Archive for November, 2012

Gotham Diary:
Beauties
30 November 2012

Friday, November 30th, 2012

In the afternoon, I went to see Anna Karenina, Joe Wright’s film of Tom Stoppard’s dramatization of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. The Stoppard part is the most important, although Wright is to be praised for capturing the circus magic that makes Stoppard’s bigger plays, such as Jumpers, so thrilling. Stoppard doesn’t stop at writing a screenplay, with lines for actors to deliver in front of various deployments of the camera. He creates a contraption, rooted in vaudeville, of sliding screens and stylized gestures, that deconstructs and recomposes a dramatic problem in terms of spectacular ballet. It goes without saying that, what with Stoppard’s being the presiding genius, this ballet is anything but mute. Just as important, it is neither precious nor hermetic: Stoppard has no intention of bewildering or boring his audience. His play is a thinking machine (a machine in the antique sense — more ingenious toy than mechanized tool) that invites you to ponder Anna Karenina’s story and the world in which it was shaped. We all know how Anna’s story ends, but this rather grim detail, while it is stylistically foreshadowed, does not haunt the telling. Anna Karenina may be light-hearted or it may be heartless, according to your taste, but it is certainly densely-headed. Stoppard wants you to deal with what’s going on, not to worry about what’s going to happen. He steers you away from Anna’s doom, helped immensely by Keira Knightley’s furiously vital performance. When the time comes, the Anna who throws herself beneath the train carriage is no poor creature. Her face has just brightened with a slight, faint smile, for she has grasped a solution to her problem.

Ms Knightley’s performance plays out over a counterpoint of glittering high life in which Society is presented as gorgeous and graceful and caged. We can expect someone to write something brilliant about the way Stoppard and Wright have hit upon using the backstage machinery and lumber of a conventional theatre to signify confinement — not to mention doing the same with the boxes and stalls out in front of the proscenium. All but two of Tolstoy’s characters are content to live in this virtual prison; they have worked out deals that keep them in silks and soufflés in exchange for the observance of a more or less rigid decorum. The two exceptions are Levin (a very keen Domhnall Gleeson), who understands the cage to be an alien import from the West, foreign to true Russian values (about which, however, he is visionary when he is not sentimental: don’t try this at home), and Anna, who ceases to be able to live in the cage when  she is surprised by a romantic passion that is, certainly in this production, intensely erotic. When Levin and Anna are happy, the camera moves out of the theatre set and into the countryside. (Wright is to be applauded, again, for exterior shots that harmonize with the rest of the movie; they could so easily jar.) The difference is that Levin’s happiness is built on a foundation of property and masculinity — men are allowed to leave the cage from time to time, to philander or to shoot birds — while Anna’s has no foundation at all. Hers also lies beyond a range of burned bridges: when her life with Vronsky fails (Vronsky is played by the protean, here almost beautiful Aaron Taylor-Johnson with an authority beyond his tender years), she can’t go back to any other. You might say that the burned bridges are the broken bars of the cage: the prison life is supportable only if you’ve not, having stepped outside of it, considered never stepping back in. By showing us a bedroom that is little more than a gigantic crypt with an open coffin, the filmmakers leave no doubt in our minds that Anna really cannot go on living with Karenin. (Jude Law plays Karenin with what at first seems to be an august reserve, but as the camera continues to play over his face, you are reminded of his ghoulish performance in The Road to Perdition.) But there’s more to it than that, of course. Anna besots herself with the notion that Vronsky has become her true husband. This delusion overlooks the fact that Vronsky is going to have to become someone else’s husband. The only true husbands are the actual, legal husbands. This is, after all, the ancien régime: property rights trump personal claims.

All of this is beautifully illuminated by what I have called Stoppard’s contraption. Far from being a sob story about a beautiful, passionate lady who is crushed by a repressive society, this Anna Karenina is above all an entertainment. It is about the way people live, not die. It may be the most beautiful movie that I’ve ever seen; that’s certainly how I felt while I was watching it. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who choreographed the dances (and perhaps the entire film) and costume designer Jacqueline Durran both deserve Academy Awards.

***

In the evening, I went to see the George Bellows exhibition at the Museum. I shall have to see it again before venturing to say much about Bellows’s very distinctive impressionism, which manages to be post-impressionist at the same time; all I can say for certain is that his two portraits of “Mrs T,” an elderly society woman in Chicago, are Old Master stunners that would not suffer by hanging next to Sargents or Lawrences. There are many wonderful things — the presence of snow in Blue Snow, the Battery, which could have been painted only by somebody who knew how to put the chill of winter on canvas; the rock pool, lit as from within, at the bottom of the picture of the fisherman at Carmel Bay; the heavy but jolly ladies in their pastel dresses, climbing the park steps in Easter Snow — but I don’t know quite what to make of them, which is another way of saying that this exhibition of Bellows is obliging me to adjust my thoughts about the art of painting. His premature death (of appendicitis) at the age of 42 is deeply regrettable.

Gotham Diary:
Rude
29 November 2012

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Aaron James, we’re told on the “About the Author” page of his new book, is a surfer, and he is not an asshole — the subject of same, Assholes: A Theory. There. I hope to be done with the unpleasantness. I find the word hideously unpleasant to write in this space, although like everyone else I find it an enormously effective emollient when in need of invective. Although only midway through the book, I am heartened to find that, in general, I use the epithet in conformity with James’s theory. It is also a great relief to learn that, if I worry about being one of James’s subjects, and would be ashamed to be so regarded by anyone else, then, no matter how foolish my behavior, I am probably not one myself. Modified rapture.

But I fasten on the surfing in the author’s CV, which I’d already gathered from the text, since the bad behavior of some surfers provides an inordinate number of examples. (I had no idea that Brazilian louts had made themselves detested on the north coast of Oahu.) Surfing is incomprehensible to me: I cannot imagine devoting so much attention to the swells of the sea, particularly since my idea of a thrill is walking into a cloud of freshly-baked bread. (Actually, my idea of a thrill is a very funny line.) It is all too primordial, to at-one-with-unchanging-but-unpredictable-nature. Nature, as is well documented, I find to be a great bore, at least in its untamed avatars.

So, I am going to attribute the failings in Theory to an excess of sun, saltwater, and perhaps a concussion. These failings are two. (So far!) First, the preoccupation with philosophical argument. I think that it’s possible to study human failings without getting caught up in the conundrum of free will. I hope that it is, anyway, because free will is not going to established or disproved anytime soon. My eyes glazed over as James’s struggled to draw a bright line between psychopaths and his subjects. If society at large is responsible for the creation of assholes — and I believe that it is — then the question of culpability ceases to be interesting. We’re left with a problem — the pains-in-the-neck are still with us — and we have to figure out what to do about them. Not how to think about them.

One of the worst failings of philosophy is its complete ahistoricism: it dismisses changes in circumstances as “accidents,” and deems “essence” to be eternal. There’s no question that James is going after the essence of his subject, and there’s no question (in my mind) that he might as well be pondering the zodiac. The simple fact is this: assholes are a modern problem, an after-effect of the dismantling of structures of birth-determined status. (Once upon a time, in the ancien régime, affairs were so managed that assholes were a protected class, the aristocracy.) This is the other error of the book at hand. It is fatuous in the extreme to appraise a figure such as Cecil Rhodes in terms of the Theory, because the terms of James’s three-pronged test don’t translate meaningfully back into the Nineteenth Century. Or to any earlier time, or to any culture that isn’t, officially at least, “liberal democratic.” There were moments, as I read the book last night, when I expected James to come out and declare a correlation between the phenomenon that interests him and the individualism and obsessive personal autonomy that flourish particularly among Anglophone males. (He does share a brilliant, highly localized hypothesis: Anglophones prefer to line up in orderly queues because they dislike touching and being touched by strangers.) So far, alas, the connection has not been made.

Here is the Theory, Aaron James’s three-pronged test: An  asshole is someone who

(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

In the ancien régime, this sense of entitlement was legally protected. It is true that we have moved on, or tried to move on, but it seems to me more useful to consider the asshole as a relic of historical conditions, a would-be member of an extinct social class, and bear in mind that his now annoying behavior used to be conventional, than it is to tramp through the semantic swamps of personal responsibility.

I have a third problem with this book, but it’s not a shortcoming on James’s part. It’s an uneasiness about the egalitarian claims that underlie it. We learned, over centuries of experience, that status based on birth is a terrible idea. So we got rid of that, or thought we did. But it has been shown in case after case that the children of wealthy people are more equipped to cope with life’s ups and downs (especially the downs, which are heavily upholstered) than other people, and also better able to manipulate circumstances in their own favor. Taken too far, egalitarianism gives these unofficially privileged children the power, if not the right, to pursue separate and superior trajectories, and they seem to do a good job of taking their money with them. As France’s miserable record with the assimilation of outsiders proves, the declaration of equality, without more (much more), is an empty thing. We have to be more candid about our inequalities, many of which are the result of circumstances beyond human control — if only to determine which them aren’t.

