Gotham Diary:
July 2017 (I)

5 and 7 July

Wednesday 5th

In the paper today, I see that Edward Albee’s will calls for the destruction of work left unfinished at his death. This provision comes as no surprise, given the late playwright’s peppery disposition, but it ought to be ignored. Control of works of art ought to come to an end with the artist’s death, for much the same reason that courts do not honor instructions to erect statues in memory of the deceased.

By all means, let the playwright’s estate continue to collect the royalties and other emoluments that Albee enjoyed while he lived; let that continue unto the generations. But control is odious. Already, Albee’s executors have interfered with the casting of a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the West Coast. To what good? Eventually, the work will pass into the public domain, and producers of Albee’s plays, should there be any, will enjoy the same freedom of interpretation that invigorates and sometimes even enlightens Shakespeare’s. Why wait? Why not detach the moolah from the author’s dead hand now, while people who saw original, authorized productions are still alive to make comparisons? Why permit Albee to sink his own ship? The idea that the artist’s memory is somehow honored by respecting testamentary wishes is plain foolishness: it is obscene to permit the dead to exert “creative” control. Die, you zombie!

It is difficult not to regard Albee’s instruction as so much magical thinking. Not convinced that he would ever actually come to an end, Albee did not man up and destroy the papers himself. As a fallback, in case he was wrong, he would leave the dirty work (and some tricky decisions) to his executors. From a moral standpoint, Albee’s shirking makes his will doubly unenforceable.


Formality, etiquette, propriety, decorum — we Americans aren’t very clear on the precise meaning of any of these terms, because we’re basically agreed that they’re all bad things, except maybe at funerals. We like to think that we have cast them aside, even though human beings cannot live in society without rules for certain occasions. American informality has become almost as rigid, and certainly as predictable, as its sometime opposite.

My mother hated formality, but she was sentimental about a few ritual observances. Holiday dinners, as a result, could be confusing. There was a great deal of fuss and bustle, but this did not improve my mother’s mediocre cooking, particularly when it came to “holiday” dishes such as creamed vegetables. The mood was always festive but the food was never the real centerpiece. (So, what are we doing here?) And tradition was always at the mercy of caprice: when we moved to Houston, boxes of wonderful old glass Christmas ornaments were left behind; my mother had discovered the decorator tree, a prefab eternal number with flocked foliage and blue satin balls.

Growing up Catholic, I learned that rituals are really supposed to mean something. It was clear in the late Fifties that our secular rites no longer meant much of anything to anybody. Widespread sentimentality aside, the prevailing spirit during patriotic displays was “let’s get it over with.” As I look back on the Sixties, I see one long battle against propriety; what kept it going for year after year was stiff opposition, literally: the resistance of the dead. Things had always been thus and so. It seems that much of this warfare was confined to affluent strata on the Coasts; Vice President Pence is still set against dining alone with a woman not his wife. Kathleen, who has had countless business lunches and dinners alone with men who were not moi, rolls her eyes.

I was never a fan of standing around doing the comme il faut. But I was curious about the worlds in which propriety and formality, now reduced to dead relics, had been formed. What had they been thinking?

Etiquette, I believe, is designed to sort people by status. When making introductions, you introduce the less important person to the more important person: “Your Majesty, may I please introduce Joe Schmoe” — not the other way round. In America, etiquette identified the established élite: the old families (who still owned local firms), the notable professionals and clergymen. This élite met with deference until World War II. By the end of that ordeal, progressive thinking worked a change in the mentality of the West: the established élite would be replaced by a meritocratic élite. I have already mentioned some of the drawbacks of meritocracy, which is not so much a bad idea as an incompletely developed one. The “testably talented,” as I prefer to think of them, come from nowhere and owe gratitude to none but the puzzlers at ETS. They have little or no social presence as such (as meritocratic élites); they don’t expect deference and don’t get it. This leaves the bulk of ordinary people without much sense of who is important in the world, a gap that, as we have seen, is quickly filled by bogus celebrities. The established élite, meanwhile, have long since sold up and retired to Hobe Sound, whence never to return. The cultural values of which they were the exponents fade out of view, and are likewise replaced by thoughtlessness. While it’s too bad about the resulting neglect of the arts, the real catastrophe is the the disappearance of exemplary behavior — self-respect and noblesse oblige — that the established élite (at its best) made a point of displaying.

I believe that “popular culture” is an oxymoron: there can be no such thing. Culture is not to be confused with passing fads and fancies. Ultimately, the élite at hand is responsible for establishing the tone of society. Had she been more of a thinker, Margaret Thatcher might have observed — what the failures of socialism have taught us — that there is no such thing as “the people.” There most certainly is such a thing as society, but how on earth are we to achieve a coherent one if meritocrats at the top don’t see the point of it? And, by the way: what, aside from what’s on the test, do they know about life?

More anon.


Friday 7th

For eighteen years now, or nearly, Kathleen and I have rented a rather large storage unit — large for Manhattan, that is; you could fit a Smart Car in it, but nothing bigger — at the other end of our extended neighborhood, the Upper East Side. It is my hope to evacuate the unit very early in the nineteenth, if not sooner. Arrangements have been made to cart off the odds and ends that remain; all that I have to do is make decisions about the books. There is no room in the apartment for any more books, but we happen to rent a smaller, and much less expensive storage unit at the northern tip of the island. Never mind why; I’ll be here all day if we get into that. There is room in the small unit for a few boxes of books. Most of the books in the large unit, though, have to go.

Meanwhile, quite a lot of old paper — bank statements and the like — have been brought from the large storage unit, where it has festered since we sold our lake house in 1999, to the apartment. Prudence dictates that it be shredded. The small shredder that has taken care of my regular needs for several years is not up to the job, so we have acquired a bigger one, a shredder on wheels, a quiet shredder. It was advertised as capable of shredding eighteen sheets of paper at a time, but this is nonsense, unfortunately; seven or eight pages is the practical maximum, and all but the thinnest envelopes must be opened and their contents unfolded. Emptying the bin is another drag. It’s easy enough to tip the contents into a large trash bag, but just try tipping a second binload into that bag! Regular-sized garbage bags can take one load apiece, but they do not open wide enough to fit over the top of the bin. With what feels like a good deal of body English, however, the transfer can be effected. Most of the shredded paper in the bin coheres into a tangled ball, and it passes from the bin into the bag as if it were a dying organism fished from the sea, resisting at first but then suddenly bulging forth. It’s almost gross.

Yesterday, I had my first go at the books, and made quite startling progress. If I keep going at that rate, I shall be done in four or five more sessions; I had planned on ten. Only last year, I labored for weeks to fill fifteen boxes with books to give away. Severity comes more easily now. I have re-read so many books in recent months, found right here in the bookcases at home, that it has become much easier to distinguish books that I’m likely to look at again from books that I’m not. This has nothing to do with the usual aspirational eyewash, which of course would make it impossible to get rid of anything, because “you never know what might be interesting.” Having perused the spines on the shelves as often as I have, you do know.

The consolation of these amusements is that I will never have to entertain myself with them again. But I am too old to believe it. So, today, having been busy for what feels like weeks, I’m doing nothing.


In the current issue of Harper’s, Zadie Smith writes about Jordan Peele’s Get Out — by far, the oddest movie that I have seen in a very long time. The oddness, as I think everyone who has seen it will agree, lies in its being both scary to watch and hilarious to remember. In retrospect, the white folk are so ludicrous! Deadly, yes; but ridiculous, too. They think they want to be black! They think that would be way cool. It’s a grim joke, but it’s still a joke. When the young villainess sifts through the photos of all the young men whom she has traduced, her evil blurs into pathetic comedy. What’s wrong with a nice white boyfriend? Can’t she get one? Peele made me hear black audiences asking this question, and it made me laugh.

What makes me just as uneasy, but without the laughter, is the parade of magazine covers featuring black faces at The New Yorker. When I was a new reader, back in the Sixties, New Yorker covers were studiously un-topical; they reflected the passing seasons instead. Human figures appeared from time to time, but rarely as characters. This changed with the arrival of Tina Brown and Art Spiegelman. The cover became just another “drawing” — a cartoon — like the ones inside the magazine. The seasons still have a place, but social commentary that would have given William Shawn ulcers is far more common. And now, it seems, there is a quiet campaign to compensate for decades of racial — racist? — disregard. The Independence Day cover (July 3) brought the old and new together with Kadir Nelson’s crisp picture of a long-limbed black woman in a blue starry bathing suit, holding a red-and-white striped beach ball. It would be impossible to describe her expression as welcoming.

Que faire? What is to be done? I mean, by me, right now. Covers such as Nelson’s make me feel that I have been doing something wrong, and that I must change my ways at once. But just what it is that I’ve been doing wrong remains vague, and maybe the warning isn’t meant for me. The cover seems intended to be startling, but am I betraying a surreptitious racism by feeling startled? Had the cover appeared fifty years ago, it would have produced unimaginable commotion, perhaps even Senate hearings; “startling” would not have been the word. But if it’s the right word now, it’s clear that “shocking” isn’t. We are on our way somewhere, and there is a first time for everything. But I do wish that Nelson’s woman looked happier to see me, even though I can well understand why she wouldn’t.

I also wish that I liked Zadie Smith’s fiction as much as her essays — but I’ll take the essays!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
June 2017 (IV)

28 and 29 June

Wednesday 28th

In a screed published at n+1, Nikil Saval’s fury boils down a very intriguing equation.

What Plouffe and the ride-sharing companies understand is that, under capitalism, when markets are pitted against the state, the figure of the consumer can be invoked against the figure of the citizen.

This is so nicely put that it has the force of a revelation. Sure, we already “knew” it. We were aware, for example, that antitrust jurisprudence in the United States has been eroded to a brainless fixation with low prices. We understood that endless consumption, much less the endless growth of consumption, is unsustainable on its face. We sensed the circularity of everyone’s taking in everyone else’s wash in the extent to which Wal-Mart customers have jobs on a par with those of Wal-Mart employees. And I must have written somewhere that one of the professional class’s worst failings has been its opting out of public services. But Saval has steamrolled these complications into a nugget of wisdom: the only first step on the way to reversing environmental degradation is for citizens to stop being consumers.

Obviously, citizens have to eat. They have to get to work. Everyone needs a new couch from time to time. Far be it from me to preach a minimalist line! We can’t live without consuming resources. The difference between a citizen and a consumer is that the citizen frets about those resources. Are they renewable? If not, what happens when they’re exhausted? The citizen strives to consume only what can be replaced, and to do so in a way that does not foul his neighborhood or anybody else’s. The citizen supports government with taxes so that it can maintain a safe and healthy social infrastructure that would not be provided otherwise.

Citizenship has become a problem because the walls that used to demarcate and separate internally homogeneous communities have not only broken down but been ripped away in a whirlwind of raised consciousness. Nobody wants to recognize this as a problem that we have to solve. There are plenty of Americans who want to go back to the way things were, even if most of them aren’t old enough to remember what that was actually like; while plenty of others want to replace atavistic bonds with elective affinities. But the awful truth is that citizenship, at least when it’s a matter of shouldering the burdens of citizenship and not just enjoying the benefits, is a lot more enthusiastically undertaken when the folks marching in the parade look just like the folks watching from the sidewalks. This is a truth that is almost universally unacknowledged. Maybe just acknowledging it would help us. It would certainly be a start on the way to looking at each other with greater penetration and sympathy.

Of course, there is no need to Saval to mention capitalism. The apparent nexus of capitalism (a means of funding enterprise), markets (sites for trading goods), and consumers (egalitarian shoppers) is just that: apparent, as much historical accident as anything. If anything, the consumer is the bastard child of the French Revolution and socialism, demanding equal access to what everybody else has, whether it’s needed or not; genuine capitalists are parsimonious. These terms have gotten horribly mixed up in the course of my lifetime, and instead of taking on new meanings, they’ve mostly collapsed into whatever-I-want-it-to-signify incoherence.


Thursday 29th

Just now, I came across a very interesting post on a Web site that I hadn’t seen before, The Fifth Wave. It’s about my favorite subject, the failed American élite. The author — whether Adam Gurri or Martin Gurri I can’t tell — writes, as I hope I do, from inside the élite, and yet I feel that in both our cases it is without any self-interest that we declare the inevitability of élites. They arise naturally at the top of any society. The problem is that élites have children, and the children grow up at the top. This has obvious advantages (for everyone) but also some tricky disadvantages. We know a lot, anecdotally, about the disadvantages, but we don’t know much about preventing them. Very little attention has been given to the education of élite children, doubtless because of their powerful parents. It occurs to me out of the blue that one of the rare good things about the medieval propertied class was the practice of sending sons to grow up in the households of other landowners, usually wealthier ones. This must have been helpfully, if only partially, humbling.

Mr Gurri discusses the thought of Ortega y Gassett at length. The idea of an élite that is comprised of people whom others admire is a very appealing one. But it is greatly at odds with the theory and practice of meritocracy. Admiration has precious little to do with the rise of testably talented individuals, who learn among other things how to excite the admiration of the élites, not the people whose respect is essential to élitist legitimacy. Meritocracy produces an élite of the unknown, which is certainly part of the problem in throughout the West.

In a surprising acknowledgment of failure, a group of central bankers meeting at Sintra, in Portugal, to address the prospect of “robocalypse” — the takeover of blue-collar jobs by robots — has “conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out.” But wait. The “concession” appears without attribution in Jack Ewing’s Times story. Perhaps the bankers, who included Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi, never said any such thing at Sintra. Still, it’s a start. It would be wrong, I think, to call this snag in economists’ attention a dereliction. But it’s an example of the way in which highly-trained élites can miss new developments. More specifically, it’s an example of the tendency of liberal economists to let employment take care of itself, interfering only indirectly with monetary controls and the like.

Another failure that comes to mind is more collaborative in nature, with economists and journalists muddling together to leave economic terminology in a shambles. One of the most pernicious confusions is that of capitalism, a very important economic tool, albeit one whose usefulness is more probably more limited than would-be “capitalists” like to think, with the windfall fortunes that have accrued to a handful of lucky entrepreneurs and their heirs. If economists and journalists took the trouble to distinguish the one from the other, it might be politically feasible to put some limits on the windfalls without hobbling the effectiveness of the tool. As it is, far too many well-educated Americans are uneasily convinced that capitalism is some kind of necessary evil, while the real evil, insanely protected mountains of money, are allowed to continue piling up, almost certainly never to be taxed. On another front capitalism the tool is confused with the corporation, a legal construct.

If we were thinking more clearly, we might borrow some thinking from the idea of copyright, but first we’d have to clean up the mess that has accumulated around it in the age of “intellectual property.” Copyright (and its sibling, the patent) creates a temporary monopoly, as the reward for good ideas. We have seen the duration of these monopolies pushed further and further into the future, when in fact they ought to be shortened and their ownership limited to actual human beings. Thanks to sloppy thinking, patent and copyright holders have been encouraged to forget that their monopolies are gifts bestowed by society, not manifestations of personal genius or persistence. The very idea of contracting the reach of patents and copyright would probably be denounced as “socialist” — that ultimate insult, a term as nearly devoid of literal denotation as one of our most unprintable vulgarities.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Two Revolutions of circa 1800
June 2017 (III)

20 and 23 June

Tuesday 20th

Although outwardly quiet, my weekend was convulsed by two intellectual earthquakes. But why do I put it like that? Earthquakes are destructive, at least in the short term, and nothing was destroyed in my mind except for some inherited constraints, the sudden absence of which allows me to see farther and wider than ever. Both upheavals will have a great impact on the writing project — which is why, I think, they occurred at all. The pressure that revising the writing project has had on the jumble of ideas in my brain sometimes seems equal to the task of crushing coal into diamonds. As things fit better together, they are altered. My stock of metaphors cannot keep up.

Very brief summaries, then. First, and arguably more important, I responded to an essay in the Book Review with a statement. I mumbled it the first time, but not the second. Adam Kirsch’s piece about criticism and democracy is good so far as it goes.

A critic is just a reader or viewer or listener who makes the question explicit and tries to answer it publicly, for the benefit of other potential readers or viewers or listeners. In doing so, she operates on the assumption that the audience for a work, the recipient of a gift, is entitled to make a judgment on its worth. The realm of judgment is plural. Everyone brings his or her own values and standards to the work of judging. This means that it is also, essentially, democratic. No canon of taste or critical authority can compel people to like what they don’t like.

But I saw that it must be taken further. The goad was probably buried in the preceding sentences:

Yet as anyone who has received an ill-fitting or unsuitable present knows, the thought is not the only thing that counts. Once a work of art emerges from its creator’s study or studio, it becomes the possession of anyone who interacts with it, and therefore it is open to judgment: Do I actually derive pleasure and enlightenment from it?

We look to critics to tell us whether something is good or bad — and then we go ahead and do exactly as we please. I think that we have outgrown this understanding of criticism. We don’t need Leavises or Blooms to separate the wheat from the chaff, because, metaphors of nutrition aside, one man’s chaff is another man’s wheat. And what’s wheat today may become chaff next year. Critical judgment must shed its binary character and become, instead, relational. (This is NOT the “same thing” as relative.) For the critic, confronted by a work of art, or anything else, from which anybody derives pleasure — the critic’s pleasure is incidental — the question is this: Where does the item, whether an idea or a baseball bat, stand with relation to everything else? Where does it go?

Where do you put it, I mumbled. Then I said it aloud. Where do you put it?

The final mystery of the writing project cleared up instantly. The last section will provide a floor plan of the World, or at least some considerations that ought to be borne in mind in the process of laying it out. This is the critic’s job, and as it is also a kind of housekeeping, it is never done. For all the apparent stability of durable monuments and even of the old books in libraries, the World is constantly changing. No one critic can keep up with more than a fraction of it. (Critics may well find that in future they spend their time talking not to “laymen” but to other critics.) No critic has the last word, and seldom is heard a disparaging one. More anon.


