Archive for January, 2015

Gotham Diary:
Caution to the Winds
30 January 2015

Friday, January 30th, 2015

It is chastening to read the essays Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam with such warm, even enthusiastic concurrence — only to realize that Robinson’s thoughts, with which I so closely agree now, were published in book form in 1998 (and presumably published elsewhere earlier than that), at a time when I, as they used to say of the British in the days of Rameses II, was living in caves. My enthusiasm is itself something of a betrayal, indicating how recently I have come to see things as I do.

I don’t take it too badly. I have stumbled and muddled my way to current clarity, helped by a series of thinkers whom I “discovered” just when I needed them. Albert Hirschman, Hannah Arendt, John Carey and Marilynne Robinson. More than for what they taught me, I owe these writers gratitude for helping me to see the figure in the densely-woven carpet of my mind. If Robinson, who is only a few years older than I am, had a twenty-year lead on my intellectual development, I don’t begrudge it or shrink with shame. In addition to greater brainpower, she was given a boost by a lucky fit between her temperament and her stubborn attachment to the faith of her fathers. Although her prevailing tone is one of complaint, she is never a scold. She is in calm possession of a right understanding.

Could I please be specific?

***

When I say that I can’t believe that I’m 67, what I don’t mean is that I never thought I’d ever get old. (If I ever thought that I’d never get old, it was because I doubted that I’d live long enough.) What I mean is, what happened in the past twenty years? The answer is: nothing much. To put it simply: Kathleen and I lived in the same apartment for thirty-one years. People died, got married, were born; some people came to New York, while others left. Yes, there was 9/11. But I’ve begun to regard that catastrophe as an event that brought what was already a sluggish pace in civic life to a near-complete halt. We have been going through the motions ever since — one plausible explanation for the financial crash of 2008 — and bending ever more desperately toward the screens of our devices, as if what was most real about life could be presented as a video game.

In the middle of the last century, there were some big shakeups. You could take three-quarters of it, 1914-1989, as an ongoing nightmare. But a shorter period, 1945-1965, witnessed a series of violent changes in the way many people were expected to live. Totalitarianism went into high gear in Russia and then China, while a seemingly milder but no less corrosive coerciveness was introduced into American life. In one of history’s grosser ironies, it was the need to make a parade of American virtues that prodded practical politicians to launch an extremely unpopular reform, by putting an end to Jim Crow and assuring black Americans equal voting rights and access to public goods. At the same time, European governments permitted the entry of “guest workers,” mostly of Islamic background, who, it was rather naively expected, would return to their homelands when their jobs were done. All of these moves were perceived as “progressive” — that is, they were thought to cap the progress of Western Civilization (even in China!) from the primitiveness of the ancien régime to something — something much better. Edicts and new laws would transform society. The naïveté was very nearly universal.

Society was not transformed. What the flurry of reform produced was resentment and caution. These are what we are living with today. I need say nothing about the resentment. All you need do to take its measure is to follow an online argument about American Sniper. In America, resentment was never directed so intensely at newly enfranchised black people as it was at the government that had ordered the enfranchisement, and that resentment persists, ever more pure, ever more tied to the right to own guns. And blacks, by the way, are still not treated equally. Lot of good &c.

The spectacle of this resentment only intensified the caution of those who understood that societies cannot be changed by plans and programs. It seemed clear that positive political action was prone to unintended, unwanted consequences. And no matter how rooted sentiment remained to the past, a new legal structure provided new opportunities for opportunists. The world hadn’t changed, and yet it had. Which way was up?

This was the perfect climate for the advent of free-market capitalism. What free-market capitalism does best is the dissolution of responsibility. Nobody is responsible for what happens. Or, rather, everybody is only a teensy-weensy bit responsible. Political action is reduced to the purchase of a pair of running shoes — you’ll vote for that. Free-market capitalism suited the cautious — but only, of course, until it didn’t. Eventually, there would be a crash. That is the downside of “free-market”: nobody is driving the car. Capitalism is more than just “crash-prone.”

Caution is also not a long-term response to anything. It degrades into cynicism. There is only so much mess that you can resist trying to clean up because you might make things worse, after which you become merely cynical. Why even see the mess? Play a game.

***

The next move, beyond caution, is not to indulge a new fit of enthusiasm for programs of reform, except on the most local scale. The next move is to get a really good grip on the intellectual foundations of the contemporary worldview, from the perspective of the “elites” who run things as well as that of the ordinary citizens who are supposed to be putting those elites into power. What are the assumptions that we make without thinking about them? What do we expect to happen, no matter how unrealistic that might be? Who are we, anyway?

I’ve been poking at answers to these questions for several years now. Hirschman gave my (rather rudimentary) understanding of economics a humanizing bent. Arendt showed me how to organize my own worldview, by way of understanding what she called the human condition. Carey taught me that intellectuals created modernism as a means of prolonging their own specialness in a democratizing age. Robinson, at the very least, is renewing my understanding of morality and reinforcing my belief in the vital importance of setting a good example. I try to write down my findings here, as soon as they occur to me.

Right now, though, I want to close for the week by pointing to another period of caution that followed upheaval. It stretched for nearly a century and a half after the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648. A prolonged war had burned off a good deal of the resentment, but the caution was even greater than it has been in our time. Historians see in the Peace the inauguration of the age of Nation-States, and they’re not wrong to do so. What’s too often overlooked is the profound conservatism of those newly secular governments. Rather than reform, there was retreat — retreat to the overarching arrangement of the three orders of society that had first been sketched out in the early Eleventh Century.

It was a dispute over the relative precedence and privilege of those orders that ushered in the catastrophe that brought the ancien régime to an end.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Mock On
29 January 2015

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

What magic is there about the word “modern” that makes us assume what we think has no effect on what we do? [In 1925, William Jennings] Bryan wrote, “Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future.” This being true, how could a cult of war recruit many thousands of intelligent people? And how how can we now, when the fragility of the planet is every day more obvious, be giving ourselves over to an ethos of competition and self-seeking, a sort of socioeconomic snake handling, where faith in a theory makes us contemptuous of very obvious perils? And where does this theory get its seemingly unlimited power over our moral imaginations, when it can rationalize stealing candy from babies — or, a more contemporary illustration, stealing medical care and schooling from babies — as readily as any bolder act? Why does it have the stature of science and the chic of iconoclasm and the vigor of novelty when it is, pace Nietzsche, only mythified, respectablized resentment, with a long dark history?

This passage appears near the end of Marilynne Robinson’s impassioned critique, “Darwinism.” By this point, she has traced a line of selfish, uncompassionate thinking from Malthus, through Nietzsche and Darwin, to Freud, and what stings is the last serious word, “resentment.” Why did these men invest so much energy in the debunking and discrediting of Christian ethics? What was their passion? I meditated on this, guided only by a rule of thumb that I’ve learned from the reading of history. The practical opposite of conspiracy theory, it suggests that whenever something later deemed to be worthwhile is overthrown or destroyed, the revolution against it is waged openly and in the name of something deemed more worthwhile at the time. Hatreds and other “dark histories” have a way of emerging, and asserting control of these coups, once they’re in hand, but initially, the overthrow is designed to bring about an improved dispensation.

This rule of thumb worked principally to rule out any explanation in terms of a “hatred” of Christianity, or of organized religion such as Voltaire espoused. Indeed, aside from Nietzsche, always something of an intemperate madman, the other thinkers, especially Malthus and Darwin, do not “take on” Christian values. Their resentment appears to be aimed at the beneficiaries of Christian charity: the poor, the disabled, the weak — people whom both men regarded as degenerate. Did they hate the poor? But my rule of thumb rules out the prevalence of negative impulses. There must be love of something else. What could this thing be?

When the answer came to me — my provisional answer, anyway — I really did have to laugh, because it was hiding in plain sight, at the very beginning of Robinson’s passage. The cover word is “modern.” The word that it conceals, the word whose place it has taken, and whose meaning it has so completely absorbed that “modern” now means far more than it did fifty years ago, is “progress.”

Progress is what Malthus and Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud embraced. Not the crass progress of enhanced appliances, or even improved health care — definitely not improved health care! The progress that they had in mind was moral. Man, in their view, stood poised to advance by leaps and bounds, to leave familiar traditions behind as his human potential was realized to an extent hitherto undreamed of. But there was a catch! Man would advance only if men, certain undesirable kinds of men, were cleared away, the burden of caring for them and of sharing environmental resources with them eliminated. The poor, the disabled, the weak — the degenerate unworthy.

We don’t talk about progress anymore. The word fell into disrepute even as Ronald Reagan was making a small fortune telling the world that progress was General Electric’s most important product. The fall into disrepute was overdetermined. Weapons of mass destruction, when their existence if not use became familiar, proved to be noxious flowers of progress indeed. At the other end of world-historical importance, GE’s brand of progress took on, during the later Sixties, a sheen of ticky-tacky. (Avocado and harvest gold! What were they thinking?) According to the growing environmental movement, “progress” was just another word for “pollution.” Eventually, the history of the idea of progress, with its run of about three hundred fifty years, was subjected to academic scrutiny, and pronounced spurious.

It is difficult to imagine, now, that anyone ever regarded the music dramas of Richard Wagner as partaking of progress. But not just anyone but everyone did, and for decades after Wagner’s death. Now it is embarrassing to consider such claims. In many ways, the idea of the modern gestated as a way of doing away with that of progress — in so many ways, really, that I could go on for hours about them, if I weren’t aware that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. One way will do. Progress had ever more sharply been considered as a matter of linearity, very much like the evolution of a living creature, but with a now-discredited teleology plugged in, holding that later iterations were always superior, somehow or other, to what came before. (Progress was by no means confined to science and materiality. Consider what Herbert Butterfield called The Whig Interpretation of History.) Modernism introduced chaos and discontinuity, an aesthetic counterpart to quantum theory.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it was difficult (for anyone not sacrificed to it) to believe that progress would not produce a demonstrably better world — and who could be against that?

The curious thing is that Progress was opposed by not one but two avatars of Christianity. First and more notoriously, there was the institutional Church, which steadfastly opposed the course of progress, rejecting heliocentricism as heretical and burning, when it could, books and their authors whose titles appeared on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or Index of Forbidden Books (which was still going when I was a boy). Second, however, and far more crucially, was the Christianity of Jesus, centered on the austere rejection of worldly goods whenever they might be given to those needed them more. Jesus would have foreseen, I believe, that the progress envisioned by Malthus and his Enlightenment forebears would denature rather than enhance the humanity of mankind. As indeed it has almost done — we hang by threads far more delicate than our Wi-Fi connections. What prompted the “resentment” of thinkers like Nietzsche was not so much ecclesiastical reaction against progress as it was Christ’s dismissal of progress as immaterial and irrelevant.

I’m no great fan of William Blake, but a famous poems comes powerfully to mind.

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

It is difficult, after what was born at Los Alamos in 1945, not to shudder at the idea of those reflected gems and beams divine.

Gotham Diary:
Membership
28 January 2015

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Notes are piling up in one of my inboxes as prep school classmates mourn, or at least regret, the death of one of our number — although Fossil Darling wasn’t quite sure that the fellow was actually in our class. I remember him quite well, but I did not know him at all; I doubt that we exchanged ten words. I am assuming that the email writers are sincerely sorry to hear of his death (not as of yet explained), and, while I feel that I ought to join in, I can’t quite bring myself to do it.

For one thing, I rarely join these circular correspondences. Within a year or so of graduation, it was pretty clear to me that I had made two lasting friends at Blair, and one of them, who grew up to be a not untroubled man, dropped out of sight a few years ago. His brother, also an alumnus, would presumably notify our class secretary, or at least the school, if my friend had died — although perhaps not in a case of suicide. My own belief is that he is either lost in a deep depression or leading a new life, bridges burnt. (It would not be like me to speculate on which was more likely.) A few years after his disappearance, the class tom-toms took up his disappearance, and a division promptly opened up between the majority that wanted to locate him, by whatever legal means were available, and the minority that respected a privacy from which no plea for help had issued. I sadly joined the minority. As someone who had kept up with him over the years — Kathleen and I got together with him several times in his adopted hometown — I wanted rather badly to know how my friend was doing, an all-too-human mix of curiosity, concern, and self-centered anxiety. But the idea of hunting him down was repulsive. That, in any case, was the last time I spoke up.

Now, as I struggle to do the right thing with respect to this more recent news, it so happens that I am thinking generally about something that, I quickly see, is the crux of my problem. This is the idea — and the practice — of “community.” Community is a much-abused notion in our times. When I was growing up, it referred almost exclusively to the quality of cohesion in a small town. Not every small town was a community; to be a community, the small town had to have a sense of common identity and purpose that was reflected in positive events such as charity drives and annual fairs. In a community, the leaders of local sub-groups, such as, say, the pastors of Protestant churches or the chairman of the chamber of commerce, would share a vision for the future of the town, however modest, and they would use their influence to realize this vision, however humble.

