Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (V)

29 and 31 August

Tuesday 29th

Forty years ago this month, I left Houston forever. There were occasional visits, but they came to an end when my daughter graduated from high school in 1991. I have not been back since. I shall probably never see it again. From what I can tell, it has gotten bigger, but not really changed very much.

Although Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country — a status attained while I was living there — there is nothing urban about it. There is a curious, architecturally remarkable downtown, but relatively few people live there. Surrounding this and a few other islands of tall buildings is a vast sprawl of suburbs. Again, it was vast even then. A house address with a ludicrous number — 15926, say — was not unusual. The effect of this infinite homogeneity was to make a large population center seem very small, small in human terms: ordinary and forgettable. It is now clear that this ordinariness masked the imprudence of lodging so many millions of people on a crust of clay that has been steadily subsiding toward sea level. Climate change and rising sea levels are certainly playing their part in the havoc at Houston, but misguided land use has been even more critical.

Comparisons might be made to New Orleans, much of which lay below sea level long before Katrina struck. Quite aside from being incommensurately smaller, however, New Orleans was supposed to be protected by levees and other earthworks. Had these features been maintained in good repair, the city would have survived the storm; the scandal of Katrina is that they were not. In contrast, there is nothing to be done — there has never been anything to be done — about Houston’s vulnerability to floodwaters. It just sits there, a basin waiting to fill. It is hard to foresee how long it will take to drain, once the rain stops.

So many things haven’t changed about Houston — “more of same” is no kind of change — that I’m hoping for a fondly-remembered weather pattern to come to the rescue. Every September, there would come a night during which the temperature dropped twenty degrees or more, and the air dried out to temperate levels. People like me who had grown up elsewhere would feel human for a little while, before Houston’s damp and not very tropical winter set in. That’s what Houston is going to need — what it needs right now. Perhaps changes in climate now stop that cold front closer to Dallas; I hope not.

It is no wonder that ordinary people have a low opinion of government, although, to be honest, there is not much of it in Houston to begin with. As everyone knows, there is no zoning, so that Houston shows us what a developers’ paradise looks like. No American city can compete with Houston as a triumph of free-market growth. To me, the recklessness that Houston embodies is morally indefensible, as shocking an offense against the principles of civic life as any that this troubled country has ever committed. Now that the city has sunk into catastrophe, of course, scolding is perverse: there are people to save and to restore to human life. I ought to be happy: I can give up being angry at the the thought of Houston.

I hope that thoughtful Americans everywhere will be mindful that what made Houston so dangerous was fully in place before Donald Trump made himself notorious, in a very different city, by demolishing the salvageable signage of a long-beloved department store, Bonwit Teller.


Thursday 31st

At the moment, I’m reading Henry James’s important story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” If I’ve read it before, I’ve forgotten it. In a late chapter of the book that I am reading, Stanley Cavell pairs it with Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. I’ve never seen the movie, either, although I’ve got a DVD handy. Amazingly, I am nearing the end of Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. A great deal of it has slipped right through me, but I have stuck with it.

I read two sentences, from the chapter on Aristotle, to Kathleen last night, taking pains to remain in the syntactic current despite the pull of their many backwaters. When I was done, Kathleen said, “That was two sentences?” Then she pronounced it “bullshit.” The words were sleek and smooth, the texture jargon-free, and yet I had no grip on what Cavell was talking about. Here is the second of the sentences; the reference is to Wittgenstein’s insistence, in his Philosophical Investigations, that language is “a public, shared fact.”

It is as the teacher exhausts what can be said, and teacher and pupil fall silent with each other (then and there, subject to limitations of time, imagination, patience, good will, and to what we might call tolerance for anxiety), that one feels it becomes the responsibility of teaching to provide a reason for, a point, an aim, in speaking at all; a responsibility of philosophy, so far as philosophy, as in the Investigations, conceives of itself as instruction, instruction however in what no one could manage just not to know. (371)

…what no one could manage just not to know. What is that, that no one could manage “just not” to know? Just not? I’m lost. There must be an invisible pause, a breath, that conceals the missing nuance that would explain this statement to me. Why not simply say that teachers must explain why teaching is not only important but possible? Why not excise everything that follows the semicolon? So often, what confuses me about Cavell is his belief that what he is saying needs saying, and not just saying, but belaboring. Too often, he fails to teach me the importance of his lessons.

