Archive for September, 2013

Gotham Diary:
Midrash
30 September 2013

Monday, September 30th, 2013

For much of last week, I was absorbed by a book that I spotted in the window at Crawford Doyle, But where is the lamb?: Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac, by James Goodman. I was captivated by the dust jacket, which reproduced the feel of the Torah and Talmud codices that were on view a few years ago at Sotheby’s. The title is framed by a border in which all nineteen verses of Genesis 22 are printed. This tells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac, which is interrupted at the last minute, so that a ram is sacrificed in substitution.

This story has gripped the religious conscience of the West, Jewish and Christian alike, believer and non-believer, ever since the beginning of the Common Era. More than that, if we include Jubilees, the non-canonical addition to the Hebrew Bible, written in the Second Century BCE. Jubilees is the earliest recorded commentary, aside from mention in Scripture itself, on the story; had Jubilees entered the canon, we would be calling it a revision rather than a commentary. The Bible, as Goodman reminds us, is full of revisions, with the revised versions following the originals, not erasing them. Thus: two accounts of Creation, two Floods, two sets of Ten Commandments. Chronicles on top of Samuel and Kings. But there is only one account of the Sacrifice of Isaac — Genesis 22 — and it is very spare. It is so underwritten, in fact, that the case can be made, and has been made, that the sacrifice was completed as planned, and that Isaac was slain and his body burned. For, Scripture tells us, the Temple in Jerusalem was built upon the ashes of Isaac at Moriah. So was the Second Temple. The death of Isaac at his father’s hands is a minority reading, but it’s livelier than you might think.

Goodman’s book is a relaxed but searching history of responses to Genesis 22. It is written in an agreeable voice, at least to these ears: Goodman sounds, above all, like an intelligent New Yorker. What bothers him about the story is that Abraham never protests God’s command. This seems wrong, and also out of character, for Abraham has a history of questioning God.

I was stunned. It was not at all what I had anticipated. I had no illusions about God, not after Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. (I have never been persuaded that the citizens of that apparently peaceful place, working together and getting along, had done anything wrong.) Nor confidence that I could predict his behavior or fathom what he was thinking. Still, I harbored a sneaking suspicion that it was not what God had anticipated either. But what could he do? He tried to make the best of a difficult situation, adjust on the fly, cut his losses and Abraham’s too. Look forward. Move on. Try not to let one bad day spoil the rewards of a good long life. Sometimes events take unexpected turns, even when you are thought to have everything under control.

And what could I do?

He could write this book, which in the course of its narrative explores the story of Abraham and Isaac from every which way, addressing its moral thorniness (how could God ask such thing?), its theological mystery (why does God feel the need to test Abraham? Doesn’t he know?), and the almost infinitely varied interpretations to which it has been subjected (early Christians in Syria composed chants in Sarah’s voice, even though Sarah is conspicuously absent from Genesis 22). It would be foolish to attempt to encapsulate here what is already in itself the smallest possible capsule that Goodman could design to contain the best of what has been written about this story. I have quoted a mere paragraph just to suggest the kind of company that Goodman’s reader can expect to keep, with a host who is genial but not sunny, inquisitive but not obsessive. A man whose sense of ignorance fans his enthusiasm for perpetual learning. Perhaps a quip from the end of the book will fix this picture.

A trade book editor, another fan, said he was fascinated by the subject and intrigued by my take on it, but he wondered if I was qualified to write the book. “You have no training or special experience in any relevant area,” he said. “You don’t even have the languages you would need.”

“It is worse than that,” I said to him (and forever afterward to anyone who would listen). “The real problem is not that I am not qualified. It is that I know how much I do not know.”

And yet: But where is the lamb? is a graduate thesis in the non-academic discipline of Lay Inquiry, and the reader has no choice but to grant Goodman this crowning degree among the educated pursuits.

It can be argued — bearing in mind that Goodman’s book offers proof that almost anything can be argued — that the central question underlying Isaac’s question, which is also the title of the book, pertains to qualifications. Who is A to do x? Who is God to demand the sacrifice of Isaac? Who is Abraham not to utter a word of protest? Who is Goodman to write this book? Sheherazade comes to mind: Goodman establishes his credentials simply by gripping the reader from episode to episode of articulate response. Few books have held the totality of my attention as well as this one, and, for two days after putting it down, I was gravely discontent with all other reading material on offer. Even though I am not a believer, and yet perhaps because, having been raised Roman Catholic, I was kept well ignorant of the Bible throughout childhood, I find that few things occupy my mind as fully, as comprehensively as Scripture. The Bible is the compleat book: it’s got everything. (The only thing that could improve it would be to substitute the work of Jane Austen for the Book of Esther. Since God appears in neither, I can’t think what would be lost.) It sustains a galaxy of criticism that no one could ever read entire; there is even a canon of Non-Scripture (the Apocrypha, books such as Jubilees, the items in the Nag Hammadi Library). And there is the State of Israel, embodying in our time the contention witnessed in Scripture.

There is much to deplore in Scripture. (Judges 19 is my personal favorite for horror.) But Scripture is too massive to quibble with. It reminds me, perhaps impiously, of that spacecraft in the first of the Star Trek movies, a Voyager vessel (it calls itself Veejer) that, in the course of its wanderings, has accumulated all the powers of the universe, and now returns homewards with the confused  determination to cleanse the Earth of “carbon units.” Such is the fright of looking into the eyes of God.

***

For centuries — no one knows for how many — Genesis 22 appears to have been an enigmatic or mysterious episode that readers accepted as such. Then, at about the time of Jubilees, they found that they could not; they must, as Abraham failed to do, protest. Why? My hunch is that the another sort of Veejer disturbed the Jewish world: Hellenism. Hellenism was the pop culture of the day, from the wake of Alexander until the onslaught of Islam nearly a thousand years later. Everyone wore a sort of everyday Hellenism, just as everyone wears jeans today. It doesn’t mean much, and yet — well, jeans are thought to be sexy. When I was a boy, you were not supposed to look sexy unless you were a woman going out to a party, and even then, “sexy” was not the word. So blue jeans changed a lot. The hellenic equivalent of blue jeans, as I see it, was the law against contradictions. A thing either is or it isn’t. Nothing can be both a sphere and a cube (ie, not a sphere).

Ever since, the law against contradictions has formed the foundation of educated common sense in the West. So much so that we have no idea how unusual it is, or how foreign to the rest of the world. We also forget how much trouble it has created in our own. Read Geza Vermes’s marvelous final book, Christian Beginnings, and watch the story of a Jewish holy man, not terribly unlike many before him, distend this way and that in response to the horror of contradictions. What, for example, was the meaning of the Resurrection? Assuming that it occurred, what were its implications? These had to be worked out without contradiction. How did it differ from the Ascension of Elijah? Who was Jesus? It was not sufficient to call him a holy man; he had to be something more than that. But what? Next thing you know, Christianity was working its way toward polytheism, in the form of a trinity that it insisted, not very convincingly to outsiders, upon worshiping a “triune” god. Does “trinity” signify three things, or one thing in three parts, and, if the latter, what exactly is a “part”? Your (correct!) decision or your life! Because what follows immediately from the law against contradictions is that you must be either right or wrong.

We have learned, I think, to restore a reverence for mystery, at least in areas of faith. (The Roman Catholic Church never abandoned it, but exploited it as the “explanation” of everything that was inexplicable.) We are learning to be comfortable with ignorance wherever being so is safe. We are beginning to learn. At the same time, we have to be careful about avoiding mystification, which is never anything more than intriguing nonsense. Such as the civilian’s right to bear arms, anytime, anywhere. (We avoid this nonsense at airports, it will be noted.) Or that nuclear power is too dangerous to utilize.

But where is the lamb? opens a small seam on the problem of contradiction: in rare but important cases, the body of contradictory explanations is itself the best answer. I’m going to be looking for Goodman’s book on thoughtful readers’ shelves.

Friday Movies:
Don Jon
27 September 2013

Friday, September 27th, 2013

One-sentence review: Don Jon instantiates the well-established truth that, in order to sustain meaningful contact with another human being in public, you must leave New Jersey and cross over into Manhattan, if only for the day.

Don Jon is too fresh to be manhandled by the likes of me, so I’ll just scatter a few notes. I expected something really good from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a young man whose quirky boyishness has never concealed a very sharp mind, but I wasn’t expecting anything as original as Don Jon. The trajectory of the plot stands in relation to Hollywood-normal as HAL does to IBM, and some early audiences may find it dissatisfying. But Gordon-Levitt knows what he’s doing, and Don Jon is a movie that everyone is going to learn to love, even at the cost of finding out that Scarlett Johansson’s adorably Streisandesque Barbara Sugarman isn’t — but stay, hush. Don Jon doesn’t go where it leads you to think it’s going to go, because it has even better ideas. And beneath the Jersey sprawl beats an elegant heart.

There ought to be an Academy Award for great casting. Glenne Headley and Tony Danza, demonstrating that they have been severely underrated by the Industry, bring you immediately into the bosom of their characters’ family and manage to persuade you that you might, under different circumstances, like  to be part of it. (Just as you knew you didn’t ever want to have dinner with the parents in Silver Linings Playbook.) Julianne Moore finds yet a another new way in which to be unsettling, but this time it’s the hero that she disturbs, not the audience. She goes from looking like someone who doesn’t belong in Jon’s world to being someone who will change it forever. It must be acknowledged that she has a lot of help from her costar.

It’s hard to say where Gordon-Levitt the screenwriter leaves off and Gordon-Levitt the actor picks up, but they collaborate so well that they seem to be one person, never moreso than when Jon is meant to be seen in unflattering light. There are some extraordinarily good running jokes. I will allude only to the one (one-and-a-half?) that involves confession and penance. The confession bit is slightly confused, as, in the movie, this sacrament seems to follow the sacrament that it is designed to precede. But perhaps this is part of the joke, an ostensible concession that the writer doesn’t really understand how these holy things work. (PS: He does.) Now. And in the hour. Of our death. I forget whether or not Jon throws in a groaned Amen; I lost count of the reps.

But there is also a sublimely funny scene, not involving jokes of any kind, that lingers as an afterburn. Washing his dishes and Windexing his mirrors, Joe Martello reminds us that good housekeeping is an important part of military life. Who would imagine that any woman in this day and age would regard his being conscientious about squeaky-clean kitchen floors as a turn-off?

Even more sublime — unless it’s incompetent, which I doubt — is the drama-in-reverse that connects Jon’s manner behind the wheel of his car (where we catch him, it seems, always on his way to Mass) and the reason that Esther lives alone in her house.

We can talk about this more fully later, when the movie comes out on DVD.

***

Gotham Diary:
On the Vanity of Ultimate Causes
26 September 2013

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

It is not often that I haul out the dictionary. If I am at all uncertain of a word’s meaning, I locate a definition on the Internet, simply because it makes better sense to do so from a descriptivist standpoint: that’s what my readers are likely to do if they’re uncertain. Sometimes, however, I need more than that, a real authority, with the significant extras that only a good dictionary can offer.

I clearly remember the first time I came across the word “overdetermined.” It was in the pages of Harold Bloom’s important if repetitious study, The American Religion. The word appeared quite often, but I couldn’t think what it meant. Although I read a lot of Freud in college and after, I had somehow missed this word; or, perhaps, I understood it in the clinical sense (in the interpretation of dreams) but only in that sense. What I probably missed was the appropriation of psychoanalytic lingo by academic critics that occurred, roughly, during my undergraduate years, but that I missed because I was entirely wrapped up with Great Books and had no interest in current fashions. So, “overdetermined” seemed as odd in the context of discussing religious sects as “metastatized” would have been a century ago. I decided that this use of “overdetermined” was jargon, and not worth using.

Until the other day, that is. The other day, I overheard someone say, “Ultimately, it all comes down to sex.” Sex drives everything, even (especially) when you think it doesn’t. We’re all familiar, by now, not only with this line of thinking but also with its tiresomeness. “Sex,” as Bill Clinton reminded us, means different things to different people. And no doubt because the ultimate prime mover in this instance was held to be sex, I reflected that the reproductive and excretory functions are, even in rather primitive animals, like two different trains making use of the same tracks. You would think that, if ultimately, it all came down to sex, we would all have very special organs reserved to the purpose. But we do not.

The impulse to find ultimate causes is “irresistible” but, happy, not really, and I believe that life becomes both more promising and more interesting when you stop trying to pin them down. True, it also becomes more complex, and sometimes dizzyingly multifaceted. But, from what I cam make out of neurobiology from my seat high up in the peanut gallery, searching for the neuron or even the region of the brain that controls this or that high-level function is likely to be fruitless. Thoughts and feelings are overdetermined, “caused” by so many mental functions that the notion “causation” itself dissolves into meaninglessness.

