strong and supple as a great cat (and as frightening), is the virtuosity with which the narrative is interrupted, and at time buried, by flashes backward and forward in time. By “the narrative” I mean the story of Hans van den Broek’s summer — it is longer than that, but the Gatsby parallel beckons — with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian of South Asian background, in a New York City populated largely by immigrants. So far, I don’t think that there has been a twenty-page stretch of the narrative without interruption, and I’m nearly halfway through. These interruptions might be expected to challenge the fiction’s coherence, but they don’t; on the contrary, they enrich and intensify it. In this, Netherland could not be less like Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, which barrels along the timeline of Gatsby’s last months of life with only one or two modest asides in which Nick Carraway mentions his own affairs. Such asides flourish with tropical profusion in Netherland, which spends substantial time in the Netherlands, where the narrator grew up.

When I read Netherland the first time, I was sure that I didn’t get it, that there was something unspeakably cunning going on beneath its gleaming coat. Now I recognize this doubt as a kind of religious ecstasy. There are complexities in Netherland that I may never grasp, because I don’t really know much about cricket or Trinidad or, for the matter of that, Floyd Bennett Field that I didn’t learn here. I don’t bring enough to the novel. But I’m overwhelmed by it nevertheless.

Gotham Diary:
Previous Epidemics
8 May 2013

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

A day of spring rain, not at all unwelcome after days and days of clear, cool skies. A day for huddling indoors with the windows open. A day for paperwork, with perhaps an opera in the background — Die Meistersinger?

The other day, I came across the DVD of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It had been languishing in a file drawer along with other series (Aliens, The Belles of St Trinian’s et al, Lord of the Rings) which, in setting up the jewel-box-free DVD library, I apparently decided to file with miniseries. In any case, I hadn’t seen Raiders in ages, and it seemed just right for making dinner. So I put it on in the kitchen and watched it over two days. I proved indeed to be a diversion, and no more — a surprisingly vulgar diversion that I wasn’t quite sure about still enjoying.

It’s vulgar in having been made with no thought whatsoever of the second viewing, or the third, or the fourth. Or the umpteenth, which I’d reached long ago. (I can be certain of having seen it more than twenty-five times.) The starchy dialogue is close to self-satirizing, and every character is conceived in comic-book, which is to say racist, terms. There are moments of fantastic inconsequence, such as the fall into that unlikely abyss taken by a jeep that Indy forces off the road to Cairo. Raiders is a stupid lug of a movie, dependent wholly upon its thrilling set pieces and upon John Williams’s score, which is vulgar, too, but in a patriotic way. (Like a piece of popcorn stuck between my teeth, the opening phrase of the main theme torments me with a resemblance to “The Star-Spangled Banner” that I can’t pin down.) As a fan of Harrison Ford’s mature dramatic performances, I have to say that he’s surprisingly unimpressive as Indiana Jones — not that anyone else would be better, or that being better would be an advantage. Raiders is generally regarded, I believe, as the best of the Indiana Jones movies, but that may be simply because it is the least ambitious. What saves the movie for me — what keeps its severe discount of audience intelligence from making it too irritating to watch — is Karen Allen’s laugh.

(I’ve heard Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” routine; I wonder if he’s ever done a take-off of John Rhys-Davies baritonal pomposities as Sallah?)

***

As I was walking around yesterday, from one appointment to the next, my thoughts lodged on a remark made by Albert Hirschman in Shifting Involvements, something about the wave of chivalric grandiosity that inspired so many men to rush off to fight in World War I as bearing “some responsibility for the protracted and tragically murderous refusal of the generals on both sides to recognize the nonheroic realities of trench warfare.” (It took me a while to find this passage, because it appears early in the book, and I was slow to realize that I ought to be highlighting such unusually interesting statements.) I have always wondered about those generals, because they seem collectively to have suffered an inability to see the futility of their engagement. Hirschman, building on such diverse writers as Stefan Zweig and Paul Fussell, suggests a more than plausible explanation. Many Western Europeans were unhappy with the bourgeois peace into which their respective nations settled in the Nineteenth Century, and they were clearly bemused, if not troubled, by the apparent pointlessness of their armed might. Feudalism might be dead, but what of its highly romantic legacy of heroic allegiance? World War I made no sense, except that it’s what masses of ordinary people wanted in 1914. Every man could aspire to be Lohengrin.

