Illness for Dinner
November 2016 (IV)
22, 28, 29, and 30 November; 2 December
Yesterday, I went to our storage unit on 62nd Street with Ray Soleil, and together we evacuated a second batch of papers. Many were in French document boxes that I had found back in the days of the country house, where space was relatively unlimited. Some of the boxes were stuffed, others not. Many of the contents are curious. There is a stack of faxes from Fossil Darling that were dispatched in idle moments at the office, and most of these are both baroque and incomprehensible. They all seem to date from 1994, and the miracle is that the thermal paper on which they were printed is still legible. I don’t know what to do with them. Well, of course I do.
There are still more papers to bring home. These are not sorted, but rise in thick stacks from liquor boxes, and if we try to take them all at once, we shall have to summon a car to the delivery bay. Kathleen has volunteered to sort through them in her merciless way, but I’d like to know something about them before she throws them all away. Last week, Ray and I brought twenty of the French document boxes home, and I found somewhere for everything in them over the weekend. I doubt that the second batch will melt into the woodwork so easily. The end, however, is in sight. The end of papers, that is. “There’s still a lot of stuff here,” said Ray last week — he hadn’t been there in a while. “It’s nothing like it was, but…” I was very discouraged. I had done such a good job, I thought, of packing up fifteen boxes of books, and then finding someone to take them away. I had hoped that this amiable fellow would cart of the few remaining pieces of furniture, but when I called him after our trip to San Francisco in October, he told me, not in so many words, that furniture lay outside his métier, and I was so disheartened that I did not even bother to call the mover whom he recommended. It took several weeks to snap out of my inanition.
After we brought the boxes home, and I took Ray to lunch, I sat down with the first section of the writing project. I had been casting around for a better way to begin. The opening was the only part that Kathleen found weak and unfocused, which was no surprise given the reckless way in which I threw myself into working on it, back in July. I trusted that a true current would emerge from my splashing, and indeed it did. When I finished what I thought was the first draft, I realized that there must be some sort of final section, and, having worked on and off on this in the past two months, I decided to fix the start before settling the finish. It took an hour or two to write out the new beginning.
Between them, these two important projects took up the entire day, and in any case left me no mental space for devising an entry here. So, for the first time in an age, I missed a Monday for no better reason.
There is ever less to say. The whole world seems caught up in a riptide of reaction against all things humane. In yesterday’s Times, there was a piece about a book that the late Richard Rorty published in 1998, in which he foresaw something like the triumph of populist forces that has made Donald Trump our President-Elect, and in which he went on to speculate that civil gains by hitherto marginal groups, such as blacks and gays, might be erased. I’m quite sure that, had I been aware of the book at the time, I should have shoved it aside in horror, but even then I was beginning to doubt the foundations of secular democracy. In the current Atlantic, there is a handwringing piece by James Fallows in which Orville Schell’s fear that China is sliding back into Maoism is trumpeted. Fallows and Schell are old men now, and their hopes for the liberalization of the Central Country are being dashed, as such hopes have always been dashed. Meanwhile, my daughter, whose concern for the environment puts her very much at odds with the powers that be, also declines to applaud views labeled “liberal.” Sometimes, I feel that there is no longer anywhere to stand.
Of course, I have been writing about the shortcomings of the professional élite for years now. But by confining my attention to what I knew from the world directly around me, I missed the immensity with which that élite was resented, not just for what it failed to do well but for being what it was. My alarm now seems small-scaled, and my exhortations sound utterly inadequate. When I say that there seems no longer to be a place to stand, what I really mean is that there is no longer anyone to address. To the extent that indicators point to an increasingly inevitable violent social confrontation, I keep mum, because I know that there is no point to talking when general intelligence has been swamped by anger that can be exhausted only in destruction and bloodshed. One must wait for the fever to strike and run its course. I hope that catastrophe will be averted, but it is exhausting to sniff one over the horizon, and in any case I dread the resurgent authoritarianism that spells suspension of humane development while men stagger about in their fear of human nature.