The physical world, or rather the world studied by the physical sciences, seemed for a long time to follow a tight set of rules in which identical causes always and everywhere produced identical effects, but particle theory has undermined that simplicity. Even so, the physical world remains vastly more comprehensible than the biological world, which had led to many cases of Physics Envy. Physics Envy is the attempt — not just the desire — to frame a highly contingent body of data in the straightforward, reciprocal propositions of Newtonian science. Take economics. Economics is the study of human transactions. How passionately academic economists have wished and pretended that the humans engaged in transactions behaved as simply and predictably as planets! But they don’t.

***

In these trying times of falls from fiscal cliffs, we naturally ponder the difference between liberals and conservatives. I don’t have anything terribly new to contribute to this analysis, but I think about it a lot, because I am so puzzled by myself. I ought to be a conservative. In many outward ways, I look like a conservative. I prefer old things to new ones; I’m reluctant to try out new schemes that bear traces of old ones that have never, as I can tell, been well understood. (Almost every proposal for educational reform is littered with scraps from the discard pile — excepting, of course, the altogether intelligent idea, now gaining force against the odds, that public school districts ought not to be in the business of funding and operating sports programs.) I’m a thoroughgoing elitist: we are always weighing things and finding some better than others, and the people with the best minds ought to be the people in charge of affairs. (Mind you, it is rare for a “best mind” to survive higher education undamaged.) I believe that we can all do better. We can make the world a better place.

But that’s just it! History clearly shows, I believe, that we are doing better. This is not to invoke the triumphalist chimeras of progress; we’re not doing that much better. But we have improved, as a race, since Ur of the Chaldees. War and pestilence are the great obstacles tothis improvement, but even there we have a knack for clutching small victories from the mouth of catastrophe. (The Black Death, horrible as it was, put an end to villeinage in much of England, which subsequently developed a standard of personal liberty that is now the global ideal.) We inch forward. Perhaps we are not moving fast enough; maybe we’ve done so much harm to earth’s biosphere that we’re already doomed. Maybe. Because I see no point in acting on such a belief, I don’t entertain it. We move slowly, but we move as fast as we can.

So I’m not a conservative, because I don’t share the core conservative credo, which holds that mankind is fallen and given inexorably to sin. People will be wicked and evil whenever they feel the need to be. There is no point to dreaming of improvements; we must make the best of what we have.

There’s a world of difference between making the best of what you have and making the world a better place. But it shrinks to the size of a quark in the presence of people who are simply itching for excitement.

Gotham Diary:
Que Faire?
25 September 2013

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

In the event of a sequester, or “government shutdown,” or other Tea-Party-induced shock, it will be very interesting to see what, if any, impact the crisis has on the wealth of the Washington metropolitan area. According to Richard Florida (writing in The Atlantic), the nation’s capital and its environs comprise the fourth-richest metropolitan region in the United States, it includes six of the ten most affluent counties in the country. Florida claims that “its economy is not entirely or even predominantly parasitic,” but he does not enlarge on this point. I wonder. To the extent that it is parasitic, how vulnerable will it prove to be to federal cutbacks? The underlying question is simple: what stake do the people in and around Washington have in the nation’s health?

Considering this question, along with the obscene inequality in income-distribution, I worry that American élites believe that they’re protected from adversity by wealth and privilege. This is what the aristocrats (especially the recently-ennobled ones with money) thought before 1789. I worry that any serious attempt to fix what ails the United States will bring forth not so much a process of reform as a maelstrom that nobody can control.

What is to be done?

Here’s something interesting that I had never heard about: Distributism. Garry Wills mentions it in passing in a review of the work of J F Powers in the current issue of the NYRB.

In England, neo-medievalism took the form of Distributism—G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc opposing both socialism (abolishing private property) and capitalism (concentrating private property), to promote the widest distribution of private property. One way to distribute property more widely, and to withdraw from modern industrialism, was to cultivate one’s own small farm. Distributists called people back to the land not only in England but even more effectively in America, where it showed up in the Rural Life Movement, and even in the Southern Agrarians. The repudiation of the machine age made one British Distributist, the Dominican Vincent McNabb, refuse to use any machine, even a typewriter. It was a compromise with modernity for him to write with a fountain pen instead of a quill.

I quote the entire paragraph just to get it out of the way: Distributism, as envisioned by Chesterton and Belloc, was little more than a disguised antiquarianism. We might just as well try to go back to Sturbridge Village. (And restore the Vatican hegemony of Innocent III while we’re at it.) But! The idea of a coherent economic program between socialism and capitalism is an enticing prospect indeed. It would necessarily feature an economic arrangement that discouraged (excessive, capitalistic) concentrations of wealth. It would also impose limits on rentes — unearned incomes.

At the risk of annoying everyone, I’ll repeat two convictions that I reached long ago.

  • Corporations must be stripped of their “natural personhood,” and rendered incapable of owning intellectual property of any kind. To put it another way, intellectual property ought to be licenseable but inalienable.
  • Densely-settled real property ought to be owned and developed by not-for-profit corporations. Established utilities and other mature businesses (even commercial banking) ought to operate as not-for-profit organizations. Entrepreneurship, with its risks and rewards, ought to be reserved for industrial innovation, not financialization.

Neither of these things is going to happen tomorrow. But each of them could be introduced on a small-scale, local basis. Without the need for tax engineering, they would all conduce to distribute wealth more evenly. I also believe that they would nurture a growth in the number of jobs overall and of satisfying jobs in particular.

Pie in the sky? All my program needs is a supermax enhancement of the human capacity for taking the long view. Simple!

Gotham Diary:
Morphine
24 September 2013

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

At long last, I have begun compiling a playlist of favorite pieces of music in all genres. I’ve been meaning to do it for years, but I was stymied by the consequences of a decision that I made when I first encountered iTunes: the serious music is on one computer, and everything else is on the laptop. So I’m concocting the list “bareback,” as it were, on the iPod itself, which means that, if the device crashes, I’ve got to reconstruct the list. (I’m keeping a printed list.)

The range is fairly wide, I think you’ll agree — from the “Domine Deus” in Bach’s B-Minor Mass to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” The idea is to include everything that I’m crazy about, but in such an order that each piece is precisely what the preceding one makes me want to hear next. Such a playlist would become dull pretty quickly if it were also not very long, very long. I intend to fill a 16G Nano with it. So far, there are only 63 songs on the list, with a runtime of four hours. That barely scratches the surface. I’ll be working on this project right up until lights-out.

As a matter of habit, I entitled the playlist, “Fun,” but as I was washing up after dinner last night I realized that the it really ought to be called “Morphine.”

“Morphine” is not intended to be a party tape. It may be a playlist that I alone can bear to listen to, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s what I’m going to play when I’m doing chores. Consider the first five selections: “Cachapaya,” a Peruvian ditty sung by the Swingle Singers; Morton Gould’s insane arrangement of “Limehouse Blues” — if you don’t know the tune, you won’t learn it from this chart; “La panse,” a silly Italian song performed by Karl Zéro (remember him?); Josef Strauss’s Delirien Waltz; and Sidney Bechet’s version of “Si tu vois ma mère,” the recording that Woody Allen used to open Midnight in Paris.

Right now, Christine Lavin’s “Prince Charles,” a naughty song that time has made even more incredibly, deliciously “inappropriate,” follows the Gould, but I’ve marked the printed list with instructions to move it out of the way; it’s too low-key, musically, for the sequence. I know: I’ll put it between “Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya Huh?” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

***

Kathleen bought a big book about Vogue, and we were leafing through it last night. I was reminded of her latest hairdo. Every week, Kathleen has her hair washed and dried at a salon that specializes in dealing with very long hair. (When it reaches her waist, she has hers trimmed.) Every week, Kathleen comes home with a different sort of knot at the back of her head, some of them pretty fantastical. After a day or so, she has to take them down, and, for the rest of the week, she makes simple buns out of a braid, which is fine. But last Saturday, Kathleen came home with a different face. The woman who arranges her hair had done something entirely new, weaving a french braid (if that’s what you call it) away from her temples, giving her the look of a woman in Nattier. It was extraordinarily attractive, and I urged her to have it done that way before public appearances and big meetings.

Have it done. I thought about ladies’ maids, and, looking at the pages from Vogue, I saw at once that that was what killed fashion: the end of ladies’ maids. Not only did a lady’s maid manage her mistress’s wardrobe, and actually get her into her clothes (which no one could do unaided), but she arranged the lady’s hair as well. To look fashionable requires either an assistant of some kind or a radically scaled-back idea of fashion. We live in a compromise world. Most women, of course, don’t have ladies’ maids, even very affluent women; but those models in Vogue — they don’t just have maids, they have staffs. Nobody appears in a magazine untouched by the hands of another — several others. Nor on television.

And I thought about the wickedness of advertising, which exploits this arrangement while concealing it. In the Times today, Patricia Cohen reviews the latest contribution to the having-it-all debate, a book by Barnard president Debora Spar called Wonder Woman. Cohen writes,

The theme she uses to tie it all together is the quest for perfection. Since the 1970s, women have been laboring under impossible expectations to run Fortune 500 companies, sell homemade brownies at bake sales, look like Victoria’s Secret models and be ever-ready bed mates. Want more, do more, be more. For the teenage Ms. Spar, this ideal was embodied in commercials for Charlie perfume, which promised that you could be a gorgeous woman with a briefcase and a young child. What seemed effortless on TV was in real life absolutely exhausting.

The awful truth is that most advertising is science fiction, set in an alternative universe that you will never visit. Nobody actually lives there, except perhaps for the trophy wives of a few dozen plutocrats — and, boy, are they ever tired of each others’ company! Even they can’t live there full-time, because even from the back seats of their luxurious black cars they are obliged to look out not upon the pine forests and cliffbound seascapes that appear in automobile ads but rather upon the same public roads that we all use. From time to time, their vehicles must wait at intersections. This never happens in the ads.

I don’t believe that anyone is too smart to be seduced by advertising. Only damaged minds are safe. Take your pick.

***

Something funny going around on Facebook:

Ladies, if a man says he will fix it, he will. There is no need to remind him every 6 months.

It’s a graphic, so it couldn’t be cut-and-pasted, and I had the devil of a time copying it. It’s so terse — which is what makes it funny-but-not-ha-ha for me. It does not say, “Ladies, if a man says that he will fix something, he will fix it. There is no need to remind him about it every six months.” Perhaps “terse” isn’t the word. “Incomplete” is better. “Understood” is the term that gets used in grammar books. Whatever. The language is part and parcel of the procrastination. It says, just as it states, the one and only thing that men of this type have to say: leave me alone. Which also means: stop talking.

What would it be like to have the verbal-acuity equivalents of “tall” and “fat” and so on. There are so many different ways of speaking the same language — especially English, it seems; but what would I know? — and a handful of classifiers would be handy. For example, I’ve always wondered why people who don’t like to talk much go to cocktail parties. Do they even know that they don’t like to talk? Wouldn’t it be helpful if they did? Then they could say, “I’m x, so I don’t go to cocktail parties.” Or they could do something about the x.

Gotham Diary:
Too Clever By Half
23 September 2013

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

As I was getting dressed for dinner last night, my eye fell on the spine of a book on the lowest shelf of a bookcase. It was a book that I’d read in the spring or early summer, but not found a more permanent place for. Gawd, it hit me. Looking up a few books, I saw, just beneath the one on top, Geza Vermes’s Christian Beginnings, a book that I had spent hours last week trying to find. In that very bookcase. It never occurred to me to check the bottom shelf, which I seem to have forgotten rearranging. After giving up on the search a week ago, I bought the book again, this time for the Kindle. But the moment of interest had passed. I had moved on in another direction altogether, although it was also one inspired by Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence. Not only have I been working my way through Black’s Reign of Elizabeth, but I’ve finally got past the first act of The Winter’s Tale, a play that hitherto rebuffed me.

I see why: The Winter’s Tale is too dramatic. Too dramatic to make a good read. It begins with an explosion of jealousy for which the reader has not been prepared. Theatre audiences, of course, require no such preparation: they’re always ready for a surprise, as long as it’s really exciting. And Leontes’ insane suspicions of his queen, Hermione, are really exciting, because they are insane. Or are they? Do they not spring from misgivings about the changing role of women in the world?

