Gotham Diary:
Seated Interpretive Dancing
September 2015 (V)

Monday 28th

There was a racket outside, clearly involving a fire truck. The sirens weren’t wailing, but the horn was bleating. The horns on firetrucks are extraordinarily unpleasant. They’re somewhere between a foghorn and a braying donkey, only much, much louder than either. I find them utterly countereffective. They’re supposed to inspire the drivers of other vehicles to get out of the way, but in fact they don’t inspire anything: thought shuts down. That’s what was happening outside. Two cars were waiting to pull into the garage downstairs. The driver of the firetruck didn’t want to wait. I doubt that the truck was headed anywhere but to the firehouse on 85th Street. But right of way must be insisted upon.

A couple of garage attendants were signalling to the drivers, Drive on! Get out of the way! But the driver of the first car, a white sedan, was either stubborn or paralyzed. A door on the driver’s side of the firetruck opened, and I wondered what kind of confrontation we were in for. But the driver of the white car finally moved. He (or she) didn’t get out of the way, though; up at the corner of Second Avenue, the firetruck was still bleating. I didn’t feel like kneeling on the bench and trying to peer down to the end of the block, so I simply assumed that the driver of the white sedan, while consenting to move, was still in the way, and not pulled over, as the driver of the second car, a dark sedan, was, at the first opportunity.

Earlier on the weekend, I went out to investigate another racket. This one involved a firetruck — probably the same firetruck — as well, but only the engine was rumbling. The ruck had pulled over and blocked entry to the garage, and, behind it, there was a line of cars, some of which, waiting to get into the garage, were blocking the way for everyone else. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the firetruck, and the driver’s door was ajar. Nothing happened (except the honking of horns) for about a minute. Then a man in a uniform consisting to shorts and a shirt appeared, coming from the First-Avenue end of the block. He got behind the wheel and closed the door. Then he strapped himself in. The truck shifted gears, and the pitch of the engine rumble dropped. Still, nothing happened. Then the rest of the crew appeared, coming from the same direction, and clambered into the other doors. The truck drove off, and quite soon the only cars to be seen were the one parked by the sidewalks.

I can see the sidewalk on our side of the street now.


More anon. I am reading Purity. I really cannot think about anything else until I’m done with it. For more than three hundred pages, it was a dark thrill ride, much like Strong Motion and The Corrections, so reassuringly Jonathan Franzen at his best that I began to be genuinely curious about my lukewarm response to Freedom. Over time, that response curdled, leaving me with the fear that Franzen had lost his touch. I preferred not to think about Freedom at all, notwithstanding its many fine points.  I had been reluctant to read Purity, lest it confirm that fear. Happily, it canceled it.

Then I got to the section entitled “[le1o9n8a0rd],” and gasped to see how long it is. More than a hundred and twenty pages of Anabel Laird! It’s very well written, yes, of course; but Anabel Laird ought to have been put down in adolescence. She is the whining victim of masculine oppression who engorges me with a lust to disembowel her, and then to find other, nastier ways of killing her. In short, she makes me want to become the very image of her conceited, intolerable lamentations.

I’ve still got a few dozen pages to get through. (And then the final section after that.) Meanwhile, I read an interesting book review on Saturday. The first time I looked at it, I got as far as this:

If his outline is familiar, Orme benefits from his resemblance to previous Banville narrators. Sixteen novels in, and the author has stated he does not “really believe in the third-person mode.” His recent books are narrated by men adrift, prone to musing. “Why is there grass everywhere, covering everything?” asks Orme. “Why are there so many leaves?” These are men with painters in their pockets. Some look at the sky and think of Poussin, others turn to Bonnard. These men seep into one another; their tones intermingle.

That’s the second paragraph. It seemed to demonstrate why I don’t read John Banville. I certainly wasn’t going to read the book under review, The Blue Guitar (the impertinence!). But the review stuck with me, and, now interested, I read the whole piece. I came across this.

It’s not just that the extended cast of “The Blue Guitar” is underdrawn and the plot underfed, the difference here is that the narrator himself gets involved. Oliver Orme pre-empts any criticism of the book by repeatedly criticizing its melodrama.

You’ll have to take it from me that The Blue Guitar is filled with sumptuous prose. I think it’s fair to say that Craig Taylor’s review is not a very favorable one. I will come back to this later. Insufferable as I find Anabel Laird to be, I would rather spend time with her than with a character who can’t keep his hands off his neighbor’s wife and who muses about the prevalence of grass (in soggy Ireland). Spare me the poetic novels with sketchy characters and desultory stories!

