Gotham Diary:
May 2018 (V)

29, 30, and 31 May

Tuesday 29th

The most interesting thing about Donald Trump, I’ve concluded, is his abstemiousness. The man doesn’t drink. And what’s really interesting about this is that nobody comments on it, neither friends nor foes. Nobody exclaims that the president is bold because or reckless even though he avoids alcohol.

Like everybody else, Trump acts on a braid of conscious, intuitive, instinctive, and deeply learned impulses, and there’s no saying which are more important than the others, no point in trying to trace the intentions behind his behavior. But whether Trump is a teetotaler by taste or by prudence, it’s a simple fact that he is never “incapacitated,” not even “under the weather.” He’s all there, all the time. It’s amazing to me, with my very different bundle of impulses, that he manages to be himself all the time without seeking some sort of chemical relief, but he is apparently untroubled by it. His bundle of impulses works for him.

And, I mean, it really does work: the man is in the Oval Office! What does Trump have that other presidents haven’t had? My theory is that he has an unerring sense of what doesn’t matter, and that his not drinking reflects some awareness that he has to be stone cold sober to keep this sense alive. When you’re drunk, nothing matters, everything matters — things get all mixed up. Trump is never mixed up. He is probably ignorant of many things that a normal person of his background would not want to be caught not knowing, but he is not confused. His decisions may be inconsistent over time, but they are always the right decisions for the moment, or at least never the wrong ones, because, really, how could a businessman with his history of bankruptcy and general lack of verifiable financial success get a roomful of people to support him? Much less win the Collegiate vote?

It’s not that bankruptcy doesn’t matter. It’s that it doesn’t matter that much. As much as other things. Trump can calibrate to a fine degree the context of self-presentation in which other things outweigh bankruptcy to the point of making it vanish. Building a wall, draining the swamp. Compared to these, bankruptcy is just a less-interesting abstraction.

And he also knows who matters. Right-thinking people were genuinely shocked by his dismissal of Rex Tillerson by means of a tweet, but Trump knew that neither the position of Secretary of State nor the person of Rex Tillerson meant very much to most Americans.

Rather than produce further examples of Trump’s unusual discernment — tedious if not vomitrocious reportage — I suggest that we examine what he does in the future as so much evidence that he understands the world that we’re living in better than we do, and that we can learn from him what really matters in the United States today. Instead of deploring his grandstanding, follow him as if he were a Geiger counter.

When he attacks something, we add it to our list of things that need to be fixed. It’s going to be a long list.


Wednesday 30

In yesterday’s Op-Ed column, David Brooks wrote about what’s wrong with the meritocracy. Having written a few things about this myself, I read it with the greatest interest. Here follow some quibbles.

Exaggerated faith in intelligence. By “intelligence,” Brooks seems to mean IQ, and he also seems to suggest that we put too much stock in aptitude and raw brainpower. This overlooks the extent to which the humanities have been denatured by ideas of efficiency. I don’t just mean tests and language labs. I mean the buzz words and the jargon that reduce intellectual effort to dog whistles. When too many teachers want to hear students say the right things, students learn to say the right things without understanding what they mean.

The best teachers learn from their students. I don’t mean that they learn anything much about the syllabus, but rather that students, as a result of the best teachers’ prodding, reveal the limitless variety of human possibility. The best teachers, in other words, do not have an exaggerated faith in their own intelligence, and this is what they teach their students.

Sometimes, I’m reminded of the medieval disconnect between theory and practice, wherein scholars drew their schemata but never handled a tool, while masons erected cathedrals without the benefit of physics equations. Americans today distinguish between a higher learning that is pursued in classrooms and an everyday commonsense morality that is picked up in cafeterias and on playing fields. Crabbed and fustian as it was, the old public-school curriculum of studying classical literature not only for mastery of Greek and Latin but for moral exemplars seems comprehensive in comparison.

Why, I wonder, does Brooks make two points out of one? Misplaced faith in autonomy and Inability to think institutionally are the same thing. The old WASP élite enjoyed a proprietary interest in its institutions and its society: it quite literally owned almost everything. Meritocrats aren’t invested in society. We haven’t learned how to replace the old ownership equity with a moral equity, with a collegial authority by which the meritocracy is enabled to judge itself. The medical and legal professions’ attempts at self-regulation are pale and often ineffective copies of the powerful back-room councils that ran things in the bad old days.

