Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (IV)

23, 25 and 26 January

Tuesday 23rd

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 25th

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

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

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

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

So, I’m a chump who liked it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Friday 26th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Turn It Off
January 2018 (III)

18 and 19 January

Thursday 18th

Amazon claims that Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is temporarily out of stock. I don’t wonder. It got written up by David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Today it got a review by Jennifer Senior. And this is just the New York Times coverage. I’m beginning to think, however, that I’ll make do with the Kindle edition. The more I learn about Deneen’s book, the less willing I am to give it precious shelf space.

But of course I do have to read it. What does Dineen have to say about liberalism? What does he think it is? According to Senior’s review, he holds that the idea of liberalism was born 500 years ago. That seems a stretch to me, off by about two centuries. (I take it to be more recent.) So we probably don’t have the same thing in mind when we talk about liberalism.

I was tempted to quip, in response to Dineen’s title, Because that’s what liberalism does. Failure is what liberalism is good at. But I am not in a humor for framing clever paradoxes today. All I can do is suggest that liberalism fails because it always depends on the transcendent ambition of worldly-wise people to serve the common interest, and because it relies so heavily on organizational schemes to prevent governmental caprice. Liberalism requires excellent men and women — not superheroes, but something much harder to imagine — and there are never enough of them. But the alternatives — certainly including Deneen’s, if Senior does them justice — are unacceptable. Either we strive to make liberal democracy work, or we slide into tyranny and worse.


Having turned seventy, I am now, officially, a cranky old man. I don’t for a moment imagine that I can make my crankiness entertaining, so I keep it locked up in a little box. Every now and then, though, I have to open the box, for a brief exhibition of its contents. A quick blink is all it takes, because my crankiness, which is really an impatience so extreme that it would kill me if I didn’t bundle it away, is very simple. Everything that everyone is complaining about these days, from Trump to racism and misogyny, is directly attributable to the depravity of television, and by “television” I don’t mean the myriad streams of shows currently on offer but the habit of living with a screen that is on for hours at a time. Although, now that I mention it, the glamorization of crime, violence, and amorality that made highly-regarded shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men so “compelling” is pretty depraved, too. How can this not be obvious? But then, television is a lot like smoking. You don’t know how disgusting it is until you break the habit. The people who intone, “But there are good things on television” are no different from folks who believe that it’s all right to smoke if you keep it to two or three cigarettes a day.

There! I’ve closed up the box again. I just wanted to make it clear why I don’t write more than I do about the Trump problem, #MeToo, and other vibrant controversies. I know how to make them all go away, and I have just told you the secret.

I can live with the curse of television only because it does not disturb my own home. In my home there is silence. Or there is conversation, or good music. Every now and then, whenever I’m too tired to think, there is a feature film — two hours, more or less, of visual entertainment. That is almost always enough. But I am miserably aware the the curse of television is vitiating my homeland and my civilization.


Friday 19th

My literary life has always been solitary. I’ve rarely had long discussions of books with friends and others. This is not because I don’t know the right people, I suspect, but because I don’t like to talk about literature. I prefer to write about it. So I read a great deal — not just the novels but the commentaries that stream through the Reviews, and even the odd critical book — but I don’t hear very much. Which is to say that my inputs, if you’ll forgive that word, are not casual, but edited, printed, and sold to subscribers. And of course they are not written with me in mind. Writing about Henry James, Colm Tóibín, for example, is in no position to make a point that he thinks that I will find particularly interesting. I have to find those points for myself. I’m pretty good at it now, but for a long time, I was at sea, struggling just to keep my head up. How could it be otherwise? I knew very little. I hadn’t read very much. I wasn’t sure of liking anything. And I was awfully fond of fun. Robert Benchley and Edith Sitwell took up so much of my attention that sober friends could dismiss the idea of my having any taste at all.

Who was afraid of Virginia Woolf? Without presuming to understand precisely what Edward Albee meant by that line, I’ll just say: everybody. Everybody was, back then in the Postwar years when I was growing up. The problem was simple: was she any good? Was she a “serious novelist” who deserved to read carefully and thought about? Or was she an ornamental experimentalist, an odd woman (occasionally mad and finally a suicide) who belonged to a group of effete men, the Bloomsbury Group, that had a peculiar take on Modernism? And on top of that, or rather beneath it all, Woolf was a woman. Were women capable of art? The debate was still lively in those days, and few women were recognized participants. Either way, Woolf was a risky proposition. You were putting your reputation on the line.

There had been a craze for Hermann Hesse. Some books, such as Demian, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha, had been available in English, but now everything was coming out — Narcissus and Goldmund, Magister Ludi, Beneath the Wheel. I read quite a few of these an an undergraduate, tickled for a while by what I took to be Hesse’s endorsement of my conviction that it was really stupid to study hard for exams. Just at about the point when his fiction began giving me gas pains, I read something in The New Yorker that dismissed his work with one clean sweep: “This isn’t literature, but incense.” I burped with relief, and haven’t looked at Hesse since.

Several years later, there was a Bloomsbury craze. And why not. As the flower children grew up, the fantasy of a group of élite, educated bohemians chattering away in pleasant, well-staffed houses while conducting rather irregular amorous affairs with impunity was hugely appealing. Rather than read Virginia Woolf herself, and trying to figure out what she was going on about, you could read about her and her friends. Quentin Bell wrote a two-volume biography of his aunt that was itself something a novel about Bloomsbury in its own right. (It wasn’t what he made up, but what he left out.) Inevitably, we tired of Lytton and Duncan and Dora and Ottoline; we tired of Vanessa (was she an artist?), and nobody liked Leonard to begin with. I don’t remember reading Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse in those days. I do recall romping through Orlando, and finding it strangely unsatisfying.

Time passed. Michael Cunningham published The Hours, which was presently transformed into a very powerful movie. I was in my fifties by now. Not only did I have a much clearer idea of what I liked in fiction, but, far more important, I had learned the patience to let a writer persuade me to enlarge it. Somewhere along the way, I had learned (from reading it) that To the Lighthouse is very great; two years ago I read it for the third time, and was inspired to undertake my writing project — which, by the way, I am about to reconstruct. I had read Night and Day and The Voyage Out, and liked them both. Mrs Dalloway I recognized as a success, even though it didn’t bowl me over. The Waves remained — tedious. But as for Woolf’s non-fiction, her personal memoirs and her literary criticism, I couldn’t get enough of it.

In the course of evacuating our storage unit last summer, I dealt with two of Woolf’s books differently. An old copy of The Years went into the box of donations, without my thinking twice. Somehow I had got the idea that this novel, Woolf’s last, was a failure, or at any rate a disappointment. She had tried to do something, but she hadn’t pulled it off. The book that I held onto was A Writer’s Diary, an even more ancient Signet Classic, purchased, it appears, in the summer of 1969, when she was seventeen, by the girl who would become my first wife. That’s why I couldn’t get rid of it: it wasn’t mine. But I wasn’t going to make a fuss about returning it, either. So it wound up the bathroom. Eventually, instead of just opening it anywhere, I kept to the entries for 1935 — when Woolf was writing The Years. I know that there is too much information in this paragraph, but I don’t know how else to explain why I’ve just read and loved a novel that I was sure as recently as six months ago that I would never read.

I wish that I had read it a long time ago, even though I know that I’d have disliked it, not understood it. What’s to understand? That’s the great question with Woolf: what is she going on about? There is no mystery at the textual surface: characters act and react in normal, everyday ways. And they think the kind of half-baked philosophical questions that we all think. What is life all about, and so forth. It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing happens, but most of what happens happens in between the scenes, which, as the title suggests, are set years apart. Nor is the spacing even: we go from 1880 to 1891, and thence to a cluster of eight scenes from 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1917 and 1918. The final quarter of the book is set in “Present Day,” which we can take for 1934-1936. In between, people die or go off to Africa for fifteen years. Everybody gets older. The final chapter, a riotous family party, is a very worthy homage to Proust — but it is also, like the rest of The Years, utterly lifelike. If had only read it long ao, then I could have enjoyed it so much more the second time.

Woolf’s original title was The Pargiters, the name of the family whose various members she variously displays. At the center, there are the seven children — four girls, three boys — of Abel and Rose Pargiter. To one side, there are also the daughters of Abel’s brother, Maggie and Sara. To the other stands Kitty Malone, the daughter of an Oxford eminence who rejects the Pargiter son who is in love with her in order to make a very good marriage. (Kitty is also a cousin somehow.) If there is a central figure, it is Eleanor Pargiter, the eldest of Abel’s children, but that is only because her persistent questioning about the knowability of life, experience, selfhood echo Woolf’s own concerns. The great experiment at the heart of Woolf’s fiction is the attempt to “capture” life on the page without really understanding what’s going on. (Many people go through life without ever seriously doubting that they understand what is going on, and Woolf is not for them.) The very nature of the experiment also cautions the reader against trying to figure out why, with a cornucopia to choose from, Woolf chose these particular moments for her novel, and excluded all of the others. There is a clarity both comic and formal about the very brief scene from 1918, but there is an almost uncomfortable jerk in the life of Maggie Pargiter, as 1910 gives way to 1911, that is never explained, and that feels like a loose tooth.

Woolf was probably as prone to ask why people do things as anybody, but she knew better than to expect to find out. At the end of the 1914 chapter, Kitty Lasswade (as she now is) gives a dinner party in her house in Grosvenor Square. Kitty is obviously a great lady in the world, but she is still unsure of herself; her introduction of cousin Martin to the prize debutante of the season is a dud. Throughout the dinner, but especially afterward, as the ladies wait for the men to leave the table, Kitty worries that she will miss her train. We are not told why she plans to leave her house after her own dinner party to catch a train, but we are invited, by Woolf’s reticence, to imagine an improper adventure. Finally, everyone leaves, and, without exchanging a word with her husband, Kitty proceeds from her dressing room to the car that waits at the door. She makes the train with minutes to spare. In the sleeping compartment that has been reserved for her, her things have been set out and the bed has been turned down. When she wakes up a few hours later, another car is waiting at the station where she gets off — this other car is a birthday present from her husband. The car whisks her up through the countryside to a castle — her husband’s castle. Breakfast awaits her in the morning room. Then she changes into country clothes and goes for a walk, climbing to the high point on the property. Here she throws herself on the grass — how wonderful it is to have nothing to do! I can’t tell you how satisfying I found this conclusion to the breathlessly luxurious episode.

Now, to re-read all those diary entries.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Bentley
January 2018 (II)

9, 10 and 12 January

Tuesday 9th

Ageing is not for sissies, they say. But it’s the sort of thing that gets said only the morning after, when conditions have returned normal, leaving behind nothing worse than an intensified recognition that “normal” is always inching toward death.

On Sunday morning, I awoke feeling warm enough under the covers, but disturbed by the menace of a chill. I ought, I thought, to pull another blanket over me, or perhaps just the luxurious beach towel that Kathleen and I call “the mink,” because it brings instant warmth. But I wanted to stay under the covers, so I did nothing — nothing, that is, but dwell on the impending chill, which in a little while became real enough. The occasional shiver soon gave way nonstop shaking in my arms and shoulders. Kathleen can sleep through anything, and even my mewling and whining on top of the seismics did not disturb her, so, after half an hour, I had to cry out to wake her. She covered me with more blankets, but the shivering went on unabated. Eventually, I had to go to the bathroom, where, overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability, I incidentally discovered that there was nothing wrong with my GI tract. Nor did I have a fever. Back in bed, still possessd by an upper-body tarantella, I ventured, through chattering teeth, the diagnosis that I was suffering from an anxiety attack. Kathleen had a pill for that and she gave me one. Whether it was the right pill or not, I stopped shaking almost immediately. I felt awful for the rest of day, largely from the wear and tear of all that involuntary rock ‘n’ roll, but it was clear that nothing would have happened if I hadn’t been such a sissy to begin with.

I managed to “get through Christmas.” I really did enjoy it. But I am in terrible shape and must do something about it. Just to cheer me up à la Bronx, my blood pressure, taken during this afternoon’s quarterly visit to the rheumatologist, was 124/80. Smoke and mirrors! I told the nurse that if she would come back in fifteen minutes, I could guarantee 164/105, but she didn’t take me up on it.


For some reason, a novel called Lunch With Elizabeth David, by Roger Williams (Little, Brown; 1999) has been shelved high up the living room amidst a clutch of poetry books, instead of with the novels. So I see it whenever I am sitting with Kathleen before or after dinner. Had it been with the novels, I’d probably have given it away by now, for I remember not liking it very much. I appear to have ordered it from Amazon in the UK at the tail end of an Elizabeth David craze. I can’t find either book right now, but in the mid-Nineties two biographies of the famous British food writer appeared almost simultaneously (one of them by Artemis Cooper [née Diana, after her grandmother]), and I read them back to back. Instead of going on to read David herself, however, I followed other tangents. Most memorably, I read South Wind, which I’d never heard of, by Norman Douglas, whom ditto. I disliked it rather a lot; it struck me as a sort of Lucia without the fun. There were too many maxims and too much poetical prose. Then, along came Williams’ novel, with a big, big part for Douglas and not much for David.

Before the biographies, I had been awakened to Elizabeth David by a feature in The World of Interiors devoted to the kitchens in her Chelsea house, the contents of which were about to be auctioned (the kitchens and the auction figure in Lunch almost as surrogates for David herself). Yes, two kitchens, one for summer and one for winter. The kitchens were aggressively retro, with nothing more advanced than a four-burner cooker and not an electric appliance in sight. In later years, David was said to sit at one end of an enormous kitchen table — from an old stately home, probably — and occasionally check on whatever was cooking in the oven, without having to leave her seat, or, for that matter, to put down her wineglass. Unhappy in love throughout her life — she was too good for the men who attracted her, and not attracted to good men — David drank herself, not into an early grave exactly (she made it into her eighties), but into a premature seclusion from the world that was dictated by the erosion of her charms and the deterioration of her mobility.

Eventually, I got round to reading her, and, on the page, she is eternal, the match of any writer in any field. She is one of the lasting literary feminists, women who persuade any sensible reader of the balanced equality of the sexes simply by being as interesting as any man. She had the genius to write about food like a gourmand, hitherto an exclusively masculine specialty, and only where absolutely necessary as a cook in a kitchen. She was totally guyish in the ostentatious display of a not-entirely-honest thesis that everything culinary is really easy-peasy, no sweat, once you understand it correctly. She and Julia Child had nothing but ingredients in common and, wisely, they never met. David’s recipe for veal scallops cauchoise (apples, Calvados, and cream) is indeed, as she insists, the only interesting thing that can be done with this particular cut of meat. (Wienerschnitzel works much better with chicken.) At the same time, I utterly disagree with her contempt for gadgets. An uncoordinated doofus with a knife, I need all the help I can get. Nevertheless, I read her screed against garlic presses with glee just the same.

Shirley Hazzard wrote a lovely little book about Douglas and his crowd in her memoir, Greene on Capri. Greene was an unlikely friend of Douglas, I’d have thought, but no, there was some concord of bells in their alternative modernisms. Douglas wanted to be a pagan, Greene a Christian. In Capri, they could be lapsed, and let the environment supply the baroque and the classical as needed. Hazzard features an important member of the cercle whom Williams omits, the formidable Dottoressa (lady doctor, need I say? but doctor of what?). I forget everything about this doughty Italian woman but her title, which I faintly recall to have been medical. I foresee a spell of truffle-hunting in my shelves.

Roger Williams’s novel — I’ll tell you later, in connection with another book, why I chose to re-read it now — is really rather good, if you’re willing to let him treat the lady of his title, as so many great playwrights have done, as a tantalizing offstage presence. She does appear, and not just once, but the book is “about” her only to the extent that it is about enjoying the great simple pleasures. And what would those be? In Chapter 5, Douglas and his young charge run into an inn-full of Italian emigrants to America, Pittsburgh mostly, who have returned to Apulia for the St Michael festival. Whatever their status in their newfound land, they are lords of the earth back in Italy, and they can’t imagine why anybody stays.

Douglas smiled. “How right you are. There is no fucking money here. And that is why I like it.”

The man looked at Douglas’s twinkling eyes for a moment, wondering if they were patronizing him. Then he laughed and clapped Douglas on the back. “More wine for this Mister,” he shouted, and he put his face close. “Of course you like it,” he said, “because in the land without lire the man with a soldo is king.” (80)

And there you have it: why a world of easy sophistication vanished in the era of Postwar prosperity. It costs a lot of money, relatively speaking, to make veal cauchoise nowadays. Even a good Granny Smith apple isn’t cheap.


Wednesday 10th

Oprah, Don’t Do It,” ran the headline of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times. If I had all day, I’d wonder (as Frank Bruni did in his Op-Ed column today) how long the Oprah bubble is going to float, and how we will remember it when it pops. The most interesting thing about it right now is the enormous personal authority that Ms Winfrey brings to her intersection of the political and media worlds, which might possibly pierce the former with the latter’s new insistence on the integrity of women. And her (black) life is one that matters as much as anybody’s.

Williams’s piece looked to be, like so many recent Op-Ed entries, obvious, jejune, and unnecessary. And it was, but I’m glad that I read it, because it clarified the muddle of blue-state politics down to one muddled word, and that word is “serious.” It is time to get serious about what this word means in politics, by insisting that it signify not an attitude but a platform. Mr Williams:

I am not immune to Oprah’s charms, but President Winfrey is a terrible idea. It also underscores the extent to which Trumpism — the kowtowing to celebrity and ratings, the repudiation of experience and expertise — has infected our civic life. The ideal post-Trump politician will, at the very least, be a deeply serious figure with a strong record of public service behind her. It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act.

Hmm: at the very least, be a deeply serious figure… Serious about what? Serious about what, exactly? Experience and expertise sound great, but what kind of experience and expertise are we looking for in a president? Here we can at least point to presidents who have accrued political experience and expertise in statehouses, as governors, and if I were re-writing the Constitution, no one but state governors could be elected Chief Executive. “Serious,” in contrast, doesn’t seem to mean much. A frown? A deliberative air? As I say, it can’t be a mere attitude. What are the qualities of the serious politician? And to what extent do we forgive that politician for taking his or her career seriously? These are two very serious questions raised by the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was nothing if not deeply serious.

Oprah Winfrey’s appearance on the political scene is exciting because she brings a proven gift for leadership into the discussion. Seriousness is no substitute for leadership. Seriousness is helpless, as we have seen, when confronted with leadership’s evil twin, demagoguery. And yet how exactly does leadership distinguish itself from demagoguery? Der Führer means “the leader”; how do we institutionalize, as every liberal democracy must, and yet none has yet done, protections that prevent embryo Hitlers from posing as leaders? This problem has not been solved, which is probably why Williams doesn’t talk about leadership. Twentieth-century nightmares have left everyone uneasy with leaders, so that aside from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, we have done without leadership in this country, settling instead for uneasy blends of seriousness and charm. I’m pretty sure that President Winfrey would have a self-improvement Program for every American man, woman and child that many would follow and that most would admire. But we’d be lucky to have her. Nothing in our political culture that could take credit for producing, or even nourishing her.

I hope that the Oprah bubble floats long enough for it to teach us to be more specific about what we’re looking for.


Friday 12th

A word or two about Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

First of all, why?

Because Craig Brown wrote it. We do not follow Craig Brown in America, perhaps because his humor is so deeply embedded in an ear for the varieties of spoken English that he is a virtual philologist. We do not speak English in America; we speak American, a mongrel patois. The British are not fond of mongrels. Britons seem devoted to breeding, horses or sheep or petunias or even swedes — er, turnips. The “class system” is the inevitable application of this passion for distinction to human beings, as manifested not only by accents but by manners of speaking. (It would be “such fun!” to hear the Queen talk about “our Charlie.”) For me, the philosophical question is whether English can be spoken by someone who is not invested in the class system. Craig Brown gives proof that one can listen with the coolest dispassion.

Brown is a mimic, a parodist. He listens closely, and then repeats with interesting, vaguely dissonant variations. He imagines an alternative universe in which Margaret Rose was born first, before Elizabeth, and he gives us a Christmas Message from Margaret I, dated 1977. It is not the highlight of the book, but I can imagine that English readers, few of whom can have been alive before the tap of royal bromide was turned on (by George V), must experience a frisson of dismay mixed with transgressive glee at Margaret’s closing:

And with this in mind, I’ll wish you all a very happy Christmas, not because I really want to, but because I suppose I must. (397)

It is difficult to imagine the reign of Margaret I stretching all the way to 1977. Second, where do I get that idea? I refer you to Brown’s sixty-eighth glimpse, which raises but does not explore the whole curious business of British royal-watching. He doesn’t even mention that they don’t go in for such things elsewhere, even where crowned heads still nod. I believe that the highly ambivalent pastime of following the doings of Princess Michael of Kent and the rest is itself rooted in the English language, in its peculiarly sophisticated strains of mockery, by which I mean sophisticated ways of being crude. I was thinking about a lewd joke involving Princess Margaret and an automobile that I’d otherwise forgotten, but that’s why God invented Google, so here it is, if you dare. I’m not saying that the joke wouldn’t occur, or wouldn’t work, in another language, but the funny bit is not really the chauffeur’s remark but the setup, which is the dainty confessions of the the Queen and Lady Di to the Queen Mother, after their encounter with the highwayman. It is very funny, somehow, to imagine these particular ladies speaking of “private places.” You almost expect the punchline.

It’s the sort of sordid sexual caricature that doomed Marie Antoinette and Alexandra. In Britain, though, it has no political bite whatsoever, even when told by a republican who feel that the Firm is a waste of money. Something about the House of Windsor, interacting with something about the Twentieth Century — perhaps Wallis Simpson was the catalyst — precipitated an enormous volume of impudent and irreverent commentary, all of it written down somewhere, mostly in newspapers, about the Royal Family. A corpus of nicknames and euphemisms was developed over the generations, complete with contributions by the Royal Family itself (“the Firm,” for example). Instead of alienating the monarch and her family from her subjects, it has bound them together in a ritual disrepect — calling the Queen “Brenda,” and so forth — that drains pomposity from the ritual pomp. It is a sleight-of-hand show in which everybody knows, or thinks he knows, how it’s done.

From an early age, and quite openly once her sister was crowned, Margaret behaved like an in-house Wallis: naughty, impatient, fun-seeking, faux-bohemian. Margaret ought to have been a lollipop of a girl who professed to like everything. Instead, she dropped her middle name. She discovered that it was much funnier to say that she hated everything, whether she meant it or not, simply to overthrow the expectation. It was beyond her intellectual reach to make truly interesting comments, so she had to settle for the shock of being rude.

It’s an emblem of the enigma of Margaret — was she imaginative or dim? — that she seems to have regarded herself as more royal than her sister because, while they were both daughters of a king, only Margaret had a queen for a sister, too. There is something compelling, if hare-brained, about this conclusion.

That is why everybody knows that Margaret would have made a botch of the monarchy, and perhaps even brought it to an end.

Third, speechless. If you have doubts about the pleasures of Ma’am Darling, I suggest that you find a copy in a quiet bookshop, retire to a quiet corner, and see if you can keep it quiet while you read Glimpse Nº 70 (294)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (I)

2, 3 and 4 January 2018

Tuesday 2

Halfway through the book, I’ve already flagged a dozen passages with Post-its. Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries (hereinafter “VFD“) has turned out to be amazingly more important than I thought it would be. I expected fun, guilty pleasure, recollections of youth, that sort of thing —  vanity, in short. I dithered for weeks about buying the book at all, finally justifying its purchase as a holiday treat. I did not expect to like Tina Brown.

Whether I would like Tina Brown in person is neither here nor there. But on the page, she appeals to me as winningly as the heroine of any novel I can think of (except perhaps Emma Woodhouse, who has her own heaven). Tina Brown is smart and good in almost equal measure, and the difficulty of determining which quality is preponderant makes for suspenseful reading. Her brains are obvious — prodigious brains, three or four times more charged than my own were at the time (and I’m five years older). Of course she captures the rush, rush, rush of New York’s media life, the thrill and occasional despair of taking on a chancy publishing project (advertisers took a while to catch up with Vanity Fair‘s circulation), and I helplessly hear these dramatic passages as if Helen Mirren were reading them. But Brown’s range is as wide as any good novelist’s, and sometimes she steps back to transcribe a conversation (more likely an argument)  in which she herself does not take part. Once she becomes a mother, she reveals a streak of serenity that must always have been there. But she never spares herself. From an early entry:

Everyone at the party was so famous but unfortunately I had never heard of them. I said to Shirley MacLaine, “What do you do?” She gave me a manic, hostile stare and went on talking to Ed Epstein about how he should research a book about flying saucers. (43)

What grips me, though, is the sense that, even as she roars from success to success, Tina Brown is making a terrible mistake, in the way that we watch Isabel Archer make a terrible mistake in The Portrait of a Lady. The difference is that Brown’s mistake concerns not her personal life but American culture. The nature of the mistake glimmers in the final entry for 1984:

We are seeing the invasion of DC by California and Park Avenue, the fusion of Women’s Wear Daily values with Washington Post power watching, a cast of characters who see everything through the lens of Hollywood and Le Cirque. It’s perfect fodder for a magazine called Vanity Fair. I have been experiencing the endless round of black-tie dinners and openings as a trivial sidebar to the main event. But now it seems at this moment they are the main event, central to understanding how the money moves around and why. It could all collapse and we will see it as some fin de siècle gallery of grotesques and wish we had been more attentive. (127-8)

Attentive to what? That Tina Brown, endowed with ultra-sensitive antennae, could be missing something is hard to imagine. But her remarks betray the fact that the important thing that’s possibly being overlooked is not small. It is not elusive or difficult to track down. It is as huge as the country itself. It is the coalescence of all the various local, state, federal, professional, industrial and financial élites into one mass of equalized celebrities, held in balance by “the money.”

It is easy to dismiss glamour, but just as easy to underestimate its power, particularly when a genius like Tina Brown figures out how to bond it with seriousness to produce a brand-new compound with miraculous properties. From late 1985:

Just in from a soirée for the cabaret pianist Bobby Short. Some diamond-studded socialite crooned at me, “My dear, you have certainly found your audience, and it’s me! Vanity Fair is a society movie magazine. You don’t remember what they are, but you’re it.” She’s half-right. But it’s more the VF attitude to fame and the mix of stories that ensnare the reader with juxtaposition. We give intellectuals movie star treatment and movie stars an intellectual sheen and the same is true of the audience. Brainy people in our pages seem more glamorous and movie people seem more substantive. I love putting madcap Princess Gloria von Turn und Taxis in the same issue as Schiff’s profile of the editor of the National Review. Both of them are hidden stars in their own world, but combined in a magazine that has Dustin Hoffman on the cover, they confer fascination on each other. It’s funny how sometimes the mix takes on a life of its own and goes off the cliff. The January issue is suddenly so full of people with bald heads that I had to kill three of them today. (176)

Reading this thirty-four years later, at the beginning of the second calendar year of the Trump presidency, I gasp at the unwitting adroitness with which Tina Brown and her staff made straight in the desert a highway to the White House for the man whom she compares, in these pages, to Elvis Presley. Vanity Fair became a universal directory of notable Americans, splitting the nation into teams of those who would do almost anything to break into its pages and those who could be stoked into hatred of established institutions by carnival barkers who mocked its membership. Worse, the people with listings in Vanity Fair were distracted from their regular duties by the “trivial sidebar” of showing up to honor their hordes of peers, not to mention the stress of looking after “the money.” There are moments in VFD when Tina Brown sounds like a naval architect who has just designed a cruise ship to capsize in a tsunami.

As I say, I’m only about halfway through. I expect that I’ll have more to say. My feelings toward the heroine of VFD are forgiving. She came from a small country where the élite has for generations come from a handful of schools, and everybody has always known everybody else. With just a couple of issues under her belt, Tina Brown opined,

America is too big, too rich, too driven. America needs editing. (96)

I agree, but maybe it’s a good thing that, unlike Tina Brown, I couldn’t do anything about it.


Wednesday 3rd

Then there is that magic place, which Tina Brown calls “Transatlantica.”

That place between England and America is the only world where I can be happy now. (308)

In the kingdom of Transatlantica, well-dressed people with well-dressed minds work hard during the week but luxuriate in well-upholstered tranquillity during the weekend. There are two capitals. One is very charming, as cities go, and it is surrounded by sopping green lanes. The other is the acme of excitement, and it is within reach of one of the world’s longest beaches. A handful of grand old universities nourish rigorous learning alongside quaint, antediluvian tradition. The students are bright young people who go on to rise to the top in their professions and produce more bright young people. Transatlanticans share the general human interest in sex, but they have a peculiar passion for talk. They publish all the books printed in English, and little of cultural note happens outside of their realm.

If you ask me, it was inordinate belief in the magic of Transatlantica that put Donald Trump in the White House and that may put the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Transatlantica does not exist. Its would-be inhabitants share real-world citizenship with millions of men and women who have never heard of it, and would resent it if they did.

For some people, climate change and global warming are the big problem. For others, it’s late-stage capitalism and the unintended side-effects of a global economy. For me, it’s the tendency of every thoughtful Anglophone to find companionship if not comfort in London or New York. Or rather, it’s the tendency of Transatlanticans to imagine that the lives that they feel very lucky to enjoy would be desirable by all.