I read a novel by John Banville once, Eclipse. It was one of the first books that I wrote about when I set up my first Web site. What I don’t say in my (not very lucid) published response is that Banville gave new heft to an existing prejudice against Irish literature. If Colm Tóibín hadn’t written The Master, I might still be laboring under a dreadful misapprehension.


Tuesday 29th

This morning, I couldn’t find my phone, so I had to call it. I could hear a distant ring, but it took two calls to track the thing down. It was in the pocket of my household shorts, hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Most irregular! I have a pockets-emptying protocol that is so habitual that I don’t have to think about it. Watch, wallet, and keys go here. Phone and handkerchief (and reading glasses, which I always wear suspended on a beaded chain that Kathleen made for me) go there. What happened last night? What happened last night was a combination of distracting excitements. After dinner, I spread Effudex on the backs of my hands and sat down to read for forty-five minutes. Effudex is chemotherapy for pre-cancerous skin cells. It is very effective, very itchy, and productive of very unattractive blotches. I walk into the doctor’s office with what looks to be plague, and she says, “Beautiful!” Even so, I felt thoughtless and gross walking past the outside diners at Maz Mezcal in a short-sleeved shirt, shortly before we left for Fire Island. Anyway, after forty-five minutes, I got up to take a shower, washing the Effudex off, something that you’re not supposed to do, officially, but that doesn’t matter, because Dr Green told me that the cream does its stuff in twenty minutes. (She does not, of course, approve of my washing it off, but doesn’t scold me about it, either.) In addition to the delight of erasing the worst of the itchiness, there was the prospect of a movie to watch: Victory. The watch, the wallet, and the keys were deposited where they belonged, and I gathered my handkerchief and glasses as soon as I came out of the bathroom, but I forgot about the phone. It’s probably worth noting that I watched the DVD without missing it.

Victory, adapted from Conrad and directed by Mark Peploe in 1996, is unusually faithful to the action of the book. Everything that happens in the story happens in the movie as well, with only a few slight divergences. (The prehistory with Morrison is summarized but cut.) What’s left out, however, is much that makes Victory worth reading. There is a great deal of reflection — Heyst’s and Lena’s — that tells us who they are, and how they’re not anybody else. I cannot imagine how the richness of this material could be folded into a movie, but Peploe, perhaps wisely, does not attempt it. What he might be more fairly faulted for is omitting most of the novel’s highly dramatic conversational set-pieces. The chief of these, the chilling encounter between Ricardo and Schomberg that constitutes the bulk of Part II, is reduced to a mere snippet. The sociopathy of Ricardo, so bewitchingly expressed in his tale of hooking up with Mr Jones, has to be communicated instead by Rufus Sewell’s off-key, eye-rolling eagerness. I like Rufus Sewell’s acting, and I wouldn’t say that he is miscast here. But he is very much a substitute for someone else — I can’t think who.

Irène Jacob is very good as Lena, better than I thought she could be. Because of course Irène Jacob is French, and Lena is English. Since Conrad never stops harping on the lustrousness of Lena’s voice, and since the “action” half of the novel begins with the lovers’ Tristan-esque discussion of their love, and since the decision was made to transform the Swedish Baron von Heyst into Willem Dafoe’s American from San Francisco, the film’s massive abbreviations are compounded, again, by substitutions. I daresay that Ms Jacob appears in the picture because one of the project’s many producers insisted upon it, and the same is probably true of Mr Dafoe’s.

The remarkable performance is Sam Neill’s. As a full-bodied man, trim and fit but by no means as cadaverous as the book’s Mr Jones, Mr Neill might seem yet another substitute, but he isn’t, because he completely captures Mr Jones’s malignancy. The substitution here is merely of one ghastly façade for another. An unhealthily bloated face is accentuated by tiny sunglasses. After the ordeal in the rowboat, the face bears poxy red patches. But the leering, louche way with words is right out of the book. The meaning of Mr Jones’s one phobia — women — is nudged into discreet, if arguably misguided, explicitude by his grazing the cheek of a Chinese waiter at Schomberg’s hotel. By the time we get to the climax, however, Sam Neill has outdone (in advance) the weirdness of his performance in Event Horizon. Somehow he completely obscures his own fit-and-trimness.