A long time ago, when I discovered the online store at Chatsworth (there doesn’t seem to be one anymore), I bought a few books by or about Nancy Mitford that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. One was Selina Hastings’s 1985 biography, which I placed on the Mitford shelf and left unread until just the other day. It’s awfully good. Clear and brisk, it refreshes every familiar story that it retails, and places the events of Nancy’s life in an uncomplicated frame that highlights her ambivalences without agonizing over them. I did think that Hastings came very close to charging her subject with prostitution — with immersing herself, that is, in the life of a courtesan who seeks to please without demanding love in return. Of course there was no commercial aspect to this relationship; Nancy was if anything more prosperous than her Colonel. And she really did love him, if abjectly. Hastings writes of the affair, “But the excitement concealed a great emptiness.” (173) The excitement itself was a by-product of the Colonel’s emotional indifference to Nancy. He did not love her — they both knew this and acknowledged it — but he acceded to her willingness to play Scheherazade, to keep him entertained. But he was cruelly unreliable about rendezvous. Nancy’s interest in Mme de Pompadour can be seen as an oblique attempt to aggrandize her own amour, but the difference between the two women’s respective lovers was that Louis XV was nowhere near so cold-hearted. Hastings cannot resist suggesting that Nancy’s screams of agony, as she was being eaten away by the Hodgkins lymphoma that was only diagnosed at death’s door, represented “an expression of thirty years of suppressed jealousy, misery and rage over the disappointment of her love for the Colonel.” (245) Very delicately, Hastings raises the moral question posed by a love such a Nancy’s: is it all right to submit to an unrequited love? I myself have always thought, in general, that it is not, but I don’t judge Nancy. Judging really isn’t the point. But the question hangs.
One tidbit that deserves mention — I hadn’t seen this one before — is a blurb that appeared on a Swedish translation of The Pursuit of Love and that came to Lady Redesdale’s attention through a friend. “Everywhere in Europe men lost their heads when the beautiful elegant Mitford sisters dominated the salons.” Lady Redesdale quite rightly commented (in a letter to Diana), “Oh dear what nonsense.” Spectacular nonsense, really. It is hard to think of a single “salon” that any of the sisters ever entered. And while they were lovely and neat, the Mitford gels were never elegant, saving Nancy herself (and of course Diana, the great beauty). Nor is it easy to name any men who lost their heads. A more unfaithful bunch of philanderers can hardly be imagined, than the men in the sisters’ lives (this time excepting Bryan Guinness). The whole idea of a troupe of fatal Mata Haris coursing through the capitals is so utterly contrary to fact that it deserves its own monument. But what would it be? A manhole cover?
What we had for Thanksgiving was illness. Things were even worse on Friday morning. In addition to the crazy scramble of hunger and no appetite that I recalled from the antibiotic after-effects of cellulitis recovery, I had a sidestitch that impeded breathing and an ache on my shoulder that felt as if someone had taken a hammer to it. In the back of a drawer, I found few tablets of the opiate that I used to take in the days before Remicade. Half of one of these got me through the afternoon, celebrating the second anniversary of Fossil Darling’s and Ray Soleil’s wedding. Actually, by the time dinner was put in front of me at the Knickerbocker, I felt all right, and although I took no more Percoset I never again felt as bad as I had on Friday morning. But the gastrointestinal confusion remained. And, by now nearly two weeks overdue for Remicade — four weeks if you go by the standard dosage — I was feeling lousy, not really lousy but a sort of discount lousy that left plenty of room for guilt. Malingerer!
I didn’t want to get up this morning. Job One would be to reschedule the Remicade. Never having been in quite this position before — on two occasions in the past, the infusion was postponed because of a bloodshot eye, which I knew must be an inflammation brought about by the lack of Remicade, but which had to be checked out by the ophthalmologist; this time, in contrast, I really had an infection, which had to be cleared out by Ciprofloxacin — I didn’t know where to begin. Would the rheumatologist have to examine me? Getting hold of him would not be fun. Forcing an end to self-coddling, I got out of bed and prepared Kathleen’s tea-and-toast, which she has had to do without lately, and as she was asking if I wanted her to stay home while I tried to reschedule, the phone rang. It was a fellow from Infusion Therapy Scheduling. He told me that there had been a cancellation and that he could slot me in at four this afternoon. Utter magic. I’ll believe it when the nurse activates the pump.
