Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (IV)

23, 25 and 26 January

Tuesday 23rd

I don’t know about you, but as a bedeviled New Yorker I find great comic relief in Brexit coverage, especially in the London Review of Books, where it appears in the form of intelligent appraisals of books about the mess. In the current issue, Colid Kidd reviews Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem, by Tim Shipman. Like Fire and Fury, it is a “fly on the wall” assemblage of off-the-record interviews. According to Kidd, Shipman talked with “many of the dramatis personae in Theresa May’s topsy-turvy first year as prime minister,” a turn of phrase that could be applied exactly, save for the name and the office, to Michael Wolff’s book. There hasn’t been such fun since about 1720, when catastrophic financial bubbles burst almost simultaneously in Paris and London. A century from now, it will probably be a difficult to remember on which side of the Atlantic to paste “the Remainers” and on which “the Tea Party.” The role of xenophobic white supremacy in both upheavals is practically identical, which makes me wonder what, exactly, was accomplished by George Washington and his friends.

Over here, of course, the main event is the apparently self-destructive fever that is raging in both political parties. On both sides of the aisle, old centrists, fundamentally liberal in the classic sense of the term, are being sabotaged and discredited by no-longer-marginal extremes. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what “liberal in the classic sense of the term” means, but it is not liberalism itself that makes centrists so unpopular with activists (aside, that is, from the liberal willingness to compromise); rather, it is the centrists’ accommodation of business-as-usual practices. The most offensive of these, in the puritans’ eyes (and both fringes are puritan as only Americans could be), is taking money from rich donors. What makes rich donors so offensive is that they, too, have become activist: their gifts are not so much contributions as purchases. Rich people bought the Republican Party some time ago, but Democrats need money, too, and unions, the party’s traditional support, are shrinking. Whatever the source, campaign funding causes some degree of slippage between representatives and constituents. This is potentially fatal to liberal democracy, which is why I place Buckley v Valeo alongside the Dred Scott decision as an example of egregious Supreme Court error.

Colin Kidd points out that the 48% of Britons who voted to Remain no longer have any significant representation in Parliament on the issue. This is broadly true of many issues, such as housing and education, on which established elders seem deaf to the needs of the young. It’s an intriguing reversal of the situation in the Sixties, when, aside from serious differences about Vietnam and the Bomb, young people wanted little more than permission to live in a loosened-up society. We were a spoiled bunch, we boomers, and, like racists, we never understood just how spoiled we were. Our children and grandchildren are more hard-headed, but they’re having to teach themselves from scratch, because we denatured their educations in the name of — freedom, was it? Whatevs.


I came across an interesting new word the other day: paracosm. In the current issue of Harper’s, T M Luhrmann writes,

In the late 1970s, Robert Silvey, an audience researcher at the BBC started using the word “paracosm” to describe the private worlds that children create, like the North Paricific island of Gondal that Emily and Anne Brontë dreamed up when they were girls.But paracosms are not unique to children. Besotted J R R Tolkien fans, for instance, have a similar relationship with Middle-earth. … God becomes more real for people who turn their faith into a paracosm.

So the word isn’t actually new at all, just new to me. The idea, however, has been billowing in my brain for some time, in search of a name. In my application, the paracosm is simply “the real world,” the world that we believe in, with more or less force, whether we can see it or not. In my paracosm, for example, the people who live in my neighborhood, however crabby and impatient and occasionally loud, are good people. They want to be good people, anyway. Being good people in New York means accepting a pretty wide range of personal differences, or at least feeling safe among strangers. The good people of Yorkville may be individually embroiled in hateful relationships and ghastly family feuds, but as regards the people they don’t know, they’re good people. Feeling that I am living in a society, a largely invisible cloud, of good people makes me feel good.

Another element of my paracosmic reality is the belief that there is nothing imperfect about human beings. What we are is all that we can expect to be. Our complications, our contradictions, our confusion — these are features, not bugs. It is adolescent to wish otherwise. Our mortality is essential to our species. None of this is to deny for a moment my modern liberal belief that we must do everything that we can to help everyone to live a life of comfort and dignity: that, and nothing less, is the only happiness worthy of pursuing.

And yet I sit here, in my quiet apartment, reading and writing. In my paracosm — and some readers may take this to be an indictment of it — reading and writing amount to doing something. It is something that I feel that I do well, even if I have done almost nothing to spread this opinion. I try to persuade people to think, because I believe that thinking may lead them to act. I don’t believe that it is possible anymore to persuade people to act without causing them to think first. The direct connection between powerful words and meaningful active responses has been corroded or broken by decades of advertising. The only way to persuade someone to do something without inspiring them to think about it first is to do it yourself.