The other great performance, painfully brief, is Irm Hermann’s, as Mme Schomberg. Her smile may not be as “idiotic” as Conrad would have it, but it burns with placid intent. Having mentioned Ms Hermann, I feel that I must also say something about Simon Callow’s orchestra leader: I didn’t recognize him until he started talking. He carries himself like a jointed paper doll from the 1840s — at least until he has that fight with Schomberg. Schomberg’s vastly reduced, and therefore much less interesting part, is played by Jean Yanne. Actually, Peploe’s Schomberg is just a stereotypical ageing lecher. We’re told (by a sea-captain’s voice-over) about Schomberg’s electric hatred of Heyst, but we’re not shown it, not at all.


Most of the day went to Purity. Aside from making the bed and grabbing a burger across the street, I did nothing else but read Jonathan Franzen. Which is odd, because I hadn’t much left. When I was done, I rooted around for some reviews. There was James Meek’s, conveniently announced on the cover of the current LRB, but the only other review of Purity that I could find was Elaine Blair’s, in Harper’s. They made an interesting pair, because while they agreed about little or nothing, they fell into the same journalistic slot, as attempts to place a noted novelist’s latest work in a larger cultural conversation. For Meek, it’s “family”; for Blair, “women.” This accidental juxtapositions suggests spinning an argument that women are the true enemies of family, but I’m not going to go there. I was not interested in Purity‘s relevance to cultural conversations, even when its contributions were more essential than merely interesting. All I have to say about the two reviews is that their mutually unsympathetic conclusions seem like a sign of literary vitality.

Trying to avoid falling into any journalistic slots myself, I resist the big question, which is: What is Purity about? The question is as tempting as it is obvious, because the novel bristles with themes, ranging from the war between the sexes to the well-known dangers of the Internet and the overlooked dangers of nuclear arsenals. The characters think and talk intelligently (or at least passionately) about these themes. But, like every good novel, Purity is about a handful of people and the social environments in which they live and interact. As in every good novel, the characters are more interesting than the things they talk about — we’re more engaged, say, with Leila Helou’s worries about nukes than we are worried about nukes, because they her worries, and she’s kind of fascinating. (James Meek regards her section as “the weakest.”) We’re asked to consider both what the characters want and why they can’t enjoy it more. I think of Vladimir Nabokov with his butterfly net: what is a novelist but a hunter in search of imaginary glow-worms who will illuminate each other? Purity is a very good catch.

(My problem with Freedom, I’m coming to believe, was my problem: I couldn’t really deal with Walter Berglund. It was worse than dislike — much worse. I disliked Anabel Laird, in Purity, far more than I disliked Walter Berglund, but my dislike was passionate. Walter Berglund, I simply refused to think about, as if admitting Walter Berglund into the world of interesting people would spoil the world for me. He seemed to me to be an awfully familiar figure, and I do mean awfully. It’s perhaps à propos here to say that my big problem with Jonathan Franzen is partly that his characters are overinterested in sex and partly that Franzen is overinterested in showing me what they do about it. When I say that I don’t know anybody in real life whose genitals are so energetically autonomous, the accent falls on I don’t know, and that’s how I like it. I know that sex can be brilliantly creative, and abysmally destructive, and I even know how it can be both of these things. But the very fact that sex is (one hopes) private, and perfectly peculiar to those engaging in any given sexual act, it is not of general interest. And now I must immediately qualify that statement by conceding that Pip Tyler’s explicit idyll with Andreas Wolf in the Bolivian hotel room is an important scene that deserves its spelling out, because it is about Pip’s fluctuating moral register of the encounter. What people do behind closed doors is one thing. How their feelings about doing it shift is something else. I believe that, when, for some awful reason or another, you don’t really want to be embracing the person in your bed, you are having sex without making love, and that is an awful thing, quite literally an immoral thing. I seem lately to have read a number of accounts, fictional or otherwise, that highlight the sudden lack of interest in their partners that males feel after ejaculation (Knausgaard comes to mind). I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I have never experienced such post-coital withdrawal, even if that means what it implies, which is that I haven’t experienced “casual sex.”)

