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.

Gotham Diary:
Above Average
4 April 2017

Tuesday 4th

Ever since climbing aboard the Internet, it seems, I’ve been trying to figure out Tyler Cowen. He is certainly not a sympathetic figure, but neither is he altogether antipathetic. I can’t seem to get a grip on his economic ideas, mostly because I have no training but also because I think that most economic training is nonsense, productive of nothing but words sprayed on a page. The only thing that I really know about Cowen is that he travels a lot and is always in search of good local restaurants.

In a recent Vox interview with Ezra Klein, in fact, Cowen is shown holding chopsticks, with seven dishes of various sizes on the table behind him. Despite the chopsticks, despite the Chinese cuisine, the image is adamantly masculine. Cowen’s manliness is a thick thread that runs through everything he writes — his voice is bright with the impatience that comes of having to explain things over and over again — and I do not think that there is anything compensatory about it. Nor misogynist. If Cowen’s positions might be unhelpful to women and to others traditionally unwelcome at the high tables of power, that is incidental. Cowen would probably be the first man to stand up and welcome a woman who demonstrated the capacity to act with his manly assurance.

In the interview, Klein asked Cowen for quick comments about a slew of issues. NATO, guaranteed income, the war on drugs. I can’t say that I disagreed with much of what he said. My objections were all tonal, because I, of course, am not a manly man — I’m too skeptical about the status quo, but also too optimistic about improving on it. Early on, Cowen quipped, “I feel we need to put up a big sign on this country that says, ‘We’re for immigrants who really want to work and create’.” I shuddered with irritation, because putting “work” and “create” in the same clause makes hash of both. I wonder why he did not simply say, “… who really want to compete.”

Later, there was an even more abrasive passage.

I do believe America is an exceptional nation and should think of itself as such. And this norm weakening is one of my great worries about this current time. If you ask what makes America exceptional, it’s the embedded mix of religiosity and the high status we’re willing to give to businessmen. Our belief that our way of life is best, which of course it isn’t, but we believe it, and that’s overall a good thing. And this Puritan notion that there are individual life projects and it’s your highest calling to pursue them. And we both live by this, even though neither of us is Protestant. And I think that combination is just fantastic, though dangerous too.

At two points, Cowen undercuts himself, first when he says that our way of life isn’t the best, and then when he finds the “combination” — of what, I’m not exactly sure — dangerous. What does he really mean? That it’s a good thing to believe in an illusion — if the illusion is the particular one that we believe in? But what dispirits me far more is Cowen’s explicit belief that religiosity and businessmen are what make America exceptional. I wonder how many women, especially educated women, would agree. How many women would jump out of bed every morning with enthusiasm for prioritizing catechism and the cash register?

My own view is that America is exceptional because there used to be so much room in its thinly-populated wilderness for anti-social European misfits. I believe that American exceptionalism is a disorder from which the nation is far from recovering.


Thinking very hard, for various reasons, about feminism, I more and more want to bury the term in scare quotes and declare that we simply don’t know what it refers to. It seems more profitable to consider what feminism isn’t, what its constellation of ideas does not include. The first thing that comes to mind is competition.

In other entries, I’ve argued that pure capitalism is very important to a healthy economic life, but only in small doses and special cases. There is a vital interlacing between capitalism and innovation that keeps the economic edge sharp. But only the edge. Mature businesses do not thrive in capitalist excitement. That’s why I argue for more not-for-profit business organizations. Please tell me what is competitive, in a good way, about the supply of electric power. You can’t. The competition — the innovation, funded by capitalist speculation — was settled long ago, while Thomas Edison was still alive. Quick readers will note that I have folded “competition” into the captialist-innovation matrix. And that is indeed where I think it belongs.

The worst thing about prioritizing competition is the laziness that it encourages. I’m not being paradoxical. Competition, with its markers and its metrics, reduces the complications of personal performance to a few standard measurements. Did the tenor hit the high notes? That’s a much easier criterion to agree on than the far more important issue of a singer’s musicality. But the high notes are exceptional; most of the time, the singer is concerned not with freakish display but with tying ordinary notes together either tightly or loosely, as taste dictates. Similarly, there is nothing in genuine scholastic achievement that can be measured. Testing creates a wholly bogus region of accomplishment. Judgments of academic excellence are subject to dispute, a necessary inconvenience. Examinations sidestep the problem, but to no truly constructive purpose.

And as to commerce, it is no longer doubtable that the objective of every successful business is to narrow the field of competition to the vanishing point.

The humanist objection to the excessive emphasis on competition is that most people are insulted by it. Most people are not competitors. Most people are, by definition, close to mediocre. Most people need some kind of help from other people. Most of all, they need respect for their ordinariness. I can see that Tyler Cowen wants an America that, like Lake Wobegon, is above-average.

What this exercise teaches me is that feminism is not so much about allowing women to compete and excel as it is about creating a thriving society of dignified individuals.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
April 2017

3 April

Monday 3rd

At the Museum yesterday, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil and I passed a gallery that has been there for decades but that is now marked with the name of Leonard Lauder, not, as it was for decades, that of Lila Acheson Wallace. Quite aside from the faithlessness with which the Museum, as well as other cultural institutions, treats the names of former benefactors, there is the gossipy question, raised in a recent Vanity Fair article, of the extent to which Lauder’s promise of important Cubist paintings led the Museum’s leaders astray, namely in the acquisition of a long-term lease on the old Whitney Museum, now known as the Breuer Building (after its architect — a far better criterion for naming than moneybags). Another dubious project, the demolition and replacement of the old Wallace galleries, was halted before it began. These contretemps invite fair questions about the role of curating recent art that the Metropolitan ought to play. But they also spark tittle-tattle about the outgoing Director, Thomas Campbell.

The Times appears to be following this story with a view not to heaping disgrace on Campbell but to inspiring a reform of the Museum’s board of directors, which currently consists of a small band of executive overseers floating in a puddle of ill-informed socialites. This morning, the paper reported an amorous imbroglio involving Campbell and an employee, her name withheld to protect her (quoth the Times). It reported that the precise nature of the amour was unknown — perhaps Campbell and the lady, who have been friends since before his great elevation from the ranks of assistant curators, are just friends. But that was neither here nor there, because the problem was that, with her pal as Director, the lady, working in the digital media department, was exercising power far beyond her pay grade. She had became “hard to manage.” A new director of digital media, “lured” from the Getty, found it impossible to do her job, and, after a formal complaint, left with a handsome lagniappe.

All of this is more or less off the record. Also out of focus is the ghostly legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who ran the Museum for more than thirty years before retiring on the eve of the financial meltdown. What great timing! Because what brought his successor down, at least so far as the record is concerned, was the Museum’s finances, which have not only not recovered from the meltdown but worsened for reasons having nothing to do with it. You could say that Montebello was better at fiscal responsibility than Campbell, or you could say that Montebello ran his board. More cautious than Campbell, Montebello may have imposed his caution on the trustees. It was an arrangement that worked, but it was not a suitable arrangement, because it depended on the self-respect of the Director, not the probity of the board.

It’s hard to list all the changes wrought during Thomas Campbell’s directorship — almost all of them real improvements. I’m thinking especially of the new galleries of American painting and Islamic art, respectively. The new plaza on the Museum’s Fifth Avenue front is most welcome. These three things alone would constitute memorable signatures for any Director — and they were all achieved within ten years. But there’s more — perhaps too much. In addition to the Breuer Building lease, a rebranding campaign proved to be very unpopular. (It turns out that everybody loved the little metal buttons.) When the new logo was introduced, the price paid to develop it was an unattractive part of the picture, and it was then that a susurrus of criticism began to hum. Insiders began to talk — off the record. Gradually a new portrait of the Director unfolded. Whereas before he had been presented as a top-notch arts man, gifted with encyclopedic knowledge and elegant taste, he now became an unskilled executive, with little or no managerial experience. What didn’t change was the impassivity of the Board of Directors, which continued to behave as though Campbell and others had taken advantage of its good faith.

In the past decade, New York’s cultural life has suffered more from the negligence (and worse) of its institutional fiduciaries than from any other cause. From City Opera to Cooper Union and NYU, trustees have betrayed their public obligations by succumbing to the lure of expensive but unnecessary projects. Their personal wealth has enabled them, in the absence of reflective checks, to indulge grandiose schemes with childish thoughtlessness, usually at no personal expense. I can only hope that the Times will increase its attentiveness to such idle chicanery.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Month in Progress
April 2017

3 and 4 April

Monday 3rd: Fiduciary

At the Museum yesterday, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil and I passed a gallery that has been there for decades but that is now marked with the name of Leonard Lauder, not, as it was for decades, that of Lila Acheson Wallace. Quite aside from the faithlessness with which the Museum, as well as other cultural institutions, treats the names of former benefactors, there is the gossipy question, raised in a recent Vanity Fair article, of the extent to which Lauder’s promise of important Cubist paintings led the Museum’s leaders astray, namely in the acquisition of a long-term lease on the old Whitney Museum, now known as the Breuer Building (after its architect — a far better criterion for naming than moneybags). Another dubious project, the demolition and replacement of the old Wallace galleries, was halted before it began. These contretemps invite fair questions about the role of curating recent art that the Metropolitan ought to play. But they also spark tittle-tattle about the outgoing Director, Thomas Campbell.

The Times appears to be following this story with a view not to heaping disgrace on Campbell but to inspiring a reform of the Museum’s board of directors, which currently consists of a small band of executive overseers floating in a puddle of ill-informed socialites. This morning, the paper reported an amorous imbroglio involving Campbell and an employee, her name withheld to protect her (quoth the Times). It reported that the precise nature of the amour was unknown — perhaps Campbell and the lady, who have been friends since before his great elevation from the ranks of assistant curators, are just friends. But that was neither here nor there, because the problem was that, with her pal as Director, the lady, working in the digital media department, was exercising power far beyond her pay grade. She had became “hard to manage.” A new director of digital media, “lured” from the Getty, found it impossible to do her job, and, after a formal complaint, left with a handsome lagniappe.

All of this is more or less off the record. Also out of focus is the ghostly legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who ran the Museum for more than thirty years before retiring on the eve of the financial meltdown. What great timing! Because what brought his successor down, at least so far as the record is concerned, was the Museum’s finances, which have not only not recovered from the meltdown but worsened for reasons having nothing to do with it. You could say that Montebello was better at fiscal responsibility than Campbell, or you could say that Montebello ran his board. More cautious than Campbell, Montebello may have imposed his caution on the trustees. It was an arrangement that worked, but it was not a suitable arrangement, because it depended on the self-respect of the Director, not the probity of the board.

It’s hard to list all the changes wrought during Thomas Campbell’s directorship — almost all of them real improvements. I’m thinking especially of the new galleries of American painting and Islamic art, respectively. The new plaza on the Museum’s Fifth Avenue front is most welcome. These three things alone would constitute memorable signatures for any Director — and they were all achieved within ten years. But there’s more — perhaps too much. In addition to the Breuer Building lease, a rebranding campaign proved to be very unpopular. (It turns out that everybody loved the little metal buttons.) When the new logo was introduced, the price paid to develop it was an unattractive part of the picture, and it was then that a susurrus of criticism began to hum. Insiders began to talk — off the record. Gradually a new portrait of the Director unfolded. Whereas before he had been presented as a top-notch arts man, gifted with encyclopedic knowledge and elegant taste, he now became an unskilled executive, with little or no managerial experience. What didn’t change was the impassivity of the Board of Directors, which continued to behave as though Campbell and others had taken advantage of its good faith.

In the past decade, New York’s cultural life has suffered more from the negligence (and worse) of its institutional fiduciaries than from any other cause. From City Opera to Cooper Union and NYU, trustees have betrayed their public obligations by succumbing to the lure of expensive but unnecessary projects. Their personal wealth has enabled them, in the absence of reflective checks, to indulge grandiose schemes with childish thoughtlessness, usually at no personal expense. I can only hope that the Times will increase its attentiveness to such idle chicanery.


Tuesday 4th: Above Average

Ever since climbing aboard the Internet, it seems, I’ve been trying to figure out Tyler Cowen. He is certainly not a sympathetic figure, but neither is he altogether antipathetic. I can’t seem to get a grip on his economic ideas, mostly because I have no training but also because I think that most economic training is nonsense, productive of nothing but words sprayed on a page. The only thing that I really know about Cowen is that he travels a lot and is always in search of good local restaurants.

In a recent Vox interview with Ezra Klein, in fact, Cowen is shown holding chopsticks, with seven dishes of various sizes on the table behind him. Despite the chopsticks, despite the Chinese cuisine, the image is adamantly masculine. Cowen’s manliness is a thick thread that runs through everything he writes — his voice is bright with the impatience that comes of having to explain things over and over again — and I do not think that there is anything compensatory about it. Nor misogynist. If Cowen’s positions might be unhelpful to women and to others traditionally unwelcome at the high tables of power, that is incidental. Cowen would probably be the first man to stand up and welcome a woman who demonstrated the capacity to act with his manly assurance.

In the interview, Klein asked Cowen for quick comments about a slew of issues. NATO, guaranteed income, the war on drugs. I can’t say that I disagreed with much of what he said. My objections were all tonal, because I, of course, am not a manly man — I’m too skeptical about the status quo, but also too optimistic about improving on it. Early on, Cowen quipped, “I feel we need to put up a big sign on this country that says, ‘We’re for immigrants who really want to work and create’.” I shuddered with irritation, because putting “work” and “create” in the same clause makes hash of both. I wonder why he did not simply say, “… who really want to compete.”

Later, there was an even more abrasive passage.

I do believe America is an exceptional nation and should think of itself as such. And this norm weakening is one of my great worries about this current time. If you ask what makes America exceptional, it’s the embedded mix of religiosity and the high status we’re willing to give to businessmen. Our belief that our way of life is best, which of course it isn’t, but we believe it, and that’s overall a good thing. And this Puritan notion that there are individual life projects and it’s your highest calling to pursue them. And we both live by this, even though neither of us is Protestant. And I think that combination is just fantastic, though dangerous too.

At two points, Cowen undercuts himself, first when he says that our way of life isn’t the best, and then when he finds the “combination” — of what, I’m not exactly sure — dangerous. What does he really mean? That it’s a good thing to believe in an illusion — if the illusion is the particular one that we believe in? But what dispirits me far more is Cowen’s explicit belief that religiosity and businessmen are what make America exceptional. I wonder how many women, especially educated women, would agree. How many women would jump out of bed every morning with enthusiasm for prioritizing catechism and the cash register?

My own view is that America is exceptional because there used to be so much room in its thinly-populated wilderness for anti-social European misfits. I believe that American exceptionalism is a disorder from which the nation is far from recovering.


Thinking very hard, for various reasons, about feminism, I more and more want to bury the term in scare quotes and declare that we simply don’t know what it refers to. It seems more profitable to consider what feminism isn’t, what its constellation of ideas does not include. The first thing that comes to mind is competition.

In other entries, I’ve argued that pure capitalism is very important to a healthy economic life, but only in small doses and special cases. There is a vital interlacing between capitalism and innovation that keeps the economic edge sharp. But only the edge. Mature businesses do not thrive in capitalist excitement. That’s why I argue for more not-for-profit business organizations. Please tell me what is competitive, in a good way, about the supply of electric power. You can’t. The competition — the innovation, funded by capitalist speculation — was settled long ago, while Thomas Edison was still alive. Quick readers will note that I have folded “competition” into the captialist-innovation matrix. And that is indeed where I think it belongs.

The worst thing about prioritizing competition is the laziness that it encourages. I’m not being paradoxical. Competition, with its markers and its metrics, reduces the complications of personal performance to a few standard measurements. Did the tenor hit the high notes? That’s a much easier criterion to agree on than the far more important issue of a singer’s musicality. But the high notes are exceptional; most of the time, the singer is concerned not with freakish display but with tying ordinary notes together either tightly or loosely, as taste dictates. Similarly, there is nothing in genuine scholastic achievement that can be measured. Testing creates a wholly bogus region of accomplishment. Judgments of academic excellence are subject to dispute, a necessary inconvenience. Examinations sidestep the problem, but to no truly constructive purpose.

And as to commerce, it is no longer doubtable that the objective of every successful business is to narrow the field of competition to the vanishing point.

The humanist objection to the excessive emphasis on competition is that most people are insulted by it. Most people are not competitors. Most people are, by definition, close to mediocre. Most people need some kind of help from other people. Most of all, they need respect for their ordinariness. I can see that Tyler Cowen wants an America that, like Lake Wobegon, is above-average.

What this exercise teaches me is that feminism is not so much about allowing women to compete and excel as it is about creating a thriving society of dignified individuals.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
March 2017

1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 27, 30 and 31 March

Wednesday 1st

How curious: only a day or so after I finish re-reading Jonathan Sumption’s The Albigensian Crusade, the Times runs a front-page article about the draining vitality of charming downtown Albi, a town almost directly aligned with Paris longitudinally but situated at the other end of the country, closer to the southern border of France than the capital is to its northern one. Modern lifestyles, intertwined with the trends of modern commerce, no longer find quaint but narrow streets worth the trouble. There is a mall outside Albi, with its hypermarché and the other conveniences that go with parking lots. Just to the north of the mall, Google Maps shows me, there’s a neighborhood of suburban houses that reflects American land-use habits. The paradox of contemporary democracy is that Albi’s suburbs are likely to be inhabited by supporters of Marine le Pen who want to keep France French while at the same time abandoning its physical legacy.

It’s hard to scold. Who is to bear the cost of keeping an inconvenient legacy alive? I have heard of very remote, very small villages in the Auvergne that have been completely repopulated by artists and artisans, but beyond the gratification of knowing that such places are still inhabited, it is difficult to regard them as truly civic organisms. And yet, looking forward to economies that, out of necessity if nothing else, are more looped than growth-oriented, and thereby more synchronized to the rhythms that built Albi a thousand years ago, one hopes that the old towns will still be standing, ready to be reoccupied.


I’ve been thinking a lot about “the toilet test.” Do you know how a flush toilet works? Probably you’ve never given it much thought. You don’t, after all, need to know. At the most, you are familiar with the problem of the “running” toilet, whose tank fails to fill because the flap doesn’t close when the tank is empty. But the ingenious course that the water follows when it leaves the tank, from the bowl’s perforated inner rim to the “S” hump in the pipe that drains the bowl, may well have failed to engage your attention. (If you’re a man, you may have noticed, without thinking why, that urinals don’t involve bowls of standing water.) Proud as I was to have been aware of these features when I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s fascinating piece about our cognitive shortcomings, it took a further week for me to see that indoor plumbing constitutes the earliest domestic robotic system. Flush toilets not only perform repetitive tasks with predictable reliability but also relieve human beings of an array of disagreeable tasks, the former existence of which most of us have completely forgotten. Carrying pails of water and emptying chamber pots used to be parts of a job, for oh so much vaster a stretch of human history.

Repetitive tasks are the essence of labor. With work, in contrast, there is always an edge of unknown possibility. Sometimes, as in the writing of fiction, that edge can be vast and teeming, but for most jobs it is quiet and off in a corner. An engineer figures out, one day, a more effective configuration, but this small addition to professional knowledge rests on broad foundations of established understanding. Most work is just as repetitive as labor, but the possibility of engagement at the edge makes it intriguing. A successful working career might well be defined as one in which the frontier of the foreseeable never closes.

Long before the Industrial Revolutions, artists were self-consciously committed to this notion of work. The idea of the art-work was most explicit in the publication of music, in which compositions were gathered together and given an opus — work — number. Art was the supreme form of work. Our idea of art is shaped by the presumption that great works of art are somehow unlike all others; no matter how much labor was involved in the production of a painting, the result is quite pricelessly distinctive, as with any of Vermeer’s thirty-odd masterpieces. The pricelessness of an artwork is manifest in our sense of its significance, which is a distillation of the atmosphere of the creative edge that we can appreciate without doing any work at all.

After art, we honor design, which is an idea that can be mass-produced. Here the work — the creation of the design — and the labor — its mass-production — stand in stark contrast. At one end, we have Sir Jonathan Ive in his shop at Apple; at the other, we have the workers at FoxConn in China who are about to replaced by robots. (Let’s not forget the engineers who design the robots!) Ultimately, it seems, all labor will be performed by machines, not because human beings find it tedious and unpleasant (although they do) but because machines are better at laboring. Far be it from me to claim that work, with its imagining edge, will always remain a human exclusive. But it seems clear that meaning and significance are the projections of work that human beings find it interesting to do as well as to consider. The history of the world is the record of significant ideas and objects, only some of which are generally significant at present. Historians of the world specialize in imagining the significance that most surviving ideas and objects have lost. The true history of humanity looks more like the history of art than it does the history of war. War is perhaps merely the labor part of history.


Thursday 2nd

My respect for The New Yorker has had its ups and downs over the past fifty-five years. The variance has never been large, but I’m feeling unusually out of sorts with it these days. I can’t say that I disagree with the magazine’s assessment of Donald Trump himself, but I don’t see the need to shout it from the housetops. The New Yorker’s editors clearly do.

It occurs to me that what I disagree with them about is the answer to this question: Who won the election? Donald Trump? He’s the man in the Oval Office, certainly. But as I see it, the winner of the 2016 presidential election was the bloc of Americans who loathe the liberal élite. Now, this liberal élite used to be very shy. It was almost impossible to find anyone who would admit to belonging to it. The election changed that. The liberal élite took to the streets, howling, united in its visceral hatred of the president. The president’s supporters were thrilled by the sight, which confirmed what they thought all along. The liberal élite is not as divine, not as above-it-all, as it thought it was. It does not transcend petty passions. It’s just as raw, just as angrily human, as the Americans it deplores. When Adam Gopnik all but raged about a glitch in the simulated universe that we’re clearly living in, a bug in the Matrix, I had to chuckle. In your dreams, Adam.

Three Republican presidents were elected by the hope that they would deliver a once-and-for-all kick in the ass to the liberal élite, and all three quailed. Nixon, whose plans for the Republic were truly diabolical, installed a secret tape recorder in the place that Trump reserves for his megaphone. Reagan and Bush II were fronts for established interest groups that needed the liberal élite to serve as a decoy villain. All three were served by able students of public affairs who knew how to work the Overton window, slowly but surely. But none of these presidents had the interests of ordinary Americans at heart, and voters in the late election cycle made it clear that they knew it. They rejected all the candidates who were approved by the Republican Party and insisted on an impossible outsider. Trump may turn out to be as useless to the economic welfare of ordinary Americans as his Republican predecessors, but the sincerity of his hatred of the liberal élite is obviously genuine, and his election has enfranchised that hatred. I believe that the word is ressentiment. Ressentiment won the 2016 election, and the liberal élite has some splainin to do.

Once upon a time, there was a stretch of Three Glorious Decades. It came to an end in the 1970s, when, among other things, fossil fuels ceased to be imperial possessions that could be priced as needed. Since then, the liberal élite that oversaw the postwar economic miracle has lost its balance. That the spike in oil prices came as such a terrible shock to the Western economies shows, I suppose, that the best and the brightest who were running things did not fully understand all of their world’s moving parts. From a wider perspective, they were wrong to assume that postwar boom would go on forever: it was fundamentally a recovery, a return to the status quo ante with some important features upgrades, such as the UN and the offspring of Bretton Woods. But the cornerstone of liberal élite statecraft was that economies can expand indefinitely — indeed, that they must either grow or die! This was folly.

The wonderful thing about the Trente Glorieuses was their ideological purity: it was the economy, and nothing but the economy. You could have a welfare state if you wanted one, and your economy would still grow. When the ride came to an end, the liberal élite made a decision to continue to treat the economy as the center of social life. If the economy could be made to do well, then rising tides would lift all boats, and so on. The liberal élite decided against altering the foundation of social life to accommodate an increased and less optional contribution of non-economic ideas. The weakness of liberalism, since its birth in the ashes of the French Revolution, has always been to shore up property rights in times of crisis. (Indeed, a centerpiece of liberal policy has always been to increase ownership.) In the late Seventies, the liberal course engendered decades of financialization, the “monetization” of almost everything. Truly liberal values and their exponents were compromised by this development; the hypocrisy of liberals was obvious to everyone, which is undoubtedly why no one would admit to belonging to the class.

Liberal thinking is one of the fruits of affluent leisure; people who are very poor or very busy have no time for it. Only those who are gifted with means and imagination have the luxury of trying to understand others’ way of life. I believe that liberals are the truest humanists, not because they are the best people but because they understand and respect the force of weakness in human minds, and are less inclined than other people to stamp their feet and impatiently wish it away. Perhaps liberals shouldn’t belong to the élite at all; perhaps the existence of a liberal élite in my lifetime has been anomalous. If it has come crashing down (which I think it has done), then liberalism itself is in need of repair. Any blame ought to be directed not at its enemies but at the élite itself. As the old New Yorker cartoon had it, “Back to the drawing board!”


Monday 6th

Perhaps you’ve heard the story, too. Apparently, it’s cheaper to send Scottish salmon, or maybe shrimp, in freezer containers, to Thailand or China, for shelling or filleting, and then to ship it back, refrozen, for sale in Scottish supermarkets, than it is to process the seafood in Scotland. The amazing efficiency of container shipping, combined with the huge variance in daily wages — £5 in Scotland versus 25 or 50p in Asia — makes economic sense of the 10,000-mile round trip.

It makes a sort of economic sense. It makes economic sense only if you ignore all the other costs, some of them, like that of the oil that powers the ship and keeps the freezers cold, rather short-term figures. (Someday, someday soon, that oil may be priceless.) There is the cost to the state of offshored labor, which at a minimum is reflected in a lowering of Scottish wages (however slight). It completely ignores the degradation of the fish itself, what with two freezings and defrostings, and what with a passage of time that squashes any claim to freshness. Most of all, there is the cognitive cost of training one’s mind to regard this extraordinary routine as an intelligent choice.

I use the word “extraordinary” because, as soon as I thought to mention this story, I felt obliged to check it out. I am no investigative journalist, but the online evidence is not as robust as I thought it would be. Two differently-phrased Google searches produced two stories, one involving cod, dating from 2009, and one involving shrimp, and an outfit called Young’s Seafood, from 2006. (The later story references the earlier.) On the basis of these slim returns, I would hesitate to claim that this crazy tale of mercantilism in reverse was ever a normal way of doing business.

But it did happen, and, as I say, it made sense only if you squinted. In that regard, it is a classically liberal story, one that’s bound to offend almost everybody, because so much of liberal economic thinking is reflected in awkward compromises brokered by liberal politicians. On the one hand, the conservative penchant for free markets is indulged, and on a breathtaking scale. On the other, Asian poverty is eased, and nations are bound more closely together by trade, thus pleasing progressives. But neither conservatives nor progressives can reconcile themselves, in the long term, to jobs lost at home or to grotesque energy footprints. As with many liberal schemes, the social and political benefits are somewhat notional and certainly abstract, while the concrete benefits pile up in the pockets of a handful of “industrialists.” The more unfortunate upshot is that conservatives and progressives can excoriate one another with clear consciences.

It’s like Churchill said: liberal democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others. Liberals have a unique faith in compromise, a readiness to put principle behind pragmatism. But liberal pragmatism is inclined to be sneaky, to hide costs and minimize discomforts. I think that it ought to go just the other way, and, abandoning the lie that social coexistence can be altogether painless, adopt instead a policy of identifying the prices that people are willing to pay. That’s why I think that Ross Douthat’s column in Sunday’s Times was excellently liberal. Douthat proposes scrapping affirmative action programs and granting an annuity to anyone who can prove descent from an American slave. I can think of many dandy modifications, such as, to name only one, diverting annuities to slaves’ descendants who are already doing well economically, granting them instead the right to appoint the annuity to an educational endowment for scholarships. I’d like very much to see the end of affirmative action, which in my view, as an unintended consequence, undermined academic rigor and introduced toxic ideas about relative truth that have now infected our politics. In any case, Douthat’s proposal is free of the smoke and mirrors of typical liberal compromises.


Wednesday 8th

Power and superiority — how are these concepts related? I mean, how do people relate them? — for I am not at all interested in an abstract, generalized, philosophical explanation. The answer to the question is not analytical, but, necessarily, historical.

Reading Darryl Pinckney on James Baldwin yesterday, I got it: there is no “Negro,” no “African-American,” no black problem; there is only a white problem.

At the core of his message was always the assertion that there was no Negro problem; there was the problem of white people not being able to see themselves, to take responsibility for their history, and to ask themselves why they needed to invent “the nigger.”

To answer this question, it must be borne in mind that not-white people might have, and might wish to preserve, different cultures, different ways of accenting the inevitable similarities of everyday life. The black man might say to the white man, My life is different from yours, but the difference is not inherent in my genes. This would oblige the white man to reconsider his insistence, made by almost every Founder, that white-skinned men of European background were better-equipped to run things, that they were superior men. If the claim was not genetic, what was it? Why did they not instead attribute their superiority — and I am willing to concede that they were superior, these Founders, as long as it is understood that they were superior to most white-skinned men as well — to education and experience paid for by unusual wealth and/or well-connected friendships?

The white man’s anxiety about the truth of the genetic explanation was demonstrated by the prohibition against teaching slaves to read. If negroes had been genuinely inferior, knowing how to read would not have gained them much. The problem of allowing the wrong people to read is as old as the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed that untrained minds would draw the wrong conclusions from standard works, and that their unorthodoxy was a kind of inferiority. The assumption that the exercise of power ought to be reserved for the use of superior people is a natural one, but it is too contingent to tell us much about the relationship of superiority and power. Powerful people are ipso facto in a better position to define superiority to suit themselves than are those who disagree with them. The relationship becomes circular: power and superiority are different facets of a quality that may have no relation to justice. So the fear that the black man might arrive at a coherent but different view of how things ought to be if he were allowed to expand, by reading at liberty, his understanding of the world, was pegged to the objective and inarguable — and altogether irrelevant — fact of surface.

Reading Mary Beard on “Women in Power” today, I see that the classics scholar is tending toward Baldwin’s argument: the problem is not with women (and what they want) but with the need that men seem to have to regard women as different and inferior. Once again, difference is used to predicate inferiority. But the problem is somewhat richer, because men and women are different kinds of human beings, which black men and white men are not. The nature of the difference is the problem that we are grappling with today. Is it merely “biological,” a matter of hormones, body parts, and different procreative roles? Or is it that men, like the Southerners who forbade slaves to read, are unsure of themselves?

Ideally, when we talk about political power, we are not talking about the brute, coercive power of strapping, armed men. Their power is by definition not political. So what is political power? It is the ability to persuade one’s fellows to follow a particular program, to pursue a particular objective. The program may or may not involve hereditary monarchy; it may or may not mandate state-funded child-care; in every case, political action is launched by persuasion. The nature of superiority with respect to power would seem to be a characteristic of persuasiveness. Part of persuasion is the force of argument, but another part is the likelihood that the person making the argument has superior access to the right ideas — ideas that will work. The most inarguable Ciceronian oration will fall on deaf ears if delivered by a staggering drunkard. And then there are devils, those would-be persuaders whose appearance of access to the right ideas is spurious.

In theory, superiority and inferiority are relative terms, reflecting different places on the same scale. In fact, they decay into disjunctive characteristics. In vernacular thought, degree hardens into difference. When we hail Mozart’s genius, or Queen Elizabeth’s majesty, we are not thinking of all the rest of humanity that lacks these attributes. Mozart and HM are not better. They are different. Hitler is not worse than everybody else, he’s a monster. But this everyday way of speaking is not very thoughtful. In the end, we are all human beings, and there is no difference in that, not even between men and women. We are all born and we all die, and even our differences are similar. Difference in degree is even a kind unity — we are none of us too different to mate.

Near the end of her essay, Mary Beard writes,

That said, if the deep cultural structures legitimating women’s exclusion are as I have argued, gradualism is likely to take too long for me, thank you very much. We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. To put it another way, if women aren’t perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn’t it power that we need to redefine rather than women?

For of course we don’t always talk about power ideally.


Wednesday 9th

Foraging in my history bookcase, I pulled down J D Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors, a volume of the mid-century Oxford History of England. It is one of the books that I owned before I went off to college, so I think of it as one that I’ve had all my life; but I’ve never read it. The purchase remained aspirational for a very long time.

Anyway, the opening chapters, devoted to the reign of Henry VII, include one entitled “Perkin Warbeck.” When my interest in history was burgeoning, I was allergic to rebels and imposters, finding them noisily uninteresting in comparison to plausible usurpers like Henry Tudor. Henry Bolingbroke, Edward of York — the Fifteenth Century was full of genuine upstarts. Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, as you could tell by their very names, lacked aristocratic élan. They were fake fakes.Without learning more, I considered them as two peas in a pod. Which they certainly weren’t.

Reading Mackie attentively, I was surprised to discover that while Lambert Simnel — an ingenu who wound up, pardoned, serving in Henry’s kitchens — was a flash in the pan — a big flash, to be sure, with a coronation in Dublin and a military dénouement at Stoke-on-Trent — Perkin Warbeck was a nuisance for most of the 1490s. Perkin Warbeck, or Peter Osbeck, or Pierrequin Werbecque passed about a month altogether in England before his surrender, no more. Born in Tournai —the best guess — he spent his teens in Portugal, as a page, acquiring courtly polish and the art of wearing fine clothes. From there he sailed to Ireland, where, according to a confession made years later, he was acclaimed by some gentlemen of Cork as, well, obviously somebody. It was settled finally that he must be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the princes whom Richard III was believed to have had murdered in the Tower of London in 1483, and thus the rightful occupant of England’s throne.

The first step of Perkin’s Continental career was taken in France, where he was welcomed by Charles VIII. His stay did not last very long, because Charles had to send him packing as one of the terms of the Treaty of Étaples. Not to worry: he found an even warmer welcome in neighboring Burgundy (Brabant, actually), where Margaret of York, the Dowager Duchess, recognized him as her nephew. Her stepson-in-law, Maximilian (not yet Holy Roman Emperor), did the same, and his son, Philip, the actual ruler of Burgundy, followed suit for a while, until Henry, royally pissed, shut down English trade with the Netherlands. The years of luxurious plotting now came to an end.

A small fleet was assembled. The idea was not so much to invade England as to appear there. Margaret and Maximilian had convinced themselves that, as in Ireland, their protégé would be acclaimed by local worthies. In fact, however, Henry had completely uprooted the slender network of Yorkist conspirators. With only one titled aristocrat in their number, they would probably not have been able to give their king the help that he would need against Henry, but now they definitely could not, because their leaders were dead.

Even so, the fiasco of Perkin Warbeck’s invasion was a fiasco that ought to have put paid to his pretensions. It revealed that he was not a fighter. He might carry himself like a prince, but in the end, he would have to defeat Henry in battle, which his conduct in the attack on Deal, in Kent, showed to be most unlikely. He stayed on board his ship while the officers and men went ashore. While most of them were killed or imprisoned, he sailed away, back to Ireland, where his forces, such as they were, launched an attack on Waterford. Perkin did not participate in this action, either, but retired to a distance of ten miles. After the failure at Waterford, the young man now made his way into the arms of a third ruler, James IV of Scotland. This king provided his new buddy not only with a pension but with a wife, the daughter of a Highland notable. Just as the plausible rogue had hunted and played tennis with Philip of Burgundy, now he was James’s boon companion, at least until a border raid in 1496. Not only did the pretender fail to attract the support of a single English lord, but he ran away from the raping and pillaging.

Ten months later, he was put in a little boat with his wife and son and food and some horses, but no arms, and sent off to find a new haven — perhaps Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella did not believe that he was the Duke of York, but they thought it might be useful to lock him up in a palace somewhere; he had proven his worth as a pawn to anyone who wanted to irritate the King of England. (The Spanish monarchs had no intention of going fighting with Henry, but they were engaged in another form of warfare: negotiating the marriage of their daughter, Catherine, to Arthur, Prince of Wales.) Without having decided one way or the other, the claimant put ashore in Ireland, which turned out to be very chilly. Another invasion of the land that he called his own but had never seen as a man had to be undertaken.

The final chapter of the adventure was unlike the earlier ones. This time, landing in Cornwall, Richard was his own commander. Cornwall was still in turmoil after a rising the previous year, when a band of men had marched on London, and been resolutely crushed by Henry. Now calling himself King Richard IV, the pretender attracted a ragtag army of men armed with rustic implements. A rude attack on Exeter succeeding in breaching one of the town’s gates, and it is possible that men with more military experience might have made something of this. Instead, Richard begged leave to leave. On the eve of his next military encounter, he ran away, and took sanctuary at Beaulieu, near Southampton. He was persuaded to give himself up.

I’ll stop there. Intrigued by Mackie’s account, I looked for a full-length treatment of Perkin Warbeck, and found one in Ann Wroe’s The Perfect Prince: the Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England. I have just begun Chapter Seven, “Confession,” which from rummaging ahead I know is going to include the backstory of the pretender’s origins, such as can be known. Wroe has sketched this in summary fashion several times already. Noting that, according to one theory, the pretender was the son of Margaret of York (notoriously childless, by the way) and the Bishop of Cambrai, and that, if so, one would still have to decide which bishop, as there were two at the likely time, Wroe tells us that the elder bishop’s funeral was attended by thirty-six of his illegitimate children. That factoid — factette seems more respectful — is almost worth the price of admission, but it is only one of the lesser marvels of The Perfect Prince. The great marvel is Wroe’s ability to spin a very rich five-hundred page text out of thin air. Her subject is a void, noticeable only by what he occludes. The simplest way of relaying her achievement is the note at the head of her index: “For obvious reasons,” she says,

the subject of this book cannot be included here under any of his names. The entry for Richard, Duke of York, refers to the boy who was incontrovertibly the second son of Edward IV, last seen for certain in 1483.

Not to worry: “the subject” appears on almost every page. Ordinarily, I find this sort of stunt supremely annoying, but Wroe’s book is not the ordinary pile-up of surmises about a silent figure. She is not really interested in what Perkin Warbeck thought or felt about anything. What interests her is that the thoughts and feelings of such a graceful troublemaker can never be known. This is not simply because the boy didn’t keep a diary. No: for, if he had kept a diary, it would have been stuffed with formulaic entries. The men and the woman who took him up had no interest in his inner life, which they must have hoped conformed to the pattern for royal personages. Even at the end of the Fifteenth Century, it was generally assumed that, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, things were as they ought to be. It is hard not to see the naked naïveté of the period as fabulous, but Perkin Warbeck got as far as he went because he looked the part. Consider: Margaret of York commissioned a richly-illuminated account of her interesting personal experience with Jesus, who appeared to her, as the Risen Christ, during her afternoon prayers. Wroe’s summary is another one of her little marvels.

Now that Jesus was before her, Margaret was unsure how best to welcome Him. She wished only to gaze on Him in contemplation, but the court was pressing and she was too busy, among “the curiosities of the world,” quietly to enclose herself with Him. All she wished was that He might “illumine my interior eyes, that is, the faith and reason and consideration of my soul.”

After all, you can’t expect a great lady to while away the afternoon with a Visitor who is wearing nothing but a burial shroud. I have long entertained the theory that the sense of personal singularity that we take for granted in modern life is a consequence of the Reformation, which sought to supplant mediated relationships between the soul and its Creator with immediate ones; and Ann Wroe’s book does absolutely nothing to change my thinking.

The moral of the story, as I see it at this pivotal moment in The Perfect Prince, is that it’s a bad idea to murder little princes in secret. In another book from my shelves, Joan of Arc & Richard III: Sex, Saints, and Government in the Middle Ages, Charles Wood argues that Richard, the biggest bogey-man in the Queen’s family tree (she is of course not a descendant), was a bold soldier but a political bungler.

Yet what distinguishes these strokes in the end is not so much the impetuosity with which Richard sought to address unexpected developments. Rather, it is the concreteness and tangibility of the specific things to which he responded. These alone appear to have been the characteristics to which he was sensitive, and crises that embodied them appear to have been the only kind that he recognized and thought he knew how to solve. Moreover, if only definite and definable problems tended to catch his attention, usually (though not always) he tried to handle them through the use of brute force, typically applied both pure and simple. Strikingly, too, in this tendency he shows himself to be one of those people who see trees rather forests, a person never quite able to grasp the fact that events are interconnected and that actions taken in response to one event are likely to have consequences in others, often those where they are least expected. In short, he was a person who viewed the world in an incoherently fragmented way, and because he acted to contain the forces opposing him individually, without regard for potential relationships, he was to find, in the course of his reign, that matters went steadily from bad to worse. One wonders, really, whether he ever knew why.

Wood argues that Richard backed into the deposition of his nephew because it was the only way in which he could protect himself from the Woodvilles — the numerous family of the new king’s mother. Having deposed the king and imprisoned him with his brother in the Tower, he really did not know what to do next. If they died, at the hands of no matter whom, Richard could not publicize the fact, as he would be held responsible, and the world was no readier then to obey an infanticide than it is today. But the boys’ death without publicity would be an invitation to pretenders, as indeed happened. Henry’s failure to unearth and properly bury the bodies, however understandable — likely corpses were dug up in 1674, more or less inadvertently — guaranteed that he would be beset by the likes of Perkin Warbeck.

Ann Wroe writes that the people who believed that Perkin was Richard had one thing in common: they wished Henry VII ill. No one friendly to him was troubled by doubts. The upshot was that Henry emerged from the conspiracy as strong as any king might desire to be. It might have been otherwise in another country. Just as possession is nine-tenths of the law of England, so legitimacy takes second place to suitability when it comes to England’s kings. Notwithstanding a stolid preference for stable government, the English have shown great efficiency in weeding out seriously unkingly kings. Henry, who knew as anyone that everything is connected, and who did not wait for concrete manifestations to take action, had already shown his suitability before Perkin, and that is why so few were drawn to Perkin’s cause. Throughout the years of challenge, Henry’s deftly modulated responses to different degrees of malefaction, together with his awareness of the political usefulness of different malefactors, proved it. Although he was careful to speak of le garçon with unwaveringly haughty contempt, Henry took the threat very seriously, and when the pretender marched from Cornwall with his hayseeds, he faced a formidable army — or would have done, had he not run away.


Friday 10th

For a long time, two months at least, I wasn’t getting my copy of The Nation, which unlike all the other magazines, doesn’t come in the mail but is delivered every Monday with the Times. Before I could get round to looking into the problem, it came to an end, and I’m reminded why I prize The Nation. It’s for the reviews at the back. I rarely read the feature stories, for reasons I’ll discuss some other time, and I find the columnists a pack of scolds. But the reviews — genuine critical essays for the most part — are great. In the current issue, Matt Stoller considers two books that, although published before the election, are livelier reads than they were before November’s surprise. I found myself agreeing with everything that Stoller had to say, and it seems only fair to let him say it instead of bloviating myself.

For reasons that Stoller doesn’t mention (think “Dixiecrat”), I have long regarded the Democratic Party as mortally wounded. The Republican Party isn’t doing very well either, but if we are to forestall the social upheaval that Donald Trump’s campaign exposed as a real possibility, the work won’t be done by anybody but the unselfish people who tend to vote Democrat. I think that it’s important that they find another frame of operation, clearly distinct from the malodorous carcass of the institutional Democratic Party. Because I also believe that state action is far more important right now than national politics, I’d be happy to see an independent New Victory party in every state.


Monday 13th

That Fairway was a madhouse didn’t surprise me, but the line at Schaller & Weber was unexpected. There is usually a bit of a line at the House of Quality, but I’ve never seen anything like today’s. It moved along briskly until, wouldn’t you know, just before my turn; the woman ahead of me had a list that simply didn’t stop. If you’ll pardon the expression, she didn’t strike me as a housewife; perhaps she was stocking up for a blizzard party. The things that she was buying required no cooking — but that was true of my short list, too. I hadn’t planned to go to Schaller & Weber at all until Ray Soleil, who had come uptown to fix a lamp, mentioned as we were passing by that he was in the mood for some liverwurst. I’m always in the mood for liverwurst, as long as it’s cold outside, and it is very cold outside. So we went back later, after the lamp-fixing. I bought half a pound of liverwurst, half a pound of American cheese, and some macaroni salad. I haven’t had any real American cheese in ages.

But Fairway was a madhouse. All I could think of was “Superstorm Sandy,” which is what my grandson took to calling the great hurricane of 2012. We’re expecting a blizzard/Nor’easter to dump a foot or so of snow tomorrow. I don’t want to say that it’s only a foot of snow, which probably won’t fall in the city anyway, because, who knows, it could be the end of the world, but it seemed to me that anxiety was not the prevailing emotion in the madhouse at Fairway. Not real anxiety. Again, I was reminded of Will, who in a FaceTime chat a week ago Sunday told us that he was “exhausted.” (He is seven.) He put so much effort into telling us how exhausted he was that he may indeed have been a little bit tired. Similarly, the shoppers at Fairway were “stocking up for an emergency.” What they were really doing, I thought, was reveling in having something besides Donald Trump to worry about.

Okay, twenty inches. A lot of snow. (Plus an alarming memo from the building management advising us to have plenty of batteries, and a “non-electric can opener,” on hand, as if we wouldn’t all freeze to death without heat.) Stocking up is a good idea, because it will take a while to get things back to normal after the storm. I bought a box of Parmalat milk. I already had one, but I think that its sell-by date has passed. I bought some bananas, all of them still quite green. I’ve learned, inadvertently, that if you drop bananas on the floor, they ripen faster, but I have yet to try this.


Over the weekend, I read about a book that came out last year, The Wild and the Wicked, by Benjamin Hale. Hale, an environmental ethicist, argues, I was told, for an approach to nature that rests on neither the romantic nor the utilitarian approaches to our use and habitation of the planet, but simply on paying attention to what we do. I had a bit of a flash. I suddenly wondered if the development of feminism, somewhat over century ago, might have been attributable to women’s growing awareness that men weren’t paying attention to the impact of their new technologies. I have been thinking a lot about paying attention, and it seems to me that women are much better at it than men are, as, sadly, they have good reason to be. They are certainly better listeners. (As Deborah Tannen showed years ago, men avoid two-way conversation where matters of great personal concern are involved.) I remembered that, in this country, at least, environmental consciousness was launched by a woman, Rachel Carson. I began to think: is the essence of feminism nothing more (or less) than paying attention? That would certainly be a fantastic answer to Freud’s pretentious question — not to mention its challenge to his penchant for making things up.


Wednesday 15th

At the usual time, yesterday, I went downstairs to collect the mail and see if there were any packages. There was no mail, and the package room (which also doubles as a dry-cleaning outlet) was closed. But for the doorman seated at his console, the lobby was empty.

The blizzard didn’t show up, either. There was a picturesque, but not very deep fall of snow, and winds were strong enough to blow a cushion across the balcony, but, really, it was just very cold. All day long, I though of the the notice that the building management had posted by the elevators. Hope for the best, it advised, but prepare for the worst. The preparations itemized below were standard for hurricanes. Batteries, bottled water. First-aid kit. There was nothing about building campfires to save ourselves from freezing to death in the absence of the HVAC blowers.

Kathleen had planned to stay home, and she put in a long day of drafting. I was useless until the middle of the afternoon, when I found a box of soup in the pantry. After that, I stayed up. There was plenty to do in the kitchen. I baked a loaf of bread. I spatchcocked a chicken, slathered it with oil and herbs, then wrapped it up and stuck it back in the icebox. For dinner, we had spaghettini with shrimp and tomatoes, from a Giuliano Hazan recipe that I had never tried before. It was light and delicious. Once the washing-up was done, I reverted to being useless.

I was reading Allan Massie’s The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain. Ray Soleil passed it onto me after a college friend passed it on to him. The subtitle is all wrong, of course: this is a history of the family that Britain wouldn’t allow itself to be shaped by. Massie writes well enough to console me for his journalist’s disrespect for the pastness of the past, which he insists on translating into modern terms. Without it, Ray’s college friend would never have picked up the book in the first place. Massie’s kings, queen, and pretenders, no matter how odd, are all people whom you might read about it Vanity Fair. Their problems have nothing to do with the ever-expanding challenge of administering kingdoms but everything to do with the hassle of dealing with other rich and envious people. Their clothes are different and they are sometimes superstitious, but otherwise they’re as familiar as today’s celebrities. It makes for ideal sick-day reading.

I gleaned lots of tidbits. Anent Mary Queen of Scots alone, I learned that she shared a grandmother (Margaret Tudor) with her second husband, Lord Darnley. I learned how a Scots aristocrat came to bear the title Duc de Châtelherault. I looked up Loch Leven on the map. More than that sort of thing, though, I was genuinely touched by his handling of James I and VI (of England and Scotland, respectively), whom I call King James Bible. It’s hard to make sense of James as a king, because he seems so much more like an eccentric Oxford don, one with money, or at least the habit of spending money on ephemeral pleasures. But definitely a man of learning.

In these final years, he tottered about, often a little drunk, followed by a train of small dogs and hounds, talking endlessly, now about politics, now religion, then sport, the Bible, and the men and women he had known. He was a great gossip and full of jokes, some bawdy, some sly, some very much to the point, and many even funny. A scriptural analogy would be followed by a vile pun, a quotation from Horace or Virgil by an anecdote about his grim youth in Scotland, a blast against “tobacco-drunkards” by disquisitions on the art of hunting. He remained interested in everything. When he visited Stonehenge, he commanded Inigo Jones to investigate its origins. The conclusion was that it was a Roman temple to the God Caelus. (179)

Stonehenge! King James Bible at Stonehenge! From this passage, an entire theatre piece bloomed in my imagination. At first, I saw it as a one-man show, with a Beckett edge: the shambolic monarch sharing his private madness. But there were too many interesting characters itching to join in. The pretty boyfriends, the Danish queen — I didn’t know that she became a Catholic — Princess Elizabeth and the Winter King; and then, muffled up behind scrims to either side of the stage, James’s mother and his younger son, in their later years, presented in Kabuki-like routines that would climax in simultaneous beheadings. I wish I were clever enough to write it.


On Monday night, I had a minor tantrum, looking for the inexpensive catalogue of National Gallery paintings that I bought in London in 1984. It was not where it ought to be. Evidently regarding it more as cheap than useful at the time, I had relegated it to the stack of art books in a corner of the living room. The books are hard to reach, and I always forget to dust them; worse, the titles are hard to read. I found the catalogue with the help of a flashlight, only to be disappointed by what I was really looking for, the Wilton Diptych. I was hoping that Richard II’s robes would leap opulently out of the frame, but the combination of gold and vermilion is strangely neutralizing. The red buskins worn by St Edmund Martyr are far more vivid (in the reproduction). They’re altogether invisible in the black-and-white image that’s printed in Charles Wood’s Joan of Arc & Richard III.

Wood writes the kind of history that is built on an unflagging attempt to see with the eyes of the past — to be more precise, to see with the eyes of a particular moment in the past. What does this mean? In The Earlier Tudors, J D Mackie gives a nice example by explaining why precise descriptions of local conditions are rare in an age in which most people did not travel far from home: everybody knew perfectly well what the local conditions were, and couldn’t have cared less about conditions elsewhere. That would change in the Sixteenth Century, as more and more diplomats and students joined the merchants who were already on the road — not to mention all those seafaring explorers. In his brilliant study of medieval commerce, Power and Profit, Peter Spufford reproduces a portion of the schematic map drawn by (or for) Matthew Paris, in the middle of the Thirteenth Century, showing the route from London to Southern Italy. The points along the route are all man-made, buildings mostly. Mountains and rivers were not yet scenery; mountains especially were simply nuisances.

A useful key to unlocking the past is what I call Veblen’s Law. In the only passage of The Theory of the Leisure Class that I remember, Thorstein Veblen mentions the “ostentatious” use of candlelight at fashionable dinner tables. In an age of gas and electric light that marked the novelty of the new technology by creating blinding blazes of illumination, candles were found to throw a soft, subtle light that no one had ever noticed when they were the primary source of night light. Veblen’s Law would also predict that the sound of the harpsichord, which dissatisfied composers throughout the Eighteenth Century, would acquire a charm as soon as the pianoforte, which answered the composers’ prayers, was fully developed. It would also predict something that I seem to have read about twice in the past week, the absence of “devices” in classrooms at the Waldorf School in Silicon Valley.