About the other bit of excitement I shall say rather less, because I haven’t reached the mumble stage yet. It was brought about by a book that I carried back home from storage last week. A ticket stub that I’d used as a bookmark suggested that I got tired of the book in 2007 and set it aside, but I don’t remember reading a word of it before. It was one of those treasures, so often more promising than delivering, that I used to pick up on the sale tables in the Museum’s bookshop. It’s John North’s The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance.

I’ve always liked Holbein’s double portrait of the French ambassadors who conducted a special mission to Henry VIII in 1533. It has some of the appeal of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: the flamboyant courtier on the left and the discreet clergyman on the right are a fine pair of salt and pepper shakers. And then there is all that impressive gadgetry littering the shelf on which they lean! What does that stuff do, and do the two guys know how to make it work? What is it supposed to tell us about them? I must say that I got over the “charm” of the anamorphic skull in the foreground many decades ago. It is of course a memento mori, but, now I learn, that’s not all. In North’s almost delirious unpacking, it is also a marker of Golgotha, for the entire composition is in part a meditation on the Crucifixion. According to North, the astronomical and time-keeping devices on the top shelf provide the picture with the timestamp of 4 PM, Good Friday 1533. But the very idea of putting precision instruments to such liturgical use is somewhat outlandish, and the association with the darkest day in the Christian calendar (and yet the brightest?) is certainly, given the face of the picture itself, occult.

Whether or not North’s enthusiasm runs away with him — whether or not the hexagrams and the horoscope square that he locates, tacit in the design of the picture are “really there,” or were actually intended by the painter (I find it difficult to doubt) — I found his exploration infectious. My own enthusiasm has a different cast. Most educated viewers would probably regard The Ambassadors as a picture of “Renaissance men,” distinctive, modern-ish individuals conversant with the latest scientific equipment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But even educated viewers might slip into forgetting that the cosmological views of these bright-looking fellows would have been stoutly antique. Nobody, in 1533, seriously questioned the geocentric understanding of the universe. The earth was still at the center of things, and God still peeped through the little star-holes in the outermost sphere of the firmament. Whatever their style, these men belonged, intellectually, to the Middle Ages. It would be another century before men of their stamp seriously considered what we now take for granted about outer space.

But what made the shift inevitable is right there beside them: those instruments. Those precision instruments. When I was taught the history of science in college, it was as a succession of Kuhnian paradigms. The impact of tools on paradigm shifts was not stressed; tools were for engineers. (We might indeed have been consciously aping the condescension of medieval thinkers.) But a thorn was planted in my mind by what I learned, a seed called phlogiston. From time to time in my adult life I would be annoyed by my inability to remember just what phlogiston was, and I would go back and read James Bryant Conant’s Case Study on the subject, only to lose my grip on phlogiston all over again. Eventually, I realized that phlogiston theory was done in not so much by a better idea as it was by Lavoisier’s precision instruments, especially his vacuum chambers. Oxygen would not have been discovered without his battery of devices. How did people learn to make them? This was a field that had little to with scientific theory. And wasn’t it curious that Lavoisier was a contemporary of James Watt, who put precision instrumentation to such different use?

So The Ambassadors shows us, like no other picture I can think of, the past and the future in one glance. That they were hopelessly muddled when Jean de Dinteville (the man on the left) took his new painting back to Polisy, in the neighborhood of Troyes, is embodied in North’s description of a book that Kepler would write early in the next century about a new star in Cygnus, a constellation that Holbein’s painting foregrounds.

Three generations had passed since The Ambassadors had been painted and still Kepler did not consider it incongruous to write a book of more than two hundred pages in which theology, astronomy, and revisionist astrology were intermingled from beginning to end. (325)

For the moment, I have reached a sense that something links the development of precision instruments in the West with the demand for political liberty — that the connection between the two sets of revolutions that culminated at the very end of the Eighteenth Century was a matter not of big ideas but of material tools. More anon.


Friday 23rd

How to say this in as few words as possible? The revolutions are over. Will they be undone?

Prior to 1800, almost everybody alive was a peasant. This was a constant, everywhere. For all the changes in empire, religion, population density, and all that stuff that we call “art history,” most people died where they were born and did the same chores that their parents had done. And nothing that anybody did had much of an impact on Planet Earth. Attempts to control the endless cycles of war and peace, of feast and famine, were fruitless.

Looking back, we can make out, sometimes clearly, sometimes only dimly, the developments that would break those cycles at the end of the Eighteenth Century. As the revolutions approached, it was obvious to attentive minds that great change was in the offing. But why the revolutions took the form that they did is less interesting than their simultaneity.

There were two sets of revolutions. The political one, erupting first in the future United States and then in France, overturned old régimes and experimented with new constitutions. There was a great deal of violence — far more in the United States than Americans like to think. There was reaction. Unlike all previous revolutions, however, these political upheavals sustained their momentum and were not put down.

The technological revolution began in Britain. It, too, might be thought of as two revolutions rather than one, for the development of the steam engine and the growth of cotton mills were independent for several decades before being harnessed — as a solution to labor problems, not just for the sake of technology. The climax of this revolution was the railway locomotive, a steam engine on wheels.

Between them, these revolutions changed almost everything about life as the old peasant class had known it. Interestingly, the thin crusts of privileged, powerful people that were as immemorial as the peasantry were able to use the wealth that the revolutions put in some of their pockets to preserve and even intensify old modes of life. That is what conveys the illusion, when we look back over the Nineteenth Century, of a continuity, through all the revolutionary turmoil, of luxury. For ordinary people, however, society was suddenly dynamic, by which I mean that children no longer necessarily followed in their parents’ footsteps. Wherever the old ways of doing things — traditions — stood in the way of revolutionary change, they were torn down and swept away. The past disappeared into merely personal experience. Perhaps because things changed so quickly and constantly, adaptation was often superficial. Beneath the resilience, old habits of thinking and longing persisted. The increase in prosperity was accompanied by an increased sense of loss.

Many former peasants fared much worse in the new revolutionary world. More dangerous than political violence were the insalubrious tenements into which urbanized laborers were herded. Antagonism between laborers and employers exceeded anything seen between peasants and their masters. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, it was generally understood that the revolutions could not be left to laissez faire outcomes. The first half of the Twentieth Century saw major, sometimes disastrous attempts to lessen the brutality of the revolutionary world. New revolutions undertook to continue the work of the old, on the political and technological fronts alike. Many of the new measures were horribly drastic, and a terrible war ensued. But when it was over, the peasant class and its successor proletariat had disappeared. So, except for ornamental purposes, had the relics of the old ruling classes. Everyone, circa 1950, was middle class, or about to be. Everyone was a consumer.

But for everyone to attain consumer equality would require unprecedented growth. The only way to assure such growth would be to remove all controls on markets. Free trade alone could bring prosperity to all.

The result, as we know, has been not universal prosperity, but an unsustainable mess of environmental degradations. Almost as bad are the signs that the revolutions are over. Instead of spreading among the population, wealth puddles in dense concentrations. And the labor that increased global prosperity during the technological revolution’s heyday is everywhere being performed by machines. Are we too dazed and confused to move forward? What does moving forward look like? Is equitable ecological prosperity possible? Are we on a slide back into the ancien régime?

In case you’re having trouble imagining such a reverse, let me remind you that many Tuscan peasants on the eve of the revolutions were descended from highly literate, sophisticated business families whose fortunes had been undone by the depredations of war and empire centuries earlier.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Common Tongue
June 2017 (II)

12, 13 and 15 June

Monday 12th

One thing you can’t argue about: Britain has a far more interesting political structure than we do. While we mumble “2020″ over and over, nobody knows when the next general election will be held across the pond. How long will Theresa May hold on to the top job? Will the deal with the DUP work out? It almost makes one forget about Brexit.

Meanwhile, in New York, corporate funding has been pulled from the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, because Gregg Henry in the title role has been dressed up in Grump drag. (The show opens tonight.) I can’t make up my mind on this one. As Rebecca Mead points out in The New Yorker, Shakespeare’s play hardly endorses tyrannicide. But when I think of all the trouble that Giuseppe Verdi went through with censors who worried that his operas might give troublemakers ideas, a mere cut in funding doesn’t seem like a big deal.

I am beginning an investigation into why modern democracies don’t settle into massive Common Party centrism. The other day, I read somewhere that what got the Germans back on their feet after the War — the West Germans, I mean — was the extinction of pre-war political extremes. The conservative Junker class was obliterated, and the Communists went East. It’s too bad that there isn’t some natural method for purging public life of troublemakers, or that sometimes troublemakers are the only people who can make anything happen. But we are still new at this.

Over the weekend, Richard Reeves, a think-tanker at Brookings and emigré from Peterborough, England, published a piece that, for me at least, restructures our political discourse. For too long, he argues, the “favored fifth” at the top of the American economy has been taking cover behind the “income inequality” issue. Income inequality is an issue, no doubt about it, but as Reeves says, the upper middle class, which gets most of the education, staffs the professions — including journalism — almost completely, and derives a whizbang government handout in the form of the mortgage-interest deduction, has no business claiming to belong to “the 99%.”

There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

That, sadly, has become the fall-back excuse of the people who actually run the country, whether or not they believe in the mirage of the “liberal élite.” If everybody is doing it, then demoralization is inevitable. Not to mention skyrocketing tuitions — which many in the favored fifth manage not to pay. The people who voted for Donald Trump are right to hate this cohort. I can only hope that it wakes up and shakes off its bad habits before the tumbrils roll out.


Tuesday 13th

The dust jacket of John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio is a family job: one brother (Stephen) provided the design, while another (Dominick) snapped the author photograph. It is not a very flattering photograph; it makes the author look round and clueless, which the contents of the book make it clear that he is not. Perhaps this is exactly the disguise that gained him entrée to the offices of Twentieth Century Fox.

The portraits in The Studio are not flattering. They are not mocking or humiliating, but still. What were the executives expecting? There’s one little scene in which Richard Zanuck, then the production head and viceroy of his father, Darryl (who regarded Hollywood during this period as terra non grata), asks his secretary for the first name of someone about to come into a meeting. Then he greets the man by name. “Hi, Bob.” People do this all the time; one rather takes it for granted. There is certainly nothing egregious about sham familiarity in America. And yet its presence as an anecdote can only signify that Zanuck is something of a fake. Since everyone else in the book is shown to be something of a fake, even the pipe-smoking, circumspect David Brown (husband of Helen G), this is not much of a point. It’s true that “inside looks” like The Studio were still pretty unusual in the late Sixties.

I suppose that the bit stands out because, unlike most of the The Studio, it has not aged well. That a fifty year-old book about movie-making remains a compelling read is even more astonishing when you consider that the movies that were being made while Dunne was on the lot included such immortal fatuities as Dr Doolittle and The Sweet Ride. And Star! I remember when Life Magazine ran a picture of Julie Andrews on a trapeze as a cover. If it weren’t for that, I’d have wondered if the film was smothered on the cutting room floor, never to be exhibited in public. In the desultory stab at an epilogue that precedes the final scene — the red-carpet Los Angeles opening of Dr Doolittle — Dunne doesn’t bother to tell us what an utter flop Star! was. Then again, The Studio is no case study.

At the outset, Dunne implies — or at least I inferred — that his interest in the Studio is anthropological.

I had the feeling that by spending some time at the Studio I could get close to the texture of life on the subtropical abstraction that used to be called The Motion Picture Capital of the World; that by watching motion picture people at work I could see and perhaps understand their ethic.

The book might have been five or six times longer if this were what Dunne had given us. But Dunne already understood the ethic of motion picture people. Hollywood is often jokingly described as high school with money, and there’s probably a lot of truth in that if you’re talking about the stars and the people who make them look good. For the guys in the office, though, whether it’s Zanuck’s tony paneled sanctum or the back room of a bungalow, Hollywood is a special kind of gambling den that requires the players either to do an insane amount of hard work or to worry nonstop about things that they can’t control. It isn’t fun. The ethic of motion picture people is to produce motion pictures in a hostile environment for the benefit of a capricious public.

This is what Dunne shows us, and yet at the same time it’s the very thing that his book conceals. For The Studio is an amusing read. It is a masterpiece of deadpan, brilliantly edited understatement. Dunne never so much as hints, for example, that Dr Doolittle is a foolish project, a children’s movie that is unaccountably test-previewed on adults only. He never suggests that the time in which Rex Harrison might have breathed life into the material has long since passed. The absurdity of diapering costumed animals for the premiere — they pull up, with their handlers, in limousines — is allowed to speak for itself. Dunne never gets in the way of a good snort. It may not be fun to make movies, but the problems entailed are rich in irony and slapstick. I’m thinking of Barbra Streisand tripping over the train of her gown in rehearsals of Hello, Dolly! She does it again and again. I’m less surprised by Zanuck’s imprimatur than by Dunne’s survival.

Planet of the Apes was also in production while Dunne was roaming the Studio — it shared its producer, Arthur Jacobs, with Dr Doolittle. It would be a big success, although Dunne’s book reminds us that we can’t be sure who reaped the rewards. The Studio? The producer? Other? I see at Wikipedia that it took Sammy Davis, Jr, to complain about the racist tone of the film, which now seems obviously designed to respond to white anxieties about black equality. (I say that, however, without ever having seen it.) No one thought so at Twentieth Century Fox; and if the idea crossed Dunne’s mind, he decided to keep it to himself.

The Sixties was a crude period for Hollywood. The film industry had grown up in a very different world, one that in retrospect from 1968 must have seemed a paradise of simplicity. In the Golden Age, almost everyone in the audience was poor, or had relatives who were. David Nasaw’s brilliant Going Out shows how the illusion of pre-war simplicity was created by excluding blacks from general audiences. Also missing from the old world was the threat of Soviet nuclear attack. And there was no television. The people who made movies in the Fifties and Sixties had a lot of new issues to get used to. John Gregory Dunne took some terrific snapshots of them trying.


Thursday 15th

There’s a piece about St Augustine in this week’s New Yorker. I don’t know why. It’s not a review of some new book, and I’m unaware of any other factor that would make Stephen Greenblatt’s essay timely. But I read it with the greatest interest, because Augustine of Hippo is among the blackest of my beasts. He may have been as brilliant as fans such as Garry Wills claim that he was, but he put that brilliance to toxic use when he explicated the Christian catechism of sexuality. It’s not unlikely that somebody else would have come along spouting ideas just as bad, but as it is we have Augustine to thank for centuries — millennia, nearly — of misery and inquisition.

When I read The Confessions, finally, about ten years ago, I was disgusted by the preening self-deprecation of a figure who, while he would never have sex with a man, would never truly love a woman, either. It is not an uncommon profile among human males, and undoubtedly the sheer ordinariness of Augustine’s constitution contributed to the influence of his views. But it is regrettable that a grasp of human possibility as unimaginative as his determined Christian orthodoxy for fifteen hundred years and more. Augustine’s extraordinary egotism pressed him to generalize his own peculiar experience of sex, and to lay down the rights and wrongs of it for every man and woman. The generalizing principle was his notion of original sin, undoubtedly the most cloacal distillate conceivable of classical dreams of golden ages and superlunary perfections, a nightmare legacy of Hellenic thought.

Greenblatt opens an angle of perspective that was new to me — and here I must say that, while I can read about Augustine, I cannot bear the man himself; if presented with a trolley problem in which I had to decide between Augustine and Hitler, I might very well be paralyzed. Never having come closer to Augustine’s promulgations on sexuality than Peter Brown’s The Body and Society, I was unaware that what came to bother Augustine most about sex was its “unquiet, involuntary character.”

How weird is it, Augustine thought, that we cannot simply command this crucial part of the body. …

Augustine returned again and again to the same set of questions. Whose body is this, anyway? Where does desire come from? Why am I not in command of my own penis?

It is difficult to impossible Augustine framing questions in quite this way, but I don’t think that Greenblatt is mistaken. What Augustine understood about the workings of the body is hardly worth trying to recreate. An armchair investigator, he was prepared to say anything plausible that met his argumentative needs. Did he object to the heart because its beating is uncontrollable? Did he exploit intestinal irregularity as the basis for dietary restrictions? (He might have done, come to think of it.) It makes “perfect sense” that a man like Augustine would regard his penis as a kind of limb, protruding from his body and therefore to be faulted for not sharing the submissiveness of hands and feet, legs and arms.

Why am I not in command of my own penis is a complaint that almost every man faces at some time or other, but it is not, for all that, a serious question. For it to be a serious question, one would have to suppose that sex would be nearly as interesting as it is without its involuntary quality. What’s so deplorable about Augustine as a teacher about sex is that he seems never to have found it interesting. It was simply an appetite that, in earlier years, he looked forward to giving up — “but not yet, Lord.” He kept a mistress, with whom he had a son, for many years, before packing her off to Africa so that he could marry a patrician. The wedding fell through because, I suppose, the Lord had waited long enough. I can’t help but feel happy for the prospective bride, who would have been just another receptacle for Augustine’s penis. Once the appetite was outgrown, or at any rate foresworn, Augustine threw himself into the project of demonizing it for everyone.

If I do have a quarrel with Greenblatt, it is for his assertion that sex is “the greatest bodily pleasure.” This puts it on a continuum with bodily pleasures where it does not belong. I think it somewhat reductive to call sex a pleasure at all. It is what it is, something at least slightly different for each one of us, and nobody has any business making universal claims about the nature of sexual experience. It would appear on balance that, for Augustine, it was more humiliation than pleasure, too enslaving to be quite enjoyable. The idea of sex as fun is recent. It’s recent not because human beings have taken a long time to figure out that it can be, but because it took centuries, and no end of social upheaval, for Augustine’s strictures to lose their persuasive force, which however continue to cripple the Catholic Church, a confraternity of celibate males.