I can tell my few close friends that I am not feeling well, and sketch a brief explanation that will put an end, if not to their worry, then to their uncertainty, which is the worst thing, really, about hearing about someone’s illness, especially in later years. As for the rest of the world, I prefer to remain, if not silent, then vague and unforthcoming. Up through the prime of life, most of us seem to get sick in the same way. We succumb to a relatively small number of diseases that run their courses on clear and distinct schedules. But with age, individuality finally makes a stand. We fall apart with increasing variety, at varied speeds and with varying degrees of drama. It is not uncommon to suffer two or more ailments simultaneously, and it’s not always easy to attribute symptoms to one or the other. Common sense about aches and pains breaks down, because there is so little that is truly common.
On top of all that — and now I’m speaking of my own experience — even educated people cannot be expected to understand the concept of autoimmune disease. This was the case even before AIDS, which is a deadly inversion of the usual autoimmune disease precisely because the “D” stands for deficiency. It’s extremely counterintuitive that an excess could cause illness, but that is how the autoimmune diseases, the ones that are not qualified by that “D,” work. Our prehistory lingers with a force. An emergency crew that was called out all the time during our first two hundred thousand years (not to mention the millions of years since the first animals developed such defenses), some autoimmune systems respond to modern hygiene not by scaling back but by not waiting for the alarm. By rushing to put out fires that aren’t there, they cause rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s Disease, and the much less common disorders that have afflicted me. And others.
I must be feeling better. The idea of explaining all of this here, to account for my late absence, was almost as oppressive as the prospect of rescheduling the infusion. And now I see it’s done. I’ll try to talk about something else tomorrow.
And I shall. But first:
Between running out to grab a burger and heading off to the Hospital for Special Surgery for the Remicade infusion, I took a bag of garbage to the chute. The chute is in a closet near the elevators, and it was just across the hall from the apartment that we lived in for thirty years. Now, it is far away. Everything is. The apartment that we’re in now, which is really too charming to complain about anything, is at the end of the longest possible stretch of corridors. No longer can I dart, so to speak, here and there.
As I closed the front door behind me, I heard two voices. One belonged a male in his prime. The other was confusing. I couldn’t understand what either was saying until I turned the corner and saw them. I saw the back of the younger man mostly. He was almost my height, and even more burly. His hair was close-cropped and he wore a blue-checked dress shirt. He was propping up, in some way that I couldn’t make out, a much older man, of whom I couldn’t see much, just a patch of tousled hair at the top and thin white socks on the carpet. The young man was saying, “Push,” “Heel to toe,” “Great,” and “Faster,” more or less in that order. The old man wasn’t saying anything. He was moaning with each tiny step.
The moans sounded like a scraping noise that the dishwasher makes; I have also heard it in Contact. For all that, it sounded completely human. In a movie, the old man’s misery would have indicated some kind of torture. It was hard to believe that this exercise was doing him any good. I don’t say that it wasn’t, just that the appearances strongly suggested otherwise. It was as though he were being kept alive for some malignant purpose.
I didn’t feel so much better myself. The sidestitch made walking effortful, which ought to have made me grateful that I, too, had to take tiny steps, but didn’t.
Although getting to the hospital involved tangling with some very bad traffic — the taxi driver managed it like a top-flight video gamer — the infusion itself was uneventful. I feel better already.
Working on the writing project has been difficult, given the overriding desire to be put out of my misery, but I have managed to reconceive the beginning, and from that has first trickled then flooded the conviction that I know now, finally, what the whole thing is about. That was my reason for undertaking the project: I believed that it would clarify the intellectual landscape in a way that not only highlighted the important things (not just the interesting ones) but also revealed something that I felt on the edge of discovering. Since I haven’t done the writing, I won’t say that it’s done. But I see not only where I’m going but where I ought to stop. The something has been revealed.
As usual, I’m not going to summarize any insights here. I bring the matter up because it’s obvious that I have been helped along by Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Yes! Now, I’m no happier about the outcome itself than anyone else I know, but I’m fascinated by the themes that are showing up, revealed by the black light of disappointment, in the commentary of those who find themselves weeping by the waters of Babylon. For example, take this snippet from Paul Krugman’s column last Friday:
To be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment. In particular, I don’t know why imagined liberal disdain inspires so much more anger than the very real disdain of conservatives who see the poverty of places like eastern Kentucky as a sign of the personal and moral inadequacy of their residents.