But Assholes: A Theory is a helpful, timely book, simply for having inaugurated a conversation about civility and socialization. We all tend to think that we’re nicer than we are (and than other people), and smarter, too; and yet we’re all jerks now and then. A firm grasp of Aaron James’s three-pronged test will go far to help us from thinking too highly of ourselves while being jerks as a matter of course.  

Gotham Diary:
Big Rig
28 November 2012

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

This picture is not only worth a thousand words; it sucks them right out of my head.

The multicolored bulldozer in the foreground is, like the semi-cum-backhoe rig in the box, a Bruder Toy. It is also, plainly, a toy. I bought it for Will last summer, to play with on the beach. Will likes to plow it around the sandbox at Carl Schurz Park, and so do the other boys, most of them older if no taller. I thought that it might be nice for Will to have another vehicle to go with the “digger,” as he calls it — something to share, so that two could play. Now, if I were Will’s mother, I’d have done some research, and (possibly) discovered that the bulldozer comes from Bruder’s Roadmax range. Instead, I spent about ninety seconds glancing at Amazon pages before making a selection and breezing through checkout. You behold the result. Instead of a toy, a 1:16 scale model of a Mack truck and a JCB 4XC. The good news is that Megan says that Will is ready for the “more advanced” stuff.

Another nice thing is that, if we give the big rig to Will for his birthday, on New Year’s Day, he’ll be officially old enough to play with it safely. Almost every toy that I’ve seen in the past couple of years that isn’t intended for newborn infants carries the “3+” mark. (Lawyers!)

Still, it does look daunting. It’s obviously a lot more truck than I bargained for. It was somewhat, but not much more than twice the price of the bulldozer. Which made sense — it’s two trucks, after all. What I wasn’t factoring in was the great difference in prices at Amazon and at the toy shop in the East Village where I bought the bulldozer. At Amazon, the bulldozer is less than 30% as expensive as the Mack rig.

You may wonder what I’m doing with Will’s digger. It’s one of his toys that lives here. The big truck will stay uptown as well. (“Where are you going to put that?” Kathleen fairly wailed.) Megan says that, while Will would be happy to have it in his bedroom, there is no more “parking space” at his house. This is very true. Will is the very enthusiastic owner of a fleet of cars and trucks of all shapes and sizes that already has an air of serious Interstate commerce. He likes them big, and he likes them small,  and he likes them to make noise, although he’s happy to provide that part himself. The big trucks can sometimes be “heard” telling the little trucks that they’ll take care of them. 

Now he will have a truck that carries another truck.

***

For the second day in a row, I read a French novel for an hour in the afternoon. I am hoping to make a habit of it. I was certainly more fluent this afternoon than I was yesterday. I figure that I can spare an hour of reading in English. I read all day long — whenever I’m not writing or working round the house — and that goes a long way to explain what I flatter myself to consider my fluency in my native language. (Merely writing in English wouldn’t be very helpful.)

The difficulty isn’t in reading French (the tedium of looking things up in the dictionary, because I’m not quite sure what the author has in mind with such-and-such a phrase); it’s in scheduling the day. I’m not good at that at the best of times, and, lately, I’ve let myself go completely, doing just what I like and nothing else. I exaggerate, but it’s not wrong to say that I do most things when I want to do them, and not because it’s time to do them. I’m hoping that spending an hour reading in French will become, if not a habit, then something that I want to do — something unmixed with oughts. The more I read, the more fluent I’ll become, and the less dico hunting there will be.

The book that I’m reading is Patrick Deville’s Pura Vida: La vie et mort de William Walker. Walker was an American adventurer in Central America who was executed in Honduras in 1860. A great deal of the early narrative takes place in present-day Managua, and references abound to people and places that I’ve heard about from Fossil Darling, whose mother was a native. On page 29, there’s a reference to La Marseillaise, the French restaurant (run by a Swiss) where Fossil hosted a party for his extended family in the Nineties. It’s this topicality that is getting me through a book that might otherwise fail to appeal.

I’ll know that I’m fluent when I stop having embarrassing little moments like this afternoon’s with one of the chapter headings,  a remark by Bolivar: Celui qui sert une révolution laboure la mer. I had to check it out on Google, with the search “He who serves a revolution” “the sea.” Because I couldn’t really believe that laboure was to be taken literally as plows. The worst of it was that I’d seen the line before, and pondered the futility of revolutions that Bolivar learned the hard way. What was clever in English was incomprehensible in French, because I lack the metaphorical reach in the latter tongue. Nobody plows the sea actually. My blunder, my literal inelasticity, renders up close and personal the difficulty that many people have in reading in their own language. That’s the one and only time that I’ll allow myself that excuse.

Gotham Diary:
On the Boil
27 November 2012

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

I had expected something somewhat more lighthearted, more of a caper film, than what Ben Affleck’s Argo turned out to be. And maybe that’s what I’ll get when I see it again, as indeed I shall, possibly in the theatre, probably on DVD. But the first time round, even though I knew the happy outcome — the successful rescue from Tehran of six men and women who escaped from the American embassy just as it was being stormed in 1979 — I found Argo difficult to sit through at times, and I watched the last ten minutes or so standing up, to relieve some of the vulnerability that came with being seated. (I always sit at the back of movie theatres.) Without much in the way of hitting or shooting (and no actual killing that I can recall), Affleck has given us one of the most violent of films. Its violence is not rooted in criminal psychopathy, as movie violence usually is when it’s not about military battles, but in emotions familiar to everyone: anger and dread. Argo simmers with the dread of the six American escapees, hiding out in the residence of the Canadian ambassador; and it boils over with the anger of revolutionaries, the ferocity of which is focused on the United States and its representatives. In Argo, Tehran appears to have been the site of an ongoing carnival of rage. Without the slightest show of overt disrespect to American policies, Ben Affleck persuades us to sympathize with this outpouring of hostility, which always retains — in the case of mass demonstrations — an element of civil respectability.

As for the six Americans, their ordeal is primarily captured as restlessness before the camera. Their faces do not settle within their close-ups. They look confused, slightly out of focus — as people often do in documentaries. The illusion of mortal fear for one’s life is compelling. You can tell yourself all you like that this is just a movie or remind yourself that it has a happy ending, but these forebrained observations are nullified by what passes before your eyes. (Mirror neuron theorists are going to have a field day.)

I read somewhere that the actual escape, from the Canadian ambassador’s house to the airspace beyond Iran’s borders, went pretty much without a hitch, but that Affleck and his team could not resist the temptation to enliven it with hair-raising checks. If so, I did not feel that there was anything gratuitous about the interpolations. Dipping into the modern mythology of checkpoints, of passports and other papers that must be evaluated by functionaries who are never as mechanically predictable as either side would like, relieves more pressure than it creates, simply because we all of us believe in it now, and we find the narrowest escapes the most satisfying. It doesn’t change the original story; it connects it to ours.

Gotham Diary:
Perusal
26 November 2012

Monday, November 26th, 2012

On Saturday, while Kathleen had her hair done, went to see Lincoln with friends, and then had dinner with them at Shun Lee West, I read the two latest issues of the London Review of Books. I would finish one piece and then start in on the next, whatever it was about. In this way, I plowed through David Runciman’s pellucidly outraged response to the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. I couldn’t care less about cycling or Armstrong or doping — I’m never quite sure what’s wrong about “enhancing” the performance of inherently idiotic and dangerous sports — but Runciman’s excoriation was a blast to read.  

The testers did have one thing in their favour. A cyclist only had to make one mistake, or be unlucky once, and he would become damaged goods. The code of omertà, which guaranteed that the riders on the Tour never discussed what they all knew was happening, also meant that if one of their number got caught, he had to be ostracised. The only way to keep up the pretence was to pretend to be outraged by any evidence of cheating. And over the course of a long career, it was almost impossible for the top riders to keep out of trouble. This became Hamilton’s private motto: ‘Sooner or later, everybody gets popped.’ Not because, as he puts it, ‘the testers suddenly became Einsteins, though they did get better. I think it has more to do with the odds over the long run. The longer you play hide-and-seek, the more likely it is that you’ll slip up, or they’ll get lucky.’ Hamilton got his own comeuppance in 2004, when a test showed that he had another person’s blood in his system. By this point most of the top riders were using ‘blood bags’, storing samples of their own blood taken at a time when their hematocrit level was high, and then re-injecting it into their bloodstream during a race to give themselves a boost. Somehow, Hamilton had been supplied with the wrong bag.

He was outraged, and protested his innocence, because this was clearly a mistake: no rider would deliberately boost with another athlete’s blood. He had the sense of injustice of the perennial cheat who finds himself accused of the one thing he never tried. A doctor must have screwed up, making Hamilton the victim. But Hamilton couldn’t win, either under the official rules or under the unofficial ones. He took his case to court and lost, because the scientific evidence against him was overwhelming: the blood really wasn’t his, a fact for which there could be no innocent explanation. He had also fallen foul of Armstrong’s unspoken rule for the sport, which was that you have to be better at breaking the rules than anyone else. If your doctors screwed up, you were at fault for having hired the wrong doctors. Armstrong knew that the medics who ended up servicing cyclists were there for two reasons: first, to make money (some were charging hundreds of thousands for their services); second, because a career in conventional medicine had somehow passed them by. These people were not to be trusted: had they been, they would have become regular doctors. Armstrong never stopped monitoring the men who were monitoring his body, because he knew his fate was in their hands. Hamilton took his eye off the ball, and paid the price.