Like Shakespeare’s romantic heroines, Hermione (who isn’t quite one of them) is very clever. Her wit and dash endear her to us, not least because centuries of familiarity have taught us to love Shakespeare’s dry dames. But perhaps Hermione is too clever. When, at Leontes’ instance, she persuades his oldest friend in the world, another king, Polixenes of Bohemia, to tarry in Sicilia, which Leontes rules (just for good measure and bad geography, Hermione is the daughter of the Emperor of Russia), Leontes tells her that she has never spoken better — except once. When was that, Hermione wants to know, perhaps pushing the point a bit too far.

My last good deed was to entreat his stay.
What was my first? It has an elder sister,
Or I mistake you. O, would her name were Grace!

Leontes tells her that the other occasion was her acceptance of his marriage suit. Hermione purrs,

                     ’Tis grace indeed!
Why, lo you now, I have spoke to the purpose twice;
The one forever earned a royal husband,
Th’other for some while a friend.

And she walks off with Polixenes, holding hands. Leontes fills out her line:

                                       Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.

What Hermione has misguidedly mingled is her “purposed” speeches. She projects, however unwittingly, a parallelism: although her second “successful” remark earned “for some while a friend,” rather than “forever … a royal husband,” this temporal difference does not block the inference, drawn by Leontes, that what she has done with one man, she might do with the other. That this purely verbal indiscretion bears such calamitous fruit bears out Shakespeare’s belief that words are more dangerous than deeds.

We like Hermione, as I say; we root from her from the start. But Leontes has not had our advantage; he has not grown up reading Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing. He is, like most of Shakespeare’s men, a medieval figure — late, perhaps, but still medieval. (Romeo and Hamlet, although clearly men of the Renaissance, have the misfortune to live under the old dispensation.) It goes without saying, in the medieval worldview, that women are lesser creatures, subordinate to men. In no way can wives be permitted to outshine their husbands.

It goes without saying, but Leontes says it, anyway, in II.3, his scene with Paulina. Paulina, a lady of the court, insists that Leontes recognize his new-born child, the baby girl who will grow up to be Perdita, and whom Leontes believes to be Polixenes’s bastard. Leontes refuses to answer Paulina, but addresses only her husband, Antigonus, whom he will later charge with putting the baby to death by exposure. He tells the man to silence his wife, and is aghast at Antigonus’s inability to do so. Frances Dolan, the editor of the Pelican edition, summarizes Leontes’s expostulations in her Introduction to the play.

The abuse he directs at Paulina in II.3 taps into persistent associations in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English culture: (1) an assertive woman must have a weak husband, since only one spouse can wear the breeches or rule the roost; (2) a woman who cannot hold her tongue cannot preserve her chastity or refrain from violence; (3) a woman who asserts herself inevitably takes something away from men, effeminizing them and masculinizing herself; (4) domestic and political disobedience imply and promote one another.

It would not be said that Hermione cannot hold her tongue, but her cleverness suggests a certain assertiveness, and her daring wit even moreso.

So Leontes is not nuts after all: he’s just a red-blooded king of the old school. Of course, he apologizes the moment the oracle disabuses him, but it’s too late by then, or seems to be.

Now, at any rate, I have reached the altogether stranger feature of the play, the sixteen-year gap in the action that falls between Acts III and IV. (Like the Sleeping Beauty, who comes to mind more than once in this play, Perdita grows up in the interval.) Act IV, by the way, is nearly as long as the first three acts combined, and its fourth scene runs for an extraordinary thirty pages (836 lines). Take a deep breath!

***

I have two copies of the play — two copies of the same edition. I used to believe that it made more sense to have one big book of Shakespeare than lots of little ones, and it does, but only for research purposes. If you want to read a play, from first act to last, the big book will soon prove to be tiresome, too heavy to hold up for any time and too finely printed to read with comfort. (IV, iv is crammed into fewer than nine pages in the big book.) Being stupid, I took a while to understood why I had come to regard reading Shakespeare as a chore.

The Pelican singles are cheaper than almost all other paperbacks: $8.00. (Each issue of The New Yorker costs nearly that, not that subscribers pay any such freight). What I’ll do with the little book when I’m done, I don’t know. I expect I’ll have to give it away — I absolutely do not have room to keep it.

I’ve also got the paperbacks of two other plays that have given me trouble in the past, Troilus and Cressida and Cymbeline. I’m going to try to read them as if I were sitting in the theatre, too.

***

Last night, whilst Kathleen plied her needle, I read aloud from The Reign of Elizabeth and was struck, at one point, by the beauty of the near-scansion in the construction of a sentence. In his great book on style, F L Lucas cautions against metrical prose, as likely to provoke “mirth or irritation” in the reader. “Prose needs a less obtrusive, more elusive, kind of music. That’s what I liked about Black’s sentence — the meter was elusive. It was there, but not when you looked. This morning, I looked through the whole chapter, trying to find this lovely sentence, which I had repeated so many times — Kathleen quite liked it, too — that I’d entirely forgotten what it was about. All that I could be sure of was that it came from the long central chapter on “Literature, Art, and Thought.” I called Kathleen at work. Could she recall the subject matter? No. She’d know the sentence if she saw it… A few minutes later, I called her back: I’d found it. The topic was, of all things, alchemy. The beautiful part of the sentence follows the semicolon.

Doubtless there were some who practiced alchemy with honest intent; but the great majority were sharks who preyed on the credulity and greed of an acquisitive age.

Who was it said that all history is current history?

Gotham Diary:
Prep
20 September 2013

Friday, September 20th, 2013

This afternoon, I’ll be preparing a get-together dinner that I’m pretty sure will be enjoyed on the balcony this evening. The menu will feature nothing special, at least in the way of home-made dishes. Grilled chicken and baby-back ribs — they’re already marinating. Corn on the cob, roast sweet potatoes, and a big bowl of cole slaw from Schaller & Weber. Baguettes and a couple of pies from Fairway. A pitcher of Arnold Palmers.

I make it sound so easy that I’m almost fooled myself.

There ought to be fish on the menu. Also, more vegetables. I know what I’ll do about the vegetables: I’ll chop up summer squash and cherry tomatoes and shallots, and put them in a pot with some olive oil. Then, into the oven. I used to make this every day when I had a microwave oven. Inevitably, I got tired of it; I also got tired of how much room the microwave oven took up. So it has been a nice while. As for the fish, a cold poached filet of salmon might be nice. In which case, I’m going to head down to Agata & Valentina. The fish is better there.

More than ever, though, the food isn’t the point. Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil will be here, and so will Ms NOLA and Messir di T — for whom I shall have to invent a new, married name, as tonight’s visit will probably be their last as fiancés. Our other guests will be neighbors. After years and years of polite “hellos” in the elevator,  we have made some friends in the building, and it turns out that they’ve all known each other for ages. So we’re sort of their new friends rather than the other way round. If Megan and Ryan and Will were here, it would be a real family dinner — but it will be “real family” even without them, just not complete.

(Megan & Co are installed in their newly-rented house in the very part of San Francisco where they hoped to live, and they’re exhausted. Will, I’m told, has, on more than one occasion, asked to “go back.” Sometimes, he’s referring to New York. Sometimes, he just means the apartment in SOMA that they occupied for three weeks. I expect that he’ll stop talking about going back shortly. He’s crazy about the Zoo.)

Still, I can’t help wishing that I were doing something ambitious. Which is to say: I miss, just a bit, being young.

***

At the downtown storage unit the other day, I had a bright idea. I used my iPhone to take pictures of the barcodes printed on the dust-jackets of several books that I want to hold on to and eventually send uptown. What with my shaky hand, it was hard to get clear images, but I managed, in two out of three cases. I’ve just discovered, however, that the barcode reader can’t work with a screen. That horizontal red light doesn’t even register over the phone. So I copied in the ISBNs manually, and that worked. The point of this exercise was to try to avoid taking a laptop to the storage unit, with all the paraphernalia required (the portable barcode scanner, which doesn’t work as well, and the MiFi card for wireless hookup), every time I want to sort books.

Gotham Diary:
Historical Documents
19 September 2013

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

The other night, I wanted to read a good, solid history book from the old days. Little did I foresee what I would encounter.

I pulled down a book that I hadn’t read before, J B Black’s The Reign of Elizabeth. First published in 1936 (my reprint dates from 1949), this slim volume belongs to the Oxford History of England series, a grand old shelf of books with the stout look and feel of a university library. When I was at boarding school, I bought E F Jacob’s The Fifteenth Century, a thick tome remarkable for never referring to the aristocratic upsets that disturbed England for thirty years as “the Wars of the Roses.” I cannot say that I have read it from cover to cover, although I’ve read other entries in the series, namely the three preceding ones. Elizabeth was acquired in a half-hearted flurry of completism and lined up with the others. I expected it to put me to sleep, and it did, but not without hooking me on the story first.

And what is this story? It is not a biography of the queen herself. It is the history of England, not the lives of its rulers, after all, that the series claims to relate. At the same time, few English monarchs have had a higher profile. It is impossible to read about Elizabeth Tudor without meditating on the the chanciness of timing. Is it just the illusion of retrospect, or was Elizabeth an awesome case of the right woman at the right time? And what was so right about her, really? She left a strong impression of shaping the character of modern England, almost of creating the kingdom of which so many generations have been proud to be subjects, but does this amount to more than sentimental piffle?

Don’t worry,  that’s not the story. The story is about an Oxford don — an Aberdeen don, actually — who weaves a narrative from the historical records. We need not concern ourselves with what those might be, although I have always wondered what it must be like to peruse the vast corpus of Venetian diplomatic reports, because the footnotes that refer to them always seem to contain the most trenchant tidbits. We are not going to inquire into the historian’s methods, now or seventy-odd years ago. We are simply going to bear in mind that a history book written in 1936 is, to some inescapable extent, a book about 1936, or about a more or less superseded way of going about things.

For example, it’s unlikely that anybody today would write a magnificent, but “editorializing,” sentence such as this one, about Philip II of Spain’s problems in the Low Countries.

The fact that Philip was a foreigner, unimaginative, slow of mind, maladroit, and altogether devoid of that higher statesmanship that takes into account the idiosyncrasies of the people committed to its care, probably increased the difficulties in the way of a mutual understanding, and lessened the chances of fruitful cooperation.

I shouted with glee: the style is perfect. We have, first, four brief characteristics, arranged in worsening order, with the third, “slow of mind,” a halting way of saying “stupid” that anticipates “maladroit.” It’s brilliant! Then, a gliding but complex statement about the duties of the statesman — which of course Philip altogether lacked, and which failing, together with the others, probably — ! — made things worse. It is a “Life of Philip” in one sentence.

Here’s another gem. It relates to the general concern that Elizabeth find a husband and produce a successor, someone other than her cousin Mary Stuart.

In the upper house the earls of Leicester and Pembroke and the duke of Norfolk insisted that a husband should be forcefully imposed upon Elizabeth and the succession regulated by parliamentary statute. For this rank impertinence they were excluded from the presence-chamber, and had to sue for pardon on their knees.

In my days as an ambitious but lazy student, I may not have finished all the books that I started, but I read enough of this sort of thing for it to form the foundation of my own style: “rank impertinence,” when I came upon it, felt like a long-lost cousin, or, in the alternative, something that I might very plausibly write myself, if the situation demanded. There is a finer art at work; it lies in not mentioning the queen in the second sentence. Here we have an example of the strengths of the passive voice, which can magnify unseen powers. The incident is nicely vague; we’re not told anything about the conditions of the exclusion from the “presence chamber,” but we’re informed that it was awful enough to bring three powerful peers to their knees. (At the same time, one can’t help being relieved that, in those wild times, none of them was beheaded. Rash impertinence is not the worst thing in the world.)

A page later, Black writes,

Is it surprising that Elizabeth felt justified in her resistance to parliament’s demands? Their way was the way to chaos: hers was the way to peace.

Black wraps up the episode with a remark by William Camden, the antiquarian who died in 1623:

Thus by a woman’s wisdom she suppressed these commotions, which Time so qualified, shining ever clearer and clearer, that very few, but such as were seditious or timorous, were troubled with care about a successor.

The quote from Camden is very much a part of the story that would not be told today; all that it attests to, fairly, is the glorification of Elizabeth, already well in train during the reign of her successor — who turned out to be not Mary Stuart but Mary’s son, an infant at the time of the “rash impertinence.” No historian today would admit Camden as a witness to parliamentary sentiments in the 1560s, and few would repeat him as Black did. But no one would write like Black, either. Hers the way to peace, theirs to chaos? Goodness, such talk!

The Reign of Elizabeth may tell a story about bygone Englands, the queen’s and the author’s both, but the writing is still very fine.

