If Even a Fraction
5, 6, 8, 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 27, 29 and 31 December
When I finished writing the first draft of the Writing Project at the end of August, I knew that I needed an additional section at the end. It took a while to get going on this, and it’s arguable that I still haven’t, because, without going much of anywhere itself, the work convinced that I needed a different beginning. That took even longer to get round to, but eventually I hit on the perfect anecdote, which I quickly wrote down. When I went back to pick up where I left off, I got a bit confused, and thought I’d lost it. So I rewrote it and then found it. Over this past weekend, I prepared a printable draft of the revised first section, which was really just chunks of the original minus even bigger chunks, plus the dandy little story at the top, and conflated the two versions of the dandy little story by marking up the print-out with a pencil. I will be sharpening a lot of pencils in the coming weeks. I will not be writing here so much.
The news is distressing — not the news about Trump, but the news about opposition to him. The opposition is very, very depressing. It has learned nothing but a capacity to mirror the outrage that Trump’s supporters demonstrated during the campaign. It is shocked and angry and stupid. There is a stink of media panic, a plethora of Chicken Little screeds. These are not entirely uncalled for, to be sure, but they are useless and draining and must not be indulged. There must be no disruptive and semi-violent manifestations of people taking things into their own hands. This is grown-up time. We need to behave as normally as possible and to think with all our might.
Or so it seems obvious to me. Since the election, however, I have felt somewhat detached from the liberals and progressives whose long-term ideas I tend to share. What I don’t share is faith in novelty. I don’t believe that new forms will set our benevolence free. I believe that turning away from the record of our mistakes will condemn us to repeat them. When I look round at the liberal and progressive mistakes that have put Donald Trump en route to the White House, the biggest one of all is the giddy trust with which new stretches of social tolerance have been celebrated over the past fifty years. It is now clear that this tolerance was far from universal. One has to begin by asking how advocates of social equality and justice could have been so naive, and even, only half-inadvertently, insulting. One has to wonder how intensely the alt-right’s rage is fixated on wiping the sanctimonious simper off a host of faces.
The question is not why the Democratic Party slighted statehouse politics for so long; the question is who is going to stop doing it. Who is going to take up the good fight in each of the fifty capitals?
Over the weekend, I scoured a few hard-to-reach bookshelves, and recovered a handful of books to read. But the book that I read next wasn’t one of those; it was Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude (1947), which I found among the NYRBs. The pulpy artwork on the cover made me skeptical, as did the fragments of Hamilton’s biography that still floated in my mind from about the time Slaves was reissued. In addition to novels, Hamilton wrote the very successful plays, Rope and Gas Light. The Slaves of Solitude did not promise to be a fun read.
But it was. It was so much fun, and such high fun, that I’m awarding it my Jane Austen Prize. I just made this up, my Jane Austen Prize, but I couldn’t think of a more concise way of singing the book’s praise. It’s probably just me, but The Slaves of Solitude reminded me at every turn of Emma. It was a grey, discounted, wartime comparison; all the gleaming features of Emma are missing. (There is certainly no Mr Knightley.) But the same sort of things seems to be noticed, and the same sort of misunderstanding to proliferate. I could not shake the feeling that Mr Thwaites and Vicki Kugelman were nightmare versions of Mr Woodhouse and Harriet Smith.
The novel is set in Thames Lockdon, an imaginary town that bears a resemblance, according to an author’s note, to Henley-on-Thames. It’s a pretty little place, and, during the Blitz, Miss Roach, a publisher’s assistant, considered herself lucky to find a berth there. That was a few years ago. It is now December 1943, and the war at home has become an unspeakable bore. The narrator refers to the war as a “pilferer,” constantly stealing goods and services and replacing them with ration coupons. The tide of the fighting has begun to shift, and American servicemen are massing in Southeast England for in preparation for “the Second Front,” but the atmosphere of bleak joyless has settled on the land like a pea-souper. Miss Roach’s boarding house, formerly the Rosamund Tea Rooms, is the dreary retreat of various elderly persons, mostly women but also including the impossible Mr Thwaites. Mr Thwaites is a verbal bully and a great comic figure, not least because of his linguistic affectations, such as the habit, when in a good mood, of dropping into the lingo of “I troth.” His principal victim is Miss Roach, who has to share a table with him at meals.
Miss Roach is about forty, plain, and unlikely to marry. She is intelligent, but too well-bred to be resolute, and she is amazed, after the climax has exploded, that she sat there and took it from Mr Thwaites day after day. (At the beginning of the novel, he is accusing her, as if it were a bad thing to be at the time, of being a friend of the Russians.) By the end, she is quite resolute, having taken some very hard knocks from two new people in her life. One of these is Vicki Kugelman, a woman about her own age, and only marginally more attractive, who although a British citizen is of German birth. At a high-minded moment, Miss Roach springs to the woman’s defense, and they become casual friends. The friendship undergoes severe tests after Vicki moves into the Rosamund Tea Rooms. The wrong foot is put forward when Vicki quietly but obstinately steps on Miss Roach’s fancy of being Vicki’s sponsor at the boarding house. Quite soon, Vicki has made a beau of Mr Thwaites, and even as he flirts with her his nastiness to Miss Roach intensifies.
