Archive for October, 2011

Gotham Diary:
Early Winter
31 October 2011

Monday, October 31st, 2011

On Saturday, when the snow fell, I never left the apartment, but when I went out on Sunday — just to Fairway — everyone was bundled up in winter gear. The weather was cold but very clear; it was the people in the street who were drab and gloomy. All that puffy black, grey, and dirty white. All those unspeakable sneakers — but at least the snow put a stop to flip-flops.

By the way, that’s the tree. The tree that I wanted to photograph while its leaves turned. That is not, obviously the picture of the tree that I had in mind.


There were plenty of things that had to be done over the weekend, but all I wanted to do was curl up with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. At last, the mother lode of — damn it, I promised not to use this word — Wrongology. A year ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of Kahneman; now he’s nothing less than Moses and Freud combined, the man who really knows how bent the human mind is and who commands you to believe what he has to say. Literally!

You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you.

The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.

The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.

Not that Kahneman himself doesn’t appear to be genial, even modest, about his accomplishments. For a book so amply studded with mental puzzles, Thinking, Fast and Slow  is a delightful read.

At some point down the road, a historian of science will tackle this bundle of interesting questions: Why did research into cognitive illusion appeal to social and psychological researchers during the Cold War? What was the relation between cognitive research and the development and deployment of the personal computer — if any? What about the World Wide Web made it the ideal, or at any rate initial, platform for the general dissemination of cognitive research? (In other words, why are we all talking about the invisible gorilla and the oreo test as glibly as educated readers used to talk about egos and ids?) 


What could be more glib than “System 1” and “System 2”? System 1 is Kahneman’s label for automatic cognition — being aware of things without knowing that we’re aware. System 2 is deliberative cognition — “thinking.” I’d be happier without mention of “systems”; I’ve come to the conclusion that systems can be spoken of only when a precise and verifiable diagram of their operation is at hand, lying on the table as we speak. Otherwise, you’re likely to fall victim to the Kant-Hegel Effect, which tempts people to believe that anything that can be plausibly stated must be true. Hegel’s systems have a lot to answer for; they’ve very understandably provoked a virulent anti-intellectualism wherever they have been adopted by politicians. (In Russia, it was Communism. In the United States, it was “checks and balances.”)

True about me, must I? “The attentive System 2 is who we think we are.” Maybe I was too young when I read Freud for the first time. I have grown up knowing that I am System 1, not System 2. I am a creature of surreptitious heuristics and irrational proclivities. It has never occurred to me for one instant to accept as sound the propostion that “man is a rational animal,” and it’s because I laugh this idea to scorn that I have a problem taking Greek philosophy seriously. (“Problem” is putting it mildly.) It’s true that I’m very conceited about regarding myself, habitually, as an unreliable narrator. But the whole point of writing, for me, is to grill this unreliable narrator, to hold him upside down, as it were, and to shake him until the small change of truth falls out of his pockets. It’s the writer in me that is System 2.

Except — of course it isn’t. The difference between writers and other people is that, for writers, writing is a System 1 activity. Every once in a while, I do have to stop and think about the next sentence. I may be tripped up by the realization that the implications of what I’ve just written are perhaps a bit broader than I thought; perhaps they lead in a direction other than the one I meant to follow (either into dissipation or actual opposition). For the most part, though, words and phrases pour through my fingers unbidden. If I had to work at this — !


“This was a eureka moment: I realized that the tasks we had chosen for study were exceptionally effortful. An imagee came to mind: mental life — today I would speak of the life of System 2 — is normally conducted at the pace of a comfortable walk, sometimes interrupted by episodes of jogging and on rare occasions by a frantic sprint.” The amount of time that it took me to locate this incredibly astute passage suggests that I ought to buy an e-book edition, so that I can find the bits that haunt me days after I’ve read them. I am now reconciled to the probability that I will die without ever having known how to take notes while reading a book. Either I underline perfectly obvious statements that I’ve internalized from earlier experience, or my capricious sense of words is caught by a turn of phrase that does not signify very much in the text itself. Then the caprice passes, and I’m left with a perfectly unintelligible marker.

But only this morning did this incapacity to take notes make sense: if I am reading a book to learn about something, how will I know what’s important until I’ve read the whole thing?

Lightning Rods
October 2011

Monday, October 31st, 2011

¶ We don’t share Daniel Engber’s skepticism (“The Effect Effect”) about the utility of buying and reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but we see his point. (Slate; via Arts Journal; 10/27)

More effects crop up in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge (2008), in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide (2009), in Malcolm Gladwell’s books, in pieces about Malcolm Gladwell’s books, in Slate, in Slate, and in Slate. The same catchphrases even recur from one best-seller to the next, emerging in different contexts, slightly altered or not at all, like a thinking man’s LOLcats. If these ideas are good and useful—as many of Kahneman’s seem to be—then everybody wins. But how would you know for sure?

¶ A long but very engaging essay by Kate Bolick, “All the Single Ladies,” begins with the difficulty of finding a marriageable mate at age 39 and winds up at the Begijnhof in Amsterdam, where at least one resident spends the odd night at her boyfriend’s flat. Bolick covers a great deal of ground, but most of it is still awash in confusion about freedom and satisfaction. The only clear thing: if you don’t marry into a family, you must assemble one. (Atlantic; 10/13) ¶ We can’t help feeling that Alex Balk would be a much happier guy if he would just go and watch Almost Famous or Fool’s Gold; maybe then he could keep track of what Jeff Madrick has to say. (The Awl; 10/19)

¶ Paula Marantz Cohen is not impressed by the Jacqueline Kennedy who emerges from the interviews that she recorded with Arthur Schlesinger Jr in early 1964. “ I heard only the flat, smug tones of a woman of privilege who was something of a mean girl. Her relentless focus on herself and how people treated her and her family make her seem, for all her style and taste, rather vulgar.”  (Smart Set; 10/6) ¶ Jenny Diski has a look at Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project. Ordinarily, we take a very dim view of extravagantly negative book reviews, but — first of all, not everything that’s printed between covers is a genuine book; and, second, it’s a  “Diary” entry, not a review. Most of all, though, we hopelessly indulge Jenny Diski, self-described “miserabilist.” (Does Diski know Anna Russell’s great spoof, “Miserable“? I hope so!)

Previously happiness has been understood to be a matter of happenstance – most of the words for ‘happy’ in European languages originally meant ‘lucky’. Now it’s a project. Probably has been since it was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and the bit about securing the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through the means of an elected government was overlooked in favour of an individualist reading. More recently, goodness in the world started to be measured by value for money and achieved targets. It starts with a five-year plan and gradually, via the defeat of universal education and social welfare, it becomes the happiness project. You fill in grids, put crosses in boxes, look for four truths and follow 12 commandments and you will get that indefinable something that you don’t have but which you know you are entitled to. Rubin, I learn, was raised in Kansas City. She’s not in Kansas any more, she lives in New York, but I think that, unlike Dorothy, she got stuck in Oz.

¶ A propos Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, Jen Paton, who has enjoyed four internships herself, writes about the problematics of working for free. Oor worse, paying to work, as at the outfit known as the Universe of Dreams. (3 Quarks Daily; 10/6) ¶ Scott Timberg may be overstating the case with his headline, “The Creative Class Is A Lie,” but “the dreary combination of economic slump and Internet reset” has certainly crippled the market for creative-class products. (Slate; via MetaFilter; 10/11) ¶ At The Baseline Scenario, James Kwak tips us to Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind,  which, among other things,  emphasises the role of victimhood (often vicarious, as witness Edmund Burke’s for Marie Antoinette) in the conservative make-up. (The Baseline Scenario; 10/6) ¶ Why “market reports” are worse than useless. (Felix Salmon; 10/11) ¶ Robert Shiller writes about “winter work,” and the “balanced-budget multiplier.”  We wonder when Occupy Wall Street is going to adopt the Yale professor as their patron saint. (New York Times; (10/20)

¶ Alex Tabarrock points to The Ethics of Voting, Jason Brennan’s ten year-old treatise on the imperatives of responsible voting. What brings this up now is not clear, but it’s new to us, so we’re glad to have the link. At his blog, The Art of Theory, Brennan presses some interesting “disanalogies” between elections and markets. (10/19) ¶ At the Jerusalem Post, David Nisman sums up the adroit statesmanship of Turkey’s Prime Minister ErdoÄŸan. (via Real Clear World; 10/11)

What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Turkey has staked its claim as the gate-keeper to the Middle East, abandoning indefinitely any aspiration to be a part of Europe. Instead of acting as a subservient nation begging to join the European Union, Erdogan has used his new foreign policy to send a message to the world: Turkey is a strong, Muslim, Middle Eastern nation, which now has the final word on any and all action taking place within its realm.

¶ The awful truth about Helen DeWitt’s amazing Lightning Rods — it has been lying around, unpublished, for over a decade. (Bookforum; via paperpools) Another, even more lively interview at BoingBoing; toward the end, DeWitt outlines the books in her hopper. (10/11) To Jenny Davidson, at The Awl, DeWitt observes that “selling was always bound up with some kind of theory of human nature….  (I thought you were just buying a place to live.)” (10/19) At The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg’s super review of Lightning Rods distinguishes typical satire from the superior strain that DeWitt works. Sentence we wish we’d written: “Joe’s target demographic – office worker – gives DeWitt a chance to luxuriate in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom.” Although we’d have said loquacious instead of eloquent. (10/26) ¶ And, finally (at least for this entry), the n+1 treatment, which is almost deranged but none the less entertaining for that. “Coming back to America always feels like defeat, I hate to say it. I don’t like living here—it feels like being trapped. If I could somehow make money out of being a writer it would be great, because I could just live in Europe and not come back.” (10/31)

¶ Alexander Nazaryan explains why the narcissism of big-boy American fiction puts our novelists out of the running for the Nobel Prize. He hails Joseph O’Neill and Dave Eggers by the way; he omits Jennifer Egan. (Salon; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Why Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk is not a well-liked writer in Turkey, and especially not in Istanbul. (Fıkır Mahsulleri Ofisi; via The Morning News; 10/11)

The publicity put books like The Black Book into homes where no other writer than Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie had entered before. Many who bought Pamuk’s books had never read anything ‘serious’ – I am talking about writers like Tolstoy, Kafka, Camus, whatever; let alone the unfamiliar (and sometimes more intellectually demanding) postmodern stuff. Just as they would not have liked Tolstoy had they tried to read him, they did not like Pamuk either.