The Wilton Diptych is a pair of panels, painted in tempera, showing four men on the left and the Virgin and Child, surrounded by eleven angels, on the right. The design is stylized, but the representation is realistic. Richard II, backed by three saints, kneels before the Virgin, his hands extended not so much in prayer as in preparation to take the Child. The saints, reading from right to left, are St John the Baptist and two kings, St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund Martyr. These figures also represent Richard’s forebears, the Black Prince, Edward III, and Edward II (who was also “martyred”). The three kings constitute an Epiphany group; 6 January was Richard II’s birthday. The right-hand panel would be a celestial vision pure and simple, if it weren’t for the banner of St George’s Cross held by an angel who is also pointing to Richard.

Wood writes about the Wilton Diptych not as an aesthetic object — its gorgeousness can be taken for granted, given his other conclusions — but as a political meditation in an age when the highest political claims were infused by religion. In other words, Wood sees the picture as an historian, not as an art historian. He has no difficulty solving the enigma of the eleven angels. Why eleven? Noting that eleven is the number of disciples surrounding images of the risen Christ, Wood asks, Who’s the Judas? Who is the “missing angel”? Who is the missing member of the Order of the Garter, of which twelve occupied the first row in St George’s Chapel? Who was the other boy who was invested on the same day in 1377? I raised my hand insistently, confident of knowing the correct answer: Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. As Wood wryly notes, “Henry was to prove a Judas who won.”

For reasons such as this, I am persuaded that Wood is correct to identify the commissioner of this painting as Richard II himself.


Friday 17th


D’you know what that means? I didn’t, when I came across it yesterday. It was actually written, “LARPing.” Here is the passage in which I encountered it:

The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.

I opened a new window, typed “LARP,” and found a quick answer. The acronym stands for “live action role playing.” You know, Civil War re-enactment, that sort of thing. “LARPing being rational” means simulating systematic thought by going through some obvious motions.

The passage comes from Scott Alexander’s review of Seeing Like a State, by James Scott. Although I followed Alexander’s Web log, Slate Star Codex, for a short while after I discovered it, I came across the review because it was picked up by The Browser. The review is longer than it ought to be, but that’s because — I think — Alexander’s persona is that of a mind at work. There is little elegance but a lot of hard-won insight. If you look at at Alexander’s aside about Jane Jacobs — how Scott’s book changed his mind about her — you’ll see what I mean.

I was haunted by larping for the rest of the day. From the moment it entered my mind (perhaps because of those High Modernists), it was inextricably bound to the conception of meritocracy that has taken hold in the West.

“Aristocracy” means, literally, “rule by the best.” Meritocracy is a derivative based on a distinction; it excludes from “the best” the aristocracy’s claims of superior birth. Merit is not a hereditable trait; you may be born with unusual intelligence, but you still have to undergo training in the use of it. Being the son or daughter of somebody special doesn’t count. More to the point, being the child of nobody special is not an impediment. Meritocracy is open to everyone with merit. It sounds like a great idea, but then so did “nobility,” once upon a time, back in the days before the word “aristocracy” was coined.

How do you decide who has merit? We rely on standardized testing. This is basically a refinement of Imperial China’s long experience with “examination hell.” Unlike the triennial ordeal that opened the door to senior service to the Chinese state, our tests were designed to require no learning, simply aptitude. Compared with the Chinese example, they did indeed require little in the way of knowledge. But it has become clear that the aptitude that they attempt to measure is not some free-floating intellectual firepower, but rather an indoctrinated accommodation to certain ways of looking at the world. At the threshold of this kind of aptitude, there is a submission not unlike the one demanded of would-be mandarins. It requires extraordinary intelligence — or, possibly, some degree of emotional impairment — to excel at our standardized tests without sincerely having made that submission. Or, as I discovered when, with a history of indifferent test scores behind me, I decided to study for the LSAT by doing endless practice exams, without a great deal of knowledge — knowledge about the test.

In other words, I did as well on the LSAT as I did because I approached it as a kind larping. I learned how to play the role of a successful test-taker. I had to override my peculiar aptitudes to do so. I thought of it as a kind of cheating, however honest, because the designers of the test were so emphatic about the lack of a need for training. Not long after my brief experience with larping, in the mid-Seventies, this honest cheating became such a big business that prestige schools lessened their reliance on the test as a benchmark, and in some cases ignored it altogether.

Now that I have “a word for it,” I see, or suspect, that a great deal of what passes for education — and education is oddly central to our conception of meritocracy — is larping. Will there be a test? If so, students will figure out how to larp their way through it. How to stuff large blocks of information into their short-term memories without troubling their long-term understanding. The minute the examination is over, they will take off their role-playing costumes of mind and revert to regular life. They will have learned very little.

Larping also explains some of the the practical differences between Republicans and Democrats. Here it is important to distinguish between larping and hypocritical behavior. Politics always requires a stiff measure of hypocrisy; that’s why nobody likes it. Larping is both more sincere and less authentic. I sense that Republicans are authentically engaged in political activity, and that Democrats are just pretending to be. I suspect that Hillary Clinton lost last November’s presidential election because too many voters (especially voters who didn’t vote) believed that she was larping.


The laying out of proposed cities on a plan of straight streets at right angles — a rectangular grid — is hardly a High Modernist discovery. The Romans designed their military colonies — towns for veterans — in that way, and so did St Louis’s engineers at the port of Aigues-Mortes. Even, come to think of it, Genji’s Kyoto. There was nothing very modernist about Manhattan’s grid, which was laid out in 1811. It looks rational, but it was in fact inspired by commercial imagination: the dream of large fortunes to be derived from maximal frontage.


Monday 20th

My bedtime reading has settled into an odd groove. I’ve discovered a genre that has a mildly soporific effect. It’s just interesting enough not to be boring or annoying; nor is it so interesting that it wakes me up. But I have to re-read pages and pages the next night, because I stop remembering long before I put the Kindle down. Re-reading is fine, it’s even more mildly soporific. On the surface, the stories in this genre, which I call “Sluttery,” are lurid and exciting. They all involve women who, once upon a time, would have died sooner than risk their reputations for respectability. Now that respectability is a thing of the past, they’re left with its artifacts — house, husband, children — and plenty of opportunities for chance encounters with dishy men. These men are usually husbands, too, but of course not theirs. The husbands’ wives usually come into the act. Whereas in the old days the other woman brandished an axe or at least a vial of poison, now she comes wrapped up in plot twists.

It needs pointing out that this genre is British. Being British, the books are better-written — no jarring mongrel Americanisms to infuriate me — and they draw some of their power from class-structure antagonisms, which are always reassuring. The only really bad Sluttery book that I’ve consumed was American — I could see the paint-by-numbers outlines.

I’ve just read Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough. There’s a classic triangle. Louise, an unhappy divorcée, meets and sheets David, an attractive stranger, only to find out the next day that he’s her new boss. It seems that David is unhappily married to Adele, a childhood sweetheart of sorts with movie-star looks. The chapters are headed, mostly, “Louise,” “Adele,” and “Then,” the last heading signalling installments of Adele’s backstory, which involves the ruins of a burned mansion, a mental hospital, and a spotty heroine addict. David is a very good-looking psychiatrist. Louise, the one you’re rooting for, is something of a cow, although once Adele befriends her — what is Adele up to? The chapters narrated in her voice hint but don’t tell — Louise takes to the gym and works off a stone or two. But you fret along with Louise when she becomes uncertain whether David or Adele is the villain.

I’m so tired and emotional all logical thinking has gone out the window. All I know is that I have to check on Adele and I’m running out of time to do it. Adam [Louise's little boy] comes back the day after tomorrow and then who knows what spare time I’ll have? It’ll definitely be more limited and I don’t want Adam dragged into this mess. I need to close a door on it. It still feels surreal, the thought of no David and no Adele. And no job. I bite back more tears. Even I’m getting bored of my crying. It’s your mess, I keep telling myself. Suck it up.

Adele, in contrast, is weird, although just how weird… OMG! Then: OMG again! The book is over, but the bizarre plot twists, which, ludicrous as they would sound if I summarized them here, are completely digestible in context, screw the tale into your brain. Pinborough’s package could not be more tidily wrapped; looking back, you wonder why you didn’t see it coming. But of course you didn’t. I daresay many of this book’s readers will be peering at their BFFs with gimlet eyes.

Literature it isn’t, but it has been sending me to sleep for more than two weeks, and I’m very grateful. Now I’ve moved onto something called The Woman Next Door.


Friday night was a personal festival. Two extraordinary events converged. I took the new subway to Carnegie Hall, making the trip from my reading chair in the bedroom to our seats on Row F in exactly twenty minutes, plus without crossing a street. And, in the second half of the program, I saw a concert performance of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna that was just as dandy.

I’d lost any hope of ever seeing Segreto. When I was first getting to know it, I daydreamed that Virginia Slims, the new cigarettes marketed for women, might sponsor a production. How other-worldly that seems now! Susanna’s secret is, indeed, that she smokes — a big deal in the 1900s, when the opera was confected. Although I’ve listened to recordings so many times that I know every note by heart, it had never occurred to me before Friday night that, dramatically, Segreto is a comic version of Otello. You have the same madly-in-love young couple. The wife does everything she can to please her husband — but nobody’s perfect. The husband is tormented by doubts that, to the wife, make no sense. The husband in Il Segreto di Susanna does not strangle his wife, of course; he smokes a cigarette with her instead. If this sounds slight and ridiculous, the music could not be more appealing. In forty-five minutes, Wolf-Ferrari gives us a classic overture, a scena for baritone, a love duet, a fight scene, and two very beautiful arias for soprano. The only thing missing is a tenor.

Perhaps it’s just my magpie mind, but everything in this masterpiece reminds me of moments in other operas. I don’t mean that it’s a puzzle of references for the careful listener to catch — although the way Beethoven’s Fifth is quoted at the end of the fight scene is drolly impertinent. It’s more a matter of suggestion, and I’m sure that at least a few of the suggestions are unintended, if only because they would have required foresight. The overture is a kissing cousin of the sparkler that Leonard Bernstein wrote for Candide, while the mimed staged business at the end, with the mute servant dashing about the stage while the orchestra follows him, is pretty much what Strauss and Hofmannsthal give us at the end of Der Rosenkavalier, which also had yet to be written. Speaking of Strauss, the soprano’s second and bigger aria, “Oh gioia, la nube leggera,” ends with one of Strauss’s trademark sounds, a hushed chord of strings sealed by a gleam of piccolos. (This aria is also heralded by a moment of rustling violins that signals the ecstasies of Tristan.) The ravishing tune that appears three times in the opera — during the scena, as a half-time intermezzo, and in the send-off duet at the end (“Tutto è fumo a questo mondo” — it could be daPonte or Boito) — is written in that grazioso, pseudo-nymphs-and-shepherds idiom that Puccini employed so effectively in the second act of Manon Lescaut. In the love duet, which is also a marvel, the husband and wife remember the garden in which they fell in love. “Io ti sfuggivo,” she sings, to which he replies, “Io t’inseguivo.” I ran from you; I followed you — the atmosphere was so heady that I could not help remembering that the very first opera of them all was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne.

Leon Botstein elicited a fine performance from TheOrchestraNow, an ensemble of graduate students at Bard College. The singers, David Kelly and Julianne Borg, seemed comfortable in the music, which they sang very well. If I single out Borg for special praise, that’s probably because her part is the better of the two; the baritone’s role is similar to that of a supporting male in ballet. Kelly started off so carefully that I was afraid that his voice wouldn’t be big enough, and he acted the part instead of letting the music do that for him, putting me in mind of Erik Rhodes in The Gay Divorcée. But he was fine once things got going. Borg’s soubrette was a little less insistent, and when she sang, the acting emerged from her voice. Everything about the performance was much better that I had dared to hope for.

The first half of the program was devoted to two lesser-known works by Ottorino Respighi, Rossiniana and Vetrate di Chiesa. I’m glad I didn’t miss them, but I can’t get the Big-Ben-like chime at the beginning of Rossiniana out of my head.


Wednesday 22nd

Let me begin with an axiom: organic creatures partake of fracticality. Do I know what this really means? Not really. What I understand it to signify is that there is a little cloud of chaos at every junction — every synapse, every valve, every metabolic breakdown — in the bodies of living things. Things can go one way or the other. They may always go just the one way, but only until they don’t, when the organic creature dies.

This indeterminacy will probably always be beyond our predictive imagination. Computers may figure it out, but that’s beside the point. Our lives (as organic creatures) are saturated in the slight chance of significant change. We are, as a result, both unpredictable and unreliable. Our social arrangements have developed accordingly, to compensate for the possibility that, when the dyke leaks, say, and little Hans is in bed with a cold, then little Frits will be available to stick his finger in the crack. We know that we cannot count on Hans absolutely, because he is a fractal being. Sometimes his fracticality presents itself as malingering: he doesn’t have a cold, but doesn’t want to get out of bed. Sometimes it’s more serious: Hans died of pneumonia during the night. However morally fraught these distinctions might be, they make no difference to our ceaseless attempt to organize around the fracticality of human beings.

Some people believe that, because of this fracticality, human beings are “imperfect.”


For most of our earthly career, we have made three kinds of things: comforts, tools, and playthings. (We have also tried to make material representations of the powers and deities that we believe in, but these objects have always been infused by mystery and awe that we do not impart to the other kinds, and so I set them aside.) Comforts ease the roughness of our physical contact with the world, and provide a measure of protection from harm — although never quite so much protection as we imagine when we take our ease. (As a result, we have developed social organizations for more reliable protection.) Tools enable us to do things beyond the powers of our unaided bodies: to pierce the skin of an animal from a distance, say, or to boil a mixture of grain and water over a fire. By themselves, tools are so inert that their proper, or intended, use is not dictated by their design. The misuse of tools sometimes leads to the development of new tools. (Thomas Edison was not interested in recording the performance of music.) Playthings allow us to embody our imaginations. Given a ball, children organize themselves into teams, and make mock war. (Toys are playthings designed for solitary amusement, which is why children fight over them as often as they share them.)

Then, somebody made a machine. What is a machine? It is an autonomous but predictable device, designed by human beings to function independently but reliably. Whereas tools enhance physical abilities, machines replace them. How did machines come about? The history of machines is unknown to most educated people, which is unfortunate because educated people tend to believe that they know all the important things. For lack of a better picture, I’m inclined to see the machine as rooted in toys — toys for adults. I might not have arrived at this idea if it were not for the attention given to the Antikythera Mechanism, a Hellenistic artifact that was discovered on the sea floor about a century ago but more recently considered as an antecedent to the digital computer. Even without the Antikythera Mechanism, though, there would be the clocks that began appearing on municipal walls at the beginning of the Fourteenth Century. The earliest clocks were neither autonomous nor predictable, and they were not really intended to be — they were toys. But a feedback loop of experience clearly led craftsmen first to believe that they ought to be and second to know how to make them so. The first really dependable clock dates from about 1650.

(No machine is completely autonomous, because the laws of physics condemn it to depending on motivating power. In the case of the clock, weights must be lifted every couple of days, so that their falling will trigger the escapement. Solar power, however, seems to provide something very close to autonomy.)

Toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, as even educated people know, two new kinds of machine were developed: the steam engine and the power loom. These inventions did not converge until several decades had passed — looms were first powered by falling water — but when they did, it was not long before the steam engine was applied to locomotion. By now, the machine was revealed to be capable of something beyond reliability: much greater speed. We are living today in the thick fallout of the industrial explosion that followed.

It would be better if smart people were taught about the origins of machinery, because then we should be spared that shocking, disgusting phrase, “meat machine.” Writers and editors would understand that machines are inherently inhuman, and that the human body, saddled or endowed with fracticality, is not mechanical. A meat machine is an impossibility; only a slob an imagine such thing.


Friday 24th

A word about metaphor.

Metaphor works for me only when the tenor — “the subject to which attributes are ascribed,” as I A Richards put it — is abstract, imaginary, or emotional. The whole point of metaphor seems to me to bring the physical world to bear on an attempt to explain the world that, so far as our senses are concerned, is not physical. Thus: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Now, thee, of course, is a physical person, but it’s precisely the impalpable attributes of his friend that Shakespeare wishes to capture with his comparisons to nice weather.

When both the tenor and the vehicle are material, though, I’m not so impressed. I’m more likely to conclude that an apt metaphor is a complaint. I haven’t read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot yet; I’m looking forward to it and I know that I’ll like it. However. According to Cathleen Schine’s very favorable review in The New York Review of Books, Batuman at one point compares the noise that a can of soda makes tumbling out of a vending machine to the sound of a body falling down a flight of stairs. This is clever; it is certainly “true,” as metaphors go. But instead of being impressed by Batuman’s literary virtuosity, I’m wondering why the designers of vending machines are such dolts. Why make such a racket? I’m grateful that my life does not at present involve vending machines. In fact, now that I think of it, the well-lived life is one in which things that happen in the material world do not remind one of other things. They are, instead, just what they are.

Once there was a metaphor that nearly drove me mad. In the swimming pool at my parents’ house in Houston, there was a contraption that kept litter from settling anywhere but in the basket over the deepest point at the bottom. Two hoses snaked from a floating head, itself tethered to the side of the pool by a long hose. Water pressure powered geared paddles that propelled the head on an endless cruise of the surface, while also shooting jets from the hoses that dragged along the bottom. The sound that the head made ought to have reminded me of a burbling fountain. Instead, it was exactly like the noise that needles scratched on phonograph records, before the music started.


My own penchant for comparisons is historical. I was very proud of myself on the day when I realized that the executive suite of the modern corporation functions much like the court of an ancien régime prince. While it would be wrong to say that executives or courtiers are idle, exactly, they don’t really do any work. At most, they arrange for work to be done by others. Meanwhile, they angle for riches in the pools of power by competing for influence.

When my father was a pipeline company executive — this is how I know about modern corporations; I learned about princely courts from books — he was responsible for negotiating a deal for the import of natural gas from Algeria. I have kept his passport from that period; he was in and out of Orly all the time. In order to be shipped, the gas had to be liquefied in Algeria and then loaded, at incredible pressures, onto special ships, easily identifiable by the half-domes on their decks. In Louisiana, the gas was deliquefied. It was all very dangerous and I’m amazed that nothing blew up, although I believe that the explosion of such a ship occurs in the film Syrianna. My point is this: my father knew no more about LNG engineering than I do. He did not design the plants or the ships; I rather doubt that he spent more than five hours talking to anybody who did. Yet somehow it all got done, because he had the diplomatic skills of an old-fashioned ambassador, combined with a good deal the authority of a prince. I’m sorry that I never got to entertain him with my argument that his everyday life was not so different from that of a duke at the Fontainebleau of Francis I. For all the difference in costume, not to mention the very different role of women — a pillar of virtue like my mother would not have been welcome at court — the exercise of power has not changed so very much.

This is not to say that there is nothing new under the sun. Anybody who thinks that has never given much thought to the toxic symbiosis of television technology and the advertising model of revenue generation, which among other things has given us Grump.

Monday 27th: Rite of Spring: Paul Taylor at Lincoln Center

At one point in The Italian Lesson — Ruth Draper’s great monologue — Mrs Clancy gets on the phone with Count Bluffsky, the portrait artist who has painted her little daughter. Because she thinks that the girl’s cheeks ought to be pinker, the hair ribbons ought to be blue. Then she tries to reassure the man: “It’s a great work of art, and we’re all crazy about the frame.” You can well imagine the Count’s delight.

What was not so funny, yesterday, was coming away from my reports of Paul Taylor dances over the years and feeling that I’d said much the same sort of thing. It seemed to me that I had never read so much unadulterated piffle. At the same time, it was no consolation that there was not very much of it to read. I am moved to apologize to every dancer whom I’ve mentioned, even the ones about whom I’ve said nothing negative.

This was our ninth season. Even saying that, “our ninth season,” sounds ridiculously grandiose. For the ninth spring in a row, we went to see a handful of Paul Taylor dances during the company’s annual New York season. Unfortunately, “ninth season” is the important part, as, I hope, “tenth season” will be, next year. Every year, the experience deepens. While the dancers who have made strong impressions in the past continue to delight, others become more familiar, making the whole company more complex somehow.

I’m reminded of my garden in the country: every year, and without actual expansion, there was more to it. There are always sixteen dancers in the Company. Their head shots appear in the Playbill, in order of seniority. We have seen a few dancers retire from the top line, as it were, with bouquets of roses. More often, dancers and their pictures have simply disappeared. In the first few years, I hardly noticed. Dancers who left the company from the middle of the ranks hadn’t made much of an impression, or I mixed them up with other dancers. I still have trouble when the women in the company wrap up their hair in caps, or don wigs, as Eran Bugge did yesterday, in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). The last time I saw this dance, several years ago, Amy Young played the role of The Mistress, and I recognized her right away. She has since retired. The Mistress’s black bob wig changed how I saw Eran Bugge’s face. Something about the costume made her look too small. So I spent a lot of the time working out that it must be Eran Bugge — by process of elimination. I also spent a lot of time peering into the pit. We were sitting in the first row, and we had a fine view of the two pianists, seated side by side at two pianos (an unusual configuration, I thought), who were playing the reduction of Stravinsky’s score. (The Rehearsal — get it?) One of the pianists was reading from an iPad that turned its own pages, so to speak, automatically, at just the right time. How did it do that?

Meanwhile, Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack were doing the long abstract dance that begins the second part of the ballet, and I was thinking that I could watch them all day, if I could only take my eyes off the pianists (which turned out to be easy). There is nothing showy about this modernist but somewhat courtly dance, seasoned, as the whole dance is, with memories of Nijinsky’s gestures (get a load of me!), but it is compelling all the same. One of the first things I learned at Paul Taylor dances was that Trusnovec and Halzack are miraculous partners; when they dance together, nothing else seems possible. I was also thinking that, in a few minutes, Halzack would be doing a very different dance, one of deranged grief, grief occasioned by the “murder,” played for laughs, of her baby doll. Paul Taylor’s take on Sacre is as loaded with mysterious narrative as the original, but the elements, instead of deriving from speculative folklore, come from nickelodeon entertainment, and the absurdity of the proceedings is brought forward. A more rigorous critic than I might complain that this levity obscures the interest of the dancing. Seeing the ballet for the third time, I knew what was going on, and could sit back and enjoy the show. Later in the afternoon, during Brandenburgs, I would see that, while narrative can get in the way of appreciating dance, it also makes it much easier to write about.

What is there to say about a dance like Brandenburgs? “It is very formal.” Indeed: if one of the three women dancers does something, then the other two will have opportunities to do something similar. Michael Trusnovec will lift each of them into the air, one-two-three. The five men in the chorus will cross the stage x-wise between the women’s dances. Aren’t you thrilled to read this? It seems closer to the spirit of the dance to talk about the swaying drape of the women’s dresses, which, with their velvet heft, spin halos of grace even when the women sashay with their hips; while Trusnovec is by contrast concealed within his tights, an Apollo in essence, a paradox of moving non-moving parts. And why not repeat what I said to Kathleen, that it’s amazing how much movement Taylor packs into the five or six minutes of the first movement of the Third Brandenburg, so that it seems incapable of reaching an end — until suddenly it does? What is the point of these remarks? What will they tell me two or three years from now, when I want to “look back” and see what I had to say? Will I be as furiously disappointed by what I’ve just now written as I was last night by earlier entries? Will I grumble that there is so much more to describe, and gnash my teeth at not having known how? Will I learn how? It seems ungracious not to mention that the three women, each wonderful in her own way, were Michelle Fleet, Parisa Khobdeh, and Eran Bugge. Why did Khobdeh’s dress have only one shoulder strap?

Yesterday’s performance was the final offering of this year’s New York season. I was expecting, with dread, that a retirement or two might be announced. At least three of the four senior men in the company, all extraordinarily strong dancers, are over forty. How much longer (I’ve asked this before) can they go on? But it was Francisco Graciano, from the middle of the pack, who retired. At the end of The Open Door, Michael Novak led him to the front of the stage, where he was pelted with roses. He had had a good dance to go out on, one of those Paul Taylor fist-fights between two men that sketch the motions of violence without the anger. His opponent was James Samson, one of the four seniors.

The Open Door was better than I was afraid it would be — much better, really. Set to an assortment of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (but not to the entire work), it presents an afternoon reception in what seemed to me to be a Park Lane drawing room with Hyde Park’s treetops outside the tall windows. The Host, danced by Michael Novak, received a miscellany of guests, one of whom was Laura Halzack in a fat suit. Although unmatched for august severity — what a pitiless Diana she would make! — Halzack will “do anything.” Last weekend, we saw her in the first dance that we ever saw her do, Danbury Mix. She plays “Lady Liberty,” larking and camping to music by Charles Ives. In the fat suit, she sat down on a chair that collapsed beneath her; several times, her plump character had to be picked up off the floor by groaning men. She whirled about, revealing red bloomers under her golden gown, with the gestures of a petite woman (which Halzack is not). The idea of Laura Halzack’s obesity was a character in the dance. It was a pantomime moment, great fun for those of us who have been watching her over the years.

In the Times, Alastair Macaulay disapproved of The Open Door, and I can see why, although it is not by any means the empty-headed disaster (get a load of me!) of Ports of Call, which we saw last week and I hope not to see again, even if Trusnovec and Samson’s crossing of the stage as if in a kayak was a nifty stunt. There’s room for more in The Open Door, and no reason not to enlarge it. Again, I’m speaking of someone who follows developments instead of appreciating each dance, each year, for just what it is right then.

Last week, we went to two Saturday performances, as is our wont. In the afternoon, we saw Airs; Lost, Found and Lost; and Syzygy. In the evening, we saw Danbury Mix, Ports of Call, and Black Tuesday. Airs, like Brandenburgs, is a “formal” ballet, set to music by Handel; I find that I can remember nothing about it now, which is what usually happens after seeing a formal ballet the first time. There is nothing to hold onto. We liked Syzygy more than we thought we would, and Black Tuesday even more than that. The former is an exuberant ensemble piece with a score by Donald York that forges Leonard Bernstein, the minimalism of Terry Riley, and Latin rhythms into a coherent workout. The latter is a serious of smaller dances set to scratchy records from the early Thirties. The last song is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” sung by Bing Crosby — it’s almost unbearable, hearing that selfish, callow, but divinely gifted singer pretend to be in need. Performances by Parisa Khobdeh and Jamie Rae Walker as a pregnant abbandonata and a tramp, respectively, stood out for vitality in what was already a depression-free dance.

The Playbill says that Lost, Found and Lost is set to “elevator music.” I know what this is supposed to mean, but it isn’t the case. The tunes themselves are all former radio hits, such as “Ebb Tide” and “Laura.” As for the settings, they are not reedy little Muzak things but sumptuous orchestrations, as if Berlioz had been hired to chart “Three O’Clock in the Morning.” I knew the title of all but one of the numbers, and I wondered why they were not listed in the program, as undoubtedly they are all copyrighted and presumably paid for. The music is almost more interesting than the dancing, which is deliberately listless (when it isn’t momentarily frantic), evocative of the special boredom that characterized glamour in the Fifties. I found the suggestion of forgettable anonymity somewhat distasteful. I’d certainly buy a recording if one were available.

What about Robert Kleinendorst? I will complain. Say something about Robert Kleinendorst. I am always wanting to think something about Robert Kleinendorst after seeing him dance, because he makes me wonder if life can really be so much fun. Never have I seen anyone with a more on-the-go metabolism. He doesn’t stand still long enough for slings and arrows to hit him, but if they did, he’d transform them into Mexican jumping beans. I realize that, offstage, Kleinendorst is a mere mortal — I don’t think about that part. I think about how he gets to take fake curtain calls in the middle of things. He did it, sort of, in Brandenburgs, when he was the last chorus dancer to leave stage and, as he did so, he threw in an extra jumping jack. He did it with a woman last weekend — they blew kisses at the audience. Would that have been in Airs? Do the other men do it, and I just don’t notice?

The subject of R K reminds me: New Head Shots! The Company could run new, or at least currently recognizable, head shots of the dancers in the Playbill. I can’t remember if Kleinendorst was wearing a beard when we first saw him eight years ago, but he shaved it off a long time ago, and that’s why Kathleen can’t recognize him when he isn’t moving.


Thursday 30th: But What Happened?

Ordinarily, I skip the fiction in The New Yorker, but I make exceptions for writers who (a) write fiction that I like and (b) seem unlikely to publish the first chapters of novels in the magazine. I like my novels wholly fresh. That Dunkirk episode that Granta published in advance nearly ruined Ian McEwan’s Atonement for me. Not to mention what happened with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

In this week’s issue, there’s a story by John Lanchester, “Signal.” It’s engrossing, because at the center of the tale is an incidental, almost unconscious millionaire. The narrator’s Cambridge friend, apparently one of those rocket scientists who went on to metastasize the disruptive powers of finance, hosts a miscellaneous New Year’s house party at his spread in Yorkshire. One of the guests — or perhaps an upper servant — takes an unwelcome interest in the narrator’s children, but, like the White Rabbit, is never available for interrogation. The billionaire seems unaware of this tall man’s existence, and all but flatly denies his presence in the house. In the final paragraphs, you discover why “Signal” may well be included in a forthcoming anthology entitled Best Ghost Stories of 2017. But the ghost is a McGuffin. The beating heart of the story remains firmly in the chest of the rich man, who would not know a ghost if he saw one. Kudos to Lanchester for the very effective appropriation of Count Dracula’s chill. But instead of creaking with spooky atmospherics, “Signal” chuckles at the conceit of its oscillating metaphor.

Whether I’d mention “Signal” at all if it weren’t for what kept me up all night, I can’t tell. I must confess to approaching Lanchester’s story somewhat belligerently, as if waving a red cape. Last night, I had been very upset, at an inconveniently late hour, by the final pages of Julian Barnes’s novella, The Sense of an Ending, and I was ready to put up a fuss if Lanchester dished out further helpings ofI was going to say something else, “Brit” and something that rhymes with “Brit,” but hinting is enough — cleverness.

The Sense of an Ending is a memoir that turns into a mystery. Tony Webster tells a story from his life (indicating here and there that certain people, such as his ex mother-in-law, are not part of this story). The memoir — school days, first love, romantic betrayal, suicide; followed by an account of middle life spent in agreeable mediocrity — turns into a mystery when Tony is led by his old girlfriend, anything but friendly now, to an encounter with a mentally disabled man, younger but also middle-aged. Who is this person, and what has Tony to do with him? “You just don’t get it,” the girlfriend keeps saying.

The girlfriend’s mother, it turns out, has left Tony £500 in her will. “Blood money,” the girlfriend calls this. But why?

All I really want to know is this: What did Tony Webster do? Anita Brookner, reviewing the book favorably, speaks of “a betrayal of all concerned.” Tony has inferred from the facts in front of him that his old best friend, Adrian, who took up with the girlfriend, Veronica, after Veronica and Tony broke up (and then broke up again), engendered the disabled man, who is also revealed (in Tony’s thinking) as Veronica’s half-brother. Somehow, I gather, Tony is responsible for this unwonted fathering. But how responsible? Youthfully thoughtless, Tony angrily urged Adrian (upon learning about Adrian and Veronica) to seek out Veronica’s mother. The seeds of this mystery were planted during an awkward weekend with Veronica’s family. Her father and brother were condescending, but her mother was surprisingly pleasant, and even apologised for the family rudeness. Then, when Tony waved to her as he was being driven off to the station, she made an ambiguous gesture with her hand at her waist. Can this mean that Tony, an unreliable narrator, is himself is the disabled man’s father? That, to me, is the only explanation that could warrant the heaviness of the ending, in which Tony is more or less damned forever. Blood money for what else?

Needless to say, the reviews are militantly unenlightening. Figuring out for yourself what happened is the essence of the pleasure of reading books like this, it seems, and critics are bound to refrain from giving away the secrets. My own inclination, unfortunately in this context, is to forgive Tony his mediocrity, because I reject as immoral the proposition that leading an ordinary, objectively blameless life after the ambitious convulsions of youth is tantamount to failure. I reject as immoral the idea that mediocrity and ordinariness constitute failure. The failure to achieve greatness is nothing more than that — not a negative but a neutral. It does not subtract from the positive achievement of civil functioning — raising children, mowing lawns, paying taxes, keeping in trim. I forgive Tony the self-satisfied regard of his sense of ordinariness. Unless presented with evidence of mature hypocrisy, I discharge him as innocent. If all that Tony did was to write a nasty, resentful letter, in the hot flush of jealous resentment, then The Sense of an Ending dissolves into nothing.

Several reviewers suggest that, to understand what happens in The Sense of an Ending, you have to read it very carefully and weigh every word. If so — and I’m inclined to agree, even if I still don’t get it — then it was a mistake to read the novella at bedtime. It’s one thing to flip back a few pages in the Sluttery books that I mentioned last week, and quite another to pop out of the groove of a painstakingly laid narrative.


Friday 31st: End of File

As this month comes to an end, I find myself wondering more and more what I am doing here. Not whether I ought to be, but just what. I seem to have developed a style of presentation that flaunts all the expectations of the medium (Web log) that I’m working in. It has been a long time since I heard from a reader. Meanwhile, I’ve been chewing over my writing project. Nothing much happened there, either, during the dark months. Lately, though, I think that I understand what the writing project is about, which may sound idiotic but in fact I undertook it to find out what would come out if I committed myself to a sustained piece of writing. Now I have a great deal of re-writing to do. It promises to be very austere, because I am going to renounce the conveniences of cutting and pasting. I may copy some material, but I shall be typing from scratch.

At The Browser, the “tweet” of the day is a quip by C S Lewis (hence the scare quotes): “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” As to humility, I have no opinion; of all the virtues, it bears the least discussion, so much so that one might really wonder if humility is a virtue. What I mean is that it strikes me as a quality of angels, not of humans. In Transit, which I’m reading at the moment (can you tell?), Rachel Cusk’s persona, Faye, remarks that the poverty of St Francis, which most people have taken as a sign of humility, strikes her as nihilism, and I’m inclined to agree. I also agree with Lewis that it is better to think about yourself as little as possible. I don’t mean it as a prescription; it’s just better if you don’t feel called to think about yourself.

I am discovering that making the bed and getting dressed as soon as I have finished reading the paper, and not wandering into the day in a state of déshabille, results in my thinking about myself much less. To put it another way, freedom means being your own boss — but no less of a boss for that. Nay, more.

“Nay” rhymes with “Faye.” I am indeed mesmerized by what Cusk is doing. She is taking the stuff of novels — no, wait; she’s taking the stuffing out of novels and presenting us with something limpid and refreshing that is not quite fiction. Take just an episode from one of the stories: Amanda, the disorganized woman with a career in fashion, books a weekend in Paris. At the last minute, her boyfriend, Gavin, who is really her domestic renovation contractor, declares that he has forgotten his passport, and he runs off to find it. She doesn’t hear from him for week, whereupon he pays her the expenses of the wasted trip — she didn’t go, either — in cash. The anecdote that Amanda has wrought from this disaster is almost funny; the lost weekend is over and done with and no longer exerts much emotional force. But were we to go back in time, with Amanda sitting on her suitcases, whistling “Waiting at the Church” as it might be, the affective complexion would be altogether different. Gavin’s world travel, it turns out, has been limited to Ireland; he was terrified about being “abroad” with his sophisticated girlfriend. Amanda, meanwhile, must have run through several octaves of incredulous anger. All of which would easily fill twenty or thirty pages of a standard novel. When you realize that Cusk has spared you these commonplace dramatics, it’s hard not to be grateful. In the end, though, you hope that it is fiction, because if it isn’t, Rachel Cusk isn’t going to have any friends.


I went to the movies yesterday; I went to see Get Out. It is an unusual movie — in that, while I watched it perched at the edge of my seat, scared to death, I remember it today as having been extremely funny. I hasten to add that while there is a lone comical character in the film, there is no burlesque. When the hero deals with his offenders, his righteous anger is furious, but the damage that he inflicts upon them is almost euphemized. Jordan Peele has concocted a new kind of movie, too new for a label. I will say, though, that the promise made by Catherine Keener’s presence in the cast was royally fulfilled. I’ll have more to say when the DVD comes out. For now, just go see it!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Teachers’ Homework
February 2017

2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 14, 17, 21, 22, 24 and 27 February

Tuesday 2nd

On the way from the dermatologist’s office to the barber shop, I stopped in yesterday at the Video Room, and rented a couple of discs. One was Secretariat, which we haven’t seen even though Diane Lane is in it. The other featured an even grander diva, Meryl Streep: it was the recent Florence Foster Jenkins. This we watched after dinner. (Secretariat, no longer a new release, can wait.)

I’m enormously puzzled by Florence, because the people who made it are all master craftsmen who know how to make what they set out to make. What did they have in mind here? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that they had inconsistent things in mind. At the center of the production, of course, is the spectacle of the society dame who used her wealth and the cooperation of her fellow biddies to conduct a semi-private musical career, the joke being: was there a joke about the fact that every sound coming out of her mouth was unmusical? The spectacle (according to the movie) took place when Florence, finding herself adrift in a fog of loneliness, ill-health, and patriotism, hired Carnegie Hall and distributed free tickets to her show to servicemen. This swan dive was followed almost immediately by illness and death. Florence Foster Jenkins would be an arcane footnote in the history of Gotham if she had not taken the trouble to record  performances of a number of chestnuts, accompanied by the fantastically-named pianist, Cosme McMoon. I doubt that these recordings have ever been out of print in my lifetime. They were part of the soundtrack, an occasional weir in the flood of Edith Piaf, at the mauve end of the undergraduate spectrum when I was in school. To be at all sophisticated, you had to know who she was and how bad she was.

The fascination is hard to pin down. Once you have been acquainted with the sheer fact of Jenkins’s voice, there is little pressure to explore further, because her singing is just bad. I haven’t been able to find a redeeming contour, but I haven’t tried very hard. This isn’t to say, however, that the Jenkins story isn’t interesting. It’s almost too interesting.  In 2005, Judy Kaye and Donald Corren brought Stepehen Temperley’s Souvenir to the stage. It was in its every corpuscle an evening of theatre: you had to be there. I thought that it would run forever, so perfect it was, but it didn’t. Happily, I wrote it up at Portico. I knew from the reviews that Florence Foster Jenkins would be nothing like it: I had never heard of Jenkins’s husband, St Clair Bayfield, and there was certainly no room for him in Souvenir. I found it hard to believe that Meryl Streep was going to spend a significant chunk of film time being ludicrous.

And of course she doesn’t. She does something so unusual — for her — that I’m not sure that she really did it. Two things, actually. First, she recycles an earlier performance, the one as Julia Child. Mrs Child was something of a society dame, too, but if she could actually cook she also could deal with the fact that many of her viewers found her presentations to be hysterically funny. (Maybe the laughter doesn’t hurt if it can’t be heard in the studio.) Jenkins, at least until Carnegie Hall, performed with the very reasonable expectation (unconscious, probably) that it would be unforgivably rude to guffaw. Streep has only to add a dash of cluelessness to her slyly distracted Julia to produce a convincing Florence.

Even more surprising, however, she does not attempt to steal the show from Hugh Grant, and this is where the puzzle lies. The film’s title is misleading; it ought to have been something like The Constant Husband, or perhaps The Inconstant Husband, sounding different registers of irony but identifying the heart of the story, which is the tale of a devoted (if unfaithful) husband’s determination to protect his wife’s amour propre from her ambitions. When she indulges in a song recital, he hand-picks the audience. After the performance, he assures her that she was wonderful. If necessary, he bribes newspapermen. It’s a full-time job, and of course Hugh Grant is perfectly suited to making madcap leaps from panicked frown to flashbulb smile, and to forestalling calamity with preternatural glibness. (His voice has two gears, ultra-hesistant and gush.) The difficulty with Florence Foster Jenkins is that you don’t worry about Florence; you worry about St Clair.

And yet the movie raises a great deal of pathos out of Florence’s health, a problem having little to do with her singing. Infected with syphilis by her husband as a teen bride, Florence is a survivor at the end of her ninth life. (This is very wicked of me, but when Florence’s maid — played so well by Brid Brennan that I wanted to see a movie about her — removed her lady’s wig, and replaced it with a turban, I saw that Streep’s very next role ought to be Edith Sitwell.) The movie rather helplessly kills Florence off by a bad review from which all of St Clair’s efforts couldn’t protect her. It is very dramatic, of course; the tragedy of the final farce is very well done. But did she die because Earl Wilson panned her? The puzzle is that the filmmakers ought to have known that this somewhat illegitimate  wind-up would be cinematically inevitable. The cabaret of Souvenir could end with McMoon’s narrative from the piano. But Nicholas Martin’s screenplay has to show us something, and mere after-the-show exhaustion wouldn’t be enough. So we get Meryl on the marble.

The only way to redeem this confusing exploit will be to make a film about Mrs Miller.


Friday 3rd

Last month, Daniel Barenboim conducted a cycle of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies at Carnegie Hall. I didn’t attend any of the concerts. Although I’ve known the Third Symphony since I was a freshman in college, the rest are more or less indistinguishable to me. They’re beautiful and exciting, but, more than that, they’re the same. I seem to be incapable of discriminating among them. Now I wonder if Times music critic Corinna da Fonseca Wollheim hasn’t put her finger on why. In a discussion with her colleague Zachary Woolfe that the newspaper published last week, she said something that stuck with me — something that bears on a great deal more than Bruckner.

My experience in the hall was inevitably colored by what has happened in the world, beginning with a presidential inauguration that was heavy on nationalist rhetoric. Perhaps my biggest gripe about Bruckner has been how perfectly suited his music is to communal veneration. A lot of people who love Mahler also love Bruckner, and there are similarities. But Mahler always puts the individual — the doubting, neurotic individual — at the center. In Bruckner, the triumphant hero of too many movements seems to be a “we.”

In today’s paper, David Brooks writes about the American myth that he finds represented on the dome of the Library of Congress.

In that story, America is placed at the vanguard of the great human march of progress. America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind.

This historical story was America’s true myth. When we are children, and also when we are adults, we learn our deepest truths through myth.

It seems to me that the “we” whom David Brooks has learning our deepest truths through myth is the same triumphant hero that makes da Fonseca Wollheim so uncomfortable (as it does me)

My preferred “we” is a crowd of doubting, neurotic individuals. Call it the Manhattan We. We don’t share many myths, because we disagree about most things, but we know how to walk down the street. When strangers ask, we either give good directions or we admit that we don’t know the way. Despite our differences about everything that matters, we Gothamites manage to get along in surprisingly peaceful coexistence. If anything, that is our myth.

We even put up with decades of Donald Trump.

Now, there’s a myth for you!


Monday 6th

It seems that Kathleen has just volunteered my services as a cook to produce a dinner on Thursday night for two of her Smith classmates, “if he’s up for it.” Her friends may have better ideas, involving real restaurants. Why come into the city just to sit in a quiet apartment? But I must be prepared for Kathleen’s offer to be accepted, particularly as I’ve ratified it with an email of my own.

Over the weekend, I browsed the pages of Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, a collection of pieces written for The Spectator and other periodicals, mostly during the Fifties and the Sixties. David’s writing about food casts a spellbinding illusion: all you need do to prepare a scrumptious meal is to take a nap. While you sleep, delicious ingredients will pile up in a nearby marketplace. When you wake up, just stroll down the stalls and fill your shopping basket with produce so bursting with culinary virtue that, once spread out on your rustic kitchen table, it will cook itself.

(Some of David’s books, such as English Bread and Yeast Cookery, do not bear much relation to meals at all, but seem more like craft projects that just happen to produce edible goods.)

This illusion is doubtless produced by David’s long experience of staying out of kitchens whilst other people did the cooking. She did cook herself, of course, but when I think of her at home I remember reading that she liked to sit at her rustic kitchen table with a glass of wine that was never empty. She would perch next to the oven, so that all she had to to was turn in her seat, open the oven door, and give the casserole a little stir. How the casserole was composed is not in the picture, but the glass of wine must have been part of that, too. On the cover of An Omelette and A Glass of Wine is a drawing of David, leaning against a cabinet, holding a glass of wine. She seems to be engaged with an unseen friend, and utterly relaxed. It is clear that David’s school of gastronomy holds, as a first principle, that we will eat our dinner when it is good and ready.

I learned about this approach to cooking too late in life to adapt to it, and I never had a kitchen large enough for a rustic kitchen table. The moment that separates what used to be called “cocktails,” a period that begins when guests arrive, and “sitting down” at the table has always been, for lack of a better word, decisive, because my first principle holds that, once people are seated, dinner proceeds at a reasonable pace. If there is a soup to start, then whatever follows must be on the table within twenty minutes at the utmost of clearing the bowls. Guests cannot be allowed to wonder, uncomfortably, what is going on in the kitchen. Even when it is just the two of us, and Kathleen is wholly absorbed by whatever she is reading or stitching, I am haunted by the quartermaster over my shoulder.

Although the local marketplaces are among the best in Manhattan, it would never occur to me to shop for what looks good. The very idea of such spontaneous impressionism puts me into a panic. I must be armed with plans when I walk into Agata & Valentina or Whole Foods. But plans, no matter how well drawn up, are rarely fun to follow. A few times in my life, I have thrown together delicious meals from ingredients on hand. It is like great sex: better not to count on it. I have also thrown together meals that tasted thrown together, against a brick wall somewhere.

David gives a recipe from a Tuscan inn that she calls “the lake place.” I shall certainly give it a try, but not this Thursday. (Kathleen’s offer has been declined.) It’s for spaghetti with chicken livers and lemon. Other ingredients include ham, garlic, Parmesan, and lots of egg yolks. (It sounds like a supercharged carbonara.) David talks about the size and excellence of the livers of well-fed Tuscan chickens; I wonder if I can count on Agata & Valentina for quality above and beyond the ordinary. And all those eggs! In another essay, David writes about the fame of Mme Poularde’s Mont-St-Michel omelettes. She laughs at the food writers who speculated wildly about secret ingredients. But it was probably just the eggs, very good and very fresh eggs. How fresh can an egg in Manhattan be?

There are at least two pieces about Norman Douglas in An Omelette and A Glass of Wine. I had heard of Douglas before I learned about David’s friendship with him, but only barely. On the strength of her enthusiasm, I roped in a copy of South Wind from somewhere. “Wind” was right. It reminded me of E F Benson’s Lucia books, but without the laughs. Instead, something that Mrs Lucas herself might have penned. South Wind may be a cornerstone of Anglophone Caprimania, but I’d rather read Shirley Hazzard on the subject. David herself is pretty good; after all, she makes Douglas sound interesting. One of her pieces here explodes with indignation at the witlessness of a publisher who reprinted Douglas’s Venus in the Kitchen, as if the title were not ironic, with drawings of little cupids in bathing trunks. The notion of a craftily concocted dish that will reduce anyone who eats it to indiscriminate erotic wantonness is probably as old as clay pots, but while a good meal will almost always produce good feelings, the cook must still in propria persona attract the diner from the table to the divan.

But what do I know? I don’t really associate food with love. I associate it with conversation. Without good talk, even the best food is just snacks.


Thursday 9th

It has been a quiet week. On Monday, I did nothing, aside from writing here. On Tuesday, I took the new subway down to 72nd Street, the next stop, and walked three long blocks to the Hospital for Special Surgery, where I spent the later afternoon in the Infusion Therapy Unit, connected to a Remicade drip. On the way, I discovered that there are no escalators at the northern, or 72nd Street, end of the station, only a bank of elevators. The elevators open directly onto the sidewalk, beneath a canopy. On my return, I was bemused by the rhythm of progressing upwards from the platform via three escalators and then, without a great deal of lateral travel, the elevator in which my homewards ascent was concluded.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend from out of town. We walked over to the Museum afterwards, for some reason along 83rd Street. I used to walk the block of 83rd Street between Second and Third Avenues all the time, in the days of the Green Village Market, a Korean greengrocery where I could sign for boxes of produce and have them delivered. The space has for quite a long time now been occupied by a 7-Eleven. More happily, St Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church still occupies its spot on 83rd Street. At one point, it seemed doomed by the archdiocese. It may still be at risk. But it is still there, its façade flush with its neighbors’, its gable and spire giving the sky above a European air.

At the Museum, as we walked among the Old Master paintings, my friend told me about the cousin with whom he would be having dinner. I came away with a rather Cubist notion of the lady; I know her age for sure, but other details, however individually distinct, remain only unclearly related to her. I attribute this confusion to my having interrupted my friend to point at various pictures, such as the Rubens painting that, as it happened, adorned the jacket of my first recording of Beethoven’s Seventh. (Only just now have I learned that the background was painted by the elder Brueghel.) It’s odd that the Holocaust comes into this cousin’s story, but I’m quite sure that it does.

Yesterday was a pleasant day for walking, quite unseasonably balmy. Today it is cold again but at least there is the mitigation of piles of snow. Kathleen decided to stay home, and we slept until well past noon. I got up, finally, because my dreams were disturbing me. One involved a set of miniature kitchen implements, and it needled me with questions not only about whether I had lost part or all of it but also about having invented it. If I had invented it, why something so silly and pointless? Just talking about it, I see my hand placing a small plastic fork on a piece of dark cloth. It’s not restful.

In the new New Yorker (13 & 20 February), I read two pieces about death, Thomas Mallon’s review of George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Kathryn Schulz’s essay, “Losing Streak.” I am not in a hurry to get to the novel, but I expect that I’ll read it presently. Schulz writes about losing her father; she also mentions losing the election. I’ve lost elections before, but this time the loss is different.

The morning after the election, I cried again, missing my refugee father, missing the future I had thought would unfold. In its place, other kinds of losses suddenly seemed imminent: of civil rights, personal safety, financial security, the foundational American values of respect for dissent and difference, the institutions and protections of democracy.

The sentence brought me up short, because I long ago ceased to believe in the existence of “foundational American values.” What I’ve lost in this past election is faith in the ability of intelligent Americans to protect the institutions, from law courts to power plants, that have made complex organisms such as New York City largely safe and largely predictable. This isn’t to say that I’m expecting disaster tomorrow. But too many people have been counting too heavily on things like respect for dissent and difference, taking them for granted, even. Taking things for granted is a small weakness that can open the door to great evil.


Friday 10th

Last night, I finally got to the end of Mark Greengrass’s Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648. It’s a sound history, but not a particularly captivating one, because it favors issues analysis over narrative. I had made up my mind, midway through it, that my next book would be C V Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, and I had already taken it down from the shelf, so after I closed the one I opened the other. A clipping from the Times fluttered out: a brief obituary of Wedgwood from 1997. If I’d known it, I’d forgotten how young Wedgwood was when she wrote her big book — not quite thirty.

It didn’t take long to savor the difference between the two books. Wedgwood is lucidity itself, written in the spirit of Johnsonian coherence. Greengrass seems to have something insightful but complicated to tell us; it is always just a little too complicated for the point to be made. The writing is somewhat curious: just to pick one tiny example, on page 163 the word “deception” occurs, but it makes no sense unless construed as déception, the French for “disappointment.” As I worked my way through Christendom Destroyed, I was often made aware of changes in academic fashion, as I suppose any serious reader of my age is bound to be; like anyone of my age, I’m inclined to think that the old fashions served well enough, although I suppose that Wedgwood’s confidence might strike younger minds as presumptuous. Even twenty years ago, the Times bracketed her as a “Storyteller of History.”

Sixteen pages in, Wedgwood inserts a political observation that deserves, I think, more attention: it highlights the Machiavellian impulses not of rulers but of the ruled.

Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.

The truth of this maxim is borne out by terrorism, which seeks to eliminate the comfort that a bad government can provide. Reformers also try to make us uncomfortable. The reason why it might not be a good idea to accept the comforts of a bad government is that a bad government might change its mind about you, and decide to withhold your comforts. It is certainly more prudent to enjoy moderate comfort under a good government than excessive comfort under a tyranny.

We all have different ideas of comfort, some of which cannot be harmonized with others, and that makes for political problems. But for each of us personally there is a moral question: how righteous are your comforts? The easy, adolescent answer is that comfort is never righteous. Teenagers cling to this view because they can’t find comfort anywhere. Most of us outgrow the misery of those years, but some people don’t. Some people never learn that other people have feelings, too, and that the mere fact that their feelings are different does not make them wrong.