Then the word began to be used to describe the membership in those sub-groups. The congregation of a church became a community as well. After that, it was not long before the country sprouted innumerable communities of interest groups. The passionate element in the idea of community has increased with the self-consciousness of communities. Obedience is exchanged for security and a sense of meaning. Loyalty — the determination to stand behind the other members of the community in cases of all but the most egregious lapses — is the primary expression of belonging to a community. It will be seen that, with regard to sincerity, community is the opposite of convention.

As someone constitutionally insistent upon thinking for myself and acting accordingly — I don’t mean to trumpet that as a virtue; I know all too well how selfish and obstructive it can be — I have never been drawn to communities. I find them somewhat suffocating. And I also find that they make strangers of my friends, at least to the extent that community purpose overrides personal predilection. I find loyalty troubling — seriously overpriced. It is a natural human impulse, and, to that extent I indulge it; but never as “a matter of principle.” While I can imagine being loyal to a friend — I have been loyal to friends — I can’t see being loyal to a group, especially one in which the distinctive personalities of my friends are suppressed.

I have never had much school spirit. I always regarded school as something of a prison. It wasn’t the work that I disliked — perhaps I should say that I often liked the work very much — but everything else: the games, the meals, the clubs, the assemblies, the truly awful gossip about teachers. I was not a joiner. My memories of campuses all involve walking, either alone or in deep conversation with someone else. I no longer remember, without some sort of prompting, my nickname, which was “Bougie,” short for “Bourgeois Buffoon.” Perhaps because I am precisely that, a bourgeois buffoon, I never had the sense that a nickname was necessarily a token of membership.

My class is coming up on its fiftieth reunion. Fossil and I have sworn that, this time, we will go. We will put in an appearance. I’m curious to see all the buildings that have been put up since 1965. I’m not particularly curious, though, to see my classmates. Every now and then, a few of them get together, and then there is a Facebook photo of the group, and what dismays me is that they all look the same. Not the same as they did when we were schoolboys, but the same as each other, now. I look just like them, too, only taller and fatter. Anyone would think I fit right in.

***

Nonetheless, it is always a sorry thing to hear that anybody has died — even, no matter what people say to the contrary, after a long illness — and there can’t, therefore, be anything wrong with a brief expression of one’s quickly passing but entirely natural sorrow. Can there?

Gotham Diary:
State of In A State
27 January 2015

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

A bit of excitement here. How much of it is warranted, and how much is pseudo-apocalyptic? You would think that there has never been a blizzard before. (I blame Twitter, which has made emergencies and disasters better than sex.) It is, however, definitely a blizzard. I like nothing better than a nice snowfall. But the winds are not nice at all. I’m glad that Kathleen is in Florida, and not due to come home until all this is over.

I ran a round of errands — well, two. I had to go to our new Duane Reade. The branch has been there for years, just down the street, but there was also one right here, across Second Avenue, that relocated to a little hole in the wall when the subway station construction got underway. It seemed to be intended to hold onto the Second Avenue customers, but management must have decided to consolidate rather than await the end of construction. So our prescriptions were moved to First Avenue, which I had visited only once before, to pick up a small stash of Lunesta, made available, somewhat contrary to company regulations, by an agreement between the two pharmacists. Odd as that was, today’s return felt even more reminiscent of The Bourne Legacy.

I stopped off at the bank and then decided to do my shopping at Agata & Valentina before lunch, rather than after, to get it out of the way. I’m not sure what would have been left for me to buy had I waited. Half of the trays in the butcher department were empty. The lines were long, but not unprecedentedly, and I got everything that I wanted except for veal stew meat. I had to settle for beef; I’ll make a variation, depending on what I have, of carbonnades à la flamande. By the time I walked across 79th Street to the Hi-Life for lunch, the weather was really unpleasant.

So I decided to give Uber a try — a try in trying circumstances. Notwithstanding the short distance, I disliked the prospect of lugging groceries (including a whole chicken) seven blocks in the raw elements. And I was curious to see, frankly, if Uber would work. I’m so conditioned to the impossibility of getting a taxi that I try not to expose myself to needing one at difficult times. Although I saw more than a few empty cabs coast by while I had my lunch, I wouldn’t dream of counting on one when I needed it. So I got out the cell phone and pressed the appropriate buttons. I was told up front that the rate would be 2.8 times higher than normal, and that the ride would cost at least $22.48. That’s exactly what it did cost. The only hitch was that I settled for the GPS guess at my location, which was across the street. Ordinarily not a problem, but that block of Second Avenue is bisected by subway construction fuss — the emergency stairs, has always been my guess. So I waited and waited and so did the driver, until he finally called and I ran across the street, against the light at 78th Street but holding up my arm in an obnoxious manner. In the car, I heard all the latest news about road and public transportation closings. The newscasters sounded like strung-out hyenas. O for the Beeb.

(I had tried to change the pickup address, but it had gone through as my destination address. I gave the driver five stars, but really to have deserved them he ought to have realized what the address change was all about. Perhaps he had already turned left onto Second when the notice came through, and it was too late.)

I went out again, this time to pick up the prescriptions at Duane Reade, even though I didn’t really need them yet, and to stop in at Gristede’s for emergency quality-of-life supplies. (Lays Classic Potato Chips and Triscuits.) For some reason, that Gristede’s has always stocked Belgian beers, in their large, expensive bottles, so I bought a bottle of Chimay for the beef stew. Then I had to stand on line for fifteen minutes, without any kind of carrier or cart. By now I had accumulated some ice cream, and I feared that it must be melting. But I managed to get home without further bother.

OMG! I’ll bet the package room/dry cleaner downstairs would be closing early! This thought hit me when I read that the Post Office closed early today and wouldn’t reopen until Wednesday. Sure that Jerri’s would also be closed tomorrow, I swept everything up and got it downstairs just in time — well, at a minute to five. I don’t think that they were closing early.

***

I propose that we look at the past again, because it matters, and because it has so often been dealt with badly. I mean the past as a phenomenon has been dealt with badly. We have taken too high a hand with it. By definition it is all the evidence we have about ourselves, to the extent that it is recoverable and interpretable, so surely its complexities should be scrupulously preserved. Evidence is always construed, and it is always liable to be misconstrued no matter how much care is exercised in collecting and evaluating it. At best, our understanding of any historical moment is significantly wrong, and this should come as no surprise, since we have little grasp of any present moment. The present is elusive for the same reason as is the past. There are no true boundaries around it, no limit to the number of factors at work on it.

Thus Marilynne Robinson, in the Introduction to her essay collection, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. (4-5). It strikes me as an eloquent definition of what Hannah Arendt means by “the world” in terms of the human condition — and I couldn’t care less whether Arendt would agree. Like Robinson’s history, Arendt’s world is a human creation, nothing more and nothing less. Very grossly, it might still profitably be understood as everything that materially exists on the day of your birth. Everything from art to archives, plus everything that everybody knows. This last quantity changes the most over a lifetime, as older generations die off and take much of their experience with them. Everything that exists has a history, more or less well-known. Sometimes, as Robinson says, so little well-known as to be almost completely misunderstood. She goes on, in the Introduction, to demonstrate for how long and to what grievous extent historians have been misrepresenting John Calvin — whom everybody claims to understand but whom nobody has bothered to read. Ditto Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx. In the first essay proper, “Darwinism,” she shows how Darwin has benefited from the misreading of his work, which, in such late books as The Descent of Man, is ludicrously and unscientifically racist.

History can’t be abandoned to the historians, even if, or perhaps especially because, they make up the rules.

Reading Note:
The Small Back Room
26 January 2015

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Is there anything more perverse than the pleasure of gripping an exciting book with two hands as it rises to its climax, of galloping toward the last page with a mounting desire never to reach it? The book is so thrilling that you cast aside all obligations, sunk in the spell of the ripping yarn. When at last you reach the end, panting and exhausted by the sustained brush with potential disaster, there is nothing to do — nothing, it really does seem, to live for. There is, of course, plenty to do: all the things that you’ve neglected while in thrall. But it is unbearable to think of them, they are so grossly trivial in the wake of your adventure. Now you really are in danger.

The first thing that I did after reaching THE END of Nigel Balchin’s 1943 novel, The Small Back Room — when did novelists stop marking finis? when did journalists revive the practice with their little boxes? — I returned to the source of the tip that it might be worth reading. At the end of that Paris Review interview that I mentioned a while back, Shirley Hazzard answers, interestingly, I think, an interesting question by JD McClatchy:

INTERVIEWER

What novel from the past do you wish you had written?

HAZZARD

I don’t think I can answer this. Rather, I might speak with a joyful envy of passages that I myself would not have conceivably written. I would say that Great Expectations may be the most greatly realized novel in English (though I steer clear of that sort of competitive judgment). Conrad’s Victory, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse . . . Wuthering Heights . . . Ulysses . . . I can line them up forever–especially scenes to which I feel very near. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is an extraordinary novel that often comes to mind, yet I have no feeling that I could have imagined it or set about writing it. Tess is just about unbearable, a wonderful book in which I participate almost as if I created it. Such a disparate range of books your question summons up! A little masterpiece like Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room speaks to our own time, but with so much literary experience behind it. Then there is nonfiction so personal as to be novelistic–Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, for instance. There are passages in many good novels that I feel affinity for. In responsive reading, one participates, so to speak, in the rainbow of creation.

I had never heard of Nigel Balchin, but if Hazzard recommended him, and did so in a way that made a “little” masterpiece sound like a bigger achievement than a great one, then I should have to give him a try. So I found a used copy at Amazon. The book was reprinted fifteen years ago, as a “Cassell Military Paperback” — I want to come back to that — and on the cover is a still image from the 1948 British Lion film of the same name, which I’ve just now ordered from Amazuke. You have to know the book or the movie to get any excitement out of the still, which shows a man on a pebbly beach fiddling with something. He is defusing a bomb.

The bomb plot — the Germans have been dropping “booby traps” that look more like large flashlights than explosives, and curious passers-by, including several children, have been “blown to glory” by them — is one of the two narrative strands that Balchin weaves to great effect. Our hero, Sammy Rice, is detailed to one Captain Stuart, the Army man who is trying to get to the bottom of this menace — at the outset, Stuart has no idea what the things look like, much less how they’re constructed. Sammy is a physicist working at a Whitehall unit of civilian eggheads, brought in by “the Minister” to advise on weapons projects, and he knows a thing or two about fuses. Together, he and Stuart try to reverse engineer the booby trap, working from the very little that they’ve learned about how it detonates. Sammy, although not very heroic, is readily engaged by the project, partly because he likes and admires Stuart, but partly also because it gets him out of the office.

The office plot is much bulkier, in terms of sheer word count, than the bomb plot, but if we were to compare the novel to the booby trap, we should have to say that the office plot is the explosive material, while the bomb plot acts as the detonator. Midway through The Small Back Room, it occurred to me that I was reading an example of that mythically rare genre, the “work” novel. The Small Back Room is also very much an “office politics” novel — that, as you may imagine, is where the explosives come from — but the absurdities of office life are grounded in judiciously described work. Sammy has his “stuff” (cold-weather lubricants), but there are also reports to crank out and a team to oversee. There are two occasions in which Sammy goes out to a place called Graveley to observe weapons tests. Balchin does not stint on detail.

Perhaps the “work” makes for rewarding reading because of the war background. By now, the dizzying juxtaposition of time scales that characterizes so much writing about the early years of World War II in Britain is familiar enough for me to compare it to the telescoping corridor in The Shining. Everything is an emergency, now now now, but everything takes forever. While the kingdom is under siege, committees respond with glacial caution. The dissonance is quite literally nightmarish.

I am dimly aware that there is a robust British tradition of “action” novels, written for men, and especially for military men, that combine a scrupulous if streamlined literacy with difficult moral questions. Nothing is ever belabored in these books — that’s the one thing that readers wouldn’t tolerate — but the effort to get things right is striking. The romantic impulse that inspired John Buchan, if never extinguished, is tamed, controlled, and restricted. The third movement of A Dance to the Music of Time belongs very much to this line of work. Its guiding principle seems to be that, while essentially absurd, war is too serious to be dismissed as “absurd.”

I am familiar with at least one writer who is keeping this tradition alive, Paul Torday, whose Salmon Fishing in the Yemen I have not read (yet) but whose More Than You Can Say made a favorable impression a few years ago. If this tradition has an American counterpart, I am altogether unaware of it. Writers such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut do not share the English take on absurdity. American novelists are reluctant humanists at best.

Two excerpts from The Small Back Room. The first is the quietly brilliant opening paragraph, which explains why the narrator is not in Service, while announcing that he his going to say very little — barely more than what’s in these sentences — about his past. That’s to say that he will resist the urge to explain himself.

