Archive for December, 2010

Out & About:
December Doings
31 December 2010

Friday, December 31st, 2010

You might think, from recent entries, at I’ve been doing nothing but reading The Kindly Ones and other earnest books, but I’ve had a few nights out in the past weeks.

The second Orpheus Carnegie Hall concert of the season featured the stunning British soprano Kate Royal. Ms Royal sang Britten’s Les Illuminations, a song cycle, set to Rimbaud, that gives the composer’s countrywomen a chance to show off their Continental chops. After what struck me as an uncertain beginning, Ms Royal’s voice bloomed into the music, but when a beautiful woman sings “Being Beauteous” beautifully, it is hard to say where artistry stops and good luck begins. A beautiful young woman, I should say; time will settle the mystery. My companion and I, old school gents, felt that a slip ought to have been worn beneath the clinging white satin gown over which the singer seemed always about to trip. (If wardrobe is going to malfunction, let’s get it over with.)

The concert opened with Barber’s Capricorn Concerto. This astringent music, with its oddly chosen scoring for flute, oboe and trumpet, was very well played, as more or less goes without saying for an Orpheus performance. I was carried back into my first radio days in Houston, when I discovered, thanks to music such as this, that there was a difference between the modern and the avant-garde. Barber was unambiguously a modernist who wished to please and entertain, and I remembered trying to imagine the state of mind of a modernist bourgeois listener who would be pleased and entertained by the Capricorn.

After the interval, we had Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I had been thinking about the Orpheus way of making music, with its core committees and meetings and endless rehearsals, and I was beginning to realize that most musicians would probably not care to take on so much work. And that’s fine: if Orpheus shows us that you can make great music without a conductor, that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with conductors. What it does mean, though — and with blazing humanity — is that there is a big difference between music made by an orchestra executing a single mind’s idea of what’s important, and music made by a group of musicians each of whom has his or her own cohering idea of what’s important. The first tends to be more powerful, but the second is unquestionably more interesting.

The Metropolitan Musem Artists in Residence gave the first of three recitals at Grace Rainey Rogers. First up was Beethoven’s seldom-played Opus 44, a set of variations for piano trio. I knew the work vaguely, as I also knew the concluding Dvorak, because I’d put it on one of my Nano playlists. In between, Edward Arron played Luciano Berio’s Les mots sont allés, about which I don’t remember a thing, not a thing, except that it was evidently written to be played beautifully. Then we had a lovely string trio by Gideon Klein, a Moravian composer who helped to organize the musical establishment among inmates at Theresienstadt (where, one imagines, this work had its premiere) before meeting his own death at Auschwitz. The trio is the transporting souvenir of a mind that is very happy to be alive. As soon as I got home, I ordered a recording from Arkivmusic, because I’d like to see if it’s possible to get to know this music so well that the horrible circumstances surrounding its composition evaporate.

For Dvorak’s Piano Quartet, Opus 87,  Jeewon Park came back out to join the three principals of  MMArtists, who in addition to her husband, Mr Arron, include violinist Colin Jacobnsen and violist Nicholas Cords. The best performances of Germanic chamber music from the Nineteenth Century seem always to suggest that excellence of execution, no matter how manifest, is of secondary importance to the expression of the musicians’ friendship, and Mr Arron and his friends reminded us that this tendency attains its high point with Dvorak.

Kathleen begged me to wait to see The King’s Speech until she could see it with me, and I did. I liked it and was very heartwarmed, but I was surprised at how brown and quiet-looking it was. Every attempt appears to have been made to strip the picture of regal flash. Home Life at “The Firm” would make a good subtitle, if smart  movies had subtitles (why is that only the most brainless ones do?) Colin Firth, although a very handsome man, does not have the interestingly sleek, quasi-“Oriental” features of George VI; nor does he project majesty. Well, of course not; this is a movie about a stammerer who is taught the confidence to speak plaintly by a failed actor just this side of a mountebank. The movie’s funniest moment is also its most rude: the Duchess of York (the magnificent Helena Bonham Carter) trills that dinner with the family of her husband’s helper would be delightful and then immediately rolls up this prospect in the claim of a “previous engagement.” Without ruffling her composure in the slightest, the actress projects the alarm of a cat in free fall.

Geoffrey Rush, as the self-taught speech therapist Lionel Logue, is grand and craggy enough to anchor the story through its gales of potential uplift; there is also a terribly important scene in which the Duke of York (as he then still is) berates and spurns Logue with a heartlessness that makes you want to summon the RSPCA. And yet the story does not follow in the footsteps of The Madness of King George. This King George actually apologizes, which is also terribly important.

I wanted to see more of Eve Best, who plays Wallis Simpson with breathtakingly impudent self-assurance; what I’m probably clamoring for is a series of movies in which Ms Best and Guy Pearce enact further adventures of the Windsors. Mr Pearce is thoroughly convincing as “David,” a man who, all who knew him seem to agree, was fundamentally childish and inconsequential but also blessed with a godlike grace that his brother lacked. I also wanted to see more of Jennifer Ehle, who plays Mrs Logue; but then I always want to see more of Jennifer Ehle. Don’t you sometimes think that Jennifer Ehle is the Meryl Streep upgrade?

Another true-story movie that I saw but did not get round to writing up was the one in which Ewan McGregor plays a cutie by the name of Philip Morris — I Love You Philip Morris turns out to have nothing to do with smoking. Not a frame of this frolicsome film went by without my wondering, bewildered, how it ever got made. Where is the audience for a romp about a nutty gay con man?  Jim Carrey’s brio is so extreme that his scenes feel animated, to accommodate cartoonishly stretched limbs and leers — but we expect this of Mr Carrey. Philip Morris is a must-see movie because of the bashful glances that Mr McGregor casts through the magnolias of his eyelashes. 

¶ At MTC, we saw Spirit Control. (Kathleen also saw The Pitmen Painters; Ms NOLA took my ticket to that show.) The interesting thing about this play by Beau Willimon is that it works very well as a theatre piece but fails again and again as a formal structure. At the very beginning, Adam, an air-traffic controller, attempts to guide an inexperienced woman through the landing of a small plane. This increasingly hair-raising scene ends in a way that guarantees the audience’s sympathy with and concern for Adam, and a plainly naturalistic sequel would have been satisfying. As it is, Spirit Control ought to crash as disastrously as a misguided plane, but the performances are so strong that it doesn’t matter that we can’t go along with the playwright’s arty meta complications. We still care.

Holiday Journal:
German Gymnastics
Thursday, 30 December 2010

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

At the beginning of Daniel Kehlman’s Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World, 2005), the mathematician Carl Freidrich Gauss journeys to Berlin, accompanied by his son, Eugen. The dyspeptic Gauss asks his son for a book.

Eugen gave him the one he had just opened: Friedrich Jahn’s German Gymnastics. It was one of his favorites.

Gauss tried to read, but seconds later he was already glancing up to complain about the newfangled leather suspension on the coach; it made you feel even sicker than usual. Soon, he explained, machines would be carrying people from town to town at the speed of a shot. Then you’d do the trip from Göttingent to Berlin in half an hour.

Eugen shrugged.

It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.

Eugen nodded sleepily.

Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character. He thought things over, called Eugen a failure again, and turned his attention to the book. As he read, Eugen in his distress turned his face fixedly to the window, to hide his look of mortification and anger.

German Gymnastics was all about exercise equipment. The author expounded at length on this or that piece of apparatus which he had invented for swinging oneself up or around on. He called one the pommel horse, another the beam, and another the vaulting horse.

The man was out of his mind, said Gauss, opened the window and threw the book out.

This passage has been much on my mind this year, because it pinpoints a truth about life in history that most people have no reason to attend to. They grow up in the world they’re born to, and it always seems natural. For tens of thousands of years, it’s true, human beings had no reason to imagine the possibility of other ways of life, but already by Gauss’s time (the early Nineteenth Century) the difference of a century or two in the timing of one’s arrival on earth could have a baleful effect on one’s opportunities. Today, differences appear much more rapidly. Had I been born a decade earlier, I might well have died, years ago, of colon cancer: my continued existence has depended upon the invention of fiber-optic cables, one of which detected a pre-cancerous tumor that turned out to be tricky to remove.