If I were obliged to vote for a Most Central Character in Purity, I’d be deeply puzzled, because to pick either of the two obvious candidates would be to overlook the other’s importance to the integrity of the novel. These two characters are Anabel Laird and Andreas Wolf. They never meet, which means that, if one is the room, the other can’t be. This is not to say that there are “two plots,” but only that this election gets in the way of understanding the book. The better contest might be for the choice of Prime Mover: who is the character who sets the story in motion. This character is clearly Pip Tyler, the Purity of the title. It’s true that she sets the story in motion by merely existing, but it’s a matter of existing when Andreas Wolf is looking for avenues of attacking sometime friend Tom Aberant. We understand this in retrospect, not at the beginning; but the book does begin with Pip, and moves quickly to include Anabel, although we don’t know that Pip’s mother is Anabel yet. (We do understand that Pip’s mother and Anabel are the same person long before it is announced, because they are identically impossible.) Perhaps it is a feature of the Prime Mover to be a young person who does not yet know what she’s dealing with or whom she’s up against, but it is definitely youthfulness that inclines us to root for Pip. By making her edgy and funny, and clearly very aware of the words that come out of her mouth, Franzen insures that his literate readers will root for her — will take, for the duration, her destiny as their own.


Wednesday 30th

About my eye: I mentioned last week that my left eye was inflamed, and that I was waiting to see the ophthalmologist who was covering for the doctor who has taken care of my eyes for decades but who was traveling — as I say, September is the month to leave New York. By the time I did get medical attention, the problem had pretty much cleared up by itself, with perhaps a little help from Advil. I saw the regular doctor yesterday, and he confirmed a diagnosis of non-infectious scleritis, an apparently spontaneous inflammation of the membrane surrounding the eye — the sort of thing that can happen to people with hypertrophic immune systems and, presumably, the sort of thing that Remicade ought to prevent. Something to talk about with the rheumatologist! The good news was that, if it happens again, and the pain is responsive to Advil, then I can use Predniselone drops to end the inflammation without bothering the doctor. Very good news indeed, since bothering the doctor about something that clears up by itself is expensive at any price, and, in this case, this being Manhattan, just plain expensive.


At the recommendation of a most regular reader (I ought to be able to put that in Latin), I diverted my attention from Carlo Cipolla’s Before the Industrial Revolution to his Clocks and Culture, a short book that is divided into the three parts. In the first, Cipolla talks about the invention of the “verge escapement with foliot” that is the basis of the mechanical clock. (Foliots have been replaced by fusées and pendulums.) In the section part, Cipolla runs through the interesting history of Western clocks in China and Japan, from the Sixteenth Century on. Finally, there is a brief epilogue. The epilogue is the heart of the book.

Although the epilogue is written in the clearest language, you must read the rest of the book in order to understood it, or you will wind up like the Chinese eunuchs. The Chinese eunuchs thought that clocks were fantastic toys. You probably think that clocks were invented to tell time.

Eventually, of course, clocks did get round to telling the time, but this took a few centuries — more than three. It wasn’t until Christian Huygens applied a pendulum to a clock, in the middle of the Seventeenth Century, that clocks told time more or less reliably. What, you may ask, did clocks do before that?

Well, clocks were fantastic toys. They were big public clocks, mounted on cathedral spires and other highly-visible urban spaces. They might not have been reliable, but they were impressive. It was best to have just one, as the burghers of Dijon discovered when, in 1641, it was found to be intolerable that no two of the town’s public clocks kept the same time. The dirty little secret about pre-pendulum clocks is that they had to be “governed” by human attendants, who determined the correct time from sundials and water clocks and adjusted the big clocks accordingly.

We imagine a bunch of guys in a garage, or some similar shed, trying to figure out how to make a clock. That is a post-Scientific Revolution picture. Since the Scientific Revolution, one of whose first triumphs was Making Clocks Reliable, our technological developments have fallen within programs. The personal computer begins with human computers, battalions of men armed with adding machines, determining the trajectories of weapons. It is discovered that the desired computations are beyond the time and intelligence of any number of human beings. How to perform the computations otherwise is the problem, and the personal computer is the answer — or, rather, one side-effect of the answer.

But pre-modern technology was not so teleological. The picture was different. Inventions from far beyond Europe’s borders — water mills, windmills, and gunpowder — were appropriated by Europeans. And then they were improved. Why? Because the artisans who produced them became mechanics, or in other words guys who try to figure out a better way to do something just for the hell of it. The something was already a given. As in Before the Industrial Revolution, Cipolla quotes P G Walker in Clocks and Culture:

Before men could evolve and apply the machine as a social phenomenon they had to become mechanics.