I think it better to leave it at this: sex is very interesting. And yet there is very little to say about it that is worth hearing, because so much of what is precious about sex lies outside the meadows of our common tongue.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Wishful Thinking
June 2017 (I)

6, 7 and 9 June

Tuesday 6th

Taking off this week as well was a very tempting prospect. My daughter and I had so many rich conversations during her visit last week that my mind feels too turbid for plain speaking. Work on the writing project seems more urgent than ever, also as a result of  those conversations. Watching my seven year-old grandson was an irresistible invitation to try to remember what it was like to be his age — a momentous year for me. Although I have a few bundles of memories from earlier times, it seems that my life as me really began in 1955. But here I am.

I’ve just read something that surprised me but that seemed so obvious and true that I felt dumb for not having known it before:

It’s interesting that the world of rumors and gossip is a world of wish fulfillment.

That’s James C Scott in an interview at Gastronomica that filtered through The Browser. More than any other statement on the subject, it explains both why gossip is so persistent and why it meets with such persistent disapproval. But the most important thing about it is that it says what gossip is.

A lot of what I’m reading in the Times and elsewhere feels like gossip. The topic is always the same: Grump’s inevitable self-destruction. Commentators and, if not reporters themselves, then the editors behind them seem to be hugging this eventuality with a mad glee. Perhaps it will “come true.” In which case, I hope that we won’t be remembering the admonition to be careful what you ask for. Whatever happens, this particular strand of wishful thinking has certainly distracted everyone’s attention from the fact that the liberal élite platform, at least as imagined both by the liberal élite and by its enemies, has not been altered very much (if at all) since its defeat in November’s election. As the administration has dismantled bits of it, there has been no indication that, if restored to power, the liberal élite would not simply restore the status quo ante. Talk about dumb.

And yet I don’t waste much time waiting for the liberal élite to come up with better ideas. I am hoping for something more like a conversion experience, in which broad swathes of smart people come to understand that the role of the market in society requires major alteration. The first thing to say is that it requires preservation, so that markets stop killing the social environments that cannot flourish without them. The second thing is to demand enhanced property rights for ordinary people while capping or otherwise limiting the amount of property — particularly property in assets other than cash — that extraordinarily wealthy people can expect to be protected by society. How much is too much? Reading another piece via The Browser, Hamilton Nolan’s astringent report on hedge fund managers in Las Vegas, I wondered if excess might not be measured at the point (not that there is a point) where possession shades into risk. At first glance, this might seem too personal and idiosyncratic to serve as a measure, but societies everywhere are equipped with rough intuitive standards.

The third thing is to strip corporations and other business organizations of their “natural person” status. The fourth thing is to replace federal regulation of almost everything with multi-state or regional compacts. In connection with this, the local must be prioritized. Local food is an obvious preference. Why not, in the age of the 3-D printer, local shoes? The idea that it’s fine to ship goods around the world in search of savings that will accrue only to the largest organizations — global baleen whales — is junk. We also have to stop making stuff that can’t be fixed. Why, and, more important, by whom, were the virtues of local production and routine repair deprecated? And what are the real benefits?

Those are a few market-centered planks that are, as I say, intended to make markets more constructive (if only by creating more jobs). Markets need to be removed from at least two nodes of human growth and health: education and medicine. Perhaps what I mean is that markets in commerce need to be replaced by markets in information. (That’s what schools really are, anyway, or what they ought to be.) Both fields currently shoulder bloated administrations that would shrink pretty quickly if money were no longer the object that it is of medical and educational operations.

Until I see more evidence of new thinking on the side that I’m rooting for, I’m happy to watch Grump & Co expose the old ideas for the shabby leftovers and workarounds that they are.


Wednesday 7th

Not too long ago — okay, a couple of centuries — Western Europe was governed by religious ideals. The influence of religion itself was always somewhat conflicted, because neither emperors nor popes ever managed to overpower the other once and for all, and their quarrels eventually fractured religious solidarity beyond hope of repair (we call this break the Reformation). The fighting over which religious ideals, and how interpreted, would regulate civil life inevitably tarnished the prestige of religion. On the eve of modern times, educated Europeans sifted general principles of right and wrong from finer points of theological dogma (we call this abstraction the Enlightenment).

In the four decades on either side of 1800, Western Europe was overcome by a dust cloud. A cloud of meta-dust, perhaps. We know what happened — revolutions, cotton mills — but the causal chains linking events are too fine and too numerous for us to trace. (We call disagreements about these chicken-and-egg problems Academics; perhaps they will be solved by Big Data.) The relationship between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution becomes more complex and obscure — like the depths of a Mandelbrot set — the harder we look for it. It’s enough to know that, when the cloud blew away, an entirely new model of society was in vogue. It was the original souped-up hot rod, a machine that was lubricated by money.

Lubricated, not fueled. The fuel was still labor, whether or not people were doing the work. Money, by making the engine run so much more smoothly, enabled vastly increased levels of production. The idea that society itself was a machine quickly filled the vacuum left by violent religious partisanship, and almost everybody hailed this development as a good thing. Some passionate people complained that the new arrangement was soulless (we call them Romantics), but they piped down when it became clear that the new money paid, often handsomely, for their operas, art exhibits, and volumes of verse. It turned out that everybody could be taught the language of money. Some people had a lot more money than others, and large fortunes allowed their owners to lead lives on what seemed (and seems) different planes of existence, but for everyday purposes, your money was as good as anybody else’s — regardless of whether you were. Among its many other perceived benefits, the lubricant and language of money put an almost complete stop to persecutions of all kinds.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that we have taken the language of money as far as it will go before it kills us.


The complexities of religious discourse that characterized pre-modern Europe were replaced by a new simplicity that may have reflected the ubiquitous steam engine. Just as a piston cycled back and forth in a cylinder, so the discussion of money settled into a two-stroke argument about something called capitalism. Capitalists argue that they know best how to put money to use. Their opponents point to periodic breakdowns in the wisdom of capitalists, breakdowns that cause the modern equivalents of plague and famine. These opponents are almost always called socialists. Their record is not very inspiring, either. If the world of capitalism is sometimes too colorful and exciting, socialism can be awfully dull and drab. Whereas capitalists think of nothing but money, socialists are obsessed by control.

Amazingly, we are still having this argument! It makes one long for a Certs mint. Society is not a machine. Human interactions are not mechanical. Human institutions do not hum along like dynamos. Society is fractal, always teetering on the edge of chaos. It depends entirely on the inertia, on the predictability and security of stability, for its continuance. Call those into question, and our relationships fray, our fears overwhelm us. We cannot be as free and open to chance as capitalists believe; nor can we be trained against our will to follow the party line. We need order, but an order that allows us to believe in something better. At no time in history has this order been realized as widely as it was in the postwar West, when jobs not only seemed to be plentiful but also promised workers a means of propelling their children into greater prosperity. The best job was one that allowed you to make sure that your children wouldn’t have to do it.

For very good reasons, it could not last. The postwar model of prosperity has gone forever and will never be replaced; nor is this a bad thing. It was built on subtle but significant misconceptions, most notably that blue-collar laborers were genuine workers. They weren’t. They were proto-robots, prototypes to be replaced by genuine machines. Genuine, truly human prosperity does not and ought not rest on the prevalence of assembly lines. Another mistake was that modern industry requires big machines — and the fortunes to pay for them. It did, but it no longer does. Almost everything about the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath has been transitory. For decent occupations that allow us to imagine and implement improvements, we are going to have to fashion a post-industrial environment, perhaps one that revives not only pre-modern artisanal practices but a more extensively moral social life. The capitalists and the socialists are arguing about a vanished world. Let’s stop choosing sides.


Friday 9th

Merely as an object, the book is interesting. The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne. It was my father’s — and my father did not keep books. He does not appear to have bought this one; there is no price on the dust jacket, but the words, “Book Club Edition,” instead. My father did not belong to any book clubs. Someone must have given it to him. A friend who thought he might be interested in a book about Twentieth Century Fox, because he had a seat on the board of directors for nine years, 1968-1977. How do I know that it was those years? Because that’s what it says on the Elephant Prod. In 1968, Dunne was granted unusual access to behind-the-scenes scenes at the film studio. His account begins with a board meeting at the Waldorf Astoria, before shifting to Hollywood, and for half a second I wondered if my father would be named. Had he been, I’m sure that it would have been brought to my attention when the book came out, in the following year. Instead, the book languished on the shelf of my father’s books, before coming to me when he died in 1985.

Every now and then I would pick up The Studio and try to figure out what it is. A novel? Not a novel? The dust jacket calls it a “cinéma-vérité study of Hollywood at work.” So it’s a movie, only in words. I would forget this until the next time I picked up The Studio. I thought about giving it away. It was, after all, one of my father’s books. I had not found his books, many of them about swindlers, to be particularly congenial. Or well written. Now, I knew that John Gregory Dunne was a serious writer, but I had him pegged as a man’s man, like the very irritating Norman Mailer. On the other hand, The Studio is a thin book. Until yesterday, it was in the storage unit. For a whole bunch of reasons, I brought it home, and finally opened it up to read it.

Are you still wondering what the Elephant Prod is?

I have told the story many times, but not here, it seems. One sunny afternoon in Houston, a car with a driver pulled up to the front walk of my father’s house. Perhaps it was a limousine, but it was probably a less ostentatious Continental. The passenger, who rang the doorbell, was expected. It was Dennis Stanfill, the president of Twentieth Century Fox. My father and I received him in the living room. His visit was as brief as politeness permitted, but as it was also ceremonial in nature we did not feel slighted. He had come to present my father with a token of the studio’s esteem, and in thanks for his years of service on the board of directors. I forget how the ceremony played out, but Mr Stanfill conveyed, I think without actually handling, a decorated box. Within the box, nestled in satin lining, was a brass rod with a sort of crook at the end. It was very shiny, and it was supposed to look like gold, but its value was symbolic: it was a prop. From the movies! From The King and I, to be exact. A clip-on badge identified the object and the reason for its presentation to my father. Unlike the Elephant Prod, which is still resplendent, the badge has tarnished badly and is almost impossible to read.

To my discerning eye, the Prod’s design elements were Gothic Revival, not remotely South Asian. It came with a bracket for mounting on the wall, and we showed the thing off to everybody who came through the house. I quipped that there was a factory in Burbank (my little joke) that produced elephant prods in volume. This was not supposed to be funny, really; it was just my way of signalling bewilderment: what kind of trophy is a movie prop? Beneath this bewilderment coiled a darker discomfort with the nature of sitting on a board of directors. My father was not asked to sit on boards because he was a self-assertive, opinionated sort of man. How noble was the service thus rewarded?

More to the point, does the Elephant Prod appear in the picture? To look at it, you would think that it’s a sort of scepter, something that Yul Brynner’s King ought to brandish every now and then. Does he? Although The King and I was the first movie that I saw twice, and although I was made to pipe “Hello, Young Lovers” whenever my mother thought that she could inflict cheap entertainment on cocktails guests, the movie no longer appeals to me very much. (It seems to have been disillusioning to realize that “Shall We Dance?” is a polka, not a waltz.) In any case, I have been unable to peel my eyes while watching the DVD for flashes of brass.

My stepmother was very proud of the Elephant Prod. My sister wanted it, too. It was settled that my stepmother would have it for life. By the time she died, my sister had lost interest, so the executor left it with me. I have not mounted it on the wall; it leans in a corner of the living room that is easily overlooked. Every time I do notice it, I think that I had better put it in a closet somewhere. You could hurt somebody with it.

For a while after Dennis Stanfill’s visit, I feared that Der Rosenkavalier would be ruined for me, but it wasn’t.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Means of Production
May 2017 (IV)

22, 23, 25 and 26 May

Monday 22nd

When I was an undergraduate, someone told me that Cardinal Newman used to read Mansfield Park every summer. I was very impressed by this nugget of complex information, every part of which illuminated every other and increased the brilliance of the whole. I exaggerated the unusualness of a cardinal‘s reading novels; I knew that Newman was a convert, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant that he had started out as an English gentleman. Nevertheless, the anecdote was said of Cardinal Newman, bringing the force of a mature man’s wisdom. The anecdote suggested, moreover, that Jane Austen was singled out among all novelists for revisiting. That Cardinal Newman chose the singular unfunny title in Austen’s oeuvre, the most serious and religious-minded of her books, had the effect of transforming — transfiguring, really — the story of Fanny Price into a sort of seasonal devotion, a book of hours for long summer afternoons.

It was the ritual aspect that appealed to me, the faithful re-reading year after year, presumably in the same month, perhaps even in the same place. I will never live up to it. I have a hard-enough time remembering to listen to Bach’s Passions during Lent; for some reason, I much prefer them in the late autumn. I happen to be reading Mansfield Park at the moment, not in imitation of Newman’s example but pursuant to a more stunt-like plan: I am reading Austen in reverse. About a month ago, I gave up looking for new things to read on the Kindle, and started in on Persuasion. As I came to the end of it, I had the idea of reading Mansfield Park, and then Emma (which has always been my favorite), followed by the two antithetically-titled chestnuts. It would be perverse not to finish with Northanger Abbey. Perhaps I might go all the way and read Lady Susan for the second time. Will Austen’s greatness palpably diminish? If it does, I shall relish the satisfactions of the connoisseur. It’s always fun to play the pompous ass — as long as nobody is looking.

Mansfield Park has struck me in the past as unusually shapeless, a series of one damn thing after another. No sooner does Fanny Price arrives at Mansfield Park than Sir Thomas disappears to Antigua. Aunt Norris — the noisiest of wicked witches — arranges the Rushworth alliance, and the Crawfords arrive at the Parsonage. These developments swell into the embarrassing afternoon at Sotherton, the dull Mr Rushworth’s great house. Then, Tom Bertram, having been sent back to England ahead of his father (one needn’t wonder why), shows up with a new friend picked up at the races (or is it Weymouth?), and, next thing you know, Aunt Norris is fashioning a curtain for the “theatricals,” an amateur production of the sentimental but decidedly inappropriate play, Lovers’ Vows. Which never takes place, of course, because Sir Thomas shows up unexpectedly and puts a stop to it. Now the pace slows a bit, as if in respect of the unwise nuptials. With Maria and Julia off the scene, Fanny emerges as a pretty, if still quite timid, young woman. The occasion of her naval brother’s visit inspires Sir Thomas to give a ball at Mansfield, and Fanny shines — in her understated way.

Through all of this, there has been no sense of an impending crisis, of something that will happen and change everything. In Persuasion, we know from the start that Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth will have to come to some sort of terms, now that their lives have been thrown together again. In Emma, there is the immediate drama of snaring Mr Elton for Harriet Smith; this is followed by the murky interactions with Emma of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. In Pride and Prejudice, each of the Bennett girls seems to have her own impending crisis. But there is no early indication in Mansfield Park of a matter that must be settled. Rather, it appears that poor Fanny will just have to get used to Edmund’s eventually marrying someone else — for she can’t bring herself to expect that he will marry her, even if that is her heart’s desire. Not until the shocking chapter in which Henry Crawford boasts to his sister that he intends to leave “a small hole” in Fanny’s heart by making her love him does the crisis of Mansfield Park announce itself. And even then, Fanny cannot take it seriously. She loathes Crawford, and expects to bat him away with unwelcoming speeches. But these only excite him.

Mansfield Park is not shapeless at all: it is insidious. Step by step, Austen takes us into the nightmare garden of old-world libertinage. Henry Crawford is every bit the monster of depravity that Fanny takes him to be, but only she sees the devil behind the disguise. She does not see him with complete clarity. Aside from failing to realize that her discouragement is an aphrodisiac, she never quite grasps the grotesque impropriety of Crawford’s arranging for William’s advancement before opening his heart, or whatever simulacrum thereof he possesses, to Fanny. He saddles her with a heavy burden of gratitude that makes her rejection of his suit seem churlish. She senses it and she regrets it, but she doesn’t understand the mastery of his pinning maneuver. She would have to be older — Anne Elliot’s age — to examine Crawford with complete analytical detachment. Fanny simply wants him to go away. Exposing a virtuous maiden to the depravities of a perverted lover is one of the oldest thrills in storytelling, and Austen intensifies its horror by presenting it in a context of gracious good breeding. Everyone surrounding Fanny seems willing to regard Crawford’s pursuit of her as proof that he wants only her inspiration to repair the tarnish on his character. Even Edmund is willing to offer her up. In his “dignified musings,” Sir Thomas concludes that the best thing for Fanny is a taste of the shabby-genteel life from which he and Aunt Norris pulled her as a child. I want to save talking about Austen’s magnificent handling of this episode, which sinks the penitential in the transcendent, until I’ve read it again. But it is hard to give one’s complete attention to these humble scenes, knowing as one does of the explosion a-building in the background.


Tuesday 23rd

Good thing I decided to read the end of Mansfield Park before writing about it. “Sinks the penitential in the transcendent,” eh? On top of being wrong, it’s contradictory, for things can’t sink while they’re transcending, can they now? And it is wrong. I had it all backwards. The Fanny-in-Portsmouth episode of Mansfield Park shows Austen at her most Thatcherite. Fanny does not overcome initial misgivings to reach a greater understanding of her parents. On the contrary, she is rudely awakened from dreams of “home” and parental attachment to “bad smells,” to a father who is “dirty and gross,” and to a mother who is “a slattern.” There is nothing transcendent in this. Fanny cannot wait to leave. Scrupulous at first about referring to Mansfield Park by its name, by its county, she soon falls back on calling it home, and the shocking thing is that her parents are not offended. They have been discharged of her, and her departure gives them greater joy by relieving them of Fanny’s sister Susan. Austen has no sympathy for the Prices; as she paints them, they wouldn’t want it. They have made their soiled and pointless ways all by themselves. Mrs Price especially is not to be forgiven her imprudent marriage. The Portsmouth episode comports with the overall mixed message of the book, which is that poor people must take personal responsibility for their situations, while upper-class miscreants are discreetly translated to that era’s equivalent of a witness protection program. A hypocrite reader, I loved every minute.