Most of the action, however, centers on the “inconsequent” behavior of a bibulous American lieutenant, Dayton Pike. “Inconsequent” is a very good word, and I wish it were used more frequently. Inconsequence is oblivious thoughtlessness: to say that you will write but to neglect to ask for an address is classic inconsequence. Lieutenant Pike’s inconsequence is almost pathological: he asks every pretty girl who will kiss him to marry him. It takes Miss Roach a long time to discover this, during which time she has entertained herself with daydreams, not taken seriously, of becoming the Laundry Queen of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Pike plans to be King when he goes home after the war.) Pike disappears for weeks at a time, but reappears as eager as ever. His problem is that he doesn’t have a problem with escorting Miss Roach and Vicki Kugelman to a dark park and kissing them seriatim. (He is usually plastered.) Vicki doesn’t have a problem with this, either. When Miss Roach insists that she does, they mock her as “Miss Prude” and “Miss Prim.”
“The war, amongst the innumerable other guises it had assumed, had taken on the character of the inventor and proprietor of some awful low, cosmopolitan night club.” (199). Miss Roach entertains this reflection as she hurtles in a crowded car through the suburban night, careening from one watering-hole to another while the Americans sing songs. Is she a Miss Prim? Miss Roach herself can’t settle this question, but it is obvious to the reader that the woman values her self-respect, whatever that means. She can draw a fairly clear line between fun and an orgy, and she wants no part of the latter. Her familiarity with orgies is limited, but a trapdoor keeps opening up (hauled open by the Americans, usually), revealing flames of depravity below. Before they can swallow her up, she is saved by circumstance: Lieutenant Pike takes to lubricating Mr Thwaites with whiskey. In an obscure way, this is Mr Thwaites’s undoing. Just when Miss Roach is sure that things can’t get any worse, they begin to get better.
Emma Woodhouse touches a similar nadir, but from that moment, as the tide begins to flow in her favor again, the air of smiling satisfaction becomes ever sweeter. So is with the tying up of loose ends in The Slaves of Solitude. There can be no truly happy endings in London at the end of 1943 — there is still too much danger to survive — but Miss Roach emerges from her boarding-house adventures a much happier woman, and a person very unlikely to accept the conversational cruelties of a Mr Thwaites with any docility.
I’ve just read the strangest article in the Styles section of today’s Times. It’s about a young man, Ryan Holiday, a former publicist who has set himself up as a self-help guru, preaching the attractions of Stoicism. The reporter is Alexandra Alter, and I wonder why she did not mention what is implicit in her piece: the maleness of it all. Mr Holiday is much in demand as a speaker for sports teams and military groups. A few philosophers whom Alter quotes express mild doubt about Holiday’s authenticity and rigor; but their very appearance at an event called Stoicon makes it hard to know how seriously to take any of this. I came away not taking it seriously with regard to the philosophy but taking it very seriously with regard to the stroking of specifically masculine egos. There, there, it’s all right to be humble; don’t feel bad about not being famous. Just try to be a better shot with that gun.
If my mind were more scientific, I’d figure out a way to devise a People Index, which would at any given time affix a numerical value to the extent to which the word “people” is used by men and women generally to refer to men and women indifferently. Equally. When you use the word, do you see with your mind’s eye a gathering of men and women, as in a theatre? Or do you see a platoon of men or a flock of women? Is your view altered by different contexts?
In my view, all the advantages that can possibly be attributed to one gender or the other — the bravery of men, the loving-kindness of women (just to pick the two most trite) — are completely outweighed by the absence of the other’s, and never more so than in important discussions. One of the reasons for my mistrust of philosophy is its almost complete failure to appeal to women. In the past, men would say that philosophy is simply “beyond” the grasp of women. I don’t want to hear that sort of thing again, but when I read that, before he dropped out of college, Holiday pasted quotations from the Meditations of Marcus Arelius on the walls of his dorm room, I prick up my ears.
Last Friday, I spent a few hours writing about a thousand words about George Meredith’s masterpiece, The Egoist. Then, in a flurry of misstrokes, I lost what I’d done. I’ve been somewhat careless, lately, about the precautions that I’ve learned to take to protect my work, and, in another indication of diminished interest in what I’m doing here, I did not immediately attempt to reconstruct the entry. In fact, I let it go with a sigh, and signed off for the weekend with nothing to show for the day. I turned to the writing project, which is giving me a hard time at the moment, and grappled with a paragraph until I began to feel good about it. Meanwhile, I knew that I’d be back on Monday, better equipped to write about The Egoist for having read more of it. To my chagrin, I read the whole thing.
The Egoist is a difficult novel to recommend. It is, at least at the beginning, something of a porcupine, all quills on the outside. Meredith’s penchant for cleverness, for phrasing little details with peculiar obliquity, has not aged well.
Pedestrianism was a sour business to Sir Willoughby, for whose exclamation of the word indicated a willingness of any amount of exercise on horseback.
While hardly opaque, this sentence has too much surface for its sense, and long stretches of the first ten or fifteen chapters are made tiring (and even tiresome) by Meredith’s disinclination to speak plainly. Once the action gets going, it moves very quickly, and conversation begins to replace narrative. The conversation is very good; it has something of the sparkle of Wilde. But one has suffered to get that far. Essentially, The Egoist is a farce in extremely slow motion.
Some might call Meredith’s style an acquired taste; if it is, I have not acquired it. I’ve been meaning to re-read the book for ages, but when I found a print copy in the bookcase — the Kindle’s battery was running low — there was a bookmark in the middle of Chapter 16, where apparently I had stopped, years ago. Determined this time to enjoy the climax, I pressed on, but all that kept me going at one point was knowing that Clara’s flight to the railway station was only four chapters away. I dimly recalled that this event marks a change in the story’s time signature; from andante assai, it moves to allegro con brio. The bulk of the novel describes the action of four days, or rather presents it in a series of staged scenes that brings Beaumarchais to mind.
