Archive for February, 2013

Gotham Diary:
“And I Can’t Think Why!”
28 February 2013

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Yesterday morning, I could hardly get out of bed. This has been happening a lot lately, and winter is to blame. Winter, and the balcony repairs, and the subway-station construction — but mostly winter. I’ve begun to understand why older people have been migrating to Florida for decades: when winter isn’t merely dreary, it’s really rather frightening. And I am not particularly courageous.

Now, there’s no telling what I might not do to pull someone else out of a bind; my bravery has never been tested. But with regard to myself I tend to be a defeatist. I know that I won’t make it — even though I always do. I’ll be walking along First Avenue, carrying shopping bags home from Agata & Valentina, down at 79th Street, and it will amaze me that I can take another step. Collapse seems imminent, even though I don’t actually feel like collapsing. Collapsing is something that I do in advance — in bed, in the morning. I collapse by not getting up. The ultimate in cowardice.

By the time I finally did get out of bed — my water bottle ran dry, I needed the bathroom, and something was wrong with the refrigerator — I ended up staying up. In retrospect, my hour and a half of drifting in and out of comfy sleep seemed less a failing than a much-needed vacation. I am not somebody who likes to be in bed. I don’t take naps, and I don’t get into bed at night until I’m ready to go to sleep. So, if I can’t get out of bed in the morning, it must be that I need a vacation. There, that sounded much better than pathetic old collapse. I ended up having a most productive day.


What was wrong with the refrigerator: the gasket is beginning to fail. It pulls out of the groove at the bottom of the door, and so the door doesn’t close properly. This leads to all sorts of frozen surprises. I put off doing anything about it until it gets so bad that not only does the door not close but the light stays on. At this point I am forced to get down on my knees and push the gasket back into the groove. I’d buy a new refrigerator — what I wouldn’t give for a model with the freezer below, because basically everything in a conventional icebox is barely higher than my waist, and bending is such a bore, but they don’t make them in a size that will fit my kitchen — but I’d have to get someone to remove temporarily the swinging door that I had installed ten-odd years ago.

Everything in the refrigerator, except for a bottle or two of champagne, and two dozen eggs, is in a small plastic crate, more or less easily reached for and removed. Every week, these crates contain less and less food, although I always seem to have an astonishing array of old cheese. The freezer is emptying out as well. This afternoon, I am going to make a quiche; that will clear out a number of items.


Not only do I lack courage, but have the wrong kind of confidence. I am confident that people will dislike me. Every now and then, an appraising older woman gives me an appreciative look, because I don’t wear a wedding ring and I dress like Ralph Lauren’s idea of old money (even my socks have polo players), but — well, for that very reason, the way I dress, I attract dislike. I look like someone who belongs on a leafy campus, or at any rate no closer to town than Rye. What kind of New Yorker am I? Then I open my mouth, and promptly alienate all the people who like old money. I can’t please anybody.

Happily, I’ve given up trying. For example, I have to have a word with Fossil Darling this afternoon. He has been invited to a nice party by some people whose nice parties he’s been not showing up at, but this time he’s going to go, because it would be nice for me to see him without actually having to invite him over to my house. (And Mary Todd Lincoln was still in the White House when Fossil gave his last party.)

Fossil left a message yesterday about the death of Van Cliburn. He had somehow taken to thinking of Cliburn as only a few years older than himself, and was spooked by what seemed like a premature passing. It is bracing indeed to sense the cliff of unlikeliness that ever more steeply rises between me and the probability that I’ll still be around in x or y years. It’s something like the reverse of an expectation. Vacations in bed are surprisingly consoling.

Gotham Diary:
War on Two Fronts
27 February 2013

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Not until I was midway through both of them did it occur to me that I’m reading two books about war. Unlike most men with an interest in history, I’m bored by the military side of things, and don’t read much about battles. (It’s hard to disguise the ghastly chaos of combat.) I came to both books from a political direction. Maurice Keen’s Chivalry has sat on my shelf for decades, unread. (Although I believed that I’d read it, I had not; I pulled it down, finally, thinking that I should re-read it.) Chivalry is interesting to me as the “mirror,” or self-regard, of the international class of hereditary thugs who eventually — long after the last battle — took on the appellation “aristocracy.” The class coalesced in the power vacuum that characterized the early Middle Ages, largely as a way of paying for expensive new ways of fighting. While it gradually acknowledged the titular superiority of sovereigns, it fought hard to retain its protection rackets. Louis XIV would find it expedient to entertain this gang to death. “Chivalry,” in any case, is an important part of medieval government, or lack thereof, and that’s why I’m interested in it.

Nick Turse’s Kill Everything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam garnered a nice blurb from Frances Fitzgerald, author of the magisterial Fire in the Lake, and it was on the strength of her praise that I bought the book. The war in Vietnam was not the first American misadventure to follow the Great Interrupted War of the first half of the last century — Korea was the site of that one — but Vietnam remains this country’s biggest flop, as to both expense and polarization. Like all the others, it pitted ill-prepared soldiers against guerillas concealed in alien social systems, often with a pronounced “racial” distinctiveness. At the time, those of us who thought that the Vietnam War was a foolish mistake at best nonetheless believed that it was motivated by a morbid fear of Communist expansion, but subsquent follies in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that the problem lies closer to an American conception of self than to a fear of others. Ignorant arrogance characterizes the lot. Proudly ignorant arrogance, if you’ll pardon my redundancy.

It’s no surprise that these books have little in common, at least as reads. Turse has scoured records deposited only a few decades ago, in his own language, and he has spoken to American veterans and Vietnamese victims, all of them eyewitnesses. It is difficult to see, in this welter of detail, the seeds of a mythology. Chivalry, on the other hand, is not only a semi-mythological notion on its own (developed most lustily in the early Nineteenth Century, by bravos who dreaded democracy and industrialization), but was nurtured by mythology. At some point shortly before the call to the First Crusade, in 1095, a body of vernacular romances, paralleled by Latin chronicles, began to emerge, the subjects of which were the three great “matters” — that of France (Charlemagne), that of Britain (Arthur), and that of Rome (including everything from the Trojan War on). It is hard to say what records, if any, the early romancers had of Charlemagne’s campaigns, but Arthur was of course a fiction from the start, and the primary source for the Trojan War appears to have been the concoction of one Dares Phrygius, who wrote in the Fifth Century CE but who passed himself off as an eyewitness at Troy, and therefore, as Keen points out, even more credible than Homer, whose epics were in any case not available. As Marc Bloch and others make clear, the medieval approach to history was sincerely naive: things could only have happened as they ought to happen. Heroes must be heroic. As the chivalric romances blossomed through the following two centuries, the warriors at Roncesvalles and the Round Table were shown to behave more and more like the admirable knights of the writers’ own day, knights who of course patterned themselves on the old heroes, in a richly intensifying feedback loop. Keen handles such hard evidence as there is with care and discernment, and he finds in the slow boil of the church’s discontent with various aspects of chivalry a hold on something like objectivity.

From the start, chivalry presented itself with a great deal of glamour. (Don’t gangsters always?) It developed a peculiar air of piety that did not balk at whacking off heads. It was ostentatious, at least in part because its training maneuvers quickly developed into aristocratic entertainments — tournaments. It was also bedecked by the hardy growth of courtly love — James Bond with affect, but similarly unencumbered as to domestic arrangements. There was all that armor (the really glittering stuff in museums is, however, actually post-medieval), and all that exotic heraldry. The stories had a certain glamour, too: you can read the Queste de Graal without encountering towns and their commoners, and money — precious metal in utilitarian form — barely exists. The glamour is integral to chivalry, and it can’t be stripped away with the idea of revealing something more authentic. Chivalry was, from the start, a mild delusion. At the same time, the glamour was an ever-unrealized ideal. The blaze and the valour never matched the storied exaggerations. The “high” middle ages became “late” when knights ran out of heathens who could be murdered with the church’s blessing, and gunpowder ate away at the effectiveness of cavalry until Napoleon finally blew it up.

Nick Turse’s subject is utterly devoid of glamour, or of any kind of patina whatsoever. It is, all too literally, one damned thing after another. The first two chapters are litanies of atrocity; the third, “Overkill” details the unthinking retaliation for the Tet Offensive. Looking ahead, I gather that Turse is going to try to pin responsibility for these horrors on Washington officials, which is consoling, at least in prospect. I hope that he finds a few targets to pursue as relentlessly as Frances FitzGerald goes after Wesley Fishel.

