Gotham Diary:
July 2017 (I)

5 and 7 July

Wednesday 5th

In the paper today, I see that Edward Albee’s will calls for the destruction of work left unfinished at his death. This provision comes as no surprise, given the late playwright’s peppery disposition, but it ought to be ignored. Control of works of art ought to come to an end with the artist’s death, for much the same reason that courts do not honor instructions to erect statues in memory of the deceased.

By all means, let the playwright’s estate continue to collect the royalties and other emoluments that Albee enjoyed while he lived; let that continue unto the generations. But control is odious. Already, Albee’s executors have interfered with the casting of a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the West Coast. To what good? Eventually, the work will pass into the public domain, and producers of Albee’s plays, should there be any, will enjoy the same freedom of interpretation that invigorates and sometimes even enlightens Shakespeare’s. Why wait? Why not detach the moolah from the author’s dead hand now, while people who saw original, authorized productions are still alive to make comparisons? Why permit Albee to sink his own ship? The idea that the artist’s memory is somehow honored by respecting testamentary wishes is plain foolishness: it is obscene to permit the dead to exert “creative” control. Die, you zombie!

It is difficult not to regard Albee’s instruction as so much magical thinking. Not convinced that he would ever actually come to an end, Albee did not man up and destroy the papers himself. As a fallback, in case he was wrong, he would leave the dirty work (and some tricky decisions) to his executors. From a moral standpoint, Albee’s shirking makes his will doubly unenforceable.


Formality, etiquette, propriety, decorum — we Americans aren’t very clear on the precise meaning of any of these terms, because we’re basically agreed that they’re all bad things, except maybe at funerals. We like to think that we have cast them aside, even though human beings cannot live in society without rules for certain occasions. American informality has become almost as rigid, and certainly as predictable, as its sometime opposite.

My mother hated formality, but she was sentimental about a few ritual observances. Holiday dinners, as a result, could be confusing. There was a great deal of fuss and bustle, but this did not improve my mother’s mediocre cooking, particularly when it came to “holiday” dishes such as creamed vegetables. The mood was always festive but the food was never the real centerpiece. (So, what are we doing here?) And tradition was always at the mercy of caprice: when we moved to Houston, boxes of wonderful old glass Christmas ornaments were left behind; my mother had discovered the decorator tree, a prefab eternal number with flocked foliage and blue satin balls.

Growing up Catholic, I learned that rituals are really supposed to mean something. It was clear in the late Fifties that our secular rites no longer meant much of anything to anybody. Widespread sentimentality aside, the prevailing spirit during patriotic displays was “let’s get it over with.” As I look back on the Sixties, I see one long battle against propriety; what kept it going for year after year was stiff opposition, literally: the resistance of the dead. Things had always been thus and so. It seems that much of this warfare was confined to affluent strata on the Coasts; Vice President Pence is still set against dining alone with a woman not his wife. Kathleen, who has had countless business lunches and dinners alone with men who were not moi, rolls her eyes.

I was never a fan of standing around doing the comme il faut. But I was curious about the worlds in which propriety and formality, now reduced to dead relics, had been formed. What had they been thinking?

Etiquette, I believe, is designed to sort people by status. When making introductions, you introduce the less important person to the more important person: “Your Majesty, may I please introduce Joe Schmoe” — not the other way round. In America, etiquette identified the established élite: the old families (who still owned local firms), the notable professionals and clergymen. This élite met with deference until World War II. By the end of that ordeal, progressive thinking worked a change in the mentality of the West: the established élite would be replaced by a meritocratic élite. I have already mentioned some of the drawbacks of meritocracy, which is not so much a bad idea as an incompletely developed one. The “testably talented,” as I prefer to think of them, come from nowhere and owe gratitude to none but the puzzlers at ETS. They have little or no social presence as such (as meritocratic élites); they don’t expect deference and don’t get it. This leaves the bulk of ordinary people without much sense of who is important in the world, a gap that, as we have seen, is quickly filled by bogus celebrities. The established élite, meanwhile, have long since sold up and retired to Hobe Sound, whence never to return. The cultural values of which they were the exponents fade out of view, and are likewise replaced by thoughtlessness. While it’s too bad about the resulting neglect of the arts, the real catastrophe is the the disappearance of exemplary behavior — self-respect and noblesse oblige — that the established élite (at its best) made a point of displaying.

I believe that “popular culture” is an oxymoron: there can be no such thing. Culture is not to be confused with passing fads and fancies. Ultimately, the élite at hand is responsible for establishing the tone of society. Had she been more of a thinker, Margaret Thatcher might have observed — what the failures of socialism have taught us — that there is no such thing as “the people.” There most certainly is such a thing as society, but how on earth are we to achieve a coherent one if meritocrats at the top don’t see the point of it? And, by the way: what, aside from what’s on the test, do they know about life?