After the beauty of the [Elkhorn Ranch in Arizona] the Tucson mall was disorienting and depressing: a sprawling, characterless mess of Kmarts and gas stations and drugstores. As we drove around in the blinding rain, or cruised down the fluorescent-lit aisles of throbbing products in the gigantic pharmacy where we went to collect G’s prescriptions, I thought how this is an America I will never warm to, America as a huge, vacant, product-filled, centerless, culturally sterile parking lot. It’s fiercely alien to me and in a way I’m glad that it is. If it weren’t, I’m not sure I’d be able to successfully edit Vanity Fair. I might not have the confidence to choose with uninhibited focus what interests me to read about. (ibidem)

I am no fan of fluorescent-lit aisles. But I can remember when they didn’t exist, when American shops were dingy and poky, just like everybody else’s. I can remember when, in the Seventies, the big Targets and Kmarts went up in the center of parking lots, their merchandise plentifully arrayed on clean, brightly-lighted shelves. We were all wowed. Nobody expected Tarjay to be charming, but nobody expected it to be ubiquitous, either, and it took a while to realize that these emporia were really warehouses, the merchants having been swept away with the dust. That’s when it dawned on educated Americans that their country had become “huge, vacant, product-filled,” and so on. But it was only the educated who had these misgivings. Everyone else just parked the car, ran in for whatever was needed, paid for it, and ran back to the car again. No biggie.

Education has failed Transatlanticans in one respect. It has not helped them to live with their uneducated countrymen. To be sure, when Tina Brown was writing her diary entries, it wasn’t so obvious that education ought to have forestalled, instead of perversely feeding, the mounting contempt with which educated Britons and Americans regarded their uneducated neighbors — who, of course, soon ceased to be neighbors, as the affluent segregated themselves in expensive conclaves. Education appears to have taught that it’s the lack of education that’s the failure. I only hope that this mistake won’t turn out to be as fatal as contempt for the common people was for the French upper classes not much more than two centuries ago.

It goes without saying that I’d be a happy Transatlantican myself, if I could, if it were possible. But it isn’t. I can’t even pretend to believe in Susan Sontag’s metaphor about Manhattan, as an ocean liner tied up to the docks of America. For one thing, guess where Donald Trump has lived for most of his adult life.


Thursday 4th

Regular readers, if asked to free-associate from the name of Tina Brown, would probably sooner rather than later come up with the word “glitz.” This isn’t because Brown or her Vanity Fair were particularly glitzy, but were rather taking the whole fun of glitz way upmarket. Anybody might look at her magazine, but only educated people could read it, or would want to. That meant us. It had been a long time — more than fifty years — since the likes of us had been tempted by qualities spelled with the letter ‘z.’ When Tina Brown took over Vanity Fair, glitz is pretty much all we saw. We would not have been surprised to read Brown’s judgment of one piece that appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair before she got her hands on it: “There’s a brainy but boring Helen Vendler essay next to an Amy Clampitt poem…” (26) Helen Vendler is never boring, but she might, admittedly, be miscast in a publication devoted to the more ephemeral manifestations of wit and sophistication. We would have ironically clucked that Vendler isn’t glitzy enough for Vanity Fair, but we would have been wrong to think that that meant there was something wrong with the magazine.

There is very little glitz in VFD. Brown notes several lunches at the Four Seasons over the years — she must have sat through dozens — but it’s always for business, and such pleasure as is on offer tends toward the mordant. (The patrons are all “plotting each other’s downfall.”) The restaurant itself leaves her cold, as indeed it did me the couple of times I was there and Kathleen the many more. “So antiseptic and colorless. Why do power people want to go there?” (ibidem) Why, indeed? After a while, the bold-face names that stud the VFD entries shrink a bit into who they actually are: people Tina Brown knows and, on occasion, must put up with. And do business with. Tina Brown likes to do business, if it’s the media business. She loves competition and is always elated by success — no false world-weariness here. Her house at Quoque is a blessed asylum, but, like Horace, she would always like to be in the other place. She is onto that about herself, though, and self-pity never has a chance.

Readers who think of Tina Brown as glitzy might feel justified by the passage that I have copied out below, but I beg them to study it until it becomes clear that no merely glitzy, or even significantly glitzy writer could have composed it. It is a masterpiece of expanding view. Beginning with “what I wore” it widens by sure steps to include the full-throttle, almost hilarious vitality of a Costume Institute opening in the Eighties. I know — I went the year before. (Strictly B group.) Fashion may be vain and silly, but it is also utterly human, and virulently infectious. And I think it’s pretty clear from Brown’s tone that this is an experience that would pall if it were not always presented in new settings and with new people. There can be only one Costume Institute opening a year. And the secret, which has been lost in the social insecurity state, was that the doors were flung open much wider in those days; the event was not nearly as exclusive as it would become.

It’s also worth noting that any man who expressed such open pleasure at simply being somewhere would almost inevitably be gay. Why is that?

I borrowed a silver velvet evening coat from Jackie Rogers to wear over a thin black silk full-length evening sack she made me to hide the bulge. A professional makeup artist came to do my face, which I didn’t much like, but it made me feel suitably glam. I loved the excess and finery and ostentation of it all, teetering past the Egyptian mummies and fading frescoes in our silly heels, herding into an elevator in a clash of perfumes and rustle of silks, disembarking into the darkened Costumes of Royal India show to oohs and aahs over outsize gold mannequins swathed in glittering silks and jewel-encrusted turbans, with the appreciative murmur of visiting Indian high society and the excited chatter of Gayfryd Steinberg and her posse. The walkers were out in force — the mincing gait of Peter Schub with Lynn Hyatt one arm and bouffante Judy Peabody on the other. Reinaldo Herrera in a tux has the inverted A waist of the society man par excellence, escorting on his left hand his lofty, expensively-coiffed mother, on his right, Carolina, his Eva Peron-like wife. After dinner we wandered into the Temple of Dendur, where Peter Duchin was pounding the piano and a million candles lit the drafty spaces where the B group, who didn’t get seated, sparkled and networked and hustled. As Nick said, the bravery. This is what I appreciate most about the city at night, the life force of New York aspiration, wanting, wanting to be seen. The erratic flames of the myriad glowworms — the striving fashion assistants, makeup artists, art gallery gofers, photography apprentices, gossip stringers, all the glamour wannabes dressed up with their “looks” in place. How they danced. How they gestured and waved and admired one another’s glad rags, cutting like flamboyant tugs through the sea of jaded vessels such as the SS Jerry Zipkin and the SS Barbara Walters. This is the moment when the social energy of the city — in Diller’s word — metastasizes, when individual crassness and need are absorbed into the bedazzled, glory-seeking hum of “Look at me! I’m alive!” (179)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (III) Draft

26 and 30 December 26

Tuesday 26

Merry Christmas! I may be a little late saying that here, but that’s because I was making sure that we would have one on time, which we did. I don’t know when I was last so active, day after day. There was very little time for reading, and none at all for thinking or writing. I’m still a bit blank.

But the rush is over. We’ve had all the dinners. We’ve been to Messiah at Carnegie Hall. We even took in Harry Clarke, David Cale’s brilliant dramatic monologue, brilliantly performed by Billy Crudup, down at the Vineyard Theatre. Harry Clarke ends with a terrific pair of one-liners, delivered in two of the protagonist’s three voices, and I wish I could quote them exactly. The show is about a gay man from South Bend, called Philip Brugglestein, who assumes a North London accent when he makes his way to New York City. Harry Clarke is a Cockney alter ego into whom Philip slips when under pressure. Whereas Philip is prim and hesitant, Harry swaggers like Michael Caine or Jason Statham. The transitions between personae are usually surprising and always entertaining, but the comedy of shifting identity becomes quite dark as the evidence of psychosis piles up. Mr Crudup sizzled with smiling danger. I hope never to meet anyone like the man whom he was impersonating.

At Carnegie Hall, Kent Tritle led Musica Sacra in his austerely beautiful interpretation of Handel’s Messiah. It was at least the third time that we’ve made a point of decking out our holiday with this event, and I am finally persuaded that a smaller Messiah is not necessarily a lesser one. Stripped of posthumous ornamentation by Mozart or anyone else, the oratorio emerges as an urgent vocal meditation. The light string band — a dozen violins, three violas, and a bass consisting of cello, doublebass and bassoon, with sparingly-used pairs of oboes and trumpets (and drums at the very end) — provides the solos with unobtrusively defining harmonies and then almost disappears into a wash during the choruses. The chorus of thirty produced the sound of sixty with complete precision. Once again, Kathryn Lewek sang the soprano airs with beauty, accuracy and grace to match the chorus. It’s gratifying to see her name in the program and to think, I know that this evening’s soprano is going to hit all the high notes with impassioned charm.

Most nights, during the week, I knocked off Michael Prestwich’s Edward I. I found myself wishing for a more overtly economic analysis of Edward’s catastrophic money troubles. (The catastrophe eventually befell his son, Edward II.) Edward was not a spendthrift, but he was often at war, almost uninterruptedly so from 1294 to his death in 1307. Military operations appear to have become considerably more expensive during his reign, which began in 1272. Some of the increase was attributable to the final stages of a shift from feudal dues to money salaries, but armies also became larger, and their arms and armaments more powerful. There was no English precedent for the great and very expensive castles that Edward built in North Wales; the last of them, Beaumaris, was never finished. In the background of Prestwich’s biography, royal bureaucracy and the judiciary seem to become more institutional and professional, and commerce, especially the wool trade, grows more prosperous. And of course Parliament begins to assume a representative complexion. But for all the adumbration of modern government, Edward’s England is unquestionably medieval in character. The king was well-liked by his people, but his incessant exactions were understandably unwelcome; most of all, they suggest a misconception of needs and resources. The overall sense is one of backing into the future.


Saturday 30th

Not long after I began noticing them in The New Yorker, I learned not to read Alice Munro’s short stories. I found them terribly bleak. Everything about them was plain, or worse. The people were dull and discontent. They lived in drafty old farmhouses or airless suburban cottages. Love was apparently the subject, but I could not conceive of love, especially in its joyous aspect (which meant more to me than any other), amidst such repressive circumstances. The stories were set, for the most part, in rural Ontario, a territory that I had no desire to imagine, much less visit. My time in South Bend and Houston had replaced my childhood ignorance of country life with adult aversion; it seemed inhuman to me to persist in inhabiting such places. It still does.

But I have learned better about Alice Munro. I have been reading her collections since the beginning of this winter, and my delight is teaching me even more. Yesterday, while I was anxiously wondering when I would ever hear from Kathleen — she was flying home from a visit to her father in North Carolina — something clicked. I was in the middle of “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” (collected in The Progress of Love) when I grasped something about Munro’s fictional background. Just as Leonardo’s figures hover in misty, rocky landscapes, and Gainsborough’s take their ease in green parks, Munro’s characters slog past and away from confusion about the past. It is the same in story after story, and the cause of my old discomfort with her work. It is the illusion of an old world that is slipping into oblivion, a vanishing way of life that cannot, especially for heroines, vanish fast enough. It is an illusion because that old world is actually dying very young. It did not exist a century earlier; fifty years before that, even the people weren’t around.

The moment that illuminated this for me yesterday is almost too densely buried in the context of Munro’s story to extract without belaboring it; I hope that it’s enough to say that it involves the termination of passenger railroad service to the town in which the story takes place, about ten or fifteen years earlier. The most important consequence of this development for the brothers at the center of the story is the loss of their father. A conductor on the passenger trains — does this term, “conductor,” mean anything to younger readers? — the father was transferred to another town, from which he could visit his family by bus, which however he disliked doing. He couldn’t drive, either, and so his visits home ceased, and he died before retiring, so his widow is free to speculate that he might have returned to her eventually.

So the train is gone with the wind, and, with it, the network that bound every town of decent size to the nation at large. From now on, country people would have to spin their own webs, as their personal resources allowed. Some would have cars. Eventually, everyone would have a car, but most of Munro’s protagonists can remember not being able to afford one. Her most characteristic narrator is a woman who grew up on a farm before World War II. Sometimes, the farm might be close to enough to town to walk to, but an aspect of the illusion of Munro’s background is that Ontario is so vast that family members are prevented by distance alone from coming together for decades at a time. A cousin pays a rare visit — once — and the chore of putting up new wallpaper in the visitor’s bedroom is what really lodges in the memory. The reader may begin to imagine that the railroads, however empowering and impressive when they were built, came to be regarded as the enablers of intrusion and desertion. There is something about Munro’s towns that can’t grow, or can’t outgrow the frontier provisionality that has long since gone stale. All the boldness required for settling the province seems to have been exhausted in the opening moves; the settlers’ children exhibit the same grim tenacity that would have kept their forebears in the old country. And now, in the present moment of Munro’s fiction, nobody can remember how or why they came to be there.

At the heart of the illusion is a kind of timelessness: the farmers whose daughters long to go to university in Toronto are scions of families that never left Scotland or Ireland or Norway. For Munro’s older Ontarians, this illusion is a delusion, a response to the shock of transatlantic relocation. For several decades in the Nineteenth Century — European peasants were given an amazing new option, a grab at freedom and prosperity in North America. Steamships and railways carried them far into the new land. Then, just as quickly, the steamships and railways themselves became obsolete, replaced by cars and planes, modes of transportation that erase the middle distance. Exciting novelties became outdated clichés — in the space of a generation. The former peasants had to learn that freedom and prosperity would mean something very different to their children, especially to their daughters. The farmers would be betrayed by their dreams. But their children, Munro’s characters, would be mesmerized by the illusion of throwing off the yoke of centuries of servitude.

I am aware that the foregoing is riddled with contradictions; Munro’s ability to blend them plausibly is what gives her stories such atmospheric power. It is this atmosphere that her characters seem to be fighting the hardest. There is the desire of the settlers’ grandchildren to believe that their people have always lived in Ontario, as if since the expulsion from Eden; at the same time, these grandchildren are oppressed by the peasants’ conservatism and limited horizons that survived the transplantation intact — that, indeed, may have been intensified by it. The prospect of upward mobility is shadowed by the possibility of total loss. Tradition, as always, is both reassuring and restrictive. And the ongoing social and technological changes that were unleashed by the revolutions that closed the Eighteenth Century pile up ever higher behind the up-to-date instant, belying their actual age, their altogether recent vintage.

How can our understanding possibly keep up?

Bon week-end à tous! Happy 2018!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (II)

12, 14 and 15 December

Tuesday 12th

Maddeningly, the entry is undated. But within the past couple of weeks, The Browser published a link to a presumably recent interview at Five Books in which Jane Jelley was interviewed about Vermeer. The point of Five Books, a British site, appears to be to get the author of a recent book to recommend five “best” books on the subject, whatever it is, and to make it very easy to buy all six — the five recommendations plus the author’s own work — with “Buy” buttons that take you straight to Amazon. Despite the shilling (I’d be much happier if they replaced “Buy” with”Browse”), I like Five Books almost enough to visit it regularly; if I don’t, it’s because I don’t need inducements to be buying books. In this case, I bought Jelley’s, Tracings of Vermeer.

Jane Jelley is a painter who lives at Oxford. The flap doesn’t say what she does there, but it is clear from the book that she is a student (and possibly a master) of historical art skills. To put it briefly, she knows how to simulate the practices of a seventeenth-century Nederlander painter. She knows about linens and “sizes” (a glue), pigments and oils, pigs’ bladders and brushes, and she has the patience to wait for pre-modern paint to dry. (Three months, in the case of a newly-primed canvas.) Perhaps from years of casually reading Elizabeth David, Jelley knows how to write about all of this with a charm that paradoxically conveys immense tedium in appealing prose, and it is for her writing, more than for what she has to say about Vermeer, that she is to be most highly commended. Not that she hasn’t convinced me that she’s right about how Vermeer worked. On the contrary: it’s very much because she isn’t out to convince anybody.

The controversy is, of course, about Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura. Whether or not Vermeer made use of this device has been argued, apparently, since 1891, when American print-maker Joseph Pennell claimed that he must have done. From the start, this claim was refuted by critics who clearly regarded such use as a kind of cheating. It’s a profoundly nineteenth-century argument, loaded with disdain for “mechanical aids” and addled by contempt for the modern camera, which shares with the camera obscura nothing more than a lens. The actual camera obscura is no more and no less of a mechanical aid than a palette, and, as Jelley makes drolly clear, it would not have afforded Vermeer any shortcuts on the road to transcendence.

The camera obscura projects a doubly reversed image onto a dark surface. Upside-down and backwards, this image would be an extraordinarily unwieldy template for masterpieces. Nor is it really conceivable that a painter could apply colors in a dark room. It may well be that Vermeer’s paintings betray a focal point more rigorously fixed than that of an artist surveying the scene from behind an easel, but the idea that the artist simply traced the image thrown up on a wall by light passing through a peephole is childish. He could not have done any such thing.

Jane Jelley has effectively reoriented the discussion by looking not at the surface that we call can see but that the bottom-most layer of paint, what we might call the background but the technical name for which is “invention.” Vermeer’s inventions are revealed by x-rays to be unlike everyone else’s. There are no outlines, no rays of perspective — nothing linear at all. There is only an array of masses, dark against the light primer. The examples that Jelley provides look like very high-contrast reductions of the finished pictures. The composition is presented not in terms of lines but of light and dark. Jelley wanted to know how Vermeer did this. For an artist to see the kind of arrangements shown in Vermeer’s inventions with his naked eye struck her as implausible. But what if he traced the dark parts of a camera obscura image onto oiled (transparent) paper, using black paint, working very quickly, and transferring the traced image simply by printing it — she writes of pressing the back of the paper with a wooden spoon — onto freshly-pumiced, highly-absorbent canvas? What if Vermeer then continued to build up further layers of paint in the conventional way, out in the open with his model?

For the viewer, the question would be why Vermeer would do this. What difference could it make to me? There is something primordial about my own answer. The world is a dark place, pricked with points of light. An atmosphere of some kind of vapor is required to diffuse light in such a way that, say, a room facing north could be illuminated by sunlight shining from an invisible source. That atmospheric diffusion, precious at northern latitudes afflicted by heavy clouds of rain, is Vermeer’s principal resource. It is what he paints onto the dark. It is what penetrates his rooms, fading inevitably into shadows — shadows that are there from the start: figuratively, before the sun comes up; actually, in the masses of his invention. Every picture captures a moment’s exposure to light, to the light falling on the many different surfaces in a room. It holds together with such breathtaking force because the shadows have also been captured altogether in one moment. In this regard, yes, Vermeer “took pictures” just as we do, capturing the instant in an image. But this image was the rough preliminary of the painting that we esteem. To suggest that using a camera obscura is some kind of low, dishonest trick is no different from making the same charge about his grinding lapis lazuli into ultramarine.

As Jelley’s entertaining walk-through of her experiment with the camera obscura makes very clear, an enormous amount of trial-and-error would have been required, by Vermeer or whoever taught him (Carel Fabritius, I strongly suspect), to produce workable tracings from the projected image. Oiling the paper, choosing a brush, finding a paint that would be transferable without running, these were all problems without self-evident solutions. (In the case of the oiled paper, she found the answer in a treatise from 1390.) Capturing the instant was anything but the work of an instant.

Not quite three dozen paintings by Vermeer survive. There no drawings, sketches, watercolors, or anything else. There are not many men in the paintings, and only two mature works that look out of doors. By my quick count, at least eighteen appear to depict the northeast corners of domestic interiors, and women appear in all but two, the pair known as The Geographer and The Astronomer (almost certainly the same model). In six paintings, women are shown wearing what looks like the same yellow satin jacket, trimmed in ermine. (All were painted within six years.) It was anything but unusual for Vermeer’s contemporaries to concentrate on specialties; the concept of branding was familiar in the arts. What was peculiar to Vermeer, however, may have been too subtle to be widely appreciated at the time. It is a unity of light that bathes an arrangement of surfaces that emerge with an appreciable indistinctness from the natural dark of shadow. Vermeer’s is a world of soft-edged intelligibility, in which nothing is altogether settled. Many of his pictures capture a privacy that our looking does not violate. Jane Jelley’s Traces of Vermeer persuades me that these illusions are all based on a foundation of shadow made solid. Now I think I know why it is that I can stare at one of his walls so expectantly, as if it were about to disclose another picture altogether: the dark of night lies directly beneath it.


Thursday 14th

As usual, I didn’t read the short story in last week’s New Yorker — until just now, having read about it in the Times. That was unusual; until very recently, it has always seemed to me that the magazine and the newspaper published in strictly separate worlds, each taking no notice of the other’s contents. But here in today’s Styles section was a piece about “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, an attractive woman (sorry!) in her mid-thirties who studied for the foreign service but turned to her first love when that didn’t work out. The story is about a twenty-year old sophomore who meets an older man — late twenties at least, she thinks — at a concession stand and gives him her phone number. A flirtation conducted in text messages ensues. I hope that readers learn from Roupenian’s mighty sorrowful story what a bad idea it is to try to size up a pen pal as a potential lover.

Robert, the man in the story, is thirty-four, and he lives alone in a house with little furniture. It seems to me that these are two of the many things that Margot ought to know about Robert long before she follows him into his bedroom. But Margot is only twenty. Worse, she is a very smart twenty, a very imaginative, empathetic twenty. She doesn’t need to know Robert; she can make him up. It’s enough that he makes her laugh. But does he? It’s the exchange of texts that makes her laugh, or smile, anyway, and that invites her to indulge in romantic speculations about him. The problem with these speculations is not so much that they are wrong as that they constitute an investment. You could call it a bet, but that just makes it out to be less serious than it is.

The preliminary, fun part of Margot’s relationship with Robert comes to an end with her return from a semester break, by which point she has been in the same place with him on a total of three occasions that could be timed in minutes.

When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie, she agreed right away.

The bulk of the story is an account of the date that follows. Nothing terrible enough for the tabloids happens, but the evening is, to put it mildly, deflating and demoralizing for Margot, leaving her with the sore conviction that she doesn’t want to see Robert again. It’s not that he’s a bit pudgy and slope-shouldered; Margot has dealt with these drawbacks before he takes his clothes off. It’s that Robert’s sex life has been pornographized. In the middle of things, he slaps her thighs and cries, “You like that!” He would probably never thought of such a gesture on his own. At their third meeting, in a convenience store, Robert made Margot feel like a very special doll; now he makes her feel like a rubber doll.

Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her.

“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful and hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say” —

but you’ll have to read it for yourself. I wouldn’t dream of upstaging Roupenian’s magnificent writing.

In the Times interview, Jonah Engel Bromwich’s last question begins with a statement: “The story’s last exchange gives the clearest view of who Robert is.” Well, Bromwich said it, Roupenian didn’t. I’d like to know if she agrees. The “last exchange” is ugly but familiar. Just as Robert seemed to be following a script in bed, so he seems to be acting the troll in his text. How else do you sign off on these devices? How else do you say “Good bye the hell to you, too!“? Of course it’s better not to say anything, but it’s better not to do most of the things that Margot and Robert do in this story. Robert is sadly unattractive in a way that now seems indicative of a cultural pathology; I feel an urge to help him out just for the sake of the body politic.

Roupenian tells Bromwich:

[Margot] thinks she can see inside Robert; she believes she knows more about him than she does, and that keeps the date catapulting forward when it might otherwise have come to an end. The people I know who tend to be drawn to the most troubled men are these incredibly empathetic, imaginative young women, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a piece of it: how good they are at creating a compelling back story for men who have done nothing to earn it.

Robert is also imaginative, but like most men (or so it seems), he is not empathetic; life gives his imagination little to work with. What the “last exchange” gives us a clear view of is where Robert is stuck. Although I can feel the blow of his last text to Margot’s stomach, I know that she will recover and possibly flourish (she is only twenty!). But is there a way out for Robert? A way out of his board games and vinyl collection and lack of self-respect? Ist auf deinem Psalter, Vater der Liebe, ein Ton…?


Friday 15th

It’s likely that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I consulted Google’s Ngram Viewer just now about the use of the phrase “meaning of life.” I was reading an entry at Less Wrong that explored the meaning of life as understood by several “cultures,” for example “SJW” and “4Chan.” It was one of those pieces that make me feel both old and uncertain. Do I have a lot more experience or a lot less understanding? Forget the meaning of life — has the meaning of words undergone a shift? Does language work in a new way that I don’t hear? In this case, however, the sogginess of the author’s anxieties about the meaning of life was very familiar. Familiar in an unexpected way: could it be that I remember when concern about the meaning of life was still something new, or new-ish?

I wasn’t surprised by the results of my Ngram enquiry. The phrase made its first appearance in about 1895, and slipped out of view in 1910. Since 1920, however, it has never been out of use, and its peak popularity, a recurring point in decades thereafter, was reached about 1940. Aside from that blip in the late 1890s, the phrase was unknown to the Nineteenth Century — to all those Romantic poets and novelists, in other words. For most of the Twentieth Century, we looked hard for the meaning of life, but until the outbreak of World War II, we didn’t give it much thought.

I still don’t.

What would the meaning of life look like? What would it feel like? Would it feel like that aha! that wraps up every TED talk? Like the Less Wrong writer, who goes by the name Elo, I stopped watching TED talks a long time ago, as soon as I realized that they were simply upscale versions of those old nature and science programs on TV that left you convinced that you knew everything that there was to know about volcanoes or beetles. TED talks were shorter, wittier, and syntactically more sophisticated than the old shows, but they were (are) scripted with the same alchemy, the same psychological prestidigitation. There would be no harm in this if the results were useful, but the presentations are always too closed-ended to be fertile. They have to be, in order to be entertaining. Open-ended shows would end not with a nugget of “realization” but with a panorama of all that remains to be learned. Instead of flattering the audience with a spritz of knowingness, it would demoralize it with a burp of ignorance.

Knowledge decays. The point on which I agreed most heartily with Elo was this:

We start out wanting meaning, we start out getting meaning, and after a while we don’t really get the same thing any more. We are not designed to notice meaning wearing off – we expect it to keep being there. Until it’s well and truly worn out so bad that it’s a shock to the system. The same way that we go blind a little each day and don’t notice until we crash a car. “that’s how blind we are”.

The meaning of life, in short, would look like something that we needed to replace pretty frequently, if we didn’t embalm it. “The meaning of life” promises to explain everything forever, but of course it can’t do anything of the kind. We are always outgrowing what we know.

The “meaning of life” has nothing to do with distinguishing right from wrong. Nor can it offer an ideal of happiness that is more satisfying than the one already familiar to every thoughtful person: health, good fortune, and — here’s the part that searchers for the meaning of life ought to be working a little harder on — the company of loving family and friends. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the past century, it’s not the meaning of life but the stabilizing power of liberal democracy to enable many people to build happy lives. Whatever the meaning of life might be, the happiness of life is not something that you discover on a remote mountaintop, but something that you do your best to bring about in your life every day.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (I)

5, 6 and 8 December


Tuesday 5th

Given the state of current events, it often feels foolish to be thinking about liberalism. The current state of affairs can be summarized as a drift toward radicalism, an impatience with real-world complexities and a longing for simple, straightforward solutions. Perhaps the first thing that can be said about the liberal outlook is that it struggles to be patient and doubts the viability of simple solutions. To the liberal mind, radicalism is little more than the realism of two-year-olds.

Just like small children, radicals know what they want, and they want it now. And they are equally incapable of behaving well if they are thwarted.

It is no fun, being a grown-up around small children. It is hundreds of times less agreeable to be a liberal surrounded by radicals. Unlike small children, radicals can shoot.


In the wake of the French Revolution, or perhaps even when it was still making life hell for clever Frenchmen, a new metaphor for political life came into circulation. The vehicle for the metaphor was the amphitheatrical arrangement of political assemblies, rendered simply by the curve of a half-circle. As the new world of representative democracy took shape, political significance attached to the right, center, and left of this curve. Socialists, communists, and levelers of all kinds sat on the left. Royalists, aristocrats, and religious conservatives sat on the right. Those who sat in the middle, if only because they did not agree with the extremists, were known as centrists. Sometimes, they were called liberals. It was never very clear, in contrast to those on the left and the right, what the centrists stood for, unless it was the unprincipled opportunism of compromise.

I don’t think that this metaphor works anymore. For one thing, the old conservative party has completely evaporated. As defined classes, royals and aristocrats have played no political role for a very long time, and it is a mistake to associate the religious conservatives of France and England in 1800 with the evangelists and millenialists of today. Evangelists have always been reformers, not preservers. They are obviously as dissatisfied with today’s society as socialists are, and just as eager for change. The drift of many wealthy businessmen toward libertarianism is equally radical. In the old, semicircular arrangement, the left was the party of action, the center the party of moderation, and the right the party of reaction or inaction. Today’s right wing is as activist as the left. What they share is a fear and loathing of liberals, who are now, by default, the only political actors interested in maintaining social institutions that work. Liberals have become de facto conservatives.


Rather than bloviate further upon these brisk observations, I’ll direct your attention to a nifty little book that, like so many interesting things, came to my attention via The Browser. Irene Yuan Sun is a Harvard-educated consultant at McKinsey & Company. Her new book, The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment Is Reshaping Africa, is the most eloquent defense of liberal economic policy that I have ever read. It is also a collection of fascinating business stories. Thanks to Sun’s work, we are able to revisit the conditions of our own “capitalist” past, the rough and ready chancing of bygone days — for they are not bygone in Africa. If you have any interest in figuring out what “liberal economics” means in practice, Next Factory is the book for you. I hasten to add that it is a great read.

After graduation from Harvard College, Sun signed on to teach English and other subjects in a Namibian public school. Her doubts about the value of this work were intensified when she met a young Chinese businessman on a blind date. He was in the market for a wife, and not particularly appealing in any other way, either, but Sun understood that he was contributing something more immediately important to Africans than English lessons: jobs. Sun doesn’t spell out what happened next, but presumably it was her return to Harvard, this time to the Kennedy School, and her research into African industry. She tells us that it was on a research visit to Nigeria that she had her “aha! moment.”

