Gotham Diary:
Aeolian Harp
October 2016 (IV)

24, 25, 27 and 28 October

Monday 24th

One of the closets in our bedroom is much more difficult to access than the other, so Kathleen switches her seasonal wardrobes twice a year. While she did that, I emptied a good deal of the linen closet. The linen closet, although it is not large — none of our closets is remotely “large” — was the largest space in the apartment that had gone more or less untouched since we settled in, a few months after the move downstairs, two years ago. In those settling-in days, the priority was to get things out of sight. Aside from the portion of one shelf that held bath towels, very little had been touched. My excavation revealed a number of things that Kathleen had been looking for, as well as a few things that we really don’t need.

My objective, aside from the general purpose of renewing acquaintance with our stuff, was to make a space for light bulbs. I like to have a few packages of light bulbs on hand — I bought four packs of four the other day — because so many seem to go out more or less at the same time. I’ve been storing light bulbs in a very precarious way on the shelf in the coat closet, where we keep board games and two trunk-like boxes of cables and such. (I ought to throw most of it away.) There is really not enough room for light bulbs on that shelf. The risk of light bulbs falling on the floor when the coat closet is opened has been great. Breakage has been avoided, thanks to stout packaging and a carpet from Central Asia, but the unsatisfactory nature of the arrangement has been clear from the start. Now the light bulbs are in the linen closet, and very easy to reach. Also, the bedlinens are in the linen closet as well — where they belong. Sheets and pillowcases have so far been stored in one of Kathleen’s dressers, another unsatisfactory arrangement. My bath towels have been moved to my bathroom.

To make the wardrobe switch easier, Kathleen used a folding clothes rack that we keep in the closet that we call “the attic.” Now that she is through with it, I am going to roll it into the book room. All of my clothes are in the quite-small book-room closet. I am missing a pair of shorts that I hoped would turn up when Kathleen shuffled her closets. No joy. Perhaps it will turn out to have been in my closet all along.

To make the reorganization of the linen closet easier, I brought out the folding card table that we also keep in the attic. Now that it is more or less bare, I plan to cover it with all the stacks of books in the book room. I shall also drag out the many tote bags that have accumulated here, because it is the dumping point of least resistance. I really have no idea what I’m going to do with the books and the bags, but then, I never do have any idea before I undertake projects of this kind. It is only when the room has been cleared, and the stuff has been piled in a heap somewhere else, that I begin to have ideas. I’ll keep you posted.


Is there a Shirley Jackson kick in my future? You will have come across one or two reviews of Ruth Franklin’s new biography. It sounds intriguing, but I don’t see the point in biographies of writers whom I haven’t read. Of course I’ve read “The Lottery,  but that’s just one short story. Now I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, too. What intrigues me about Jackson is her problematic domestic life. What with four children, a huge house, and a determinedly errant husband, she seems to have risked the doormat’s career. In fact, she was the family’s bigger breadwinner — which makes her even more intriguing. She wrote about housekeeping, from a humorous angle that I find somewhat broad. I began my exploration with a piece (in the collection Let Me Tell You) about rival serving forks (one with two prongs, one with four), and how difficult they made Jackson’s life (sez she) whenever she used one to do the other’s job. My own take on high-jinks in the kitchen is that I myself provide all the anthropomorphism that ridiculous situations require.

Last week, for example, I was bellyaching about having a friend to dinner on Saturday night. This particular friend is used to good food, so I wore myself out by wishing that I didn’t have to “make a production” and tying myself up in knots. In fact, I wasn’t feeling well for most of the week, so the shopping got postponed until Friday, giving it a desperate finish, and my thoughts of baking a cake were trashed by the proximity to Whole Foods of a branch of Eric Kayser’s pastry empire. I was thinking of roasting a piece of pork. Julia Child, in The Way to Cook, wrote of a four-pound roast, but there was nothing on offer at Whole Foods larger than loin cuts weighing just over a pound. Which turned out to be perfect: I used Mrs Child’s “spice marinade” to coat the meat overnight, but followed the cooking instructions in The Joy of Cooking (Guarnaschelli edition), which included the suggestion of something called Buttered Cider Sauce. Sooner or later, everyone who eats in this house is going to be served Roast Pork Loin with Buttered Cider Sauce. Not only is it delicious, but it fits very well with the host’s reasonable desire to have a drink with his guests instead of fussing in the kitchen. When the roast comes out of the oven, having cooked at 250º for nearly an hour, emerging tender and juicy and almost buttery itself, it has to rest under a piece of foil for fifteen minutes. This is the signal to serve the soup (curried butternut squash purée). When the soup plates have been cleared, it’s time for the pork. I was mortified to recall all the complaining. I waste so much time feeling sorry for myself about nothing.

