Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (III)

15, 16 and 17 August

Tuesday 15th

One of the books that churned to the surface during the evacuation of our storage unit was philosopher Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words. From the movie buff’s standpoint, this is the big book about screwball comedy, which Cavell renamed “the comedy of remarriage.” Cities of Words — when I have an idea of what the title is supposed to mean, I’ll let you know; but perhaps you can tell me — is not concerned with how those movies were made, who wrote or directed them, not even who starred in them. Rather, it’s about their moral structure, the big questions about life that they try to answer. Each even-numbered chapter deals with a particular film, some of which, such as Stella Dallas and Gaslight, are not even funny, much less screwball. The odd-numbered chapters discuss individual philosophers, beginning with Emerson, and continuing through Locke, Mill, Kant, Rawls, and so on, if “so on” has any meaning here. The relationship between the philosophers and the movies, needless to say, is revealed only by reading the book.

Emerson! Was I going to keep the book, or give it away? Giving it away would be realistic, because keeping it would be aspirational. This is the kind of book that you buy not because you want to read it but because you want to have read it. You want to have learned what it has to say, but you don’t want to wade through the prose. The only way to deal with such books is to put them at the top of the reading pile: do it now. Get it over with.

So I cheated, of course. I read a few of the movie chapters: The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve, and The Philadelphia Story. It’s amusing to watch an a graceful but professionally non-jocular person handle these comedies. He is not really a connoisseur of comedy, so many of the funniest bits go unmentioned, but he has some provocative insights. He does not like the term “screwball,” as you may have guessed from the rechristening, and à propos of The Awful Truth he ventures to suggest that, since screwball comedies always involve “madcap heiresses,” if there’s a screwball comedy in this picture, then it’s the subplot of Jerry Warriner’s romance with Barbara Vance, possessor of “millions of dollars and no sense.” The perversity of this notion — there can be nothing less madcap than life with the Vances — is funny in itself. Cavell’s account of The Philadelphia Story is so richly humane, so celebratory of Tracy Lord’s triumphant moral trajectory, that the very idea of laughing while watching the film recedes into unlikeliness. When I got to the end of the chapter, I could not remember a single funny thing about it.

So far, so good; interesting, anyway. But: Emerson! My distaste for American prose writers of the Nineteenth Century, especially the famous early ones, is rugged. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville are all very bad dancers, by which I mean that when they take you in their arms they convey no sense of where they are going, and so end up stepping all over your toes. Their sentences have no center of gravity; their decorative touches are often misplaced; their uncertain reach for highfalutin tone is embarrassing. Consider this, from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

[Great works of art] teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.

Hey, Sister Bernadette! We need a diagram!

I tried reading a book by Stanley Cavell once. Little Did I Know is (I think) an intellectual memoir. I gave the book away a long time ago, so I have to trust my rickety memory when I say that it’s a portrait of the philosopher as Henry James. There’s a story in there somewhere, but ruminations on the nature of thought in America, together with something about becoming a Jewish-American mandarin, get in the way. At the time when I was trying to read it, moreover, my suspicion that philosophy generally is just rubbish was breaking through to consciousness. It was foolish, after my experience with Little Did I Know, to buy a copy of Cities of Words.

On the other hand, I certainly know the movies well enough. (Although, to be perfectly honest, I still haven’t seen Stella Dallas, ever.) Perhaps the movies would illuminate the philosophy. That’s probably not what Cavell had in mind. But I resolved to give it a try. I would read the philosophy chapters up to the point where one of them stopped making sense, and then, if that happened, I would chuck the book. I would start with the second philosopher, Locke.

But the chapter devoted to Locke is a continuation of the chapter about Emerson, so I had to go back to the beginning after all. And I had to check my attitude about Emerson at the door, because the point of this exercise was, after all, to deepen my understanding of the movies, not to amass evidence of transcendentalist inanity. And as I crept patiently through the pages, I had to admit that a rather lovely idea was taking shape in my brain. I was really learning something from Stanley Cavell! It’s too soon to put it in my own words, so I’ll have to give you his.

Moral perfectionism challenges ideas of moral motivations, showing (against Kant’s law that counters inclination, and against utilitarianism’s calculation of benefits) the possibility of my access to experience which gives to my desire for the attaining of a self that is mine to become, the power to act on behalf of an attainable world that I can actually desire. (33)

If I can extract any idea, not to mention a lovely one, from writing such as this, I’d better keep going. The important word in all that, the word that links the philosophizing to film, is “desire.”


Wednesday 16th

I’ve just re-read Brian Morton’s Breakable You. It’s startling to discover that I first read this novel nine years ago, and that I wrote about it not here but at my old Web site, Portico. It’s more than a little mortifying to read what I wrote then; it seems somewhat stilted, and it reminds me why I no longer attempt “book reviews.” I re-read Breakable You now because of Happiness, the memoir, by Morton’s wife, Heather Harpham, of their daughter’s blood disease and harrowing (but successful!) bone-marrow transplant. In what I recalled of Breakable You, the chapter about the little girl’s similar but fatal ordeal did not figure, and when it was mentioned by Harpham at a book signing, I thought that I must have another look. In any case, it had been too long since I had enjoyed one of the ten best novels I know.

