Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (II)

8, 9 and 11 May

Monday 8th

As often happens, I forgot the best part. On Friday, writing about The Lake House, I ought to have added the following at the end.

But The Lake House is masterful at obliterating “technicalities.” The emotional climax of the film leads immediately to the finale. Kate is looking at Alex’s drawing of the lake house, but we’re looking at her from the wall. Behind her, Henry tells of Alex’s death. Kate’s face immediately succumbs to still, blind, weeping grief, but when Henry adds that Alex died two years ago this very day, Kate opens her eyes, and speech begins to flutter in her lips. We know what she is going to say long before she does — taking forever to form the word “where” is one of Sandra Bullock’s many triumphs as a screen actress. As soon as she hears that Alex was killed in a traffic accident at Daley Plaza — the anonymous death that we witnessed early in the film — she is out the door.


Over the weekend, I put two thick books behind me. The first was J D Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors. A measure of how much things have changed since this work first appeared in 1952 may be taken from its final, single-sentence paragraph.

Sound in her stock as competent in her institutions, instinct with life and energy, England awaited the arrival of Elizabeth.

You really can’t write this sort of thing anymore. It’s not so much the pathetic fallacy of speaking of England as “awaiting” anything at all, as the very definite attendance of something that hindsight (not quite the same thing as history) has long regarded as a glorious reign. The miracle is that Elizabeth made it through her first years, that the thicket of hostility in which she had been obliged to grow up from infancy not only failed to kill her but spontaneously disappeared with the death of her elder half-sister. Nor could it be imagined that Elizabeth would never marry, her most redoubtable achievement. Nobody could reasonably expect that the pale young woman of uncertain confession would rule as a virgin queen for forty-five years, or that by at long last executing her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, she would clear the way to the throne for Mary’s son, James. Mackie’s ending all but transforms England into the audience for a beloved movie, a cherished tale; at the same time, it transforms Mackie’s readers into proto-Elizabethans. The illusion — a confusion, really — is bewitching, which is precisely why it is no longer permissible.

The other book was Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelists. I really don’t know what to say about this tome. The book is well-written and intelligent, but there is something oblique about it, something that made me wonder why I had to plow through a hundred pages (a hundred and two, actually) about relations between Evangelical leaders and the first Bush Administration. I often had the queasy feeling, which I hate to associate with a writer whom I so admire, that Fitzgerald was telling everything that she knew in the hopes that a story would emerge.

Indeed, I sensed the presence of a number of strangled stories. First, as I said a while back, the book seems to be about the inerrantists, those who believe that what the Bible says is literally true. Not all evangelicals believe this, as Fitzgerald points out, but for most of the book the inerrantists hold her attention. And yet there is no discussion of the cherry-picking indulged by these literalists. For you cannot be a Christian inerrantist without making a few profound decisions about what in the Hebrew Bible still holds after Christ’s mission and passion. The openness of Paul to the gentiles increases the pressure. Ultimately, we want to know what makes the story of Creation so important, and just where the inerrantists find strictures against abortion with greater force than other, neglected, strictures.

Another story, broached but never explored, might have evaluated the theology of the Prosperity Gospel. Nor does Fitzgerald bring much critical thought to the Pentacostal movements, or to the role of mass excitement in American religiosity generally. So much about evangelism in this country necessarily strikes the outsider as the embarrassing endorsement of vulgar conceit, a sanctification of things as they are instead of a leadership toward what they ought to be, that mere reportage seems naïve. There is much cognitive dissonance between the rigor of Fitzgerald’s history and the slovenliness of evangelical anti-intellectualism. What a terrible waste of effort, to write so scrupulously about so many know-nothings.

I have been reading the Gospels; I am in the middle of Luke. Not a believer myself, I am usually inclined to regard Jesus as a very good man who preached a deeply humane message, one that rightly rests at the heart of Western civilization. Until I pick up the New Testament, that is.