In another piece in Harper’s, part of the same collection of essays about persuasion, Mychal Denzel Smith writes,

The proper role of protest is to dramatize the unequal distribution of power.  What protests are not charged with is upholding reverence for the institutions that make them necessary. A brutal system of police, prosecutors, and politicians has rendered American symbols meaningless, and the onus is on the US government to restore their meaning — to convince the marchers and kneelers and petitioners and organizers of its commitment to progress. We achieve peace not by demanding hat those who expose our contradictions be silent but by pressuring the powerful to convince the rest of us that there is no reason to shout.

In other words, the élites who have been doing business as usual for the past several generations have to stop talking and start doing. My self-appointed job is to figure out what, in a liberal frame of reference, is doable, and to distinguish it from what is doable as an emergency measure. Since I only just now figured this out, I’m hardly an expert. I know little more than where to begin.


Thursday 25th

Seeing that it’s Virginia Woolf’s birthday — a hundred years ago today, she turned 36 (my father was already four years old, and my mother would be born later in the year) — I should like to revisit last Friday’s entry, in which I wrote about reading Woolf’s last novel, The Years, and really liking it, even though six months ago (not even) I discarded a copy of the novel because I’d gotten the idea that it was a failure.

After finishing Friday’s writing, I pulled out Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf and realized that it from her book that I’d heard that The Years was not a success. Worse, I made the demoralizing discovery that the entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary that had inspired me to read the novel —

The miracle is accomplished. L put down the last sheet about 12 last night, and could not speak. He was in tears. He says it is “a most remarkable book” — he likes it better than The Waves — and has not a spark of doubt that it must be published. (4 November 1936)

— was rooted in mendacity, for Leonard Woolf confessed, years after Virginia’s death, that he had not thought that The Years was very good at all, but feared that it would kill Virginia to hear this. He lied to her! I feel somewhat ridiculous, sounding shocked, shocked about something that all Woolf scholars and students must know perfectly well, and even though even I know that the essence of the marriage was that Leonard took care of Virginia. I’m grateful that Virginia’s diary at least temporarily obliterated whatever I remembered reading in Lee; I’d never have read The Years otherwise. It was interesting to read (once again, but I don’t recall the first time) that The Years was a publishing success.

So, I’m a chump who liked it.

What’s wrong with it, then? Lee writes,

Because of her horror of propaganda, her feeling that art should subsume politics, and her fear of being laughed at, a good deal of the book’s explicit argument is buried. And so The Years is a kind of crippled text, which disables itself while writing about a disabled society. As she rewrote and rewrote, struggling for a language that would “fit” what she was thinking about, she came to think of it as a kind of failure: but as a deliberate failure. (665)

It’s an interesting notion, “a disabled society.” It’s a distinctly modern idea — I want to say modernist — in its professional detachment. If there’s something wrong, then the critics will point it out, so that something can be done by the experts. The very idea of a disabled society posits the image of a healthy one, and the more that I read of and about the period 1850-1950 (to be very rough), the more palpably looms the tormented sense of a near-Eden that had come to an end with the revolutions of the late Eighteenth Century. Certainly those revolutions — political, industrial, scientific, social (the women’s revolution, which began with the others, is still burning) — disrupted traditional social arrangements. But to claim that they disabled society, as indeed most modern artists did, was to reject revolutionary aims, and another thing that becomes clearer over time is that modernism was an essentially reactionary movement. (This time, it would be the artists and intellectuals who got to carry on, living the irresponsible high life that the aristocracies of birth had earlier enjoyed.)

What was arguably “disabled” about British society in Woolf’s day was its pretension of stability. In this, most Britons were complicit, naturally responding to surprising upheavals by hunkering down with traditions. In The Years, it is the men who cling to the past, while the women itch with impatience. Woolf shows us this without telling us a thing. She shows us the succession of Kitty Lasswade’s automobiles, which get sleeker and faster; the 1914 chapter ends with an exhilarating drive from a railway station uphill to a castle, lingering over a moment of suspense on a steep grade where, in earlier cars, Kitty would have had to get out and walk. But not this time! Despite the fact that Kitty is very rich, and cars still rare, and despite the fact that the the cars that appear at the end of the book are unimpressive taxis that clog London’s traffic, any attempt to read this passage as a critique of society has to be perverse and contorted. It is the joyous celebration of a new but simple pleasure.

Something that struck me quite forcibly about the party at the end of the novel was the insouciance with which the younger people push the furniture to the walls and roll up the carpets — true, Delia, the hostess, helps them, but without comment or complaint — so that they can dance to phonograph records. Woolf leaves it entirely to the reader to savor the sheer unimaginability of such doings back at the novel’s beginning, in the double drawing room of Abel Pargiter’s house in Abercorn Terrace, c 1880. It’s not so much the dancing as the empowerment of youth. Abel’s children were more or less imprisoned in his household, ruled by an unquestioned patriarchy. This has entirely disappeared fifty years later.

