Gotham Diary:
Laundered the Costumes
October 2017 (IV)

24, 26 and 27 October

Tuesday 24th

For a long time, I put off reading the last two chapters of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. I had a good idea where he was going, and, indeed, in the ninth chapter, he went there. And how! All the great evils of the Nineteenth Century — oppression of laborers, extermination of indigenous peoples, imperial expropriation — were laid at the feet of a liberalism whose blessings were nullified by being limited to the occupants of a “sacred space,” property owners and their families. Stuffed with hypocrisy, liberalism was presented as a piñata to be repudiated and destroyed.

But the final chapter was surprising. Entitled “Liberalism and the Catastrophe of the Twentieth Century,” it seemed bound to argue that the Nazi persecution of the Jews represented a climax of liberal values, not their subversion. Losurdo had lined up the cases: since its inception at the time of the Glorious Revolution (1689), liberalism had detached whole classes of human beings from the claims of humanity. Slaves, servants, Native Americans, Aborigines, the Irish: again and again, prosperous and otherwise broad-minded élites made a point of finding people to diminish. As to the Holocaust itself, however, Losurdo seemed content to allow the reader to draw implicit conclusions. It was a great relief to be spared the flogging. By one of those strange accidents that characterize my reading life, James Whitman’s study, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, has just appeared to do the job for him, something that Losurdo might or might not have foreseen ten years ago, when Liberalism came out.

Instead, Losurdo ended on a hopeful, if still rather stern note:

[L]iberalism’s merits are far too significant and too evident for it to be necessary to credit it with imaginary ones. Among the latter is the alleged spontaneous capacity for self-correction often attributed to it. (344)

On the previous page, Losurdo had elaborated this point:

Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (the tradition of thinking that, starting with ‘radicalism’ and passing through Marx, issued in the revolutions which variously invoked him) to a far greater extent than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it.

In other words, while liberalism is not spontaneously self-correcting, it does respond to grievances, albeit for “practical” rather than lofty reasons. Losurdo regards Brown v Board of Education as such a reversal. The Cold War had altered the valence of racism. Opponents of slavery, from the age of revolutions onward, had been associated with the tyranny of radical Jacobinism, but now the Soviet Union, as the heir to the social justice tradition, could credibly claim that the United States, if it tolerated Jim Crow, must not be seriously committed to democracy. Call it optics, if you like. Liberal Americans undertook a wrenching shift, one that remains incomplete. Liberal Republicans suffered almost immediate extinction, and the Democratic Party, sixty years on, continues to incapable of stabilizing its opportunistic coalitions.

The most pointed lesson that I learned from Losurdo is that liberalism is not a philosophical or intellectual position. It is practical and realistic, and its thinkers write after the fact. Locke is usually credited with the introduction of liberalism, and he certainly argued that property owners ought to call the shots. But the specifics of liberal government were worked out on the fly, roughly in the fifty years that ended with Walpole’s ministry (c 1740), and then more minutely through to the early years of George III. Political theory had nothing to do with these developments, which were instituted by members of Parliament in the conduct of contingent affairs.

The parliamentarians’ overriding objective, it seems to me, was to solve what I call the “Great Men” problem of monarchy: to whom is the monarch bound to turn for advice? This was never a theoretical problem, for all the preaching of saintly clerics, but rather one of raw power, a contest fought again and again by kings and magnates of various skills and resources, until settled once and for all by constituting Parliament itself as the monarch’s one and only council. This is in practice pretty much the same thing as the rule of law. Not even the king is above it, but, more important, everyone knows what to expect. The great liberal achievement is the institutionalization of power. Modern civil society owes its existence to this abstraction.

Unfortunately, the dispersion of political power to institutions often leads to muddle. It requires great intelligence to operate an institution — it is almost a matter of herding cats — and where a number of institutions must function together, as is the case throughout the United States, even the most intelligent leaders must harmonize their actions. Otherwise there is noise: muddle. And muddle invites those who do not sympathize with the liberal outlook to repersonalize power. It seems to me that this is a fair statement of the state of play in America today. Our institutions appear to have wandered from their mandates, and it seems unreasonable to expect them to find their own way back.

Is this where the intellectuals come in?