Gotham Diary:
26 February 2013

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

The reappearance, in a Vintage edition, of Caroline Blackwood’s 1995 book about a celebrated old woman’s very strange old-woman lawyer, The Last of the Duchess, is a bit of a puzzle: why now? And why with an introduction by James Fox (the actor, presumably)? It seems that Fox met Blackwood when “our sons went to the same school.” It seems, also, that there has been a stage adaptation of the book, with Anna Chancellor as Blackwood — that’s a show I’d like to see. I remember when the book came out, and I sniffed disparagingly. What a pathetic story, the old duchess effectively imprisoned by her crazed-seeming attorney, Maître Suzanne Blum. In those days, I didn’t think much of the Windsors. I’d been fascinated by them as a boy, because the very idea of giving up a throne for love was too preposterous — so what was the story? Later, the life that the Windsors led struck me as shabby and meretricious — why should such nasty people be famous? That’s how I felt about them when The Last of the Duchess came out. A book about the Windsors could be no better than they themselves. (Plus, I had no idea who Caroline Blackwood was.)

My opinion of Wallis Windsor was shifted by a passage in Nicholas Haslam’s memoir, which I can’t quote because the book is in storage at the moment. Haslam recounts an evening which he spent with the duchess, in part in a linen closet at the Waldorf Tower. It was her idea: she wanted to watch her own guests arrive at the door of her flat. I can’t remember what was so funny, and laughing at your guests does seem more than a little heartless, but Haslam beautifully conveyed the duchess’ sense of fun. This was new. I had seen her as somehow managing to be both vulgar and stuffy, and always unpleasant — I thought of the servants who were charged with carrying the couple’s freshly-pressed bedlinens every day from the ironing board to the bed without folding them (an ordeal out of a fairy tale!) — but not as fun, as, well, naughty. I must confess to a life-long attraction to naughty fun, which, regrettably, isn’t always harmless. Reading about the duchess in the linen closet, I felt a certain naughty sympathy of my own.

So I was well-primed for Madonna’s W/E, which presents Wallis as stylishly insouciant and game for any amusement. That’s not, however, the point of the film. The point of the film is to propose that instead of seeing Wallis as an adventuress who schemed to become the queen of England (how unlikely that she should have wanted such a job), we regard her instead as a trophy for which her husband was willing to renounce his title. He wanted her that badly! But, did he love her? Was he really capable of loving anybody? He was certainly very foolish, not for giving up the throne, perhaps, but for mismanaging relations with his family so badly that their slight — the withholding of the “HRH” from the duchess — cast a pall over the entirety of his thirty-odd years with Wallis. It was a bad business and, worse, a boring business. W/E proposes that we regard the duchess as a prisoner. As does Caroline Blackwood, at the very end of her book.

Staring at the spikes of barbed wire fencing that encircled her house, I felt the Duchess of Windsor had always been locked up. As a child she had been imprisoned by the snobbish conventions of Baltimore. She had been shut up in the bathroom by Win Spencer, her drunken, jealous first husband. Ernest Simpson had restricted her in a different way. The boredom of her life with him had made her feel like a bottle of champagne that had been kept too long in the icebox. When the future King of England abdicated for her sake, she had no alternative but to marry him. Once he had renounced so much, it was very difficult for her ever to leave him, although he was so dependent on her, so unflaggingly besotted, that the obsessional nature of his need for her must have often seemed like a prison.

And hardly had the duke died than the duchess fell into the hands of a former Hollywood lawyer, shut up in her house and forbidden the pleasures of vodka and the company of her friends. It really must have been too Grimm.

The Last of the Duchess is not really about the Duchess of Windsor, who never makes a direct appearance. It is not even about Maître Blum, although we seen plenty of her. It’s about Caroline Blackwood herself, about her curiosity and her deadpan sense of humor. Successively married to Lucien Freud and Robert Lowell, she was something of a duchess herself. (She was in any case the daughter of a marquess.) As Lady Caroline, she had no trouble (or none reported) in getting to meet many of Wallis’s old friends, such as Diana, Lady Mosley, or Lady Diana Cooper. What began as the mere bagatelle of an assignment — accompanying Lord Snowden on a shoot to photograph the duchess — became something of a crusade, when Maître Blum put the kaibosh on the shoot and made it impossible to visit the duchess at all. Blackwood tried to work up a campaign to liberate the duchess, whom she came to feel was being kept miserably alive by the obsessed lawyer. But the duchess’s old friends invariably backed down, frightened by the lawyer’s litigious disposition and violent character. How Caroline felt about the duchess’s plight is best captured in her sympathy for another old woman, Lady Monckton, whom she visits in a “home.”

Her “home” was very comfortable and pleasant. It had once been a grand country house and it had beautiful, well-kept grounds and the leaves of its copper beaches glowed reddish purple in the sunlight, and golden pheasants were meandering in a stately fashion across impeccably well-mown lawns. Inside there had been some attempt to make the “home” seem like a cheerful and idyllic grand English country house. Fires had been lit in the fireplaces and above them were ancient portraits of somebody’s ancestors to give a feeling of continuity. Only a faint smell of antiseptic and the terrible state of the inmates ruined the imposing atmosphere. Having lost all their faculties, they sat motionless in their various chairs. Some of them looked at television with their eyes closed. Kindly nurses helped them dress and undress. Tea and biscuits were brought to them at suitable intervals. Often they took naps to while away the long, pointless hours, so their trays were left untouched. There was little evidence that the golden pheasants and the splendor of the trees in the beautiful grounds by which they were surrounded could bring them much pleasure. Their biggest moment of struggle and drama was the time when two nurses carried them limping painfully to the lavatory and then brought them back to a bed or a chair.

What a breathtaking paragraph! Observe how steadily the “comfortable and pleasant” condition announced in the opening sentence is eroded by everything that follows. “Only a faint smell of antiseptic and the terrible state of the inmates ruined the imposing atmosphere” is worthy of Waugh. (Indeed, we are very close to Whispering Glades.) To begin such a statement with “only,” and then to mention the antiseptic smell first, as if that were worse than “the terrible state of the inmates,” completely encompasses the nightmarish pretence of elder-care at its most opulent. Like the duchess, Lady Monckton is the captive of an officious nurse who declares that she mustn’t tire herself out, and that visiting hours are over, even though the poor old lady seems to be having a very jolly time chatting with Blackwood.

At the beginning of the book, Blackwood assumes the air of not knowing very much about the Duchess of Windsor. Isn’t she dead already? As the story goes on, however, she reveals item after item of tittle-tattle about the duchess, in no particular order and not even going into her past until fairly late in the book, but showing that she’s as familiar as anybody with the “Windsor story.” Indeed, she has a hoot making fun of Michael Bloch’s proposal to write a “pro-Duke” book about the couple’s wartime stint in the Bahamas. She recites all the embarrassments of this episode — the extravagant redecoration of Government House, the friendship with Axel Wenner-Gren, the unsolved murder of Sir Harry Oakes — as so many minor impediments in the way of Bloch’s project.

While I was wondering how Michael Bloch would write his “pro-Duke” book I assumed he’d have to take a position pleasing to feminists and plead from that from the very beginning of his governorship the Duke had always put the concerns of the Duchess first.

I roared with laughter.  

The only problem is the morning-after feeling. There’s nothing else to read that is nearly as much fun.

Gotham Diary:
25 February 2013

Monday, February 25th, 2013

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic (which is  n o w h e r e  in its pages called “The Atlantic Monthly”), Graeme Wood has an interesting piece, “Anthropology Inc,” about “a new trend in market research” embodied by a consulting outfit called ReD. Sounds pernicious, doesn’t it! But let’s set the ethical problems to one side for the moment. What’s interesting is not so much the deployment of trained anthropologists to the field of American consumers, but the way in which their extensive interviews can be culturally interpreted. 

Much of what I encountered while shadowing ReD’s consultants seemed like the type of insight that any observant intereviewer might have produced with or without an anthropology degree…

Graeme may be overlooking the possibility that journalists are parallel anthropologists themselves. I agree that any intelligent person could do the field work. Something more is called for, I suspect, when the reports are analyzed, and Wood’s story contains a great example. Wood accompanies a young, Turkish-born woman, Esra Ozkan, when she interviews a Forest Hills housewife who keeps not one but two kosher kitchens. Ozkan, who although fully familiar with kosher practice (her husband is Jewish, for one thing) asks the housewife to explain it, is able to infer from their lengthy conversation that, even though she says nothing of the kind, the housewife “treats the kitchen as a holy place.” What she does in her everyday kitchen (not to mention the one that’s reserved for Passover) is rigorously kosher. But when she goes out to dinner, she is not so strict, and she confesses that her husband does not keep kosher at all when she is not around. This woman’s observance of the ancient rules is rooted not so much in the pursuit of ritual purity, it seems, as it is in the creation of a domestic shrine to her Judaism. It is as though she has created a simulacrum of the Temple in her home. Everyone in the household must to some extent be aware of this — but almost certainly not to the degree of articulating what might sound like blasphemy.