To be honest, Thomas Frank would appear to have voiced this perplexity years ago, in the very title of his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? But where Frank went on to investigate, Krugman seems to feel discharged by the acknowledgment that he doesn’t “fully understand this resentment.” Nor is he likely to try to grasp the reasons for hostility to “imagined liberal disdain” when it is so clear to him that “the very real disdain of conservatives” is the culprit. What he doesn’t grasp is that this very cluelessness of his, shared by so many of the great and the good supporters of Hillary Clinton, was the raw material for the fuel that rocketed Trump to triumph.
For one thing, they encouraged the Democratic Party to nominate Clinton, when it was obvious, and cited throughout the campaign as “unpopularity,” that she was no more suitable than Trump, as a candidate. And indeed it appears that Americans whose primary concern was keeping Hillary out of the White House voted with vehemence, while those in her own party who had come out for Barack Obama stayed home this time. There was nothing surprising about any of this. In retrospect, suspense about the election’s outcome was just another spurious media-punditry story. Some will say that Americans are not ready for a woman in the Oval Office, but that’s distracting. Americans were never going to be ready for Hillary Clinton in the top job.
Just as the best and the brightest came out against Brexit in Britain, so they came out for Hillary here, and with the same effect. Again, it might be said that they failed to persuade. But I think that the élites on both sides of the Atlantic were very persuasive. They persuaded ordinary voters to resist the bloc of professionals, financiers, and academics who are helplessly, because unconsciously, united by an obvious contempt for ordinary voters. No matter what the experts said, what ordinary voters heard was a plea: Let us have another go at feathering our nests without screwing you over too baldly. It reminded me of Mime the dwarf in the second act of Siegfried. Mime bubbles over with glee at the prospect of poisoning the hero and absconding with Fafner’s treasure — altogether unaware that Siegfried understands every word, and prepares to deal with Mime accordingly.
Liberal democracy has undergone a decay in the West and elsewhere. Whether this can be reversed depends upon how quickly it can be understood. The people who need to do the understanding are, unfortunately, the members of the various élite groups that have flourished in the early stages of this decay. I’ll feel much better about the viability of resistance to authoritarian populism when people like Paul Krugman start taking responsibility for what happened. Until then, the right-thinking men and women who were appalled by the support for a reality TV star will be indistinguishable from the unthinking mass whom they so articulately but benightedly opposed.
Reading Peter Stearns’s brisk but magisterial textbook, The Industrial Revolution in World History, I’m making comparisons to the crisis of puberty. Puberty is a dreadful experience for many people, but we cannot seriously wish that childhood should be eternal. Eventually, puberty runs its course, leaving a self-standing adult. Sometimes, sadly, puberty results in schizophrenia, and at others, death (from suicide or drunk driving, say). Mostly, though, when the bad skin clears and the stormy emotions settle down, a young man or woman achieves a more or less permanent character, knowable and reliable (even if reliably unreliable) for decades to come. Plus the skill and sympathy, not to be found in most children, to engage with the world. Phew.
Will the Industrial Revolution ever run its course?
The secret of the Industrial Revolution was not so much the technological advances or the social changes wrought by a new economic order as the intoxicating prospect of immense payoffs. Possible return on investment rose to levels never before imagined. Successful manufacturers, later successful industrialists, amassed huge pools of capital, which they invested in — gambled on — evolving opportunities. At first, it was the production of consumer goods, textiles mostly. Then the growth of railroads, built to carry the goods with unprecedented efficiency, changed the accent of the revolution. The mass transportation of resources spurred the growth of heavy industry, which produced goods that were not aimed at any consumer, but at an industrial nexus best embodied by the steel mill. The secret of heavy industry, in turn, was military prowess. Beginning with the American Civil War, the fruits of heavy industry were put to use in war. Railroads, steamships, all sorts of heavy artillery, these changed the face of battle.
In the next phase, heavy industry became big business. The accent was once again on consumers. Railroad locomotives, although still in demand, were vastly outnumbered by automobiles. There were new household appliances, accompanied by an array of useful chemical products, that promised to make the clean, comfortable home an economical proposition. Heaven on earth — Utopia achieved! Except not. Heavy industry was beginning to slip, as lighter materials and smaller production facilities made formerly belching smokestacks the gravestones of their blast furnaces; and overproduction — another outcome that the old world had not thought possible — brought the economies of the world crashing down.