Far more palpably, as an everyday matter, I’ve lived long enough to make use of the Internet. To blog, even. If there’s one thing that I’m sure of, it’s that I was born to blog.

Here is a portion of the foregoing passage (translated by Carol Brown Janeway above) in the original.

Seltsam sei es und ungerecht, sagte Gauẞ, so recht ein Beispiel für die erbärmliche Zufälligkeit der Existenz, daẞ man in einer bestimmten Zeit geboren und ihr verhaftet sei, ob man wolle oder nicht. Es verschaffe einem einen unziemlichen Vorteil vor der Vergangenheit and mache eine zum Clown der Zukunft.

Sogar ein Verstand wie der seine, sagte Gauẞ, hätte in frühen Menschheitsaltern oder an den Ufern des Orinoko nichts zu leisten vermocht, wohingegen jeder Dummkopf in zweihundert Jahren sich über ihn lustig machen und absurden Unsinn über seine Person erfinden könne.

Seltsam sei es und ungerecht” … “unziemlichen Vorteil” … “Clown.” I will continue to try, in the New Year, not to throw German Gymnastics out the window.

Reading Note:
Stab At It
Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Trying to fashion a coherent response to The Kindly Ones in the immediate aftermath of its impact is wearying work, given my stunned and deranged state of mind. I’m aware of several objectives that don’t cohere. I’ve just read one of the most austerely monumental books that I’ll encounter in my lifetime, but the experience was occasionally so unpleasant that it feels foolish to press the book on your attention with glowing praise. By “unpleasant,” I don’t refer to the gas chambers and the genocide that are always in the background and occasionally in the foreground. I don’t refer to not infrequent display of fecal inconvenience. This subject-matter unpleasantness is, as one has every right to insist, handled ably by the writer’s prose. What I refer to is the impossibility of regarding Max Aue as a monster. The triumph of this novel is its humanization of a participant in the Final Solution. For many readers, I know, “triumph” is not the word for such an achievement; “disgrace” is more like it. But I am one of those people for whom a tiny but unbridgeable gap stretches between moral mind and committed deed, such that the mind is never captured by and reduced to the size of the deed. 

I’m going to jump in to a moment, about four fifths of the way into this thousand-page novel, that burned with cinematic intensity when I read it and that has lodged in my mind undigested. Forty-odd years ago, the scene might have been dished up by Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller, marinated in absurdist irony. A crazed ghost of raucous laughter still seems to rumble from the far corners of the view — we are standing on one of those ramps where incoming prisoners are “selected” — but therre is none of the distance that makes absurdity funny. 

A bit of background. After his recovery from a gunshot wound that he rather strangely survives, Max casts about for a job in France, but in vain. At the prompting of two shadowy titans of business, Max reluctantly takes on an assignment relating to the concentration camps. Impressed by the pessimism of Albert Speer, who forecasts disaster for the Reich if the production of arms and vehicles is not increased, Max seizes on the hope of putting Germany’s prisoners to work. At first, the bustle of setting up and staffing an office, of arranging meetings and keeping busy, buoys Max up. Not for long, though. What’s alarming about Max’s exhaustive complaints is steady drip of pointlessness that leaks through them. Max imagines that he is running into various obstacles that might, if approached correctly, be moved, but it’s clear to us that all the research into nutrition and the reports on prison populations is simply useless. It’s partial and unreliable going in, and going out, it will have no impact on what anyone actually does. Max’s project is doomed by corruption, indifference, and the rising sense of national emergency. And because Max is trying to save lives, if only in the short term and for the purposes of extracting labor, we’re doubly disheartened: poor Max, poor prisoners. The power of The Kindly Ones rises from Jonathan Littell’s ability to make Max’s workday problems gripping by stretching them out, in lean but comprehensive physical detail, over questions of life and death. If lives, if the future of the Reich were not at stake (contrary goals), then perhaps none of it would be interesting. But since they are, listening to Max is not only fascinating but flabbergasting. After an “action” in Hungary, Max speeds up to Auschwitz, only to find that the rations problem is never going to come up, because most prisoners are immediately dispatched to the crematorium. It’s as though someone in a roomful of people without skills were to call out, “let’s put on a show.”

There wasn’t too much disorder; for a long time I observed the doctors who carried out the selection (Wirths wasn’t there), they spent one or two seconds on each case, at the slightest doubt it was no, they seemed also to refuse many women who looked perfectly able-bodies to me; when I pointed this out to him, Höss told me they were following his instructions, the barracks were overcrowded, there wasn’t any more room to put people in, the factories were making a fuss, weren’t taking these Jews fast enough, and the Jews were piling up, epidemics were beginning again, and since Hungary kept sending them every day, he was forced to make room, he had already carried out several selections among the inmates, he had also tried to liquidate the Gypsy camp, but there had been problems and it had been put off till later, he had asked for permission to empty the Theresienstadt “family camp” and hadn’t yet received it, so in the meantime he could really only select the best,  in any case if he took any more they would soon die of disease. He explained all this to me calmly, his empty blue eyes aimed at the crowd and the ramp, absent. I felt hopeless, it was even more difficult to talk to this man than to Eichmann.


All day I surveyed the camp, section by section, barrack after barrack; the men were hardly in better shape than the women. I inspected the registers: no one, of course, had thought to respect the basic rule of warehousing, first in, first out; whereas some arrivals didn’t even spend twenty-four hours in the camp before being sent on, others stagnated there for three weeks, broke down, and often died, which increased the losses even more. But for each problem I pointed out to him, Höss unfailingly found someone else to blame. His mentality, formed by the prewar years, was completely unsuited to the job, that was plain as day; but he wasn’t the only one to blame, it was also the fault of the people who had sent him to replace Liebehenschel, who, from the little I knew of him, would have gone about it completely differently.

This overall picture of ineptitude from which these two extracts are drawn, in a single paragraph that extends for nearly seventeen pages, explodes any idea that of cold German competence. I’m reminded of the ghoulish Chas Addams cartoon in which a patent lawyer aims a baroque weapon out his office window and complains to his would-be client, “Death ray? Fiddlesticks! It doesn’t even slow them down!”

Nano Note:
Bach in Order II
Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

The outer limits of classical-music geekery, I expect, but not an unpopulated place. Learning to live with and love the classics on iPod playlists. Where you can plan ahead.

I’ve just, for the first time, reproduced a playlist work for work, but with completely different performers. Here was the first Bach in Order playlist, in which English Suites, French Suites, Cello Suites and Partitas were sandwiched between concerti grossi from Corelli’s Opus 6. (If I find something to insert between the pairs of cgi at the “intermissions,” I’ll be in heaven.)

  • Corelli: Trevor Pinnock and his band.
  • English Suites: András Schiff.
  • French Suites: Keith Jarrett.
  • Cello Suites: Yo-Yo Ma.
  • Partitas: Angela Hewitt.

And now, for the second round:

  • Corelli: Ensemble 415.
  • English Suites: Angela Hewitt.
  • French Suites: Andrew Rangell.
  • Cello Suites: Pierre Fournier.
  • Partitas: Vladimir Ashkenazy.

When I saw that I had another set of Opus 6 (Sigiswald Kuijkin’s), and Angela Hewitt’s French Suites just lying around, I went ahead and ordered Lynn Harrell’s Cello Suites, Robert Levin’s English Suites, and András Schiff’s Partitas. Bach in Order III, coming up!

This is the sort of thing that was too cumbersome to imagine in the age of the LP. Or even with tapes. Hours’ worth of music, all familiar as hell, but all played by different people — and that’s, of course, what you notice. The performances stand out over the music itself, in a simply palpable way that’s, strangely, new.

And my choices, I hasten to confess, are as conservative as all get-out. That’s why there’s no Glenn Gould! (Yet!) I’ve just put in for Casals and Starker.