But Meredith is writing in the 1870s; he has all day, and then some. Why bother with so much overupholstery? One good reason: the characters are all very attractive. Sir Willoughby Patterne, the character of the title, is a monster of narcissism, constantly begging the question whether surfeit or deficit of self-esteem is the underlying cause; but the spectacle of his ordeal is extremely entertaining, and his fatuous speeches are irresistibly dreadful. One can hardly believe they go on so, and yet one doesn’t want them to stop. Rich, handsome, suave and attentive, Sir Willoughby has set out to be the principal gentleman in his county. All he needs is children — his “line,” as he calls it. For this, he must have a wife, but Sir Willoughby is mistaken about women. He has already been jilted once, and no sooner have we fallen in love with his second fiancée, Clara Middleton, than she, too, begins to think of bolting. “Anything but marry him,” becomes her mantra. There is no real mystery to the ladies’ change of heart. The moment Sir Willoughby welcomes a woman as his prospective bride, he enunciates a conception of love that would make a vampire seem an appealing alternative.
After the first dump, Sir Willoughby took a world tour. Now thirty-two, he cannot afford to be jilted twice. In a pointed scene with the widowed grande dame of the neighborhood, Mrs Mounstuart Jenkinson, the mere word itself, “Twice,” spoken by the lady as she presses the stem of her parasol into the lawn, is sufficient by itself to reduce the baronet to hypothermia. He cannot allow Clara to escape. Nor can Meredith. Clara is a lady — innocent and pure and the embodiment of all those other rather implausible Victorian ideals about women. She will not disgrace herself. Yes, she does run away, but all alone; when Sir Willoughby’s handsome and rakish friend, Horace De Craye, shows up at the railway station to “assist” her, she understands that her flight must be aborted. It cannot be allowed to appear that she ran off with him.
Indeed, there is no reason to believe that Clara would ever succeed in dissolving her engagement, were it not for the helpless assistance of Sir Willoughby’s egotism. He wants Clara, and the world as well, to believe that he loves her alone, but of course he loves himself much, much more. Perhaps it would be better to say that he loves his public standing more than anything else. He cannot bear the idea that people might be talking about him in any critical way. He would rather die than be humbled. As Clara’s pressure to disengage intensifies, Willoughby becomes so distracted by his attempts to keep up appearances that it becomes obvious to De Craye that he no longer cares for Clara herself.
Clara is nineteen, beautiful, and fully alive; she could have been played, had films been made when they were younger, by Helena Bonham Carter or Rachel McAdams. But the reader must resist the temptation to regard her as the heroine. Which is a way of saying that her time with Sir Willoughby, however tumultuous, is not particularly momentous for Clara. Once she resolves that she cannot marry the man, her development as a character stops; if it begins to move again at the end, that is only to tell us that her love story, involving another man altogether, is just about to begin. In fact, Clara falls away as an active character, and even, helplessly, becomes something of a bore. When pressed for reasons why she can’t love the Patterne paragon, she can only point to failings in herself. She cannot say, “Because he is an egoist!” In her world, most men — especially most wealthy men — are exactly that. The language of love and duty available to a young lady of Clara’s class cannot be used to attack a man who intends to subordinate his wife’s freedom to the demands of his caprice. Were she to accuse her fiancé of being grossly self-centered, the world would shrug. “And?” She would thereupon be obliged to sit through lectures on how to handle a man.
This is another difficulty with The Egoist: the limitations on a young lady’s autonomy that prevailed in the high noon of Victoria’s reign have slipped almost as far into bizarro history as the mannerisms of Heian Japan. The problem of “jilting” itself takes some explanation. We believe that it would be unpardonably inauthentic for a woman to murmur “I do” if she were less than sure of the statement; in Meredith’s day, a woman who accepted a suitor was bound forever by that plight, no matter how her feelings might evolve thereafter; to Trollope, a woman who acknowledged the love of one man was worse than Eve if she ever looked at another. The fact that girls were largely ignorant of “the world” was quite pointedly not taken into account. It was all very artificial, of course — the men of the time were habitual over-reachers, and their women had too much time on their hands — and it collapsed altogether about a century ago. Readers might well decline to reconstruct so odd a playing field for so unnecessary a game.
What saves The Egoist from mere curiosity is its comedy. Now, Meredith had very elaborate ideas about comedy, and he is always willing to tell us about them. In spite of this, the book is funny, once you have gotten used to its strange tempo. For when I said that the climax is marked allegro con brio, I took it for granted that any reader who gets far enough to read it would have gotten so used to the fundamental molto adagio as no longer to notice it. There is a scene between two old men so protracted that makes you want to scream, as indeed it makes one of those men want to scream, but you are laughing before it is over. Two titled viragos, Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer, plough through the dramatic reversals with so much relish that you expect them to upset Meredith’s apple cart along with Sir Willoughby’s. Mrs Mountstuart Jenkinson, a less mad cousin of Lady Bracknell, has the awful majesty of Aunt Maud, in The Wings of the Dove, but she is so delightful that you want to read her memoirs. With her peculiarly worldly respectability, she both looks back to the ancien régime and foreshadows the Edwardians. Gifted with the knack for mots justes, she calls Clara “a dainty rogue in porcelain,” much to Sir Willoughby’s chagrin (“why rogue?”); and thus she captures the lovely girl’s appetite for liberty.
I have said nothing of Laetitia Dale, the somewhat dependent neighbor who has adored Sir Willoughby since childhood. If there is a heroine here, it is she, and she turns out to be the funniest character of all, if only at the very end, after chapters and chapters of passive reserve. She learns a great deal from Clara, more than she could have imagined. In other words, she is massively disillusioned. Having jettisoned her romantic idealism, she will be just the wife Willoughby needs. Hearing her stipulation of changes to be made at Patterne is as refreshing as standing under a waterfall.