The truly terrible thing about the Industrial Revolution is the routine mistreatment of workers. This is a constant feature of Stearns’s account of the revolutions, successful and the unsuccessful alike, that followed Britain’s everywhere else. The very emblem of the new order is the managerial demeaning of laborers, which in every case becomes self-justifying (proletarians have no self-respect and must be told what to do). Indeed, it’s hard not to see the Gestapo as the climax of a long trend. In recent times, conditions have improved for workers in the developed West. But wait! There always seem to be fewer workers in the West! Now there are more workers elsewhere, where conditions are still pretty ghastly!
We have learned a lot about how an industrialized world works, but we haven’t known it for very long, so nothing can be forecast with real confidence. But I propose that the revolution will be over when industry no longer requires workers. Many observers find this an appalling possibility. Where will jobs come from? I don’t have a simple answer to that one, but I do want to point out that at the heart of all discussion of industrialized economies, there is an error that inevitably produces wrong answers. It is the very use of the word “worker.” The whole point of the Industrial Revolution has always been to replace human beings with machines — this is where the huge payoffs come from — and, quite frankly, human beings ought to be grateful to be spared the performance of brutal and degrading mechanical operations.
This is where Marx and everyone else went wrong. When Marx wrote of “the means of production,” he was really talking about the actual workers. The machines did the work, not the people who tended them. And the jobs held by people who tended machines were doomed from the start. Almost every technological advance has promised a reduction in the number of such jobs. Just consider the telephone industry! Where are the operators and the linemen now? The machines take care of everything.
We cannot really wish to return to the old order, in which a few people were immeasurably safer and more comfortable than everybody else, with poverty, ignorance, and disease the common lot. We have to hope that the upheavals of the past two centuries will create the means of a new order. I doubt that it is up to us to decide what that new order will be, but it would help to have a few good ideas. At least we can clear out some bad ones. One of these would be the notion that industrial jobs involve work.
In this morning’s email, the closing of Crawford Doyle Booksellers was announced. It is a death of sorts, for the bookshop was a node of connections. I don’t mean to sentimentalize what was always a business. Books were set out for sale, to customers who browsed and bought, in a room that was hushed and not in the least bit bohemian. Most patrons were neighbors, but it seems discordant to apply that word to people living in very expensive apartments. Now that I think of it, young people were very rarely seen there, except of course on the staff.
Perhaps because the shop was so small — I’ve been in many larger living rooms, even in the city — there was a relentness furtiveness, an uninterrupted but fruitless attempt not to notice what other people were looking at. Men gathered round the broad table toward the rear, where nonfiction titles were stacked facing in all four directions, but mostly east and west. There was a smaller table of recent paperback fiction toward the front, with poetry nearby. The entire north wall was shelved in literary fiction, but the selection could not begin to be comprehensive, given the space, and it was unwise to pop in with expectations of finding, say, To the Lighthouse. (They might be fresh out.) New fiction, in glossy wrappers, was stacked in an L-shaped arrangement whose system I could never decode; it was easier to ask at the desk, something that I did more and more over the years. And then there were the delectable little books on the desk itself, bonbons most of them. I bought more than a few myself — there was one called, I think, 100 Quiet Places in London — but the last one was fatal, not to me but to my book-buying habits, and I later told one of the staff that the shop really ought not to be selling Marie Kondo’s book about tidying up. I have not altogether stopped buying books, but I certainly buy fewer than I used to do, and I never go browsing just to see what’s new. I don’t know how long it has been since my last visit to Crawford Doyle — oh, but I do; it was in April, about seven months ago. So I’ve become a former customer, really. If I feel a bit guilty about that, it’s not because I imagine that my patronage might have saved the store (although of course that’s precisely what comes to mind when shops close), but because I dropped out of the node.