¶ Matthew Galloway finds the lightning-bolt homosexual relationship in Chad Harbach’s ambitious new novel, The Art of Fielding, to be, well, unconvincing. (The Millions) ¶ Fredric James’s review of Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, newly translated by Naomi Lebowitz, makes this novel, written by a Danish Nobel Prize winner who died in 1943, sound both interesting and deep (and important, too), but the £44 tariff is a bit steep. The Danish original can be had for a song. (LRB; via 3 Quarks Daily; 10/13)

¶ At The Rumpus, an excellent interview with critic Laura Miller. Lamentable observation: (10/31)

Will this reader understand a reference to Edmund Spenser? Some won’t. It’s particularly important to keep this in mind with American readers because they tend to get angry when they don’t understand references, which is unfortunate, but once you’ve put someone’s back up by indicating that you know something they don’t, they tend to be unreceptive to whatever else you’ve got to say. And to be fair to those readers, some critics really are just interested in showing off.

¶ Jim Emerson is crazy about all the red in Drive. Then he snacks on it.  (Scanners) And while we’re on the subject, somebody at The Awl unearthed a breathless but impossibly long description (that we dare you to stop reading) of what happens in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest movie. (Crushing Death Blow) At HTMLGiant, A D Jameson, who is so tired of guy films that he would limit the next century to “gay Puerto Rican women” directors, makes a big exception for Drive, listen ten reasons why it’s great.  ¶ Anne Helen Petersen explains why Brad Pitt is a big movie star; then she explains why he’s also an interesting one. “Someone who goes through life with that ease exists.  Or at least that’s the promise that “playing oneself” makes.  It’s a beautiful illusion to watch — and it’s the reason the film [Moneyball], no matter its merits, will make money, and why Pitt receives the paychecks he does.” (Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style; via The Browser) ¶ Helen Mirren talks about building hospitals. (The Talks; via The Morning News; 10/13) ¶ At The House Next Door, Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard take on the challenge of making Stanley Kubrick’s eye-candylicious Barry Lyndon seem compelling, and they succeed. They even demonstrate Ryan O’Neal’s rightness for the role. (10/26)

¶ Mitsuko Uchida explains the meaning of the three languages in her life: she thinks (and loves) in English. Also: success as a musician will come if “your love of music is stronger than your love of yourself.” (FT; via Arts Journal; 10/19)  (Thanks, Susan!)

Have a Look: ¶ The artist’s rendering of a General Motors research facility in 1950s Michigan so closely resembles bird’s-eye views of the great baroque palaces of the Age of Absolutism that I feel doubly convinced that the courtly life of the ancien régime did not wither in the Nineteenth Century, but rather moved into the boardroom. (Brainiac; 10/6) ¶ What Occupy Wall Street protesters want, and how to get them. (GOOD) ¶ Andrew Zuckerman’s Wisdom interviews — four books of insight by (it seems to me) handsome and fortunate people — is the first of seven interview anthologies curated by the tireless Maria Popova, at Brain Pickings. Oh, and we forgot to say old — handsome, fortunate old people. Gives us a feeling of hope! (10/11) ¶ Dave Maier struggles valiantly with “The Paradox of (Some) Conceptual Art,” but we’re afraid that he’s bested by his own cleverski. “Conceptual art” is no more art than a woman in a wedding dress waiting tables is a bride. “A rose by any other name…” (3 Quarks Daily; 10/31)

¶ Scanwiches. Yum! (Good) ¶ Anyone interested in fashion will have to accept that the Seventies weren’t so bad after all, not at any rate in Pascaline Chavanne’s astute reconstruction in last year’s Potiche, soon to appear on DVD. (Clothes on Film) ¶ Pedestrian crossing signals from around the world. (Spiegel; via MetaFilter; 10/13) ¶ Art/Not Art: A Test, at MondoBloggo. (10/20) ¶ Eli, no! @ Brain Pickings. ¶ John Snyder, a sound young newlywed (and Hotchkiss alum, apparently), took his wife, Nelle, on a honeymoon to Europe. They sailed home on the RMS Titanic. Ten days after the sinking, Snyder wrote to his father from Minneapolis. (Letters of Note) ¶ Feminist Ryan Gosling (via The Morning News; 10/24)

Noted: ¶ Joshua Brown supports Occupy Wall Street; read why. (The Reformed Broker; 10/19)  Ditto Justin E H Smith. (10/20) ¶ We are all Manchurian Candidates, suggests Jonah Lehrer (Frontal Cortex; 10/20) ¶ Who’s making reggianono parmigiano? Men in turbans. (MySinChew; via The Morning News; 10/27)

¶ Ted Wilson’s (red) suit. (The Rumpus; 10/26) ¶ “[N]eurasthenic seismographs.” (Slate; 10/27)

¶ Matt Taibbi on Rick Perry, the “human price tag” (Rolling Stone; via The Browser) ¶ Samhita Mukhopadhyay on MWLSE. (GOOD; 10/31)

Gotham Diary:
28 October 2011

Friday, October 28th, 2011

The Islamic Wing at the Museum re-opened the other night, finally, after years and years of reconstruction and refurbishment — not only of the Wing itself but of the Greek and Roman Galleries upon which it sits. I didn’t bring my camera; taking pictures would have been gauche. Once the rooms are open to the general public, I’ll snap away. For the moment, this souvenir of what I think was Will’s most recent visit to the Museum will have to do.

It’s not called the “Islamic Wing” anymore (if it ever was); it’s now the “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.” That’s the last time you’re going to hear that mouthful from me. Holland Cotter is doubtless correct when he observes, “

Rather than presenting Islamic art as the product of a religiously driven monoculture encompassing centuries and continents, the Met is now — far more realistically —approaching it as a varied, changing, largely secular phenomenon, regionally rooted by absorptively cosmopolitan, affected by the intricacies and confusions of history, including the history that the art itself helped to create.”

But there’s no getting round the fact that this art is bound by a pervasive appreciation of calligraphy that has its roots in a highly articulate religious authority — nor the other fact, less salient within the galleries themselves but pronounced in the small graphic indicating the small corner (relative to the immense corner of the American Wing, say) of the Museum in which they sit. How do you justify sequestering all those bits and pieces from Arab Lands and Turkey and Iran and Central Asia and Later South Asia into a space that would fit within the vast chamber that houses the Temple of Dendur? Traadition is a big part of it — the same tradition that tempted the Times to run its inexcusable headline for Cotter’s review: “A Cosmpolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty.” I think that it’s safe to say that we live in times when the word “exotic” is enjoying a time-out from grown-up usage.

The other odd thing about the installation is that the most magnificent artifact in it is not only brand-new but purpose-built. The Moroccan Court is a work of art, no doubt about it, a breathtaking sculpture in plaster, tile, and wood that was completed last spring by a company of craftsman from Morocco. It is a triumph of earthen apotheosis that exploits no rare or precious resources — except, of course, the diligent inspiration of the men who built it. I’ll write later about the galleries’ treasures that appealed most to me, but for the moment I’m most taken by the new development in museum history that the Moroccan Court represents. (The Astor Court, certainly a harbinger, does not work on anything like the same “fantastically filigreed” level.) Puzzling out the nature of its novelty will be keeping a gaggle of neurons busy for a while.  


Will had had a long day by the time I showed up to babysit. He’d been to the doctor for his 21-month checkup (pushing 22), and he’d gone back to school for a birthday party. By 6:30, all he wanted to do was sit in someone’s lap, drink milk, and watch Sesame Street. Later, when the pizza arrived, and there were no available laps, he sat in the big chair by himself and ignored me. He didn’t want any pizza — that was no surprise — but he also didn’t want to acknowledge my presence. His focus on the television wasn’t stony, quite, but it was certainly very determined. Determined by fatigue, I believe, even if it did exactly resemble a teenager’s desperately willful obliviousness.

Then the episode came to an end, and Will perched himself on the arm of the chair, facing me, and said, “Allô.” For the first time in my experience, he said it without talking into some small device that he was pretending to be a telephone (or that might actually be a telephone). And he was saying it to me. It was like Lucy’s sign in Peanuts: “The Doctor Is In.” He got out of the chair, too me by the hand, and led me to his room, where we played with his trains for an hour. 

Another teen moment: there was a burst of violence. Out of the blue, Will picked up his train cars and threw them about the room (but not at me). When he seemed to have had enough throwing, I suggested that he’d better pick everything up. He smiled archaically and in an angel-biscuit voice said “‘Kay,” and very conscientiously picked up each one of his sometime projectiles.

A further teen moment: he fell asleep, without a fuss, while I was in the room. They used to tell me, when I was little, that I was a good boy — when I was asleep. We were somewhat surprised to learn that Will is no longer in the 99th percentile for height; he has dropped to the 97th. (Megan almost demanded a recount.) But he’s in the 99th percentile for niceness, even when he’s awake. His parents are in the 99th percentile of the leading categories as well.

Gotham Diary:
27 October 2011

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

“It’s a living.” People who say this about their lines of work are usually doing pretty well. That would include having enough to set aside for retirement and so forth. Everyone’s idea of “a living” is idiosyncratic, but the range of incomes that gratify everyone’s sense of sufficiency, at least in any given place, is probably not so great that we can’t wrestle forth a concept of the “living” as a basic economic metric. As the basic economic metric.

My curious line of thinking was prompted by an entry at Felix Salmon’s blog that I won’t go into; the point that shocked me was that he, and The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki, whose column Felix was referring to, measured the size of companies in dollars. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, I suppose, but I can’t see why you’d bother, when the far more important thing about businesses is how many people they employ — and, I quickly qualified, employ at a living wage. How many livings does a company support? This isn’t the same as “jobs” — not, especially, in today’s sharply downsizing world. There are lots of jobs out there, you’ll hear, but they don’t necessarily provide the people who take them with the wherewithal to support themselves. (Which, in the case of a full-time job, is simply slavery.) Conversely, there are, in Felix’s sense, a lot of big companies out there, but they’re pouring heaps of money into not very many pockets.

I leave the calculation of the living, and its component parts, for another day. It’s complicated, obviously. But it covers the costs of a reasonable, health-standard-informed provision of food, clothing and shelter, and it’s adjustable to meet the needs of parents and children. (It occurs to me, off the top of my head, that money not distributed to childless people would be allotted, in their name, to public purposes.) A living would also include, directly or indirectly, coverage for health care, retirement, and more general civic services such as education and public transport. We can crunch the numbers some other time, and we can be assured that earning more than a living will not be prohibited. (Earning a larger income at the expense of others’ livings, however, would be something else — as I say, it’s complicated. But it’s not unfathomable.)