Until she was six, Sun lived in a town in Northern China that was dominated by an automotive works. The company’s colors, a distinctive blue and white, were everywhere. Not long after she was born — and Sun is about thirty now — the factory began a cooperative project with Volkswagen to produce Audi sedans in China. Sun can remember her first ride in one; it was her first ride in any car at all. That hundreds of millions of Chinese people share Sun’s conscious memory of a first car ride is a key of sorts to the economic realities that come to life in her book. Chinese entrepreneurs are not just investing in African business, but moving to Africa and settling there, partly because it is not so very different from the China of their childhoods. They feel the hardships less keenly than ordinary Americans would, and so are less distracted by them. And they also know how China transformed itself, not by aiming for perfection but by settling for good-enough results. What was good enough for China a few decades ago and is good enough for Africa now has not been good enough for America for nearly a century, and if nothing else Sun reminds us of the forgotten costs of our standard of living. She herself woke up to them when, at the end of a tiring day of factory visits, she realized that the color scheme of the factory at her last appointment paired the distinctive blue and white that characterized her original hometown.

No ordinary American could have written Next Factory, because Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa would not have talked to them. Even if their English were good enough, they would never share their insights with outsiders. Sun herself stands on an edgy border. At a garment factory in Lesotho (which benefits from a favorable trade arrangement with the United States), the owner cannot quite make up her mind about Sun. On the plus side, Sun’s mother also comes from Shanghai, and even shares the owner’s surname. On the con side, Sun herself cannot speak Shanghainese. In general, Sun’s background makes her a privileged explicator of Chinese business culture, not only because her interlocutors are frank with her but also because she can tell when they’re not being frank. She is not a journalist but a business scholar herself, so she has a good idea of the garment factory owner’s capital costs, and can tell when they have been overestimated.

My favorite story from Next Factory comes in the second half of the book. It is an essay in humility and insight that is untainted by the air of bragging that so often leaks into the accounts of Americans abroad. Sun was working on an ambitious skills-training project in Kenya. Just when everything seemed to be coordinated, Sun and her colleagues ran into an intransigent bureaucracy. Months of work and dozens of contacts suddenly seemed wasted. Sun had to return to America and move on. Mortified by what she regarded as a complete failure, Sun did not talk about the project for over a year. When she did — she was writing Next Factory and felt that she must confront what happened — she was surprised to hear a collaborator working for the Chinese corporate partner declare that the project had succeeded in many partial ways. Nor had he ever given up on it, and, shortly thereafter an altered version of the skills-training program was launched. “Far from the stereotype that developing country actors move slowly, I [the American expert] was the holdup.”

In my view, Sun illustrates a key characteristic of the liberal mind, the willingness to settle for good-enough in order to learn from experience how to do better. Constitutionally, this outlook is directly at odds with the all-or-nothing insistence of radical ambition. It is so unpleasant to admit failure that many people simply cannot bear to do it. Most of them simply give up; a few cheat and lie about the results. (And you can always blame everything and everyone else.) Liberals understand, I think, that failure is the royal road to education; what helps them to follow this difficult path is a faith in time as an agent of change. Such change, of course, can be for the worse, and it probably will be if no one is paying attention. (This is what makes so many so-called liberals unworthy of the name — how else to explain the loss of nine hundred state-level seats during the Obama years?) The liberal advantage over the radical is the patience to get things right over time. Liberals understand what radical and small children can’t bear to hear: we have all the time in the world.


Wednesday 6th

In today’s Times, music critic Anthony Tommasini asks, “Should I put away my James Levine recordings?” I was asking myself more or less the same thing last night. The underlying question is this: will the pleasure of listening to these recordings be stunted by the allegations that have provoked the conductor’s ejection from the Metropolitan Opera? I think that everyone of a certain age had heard stories about Levine, so to some extent the news is not news. But the element of coercion was not hitherto salient. Perhaps it rarely is in gossip; while we like to hear what other people have got up to, we don’t like hearing that undue pressure was involved. (Is Harvey Weinstein still claiming that his many imbroglios were all “consensual”?) Sex isn’t fun if it’s forced, and sex that isn’t fun isn’t sex. It’s something else, something so pathetic and unpleasant that, so far, not a single former eminence has stood up and demanded, “What of it?”

As for the recordings, time will tell, as it usually does. When I was young, Richard Strauss’s reputation was still suffering, at least here in New York, from his brief association with the Nazi régime. There was an understanding that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose Nazi associations were less equivocal, would never be invited by the Met to sing the role of the Marschallin, in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, so long as manager Rudolf Bing had any say in the matter, and, indeed, she never did.* Looking forward, I’m more inclined, somewhat pessimistically I admit, to wonder if anyone at all will be listening to anybody’s recordings of Mahler’s Third in thirty years. So much of the world that has been engulfed by the harassment and abuse scandals seems almost too fragile to survive the alterations in public sympathies that have brought these scandals forward. While Anthony Tommasini and I may be asking whether Levine’s artistic achievement will shine through the tarnish, the public may be signalling simply that brilliant orchestral performances are neither interesting nor important enough for the question to be raised. It may not be the case that power has been stripped away from villainous producers and politicians; it may be, rather, that the power itself has dissipated, so that what Al Franken and Leon Wieseltier do in the way of day jobs, and what their more virtuous colleagues also do, no longer matters quite as much as it has done in the past.

In Larry McMurtry’s Moving On, published in 1970, the heroine and her husband consult a psychiatrist to see about saving their marriage. When Patsy complains that she doesn’t always want to have sex with Jim, the doctor informs her that it is simply her duty to oblige him. If she wants to remain in the marriage, she must yield to his desires, regardless of her own, because, after all, he is the man and she is the woman. Is the doctor condoning coercion? However you or I might answer, it seems clear that, in the doctor’s view, coercion has nothing to do with it. It makes no sense to speak of coercing people to do their duty; what makes sense is to speak of punishing those who won’t. To do one’s duty, if only in order to avoid punishment, is not to yield to coercion. Coercion comes into it only when one rejects the claims of duty. In the nearly fifty years since Moving On appeared, our ideas of conjugal duty have been altered at the root, but the older men who constitute the principal cohort in today’s sex scandals were all raised under the previous dispensation.They had every reason, if no right, to expect that there would be no ex post facto review of the stories that were whispered about them.


Friday 8th

As we were on our way to lunch, Ray Soleil sighed heavily and asked, “How did we get here?”

I looked right at him and said, “Reality television.” “Of course,” he said.

It’s easily forgotten, I suppose because there is immense resistance to regarding television as degrading. Television is degrading because you must sit still to watch it, still in your body but even more in your mind. (That you can “work out” while watching television proves my point.) It’s not your decision; television enforces these responses. Television cannot help being bad for you.

I once got caught up in an early season of Project Runway. Inevitably, I got sick of it, especially the urge, widely shared, to imitate Tim Gunn’s vocal tics. I thought I was very funny for a while; then I felt a perfect fool. One of the contestants reminded me of someone I’ve never much liked, and I reveled in her misfortunes. I pondered the mystery that even in a professedly feminist age, most designers seem to be men. What do they know that women don’t? Mostly, though, I frothed on cue. I would actually call up a friend to say, did you see that! Then I saw myself on the phone doing my own sort of that, and mortification put a stop to misbehavior.

So far, the reality show being broadcast from Washington has been inconsequential: nothing has actually happened. Does the transfer of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem count? Like everything else coming out of the White House, it seems symbolic, gestural, and very much the kind of excitement that whips up an audience for reality TV. Oh, look what he did now! The idea that “he” is doing it in the name of a world power means nothing, because there is no such thing in television. There is only entertainment.

The mad tax bill — mad-at-blue-states tax bill — may well be enacted, but laws don’t really happen; popular responses to them do. The audience may find itself confronted by some very unentertaining realities, realities that aren’t taking place on television. There is a lot of anxiety about nuclear warheads, but, so far, it is just that: anxiety. The dream of reality television is that things that are worried about will never quite happen, because happening will put an end to the fun, which is waiting for something to happen. There is no fulfillment in happening; immediately, a new wait must begin. I derive no small comfort from believing that the formula for soap-opera drama takes the place of imagination in the mind of Donald Trump. Not to mention attentiveness to ratings where conscience ought to be.

I wish that, instead of resigning, Al Franken had insisted on keeping his seat until the ongoing sexual inquisition deals with the president. Some might argue, as Michelle Goldberg did at the Times, that there will never be a reckoning for Trump, because he can’t be shamed. But that’s precisely why I’d like Franken to stay on. There ought to be more to this scourge than pressing decent men to admit their indecencies and then counting on them to withdraw. It’s genteel and toothless — true to reality TV, not to reality. It certainly hasn’t stopped Roy Moore. What’s the point, if only the good guys topple?

I expressed concern that younger men will conclude that female colleagues are more trouble than they’re worth. “I don’t think they’d have the legal right to act on that,” said Ray. I looked right at him.

Bon week-end à tous!

*This is incorrect. Fossil Darling informs me that Schwarzkopf sang several Rosenkavaliers at the Met in 1964.

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (IV)

28 and 30 November; 1 December

Tuesday 28th

Last night, I started reading Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s account of the “life and times” of Jann Wenner, the creator of Rolling Stone. Icky Fingers would be more like it. The reviews warned me that I would take a deep dislike to Wenner; instead, I merely find him depressing. It’s not him so much as the world that allowed him to flourish. Like Donald Trump, Jann Wenner looks to me like an opportunistic disease: he doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the weakness in our body politic that he exploited. Even before the end of the first chapter, Hagan has handily presented the central puzzle of Wenner’s career: how did a celebrity-hound preppie become the pharaoh of youthquake excitement and unkempt disaffection? Bruce Springsteen is famous for, among other things, not returning Chris Christie’s fanboy phone calls, but one of Hagan’s photo pages shows him in a smiling lineup with Wenner and two other shorter, people (Bono and Mick Jagger). How to explain? Wenner is also shown at a benefit for Grand Central (then threatened with demolition) seated next to a rather glacial Jackie Kennedy; it might have been said at the time that the flow of cachet went both ways, that Wenner was a virtual fountain of youth for the noble widow: he made her cool. Now, of course, one just feels slightly sorry for her.

Why am I reading this book? I’d be very surprised if it could be shown that, during the years when it would have been conceivable for me to do so, I bought as many as ten issues of Rolling Stone; the number might be as low as three. Whatever I liked about popular music, it wasn’t what Greil Marcus had to say about it. The boys’-club misogyny of Rolling Stone’s editorial tone was as pungent as the stink of a locker room, redolent of bullying exaggeration and supersubtle theorizing. The magazine’s cheek was always a matter of puffing up adolescent noise with bogus significance, dandifying, where possible, the louche and the stubbly. In my opinion, its heartbreaking naïveté about the power of “popular culture,” more than any other single factor, engendered the careless disregard for social reality that deluded so many supporters of Hillary Clinton into imagining that their candidate could not possibly lose an election.

Joe Hagan, it must be said, writes with polished journalistic brio. A bit of bibliomancy turns up this jewel from Chapter 13: “The critical apparatus of Rolling Stone was in turmoil in 1975. Wenner’s writers didn’t like music anymore.” I ought to be ashamed of the smirk that Sticky Fingers has plastered on my lips. Meanwhile, there’s the tragedy of an educated generation resolutely taking desultory things seriously.


Can you tell? Does it show? Immediately before starting in on Sticky Fingers, I read “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” a lecture delivered by George Santayana to the Philosophical Union of the University of California in 1911. In the following year, Santayana left the United States forever, to die in Rome forty years later. I have never before managed to keep the figure of Santayana in focus. Now that I think I can, I see that his premature retirement from Harvard and withdrawal from the country of his education might explain my difficulty: we have reciprocated by withdrawing our attention and replacing it with mystification. Immediate evidence is presented by uncertainty about his name. I shall call him George Santayana, which is how he was known here and with which name his books, all written in English, were published. But he was born in Spain, in 1863, as Jorge. (I am mortified to discover that I have long confused him with Giorgio di Santillana, an Italian-American historian of science.) Although both parents were Spanish, Santayana’s mother had been married to a member of an eminent American banking clan, and it was to provide her children by the dead George Sturgis with an American education that she settled in Boston in 1869. Jorge and his father followed a few years later, but only the boy stayed on, becoming George. So Santayana was both an insider and an outsider. William James was one of his teachers, and, later, one of his friends: James’s death in 1910 may also have deprived Santayana of a reason for sticking around Cambridge.

Santayana had a knack for aphorisms. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is certainly the best known. I came across one in “The Genteel Tradition” that struck me just as forcibly. “To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.” Without putting it so well, I have understood the truth of this since my mind began working. Consolation from what? you ask. Earlier in the same paragraph, Santayana says,

Serious poetry, profound religion (Calvinism, for instance) are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself: but when a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them by that; and since human life, in its depths, cannot then express itself openly, imagination is driven for comfort into abstract arts, where human circumstances are lost sight of, and human problems dissolve in a purer medium. The pressure of care is thus relieved, without its quietus being found in intelligence.

Again, what unhappiness? How very American to ask; for it is still somewhat inappropriate to be unhappy in this country. Unhappiness is something to be fixed, by therapy or medication or self-improvement. But Santayana, the outsider who taught himself another people’s memories, knew that this country was founded by Calvinists who regarded the human state as a fallen one, and the human condition as essentially, inevitably, unhappy. But the wilderness to which the Puritans had retired proved to be a colossal mockery, for instead of the hardship that would have provided the appropriate external accompaniment to their pious self-denial — or, at any rate, after the hardship — it opened a cornucopia of worldly riches that, when combined with the robust success of the new revolutionary nation, made austerity seem perverse.

If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is. He is convinced that he has always been, and always will be, victorious and blameless.

There is almost too much here to unpack. The victorious blamelessness that floated Americans in 1911 would be deflated by war and depression, but it would erupt with a new vigor in the 1960s, in time for Jann Wenner to preside over the renewed conversation about American renewal — and to do what he could to suppress mutterings about unhappiness. Behind this recent history, though, there weighs on my mind a paradoxical observation to which I’ve been led by Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If you were to describe Jaynes’s theory to an educated American today, you might reasonably expect it to be received with grave doubts about claim that human consciousness did not exist until three thousand years ago, but there would be no denial that the development of consciousness, whenever it occurred, was a very good thing, the capstone, perhaps, of human distinctiveness. And yet this development appears to have been experienced as a nightmare, as precisely what our religions have called the Fall of Man. I am almost paralyzed with fascination, to think that it was a tree of knowledge that caused the trouble in Genesis — the force of Jaynes’s ideas makes me wonder if I ever understood what this meant before. It is, of course, the unhappiness that must, in Santayana’s view, be consoled.

At the end of “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana exhorted his audience, “Let us be content to live in the mind.” I don’t altogether know how to take this; I am certainly not inclined to follow Santayana’s abstention from worldliness. But it does seem clear to me that understanding what we know (and what we don’t) is the only sure foundation of contentment.


Thursday 30th

It has always dismayed me to hear that the great virtue of a liberal education is its uselessness. This sounds like an Oscar Wilde witticism gone completely flat. The only people who understand what it’s supposed to mean have themselves been liberally educated, while, to the rest of the world, the “uselessness” is what resounds. Why fund such a self-declared waste of time?

But it was only the other day that I was able to come up with an alternative. A glance over recent entries will disclose the background of my thinking, which was provoked by Julian Jaynes’s 1975 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I will not recapitulate Jaynes’s theories, interesting as they are. It’s enough to say that the problems of liberal education do not figure in them. Had Jaynes written the books that he proposed to write, he might very well have had something to say about “the humanities,” as the subjects of liberal education are generally known, but as he did not, I’ve been muddling along on my own.

Liberal education makes it possible for you to understand what you know. It is hard for me, really, to imagine anything more vitally useful, especially as we proceed into an environment that forces us to choose either painstaking stewardship or social annihilation.

For illustration of the way in which consciousness transforms knowledge into understanding, I am not going to pick out an example from my school days, or from the books on my shelves, or even from the Op-Ed page of the Times. I am going to recount an anecdote from personal history and then share the astonishing and “obvious” explanation that was ventured by a friend. I have already told the story here before. This time, I will add some comments about my failure to arrive at the explanation myself.

The event at the core of the anecdote occurred at the great Parisian restaurant, Taillevent. The concierge of our hotel had booked a table for us in the restaurant’s outer chamber; from the door of the inner room, which was not far away, we could hear the gentle din of the gratin. Across the way, at a table set for eight or ten, a reasonably polished middle-aged gentleman was seated beside a pretty young woman. They were in festive spirits, although the young woman seemed somewhat more obliging than effervescent. Because of the exotic setting, I declined to draw conclusions from the incongruity of the happy couple’s occupation of such a large table, but when an enormous turkey was rolled out, and two thin slices cut for each of two dinner plates, whereupon the turkey was rolled back into the kitchen, I had to ask our waiter if the gentleman was an American. I was assured that he was not. No, he was French, and I didn’t doubt that the stammering waiter could have told me his name.

I forgot to tell you: in the United States, that particular Thursday in November was Thanksgiving Day. I needn’t add that turkey was not on Taillevent’s menu that evening.

Of course, the waiter wouldn’t have told me the man’s name, and of course I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask anything. I let the curious incident settle into my memory undisturbed. I’m sure that I regaled friends with it many times, making much of the great silvery cart with the rolling dome top that housed the turkey, and the sneering dispatch with which it was wheeled across the floor, but it was only when I told it to my friend Ray Soleil, years later, that the curiousness was displaced by something else — Ray’s likely story. Ray explained that the gentleman was embarking on a mésalliance (if only because his amie was so much younger), and that he had challenged his disapproving family to meet her, or to acknowledge their engagement, at a grand dinner at the grand restaurant, where he was well-known enough to command a great roast bird that must have imposed some inconvenience on the kitchen. Owing to some transatlantic connection or other — his line of work, perhaps, or a grandmother’s origins — the dinner would also celebrate the American feast.

Being French, the man’s family decided to let him make a fool of himself — for everyone in the restaurant except for Kathleen and me, who would never have dreamt of such stunts, must have known exactly what Ray Soleil guessed — and they declined to appear. Kathleen and I might have been able to imagine such an episode, but we could not imagine it actually happening right in front of us. It would have been very upsetting. We should have felt disappointed, embarrassed, and even humiliated on the couple’s behalf, whether or not they were troubled by any of these things. It would have spoiled our lovely dinner — delicious pré-salé lamb from the Pyrenees for me. I know it. What we saw was certainly very interesting, but had we had any idea of an explanation such as Ray’s, it would have been much too interesting, certainly at such a short distance.

When we heard what Ray had to say, twenty years had passed, and we were sitting at our own dining table. I can vividly remember what a great fool I felt not to have seen what was so clear to our friend. Only now, meditating on the discomforts of consciousness, can I grasp the force with which I must have resisted understanding what was going on at that table for ten. Knowing — not understanding, but knowing, from what I could see with my own eyes — that something was wrong, I delicately swaddled my analytical powers and instead soaked up everything that seemed normal — normal for Taillevent, that is. I assumed that the theatrics of the turkey on the torpédo were not normal, and dismissed them as irrelevant to the Taillevent experience.

The purpose of a liberal education is to undo the many unconscious accommodations that we make for the interment of unpleasant possibilities. We learn that our kindness might really be condescension. We learn that our generosity might be controlling. Most of all, we learn how easily our arguments become tendentious, self-serving. At the very least liberal education raises our evasions — and this is what makes Freudian therapy so liberal, however unscientific — into consciousness. Only when our pack of just-so stories have been dispelled by interpretations whose truth and usefulness is revealed by the force with which they grip us do we understand the world around us.


Friday 1st

In yesterday’s entry, I set out to say something useful about liberal education, but wound up writing an entry in which the place of a liberal education was taken by my friend, Ray Soleil. Nor was there anything particularly academic about my illustrative example. Some readers might find that these displacements mitigated, perhaps even vitiated, the force of my argument. What has dinner at a fancy restaurant got to do with studying Aristotle and Hume?

I might observe that Ray himself is a liberally-educated man, trained in critical, skeptical thinking at a fine university. But why stretch a point? The truth is that Ray is a worldly man, gifted with sophisticated understanding of things. By “sophisticated,” I mean pretty much what Socrates didn’t like about the ability to defend both sides of a case, the inclination to see conflicting interests instead of right and wrong. That, I maintain, is the objective of liberal education. I believe that distinguishing right from wrong does not require much study; for that very reason, cases of right and wrong are rare. You could, of course, pick over the Thanksgiving turkey at Taillevent looking for rights and wrongs — was the patron wrong to arrange for the feast, was his family right to stay away? — but such judgments wouldn’t have much to do with how human beings actually get along in the world. We can leave the rights and wrongs to the parties involved, and savor the incident for its blend of curiosity and familiarity. We can wonder what happened next. Did the gentleman marry the young lady? Did the family patch up the quarrel? Was Ray’s explanation in fact correct? Perhaps the key element of a liberal education is its undying agnosticism, not about the existence of God in particular but about all of our attempts at understanding. Julian Jaynes’s way of putting it was to say that consciousness is never complete.


“You don’t get to do what I’ve done if you are an asshole.”

That’s Jann Wenner on his career. The remark appears late in Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, on page 486. By that point, I had come to the conclusion that you could do what Jann Wenner did only if you were an asshole. But I hate that word and don’t intend to parse it. It’s easy to pile up the negative personal qualities that Wenner has displayed all through his life, and Hagan serves generous portions. But the overall effect paints Wenner as a man who succeeded in spite of himself, and I don’t buy it. You don’t get to do what Wenner did if you are no more than an undisciplined hedonist. That’s what’s missing from Sticky Fingers, the “more” that enabled Wenner to parley his vices — his ruthlessness, his faithlessness, his craven pursuit of celebrity — into a run of five decades. If you want to know how flawed Wenner is as a human being, this is the book for you. If you want to know how he kept Rolling Stone afloat through good times and bad — how he connected with millions of more or less literate Americans in an enterprise that often seemed as Messianic as it was mercenary — you will wonder how Hagan managed to leave that part out.

It would be wrong, though, to imply that my disappointment is very great. I am not really curious about Wenner, Rolling Stone, or the definition of a cultural cohort with which I was never in sympathy. I still don’t know why I read the book, but I do know that I was drawn by the promise of substance that wafted from all the reviews. It was clear that Sticky Fingers was a good book about something. But what?

It’s about depravity, the depravity of adolescent anarchy extended into adulthood. The depravity of lavishing attention on rock bands and rare carpets while undermining it with mind-altering drugs, the depravity of declaring that the whole mess is not only important but of world-historical significance. The depravity of attempting to fashion a better society without any actual thinking. The depravity of distracting political and cultural élites from the problems of ordinary people, the utter depravity of dismissing the ordinary as boring. The depravity that Victorian painters loved to suggest in their murals of Rome’s lascivious decline (Hogan’s are equally alluring). That’s what Sticky Fingers is about. And here is how it ends:

Jann Wenner’s oldest and dearest friends — people who had worked for him in the 1960s and after — could not help but notice the likeness between Trump and the Jann Wenner they knew. The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to celebrity and power. … “High-functioning narcissists can be incredibly effective people.” (503)

It was a relief to read this, really, because I was beginning to worry that nobody had noticed. Just a few pages earlier, Hagan was describing Wenner’s reaction to the scandal of Rolling Stone’s libelous article about rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

Wenner took a degree of comfort in his libel insurance, but he swerved between denial and confrontation. One minute he blamed the source, the next the writer, the next Will Dana [the Rolling Stone editor who made the observation about high-functioning narcissists quoted above]. One minute he described himself as checked out of Rolling Stone, fading from relevance with his rock star buddies; the next he claimed he still controlled every aspect of the magazine down to the reader mail. “What a horrible thing to have happened,” he said, sucking his teeth, a thing he did when he was anxious. “The further it recedes on the horizon, the better I feel about it. Confronted with it on a day-to-day thing, it just makes me sick.” (495)

Isn’t that a shame!

Chalk it up to my being an indoors person, but its hard for me to worry more about the fallout from environmental degradation than I do about the consequences of moral vacuity. Trump and Wenner aren’t as unusual as they’re made out to be.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
November 2017 (III)

Thursday 16th

Just the other day, a link from The Browser to Nautilus carried me away. Veronique Greenwood wrote a piece about a book from 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I could imagine what I would have thought of it when it was published (not much), but now I had to have it. Jaynes’s theory, which is that consciousness as we understand it did not exist until about three thousand years ago, makes a great deal of sense to me these days. The fact that the nature of consciousness remains somewhat mysterious even to thinkers like philosopher Daniel Dennett (who keeps “figuring it out”) and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio does not of course imply that consciousness is necessarily of recent origin, but its connections to language do. (I have long believed that true consciousness is an essentially verbal phenomenon. Perhaps it would be better to say that consciousness is shaped by verbal experience.) Jaynes hypothesizes that, before there was consciousness, there was the bicameral mind, in which the voice of gods called out from the right side of the brain to the left, human or self side. I am not going to begin to try to defend this theory, although I think that it’s probably correct.

Thanks to Amazon, a copy of the book arrived yesterday. It is fairly easy reading, at least for me, now. A great deal of it is familiar, not because I’ve read it elsewhere but because I’ve arrived at the same conclusions from experience. I’ll go into details some other time. I make the point about sailing through the book because what I’m really attending to is the marvelously peculiar prose. Here is the beginning of Chapter 2:

Thus having chiseled away some of the major misconceptions about consciousness, what then have we left? If consciousness is not all these things, if it is not so extensive as we think, not a copy of experience or the necessary focus of learning, judgment, or even thought, what is it? And as we stare into the dust and rubble of the last chapter, hoping Pygmalion-like to see consciousness newly step forth pure and pristine out of the detritus, let us ramble out and around the subject a little way as the dust settles, talking of other things.(46)

Let us speak of metaphor.

In the room, the women fairly come and go. In another passage, about thunderstorms, Jaynes writes of “bulgeous banks of burly air.” I just looked up “bulgeous” on the computer and, oh, dear, it is a word: it’s used to describe the fit of too-tight trousers at the male groin. The talk of metaphor is interesting, although I am not convinced that Jayne’s ideas are so different from those of I A Richards, who distinguished the tenor from the vehicle of metaphor, that we need new terms, metaphrand and metaphier. The important point, however, is that language is indeed largely metaphorical. We have a few words for simple things and functions — parts of the body, common objects, and basic actions — and from these we have elaborated clouds of nuance.

Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastnesses of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor which it is. Indeed, if we consider the changes in vocabulary that have occurred over the last few millennia, and project them several millennia hence, an interesting paradox arises. For if we ever achieve a language that has the power of expressing everything, then metaphor will no longer be possible. I would not say, in that case, my love is like a red, red rose, for love would have exploded into terms for its thousands of nuances, and applying the correct therm would leave the rose metaphorically dead. (51-2)

This is quite true. As I’m sure I’ve already written somewhere else, a lot of the power of ancient texts comes from the compression into single words of meanings that have long since split into words of their own. The “knowledge” that Adam and Eve digested along with the forbidden fruit is a fine example. A great deal of poetic force, if not actual poetry, owes to inarticulacy.


Consciousness is occasioned by stress. I’m not going to argue that right now, either. It’s my first law of consciousness, the second being the point about verbal origins. Consciousness is the attempt to answer questions presented by stressful situations. Many people respond to stressful situations without resorting to consciousness at all; possibly most people do. They just run, perhaps. Well, everybody runs. But the conscious person is someone who wants to analyse the problem, and no matter how richly supported by graphic aids, analysis is a communicable function. It is not a private, personal thing, but something that ought to be intelligible to any intelligent person. (The common belief that you can know what you mean even if you can’t put it into words is twaddle. You’re not talking about knowing, but about day-dreaming.) The close connection of stress and analysis means that most conscious people are critics.

The person who is neither reading, writing, listening nor talking is not conscious. Sentient, perhaps; aware, perhaps; but not conscious. Again, I think that this describes most people, most of the time. And it might explain why most people, and not just Hofstadter’s anti-intellectual Americans, dislike critics. It is not the specifics of the criticism so much as the persistence of stress. Why must the critic keep talking about a stressful situation that has been dealt with?

I often wonder about consciousness when I am listening to music, especially music that I know very well. To the extent that I am listening closely, and not following the thoughts that music can inspire, I don’t believe that I am conscious. That may be why I love music: it is a consciousness-blocker. Music somehow transfigures stress; it preserves our physical responses but eliminates agitation and fear. Even when music makes me want to dance, I remain contentedly passive. The great composers are in complete control of their complex structures: everything goes exactly where it ought to go. There is nothing for me to do but tag along, whistling.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (II)

6, 8 and 9 November

Monday 6th

Last week, Kathleen attended a Bitcoin event in Florida. While there, she had a conversation with an Austrian economist, currently in the middle of a fellowship at Harvard, who was very enthusiastic about the book he was reading. After he said a few words about it, Kathleen said, “My husband would be very interested in that.” So she wrote down the particulars. Of course, the next time we talked, she didn’t have her notes handy, but she remembered the title — and I remembered where my copy of the book was. It was The Passions and the Interests, by Albert O Hirschman. I read it for the first time four years ago.

It was another one of those magic-seeming moments, when the book that I ought to read next simply presents itself. As I recalled Hirschman’s little essay in economic history, there was a line of argument, running roughly from Bacon to Hume, and flourishing in the thought of Baron de Montesquieu and Sir James Steuart, that distinguished interests, as predictable and benign (perhaps even constructive), from passions, which were violent and unruly, and that then proposed that interests could offset, or countervail, passions. The role that this line of thinking, however implicit, played in the development of liberal politics seems obvious, so I read The Passions and the Interests again.