And after all those years of earnest-puppy poster pictures of the bent cyclist, my Schadenfreude meter registered dangerously red when I learned that “Hamilton’s memoir establishes beyond doubt that Armstrong is not a nice person to be around.”

Kathleen reported that Lincoln is a very good movie, with great performances by a very large cast, and she couldn’t see how it would rub me the wrong way, as Steven Spielberg’s movies never fail to do unless they’re comedies. I shall wait for the DVD just the same.

Yesterday, after what I called a “review” of the kitchen and the larder — straightening up shelves and bins and reminding myself of what lay in the freezer — I turned to history bookshelf in the blue room. I hoped to cull some more books, but the main objective was to group books by time and space, to the extent that this made sense. At the back of the bottom shelf went the Hitler and Stalin books, of which I accumulated a few when Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography of the Nazi leader came out. At the back of the next shelf up went big books of American history, such as Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy, which I’m not going to read anytime soon, and several Civil War books that I’m equally disinclined to read. The only sympathetic book of American history that I’ve read (possibly ever) is Jonathan Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation, which sounds the depths of the failure of the American experiment in “freedom” in the decades after the Civil War. (That book was not consigned to the back of the shelf.) Other categories included “Ancient,” “Asia,” and “Economic.” Histories of Great Britain filled both rows of a single shelf — no surprise — while histories of modern (national) Europe fronted two shelves. There was also a stretch of “Medieval” histories, into which I tipped a number of books about sixteenth-century matters, such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation.  

But before I could do any arranging, I had to adjust the height of the bottom shelf. Part of the task of shaping up my library is making it more accessible, which means keeping books off the base shelves unless they’re very tall and can be reached without kneeling. History books don’t fall into this category, so I lowered the bottom adjustable shelf so that it would not longer be a “short” shelf, incapable of accommodating all books within the (admittedly wide) range of normal height. (For the base shelf, I hope to find or to have made a bin or basket or drawer, easily pulled out and lifted up without kneeling, to hold opera CDs.) I had the devil of a time moving the little pins on which the shelves rest; between the odd angle and my immovable back (which made it impossible to see what I was trying to do with my outstretched arm), I began to despair of making progress. In the end, I had to get out the drill and widen the bottom hold a bit. All this involved a lot of kneeling, which I try to avoid, and I worried about inflaming the right knee, which is still a bit swollen from an escapade in the early summer in which I walked down a dozen flights of stairs in order to be on time for a movie. And when it was done, I had one less shelf. The displaced books are lined up on the easy chair; as I reorganized the books, I began to distinguish intellectual and scientific histories from the more conventional national and institutional ones. Who knows where these brainier books will wind up.

Before getting round to all this housework, I read the paper with Kathleen. At one point, Kathleen said, “You know, I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen Cool Hand Luke.” “Neither have I,” I said. Then I picked up my phone and had the Video Room send it over. We watched it after dinner. Now we’ll never have to see it again. Ostensibly the agony, in the formal sense, of an antiauthoritarian young man who forces his Dixie jailers to crush him, Cool Hand Luke blends nouvelle vague existential despair with intimations of its real-life counterpart in the senseless misadventure of the War in Vietnam. There is also a certain curious homoeroticism. It is not intended to appeal to any kind of viewer, but rather to suggest, what is widely acknowledged today, that men in confinement learn to make do. (I was arrested by the sight of two men closely jumping rope together in the background of a shot of Paul Newman’s Luke going to say goodbye to his mother.) In the end, however, the film is more unpleasant than engaging. Like most Hollywood films made during the height of the Cold War, it is harshly over-lighted. George Kennedy’s character is cartoonish and confused, as if intended to take the place of a black prisoner (there are no black prisoners). The sadism of the guards is so disgusting that at one point I expostulated, “I wonder why the women of the world don’t just rise up in the night and slaughter all the men.” Paul Newman looks great, though, when he smirks, which is most of the time. And great for 42, too.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Yum
23 November 2012

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

The napkins and tablecloth have been washed and pressed, the tableware washed and dried and put away, the wine bottles drained and tossed. Only the vase of flowers, arranged by one of the guests, remains. That, and a lot of turkey in the refrigerator.

A lot of turnkey. We ate most of the white meat, amazingly, but the wings and legs went untouched. Next time, I’ll add the drumsticks to the back and neck to make the broth (it will be richer and darker that way). I’ll also buy a smaller bird. But I don’t think that I’ll ever roast turkey again. Browning the meat and then braising it (for about two hours) produces a succulent treat, moist and springy but fully cooked. Gravy made from the braising liquid intensifies the flavors.

Browning the very large pieces of turkey made a dreadful mess of the stove, and all the pots and pans hanging on the pegboard around it, as well as the utensils in their pitchers, will have to be washed. We had to open the windows and set the front door ajar, just to clear the air of aerosols. Otherwise, the cooking was straightforward. I made sweet potatoes the way I do every day, steaming them in cubes and then running them through a ricer, and adding a bit of cream and maple syrup to the purée. I boiled the baby Brussels sprouts for about six minutes, and then reheated them later in a pot in which I’d browned two slices of bacon, diced. The dressing baked alongside the turkey, and it was fine. I thought that I had plenty of food, in case the O’Neill family joined us, but, turkey aside, this turned out not to be the case. The six of us gobbled up all of potatoes and the sprouts, and there wasn’t much dressing, either. I still have a bit of mushroom soup, and plenty of gravy. But there was nothing left of Ray Soleil’s scrumptious chocolate mousse. Three bottles of wine were emptied, along with at least two of champage.

It was delicious, everyone insisted; I couldn’t tell. I didn’t have much of an appetite by dinnertime — I rarely do after a long spell of cooking. But I had a very good time. I went straight to bed when everyone left, and didn’t think of cleaning up until this morning. The stove is still a fright, but I didn’t mind seeing to the rest. I managed not to grumble too loudly when the old Black & Decker iron refused to heat up (it had been dropped recently); I ran over to Basics Plus and bought a Rowenta model with a retractable cord. All cords ought to be retractable.

It has been a long time since I’ve used “the best stuff,” our fine wedding china, my mother’s crystal goblets, my mother-in-law’s sterling and linens. I had got into a bad habit of regarding use of the finery as stressful and imposing — just as I’d been running away from Thanksgiving dinner. The substitution of fricasee for roast appears to have reconciled me to both the fancy crockery and the holiday, which, after all, were meant for each other. Having put the turkey’s flavor ahead of its presentation (the dinner was completely plated in the kitchen), I found it easy to observe all the other pieties of the day.  

Gotham Diary:
Thanksgiving
22 November 2012

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012


Photograph by Kathleen Moriarty

This is a souvenir of Will on Fire Island. Kathleen, who used the picture for this year’s desk calendar, confesses to fiddling “very slightly” with the arrangement of the toys, but she insists that they’re lined up as Will put them there. There’s a deadpan quality to the blue car that makes me wonder if Johnny Depp or Philip Seymour Hoffman is going to get out of it for a closer look at whatever has captured the attention of the dinosaurs.

I don’t know how long it has been since my last Thanksgiving — one cooked by me. In some ways, it is just a dinner party like any other, with old friends and family and no need to impress. On the other hand, you should see the turkey pieces in the crisper, covered with ice. They are very large. I have never cut up a turkey before, much less a seventeen-pound behemoth. I will save the space below for an account of the fricassee that I hope to enjoy this afternoon. (I gather from James Beard’s American Cookery that I can call the dish a turkey fricassee.)

The soup is all but finished (eggs and cream at the last minute, for “enrichment”). The stuffing’s half-made, needed only to be tossed with croutons and shoved in the oven. Wild rice, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts will start keeping me busy at about 1:30. By then, the turkey will have been browned and prepared for braising. At three, I’ll set the table. Oh, and cranberries. I suppose I ought to do them sooner rather than later, so that they’ll be cool.

Everything is under control: I am official ready (although not prepared) for catastrophe.

***

Aside from a slight catastrophe, which Ray Soleil dealt with swiftly (my bad, though), the evening was warm and delightful, and braising is definitely the way to go with turkey. More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Pizzica, pizzica
21 November 2012

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

It seems that I’m going through one of my sporadic music blackouts. It’s not that I don’t want to listen to music; I simply can’t decide what to hear. It makes sense to me that I’m going through this now, because a number of things are up in the air (in the best sense) and music seems to be an unwanted distraction. Actual silence, however, can be oppressive, and this is where audiobooks come in handy. At least when I’m managing the household chores, I’m happy to listen to a story — preferably a story that I already know. Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, read, unabridged, by Kirsten Potter, has seen me through hours of bed-making, magazine-sorting, book-culling, and other jobs. It came to an end yesterday afternoon. I came away from it with quite a different response to the ending.

