Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (III)

15, 16 and 17 August

Tuesday 15th

One of the books that churned to the surface during the evacuation of our storage unit was philosopher Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words. From the movie buff’s standpoint, this is the big book about screwball comedy, which Cavell renamed “the comedy of remarriage.” Cities of Words — when I have an idea of what the title is supposed to mean, I’ll let you know; but perhaps you can tell me — is not concerned with how those movies were made, who wrote or directed them, not even who starred in them. Rather, it’s about their moral structure, the big questions about life that they try to answer. Each even-numbered chapter deals with a particular film, some of which, such as Stella Dallas and Gaslight, are not even funny, much less screwball. The odd-numbered chapters discuss individual philosophers, beginning with Emerson, and continuing through Locke, Mill, Kant, Rawls, and so on, if “so on” has any meaning here. The relationship between the philosophers and the movies, needless to say, is revealed only by reading the book.

Emerson! Was I going to keep the book, or give it away? Giving it away would be realistic, because keeping it would be aspirational. This is the kind of book that you buy not because you want to read it but because you want to have read it. You want to have learned what it has to say, but you don’t want to wade through the prose. The only way to deal with such books is to put them at the top of the reading pile: do it now. Get it over with.

So I cheated, of course. I read a few of the movie chapters: The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve, and The Philadelphia Story. It’s amusing to watch an a graceful but professionally non-jocular person handle these comedies. He is not really a connoisseur of comedy, so many of the funniest bits go unmentioned, but he has some provocative insights. He does not like the term “screwball,” as you may have guessed from the rechristening, and à propos of The Awful Truth he ventures to suggest that, since screwball comedies always involve “madcap heiresses,” if there’s a screwball comedy in this picture, then it’s the subplot of Jerry Warriner’s romance with Barbara Vance, possessor of “millions of dollars and no sense.” The perversity of this notion — there can be nothing less madcap than life with the Vances — is funny in itself. Cavell’s account of The Philadelphia Story is so richly humane, so celebratory of Tracy Lord’s triumphant moral trajectory, that the very idea of laughing while watching the film recedes into unlikeliness. When I got to the end of the chapter, I could not remember a single funny thing about it.

So far, so good; interesting, anyway. But: Emerson! My distaste for American prose writers of the Nineteenth Century, especially the famous early ones, is rugged. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville are all very bad dancers, by which I mean that when they take you in their arms they convey no sense of where they are going, and so end up stepping all over your toes. Their sentences have no center of gravity; their decorative touches are often misplaced; their uncertain reach for highfalutin tone is embarrassing. Consider this, from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

[Great works of art] teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.

Hey, Sister Bernadette! We need a diagram!

I tried reading a book by Stanley Cavell once. Little Did I Know is (I think) an intellectual memoir. I gave the book away a long time ago, so I have to trust my rickety memory when I say that it’s a portrait of the philosopher as Henry James. There’s a story in there somewhere, but ruminations on the nature of thought in America, together with something about becoming a Jewish-American mandarin, get in the way. At the time when I was trying to read it, moreover, my suspicion that philosophy generally is just rubbish was breaking through to consciousness. It was foolish, after my experience with Little Did I Know, to buy a copy of Cities of Words.

On the other hand, I certainly know the movies well enough. (Although, to be perfectly honest, I still haven’t seen Stella Dallas, ever.) Perhaps the movies would illuminate the philosophy. That’s probably not what Cavell had in mind. But I resolved to give it a try. I would read the philosophy chapters up to the point where one of them stopped making sense, and then, if that happened, I would chuck the book. I would start with the second philosopher, Locke.

But the chapter devoted to Locke is a continuation of the chapter about Emerson, so I had to go back to the beginning after all. And I had to check my attitude about Emerson at the door, because the point of this exercise was, after all, to deepen my understanding of the movies, not to amass evidence of transcendentalist inanity. And as I crept patiently through the pages, I had to admit that a rather lovely idea was taking shape in my brain. I was really learning something from Stanley Cavell! It’s too soon to put it in my own words, so I’ll have to give you his.

Moral perfectionism challenges ideas of moral motivations, showing (against Kant’s law that counters inclination, and against utilitarianism’s calculation of benefits) the possibility of my access to experience which gives to my desire for the attaining of a self that is mine to become, the power to act on behalf of an attainable world that I can actually desire. (33)

If I can extract any idea, not to mention a lovely one, from writing such as this, I’d better keep going. The important word in all that, the word that links the philosophizing to film, is “desire.”


Wednesday 16th

I’ve just re-read Brian Morton’s Breakable You. It’s startling to discover that I first read this novel nine years ago, and that I wrote about it not here but at my old Web site, Portico. It’s more than a little mortifying to read what I wrote then; it seems somewhat stilted, and it reminds me why I no longer attempt “book reviews.” I re-read Breakable You now because of Happiness, the memoir, by Morton’s wife, Heather Harpham, of their daughter’s blood disease and harrowing (but successful!) bone-marrow transplant. In what I recalled of Breakable You, the chapter about the little girl’s similar but fatal ordeal did not figure, and when it was mentioned by Harpham at a book signing, I thought that I must have another look. In any case, it had been too long since I had enjoyed one of the ten best novels I know.

I don’t, however, want to talk about little Zahra, who is already dead when we hear about her. It would be interesting to compare and contrast Happiness with Morton’s vastly compressed account in the twelfth chapter of Breakable You. But I wouldn’t be the person to undertake it. Just as Happiness gripped me more as a portrait of a marriage than as a medical history, so Breakable You is for me a book about grown-up love, whether between lovers or parents and children. It is a book about caring — about the problem of taking care of loved ones in everyday life. Illness, with its sirens and emergencies, pre-empts this problem by putting it in the hands of professionals, and leaving loved ones feeling helpless, the worst sensation that a caring person can have.

What I want to talk about is Adam Weller and the question of evil. I see that, on my Portico page, I refused to specify the awful thing that Adam Weller does, his crime against humanity, really, when I wrote about Breakable You in 2008. I did call him “a pluperfect shit,” but I supported this charge with nothing more damning than evidence of self-centeredness. Adam’s self-centeredness, however, is surrounded by a black hole of uninterest into which everything that is not useful or interesting to him simply disappears. Literary ethics, parental love — it makes no difference. If they don’t serve him, they don’t exist.

In Breakable You, Adam does two completely separate terrible things. Different readers will disagree about which is worse. The second offense occurs at the end of the book. Chastened by the defection of his young and lively mistress, Adam strokes his conscience by paying a visit to his daughter, Maud. Maud has checked herself into a clinic that she has visited twice before in her young life; this time, it’s voluntary, but only technically, because she has broken down as a mother and cannot tend to her infant son, who cries all the time. During the visit, which of course Adam finds very despressing, Maud tells her father that the food is terrible and that she longs for Internet access — forbidden because the older male patients root out porn sites — in order to keep up with her PhD peers. Still diminished, Adam resolves to visit her the next night, and he does so, bringing a bag of treats from Zabar’s. While waiting at the clinic for visiting hours to begin, however, he strikes up a flirtation with another visitor, an attractive woman who seems prepared to respond to further advances. His self-confidence restored, his itch for penance evaporates, and he walks out of the clinic without having seen Maud, dumps the Zabar’s bag in the garbage, and heads back to Manhattan and a literary dinner at Elaine’s, a renewed man. As with many of Adam’s sins, no one will ever know. This only makes him more despicable.

The other offense is infamous and gross, but the only victim is the literary community at its most abstract: a body of memories. Before the novel begins, Adam’s old friend and rival author, Izzy Cantor, has died. Not long into the action, Izzy’s widow, Ruth, summons Adam: it turns out that Izzy left a completed but unread manuscript. Would Adam take a look at it? Reluctantly — for he expects the novel to be a bore — Adam agrees.

Adam had come to realize that the problem with Izzy’s writing was the problem with Izzy. He didn’t have enough of the devil in him. Izzy always wanted to be the nice guy. He wanted to take care of everybody. This made him a wonderful husband and father: steadier, more responsible, more caring than Adam had ever dreamed of being. But it had made him a bland writer.

In his books, he always took care of his characters too much. He never wanted to believe than any of them could be evil. So if one of his characters dide something morally reprehensible, Izzy would never just go with it; he would surround the action with context, explanation, extenuation. It was as if he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a novelist or a social worker. (99)

Having read all of Brian Morton’s novels, I can well imagine that the charge against Izzy has been laid against his creator as well, and about Adam there is an aura of determination to present a character who really cannot be forgiven. Nine years ago, I wrote that Morton “clearly cares about his characters — even Adam, whose faults would not be so lovingly drawn if his creator truly despised him.” Now, I’m  not so sure. Instead of “lovingly drawn,” I might say “scrupulously anatomized.” But I pull back from branding Adam as evil.

The element that distinguishes evil from other varieties of badness is gratuitousness, and this is something of which I find sane human beings to be incapable. You could argue that sadists derive gratuitous pleasure from the suffering of others, but sadism is far too implicated in the expression of power to be purposeless. (Curiously, “sadism” today seems almost to have been detached from sexual cruelty, its original expression.) Adam has many grubby reasons for his aloof, unpunished wickedness. Izzy’s book, published under Izzy’s name, would cast Adam’s reputation into a chilly shade. His first tactic is to persuade Ruth that the book is not good enough to publish. When, shortly thereafter, she dies of cancer, the way is cleared to claim the book as his own, especially after Izzy’s unliterary daughter begs Adam to take possession of Izzy’s papers, among which lies a carbon copy of the novel. Step by step, in a gothic progression that brought Richard III very much to my mind, Adam compasses the crime of literary appropriation. He will be the famous writer; his reputation will be resurrected from the infertility of fallow years.

More and more, “evil” seems to be shorthand for “I can’t bear to think about it.” But the bad behavior of someone like Adam Weller requires very close attention. The conditions that allow him to escape the consequences of his misdeeds are almost as reprehensible as he is. Everyone close to Adam suspects — or knows — that he is a beast, but because his surface is sleek and civically virtuous, it’s easier to put up with him than to complain: that’s a problem, too. Adam is an injustice for which we have not yet evolved a remedy — a remedy not just for his victims, but for us all.


Thursday 17th

Last month, The New Yorker published Alexandra Schwartz’s rave review — I want to come back to that cliché — of Conversations With Friends, the first novel by a twenty-something Irishwoman named Sally Rooney. Before saying a word about her fiction, Schwartz informed us that Rooney is an ace debater, the best in Europe, actually, in her year on the circuit as a college student. I regard debating as a dubious activity — so does Rooney, apparently; she gave it up — but it certainly teaches one not to waste words, and surely there is nothing so intimidating as sound knowledge presented with fierce concision. I was panting with dread by the time Schwartz got round to the book, concisely enough, in the second paragraph of her review. By the end of the piece, I was raving. I ordered the book immediately. Then, by some miracle, I forgot almost all of the plot details that Schwartz had divulged. During the brief period between order and delivery, I thought of Conversation With Friends as the book by the smart girl from Trinity.