Most of us are much more respectful of others when we are comfortable. This is a law of human nature that ought to inform political arrangements at the most basic level. There is no point in drafting a constitution that disregards the importance of comfort. Our Declaration of Independence speaks of “happiness,” which, for political purposes, seems to me to be much the same thing. If I am allowed to pursue happiness, I am unlikely to begrudge others the same freedom. The righteousness of my comforts, then, is a factor of the liberty that my behavior bestows. If my idea of comfort involves screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night, it is manifestly unrighteous. My comforts must be constrained by my neighbors’ right to the quiet enjoyment of their homes, to their comfort. Neighborly comfort is righteous.


Monday 13th

No matter how nutty they are, Transhumanists — at least, the ones Mark O’Connell writes about in this weekend’s Times Magazine — have one very attractive selling point: opposed to death in general, they’re opposed to war in particular. They argue for diverting defense budgets into advancing the technology that will make them immortal.

And they’re not really so nutty. They’re just young, or rather just old enough to grasp the terrible waste of their dying now, in the prime of life. They can’t imagine that this prime will ever come to an end, other than by premature death. Nor has the selfishness of their desire to stick around forever, leaving no room for future generations, really occurred to them; if it has, they’ve probably satisfied their conscience by supposing that, once their principal objective has been achieved, the colonization of space ad infinitem will be no problem.

Mark O’Connell’s piece is very well done, but it probably isn’t as funny as I thought it was when I encountered it, simply by turning a page in the Magazine. I had been reading a very different sort of piece, an essay about what is arguably the most complicated topic of civil conversation today, feminism. Feminism is so complicated, in fact, that it’s probably a mistake to call it “feminism,” but I’ll come back to that in a moment. The juxtaposition of a grave meditation on questions that, although addressed to women, make demands of us all, and a travelogue involving a rattling old recreational vehicle and two young guys, one of them, in the journalist’s words, “as strange a person as I had ever met, and I had met a great many strange people in the year and a half I spent reporting on transhumanists,” was as jolting as a pothole. How could the editors of the Magazine imagine for a moment that O’Connell’s clowns deserved even more column inches than Amanda Hess’s reflections?

But there you have it. A lot of women, over here, trying to imagine a more civil arrangement of human affairs. Over there, a couple of guys yakking about transcending it. If you have any kind of mind at all, you can’t help wishing that the Transhumanists will succeed — and then disappear.


In “Forces in Opposition,” Amanda Hess uses last month’s Women’s March on Washington to frame a problem that has nagged feminism since American women began to make demands that we now characterize as feminist, before the Civil War. Much bigger than the problem of women’s rights, the problem of racism, focused on and defined by African-American physiognomy, was something that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for one, wished would just go away. “In 1865,” Hess writes, “Stanton lamented having to ‘stand aside to see “Sambo” walk into the kingdom first’.” We may have arrived at last at the moment when the two struggles must be reconciled, and, going forward, prosecuted in the same terms. One such term, according to Hess, would be “intersectionality,” but the word is too new to me for me to use it. I do see that what anti-racists and feminists have in common is the conviction that physical destiny — outward appearance — is neither a support for privilege nor a justification of degradation. Although the thinkers of the Enlightenment were almost wholly devoted to enlarging the political franchise for white males only, their fundamental belief that quality of mind trumps accident of birth is the foundation of all equal-rights arguments. In other words, the white male body does not ipso facto house a superior intelligence.

Among the dreadful truths that Donald Trump’s campaign exposed (and they are truths!) is the extent to which Americans reject this enlightened idea. When it came to the vote, it was close enough to fifty-fifty to be extremely upsetting to anyone who believes in equal rights for all adults. (It ought not to have been so surprising, though.) The most striking feature of the vote was the support that white women gave to the Republican ticket. After the election, there was stream of anecdotal evidence that many of these women, while they didn’t think much of the presidential candidate himself, were comfortable with the idea of letting white men run things. Many Americans, of course, did not want one particular woman, Hillary Clinton, to run things, and I daresay that many of the women who voted for Trump would say that the real problem with feminism is that it throws women like Clinton into prominence.

It turns out that the United States was not ready to be governed by a black president. Too large a contingent of citizens simply hunkered down in absolute obstruction. It is clear now that this contingent was not so much opposed by Democrats as ignored, but then, as David Bromwich writes, in a powerful piece in the current London Review of Books, “Democrats have forgotten what it means to constitute an opposition.” At another point in “Act One, Scene One,” Bromwich sets out a calendar of Democratic Party failures to mount opposition to Republican Party advances.

With the election and partial legitimation of Trump against the massed energy of the Democratic Party, many Republicans and virtually all the mainstream media, we have witnessed a revolution of manners. Will a political revolution follow? What is ominous is the uncertainty and the leaderless state of the opposition. The Democrats are at their lowest ebb since 1920, and this is anything but a sudden misfortune: the loss of nerve started with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which surprised the Democrats and shook their confidence in the tenability of the welfare state, and the threat to mixed constitutional government was clear in the 1994 midterm election, when 367 Republican candidates signed the Contract with America, with its pledge to slash government spending in the first hundred days of a new Congress. The contract was the precursor of the Tea Party – its instigator, Newt Gingrich, has become a leading adviser to Donald Trump. The Democrats behaved persistently as if the Republican hostility to government-as-such were a curable aberration. Yet eight years of Obama have ended with his party’s loss of the presidency, its relegation to a minority in both houses of Congress and – something that happened when no one was counting – the loss of 900 seats in state legislatures. Any return to majority status must begin at the local and state levels, yet in the 50 states of the union, the Republican Party has 33 governors and now controls 32 legislatures. The losses grew steeper with every mishap, from the delay of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 to the standoff over the national debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. Yet after Obama’s re-election, as the PBS Frontline documentary Divided States of America vividly recalled, he thought he was in 2008 again, the old mandate renewed, and would say to reporters in 2012 and 2014 just as he had done in 2010: ‘the [Republican] fever will break.’

The most appalling item in this list is of course “the loss of 900 seats in state legislatures.” That is indeed where opposition must begin. And it seems important that opposition be launched by more people who are not themselves oppositional, not outsiders. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are unwelcome names in many political conversations. Why has the Democratic Party failed to groom candidates who are less “extreme”? I put the word in scare quotes because social progress is achieved in the long term by securing society’s comfort, not by assaulting it.

In the end, white men must be persuaded to bring diversities of their own to politics. They can be the enemies of “diversity,” or they can take a place in the diversity of Americans, a place to which they will rise or fall according to their individual merits. We know what their enmity looks like: it is regrettably fundamental to the “primitive” sects of all three of the Abrahamic faiths. We know that when men unite to thwart what they perceive to be a menace, they begin by assuming very unequal positions in a hierarchy rather more baroque than anything found among other animals. Inequality is the default setting; that is why the Enlightenment struggle for equality (for men!) was so protracted. The French Revolution and its aftermath showed us how spectacularly men can fail to overcome inequality — how readily, that is, they replace one form of it with another. Subsequent outbreaks of violence have confirmed the findings. In these interesting times of ours, we’re learning how tenuous equality is even in a time of peace.

Mark O’Connell’s report had little to say about the Transhumanist take on equality.


Tuesday 14th

Checking in at The Browser is slowly becoming a daily habit — slowly, because there’s a bit of confusion. I know that it’s a good thing to do, but I also (when I happen to think of it) look forward to reading the interesting, often unexpected commentary that abounds at the other end of its links. Duty and pleasure wrapped up together: unsettling!

The other day, The Browser introduced me to Slate Star Codex, a Web log kept by a doctor, Scott Alexander. In earlier days, I should have dropped everything and immersed myself in the site, but I want to avoid the hangover that always follows such infatuations. So I’ve read what I take to be the two latest entries. One is a review/consideration of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Alexander begins by saying that he read Hannah Arendt’s book at the recommendation of a friend who suggested it as a way of observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. He appears to come to it without any familiarity either with the famous trial or with Arendt and her work, and his reflections are agreeably fresh without being jejune, even in the rare passage, such as the following one, that is difficult to parse.

What eventually happened we all know too well. Other countries started closing their doors and refusing to accept Jewish refugees. Despite hearing this story a hundred times, the version in Eichmann in Jerusalem was new to me. I had always thought of countries as closing their gates to a few prescient people trying to flee Nazi Germany on their own, or to a few stragglers who managed to escape. The truth is on a much greater scale: the Nazis were willing to let every single Jew in Europe leave, they even had entire bureaucracies trying to make it happen – and the rest of the world wouldn’t cooperate. The blood on the hands of the people who wouldn’t let them in is not just that of a few escapees, but the entire six million.

The prescient people were the ones who got in, who left Germany in 1933; Arendt herself was one of the “stragglers who managed to escape.” I expect that Alexander is thinking of the passengers aboard the MS St Louis.

The other entry is titled “Considerations on Cost Disease.” Cost Disease is the mystifying tendency of things to cost more without increasing benefits. A good example is public education. Costs rise, but neither test scores nor teachers’ salaries budge. Where does the money go? Alexander considers eight possibilities, from inflation to fear of lawsuits, but he comes to no conclusions, and confesses at the end that he finds Cost Disease “really scary.”

At the start of his essay, Alexander suspects that few people know about Cost Disease, and, until I read it, I was certainly one of them. As I made my way through his survey of various sectors that are afflicted by the problem, I began to feel the pull of thoughts that I’ve been having for years now about building projects of all kinds. We build to last. We do not build to upgrade. Our approach to construction is still that of the pharaohs. In the pharaohs’ day, of course, most structures were unimportant hovels; their very flimsiness made them easy to alter. (I’m speculating here; I don’t actually know a damned thing about vernacular construction in ancient Egypt.) Buildings of interest to the ruling class, in contrast, were built to last forever, and so far that’s exactly what they’ve done.

We probably don’t intend our buildings to last forever; we certainly have a greater familiarity with the charm of ancient ruins than the Egyptians did. But we build, if not for all time, then for several generations. Or more: think of the water mains buried under the streets of Manhattan. They are old and leaky; we would not use cast iron if we were installing them today. They are also very hard to get to. Eventual replacement does not appear to have concerned the engineers who laid the pipes. Undoubtedly it occurred to some of them, but they wouldn’t have been crazy to imagine that, in the future, things would get easier. That was the story of their life, back then in the Nineteenth Century. But some things haven’t gotten easier, and replacing water mains is high on the list of projects that promise to be ruinously expensive. A big part of the difficulty is that transportation — the use of the roads beneath which the pipes are set — has become unimaginably easier in some ways. But not when it comes to diverting modern traffic when dig-we-must. Horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians would have posed a much more surmountable obstacle to maintenance.

Water mains are a hard case, but perhaps also an unusual one. More often, we are able to adapt what we’ve got to suit new circumstances. Before continuing, I want to suggest a difference between updates and upgrades. Upgrades are not adaptations; they are replacements. Updates are work-arounds. In the short term, updates are obviously cheaper than upgrades. In the long term, though, their proliferation produces complication (not complexity, which is organized), as updates are implemented without regard to other updates. And an updated update is likely to be patchier than the original work-around. Inevitably, a mess. The effectiveness of an adaptation — an update — is probably determined by the distance in time from the original creation, with effectiveness dropping as time passes. Eventually, further updating becomes impossible, and the old system, whether it be a material one such as the city’s water system or an abstraction such a code of law, is abandoned. Sometimes the abandonment is gentle; sometimes it is violent and revolutionary. In neither case, however, is the eventuality foreseen by designers.

That’s what we need to learn to change: how to upgrade a system without abandoning it or revolutionizing it. Here’s why:

Take a hospital. This institution is both material and abstract. There are buildings; there is equipment. There are the physical needs of the people who staff and who are served by them. On the abstract side, there are rules and regulations, schedules, chains of command, best practices, all of these being the same thing in different words.

Most hospitals, for all their new buildings, are institutions with histories going back decades, if not a century or more. The more venerable hospitals began as shelters for the sick, and served a function much more like that of the modern hospice. There wasn’t much that could be done for sick people, except to keep them warm and clean and fed. We reserve hospice care for the terminally ill, but its infirmary régime saved lives back in the days before modern pharmaceuticals.

The introduction of modern pharmaceuticals constitute one of the major changes to which hospitals have adapted. Another is the advance of emergency care, especially since the American War in Vietnam. When Scott Alexander muses on the the fact that, in some ways, medical care has gotten worse since his parents’ day (his father is also a doctor), what he has in mind is the fact that shifting from infirmary to emergency care, hospitals have adapted to clear beds as soon as possible. Once havens for quiet rest, hospitals are now noisy depots. But the old buildings, however heavily adapted, are still standing, and so are many of the old ideas about what a hospital ought to be. We still think of the hospital as the place where sick people ought to be. But the range of treatments, and even the very idea of illness itself, have shifted, away from the chronic to the acute. Chronic diseases are increasingly dealt with by medication that allows the sufferer to live at home. What we’ve lost is the place where someone who is not feeling well can get a much-needed rest. For the rich, this need is met by resorts. (It is interesting to compare hospitals and resorts, because money is no object for the latter. Resorts, which historically date back to spas, do not adapt old buildings, except for decorative purposes; nor do they preserve old ways of doing business.) For the ordinary person, however, a good rest is not available anymore.

And yet hospitals stagger on “as they are” partly because we think of them as “hospitals,” and partly because the complications of such heavily updated institutions require a phalanx of administrators with no interest in diminishing its compensation.

My very strong hunch is that Cost Disease would be better labeled Institutionary Disease.* I believe that the money exacted in rising costs is required to keep multiplying adaptations functional. I am certain that a similar argument could be made for American colleges and universities. Alexander is winks drolly about the “clubs/festivals/Milo” phenomenon.

But a while ago a commenter linked me to the Delta Cost Project, which scrutinizes the exact causes of increasing college tuition. Some of it is the administrative bloat that you would expect. But a lot of it is fun “student life” types of activities like clubs, festivals, and paying Milo Yiannopoulos to speak and then cleaning up after the ensuing riots. These sorts of things improve the student experience, but I’m not sure that the average student would rather go to an expensive college with clubs/festivals/Milo than a cheap college without them. More important, it doesn’t really seem like the average student is offered this choice. This kind of suggests a picture where colleges expect people will pay whatever price they set, so they set a very high price and then use the money for cool things and increasing their own prestige. Or maybe clubs/festivals/Milo become such a signal of prestige that students avoid colleges that don’t comply since they worry their degrees won’t be respected? Some people have pointed out that hospitals have switched from many-people-all-in-a-big-ward to private rooms. Once again, nobody seems to have been offered the choice between expensive hospitals with private rooms versus cheap hospitals with roommates. It’s almost as if industries have their own reasons for switching to more-bells-and-whistles services that people don’t necessarily want, and consumers just go along with it because for some reason they’re not exercising choice the same as they would in other markets.

Higher education in the United States is seriously off track (at least in the non-STEM fields), and has been since I was an undergraduate, fifty years ago, when the bizarre and perverse practice of Teacher Evaluations was introduced. The very idea of “student life” is one to which a serious university ought to give little or no thought, beyond cooperating with local police. This is true of public school districts as well. Every level of education in this country is weakened by the diversion of resources to pay for athletic activities. The connection between school and sport dates, like too many of our institutions, to ancien régime circumstances, in this case the feral environment of England’s “public schools” prior to the reforms of Thomas Arnold — the near-apocalyptic playing fields on which Wellington claimed the Battle of Waterloo had really been won. The links between an Oxford Blue and the Heisman Trophy make up a thicket of updates, swelling ever outwards and now threatening to suffocate the possibility of education. Learning how to build to upgrade — how to replace an institution without upheaval — begins with this sentence, with the hope that such a thing is possible.

*Institutionary” rather than “institutional” partly as a salute to Mansfield Park and partly as a way of suggesting multiplicity. The solution to some institutional problems is a new institution.


Friday 17th

Because I’m planning to give a small dinner party this evening, I’ve been taking it easy in the mornings this week. I did my shopping on Wednesday afternoon. Yesterday, I cleaned the kitchen and prepped a couple of things. Most of the cooking will be quickly done at the last minute, so I have to be especially focused on the steps of a couple of short-order recipes. There’s the dishwasher to think of: I don’t want the sink to pile up with clutter because I’m already running a full load. Nothing on the menu is particularly tricky (although there is always the chance that the Hollandaise might curdle), but I want everything to go smoothly and easily, and I want the food to be very good. So, for three days, I have allowed my ambitions as a host to suppress my appetite for writing.

And yet I feel obliged to punctuate the unusual silence with a note signalling my ongoing up-and-aboutness. The problem with such notes is their triviality. Hello, I’m still here! Well, so what. And I don’t think for a second that a few sentences about culinary tactics are intrinsically interesting. It’s not often that I have something to say that is briefly said. Whether that’s a failing or not I leave it to you to judge. But today I do have a chuckle to share.

Why, I don’t quite know, but when I was done with CV Wedgwood’s history of the Thirty Years War, I had a notion of re-reading The Name of the Rose for the first time. I’ve watched Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation dozens of times, but I’ve never gone back to the novel, or at any rate not read it through. I well remember my worries, back when William Weaver’s translation appeared in 1983, about whether I’d “get” it, whether I’d see the design that the famous Italian semiotician must clearly have hidden in plain sight behind his medieval whodunit. (What was the name of the rose, anyway?) In the end, I decided that it wasn’t very important — in other words, I didn’t get it. I admired Umberto Eco’s ability to load his narrative armature with heaps of lore and learning, and especially with urgent questions about the peculiarly European obsession with orthodoxy and heresy. And all that Latin! That labyrinthine library! I knew that the movie was signally unfaithful to the novel in many ways, but it was surprising that adaptation had been possible at all.

In the middle of the story, which takes place in 1327, the narrator, a Benedictine novice called Adso, encounters a young girl, in the kitchens of the monastery in which The Name of the Rose takes place, and is seduced. The movie’s very predictable approach to this congress involves lots of heavy breathing, and an angel with a dirty face to heighten the contrast of Christian Slater’s virginally pallid posterior. Although I had only read the novel the one time, this vernacular approach to sex seemed mistaken to me, and now I see why. Eco writes the scene as if he had never been outside a scriptorium, limiting Adso’s description of what he experiences to the text of the Song of Solomon. It’s pretty kinky, if you ask me; I always want to look away when I hear about those twin fawns feeding at lilies. The sheep coming from their bath? Well, it’s true that my youth was not spent in pastoral surroundings.

And then, when looking gives way to touching, and Adso barrels along toward orgasm (without, presumably, knowing what to expect), his thoughts shift to his recollections, still recent, of seeing a very holy heretic burned outside Florence. The experience of sex is as purifying as a flaming pyre; sex and death meet again. And not once does Eco slip into the actuality of the situation. The girl’s neck is the Tower of David, never a column of warm flesh. If fingers roam, they do so offscreen. The mechanics of entry and release are elided, hidden in a cloud of lucid but very literary earnest. I’m afraid that, grizzled old man that I am, I found the stunt most amusing. And refreshed, too: the tapestry of verbiage protected the couple’s modesty.

Sad to say, my signed first edition was not printed on acid-free paper. A medieval touch, perhaps, but a most unwelcome one.


Tuesday 21st

Elizabeth Drew made my weekend. At the end of a piece about the first weeks of the Trump Administration, published in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the venerable political writer speculated that, in addition to the narcissistic personality disorder that everybody talks about, the president may be afflicted by the early stages of dementia. (Apparently, his vocabulary has shrunk considerably over the past twenty years.) Dementia! I hadn’t heard that one, but it made a lot of sense. Or rather, it made no sense at all, but it was a good fit with the look and feel of the spectacle to which we have been treated for the past umpteen months. One phenomenon that seems very supportive of the dementia thesis is the proximity of the Kushners. Ivanka and Jared are more than a little like minders, don’t you think?

Another phenomenon is the Swedish outburst, which makes one wonder how long the president is going to be allowed to tweet bareback. But before I get to that, I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to any supporters of Donald Trump, except perhaps, un petit peu, for those who, while not necessarily deplorable people themselves, committed the deplorable act of casting their vote for Trump just because it would sock it to the liberal élites. I recognize that many fine Americans had good reasons for voting as they did, as well as for not voting as they didn’t, and what I have to say about Trump is not to be taken as reflecting on them in any way. Oh, and except for the Republican Party officials who — d’you really think they’d be clever enough to nominate a demented entertainer, just so that they could get rid of him after the election and put the nationally unelectable Mike Pence in his place?

It’s important to bear in mind that Donald Trump is, above all, an entertainer, a stand-up comedian with a shtick for our times. Especially, right now, if you are Sweden, and the man who appears to be the leader of the free world has just made a crack about violence in your country. Consider the source, and consider the medium, too. Twitter is nothing but a microphone that delivers one-liners in text. Also breaking news and calls for help, yes. But this was manifestly not breaking news:

“Give the public a break.“The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!”

Call for help, you decide. Whether the world is big and strong enough to cope with an insult comic in the White House is the important question, not whether the billionaire entertainer trumps the statesman.


In the same issue of The New York Review, Thomas Nagle considers the latest book by Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Dennett is still going on, it seems, about consciousness. Having published Consciousness Explained twenty-five years ago, why? According to Nagle, Dennett claims that consciousness is an illusion. I came away from Consciousness Explained — and this was in the days before the Internet was a big deal — with the conviction (unstated by Dennett, it’s true) that consciousness is a kind of software program (as one used to say) that runs, so to speak, on the motherboard of the brain. It doesn’t make sense to speak of illusion. The software is objectively manifest: it’s what allows us to communicate with each other and to determine who is mentally ill — whose software isn’t working. If all human beings are subject to the same illusion at the same time, then “illusion” is the wrong word.

Dennett is quite right to insist that the brain is not the mind. As far as I can tell, we don’t know much about the brain. We know a lot more than we used to know, within living memory, but I would venture that every little thing that we do know about the brain suggests a hundred things that we don’t. For a while, our net ignorance of the brain will increase, even as we learn more. We’re far better informed about computers, probably because we invented them. Computers are binary calculators capable of no more than switching between on and off. Massively connected, computers can be made to simulate activities, such as typing text and editing images, that human beings can comprehend. The computer does not understand text or images, and most human beings do not understand what the computer is doing. The interface, or software, mediates between the machine and the mind.

I don’t know anything, really, about neurons, but I gather that they have a binary aspect in that they fire or don’t fire. I’ll bet, though, that there’s more to neuronal activity than “on” and “off.” It doesn’t matter; I don’t have to know how the brain works. I know how my mind works, and although I can get quite carried away with the curlicues that make my mind different from yours, the fact is that my obnoxiousness on the subject is something that we can agree on, because our minds operate similarly. To me, the interesting thing about the software of consciousness, if I may be permitted the expression, is not that it allows comprehensible thoughts to bubble up from my brain, but that it allows me to write them down and send them to you.


Wednesday 22nd

Regular readers will recall my harping — cue arpeggios — on social committees of ordinary citizens devoted to thrashing out solutions to public problems and arriving at the most inclusive consensus possible. (The pedigree of this idea goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who inspired Hannah Arendt.) And that’s where, until today, my great idea stopped. I had a hunch that committees would work much better on the Internet than in meet-ups, because the end result would be a statement of the consensus, ie a text, but, beyond that, I was ready to hand off the idea to younger, more energetic minds. Having had the idea, I sat back.

But then, having read the latest entry at Slate Star Codex, where I read, last week, about “cost disease,” I sat up. Scott Alexander (not, apparently his real name, quite), the keeper of the blog, compiled a series of extracts from the comment thread to the cost disease entry. I am not a fan of comment threads, because there is too much incoming from too many left fields. But I felt obliged to see if any of the comments approximated my response (which I did not try to post as a comment at Slate Star Codex on Valentine’s Day (see above). Having read as many of the comments as I could absorb at one time, I went on to do something else, but in the evening it occurred to me that what I was seeing was a prototype of the committee that I have in mind. If readers were able to express their support for certain passages (with support by other commenters marked more emphatically), then a consensus might really be pursued.

This morning, I made my way to the end. Consensus was nowhere in sight, and my response was just as singular as the comments. That’s as it should be, initially. A hazard to bear in mind is that social committees might be clogged, even overwhelmed, by contributions designed more to attract support than to solve problems.

Two comments lingered in my mind. Someone registered as fc123, identifying himself as not a native-born American, argued that cost disease is attributable to “servicing and extending the definition of the marginal ‘customer’.” We try to help people with problems that used to doom them to neglect; fc123 suggests “the 85 year old with triple bypass, 20 week premie.” A few decades ago, it became imperative, more or less overnight, to provide wheelchair and other handicapped access to public facilities. I think about this extension of service quite often: is it worth the expense of five or six Remicade infusions a year (the cost of which is distributed to others through insurance) to spare me the pain of an auto-immune disease? Would the question sound different if I were 19 instead of 69?

The other response that reverberated came at the end of a comment by economic writer Megan McArdle.

A big part of the story is that America just isn’t very good at regulation. When you talk to people who live elsewhere about what their government does, one thing that really strikes you about those conversations is how much more competent other rich industrial governments seem to be at regulating things and delivering services. Their bureaucracies are not perfect, but they are better than ours.

That’s not to say that America could have an awesome big government. Our regulatory state has been incompetent compared to others for decades, since long before the Reagan Revolution that Democrats like to blame. There are many, many factors in this, from our immigration history (vital to understanding how modern urban bureaucracies work in this country), to the fact that we have many competing centers of power instead of a single unified government providing over a single bureaucratic hierarchy. There is no way to fix this on a national level, and even at the level of local bureaucratic reform, it’s darned near impossible.

When you talk to people who live elsewhere… when you do that, the odds are that those people are not living in an Anglophone legal climate. The legal philosophy that prevails in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, the United States might as well be Martian for all that it has in common with other legal systems. This is not the place to explain the differences; it’s enough to say that the Anglophone approach, which advertises itself as “adversarial,” probably gives defendants more of a fighting chance, which is great for innocent defendants. To continue with the clichés, we’re far more interested in seeing the better man win than we are in distinguishing right from wrong. Perhaps effective regulation is not really possible in such a legal climate. This isn’t to doom the Anglophones (although McArdle is right: fixing it is “darned near impossible”), but to wonder if perhaps Americans might study and adapt European regulatory models.


Friday 24th

A few thoughts about home cooking.

Until my generation, the craft of home cooking was handed down, mostly from mother to daughter, according to local usage or tradition. It was not given much thought. Some women were better at cooking than others, just like everything else, but the women who were good cooks upheld the traditions. They did not search out exotic recipes from faraway places. They did not familiarize themselves with foreign ingredients. They did not consider what they were doing, and wouldn’t have been rewarded for doing so if they had.

Home cooking had the objective of providing households with expected foods at expected times. For the most part, these expectations centered on nourishment, but there were cultural expectations, too — turkey at Thanksgiving, and so on. A husband who expected unusual things from his wife’s kitchen would have been as objectionable as his wife’s refusal to provide the usual.

In the two generations before mine, the commercial food producers — I would call them ‘food processors’ if that were not confusing — stressed convenience as a selling point. Basically, advertisers told housewives that it was stupid to take a lot of trouble making a dessert, say, when dumping the contents of a box of pudding mix into a pan of milk on the stove and stirring it for a few minutes would produce a reasonably tasty treat. These convenient products also tended to improve the meals served by all but the best home cooks. Women began to learn as much about cooking from advertisers (and newspaper food editors) as they did from their mothers.

Eventually, there was a reaction. A general judgment was made that, while it was permissible to serve an indifferent meal that had been made from scratch — without the help of convenient products — it was impermissible — unloving — to serve meals that, while marginally tastier, were industrially prepared. This was the end of traditional home cooking. From now on, many housewives, hooked on convenience, abandoned home cooking altogether, becoming the reheaters of fast food. Those who continued to cook, meanwhile, began to think about what they were doing.

At about the same time — a curious coincidence? — a fresh regiment of feminists argued that they were women first and housewives second. In the ensuing storm, it was recognized that thinking about what you were cooking was something that male cooks had been doing for centuries. These professional chefs worked for rich patrons; in more recent time, they ran restaurant kitchens. It was observed that they were generally rather, sometimes extremely, manly men. At least in those reaches of society that were familiar with feminists and good restaurants, it became all right for ordinary men to cook.

But what was the objective? For it was certainly not the provision of expected foods at expected times.

It’s hard for me to remember just why I took up cooking. I can think of three reasons. One, I was curious. Where do the holes in a slice of bread come from? Reasons two and three were intertwined. I liked to eat well; my mother didn’t like to cook. It is possible to cook well if you hate cooking, I suppose, but I think it fair to say that my mother’s dislike of cooking put a low upper limit on the tastiness of her dinners. She certainly knew what good food was, and she appreciated an array of dishes that she never attempted to make in her own kitchen. She might have been tempted to give curry a try if my father had not been as conservative as he was about food. He liked meat that was cooked in a broiler: steak, lamb chops, chicken. Occasionally, we had pork chops. I can’t even remember what the concessions to fish-on-Fridays were, but they definitely involved no fresh fish.

It would be wrong to say that I taught myself to cook so that I could host dinner parties, although within ten years of my first batch of whipped cream it was clear that hosting dinner parties was what kept me cooking. Ten years further on, however, hosting dinner parties got to be a bore. I had found my limits as an amateur chef and was no longer drawn to new heights. And assembling interesting parties became problematic when guests canceled at the last minute. The moral of this story was that I was not cut out to be an entertainer.

Twenty years further still, I found myself giving the occasional holiday dinner, while shambolically going about the business of everyday meals. There were many times when I wished that I had never taken up cooking. I had acquired a lot of skill, not to mention a formidable batterie de cuisine and a large cabinet of dinner plates, but no clear and distinct reason to use it.

Then we moved into an apartment with a larger kitchen, a kitchen with a window and two entrances. One of the doors connected the kitchen with the ell of the living room in which we stood our dining table. Even with the louvered doors shut, I could keep up with the dinner-table conversation. Over time, I rediscovered the joys of cooking. I developed a repertoire of dishes for two that enabled Kathleen and me to dine as well as if we were going out to nice neighborhood restaurants every night. (Given the damage that subway construction did to local businesses, restaurants included, there were some dishes that wouldn’t have been as good at local restaurants.)

By now, though, I was an old man. I moved slowly and rationed my energy. It was very, very important to think ahead, to plan and prepare. I am still learning how to do this . I gave a dinner party last Friday that was almost perfect. A slight bottleneck in the preparation of the main course kept me in the kitchen when I wanted to be at the table. I wrote a comprehensive memo about the meal, including notes that I made while prepping it, so that when I attempt the menu again — and there is no doubt about my doing that — I’ll have a good chance to work on that bottleneck, because I won’t have to think about anything else. (I even noted the china patterns used.) I am persuaded that my guests found the food to be delicious; as for me, I was challenged in just the right degree. Happy as I was, though, I had to ask:

Why did it take so long?


Monday 27th

After the Oscars, I needed something a little stronger than my nighttime tablet to calm me down. I had missed the moment of “epic flub” (Times) that spoiled the best-picture award, but that was a small mercy. When the producers of La La Land came on to accept the statuettes that weren’t, it turned out, intended for them, I left the room for a break; when I came back, Kathleen was gasping. She told me what had happened; I was transfixed by horror. Not because the mistake was so embarrassing but because it seemed that Donald Trump was already exacting his revenge.

All evening long, I was upset by the naïveté of Hollywood people — people claiming to be addressing an audience of millions around the world; but, even if this were true, it was an audience of self-selecting viewers who thought it would be cool to watch an awards presentation that lasted nearly four hours. True, Hollywood commands the power of vision. But it is a power that is more easily trumped by the power of coercion than Americans, who have not had much recent experience of the latter unless they are black, appear to grasp. Early in the evening, host Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about a “5 AM bowel movement.” It seemed insanely provocational to me.

In his Times column this morning, Paul Krugman exhorts all of us in “civil society” to resist and protest government by an administration that he denounces as illegitimate and unworthy. In other words, he sounds exactly like the commentators who screeched against Barack Obama for eight years. And no more than they does he have a plan for healing the rift in civil society, a rift that has been widening since the Sixties, between Americans uncomfortable with racial equality and Americans deluded by the notion that shaming eases discomfort.

I am waiting for that plan. Without it, protests are just ill-behaved noise, just more-of-same. Without it, Trump wins. His point all along, after all, is that we haven’t got a plan. We’ve just redistributed the goodies. Under the banner of Diversity, we have disenfranchised the men (and the women who love them) who used to regard themselves as the backbone of the nation. That may have been a good thing to do, or not, but in neither case was it politically responsible.

I want something more than the loudness of my anger and the righteousness of my indignation to address the people on the other side of the abyss. I want something other than anger and indignation to offer to them. Anger and indignation I reserve for the people on my side, the people whose hearts are in the right place but whose minds shirk the tedious homework of making America great by making it one, unum — and not “again,” but for the first time.

Gotham Diary:
The Wages of Disrespect
January 2017

3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 17, 18, 24, 26, 27 and 31 January

Tuesday 3rd

It’s hard to resist the notion that, once we have set forth from this quiet cove between New Year’s Day and the Inauguration, we will being to wonder, what were we expecting? What did we think would happen? It’s for that very reason that I’m trying not to think. And I’ve got a fantastic distraction right at my feet.

After seven years of tohu-bohu, our fairy godmother not only got the new subway working but also swept away almost all the evidence of construction and confusion. The four corners at the intersection of 86th Street and Second Avenue are equally paved, curbed, and serviceable. There is nothing noteworthy about them except the dim certainty that they were never as nice as they are now, if a corner can be nice. There are no fenced-off areas, no portable potties, no lengths of pipe or wire, and no workmen. There is a new bike lane, complete with its own stoplights, that finally makes sense of the uptown bike lane that was installed on First Avenue a few years ago. The crosswalks are uniformly perpendicular. Vehicular traffic crosses the intersection without the guidance of traffic agents. People do the same, bundled up for the cold. Then some of the people step under the glass roofs of the escalator kiosks and descend to the new subway station.

One escalator takes you down about three storeys to a triangular area, from which another, longer escalator leads to the mezzanine of the station, which is where the turnstiles are. There is art, by Chuck Close, on the walls, but we didn’t pay much attention to that. I’d known it would be there, and Kathleen thought it was advertising something. We were there for the ride. I took out my Metro Card and swiped it for Kathleen. Once she was through, I realized that there wasn’t enough money on the card for me to follow her, so she had to wait while I crossed the mezzanine to fix that. Together again, we walked along to the stairs. There are escalators climbing up to the mezzanine from the station platform, but stairs for going down. We waited for a downtown train. An uptown train was being held in the station. At first, I thought that they must be having first-day problems up at 96th Street, where the Q line now ends, but later I wondered if the trouble wasn’t at 63rd Street. A downtown train pulled in, and we boarded it. As it pulled out, so did the uptown train.

The ride was very smooth. In the tunnel, I noticed a parapet or walkway alongside the train, a continuation of the platform that ran the length of the distance between stations. How civilized! It was all rather like one of those pretend subways that they have at airports. After what felt like the right amount of time, we arrived at 72nd Street. When we got off the train, we ought to have taken the escalator up to the mezzanine to look at the art there, but that didn’t occur to us. We crossed the platform and boarded an uptown train that, just like the one at 86th Street, was being held in the station. We stood there about five minutes before the doors closed.

And then the train crept to 86th Street, almost coming to a stop at two points. Now that I am an old man, I very much dislike it when trains stop between stations. Only steady motion keeps the presentiment of disaster at bay. I did what I could to will it into the 86th Street station, and at last we got there. We got off the train and rode up all the escalators, this time debouching from the other kiosk — there’s one to either side of our building’s U-shaped driveway. While we were underground, night had fallen.

It was when we got home that I freaked out. Slowly, quietly, meltingly really; but, nevertheless: what the hell was that? And here’s what the hell that was: vast dunes of metaphorical sand sweeping over and obliterating a sense of the neighborhood that I have lived with for more than thirty-five years. I will soon forget the need to walk uphill to Lexington Avenue to catch the nearest train. I may never again make the transfer, at 57th Street/Lexington Avenue, from the IRT to the BMT, in order to get to Carnegie Hall or the theatre district. And I will also forget, indeed have already forgotten, what it has been like to live at this intersection for the past seven years. (AWFUL!) For a while, I’ll step outside the building and sigh, This is nice. Then even that will stop, and I will begin to live in a neighborhood that newcomers will find it difficult to imagine ever having been otherwise.

Eventually, I will take the Q to go somewhere, and, when I do, I’ll hold my breath on either side of the 63rd Street station. That is where the F and Q lines effectively cross, sharing the track near and through the station. It’s an unusual configuration for New York transit. I hope it won’t prove to be too interesting.


Thursday 5th

In today’s Times, Robert Leonard, a journalist from Iowa, quotes a Baptist pastor on a point of difference.

“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that.”

To the extent that this is true, I am neither a Republican nor Democrat. I don’t see people as fundamentally good or bad. It seems witless and simpleminded to do either. I see people as fundamentally human, which is to say conflicted — some more, some much more, than others. And I regard human society, not faith in the supernatural, as the means of settling and soothing conflict, whether institutionally, as in a court of law, or informally, as by doing someone a good turn. Alone, we are nothing, devoid of interest. Alone with God is still alone.

Who died and made that Baptist an authority?


Although I bought a clutch of books by Alan Bennett a few months ago, I’ve been reading one that I’ve had for nearly ten years, Untold Stories, and for the first time. I’ve even begun with the title piece, right at the beginning. “Untold Stories” is a family memoir focused on Bennett’s parents and his mother’s two sisters, with the ghost of his suicide grandfather loitering in the background. Also hovering, Bennett’s BBC films, A Visit from Mrs Prothero, Our Winnie, and A Day Out. “Every family has a secret and the secret is that it’s not like other families.” This is not quite true; there are families whose secret it is is that they are not as fantastic as they think they are, but you could argue that the secret in that case is simply an immodest inversion of Bennett’s. The line is in any case a fine example of Bennett’s dry but redeeming humor.

The latest intalment of his diary in the new LRB aside, Bennett was brought to mind by the reading of four or five novels by Barbara Pym, whose voice is also dry but redeeming. Inevitably, I wondered what Bennett thought of Pym, if at anything at all. The index of Untold Stories bears a single reference, to page 78, which lies in the final third of “Untold Stories.” Bennett is writing about his Aunty Myra’s widowhood.

Myra lives in a succession of briefly rented rooms, first in Midhurst, then Uxbridge and finally at West Malling in Kent. These comfortless accommodations and the meals that go with them — or rather don’t, as they seldom have cooking facilities, so have to be taken in cheap cafés serving spaghetti on toast or poached egg, tea and bread and butter — exude a particular sort of hopelessness quite separate from the sad circumstances which have brought her to them. Aunty Myra had too many sharp corners to be one of her characters, but they are setting of many of the novels of Barbara Pym, and one of the reasons I find her books quite lowering to read.

This is unfair and untrue. Aside from Quartet in Autumn — a lowering read, to be sure — there are no bedsits in the Pym novels that I’ve read. Mildred Lathbury, of Excellent Woman, has her own flat, while Dulcie Mainwaring, in No Fond Return of Love, has her own house, and it’s not a small one. It’s the vicarage, in Jane and Prudence, that features uninspiring food; the unmarried sisters in Some Tame Gazelle eat very well. The remark is unfair because seems inspired by the view of Barbara Pym that led a callow editor at Jonathan Cape to stop publishing her novels in 1963. It is easy to remember the action in Pym’s novels as taking place mainly in church basements, but one of the great pleasures of re-reading her is finding out how untrue this really is. And the satire, while muted, is sabre-sharp: Pym’s gallery of ridiculous men and the women who cosset them is as funny, once you’ve adjusted for volume, as PG Wodehouse. (What Bennett’s summation really attaches to is Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, where the boarding house is indeed too oppressive for comfort.) What Bennett and Pym share is disenchanted kindness. Unenthusiastic about the human condition, and quite heartlessly unsentimental behind their self-deprecating manner, they nevertheless leave one with a genuinely hopeful smile.

(I do wish that Bennett wouldn’t write “try and,” as in, “I must try and convince her.” This is a pointless barbarism. I notice that, while Richard J Evans avoids it in The Pursuit of Power, Ian Kershaw goes in for it in the succeeding volume of the Penguin History of Europe, To Hell and Back. This is just one of many little things that makes me prefer Evans, to the extent that I’m thinking of reading his “Reich Trilogy.”)

“Untold Stories” provoked more than a few laughing barks as I turned its pages last night, but one passage reduced me to helpless giggling. I had of course examined all the photographs before reading the book, and I’d wondered a little about the snapshot of “Jordy and Ossie,” with its reference to page 65. I didn’t turn to the reference for enlightenment, but noted with distaste that Ossie seemed to have deposited a pound of calf liver in his swimsuit. I had forgotten all about it when I came to page 64, which is where the explanation begins.

I am twelve when I first see [Aunty Myra's] albums, which duly take their place, along with other family relics, in the sitting-room dresser in which, while Grandma is dozing in the kitchen, I do my customary Saturday afternoon ‘rooting.’ One of the albums in particular fascinates me (and even today it falls open at the place): it has a photo, postcard size, of two Australian soldiers, “Jordy’ and ‘Ossie,’ standing in bush hats and bathing trunks against a background of palm trees. ‘Jordy’ is unremarkable, with a devious other-ranks sort of face. It’s ‘Ossie’ who draws the eye, better-looking, with his arms folded and smiling, and with some reason, as he is weighed down, almost over-balanced, by what, even in the less than skimpy bathing trunks of the time, is a dick of enormous proportions, the bathing costume in effect just a hammock in which is idling this colossal member. Underneath Aunty Myra has written, roguishly:

‘Yes, girls! It’s all real!’

I started laughing at “and with some reason,” and was bellowing when I got to the “hammock in which is idling…” The poise between hesitation and advance is a textbook example of brilliantly funny writing. This is not to say that everyone will find it hilarious, but only to point out that the funniness is entirely in the composition, without which Ossie’s member would be an enormous ew, as the photograph makes clear. The unforgettable note, of course, is the album’s tattle-tale way of falling open at the page with the postcard-sized picture. In the next piece in Untold Stories, “Written on the Body,” Bennett notes the hypocrisy of being prim and prurient at the same time. It is when Bennett exposes his own hypocrisy that he is often funniest.

Although, not entirely unrelated to hypocrisy, I wonder just how many meals of spaghetti on toast and poached egg &c Alan shared with his aunty. Receipts, please.


Friday 6th

What I’d really like to do is to celebrate my sixty-ninth birthday by reading the rest of Michael Lewis’s irresistible new book, The Undoing Project. (I haven’t got much left to get through.) Having read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow when it came out, I’m familiar with the nuts and bolts that Lewis pulls out of his bag of poker chips, and that frees me to step back a bit, so that I can see the work that Kahneman did with Amos Tversky and others in the longer perspective of the Industrial Revolution, of which it is a very important part. Two questions spring forward: Why now? and Why so fascinating?

By the first question, I mean to suggest that the Israeli psychologists’ investigations into systematic miscalculation occurred when they did (roughly) for a reason. Off the top of my head, I’d trace it back to the Crash of 1929, which among other things made understanding the nature of human predictions more pressing than ever before. That there had never been anything like the Crash was also a product of the Industrial Revolution, which by the Twentieth Century had reached a third, and undreamed-of, phase. The first two phases had solved venerable problems of production and transportation. Power looms wove magic carpets of textile, and then the application of steam power to travel (and, somewhat later, of electric power to vast networks of wire) blasted away the stubbornness of distance. Ancient prayers were answered.

The third phase, in contrast, introduced a new figure, the consumer, and a new problem, supplying the mass of consumers. As in the earlier phases (maimed factory attendants, derailed locomotives), mistakes were made. By 1960, an American, Ward Edwards, was suggesting, as Lewis puts it, that “psychologists be invited, or perhaps invite themselves, to test both the assumptions and the predictions made by economists.” (102) At the end of that decade, Kahneman and Tversky were brought together by disagreement with Edwards’s theory that people are “conservative Bayesians.” The rest is heuristics.

The heuristics are the subject of the second question. They’re fascinating, Kahneman’s and Tversky’s findings, because they demonstrate that people are systematically mistaken when big numbers are involved. Not only are they wrong about probabilities, but they are predictably wrong. This erroneousness, too, is an effect of the Industrial Revolution. Before Kahneman and Tversky did their work, it was assumed that people who weren’t good at making predictions would face extinction, but of course the real problem is that people were making predictions of an altogether new kind, involving masses of instances which the human mind had not evolved to confront. There were no masses before the Nineteenth Century. Masses were the product of mass transportation, mass communication, and mass production, none of which existed before 1800. There was no need for probabilistic agility before there were masses. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that people apply predictive rules of thumb (or heuristics) that were developed for dealing with much smaller numbers. In the new dispensation, this exposes people to the risk (more of a certainty, really) that judgments will be extrapolated from inadequately small samples. Not only are mistakes made, but the same mistakes are made over and over.

You won’t find any of this Industrial Revolution background in Lewis, of course. Only crackpots like me are going to explore such tangents. Lewis has much more interesting material to work with in the harrowing narrative of Kahneman’s adolescence as a “rabbit” being hunted by Nazis in France. That is history enough. Still, I hope that, along with the Bayes for Dummies guides that are certain to proliferate, we see some serious academic or journalistic effort to apply the new learning about misjudgment to fields beyond the scientific and the economic. What I’m thinking of is the social problem of strangers. The plethora of strangers in modern life, at least in urban settings, presents us with countless opportunities to come to foolish conclusions. Politicians and planners have a lot to learn from our characteristic solecisms in their undertakings to foster positive social conventions, as do we all.


Kathleen had a Bar Association do last night, so I set up the ironing board and took care of the week’s repassage. To distract myself from the drudgery, I watched Spy, the Bond spoof that manages to be funny even about its faults. There is much to love about this movie, but with Robert Leonard’s Op-Ed piece still jangling in my mind, I found a very ugly moment. It’s the disco event in Budapest. A grand beaux-arts hall, monumentalizing human aspiration, is traduced by strobe lights, musical racket, and underdressed would-be teenagers. I not only understood but felt why conservative Iowans would regard urban hedonists as “loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.”


Monday 9th

So often, these days, there is nothing to say. A context of long standing has been rejected; what remains is to see how much of it will be scrapped. For the moment, commentary seems premature.

Although I hoped to post an entry today, I could think of nothing to write about. After a tour of Facebook, however, it occurred to me to make a note of the discomfort occasioned by the enthusiasm with which friends and friends of friends have congratulated Meryl Streep for her remarks at the Golden Globe Awards presentation last night. I have not heard what Streep had to say — not yet. So nothing that follows is a criticism of her. I think it fair to infer, however, that she read the president-elect some sort of riot act, and that her attack was at least as personal as it was political. At least that is what I gather from my friends’ gleeful applause.

Nearly fifty years ago, I had a conversation with an underclassman at Notre Dame. This fellow and I were not friends, but our rooms on the top floor of an undesirable dormitory were not far apart. This neighbor of mine affected country ways, even wearing a cowboy hat, at a time when it could not have been less stylish to do so, even with irony. And this fellow was unironic in the extreme. I must have said something typically East-Coast arrogant, because he came at me, verbally, with something very close to boiling-over hatred. He promised me that his day would come.

Has it? I’ve thought about it ever since I woke up to the realization that Donald Trump was not only appealing to voters as a seasoned and successful entertainer but also holding out a lightning rod to energize his campaign with my old neighbor’s baneful resentment. At that moment, I stopped paying attention to the man and watched his supporters instead. I couldn’t say that they would stop at nothing to bring down what they perceived as a liberal tyranny, but it was obvious that they weren’t going to fool around with garden-variety Republicans; they were going to start with Donald Trump.

Maybe they didn’t really win the election. But they certainly came close enough to make the plausible, the electoral choice, with or without the help of Russians. I am almost relieved that the contest has been conceded to them, because the Republican candidate excited a great deal of ugliness. Now those of us who are unhappy about his victory have a choice to make.

When you must live with people who hate you because you have so tirelessly offended them — and make no mistake about that — you must, if violence is not an option, either learn to live apart or work hard to erase the hate. I like the living apart option; I’d be very happy with a constitution that permitted slightly different laws in the interior of the United States. But that arrangement is not on offer. I have to make myself more likeable. I certainly have to lose the contempt that radiates in everything that my body says and does.

In case you’re having trouble imagining what Trump supporters think about you, just ask a black American. Because what seems to have happened in the course of extending equal civil rights to the traditionally disenfranchised during the past half-century is that educated Americans have learned to treat their uneducated countrymen equally. For every handful of blacks allowed into the nation’s growing élite, thens of thousands of white Americans have been stripped of political respectability.

Now they’ve got it back.


Tuesday 10th

In the New York Review, Timothy Garton Ash expresses our predicament succinctly.

In short, a reaction against the consequences of economic and social liberalism now threatens the achievements of political liberalism.

But this leaves us with messy questions. How tied up together are these various liberalisms? What do economic and social liberalism have to do with one another? What is political liberalism without the freedom from constraint that has both energized entrepreneurs and encouraged same-sex marriage? What, if anything, prevents liberalism of any kind from becoming a limitless license for the affluent? Is there a liberal conscience, or is there only a liberal pose?

It was anemically gratifying to read Beverly Gage’s thoughts about élites in the Times Magazine. Finally: It has taken Donald Trump’s ascent to inspire a public discussion.

Antipathy toward a wealthy, preening managerial class seems to be gaining popularity across the political spectrum — and, oddly, to have helped elect a wealthy, preening incoming president.

“Managerial class” is perhaps the best synonym for “élite” that I have come across. It identifies, more clearly than “professional class” does, what it is that the élite is supposed to do, and to do well: manage public affairs. It also scores the point that this class, stumbling along as it does within various professional disciplines, currently lacks a larger self-awareness. Merchant bankers and neurosurgeons will stoutly protest that they have nothing to do with each others’ business — and, meanwhile, medical costs just keep going up, because no one is in charge of that. We can assume that, as with “élite,” no one is going to admit belonging to the managerial class.

Garton Ash has a plan.

No, we who believe in liberty and liberalism must fight back against the advancing armies of Trumpismo. The starting point for fighting well is to understand exactly what consequences of which aspects of the post-wall era or economic and social liberalism — and related developments such as rapid technological change — have alienated so many people that they now vote for populists, who in turn threaten the foundations of political liberalism at home and abroad. Having made an accurate diagnosis, the liberal left and the liberal right need to come up with policies, and accessible, emotionally appealing language around those policies, to win these disaffected voters back. On the outcome of this struggle will depend the character and future name of our currently nameless era.

I resisted the temptation to break the two-sentence payload into bullet points for readier comprehensibility, because nothing is to be gained by making this look easier than it is going to be.

It’s not difficult to come up with a list of alienating “aspects,” from abortion to immigration. What’s difficult is learning to talk about these issues conversationally. A conversation about abortion, for example, would have to begin on the premise that it would be permissible to ban abortions in some states. Without that “concession,” the talks are off and it’s back to the barricades. A conversation about bank bail-outs would begin with a coherent and readily understandable program for limiting the extent of financialization and for putting an end to hiding financial risks. (From consumers, of course; but also from the bankers who loaded up on misrated junk.) Another prong of the conversation about money would be planning an elementary-school syllabus to inform students about everyday credit, by which I mean not so much consumer loans as the commercial-paper market that keeps supermarket shelves stocked and their employees paid. The difficulties of conversations about the economics of immigration and the sociology of racism are not hard to imagine.

A universal public service, military or otherwise, must be imposed on all high-school graduates. Members of the managerial class must learn to work together across professional lines. Must, must, must.

This is the only way forward, and it is an essentially political way. Everyone will prefer the alternative of violence. Violence is simple and fast, and it projects an illusion of permanence. It is the way backward, back to the unsettled confusion from which human beings never stop trying to escape.