I have mentioned a late novel by Henry James. James exemplifies our idea of what a difficult writer ought to be like, hard to follow until you get it, and understand that you are listening to speech, not to writing. (James dictated his later works to a secretary.) Meredith is difficult in an entirely different way, and I don’t think that it’s possible to become altogether comfortable with him. But he had a vision of craziness in a country house, and for anyone patient enough to bear, for a dozen-odd chapters, with a style that is never quite as orotund or precious as it threatens to be, that vision will come delightfully alive.
And as for the Willow Pattern — does anybody under forty recognize it? I see that you can buy a service of four five-piece place settings from Bed, Bath, & Beyond. (The less said about that, the better.) Wikipedia, curiously, discusses the origin of the pattern, as well as the romantic fable that it inspired, but says nothing about The Egoist. Meredith didn’t call his hero Willoughby Patterne for nothing, but I’ve always thought that the reference was something of a muddle — a good case of being too clever by half.
Developed by various potteries toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, Blue Willow quickly became the most popular of mass-produced tableware patterns. The image was printed, not painted, on each piece, making standardization, then a modern miracle, a considerable draw. Based on Chinese design elements, and exploiting the color of choice in porcelain imported from China, Willow was nonetheless an English concoction, as was the “legend” that it was thought to depict, but that in fact was distilled from it. I doubt that it was ever used on expensive bone china as often as it was on affordable earthenware, and by the 1870′s, I should think, the only people dining from it at Patterne Hall would be the servants. Is this part of Meredith’s joke, yet another way of saying that poor Sir Willoughby, whose adventures are patterned by a tale associated with the most common ceramics in England, is as mortal as everybody else?
It’s not difficult to mark the correlatives between the legend and the novel, but the legend lacks many of the novel’s most striking elements, among them the characters of Laetitia Dale and Crossjay Patterne. At the same time, neither elopement nor vengeful pursuit, central to the legend, and represented on the pattern by the three notional figures crossing the bridge near the center of the design, are part of the novel. Yes, Clara tries to run away, but she is pursued by those who would help her, and her love story, which is not really central to The Egoist, but instead a rather tied-up loose end, is fostered by her father, not forbidden by him. To the extent that Meredith used the pattern as a model, he seems to have done so in order to be able to point out the many ways in which he did not follow it. At the same time, it must be admitted that the name of his hero, which everybody in England and American must have seen through at the time (“Get it?”), works well to make the baronet a figure of fun, and not the narcissistic juggernaut that he really is.
On Friday, there appeared an astonishing piece about a book that is going to be published here in April. (It has already come out in Britain.) Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler, details the use of methamphetamines by German soldiers during the war, as well as Hitler’s use of cocaine and opiates. As writer David Segal notes, it’s hard to imagine anything new to be learned about the Nazi régime, and yet what makes Ohler’s disclosures all the more shocking is that they explain so much! Such as, for example, Hitler’s gratuitous declaration of war on the United States several days after Pearl Harbor. Not to mention, earlier in 1941, the invasion of Russia — initially a great success, incidentally, then not so much: drugs wearing off? Even the Holocaust becomes a little less inexplicable, at least to anyone who has spent time with hopped-up speed freaks. It seems that parts of the story have been well-known all along, but not to the same people. Ohler was inspired to write a novel on the subject by a documentary that he saw; one of the participants in that project taught him how to research drug use in military records. Ohler’s publisher decided that the material was too weird for fiction.
My brain is deafened by shuttling resets. The Industrial Revolution in Germany transformed the world of chemicals, from dyes to drugs. Mightn’t that alone have made it the first place to experiment with government bv doping? We have to be grateful, I suppose, that the effect of steroids on physical performance were not as well-understood as they are today. Almost every aspect of the Nazi horror looks to be up for re-evaluation, and there is probably going to be a din when Blitzed appears in April. I foresee a reaction that insists that not everything about the Third Reich was related to drug abuse. Maybe even a new movie or two!
In these uncomfortable times, I am reminded of a prose-poem by Auden, “Vespers,” one of his “Horae Canonicae.” Auden pits himself against a stranger who is walking along a twilit road in the opposite direction. “Both simultaneously recognize his Anti-type: that I am an Arcadian, that he is a Utopian.” What follows is a series of contrasts and contradictions, amusing but at the same time dismaying.
In my Eden a person who dislikes Bellini has the good manners not to be born; in his New Jerusalem a person who dislikes work will be very sorry he was born.
At the end of the poem, both men are shown to be complicit in the blood-sacrifice without which “no secular wall will safely stand.” I don’t follow the poem quite to its Christian point, but simply enjoy, if that’s the word, the oppositions. I have felt them strongly ever since I discovered the poem years ago. Generally, I identify with Auden, and see the stranger as a nasty piece of work. It is very tempting, these days, to identify the stranger, if not with Donald Trump (that would not fit at all), then with his white, male supporters. They alarm me, and I feel their contempt, matching the rhythm of “Vespers.”
But if Auden seeks to solve his dichotomies in spiritual contrition, I am just as eager to translate them into common terms. On the one hand, we have the language of hope, which, however it arises from past experience, pins attention on the future, and the good things that might happen in it. On the other, there is the language of fear, which turns away from the future lest it present a recurrence of terrible things that have happened in the past. Mild forgetfulness and savage recollection. Optimism and pessimism.