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time. It would be all right for a bit, and then any one of about fifty things would start it off and it would give me hell.

This establishes the particular note of manliness that runs through the entire novel, as well as a harmonizing note of self-pity. The tension between character and woundedness has reduced Sammy to regarding himself as worthless, but the possibility of redemption is heralded by his growing mastery of a drinking problem, which is also reflected in his relationship with Susan, a woman whom he has clearly met at the office. The love interest in The Small Back Room is by no means negligible, but it is elegantly subsumed to what, in the modest framework of this kind of book — a framework of modesty, really — is clearly an epic struggle.

The following passage comes from the other end of the book, or very nearly. Sammy is on the beach, straining to defuse a booby trap. Worn out after a great deal of grueling, terrifying work, he has just discovered the most discouraging thing: the most difficult task of the job so far will have to be repeated at another part of the device. Meanwhile, far down the beach, in field-telephone contact, stands a cluster of Army personnel: Sammy is being watched.

It stuck, just as the other had done; and that finished me. It was the fact that the strain came on exactly the same places as before. I don’t suppose it was as stiff as all that really, and if I’d been fresh I dare say one big heave would have done it. But my hand and arm muscles were all to hell, and instead of giving one big heave I had to keep giving a series of little heaves, which did no good at all and just took what little guts I’d got clean out of me. If I’d had any sense I should have stopped and rested, or thought of another way of doing it; but that never occurred to me. I just went on pulling at the damned wrench, never even believing it was going to move.

I don’t know how long this went on, or why I didn’t shake the thing so much that it went up. I remember hearing myself sobbing with each pull, and that I kept my eyes shut because the sweat made  them smart so much. Finally my hand grip just packed up, my hand slipped off the wrench, and I half fell backwards. I made a sort of half-hearted effort to get up, and then just lay there sobbing and panting with my eyes shut.

You’ll have to read the book yourself to see what happens next.

Obelisk Note:
Curation II
23 January 2015

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Surely you remember Hermes Trismegistus? No, he’s not a Levantine con man played by Peter Lorre. He’s much older than that. Older by far than his swanky Graeco-Latin name. According to Augustine, he lived

long before the sages and philosophers of Greece, but after Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, yea, and Moses also: for at the time when Moses was born, was Atlas, Prometheus’s brother, a great astronomer, living, and he was grandfather by the mother’s side to the elder Mercury, who begat the father of this Trismegistus.

Plus, of course, he was Egyptian, this Hermes, this “thrice magisterial” figure (priest, philosopher, king). He was also an invention. We don’t know whose, but by Augustine’s day there were (evidently) manuscript references ready to be copied out by the diligent. Hermes seems to be of the same vintage as the Kabbalah, a tasty morsel in the stew of eclectic philosophy stirred by Jewish mystics.

It’s from this Hermes that we get the word “hermetic,” with its two meanings. First, it refers to a body of writings, blending alchemy, astrology, and speculations on the nature of God, that dates from the early centuries of the Common Era. Second, it means a way of talking that is intelligible only to initiates. That’s why we’re talking about Hermes today. I’m tickled to death by the attraction that high-grade mumbo jumbo exercised upon the Renaissance scholars who tried to parse the ancient obelisks that had been unearthed in the course of re-birthing Rome. The attempt to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics was foredoomed by the widely-held conviction that the obelisks were inscribed with ancient wisdom.

Many believed that Hermes Trismegistus himself had devised the hieroglyphs as a way of preserving and protecting the old wisdom, encoding it in a symbolic language that was universal but also indecipherable to everyone but the truly wise.

So writes John Glassie in his delectable book, A Man of Misconceptions, which I ought to have read when it came out (in 2012) but did not, because, well, why would you read a book about someone who misunderstood just about everything?

***

Athanasius Kircher — Glassie’s subject — appears, along with his famous Wunderkammer, in what is perhaps the key chapter of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s strange little book, Ways of Curating.

Though the aim of amassing evidence may sound like a rather scientific way to think about collecting [ — bear in mind that Obrist is a top dog in today's art world, which is why he wants to excuse his appearing to be "scientific" — ], it is necessary to remember that the hard distinction between science and art which marks more recent centuries was not evident as late as the sixteenth century. The separation of art and the humanities on the one hand, and science on the other, is a fundamental feature of modern life, but it also constitutes a loss.

Looking back in time can be an invaluable tool for this: pre-modern scholars had a more holistic and comprehensive picture of human life than we do today. The hard division between the rational and the irrational that marks modernity has rendered unclear how science and art might relate to one other [sic] — how each is, perhaps secretly, part of the other. The history of the Wunderkammer — in which artefacts, paintings, specimens, sculptures and geological samples were collected in one place — is also the history of the period in which explanations, facts and the scientific method were first being elaborated. To study the Renaissance is to gain a model for reconnecting art and science, sundered by history. (39-40)

It’s when Obrist writes like this that I regard him as a licensed charlatan. I am not going to dwell on the almost idiotic assertion that history separated science from art; I am going to do no more that to suggest that the “loss” caused by that separation could be made good by humanists’ getting better at math. It’s hard to imagine what good might come of taking seriously the proposition that art and science are “perhaps secretly” the same thing. Obrist himself is not in the business of taking ideas seriously. On the contrary, he looks for ways to enact them — to dramatize them, really, or to turn them into physical exercises, thus draining them of intellectual content and stuffing them in allegory. Obrist is an ideal apologist for a crank like Athanasius Kircher.

Born in 1602, Kircher studied and contributed to the understanding of geology, optics, astronomy, perpetual motion machines, Chinese culture and history, clock design, medicine, mathematics, the civilization of ancient Egypt, and an amazing array of the other subjects. (40-1)

There’s no disputing this — although the mention of perpetual motion machines ought to put you on your guard — but what is the value of all those contributions?

That’s why I’m reading Glassie. Glassie quotes a historian, John Ferguson, who said of Kircher in 1906 that “his works in number, bulk, and uselessness are not surpassed in the whole field of learning.”

***

Few things are as frightening as the wrong-headed authority. And nothing is more useful to such an authority than a symbolic language that is universal but unintelligible to all but the truly wise. There’s really no arguing with an authority who wields such weapons. Critical minds eventually wise up and simply ignore the wrong-headed authority, but during his sway he can ruin a lot of research projects.

Plato was, of course, the very worst of wrong-headed authorities. Insisting that the five (known) planets, together with the sun and the moon, orbited about the earth in uniform circular motion — each traveling, that is, in a perfect circle, at a constant speed — he wrong-footed astronomy for nearly two thousand years. Plato also privileged explanation over observation. What a cushy life I’d have had, gifted as I am at spinning armchair theories. Having devised my own multi-step program to overcome this addiction (I’ve trained myself to listen for the peculiar pitch that my voice takes on when I embark upon speculations), I had to laugh, last night, when Kathleen asked me, “Who was the first to use the scientific method.” I kept laughing, as a cover, until I was ready to commit to an answer. (Lavoisier — and not because he discovered oxygen.)

Glassie reminds us that pre-modern science was Platonic in its disregard for mathematics: numbers didn’t explain anything. Aristotle, who was sensible rather than elegant, and in other ways as well the opposite of Plato, was a virtuoso of explanations, many of them based a kind of observation that we would call literary rather than scientific. Aside from ignoring the important advice to keep it short, Aristotle was basically a journalist. The object of his reports on the world was not to understand how the world actually works but to make the world understandable to his readers. This approach to reality stopped satisfying the keenest minds in the Fifteenth Century, and by the end of the Seventeenth Century mere explanation was no longer regarded as scientific at all. tou

But the switch from words to numbers did not happen overnight, and Glassie’s book shows that the transformation was so chaotic that to speak of a “scientific revolution” is itself wrong-headed. The term tells us nothing about the complexity of intellectual ferment during what was, after all, the Age of Baroque.

For the moment, I’m savoring the utterly Baroque idea that wisdom ought best be proclaimed, in universal but unintelligible symbols, by the stone faces of obelisks.

And I’m also pondering Obrist’s notion that presenting Athanasius Kircher as an artist gives meaning to his nonsense.

Bon weekend à tous!

Weekday Movie:
American Sniper
22 January 2015

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

How long has it been since I’ve been to the movies? Four or five months? More? I used to go every Friday, almost without fail. I saw a lot of interesting but not-great movies, and I spent hours in nearly empty theatres. At long last, I’m beginning to miss that.

I almost backed away from the box office late yesterday afternoon. There was a line. Not a long line, maybe five or six parties ahead of me. But this more than whispered the possibility that I might not be able to get a seat on the aisle at the very back. Well, in that case, I’d just walk out — no big deal. It was worth the gamble to wait and see. Having decided to “go to the movies,” taking a chance was the only way to avoid the despond of failure into which I should certainly sink if I slunk back home. It has not been easy to amass the exit velocity required to get me out of my reading chair and then out of the apartment and back to normal city life, and it seemed important, yesterday, as I weighed the pros and cons, not to dissipate the effort that had brought me this far. In the event, I got just the seat that I wanted, and the theatre was only about twice as crowded as normal (normal for midday-viewing me). Which is to say that it wasn’t even half full.

Going to the movies yesterday made sense; the day had already been broken by two medical appointments. The upper left side of my face was bandaged in three places, and, although I wasn’t in pain, I felt, if not violated, then disrupted. Such was the thrust that propelled me to one of the two remaining neighborhood movie houses, to see American Sniper.

It wasn’t the movie that I’d wanted to see; I had thought that A Most Violent Year, which looks keenly appealing, would still be playing — but no. This left three choices. Aside from Clint Eastwood’s movie, there was Inherent Vice and there was Selma. If Inherent Vice, with its louche Seventies setting and Pyncheon background, threatened to be demoralizing, Selma menaced an exhausting uplift — I really did just want to “go to the movies.” The one thing that American Sniper had going for it was Bradley Cooper. I’ve admired Cooper ever since he played the loathsome creep in The Wedding Crashers (although one Hangover was enough), but/and there has been a consistency to his roles that the new movie promised to break with.

I knew nothing of Chris Kyle; I didn’t even know that American Sniper is a “true story.” All I knew was that the film would ring a variation on a theme already visited by The Hurt Locker. A very capable soldier puts his all into fighting for his country on repeated tours of duty in Iraq, only to find that life back home lacks color and meaning. There would be dusty, broken down Mesopotamian cities, whose empty streets would be punctured by armored trucks and gunfire. There would be arguments in a suburban house somewhere in the American Southwest, as a wife waited for her husband, only physically present, fully to come home.

What Bradley Cooper brings to this scenario is well worth its familiarity. The accuracy of his impersonation of the heroic shooter doesn’t concern me in the least; nor does the film’s utter neglect of such contextual explanations as what the war is about or why the enemy deserves to be killed bother me at all. American Sniper is not the vessel for such issues; it is, rather, a showcase for the demonstration of a particular American masculinity. The demonstration is so pure, so serenely untroubled by the existential uncertainty that this brand of manliness is dedicated to overpowering, that its exponent becomes a figure of mythic attraction. You might not like him, but you cannot look down on him. Nor can you argue that he is not a good man. You can try, as Matt Taibbi does in his takedown of the movie in Rolling Stone; you can call Kyle “a killing machine with a heart of gold.” But it won’t stick. Cooper’s Kyle does not have a heart of gold. He does, however, have a clear conscience.

Cooper’s best moments are the understated ones, when, embarrassed by attentions paid to abilities that are no more remarkable to him than the ability to tie his shoes, he can only nod, as minimally as a neck can nod, or half-bark, half-murmur the simplest assent, yes, as if straining after invisibility. The frontier between the decent discretion of a man determined not to talk about himself and the pained aversion of a man troubled by PTSD is both infinitely porous and quickly traversed. In the metabolism of the story that the movie tells, Kyle finds redemption in helping others with similar afflictions. This seems perfectly plausible: the disorder is not ignored, but its focus is prised from the secret self and brought out into the open. As long as the subject is not himself — as long as he is not being asked to account for himself in words that he obviously regards as superfluous to the record established by his deeds — Kyle can rattle along like any good old boy. Within the parameters of his firm and stern masculinity, Kyle is warm and amiable.

I didn’t know how American Sniper would end, but I knew that it was going to end, and end badly, when a datestamp suddenly appeared at the bottom of the screen. Earlier, such markers as “First Tour” and “Second Tour” had announced the beginning of each of the Iraqi episodes. Now, there was a date. Clearly something momentous was going to happen, and, given the story so far, and the way the scene begins, it seemed likely what this something would be: Kyle would be shown to have lost his wits to PTSD, and to have murdered his wife and children before taking his own life. He is shown, walking up to his wife with a revolver. But: just kidding! Kyle would indeed die that day, but as the victim of a troubled fellow veteran whom he was trying to help. But that would happen offscreen.