Thursday 12th

On page 81 of Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, a delicious bonbon of a book that he also illustrated, celebrity caricaturist Edward Sorel betrays a confusion. How it got by his editors (he names two), I don’t like to think, but there’s no getting round the blooper. When Sorel reads in her diary that Mary Astor dined “at the Colony,” he thinks she’s talking about The Colony Club. It’s remotely possible that she was, that she and George S Kaufman were somebody’s guests at New York’s most select and ultra-gentile women’s club. Remotely. It wouldn’t have been very romantic, though, would it, with extra company? It’s far more likely that Astor was talking about a celebrity eatery, just “the Colony,” no “club,” on 61st Street. In case you think I’m being arcane, it’s the restaurant that Roger O Thornhill (need I explain) refers to when he dictates a memo to a colleague, suggesting that the two men “colonize at the Colony,” in that taxi ride to the Plaza just before the action takes off.

And they wonder how Donald Trump got elected.


Friday 13th

I was of two minds about the previous entry. One of them wrote it. The other thought there ought to be either more, a lot more, at least a few paragraphs about the substance of Edward Sorel’s book, or nothing at all. The mind that wrote the entry believed that deplorable evidence of shoddy editing required notice and scolding. The other mind pouted, and forgot to add, since the book had been mentioned anyway, that Sorel explains the reason why The Great Lie, one of my favorite Mary Astor pictures, and one of my favorite Bette Davis pictures as well, is not, despite their superb and also somewhat unusual performances, the hit that it might be.

But the lust that Mary and Bette displayed for a dull, porcine George Brent baffled me when I was eleven and had to sit through it at the Luxor, and it seemed absurd when I saw it again recently.

Although I always try to see George Brent as a hero of decency in this movie, I am not unaware of the effort. It’s too bad, because in addition to Astor and Davis, The Great Lie gives Hattie McDaniel the chance to turn Mammy up a notch or two.


Through The Browser, I came across an extract from Nicholas Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy. The extract is about transhumanism, the project, already ongoing, to improve and enlarge the human frame. I’m too old for this sort of thing: I’ve come to terms with things as they are, and the prospect of transformation makes me feel that I have nothing to say. So I’ll repeat an insight of Carr’s that is not so much brilliant as steady, the fruit of sustained thought:

Transhumanism ends in a paradox. The rigorously logical work that scientists, doctors, engineers, and programmers are doing to enhance and extend our bodies and minds is unlikely to raise us onto a more rational plane. It promises, instead, to return us to a more mythical existence, as we deploy our new tools in an effort to bring our dream selves more fully into the world.

There are transhumanists (I suppose) who want to be more like computers: more dependable, more exact. But developments are more likely to proceed down a different avenue, one that, as I said the other day of the first two waves of the Industrial Revolution, will answer a lot of old prayers.

I want wings. I remember realizing that the wings of angels that my favorite Netherlandish artists painted in the Fifteenth Century, both highly stylized and arrestingly realistic, were anatomical freaks. All vertebrates possess four limbs. The forearms of bird are their wings. It is unlikely that human beings are ever going to trade in their forearms, and especially their hands, for avian appendages, especially wings that, given the rest of our makeup, would probably fail to lift us off the ground. We have solved the unimaginative side of flight, and can fly (in planes) much faster and further than any birds. The imaginative side — what is it like to fly — will probably remain just that: imaginative, at least for almost everybody.

Or, here’s a thought. Human beings don’t seem to have spent a lot of time wishing that they were horses. If you could ride a bird, if instead of designing flight suits someone invented a drone that simulated a bird’s flight, would that supply the jollies?


Tuesday 17th

“Globalization has the potential to benefit everyone.” It’s an interesting sentence. Benefiting everyone is a potential of globalization, and it is presumably one of several, perhaps many, potentials, unnamed here. I found the sentence in the Times: Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about Davos, annual home of the World Economic Forum.

The Davos Man has either failed to properly articulate the benefits of open trade — or the reality of open trade is more complicated than previously imagined.

I wonder which. Sorkin’s syntax brings Tacitus to mind.

I’m nearing the end of To Hell and Back: 1914-1949, Ian Kershaw’s contribution (the first of two) to the Penguin History of Europe. Had he asked for my advice, I would have counseled Kershaw to stop, conventionally, at 1945, and then to dedicate his next book to the Cold War, ending it in 1991 or thereabouts. The Cold War was an interesting conflict in many ways, not least for avoiding violence, and one of its themes was a war-damping supra-nationalism. There were three blocs, or “worlds”: America’s, Russia’s, and the remainder of countries too poor to merit worry. We learned in the Cold War that people don’t fight very enthusiastically for blocs.

I have not seen much evidence that commenters are aware of the role that the Cold War played in fostering globalization. To be sure, supra-nationalism was very much in the air the moment the War ended. The wars of 1914-1945 seemed to teach that nationalism was a very bad thing. (Let’s say, rather, that it had the potential to hurt everyone.) The United Nations Organization was intended to render war obsolete, and economic linkages creating the European Coal and Steel Community were formed soon after. But when Stalin made it clear that the Soviet Union and its satellites would nurture a separate, always somewhat autarchic, economy, the First World, home of globalization, had an obvious interest in the creation of a dense network of economic ties among its members. Business partners have a reduced need to police each other; it’s in everyone’s interest to sit back and let money be made. The Cold War gave these arrangements the glint of national defense. When the Cold War ended, the glint dulled, but, instead of seeing this, Davos Man now regarded the whole world, not just the First, as his marketplace.

The European Union was never going to take out the garbage, but it could and did promulgate laws directing how the garbage must be taken out. Harmoniously, among all member nations! That was the dream, anyway. Similarly, supra-national institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank — and, later, the WTO — created rules of economic play in which local officials, the people who had to take out the garbage, had little or no say. Ordinary voters might be forgiven for asking, in the absence of the Cold War’s ramp-up to hypothetical extinction, why this should be so.

The role of the nation has been an unfashionable topic for decades. Tech gurus and their clients behave as though nations were on the verge of melting away, drained of all conceivable significance and remaining little more than annoying obstructions. Unfortunately, tech types are professionally deformed by visions in which there is no longer any garbage to worry about. In fact the political reality is that if Apple’s technology displaces x jobs, that makes for X workers for whom the state will have to provide. Apple has no meaningful political ties to any state or region, but it can disrupt them enormously.

Globalization sounds like a good thing — it has the potential to sound like a good thing — but worse, much worse, it sounds like something that somebody, somewhere, understands. But no one understands it; no one can. It is best likened to a new disease whose malignant side-effects have not yet been fully experienced. I don’t mean to dramatize the matter. Every step of the Industrial Revolution has resembled a disease, at least for the millions of human beings who have been crammed into foul slums during the best of times and then thrown out of work during the slumps. And may we please accept what I just said as a statement of fact, not a point of Marxist ideology? Might it be borne in mind that even the Holy See has deplored the living conditions of the working class?

If the Industrial Revolution — which will not end, so long as there is power to fuel them, until robots have taken over every boring job — is a syndrome of diseases, does this mean that we ought to stop it? Perhaps, but we don’t begin to have the power to stop it. We can only understand it, and do our best to mitigate its consequences. This is something that globalists have no vested interest in doing. They don’t live anywhere in particular. And so nationalism, in all its ugliness, has come back, because national governments do not just have the potential to benefit their citizens, they have the obligation to do so.

Surely it has become impolitic, if not outright insulting, to speak of “creative destruction” wherever it is someone’s livelihood that is being destroyed?


Wednesday 18th

For once, I remember to think of my father on his birthday. This would have been his 103rd.


Some time ago, The New Yorker profiled Derek Parfitt, the philosopher who died at the beginning of the year, and I rashly bought a couple of books. Handsome, but very thick books they were, not so much hard to read as demanding lots of shelf-space. They proved to be books that I may have given away unread. A few pages of Parfitt — Reasons and Persons? — convinced me that he was not going to restore my juvenile faith in systematic thinking, which I regard as an affliction of the XY gender, a sort of educated mansplaining.

I spend a lot of time these days wondering why people get so worked up about things that are not worth thinking about at all, such as how Donald Trump duped American voters into electing him as president, while overlooking the problems that so urgently require clear thinking, such as the need for persuasive (ie non-coercive) leadership. Advocates of liberal democracy appear to be terminally unaware that their favored form of government depends on unwavering leadership, and blind to the fact that what they have settled for over two generations is smug self-congratulation. Liberal democracy is never secure. That is the point of it, really.

And I’ve been thinking about Parfitt, too. That he was a fellow at All Souls, Oxford, was one of those irrelevant hooks that keep people in mind; All Souls, a triumph, if that is the word, of Georgian Gothick, is the richest of Oxford’s colleges with respect to wealth per capita, because it has hardly any students — just the fellows. At least that’s what I discovered on an idle Internet search. I’m crazy — definitely the word — about Hawksmoor’s spires, with their four strands each of buzz-cut stone.

In the current LRB, Amia Srinivasan writes about Parfitt, who became her adviser when she was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls. She describes an indiscriminately beneficent figure, a walking categorical imperative. Srinivasan’s philosophy is closer to mine.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Derek didn’t see what is obvious to many others: that there are persons, non-fungible and non-interchangeable, whose immense particularity matters and is indeed the basis of, rather than a distraction from, morality. But in not seeing this, Derek was able to theorise with unusual, often breathtaking novelty, clarity and insight. He was also free to be, in some ways at least, better than the rest of us. After he retired from All Souls, Derek didn’t like to go to the college common room, so we had our last meeting in my study. While jostling his papers he knocked over a glass. He was unfazed. We sat and talked for a few hours, his feet in a pool of water and shattered glass.

This is ambivalent, don’t you think? Is an absent-minded professor who sits unconcerned with his feet in a puddle of water, never mind the broken glass, really “better than the rest of us”? Not to me. And what is the value of breathtakingly novel theories that take no account of the breathtaking complications of individual human makeup? Earlier in her short piece, Srinavasan tells us that she had to “recant” a philosophical position to keep Parfitt from leaving the table at their first fellowship lunch, “because it implied that there was nothing wrong with torture.” Parfitt was adamantly opposed to any justification for causing pain. My own philosophy holds that a ban on torture is meaningless. Rather, on every occasion, individuals must conclude that it is not right, in the case at hand, to inflict pain. The difference may seem supersubtle but it expresses my objection to systematic thinking, which actually short-circuits the need for thought. If I must always do x, then I will miss the difference between doing x in each set of circumstances, or in other words with regard to different people. The general rule frees me from recognizing differences. That is the nub of what I think of as an XY weakness for “efficiency.” Life is more of a slog than that: we must rekindle our goodness every time it is called for.


I’ve just read Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker piece, “Tragedy Plus Time,” for the second time, in its print version. Online, it was spellbinding, but I had no sense of an ending, no physical indication that there was only a page or a paragraph yet to read. So I came away slightly confused. The second reading clarified a great deal, if only as to the essay’s coherence; I still couldn’t understand — and this is why I don’t read Nussbaum regularly — why anyone would think that television could be a good thing. Surely its inherent malignancy must now be obvious to every active mind?

I don’t have a sense of humor about television, because few things in life are as important as a sense of humor and television has none whatsoever. Instead, it has a sense of ridicule. The difference is simple: the proper object of humor is the joker himself. Ample space is available for the first-person plural: we ought to laugh at ourselves. (For me, humor is profoundly tied up in how we speak, how we used our shared language.) Television has no time for such delicacies. Television encourages us to laugh at others. It parades idiots, preferably idiots who are unaware of being idiots, across the screen. Our laughter dulls into contempt. Contempt makes it impossible to take things seriously. I have always though that Jon Stewart must be an interesting man, but I take this on faith, never having watched The Daily Show, which always seemed to me to be a bad idea. I do not think that comedy news is an improvement on straight news; quite the contrary.

Now, I can see from Nussbaum’s piece, we’re about to find out if an entertainer who joked his way into the White House will continue to have any desire to make us laugh. Nussbaum leads up to her finish with instances of Vladimir Putin’s oppression of Russian media. Then she warns that Trump may try to shut down Saturday Night Live, a show that made me laugh, back in 1975, largely by making me feel smart. Now the phenomenon of smart people laughing at people who aren’t smart fills me with dismay. It is both wrong and a bad idea. You’ve got to hope that the objects of your ridicule never get to shoot back, always bearing in mind that ridicule may not be their weapon of choice.

Nussbaum also registers — as does Rebecca Solnit in a much darker piece in the LRB — on the sex-linked nature of jokes. It’s not that women can’t be funny. But they can’t use humor (and ridicule) to create a sense of the pack. They can’t get away with the dumb misogynistic jokes whose real purpose is to create a bond among men who are confused by life, thinking that it ought to be much simpler than it is. They can’t respond to such jokes without strengthening the glue of malice. Nor have our social arrangements developed safeguards, which were unnecessary before the advent of mass media, to protect women from anonymous male attack.

It’s not funny.


Tuesday 24th

Over the weekend, I read Rachel Cusk’s Outline. Cusk’s new book, Transit, which my friend Ms NOLA calls a “companion” rather than a sequel, has just come out. As with Tara French’s Trespassers — which I still haven’t read, because I’m waiting for the paperback edition that will conform to that of the five earlier books in her extraordinarily engaging Dublin Murder Squad series — the flurry of Transit reviews directed my interest toward the earlier book. Having read Outline in its Kindle edition, however, I’ll probably do the same with Transit, so I won’t have to wait.

Outline reminded me of novels with which it probably has nothing in common beyond the faulty wiring of my brain. Brigid Brophy’s In Transit came to mind, perhaps for an obvious reason but also, I think, because of the ruminative quality that I recall, thirty years or more after reading it the once. I also thought of Renata Adler’s fiction, because of its severity. I was always conscious, in Outline, of how little Cusk was telling me; I was also conscious of not complaining. We learn almost nothing about Faye, a pure and simple stand-in for the author. At the beginning, after lunch with a billionaire, she boards a plane to Athens. On the flight, she passes the time in conversation with a Greek gentleman of somewhat diminished opulence. We never hear of the billionaire again, but the fellow passenger, with whom Faye stays in contact in Athens, is thereafter referred to as “my neighbor.” This is a breathtakingly efficient way of sweeping all the actual, ordinary-sense-of-the-word neighbors whom Faye has had in the course of her life completely out of the story.

The neighbor keeps a motorboat at a marina outside of Athens, and Faye accompanies him on two day trips to a rocky outcrop, where the water is very clear. These outings, together with several gatherings in restaurants and two sessions of a writing class that Faye is leading, constitute the matter of the novel. There are limpid and concise descriptions of Athens and of the road to the marina, and of course of the very clear water, but aside from a tour of the apartment where Faye is staying — an oblique portrait of its owner — the extended passages are all narratives. People with whom Faye seems to have spent bursts of time in other cities (again, not neighbors) join her for meals and tell stories about themselves. And then there are her students. Because the structure of the novel reminded me of Palladio’s villas, with the large blocks of narrative connected by gracious antechambers, and because the tone of Cusk’s language is so measured, I thought of Boccaccio, but of course Boccaccio’s narrators talk about everything under the sun except themselves.

That is how the world has changed in the centuries since the Black Death sent Boccaccio’s aristocrats into the hills. They would have been bored silly, if not, in the alternative, traumatized, by the tales told by Cusk’s characters, all of which have one theme: the fragility of family. The family consists of men and women who come together (“fall in love” seems an almost hysterical overstatement) and produce children. The children and their parents are tied together, but the parents are not tied to one another, and substitutions in the form of step-parents are occasionally introduced, placing further pressure on the tender question, What is family? How does the biological network of reproduction and rearing correspond to the emotional lives of autonomous individuals? What happens to a family when the man and the woman who created it no longer care to live together? And what is the relation between our lives as children and our lives as parents?

These may not be the questions that Cusk is asking, if indeed she is doing anything so vulgar as asking questions, but they held court in my mind. Although everyone passing through Cusk’s chambers is affluent and more or less well-turned-out, nobody is really satisfied. Everybody is troubled by “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women,” as one character puts it. There is a general disinclination to accept the human condition, as if there were other options. I ought to have found Cusk’s people to have been too unattractive to read about. But the selfishness and egotism that spoil their private lives is not permitted to burden their narratives. Cusk’s characters tell their stories very well. I wouldn’t want to know them, but hearing them is provocative.

It would be tiresome, to me, anyway, to examine Outline for its views on the war between the sexes. Cusk seems to be writing in a time of cease-fire. But the problem of the family is clearly complicated not only by unilateral male entitlement but by the appeal that this entitlement has for women, at least from time to time, at least as a challenge. What makes a man attractive is often nothing more than the recognition by a woman of what he takes to be his superiority to other human beings. Once it becomes clear that a woman is not going to perform this service, she ceases to exist. One of the last stories in Outline illustrates this point. At the apartment, Faye meets another woman who will be staying there. The woman discusses her flight from England, and her conversation with her “neighbor” — the parallelism is a lovely way of closing the book. This woman’s neighbor was a diplomat, posted to Athens, who, although fluent in many languages, confessed to an inability to master Greek. The woman asked if the cause might be that his family was not accompanying him on this mission, but remained at home in Canada.

“He thought about this for a while, and then he said that to an extent it was true. But in his heart, he believed it was because he did not consider Greek to be useful. It was not an international language; everyone in the diplomatic world here communicated in English; it would have been a waste, in the end, of his time.

“There was something so final,” she said, “in that remark that I realized our conversation was over. And it was true that even though the flight had another half an hour to go we didn’t say one more word to each other. I sat beside this man and felt the power of his silence. I felt, almost, as though I had been chastised. Yet all that had happened was that he had refused to take the blame for his own failure, and had rejected my attempt to read any kind of significance into it, a significance he saw that I was all too ready to articulate. It was almost a battle of wills, his discipline against my emotion, with only the armrest between us. I waited for him to ask me a question, which after all would have been only polite, but he didn’t, even though I had asked him so many questions about himself. He sealed himself in his own view of life, even at the risk of causing offence, because he knew that view to be under threat.”

And yet he brought it up!


Thursday 26th

So far, I’ve been very happy with my new subscription to The Browser, a service that I recommend heartily, just as David Brooks did in one of his New Year’s columns. With the Pocket app on a smartphone (imagine me downloading this, but I did), there is no need to worry about having something to read while out and about. The subscription fee — $34 at the moment, I recall — provides access to material that is not otherwise available online. When I think how much I’d have had to pay to read the handful of pieces that I’ve found tremendously interesting in just three weeks’ time, The Browser‘s price seems nominal.

The other day, at The Browser, I came across the Introduction to Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President. Whether or not I’ll buy the book, which is a collection of Taibbi’s reportage from the late election cycle (I can’t imagine reading about it), the Introduction is worth clipping to Evernote. Embedded in the heart of the piece is a sinewy history of broadcast news in America that explains the fragility of journalism practices and institutions that we have tended to regard as safely monumental. As usual, integrity does not stand on a foundation of high-minded commitment but wobbles on a sea of money. I belong to the camp of analysts who believe that the medium of broadcast television could not help degenerating into an entertainment platform, and the extent to which it has compromised deliberative politics seems to recapitulate the inexorability of Greek tragedy. Like Taibbi, I didn’t see Trump coming, but perhaps I ought to put it differently: I didn’t see Trump coming. But the license to assemble idiosyncratic collections of “facts,” and the disregard for meaningful truth, have long been eventualities that I regarded as inevitable. The only question was whether I should live to see them.

I’m thinking of The Martian a lot, of Mark Watney’s last words:

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?

As I see it, things have been going south for a long time, so I don’t have to catch my breath when I get to work. I’ve been thinking about how to repair what I’ll call the liberal democratic module ever since Hillary Clinton polarized the nation with her semi-official health-care investigations. This module is not so much a body of laws and regulations as it is the political principles behind them. Laws and regulations depend for their power upon the legitimacy of these principles. If the principles of liberal democracy have ever been less broadly legitimate (outside of dictatorships) than they are today, all across the West, then I’m unfamiliar with that period. Right now, a lot of what needs to be done requires, as a first step, reversing the device addiction that makes it difficult to pay attention to things over the long term. (Just where video games fall on an axis between cognitive exercise and crack cocaine is not much of a question to me.) As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, though, the important thing about a revolution is having a firm grasp of the second step. What happens next? Assume that everyone’s paying attention. But to what? Almost certainly without intending to do any such thing, Matt Taibbi handed me a great suggestion:

These are the voters who’ve never met a New York bil­lionaire, but they’ve sure met a lot of corporate middle man­agers and divorce lawyers and professors and other such often-overcompensated members of the intellectual class.

Trump voters almost uniformly don’t begrudge some­one for being an entrepreneurial success (“If the guy pulls his own weight, I don’t care how much he makes” was a typical comment I heard). But they can’t stand the book-smart college types who make cushy livings pushing words around in what these voters see as competition-averse pro­fessions that reward people who in real life need to call AAA to change a tire.

Trump tapped into all of this. His speeches were visual demonstrations of his power over us. We in the press, obedi­ently clustered inside our protective rope line and/or stand­ing mute on a riser in the middle of the hall, would sit looking guilty, like the pampered, narrow-shouldered, overgroomed hypocrites we are, while Trump blasted us as the embodi­ment of the class that had left regular America behind.

This group portrait of a pasty but hated class of would-be overlords is a call for a collective makeover. As people who think as I do march in protest against Trump, I wonder how many of them understand what they look like to Trump’s supporters. What they look like is so unattractive that it makes Trump look like Superman. What they look like is so devoid of apparent purpose that an imaginary superhero promises to be more likely to get the job done, any job. Here in New York, there’s a dreadfully potent phrase: stuck up. If you have been branded with this epithet (almost always by a woman), you can be sure that nothing you say will be taken seriously thereafter. You will become somebody who is simply making more money than you deserve.

One of the quickest ways of achieving stuck-up status is to assert that “education” and retraining will restore meaningful jobs. Anyone who has really thought about it knows this to be true, and as for regular Americans who have been left behind, they’ve discovered its truth empirically. They know a bromide when they smell one.

And on the home front: As I read the screeds on how important it is for the Democratic Party to foster identity politics, my poor brain is twisted by the fact that identity politics has done nothing to establish a generally satisfactory, publicly funded pre-K program throughout the country. What could be more important than the double-barrelled project of providing early education to children while fostering their mothers’ working lives? Has there been any progress on this front?

The second step is not to bellyache about Trump’s unraveling of political safeguards that were pretty flimsy in any case and definitely unpopular with a great many Americans. The second step is to “do the math” — to think hard and to think together (talk about a tall order!) about fixing the liberal-democratic module.


Friday 27th

When I mentioned the liberal-democratic module yesterday, I decided to save explanation for another day. Or days.

Maybe the first thing to say is that my thinking on this subject is the result of new connections. I haven’t figured out a good way of talking about the way my mind makes new connections, so I may be unintelligible. What seems to have happened with reference to liberal democracy is that the term was again and again mentioned, in Richard J Evans’s The Pursuit of Power, which I read a few weeks ago, as part of a triad: it was one of three models that competed for power in nineteenth-century Europe. The other two were conservative reaction and populist socialism. I was used to thinking of liberal democracy in opposition to one or the other of those rivals, but not to both at the same time. The recurrence of the triad eventually prodded me to recognize that liberal democracy is in itself the least popular of the three, and always will be, because it is by far more difficult to maintain than either of the others, and it requires an acceptance of complexity that is almost unnatural to the human mind. This closer awareness of liberal democracy’s distinction acted like a magnet, drawing all sorts of observations from other parts of my mind — that, at any rate, is what it felt like. I went from not having much of an opinion about liberal democracy to not having much choice but to organize a crowd of insistent ideas.

Liberal democracy would be hopeless as a political program if it could not, from time to time, depend on support from the margins of the other two camps. The trick — but it is not a trick — is to persuade populists and oligarchs that they are better off learning to live together than fighting. The small but powerful clusters of rich people at one end of the economic ladder are frightened of the resentful mass at the other, and this has been the case at almost all times almost everywhere in human history. What is new is the liberal democratic undertaking to strike a balance without resorting to coercion. Just to make the undertaking twice as difficult, conservatives and socialists, much as they fear and loathe one another, detest liberal democrats even more, because liberal democrats are all about compromise and reconciliation, which means that they clearly lack moral backbone. The extremists also share a contempt for the liberal-democrat’s aversion to open conflict. So what if a good fight accomplishes nothing? It makes you feel better! (Until, of course, it doesn’t.)

Most people — but men more than women, I suspect — are illiberal. They do not see why people who are unlike themselves ought to share in the benefits of social organizations. The parlous state of America’s infrastructure today is evidence of the lengths to which people will go to deny themselves benefits if it means denying them to other groups as well. We bemoan this state of affairs, but it is the normal one. A century or more of liberal-democratic hegemony in the United States has misled us into thinking that a large and effective public sector can be taken for granted. It can’t. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, we may be about to find out what life is usually like in most other places, and has been like for most of recorded history.

To some extent, liberal democracy proceeds by striking deals between “the classes and the masses.” It thrives whenever the hybrid of the two, the bourgeoisie, feels secure. Security is difficult to guarantee, however, in the middle of a revolution, and it must be acknowledged that liberal democracy has not navigated the latest phase of the Industrial Revolution — globalization — very well. It has subscribed to “neoliberal” economic ideas that promise social benefits but never deliver them, fueling grotesque income inequality instead. Liberal democracy has also failed to lead potential constituents toward reconciliation on another axis, a rather new one: immigration. Throughout the West, and even outside of it, traditional conflicts between rich and poor have been complicated by natives’ resentment of aliens, and aliens’ resistance to complete assimilation. In the United States, this new problem has been intensified by the liberal-democratic determination to extend full native rights to the formerly de jure alien black American population. Excellent (and overdue!) as this determination may have been, it was not followed up with the attentive leadership required to persuade Southern cavaliers and Northern workers to support it.

The liberal-democratic module — something between a completely abstract model and a time-stamped party platform — needs fixing on these two fronts. The liberal-democratic conception of beneficent commerce needs updating (to put it mildly). The liberal-democratic commitment to civil rights needs a much prettier face. These are the main “do the math” tasks that all of us who believe in the possibility of a peaceful, pluralistic society have to get to work on right away. We have to convince extremists that violence, while sexy and exciting, is both deadly and not really necessary. A good second step would be to abandon “non-negotiable” shibboleths, if only in order to understand the state of play. For the moment, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what these might be. Dont be afraid, my fellow liberal democrats, of appearing to be soft on principles. Nobody believes that we really have any anyway.


Tuesday 31st

Yesterday, Ray Soleil and I went to the storage unit. Ray climbed the ladder and handed down all the stuff from the high, topmost shelves. It made a big difference: the unit began to look empty. Among the deposed items were Kathleen’s wedding dress, and a ball gown that she wore to a Museum gala long ago. We brought home bags full of junk, some of it not junk — does anyone remember the brief period during which you got a CD of digitized images along with the prints when you had a roll of film developed? I’ve got about a dozen of those. In the evening, Kathleen began to go through the litter of craft items that Ray and I found in one of those bins that are more usually slid under beds. In two or three more solo visits, I might be able to remove all of what came down from on high. Then I can cull the books again.


This morning, the Times ran an article about how happy the President’s supporters are about the aggressive immigration moves that have caused such consternation among my friends. I noted with relief that there not a whiff of Onion. One man, who made it clear that he had voted more against Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, noted that the measures were temporary, and added that it might be a good thing to “take a breather” from less discriminating policies. It is clear to me that, however wrong the President’s moves may have been, they appeal to the people who voted for him. Protesters seem to be unaware of this, or to think that it doesn’t matter. One might well think that the President’s opponents are no more interested in liberal democracy than his supporters are.

If I have not made it clear, in more than twelve years of blogging, that liberal America’s neglect of the less affluent and educated voters — those who, most recently, supported Donald Trump — has been a very grave mistake, then my writing is even more unintelligible than I fear. This neglect dates at least to the Fifties, when powerful Democrats, most notably Lyndon Johnson, began a political program that, by enforcing the civil rights of black Americans, would betray the white-supremacy world view of the Dixiecrat wing of the party. Far more damaging was the acquiescence and active support given by subsequent Democratic Party administrations to neoliberal economic views. There appears to have been a hope, amounting to magical thinking, that Americans who felt diminished by affirmative action and globalization would disappear, preferably by transforming themselves, via higher education, into fellow liberals. But Democrats did little or nothing to help that transformation along. Democrats worked hard at making civil rights programs more effective, but they wasted little time on persuading unethusiastic white Americans that equal civil rights would be better for everyone in the long run. Democrats — especially Bill Clinton — appear to have done nothing to protect white American workers from the ravages of financialization.

Pundits of almost every stripe are rightly worried that the new Administration may throw global diplomacy into disarray. Their mistake is to think that, having been issued this warning, the President’s supporters will change their minds about their man, and demand more conventional decorum at the very least. More magical thinking! Why should an ordinary American, educated or not but without any access to those who control the levers of power, bother to understand the niceties of international affairs? Is there a test? No, there is not a test, and, having led the world on so many franchise fronts, the United States has become the first nation in which everyone is free to be stupid. By “stupid,” of course, I mean disrepectful of liberal pieties. Those pieties are very dear to me, but I am not surprised that they are so widely rejected. If a brilliant student, the child of college professors, can emerge from an Ivy League college without knowing how to pronounce the name “Proust” (a true tale in my family), how can anything be expected of ordinary Americans?

As Matt Taibbi observes in the Introduction to Insane Clown President, it doesn’t do much good to call ordinary people on their faults at spelling and grammar. For ordinary people, language is a tool, not an art form. If it is believed that greater proficiency will increase what used to be called political virtue (and I for one believe it), then the schooling of ordinary people must be improved. Adults who don’t profess to be knowledge workers deserve the respect of being understood without comment. We have seen what disrespect can do.

Gotham Diary:
If Even a Fraction
December 2016

5, 6, 8, 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 27, 29 and 31 December

Monday 5th

When I finished writing the first draft of the Writing Project at the end of August, I knew that I needed an additional section at the end. It took a while to get going on this, and it’s arguable that I still haven’t, because, without going much of anywhere itself, the work convinced that I needed a different beginning. That took even longer to get round to, but eventually I hit on the perfect anecdote, which I quickly wrote down. When I went back to pick up where I left off, I got a bit confused, and thought I’d lost it. So I rewrote it and then found it. Over this past weekend, I prepared a printable draft of the revised first section, which was really just chunks of the original minus even bigger chunks, plus the dandy little story at the top, and conflated the two versions of the dandy little story by marking up the print-out with a pencil. I will be sharpening a lot of pencils in the coming weeks. I will not be writing here so much.

The news is distressing — not the news about Trump, but the news about opposition to him. The opposition is very, very depressing. It has learned nothing but a capacity to mirror the outrage that Trump’s supporters demonstrated during the campaign. It is shocked and angry and stupid. There is a stink of media panic, a plethora of Chicken Little screeds. These are not entirely uncalled for, to be sure, but they are useless and draining and must not be indulged. There must be no disruptive and semi-violent manifestations of people taking things into their own hands. This is grown-up time. We need to behave as normally as possible and to think with all our might.

Or so it seems obvious to me. Since the election, however, I have felt somewhat detached from the liberals and progressives whose long-term ideas I tend to share. What I don’t share is faith in novelty. I don’t believe that new forms will set our benevolence free. I believe that turning away from the record of our mistakes will condemn us to repeat them. When I look round at the liberal and progressive mistakes that have put Donald Trump en route to the White House, the biggest one of all is the giddy trust with which new stretches of social tolerance have been celebrated over the past fifty years. It is now clear that this tolerance was far from universal. One has to begin by asking how advocates of social equality and justice could have been so naive, and even, only half-inadvertently, insulting. One has to wonder how intensely the alt-right’s rage is fixated on wiping the sanctimonious simper off a host of faces.

The question is not why the Democratic Party slighted statehouse politics for so long; the question is who is going to stop doing it. Who is going to take up the good fight in each of the fifty capitals?


Tuesday 6th

Over the weekend, I scoured a few hard-to-reach bookshelves, and recovered a handful of books to read. But the book that I read next wasn’t one of those; it was Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude (1947), which I found among the NYRBs. The pulpy artwork on the cover made me skeptical, as did the fragments of Hamilton’s biography that still floated in my mind from about the time Slaves was reissued. In addition to novels, Hamilton wrote the very successful plays, Rope and Gas Light. The Slaves of Solitude did not promise to be a fun read.

But it was. It was so much fun, and such high fun, that I’m awarding it my Jane Austen Prize. I just made this up, my Jane Austen Prize, but I couldn’t think of a more concise way of singing the book’s praise. It’s probably just me, but The Slaves of Solitude reminded me at every turn of Emma. It was a grey, discounted, wartime comparison; all the gleaming features of Emma are missing. (There is certainly no Mr Knightley.) But the same sort of things seems to be noticed, and the same sort of misunderstanding to proliferate. I could not shake the feeling that Mr Thwaites and Vicki Kugelman were nightmare versions of Mr Woodhouse and Harriet Smith.

The novel is set in Thames Lockdon, an imaginary town that bears a resemblance, according to an author’s note, to Henley-on-Thames. It’s a pretty little place, and, during the Blitz, Miss Roach, a publisher’s assistant, considered herself lucky to find a berth there. That was a few years ago. It is now December 1943, and the war at home has become an unspeakable bore. The narrator refers to the war as a “pilferer,” constantly stealing goods and services and replacing them with ration coupons. The tide of the fighting has begun to shift, and American servicemen are massing in Southeast England for in preparation for “the Second Front,” but the atmosphere of bleak joyless has settled on the land like a pea-souper. Miss Roach’s boarding house, formerly the Rosamund Tea Rooms, is the dreary retreat of various elderly persons, mostly women but also including the impossible Mr Thwaites. Mr Thwaites is a verbal bully and a great comic figure, not least because of his linguistic affectations, such as the habit, when in a good mood, of dropping into the lingo of “I troth.” His principal victim is Miss Roach, who has to share a table with him at meals.

Miss Roach is about forty, plain, and unlikely to marry. She is intelligent, but too well-bred to be resolute, and she is amazed, after the climax has exploded, that she sat there and took it from Mr Thwaites day after day. (At the beginning of the novel, he is accusing her, as if it were a bad thing to be at the time, of being a friend of the Russians.) By the end, she is quite resolute, having taken some very hard knocks from two new people in her life. One of these is Vicki Kugelman, a woman about her own age, and only marginally more attractive, who although a British citizen is of German birth. At a high-minded moment, Miss Roach springs to the woman’s defense, and they become casual friends. The friendship undergoes severe tests after Vicki moves into the Rosamund Tea Rooms. The wrong foot is put forward when Vicki quietly but obstinately steps on Miss Roach’s fancy of being Vicki’s sponsor at the boarding house. Quite soon, Vicki has made a beau of Mr Thwaites, and even as he flirts with her his nastiness to Miss Roach intensifies.

Most of the action, however, centers on the “inconsequent” behavior of a bibulous American lieutenant, Dayton Pike. “Inconsequent” is a very good word, and I wish it were used more frequently. Inconsequence is oblivious thoughtlessness: to say that you will write but to neglect to ask for an address is classic inconsequence. Lieutenant Pike’s inconsequence is almost pathological: he asks every pretty girl who will kiss him to marry him. It takes Miss Roach a long time to discover this, during which time she has entertained herself with daydreams, not taken seriously, of becoming the Laundry Queen of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Pike plans to be King when he goes home after the war.) Pike disappears for weeks at a time, but reappears as eager as ever. His problem is that he doesn’t have a problem with escorting Miss Roach and Vicki Kugelman to a dark park and kissing them seriatim. (He is usually plastered.) Vicki doesn’t have a problem with this, either. When Miss Roach insists that she does, they mock her as “Miss Prude” and “Miss Prim.”

“The war, amongst the innumerable other guises it had assumed, had taken on the character of the inventor and proprietor of some awful low, cosmopolitan night club.” (199). Miss Roach entertains this reflection as she hurtles in a crowded car through the suburban night, careening from one watering-hole to another while the Americans sing songs. Is she a Miss Prim? Miss Roach herself can’t settle this question, but it is obvious to the reader that the woman values her self-respect, whatever that means. She can draw a fairly clear line between fun and an orgy, and she wants no part of the latter. Her familiarity with orgies is limited, but a trapdoor keeps opening up (hauled open by the Americans, usually), revealing flames of depravity below. Before they can swallow her up, she is saved by circumstance: Lieutenant Pike takes to lubricating Mr Thwaites with whiskey. In an obscure way, this is Mr Thwaites’s undoing. Just when Miss Roach is sure that things can’t get any worse, they begin to get better.

Emma Woodhouse touches a similar nadir, but from that moment, as the tide begins to flow in her favor again, the air of smiling satisfaction becomes ever sweeter. So is with the tying up of loose ends in The Slaves of Solitude. There can be no truly happy endings in London at the end of 1943 — there is still too much danger to survive — but Miss Roach emerges from her boarding-house adventures a much happier woman, and a person very unlikely to accept the conversational cruelties of a Mr Thwaites with any docility.


Thursday 8th

I’ve just read the strangest article in the Styles section of today’s Times. It’s about a young man, Ryan Holiday, a former publicist who has set himself up as a self-help guru, preaching the attractions of Stoicism. The reporter is Alexandra Alter, and I wonder why she did not mention what is implicit in her piece: the maleness of it all. Mr Holiday is much in demand as a speaker for sports teams and military groups. A few philosophers whom Alter quotes express mild doubt about Holiday’s authenticity and rigor; but their very appearance at an event called Stoicon makes it hard to know how seriously to take any of this. I came away not taking it seriously with regard to the philosophy but taking it very seriously with regard to the stroking of specifically masculine egos. There, there, it’s all right to be humble; don’t feel bad about not being famous. Just try to be a better shot with that gun.

If my mind were more scientific, I’d figure out a way to devise a People Index, which would at any given time affix a numerical value to the extent to which the word “people” is used by men and women generally to refer to men and women indifferently. Equally. When you use the word, do you see with your mind’s eye a gathering of men and women, as in a theatre? Or do you see a platoon of men or a flock of women? Is your view altered by different contexts?

In my view, all the advantages that can possibly be attributed to one gender or the other — the bravery of men, the loving-kindness of women (just to pick the two most trite) — are completely outweighed by the absence of the other’s, and never more so than in important discussions. One of the reasons for my mistrust of philosophy is its almost complete failure to appeal to women. In the past, men would say that philosophy is simply “beyond” the grasp of women. I don’t want to hear that sort of thing again, but when I read that, before he dropped out of college, Holiday pasted quotations from the Meditations of Marcus Arelius on the walls of his dorm room, I prick up my ears.


Monday 12th

Last Friday, I spent a few hours writing about a thousand words about George Meredith’s masterpiece, The Egoist. Then, in a flurry of misstrokes, I lost what I’d done. I’ve been somewhat careless, lately, about the precautions that I’ve learned to take to protect my work, and, in another indication of diminished interest in what I’m doing here, I did not immediately attempt to reconstruct the entry. In fact, I let it go with a sigh, and signed off for the weekend with nothing to show for the day. I turned to the writing project, which is giving me a hard time at the moment, and grappled with a paragraph until I began to feel good about it. Meanwhile, I knew that I’d be back on Monday, better equipped to write about The Egoist for having read more of it. To my chagrin, I read the whole thing.

The Egoist is a difficult novel to recommend. It is, at least at the beginning, something of a porcupine, all quills on the outside. Meredith’s penchant for cleverness, for phrasing little details with peculiar obliquity, has not aged well.

Pedestrianism was a sour business to Sir Willoughby, for whose exclamation of the word indicated a willingness of any amount of exercise on horseback.

While hardly opaque, this sentence has too much surface for its sense, and long stretches of the first ten or fifteen chapters are made tiring (and even tiresome) by Meredith’s disinclination to speak plainly. Once the action gets going, it moves very quickly, and conversation begins to replace narrative. The conversation is very good; it has something of the sparkle of Wilde. But one has suffered to get that far. Essentially, The Egoist is a farce in extremely slow motion.

Some might call Meredith’s style an acquired taste; if it is, I have not acquired it. I’ve been meaning to re-read the book for ages, but when I found a print copy in the bookcase — the Kindle’s battery was running low — there was a bookmark in the middle of Chapter 16, where apparently I had stopped, years ago. Determined this time to enjoy the climax, I pressed on, but all that kept me going at one point was knowing that Clara’s flight to the railway station was only four chapters away. I dimly recalled that this event marks a change in the story’s time signature; from andante assai, it moves to allegro con brio. The bulk of the novel describes the action of four days, or rather presents it in a series of staged scenes that brings Beaumarchais to mind.

But Meredith is writing in the 1870s; he has all day, and then some. Why bother with so much overupholstery? One good reason: the characters are all very attractive. Sir Willoughby Patterne, the character of the title, is a monster of narcissism, constantly begging the question whether surfeit or deficit of self-esteem is the underlying cause; but the spectacle of his ordeal is extremely entertaining, and his fatuous speeches are irresistibly dreadful. One can hardly believe they go on so, and yet one doesn’t want them to stop. Rich, handsome, suave and attentive, Sir Willoughby has set out to be the principal gentleman in his county. All he needs is children — his “line,” as he calls it. For this, he must have a wife, but Sir Willoughby is mistaken about women. He has already been jilted once, and no sooner have we fallen in love with his second fiancée, Clara Middleton, than she, too, begins to think of bolting. “Anything but marry him,” becomes her mantra. There is no real mystery to the ladies’ change of heart. The moment Sir Willoughby welcomes a woman as his prospective bride, he enunciates a conception of love that would make a vampire seem an appealing alternative.

After the first dump, Sir Willoughby took a world tour. Now thirty-two, he cannot afford to be jilted twice. In a pointed scene with the widowed grande dame of the neighborhood, Mrs Mounstuart Jenkinson, the mere word itself, “Twice,” spoken by the lady as she presses the stem of her parasol into the lawn, is sufficient by itself to reduce the baronet to hypothermia. He cannot allow Clara to escape. Nor can Meredith. Clara is a lady — innocent and pure and the embodiment of all those other rather implausible Victorian ideals about women. She will not disgrace herself. Yes, she does run away, but all alone; when Sir Willoughby’s handsome and rakish friend, Horace De Craye, shows up at the railway station to “assist” her, she understands that her flight must be aborted. It cannot be allowed to appear that she ran off with him.

Indeed, there is no reason to believe that Clara would ever succeed in dissolving her engagement, were it not for the helpless assistance of Sir Willoughby’s egotism. He wants Clara, and the world as well, to believe that he loves her alone, but of course he loves himself much, much more. Perhaps it would be better to say that he loves his public standing more than anything else. He cannot bear the idea that people might be talking about him in any critical way. He would rather die than be humbled. As Clara’s pressure to disengage intensifies, Willoughby becomes so distracted by his attempts to keep up appearances that it becomes obvious to De Craye that he no longer cares for Clara herself.

Clara is nineteen, beautiful, and fully alive; she could have been played, had films been made when they were younger, by Helena Bonham Carter or Rachel McAdams. But the reader must resist the temptation to regard her as the heroine. Which is a way of saying that her time with Sir Willoughby, however tumultuous, is not particularly momentous for Clara. Once she resolves that she cannot marry the man, her development as a character stops; if it begins to move again at the end, that is only to tell us that her love story, involving another man altogether, is just about to begin. In fact, Clara falls away as an active character, and even, helplessly, becomes something of a bore. When pressed for reasons why she can’t love the Patterne paragon, she can only point to failings in herself. She cannot say, “Because he is an egoist!” In her world, most men — especially most wealthy men — are exactly that. The language of love and duty available to a young lady of Clara’s class cannot be used to attack a man who intends to subordinate his wife’s freedom to the demands of his caprice. Were she to accuse her fiancé of being grossly self-centered, the world would shrug. “And?” She would thereupon be obliged to sit through lectures on how to handle a man.

This is another difficulty with The Egoist: the limitations on a young lady’s autonomy that prevailed in the high noon of Victoria’s reign have slipped almost as far into bizarro history as the mannerisms of Heian Japan. The problem of “jilting” itself takes some explanation. We believe that it would be unpardonably inauthentic for a woman to murmur “I do” if she were less than sure of the statement; in Meredith’s day, a woman who accepted a suitor was bound forever by that plight, no matter how her feelings might evolve thereafter; to Trollope, a woman who acknowledged the love of one man was worse than Eve if she ever looked at another. The fact that girls were largely ignorant of “the world” was quite pointedly not taken into account. It was all very artificial, of course — the men of the time were habitual over-reachers, and their women had too much time on their hands — and it collapsed altogether about a century ago. Readers might well decline to reconstruct so odd a playing field for so unnecessary a game.

What saves The Egoist from mere curiosity is its comedy. Now, Meredith had very elaborate ideas about comedy, and he is always willing to tell us about them. In spite of this, the book is funny, once you have gotten used to its strange tempo. For when I said that the climax is marked allegro con brio, I took it for granted that any reader who gets far enough to read it would have gotten so used to the fundamental molto adagio as no longer to notice it. There is a scene between two old men so protracted that makes you want to scream, as indeed it makes one of those men want to scream, but you are laughing before it is over. Two titled viragos, Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer, plough through the dramatic reversals with so much relish that you expect them to upset Meredith’s apple cart along with Sir Willoughby’s. Mrs Mountstuart Jenkinson, a less mad cousin of Lady Bracknell, has the awful majesty of Aunt Maud, in The Wings of the Dove, but she is so delightful that you want to read her memoirs. With her peculiarly worldly respectability, she both looks back to the ancien régime and foreshadows the Edwardians. Gifted with the knack for mots justes, she calls Clara “a dainty rogue in porcelain,” much to Sir Willoughby’s chagrin (“why rogue?”); and thus she captures the lovely girl’s appetite for liberty.

I have said nothing of Laetitia Dale, the somewhat dependent neighbor who has adored Sir Willoughby since childhood. If there is a heroine here, it is she, and she turns out to be the funniest character of all, if only at the very end, after chapters and chapters of passive reserve. She learns a great deal from Clara, more than she could have imagined. In other words, she is massively disillusioned. Having jettisoned her romantic idealism, she will be just the wife Willoughby needs. Hearing her stipulation of changes to be made at Patterne is as refreshing as standing under a waterfall.

I have mentioned a late novel by Henry James. James exemplifies our idea of what a difficult writer ought to be like, hard to follow until you get it, and understand that you are listening to speech, not to writing. (James dictated his later works to a secretary.) Meredith is difficult in an entirely different way, and I don’t think that it’s possible to become altogether comfortable with him. But he had a vision of craziness in a country house, and for anyone patient enough to bear, for a dozen-odd chapters, with a style that is never quite as orotund or precious as it threatens to be, that vision will come delightfully alive.


Tuesday 13

And as for the Willow Pattern — does anybody under forty recognize it? I see that you can buy a service of four five-piece place settings from Bed, Bath, & Beyond. (The less said about that, the better.) Wikipedia, curiously, discusses the origin of the pattern, as well as the romantic fable that it inspired, but says nothing about The Egoist. Meredith didn’t call his hero Willoughby Patterne for nothing, but I’ve always thought that the reference was something of a muddle — a good case of being too clever by half.

Developed by various potteries toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, Blue Willow quickly became the most popular of mass-produced tableware patterns. The image was printed, not painted, on each piece, making standardization, then a modern miracle, a considerable draw. Based on Chinese design elements, and exploiting the color of choice in porcelain imported from China, Willow was nonetheless an English concoction, as was the “legend” that it was thought to depict, but that in fact was distilled from it. I doubt that it was ever used on expensive bone china as often as it was on affordable earthenware, and by the 1870′s, I should think, the only people dining from it at Patterne Hall would be the servants. Is this part of Meredith’s joke, yet another way of saying that poor Sir Willoughby, whose adventures are patterned by a tale associated with the most common ceramics in England, is as mortal as everybody else?

It’s not difficult to mark the correlatives between the legend and the novel, but the legend lacks many of the novel’s most striking elements, among them the characters of Laetitia Dale and Crossjay Patterne. At the same time, neither elopement nor vengeful pursuit, central to the legend, and represented on the pattern by the three notional figures crossing the bridge near the center of the design, are part of the novel. Yes, Clara tries to run away, but she is pursued by those who would help her, and her love story, which is not really central to The Egoist, but instead a rather tied-up loose end, is fostered by her father, not forbidden by him. To the extent that Meredith used the pattern as a model, he seems to have done so in order to be able to point out the many ways in which he did not follow it. At the same time, it must be admitted that the name of his hero, which everybody in England and American must have seen through at the time (“Get it?”), works well to make the baronet a figure of fun, and not the narcissistic juggernaut that he really is.


On Friday, there appeared an astonishing piece about a book that is going to be published here in April. (It has already come out in Britain.) Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler, details the use of methamphetamines by German soldiers during the war, as well as Hitler’s use of cocaine and opiates. As writer David Segal notes, it’s hard to imagine anything new to be learned about the Nazi régime, and yet what makes Ohler’s disclosures all the more shocking is that they explain so much! Such as, for example, Hitler’s gratuitous declaration of war on the United States several days after Pearl Harbor. Not to mention, earlier in 1941, the invasion of Russia — initially a great success, incidentally, then not so much: drugs wearing off? Even the Holocaust becomes a little less inexplicable, at least to anyone who has spent time with hopped-up speed freaks. It seems that parts of the story have been well-known all along, but not to the same people. Ohler was inspired to write a novel on the subject by a documentary that he saw; one of the participants in that project taught him how to research drug use in military records. Ohler’s publisher decided that the material was too weird for fiction.

My brain is deafened by shuttling resets. The Industrial Revolution in Germany transformed the world of chemicals, from dyes to drugs. Mightn’t that alone have made it the first place to experiment with government bv doping? We have to be grateful, I suppose, that the effect of steroids on physical performance were not as well-understood as they are today. Almost every aspect of the Nazi horror looks to be up for re-evaluation, and there is probably going to be a din when Blitzed appears in April. I foresee a reaction that insists that not everything about the Third Reich was related to drug abuse. Maybe even a new movie or two!


Thursday 15th

In these uncomfortable times, I am reminded of a prose-poem by Auden, “Vespers,” one of his “Horae Canonicae.” Auden pits himself against a stranger who is walking along a twilit road in the opposite direction. “Both simultaneously recognize his Anti-type: that I am an Arcadian, that he is a Utopian.” What follows is a series of contrasts and contradictions, amusing but at the same time dismaying.

In my Eden a person who dislikes Bellini has the good manners not to be born; in his New Jerusalem a person who dislikes work will be very sorry he was born.

At the end of the poem, both men are shown to be complicit in the blood-sacrifice without which “no secular wall will safely stand.” I don’t follow the poem quite to its Christian point, but simply enjoy, if that’s the word, the oppositions. I have felt them strongly ever since I discovered the poem years ago. Generally, I identify with Auden, and see the stranger as a nasty piece of work. It is very tempting, these days, to identify the stranger, if not with Donald Trump (that would not fit at all), then with his white, male supporters. They alarm me, and I feel their contempt, matching the rhythm of “Vespers.”

But if Auden seeks to solve his dichotomies in spiritual contrition, I am just as eager to translate them into common terms. On the one hand, we have the language of hope, which, however it arises from past experience, pins attention on the future, and the good things that might happen in it. On the other, there is the language of fear, which turns away from the future lest it present a recurrence of terrible things that have happened in the past. Mild forgetfulness and savage recollection. Optimism and pessimism.

Idealism and practicality. We have not yet learned how to forge one language out of these two ways of seeing things that seem, not so much to contradict one another as to ignore the existence of the other. What makes Auden’s evening walk unpleasant is the mere reminder of the stranger’s point of view, which the poet wishes to remove, along with the stranger himself, to “some other planet.” So long as human beings could do little more damage to the world than killing other human beings, the tension between idealism and practicality was sustainable; there was no need for cooperation. But now that we can wreck the planet, or, rather, now that, if we are to proceed at all, we must save the planet from ourselves, idealism and practicality must somehow be forged together. Each must understand and, literally, come to terms with the other. Alarm and contempt are unaffordable luxuries.

The first step is for each party to abandon its claim to be the better representative of humanity, and to acknowledge that, on its own, neither is a very good one. This is really nothing more than learning to see yourselves as your opponents see you. Idealists can be awful fools, while pragmatists stifle imagination. When one says, “this time, it will be different,” the other chortles darkly. Dreamers are empty-headed; realists are prisoners of their own common sense.