What’s important now is to attach the concept of the living to environmental problems. When people voice concern about population increases, they’re usually worried about overconsumption of food and natural resources. That’s not what worries me, though. I’m afraid that we face a future in which there is nothing for a lot of people to do. Forget the question of supporting them; you can’t have a world of permanent vacationers (see WALL*E if you harbor any fantasies on that front). People need meaningful work along with livings. Well, they do now, now that we’re rightly squeamish about sitting back and letting peasants struggle with the elements. We need to have a better idea of how many livings our economies can support.

The word “economy” itself points in the direction of a livings-based policy. Wikipedia:

The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek οἰκονομία (oikonomia, “management of a household, administration”) from οἶκος (oikos, “house”) + νόμος (nomos, “custom” or “law”), hence “rules of the house(hold)”

Let’s think about it.

Gotham Diary:
26 October 2011

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

I can’t say that I’m very happy with this photograph. I could not manage, in more than fifty images, to capture the crispness of each leaf on the mat of vines that covers the back half of the side wall of a building fronting 87th Street — not really that far away. I fiddled with every dial and every setting that Dennis Curtin’s Short Course linked to sharpness. Perhaps I ought to try my skill on a somewhat closer subject. Perhaps manually setting the focus to infinity is overshooting it. If anyone has any ideas, you know where to get me. In a few weeks, when the leaves fall off, the white wall will be crazed with woody ropes. That would make a good picture too, if I could capture the detail so sorely blurred here.


I was in a mood to stay home and teach myself photography, yesterday, but I had a ticket in the drawer that I could not let go to waste. Ensemble ACJW is a group of young musicians — but I’m not even going to try to summarize the humanitarian goulash of mission statement that takes up a page of the program. The musicians comprising the Academy (“A”) are recent graduates of Juilliard, Eastman, &c. (“J”) They commit to teach music, on some unspecified level (and with very unspecified frequency), at New York City’s public schools. (No initial for this.) Now they are giving recital series at Weill Recital Hall (that’s what the “W” stands for), which is of course in Carnegie Hall. The name of the group left me wondering whether the nation’s business schools or Central Marketing will be the death of this country.

The Ensemble’s first program of the season served double duty as an entry in “Tchaikovsky in St Petersburg,” a curious title for a string of musical events actually intended to commemmorate the composer/conductor’s opening concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1891. (It was there that music from the Nutcracker was first played anywhere.) As their contribution, the Ensemble offered a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in a, which is perhaps best thought of as not just another piano trio. Works by Glinka and Arensky filled out the first half of the bill. As cellist Yves Dharamraj pointed out in his remarks before the Arensky, the three works on offer covered the variety of musical direction taken by Russian composers in the Nineteenth Century. Happily, the actual music was more than edifying.

Glinka’s Trio Pathétique for Clarinet, Bassoon, and Piano — well, pathétique can only mean that it is written in the latest European style. Written in 1832, it bears all the hallmarks of music and art dating from the Silly Quarter (1815-1840). The first movement was free-ranging if not absolutely incoherent, but the second and third movements did a better job of imitating Weber (who wrote so well for both clarinet and bassoon) and, through him, the frill and fun of bel canto roulades. Alexey Gorokholinksy deftly met the score’s virtuoso demands, but Shelley Monroe Huang performend the slightly more remarkable feat of making her bassoon sound like a chamber instrument in need of larger repertoire. For pianist Marina Radiushina, the work must have served as a welcome warm-up to her second-half challenge.

Then we had Anton Arensky’s second String Quartet, an oddity calling for two cellos instead of two violins. It’s a lovely piece, but I spent the entire second movement trying to remember more about the LP that tacked the quartet’s theme and variations, adapted for a full string section, onto a recording of Tchaikovsky’s famous Serenade. It’s really the only Arensky that I’ve ever known, and I never knew that it came from a string quartet. Emily Popham Gillins, Mr Dharmaraj, and Hamilton Berry all played very well, but it was Margaret Dyer’s strong viola that caught my ear.

Mr Berry came to the fore in the Tchaikovsky, which he played with Ms Radiushina and violinist Keats Dieffenbach. He played with a passion that would have set the house on fire if Ms Dieffenbach had shared it. She played extraordinarily well — like a god, as they say — but the collegiality of top-notch chamber music was missing by a hair. Tchaikovsky hadn’t wanted to write chamber music for strings and piano; like almost everyone who wasn’t a German, he found the combination of bowed and percussive sounds indigestible. But the death of his mentor, Nikolai Rubinstein, jarred the composer into a change of heart, and the piano trio, nicknamed “Elegiac,” is the result. Tchaikovsky resorts to a couple of devices to soften the clash between the violin and the cello, instruments that had not been changed since early in the previous century, and the piano, which had recently been reconceived for steroid-ophonics. One is to subdue the keyboard with burbling arpeggios. The other, to very opposite effect, is to keep the strings in bold unison.

I had only the dimmest memory of the trio befefore last night’s performance, and what I remembered was that unison writing. I remembered it for the same reason that I had for not getting to know the trio better. Mr Berry and Ms Dieffenbach may not have infused their performance with white-hot surrender, but they did play the unison passages in tune. It was not so on the recording that introduced me to this work (a late offering, as I recall, of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky collaborations). I thought, callow youth that I was, that Tchaikovsky’s unison writing was bare and uninspired, and the venerable musicians’ meandering did nothing to suggest the power that can be attained by setting strings soaring together over a thundering Niagara of piano music. That was last night’s surprise. I saw that Tchaikovsky knew what he was doing, and I was quite stirred by it.

Here’s how good Hamilton Berry is: as a young man, he’s a bit woolly and indistinct, prone to shuffle on and offstage in a self-effacing manner that Mr Dharamraj, for one, ceertainly doesn’t share. But when it came time for the waltz variation in the vast second part of Tchaikovsky’s trio, the otherwise unprepossessing cellist became an Ethan Stiefel. There was no way that a man who could play that well couldn’t dance that well — or such was the illusion.

Gotham Diary:
Here will we sit…
25 October 2011

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

I could say that Kathleen beguiled me into staying up late, listening to a new Schubert CD and an old favorite by Vaughan Williams, but I didn’t actually go to bed at any very late hour. Rather, I didn’t want to get up this morning. I was more comfortable in bed than I knew I’d be when I got up, and had to begin the day, as I always begin the day now, with the selection of a photograph for this entry. I had chosen a picture last night, but it was a case of making do, and I wasn’t happy with it. So I stayed in bed until all hours (after nine!), and when I got up the first thing I did was mount the camera on the tripod and look for a subject.

The crotona plants in the living room took me by surprise. I was interested in a tree behind a building on First Avenue; it is the only tree whose leaves have turned color so far. But the morning light was all wrong; I’ll have to wait until this afternoon, and even then it may be too sunny. I cast my gaze around the balcony, but nothing tempted me, and I kept turning, and voilà, there, right at my side, was this profusion of shiny, variegated leaves, begging to have their picture taken.

That was hours ago. My apologies.


 The Epicurean Dealmaker has written a great piece about the Volcker Rule mess. It prompted me to resume my serious thinking on regulation and how to go about it. Our standard model regulatory agency, with its commissions, staffs, rule-making procedures, enforcment provisions and fees is about as up-to-date as the rotary-dial telephone. The model itself is arteriosclerotic; decades of usage and abusage have fermented a Washington culture of bureaucrats that make the Middle Kingdom’s mandarins look like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. We need a new game.

While Kathleen got dressed, I sketched a few ideas. One of the Epicurean Dealmaker’s points for further discussion is the possibility that our systems are too complex to be managed. One way to simplify systems without abandoning the benefits of complexity is to break things up into smaller, self-supporting units. For example, regulatory commissioners could be drawn from a college of professional regulators without portfolio. They would be tasked to address a current problem: are markets fair? Is corporate governance suitably transparent? Has an industry or economic sector succumbed to monopolistic practices? These commissioners would appoint free-standing, independent-contracting teams of investigators, and vest them with subpoena power. The teams would consist of accountants, lawyers, economists, psychologists, environmentalists — not too many of any, but enough to get to the bottom of things and to produce an enlightening report. The commissioners would then empanel hearings, appointing a senator, a congressman, their and state- and local-level  correlatives, and any other appropriate judges. This panel would issue a legislative mandate, calling for the implementation of specific amendments to existing laws. It would also, where appropriate, hand over its findings to district attorneys.

As I spoke, it seemed that these ideas were coming to me out of the blue, but in writing them down I see that, with the exception of the last part — the bit about the panels and the hearings and the mandates — what I’ve described is the modern complex surgery, much like the operation performed on my neck in 2007 at the Hospital for Special Surgery. I remember being wheeled into a room that looked more like Steve Jobs’s sometime garage than an “operating room,” and it was full of people. Two of them, I understood, were neurological consultants who never touched me but constantly monitored my responsiveness. I don’t know about the rest, aside from the head surgeon and the anaethesiologist. It was a complex, one-shot attempt to solve a serious problem, and I have to say that the team did a great job.

The regulator in the case was my internist, who didn’t even look at the X-rays. He knew whom to call, though.

Gotham Diary:
The Second Time
24 October 2011

Monday, October 24th, 2011

This time, it counted for sure. Will was wide awake throughout his second haircut, and although he eyed the two of us warily when we sat down in the barber’s chair before the plate-glass mirror, he on my knee, and held on to his bottle, he cooperated more often than he didn’t, sitting still as Tito gathered swatches of hair between his fingers and cut them centimeters at a time. Tito worked very quickly, obviously aware that his client wasn’t going to sit still (or still-ish) indefinitely. I’d have been happier if he’d taken a little more off, but he quite rightly worked around Will’s head so that the result, when time was up, would be even.

Will’s parents were very pleased.


I haven’t been a fan of the Times Magazine for quite a long time — I like the new, Monocle-esque design, but there is something brutish about the cover editing, and this week’s close-up of Haruki Murakami is no exception — but as does happen in almost any magazine from time to time, I found not one but two valuable pieces in this weekend’s edition. One was Mark Bittman’s master recipe for pounded cutlets. Bittman rarely has anything new to tell me, but he’s invaluable because he makes me remember and re-prioritize what I already know.  My formation culinaire, like that of so many ambitious autodidacts, was designed (by me) to enable me to impress dinner guests; if something was easy to make, it didn’t count. Bittman’s columns are balm for the recovering would-be master chef. His recipe for Chicken Scallopine al Limone was almost completely familiar — improved by replacing chicken breasts with more favorable thighs — but I somehow needed to read it and then to follow it. I marched across the street for the boned thighs and got to work. I prepped the dish and then waited for two potatoes to be done baking. Execution was a snap. I must put the recipe in the list of 25 weeknight recipes that I’m compiling. Why, you may ask? Because I rarely think about food these days when I’m in the kitchen, and when the late-afternoon moment of decision arrives (what are we having tonight?), I’m a deer in headlights. I need lists — and Mark Bittman’s variations on everyday themes — to remind me of the possibilities.