And yet I have kept going because I suspect that it might not be altogether useless to try to understand his patois. There are moments when I see through the apparent philosopher to the engaged writer. There are passages in the chapter on Plato (on pages 326 and 327) where Cavell seems to say that he is at least as attracted to Plato’s myths (such as the Cave) as to Plato’s arguments, that the myths illustrate more forcefully than the arguments do certain “turns of philosophical thinking that I have found myself convinced by.” I do wish that Cavell would explain, succinctly, what he takes “philosophical thinking” to be. And, as I complained the other day, I wish that he would unpack, with the greatest particularity, what he means by “reason” and “rationality.” It would be wonderful to have answers to these questions, and there are moments when I feel that I am about to stumble upon them in Cavell’s text. But they are too obvious to him not to take as given. Perhaps if I read the book again, in a year or two. After all, I didn’t understand The Golden Bowl right away, either.


The other day, I watched a movie that Cavell does not, and probably would never, discuss: Star! This film came up in John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio, his account of a year spent hanging around Twentieth Century Fox; Star! was one of the titles in production at that time. At that time, I had no desire to see it; I had made a point, a stink even, about not seeing The Sound of Music. I was deeply confused about Julie Andrews, and it’s not hard to see why, if you listen to her 1962 album, “‘Don’t Go in the Lion’s Cage Tonight’ and Other Heartrending Ballads and Raucous Ditties.” The ballads are creamy and sweet; the ditties are hilariously indelicate. I was besotted, when I discovered this LP in college, by “Burlington Bertie from Bow,” which Andrews doesn’t even sing, and by “Waiting at the Church,” in which Andrews positively snarls. I could live without “The Honeysuckle and the Bee.” Which one is the real Julie Andrews? Star! revealed that the public preferred the creamy and sweet, and Andrews’s own star power was tarnished by her impersonation of gritty Gertrude Lawrence, whom even in the late Sixties was all but forgotten. In many ways, the movie is a study in the difference between a star, who gets up on stage night after night and kills the people, and a celebrity, whose private life must always be at least slightly more interesting than anything he or she does for money. Julie Andrews was (and is) a star; for all of her long career, she has been something of a throwback, more interested in hoofing than in preening. For me, Star! is a sharply-executed monument to regret.

We’re asked to take it on faith that Julie Andrews shares Gertrude Lawrence’s determination as a trouper, and I see no reason not to do that. It’s also clear that Andrews venerates the vernacular traditions that shaped Lawrence and her chum, Noel Coward. But Julie Andrews is too pretty, and her voice is too pretty (or it can be) for her to be confused with the likes of Vera Charles, the dragon in Mame who, even though she’s fictional, seems much closer to Lawrence. Lawrence seems to have been almost reckless in her avidity for fun and life, but there is simply nothing truly reckless about Julie Andrews. She can act it, but she cannot be it, and Star! winds up being about her, not Lawrence. You almost forget that Andrews is there when Lawrence shows up drunk at a surprise birthday party and insults everybody, but the moment passes, and you find yourself reflecting that Julie Andrews would never behave like that.

The thoroughness of Star! as a flop is even sadder because the production numbers, which take the place of songs in a true musical, are so well done, and remarkably free of anachronistic missteps, to which the studios were awfully prone in those days. Great effort was evidently taken to re-create the look and feel of old entertainments, and if the coloring were not so lurid, success would have been complete. (Although I am not entirely persuaded by “Limehouse Blues.”) Unfortunately, the movie cannot inspire a revival of interest in the theatrical “review” — almost a variety of circus — that was so popular before the Depression. So it hangs on the story of Lawrence’s life, which is not interesting enough for Julie Andrews to disappear into it. What we’re left with is her valiant determination to put on a show. Julie Andrews is the heroine of this movie, and her false position sinks it.

Well, it sank it. Star! is definitely worth watching, all three hours of it, and perhaps someone will find a way of seeing it that counteracts its box-office disappointment. For the moment, I can’t get over how often Julie Andrews reminded me of Kelly Reilly. That was a surprise.

More anon.


But maybe not now. Not only is it the Friday of a holiday weekend, with Kathleen transferring her summer and winter wardrobes from one closet to the other, but I have just received the first comments on the writing project. (Only Kathleen has read it, and that was in far more rudimentary shape, nearly a year ago.) The comments are positive! And I am disposed to celebrate by basking in feeling good. There is much to be done, but not today!

Bon week-end à tous!