***

In the current issue of The Nation (September 30) Akiva Gottlieb writes so beguilingly about Steven Soderbergh’s film-making that I was induced to watch a very disturbing movie, The Girlfriend Experience. Made in 2009, the movie has a reputation for being “experimental.” Its relation to chronology is certainly experimental — just how wildly out of sequence can scenes be presented without reducing the project to incoherence. I was not able to follow the story line, which doesn’t seem to be what interested Soderbergh or his writers. What happens is not as arresting as what simply is — Sasha Grey’s face. Grey is apparently playing a slightly modified version of herself; a porn queen in real life, she becomes an escort in the movie. Roger Ebert put it bluntly: Grey “has a disconnect between herself and what she does for a living. So does Chelsea.” That disconnect is what the movie is about. It has no story; it’s just there.

So far as looks go, Grey reminded me of a Demi Moore whose face had been replaned along Keira Knightley lines. It is a face that is composed rather than expressive. Whether it was a matter of makeup or not, I couldn’t tell, but Grey’s eyes don’t seem to open wide enough for dramatic work; she seems mildly sedated. This, I can well imagine, might not be a disadvantage in her regular work, but it will probably prevent her from breaking into A-list movies. At the same time, it served as an embodiment of the disconnect.

The disconnect breaks down at one point: all the circuits are firing together, and the result is tears. The tears are minimal, almost notional, but they crumple the mask and signal despair. Christine/Chelsea, the escort played by Grey, visits the hotel room of a man who might have been a client but who failed to show up at a weekend tryst. (Not to worry: the room was paid for.) She doesn’t berate him about this, but instead complains about the terrible review that she has been given at a Web site that rates escorts. Having seen the preliminaries of Christine’s meeting with this douchebag (too nice a word), you’re not surprised that she might not have been at her best when presenting him with “review copy,” but you’re appalled that she fell for his act. The guy is a middle-aged dork working out the back of a furniture warehouse in Queens — and promising lucrative trips to Dubai, if you please. Such a guy gets to review escorts? What was she thinking? It reminds one of the Gilgo Beach murders. The Internet has made it easy for reasonably attractive women to go into certain lines of business, but it has also exposed them to certain kinds of risks.

Although The Girlfriend Experience has a chic, well-kept surface, it is full of ugliness. Not the ugliness of pornography; there’s very little carnal contact in this film. But the clients are ugly. It’s not just that they’re ordinary-looking men who aren’t always in the best shape, but that they’re also horribly satisfied by the escort’s pretense. They don’t care how she really feels; they’re hoping, possibly, that she’s not feeling anything, because she’s too busy tending to them. The escort experience is that women are inherently less human than men. Do any men really believe this? Some of them certainly talk as though they do, when women aren’t around,  and, with an escort, they can act as though they believe it. The escort’s complicity is no less distressing.

And all anybody talks about is investing. It’s 2009, and the gravy train is slowing down. This is cutting into Christine’s business; it explains her visit to Queens. Her clients are obsessed by uncertainty: how much more will they lose? How much less will they take?

In several scenes, Christine is having a meeting over lunch. She actually eats. Of course she eats, she’s a human being, she has to eat. But it’s surprising. When she becomes Chelsea, she doesn’t have any needs at all.

Gotham Diary:
Palampore
18 September 2013

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

When I was spending a lot of time at our house in Connecticut, I usually wore flannel shirts from Bean’s. They were all-cotton, but they were functionally wash-and-wear as well, at least for country purposes. When we gave up the house, I gave up the shirts, too; they didn’t seem right for town. That was nearly fifteen years ago.

Just before our first vacation on Fire Island, I bought a few seersucker shirts from Bean’s. They, too, were all-cotton wash-and-wear. This year, however, I continued wearing them back at home. If I were running an errand farther than Fairway or Duane Reade, I’d probably change into something a bit less rumply, just as I should replace shorts with trousers. But, just as on Fire Island, I tossed the shirts into the laundry and hung them up in the closet. I didn’t send them downstairs to be pressed and boxed, as I do with all my other shirts.

The other day, as the weather got chilly, I ordered three flannel shirts from Bean’s, to be worn and cared for according to the same rubric. Two of the plaids are new, but I had to have my old favorite, Black Watch.

There is a big picture here, even if the details aren’t very impressive.

What do you wear at home when nobody’s looking? A T-shirt, probably. But I’m too big for T-shirts, and, even if I weren’t, I come from a background in which T-shirts were, irredeemably, undergarments. I would no more walk around in boxers or briefs. For a long time, I wore polo shirts, but their superiority to T-shirts is more formal than real. And they’re usually monotone. No matter how appealing the color, there’s too much of it when I don the shirt. So I’m more comfortable in collared cotton plaid. When nobody’s looking, that is. When nobody’s looking, I’m still looking. And, besides, I want to be able to run downstairs for the mail or to pop over to Fairway without feeling like a slob. (A crazy person wearing shorts in January, maybe, but not a slob.)

The important thing is to be dressed for an errand to Fairway. Why Fairway? Because that’s the default food market now, and I try to buy no more than I need for the next meal or two. So the odds are that I’ll be going to Fairway at some point during the day. Fairway also sells sandwiches and salads that are sometimes just the thing that I’d like to have for lunch.

I learned the importance of being Fairway-ready after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Here is what used to happen (until practically yesterday): I would drift from reading the Times to writing the blog entry. By the time I’d proofed the entry and stopped fiddling with the commas, it would be around noon, and I’d be starving. Starving. I’d be too hungry to think about what to do for lunch, and, on top of that, I’d still be wearing my sleeping outfit (write for details). If I didn’t want to fix lunch myself, or have something delivered, I’d have to get dressed and then go out — where? Too many decisions! So I learned to get dressed as soon as I’d made the bed, which I always do as soon as Kathleen leaves for work, if not before.

“Getting dressed” means taking a shower and putting on real clothes. It is the final, and for that reason the most difficult, stage of  getting out of bed. (Even if the bed has been made!) I learned that I must get dressed before writing. It really didn’t matter what I wore, just so long as I could wear it to Fairway or Duane Reade. If I later decided to go to a restaurant for lunch, I might change clothes, but that is not “getting dressed.” Getting dressed demands no more than clothing a clean body in presentable but comfortable togs. We each have our own idea of what that might be. The father of one of Kathleen’s oldest school friends continues to wear a suit-and-tie when at home. Every day. When nobody’s looking, he’s looking.

I ask myself: how can you be sixty-five years old, having worked at home for twenty-five of them, and yet just be working out the mechanics of your morning toilette? And where do you get the idea that anybody cares about your wardrobe problems?

***

When, instead, I ought to be writing about the grand textile show at the Museum. Or about two movies that I’ve just seen on DVD and that, because they’re both set in downtown Manhattan, I’ve mixed up in memory: perhaps What Maisie Knew and 2 Days in New York aren’t so different after all. One is very funny — sidesplitting, really, once it gets going (this would be the Julie Delpy) — while the other is so not. In What Maisie Knew, everything that would make you giggle or roll your eyes in 2 Days in New York makes you wince instead, and perhaps cry. I am going to add 2 Days in New York to my library; I don’t know yet about Maisie.

Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 is astonishingly alluring, but why? I can’t decide how to parse the question, much less figure out an answer. Is it astonishing that the show is alluring? Or is it astonishing that the allure is astonishing? After all, it’s just a collection of old pieces of fabric — generally very large pieces — with a few dresses thrown in. Is it art, even?

From the dark side comes a cynical suggestion: the exhibition galleries resemble an unimaginably posh department store — perhaps even a jewelry store. The first thing that hits you about these hangings is that they are priceless. Only a moron could fail to be dizzied by the intricately-detailed workmanship on display in vitrine after vitrine. Only someone utterly unfamiliar with luxury goods could fail to be staggered by the opulence gathered here. To make the emporium perfect, nothing is for sale. You needn’t worry whether you can afford to buy the things that you like, or about what you would do with them if you could take them home. The show is a perfect orgy of virtual consumption.

Less bleak, but no more artistic, is the observation that Interwoven Globe presents a brilliant chapter in the history of commerce. Indian textiles produced for the Thai market; Chinese goods produced for the European market; European goods designed to look as though they came from India or China. Palampores — bedspreads featuring a tree-of-life motif — purchased by Yankee merchants and preserved by generations of descendants in quiet attics. A picture of global trade quite different from the one with which we are familiar unfolds in room after room. Quite, but not entirely, different: we learn that red-backed palampores weren’t selling in London in the Seventeenth Century, so that the managers of the East India Company directed their agents to demand blankets with lighter backgrounds, and with the trees in the center, not around the border.

But one item, at least, stands out clearly as an artwork by any definition. It’s a palampore from Coromandel, made in the Eighteenth Century and currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It is simply too beautiful not to be a work of art. Unfortunately, it must be seen in the weave, as it were; and, even then, not much of it can be examined closely. It brings to my mind the magisterial theme-and-variations pieces that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms composed, with a glorious concluding fugue at the center. There is no real repetition from one leaf to the next, and the flowers bloom in an imaginative profusion worthy of paradise.

I’ve seen the show twice already, and I’ll be back for more.

Gotham Diary:
Common Sense
17 September 2013

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

As I wrote yesterday, I was surprised by Diarmaid MacCulloch’s acknowledgment of his homosexuality, in the Introduction to his new book, Silence: A Christian History. It was a complex surprise, registering at several levels and in different connections. At the heart of the surprise, I suppose, is my age: I have lived from one era into another. So, I daresay, has MacCulloch, which also may explain why he makes the acknowledgment in this particular book.

The news that MacCulloch is gay is not the surprise. That kind of news is no news at all. But of course I can remember when it would have been — not just news, but shocking news. If the acknowledgment were made in print at all, it would be in connection with an arrest, or some other unsavory brush with the law. When I read the acknowledgment now, my response is duplex and wildly inconsistent: So what? layered over Oh, no! — dismay, not about the sexuality, but about the embarrassing legal tangle, with its train of broken marriage, lost job, social shunning, and so on.

In those days, the statement, “I am homosexual” was tantamount to “Now that I have confessed that, I am a likely suicide.” But today, as I say, it is no news at all. It means — what? It refers to the most preliminary of healthy sexual inclinations,  an attraction to one gender or the other; there are only two. The information inherent in the statement is largely vestigial, the echo of a bygone time (let us hope). Sexual preference, a formerly fraught distinction, has become almost empty of significance.

It used to seem to be information-rich, because persecution created a vibrant ghetto. A homosexual man was unlikely to enjoy stable relationships, but on the contrary doomed to seek out sexual encounters in sordid locales. An interest in the arts was indicated, and a lack of interest in sports. In the closet hung colorful clothes. If this cliché described only a small subset of the actual gay population, the public was unaware of it; the prosecutors were content to have their likely suspects.

Come to think of it, the unlabeled profile of the straight man was almost as limited. It was not okay to have hookups or affairs. Strip joints and pornographic magazines were kept well out of sight, and purveyors of straight vice got raided, too. Straight men were married with kids, period. No wonder marriage was the lode of comic material that it was. Half the people in it were not in it by choice!

It’s very nice, I must say, to be alive in a time in which a man no longer says,  “I’m gay,” but says, instead, “My boyfriend and I…” or, now,  “My husband and I….” That’s as it should be. Which brings me back to MacCulloch’s acknowledgment. It is obviously pertinent to the subject of his book, which is why his mentioning it is not gratuitous. But it is historical information: I grew up gay, in that other world described in the foregoing paragraphs. MacCulloch isn’t saying anything about himself now. There is no mention of a boyfriend or a husband. That would, after all, not be pertinent to a book about Silence. But the bald acknowledgment of a same-sex preference has become almost as unusual as it was when it was shocking. When it was shocking, implications bristled. Now, because they don’t, we feel puzzled: so what?

MacCulloch doesn’t leave us entirely in the dark. He goes on to assure us that he has prospered.

I was lucky to be able to face up to this challenge early on, was able to live life as I wished, and have enjoyed life much more as a result, but this life-experience has left me alert to the ambiguities and multiple meanings of texts, and to the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the behaviour of people around me. I have become attuned to listening to silence and to finding within it the keys to understanding many situations, far beyond anything to do with sexuality. Particularly in the still half-hidden structures of gay sensibility, there are all sorts of means of disclosure and concealment, ways of encoding meaning and subverting the mainstream assumptions of society. As a gay child and teenager, I also effortlessly developed the historian’s other essential quality, a sense of distance: an observer status in the rituals constructed for a heterosexual society in a world in which reality was not quite like that. I did not need the jargon of post-modernism to teach me elementary survival strategies in this world of mirrors, just what Chesterton would have called common sense.