At the bottom of the same page from which I have already quoted, Lee goes on,

No one in the novel is allowed to make a speech or complete a statement. Instead of “preaching,” the structure of the novel itself makes a gesture against totalitarianism. There is no hero, no tragic or climactic plot, no resolution. Instead there is open-endedness, uncertainty, collective voices. The novel, by the very method of indirection and suggestion which cost her so much to achieve, resists the agents of tyranny. Those figure repeatedly in the book: they are men saying “I, I, I”; oppressive icons of worship, loudspeakers, searchlights, hectoring voices at Speakers’ Corner…

and so on. It seems to me that Lee is describing a triumph, not a failure.


As we come to the end of the month, I can regard one new development as an overall success, and that is the revival, at the beginning of the year, of the original Daily Blague. Several years ago, I tried bringing it back to life, but it didn’t take. I have higher hopes this time. While the struggle to provide an entry every day has been beyond me, I can feel the life ot it. Although I like to think that I write about many things, it is very clear that I have two different kinds of interests, and the kind that might best be described as “housekeeping” will be the one animating the old Daily Blague. Regular readers of this site (the Daily Blague / reader) will not have to dread prolonged accounts of my ransacking the apartment in search of a missing book, but if you like to hear me laugh at myself, yesterday’s Daily Blague entry may bring a smile. I hope to write a lot of short pieces about food, ageing, and so on, but the underlying issue will be this: the secret of masculine efficiency is that most men don’t have to think about housekeeping. It’s not the doing housework that’s distracting, but the planning. And while most men will happily confess that it is not worth their time to dwell on such matters, American society appears to be drifting toward the conviction that no amount of achievement or glory justifies reducing another person to servility. To put this another way, nobody ought to be just a housekeeper, and everybody ought to be one part-time. What that would look like is pretty much the experiment of my everyday life.


Friday 26th

Even before I got to David Brooks’s column this morning, my fears for the collapse of civilization were on the boil, stirred by a paragraph in the current New Yorker.

Kushner had an interim clearance that gave him access to intelligence. He was also added to a list of recipients of the President’s Daily Brief, or P.D.B., a top-secret digest of the U.S. government’s most closely held and compartmentalized intelligence reports. By the end of the Obama Administration, seven White House officials were authorized to receive the same version of the P.D.B. that appeared on the President’s iPad. The Trump Administration expanded the number to as many as fourteen people, including Kushner. A former senior official said, of the growing P.D.B. distribution list, “It got out of control. Everybody thought it was cool. They wanted to be cool.”

This is from “Soft Target,” a piece about Jared Kushner by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos. They wanted to be cool. I presume that none of the recipients of the PDB were teenagers, but the persistence of an adolescent outlook is obvious. Real adults learn to trae in the term “cool,” and all that it stands for — I’ll let you fill in the list, but don’t forget “sexy” and whatever currently passes for automotive distinction — and settle for the relatively detached “interesting.” This is more than a change of vocabulary. Having outgrown the infantile implication of “cool,” which is “I want it now,” the adult says instead, “I’ll think about it.”

But perhaps adolescence is preferable to the cure offered by this Jordan Peterson fellow whom David Brooks writes about today. Peterson is apparently the brainy version of Tim Ferris. Life is tough, read the Stoics. Stop whining, stand up straight, take responsibility, &c &c. My problem with this sort of advice is that it presents life as an ordeal that must be undergone individually, a fraught series of rites of passage. Collective action is rejected out of hand. I’m no socialist, but I see civilized life as an essential collective action, requiring genuine commitment, not just lip service. That is certainly not Peterson’s view (according to Brooks).

All of life is perched, Peterson continues, on the point between order and chaos. Chaos is the realm without norms and rules. Chaos, he writes, is “the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.”

Chaos, the eternnal feminine. Yikes! From Goethe to Beowulf; surely progress lies in the opposite direction? It’s sickening to think of a young man wrapping up an imaginary and ignorant idea of what women are like and expelling it from his vision of humanity. And as for those “choosy maters” — I chuckled appreciatively at that extraordinary pun — cf the adage that there is no such thing as a man who cannot find a wife if he really wants one.

Adolescence is at least more sociable. The healthy adult male, in my view, can set aside what are really nothing but shocked responses to the newly maturing body, without walling himself up in defensive armor. He does not fear grizzlies in dark caves because he does not enter dark caves alone, or without plenty of illumination. He cultivates and enjoys the benefits of civilization. Other people can count on him so that he can count of them.

Adults also accept death, early on; they don’t wait for the death of a parent to spook them. They realize that they must die, to earthly existence anyway, for life to go on. Life is not a temporary possession but an open-ended organic sequence of births and deaths. For there to be a future, there must be a past. If death stops, life stops. At the highest levels of theology, all religions caution that the meaning of it all might lie beyond human understanding.

Vainglory is the shocked adolescence response to mortality, an attempt to evade it. Let me die, then, says the would-be hero, so long as my deeds are known to all men at all times. You have a better chance of winning the lottery, however, than of leading the life of a new Alexander, and, anyway, making and belonging to a happy family is more useful and more satisfying.

There! And I’ve managed not to drag in Andrew Sullivan!

Bon week-end à tous!