Bronislaw Malinowski wrote of “the imponderabilia of daily life,” Wood reminds us, meaning the minute details, of many of which we’re unaware, that govern our social behavior (even when we’re alone, as when keeping house). Are we better off not knowing these things? My hunch is that, although it can be painful to find out why you do the things you do, it’s ultimately beneficial, and certainly simplifying.

I am much caught up, these days, in the imponderabilia of my library. Why do I have the books that I have? Why really? I ought to point out that I conceive of the library as a social space, because it is here that I meet the ideas of others and am inspired to sharpen my own before I write them down. I am also interested in the imponderabilia of my own culinary life. Why am I sometimes “too tired to cook”? What takes the flavor out of cooking, and leaves only the drudgery? Is it just fatigue? Laziness? What are the occult paramaters that send me into the kitchen or keep me out of it? I’d like to call up the ReD people and see if they could tease some answers out of me. I might be very surprised.

Gotham Diary:
Craft and Glamour
22 February 2013

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Last night, we attended a members’ preview of the new show, making a stop from the Orsay to the Art Institute, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.” It’s a ridiculous title; I’d have called it “The Milliner’s Shop,” after the ravishing Degas of that name, a painting that fuses the three concepts in the clunky actual title in a burst of aesthetic genius. (It is in the show.) I didn’t buy the catalogue, because I never do buy catalogues at previews; one wants to think about adding yet another tome to the buckling shelves. And I didn’t want to lug it to dinner afterward. But these were poor reasons; we had dinner at a restaurant that’s on the way home, and there was no doubt in my mind that I would buy the catalogue. And not just look at it but read it. Because, thanks to some sort of quasi-fortuity, I’m primed to read about fashions of the late Nineteenth Century,  having immersed myself in readings about those of the early and mid Twentieth. I was very discontent when we did get home, because the catalogue was all that I had a mind to look at, and I felt rather like a kid who hasn’t been given an all-but-promised birthday present.

There are so many beautiful things to look at. The dresses, simply boxed in glass, are immensely chic (although not very colorful — this is a collection chosen with today’s eye), even if they are “Victorian,” and the paintings (which are colorful, although not usually because of the clothes) are all very lovely. The most immediately interesting thing about the show for me was the handful of Tissots on the walls. I haven’t seen very many Tissots; the painter doesn’t seem to have appealed to American collectors, and most works remain in Franch or Britain. I love Tissot for one reason: he relieved me of the impression that Victorian women were the ugliest creatures ever to roam the earth, dinosaurs and cookie-cutter sharks included. Tissot’s women — the ones who are decked out in the latest evening wear — are gorgeous and desirable, and, unlike their sisters in the fashion plates, thrilled to be alive. There are at least two strikes against Tissot’s claim to the first class: his ladies’ faces occasionally slip into the dreadful prettyness that was so popular in those days, and he turned out his pictures too quickly to let the paint dry properly. It’s for the latter reason that much of his work has to be shown behind glass. But I came away convinced that Tissot is an underappreciated artist, a master of sensual but unsentimental propriety. His figures aren’t stuffy because they know that they’ll be stepping out of their beautiful clothes presently — or, rather, a minute later. It was also interesting, by the way, to see a big society portrait by Carolus-Duran (not his real name), the artist who usually gets top billing as Sargent’s teacher. It’s very fine, but, my, does it show off Sargent as a genius.

There are a couple of Caillebottes, including the daring Rue de Paris, temps de pluie — daring because it’s big but drab, because its composition ought to be unsatisfactory, and because its subject is obsessively banale. It’s a picture that you have to look at for a long time to appreciate, but it’s also a picture that, in spite of everything, commands that attention. I will be getting out my catalogue (if I can find it; it’s an odd-sized book) from the 1978 show in Houston — assuredly the one event that makes me glad that I ever lived there — to refresh my grasp on Caillebotte’s extraordinary geometry. Happily, the Museum has hung Temps de pluie on a wall from which it can be seen at some distance. Caillebotte, in case you hadn’t heard, is the thinking person’s Impressionist.

Finally, there are the lovely early Monets — Luncheon on the Grass; Ladies in a Garden — wow! These are not beautiful women, but they look unexpectedly comfortable — they breathe. More than almost anyone, Monet is the master of what Henry James meant by “summer afternoon.”

To be appreciated: Manet and Renoir. The Manets in this show are unusual; or, rather, they’re usual, they look like paintings that others might have made. The figures, quite appropriately for fashionably-dressed women, do not exhibit the cadaverous cast of his more famous work. As for Renoir… I feel about Renoir the way most people feel about Tissot; his work feels kitschy to me. There is something inappropriate about the prettiness of his little girls — they’re being offered up as treats. Natives who delight by turning up in show after show, even though they live here: Mary Cassatt’s theatre-going ladies, one so sternly fixed on her opera glass, the other so cheerfully American and so surprisingly décolletée. Where do they keep it?: Béraud’s Pont des Arts on a Windy Day. “In the basement,” said our friend. “I still like it,” I replied. I want to study it as an example of how painting did not abandon realism to photography. 

Gotham Diary:
Morning Drift
21 February 2013

Thursday, February 21st, 2013


Kathleen had to be out of the house early this morning, so there would be no lingering over tea and toast. I woke up when she did, but lazed in bed, drifting in and out of states of mind, some of which were dreams. It was pleasant; I wasn’t exhausted. The morning before, I was so tired that I was afraid to face the day ahead, even though the calendar was perfectly blank. This morning, even as I dozed, I was fine with knowing that that I’d be up and about presently.

And yet, one of my first thoughts was about a good death, which I felt I was previewing, lying there in comfort. I do hope for a good death, and dread a bad one. I hope to die before the collapse of civilization that so many imaginative people these days enjoy foretelling. I am not particularly anxious that this will occur anytime soon, and I know that, meteors aside, it is very unlikely to occur as a global catastrophe. But I want no part of it, am not curious about it at all. It’s an unhealthy subject, really. I probably wouldn’t be going to see the new production of Parsifal anyway — I seem to have attained a measure of Gelassenheit about sitting through plays and concerts — but when I heard that it is set in “postapocalyptic times,” I was relieved to put it out of mind. Doomsayers are bad for morale.

Why doesn’t the word “sophology” exist, I wondered? I ran a mental finger over the bruise left by Arthur Danto’s book about art. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Although philosophers have certainly gone in for rigorous-looking syllogisms and categories, and bristled with metaphysical lingo that frightens off the uninitiated, this love-of-wisdom does seem aptly named: it’s a pleasant pastime really. Sophology would be quite different. The study of wisdom: what would that look like? I think that it would look like Hume and James. No grand systems for them! Their wisdom begins and ends in deep humility. I would say that today’s cognitive revolution is sophologic. I would also say that I haven’t read Hume in forty years or more. Not another word out of me on this topic until I’ve done a bit of re-reading.

The other day, I pulled down a book that I thought I should re-read, Maurice Keen’s Chivalry, but it didn’t take long to doubt that I had actually read it before. If I did read it, then I’m guilty of having appropriated its contents and marked them, mentally, as my own original thinking, because as I turn the pages, I say yes, in that deep way that’s provoked by books that chime with ideas that we’ve arrived at, if so very well articulated, on our own, but that we don’t feel we’ve encountered elsewhere. There are two phenomena that suggest to me that I really haven’t read Chivalry before. I haven’t felt the low vibration of familiarity — which has nothing to do with “content” but rather registers the odd turn of phrase, the peculiar anecdote that sticks in the mind — that signals the forgotten book. And the chiming isn’t entirely harmonious. Keen and I are both extremely interested in the relation between knighthood and Christianity. Chivalry — the first half of it, anyway — assiduously traces the ultimate failure of Church leaders to interpose ecclesiastical authority into the creation of knights. My own interest takes a slightly different course: aristocratic families in Western Europe completely subverted Christianity when they saw that there was money in it, so that the “Christianity” of the knights was not much more authentic than the “christianism” on show at one of today’s mega-churches. Keen mentions here and there that Church leaders generally came from knightly families (at a minimum), but he does not really grasp that what those leaders were after was control, not reformation.  The “three orders” writings of Adalbert of Laon and Gerard of Cambrai, dating from the early Eleventh Century, were well-received precisely because they formalized a social arrangement that was already firmly in place. There were those who prayed, those who fought (“protected”), and those who worked — to feed the first two. There may have been three orders, but there were two classes.