If it weren’t for the regrettable final scene, conceived after Kyle’s murder, Cooper’s portrayal would be altogether majestic. The scene is regrettable because it plays off of the actor’s numerous earlier performances as a manic nut-case. Those who know the Chris Kyle story going in, of course, won’t be misled; indeed, they’ll probably sense an irony that, from what I’ve since read about the real Kyle, was terribly apt. Kyle may very well have been more like Cooper’s troubled young men than, up to this final scene, Cooper’s Kyle has been, but that’s the problem: the kidding-around with guns doesn’t fit the Kyle whom Cooper has shown us. I think that it would have been far more interesting to dramatize his death.

***

American Sniper might well have been hard for me to watch. The reverent presentation of Texan virtues always antagonizes me. But Cooper eschews reverence. So does Eastwood, at least until the very end, where clips from Kyle’s obsequies turn on the waterworks. Instead of making me question whether Kyle’s conscience ought to be as clear as it is — the issue for many viewers, I gather — Bradley Cooper made me wish that Texas could be spun off as a separate planet. Texas is a very large state, but it has to be, because it is also intensely inward. It has little or no use for the outside world. The principle Texan virtue is the ability to see Texas as the Promised Land. It’s a beautiful belief, but if you don’t happen to share it — if Texas brings to mind one of the darker books of the Bible, but one in which the language of King James has yielded to a drawling and immodest demotic, then you might wish that Texas were a great deal more otherworldly than it is.

Gotham Diary:
Not Too Early
21 January 2015

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

The call to arms:

We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early [emphasis supplied] to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.

That’s Leon Wieseltier, writing in a cover story, at The New York Times Book Review, that does not involve a book review. Marilynne Robinson might put it differently, but she, too, is urging us to put up courageous resistance to the ecstatic revolutionaries.

Wieseltier’s final statement sounds, in context, like an exhortation, but it is a statement of fact. How the would-be engineers have tried and failed! Aside from a great deal of suffering, they have accomplished nothing. But no: there is one good thing. They have proved, by their consistent failure, that we are each of us unique, unlike everyone else in some way or other. Of human beings generally, only two things can be said: they are born, and they die. Beyond that rages a blizzard of particular details. We are in fact universally particular — a paradox that neutralizes two ideas that are toxic in isolation.

We used to make idiotic statements, such as “Man is a rational animal.” That’s universalism. At the same time, we stated that human beings of varying description were not really men. That’s particularism. It’s good to know that ever-fewer thinking people make these mistakes.

***

Wieseltier offers a thumbnail syllabus of humanism. He begins with the idea that it comprises a history of thought that is taught with a view to making humanists of its students. This is both elegant and important, but it is not where I should begin. I should begin where Wieseltier ends, with “a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion.” I should try to find another word for “values”; it has become confusing, in this age of free-market economics, to speak of moral values. Values are pricetags, statements of relative desirability. I should say, “self-evident truth.”

The moral truth of tolerance and compassion is self-evident because every rigorous challenge to it breaks down. The rigorous challenge is one that does not, to quote Wieseltier quoting, depend on “the importation of another framework of judgment” — a non-human framework. Such “imported” critiques of the human condition abound. All you need do is compare the human being to something more (momentarily) attractive. In modern times, the human being has been endlessly compared to and measured against the mechanical system. Why? Mechanical systems can accomplish great things — although you do have to be on guard against noxious side-effects. The worst of these, aside from all the insults to the environment, is that mechanical systems tend to make the people who control them very rich, and when you have been made very rich by a mechanical system, it is very tempting to prefer mechanical systems to human beings. The advantages of mechanical systems seem to proliferate: not only do they make you rich, but they can be controlled. They can be turned on and off. They can be adapted to new purposes. They can be adjusted to changing circumstances. They can be duplicated precisely. Best of all, they do not talk back. With mechanical systems, you know where you stand — and, if you control them, they make you rich. They make you less like a human being and more like a god. It becomes awfully easy to fall in love with yourself — which, the best tragedians assure us, leads always to tears.

Compared to mechanical systems, human beings are something of a shambles. But the comparison fails of rigor. Rigor requires us to judge human beings as human beings. How do we do that? We scarcely know. We begin simply, naively: those who are taller, stronger, and smarter than others are judged superior. Almost immedidately, these supposedly better human beings quickly learn how to behave badly. We refine our criteria, but the result is always the same: superiority leads straight to wickedness of some kind. The only way to guard against wickedness is to suppose an essential equality: no one is superior.

And, indeed, no one is. To prize the strength of an individual is not much different from prizing a mechanical system. Human nature is not involved. The “human nature” aspect of every gifted individual’s gifts is nothing but luck or good fortune, for all gifts begin with inborn aptitude. To judge yourself superior because of your aptitudes (and the effort that you have applied in developing them) is to cut yourself off from human nature, and that in turns deprives you of the only available expertise: for no one knows how to live except as a human being. It makes much better sense to be humbly lucky.

Every so often, along comes something new, such as circumnavigation of the globe, or the iPhone, and at least some human beings envision changes to human nature. Instead, human nature, given more scope, intensifies. Circumnavigation leads to slavery, but has no impact whatever on human nature, except perhaps to show it up more clearly. I have found the iPhone to be handy to the extent that it has extended the range of convenience — but not increased the instance of it. It is what I bring to the iPhone experience, not what it brings to mine, that makes it useful.

It is certainly not too soon to challenge the engineers who want to try to monetize the mind.

Gotham Diary:
Du Calme
20 January 2015

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Usually, the difficulty is that I have nothing much to say, nothing ready to pour over the lip of my mind and splash onto the page. It doesn’t happen very often, but when I find it difficult to begin an entry, that is the problem. But it is not the problem this morning. This morning, I am stricken.

I am stricken by the pealing reverberations of having read The Transit of Venus and, for the first time, having understood what was going on in that book, including the horrific, but even more sad than horrific, final moment.

I am stricken by Leon Wieseltier’s call to arms in The New York Times Book Review. I am stricken by it, and inclined to read it as a call to arms, because I can still hear Marilynne Robinson urging courage upon the Nation staffers who recorded a discussion with her.

I am as stricken by these things as so many people seemed to be by the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher killings two weeks ago.

***

The Robinson interviewit was actually a Q & A — at The Nation made for embarrassing listening. The staffers, only partially identified — I caught the name of Deputy Literary Editor Miriam Markowitz, and I presume that the “John” who kicked off the discussion was John Palattella, the Literary Editor — did not speak particularly well. The women, as so many women do these days, made statements that sounded like questions — almost like apologies. The men correspondingly mumbled, as if terrified of giving offense. These presumably bright and literate people spoke as if they had no very clear idea of what they wanted to ask Marilynne Robinson. At the same time, they could not keep an unpleasant note of challenge entirely out of their voices. The one thing they seemed sure of was that they would not be, could not be hoodwinked. At the same time, they sounded — the men especially — as insecure as the rankest undergraduates.

I don’t think that it would have been much different anywhere else — not, that is, without sounding like a performance. This is how well-educated literate people talk today. They feel themselves to be under siege. Is anybody still reading? Has anyone bought a book lately? Has anyone received a piece of email that it was actually a pleasure to read?

The staffers seemed to be genuinely surprised by the relish with which Robinson embraces being a liberal. Politically, it may be that they found themselves further to the left than any liberal might be, but that’s not quite what it sounded like. What surprised and almost embarrassed them was Robinson’s cockeyed optimism about the United States, her expectation that it might go on to do great things.

Robinson has schooled herself, I suspect, to say as little as possible about the American South; when she mentions it at all, it is to remind us that they owned slaves down there. Her South is a swamp whose atmosphere is poisoned by racist miasmas. She barely hints that these exhalations have wafted north. In the Nation discussion, she attributed the collapse of liberalism to a “backlash” against the Abolitionist Movement, but she did not dilate. Certainly, as Louis Menand pointed out in his 2001 study, The Metaphysical Club, there was a surge of anti-idealism in American thought in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Thoughtful Americans abandoned speculative philosophy for pragmatism. Jim Crow was the price, paid by the very men and women that the late war had been thought to enfranchise. Now the cost of this pragmatism is more generally spread upon all of us. Just the other day, Maureen Dowd was complaining that filmmaker Ava DuVernay knowingly misrepresents the positive role played by LBJ in the Selma moment.

DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. King. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.”

Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.

And that’s a shame. I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.

DuVernay told Rolling Stone that, originally, the script was more centered on the L.B.J.-M.L.K. relationship and was “much more slanted to Johnson.”

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie,” she said.

Could it be that the ever-unspooling curse of racism has tarnished the old ideal of an open, free society for men and women of all colors with the tinge of imperialist presumption?

Marilynne Robinson writes about her childhood, and about the personal point of view that developed out of that childhood, as though she had grown up in a pre-lapsarian, or at any rate pre-pragmatic America, as indeed her corner of the Northwest (in Idaho) might well have been. The legacy of the Civil War is in some ways thinnest in that part of the country. In others — the density of Mormons, the popularity of guns — it is very thick. But we must not romanticize the liberal New England that means so much to Robinson. In 1850, Harvard Medical School students staged an effective protest that overturned the admission of black men.

***

I don’t see anything in the past, including the American past, worth trying to recapture. Even the most glorious developments are founded on mistakes, and we almost always fix our mistakes with new mistakes. Our inability to encompass the complications of earthly life is a sad fact of the human condition. I do believe, however, that our understanding grows. Sometimes, it even grows too quickly, as it is doing today in connection with environmental matters. There seems to be no way of grasping the encroachments of environmental degradation without flying into panic or sinking into despair. And yet they were altogether unimagined by our great-grandparents. At the same time, human agency played no role in the advent of the ice ages, great and small, that human beings have survived. The best one can do is to pray: du calme.

Gotham Diary:
Courage
16 January 2015

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Yesterday, the dermatologist took five biopsies, two from my back, two from my forehead, and one from my right arm. Five. I have never had more than two taken at one time, and it’s certainly not the case that it has been a while since my last exam. Today came the good news that only two of the five are a problem, and the even better news that the dermatologist herself will burn one of them off — next week, right before I head a few blocks further downtown to the Mohs surgeon’s office, where a growth will be removed from over a cheekbone. (We’ve known about that one for a while, but there was no hurry and I asked to wait until after the holidays.) Good news, as I say — but it doesn’t have the punch that good news used to have. I don’t dwell on it morbidly, but I cannot overlook the fact that bad news, really bad news, cannot be too far off. It may even come unannounced.

The awful truth is that I didn’t turn sixty-seven last week. I turned “practically seventy.”

***

In this week’s issue of The Nation, there is a review of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (by Roxana Robinson), followed by excerpts from an interview with the members of the magazine’s staff. The full interview can be heard at TheNation.com/robinson-interview, and I’ve just listened to it. It lasts a little over an hour, and so far as the first half of the discussion goes, the excerpts capture Robinson’s thinking more effectively than the more tentative recording. But then Robinson goes on to discuss things that don’t come up in the excerpts at all, such as the relative excellence of American higher education (compared with that of France and the UK, where she has taught), or the oblivion that has descended upon the history of integrated communities in the North prior to the Civil War, or the essential un-Christianity of insisting upon compliance with established Christian doctrines. She talks a lot about courage, too — often the subtextual subject of the essays in When I Was A Child I Read Books. Not battlefield, fireman courage, but what I would call simple, everyday courage — mindful of the paradox. For Robinson, this sort of courage is not unlike physical fitness. If you exercise it, you can depend upon it. You get into good shape. You worry less about offending other people with your thoughtful views on important matters, and, as a result, your views become more thoughtful. As in her nonfiction (and as is implied throughout the Gilead trilogy), the American experiment is held to be a success, something to be proud of. “Liberal” is a good word, conveying the biblical injunction to “open wide thy hand.”

The whole history of liberalism as a movement was lost because the name was removed from the file. Do you know what that is? It’s cowardice: “I’m afraid to say a word that somebody else will react to badly.” How insidious that is! Unbelievable, to me.

Indeed, the audio is studded with what sound very much like moments of stunned silence. And this, in the offices of The Nation! It’s reminiscent of a story that Robinson tells about “preaching” in a Unitarian Universalist church: she was informed even there that the world “liberal” is no longer used.