Subtitled Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph, Hirschman’s book takes a line of Montesquieu for its epigram:

Et il est heureux pour les hommes d’être dans une situation où, pendant que leurs passions leur inspirent la pensée d’être méchants, ils ont pourtant intérêts de ne pas l’être.

It is fortunate for men that, while their passions incline them toward wickedness, it is in their interest not to be. (Esprit des Lois, Book XXI)

What I didn’t remember until I re-read the book was that Adam Smith not only abandoned but effaced this line of thinking, replacing Montesquieu’s idea of a marketplace controlled by checks and balances with one in which unfettered self-interest singlehandedly created prosperity. He saw interests and passions as synonymous, just as thinkers prior to Bacon had done. Montesquieu’s faith in le doux commerce — an idea that Marx and Engels openly mocked — was naive at best.

Central to Hirschman’s study is the role of change in time: old circumstances generate new conditions in which it is difficult to imagine or remember the old ones. The thinkers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century who contributed to the passions/interest argument were looking, energetically and almost desperately, for a means of restraining the destructive force of aristocratic “heroism.” The partial success of their search is attested by Romantic disaffection with the commercial peace that the Enlightenment brought about. The Gothic Revival began only minutes after thinkers like Montesquieu congratulated themselves on having gotten rid of all the old barbarisms that they denounced with the label “Gothic.” Hirschman puts it pungently: In sum, capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature. (132) He cautions that, while history never repeats itself exactly, ignorance of history may condemn thinkers to recur quite precisely to ideas that have demonstrably failed in the past.

Hirschman is also engaged with the notion of the intended, but unrealized consequences of social action. We are familiar with unintended, realized consequences because they are there to see. The abuse of Facebook is perhaps the leading instance at this moment in time of unintended consequences. Hirschman considers the unintended consequences of Calvin’s doctrines of predestination upon the growth of European commerce, but only to consider at the same time the intended but unrealized consequences of the passions/interest argument — a concurrent development. If capitalism did not turn out to be inherently stabilizing, Hirschman concludes, then it is in the general interest to forget it was ever expected to be.

[W]hat social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so? (131)

Setting aside Hirschman’s particular economic case, it seems to me that his conclusion applies with grim force to the liberal Civil Rights project of the Fifties and Sixties. This was supposed to unite all Americans in a common citizenship, but the patchwork of voting, schooling, and housing laws that constituted the actual program signally failed to achieve anything of the kind. As Hirschman says on the same page, “the illusory expectations that are associated with certain social decisions at the time of their adoption help keep their real future effects from view.” If you put these observations together, you pass through the looking-glass into a world in which social objectives, despite being set aside or forgotten, continue to mask their failure. For fifty years, the Democratic Party minimized its legislative commitment to equality for black Americans while pretending that equality had been achieved. The climax of this delusion was the election of Barack Obama as President. We now  know that this remarkable event precipitated right-wing movements throughout the country that were determined to demonstrate just how little progress had been made over time. And black Americans themselves felt obliged to remind us that their lives matter.


Wednesday 8th

In September, the New York Times Book Review published an essay by Douglas Brinkley on the topic of Larry McMurtry, a writer whose short journalism I have often enjoyed but whose books I have never read. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University, was inspired to re-read the three novels that constitute McMurtry’s “Houston” trilogy. In his judgment, they had held up well. What interested me was the idea of reading a novel with whose now-distant setting I was personally familiar. McMurtry wasn’t writing historical fiction, of course, any more than (aside from one or two exotics) Trollope was. But the Houston of 1960 was already being plowed under when I arrived at the end of the decade. I thought I would give the first one, Moving On, a try. It took a while to engage me; I was not immediately attracted to the picaresque road movie that takes up the first quarter of the book. But I liked the tone of it, and the heroine, Patsy Carpenter, appealed enormously: an intelligent girl — very much a girl, no matter that she’s married and sexually candid — trying to make a place for herself in the respectable world. When the action settled in Houston, where Patsy’s husband enrolls as a graduate student in literature at Rice, I found myself reading with the keenest attentiveness.

So keen was I that when Fleming Park was mentioned, I had to have a look at Google Maps, because I couldn’t remember just where it was. It’s between the Rice campus and the neighborhood where my first mother-in-law built a modernist house, on North Boulevard. Early in my marriage to her daughter, before the house was built, this quietly formidable woman made a deal with me. Money in some form or other would come my way if I would keep the grass mowed at the empty lot. She provided me with a gas-powered lawnmower for the purpose. I was young and inexperienced enough to accept the proposition. I did not yet know myself very well; I did not understand how non-existent, except as a source of annoying guilt, that empty lot would be in my imagination. I utterly failed to keep my part of the bargain. Not long after the house was built, my wife decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore, and she took refuge at her mother’s. Many years later, my daughter told me that new owners had demolished her grandmother’s house and built something more conventional for the neighborhood.

As long as I was “there,” I thought I’d have a look at my parent’s house, in Tanglewood, a tract that was developed in the Fifties. Tanglewood was developed rather like the Monopoly board, with the smaller houses at the south edge grading to ever-larger ones at toward the north. My parents’ house was at the rich end, on Sturbridge — just “Sturbridge,” no “road” or “drive” — and, encompassing 5500 square feet, it was not what the term “ranch house” calls to mind. Like all the homes at that end of Tanglewood, it was a low-slung building, with elements borrowed from both the English cottage — a leaded, diamond-paned bow window adorned the only stretch of the front wall that wasn’t hidden by bushes — and the Palm Beach villa.

For all its size and comfort, it always struck me as totally unimpressive. I don’t mean that it wasn’t ostentatious (although it wasn’t), only that it made no impression of any kind, except that of making no impression. A lot of brick and window and shrubbery went into the effort of being unmemorable. It wasn’t ugly, but it was, somehow, not architecture. It would take me decades to admit what the choice of this house had to tell me about my parents, because, at the time, the only message that got through was that they had no taste, and that wasn’t true. If I never looked at the house without a feeling of disappointment, that was because I didn’t know how to look at it. Now I know that, to my parents, both raised in the Midwest, the house on Sturbridge was a great relief from the pretensions of the Northeast to which they had been transplanted as young people.

When Google Maps’ street view function was introduced, I “passed” in front of the house a few times. The last time I looked, a few years ago, someone had had the very bad idea of imposing a mad portico upon the front door. I can’t remember its details, but the effect was Las Vegas. It made the façade memorable in the worst sort of way. The other night, wondering about the latest status of this mistake, I dragged the map across the screen until Tanglewood and then Sturbridge came into view. There I had a shock. There could be no doubt about it. Our house had been removed, demolished, undone. The pool and the patio were gone, too. Aside from a strip of driveway, and the crowns of some very mature trees, there was nothing but grass.

The curious part of my brain quickly learned that a number of other houses close to the now-vacant lot were not the ones that I remembered. Immediately to the west, somebody had put up a broad center-hall Colonial, with white clapboard and black shutters. It looked not terribly unlike the house that we had left behind in Bronxville, where it belonged. Much less agreeable was the house now across the street, a Southwestern confection of stucco and red tiles, with an appalling motel-like porte-cochère jutting out from the front. Already, during my last years in Houston, people were talking about “tear-downs,” perfectly nice houses that were razed to make way for bigger and better ones. My parents’ house was over sixty years old. My father had had to rewire it and replace the air-conditioning, staggering expenses. Perhaps the slab cracked. (If you don’t know what that would mean, you don’t know how lucky you are.) Things get old, and nothing is forever.

In some other part of my brain, all I was aware of was annihilation. I had not set foot inside the house since 1978, but the place where I had set my foot no longer existed to step into. A major setting of the most interesting decade of my life (in the sense of the Chinese curse) had been wiped off the surface of the earth; now it existed only in the minds of a handful of people. In fact, of course, my parents’ house had ceased to exist, except as a shell, the moment the new owners moved in, nearly forty years ago. It had been another house, for other people, for a very long time. But for most of that time, it had looked the same, which made it easy to pretend that it was still the same inside as well. I had taken the monstrous alteration to the entrance as a great insult, but utter erasure was almost impossible to comprehend.

Once upon a time, I should have had to journey back to Houston to make this discovery. The return itself would have done much to prepare me for the enormity. I haven’t been to Houston since 1991, and a great many things have changed, even if, as I suspect, it is still the town that it was when it became the fourth-largest city in the United States. A friend, if I still had friends in Houston, might have told me that the house had been torn down. But I came upon it all unsuspecting, snooping through Google Maps. I believe that it was the sheer ease of finding out that the house was gone that made its disappearance so overwhelming.

When I went back to have a second look, I noted that the street view is dated October 2015; perhaps there is a new house there now, yet to appear on the satellite photo. If you’re in the area, have a look, and drop me a line. Be sure to take a picture!


Thursday 9th

“The Paradise Papers” — how oddly appropriate this nickname is. Is it supposed to refer to Bermuda, where a law firm called Appleby and numerous corporate-services providers have been busy planting money in tax-free plots? Although quite pleasant for parts of the year, Bermuda is too hot in summer and too chilly in winter to pass for heaven. What I take the name to signify is the unrealistic fantasy of legal tax evasion. Call it a tragedy of the uncommons: when too many players park too much wealth in hidden accounts, laws will be changed.

Inevitably, the early reports were studded with boldfaced names, from Madonna to Her Majesty. But focusing on individuals is a mistake, as is worrying about getting caught. If you don’t stand so close to the problem, if you step back and see it from the ordinary person’s perspective, the Paradise Papers project a blurry galaxy of élite entitlement. Not only do élites have all the money, but they write laws that allow them to keep all the money, too. The ordinary person is a chump who’s supposed to pay taxes. The élites have created a paradise in which taxes are not imposed. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve done.

A duty-free paradise: the French aristocracy thought it lived in one, too, before the Revolution. The nobility was exempted from taxation because it provided the national defense. That was the theory, but by 1789 it had long since ceased to correspond to reality. What is expected of the American élite? What are the rewards? Liberal democracies do not recognize élites as a social or political class, and this may be a mistake, a bit of constitutional naïveté. In the absence of official status and explicit responsibilities, élites exercise their power in the shadows cast by groves of dense legislation. No wonder Donald Trump’s supporters want to chop things down.


I have been thinking about business. I’m beginning to gather some notes. It’s hard not to sound as if I were plotting out a treatise.

What is business? It’s a way of making money that can be entered into without professional training.

There seem to be three kinds of business. First, there is commerce. Trading. For a long time, this was the only kind of business, because the second, manufacturing, was not extensive enough to be differentiated from it, and because the third, extraction and development, was captured by property owners, quite often royalties. Anyway, there they are.

Commerce has experienced well-publicized vicissitudes in what we call the Information Age, particularly in the area of retail sales. It is not clear how this turbulence will settle. Whatever happens, commerce will remain the most vibrant, socially important kind of business. I include banking and transportation under this heading, and I find it useful to call commercial business organizations firms.

Extraction and development involve altering the surface and accessible contents of the planet. Although people have been building towns for millennia, and nabobs have undertaken many monumental works, development as we understand dates back to the Seventeenth Century, when property owners began sponsoring coherent building projects. The Place Vendôme in Paris is a fine example. The duc de Vendôme divided a piece of land into a central square and surrounding lots. The lots were leased to prospective builders, who were bound to erect their structures behind uniform façades; the structures themselves were not uniform. London’s Belgravia is an enlargement of the idea; the second Earl Grosvenor hired an architect and a builder (Thomas Cubitt) to produce dozens of nearly identical residences on the grounds of what had been a family estate. These happy examples of development are sadly atypical, as is New York’s Rockefeller Center.

As for extraction, it usually takes the form of mining, although forestry and large-scale, monocultural agriculture belong under the heading. As currently practiced, extraction and development usually cause environmental degradation.

Manufacturing detached itself from commerce when, around the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, it became possible to produce massive quantities of cotton cloth with mechanical looms and other devices. It must always be borne in mind that the machines did the work. Human beings were employed to tend to the machines, not to perform the machines’ labor. Although hundreds, then thousands, and even millions of people were hired to service factories, it was almost never correct to call them workers, common usage notwithstanding. The history of mass manufacturing has ever since been a matter of creating machines that required ever fewer human attendants. We speak today of robots as if there were some essential difference between the prehensile instruments found on today’s assembly lines and the spinning jenny. There isn’t: they share the essential similarity of not being human. For several decades now, the millions of factory “workers” have been giving way to thousands; upper limits of hundreds and even dozens are within view. One objective of capitalist manufacturing has always been to finance the means of reducing the number of human employees required for any operation.

What extraction and manufacturing have in common is that, between danger and tedium, they degrade the humanity of many, and possibly most, employees. Much as policy-makers regret the “loss of jobs,” it is difficult to regard mining, for example, as a desirable occupation for anyone. Indeed, it is to be pitied that extraction has not gone the way of manufacturing.

Three hundred years ago, of course, almost everyone on earth was engaged in some kind of farming. The activity of the peasant could not be distinguished from the peasant himself; one can only call it “subsistence.” Only at the smallest upper margins was it a way to make money. Farming today is either extractive or commercial (as, for example, the rooftop kitchen gardens in Brooklyn and Queens), but in either case it involves the application of “business” techniques to an area formerly devoid of them. There will be no large-scale going back to the land.

No, our only hope is to create more commercial jobs. One way is to introduce an inexpensive degree of inefficiency. Imagine, for example, that Amazon were to become a wholesaler, selling books only to tradesmen. The prices of books would rise slightly, and the convenience of delivery might decline (although in some cases it might just as easily improve); there would be many more jobs for the kind of people who have always worked in bookshops, and yet book prices would not rise very much. Similarly, Wall-Mart might stock all sorts of shops of various kinds, instead of operating its own mammoth ones. Everybody interested in this issue ought to take a look at Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

It should also be borne in mind that artisanal manufacture is a kind of commerce.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (I)

31 October; 1 and 2 November

Tuesday 31st October

What is the life of the mind? No, I mean really. I’m tempted sometimes to call it a mirage, a hope or a dream that is never to be realized. But the very word “mirage” tips me off to the real disenchantment: I’m upset that there are no ivory towers, no secure retreats in which sense can be made of the world. There is only my apartment, which is quiet enough but occupied by an unruly refrigerator and dozens of small housekeeping problems. It seems to me that most people who have pursued the life of the mind have been in a position to overlook domestic distractions, so it would be plausible to attribute my shortcomings in the mind department to my not being in that position.

But the question persists: what is the life of the mind? What does it look like, feel like? What is it good for? Can any reasonably smart person have a go at it? Or is it a vocation? If it is, who’s doing the calling?

What is an “intellectual”? What does an intellectual do? Lead the life of the mind, or something else? Are intellectuals born or made? How smart does an intellectual have to be?


These questions buzz incessantly because they are unanswerable. It’s not up to me, or to any one other person to answer them; there has to be consensus, just as there is a consensus about who is and who is not an electrical engineer. Most of us don’t have a very clear idea of what it is that electrical engineers do, and we certainly don’t know what electrical engineers know, but we trust them to stake out their territory and to keep it in order. And so it is with other professions. Am I suggesting that the life of the mind is a profession? Don’t look at me. There seems to be a widespread notion that intellectuals spend their time being intellectuals, whatever that means. If that’s what they’re doing with their days, then it looks like a profession to me. If some people think that the life of the mind is a profession, do we want to persuade them otherwise? I gather that people who believe in the existence of professional intellectuals do not think very highly of the life of the mind.

All I know is how to make it even worse. “Intellectual” is vague. “Critic” is not. Nobody likes to be criticized. But I can tell you’re getting bored. Let’s talk about rapists. There’s a piece about rapists in the Times today. Well, that’s not what they called themselves. They denied that they were rapists, although they acknowledged forcing themselves upon unconsenting women.

Most subjects in these studies freely acknowledge non-consensual sex — but that does not mean they consider it real rape. Researchers encounter this contradiction again and again.

Asked “if they had penetrated against their consent,” said Dr. Koss, the subject will say yes. Asked if he did “something like rape,” the answer is almost always no.

Studies of incarcerated rapists — even men who admit to keeping sex slaves in conflict zones — find a similar disconnect. It’s not that they deny sexual assault happens; it’s just that the crime is committed by the monster over there.

And this is not a sign that the respondents are psychopaths, said Dr. Hamby, the journal editor. It’s a sign that they are human. “No one thinks they are a bad guy,” she said.

Indeed, experts note one last trait shared by men who have raped: they do not believe they are the problem.

I like this story, because it illustrates the need for critics. No one thinks they are a bad guy. You probably assume — I’m addressing men here — that if you raped someone, you’d at least know that you’d done so, but, no, that’s not how it works, apparently. You might admit, as some of them men described in the story did, that you were paying back someone for arousing you a sort of quid pro quo thing, not rape. You would make use of a handy disconnect to distance doing a bad thing from being a bad person.

The story also illustrates the difficulty of the critic’s job, which is precisely to identify and disable all those disconnects. And the problem is not limited to convincing these men that, no, they are rapists, they have raped. The odds are that, if you gathered the families of these men and confronted them with the record, they, too, would deny that their husband or son or father or uncle was a rapist. Is the critic, to do the critic’s job, suppose to insist that nobody can leave the room until everyone accepts the truth?

And what is the truth? We create an abstraction, non-consensual coitus, say (this would only be one kind of rape), and use it as a frame. If someone’s behavior puts him in the frame, then we cut away all the irrelevant details and shove him into the pen of rapists. By simplifying things, we make it possible to impose a uniform punishment. But of course no details are irrelevant to the people living them. I don’t mean to plead extenuating circumstances, but only to point out that nobody sees himself as an abstraction. In the heat of the moment, nobody sees much of anything.

It may be argued that, for this very reason, sexual misbehavior is not a good test of critical purposes. I would reply that, where social institutions are concerned, the problem is even worse. Sex offenders do seem to know that they’ve done something wrong. Institutional grandees — politicians, CEOs, university presidents — carry on as if they were not only good guys but great guys, on top of everything and in complete command of all necessary skills. As if the protocols of leadership had been established for centuries, as if the conduct of public affairs were as straightforward as driving a car. In fact, as any critic can see, we muddle in a mist. Our traditions are largely bogus and our arrangements are undermined by secret agendas. The effectiveness of our reforms is monstrously exaggerated. We consistently blame problems on their victims, because, after all, if the victims disappeared, there would be no problems, right?

We use disconnects, too. We “forget” what we have done as a society.  History is stuff that happened on the other side of a gulf of timelessness, or once upon a time. Life is now! Help yourself to a clean slate!

There’s plenty to keep a critic busy. The life of the mind is not one of idle relaxation!


Wednesday 1st November

When I was a boy, formality was on the way out, but it was still very much a part of life, at least in my upper-middle-class corner of the world. Boys bowed slightly and girls curtsied when shaking hands. You said, not “Thank you,” but “Thank you, Miss Smith.” Thank-you notes were a trial. Everyone hated formality, not because it was tedious or onerous, although it could be both of those things, but because it was felt to be meaningless, an empty hangover of olden days. If children hated it the most, that was because we could see how doomed it was, and how pointless it was for us to learn the ins and outs. We felt about formality pretty much what children sitting in a van parked beside a beach think about adults who are slow to open the doors and let them run to the fun.

The world was going casual. Comfort, not status, was the new criterion. Ease replaced attentiveness. Intimacy could develop as quickly as two people wanted it to. And women were going to be as free as men — someday.

And now we know what that looks like. The world is everybody’s living room. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the world is everybody’s hotel room.


Most people in Europe and America today are the descendants of men and women who were peasants and small farmers in the Eighteenth Century and earlier. In the past two hundred years, we have all come up in the world, and, as is always the case with upward mobility, we have had to learn how to behave like our immediate betters. There have been many steps on the ascent, not just one or two, and each one has involved mastering a slightly different code of manners. I think it fair to say that very little reflection was ever involved. It was like learning a dance. You watch the dancers who are good at it and try to follow their steps. You don’t ask why.

Well, some people asked why. Two hundred years of incessant “improvement,” of picking up new ways of doing things only to replace them with more desirable ways, inevitably produced a feeling of rootlessness, a worry that all this good behavior might not guarantee access to a genuinely superior way of life. As early as the 1820s, Transcendentalists were protesting against “conformity.” In the middle of the century, Flaubert mordantly ridiculed the aspirations of the bourgeoisie. What the many forms of modernism had in common was a rejection of polite conventions, whether by consulting psychotherapists or drinking cocktails in the middle of the day.

So, by the time of my boyhood — the years of glorious new prosperity for everybody — the jig was up. Keeping up with the Joneses would henceforth take on a brutally materialistic aspect. The Joneses might set the standard for cars, household appliances, and lawn care, but nobody cared anymore how they behaved at home. Now that social status could be established in terms of chrome (in) and crabgrass (out), there was no need to put on an act. You could be yourself, and risk spontaneity. The only rule of behavior in America was that you ought to be “nice.”


The great unmourned casualty of this new freedom from formality was “respectability.” I don’t think that young people have any idea of what this meant, much less of how vitally important it was as a foundation of feminism. To put things very briefly, respectability was a code of conduct that allowed middle-class women who followed it assiduously to move with relative freedom outside the home without bringing dishonor upon themselves or their families. If we tend to associate the preoccupation with female chastity with non-Western cultures, that is because centuries of respectable women weaned us from the idea that a woman alone in public will inevitably inspire sexual improprieties. A side effect of this long experience was the creation of a parallel zone of private conduct, stretching between married fidelity and outright adultery, in which unattached men and women might pursue intimacy tentatively and with impunity, but until the middle of the Twentieth Century, this was a secret — the woman was punished if she was caught. But it was a secret that eventually made the public routines of respectability look ridiculous.

It would be foolish to suggest that a return to the norms of respectability would provide today’s women with increased protection from sexual harassment and assault, and in any case such returns are never possible. The motive behind respectability — the apparently universal need to assure and to be assured of female chastity — has largely evaporated, and only religious primitives in the West are concerned about it. Our current concern is for the autonomy and safety of women. But I think it worthwhile to consider aspects of respectability that might be put to new use.

Respectability was always extra-legal; its authority was drawn from the community of women. The ostracism of “fallen” women is well-known, thanks to La Traviata and the domestic life of George Eliot, but it should not be forgotten that men were disciplined, too. A man who made improper advances — among which we might class invitations to hotel rooms for any ostensible purpose — would be denied entry to respectable homes, thus making it impossible for him to contract a respectable marriage. In the court of respectability, a woman’s complaint weighed more than a man’s defense, and men took great care to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In today’s terms, a man of dubious sexual integrity might find the path to career advancement blocked. I go so far as to wonder if the concerted effort to police laddish misconduct might be a more effective propellant through the glass ceiling than mere individual ambition.

Desire being what it is, these efforts would provoke a fair amount of hypocrisy, and women would have to forego the delirium of sudden intimacy. But it would be men, now, and not women, who would have to prove themselves to be respectable.


In Jane Austen’s novels, there is a good deal of tension and humor about the use of proper names between young men and women. In two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, ambiguous extensions of the family circle allow the use of Christian names long before the milepost of engagement has been reached, creating circumstances in which familial intimacy leads to marital intimacy. And in Emma, much the same point is made in the opposite way by the heroine’s decision to go on calling the man she loves “Mr Knightley”; switching to “George” would be a move away from intimacy. But these instances are small exceptions to the vast authority of a correct usage that judged undue familiarity to be insolent and insulting. Something else to think upon.


Thursday 2nd

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a long book — much longer than its pages. Its perspective is immense, and, arguably, could be neither wider nor deeper. For it is really the history of a nation’s unwillingness and inability to reflect. The United States was founded on a Constitution in which the most advanced political theories of the Enlightenment were distilled, but within little more than a generation, its swelling population of backwoodsmen and immigrants regarded higher education with mistrust. Outside enclaves clustered in the Northeast, everyday life was crude and boisterous. The prohibition of established religion, far from encouraging a secular society, readily accommodated every variety of confessional caprice. Promoters, developers, and industrialists either single-mindedly or mindlessly pursued profits. For most of its first century, the United States was preoccupied by a bonanza of exploitation, punctuated by an appallingly bloody war that ended in exhaustion and without a significant victory. The main lesson of American history seems to be that no right is more cherished than the right to be stupid.

(Just how stupid, even I hadn’t guessed. Many of the yeoman farmers who figured in Jefferson’s agrarian dreams were ignorant of the rudiments of working the land; Hofstadter reminds us that their descendants mounted stiff resistance to the expertise offered by the land-grant universities. The trail of the pioneers was a desolation of despoiled acres.)

At the outset, Hofstadter expresses concern about “wounding the national amour-propre,” but that is something that I have never felt. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, anything I hadn’t lived through; it simply supported my conclusions with a wealth of corroborative evidence. Two sentences on, Hofstadter writes,

For all their bragging and their hypersensitivity, Americans are, if not the most self-critical, at least the most anxiously self-conscious people in the world, forever concerned about the inadequacy of something or other — their national morality, their national culture, their national purpose. (vii)

But, perhaps because self-consciousness is the trigger, Americans prefer to feel, rather than to think, their way through the questions that trouble them. Thinking is a matter of honestly asking those questions, and discriminating among the possible answers. Feeling is afraid of questions, precisely because they open on to the frightening unknown. Feeling finds its answers ready-made, packaged in the form of sentiment. Sentiment combines a picture of how things ought to be with an attitude of hostility toward other pictures. Anyone who thinks about the matter recognizes that a statue of Jefferson Davis must be offensive to all Americans. A sentimental response to the same statue is likely to hold that, since the statue has been standing for a long time, it ought to go on standing. (Of course, there is an alternative path of thought: the statue should stand because the idea of America is false.)

Living in America means getting used to living with people who mistake feeling for thinking. This is the number-one problem of democracy, and it is no longer confined to the United States. We simply have more experience with it. For a long time, people who believed in thinking — let’s call them intellectuals — professed feelings of alienation from their fellow-citizens. Alienation was still a big deal when I was growing up; it was the hallmark of a hipster. Now it just seems a silly pose, when it is not actually a mental disorder.

Perhaps the alienation is situational rather than personal. Hofstadter was inclined to believe that the American intellectual’s position is a tragic one, “either shut out or sold out.” (417) This assumes that the intellectual seeks to participate in the exercise of power. I have somewhat tentatively concluded that the intellectual has nothing to offer the public but persuasion. The intellectual who becomes an expert, at the public service, has in essence ceased to be an intellectual, at least with regard to the area of expertise; for no one consults an expert to hear his questions.

One question that Hofstadter leaves unanswered is the nature of the intellectual’s venue. Whatever it is that intellectuals do, where should they do it? Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study seems one answer to me, but I don’t know very much about it. I’ve always dreamed of Colleges, handsomely endowed institutions, rather like those artistic retreats such as Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, only permanent, and not necessarily residential. I try not to imagine the Colleges in any detail, because to do so would tie me up making imaginary arrangements that would guarantee me a place in one. But aside from a nice income, membership would provide introductions to other intellectuals. As Hofstadter suggests, intellectuals work best in solitude. But you still have to keep up.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Laundered the Costumes
October 2017 (IV)

24, 26 and 27 October

Tuesday 24th

For a long time, I put off reading the last two chapters of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. I had a good idea where he was going, and, indeed, in the ninth chapter, he went there. And how! All the great evils of the Nineteenth Century — oppression of laborers, extermination of indigenous peoples, imperial expropriation — were laid at the feet of a liberalism whose blessings were nullified by being limited to the occupants of a “sacred space,” property owners and their families. Stuffed with hypocrisy, liberalism was presented as a piñata to be repudiated and destroyed.

But the final chapter was surprising. Entitled “Liberalism and the Catastrophe of the Twentieth Century,” it seemed bound to argue that the Nazi persecution of the Jews represented a climax of liberal values, not their subversion. Losurdo had lined up the cases: since its inception at the time of the Glorious Revolution (1689), liberalism had detached whole classes of human beings from the claims of humanity. Slaves, servants, Native Americans, Aborigines, the Irish: again and again, prosperous and otherwise broad-minded élites made a point of finding people to diminish. As to the Holocaust itself, however, Losurdo seemed content to allow the reader to draw implicit conclusions. It was a great relief to be spared the flogging. By one of those strange accidents that characterize my reading life, James Whitman’s study, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, has just appeared to do the job for him, something that Losurdo might or might not have foreseen ten years ago, when Liberalism came out.

Instead, Losurdo ended on a hopeful, if still rather stern note:

[L]iberalism’s merits are far too significant and too evident for it to be necessary to credit it with imaginary ones. Among the latter is the alleged spontaneous capacity for self-correction often attributed to it. (344)

On the previous page, Losurdo had elaborated this point:

Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (the tradition of thinking that, starting with ‘radicalism’ and passing through Marx, issued in the revolutions which variously invoked him) to a far greater extent than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it.

In other words, while liberalism is not spontaneously self-correcting, it does respond to grievances, albeit for “practical” rather than lofty reasons. Losurdo regards Brown v Board of Education as such a reversal. The Cold War had altered the valence of racism. Opponents of slavery, from the age of revolutions onward, had been associated with the tyranny of radical Jacobinism, but now the Soviet Union, as the heir to the social justice tradition, could credibly claim that the United States, if it tolerated Jim Crow, must not be seriously committed to democracy. Call it optics, if you like. Liberal Americans undertook a wrenching shift, one that remains incomplete. Liberal Republicans suffered almost immediate extinction, and the Democratic Party, sixty years on, continues to incapable of stabilizing its opportunistic coalitions.