This is a very subtle thought, not nearly as easy to grasp as it seems to be once you’ve got it. The Middle Ages were technologically fertile, but they were also technologically disorganized. This followed a world-wide pattern, in which men of learning believed that men of practical skill had nothing to teach them. Throughout the Middle Ages, university professors went on preaching Aristotle. They were not consulted by the builders of cathedrals, who confronted and solved daunting engineering problems on their own. (The cathedral, unlike the clock, is the produce of end-driven solutions.) It is difficult for us to imagine the divide between theoretical and applied science, but it was indeed absolute; the one had nothing to do with the other. As the centuries rolled by, however, smart educated men began to think about the world that they grew up in, a world of mills and clocks and square-rigged sailing ships, and they began to infuse high science with artisanal practicality. Both Galileo and Leeuwenhoek were dependent upon lens-grinders to produce the instruments that they needed for their discoveries. And because the schooled scientists began to want to measure things, they demanded reliable clocks — and got them, thanks to Huygens. The application of the pendulum to the verge escapement clock is, in its marriage of theory and know-how, the first invention of Modern Times.

Bear in mind that, discordant church bells aside, ordinary people did not really need to know what time it was. On a sunny day, they could tell perfectly well what they needed to know. You showed up on the right day and waited for things to get going. It’s still that way in many parts of the world. In Asia, the day was divided into six daylight and six night-time hours. Obviously, the length in minutes of these hours fluctuated throughout the year, and, when they began making their own clocks, the Japanese learned how to make adjustable instruments that told Japanese time, not “of the clock” time. The whole idea of clock time, the whole idea of deferring to a mechanical instrument instead of regarding it as an optional gadget that might or might not have anything useful to say, came from the Scientific Revolution, when it became very important to the new men of science to know how long processes lasted. Solid bodies no longer just fell; they fell at an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second.

In his epilogue, Cipolla reminds us that people cannot see what they are not looking for. To put it another way, they cannot see at all unless they are looking. The Chinese officials who could afford to own a timekeeping devices had no need to use them; they snapped their fingers, and things happened then. Europeans were no different. In the three hundred years and more between the invention of the verge escapement and the attachment of the pendulum, clocks evolved as entertainment devices. A single clockwork might power six different faces, showing the movements of the heavens and the changes of the calendar, and throwing in a mechanical floor show for good measure, Adam and Eve doing the hokey-pokey with a serpent. What distinguished East and West was the humility of Europe’s educated men, who stopped teaching and started learning.

What we need now is to learn not from the scientists but from Oscar Wilde. Here is Cipolla’s penultimate paragraph:

The machine is a tool. But it is not a “neutral” tool. We are deeply influenced by the machine while using it. De Saint Exupéry optimistically believes that “little by little the machine will become part of humanity,” and that “every machine will gradually take on [man’s] patina and lose its identity in its function.” However, in a world of machines we too are gradually taking on a patina and are little by little infected by a mechanistic outlook that is not always useful or beneficial in handling human affairs. As Oscar Wilde reportedly said, “the evil that machinery is doing is that it makes men themselves machines also.”

It’s hard to believe that Wilde wouldn’t have put it better. But it is too true that, since the Scientific Revolution engendered the Industrial Revolution, men have been regrettably inclined to regard other, allegedly lesser, men as capable of mechanical regularity: to show up on time, to repeat operations exactly, to disregard irrelevant impulses. I can’t think how often my blood has been brought to the boiling point by reading that businessmen have an interest in effective education because it produces skilled and reliable workers. Whether they do or they don’t, today’s public schools are indistinguishable from third-world factories, and students regard them as comic-book prisons. The clock is a tool, but it can’t prevent us from using it to make tools out of human beings. Only we can do that. And maybe the best way to begin that exercise is to remind ourselves of the guys in the pre-industrial garage.


Thursday October 1st

This will be brief. I have just lost my second attempt to add to this entry. I have no idea what the problem was, but fifteen hundred words just went poof. Then the three hundred that I managed to scribble down before I forget them vanished as well.

Losing text is always disheartening. I have a number of protocols for saving work as I go along — I can’t count on the software — but every now and then, I get so involved in what I’m writing that I disregard them, and today I’ve paid for that. I was writing about Angela Bourke’s harrowing true-crime book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, and about Amia Srinivasan’s review of a book about “effective altruism” by William Mac Askill, Doing Good Better. The latter poses important problems that I hope to come back to. When I finish reading about Bridget Cleary, I may be able to write again about her strange ordeal. But I’ve been at the machine for long enough today.


