Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (IV)

28 and 30 November; 1 December

Tuesday 28th

Last night, I started reading Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s account of the “life and times” of Jann Wenner, the creator of Rolling Stone. Icky Fingers would be more like it. The reviews warned me that I would take a deep dislike to Wenner; instead, I merely find him depressing. It’s not him so much as the world that allowed him to flourish. Like Donald Trump, Jann Wenner looks to me like an opportunistic disease: he doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the weakness in our body politic that he exploited. Even before the end of the first chapter, Hagan has handily presented the central puzzle of Wenner’s career: how did a celebrity-hound preppie become the pharaoh of youthquake excitement and unkempt disaffection? Bruce Springsteen is famous for, among other things, not returning Chris Christie’s fanboy phone calls, but one of Hagan’s photo pages shows him in a smiling lineup with Wenner and two other shorter, people (Bono and Mick Jagger). How to explain? Wenner is also shown at a benefit for Grand Central (then threatened with demolition) seated next to a rather glacial Jackie Kennedy; it might have been said at the time that the flow of cachet went both ways, that Wenner was a virtual fountain of youth for the noble widow: he made her cool. Now, of course, one just feels slightly sorry for her.

Why am I reading this book? I’d be very surprised if it could be shown that, during the years when it would have been conceivable for me to do so, I bought as many as ten issues of Rolling Stone; the number might be as low as three. Whatever I liked about popular music, it wasn’t what Greil Marcus had to say about it. The boys’-club misogyny of Rolling Stone’s editorial tone was as pungent as the stink of a locker room, redolent of bullying exaggeration and supersubtle theorizing. The magazine’s cheek was always a matter of puffing up adolescent noise with bogus significance, dandifying, where possible, the louche and the stubbly. In my opinion, its heartbreaking naïveté about the power of “popular culture,” more than any other single factor, engendered the careless disregard for social reality that deluded so many supporters of Hillary Clinton into imagining that their candidate could not possibly lose an election.

Joe Hagan, it must be said, writes with polished journalistic brio. A bit of bibliomancy turns up this jewel from Chapter 13: “The critical apparatus of Rolling Stone was in turmoil in 1975. Wenner’s writers didn’t like music anymore.” I ought to be ashamed of the smirk that Sticky Fingers has plastered on my lips. Meanwhile, there’s the tragedy of an educated generation resolutely taking desultory things seriously.


Can you tell? Does it show? Immediately before starting in on Sticky Fingers, I read “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” a lecture delivered by George Santayana to the Philosophical Union of the University of California in 1911. In the following year, Santayana left the United States forever, to die in Rome forty years later. I have never before managed to keep the figure of Santayana in focus. Now that I think I can, I see that his premature retirement from Harvard and withdrawal from the country of his education might explain my difficulty: we have reciprocated by withdrawing our attention and replacing it with mystification. Immediate evidence is presented by uncertainty about his name. I shall call him George Santayana, which is how he was known here and with which name his books, all written in English, were published. But he was born in Spain, in 1863, as Jorge. (I am mortified to discover that I have long confused him with Giorgio di Santillana, an Italian-American historian of science.) Although both parents were Spanish, Santayana’s mother had been married to a member of an eminent American banking clan, and it was to provide her children by the dead George Sturgis with an American education that she settled in Boston in 1869. Jorge and his father followed a few years later, but only the boy stayed on, becoming George. So Santayana was both an insider and an outsider. William James was one of his teachers, and, later, one of his friends: James’s death in 1910 may also have deprived Santayana of a reason for sticking around Cambridge.

Santayana had a knack for aphorisms. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is certainly the best known. I came across one in “The Genteel Tradition” that struck me just as forcibly. “To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.” Without putting it so well, I have understood the truth of this since my mind began working. Consolation from what? you ask. Earlier in the same paragraph, Santayana says,

Serious poetry, profound religion (Calvinism, for instance) are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself: but when a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them by that; and since human life, in its depths, cannot then express itself openly, imagination is driven for comfort into abstract arts, where human circumstances are lost sight of, and human problems dissolve in a purer medium. The pressure of care is thus relieved, without its quietus being found in intelligence.