The most pointed lesson that I learned from Losurdo is that liberalism is not a philosophical or intellectual position. It is practical and realistic, and its thinkers write after the fact. Locke is usually credited with the introduction of liberalism, and he certainly argued that property owners ought to call the shots. But the specifics of liberal government were worked out on the fly, roughly in the fifty years that ended with Walpole’s ministry (c 1740), and then more minutely through to the early years of George III. Political theory had nothing to do with these developments, which were instituted by members of Parliament in the conduct of contingent affairs.

The parliamentarians’ overriding objective, it seems to me, was to solve what I call the “Great Men” problem of monarchy: to whom is the monarch bound to turn for advice? This was never a theoretical problem, for all the preaching of saintly clerics, but rather one of raw power, a contest fought again and again by kings and magnates of various skills and resources, until settled once and for all by constituting Parliament itself as the monarch’s one and only council. This is in practice pretty much the same thing as the rule of law. Not even the king is above it, but, more important, everyone knows what to expect. The great liberal achievement is the institutionalization of power. Modern civil society owes its existence to this abstraction.

Unfortunately, the dispersion of political power to institutions often leads to muddle. It requires great intelligence to operate an institution — it is almost a matter of herding cats — and where a number of institutions must function together, as is the case throughout the United States, even the most intelligent leaders must harmonize their actions. Otherwise there is noise: muddle. And muddle invites those who do not sympathize with the liberal outlook to repersonalize power. It seems to me that this is a fair statement of the state of play in America today. Our institutions appear to have wandered from their mandates, and it seems unreasonable to expect them to find their own way back.

Is this where the intellectuals come in?


Thursday 26th

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction in 1964. I’ve had an undated but posthumous edition of the Vintage paperback for many years — Hofstadter died in 1970 — but I haven’t read the book until now. I’m thinking of awarding it a prize of my own, the Kondo Prime Award. I would call it Kondo Prime because, ever since the goddess of tidying-up persuaded me that there was no point to having hundreds, perhaps thousands of books in the house that I never looked at, I have been repeatedly blessed by my decision not to throw those books away but instead to re-read them; and, in the case of books that I owned but had never opened, I’ve enjoyed on more than one occasion the delightful surprise of reading a book for the first time at exactly the right time.

Much as I scold myself for not reading Hofstadter’s book long ago, I’m aware on every page that I am getting more out of it now than I should have done before. With regard to one issue, it’s a matter of bringing something to the reading that isn’t as developed in the book as it would be today. If we lucky enough to have a writer of Hofstadter’s caliber working today, we might look to this person for a study of Anti-Intellectualism and Misogyny in America. The vulgar insinuation that thinking people are effeminate was certainly familiar to Hofstadter, and he holds up two instances for frank evaluation. The first involves George William Curtis, who in 1877 sought to reform the New York State Constitution. Educated in Germany and the editor of Harper’s, Carter was ridiculed by Roscoe Conkling as an exemplar of “man-milliners,”

a reference to the fashion articles that Curtis’s magazine had recently started to publish … The more recent attacks by Senator McCarthy and other upon the Eastern and English-oriented prep-school personnel of the State Department, associated with charges of homosexuality, are not an altogether novel element in the history of American invective. That the term “man-milliners” was understood in this light by many is suggested by the fact that though the New York Tribune reported Conkling’s speech in full, with the offending word, Conkling’s nephew dropped “man-milliners” from his account of this incident in the biography of his uncle and substituted asterisks as though he were omitting an unmistakable obscenity. (189)

The second victim is Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1952.

The New York Daily News descended to calling him Adelaide and charged that he “trilled” his speeches in a “fruity” voice. His voice and diction were converted into objects of suspicion — “teacup words,” it was said, reminiscent of “a genteel spinster who can never forget that she got an A in elocution at Miss Smith’s Finishing School.” His supporters? They were “typical Harvard lace-cuff liberals,” “lace-panty diplomats,” “pompadoured lap dogs” who wailed “in perfumed anguish” at McCarthy’s accusations and on occasions “giggled” about their own anti-Communism. Politics, Stevenson’s critics were disposed to say, is a rough game for men. (227)

Now that women are in the game — please remember that, when I was a boy (and Hofstadter was writing), Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in Congress or at the top of any Federal branch —the usefulness of the effeminate man as a target has abated. I suppose that we can hail that as a genuine improvement. But so long as politics is a rough game for chest-pounders — a leading story on the front page of today’s Times indicates that Republicans who prefer to communicate in English are on the way out — it is difficult to be sanguine about the American experiment in democracy.

Hofstadter organizes anti-intellectualism onto four fronts.

The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the “purely” theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. (45-6)

I’m about halfway through the book. Its bearing on my inquiry into liberalism is somewhat tangential, for the term “liberal” appears only in quotations from conservative anti-intellectuals, eg “intellectually mongrelized ‘Liberals’,” taken from an essay written in 1926 by the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Like the allegation of Adlai Stevenson’s “fruity” voice, the conservative application of “liberal” is far more insulting than it is meaningful, a conclusion posing as an explanation. The important questions are these: what do liberals take “liberal” to mean? and: is there a continuous liberal tradition that dates back to the late Seventeenth Century? and: if so, what are its characteristics? If these questions intersect with Hofstadter’s thesis, they lead away from it toward a hypothetical, complementary study of the role of intellect in American life, and of constructive relations (if any) between the life of the mind and the liberal outlook.

Or, not so hypothetically, to my writing project. At the moment, I’m waiting for comments from two very busy people whom I’ve asked to read a presentable draft, and aside from composing slightly amplifying clarifications that my first reader suggested, I’ve confined myself to thinking about it. But I hope there won’t be any harm in pointing out how intimate my familiarity with Hofstadter’s thesis is. Although she could never have articulated it very clearly, my mother regarded me from an early age as guilty of all four of Hofstadter’s offenses. I was cold, I was unreliable, I was impractical, and I thought I was better than she was. If she didn’t accuse me of liberalism, that was probably because she regarded politics as a rough game for adults. And when my father joked that I had more books than sense, he was compressing Hofstadter’s observation that “we sometimes say that a mind of admittedly penetrating intelligence is relatively unintellectual,” and that “we see among minds that are unmistakably intellectual a considerable range of intelligence.” (25)


Friday 27th

Another Kondo Prize goes to Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I bought this fictionalized memoir when it was reprinted by NYRB, in 2001, or not long thereafter. I had never heard of O’Brien, but the combination of an arresting cover photograph by Slim Aarons and the promise of an Introduction by Seamus Heaney, together with a well-put-together pair of paragraphs on the back sold me the book. O’Brien was apparently the child of movie stars from the Thirties who broke up when he was still a kid and who then went on to amount to nothing. I read the first chapter, and didn’t get it. For a long time, the book stood among all the other NYRB reprints, but when the shelves got crowded, it was exiled to storage — from which I rescued it three months ago. There still wasn’t room for it here, so I slipped it in horizontally, atop the others, which made it very easy to pull out last week when I was looking for something to read.

I decided to pick up where the bookmark was, in the middle of the second chapter. A woman was telling her husband to shut up about the goddammed avocados. There was a Mr Amalfitano, who was crude, and then a very refined Mr Liszt. Mr Liszt, Mr Franz Liszt, struck me as the Tongue-in-Cheek cousin of Gogol’s Nose, but I kept reading. When I got to the end of the third chapter, I went back to the beginning of the second, but not to the first, which I was afraid might put me off again. At the beginning of the fourth chapter, I began to have a good time.

At fourteen I would reach the age of reason under California law and be able to choose between parents, but at thirteen I was happy in my mother’s company, content to benefit from her closeness and from such intangible riches as might accrue to me from living in an artistic atmosphere. Also, I knew little of the history, language, and culture of the Russian race; not having the means to travel, I was satisfied that by living in the Russian’s house, I could observe first-hand his habits, customs, rituals, and perhaps prevail on him to instruct me in the rudiments of his tongue. I would gain the fruits of a voyage to a distant land, without incurring the cost or inconvenience of transportation.

Laid on with a trowel, perhaps — but quite expertly done, the parody of an ingénu out of Fielding or Goldsmith not only amusing in itself but ironically establishing the narrator as the seasoned and mordant judge of his seniors that their delinquencies have provoked him to become. A Way of Life, Like Any Other tells its rather grim and depressing tale in a fleet and edifying prose that assures us that the young man is going to come out of it in good shape.

In the seventh chapter, I had a big laugh. The young man was making a tentative visit to his father’s house. He noticed that his father was spending all his time at church, so desperate to have something to do, it seems, that the

Ladies Altar Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacramental bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member.

Aspiring writers with a streak of witty malice will benefit from the study of this sentence. The rule of three is scrupulously observed, starting out short and simple, then roaming a little freely, but finally submitting to rhythmic concision in a blowout of silliness. There would be many ways of noting that the ladies of the Altar Society took good care of the Infant of Prague doll, and I daresay that most would refer to robes or to outfits, but O’Brien settles on the one that allows him to say laundered the costumes. If you do not hear the nonsense here, you will never really understand the wit of the English language. It as much a matter of sound as it is one of sense.

In Chapter 16, the mother turns up, after a long absence in Rome. The mother, qua mother, exhibits equal influences of Ida Farange, in What Maisie Knew, and Faye Dunaway, in Mommie Dearest. She is a monstress of egotism and a prodigious liar. Having adored her as a boy, the narrator loathes her now, and when she claims to have joined AA, his skepticism is rude and impolite.

“It’s too bad,” I said. “Drinking is a part of life, isn’t it? I mean drinking and getting drunk. Making an ass of yourself. Even making things unpleasant for other people. It’s too bad if you can’t do that any more. I would feel very deprived if I thought I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mother said. “You’re very young.”

“AA sounds very boring to me,” I said. “It sounds like some half-assed evangelical sect. People sitting around talking about not drinking. Why not tie one on and go to sleep?”

“People do terrible things to their lives,” Mother said. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“I bet they do.”

“I don’t like your tone,” Mother said.

But of course his tone is exactly what the reader likes. Seamus Heaney, naturally, points out how Irish this “quicksilver” badinage is, and there is a lustiness to the verbal confrontations that one doesn’t associate with Americans. The movie star father, however, is the actual Irishman in the story — Irish-Catholic American, anyway — and he sounds pretty much like Gary Cooper imitating a Wooden Indian. We come to understand that he has the moral spark of a Wooden Indian, too: none. At the end, he tries to finagle a valuable ring out of his son, who has rightfully inherited it. When he is outmaneuvered, we are delighted to find that the book has arrived at the happiest of all possible endings.

I went into the world well-armed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2017 (III)

17, 18 and 19 October

Tuesday 17th

Kathleen insisted that the movie wouldn’t disturb her. She didn’t want to watch it, but given her powers of concentration, she could ignore it. She could get on with her computer searches, and perhaps even take a nap. In the event, however, she crept out of the room about halfway through and stretched out in the living room. The movie was simply too loud, she said — not complaining. You will think me barbaric, not having turned the sound down a bit, but in fact the movie was too loud because the dialogue was inaudible at normal levels. This was not the problem that it might have been with a domestic film, because I was entirely dependent on the subtitles to understand what people were saying. But I did want to hear the sound of voices. So I’d turn up the sound a bit, and then, bam, there would come another outburst of rock ‘n’ roll. I knew that these music bits never lasted very long, but the contrast between whispered conversation and Bacchanalian revel was too much for Kathleen.

What kind of a movie is quiet, except for sporadic explosions from a noisy rock band? Well, one kind would be the movie that’s about the lives of young literary lions in Norway. I had been reading about this way of life in Volume 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, and when I was through with the book I remembered that there is a movie about it, Joachim Trier’s Reprise (2006). I was very taken with it when it came out, and I bought a copy on DVD. Now I itched to see it again.

Where Knausgaard’s book is about a writer living on the margins of a literary herd in Bergen, Reprise concerns two writers at the heart of a small club of still-boyish men in Oslo. Phillip and Erik have known one another forever. Phillip has been published. Then he has suffered a psychotic episode. At the beginning — more or less; there is a great deal of time-frame flipping in the early scenes of Reprise, so much so that the movie threatens to be difficult to follow — Phillip is being fetched by his friends from a hospital in the countryside and returned to his flat in the town. One big question is whether he will get back together with his old girlfriend, Kari, whom everybody seems to blame for Phillip’s breakdown. The other big question is whether Erik will publish his first book, Prosopopeia.

Now, I wonder: in today’s America, could even a writer as exalted as Philip Roth publish a book with that title? Even if you know what it means, you wouldn’t want to be telling friends that that’s what you’re reading. In a sly way, prosopopeia could be said to be what every fiction writer does: speaking in another’s voice. This may or may not be a little joke intended by Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt. A larger joke, also possibly unintentional, is that literary Norwegians might tolerate such pomposity because they’re still amazed that there is such a thing as literary Norway. I remember watching Reprise for the first time, and sensing in its unscratched sheen of prosperity the breeze of North Sea oil, which transformed one of the poorest countries in Western Europe — and one of the most recently independent — into a fairly cosmopolitan society. With a population smaller than that of Greater New York, Norway boasts a literary culture that supports the publication of novels in a language that relatively few people can read — and not just bodice-ripping romances or fantasy witch-fests, but novels with titles like Prosopopeia. Or, in the case of Knausgaard, Min Kamp, a jokey reference to Hitler’s screed, Mein Kampf.

And yet, to a man, these blithe spirits are aficianados of progressive rock. Even when they’re barely competent, like Knausgaard himself as a drummer (“I managed to produce a variety of beats for a variety of songs” — how I howled with laughter when I read that!), they all seem to play in bands. In Reprise, they sing along rowdily, as if they wouldn’t know a thesaurus from a slide rule. The music is always very loud and upbeat, and yet the lyrics are anthems of despair — well, of lost or unrequited love, anyway. It is not subtle stuff. Even the women join in from time to time: Tonje, Karl Ove’s first wife, is also a drummer.

This commerce between high writing and low music is not uniquely Norwegian, of course — Jonathan Franzen has rhapsodized the joys of knowing about bands whom no one else has heard of — but Knausgaard has done a great deal, intentionally or not, to suggest its unhealthiness, especially for a writer who seems to have nothing to say. Noise is not good for the sensitive mind. At the very best, it is a brutal, addictive anaesthesia.


Not that I think for a second that rock ‘n’ roll is the cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block, which stretches throughout most of the thirteen years covered in Some Rain Must Fall. The cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block is obviously youth. At the start, he is only nineteen. What does someone who is nineteen years old have to write about? Hopefully, nothing. But if there is some interesting trauma, it will probably exceed a young person’s powers of perspective and description. Setting poetry aside, writing requires both experience and distance, and it also requires, I have found, the experience of a lot of writing. I lingered over a moment, late in the book, in which Knausgaard hit on the nature of the problem and the appropriate solution, as I remembered doing many years ago:

After a few days in the house I realized that I could forget about writing. I tried, but to no avail, what could I write about? Who did I think I was, believing I could create something that would interest anyone apart from my mother and my girlfriend?

Instead I wrote letters. (553)

Ah, those letters! All that writing! Endless and bad it may have been, but, once I was out of school, it was the only teacher I had. It was also, for me, an effective teacher. I don’t know why this was so, and I feel very lucky to have had it. For what I write has a way of loitering in my mind afterward in a way that brings shortcomings to the fore. Bad sentences nag me. It’s not necessary to go back and correct them, or at least it wasn’t in those early days, when my letters were too voluminous to read once, let alone twice. It was enough that I didn’t repeat my mistakes. Later, writing for the KLEF Program Guide, I had the music to write about. And I had readers, too. The existence of actual readers demanded best behavior: if I was going to say something, it must be something worth reading — thinking about, judging. I had learned from the English teachers at boarding school that I had a gift for saying nothing and saying it very nicely; I had to make sure that I didn’t discredit my columns in the program guide with any of that.

What’s irritating about the literary life described in Some Rain Must Fall is the expectation of prodigies. Publishing a masterpiece at the age of twenty-five isn’t virtuous, but suspicious. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is to become a vessel of the Zeitgeist, a temporary medium for the fashions of a moment. Consider poor old J D Salinger, who wasn’t really all that young when his career took off but whose career ended when he was still fairly young. Consider The Great Gatsby, which was the novel of a moment, which it perfectly captured but which was not followed by other equally remarkable moments for Fitzgerald to transcribe.

What were they thinking, when they invited Karl Ove Knausgaard to participate in the Writing Academy at Bergen University when he was only nineteen? The reader notes that, in 1988, the Writing Academy was in its second year of operation; perhaps there was not much collective experience of thinking about these things. It turned out, I think, to have been a terrible step for the writer, confirming his doubts and misgivings while filling him with unnecessary frustration. Where were the mentors? In Reprise, a mentor materializes for a moment. He is the (fictional) writer whom Phillip and Erik most admire: Sten Egil Dahl. A recluse, he tells Erik that television is no place for the discussion of literature, and he also praises parts of Prosopopeia (which has indeed been published). After their encounter, Erik realizes that he must get away. He leaves Oslo for Paris, writes like a monk for a year, and then returns to his friends as a seasoned writer. I am not entirely convinced by this success story: Erik is still very young. But there is no doubt that Dahl’s advice invigorates him. No such figure appears in Knausgaard.

I have thought a lot about the absence of mentors. Like Knausgaard, I wouldn’t be the most amenable beneficiary of good advice. But there are objective explanations as well. Social arrangements have been fluid for too long, and minds that might have provided mentoring in the past have developed in circumstances of confusion. Which way is up? What a mentor must provide above all is assurance about one’s own inner voice, which one not only doubts but which is so easily drowned out in the din of jockeying youth. The very best mentor conveys the patience and conviction required to sit quietly in a room, at least part of the time, listening to that voice. But what have the old men of the past several generations known or wanted to know about youth and their voices? What was the Twentieth Century, if not a parade of bright young cohorts exploiting the latest in popular culture, from jazz to rap, as earplugs against the wisdom of older minds?


Wednesday 18th

In the closing pages of A Man in Love, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the author’s mother survives a heart attack that, when it struck her, left her thinking that she had had “a fantastic life.” Hearing this, Karl Ove is astounded.

If I keeled over now, and had a few seconds, perhaps minutes, to think before it was all over I would think the opposite. That I hadn’t accomplished anything. I want to live. But why don’t I live then?

There is His Struggle in a nutshell. Will he work it out? There’s still another volume to get through, written years ago now but coming out in English only next year, and who knows when if I wait for the paperback. The struggle, as I see it, is this: can you live if you are trying to accomplish? I’ve written about this before, always with the French verb achever in mind. It means what you think it means. But make it reflexive, s’achever, and what literally means “to achieve oneself” signifies death. To accomplish your life is to complete it, to end it, as if it were a project. Ever since Plutarch at least, men have been educated to regard life as a block of marble from which to chisel out the statue of a man of notable achievements.

The difficulty for the writer is the immateriality of the achievement. A book is not like a bridge. It is the very opposite: it ceases to exist the moment it is published. Writers complain about this all the time, but I don’t think laymen (or other writers) pay attention. When you finish a writing project — when it is sent out into the world — you’re done with it, it has nothing to offer you anymore. A writer is someone who writes, not who has written. To read something that was done with ten or twenty years ago is to have the odd conviction that it was written by someone else — as indeed it was. The written book is a bubble that pops, leaving its author gasping for a new project and leaving behind nothing else, except of course the money and fame, if any, that never mean anything to a writer. Only writing really matters.

The trick for the writer — and this is what I hope Knausgaard will realize before all that smoking kills him — is to learn how to live alongside the writing, to accept that writing will never lead to real accomplishment. If you are a writer, then writing is how you live. For most writers, this requires some peace and quiet, some distance from the madding crowd. But it does not require monastic withdrawal. Nor more than any other profession, writing is not going to be all there is to life. But it will be a well of misery if the writer hopes to pull up accomplishments.


Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer you to one of several entries that I posted two years ago, after finishing A Man in Love. Scroll down to the final section, the one with the bullet points. What I said then still seems to hold as a description of how Knausgaard creates an architecture capable of infusing his highly vernacular story with literary interest, and also how he makes reading My Struggle so comforting, even during the most harrowing scenes. I must, however, repeat the last line: What will it be like to re-read the damned thing?


Reprise, My Struggle, rock ‘n’ roll, casual misogyny — speaking of which, if I may interrupt, I noticed an ad for Emirates, the airline, that featured a young man snoozing in a first-class pod, looking great but unshaven. Well, more than unshaven. That stubble thing. Now, I have a pretty full beard myself, trim I hope but about two inches long at the chin. Stubble is not a beard. It is a signal that always reminds me of Tom Ford’s confession that I cultivated his stubble in order to look his age. Without the stubble, he looked twelve years old. But I see something different. The message is not “I am older than I look,” but “I am not a girl.” And the point is not to clear up confusion. The point is to make a gratuitous statement. It’s rather like that prayer with which some Jewish men are said to start the day, Thank God I am a man, or words to that effect.

Men adrift.

Thursday 19th

On a weekend in 1961, my sister spent her allowance on two 45 RPM records. I was disgusted by her choices, and had to be told to stop saying so. Thus came to an end my belief that being a white man entitled me to tell other people how to live.

I knew that there was pop music, of course. My father listened to it all the time, on WNEW. An announcer called William B Williams had a show, called “The Make-Believe Ballroom.” My problem with this show was that the music he played wasn’t any good for dancing, and by that I mean the kind of dancing that people did at a night club. I had never been to a night club, but I had worked my way through several years of dancing school, fox-trotting and waltzing and cha-cha-ing with girls in party dresses. (We would learn the Twist the following year — a silly dance, I thought, because you couldn’t hold the girl.) William B Williams played Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, now recognized as centerpieces of “the American Songbook,” but still, not really dance music. I preferred the bands that my parents had grown up with: Eddie Duchin and Tommy Dorsey. I had unearthed my mother’s 78s in the attic, and, amazingly, they were still playable, although with the undulations of a fun-house ride.

I knew about Elvis, yes. We had done silly imitations of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” in kindergarten. I thought it was revolting. From the very start, I longed to live on a planet where the phenomenon of Elvis Presley was unknown. I am still convinced that it would be a better planet. When I think of the late Duchess of Devonshire’s notorious passion for Elvis — she visited Graceland the way normal people visit Chatsworth — I conclude that Elvis must have served as a sort of plumbing purge, a clearing-out of clogged cloaca. Useful, perhaps, but nether.

But to have my sister bringing such swill into the house! It was as though she had succumbed to a white-slaving Orphic cult. I had always known that she was not artistic, but who but a degenerate could stand to listen to “Tell Laura I Love Her”?

Years later, I would decide that the other song that she bought that weekend, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was really rather sweet, if totally dumb. When I say “rather sweet,” I mean it. Only rather. You could get diabetes from Ray Peterson’s hit. At the time, though, I thought that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” set African culture in a bad light.


The next bad reaction was prompted by Bob Dylan. He was as revolting as Elvis, certainly, but mystifying, too, because he was so unmusical. I don’t mean that his voice was ghastly or that his tunes were jejune, although he and they were certainly those, but rather that he was so unpleasant. Rude. Listening to Bob Dylan was like offering a guest a glass of water and being told to piss off. As with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” I could not understand voluntarily subjecting oneself to the experience.

In 1968, I found myself in Houston, and Fossil Darling found himself in Austin. He came down a couple of weekends, but mostly I went up, driving my new Beetle along the endlessness of US 290 with the radio on. I would listen to whatever was playing. Steppenwolf. The Doors. Blood Sweat and Tears. Jose Feliciano. It was part of the penance of being in Texas.

Aside from one-hit-wonder Grace Slick, and the Mamas and the Papas (and, come to think of it, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66), women’s voices were rare in the more sophisticated pop that I was learning to tolerate. Someone had given me an early Joan Baez record, and I kind of liked it, but not much — not as I would love her collaboration with Peter Schickele, Joan. I knew of Judy Collins, too. Everybody knew “Both Sides Now.” But I kept the writer of that song, Joni Mitchell, at a distance. There was something off-limits about Joni Mitchell. It seemed to me that she was writing either for angry women or for men who were up to no good. As a fun person whose depressive tendencies were already well tended by Bach and Wagner, I had no room for Mitchell’s critiques. And, yes, I thought that she sounded shrill at the top of her voice. It would take Kathleen to change my mind. Or, rather, it would take Kathleen to make me a fan. I never disliked Joni Mitchell. She just wasn’t fréquentable.

There is no need to say that I loathed the sound of Janis Joplin, and was relieved when she died, because she was clearly not going to stop screaming otherwise. Soon after that, Ellen Willis announced that rock was dead, which was also a relief, and kind of funny, too, a sort of fuck you to the burgeoning Rolling Stone. What would it have to talk about now?

No, that’s right; almost forgot. I disliked the Rolling Stones, in pretty much the same way that I disliked cauliflower. I always loved the Beatles, but the Beatles had nothing to do with any of this.


Well, almost.

Reading the Times today, I felt an oddly coincidental synergy. Here I am, thinking about rock ‘n’ roll much more, this week, than I usually do, wondering why such music would put anyone in the mood for love, when the Times presents me with two pieces, in two different sections of the paper, about the semi-surreptitious homosexuality at the bottom of things! On the one hand, so what? So what if the managers of famous rock bands were gay? That’s the now hand. On the then hand, we have nothing but scandal and professional suicide. Would the Beatles have been welcomed by Ed Sullivan, in their cute suits and mop haircuts, if it had been known to the television audience that manager Brian Epstein was a lonely gay man? Not bloody likely. Might the macho of the Who have been deflated by the widespread outing of manager Kit Lambert? Epstein and Lambert didn’t just book gigs for their bands, they managed them. The musicians knew, but weren’t bothered by it. (I can hear Ray Soleil chirruping, “More for me!”) They welcomed the input. Arguably the evaporation of general hostility to gay men may have begun in the offstage warrens of rock venues. It used to be thought that gay men posed a security risk because of their vulnerability to blackmail. Rock bands appear to have provided a counter-conspiracy, a black hole in which blackmail wouldn’t work. When you recall the homophobia of the time, it seems remarkable.

That’s all in Jim Farber’s Styles Section piece, “The Gay Architects of Classic Rock.” Just to imagine the title appearing in, say, 1968 is stupefying. Joe Coscarelli and Sydney Ember have a somewhat lighter story to tell in the Styles Section. The gay aspect of this story is certainly not news; Jann Wenner came out a long time ago. Nevertheless, his plausibility as the editor of Rolling Stone would have been dented if not totaled by the revelation of his sexual preference when he launched his epochal magazine. The now and then are the same, so far as homosexuality goes. The now part of Jann Wenner’s story is that he’s really beginning to remind me of Donald Trump. He’s feuding, see, with the latest author to attempt a biography, Joe Hagan. Like the president, he wants attention, but only the right kind of attention. Seasoned pros will tell you that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the publisher and the chief executive share not sharing this view.


At the end of this period of my life — my first youth — my sister more than made up for “Tell Laura I Love Her” by discovering Laura Nyro and introducing me to “Flim-Flam Man.” I was impressed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2017 (II)

10, 11 and 12 October

Tuesday 10th

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Kazuo Ishiguro, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Ishiguro is one of the most interesting writers of the past several decades, and everything that I’ve read (which is just about everything) has stuck in the mind. What makes the award especially delightful to me, however, will sound somewhat carping: it illustrates a hunch that I have about the Prize, which regards all the writers in the world as eligible, regardless of the language in which they write. Aside from books written in Swedish, the judges at the Swedish Academy necessarily read the finalists in translation, or in what for them is a second language. The entry at Wikipedia quotes Alfred Nobel’s specification: “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Ideal.

It reminds me of a friend’s experience during a year-abroad program in France. His French was really quite good, and I thought that it was a great compliment that natives would say of him, “Vous venez de nulle part.” You come from nowhere — ie, you don’t sound like an American. But that’s not what they meant, really. They meant that he didn’t really  have a French accent at all, because a French accent betrays origins in a part of France. My friend came from an uncanny valley that was — nowhere. Another word for his accent: ideal.

A moment’s reflection suggests to me that, when Nobel was endowing his prizes, the idea of an ideal literature was attractive. A universal literature — we would say global. The things about a book that were peculiar to the language in which it was written were like friction in classical physics: negligenda. At best they were unimportant; for the most parts they were faults, the features that make any language incomprehensible to outsiders. The Nobel Prize for Literature stands for the proposition that ideal literature is the most worthwhile literature.

I am not going to dilate on the shift in sophisticated attitudes on this point. They are best summarized by the statement that poetry dies in translation. Either you read Dante in Italian or you settle for a prose rendering. Same for Homer, Racine, or Goethe. I have a book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Nederlands. It is extremely faithful to the original, and quite a few passages sound as though someone very drunk were slurring his English. But one of my favorite lines, 95/9 —

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got

— misses, if not by a mile, then by a great many yards:

O welk een woning kregen die ondeugden

First, of course, a woning is just a house. “Mansion” is the most distinctive word in the poem, as certainly befits the beautiful young man whom the poet addresses.

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got,
Which for their habitation chose out thee, [!]

It’s a brilliant, Shakespearean-sexy, image: the grand house occupied by wicked inmates. Second, at the end of the line, the almost guttural outburst, as if of contempt (but also keeping company with vices), is completely missing. I don’t mean to fault the translator, Albert Verwey; he’s done a great job. I keep the little book by my reading chair, alongside the originals in Penguin, for the purpose, all too rarely pursued, of keeping up my Dutch. But while it is conceivable that one or two of Verwey’s lines are better than Shakespeare’s, most of them are simply not the same. They can’t be.