The other piece was Stephen Marche’s indictment of Roland Emmerich’s madly irresponsible new movie, Anonymous. What makes Anonymous so regrettable is the way it harmonizes with and glorifies the junk thinking that is choking Western civilization to death.  Ordinarily, making a movie in which it is posited that somebody other than Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare” would be just a movie. But there’s more to Anonymous than counterfactual fantasy. It’s an apotheosis of our snobbish anti-elitism, as Marche observes; but it’s also a craven tribute to our hunger for celebrity self-exposure. The trouble with Shakespeare is that he doesn’t seem to have had much of an offstage life. His record, aside from a handful of legal documents, is in his work. What he thought about his work — well, that’s in there, too. What’s maddening about Shakespeare is the absence of secrecy in his life. We want to catch him keeping a private diary, an alternative to the published poems and plays; we want to see him relax and admit that “work sucks.” His exemplary discretion ought to inspire us; instead, it enrages us. And Anonymous is nothing if not a tantrum. We can only hope that brighter young viewers will be prompted to take a look at John Madden’s equally fictitious, but more reality-based, 1998 biopic, Shakespeare in Love.

In his Op-Ed piece on Anonymous, James Shapiro explained how today’s idiot conspiracy theories work. They begin with an exciting but untelligent proposition (“How could a hick from Warwickshire have written all those great plays?”) and end by asserting that the best evidence is the complete absence of evidence. Just goes to show how dangerous the secret really is! Until now, that is. Somehow (and this is never explained), the lid has been lifted, and ordinary civilians have been given a glimpse of the “truth.” I don’t know why, but I’m reminded of Linda Colley’s blithe dismissal of Freemasonry, the popularity of which throughout the Eighteenth Century (the period covered in her magisterial book, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837) she attributes to “the male delight in secret rituals and dressing-up.”

Which reminds me of a third good piece in the Magazine: an excerpt (or something like) from Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s contributions to what I promise never again to call Wrongology are nothing less than seminal, but what caught my eye was his approving summary of someone else’s work.

[Terry] Odean and his colleague Brad Barber showed that, on average, the most active traders had the poorest results, while those who traded the least earned the highest returns. In another paper, “Boys Will Be Boys,” they reported that men act on their useless ideas significantly more often than women do, and that as a result women achieve better investment results than men.

“Useless ideas” — would that there were no more to Anonymous than that. But, hey, it is “only” a movie. A specatacular, action-filled, delusion-infused movie.


Later, after dinner on Saturday night, we learned that the very inexpensive yardstick that I bought at the hardware store isn’t going to help us to measure Will’s height anymore: he tops out at a hair over a three feet. This means, as if there were any doubt, that he will almost certainly grow to be six feet tall at least; the rule of thumb is that you double a child’s height at 23 months. Or is it 25 months? Nobody can ever remember — except that 24 months isn’t it. Will will be 22 months old next week.

I missed the best part, though. While I was out of the room, Will asked Kathleen, “Where are Mama and Daddy?” His first complete sentence. That he asked her couldn’t surprise me less. If he was a little anxious about the answer, Kathleen was obviously the right person to soothe his fears. Just as his mother had known when, older to be sure, she leaned up to Kathleen as they were walking on the beach at Fire Island, and asked why “those two men over there” were kissing. Will was reassured by Kathleen’s answer, and went right back to whatever it was that he’d been doing.  


Gotham Diary:
21 October 2011

Friday, October 21st, 2011

As a rule, I don’t say much about the photographs in these daily entries, but I intended to explain yesterday’s, because I think it’s pretty desperate to run photographs of your own living room for no rhyme or reason. I mean, get a life! But yesterday’s snap was not your your ordinary point-and-shoot-your-standards-in-the-head. It reflects an entirely different kind of panic.

On Wednesday afternoon, during very rough weather through which Kathleen had to fly home from Washington, I was feeling unsettled, to put it mildly, a few hours after she had sent me an email from the runway. I was answering a letter to my friend JR in Paris when the anxiety got hormonal. I had been writing to JR to apologize for, or perhaps to whine about, my failure to make good use of the capabilities of my rather dandy little camera, the widely-admired Canon S95. I had never taught myself, for example, how to control the aperture and the shutter speed in order to take a better photograph than the automatic settings would produce. So here I was, feeling bad about two things, and it hit me that I could something about one of them.

I mounted the camera on the tripod and got out Dennis Curtin’s (rather maddeningly organized) Short Courst in Canon PowerShot S95 Photography, which I’ve mentioned here before. In no time at all, I was twiddling the Control Dial and twirling the Control Ring, and observing the results right on the viewing screen — something that you couldn’t do, of course, in the old days in the days when film cameras were innocent of digital technology. It would be an exaggeration to say that I “familiarized” myself with the camera; I’ll almost certainly have to reach for the Short Course next time I want to do more than take a picture off the top of my head. But it was very nice to see an interior shot, taken without a flash, that did not render lampshades as pulsing plasmas. I know that, to take good interior shots without a flash, you need a bit of indirect lighting, usually provided by spots on tripods diffused by umbrellas, and now I’m more determined than ever to provide myself the appropriate gear.

Kathleen called before I’d loaded the images onto the computer. Meanwhile, yesterday

There is still much to be learned, but not by Ray Soleil, who managed to mount the floating shelves and to hang the Blondel prints on our recalcitrant walls.

Gotham Diary:
20 October 2011

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

In the middle of Elif Batuman’s lively New Yorker piece about her fellow Harvard-alum-of-Turkish-extraction, ÇaÄŸan ÅžekercioÄŸlu, an ornithologist dedicated to the establishment of nature preserves near the Armenian border, I came across a new word, “carental.” I didn’t know what it meant, but I was too delighted to care. Surely, “carental” would open a door on even better understanding of the post-Ottoman culture that, as Orhan Pamuk never tires of rhapsodizing (in his melancholy way), has persisted through nearly a century of Kemalism. It struck me that “carental” would look like it made more sense if it began with a “k.”

I read the sentence over again. “We drank tea with a provincial governor, with a giant mustached carental agent, and with the head of the Kafkas News Agency, who shared with us a piece of breaking news…” It was thrilling, that carental was a kind of agency. All I could think of was Ben Kingsley, in Pascali’s Island — when would Batuman and her friend be shot? That all this was taking place in Kars, the once bustling but now distinctly former entrepot in the mountains of eastern Turkey, which is where Pamuk set his last novel but one, Snow (Kar in Turkish; Batumen tells us that he considered titling his novel Kars’ta Kar — Snow in Kars)  — Snow being a novel that I read whilst actually in Istanbul — well, I was beginning to wonder how T S Eliot managed to write The Waste Land without “carental.”

Then I saw the hyphen, and the second “r.”

The sad sound of air leaking from a balloon of eager expectancy reminded me of the time that Fossil Darling and I were driving through Indianapolis — an occurrence even less likely than my reading Pamuk on the shores of the Bosphorus — and, as he drove, I read a review of something appearing in, naturally, The New Yorker, and without my giving it any thought, the word “lunatic” came out of my mouth with the accent on the second syllable. “Lune-attic,” I said, and wondered what it meant. Even Fossil was befuddled — but then, he was driving. Working out the real meaning of my new word was a big let-down.

Gotham Diary:
Jour de Collapse
19 October 2011

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

You may think that “Jour de Collapse” is bad French, or not-even-French, but it’s something else: it’s Law French. Having spent as much time with the Graunde Abridgement and the Sergeant Maynards as I did in law school (witnesses can attest to my ostentatious displays of scholarship — those folios are huge!), I am entitled to resort to this pidgin in moments of entropy and inanition; indeed, I claim the right to coin such new terms as come to mind. I did not feel guilty about taking yesterday off; on the contrary, I felt quite entitled to do so. But I did have to remind myself that my mind, lately, has been something of a racing cutter full sail on a winning breeze. The easiest way of urging a rest was to murmur, “jour de collapse, jour de collapse.” 

So I watched three movies, all “in the middle of the afternoon,” and read from three books. The movies were Putney Swope, Out of Sight, and Killers. The books were Railroaded, The Journals of Spalding Gray, and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. For eats, I ordered in. Kathleen was in Washington, scheduled for a bright and early breakfast meeting, so we had our good-night call on the early side, and I went to bed soon after. Aside from emptying the dishwasher, I did nothing.

The movies: I wish I could remember who recommended Putney Swope recently. I thought that it was Ray Soleil, but no; he’d never heard of it. I called him because, as I watched it, I was puzzled; what about this early indie satire, directed by Robert Downey, Sr, could possibly appeal to Ray? My jaw slack, I was beset by a liminal question: would you describe the production values of Putney Swope as “nonexistent,” or as “fuck you, and your mother, too”? There is certainly more than a flavor of art-house porn — that Lucky Airlines stewardess romp is art-house porn. It’s as though Andy Warhol were making a movie for (and on a budget provided by) Max Bialystock. You have to see Putney Swope, just as I’ve heard all my life, but you only have to see it once. It has its moments, and they are very momentary. It’s astonishing how tedious transgression can be.

Out of Sight I hadn’t seen since it was new, in 1998. I didn’t know either of the principals in those days; Jennifer Lopez was a new face, and I would mix her up with Penélope Cruz, name-wise, for years. George Clooney was new, too, because I hadn’t seen ER. Someone somewhere recently on the Internet wrote that Out of Sight is one of Mr Clooney’s best films. It’s very good, but there’s a problem: like many of the very strongest film actors — Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte, and Harrison Ford — George Clooney took a while to grow into his face. In Out of Sight, he still hasn’t, quite. Ms Lopez is much better than her subsequent career (which I’ve only heard about, cringing) led me to fear. As for Killers, I really wanted to see it the other night, but it was too late for delivery from the Video Room. It’s much better than Putney Swope, but it is an odd duck of a film. It is brisk enough to sustain its light-headed satire of suburban life, and Katherine Heigl works some engaging variations — inversions, really — on the damsel-in-distress trope. In the end, though, the picture belongs to Catherine O’Hara. What’s really scary is how close the premise of Killers is to that of The Joneses, the movie that Demi Moore made at about the same time — and how far the result. I’m not sure that The Joneses isn’t the much better picture.