And yet, listening to Robinson hammer away at this point (with a lovable, grandmotherly insistence that would be very well played by, say, Lois Smith, whom Robinson somewhat resembles), I began to ask myself if it had not been necessary to put the word liberal away precisely because it had for so long represented a movement, a movement disliked by many Americans. Unless the liberal movement were retired from public discourse (at the liberals’ bidding!), would it have been possible to tinker as extensively as we have done, in the past thirty years, with the status of women, with the freedom of men and women to act according to their sexual preferences, and even with our requirements for a President (a black man may well be followed in office by a white woman)? I talk of tinkering deliberately — particularly with regard to changes on the sexual-preference front. There may have been a movement to provide persons formerly known as homosexuals with heterosexuals’ rights, but even its most ardent adherents — perhaps those adherents most of all — were surprised by the speed with which, say, same-sex marriage has been legitimated throughout the land. This happened, I propose, not because of movements or activists, but because people of generous disposition did everything they could do, on a person-by-person basis, to persuade their neighbors that gays and lesbians are also their neighbors. They were already there, right next door, living their lives, and wanting only to live them more happily. It was the opposite of a movement. It required countless, countless acts of Robinsonian courage, particularly on the part of men and women who risked their oldest attachments by telling their families about themselves.

I do think that Robinson’s suggestion (whether she makes it intentionally or not), that liberalism be seen as a mainstream Protestant tradition, every bit as American as Washington at Valley Forge, is a beautiful one — as beautiful as her novels. What makes me bristle a bit is a certain elusiveness on Robinson’s part regarding Calvin and Augustine. Robinson says that it is un-Christian to exclude fellow men and women (such as her wonderful Lila) because they do not fully or clearly subscribe to “doctrine,” but she still wants to claim Calvin and Augustine, both of whom relied upon state power to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy, and both of whom were willing to coerce unto death, as Christians — important Christians. I don’t see how organized Christianity can regain its original holiness without drawing a line against the Calvins and Augustines who people its maturity. I don’t insist on chucking them out altogether, but they cannot be held up as models. They are important historical figures, yes. But we need other models for our piety. My suspicion is that new models will have to come from fiction — fiction very much like Lila. No human being in the real world could be so intimately and widely known to others and yet retain Christian humility.

But Marilynne Robinson herself is right up there with John the Baptist. (It can’t, however, go without saying: mutatis mutandis.)

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Nearby But Far Away
15 January 2015

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

One thing leads to another. Packing the books before the move, I came across Shirley Hazzard’s first novel, The Evening of the Holiday, and decided to re-read it. At least, that’s what I remember. My book-reading records (a newly-revived aspiration) make no mention of this, but, as I say, it was during the move. I remember thinking about the book constantly, a few weeks later, while I was reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence, a very different novel but one that bears a strong sibling resemblance. Thanks to Amazon, I came across People in Glass Houses, which I’d never heard of. (I wrote about that last week.) It led me to Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case. Which led me, finally (for the moment), to JD McClatchy’s Paris Review interview with Hazzard. I had been looking at Hazzard’s Wikipedia entry, wondering what it might tell me about the reception of the Waldheim book. Here is what Hazzard herself has to say about it (and her other work of UN nonfiction, The Defeat of an Ideal) in the Paris Review interview:

I saw that the truth would never be disclosed except by someone who had been present and was willing to testify. I knew that I could get a book published, and knew where to look for the documents. In all my UN writings, the UN vituperation against me has never challenged the scholarly apparatus appended to the two factual books, and has never questioned any of the evidence adduced.

She mentions something that comes up in Countenance of Truth as well: in connection with a revealing piece that Hazzard wrote in 1980, Kurt Waldheim and his minions threatened the writer and The New Republic with a libel suit that never materialized. Later, of course, Waldheim would say of these charges (about his Nazi past), “Who cares if they’re true?” But he was still Secretary-General at the time of the New Republic piece. That he didn’t follow through with the lawsuit is clarion proof not so much that Hazzard’s allegations were true but that Waldheim could be sure that neither the UN nor the United States would take any notice. Waldheim had been tapped for the top slot at the UN not despite his past but because of it.

Countenance of Truth is a very chilling book. (I should clear up the possibility of confusion by noting that Hazzard was not present at the UN when Waldheim was Secretary-General, or even when he was Austria’s Permanent Representative to the Organization. Four-odd years elapsed between her “separation” and his arrival.) It argues that the United States, not long after the UN was established, perverted the character of its civil service, which had been intended by the Charter to be impervious to political pressures from member nations. (The US, then in the throes of McCarthyism, insisted upon loyalty clearances for Americans attached to the Secretariat.) Countenance also argues that this perversion resulted in the desolation of the UN’s powers as a force for the good of mankind. Finally, it argues that Waldheim, to no one’s ultimate suprise, presided over the irreversible demoralization of the UN. I find these arguments persuasive, but I am aware that anyone of a “realistic” cast of mind, by nature unsympathetic to the very idea of a United Nations Organization in the first place, would be reduced to eye-rolling by Hazzard’s implacable, smouldering outrage. And, for all its marble-veined eloquence — Countenance seems more chiseled than penned — the arguments are not quite so effective at conveying the existential futility of UN operations as the tragicomic fiction of People in Glass Houses.

The Paris Review interview filled me with the oddest feeling. As nothing else ever has, it made me want to have my life to live over again. This was not a feeling of regret but, on the contrary, one of repletion: it was like sitting in a warmly lighted room while snow fell gently into the evening outside a window. It had nothing to do with the different things that I would do or the things that I would do differently — with one exception. In this second-chance of a life, everything would be the same except that I should know, from the very start, that I was a reader. That I should be storing up not so much the content of books as the many-splendored possibilities of the written word. I say “written,” but I should know, as a reader, to read, always, with my ear.

INTERVIEWER

What are you looking to change when you revise?

HAZZARD

It is mainly a question of the ear. If one has read a lot, and especially in poetry, all one’s life, one’s ear signals falsity, infelicity, banality. What one can do about it is another matter.

And with that I sank back, surprisingly content. “If one has read a lot…” No more than I can have my life to live over again can I have started the first one with a good ear. Well, I did have a good ear, for music as well as poetry and prose (and for voices — I fall in love with them), but not an informed one. Necessarily not. So, instead of pining after what cannot be, I shall urge every young reader as strenuously as I can to read deeply and to listen well. I’m not offering this as advice for becoming a good writer, although I don’t believe that anyone who follows it could ever become a bad one, but simply as a tip conducive to joy.

Whatever she is doing — writing fiction about Italy or fact about the United Nations; remembering the austere Australia of her childhood (“provincialissimo”) or the everyday blisses of her life with Francis Steegmuller — Shirley Hazzard persuades the reader that she has enjoyed the hell out of literacy. So have I — lately. How marvelous it would be to have had a life in which the pleasure of reading were never for a moment regarded as idle or pointless or “irrelevant” or — the worst — self-indulgent.

Here in my hand is the first edition of The Transit of Venus, which I bought when it came out in 1980. I shall tell you frankly that I did not understand it. I was never in the dark about what was going on, but I didn’t know why the story was being told: it was beyond me. If I had my life to live over again, I should never be or have been so callow.

Intellectual Note:
Having My Own Way
14 January 2015

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

In this morning’s Times, I read the obituary of Carl Degler, a Stanford historian who died at a great age. I was assigned his book, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America, at prep school, fifty years ago. I did not read it then or afterward, but I carted it around with me for decades. I doubt that I still have it, but I can’t be sure without checking the shelves here and in storage. I was faintly surprised to read that Degler was an early advocate of affirmative action and feminism, because, it’s clear, I thought that he was much older than he was, or at least a lot more than thirty-odd years older than I was.

Out of Our Past was a large, thick paperback, unusual in those days, and I was put off by the jacket art, which featured a gigantic eagle frowning with righteous indignation. The image had clearly been lifted from a publication of the Civil War era, and I don’t think that anything could have been a bigger turn-off. I found the mere thought of the Nineteenth Century oppressive — all those black, hot, wrinkled clothes! All that untidy hair! (I was responding to old photographs; it would be a long time before I understood that earlier periods of history appealed to me because they had not been subjected to the scrutiny of photography.) And there was always something bogus about the Civil War. If it had indeed been the triumph of justice and freedom that teachers said it was, you certainly couldn’t tell that from looking at social arrangements on the ground. Black people tended to be poor. (Unless they were entertainers — a euphemism that one ran into. “There must be a lot of entertainers in your building,” said my mother-in-law to Kathleen in 1980.) They lived in unlovely places. They were conspicuously absent from my suburban hometown (which was popular with Southern expats). Triumph of hypocrisy would be more like it.

I should have liked my country better had the Cold War not, throughout my childhood, provided Blimpish fools with so many speaking opportunities.

If I find that I still have Degler’s book, I will give it some respectful attention, notwithstanding its lethal subtitle.

***

I’ve been trying to sort out two very tangled but clearly distinct strands of anti-bourgeois passion. The simpler one is the political-philosophical tradition presided over by Karl Marx. (Is it important to know what makes Marxists different from Marxians?) It is easy to see why this adherents of this tradition don’t like the middle classes, and it’s just as easy to see how wrong-headed (because of idealism) their understanding of human nature is. The more complex and far more insidious hatred of the intellectuals is more difficult to grasp. Intellectuals were frequently, perhaps even usually, socialists or communists, but, as John Carey explains in his wonderful study, The Intellectuals and the Masses, they feared and loathed the proletariat. They did not seriously believe that, shackles thrown off, means of production seized, workers would ever understand the superiority of — intellectuals. The intellectuals’ fear and loathing of the bourgeoisie was quite different. Almost all intellectuals, as their mere possession of educations betrayed, sprang from bourgeois origins. This they hastened to conceal with robust denunciations of their roots.

I could have been a classic intellectual. My parents were steady, sensible people (although my mother did have a greater than normal allotment of something that she was always attributing to me, “flair”), while I was a lazy daydreamer who wanted nothing so much as to talk about books. I ought to have grown up full of contempt for my parents’ materialism. Instead, I developed a contempt for the quality of their materialism, which wasn’t very high. They had no interest in fine art — and by fine art, here, I mean the courtly arts of ancien régime Europe. They had no time for history, which, even then, I understood to be the explanation of things, real things in the real world. (Why did practical steam engines first appear in the Eighteenth Century, and not at some other time? For the matter of that, what does “practical” really mean?) I was, in short, a great deal more materialistic than my parents. My critique of their views came, ultimately, from the right, not from the left.

Which made me interested in aristocrats, a category of persons sincerely detested (and, even more, mistrusted) by my Midwestern parents, both of whom had been relocated to the New York area in the Thirties. Aristocrats were, obviously, very interesting. But it was also clear that, as a class, they had failed. It was probably unwise, I concluded, to put so much emphasis on the chances of birth and parentage. So it would be better to say that some aristocrats were interesting — probably not very many. And, then, only at a distance: what made many aristocrats interesting was their terrible behavior. And that shatterproof self-satisfaction! I’ve got a grand example right here. I’m reading Moon Tiger, the Penelope Lively novel that won the Booker Prize in 1987. The title, I fear, is hardly better than The Forces That Shaped Modern America, but the novel is a great read. Here is the protagonist’s mother’s complacent complaint about what her daughter is going to do next:

“Claudia is going to Oxford,” says Mother. “Of course quite a lot of girls do now and she has always been one for getting her own way.” (139)

I barked with laughter when I read it; typing it out just now, I barked again. Mother will be saying next that Claudia is condescending to do Oxford a favor.

A lot of young people, I read, worry during adolescence that they will never grow up and become physically adult — that they will be stuck in an outgrown tail of childhood. What I wondered about was whether I would become an intellectual. First of all, I wasn’t sure that I was smart enough. Oh, I was very smart and all that, but so was everybody else who counted. It was like that line in the episode of Lewis (Season 7, I believe) where the beautiful scientist says, “This is Oxford. We’re all clever.” Beyond that, I felt that I was missing a key component required for the intellectual makeup. It was like worrying about being gay — I was almost certain that I missed this piece of equipment. Or perhaps I had another piece of equipment that would interfere with my becoming an intellectual.

I didn’t know what it was until quite recently — what it was that prevented me from becoming an intellectual. I’ll try to say it as neutrally as possible: I am unable to believe that any idea is more real, more true, or more vigorous than the meanest human being. The attraction of endowing ideals with an overriding significance that is lacking in shambling men and women is clear enough, but so is the horror, especially after the first half of the last century. Equally fraught is the positing of groups and the assignment of membership in those groups to people you don’t really know. The only groups that any of us halfway understand are the groups to which we think we belong, and to the extent that we’re comfortable with those identifications, we ought to regard them as deformations.

So much for the high-minded angle. I am also too attached to living in clean and comfortable places, surrounded by agreeable objects and regular meals. Too bourgeois.

Beauty Mark:
The Diderot Distortion
13 January 2015

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

A word about the Charlie Hebdo killings. I’ve been very confused about them — until today.