The thing about Kazuo Ishiguro is that he writes his unforgettable books in a toneless, everyday English that has little to lose in translation. Am I saying that he writes poorly? No. The maxim about poetry’s death does not extend to fiction as a rule. Some great novelists are not particularly poetic: it is a matter of style. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy come to mind. Eliot and Hardy create intense moods, certainly, but those moods are shaped by language — masses of it — of a distinctively indicative nature. Trollope has a style that, being more pronounced (even if it is really a rather unstylish style), pales without its native ironies. As for the end of the range furthest from the noble Victorians, I can’t imagine Edward St Aubyn in any language but English, or Alan Hollinghurst, either. But Ishiguro’s fiction is announced not by a highly educated writer but by rather ordinary people. A great deal of his fiction’s power comes from the pity of watching ordinary people endure extraordinary trials — trials so extraordinary, in fact, that the narrators can’t quite fully grasp them.

Indeed, Ishiguro’s literary artistry may consist of nothing more (nothing less!) than a knack for avoiding the trap of first-person narration, into which almost everyone who tries it falls. Sooner or later, the narrator says something that is beyond his or her imaginative reach, and we see the writer’s hand at the puppet-strings. This doesn’t happen in Ishiguro’s work. Ordinary people generally fall into two speaking styles. One is relatively inarticulate. “I don’t know how to put it.” The other is given to something like cant. “We had the most marvelous time!” Both make for unreadable copy. The ability to describe an experience or to recount an episode in a voice that is both interesting and true is very rare. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, and Kathy, in Never Let Me Go, are astonishingly convincing. One is a vain and pompous old man, the other a passionately caring woman. It is tempting to say that they stay out of the way of their stories, but their stories emerge from their ingenuousness — in Stevens’s case, a failed disingenuousness. In Ishiguro’s most recent book, The Buried Giant, the story emanates from a consciousness that has been damaged somehow.

It’s not irrelevant to remember that Ishiguro is a writer whose first language, like that of Jhumpa Lahiri, is somewhat uncertain. Until he was five, he lived in his native Nagasaki, but then his family moved to England, and his schooling was entirely Anglophone. As Lahiri writes, in her Italian book, In Altre Parole, a language that is spoken only at home and never with other school children is not really “first.” In Ishiguro’s case, there is the further complication of his first career, as a rock musician. It is hard to think of a creative field in which English is more routinely blunted and compromised.

Kazuo Ishiguro, then, is an ideal writer for the Nobel Prize. If that statement smacks of mockery, it is not aimed at the writer. Not only does he deserve the Prize, he saves it.


The publication of Autumn, the first book of a new cycle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, reminded me to get a copy of Volume 5 of My Struggle, which has been out for a while. Subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, the book is divided into unequal parts. The shorter first part deals with Knausgaard’s undistinguished year at the Writing Academy in Bergen, to which he was admitted at the age of nineteen. (What were they thinking?) Only afterwards, in the fall of his first year of university proper (surely a case of carts before horses), does he wake up to what was he was so hysterically unaware of at the Academy:

There was also something panicked about my desire to acquire knowledge, in sudden terrible insights I saw that actually I didn’t know anything and that it was urgent, I didn’t have a second to lose. It was also impossible to adapt this urgency to the slowness that reading required. (272)

I have to work this into my writing project somehow: it’s as good a motto as I’ll ever find. Knowing nothing is simply the state of nature at the age of twenty, and the slowness that reading requires only intensifies over time.


Wednesday 11th

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s new memoir, At the Strangers’ Gate, I’m finding it hard to think straight. Gopnik and his wife, Martha, arrived in New York at the same time as Kathleen and I, and, what’s more, we lived across the street. Unbeknownst, of course. They got married, at the end of 1980, about ten months before we did. We still live across the street, but they left, for Soho and the Upper West Side, long ago. These little coincidences simply cast the many differences in a stronger light. Adam Gopnik rather quickly found himself and began his remarkable career at The New Yorker. I discovered the nature of my career only the other day, writing to a friend. (I am a Terminologist. A couple of hundred years ago, I’d have called myself a Moralist.) As a thinker, I think it fair to regard Gopnik as a hard-headed realist, nobody’s fool, but I’m feeling an edge of cynicism in the memoir that I’ve never sensed in his writing before.

As I wonder why that might be the case, I mull over the decision, to which I recommitted myself again and again when I was young, to resist the very idea of “going into journalism.” I was certainly afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, but this anxiety had little to do with my abilities. It was more a matter of feeling uncomfortable around journalists. My exposure was brief, an hour or less at the Blair Breeze, my prep school’s newspaper, and more frequent visits to the Scholastic, Notre Dame’s student magazine. For the Scholastic, I wrote a couple of theatre reviews one year, and I visited the office only to drop off my copy. I don’t know what I was doing at the Breeze. In both cases, I thought, I don’t want to be here. I was uncomfortable in the same way that I was uncomfortable in locker rooms. To me, there seems to be something horribly mindless in the hustle of men working together in a crisis (and what is the production of a newspaper or a magazine but a permanent crisis?) — purposeful, yes, but mindless, too, blithely unaware of something. I still don’t think of journalists as writers. Writers are people who spend most of their lives in solitude, writing. Ideally, I think, writers are neither seen nor heard. They’re just read.

Of course, what I do here is a sort of journalism, literally. I reflect daily on the state of things. But my thesis, my political position if you will, is that the state of things is widely misunderstood because people have little or no grasp of how it came to be, or, worse, have a very mistaken idea. Adam Gopnik throws around the term “capitalism” as if it explained the state of things, when what I think he means is “the advertising model of generating revenue.” But there is a little cocktail-party Marxism in there, too, as when he jokes that the point of shop talk is to focus attention on the talk and away from the shop. These observations of mine are a kind of anti-journalism, because they are explicitly historical. It is always history, and never journalism, to urge listeners to rectify the names.

I don’t actually have much to say about the state of things per se. Donald Trump is in the White House, a state of things so awful that to discuss it is to wallow in despair. The story of how he got there, however, is not only amazing but less accidental-seeming the better you know it. Things might have worked out differently, had people — and here I mean, specifically, liberal élites — not been burdened with misconceptions about their fellow Americans. I have seen little evidence of any effort to clear up these misconceptions. For example: Americans who are unhappy about Trump seem to believe that it explains something to point out that he lost the popular vote. But what does it explain beyond the obvious, which is that under our Constitution it is possible to lose the popular vote and win the election? It has happened several times in our history. Get over it! Another example, which I mean to look into one of these days, is élite obliviousness about the problem of “political correctness.”

But I digress.

I’ve always felt foolish about my unwillingness to “go into journalism,” because I don’t know much about it and have no real experience of it. So it’s a relief of sorts (as well as a blow of sorts) to hear what Adam Gopnik, who has had a lot of experience, has to say.

I sensed then an essential truth — or at least as essential as truths can be in the magazine game. Magazines are — or were, when they mattered more — essentially vehicles of fantasy, far more than even the most hardheaded ones can be of fact, or information of any kind. Every magazine in a sense only exists next month. They sell fables of aspiration, and get their power from being quietly attuned to a social class just beneath the social class they seem to represent. Playboys do not read Playboy, and voguish women do not obsess over Vogue, and twelve-year old, not seventeen-year-old, girls read Seventeen. Our magazine [GQ], ostensibly directed to an audience of upwardly mobile young executives, was read by high-school students. But had we addressed them directly we would have failed, as the Playboy of those days would have if it had taken off its smoking jacket and put on the baseball cap its readers actually wore. An elaborate artifice of shared fantasy had to be sustained in order to sell advertising pages, which was, of course, the aim of the enterprise. The final artifice was … next month. Everything we did, we did in order to sustain the illusion of next month’s issue. (104)

(Every magazine? What happens when you feed The New Yorker into this algorithm? Is the magazine really aimed, after all, at the little old lady in Dubuque?)


Thursday 12th

The dust jacket of Adam Gopnik’s At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York carries an alarming photograph. We see everything but the head of a man in a suit and tie, seated in a Breuer chair. Where his head ought to be — what is it? I thought of Jerry Uelsmann, the virtuoso of photomontage. Was the thing supposed to be a bug? A surrealist cloud? Only when I held the book up to strong light did I grasp that the picture is a wedding photo. If you want to see a companion shot that shows the handsome faces of both bride and groom, it can be seen via Google. Both photos were taken by Gopnik’s brother, Blake. You probably didn’t need me to tell you any of this.

Meanwhile, who knew — everybody but me? — that Jennifer Egan went out with Steve Jobs when she was an undergraduate? That explains a lot, I think, about the “prescient” aspects of Look at Me and A Visit from the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel, is at the top of the pile; whether I’ll wait to read it until I’ve finished with Knausgaard 5 I don’t know. On the way from England are the new St Aubyn and the new Hollinghurst. I’ve never had such a sense of rentrée.

Knausgaard writes something that helped me to get a little bit closer to why I am really, totally not a novelist.

The clock chimed twelve. Someone was up and in the hallway, a door was opened and closed, the toilet flushed. I liked being in other people’s homes so much, I thought, I always had, although what I saw there could seem unbearable to me, perhaps because I saw things I wasn’t intended to see. The personal life that was peculiar to them. The love, the helplessness that resided in that, which was usually hidden from others’ eyes. Oh, trifles, trivialities, a family’s habits, their exchanged glances. The vulnerability in this was so immense. Not for them, they lived inside it, and then there was no vulnerability, but when it was seen by someone who didn’t belong. When I saw it I felt like an intruder. I had no right to be there. At the same time I was filled with tenderness for them. (325)

I have never much liked being a guest in other people’s houses, no matter how comfortable the arrangements, for precisely this reason. I feel everything that Knausgaard reports, but without the tenderness, which seems to alleviate his sense of being an intruder. I don’t want to know what other people’s families are like. As I used to say, when people would ask me if I intended to explore my birth parentage, “one family was enough.” Also, I don’t want anyone to know how many times in the night I’m trying to open and close doors, flushing toilets. I’m happy to read about these things, and sometimes even curious. But I want it sorted out in prose, knowing that it will all be over before I turn the page.

My problem with Knausgaard is a ridiculous one. I happened to see a YouTube clip of his appearance on Charlie Rose’s show. All the photographs that I had seen of him before that showed a scowling, rather undernourished young man, a punk with a vocabulary. His hairdresser was clearly none other than Mother Nature, on one of her hurricane days. But sitting at Charlie Rose’s circular table, wearing a rather sporty light-colored jacket, about as far from leather as you could get, and possibly even a tie, but certainly a pressed dress shirt, with the hair on his head scrupulously barbered, he looked like my internist’s younger brother, assuming there is such a person. He was polite, slightly impish, and definitely out to please. The terrible thing is, this image comes to mind all the time when I’m reading the novel. It’s not at odds with his persona, really, but it makes him a rather unconvincing fan of the latest rock music. It’s impossible to regard him as the rebel he wants to be.

That is surely the secret of My Struggle. It’s not “my struggle to be a rebel,” but just the opposite: “my struggle to be a loving husband and father, not to mention a serious writer, given all the nonsense that masculinity is saddled with in this generation.”

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Beautiful Decorative
October 2017 (I)

3, 5 and 6 October

Tuesday 3rd

Two extracts from the same Op-Ed piece, “The Disastrous Decline of the European Center-Left,” by Sheri Berman. Don’t try too hard to make sense of them; merely observe that each refers to liberalism.

These new center-left politicians celebrated the market’s upsides but ignored its downsides. They differed from classical liberals and conservatives by supporting a social safety net to buffer markets’ worst effects, but they didn’t offer a fundamental critique of capitalism or any sense that market forces should be redirected to protect social needs.


But the decline of the center-left has larger implications. Most obviously, it has created a space for a populist right whose commitment to liberalism, and even democracy, is questionable.

In the first quote, Berman distinguishes New Labour from “classical liberals and conservatives,” who are grouped together for the purpose of making a point about safety nets, which in Berman’s view, apparently, are contrary to classical liberal policy. In the second quote, Berman regrets the populist right’s lack of a commitment “to liberalism, and even democracy,” the implication being that the commitment to these values of the center-left — this would presumably include New Labour —is robust.

I’m not sure that I would have caught this inconsistency if I hadn’t been struggling to pin liberalism down. Perhaps you don’t see the inconsistency even now that I’ve pointed it out. Perhaps it is not so much an inconsistency as a change in context. In the first quote, Berman is talking about economic liberalism; in the second, political liberalism. Are these two versions of the same thing, or two things, “twin births” as Domenico Losurdo has it (in Liberalism: A Counter-History). Which one is the “real” liberalism? Which kind of liberal are you? Am I?

It’s a serious problem. This persistent ambiguity contributes a great deal of confusion to political discourse, making “liberalism” everything and nothing, whatever an unreflecting speaker takes for granted. Unlike most words that have been misused so extensively that they must simply be avoided by careful writers (fulsome is my best example, as it means quite contradictory things to people who use it without being aware of this), “liberalism” can’t be done without. We need a convention to determine its proper application. Failing that, there’s me.

I had the image of a pair of horses in harness, pulling a carriage. The horses are definitely two different animals, and the smoothness of the ride depends on the health of each. This metaphor would construe political and economic liberalism as associated but different. But because political and economic liberalism came to dominate Anglophone life at the same time (in the Eighteenth Century), it’s easier to think of them as two aspects of the same thing, and I had another image. Political liberalism looks up, wary of the power of capricious monarchs. Political liberalism curtails the power of tyranny from above. Economic liberalism looks down and out, assessing the property that makes the liberal régime prosperous and also the vagrants who, owning no property and having no investment in the commonwealth, threaten tyranny from below. Political liberal concerns itself with constitutions and the rule of law. Economic liberalism protects individual property owners from interference of any kind, even from the well-meaning state. Essential to the liberal DNA is a preference for indirect solutions, for making the most of favorable winds, for counting on enlightened self-interest, for muddling through.

For a long time, liberals looked in both directions. Over time, though, humans invariably specialize, and inevitably liberals who looked mostly in one direction or the other saw different things. By the postwar period, dissonance between political and economic liberals on the subject of social welfare became so grating that the latter began to call themselves “neoliberals”: they sought to restore the outlook of the previous century. Political liberals, moving away from exclusivism, were determined to complete the project of endowing all members of society with equal access to and protection by constitutional law. While economic liberals wanted to continue to exclude (and even to punish) the vagrants, political liberals sought to improve them, out of existence as it were.

More recently, the gulf between liberals and neoliberals has stretched to encompass contrary attitudes toward the environment. Political liberals are aware that economic liberalism, to the extent that it failed to constrain predatory capitalism, has made a mess of the world, and endangered the Earth itself. Neoliberals appear to be in denial. Meanwhile, the fear of tyranny, so reasonable three hundred years ago, his become chimerical. In the absence of dictators on the one hand and hordes of unwashed “human garbage” on the other, the constitution itself has assumed the role of tyrant, or at any rate it has become the big gun that populists and elitists try to aim at one another.

And the meritocrats, brainchildren of the liberals but zombies without political consciousness, continue to pile up wealth in the coffers of the lucky. Nothing succeeds like success.

What does any of this have to do with what just happened in Las Vegas? Perhaps it’s an indication of how deeply-dyed my political liberalism is that I’m not jumping up and down calling for gun control. Do I believe that Americans have a right to possess automatic or semi-automatic weapons? No, I do not. But the weapons are out there, not least because we are a world-leader in arms manufacture. I don’t see in gun control the effective restraint that’s needed, and to me ineffective laws are a matter of great shame. What upsets me about these shootings is their reflection of an entertainment culture (comprising video games) that makes killing look exciting, even to people who have never held a weapon. The intensity of calls for gun control suggests to me a desire to look away from something far more troubling.

Rectify the names!


Thursday 5th

Venerable man of letters Robert Gottlieb was found slumming, over the weekend, in the candycane lanes of romance fiction. Why, he didn’t say. His omnibus review of recent titles ended, however, with a lengthy account of Danielle Steel’s The Duchess. I have never read one of these productions, but I’ve noted the dependability with which passages quoted from Steel’s books reveal a dislike of writing, a wilful rejection of all the wonderful things that words can do, matched only by Stephen King. What struck me as new in The Duchess was the ghost of a parody by Robert Benchley that, for sheer awfulness, made me laugh out loud. Note the chill of dreadfulness (or is it camp horror?) when Gottlieb’s prose yields to Steel’s.

It was a love match, despite a big disparity in age, and Marie-Isabelle loved Belgrave Castle as much as the duke himself did, “helping him to add beautiful decorative pieces to his existing heirlooms.”

Which is worse, “beautiful decorative pieces” or “existing heirlooms”? I have to vote for the latter. A duke with a castle — the Grosvenors really ought to bring a trademark-infringement suit against Steel and her publisher — has a collection of “heirlooms” (shades of Lizzie Eustace), and the best adjective that the author can come up with to describe its appeal is the utterly redundant “existing”? What a failure of the imagination!

But then it occurred to me that Steel’s readers are not looking for imagination. They already have plenty of their own, such as it is. What they’re looking for is armature, support for their own “existing” dreams. They don’t want Steel to call the furnishings that they long for “beautiful” or “decorative” when she can say that they’re both, even though these words are uninformative singly and together. “Pieces” is almost a Mad-Libs blank, only instead of calling for a noun or an adjective it specifies “dream item” beneath the line. Fainting couch? Butter churn? Louis XV lava lamp? Marie-Isabelle will love it!

This isn’t literature; this is sales. It isn’t about the experience of beauty; it’s about the ownership of beautiful decorative pieces. This is the language of QVC.

And The Duchess is probably cheaper than the stuff on TV.


On today’s Op-Ed page, Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Santa Barbara, suggested why gun advocates are so much more effective at political discourse than their gun-control opponents. Did you know that there are “more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonalds”? These are places to which people are drawn by their sense of who they are, not by a desire to debate the meaning of the Second Amendment. They do not come together in order to “take action.” (Not yet, anyway.)

My friends who support the N.R.A. did not join a club because of politics. They joined because they wanted somewhere to shoot their guns.

The problem for gun-control advocates is that what they want to do, or to have done, is entirely negative: they want guns to go away. They have no positive affiliation with each other. They believe that guns have little or no use in civil life. Gun owners, in contrast, are linked by a sense of vulnerability that, however meretricious a product of NRA propaganda, feels real to them, and my suspicion that it is altogether unreasonable to look to semi-automatic weapons for self-protection does not entitle me to disrespect their point of view. Such is my commitment to political liberalism. Also hampering gun-control activism is the liberal distaste for identity politics. Yes, you read that right. Whatever the Democratic Party says, liberals do not engage in identity politics. They promote something altogether different: respect for other people’s sense of identity. The conservative identity politics that makes people bond at the shooting range is, as Han says, “intimately tied to questions of race and identity.” Their own identity.

I do hope that the Route 91 massacre will seriously crimp the argument that guns make people safer. Guns wouldn’t have protected anyone from the attack.


Friday 6th

Last night, I downloaded the most recent Inspector Rutledge novel, No Shred of Evidence, onto my Kindle. I discovered Charles Todd’s detective mystery series in the summer of 2014. Proof of Guilt, the fifteenth entry, had just come out in paper, so I decided to give it a try. Completely hooked, I realized that I must read all the books, and in order, something that I appear to have done — if Amazon’s records are reliable — in little more than a month. Torn, after swallowing the fourteenth book, The Confession, about whether to re-read Proof of Guilt, so as to follow the thread faithfully, I set the whole business aside. It wasn’t until last month that I took it up again. Classically, the trigger was a reference to Todd in David Remnick’s long piece about Hillary Clinton. Todd was mentioned, along with Donna Leon and a writer who wasn’t familiar to me, Louise Penny, as Clinton’s favorite sleuthers. I was casting about for something to read on the Kindle at bedtime, and enough time had passed since the 2014 binge for several new titles to accumulate; so, presently, I found myself in the fen country around Ely, with a windmill creaking in impenetrable mist.

This morning, I clicked on a link to a Guardian story about tech innovators who have succumbed to alarming concerns about the noxious effects of the attention economy. Paul Lewis cites an astonishing factoid: “research shows” that “people” “touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.” When I read this sort of thing, I feel that I am peering into the future. Where I live, the phone is still, mostly, a phone. But of course where I live is in a seventy year-old body in a very quiet apartment where even the landline seldom rings and the Times is delivered to the front door every morning. Oh, and the television is almost never on — accent on never. The music is usually Schubert or Brahms, but it doesn’t play when I am reading.

In short, I am living in a Charles Todd novel, relatively speaking. The Inspector Rutledge mysteries are set in the wake of World War I. The first one takes place in June, 1919, and the next one in the following month. Then August, September, and so on. The Todds — it is hard for me to speak of “Charles Todd,” because the books are actually written by a man called Charles Todd and his mother, Caroline Todd (I note with relief that they live in different Eastern States) — have now reached the fall of 1920, but nothing has changed since the previous year.

The countryside is unspoiled, and the villages and small towns blend into the landscape. Nice people live in genuinely Georgian or Tudor houses situated on extensive acreage. Telephones and automobiles are rare, and enjoyed only by the very wealthy. Photographs are more common, but hardly the ubiquitous “images” of today. England is a redoubt of respectability, but the stylish sophistication that would climax on the eve of the next war is already in evidence. It is also confined to the élite. Most people are servants or agricultural workers. Education is unusual, and liberal education is the preserve of the gentleman, that apogee of British manhood. Needless to say, Ian Rutledge is a gentleman. If he is not so grand as Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Whimsey, he is still too grand to be an inspector at Scotland Yard. He comes from the professional gentry, and would not be out of place at a royal garden party.

Since these are mystery novels — richly-detailed rather than fast-paced — there is always something exciting going on, and Inspector Rutledge is easily as busy as anyone tapping a phone 2,617 times a day. But behind the action there is a quiet world, which I am pretty sure is the basic draw. The only thing that disturbs this world is the weather, which is often pretty bad. Indeed, the Todds take us back to a time when the weather really was the only thing to talk about. What we call distractions were known as attractions in those days; they were much harder to come by.

By the time I encountered the Internet, I was already immunized against media dazzle. I remember being horrified by the political blogs that, around fifteen years ago, were being updated every few minutes. I already understood that there is simply not that much news in the world — not real news. And I regarded advertising with something close to fear and loathing. What horrified me much more than those updates was catching myself smiling at the pretty picture of life presented in commercial announcements. It was also disturbing to note that people who managed to read through television shows always looked up when the ads came on. The advertising model of content packaging — instead of paying for access, you put up with the ads — obviously tended to dumb content down toward the lowest common denominator. Valuable content, regardless of how much advertising it carried, remained tremendously expensive. Subscribing to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of books runs $300 a year or more.

So, while Ian Rutledge leads a life that is rather more advanced that than of most of his countrymen, I lead one that lags behind. Although no cosplay is involved, even I catch the fragrance of nostalgia. When Kathleen gets home from work, the candles in the living room are lighted, and the Times awaits her on her favorite sofa — which belonged to her grandmother. After dinner, we often talk for longer than it took to eat, our companionship at the table undisturbed by devices. Then we read. If the phone rings in the evening, it’s an emergency (usually related to Kathleen’s practice). Every now and then, I take a peek at the Times online at bedtime — for example, to see how the Catalonians are doing — but as a rule, the world could come to an end and we wouldn’t know about it until we read the paper in the morning. It is not paradise, but it is closer to paradise than it is to dystopia.

Paul Lewis’s Guardian story, “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: the Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia” is frightening, to be sure, but I think I have the answer. But first, you have to turn off everything except what you’re reading right now.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
I Forgot Ward’s Island
September 2017 (IV)

26 27 and 28 September

Tuesday 26th

Now that David Brooks has said it, I hope that he’ll stick with it, and hammer at it until a few other columnists pick it up and see that he’s right.

Donald Trump came into a segmenting culture and he is further tearing apart every fissure. He has a nose for every wound in the body politic and day after day he sticks a red-hot poker in one wound or another and rips it open.

Although I’d quibble with a lot of Brooks’s finer points, I believe that I have been trying, for several years, to say what he has expressed in one column. The meritocratic dispensation that has governed the United States for fifty years, guiding people and institutions away from provincial moralism and toward open-minded acceptance of different backgrounds, has discredited itself, because it has also encouraged a startling self-centered economy that rewards unusual talent and punishes the merely ordinary. We don’t need Donald Trump to tell us any of this.

Or maybe we do, since so many Americans are responding to Trump’s eye-poking with indignation and outrage, as if these were still sufficient to stop him. But they have the opposite effect.

He is so destructive because his enemies help him. He ramps up the aggression. His enemies ramp it up more, to preserve their own dignity. But the ensuing cultural violence only serves Trump’s long-term destructive purpose.

How long will it take intelligent Americans to stop reacting to Trump and to get on with the serious business of designing and implementing a new dispensation? One in which, for starters, nobody mistakes Hillary Clinton for an inspiring political leader, or allows an unseasoned Barack Obama into the White House?

The football imbroglio is far more menacing than most Americans want to imagine, however they feel about “taking a knee,” and I tremble to think how ruinously its undigested contradictions could erupt on an unthinking population. Football is no longer a game that involves big guys and a torpedo-shaped ball, but a cultural phenomenon that engulfs masses of people in a stew of money, racism, and entertainment — and the “money” and “entertainment” parts are just as ugly and rooted in bad faith as the “racism.” Why, one thinks to ask, do games begin with patriotic displays the likes of which are not encountered in other social contexts? The game of football has now been hijacked by the venerable but gratuitous ritual that precedes it. It has always seemed to me that the function of the national-anthem business, whatever its purpose, has been to get fans in the mood for a fight. What else is the point of a cheer, in the absence of real danger?

If I were a poet or a symbolist, I would declare that the phenomenon of American football, at both the collegiate and professional levels, marks the meritocratic dispensation for destruction. As a realist, I simply worry that the mass of fans will sink into an unguided frenzy, a replay of The Bacchantes. While it rages, the president will claim to be surprised and bewildered by the charge that his words set it off. And his disingenuousness will not be altogether baseless. Donald Trump is the little boy who pointed out the emperor’s nakedness. Ever since the beginning of his campaign in 2015, he has been telling us things that are true, even if they are mixed up with lies. Right now, he is telling us that many football fans believe that the players ought to keep their political concerns to themselves. Who can doubt it? And yet who can doubt that many players believe that there is nothing political about the inhuman mistreatment of their brothers and sisters? Football has encompassed a host of inconsistent objectives because it is flush with money and thrills. The last thing it needs is scrupulous examination. I cannot imagine, in fact, that it will survive the generation that is coming of age with images of Aaron Hernandez’s damaged brain. But if football is not quite too big to fail, it is too big to fall apart. The NFL owners are nervously aware that it might.


In the current issue of Harper’s, thirteen writers have filed reports on the state of their part of the nation. I’ve read only one, myself: Marilynne Robinson’s, from Iowa. Robinson appears to have an acute understanding of the economic and political issues that divide Iowans, and I think that she would make a very effective adviser for candidates opposing the ideologically-besotted Republicans who have gerrymandered their way into power there. I would have only one word of advice for her: keep it local. I think that her views would be far more digestible and popular if they were not associated with a national organization of liberal bent. If Robinson and her friends established an Iowa Statehouse Party, and concentrated on matters of local governance, while avoiding issues that have little or no direct bearing on local affairs, they might be able to turn out the behemoths. In short, they would campaign for Iowans, not for issues.


Wednesday 27th

My theme for today is a conundrum: liberal leadership.

Last week, I postulated that liberalism began as the solution to a prolonged conflict between the kings of England and the leading English noblemen. An institution was required to regulate the royal council, to make it less vulnerable to royal whim. The institution was found in parliament, which, in typical English fashion, had already existed for centuries. There was no need to invent anything. Now parliament was repurposed. It developed an entirely new function: providing a leader. In the new arrangement, the king could consult with anyone in the world, so long as that person was the leader of Parliament (or not inimical to the leader) — who presently came to be called “prime minister.”

At the time of this arrangement, Parliament was still very much the tool of the great men of England. Commercial and urban voices were commanding more respect, but they were easily co-opted, often by marriage. Ordinary Britons were not involved in Parliamentary politics for a good long while. Not until 1867, nearly two hundred years after the liberal solution was inaugurated, did the electoral franchise spread to the broad mass of Englishmen. By 1867, the conflict that inspired liberalism was a ghost, and “liberalism” had moved on to other things, notably to ideas about global free trade. These ideas divided the two large parliamentary parties, but although one was called “liberal” and the other “conservative,” both organizations were liberal in nature. The conservatives, it is true, had sharper notions of ecclesiastical authority, but other kinds of authority were odious to both parties, at least as brought to bear on men of property. Despite a lot of things — imperialism, workhouses, the Irish potato famine — the United Kingdom had a worldwide reputation for being the homeland of liberty, largely because, if you were a gentleman with an income of £200 per annum, nobody could tell you what to do.

Liberals did not command; they persuaded. They believed that coerced support is unreliable — which it is, if the people doing the coercion don’t have their hearts in it. Liberals approached the body politic as if it were a club, dependent on the voluntary cooperation of all its members. Everybody was encouraged to believe that the healthy existence of the body politic was the first concern of the leading men, that high officials would never allow selfish motives to risk harming the political organism. This did not guarantee, however, that politicians would know what to do in the event of accidental emergency. The worst kind of emergency was found to be not war but the upheavals regularly engendered by the vagaries of economic liberalism, which came to be better known as “capitalism.” That is, political liberals turned out not to be the people to turn to for help when economic liberals (“businessmen” and “industrialists”) lost control of their affairs. Whether politicians or executives, liberals were averse to giving orders, to exercising authority. Financial downturns became serious threats to the body politic when the liberal economy employed almost all workers in large, interrelated blocs, adversely affecting all business sectors at once. By comparison, the command economy (socialism) seemed a lot more humane.