The thing is, I don’t trust myself to discuss this book in such a way that you’ll forget everything that I say, except that it’s very, very good. I can do no more, for example, than refer to a piece of email that appears at a climactic point. I read it with a racing pulse. Like so much email, and despite the recipient’s hunch that it has been heavily edited, it is a naked document, luridly revealing the contortions of a violently uncomfortable consciousness, contradicting itself again and again in spirit if not in statement, hopelessly stuck on the urge to be enraged and forgiving at once. Already, I think I’ve said too much!

How about this: the only thing that happens in this book that doesn’t happen in almost every book about a college student and a somewhat older married man who have an affair is that the girl discovers that she has endometriosis. This is certainly an interesting disease for a woman in her position to develop; from a novelist’s standpoint, it provides a powerful way of externalizing her heroine’s agonies, manifesting her pain in real symptoms, instead of the loops of acrimonious verbiage that are usually spun out. But it does not really explain how Rooney makes her story so interesting, nay gripping, to begin with. There are no exotic ingredients involved. But then, I forget: it is not I who am having the affair. It is a brilliant virgin. For her, this is all new, and not what she expected, and by giving us that, the twisted novelty of it all, Rooney makes it new for us.

Perhaps it’s age. As I get older, youth seems more and more dangerous. Being young amounts to little more, in my long view, than being ignorant, and, like the writer of the email, torn between contradictory viewpoints. Smart young people especially are uncomfortably aware of their ignorance. At the same time, they think they know where this ignorance sits, and how to avoid its very bad advice. The dissonance makes them occasionally reckless. Both Frances, the girl in Conversations With Friends, and Nick, the married man, who is also a generically great-looking B-list actor, are more complicated and more vulnerable than they think. In the middle of the novel, there is a moment when Frances, thwarted by a momentary impasse, says something so wounding to Nick that I was afraid that he might take his own life. My reaction was not so very melodramatic; I must have already sensed what I presently learned, which was that Nick has been hospitalized with depression. I read Conversations With Friends as if, on every page, it were only moments away from veering into bloody catastrophe.

There were a few lighter moments, in which it seemed to me that Frances was conducting an illicit affair with herself, with an obbligato carbon unit acting as a sort of sex doll/punching bag. (But these were early moments, before Nick revealed himself to be a genuinely appealing human being, the very opposite of the self-seeking shit that he is set up to be.) In the old days, women having affairs (in novels) deluded themselves into thinking that they could contain their love, keep it under control and in proportion, only to find out that love is not love that knows control. Today’s smart girl — and I keep saying “girl” because Frances is so palpably not grown up — thinks that she can keep things superficial and not fall in love at all. To fall in love is humiliating. To fall in love with a married man and then discover that you hate his wife is humiliating. To respond to humiliation by cutting yourself is humiliating. But the humiliation abrades the bored self-respect with which Frances has navigated her life so far, shearing it away like a callus. The novel’s thrillingly romantic final line signals Frances’s surrender to adulthood. You don’t know which is more overpowering: that, or Rooney’s literary triumph.


As I looked back the sex scenes in Conversations With Friends, which are indeed all about surrender, my signals were interrupted by lines that couldn’t have come from the novel, such as:

And here he was with this woman, this woman who had nothing to do with his life, pushing his cock into her anus, something he’d never done before with any woman and had never wanted to do, but with [her] he wanted to do everything, but he didn’t want to want to do everything with her, because…

This couldn’t be Rooney’s Nick. What else had I been reading lately? Oh, yes: Breakable You. The passage appears on page 119, and the elided “her” is Maud Weller. The man having the thought is Samir. Both novels involve what Maud calls a “sexual carnival,” and both couples “do everything.” Neither novelist is especially graphic, but both are explicit about variety. And both follow variety to the point of pain. Never having experienced this kind of pain, I take it on faith in these writers’ authority that it is sweet rather than perverse, pain without malevolence. But I am allergic to pain. I shut down at mere discomfort. “He wanted to do everything.” I’ve heard people say this — well, I’ve read it, if I haven’t exactly heard it — often enough that it no longer seems crazy, which it did for a long time. Now I just file it alongside “I would like to climb Mount Everest.” My body has no curiosity whatever.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Clowns of Bohemia
August 2017 (II)

8, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 8th

Ross Douthat said something interesting in his Sunday Times piece. (He’s almost always interesting, but you know what I mean.)

The second problem is that mainstream liberalism has gone a little bit insane on immigration, digging into a position that any restrictions are ipso facto racist, and any policy that doesn’t take us closer to open borders is illegitimate and un-American.

He’s right, of course, except that “liberalism,” mainstream or otherwise, has nothing to do with this development. The moment you go “a little bit insane,” you’re no longer a liberal.

Dispassion is both an essential component and a major defect of liberalism. It is what allows the liberal to sympathize with positions that he does not hold, to understand “where they’re coming from” and to try to work out accommodations. This desire to accommodate, this ability to compromise, these are the traits that non-liberals revile. To the illiberal mind, dispassion signals an inability to care. The liberal mind is painfully aware of the ease with which caring leads to conflict. Accommodation is very difficult — and it is not always possible. But the liberal keeps trying. Right now, true liberals are as rare as any endangered species.

When Douthat goes on to say, “Liberalism used to recognize the complexities of immigration,” what he’s really saying is that liberalism has dropped out of mainstream political discourse. The ghost of liberal approval of certain positions on certain issues hovers over the center-left, but the distaste for zealousness has disappeared. “Liberalism” is a term that so-called educated people used to respect, even if they didn’t know what it meant, but now it just seems weak and confused. It was an important banner in the Cold War. Now it is an empty shell, nailed to a post as a shooting target.

How did this happen? Liberalism has long been expelled from its native, Republican party, and it has never been welcomed by Democrats. I have suggested elsewhere that liberalism has been fatally corrupted by a belief in meritocracy. Meritocracy suits the liberal mind, which is uncomfortable pronouncing judgments on people and fears the abuse of discretion. Much better just to make everyone sit an exam. But there are too many important human qualities that can’t be tested.

“Liberalism” has become identified with feminism, environmentalism, and the embrace of social diversity, but there is nothing liberal about any of these issues, especially the last. You can be a liberal feminist or a liberal environmentalist, but your willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy and sincerity (if not the correctness) of conservative opposition to these “isms” will probably discredit you in the eyes of more ardent advocates.

It doesn’t seem to be much different on the other side. Real conservatism is the party of faith in God. It is not a front for the Chamber of Commerce, and it ought to steer clear of greedy plutocrats.

What we’re left with in this country is a pair of radicalized blocs. On one side, people cry out for social justice. On the other, they demand the end of the state. There is no interest in politics. But why would there be, when everything that’s “real” happens on a screen?


Wednesday 9th

Yesterday, David Brooks wrote in his Times column that he is going to pay less attention to the President. That may be a tall order, but if it means that he is going to talk less about what he sees, I’m all for it. It’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since the Inauguration. This is not because I’ve succumbed to magical thinking, and believe that Grump will go away if I ignore him. It’s rather because I’m waiting for something to happen. So far, nothing has. If you set the tumult in the West Wing to one side — I remember the good old days, when no one knew where the West Wing was, much less who was in it — all you have is the failure to Repeal and Replace. I realize that this could change. We could have fire and fury. But nothing has happened yet, certainly nothing worth paying attention to. More dismaying is the fact that nothing has happened in the Democratic Party, either.

For a few days, recently, I wondered if we’re not in for a repeat of the Carter Administration. I got the idea from something that I read somewhere, and was haunted by the way I had carried on, in the early Reagan days, about what a bad president Jimmy Carter was. “The worst!” I cried. Jimmy Carter was so bad that, even with his incumbent’s advantage, he could not defeat an ageing actor. I was in my early thirties at the time, and not very seasoned. Now that I’ve seen more of what the country can come up with, Carter doesn’t seem so bad.

Then I was reading a book about China. It was published in 1992, when lots of China-watchers believed that the Tiananmen Square massacre would bring the Communist Party down. Nobody in 1992 could foresee what the Internet was going to do for China — in terms of manufacturing profits, not political liberation — or that the sons of Mao’s adjutants were going to assume power as if by hereditary right. The book — The Tyranny of History, by WJF Jenner — is invaluable even in its unrealized expectations, but I’m particularly glad to have re-read it because it made me realize that Grump is less like Carter and more like Mao. Like Grump, Mao bored easily, and he could take only so much peace and quiet. So far, there is little to suggest that the President has the Chairman’s ability to whip up chaos — something like the Cultural Revolution, say — throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Far more interesting than anything going on in Washington is the firing of James Damore at Google. I’m with Voltaire on this one: we have to fight to the death to protect people’s right to say stupid things. At the same time, not everything can be overlooked. Insults, for example. Was Damore’s memo insulting? It was disrespectful, but that’s something else. Advocates of political correctness ought to reflect that careful speech has done very little to advance the struggle against racism in this country. It may even have done positive harm, by lulling bystanders into believing that racism is a thing of the past. The same can be said for misogyny. If there are men who believe that women lack the equipment to cope with stress, then how are we going to know who they are unless we let them speak their minds with impunity? Only then can we investigate their valorization of stress, and thank them for pointing out that women lack the equipment to be self-destructive.


The other day, I weathered an attack of the vapors by watching A Thousand Clowns. I had just rescued the videotape from the room by the freight elevator where Ray Soleil had dumped a bag of discardenda from the storage unit. I had declined to paw through the tapes at the unit itself, because I had just culled piles of LPs and books and was tired of making decisions. Back at the apartment, though, I saw A Thousand Clowns peeping out from a shopping bag, and I grabbed it.

It was a very big movie in 1965, at least for me. For the first time, I watched a grown-up, played by Jason Robards, Jr, stage a protest against the regimentation of nine-to-five life. It is a doomed gesture, of course; in the end, to keep not only the custody of his tween nephew (a fantastic Barry Gordon) but also the romantic interest of Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris at her most winsome), Murray Burns puts on a suit and goes back to work — writing gags for a TV clown. But the movie is an extended day off, an ode to the joy of playing hookey in Manhattan. And what a Manhattan it was! The light in midtown was always dusty with particulate matter. The men in their fedoras, the women in their gloves — it all really existed; I saw it myself. The Metropolitan Opera House was under construction! In the Wall Street skyline (seen from the Statue of Liberty), rectangles had only begun to dwarf the spires.