And Sir Thomas’s “dignified musings” were on the ball, too; I was wrong about that. Against the backdrop of her parents’ shabbiness, Henry Crawford, when he pays his visit, is more attractive to Fanny than ever, and she is quite softened in her regard for him. Who knows what a few more visits might have done? Certainly Crawford’s subsequent folly with Mrs Rushworth cannot be accounted as a rebound; he must have known that his stock with Fanny stood higher than ever. The situation is saved by Crawford’s vanity, not by Fanny’s caution.

When Edmund and Fanny discuss the moral vacancy of Mary Crawford’s reaction to the scandal, Austen astutely avoids religious references. She leaves all of that to the reader, giving leave to the reader who is not religiously inclined to regard the novel’s judgment as purely humane. It may have been unwise of Maria Bertram to marry Mr Rushworth, but having done so, she is obliged to bear with him; she is even more obliged not to insult him by deserting him, and herself by yielding to foolish passion. Crawford is all the worse for having permitted Maria to destroy her respectability without feeling any love in return. Mary Crawford regards it all as “folly,” and so might we, but Austen insists that we see it as outright wrong. We must understand that life is big enough for Fanny, who benefits in every way from the disgrace, nonetheless grieves — even if somewhat abstractly.

I was also mistaken in thinking that Mansfield Park was written after Emma, not before it. So much for my project of reading the novels in reverse. Not that I’ll abandon the reading — I’ve already returned to Hartfield and Highbury, and witnessed the cruel abduction of Miss Taylor.


Over the weekend, I watched Contact, and for the oddest reason. The night before, I had really enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. I was struck by Jodie Foster’s ability to incorporate Masha Skorobogatov’s performance as Clarice Starling’s younger self, despite the fact that the two actresses bore no mutual resemblance whatever. I remembered Foster’s doing the same thing in Contact, her brightening eyes recapitulating Jena Malone’s earnestness at the ham radio setup. This is how one thing leads to another in my life. (I also watched Broadcast News again, because Holly Hunter does such an amazing job of showing how little Gennie James grew up.)

There is one line in Contact that has stuck with me, as an abiding thought if not as a literary motto. Astronomer Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is asked by the member of a selection committee to state the one question that she would be certain to ask if she encountered intelligent life. “How did you do it?” Arroway replies. “How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourself?”

How are we going to survive it? That humanity has been plunged into something at least as unsettling as adolescence is more obvious every day. Leaders at every level are showing themselves to resemble teenagers with poor judgment driving cars after parties. An apparently endless string of bribery charges ties up officials the world over. Why did they think they could get away with it, especially in this era of ubiquitous cameras and flashpoint news updates? It is hard to tell whether the art of keeping secrets has been lost or become impossible. There are few signs that anyone is learning to live with conditions as they are. I have always suspected that societies will not regain their balance until all the people who grew up before the new technology is properly understood have died off. That might sound like a eulogy for the Baby Boomers. But “all the people” may include everybody alive today, and yet to be born for many years. The proper understanding of technology is nowhere in sight.

The current state of play is an allergy to strangers. Technology has done just the opposite of what it was expected to do in the postwar years. It has put us all in the same space without bringing us together. The human penchant for blaming the unknown for everything that’s wrong has been given too many opportunities. We blame other people, instead of re-examining social arrangements that haven’t caught up.

In the United States, it often seems that two distinct societies are finding it difficult to establish condominium. The pairs vary: the Coasts and the Heartland, the Urban and the Rural. I wonder, though, if it is not a matter of the same society in two phases — an old American story with a history of ugliness. When immigration was overwhelmingly Northern European, established Americans discriminated against those with strange accents or foreign tongues. Then, as Southern Europeans appeared, skin color became the shibboleth. Now, of course, it is Islam that distinguishes those who are pursuing the American dream from those who feel that they have achieved it, and that somebody is trying to take it away from them.

In the past, the problem could be solved geographically, but our landmass is settled now; nobody wants to live in the empty places. Our cities suggest that we could create more territory for groups by living more densely — something that would also solve a number of environmental problems. But who is to lead this move? Where are the adults?


Thursday 25th

All week, I’ve been mulling over something that I read via The Browser on Tuesday. It’s an interview with Israeli linguist Daniel Dor that I urge you to read, partly because I’ve probably misunderstood it, but mostly because I am not going to discuss it in terms of linguistic theories generally. All that I’ll say about that larger landscape is that the response of linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (different languages provoke different thoughts) strikes me as intellectually boorish, the equivalent of arguing that the quartets of Haydn and Mozart “sound the same.” Having said that, I am going to continue as if no one had ever proposed a theory about the origin of language before.

Daniel Dor, working with others, especially Eva Jablonky, speculates that language was invented by ancestors of Homo sapiens sapiens, as a response to necessities occasioned by “complex dynamics at the collective level.” I unpack that bit of mumbo-jumbo to mean that our ancestors were forming groups that required the kind of language that only human beings speak. Dor points out that all other languages that we know of are limited to the description of and commentary upon the here-and-now. Neither chimpanzees nor other animals are capable of communicating information about yesterday, much less planning for tomorrow. Another way to put this is that non-human languages cannot intelligibly articulate experiences that are peculiar to only one of two participants in a conversation.

In the interview, Dor does not come out and say what comes next, so you’ll have evaluate my inference for yourself. My inference is that he and his colleagues speculate that the newly-invented language wasn’t very effective. I would say that what was invented wasn’t the language so much as the need for the language. Dor continues, “language began to function as a selective environment for individuals.” More mumbo-jumbo, but I think it means that the ability to speak the new language became a factor in either natural or sexual selection. Those who had it did better than those who lacked it. “Eventually, Homo sapiens emerged as a language-ready species.” What this means, I think, is that the possession of all the capacities required for effective speech (tongue, windpipe, brain) became basic human equipment. (Dor is eager to insist that language itself is not part of our genetic inheritance. The ability to speak and understand it is what’s passed down.)

As you can see from my inferences and clarifications, I’ve already customized Dor’s hypothesis to my own way of thinking. This morning, it occurred to me to present an instance of the human dynamic underlying Dor’s theory in an entirely different, and far more familiar context. Let’s say —

Let’s say this: Henry Ford, in inventing the assembly line (which he didn’t, not really, but we’ll let that pass; he deserves the credit for running all the way with a good idea), also invented the need for robots. The assembly line itself was already partly robotic — the conveyors that moved parts from station to station until a car was assembled were mechanical. The assembly itself was performed by workmen, but from the moment the conveyors were activated it was probably inevitable that more and more of the assembly process would be performed by mechanisms invented for the purpose. Now, of course, cars can be manufactured with very little direct human action. Whether they are or not is a political and economic question, but it is not a technological question. The technology of automated automobile assembly is in place.

To map Dor’s hypothesis over Ford’s experience, we can appreciate the difference between Ford’s assembly line and today’s. The automated assembly line has solved all of the problems inherent in depending upon a workforce made up of different human beings. Individual idiosyncrasies, desires for wage increases and other benefits, hostility to management: these are all vaporized by automation, on top of which, robots can be repaired by robots! Now, language has created vast human riches, but I think that it would be wrong to say that it has solved all the problems that people have in trying to communicate with each other. But I have made the comparison not only to translate Dor’s theory into Common Reader, but also to highlight a distinction that is both essential to constructive thinking about our future and woefully lacking in the unspoken prejudices and predispositions that govern what we say about it.


I have more to say about Dor, but right now, with the assembly line fresh in mind, I want to pursue the distinction between the human and the mechanical.

Mechanisms are systems or devices that perform pre-determined operations in a highly predictable manner. Variables such as speed and input can be simply controlled by levers and switches. Most mechanisms perform one of two functions. Some mechanisms perform highly-repetitive and/or intensely precise operations. Others perform operations that require energy and durability beyond the capacities of humans or animals. Some mechanisms, such as an airplane, perform both functions. Flight itself is an example of the second function, while the firing of spark plugs in the plane’s engine is an example of the first.

It could be argued that the animal body is full of mechanisms, but I have tried to capture the unhelpfulness of this argument in my definition. The predictability of bodily functions is too complicated to be “highly predictable”; there is still much to be understood about them. Nor can bodily functions be controlled simply. How wonderful it would be if our metabolisms could be switched, without adverse consequences, to produce the loss of ten pounds! Still, the mushrooming expansion of mechanical devices in the past two centuries and more has generated repeated campaigns, more or less overt, to treat human beings as mechanisms. Ford’s assembly line is of course a prime example, and it is also an example of dissatisfaction with such a campaign: eventually, the problem of the assembly line was solved not by making human beings more mechanical but by replacing human beings with actual mechanisms (robots). Manufacturers are ahead of everyone else on this. The very concept of “productivity” is an example of the persistent desire to treat human beings as machines. And while it may make sense to harness mechanisms in the production of manufactures, perhaps it also makes sense to stop assessing other human work by assembly-line standards.

It may be, in short, that the vast mechanization that we call the Industrial Revolution invented the need for a humane economics. One that has nothing at all to do with the means of production!


Friday 26th

Something else that occurred to me, while I was trying to take in Daniel Dor’s hypothesis about the origin of language, was that it serves as a template for the explanation of a lot of human frustration and suffering. We are all gifted with the ability to imagine a better world. What we have yet to develop — call it a need that hasn’t been met, just as “language-ready” human beings (according to the hypothesis) took a while to develop after the invention of language — is the body of knowledge that would tell us when to work toward our goals and when to wait. Planting a lovely garden involves an amazing amount of idleness: most of the time, there is nothing to do, and you have to learn how to leave it alone.

My current bugbear is “perfection.” I should like to see this notion drop-kicked out of the solar system. It is yet another bad idea from the Greek cornucopia. All it does is reify frustration. The idea of perfection proposes that our improved dreamworlds actually exist, if only in the superlunary world of form. The idea is that if you can imagine something, it’s real, even if its reality is not currently available on Earth.

From the pagan idea of perfection, the Christian Doctors created a metaphysics, without Scriptural support of any kind, that explained human shortcomings as imperfection. Our imperfection was explained as the price of our First Parents’ great sin. Since Genesis has nothing to say about the thoughts that Adam and Eve may have had about perfection as such, it’s unclear whether eating the apple stripped them of perfection or made them aware of their lack of it — an interesting point, if you go in for angels dancing on pinheads. The idea of human imperfection has permeated Western thought and is no longer tethered to religious thought. The Enlightenment, for example, is often faulted for having assumed the perfectibility of man, something that led straight to Totalitarianism. I believe that this is a misreading of the philosophes, as long as you exclude that hypocritical troublemaker, Rousseau.

The fact is, we are who we are. We are state of the art human beings. We could all do better. There are good reasons why we don’t. The things that keep us from doing better are not imperfections. They are features; aside from illness, there are no bugs. “Weakness” signals the impossibility, however momentary or long-lasting, to resolve conflicting objectives. Evil — I have thought a lot about evil lately and I have located it not in individuals (sociopaths are sick) as among them: evil is a matter of conspiracy. More about that some other time. To sin is to yield to an unwise or shameful impulse, almost always because of a “weakness.” The cure for weakness is not disciplined virtue but knowledge. Some of this knowledge, we already possess. Most of it, we don’t, not yet.

Another implication of Dor’s hypothesis is that the line between the group and the individual is unclear, and possibly nonexistent. Like “perfection,” the distinction is something that we can imagine, although it may have no correlative existence. We are responsible for our actions, but we are also responsible for helping others, and even more for not making the lives of others more difficult than they already are, something very easy to do if you’re a libertarian. I understand the libertarian critique of “government,” and it has nothing to do with the problems of people trying to constitute a society. It seems clear that we did not develop language for libertarian purposes. In fact, it would seem that the honest libertarian’s first duty is to shut up.


I’m taking next week off. I hope to have a very good time.

Bon week-end à tous!


Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (III)

15, 16, 18 and 19 May

Monday 15th

How often have I sat here on recent Mondays, with no idea of where to begin or how to proceed! The writing project is a legitimate distraction, but it doesn’t explain the knot in my tongue. To my great relief, Charles Sykes untied it yesterday, with an opinion piece in the Times’s Sunday Review.

But the real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

I don’t know why I couldn’t figure out how to say this myself, but I have been perfectly aware of it since the election. I suspect that I lack the courage to be nasty about people whom I fear, dislike, and don’t understand. It has always been easier to save my blasts for the liberal élite, which ought to know better than to do the things it does. The members of the liberal élite, them I know well.

Last week, when the Comey firing occasioned so much righteous indignation to the left of the alt-right, I frowned with dismay — at the outrage — but that’s as close as I got to grasping why I myself did not find the crisis very critical. There was nothing illegal about the deed; the worst that could be said was that the President had done something that looked bad. But looked bad to whom? It looked great to the anti-anti-Trumps — let’s call them the Auntie Grumps — precisely because of the conniptions that it provoked in the very bosoms that had bellyached about Comey all summer long, and then again right before the election. “It’s just insane actually,” Tucker Carlson giggled. I’m making up the giggling part; I’ve never seen Carlson in action. But there must have been at least the ghost of a smirk.

In today’s paper, Charles Blow tells us that the President’s approval ratings are dropping, dropping, dropping — and perhaps they are. But Americans are screwy about politics. Having been exposed to market-driven television news for so much longer than people anywhere else on earth, Americans respond schizophrenically to political figures who caper in front of the cameras. They know, and they can tell you, what’s good and bad about policies and programs. But they can’t help responding to politicians themselves as entertainers. The last truly entertaining American president was Richard Nixon, but he hated la publicité even more than Donald Trump loves to bask in it. To paraphrase CBS chief Leslie Moonves, Donald Trump is very entertaining. And one of the most entertaining things about him is — but you’re not old enough. You don’t remember Froggy, the impish puppet on the Andy Devine Show, one of the early kiddie programs. Maybe you’d better watch this first.

In this clip, the Auntie Grumps are the children laughing with delight at the self-sabotaging suggestibility of the tuba player, who can’t help picking up Froggy’s naughty interjections. Froggy is of course Donald Trump. The tuba player is you. Every time Froggy says something, you forget that Donald Trump is only pretending to be the president, and not very well. You take him seriously and explode with exasperation. The kiddies are thrilled!

The Froggy episode that sticks in my mind involved a professor of some kind, doing a demonstration.

Professor: And then you take this glass of water (pours a glass of water from a pitcher) —
Froggy: And you pour it on your head.
Professor: And you pour it on your head (does so).

One fears that the editors of the Times and The New Yorker are going to die of pneumonia.

We can’t tell yet just how autonomous Donald Trump is in the White House. What was the consensus in the West Wing when Comey was fired? We won’t know for a while. What, I’m particularly interesting in knowing, were Mike Pence’s thought on the matter? My suspicion is that nothing happens without a second opinion, without the input of a responsible adult. The President is surrounded by responsible adults. They let him play with Twitter because that is essential to his shtick as an entertainer. They let him ad lib for the same reason. But does he actually do anything on his own? It doesn’t seem to me that he does.

If the “Russia matter” is really at the bottom of the Comey firing, it, too, is a curious business. Certainly there has been a great deal of impropriety — or what would have been regarded as impropriety by the liberal élite’s predecessor, the (much smaller) power élite of the Fifties and Sixties. Remember what happened to Sherman Adams! In those days, Russia, or rather the Soviet Union, used to be our mortal enemy, and the mere suspicion of chitchat would have brought disgrace. Now Russia is just Russia, and, like the United States, it is flying on nationalist tailwinds. It’s hard to take private and no doubt conspiratorial conversations between top officials on both sides any more or less seriously than the parleys of two crime bosses. Impropriety is the least of it!

As Lenin asked — or was it Chernyshevsky? — Que faire? What is to be done? How do we react when Mount Trump erupts? Bearing in mind that Mount Trump is a concoction of plaster of Paris and kitchen cleaners, we must resist the temptation to erupt ourselves. We must not erupt. Trump’s applause is coming from goons who think we’re funny when we blow up. Maybe they don’t think it’s funny, but they’re so tickled that it is we, and not they, who are on the hotseat that they can’t help laughing.

Instead of erupting, we ought to be thinking, Where did we go wrong? Because we did go wrong. The liberal élite has almost ostentatiously failed to lead this country ever since it came to power in the late Sixties. (Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is a fine example of what has taken the place of leadership since then.) The liberal élite has given up leading and taken up catering.

If you’ll think about that for fifteen minutes, you have my permission to blow up.


Tuesday 16th

Then there is the Magazine’s cover story. The piece about “open marriage” that decorated the front of the Times Magazine on Sunday with four cute photographs: husband and wife, husband and girlfriend, wife and boyfriend, husband and wife (bis). Such depravity! (And, in my imagination, I say it with the bleak but gooey scorn of the late Fabia Drake.) As far as I’m concerned, an open marriage is either recklessly endangered or not serious. “Open marriage” is not a fit topic for public discussion, certainly not in a “family newspaper” that is so cloyingly prissy about refusing to print certain earthy words. What a heyday for the Auntie Grumps! Everything that provincial America hates about New York is right there in that collection of four photographs. It’s hard to know which is more depraved: the marriage or the publicity.