Thursday 26th

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction in 1964. I’ve had an undated but posthumous edition of the Vintage paperback for many years — Hofstadter died in 1970 — but I haven’t read the book until now. I’m thinking of awarding it a prize of my own, the Kondo Prime Award. I would call it Kondo Prime because, ever since the goddess of tidying-up persuaded me that there was no point to having hundreds, perhaps thousands of books in the house that I never looked at, I have been repeatedly blessed by my decision not to throw those books away but instead to re-read them; and, in the case of books that I owned but had never opened, I’ve enjoyed on more than one occasion the delightful surprise of reading a book for the first time at exactly the right time.

Much as I scold myself for not reading Hofstadter’s book long ago, I’m aware on every page that I am getting more out of it now than I should have done before. With regard to one issue, it’s a matter of bringing something to the reading that isn’t as developed in the book as it would be today. If we lucky enough to have a writer of Hofstadter’s caliber working today, we might look to this person for a study of Anti-Intellectualism and Misogyny in America. The vulgar insinuation that thinking people are effeminate was certainly familiar to Hofstadter, and he holds up two instances for frank evaluation. The first involves George William Curtis, who in 1877 sought to reform the New York State Constitution. Educated in Germany and the editor of Harper’s, Carter was ridiculed by Roscoe Conkling as an exemplar of “man-milliners,”

a reference to the fashion articles that Curtis’s magazine had recently started to publish … The more recent attacks by Senator McCarthy and other upon the Eastern and English-oriented prep-school personnel of the State Department, associated with charges of homosexuality, are not an altogether novel element in the history of American invective. That the term “man-milliners” was understood in this light by many is suggested by the fact that though the New York Tribune reported Conkling’s speech in full, with the offending word, Conkling’s nephew dropped “man-milliners” from his account of this incident in the biography of his uncle and substituted asterisks as though he were omitting an unmistakable obscenity. (189)

The second victim is Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1952.

The New York Daily News descended to calling him Adelaide and charged that he “trilled” his speeches in a “fruity” voice. His voice and diction were converted into objects of suspicion — “teacup words,” it was said, reminiscent of “a genteel spinster who can never forget that she got an A in elocution at Miss Smith’s Finishing School.” His supporters? They were “typical Harvard lace-cuff liberals,” “lace-panty diplomats,” “pompadoured lap dogs” who wailed “in perfumed anguish” at McCarthy’s accusations and on occasions “giggled” about their own anti-Communism. Politics, Stevenson’s critics were disposed to say, is a rough game for men. (227)

Now that women are in the game — please remember that, when I was a boy (and Hofstadter was writing), Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in Congress or at the top of any Federal branch —the usefulness of the effeminate man as a target has abated. I suppose that we can hail that as a genuine improvement. But so long as politics is a rough game for chest-pounders — a leading story on the front page of today’s Times indicates that Republicans who prefer to communicate in English are on the way out — it is difficult to be sanguine about the American experiment in democracy.

Hofstadter organizes anti-intellectualism onto four fronts.

The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the “purely” theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. (45-6)

I’m about halfway through the book. Its bearing on my inquiry into liberalism is somewhat tangential, for the term “liberal” appears only in quotations from conservative anti-intellectuals, eg “intellectually mongrelized ‘Liberals’,” taken from an essay written in 1926 by the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Like the allegation of Adlai Stevenson’s “fruity” voice, the conservative application of “liberal” is far more insulting than it is meaningful, a conclusion posing as an explanation. The important questions are these: what do liberals take “liberal” to mean? and: is there a continuous liberal tradition that dates back to the late Seventeenth Century? and: if so, what are its characteristics? If these questions intersect with Hofstadter’s thesis, they lead away from it toward a hypothetical, complementary study of the role of intellect in American life, and of constructive relations (if any) between the life of the mind and the liberal outlook.

Or, not so hypothetically, to my writing project. At the moment, I’m waiting for comments from two very busy people whom I’ve asked to read a presentable draft, and aside from composing slightly amplifying clarifications that my first reader suggested, I’ve confined myself to thinking about it. But I hope there won’t be any harm in pointing out how intimate my familiarity with Hofstadter’s thesis is. Although she could never have articulated it very clearly, my mother regarded me from an early age as guilty of all four of Hofstadter’s offenses. I was cold, I was unreliable, I was impractical, and I thought I was better than she was. If she didn’t accuse me of liberalism, that was probably because she regarded politics as a rough game for adults. And when my father joked that I had more books than sense, he was compressing Hofstadter’s observation that “we sometimes say that a mind of admittedly penetrating intelligence is relatively unintellectual,” and that “we see among minds that are unmistakably intellectual a considerable range of intelligence.” (25)