My problem with ghost stories is that they are never really frightening. The Haunting of Hill House is frightening for other reasons. A woman who has spent her life taking care of an ailing, disagreeable mother finds relaxation if not rest in a huge ugly house with doors that open and close on their own, not to mention loud noises, laughter and screams. Eleanor Vance has always wanted to have an adventure, and Hill House obliges. When she is sent away from Hill House for her own good, she resists. She has come to believe that Hill House wants her. The fact that she wants Hill House tells you a lot about her life so far. I found the novel to be not only well-written but discreet. We are not left to wonder if the abnormal phenomena that disturb Eleanor (but not too much) are taking place entirely in her head; we know that her companions experience some of them, too. But it is Eleanor’s responses that are interesting, not the raps or the chalk-marks.

I am aware of two filmed adaptations of the novel, both called simply The Haunting, but before I get to them I want to mention a little episodic frolic that Jackson indulges that was cut from both movies. This involves the professor’s wife, Mrs Markway. Mrs Markway barges in on the proceedings — her husband is conducting an experiment designed to establish the reality of hauntings — with her planchette and an obnoxious headmaster who also serves as her driver. They are both detestable in the irresistible manner of Ivy Compton-Burnett. You could argue that they are the horror.

The wife actually does show up in the earlier of the two movies, but aside from being the wife she is not the same person at all. This Haunting, which came out in 1963, stars Julie Harris as Eleanor. Directed by Robert Wise, to a screenplay by Nelson Gidding, the movie has the production values of a first-class television show; in other words, it looks and sounds like Psycho. The house is vast and ugly and the rooms inside are overfurnished with depressing Victorian sculptures that leer at the camera. Claire Bloom plays Theo, the free-spirited young woman who is Eleanor’s not unsympathetic foil, while Russ Tamblyn plays the house-owner’s nephew, and Richard Johnson, an extraordinarily telegenic British television actor whom I have managed to miss — he died only last year — is Dr Markway. The adaptation is largely faithful to the novel, with the exception of Mrs Markway’s role that I’ve mentioned. Julie Harris will strike many viewers as the perfect Eleanor — a mouse powered by neurosis. But she simply made me doubt that Jackson’s story can be rendered in film at all. The movie helplessly makes an object of the novel’s subject (Eleanor), which disrupts its quiet but sympathetic intimacy.

The second Haunting came out in 1999. I remember thinking that it was a terrible picture at the time. Watching it again, I was more inclined to regard it as a train wreck — entertainingly awful. It is the fourth of five movies directed by cinematographer Jan de Bont, the first two being Speed and Twister, two favorites of mine. The screenplay by David Self put me in mind of something once valuable that had been left outdoors in the wind and the rain and the changing seasons for several decades, and had not only lost its value but become unrecognizable. Self introduces a lot of his own inventions, which complicate the story to the point of incoherence. Lily Taylor is Eleanor this time, but although she looks radiant and adorable, her behavior is strange rather than haunting. To be sure, this is because Hill House has become a very different kind of operation, a nest of the troubled spirits of molested children presided over by a dead ogre. Catherine Zeta-Jones slips nicely into Claire Bloom’s part, considering. Liam Neeson is the doctor, and we are a long way from his action-movie achievements. Owen Wilson is so annoying in the Russ Tamblyn role that it’s a relief to see the end of him (not in the novel). There is no Mrs Markway at all, and although Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes show up as Mr and Mrs Dudley, their lines are too denatured to register.

My advice is to resist both movies until you’ve completely forgotten the novel. Watch them then and then see how much better Shirley Jackson pulls it off.


Tuesday 25th

It is very quiet in the apartment today. It is even more quiet than that, because I have just finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the silence in which the two women sit by the front door at the end, spying on trespassers, haunts the very air. I feel a weird, and I trust momentary, kinship with the Blackwood sisters. Just as Constance could have answered her cousin Charles’s importuning whine, so, with the flick of a switch, I could open the door to the lying evil world of television.