In this reading, the war was brought on by forces that, although broadly popular, were not genuinely democratic. The war began more as an insurrection, but an insurrection aimed at toppling other sovereignties. The uprisings in any given country could mobilize state power because the populace had been given some sort of franchise to direct it (albeit a right to vote, not to surge into the streets). Governments were not, as in the past, regarded as oppositional — not at the outset. It was only at the end, when the war turned out to have accomplished nothing but massive death in disgusting trenches, that the people turned on their own leaders, and in kingdoms where the franchise was vague or limited. And then, at the Peace, Germany — pointedly not a party to the negotiations — was made out to be the villain of the piece, solely, it would seem, on the strength of its opening moves. The Peace was of a piece with the War, no less aimlessly chaotic in its maneuvers, and just as driven by “public opinion.”

I strongly believe that society — more exactly, the layers of social cohesion that mat the world — is subject to infectious diseases in the form of what it no longer seems quite the fashion to call “memes,” and I also believe that a working knowledge of previous epidemics — what professors call “history” — is our only defense against future outbreaks. As defenses go, history is far more comparable to rude quarantine than to engineered antibiotic; social medicine lags far behind the personal. But, as I say, it is all we have. We will solve the many problems that confront us, from climate change to unemployment, only as a society, ultimately as a society that includes everyone living. Far fetched? Yes. But it won’t happen otherwise.

Gotham Diary:
D & D
7 May 2013

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Iain Sinclair in the LRB, catching glimpses of a recent state funeral whilst tootling about the mouth of the Thames:

Rarely can such an Alice in Wonderland charivari of local stereotypes have been assembled, some of them (like Dave and Samantha Cameron) quite obviously having a good time, with smiles and quips and cute photo-op hand-holding. The front rows were a woodpeckerish blizzard of Judas kisses, blood enemies forced to prod stiff lips towards cold cheeks. Toothless foxes sniffing at dead chickens. They were all there: from the well-rehearsed formaldehyde rigidity of senior royalty to the public faces of smug and comfortably suited former cabinet colleagues, along to be sure she was really in the box. To broken bullies blinking back tears under an unruly thatch of eyebrow. To the shameless court of right-opinionated entertainers still at large. To ennobled perjurers, medal-snaffling athletes, arms dealers, coup plotters, financial bagmen, wounded veterans, and such morally compromised foreign dignitaries as could be persuaded to take a mini-break to springtime London.

Too bad the lot of them weren’t in the box. It will be a long time before the embarrassment of Thatcher’s funeral will be entirely forgotten. I should have counted on British self-restraint to prevent such an orgy of unmerited respect, but then the Iron Lady emerged from the American Zone — the suburbs — and raised up others of her type. In the suburbs, everyone comes from anywhere, and the past is of no interest or account unless it is scandalous. Itching with suburban ambition (the most hypocritical form of discontent), anyone with enough push can become the leader of something that involves overseeing the unimportant people who do not live in the suburbs. Lead the right thing, and you may get to oversee a war effort, and nowadays, with leaders of all types ensconced in a grand bubble in which other leaders are the only company, war is as entrepreneurial as advertising. It offers the opportunity to succeed in an exciting venture — however ignoble. And a woman, properly coiffed and gowned, will trail the scent of virtue and rectitude in a triumph of cosmetics that no bemedaled field marshal could hope to equal.

To bury Thatcher as a military hero was to celebrate an undeniably pathetic disgrace. One can only hope that Britain’s fight to retain possession of the Falklands was the dying gasp of native jingoism. Perhaps the misbegotten honors of a state funteral were a necessary distraction from the much larger horror of Thatcher’s anti-political régime.