A Thousand Clowns started out as a Broadway show, and Fred Coe’s film toggles between theatrical scenes, set mostly in a one-room walkup, and cinematic montages, in which many local landmarks make an appearance. There is a feeling, also palpable in Robert Mulligan’s Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), of a new world waiting to crack through the old edifice. It’s much easier to see the old than the new, because the new hasn’t really taken shape yet; it’s just about to. The harshness of the change is blared by Don Walker’s marching-band score, which promises a more carefree life to come even as it makes fun of the commuters running to catch a bus. Arthur Ornitz’s cinematography suffers the period’s addiction to zooms whenever the camera is set up out of doors.

What keeps the movie from flying off into fecklessness is Martin Balsam’s award-winning performance as Murray’s brother, who has settled down to the responsibilities of a wife and three kids. He used to be a free spirit, too, but he has matured, and his tired but proud defense of bourgeois commitment makes Murray look stunted. Also arresting is the performance by William Daniels, as a social worker who’s supposed to be a figure of fun. According to IMDb, Daniels hasn’t made all that many feature films, but he always seems hugely familiar, probably because he always plays the same character, a creature of the period, the respectable, rule-bound priss who battens down his massive anxieties by insisting on correct procedure. He gives a little something extra in Coe’s picture, and never misses a chance to be inadvertently funny.


Thursday 10th

It’s a small world — in another sort of way. Ray Soleil dropped by yesterday afternoon, in connection with our impending evacuation of the downtown storage unit*, and as we chatted over iced tea I showed him a book that I was reading, Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal. Flipping through the pages, I was surprised by a bit of artwork that I hadn’t noticed before (the book is illustrated with drawings and photos), not having got that far in the text. It was an Al Hirschfeld drawing for the Times, and it didn’t take me long to see that it was his rendering of A Thousand Clowns! There they were, Jason Robards, Jr and Barry Gordon, strumming their guitars and (you could almost hear it) singing “Yes, sir, that’s my baby”— but not, surely, to Barbara Harris. Could that be Sandy Dennis? Indeed it was. Sandy Dennis played Sandra Markowitz in the 1962 Broadway production of A Thousand Clowns. Here I had just been writing about the movie, and a book that I happened to be reading tossed me a delightful picture of the play on which it was based. Of all the Hirschfelds that Tamara Shopsin could have picked!

Her choice of A Thousand Clowns seems by no means accidental. It quite beautifully suits her winsome and comic memoir of la vie de Bohème in the middle and late decades of the last century, when Manhattan was a teeming dump of crazy genuine diversity and not the bloated pied-à-terre that it has become. I’m not quite sure what prompted me to buy Arbitrary Stupid Goal, because I have strict rules about new acquisitions on the library front (having no more room for books), involving parameters that Shopsin’s book doesn’t meet. Moment of weakness, I guess. I had never heard of Shopsin or her family or her family’s famous restaurant, which makes a lot of sense and leads me directly to say that this is what books are for: to take you to places that you can’t or wouldn’t want to visit. The restaurant described in Arbitrary Stupid Goal is an outstanding example of the latter — for me. First of all, it’s tiny and crowded, and probably not very quiet. Second, it’s full of famous people. Third and most, it’s definitely not my kind of cuisine. But the book is a delight, and I’m afraid that I’m going to have to keep it, and find out how to put it right next to Ben Ryder Howe’s My Korean Deli.

A Thousand Clowns and Arbitrary Stupid Goal have something else in common — although maybe it’s not really something else. Maybe it’s already included in the New York chapter of Bohemia. They’re both the same certain kind of Jewish. There’s nothing religious about this, nothing even racial. Post-tribal at the most. This certain kind of Jewish manifests itself in a way of speaking that, like Irish English, expresses a heightened consciousness of how the language works along with a complete lack of respect for its formalities. Grammatically, Arbitrary Stupid Goal is a Superfund site; nobody under the age of thirty ought to be allowed to read it, lest its pungent vernacular denature basic literary standards. In A Thousand Clowns, the tone is just the opposite, mock-polite and faux bureaucratic. But in both cases, things don’t mean what they say. They mean things that it’s not cool to say, things that can only be hinted at by articulate indirection. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand. Maybe you do have to be a New Yorker.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Once known jocularly as “Westphalia,” because “that’s where we keep detritus.” The jocularity evaporated more than five years ago. If I were to give the storage unit a nickname today, it would be “Don’t!”

Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (I)

1, 2 and 3 August

Tuesday 1st

Yesterday, the new record-player arrived. I could call it a phonograph, but that would be untrue to the experience of playing records, which is what I did for an hour or two in the afternoon. Playing records was something that teenagers did in the Fifties and Sixties. It didn’t matter whether the records were pop, classical, or jazz. Or comedy — comedy was very popular with brainy kids. Later, when we acquired components, we would refer to the stereo. The record-player itself gave way to the turntable. Unlike record-players, turntables were incapable of making a sound; you had to hook them up to amplifiers, which in turn fed speakers. If an amplifier included a radio dial, as most did but rarely mine, it was called a receiver.

Last week, Ray Soleil, who is diligently evacuating our storage unit — as of Friday afternoon, if all goes according to schedule, there will be no more books in the room, not a one — brought a few dozen LPs that I’d elected to save up to the apartment. When I unpacked the record-player, an inexpensive Ion product, and plugged in the power (and figured out how to turn it on), I reached for one of the oldest LPs in the bunch: Heavenly Echoes of My Fair Lady, played by George Feier, “with rhythm accompaniment.”

The record belonged to my parents and is quite scratchy. I don’t know how they came to have it. Did someone take them to the Café Carlyle, where George Feier was as much a fixture as Bobby Short would be later on? It’s hard to see them there, but this would have been in 1956 or 1957, when My Fair Lady was the toast of the town, and my mother was still in her thirties. It’s not impossible. Nor is it impossible that someone simply gave them the record as a gift.

The album cover is a sketch of George Feier at the piano. Overhead, on clouds not terribly like the one that Al Hirschfeld created for his iconic poster for the musical, several gentlemen in various historical costumes are standing around. They are, of course, great composers. The “heavenly echoes” are Feier’s parodies of the showtunes, each written in a composer’s recognizable style, which, in case you don’t get it, is supplemented by an obvious quote from the composer’s actual music. Bach and Mozart are immediately identifiable, and, when I appropriated the LP, sometime between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I duly labeled them with a ball-point pen. I got Liszt and Johann Strauss right, too. But I identified Verdi as Rachmaninoff before scratching that out and labeling him correctly — once you listened to Feier’s entertainment, you knew who the parodied composers were. Rachmaninoff and Chopin confounded me. On  Chopin’s frock coat, “Rach” and “Chopin” are both scratched out, and “Rach” written again; while Rachmaninoff’s figure bears a scratched-out “Rogers,” ostensibly corrected by “Loewe.” I must have decided that the composer of “The Rain in Spain” was also in heaven, and I already knew enough about Broadway to assume that Richard Rodgers must be connected to a hit show. I won’t describe my later defacement of the album cover further than to say that it involves the name of Sigmund Romberg and constitutes embarrassing testimony to my very uncertain early-adolescent tastes. It amazes me that the LP and its jacket are still in my possession.

While the record played, I sat in my chair and sipped iced tea. I don’t usually sit around listening to things. I listen to music when I’m in the kitchen, or doing housework. (I find that I can no longer read or write if music is playing.) But listening to music usually involves a playlist on an iPod that lasts for hours. Listening to records, in contrast, is a matter of playing one or two cuts from an LP and then moving on to something else. It was one thing to sit through George Feier; the rest of my record playing was more ambulatory. If I sat down, it was only to get up again in a minute. I hadn’t heard any of these records in years — decades — and a lot of what I played yesterday was frankly surprising. Beverly Sills’s recording of Victor Herbert’s “Art Is Calling To Me” — a novelty march sung by a princess who dreams of being a “peachy screechy cantatrice” — is strangely muffled, as if Sills were singing from inside a double bass. In my first recording of Bach’s Cantata BWV 78, the second number, a duet, “Wir eilen mit schwachen doch emsigen Schritten,” is sung not by two women but by two choir sections, and the sopranos are rather shrill. The harpsichord, taking the place of the more conventional positif organ, is not entirely audible. But this was how I got to know the music and I loved it; it does sound somehow more angelic. Lovely as ever was the mazurka from Messager’s Isoline, which I’ve never been able to find on CD; I don’t know why the piece isn’t better known. The last cut on that LP, oddly, is a recording of Berlioz’s grandiose arrangement of “La Marseillaise,” with the final verse sung by children, joined by the adults at the thundering end. I couldn’t resist revisiting this performance, although the anthem itself, bellicose and nationalistic, always makes me squirm.

In a different key, I listened to “Phobos and Deimos Visit Mars,” from an electronic album by Larry Fast called Synergy: Cords. The LP is translucent and milky white. And then I listened to something that I do have on CD, as well as in MP3 format, “Simoon,” by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. I kept that LP because of its cover art, which turns out to be shockingly prophetic of Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina. But if there was ever a song made for playing records, it is “Simoon.” This sinuous rhumba transports the listener right into a Gong Li movie set in Shanghai in the Thirties (but not Shanghai). The room filled with virtual cigarette smoke.

It goes without saying that the record player comes equipped with a USB cable; the point is to play the records once, to feed the music into the computer, and then, if you live in an apartment and are haunted by Marie Kondo, to get rid of the vinyl. But I can’t even think about that until I’ve shredded all the bank statements and other useless documents that slumbered in the storage unit, and found places for the thirty-odd books that decided to keep at home. Playing records was very charming, but I don’t know when I’ll do it again, once I’ve sampled everything that arrived last week.

Then I went out. I don’t usually go out in the late afternoon, either, but there was a reading at the Barnes & Noble up 86th Street that I didn’t want to miss. You could say that I’d been playing records as a way of passing the time without getting caught up in something. Which is pretty much how it was, when we used to listen to records while we waited to grow up.


Wednesday 2nd

The reading at Barnes & Noble that I mentioned yesterday was given by Heather Harpham, to promote her new — and her first — book, Happiness. I had not heard of Heather before receiving, sometime last month, a circular email from her husband, the novelist Brian Morton, announcing the event. I am a great admirer of Brian’s novels, and, as my use of first names suggests, I have exchanged a few letters with him over the years. Since he lives and works pretty much where I grew up, notoriously “sixteen miles from Times Square,” I have blathered about taking the train up to Bronxville and having lunch with him, and I still hope to do that. At the moment, hobbling up 86th Street the two blocks to Lexington Avenue was just about the most I could do.

