Gotham Diary:
De Man, DeWitt
June 2018 (I)

6, 7 and 8 June

Wednesday 6th

More about the meritocracy: in today’s Times, a review of Steven Brill’s Tailspin: The People and Forces &c. According to Jennifer Szilai’s review, Brill charges the meritocracy with having recreated itself as an aristocracy more entrenched than the old-money class that it replaced. “This argument isn’t new,” Szalai points out, going on to mention Chris Hayes 2012 Twilight of the Elites. Both of these authors make use of the image of ladders being pulled up behind the rising new élites, foreclosing opportunity to others. It’s a nasty and depressing picture. I think it’s incomplete at best.

To me, the problem with the meritocracy is that nobody knows anybody. Oh, sure, people know their classmates from Harvard and Princeton, you can be sure of that. But connections within the meritocracy are not the problem, or, rather, they wouldn’t be the problem if there weren’t such a dearth of connections between the meritocracy and the rest of America. That statement needs refining, too. The connections that we need aren’t between a monolithic élite and the American population, but between individual meritocrats and the people whose lives they affect. What’s missing is local connection.

At lunch yesterday, a friend talked about various plans to subdivide the United States into more homogenous, governable regions. Like the meritocracy (toot, toot), this is something that I’ve discussed in the past. But I find that I have moved past such proposals, although I don’t dismiss them. When I look back on the old aristocracy, I see that it was rooted in hometowns. Young men from the better families went off to school and then returned, to take over from their fathers. There was an interdependency of economy, local tradition, even plain old gossip. I don’t mean to idealize some golden past. There was a great deal of atrophy in the old dispensation. But the community’s health was protected by a degree of human accountability that is difficult even to express in today’s globalist rhetoric. The local manufacturer might have the power to sell his firm to a conglomerate, or to shift his operations abroad, but the freedom to do so would be constrained by loyalty to the town, at least so long as he and his family wished to remain in it. And, where conditions were at least moderately harmonious, townsmen took pride in local prosperity.

The meritocracy that replaced this old local aristocracy was not itself local. It operated, and still operates, only at the higher, more abstract organizational levels. Local politics has been left to dubious figures, either developers or their creatures. Or to ambitious lawyers who intend to leave the locale behind. The talented young person who settles down on and to a local scale is either not making the best use of talent or maybe not all that talented. Meritocrats go far.

Mobility, like growth, is generally thought to be an inherently good thing. I agree that everyone ought to be able to make a home in a congenial environment. But I think that making more than two long-distance moves in the course of a career is a sign of the exotic instability that used to characterize the entertainment business (where movement is now too institutionalized to be either exotic or unstable). Rather than divide the United States into constituencies that are easier to manage from the top down, I prefer to encourage communities — and, in rural settings, counties — that manage themselves from the bottom up, with business organizations scaled to match. Maybe it’s time to learn from the food revolution: build economies of local sustainable commerce.


Thursday 7th

In the current, fiction issue of The New Yorker, Roz Chast has a three-panel cartoon entitled “Manspreading in Art.” I don’t expect anything to happen right away, but I can hear the canons caving as the triumphs of Western imagination are interrogated for the assumption that, because I am a passionate man, what I have to say is interesting, and not only interesting but true, and you have nothing better to do than to listen to me.

The film entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey is now fifty years old. If that weren’t bewildering enough, I can remember seeing the roadshow Cinerama presentation in Houston during the summer of 1968 as if I just walked out of the theatre. There are a few nerve endings somewhere in my body that have never quite recovered from the two boulders that hurtle toward the audience in the middle of the “Mission to Jupiter” sequence. And I can remember the quasi-religious feeling that 2001 was not “just a movie.” At twenty, I was just young enough to imagine, if not quite to believe, that Kubrick’s fable might be the gateway to a radically new kind of life on Earth. I can remember being very, very impressed by the movie’s fidelity to the silence of what we used to call “outer space.”

But because I was so young, and so forth, I did not appreciate the extent to which 2001 is a silent movie, or the extent to which, when it is not silent, it derogates language by refusing to make use of a single line of interesting text. There was something reassuring, I suppose, about the polite nothings that burbled from the mouth of bureaucrat Heywood Floyd on the Space Station and at the Clavius Base. He sounded just like my father. Nor did I make much of the nearly complete lack of women. That wasn’t abnormal in a space movie, and there was something about Kubrick’s austerity that reminded us, then, that the women who did appear in space movies were usually sluts. All he gives us is a handful of suitably-Stepford stewardesses and the estimable Margaret Tyzack, playing a Russian scientist. Oh, and the filmmaker’s little daughter, Vivian, who plays Floyd’s child on the picture phone. What was extraordinary about 2001 was how gracefully Kubrick pushed utter normality into awesome incomprehensibility. We young fans did not object to that incomprehensibility at all. It was the guarantee of quality.