Again, what unhappiness? How very American to ask; for it is still somewhat inappropriate to be unhappy in this country. Unhappiness is something to be fixed, by therapy or medication or self-improvement. But Santayana, the outsider who taught himself another people’s memories, knew that this country was founded by Calvinists who regarded the human state as a fallen one, and the human condition as essentially, inevitably, unhappy. But the wilderness to which the Puritans had retired proved to be a colossal mockery, for instead of the hardship that would have provided the appropriate external accompaniment to their pious self-denial — or, at any rate, after the hardship — it opened a cornucopia of worldly riches that, when combined with the robust success of the new revolutionary nation, made austerity seem perverse.

If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is. He is convinced that he has always been, and always will be, victorious and blameless.

There is almost too much here to unpack. The victorious blamelessness that floated Americans in 1911 would be deflated by war and depression, but it would erupt with a new vigor in the 1960s, in time for Jann Wenner to preside over the renewed conversation about American renewal — and to do what he could to suppress mutterings about unhappiness. Behind this recent history, though, there weighs on my mind a paradoxical observation to which I’ve been led by Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If you were to describe Jaynes’s theory to an educated American today, you might reasonably expect it to be received with grave doubts about claim that human consciousness did not exist until three thousand years ago, but there would be no denial that the development of consciousness, whenever it occurred, was a very good thing, the capstone, perhaps, of human distinctiveness. And yet this development appears to have been experienced as a nightmare, as precisely what our religions have called the Fall of Man. I am almost paralyzed with fascination, to think that it was a tree of knowledge that caused the trouble in Genesis — the force of Jaynes’s ideas makes me wonder if I ever understood what this meant before. It is, of course, the unhappiness that must, in Santayana’s view, be consoled.

At the end of “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana exhorted his audience, “Let us be content to live in the mind.” I don’t altogether know how to take this; I am certainly not inclined to follow Santayana’s abstention from worldliness. But it does seem clear to me that understanding what we know (and what we don’t) is the only sure foundation of contentment.


Thursday 30th

It has always dismayed me to hear that the great virtue of a liberal education is its uselessness. This sounds like an Oscar Wilde witticism gone completely flat. The only people who understand what it’s supposed to mean have themselves been liberally educated, while, to the rest of the world, the “uselessness” is what resounds. Why fund such a self-declared waste of time?

But it was only the other day that I was able to come up with an alternative. A glance over recent entries will disclose the background of my thinking, which was provoked by Julian Jaynes’s 1975 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I will not recapitulate Jaynes’s theories, interesting as they are. It’s enough to say that the problems of liberal education do not figure in them. Had Jaynes written the books that he proposed to write, he might very well have had something to say about “the humanities,” as the subjects of liberal education are generally known, but as he did not, I’ve been muddling along on my own.

Liberal education makes it possible for you to understand what you know. It is hard for me, really, to imagine anything more vitally useful, especially as we proceed into an environment that forces us to choose either painstaking stewardship or social annihilation.

For illustration of the way in which consciousness transforms knowledge into understanding, I am not going to pick out an example from my school days, or from the books on my shelves, or even from the Op-Ed page of the Times. I am going to recount an anecdote from personal history and then share the astonishing and “obvious” explanation that was ventured by a friend. I have already told the story here before. This time, I will add some comments about my failure to arrive at the explanation myself.

The event at the core of the anecdote occurred at the great Parisian restaurant, Taillevent. The concierge of our hotel had booked a table for us in the restaurant’s outer chamber; from the door of the inner room, which was not far away, we could hear the gentle din of the gratin. Across the way, at a table set for eight or ten, a reasonably polished middle-aged gentleman was seated beside a pretty young woman. They were in festive spirits, although the young woman seemed somewhat more obliging than effervescent. Because of the exotic setting, I declined to draw conclusions from the incongruity of the happy couple’s occupation of such a large table, but when an enormous turkey was rolled out, and two thin slices cut for each of two dinner plates, whereupon the turkey was rolled back into the kitchen, I had to ask our waiter if the gentleman was an American. I was assured that he was not. No, he was French, and I didn’t doubt that the stammering waiter could have told me his name.