Gotham Diary:
Natural Selection
28 December 2010

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

For someone wishing to remain a communicator of words and concepts, this poses an unusual challenge. Gone is the yellow pad, with its now useless pencil. Gone is the refreshing walk in the park or workout in the gym, where ideas and sequences fall into place as if by natural selection. Gone too are productive exchanges with close friends — even at the midpoint of decline from ALS, the victim is usually thinking far faster than he can form words, so that conversation itself becomes partial, frustrating, and ultimately self-defeating.

That’s the late, great Tony Judt, writing earlier this year about the impact of ALS on the life of the mind, in The Memory Chalet. I quote the entire paragraph, but it is only the second sentence that concerns me here. I had to put the book down when I read it; I was overcome with envy and regret. In my case, “natural selection” has ordained a disconnection between thinking and doing. Nothing shuts my mind down with grimmer efficiency than physical exercise. No, that’s not right: my mind isn’t shut down; it’s reduced to a dreary concentration camp. My imagination is bound and netted by the essential pointlessness of exercise: doing nothing (from an intellectual point of view) is a waking nightmare. “Refreshing walks in the park”: I must ask if the phrase has an actual meaning in my life. It doesn’t, not in Judt’s sense. A walk in the park, with no mindful destination or purpose, is simply a succession of dumb steps. A walk to the bookstore requires the same number of steps, but my mind is alert — in pursuit of the contents of a book, or perhaps only the pleasure of bookstore bookchat. And  the only thing that I can compare a workout in the gym to is a weird sort of self-induced rape, where you make yourself have sex with someone whom you don’t want to touch and whom you don’t want touching you. If that’s hard to imagine, then you can see why I don’t belong to a gym.

I know what Judt means by “natural selection,” because I’ve seen it represented in the movies. Ron Silver, in Reversal of Fortune, comes to mind. He’s playing Alan Dershowitz, who is playing basketball in his driveway. Suddenly Dershowitz stops, or, rather, he doesn’t stop suddenly, it’s as though suddenly the life were beginning to drain out of him. But it’s only the energy that basketball requires; that energy is being diverted to his brain, where a breakthrough in the von Bulow case has just been announced. The breakthrough has presented itself; Judt might as well have written “magically,” and, as we all know, magic can’t happen if you’re peeking. Dershowitz stops playing basketball and gets back to work, his vigor manifestly renewed. The lesson is clear: it’s important to stop thinking altogether, sometimes, and to abandon yourself to physical challenge. Otherwise, you’ll never figure anything out.

But that doesn’t work for me. As I say, I can think things over while I’m walking to the bookstore, or to the theatre, or to any destination at all, so long as I am not walking for the sake of walking. And walking is obviously the only permissible activity: there is no call for running or jumping, no point to strenuous exercise other than indulging it for its own sake, which stops thinking cold. I do a great deal of reaching and carrying in my householding life, and I spend hours standing in the kitchen, but none of this is exercise; it’s just life. I’m usually thinking about what I’m doing: dusting a bookshelf, or sorting through the papers in a folder. Interesting thoughts fly by every now and then, and I’m trying to discipline myself to stop to write them down, not as dashed-off notes that won’t make any sense an hour later, but with an intelligible imprint of context, as if to capture what the thought felt like. For the most part, though, I do my thinking when I’m reading, writing, or talking. It’s only then that I’m informed by the sharp and vital editorial voice that tells me that I’m mistaken. Without that, my mind is a foggy blob.

This isn’t to say that I never enjoy a refreshing walk in the park. I do! But it’s only when the thinking has been done, the long piece written. And the walk is refreshing because there is nothing to think about. After a good walk, my brain settles into an ox-like stolidity that is blind to abstraction. It is something like sleep. My mind takes a while to wake up. During that time, I don’t mind being stupid; I’m too stupid to care. I can’t imagine that Tony Judt was ever stupid for a moment. 

Reading Note:
Greedy Vegetables
Monday, 27 December 2010

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Now that I’ve finished Jonathan Littell’s monumental novel of World War II, The Kindly Ones — perhaps it would be better to say that The Kindly Ones has finished me off, overwhelming me with its deranging account of moral confusion (for what it would be wrong to say of the Nazi universe recreated in the novel’s pages is that it is amoral) — now that I’m done, but have nothing yet to say, except “Wow” and “Whoa,” I can at least note that what prompted me to pick up the book, after nearly four years’ neglect, was Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which I read last month and wrote about, briefly, soon after.

Not that I can remember just what it was about Keilson’s fiction that sent me back to Littell’s. It may have been something like this: if Comedy in a Minor Key not only cheered me up but also left me smiling, how bad could The Kindly Ones be — and wouldn’t it be great to transfer two massive tomes (the French original and the much thicker translation) from the reading pile to a library shelf, perhaps library shelf in somebody else’s home? You’ll note that I never mentioned reason here; there was no reason in the world to proceed from the one book to the other. They didn’t appear to have anything in common — when I finished the Comedy, I’d read about 150 pages of The Kindly Ones — and I can now attest that, beyond a vague overlap in temporal setting, the two books have in fact nothing whatever in common. It is indeed “great” to move the two Littells to another shelf, but they won’t be leaving the house.

In a fever dream that Max Aue, Littell’s protagonist, suffers toward the end of the novel, shooting stars hit the earth and sprout monstrous seaweedy plants, which proceed to cover the surface of the planet. In Charlotte Mandell’s excellent translation, Jonathan Littell’s végétaux avides become “greedy vegetables.” It’s an intoxicating note.



Holiday Journal:
Saturday, 26 December 2010

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

It’s the day after Christmas, and we’re expecting a whopping pile of snow here in New York. How nice it would be to do what we did yesterday: absolutely nothing. But we have a date at the Museum; we’re taking a friend from Malaysia to brunch. I’m going to pack my camera, in hopes of capturing some winter wonderland magic out the window.

When I say that we did “absolutely nothing” yesterday, I exaggerate. There was plenty of regular breathing. (And some irregular breathing, too: Kathleen had a bit of a cough.) I made a hero sandwich, and ate half of it in the middle of the afternoon and half of it at midnight, after we watched Eat Pray Love, a movie that seemed about twenty times more ridiculous on DVD than it did in the theatre. (But still very pretty, and almost saved by Richard Jenkins’s fantastic rooftop scene.) Kathleen survived on dinner rolls, applesauce, and a bowl of alphabet noodles. She never really got out of bed. I spent the day planted in my chair, reading The Kindly Ones. (“It’s too depresssing! They’re losing the war.” But I couldn’t put it down.)

The holiday bustle culminated in a lovely Christmas Eve with Megan, Ryan, and Will. We sent the O’Neills home with half a shelf of new books. “But we didn’t bring presents,” Megan protested. We assured her that she and Ryan had indeed brought a present — a little fellow who turns one year old next Saturday morning.

Reading Note:
Thursday, 23 December 2010

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

For most of the afternoon, which I ought to have spent preparing the house for the holidays and its meals, I’ve been slumped over my copy of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (in Charlotte Mandel’s translation). It is ludicrously untimely reading — its thousand pages recount the World War II experiences of a Nazi bureaucrat belonging to the SS — but instead of distracting me from the sound of sleigh bells, it intensifies the keenness with which I hear them. The massiveness of such a piece of great literature is always viscerally affirming. No post-modern accumulation of details this, The Kindly Ones accumulates its formidable heft minute by minute, as Max Aue slips and staggers beneath an insanity that is not his alone, but an entire nation’s.

Recognized as a masterpiece in France when it appeared (as Les Bienveillantes, in 2006), but dismissed almost neurasthenically here, when it appeared in English last year, Littell’s book forces upon the reader a shocking reconsideration of the Hitler years. Reconsideration, I say; not revision. Even though the novel’s point of view is resolutely fastened within the mind of a would-be intellectual, there is not a whisper of real support for the Nazi apologetics that the protagonist elicits from his interlocutors between the moments of atrocity and mayhem that burst through the narrative. What’s new is that point of view, which, however much that of a Nazi, is incontrovertibly that of a human being. There are readers for whom this humanizing tendency must be suspect, as a kind of pleading the Nazi case; I suspect that they’ll be the readers with personal recollections of the War.