The books: mostly, I read Richard White’s Railroaded. It’s a great book that must be read by every thinking American, but, like Jackson Lears’s even more important Rebirth of a Nation, it covers a rebarbative period. All those whiskers; all that fustian speech. Not to mention the brazen hypocrisy. This last is always good for a laugh (White is an excellent mimic of Mark Twain’s faux incredulousness), especially when Leland Stanford is involved.

The heavy lifting came with Leland Stanford, who at first failed to appear and then asserted that the government actually owed the Central Pacific money, presenting the commission with what amounted to a bill. Why the government should pay any of the items Stanford submitted, which were not part of the original legislation aiding the railroad, was a basic source of wonderment, but some of the calculations were themselves as revealing as they were amazing. included was $17 million the government supposedly owed the Central Pacific for loss of business to competing lines that had also received aid from the United States. And Stanford added almost $20 million, the loss to the railroad from having sold its government bonds at below par.

There is also a sublime line about how relatively unremarkable it would have been “if Stanford had claimed locomotives ran on moonbeams.” Whatever happened to moon beams?

I didn’t spend much time with the other books, which only just came in the mail.  The other day, I read that Spalding Gray kept John Cheever’s journals on his reading shelf for quite a long time, and I was not surprised. As for the Proust, a friend of mine is working her way through In Search of Lost Time, and has just arrived at the second volume — which I still think sounds better entitled Within a Budding Grove; although James Grieve’s translation is much closer in feeling (and freshness) to the original — and I thought I’d read along with her, dipping into my one-volume Tadié from time to time. 

One of the most difficult French words for me is tant. I never know what it means — never know, that is, which of its many meanings is the one at hand. “Sans doute, tant que je n’eus pas entendu la Berma, j’éprouvai du plaisir. My glazed instinct is to translate this as “Insofar as I hadn’t heard Berma, I enjoyed myself,” but of course it’s “until,” not “insofar as”; Proust’s characteristic point is that he delighted in anticipation but was disappointed rather than gratified by his first experience of great acting. (It suddenly occurs to me that Proust wrote the first serious young adult novel.) I can’t understand why “until” isn’t always jusque, but it isn’t.

As you may be able to tell from the picture, we’ve been waking up to rain these days. Until this morning, the clouds have given way to sunny clear skies, but I’ve got a feeling that that’s not going to happen today. Which means that today would have made a much better jour de collapse; if one thing did bother me yesterday, it was doing nothing on a fine day. But we can’t have everything, and renters, after all, don’t enjoy usque ad coelum rights.


Gotham Diary:
Absoluely, cont’d
18 October 2011

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

When I sat down to write, yesterday morning, I did not intend to spend so much time in Tompkins Square Park; I wanted to say a few words about a new new book. That I hadn’t finished the book isn’t what kept from writing about it later; there was no later, so far as writing was concerned. The morning, afternoon, and evening all went to housekeeping and cooking and having an out-of-town friend to dinner. I did manage to finish the book, though, and I think that I can recall a few of the clever things that I meant to say about it.

I ask myself: what would I made of this book if I hadn’t had its dust jacket? There is no “about the author” page at the end of the bound text, so I wouldn’t have known that the author of Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, Jean-Vincent Blanchard, was born in Canada and raised in “Europe,” or that this “is his first book in English.” I learned all of that — plus the fact that Blanchard teaches at Swarthmore — from the paragraph beneath the author’s photograph, in which, I must say, he has the air of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century gallant.

But I would have known from the text that Blanchard is francophone. My favorite solecism concerns the seditious antics of Louis de Bourbon, comte de Soissons, and the French verb ignorer.

Ever since the assassination plot at Amiens in 1636 and his subsequent flight from the court, the comte de Soissons had lived in Sedan, at the northeast border of France within the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. This town was a sovereign entity that belonged to Frédéric Maurice de la Tour-d’Auvergne, the Duc de Bouillon, and it protected its independence with some of the best fortifications in Europe. Because he ignored at the time the reason for Soissons’s flight, Richelieu had found it acceptable to allow the count to retire there for a period of four years. With this period coming to an end, Soissons worried that the cardinal harbored ill designs against him, in all likelihood because he had finally discovered the real reason for the count’s retreat from Amiens.

This passage makes complete sense only if you read “ignored” in its French sense, which is pretty much the opposite of ours. In English, you can’t ignore something until you’re aware of it. In French, being unaware of something is the only way to “ignore” it. What Richelieu was unaware of, at the time of Soissons’s flight, in 1636, was the count’s participation in a plot to assassinate him. When the plot came to nothing — predictably, you might almost say, because the feckless ringleader, the king’s brother Gaston d’Orléans, got cold feet at the last minute — Soissons and Gaston fled Amiens, for no very good reason. Richelieu didn’t discover the reason until 1640, in which year Soissons had another go at it, only to be shot himself (possibly by himself) before the attempt.

On the whole, Éminence is an extremely readable French book written in English. I don’t mean to pick on the slight infelicities that dot the text, which for the most part add more zest than confusion. Rather, this is the sort of history book that is written in French. There is a great deal of you-are-there staging, and formal declarations are quoted extensively, as if they actually meant something. Well, of course they did mean something, but it has long been the habit of English and German historians to discount the sentiments expressed in ceremonial exchanges. Our historians generally assume that evidence of anything, such as it is, is partial and misleading. Blanchard’s approach is critical in this way only when the evidence might be self-serving.

There is also what I’ll call an absence of background. Is it assumed that the reader knows about the twists and turns of the development of the modern sovereign state, a development in which Richelieu had as active a role as any man alive in the past 500 years? Or it is deemed irrelevant? Is, that’s to say, Professor Blanchard resisting the “Whig” way of writing history, with one eye on ultimate outcomes? Richelieu couldn’t know that he was putting an end to medieval France and founding the highly centralized organization, with its monopolies on death and taxes, that we expect the sovereign state to be. He was simply exerting the king’s power as effectively as he could, suppressing rival power sources along the way. Richelieu didn’t live to read, much less supervise, the treaties of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that had raged on and off throughout the extent of his career as France’s virtual prime minister. We tend to see Richelieu as a modern mastermind, but in Blanchard’s assessment, which I find astute, he appears to be an exemplar, if an unusually gifted one, of the French aristocracy: “sense of opportunity, amazing decisiveness, and courage were the cardinal’s most extraordinary political qualities; these were the heroic traits that allowed him succeed, often in spite of himself.” I would not for a moment suggest that Blanchard has rewritten The Three Musketeers from a point of view more sympathetic to the cardinal, but his history is much closer to Dumas’s narrative in character and eventfulness than a “serious” anglophone study would be.

I can readily imagine that Blanchard’s subject would have thanked him graciously for his attentive but engaging scholarship, but chided him, at the same time, for relying on bad influences (as Louis XIII was prone to do), in this case the editorial staff at Walker Books, who clearly do not have the best interests of publishing at heart; whereupon the cardinal would have packed off the lot of them to the dungeon at Vincennes, where prisoners tended to die of natural causes. People complain about the death of the book all the time, but it is the dearth of editorial responsibility that is actually undermining the authority of the codex.

And what d’you know — there is an author’s note, right after the index. The pages must have been stuck together. No mignon photo, though.

Gotham Diary:
17 October 2011

Monday, October 17th, 2011

There are three playgrounds in Tompkins Square Park. The largest, near the 9th Street entrance, along Avenue A, is also the most popular, so much so that the other two, on opposite sides of the walk that leads into the park from the corner of 7th and B, feel neglected or abandoned, and I’ve always had the feeling that parents who choose them must be worried that their children won’t thrive in the throng. “I’ve always had the feeling” — listen to me! I never set foot in Tompkins Square Park until a fine day in April of last year, when Will was still wee enough to be carried in a sling (not yet by me!), and Megan and I walked over from her flat and found a small patch of vacant bench in the larger of the two east side playgrounds. It was crowded that day! I remember being aware the the buds on all of the trees’ branches had just popped open, while we were sitting there, flecking the scene with green, stationary snow. Will pretty much slept through that visit. In the later part of the year, when I would take him on walks (so to speak) on Sunday afternoons, we stopped in Tompkins Square Park only to watch the dogs cavort in the big-dog run. When Will got to be old enough for playgrounds (or, it may have been, a little before that), I always took him to the big one along Avenue A. If nothing else, he was always invigorated by the challenge of watching other (bigger) kids do things. Plucking two nicknames from the bouquet of Burgundian sobriquets, I would say that Will is bold (hardi) without being rash (téméraire). Forethought precedes the plunge. Yesterday, for example there was a bit of playground furniture that he was not quite ready to try. It was in the medium-sized playground, the one that I’d never taken him to.

We went because he chose it. We had been parked near the drummers, five or six men with waist-high drums, sitting in a tight row on the east side of the park. We could hear them before we even crossed Avenue B, but you wouldn’t say, up close, that they were very loud. The drummers were all well into middle age, and their beats had an easygoing, Sunday-afternoon feel. Every now and then, a man or a woman or a couple would stand up in the the walkway and do a very minimal two-step, more suggestion than actual dance. When I unhooked Will from the stroller, he walked right into the middle of the drumming and the dancing, and I scurried to retrieve him lest he keep on going. The second time I gave him his freedom, he turned in the other way, toward the intermediate playground, which was right there. The entrance at that end was locked, so we had to walk round, retracing our steps toward Avenue B. The three of us brought the crowd in this playground up short of ten.

I hadn’t noticed on my 2010 visit that this playground is fitted out, basically, with one large construction, a very stout affair of planks and girders. There are ladders and slides, too, of course, but basically what you have is a multi-level parapet that bows in a gentle arc, so that kids can mount it at one end and charge along to the other. One of the modules in this parapet is a chain bridge, constructed of linked planks that wobbles when it is crossed. It doesn’t wobble very much; only the most hysterically anxious parents are going to worry that their little angels might come to grief on it. But it moves enough for Will to raise his eyebrows. Kathleen and I, standing alongside the parapet, used our hands to demonstrate the gentle undulations of the planks. I wish I’d taken a picture of Will trying to do the same, leaning at the very edge and pressing the nearest plank with one finger. Whether it was the failure of this test to generate any motion at all that decided Will against further experiments with his pedal extremities, or some other reservation, we will never know. Soon enough, I’m sure, he’ll run across the chain bridge, thrilled by its answering back with running of its own. But not yet. Not yesterday, anyway.