(Only two classes. The “waning of the middle ages” began when a new, third class — a wealthy and powerful bourgeoisie — arose at the end of the Fourteenth Century, and there was nowhere, conceptually, to put it.)   

Then I had a dream. I nodded off and made a fool of myself. I bought a large orchid plant and took it to Crawford Doyle, obviously thinking to ingratiate myself in some way, or, better, to become more than just a good customer. Special! Just as obviously, I saw, as I carried the plant into the shop, how inappropriate this was. I made up a story, which neither Dot nor Lauren believed for a second (I could tell!) about having been given an “extra” orchid by a “cousin” — thus transforming my gift into refuse! Humiliation was complete when I slipped out of a shoe and saw that we were now in “my room,” the floor of which was littered with loafers and moccasins. For the last moments of the dream, I got to savor being hopeless at eighteen.


I don’t know what’s in store for today; it’s uncertain whether I’ll help out with Will’s winter break today or tomorrow. Tomorrow would be great; I will really be rested up by then. If so, I’ll deal with the too-many piles on my writing table.  

Gotham Diary:
Young Man
20 February 2013

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

This afternoon, I took a nap. I never take naps. I took a nap in bed. By the time Kathleen left for the office, I’d been up to make her tea and toast — and then climbed back into bed. I sat up for a little while, but then got back into bed, and this was when I napped. I was that tired.

As how could I not be, the day after spending more than eight hours in sole charge of my three year-old grandson? Of course, I shouldn’t have been able to do it at all a year ago. But Will is not a toddler anymore; he doesn’t always have to be watched or worried about. I cannot always understand what he says, but conversation does happen. There is a lot of giggling and laughing. (There is also the excitement and occasional confusion of putting diapers behind.) I think that we watched five hours of Kipper. In an episode that I hadn’t seen before, Pig is entranced by some fun-house mirrors. This inspired me to dig out the tape of A Damsel in Distress, and Will watched the entire fun-house scene without distraction, often beating out the rhythm. (I see that the movie — not to be confused with Whit Stillman’s strange Damsels in Distress, has come out on DVD.)

I picked Will up in the late morning, and we went straight to the barbershop, where we didn’t have to wait long for Tito to be free. Will spontaneously followed Tito to the chair, while I stayed behind in the back, re-reading Maurice Keen’s Chivalry. From time to time, I would peek towad the front, and invariably Will would be sitting patiently and still, while Tito snipped at his mop. 

Then we walked to the Museum, where we walked a lot more. The place was packed. I wanted Will to look at two things, Homer’s Gulf Stream, which Will has seen before, and which this time elicited stern warnings from my grandson: sharks should not eat boats. They should not eat people! And the angels of the fifteenth-century Netherlands, of which the Museum has a nice collection, in old-master galleries that proved difficult to reach for one reason and another. (Is the newly-acquired portrait of Talleyrand being installed?) The other day, Will stood on a stool and watched (briefly) as I beat egg whites for an angel-food cake. That’s what set to thinking about angels, and enabling Will to make the acquaintance of some kitsch-free examples.

When we came out of the Museum, it was beginning to rain, so we had to come back to the apartment for the rest of the day. Somewhere between seven and eight, Megan appeared, and then Kathleen, and we ordered in Chinese. Will, all energy spent, fell asleep in his mother’s arms as we talked at the table.


I’ve been meaning to say an extra word about John Kenney’s Truth In Advertising, which was advertised in today’s Times as being on sale at select (named) independent bookshops, dont Crawford Doyle. Good! I’m glad that I don’t have to persuade Dot McClearey to stock it. The ad featured a snip from a Times review that I’d missed, if it did appear in the paper proper, by Susannah Meadows, that mentions “a surprisingly sweet romance.” This romance is the most appealing thing about Truth In Advertising, but it’s difficult to write about because it’s bashfully understated — which is no small part of the charm — and difficult to capture without quoting reams of dialogue that, out of context, might very well leave the reader — the reader of a review — feeling that you had to be there. The romance develops almost entirely on the telephone, although when Finbar Dolan, the hero, is in the same room as Phoebe Knowles, you can feel the weakness in his knees. What makes Kenney’s novel so special is the way in which true love is attained as if by ju-jitsu: Fin has only to let his bad family history drop away for Phoebe to fall into his arms. Even this is tricky to say,  because there is nothing therapeutic about Kenney’s tale, even if Phoebe is the best thing that ever happened to his hero. You have to read it.

Gotham Diary:
19 February 2013

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

When Will was an infant, and then a toddler, I thought that the most exciting thing that could happen to me next would be his calling me “Doodad,” the name that I had chosen, and that had been approved by family councils, as the name that he would be brought up to call  me. I was wrong on two counts. First of all, he started out by calling me “Dadoo,” and I was afraid that this would stick, although his parents, I must point out with profound gratitude, never went with it. Eventually, he did call me “Doodad,” but I was mystified by the lack of personal satisfaction for me that his doing so entailed.

Second of all, I never guessed what it would be like when he said, as he said this morning, “You are my grandfather.” Will is old enough now to be analytical about things, and I realized that his acknowledging me as his grandfather was very like his speaking of his parents by their proper names, “Megan” and “Ryan,” as though these were secrets; he knows perfectly well that he’s not supposed to use them. Later, I would  laugh to myself — I am preternaturally this kind of humorist — at how the recognition scene might be read melodramatically. Picture Elizabeth McGovern in Tune In Tomorrow: “Only now do I find that this nice old man whom I took to be a friendly neighbor who was always there for us is [she spits]— my grandfather.” As though “Doodad” had been meant to conceal a horrible truth. Very funny. But of course that’s not how Will meant it and it’s not how I felt it. You’re my grandfather, he said, fixing our relationship in the most absolute terms conceivable. I burst with something like pride. It was like pride insofar as he was calling me his grandfather. It was unlike pride in that I felt unworthy of the role. As I believe anyone, presented with a grandson as magnficent as Will, would feel.

Pride, shmide. I’m the luckiest man in the world. Certainly one of the two luckiest grandfathers.

Gotham Diary:
Noah’s Drunkenness
18 February 2013

Monday, February 18th, 2013

At Fairway, it was almost Sunday. My sole New Year’s resolution was not to go to Fairway on Sunday, and I’ve stickled on it. I forgot that today is a holiday — an honorary Sunday, so far as the madness at Fairway is concerned. I have lived in this neighborhood for more than thirty years, so I find myself asking, where do these crazy people come from? — these abstracted men and women who look like New Yorkers but who behave like suburbanites. Where is the charitable society that will protect us all from the miserable clutter of children in strollers? When will patrons look elsewhere for charming bazaars that are hospitable to companionate shopping? More than any emporium I’ve ever been in, Fairway is a military supply center. You go in, get what you need, and get out, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. If you’re lucky, the produce section is free of gridlock. If you’re lucky, the closing elevator door does not heave into reverse because some omedhaun couldn’t wait to press the button. If you’re lucky, there are no vacant middle-aged dingleberries holding someone else’s shopping basket in the middle of an aisle. You can count on not being lucky on Sunday.

And what is it with the management at Thomas’s? Why do they continue to turn out volume packages of the dinky original English muffins when it’s obvious that everyone wants the sandwich size, introduced about thirty years ago but still hard to get? Second New Year’s resolution: send a message. Never buy the small muffins just because the large ones (perfect for sandwiches) are unavailable. Spread the word that small ones are toxic, or were Hitler’s favorite, or anything you can think of to discourage purchases of the damned things.


I’ve been reading the most extraordinary book, which I hope regular readers will recognize as not my way of hailing a fave. What Art Is is the latest addition to Arthur Danto’s shelf of books about art. Danto is a philosopher in his late 80s who took up art criticism (notably for The Nation) in the early Eighties, and there’s something about him that I’ve always liked, even though I have no use for philosophy, and the current book completely mystifies me. In small part, I’m mystified because there are passages that I can’t quite parse. Writing up Descartes, Danto asks,

Can I be certain of anything whatever? The answer is yes. If I am always mistaken, I must at least be thinking that to be the case that is not.