For those born long afterward, however, humanization simply makes the whole nightmare worse. For the Nazis were not an army of alien zombies who appeared out of nowhere and started to make trouble. They were as rooted in the soil of history and circumstance as we all are, and that is the lesson of this long read: although the Nazis were, at the very least, monstrously wrong-headed, their wrong-headedness was nothing special. They had personal ambitions and weaknesses and grudges and they were easily intoxicated by Hitler’s promise of excitement. This excitement, in particular, gave them a ruthlessly efficient appearance, because we are always a bit ruthless about taking what we want when we think that we’re entitled to it; but as the inaugurators of a new world order, the Nazis were incoherent bumblers. They had no realistic long-term plans. And they were ridiculous. This was noted at the time, but shushed up when the extermination of the Jews came to be widely understood. There could be nothing ridiculous about the architects of death factories. But almost everything else about the Nazi experiment became ridiculous as mass murder became its principal obsession.  

I’m only halfway through; I’ve got almost five hundred pages to go. Much of that, I’ve gathered from what I’ve read about the book, will concern the death camps, and I expect it to be as difficult to read as the account of the SS aktionen in the Ukraine that fills the first couple of hundred pages. These “actions” were horrifically improvised liquidations of Jewish populations in the cities and towns that the German army swept through in its reach for the oil reserves of the Caspian shores. The Kindly Ones obliges us to consider the distress and psychological damage that was borne by the German troops charged with the one-by-one shooting of thousands of men, women, and children. We have understandably preferred to regard this damage as infinitesimally small, which it is, but only in comparison with the wretchedness suffered by the victims. We do not consider the victims here: that is the power of Jonathan Littell’s literary achievement. And precisely because the distress is now overwhelming in its own right, we the measure of the woe of the Holocaust is greater and darker. We realize, as we turn the many, many pages of the novel’s Allemande section, that a measure of comic relief that helped us bear up against the fact of the Holocaust will henceforth be denied. 

I’ve been so lost in the factuality of the story, with its swerves between banal office politics and unspeakable barbarism, that I did not, until about twenty minutes before reaching the end of the Sarabande, see how literally the title is intended. The Kindly Ones are, of course, the Furies, and their most celebrated appearance in classical literature is at the trial of Orestes, who avenged the murder of his father by murdering his mother. Twenty minutes before I got to the end of the Sarabande — a relative brief respite from war that Max Aue spends in Berlin, Paris, and Antibes — a faint neural pealing grew into a tintinnabulating fanfare: Littell has underpinned his epic of hatred and frenzy with one of the West’s foundational studies of guilt: the Oresteia of Aeschylus.

Holiday Journal:
$1.56 x 50
22 December 2010

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

At the post office yesterday, a clerk and I engaged in a passive-aggressive encounter about the mailing of about fifty small parcels. Each one contained a VistaPrint desk calendar featuring Kathleen’s photographs. The clerk wanted to give me stamps. I wanted her to print them. Being the customer, I won, but I was made to feel awkward. It turned out that I’d negligently proceeded from the general queue to the “stamps only” window. The clerk really ought to have sent me back to the head of the line, but that wouldn’t have been passive-aggressive, would it? Instead, she weighed each and every one of my identical packages, printing out postage in the amount of $1.56, while commiserating with customers who came directly to the window (which can have its own queue) and advising them that “this gentleman” would be taking “quite a while.” I thought how, had I been waiting for stamps only, I’d have bored rays of hatred and contempt into my back, rocking with indignation each time I bent over to pick up yet another batch of buff envelopes from the shopping bags at my feet. But I wasn’t waiting for stamps only; I was discharging a daunting holiday obligation that involved going to one of my least-favorite places, a United States Post Office. I apologized to the clerk several times, but each time she told me that it wasn’t my fault. There you have it, then. When it was all over and I took the extremely long receipt — you can’t just print fifty postage stickers, because each one contains all sorts of priceless information, such as the destination’s ZIP code, so the receipt reported fifty transactions — my discomfort simply vanished, and I went on with my day of slow-motion holiday bustle: Staples (new landline telephones); the bank (cash, sweet cash — which is what we used to say Notre Dame’s “C.S.C.” stood for); the Shake Shack (an imprudent but scrumptuous lunch al fresco); Yorkshire Wines (champagne for the doormen; can you believe that someone tipped our Dominick $500?); a Christmas tree stand (perfect! and only $40!); Radio Shack (batteries); the East 86th Street Theater (The King’s Speech); and the New Panorama Café. In between the second shack and the movie (which I saw with Kathleen), I read from a profoundly unseasonable book, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, about which more anon.

Dark Swan
21 December 2010

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a movie about a delusional ballerina that, very daringly, does not appear to cue the audience as to how delusional she is. In other words, viewers who want to know what “really” happened will leave the theatre disappointed at best and delusional, themselves, at worst — as they try to locate code to decipher. Where does the story end and the nightmare begin? Does Nina (Natalie Portman) suffer an inadvertently self-inflicted wound at the end? Is Lily (Mila Kunis) a scheming competitor or an ingenuous colleague? Is Erica (Barbara Hershey) a loving mother or a demented enabler? How much of Nina’s relationship with the ballet company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is wishful? Does anything at all in The Black Swan really happen?

If questions such as these oppress your mind as you leave the theatre, then Mr Aronofsky’s movie will have failed you — or you may have failed it. If, in contrast, you’re upset by the extremes of vulnerability and fragility that Ms Portman projects in every scene, then you’re far more likely to give the picture a satisfactory rating.

But allow me to propose a third test: if, after seeing Black Swan, listening to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is a new and shocking experience, then you’ll be really delighted that a friend dragged you to a movie that you hadn’t really intended to see.

I’ve never seen Swan Lake danced. There’s a lot of ballet that I haven’t seen. I always have a good time when I do “go to the ballet,” and I make a point of seeing the Paul Taylor Company every year, but by the time I’m done with concerts and plays, I’ve run out of steam. Once, in my radio days, I was asked to present an armful of roses to a ballerina at the end of a performance at Houston’s Miller Theater, and that was an eye-opener. Standing backstage, I watched the corps’ beaming smiles rise and fall with the curtain; when the audience couldn’t see them, the dancers were not happy campers. That was one of several experiences that intensified my determination to remain on the audience’s side of the proscenium. I know that artists suffer for their work, but I don’t want to see the suffering, because it’s not the point. The point is the finished artwork or the performance. Which is pretty much why I didn’t intend to see Black Swan. The bleeding toes, the grinding repetitions and the twittering malice, the total commoditization of a pretty dancer’s body — these are not the things that make ballet interesting or enjoyable. They make it seem more like an unfair labor practice, or an undesirable one, even, one not unlike prostitution.

Thanks to Nina’s delusions (however extensive they may be), the bleeding toes and so forth are moved to the background of Black Swan, and will impress and/or shock only those viewers who have never given a thought to ballet. Mr Aronofsky intends us to take them for granted to the same extent that dancers themselves do. It’s what happens beyond the normal agonies — what the rigors of dance can do to the psyche, not to the body — that interests him. And he has chosen to explore the violence and damage of ballet in terms of what is arguably its most celebrated examplar. He amuses himself by twisting the narrative elements of Swan Lake — the evil spell, the doppelgänger, the thwarted love — into a movie about a hardworking girl who lives with her mom on the Upper West Side. The score is a rich blend of Tchaikovsky’s original and Clint Mansell’s eerie variations on it. It is impossible to imagine a more darkly gleaming matrix for the drama of Nina’s breakdown.