Today I came to understand that “free speech” has nothing, aside from the matter of provocation, to do with the slayings. Free speech, as a right guaranteed by modern democratic states, can be infringed only by the state. A disagreement between private persons, as the terrorists and their victims were here, does not become more than that simply because one party said things that the other didn’t like. The killers had no right to kill the journalists or the hostages — let me be perfectly clear: these horrific crimes were absolutely unjustifiable — but they would have had no more or less a right to kill anyone at all, had the cause of the dispute been one of the myriad things that breed feuding neighbors, or an affair of the heart, or professional jealousy, or — anything at all. The journalists do not move to a special class of victims because they were “speaking out,” any more than a trapeze artist who falls to her death suffers a thereby more momentous fate.

But when it is the state that violates its citizens’ rights, which are supposed to be guaranteed by that very state, a killing — or any other oppressive action — is darkened by an order of magnitude.

It is true that states vary the interest that they take in preventing likely crimes. Where victims are poor or members of a minority group, states can be very remiss indeed. Such was not the case here, however. One of the victims was a police officer detailed to watch over the journalists.

What if the terrorists had opened fire on some shoppers at the Galeries Lafayette, and taken others hostage? What sort of discussion would we be having then? Almost certainly there would be more critical interest in the environment from which the killers sprang. No one would be satisfied by the pat explanation that Muslims hate consumer capitalism (although the followers of Sayyid Qutb do hate it). Instead, there would be a repeated outbreak of hand-wringing over the economic plight of Mégrebins stuck in the banlieues, such as erupted several years ago when youths took to burning cars. There might even be a clearer recognition that it is fatuous, in today’s media climate, to expect people of any age to be content with dead-end lives. Bleak economic prospects, so at odds with reality-TV lifestyles, are fueling a massive social resentment along lines last seen in Paris in 1871 — but by no means just in France.

That is the kind of discussion that we ought to be having. It would put a very different construction on the solidarity of European leaders linking arms in the Champs Élysées.

***

On page 36 of Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist writes of Denis Diderot’s art criticism, “These writings marked the beginning of the understanding of exhibitions as publicly received events whose contents could be assessed in terms of newness, originality, and vitality.” The sentence implies, what nobody is likely to contest, that newness, originality, and vitality are virtues integral to art.

But in fact they are merely virtues integral to news. News was what Diderot was providing — news about the art world, but news.

Borrowing a page from DIY enthusiast Obrist, I shall here instruct the reader to supply a paragraph about the warping effect of journalism upon public affairs. Hint: this warping effect is almost entirely the result of paying journalists to make boring and/or complicated matters readily apprehensible to the casual reader. Challenge: write a must-read, 100-word paragraph about Géricault’s Scene of Shipwreck — better known as The Raft of the Medusa.

My own very rough estimate is that a well-grounded mind can devote no more than 20% of its attention to news. Too much news, and the mind becomes topheavy, and capsizes in a sea of incoherence. Happily, there is not enough real news to take up 20% of anybody’s time. Sadly, this fact is concealed behind a blaring pageant of bogus news. Today, bogus news is often concerned with the doings of celebrities. In the Nineteenth Century, there was a lot of bogus news about Progress. Progress was understood to be a semi-divine afflatus that, like a beneficent wind, propelled the nations of the modern West toward ever-greater peace and prosperity. (There were still wars, but domestic peace increased very greatly.) The cascade of new inventions and conveniences was far more exciting than our recent discovery of the Internet. As regrettably extreme as today’s income inequality is, it has not yet repeated the excesses of the Gilded Age. The first time around, spectators were dazzled and shocked by the leaping power of millionaires and superpowers — you might well say that they were electrified.

Progress, which began to be noticed toward the end of the Seventeenth Century, reached its torrential climax two hundred years later. After World War I, only Americans could be heard talking about it. Americans alone seemed to think that anything good had come from the carnage and its termination.

One of the flowers of progress was photography, and its relation to art on the one hand and to journalism on the other makes for fascinating juxtaposition. In one blow, photography obviated the “progress” that painting had been making since the dawn of the Renaissance. The object of this progress was the realization of pictorial illusion, but the reduction of art to a problem of progress — the growing misunderstanding of painting as an activity preoccupied by illusions, ever more expertly captured by painters but never quite so completely as it was captured by photographers — was the doing of journalism. Journalism, always interested in the new, is a natural promoter of progress. Modern journalism, ever since the Thirties, has understood that progress can lead in the “wrong” direction, as it did with the rise of Hitler (widely seen as a progressive figure, at least until the fighting began). But it is fixated on discovering that things are steadily progressing in one direction or the other. And it compounds the problem by struggling to envision this progress in terms that any semi-literate person can easily grasp. Journalism as practiced by the minions of Rupert Murdoch is journalism at its most natural.

Photography, tagged by journalists with the totally incorrect assertion that the camera never lies, quickly became as important to journalism as words, and, in the age of television, much more important. Meanwhile, painting was no longer associated with progress. This had a liberating effect on painters. So did the enormous changes in the nature of patronage that followed the collapse of the ancien régime in which the idea of art had been given its distinctively Western stamp. Painting and art — two different things, as we shall see.

Beauty Mark:
Curation I
12 January 2015

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Am I in a dream? No — I’m too aware of being confused. In a dream, confusion is normal and unremarkable. In waking life, confusion is a pain, and something of a madness.

I’m confused because I can’t find a spot of terra firma from which to survey what I see. Is Hans Ulrich Obrist, author of Ways of Curating, crazy? Or is it “just me”? I can’t be sure, because I might be blind.

Blind or blinded or at least blinkered by the environment in which I was brought up, a bourgeois environment in which manners and discretion were tremendously important, if too often distorted by hypocrisy and pointlessness. I have thought through and reformed my manners and my discretion in an attempt to make them sincere and purposeful. But I remain troubled by the belief, which I do not share, that they are somehow unnecessary or damagingly artificial.

Something even more important in the bourgeois environment is making sense. Making sense is not as simple as it sounds, because the rules for making sense are fed to bourgeois children along with their cereal, and only rarely examined consciously. Basically, it is a matter of observing the law — the laws of men and the laws of physics. Pennies must add up to dollars, and behavior must comport with standards of the permissible. If I say, “This is my house,” I must be able to support the statement with deeds and mortgage instruments. If I cannot do that, I am not making sense, no matter how justified I feel.

The bourgeois mind is uncomfortable with the claims of philosophy, because quite often they do not make sense. They describe things that ought to be the case, perhaps, but that aren’t in fact the case. They are not backed up by documents and accounts. They are just words in the air. The bourgeois mind is wary of speculation — curiosity without rigor, or whose rigor is limited to the organization of words.

***

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a fortysomething Swiss fellow. He seems to be a well-intentioned person, highly intelligent if a bit wide-eyed and somewhat humorless. By humorless, I mean that he appears to be capable of keeping a straight face while writing the following description of an exhibition (so to speak) at Zurich’s sewage museum, the Stadtentwasserung.

Cloaca Maxima, as the resulting exhibition was called, addressed themes that affect everyone directly. There were many connections to the permanent collection of the Stadtentwasserung itself, though the point of departure was the video by Fischli and Weiss, which consisted of real-time photographs from observation cameras in the sewers. According to Dominique Laporte’s A History of Shit (1978), waste in Western societies has been gradually domesticated and, hence, banned from public view, the high point being the nineteenth-century hygienist movement. Laporte theorizes that the absolute division between the economy (as the site of filth) and the state (as the site of purity, with an all-filtering sewer) separated the private still further from the public, thereby reinforcing their borders.

Art, by contrast, situates itself within transitions and passages; it opens up opportunities for the public incursions into the private and vice versa. Excrement is freed of its negative connotations by being employed discursively. Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (small sealed cans, each said to contain 30 grams of the artist’s shit) plays with exactly this kind of alchemical transformation — reinforced by the fact that the price per can was comparable to the price for 30 grams of gold.

Whoa! You lost me at Laporte’s theorizing!

Ways of Curating abounds in statements of this kind. They are held, maddeningly, to be self-evident, in no need of argument. (This hermetic quality is reinforced by the reiteration of the names of certain artists and thinkers, some but not all of whom will be familiar to the general reader. They rather powerfully convey the sense that Obrist lives in a bubble.) The most shocking thing about Ways of Curating, however, is Obrist’s bland assumption that he is talking about Art.

***

Regular readers will be familiar with my contention that “conceptual art” is a contradiction in terms, and also with my frustration at failing to suggest a plausible replacement. Good news. Not only has reading Ways of Curating sharpened my grasp of the issue, but Obrist may even have helped me to find a better term. The term that I propose to take the place of “conceptual art” is “cultural fiction.” This new term underlines the one thing that I did know about “conceptual art,” which is that it is a branch of literature. Sooner or later, what’s called conceptual art comes down to a statement, in words, of the concept(s) involved in the work. Sometimes, the statement appears in the work itself; more often, it appears on an explanatory title card, or in a philosophical essay in the accompanying catalogue. In Obrist’s world, the statements come not only sooner than later but often in lieu of actual work. Among the handful of words that stud nearly every page of Ways of Curating toolbox (a deplorable vogue word that insults real craftsmen, plumbers included), laboratory, and interstices are three — the standout is conversation.

At a café in Paris one late morning in the spring of 1993, I was talking to the artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier. I was twenty-four. We were discussing a particular kind of art, one that had grown remarkably over the last century: art that included not only objects to be displayed, but instructions to be executed. This, we agreed, had challenged traditional understandings of creativity, authorship, and interpretation. Boltanski and Lavier had been interested in such practices since the early 1970s; both had made many works that presented directions for action to the viewer, who became the work’s performer as well as its observer. This kind of art, Lavier pointed out, gave the viewer a measure of power in the making of it. He added that the instructions also gave life to his works, in a very real sense: they provoked not silent contemplation, but movement and action, amongst the visitors to museums or galleries in which they were displayed. Boltanski saw the instructions for installations as analogous to musical scores, which go through countless repetitions as they are interpreted and executed by others.

Starting with Marcel Duchamp, we began to list instruction-based artworks that came up as we talked…

I don’t want you to think that I find the idea of “instruction-based artwork” silly — I don’t, even if it has nothing to do with art. But isn’t it clear here that the truly exciting thing is the conversation, the rush of ideas, the list of names? Can’t you feel the heady enthusiasm of what in my college days was called a bull session? The show that Obrist went on to design, do it, was structured so that such conversations would have to take place before its installation in another city: the design was deliberately incomplete. Everything that could be done to reduce an “art exhibition” to the ephemerality of a conversation was done. Permanence in time and space was scrupulously resisted. Obrist happens to be a conscientious archivist of his conversations, but the difference between having a conversation and reading a transcript of that conversation is almost precisely the difference between writing a novel and reading it. The writing of a novel is quite literally exhausted, emptied, evaporated when the manuscript is bundled off to the publisher. It can be remembered (by the author only) but never re-experienced. That is what Obrist prizes about his toil in the fields of art.

Another recurring motif in Ways of Curating is the chronicle of first meetings that Obrist has had with artists and other art-world figures. In many cases, these meetings took place when Obrist was still in his teens. He has been not only drinking but bottling this Kool-Aid for a very long time.

As the great actress says near the end of Being Julia, “Not remotely.”

Gotham Diary:
Surplusage
9 January 2015

Friday, January 9th, 2015

I went to the Museum yesterday. I had to: I needed a desk calendar for 2015. Ordinarily, I order calendars for the coming year in the early summer, but I missed out on this year’s membership offer, if there was one, and in the crush of events from Labor Day on failed to stop in at the gift shop. I visited the Museum once during that time, in October, but I remember staying away from the gift shop, lest I be enticed to buy books.

I could have done an in-and-out at the gift shop without admission to the Museum proper, but the thought of my poor little passport — a small Field Notes notebook in which I paste admission stickers, as if saving up enough stickers would entitle me to the meiping vase that I’ve got my eye on — obliged me to start off the new year with a new sticker, and simple decency required me to put the sticker to use before pasting it in the passport. What to see, though? I was in the middle of running errands, not idling away the afterenoon. I scanned the posters for current shows, and decided on Thomas Struth.

Thomas Struth is a photographer who plays at being a conceptual artist. He takes stunning photographs, many in large format, and there is really no need to know anything about his subjects beyond gratifying the mortal itch to learn dates, locations, and perhaps the names of people. But the title cards on the wall are stuffed full of what lawyers call “surplusage” — no matter how interesting it might be, this information is irrelevant — irrelevant to the consideration of photographs, that is.

Take, for example, Struth’s photograph of a group of men and women standing in front of ranks of old-master paintings. The composition is still and grave but not without a certain winking wryness; the photograph could pass for a minor masterpiece by Irving Penn. We’re told that the people are art restorers, and that they’re shown in the old refectory of a monastery attached to the Italian cathedral in which the paintings normally hang. The restorers are not named, but we are also told — and this is where the surplusage begins — that Struth photographed only those restorers whom he had gotten to know, whatever that means. As I recall, the card blathered on to tell us that this personal familiarity with the people he shoots adds world-historical significance to his work.