Tuesday 9th

Work on the writing project is once again a major part of my day. I read somewhere not long ago that, when a writing project — hopefully but quite prematurely a book, in common parlance — is going well, almost everything that you read seems to throw a new ray of light on it. That is indeed happening to me. Whether it’s a book that I’ve had in my pile for months or a piece in a magazine that arrived in the mail yesterday, whatever I’m reading seems lit from within by the ideas that are already on my mind. It’s rather like the scene in A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is surrounded by panels of illuminated numbers — but I know that it’s just me. The uncanny thing is that these confirmations are reinforcing, not distracting.

I encountered another one yesterday, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Michael Walzer reviews On Betrayal, by Avishai Margalit. I’m torn between ordering a copy of the book right away and believing that I’ve already extracted all that I need from it. According to Walzer,

Two strong distinctions are central to Margalit’s arguments: first, between thick and thin human relations, and second, between ethics (which deals with the thick) and morality (which deals with the thin). Thick relations begin with family and friends but can be extended in various directions.

I have been writing about growing up as an adopted child, which for a long time I thought had blighted my life. As I grew older and more deliberate, however, I had a harder time identifying any actual damage. My childhood was unhappy, but I grew up around it and beyond it, and the longer I lived the less blighted my life felt. Now it feels quite robust. But Margalit’s distinctions remind me that the conditions of adoption were more than a little problematic. I have formed very, very few thick connections, and they most certainly didn’t begin with “family.”

My connection to my wife was thick even before she agreed to proceed beyond friendship. Now it is massive. I don’t mean to boast here. We’ve grown together, we’ve survived a few serious scrapes, but we remain entirely different, if sympathetic, people, and the thickness owes a great deal to our not feeling dominated by the other. Mutual support is now pretty much built into everyday life, so much so that I don’t have much of a sense of ethics in my behavior with Kathleen. Ethical questions just don’t come up. I’m not saying that they couldn’t, or that our relationship couldn’t be shaken to the ground in the blink of an eye — I’m too old not to have seen a few terrible things — but I’d be very surprised if it did. And yet, not entirely surprised, because I grew up without thick connections, and I don’t, as most people seem to do, take them for granted.

I’m much more aware of ethics with regard to a small handful of close friends. But I don’t find myself confronting ethical questions on every day.

Ethics, according to Margalit, governs our thick relations, our lives with lovers, friends, fellow believers, and fellow citizens.

Having dealt with love and friendship, I can quickly write off fellow believers, since I am allergic to religion — to witnessing my faith in the company of other people. But I can understand the connection that co-religionists feel. It’s the idea that my connection to fellow citizens might be thick that makes no sense. I cannot imagine standing in an ethical relationship with someone simply because we were both born in the United States.

I think of ethics as a conflict, and morality as a duty. With ethics, there is always a tension between what I want and what is best for the people near and dear to me. (Almost all of my ethical battles concern taking care of my health.) With morality, there is no decision to make, right and wrong are perfectly clear. The only question is whether I will make the effort to do what’s right, or at least to resist complaining when someone else does something wrong. (One issue that provides no end of everyday vexation to city-dwellers is the use of elevators.) Because moral imperatives, however slight, arise at every turn in city life, while ethical conundrums are quite uncommon, and because of my unusual childhood, I regard thin human connections as more important than thick ones. If Kathleen were taken from me tomorrow, I believe that I would manage to keep going. But if there were a steep rise in casual rudeness among strangers in the street, I would be utterly demoralized.

I wonder if I have ever betrayed anyone. Yes, once, unforgivably. More than once, if abandoning failing relationships counts. Betrayal or not, the experience was always unpleasant enough to make me wary of risking it. Did I betray my parents? Did they betray me? Did we never quite establish the thick connection that, according to Margalit (but not to Walzer), is required for betrayal? That I’m really asking is a kind of answer.


Thursday 11th

But a day or two of further thought about betrayal obliges me to change my tune. I remember a keen reluctance, at several moments in childhood and youth, to cross lines that I would not be allowed to cross back. I see now that crossing those lines would have constituted betrayal, a violation of allegiance. Literally, a decampment — folding up my tent and setting it up somewhere else.