This is infelicitous at best; it’s unwise, speaking English, to put so much weight on a term (“that”) that doubles as a relative pronoun. But I am largely mystified by the urge to philosophize. I don’t understand it at all. I understand why people do all sorts of things that I don’t want to do — drive race cars, bake clafoutis, balance stock portfolios, jump from planes; the list is endless, because there really aren’t that many things that I want to do. The world would be a very strange place if I couldn’t imagine other people’s interests — especially as one of the things that do like to do, read, presents such an endless range of activities. But with every year I understand philosophy less. I cannot understand the urge to press beyond what seems to be the case in search of what is the case, especially if, as the history of thought suggests, that search is bound to end in error. I should prefer to develop better ideas of what seems to be the case, and leave what is to God (including, of course, God, who certainly does not seem to be the case). The only sense that I can make of the urge to “do philosophy” is to see philosophy as an early version of Grand Theft Auto. A game, in short, with twists and turns that are very exciting to the adept, and that also calls for wellsprings of paranoia about what’s “really” going on.

Danto claims not to be an art historian, a truth embodied in nearly every page of his book, which continually uses the historical data of “art history” — he begins with the revolution wrought by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Fountain — to unseat the rather obvious proposition that “art” is a profoundly Western concept, intimately tied to the contingencies of European history (Christianity in general and its power structures in particular) since, roughly, the Tenth Century; and to reject the corresponding notion that aesthetically charged objects from other cultures, especially those of East Asia, do not constitute the same kind of thing. Danto wants a definition of art that, with an abandon surprising in a philosopher, reeks of local historicity:

This book is intended mostly to contribute to the ontology of Art, capitalizing the term that it applies to widely — really to everything that members of art world deem worthy of being shown and studied in the great encyclopedic museums.

A stupefyingly provincial view! The ontology of art — the study of what art is, pointedly not the study of recognizing art when you see it (that’s epistemology, we’re told, or connoisseurship) — rests on the taste of the art-world elite, of the moment. In other words, what art is, is everything in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much as I adore that institution, my visits there have sharpened quite the opposite view. Most of what the Museum holds is not art, but it helps me to recognize the few things that are. But then, I am not a big-tent kind of guy. And I don’t begin to see the point of statements such as this: “Only that which belongs to all of art belongs to art as Art.”


In a gripping, if no less hard-to-follow discussion of the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling (of which he disapproves), Danto focuses on the artist’s narrative plan for the nine “pictures” (which, fascinated by Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, Danto presents as a doubling, as a single picture — the ceiling — of nine pictures — the narrative tableaux), and dwells on the last of the panels, which features the drunkenness of Noah, a Biblical event to which I hadn’t given much thought. Whatever I think of Danto’s philosophy, I am completely sold on his discussion of Michelangelo’s design, which in his view establishes the need for an incarnate saviour.

Possibly Noah, drunk and naked, implies the ineradicable weakness of human beings — after all, Noah, who was regarded as the one worth saving, is in the end a bad lot. Catastrophes, if there is to be any human remnant, are insufficiently radical solutions to the problem of human badness, and only the miracle of salvation is capable of overcoming the sins of our endowed substance. So the story that begins with creation ends with the need to intervene in history in a new way, by god himself taking on the attributes of the flesh and being reborn through suffering.

That’s the sort of thing that makes me pick up whatever Danto publishes. Genesis itself, however, suggests a different, if not incompatible, interpretation. Chapter 9 is taken up with God’s promise never to wreak another deluge; it is a second covenant with mankind (the first having been imposed on Adam). The last ten verses, in which Noah’s drunkenness is fleetingly mentioned, have a very tacked-on look to my eyes; I read them, and their curse of the Canaanites, as if I can see the Babylonian redactors slipping them into place here. (The Canaanites were cursed because Noah was pissed off that his son, Ham, dared to look at him when he was drunk and naked; the Canaanites descended from him. His brothers, Shem and Japhet, contrived to clothe their father with a cloth that they carried backwards, faces averted. It is the Bible at its most pruriently prudish. We’re at liberty imagine the real reasons for cursing the Canaanites.)


In today’s Metropolitan Diary, the Times published a report, by someone who lives in my neighborhood, about the funeral mass said at St Joseph’s Church, which I can see from my window, for a homeless man who used to camp out at the southeast corner of 87th and Second. I’m pretty sure that that’s who Lee Eisenberg is talking about; the homeless man who had a shopping cart and a dog and who nestled in a nook at the far end of the Food Emporium downstairs. Shorty, the dog, reportedly seated in the front pew at the funeral, has presumably acquired more comfortable digs since the death of Jose Perez. I always used to feel terribly sorry for the dog — what a boring life, tethered to a cart in a dark corner. I felt sorry for its owner, too, although I never gave him any money or in any way acknowledged him. I can understand running for office or driving a subway train or even writing for an advertising agency, but I can’t understand living in the street (even if only by day). My instinct is that it ought to be illegal; my urbanity counsels against butting in. Two hundred people attended Jose Perez’s funeral — to them, he was as much a part of the neighborhood as, say, the butchers at Schaller & Weber. (He seems to have been a personable man.) I am left in a tension: either my charity is limited, or charity — which Jose Perez never solicited — doesn’t come into it. Perhaps, if I were a philosopher, I would know what to think. But I’m not.

Gotham Diary:
15 February 2013

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Often, when Kathleen goes off on a business trip, or to spend the weekend with her father and her brother in North Carolina, I fade into an inert silence. It wasn’t so this past week, however; I was very busy with the mess in the blue room. So it was only upon her return that I collapsed — a combination of excitement at having her back, a late video (Arbitrage) and a few drops too many BV Rutherford cab. I collapsed into the arms of John Kenney, author of a new novel, Truth in Advertising. Someone was touting it somewhere on the Internet, and for once, I bit. 

Truth in Advertising belongs to the family of novels, currently headed by Dave Eggers’s A Hologram For the King, about bluffers — men who lack both the concrete agricultural, artisanal, or military skills of their fathers, and the professional training of their brothers. Longer and more richly rounded than Hologram, Truth in Advertising shares its foundation of dread and its overlay of satire. Both books are funny and terribly unnerving, sometimes simultaneously. The narrator’s situation is precarious in each. The looming danger seems less a crushing catastrophe than a fatal becalmment: these are lives like sailing ships far out at sea, in dwindling winds.

Kenney’s hero is Finbar Dolan, a Manhattan advertising copywriter with misgivings about his own abilities and a troubled family history. He has commitment issues, having broken off an engagement six months earlier and then covertly fallen in love without daring to acknowledge it to himself. He’s suave and charming, not that he has to work at either, but his life is stalling on the eve of his fortieth birthday. What recharges it is a ramped-up schedule imposed by his boss, a taskmaster who doesn’t seem to like him, and then, the insanely rushed production of a Super Bowl commercial. With smothered desperation and a vivid fantasy life, Fin struggles to make the most of what feel like last chances. Meanwhile, Fin’s father, from whom he and his siblings have long been estranged (they are bareless less estranged from each other), turns up in a Cape Cod hospital, unconscious after a heart attack. Kenney adeptly weaves his protagonist’s development from these threads, with a warp of unresolved childhood secrets and a weft of sparkling but very dry Madison-Avenue satire. The settings are assured, and the narration easily brilliant.  

So you try. You throw yourself into it. You learn. You learn the difference between writing and shooting. You learn the difference between how you hear a line of dialogue and how an actor says a line of dialogue. The line you thought was so funny turns out to be hackneyed and expected. Later, in the edit room, the takes you thought were great turn out to be not so great. You try harder next time, work longer on the script, on cutting the superfluous, on saying it better, funnier, more … real. You read plays and screenplays. You study them. You try to understand how they work. You take a writing class at the 92nd Street Y. You see plays at an off-Broadway theater. You read the scripts of award-winning commercials. You realize that advertising, at its best, tells a story. It closes the gap between the thing being sild and the person watching. The really good work, done by the best people, makes you feel something. It tells the truth. It elevates the business, transcends a mere ad to something better, more valuable. It connects with another human being, breaks through the inanity and noise to find something essential and real and lasting. Like art. Not always. Not often. But sometimes. You have seen it done. You have admired the people who do it. And you have come to the conclusion, in spot after mediocre spot, that you are not that good.

Except that John Kenney himself is. I heartily recommend Truth in Advertising.