The first time through, I felt that the story of Eilis Lacey was almost tragic. As the youngest child of a provincial Irish family, she comes of age without any propsects for job or marriage, and is shipped off to Brooklyn by an obliging priest who arranges for her immigration, her employment, and her housing. Once she’s there, he gets her into Brooklyn College, where she takes nights classes in accounting. The priest also keeps her busy at parish functions, which eventually include popular dances. The crowd at the dances is almost exclusively Irish, but Eilis catches the fancy of an Italian gate-crasher who swiftly falls deeply in love with her. Eilis’s own feelings are ambivalent at best; she likes Tony well enough, and is deeply gratified by his masculine companionship. But does she love him? All she knows is that she’s not ready to get married. Nevertheless, when, owing to a sudden death, Eilis has to return to Ireland for what’s to be a short visit, Tony persuades her to marry him in a civil ceremony that only the two of them will know about. All of this, so far, is charming, one of the sweetest, gentlest books ever written. Although the characters are sharply observed, and the limited horizons of the respectable Fifties are carefully delineated, Eilis’s adventure in America is a success, with no more than a normal allotment of unhappy hours.

It is when Eilis returns to Enniscorthy (yes, the author’s home town) that Brooklyn becomes uncomfortable. The discomfort — our discomfort — has two sources. On the surface, there is the difficulty of Eilis’s secret marriage, which she feels unable to share with her mother, or with any of her friends (who would tell their mothers, who would tell hers). To all appearances, she is an unattached young woman with a degree in accounting (a job is actually thrust upon her), and a young man whom she was happy to leave behind on account of his cloddish behavior turns out to be as taken with her as her secret husband. Eilis’s position is excruciatingly false; Tóibín’s gift is to compress the unspoken tensions of a novel by Henry James within the limpid, accessible prose of the Brontës.

Beneath the surface, there is the problem of love itself, love being something that Eilis has seen little of in her life. Perhaps the word that I want isn’t “love,” but “generosity.” Eilis’s mother, sister, and brothers (her father has died before the novel) all love her dearly, of that there’s no doubt; but their love takes the form of an unexpressed, inexpressible commitment. Her two years in America have exposed her to more openhearted ways of life, especially, of course, Tony’s, and although her reaction is to back away, because such displays would signal depravity or worse back home, she becomes accustomed to them just the same. She is almost insulted, on her return visit, by her mother’s persistent refusal to inquire about or even refer to her experiences in faraway Brooklyn. We know what the old lady thinks of them, because of her understated disapproval of Eilis’s colorful American clothes. Eilis has not been home for three days before she realizes that her mother expects her to stay on forever.

Gradually, what with the job and the young man’s attentions and the general familiarity of Ireland, Eilis begins to entertain this prospect herself, thus turning the screw of her deceit. Just when she realizes that there is never going to be a good time to explain her situation to her mother and to her would-be boyfriend (they have kissed!), Eilis is saved — that’s how it seemed this time, not tragic at all — by a local harpy who intimates that she’s in the know about Tony and will share this knowledge with her neighbors if Eilis doesn’t skedaddle, which Eilis very promptly does. The End.

Well, not so fast. Eilis proceeds from her interview with the harpy to the Post Office, where she writes a number of letters, and then to her mother’s table, where she makes an abrupt confession. Mrs Lacey (never called so in the novel) contains her shock in a remarkable manner. She asks Eilis if she loves the man, and when Eilis says that she does, her mother replies that he must therefore be a good man. In this way, she gives her blessing to the marriage. But this blessing, although very sincere, is also terribly repressed.

“And tell me something: if you hadn’t married him, would you be going back?”

“I don’t know,” Eilis said.

“But you are getting on the train in the morning?” her mother said.

“I am, the train to Rosslare and then to Cork.”

“I’ll go down and get Joe Dempsey to collect you in the morning. I’ll ask him to come at eight so you’ll be in plenty of time for the train.” She stopped for a moment, and Eilis noticed a look of great weariness come over her. “And then I’m going to bed because I am tired and so I won’t see you in the morning. So I’ll say goodbye now.”

“It’s still early,” Eilis said.

“I’d rather say goodbye now and only once.” Her voice had grown determined.

Her mother came towards her, and, as Eilis stood up, she embraced her.”

“Eily, you’re not to cry. If you made a decision to marry someone, then he’d have to be very nice and kind and very special. I’d say he’s all that, is he?”

“He is, Mammy.”

“Well, that’s a match, then, because you’re all of those things as well. And I’ll miss you. But he must be missing you too.”

Eilis was waiting for her mother to say something else as her mother moved and stood in the doorway. Her mother simply looked at her, however, without saying anything.

“And you’ll write to me about him when you get back?” she asked eventually. “You’ll tell me all the news?”

“I’ll write to you about him as soon as I get back,” Eilis said.

“If I say any more, I’ll only cry. So I’ll go down to Dempsey’s and arrange the car for you,” her mother said as she walked out of the room in a way that was slow and dignified and deliberate.

How extravagantly important it is, not to cry! No wonder Eilis can’t be sure that she loves Tony: his declarative mode of love is forbidden. This time, however, I came away more confident that Eilis would find happiness in her Long Island doom.
 

***

In the evening, I was cooking. I was making a puttanesca sauce (one of Kathleen’s favorites) for dinner, and I was cutting up the Thanksgiving turkey so that I could fit it into the refrigerator. (I’ve decided to brown the turkey parts in butter and then to braise them in a broth — ninety minutes in the oven — inspired to do so by a piece in the Times Magazine.) Have you ever cut up a turkey? A seventeen-pound turkey? It’s almost gruesome! The kitchen felt a veritable abbatoir! I remembered Julia Child’s trick for cutting butternut squash: with a cleaver and a mallet. That’s how I finally severed the drumsticks from the thighs. Next time, I’ll ask the butcher to do it.

All the while, I was weeping my head off. Couldn’t stop. I was listening to the old Karajan recording of Falstaff, and it was the music, not the comedy, that reduced me to tears. The music is sublimely funny — a true statement, but so inadequate! Just knowing that Verdi was in his seventies when he  discovered how to be as fleet as a magician (not that he was ever a dawdler) is funny. And sublime. The music is occasionally comic (I can think of at least two raspberries), but it doesn’t sound like comic opera, not at all. It is very serious, the music. It is very serious about being funny. There are crashes and booms that could be lifted from Verdi’s darkest melodramas. There may be something about the lovely song that Nanetta and Fenton are always singing that announces, covertly, that no one is going to die in this opera, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Then there is the genius of the sight gag: the merry wives of Windsor tip the hamper in which Falstaff cowers into the Thames. Wagner would make us hear the splash, but Verdi is scrupulous. His score does not hint at what we’ve just seen. Instead, it accompanies the climax with a purely musical response to the frenetic build-up that precedes the toss:  as everyone laughs (music or not music?), the orchestra shimmers and smiles in tonic resolution.

And the dense, coruscating fugue at the end, Tutta è burla — THAT is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.  

Gotham Diary:
Fez
20 November 2012

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

On Friday, I went to see Skyfall, and I enjoyed it in an unthinking way. Every time I did think, I objected, but then I’m that rare bird who has no desire whatever to live in the world of James Bond. And, much as I like Daniel Craig in the role (in any role), he makes one feel his pain. I mean Craig’s pain, not Bond’s. The real pain of sprinting and jumping and punching. It’s wearying. I’d have liked to see more of Bérénice Marlohe; her scene at the bar was the best thing in the movie. More Ben Whishaw, too. Rory Kinnear reminded me of his father even before I knew who he was. (Two Help! references in as many days.)

Fossil Darling, claiming to have the inside scoop, told me yesterday that, notwithstanding Dame Judi Dench’s claim that she retired from the role of M voluntarily, the decision was really Barbara Broccoli’s. No one, he claims, has appeared in more than seven Bond vehicles, not even Sean Connery. Well, he would know. It’s very strange, knowing that Dame Judi has suffered a degree of macular degeneration that leaves her effectively blind; it’s as though she has passed on to some higher plane. She puts a new oomph into the idea of acting, quite the opposite of a sighted actor’s pretending to be blind.

The motocycle chase atop Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar made me wish more than ever that Orhan Pamuk would write a sinister screenplay to show off his beloved city — preferably in a January fog. From a grandish room in something like his family’s old apartment building, a formidable matron would run an operation dedicated to corrupting promising young politicians with the favors of temptresses played by the likes of Marion Cotillard. The story would be set before World War I, so that all the men would wear fezes. (We watched Pascali’s Island the other night. You still can’t get it on DVD, but the VHS tape worked.)

What I really wanted to see on Friday was Arco, but the showtimes didn’t work for me.  