Gotham Diary:
Apophatic
16 September 2013

Monday, September 16th, 2013

I shall not pretend to sound the depths of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new book, Silence: A Christian History. I read it for two reasons. First, MacCulloch is a brilliant historian working in a field that, until recently, had no real history, that of Christianity. (We were expected to accept the Roman church’s just-so stories.) He writes wonderfully well and he puts things together. Silence also happens to be relatively brief. It is brief by any measure, at 240 pages, but it is especially brief when compared with MacCulloch’s magisterial histories of the Protestant Reformation and of Christianity and its Hebrew antecedents. No book can be altogether silent, without also being pointless, but Silence is a remarkable exercise in discretion.

My second reason was idle curiosity: his earlier books made me wonder what it is that MacCulloch believes. Believes in, in the way of creeds. I overlooked the possibility that, on this particular point, the title might be particularly meaningful. It is, of course, none of our business, what MacCulloch’s credo happens to be. He is happy to tell us right off, however, that a lot of his thinking about silence has been shaped by the fact that “from an early age, I was conscious of being gay.” I wasn’t expecting to read that. This revelation worked, surprisingly, to intensify my sense of MacCulloch’s respect for his subject.

The structure of the book reminds me of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. The arrangement of the first three parts, on silence in Scripture, in monastic life, and in the three reformations that MacCulloch finds in Christian history (iconoclasm, clerical centralism, and then the Protestant one), is slightly unusual, but nothing about them prepares you for the finale, which is a consideration of surreptitious silence — the silence of simulation. Sometimes, such silence is not only prudent but enriching: it is the silence of the conversos in Inquisitorial Spain. (MacCulloch’s subchapter on English Nicodemism under Elizabeth I is searingly intelligent, explaining most of the theological and institutional murk that was carefully propagated by that monarch in order to prevent a reprise of the violence that characterized preceding reigns — and that erupted after her demise. “Nicodemism” is one of Calvin’s coinages; it refers to an apostle who visited Jesus only at night.) Sometimes, silence is a disgrace, and in discussing three examples of shameful Christian silence — on sexual predation (he explores a forgotten but lamentably typical scandal from the Seventeenth Century), on the Holocaust, and on slavery — MacCulloch might be thought to be writing a kind of church history rather different from that in his earlier sections. But this is not the case, because the apophatic silence of negative theology, which holds that God is beyond human description, cannot be fully appreciated without taking the measure of the more interested, more human silence of cowardly non-witness.

Humble silence has two saliences. One is existential, and concerns the struggle of meaning against noise. The other is a function of authority. Historically, powerful men (and women) have been easily disposed to silence views alternative to their own. When this silencing is brought to bear on matters of faith, the virtuousness of obedience comes into question. Both aspects are brought together in the response of silence to assertions of orthodoxy — a response that may not be as passive as authorities might like to think. MacCulloch presses silence not for theories or principles but for implicit wisdom. I’m hardly surprised that the bit of wisdom that most quickly pierced my hide had to do with music.

Anglicans have good reason to point complacently to their development and protection of Choral Evensong, in cathedrals after the Reformation. Thomas Cramner’s Prayer Book service, put to musical uses of which he would undoubtedly have disapproved, has become one of the principal present-day vehicles of devotion for many who cannot accept forms of words which contain the orthodox propositions of Christianity; such attenders may still discover and explore their Christian identity through music, and in fact they have been attending the Anglican cathedrals and greater churches of England in ever larger numbers through the first decade of this century.

Silence is a book to keep close to hand.

Gotham Diary:
The Completed Thing
13 September 2013

Friday, September 13th, 2013

It must be Friday the Thirteenth — that’s why I can’t find Emerson on the shelf. I must have put it in storage. It was a very fat Everyman’s Library volume, and I never opened it. It was something that I ought to have on hand, I thought, as part of a decently-stocked library. That’s what I wanted, then: a decently-stocked library. But I don’t have the room for one. I can only house a library of books that I’m going to open at least once a year.

Emerson is, it turned out, not for me. He is said to have had many wonderful thoughts, but I can’t find them, because all I see when I try to read him is turgid prose. Take this, from early on in “Self-Reliance.”

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

Why do I dislike this so? The metaphoric sprawl is distasteful, certainly. Great men confide themselves childlike but yet are not minors or invalids in protected corners. “Cowards fleeing before a revolution” — what the devil can that mean? Iron rings vibrate in hearts that are also the seats of the absolutely trustworthy — this is in serious danger of saying nothing. (Emerson is an emphatically unmusical writer, with no sense of rhythm or sound, so it’s not surprising that his harp is strung with a string of iron.) Obeying the Almighty effort — what? Advancing on Chaos and the Dark, even if it does suggest Freud’s project for the unconscious, blurs its sense in a cloud of vague grandiosity. Are we there yet?

I was thinking about Emerson because Mark Edmundson, whose book, Why Teach?, I was writing about yesterday, admires him so much. I wouldn’t say that there are too many quotations from Emerson in the book — only that the ones that there are made me feel that I was chewing on mouthfuls of incompletely baked potato.

Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

This is wrong, I think — as all social-contract thinking is wrong. Society, and the humanity that guides it, have emerged from primordial unconsciousness over tens of thousands of years. There never was a congress of venerable ancestors who deliberated our civil arrangements — not until the disastrous attempts to do so of modern times. We don’t really know enough about ourselves to design a society from the ground up. We do not actually prize conformity, we simply find it very, very convenient. As a man of his time, Emerson routinely opposed the great (creators) to the bourgeois (joint-stock company members), and he had no reservations about urging his readers to transcend the everyday in the pursuit of greatness. But we have since learned that, transcendence or not, the everyday cannot be escaped. Somebody has to do the laundry. And it’s easier for everybody if you do your laundry on Tuesday, and I do mine on Wednesday. (In Emerson’s day, the men never had to do the laundry at all, but we don’t live there anymore.)

Aside from being wrong, the aphorism is phrased in the strangest English — raw Chaucer makes more immediate sense. “Self-reliance is its aversion”? Who speaks like that? “Culture of the eater” is particularly bad: the first two names for the object of Emerson’s derision, members and shareholders, establish a parallel that the concluding phrase cognitively insults. But here we have precisely what’s wrong with American prose before Henry James. It is overwhelmed by the literature of 1600: Shakespeare and the King James Bible. American letters appear to have declared independence from the style of the Eighteenth Century — the earliest form of the language that can still be read without mental ructions — only to lapse into self-conscious archaism. Emerson particularly had a horror of writing clearly and straightforwardly, but his irregularities, intended to recapture the sacred aura that lighted English letters for a decade or two after the last of Elizabeth I, have no genius of their own; they are merely awkward revivals of a dead manner.

No, I should say that we are advancing from the Chaos and the Dark. If you want to call that a cowardly flight from revolution, suit yourself.

***

I learned something very valuable from Mark Edmundson, although I don’t believe that he intended to teach it. I learned that I don’t admire anybody. Almost anybody. I do admire my wife, my daughter and my son-in-law, and my old friend Fossil. And perhaps one or two others — all people whom I know very well, whom I have seen up close for years. I think I’m very fortunate to live among these admirable people, but the point that I want to make is that they are really the only people I know well enough to admire. For the rest, I admire what people do. I don’t admire who they are, because I don’t know who they are. And I’m not about to assume that, because they’ve done great things, they must be great themselves. Nor, by the same token, am I going to scold them when it turns out that these doers of great things, whom I don’t know personally, are not so great themselves.

Lest this sound thought out, I want to add that I learned from Mark Edmundson that I have never admired other people. I started out admiring nobody. And this was not a problem, because I don’t need to admire people. Edmundson made me suspect that this is unusual, or perhaps it was the conjunction of having written about faith, and that fact that I’ve never felt the need for that, either.

I admire completed things. Not just paintings, symphonies, and novels, but also the manner in which paintings, symphonies, and novels are presented. I do not confuse the complete with the eternal: anything can change. Most completed things come to an end eventually. (You could say that I admire the family and friends whom I’ve mentioned because my sense of them has attained a certain completeness.) But, while they last, you can get to know them, and try to understand them, and the impulse that inspires you to do so is admiration.

As such, my idea of admiration is incompatible with the notion and practice of hero-worship. It is also hostile to celebrity culture, which creates the illusion of familiarity with people who, all too often, haven’t completed anything.

Gotham Diary:
Performance Art
12 September 2013

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

The first thing to say about Mark Edmundson’s new book, Why Teach? is Hear, hear! Well done! Couldn’t agree more. With just about everything, but especially the important things.

Because the second thing to say is that the book makes me glad that I didn’t have Edmundson for a teacher, because my resistance to his style, in those tender undergraduate years, would have induced me to disagree with his principles, into agreement with which I’ve grown steadily over the years. Also, I’m yet again confirmed in my view that I should have been wretched in academia. I expect that, even if I had been capable of mustering the discipline to attain a position on any respectable faculty, I’d have set out to be the sort of teacher whom Edmundson halfway wishes he were — and not the successful star prof that he has become. I’d have been intimidating — well, I’m that before I even open my mouth; but, when I do open my mouth, I do little (apparently) to counter the first impression. I should have been impatient. I’d have been enthusiastic — I’d have incited arguments among the students. All no-nos, according to the sage advice set forth in Edmundson’s brilliant satire, “A Word to the New Humanities Professor.”

Like irony, metaphor can make matters confusing and cause people to feel uncomfortable. Metaphor and irony can make students feel stupid and, at a good college, where students have high SAT scores, no one can accurately be described as stupid. Metaphor, like irony, can contribute to self-esteem problems. But once one has realized that the purpose of writing is to convey information and not to unfold or to discover the life of the inner self, or to create original visions of the world (we now know that there is no such thing as originality), then problems associated with metaphor and other mannered forms of writing tend to disappear.

This is my favorite piece in the assortment of essays that fill out Why Teach?, possibly because Edmundson is writing in an assumed voice, for satirical purposes, and not being his gregarious, manly self. How much that self is just another persona, I have no idea, but it clicks with the autobiographical material strewn throughout. Edmundson grew up in a near-nightmare world, working-class Medford, Massachusetts, where high school was a training ground for life on a factory floor. Edmundson himself was an unexceptional member of his class, not interested in academics and a middling football player, bound for a soul-sucking job just like the ones his father and his uncles had. Then his life was touched by a rather elfin-sounding Harvard grad who came to teach at the school — for one year, before heading off to law school, marriage, and the Maine woods. Doug Meyers, the hero (and eponym) of “My First Intellectual,” opened a view of the world to his students, and Ednundson, at least, climbed through it.

My second-favorite piece in Why Teach? is “Do Sports Build Character?” It was something of a thrill to read. The question is a vexed one for me, or at any rate it was until Edmundson deconstructed it. The first half of his essay concludes that, yes, they do. “Who could doubt it?” My breathing was shallow and my head hung low. Edmundson’s paean to perseverance made me ashamed of my lifelong disinclination to pursue the awkward and the tedious. But the second half of the piece describes the cost of this character building, and, when it was over, I was feeling more robust. Edmundson talks about the wrath of Achilles, how the hero’s pursuit of thymos makes a madman of him, capable of anything — anything but reflection. And he goes further.

When the season ended, I found myself recreating the feeling of football in a string of fistfights and mass brawls. I didn’t become a thug — far from it. But I did let the part of me that sought power and standing — over others — go way too far. Having been down that road, the chances of myt taking it again are greater, I suspect, than they are for other men. Once that path has been cut, it stays open. I once shocked a colleague, and myself, by admitting that if someone ran a light and smashed up my car (which I loved more than I should), the chances of my popping him in the jaw were probably much greater than the chances of the average professional guy doing so. Once the punch in the mouth is part of your repertoire — once you’ve done it a few times as an adult — it never goes away. (90-91)

I shivered when I read this. It was so much more candid than anything I had expected to read, something that I had never heard but always suspected to be the case. Edmundson is a very sensitive man and a passionate reader. But he has popped a few guys in the mouth. I say “but,” because that sets him apart from me. He has been bloodied by thymos. I could just as well say “and,” meaning that Edmundson is just the fellow to show the roughnecks of the world, who are, after all, far more common than people like me, the beauty of humane letters. Not to mention that he’s clearly the kind of guy who can inspire pretty girls to believe that a man who memorizes Emily Dickinson is not necessarily a dork.