Gotham Diary:
14 February 2013

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

It’s Valentine’s Day, but I have yet to see my wife. My dear Kathleen woke up in Florida this morning, flew to New York, and went straight to the office. She’s still there. I’m wondering what we’re going to have for dinner. Rib steak, definitely. Smashed new potatoes, absolutely — have to try that out! Are you with me? Did you read the Times yesterday? (What a provincial question, I know.) Did you see Melissa Clark’s expandable holiday menu, suitable for two and multiples of two? I haven’t made up my mind about the mousse yet — the mousse that’s just bittersweet chocolate and water, melted and then whisked over ice. Probably won’t do it, on the theory that Kathleen has given up chocolate for Lent, as usual. The real reason, though, is that I’ve had two conniptions today, and I’m exhausted.

The second conniption was about the rib steak. At Agata & Valentina yesterday, I asked the butcher — a new face — to saw one of their hefty rib steaks in half, making two thinner ones. When I got home, I threw the package into the freezer, because I couldn’t be sure what would happen this evening. (Kathleen was supposed to come home last night, but stayed overnight because of storm-induced delays.) I ought to have checked first, though, because the young man neglected to slip a sheet of butcher’s paper between the two steaks, so that I had to hack them apart this afternoon — not pretty.

The first conniption, which took place in two sessions, was induced by Readerware. I don’t want to talk about it. I dislike everything about Readerware except the bar code function, which is a dream, and the Help section. I loathe the Help section. It is a million times worse than utterly useless, which is why I don’t want to talk about it. Also, it’s time to cook dinner. It’s time to cook dinner because I’ve spent the afternoon uploading CDs onto iTunes (so that I can slip the discs into paper sleeves and chuck the jewel boxes, saving lots of room) and reading a delightfully sour novel, Truth in Advertising, by John Kenney. I don’t know why Crawford Doyle didn’t carry it; the book is a slam dunk for our demographic. (Did I say that right?) But they ordered it for me and now I have it. I’d much much rather read it than clean up the table and set it for dinner. But! It’s Valentine’s Day, and Kathleen will be home in an hour, and — OMG, I forgot to uncork the wine.

Gotham Diary:
Cover Story
13 February 2013

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

After I paid the bills, the other day, I stuffed the parts that you keep “for your records” into the “February” folder, removing last year’s batch, which I culled for shredding. With the February 2012 bills to be saved in hand, I went looking for the January 2012 bills, which I new to be near a manila folder containing the saved bills from 2011. But I couldn’t find them. I still haven’t found them. I’ve looked just about everywhere. I’ve opened each and every rattan storage box big enough to hold them, but in vain.

Of course, I’ve found a lot of other things, especially things to get rid of. Sometime late last year, I decided to stop saving New Yorker covers. And I did. But I didn’t bother to throw away the piles that I’d been saving for years. Several rattan boxes were filled with them. They made quite a stack, well over a foot high — and I’m sure there are more somewhere. Before pitching the lot, I decided to spend a few minutes running through them, to see if there were any that I really really wanted to save. Typically, I held on to two covers that, as official art prints, hang on the walls of the apartment, the famous “New Yorkistan” cover by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz — because I acted now, I have one of the limited-edition blow-ups, signed by both the artist and the writer. I also have Jorge Columbo’s cover for 21 September 2009, which features buildings and water towers in evening silhouette, with a plane flying in the distance (perhaps it is meant to be dawn). I bought the “art” version of that from Jen Bekman’s 20X200 project. Which means that I should just get rid of the actual covers, right? You don’t know me!

About halfway through the stack, I began to notice that Barack Obama was making frequent appearances. Going back to the bottom of the pile, I gathered a collection of twelve, not all of which show the president. There is Michelle Obama on the fashion runway (16 March 2009), and the pillars of the south portico of the White House painted in LGBT rainbow colors (21 May 2012), and Bo on the front lawn (27 April 2009). There is the figure of a man, seen from the rear, approaching the White House through the snow, tramping past drifts of red and blue leaves. Those are “honorary” Obama covers. The real ones in my possession are

  • Obama walking on water (1 February 2010)
  • Obama as George Washington (26 January 2009)
  • Obama welcoming Santa (14 December 2009)
  • Obama interviewing dogs — Bo not shown (8 December 2008)
  • Obama and Boehner (15 November 2010)
  • Barack and Michelle, outfitted to suggest terrorists (21 July 2008)


  • Obama and Hillary as Eustace Tilley, playing-card bashion (11 & 18 February 2008)
  • Obama and Hillary in bed, reaching for red phone (17 March 2008)

Ms NOLA straightened me out on that last one, the date of which I’d initially overlooked. I took the red phone to be the line from Putin, announcing War. How quickly we forget.

The other day, my friend Jean wrote in praise of The New Yorker‘s high-quality consistency.

Le New Yorker est un régal aussi bien pour les yeux que par la lecture des articles et la nouvelle hebdomadaire. Rien n’a changé dans la conception du New Yorker depuis 1925. Ni la typographie, ni la maquette. Et pourtant c’est un magazine toujours moderne, à la pointe de l’actualité avec ce recul nécessaire et cette légère ironie qui en fait tout le sel. La couverture est une oeuvre d’art chaque semaine, un objet de collection ainsi qu’un hommage aux illustrateurs. Sempé et François Avril y contribuent de temps en temps. La lecture du New Yorker sur le web ne remplacera jamais l’expérience de feuilleter son édition papier ou sur iPad (qui imite à la perfection l’édition papier).

I had to post a comment to the effect that, when I began reading the magazine, in 1962, there was no Table of Contents, and you had to find the end of a piece to find out who wrote it. Also: no photographs. One thing that I didn’t mention was that covers, at least during the Shawn years (the first forty-odd of my life), covers were never topical. Seasonal, yes, but topical, no. Presidents from Kennedy through Bush I simply did not appear on the cover of The New Yorker. Nor did other celebrities.

Now, it never crosses my mind that The New Yorker that I’m reading today isn’t the same magazine, essentially, that I was reading in my teens. But because there has never been anything remotely like it, considerable changes have been introduced without affronting too many sensibilities. But the shift in covers, once Tina Brown and Art Spiegelman took over, really was shocking. I was repelled by more than a few, reduced to mumbling the Times’s formula about “family” publications. Even though David Remnick’s régime has quieted things down a bit, I find that I’ve fallen into the habit of trying to decode each week’s cover before I’ve even taken it in. Sometimes I get them right away, sometimes I don’t. Quite often, I long for the good old days. Today’s covers are never, ever as clever as Saul Steinberg’s.  

The Obama covers, taken as a whole, are good-humored but steadily satirical: “We like this guy, but we know he doesn’t read us.”

Twelve! In five years! 


Ms NOLA straightened me out about the red-phone cover when I called her to tell her about the 12! covers. I never call Ms NOLA in the evening just to chat, but had to make contact. She said that she was watching The State of the Union. Oh, with Spencer Tracy? I asked. No, with Barack Obama, she laughed. The State of the Union address. I had a momentary sense of living in an alternative universe, because in fact I do. Watching the State of the Union is a perfectly normal thing for an educated American to do, but I wouldn’t tune in unless I thought the world was coming to an end, and maybe not even then. I have become so dishabituated to television that I think of it, when I think of it, as a kind of primitive video game. A fun thing to do when I was young, but, as with smoking, I’m glad that I gave it up a long time ago.

Gotham Diary:
Working House
12 February 2013

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

When did I stop playing house? When I lost the inability to see through closet and cabinet doors. When I could still pretend that visible order authorized hidden confusion. When I no longer viewed my habitation as if I were the photo editor of a shelter magazine. That’s when I stopped playing house; that’s when I began working house.

A working household is everything at once: refuge, workplace, tea room, gallery, wardrobe. (Once upon a time, it was also a farm; now it might include a garden.) It is an expression of the person who runs it, visible as it may be to visitors.

The household is a unit, and this is new. Until now, pernicious distinctions have been made between the different parts of the home, each addressed by specialists in that area, be it cooking, sewing, decorating, designing, cleaning, or managing clothes and personal hygiene. At the back of those distinctions stood the ghosts of servants, men and women assigned to work in the various departments of the stately homes of the wealthy. Such specialization is now neither possible nor desirable. There are no servants, and, as appliances become ever more sophisticated, there is less and less need for them. Nor ought householders act like their own servants, running their kitchens as if they were cooks (trained in “home economics”) or cleaning their bathrooms as if they were janitors. Yes, meals must be prepared and toilets kept clean, but the work is not to be approached as if by a “specialist” — someone whose job it is to do such things. There are no specialties in householding. The householder must do everything. And I ought to know: I’m the compleat householder, a reader and writer who works at home.

I could argue that reading and writing are more important than cooking or cleaning. You would have to agree with me, because if it were not for my writing and your reading you would not be aware of this problem of mine — which I am trying to transform into something that is not a problem. Certainly a man in my socio-economic position, relatively speaking, would not have been expected to think about cooking and cleaning a century or even fifty years ago. The demarcation between the life of the mind and the drudgery of the mop was clear to everyone, and the worlds were as separated as castes.