Which is, curiously, what Swan Lake seemed to be about when I listened to the music the next day. Forget Rothbart and the Prince and the cygnets and the fustian moonlight. The music seemed to voice a more invasive nightmare. As it soared and glittered and plunged, now sparkling, now tragic, I inhabited Nina’s troubled mind, in which bogus souvenirs of an innocent childhood jostled with one of the most gruesome metaphors for sexual maturation imaginable: spiky feathers poking horribly through raw, scratched skin. I felt that I was inside Natalie Portman’s contorted face and wracked body. The wretchedness was unendurable but also transfiguring: so this was what Swan Lake is really about! By paying compelling but inventive homage to a great work of art, Darren Aronofksy’s Black Swan re-creates it.

Holiday Journal:
Under Cover
Monday, 20 December 2010

Monday, December 20th, 2010

The blagueurs have been packed off on vacation, with instructions not to fall too far behind on the feeds. The change in routine is unpremeditated, but it doesn’t discomfit me as it once would have done. I need a holiday, so I’m going to take advantage of the holiday season as a cover. You probably need a change of routine, too.

I need to think a bit about the Daily Office. I’ve had great fun taking it over, as it were. Until November, the Office was little more than a frame for longish extracts  from Web pages that I found interesting. There wasn’t much for me to say about them — without repeating them. Then, in one of those ironic developments that keep life interesting, I decided to make things simpler by summarizing the material myself. This immediately resulted in lots more writing by me, but it really was easier. Instead of quoting Frank Rich, while trying to come up with artful paraphrases of what he was saying, I could simply fold the gist of his remarks into my response to them, writing more or less off the top of my head. (What a curious expression that is!) The Daily Office much easier to do and much more quickly done.

But if writing the Daily Office took less time, it still took a long time to prepare. In order to write about Frank Rich, I have to read Frank Rich, and in order to find a bit of Frank Rich that engages something that is on my mind, I have to read a lot of other interesting but, for the moment, not particularly relevant material. For that’s what the Office is about: the frankly egotistical business of sharing bits and pieces of writing that reflect what I’m thinking about anyway.

Many bright people prefer to think things through on their own, but my cast of mind is essentially sociable. I don’t have much to say unless somebody else says something first. I can’t understand why anybody would listen to me — I don’t listen to me. I listen to good writers. The number of good writers used to be manageably, if disappointingly, small. Like everybody else, I used to read books and magazines. It takes a while to read a book, which means that you spend a while in the company of one mind. Magazines offer more variety, but if they’re any good they’re filtered through a distinctive editorial outlook — a handful of minds at the most. But then the Internet was invented, and my mind was suddenly engaged by hundreds of others.

Thinking about this change lately, I’ve recurred to a thrilling experience that I had at the age of fourteen. Accompanying my parents on a business trip to San Francisco, I was staying at the Fairmont Hotel, atop Nob Hill. The hotel had recently added a modern tower at the rear of its imposing pile (which survived the earthquake), and to surpass the competition across California Street (the “Top of the Mark”), the designers mounted an outdoor elevator that ran between the lobby level and the top-floor bar. Outdoor elevators were remarkable in those days, but this outdoor elevator offered something much more remarkable.

As the elevator began its climb, Powell Street receded, but the view of bland neighboring buildings did little to challenge the excitement of being in an outdoor elevator. Higher up, though — I don’t remember how much higher — the neighboring rooftops fell away and, with them, the whole world: suddenly, there was all of San Francisco, with the Bay and its bridges, and Oakland and the mountains and, for all you knew, Sacramento. The excitement of being in an outdoor elevator dissolved in the excitement of seeing the city from a rocket ship. The view was amazing, but it was the sudden transformation of the view that book your breath away.

That’s what reading the Internet has been like. From a few dozen books and magazines, I’ve passed to a horizonless panorama of ideas and expressions. Most of it isn’t very interesting, but there are so many orders of magnitude more of it that a very great deal of it is. I could get lost in it — and that’s what I’m afraid of doing. That’s why I’m taking this little break, under cover of the holiday season.

Morning Snip:

Friday, December 17th, 2010

From Aljean Harmetz’s obituary of Blake Edwards (1922-2010).

The critic Andrew Sarris wrote in 1968 that Mr. Edwards had gotten “some of his biggest laughs out of jokes that are too gruesome for most horror films.”


A lifelong depressive, Mr. Edwards told The New York Times in 2001 that at one point his depression was so bad that he became “seriously suicidal.” After deciding that shooting himself would be too messy and drowning too uncertain, he decided to slit his wrists on the beach at Malibu while looking at the ocean. But while he was holding a two-sided razor, his Great Dane started licking his ear, and his retriever, eager for a game of fetch, dropped a ball in his lap. Trying to get the dog to go away, Mr. Edwards threw the ball, dropped the razor and dislocated his shoulder. “So I think to myself,” he said, “this just isn’t a day to commit suicide.” Trying to retrieve the razor, he stepped on it and ended up in the emergency room.

Daily Office:
Thursday, 16 December 2010

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Matins ¶ Abby Goodnough’s story reminds us that, for the first time in a very long time, there will be no Kennedys in national office. Patrick Kennedy, six-term representative from Rhode Island who declined to seek re-election this year, is packing up for his farmhouse in Portsmouth. One aspect of the Kennedy legacy is stronger than ever: Americans are quite used now to political dynasties. Movie-star dynasties, as well. Indeed, it may be that we’re reverting to the very traditional idea that children follow in their parents’ footsteps because they grow up in them. (NYT)

Lauds ¶ Sebastian Smee weighs in at the Globe about the Hide/Seek/Wojnarowicz controversy — which is, of course, a controversy only the nation’s smaller minds. The idea that art that some viewers find “offensive” must be denied exhibition to all viewers is itself offensive. Underlying the conservative criticism of Hide/Seek is a fear of liberal depravity, which is the counterweight to liberals’ fear of conservative bigotry. The notion that Americans who reject Christianity — or, more particularly, its worldly representatives — are depraved must be staunchly “refudiated.” (via Arts Journal) 

Prime ¶ What caught our attention about the “firestorm of controversy” raging in Bedford, New Hampshire wasn’t so much the appropriateness of placing Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent Nickel and Dimed on a high-school personal-finance curriculum, but the charge, made by complaining parents, the the book contains a “negative depiction of capitalism.”

Really? How so? Capitalism is a system of legally-protected property rights that, notoriously or not, allows investors to make money from the labor of others. As we recall, Ehrenreich nowhere challenges the legitimacy of this system. Rather, she complains about the failure of many businesses, large and small, to provide workers with a living wage. Those businesses may all be as capitalist as you please, but the problem of wages has nothing to do with capitalism — unless you believe that investors own the right to make money from the underpaid (that is, unpaid) labor of others, which is simply another way of saying “slavery.” (Union-Leader; via MetaFilter)

Tierce ¶ The inclusion of the iPad among The Onion‘s list of 2010’s most notable people is a silly joke that’s not so silly. The editors of The Morning News extracted this sentence to cover their link to The Onion: “We replaced the human being you naturally expected in a list of the year’s most prominent newsmakers with an inanimate object.” Anyone who didn’t spend the year in a cave could predict what that inanimate object would turn out to be.

In 1985, when he bought an IBM Peanut, the Editor did not feel that he was anywhere near the leaders of the personal computing pack, and as he becomes more interested in what computers can do, he is less interested in how they work. But he feels that the iPad makes an apt 25th-anniversary celebration of his digital life. We agree: the iPad is the first computer to feel at all personal. So, even though there are millions of iPads out there, the Editor’s feels like the only one.