***

Further thoughts about democracy and voting — if democracy is the least-bad political system, then voting for the least-bad candidate ought to be the objective, good enough to motivate every voter — are blunted by the prospect of an afternoon of dentistry and doctoring. Such fun. What shall I read during the Remicade infusion? I wish the new book about the Profumo affair had arrived; it’s due any day. Watch: it will arrive this afternoon. Just as the new bench for the balcony arrived yesterday, and completely without fuss. I’d been told, by an email from the seller, that I would be taking delivery of the crate “curbside,” and I was not looking forward to loitering near the service entrance waiting for “an eighteen-wheeler” to squeeze down along 87th Street. When I called to make arrangements with the freight dispatcher, I was told, in a lilting brogue, that the bench had already been delivered, and, sure enough, there it was, in the package room. Now, thanks to Ray Soleil’s flying visit, it’s in place on the balcony, awaiting only cushions and warmer weather to couch Kathleen’s weekend naps.

Gotham Diary:
Shifts
6 May 2013

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Where to begin? How about this, from Ian Rankin’s new John Rebus mystery?

“I did a bit of digging on the internet,” Clarke said. “You couldn’t really send a picture from one phone to another until 2005 or 2006.”

“Really?” Page’s brow furrowed. “As recently as that?”

There was a time when new technologies took some getting used to, and people remembered the pain and fuss of it all. Now, new developments are introduced as if on cue, or slightly in retard of that, so that everybody is ready for them, and presently no one can remember being without them. Well, so it goes in the world of phones and tablets — so it goes at the moment.

In Cooking, Michael Pollan plumps for his subject matter as the thing that distinguishes mankind from other animals. We cook. He cites evidence that we are who we are because we cook, that one or two million years of fiddling over fires shrank our teeth, shortened our gut and expanded our brain. (Other animals spend a lot more time eating less-digestible raw food, which eats up a lot more calories.) Our brain amounts to about 2.5% of our total weight, but it consumes 20% of available energy when we are resting. For the past twenty years or so, getting used to Internet-related technology has consumed the lion’s share of discretionary neuronal firing, wouldn’t you say? “As recently as that.”

On Saturday, I piled my journal on the dining table and organized them. In a Word document, I listed the title of each notebook and the dates of the first and last entries. There are eight Sketch books, twenty-three Journals, a second series of five Journals, and a handful of differently-titled volumes, a few of which take up the series of entries in the journals. The ninth Journal appears to be missing. As a whole, the notebooks run from 1967 to 1979. If I didn’t believe that I’ve long grown out of that closed feedback loop, I’d be too ashamed of what I read there to draw another breath. But it’s embarrassing nonetheless to realize that I spent the decade of my twenties dogpaddling in this sea of twaddle. I seem to have grasped that the only way out of it was to stop writing in journals, to stop writing to myself about myself.

I didn’t read very much, on Saturday, but every now and then the odd paragraph would catch my eye. Once the notebooks were stacked and piled neatly out of the way, I was left with a pathetic image: the writer of these entries is like a plane that endlessly taxis around an airfield without ever taking off. Sometimes, the plane is on this side of the field (“I’ve happy lately”) and, sometimes, on the other (“I’m so miserable”). But nothing beyond this alternation of moods ever happens. The explanations for both happiness and misery are often puzzling, not to say weird, but both relate to the persistence of solitude/loneliness. (I was rather shocked, in an old-fashioned, stuffed-shirt way, to find myself moaning about loneliness on the eve of my first marriage.) It is sentimental stuff, the writing in these notebooks, ungrounded, as I’ve said, in the larger world, and intensely, deliberately solipsistic. The entries can be read as a kind of amateur therapy, in which I sought to get to the bottom of what was wrong with me. If little progress was made, that’s because I quite obviously didn’t know which way was up.