Yes, I know it sounds a little cracked; perhaps more than a little. Reading the Times this morning, I realized where the commentators’ obnoxious use of “bigly” comes from. (Trump apparently pronounces “big league” in an odd way, and uses it in peculiar syntactic contexts, so people mishear him.) Although Donald Trump has been a public figure for more than thirty years, I have heard very little of his voice, because I’ve avoided the television and radio shows on which he might appear. I’ve read about the Letterman show in which the foreign manufacture of his branded tat was laughed in his face, but I’m not sorry I missed it. You can laugh at him all you like, but he’s still there in his awfulness. “‘The least Charles could have done,’ Constance said, considering seriously, ‘was shoot himself through the head in the driveway’.” That’s all that I ever want to hear about Trump.

What few people understand — because television is simply a part of everybody’s everyday life — is that Donald Trump exists only in the airwaves. It is true that he shows up at rallies and puts his supporters into frenzies of hatred. But that’s not him up there. That’s “Donald Trump the billionaire,” a cartoon character. Just as it is William Shatner, and not Captain Kirk, who makes appearances at Star Trek events (if indeed he ever does such a thing), so Donald Trump impersonates “Donald Trump.” It is often remarked that Trump has no real friends, just an entourage of family and employees. A true Thespian, he lives only to be on stage, or in front of the cameras and the microphones. I’m saying all of this because you can just turn him off.

Well, it has perhaps gotten a little late for that. Bear in mind, though, that, once upon a time, your turning off the set, instead of watching him, might have made a difference. If nobody watched him, he would be nothing. That is true of any TV show. Donald Trump has always had an audience, because he is good at doing what TV viewers want to see. The pundits were the last to understand that his political viability followed the body-snatching consumption of politics by entertainment, a process that has been going on ever since Johnson defeated Goldwater with “Daisy” — if not, even earlier, from Richard Nixon’s ghoulish appearance in the 1960 debates with JFK. Trump did not introduce some “new low.” He simply demonstrated that the wall separating the serious from the frivolous that the venerable broadcasters of the old days had flattered themselves into counting on has been vaporized, brick by brick.

In a dream last night, someone urged me to set my scruples about television aside and join the audience for an important presentation. I replied that my resistance was greater than ever. I suspect that this was inspired by the scene, early in Shirley Jackson’s novel, in which Constance is cajoled by Helen Clarke into returning to normal social life. But the resistance was all mine.


Thursday 27th

Reading The New Yorker at lunch today, I thought about the mistake of misusing language for hopeful purposes. There was Joan Acocella’s review of a new book about Esperanto, the language invented in the 1880s by Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jew from Bialystok who grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish. Esperanto was, as its name implies, designed to bring all people together in a common language that would end the post-Babel curse of “the other.” The wild naïveté of this idea would have struck anyone not born in the nineteenth-century era of wishful thinking. Zamenhof ought to have understood from the mere fact that four languages were spoken in his native city that people have no inclination to speak a common language. The author of Genesis got it wrong, too.

Acocella points out that English has taken the place that Zamenhof hoped would be occupied by his confection. Well, maybe. Actually, I think, not. English as it is spoken by educated Britons is almost as rare as Cicero’s Latin was in Caesar’s Rome. English as spoken by Americans is a form of German that uses English words, and a very platt German it is, too. Elsewhere, English words are appropriated to local creoles. “Okay” is about the only word that is understood everywhere. My hunch is that even if, tomorrow morning, everyone were gifted with the ability to speak English as well as Adam Gopnik does, it would not take two generations for mutual incomprehension to start creeping in. We read about dying languages, and imagine that languages have never died before. I worry all the time that the language that I speak and write in is going to disappear within a century, even if it is called “English.”

More seriously, I thought about “political correctness,” a matter that has been bothering me for some time. It came up in Andrew Marantz’s report on the doings of Mike Cernovich, the author of a blog called Danger and Play and a force to be reckoned with on Twitter. Cernovich came across as a complicated person whose only focus is his hatred of Hillary Clinton and the kind of “basic bitch” that she represents. (His misogyny strikes me as incoherent.) Cernovich also believes that “political correctness [has] prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups.”

Political correctness, at least as I understand it, is an offshoot of what was called “consciousness raising” in the Seventies. Perhaps it would be better to think of political correctness as the calcified aftermath of consciousness raising. The idea behind consciousness raising was to change the way people thought about men and women, with a view to replacing patriarchal ideas about male superiority with a rough parity that would permit women to pursue their own self-realization without interference. The technique was applied to other frontiers of social progress, with the notorious result that it became socially unacceptable in polite circles to use what is now called “the ‘n’ word” under any circumstances, even with distancing jocularity. Political correctness was always haunted by the Holocaust; it was intended to set a firm barrier against the first step on lethally slippery slopes. Meanwhile, numerous college sports teams were urged to replace Native American mascots.