(Somewhat awkwardly, I must acknowledge the very different, and thoroughly mixed — demarcation-free — experience of women who would be in my position but for the want of a Y chromosome. Such women have been my inspiration: “having at all” is a more realistic goal than (and just as rich as) climbing to the top of the tree in one of the myriad compartments of traditional masculine life, where men in my position are all specialists in something or other, and non-working life is distributed among “interests.” I have learned from women to aim for seamlessness.)

For a long time, I did so argue — that reading and writing were more important than the other things. But this didn’t work for me. My reading was scattershot and my writing inconclusive. Whenever I approached writing professionally (and I have never actually earned a penny from my writing), I dried up. Somehow, reading and writing are things that must share a plane with cooking and cleaning in order to take a point. I must write from where I live. And if I’m slacking on the cooking on the cooking and cleaning, where I live is not a great place to be.

More recently, I have wondered if my vocation — what I have been called to do, in the manner of a priest — is to discover a way of writing compellingly, and for the humane reader, about householding in all of its detail. Not, in other words, as an encyclopedia of “tips,” to be consulted in need. Just the opposite: as the study of overview of connection and interplay. How to tell, for example, what you’re going to want to prepare (and eat!) for dinner, given the kind of day ahead. How to sail into the duller household jobs with a brimming, sparkling imagination. How to live in a library. How to balance the very conflicting demands, which lie at the core of householding, of frugality and generosity. How to get away with delegating as much work as possible to appliances, information technologies (paying bills online, for example), and professional services (the dry cleaner comes to mind) — and making as much time for reading, writing, and other forms of examination as possible. Pray, do not dismiss “reading, writing, and other forms of examination” as some eccentric pursuit of mine. It is the stuff of every professional life, from lawyers to neuroscientists.

To alter Rilke: You must order your life.



Gotham Diary:
Home Alone
11 February 2013

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Kathleen is in Miami, as you’ll see in a minute. Well, Hollywood. Là-bas. It was sunny here when she left, and cloudy down there. It is still a bit cloudy down there, but here it is is so overcast that lamps must be turned on during the day. A perfect day for appreciating the sadness, totally American in tone but darkly Russian in depth, of George Saunders’s new book, The Tenth of December. I was going to write about it, and I shall.

But I came home from one errand and, before going out for the other, checked the computer — against my better judgment. I do have to go out again. But my eyes will have to dry first, after tears of surprise and joy and pride. Perfectly silly: nothing remarkable happened. But Kathleen forwarded a clip of today’s NYSE opening bell, which was sent in from a remote location — Hollywood (FL). That’s where Kathleen is attending the “6th Annual Inside ETFs” conference. And there she is, front and center — in pink; you can’t miss her. Words fail in the heat of admiration. More than most, I know how much work and uncertainty and sheer grit went into her being able to stand there — as any decent husband would. But instead of making her achievement familiar, knowing it makes her superb.

Now I have to run the other errand.


Lots of people find George Saunders funny. He claims to want to make people laugh. I used to laugh. You know, I used to think that The Carol Burnett Show was funny. But, watching some of the great shows, recently — whole shows, not just excerpted gems on the order of Went With the Wind — I found myself laughing less and less, and the shows blaring more and more caustically. What a bunch of very unhappy women Carol Burnett played! (Including the take-off on her own mother, “Eunice.”) Reading George Saunders now, a little more than ten years after reading the title story from Pastoralia the first time, almost brings me to tears. The parts that used to be funny are now terribly pathetic. Saunders is an even greater writer than I thought he was.

I’m working my way through Tenth of December, the new collection. One story at least, “Victory Lap,” I read in The New Yorker — it was one of the last stories that I read in that magazine’s fiction department, before deciding that the advance taste wasn’t worth the price of ruining the freshness of a book (especially a novel). That was in 2009, and I didn’t get the story (which appears to have been altered, at least slightly). And I’m not sure that I really get it now. It doesn’t speak to me as powerfully as “Escape From Spiderhead” or “Al Roosten” or the story that I’m still in the middle of, “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” The latter two are heartbreaking studies of the American dream — which turns out to be a pipe dream. “Puppy” has elements of the same pathology. A character who doesn’t amount to much, who is in fact being crushed by economic mishaps, resolves to do something self-improving. “Learn guitar? Make a point of noticing the beauty of the world?” These resolutions give way immediately to intense, curlicued daydreams of a rosy future that’s certain, it seems for the moment, to follow.

Why not take kids to Europe? Kids have never been. Have never, in Alps, had hot chocolate in mountain café, served by kindly white-haired innkeeper, who finds them so sophisticated/friendly relative to usual snotty/rich American kids (who always ignore his pretty but crippled daughter w/ braids) that he shows them secret hiking path to incredible glade, kids frolic in glade, sit with crippled pretty girl on grass, later say it was the most beautiful day of their lives, keep in touch with crippled girl via email, we arrange surgery here for her, surgeon so touched that he agrees to do surgery for  free, she is on front page of our paper, we are on front page of their paper in Alps?

The question mark at the end is simply priceless. It’s as though the narrator were on the drip in “Escape From Spiderhead,” gorging on some reveriferous intravenous cocktail.


At lunch, I read Adam Gopnik’s piece about Galileo, in the current New Yorker. He says something terribly good about Aristotle, calling him

one of those complete thinkers, of the Heidegger or Ayn Rand kind, whose every thought must be true even if you can’t show why it is in this particular instance: it explains everything except anything.

So far as hard, physical science goes, I couldn’t agree more. On the humanities, Aristotle exhibited a sane and sound psychology that has the virtue, for us now, of highlighting continuities in human nature over an abyss of technological change. (We respond to tragedy pretty much as Aristotle says we do, whether or not that’s how Sophocles’s audiences did.) I can only hope that nobody (save scholars) will be reading Heidegger or Rand in fifty years, much less two thousand.

Gotham Diary:
8 February 2013

Friday, February 8th, 2013

This will be brief. I had a very big day yesterday, on the go almost every minute. In the late afternoon, after a round of errands, I cleared some furniture out of the way for an evening session with Jason, the omnicompetent tech manager. Although I had a laundry list of niggling computer problems, each and every one of which he solved, I’d really asked Jason to come help me move the stereo amplifier (and its wires) from one side of the blue room to the other. In another room, I might do the job myself, but the blue room is where the cable and the router and, ipso facto, my connection to the rest of the world are hooked up, and I don’t mess with wires in here without adult supervision. I asked Ray Soleil to be on hand as well. “Do you really need me?” he asked. I really did, in the event, but I told him to think of himself as the anaethesiologist. (To complete this analogy, Jason would of course be the surgeon, the blue room the patient, and I the tumor.)

Jason even managed to get the Ion Tape Express to work. What this little device does is to tranform the contents of old cassette tapes into iTunes files. I have held on to more than fifty cassettes from the old days, all of it stuff that hasn’t been replaced on CD. For example: Janet Baker singing four Strauss songs, Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, and Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder. The recording was made in 1971, when Baker was an established artist in England seeking to widen her audience. Within a few years, she would be recording a lot of Berlioz with Colin Davis, and of course the English music that was finally beginning to gain an international audience. It’s no wonder that her recording of three German chestnuts was never reissued (in toto) on CD. But I have never in my life heard a more ecstatic, luxuriant Traüme. The tape is old and the pitch a bit wobbly, but the beauty of the performance still shines through. I’m thrilled to have it again.

That was the second tape to be transcribed; I oversaw it after dinner with Ray. The first tape, which I chose for my iunsuccessful attempt to get the Ion Express going, was “Renaissance Dances,” a collection of pieces ranging from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries, and one of the very first Odyssey releases. Odyssey was Columbia’s budget classical label; it was used for unusual European recordings, many from behind the Iron Curtain. The dances were recorded by the Ancient Instrument Ensemble of Zürich. I ought to remember the year in which it came out, but the best I can do is “circa 1970.” The recording itself is of course a few years older, dating probably from 1960-1965, when the “original instrument” movement was getting serious, but still a bit style-free. The sound of an ancient estampie tootling out on a distinctly unsonorous portatif organ, with the wobbly pitch of old tape, nearly turned Jason green. I chuckled; that’s exactly how most of the people I knew responded to the recording forty-odd years ago. I never played that side of the LP much myself (yes, of course I had this record on LP first, and then on cassette), but I was in love with the pavanes on the second side. Now they sound rather naive — much as stews made from recipes of that time taste almost unseasoned.