***

I believe I mentioned The Poseidon Adventure yesterday, so I apologize for invoking the image of a sinking ship two days in a row, but that is precisely the specter that hangs over Why Teach? The possibility of liberal education is sinking, its hull breached by the cool culture of television, a torpedo fired by the corporate-consumerist pseudoculture that shows little sign of being on its last legs but at the same time an ever-dwindling means of support. (That would be jobs.) I don’t want to paraphrase what Edmundson has to say about all of this; I want you to read his book. If you’re too cheap to buy it, you can just scroll back through the years on this site, keyword “television.” We don’t say precisely the same things — our styles are very different — and I’m grateful that Edmundson repeatedly faults television for conveying a spurious “knowingness” to viewers, especially young ones who are defenseless against television’s pretense of presenting complete accounts of things. Knowingness — that’s an important critical tool. But behind what I say and what Edmundson says there’s what Neil Postman said, in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), in the course of analyzing a “discussion” program that featured such luminaries as Henry Kissinger and Elie Wiesel.

When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impossible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say…?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. But television demands a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas. … At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection.

Ever since I read this passage, I have assumed that the genuinely intellectual potential of television is zero. By all means, entertain me, if you can, but don’t try to teach me anything! And this is precisely the attitude that Edmundson finds prevalent among his highly gifted students.

In fact, thoughtful discussion requires participation; for mere audiences, it is no better than a spectator sport. If your mind is not on the line for intelligent observation and provident caution, then it is not really processing the conversation. It’s really that simple. Just as you are not in danger of being popped in the mouth if you are sitting outside the ring, so you are not in danger of having an idea of your own if you are watching a panel discussion. This isn’t to say that you can’t learn a lot of useful information that way, particularly if you’re good at taking notes. But the information won’t really be yours until you act on it, later on and somewhere else. We have a term for actual thoughts that occur to people who are watching other people talk without being able to talk themselves: mind wandering.

The distance between Mark Edmundson’s satirical note to the incoming professor and Neil Postman’s post mortem is, linguistically and stylistically, very small. Postman was clearly outraged; Edmundson has packaged his outrage. I should be ashamed of myself for preferring the piece to all the others, because it’s the one in which Edmundson most straightforwardly performs.

Gotham Diary:
Let’s Not
11 September 2013

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

It’s that dreadful anniversary again. I am always reminded of the scene in The Poseidon Adventure where the ship’s bursar argues with the show’s hero about which way to lead their respective flocks. The bursar insists on heading for the bow of the capsized vessel, basically for no better reason than that he is the bursar. It is obvious to the hero, and almost as clear to the audience, that by doing so, the bursar guarantees that his party will soon be dead. Bad advice, together with the failure to take good advice, was an integral feature of the 9/11 catastrophe, but I’m reminded of the movie because of what came after.

A catastrophe ought to be a learning experience, but unfortunately it tends to reinforce pre-existing ideas. Once the emotion has subsided, lessons ought to be learned, but instead of that, the determination is made to restore the status quo ante. As if putting everything back as it was might constitute a victory. As if it were courageous to refuse to learn from mistakes. Or to deny that mistakes had ever been made. Or to make changes where few or none were needed.

There is a heedlessness in Anglophone culture. Perhaps there is a heedlessness in every culture. But we have become powerful enough to array everything that interests us before us, and to sweep everything else out of sight. We are no longer obliged to confront what doesn’t suit us. We can wait for it to confront us. We have genuinely tragic possibilities.

The fact that ten percent of Americans earned more than fifty percent of the nation’s income must mean that we’re on the right track, right?

***

The sad anniversary that I would commemorate is that of the publication of Susan Sontag’s stirring remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2011), from which I excerpt the final paragraph.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management.  Politics, the politics of a democracy–which entails disagreement, which promotes candor–has been replaced by psychotherapy.  Let’s by all means grieve together.  But let’s not be stupid together.  A few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.  “Our country is strong”, we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling.  Who doubts that America is strong?  But that’s not all America has to be.

Gotham Diary:
Belief in
10 September 2013

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Somewhere in his book Shifting Involvements, I think it is, Albert Hirschman mentions the deterioration in service that may follow the political expansion of a beneficial program — and the ensuing general disappointment. If you take a system designed for small elites and stretch it to universal scale, as was done in many fields after World War II — medicine in Britain, education in the United States — you will quickly develop a deficit of professionals capable of delivering the service at anything like the original level of quality. (This is just one thing that can go wrong with a massive program.) Looking back, I don’t think that I ever experienced either the deficit or the disappointment, and that may well be because I grew up in what would have to be called privileged circumstances. Another explanation comes to mind, however, now that I’ve been prodded by a passage in David Priestland’s Merchant, Warrior, Sage: A History of the World in Three Castes.

It’s not a key passage; it’s certainly not a sharp one. It’s actually a rather damp gob of abstract generalizations. But here it is:

The 1960′s and ’70s activists targeted all hierarchies — whether technocratic, corporate, ethnic, sexual, military, or aristocratic — but the university became a particularly fraught battleground. The vast expansions in higher education after the war brought an explosive clash between student expectations and the reality of university life: self-confident students demanding individual attention and intellectual fulfillment were herded into overcrowded classes taught by aloof academics. One American student remembered: “We really did speak of Berkeley as a factory. Classes were immense, and you didn’t feel that you could get near professors, because they were this presence way up in the front of the lectern.”

Berkeley, I thought. That was supposed to be a good school. You’d think that a good school, any good school, would aim for a small teacher-student ratio, simply because nothing else has been shown to be nearly as effective a way of ensuring that students learn. But, no. The big universities were larded with lecture courses, often conducted by star lecturers who shared the knack of a good entertainer for holding the audience’s attention. I took one such course, the art history survey that all freshmen in the humanities were obliged to take at Notre Dame, and I remember the lecturer, Robert Leader, very well. The course did me no harm, beyond reinforcing the already widespread misconception that images constitute reality. (That, in other words, looking at a slide of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral is tantamount to looking at the original painting.) It may well be that certain kinds of knowledge are best imparted in such general, roughly comprehensive survey courses. Beyond making very broad introductions, however, lectures are probably useless.

I did take another lecture course, later, as an elective. Seventeenth-Century Europe. The professor lectured. The students wrote papers. The professor liked my papers, but I stopped writing them when we got to the English Civil War, which I already knew a lot about and in which his lectures did nothing to rekindle an interest. I stopped going to class, and failed the course for the usual reason: I didn’t take the final exam. That was my brand of student activism.

My core courses, the classes that I had to take for my major, which was in Great Books, were quite different, and I never failed any of them, doing poorly only in History of Science, because it was so much more difficult than anything I had encountered before. Our Great Books classes were small, and they were entirely devoted to discussing what we read. There was very little room for bullshit, and our teachers were especially good at catching us out when we tried to substitute it for actual knowledge or clear thinking. I don’t recall that there was anything extraordinary about the Great Books program; on the contrary, I thought that it was normal. It was what you went to college to learn, I thought. We read all the important books and we learned how to talk about them intelligently. There was nothing flashy or brilliant about it — we were kids! But it wasn’t boring, either. I couldn’t understand why anybody would study anything else at the undergraduate level. I still can’t.

In any case, my self-confident demands for individual attention and intellectual fulfillment were more than satisfied. Indeed, I was more or less required to increase them — especially to get through History of Science. I could thank the Great Books program (developed at the University of Chicago), or I could thank Notre Dame and the very persistent faculty members who prodded me to think, or I could thank myself for following a genuinely conservative instinct that protected me from the Cultural Revolution that then raged through universities around the world and that afflicted so many of my more intelligent contemporaries with an unattractive and unhelpful cynicism. I’m just Greatful.

As the Great Books seminars progressed, I realized that we were not, in fact, reading all the important books — there were lots of others, off our list. Which was fine, not a problem, no reason for activist protest. Because, somewhere along the line, I learned what I have come to regard as the most important thing that any undergraduate can learn: college is itself an introduction, a beginning. I have been reading and writing ever since.

***

The notion that there were other important books, books not on our reading list, was not stressed by exponents of the Great Books program. It was tacitly understood that Great Books was a haven from the stormy arguments about relevance that meaninglessly sprouted like weeds in the other branches of the humanities. It was even more tacitly understood that the Great Books program, as tailored by the Notre Dame faculty, was an immersion — more than an introduction but less than an indoctrination — in the wellsprings of the philosophy and theology of the Roman Catholic Church. (Gee! What a surprise.) I was already a firm agnostic, so I had no trouble with this at all. The question of the existence vel non of God took a completely different shape in my mind; it was immediately translated into another language — another way of thinking, really. When faced with the question, Is there a God?, I replied with different question, Why do some people believe that there is a God? I still do. This is the only question that I am able to entertain. When I was a student, it made Plato, Aristotle, Dante and the others relevant in a way that was probably not intended by my teachers.

As a child, I worried about being sent to Hell for my failure to believe in God, and worried even more about being unable to resolve this paradox. For who was going to send me to Hell if not God? My parents? (Could they? I really did wonder.) I wished that I could believe, because I wanted to be a good boy, and I wanted to do the right things. But I was much, much too stubborn, much too much myself. Lack of faith was as manifest and undeniable as height. But unlike height, it was Wrong, and, also unlike height, it was something that I could keep to myself. At every stage of my slide toward adulthood, I learned how much observance I could slip out of without getting into trouble.

I continued going to Mass, however, and would probably still be going to Mass if it were not for the terrible swerve taken by John Paul II. This arguably great man but certainly lamentable pope would have made a protestant out of me if I had believed in God in the first place. “Reactionary” is not strong enough a word to describe the offensiveness of current “Church teaching” on issues of sexuality and ordination — issues laughably irrelevant to the message of Christ (about whose existence there is no question). I was thinking of all this baggage yesterday, reading an essay-review by John Connelly on the Polish intellectual Leszek KoÅ‚akowski, in The Nation. KoÅ‚akowski was one of those Marxists who “saw the light” and switched teams. He became a stout defender of his countryman’s religious conservatism. “For all his youthful anti-clericalism,” Connelly writes, “it seems that KoÅ‚akowski could never escape the gravitational hold of traditional Polish culture.”

What he abhorred about secularism was not so much its negation as its universalization of the sacred, a development that affected even the church. Liberal Catholics blessed all forms of worldly life, creating a mode of Christian belief lacking a concept of evil—that is, the understanding that evil is not the absence or subversion of virtue but an irredeemable fact—and leaving the church no reason or means to stand against the secular. The dissolution of the sacred from within and without had observable effects on the culture as a whole, contributing to a growing amorphousness and laxity in making distinctions. This was dangerous, Kołakowski argued, because the sacred gave to social structure its “forms and systems of divisions,” whether between death and life, man and woman, work and art, youth and age. He advocated no mythology in particular, and would admit only that a tension between development and structure was inherent in all human societies. Yet it was clear that certain developments troubled him deeply, and if the liberation movements unleashed in the 1960s continued, he feared the outcome would be “mass suicide.”

Connelly’s piece made me wonder if the question of good and evil isn’t simply another question about the existence of God. The questions appear to be equally propped up by an emotional dread of “nihilism” — the belief that there is nothing to believe in, that nothing matters. Is belief the issue, perhaps? What is belief? Could it be a kind of oxygen that some, but not all, minds require in order to function? Can I say that I believe in anything? I think that I believe a lot of things — but not in anything. I take a lot of things to be the case. But I don’t need them to be the case — I don’t get that far. Murder is wrong. Is there anything more to be said? Why do I believe that murder is wrong? Because I believe that we are all human beings and that none of us is sufficiently superior to the rest of us to have the right to take a life, except in self-defense. If there is more to that train of thought, I can’t imagine it. I don’t believe that Americans are better than Chinese. I can imagine believing such a thing, but there mere imagining it makes me feel foul.

If only I could believe in evil! Then I could really do something, really have some fun with my distaste for television, spectator sports, and automobiles.

Gotham Diary:
Old Man
9 September 2013

Monday, September 9th, 2013

After Kathleen left for the airport and her conference outside Miami, I continued reading about Claire Danes in last week’s New Yorker, but found it intolerably miscellaneous, even though I did finish the piece. (I haven’t seen any of Homeland yet). So I picked up Volume II of The Transylvanian Trilogy, They Were Found Wanting, and read a few chapters. Although I enjoyed the story, I felt that something had been violated — to wit, the form of the novel. Although Míklos Bánffy leaves plenty of loose ends at the close of the first volume, They Were Counted, a mood of finality hangs over the final chapters, and even if the characters go on living, the book comes to The End. Indeed, when the leading lady, Adrienne Miloth, makes a beguilingly indirect reappearance in Chapter Two, she has undergone such a transformation that she almost seems to be a new character. The change is plausible, fascinating even, because it reflects Adrienne’s awakening to love at the end of the previous book. But in the back of my mind I heard a deck being shuffled and dealt, placing the characters in new alignments. This is the technique that enabled soap operas to go on for decades. It is not, at first whisper, a characteristic of great world literature.