Not the least of the explanations for why it feels only yesterday that I saw 2001 for the first time is that I have not watched it very often since. Perhaps four times between 1968 and the other night. (I saw it at least three times during its first year.) It is as though the original viewing planted a monolith in my brain that could slumber for half a century, to be awakened by the great anniversary, or at any rate, by Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.

As books about the making of particular films go, Benson’s is good enough. Benson wisely avoids the film’s metaphysical projections and settles firmly on the material terms of its production. His account is somewhat skewed by the availability of surviving crew members, who recreate the atmosphere of a primitive village in which anxious tribesman try to conciliate a capricious god. Or, I should say, a mean god, a very mean god, as stingy with credit as he is with compensation; it’s his very occasional generosity that’s capricious. The bad habits of manspreading are usually critiqued in the context of mixed company, especially by women, but Benson’s book reminds us that full-blown manspreading is something reserved by the Kubricks of this world for the control and belittlement of other men. Kubrick not only routinely makes “impossible” demands of his costume designer and special-effects technicians but goes on to take credit for their work, so that it is he who takes home the film’s one Oscar. And yet, smoulder as they will, the crew worship him. He is the greatest filmmaker of all time, &c &c. Space Odyssey ought to be required reading for students of the psychopathology of project management in male groups.

In short, I couldn’t wait to finish the book.

I did, as I say, watch the DVD in the middle of reading it. I had thought to wait until I’d read it all, but there was so much talk of scenes that didn’t make it into the original film or were later cut before wide release that I needed to refresh my awareness of what actually happens in 2001. The film stands up very well. It does not seem dated at all; it seems period, rather. The difference is that datedness results when a style of moviemaking, including its conventions, has staled or fallen out of use. In this regard, 2001 is not so much pioneering as genre-setting. Its conventions, say, for representing landing pads, remain standard. The “period” of 2001 is a beguilingly split one, between a future that has yet to develop and a past, the filmmaker’s present, in which Pan Am was the world’s premier airline and the bell logo marked all public telephones. (Hilton — crediting with operating the hotel on Space Station 5 — is still with us.) I was especially impressed by the Dawn of Man sequence, which I had found tiresome as a youth. It used to seem very long; now, probably because I am better at watching film, it was brisk and lean. But the “Stargate” business still annoys me; I would later discover that acid trips are just as boring. What really surprised me was how fast the penultimate scene plays out. I was fascinated by the strange floorlit set when the movie was new, because I had never suspected that a decorating style that I admired could be perverted into a hellscape. For me, Dave Bowman’s final scenes were the most astounding.

Needless to say, I wanted to bash Benson’s head in every time he referred to that decorating style as Louis XIV. But, hey, it’s guys.

What I loved most about 2001 when I saw it for the first time was the fantasia of satellites floating over the earth, which had still not been seen by mortal eye, accompanied by Werner von Braun’s ideal of a space station (which we already knew from The Wonderful World of Color), an interestingly Concorde-looking transport plane, and An die schönen blauen Donau — the “Blue Danube” Waltz. I don’t think that I had ever seen anything so comprehensively beautiful, at least in motion. I sort-of recognized the extract from Shostakovich’s Gayne Ballet (which brilliantly sets the melancholy mood of the Discovery), and I had actually attended the New York première of Ligeti’s Atmosphères — I remember Leonard Bernstein’s joking that the orchestra was playing on the honor system — but I hadn’t, strangely or not, heard Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, even though, or perhaps very much because, I knew and loved his eighteenth-century operas, Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio. I was quite alarmed to read in Benson’s Space Odyssey that this music was chosen by Stanley Kubrick as “temporary,” to hold the place where the movie’s proper score, composed by Alex North, and a source of no little profit to MGM, would go. Happily, the termporary became permanent, but it gave me quite a scare nonetheless. Thinking about the movie (as distinct from the making of the movie), I realized that the music that Kubrick chose, especially the music by the Strausses and Shostakovich, represents the element that is altogether missing — visually — from 2001: civilized life on Earth.


Friday 8th

Anthony Lane has reviewed The President Is Missing for The New Yorker. The review won’t appear in print until next week, but I’ve read it online — well, some of it; I couldn’t care less, really, about this silly collaboration. Wondering exactly how literary partnership works, Lane comments,

Bill Clinton, who can write, has hooked up with James Patterson, who can’t, but whose works have sold more than three hundred and seventy-five million copies, most of them to happy and contented customers for whom good writing would only get in the way.

It’s a great crack. But what is good writing?

Getting about as far away from James Patterson as it is possible to go while remaining intelligible, we find Helen DeWitt, who occasionally lurches into impenetrable mathematical discussions that can be parsed if not understood. Most of what she has to say is comprehensible, but it is loaded with references and elisions that many readers, I fear, will have difficulty catching and filling. Reading Some Trick, DeWitt’s collection of thirteen stories, I was often reminded of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s rarefied manifesto, Ways of Curating. One story, “The Climbers,” a send-up of literary hipsters, seemed to send up Obrist’s idea of what constitutes an interesting aesthetic experience, but by the very fact that it breathed the same very cool air, the story seemed to be making fun of itself. Well, having fun. I was certainly laughing.