Idealism and practicality. We have not yet learned how to forge one language out of these two ways of seeing things that seem, not so much to contradict one another as to ignore the existence of the other. What makes Auden’s evening walk unpleasant is the mere reminder of the stranger’s point of view, which the poet wishes to remove, along with the stranger himself, to “some other planet.” So long as human beings could do little more damage to the world than killing other human beings, the tension between idealism and practicality was sustainable; there was no need for cooperation. But now that we can wreck the planet, or, rather, now that, if we are to proceed at all, we must save the planet from ourselves, idealism and practicality must somehow be forged together. Each must understand and, literally, come to terms with the other. Alarm and contempt are unaffordable luxuries.
The first step is for each party to abandon its claim to be the better representative of humanity, and to acknowledge that, on its own, neither is a very good one. This is really nothing more than learning to see yourselves as your opponents see you. Idealists can be awful fools, while pragmatists stifle imagination. When one says, “this time, it will be different,” the other chortles darkly. Dreamers are empty-headed; realists are prisoners of their own common sense.
One issue about which both sides agree to disagree is human nature. Hope claims that it is perfectible, while fear insists that it is nasty and brutish. As it happens, we are living in an age of discoveries about human behavior (which is all that we can see of “human nature”) that promises to resolve many competing claims. And we have lived through an era of prosperity that has taught us a great deal about the mollifying effects of comfort and safety on human anxiety. Pessimists will argue that the alteration of human behavior is as temporary as prosperity is transient, while optimists will complain that prosperity was no more than consumerist bling. Both sides, however, will tend to overlook the fact that prosperity was caused by human beings. It was not, as in the old days, a matter of lucky harvests. Postwar prosperity was particularly mindful of the brutalities and inequities of earlier phases of industrialization, and overcame most of them for many years. Human beings can create environments in which human beings will flourish. All that it takes is for optimists to listen closely to pessimists, and for pessimists to have a little faith in themselves.
In this morning’s Times, the regular book reviewers list their favorites for the year. There was a time, not so long ago, when such lists sparked a competitive response in me: how many had I read, or would I read? This year, I felt a strange sadness instead. It was strange because it blended two distinct regrets. First, I’ve been re-reading my own books for at least two years, and not buying very many new ones; I see this as a function of my time of life. Whether actual age has anything to do with it, I am simply no longer in the expansive phase that marked my youth and middle age. I have genuinely lost interest in novelty, and I don’t pay much attention to new stories. This may seem like a terrible loss — I should certainly have regarded it as one twenty years ago, or perhaps even ten — but it is almost wholly displaced by a harvest of reflection and reconsideration that feels like the richest thing that I have ever experienced. Almost wholly, though, not so much that lists of the best books of the year, only one or two of which I may have read, don’t make me wistful. This first regret is like a thimble-sized glass of bitter liqueur, and not unsavory.
The other regret is quite different. It is a cold ocean on the other side of an unreliable seawall, pounding away at the civil fabric in which I have lived a safe and largely comfortable life. My good luck and the fortunes of the liberal experiment in Western democracy are knotted together. On a night not long after the November election, I lay awake one night wondering how long after the Inauguration it would take the Trumpists to show up at my door to take me away. Abominable conceit, you will say. But it doesn’t feel so imaginary, so light-of-day unlikely. This morning, it is not the book lists that look different — not yet, anyway. Gone, rather, is the unspoken trust and confidence with which I looked over their predecessors.
It was not complete, that trust and confidence. I knew that the way things were could come to an end, and probably would come to an end if the élite (to which no one would admit belonging) continued to sleepwalk. It is not certain that the old order has indeed come to an end. Inertia can be very powerful, and, so far, for all the anxiety, there is not much violence. But there is no reason to believe that this will continue. More and more, I feel that I am writing a message for a bottle.
I never write in books anymore, but I used to inscribe the date on which I finished reading a book on the inside of its back cover. My Doubleday Anchor copy of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, which has held together for over forty years, bears the date 19 February 1971. Over time, my recollection of the novel has been completely effaced, and because most of the action takes place in Geneva, I allowed it to be overwritten by associations with the assassination there, in 1898, of Empress Elisabeth. It’s not unlikely that I was very distracted in February 1971; in any case, I feel that I’ve just read Under Western Eyes for the first time.
After reading Lord Jim and Victory last year, and re-reading Nostromo and The Heart of Darkness as well, I was on the lookout for Under Western Eyes, which turned out to be on the top shelf of the fiction bookcase — a warren, triple-stacked, of uncatalogued paperbacks — where I found it a few weeks ago. Like The Secret Agent, which I re-read two years ago, it boasts no exotic locales. The book opens in a St Petersburg that seems from the very start to be Dostoevsky’s; perhaps because Conrad was a friend of Constance Garnett (Dostoevsky’s first translator into English), the text reads like a very familiar translation. We are in the world of students and subversives, of heaping snow and endless cold nights, and of “rooms,” barely-furnished garrets with small, dirty windows and dim oil lamps. Razumov, the student who concerns us, is an unusual young man, as strange as Prince Myshkin, although not at all like him. Conrad never misses an opportunity to remind us that Razumov has grown up not only an orphan but without any loving relationships at all. A certain Prince K, possibly his natural father, provides a modest allowance, but that is it; one helplessly concludes that Razumov was born in the room that he rents and in the clothes that he wears, that he has been a student since birth.