Later the same day

Kathleen had not slept well the night before. At the dinner table, her eyelids fell shut. “Why don’t you go to bed?” “I’m fine as as I can close my eyes. What were you saying?” What I wasn’t saying was that it’s discomfiting to sit over dinner with someone whose eyes are closed. We did not linger at the table. By the time I’d washed the dishes, and spread Effudex over the backs of my hands, Kathleen was all tucked in. “Would you like me to turn out your lamp?” “No, I may sit up and read a few pages.” I sat down and read for forty minutes, but Kathleen never budged.

Before I disappeared into the bathroom to wash off the Effudex and get ready for the night, I woke Kathleen up and asked her to take her meds, which would see to it that she stayed asleep. It turned out that she had forgotten to take them the night before; hence the bad night. Then I turned out her lamp and kissed her good night.

The book that I was reading rendered Kathleen’s mildly odd behavior rather disturbing. When did Kathleen ever have a problem falling asleep? When did she ever close her eyes at the table? What were those pills I’d given her? The book was Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary, one of the most harrowing true-crime books, not least because the perpetrators were not entirely sure that they were participating in a crime at all.

In 1895, in County Tipperary, a young married woman, Bridget Cleary, was killed by her husband, while her father, her aunt, and several cousins stood by. Two weeks later, when these family members were in prison, pending questioning, Bridget Cleary’s body was interred by four policemen. Not one villager, not even the priest, would attend the burial. What had Bridget Cleary done to bring down such an horrific end upon herself?

I haven’t finished reading the book, but, if you ask me, what she did was to apprentice herself to a dressmaker in Clonmel, the town nearby, and to acquire a Singer sewing machine. She might as well have  stitched herself a pair of trousers. Bridget Cleary was moving up in the world; unfortunately, she was still at home.

Angela Bourke was drawn to Bridget Cleary’s story because it is enmeshed in the lore of fairies. Irish fairies are not for children, if for no other reason than their penchant for ambiguity. When irritated, fairies could wreak nasty magic upon mortals and their animals. They could, among other things, abduct family members and “replace” them with changelings. Changelings were difficult and sickly. When Bridget Cleary came down with a touch of bronchitis, her family convinced her husband, with all the obliquity of which an Irish family is capable, that the woman in his bed was not Bridget but a changeling. If he was a real man, he would deal with it.

The way to deal with changelings was to expose them to fire. Fairies hated fire. They would run up the chimney, and restore the kidnapped family member. A number of burnings were reported by British doctors in nineteenth-century Ireland. (Oscar Wilde’s father filed a lot of those reports.) All of them but one involved small children who were not developing normally. A few were burned to death. The one adult victim of the burning cure was Bridget Cleary.

In addition to her business head and take-charge mentality, Bridget Cleary was rumored to have a lover, the Protestant bailiff who happened to live next door. The folklore of fairies allowed Bridget’s family to rectify an awkward and potentially scandalous situation by invoking the fairies. They persuaded themselves that they were doing no harm to their relative — they were only trying to get her back. How sincerely they held this conviction is open to question, but that was  part of the fairy point, too. Fairies did not subscribe to the ratonal law against contradictions. As such, they were weapons of a sort in the fight of a waning traditional society against British commerce, medicine, and justice. It is the ambiguity of the family’s beliefs, playing behind the stressed-out agony of Michael Cleary, who didn’t know what to believe but who was left no choice about proving his manhood, that makes Bourke’s book both fascinating and sickening.

The Cleary case attracted a lot of attention throughout Britain. The English seemed incapable of grasping the fairy angle, and kept asserting that Bridget had been burned as a witch. Nobody who knew her ever thought such a thing. With the precision of a neurosurgeon, Bourke — author of the Maeve Brennan biography; that’s how I came across her work — keeps the story’s many strands distinct, and makes what is in essence a scholarly case study yield a gripping read.


Almost as gripping a read is Amia Srinivasan’s review of a book about “effective altruism,” the latest version of utilitarian philosophy. Another term that comes up in the review is “existential risk.” These rather bland phrases turn out to be coded facilitators of slick selfishness. William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better: blah blah blah, is a lecturer at Oxford who is not yet thirty years old. It may be hoped that he will eventually outgrow his callow simplificatons.

Effective Altruism — the associated movement — errs at the starting line. Srinivasan observes that MacAskill’s

main claim, familiar from the utilitarian tradition out of which the movement emerges, is that we should not only do good, but to do the most good we can.