I don’t, however, want to talk about little Zahra, who is already dead when we hear about her. It would be interesting to compare and contrast Happiness with Morton’s vastly compressed account in the twelfth chapter of Breakable You. But I wouldn’t be the person to undertake it. Just as Happiness gripped me more as a portrait of a marriage than as a medical history, so Breakable You is for me a book about grown-up love, whether between lovers or parents and children. It is a book about caring — about the problem of taking care of loved ones in everyday life. Illness, with its sirens and emergencies, pre-empts this problem by putting it in the hands of professionals, and leaving loved ones feeling helpless, the worst sensation that a caring person can have.

What I want to talk about is Adam Weller and the question of evil. I see that, on my Portico page, I refused to specify the awful thing that Adam Weller does, his crime against humanity, really, when I wrote about Breakable You in 2008. I did call him “a pluperfect shit,” but I supported this charge with nothing more damning than evidence of self-centeredness. Adam’s self-centeredness, however, is surrounded by a black hole of uninterest into which everything that is not useful or interesting to him simply disappears. Literary ethics, parental love — it makes no difference. If they don’t serve him, they don’t exist.

In Breakable You, Adam does two completely separate terrible things. Different readers will disagree about which is worse. The second offense occurs at the end of the book. Chastened by the defection of his young and lively mistress, Adam strokes his conscience by paying a visit to his daughter, Maud. Maud has checked herself into a clinic that she has visited twice before in her young life; this time, it’s voluntary, but only technically, because she has broken down as a mother and cannot tend to her infant son, who cries all the time. During the visit, which of course Adam finds very despressing, Maud tells her father that the food is terrible and that she longs for Internet access — forbidden because the older male patients root out porn sites — in order to keep up with her PhD peers. Still diminished, Adam resolves to visit her the next night, and he does so, bringing a bag of treats from Zabar’s. While waiting at the clinic for visiting hours to begin, however, he strikes up a flirtation with another visitor, an attractive woman who seems prepared to respond to further advances. His self-confidence restored, his itch for penance evaporates, and he walks out of the clinic without having seen Maud, dumps the Zabar’s bag in the garbage, and heads back to Manhattan and a literary dinner at Elaine’s, a renewed man. As with many of Adam’s sins, no one will ever know. This only makes him more despicable.

The other offense is infamous and gross, but the only victim is the literary community at its most abstract: a body of memories. Before the novel begins, Adam’s old friend and rival author, Izzy Cantor, has died. Not long into the action, Izzy’s widow, Ruth, summons Adam: it turns out that Izzy left a completed but unread manuscript. Would Adam take a look at it? Reluctantly — for he expects the novel to be a bore — Adam agrees.

Adam had come to realize that the problem with Izzy’s writing was the problem with Izzy. He didn’t have enough of the devil in him. Izzy always wanted to be the nice guy. He wanted to take care of everybody. This made him a wonderful husband and father: steadier, more responsible, more caring than Adam had ever dreamed of being. But it had made him a bland writer.

In his books, he always took care of his characters too much. He never wanted to believe than any of them could be evil. So if one of his characters dide something morally reprehensible, Izzy would never just go with it; he would surround the action with context, explanation, extenuation. It was as if he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a novelist or a social worker. (99)

Having read all of Brian Morton’s novels, I can well imagine that the charge against Izzy has been laid against his creator as well, and about Adam there is an aura of determination to present a character who really cannot be forgiven. Nine years ago, I wrote that Morton “clearly cares about his characters — even Adam, whose faults would not be so lovingly drawn if his creator truly despised him.” Now, I’m  not so sure. Instead of “lovingly drawn,” I might say “scrupulously anatomized.” But I pull back from branding Adam as evil.

The element that distinguishes evil from other varieties of badness is gratuitousness, and this is something of which I find sane human beings to be incapable. You could argue that sadists derive gratuitous pleasure from the suffering of others, but sadism is far too implicated in the expression of power to be purposeless. (Curiously, “sadism” today seems almost to have been detached from sexual cruelty, its original expression.) Adam has many grubby reasons for his aloof, unpunished wickedness. Izzy’s book, published under Izzy’s name, would cast Adam’s reputation into a chilly shade. His first tactic is to persuade Ruth that the book is not good enough to publish. When, shortly thereafter, she dies of cancer, the way is cleared to claim the book as his own, especially after Izzy’s unliterary daughter begs Adam to take possession of Izzy’s papers, among which lies a carbon copy of the novel. Step by step, in a gothic progression that brought Richard III very much to my mind, Adam compasses the crime of literary appropriation. He will be the famous writer; his reputation will be resurrected from the infertility of fallow years.

More and more, “evil” seems to be shorthand for “I can’t bear to think about it.” But the bad behavior of someone like Adam Weller requires very close attention. The conditions that allow him to escape the consequences of his misdeeds are almost as reprehensible as he is. Everyone close to Adam suspects — or knows — that he is a beast, but because his surface is sleek and civically virtuous, it’s easier to put up with him than to complain: that’s a problem, too. Adam is an injustice for which we have not yet evolved a remedy — a remedy not just for his victims, but for us all.