One issue about which both sides agree to disagree is human nature. Hope claims that it is perfectible, while fear insists that it is nasty and brutish. As it happens, we are living in an age of discoveries about human behavior (which is all that we can see of “human nature”) that promises to resolve many competing claims. And we have lived through an era of prosperity that has taught us a great deal about the mollifying effects of comfort and safety on human anxiety. Pessimists will argue that the alteration of human behavior is as temporary as prosperity is transient, while optimists will complain that prosperity was no more than consumerist bling. Both sides, however, will tend to overlook the fact that prosperity was caused by human beings. It was not, as in the old days, a matter of lucky harvests. Postwar prosperity was particularly mindful of the brutalities and inequities of earlier phases of industrialization, and overcame most of them for many years. Human beings can create environments in which human beings will flourish. All that it takes is for optimists to listen closely to pessimists, and for pessimists to have a little faith in themselves.


Friday 15th

In this morning’s Times, the regular book reviewers list their favorites for the year. There was a time, not so long ago, when such lists sparked a competitive response in me: how many had I read, or would I read? This year, I felt a strange sadness instead. It was strange because it blended two distinct regrets. First, I’ve been re-reading my own books for at least two years, and not buying very many new ones; I see this as a function of my time of life. Whether actual age has anything to do with it, I am simply no longer in the expansive phase that marked my youth and middle age. I have genuinely lost interest in novelty, and I don’t pay much attention to new stories. This may seem like a terrible loss — I should certainly have regarded it as one twenty years ago, or perhaps even ten — but it is almost wholly displaced by a harvest of reflection and reconsideration that feels like the richest thing that I have ever experienced. Almost wholly, though, not so much that lists of the best books of the year, only one or two of which I may have read, don’t make me wistful. This first regret is like a thimble-sized glass of bitter liqueur, and not unsavory.

The other regret is quite different. It is a cold ocean on the other side of an unreliable seawall, pounding away at the civil fabric in which I have lived a safe and largely comfortable life. My good luck and the fortunes of the liberal experiment in Western democracy are knotted together. On a night not long after the November election, I lay awake one night wondering how long after the Inauguration it would take the Trumpists to show up at my door to take me away. Abominable conceit, you will say. But it doesn’t feel so imaginary, so light-of-day unlikely. This morning, it is not the book lists that look different — not yet, anyway. Gone, rather, is the unspoken trust and confidence with which I looked over their predecessors.

It was not complete, that trust and confidence. I knew that the way things were could come to an end, and probably would come to an end if the élite (to which no one would admit belonging) continued to sleepwalk. It is not certain that the old order has indeed come to an end. Inertia can be very powerful, and, so far, for all the anxiety, there is not much violence. But there is no reason to believe that this will continue. More and more, I feel that I am writing a message for a bottle.


I never write in books anymore, but I used to inscribe the date on which I finished reading a book on the inside of its back cover. My Doubleday Anchor copy of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, which has held together for over forty years, bears the date 19 February 1971. Over time, my recollection of the novel has been completely effaced, and because most of the action takes place in Geneva, I allowed it to be overwritten by associations with the assassination there, in 1898, of Empress Elisabeth. It’s not unlikely that I was very distracted in February 1971; in any case, I feel that I’ve just read Under Western Eyes for the first time.

After reading Lord Jim and Victory last year, and re-reading Nostromo and The Heart of Darkness as well, I was on the lookout for Under Western Eyes, which turned out to be on the top shelf of the fiction bookcase — a warren, triple-stacked, of uncatalogued paperbacks — where I found it a few weeks ago. Like The Secret Agent, which I re-read two years ago, it boasts no exotic locales. The book opens in a St Petersburg that seems from the very start to be Dostoevsky’s; perhaps because Conrad was a friend of Constance Garnett (Dostoevsky’s first translator into English), the text reads like a very familiar translation. We are in the world of students and subversives, of heaping snow and endless cold nights, and of “rooms,” barely-furnished garrets with small, dirty windows and dim oil lamps. Razumov, the student who concerns us, is an unusual young man, as strange as Prince Myshkin, although not at all like him. Conrad never misses an opportunity to remind us that Razumov has grown up not only an orphan but without any loving relationships at all. A certain Prince K, possibly his natural father, provides a modest allowance, but that is it; one helplessly concludes that Razumov was born in the room that he rents and in the clothes that he wears, that he has been a student since birth.

To what extent is Razumov deformed by childhood deprivations, and to what extent is he merely Russian? He does not say much, but most of what he says in the novel is brutally direct, uncoated by regard for the feelings of others. Although Razumov’s manner in student gatherings is described — he appears to listen deeply — the man whom we get to know is governed by a desire to be left alone. Perhaps this desire is so striking because it is shattered at the very beginning, when Razumov, through no act of his own, is implicated in a political assassination. His plans to complete his education with distinction and to compete for a silver medal by writing an essay, and so to find a respectable berth in the Russian bureaucracy — all of this becomes impossible when the assassin shows up in his room, in need of help.

The assassin is not unknown to Razumov, and here we must wonder a little about the “no act of his own” innocence. For the assassin, among others as it turns out, harbors a very favorable if no less mistaken opinion of Razumov. In fact, Razumov is the only one of his student friends whom the assassin names in a letter to his mother and sister. It is somewhat absurd, for Razumov has never espoused a revolutionary idea in his life. But his silence makes him a standout among the ranters. The assassin concludes that Razumov is a most trustworthy comrade. Razumov can be relied upon to arrange for the assassin’s escape, by notifying Ziemianitch, a “town peasant” who runs a sort of coach service. The assassin will hide out in Razumov’s room in the meanwhile.

Razumov sets out to do as the assassin asks, but he is very bitter about it, and when Ziemianitch turns out to be dead drunk, Razumov changes tack. From this moment, the novel takes place in a sort of moral outer space, where there is no gravity and where cause and effect have been duped. To the question already asked about Razumov — is he damaged or just Russian? — we add another: is he righteous or vile? He is certainly put in a false position, and the false position becomes unbearable when he discovers tender feelings (the first in his life, it would seem) for the assassin’s sister.

In his introduction, Morton Dauwen Zabel says that Under Western Eyes is arguably the most difficult of Conrad’s novels to read through, but, perhaps because I had just finished The Egoist, I found it to be smooth sailing — smooth sailing with a lot of emotional turbulence. I couldn’t put the book out of my mind; it really gave me no peace. Tensions were ratcheted up by external accidents: by the noisy remodeling of a nearby apartment, by the furious, last-minute disorder of the intersection over the subway station, just outside our door — the MTA has still not ruled out a New Year’s Eve opening — and by a couple of domestic disappointments. Reading Under Western Eyes was smooth sailing, but all the same I was seasick most of the time. I was dying to find out how it all came out in the end, and yet in a way I didn’t much care, for I just wanted it to be done, while, at the same time, I wanted never ever to finish it.

But I did.


Tuesday 20th

Zsa Zsa Gabor! The name rockets out of oblivion. It is not as surprising that she lived to such a great age as that she ever existed at all. She might as well have been 99 when I was a child. Just when raw youthfulness was about to assert itself at the center of style and culture, Zsa Zsa and her sisters pouted in their feathers and their furs, insisting that real glamour doesn’t touch women until they’re forty. Or until they’ve had forty husbands.

The Times obituary, written by Robert McFadden, could not resist making a little fuss about Zsa Zsa’s last husband, referred to twice as “Mr Prinz von Anhalt.” The normal journalistic thing to do would be to respect his bluff and call him “Anhalt,” or “Mr von Anhalt.” But no. There must be giggles. I hope that Vanity Fair will tell us more about how Hans Robert Lichtenberg got adopted (as an adult) by the Duchess of Saxony and why he took to passing himself off as a German aristocrat. I’m sure that there’s a perfectly good explanation for it. California living would appear to be part of the equation.

Indeed, Zsa Zsa herself, an emissary of the Mitteleuropäisch heartland of beautiful skin treatments — she is shown, in the obituary, in her role as a scientist from Venus; pretty much the same thing — required an American atmosphere for ignition. It is only in the context dramatized by her sister, Eva, in Green Acres, that such kittenish but mature seductiveness makes sense. Only in America could it be imagined that there were men who lit up when she sashayed in from the valet parking. Her husbands presumably imagined such responses. In today’s paper, Alessandra Stanley calls her the first reality show star, but I think it makes more sense to regard her as a pioneering drag queen. (Once again, there may be no difference.)

She was a great figure of fun to children, dahlink. But we’re all getting pretty old ourselves, now. Why does the Times assume that everyone knows how to pronounce her name?


An editorial in the Times calls for an end to the Electoral College. It mentions the “elegant solution” of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would leave the College intact but direct the electors to mirror the popular vote. It sounds like a great way for the populous coasts to drain power from the flyover zone, even if that isn’t its purpose, so I don’t expect the Compact to make much further progress.


Wednesday 21st

Where to begin? If I say that I’m thinking of drawing a line under these entries and contributing none further, even regular readers will conclude that I’m in a snit about Trump. But what I’m in a snit about is everyone else’s snit about Trump. The whining and the moaning and the “bewilderment” about the election. And the Fascist fantasies about the future. I’m not saying that the next Administration will be just fine. I’m not saying anything about it at all. What seems more important to me is understanding the values and the commitments of people who, like myself, are happier with the judgments of Supreme Court justices who have not been nominated by Republican presidents.

What do you call people like us? Are we still liberals? Progressives? There is one thing that I hope that we are not, and that is Democrats. I don’t want to hear talk about a Democratic Party comeback. At least on the national level, the Democratic Party is not going to be coming back within my lifetime — I’m almost sure of that. And there are “good reasons” for this, reasons why the Democratic Party is not so great. Reasons why those of us who can’t figure out what to call ourselves ought to resist the Party’s attempts to rally, and to move on instead, in search of something new.

The history is really very clear. Since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party has been associated with the “New Deal” slate of redistributive social programs, such as Social Security, and progressive regulatory structures, such as the National Labor Relations Board. Medicare is an important later bloom of this tradition. But today’s Democratic Party is not at all like the party that supported FDR. FDR’s Democratic Party was destroyed by Lyndon Johnson, with the passage of important civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Johnson’s heroic gesture drove Southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) into the arms of the Republic Party. The surviving Democratic Party was little more than an opportunistic rump.

Democratic Party failures since the Sixties involve both leadership and administration. What Johnson started was not continued. There was no national conversation about race; instead, there were riots that led many whites to complain that blacks were ungrateful for being treated as human beings, which however they still were not. The Democratic Party did little or nothing about White Flight from the country’s older cities. It was powerless, apparently, to check the growing “law and order” movement by which Republicans brazenly sought to continue and intensify the marginalization of blacks. It might have been argued that, even though the Dixiecrats had left the party, their preference for glossing over racial issues persisted in the Democratic Party. Nor did the Party cultivate future leaders. It became a clearing house for mavericks instead.

As to administration, the Democratic Party seemed to be unaware that arrangements for the ameliorisation of society are delicate institutions requiring constant attention and occasional rethinks. I’m not talking about programs, which certainly have been tinkered with over the years. I’m talking about administration, how the government conducts its business. The Democratic Party has accomplished nothing substantial in the fight against regulatory capture; it has responded fatalistically to enormous discrepancies in pay between regulators and the subjects of their regulation, discrepancies that encourage an altogether licit corruption. At a signal point in growing economic volatility, a Democratic president oversaw the dissolution of the Glass-Steagall safeguards that had done so much for financial stability since the Depression. Modifying legislative provisions in order to make those safeguards more responsive to changes in economic life were not considered: the safeguards themselves were seen as the problem. Had they remained in place, there might not have been the catastrophe that occurred ten years later.

Instead of attending to these real political problems, the Democratic Party devoted its energies to visions of the future. In these visions, no American would be permitted to coerce another American in any way. I can think of no more praiseworthy objective, but visions can be realized only when they attract very substantial support. The Democratic Party has not condescended to attempt to persuade rural, socially conservative Americans of the justice of its visions. Republicans have taken advantage of this arrogance, gaining control of statehouses and redrawing electoral districts in such a way that the popular vote in a presidential election has been constitutionally overruled.

The Republican Party is the party of selfishness. It has other words for this — freedom, individuality, personal responsibility — but it is up-front about its priorities. The Democratic Party projects an image of concern for others, for social justice. It seems, however, to share the Republican obsession with staying in office.

Thanks for nothing, Democratic Party. Kindly slip on a pair of cement shoes and go for a swim.


Tuesday 27th

It seems that I’ve been doing nothing but reading The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, by Richard J Evans. I ordered the book the moment I learned about it, because of the book’s title and also because of its author. I’ve been reading pieces by Evans in the LRB for years (or so it seems) and I have always been impressed by his authority. But I haven’t read any of the man’s books, which tend to focus on Hitler and the Third Reich. After Ian Kershaw’s two-volume study of Hitler, and a few other related books that appeared at the same time, I didn’t want to read any more about all of that. But here is Evans writing about my latest interest, the beginning of modern times, and how well he captures the crux of it in his title! Power was everything in the Industrial Revolution — the discovery of motive powers far greater than any known before — and it was everything to the political revolutions that overturned the ancien régime throughout Europe from 1789 on. Evans makes an extremely felicitous point, or rather calls attention to the point that has been so nicely made by the Penguin History of Europe, to which The Pursuit of Power is the latest edition. The preceding period, 1648-1815, is covered in Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory. There you have it! The glory once pursued by monarchs and other hereditary noblemen paled in comparison to new and amazing abilities to make unexpected things happen. The electricity that powered new modes of communication also amplified new political powers, as did new modes of transportation, not to mention the production of new orders of armaments. Our political lives are still almost wholly engaged by the struggle to limit and channel the powers, now including the power to destroy life on Earth, that began to transform human society nearly 250 years ago. In the year that is about to end, a self-congratulating liberal consensus devoted to making progress in the problem of managing power received two terrible shocks that ought to have been foreseen instead of being dismissed as unlikely: there is still much to learn about power. Evans’s felicitous point reminds us that, prior to the revolutions that exploded at the end of the Eighteenth Century, power was such a zero-sum affair that no one gave much thought to it. 250 years might strike a young person as a long time, but in the larger scheme of things it is little more than an instant, and I am not surprised that we have made more mess than headway in attempting to master our everyday superpowers.


Thursday 29th

Now that I’ve finished The Pursuit of Power, Richard J Evans’s magisterial history of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, I see that it has, for all its strengths, an enormous hole, right in the center. What’s missing is a chapter on the bourgeoisie, on its explosive growth and wealth, on the business organizations that fueled it, on the new concepts of public and private property that new wealth engendered, and on the displacement of traditional élites and the impact of that impact on the arts. Bits of this are strewn throughout the book, but key parts, especially the development of finance, and the catastrophic bank failures (in 1837 and 1873) that highlighted the fragility of unregulated capitalism, are not discussed. Political power is Evans’s theme, but not the arguably greater power of money.

I can’t help attributing this oversight to Evans’s academic training, about which I have to infer, from the book’s dedication to the memory of Eric Hobsbawn, that it brought up Evans as a man of the left. I have arrived at a curious conclusion about educated leftists: they have adopted the utterly aristocratic contempt for money and people who have it that is exhibited in the pages of the Quest de Saint Graal, where you will find castles and hermits but no towns of any size nor any service providers who need to be paid. Such features of medieval life, thriving at the time, were simply omitted from the epic in a way that leaves a palpable distaste. So it is with Marxists. Their primary response to the bourgeoisie is not hatred or outrage but tacit disgust. I can think of no other explanation for Evans’s omission of commercial growth from his rich tapestry, which I nevertheless urge you to read. It’s because of this squeamishness that Evans fails to complete the distinction between liberals and democrats, who together with the reactionaries constituted the century’s three political groupings.

Evans ends with a chapter on imperialism that takes the reader on a harrowing ride through the far-flung colonial exploits that terminates right back at home, in the territorial ambitions of the Balkan countries that emerged from the Ottoman collapse. Imperialism began as a commercial project, but quickly required the backing of sovereign powers, and this was where European politicians rediscovered the attractions of glory and the magnificent symbolic gesture. Glory, it turned out, appealed to the new mass electorates no less than it had done to the Bourbons; the great-grandchildren of peasants whose hatred for war was exceeded only by their ignorance of its conduct developed a thirst for international competitions. What put the bite in these competitions — what made them wars instead of contests — was nationalism, a monstrous miasma that seeped from the blood of revolutionary martyrs.

Nationalism is back in the news, because Donald Trump has put it there. But the United States can never be nationalist in the way that the European countries of the Nineteenth Century were. It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect upon why.

European nationalism was founded primarily on language and mythology. Natio, the Latin root, meant “birth,” and the word came to apply to tribes, particularly uncivilized ones. Tribes were identified primarily by their speech and by their gods. In the wake of the convulsions that opened the century, people throughout Europe began to identify themselves by the language that they spoke and by the stories that accounted for their presence there. This identification was especially insistent among those who spoke a language other than their rulers’. The Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians of the Hapsburg dominions demanded that their children be taught in their own language. At the other extreme, a great deal of effort was invested (ultimately fruitlessly) in reviving the moribund Gaelic of Ireland. Against this background, the history of the “great migrations of the peoples” was concocted, suggesting that tribes in hordes had deserted Central Asia in favor of lands on the periphery of the Roman Empire. Some of these stories had been sketched in the early Middle Ages, while others were given respectability by philological research. They were mostly bogus.

The concept of race, which employs a word of unknown background that appeared in Latin countries during the Renaissance, has its own history, and from the moment of its introduction into serious discussion it carried the additional baggage, beyond difference, of superiority. It was first used to explain the superiority of French aristocrats to ordinary French people, the theory being that the nobles were actually Franks, or Germans, who alone could subject the Celtic and Mediterranean indigenes to law and order. Later, the theory of Aryan supremacy was erected on this foundation. Racism is a theory of fitness to rule based on inherited characteristics. Thus the Germans who ran the Hapsburg dominions flattered themselves to think that they alone ought to decide what languages were worth speaking. White Americans easily persuaded themselves that nature intended them to dominate blacks.

But white Americans have never been robustly nationalistic, because all of them have begun by parting from the tribes into which they were born. This is particularly true of Europeans who, the ancestors of the massive majority of Americans, did not speak English as a first language. (Even immigrants from the British Isles regarded themselves as outsiders with regard to the homeland.) Americans do not speak English in quite the same way that Czechs speak Czech — if they did, I expect, they would speak it more carefully. Americans began by rejecting national backgrounds, and now all they have is the color of their skin, or, to be honest, the configuration of their facial features. Americans can only be racists, and their racism will invariably be an issue of claims to political and economic mastery.

This is not to deny that Americans are becoming tribal. Americans who move around the country tend to stick to cities and their suburbs, and our urban areas are increasingly homogeneous, making for one urban tribe. This tribe is also wealthier and better educated than the members of other tribes, the members of which have settled in their territories for several generations now, if not for far longer. Unlike the nationalists of nineteenth-century Europe, however, American racists dismiss the significance of language, and they substitute physical appearance for national history. Diversity means nothing to individuals who regard themselves as better-born.


Saturday 31st

Although it is New Year’s Eve, it is also Saturday, so I spent the early afternoon doing what I usually do, tidying the apartment. Ordinarily, I listen to an opera while I work, but today I wanted no music at all: I was too busy thinking. The latest issue of the LRB (Vol 39 Nº 1) is possibly the most stimulating I’ve ever read, with a brilliant piece by James Meek (on Raymond Chandler and a new, “theoretical” collection of essays about him) and an even more astonishing review by Terry Eagleton, about which I can only say, why did I have to wait until I was nearly seventy to hear what he has to say in his discussion of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique? It would have been so marvelously encouraging when I was twenty. Plus, of course, Alan Bennett’s two-page diary, which I did not read right away but hoarded for a while.

Then, in the Times Book Review this morning, there are two reviews of books about the future, and they both made the same point, which is that the bandwidths of futurists’ attention ought to be considerably wider. Kevin Roose complains that technological visionaries distracted us from more important developments.

As a result, we fawned over self-driving cars and next-generation artificial intelligence while questions about the politics of all this new technology — the emotional backlash from manufacturing workers losing their jobs to automation, the interference of foreign hackers in American elections, the ability of partisan opportunists to flood Facebook with propaganda — went mostly unanswered.

(Alan Bennett made an obliquely related claim when he implied that if “even a fraction” of the things people wrote about David Bowie were true, then there could have been no Mrs Thatcher.)

And there’s more! Writing about a new book about relations between the United States and China, Simon Winchester suggests that China’s non-pacific Pacific intentions “extend, in some interpretations, as far out as Hawaii.”

The New Year hasn’t even arrived and yet it already feels like a different country. Never have I had so many clear ideas of bad things that might happen, and soon, while the weather is still cold. It’s very hard to wish readers a happy new year with anything like a straight face — but I can say it, anyway. But without the customary froth.

Happy New Year —

Gotham Diary:
Illness for Dinner
November 2016 (IV)

22, 28, 29, and 30 November; 2 December

Tuesday 22nd

Yesterday, I went to our storage unit on 62nd Street with Ray Soleil, and together we evacuated a second batch of papers. Many were in French document boxes that I had found back in the days of the country house, where space was relatively unlimited. Some of the boxes were stuffed, others not. Many of the contents are curious. There is a stack of faxes from Fossil Darling that were dispatched in idle moments at the office, and most of these are both baroque and incomprehensible. They all seem to date from 1994, and the miracle is that the thermal paper on which they were printed is still legible. I don’t know what to do with them. Well, of course I do.

There are still more papers to bring home. These are not sorted, but rise in thick stacks from liquor boxes, and if we try to take them all at once, we shall have to summon a car to the delivery bay. Kathleen has volunteered to sort through them in her merciless way, but I’d like to know something about them before she throws them all away. Last week, Ray and I brought twenty of the French document boxes home, and I found somewhere for everything in them over the weekend. I doubt that the second batch will melt into the woodwork so easily. The end, however, is in sight. The end of papers, that is. “There’s still a lot of stuff here,” said Ray last week — he hadn’t been there in a while. “It’s nothing like it was, but…” I was very discouraged. I had done such a good job, I thought, of packing up fifteen boxes of books, and then finding someone to take them away. I had hoped that this amiable fellow would cart of the few remaining pieces of furniture, but when I called him after our trip to San Francisco in October, he told me, not in so many words, that furniture lay outside his métier, and I was so disheartened that I did not even bother to call the mover whom he recommended. It took several weeks to snap out of my inanition.

After we brought the boxes home, and I took Ray to lunch, I sat down with the first section of the writing project. I had been casting around for a better way to begin. The opening was the only part that Kathleen found weak and unfocused, which was no surprise given the reckless way in which I threw myself into working on it, back in July. I trusted that a true current would emerge from my splashing, and indeed it did. When I finished what I thought was the first draft, I realized that there must be some sort of final section, and, having worked on and off on this in the past two months, I decided to fix the start before settling the finish. It took an hour or two to write out the new beginning.

Between them, these two important projects took up the entire day, and in any case left me no mental space for devising an entry here. So, for the first time in an age, I missed a Monday for no better reason.


There is ever less to say. The whole world seems caught up in a riptide of reaction against all things humane. In yesterday’s Times, there was a piece about a book that the late Richard Rorty published in 1998, in which he foresaw something like the triumph of populist forces that has made Donald Trump our President-Elect, and in which he went on to speculate that civil gains by hitherto marginal groups, such as blacks and gays, might be erased. I’m quite sure that, had I been aware of the book at the time, I should have shoved it aside in horror, but even then I was beginning to doubt the foundations of secular democracy. In the current Atlantic, there is a handwringing piece by James Fallows in which Orville Schell’s fear that China is sliding back into Maoism is trumpeted. Fallows and Schell are old men now, and their hopes for the liberalization of the Central Country are being dashed, as such hopes have always been dashed. Meanwhile, my daughter, whose concern for the environment puts her very much at odds with the powers that be, also declines to applaud views labeled “liberal.” Sometimes, I feel that there is no longer anywhere to stand.

Of course, I have been writing about the shortcomings of the professional élite for years now. But by confining my attention to what I knew from the world directly around me, I missed the immensity with which that élite was resented, not just for what it failed to do well but for being what it was. My alarm now seems small-scaled, and my exhortations sound utterly inadequate. When I say that there seems no longer to be a place to stand, what I really mean is that there is no longer anyone to address. To the extent that indicators point to an increasingly inevitable violent social confrontation, I keep mum, because I know that there is no point to talking when general intelligence has been swamped by anger that can be exhausted only in destruction and bloodshed. One must wait for the fever to strike and run its course. I hope that catastrophe will be averted, but it is exhausting to sniff one over the horizon, and in any case I dread the resurgent authoritarianism that spells suspension of humane development while men stagger about in their fear of human nature.


A long time ago, when I discovered the online store at Chatsworth (there doesn’t seem to be one anymore), I bought a few books by or about Nancy Mitford that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. One was Selina Hastings’s 1985 biography, which I placed on the Mitford shelf and left unread until just the other day. It’s awfully good. Clear and brisk, it refreshes every familiar story that it retails, and places the events of Nancy’s life in an uncomplicated frame that highlights her ambivalences without agonizing over them. I did think that Hastings came very close to charging her subject with prostitution — with immersing herself, that is, in the life of a courtesan who seeks to please without demanding love in return. Of course there was no commercial aspect to this relationship; Nancy was if anything more prosperous than her Colonel. And she really did love him, if abjectly. Hastings writes of the affair, “But the excitement concealed a great emptiness.” (173) The excitement itself was a by-product of the Colonel’s emotional indifference to Nancy. He did not love her — they both knew this and acknowledged it — but he acceded to her willingness to play Scheherazade, to keep him entertained. But he was cruelly unreliable about rendezvous. Nancy’s interest in Mme de Pompadour can be seen as an oblique attempt to aggrandize her own amour, but the difference between the two women’s respective lovers was that Louis XV was nowhere near so cold-hearted. Hastings cannot resist suggesting that Nancy’s screams of agony, as she was being eaten away by the Hodgkins lymphoma that was only diagnosed at death’s door, represented “an expression of thirty years of suppressed jealousy, misery and rage over the disappointment of her love for the Colonel.” (245) Very delicately, Hastings raises the moral question posed by a love such a Nancy’s: is it all right to submit to an unrequited love? I myself have always thought, in general, that it is not, but I don’t judge Nancy. Judging really isn’t the point. But the question hangs.

One tidbit that deserves mention — I hadn’t seen this one before — is a blurb that appeared on a Swedish translation of The Pursuit of Love and that came to Lady Redesdale’s attention through a friend. “Everywhere in Europe men lost their heads when the beautiful elegant Mitford sisters dominated the salons.” Lady Redesdale quite rightly commented (in a letter to Diana), “Oh dear what nonsense.” Spectacular nonsense, really. It is hard to think of a single “salon” that any of the sisters ever entered. And while they were lovely and neat, the Mitford gels were never elegant, saving Nancy herself (and of course Diana, the great beauty). Nor is it easy to name any men who lost their heads. A more unfaithful bunch of philanderers can hardly be imagined, than the men in the sisters’ lives (this time excepting Bryan Guinness). The whole idea of a troupe of fatal Mata Haris coursing through the capitals is so utterly contrary to fact that it deserves its own monument. But what would it be? A manhole cover?


Monday 28th

What we had for Thanksgiving was illness. Things were even worse on Friday morning. In addition to the crazy scramble of hunger and no appetite that I recalled from the antibiotic after-effects of cellulitis recovery, I had a sidestitch that impeded breathing and an ache on my shoulder that felt as if someone had taken a hammer to it. In the back of a drawer, I found few tablets of the opiate that I used to take in the days before Remicade. Half of one of these got me through the afternoon, celebrating the second anniversary of Fossil Darling’s and Ray Soleil’s wedding. Actually, by the time dinner was put in front of me at the Knickerbocker, I felt all right, and although I took no more Percoset I never again felt as bad as I had on Friday morning. But the gastrointestinal confusion remained. And, by now nearly two weeks overdue for Remicade — four weeks if you go by the standard dosage — I was feeling lousy, not really lousy but a sort of discount lousy that left plenty of room for guilt. Malingerer!

I didn’t want to get up this morning. Job One would be to reschedule the Remicade. Never having been in quite this position before — on two occasions in the past, the infusion was postponed because of a bloodshot eye, which I knew must be an inflammation brought about by the lack of Remicade, but which had to be checked out by the ophthalmologist; this time, in contrast, I really had an infection, which had to be cleared out by Ciprofloxacin — I didn’t know where to begin. Would the rheumatologist have to examine me? Getting hold of him would not be fun. Forcing an end to self-coddling, I got out of bed and prepared Kathleen’s tea-and-toast, which she has had to do without lately, and as she was asking if I wanted her to stay home while I tried to reschedule, the phone rang. It was a fellow from Infusion Therapy Scheduling. He told me that there had been a cancellation and that he could slot me in at four this afternoon. Utter magic. I’ll believe it when the nurse activates the pump.

I can tell my few close friends that I am not feeling well, and sketch a brief explanation that will put an end, if not to their worry, then to their uncertainty, which is the worst thing, really, about hearing about someone’s illness, especially in later years. As for the rest of the world, I prefer to remain, if not silent, then vague and unforthcoming. Up through the prime of life, most of us seem to get sick in the same way. We succumb to a relatively small number of diseases that run their courses on clear and distinct schedules. But with age, individuality finally makes a stand. We fall apart with increasing variety, at varied speeds and with varying degrees of drama. It is not uncommon to suffer two or more ailments simultaneously, and it’s not always easy to attribute symptoms to one or the other. Common sense about aches and pains breaks down, because there is so little that is truly  common.

On top of all that — and now I’m speaking of my own experience — even educated people cannot be expected to understand the concept of autoimmune disease. This was the case even before AIDS, which is a deadly inversion of the usual autoimmune disease precisely because the “D” stands for deficiency. It’s extremely counterintuitive that an excess could cause illness, but that is how the autoimmune diseases, the ones that are not qualified by that “D,” work. Our prehistory lingers with a force. An emergency crew that was called out all the time during our first two hundred thousand years (not to mention the millions of years since the first animals developed such defenses), some autoimmune systems respond to modern hygiene not by scaling back but by not waiting for the alarm. By rushing to put out fires that aren’t there, they cause rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s Disease, and the much less common disorders that have afflicted me. And others.

I must be feeling better. The idea of explaining all of this here, to account for my late absence, was almost as oppressive as the prospect of rescheduling the infusion. And now I see it’s done. I’ll try to talk about something else tomorrow.


Tuesday 29th

And I shall. But first:

Between running out to grab a burger and heading off to the Hospital for Special Surgery for the Remicade infusion, I took a bag of garbage to the chute. The chute is in a closet near the elevators, and it was just across the hall from the apartment that we lived in for thirty years. Now, it is far away. Everything is. The apartment that we’re in now, which is really too charming to complain about anything, is at the end of the longest possible stretch of corridors. No longer can I dart, so to speak, here and there.

As I closed the front door behind me, I heard two voices. One belonged a male in his prime. The other was confusing. I couldn’t understand what either was saying until I turned the corner and saw them. I saw the back of the younger man mostly. He was almost my height, and even more burly. His hair was close-cropped and he wore a blue-checked dress shirt. He was propping up, in some way that I couldn’t make out, a much older man, of whom I couldn’t see much, just a patch of tousled hair at the top and thin white socks on the carpet. The young man was saying, “Push,” “Heel to toe,” “Great,” and “Faster,” more or less in that order. The old man wasn’t saying anything. He was moaning with each tiny step.

The moans sounded like a scraping noise that the dishwasher makes; I have also heard it in Contact. For all that, it sounded completely human. In a movie, the old man’s misery would have indicated some kind of torture. It was hard to believe that this exercise was doing him any good. I don’t say that it wasn’t, just that the appearances strongly suggested otherwise. It was as though he were being kept alive for some malignant purpose.

I didn’t feel so much better myself. The sidestitch made walking effortful, which ought to have made me grateful that I, too, had to take tiny steps, but didn’t.

Although getting to the hospital involved tangling with some very bad traffic — the taxi driver managed it like a top-flight video gamer — the infusion itself was uneventful. I feel better already.


Working on the writing project has been difficult, given the overriding desire to be put out of my misery, but I have managed to reconceive the beginning, and from that has first trickled then flooded the conviction that I know now, finally, what the whole thing is about. That was my reason for undertaking the project: I believed that it would clarify the intellectual landscape in a way that not only highlighted the important things (not just the interesting ones) but also revealed something that I felt on the edge of discovering. Since I haven’t done the writing, I won’t say that it’s done. But I see not only where I’m going but where I ought to stop. The something has been revealed.

As usual, I’m not going to summarize any insights here. I bring the matter up because it’s obvious that I have been helped along by Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Yes! Now, I’m no happier about the outcome itself than anyone else I know, but I’m fascinated by the themes that are showing up, revealed by the black light of disappointment, in the commentary of those who find themselves weeping by the waters of Babylon. For example, take this snippet from Paul Krugman’s column last Friday:

To be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment. In particular, I don’t know why imagined liberal disdain inspires so much more anger than the very real disdain of conservatives who see the poverty of places like eastern Kentucky as a sign of the personal and moral inadequacy of their residents.

To be honest, Thomas Frank would appear to have voiced this perplexity years ago, in the very title of his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? But where Frank went on to investigate, Krugman seems to feel discharged by the acknowledgment that he doesn’t “fully understand this resentment.” Nor is he likely to try to grasp the reasons for hostility to “imagined liberal disdain” when it is so clear to him that “the very real disdain of conservatives” is the culprit. What he doesn’t grasp is that this very cluelessness of his, shared by so many of the great and the good supporters of Hillary Clinton, was the raw material for the fuel that rocketed Trump to triumph.

For one thing, they encouraged the Democratic Party to nominate Clinton, when it was obvious, and cited throughout the campaign as “unpopularity,” that she was no more suitable than Trump, as a candidate. And indeed it appears that Americans whose primary concern was keeping Hillary out of the White House voted with vehemence, while those in her own party who had come out for Barack Obama stayed home this time. There was nothing surprising about any of this. In retrospect, suspense about the election’s outcome was just another spurious media-punditry story. Some will say that Americans are not ready for a woman in the Oval Office, but that’s distracting. Americans were never going to be ready for Hillary Clinton in the top job.

Just as the best and the brightest came out against Brexit in Britain, so they came out for Hillary here, and with the same effect. Again, it might be said that they failed to persuade. But I think that the élites on both sides of the Atlantic were very persuasive. They persuaded ordinary voters to resist the bloc of professionals, financiers, and academics who are helplessly, because unconsciously, united by an obvious contempt for ordinary voters. No matter what the experts said, what ordinary voters heard was a plea: Let us have another go at feathering our nests without screwing you over too baldly. It reminded me of Mime the dwarf in the second act of Siegfried. Mime bubbles over with glee at the prospect of poisoning the hero and absconding with Fafner’s treasure — altogether unaware that Siegfried understands every word, and prepares to deal with Mime accordingly.

Liberal democracy has undergone a decay in the West and elsewhere. Whether this can be reversed depends upon how quickly it can be understood. The people who need to do the understanding are, unfortunately, the members of the various élite groups that have flourished in the early stages of this decay. I’ll feel much better about the viability of resistance to authoritarian populism when people like Paul Krugman start taking responsibility for what happened. Until then, the right-thinking men and women who were appalled by the support for a reality TV star will be indistinguishable from the unthinking mass whom they so articulately but benightedly opposed.


Wednesday 30th

Reading Peter Stearns’s brisk but magisterial textbook, The Industrial Revolution in World History, I’m making comparisons to the crisis of puberty. Puberty is a dreadful experience for many people, but we cannot seriously wish that childhood should be eternal. Eventually, puberty runs its course, leaving a self-standing adult. Sometimes, sadly, puberty results in schizophrenia, and at others, death (from suicide or drunk driving, say). Mostly, though, when the bad skin clears and the stormy emotions settle down, a young man or woman achieves a more or less permanent character, knowable and reliable (even if reliably unreliable) for decades to come. Plus the skill and sympathy, not to be found in most children, to engage with the world. Phew.

Will the Industrial Revolution ever run its course?

The secret of the Industrial Revolution was not so much the technological advances or the social changes wrought by a new economic order as the intoxicating prospect of immense payoffs. Possible return on investment rose to levels never before imagined. Successful manufacturers, later successful industrialists, amassed huge pools of capital, which they invested in — gambled on — evolving opportunities. At first, it was the production of consumer goods, textiles mostly. Then the growth of railroads, built to carry the goods with unprecedented efficiency, changed the accent of the revolution. The mass transportation of resources spurred the growth of heavy industry, which produced goods that were not aimed at any consumer, but at an industrial nexus best embodied by the steel mill. The secret of heavy industry, in turn, was military prowess. Beginning with the American Civil War, the fruits of heavy industry were put to use in war. Railroads, steamships, all sorts of heavy artillery, these changed the face of battle.

In the next phase, heavy industry became big business. The accent was once again on consumers. Railroad locomotives, although still in demand, were vastly outnumbered by automobiles. There were new household appliances, accompanied by an array of useful chemical products, that promised to make the clean, comfortable home an economical proposition. Heaven on earth — Utopia achieved! Except not. Heavy industry was beginning to slip, as lighter materials and smaller production facilities made formerly belching smokestacks the gravestones of their blast furnaces; and overproduction — another outcome that the old world had not thought possible — brought the economies of the world crashing down.

The truly terrible thing about the Industrial Revolution is the routine mistreatment of workers. This is a constant feature of Stearns’s account of the revolutions, successful and the unsuccessful alike, that followed Britain’s everywhere else. The very emblem of the new order is the managerial demeaning of laborers, which in every case becomes self-justifying (proletarians have no self-respect and must be told what to do). Indeed, it’s hard not to see the Gestapo as the climax of a long trend. In recent times, conditions have improved for workers in the developed West. But wait! There always seem to be fewer workers in the West! Now there are more workers elsewhere, where conditions are still pretty ghastly!

We have learned a lot about how an industrialized world works, but we haven’t known it for very long, so nothing can be forecast with real confidence. But I propose that the revolution will be over when industry no longer requires workers. Many observers find this an appalling possibility. Where will jobs come from? I don’t have a simple answer to that one, but I do want to point out that at the heart of all discussion of industrialized economies, there is an error that inevitably produces wrong answers. It is the very use of the word “worker.” The whole point of the Industrial Revolution has always been to replace human beings with machines — this is where the huge payoffs come from — and, quite frankly, human beings ought to be grateful to be spared the performance of brutal and degrading mechanical operations.

This is where Marx and everyone else went wrong. When Marx wrote of “the means of production,” he was really talking about the actual workers. The machines did the work, not the people who tended them. And the jobs held by people who tended machines were doomed from the start. Almost every technological advance has promised a reduction in the number of such jobs. Just consider the telephone industry! Where are the operators and the linemen now? The machines take care of everything.

We cannot really wish to return to the old order, in which a few people were immeasurably safer and more comfortable than everybody else, with poverty, ignorance, and disease the common lot. We have to hope that the upheavals of the past two centuries will create the means of a new order. I doubt that it is up to us to decide what that new order will be, but it would help to have a few good ideas. At least we can clear out some bad ones. One of these would be the notion that industrial jobs involve work.


Friday 2nd

In this morning’s email, the closing of Crawford Doyle Booksellers was announced. It is a death of sorts, for the bookshop was a node of connections. I don’t mean to sentimentalize what was always a business. Books were set out for sale, to customers who browsed and bought, in a room that was hushed and not in the least bit bohemian. Most patrons were neighbors, but it seems discordant to apply that word to people living in very expensive apartments. Now that I think of it, young people were very rarely seen there, except of course on the staff.

Perhaps because the shop was so small — I’ve been in many larger living rooms, even in the city — there was a relentness furtiveness, an uninterrupted but fruitless attempt not to notice what other people were looking at. Men gathered round the broad table toward the rear, where nonfiction titles were stacked facing in all four directions, but mostly east and west. There was a smaller table of recent paperback fiction toward the front, with poetry nearby. The entire north wall was shelved in literary fiction, but the selection could not begin to be comprehensive, given the space, and it was unwise to pop in with expectations of finding, say, To the Lighthouse. (They might be fresh out.) New fiction, in glossy wrappers, was stacked in an L-shaped arrangement whose system I could never decode; it was easier to ask at the desk, something that I did more and more over the years. And then there were the delectable little books on the desk itself, bonbons most of them. I bought more than a few myself — there was one called, I think, 100 Quiet Places in London — but the last one was fatal, not to me but to my book-buying habits, and I later told one of the staff that the shop really ought not to be selling Marie Kondo’s book about tidying up. I have not altogether stopped buying books, but I certainly buy fewer than I used to do, and I never go browsing just to see what’s new. I don’t know how long it has been since my last visit to Crawford Doyle — oh, but I do; it was in April, about seven months ago. So I’ve become a former customer, really. If I feel a bit guilty about that, it’s not because I imagine that my patronage might have saved the store (although of course that’s precisely what comes to mind when shops close), but because I dropped out of the node.

I had thought about hiking over to the bookshop to buy a copy of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m looking forward to reading, eventually. For the moment, I’m enjoying all the reviews. When I say that I’m enjoying them, I mean that I’m not keeping track of them; I can’t recall who said what. Everyone has noted that Smith, in her first use of first-person voice, has not named her narrator. I think that anonymous narrators are a mistake, because the lack of a name makes it difficult to talk about any character, and fixes like “the second Mrs De Winter” are not often handy. So there has been a sort of quiet tsking about that, if only because there aren’t a lot of synonyms for “narrator” to help reviewers avoid repetition. Everyone has said a word or two about Swing Time the movie (1936), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although I haven’t got a sense of the meaning of Smith’s reference. Most if not all reviewers have passed along, almost as a bit of gossip, the anecdote of the unnamed narrator’s playing a video of Swing Time for a friend (as an adult) and only then realizing that Fred Astaire dances the “Bojangles of Harlem” number in blackface. But what stuck with me most was the claim, by one reviewer, that Swing Time is the best of the Astaire-Rogers series.

I think it’s the worst. I watched it last night just to be sure. To begin with: the dancing. The dancing is of course very good, but there is nothing as grand as “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat), “Night and Day” (The Gay Divorcée), or “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet). (There’s nothing like Follow the Fleet‘s “Let Yourself Go,” either.) The Bojangles number is very well done, but it’s nowhere near as distinctive Astaire’s solos in “Slap That Bass” (Shall We Dance) or “Nice Work if You Can Get It” (Damsel in Distress). Even Broadway Melody of 1940, with Eleanor Powell, is a more exciting dance film.

But the story of Swing Time is actually bad, veering between the annoying and the offensive. The opening routine, in which Fred’s plans to marry his hometown sweetheart are sabotaged by the chorus of wiseguys who support his dance act, has not aged well. Stealing a bridegroom’s trousers and distracting him with gambling simply aren’t funny anymore. The bride may be all wrong for our hero, but we don’t laugh at undesirable brides anymore, because our ideal of companionate marriage makes it seem cruel to do so. At the end of the movie, the knot of misunderstandings is resolved not with grateful smiles but with raucous, inane laughter — and, as if that weren’t bad enough, the trouser stunt is rehashed. There’s a dopey scene in which the principle couples drive to an abandoned hotel in a snowfall — with the top down. Californians perhaps forgot that snow is not just pretty.

As for the supporting cast, so important to the flavor of these productions, I wanted to shoot Victor Moore in the first scene, as oatmeal dribbled out of his mouth instead of English. Helen Broderick was never given anything truly clever to say, making her performance more physical than it ought to be, to the point that I began to confuse her with Charlotte Greenwood, and to worry, when Broderick told Rogers that she’d stand on her head, that she might actually try to do so. Even Eric Blore was sandbagged. With his little moustache, he almost looks like a plumped David Niven. Follow the Fleet is supposed to be the earthy, unglamorous entry in this RKO parade, but Swing Time verges on witless vulgarity. Bojangles of Harlem! Pretty excruciating stuff, now.

I still look forward to reading Zadie Smith’s new book, but my mind is preoccupied by Jane Smiley’s classic, A Thousand Acres. I was casting about for a novel to read, not in a bookshop but surrounded by my own bookcases, when the Jewish-mother/librarian who took up residence post-Kondo directed my attention to it. I read it in 1991, when it was new, but I hadn’t read it since, and the old hag was tapping her foot impatiently. “You’d tell anyone that that’s a great novel, and you give it pride of place on the shelf, but do you read it?” There was only one way to fight this imputation of fraudulence, and that was to pull it down then and there. So I did, and it was ten times worse — more upsetting — than I remembered. I haven’t read King Lear, which inspires it, in a long time, but my notion that the contemporary setting in the American Midwest would somehow soften the barbarity of the legend was quickly trampled. In any case, A Thousand Acres is not just a “retelling” of the Lear story. The horror of Smiley’s novel, which is only implicit in the play, is her recreation of the shock with which we sometimes learn that the stories that we’re content to tell ourselves about ourselves would be questioned by those around us, even by those for whom we believe that we have done our best. Reserved and dutiful at the beginning, Ginny Cook comes to see that she is a terrible person, meaning, just another human being, as well as someone to whom unmentionable things have been done. She turns on her correct but bogus life with ugly ferocity and abandons what she does not destroy. There are several violent scenes, but the real violence is in Ginny’s nerves.

So I read it again, with the suspense that only a second reading can spell.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Take Six
November 2016 (III)

14, 15, 18 November

Monday 14th

After reading a few chapters of The Pursuit of Love, Lady Redesdale, the author’s mother, wrote to another daughter, Jessica Mitford, drily and dismissively, “This family again.” She was wrong. Yes, Nancy Mitford had written another novel based on her family. But this time it was different: Nancy had grown as a writer. And she did not so much write about her family as reinvent it. The Mitford Sisters Phenomenon as we know it originated with The Pursuit of Love; fifteen years later, it was given another big boost by Jessica’s Hons and Rebels, a purportedly factual account; Nancy would claim that Jessica presented the world of her childhood through the lens of Nancy’s own creation. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that almost everyone who takes an interest in the Phenomenon — who has been entertained by it — begins with one or the other of these two books, both of which are great good fun.

The Mitfords again — but not quite again. An avid consumer of Mitfordiana, I justified the purchase of Linda Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters on the score of its being the first book to appear since the death of the Duchess of Devonshire — Deborah, the youngest of the girls — in 2014. Still, when I opened the box in which it was shipped, I wondered ruefully what it could possibly have to say that I hadn’t already heard. I sat right down, of course, to find out. Long before the halfway point, I understood that this is an entirely new book. For one thing, it is an essay, not a collective biography. (For that, there is Mary Lovell’s The Sisters.) It is a meditation on the complexity of perspectives that arises, Rashomon-like, when several highly independent, strong-minded people remember a common experience.

In 1946 Diana had written to Nancy that she had seen a performance of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, the story of a stern matriarch with five daughters, whose lives she controls and whom she confines to her house: “It is all about Muv and us.” This was a joke, but it was another kind of truth. Sydney [Lady Redesdale] was the dominating force in the family. Her daughters had eluded her, but their mother remained inescapable. What Nancy and Jessica thought of her is yet another truth; so too what Diana thought; so too what each sister thought about the other. The interpretations of the play multiply, and in the end none is definitive, although, given the nature of the Mitford girls — the capacity for conviction that lay within them all — they probably believed that they alone had it right. (331)

The nature of the Mitford girls also included a way with words. Four of the six girls published books, several books each. Nancy and Jessica were financially successful writers, and not just because they mined their juvenile antics. Jessica wrote a muckraking classic, The American Way of Death, that manages to be funniest when it is most gruesome — that leaking vault! — while Nancy’s studies of Louis XIV, Mme de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great are important aristocratic appreciations of the ancien régime. Diana wrote a very good book about her friend, the Duchess of Windsor. Deborah’s stunt was to capture the everyday nature of her extraordinary domestic situation. All this book-writing, however, dates from the third period of the sisters’ lives, when their independent positions were firmly established. The Phenomenon was by this time an historical relic that the surviving sisters found rather annoying. Each had her own life and her own views, and while they remained, for the most part, on sisterly terms, they preferred not to do so in public. Their sisterhood, like their family history, was an intimate matter, and nobody else’s business. This was true of Nancy and Jessica despite their entertaining disclosures. What they had to say was intended as the last word on the subject — not, as inevitably happened instead, the beginnings of a discussion.

What made these four women something more than ordinary sisters — more than successful people who happened to be related — was their experience of the earlier periods of their life, an eccentrically idyllic childhood that did nothing to prepare them for adult life, followed by the troubled, and one case fatal, entry into adult life (This part Deborah was spared). It was the first phase that everybody wanted to read about later on, but the second that had made three of the girls more or less notorious by the end of World War II. At a tender age, Jessica ran off to Spain with a cousin; she was rescued by government intervention. Later, she and her young man, married by now, would run off again, this time to America, where Jessica joined the Communist Party. Diana and Unity leaned the other way politically. After a few years of apparently contented marriage to a scion of the Guinness family, Diana left her husband for Sir Oswald Mosley, a political maverick who would launch the British Union of Fascists. Unity, whom Diana regarded as the only unusual Mitford, decamped to Munich, where she stalked Hitler, met him, and chatted with him — on some 150 occasions. When war broke out, she shot herself in the head, but lived. Hitler arranged for her to be carried to Switzerland, whence her family brought her back to England. The following summer, Diana and her husband were detained, and then imprisoned, probably because Unity herself was an invalid. When the Mosleys were released, at the end of 1943, there was a demonstration in Trafalgar Square: “Put Him Back!”

There were seven Mitford children: Nancy (1904), Pamela (1907), Thomas (1909), Diana (1910), Unity (1914), Jessica (1917), and Deborah (1920). All seven were photographed for The Tatler at the Heythrop hunt in 1935 — the early part of the second period. A doctored version of the photo appears on the jacket of The Six (Tom has been removed and the crowd in the background dimmed). I have no idea how much thought went into placement, but the configuration is interesting. At the ends of the lineup stand Unity (to the left) and Pam (to the right), and they are indeed the outliers in the family. I have already said enough about Unity to make that clear; just for form’s sake it might be noted that she was the only one who never married. If I haven’t said anything about Pamela, that’s the reason why she is an outlier: Pam is the sister who never did anything newsworthy. (She is the subject of a new biography that I shall probably wade through, simply to marvel at its mere existence.) Flanking Unity to her left is Deborah; Nancy stands to Pam’s right. These are the sisters who most appreciated convention. (Nancy, it is true, would go in for French convention, while Deborah was every inch an English sportswoman.) In this regard, Nancy and Deborah were counterweights to the radical sisters at the center, Diana and Jessica. In 1935, most of these distinctions were not yet at all clear; although Diana had left Bryan Guinness by then, she would not marry Mosley until 1936 (not only in Berlin, but in the Goebbels’s apartment). Deborah was fifteen; in the photograph, she is dressed for riding (and she has not fully grown). It is hard to say whether Jessica is retiring behind Nancy or Nancy is blocking Jessica. Diana’s arm is linked in Deborah’s, and these two have also crossed their ankles, doubtless in some sort of private joke. Joking, however, seems to be the last thing on the future duchess’s mind. I used to wonder why Deborah always looks so dour and grave in her youthful photographs; then it occurred to me that she had (perhaps rebelliously) taken to heart the venerable precept that nice people don’t make faces for the camera. Unity and Pam aren’t smiling, either. Jessica and Nancy are perhaps whispering “cheese,” but Diana is grinning like a madwoman.

Laura Thompson devotes most of The Six to the second period. As I say, it is not really a group biography, and anyone unfamiliar with the Phenomenon will be treading water once the book gets going. And yet her book is indispensable because it grapples with the moral questions that so much of the girls’ behavior raises. In Hons and Rebels, Jessica presents her escapades as heroic acts; to Thompson, they were selfish and thoughtless. Was Unity mad? Did she know what she was doing? She wrote a letter in which she described her new Munich flat as previously occupied by a Jewish couple that had “gone abroad.” How much responsibility must be heaped on the shoulders of this strange girl, who could seem selfish and thoughtless all the time? And what about Diana, who was infinitely cleverer — arguably the family intellectual?