I didn’t read the story. Kathleen did, and told me that there wasn’t anything in it that surprised her. A married couple decided that the way to revive their flagging ardor was to pursue relationships with others, and to do so not with surreptitious one-night-stands but with out-in-the-open lovers. Significantly, these lovers were labeled “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” as if to avoid, by performative utterance, the Continental wickedness of “affairs.” Instead, our amatory adventurers evoked a high-school atmosphere, and the immaturity to go with it. What they want even more than good sex is unattainable youth. Not only being young and in great shape, &c &c, but being ignorant of what’s to come. Remember the good old days, when you didn’t know any better?

I keep hiccuping on the publication, the fact that the Times not only published this story but did so with the cover of its weekend magazine. The editors must believe that the objections to open marriage must be based on religious principles — principles that Times readers are presumably too sophisticated to share. Such thinking overlooks the likelihood that the religious principles involved, however gnarled by supernatural socketry, reflect existential wisdom rooted in the experience of intimacy, fidelity, and the “caring” part of charity.

Maybe bots will be the solution after all.


Thursday 18th

The other day, I received an alumni magazine in the mail. I flipped through it, almost annoyed by the smiling faces of students and teachers who had nothing to do with me. Many of the buildings in the photographs were unfamiliar. I could not imagine where they were on the campus, and in one case I couldn’t figure out what the building was for. There must have been a few shots of athletic teams, but I have a knack for not seeing those. Altogether, the magazine filled me with a desire to cancel my subscription. Better than that: could I write to the school and say that I was dead?

I don’t mean to be morbid. What’s dead here are my school days. The school itself has changed since then, but even if there were no new buildings, and even if students were still all male — if, that is to say, the alumni magazine were still in black-and-white — there would be nothing in it for me but a lot of familiar scenes. The teachers are long gone. Many of my classmates have died. But the main point is that my school days are over. They were very important while I was living them. I’m deeply grateful for the education that I received there, because it encompassed learning to teach myself. But in the moment of graduation, my connection with the school came to an end.

The pretense of its continuation was of course elaborately maintained. I was so deluded by the possible meanings of “alumnus” that, in the low years that followed graduation from college, I drove out to my old school with vague hopes of finding a job. Kindly, nobody laughed at me, but my hopes were ridiculous. I wouldn’t have hired me. Then, after my father died, I donated a modest four-figure sum, and suddenly found myself on a new invitation list. I meant to visit, but never got round to it. Kathleen was not interested. Reunions came and went without me. I was able to keep up my friendships with the two classmates whom I really liked without any reference to school.

If it hadn’t been for that old standby, my complete lack of interest in sports, it might have been different. Although everything else about a school changes, the games don’t. Football and basketball and soccer and swimming and wrestling go on featuring the same kind of competition, and I suppose they must provide an inviting portal for imaginative recollection. But I never took part in that sort of thing. It didn’t interest me at all, and I didn’t believe that it belonged in schools. I still don’t, all the more intently for understanding just how dependent schools are on sports for appeals to alumni. It’s an American cancer.

My past, my memories, like anybody’s mean a great deal to me. But they exist only in my mind. The campus on which I was educated fifty years ago is purely imaginary now, and cannot be revisited in the real world. As for the education that began there, my boast is that it shows no signs of ending. It has transferred, with all its credits, to the academy of my book room.


Friday 19th

Because the author of the piece in The New Yorker was writing about a precocious visit to a voting booth, the statement of his height at the time was not irrelevant. He was nine years old and four foot one. He wasn’t really voting, of course, but his vocation had already declared itself: Thomas Mallon would pursue a career in politics. The comparison to my grandson, who turned seven in January and who stands four foot seven, and who by the age of nine may not require a beanstalk in order to climb into the clouds, was not one that worked in my grandson’s favor. He might be taller and larger — he easily weighs more than the nine year-old Mallon’s fifty-five pounds — but insofar as he has inherited other things besides his height from me, I wish that I might instead have passed on the genes that Mallon inherited. Making every allowance for the literate man’s ability to imbue recollection with coherence, the young Mallon still comes across as an astonishingly organized boy. Smart and healthy, all he had to do was grow up, and then, just like that, he could walk into his chosen way of life. My envy overfloweth.

Not really, not really. I don’t suppose that Mallon’s progress from political official to political novelist was a walk in the park. But even if it was, I don’t envy him or anybody else, because I know that I am special. Unfortunately, my specialness suffers from locked-in syndrome. It depends not on the blinks of my eyelids but on the taps of my fingers for attestation of its existence. It must be terribly difficult to divine the nuances of emotion from the binary code of one blink or two, but as to my own meaning in life, at least as expressed in these endless entries, I wonder if it is not Debussy’s sunken cathedral, sounding massive and hardly more nuanced chords from the bottom of a murky sea.

Mallon’s piece tells us, among other things, how, as an established man of letters, he was welcomed to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and given a glance at the letter that he himself wrote to JFK way back in 1962 to express his disagreement with the President’s “support” of the Supreme Court decision in Engel v Vitale, which banned public-school prayer. Mallon had preserved the response, from a West Wing factotum, but he had not kept a copy of his own letter (indicating, to my curialist eyes, a lapse worthy of inquisition), and it piqued him to see what he had written. The President had of course supported the Supreme Court, not the argument of its decision, but “[u]nderneath all that fustian, I can in fact find something attributable to John F Kennedy, to a climactic line of his Convention acceptance speech…” Short of a limitless amount of cash, together with the sense to spend it well, I can’t imagine a more satisfying fortune than Mallon’s inheritance.

I am still trying to figure out my own.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (II)

8, 9 and 11 May

Monday 8th

As often happens, I forgot the best part. On Friday, writing about The Lake House, I ought to have added the following at the end.

But The Lake House is masterful at obliterating “technicalities.” The emotional climax of the film leads immediately to the finale. Kate is looking at Alex’s drawing of the lake house, but we’re looking at her from the wall. Behind her, Henry tells of Alex’s death. Kate’s face immediately succumbs to still, blind, weeping grief, but when Henry adds that Alex died two years ago this very day, Kate opens her eyes, and speech begins to flutter in her lips. We know what she is going to say long before she does — taking forever to form the word “where” is one of Sandra Bullock’s many triumphs as a screen actress. As soon as she hears that Alex was killed in a traffic accident at Daley Plaza — the anonymous death that we witnessed early in the film — she is out the door.


Over the weekend, I put two thick books behind me. The first was J D Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors. A measure of how much things have changed since this work first appeared in 1952 may be taken from its final, single-sentence paragraph.

Sound in her stock as competent in her institutions, instinct with life and energy, England awaited the arrival of Elizabeth.

You really can’t write this sort of thing anymore. It’s not so much the pathetic fallacy of speaking of England as “awaiting” anything at all, as the very definite attendance of something that hindsight (not quite the same thing as history) has long regarded as a glorious reign. The miracle is that Elizabeth made it through her first years, that the thicket of hostility in which she had been obliged to grow up from infancy not only failed to kill her but spontaneously disappeared with the death of her elder half-sister. Nor could it be imagined that Elizabeth would never marry, her most redoubtable achievement. Nobody could reasonably expect that the pale young woman of uncertain confession would rule as a virgin queen for forty-five years, or that by at long last executing her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, she would clear the way to the throne for Mary’s son, James. Mackie’s ending all but transforms England into the audience for a beloved movie, a cherished tale; at the same time, it transforms Mackie’s readers into proto-Elizabethans. The illusion — a confusion, really — is bewitching, which is precisely why it is no longer permissible.

The other book was Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelists. I really don’t know what to say about this tome. The book is well-written and intelligent, but there is something oblique about it, something that made me wonder why I had to plow through a hundred pages (a hundred and two, actually) about relations between Evangelical leaders and the first Bush Administration. I often had the queasy feeling, which I hate to associate with a writer whom I so admire, that Fitzgerald was telling everything that she knew in the hopes that a story would emerge.

Indeed, I sensed the presence of a number of strangled stories. First, as I said a while back, the book seems to be about the inerrantists, those who believe that what the Bible says is literally true. Not all evangelicals believe this, as Fitzgerald points out, but for most of the book the inerrantists hold her attention. And yet there is no discussion of the cherry-picking indulged by these literalists. For you cannot be a Christian inerrantist without making a few profound decisions about what in the Hebrew Bible still holds after Christ’s mission and passion. The openness of Paul to the gentiles increases the pressure. Ultimately, we want to know what makes the story of Creation so important, and just where the inerrantists find strictures against abortion with greater force than other, neglected, strictures.

Another story, broached but never explored, might have evaluated the theology of the Prosperity Gospel. Nor does Fitzgerald bring much critical thought to the Pentacostal movements, or to the role of mass excitement in American religiosity generally. So much about evangelism in this country necessarily strikes the outsider as the embarrassing endorsement of vulgar conceit, a sanctification of things as they are instead of a leadership toward what they ought to be, that mere reportage seems naïve. There is much cognitive dissonance between the rigor of Fitzgerald’s history and the slovenliness of evangelical anti-intellectualism. What a terrible waste of effort, to write so scrupulously about so many know-nothings.

I have been reading the Gospels; I am in the middle of Luke. Not a believer myself, I am usually inclined to regard Jesus as a very good man who preached a deeply humane message, one that rightly rests at the heart of Western civilization. Until I pick up the New Testament, that is.


Tuesday 9th

Work on the writing project is once again a major part of my day. I read somewhere not long ago that, when a writing project — hopefully but quite prematurely a book, in common parlance — is going well, almost everything that you read seems to throw a new ray of light on it. That is indeed happening to me. Whether it’s a book that I’ve had in my pile for months or a piece in a magazine that arrived in the mail yesterday, whatever I’m reading seems lit from within by the ideas that are already on my mind. It’s rather like the scene in A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is surrounded by panels of illuminated numbers — but I know that it’s just me. The uncanny thing is that these confirmations are reinforcing, not distracting.

I encountered another one yesterday, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Michael Walzer reviews On Betrayal, by Avishai Margalit. I’m torn between ordering a copy of the book right away and believing that I’ve already extracted all that I need from it. According to Walzer,

Two strong distinctions are central to Margalit’s arguments: first, between thick and thin human relations, and second, between ethics (which deals with the thick) and morality (which deals with the thin). Thick relations begin with family and friends but can be extended in various directions.

I have been writing about growing up as an adopted child, which for a long time I thought had blighted my life. As I grew older and more deliberate, however, I had a harder time identifying any actual damage. My childhood was unhappy, but I grew up around it and beyond it, and the longer I lived the less blighted my life felt. Now it feels quite robust. But Margalit’s distinctions remind me that the conditions of adoption were more than a little problematic. I have formed very, very few thick connections, and they most certainly didn’t begin with “family.”

My connection to my wife was thick even before she agreed to proceed beyond friendship. Now it is massive. I don’t mean to boast here. We’ve grown together, we’ve survived a few serious scrapes, but we remain entirely different, if sympathetic, people, and the thickness owes a great deal to our not feeling dominated by the other. Mutual support is now pretty much built into everyday life, so much so that I don’t have much of a sense of ethics in my behavior with Kathleen. Ethical questions just don’t come up. I’m not saying that they couldn’t, or that our relationship couldn’t be shaken to the ground in the blink of an eye — I’m too old not to have seen a few terrible things — but I’d be very surprised if it did. And yet, not entirely surprised, because I grew up without thick connections, and I don’t, as most people seem to do, take them for granted.

I’m much more aware of ethics with regard to a small handful of close friends. But I don’t find myself confronting ethical questions on every day.

Ethics, according to Margalit, governs our thick relations, our lives with lovers, friends, fellow believers, and fellow citizens.

Having dealt with love and friendship, I can quickly write off fellow believers, since I am allergic to religion — to witnessing my faith in the company of other people. But I can understand the connection that co-religionists feel. It’s the idea that my connection to fellow citizens might be thick that makes no sense. I cannot imagine standing in an ethical relationship with someone simply because we were both born in the United States.

I think of ethics as a conflict, and morality as a duty. With ethics, there is always a tension between what I want and what is best for the people near and dear to me. (Almost all of my ethical battles concern taking care of my health.) With morality, there is no decision to make, right and wrong are perfectly clear. The only question is whether I will make the effort to do what’s right, or at least to resist complaining when someone else does something wrong. (One issue that provides no end of everyday vexation to city-dwellers is the use of elevators.) Because moral imperatives, however slight, arise at every turn in city life, while ethical conundrums are quite uncommon, and because of my unusual childhood, I regard thin human connections as more important than thick ones. If Kathleen were taken from me tomorrow, I believe that I would manage to keep going. But if there were a steep rise in casual rudeness among strangers in the street, I would be utterly demoralized.

I wonder if I have ever betrayed anyone. Yes, once, unforgivably. More than once, if abandoning failing relationships counts. Betrayal or not, the experience was always unpleasant enough to make me wary of risking it. Did I betray my parents? Did they betray me? Did we never quite establish the thick connection that, according to Margalit (but not to Walzer), is required for betrayal? That I’m really asking is a kind of answer.


Thursday 11th

But a day or two of further thought about betrayal obliges me to change my tune. I remember a keen reluctance, at several moments in childhood and youth, to cross lines that I would not be allowed to cross back. I see now that crossing those lines would have constituted betrayal, a violation of allegiance. Literally, a decampment — folding up my tent and setting it up somewhere else.

I hated my name. I really hated my first name, Robert. I loathed its principal nickname, and often refused to answer to it, as if I were deaf. “Keefe” was awkward. Most people heard it as “Keith,” and spelling it out wasn’t much of a help. When confronted with the difficulty on the telephone, I still recite my mother’s bit of birdsong, “K double E, F as in ‘Frank,’ E,” although I often sense bewilderment at the other end of the line. Lots of people look at it and say “Keefie.” My poor father was tormented as a boy by being called “Beefy Keefy.” The difficulty is entirely attributable to his grandfather’s decision to prune the original “O’Keeffe.”Nobody has any trouble with that.

One day, in the car — I hated being in the car, because it was boring, and I got carsick if I tried to read — I announced that I was going to change my name when I grew up. My father must have been driving, because my mother turned her upper body against the seat back and glared at me with the bronzed rage of Medusa. I had not expected anyone to be delighted by my plans, but I hadn’t expected them to be taken so seriously, either. This was not one of those occasions when I was spoiling for a fight. So I was surprised as well as alarmed by the fury I had ignited. Also, wasn’t she cheating a little? What gave my mother the right to carry on as though she came from a long line of Keefes? Whatever she said — and you would have had to be me at the time to take it all in — I was made to understand that further mention of this topic might very well lead to loss of hearth and home and indoor plumbing and regular meals and all the rest. I caved. Comfort-seeking worm that I was, I resigned myself to a foreseeable future of Bobs.

The row about homosexuality, a few years later, was a black tornado. I had come into possession of one of those physique magazines that were sold over the counter (even in Bronxville!), and its alternative world was astonishing. The world that I lived in, although relatively discreet and well-behaved, was heavily populated by women struggling to be appropriate sex objects in an environment of nonstop male commentary. Photos of bodybuilders chatting by the pool clothed only in tiny pouches or making breakfast in the altogether were intriguing in ways that had something to do with sex, certainly, but that also promised another, much nicer world, in which men were not bullies or rivals or contenders or stooges but friends.

I knew that this magazine was forbidden, but I didn’t really understand why, and I wasn’t ashamed of having it. It was only after my mother discovered it — I hadn’t hidden it very carefully — that shame erupted, the shame of being associated with the objects of her vituperative disgust. I was made to understand not only that the magazine was unspeakably filthy but that I would be thrown out of the house if anything like it showed up a second time. To be thrown out of the house: this was the price of betrayal. And the betrayal was not the vice itself but the vice revealed.

Looking back on that awful hour — I remember that I lifted up a side table, pretty much as if I were a lion tamer, trying to keep my mother from coming any closer in her wrath; if she struck me, I suspected, I would strike back — I understand the misery of closeted life in a different way. I have always thought of it as a horrible inconvenience, a constraint on the freedom to do as one would. But that is only part of it, the part that an outsider could imagine. Inside, there is the very different nightmare of betrayal, of being found out by and cut off from one’s own family. Curiously, the case of betrayal that comes to mind has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s the tale that’s told about Rod Dreher, of The Benedict Option, in the recent New Yorker profile. It seems that Dreher’s father and sister always treated him as though he did not belong to them, as if he had betrayed them simply by being born. Why? Because, it would appear, he had a critical intelligence.

No doubt, the father and the sister felt righteous. But it is they who ought to have felt ashamed. Mulling over the treatment of homosexuality as a betrayal of “family values,” I am even more appalled than I was before reading about Avishai Margalit. Ethics — what a dubious pastime. Comparison on this point to morality is enlightening. Quite often, perhaps even in most cases, at least here in the United States, the parents of homosexual children eventually come to feel that they have not been betrayed, and the breach is healed. We have certainly witnessed a massive shift in cultural ethics on the matter. Morality, in contrast, doesn’t change much. Kindness is always right.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017

2, 4 and 5 May

Tuesday 2nd

The news stories about Jean Stein’s jump from her apartment in 10 Gracie Square can’t help reminding us that Carter Cooper, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, jumped from a penthouse balcony in the same building nearly thirty years ago. Somehow, this detail seems less ghoulish than it might be, attached to the woman who (working with George Plimpton) gave us Edie, the oral history about Edie Sedgwick, in 1982. On Stein’s Wikipedia page, it says that Norman Mailer wrote of Edie, “this is the book of the Sixties that we have been waiting for. [citation needed]” It was certainly a jaw-dropping read. I had never heard of Edie Sedgwick before — I was perhaps a little too young — but I couldn’t put it down when it came out. For me, it was absolutely an Eighties book.