In the wake of the disaster that the popular mind dates to 1929, liberals developed a network of safety features that constrained the spread of collateral damage. They were designed, however, to prevent market fluctuations from putting people out of work. They were powerless to prevent the disappearance of jobs for other reasons, of which two very serious ones developed in the Postwar era. Both were inevitable in a liberal climate. Workers in the developed West were replaced by cheaper workers elsewhere and by machines. A third development was more difficult to foresee. Liberals have always been noted for their respect for the kind of education that imparts liberal values along with useful skills. These liberal values, which probably don’t bear close scrutiny, provide a kind of ballast of tradition, however bogus, that steadies the liberal course through the uncertainties of innovation. It is not at all ironic that the government of the most prosperous kingdom in history erected its official, central palace — Westminster — in an antiquated style that was yet not at all Antique but original to Europe itself: the Gothic (initially a term of scorn). This complicated attitude toward the past was swept away, however, by the meritocracy of the Twentieth Century.

It is only lately that I have seen how tightly the growth of liberal democracy and the liberal economy has been intertwined with the idea of automation, of things happening independently of human agency. The industrial technology, which is not just a matter of machines but also of social organization, is impressive enough. Our constitutional devices, with their checks and balances taking the place of human arbiters — “a machine that would go of itself,” ours was called — reflect great psychological ingenuity. But the capstone of liberal thinking has got to be the systematic gestation of an élite class by competitive examination. Such examinations slowly but surely drove out the “liberal values,” and the new élite soon demonstrated an astonishingly single-minded expertise at taking care of itself. The question is whether liberal solutions to this latest setback will be forthcoming.


Thursday 28th

Questions: Who is James Ward, and who paid (how much) for that Op-Ed page ad?

It took up more than a quarter of the space in yesterday’s paper. (I can’t find it online.) Boxed in black like a memorial notice, and printed in a font so distant from Times style that there was no real need to post the “Advertisement” disclaimer, the unbroken slab of type, with the name “James Ward” at the bottom, followed by an email address for “jamesoliver037,” promised not to be a crank letter.

Opposition to “Diller’s Island,” [sic] has often been portrayed as the work of a small group of obstructionist eccentrics, scheming behind the scenes…

Then it went on in the usual manner of crank letters. Which isn’t to say that I disagree with James Ward about “Diller’s Island”! What caught my eye was the reference, smack in the middle of the text, that I feel that I’ve been seeing not infrequently of late.

The proposed plans for Diller’s Island would also, apparently, have involved, at least intermittently, loud amplified music, given the developer’s stated intention to provide New Yorkers with a truly “dazzling” experience (in this age of hyperconnectivity, it is really necessary for every experience to be dazzling? [sic]; see Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”)

I had been asking the same question myself, ever since an editorial lamenting the collapse of the project, about two weeks ago, ended as follows:

Maybe Mr. Diller’s decision to pull the plug is reversible. Or maybe another person with deep pockets will put up money for this project or something similar. Private money is not necessarily to be shunned. It’s not as if the city is awash in government funds for new parks or other captivating public spaces.

Unlike Mr Ward, who devotes slightly less than half of his notice to grumbling ruminations on improper collusion between elected officials and private developers, I am not deeply invested in shunning private money. But whether or not the city can afford to create “new parks or other captivating public spaces,” there’s no question that it already has plenty of them. Not that I’m any more comfortable with “captivating” than I am with “dazzling.” Those are words that, at least so far as public spaces go, I associate with theme parks and other bogus attractions. For an honest cheap thrill, crossing the Main Course of Grand Central Terminal at rush hour can’t be beat.

As I recall, the plans for Diller’s Island showed an undulating pancake that appeared to float several storeys above the surface of the Hudson. It was dotted with various landscapes — parklike groves, an amphitheatre? and other play spaces. There was nothing urban about it, and nothing real, either. It brought to mind the projections of the future that were a feature of the 1939 World’s Fair. It looked like something that New Yorkers would expect to find far out of town, somewhere near the Pacific Ocean perhaps. It also looked like something that would draw lots of tourists, as an island of relief from the New York experience. It looked ridiculous. Probably harmless — here again I disagree with Mr Ward — but ridiculous.

What I couldn’t make up my mind about is the Neil Postman name-check. It’s a little off-base. Postman was talking about television, television news in particular, and about the dumbing-down that, in his view (with which I wholeheartedly agree), the television medium itself necessarily imposes on civil discourse. He was not talking about the problem of having fun when you go out to have fun. And yet. Isn’t that precisely the problem with Diller’s Island? There’s an unwonted shift in the meaning of “fun.” Wires seem to me to be crossed if going to a park leads to the experience of being entertained. There is a slippage, a displacement of the self — a dazzlement, perhaps. I go to the park to walk among lawns and trees, with maybe a few flowers. There are other people in the park, but I don’t go there to meet them. We enjoy the park together in silence — not that there’s anything wrong with striking up the odd conversation. Lots of people in Carl Schurz Park sit on benches staring at open books. They’re captivated, if at all, by what they’re reading, not by the public space.

I thought of the High Line. My friend Eric arranged for me to walk the High Line several years ago, and a few weeks ago I returned the favor by introducing him to Carl Schurz Park. It was a sunny, late summer weekend afternoon, and there were lots of people in the park. It wasn’t as crowded as the High Line had been, but then it is only a local park, much used by its neighbors but unknown to most New Yorkers (much less tourists). The High Line is quite something else — I don’t think I need dilate — but what strikes me is that, among its many charming features, Carl Schurz Park boasts a finer example of the only thing that the High Line has going for it, which is a promenade. Now, a promenade is a very good thing, a vital element in urban life that has gotten short shrift in auto-mad America. It is to be hoped that promenades like the High Line will eventually alert the people walking on it that they are not in fact encased in the cabs of SUVs, and that what they are wearing is an aspect of everybody else’s landscape. As promenades go, however, the High Line is either cramped or vacant. I don’t think that it’s ever actually vacant, but when it’s not cramped, and you can take in the fixtures and the plantings, it looks abandoned, which I believe is part of its design.

The promenade at Carl Schurz Park, in contrast, is the grandest passage on the John Finley Walk, an intermittent pathway along the borders of Manhattan Island. A lengthy terrace stretched across the top of a structure through which pass, one atop the other, the downtown and uptown lanes of the East River Drive, the promenade is possibly higher above the East River than Diller’s Island would have been above the Hudson. There is nothing to look at except the river and the sky. There are some buildings, but aside from the towers of Long Island City, off to the southeast, they are not very tall, and the manmade part of the view is dominated by the Queensborough Bridge, or half of it, twenty-five blocks away. If you turn around, you have the Triborough Bridge, Hellgate Bridge, Manhattan State Hospital, and even more river and sky. Everything seems to make the river wider and the sky higher. It is the most spacious Manhattan spot that I know, always exhilarating to step out onto from the arbors of the park.

Every now and then, a tourist boat swans along. If you wave, they wave back. It’s as close as most of them are going to get to where you are, but they probably think you’re a tourist, too.

In the end, James Ward couldn’t resist pulling the kitchen sink right out of the wall, and the stove with it, and hurling them both at Diller’s Island with the T word.

And, speaking more generally, for a city which prides itself on its liberal political heritage, this lock-step lining up of local and state politicians, their developer friends, and Hollywood royalty, together with the concomitant dismissal of legitimate local concerns, reeks more of a totalitarian approach to governing than the bottom-up and democratic process one should ideally look for in a city of our size and stature.

“Bottom up”? As I say, paid for by whom?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Je Promets
September 2017 (III)

19, 20 and 21 September

Tuesday 19th

Rolling Stone has always been something of a tease for me. Handsomely laid out, studded with impressive photographs, it looks like the sort of thing that I’d like to read. But it isn’t. Alive to most forms of music, I am resistant, to put it mildly, to rock. I object to the very idea of “popular culture.” I find denim astonishingly uncomfortable — why do people wear it? (And then, there’s what it looks like. The world is not your living room.) Rolling Stone is not, and never was, for me.

So I almost skipped Sydney Ember’s story in yesterday’s Times. Adorned by a dozen or so of Rolling Stone’s always iconic covers, the article seemed designed for the Styles or Arts sections, but it was in Business. “Rolling Stone, Once a Counterculture Bible, Will Be Put Up for Sale.” It was only when I’d gotten through the whole paper that I went back, micro-provoked by the last part of that headline. Will be put up for sale. I went through the article quite carefully, but the headline told the whole story. There was no mention of counterparties, bidders, failed negotiations, or any other newsworthy elements. The story was a glorified want-ad, published at no cost to the beneficiaries, the magazine’s founder, Jan Wenner, and his son, Gus, who currently runs things.

A few years ago, the story told, an outfit in Singapore called BandLab purchased a 49% interest in Rolling Stone. But BandLab’s role in the present story was that of an inert gas. It had no comment to make on the proposed sale of the Wenners’ remaining interest, not even “no comment.”

If I were a cynic, I’d say that the Wenners have been disappointed in their let-us-say preliminary encounters with bankers, and that a friend at the Times has cast for them a much wider net, one that might capture the attention of an idle billionaire who didn’t know, until he read Ember’s story, that it would be not only cool but possible to own Rolling Stone. But I am not a cynic. I am a critical thinker. It’s quite enough for me to ask questions. In this case: how does this piece meet the newspaper’s editorial standards?

It struck me right away that this questionable story, or perhaps my reaction to it, provides a little case history of critical thinking. In the absence of Critical Thinking for Dummies, how do you learn to think critically? What happens when you do? Any good high school teacher will probably tell you that it involves not taking things at face value, and a degree of low-grade skepticism, calm rather than fanatical, is certainly an essential ingredient in critical thinking. But familiarity with the context — particular knowledge, that is, rather than universal principles — is essential, too. I read the Times every day, and have been doing so for more than forty years. I have a good sense of “how the Times works.” For example, a piece about a new play that appears in the Arts and Leisure section the weekend before the show opens is not a review. It is a puff piece, aiming readers’ attention in the direction of productions that are likely to be successful or controversial or at least “interesting” — unlike, that is, the run of new offerings. Everything in the paper tells me something about the editors who put it there. There is nothing mysterious about this; it simply takes exposure over time to get a feeling for it.

It is not hard to imagine a very different piece about current events at Rolling Stone: two short columns of print, with no accompanying illustration at all, much less all those covers and two large images of Wenner père et fils. This other story would mention the name of a bank or a brokerage that has been retained to represent the magazine’s interests. At least the ghost of a real transaction would flicker between the lines. Such is the story that many years of reading The New York Story has led me to expect. Instead, I see something rather more like a Facebook update announcing that Sydney Ember’s uncle wants to unload his vintage Chris-Craft, a pleasure boat on which he and his friends have enjoyed many good times. (If Ms Ember actually has an uncle who owns a Chris Craft, I apologize.) Had the piece appeared in the Styles or Arts sections, my critical-thinking apparatus would never have been engaged, because in those contexts, the story contains real news. End of an era, and all that. But idle billionaires dismiss Styles and Arts as fit for — never mind.

Critical thinking doesn’t stop at resisting face value. It formulates what experimenters might call a control, an alternative that, all things considered, makes more sense because it conforms to recognized patterns. This alternative is not an abstract construction but the residue of experience, and by “experience” I mean a mode of paying attention, not just sitting through something. The paradox is that critical thinking is ignited without conscious thinking. This is what a good high school teacher might mean when cautioning that critical thinking can’t be taught.

It can only be learned.


Wednesday 20th

The week before last, an item in the New York Times Book Review caught me eye. A new novel called The Party, by Elizabeth Day, seemed to be just thing the thing for me to read at bedtime. It was compared to The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, and even to Brideshead Revisited. I downloaded it at once. Hours later, it seemed, I had read it. I had been unable to stop reading it, but rather in the way of not being able to stop eating potato chips. Much, much shorter than the novels by Highsmith and Waugh, it even made Fitzgeralds’ classic feel massively substantial. The reason was that Day delivered everything required by a certain fictional premise, but no more. The Party is a gorgeously garnished skeleton key.

A few days later, I wrestled with the fictional premise. What would be a good title for the archetype? The Clerk and the Prince came to mind and stayed there, even if I’m not happy with it. In this story, which, by the way, must be set in Britain — Gatsby and Ripley are not really prototypes at all — a reasonably attractive boy of unprepossessing background meets a golden boy of rather grand family at school, or later, at Oxford. The two boys become great friends, meaning that the ordinary boy spends all his holidays at his pal’s family’s castle, gradually burying his own origins (for shame!). It goes without saying that his homoerotic attachment to the semi-conscious prince is unrequited, not least because it is unknown.

After coming down (Americans, typically upside-down, call this “graduation”), the boys, now men, have adventures of varying kinds; this is where the author gets to ad lib. But the ending is invariable. The grand friend, sometimes alone and sometimes with the force of his whole family, turns on and rejects the bloke from nowhere, who is revealed as a fraud and a poof, and shamed utterly, unto the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Need I spell out the moral of the story? Don’t be getting above yourself! This is a very satisfying precept for Britons, most of whom have the good sense not to try.

A beautiful example of this story, with many brilliant grace notes, is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which I’ve just put down for the second time. The Line of Beauty came out in 2004, but is set twenty years earlier, during the Thatcher era, when greed was good and need was naughted. A further decade later, it seems obvious that the years in which homosexuals demanded recognition and rights also saw a revival of opulence — baroque on ice, as it were. The last opulence died with Edward VII, and was obliterated by the Depression. Postwar modernism kept austerity fashionable for a good thirty years. Then — poof! London and Paris and even bits of New York were re-gilt. Presently, Daphne Guinness emerged on her half-soles.

The essence of the archetype here is longing, and The Line of Beauty is stuffed with it, longing of all kinds. The longings for sex rather sparingly noted; at the beginning, what Nick is really longing for is the end of his virginity. Hollinghurst gives greater space to his hero’s more sociable ambitions. Nick Guest longs to be both Henry James and a Henry James character, the observer who is paradoxically more vital than what he observes. He wants to be acknowledged as that most Icaran of figures, the natural aristocrat, the man of instinctive good taste and fine judgment who requires no pedigree. He longs to know more than he does, to speak better French and to understand finance, for example, and he longs to stop making a fool of himself, as he does repeatedly in a closed world that not only insists on credentials but rather gruffly dismisses Nick’s brand of discernment. Nick also longs to be the middle child of Gerald and Rachel Fedden, a complicated if outwardly harmonious couple. Gerald, who is an MP and devoted fan of the Iron Lady, struck me this time round as an amusingly prophetic edition of Donald Trump, a little nicer perhaps but just as prone to destructive boredom. Rachel is the daughter of a exalted Jewish banking family, in full possession of the inside/outside ironies of ineffable but exotic grandeur. Their actual children are the beautiful but simple Toby — the original object of Nick’s fascination, true to prototype — and the manic Catherine, a painfully clever girl whom Nick is mad to trust. Nick spends four years embedded in the Feddens’ Notting Hill pile, but what he treasures most is the key that admits him to the adjacent Ladbroke Square Gardens. Longing seems to carry betrayal within it; perhaps this is the significance of the perfume that Hollinghurst has invented for his novel: Je promets.

At the end, Nick is consoling himself — such is his abasement — with the expectation that a recent test will show him to be HIV positive. Hollinghurst writes about the plague at the lowest possible pitch, as if to minimize the pain of remembering those days and losses, but in a way that captures the averted glances that became a tic of the times. From almost every vantage, it was rude to acknowledge the presence of AIDS. Many wished to deny it, of course, or to dismiss it as just deserts, but for this very reason those who were not ashamed and who did not regard it as divine retribution also hesitated to speak up, lest mention of the disease further diminish the afflicted. Only those close to death could treat it as an everyday thing, and nothing obliged them to do that.

The Line of Beauty satisfies the demands of the archetype, but then transcends it, enveloping us all in the folds of a universal pathology, the one that draws us to “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding Adieu.” What could be riper than the nostalgia of a twenty-five year-old man!

More anon.


Thursday 21st

Ten years or so ago, I became obsessed with the use of a term, élite. It was difficult to say what this term might be describing, beyond a hostile but shadowy gang that monopolized the levers of power. It was impossible to find anyone who would admit to belonging to this crowd, which seemed more and more to be the invention of openly powerful people who felt thwarted in their designs. Who wanted, in short, more power. The “élite” was a bogeyman that hid behind a screen and countermanded the instructions of potentates. A few things could be said with certainty: the élite was highly educated, and it lived on the East and West Coasts. Universities and film studios were hives of the élite. I wasted a lot of time looking for a synonym — a more informative word that would pin down the identity of “élitists.” Eventually, I came to terms with the idea that the élite was comprised of everybody with discretionary authority, the right (or power) to decide whether or not to do something. Almost everybody who complained about the élite was part of it.

Now I find myself engaged in a similar but brisker struggle with the term “liberal.” I am not trying to understand what “liberal” means, however, but only to keep track of how different people use the term. It has always been a tricky, even unconsciously ironic word. It is supposed to describe those who cherish freedom from tyranny. But the first thing to learn about the meaning at its root is that liberalism is not democratic, and that “liberal democracy” is more than slightly oxymoronic. Unlike “élite,” which dates only to the Postwar era, “liberal” has a history that stretches back more than three hundred years.

Or more: it’s my current hypothesis that liberalism is one final outcome of the most persistent and destabilizing political problem of the Middle Ages, which is to say of the formation of Europe on the periphery of old Rome. I call this the “great men” problem. What was the relation between the monarch and his most powerful subjects? Often — notably in the case of the Norman conquest of England — these great men had helped the king to secure his throne; they weren’t just strong, they were owed. To read the history of France and England during these long, slow centuries is to follow the uneven oscillations not only of power but of the theory of power, between the ruler as “decider” and the ruler as first among equals. The issue was always the same: when does the king have to pay attention to what his important subjects have to say, and who are the important subjects? Accidents of birth were responsible for many of these swings, perhaps most of them. Sometimes, rulers were not only strong men but materially fortunate. Sometimes, rulers were weak men and deprived of resources. Sometimes, kings got to decide when and where councils would meet, who would attend them, and what business would be decided. Sometimes, all of this was decided by powerful noblemen. The advantage of having a strong king was the same thing as the disadvantage of having a strong nobility: nobles were something like cats, hard to herd. Battles of nobles against the king quickly degenerated into battles of nobles against nobles.

Over time, aspects of the problem were institutionalized, as for example in the English Parliament. The king always had a council of some sort, but membership in the council was somewhat arbitrary, decided either by the king (whoever this might be at the time) or by leading noblemen. Membership in the House of Lords, in contrast, was not arbitrary, and, for a long time, noblemen sponsored most of the representatives who sat in the House of Commons as well. The king, it was determined after much tussling, had nothing to say about parliamentary membership*; birth determined the Lords and the Commons were duly elected. During the later years of the Stuart Dynasty (which lasted for most of the Seventeenth Century), the great men of England decided that membership in the king’s council would be determined by parliament. The great men of England, acting not as hot-headed knights-errant but but as participants in an orderly assembly, would check the potential tyranny of the monarch — that is, any attempt by the king to establish his council to suit himself — simply by showing up regularly in the Palace of Westminster and going through certain motions. A cascade of accidents, not least of them the accession to the throne of a German-speaking princeling, conduced to the cementing of the arrangement. We have called this solution to the great men problem “liberalism” ever since.

It doesn’t seem to have much to do with what Mark Lilla means by “liberalism” in his good little book, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla does not refer to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the liberal slaveholders that they were. (He does not mention them at all.) Liberals disavowed chattel slavery some time ago, but until the 1960s there was nothing about the liberal outlook that ordained a position one way or the other, and what happened in the 1960s was so uncharacteristic of liberalism that the term has been close to meaningless (by meaning too many different things) ever since. What happened in the 1960s (and began in the previous decade) was liberal engagement in the process of securing civil rights for citizens who were denied them — black Americans. But it did not alter the foundation of liberal thinking.

The foundation of liberal thinking remains the belief that the organization of men of property is the best defense against tyranny. We may define both “men” and “property” differently. “Men” now includes “women,” and property is more likely to be intellectual than material. But for all this, the idea that men of property are the best defense against tyranny retains its power because such “men” have the greatest stake in the commonwealth, not so much singly as in the solidarity of liberal government, which is clearly defined and established.

An inevitable side effect of the liberal belief in orderly government is that it makes “men of property” out of those who participate in it, meaning those who hold representative office and other important posts. Lilla has nothing to say about men of property, certainly, but an essential part of the program that he proposes for restoring liberal democracy in the United States could not be more liberal: he presses the need to run for office. To win elections. To keep the orderly government going, and to prevent it from being manipulated by enemies of liberalism in projects of civic dismemberment. This is the point on which “liberal” ceases to sound partisan and begins to describe a function. Many conservatives are liberal in this sense, even if, today, many more are not. To sit in the US Senate on the understanding that you will compromise some of your principles in the interest of a greater national good is essentially liberal. To sit in the Senate on the understanding that not even the least of your scruples will be compromised is to compass proto-tyranny.

Given the great shifts that have occurred in the social and economic life of the West since, say, 1689, the year of the “Glorious Revolution” through which modern liberalism was inaugurated, it is not surprising that liberalism is no longer the viewpoint of great landowners who believe that great landowners, working together, ought to run the country. But liberalism has never shaken its conviction that some people are better fitted for political life than others. This is, once again, a functional matter, not one of party platforms. In this, liberals oppose democrats, who believe that everybody ought to participate in government, or in any case that nothing should be allowed that privileges the participation in political processes of some people over that of others. On this point, the liberal is inclined to throw up his or her hands, mutely insisting that, given human nature, privileges are unavoidable. Liberals don’t believe that a world without élites is possible. Lilla does not make such an avowal explicitly, but it would be hard to find a passage in The Once and Future Liberal that does not address a reader who is not only educated but who also subscribes to the intellectual consensus of liberal tolerance. Indeed, his subtitle, After Identity Politics, points to the bulk of his discussion, which is an argument against the illiberal intolerance that has vitiated the sense of American citizenship. Identity politics is the democratic outlook with the smallest possible “d”: no interest group includes more than one person.

To a liberal, the complaint that representative democracy makes national citizens of us only one day in four years is wrong-headed, but only to the extent that it is a complaint. The liberal complaint, which Lilla does make, is rather that representatives and other officials fail to pay attention to their constituents every day. It is the liberal politician’s job to understand and to lead the people who vote for him, and it is liberal government’s purpose to confer power upon those who are both interested in and skilled at exercising it in a humane and orderly fashion.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Almost nothing. The one thing that the monarch could do — a step never resorted to — was to pack the Lords by elevating sympathizers to the peerage.

Gotham Diary:
Last Entry?
September 2017 (II)

12, 13 and 14 September

Tuesday 12th

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations… but don’t worry! I haven’t got very far, and I don’t have anything to say, yet. I’m too busy trying to learn something.

Wittgenstein does, however, have an excellent bedside manner. He is calm and curious and he never shouts. Unlike Plato and Kant, he does not squint at you as if to say that perhaps you do not deserve treatment. Nor does he give the impression, which I always get from Descartes, of a well-behaved madman, the crackpot nature of whose theories threatens to reveal itself at any minute. The medicine that Wittgenstein pours out does not taste horrible. Regardless of whether what he’s saying makes any sense, he is reassuring. He has made my problem with philosophy go away, at least a little.

A very popular feature in the Times Magazine every Sunday deals with “ethical” questions that readers submit to such experts as Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Should I tell my sister that her husband is having an affair?” I never read it. The urge behind these questions is always, plainly, gossip. Insofar as gossip serves as a social regulator, making sure that nobody gets away with any fast moves, that’s as it should be, but it’s wrong, I think, to confuse gossip with the distinction of right from wrong. As an American, I have lived my entire intellectual life in an atmosphere of gentle pragmatism, which is governed by two principles — you do what you can, and you can always do better — and one caveat: if you beat yourself up, you’ll be no good for anything. I am rarely troubled by doubts about the right thing to do under the circumstances. This may account for my problem with philosophy: it bogs down under circumstances.

Thanks to Wittgenstein, however, I have at least been able to put philosophy in perspective. To be exact, it’s a perspective that relates philosophy to other ways of using words to settle questions of right and wrong. The law is one. By “the law” I mean the professional practice of law, with all of its technicalities and terms of art, that is brought to bear on everyday problems in and out of courtrooms. In the West, we have two very different types of everyday law, one that speaks English and one that’s inherited from the Romans. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of philosophers and theologians, we in the West settle our disputes in court. Many laymen feel that this is a mistake, but it has the advantage of operating without violence.

Poetry is another mode of talking about truth. Poems aren’t very good at deciding cases, but they remind us of the peculiar dimensions of the human space in which we live. The morality of poetry is a morality of diction: not of right and wrong but of good and better.

I don’t know what to do with philology or linguistics. Is philology just linguistics applied to ancient texts, a history of Western languages, in effect? Is linguistics a species of philosophy, or a branch of biology? What do we want these disciplines to tell us? The difference between philosophy, even as Wittgenstein practices it, and linguistics seems to be philosophy’s working assumption that there is something permanent about the language that the philosopher uses. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky appear to believe something of the sort, but I think they’re mistaken. The only thing that languages have in common — the different languages, with their simplifying labels (French, Urdu, &c), that people speak today, but also the different languages that each language has been throughout its history — is the need to provide a reliable medium for communication. Solutions to this need have varied widely.

Meanwhile, “Platte!” “Slab!”


Wednesday 13th

It may be that language is too fluid for philosophy. Not only does it change over time, but it means different things to people who have been brought up differently. This used not to be a problem, because all literate persons had the same education — there weren’t very many of them. You may imagine than literacy used to be an elitist preserve, but this did not become the case until the Renaissance (in the West). Many medieval grandees could neither read nor write, and many more, while they could get by if they had to, and if the context was familiar, preferred to have their reading done for them by secretaries. Only last night, I was reading, in Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, that Aramaic was the language of the Persian court secretaries, because the Persians themselves “were illiterate.”

So, when Socrates was holding forth, or, more to the point — since Socrates was opposed to literacy (yes he was!) — when Plato was writing things down, there weren’t very many people (and all of them were men) who were capable of following his arguments, and almost all of those people had been educated in such a way that Plato could take a lot of things for granted, such as the idea that heavenly bodies must move in uniform circular motion. Plato’s only argument for this notoriously non-observational proposition is that heavenly bodies are perfect, because they are up there — above the moon, to be precise. Only a savage would demand to know how Plato knew this.

Philosophy flourished in the Middle Ages because it was conducted in Latin, which everyone had to learn as a second language. Modern philosophy, which dates from the death of Latin in the Renaissance, is divided into two main schools, deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology speaks German (and other “Continental” tongues); utilitarianism speaks English. Each of these schools makes much more sense in its own native language than it does in the other.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian, created a third school of philosophy at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, by concentrating on words rather than ideas. I’d like to say that he came to language from mathematics and logic, and wanted to know the extent to which language could be as exact, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I bring up Wittgenstein only to point out, what may seem an ephemeral observation, that when I read the Philosophical Investigations, with the English on the right-hand page and the original German on the left, I am amazed that anyone could regard them as related languages. Certainly there are many similar words. But the habits of thought that are reflected in the structures of sentences are not at all alike. This may not be because English and German are “different,” but rather because educated speakers of English and German have developed widely different styles of assumption and expression. It’s faintly comic to see what happens to a sentence in German in which Wittgenstein is struggling to pin down the significance of utterly ordinary, sub-literate expressions — “Slab!”, for “Bring me a red slab.” — when it appears on the facing page. The simple expressions are much the same, but the explanatory language in which Wittgenstein presents them are not. How can we be sure that we understand him?

There has always been a tension in philosophy between description and prescription — much like the struggle that is familiar to us from the dictionary wars, but of much greater scope. The dictionary wars are waged by those who believe that dictionaries ought to lay down the law on correct usage against those who expect no more than a record of how words are actually used. (Although I believe in using words correctly, I do not expect dictionaries to guarantee my usage, so certain words, such as “fulsome,” hopelessly compromised by widespread contradictory usages, must simply be avoided. I remain, however, a stickler for inferring what other people imply.) Does philosophy describe the world, or does it tells us what to do? Aristotle got as close as anyone to having it both ways: if you know what is good (that is, if you have observed the world correctly), then you will do what is good (thus obviating moral decisions). There is also a further tension, between the universal and the particular. Philosophers are people who, in my view, are inordinately interested in universals, in finding out what is always the case everywhere and under all circumstances. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is always the case everywhere under all circumstances, nothing at all. But lots of things are usually true, so I concern myself with those.

If I have a pressing philosophical question, it’s this: what is critical thinking, exactly? What are the rules — or are there rules? Reflecting on what I’ve written here today, I’m tempted to say that critical thinking is the attempt to account for the coexistence of as many particulars as possible. As such, critical thinking is always sailing toward chaos, but never reaching it, because it organizes and settles whatever it touches. I hear an echo here of Freud’s psychotherapeutic mission, to reveal (and thereby tame) as much of the unconscious as possible. I would say, somewhat patly to be sure, that critical thinking transforms complication into complexity. Never mind what that means; just observe my taking two words that have evolved from the same root, from one original idea as it were (complico, to fold over or embrace) and turned them into a pair of contradictions. That is how language evolves. It is also how language so naturally destabilizes philosophical statements.


Thursday 14th

Old joke:

— I know what’s in every book in every library in the world.
— What?
— Words.

But that’s just it: words exist in books, yes — but what about outside of them?