Sext ¶ Who’d a thunk it? Hitler’s opus, Mein Kampf, topped an Amazon list of legal-thriller ebooks. Briefly. People have actually been paying either $1.58 or $1.60 to own this classic rant. They can’t be reading it, though. Mein Kampf is unimaginably dull. In a test of his First-Amendment rights, the Editor checked Mein Kampf out of the Bronxville School library in the eighth grade, but he gave up when he ran into the word “juxtaposed,” which he did not know. Mrs Cochrane, his savvy home-room teacher, defined the word for him in a way that let him know that she saw this Mein Kampf thing as just another one of his ridiculous stunts. The book was returned to the library long, long before it was due. (Crave; via The Awl)

Nones ¶ At Today’s Zaman, Kerim Balci writes about the Ottoman Commonwealth of Nations. Well, no, such a commonwealth does not exist, except as a dream — which is wha,t Mr Balci argues, it ought to remain. His cogent arguments against the attempt to “restore” the Ottoman Empire in any form are cogent and instructive, making a connection between then and now that is realistic rather than romantic. Interestingly, the European Union currently provides a painful example of what can go wrong with bright ideas.

Vespers ¶ John Self reads They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and discovers that, yes, there are no horses in Horace McCoy’s grim pulp, which Simone de Beauvoir called the first “existentialist” American novel.  The exhausting marathon dance at the end of the line — a pier on the Pacific — is both pure and pungent, an implicit excoriation of broad American failure that never so much as whispers a scolding. A classic on this side of the Atlantic as well, Horses can be found in the first volume of the Library of America’s Crime Novels collection. See the movie if you’re inclined, but do not regard it as a substitute for the experience of reading the book. (Asylum)

Compline ¶ At Smithsonian, historian John Ferling lays out seven “Myths of the American Revolution.” He means the term “myth” properly: myths grow up around some truths and occlude others; that’s what’s “wrong” about them. Briefly, Mr Ferling clarifies the following popularly held understandings: the British began the war impulsive, without knowing what they were in for; American support for the war was unanimous; the American army was bedraggled, and its militia useless; Saratoga was the turning point; Washington was a military genius; and the British could not have won the war. All correct, to a point — except the one about Washington, who was all but incompetent. The omission of France’s indispensable role suggests that it’s not a myth, but we think that it would have been nice to mention. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

Have a Look

¶ Ah Xian. (The Best Part)

¶ Behold Benedict XVI leering at shirtless acrobats. (Joe.My.God)


¶ Boring 2010 a success! (James Ward: I Like Boring Things)

Morning Snip:

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

The murder of a town bully, Ken Rex McElroy, thirty years ago, in Skidmore, Missouri, will probably never be avenged by the law. Outgoing prosecutor David Baird has never believed that he could make a case, given the concerted silence of the townspeople who witnessed the event. Or, in the alternative, that justice could be served by the law.

As his long tenure comes to an end questions about the lack of resolution in the murder case — perhaps the most infamous in the area since Jesse James was shot nearby a century earlier — continue to follow Mr. Baird. He was charged with wading through the sensational details and moral ambiguities of the case to ensure that, in his words, justice was served.

But justice is a loaded term in a case that challenges the usual assumptions of victim and perpetrator. And Mr. Baird, all these years later, is still unwilling to give his own view on whether justice was served even though — or because — the killer was never tried.

“You could talk to everybody in this case, and they’d give you a different answer,” he said in an interview at his office in the red brick county courthouse in nearby Maryville. “I’m never going to answer that question. It’s never going to happen.”

The Tourist

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Until I read Manohla Dargis’s snarky review of The Tourist in the Times, I had no plans to see the picture, but when I saw that the Orpheum Theatre would be showing it, a block away, at ten o’clock in the morning, I thought, why not? Why not give Ms Dargis a chance to be right for a change — to write a review that I could agree with. The tedium of sitting through a mediocre movie would be more than made up for by the world-historical excitement of seeing the world through a pair of eyes that long ago struck me as overdue for the attentions of an optician. But it was not to be. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s second feature film turned out to be huge fun, and once again I was left wondering why the Times keeps assigning movies that a ten year-old could predict she won’t like to Ms Dargis for review. That’s what bugs me. It isn’t that I never agree with her; never agreeing with her is useful and reliable. To be a little less snarky myself, I was encouraged to see The Tourist because Ms Dargis didn’t like it particularly. What bugs me, though, is that they make her sit through so many unsympathetic movies, and to what end?

The Tourist is a caper film, so I can’t say very much about its plot. It belongs to that sub-genre of caper films that I label “gambit,” in recognition of the very entertaining film of that name. The elusive Elise Ward is being followed through Paris by Scotland Yard, in hopes that she will lead the law (represented by Paul Bettany) to Alexander Pierce, a shadowy banker who is wanted by the British government for a staggering amount of back taxes. He’s wanted by a thug named Shaw (Steven Berkoff) for having stolen the even more staggering taxable sum. At the beginning, Elise is instructed by Alex to take the next train to Venice and to pick up (and make a decoy of) any guy who is more or less his size and build. So that’s what she does, more or less silently but with great panache. The measure of the director’s sense of cinematic humor can be taken when, pausing at the top of a Métro staircase, Elise consults her wristwatch and then confers a pitying smile upon her pursuers. With all the the nonchalance in the world, she descends the empty flight of stairs, but before the lieutenants can reach it a horde of exiting passengers blocks their passage as if on cue. It’s impossibly droll.

(Another instance: assault rifles are fired from a great distance. Nothing seems to happen to the targets, but suddenly the windowpanes turn to snow and three men drop to the ground, removed from the action with a dispatch that undercuts the idea that they were ever as dangerous as they seemed; Mr Henckel von Donnersmarck wants us to know that he would never dream of boring us with yet another gunfight.)

I’ve never been a fan of Angelina Jolie; I’ve seen only one or two of her pictures. But I’m a fan of her performance in The Tourist. She shakes up one part Rita Hayworth, one part Ava Gardner, two parts Christina Hendricks, and pours out the results in a low purring voice that I couldn’t get enough of. She eats up the scenery with a gusto that suggests compensation for all the real food that her diet does not permit, but her relish is brilliantly disguised as understatement. It’s as though Elise has been blasted by a vision, an actual experience of the concentrated glamour that the grand fashion models merely catalyze. Elise has been transformed, and you guess that life for her can only be a disappointment from now on — now that she has resolved to put Alexander Pierce behind her. As the hick whom she decides to exploit on the train tells her, she is the least down-to-earth of people. And yet, as if to make a little joke of her godhead, the director divides our attention between the glory of Angelina Jolie and the roach-like ubiquity of the male gaze that she excites. What a ratty little species we men are! But how she makes us ache to hear one true thing from those resplendent lips.

Johnny Depp, as the hick, plays a regular guy for a change — but of course he doesn’t, not really. Every regular-guy tic is calibrated with precision, and meant to be noticed as such. He gives us Jack Sparrow for grown-ups; he plays his part as if it were the gambit. Mr Bettany makes the perfect foil. In Public Enemy, the manic gangster played by Mr Depp was pursued by Christian Bale’s impersonation of an automaton. Here, the polarity is reversed. Mr Bettany is consumed by the righteous need to nail Alexander Pierce, no matter what the cost (and even though his superior, played by Timothy Dalton, has pulled the plug on the too-expensive investigation). You’re in no doubt that Inspector Acheson would eat one of his limbs if it would bag the renegade banker. Johnny Depp, meanwhile, is relaxed and bemused, at least when he’s not being shot at. As well he should be.

As for Venice, it has never looked more gloriously meretricious, and I do mean this as a compliment. Venice has been abused by a lot of movies, but this one treats it very sweetly. Naturally, there has to be a vaporetto chase in a canal at some point, but this one is not long and it has a few interesting wrinkles. The Hotel Danieli is made to look preposterous. There are no pigeons, and no churchbells. There is no attempt to experience Venice. It is seen as it has always wanted to be seen by outsiders: as a gigantic set. And sets, rather than bits of real Venice, are what we get for the most part. And why not have it serve as the set for two of American cinema’s most sacred monsters? The Tourist is set in a tourist’s idea of Venice. It’s perfect.