Although I have re-read Brian’s novels several times, and notwithstanding the sporadic emails, I wouldn’t say that I know him personally. He gives every evidence of being a private person, and also seems to be the sort of man, rare enough, who would much rather hear what other people are thinking about than talking about himself. So when I read a few lines of publicity prose about Happiness, I developed an almost instant Too Much Information rash. It seemed a betrayal of our cordial non-intimacy to learn that when Heather got pregnant, shortly after the turn of the century, Brian didn’t want to be a father. He was forty-five, Heather nearly fifteen years younger. He was comfortable in his Upper West Side life — but don’t let me get in the way.

After our third date, we went back to his apartment. He was a studio dweller on the Upper West Side, twenty-sixth floor, a view of the George Washington Bridge, which he revered. A wall of windows and little else. He had a single pot and stacks of books. Against the barrenness, he’d waged the smallest possible stand — a decorative postage stamp. Joe Louis.


But Brian knew how to work. His life was ordered, boundaried to the extreme. A man who, by his own admission, ate broccoli with brown rice and garlic every night for dinner. A man who pruned back the trivial decisions, who wore French Blue dress shirts and black pants every day of the week for consistency’s sake. A man with an embedded internal clock, which told him to sit and write at the same hour, day after day. A man with a gift, and the dense garden of his habit grown around it for protection. (12-13)

I think that Heather puts this all very well, very well, and in a voice that I find distinctively her own. (The “dense garden of habit” is the richest metaphor that I’ve encountered this year — so rich that I have to ask, is it a metaphor?) I suppose that, if you don’t pay attention, Heather might sound like just another woman writing about her child’s harrowing disease, and, on the basis of the snips that I read before I had the chance to open the book, that is what I was expecting. Despite the risk of betrayal, I would read Happiness out of loyalty to Brian.

But loyalty to Brian is hard for any reader to sustain after the first couple of pages, because Heather uses snapshots of falling in love with him in New York as somewhat ironic cushions to soften the blow of her newborn daughter’s endangered life not so very many months later in San Francisco. There is something wrong with the child’s blood: her red blood cells don’t mature, but fall apart, releasing raw iron into her body. Keeping her alive requires transfusions, monthly. And while Heather tries to cope with this chaos — as I understand it, although Gracie’s disease was cured, it was never actually diagnosed — Brian is back East in his dense garden. Wounded by his rejection of fatherhood and marriage, Heather has returned to her native Marin County and she has not kept in touch. For all intents and purposes, she and Brian have broken up, and, although his readiness to provide child support is never in doubt, Heather is set to be a single mom.

That’s very well what might have happened, had Gracie been healthy. It wasn’t long after I realized that I wasn’t reading Happiness out of loyalty to Brian or to anybody else — that I was reading Happiness because I couldn’t put it down — that I began to expect Heather to surprise me. I knew that the story was going to end happily; Gracie was present at the reading, after all, and her mother told the audience that she was cured. But I also knew, not too far in, that the story was not really about Gracie, or about illness and the dread of waiting for test results, even though there’s plenty of all that. The story was about a marriage, a marriage that did not survive a crisis but that was undertaken because of one, a wedding that took more than four years to perform. It is a story told by one party to the marriage, very much alone and uncertain about her partner, and not from the bogus viewpoint of the first person plural. Happiness is full of small gusts of dark anger. The anger passes; the bruises heal. But the distance between spouses is registered, and without the pretense of even-handedness. Writing the book, I should say, Heather Harpham was not angry at Brian Morton. But she certainly had been angry with him, sometimes murderously so. Through it all, she loved him. I can think of very few novels that have encompassed the emotional complexity of marriage as well as this memoir, and even fewer that portray marriages between two such well-intentioned people. In the following passage, these well-intentioned people, closer to the end of their ordeal than they dare think, are also exhausted.

We brush our teeth, climb under the covers, in silence. It is obvious what should happen next; it has been weeks. Maybe months. I’ve lost track. But it is equally obvious this is not going to happen. I turn away, but let my foot drift over to touch Brian, the smallest of conciliatory gestures. He doesn’t move away or toward me; just lets my foot rest against his. Toes to toes, the best we can do. Brian turns to face me. “Alone is one way to get through adversity, but is it the best way?” This formulation is a joke, something we say. That’s one way to … whatever the thing is … but is it the best way? No response from me. No giggle, no touch. Silence.

“In hard times,” Brian says, “people typically do better when they huddle together for warmth.”

“Who are you, Shackleton? I know how to cope with adversity, Brian, but thanks for the lesson.”

This silences us both. I have no idea why I’m lashing out. Gracie is OK, she’s sleeping not six miles away. But I am bizarrely furious. Fury in search of an object.

We’ve been dangled by our ankles while children dropped around us; children fell. Surely there is someone to blame. (258)

Yes: children. Gracie has a younger sibling, and the younger sibling saves Gracie’s life. Of course it is her parents who do this, by engendering the sibling, which, characteristically, they manage to do in spite of themselves. Everything that blooms in this book, flower or weed, is the fruit of one relationship, one pair of stumbling human beings, determined to do the right thing, even when they don’t agree what that is, while never being misled by ideals, the narcissistic voice of righteousness. From time to time, righteousness blows through Heather at gale force, but it never knocks her down. As for Brian, Happiness is not his story. And although the TMI problem faded almost immediately, I did learn enough about Brian Morton to doubt that he is ever going to tell it.


Thursday 3rd

A few years ago, a regular reader suggested that I have a look at William Janeway’s Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge, 2012). I bought it, but did not look at it; the book drifted farther and farther from my reading pile, and a couple of weeks ago I rescued it from the storage unit, whither I think it was sent when we moved into this apartment and many very hasty decisions were made. Janeway’s book is clearly daunting, not really meant for general readers. I hate to think what it cost: the paper is very heavy, and the general presentation is that of a classy textbook. The dust jacket is not particularly inviting. The title takes the top half, while the bottom shows a smartphone; there’s a blurb in between. The pale blue background creates the clinical effect of a handbook on the side-effects of chemotherapy.

I did what I often do with perplexing books: I began in the middle, with the chapter called “The Banality of Bubbles.” It turned out to be a sharp history of European and American bubbles since the tulip craze, including a few that I hadn’t really heard of, such as the joint-stock bubble of the 1690s, which was swept into oblivion by the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Midway through the following chapter, “Explaining Bubbles,” though, I realized that I was going to have to go back to the beginning if I was to make sense of the author’s frequent references to “the three-player game” and to “Cash and Control.”

Janeway, a venture capitalist at Warburg Pincus with a PhD in Economic History from Cambridge University, is a very serious contrarian. He rejects neoliberal economic theory, the efficient market hypothesis, and all the bad ideas that landed us in the soup in 2008. I’ve worked my way back to where I was in the book, and am now in the middle of “The Necessity of Bubbles,” but although this might sound callow, Janeway makes an important distinction between asset bubbles and credit bubbles. The latter are not so good. But without bubbles, there is no innovation, because innovation, in his view, arises from waste, from spending millions of dollars on hundreds of start-ups so that one or two will pan out. He is also a believer in big-state capitalism, but I haven’t reached his discussion of that, so I’ll limit myself to observing that he recognizes and applauds the government’s role in fostering medical and technological advances.

It is all fairly difficult to digest, because although Janeway is a clear writer who avoids jargon, he is very much writing from deep within the enterprise space, where the physics is a little different from out here on city streets. And as a historian, he is informed but somewhat amateur; he does not always frame the developments that he writes about as clearly as a professional might do. But it’s also true that I’m reading against him, noting the places where his enthusiasm for innovation occludes the importance of sustainability.

As I’ve written at least once, I think that the arc of innovation that arose in the Eighteenth Century has touched ground. I don’t mean that there won’t be anything new in the future; for all I know, we’re on the eve of the most sweeping innovation of all. But I believe that we have passed the point at which we can abandon the old when we adopt the new. There is simply too much of the old. We need a government that will take the maintenance of American infrastructure as a serious national-security issue, and spend on bridges and aqueducts instead what it is currently blowing on weapons that seem designed for wars that nobody is ever going to fight. (It is certainly time for hackers to be militarized.) Our cities are surrounded by peripheries that need to be repurposed with large-scale vision. Sprawl makes no sense to anyone but the opportunistic, small-time developer, and has degenerated into a gamble that most players will lose. In short, we have a lot of junk to take care of; it is not going to go away. We need an Upkeep Economy.

Paradoxically, this may require some innovations in finance. No, no more of that! I hear you cry. But I’m not thinking of novel financial instruments. I’m thinking of micro- or even nano-transactions, payments or levies so small but so numerous that funds pile up automatically and painlessly. I’m thinking of an EZ Pass that you carry in your wallet and that charges you a penny every time you step out on the pavement. Or the first time every day that you step out on the pavement — it really won’t do to get too specific at this stage. A tenth of a penny! Those pennies would be marked for funding the repavement of the street. Funds might even be used to develop better paving technologies — quicker, less intrusive, more lasting — replacing the role of asset bubbles in innovation with activity bubbles. In a way, I suppose, I’m trying to turn the waste process of innovation around, and run it in reverse. I don’t command the language or abstraction of economics well enough to explain what that might mean, and in fact it might be impossible. But my thoughts bend in that direction.

Certainly it had never occurred to me that innovation depends on financial bubbles. If that’s the case, then we might explain the Industrial Revolution not in the conventional terms of technological advances but rather in terms of financial preparedness: by the end of the Eighteenth Century, Western economies had experienced several bubbles (albeit unproductive ones), which, instead of inoculating investors against them, appear to have created an itch. Not everybody who participates in a bubble loses his shirt! As Janeway points out, the American railroad bubble of the 1850s provided the Union with the transportation network that played such a great role in its victory.


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
October 2017 (II)

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!”

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Dissolu Typique
July 2017 (IV)

24, 26 and 28 July

Monday 24th

Every now and then, I have to remind myself that I discovered Nancy Mitford in a perfectly respectable manner, one that she would have approved. I read her books. Not the novels, but the full-length historical portraits that came later, of Louis XIV, Madame de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great. (Voltaire in Love was never given the coffee-table treatment that created a new genre in Louis XIV and provided a new format for the book about Pompadour.) These three books were early treasures in my library — I still have them — long before my first wife handed me a copy of Hons and Rebels, and Nancy Mitford became Head Girl of the Peers’ Daughters Traveling Circus.