At the center of a particular cluster of hipsters is Gil, and at the center of Gil’s attention is Peter Dijkstra, a Dutch writer, currently in Vienna, who has just emerged from five years in a mental hospital. On a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam — honoring another disturbed Nederlander Gil impetuously purchased all of the Dijkstra books that had not yet been translated into English. These now stand on a shelf in his Tribeca loft, taking up thirteen of the eighteen inches of Gil’s collection of the author’s work. The remaining five inches are taken up by the translations that Gil is actually capable of reading. As interest in Dijkstra heats up, and Ralph, an agent who has made contact with Dijkstra, is proposing to bring Dijkstra to New York, Gil fears exposure as someone not hip enough to read Nederlands. In a meltdown, he retires to a local bar.

Ralph has learned that, although Dijkstra does not have a “book” in the works, he has filled fifty notebooks with texts in English, and written interesting words on a pile of file cards. He has sent a sample notebook and collection of file cards to Ralph, and Ralph has shown them to Gil. At a booth in the bar, Gil devises schemes for keeping Dijkstra in Vienna.

What if the normal rate for a room at this underground hotel [where one of Gil's satellites met Dijkstra, who is living there] cost $79 a night. BUT, you could get a room with notebooks & file cards on loan from Peter Dijkstra for $299 a night, and the $220 goes to Peter Dijkstra. So he can keep his room indefinitely because it is paid out of lending out his notebooks &c. AND, there are SEPARATE ENTRANCES. So you NEVER SEE Peter Dijkstra. He uses one entrance and you use another, so he can go on working without interruption, and you can sit in your room with the notebooks. This would Be. So. Great.

It would be great if you knew Peter Dijkstra’s favorite restaurant. People go to the restaurant and they can just order a meal. Or, they can order a meal plus notebook and file cards for the cost of an extra meal, which is left on account for Peter Dijkstra. Who can turn up whenever he wants and finds his meal is already paid for!

Gil could totally see himself going to a restaurant and ordering a meal and a notebook and paying extra for the notebook. It would be better than going to a restaurant and having a meal with Peter Dijkstra and paying for the meal because there was no reason to think words from the mouth would have the intensity of the ink on the grid. (101)

As she demonstrated in her second novel, Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt has a fertile imagination for schemes of this kind. Schemes that appear to serve grand purposes while appeasing craven desires. Schemes that seem, for the moment, quite plausible, as clear as soap bubbles.

Most of Some Trick, though, isn’t funny. Oddly, the two really sad stories are the ones written in laddish patois, both of them involving disaffected rock musicians. Beneath their antic stories, “Stolen Luck” and “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16k Having Once Been Young” drag a bottomless melancholy. The first ends with suicide, and we do not find Nick buying a Harley in the second. At least, I don’t think we do. I am not sure that I followed that narrative, although I did grasp that DeWitt was ventriloquizing complains that she has made elsewhere about being in it for more than fame and money. Pete, the true artist in the band, recalls his misery with a dumb eloquence.

You know, just before our US tour we were in Gibraltar and I went over to Africa ’cause I didn’t think it would take that long to get back. It was just after our second album had come out, and Steve had changed a lot of shit to make it like the first album. And that album was really popular, the fans didn’t notice, so I felt the fans were total wankers. I felt betrayed, and Steve had booked us for a whole year of gigs, just playing the same shit the same way every time.

So I walked along the beach, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought it would be better just to walk into the water and die than go through the year, and I couldn’t understand how they could do it. They turned my life into something worse than nothing, into this torture, for the sake of extra sales, well couldn’t we just have enough sales and something in it for me? And how could they just decide like that that my life didn’t matter, it didn’t matter if I was in, like, agony. But the thing is they didn’t know they were doing it. They didn’t know what they were taking away because they never had anything real to know what it was like when everything was a fake. They could get a lot of money and blag about the business. The money was the only thing there could be for them, and they’d never have anything else. (164)

In the current issue of The New Yorker, James Wood ends his review of Some Trick with a very clever turn. He is writing about “Famous Last Words,” in which a man and a woman discuss the Death of the Author in the context of the deaths of authors Voltaire and Hume. At the same time, the man puts the moves on the woman. “What is woman?” he asks. “Is this the mark of woman?” The woman comments, “[He] puts a hand on my breast, cannily pursuing sous-texte sous prétexte.” Wood can’t resist. “He’s de man. But she’s de wit.” Forgive me for my presumption, but I can’t help but see DeWitt frowning over that.

Bon week-end à tous!