No more can be told you until you have seen The Tourist for yourself — which we do not encourage you to rush out and do right now, as that would not be cool. The movie unaccountably reminded Manohla Dargis of Hitchcock (a comparison that’s never flattering to anyone), but to me it was James Bond without the sadism and the self-importance. And the ending was happy to a degree unknown in Ian Fleming’s fantasies. (December 2010)

Daily Office:
Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Matins ¶ While we’re greatly cheered to read Fernanda Santos’s front-page Times story, “A Kitchen-For-Rent Is a Lifeline for the Laid-Off,” in which we’re introduced to a handful of cooks and caterers who are making the most of a professional kitchen in Queens that formerly served as a continuing-education facility for a labor-union constituency. But one or two mysteries stand between us and perfect happiness. What is the name of the kitchen, or of the not-for-profit organization that operates it? And is this organization self-supporting, or will it continue to rely upon grants and subsidies? Who actually owns the plant, which is currently rented to the not-for-profit for $1 per year? There is nothing in the story to make us doubt that it’s presenting a very worthy cause, but whether or not it depends on the kindness of strangers is a very important detail.

Lauds ¶ At The House Next Door, John Lingan frames Godard’s Breathless, one of the most influential films of all time (because it’s also one of the most intriguing), alongside the witless 1983 remake — which we’ve never seen. We’re tempted to, now, though, just to feel Mr Lingan’s perspicacity more keenly.

Prime ¶ Nothing clears up mental fog better than the dismantlement of a sloppy and tendentious financial story, preferably in the Journal, by Felix Salman. “The WSJ mistrusts companies which pay down debt” is a golden example. He shows that Sharon Terlep is still drinking boom-time Kool-Aid, intoxicated by “the leverage-is-good meme [that] simply refuses to die.” Felix carefully unpacks the article’s double-talk about General Motors debt, and raises a serious question about an alleged company statement.

Tierce ¶ The fascination of Chuck Dimock’s “I Was A Male Chatbot” is a little bit perverted: in place of the ironic levity that might so easily have been inspired by his pretending to be an approachable, unthreatening female on a retail sales Web site, we get an orthodox analysis in terms of gender theory and artificial intelligence. The piece is quite lucid, but it seems vaguely Turingesque itself, as if written by a computer with an underdeveloped sense of humor. Which just figures, if you think about it: social theorists, longing for the patina of scientific rigor, are probably going to wind up sounding less than human. (As It Ought To Be; via The Rumpus)

¶ So we’ve added Tom Scocca’s “conversation” with Eliza about today’s “machine-mediated” communications. What’s so funny? 

Sext ¶ We watch The Family Stone every year at Christmas; one of its powerful themes is the terrible but harmonisable dissonance between Christmas and cancer. Tracy Clark-Flory’s “All I Want For Christmas Is Nothing” sounds a carol in the same dark but warm key. In seven beautifully-crafted paragraphs, Clark-Flory brings her parents — a mother weakened by the final stages of lung cancer, a father, overcoming his aversion to Christmas, determined to make his wife comfortable — vividly alive. (Salon; via The Morning News)

Nones ¶ At the Globe, columnist James Carroll refrains from stating what every sentence in his piece points to: the possibility that Ireland entered the Twenty-First Century with an optimism so out of character that calamity was inevitable. Connecting the lending bubble to the religious abuse scandals seems particularly astute: both disasters show it to be harder than expected to get beyond the blacker parts of Irish history. We hope that a genuine Irish Republic will emerge from all the ruin. (via Real Clear World)

Vespers ¶ We share Laura Miller’s belief that readers of popular fiction know what they like, and that literary fiction doesn’t have what they’re after. Ms Miller is responding to novelist Edward Docx’s claim that there would be less Larsson and Brown, and more Franzen and Amis, dust jackets on view in the Underground if only riders could be made aware of the latters’ richly interesting prose. But richly interesting prose is just what most readers can’t abide. The Editor has never forgotten an important critical insight that was imparted by his sister: “And the best thing is that you can skim over a lot of it.” (Salon; via The Rumpus)

Compline ¶ Roxane Gay has the gift of being passionate and level-headed at the same time. Writing about her life in academia, she claims that she “wouldn’t give it up for anything,” but she begs to disabuse readers of any fantasies that they may have about its cushiness. She manages to convince us of her personal satisfaction while at the same time making it clear that her job, or assemblage of jobs, is an underpaid rat-race. We’re left more convinced than ever that higher education in the humanities needs not only a complete re-think but also a detachment from research institutions. (HTMLGiant)

Have a Look

¶ Beethoven snips at YouTube. (MetaFilter)

¶ “Map of Facebook Friends Connections Lights Up the World.” (Discoblog)


¶ The head of Henri IV (1589-1610; decapitated 1793) can be re-interred at St Denis as genuine. (Cosmos; via The Morning News)

¶ The Lawrence/Julie & Julia Project. “ You don’t have the enzymes to honor family either!” (via MetaFilter)

Morning Snip:

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

You can call it “self-confident,” if you like, but we have no words for the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, designed by Chuck Jordan. We never have. Mr Jordan died last week at the age of 83. (NYT)

That Mr. Jordan, once called “the last of the Great Design Dinosaurs,” could sense trends was suggested by the 1959 Eldorado. Jack Telnack, who was Mr. Jordan’s design counterpart at Ford, told Automotive News in 1992 that that car showed a pitch-perfect feel for the self-confident America of the 1950s.

“We had the resources and the wherewithal in this country to do anything we wanted,” Mr. Telnack said. “We dressed that way, we ate that way, we drove cars that way, we just lived that way, and I think that car was a real statement of where we were in our culture at that time.”

And just look what we did with it.

Gotham Diary:
Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

I spent five hours at the Hospital for Special Surgery this afternoon — that’s why I didn’t schedule a Daily Office. That, and my not feeling very well. Owing to nobody’s fault in particular, I was discovering that I can’t quite make it for fourteen weeks between Remicade infusions. Thirteen, yes; but no more. Days into the inadvertent fourteenth week, I was having to think twice before leaving the apartment, because my colon had reverted to its natural, irritable state. I’d run out of Remicade molecules! The last thing I wanted to do was languish in hospital waiting rooms, but I would only feel worse if I gave into that declension. I wanted to stay home because I needed what I’d have to go to the hospital to get.

It’s a very nice hospital, Special Surgery. I’ve certainly never been in a nicer one. That has something to do with the parts of the body that are treated there, bones and their integuments. The limbs that stretch away from the brain and the thoracic organs. No heart disease, no cancer, no emphysema. There may be unimaginable pain and crippling, but it isn’t, for the most part, potentially fatal. There is a sense in which every HSS patient is an athlete on the mend. We’re all getting better — and that’s obviously great for staff morale.

But the hospital also takes advantage of its location. The waiting room for Radiology and the visiting areas for inpatients all overlook the East River. That’s an understatement; they’re on the East River. Which regular readers know is a strait that flows in both directions, depending upon the tide, bearing ships and barges and police cruisers and sailboats and even (idiotic) jet-skis. No matter how bad you may feel, the misery of being shut away in a fluorescent hell isn’t making things worse.

So I felt better the moment I arrived at the hospital, an hour early for my appointment with the rheumatologist (a Facebook friend, by the way) who always looks me over before infusions. When I last saw him, in September, he ordered some X-rays of my cervical vertebrae, just to be sure that carrying my growing grandson around isn’t the reason why I’m suddenly capable of slight nodding: my neck really isn’t supposed to move at all at this point. It was inevitable that I would put off actually having the X-ray until my next visit to the hospital, i.e. today. What wasn’t inevitable was that I’d go to the hospital an hour early because I felt so lousy that I’d just as soon be in a hospital. It was even less foreseeable that I would start feeling better, as I say, as soon as I got there.