People often wonder why the antics of these spoiled darlings continue to interest readers. The answer is right there in the question: readers. Nothing that the sisters did became real (much less funny) until it was retold as a story, to accompanying “shrieks.” Many were written down in letters from one sister to another. Jessica’s nearly-libelous memoir brought a lot of these tales to the public, and the public was entertained. It wasn’t all laughs; there were plenty of dark chapters. But over the years the corpus of Materia Mitfordica grew and grew. Letters were published, biographies assembled. Nancy’s novels were re-examined, to compare them with what really happened. And most of the girls went on living from decade to decade. Already in the public eye as early as 1930, the sisters held on — four of them, anyway — until the mid Nineties. The youngest, Deborah, grew enormously in stature as the Duchess of Devonshire, chatelaine of a Stately Home that she and her husband had heroically saved from the maw of the tax man, and the marketer of many cannily upscale agricultural products. She was a monument herself by the time of her death, at 94, in 2014. (It is hard to imagine that there won’t be a big book about her; I only hope that I live to read it.) Diana, the notorious Nazi-defender— to her dying day, she refused to recant her support of her husband’s support of Hitler — died in the Paris heat wave of 2003, the author of several taut volumes of her own, aged 93 and beautiful to the end. Jessica had quieted down some by the time she succumbed, very quickly, to lung cancer, but her books, especially the hilarious, muckraking American Way of Death, were still in print. Print, print, print: almost everything was in print. Even letters from Unity, eventually. Unity was the one who became Hitler’s soul mate, his dream of English aristocracy. The two of them would sit by the fire and chat about who knows what — it drove the rest of his entourage crazy  with courtly anxieties. Unity shot herself when the war broke out, but she lived, somewhat damaged, for another nine years, being the second sibling to die. The first had been her brother, Tom, in Burma in 1945, shot in action. Nancy died in 1973, also of cancer, which seems to have gripped her right about the time when the love her life, Gaston Palewski, married somebody else.

And then there was Pamela. Younger than Nancy by three years and never brilliant in the way that her other sisters couldn’t seem to help being, Pam never wrote any books, and none were written about her. She remained quite staunchly out of the limelight — which, as I hasten to repeat, was a literary limelight. Pam’s life was by no means dull. She drove, by herself, all over Europe in the Thirties. She married a wealthy genius. She lived in Switzerland for some time. She knew as much about animal husbandry as any county matron in England, and was also a noted cook. She was famous for being able to remember every meal that she had ever had. But she was never in the newspapers. She never troubled her parents with eccentric views or naughty adventures. Everybody loved her, and there must have been two or three dozen women just like her in her class and generation.

For now, you see, there is a book: The Other Mitford: Pamela’s Story. It’s cheeky to say that the author, Diana Alexander, was Pam’s “daily” for several years, suggesting a char’s eye view of an Honourable, but Alexander also claims to be a journalist, a professional at loose ends when Pam, who lived across the green in the same Cotswold village, needed someone to clean her house. My faith in this claim was shaken by clauses appearing in two nearly neighboring sentences.

“… and on one occasion she told Pat and I, well in advance…” (137)

“… it was us who persuaded her to let us run the lukewarm water …” (140)

It may also seem churlish to report that there are enough repetitions in the book to  raise the suspicion that it is an unedited collection of separate, previously printed articles. But worse than churlishness will probably be my frank observation that Pam does not emerge as an individual until the end of the book, when she settles into her house in Caudle Green and becomes a presence in her biographer’s life. We are to be grateful for the addition to the Mitford corpus of stories that bear out the claim that Pam was the sister who took most after her thrifty mother.

The sheets were not always laundered after each guest, however. … Pam would announce, if her sisters’ visits were in close proximity, : “Debo is coming to stay next week and Diana will be here in two weeks’ time, so one of them can sleep on this side and other on that.” When one sister had left, Pam would stand on one side of the bed and me on the other, and we would tug the creases out of the side which had been slept on. This was not an easy task since these sheets were Irish linen (what else?) and creased very easily. If the sisters knew about this it must have amused them greatly; it was just one more example of Woman’s “carefulness.” (134)

Until these later, chapters, however, The Other Mitford is about the other Mitfords, and if you cooked it down to boil off all the well-known tales, you would be left with a sentence of three words: “Pam didn’t complain.”

There is a thrilling moment when Pam is buying a cut of meat for Diana on a visit to Paris.

To prevent any misunderstanding as to which cut should be used, she stood up and pointing to her own body pronounced: “Il faut le couper LA.” (150)

It’s so easy to imagine: Julia Child as a Mitford Girl! Isn’t that really all that was needed? It’s a poignant moment, really, especially in light of an earlier anecdote showing Pam to be a “natural” in front of the television camera. But Pam, unlike Mrs Child and her sisters, was simply not a restless person. She went about her life with quiet determination and appears to have been deeply contented. The Other Mitford is an oddly successful book, because it makes the case, with inexplicable interest, that it ought never to have been undertaken.


Wednesday 26th

Kathleen got home from her weekend with old friends in Maine shortly before eight last night; at five-thirty this morning, she left the apartment for Bermuda. She is giving a speech there on Friday. She worked at it on the plane. How? I asked, when she called from her room at the Hamilton Princess. How wasn’t she dead tired? How did she stay awake during the flight? Adrenaline is the answer. The speech is a big deal, and she wants it to be perfect.

So I slept in for her. She’ll be home on Saturday, with no plans to go anywhere very soon. Except, I forgot, Boston next week.


Kathleen wanted Chinese for dinner last night, so we had that. (I really ought to learn how to make sesame chicken myself.) We talked about the hypocrisy of liberal education. There was no scorn or contempt in what we said; we are both liberals up to our eyeballs and beyond. But there are difficulties that must be acknowledged. In a way, liberal education is perfectly straightforward: it teaches you how to be liberal. This means, above all, agreeing to disagree and to cooperate with people who see things a little differently. People who are not liberals call this “compromise” — and “hypocrisy” as well. But the hypocrisy of liberal education is that you don’t learn the stuff on the syllabus, not really. You cram it. You bone up on it, write papers about it, argue about it in seminars — and then you forget it. Liberal education does not produce scholars. Heavens, no! If there’s one thing that you’ve got to learn in the course of acquiring a liberal education, it’s the urgency of not giving the impression of being a pedant.

Liberalism relies perhaps a little too heavily on esprit de corps. If you’re in with a good gang, great things may happen, but in many liberal groups, small local chapters of liberalism, as it were, in offices of every kind — it is difficult to think of a liberal activity that does not take place in an office — the wear-and-tear of agreeing to disagree can get to be disenchanting. Liberal education teaches you how to sit through meetings, and even how to contribute to them without being disruptive, but it sometimes happens that disruption is what’s needed most. Only persons gifted with a special charisma are allowed to disrupt a liberal gathering, though, and such persons are rare. Others will be quietly but firmly shooed away, and business will continue as usual.

This raises the question that always lurks in the background: is liberalism a position or a style? If it is a position, it is a position of compromise — awkward to hold for any length of time. Considered as a style, however, liberalism makes more sense. For there are positions with which the liberal declines to agree to disagree, and they are the positions of extremists. On the one hand, social-justice radical egalitarians. Liberals are allergic to the egalitarian ideal, because their liberal education teaches them that the pursuit of absolute equality leads to pointless bloodshed. In the end, even the top Maoists have their little luxuries; or perhaps it would be better to say that that’s only the beginning. Liberals are also allergic to the views of those who have not had liberal educations. It doesn’t really matter what those views might be, because the problem is that they are never expressed very well. (See “charisma,” above.) Considering the totalitarian impulse of radicals on the left, liberalism does seem very much a style, a manner of living with difference. Radicals hate difference.

On the other side, conservatives. Now, to begin with, there are no conservatives in the United States, because there has never been a landed class working hand-in-glove with an established religion to perpetuate the status quo. So-called conservatives in America are really just anarchists. (The only difference between the radical left and the radical right is their very different sense of what “brotherhood” means.) True conservatives believe that everyone has a place in society, and that the secret to earthly happiness is knowing and accepting yours. Compassionate conservatives will guarantee every peasant a chance to work the plow. As I have already suggested, however, liberals are horrified by peasants. Because liberals are tremendous snobs about not being snobs, they tell themselves that it is not the peasants who horrify them, but the very possibility of peasantry. Liberals are always dreaming of ways of transforming peasants into liberals. This why they talk so incessantly about the importance of getting a (liberal) education.

A future made up of all-liberals seems perfectly plausible. Robots would do all the hard work, and liberals would keep them in their place — because it is perfectly all right for a machine to be a peasant. But what about the people who aren’t cut out to be liberals? In the early days of liberalism, liberals were property-owners. Now liberals are knowledge- and skill-owners. They are professionals. Not everyone can be a professional, surely. It is at this point that I am always reminded of Alan Blinder’s prediction, made ten or more years ago in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Blinder foresaw a polity in which rentiers, the actual owners of everything, would be serviced by educated professionals and by uneducated yardmen and housemaids. There would be no other kinds of jobs at all. Not a very liberal vision.


Reviewing a new book about Truman and MacArthur in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Andrew Bacevich writes,

At no time during the sixty-plus years since MacArthur’s downfall have existing civil-military arrangements worked as advertised. That is to say, never has the interaction of military and civilian leaders, conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and mutual respect, privileging the national interest rather than personal ambition and institutional agendas, yielded consistently enlightened policies. This remains one of the dirty little secrets the American elite is reluctant to own up to.

As I’ve already written a thousand words today, I’ll have to leave this passage for future discussion. Just to get your thinking started, though, I’d change “existing” to “American,” so that I could change “American” to “liberal.” And I would point out that making a habit of compromise is bound to fill dark corners with dirty little secrets. One thing that the liberal élite needs, it seems to me, is a self-cleaning feature.


Friday 28th

What do you do with funny little books? Do you keep them on the shelf, long after their jokes have become familiar, or do you put them in a box and send them to the attic? It’s very much a matter of mood. If you’re relaxed, and ready for a laugh, then you’ll keep these booklets near. If you’re stressed, and trying to make room for serious books, then off they’ll go.

I must have been stressed: At some point or other, probably when we moved into this apartment a couple of years ago, I sent The Preppy Handbook and The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook to storage. I brought them home the other day to give them a good look; this time, either I’ll keep them in my house or I’ll donate them to Housing Works. Kathleen and I did not find The Preppy Handbook altogether convincing when it appeared, and it’s possible that its English counterpart strikes just as many false notes that we can’t hear. (The case could also be made that there’s nothing in Sloane Ranger that isn’t presented even more briskly in Four Weddings and a Funeral.) Sometimes, funny little books lose their funny. But I also brought home something that I’m finding funnier than ever.