Jean Stein, Edie Sedgwick, the Vanderbilts — remember that picture in Vanity Fair in which Anderson Cooper looked older than his mother? — George Plimpton: these people occupied, or still occupy, a curious intersection of New York life, where inherited money meets publicity. Perhaps “publicity” isn’t the word. Perhaps what I mean is that, for some people who grew up wealthy, doors that don’t beckon to most rich people are open. Connections are easily made with influential people who aren’t “social.” Everybody benefits. There is nothing quite so fascinating as the scion of a moneyed family with an interesting mind; more than half a brain will often do. Fortune has so obviously smiled on such people that it’s almost reasonable to expect that a little of that fortune will rub off. I’m speculating, of course; I’ve never actually known anybody who lives on the corner that I’m talking about. But the existence of Vanity Fair suggests that my surmise is not entirely fanciful. And while there must be such intersections in other places, New York’s is the only one that counts.

What wouldn’t I give for a fly-on-the-wall seat at the next meeting of 10 Gracie Square’s co-op board.


Although I haven’t thought of taking a swan dive onto Eighty-Seventh Street from our balcony, I have been somewhat oppressed by a sense of the futility of speech. For one thing, I have the awful feeling that I’ve said everything twice already, and look what good it has done! More generally, the modes of exhortation appear to have been overworked, making people so stubborn that, if you urge them to come in out of the rain, they’ll stay out and catch pneumonia — gladly. Ideas fall into two categories: too familiar to bear repetition or dangerously novel. And no sooner do I say that than I read the capsule review of Shattered, a book that Amazon has been trying to get me to buy for my Kindle, in this week’s New Yorker. (Burning question: is this Bruce Eric Kaplan’s first cover for the magazine?) Shattered is a “withering account of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign”.

Robby Mook, who ran the operation, is portrayed as being obsessed with analytics and demographics, to the exclusion of the traditional politics of persuasion.

Traditional politics was just too familiar!

the Clinton campaign never had a clear picture of its own candidate or of what was coming.

In other words, Donald Trump was too insanely unlikely to take seriously; any serious plans to prevent his victory would have likewise been weird. What happens when bright young minds are faced with a choice between the tedious and the risky is a hasty retreat to numbers, to data, to the oracle of the computer.

Over the weekend, I thought of sharing a link, at Facebook, to Bret Stephens’s Op-Ed piece, printed on Saturday, against “The Climate of Complete Certainty” in environmental discussions. I’m glad that I didn’t. I’d have been tarred as a Trumpista! But I do think that the journalism of climate change does have a real Chicken Little problem, and that warnings about dire inevitabilities ought to be leavened by constructive proposals, and infused with the leadership quality to make them viable.


Thursday 4th

Currently reading James Harvey’s very important Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, Kathleen has been asking to see some old movies, either for the first time, or for a second look after immeasurable years. This week, I rented three videos that we don’t happen to own.

  • Dinner at Eight
  • It Happened One Night
  • The Thin Man

Although I may perhaps add It Happened One Night to our library, watching the other two titles convinced me that, although it sometimes seems that I have bought every DVD with a pulse, I do discriminate. If I want to see Myrna Loy and William Powell, I can always watch Libeled Lady — which will also give me a bigger helping of Jean Harlow than I’d dream of asking for. In Dinner at Eight, Harlow’s bedroom scene with Wallace Beery — a pre-Code instance of spousal abuse — is just about the most pointlessly nasty thing that I’ve seen in the movies. The contrast between the white-on-white-on-sequins luxe of the setting and the grim unhappiness of the marriage it shelters makes me seasick. The only problem with not having Dinner at Eight on call is missing Marie Dressler, whose immortal last line, addressed to Harlow, does not completely upstage the preceding scene, in which the worldly old lady counsels a disappointed, if shallow, young girl.

Watching It Happened One Night, I had one of my insights. After mulling it over for a while, I thought I’d better look at Ed Sikov’s book on the genre, Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies. I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that Sikov had not had my little insight, but what did bowl me over was how his interpretation of screwball comedies with a newspaper theme inadvertently highlights the hypocrisy of the Production Code — and of popular American culture itself.

It Happened One Night is often hailed as the first of the screwball comedies, but it doesn’t feel screwball to me at all. Of course, I’m comparing it with later films, made with a heightened consciousness of the genre’s possbilities. Actually, I doubt very much that Frank Capra thought that he was making a screwball comedy as such — neither the term itself nor the formal hallmarks of screwball would have occurred to him. To the extent that Capra had a genre in mind at all, it would have been “the newspaper movie.” And even that isn’t very likely.

Although there is a good deal of opulence at the very end of It Happened One Night, it is as empty of appeal as the Packard bedroom in Dinner at Eight. It certainly doesn’t cheer up the heroine, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert). She has just spent a few days on the road, living a very dusty and hungry life — but loving it more every minute — with Peter Warne (Clark Gable), trying to evade the search parties loosed by her immensely wealthy father (Walter Connolly). Ellie has worn one outfit for at least three days, and although it remains as fresh as her makeup throughout, it does get a bit old on the eye. There is nothing really screwball — funny — about Ellie’s road trip from Florida to New York. What is screwy is Warne’s crazy idea, anticipating the climax, of running off to New York while Ellie sleeps, shaking his editor up for some cash, and running back to bring her to town in style. It never occurs to him that she might be evicted from their motel in the middle of the night, which is of course what happens and what brings her back to her father’s house and the big wedding. Warne throws a second screwball when he tells Ellie’s father that he doesn’t want the $10,000 in reward money, just $30.69 for cash outlays on the road. Then, as if we might have missed something, Warne says, “I’m screwy myself.” If It Happened One Night is a screwball comedy, it’s one that doesn’t involve a lady.

What do I mean by calling it “a newspaper movie”? Simply this: whether a movie involving newspapermen is happy or sad, the first commandment is invariably that a good newspaperman will do anything for a story. “Anything” usually encompasses lying and cheating and other forms of deception, but as Libeled Lady shows us, it also covers being ridiculous, as William Powell’s Bill Chandler is in several ways, whether as the husband of somebody else’s fiancée or as an angler in a trout stream. Newspapermen are urban cowboys, tough guys in suits. If they will do anything to get a story, they can do anything, or almost anything, without risking their masculinity. This, I think, is the germ of screwball.

According to James Harvey, Cary Grant didn’t want to make The Awful Truth. He thought it would make him look ridiculous. Now, why was this, you may ask. Certainly, when Grant discovered that screwball capers did not make him look ridiculous, he embraced the genre with open arms, as in Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife, in both of which he exposes his highly professional inner clown to greater extent than in The Awful Truth, where Irene Dunne commits most of the nonsense. Why, though, would Cary Grant have been worried in the first place? And why — a related question, I insist — did The Awful Truth sink into oblivion, known only to connoisseurs and long unavailable on tape when all the other oldies came on the market in the early days of home video?

The answer: Jerry Warriner, Grant’s character in The Awful Truth, doesn’t have a job. He is certainly no newspaperman. He hasn’t got a license to misbehave. What makes The Awful Truth the great screwball comedy that it has become is Archie Leach’s license to be Cary Grant — a license that, as Grant knew better than anybody, had yet to be burnished in 1937.

Ed Sikov finds the roots of screwball in the Production code, and while there certainly are such roots, no question about it, Cary Grant’s squeamishness requires another explanation. While pondering that, we can consider Chapter 7 of Screwball, in which Sikov quite unironically catalogues the depravities of Wally Cook (Fredric March) in Nothing Sacred and Walter Burns (Cary Grant) in His Girl Friday. Far from regarding newspapermen as heroes of any kind, Sikov seems to agree with the doctor in Nothing Sacred, whom he quotes:

You’re a newspaperman. I can smell ‘em … The hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of depravity.

I don’t want to fault Ed Sikov for appearing to agree with this. But I think that it ought to modulate his understanding of the Production Code, which of course did little or nothing to restrain the antics of cinematic journalists. Nothing Sacred tells a very bleak story, to be sure. It tells it hilariously well, but still. One has to ask, what kind of morals-protecting regulation would permit such a film to be released? And the answer, of course is: only in America.

In other words, screwball was indeed an accommodation of the Production Code’s severe restrictions on the portrayal of carnality on screen. (One begins to wonder how the close-up kiss survived the censorship.) But it flourished because the Code punished only certain kinds of immorality. While gangsters had to come to their just ends, newspapermen might at the worst have to embark on a long cruise while clouds blew over. And by sharing the reporters’ freedom from retribution, male characters generally, up to and including playboys like Jerry Warriner, could be spared the consequences of their dubious conduct.

Just how dubious is revealed, in the way that a black hole might be revealed, at the beginning of The Awful Truth. In the second scene, we find ourselves in a grandiose house, with white-painted pilasters and paneling, and plenty of Chippendale furniture. But, aside from the housemaid, no recent occupants. Jerry Warriner has been “away,” but not where his wife thought he was. Anyone over the age of ten will not wonder if he has been playing a lot of squash at his club. As for his wife, Lucy, why, she has been to an out-of-town “junior prom,” and stuck on the road overnight by a flat tire. The flattest tire in the world couldn’t be flatter than this couple’s aliases. I don’t know how this scene got past the censors, because the innuendo is almost asphyxiating, and it leads straight to talk about the air-clearing virtues of divorce.

At the other end of the film, we once again find ourselves in a private home that, in its blandly impersonal (and old-fashioned) luxury might serve as an upper-crust clubroom. This is what Jerry and Lucy were living in before their adventures. It’s what they had to leave behind, and when they leave it behind a second time, they know what they’re doing.


Friday 5th

Striking a completely different cinematic note: after lunch, I watched a movie that has been haunting me for a while, Alejandro Agresti’s The Lake House (2006).

I watched it several times after it came out. I tried to figure out how the time-travel worked — it’s limited to letters in a mailbox — but I always got distracted by the tidal wash of melancholy that sweeps through the movie. This afternoon, I saw that the machinery was so unquestionably impossible that the characters must be killed by it, not just the one who gets saved at the last minute, but the both of them. In the final shot, the lovers walk into the eponymous house. I don’t think they will ever come out again.

That’s all right. I’m fine with the love philtre in Tristan und Isolde, too. Love is enchantment, and, as Tristan tells us, when the enchantment is complete, real life is no longer possible — and don’t ask why. Who cares? I found that the melancholy is still sweeping. Kate (Sandra Bullock) is enveloped by it from the start; Alex (Keanu Reeves) succumbs to it little by little. Reeves plays Alex with a manly optimism that lightens Kate’s sense that she is doomed to live alone, but he cannot defeat it. In the end, all he wants is to join her. Kate is the Tristan here, the one who knows that daylight — life — makes love unbearable. Instead of looking like the overtired doctor that Kate is supposed to be, Bullock radiates a beautiful hopelessness. She falls in love with Alex because he isn’t there.

What I brought to the film as a spectator was the fearful sadness that the film’s setting, Chicago and its environs, always arouses in me. Nowhere else is my imagination of what growing up would have been like without the proximity of moated Manhattan so painfully vivid.

I will say this: The Lake House would be a lot more plausible if it weren’t for the character of Henry, Alex’s brother (Enoch Moss-Bachrach). Two details, the book about their father’s architecture that Alex does not share with Henry (minor), and the meeting in Henry’s office that immediately precedes Kate’s last drive to the lake house (major), make too intrusive a wrinkle between the parallel worlds. It’s when you try to smooth this out that the host of other difficulties looms.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
28 April 2017

Friday 28th

Amazon has just notified me of a new book, Duff McDonald’s Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. I feel as if I’ve already read it.

What I have just read is Laura Kipnis’s polemic, Against Love. I remember dismissing it, on the basis of the reviews that it got in 2003, as just too cute. It’s hard now not to suspect a vast right-conspiracy of plotting to deprive Kipnis of readers. Reading Against Love now, fourteen years later, I’m fired by an unwonted revolutionary zeal. For Kipnis is not writing about love, not really; she’s writing about the economic straitjacket from which none of us can think how to escape. If you were to boil down Against Love to one priceless idea, it would be that a society instructed to work at love is being tricked into working for nothing!

Or, at any rate, for not enough. Not nearly enough.

Fourteen years, and nothing has changed. Income equality has simply gotten worse, while meaningful work has continued to evaporate. A few people are getting very rich, unimaginably rich, while the rest of us are desperately trying to maintain the status quo. At some point — will it be when the men and women who voted for Donald Trump realize that in effect they put Michael Pence in charge? — there seems certain to be some sort of outburst, some explosion, some manifestation of the betrayed voters’ rage.

I am almost certain that McDonald’s book could have been written fourteen years ago, give or take a major financial meltdown.

The failure of political imagination is astonishing, really. How can we have failed to progress beyond the squabble about capitalism versus socialism? Are these the only two economic orders that the human mind can come up with? Seriously? Another zombie polarity: government versus business. Has anyone not understood that what happened in 2008 was the inevitable consequence of what happened ten years earlier, with the repeal of Glass-Steagall? If we’re all on the same page about that, why can’t we junk the business/government argument and replace it with a competition between regulatory schemes? If the Democrats have a monopoly on regulatory proposals, then of course those proposals are going to be both stale and captured by the vested interests of current bureaucrats. Does being a Republican mean losing the ability to imagine a better way of keeping bad behavior in check?

Meanwhile, the book that will not go away: Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals. I’m nearing the end of the hundred-page chapter that covers the George W Bush administrations. There’s another hundred pages after that. It is an awful slog, let me tell you, to read about the dance of DOMA and the compulsion of right-wing politicians to splash in the Terry Schiavo case. I think that Fitzgerald ought to have done two things. Simply, she ought to have called her book The Inerrantists, because that’s what it’s about, not “evangelicals” generally; more complexly, she ought to have tried to pry loose the almost unconscious hold that free-market capitalism has had on the clerics whom she writes about. Is it because the Bible has nothing to say about capitalism (except for the parable of the talents) that conservative Christians can wallow so hypocritically in social injustice?

Anyway, I don’t know how Fitzgerald managed to spend as much time as she did with such unprepossessing and/or unattractive characters.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Music and Pleasure
April 2017

26 & 27 April

Wednesday 26th

Via The Browser, I’ve just read a lament by one Lary Wallace, at Aeon, about his age-related loss of interest in new pop music. It’s a well-written example of a familiar type of piece, but I had to ask myself why I was reading it. The answer was clear: I was reading it because I am a very bad person, tickled with glee by the misfortunes of others, at least those others who didn’t start out properly, with Bach and Mozart — music that doesn’t mark the moment but that goes on growing. There has never been any danger of my tiring of Bach or Mozart, possibly because there are at least twenty-five other serious composers who also keep me interested, but mostly because Bach and Mozart and the others keep opening up over time. And the beauties — the beauty of Brahms’s Violin Concerto is timelessly caressing. I can remember when some pieces of music were shockingly new, but I can’t tell you when those shocks occurred; the music carries no datestamps. I am grateful that my music does not remind me of adolescence, for why would anyone want to be reminded of that? I claim no virtue; I always disliked the edge of rudeness in pop music, its insolence and insistence. Rock’s adolescence must be against it: the popularity of an antisocial art form is regrettable.

Wallace writes,

I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing.

The last statement is ridiculous. Aside from shouty, monotonous garage-band rock, I like just about everything truly musical (thus excluding almost everything that passes for song on and off Broadway today, including the incomprehensible Hamilton). I have a lot of very odd recordings. But the interest of everything doesn’t get in the way of my loving the stuff that I love. I once went for a year without listening to any opera but Bellini’s I Puritani, and listening to it almost every weekend when I tidied the apartment — and I’m still crazy about it. (Unlike the Young Victoria and her suitor, I have never warmed to Norma.) At a recent concert performance of Il Segreto di Susanna, I wept with pleasure at every familiar turn. Serious music is like that old river: you never step into it twice.

I’m not trying to make a case here; I just think that I was very lucky to be granted big ears at an early age. And it’s true that music is more a matter of hearing for me than it seems to be for other people. It does not involve being anywhere; although I hear best in a quiet concert hall, I hear very well at home. I don’t much care for staged opera, because there is so much extraneous fiddle-faddle — theatre, I suppose. (Theatre is a very different, almost more puritan pleasure.) If music involves sight at all, it’s sight-reading, following scores and seeing things that I may not have heard. I adore the MP3 format because it promotes the internal voices while scrapping the ambient acoustics. Music for me is a supersaturated experience of notes expressively sounded, and nothing more.

To me, the passion for pop — taking it at all seriously — is an American disease, and that’s how I think it will be remembered in the long run.


Thursday 27th

Somewhere in this room there must a copy of Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama, which I haven’t really looked at (much less read) in decades. Ah, there it is — how handy: I didn’t even need to get out of my chair!

At the very end, one element which had not been accounted for in the form comes to its fruition: Elvira’s romantic chromatic chords are repeated and repeated twice for the finale cadence, while her own line has a new decoration, wonderfully delicate, tremulous, and warm. This brings the whole episode together in a flash; more, it brings a piercing new inflection — Elvira is no longer the same, or at least our understanding and sympathy have matured. In a single musical piece, action has been incorporated, unified, and interpreted. Resolved in itself, the little scene guides the total drama forward, for our sense of the total piece depends upon our realized impression of Elvira here.

Everything that happens in the little trio, near the beginning of Act II of Don Giovanni, happens in the score. Don Giovanni serenades Donna Elvira, who succumbs despite every resolution. Meanwhile, Leporello, dressed in Giovanni’s cloak, prepares to lead Elvira off so that his master can seduce her maid, his real target. Ever since reading Kerman’s analysis of the trio, this has been my favorite expression of sonata form. You might think that binding the vital impulses of drama to the rules of a musical form would be deadening, but what happens instead is that the form invigorates the drama with a musical vitality that changes our idea of theatre. To the extent that you hear a sonata while the three characters are singing, you are filled with the transformative enlightenment that, in the best operas, takes the place of theatre. Mozart does not decorate — I’m sorry that Kerman used that word — his librettist’s lines of verse with pretty music; rather, he articulates their meaning, with the help of changes in key that are possibly more powerful if they are not clearly understood. What any listener can hear is movement — the movement that constitutes music drama.