From 2:15 until 3, I waited for an X-ray slot. At 3, I put that wait on hold and went upstairs to see the rheumatologist. I was back downstairs by 3:25, and by 3:35 I was sitting in an X-ray room in my undershirt. (It’s cold in New York!) It took a long time to get all the X-rays, because, you see, my neck doesn’t move, and this confounds a lot of everyday technician wisdom. The guy who took my pictures was smart enough to know what he didn’t know, and a whizbang colleague was brought in at one point to kibitz. Radiologists were consulted, as well as the rheumatologist. I was feeling so much better by this point in the afternoon that, frankly, there wasn’t much to distinguish me from Norma Desmond; of course I was difficult. Or, rather, my body was. I myself couldn’t have been more obliging. I held odd positions for long stretches without a whisper of complaint. At one point, my butt was hiked up on a huge triangular ridge of foam, while my mouth roared wide open in silence. “Don’t breathe!” When it was all over, the technician thanked me for being a “good patient.” But of course, Mr De Mille! It was 4:30, time for Remicade.

The nurses at the Infusion Therapy Unit — only one of whom, Sara, was there when I paid my first visit, seven years ago next April — were Doodad’s best friend when it came to cooing over Facebook pictures of Will. Sara herself pronounced Will “one happy little boy.” Earlier, the rheumatologist, who seemed to have all the time in the world to hear about Will’s eager appetite for asparagus and mushroom soup, beamed at me and said, “I don’t know you know you, but I know you well enough not to be surprised that you’re a big softie about your grandson.” I took that as a compliment. Also as a suggestion to lose weight.

At 7:10 — I was so eager to be up and going that I wanted to offer to drink the last few milliliters of Remicade — I dashed out into the night, eager to catch Kathleen on her cell phone; she had just landed in St Louis for an overnight business trip. I got a taxi right away — and why not? New York was going my way. Every hospital stay should be as restorative as mine was today. I could swear that the Remicade is already working.

Morning Snip:

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Given our feeling that political parties are little more than power bases for unattractive people who couldn’t be elected dogcatcher, Matt Bai’s comments on Michael Bloomberg’s appearance at Sunday’s No Labels event lights up the room with spring sunshine. (NYT)

Those who think Mr. Bloomberg would want to build a similar kind of organization, be it No Labels or something else, are assuming that the growing power and disaffection of independent voters who identify with neither Democrats nor Republicans make a third party more viable than it has ever been. In fact, though, the rise of the independents represents a movement in exactly the opposite direction — away from party organizations altogether.

This isn’t so much a political phenomenon as it is a cultural one. In the last decade or so, the Web has created an increasingly decentralized and customized society, in which a new generation of voters seems less aligned, generally, with large institutions. and the Tea Party groups, for instance, were born as protests against the establishments of both parties, and they empowered citizens to create their own agendas, rather than relying on any elected leadership.

What the current moment might offer, then, as Mr. Bloomberg surely knows, is an unprecedented opportunity not for a new party, but for an independent candidate who represents a break from the dictates of any party organization, mainstream or otherwise. In the current environment, the less of a party apparatus an independent candidate carries, the better his chances of success may be.

Daily Office:
Monday, 13 December 2010

Monday, December 13th, 2010

{The next edition of the Daily Office will appear on Wednesday.}

Matins ¶ Having called for just such an initiative, we’re following the Young Entrepreneur Council with interest. This band of self-employed men and women between the ages (at the moment) of 17 and 33 is not waiting for corporate America to provide comfortable berths — especially now that even the most satisfying corporate jobs are hardly more secure than the ones they create for themselves. Their maxim — “Never Get a Real Job” — ought to be taken seriously; it’s what Noël Coward (a workaholic if ever there was one) had in mind when he said, “Work is so much more fun than fun.” (NYT)

We have a business idea for the Young Entrepreneurs: develop an inexpensive kit for renovating the typical suburban home by converting the garage into office space, complete with (monastic) sleeping quarters. Not only will this dignify heading back home after college and making the most of parental support, but it will probably shame genuine loafers into finding their own place. 

Lauds ¶ The Times sent its leading arts critic, Michael Kimmelman, to attend opening night at La Scala, and the evening provided a handy pretext for glancing at arts and heritage budget-cutting by the Berlusconi government (the prime minister, notoriously, has no use for such folderol). Although Italians don’t go to the opera the way they used to do, and seem to take their unmatched cultural patrimony for granted, opening night at La Scala is still a very big deal, and everyone shows up for it (except Mr Berlusconi). But it’s jarring to think that the season began with Die Walküre. According to Mr Kimmelman, the performance was excellent, at least from a musical standpoint, and it’s nice to know that La Scala can deliver a first-class production of Wagner. But surely one of Verdi’s masterpieces would have been more opportune. Otello might have been used, perhaps, to show the tragedy of a heroic people seduced by a wily nihilist into mistreating its prize resources (Pompeii).   

Prime ¶ Splashed across the front page of Sunday’s Times was Louise Story’s story about a cabal of Wall Streeters that controls trading in derivative commodity contracts. It is all very lie-down making, what with universal derivative fatigue in the wake of the late subprime mortgage — credit default swap — anything-involving-tranches calamity. So instead of plowing through the newspaper report itself, you can read the glosses, of which we highlight two: Chris Lehmann’s indignant pitchforkery at The Awl, which hails Ms Story’s determination, and Felix Salmon’s relatively becalmed wish for more rigorous substantiation of charges against the bankers.

Tierce ¶ A big story toward the end of last week was the study showing that you can cut down on your calories by imagining consuming them, as long as you do so carefully, one calorie at a time. As usual, Ed Yong gives the clearest account of the findings. We only wish that we had a better imagination. We cannot really conceive of the crisp cruch of a salty potato chip unless there happens to be a real one between our teeth. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Sext ¶ “After three or so hours of sleep, it was time to get up. It was like waking up to take an early flight, or for surgery, or for execution — all things I dislike.” Our friend Eric hauls himself off to New Jersey for an extreme obstacle course “race.” Read all about it; you’ll learn what “marathon” is in Greek. “The course flew by, just like my youth. Saudade stirred in my stomach, hüzün hit my heart, and melancholia (μελαγχολία) muddled my mind. I had never been around guys like this much in my life, and this seemed a pity. They seemed like the salt of the earth (מלח הארץ), although I’m sure that many of them must have been jerks. Still, I felt some envy and regret.” (Sore Afraid)

Nones ¶ Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 70, wants to leverage his not inconsiderable influence as president-for-life of Kazakhstan to spur his nation’s research scientists into defeating old age, and possibly death itself. “That’s what people are studying these days,” he recently announced. “Those who do are the most successful states in the world – those who don’t will get left on the sidelines.” We imagine a wizened little old man ruling from his coffin, like Titurel in Parsifal. (Discoblog)

Vespers ¶ When Frances Wilson’s review of Elizabeth Abbott’s book about mistresses (subtitled A History of the Other Woman) bumps up against the influence that myth and literature have had upon the careers of actual kept women, the air gets unbreathably powdery. For one thing, who’s on the record here? Angie Dickinson, it seems — with a dig at JFK. (It was Prince Charles’s great-great grandfather, by the way, who was his wife’s great-grandmother’s lover.) For another: since today’s powerful man can marry whomever he pleases, why should he support a mistress? This is clearly the sort of book that Victorians were determined to keep out of the hands of young girls — but the fallen life does not sound very appealing. (Guardian; via 3 Quarks Daily)

¶ We were riveted, speaking of cheating, by Wendy Plump’s view from both sides of marital infidelity. Betraying is apparently no more agreeable than betrayal. (NYT)

Compline ¶ Dominique Browning writes about breaking the Stuff Cycle. This is an entry that middle-aged readers will find handy right now, but young folks can learn a tip or two as well. When you’re young, and life is more a matter of possibility than of probability, it’s good to try out different things. Whatever different things you try out, however, the accumulation of Stuff is inevitable. (There are very few possibilities that don’t involve some kind of equipment.) Don’t imagine for a moment that you can anticipate the difficulty of getting rid of stuff when you’re middle-aged, and have become attached to everything that you own (even if you don’t like it). You wouldn’t know what to get rid of. Nobody under the age of fifty-five does.  

Have a Look

¶ Seven red states with fewer inhabitants in toto than my home town. (Scocca)


¶ Keeping Siegfried Sassoon alive. (Ivebeenreadinglately)