I hope that a few regular readers have their own copies of Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s little book of verses — a pamphlet, really — Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames (1967; Penguin, 1980). For those who have not encountered this book, I’m going to offer a rain check to anyone unfamiliar with French. Even if your French is Énarque level, I caution you against too-rapidly trying to make sense of van Rooten’s title. I’ll remind you instead of those books that were popular for a while a few years ago — big funny books that I had no trouble getting rid of last summer — that were full of 3-D illustrations if you could manage to relax your eyes just right. Subtitled The d’Antin Manuscript, van Rooten’s book is not what it appears to be. To be blunt: it is not in French.

Papa, blague chipe
A vieux inouï houle
Y est-ce art? Y est-ce art? Trépas que se foulent
Aune format masure, en nouant format thème
En nouant fleur-de-lis de bois de solive en deliènne.

What does this mean? But surely you already know! All you have to do is loosen up!

Easier said than done. Loosening up requires tying yourself to the mast. You must first of all resist the sense of the words, which of course don’t make any sense, notwithstanding the hilarious pedantry of van Rooten’s tongue-in-cheek annotations. Then you have to resist the words themselves, listening to the sounds line by line. But in order to do this, you have to read the lines as if — as if you didn’t know how to read French, but, at the same time, very quickly. If you don’t read it quickly, you’ll never get the third line to yield

Three bags full.

And finally, you have to hear what you’re saying as if you were a Frenchman whose English accent wasn’t very good.

Année olive tous guetteurs.

There are 40 nursery rhymes in this collection of renderings from Mother Goose (now you can give the title another try), and you can give yourself a good headache by tackling more than five at a time. It’ll be worth it. Because cracking the code is not really the best part. The best part is carrying around in your mind the absurdity of

Myriade évitent lames


Dissolu typique, c’tiède homme


Eau à guigne d’air telle baie indemne

There’s something about “dissolu typique” that explains those little piggies. I’ll be honest, though: I googled Mander ce châle. Among others.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Madeleine Montpellier
July 2017 (III)

17, 18 and 21 July

Monday 17th

On Thursday afternoon, I finally got round to the ironing. It had piled up for a few weeks. I could make the usual excuses, but they’re never usual, they’re always unique, except that they all mask the blend of laziness and fatigue that makes the prospect of ironing extremely uninviting. The ironing is not especially tedious; I don’t do shirts or anything complicated, just flat pieces like napkins and handkerchiefs. It’s more the getting things out and putting them away that’s the nuisance. I have enough napkings to go about three weeks without ironing, which is what often happens. Last Thursday, there were three weeks’ worth of laundry to iron and hardly any napkins on the pantry shelf.

So I set up the board and plugged in the iron and picked a movie to watch. Having nothing in mind, I pulled out the first drawer of DVDs and grabbed a bunch of about ten discs. Atonement was the first, followed by L’auberge espagnole. I flipped through the rest, but couldn’t settle on one. Then I went through the bunch again. This time, I made a selection: Away From Her. Perhaps it would be better to say that Away From Her was selected. An odd choice, I thought. A movie about a long-married couple faced with the wife’s dementia would make pretty penitential entertainment for the ironing. On top of that — and this is no small thing — Away From Her is not only Canadian but set in Canada, based on a celebrated short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” by Canada’s best-known writer, Alice Munro. (Writer/director Sarah Polley is also Canadian.) Here is the Canadian predicament as I see it: all the gloom of Scandinavia is drained of its glamour by the proximity of and general resemblance to the American Midwest. I am bewildered that anyone lives in Ontario.  (Then I shrug my shoulders; after all, I remember, people live everywhere.)

On the plus side: Julie Christie.

As I was waking up this morning, something about the movie came to mind, and I thought that I would write about it. But first, it might be a good idea to read Munro’s story again. I had to get out the ladder (which is kept right next to the ironing board), because I’ve gathered all the Everyman’s Library titles on the top shelf of a book case in the living room, and although I can reach them, I can’t read their spines, which are far enough away so that reading glasses are no help. There might be a copy of the story in one of the collections in the bookroom, but I remembered that the Everyman’s Library collection included it — even that it is the last story in the volume.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation is about as faithful as one could wish, so far as tone and detail go, but it is a movie, and necessarily more diffuse than the story. The story is all about Grant, the husband, a retired professor of Norse literature. The sheer fact of Gordon Pinsent, whether or not he gives a wonderful performance (he does), diverts the flow of attention out into the world that Grant has to live in; this is always the case with movies. Grant’s infidelity — “philandering” in the story — is alluded to by Polley as delicately as possibly, just to explain his extremely conceited idea that Fiona, the beautiful wife whom he has brought to an assisted-living facility and who seems to have forgotten who he is after the first month’s probationary absence, might be working her revenge. Of course, if such a mad retribution were conceivable anywhere, it would be in a story by Alice Munro.

Perhaps because Polley’s movie is not so much about Grant but about the upheaval that Alzheimer’s wreaks in people’s lives, it is not nearly as concerned about Grant or Fiona in the past as it is about where they go from here. And yet Polley takes Grant’s jealous suspicion more seriously than Munro herself. Grant actually voices the idea to a nurse. It does give Julie Christie something to do besides looking sad and amazingly beautiful for her age (and also, oddly, more than a little like Ginger Rogers). The story’s Fiona doesn’t have much to say, but Away From Her is about doing just that, warding Grant away from her. She is desperately polite to him: “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, I s’pose” is a refrain. At one sharper moment, she flutters her hand even more desperately and beseeches her husband, “Don’t…” Don’t what? Don’t remind her of the life that she has lost? That would mean that she hasn’t quite lost it, that she still remembers life with him.

It’s the sort of scene that won Christie an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. There is nothing like it in the story.

Elided in the film is the difference between the couple’s backgrounds. Fiona’s is upper-middle-class: her father was an eminent cardiologist. Grant’s is plain. He is the kind of man who is vastly overrepresented in literature, because his intellectual gifts have set him apart from his origins, saddling him with lifelong doubt and alienation. Portrait of the artist! (You might say that Munro’s artistic secret sauce has been the experience on which she has drawn to show what this looks like when it’s a young woman, for a change, who goes off to university and a life of sophistication.) I can see that including this element of the narrative might clutter the film, but it provides a cinching bond in the story.

In the facility, Fiona doesn’t just forget who Grant is, she takes up with another man, Aubrey. She is bereft when Aubrey is removed by his wife. It turns out that the wife, Marian, had parked him there for a few months while she took a break; she cannot afford to keep him in the home full time without losing her house. Grant finds this out when he visits Marian, and asks her to let him take Aubrey to visit the disconsolate Fiona. The movie expatiates with grace and humor on the relationship between Grant and Marian, and while Munro’s ironies are not altogether blunted, her bleakness is greatly relieved by a shot of romance. In the story, Grant realizes that the only way to make Fiona happy is to take up his philandering again, but it heart won’t be in it.

And yet in some depressing way the conversation had not been unfamiliar to him. That was because it reminded him of conversations he’d had with people in his own family. His uncles, his relatives, probably even his mother, had thought the way Marian thought. They had believed that when other people did not think that way it was because they were kidding themselves — they had got too airy-fairy, or stupid, on account of their easy and protected lives of their education. They had lost touch with reality. Educated people, literary people, some rich people like Grant’s socialist in-laws had lost touch with reality. Due to an unmerited good fortune or an innate silliness. In Grant’s case, he suspected, they pretty well believed it was both.

That was how Marian would see him, certainly. A silly person, full of boring knowledge and protected by some fluke from the truth about the life. A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts. Free to dream up the fine, generous schemes that he believed would make another person happy.

What a jerk, she would be thinking now.

“What a jerk,” says the movie’s Marian, the breathtaking Olympia Dukakis, as she closes the door on Grant. But if she’s thinking what Munro says she’s probably thinking, we don’t know it, and we certainly don’t know that Grant imagines it’s what she’s thinking.


Tuesday 18th

What I was thinking about as I woke up yesterday morning was the role of Madeleine Montpellier, in Away From Her. In Alice Munro’s story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” there is no character with that name, but only an unnamed supervisor, a woman who has two conversations with Grant, both about the rules at the assisted-living facility into whose care he has put his demented wife, Fiona. It would be going to far to say that Munro’s supervisor has no personality, only an official persona, but she is certainly a pale presence in comparison to the movie’s Madeleine. The transformation of the supervisor into Madeleine almost perfectly overlaps the transformation of a story about a man into a movie about a couple. In the process, and quite incidentally to the story of Grant and Fiona (and Aubrey and Marian, to complete our quartet of intimates), Madeleine embodies what, as I woke up in a mist of forgotten dreams, struck me as a difficulty of liberal society.

One of the differences between reading fiction and watching movies, for me anyway, is that consciousness of the writer’s craft, moments in which an apt turn of phrase stands out from the flow of the narrative, intensify the satisfaction of the fiction. There are two passages in Mansfield Park (so it struck me when I read the novel a few months ago) where Jane Austen’s imitations of Samuel Johnson’s Augustan, authoritative, but ever-so-slightly paradoxical manner raise the entire novel’s pitch of truth. Here is one of them.

I believe there is scarcely a young lady in the United Kingdoms who would not rather put up with the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man, than to have him driven away by the vulgarity of her nearest relations. (Chapter 41)

It isn’t just the phrasing, of course; Austen’s decision to make this pronouncement when and where she does is also part of its excellence. Taken out of context, “the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man” loses some of its punch; I have to note that it refers to Fanny Price’s feeling that she is being persecuted by the unwanted attentions of Henry Crawford. Although superficially severe, the passage is actually rather comical — but the point is that, no matter how long I dawdle over it, I am not distracted from the power of Mansfield Park as an essentially true story. Language such as Austen’s provides incessant confirmation of that truth. Nobody else could have told the story of Fanny Price nearly so well.

So it is with the passage from the end of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” that I quoted yesterday. The contempt for people like Grant expressed by the sentence fragment, “A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts,” not only diminishes, in his own sight, the life that Grant has tried to lead but connects seamlessly to the fact that, like Grant, I have also had occasion to imagine the people around me feeling similar scorn for my complicated thoughts. The language swallows me up in an act of sympathy.

Watching movies, in contrast, is a social event. Other people are other people. Instead of characters on the page whom I must flesh out, I see actors pretending to be people that they’re not. If the actors and director are skilled, this does not get in the way of the movie’s narrative, but I remain conscious of a doubling that is additive: the character is there on the screen before me, and so is the actor impersonating him. This makes movie-watching a very complex pleasure. When I watch Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith, part of my mind is remembering the other Carole Lombard movies that I know. (It is also remembering the work of Hitchcock himself.) Sometimes, these recollections obtrude upon my consciousness, but they manage somehow not to interrupt the movie.