***

Thanksgiving is just two days away, and I’m not sure how many people are coming. Six for sure — and probably just six. But I’m preparing for ten. I’m shopping today and cooking tomorrow. It’s a tremendous bore not to have access to the balcony, which always serves as a pantry when I have a party; I’ve nowhere to put anything. That goes for the apartment generally. I’m nowhere near having the emergency closet space — empty most of the time, that is — that my sanity demands. Progress on the de-accessioning front is slow. But it has finally touched the library. Yesterday, I took four shopping bags full of books up to HousingWorks. Four shopping bags — containing only forty books. True, many of them were big fat books, books like Simon Schama’s Citizens (it took a while for me to realize that Schama is Not For Me). But the total of books culled so far is a measly 49 — not even one-twentieth of my goal.

Going through the history books, I tried to sort by time (Antiquity, &c) and space (Asia, &c), but I ran out of room very quickly, and the European pile was soon toppling over all the others. It was more a miscellany than a collection. Two books that I wanted to give away but didn’t were Jonathan Spence’s In Search of Modern China (still basic and comprehensive, even if it has little or nothing to say about China today) and Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money (concise on the origins of modern banking, even if Ferguson is a dreadful old Tory).

I’m keeping a record of all the donated books. I opened a new database on ReaderWare a while back and I’m filling it, initially, with culls. In the “Location” field (which I had to insert myself), each book is shown as being shelved at “Donate 2012.” According to this new database, the only books in my collection are three novels by Elizabeth Taylor. (I entered them when I created the database because they were piled on my desk, and I wanted to give the new barcode scanner a go.) Their location is (unhelpfully) given as “New.” Happily, I know where they are; the information is stashed in the A:\ drive crammed within my skull.  

Gotham Diary:
Vedic
19 November 2012

Monday, November 19th, 2012

The next chapter in Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus will not be the death of me, but it will still be hard to get through. The sixteenth, it’s entitled, “Philosophical Feuds in South India and Kashmir: 500-1300 CE.” I’m not sure that I can absorb any further theological contortions. In the preceding chapter, it was explained that the Buddha was appropriated as an avatar of Vishnu, not because Brahmin writers intended to appropriate (and endorse) Buddhism, but, on the contrary, because this was a way of effecting the damnation of the antigods. (I’ll just leave it there.) The fact that the geographical extremities of India are mentioned in the coming chapter title suggests to me that Doniger is going to sweep up a few outlying matters of interest into a neat pile before moving on to Hindu relations with the Mughal emperors (in two chapters) and then with the British (two further chapters, which I read a while back, when I was sorely in need of a change of pace after learning, if that’s the word, about the Puranas.) If it weren’t for Doniger’s tart and witty writing, I should never have been able to get through her book, which has so generously assisted me with what I’m always declaring  my most important project to be: learning how ignorant I am.

Another chapter that I’ve read ahead to, “Hindus in America,” reminds me why I gave all things Indian a pass when I was growing up. Doniger is not writing about immigrants from the Subcontinent building respectable temples in the Midwest. No, she’s writing, rather, about such things as “the many porn stars who have taken the name of Kali, presumably in vain.” (Doniger kills me!) I didn’t know about the porn stars, but how well I remember Eleanor Bron as a priestess of Kali in Help! I am grateful for the innate tact that steered me away from dabbling in India in the Sixties and Seventies, when Western adventurers and journalists were so busy erecting a looking-glass version of it, while those who made an honest effort to be serious about the culture bogged down in economic analysis and social(ist) critique. Like China, only to a far milder degree, India in those days was veiled by the wishful thinking of its leaders, who wished to grow a self-contained economy with little or no outside investment. Now that all that has been abandoned, India looks much more like a country just like any other — see the fine story about the Chandha brothers, billionaire heirs to a sprawling business empire, who shot one another to death at one of their faux farmhouses outside of New Delhi the other day. Now that India has settled down, at least in everyone’s imagination, it is much more interesting to me.  

Looking back to more recent times, when my interest in learning about India was taking root, I see that it was the Raj that attracted me, the strange (when you really look at it) experiment in which several thimbles-ful of Britons undertook to manage the broader affairs of a land of many millions. At first, the peoples ruled by the Raj were as opaque to me as they are to Forster’s Mrs Turton. By degrees, however, I noticed intriguing local colors, and along came fantastic writers like Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, From the Ruins of Empire, stirred me to read The Hindus.

Mishra also inspired me to see the famous trilogy that began Satyajit Ray’s filmmaking career. Yesterday, I watched Pather Panchali — for the first time, I’m embarrassed to say. Once again, though, I had to be glad that I’d waited, because the fecklessness of the Brahmin father was so much more intelligible with all that I’d learned from Doniger washing through my brain. (I’ll watch Aparajito and The World of Apu presently.) It’s a heavy and rather lowering movie (not least because it really was made on a shoestring, and not a very robust one), but I could see it as a story about one particular family in West Bengal, and not as an allegory of man’s inhumanity to man.  

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Say Five Sound(s)
16 November 2012

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Last night, we went down to Alphabet City to babysit. Before she and Ryan went out, Megan observed that Will is making a real effort to speak in intelligible sentences, and urged us to try very hard to understand what he was trying to say. We did our best, but no matter how many times I got him to repeat something that he said when he climbed up on his bed behind and around me (I was sitting on the edge), all I could make out was “say five sounds.” When his parents came home, we ran this by them, and they recognized it at once. “Safe and sound.” A perfectly reasonable thing to say in the vicinity of blankets and pillows.

Because we were bringing a few presents for his mother’s birthday, which we missed because we were all under the weather, Kathleen insisted on having something for Will, too. As it happened, I was having lunch with Ray Soleil, so, after that, we went to the toy shop near Lexington Avenue. I was instantly bewildered by the array of crap, but Ray zeroed in on a range of cool car puzzles called Automoblox. Ray suggested going with the bargain box of three-for-the-price-of-two, but I felt that that was a lot of toy for what was essentially to be a consolation prize, and also I wanted to know whether Will would like them. He certainly liked the one that I bought him, pulling it apart and putting it together all evening long. The difficulty for me was that he liked stripping the tires best of all, without any corresponding desire to snap them back on. Now, Will’s room is very neat — unless he’s playing in it. The little tires, I feared, would get lost in the shuffle. An inner voice said, “So what?” But it was not a very strong voice, and my piteous voice begged Will to pick up the tires so that I could play with them. Healthy young man that he is, he was deaf to these entreaties.

At one point, he retreated into his favorite hidey-hole, the space behind the headboard of his bed, and thrust his hands, monster-like, and with a great deal of growling coming from his invisible head, through the slats. Actually, at first he seemed to think that brandishing one hand was sufficient, but we were much more scared when he was coaxed into deploying the other as well.

***

As soon as we got home, Kathleen reminded me of something that we discovered years ago: we both grew up hearing the phrase “for all intents and purposes” as “for all intensive purposes.” Not precisely what Will did, but very close; in both cases, “ive” was substituted for “and.” Come to think of it, I’ve never heard Will use a conjunction.

Gotham Diary:
Regime Change
15 November 2012

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Two stories in today’s Times make it clear that we need a new way of doing things when it comes to assuring the convenience and necessity of everyday life. Andrew Higgins talked to Nederlanders, who know a thing or two about floods, about protecting New York City from future storm surges. The consensus was that we will have to figure out what works for us — copying Dutch solutions isn’t the answer. There was also concern that Americans will never spend what it takes to prevent disaster. They’d much rather (as the Nederlanders see it) clean up afterward. As they know, however, all to often there isn’t an afterward, at least for too many victims. Matthew Wald covered a new report from the National Academy of Sciences concerning the vulnerability of the American power grid to terrorist attacks — and to the weeks or months that it could be put out of service, owing to such details as the fact that bulk-transmission transformers are not manufactured in the United States.

It is time to stop treating power and safety as matters that can be handled by municipalities and profit-making corporations. We should be thinking about creating a service, modeled perhaps on the Coast Guard (although not necessarily a federal institution), charged with overseeing the safety of our towns and the security of our access to electric power. At the end of their terms, satisfactory recruits would receive appropriate professional credentials (as electricians, say), while superior recruits would be encouraged to serve as officers, effectively making a career of helping to run the system.

In an earlier Times story, it was reported that the principal topic of discussion at a meeting of Long Island Lighting trustees, held four days before Hurricane Sandy belted out widespread devastation, was the advisability of hiring a branding consultant. The storm itself was mentioned but not, apparently, discussed. It is clear that the trustees are not inclined to prioritize the well-being of their customers, thousands of whom are still without power. Whether the power company is structured as a government agency (as it is currently) or a private corporation (as it used to be) doesn’t seem to make a difference: its mission appears to provide electricity as a luxury good, as indeed electricity was when it was introduced. It isn’t so much the physical plant of LIPA that is outmoded — although its equipment has been called “antiquated” by technicians who have pitched in from other parts of the country — as it is the mindset with which the entire operation was conceived and in which, incredibly, it persists.  