Another image that I wish I’d captured is Will’s way of swigging milk. He tosses his head back so that the bottle is almost completely vertical. He makes me think of an ecstatic trumpet player — or perhaps a trumpeter on a bender. He liked having the bottle nearby, yesterday, and sometimes he insisted on clutching it even though it hampered his acrobatics. Some choices are very hard.

Gotham Diary:
14 October 2011

Friday, October 14th, 2011

We apologize for the outages these days; we’re assured that there won’t be any more. Not for a while, anyway.

Not that I have much to report this morning — or, rather, much time for reporting. I’ll have to fill in this entry later this afternoon. We were out late last night, Kathleen and I, and the evening was so exhilarating — Gil Shaham playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Orpheus was an experience without parallel in the concert hall, although I was often reminded of extremely tight jazz sessions — that I had no desire to be a good boy and go to bed when I got home. So I sat up reading a preposterous but amusing article about The Quilted Giraffe, a restaurant that Kathleen and I never tried (thank heaven, I can say now) in the current issue of Town & Country. Even that was exhilarating. 


But before I get to last night, I want to say a few more words about Jennifer Egan’s novels, and the powerful sense that I have of understanding them, at long last. I should begin by saying that I knew along that the problem was with me. Egan’s books are subtle and sophisticated, but they are not hermetic puzzles that yield secret meanings only to those who know how to hold them upside down in just the right light and squint. Her fiction is as straightforward as it appears to be. The problem at my end was that I was picking up a strong signal that I didn’t know how to interpret. I only knew that I was receiving it. I was sure of that; I was sure that I wasn’t reading in a significance that wasn’t really there. The signifier was in plain sight. But then so was everything else in Egan’s rich fictions, with their occluded plots, layered timelines, salient recursions, and fertile lacunae. There was so much to see. And I understood most of it. But I was persistently aware of not understanding something that I was seeing.

And then, as I wrote yesterday, it came to me. Literally: the sentence drifted through my mind and into the paragraph of a letter. Only when I’d written it down did I grasp its significance — which turned out to be the significance that I’d been hunting ever since I was first beguiled by A Visit From the Goon Squad. Rather, I grasped that I had a handle on it. The handle was the term “American exceptionalism.” I’ve moved beyond that; I don’t believe that Egan’s characters could not behave as they do if they were not American. (We live in globalizing times.) If I’ve held on to “exceptionalism,” it’s because the term took me to the image that seemed to explain everything. Jennifer Egan presents her characters as they see themselves in the mirror after they’ve done their primping and are ready to go out the door — at their most self-confident, that is — but she is able, as if writing in some sort of stereophonic parallel text, to accompany this image with a morally grounded critique (a quiet demolition, really) of the rationalizations and petty dishonesties that underlie that self-confidence. Egan’s characters are glamorous because they’re all con men, and they’re sympathetic because they’re all their own greatest marks. Here, at the very beginning of Goon Squad, is one of the novel’s major characters, Sasha, roiling in the backwash of her bad little habit of stealing other people’s unconsidered trifles (sometimes not so trifling), which her analyst (whom she calls Coz) has just asked her about.

Sasha turned her face into the blue couch because her cheeks were heating up and she hated that. She didn’t want to explain to Coz the mix of feelings she’d had, standing there with Alex: the pride she took in these objects, a tenderneess that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life. Watching Alex move his eyes over the pile of objects stirred something in Sasha. She put her arms around him from behind, and he turned, surprised, but willing.

One of the elements of that “something” that stirred in Sasha is a feeling that everything is okay, or will be okay if she can change the subject, which she does by distracting Alex, the young man whom she has brought home from a bar, from the virtual shrine to kleptomania that has accreted in a corner of her Lower East Side flat — a place about which she has paralytically mixed emotions.

In fact the whole apartment, which six years ago had seemed like a way station to some better place, had ended up solidifying around Sasha, gathering mass and weight, until she felt both mired in it and lucky to have it — as if she not only couldn’t move on but didn’t want to.

Never once in this entire chapter (or elsewhere in the book that I can think of) are we invited to feel sorry for Sasha. She’s a big girl, and a clever girl; she can take care of herself. She can afford to “risk everything” with a little light-handed thievery. She is an exceptional girl: the ordinary rules manifestly don’t apply to her. Do they? That’s really whatA Visit From the Goon Squad is about. I’ve said that Egan weighs her characters with a morally-grounded critique, but she is no moralist. Some of her characters get away with murder. Others don’t.


About last night: Orpheus began its — what, 39th? season — at Carnegie Hall with what looked to be a very pleasant program; it turned out to be rather more. It opened with Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusine Overture, a trim tone-poem inspired by a legend that Goethe retold in Wilhelm Meister. I hadn’t heard it in years; I couldn’t remember a thing about it. But it turned out that every note was familiar, because works of its charm (considerable) and length (ten minutes or so) were invaluable to me in my radio days, when I had to schedule forty-eight minutes of varied music for every hour, with at least three breaks for commercials. What I really remembered, though, was the little old Jewish emigrant who did something mysterious at the Wall Street bank where I worked for a few summers in my teens. When she learned that I was developing an interest in Wagner, she heaped as much scorn and contumely on the wizard of Bayreuth as she could muster, and certainly one of her most considerable charges, quite aside from Wagner’s concededly posthumous popularity with certain Nazis, was his musical plagiarism, particularly his theft from a Jewish composer — Mendelssohn. I didn’t know what she had in mind at the time, but it came back and hit me when I heard Fair Melusine the first time. By then, I was an aficionado fo the Ring cycle, and it was obvious that Wagner had stolen the whole rolling Rhine motif from Mendelssohn’s overture. It still seemed obvious last night, although I know that musical creative lightning strikes twice a lot more often than you might think, meaning that it strikes two minds at the same time. From what I know of Wagner, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear him defend his theft as an improvement begging to be made upon the original.

I thought about that, and how different things were then; the War hadn’t been over for twenty years. I thought about how dingy Carnegie Hall was in those days; it was slated for demolition as soon as Lincoln Center, rising amidst slum clearance to the northwest, was completed. Looking at it today, with its gilt and its plush as opulent as can be, I can hardly believe that it was such a dreary old barn when I was a kid. Some things really do get better!

I can’t be sure whether it was in 1961 or 1962 that I was taken to Carnegie Hall for the first time, but it was about fifty years ago. Carnegie Hall was only seventy years old when I made my debut as a member of the audience. Seventy years seemed a much bigger number then than it does now, and fifty years — well, fifty years is about how long I’ve been doing everything that interests me.

The composer of the next piece on the program was sitting a few rows ahead of us, and on the other side of the aisle. Cynthia Wong was born in New York in 1982; she’s not even thirty. Her composition, Memoriam, commissioned by Orpheus, was given its first New York performance. The dedication, printed in the program booklet, began with an address to her father, dead of cancer, and the music that followed was at least as effective a tone poem (in this case about hospital corridors and chemotherapy) as Mendelssohn’s. I didn’t understand Memoriam in any formal way, but I was happy to listen to it, and my only objection, one of aesthetic economy, was that the score didn’t make enough use of the vibraphone or the tubular bells to warrant, so to speak, the rental. It was grand to see Laura Frautschi in the concertmaster’s seat; I missed her last season.

Then, Haydn’s 73rd Symphony, La Chasse. I wondered if I knew it. I know all of Haydn’s Paris and London symphonies, of course, and a sprinkling of earlier ones, but not in any systematic way; I seem to be saving the methodical comprehension of Haydn’s symphonic development for a rainy day. I misread the program note, which said something about La Fedeltà premiata, one of Haydn’s operas. I don’t know any of Haydn’s operas; I’ve never really given them a chance. I have enough trouble with Mozart’s early operas, and Mozart really knew what he was doing (eventually). But I know La Fedeltà premiata for precisely the same reason that I know Fair Melusine. An overture by Haydn! Aside from his symphonies, quartets, and sonatas, what Haydn wrote was for the most part much longer than twenty or twenty-five minutes a pop. As I say, I misread the program. It said something about how Haydn had later recycled the opera overture into the 73rd symphony. I assumed that this would be the first movement, which, as it played — very agreeably, of course — I didn’t recognize. It was only when the bumptious finale began that I realized my mistake. That was the overture. How like Haydn.

After the interval, Gil Shaham played the Brahms violin concerto. That’s why we went to the concert. The weather was damp and dreary, and Kathleen was exhausted; she could hardly keep her eyes open on the train. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall from Yorkville? Unless you’re an idiot, you take the 6 and then the N or the R.) But we’d been wholly wowed by Mr Shaham’s performance, a few seasons back, of Beethoven’s violin concerto. That was when Orpheus was beginning to play big-boy stuff that was considered beyond the reach of a conductorless “chamber orchestra.” Brahms’s concerto is about a million times more challenging than Beethoven’s in this regard, if you ask me, because Brahms is always playing rhythms off against one another, and who’s going to keep track of what’s going on if not an overall music director?

The Brahms violin concerto is one of the most beautiful in the world, perhaps the most beautiful, and I am always happy to sit back and enjoy it. But sitting back was not permitted last night. Here’s what happens when there’s no conductor to direct the traffic: the orchestra and the soloist morph into a gigantic jazz band and the familiar score becomes a series of astonishing riffs. Never has my little brain followed music in a concert hall with so little internal distraction. It’s very hard to write about how great performances “make it new,” but a homely image that comes to mind is that of an imaginary machine that rolls along ripping up old roadway at one end while laying down new pavement at the other. You know the music; but you don’t know this music. The musicians are tearing it apart in the very act of putting it together.

I’ve heard lovelier violin playing than Gil Shaham produced last night, and there were more than a few squeaks in his upper register, at least in the early part of the performance. But the beauty of the concerto, and the beauty of violin playing — these were exploded and reconstituted along with Brahms’s score. Certainly some of the most beautiful moments were the quietest ones. How softly can you play an instrument in Carnegie Hall, filled with a thousand odd people, and still be heard? Very softly. It was a curious miracle, how silent the room was, but for the gossamer silver threads of tone that spun from Mr Shaham’s violin. They were the only sounds in a zone of absolute quiet. (Even the subway was stilled.) Aside from that, all I can say was that soloist and orchestra exercised a collegiality that I’m quite sure would have amazed the composer. Certainly they threw the schoolbook notion of the concerto as a form of conflict right out the window. It clearly meant something that Mr Shaham was wearing what all the Orpheus men wore: a dark suit, a dark shirt, and a silver tie. He was One Of Them. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

And the fans went wild: it was one of those ballpark evenings at Orpheus. Orpheus audiences can outshout and outwhistle the opera queens any old time.