The sordidness of the whole thing [Diana's period between husbands, during which she aborted a child by Mosley] is overwhelming, so too the temptation to travel back in time and say to Diana, what in hell do you think you are doing? (145)

And yet, pages later, when Diana is interrogated by the Advisory Committee that will determine whether to imprison her, the excerpts given by Thompson (who compares Lady Mosley’s performance to that of Anne Boleyn) make one cry out for a complete transcript. Asked whether, now that Britain and Germany were at war, Diana believed that her country was wrong, she retorted, “Not my country. I absolutely differentiate between my Government and my country.”

Thompson, who has written a biography of Nancy, declares that The Pursuit of Love did “more than any public recantations could ever have done to remove the taint on the family name.” (296) This is a central fact of the Phenomenon. In the Thirties, Lady Redesdale was said to tremble whenever she read the words “peer’s daughter” in the newspaper, and that would become part of the Mitford Joke — once Nancy made it funny. In fact the girls’ conduct was often egregious, and of course they got special treatment, as the daughters of a peer, right at the moment when the general public’s disapproval was making special treatment a gold mine for reporters. Thompson assumes that we know the Joke and have all had a laugh. Then she takes it away, the humorous frame confected by Nancy and Jessica. They made everything seem funny, a great wheeze; Thompson approaches the scandals with dead earnest. The glory of the book is that she can be as funny as her subjects, if in a different way. She has a fine nose for hypocrisy and self-contradiction, as well as for the quips that were not made public, such as Nancy’s attempt to console Jessica, who was worried that her daughter, traveling in Mexico, might have been injured in a major earthquake there.

People like us are never killed in earthquakes & furthermore only 29 people were, all non-U…. (22)

It’s staggering, but I’m afraid that I’m the sort of person who laughs at this sort of thing because it is so outrageous. Nevertheless: what in hell did they think they were doing? When Mary Lovell’s book came out, I wrote,

Individuals give rise to legends, but true mythology requires a cast of characters. That’s what makes ‘Bloomsbury,’ ‘The New York Intellectuals,’ and Camelots ancient and modern more interesting than most of the constituent personages would be if considered individually.

This plurality (soluble in a common lingo) is what makes the sisters interesting as a group, even when the mythology is scrubbed away.

It is frankly therapeutic to think of Diana, shaking helplessly with ill-suppressed laughter at the hey-nonny-nos of the folk singer “who had so kindly come to Holloway to amuse the prisoners but had not meant to amuse them quite as much as that.” (23)

The Six makes three-dimensional women out of fabulous characters, and grounds them in a set of mismatched parents. By the time Unity arrived at home from Germany, David could no longer bear to live with Sydney. Their fun days were over: he had gone through all his money (to an almost Wodehousean degree, he had a negative head for business), and she had become remote. They disagreed violently about Hitler; on this subject, Sydney was almost as nuts as Unity. So David retired to a cottage with the housekeeper, a woman whom the sisters found unbearably dull and mean. On her own, Sydney seems to have become a mother at last. She nursed Unity for nearly ten years (washing her incontinent child’s bed sheets every day), visited Diana in prison whenever she could, and performed epistolary cartwheels to keep an open channel to Jessica. Nancy, who claimed that her mother didn’t love her, never put this to the test; she enjoyed perfect health and independence until about six years after her mother’s death, in 1963. I think an argument might be made that Sydney was the oldest of the sisters, rather than their mother. Her youth, from the death of her own mother when she was seven, was devoted to keeping house for her father, the publisher of Vanity Fair and The Lady. The cleverness came from her, or at least the irony, which the writers among her progeny amplified to comic levels.

In the end, that is what will keep the Mitfords alive: writing. They were superbly verbal. They shared a peculiar dialect of understated exaggeration, so that, especially when they are writing to one another, it is easy to confuse writer with recipient. And yet, not least because they had very different views of the facts, there was plenty to write about. And of course they will be written about. Now that they have all died, and sunk somewhat back into their large families (at the time of her death, Diana had forty descendants), what remain are the words. Whether the words remain funny it may be too soon to tell. Nancy grappled with the problem in The Sun King, writing about Mme de Montespan, the mother of so many of Louis XIV’s bastards. She and her brother and her sisters were exponents of “the Mortemart wit.”

They had a way of talking which has unfortunately never been precisely described but which people found irresistible. Their lazy, languishing, wailing voices would build up an episode, piling unexpected exaggerations upon comic images until the listeners were helpless with laughter. Among themselves, they used a private language. [Jessica spoke one nonsense language with Unity, and another with Deborah.] They were malicious, but good natured; they never really harmed anybody; they liked laughing and had the precious gift of making other people sparkle. (43)

Perhaps the Mitfords’ way of talking requires no precise description; one need only read it.

I caught two really dreadful mistakes in The Six, which I am sure would have been pointed out as such by each of its subjects. First, it would have been impossible for five surviving sisters to meet in 1980. Second, Dr Johnson did not travel to Scotland with anyone by the name of Samuel Boswell. Do admit, yourself.


Tuesday 15th

Although something terrible has happened in this country — voters have put an amateur entertainer in the White House, and the Republican Party in charge of just about everything else — I am hoping that the moment will have come for something very good: the liquidation of the Democratic Party. This is something that I have been looking forward to since the Nineties.

When I was a boy, the Republican Party was high-minded and boring. It was all for business development and polite civil behavior. The Democrats were a sleazy bunch, tarred by the barely-literate slum-dwellers who supported them. Miraculously, they had produced FDR, but that was just the problem: witchcraft must have been involved. The Democrats were a coalition party, combining union workers in the North with landowners in the South. (Blacks, if they voted at all, voted Republican, the “party of Lincoln.”) These groups could work together only because they didn’t live anywhere nearby.

Then the fight for Civil Rights began in earnest. Black Americans began to struggle for change. It was quickly insinuated that their demonstrations were fomented by Communist infiltrators. I like to think that it was LBJ who had the great idea of pre-empting those infiltrators by granting civil rights himself, and putting an end to the struggle. In any case, something like that is what happened, very quickly. Who knows what would have happened next, if it hadn’t been for the stupidity of our misadventure in Vietnam? LBJ skedaddled. While blacks won real, if marginal, gains during the following decades, American political life was dominated by military and economic problems. The Democratic Party took the view (shared, with a smirk, by the Republicans) that the civil-rights problem had been taken care of: the laws were on the books, and compliance was all that was needed. Also, the civil rights of abortion displaced awareness of racial problems, at least among whites.

When civil rights for blacks came up at all, it was often related to the twee, Alice-in-Wonderland issue of “affirmative action,” which quickly became a scholastic plaything that enabled a handful of whites to claim that they were being subjected to unfair discrimination. Meanwhile, thousands of blacks who had never entertained thought of higher education were sent off to prison instead, under a “law and order” régime that was designed to keep people who didn’t know their place in place. When this project began to cost too much, local police began to see themselves as the first line of defense in the protection of law-abiding whites from unruly blacks. Being black while driving became strangely dangerous, and too often fatal.

Throughout this history, it was hard to tell that the Democratic Party had lost all of its Dixiecrats. Democrats did little or nothing to object to “law and order”; they didn’t have the courage to appear “soft on crime.” They did nothing to make the integration of the people of the United States a political reality; they simply passed laws and hoped for the best. Gradually, the party’s leadership and the party’s “base” changed, just as the Republican’s did, but something organizational about the old Democratic Party, its penchant for short-term fixes, perhaps, persisted. It remained the back-room party, as Hillary Clinton’s trivial but embarrassing email problems indicated. Not to mention her accession to the nomination! It was her turn — come hell or high water. By the time Donald Trump came, it was too late.

I don’t mean to say that the Democratic Party is somehow worse than the Republican Party. Republicans have nothing to do with it. What I mean to say is that the Democratic Party is no longer a legitimate advocate of the political objectives that most of its supporters share.


I am not calling for a third party — not unless I’m also calling for a fourth, a fifth, why not a fiftieth party. Fifty parties would be good. You think that’s a bad joke. But consider: the Republicans have attained control of national affairs through control of statehouses. Rather than try to engineer a national party to reverse all these local victories, why not launch an anti-Republican party in each state? New York could certainly use a party that extended the appeal of a progressive, or cosmopolitan, or humanitarian platform to voters upstate and on Long Island, eventually wresting the State Senate from the Republicans who have controlled it forever. Sometimes it’s a matter of speaking the local accent, and sometimes there’s a program of local interest, but whether the draw is stylistic or substantial, the locals probably know best. Locals are certainly better listeners. If nothing else, they could make sure that New Yorkers — I mean the city-dwellers here — knew more about the issues that matter, both upstate and in the suburbs. Who knows how much would be accomplished if only the people outside the city had no reason to resent our inattention?


Friday 18th

What next? I wondered, after finishing The Six. It didn’t take long, somehow, to settle on The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. I’ve had the book for years, and dipped into it often, but I’ve never read it through. Even this time, being me, I couldn’t begin at the beginning, with the spate of letters from 1944. (The two writers had known each other, if not well, for many years; in 1929, as Laura Thompson so drolly puts it in The Six, Waugh spent his mornings reading Vile Bodies to Nancy’s sister, the expectant Diana Guinness, perched on her bed “like a prospective doula.”) I began instead with Part III, comprising letters written in 1950-2, during which period the frequency of the correspondence reached its peak. By the time I got through these, I was so densely engaged with the rhythms of the exchange, and so familiar with the stock company of friends-in-common, about whom Mitford and Waugh liked to make such amusing if unflattering comments, that I simply kept on going. I shall have to go back to the start when I am done, which will be soon. I have reached the beginning of 1962 (during which the letters flew back and forth again, after a late-Fifties slump); Waugh’s demise, in 1966, is about fifty pages away.

At one point, Nancy declines to accompany Evelyn on a trip to India because “we should quarrel.” She was always mad to see him for a dinner, if they could get together in the same city (which doesn’t seem to have happened often), but she had the wisdom to grasp that this was a friendship that would keep best at the other end of a mailbox. The Letters quite literally embodies the relationship. Both were writers, both were wags. Evelyn was an Olympic misanthrope who loved to say unspeakable things, while Nancy was a socially conventional woman who had moved to France largely to escape the loud boorishness of Bullingdon boys. (“What is your definition of Barbary? Outside the range of Randolph [Churchill]‘s voice?”) She would rather shriek over Evelyn’s letters at her writing table than wince in a room full of embarrassed people.

The letters have a dashed-off, sporting feel. From the standpoint of composition, they are as far from Lord Chesterfield as one can go without becoming incoherent. Questions often go unanswered — I was quite disappointed that Nancy never explained “Mrs Simpson’s Neptune,” and that Evelyn couldn’t be bothered to discuss rumors that Lady Mary Grosvenor was turning into a man. Nancy repeats favorite jokes. Every year, she spends a week or so with an old lady, a Mme Costa, at her house in Artois. Mme Costa is in her eighties, and she spends “up to 8 hours a day in the chapel, the rest of the time she plays bridge & talks about Dior and déclassé duchesses.” Two years later, and it is eight to ten hours on the old lady’s knees; the curé worries that all that prayer may be boring le bon Dieu a bit.

My favorite theme is Americans. Waugh was condescending about Americans, but they had their uses, and, in his view, New York was a great health spa, where he could bustle about for days on end without meeting any of the natives. Mitford, who never crossed the Atlantic, simply hated Americans, because all she saw were tourists. All she heard were tourists. Here she is on Torcello, in May 1956:

Between 2 boats there is a flood of Americans dangling deaf-aids & asking each other where they live in America. What difference can it make? The word duodenal recurs. I mingle with them, hating.

Both of them greatly disliked the familiar tone that Americans took in those days (it was much worse than today). Both had a tendency to tear up letters from Americans, but Waugh usually read them first.

Every once in a while, Evelyn lectures Nancy, either about Catholic dogma, which he so painstakingly explains that Nancy never quite gets it, or about grammar, for which Nancy sought his help. (Characteristically parsimonious with commas, Nancy was so anxious to please that she once produced a sentence in which nearly every third word was followed by some sort of punctuation.) Nancy was always trying to persuade Evelyn to leave England, for either France or Ireland. He replied that France no longer existed — the France with which Nancy was besotted was the spectre of a dead magnificence — and that Ireland was populated by spiteful peasants; its priests were “not suitable for foreigners.” (Nancy’s Madame de Pompadour was banned in Ireland, she wrote, simply because of the title.) Nothing that Waugh said was ever entirely trustworthy, but nothing tickles me more than his obvious humbugs.

It is not a sin to cheat over taxes in most modern states. Don’t worry your head about the theology of this. Just take it from the theologians. (22 October 1953)

[Waugh's] Children come flooding in by every train. It is rather exhilarating to see their simple excitement & curiosity about every Christmas card. “Look, papa, the Hyde Park Hotel has sent a coloured picture of its new cocktail bar.” (18 December 1954)

As I read on, however, I began to feel a strange sadness. The world that they wrote about, a world of which I had tiny glimpses from my elementary-school desk, has become more appealing than ever, not least because of the modern conveniences that didn’t then exist. (Waugh refused to have a telephone in his house.) Reading their letters, it is easy to overlook all the bad parts. Neither Waugh nor Mitford was a feminist, quite the contrary, and yet, there they are, a man and a woman exhibiting the respect of equals over a very long term. Of course, they wrote everything out in longhand; I could never bear that. And I’d have died at least ten years ago if not earlier with even the best medical care of that time. But it’s really the language. I forget the enormous impact that Waugh’s novels had on my adolescence: I took to him like a drug. By the time of the correspondence, he had mellowed considerably, but there is the occasional sparkle.

I am quite deaf now. Such a comfort. (March 1953)

And there is even one moment of reflection that I feel obliged to endorse personally:

I can only bear intimacy really & after that formality or servility. The horrible thing is familiarity. (10 February 1953)

Of course, I should use different words, “friendship,” “deference,” and “presumption.” I should retain “formality,” however, and that is what makes 1953 feel much closer right now than the day after tomorrow. Formality has been forgotten; only the very luckiest children are taught anything about it. Everyone associates formality with the rich and the privileged, but it operates at every social level — except, lamentably, at the top, where it has been replaced by a clumsy and often irritating professionalism. The idea of formality has been lost. New York City thrives in no small part because of the immigrants who have brought their native formality with them, but perhaps it is too much to hope that their children will retain it as they melt into American society. It is true that formality has a tendency to crystallize in hardbound codes; instead of doing away with it altogether, perhaps we might simply bear in mind that the point of formality is to treat strangers with respect.

The correspondence between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh fell off because Waugh retreated into Catholicism, where his old friend could not follow him, and because Mitford suffered a terrible blow to her joie de vivre when the man in her life, Colonel Gaston Palewski, arranged to be made the French ambassador in Rome. He did this in part, it seems, because he was having a complicated relationship with a married woman who lived near Nancy in the Septième. Later, of course, he would deal her a much bigger blow by marrying yet another woman. Because of my unsound medical conviction that this betrayal launched the cancer that killed Nancy at the age of sixty-nine, I am not a great fan of ‘Col.’ But I like the virtual friendship that sprang up, mediated entirely by Nancy, between him and Waugh. It has every appearance of being motivated by the desire to be kind to what her family called “the French lady writer.”

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
November 2016 (II)

7, 9, and 11 November

Monday 7th

At breakfast yesterday, I remarked that nothing could bring me to read another word of Maureen Dowd. It was more a fulmination than a remark, really, and I was surprised when Kathleen asked me why. Surprised that she would. Surprised that, at first, I couldn’t say. It took a minute or so to reflect that Dowd’s manner of speaking has become intolerable. It’s not her views, whatever those might be — it’s hard for me to tell, which is no small part of my disgust. It’s her everlasting cleverness, and the shallowness to which its relentlessness confines her. There’s her unresolved ambivalence about politics considered as a game: she knows that there’s much more at stake than simple wins and losses, and that scoring points can be pointless, but she admires the pros who play the game well. There is her more explicit resentment of people getting above themselves, as well as her anger with those at the top who commit sins of sloppiness. These are both, basically, high-school concerns, motivated by the adolescent need for a consensus of style, masquerading as moral judgments.

All I said to Kathleen was, “It’s her abuse of language.” I’d gotten the notion of language abuse from John Lanchester, who in the Magazine inaugurated a series of essays about finance and the economy by lambasting money men for conversing in a jargon that laymen, particularly uneducated laymen, cannot understand.

Banks and the financial elite can’t just talk to each other as if nothing has changed, as if the little people are just going to accept that they can’t follow the big words, so the rich should just keep running things in their own interest. The experts need to set terms for the debate that everyone can understand. So yes, when it comes to economics, language matters.

Lanchester is concerned with reading levels: texts can be scored according to various metrics, and in order to reach a general audience without taxing it, you must, apparently, aim no higher than a tenth-grade reading level. “Private sector banking output,” it seems, requires a twelfth-grade reading level, and while that may be necessary for the banking industry to function efficiently, just as the sciences tend to require very high levels of proficiency in mathematics, it is unacceptable for civic discourse. Lanchester reminds us that Richard Feynman was able to explain many abstruse concepts in modern physics at the eighth-grade level. If bankers won’t do it, then journalists must step in, as indeed Lanchester himself has done. John Lanchester is the go-to writer for understanding money today. I’m not sure that his fantastic pieces for the London Review of Books aren’t rather more demanding than his piece in the Times Magazine (which he ranks at a grade 9.6 level), but financial patois has become so hermetic that it needs to be simplified even for those of us with sixteenth-grade skills and more.

But reading levels have not been a political issue in this election campaign. Sure, Donald Trump has pitched his talk to sixth-graders of all ages. Hillary Clinton’s resistance to frank apology, however, is a different kind of language problem. And so is the hypocrisy of columnists who attack her for it. In case you smell a whiff of misogyny in my complaint about Dowd, I can say that I have a corresponding objection to Thomas Friedman’s irritatingly jockular manner [sic!]. My dislike of Friedman’s arrogant exaggerations, of his simplistic divisions of the herd into those who get it and those who don’t, is actually so intense that I almost always give his byline a pass. I’m more naturally attracted to Maureen Dowd’s wit. But I’ve become terminally discouraged by her persistent undermining. If I were to characterize Dowd with an offensive stereotype, it wouldn’t be misogynistic but cultural: she’s so Irish-American.

(To which I cannot quite add that I’m Irish-American, too. All I can say is that I’m not anything else.)


When I was in college, I wanted to write a book that would be titled The Age of Cool. In it, I would describe the toxic side-effects of cool, the necrotic tendency of the minimalist aesthetic that underpins it. I would capture the numbness and the enervating fastidiousness of what had yet to be called hipsters. But I’d have my cake and eat it, too, because there would be at least one character, ideally a plausible version of myself, who was so innately cool that no pruning would be required. He would rarely talk, but whatever he did say would be wise and vital. The main difficulty with this teen-aged fantasy was that I could never make up my mind about the roles of nature and nurture. If my hero was naturally cool, that would imply a certain regrettable, or at least uninspiring lack of effort. Nurture, however, would clearly take too long to bear fruit, and, besides, it would entail a polluting degree of self-consciousness. This was a very Sixties issue. We wanted to believe that excellence could be easily achieved once the correct attitudes were adopted. Baby-boomers have had a hard time letting go of that wishfulness.

We believed, for example, that racism could be eliminated by legislative fiat. We confused sanctions against certain official kinds of racial discrimination with a massive change of heart. It isn’t so much that we were wrong as that we didn’t bother to check. We just assumed that new laws would make a new society. No wonder so many of us were vulnerable to the infections of Theory, according to which the approved analytical terminology was both all-powerful and wholly artificial.

Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius insisted upon something that in the first English translation of his Analects was called “the rectification of names.” The Chinese is simpler, zheng ming, or “right names.” Call a spade a spade. Confucius was not discussing mere usage. Had Confucius’s advice been taken, a would-be prince would have been retitled a usurper — an illegitimate ruler. Whether or not it was politically viable to enforce this formal demotion — it wasn’t — Confucius claimed that civil order depended on it. He had no idea of “mere usage.” I don’t think that we can attempt to imitate such rigorous nominalism today. (In the West, nominalism has usually been projected onto imaginary or metaphysical spheres). Our affairs require a great deal of supple flexibility. But the kernel of Confucius’s verbal hygiene is indispensable, and we must carry it with us at all times. It is regrettable to temper one’s speech to facts on the ground. However necessary, it is never okay. We must always struggle to avoid or at least to confine it.

“Racism” — what is it? Specifically, what is it in the United States, between European-Americans and African-Americans? Is it discrimination on the basis of skin color? Somewhat, perhaps. I don’t think that skin color would be significant in the absence of other features that it is impolite to discuss, of resemblances to other species that ought to be unthinkable, of manners evolved in circumstances of acute involuntary degradation. “Skin color” is a euphemism. The first step toward true reconciliation is the truth: come to terms (literally) with the fact that humanity assumes many features — without ceasing to be humanity. We are all the same, and all different, and the feeling that some people are more the same as we are and less different is a powerful and perhaps essential emotional convenience but nothing more than that. It is always wrong to believe that this convenience reflects humane reality. We must keep the names straight.


Wednesday 9th

May we hope, at least, that this is the End of the Clintons? Not even that, perhaps.

I did not sit up into the early hours, waiting for the bad news to be confirmed. I got into bed because Kathleen was having trouble falling asleep, and then wouldn’t you know I fell asleep. The last time I looked, though, the Electoral map looked a lot like the speculative one that circulated a few weeks ago — it even popped up in a New Yorker cartoon — showing which states Trump would win if only men voted. My gut feeling throughout the election has been that Hillary Clinton was not the right choice for a first attempt at piercing the ultimate glass ceiling. Trump supporters made a lot of outrageously unlikely predictions about the terrible things that would befall the country if Clinton occupied the Oval Office, but the outrageousness itself was telltale: they were talking about a witch. They talked as though Hillary and the Democratic Party were the same thing — as if Hillary were a body snatcher. And I was never surprised that they did.

I’m trying to puzzle out this gut feeling, that Hillary Clinton was far more “unelectable” than Donald Trump. The simplest way to put it, I suppose, is that I felt, however irrationally, that Clinton would need to win two-thirds of the popular vote in order to win at all. She could be carried into office only by the most massive landslide in history. But it seemed unlikely that she would ever rouse any such phenomenon. This was implicit in the seriousness with which her e-mail imbroglios were taken. The issue was nonsense, but the actual black magic of Hillary converted what ought to have been a venial sin into a mortal one. It was the same with her “basket of deplorables.” It took no time at all for deplorable to become a badge of honor: Deplorable Lives Matter. To be a contender against Donald Trump, a woman running for the White House ought to have wielded deplorable like Thor’s hammer, thundering relentlessly. But instead she backtracked, as if it were rude to point out her opponent’s unelectability. Trump took care of his unelectability all by himself, but he made sure to saddle her with even more.


I’ve already read one blog post that seeks to comfort those of us who are dismayed by the prospect of a Trump presidency. I want to keep things in proportion, too, but I can’t quite manage to argue that the country has survived worse disasters than Donald Trump, and the fact that many Americans don’t see him as a disaster at all is even more upsetting. It is in fact the problem. Tim Urban is wise, but too youthful, I think, to worry seriously about a civil war. Regular readers will at the very least suspect that I not only worry about civil war but fear that it is inevitable. Instead of rattling on about that, though, I want to share a tangential distraction that I have found more than a little beguiling.

If you look at the five centuries preceding the present one, you will find, in the second decade of each, a disruption or sea change that’s conspicuously lacking in the first. It’s as though it took fifteen years or so for the old century to run out of steam, or for the new one to get a sense of itself. George Dangerfield writes hauntingly about noticing changes in style and attitude in the early part of 1914, long before whispers of the war to come. In any case, the war did come. In 1815, a long war came to an end. In 1715, not only did a long war end but Louis XIV died, taking with him the gravitational system with which he personally governed France. In 1618, there began a long war that was comparable in horror and length to the two-part catastrophe of the Twentieth Century. And 1517, Martin Luther posted his complaints about papal indulgences.

If I feel that an era is coming to an end now, it’s probably because I’m feeling old; whatever objections I have to the way things were is outweighed by comfort and familiarity. I’m in no mood to learn new tricks; I wasn’t all that good at learning the old ones. New can be great, new can be terrible. But I felt, for most of yesterday, as if I had already died, and were just going through motions. At the polling station, Kathleen and I took turns filling out our ballots while waiting on a longish line for the scanner. Then an official offered us the chance, as seniors, to go to the head of the line. People ahead of us in line actually encouraged this! So we took the offer, sheepishly in my case.

We needn’t have voted. New York State was solidly blue, with almost 59% of votes going to Clinton. That gave a certain more-the-merrier feeling to taking the trouble. It was a beautiful day, but that only reminded me of the terrible thing that happened here on another beautiful fall day. I felt, as I did on and after 9/11, that we were badly out of gear, connected but tearing apart.

On the one hand, something that made me sick with worry has happened, so I needn’t be sick with worry anymore. Instead — ?


Friday 11th

What worries me most is the prospective administration’s bent for authoritarian policies. How insistent will this be? And what, if any, opposition will it meet with in Washington, where everything will soon be in Republican Party control? Because they can would be worrisome enough, but dictatorish witch-hunts will certainly be tempting if the material policies, such as trade, jobs, and immigration, run into more intractable resistance than Trump’s supporters seem to think possible.

It ought to be no news that Republicans have achieved a victory for which they have worked long and hard. Whether they will enjoy this victory is another matter: they may have won it only to pass it on to the alt-right. The Republican strategy was to exploit control of statehouses to determine national outcomes. This may have been made easier by their opponents’ attitudes. Liberals and progressives and everybody else who would be horrified by what has happened tended to view statehouses with something like contempt. I am sure that you would not have to scratch the hides of Hillary voters very deep to discover the conviction that states themselves are anachronisms. Certainly the actual American states no longer correspond to social reality. This, I think, is our most serious problem: how to replace outgrown borders. It is a problem that we share with other parts of the world; arguably, it is everyone’s biggest problem right now, in view of planetary degradation.

It is also pretty clear that Americans to the left of the Republican Party have complacently believed that their worldview sells itself. Who could possibly oppose something as enlightened as same-sex marriage? We may well find out who: what the Supreme Court giveth, it can take away. Probably because I’m an old man, I’ve felt that social liberalization has proceeded far too quickly. Certainly it has proceeded without sufficient account taken of resistance, for resistance has been slapped with the label of bigotry. It may have been wiser to allow small businesses involved in what we might call intimate issues to decline to participate in rites that their owners regarded as unconscionable. Liberals seem not to have learned, from the Soviet example, how obstinate people can be about changing their minds.

So, while Republican operatives were working overtime to tweak every little advantage, the rest of us were basking in the tanning beds of self-congratulation. We elected a black president! In a book reviewed in today’s Times, Wesley Lowery notes the persistence of Ferguson-style shootings during the Obama Administration. Dwight Garner:

Mr. Lowery’s book is valuable for many reasons. He circles slowly and warily around the question of why, during Barack Obama’s presidency, so little has seemed to improve on the racial front.

“The headlines of the Obama years often seemed a yearbook of black death,” he writes, “raising a morbid and depressing quandary for black men and women: Why had the promise and potential of such a transformative presidency not yet reached down to the lives of those who elected him? Even the historic Obama presidency could not suspend the injunction that playing by the rules wasn’t enough to keep you safe. What protection was offered by a black presidency when, as James Baldwin once wrote, the world is white, and we are black?”

What if the black man in the White House made things worse for black men everywhere else — just by being where he was?

If I thought that the Supreme Court to which Donald Trump is going to subject us would be inclined to make its overriding maxim Justice Brandeis’s dictum about states as the laboratories of democracy, I’d breathe a lot easier. Unfortunately, it was the liberals who turned their back on that idea, when, in pursuit of equal civil rights for all Americans, they tarred the idea of states’ rights with contempt. Am I trying to say that the campaign for civil rights in the Sixties was a regrettable mistake? No, I am not. But I am saying that a program that was inspired primarily by Cold War optics, far more than by any new-found concern for justice, was bound to have unwanted side-effects. And it made the Democratic Party untrustworthy at its core. That problem has never been reformed; at this point, nothing short of liquidation could cure it.

Who are we, anyway? And what do we really want? I hope that it’s more than just feeling good about things.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
November 2016 (I)

31 October; 1 and 4 November

Monday 31st

Adam Mars-Jones, I see, has been mentioned twice in this space, both times in 2015. Once was for his favorable review of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and earlier, for his unfavorable review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There’s an interesting complementarity here: the British reviewer likes the American novel, but not his own countryman’s. I happened to like Clegg’s novel quite a lot, but on the whole I reverse Mars-Jones’s preferences. When Mars-Jones quoted an extract from Philip Roth in a recent review of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, and insisted on the superiority of the former, I was so choked with irritation that I went out and bought Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father, Mars-Jones’s memoir of his difficult dad.

Adam Mars-Jones writes frequently for the London Review of Books, and I almost always read his pieces. I almost always disagree with them, not so much with their judgments about particular books as with their implicit premises. We are not on the same page. We don’t agree about what’s important. Nevertheless I read him, because he writes very well, and so clearly about his obvious wrong-headedness that I am always stimulated. His tone suggests to me that he is happy to be writing from outside the cultural barbican, dressed in the motley of a caustic literary bohemian. Just say the word canon and he’ll shoot. In the memoir, he mentions that he has never got round to reading Daniel Martin or The Ambassadors. No problem! I cannot tell if the nearly seven years that separate us in age makes us contemporaries or not contemporaries, but I suppose that, from the standpoint of a thirtysomething, two men in their sixties are contemporaries.

You can learn a lot from articulate writers who think differently. Actually, I’m learning a lot from everything that I read these days; it’s as though Providence were supplying me with just the books that will help me to clarify the thinking behind the conclusion of my writing project. I’ve read that that happens: when you’re hot, everything is relevant. But from Mars-Jones, I learned something rather central: that I am pious, and always have been, about the experiment of civilization. “Piety” was the word that I had been looking for to describe the quality that I think makes me unusual. I’m no more pious in the traditional sense than anybody else these days; I have never respected my elders per se and I am not an obedient observer of the standards to which I was raised. Certainly not! But it would be wrong to say that I have done the usual thing and rebelled. Nor am I a straightforward reactionary. But before I was out of my teens, whether I knew it or not, I felt passionately protective about the fragile connections that allow us at our best to overcome rage and the itch to do violence.

This train of thought began when Mars-Jones mentioned, early in the book, his lack of interest in history. He claims that he can’t remember dates. I don’t want to read too much into what might have been intended as a light, perhaps self-mocking comment, but I find that when people associate history with dates they are saying that they have never heard history’s stories. When a history story has been well-told, the dates are as memorable as the names — they are names. Instead of “Liverpool,” the Titanic might just as well have had “1912″ painted on its stern. In any case, dates are not the point of history; they’re just an excuse for people who believe that the past is dead baggage. (“The past” may be defined as time of which no one has a direct or indirect memory. Rosemary Hill, again in the LRB, has a memory of dancing with Steven Runciman, who in turn, as a child, danced with a lady who had danced with Prince Albert. “The past” has swallowed up the prince but not the lady.) It’s an axiom of my piety that people who regard the past as a pointless burden are also natural anarchists. Before I quite saw that I was pious, I understood that Adam Mars-Jones is impious, and probably wouldn’t mind my or anyone else’s saying so.

Another thing that I learned from Kid Gloves is that am deeply bigoted — about handedness. I had been sputtering through the book’s pages when the author mentioned in passing — I can’t find it — that he was left-handed. “There!” I said to myself. “That explains everything.” Even though I was talking to myself, I was shocked by what I had just said. I was shocked to note that I hadn’t really been joking. I hadn’t been joking to the extent that I really did — really do, it seems — believe that it was better to be right-handed than not. And it was obvious as well that this belief was a bit of unexamined bigotry.

There are studies showing that left-handed people have shorter life spans, aren’t there? But forget that, along with all the quotidian difficulties; there is nothing practical about my prejudice. Even thought I’ve never given the matter much “thought,” I clearly recall feeling relief when it became clear that neither my daughter nor my grandson was of the sinister persuasion. That’s what makes it bigotry: my preference was unconsidered. It’s not that I think that there’s anything wrong about being left-handed. It’s just that being right-handed is, well, right.

Oh, dear. Kid Gloves was just like Mars-Jones’s LRB pieces in that it was easy to follow but hard to understand. There are no chapters, and the narrative line is often obscure; this is a book of tangents. Once it occurred to me that Tristram Shandy might have been a model, I felt less impatient. Despite not finding Mars-Jones particularly simpatico, I was always, always on his side whenever life with father was contentious. I was repelled by Sir William. If nothing else, he seemed to be a prime instance of the weakness of the English legal system for translating successful barristers — partisan advocates — into positions of impartial magistracy, where, by the way, they make less money. I thought he had no business being on the bench. A good deal of the story’s point owes to accidents of time, to different generational experiences to which Sir William was probably more responsive for being a self-made man.

Certainly it was this self-made quality that explains the man’s ardent homophobia, which Mars-Jones presents in lush detail. And yet, how ardent could it have been? In the wake of the “sexuality summit” in which the son came out to his father, there was no rage, no banishment, no disinheritance. There was instead the beginning of an attempt to accept, sour and insincere at first, and never entirely satisfactory — Sir William could never manage to remember the name of Mars-Jones’s partner — but genuine enough in the end. At the same time, I wondered if his story was best told by his son, a man with a constitution almost alien to Sir William’s.


Tuesday 1st

It’s a commonplace that the United States’s body politic is polarized. But I wonder. If only white men voted, Donald Trump would carry every state, or so they say. If only people of color voted, Hillary Clinton would do the same. Women and voters with college educations are divided, but I suspect that polarized is not the word for them. It’s white men against non-white people, a very old American story, with the modern twist that the non-white people get to vote. White men have landed in a peculiar situation. They have been unable to propose a truly presentable candidate — a Dwight Eisenhower, say. Somehow, they have wound up backing a clown. Does this say something about white men? It would be pretty to think so. But I think it’s the result of blown fuses, brains shut down by the prospect of a woman installed in the White House by non-white voters. Nothing in the care, feeding, or training of white men has prepared them for that. Is it their fault that the United States so glaringly lacks true military heroes? Officer class, I mean. Maybe white men ought to get better at winning wars. That’s what they say they’re good at.

I’m a white man, and like many people who are going to vote for Donald Trump — that came out wrong. I am not going to vote for Donald Trump. But I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton mostly because I’m thinking about the Supreme Court. That has become a habit over the years. I’m beginning to question it, though. The scandal of Barack Obama’s inability to replace Antonin Scalia is arguably the most disturbing sign of constitutional breakdown since the Alien & Sedition Act. What if Hillary fares no better? And what if she succeeds at tilting the Court to the left? What happens when gerrymandered congressional districts are declared unconstitutional and half the House (at least) is sent packing? An undesirable scenario, however mouthwatering.

Without that gerrymandering, however, it just might happen that white men would not carry every state for Trump. The real polarization is among white men.

This just in: According to a reliable source (Andy Borowitz), Elizabeth Windsor (not Edith) has launched a write-in campaign.


Friday 4th

My mother, who died thirty-nine, nearly forty years ago, would have been ninety-eight today. For a moment, I made a plan to call my daughter, to wish her a happy birthday. But my daughter’s birthday falls next Friday, not this one. My mother was born on False Armistice Day — the end of the fighting in World War I was announced, but the announcement was premature. My daughter was born on the fifty-fourth anniversary of the actual Armistice, which occurred a week later.

It was only recently, certainly not earlier than reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers a few years ago, that I woke up to what Armistice really meant. It meant, at least on 11 November 1918, that nobody won the war, and that nobody lost it. The two sides simply agreed to stop fighting. How this neutral-sounding situation led to a conference in which self-styled “victorious allies” refused a seat at the table to the Germans seems no less worthy of attention than the “July Crisis,” the shambolic and cavalier shuffle of military and diplomatic cloak and dagger that resulted in something even more appalling than the Republican nomination of Donald Trump. The peace treaties that emerged in the wake of the Great War were punitive and wrong-headed; some of its terrible consequences were dealt with in the next war, while others (in the Middle East particularly) remain to be rectified.

The allies — represented by Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau — believed that an invincible tide of progressive thinking would support the peace that they imposed on the defeated powers, two of which had obliged by collapsing from within. The egregiously harsh terms in which they dealt with the third, Turkey, were so unrealistic that a wave of optimistic Greek colonists, settling in territories made available to them by the treaty, was quite quickly repulsed, with great loss of life. We can now clearly see how many conflicts engendered by Versailles and its satellite treaties were preserved in states of suspended animation during the Cold War, only to take on new life once Russia discarded the cause of International Communism. The war in Syria is both a consequence of the treaties and a Cold-War leftover.

In writing the foregoing, I checked only one reference: I couldn’t remember Clemenceau’s first name, although it came to me before the Wikipedia page opened. I don’t think that I’ve said anything novel or penetrating; I was just calling for a nice, chewy book, to balance Clark’s, on the immediate aftermath of the War. If you, my dear reader, happen not to be sufficiently conversant with the Great War, its origins and its aftermath to write such paragraphs off the top of your head, then I should still suppose that nothing that I’ve written surprises you; I should like to think that it has refreshed your memory. But while I am writing and you are reading, there is another body politic out there.

Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.

This is Caleb Crain writing in The New Yorker. I think that we can set aside any idea that these ignorant Americans are stupid, somehow incapable of grasping basic facts. It would seem, rather, that there is no downside to their ignorance, no penalty. The reward for knowledge is always the knowledge itself, obviously, but, to be honest, it takes a lot of learning to appreciate the reward. And if ignorance is a bad thing, it does not seem to hurt the ignorant, not in any way that they are likely to understand. Ignorance always, always rests on the assumption that somebody else will figure things out, which is tantamount to an assumption that somebody else is in charge.

As many critics of our particular democratic arrangements have complained, too much emphasis is placed on voting, and on the campaigns that precede them. Every so often, the man in the street is invited to cast his vote by an angelic choir that urges him to give the matter some thought. It’s hard to believe that anyone in media-saturated America can ever, for five minutes, be unaware of the national political scene, but the quality of general awareness may be difficult for educated observers to assess. How well voters understand the consequences of voting is also obscure. I should expect that most Americans would agree that voting for president is “more important” than voting for American Idol, but what would we find if we unpacked that greater importance?

Some would say that we need smarter voters. Some would say that we need fewer voters. This is the nub of arguments in favor of “epistocracy” — rule by the knowledgeable — that Crain was considering in his New Yorker review. I would say that we need more neighborly voters — voters who know what’s going on locally because their lives are directly impacted by it. And these good neighbors will need more than self-interest seasoned by good will. They will need to understand the long-term consequences of current decisions, at least as well as anyone can. There’s nothing like long-term consequences to dampen the drama.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Aeolian Harp
October 2016 (IV)

24, 25, 27 and 28 October

Monday 24th

One of the closets in our bedroom is much more difficult to access than the other, so Kathleen switches her seasonal wardrobes twice a year. While she did that, I emptied a good deal of the linen closet. The linen closet, although it is not large — none of our closets is remotely “large” — was the largest space in the apartment that had gone more or less untouched since we settled in, a few months after the move downstairs, two years ago. In those settling-in days, the priority was to get things out of sight. Aside from the portion of one shelf that held bath towels, very little had been touched. My excavation revealed a number of things that Kathleen had been looking for, as well as a few things that we really don’t need.

My objective, aside from the general purpose of renewing acquaintance with our stuff, was to make a space for light bulbs. I like to have a few packages of light bulbs on hand — I bought four packs of four the other day — because so many seem to go out more or less at the same time. I’ve been storing light bulbs in a very precarious way on the shelf in the coat closet, where we keep board games and two trunk-like boxes of cables and such. (I ought to throw most of it away.) There is really not enough room for light bulbs on that shelf. The risk of light bulbs falling on the floor when the coat closet is opened has been great. Breakage has been avoided, thanks to stout packaging and a carpet from Central Asia, but the unsatisfactory nature of the arrangement has been clear from the start. Now the light bulbs are in the linen closet, and very easy to reach. Also, the bedlinens are in the linen closet as well — where they belong. Sheets and pillowcases have so far been stored in one of Kathleen’s dressers, another unsatisfactory arrangement. My bath towels have been moved to my bathroom.

To make the wardrobe switch easier, Kathleen used a folding clothes rack that we keep in the closet that we call “the attic.” Now that she is through with it, I am going to roll it into the book room. All of my clothes are in the quite-small book-room closet. I am missing a pair of shorts that I hoped would turn up when Kathleen shuffled her closets. No joy. Perhaps it will turn out to have been in my closet all along.

To make the reorganization of the linen closet easier, I brought out the folding card table that we also keep in the attic. Now that it is more or less bare, I plan to cover it with all the stacks of books in the book room. I shall also drag out the many tote bags that have accumulated here, because it is the dumping point of least resistance. I really have no idea what I’m going to do with the books and the bags, but then, I never do have any idea before I undertake projects of this kind. It is only when the room has been cleared, and the stuff has been piled in a heap somewhere else, that I begin to have ideas. I’ll keep you posted.


Is there a Shirley Jackson kick in my future? You will have come across one or two reviews of Ruth Franklin’s new biography. It sounds intriguing, but I don’t see the point in biographies of writers whom I haven’t read. Of course I’ve read “The Lottery,  but that’s just one short story. Now I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, too. What intrigues me about Jackson is her problematic domestic life. What with four children, a huge house, and a determinedly errant husband, she seems to have risked the doormat’s career. In fact, she was the family’s bigger breadwinner — which makes her even more intriguing. She wrote about housekeeping, from a humorous angle that I find somewhat broad. I began my exploration with a piece (in the collection Let Me Tell You) about rival serving forks (one with two prongs, one with four), and how difficult they made Jackson’s life (sez she) whenever she used one to do the other’s job. My own take on high-jinks in the kitchen is that I myself provide all the anthropomorphism that ridiculous situations require.

Last week, for example, I was bellyaching about having a friend to dinner on Saturday night. This particular friend is used to good food, so I wore myself out by wishing that I didn’t have to “make a production” and tying myself up in knots. In fact, I wasn’t feeling well for most of the week, so the shopping got postponed until Friday, giving it a desperate finish, and my thoughts of baking a cake were trashed by the proximity to Whole Foods of a branch of Eric Kayser’s pastry empire. I was thinking of roasting a piece of pork. Julia Child, in The Way to Cook, wrote of a four-pound roast, but there was nothing on offer at Whole Foods larger than loin cuts weighing just over a pound. Which turned out to be perfect: I used Mrs Child’s “spice marinade” to coat the meat overnight, but followed the cooking instructions in The Joy of Cooking (Guarnaschelli edition), which included the suggestion of something called Buttered Cider Sauce. Sooner or later, everyone who eats in this house is going to be served Roast Pork Loin with Buttered Cider Sauce. Not only is it delicious, but it fits very well with the host’s reasonable desire to have a drink with his guests instead of fussing in the kitchen. When the roast comes out of the oven, having cooked at 250º for nearly an hour, emerging tender and juicy and almost buttery itself, it has to rest under a piece of foil for fifteen minutes. This is the signal to serve the soup (curried butternut squash purée). When the soup plates have been cleared, it’s time for the pork. I was mortified to recall all the complaining. I waste so much time feeling sorry for myself about nothing.

My problem with ghost stories is that they are never really frightening. The Haunting of Hill House is frightening for other reasons. A woman who has spent her life taking care of an ailing, disagreeable mother finds relaxation if not rest in a huge ugly house with doors that open and close on their own, not to mention loud noises, laughter and screams. Eleanor Vance has always wanted to have an adventure, and Hill House obliges. When she is sent away from Hill House for her own good, she resists. She has come to believe that Hill House wants her. The fact that she wants Hill House tells you a lot about her life so far. I found the novel to be not only well-written but discreet. We are not left to wonder if the abnormal phenomena that disturb Eleanor (but not too much) are taking place entirely in her head; we know that her companions experience some of them, too. But it is Eleanor’s responses that are interesting, not the raps or the chalk-marks.

I am aware of two filmed adaptations of the novel, both called simply The Haunting, but before I get to them I want to mention a little episodic frolic that Jackson indulges that was cut from both movies. This involves the professor’s wife, Mrs Markway. Mrs Markway barges in on the proceedings — her husband is conducting an experiment designed to establish the reality of hauntings — with her planchette and an obnoxious headmaster who also serves as her driver. They are both detestable in the irresistible manner of Ivy Compton-Burnett. You could argue that they are the horror.

The wife actually does show up in the earlier of the two movies, but aside from being the wife she is not the same person at all. This Haunting, which came out in 1963, stars Julie Harris as Eleanor. Directed by Robert Wise, to a screenplay by Nelson Gidding, the movie has the production values of a first-class television show; in other words, it looks and sounds like Psycho. The house is vast and ugly and the rooms inside are overfurnished with depressing Victorian sculptures that leer at the camera. Claire Bloom plays Theo, the free-spirited young woman who is Eleanor’s not unsympathetic foil, while Russ Tamblyn plays the house-owner’s nephew, and Richard Johnson, an extraordinarily telegenic British television actor whom I have managed to miss — he died only last year — is Dr Markway. The adaptation is largely faithful to the novel, with the exception of Mrs Markway’s role that I’ve mentioned. Julie Harris will strike many viewers as the perfect Eleanor — a mouse powered by neurosis. But she simply made me doubt that Jackson’s story can be rendered in film at all. The movie helplessly makes an object of the novel’s subject (Eleanor), which disrupts its quiet but sympathetic intimacy.

The second Haunting came out in 1999. I remember thinking that it was a terrible picture at the time. Watching it again, I was more inclined to regard it as a train wreck — entertainingly awful. It is the fourth of five movies directed by cinematographer Jan de Bont, the first two being Speed and Twister, two favorites of mine. The screenplay by David Self put me in mind of something once valuable that had been left outdoors in the wind and the rain and the changing seasons for several decades, and had not only lost its value but become unrecognizable. Self introduces a lot of his own inventions, which complicate the story to the point of incoherence. Lily Taylor is Eleanor this time, but although she looks radiant and adorable, her behavior is strange rather than haunting. To be sure, this is because Hill House has become a very different kind of operation, a nest of the troubled spirits of molested children presided over by a dead ogre. Catherine Zeta-Jones slips nicely into Claire Bloom’s part, considering. Liam Neeson is the doctor, and we are a long way from his action-movie achievements. Owen Wilson is so annoying in the Russ Tamblyn role that it’s a relief to see the end of him (not in the novel). There is no Mrs Markway at all, and although Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes show up as Mr and Mrs Dudley, their lines are too denatured to register.

My advice is to resist both movies until you’ve completely forgotten the novel. Watch them then and then see how much better Shirley Jackson pulls it off.


Tuesday 25th

It is very quiet in the apartment today. It is even more quiet than that, because I have just finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the silence in which the two women sit by the front door at the end, spying on trespassers, haunts the very air. I feel a weird, and I trust momentary, kinship with the Blackwood sisters. Just as Constance could have answered her cousin Charles’s importuning whine, so, with the flick of a switch, I could open the door to the lying evil world of television.

Yes, I know it sounds a little cracked; perhaps more than a little. Reading the Times this morning, I realized where the commentators’ obnoxious use of “bigly” comes from. (Trump apparently pronounces “big league” in an odd way, and uses it in peculiar syntactic contexts, so people mishear him.) Although Donald Trump has been a public figure for more than thirty years, I have heard very little of his voice, because I’ve avoided the television and radio shows on which he might appear. I’ve read about the Letterman show in which the foreign manufacture of his branded tat was laughed in his face, but I’m not sorry I missed it. You can laugh at him all you like, but he’s still there in his awfulness. “‘The least Charles could have done,’ Constance said, considering seriously, ‘was shoot himself through the head in the driveway’.” That’s all that I ever want to hear about Trump.

What few people understand — because television is simply a part of everybody’s everyday life — is that Donald Trump exists only in the airwaves. It is true that he shows up at rallies and puts his supporters into frenzies of hatred. But that’s not him up there. That’s “Donald Trump the billionaire,” a cartoon character. Just as it is William Shatner, and not Captain Kirk, who makes appearances at Star Trek events (if indeed he ever does such a thing), so Donald Trump impersonates “Donald Trump.” It is often remarked that Trump has no real friends, just an entourage of family and employees. A true Thespian, he lives only to be on stage, or in front of the cameras and the microphones. I’m saying all of this because you can just turn him off.

Well, it has perhaps gotten a little late for that. Bear in mind, though, that, once upon a time, your turning off the set, instead of watching him, might have made a difference. If nobody watched him, he would be nothing. That is true of any TV show. Donald Trump has always had an audience, because he is good at doing what TV viewers want to see. The pundits were the last to understand that his political viability followed the body-snatching consumption of politics by entertainment, a process that has been going on ever since Johnson defeated Goldwater with “Daisy” — if not, even earlier, from Richard Nixon’s ghoulish appearance in the 1960 debates with JFK. Trump did not introduce some “new low.” He simply demonstrated that the wall separating the serious from the frivolous that the venerable broadcasters of the old days had flattered themselves into counting on has been vaporized, brick by brick.

In a dream last night, someone urged me to set my scruples about television aside and join the audience for an important presentation. I replied that my resistance was greater than ever. I suspect that this was inspired by the scene, early in Shirley Jackson’s novel, in which Constance is cajoled by Helen Clarke into returning to normal social life. But the resistance was all mine.


Thursday 27th

Reading The New Yorker at lunch today, I thought about the mistake of misusing language for hopeful purposes. There was Joan Acocella’s review of a new book about Esperanto, the language invented in the 1880s by Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jew from Bialystok who grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish. Esperanto was, as its name implies, designed to bring all people together in a common language that would end the post-Babel curse of “the other.” The wild naïveté of this idea would have struck anyone not born in the nineteenth-century era of wishful thinking. Zamenhof ought to have understood from the mere fact that four languages were spoken in his native city that people have no inclination to speak a common language. The author of Genesis got it wrong, too.

Acocella points out that English has taken the place that Zamenhof hoped would be occupied by his confection. Well, maybe. Actually, I think, not. English as it is spoken by educated Britons is almost as rare as Cicero’s Latin was in Caesar’s Rome. English as spoken by Americans is a form of German that uses English words, and a very platt German it is, too. Elsewhere, English words are appropriated to local creoles. “Okay” is about the only word that is understood everywhere. My hunch is that even if, tomorrow morning, everyone were gifted with the ability to speak English as well as Adam Gopnik does, it would not take two generations for mutual incomprehension to start creeping in. We read about dying languages, and imagine that languages have never died before. I worry all the time that the language that I speak and write in is going to disappear within a century, even if it is called “English.”

More seriously, I thought about “political correctness,” a matter that has been bothering me for some time. It came up in Andrew Marantz’s report on the doings of Mike Cernovich, the author of a blog called Danger and Play and a force to be reckoned with on Twitter. Cernovich came across as a complicated person whose only focus is his hatred of Hillary Clinton and the kind of “basic bitch” that she represents. (His misogyny strikes me as incoherent.) Cernovich also believes that “political correctness [has] prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups.”

Political correctness, at least as I understand it, is an offshoot of what was called “consciousness raising” in the Seventies. Perhaps it would be better to think of political correctness as the calcified aftermath of consciousness raising. The idea behind consciousness raising was to change the way people thought about men and women, with a view to replacing patriarchal ideas about male superiority with a rough parity that would permit women to pursue their own self-realization without interference. The technique was applied to other frontiers of social progress, with the notorious result that it became socially unacceptable in polite circles to use what is now called “the ‘n’ word” under any circumstances, even with distancing jocularity. Political correctness was always haunted by the Holocaust; it was intended to set a firm barrier against the first step on lethally slippery slopes. Meanwhile, numerous college sports teams were urged to replace Native American mascots.

Personally, I’m in accord with the objectives of political correctness, but I dislike the “political” angle. The term itself, originating in conservative bastions beleaguered by liberal critiques, is justly sardonic: what can be the moral value of correct behavior that is politically enforced? Consciousness raising works only if you are willing to reconsider the world. Being told to replace words that offend other people with acceptable alternatives raises cynicism, not consciousness.