I forgot to tell you: in the United States, that particular Thursday in November was Thanksgiving Day. I needn’t add that turkey was not on Taillevent’s menu that evening.

Of course, the waiter wouldn’t have told me the man’s name, and of course I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask anything. I let the curious incident settle into my memory undisturbed. I’m sure that I regaled friends with it many times, making much of the great silvery cart with the rolling dome top that housed the turkey, and the sneering dispatch with which it was wheeled across the floor, but it was only when I told it to my friend Ray Soleil, years later, that the curiousness was displaced by something else — Ray’s likely story. Ray explained that the gentleman was embarking on a mésalliance (if only because his amie was so much younger), and that he had challenged his disapproving family to meet her, or to acknowledge their engagement, at a grand dinner at the grand restaurant, where he was well-known enough to command a great roast bird that must have imposed some inconvenience on the kitchen. Owing to some transatlantic connection or other — his line of work, perhaps, or a grandmother’s origins — the dinner would also celebrate the American feast.

Being French, the man’s family decided to let him make a fool of himself — for everyone in the restaurant except for Kathleen and me, who would never have dreamt of such stunts, must have known exactly what Ray Soleil guessed — and they declined to appear. Kathleen and I might have been able to imagine such an episode, but we could not imagine it actually happening right in front of us. It would have been very upsetting. We should have felt disappointed, embarrassed, and even humiliated on the couple’s behalf, whether or not they were troubled by any of these things. It would have spoiled our lovely dinner — delicious pré-salé lamb from the Pyrenees for me. I know it. What we saw was certainly very interesting, but had we had any idea of an explanation such as Ray’s, it would have been much too interesting, certainly at such a short distance.

When we heard what Ray had to say, twenty years had passed, and we were sitting at our own dining table. I can vividly remember what a great fool I felt not to have seen what was so clear to our friend. Only now, meditating on the discomforts of consciousness, can I grasp the force with which I must have resisted understanding what was going on at that table for ten. Knowing — not understanding, but knowing, from what I could see with my own eyes — that something was wrong, I delicately swaddled my analytical powers and instead soaked up everything that seemed normal — normal for Taillevent, that is. I assumed that the theatrics of the turkey on the torpédo were not normal, and dismissed them as irrelevant to the Taillevent experience.

The purpose of a liberal education is to undo the many unconscious accommodations that we make for the interment of unpleasant possibilities. We learn that our kindness might really be condescension. We learn that our generosity might be controlling. Most of all, we learn how easily our arguments become tendentious, self-serving. At the very least liberal education raises our evasions — and this is what makes Freudian therapy so liberal, however unscientific — into consciousness. Only when our pack of just-so stories have been dispelled by interpretations whose truth and usefulness is revealed by the force with which they grip us do we understand the world around us.


Friday 1st

In yesterday’s entry, I set out to say something useful about liberal education, but wound up writing an entry in which the place of a liberal education was taken by my friend, Ray Soleil. Nor was there anything particularly academic about my illustrative example. Some readers might find that these displacements mitigated, perhaps even vitiated, the force of my argument. What has dinner at a fancy restaurant got to do with studying Aristotle and Hume?