I found Wendy Crewson’s Madeleine Montpellier to be a gripping, almost terrifying character. She is everything that a board of directors would look for in a hospital supervisor. She is cheerful, resourceful, attentive, and politely firm. She remembers everyone’s name — and everything else as well. But as Crewson plays her, Madeleine’s self-control is not quite complete. How could such a paragon of capability not be pestered by moments of impatience? And it is this potential for impatience that gives Madeleine her immense authority. You do not want to tempt it. You might wind up on the facility’s second floor.

A close reading of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” might reveal the precise extent to which Munro borrows horror-movie techniques to invest “the second floor” with the nightmare of dementia. When the movie takes us to the second floor, it doesn’t look so bad; the furniture is almost as nice. That almost all the patients are slumped in their bathrobes, frowning but not appearing to see anything, and that so many of these patients are women, seems to correspond with expectations of what terminal illness might look like. There is no suggestion of mistreatment. But the story never visits the second floor; it is an unseen menace, rather like our experience of hell. When the supervisor informs Grant that Fiona may have to be taken up to the second floor, because, in Aubrey’s absence, she seems to have given up, Grant redoubles his efforts to reunite his wife with Marian’s husband.

In the movie, Fiona is transferred to the second floor. It is not itself a descent into hell, but in the movie, the story’s note of hellishness is translated, like a demon, into the person of Madeleine Montpellier. Like the supervisor in the story, she has the authority to send patients to the second floor, but in Crewson’s body this authority flashes like lightning, as if everything that she beholds, visitors included, is potential second-floor material. It is not that Madeleine is a sadist, eager to push helpless victims into a terminal ward. It’s rather that she is determined to maintain a certain level of mental hygiene on the ground floor. No matter how twinkling Madeleine’s smile might be, her eye is on a constant lookout for lapses from well-being. In her spotless domain, the only problem is the population of people who are losing their minds. That’s all right, but only so long as they don’t spoil the spotlessness.

In the story, there is a nurse, and the nurse has a name, Kristy. In the movie, Kristy is very well played by Kristen Thomson, and her role is nicely filled out, especially in connection with Grant’s suspicion that Fiona might be faking, if not her incipient dementia, then at least her affection for Aubrey. Interestingly, however, two of Kristy’s lines in the story are handed over to the movie’s Madeleine. The first one concerns the flowers that Grant brings on his first visit to Fiona. “They must have cost a fortune” sounds much more judgmental coming from Madeleine than it does (in the story) coming from Kristy. But the second switched line is actually seismic. It occurs while Fiona and Aubrey are weeping over their farewells.

“I just wish his wife would hurry up and get here,” Kristy said. “I wish she’d get him out of here and cut the agony short.”

From Kristy, this is only human. From Madeleine, it is a frightening slip of character, a dreadful outburst of impatience.


Friday 21st

In the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the history of liberalism. I haven’t made a study of the matter; I’ve simply tried to organize what I already know.

Liberalism is a bit more than three hundred years old. It arose in England, and came into focus during the short reign of James II. James hoped to replicate in Britain the centralized, authoritarian régime of his cousin, Louis XIV of France. Louis’s approach, which is often called “absolutist,” was one solution to the problem of state power that all but defined the sovereignties of Western Europe as they emerged from medieval precariousness. Liberalism was another. The roots of absolutism and liberalism in their respective countries can be traced back to the Thirteenth Century and beyond, but it was at the end of the Seventeenth that they clicked into focus.

The problem of state power is this: what is the role of the “great men” — the males of the royal family, the leading aristocrats, the higher clergy, and, with the passage of time, the plainly rich — in the exercise of power? Is the monarch or other ruler truly supreme, or is he obliged to defer to his council? From Charlemagne’s time on (and Charlemagne died in 814), every reign of meaningful duration arrived, ad hoc, at some answer to this question, only to have the arrangement put at risk by the following coronation. Rocky as medieval disagreements might be, the Protestant Reformation introduced incendiary violence; by this I mean to point out that Europeans did not make steady progress over centuries of grappling with the issue. In 1688, however, the fires in Great Britain were put out once and for all (as it turned out) with the institution of limited monarchy. The ruler alone was not supreme; indeed, when acting alone, the ruler had no power at all. It was only when acting in concert with the council that the monarch exercised authority. Over time, the council in England had evolved from a posse of hotheaded horsemen into the robustly articulated institution of Parliament. Great Britain to this day is ruled by something called “the Crown in Parliament.”

English liberalism was based on the wisdom of experience that held that men of substance are the best judges of their own affairs, and this kernel of thought is the one constant in liberal thinking throughout its history. Although hailed as “democratic” by later, mostly Victorian writers, the first English liberals were plainly oligarchic.

The sole object of society and civil government in their view was to preserve rights and to ignore almost entirely the functions or duties of citizens. By this theory all the stress was laid on the privileges of property-owners until it became doubtful if the really poor had any rights at all theoretically. (Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy. Oxford, 1939, p. 6)

Setting aside the “really poor,” the middling classes enjoyed a steady growth throughout the Eighteenth Century, and then an explosion of wealth with the Industrial Revolution. The power of the oligarchs was correspondingly reduced, and eventually — with the reformation of the House of Lords twenty years ago — reformed out of existence. But the liberal idea remained; there were simply many more “men of substance.” Women, too. Two commonplaces have fueled liberal legitimacy throughout the overtly democratic Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. A rising tide manifestly lifted all boats (even if, regrettably, not everybody was sitting in one), and the best way to acquire and maintain a boat was to get an education. These commonplaces were taken to be universal truths, but in fact they were time-bound functions of the great transition launched by the harnessing of steam power. I believe that this transition is complete; the widespread employment that constituted the rising tide has ebbed, and promises to ebb further, as the Industrial Revolution completes its inexorable search for an automated, robotic workforce.

The absolutist view held that divinely inspired kings, working with a divinely-established church, could establish the rules of right living, self-evident to the intelligent and justifiably imposed upon the dim. The liberal view was expressed by Adam Smith, who pointed out that while the butcher and the baker don’t care very much about our welfare, they do care about their dinner. He was only making respectable the thought of Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who settled in London and learned English well enough to write a poem called “The Grumbling Hive.” This brief and sparkly satire brought no end of opprobrium upon its author (who later bulked it out with essays and “remarks,” under the title The Fable of the Bees) not because of the acuity of his acerbic couplets about worldly and impious London but because of his insistence that its prosperity depended on its viciousness: almost half of the poem describes the downfall of the hive when Jove actually listens to the bees’ prayers and puts a stop to fraud. This was too bald, and although Mandeville is probably the first penetrating thinker on the subject of liberal economics, you will not find The Fable of the Bees on many canonizing reading lists.

It is not difficult to see why a political outlook that, come what may, always favors oligarchies and thrives in commercial opulence is not altogether popular today.

It is also easy to see why liberalism’s horror of coercion is a problem. At least since the palmy days of Gladstone, liberals have been split on the merits of social engineering — whether it is possible, or even desirable, to enact social changes. This may have something to do with doubts about the ability of statesmen to conceive of viable alterations to the body politic, but it has much more to do with distaste for obliging that body to accept alterations. As time passes, it becomes more obvious that the passage of Civil Rights acts in the 1960s and thereafter was not enough to end racism in America, not by a long shot. The alternatives to those laws, however, were even less attractive. Doing nothing, waiting for the country to outgrow its bigotry over time, was morally repugnant to many. Doing too much more, however, would have required the strongman tactics that we deplore in Turkey’s Erdoğan and the Philippines’ Duterte; forcibly integrating schools was as far as the nation’s liberal establishment could go. Throughout its history, liberalism has scrambled for compromise positions that excite little passion. Which is fine with liberals, who by and large dislike and distrust passion, especially in public life.


What has this to do with Madeleine Montpellier, you may well ask. Well, there I was, half-asleep last Monday morning, and it suddenly struck me that Madeleine Montpellier could be the face of liberal democracy. She encourages us to behave well enough to remain on the ground floor. And when I say “us,” I mean us, members of the liberal élite, educated as in no other subject in reading the implications of her smiles and frowns. Imagine how blandly impenetrable she must look to people who haven’t had that education, who need more than a wink or a nudge to keep themselves in order. It is very easy to hear Madeleine Montpellier dismiss such people as “deplorables.” People like Marian. I just wish…

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Economy and Justice
July 2017 (II)

10, 12 and 13 July

Monday 10th

Over the weekend, I read something that was so congruent with my own thinking that it was better than being published myself, and rather more like exciting, desperately looked-for proof of intelligent life in a distant galaxy. It was a book review in the Times Book Review, by law professor James Kwak. The title of the book, by Jesse Eisinger, isn’t very nice: The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives. The answer to the question raised in the subtitle is provided by Professor Kwak:

Increasingly, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys on opposite sides of the table are the same people, just at different points in their careers. Conducting a criminal investigation of an executive isn’t just risky; in addition to jeopardizing a future partnership at a prestigious law firm, perhaps most important, it incurs “social discomfort,” especially for the well-mannered overachievers who now populate the Justice Department. No one wants to be a class traitor, especially when the members of one’s class are such nice people.


After decades in which Wall Street masters of the universe were lionized in the media and popular culture, star investment bankers — rich, usually white men in nice suits — just don’t match the popular image of criminals. Democrats as well as Republicans cozied up to big business, outsourcing the Treasury Department to Wall Street and the Justice Department to corporate law firms. Even after the financial system collapsed, the Obama administration’s priority was to bail out the megabanks — to “foam the runway,” in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s words. The Justice Department became increasingly staffed by intelligent, status-seeking, conformist graduates of the nation’s top law schools — all of whom had friends on Wall Street and in the defense bar. In that environment, the easy choice was to play along, strike a deal with an impressive-sounding fine (to be absorbed by shareholders) that held no one responsible, and avoid risking an acquittal or a hung jury. (The book’s title comes from then-U.S. Attorney James Comey’s name for prosecutors who had never lost a trial.) Corruption can take many forms — not just bags of cash under the table, but a creeping rot that saps our collective motivation to pursue the cause of justice. As Upton Sinclair might have written were he alive today: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his résumé depends upon his not understanding it. [Emphasis supplied]

It would be difficult to find a more sterling example of élite bankruptcy: the Justice Department, in this reading, is corrupted by its staff’s craven hopes for remunerative futures. There is no actual wrong-doing, but by the same token, there is no actual right-doing, either. Our institutional arrangements are worse than inadequate.