That something was wrong with me was never in doubt. I’d started seeing psychotherapists in sixth grade! I can’t say that I got much out of my hours on the couch, but as philosopher Albert O Hirschman would point out, that might have been because I failed to do my part of the work. The problem for me was this: where did my unusualness cross the line into pathology? When I began blogging, at the age of fifty-six, it occurred to me that whatever the pathology might be, I’d learned to live with it, and it probably wasn’t going to kill me or wreck my life. Not long afterward, I read a book about the mothers of adopted babies (The Girls Who Went Away), and my old interest in what was wrong with me shifted into a curiosity about how, as an adopted baby, I came to be someone who felt that there was something wrong with him.

I am absolutely convinced that, had that, had I been forty years younger in 2004, I’d have become who I am thirty years sooner. Ditto, had I been able to read that book and, coincidentally, to start blogging, in 1974. I’m not talking about a might-have-been here. The might-have-been has actually happened. (If it hadn’t, those journals would still be heaped up in storage.) But my timing, or the world’s, might have been better.

***

Albert O Hirschman: better late than never. Hirschman, long a member of the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, died late last year. in his nineties. A new biography of Hirschman, by Jeremy Adelman, was reviewed in the current issue of the New York Review of Books by Cass Sunstein. I read the review when I had read almost everything else; I’m not interested in philosophers or economists. A pox on both! But, too lazy to find something else to read, I drifted into Sunstein’s opening paragraph and was soon sitting up.

Albert Hirschman, who died late last year, was one of the most interesting and unusual thinkers of the last century. An anti-utopian reformer with a keen eye for detail, Hirschman insisted on the complexity of social life and human nature. He opposed intransigence in all its forms. He believed that political and economic possibilities could be found in the most surprising places.

It was soon clear that Hirschman had given clear voice to a number of my own half-baked thoughts, and that he was a thinker with whom I ought to be better acquainted. Sunstein claimed that Hirschman is a readable writer, but I decided to hedge my investment by purchasing the one book of his so available, Shifting Involvements, in a Kindle edition. That way, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have a book to get rid of. And of course I could begin to read it right away, which I did. Readable? I couldn’t put it down. I read it straight through, most of it yesterday.

The italics in the following excerpt are the author’s.

The trouble with such studies [of consumer happiness] is that they are still too close to the original assumption of the economist that the consumer carries within himself a universe of wants of known intensity that he matches against prices. Both the economist and the happiness-researching sociologist think in terms of individual pursuing an array of fixed goals or operating in terms of a set of values known to them. Now this seems to me a mistaken view of the way men and women behave. The world I am trying to understand in this essay is one in which men think they want one thing and then upon getting it, find out to their dismay that they don’t want it nearly as much as they thought or don’t want it at all and that something else, of which they were hardly aware, is what they really want.

Something about Shifting Involvements made me take a kindlier (if not less critical) view of my attempt to understand existential solitude. What makes my notebooks boring to read is the entries’ dogged, implicit belief that sooner or later a “universe of wants” would be uncovered within me. I didn’t know that I was hewing to received wisdom! Not so unusual after all.

Gotham Diary:
Lucidities
3 May 2013

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

It may have been imprudent to spend yesterday afternoon on the balcony, reading. I wore a stout cardigan — but I was aware of needing one. I awoke this morning with a touch of sore throat. In view of the Remicade infusion that’s scheduled for Tuesday, I thought it best to stay home. Spending this afternoon on the balcony was not a temptation; although just as sparkling clear, it has been not nearly so balmy today. Instead of tootling down to the Angelika to see What Maisie Knew, which opened today, I finished re-reading the book instead, in the bedroom.

Kathleen saw the movie the other night and quite liked it. (She signed up for a course of previews, not one of which I’ve seen, having been no more willing to go to the movies than to do anything else out of the house.) I understand that the new adaptation, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose treatment of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Deep End I admire greatly, takes at least one major liberty with Henry James’s text, aside from relocating it in today’s New York: the figure of the poor old governess, Mrs Wix, has been eliminated. This must simplify the story greatly. I gather, too, that the actress who plays Maisie, Onata Aprile, is a remarkable six years old throughout; the novel’s Maisie grows up a bit. I shall try to see the movie next week, while the novel is clear in my mind.