I had thought about hiking over to the bookshop to buy a copy of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m looking forward to reading, eventually. For the moment, I’m enjoying all the reviews. When I say that I’m enjoying them, I mean that I’m not keeping track of them; I can’t recall who said what. Everyone has noted that Smith, in her first use of first-person voice, has not named her narrator. I think that anonymous narrators are a mistake, because the lack of a name makes it difficult to talk about any character, and fixes like “the second Mrs De Winter” are not often handy. So there has been a sort of quiet tsking about that, if only because there aren’t a lot of synonyms for “narrator” to help reviewers avoid repetition. Everyone has said a word or two about Swing Time the movie (1936), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although I haven’t got a sense of the meaning of Smith’s reference. Most if not all reviewers have passed along, almost as a bit of gossip, the anecdote of the unnamed narrator’s playing a video of Swing Time for a friend (as an adult) and only then realizing that Fred Astaire dances the “Bojangles of Harlem” number in blackface. But what stuck with me most was the claim, by one reviewer, that Swing Time is the best of the Astaire-Rogers series.
I think it’s the worst. I watched it last night just to be sure. To begin with: the dancing. The dancing is of course very good, but there is nothing as grand as “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat), “Night and Day” (The Gay Divorcée), or “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet). (There’s nothing like Follow the Fleet‘s “Let Yourself Go,” either.) The Bojangles number is very well done, but it’s nowhere near as distinctive Astaire’s solos in “Slap That Bass” (Shall We Dance) or “Nice Work if You Can Get It” (Damsel in Distress). Even Broadway Melody of 1940, with Eleanor Powell, is a more exciting dance film.
But the story of Swing Time is actually bad, veering between the annoying and the offensive. The opening routine, in which Fred’s plans to marry his hometown sweetheart are sabotaged by the chorus of wiseguys who support his dance act, has not aged well. Stealing a bridegroom’s trousers and distracting him with gambling simply aren’t funny anymore. The bride may be all wrong for our hero, but we don’t laugh at undesirable brides anymore, because our ideal of companionate marriage makes it seem cruel to do so. At the end of the movie, the knot of misunderstandings is resolved not with grateful smiles but with raucous, inane laughter — and, as if that weren’t bad enough, the trouser stunt is rehashed. There’s a dopey scene in which the principle couples drive to an abandoned hotel in a snowfall — with the top down. Californians perhaps forgot that snow is not just pretty.
As for the supporting cast, so important to the flavor of these productions, I wanted to shoot Victor Moore in the first scene, as oatmeal dribbled out of his mouth instead of English. Helen Broderick was never given anything truly clever to say, making her performance more physical than it ought to be, to the point that I began to confuse her with Charlotte Greenwood, and to worry, when Broderick told Rogers that she’d stand on her head, that she might actually try to do so. Even Eric Blore was sandbagged. With his little moustache, he almost looks like a plumped David Niven. Follow the Fleet is supposed to be the earthy, unglamorous entry in this RKO parade, but Swing Time verges on witless vulgarity. Bojangles of Harlem! Pretty excruciating stuff, now.
I still look forward to reading Zadie Smith’s new book, but my mind is preoccupied by Jane Smiley’s classic, A Thousand Acres. I was casting about for a novel to read, not in a bookshop but surrounded by my own bookcases, when the Jewish-mother/librarian who took up residence post-Kondo directed my attention to it. I read it in 1991, when it was new, but I hadn’t read it since, and the old hag was tapping her foot impatiently. “You’d tell anyone that that’s a great novel, and you give it pride of place on the shelf, but do you read it?” There was only one way to fight this imputation of fraudulence, and that was to pull it down then and there. So I did, and it was ten times worse — more upsetting — than I remembered. I haven’t read King Lear, which inspires it, in a long time, but my notion that the contemporary setting in the American Midwest would somehow soften the barbarity of the legend was quickly trampled. In any case, A Thousand Acres is not just a “retelling” of the Lear story. The horror of Smiley’s novel, which is only implicit in the play, is her recreation of the shock with which we sometimes learn that the stories that we’re content to tell ourselves about ourselves would be questioned by those around us, even by those for whom we believe that we have done our best. Reserved and dutiful at the beginning, Ginny Cook comes to see that she is a terrible person, meaning, just another human being, as well as someone to whom unmentionable things have been done. She turns on her correct but bogus life with ugly ferocity and abandons what she does not destroy. There are several violent scenes, but the real violence is in Ginny’s nerves.
So I read it again, with the suspense that only a second reading can spell.
Bon week-end à tous!