Gotham Diary:
13 October 2011

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Last night, just before dinner, I figured out something that has been puzzling me for about a year and a half, and it came to me, as these things do, when I wasn’t looking for an answer. I figured out what is special about Jennifer Egan’s fiction.

What makes it special to me, that is. What explains the dark glamour of her leading characters. It’s this: she instills into each of them a venial version of American exceptionalism. Growing up American, they’re generally unaware of their strange self-entitlement, but they act on it constantly. They use it to justify doing bad things. Not very bad things, and (usually) not seriously illegal things. But murky things that nobody with a rigorous sense of right and wrong would ever get mixed up in. At the moment, I’m thinking of Danny, in The Keep. Danny King was “such a good boy” when he was growing up, which meant, it turned out that, he was too good for NYU, which he dropped out of (to his father’s disgust) on the strength of his faith in his specialness, aspect of which Egan grimly compiles in a glib catalogue of trivial masteries. (Note the “alto” — Danny’s word for feeling on top of the world.)

He used to think they’d be close again, but he’d stopped. Because of all the things Danny had achieved in his life — the alto, the connections, the access to power, the knowing how to get a cab in a rainstorm, and the mechanics of bribing  maître d’s, and where to find good shoes in the outer boroughs (it was the equivalent of a PhD, all the stuff Danny knew, on top of which he was known, widely known, so that when he walked on lower Broadway it wasn’t abnormal for him to recognize every single face — that’s what happened when you’d been a front man for clubs and restaurants as long as Danny had. At times it tired him out, having to nod or say hey all those times, and he’d decide he was only going to greet the people he actually knew, which was practically no one, but Danny couldn’t do that, shun people, the sight of a face turning his way was something he couldn’t refuse) — all that, so much! everything, it seemed to Danny on a good day, everything in the world you could ever want or need to know, added up to nothing — literally nothing — in his pop’s eyes. It didn’t exist. A blank page.

To be widely known, even when you know practically no one — it’s the American dream. Willy Loman dreamed it. We’re exceptional until — oops — we run into an exception.

Now I’m keen to re-read A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I haven’t revisited in its entirety since it came out last year. I feel that I have the key. For example: the electric guitar head on the dust jacket. I was mystified by the role of rock ‘n’ roll in Good Squad. Was Egan interested in music criticism? It seemed hardly likely to me that so disciplined and formally acute a writer would deign to pad her fiction with obiter dicta about pop music. Now, of course, I see — whether Egan intended this or not — that there could be no better emblem of American exceptionalism than rock music. Only Americans would have the cheek to believe that kids without much formal training entertain a crowd or record radio hits. We’re different, is what rock music had to tell the world from its earliest postwar beginnings. We don’t have to be polished. We can be rough and crude and noisy and even obnoxious, and you’ll still love us. I could be describing what most of Egan’s characters see when they look in the mirror. It has nothing to do with personal uniqueness. American exceptionalism is an environmental gift that’s bestowed upon anyone who grows up in this country — more particularly and most generously, upon anyone who grew up as a member of the Baby Boom generation. The important thing is to stop believing in it.

America ought to be exceptional in just the opposite way: as the land of people who can’t believe how lucky they’ve been, and who hope to live up to their good fortune. Instead of which — Jennifer Egan tells us what it’s like.


It’s possible, although not likely, I don’t think, that I read about Jennifer Egan and American exceptionalism somewhere. If I did, it made no immediate impression; it didn’t resonate with what I was feeling in her novels. If I did read it, I had to rediscover it, and I rediscovered it last night in the course of answering a letter. A friend had just finished reading A Visit From the Goon Squad for the first time, and she was glad to be done with it. “For one thing,” she wrote, “the David Foster Wallace chapter nearly sent me into conniptions…” She did not specify a chapter; being in the middle of other things, and a bit lazy, I wrote back to ask her which chapter she had in mind. The ninth, of course, the ironically annotated celebrity item by Jules Jones. I replied quickly to say that of course my friend was right; the chapter has the look of a Wallace parody. Then I continued, writing off the top of my head,

If I didn’t see it, it’s because the observation doesn’t get me very far in my inquiry, still pressing, into what it is about Jennifer Egan’s fiction generally (I’ve read all of it now, several times) that distinguishes it from everybody else’s. Perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I see a terrible moral tangle in her work that other writers steer clear of, or are agnostic about. Her people do bad, but not very bad, and rarely illegal, things. They screw up, and they screw up pretty much with their eyes open. It suddenly hits me now, for the first time, that they’re afflicted by a venial version of American exceptionalism: it won’t matter if I do x, because I’m basically a special person.

Then I sat back in my chair and re-read what I’d just written. The “Eureka!” bubbled up quickly. After a year and a half of reading and thinking and taking notes and squinting — and then, more recently, not giving Egan much of a thought at all — I understood what she was saying to me. She may not be saying it to anyone else, but I don’t think that I’m ever not going to hear her saying it — singing it — to me.

Gotham Diary:
12 October 2011

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Flipping through the new Vanity Fair yesterday, when I saw Nathaniel Philbrick’s piece about Moby-Dick, hailing it as the Great American Novel, d’you know what happened? I gave up. I conceded the point. Herman Melville’s experimental (ie incompetent), misinformed (see “chrism,” not to mention the taxonomy of whales), fustian tableau vivant of almost everything that’s wrong with single-sex society, making the book itself almost as unpleasant as the seafaring world it romanticizes; this ill-written, King-James’s-drunk adolescent American stab at “literature,” this tediously unillustrated graphic novel — it’s the Great American Novel, all right. That’s exactly what it is.

Late start! Owing to partly to the weather, and partly to last night’s late hours — for some reason (having nothing to do with alcohol), I was too exhilarated (by nothing in particular) to want to go to bed, so I didn’t turn in until midnight — I slept until eight this morning, jumping out of bed to make Kathleen her tea and toast. I thought I’d wait until she left for the office to write here, but by the time I sat down, the server was kaput, and needed a reboot, which happened soon enough, but by then I was on my way to the dermatologist’s office, to have a little thing burned off the back of my hand. At lunch, I could see that the site was back up, but I don’t know the password (my computers do), so I couldn’t work remotely. We’ll fix that anon.


I didn’t read the piece that carefully, but it struck me that James Surowiecki’s page about Steve Jobs in this week’s New Yorker never mentions the innovator’s death. Most commendable! And why should it? The event is the subject of this week’s cover.  


Gotham Diary:
11 October 2011

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Yesterday, I considered burning all of my notebooks. Not the ones that I was sorting, during the afternoon, but the other, older ones, the ones that are piled up in the storage unit. They cover, roughly, a fifteen year period, between the beginning of college and the middle of law school. I cannot imagine re-reading them, and, like Dominique Browning, who gave me this idea, I cannot bear the idea of anybody else’s looking at them. Not for a thousand years, anyway.

That was yesterday. This morning, a link from Google Reader inspired me to open this Sunday’s Times Magazine, where I read excerpts fromSpalding Gray’s diary. Oh dear oh dear. For all the my experiences of late adolescence and young manhood in South Bend and Houston were superficially very different from Gray’s, their affect was so much the same that the good people at Levenger could have made a fortune, and saved us all no end of time, by filling the pages of their readers’-porn notebooks with pre-printed diary entries. “What should I do with myself? Should I run for president or join the sanitation department? What is this feeling of — I can’t even describe it!” Blanks could be provided here and there, for a personalizing note — purely decorative, of course; the whole point of the diary would be to teach its owner that he or she is just another reasonably bright, semi-articulate young person. It’s a later adolescence: “What is happening to my body?” becomes “Where does my mind fit in the world?” Eventually, your body stops changing (for a while), and, just as eventually, you get a job, find a partner (or don’t); you settle down. And the minute you settle down, the existentialist crisis evaporates.

Poor Spalding Gray never really settled down, although he tried, I think, very hard. (It is not entirely a matter of getting older.) I just learned the other day that, about a year before he took his life, he was in an automobile accident in Ireland and suffered skull as well as leg injuries. Already bipolar, Gray apparently felt doomed by the aftermath of the accident, precluded from ever attaining a steady balance. Also, he may have been one of those mad Yankees. The diary entries appearing in the Magazine sound two notes, and the one that isn’t boilerplate young-artist despair sounds a rather cool and comfortable distance from other people and things; the telltale word is “rather.” The ariosos of self-hatred/disappointed narcissism reminded me of entries in John Cheever’s diaries.

I have begun keeping a journal of sorts. I write in it only when I feel terrible, something that I would never do here. Here, I’ll go so far as to confess that, every now and then, I feel terrible; sometimes the terribleness clumps together in month-long clouds. Then it passes. Now, everybody feels bad now and then. That may not be strictly true, but anecdotal evidence convinces me that my black moods are not exactly  freakish. I do think, however, that they have a peculiar cast, one that was shaped by the way in which I was brought up as an adopted child. Some parts of that peculiarity are in turn peculiar to the way adoption was regarded between World War II and the mid-Seventies. Others, I’m quite sure, are peculiar to my adoptive mother’s bewilderment by my, to her, pervasively alien character. (Never having known anything else, and being a pretty quick study, I wasn’t bewildered by hers.) When I feel terrible, I find, more often than not, that I can explain the experience in terms of things that happened or that didn’t happen because I was impressed into life as an impostor, as the biological child of strangers. (This aspect of “passing” was crucial; great care had been taken to choose an infant who would physically resemble one of it not both of my adoptive parents.) There is a great deal about this impostorship that I did not understand until I watched my daughter and her son together. Neither of them is an impostor.

What I’d like to draw from the adoption journal is a way to exchange feeling like an imposter for a simpler recognition that, on the whole, I was amazingly fortunate. No matter how late in the day.

I will also be writing for publication, and notebooks won’t be involved.

Gotham Diary:
Indian Summer
10 October 2011

Monday, October 10th, 2011

In the end, I did have my way: late Friday afternoon, just before I piled into a taxi bound for Alphabet City and a few hours with Will (who spent the evening quietly mesmerized by ancient episodes of Sesame Street, unaware that they were older than his mother), I not only polished off but posted a page on Helen DeWitt’s corker, Lighting Rods. You can read it at Civil Pleasures, here. 

And I went to the movies, too. The Ides of March had a murky scene that didn’t not make sense until I thought about it later; perhaps I missed something. Otherwise, it was a first-rate civics drama. Like a few other movies about “insider politics,” The Ides of March informs the viewer that the façade of unity that any candidate and his supporters present to the voting public is something of a legal fiction. The difference between a legal fiction and a lie is the adult recognition that civic affairs would cannot proceed without legal fictions.