Personally, I’m in accord with the objectives of political correctness, but I dislike the “political” angle. The term itself, originating in conservative bastions beleaguered by liberal critiques, is justly sardonic: what can be the moral value of correct behavior that is politically enforced? Consciousness raising works only if you are willing to reconsider the world. Being told to replace words that offend other people with acceptable alternatives raises cynicism, not consciousness.

Inevitably, political correctness is going to produce ghastly usages on the order of “cuck.” Cuck is the first syllable of a nearly obsolete label for a husband whose wife is sexually unfaithful; it happens to rhyme with both the vulgar term for fornication and a common expression of outrage. It is the sort of thing that eight year-olds come up with, but no one seems to be in a position to tell grown men to refrain from sounding like eight year-olds — or to testify to the cognitive dissonance of hearing “dude” from the lips of any male who is neither fourteen nor saddled with acne.

The truly regrettable thing about political correctness is that it deludes good-hearted people into assuming that social problems have been solved. We can thank Donald Trump’s campaign, coinciding as it did with a higher incidence of the reported shootings of black men by white policemen, for putting an end to the notion that racial tension in the United States is a thing of the past. I myself intend to drop political correctness in future, insofar as it might have barred me from calling an enthusiast of “law and order” a plain racist.


The writing project has languished for over a month, but I think that I have found a way to begin what will be the final section, the need for which become more and more apparent as I worked on the seven that precede it. I’ll begin by talking about the need for a new Enlightenment — although I mean something very special by that, something whose spirit will run quite counter to the drift of progressive eighteenth-century thought. What I want to talk here, however, is wigs.

As a young man, Louis XIV had a beautiful head of hair, naturally curly and almost black. And he was young at a time when the fashion was for men to let their hair grow. Louis’s was very long. Then it began to thin at the top. I don’t know how long it took for him to cover his head entirely with a wig, but I expect that it started slowly, as these things do — think “comb-over.” Louis being king and all, his courtiers began to wear wigs as well. By the time he died, in 1715, polite men throughout Europe wore wigs in public. They kept their own hair very short, and worse little caps, something between a beret and a turban, at home.

No longer checked by the varieties of human limitations, men’s hair styles went through some exaggerated but highly uniform cycles. Overall, wigs got smaller as the century progressed, before finally disappearing in the quarter-century after the fall of the Bastille. But they started out massively, and could not really have gotten any larger. Military officers and sportsmen took to tying the ends off with a bow, and curls coalesced into ranks of two or three waves on each side of the head. (Needless to say, wigs could be very expensive, and caring for them was labor-intensive.) Whether you find the eighteenth-century look attractive or not, you have to remember that it made it very easy to conform with the style of the day, no matter what kind of hair you were born with. Because the wig was entirely artificial, nobody’s coiffure was more fake than anybody else’s. Youthfulness ceased to be an unfair advantage. Everyone could be exactly as presentable as his pocketbook allowed.

There is much to be said against wigs comfort-wise, however, and it’s no surprise that the experiment was abandoned. I believe, however, that it bequeathed a harmful legacy: for a long time, all that you had to do to look civilized was to shave your beard and don a wig. Instant conformity! The appeal of this easy transformation encouraged, surreptitiously, an idea of human perfectability that was altogether new, at least since Christianity firmly imposed the very opposite notion more than a millennium earlier.

The men of the Enlightenment were interested in new ideas, but they were even more interested in clearing away old ones. They sensed that the régime was doomed to become ancien, and in a sense they picked through the ruins in advance, deciding what to hold on to and what to get rid of. (Tocqueville’s study of the Bourbon provenance of so many of Napoleon’s “innovations” demonstrates the discernment with which this sorting was carried out.) Generally speaking, the things that were to be discarded were bundled together with the label, “feudal.” Feudal arrangements were personal, idiosyncratic, incoherent, and even contradictory; they were for the most part inherited relationships that had stopped making sense long before the Renaissance. The men of the Enlightenment were interested in consistency, predictability, and something that they called “reason.”

If we’re to avoid a return to ad hoc feudalism and the social insecurity that it reflects, we have to abandon the idea that people can be educated into, if not perfection, then some reasonable simulacrum thereof. We have to give up wigs.


Friday 28th

The problem with Crampton Hodnet, which would have been Barbara Pym’s first novel but which was published posthumously, is that the funny lines require context. There is a wonderfully odious old battleaxe, Miss Doggett, who counsels her paid companion, Miss Morrow. “‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind” (60). But it’s a bigger laugh if you’ve read from the two preceding paragraphs. There’s really nothing for it but to read the whole book aloud. Poor Kathleen.