Friday 27th

Another Kondo Prize goes to Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I bought this fictionalized memoir when it was reprinted by NYRB, in 2001, or not long thereafter. I had never heard of O’Brien, but the combination of an arresting cover photograph by Slim Aarons and the promise of an Introduction by Seamus Heaney, together with a well-put-together pair of paragraphs on the back sold me the book. O’Brien was apparently the child of movie stars from the Thirties who broke up when he was still a kid and who then went on to amount to nothing. I read the first chapter, and didn’t get it. For a long time, the book stood among all the other NYRB reprints, but when the shelves got crowded, it was exiled to storage — from which I rescued it three months ago. There still wasn’t room for it here, so I slipped it in horizontally, atop the others, which made it very easy to pull out last week when I was looking for something to read.

I decided to pick up where the bookmark was, in the middle of the second chapter. A woman was telling her husband to shut up about the goddammed avocados. There was a Mr Amalfitano, who was crude, and then a very refined Mr Liszt. Mr Liszt, Mr Franz Liszt, struck me as the Tongue-in-Cheek cousin of Gogol’s Nose, but I kept reading. When I got to the end of the third chapter, I went back to the beginning of the second, but not to the first, which I was afraid might put me off again. At the beginning of the fourth chapter, I began to have a good time.

At fourteen I would reach the age of reason under California law and be able to choose between parents, but at thirteen I was happy in my mother’s company, content to benefit from her closeness and from such intangible riches as might accrue to me from living in an artistic atmosphere. Also, I knew little of the history, language, and culture of the Russian race; not having the means to travel, I was satisfied that by living in the Russian’s house, I could observe first-hand his habits, customs, rituals, and perhaps prevail on him to instruct me in the rudiments of his tongue. I would gain the fruits of a voyage to a distant land, without incurring the cost or inconvenience of transportation.

Laid on with a trowel, perhaps — but quite expertly done, the parody of an ingénu out of Fielding or Goldsmith not only amusing in itself but ironically establishing the narrator as the seasoned and mordant judge of his seniors that their delinquencies have provoked him to become. A Way of Life, Like Any Other tells its rather grim and depressing tale in a fleet and edifying prose that assures us that the young man is going to come out of it in good shape.

In the seventh chapter, I had a big laugh. The young man was making a tentative visit to his father’s house. He noticed that his father was spending all his time at church, so desperate to have something to do, it seems, that the

Ladies Altar Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacramental bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member.

Aspiring writers with a streak of witty malice will benefit from the study of this sentence. The rule of three is scrupulously observed, starting out short and simple, then roaming a little freely, but finally submitting to rhythmic concision in a blowout of silliness. There would be many ways of noting that the ladies of the Altar Society took good care of the Infant of Prague doll, and I daresay that most would refer to robes or to outfits, but O’Brien settles on the one that allows him to say laundered the costumes. If you do not hear the nonsense here, you will never really understand the wit of the English language. It as much a matter of sound as it is one of sense.

In Chapter 16, the mother turns up, after a long absence in Rome. The mother, qua mother, exhibits equal influences of Ida Farange, in What Maisie Knew, and Faye Dunaway, in Mommie Dearest. She is a monstress of egotism and a prodigious liar. Having adored her as a boy, the narrator loathes her now, and when she claims to have joined AA, his skepticism is rude and impolite.

“It’s too bad,” I said. “Drinking is a part of life, isn’t it? I mean drinking and getting drunk. Making an ass of yourself. Even making things unpleasant for other people. It’s too bad if you can’t do that any more. I would feel very deprived if I thought I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mother said. “You’re very young.”

“AA sounds very boring to me,” I said. “It sounds like some half-assed evangelical sect. People sitting around talking about not drinking. Why not tie one on and go to sleep?”

“People do terrible things to their lives,” Mother said. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“I bet they do.”

“I don’t like your tone,” Mother said.

But of course his tone is exactly what the reader likes. Seamus Heaney, naturally, points out how Irish this “quicksilver” badinage is, and there is a lustiness to the verbal confrontations that one doesn’t associate with Americans. The movie star father, however, is the actual Irishman in the story — Irish-Catholic American, anyway — and he sounds pretty much like Gary Cooper imitating a Wooden Indian. We come to understand that he has the moral spark of a Wooden Indian, too: none. At the end, he tries to finagle a valuable ring out of his son, who has rightfully inherited it. When he is outmaneuvered, we are delighted to find that the book has arrived at the happiest of all possible endings.

I went into the world well-armed.

Bon week-end à tous!