But nobody is in a position to know what that might be. MacAskill parades a troupe of trumpery metrics, all pungently redolent of the physics envy that induces economists to overlook the bent timber of humanity and dream of fungible individuals. He believes that good can be calculated — there is even such a thing as a Qaly, “a single year of life lived
at 100 per cent health.” Calculations involve highly even more speculative figures: “We must also think both marginally and counterfactually.” “Counterfactually” usually means that, if you don’t do something, someone else will. Marginal thinking is just that. Let’s say that you want to do some good by being a doctor. Being a doctor in America will do some good, but, marginally considered, not very much, because there are already lots of doctors here. (Tell that to someone with no coverage.) If you go to Africa, you can do a great deal more marginal good, but even better is to become a hedge fund manager, make a killing, and distribute your fortune philanthropically among a legion of doctors in Africa. Bill and Melinda Gates couldn’t put it better.

Even if “the most good” could be known, the virtue of pursuing it would be doubtful. For one thing, says who? For another, this somewhat bogus self-sacrifice would interfere with a clearer imperative: that we live as well as we can. Living well is the compromise that we make with all the imaginary possibilities for fulfilment that life seems to offer, for example, having a good time. To live well is, in the end, to live well  enough. Doing the most good surely requires us to forego doing anything else, and as such to ignore the limits on all activities that fleshly mortality imposes. Monomaniacs do not flourish.

We must consider existential risks. These are threats to humanity as a whole. At a recent conference on effective altruism hosted by Google, the hot issue was existential risk, according to a report filed by Dylan Matthews at Vox (and cited by Srinivasan). Asteroids, plagues, climate catastrophes and the other usual suspects took a back seat to the menace of robots, who will turn on their creators and destroy them (us) just as soon as we make them smart enough. This prospect is so totally, totally awful that any amount of money thrown at its prevention, no matter how unlikely the odds of success, is better spent than on any of the fixable problems all around us right now. Is it any wonder that Silicon Valley was gladdened by this ethical imperative? I can’t be the only one to be reminded of late-medieval chantries: why leave your money to the dirty poor when you can
endow a chantry, paying priests to say perpetual Masses for the salvation of your eternal soul? All the effective altruists have done is to substitute coders for clerics.

The ultra-rational MacAskill has a bias against bias: he believes that you oughtn’t to support a charity that benefits someone you know. Writing of his decision not to fund a hospital in Ethiopia that he visited and where he made friends — beware of friends like William MacAskill! — our Young Turk says that such contributions would be unfair and arbitrary.

If I’d visited some other shelter in Ethiopia, or in any other country, I would have had a different set of personal connections. It was artibitrary that I’d seen this particular problem at close quarters.

On which Srinivasan comments,

That word “arbitrary” is striking. It is indeed arbitrary that MacAskill went to this hospital and not another, in Ethiopia and no some other country, just as it is arbitrary that we have the family, friends, lovers and neighbors we do. But doesn’t such arbitrariness come to mean sometehing else, ethically speaking, when it is constitutive of our personal experience: when it becomes embedded in the complex structure of commitments, affinites and understandings that comprise social life?

The most pressing moral imperative that I perceive is the need to do what we can to sustain and improve our local environments. This just might counseling young people against becoming self-centered jerks. I don’t know about the robots, but we surely need protection from the effective altruists.


Friday 2nd

Reading the news from Roseburg, Oregon, I can’t do much more than register that I’ve read it. The urge to explain yet another shooting is irresistible, but it has been irresistible on so many previous occasions that it is difficult to marshal the energy. I applaud President Obama’s declaration of impatience with current gun regulation, but putting the accent on gun regulation suggests that these outbreaks are happening because they can. I suspect that that would be — arguably — a necessary but not sufficient explanation. The shooters seem alike, but we only get to know them when they’re dead. The Adam Lanza case reminds us that very disturbed people behave in ways that resist explanation. Is there a connection between Lanza’s temporary addiction to Dance Dance Revolution, as reported in a recent issue of the NYRB, and his attack on the elementary school in Sandy Hook? It’s an exciting, but not very illuminating question. Adam Lanza needed care that his mother thought she could provide on her own and that the state could not provide effectively. The only positive idea that we can take away from these episodes is that we do need to reconsider the balance of anti-social behavior and freedom, especially where young men are concerned. I’d like to get rid of the guns as passionately as anyone, but inadequate mental health care is a sore point that needs a great deal more attention.