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Spinach
14 November 2012

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Forgive my silence yesterday. I had absolutely nothing to say that anyone would want to read. Not until after dinner, that is; and I’ve learned not to write after dinner. I spent the day in a valley of bones, very tired but otherwise not uncomfortable unless I thought about myself. I had a few moments of wondering if I would find the energy to clean up, dress, and go to the hospital, but once I began that process, about an hour before the infusion, the blackest doubts came to an end. It was bitter outside, and I was grateful not to have to wait too long for a taxi. As we made our way down York Avenue, I looked up at the cluster of hospital towers and felt completely mortal. And when I arrived at the Infusion Therapy Unit, there were no familiar faces, not at first. It turned out that Sara was on duty; a very pleasant Irishwoman, she is the only nurse to have served on the unit’s staff throughout the eight-plus years that I’ve been a patient there. She had me hooked up in no time. For the first hour, I read the new New Yorker. For the second, I turned to Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals, which I am going to re-read cover to cover. On the phone, Kathleen proposed to pick me up when the infusion was over, and I accepted with tickled delight; it would be her first visit to the Unit, and, in the event, she got to meet Sara, which was very agreeable. We walked around a few corners to a restaurant called Petaluma and had a very nice dinner, hugely entertained by the buzz coming from the glassed-off private dining room, where a speed-dating event was in progress. I know that we looked at each other with the deepest relief: that’s not how we met. This thought, carrying me back over thirty-five years, ought to have made me feel mortal, too, but it didn’t.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that a major ingredient of my pre-infusion depressions is anxiety about actually getting the infusion. I have never not, but there have been hiccups — most recently last spring, when a bit of careless potting-up, involving potting soil taken from a bag that had been lying on the balcony, opened, resulted in bug bites that the nurses found so alarming that they insisted that my rheumatologist have a look first. In the early days, it used to take quite a while for my blood pressure to drop to acceptable levels, a vicious circle as I sat in my chair, fretting. On one occasion, there was some confusion about the dosage. It is all rather like air turbulence during flight — uncommon but frightening. In any case, these worries evaporate once the pump is turned on, and I begin to feel better at once, long before the Remicade can have any actual physiological impact. By the time we were seated at the restaurant, I was cheerful again.

The evening was crowned by a most unexpected pleasure. A novelist with whom I have been in correspondence wrote to report his interest in what I’ve had to say here about Elizabeth Taylor. He had read five of the novels, he wrote, liking two but not caring so much for the others, and he asked for a recommendation for what to read next. This was doubly delightful, because (a) a novelist! and (b) Elizabeth Taylor! I will strain to keep my reply under a thousand words.

***

Susan Reynolds argues that what we think of as “feudalism,” with knights swearing oaths of fealty to kings and potentates, is a construct of Renaissance scholarship that corresponds only squintingly to the very unsystematic arrangements reflected by actual records surviving from the post-Carolingian world. “What the concept of feudalism seems to have done since the sixteenth century is not to help us recognize the creatures we meet but to tell us that all medieval creatures are the same so that we need not bother to look at them. Put another way, feudalism has provided a kind of protective lens through which it has seemed prudent to view the otherwise dazzling oddities and varieties of medieval creatures.”

Putting down that lens is what Reynolds’s book is all about and, as such, it is in keeping with the best intellectual efforts of our time, which strive to correct for the bland complaisance with which thinkers of the modern era minimized the difficulties of research and discovery. Victorian optimism has finally been laid to rest, and what concerns us is not so much exercising our mastery as examining our restraints. We dismiss the know-it-all as a useless fraud; we seek out the interestingly uncertain. The frank confession of ignorance and the reluctance to to build on generalizations are the hallmarks of intellectual decency. For the time being.

Gotham Diary:
On the Way
12 November 2012

Monday, November 12th, 2012

The thing about feeling depressed but knowing why I feel depressed is that I’m not afraid. I am reasonably certain that the state I’m in will come to an end on Wednesday, as I’m revived by tomorrow’s dose of Remicade. But if I know (from long experience) that Remicade will make me feel better, I don’t really grasp what’s making feel bad right now. The immune disorder that Remicade counteracts attacks my intestines, and that’s unpleasant but also clear and focused, unlike the rest of the malaise, which I can only compare to being locked inside a play by Chekhov. I would be despairing — despairing about feeling such despair — if I didn’t know that I’m going to be let out tomorrow.

As if to cheer me up, the little men in the gondola have just docked at our balcony, and begun hammering away at the railing.

***

 Well, no: they’re not hammering at the railings. They’re sanding down the floors, if that makes any sense. No wonder it makes such a penetrating racket. And dust everywhere. (They actually closed the windows that were slightly open — thoughtful.) And now they’ve gone down a floor.

For several years now, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History has been glaring down at me with its burnished orange jacket. It came out three years ago, and spent quite a few months in my reading pile. It’s so fat, though, that eventually I simply had to shelve it, something that I don’t like to do with books that I haven’t read. Anywhere, there is sat. I was wondering if I ought to give it away. Then, yesterday, when I finished Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire and thought, for a moment, of turning to Joseph Lelyveld’s book bout Gandhi (still in a pile), I changed my mind at the last second and pulled down Doniger instead. I’m already about a third of the way through — it’s a great read! Doniger’s openly revisionist idea is to write a history of the Vedic religion(s) that is free of Brahmin tendentiousness. But she does not assume that you are familiar with the field, as indeed I am not. Somewhere, I think, I have editions of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and I read a bit of the latter once. But I never guessed that the Hindu texts come in waves, beginning with the Rig Veda (and the other Vedas), followed by the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, and so on. It’s as though Vedic scripture were all Talmud and no Torah — or mostly Talmud, anyway (the Vedas bring Leviticus to mind). The Upanishads were written before and after a period of massive dissent, during which both the Buddhists and the Jains broke away from Vedic orthodoxy — or “orthopraxy,” as Doniger prefers, since correct behavior was generally more important than correct doctrine (inverting the Christian stress). Doniger is my kind of historian, very skeptical of “just-so” stories and hindsight-infected interpretations. (“But why assume any cult at all?”, she writes of Harappan seals. “Why need they symbolize fertility?”) And she is determined to make the ancient texts as intelligible as possible. Her motto might be taken from the Brahmanas:

Why do you inquite aboutr the father or the mother of a Brahmin? When you find knowledge in someone, that is his father and his grandfather.

 

Gotham Diary:
Racket
9 November 2012

Friday, November 9th, 2012

I can’t see anything, but I think they’re grinding away at balcony railings, which are going to be replaced. It’s rather like the dentist’s, only with my mouth closed. That kind of fun.

Otherwise, it’s a lovely day. But that otherwise lies far away. I woke from some sweet but melancholy dreams about wandering up the West Side, in and out of the H and K line stations, deciding at last that I would try to reach Kathleen at her apartment — for this was the New York of 1980 (or earlier), and we were not yet married. And Kathleen wasn’t there. Wasn’t in the bed beside me, I mean. She was already dressed, reading the paper in the living room, and waiting for a conference call. When the call came, she had to give up on the cordless landline phone because of the racket. I made tea and toast for her, and two soft-boiled eggs for myself. (Never have I managed to drop so much eggshell into the bowl.)

I do have to get out of the house today, if only to take some photographs.  

***

It’s hard to read. My time with Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Taylor was intense. I was reading their work and then dipping into their biographies. The biographies are of course very different. Hermione Lee is writing about an acknowledged master of English literature, whereas Nicola Beauman, in The Other Elizabeth Taylor, finds herself picking bones with her subject for having done so little to advance her fame (beside all the hard work of writing, that is). Virginia Woolf is intimately associated with feminism, so that even people who don’t care for her fiction have to respond to her criticism. Elizabeth Taylor wrote no criticism. She ran a household and raised two children, writing pretty much in the Jane Austen manner — whenever she could. Seventy years after her death, Virginia Woolf holds few secrets; forty years after Elizabeth Taylor’s death, Beauman discovered a bombshell that led Taylor’s children to repudiate her book: the letters that Taylor wrote to her hitherto unknown-of lover, Ray Russell.

You may wonder why I’m even comparing the two writers. Elizabeth Bowen once told Elizabeth Taylor that it was a pity that she and “Virginia” couldn’t have been great friends. In time, I have no doubt that they will be thought of together, as the leading women writers of twentieth-century England. How long that will take, I daren’t opine. More powerfully than any others, they wrote about life as it is lived, and they did so in language that brings their stories to life. Eventually, it will be necessary to do a little background reading in the period, just as it already is in the case of Lady Murasaki or even Jane Austen herself. But once the social rules have been explained (and the technological deficits borne in mind), Woolf and Taylor will be seen to capture the ambiguities and ambivalences of consciousness, the resentments entailed in doing one’s duty and keeping the social fabric in good repair, and the very flavor of resignation and acceptance, better than anyone else. They are not dreamers, these two; nor are they thinkers. (Dreaming and thinking are for children.) They are unblinking observers. And, despite everything, they write with more hope than despair. 

Someday, it will be more generally understood that these are the things that good literature must accomplish. I hope that men can keep up.

Gotham Diary:
Genius
8 November 2012

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Permit me to begin on a scholarly note: most of what I have to say about genius just occurred to me the other day while thinking over Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical writings and, for context, re-reading parts of Hermione Lee’s 1996 biography of the writer. My thoughts are entirely sketchy and impressionistic. Aside from a glance at Wikipedia, no study of any kind was involved.