I remember receiving a scolding letter, while I was in college, from my father. It was crisply typed by his secretary. “For all intents and purposes,” he wrote, prefatory to some unpleasant judgment. But never mind. I’d always heard the phrase as “for all intensive purposes.” Kathleen would later confess to the same misunderstanding. Not until we saw the phrase in print did we grasp our mistake — if mistake is what it really was. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell the difference, given the way the phrase is, or used to be, flung about.

Certain languages, such as Turkish, are described as “agglutinative,” because the parts of speech are fused into single words, so that the statement, “I have just come inside out of the rain,” may appear as one word. But is this so very remarkable? What may distinguish Turkish is that the agglutination is written. If I say to Kathleen, “Would you mind setting the table for dinner,” she will register this as a formulaic clump. There is nothing in the request to analyze, because there are no variants to discriminate. Assuming that I am speaking in the late afternoon, I am not proposing that she set the table for breakfast; nor do I want her to set the books in the book room in order, or to make the bed, or to do anything in the world except a very regular task. (Nor do I have to explain what setting the table for dinner involves.) In her mind, she is not diagramming the sentence to make sure that its logical import doesn’t elude her. She does not even come up with an answer: with the “would you mind” part of my statement, I am telling her that she mustn’t say “no” unless there is a problem that I’m unaware of. But this “would you mind part” is not really detachable from the rest, either, because what I am really asking for is her acknowledgment, via participation in the presentation of a meal, of her status as a member of the family. (In fact, I never ask Kathleen to set the table for dinner.)

In §20 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein muses on something like this point.

Someone who did not understand a language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard something giving the order “Bring me a slab!”, might believe that this whole sequence of sounds was one word corresponding perhaps to the word for “building stone” in his language.

This is not so very different from intensive purposes, and it raises the question, to which we have only the roughest, crudest sketches of answers, of how it is that children learn language. Most of what we know is merely evidence showing when and that they do learn languages. We know, for example, that they go through a phase of applying general rules to exceptional cases (abundant in English) and so seeming to revert to more childish usage by saying — after having spoken correctly for some time — “I goed to the park.” But what do we know about learning? What do we know about all the judgments that children learn to make as they pass from toddlerhood to kindergarten? It seems to me that children learn to speak much the same as they learn to walk, more or less unconsciously. That is, the effort itself is largely unconscious. No one will ever know how language is learned.

What complicates things is a second phase, undergone by those children who will grow up to be readers. Those children begin paying explicit attention to learning language well ahead of their uninterested classmates. They are often aware of learning new words, and of learning that some words are quite ambiguous. Wittgenstein hits on one of these words — equally ambiguous in German and English — in §29:

Don’t say: “There isn’t a ‘last’ explanation.” That is just as if you were to say: “There isn’t a last house in this road; one can always build an additional one.”

Last is a tricky word, and, rather like my opposed pairing of complicated and complex, it can mean contradictory things. It can mean “final,” but it can also mean “latest,” which is emphatically not final. I must say that Wittgenstein seems to be floudering here, if not actually going under. He does not take the time to express the distinction. Throughout the book so far, he writes about ostensively teaching simple phrases (“That is a slab.” “Bring me a slab.”) as if ordinary speakers of the language and sophisticated, highly literate speakers such as himself, went about learning in the same way. But of course no ordinary speaker would be at all interested in his speculative investigations into the operation of language. For the ordinary speaker, language is a presence not unlike the sky or the moon. It is simply there. The ordinary speaker’s relation to language is neither dynamic nor analytical. At best, it is comic.

I watched a funny old movie yesterday, Lovers and Other Strangers (1970). It is the adaptation of a Broadway hit of the same name, written by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, and it refreshes the familiar social frictions of a wedding by focusing on the nonsense that is spoken by all parties concerned. The parents of the groom, Bea and Frank Vecchio (Bea Arthur and Richard Castellano) exemplify the total incapacity of ordinary speakers to make sense of new situations. They cannot learn to speak more clearly; they can only wrap up what they know in stranger formulations. Their elder son brings dismay into their kitchen by saying that he wants a divorce. He says that he wants to be happy. His parents mock this: they don’t want to be happy. Then why do you stay together? asks the son. After a moment of nonplussed reflection, they reply that they are “content,” as if this solved anything. Later, the son confides to his father that he feels like a stranger to his wife, and she to him. The father agrees that this is how things are. You start out as strangers, he says, and then, over time, you become deeper strangers. It is all deliciously absurd. Far from springing from witty aperçus, the humor of the dialogue is a mordant commentary on the failure of ordinary language to keep up with new demands.

As if to prove my point by contradicting it, there is a bridesmaid (Marian Haley — can she really have made as few movies as IMDb lists? I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else) who is always quoting from books — voguish books of the period, by Khalil Gibran and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. But she drops their nuggets of wisdom like so many indissoluble pearls into her neurotically detached contributions to the conversation that she is trying to keep up with a randy usher who, for his part, only wants to “score.” This woman is bookish without being literate.

In a certain light, Wittgenstein looks like a precursor of Claude Shannon, trying to work out the circuitry of language at its most basic level. For Shannon, the great insight would be to grasp the consequences of Boolean relationships between propositions, which he could translate into the mechanics of digital electronic switching. Shannon learned a new way to write down what we say, one that stripped away all the complications of literacy. So far, I find the author of Philosophical Investigations incapable of developing any such novelty. As stripped down as his examples are, his explanatory language, the language of his own thinking, remains richly, ambiguously literate.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2017 (I)

5, 6, 7 and 8 September

Tuesday 5th

Just now, I’ve been reading the opening paragraphs of Now, Voyager, the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty that was adapted for the classic Bette Davis film. Prouty wrote Stella Dallas, too, and Stanley Cavell, in Cities of Words, claims that these novels are better than their current oblivion suggests. The opening of Now, Voyager is certainly more sophisticated than its author’s name suggests. Indeed, I had to make myself stop reading. It does not promise to be a great novel by any means, but it clicks along smoothly. It begins at Gibraltar, not in the Vale mansion (and not in Rio, either), and Charlotte is on a terrace, surrounded by beautiful views (including “the proverbial flower-filled urn with hanging vines”), dressed in one of Renée Beauchamp’s outfits, waiting for her new friend to return from sending a cable. It is a much more inviting start than the one offered by the movie.

Earlier, I was looking at Castle Nowhere, a story by Constance Fenimore Woolson. The dialogue, between a white man and a spirit, was not so promising. The prose was somewhat starchy, in the earnest American way that Henry James learned very early to parody, thus distancing himself at the level of the sentence from his native countrymen. Woolson wrote six novels and four collections of stories, plus a great deal of travel writing, journalism, and verse, before defenestrating herself at Venice in early 1894. At the time, some of Woolson’s friends thought that James could have saved her. They thought that he had “led her on,” raising hopes of marriage and companionship that in fact — in the actual history of his friendship with Woolson — had she entertained them, would have been groundless. In The Master, Colm Tóibín presents Woolson as James’s best reader, treasured by him as such. Theirs was a friendship of writers. But few of the men and women in their world could have understood such a thing, and James was uncomfortably aware of being in the position of a cad.

I am asking myself, of course, if I ought to read on. Prouty comes with a high recommendation: Cavell’s is exactly the sort of tip that I pocket carefully. About Woolson’s work, however, neither James nor Tóibín has anything to say. James does not appear to have been Woolson’s best reader, and Tóibín doesn’t even provide titles. In a very quiet way, The Master refutes the prejudice, generally shared by American men at the time of James’s youth, that only women wrote “stories,” by showing that only James wrote stories worth reading — worth reading, that is, a century later. Like every successful novelist, Woolson wrote for her contemporaries. Like many great writers, James has had a posthumous readership educated for him. In recent decades, his sexuality — a same-sex preference that in the opinion of Tóibín and others remained virginal, but that earlier men of letters felt would tarnish his luster if disclosed — has had the unexpected effect of normalizing him, of saving him from the condescension now heaped on dead straight white males. He remains challenging to read; today’s readers are even less likely, without some training and much conscious effort, to find him congenial than Woolson’s readers did. But he is read, and read, I think, with pleasure.

If James is great because he is read, it does not follow that he is read because he is great. Nobody is, outside of school. Henry James may be “great” because he wrote complex studies of the American character as it was revealed against European backgrounds. He may be “great” because of his highly sophisticated grasp of the issues of good and evil. But he is read, if you ask me, because his stories are scary. They are charged with ineffable menace; the invisibility of wickedness in James is what saves him from melodrama. So does his hard-headedness about romance, which never triumphs, in his books, over the power of money, comfort, and propriety. The horror of losing self-respect to disgrace is vastly closer to the general reader’s everyday concerns than the threat of brigands or vampires, and James’s great trick is presenting that horror with all the relish and excitement of tall, gothic tales. Nothing, really, is as thrilling in all literature as the cat-and-mouse game played by Princess Maggie and her step-mother at the end of The Golden Bowl. Learning how to hear James describe it — accepting that his immense obliquity is simply the most powerful way of dramatizing it — is unquestionably worth the effort.

One does not expect such payoffs from Prouty or Woolson.


Wednesday 6th

The strangest thing about Henry James’s second-most-famous ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” is its title. For years, I assumed that this referred to an inglenook by a fire in an old English inn, wherein some venerable sportsman told tales to any who would listen. (In those days, I couldn’t be bothered with mere stories. I must have novels.) In fact, it refers to the intersection of Fifth Avenue and some sidestreet between Washington Square and Fourteenth Street, specifically to a large house there, wherein the protagonist of the story was born and grew up. In his early twenties, this fellow, Spencer Brydon, departed for Europe, where he has remained for thirty-odd years, sustained by the rents of his family’s Manhattan properties. Now he has returned. It would be vulgar to put too much effort into determining why he has returned, but it will suffice to say that he is supervising the renovation of a parcel not far from the “jolly corner” and the erection there of an “apartment house” (author’s quotes) that will make him really rich.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, jolly about the large house on the corner, especially once we learn that Brydon believes that it is haunted by his alter ego, the man that he would have become had he remained in New York. This is an intriguing fancy, and, again, we mustn’t put too much weight on it. By that I mean, we mustn’t ask what sort of man would entertain such an idea? The point is that Henry James is entertaining it, and that he manages to be entertaining about it. Brydon is presented, to be brisk about it, as a version of Chad Newsome, the supposedly wastrel heir in The Ambassadors who turns out to be far more polished (if no less depraved) than his family back in Massachusetts fears. Brydon is a sportsman who has hunted big game and visited the tombs of the Pharaohs. He has enjoyed and suited himself in a world that does not frown on pleasure. Now fifty-six, he is perhaps too creaky in the joints for the joys of his youth.

“The Jolly Corner” appeared in 1908, inspired by James’s visit to the United States five years earlier, after an absence (punctuated by a return occasioned by his father’s death) about as long as Brydon’s. Brydon is, as one can well imagine, astonished by the transformation that New York has undergone since 1870, an era of, among other things, massively increased urban densities. The city has spread upwards as much as outwards; it is no longer a town, as even many of the most charming neighborhoods of London’s West End are still towns.

He had been twenty-three on leaving New York — he was fifty-six today: unless indeed he were to reckon as he had sometimes, since his repatriation, found himself feeling; in which case he would have lived longer than is often allotted to man. it would have taken a century, he repeatedly said to himself, and said also to Alice Staverton, it would have taken a longer absence and a more averted mind than those even of which he had been guilty, to pile up the differences, the newnesses, the queernesses, above all the bignesses, for the better or the worse, that at present assault his vision wherever he looked.

In the heart of the story, Brydon stalks his alter ego in the deserted house in the middle of the night — and is stalked by him. If I understood James’s art better than I do — and I’m not sure that I want any such thing, lest it break the spell — I could explain how James invests his fairly incredible fantasy with horripilating detail and how he makes these details pay. There is a protracted confrontation with a closed door — surely Brydon had left it open — that precipitates the climax. Then there is the alter ego himself, standing, assuming that Brydon is not dreaming or dead, at the base of the stairs. None of this is what makes “The Jolly Corner” interesting to me. I’m interested in James’s grasp of the alter ego, and the problem that it poses for Brydon. In the very first line of the story, Brydon complains that everyone in New York wants to know what he thinks of the place; he senses, rightly, that he’s being invited to speculate on the life that he would have lived had he not fled to Europe. It seems to be generally assumed that this life would have been a life of accomplishment rather than idleness; had he stayed, Brydon would have shouldered the wheel of progress and become a billionaire. This is America’s view of itself: it inspires prosperity.

James isn’t having it. His view of Brydon’s alter ego is of a stunted, damaged knave. For want of big game and pyramids, not to mention the effortful refinement of European pleasure, Brydon might very well have taken to cards and drink and worse. In an unforgettable image, one of the hands covering the face of the alter ego, when it finally stands before Brydon, is missing two fingers, as if they had been shot off: Brydon’s prey would have been his own self. It is obvious to me that Europe saved Brydon’s life, and made it as well, so that he will be free, if he so chooses, to remain in New York without being destroyed by it. He will also be free either to tear down the house at the jolly corner and to build another apartment house or to re-occupy it. The alter ego has been exorcised. Its very confinement to the empty house represents the emptiness of the life that Brydon left behind. As I’ve suggested, this is an idea that James takes up at much greater length, and without the apparatus of midnight stalks, in The Ambassadors. Paris does not make Newsome a better man, perhaps, but it certainly makes him a more civilized, sociable, and thereby worthwhile man.

What interests me even more about “The Jolly Corner” is the economy with which James captures, in the one sentence that I have quoted, and for all time, the extraordinary disorientation that Americans who lived through the transformation of urban life after the Civil War did not feel, precisely because they were living through it. It is this disorientation, I maintain, that we must all learn to register, now that the nature of change has become so much less palpable than it was for two centuries. We will continue to build big things, but not so many of them; most of our efforts will be on the microscopic level of smartphones and DNA manipulations. The current of everyday change has slowed down, and, I suspect, it will continue to slow down further. Now we can acknowledge the violence and the disruption with which that current, running so much faster, altered human society since the revolutions of the Eighteenth Century. We can begin to take stock of how very many developments we have not quite kept up

Thursday 7th

My personal interest in immigration issues is not very great. Emigration is my thing. I wish that I could just go live in Amsterdam without any fuss, not because I identify as Nederlander (I don’t), but because I simply like it there, grey skies and damp and all. I feel terribly sorry for British men and women who have settled throughout the EU — they’ve been living my dream, and theirs may well come to an end with Brexit.

Now, as for my political interest in immigration, my objective is, like any sensible person’s, a rational, consensus-backed program that encourages the inflow of future citizens, no matter what their skills or background (so long as it isn’t violently criminal). This objective is not worth talking about, because, as everyone can see, there is no consensus in the offing, not remotely. So I sit the matter out. This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not paying attention. On the contrary, because I’m not emotionally invested in the arguing, I can see things a little more clearly.

Here’s one thing that I see, and I’ll pass it on for what it’s worth. It’s probably nothing new, but it’s easier to see now that the Democratic Party has all but dropped out of the political equation. We hear that the Republican Party is divided on the immigration issue between nativists — a bloc almost as old as the United States itself — and “business interests.” Nativists want to restrict immigration to a trickle. “Business interests” are said to rely on immigrants, especially seasonal migrants, for cheap labor, much of which, it is pointed out, is not competitive, because Americans won’t take the jobs. Agriculture is the key sector in this argument, with the advocates of open immigration warning that, given a shortage of migrant workers, agribusiness may arrange for prison populations to be put to work in the fields, a disgusting revival of slavery. You’ll note that these advocates are not harmonizing with “business interests,” but instead diametrically opposing them.

You’ll also notice, if you listen, that there is no actual “business interest” policy, no single position to counter that of the nativists. And you’ll also see that these “business interests” have, in the past, shuffled their immigration concerns off to Democratic Party proxies, thus sparing the need for a stated “business interest” policy. In fact, different businesses have different objectives, and there is no positive point around which coherence might develop. By this I mean that, having argued for unfettered access to cheap labor, “business interests” have nothing more to say on the matter. They have no position, for example, on the welfare of immigrants — whether, that is, and to what extent it ought to be extended to them.

As I considered this, I saw something behind it, which explains the absence of a clear “business interests” position on immigration even better than the diversity of actual business interests. Business divides laws into two groups. Laws that involve property rights and laws that are enforced, in effect, by accountants are tremendously important to business, and such laws are comprehensive to the point of unintelligible detail. Every contingency is provided for. Other laws, in contrast, are of little or no interest, so long as they are ineffective. We may gather laws in the latter class under the rubric “regulation.” Regulation, very simply, purports to restrict business to a certain degree of operation within and impact upon society at large. Business dislikes restrictions. More precisely, the men and women who run any particular business dislike the regulatory constraints that pertain to them, but are indifferent to constraints that don’t. This makes perfect sense. The tricky part, as I see it, is that business has learned to count on ineffective regulation in general. In particular, a business will resist regulation by society. But in general, it shrugs: have as much regulation as you like, the more the better, because the more there is of it, the less effective it will be. It doesn’t really matter which policy is chosen, so long as it cannot really be implemented. This is why “business interests” have been happy to leave pro-immigration advocacy to the Democrats. There was no need, so long as the Democrats were players, for “business interests” to invest in any specific immigration policy, or to risk awkward confrontations with nativists. “Business interests” could reap the rewards of Democratic Party fecklessness and Capitol Hill gridlock.

Now what?

My purpose here is to sharpen the point that “business interests” ought to have no role in political discourse. The men and women who run businesses are, of course, citizens like everybody else, and are no less entitled to be heard. But: no more, either. When “business interests” have a say in public affairs, then these men and women are able to make use of business resources to wield undue influence in political campaigns of every kind, whether electoral or legislative (ie, lobbying), and, even worse, to corrupt regulation by means of regulatory capture, promising docile regulators lucrative futures within the business fold.

That rich citizens can sway elections by opening up their pocketbooks is a serious political headache without an easy solution, but removing “business interests” from the political scene requires nothing more than the revocation of a Supreme Court opinion that is not, in fact, an opinion at all. Without this support, businesses would no longer have the standing of natural persons, and therefore no standing to participate in politics. The polarity of regulatory capture might even be reversed.

Given the pro-immigration stance of “business interests,” some liberals might feel that this is not the time to be barring them from political action. That would be — and I say this as a committed liberal — a typically liberal mistake.


Friday 8th

In law school, the property-law professor started off the semester by comparing the feudal tenures that were still part of the syllabus in those days — is it possible that they still are? — to “Chinese music,” which, according to him, was comprised of tones whose differences were too subtle for Western ears to distinguish. Having listened to a fair amount of actual Chinese music, ranging from xiqu (“Chinese opera”) to erhu solos, I wondered where he got this idea. The Fu Manchu Book of Chinese Inscrutabilities seemed a likely source. (He was wrong about the tenures, too.) Nevertheless, “Chinese music” came forcibly to mind as I reached the final pages of Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words.

I felt as if I had endured an endurance test. Whether I had passed the test, I couldn’t say. I had certainly learned a lot, but I couldn’t be more specific than that. I wished that I were younger, so that I could comfortably imagine re-reading the book, with greater comprehension, in twenty or thirty years. The persistent problem, as I’ve already written, wasn’t that I couldn’t understand what Cavell was saying. I couldn’t understand why he was saying it. I could not trace his thinking from one sentence to the next. But I began the book expecting that I wouldn’t make it through, that it would be too tedious to keep at. It wasn’t ever tedious. It was like driving along a leafy avenue on a sunny day. I came to relish not always knowing what was going on. And I could feel myself growing, vaguely, somewhere.

So much for that. It turns out that Cities of Words was not the book about “comedies of remarriage” that I was looking for. Cavell’s The Pursuit of Happiness is. When I have read that, sometime soon I think, I’ll get out the yardstick.


The Master is billed as a novel, so it’s entirely possible that Colm Tóibín made this up:

There began then a conspiracy between them, a drama in which each knew the roles and the lines and the movements. Henry learned to walk slowly, never to run, to smile but never to laugh, to stand up hesitantly and awkwardly and to sit down with relief. He learned not to eat heartily or drink his fill. (151)

This comes from Chapter 7, which concerns the James’s brothers’ various responses to the Civil War. William, the eldest, buried himself in medical school. The two younger brothers, Wilky and Bob, fought, and Wilky was severely wounded. For a while, Henry was without an excuse, and the conspiracy that Tóibín postulates was a tacit agreement between Henry and his mother to create the impression of back ailment serious enough to keep Henry out of uniform. Eventually, Henry’s father took him to a back specialist in Boston, and Tóibín tells us that James exacted his revenge for the doctor’s brusque diagnosis of perfect health by using him as a model for Dr Sloper, in Washington Square. What Tóibín doesn’t tell us is that James ever resumed eating heartily, if indeed he had ever done such a thing. He never went to war.

I remember reading this passage the first time, and feeling sorry for James. The second time, last week, I felt only envy. How I wish that I had been capable of acting the invalid. My restlessness always gave me away. Sick people, in case you haven’t noticed (I hadn’t), are not twitchy in the way of boys under confinement. They are wan and enervated and reluctant to move. My career as an academic malingerer came to an end the day I spent the afternoon, while my mother was out shopping, rearranging all the furniture in my room.

I had to wait for age to take care of things. I must say that it has done a pretty good job.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (V)

29 and 31 August

Tuesday 29th

Forty years ago this month, I left Houston forever. There were occasional visits, but they came to an end when my daughter graduated from high school in 1991. I have not been back since. I shall probably never see it again. From what I can tell, it has gotten bigger, but not really changed very much.

Although Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country — a status attained while I was living there — there is nothing urban about it. There is a curious, architecturally remarkable downtown, but relatively few people live there. Surrounding this and a few other islands of tall buildings is a vast sprawl of suburbs. Again, it was vast even then. A house address with a ludicrous number — 15926, say — was not unusual. The effect of this infinite homogeneity was to make a large population center seem very small, small in human terms: ordinary and forgettable. It is now clear that this ordinariness masked the imprudence of lodging so many millions of people on a crust of clay that has been steadily subsiding toward sea level. Climate change and rising sea levels are certainly playing their part in the havoc at Houston, but misguided land use has been even more critical.

Comparisons might be made to New Orleans, much of which lay below sea level long before Katrina struck. Quite aside from being incommensurately smaller, however, New Orleans was supposed to be protected by levees and other earthworks. Had these features been maintained in good repair, the city would have survived the storm; the scandal of Katrina is that they were not. In contrast, there is nothing to be done — there has never been anything to be done — about Houston’s vulnerability to floodwaters. It just sits there, a basin waiting to fill. It is hard to foresee how long it will take to drain, once the rain stops.

So many things haven’t changed about Houston — “more of same” is no kind of change — that I’m hoping for a fondly-remembered weather pattern to come to the rescue. Every September, there would come a night during which the temperature dropped twenty degrees or more, and the air dried out to temperate levels. People like me who had grown up elsewhere would feel human for a little while, before Houston’s damp and not very tropical winter set in. That’s what Houston is going to need — what it needs right now. Perhaps changes in climate now stop that cold front closer to Dallas; I hope not.

It is no wonder that ordinary people have a low opinion of government, although, to be honest, there is not much of it in Houston to begin with. As everyone knows, there is no zoning, so that Houston shows us what a developers’ paradise looks like. No American city can compete with Houston as a triumph of free-market growth. To me, the recklessness that Houston embodies is morally indefensible, as shocking an offense against the principles of civic life as any that this troubled country has ever committed. Now that the city has sunk into catastrophe, of course, scolding is perverse: there are people to save and to restore to human life. I ought to be happy: I can give up being angry at the the thought of Houston.

I hope that thoughtful Americans everywhere will be mindful that what made Houston so dangerous was fully in place before Donald Trump made himself notorious, in a very different city, by demolishing the salvageable signage of a long-beloved department store, Bonwit Teller.


Thursday 31st

At the moment, I’m reading Henry James’s important story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” If I’ve read it before, I’ve forgotten it. In a late chapter of the book that I am reading, Stanley Cavell pairs it with Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. I’ve never seen the movie, either, although I’ve got a DVD handy. Amazingly, I am nearing the end of Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. A great deal of it has slipped right through me, but I have stuck with it.

I read two sentences, from the chapter on Aristotle, to Kathleen last night, taking pains to remain in the syntactic current despite the pull of their many backwaters. When I was done, Kathleen said, “That was two sentences?” Then she pronounced it “bullshit.” The words were sleek and smooth, the texture jargon-free, and yet I had no grip on what Cavell was talking about. Here is the second of the sentences; the reference is to Wittgenstein’s insistence, in his Philosophical Investigations, that language is “a public, shared fact.”

It is as the teacher exhausts what can be said, and teacher and pupil fall silent with each other (then and there, subject to limitations of time, imagination, patience, good will, and to what we might call tolerance for anxiety), that one feels it becomes the responsibility of teaching to provide a reason for, a point, an aim, in speaking at all; a responsibility of philosophy, so far as philosophy, as in the Investigations, conceives of itself as instruction, instruction however in what no one could manage just not to know. (371)

…what no one could manage just not to know. What is that, that no one could manage “just not” to know? Just not? I’m lost. There must be an invisible pause, a breath, that conceals the missing nuance that would explain this statement to me. Why not simply say that teachers must explain why teaching is not only important but possible? Why not excise everything that follows the semicolon? So often, what confuses me about Cavell is his belief that what he is saying needs saying, and not just saying, but belaboring. Too often, he fails to teach me the importance of his lessons.

And yet I have kept going because I suspect that it might not be altogether useless to try to understand his patois. There are moments when I see through the apparent philosopher to the engaged writer. There are passages in the chapter on Plato (on pages 326 and 327) where Cavell seems to say that he is at least as attracted to Plato’s myths (such as the Cave) as to Plato’s arguments, that the myths illustrate more forcefully than the arguments do certain “turns of philosophical thinking that I have found myself convinced by.” I do wish that Cavell would explain, succinctly, what he takes “philosophical thinking” to be. And, as I complained the other day, I wish that he would unpack, with the greatest particularity, what he means by “reason” and “rationality.” It would be wonderful to have answers to these questions, and there are moments when I feel that I am about to stumble upon them in Cavell’s text. But they are too obvious to him not to take as given. Perhaps if I read the book again, in a year or two. After all, I didn’t understand The Golden Bowl right away, either.


The other day, I watched a movie that Cavell does not, and probably would never, discuss: Star! This film came up in John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio, his account of a year spent hanging around Twentieth Century Fox; Star! was one of the titles in production at that time. At that time, I had no desire to see it; I had made a point, a stink even, about not seeing The Sound of Music. I was deeply confused about Julie Andrews, and it’s not hard to see why, if you listen to her 1962 album, “‘Don’t Go in the Lion’s Cage Tonight’ and Other Heartrending Ballads and Raucous Ditties.” The ballads are creamy and sweet; the ditties are hilariously indelicate. I was besotted, when I discovered this LP in college, by “Burlington Bertie from Bow,” which Andrews doesn’t even sing, and by “Waiting at the Church,” in which Andrews positively snarls. I could live without “The Honeysuckle and the Bee.” Which one is the real Julie Andrews? Star! revealed that the public preferred the creamy and sweet, and Andrews’s own star power was tarnished by her impersonation of gritty Gertrude Lawrence, whom even in the late Sixties was all but forgotten. In many ways, the movie is a study in the difference between a star, who gets up on stage night after night and kills the people, and a celebrity, whose private life must always be at least slightly more interesting than anything he or she does for money. Julie Andrews was (and is) a star; for all of her long career, she has been something of a throwback, more interested in hoofing than in preening. For me, Star! is a sharply-executed monument to regret.

We’re asked to take it on faith that Julie Andrews shares Gertrude Lawrence’s determination as a trouper, and I see no reason not to do that. It’s also clear that Andrews venerates the vernacular traditions that shaped Lawrence and her chum, Noel Coward. But Julie Andrews is too pretty, and her voice is too pretty (or it can be) for her to be confused with the likes of Vera Charles, the dragon in Mame who, even though she’s fictional, seems much closer to Lawrence. Lawrence seems to have been almost reckless in her avidity for fun and life, but there is simply nothing truly reckless about Julie Andrews. She can act it, but she cannot be it, and Star! winds up being about her, not Lawrence. You almost forget that Andrews is there when Lawrence shows up drunk at a surprise birthday party and insults everybody, but the moment passes, and you find yourself reflecting that Julie Andrews would never behave like that.

The thoroughness of Star! as a flop is even sadder because the production numbers, which take the place of songs in a true musical, are so well done, and remarkably free of anachronistic missteps, to which the studios were awfully prone in those days. Great effort was evidently taken to re-create the look and feel of old entertainments, and if the coloring were not so lurid, success would have been complete. (Although I am not entirely persuaded by “Limehouse Blues.”) Unfortunately, the movie cannot inspire a revival of interest in the theatrical “review” — almost a variety of circus — that was so popular before the Depression. So it hangs on the story of Lawrence’s life, which is not interesting enough for Julie Andrews to disappear into it. What we’re left with is her valiant determination to put on a show. Julie Andrews is the heroine of this movie, and her false position sinks it.

Well, it sank it. Star! is definitely worth watching, all three hours of it, and perhaps someone will find a way of seeing it that counteracts its box-office disappointment. For the moment, I can’t get over how often Julie Andrews reminded me of Kelly Reilly. That was a surprise.

More anon.


But maybe not now. Not only is it the Friday of a holiday weekend, with Kathleen transferring her summer and winter wardrobes from one closet to the other, but I have just received the first comments on the writing project. (Only Kathleen has read it, and that was in far more rudimentary shape, nearly a year ago.) The comments are positive! And I am disposed to celebrate by basking in feeling good. There is much to be done, but not today!

Bon week-end à tous!