I hated my name. I really hated my first name, Robert. I loathed its principal nickname, and often refused to answer to it, as if I were deaf. “Keefe” was awkward. Most people heard it as “Keith,” and spelling it out wasn’t much of a help. When confronted with the difficulty on the telephone, I still recite my mother’s bit of birdsong, “K double E, F as in ‘Frank,’ E,” although I often sense bewilderment at the other end of the line. Lots of people look at it and say “Keefie.” My poor father was tormented as a boy by being called “Beefy Keefy.” The difficulty is entirely attributable to his grandfather’s decision to prune the original “O’Keeffe.”Nobody has any trouble with that.

One day, in the car — I hated being in the car, because it was boring, and I got carsick if I tried to read — I announced that I was going to change my name when I grew up. My father must have been driving, because my mother turned her upper body against the seat back and glared at me with the bronzed rage of Medusa. I had not expected anyone to be delighted by my plans, but I hadn’t expected them to be taken so seriously, either. This was not one of those occasions when I was spoiling for a fight. So I was surprised as well as alarmed by the fury I had ignited. Also, wasn’t she cheating a little? What gave my mother the right to carry on as though she came from a long line of Keefes? Whatever she said — and you would have had to be me at the time to take it all in — I was made to understand that further mention of this topic might very well lead to loss of hearth and home and indoor plumbing and regular meals and all the rest. I caved. Comfort-seeking worm that I was, I resigned myself to a foreseeable future of Bobs.

The row about homosexuality, a few years later, was a black tornado. I had come into possession of one of those physique magazines that were sold over the counter (even in Bronxville!), and its alternative world was astonishing. The world that I lived in, although relatively discreet and well-behaved, was heavily populated by women struggling to be appropriate sex objects in an environment of nonstop male commentary. Photos of bodybuilders chatting by the pool clothed only in tiny pouches or making breakfast in the altogether were intriguing in ways that had something to do with sex, certainly, but that also promised another, much nicer world, in which men were not bullies or rivals or contenders or stooges but friends.

I knew that this magazine was forbidden, but I didn’t really understand why, and I wasn’t ashamed of having it. It was only after my mother discovered it — I hadn’t hidden it very carefully — that shame erupted, the shame of being associated with the objects of her vituperative disgust. I was made to understand not only that the magazine was unspeakably filthy but that I would be thrown out of the house if anything like it showed up a second time. To be thrown out of the house: this was the price of betrayal. And the betrayal was not the vice itself but the vice revealed.

Looking back on that awful hour — I remember that I lifted up a side table, pretty much as if I were a lion tamer, trying to keep my mother from coming any closer in her wrath; if she struck me, I suspected, I would strike back — I understand the misery of closeted life in a different way. I have always thought of it as a horrible inconvenience, a constraint on the freedom to do as one would. But that is only part of it, the part that an outsider could imagine. Inside, there is the very different nightmare of betrayal, of being found out by and cut off from one’s own family. Curiously, the case of betrayal that comes to mind has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s the tale that’s told about Rod Dreher, of The Benedict Option, in the recent New Yorker profile. It seems that Dreher’s father and sister always treated him as though he did not belong to them, as if he had betrayed them simply by being born. Why? Because, it would appear, he had a critical intelligence.

No doubt, the father and the sister felt righteous. But it is they who ought to have felt ashamed. Mulling over the treatment of homosexuality as a betrayal of “family values,” I am even more appalled than I was before reading about Avishai Margalit. Ethics — what a dubious pastime. Comparison on this point to morality is enlightening. Quite often, perhaps even in most cases, at least here in the United States, the parents of homosexual children eventually come to feel that they have not been betrayed, and the breach is healed. We have certainly witnessed a massive shift in cultural ethics on the matter. Morality, in contrast, doesn’t change much. Kindness is always right.

Bon week-end à tous!