What I brought to this deliberation was something between a hunch and a conviction to the effect that “genius” is not a helpful concept, not a meaningful label. It means nothing more than “very smart person,” where “very” may be exchanged for any number of emphatic adverbs (“extraordinarily,” “unusually,” “immeasurably,” &c). In other words, it is not a grade; it does not signify a class. “Genius” is a romantic word, loaded with hokum.

As the Wikipedia entry points out, genius was the ancient Roman term for a family’s “tutelary deity,” whatever that was. It picked up something of its modern sense when the genius of certain families came to be thought of as the explanation for their prominence in affairs. But until the Nineteenth Century, genius was a possession, not an identity. You might speak of “the genius of Shakespeare,” but without claiming that “Shakespeare was a genius.” The genius of Shakespeare is reflected in his plays, in the the works that this genius inspired. Shakespeare taking a walk or a nap was not being a genius.

The idea of being a genius seems to have emerged in response to the grandeur of Romantic art and philosophy. Did Kant and Hegel write about genius? It doesn’t matter. They came to be regarded as geniuses themselves, as were Keats and Shelley, posthumously. Mozart and Beethoven also became geniuses after their deaths. (In Beethoven’s case, the reception of his late quartets is a gauge of the development; thought to be the product of a diseased or deranged mind when they were first played, they came, by virtue of their craggy inscrutability, to be proofs of genius.) Genius was sublime.

***

Genius was allowed to be eccentric. Tennyson dressed like a tramp. Genius was not obliged to behave like a gentleman — witness Carlyle and poor Jane. Geniuses, as the Victorian era deepened, became a sort of upmarket Barnum attraction. Here is a picture that Woolf paints of her mother’s youth:

Little Holland House was her world then. But what was that world like? I think of it as a summer afternoon world. To my thinking Little Holland House is an old white country house, standing in a large garden. Long windows open onto the lawn. Through them comes a stream of ladies in crinolines and little straw hats; they are attended by gentlemen in peg-top trousers and whiskers. The date is round about 1860. It is a hot summer day. The tables with great bowls of strawberries and cream are scattered about the lawn. They are “presided over” by some of the six lovely sisters, who do not wear crinolines, but are robed in splended Venetian draperies; they sit enthroned, and talk with foreign emphatic gestures — my mother too gesticulated, throwing her hands out — to the eminent men (afterwards to be made fun of by Lytton); rulers of India, statesmen, poets, painters.  … The sound of music also comes from those long low rooms where the great Watts pictures hang; Joachim playing the violin; also the sound of a voice reading poetry — Uncle Thoby would read his translations from the Persian poets. How easy it is to fill in the picture with set pieces that I have gathered from memoirs — to bring in Tennyson in his wideawake; Watts in his smock frock; Ellen Terry dressed as a boy; Garibaldi in his red shirt — and Henry Taylor turned from him to my mother — “the face of one fair girl was more to me” — so he says in a poem. But if I turn to my mother, how difficult it is to single her out as she really was; to imagine what she was thinking, to put a single sentence into her mouth! I dream; I make up pictures of a summer’s afternoon.

It is difficult to put a sentence in Julia Jackson’s mouth, I surmise, because she is a young girl in the shadow of geniuses. The presence of genius drives out triviality and invests everything with significance. Everything, even the household chores. Woolf describes the process in “Reminiscences,” a journeyman piece composed under the influence of Henry James, before she found her own voice, with an ingenuousness that it’s impossible to imagine her older self not taking issue with.

She [Julia Stephen] delighted to transact all those trifling businesses which, as women feel instinctively, are somehow derogatory to the dignity which they like to discover in clever men; and she took it as a proud testimony that he came to her ignorant of all depressions and elations but those that high philosophy bred in him.

In her mid-twenties, Woolf (or Virginia Stephen as she then was) still bought this brand of the feminine mystique. It would take years for her to acknowledge and articulate her disgust with her father’s genius act.

This frustrated desire to be a man of genius, and the knowledge that he was in truth not in the first flight — a knowledge which led to a great deal of despondency, and to that self-centredness which in later life at least made him so childishly greedy for compliments, made him brood so disproportionately over his failure and the extent of it and the reasons for it — these are qualities that break up the fine steel engraving of the typical Cambridge intellectual.

There is a glee in this deconstruction of her father’s aura that makes “A Sketch of the Past” just about the most exciting thing that Virginia Woolf ever wrote.   

***

Even when that disgust was disgorged (beginning with To the Lighthouse), Woolf continued to live and write as though the “dignity,” of which her mother was so solicitous, continued to glimmer in her life, a lamplight that would give all other things their contours of significance. The most menial chores would be relieved of drudgery by the presence of this light. But the light did not shine for her as it had for her mother; Virginia herself wished to be a genius. She was able to wish it, without sounding the depths of her father’s miserable self-doubt, and the prospect must have seemed provisional to any woman born in the 1880s, growing up a thicket of geniuses all of whom, with the arguable exception of George Eliot, were male. But her relentless high-mindedness interfered with her sense of humor. It placed a high lower limit on admissible fun.  

Had she been able to forget this dignity from time to time, she might have left us much more in the vein of “Am I a Snob?”, a speech that she wrote in the Thirties to be read before old friends. What does it mean to be a snob? It means setting true values aside, hobnobbing with aristocrats, and having a lot of guilty fun.

Margot Asquith — “a lady whose birth is no better — perhaps worse — than my own” — was, nevertheless the Countess of Oxford when she wrote to Virginia to ask a fatuous favor: “When I die, I would like you to write a short notice in The Times to say you admired my writing, and thought that journalists should have made more of me.” It seems that Virginia had actually allowed that Margot was a “good” writer. “This, coming from you, might have turned my head as you are far the greatest female writer living.”

Now I was not, I think, flattered to be the greatest female writer in Lady Oxford’s eyes; but I was flattered to be asked to lunch with her alone. “Of course,” I replied, “I will come and lunch with you alone.” And I was pleased when on the day in question Mabel, our dour cook, came to me, and said, “Lady Oxford has sent her car for you, ma’am.” Obviously, she was impressed by me; I was impressed by myself. I rose in my own esteem because I rose in Mabel’s.

When I reached Bedford Square there was a large lunch party; Margot was rigged up in her finery; a ruby cross set with diamonds blazed on her breast; she was curled and crisp like a little Greek horse; tart and darting like as asp or an adder. Philip Morrell was the first to feel her sting. He was foolish and she snubbed him. But then she recovered her temper. She was very brilliant. She rattled off a string of anecdotes about the Duke of Beaufort and the Badminton hunt; how she got her blue; … about Lady Ripon, Lady Bessborough; L Balfour and “the Souls.” As for age, death and obituary articles, The Times, nothing was said of them. I am sure she had forgotten that such things existed. So had I. I was enthralled. I embraced her warmly in the hall; and the next thing I remember is that I found myself pacing along the Farringdon Road talking aloud to myself, and seeing the butchers’ shops and the trays of penny toys through an air that seemed made of gold dust and champagne.

Now no party of intellectuals has ever sent my flying down the Farringdon Road. I have dined with H G Wells to meet Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett and Granville Barker and I have only felt like an old washerwoman toiling step by step up a steep and endless staircase.

I think that Virginia Woolf felt like an old washerwoman a lot.

Gotham Diary:
Fête
7 November 2012

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Fearing a different outcome in the presidential election, I was going to write about genius and Virginia Woolf this morning, but I should have to be one or the other to do so. My thoughts are flying every which-way, half elated by Barack Obama’s victory and half jittered by the impending storm. There’s no reason to expect any storm damage in the immediate neighborhood, but it’s much to soon for even a prediction of high winds.

Instead of following the news last night, Kathleen and I had a quiet dinner and then read for a few hours. I’m on the fourth and final lap of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories (those gathered in her last collection, The Devastating Boys), and two stood out yesterday, “Sisters” and “Miss A and Miss M.” The first is on the short side, only a few pages; but an entire novel is compressed within it. A respectable widow is horrified to learn that she has been tracked down by a “literary detective” who wants to ask her about her late sister, a once-famous novelist whose scandalous books were incinerated by their clergyman father. To a thrilling degree, Taylor conveys the urgency with which the housewife has buried her connection to the writer. In lesser hands, the woman would be a philistine figure of fun, but Taylor makes us weigh the cost of literary production that writers exact in the form of indiscretion. The longer one, one of the very few narrated in the first person, is about a schoolgirl who has a crush on a schoolteacher whose wittiness masks selfish cruelty. It is a model story, saturated in skill.

Is there, I wonder, a good book about Victorian geniuses?

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Moments in Being
6 November 2012

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

It got very cold yesterday, and we were dismayed to think about — or to feel for, as we did reflexively — people without warm homes.