To dampen my disappointment, which was really very slight — so slight that a good night’s rest might muffle it entirely — I decided to watch a movie, simultaneously deciding that this movie would be The Third Man. Years ago, we had a VHS tape of the film that was so grainy and dark that the famous sewer scenes at the end were unintelligibly murky. It was so frustrating that I came to think of The Third  Man as The Unwatchable Movie, which I’ve by no means forgotten, so that the Criterion Collection’s sparkling remaster always comes as real treat. Another real treat is Alida Valli, one of the great mid-century beauties of the screen, and a powerful actress as well. (Don’t even think about contesting this claim until you’ve seen Visconti’s Senso.) She brings to the role of Anna something of the grandeur of a Strauss heroine — she’s a Marschallin in extremely reduced circumstances. (As was Vienna.) Then there are Carol Reed’s disturbing Dutch shots, especially at the beginning of the film, presenting everything slightly askew. These shots are more effective than the mounds of rubble, over which the characters occasionally scramble, at suggesting how unstable Vienna was after the War. Finally, there is the frighteningly good-looking Orson Welles.

I believe that Graham Greene wrote the novella after the screenplay, which makes it just possible that it was Welles’s idea to echo The Great Gatsby — at the time (1949) just beginning its steady rise from the obscurity into which it almost immediately fell after publication to the classic status that it holds today — by having Harry Lime recurringly address his friend Holly Martins as “old man.” It’s as disturbingly bogus as Gatsby’s “old sport,” and whether or not Greene or Welles or anyone intended to make a connection, the phrase sets The Third Man in the same mode of American disenchantment as The Great Gatsby.

Trevor Howard: I’d forgotten about him. He’s perfect in The Third Man, because his sharp, compact features make a perfect foil to Joseph Cotten’s wooliness. It is always difficult for me to trust any character played by Joseph Cotten; his Uncle Charlie, in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, is one of the great cinema sociopaths, playing to the audience as well as for the film. You want to give him a break even after you know better. But that’s precisely why, like Teresa Wright’s Niece Charlie, you can’t forgive him; his appeal is a form of abuse. At least for me, this quality sticks to the actor himself, and gets carried from movie to movie. There is also Cotten’s strange accent, which wants to be Groton but isn’t.

***

Over the weekend, I swallowed whole a new book by David Priestland, an up-to-date Oxford don, called Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A History of the World in Three Castes. It did not go down smooth. I enjoyed the book very much, but I also mistrusted it, not only because I’ve become wary of schemes and systems. I couldn’t possibly write anything like a review of it, because I argued with it the whole time, even when I agreed with it. The book is clever and fast, and it left me impressed but dazed. At gunpoint, I might venture that the book is a rather disorderly piece of jewelry, composed of stones both priceless and otherwise. Make no mistake: there are priceless insights in Merchant, and the book really must be read (or at least improved).

The idea that there are ways in which to be exceptional (and so to rise above the status of the ordinary laborer), as either a warrior or a priest, has a provenance dating to Antiquity. Indeed, the division is salient in the earliest recorded states. But like so many ideas of ancient vintage, it applies only tenuously — little more than metaphorically — to our times. Human nature may not have changed beyond recognition, but its complications have expanded exponentially. Consider the warrior. Think of him as a knight on a horse, dealing death with a sword or some other weapon. Think of him as a bold hero of blind courage. Now put him back in the glass case. The only warriors who fight like knights are the ones who can’t afford better equipment. Or who are unlucky enough to be pitched into the brutalizing guerilla war that seems to be the only game being played these days — the knight of old at least knew who his enemies were. Modern warfare is waged by technical experts, not swashbucklers. Modern armies may be warlike on the surface, but they operate as implacable bureaucracies. And bureaucrats, in David Priestland’s typology, are sages, the descendants of priests. Do we regard today’s military man as “soldier” or as “sage”?

Priestland is, like any sensible person, alarmed by the messy, volatile state of current affairs. He attributes it to the hegemony of short-sighted merchants. I could not agree more heartily! But his analysis is almost as messy and volatile as the world it attempts to describe. You simply cannot dispose of today’s power networks in “three castes,” and Priestland doesn’t really try. Starting on page 63, for example, he breaks the merchant caste into two phases, soft and hard. These are really not very different from Wall Street’s bulls and bears. The bulls (the soft merchants) believe in good times and easy credit. The bears show up after the inevitable collapse, and insist upon bills’ being paid (austerity). I think we knew all about this already. Priestland’s valuable point is that giving merchants the hegemony over political affairs that they have enjoyed in modern times greatly exacerbates the excesses of both phases of commerce, and conduces to the hegemony of warriors — the last thing any sane merchant wants to see.

The sage caste proves to even more fissiparous. Sages enjoyed their moment of hegemony in a period now best known as Les Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of stunning climbs in the Western standard of living that followed World War II. Priestland, emphasizing the caste’s failures, considers the period in terms of the inevitable breakdown of the Bretton Woods agreement. There are at least two problems with this view. The men who assembled at the Mount Washington Hotel were more merchant than sage. And the agreement, reached while the (Hot) War was in its final phase, was tweaked to suit the imagined imperatives of the Cold War that followed. Tony Judt’s assessment what-went-wrong (with the welfare state) is far more clearly made in Postwar, and it is as assessment with which Priestland would, by his own account, concur. In his concluding passage, “An End to Caste?”, Priestland writes,

The real flaw [in the Hegelians' argument about history] came from their failure to understand that individuals have limited memories. People do learn from history, but they are most affected by what is happening around them when they are young adults; earlier history seems rather too remote, abstract, and irrelevant. Thus, policy makers in 2008 learned some limited lessons from 1929: that they should not impose austerity at a time of financial crisis. But the experiences most imprinted on their minds were those of the 1970s and ’80s, and they are convinced that the power of the state must be constrained at all costs. They find it very difficult to combine these experiences with the lessons that are really relevant — those from the 1920s.

Lessons from the 1920s, for example, that produced the Glass-Steagall Bill, which remains to be replaced after having been foolishly scrapped in 1998. Perhaps because we are both lawyers, and Kathleen a securities lawyer at that, my wife and I were appalled when the protections of Glass-Steagall were removed, and we believe that subsequent events have validated our horror. We were still in our forties when Sanford Weill mounted his arrogant undermining of the walls between retail and investment banking; we not nearly old enough to remember the 1920s. But we had learned about them, really; we had been educated well. History is not necessarily “remote, abstract, and irrelevant”; it can be brought to life by good teachers (and the writers of good histories). The problem as we see it is that educations such as ours appear to be uncommon, and have no necessary relation to brand-name institutions of learning. Something must be done to make history intimate, concrete, and relevant, if not to every man and woman in the street, then to the exceptional men and women who run things — men like Robert Rubin and women like Hillary Clinton.

So it was with the welfare state: young people forgot why the safety-nets had been put in place, and they resented the fact that the beneficiaries had changed. Immigrants in Europe, blacks and immigrants in the United States, were by the late 1970s taking the place of “natives” as the objects of social welfare. It was forgetful on the part of the sages to understand that the welfare state had to be reconfigured — reinvented, really. That is a recurrent failure of sages: having solved a problem, they think they’ve done so for all time.

In the end, sages remain somewhat mysterious in Priestland’s treatment. Are we all to be sages? And what kind of sage? There are several types on offer: sage-technocrats, sage-creatives, and so on. But it is telling that Priestland has nothing to say about “wisdom.” It is clear that the technocrats whom he discusses, most notably Robert McNamara, lacked it, to the point of not seeming to know that there was something called “wisdom” to seek. It is also clear that smart people usually lack the wisdom to carry their expertise graciously, seeming rather determined to make others feel stupid and then resentful. In this, sages are rather like warriors — show-offs.

It is very much a muddle. Not Priestland’s book, but life. Things fall apart. Things are always falling apart. Wisdom, insofar as it is not simply a wry form of resignation, enables us to envision a world that falls apart better. Merchant, Soldier, Sage is stuffed with elements of wisdom, and if the author’s playful schemata make the economic history of the modern world more vivid to general readers, I shall be the last to register any serious complaint.

Gotham Diary:
Apology
6 September 2013

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Everything changes; as Lampedusa puts it, in The Leopard, everything has to change, so that everything can remain the same. This paradox is much on my mind these days, as pundits and politicians blather on about Syria. What. To. Do. About Syria.

How about this: why don’t we — and by “we” here, I mean the parties that prevailed at the “peace” conference that followed World War I — why don’t we apologize to Turkey for having insulted its sovereignty, and hand everything back. Syria. Lebanon. Iraq. Jordan. Israel, even. Just to show how sorry we really are, we’ll throw in Egypt and North Sudan. We’ll even give the restored Caliph a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

We’ll admit that colonialism is wrong, that mandates are wrong, that nation-building is wrong. None of our business!

Which is, sadly, why we can do none of the above.

How about this: why don’t we — and by “we” here, I mean us and our old friends the Russians — heat up the Cold War. Nothing has really worked since the Cold War came to an end. American foreign policy has behaved like a dog with a dead master. Not only would a renewal of the Cold War restore Syria’s status as “Russia’s problem,” but it would jam the Euro crisis, too. Hellzapoppin!

These reactionary suggestions, of course, reflect the mad mortal longing for nothing to change, never ever. Let’s just go back to the way things were — when we couldn’t wait to make changes. Because, in those days, we got to decide when to make changes and what changes to make. We had a big say in it, anyway. Nowadays, not so much. The nations of the Middle East — well, let’s start right there. The “nations” of the Middle East are all confections, fantasies of Western diplomats. Mere lines in the sand.

Once upon a time, there were two powers in the Middle East, Turkey and Persia, the latter now known as Iran. These non-Arab powers ruled the Arab population. Between them ran an expanse of desert that served as a viable frontier. Most Arabs lived on the Turkish side of this desert, but some — the Iraqis — lived on the other. The Sunni sect prevailed in the west, the Shi’ite in the East. If it hadn’t been for Western rapaciousness, for resources and for colonial security, this old Middle East might have gone on indefinitely, as a sort of Muddle East, occasionally stormy but largely stable; eventually — everything must change! — it would have evolved into something else. The point to bear in mind is that this was a world without nations.

We in the West regarded this lack of nationhood as “backward.” Are we sorry yet?

As we have had ample opportunity to learn, nations have a structural flaw. It’s something to do with their self-consciousness. Being a nation is like being a dreamer who fancies himself naked on a stage. Except that nations are awake, and armed. Shoot the audience, and quick!

Destroy the dissidents, with poison gas if necessary.

***

That is my second sermon for today: poison gas. The use of poison gas may be obscene, but surely it is less obscene than the fine discrimination that makes its use an unacceptable, “inhuman” way of disposing of civilians, while other methods remain merely regrettable. All civilian deaths are equally horrible; you don’t get a status upgrade as a martyr or downgrade as a monster simply by the introduction of poison gas into the scenario.

But surely you do? It is only human nature to feel that some ways of dying are more horrible than others. It is difficult not to feel a frisson of relief upon learning that Anne Frank died of typhus, not in a gas chamber — even if the disease ravaged her for days and days of misery. But these feelings have no place in the counsels of war. It is wrong that Anne Frank died, along with millions of others, and their are no degrees of death. How they died it is impertinent to judge. How to have prevented their death remains a conundrum. One thing seems clear: as part of our ideas about nations, we have exported genocide to the rest of the world.

I don’t make these remarks in a mood of anti-Western crankiness. You don’t have to scratch me very deep to read “West is the Best.” But I am grievously annoyed by strutting Western leaders who scold confused people to whom they stand in relation as abusive parents to abused children, and whom they then threaten with yet another beating!

Gotham Diary:
Patina of Years
5 September 2013

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

When I wasn’t reading They Were Counted yesterday, I was wandering through images of and Web site pages about Bánffy Castle, in BonÅ£ida, Rumania. It used to be rather grand, in a country-house way, for Transylvania, but the Germans all but demolished it in revenge for Míklos Bánffy’s opposition to collaboration with the Nazis. An outfit called the Transylvania Trust, in which the arts ministries of Hungary and Rumania appear to be cooperating (!), is spearheading a restoration project. No sooner had I learned about all of this (and don’t take my word for any of it; I’m in a daze) than I launched into Part Five of They Were Counted, which begins with a description of summer morning at the castle (called “Denestornya” in the novel) that is so quietly ecstatic that it would serve as just about anybody’s idea of Eden: time itself stands still as you read. Just a snippet or two:

So with time, the great house grew and was transformed and spread itself with new shapes and new outlines that were swiftly clothed with the patina of years, so that when one looked at it from afar, from the valley of the Aranyos or from the hills even further away, the old castle with its long façades, cupola-capped towers and spreading wings and outbuildings seemed to have sprung naturally from the promontory on which it stood, to have grown of itself from the clay below, unhelped by the touch of human hand. All around it, on the rising hills behind and in the spreading parkland in front, vast groves of trees, some standing on their own while other spread like great forests, seemed like soft green cushions on which the castle of Denestornya reclined at its ease, as if it had sat there for all eternity and could never have been otherwise.