I might observe that Ray himself is a liberally-educated man, trained in critical, skeptical thinking at a fine university. But why stretch a point? The truth is that Ray is a worldly man, gifted with sophisticated understanding of things. By “sophisticated,” I mean pretty much what Socrates didn’t like about the ability to defend both sides of a case, the inclination to see conflicting interests instead of right and wrong. That, I maintain, is the objective of liberal education. I believe that distinguishing right from wrong does not require much study; for that very reason, cases of right and wrong are rare. You could, of course, pick over the Thanksgiving turkey at Taillevent looking for rights and wrongs — was the patron wrong to arrange for the feast, was his family right to stay away? — but such judgments wouldn’t have much to do with how human beings actually get along in the world. We can leave the rights and wrongs to the parties involved, and savor the incident for its blend of curiosity and familiarity. We can wonder what happened next. Did the gentleman marry the young lady? Did the family patch up the quarrel? Was Ray’s explanation in fact correct? Perhaps the key element of a liberal education is its undying agnosticism, not about the existence of God in particular but about all of our attempts at understanding. Julian Jaynes’s way of putting it was to say that consciousness is never complete.


“You don’t get to do what I’ve done if you are an asshole.”

That’s Jann Wenner on his career. The remark appears late in Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, on page 486. By that point, I had come to the conclusion that you could do what Jann Wenner did only if you were an asshole. But I hate that word and don’t intend to parse it. It’s easy to pile up the negative personal qualities that Wenner has displayed all through his life, and Hagan serves generous portions. But the overall effect paints Wenner as a man who succeeded in spite of himself, and I don’t buy it. You don’t get to do what Wenner did if you are no more than an undisciplined hedonist. That’s what’s missing from Sticky Fingers, the “more” that enabled Wenner to parley his vices — his ruthlessness, his faithlessness, his craven pursuit of celebrity — into a run of five decades. If you want to know how flawed Wenner is as a human being, this is the book for you. If you want to know how he kept Rolling Stone afloat through good times and bad — how he connected with millions of more or less literate Americans in an enterprise that often seemed as Messianic as it was mercenary — you will wonder how Hagan managed to leave that part out.

It would be wrong, though, to imply that my disappointment is very great. I am not really curious about Wenner, Rolling Stone, or the definition of a cultural cohort with which I was never in sympathy. I still don’t know why I read the book, but I do know that I was drawn by the promise of substance that wafted from all the reviews. It was clear that Sticky Fingers was a good book about something. But what?

It’s about depravity, the depravity of adolescent anarchy extended into adulthood. The depravity of lavishing attention on rock bands and rare carpets while undermining it with mind-altering drugs, the depravity of declaring that the whole mess is not only important but of world-historical significance. The depravity of attempting to fashion a better society without any actual thinking. The depravity of distracting political and cultural élites from the problems of ordinary people, the utter depravity of dismissing the ordinary as boring. The depravity that Victorian painters loved to suggest in their murals of Rome’s lascivious decline (Hogan’s are equally alluring). That’s what Sticky Fingers is about. And here is how it ends:

Jann Wenner’s oldest and dearest friends — people who had worked for him in the 1960s and after — could not help but notice the likeness between Trump and the Jann Wenner they knew. The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to celebrity and power. … “High-functioning narcissists can be incredibly effective people.” (503)

It was a relief to read this, really, because I was beginning to worry that nobody had noticed. Just a few pages earlier, Hagan was describing Wenner’s reaction to the scandal of Rolling Stone’s libelous article about rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

Wenner took a degree of comfort in his libel insurance, but he swerved between denial and confrontation. One minute he blamed the source, the next the writer, the next Will Dana [the Rolling Stone editor who made the observation about high-functioning narcissists quoted above]. One minute he described himself as checked out of Rolling Stone, fading from relevance with his rock star buddies; the next he claimed he still controlled every aspect of the magazine down to the reader mail. “What a horrible thing to have happened,” he said, sucking his teeth, a thing he did when he was anxious. “The further it recedes on the horizon, the better I feel about it. Confronted with it on a day-to-day thing, it just makes me sick.” (495)

Isn’t that a shame!

Chalk it up to my being an indoors person, but its hard for me to worry more about the fallout from environmental degradation than I do about the consequences of moral vacuity. Trump and Wenner aren’t as unusual as they’re made out to be.

Bon week-end à tous!