Everyone I know is “worried about the election.” I think that it is beginning to dawn on everyone I know that this presidential election is not a race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, however insistently we focus our transitory attention upon the sayings and doings of the two men. It is a battle of assymetric ideologies. On the one hand, Republican voters, as committed to the party line as the reddest Soviet; on the other, people who prefer to “think for themselves.” Many of the second group will vote for Romney because they like him, but most of the Republican’s supporters won’t give the man himself a second thought. Control of the Executive (and, through it, of the Judiciary) is what they hope to gain, not the right man in the White House. The right man is a cypher. That’s how ideology works.

Very few on the left are ideologues — anymore. If it were otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much carping from people who were wowed by Obama in 2008 but have since felt “disappointment.” Ideologues would recognize that the President said the right things to get elected and then did the right things (to the extent that he could do anything) in office. There would be no criticism (from the left) of the President’s aloof manner. There would be little rhetorical regret about the President’s failure to close the prison at Guantánamo. Most difficult to imagine, there would be no squabbling among Democrats.

But Democrats, who ought to be the majority party in any election, have not developed a post-New Deal, post-Civil Rights Acts platform. Much less have they developed an ideological cohesion to compete with that of the Republicans. It’s worth noting that ideological cohesion is rarely rational, and certainly not a matter of logically outlined objectives. The nub of Republican ideology — a commitment to the conversion of public wealth into private property — is never stated by Republicans. And Democrats are too disorganized to fight it.

Hence a close election that should be a shoe-in.

***

By “moments of being,” Virginia Woolf had something somewhat mystical, somewhat spiritual, in mind. In her discussion of the matter, in the early pages of “A Sketch of the Past,” a memoir that she composed over several years at the end of her life, she begins by distinguishing moments of being from those, by far more numerous, of non-being, of unremarkable triviality, whether pleasant or tedious. Gradually, she shifts into thinking of moments of being as “shocks.”

I only know that many of these exceptional moments brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse; they seemed dominant; myself passive. This suggests that as one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of aart; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

I myself don’t believe that there is a pattern underlying the cotton wool. “… it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.” It’s curious that Woolf speaks of making real something that is already real. I agree with the second clause: she makes the evidence of pattern real by writing about it — and well deserves the rapture of getting things right. Meaning is a human construction. I say “construction” because the fashionable “construct” suggests a flimsy, improvisatory model that can be knocked down at will. Human meaning is really quite durable in contrast, not “artificial” by any means, and we have built it up as we’ve gone along. We find what works by trial and error, but what works works organically, not mechanically: human meaning is not a machine. The development of human meaning has been prone to a consistent type of error that has all the same dwindled in its impact over time: this is the tendency to see more pattern than is truly visible, to infer gods and ideals from violent storms and pleasing regularities. It is even arguable that the vast useless systems of meaning constructed by religions ancient and modern provide an indispensible prototype for the truly anthropocentric system of meaning that underlies modern secular democracy. “Anthropocentric” — a good word, but probably one that needs to be replaced. It suggests that mankind is the most important kind. This makes no sense unless you are still thinking of having stolen importance from gods or stars. The minute man becomes most important, the very idea of importance evaporates. What takes its place, and what the replacement for “anthropocentric” will have to connote, is that mankind immediately shoulders all responsibility, not for the world, but for mankind.  

Gotham Diary:
Pop-Up Refugees
5 November 2012

Monday, November 5th, 2012

On Friday, when Megan and Ryan saw that the power company had affixed a sticker to the front door of their building, warning that power could not be restored to it until damaged equipment had been replaced, they decided to stop toughing it out in their cold flat. They loaded Will and Astor, along with several large backpacks, into a taxi, and headed uptown, reaching our place at 5:30 or so. No sooner did they get here than they went back downtown (leaving Will and Astor here with us) to fetch their bicycles, which they felt would be vulnerable to looters in the event of a lengthy absence, what with Con Ed’s sticker serving as an inadvertent invitation. When they got back, we sat down to a simple dinner of sirloin, rice and peas. A few chairs in the blue room were moved, and sleeping bags unrolled. 

Who knew how long they’d be with us? We couldn’t think about it right away. And then it turned out not to be necessary. In the morning, Megan received a surprising email from her landlord, reporting that the damage had been worked around, and that the building had power and heat. So, after a breakfast of French toast and bacon, she and Ryan took their bikes downtown and spent the afternoon cleaning up the apartment. (There was also a semi-spontaneous local parade to cheer.) They came back for Will and Astor at dusk. Will was just waking up from a long nap, having run like a top through the playground at Carl Schurz Park. Ryan ordered some pizzas and, when we’d all had a few slices, Kathleen called for a car. The car service had no idea how long it would take to arrange — two hours, I was sure. But no! There must have been a driver loistering around the corner. Fortunately, no one had listened to my advice about taking their time packing up.

Yesterday, I tidied up the apartment as I would ordinarily do on a Saturday. I felt that I was straightening out not so much the slight disarray caused by the refugees but the emotional unsteadiness that lingered in Hurricane Sandy’s wake. I didn’t get rid of all of it by any means. Devastation and power outages remain widespread around the city, and although life appears to have gotten back to normal here in Yorkville, it is, quite palably, an appearance only.

There would be a lot less deprivation if more New Yorkers (and suburbanites) lived as we do — densely, on relatively high ground, in buildings powered by buried lines, and with no real need for automobiles. We’d be in even better shape (although we didn’t need it this time) if solar or wind power could be harnessed for the purpose of running our elevators and our water-tower pump.

Anyway, the fun’s not over. Another nor’easter is headed our way for Wednesday.

***

The first package to arrive after Sandy contained Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, and Moments of Being, the collection of Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical writings. You would not think that these books have much in common, but at a fundamental level they do, because both are concerned with uncertainty, with coming to terms with uncertainty as intelligently and honestly as possible.

Nate Silver writes,

This probabilistic element of the Bayesian way may seem uncomfortable at first. Unless we grew up playing cards or other games of chance, we were probably not encouraged to think in this way. Mathematics classrooms spend more time on abstract subjects like geometry and calculus than they do on probability and statistics. In many walks of life, expressions of uncertainty are mistaken for admissions of weakness.

Virginia Woolf writes,

Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties — one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: “This is what happened”; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.

What both are saying is that we must live with approximations. We must resist the illusion of certainty. We must see overconfident bluster for what it is, and not permit ourselves to be falsely reassured. We must do as best we can, without any guarantees but the hope of our neighbors’ good will (founded upon our own).

You never know.

Gotham Diary:
Probability
2 November 2012

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

The front page of today’s Times features an ugly story about dust-ups at the region’s gas stations, with nightmarishly long lines of cars and correspondingly frayed tempers. It is easy to view the scene from an imaginary point in the future, as we look back on the drawbacks of medieval life. The automobile in America is already a concrete symbol of stupidity. It’s not the cars themselves that are to blame — technology is almost never responsible for bad behavior. But it’s the use to which they’ve been put, animating the tacky suburban simulacra of millionaires’ enclaves that surround the city today. Compounding the problem, almost every one of those mini-castles is surrounded by a moat of lawn that can double a homeowner’s consumption of fossil fuels (fertilizers, gas for lawn mowers).

The automobile extends a promise of autonomy that adolescent males cannot resist. Prom night crashes aside, no real harm there. The harm is in the civil structure of low-density housing that makes it impossible to outgrow the teenager’s attachment to his car.

And who’s to say that billions of Chinese don’t have the right to have fun? Some example we’ve set!

***

I could hardly believe it, but Nate Silver really did make his experience of poker both lucid and fascinating to me. The Signal and the Noise is 99.999% signal. Even in its brief moments of advocacy it is clear and bi-partisan. The closing of the chapter devoted to “A Climate of Healthy Skepiticism,” in which he analyses the difficulty of climate forecasting in terms that he has already laid out beautifully throughout the course of his book, Silver writes,

It is precisely because the [political] debate may continue for decades that climate scientists might do better to withdraw from the street fight and avoid crossing the Rubicon from science into politics. In science, dubious forecasts are more likely to be exposed — and the truth is more likely to preval. In politics, a domain in which the truth enjoys no privileged status, it’s anybody’s guess.

The dysfunctional state of the American political system is the best reason to be pessimistic about our country’s future. Our scientific and technological prowess is the best reason to be optimistic. We are an inventive people. The United States produces ridiculous numbers of patents, has many of the world’s best universities and research institutions, and our companies lead the market in fields ranging from pharmaceuticals to information technology. If I had a choice between a tournament of ideas and a political cage match, I know which fight I’d rather be engaging in — especially if I thought I had the right forecast.

***

It was too cold outside for shorts, but that’s what I was wearing inside, and I didn’t want to change just to run around the block. The first errand was to Duane Reade, where I had to refill two prescriptions. They had the more important of the two, but would have to wait until Monday for the other. Fine and dandy — I’d come back to pick up the important one tomorrow. But then, after I’d been to the liquor store and to Gristede’s (where there were Entenman’s coffee cakes on the shelf — yay!), the cell phone rang. I hoped that it would be Megan or Ryan, but it was Duane Reade, robo-calling without any specifics to tell me that my prescription, unspecified, would be delayed. I dumped the groceries and went out again. Would I have to manage both medications, stretching them out? Happily, no. The robo-call was, in addition to confusing, completely unnecessary.