More anon.


Friday 7th

For eighteen years now, or nearly, Kathleen and I have rented a rather large storage unit — large for Manhattan, that is; you could fit a Smart Car in it, but nothing bigger — at the other end of our extended neighborhood, the Upper East Side. It is my hope to evacuate the unit very early in the nineteenth, if not sooner. Arrangements have been made to cart off the odds and ends that remain; all that I have to do is make decisions about the books. There is no room in the apartment for any more books, but we happen to rent a smaller, and much less expensive storage unit at the northern tip of the island. Never mind why; I’ll be here all day if we get into that. There is room in the small unit for a few boxes of books. Most of the books in the large unit, though, have to go.

Meanwhile, quite a lot of old paper — bank statements and the like — have been brought from the large storage unit, where it has festered since we sold our lake house in 1999, to the apartment. Prudence dictates that it be shredded. The small shredder that has taken care of my regular needs for several years is not up to the job, so we have acquired a bigger one, a shredder on wheels, a quiet shredder. It was advertised as capable of shredding eighteen sheets of paper at a time, but this is nonsense, unfortunately; seven or eight pages is the practical maximum, and all but the thinnest envelopes must be opened and their contents unfolded. Emptying the bin is another drag. It’s easy enough to tip the contents into a large trash bag, but just try tipping a second binload into that bag! Regular-sized garbage bags can take one load apiece, but they do not open wide enough to fit over the top of the bin. With what feels like a good deal of body English, however, the transfer can be effected. Most of the shredded paper in the bin coheres into a tangled ball, and it passes from the bin into the bag as if it were a dying organism fished from the sea, resisting at first but then suddenly bulging forth. It’s almost gross.

Yesterday, I had my first go at the books, and made quite startling progress. If I keep going at that rate, I shall be done in four or five more sessions; I had planned on ten. Only last year, I labored for weeks to fill fifteen boxes with books to give away. Severity comes more easily now. I have re-read so many books in recent months, found right here in the bookcases at home, that it has become much easier to distinguish books that I’m likely to look at again from books that I’m not. This has nothing to do with the usual aspirational eyewash, which of course would make it impossible to get rid of anything, because “you never know what might be interesting.” Having perused the spines on the shelves as often as I have, you do know.

The consolation of these amusements is that I will never have to entertain myself with them again. But I am too old to believe it. So, today, having been busy for what feels like weeks, I’m doing nothing.


In the current issue of Harper’s, Zadie Smith writes about Jordan Peele’s Get Out — by far, the oddest movie that I have seen in a very long time. The oddness, as I think everyone who has seen it will agree, lies in its being both scary to watch and hilarious to remember. In retrospect, the white folk are so ludicrous! Deadly, yes; but ridiculous, too. They think they want to be black! They think that would be way cool. It’s a grim joke, but it’s still a joke. When the young villainess sifts through the photos of all the young men whom she has traduced, her evil blurs into pathetic comedy. What’s wrong with a nice white boyfriend? Can’t she get one? Peele made me hear black audiences asking this question, and it made me laugh.

What makes me just as uneasy, but without the laughter, is the parade of magazine covers featuring black faces at The New Yorker. When I was a new reader, back in the Sixties, New Yorker covers were studiously un-topical; they reflected the passing seasons instead. Human figures appeared from time to time, but rarely as characters. This changed with the arrival of Tina Brown and Art Spiegelman. The cover became just another “drawing” — a cartoon — like the ones inside the magazine. The seasons still have a place, but social commentary that would have given William Shawn ulcers is far more common. And now, it seems, there is a quiet campaign to compensate for decades of racial — racist? — disregard. The Independence Day cover (July 3) brought the old and new together with Kadir Nelson’s crisp picture of a long-limbed black woman in a blue starry bathing suit, holding a red-and-white striped beach ball. It would be impossible to describe her expression as welcoming.

Que faire? What is to be done? I mean, by me, right now. Covers such as Nelson’s make me feel that I have been doing something wrong, and that I must change my ways at once. But just what it is that I’ve been doing wrong remains vague, and maybe the warning isn’t meant for me. The cover seems intended to be startling, but am I betraying a surreptitious racism by feeling startled? Had the cover appeared fifty years ago, it would have produced unimaginable commotion, perhaps even Senate hearings; “startling” would not have been the word. But if it’s the right word now, it’s clear that “shocking” isn’t. We are on our way somewhere, and there is a first time for everything. But I do wish that Nelson’s woman looked happier to see me, even though I can well understand why she wouldn’t.

I also wish that I liked Zadie Smith’s fiction as much as her essays — but I’ll take the essays!

Bon week-end à tous!