Finally, Brooks’s paragraph about the Misplaced notion of the self fails to make it clear that character is a social phenomenon, not a spiritual one. Too often, character is regarded as a sort of Superman costume that is revealed only in crisis. In fact, character is revealed by every gesture, every statement, every smile, every frown, every angry word, every kindness. Character is not a sash of merit badges but a messy array of inconsistent behaviors. The good news is that most of us behave better when surrounded by others who behave well. The central flaw in the current version of meritocracy is its postulation of individual merit. On any truly meaningful test — testing the members of a class — cheating is impossible.


Thursday 31st

Just when I was wondering what was going to push Philip Roth off the screen, along came Roseanne Barr with her tweet about Valerie Jarrett. It’s still too soon, I think, to comment on that — although I must say the President, with his demand that ABC apologise for all the HORRIBLE things that it has said about him, didn’t disappoint — so I’m grateful to Dara Horn for her piece in the Times‘s Sunday Review, which in its online version is entitled “What Philip Roth Didn’t Know About Woman Could Fill a Book.”

Roth’s three favorite topics — Jews, women and New Jersey — all remain socially acceptable targets of irrational public mockery, and Roth was a virtuoso at mocking the combination of all three. “What are they, after all, these Jewish women who raised us up as children?” Roth’s narrator asks in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the 1969 novel that made his reputation. “It isn’t their fault they were given a gift like speech — look, if cows could talk, they would say things just as idiotic. Yes, yes, maybe that’s the solution then: think of them as cows, who have been given the twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg.”

One could generously say that jokes like this haven’t aged well, yet they were just as cruel in 1969 — and the misogyny isn’t really the problem. After all, if one policed literature for bigotry, there would be little left to read. The problem is literary: these caricatures reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity.


Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth.

To which I would add that the snippet of Roth’s prose reveals the disregard for grace that’s typical of impatient, unpleasant men. “[T]he twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg” might sound funny when you say it, but it falls flat on the page.

When Dara Horn says that Roth’s curiosity is limited to Roth, it sounds like a put-down. We’ve come that far, at least. When Roth was writing Portnoy’s Complaint, though, it would have been praise. In those days, Hamlet was the greatest work of literature, and what does Hamlet do but think about himself? The language in which he does so is grandiloquent, possibly immortal, but I prefer it in extracts. As I play, Hamlet is simply depressing: the cogs of a revenge tragedy grind in their inexorably noisy way, and the only thing slowing them down is the prince’s introspection. Hamlet was the perfect model for the Postwar school of alienated, existentialist writers convinced of the absurdity of existence. As also for the school of writers who dared to subject themselves to their own variants of Freudian analysis. This was a struggle that had nothing to do with women, except insofar as women were trophies, carried off in victory. The enemy was the vast phalanx of men who cooperate in soulless routines of bureaucracy and commerce, who plot to exterminate meaning. Only by studying himself could the author find freedom.

So many things that made sense during the Cold War — that made so much sense that men developed whole personalities around them — don’t make sense anymore.

As a young man, I watched this battle, you might say, from a point outside its Overton Window. I could root for neither side. I felt a moral — aesthetic? — obligation to stand up for the writers, because they were, after all, writers, artists, thinkers, and so forth, whereas their opponents were duped robots. But I wouldn’t have wanted to see the writers put in charge of things, either. If the conformists were boring, the writers were disagreeable. They had terrible manners, and were proud of this. They were very greedy, and not just for attention. They were terrible, terrible listeners. And they were not very nice to the women who were attracted to them. And women were attracted to them. That was the worst of it.

Has that changed? Perhaps we can say that the attraction has been infused with … complications. I can’t see Dara Horn fluttering on a park bench if Philip Roth sat down beside her with a Mr Softee and eventually, like Lisa Halliday’s Alice, in Asymmetry, retiring with him to his apartment for “Operations” sex. No. I hear her saying, you always use the language of possession when talking about love. And then standing up and walking away.

In time, the old battle faded away, as antagonists grew old and died, women entered the workforce, and Hamlet began to sound solipsistic. I got rid of a lot of novels. None by Philip Roth, though. I’d never had any.

Bon week-end à tous!