It is also worth remembering that, until quite recently in human experience, the autonomy that adult males prize so highly used to be earned, and granted not by the mere passage of years but by the recognition of other adult males. I do not mean to prefer traditional societies here. It’s to be hoped that we have left them behind forever. There are many ways of being an adult in our world, and I cannot even begin to propose a scheme whereby boys are put in touch with sympathetic mentors. But I can begin thinking about it, and so can you.

In other loose change, I’m actually almost delighted that Pope Francis had his little talk with Kim Davis. (He did, didn’t he?) Even assuming that he knew all about her, it was perfectly pastoral of him to urge a woman conflicted over faith and duty to “be strong.” If she took that advice as an endorsement of her behavior, that’s her business. Our business is to heed the wake-up call, if needed, and stop dreaming about an overnight transformation of the Roman Catholic Church, which remains, emphatically, the domain of a confraternity of unmarried males, an organization many of whose members would not think twice about stifling His Holiness in his sleep, sooner than see him celebrate a same-sex marriage. Does Francis cower at their threat? I don’t think so. What he is doing is far more general, and at the same time more fundamental. He is insisting that Christian empathy is more important that Christian doctrine. Almost all self-styled Christians of every stripe have just about forgotten this message. (It was the power of empathy that inspired the doctrine. The doctrine did not prescribe empathy; empathy can’t be prescribed.) The Nunciature committed a gaffe by including Ms Davis in the receiving line, but those who are “disappointed” in Francis because he greeted her are not hearing what he’s saying.


Ever since my vacation on Fire Island, I’ve found it difficult to roll up my sleeves for housework. Last week, I didn’t get around to it at all. I simply shirked. I don’t know why, and I don’t know why the spell of laziness ended when it did. But it did end, on Wednesday. Yesterday, I was even more industrious. As the entry reports, I lost the morning’s work at the point of proofing it. These things happen, I told myself; and, probably because I have been working very hard here since the end of August — the fact that I’ve enjoyed doing so just means that I’m lucky — I actually listened. I dealt with lunch briskly and turned my attention to the half of the apartment that I hadn’t straightened up the day before. But first, I thought, let’s see if Web Expressions 4 is set up on the Lenovo in the dining ell — my “house,” as distinct from “work,” computer. Here’s what I had in mind: I’d use Web Ex, which allows saving work to the local disc, instead of the WordPress, with its cloud (the Cloud of No Undoing, I call it), to jot down bits and pieces of what I had written in the morning as I remembered them. I would come and go. I would dust a table, and then sit down at the laptop for a quick minute. What in fact happened was that I sat down for ninety minutes or more. By now, my head was clear of that awful lost-work staticky heartburn, and I was almost taking dictation from a surprisingly clear memory. Then I tidied the rest of the apartment. I made dinner, too, a mushroom and sausage ragù that was all right, but in need of some flavorful oomph (olives, maybe?).

Kathleen had a glass of wine at dinner, which may explain what happened next. She was in bed, about to resume reading Geza Vermes’s Christian Beginnings, which I’ve been urging her to read since it came out — she’s liking it, too — and I was ready for bed but sitting in my chair, The Burning of Bridget Cleary at my side. Instead of opening her book, however, Kathleen said, “It’s like the song. I love you more today than yesterday.” Our 34th wedding anniversary falls tomorrow, so we’ve been thinking such things for a while now. Instead of getting sentimental, however, I got the song, sung way back when by Spiral Staircase. We listened to that a couple of times. It seemed safe, after the passage of so many years, to treat the lyrics as a statement of fact (but, even so, I’m not taking anything for granted). Kathleen had her computer out by now, and she was running through songs on YouTube. She paused momentously at “This Guy’s In Love With You,” the Herb Alpert hit from 1969. So I bought that as well and loaded it onto the Nano. While it was playing, I was reminded of a terrible song that I was horribly in love with in Houston, not long before law school, “(They Want To Be) Close To You,” sung by the striking voice of Karen Carpenter. Kathleen almost exploded when I played it, but instead she launched a breathtaking interpretation of the song, using her skill and artistry as a Seated Interpretive Dancer. (That’s what we call it, anyway.) With her upper body, she mimed the song ruthlessly. The way she coyly embraced her heart with both hands at the title words was both beautiful and hilarious. And that “Waaah!” at the finale! Complete abandon! When Kathleen hates a song, she really throws herself into it. Never has an audience felt more privileged.

Then we put down our toys and set to reading.


Bon weekend à tous!