You will have seen his large-format portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. I daresay Struth believes that he got to know them, too. To the extent that such a belief wasn’t fatuous — all good portraitists “get to know” their sitters, not in the way that you and I might know one another, but as visual expressions of character — it would be impertinent, as Her Majesty, qua queen, is not there to be known. Some viewers, her subjects among them, might regard her as the heir of minor German aristocrats who have been imposing themselves on the people of Britain for centuries — an old lady with astonishing pretensions. It is arguable that Thomas Struth might actually get to know this woman. But most of us see a long-reigning monarch, the visual expression of a very grand sense of duty. We will allow this exponent of regality to have a measure of private life, but we will define that private life as something that we can never see. As Helen Mirren said of The Queen, we’ll never know how Elizabeth and her family felt about the film — even if they all write about it in their private diaries. Elizabeth Windsor might keep a diary, but Elizabeth Regina does not and can not.

In the middle of the Struth exhibit, there is the arresting photograph of a body cinched to a gurney and tethered by a multitude of cables and tubes to a menacing block of equipment. The situation is presumably medical. The card tells us about the cancer that was oppressing the patient’s optic nerve, about the successful outcome of the surgery that took place after this photograph was taken, and it even assures us that Struth had the patient’s permission to take and to exhibit the photograph. The card adds that Struth was interested in showing the vulnerability of the body in modern medical environments, as though the danger were coming not from a tumor but from the equipment. It is true that equipment can malfunction and cause death, and that many medical procedures are plainly dangerous. But equipment is never attached, nor procedures undertaken, gratuitously. Medicine is our defense against illnesses that are no less dangerous.

Struth’s photograph necessarily misses this point. We don’t see the cancer. If the patient were bleeding, we might well conclude that the equipment had induced it, not some trauma experienced elsewhere. We can see that the patient is helpless, but we can’t tell why, not from the photograph. And that is what is wrong with this picture. Charité, Berlin (2013) is a fantasy image that exploits and renders sensational a moment that is not meant to be seen, just as the Queen is not meant to be known. What I mean by this is that the only people who are allowed to see patients in this patient’s circumstances are family members and medical personnel. The family members will not be seeing a helpless mass of flesh on a gurney, but a known and perhaps deeply loved human being about to undergo a perilous trial. The medical personnel, knowing what every wire and tube is there for, will see just the opposite: someone who, for the moment, is not in distress. The surgeons will probably not see the patient at all, but only a challenge. All of these people — wives, children, nurses, technicians, and surgeons — will be too heavily invested in the patient’s welfare to see what we, the museum-goers, see. The power of what we see, moreover, stems directly from our ignorance of all the things known to doctors and family members. All we see is a body.

Having been such a body myself, having passed through similar circumstances prior to neck surgery, I feel the utter meaninglessness of Struth’s photograph, and its borderline obscenity, very keenly.

At one end of the Struth show, there is a superlative photograph that, in its extraordinary clarity, precludes any need to peek at title cards. The photograph is large, but not as large as other by this artist. It shows a group of tourists standing in the Pantheon. More eloquently than any schematic diagram or architectural rendering, it illustrates the near-perfection of classical proportions. The height of the drum supporting the temple’s dome — a height that is given quasi-human expression by the pillars at the niches — is such that it exalts those who stand inside it, and does not overpower them. The Pantheon materializes the potential for greatness that we all feel inside ourselves; it does not, despite the building’s notional purpose, crush us with the power of extraterrestrial gods.

I have never set foot in the Pantheon, and although I should very much like to do so, it wouldn’t matter if I had a very different sort of experience in the event. I have seen Struth’s Pantheon, and it tells me something as wonderful as it is beautiful.

Bon weekend à tous!

Householding Twaddle:
Mr Wrayburn
8 January 2015

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

There is, in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Cambridge novel, The Gate of Angels, an amusingly irritating character called Mr Wrayburn. Mr Wrayburn is a don, and so would his wife be, too, if the graduates of the women’s colleges were awarded degrees, which, in 1912, the year in which the novel is set, they were not. Mrs Wrayburn is not much of a housekeeper, but she keeps up appearances, and perhaps the most important appearance is indicated when Mr Wrayburn first comes on the scene.

It was clear that he had never been allowed to worry. That was not his work, worrying was done for him.

The context of this “worrying” is of course the world of household matters. Mr Wrayburn is surprised, and somewhat put out, to find that his wife has given shelter to two victims of a vehicular accident that occurred outside their suburban home. In fact, Mr Wrayburn does a lot of worrying; he is a worrywort. But what “worrying” means here is that he never has to make the beds or wash the dishes, or even to think about how beds might be made and dishes washed.

This was the secret of Victorian productivity. Men — dons and divines especially — were not to be disturbed from their high-minded work by so much as the idea of domestic travail. They wrote and researched, discussed and dissected, while such creature comforts as they desired were rolled before them, quite as if they were infants being looked after by a magic carpet. It is to be imagined that there must have been one or two things that they were forced to see to on their own. On the whole, though, their homes were little palaces, with at least one housemaid scurrying about with trays. Once a year, they would give their wives a certain sum of money, or inform them that such a sum was available at such and such a banker’s; and that would be that for their “worrying” about bills. No wonder the triple-decker novel and the multi-volume history flourished!

One thing I have never read about, however. I have never come across a scene or a passage in which one of these pampered gentlemen has to rearrange his library to accommodate new books. Perhaps new books were also part of the occluded worrying. Having been appointed to your more or less august post, you stopped the inflow of new books altogether, and simply enhanced your familiarity with the ones already on your shelves, the books that such a person as yourself ought already to own. New books might be disturbing. Mr Wrayburn certainly seems to be the kind of man who would not care to make surprising discoveries in later life. In any case, library management, like all matters of plumbing, goes unmentioned in the literature of the period.

As I say, Mrs Wrayburn is not very good at worrying, which means that she worries all the time instead of getting things done. “She looked at the sink, loaded down with  all that was necessary when a husband had his daily meals in the house.” The contemplation of such drudgery is precisely what Mrs Wrayburn studied her way through Newnham to avoid. There follows a little catalogue aria of knickknacks (“knife-rests for knives, fork-rests for forks”) that I have seen quoted in toto at least twice. Although I had already decided against joining the party, I thought I’d have another look at the passage, which is full of stuff that I’d like to see (“cut glass blancmange dishes”), so I stood up to fetch the book. As I was getting up anyway, I took the bowl containing the dregs of this morning’s Purely O’s to the kitchen, where I soon found myself emptying the dishwasher. Almost everything belonged in the kitchen, but there were two pasta plates and, a leaf-shaped plate on which I’d served garlic toasts, that belonged in the dining ell, and I decided to put them away first. The moment I left the kitchen for the dining ell, I remembered that I was supposed to be writing, but when I came back to the desk I realized that I had forgotten to fetch The Gate of Angels, which, in the event, was on the writing table right behind me.

The writing table, as I mentioned yesterday, is in furious disarray. In the Victorian household, whose job would it be to tidy it up? Whose worry? I expect that there was always a handful of worthies gifted with intelligent spinster sisters-in-law who might be put to secretarial work. A sister-in-law would be better than a sister, I fancy, coming as she would under the yoke of matrimonial obedience; a sister might take an independent line. I wonder if there are any good, readable studies out there, applying sociology to literature, that canvas the domestic lives of prosperous scholarly men in the good old days.

The reason for the disarray on my desk — aside from the pile-up of minor negligences that precede and follow travel — is my decision to stop using Quicken to keep track of credit-card purchases. This sudden abandonment of software that I’ve been using for as long as I can remember was triggered by a nasty glitch, as the result of which I lost nearly a month’s inputs. The backup files were corrupted as well. Once again — as with saying sayonara to ReaderWare — I found that an application designed to “automate” everyday life was more trouble than it was worth. I shall continue to pay bills with checks printed by Quicken, but I’m going to keep track of the receipts in Evernote, just as soon as I decide how I want to do that. Meanwhile, the slips of paper pile up.

I accomplished yesterday’s job, to Kathleen’s satisfaction. I may now wrap up the Christmas tree in a plastic dropcloth and carry it down to the service elevator. Then I shall take a good broom to the carpet — no need to choke the vacuum cleaner with the bulk of the needles. By dinnertime, and without much fuss, the foyer will be back to normal. I’ll be having dinner by myself, actually, as Kathleen has one of her institutionary dinners.

No worries.

Reading Note:
SOS
7 January 2015

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Normal life resumes today, but somewhat shakily. In order to celebrate my birthday at dinner last night, Kathleen had to work on a document until well past two in the morning; it was nearly three when we turned out the lights. Kathleen had had the good idea of ordering a car to take her into work, and she was out of bed at a quarter past eight. She threw herself together somehow and got out the door, leaving me to sink back into another three hours’ sleep. Not that anybody made me stay up late.

My job for the day is to remove the ornaments from the tree. Kathleen has already taken down the old and delicate ones, and she will check tonight to make sure that I didn’t miss anything. Tomorrow, I shall wrap the tree in a dropcloth and carry it down to the service elevator. The foyer will soon be set to rights — but that is tomorrow’s job. There is also a great deal of ironing to do. I sense that I have run out of resistance to this chore — as well as pressed napkins and handkerchiefs. My writing table is in great disorder, and I’ll have plenty of paperwork to attend to between now and Friday.

In the Times, I read that Mark Zuckerberg has launched a sort of book club, with his first title being The End of Power, by Moisés Naím. I haven’t determined whether this book addresses power from a perspective that will illuminate those mysteries of power that interest me most. These unexplained aspects cluster round two very different phenomena. The first is the problem of the powerful leader who, over time, shakes free of advisers who counsel moderation, who warn him (or her — Mrs Thatcher crossed this event horizon) against making shows of strength out of weaknesses of character, such as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is doing with his patriarchal comments on the place of women in society. Erdoğan fascinates me even more than he horrifies and disappoints me: he has been positively poisoned by power. He seems to have abandoned his checkered attempts at playing world statesman and taken up the more familiar but also more tiresome role of Tyrant of Turkey. Power has made him cease to care whether he is interesting.

The other locus of power that intrigues me is the much subtler exercise that this virtue gets in the realm of bureaucracy. It’s difficult to imagine this now, but bureaucracy was once upon a time a great improvement over previous arrangements, which tended toward the ad hoc and draconian. There have always been clerks, of course, at least wherever there has been money, but bureaucracy as we understand it is a modern invention with the most high-minded aims. Designed to minimize the impact of human caprice and to assure the realization of stated objectives, it has refashioned executive operations in every field. Unfortunately, it has failed to refashion its primary working material, which is human nature. Humans remain capricious, beset by common vices, and the history of bureaucracy is one of double subversion, first of those stated objectives (not the bridges and canals but the “abstractions,” justice and prosperity), and then of the bureaucracy itself. Like so many modern social reforms, bureaucracy harbors the hope that human beings might be induced to behave more like machines.

Would computers do a better job of running things? I’m not particularly worked up by anxieties over The Singularity, but I’m not keen on handing power over to machines, either, partly because they can be hacked but mostly because they are, after all, designed by human beings. What I think would be helpful is a new kind of Operating System, one that was not designed with somebody’s corporate profits in mind. Instead of offering blandly helpful friendliness, my proposed system would work like the Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, except that it would not wait to be asked how things were going. Programmed to recognize instances of misjudgment, it would intone, perhaps in the voice of the late Alec Guinness, sympathetic but stern admonitions. You must promote the gifted staffer, not the one you’re cheating with. There would be no way to disable these lectures, which might go on for some time, as past, not necessarily related errors were itemized in scrupulous detail. My OS wouldn’t make us better people, but it would provide a corrective to our haphazard, often quite demented memories.

In addition, memoranda of these wisdom sessions would be delivered to all immediate subordinates.

***

For the time being, we must make do with novels. There are precious few good novels about bureaucracy, whether the vast and impersonal ones of Kafka’s nightmares or the intimate, chatty hardball court of Joshua Ferriss’ brilliant first novel, And Now We Come to the End. I just discovered another one the other day, and the most surprising thing about it was that I had never heard of it, even though I’ve read all of its author’s other fiction. I speak of Shirley Hazzard’s 1967 People in Glass Houses, a satire on the United Nations. (I would have been a little too young to read it with pleasure when it appeared, in different form, in The New Yorker.) Most satires exaggerate things that happen, but Hazzard does something else: she exaggerates the precision of normal attentiveness. Rarely have I been so viscerally reminded of a surgical theatre, but instead of blood everywhere, there are human failings of every shape and size and hue, most of them fairly venial.