Thursday 17th

Last month, The New Yorker published Alexandra Schwartz’s rave review — I want to come back to that cliché — of Conversations With Friends, the first novel by a twenty-something Irishwoman named Sally Rooney. Before saying a word about her fiction, Schwartz informed us that Rooney is an ace debater, the best in Europe, actually, in her year on the circuit as a college student. I regard debating as a dubious activity — so does Rooney, apparently; she gave it up — but it certainly teaches one not to waste words, and surely there is nothing so intimidating as sound knowledge presented with fierce concision. I was panting with dread by the time Schwartz got round to the book, concisely enough, in the second paragraph of her review. By the end of the piece, I was raving. I ordered the book immediately. Then, by some miracle, I forgot almost all of the plot details that Schwartz had divulged. During the brief period between order and delivery, I thought of Conversation With Friends as the book by the smart girl from Trinity.

The thing is, I don’t trust myself to discuss this book in such a way that you’ll forget everything that I say, except that it’s very, very good. I can do no more, for example, than refer to a piece of email that appears at a climactic point. I read it with a racing pulse. Like so much email, and despite the recipient’s hunch that it has been heavily edited, it is a naked document, luridly revealing the contortions of a violently uncomfortable consciousness, contradicting itself again and again in spirit if not in statement, hopelessly stuck on the urge to be enraged and forgiving at once. Already, I think I’ve said too much!

How about this: the only thing that happens in this book that doesn’t happen in almost every book about a college student and a somewhat older married man who have an affair is that the girl discovers that she has endometriosis. This is certainly an interesting disease for a woman in her position to develop; from a novelist’s standpoint, it provides a powerful way of externalizing her heroine’s agonies, manifesting her pain in real symptoms, instead of the loops of acrimonious verbiage that are usually spun out. But it does not really explain how Rooney makes her story so interesting, nay gripping, to begin with. There are no exotic ingredients involved. But then, I forget: it is not I who am having the affair. It is a brilliant virgin. For her, this is all new, and not what she expected, and by giving us that, the twisted novelty of it all, Rooney makes it new for us.

Perhaps it’s age. As I get older, youth seems more and more dangerous. Being young amounts to little more, in my long view, than being ignorant, and, like the writer of the email, torn between contradictory viewpoints. Smart young people especially are uncomfortably aware of their ignorance. At the same time, they think they know where this ignorance sits, and how to avoid its very bad advice. The dissonance makes them occasionally reckless. Both Frances, the girl in Conversations With Friends, and Nick, the married man, who is also a generically great-looking B-list actor, are more complicated and more vulnerable than they think. In the middle of the novel, there is a moment when Frances, thwarted by a momentary impasse, says something so wounding to Nick that I was afraid that he might take his own life. My reaction was not so very melodramatic; I must have already sensed what I presently learned, which was that Nick has been hospitalized with depression. I read Conversations With Friends as if, on every page, it were only moments away from veering into bloody catastrophe.

There were a few lighter moments, in which it seemed to me that Frances was conducting an illicit affair with herself, with an obbligato carbon unit acting as a sort of sex doll/punching bag. (But these were early moments, before Nick revealed himself to be a genuinely appealing human being, the very opposite of the self-seeking shit that he is set up to be.) In the old days, women having affairs (in novels) deluded themselves into thinking that they could contain their love, keep it under control and in proportion, only to find out that love is not love that knows control. Today’s smart girl — and I keep saying “girl” because Frances is so palpably not grown up — thinks that she can keep things superficial and not fall in love at all. To fall in love is humiliating. To fall in love with a married man and then discover that you hate his wife is humiliating. To respond to humiliation by cutting yourself is humiliating. But the humiliation abrades the bored self-respect with which Frances has navigated her life so far, shearing it away like a callus. The novel’s thrillingly romantic final line signals Frances’s surrender to adulthood. You don’t know which is more overpowering: that, or Rooney’s literary triumph.


As I looked back the sex scenes in Conversations With Friends, which are indeed all about surrender, my signals were interrupted by lines that couldn’t have come from the novel, such as:

And here he was with this woman, this woman who had nothing to do with his life, pushing his cock into her anus, something he’d never done before with any woman and had never wanted to do, but with [her] he wanted to do everything, but he didn’t want to want to do everything with her, because…

This couldn’t be Rooney’s Nick. What else had I been reading lately? Oh, yes: Breakable You. The passage appears on page 119, and the elided “her” is Maud Weller. The man having the thought is Samir. Both novels involve what Maud calls a “sexual carnival,” and both couples “do everything.” Neither novelist is especially graphic, but both are explicit about variety. And both follow variety to the point of pain. Never having experienced this kind of pain, I take it on faith in these writers’ authority that it is sweet rather than perverse, pain without malevolence. But I am allergic to pain. I shut down at mere discomfort. “He wanted to do everything.” I’ve heard people say this — well, I’ve read it, if I haven’t exactly heard it — often enough that it no longer seems crazy, which it did for a long time. Now I just file it alongside “I would like to climb Mount Everest.” My body has no curiosity whatever.

Bon week-end à tous!