Publisher Jonathan Cape notoriously rejected Pym’s manuscripts in the early 1960s, claiming that they were too old-fashioned. Pym herself seems to have regarded Crampton Hodnet as somewhat dated by the time she took a second look at it after the War was over, and she set it aside. Certainly the atmosphere of postwar austerity would have been uncongenial to the novel’s “Tennis, anyone?” lightness of touch. But just as Time reveals forgeries, so it discovers treasures. By the late Seventies, Pym was on a comeback. It was cut short by breast cancer, in 1980, but, regrettable as early death was, Pym has never had to be rediscovered. She is very much in print, and I noticed with interest that Pym is one of the very few women writers mentioned in a recent piece by Phillip Lopate about Tim Parks. It’s worth quoting the passage, actually.

Distressed by the degree to which the English-language market monopolizes the publishing world, he is equally irked by the fashion for world literature, and goes so far as to advise “a young English writer to be building up a knowledge of, say, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, along with the writers they drew on and the later generation they inspired, than to be mixing Chinua Achebe with Primo Levi.”

Because this is exactly why Pym is precious: her English is very good.

As an example, take the beginning of the eighth chapter, “Spring, the Sweet Spring.”

Spring came early that year, and the sun was so bright that it made all the North Oxford residents feel as shabby as the still leafless trees, so that they hurried to Elliston’s, Webber’s and Badcock’s, intending to buy jumper suits and spring tweeds in bright, flowerlike colours to match the sudden impulse which had sent them there. But when they found themselves in the familiar atmosphere of the shop, they forgot the sun shining outside, and the thrilling little breezes that made everyone want to be in love, and the young lady assistant forgot them too, because, although she may have felt them walking down the Botley Road with her young man on a Sunday afternoon, they were not the kinds of things one thought about in business hours. And so, after a quick, practised glance at the customer, out would come the old fawn, mud, navy, dark brown, slate and clerical greys, all the colours they always had before and without which they would hardly have felt like themselves. It would probably be raining tomorrow, and grey, fawn or bottle green was suitable for all weathers, whereas daffodil yellow, leaf green, hyacinth blue or coral pink would look unsuitable and show the dirt. (66-7)

The secret to this beautifully balanced expository letdown is the young lady assistant, sedulously oblivious of thrilling little breezes when she is behind the counter. There, she stands as a minor Britannia, protecting the staid denizens of North Oxford from the consequences of seasonal affect mania. From the standpoint of fashion, the passage could not possibly be more dated, but for that very reason it cleanly captures an ethos that bound even the most affluent pedestrians on the Banbury Road to demonstrate that they were careful with their money — and vigorously hardy when blasted by those thrilling little breezes. Whatever would happen if everyone yielded to the desire to be in love!

It’s the setting that is old-fashioned, not the writing. Pym’s subject, moreover, has only become more acute. Here are Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow again:

“I do not think that Mr Latimer is very well,” said Miss Doggett [of her clerical boarder]. “He looks pale and seems rather nervous, but the Sanatogen ought to pull him round, and he’s been taking a glass of milk every night, too. Of course sensitive and intelligent people are nervous, there’s no denying that.”

“I think Mr Latimer is highly strung,” ventured Miss Morrow.

“Yes, he is like a finely tuned instrument,” agreed Miss Doggett.

Like an Aeolian harp, thought Miss Morrow, pleased with idea. But really a frightened rabbit was nearer the mark. (77)

Not very many pages earlier, Mr Latimer considers the benefits of “having a wife, a helpmeet, somebody who could keep the others off and minister to his needs…” (64) [Emphasis supplied] Poor Mr Latimer is handsome and charming; the ladies won’t leave him alone. He has, needless to say, never been in love, and when he proposes to Miss Morrow, she has the sense to turn him down.

Without striking any definitively feminist notes, Barbara Pym writes about the crummy ways in which men take women for granted. Unfortunately, there is nothing at all old-fashioned about this. Boys are still growing up to become men who don’t really believe that women are quite as human as they themselves are — or else believe that women are more human, which makes it easier for them to be loving and generous. Whichever, the calculus in which women don’t count is still in general use. Pym has a gift for making it look fatuous and ridiculous; indeed, in Crampton Hodnet, she almost makes it so funny that it’s almost forgivable. But it isn’t. What could be crummier than getting married so that your wife could keep the others off?

Bon week-end à tous!