The best operas are not the most popular ones. Kerman’s book is notorious for its denunciation of Puccini’s Tosca as “that shabby little shocker” (p 254). Plays to which music has been added, whether with simple songs as in Broadway musicals or through-composed scores as in Tosca, are much easier to grasp that true music dramas. Indeed, the art of music drama is easy to miss. Mozart and Verdi, both accessible composers, developed sophisticated command of music drama as they matured, but they never let it obstruct their accessibility. (Except perhaps in the extraordinarily compressed Falstaff.) You can listen to little trio that Kerman writes about as if it were just a pretty thing, a charming moment in a dark comedy. You can listen to the king’s lament, “Ella giammai m’amò,” without noticing that the cello’s wailing is exactly what regal Philip has buttoned up. You can be unconscious of the best operas’ metamorphoses of spoken theatre, and still have a fairly good time. Most operagoers are and do.

This is by way of explaining my complaint, yesterday, that theatrical stage business too often gets in the way of the music in opera. I ought to have made the point clearly: in the best opera, the theatre is in the score, and there is no need for illustrative mime.


In this week’s New Yorker, there are pieces about two Americans, Elizabeth Strout and Rod Dreher, who may have very little in common but to me both emblematize the desert of intellectual pleasure that stretches from sea to shining sea — from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexica, anyway. Both writers (and very different kinds of writers they are!) seem to have followed the same trajectory, putting asphyxiating rural backgrounds behind them, only to grow strong enough, in urban environments, to reconsider and even to try to re-enter the worlds from which they came. Pleasure is not much discussed in either piece; I suspect that it has had a larger place in Strout’s life than in Dreher’s, but what matters is that their seriousness is not particularly pleasant. Maybe they have lots of fun on the side, but that doesn’t matter, either, because fun is not pleasure. “Serious fun,” a term that pops up now and then, is an oxymoron that means something like “pleasure.” “Pleasure,” meanwhile, carries a great deal of carnal baggage. Non-carnal pleasure, except in the relatively recent field of gastronomy, is almost un-American.

It’s true that pleasure, especially intellectual pleasure, is not very sociable. It is best experienced by individuals in quiet rooms — and by individuals who have experienced a lot of pleasure in the past. The art of being pleased looks like a selfish skill, and the art of discrimination, of refusing everything but the very best, seems almost inhumanly mean. But turning up one’s nose is the sign of the unformed pleasure-seeker. The formed pleasure-seeker no longer needs to seek. The world abounds in occasions for pleasure. Occasions for horror and regret may be more numerous, but pleasure is our only real hope of putting an end to them.

As Madame de Pompadour’s power and influence at the court of Louis XV grew to its summit, it occurred to the lady that all she needed for complete success was a reputation for piety. She attended services and performed good works. She seems not to have understood that, so long as she continued at court as the king’s mistress (even if she no longer slept with him), she could never be regarded as pious. And it’s a failing of institutional Christianity, with its ghastly Augustinian confusion about sex, that she couldn’t. In the New Yorker piece, Joshua Rothman isolates Rod Dreher’s refusal to accept same-sex marriage as the raison-d’être of the Benedict Option. Why, oh why, is sexuality such a big deal?

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
24 April 2017

Monday 24th

Kathleen has been reading up on the old movies, and asking to see a few. The other night, we watched Jezebel, which somehow she hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t seen it in years myself. I’d forgotten almost everything about it, except the red dress, the yellow fever, and Henry Fonda’s wooden performance. Wooden! Why, the whole thing is a piece of cardboard. Fay Bainter is very good, a study in generous respectability. “Halcyon belongs to its guests” — I’d forgotten that magnificent specimen of Dixie tripe. And Bette Davis is, as usual, extraordinary. I still think, though, that The Great Lie does a better job with similar materials, especially the ole plantation trope.

What makes Jezebel pathetic is the idea that it was supposed to compete with Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is a terrible picture that Jezebel easily surpasses on its own terms. Economically, it shows us the antebellum South, doing without the bellum. (It is set in 1852-3.) And instead of going on forever and a day, as the Selznick blockbuster does, so that we are as tired of Scarlett and Rhett as they are of one another, Jezebel ends without a resolution. Will Julie be able to nurse Press on Lazaret Island? Will he survive? Will she survive? Maybe Press’s wife will come down with the fever, too. But we will never know. “What a gyp!” cried Kathleen. I however was impressed and relieved — no more Southern accents.

(Frankly, my dear, Gone With the Wind is a screwball comedy that has been hastily embalmed in a military epic. There is nothing in it that isn’t done better by Carol Burnett’s famous parody, Went With the Wind. “I saw it in a window and I couldn’t resist.”)

But what about Jezebel? This is the problem with growing up Catholic — no juicy Bible stories. I had encountered Jezebel and her husband, King Ahab, in Elijah, Mendelssohn’s oratorio, but only glancingly. The Bible itself isn’t much better. Split between Kings 1 and 2, Jezebel appears only twice, although we are told that she comes from Sidon and that she persecutes the prophets of the Lord. The second and final glimpse that we have of her is while she’s getting dolled up to meet Jehu, who responds to her greeting by having her eunuchs toss her out of the window. It’s all quite summary; you don’t get much of a sense of Jezebel’s motivation. She’s just bad — and she’s also a woman with a name, which means she shouldn’t even be in Scripture at all. Women with names are almost always occasions of sin. Nice women, like the widow of Zarephath who takes care of Elijah, are known only by their positions.

This may be how the Warner Bros film came by its title. The worst thing about Jezebel in the books of Kings is that she’s an idolatress, a worshiper of Baal. But in more recent times, what with idolatry fading away and all, her name was a byword for fallen women. What was the competition, Scripture-wise? How many other painted ladies are there? She was an old lady by this time. I wonder how often, in the fifteen-odd years before she died, Elizabeth I’s courtiers had to bite their tongues. The worst thing youthful Julie Marsden does is to wear a red dress to a ball. It’s hard to believe that anybody at Warner Bros, of all the studios, believed that Southern women were delicate figurines for whom the wearing of anything but virginal white would be grounds for ostracism.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
I’m not going to say it in the Header, if that’s what you’re afraid of.
21 April 2017

Friday 21st

All week, I’ve been agonizing about history. What’s the point in talking about it? Everybody hates it. Nobody knows what it is. And without it, we’re lost.

History is not “what happened.” We’ll never know what happened. We can’t even say what happened yesterday. It’s too vast, too complicated, and its implications have barely begun to unfold.

Neither is history a treasure that lies buried in archives, waiting to be discovered by research. The researcher, sorting through boxes of documents, already knows what he or she is hoping to find. Within a narrow range, the researcher is prepared for surprises. Outside of that range, what might be an enlightening surprise for another researcher with other questions is for our researcher nothing but an irrelevancy.


History is one kind of explanation. The questions that need explaining are always, basically, the same: How did we get here? Whether what you mean by that question is (a) how did the human species invent civilization or (b) what was Rudy Giuliani doing in Ankara the other day, the historical explanation is arrived at in the same way, by a likely story. The story is likely because it is based on historical evidence. Historians, the people who come up with explanations for a living, have developed a set of criteria for evaluating raw facts and determining their value as historical evidence, and that is as far as we’re going to take this adventure in circularity. History is objective in that historians observe their professional standards. But it has no existence apart from historians. Unlike Scripture, which is another kind of explanation, history depends on no higher authority for validation. I ought to point out that journalists, the people who explain Rudy Giuliani for a living, are a kind of historian; they follow pretty much the same rules of evidence.

Last night, I was reading a book that Laura Kipnis published ten years ago, The Female Thing. Kipnis is not a historian, but she has a sense of history — “a sense of history” is my subject today — and it gives her writing about feminism an uncommon ballast. I was reading the chapter on “Dirt.” Kipnis notes that, while we associate slovenliness with men these days, women used to be the dirty sex. She thinks that this changed in the Eighteenth Century — she has a wonderful way, as I hope I do, too, of accompanying such claims with the disclaimer, “Don’t hold me to it.” — and I don’t really disagree, but because I have a pet theory of my own, I would argue that the way was paved by the pious and prosperous Protestant women who, from the time of the Reformation, took up wearing black and white, reading the Bible, and, sometimes, setting the example expected of a preacher’s wife (a new role, historically); and that, furthermore, this appropriation of cleanliness, which came to be called “respectability” in English — Is Kipnis too young to have been bothered by respectability? She doesn’t mention it — lost its carnal teeth, so to speak, when women gained the political franchise. Somehow, Kipnis notes ruefully, women have gained the right to sleep around, but they’re still stuck with changing all the sheets.

How did that happen? In the blink of an eye, my pet theory produces an explanation. Women internalized the commands of respectability that governed outward appearances. They continued to scrub counters and to hoover the carpets, because everyone can see those. The commands that governed private behavior were ignored. The result, at least in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is the look of an extremely well-tended hooker. Even Mme de Pompadour would not be seen in such outfits. Not even Cleopatra, I daresay. It’s quite inexplicable — until you apply your sense of history.

There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
20 April 2017

Thursday 20th

Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation, the 1993 film adaptation of John Guare’s play (Guare also wrote the screenplay), has long been a favorite, and so has Allison Janney, still relatively unknown, a thousand years ago, when we first saw her in Blue Window and New England at MTC. Kathleen decided that seeing the Broadway revival of the play, with Janney in the most sympathetic role, would be just the birthday treat she wanted. So she got tickets. The show opens next week; we hope that it will be a hit. Everyone at the Barrymore last night seemed to have a very good time.

The play, perhaps because it is so compressed, is less amusing than the film, but it is also more exhilarating. The twists and turns of the plot are more viscerally entwined with the dramatic problem, which is Ouisa Kittredge’s growing determination to prevent her family’s experience at the hands of a very skilled imposter from decaying into mere anecdote. She is tormented, albeit probably not for the rest of her life, by her inability to do anything for a clearly gifted young man who might well be a sociopathic con — whose very pleas for help may just be his way of passing the time. He may be unworthy of the Kittredges’ attentions, but for Ouisa the sharper possibility is that they are unworthy of his.

Ouisa’s husband, Flan, is the kind of con man that goes by the name of salesman. He is also something of a fence. When rich people want to dispose of valuable paintings without attracting public notice, they come to him. Flan can put together a syndicate of investors with the money to buy a Van Gogh or a Cézanne, which they then sell at a handsome profit. These artworks are worth millions, but they are also worth whatever Flan can mesmerize his buyers into paying. Although Flan and Ouisa manage to live on Fifth Avenue and to send their children to Groton and Harvard, cash is an issue, and money most definitely an object.

How different are they, then, from the presentable black youth who staggers into their lives one night, bleeding, turning to them because he has heard such nice things about them from their children? That the Kittredge children might say anything nice about their parents is such a delicious surprise that Flan and Ouisa — admittedly, under a great deal of stress at the moment (they are entertaining a rich South African whose largesse stands between them and “going to banks”) — forget their critical faculties altogether and take the fellow at face value. And a big value it is, for the boy is Paul Poitier, the son of the celebrated actor. Paul has come down from Cambridge the night before his father’s arrival in town, and he has been mugged — mugged and stabbed in Central Park, right there outside the Kittredges’ building. Of course they take him in. Once bandaged, Paul cooks them a delightful pasta supper and charms the South African with a précis of The Catcher in the Rye. You may recall that the protagonist of Salinger’s novel is obsessed with phoneys.

The next morning, Paul is discovered, in one of the Kittredge children’s bedrooms, with a naked hustler. After a great deal of commotion, the hustler and the young man are persuaded to leave. Almost at once, Kitty and Larkin, friends of the Kittredges and parents of their children’s classmates, knock on the door with the very interesting story of their night with Paul Poitier. They’re somewhat miffed to learn that the Kittredges have a better story. This is when the experience begins to take on the gloss of an anecdote. There is still much to learn — how did Paul, or whoever he is, acquire such rich knowledge of the lives of well-heeled New Yorkers? — but when the imposture takes a fatal turn and Paul becomes a wanted man, Ouisa discovers that she is on Paul’s side, inside the experience, not outside it, where everyone else she knows is ready to treat it as a great story. She appreciates the effort behind his skillful impersonation, and feels that it must be compensated somehow. The movie ends with Stockard Channing, pert in a spring-yellow suit, walking away from a luncheon party, perhaps for a headache-clearing stroll down Park Avenue, perhaps for a new life. The new production of the play ends with Allison Janney’s enigmatic smile.

More than once, whether because of her blondish wig or the sharp stage lighting, Janney made me think that she was Lauren Bacall, not just because she looked like the late actress but because she wielded the same authority.  Janney has a powerful voice; if she were a singer, she’d be Ethel Merman. She was also, I think, the tallest member of the cast, at least in heels. All this personal strength was put to the work of rendering Ouisa’s ambivalent discomfort with the clarity of her own moral compass. What makes the play exciting is our own ambivalence, because we want to believe that someone as smart as Ouisa might figure out a way of doing the right thing while continuing to live her enviably glamorous and witty life overlooking the park and schmoozing with millionaires. Ouisa’s smile at the end is her way of acknowledging that she knows what we expect of her. It is full of rue.

Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Trip Cullman, has a large and excellent cast. If I were being paid to write this, I might feel obligated to name a few names, but the fact is that no one stands out in a cast of standouts, and to mention any would be to slight the others. John Benjamin Hickey (Flan) and Corey Hawkins (Paul) share the headlines, and they are both very good, but their parts are merely larger than the rest. If I call attention to Mark Wendland’s excellent scenic design, I do so without knowing to what extent he was realizing the playwright’s stage directions.

Do try to see it.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
J D Vance
19 April 2017

Wednesday 19th

Last week, I read J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a book that was much talked about when it came out last fall. Already somewhat concerned about the outcome of the presidential election, I wanted to pretend that hillbillies, among other types, didn’t exist, so I took no notice. But last week, casting about for something to read on the Kindle at bedtime (and worried about overexposing myself to Rachel Cusk), I thought, why not? By now, I had read a piece by Vance in one of the magazines, and found it literate if efficient. The hollers of Kentucky are not my cup of tea at all, but I trusted Vance’s crisp prose for the ride, and I was not disappointed.

Kentucky is really just a curtain-raiser. Most of Hillbilly Elegy describes the author’s childhood in Middletown, Ohio, a small city, once centered around Armco Steel, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton. Middletown is even less my cup of tea — not a cup of tea at all, really. What held my attention was the growth of Vance’s sense of self, sustained against a background of serious family dysfunction. The problem was Vance’s mother, a woman whose personal weakness allowed her to fall from a high point of high-school salutatorian into the bog of heroin addiction. Along the way, she provided her son with something like fifteen father substitutes, some of whom she married. His mother’s mother, Mamaw, a fierce person, saw him saw him through the worst of it, and he managed to spend the last three years of high school living with her. Then he did something really smart: he joined the Marines, and the Marines taught him how to take care of himself. Then he was ready for college, which he completed in twenty-three months. Yale Law followed; Vance distinguished himself there by editing the Law Review and completing a judicial clerkship. He now works, it seems, for a firm owned by Peter Thiel.

While I grasp the implications of Vance’s title, I wonder if Hillbilly Anthem might have been better, because, for all their antics, Vance is proud of his people. There is a feeling that what was clearly dysfunctional behavior in Middletown was merely erratic or unlawful in Kentucky. Leaving home, despite short-term economic prosperity, has not been good to the hillbillies. An ethos designed to cope with harsh circumstances falls apart in softer ones. Of all the voices that I have heard raised against government interference in family affairs, Vance’s is the only one that I would trust, for it is completely devoid of the self-congratulation that spoils so much conservative thinking. Vance did not do it his way. He did it the Mamaw way, and then the Marine way, and even after all of that he learned how to do it the Yale way. Vance was never too proud to learn, or to take help when it was honorably offered. I would be willing to give his call for tough medicine a try if I believed that the American government would discipline the plutocrats who have converted our economy into a financialized bazaar populated by rentiers and their servants. Vance has nothing to say about that side of things.

For all its vicissitudes, Vance recalls his childhood lovingly. There’s more than macho pride to his affection. This was as foreign to me as his experience in the Marines. I don’t look back on my childhood with affection — or with any other strong emotion, either. So detached am I now from that world (even while living in an apartment full of inherited furniture and knick-knacks) that I worried, about ten years ago, about being “on the spectrum.” Now, I certainly don’t envy Vance his childhood, however loving. It reads like a nightmare. My own was but a grey stretch, without cuts or bruises. There may have been a dark streak running through it, a perennial worry that my adoptive parents would “take me back,” even though I knew that this “couldn’t happen.” I knew that this couldn’t happen, but I also knew that my mother was at times so out of her mind with dissatisfaction that she must have thought of calling a lawyer for advice. (Maybe she did, behind my father’s back. Maybe they both called.) I don’t want to overdo this melodramatic dread, though; it was hardly something that gnawed at me every day. Most of the time, I was a comfortable brat. But now I think of it, perhaps what drove my mother crazy even more than my misbehavior (which was almost always misdemeanorish) was my lack of pride and loyalty. I took all the comfort that Bronxville had to offer, but I was ashamed of myself for doing so.

Truman Capote once said that he and Perry Smith, his subject in In Cold Blood, had grown up in the same house, but that while Capote left it by the front door (for prosperity), Smith went out by the back (and to crime). I thought of this reading Hillbilly Elegy. It was as though J D Vance walked into the front door of a big house that I had lived in long ago. I crept out of that house, taking forever to leave. The actual house that I moved into was smaller but much more suitable, but the house that I really live in is a mansion without end.