People in Glass Houses is a sequence of eight self-contained stories, linked by recurring characters and the constant background of the Organization. The UN is never named, nor New York City or the East River, although both are described, at least as seen from the Organization campus. (The Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City becomes a plug for “Frosti-Cola.”) Hazzard isn’t being coy, or attempting the stunt of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (set in an unnamed but unmistakable Venice); rather, she’s locating her novel in a land of wishful thinking. The heart of the matter is laid out early in the first story, which, like the last, concerns the “separation” of a staff member.

The Organization had bred, out of a staff recruited from its hundred member nations, a peculiarly anonymous variety of public official, of recognizable aspect and manner. It is a type to be seen to this very day, anxiously carrying a full briefcase or fumbling for a laissez-passer in airports throughout the world. In tribute to the levelling powers of Organization life, it may be said that a staff member wearing a sari or kente was as recognizable as one in a dark suit, and that the face below the fez was as nervously, as conscientiously Organizational as that beneath the Borsalino. The nature … of the Organization was such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, that there was no room for personalities, and that its hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. No new country, no new language or way or life, no marriage or involvement in war could have so effectively altered and unified the way in which these people presented themselves in the world. It was this process of subordination that was to be seen going on beneth the homburg or turban. And it was Algie’s inability to submit to this process that had delivered his dossier into the hands of Mr Bekkus at the Terminations Board.

The Organization, in short, has become preoccupied, like all large organizations, with the problem of operating itself. Its stated goals, the objectives that it was established to implement, necessarily fall to secondary status.

One of my favorite moments in the novel occurs in the sixth story, “Official Life.” Olaf Jaspersen, a moderately senior pooh-bah, encounters a Mr Nagashima, one of his subordinates, in the elevator.

Striking a personal note, Jaspersen inquired, “Your daughter at college now?”
“He’s at the university, yes.”
“I thought —”
“Yes, yes. Just the one son.”
“What’s he studying?”
“Humanities,” Nagashima nodded, smiling.
“Only the one play?” asked Jaspersen, who thought he had said “Eumenides.”
Nagashima beamed. “Yes. Yes.” The elevator stopped…

Moments later, Jaspersen is telling his Chief that Nagashima “was telling me about his daughter — turning into quite a classical scholar it seems.” My Operating System would be waiting for Olaf Jaspersen when he got back to his office.

Late Bloomer Note:
Adorable
6 January 2015

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Happy Birthday, old bean. I know for a fact that you never thought you’d make it this far. (While at the same time blithely sharing youth’s belief in immortality.)

This has long been my favorite picture of me. It captures how I feel when something interesting and exciting comes up — nowadays, generally, in a book. I want to read it aloud, share it with somebody. The image has been lost in layers of files transferred from one computer to another — and as to where the original snapshot is, who knows? I consider it an auspicious sign for the New Year that I made the effort to track this down and found it.

Run your cursor over the image to discover its title — which ought to embarrass me, but doesn’t; rather the reverse. By the time I was old enough to speak English, I was told that I had been an adorable baby. That my adorableness had regrettably evaporated since then seemed to be the implicit point of this praise.

And now, to find myself in the orbit of seventy! Dissonance in the music of the spheres: while the Times is full of obituaries marking lifetimes not so very much longer than mine to date, my conviction, as uncritical as this child’s eagerness, is that life is just beginning.

Or is it, perhaps, relief that the beginning is finally over? Now I really begin.

***

As we walked into the apartment last night, after my first time away from it, I was “shocked by its beauty.” (Hat tip to Lillian Roberts.) Hitherto, my idea of roughing it had been living at home. Now I thought: wow, all the comforts of hotel suite, plus being at home. Or vice versa.

Sadly, however, room service has not been introduced with the New Year. One remains reduced to restaurants. I’ve just taken our former/upstairs neighbor out to lunch at the Café d’Al, and then made a reservation for dinner at Demarchelier with Kathleen. I must nevertheless run across to Fairway for groceries. How I wish I could think of Fairway as a colorful local market that I visit every day in search of the best ingredients. Talk about pretty to think so! All that distinguishes Fairway from Times Square Station is grime and uneven lighting. On the plus side (for Times Square), subway riders usually know where they’re going and how to get there. This is probably the most sexist thing that I am ever going to say — indeed, I hope that it is — but the world would be a better place if women relied on the Internet and Fresh Direct, and left in-store shopping to men. Children requiring carriage ought to be banned. They were, informally, when I was a child, and Eisenhower was winning the Cold War. Exceptions will be made for infants who can demonstrate a desire to go shopping.

San Francisco was different this year — rather, it was back to being the same old strange place. Last year, Thanksgiving 2013, was so oddly disappointing; everything that made San Francisco unlike other American cities appeared to have evaporated, leaving only the terrain. It was probably a mistake to stay at the Fairmont, which had indeed become very ordinary in the fifty years since my previous visit. This time, we stayed at the St Francis, which my mother always looked down on. It had its motellian edges — the elevators, which required room-key cards, were kludgy, and there were no real doormen — but we were very comfortable, especially in bed, and the Oak Room, the hotel’s default restaurant, served rather good food in a richly-paneled dining room. Say what you like, but the hotels of the modern West have been our palaces of democracy, where anybody with sufficient simoleons could be king for a day. An astonishing number of modcons have made their first appearances at hotels, although don’t ask me, after my nice lunch, to list any. (Take, rather, the doubting-Thomas position of M le Neveu: “Egyptian beer? Pshaw!” Then see what happens.) The best hotels are still engines of advance, but not, I fear, on the old humane front of grandeur and comfort. Even if the grandeur is all but in ruins, the St Francis remains a monument to the advances of the past that gave us the “grand hotel.” There is even, for example, an occasionally-manned shoe-shine stand.

Right outside the door is Union Square, which is what such a square would be like if it were in front of the Museum, or, even better, the museum on the other side of the park, plus a lot of stores. As a central plaza it is hopeless, most of it hidden away on shrub-screened terraces, and the palm trees send the wrong message. (The underground parking lot, once so progressive, has become a monument to the folly of the last century.) Union Square seems imported from somewhere else, but then, so does ours here in New York. (A sardonic comment on what “union” really stood for? Secular, materialist commercialism?) It did when I first laid eyes on it fifty years ago. But it’s a convenient location.

We went shopping, twice. The first and far more serious round took us to Gump’s and to Rochester. Rochester, which sells quality clothes for men of my build (and bigger, much bigger), has a branch in Midtown Manhattan, and I’ve been meaning to get to it, what with the state of my belts and my sock drawer, but the branch in San Francisco is the first one that I patronized — I don’t think that they’d opened in New York back then — and it was somehow easier to get to (at Mission and Third) than 52nd Street (or is it 51st?). As it happened, the branch is about to close, not because the rent has gone up but because the building is coming down. Everything was 20% off. I bought a Calvin Klein topcoat and a Jack Victor sportsjacket. The salesman, appreciating my feeling for color, dug the jacket out of the back. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that it suggests a somewhat distant wooded hillside seen through a light fog at the peak of autumn, only with the sky blue mixed in with the colors of the leaves. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kathleen fell in love with it even quicker than I did. I also bought a Robert Talbot tie that will attract a lot of attention when I wear it to a cocktail party. How to say “flame stitch electric purple” without evoking the Seventies? Which I assure you it doesn’t.

At Gump’s, we went straight to the display of table lamps and found a salesman to sell us the small trophy lamp that we wanted to buy last time we were in town but didn’t. What we had done was to copy down all the numbers on the ticket, and a lot of good that did. While the lamp was being written up and the shipping address noted down, Kathleen found place mats. They were somewhat nicer versions of the place mats at the Oak Room that I had shortly before commented on at lunch. “Now, this is the sort of thing we need,” I’d said. Now we have eight of them. We took them with us.

The other shopping expedition was a quick tour up and down Grant Street. I shall have to describe the romance of Chinatown some other time; it is the romance of a memory. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I did find a marvelous little metal box featuring a woman in Chinese opera getup next to the words “Random CRAP from Here and There.” The box wouldn’t begin to hold all the random crap from here and there that’s in this house even after the move, but it’s coy enough to place in the living room, and a suitable container for the best of my random crap. It’s a start.

Gotham Diary:
Break
2 January 2015

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

Here we are in the year P. Although I never believed that there would be a Y2K disaster, I wasn’t happy about all the zeroes that the new century was going to impose on filenames in YYMMDD format — as most of mine are. (Letters, photographs, and most other documents are filed by date, in appropriate subdirectories.) Bearing in mind my age, should I live to need the letter Z, I decided to turn to the alphabet instead.

Perhaps it is time to revert to conventional figuration: instead of being P0102, today might be 150102. Especially since I already tripped over the alphabet and named the photograph above “N0102,” as if the year N had never been. It is time, I conclude, to be conventional whenever being conventional is simpler. This conclusion prompted our decision not to paint the walls of the new apartment. They had just been painted, in what we both found to be a depressingly drab mushroom color when the apartment was empty, but that quickly revealed itself as a decorator’s miracle hue, subtly changing in different lights and borrowing (or complementing) the colors of nearby objects. The lease obliges the management to repaint the apartment every so often, but only in its chosen shades — which is how we went eighteen years without fresh paint in most of the apartment upstairs. No more of that, say we!

Sticking to conventions is also helpful when you’re tired, and we’re still very tired. Not as tired as we were yesterday, or on Wednesday night as we were packing. We’ve had a good night’s sleep in our comfortable hotel bed, and a lazy morning over room-service breakfast. But we’re tired, and it shows. I have not been quite lazy, actually; I have finally set up an account with Uber. This is something that I have meant to do since Thanksgiving 2013, because it is the only way to get a ride from Outer Sunset back to downtown San Francisco. Setting up the account and installing the app on the iPhone are more or less straightforward processes, but I encountered difficulties installing the app, because I could not remember my iTunes password. Only after a great deal of moaning and groaning did I remember where I might find it. Then I forgot the password that I had just used to set up the Uber account! With a little guesswork, I recaptured it, but this time I made a note of it where I found the iTunes password.

We shall give Uber a try when it’s time to go out to Sunset for dinner. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll take a taxi and I’ll get Megan or Ryan to show me what I’m doing wrong. Either way, the ride home will be on us. It felt pretty dreadful to have to ask Megan to arrange the ride last night.

We found everyone well, and a great deal more relaxed than we were. (You can’t relax if you’re really too tired, even though that’s exactly what you need to be doing.) Will blew out all the candles on his birthday cake in one go. (Because Megan was short of matches, we used a piece of uncoooked spaghetti to light them all.) Tomorrow, we’re going to go shopping to buy him the serious presents that he really wants. Superheroes are involved. Remind me to write about Megan’s fascinating thoughts about the importance of superheroes for the moral guidance of children Will’s age — I need a few days to let them sink in.

***

It’s a good thing to be in San Francisco, good both to be here and not to be there, at home in New York, if only for a weekend. We had reached a natural break time in settling in to the new apartment, and the coincidence of the year’s beginning contributes a symbolic oomph. Life in the hotel room, while comfortable enough, has a certain desert-island quality. Or perhaps the quality is monastic: few of the special comforts of home are on offer. I can’t make a fresh pot of tea at will — I could have one sent up, but it would be strange and expensive — and I haven’t got any music on hand, having decided not to lug iPods and their accoutrements for just a few days. There is also the simplicity of a retreat in the withdrawal of everyday routines. Laundry, grocery-shopping — they’re not there to forestall the encroachment of boredom, which in this case would be the inability to think about what I’ve got think about.

And what have I got to think about? Right now, it seems time to organize all the things that I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of years, not only because all of them seem to be profoundly interrelated — the worrisome tell-tale sign, I’m aware, of the paranoid mind — but because the interrelationships occlude conventional standards of importance. In my new view, it is not always more important to think about art than it is to think about closets; moreover, there may well be a connection between the two. Books pose the most formidable example of widely distributed significance. The problem of finding shelf space for books seems mundane enough, but at a certain point in life it becomes anything but, by involving the very question of book ownership itself. Why have a personal library? And why have a personal library in what appears to be a new era of virtual books, which occupy so very little physical space that they seem to be positively immaterial? The worth of a personal library is very much an unexamined idea.

As I organize these newly-examined ideas, I have to decide on a rubric, and here, too, I range between the unglamorous particularity of “householding” and the intoxicating ether of “humanism.” From an academic standpoint — and it is still the academic standpoint that determines the worth of any serious discussion — householding utterly lacks the importance of humanism; but I have determined that this valuation is an uninformed prejudice, and there’s no doubt that my “subject” is the continuity that I find between everyday questions of household management and no less everyday questions about decency, self-respect, and generosity that, for me, comprise the interactions of human beings in a healthy world. As I sort my observations, which labels will be most helpful?

Bon weekend à tous!