To what extent is Razumov deformed by childhood deprivations, and to what extent is he merely Russian? He does not say much, but most of what he says in the novel is brutally direct, uncoated by regard for the feelings of others. Although Razumov’s manner in student gatherings is described — he appears to listen deeply — the man whom we get to know is governed by a desire to be left alone. Perhaps this desire is so striking because it is shattered at the very beginning, when Razumov, through no act of his own, is implicated in a political assassination. His plans to complete his education with distinction and to compete for a silver medal by writing an essay, and so to find a respectable berth in the Russian bureaucracy — all of this becomes impossible when the assassin shows up in his room, in need of help.
The assassin is not unknown to Razumov, and here we must wonder a little about the “no act of his own” innocence. For the assassin, among others as it turns out, harbors a very favorable if no less mistaken opinion of Razumov. In fact, Razumov is the only one of his student friends whom the assassin names in a letter to his mother and sister. It is somewhat absurd, for Razumov has never espoused a revolutionary idea in his life. But his silence makes him a standout among the ranters. The assassin concludes that Razumov is a most trustworthy comrade. Razumov can be relied upon to arrange for the assassin’s escape, by notifying Ziemianitch, a “town peasant” who runs a sort of coach service. The assassin will hide out in Razumov’s room in the meanwhile.
Razumov sets out to do as the assassin asks, but he is very bitter about it, and when Ziemianitch turns out to be dead drunk, Razumov changes tack. From this moment, the novel takes place in a sort of moral outer space, where there is no gravity and where cause and effect have been duped. To the question already asked about Razumov — is he damaged or just Russian? — we add another: is he righteous or vile? He is certainly put in a false position, and the false position becomes unbearable when he discovers tender feelings (the first in his life, it would seem) for the assassin’s sister.
In his introduction, Morton Dauwen Zabel says that Under Western Eyes is arguably the most difficult of Conrad’s novels to read through, but, perhaps because I had just finished The Egoist, I found it to be smooth sailing — smooth sailing with a lot of emotional turbulence. I couldn’t put the book out of my mind; it really gave me no peace. Tensions were ratcheted up by external accidents: by the noisy remodeling of a nearby apartment, by the furious, last-minute disorder of the intersection over the subway station, just outside our door — the MTA has still not ruled out a New Year’s Eve opening — and by a couple of domestic disappointments. Reading Under Western Eyes was smooth sailing, but all the same I was seasick most of the time. I was dying to find out how it all came out in the end, and yet in a way I didn’t much care, for I just wanted it to be done, while, at the same time, I wanted never ever to finish it.
But I did.
Zsa Zsa Gabor! The name rockets out of oblivion. It is not as surprising that she lived to such a great age as that she ever existed at all. She might as well have been 99 when I was a child. Just when raw youthfulness was about to assert itself at the center of style and culture, Zsa Zsa and her sisters pouted in their feathers and their furs, insisting that real glamour doesn’t touch women until they’re forty. Or until they’ve had forty husbands.
The Times obituary, written by Robert McFadden, could not resist making a little fuss about Zsa Zsa’s last husband, referred to twice as “Mr Prinz von Anhalt.” The normal journalistic thing to do would be to respect his bluff and call him “Anhalt,” or “Mr von Anhalt.” But no. There must be giggles. I hope that Vanity Fair will tell us more about how Hans Robert Lichtenberg got adopted (as an adult) by the Duchess of Saxony and why he took to passing himself off as a German aristocrat. I’m sure that there’s a perfectly good explanation for it. California living would appear to be part of the equation.
Indeed, Zsa Zsa herself, an emissary of the Mitteleuropäisch heartland of beautiful skin treatments — she is shown, in the obituary, in her role as a scientist from Venus; pretty much the same thing — required an American atmosphere for ignition. It is only in the context dramatized by her sister, Eva, in Green Acres, that such kittenish but mature seductiveness makes sense. Only in America could it be imagined that there were men who lit up when she sashayed in from the valet parking. Her husbands presumably imagined such responses. In today’s paper, Alessandra Stanley calls her the first reality show star, but I think it makes more sense to regard her as a pioneering drag queen. (Once again, there may be no difference.)
She was a great figure of fun to children, dahlink. But we’re all getting pretty old ourselves, now. Why does the Times assume that everyone knows how to pronounce her name?
An editorial in the Times calls for an end to the Electoral College. It mentions the “elegant solution” of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would leave the College intact but direct the electors to mirror the popular vote. It sounds like a great way for the populous coasts to drain power from the flyover zone, even if that isn’t its purpose, so I don’t expect the Compact to make much further progress.
Where to begin? If I say that I’m thinking of drawing a line under these entries and contributing none further, even regular readers will conclude that I’m in a snit about Trump. But what I’m in a snit about is everyone else’s snit about Trump. The whining and the moaning and the “bewilderment” about the election. And the Fascist fantasies about the future. I’m not saying that the next Administration will be just fine. I’m not saying anything about it at all. What seems more important to me is understanding the values and the commitments of people who, like myself, are happier with the judgments of Supreme Court justices who have not been nominated by Republican presidents.
What do you call people like us? Are we still liberals? Progressives? There is one thing that I hope that we are not, and that is Democrats. I don’t want to hear talk about a Democratic Party comeback. At least on the national level, the Democratic Party is not going to be coming back within my lifetime — I’m almost sure of that. And there are “good reasons” for this, reasons why the Democratic Party is not so great. Reasons why those of us who can’t figure out what to call ourselves ought to resist the Party’s attempts to rally, and to move on instead, in search of something new.
The history is really very clear. Since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party has been associated with the “New Deal” slate of redistributive social programs, such as Social Security, and progressive regulatory structures, such as the National Labor Relations Board. Medicare is an important later bloom of this tradition. But today’s Democratic Party is not at all like the party that supported FDR. FDR’s Democratic Party was destroyed by Lyndon Johnson, with the passage of important civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Johnson’s heroic gesture drove Southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) into the arms of the Republic Party. The surviving Democratic Party was little more than an opportunistic rump.