It is history, not family. We have been here a long time.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Laura Kipnis
18 April 2017

Tuesday 18th

On Sunday, we had a pleasant Easter dinner. Ms NOLA and her family joined us, as did Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil. The weather was sunny and warm, and the menu was simple — mushroom soup followed by ham, sweet potatoes, and haricots with almonds. Ray made his glorious chocolate mousse. We talked our heads off as usual. I had a bit of difficulty carving the ham — there seemed to be too many bones — but everything else went smoothly, and now, two days later, the only thing that remains is to put all the dishes back into the china cupboard. I did nothing yesterday but go to the dentist. I slept until noon this morning. I will be back to normal tomorrow. My mind, having been in quartermaster mode for several days, is resettling into its ruminative coils.

I did read a book yesterday — Laura Kipnis’s Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation. I’m intrigued by Kipnis’s façon de penser, and I plan to read more. She has a new book out, Unwanted Advances, about academic paranoia, but I want to read The Female Thing first, because I think that it will help me with my thoughts about feminism, which, like everyone else’s, are a muddle.

To try to begin to clear the air, last week, I sketched a few paragraphs about women and liberation in the form of a letter to a friend; my thoughts were nowhere near clear enough for presentation here. I began with the various liberation movements that arose around 1800, and traced the success with which women’s demands for freedom from pre-modern shackles was met, first with political enfranchisement and then with economic opportunity. Despite this, a great deal of discontent about the position of women remains. Why? That’s what I wanted to know. I surmised that it had something to do with romance, or “romance,” and I won’t be surprised if The Female Thing helps me to understand this better. Kipnis seems (on the basis of Men) to be more likely than anyone to explain how feminism, by reconstructing romance in accord with the actual desires of women, might throw everyone’s expectations of “romance” into confusion.

By far, however, the most interesting thing about my little essay, which had a few interesting things in it, was that it did not occur to me until the next day that “women’s liberation” was the name of the movement in the late Sixties and well through the Seventies. “Feminism” came later. Kathleen remembered, with a jolt, having been called a “women’s libber.” But the term had been forgotten; I could write about it without saying it. Arguably, it has been forgotten because women’s liberation has been accomplished. There’s nothing more to expect from “liberation.” Such difficulties as remain lie elsewhere.

Kipnis is a curious thinker — my favorite kind, but hard to describe. In our ever more polarized critical climate, she stands apart — she stands for candor and common sense. She has a bit of thing about épataying the bourgeoisie, and she has bitter words for capitalist plutocrats, but she doesn’t seem to have an idea of a better world. This is undoubtedly sensible, but I’d still like to know more about her hopes. The most solid piece in Men, not surprisingly, is the transcript of her debate with Harvey Mansfield, whose reactionary book about manliness got everyone stirred up a few years ago. When Mansfield remarks that men take rejection better than women do, Kipnis cocks her eyebrow and shifts the perspective.

You know, until pretty recently there were many more consequences for women when it came to sexual expression than for men. When Simone de Beauvoir, whom you discuss in your book, wrote The Second Sex, birth control was actually illegal in France — she had to go to New York to get a diaphragm. It’s been less than fifty years that women have been freed from at least some of the consequences of sexual expression. So what women are “by nature” or whether women are any more modest or equally immodest — I just think we don’t yet know. Ditto the question of what women want from men, given that economic independence from men is also a fairly recent option.

To which Mansfield replies,

As important as careers are for women, what’s been more central in feminist thinking is this obsession with sex. And that’s what so wrong about feminism, and what has caused all the difficulties we see today and all the unhappiness that women have. Because most women do want to get married, and that’s because they’re smart enough to realize that a happy marriage is the most common and easiest way for a human being to be happy.

I quote Mansfield’s response because it is so archetypally deaf to what Kipnis has just said — it’s too early to tell. And it falls back on utter fatuity: a happy marriage is the easiest way for a human being to be happy. Well, duh — if the marriage is happy already. Making a happy marriage, as Kipnis points out, is another matter. Most marriages aren’t happy. Which Mansfield would undoubtely blame on the feminist obsession with sex!

Most of Kipnis’s essays are more relaxed, or at any rate less intellectually demanding. She is funny and clever and obviously very smart, but the pieces collected in Men veer too often toward entertainment. One exception is her piece on House of Games, the kinkily wooden film about a psychiatrist and a con man that David Mamet filmed in 1987. “If I say that the storyline of House of Games involves an overly cerebral woman spying on a bunch of sleazy but sexy men and then getting her comeuppance, possibly you can see why House of Games would be a movie that makes me nervous.” Kipnis compares the movie to sex with a bad man — she has a ball while it lasts but then hates herself the next morning. Kathleen and I watched House of Games a few months ago, so it was fresh enough in memory to make Kipnis’s essay especially pleasurable.

If it’s too early to tell what women want, it’s not too soon to smash the question. If you ask what men want, the answer, pretty obviously, is having their own way, which means that there are a million things than men want, or perhaps as many different things as there are men. (Most men have no real idea of the things that you can want if you have lots of money.) When Freud asked his infamous question, he was talking about a class of human beings who were defined by their common shackles. What happens when you remove those shackles is that women become as diversely purposed as men.

I’m on the verge of proposing that the body of thought called feminism ought to be broken in two. One half would concern the multiplicity of encounters that women experience as they express their newfound liberation. Many of these encounters will not be positive, and it will be important to judge them without sentimentality for a simpler, imprisoned past. The other half would concern the new relations between the sexes — or between the genders, as I’d prefer to put it, because sexual activity would not be included here. Powerism is an awful word, but it captures what I have in mind. If there is one thing that the mere liberation of women from legal and social constraints could not change, it is the constellation of male habits of mind about the manners of power. These habits are both unconscious for those who have them and obvious to others. They must change if women are to go beyond liberation and into incorporation, into running the world alongside men, encouraging — very much as courageous men encourage — us all to pay more and better attention to each other.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Re-reading Brian Morton
12 April 2017

Wednesday 12th

This will be brief, because I’ve just written a letter to Brian Morton, mostly about his novel, A Window Across the River. Kathleen loved this book so much that I thought I might read it again myself. Brian Morton had been on my mind anyway, since Patricia Bosworth’s recent memoir stirred up memories of Bronxville. Morton, with whom I’ve enjoyed the exchange of a couple of notes, is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence, which Bosworth attended long before his time — before his birth, in fact — but I wonder if the profile of the Sarah Lawrence girl, always painted for me in lurid colors by my mother, who regarded it as a seminary for dissolute women (a view that nothing in Bosworth’s book would contradict), has changed much over the years. Now that dissoluteness is so mainstream and all.

A Window Across the River is about two creative people — a writer and a photographer — who try to revive an old affair. They drifted apart after the writer had an abortion; what kept the writer away was her terrible gift for writing devastating short stories about the people she loves. She can’t write any other kind of fiction, and once this is established, and the old friendship is resumed, we hold our breath waiting to find out how Isaac, the photographer, will respond to Nora’s inevitable story about him. (Our hopes that Nora might find a way to write a nice story about Isaac, who really is her favorite person in the world, are stifled at every turn.) Along the way, Nora and Isaac are distracted by the epiphenomena of art — the shows, the readings, the dinners, the panels, and, for Isaac, the alluring but more gifted students — that litter creative lives but make for entertaining reading. Here is Nora’s recollection of the literary life in college:

Kafka once said that a writer should cling to his desk as if to a life raft. Nora felt like she knew what he meant. And maybe, she thought, a woman writer has to cling to it with a special ferocity. Swarthmore had had a busy creative writing program, and every semester three or four visiting writers came in to give readings, lead daylong seminars, and be picturesquely literary in the coffee bar and the cafeteria. Nora tried to observe them closely. All of the successful male writers, she’d observed, were carried through their lives by a sort of rapture of egotism. Most of them were married, or had been — most had burned quickly through several wives — and many of them had children, but she got the feeling that none of them had ever let anything come between them and their work. The women were different. Most of them seemed nicer that the men — more modest, more approachable — but less obsessed. Nora found it easy to believe that their devotion to writing had always had to compete with the many varieties of caregiving with which women fill their lives. Some of the older women had long gaps in their writing lives, ten-year periods in which they’d published nothing. The single women were the only ones who seemed as fantastically devoted to writing as the men. “The lady poets must not marry, pal,” wrote John Berryman in one of his Dream Songs; more than forty years later, it still seemed to be true. (138-9)

I copied it out for two reasons. Not only is “rapture of egotism” so rich (rapture/raptor; the jet d’eau of the vowels; the insensibility brought on by the virtual-reality device of egotism), but its counterweight, “the many varieties of caregiving with which women fill their lives,” is so decidedly unmagical. Also, a more feminist statement might be, “with which women’s lives are filled,” because so many women feel that they don’t have a choice. But for Nora it is a choice. She accepts her womanliness as is; what bothers her is her poisoned pen.

When his rage cools down, Isaac’s understanding of Nora’s achievement expands.

She’d always said that her stories had no compassion, but that wasn’t quite accurate. Her portrait of him was a perfect rendering of the person he was afraid he might be. She’d intuited some of his worst fears about himself and written a story based on the premise that they were true. To write about him with such damning finality, as if he would never rise above his limitations — that, it was true, could be called cruel. But to go so deeply into his inner life that she could unearth his most intimate fears about himself — that was a large act of sympathetic imagination.  (286)

All we can do is what Nora does: hope for the best.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Camp Followers
10 April 2017

Monday 10th

Frances Fitzgerald has published a new book that, like most of her others, quickly establishes itself as Required Reading. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is a brisk but rigorous survey of a movement with primeval roots in American culture. But that word, struggle, so overused in subtitles, here eloquently attests to the difficulty that Evangelicalism has had in asserting its primacy over the culture. The United States may well be the most “religious” country in the developed world, with more of its people willing to assert a belief in God. But American religiosity is ideologically ramshackle, as is clear from its wavering and unclear relations with the more disciplined Calvinist creeds from which it derives. It is also stoutly opposed by an antagonist culture, rooted in the Western secular thought of which our Constitution is a flower, of social justice.

This is an old antagonism. A threshold decision about living in the world must be made by every person in it: is the world worthy of improvement, or is it rather a bolus of wickedness that is about to meet the divine retribution that it deserves? To put the choice in terms of Scripture alone, which are the more important pages of the New Testament, the moral teachings of Jesus or the not altogether coherent predictions of Revelation? If I bet on the Rapture, do I need health insurance? If Armageddon is at hand, should I worry about racial inequality?

American Evangelicals did not invent this duality; it runs through the entire course of heresy from the earliest days of the Christian Church. Until the Sixteenth Century, much of what Evangelicals now stand for was heresy, in the eyes of the Christian establishment at Rome. No sooner was that establishment upended in Northern Europe, however, than fratricidal doctrinal squabbles sent many protestants into exile. On the other shore of the Atlantic, exile was repackaged as paradise, a new home for new religion. Not long afterward, though, it also became a mercantile power, with cities full of the virtually godless. The soldiers of Christ have no more prevailed in the New World than they did in the Old. Strange offshoots from the Nineteenth Century, such the Oneida Community and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (one of them still very much with us), gave way in the Twentieth to glitzy, vaguely disgraceful performances by such intriguing people as Aimée Semple McPherson, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. (I’ve cheated and read ahead: Fitzgerald on the Bakkers is a feast of understatement.) Evangelicals have somehow emerged, in the Twenty-First Century, as supporters of every kind of inequality; they appear to be committed to a democracy that is limited to white heterosexual males. Whether that’s “American” or not remains, unfortunately, to be decided.

I am not a spiritual person, but I am aware of drawing great strength from a belief in “society” that has a distinctly spiritual aura, and, what’s more, is no more demonstrable, no more available to truth claims, than a belief in the Holy Trinity. I simply believe that it is there, and I should be broken if I didn’t. I believe that what’s best about human beings is their ability to cooperate and to provide mutual support — sometimes just by having fun together. What makes these achievements wonderful is their way of acknowledging the manifest inequality of born humans. At our best, we help one another out without expecting one another to share a greater likeness. (We are rarely at our best.) I am no socialist; I do not dream of making humanity harmonious. But we are mutually dependent for safety and comfort. To me, the denial of this basic proposition is clear evidence of emotional immaturity.

Sore as our unresolved inequalities of race and gender remain, we appear to be on the verge of confronting a new inequality of employability. It will be interesting to see how Evangelicals fare among the new jobless, and vice versa. The nub of the equality problem is the secular dream (shared by Jesus) of treating different people equally. It is not to say that difference is unimportant or easy to overlook; on the contrary: difference is unignorable. It is only when difference is recognized and accepted that equality can be granted. The difference that I’m talking about is not the difference of other people. It is the difference of me, the lonely uniqueness of my particular chaos in the universe. Only when I set aside imaginary groupings to which I might pretend to belong do I ache for equality, simply that I may be treated equally myself.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
The Benedict Thing
7 April 2017

Friday 7th

At lunch with my friend Eric, I was talking about the latest buzzword, “the Benedict option.” Eric knew more about it than I did. He knew, for example, about Rod Dreher, whose book of the same title has just come out. The cover is illustrated with a photograph of Mont-Saint-Michel, of course. What could be cosier than a rock-bound tower that, in the middle of a bay, is accessible only at low tide? Why don’t we all just go there and live the pure life, while cities plunge into every kind of sexual irregularity? We never liked cities anyway.

What is it about sex, that everybody thinks that it’s so important?

Animals, from what we can tell, do not, however driven, actually enjoy sexual congress. It seems to me than an ethos of generosity, such as Christianity is at its Scriptural core, would not be very interested in the carnal itch. But early Christianity was distinguished by the devotion of propertied women, widows mostly, who were attracted by the promise of first-class citizenship that, for a short time only, the new religion seemed to offer. These ladies were hardly sexual wantons; their rebellion stood for virginity. By St Augustine’s day, it was all but settled that true Christians renounced sex.

But why make everybody else renounce it? Why make it all such a big deal? I can only conclude that human beings, like animals, don’t like sex, either — especially when they’re not having any.

As for retiring to monasteries, Ron Dreher ought to be writing about Cassiodorus, the noble roman who gave monasteries their real raison d’être, which was to copy manuscripts on as large a scale as possible. Transcribing important texts is no longer as arduous as it was then, but actually reading and understanding them is more important than ever. From the quiet of the bookroom of my Upper East Side apartment, I see no need to fuss about monasteries. No need to bring sex into it!

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
6 April 2017

Thursday 6th

Although the weather is still generally lousy, spring seems determined to prevail, and, any day now, I may receive a box from White Flower Farm containing some unusual coleus plants that do well on the balcony. This year, I shall open it right away, no matter how rainy or chilly it is, and get the plants into pots, instead of letting them wither, as I did last year, waiting for the skies to clear. I have already strewn the ivy pot with morning glory seeds. Neither ivy nor morning glories have ever really thrived on my balconies, but I don’t know what else to do with the gigantic pot. Throwing it away would require filling many garbage bags with dirt first. Much easier to toss in some seeds and complain.

Meanwhile, I am learning that there is always more to cleaning the bathroom than I thought. When I started doing it myself, at holiday time, it seemed enough to soak the bath mat in a very mild bleach solution while scrubbing the tub and polishing the fixtures. After a few weeks, though, I could feel that the walls above the tub were getting scummy. How did the woman who used to do the cleaning take care of that, without getting wet? And how did she manage without bleach? (For she never asked me to stock up, although this might have been because I always have it on hand.) And how did she mop the floors? I know that she didn’t use vinegar, which is the only solvent that I can get to work for me. Everything else leaves a streaky mess.

We had chicken Tetrazzini for dinner last night. It was tasty, but making the sauce was a botheration, because, instead of consulting the recipe — my perfectly reliable recipe — I’d concocted it off the top of my head, and there wasn’t enough thickening flour in the roux — as I concluded later. When I set it over low heat to reduce, it didn’t burble gently in the saucepan, but popped and plumed, because, if I hadn’t used enough flour, I had used too much butter. I had also stirred in an egg yolk far too soon. It’s horrifying to find myself still vulnerable to that adolescent resentment about “following orders,” even if they’re my own. Saying “I’ll do it my way” settles nothing.

I have taken to dictating the shopping list to the iPhone. I open the shopping list note, bring up the keyboard, hit “return” and then the little microphone icon, and say “mayonnaise.” After a slight second, “Mayonnaise” appears on the screen, correctly spelled. It is true that I am (among other things) a trained radio announcer, but I’m still impressed. And yet even dictation is far from perfect. It occurred to me to put mayonnaise on the list when I was spooning a cupful of the stuff into a mini-processor, to make my version of Russian/Thousand Island dressing. Both hands were full, and I forgot to update the shopping list until Kathleen came home, and I said, “Hey, I’ve been dictating the shopping list to the iPhone.” I managed to turn the screen in her direction during that split second between my speech and the appearance of the word. She was impressed, too.

Now it’s time to change the sheets. Also, the blanket and the bedspread. I change the blanket and the bedspread when the time changes. This year’s time change, in the middle of March, took me by surprise, and then the next time that I changed the sheets, I found that when I had made the bed I had forgotten to change the blanket and the bedspread, and I was not about to undo all that work. I shall not forgot today. Also, it’s time to turn over the quilt on top of the bedspread. We had it made when we moved to this apartment. One side is predominately green, but with a multicolored pattern of half-opened fans. The other side is mostly red, in a very irregular plaid. Last fall, Kathleen noticed that I always had the plaid side facing down. It’s true that I much prefer the green. But I made a deal, to show the warm red during the cold season. Now it’s time for the breezy fans.

If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, thanks to millennia of poor decisions made by powerful men, it’s because powerful men have never had to grapple with the real problems of life.

More anon.