I have two answers, two solutions, to the underlying problem. First, we must strip corporations of “natural person” status. Without this status, a corporation could neither be party to a criminal lawsuit nor represented in such a suit by counsel. Only the actual human beings in charge of operation could be charged with criminal conduct. Given a healthy alteration of corporate law that would deny corporate funds to employees for the purpose of paying legal expenses, my bet is that, overall, the business of representing corporations would become less lucrative over time. This would make the second step easier to impose: the door between public and private service ought to be closed. This need not be formal or overt. If government lawyers are paid more, while private attorneys’ fees drop, the careerism captured by Professor Kwak’s review would become unusual and eventually shameful.

For shareholders, the upside to abandoning corporate personhood would be that their investments would no longer be diminished by immense fines. The downside would be that, if cleaning up after reckless behavior were no longer a legitimate cost of doing business, there would be a lot less “creative destruction.” I’m not so sure that that would be bad for the rest of us.

The United States’s meritocratic élite faces a severe crisis of legitimacy at the moment, and it is impossible to dismiss President Trump’s grandstanding anti-élitism as mere opportunism. Jesse Eisinger’s book points to a house on fire. We had better put it out.


Corporations are legal fictions. They exist nowhere but on paper, and it is what is written on that paper that constitutes the only evidence of corporate existence. The purpose of the fiction is to stabilize the ownership of certain kinds of property, historically churches, schools, and hospitals. The ownership of these institutions is “embodied” in the corporation that continues unchanging even as the different people who manage it over time come and go.

The modern business corporation added (in the middle of the Nineteenth Century) something very useful to the fiction: limited liability. The liability of a business corporation itself is unlimited. If it cannot pay its debts, it is bankrupted. But the liability of the shareholders is limited to the extent of their investments. This is why corporate structure is so important to a new business, as a protection to investors. Capitalism would be impossible, or at least very dangerous, without it.

In the United States, corporations have been regarded as “natural persons” since 1886 — more or less. It was in that year that a certain case came before the Supreme Court. For unusual reasons, the Court’s adjudication of the case is cloudy, but its authority has nevertheless been respected. As one consequence of the ruling, corporations have been permitted to contribute to political campaigns. More remarkably, this disembodied legal fiction can be charged with crime. These are win-win arrangements for senior executives. They can increase their own personal political contributions by dipping into the largesse of the corporate treasury. And, as Jesse Eisinger’s book demonstrates, they can leave their shareholders holding the bag for bad behavior.

Because I am not a silly person, I do not believe that a legal fiction can misbehave. There must be some other culprit.


Wednesday 12th

The other day, as I was tearing through the last chapters of James Lasdun’s exciting, disturbing novel, The Fall Guy, I was brought up short short by the protagonist’s culinary note on the evening’s dinner, its menu featuring a leg of venison, cooked sous-vide.

Topping up his drink, he salted the lean crimson meat, vacuum sealed it in one of the plastic pouches, and set it to cook. He’d picked up boysenberrries for a compote, a red cabbage to braise with a slab of pig cheek, and potatoes for a herbed spaetzle.

It was the red cabbage braised with pig cheek that stopped me. This was more signal than side-dish. The very nonchalance of the remark fairly screamed sophistication. I wondered a little why Lasdun was interrupting the tense atmosphere with a prosaic roll-call of elaborate dishes. A part of my mind reflected that, when I was growing up, no cook would have prepared a dish of red cabbage and pig cheek and called it that. There would have been a fancy name of some kind. In those days, you were supposed to know that “Crécy” meant carrots and “Florentine” meant spinach, so humble vegetables need not be named. Nowadays it is just the opposite, because the ingredients are, if humble, rather unusual. Pig’s cheek? That’s guanciale, isn’t it? No hiding behind Italian here, however! Something was going on.

This passage came immediately to mind when I read David Brooks’s column in yesterday’s Times. The column was extraordinarily interesting overall, because it not only addressed the issues that I’ve been discussing in connection with meritocracy but woke me to the current state of play, which I had rather overlooked. For the most part, his subject was higher education and highly-taxed affluent neighborhoods, the two most prominent institutions by which the favored fifth — the top economic quintile of Americans — ensures that its children will inherit its advantages. But I want you to look at the brief passage in which Brooks shows how food is put to work in this cause.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Not a light bulb but a flood lamp illuminated the scene: it was like catching a clutch of domino-wearing conspirators in flagrante. Once upon a time, it was done with utensils: faced by an array of silverware alongside your plate, how did you determine which one to use in order to eat what had just been put in front of you? This was a mine field for the unsophisticated and a spectator sport for the well-mannered. Now it is the food itself. How do you know what has just been put in front of you? And are you supposed to dig in with relish when someone tells you that it’s pig cheek?

It would be wrong to attribute the desire to exclude 80% of Americans to the increasingly middle-aged high-achievers whose lives in the best ZIP codes look just like everybody else’s, only newer, shinier, sleeker, and quieter. Today’s ostentation is unlike earlier styles, in that it strives to be unnoticeable, at least in the middle distance. To be cynical, I’d venture that the favored fifth would prefer that the rest of their countrymen not notice the countless little ways in which it lives the nicer life. The pig’s cheek is a kind of smiling shibboleth, intended only to reassure the members of the tribe, which is, after all, composed of people who grew up all over the place. Pig’s cheek puts everybody with access on the same page. Finally, I understand the ubiquity of short ribs on restaurant menus.

But no matter how much of this signalling remains invisible or meaningless to the 80%, some of it is always going to be intercepted, by the likes of David Brooks’s hapless friend, not to mention J D Vance. And what’s going to anger the have-nots is not so much the not having as the faux sharing. Brooks takes his friend to a place that specializes in gourmet — sandwiches? Pig cheek? What is this fake vernacular? Donald Trump, in his gilded baroque condo, at least knows how to be rich!

This is another one of the problems that the liberal meritocratic élite is going to have to work on if it has any hopes of returning to power. Ordinary Americans have had it with the élite’s stuck-up pose of being just folks.


Friday 13th

Last week, I wrote that “five more sessions” ought to be all that I’d need to finish sorting my books in the storage unit. In the event — the other day — it took only one. I could certainly whittle the number of keepers by a boxload, and I probably shall — but I needn’t. My conscience is clear. Everything in the unit is ready to be disposed of by other hands. This afternoon, I spent an hour there going through LPs, and out of at least a hundred discs I set aside about a dozen to hold on to. I’m done.

Instead of dilating upon this historic, or at least liberating, occasion, I’d like to share my solution to the American political mess. I’ve got it all figured out.

No, this is not going to funny. But it does make me feel good, because even if it’s not likely to happen tomorrow or in time for the next elections, it makes sense. That it’s also quite simple may be proof that I’ve lost my mind, but then again maybe not.

Remember Nixon’s Southern Strategy? The old Dixiecrats were persuaded to change their political allegiance. Almost overnight, they became Republicans, members of the once-hated party of Reconstruction. (As long as we’re on the subject: Nixon also recognized the People’s Republic of China, something even less likely to have been forecast for his terms in office. Really, anything’s possible.) The Southern Strategy worked because the white people of the South suddenly realized, after having been betrayed by Lyndon Johnson, the prime mover of civil rights in America, that they weren’t really Democrats at all. They weren’t exactly Republicans, either, but they took over the party and changed it to suit themselves.

It’s time for this to happen again. This time, the turncoats that I have in mind are the Favored Fifth, the top economic quintile in the country, the people who have all the best jobs, live in the best ZIP codes, eat the best food, and send their kids to the fanciest schools. At the moment, a good many of these people tend to vote Democratic. Lots of them supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. But they are really no more Democratic than the Dixiecrats were. Like the Dixiecrats, they were electrified by the advance of Civil Rights, but their reaction was more confused. The problem was the term “liberal.” Liberalism has always been tangled in contradictions, mostly between a lively regard for property rights and a somewhat dimmer faith that the injustice of social inequality will work itself out eventually. The sleight of hand in liberal thinking holds that inequality, although it will clearly be an injustice when it is trampled out of existence in the happy future, is not an injustice right now, because it can’t be helped.

When it you get down to it, “liberal Democrat” is a contradiction in terms. We ought to stop expecting liberals to support the Democratic Party. They don’t, not really, and they never will. They are all Rockefeller Republicans at heart, and this is a good thing for the nation. It’s time for the Favored Fifth to return to its natural home. That nationalists and white supremacists and evangelicals won’t be happy to receive them makes it so much the better.

I would rechristen this revived Republican Party the Economy Party, because maintaining the economic health of the nation would be its priority. For starters, a number of business consolidations might be reversed, recreating some of the many jobs that have been lost to that profoundly inhuman objective, “economy of scale.” The new Economists would not forget that they take their name from the idea of the household, and that even if nations are not bound to handle money quite the same as housekeepers are, they are still charged with the primary job of nurturing people.

Democrats, meanwhile, would support their own newly-named Justice Party. Bernie Sanders, the ACLU, Ralph Nader — I’m not so sure about Elizabeth Warren’s place in this new alignment. One of the great things about the Economy Party would be that Warren would make its best watchdog.

On and on I could go, but the only thing that I feel it necessary to add is that Justice and Economy would be friendly antagonists, not mortal enemies. If liberals would just give up pretending to be Democrats, the friction generated by their awkward pose would cease to provide a flourishing atmosphere for extremists of all kinds.

Just a thought.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
July 2017 (I)

5 and 7 July

Wednesday 5th

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

More anon.


Friday 7th

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
June 2017 (IV)

28 and 29 June

Wednesday 28th

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 29th

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

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

20 and 23 June

Tuesday 20th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday 23rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Common Tongue
June 2017 (II)

12, 13 and 15 June

Monday 12th

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 13th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 15th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Wishful Thinking
June 2017 (I)

6, 7 and 9 June

Tuesday 6th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday 7th

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Friday 9th

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

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

Are you still wondering what the Elephant Prod is?

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Means of Production
May 2017 (IV)

22, 23, 25 and 26 May

Monday 22nd

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 23rd

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 25th

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Friday 26th

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bon week-end à tous!


Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (III)

15, 16, 18 and 19 May

Monday 15th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 16th

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

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

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

Maybe bots will be the solution after all.


Thursday 18th

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

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

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

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

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


Friday 19th

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

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

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

I am still trying to figure out my own.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (II)

8, 9 and 11 May

Monday 8th

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 9th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 11th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017

2, 4 and 5 May

Tuesday 2nd

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

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

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


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

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

Traditional politics was just too familiar!

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

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

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


Thursday 4th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday 5th

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
28 April 2017

Friday 28th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Music and Pleasure
April 2017

26 & 27 April

Wednesday 26th

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

Wallace writes,

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

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

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

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


Thursday 27th

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
24 April 2017

Monday 24th

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

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

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

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

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

More anon.

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

Friday 21st

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

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

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


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

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

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

There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Bon week-end à tous!