Inevitably, political correctness is going to produce ghastly usages on the order of “cuck.” Cuck is the first syllable of a nearly obsolete label for a husband whose wife is sexually unfaithful; it happens to rhyme with both the vulgar term for fornication and a common expression of outrage. It is the sort of thing that eight year-olds come up with, but no one seems to be in a position to tell grown men to refrain from sounding like eight year-olds — or to testify to the cognitive dissonance of hearing “dude” from the lips of any male who is neither fourteen nor saddled with acne.

The truly regrettable thing about political correctness is that it deludes good-hearted people into assuming that social problems have been solved. We can thank Donald Trump’s campaign, coinciding as it did with a higher incidence of the reported shootings of black men by white policemen, for putting an end to the notion that racial tension in the United States is a thing of the past. I myself intend to drop political correctness in future, insofar as it might have barred me from calling an enthusiast of “law and order” a plain racist.


The writing project has languished for over a month, but I think that I have found a way to begin what will be the final section, the need for which become more and more apparent as I worked on the seven that precede it. I’ll begin by talking about the need for a new Enlightenment — although I mean something very special by that, something whose spirit will run quite counter to the drift of progressive eighteenth-century thought. What I want to talk here, however, is wigs.

As a young man, Louis XIV had a beautiful head of hair, naturally curly and almost black. And he was young at a time when the fashion was for men to let their hair grow. Louis’s was very long. Then it began to thin at the top. I don’t know how long it took for him to cover his head entirely with a wig, but I expect that it started slowly, as these things do — think “comb-over.” Louis being king and all, his courtiers began to wear wigs as well. By the time he died, in 1715, polite men throughout Europe wore wigs in public. They kept their own hair very short, and worse little caps, something between a beret and a turban, at home.

No longer checked by the varieties of human limitations, men’s hair styles went through some exaggerated but highly uniform cycles. Overall, wigs got smaller as the century progressed, before finally disappearing in the quarter-century after the fall of the Bastille. But they started out massively, and could not really have gotten any larger. Military officers and sportsmen took to tying the ends off with a bow, and curls coalesced into ranks of two or three waves on each side of the head. (Needless to say, wigs could be very expensive, and caring for them was labor-intensive.) Whether you find the eighteenth-century look attractive or not, you have to remember that it made it very easy to conform with the style of the day, no matter what kind of hair you were born with. Because the wig was entirely artificial, nobody’s coiffure was more fake than anybody else’s. Youthfulness ceased to be an unfair advantage. Everyone could be exactly as presentable as his pocketbook allowed.

There is much to be said against wigs comfort-wise, however, and it’s no surprise that the experiment was abandoned. I believe, however, that it bequeathed a harmful legacy: for a long time, all that you had to do to look civilized was to shave your beard and don a wig. Instant conformity! The appeal of this easy transformation encouraged, surreptitiously, an idea of human perfectability that was altogether new, at least since Christianity firmly imposed the very opposite notion more than a millennium earlier.

The men of the Enlightenment were interested in new ideas, but they were even more interested in clearing away old ones. They sensed that the régime was doomed to become ancien, and in a sense they picked through the ruins in advance, deciding what to hold on to and what to get rid of. (Tocqueville’s study of the Bourbon provenance of so many of Napoleon’s “innovations” demonstrates the discernment with which this sorting was carried out.) Generally speaking, the things that were to be discarded were bundled together with the label, “feudal.” Feudal arrangements were personal, idiosyncratic, incoherent, and even contradictory; they were for the most part inherited relationships that had stopped making sense long before the Renaissance. The men of the Enlightenment were interested in consistency, predictability, and something that they called “reason.”

If we’re to avoid a return to ad hoc feudalism and the social insecurity that it reflects, we have to abandon the idea that people can be educated into, if not perfection, then some reasonable simulacrum thereof. We have to give up wigs.


Friday 28th

The problem with Crampton Hodnet, which would have been Barbara Pym’s first novel but which was published posthumously, is that the funny lines require context. There is a wonderfully odious old battleaxe, Miss Doggett, who counsels her paid companion, Miss Morrow. “‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind” (60). But it’s a bigger laugh if you’ve read from the two preceding paragraphs. There’s really nothing for it but to read the whole book aloud. Poor Kathleen.

Publisher Jonathan Cape notoriously rejected Pym’s manuscripts in the early 1960s, claiming that they were too old-fashioned. Pym herself seems to have regarded Crampton Hodnet as somewhat dated by the time she took a second look at it after the War was over, and she set it aside. Certainly the atmosphere of postwar austerity would have been uncongenial to the novel’s “Tennis, anyone?” lightness of touch. But just as Time reveals forgeries, so it discovers treasures. By the late Seventies, Pym was on a comeback. It was cut short by breast cancer, in 1980, but, regrettable as early death was, Pym has never had to be rediscovered. She is very much in print, and I noticed with interest that Pym is one of the very few women writers mentioned in a recent piece by Phillip Lopate about Tim Parks. It’s worth quoting the passage, actually.

Distressed by the degree to which the English-language market monopolizes the publishing world, he is equally irked by the fashion for world literature, and goes so far as to advise “a young English writer to be building up a knowledge of, say, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, along with the writers they drew on and the later generation they inspired, than to be mixing Chinua Achebe with Primo Levi.”

Because this is exactly why Pym is precious: her English is very good.

As an example, take the beginning of the eighth chapter, “Spring, the Sweet Spring.”

Spring came early that year, and the sun was so bright that it made all the North Oxford residents feel as shabby as the still leafless trees, so that they hurried to Elliston’s, Webber’s and Badcock’s, intending to buy jumper suits and spring tweeds in bright, flowerlike colours to match the sudden impulse which had sent them there. But when they found themselves in the familiar atmosphere of the shop, they forgot the sun shining outside, and the thrilling little breezes that made everyone want to be in love, and the young lady assistant forgot them too, because, although she may have felt them walking down the Botley Road with her young man on a Sunday afternoon, they were not the kinds of things one thought about in business hours. And so, after a quick, practised glance at the customer, out would come the old fawn, mud, navy, dark brown, slate and clerical greys, all the colours they always had before and without which they would hardly have felt like themselves. It would probably be raining tomorrow, and grey, fawn or bottle green was suitable for all weathers, whereas daffodil yellow, leaf green, hyacinth blue or coral pink would look unsuitable and show the dirt. (66-7)

The secret to this beautifully balanced expository letdown is the young lady assistant, sedulously oblivious of thrilling little breezes when she is behind the counter. There, she stands as a minor Britannia, protecting the staid denizens of North Oxford from the consequences of seasonal affect mania. From the standpoint of fashion, the passage could not possibly be more dated, but for that very reason it cleanly captures an ethos that bound even the most affluent pedestrians on the Banbury Road to demonstrate that they were careful with their money — and vigorously hardy when blasted by those thrilling little breezes. Whatever would happen if everyone yielded to the desire to be in love!

It’s the setting that is old-fashioned, not the writing. Pym’s subject, moreover, has only become more acute. Here are Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow again:

“I do not think that Mr Latimer is very well,” said Miss Doggett [of her clerical boarder]. “He looks pale and seems rather nervous, but the Sanatogen ought to pull him round, and he’s been taking a glass of milk every night, too. Of course sensitive and intelligent people are nervous, there’s no denying that.”

“I think Mr Latimer is highly strung,” ventured Miss Morrow.

“Yes, he is like a finely tuned instrument,” agreed Miss Doggett.

Like an Aeolian harp, thought Miss Morrow, pleased with idea. But really a frightened rabbit was nearer the mark. (77)

Not very many pages earlier, Mr Latimer considers the benefits of “having a wife, a helpmeet, somebody who could keep the others off and minister to his needs…” (64) [Emphasis supplied] Poor Mr Latimer is handsome and charming; the ladies won’t leave him alone. He has, needless to say, never been in love, and when he proposes to Miss Morrow, she has the sense to turn him down.

Without striking any definitively feminist notes, Barbara Pym writes about the crummy ways in which men take women for granted. Unfortunately, there is nothing at all old-fashioned about this. Boys are still growing up to become men who don’t really believe that women are quite as human as they themselves are — or else believe that women are more human, which makes it easier for them to be loving and generous. Whichever, the calculus in which women don’t count is still in general use. Pym has a gift for making it look fatuous and ridiculous; indeed, in Crampton Hodnet, she almost makes it so funny that it’s almost forgivable. But it isn’t. What could be crummier than getting married so that your wife could keep the others off?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
“Beauty is Harsh”
October 2016 (III)

17, 18, 21 October

Monday 17th

Over the weekend, I swallowed nearly the whole of Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. It’s an arresting, must-read book, and also an object lesson in the importance, for high state purposes, of eschewing that ostensible virtue so disastrously in vogue today, transparency. A recurrent motif in Lelyveld’s narrative is how impossible Roosevelt’s maneuvers would have been today, what with our media Cerberus on constant watch. I would believe in transparency only if everyone concerned — every voter — were equally capable of assessing political operations. But the triumph of democracy, which is an insistence on the equality of citizens despite massive and manifest inequalities in intelligence and every other social desideratum, depends on masking not so much the truth, which is almost impossible for any contemporary, no matter how brilliant, to grasp, as the actual, which is merely momentary. Smart people understand the transitory nature of appearances; stupid people take whatever moment they’ve accidentally glimpsed to be more representative than it is. Lelyveld’s ability to follow the state of play on multiple levels — military, geopolitical, electoral, and interpersonal — is extraordinary, but it only highlights the fact that his cunning if health-challenged subject was even better at doing the same thing. Writing about Roosevelt’s reluctance to make significant changes for his fourth-term cabinet, Lelyveld calls him a “minimalist.” I was surprised by the word at first. Then I began to wonder if it was not the key to Roosevelt’s genius.

There is one thing about Lelyveld’s prose style, however, that I find greatly objectionable. Without sacrificing clarity to the difficulties of complexity, His Final Battle is both readable and accessible, but this is carried too far in the case of contractions (weren’t, wouldn’t, &c). Contractions are essentially conversational ornaments; they signal the peculiar mix of intimacy and informality that I believe will prove to be the most salient characteristic of the age in which I’ve lived. For the purposes of an audiobook, Lelyveld’s use of common contractions would be appealing. But in print they sound careless. Much worse, they plunge into ambiguity every time that Lelvyveld relies on the particular contraction, ‘d. Native speakers are unlikely to be confused, but we live in an age of Anglophone hegemony: writers in English must do what they can to avoid making things unnecessarily difficult for foreign readers. He’d can mean “he had” but also “he would,” and it is Lelyveld’s use of the contraction in the latter sense that bothers me most. The first refers to the past, the second to the future, if not to an alternative to the facts. Precisely because the contraction can point not only in opposite directions but to contrary moods, it ought to be avoided in print.

The great minor pleasure of His Final Battle is the presence of Daisy Suckley, the distant cousin who features in Hyde Park on the Hudson, the lovely film starring Laura Linney and Bill Murray. Because Daisy’s diary, revealed only after her death in 1991, came as such a surprise, I always assumed that Daisy herself was a tucked-away secret, someone with whom the president chatted whenever he was at home at Hyde Park (she lived nearby), but never otherwise. But, no: she accompanied him to Warm Springs and even stayed in the White House. Lelyveld quotes the diary often, because Suckley’s worries about FDR’s health — his book’s grim tattoo — were candid and disinterested. Daisy may have lacked a sense of the context of world affairs, but she was an attentive lady whose adoration of the Commander in Chief did not inspire her to lie about his physical condition. One supposes that she can have had no idea that her diary would figure in a book such as Lelyveld’s — and yet one hopes to be wrong.


At The New Yorker‘s online site, Elizabeth Kolbert makes the modest proposal that men be denied the vote for a few decades. If only men were to vote in the coming election, according to polls, Donald Trump would have an enormous lead over Hillary Clinton. Not “white men,” apparently; just “men.” Two-thirds of “men” would vote for Trump. Jeez — I’d be happy to lose my right to vote if such a ban were imposed. What are men, anyway — men? Say it isn’t so.

Moving right along, I took a good look at the map of the states in which a majority of “men” would vote for Hillary. No surprises there: the whole West Coast, and the Northeast Corridor states, excluding (as always) New Hampshire, and an undecided Maine. Only two states that don’t abut either of these clusters would go for Clinton, but they are also “border” states, more or less: Illinois and New Mexico. Because I believe that, whatever happens next month, intelligent Americans need to commit themselves to a serious and effective program of mutual re-education, with a view to reducing political polarity by sincere discussion and practical experiment, I think that it might be most effective to target states that used to be somewhat more liberal than they are now, stretching from Pennsylvania to Minnesota, for conversion. If the South and West are to be politically transformed — cured of their toxic racism — it will be without help or inspiration from today’s blue states; the less they are lectured to by the likes of us, the better. But Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin have been allowed by uninterested élites to sink into flyover status. That could be reversed. Indiana and even eastern Iowa might also be brought round.

My own favorite “Trump joke” is the one in which, ten years from now, the Donald looks reporters straight in the face and denies ever having run for President. I can’t tell you how many people respond by saying, “Oh, he would never do that.” It’s scary.


Tuesday 18th

His Final Battle closes, as it must, with Eleanor Roosevelt’s learning that Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was at FDR’s side when he died. Lucy had been Eleanor’s social secretary when her affair with Eleanor’s husband emerged. Eleanor never saw her again. The marriage almost broke up, but instead it was reconstituted. Now it became an unequal partnership of politicians. Eleanor did just about everything aside from running for office to promote her belief in social justice; electorally unaccountable, she had considerably more freedom in airing her views than her husband did. His assent was nevertheless assumed, and on at least one occasion recounted in His Final Battle, he censored a proposed “My Day” column. (Eleanor was rooting for Henry Wallace’s doomed candidacy for a second vice-presidential term.) After her husband’s death, Eleanor went on to be a kind of Olympian goddess, nursing the new United Nations, which had been FDR’s final great project.

If I mention Hillary Clinton right now, you might be tempted to argue, “But nobody knew about Lucy Rutherfurd.” That is, nobody knew that Eleanor stood by a husband who had been unfaithful to her and whose further infidelities she would protect herself from discovering. Well, a lot people knew, in dozens. But the matter was never mentioned in public commentary, any more than FDR’s inability to walk across a room was mentioned. Had people known, what would they have said? Would they have charged Eleanor with opportunism for standing by her man? Would such a thought have occurred to anyone?

What can we say about marriage? Not very much; every marriage is, or ought to be, utterly private. All we know is how each marriage gets started, with more or less uniform declarations of mutual love and support. These declarations are usually made by young, inexperienced people who are likely to put too much stock in high hopes. What each lasting marriage becomes is unique, even though that is just as hard to imagine as the uniqueness of snowflakes is. We will never know what the partners in a marriage really think about one another, if only because they’ll never know it themselves. We know only what they do, how they behave. The idea of “transparency” presupposes that they are acting, that their appearance of partnership is emotionally unreal somehow. It says, with vast naïveté, this is what true love looks like, and they don’t have it. A political partnership! How can politics take the place of romance? In the end, gossips reject the fact of marital uniqueness. Nothing else, however, can explain why two people freely remain together. Or, rather, how.

More anon.


Friday 21st

The ups and downs of the weather here — a bright but somewhat humid Indian Summer, followed by days of rain — have undone me and left me fit for little more than reading. The weather has been greatly helped in this upset by the hopes that I had of taking up a new daily schedule when I got back from California. The old schedule was so established, however, that simply resisting it has taken all my energy. According to the new schedule, I will begin the day with something like a normal breakfast and a review of banal household matters. That way, I won’t be starving at noon and oblivious of the calendar. But it is so much more appealing to grab a banana along with the Times, and then to drift hither, that I wind up staying in bed. I will say that the sleeping-in has been very pleasant. At least there’s that.

I was supposed to put in a word here yesterday, but I woke up with a cough, and I decided that I had another cold. Taking it easy, I spent almost the entire day reading The Secret History. I had been inspired to take another look at Donna Tartt’s amazing first novel (1992) by the second of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, The Likeness, which pays it a tribute of sorts. As in The Secret History, there is a group of high-minded students who live apart from the common run. French’s characters, who are grad students, share a country house outside of Dublin, eschew vulgar amusements such as television in favor of dinner-table conversation and clever card games, and attempt to transcend individual attachments. French’s wrinkle on the setup is too good to spoil (although Laura Miller gives the game away in the New Yorker piece that pointed me to French), and The Likeness is a gripping read. But The Secret History is a masterpiece, a novel that shares the rare, melancholy beauty of The Great Gatsby. That it is much longer than Fitzgerald’s triumph is not something that I am inclined to hold against it.

The writing is very beautiful, and clearly meant to be. My disappointment with Tartt’s two subsequent novels has been almost entirely a quarrel with their more relaxed language. They have their moments, certainly, but the general tessitura is lower. Here, from The Secret History, is a throwaway passage about a secondary character’s dorm room.

She screwed the lipstick down, snapped on the top, then opened the drawer of her dressing table. It was not actually a dressing table but a desk, college-issue, just like the one in my room, but like some savage unable to understand its true purpose — transforming it into a weapon rack, say, or a flower-decked fetish — she had painstakingly turned it into a cosmetics area, with a glass top and a ruffled satin skirt and a three-way mirror on the top that lit up. Scrabbling through a nightmare of compacts and pencils, she pulled out a prescription bottle, held it to the light, tossed it into the trash can and selected a new one. “This’ll do,” she said, handing it to me. (266)

Every sentence is tinctured in a tone either of excitement or its exhausted aftermath. Dull, plodding scholars are not to be seen. On the contrary, the novel’s scholars occupy center stage and represent a ne plus ultra of collegiate glamour — at least to the mind of our narrator, a boy from nowhere called Richard Papen. They study Classical Greek with a suave gentleman who in younger days lived in Europe and “knew everybody.” (Tartt invents a paragraph in which Orwell writes that he doesn’t trust this fellow, even though Harold Acton does.) There are five of them in the group, including a beautiful girl, and all Richard wants in the world is to be a sixth. It is a very old and very heartbreaking story, because of course there is nothing truly heroic about this gravely merry band. There is nothing remotely unique about it, either; for who does not recall the searing drive to belong to an illustrious blood-brotherhood, on the very eve of an adulthood that will inevitably break up sincere but shallow commitments? Richard is like someone who shows up at a shoot for Ralph Lauren lifestyle products and forgets that the attractive people are models whose true interrelationships are probably very different from appearances. Richard forgets that he is dealing with a handful of immature college students who have been encouraged, by their vain teacher, to pretend that they are already the people whom they are in fact far from having become.

As always, there is money, at least in the hands of one or two members of the group; Richard, of course, has nothing, not even a suitable wardrobe. He has only his smattering of Greek, by which he leverages himself, first into the special classes and only later into something like friendship with his classmates. Tartt’s narrative strategy is simply extraordinary. While we are following Richard on his pursuit of acceptance — an adventure that is interrupted by the account, almost as substantial as a novella, of a harrowing winter break that finds Richard alone and vulnerable in an emptied Vermont town — the objects of his fascination are troubled by the consequences of an ill-advised undertaking of their own, of which we learn nothing substantial until after the group’s leader, a somber genius called Henry, finds Richard sliding into hypothermia and saves his life. It is only now, about a hundred fifty pages in, that Tartt launches the tale whose lurid quality will be the flavor that most readers will remember when they put the book down. It involves a night of re-enacted pagan revels that ends badly and which, tantalizingly, cannot be recalled by its participants with much coherence. (“‘Well, it’s not called a mystery for nothing,” said Henry sourly.”) Richard himself played no part in the ritual; for reasons that now move to the foreground, creating a new and more serious problem for Henry and the others, neither did the shambolic preppie called Bunny.

Richard assures us that Bunny is lovable, but Tartt refuses to back him up. We see only a rude, condescending lout whose bons mots are usually flaccid insults. As Richard eases his way into the group, the group finds it impossible, but necessary, to ease Bunny out. Sad to say, Bunny is not very bright; it takes him a very long time to grasp the perils of blackmailing his friends. He is too stupid to see why he might no longer be wanted. That he belongs to the group at all is the result of a fluke: a dyslexic child, Bunny was introduced to languages with other alphabets, pursuant to some cockamamie theory. Hence his Greek, which turns out to be his doom.

Bunny’s death is announced in the first sentence of the prologue, and the implication that he was murdered by Henry and his friends is made immediately thereafter. The event itself occurs midway into the book. From there, the novel is plainly poised to follow a traditional trajectory: will the murderers get away with it? And at what cost? I suppose that many readers, somewhat overwhelmed by the power of Tartt’s storytelling, keep following that trajectory long after Tartt herself takes up a different one. Certainly there is a rivetingly suspenseful moment near the end, when an unsigned letter, long mislaid in the wrong mailbox, threatens to expose the group. But this moment is not resolved in the ordinary way. And yet many readers may be too worked up to see the actual resolution for what it is: a pair of terribly disappointed romances that required no crimes to unravel. True, worries about the consequences of those crimes put one or two of the characters under too much stress, but deception and disillusionment were on the cards long before the group’s wild night in the woods. The group itself was already doomed by then, and this, we see, is what Tartt means to teach us. Richard was drawn to a mirage.

The power of The Secret History is the sublimated power of youthful romance, of intoxicating dreams stretched over shattering realities. But instead of telling us love stories that wouldn’t — couldn’t — be very original, Tartt beguiles us with dusky imbroglios that would be Gothic if they were not so harshly Greek. The stunt of the book is its acrobatic reminder that Ancient Greece was not a land of sunlit syllogisms, but, on the contrary, a wild territory of prehistoric survivals. But the acrobat’s moves are those of a young lover, graceful and sure and triumphant — until suddenly not. Ironically, the students in the group seem unaware that they are surrounded by an undergraduate bacchanal far more reckless than anything known to ancient times: the drugs, the drinking, the smoking, the staying-up-all-night — Tartt contrives to unload this shabby carelessness without muddying her shoe, but it stains every other page. Never has higher education looked more seriously pointless. But we don’t care, because we’re in love.

The ubiquity of smoking and the absence of cell phones are the only features that date the story. You don’t miss the Internet. You certainly don’t miss e-books — real books are integral to the romance! The Secret History has aged very, very well; perhaps it will always carry an aura of prescience. Two not-unrelated curiosities stick out. First, there are the fraternal twins who belong to the group, Charles and Camilla. Ahem! At least Tartt might be charged with supersubtle joking on that one. What she can’t possibly have known in 1992 is how easily the following passage, which concerns the campus response to Bunny’s death, could have been pasted into commentaries made in the wake of a “tragic” death five years later:

A character like his disintegrates under analysis. It can only be defined by the anecdote, the chance encounter of the sentence overheard. People who had never once spoken to him suddenly remembered, with a pang of affection, having seen him throwing sticks to a dog or stealing tulips from a teacher’s garden. “He touched people’s lives,” said the college president, leaning forward to grip the podium with both his hands; [...] it was, in Bunny’s case at least, strangely true. He did touch people’s lives, the lives of stangers, in an entirely unanticipated way. It was they who really mourned him — or what they thought was him — with a grief that was no less sharp for not being intimate with its object. (357)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Baron von Moron
October 2016 II


10. 11, 13 and 14 October

Monday 10th

For years, I had nothing to do with puzzles in the Times. I had done all the usual show-off stuff — the Middleton acrostics, the daily crosswords not only in ink but in order, moving from upper left to lower right — and eventually I got tired of it. New puzzles came along, but without appeal; I can still ask: what is Sudoku? (I’ve gone over the rules for Spelling Bee several times, but I still haven’t got a clue how to play it.) One new puzzle, however, has caught my fancy: Split Decisions. The pairs of words in Split Decisions share all but two letters, and only those two sets of divergent letters are given. By “letters,” I mean “letters in the same position.” As an example, here’s the last pair that I worked out: nether and nester. Both words share a ‘t,’ but not in the same position. What took so long was the wrong answer that I had come up with for a pair of words beginning in ba and mo respectively. Solving another pair gave me the third letter, r. The shared last letter of this pair would be the first letter of the words with th and st in the middle. The best I could think of was bares and mores. (Later, when I was stumped, Kathleen proposed barns and morns, interesting but no difference.) The s was a stumper. While sister and system came quickly to mind, it became ever more oppressively likely that there is no word in English into which sxthxx can be resolved. That’s when I set bares and mores aside and worked through the alphabet. When I got to n, I looked back at the ba and mo pair and nearly choked at the aptness. MORON! And not only that, but a moron who carries on as though he were a baron!

In true baronial fashion, I solved the entire puzzle without writing anything down. I kept it all in my head. I did not permit myself those little marginal jottings, much as I really wanted to print sxxalid and sxxared, which certainly would have helped me find squalid and squared much faster than I did. At the same time, I experienced at least one direct-line-from-God solution. Without my having solved any of the adjacent pairs, it came to me, just like that, that xxxmoxx and xxxssxx were chamois and chassis.

Baron von Moron is too good to be true, so we shall have no Progress this week. I hope I haven’t ruined the puzzle for anyone.


Last week, I neglected to mention Paradise Lodge, Nina Stibbe’s sequel to Man at the Helm. What has Nina Stibbe been doing all these years? Thirty-odd years ago, she was the au pair in the home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, now the editor (and bankroller) of the London Review of Books. Wilmers had two little boys, and somehow they survived Nina’s tender loving care. They’ve long since grown up. What  did Nina do between then and now? — now being the publication, two years ago, of Love, Nina, a collection of the letters that she wrote to her sister from the Wilmers house in Gloucester Crescent. Whatever, she is now a lady writer. Last year, we had Man at the Helm, which I found a tad too depressing, because the narrative arc took the heroine from a shabby but grand old pile to a small house in a council estate. That’s where she’s still living, in Paradise Lodge, but this time the story is about her, not her Sixties-warped mother. The book is very funny, and I’ve hated having read it. I want to be still reading it. Why did it have to end?

Stibbe has held on to the voice of Love, Nina. I don’t know how long she’ll be able to go on doing this, as presumably Lizzie Vogel will grow up some day and put her adorable goofiness behind her — but maybe not; one can hope. Lizzie’s voice is really the whole point of the book. Anyone could cook up the escapades at a shambolic nursing home — the more I read about English schools and nursing homes, the more appalled I am by the English willingness to entrust institutions to amateurs — but they’d be little more than not-so-funny comic pratfalls if it weren’t for Lizzie’s fine-grained adolescent judgment, which is also the texture of the novel. To render the following snippet comprehensible, I think it’s enough to say that Sister Saleem, who is also Lizzie’s boss, is a woman of color.

I was thrilled one day when the talk turned to facial features and Sister Saleem said I had nice eyes. Having nice eyes, she said, was a great thing and could make up for awful defects.

“If you have pretty eyes,” she said, “you can get away with a flat behind or hairy arms or even spots — but having not very nice eyes is a curse.”

We all discussed this and agreed, the worst kind of eyes being dead eyes which don’t sparkle. The deadest I knew of were Nurse Hilary’s, which looked like fish’s eyes, or Miss Pitt’s — who looked like she’d poisoned you but you didn’t know it yet. The nicest eyes were almond-shaped, but not like Sister Saleem’s which, although almost-shaped, had purple skin all around — which my sister said was the colour of a man’s resting genitals, but not in front of her. (193)

But not in front of her. To take pains to tell us the obvious — Lizzie and her older sister did not compare Sister Saleem’s eyes to a man’s private parts in conversation with Sister Saleem herself — is of course to raise the hilarious spectre of having done so. It’s a way of making trouble without getting into trouble. If it doesn’t make you laugh out loud, perhaps in an outburst that causes those nearby to turn their heads in your direction, then Paradise Lodge is not for you; rather, you are unworthy of it. It is not hard to see Jane Austen in the background, smiling the smile of someone who can reduce others to giggles but who never giggles herself.

The climax that I remember has nothing to do with the revelations and peripeties that wreathe the happy ending. It even occurs in the first half of the book. It oughtn’t to be funny at all, and, now I think of it, it isn’t funny, only I remember it as sidesplitting. Lizzie is trying to get her favorite inmate, a very stout Miss Mills, from the toilet to her bed, something that she ought not to attempt single-handed. But it is late at night, and her colleague, the air-headed Miranda, is too busy inscribing a birthday card to her boyfriend, in “bubble writing,” to hear the summoning bell. Miss Mills warns Lizzie not to try, but Lizzie can’t just leave the old lady on the commode. The upshot is that Lizzie just fails to get Miss Mills back into bed. The heavy woman slides off and falls on her, pinning her to the floor. This horrible moment lasts for quite a while, and, when Miranda finally does show up, Lizzie believes that Miss Mills shouldn’t be moved until an ambulance arrives, and so the moment continues for quite a while longer. To pass the time, Miranda keeps up a chatter.

After some time, the talk got less interesting. I mean, no one could keep it up forever and soon Miranda was dredging up stuff about her family. The time her mother tired to kill her father with a Flymo and once, when her father had accidentally unplugged the deep freeze, she’d called him a “bandit,” which made me rock with laughter, and that had hurt Miss Mills, and that made me cry. Miranda carried on, though, like a hero. About her sister, Melody, my ex-best friend who’d gone manly in puberty, as previously mentioned, and thanked God for punk arriving so that she could join in with fashion and feel she belonged without trying to look girly. (104)

As previously mentioned.

Lizzie has signed up for part-time work at Paradise Lodge, but full-time suits her better, because she hates school. Lizzie hates school so much that she risks being dropped from the ‘O’ Level program. This alarms everyone else far more than it does Lizzie, so Lizzie’s attempts to be a better student consist of little more than plausible roguery. In a comic reversal, school and its drudgery are the reality from which Lizzie finds uplifting escape in caring for the incontinent elderly. The precariousness of her academic situation is an overdue bill that shadows the entire novel, right up to the last line. The other thread is Lizzie’s imaginary romance with Miranda’s boyfriend, Mike Yu. Mike’s family runs the local Chinese restaurant, and the boy is a paragon. When he tells Lizzie that she must take ‘O’ Level courses, she almost buckles down. But even her dreams are fickle.

It wasn’t Mike’s fault but I started to hate him. I was fed up with being in love and feeling so on edge all the time. I tried to tell myself I was kicking out at him because I was feeling low about various things. But it wasn’t that — that only happened in an actual relationship.

It was that he started to seem too good-looking. I felt shallow for loving his beauty and felt inferior and not worthy. It was like the time my mother had driven us to Dorset to join a family holiday and it had been an embarrassing misunderstanding and we’d sat in the beach car park having a cheese cob while our mother summoned the strength to drive all the way home again. Even from the car, the beach had seemed too beautiful for us and we hadn’t been welcome and I longed for the muddy ruts of a Leicestershire field or the messy verges of the motorway. It was all we deserved.

Plus I’d begun to feel furtive and sleazy at my deviousness. My manipulating Miranda into divulging personal things about him, running into the drive just to say hello and look as if I were on the brink of weeping. And my betrayal of Mr Simmons in return for getting back into the ‘O’ Level group — which had been very much under Mike’s influence.

I imagined married life and having to see his face all the time and how its niceness would soon become sickly, like winning by cheating or eating too much pudding. Like when I’d begged for another slice of strudel and cream and Granny Benson had finally agreed and made me eat every last flake until I was sick.

Why did I love him anyway? Probably just because Miranda had paraded him and his love for her. She’d worn his love like a new mohair jumper and we’d all wanted its softness. It was probably nothing to do with his being so good-looking, so good and philosophical. (233-4)

What I’m hoping is that Lizzie will still talk like this when she finally goes to university.


Tuesday 11th

There is a piece in today’s Times about how hard it would be for someone with Donald Trump’s stated views (about women and such) to get a job with a Fortune 500 company. Once upon a time, this might have made somebody stop and think, Gee, maybe Trump isn’t such a great presidential candidate after all. I don’t know what impact the newspaper’s editors expect it to have now. Trump himself would seize the bull by the horns and declare that we’ve got to change the rules at big companies and stop all this political correctness. His supporters would cheer him. Surely everyone knows this by now. Surely everyone knows that Trump stands, like an unreconstructed Mad Man, for a return to the social facts of the 1950s, and that this is what his supporters think they long for. All they want, really, is to stop having to pretend that people who aren’t straight white males are just as good as those who are. Like the child pointing at the emperor’s new clothes, they want to acknowledge the obvious: people who look funny aren’t really American. It’s very simple.

What the rest of us have to ask is, Why? Why is this nostalgic dream still so powerful? And we have to come up with solid answers, because, as more than a few commentators have observed, Trump himself may go away but his supporters won’t, and eventually they will find a more effective candidate.


Whether it was in San Francisco or upon our return, I had one of those moments. For years, years, I’ve been grappling with what I’ve called “my élite problem.” This boiled down to the search for a better word (than “élite”) for a class to which everybody claims not to belong. The lumber in my head must have shifted — perhaps it was turbulence — because, in the moment that I’m talking about, it was suddenly obvious that “the élite” consists of the professional classes and its clients. For the most part, the clients are just rich people. They have the power that goes with money. There’s little more to say about them.

There is a lot to say about professionals, however. The professions are, above all, social constructs. Their skills reflect established standards. There are different ways in which professional credentials are attained, but every profession that I can think of makes an overt claim that its members strive to uphold certain public virtues: honesty most of all, but also the well-being of the body politic. (If you can think of an exception, please let me know.) Some professions police themselves privately, while others are state-sanctioned, but it really doesn’t matter: professions are unlike criminal gangs or commercial monopolies in that they harbor no objectives that are contrary to the general good. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to be. Professionals, in the course of doing what they do, are supposed to safeguard the rules — rules against fraud, certainly, but also against injustice.

I think it’s pretty clear that the public claim on professional probity has been allowed to fade. It is one thing for an attorney to advise a rich client about taxes; it is quite another for a lawyer to participate in the drafting of legislation that will favor the rich. Do I sound utopian? I don’t think so. What I think I sound like is somebody who can no longer reconcile professional standards with free-market physics. The whole point of professional standards is to regulate market physics, much like the governor on a steam engine. Many of our professional codes were first developed in an era that was more than a little traumatized by exploding boilers, and regulation is an almost universal raison d’être.

It is because professionals have neglected their public responsibilities as a matter of course since at least the Reagan Administration that so many Americans want to sweep away “the élites.” It is because professionals have turned their backs on those without the money to pay their fees that the “basket of deplorables” is overflowing. Too many professionals don’t give a damn about ordinary people, and too many ordinary people know it.

Donald Trump’s supporters aren’t asking a lot. They just want an élite that looks like them, or at least like Don Draper. They just want to go back to that. They’re wrong, of course, to think that old-timey prosperity will make a comeback if the right-looking people are in charge, but that’s just one of the many things that we’ve neglected to teach them in words that they can understand and accept.

If you want a sense of just how bad things are, consider the sense of public accountability that is current among the members of our newest profession, the coder entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.


Thursday 14th

My instinctive reaction to the news that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature was to applaud, but it’s going to take a day or two to say why. Good for him, I thought — but I’ve never been a fan, not remotely, and in fact I can think of no popular figure of the Sixties who was more irritating to me at a subcutaneous level. That people voluntarily subject themselves to his humorlessly earnest, unmusically hoarse exhortations has always surprised me. Now, of course, his work has settled into the kind of cultural monumentality that works very well as a wallpaper of synecdoche: the sound of a few bars sets a very clear tone, rich in implications, very quickly. Nevertheless, I can’t think of an American whom I’d rather see win.

As a truly international prize, not limited to work in any one language, the Nobel cannot be a genuinely literary award, because literature, to the extent that it explores and extends the language in which it is written, cannot be translated. Translators have several options, but the rendering of original nuance in another language is not one of them. It is not always the case that something inimitable about the original is lost, either: the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe gain enormously by translation into French, so much so that Poe might be accused of having tried to write French using English words. (I’ve often thought that Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, albeit in Norwegian, with an ear for likely Anglophone outcomes.) The Nobel’s juries understandably fall back on the aspect of books that can be translated: the message. Heaven knows, Bob Dylan is a messenger.

So is Svetlana Alexievich, last year’s winner. Her Secondary Time, which I’m sipping in small doses, is a tremendously important book, because it humanizes the lives of Communist academics and administrators to an astonishing degree, and, with them, the Communist project itself. And yet Alexievich’s contributions to the text of this book are small and instrumental, placing the transcriptions of extended interviews in context. She is not, from any literary standpoint, the author of her own book. She inspired, edited, and produced it, but the words are not hers. Most of her readers, moreover, will not have been able to read Secondary Time in Russian. The attenuation of language into message is just about total: there is no literature left to speak of.

I’d be happier if the Nobel Prize for Literature had a name that better described what it is and must necessarily be: the gong for “a book containing a message.” The need for such a term has emerged because of a peculiar development. Originally, all written texts were messages most of all. So were most early books. Even the Aldine editions of classics were intended as messages of a sort, bringing a new world of readers information about old wisdom. But most new books eventually went stale and lost readers, and still do. A very few did and do not, Shakespeare’s Sonnets for example. We are drawn to these poems not by their message, which all of know perfectly well beforehand, but for their language, which can be incredibly rich precisely because the message is familiar. The Sonnets are bottomlessly literary; they are also, inexpungeably, expressions of the English language that remain intelligible four centuries after their composition — because we keep reading them. The long and the short of it is that Shakespeare’s Sonnets would never deserve the Nobel Prize.


Friday 15th

I’m sure that I heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” before I saw the LP jacket of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for the first time, but it can’t have been long. Somebody had the album at boarding school. For me, the photograph was a total turn-off: a scruffy kid being held by a pretty girl (who was probably a model, I thought, although in fact she wasn’t), walking on a slushy street in a neighborhood dominated by fire-escapes (signalling poverty). If you’d wanted to get me to buy the record on the strength of jacket art alone, you’d have used one of Hayashida Teruyoshi’s photographs from Take Ivy. Nevertheless, I remember acknowledging that the Freewheelin’ jacket was very cool. I was getting used to the fact that there were a lot of very cool things that didn’t appeal to me at all, and that might never appeal to me; and I was discovering that any regrets that I might have about this discrepancy were insincere. I would take me over cool any day. My response to Bob Dylan’s first album has not changed, except that the whole thing is now very quaint.

My other problem with Dylan was that I didn’t need him to tell me that the misadventure in Vietnam was an atrocious mistake. I don’t know how I knew that it was; perhaps life in Bronxville had sensitized me to humbug. Perhaps it was the photographs of the Ngo Dinh clan that seemed designed — insanely, to me — to present them as Kennedys, a look that underlined their Las Vegas qualities. I was also very impressed by the self-immolating monks and nuns. Had the United States openly invaded Vietnam in order to crush a Communist régime, I might have gone along with it, but the mealymouthed talk of “supporting” an allegedly democratic government in an impoverished jungle was as openly bogus as the Donation of Constantine. (Not that I knew of this interesting document at the time.)

Writing about the Jersey shore in Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen refers to the children of affluence whose lives were so very different from his as “rah-rahs.” I disliked rah-rahs, too, even though my fashion sense was rah-rah to a T. It would be wrong, though, to say that I adhered to a conservative aesthetic. I just put on the same clothes that I’d always worn. It did not occur to me that sartorial eccentricity could amount to political protest, and what I saw in armies of jeans-clad youth was simply an undesirable uprising of vagabonds and hobos. When people I knew began looking like hobos, all I saw was carelessness.

That’s all I heard in Bob Dylan’s songs, too. Perhaps it would be better to say that I found them rude and insolent. I have never been comfortable with casual rudeness. For me, being rude is being very, very hostile. It is a kind of anger that has been compressed into a slap of dismissal, and social life cannot withstand very much of it. It is true that Dylan channeled his rudeness into performance art, inviting his audience to ventilate by singing along. But the lowering effect on public discourse was dramatic, and ever since the late Sixties, American life has been conducted in a fug of thoughtless generalities, as if semi-articulate expressions of good will would do the trick. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that civic discourse in this country has never been altogether sound.

Listening to Springsteen, I hear a young man in pain, with just enough lyricism to keep whining at bay. (And sometimes, as in “Brilliant Disguise,” with a flush of lyricism that amounts to plain beauty.) Sometimes, Springsteen’s updated Chatterton sounds self-pitying, but he is never what Dylan so often is: a scold. Unlike Springsteen, Dylan doesn’t present himself as the jerk, the failure. The jerk is somebody else. I can’t identify with that. The jerk is usually me.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2016 (I)

3, 6, 7

Monday 3rd

And here I am. It has been a chaotic day, on the smallest of scales, as I’ve resisted old habits and tried to launch new ones, therefore doing without the help of all the established priorities. On top of that, we went to bed early for San Francisco and got up late for New York, which wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t evidence that we needed a lot more than the prescribed eight hours of sleep.

I have discovered, working on the writing project, that I can write well enough in the afternoon — but it is no longer the afternoon. It is early evening, and I have onions caramelizing on the stove and requiring constant attention. With my thoughts on dinner, I can hardly expect to do justice to my vacation reading, which consisted of two-plus books: the new Carl Hiaasen, Razor Girl; Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run; and a wedge of Tana French’s In the Woods. The first two books are brand new — Born to Run was officially published on the day we left New York, and I bought it at JFK — but In the Woods has been out for almost a decade. Canny readers will attribute my sudden interest in the French to the influence of Laura Miller’s piece in last week’s New Yorker. I’m in the middle of it now. I like it, but I wish that its language were more Irish. Never have I so sympathized with Donna Leon’s reluctance to permit the Guido Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. There is a point, well into the book, at which a detective ends a sentence with a pleonastic “sure,” as the Irish do. I almost dropped the book. Finally (to paraphrase heroine Cassie Maddox) a sign of Irish intelligence.

What to say about Carl Hiaasen? The simplest is this: I don’t know his people. They’re fantastic on the page — literally. The eponymous character is enormously attractive, despite an unappealing start, but a world in which the male victims of rear-enders can be so easily distracted by extreme impropriety (you have to read the novel) is too dystopian for me. Hiaasen’s topical satire of reality television is almost more thoughtful than it is biting, but then why should I feel bitten if I’ve never watched a reality TV show? Razor Girl is trenchant and funny, and certainly worth the time it takes to read. I’d be enormously grateful to find Hiaasen’s work on the shelf of a remote beach house if I ever got marooned in one. But the moment Razor Girl was over, South Florida in general and Key West in particular vanished from my imaginaire — if you’ll pardon my French — perhaps because I’ve actually been to Key West and and so not curious to know more. It is always somewhat horrible, when reading Carl Hiaasen, to know that he is making up only so much. The rest (like those Gambian rats) is real.

Born to Run — something of a stunt, I’ll admit. My reading it, that is, not Bruce Springsteen’s writing it. And I do believe that he wrote it. I had been prepped by high-end journalism: a profile in The New Yorker some while back and then David Kamp’s cover story in a recent Vanity Fair. If the book disappoints, the fault lies in the somewhat anemic account of Springsteen’s development as a sophisticated musician. That he is a sophisticated musician I knew from experience, even if I’m not quite a fan. (Not yet.) If you want to know what I mean by “sophisticated,” let me just say this: I can’t think of another pop artist who has divided his work so evenly between what in classical music would be called concert and chamber formats. Springsteen writes for arenas (does he ever), but he also writes for empty coffee houses (the emptier, the better). He was always a rocker, but he was always something else, too: a severe melancholic. Over time, he managed to accommodate both impulses, sometimes simultaneously.

Presumably, Bruce Springsteen did not manage to do this with the help of archangels. Something happened, I should say, in between his first two voyages to San Francisco. I’d like to know more. Springsteen writes well about lessons — musical and otherwise — learned later in life, by which time he seems to have been articulate enough to recognize what he was doing when he was doing it. This was perhaps not the case as he transitioned from belonging to Steel Mill to creating and patronizing the E Street Band. He’s articulate now, though, and I suspect that he’s the only one who will ever be able to tell us what happened.

Fans, of course, will relish the history of a rock ‘n’ roll career with which they’re already familiar. Less zealous readers will appreciate the many well-told tales of scrapes and escapades, especially as it emerges that none of these would have occurred if Bruce were truly the boss of everything. Everyone, I think, will honor Springsteen’s account of dealing with bipolar disorder, which is both lucid and discreet. (I concluded, on the basis of the book’s sheen of candor, that ECT treatments would have been acknowledged had they been administered.) To me, Born to Run will be memorable for the very quality that the author himself highlights near the end (on page 501, to be exact): it is a portrait of the mind of Bruce Springsteen.

Now I’m back home, where the new Ian McEwan has just arrived.


Thursday 6th

Kathleen calls them my “girlfriends.” We saw one of them last night. When A Little Romance came out in 1979, I was enchanted by Diane Lane’s fresh, intelligent beauty. For a few minutes in the third act of last night’s performance of The Cherry Orchard, she was perched not ten feet away, and in profile she was almost the same young lady.

Having seen another one of my girlfriends, Kristin Scott Thomas, in The Seagull, a few years ago, I’m inclined to wonder if Chekhov works in English. We are so cool, so hostile to unnecessary histrionics. Our language is designed to make enthusiasm look foolish. It is also difficult to register class distinctions in plain English. Steven Karam’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard dealt with this latter problem boldly enough: Lopakhin, the scion of serfs who has risen in the world and is now rich enough to buy the Gayev estate, was played by Harold Perrineau, a handsome and personable African-American actor, and serfdom was swapped for slavery. This maneuver had its effective moments, but overall it pushed the play into a Nowhere that made caring much about the plight of impoverished landowners more trouble than it was worth.

Had the play been acted absolutely straight, though, I might well have felt no different. Chekhov makes me as impatient as his characters are supposed to do. And there are far too many of them. If I were adapting The Cherry Orchard, I would eliminate the parts of Charlotta (the governess), Yepikhodov (the clerk), and Yasha (the servant). I would consider doing away with Gayev (the “heroine’s” brother), too; as his nieces remind him several times, he talks too much. Take this as my way of saying that there was little that Tina Benko, Quinn Mattfeld, Morris Jones or John Glover, respectively, could do to entertain me, except to leave the stage. Simeonov-Pischik (the lucky landowner) is there explicitly to remind us that life is absurd, so I suppose we can’t do without him; Chuck Cooper made him a jolly old fellow, but also, convincingly to a fault, someone who might die at any moment.

Worse, Chekhov fails to give his diva a big moment. Ranevskaya is a complicated woman, but the play seals her in unexplained glamour. She remembers her childhood with pleasure, and the death of her son with grief, but these elementary responses are untouched by any reflections on the “fallen,” world-weary state that might make her interesting. Why has she come home? Has Chekhov dragged her back from Paris only to demonstrate her inability to forestall the family’s loss of its principal ornament? If you were compiling a psychological profile, you might wind up with no more substantial description of Ranevskaya than “leading lady in a play.” Diane Lane brought Ranevskaya to life by spoiling her beauty a little and looking confused. It was impossible, however, to imagine that the actress herself would ever be confused by such circumstances. She may be too apparently bright for the role.

Varya, played well if a tad scoldingly by Celia Keenan-Bolger, is a thankless role as well as an unthanked character. Her status as Ranevskaya’s “adopted daughter” is superficially ambiguous, but that seems to be a matter of politeness only. In fact, the Gayevs want her to marry Lopakhin, a man of the class to which she was born. Her adoption is merely another manifestation of Ranevskaya’s Lady-Bountiful compulsion, like the handouts to servants; it will slide into meaningless when Ranevskaya moults into the former owner of the cherry orchard. Perversely, the pretense that Varya is Ranevskaya’s daughter is what makes her not good enough for Lopakhin, who intends to marry the real thing now that he can afford to — if he marries at all. You feel sorry for Varya, but you want her to exit stage left with the more supernumary characters.

I was annoyed by the young lovers, particularly by their claim that they’re “above love,” but I wasn’t inclined to cut the actors any slack. Tavi Gevinson’s Anya was incredibly ingenuous. She behaved like someone who begins every day with a perky dose of amnesia, still as innocent and unblemished as a four year-old. Kyle Beltran’s Trofimov was also incredible. Far from a surly, scruffy student, he was a gleaming Millennial, with a Google internship lined up at the very least. His scenes seemed to be played with a view to highlighting the similarities between Russia on the eve of Revolution and the United States of the eve of Donald Trump, but the more I listened to him the less alike the two eras became. Our present-day situation may be as precarious as any, but we face it with strengths and weaknesses unknown a century ago. No thanks to totalitarian evils, we have put an end to leisure (for the time being), and we are drowning in information and its counterfeits. For all its many faults, the bourgeoisie has emerged as the first genuinely, if partially, humane class in history.

The bonbon of the night was Joel Grey’s Firs, the ancient loyal butler who misses the old days when master could beat their serfs. This was distracting, at least until the very end, when Grey brought a cold draft of Beckett to Firs’s abandonment in the abandoned house. It seemed absolutely right: he was the last man lying down.

One final quibble with the production (which I found to be somewhat overdirected by Simon Godwin): although the fancy costumes were truly delightful — hats off to Michael Krass! — having the ball take place onstage instead of just offstage introduced a very inappropriate note of carnival, and when the dancers withdrew, as they had to do so that the principals could have their dramatic moments alone, the stage looked unduly desolate without them.

Don’t think that I’m sorry that I saw the show. No! I enjoyed every minute, even, or especially, the wrong bits. Filing all the complaints that I’ve summarized here was a pleasure, because Diane Lane was no farther away than the wings.

Susannah Flood was delicious as the housemaid. I was always glad to see her. She is not one of my girlfriends, though. My girlfriends are all very brainy (as well as very beautiful). When I try to imagine having the chance to talk with them, I clam up. I’m sure that I’d bore them. In my imagination, we are all still in high school. In real life, they might bore me (although I cannot really believe for a moment that Helena Bonham Carter would). And in real life, as it occurred to me just the other day, when I was looking forward to seeing Diane Lane from a seat very near the stage, I have the girlfriend of girlfriends, my dear Kathleen. She loves me, yes; but what counts for this discussion is that she finds me snappydoodle. How cool is that?


Friday 20th

It was very hard to get up this morning. I had awakened at dawn and found it difficult to get back to sleep. It was a mistake to read this week’s New Yorker at bedtime. Tad Friend’s profile of Sam Altman, the new head of Y Combinator, like the piece that Raffi Khatchadourian wrote for the magazine about Nick Bostrom, nearly a year ago, upset me enormously. Altman and his friends embody the very danger of “AI takeover” that worries them. They have no idea of the consequence of their immense cultural ignorance, and they believe that you can know all that you need to know by the age of thirty. They claim to be motivated by humane impulses, but they haven’t done the reading. They’re not schooled in human error. They’re besotted by the prospect of “10x.” (Shame on Tad Friend for adopting such usage!) They are also afraid of “the coming chaos.” So am I. It’s not very cheering to try to comfort myself with the hope that I’ll be dead by then.

Louis Menand’s meditation on Karl Marx approached the coming chaos from a more traditional perspective. I don’t want to overstate it, but Menand appears to belong to the large club of educated people who think that Marx’s critique of capitalism was more or less spot on, and that the tensions that he described in The Communist Manifesto have only become more tightly wound. I wish that one of these believers would write a new book, without mentioning Marx at all, that would lay out the current state of play and propose solutions completely free of the taint of Hegelian reasoning. That way, we could talk about the ideas of this new writer, and leave Marx to history, along with the nightmares that, rightly or wrongly, he inspired.

One interesting idea that I gleaned from the Altman profile came in a kernel of news about a Y Combinator pilot project will “test the feasability” of an urban settlement in which, among other things, “no one can ever make money off real estate.” Now, this is a proposition that I heartily embrace. While I believe that farmers ought to own the land that they work, I think that urban residences ought to be owned and managed by not-for-profit companies that are free from the pressures of both government control and rentier greed. We have seen that the value of urban real estate too often chokes, like runaway kudzu, the value of urban population. I believe that markets have a place in healthy economics, but that it is a small place. Everything about markets ought to be scaled to the local, with as many markets and small participants in them as possible. I’d like to give Efficiency a major rethink, because, after all, the most efficient operation is one that never begins. I don’t think that we know very much about capitalism, actually. The wild success of highly capitalized projects over the past two hundred years has implanted an unexamined standard model that, among other problematic things, takes growth for granted.