Democratic Party failures since the Sixties involve both leadership and administration. What Johnson started was not continued. There was no national conversation about race; instead, there were riots that led many whites to complain that blacks were ungrateful for being treated as human beings, which however they still were not. The Democratic Party did little or nothing about White Flight from the country’s older cities. It was powerless, apparently, to check the growing “law and order” movement by which Republicans brazenly sought to continue and intensify the marginalization of blacks. It might have been argued that, even though the Dixiecrats had left the party, their preference for glossing over racial issues persisted in the Democratic Party. Nor did the Party cultivate future leaders. It became a clearing house for mavericks instead.
As to administration, the Democratic Party seemed to be unaware that arrangements for the ameliorisation of society are delicate institutions requiring constant attention and occasional rethinks. I’m not talking about programs, which certainly have been tinkered with over the years. I’m talking about administration, how the government conducts its business. The Democratic Party has accomplished nothing substantial in the fight against regulatory capture; it has responded fatalistically to enormous discrepancies in pay between regulators and the subjects of their regulation, discrepancies that encourage an altogether licit corruption. At a signal point in growing economic volatility, a Democratic president oversaw the dissolution of the Glass-Steagall safeguards that had done so much for financial stability since the Depression. Modifying legislative provisions in order to make those safeguards more responsive to changes in economic life were not considered: the safeguards themselves were seen as the problem. Had they remained in place, there might not have been the catastrophe that occurred ten years later.
Instead of attending to these real political problems, the Democratic Party devoted its energies to visions of the future. In these visions, no American would be permitted to coerce another American in any way. I can think of no more praiseworthy objective, but visions can be realized only when they attract very substantial support. The Democratic Party has not condescended to attempt to persuade rural, socially conservative Americans of the justice of its visions. Republicans have taken advantage of this arrogance, gaining control of statehouses and redrawing electoral districts in such a way that the popular vote in a presidential election has been constitutionally overruled.
The Republican Party is the party of selfishness. It has other words for this — freedom, individuality, personal responsibility — but it is up-front about its priorities. The Democratic Party projects an image of concern for others, for social justice. It seems, however, to share the Republican obsession with staying in office.
Thanks for nothing, Democratic Party. Kindly slip on a pair of cement shoes and go for a swim.
It seems that I’ve been doing nothing but reading The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, by Richard J Evans. I ordered the book the moment I learned about it, because of the book’s title and also because of its author. I’ve been reading pieces by Evans in the LRB for years (or so it seems) and I have always been impressed by his authority. But I haven’t read any of the man’s books, which tend to focus on Hitler and the Third Reich. After Ian Kershaw’s two-volume study of Hitler, and a few other related books that appeared at the same time, I didn’t want to read any more about all of that. But here is Evans writing about my latest interest, the beginning of modern times, and how well he captures the crux of it in his title! Power was everything in the Industrial Revolution — the discovery of motive powers far greater than any known before — and it was everything to the political revolutions that overturned the ancien régime throughout Europe from 1789 on. Evans makes an extremely felicitous point, or rather calls attention to the point that has been so nicely made by the Penguin History of Europe, to which The Pursuit of Power is the latest edition. The preceding period, 1648-1815, is covered in Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory. There you have it! The glory once pursued by monarchs and other hereditary noblemen paled in comparison to new and amazing abilities to make unexpected things happen. The electricity that powered new modes of communication also amplified new political powers, as did new modes of transportation, not to mention the production of new orders of armaments. Our political lives are still almost wholly engaged by the struggle to limit and channel the powers, now including the power to destroy life on Earth, that began to transform human society nearly 250 years ago. In the year that is about to end, a self-congratulating liberal consensus devoted to making progress in the problem of managing power received two terrible shocks that ought to have been foreseen instead of being dismissed as unlikely: there is still much to learn about power. Evans’s felicitous point reminds us that, prior to the revolutions that exploded at the end of the Eighteenth Century, power was such a zero-sum affair that no one gave much thought to it. 250 years might strike a young person as a long time, but in the larger scheme of things it is little more than an instant, and I am not surprised that we have made more mess than headway in attempting to master our everyday superpowers.
Now that I’ve finished The Pursuit of Power, Richard J Evans’s magisterial history of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, I see that it has, for all its strengths, an enormous hole, right in the center. What’s missing is a chapter on the bourgeoisie, on its explosive growth and wealth, on the business organizations that fueled it, on the new concepts of public and private property that new wealth engendered, and on the displacement of traditional élites and the impact of that impact on the arts. Bits of this are strewn throughout the book, but key parts, especially the development of finance, and the catastrophic bank failures (in 1837 and 1873) that highlighted the fragility of unregulated capitalism, are not discussed. Political power is Evans’s theme, but not the arguably greater power of money.
I can’t help attributing this oversight to Evans’s academic training, about which I have to infer, from the book’s dedication to the memory of Eric Hobsbawn, that it brought up Evans as a man of the left. I have arrived at a curious conclusion about educated leftists: they have adopted the utterly aristocratic contempt for money and people who have it that is exhibited in the pages of the Quest de Saint Graal, where you will find castles and hermits but no towns of any size nor any service providers who need to be paid. Such features of medieval life, thriving at the time, were simply omitted from the epic in a way that leaves a palpable distaste. So it is with Marxists. Their primary response to the bourgeoisie is not hatred or outrage but tacit disgust. I can think of no other explanation for Evans’s omission of commercial growth from his rich tapestry, which I nevertheless urge you to read. It’s because of this squeamishness that Evans fails to complete the distinction between liberals and democrats, who together with the reactionaries constituted the century’s three political groupings.