Party unity is not a genuine legal fiction; it’s a political fiction. The adoption of children and the eternal personhood of corporations — now, those are legal fictions. (They may both need a lot of work, by the way, but they’re both vital all the same.) Like them, political fictions enable us to get on with important business. The Ides of March reminds us, indirectly, that political fictions must appear to be largely true; whether they’re political, legal, or narrative, fictions crumble when they generate cognitive dissonance.

All of this is another way of saying that, if politics is dirty business, it’s none of your business. Your business is to vote for the candidate most likely to implement the policies that you support. Your business is not to like the guy. This very important lesson in democracy has been learned, over the past two hundred years, by no more than 12% of the population; the unreconstructed 88% are endangering the experiment, and that is no fiction.

George Clooney, who directed The Ides of March, gives himself one big scene, and, as big scenes go, it is small and dark. He is confronted by his campaign staff’s second banana, played by Ryan Gosling, in a deserted restaurant kitchen that’s also not very well-lighted. Clooney knows how to invoke the many, many film scenes in which professional kitchens, with their knives and their clublike pots and pans and their capacious sinks and their heavy appliances, have been put in the service of movie mayhem. Neither actor so much as picks up a toothpick, but the showdown is thorough, and “the good guy wins.” Which is to say that both men win, and both men lose, and nobody gets hurt, and a magnetic politicans with a John Edwards problem in his past goes on to become President of the United States. The movie leaves it to you, which is worse: the cover-up of the candidates romantic imbroglio with an intern, or his capitulation to a powerful senator who wants to be the next Secretary of State, where he will presumably argue for positions contrary to his president’s.

If nothing else, the Ryan Gosling character finally understands the nature and importance of political fictions, and we feel his pain. We know how it is. 

Gotham Diary:
7 October 2011

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Why am I so tired? I’m ao drowsy and lackluster that I can’t think why I should be so tired. I can’t think,. Then I remember that I forgot to take a pill. I’m on a course of antibiotics, to clear up a patch of infected skin. I take the pill, and my mind curls up like an old dog by the fire.  

But first, I have a banana, so that there is something in my stomach, and that gets me to thinking about bananas, which, I read the other day, come naturally equipped with seeds the size of small stones. We don’t see naturally equipped bananas up here, of course; we see bunches of an asexual cultivar called the Cavendish, I believe, that has fallen victim to a blight in Central America, where most bananas are grown. We don’t see the blighted bananas, either. We see more expensive bananas, although I haven’t been paying attention to that. I have dropped the habit of starting the day with a banana, just as I’ve given up reading the Times first thing. Writing here is what I do first thing now, and then I have a bowl of Grape Nuts, or an English muffin with marmalade (not butter). By eleven, I’m starving again, and it only occurred to me the other day why this is the case. Thanks to Lunesta, I’ve been drinking about half as much wine as I was going through before the sleeping pill, and my body still craves those calories. I have to tell myself that the hunger is “simulated.” My stomach is not in pain. I am in pain. And I have to soldier through it. Happily, the hunger is unaccompanied by appetite; there’s nothing that I particularly want to eat. As with antibiotics, I find it difficult to think straight during these hunger pangs.

After the movies this morning (I plan to see The Ides of March, even though Anthony Lane found it disappointing), I hope to write a few more words about Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, with a view to composing a new page for Civil Pleasures. That is what I would like to do with my afternoon. Let’s see if I have my way, he said, envying Geroge I, whose biography he is almost done with, and who didn’t always have his own way, either, especially in his favorite field, which was foreign affairs — speaking of which, why weren’t we taught about the Great Northern War (1700-1721) in school, at all?


Gotham Diary:
De mortuis…
6 October 2011

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

The death of Steve Jobs reminds me, sadly, that I am bull-headedly obstinate about many things. One of them is an “inability” to understand what people are talking about when they sing the praises of their Apple devices. I heard them, I knew that they were happy, but what were they going on about? If working with a PC leaves me wondering, more than occasionally, if anyone is in charge, my time with the iPad has often made me feel that I’ve been locked up in a closet with Mommie Dearest and a lot of wire hangers. On Facebook, someone wrote this morning about not just falling in love with an Apple computer but wanting “to make something with it.” I can’t tell  you how inane this sounds to someone who hasn’t been drinking the Kool-Aid. I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on a brand-new tablet from Amazon.


For a few years, I’ve been toting a leather shoulder bag that I got from Hammacher Schlemmer. It has held up very well under the strain of belonging to me, but it’s time for a new one, and I’ve already got it, in storage. I bought it as soon as I realized that the first one was a really good fit. It holds just about everything that I want to carry around, and it’s just big enough to carry an iPad in its case. (Not that I ever did, much.) Recently, HS has been offering a larger version of the bag, suitable for carrying a laptop. I thought about getting one, but then I got a really big laptop (which I wouldn’t want to have to carry anywhere, except in luggage), and then I got an HTC Inspire phone. I won’t be carrying any computers around with me, so no bigger bag.


Spending the afternoon with my large collection of Nanos, downloading the last tall stacks of CDs onto the iTunes, I can see that I come at all of this from a strange direction, one unlikely to be imagined by any marketer. I operate at the end of a very long tail. My taste for classical music and my already large library of CDs condemn me to a less-than-satisfying relationship with Apple’s bundle of music hardware and software. (Just this afternoon, I loaded one of the jillions of CDs that pairs the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos, and l0, the “Name” for all six tracks was “Schumann Piano Concerto.” Because the entire system is geared for pop music, I’ve had to build immense playlists of composers’ works (that’s how classical music works — we go by the composer, not the performer), and I’ve had to develop protocols for renaming tracks. Example: Mozart: Clarinet Quintet In A, K 581, “Stadler” – 1. Allegro becomes 581/Shifrin/1: Allegro, and Emerson Quartet & David Shifrin becomes Mozart/Shifrin/Emerson. I’d leave things as they were if there were any consistency to the cloud’s database. Correcting and conforming all of this information takes loads and loads of time.

I’ll be the first to say that I love having music on Nanos, but it’s also the case that there is nothing about the Nanos that I particularly like, except possibly the colors. I’d be happy with just about any flash-memory device.


It is a terrible thing that Steven Jobs’s life was cut short, no doubt quite painfully, at 56, and I am sorry that all the king’s doctors couldn’t keep him alive. But I’ve never been able to warm to the man or to his company, which always seemed to be more about devices than about what might be done with devices. If you ask me, computers only begin to do the things that I’d expect of them.

Gotham Diary:
Very Stupid
5 October 2011

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Now I must write a letter, something that I never do, to Professors Black and Thompson, current authorities, from what I can make out, on the history of England in the Eighteenth Century, to ask for their gloss on Professor Plumb’s retracted dismissal (you’ll see what I mean) of George I.

Very stupid and lacking interest in the arts, save music, he was nevertheless far from being a nonentity.

This assessment appears in a work intended for “popular” readers, The First Four Georges, a trim Penguin paperback of 188 pages overall that breezes over reigns stretching from 1714 to 1830. It was first published in 1956, when, as Professor Plumb himself points out in his Preface, it had been customary for generations to regard not only George but also his son, George II, as “stupid.” But I sense a shift in connotation between the “stupid” of Plumb’s Preface, which seems to mean “unintelligent,” and a somewhat waspier sense in the quoted passage, where Professor Plumb might be suggesting that George I was not cut out to be a clever Oxbridge don. As in: “not as smart as moi.”  “Stupid” is certainly not a word that comes up  in Ragnhild Hatton’s 1978 contribution to the Yale English Monarchs series, George I. On the contrary, Hatton’s George is a man almost preternaturally suited to deal with the peculiar challenges of his time and career.

As an American, I have a hard time reading Hatton without thinking of George as the son of a “man on the make,” Ernst August of Brünswick-Lüneburg. Also to think of England as a nation “on the make” during the same concluding decades of the Seventeenth Century. When George was born, his father had no territory to leave him; he ruled the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, in a weird condominium with Catholic Wittelsbachs, the two families taking turns at running the smallish territory just to the west of what would, by the time George became king of England in 1714, be the very considerable (and wealthy) Electorate of Hanover. Ernst August married a granddaughter of James I, Sophia of the Palatinate, a lady who would, one fine day, head the line of Protestant Stuart heirs to the English throne, displacing 41 Catholics ahead of her, including Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, “Madame.”

Ernst August also put “Hanover” together, cobbling it together  from the duchies of Celle and Calenberg and other possessions, and garnishing it with an electoral cap granted by Emperor Leopold in 1692. (This would not be recognized by all of the otherImperial Electors until 1708, when everyone needed George’s armies to fight the French in the War of the Spanish Succession.) Ernst August’s family was “ancient,” prominent in local affairs since the Twelfth Century, but its prominence in Imperial affairs round about 1700 was quite unprecedented.

England, too, developed during this time from a fractious realm at the margins of Europe to the arbiter of the balance of power. Even before the Industrial Revolution, England was not only wealthy but handy with money. It would be grossly incorrect to say that the the monarch was a figurehead after 1688, but by 1714 it was clear that the king must deal, whether he wanted to do so or not, with the majority’s leaders in the Houses of Parliament. This was a constraint unknown in  Hanover, which was governed more “absolutely.” What emerges from Hatton’s pages — as from those of Professor Thompson’s George II — is not so much a question of the king’s having to implement laws and policies against his will, but rather one of his having to negotiate with men whom he didn’t, personally, like. Both of the first two Georges were impatient with this requirement, which they both regarded as unreasonable; but then they were cultivated European princes, brought up on Renaissance, early-Enlightenment ideas of the importance of harmony and balance. The English way of doing things must have seemed noisy and inefficient. The Georges’ failure to see the long-term effectiveness of “faction” does not mark them out as stupid, given that the same distaste haunted all of America’s Founding Fathers; indeed, it can be said with safety that almost nobody has ever liked “party politics” to this day. We’ve just learned to quote Churchill’s dismissal of democracy as the worst sort of government, except for all the others.

George of Brünswick-Lüneburg was born a landless princeling who was not without military gifts; he might have pursued a career along the lines of Prince Eugene or the Duke of Marlborough (both of whom made sure that his chances for glory during the Spanish Succession war were nipped in the bud). Instead, a whole lot of territory fell into his lap — and then, the English crown! It was an English crown that, as crowns go, was not so valuable as those of France and Spain; it was if nothing a crown that could not be put on and taken off, so to speak, without extensive consultations with leading men. An absolute ruler in Germany and a constitutional monarch in England, George muddled through in the best English fashion, by being a compleat gentleman. And gentlemen are never stupid.