In any case, there are different kinds of property. As I say, urban lots and rural farmlands are not the same sort of thing at all. And then there is “stuff.” Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx makes recurrent mention of the family linens, which were its most important possession. Things have changed. We are now living in the age of Marie Kondo, trying to empty our crammed closets. We are trying to make do with less, not out of frugality, but simply to unburden our minds. It seems ridiculous to think of “stuff” as “private property,” because who else would want it? This reflects our highly safeguarded property rights as well as an era of material plenty; I don’t mean to suggest that human nature has changed since Marx’s day. But our arrangements have changed — more than we may think.

Finally — before turning to the opening of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell — I read James Wood on David Szalay. I read a story by Szalay late last year, and it made a strong impression. I shall probably pick up a copy of Szalay’s book, All That Man Is. Wood brought up Knausgaard and Houellebecq, which startled me, because no writer is more joyously alive, or more capable of articulating minutiae in spacious narrative arcs, than Knausgaard, whereas Houellebecq’s literary weight is no greater than that of any other boring French think piece. (Dwight Garner gave the Szalay a rave in this morning’s Times.)

Where are the women? That’s what all this depressing reading left me wondering. Are the women off doing girlie things? Are they rolling their eyes? Do they really understand what a total mess unsupervised men can make? Help!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2016 (III)

19, 20, 22 and 23 September

Monday 19th

Over the weekend, I indulged in an orgy of French crime film, or rather I indulged a long-held wish to watch three movies that I regard as a trilogy all in one go. Then I watched another one, with stimulating results. Here they are, in the order in which I watched them.

  • Jules Dassin: Rififi (Du Rififi chez les hommes), 1955
  • Jean-Pierre Melville: Bob le Flambeur, 1956
  • Jacques Becker: Touchez pas au grisbi, 1954
  • Louis Malle: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Elevator to the Gallows], 1958

I also watched two more French films, Luis Buñuel’s Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972), and Merci, Dr Rey! (2002). Because they’re much easier for me to talk about, I’ll begin with them. While I write, I’ll try to deal with my amateur’s ignorance about the others. I am simply unaware of most of the films that were produced in France in the 1950s, and have no reason to think that Rififi and the rest are highly-regarded and arguably comparable other than the plain fact of their having been reissued by the Criterion Collection. I have not surveyed the harvest of that time and chosen unusually good movies. I have simply watched what the producers at Criterion have chosen for me. It is for reasons like this that I am not to be mistaken for a scholar, or for a person who “knows everything.”

I loved Discreet Charm, as I’ll call it, from the moment it came out, because I found it funny and strange, and also obliquely grand. The focus on six people, three irregular couples, stretched a bit to include a seventh, reminded me of the symmetries of Metastasio (the grand-daddy of opera seria librettos). Couples make for doubled drama: as they interact with one another as individuals, they interact with everyone else as pairs. This is humorously demonstrated by Henri and Alice Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassell and Stéphane Audran), who, on the verge of welcoming their friends to an afternoon lunch, become so distracted by lust that they must climb down from their bedroom into the garden (because Alice is “too loud” when they make love). By the time they return, vaguely disheveled and bedecked with straw, their guests have taken off, frightened that their absent hosts might have been warned of an attack. Why any of these people might have reason to fear an attack is not specified, but it doesn’t have to be, because we have just had a scene in which the Ambassador of Miranda (a fictional Latin-American country that boasts neither pyramids nor pampas) (Ferdinand Rey) delivers a sack of pure cocaine to his friends, Henri and M Thévenot (Paul Frankeur’s character does not have a first name), in exchange for a suitcase of cash. Alice and Henri, sloppy hosts though they may be, are least happily married. Simone Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig) makes herself available to the attentions of Don Rafael. This may explain why her sister, Florence (Bulle Ogier), having no one to play with — her brother-in-law treats her like a child — wants nothing but to drink les martinis dry.

This bloc of soigné criminals, complemented by the local bishop (Julien Bertheau), a charming man who appears in the wake of the escaped friends and petitions Alice and Henri to let him do their gardening, is led through a series of frustrated meals. There is a tea-room scene that oughtn’t to be as funny as it is. The waiter takes an order for tea. The ladies chat. The waiter returns: hélas, it has been a busy day, and there is no more tea. Coffee is ordered instead. Now the ladies respond to the attention of an army officer. He begs to join them, because he wants to tell them his story. This begins the movie’s other thread, which moves from the narration (and onscreen representation) of personal history, to that of a dream, and on to a series of dreams that afflict the characters, so that, by the end, we’re not sure what happened and what was dreamed. When the lieutenant is through telling the ladies how his tale of revenge, he takes his leave and the waiter returns: no coffee. Not even any milk. All the tisanes have been consumed. Simone remembers an appointment, and leaves for an appointment. Don Rafael is waiting for her in his apartment, champagne at the ready. But Simone never gets any champagne, because Don Rafael wants to make love first, and then out of the blue Simone’s husband turns up. Everybody gets in everybody else’s way.

As I watched the film yesterday, I realized that it was the “bourgeoisie” in the title that got in the way of my understanding the movie. I certainly didn’t understand its significance in 1972. I thought that bourgeois was bourgeois, wherever you were, and that Buñuel was simply taking pot-shots at rich-y people. But it isn’t and he’s not. The bourgeoisie of Europe has long tended to ape the delegitimated but still very lively class of the nobility. But it cannot quite share the nobility’s devotion to the two institutions that the nobility still influences, the church and the military. Eventually, confrontations with these institutions will reveal the bourgeois as an outsider. The absurdities of Buñuel’s film reflect the failures of his bourgeois sextet to behave in truly aristocratic fashion. This is not to suggest that Buñuel admires the highest of the social castes. But he understands that aristocracy is something that you are born to. If it stamps you with bigotry, that bigotry is authentic. All that Don Rafael, the representative of a jumped-up extractive economy can do is to run a drug ring through his Louis XV office and paw unattractively at Simone. Henri and Alice have a gracious home, and they strike gracious poses in it, but nobody ever gets to eat a thing at at their table (except in nightmares), and Alice betrays her lack of the due consideration that a true lady would show when, in a small crisis, she forgets that her gardener is a bishop and orders him around like a servant. These people are fakes.

A deliberately enigmatic shot wrenches the six principles completely out of context and shows them walking along a flat road in flat country. It is repeated twice. In the body of the film, they never walk anywhere, and their cars even come equipped with drivers. But here they are, in the middle of nowhere, walking on a windy afternoon. They do not look comfortable but they do seem resolute. Sometimes, Simone is seen leading the band; at others, she is arm-in-arm with Alice. It doesn’t make any sense. But then neither does this bourgeoisie’s dream.

I went from Discreet Charm to Merci, Dr Rey! because of Bulle Ogier. She looks younger than she is in the Buñuel; in Dr Rey she looks her age, and she’s a great deal more fun. There must be an interesting back-story behind this movie, but I’ve never heard it. Andrew Litvack, according to IMDb, was part of the Merchant/Ivory team on several projects; in 2002, Merchant/Ivory backed his directorial début. Litvack also wrote the screenplay. The result is a consummate train-wreck, but the performances simply refuse to fade, and every now and then I have to watch Dianne Wiest play an opera diva who goes mad on hash brownies. I have to watch Jane Birkin practically swallow her lines in neurotic enthusiasm. I have to hear the phrase, “curb your narcissism.” And then there’s that staggering moment in which Vanessa Redgrave, playing herself, says that Jane Birkin’s character reminds her of the “ghastly” woman who dubs her movies in French — as indeed that character does. Redgrave is like a fairy-godmother descending on a troubled project to oblige the backers who produced and directed three of her best pictures. And not in vain, because, as I say, once you’ve seen it, you have to see it again. It’s too bad that Stanislas Merhar’s English is too heavily accented to make him plausible as the son of Wiest’s diva; and any attempt to explain the murder of Simon Callow’s character is bound to go nowhere, if only because it’s a real murder, involving a real death, and not a commedia dell’arte device. The snippets of Turandot that we get to see suggest a wicked travesty of all the misconceived re-conceptions of grand operas that have littered stages during the past forty years, but that doesn’t excuse calling the opera “Turandoe.” Lots of movies are called “zany,” but this one really is. In the event that you watch it and fall for it, too, I counsel caution in recommending it to friends.


Tuesday 20th

A no-comment comment on Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed piece today, “The Age of Distrust.” Okay, almost no-comment.


Politicians are going to have to work very hard to earn back the trust of the people. A serious issue exists with what Stephen Walt of Harvard University has called the “ruling elites in many liberal societies and especially the United States, where money and special interests have created a corrupt political class that is out-of-touch with ordinary people, interested mostly in enriching themselves, and immune to accountability.” This has to end.

(Note to self: who’s this Stephen Walt? Why doesn’t he write Op-Ed pieces?)


The answer is not to build walls. Western societies need to build education and innovation and opportunity. A time of great uncertainty is upon the world.

This is Élite Nostrum #1. Education, innovation and opportunity are great for those who can make use of them. But many people cannot. Many people whose jobs have been taken over by computers have been permanently replaced — in current economic terms. So long as we stick to those terms, these folks are out of luck.


Technology has prized the world open. Nobody — not Vladimir Putin, not Xi Jinping, not Trump — can shatter that interconnectedness.

This is nonsense. The idea that global interconnectedness is here to stay is both myopic and ignorant. Myopic: history is littered with the ruins of “irreversible” arrangements. Ignorant: shutting down the Internet is not impossible. And if you can shut down the Internet (by pulling a lot of plugs), then you can shut down connections between here and over the hill, much less global ones.

But the worst of it all is that we élites are just standing here talking amongst ourselves. We have no reliable way of piercing the bubble in which we have coddled ourselves. And the people outside the bubble: they can see us now; they have our number. They’ve taken a hostage: Trump.


The three French films that I regard as a trilogy, Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi are linked by strong similarities that are made even stronger by interesting differences in the ways that the similarities are deployed. Each film involves a heist, as well as the relatively cool-headed thieves who commit heists. One of the heists never gets off the ground, which in an important way constitutes something like the success enjoyed by the other two. All three heists are treated as engineering problems, of secondary interest. Only one occurs on screen, in Rififi, and it poses only one serious problem to the thieves. This is no Ocean movie, with hurdle after hurdle to surmount. Once the alarm at a jewelry boutique has been silenced, the thieves are pretty much in and out. In Touchez pas au grisbi, the heist has occurred before the movie begins, and nobody even suspects the actual thieves.

In all three movies, the thieves are undone by women. At least one member of each gang blabs to his girlfriend about the heist. (In Rififi, this blabbing is not verbal, but worse: the safe-cracker slips an ostentatious ring on a nightclub-singer’s finger.) Again, the variation in Bob le Flambeur is interesting: word about the intended heist gets back to the police, and the chief officer, who takes an interest in Bob and wants to keep him out of prison, intervenes in such a way that Bob may walk. (“With a really top lawyer,” says Bob in the greatest of last lines, “I may sue for damages!”) Bob has been distracted from the heist by a run of very good, and very honest, luck at the Deauville Casino; as he is arrested, page boys are stuffing his wads of winnings into the boot of the police car. Things do not work out so well in Rififi, in which almost everyone, the thieves and their rivals alike, falls on his own finesse. The end of Touchez pas au grisbi is slightly enigmatic: the gold that was stolen before the credits rolled has been retrieved by the authorities, and Max (Jean Gabin), although polished and dandy as ever, won’t have that nest egg to fall back on. But others have been blamed for the heist, and he does have the comforts of Betty, the rich American girl who seems to be in love with him, to fall back on. I must note here that it was not Max, but his partner Riton, who couldn’t keep his good fortune to himself.

Bob le Flambeur is the most amiable of the three films; there is not a lot of violence. The actor Roger Duchesne carries his film much more than his counterparts, Jean Servais (Rififi) and even Jean Gabin, carry theirs. His Bob is always presentable, if not as impeccably groomed as Jean Gabin’s Max, and, as befits a true gambler, always up for something new. Max’s posture is essentially defensive; he’s trying to hold on to what he has. Servais’s Tony le Stéphanois is the odd man out here: he is obviously not in good health, and he seems to join in the plot because he can’t think of a more interesting way to die. As if to prove the point, he finally steps forward at the end and claims the hero’s role. There is nothing in the other two pictures that approaches the desperate resolve of Tony’s drive back to Paris, with his three year-old godson jumping back and forth in the convertible, having the time of his life, unaware that his father is dead and that his mortally wounded godfather may die at any moment and drive the car into a tree. Having carried the boy out of the muck of gang warfare, Tony expires. You have to see this movie just for its ending.

There is a great shoot-out scene in Touchez pas au grisbi that highlights its difference from Rififi. I was very surprised when I saw it the first time, because I didn’t think that the French had the resources for an action scene in 1954; made by Hollywood, the scene would be better lit, but it could not improve on the camera work. It’s an intricate scene, involving three cars in the middle of a country night. But whereas the violence in Rififi is bleak and totally film noir, the shoot-out in Touchez pas au grisbi is a tournament, staged for our delectation. Since this is a story about criminals, the scene must end with a joke: Max’s ingots, which he fully intended to retrieve from his enemy’s car, are barred from him by the flames engulfing the vehicle. In Bob le Flambeur, of course, the joke is Bob’s legitimate piles of banknotes. I chuckle at the comparison.

All three films feature nightclubs — nightclubs on Montmartre, near the Place Pigalle. Unlike Hollywood nightclubs, these boîtes seem real, or at least patterned on genuine operations. They are not too big, for one thing; for another, we are taken backstage in at least two of them. Touchez pas au grisbi even has a floor show: a choreographed catwalk of pretty girls who will be available for one-on-one dancing later in the evening. (And yet the idea of unseemly behavior between men and women at the club seems refreshingly inconceivable.)

Finally, all three films have somewhat uncertain soundtracks. Georges Auric’s score for Rififi is too self-important, and moments of high tension are blessedly silent. Two men are credited with the score for Bob le Flambeur, and that may explain the often rather silly musical accompaniment. The prolific Jean Wiener provides Touchez pas au grisbi with a haunting harmonica melody that suggests a plausible cowboy link, but his music for the floor show has the art-déco sheen that characterizes, in even more stylized form, some of the orchestral music of Poulenc.


Then I watched Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. On a line between Bob le Flambeur, the latest of my trilogy films and also the most “independent,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout du souffle (Breathless), Louis Malle’s first feature film lies more than halfway to the nouvelle vague. Paris itself is different: it is smarter, more up-to-date — and more alienating. A very great deal of the action takes place either in an elevator (in a square, glass-faced building with all the mod cons), at a futuristic motel outside Paris, or on the highway in between. Cars are even more conspicuously American — or, in one case, a German Mercedes sportscar. The only old-fashioned scenes feature Jeanne Moreau, who, by the way, was the moll to whom Riton boasted about his heist, in Touchez pas au grisbi. Four years separate that movie from Malle’s, but Malle as well as time must be responsible for the transformation of a very capable and eye-catching actress into the bombshell that Moreau has remained ever since. As Florence Carala, Moreau walks the streets in search of her lover, unaware that he is trapped in an elevator but convinced that she saw him driving away with a girl in his car. (The driver was in fact the girl’s punk boyfriend.) Tthe lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), caged in the elevator, does not have a lot to say, but Florence does, both in speaking imperiously to other people — she is the wife of her lover’s boss, whom she has put her lover up to killing — and muttering desperately, blankly to herself. And yet if Florence’s background is the Paris of the boulevards, her soundtrack is the music of Miles Davis, famously improvised while the picture was projected for his band. Florence’s love is both deep and wrong, and it makes Moreau the star of the film, something unimaginable in the masculine worlds of Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi. Florence is even more fatal than the women in those pictures, and her pre-eminence is back-handedly attested by the the commissaire who arrests her at the end (Lino Ventura, also in Touchez pas au grisbi, where he plays Angelo, the principal bad guy). The policeman surmises that the lover will get off with ten years, but that the jury will put the bad wife behind bars for twice that.

The story of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is staggeringly claustrophobic, and not just because of the elevator. The two sets of lovers — the ultra serious Julien and Florence, the joyriding Louis and Véroniqueare trapped in very small spaces: quite literally, their guilt is established by the strip of film in a microcamera. But as a movie, Ascenseur a l’échafaud is open-ended. It is shot as though really anything could happen next. In a world with electric pencil-sharpeners, the old conventions become unreliable. You can’t be sure, as you almost always can be in the earlier movies, of how long any scene will last. The fact that the principal characters don’t know what’s going on, which chains them, is transmuted into freedom for the viewer, who does. Florence wanders about unseeing, obsessed by the possibility that she has lost Julien, but we see a woman who doesn’t seem to have a plan, who does not so much make the rounds of places where she used to meet Julien as happen upon them. When she is told that Julien has not been heard of at a given bar or restaurant, she does not stick around, but wanders off again. Eventually, she is rounded up by the police in some sort of vice sting, from which, still the respectable industrialist’s wife, she is easily liberated by the very commissaire who will later arrest her. It is ever so faintly absurd. The earlier movies could be heavily ironic, but absurd, never.


So much for crime. As I say, I went on to the two very different movies that I wrote about yesterday; and then, last night, I watched a third, which somehow seemed to belong: Danièle Thompson’s Fauteuils d’orchestra (Avenue Montaigne). If Merci, Dr Rey! is a train-wreck, Avenue Montaigne is a fairy-tale, implausible in not dozens of ways but only one: a vast compression of time and space. Avenue Montaigne is Groundhog Day without the reiterations. Everything goes right the first time. And the backdrop is almost too luxurious, too sophisticated to sparkle à la mode Disney. All the sets are real! Well, the big ones: the two theatres of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées and the auction house Drouot-Montaigne. I hate to say “cinematic feast,” but that’s exactly what this movie is.

Cécile de France plays Jessica, a spirited girl from Mâcon who arrives in Paris without prospects but who lands a rich fiancé in two days. She spends the first night in a rehearsal studio at the Théâtre and the second in bed with Fred (Christopher Thompson), the only son of a prominent shipper who is liquidating his art collection. The bed is in the showroom with the art. Both nests are handy to Jessica’s job, at the Bar des Théâtres, where women have never been employed before but where an exception is made for her. Dreams come true on a more exalted level when famous director Brian Sobinsky (Sydney Pollack, a famous director) finds that he cannot make his movie about Sartre and Beauvoir without the help of Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier), the star of a French soap opera who wants to break into more important work. Sobinsky makes this discovery literally overnight. And why not? Hasn’t Catherine had the wit to bend her performance in a Feydeau farce to pique him? (Hilariously, when her character takes of her hat, her wig comes off with it, revealing the coiffure for which Beauvoir was noted: an onstage screen test.) In a third strand, a concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) finds release from the straitjacket of concertizing by interrupting the finale of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto and stripping down to his T-shirt. (The music world appears to have followed the pianist’s lead, as orchestras have dressed ever more casually.) Meanwhile, the singer-actress Dani putzes around on the eve of her retirement as a placeuse at the Théâtre, her earbuds binding her to the pop glories of the past. She takes them off, though, to soak up the raptures of the Emperor‘s slow movement.

Avenue Montaigne is the perfect feel-good movie: you couldn’t feel any better, and if it lasted a second longer it would kill you.


Thursday 22nd

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is not a particularly interesting movie to watch, but it must be watched, because so much of the action is silent. The climax — well, I thought that’s what it was — is silent. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) crouches in the attic loft of her home in Norfolk, England, as she watches a slide show. There is nothing spooky or disturbing about the attic. It’s the attic of any long-married couple, stuffed with stuff. But Kate’s husband has been spending time in it lately, and although Kate knows why, there is room for a small shock. Does Kate gasp or groan? I can’t remember which. In short, 45 Years shows us how domesticated the alienating cinematic techniques of Bergman and the new wave directors have become. We’re right at home with them. Color, far from adding interest, merely deprives us of a black-and-white frisson.

Tom Courtenay, moreover, plays Jeff Mercer, the attic-haunting husband, as if he were not acting at all, but as if 45 Years were a documentary, and he were in fact a retired bloke who hates to shave. I found him unsympathetic and uninteresting, whereas Charlotte Rampling, weathered though she is, is still very much an actress of coiled and deadly possibilities. There was no mistaking her for an anonymous old dear. This lack of accord between dramatic registers — whether Rampling is “acting” more or less than Courtenay, the two of them are not acting in quite the same way — might be a fault, but in fact it is the point. When the movie begins, Jeff receives a letter informing him that a body has been found — the body of his long-ago girlfriend, who fell into an Alpine glacier and whose body has only just surfaced in melted snow. Katia’s accidental death occurred years before Jeff met Kate, but Jeff’s attachment is no more buried than the girl’s body. In a typically domestic instance of bad timing, the news comes days before Jeff and Kate are to celebrate their forty-fifth anniversary at a large party with all their friends.

Jeff told Kate about Katia way back when, but he must have kept the story light, because the wash of his intense bemusement comes as a very unpleasant surprise to her. As he recedes from her, she tries to hold on to him. Instead of giving him space in which to mourn, she bridles at the unearthed rivalry with Katia. She takes it hard that Jeff and Katia were pretending to be man and wife when they hiked through Switzerland; she takes it even harder that Jeff would have married Katia had she not died. It has evidently never crossed Kate’s mind that she is not first in her husband’s heart, and to learn that she might never even have become second, if that’s what she is, stops her breath. She lashes out with the absurd claim, hotly reasonable to her in the moment, that Katia has governed all of Jeff’s decisions ever since. She wails that Katia has taken away everything that she and Jeff have together. In her most foolish move, Kate tells Jeff to open his eyes when they are making love, and he goes soft inside her. “That’s okay,” she whispers, as if she didn’t know anything about men.

After a few days of odd behavior, Jeff seems to regain his balance. He will not go to Switzerland to view the body. Perhaps he will discard the souvenirs of his time with Katia. But the fever has jumped to Kate. How long will it take her to decide whether she is celebrating forty-five years of marriage, or forty-five years of living with a man going through the motions? The movie ends by leaving that question conspicuously unanswered.

That’s one way of looking at 45 Years. It was, I suppose, the one that was easiest to write down. It’s not untrue, but it is incomplete. It’s too focused on the extraordinary suitability of Charlotte Rampling for the part of Kate; she is still beautiful enough to command an exalted self-assurance, and still as impatiently angry as she was in Georgy Girl. Everything is muted, of course, but it is all there. Stepping back from this focus, I can regain the ambivalence that I felt before I began to write. My initial impression, formed as the movie rolled, was that Jeff allows the news about Katia to puff him up to tragic dimensions. He makes a decidedly masculine fuss over substantially healed wounds; reminded of old suffering, he bravely suffers anew. When I began to wonder if those wounds had indeed ever healed, I thought even less of Jeff; he became exactly what Kate comes to fear he might be, a two-timing monster enjoying the best setup ever, with a long-lost adored one for whom he maintains a chapel of memories, and a foxy wife to entertain him in this vale of tears. The brute!

What can be said uncontroversially is that 45 Years shows us the fragility of a marriage of two people who are young at heart. Hats off to Andrew Haigh.


Friday 23rd

The sense of an ending is very strong. When I return from San Francisco at the end of next week, the top job will be to construct a workable schedule around revising the first draft of the Writing Project, finding an exercise program, and doing a better job of keeping house. It will be much more like normal person’s life than what I’ve been living for some time, and I mean to throw myself into it. I will be able to spend much less time here; more to the point, I won’t begin my days, as I’ve been doing for years now, by drifting into the book room, after I’ve read the Times, and sitting down at the computer to see what comes out. During the past year, I’ve written longer and still longer entries, getting up from the desk at two in the afternoon or so and wanting only to go back to bed — although I have not done that even once, unless ill. It has been the work of a booster rocket, propelling me from one state of ignorance to another, far more articulate one. Now it falls away, no longer necessary. The difficulty is that I don’t regard it as necessary; it has become a pleasure that I shall have to do with less of.

An example of poor housekeeping arose this morning in the form of a prescription renewal. I had to pick up a Lunesta prescription at the doctor’s office and take it to the pharmacy. There wasn’t time (before next week’s trip) for the scrip to be mailed, and, besides, I’d put off renewal until my stock was very low. Worse, I’d failed to notice that there were no renewals. The doctor’s office was swamped, and I had to wait for a few minutes to get the envelope for the pharmacy; I had to wait ten minutes at the pharmacy, too. The waiting didn’t bother me as such; I had Middlemarch with me, and even now I am dying to get back to it to learn about Peter Featherstone’s testamentary dispositions. But waiting is rarely just waiting. It is always a sign to me that things are not working well, or that, even if they are working well, they might at any moment be disrupted, just as the cable connection to the Internet was interrupted this morning. The interruption was brief, and I might never have noticed it. Indeed, I wish that I hadn’t noticed it, because it made me uneasy. Uneasiness is a feedback loop that I have to do my best to stay out of. There was nothing to be done about the cable outage, but I might have managed the prescription renewal better. Figuring how to do that is one of things that I have to see to when I get back.

It’s hard to tell when, exactly, I began publishing a Web site. I believe that it was in 2000, but it might have been the following year. By the end of 2004, I had a Web log, which is still out there, although I haven’t updated it in a few years. The Web site is still up, too, as is its embarrassing, unfinished — almost unbegun — successor. The beginning of this Web log is easy to remember, because it was designed in response to the new iPad. I had bought two, one of them for my grandson, who was about three months older than the tablet. (He will be seven in just a few months.) It seems that I’ve been here longer. What I ought to do is to tidy up all those other sites, but that’s tedious, lowering work, even worse than going through old photographs. The joys of old age. Don’t worry; I won’t be giving up on this — even if I myself no longer own an iPad. I’ll only be cutting back. I do need to get out more.

I plan to post the next entry on 3 October.


Can I say a word about Zazie dans le Métro, Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s novel? Someone called Jonathan Rosenbaum is quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page as saying that it is Malle’s “best work,” but I suspect from the rest of the quote that Rosenbaum doesn’t think much of Malle overall, if only because he adds that Zazie is “certainly worth a look.” That’s not very enthusiastic, is it? My favorite Malle has always been Atlantic City, a supremely lucid film behind which real people stumble, but for a long time it was the only Malle I knew. I have always known the name of Zazie dans le Métro; who, having heard it, could forget it? But it was said to be absurd, so I stayed away. The attempt to make art out of absurdity usually produces a residue of cruelty.

The absurdity in Zazie is to a great extent nostalgic. Malle wants to enjoy the silliness of the original movies, which weren’t silly at the time but came to seem so as the medium grew more sophisticated. There is a great deal of overt longing for la belle époque, the “gay Nineties” and the early years of the new century. But there is also a very contemporary contempt for “story.” The characters who are invested in order and continuity, Mme Mouaque (Yvonne Clech) and Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), are the victims of many pratfalls, while Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) has an altogether fluid identity, even if we never actually see him in the dress that he is said to wear as an entertainer. There is a guitar-smashing intoxication with destruction for its own sake, as when the bistro is torn apart near the end. There is contempt for tourism, exemplified both by the bus full of gargoyles and the insolence about monuments — they never do get St Sulpice right. And of course the Métro is on strike, so that Paris is unattractively choked with cars.

Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) herself is adorable, I suppose. I didn’t come to hate her, as I often do children in the movies. (Those kids in Jurassic Park — how I wanted the juice to reach the fence in time to fry them!) She grew on me, as did the movie. But if I never see her or it again, I don’t think I’ll regret it. I am not a fan of improvisational film. It’s one thing for an instrumentalist to weave spontaneous variations on a theme and to wander through the scales to see what happens, but film is far too cumbersome a medium to travel so lightly, and it is arguably a physiological distinction between how hearing and seeing are set up that we are less tolerant of visual racket. Right at the start, when Zazie’s mother’s boyfriend is lifting and turning her like a mad danseur, I asked myself why this constant twirling couldn’t be allowed to stop, what made twenty revolutions better than five? Whether or not Malle disciplined himself in the making of Zazie dans le Métro, the result looks extremely undisciplined, as if to say, or shout, Je m’en fiche de la discipline! It was a common feeling in those days, but I think we learned that discipline becomes burdensome only when it ceases to serve our humanity; it is we who are at fault, not the idea of discipline.

Maybe that’s why the most precious moment for me was the pang of watching Zazie sleep through her one Métro ride. I was sorry that she was missing the experience that she longed for, but I was happier that she was finally asleep, the poor thing.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fail Better Still
September 2016 (II)

12, 13, 15 and 16 September

Monday 12th

The disgrace is almost asphyxiating. It seems that a number of networks and cable channels are vying for ratings by celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsay, the publicity of which was grotesque when the news was fresh. The little girl’s world of precocious beauty pageants was grotesque in itself (it was quite beautifully satirized in Little Miss Sunshine), but the media hugely amplified the lubricious element, tantalizing onlookers with the possibility that a sex crime might be involved. What kind of people are we?

That wasn’t how I intended to begin this entry, and it has nothing to do with what follows, except perhaps this: I want to ask you to use your imagination as intensely as you can, but I sense that the American imagination — the imagination of the liberal West, actually — has been so degraded by disgusting spectacles that it cannot be expected to respond to questions that lack a salacious charge. That means, I know, that I’m worrying about whether you’re up to my challenge, and I apologize for that, because I don’t really doubt that you are. It’s just that the sludge of recycled brainlessness gets so thick sometimes that it’s hard to stand up in it.

Over the weekend, I finally read Stuart Firestein’s Failure. I have had the book since it came out, earlier this year, but the right moment for reading it never seemed to come round. But then it did, and I swallowed it whole. To tell the truth, I couldn’t read two pages altogether without pausing for a revival-service affirmation; quite unlike even the most congenial reading matter, Failure often provoked moments of ecstatic clarity. I am not going to talk about it right now; its aftermath remains turbulent. I am going to talk about a tangent that it sent me off on.

I could label this tangent with the deadly term, “phlogiston theory,” but I’d rather not, even though that theory will play an important role in my challenge. The challenge began as one to myself: despite reading Herbert Butterfield’s chapter on the subject in The Origins of Modern Science three times, I could not explain “phlogiston theory” in a nutshell. For those of you who are unfamiliar with phlogiston theory, I will say at the outset that it was always, by our lights, completely wrong, so that it is difficult now, knowing what we educated people know, to imagine how anyone could ever have subscribed to it. That is one part of the difficulty. The other is the overthrow of the phlogiston theory. This is difficult to imagine, too, and for much the same reasons, but it occurred in stages, as discoveries were made by men who nonetheless failed to grasp the implications of their findings for the reigning theory. Although I was able to follow Butterfield’s narrative, I could not seem to hold it in my mind. So I resolved to read the chapter once again, and this time get to the bottom of my imaginative problems.

At the risk of fatuity, I will joke that the difficulty is elementary. What you have to do, before trying to understand phlogiston theory and the huge importance of its overthrow, is to see the world as every educated mind did circa 1600. It was still a world composed of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. By 1800, as a result of the overthrow of phlogiston theory, belief in the old four elements was impossible; new elements, the ones that we are familiar with, had begun to take their place.

All four elements were involved in phlogiston theory and its overthrow, but earth not so much. The element of fire was no longer regarded as the flame itself but rather as a substance — this is the earthy part — contained in all combustible materials that was released, as Butterfield puts it, “in the flutter of flame.” Somebody proposed that this substance was an oily kind of earth, and called it terra pinguis. Somebody else saw the need to go Greek: phlogiston means, roughly, “imflammable.” Phlogiston was this inflammable substance that, although it could not be isolated, inhered in combustible things and was released by combustion. It was the element of fire, somehow — while also, somehow, an earthy substance.

This inconsistency might seem damning to you, an indication that even scientists in the Seventeenth Century weren’t very bright. But that’s why I want you to exercise your imagination. I want you to imagine what how the world could be explained if you believed that both air and water were elements, irreducible substances. Next, I want you to imagine what it would be like to try to solve the problems raised by this elementary status, given the interesting twist that air and water are not elements in different ways. Water is a compound of elements. Air is but a mixture.

Water is created by the explosion of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, as I suppose many of you were reminded by The Martian. In this compounded form, oxygen is no longer available for breathing, even by fish. Fish breathe pure oxygen that has been dissolved in water; their gills extract it. Land animals don’t need gills because atmospheric oxygen is not compounded, but free alongside the other elementary gases (mostly nitrogen) that consistute “air.” What you learn in the course of demythologising water, in short, is not going to help you to demythologise air, and vice versa. Worse, air and its constituent gases are invisible. Worse still, you have to have reason to believe that the elementary status of air and water are myths in the first place.

The virtue of imaginary phlogiston was that it offered a relatively simple explanation for a common phenomenon, couched in terminology rooted in the doctrine of the four elements, that had the effect of organizing what might have been unrelated developments in scientific inquiry. Cavendish, Black and Priestly all made discoveries that were crucial to the overthrow of phlogiston theory, but their belief in the theory persisted nonetheless. Cavendish, for example, concluded that “common air” was four parts of phlogisticated air — a compound, as it were, of air and phlogiston released by combustion, and not to be confused — then! — with something called “fixed air,” or what we know as carbon dioxide — and one part of dephlogisticated air. Cavendish had the right idea, but the wrong terminology. His phlogisticated air turned out to be elementary nitrogen, which is not the product of combustion. It was Lavoisier who gathered together everyone’s findings, for the purpose of debunking phlogiston theory.

Why did Lavoisier want to do this? Because phlogiston theory was failing to make sense in the light of replicable discoveries. Oxygen and hydrogen were isolated (if not understood), but phlogiston never was. In order to account for mounting discrepancies between fact and theory, scientists did what they always do: they patched. They claimed that phlogiston worked differently in exceptional circumstances. Phlogiston theory explained x, except when it didn’t. Sixty or seventy years after its formulation, the theory was in tatters, but most scientists continued to work under its banner. Lavoisier, the rich, elegant tax farmer, resolved to give the theory the boot. What I ought to have said was that it was the overthrow of phlogiston theory that required the organization of widespread experimental findings. These were coming so fast and free at the time that it is not possible to say with much finality who discovered what, and Lavoisier discredited his own great work by claiming credit that was not his due — he was a synthesizer, not a discoverer. But the result was that the battle against phlogiston produced modern chemistry.

I believe that “the invisible hand,” which has come to mean something that Adam Smith didn’t quite have in mind, is the phlogiston of today. If I were a trained economist, and half my age, I should devote my life to attempting to repeat Lavoisier’s success.

But wait: did I just say “success”? Was Lavoisier’s overthrow of phlogiston theory a success? Stuart Firestein doesn’t say much about success in Failure, but I think that he makes an implicit case against its usefulness, and perhaps even against its existence. Success may be just as bogus as the four elements. I’ll come back to this tomorrow.


Tuesday 13th

What is success? Let’s not bother with that question. Everybody knows what success is. The better question is, can success (or its negative, failure) inhere in the character of a human being? Is it reasonable to speak of successful people?

One of the old Greeks — Solon, perhaps? — counseled against regarding anyone as a success until he died. Then you could draw the line under his achievements and shortcomings and make a permanent calculation. This sounds very prudent — don’t count your chickens, &c — but it is actually short-sighted, because it assumes that success is an immediately post-mortem assessment. It overlooks the possibility that the next generation, or the generation after that, may revisit the dead man’s life, and come to a conclusion that differs from the one reached by his survivors. Modern history involves constant re-evaluation. Jeremy Bentham’s corporeal remains may be (more or less) permanently preserved, as an “auto-icon,” at University College London, but his reputation is no less fluid than anyone else’s.

We all love two kinds of stories about success. The first one is about the outwardly successful person who is inwardly miserable — or who ought to be. The second story is about the person who touches the lives of everyone who knows her — this sort of successful person is a bit more likely to be a woman — with love and inspiration, but whose success as a human being goes unsung, because it is too local and complicated. The stories of Dorian Gray and Dorothea Brooke suggest that success does not really attach itself to people. If anything, it flows away from them, either turning to dust in the hand or spreading generously among truly loved ones. Not a few fairy tales insist that true success lies in letting it go.

This is all very high-minded; what about good old-fashioned money, pots of money? Isn’t the man who has lots of money, who has earned it, one lawful way or another, a success? There are plenty of people who think so. I would bet, though, that many such successful men and women would, upon the application of some gentle pressure, admit that their success is really a matter of controlling that money, of knowing what to do with it. The man with a gazillion dollars in the bank who spends his life sipping umbrella cocktails in a hammock is not likely to inspire the admiration that success deserves. Letting money sit in a vault is just another way of losing it — everybody knows that.


Kathleen, my wife, is very skeptical about success. “I’m supposed to be a success,” she sighs. And she is supposed to be a success; she wouldn’t have been profiled by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year if she weren’t. “But it’s really just one thing after another. You go on to the next thing.” Sometimes, Kathleen forgets how bored she would be if she didn’t have the next thing to go on to, but talk about success does invite dreams of hammocks. If successful people have to go on to the next thing, just like people who aren’t successful, then what difference does it make? The difference, I point out, is that Kathleen, as a success — or, as I prefer to put it, as someone associated with success — is engaged to go on to the very small number of possible next things that will continue her success, or her association with success. The person who fails must try something altogether different. Movie stars keep having to prove their stardom, in film after film. That happens to be the proof of their stardom. Actors who don’t establish stardom quickly aren’t permitted to make a second or a third bid.

Success is never attained, never achieved. A very good thing, too, say I, mindful of the French meaning of s’achever — to be achieved. It is said of those whose lives are over.

What Stuart Firestein appears to be arguing in Failure is that we diminish the bounty of success by trying too hard to avoid failure. It is easy to see why failure is avoided, at least in the world of scientific investigation that is his métier. Science is expensive. Laboratories require recurrent infusions of grant money, and grant money is not awarded to scientists who openly plan to design experiments that will fail. His nutshell advice is to reform the grant-award process so that decisions are made by other scientists, not necessarily in a related field, who look for proposals that are interesting and credible, rather than by administrators with a check-list of predictors of success. Firestein critiques the vogue for citing Beckett’s line, “Fail better.” Beckett is not cleverly suggesting that there is a way to fail that is tantamount to success. “Failing better,” Firestein writes, “meant leaving the circle of what he knows. Failing better meant discovering his ignorance, where his mysteries still reside.”

It is this unordinary meaning of failure that I suggest scientists should embrace. One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious, beyond what you know and beyond what you know how to do. Failing better happens when we ask questions, when we doubt results, when we allow ourselves to be immersed in uncertainty. (27)

“Too often you fail until you succeed,” he continues, “and then you are expected to stop failing.” He might have added that this comes to the same thing as being expected to play dead.


Scientific failures are expensive in money; properly conducted — as clinical trials sometimes manage not to be — they are not expensive in health or happiness. It is different in most other fields. We all can learn from our mistakes, but mistakes made by engineers or central bankers or by judges can be costly in very undesirable ways. I read somewhere that the passengers who died in the early days of commercial aviation ought to be regarded as heroes for having contributed, so to speak, to the database that has made flying much safer than driving. Maybe so, but I’m not inclined to encourage experiments that kill people. (It might have been better, if such human sacrifice were going to be sanctioned, for them to offer themselves up to medical experimentation.) The moral of the aviation story as I see it is that there ought to have been more funding. And for my part, I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been made sick by my cooking.

But science at Firestein’s level is a branch of intellectual history — the proudest growth in the Western world. It not only costs nothing but money but also requires failure to grow. One of the reasons for Firestein’s advocating the publication (on a low-cost Web site) of failed experiments is that other people’s failures may very well inspire your success. He urges his students to consider failed experiments that have been reported in Science — fifteen or twenty years ago, when the technological resources were vastly more constrained. Failure, like success, can be reconsidered later. Revisited failures may be transformed into successes. But first you have to have the failures.


By a stroke of luck, I read a story by William Trevor yesterday that couldn’t be more on point. It’s called “Traditions.” It is set at an English public school. A group of boys have been capturing jackdaws and teaching them to speak (sort of) in a barn that is strictly off-limits. One morning, the boys discover that the birds’ necks have been broken. All but one of the boys suspects another student of committing this atrocity. The exception, a boy called Olivier, has another idea, one that he keeps to himself. It so happens that Olivier is in hot water with the headmaster, because he is doing poorly in his science classes — classes that he elected to take. Olivier offers to drop the science course, but this makes the headmaster even angrier: you don’t quit. If you sign up for science courses, you commit to doing well at them. You don’t fail, whether by doing poorly or quitting; you succeed, because success is a tradition at this school. The headmaster is incapable of grasping that Olivier has already succeeded in his science classes. He was curious about things, and so he learned about them. He could not be bothered with boring laboratory procedures. This unorthodox cast of mind is what has alerted Olivier to the identity of the culprit in the jackdaw case — and in other unsolved mysteries at the school.

Many a time in school, especially in college, did I drive teachers mad by seeming to play the dilettante, by taking what I needed from a course and flunking the rest. Even I was not particularly at ease about this habit, but there was no changing it. My curriculum was dictated by an inner voice that overrode official criteria. No doubt that inner voice required a seven year spell in the desert before confronting the requirements of law school, to which it deferred. I should not recommend Stuart Firestein to take on Oliviers as grad students, but I think that he would agree with me that we need to open up undergraduate education to more freewheeling minds, especially if the direction those to which those minds tend is toward the heart of the traditions, and not away from them. No matter how firmly I insisted on the relevance of coursework to my self-directed inquiries, I was the last to argue that “relevance” ought to shape the curriculum. I’m certainly not saying that colleges ought to be overhauled for the likes of me. But there ought to be more room for failing better.


Thursday 15th

Last night, Kathleen brought home two sets of print-outs of the proofed first draft of the writing project. 187 pages, 83 thousand words. A good beginning, I think — but also an uncomfortable ending, as this first stage of the work comes to a halt. For weeks, it was the center of my everyday life, even on the three days each week when I did not write. It felt “organized,” whatever that means in this context, from the start, and it quickly established its own rhythm. There were other things to worry about, but they were unusually easy to overlook, as I focused on the project. Now all of that is over.

Kathleen will read the first draft on a flight to California on Sunday; whether she finishes by touchdown (she probably will), the point is that she won’t be reading it here, with me hovering in the background. The timing of her business trip to Dana Point could not be more providential. It gives a term to the fallow period that must in any case, I think, follow the long burst of thinking and writing and (in proofing) thinking further that produced the draft. I have to set the whole thing aside for a few days — not that’s entirely possible; I’m already thinking very hard about enlarging the shortest section — but, thanks to Kathleen’s trip, I don’t have to wonder when it will be time to get going again. Coming all at once, her comments will change everything.

For I have been very careful to make sure that, when Kathleen does read the first draft, it will be fresh. I have resisted the impulse to read her the great little bits that seem so striking when they’re new but that, with time, settle into their texts. (If they don’t, it’s a problem.) I did, fairly early on, read three paragraphs from the second section that I thought were very funny. Kathleen thought they were funny, too, but my reading was interrupted by trying to make sense of typos and to fill in missing words. I decided not to repeat the performance. So I have shared what I have written with no one. I have not even described it to anyone but Kathleen. I have waited until it can be read as a coherent whole, a text that, while not perfect by any means, is fluent and comprehensible.

It occurs to me that this would be a good time to take a holiday here, as well. We still plan to spend the last week of the month in San Francisco, so I shall be silent then certainly. But I may begin tapering off before then. While Kathleen is away, I may set up the card table in the foyer and pile it with all of the extraneous stuff — in bags, in piles, and in desk drawers — that hasn’t found its place in this small book room. It seems that I’m the only person who ever walks in here freely; Kathleen won’t enter unless asked, and no one even comes to the “back half” of the apartment except to use the bathroom. I’ve taken advantage of this atmospheric privacy to make up for the absence of adequate closet space (the apartment’s one real drawback), but the joke is that that the only person who’s bothered by the bags and the piles is me. To me, they’re very noisy. They’re also in the way of the bookcases. Getting rid of them (how?) would not be a fun pastime, but this might be the time to have a go at it.

It seems to me, and to everyone that I know, that the United States is on the precipice of a national disaster. Every day, it appears just a little more possible that Donald Trump will win the presidential election in November. Why? Because he is the “honest” candidate. Charged with a wide array of failings, some of them arguably criminal, he simply shrugs, as if to tell his supporters, “If you don’t care, I don’t care.” And of course they don’t care. But what’s awful is that this comes across as candor, and candor appeals to many voters, not just to his supporters, as the key virtue, because it has come to be seen as the virtue so lacking in Hillary Clinton’s makeup. Don’t look now, but Hillary Clinton has foot-in-mouth disease; everything that she says, including “and” and “the,” sounds like a prevarication. She ought to stop touting her abilities and simply throw herself on the voters as —

As what? As a non-reality-TV-star? This is where Trump’s kind of candor highlights Clinton as the worst possible opponent — from her standpoint. She has only two ways of challenging him. Presenting herself as a capable politician and administrator plays into his hands; most people don’t really care about politics and administration right now. And to respond to Trump’s disparagements in kind is always going to be a losing battle. She’s a woman in an America that still wants to think of itself as a white Christianist homeland, and that is quick to take offense at language such as “basket of deplorables.” There is no good reason to regard Clinton’s remark as a gaffe, but the mere fact that it was questioned shows how sick the country’s political culture really is. Had Dwight Eisenhower said it, he would have been applauded.

In the end, it’s a contest between someone who wants to lead a gang and someone who doesn’t understand leadership, not with the visceral capability of Lincoln or FDR. Ordinarily, this would not be a great failing; in naming two presidents for comparison, I have not named most of them. But there is nothing ordinary about Donald Trump. Wanting to lead a gang isn’t “leadership” either, but it looks like it now, when appearances are all that matter.

Reagan, Bush, and now Trump: it’s impossible not to see an arc of mutation, as telegenic shams replace warty professionals in the top job. I’d really have to include Bill Clinton in this arc, too: he won because he was better at flim-flam than Bush’s father was. President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters by replacing the hope of his campaign with the rigor of fighting a recalcitrant Congress. How wonderful it would have been, had Hillary won in 2008, so that her vice president, Barack Obama, could battle Donald Trump now. Mind you, we’re talking only about campaigns here. But campaigns have been devouring administrations for forty years or more, as television’s broadcasting standards have become ever more dementedly sensational. I don’t know when I began to suspect that television might be more than just a terrible waste of time, that it might actually kill liberal democracy. But if Donald Trump wins in November, we’ll have had proof of its capacity to deal possibly mortal blows.


Friday 16th

While I was working on the first draft of the writing project, I was protected from chill winds and swampy miasmas. Bad news didn’t really get to me. Now, it’s different. Now, I’m overwhelmed by the awfulness of social failures. David Denby, in the London Review of Books, writes about the videos of white police shooting black men without objective reasonable provocation, and then treating the dead or wounded body as if it were still resisting arrest — handcuffing it, just to be on the safe side! James Surowiecki, in The New Yorker, explains why: police unions depend upon crime committed by black Americans to justify their budget demands and their refusal to reform police procedures. Is there a way out of this? Yes, according to Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root and a native of Forsyth County, Georgia, from which, in 1912, the black population was driven away by every kind of force. That’s one solution.

And then there are two reviews of The Girls, Emma Cline’s adaptation of the Manson Family murders, one in the LRB, one in the New York Review of Books. Both reviewers, like the author, are American. Both say much the same thing about the novel. But novelist Diane Johnson is far more enthusiastic than Emily Witt. Johnson complains, at the end of her piece, that the literature of California is “the Canada of American regionalism.” Witt gives a demonstration of this treatment by collapsing Cline into Didion, as if to say that nothing has been added. Johnson, of course, raised a family in Los Angeles; Witt appears to be a New Yorker — there may be nothing more to their different takes than that. Both Johnson and Witt regret the almost vacant impotence of fourteen year-old girls in a consumer society, as they wait for boys to notice them and make them real. Cline’s heroine, it seems, gives up on men.

In a William Trevor story that I read last night, “Bravado,” a very pretty girl, Aisling, walks home from a Dublin nightclub to her affluent neighborhood. Her boyfriend, Manning, calls her “drop-dead gorgeous,” which, without comment, she rather likes. Manning is the alpha dog of his pack, and Aisling likes that, too, although she thinks she thinks it’s silly. As they climb the suburban hills, Manning’s group spots a nerdy kid whom Manning dislikes. While the kid, also walking home from the nightclub, finishes peeing on an old lady’s house, Manning swoops down on him, knocks him over and kicks him. It turns out that the nerd has an unusually weak heart, and he dies. Manning goes to jail. Aisling visits the dead boy’s grave, ever more clearly aware that, although she was horrified by the violence of Manning’s attack, she was pleased by the obvious tribute — he did it to show off to her. And now she cannot bear this acquiescence.

These patterns of contempt and inferiority — I was sure, when I was young, that I would live to see them broken forever. I believed that consciousness would be raised, and that people would see these horrible follies for what they are. I now understand that my expectations were not reasonable. They betrayed, pretty clearly, a desperate optimism. If racism and sexism were not overcome, then American society would collapse from within. And that seems to be what is happening. Feminism and the fight for equal civil rights have wounded the old patriarchy, perhaps mortally, depriving it of the strength to restore the status quo ante. But beleaguered white men will believe that it is heroic to pull down the whole structure in the death-agony of their self-importance. Cops will continue to persecute the black drivers of automobiles with defective taillights until everyone else begins to see the police as an oppressive occupying force. Boys will go on badgering girls to show their breasts to that the quality of these features can be judged until mothers realized that they have raised their sons to be depraved. And all of it will be cycled into televised entertainment.

David Denby writes of the shootings,

Something more than ineptitude and panic is there in these acts: refusing to accept that a man is dead may be a way of refusing to acknowledge that one bears any responsibility for his death. Feelings of pity have been chased away, as far as we can see, by fear.

Are we still in the Sixties?


I feel that I learned a few things from writing the first draft. I put it that way because I only sense them; they are not very clear. And some of them are negative: I’m learning that there are things that I not only don’t know but don’t know how to talk about. One of these things is the human mind. The mind is something that we ought to be able to talk about, because each of us has one and many of us are reflective enough to have a sense of how minds differ from one person to another. The differences that I’m thinking of are not pathological; they have little to do with the health of the brain. They are not moral considerations, either, because morality is, or purports to be, standard, and we are shy of the systematic and legalistic standards that characterize traditional morality.

I’m thinking of differences that, while annoying, are harmless. Am I thinking of worldviews? We use “worldview” fairly freely, but do we analyze it with any rigor? Isn’t it the case that most talk about “worldview” boils down to an idea of what moral standards ought to prevail? There’s more to worldview than that, a lot more. Surely a worldview is literally shaped by the views that one has had of the world: I know that my worldview was changed, and not insignificantly, by a week spent in Istanbul. Although I had visited Guangzhou (Canton) very briefly, Istanbul was really my first experience of a Western-seasoned city outside of Christendom. Most of the impressions that I can talk about were either touristic or “curious,” the latter being notes of correspondence with the world I already knew (such as the pastry shop in Istiklal Street called “Markiz”), but I am haunted by inarticulate recollections of the very old city that Orhan Pamuk has struggled to commit to paper. I read My Name Is Red years before Istanbul, and was perplexed by much of it; Snow, which I read while I was in Istanbul, was far more intelligible, even if I couldn’t tell you how. l also know that my view of Europe shifted perceptibly when I stood at the water gate of the Dolmabahçe Palace, looking through the palings out onto the Bosphorus, and all the ships that were on their way to or from Black Sea ports.

“Mindset” is an equally vague word. Is there a way to give it substance? I am on the verge here of that hoary old psalm, “the life of the mind.” Strictly speaking, the phrase is ridiculous, because there is no other kind of life. “The life of the mind” is an ignorant stab at guessing what it must be like to read a lot of books and to think a lot about equations and syllogisms. Or, in the alternative, the poet’s life of words. The life of the mind is something that other people have. One might pretend to want it, too, but not very sincerely.

Our minds are all different, and we are forever misunderstanding each other. It’s annoying, but potentially enlightening. There is something wrong with the way we work together (most of us), because the differences between us too often get in the way instead of sparking greater understanding. Is it prudence or a lack of intelligence that makes us cling to what we know how to deal with and dismiss everything else? I like to think that it is a rectifiable ignorance, but how hopeful can I be about that, given the the hopes with which I began this entry — hopes that ought to have withered by now?

Bon week-end à tous!