Evans ends with a chapter on imperialism that takes the reader on a harrowing ride through the far-flung colonial exploits that terminates right back at home, in the territorial ambitions of the Balkan countries that emerged from the Ottoman collapse. Imperialism began as a commercial project, but quickly required the backing of sovereign powers, and this was where European politicians rediscovered the attractions of glory and the magnificent symbolic gesture. Glory, it turned out, appealed to the new mass electorates no less than it had done to the Bourbons; the great-grandchildren of peasants whose hatred for war was exceeded only by their ignorance of its conduct developed a thirst for international competitions. What put the bite in these competitions — what made them wars instead of contests — was nationalism, a monstrous miasma that seeped from the blood of revolutionary martyrs.
Nationalism is back in the news, because Donald Trump has put it there. But the United States can never be nationalist in the way that the European countries of the Nineteenth Century were. It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect upon why.
European nationalism was founded primarily on language and mythology. Natio, the Latin root, meant “birth,” and the word came to apply to tribes, particularly uncivilized ones. Tribes were identified primarily by their speech and by their gods. In the wake of the convulsions that opened the century, people throughout Europe began to identify themselves by the language that they spoke and by the stories that accounted for their presence there. This identification was especially insistent among those who spoke a language other than their rulers’. The Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians of the Hapsburg dominions demanded that their children be taught in their own language. At the other extreme, a great deal of effort was invested (ultimately fruitlessly) in reviving the moribund Gaelic of Ireland. Against this background, the history of the “great migrations of the peoples” was concocted, suggesting that tribes in hordes had deserted Central Asia in favor of lands on the periphery of the Roman Empire. Some of these stories had been sketched in the early Middle Ages, while others were given respectability by philological research. They were mostly bogus.
The concept of race, which employs a word of unknown background that appeared in Latin countries during the Renaissance, has its own history, and from the moment of its introduction into serious discussion it carried the additional baggage, beyond difference, of superiority. It was first used to explain the superiority of French aristocrats to ordinary French people, the theory being that the nobles were actually Franks, or Germans, who alone could subject the Celtic and Mediterranean indigenes to law and order. Later, the theory of Aryan supremacy was erected on this foundation. Racism is a theory of fitness to rule based on inherited characteristics. Thus the Germans who ran the Hapsburg dominions flattered themselves to think that they alone ought to decide what languages were worth speaking. White Americans easily persuaded themselves that nature intended them to dominate blacks.
But white Americans have never been robustly nationalistic, because all of them have begun by parting from the tribes into which they were born. This is particularly true of Europeans who, the ancestors of the massive majority of Americans, did not speak English as a first language. (Even immigrants from the British Isles regarded themselves as outsiders with regard to the homeland.) Americans do not speak English in quite the same way that Czechs speak Czech — if they did, I expect, they would speak it more carefully. Americans began by rejecting national backgrounds, and now all they have is the color of their skin, or, to be honest, the configuration of their facial features. Americans can only be racists, and their racism will invariably be an issue of claims to political and economic mastery.
This is not to deny that Americans are becoming tribal. Americans who move around the country tend to stick to cities and their suburbs, and our urban areas are increasingly homogeneous, making for one urban tribe. This tribe is also wealthier and better educated than the members of other tribes, the members of which have settled in their territories for several generations now, if not for far longer. Unlike the nationalists of nineteenth-century Europe, however, American racists dismiss the significance of language, and they substitute physical appearance for national history. Diversity means nothing to individuals who regard themselves as better-born.
Although it is New Year’s Eve, it is also Saturday, so I spent the early afternoon doing what I usually do, tidying the apartment. Ordinarily, I listen to an opera while I work, but today I wanted no music at all: I was too busy thinking. The latest issue of the LRB (Vol 39 Nº 1) is possibly the most stimulating I’ve ever read, with a brilliant piece by James Meek (on Raymond Chandler and a new, “theoretical” collection of essays about him) and an even more astonishing review by Terry Eagleton, about which I can only say, why did I have to wait until I was nearly seventy to hear what he has to say in his discussion of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique? It would have been so marvelously encouraging when I was twenty. Plus, of course, Alan Bennett’s two-page diary, which I did not read right away but hoarded for a while.
Then, in the Times Book Review this morning, there are two reviews of books about the future, and they both made the same point, which is that the bandwidths of futurists’ attention ought to be considerably wider. Kevin Roose complains that technological visionaries distracted us from more important developments.
As a result, we fawned over self-driving cars and next-generation artificial intelligence while questions about the politics of all this new technology — the emotional backlash from manufacturing workers losing their jobs to automation, the interference of foreign hackers in American elections, the ability of partisan opportunists to flood Facebook with propaganda — went mostly unanswered.
(Alan Bennett made an obliquely related claim when he implied that if “even a fraction” of the things people wrote about David Bowie were true, then there could have been no Mrs Thatcher.)
And there’s more! Writing about a new book about relations between the United States and China, Simon Winchester suggests that China’s non-pacific Pacific intentions “extend, in some interpretations, as far out as Hawaii.”
The New Year hasn’t even arrived and yet it already feels like a different country. Never have I had so many clear ideas of bad things that might happen, and soon, while the weather is still cold. It’s very hard to wish readers a happy new year with anything like a straight face — but I can say it, anyway. But without the customary froth.
Happy New Year —