*

And everywhere the nightingales were singing, only falling silent for a moment as Balint passed the bushes in which they were concealed and then starting up again as if unable to contain their joy.

*

The young man reached the bank of the millstream near where the outer wooden palisades had once stood. He crossed over what was still called the Painted Bridge, even though every vestige of colour had long since disappeared, to the place where the wide path divided and led either to the left or the right, while ahead the view stretched across the park interrupted only by the clumps of poplars, limes or horse-chestnuts. In this part of the park the grass was quite tall, thick and heavy with dew. It was filled with the feathery white heads of seeding dandelions, with golden cowslips, bluebells, waving stalks of wild oats and the trembling sprays of meadow-grass, each bearing at its extremity a dew drop that sparkled in the sun. So heavy was the dew that the grasslands, as far as the eye could see, were covered with a delicate shining liquid haze.

Something tells me that Bánffy Castle has a vastly improved chance of being restored to “its ease,” now that thousands of people with money in their pockets are going to want to visit it. Here is the fictional great house that actually exists. And in that rarest of places, an exotic corner of Europe featuring great natural beauty! You can get there by taxi from the nearest town, which you can get to by train.

***

I have not had this experience before. Even when I was young, I heard all about the great books long before I read them. Every now and then, something very good would sneak up on me — I discovered Trollope all by myself (he was very unfashionable at the time), and laughed my way through Barchester Towers — but, as a rule, books like War and Peace did not arrive unheralded. Everyone else had read these books, and now you would — I would — too. Shakespeare and Jane Austen had not been recently discovered.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how The Transylvanian Trilogy got buried. The territory of Transylvania itself was contested, and so were the regimes of the two countries with claims to it, when the novel appeared in 1934. It had no natural fan base, and only a necessarily small (Hungarian) readership. A big book, it would not be translated on a lark. Its enemies would only increase after World War II, when Communist regimes in both Hungary and Rumania would have every reason to disparage Bánffy’s serenely ironic narrative of the bygone ways of “decadent aristocrats.” The novel soon fell out of print and remained in that limbo until 1982. Its only favorable wind came in the form of the novelist’s daughter, Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, who together with the late Patrick Thursfield (who seems to have done most of the writing) worked on a translation into English. This appeared, with unsurprising lack of éclat, in 1999. Word of mouth slowly built up the momentum that inspired the editors at Everyman Library to relaunch it.

All this makes sense, but still. Known unknowns are familiar presences in world literature, especially where Antiquity is concerned: we know the names of plays by Sophocles and Euripides whose texts have disappeared. Most of Tacitus appears not to have survived. Sometimes the known unknowns turn up, as in the Nag Hammadi library, where, again, we knew the titles of the books from a letter of denunciation, instructing recipients to destroy them. (Most complied.) But unknown unknowns… One must pause to wonder how many other masterpieces were interred by the catastrophes of the last century, particularly in Central Europe.

Bánffy’s Transylvania (as well as his Budapest) may be remote, but it is a distinctly European setting. It is a little behind the curve on industrialization, and still primarily agricultural, but its elite is sophisticated and well-educated. (Quite a number of Bánffy’s ladies decorate their speech with English, and of course everyone knows German and French.) The landowners are “liberal” only with respect to the Crown, which was worn by the Austrian Emperor; otherwise, they are as conservative as any landowning class. (They do not seem to be particularly reactionary, however.) Unlike the Russian grandees of nineteenth-century literature, they don’t have one foot in a world of violent barbarism. If they have a besetting sin, it is inattentiveness. They share the common assumption that things are just going to go on as they are indefinitely. It is only at the beginning of Part Four, Chapter Four (an astonishingly lengthy piece, which could, with only a very little tweaking, stand on its own as a novella), that Bánffy strikes a note of scolding mockery.

As far as most of the upper classes were concerned, politics were of little importance, for there were plenty of other things that interested them more.

There were, for instance, the spring racing season, partridge shooting in late summer, deer-culling in September and pheasant shoots as winter approached. It was, of course, necessary to know when Parliament was to assemble, when important party meetings were to take place or which day had been been set aside for the annual general meeting of the Casino, for these days would not be available for such essential events as race-meetings or grand social receptions. And, after the Budapest races, the Derby season in Vienna would follow, and so many people would be away at that time that it would be useless to make plans for a time when “nobody” would be in the Budapest.

This is very gentle, and the same could be said of upper classes elsewhere at different times. Something like the same thing could be said of America today, with so many people cocooned in Matrix-like unconsciousness of the world beyond the world around them. (The Internet appears, perversely, to intensify this massing of affinity in ignorance.) We all want to enjoy life, and a lucky few, such as the aristocrats in Bánffy’s novel, are wealthy enough to enjoy life very thoroughly. Life can be very beautiful when you don’t have to think about folding the laundry and cleaning the bathroom, much less going to work. Thousands of people today — but only thousands, not hundreds of thousands — enjoy the same gracious leisure that we read about in the big old novels. They largely have the sense to stay invisible to the billions. The rest of us learn what we can manage to do without servants.

Gotham Diary:
Ever
4 September 2013

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Yesterday, I went to the dentist. I like my new dentist, but he doesn’t like me. What I mean is that his technician, who cleans the teeth, tells me that I have very poor teeth-brushing habits. The dentist himself added, “You probably breathe through your mouth when you sleep?” This was all very unpleasant. It is true that, as my back ossified over the years, it became more and more awkward to manipulate a toothbrush, even an electric one. Also, I don’t like to brush my teeth after eating: it spoils the aftertaste of the meal. As for mouthbreathing (heavens!), my nostrils have never worked properly. Actually, only one works at a time. Is that normal? It’s late in the day for such questions. I’m becoming an old man of dubious personal hygiene! The upshot, so far as dentistry is concerned, is more frequent visits, id est monthly, instead of semi-annually.

And today, it’s the “full body scan.” The dermatologist looks me over — all over. I’ve gotten used to it, sort of. But I have become a very modest old man.

On the bright side, it’s nine in the morning but I don’t hear a thing. In addition to the subway-station project directly out the front door, Con Edison is doing something in front of Fairway, something involving jackhammers. And First Avenue is being repaved. This time with asphalt, it appears. Over thirty years ago, they poured a concrete roadway with steel reinforcements. It ought to have lasted longer, but First Avenue is the northbound lane of I 999, an unofficial Interstate Highway that would dry up in an instant if they would only toll the East and Harlem River Bridges. Second Avenue is the southbound lane. The particulate-matter emissions of heavy trucks is not regulated. I can tell, every time I wipe down the tables on the balcony.

But, for the moment, however inexplicably, no noise.

***

Instead of yammering on about They Were Counted — but I must say that Book Three of the novel is the most densely-packed piece of literary fabulousness ever, with a declaration-of-love-scene that flies off the page and into a waltz — I’ve found a couple of blog posts about the book, one from the Neglected Books Page, written a few years ago, before Everyman got into the act, and one from the Chicago Reader.

At the end of his Introduction to the Everyman edition, Hugh Thomas thanks Antonia Fraser for recommending the book to him. At the Neglected Books Page, it’s reported that Jan Morris named They Were Counted the book of the year for 2000. (The English translation first appeared in 1999.) That’s the sort of swell that’s going to carry Míklos Bánffy’s masterpiece into the library of every well-read person. Caroline Moor (also reported at Neglected Books) writes,

Banffy vies with Tolstoy for sweep, Pasternak for romance and Turgenev for evocation of nature; his fiction is packed with irresistible social detail and crammed with superb characters: it is gloriously, addictively, compulsively readable.

I hasten to add that, at least in the English translation, it is extremely well-written. And also very funny at times, with a finer-grained sense of the ridiculous than one finds among the Russians, and more generous good humor than one encounters among the French. It is, in short, miraculously humane.

The spell of sticky weather came to an end late yesterday, and I slept well for the first time in over a week. I woke up every ninety minutes or so, took a big sip of icewater (mouthbreathing!), toddled off to the bathroom, and then slid back into odd but entertaining dreams. Some of the details were unmistakably lifted from Bánffy.

Gotham Diary:
Transylvania Without Vampires
3 September 2013

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

There was no good reason for me to visit the bookshop last Friday, but I couldn’t very well walk by Crawford Doyle without looking in the window — and what did I see there but the wonderfully titled, completely unknown-to-me Transylvanian Trilogy. A thickish Everyman edition, and Volume I to boot! A long and lovely read was promised. I stepped inside and, sampling a few pages, found that I liked them very much. I left the shop without the second book, which contains Volumes II and III, because I didn’t want to be dragging it around at the Museum, my next stop. But I’ll be ready for it by next week, no matter how indulgently I luxuriate in the book that I did buy.

Opening in the autumn of 1904, They Were Counted (Volume I) centers on the Hungarian aristocracy, much of it Protestant, that held the fields and forests that stretch within the horseshoe of the Carpathian Mountains. Today, this territory lies within Romania, thanks to the Treaty of Trianon, one of the many bad arrangements made after World War I. But being in Hungary meant that it was, ultimately, under Austrian control, “dual monarchy” notwithstanding. Míklos Bánffy, scion of an ancient landed family quite as grand as the ones that people his fiction, wrote the book after the war, when the patriotism of his class no longer made any sense; and by the time he died, impoverished, in 1950, its wealth had been stripped away entirely. Midway through They Were Counted, however, I have yet to sniff a sense of loss. It would appear that the downfall of his way of life simply made Bánffy a very clear writer.

The novel was published, in Hungarian, in 1934. It did not appear in English until 1999. I am not sure that I’d have been drawn to it but for two recent influences: a re-reading of The Leopard that has not yet lost its spell, and Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. The newer novel filled me with a passion to be lost in Central Europe, where the sea is very far away and the territorial frontiers have shifted significantly in recent centuries. Crain’s Prague and Bánffy’s Kolozsvar (now Cluj) have little in common, but they stand at roughly equal distance from the world outside my window, and for similar reasons their histories are wrapped in a tissue of secrecy. And both books are studded with the disheartening discoveries that smart young people can’t help making.

They Were Counted is one of the most opulent books that I have ever opened. The writing is measured and tonic, and not at all showy, but almost everything that it holds up to the light is rich, in the way that everything in the Tale of Genji is rich. A good deal of the opulence is social, of course; there are grand houses and elaborate hunts. At a Carnival ball, “it was only young girls who did not wear imposing tiaras.” But much of the beauty is natural, as in this highly scenic description of a waterfall that Balint Abady, the central figure, visits as part of a tour of his forest properties.

Though the waterfall still could not be seen, they were so close that at every step they were drenched by the spray, while the roar of the falling water echoed round them like thunder. Then, clinging to their long fir-bows and sliding, slipping through the snowdrfifts, they rounded one more giant boulder and there it was, right in front of them, a huge arc of water springing clear from the rocks a hundred feet above.

Nothing interrupted the fall off the water: it was like a pillar of liquid bluish-green metal in front of the glistening black of the wet rock cliffsides, and from this dark mass rose white foam-crests or spray, which in turn were transformed into large droplets white as pearls that fell into the boiling swirling mass of water in the basin at the foot of the great fall. Sometimes a thread of water would break away from the central mass and seemed to hang quivering in the air until it too dissolved and merged with the rest. Immediately others would take its place springing out freely over the chasm below, endlessly repeated, endlessly varied, a constant picture of which the details were never the same from one moment to another. Underground springs fed the basin at the foot of the fall and even when in the air it was degrees below zero steam would mingle with the spray to form icicles which hung from every bow and every overhanging rock, so that the fall itself was framed by pillars of ice.

The waterfall’s “surging energy and apparent will to live” reminds Balint of a married woman who has come to fascinate him. He has known her all his life, and he believes that he doesn’t love her, but she haunts his thoughts. Hypnotized by an open fire at one of his forest-camps, Balint comes to a conclusion about her that invites comparisons with famous novels about star-crossed love.

Thinking now once more of Adrienne, he felt that at last he knew what she was really like, and that she, like the fire, was driven by some fatal force of which she herself could barely be aware but which, powerful and uncontrollable, must, in the end, prove fatal.

Why it should be a pleasure to read such lines is one of the great perversities of fiction.