Not that What Maisie Knew is as clear to me as I should like. I’ve read it twice before, once so early in life that I could make no more of it than Maisie herself, and once, much more recently but without the patience that James’s novels of this period require. This time, I found the novel somewhat protracted. From the moment that Sir Claude whisked Maisie off to Folkestone, and then to Boulogne, James seemed to me to be lingering, almost loitering, over Sir Claude’s genial lack of moral backbone— as, of course, perceived by Maisie herself. It was asking too much of a Twenty-First Century reader to be disturbed by the “irregularity” of Sir Claude’s relationship with Mrs Beale, and I preferred to suppose that Maisie turns her back on her stepfather simply because he can’t make up his mind to what he acknowledges to be the right thing. It was difficult to decide whether Mrs Wix was hysterical or monomaniac, but the excessiveness of her outbursts went a long way toward suggesting the reasons for James’s failure as a playwright.

My sense that the book went on for too long owed a great deal to the power of the exit interviews, so to speak, that Maisie has with her parents. Both scenes are very grand, and dramatic without histrionics. The first scene takes place in a beautifully appointed room — the nicest that Maisie has ever seen — belonging to a “deplorable” American woman. This person takes a while to follow Beale and Maisie from the shocking encounter of too  many closely-related personages at the Earl’s Court, and while they wait for her in the dim opulence Beale makes an appeal to Maisie that she has the sense to interpret as the negative of everything that her father actually says: the irony is formidable, and Beale Farange stands before us as both dangerous and pathetic at the same time. The second scene occurs in the hotel garden at Folkestone. Ida wants to say goodbye, too, but she wants to present herself to her daughter, finally, as good and beautifully loving. In this she is thwarted by Maisie’s enthusiastic and unprecedented attempt to demonstrate her own reasons for coddling the same image, in tghe course of which she mentions a nice man whom Ida would have preferred to forget. The awful mother’s false self-portrait is smashed to bits by her own abraded vanity. Neither parent can satisfy Maisie’s longing to express sincere filial esteem, especially if she can do so at a distance, and the utter failure of each to grasp the child’s sympathetic acuity completes the excitement. These scenes make What Maisie Knew well worth reading.

But James’s writing at the time was crabbed by his cleverness; he was not yet capable of presenting a puzzle as fluently and straightforwardly as he would do in The Golden Bowl. The contrast between Maisie’s simple consciousness and the florid notation of everything that passes before her eyes is often confounding, so that there are moments when it is difficult to make sense of the text without imputing James’s deep understanding to his little heroine. There is also a certain dandy decadence of style, as if James were trying to “do” Oscar Wilde, but in his own terms. What seems intended to look carefree is, at time, simply confusing. I cannot for the life of me satisfactorily parse the antecedent of “such lucidities” in the final paragraph of James’s New York Preface to the novel, or comprehend the sentence that follows:

The only thing to say of such lucidities is that, however one may have “discounted” in advance, and as once for all, their general radiance, one is disappointed if the hour for them, in the particular connection, doesn’t strike — they keep before us elements with which even the most sedate philosopher must always reckon.

Do the “lucidities” have to do with Maisie’s familiarity with the corruption around her, or with those critics who find such familiarity too disgusting for artistic purposes? The cadence suggests the latter, but I’m pretty sure that James means, somehow, the former. But it is rather like working out hieroglyphics. The novel itself is rarely so obscure, and it is also devoid of the clammy self-congratulation that deforms the Prefaces generally.

***

Before spreading out my books and accoutrements on the balcony yesterday, I fetched the remaining journals from the storage unit. Now I must organize them. Happily, I am far too ill today for such hard and unpleasant work. The foreseeable bad reaction that set in after I glanced at one of the volumes last week has not abated; my opinion of myself and of my abilities is awfully low. It’s little wonder that I’ve diverted my attention to the close reading of literary masterpieces. I’ve been reading Austen and Fitzgerald and James with all the sharp attentiveness that I dread having to devote to the fossil record of an old but insufficiently extinct self.