So today, I was good for nothing but the movies, and I went to see Side Effects, which is dandy but totally undiscussable; I won’t say a word! Except that I seem to remember recognizing Polly Draper, who plays Rooney Mara’s boss, by the sound of her voice, before I even saw her. That may not have been the case (because it may not have been possible). If you’ve seen the trailer — I’d seen it a few times — you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in the movie, but not why. Steven Soderbergh has made such a frightfully elegant movie that it’s conceivable that people will one day speak of his work as they speak of Hitchcock’s.  The supporting cast includes such delights as Mamie Gummer and Laila Robins, and also an actor new to me, but cresting with authority, Michael Nathanson. Celia Tapia is also someone to watch for. The three-and-a-half principals are incredibly engaging.

There’s an interesting moment, early on, when Jude Law’s profile is dwelt on in shadow, almost a silhouette. It’s jarring — it doesn’t look like him. But then nothing in Side Effects is what it seems.

Gotham Diary:
7 February 2013

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

The recent biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga was not on my reading list. I’m far more interested in the social expression of fashion than I am in the strange people who make fashionable things. But I’m glad that Dot McCleary persuaded me to buy a copy yesterday, when I dropped in to Crawford Doyle to see if they had Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s book about her husband’s grandmother, The Eye Must Travel (they did). “No pressure!” she whispered when I said that I’d take it — all but acknowledging my gently twisted arm. Dot spoke highly of Mary Blume, the IHT reporter and author of The Master of Us All: Balenciaga: His Workrooms, His World. I should have been impervious to the invitation to buy had I not noticed, in recent readings, that, of all the great coutouriers of the last century, Balenciaga stands out as, indeed, the master. A great designer, he was also a highly-skilled sempster, obsessed with the cut of sleeves in a way that had nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with fit. Blume’s deployment of “workrooms” in her subtitle hooked me.

I happen to know a couturière, as well as her favorite client, who happens to be Ms NOLA. You can always tell when Ms NOLA is wearing something that her mother made for her, because it suits her figure in a way that off-the-rack clothes couldn’t. Even a guy with no “fashion sense” whatever would be at least dimly aware of something special. The dresses are always quietly stylish, and would be light-years beyond Ms NOLA’s budget if she had to buy them. They give her that slightly miraculous appearance that Audrey Hepburn has in her gamine roles — how did that girl acquire that wardrobe? But even without the unmistakable glamour, Mom’s dresses are beautiful clothes. Fashion, as I say, has nothing to do with it. (Well, a little, maybe.)

Blume’s book is very much about the serious practice of a craft, and it hardly mentions the extraordinary planetary motions of dress style during Balenciaga’s long career. (He closed his house in 1968.) Since the designer himself was the most private of men, our window on his working world is one of his vendeuses, Florette Chelot — the first person he hired when he set up a studio in Paris in 1936.  (The vendeuses were the staff members who sold dresses to their own clients, in competition for commissions, “a horrible way to make a living,” as one of them put it.) Blume got to know this warm but dedicated woman in her later years, and Chelot’s portrait of her boss is admiring but not uncritical. Balenciaga himself seems to have been an expert, if somewhat paranoid, businessman; the Madrid branch kept his models on American women throughout World War II. He launched Courrèges, and provided Givenchy with top craftspeople when the younger man opened his house, but he could well afford such generosity.) For anyone interested in how things are done in the world, The Master of Us All is an engrossing read.

Genius for couture aside, Balenciaga belonged to a familiar type of uneducated but deeply pious Spaniard. As a Basque, he might have been expected to grow up with leftist political sympathies, but his underlying conservatism found harmony in working for the Spanish grandees who began summering in San Sebastián, near Balenciaga’s birthplace, in the latter Nineteenth Century, and who patronised his mother, at whose knee his skill announced itself. (His very last dress was made for Franco’s great-granddaughter.) By lights that we no longer find entirely attractive, Balenciaga was an honorable man, and his first commitment was to his craft. As biographical subjects go, he is fairly rebarbative. But, thanks to Chelot, Blume is able to create a vibrant impression of bygone workways.  

As well as a bygone way of wealth. One customer with whom Florette got to be good friends was Cécile de Rothschild.

Florette and Cécile shared a passion for gardening and all her life Florette kept a set of gardening tools Cécile had given her. She also gave Florette an insight into the lives of the very rich. “I was always very open with her, more than with the Baroness Alain because she had her outspoken ways. One day I said to her how can you and your friends spend a fortune on a dress that you wear only once, and you aren’t even that clothes-mad. For me it’s fine because it’s how I earn my living, but it seems a little outlandish. She said, Florette, you don’t rrealize that with the life we lead — the servants, the houses, the upkeep — the money we spend on clothes is just a drop in the bucket.

“I had never thought of that,” Florette said.

Gotham Diary:
6 February 2013

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Ray Soleil and I went to the Museum this afternoon. We saw the Matisse show and the Bellows show. Ray had seen both already; I’d seen the latter. The best thing about the Matisse show was the collection of three paintings of the same hotel room in Nice, written up very nicely at The Nation by Barry Schwabsky. The Bellows show is full of marvels, but they are not the images selected for postcards and other ephemera, so I left that exhibition’s mini gift shop empty-handed. We checked out a number of miscellaneous items, including a vitrine of Fabergé treats (none of them eggs) from which I’d have had a terrible time choosing a favorite to take home. Also a lovely sketchbook page by Lancret. (The vitality imparted by chalk in the hands of eighteenth-century French artists is always surprising.) In the gift shop, I bought a couple of tote bags, for the housing of my various foreign-language reading programs. The big excitement of the visit, though, was an hour spent in the new balcony lounge, which is open to some classes of members.

The big excitement was the sheer perversity, the deranged lunacy, of hanging out sipping drinks in a room that most airport designers would find unadventurous — everything grey, and nothing on the walls but paint — when we could have been looking at great art. But you have to do everything once. I came upon what turns out to be the back door of the lounge on a recent visit, and understood from the lettering on the door that I was not eligible to enter. But that turned out to be wrong, as I found when, for the second time, I was urged today by a nice lady handing out admission pins at the membership desk to check out the new balcony lounge. This time, I tried to open the door, but it was locked. There was a small panel with a red light mounted next to the door, and it occurred to Ray and to me at the same moment that I ought to try exposing my membership card to its faint beam — how I wish I had a photograph of that! When nothing happened (duh), I asked a nearby staffer how to get in, and she kindly directed me to go around and try the front door. The front door opened easily enough, and a woman seated at a long table gestured to see my membership card, which was, happily, intelligible to her. She wrote something down on in a notebook, and we were in! Not since the palmy days of Élan, the Houston night club right across the way from my father’s apartment, have I felt so elect. The balcony lounge! We had glimpsed it through the glass back door, but not until Ray and I were looking for a nice place to sit down did we hear the faint raspberry of utter underwhelmment.

We ordered drinks from a menu and looked around some more. “It’s a trial balloon,” I said. “If people come in  and use it, then maybe somebody will pull the sofas away from the wall and hang up some art to look at.” (Whoever set this room up has never really seen a painting by Matisse.) Museum publications, and three copies of the Times, were laid out for perusal, but the lack of decoration was as studied as it is in that room where the ageing astronaut breathes his last in 2001. It will be interesting to see what the lounge is like on Friday evenings in the summer, when the Roof Garden is hopping with smart young things out on the prowl. I envision a sort of sauna experience, going from the warm and sunny rooftop to the chilly bare lounge (or vice versa). The balcony lounge is a great idea — a clubby space where you can meet someone before a concert at Grace Rainey Rogers, or take a break from conducting out-of-towners on a comprehensive tour of the Museum. But, gosh, even Frank Campbell’s is cheerier.

The drinks were fine, though, and the staff’s attitude welcoming. Considering how strangely dead the Museum was today, the balcony lounge was doing a good business, with five or six other seatings occupied. I ought to make it clear, however, that the view in the photo at the head of this entry, showing the Kravis/Petrie Court (that’s the Museum’s second façade on the right), is not the view from the balcony lounge. There is no view from the balcony lounge. Only grey. 

Gotham Diary:
5 February 2013

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Toward the end of reading Jim Sterba’s new book, Nature Wars, I was stung by a self-recognition. Sterba was writing about feral cats, and how pet owners get very unhappy when they discover that their no-longer-wanted cats and dogs are unlikely to be adopted at animal shelters, and will probably be euthanized. They believe that someone ought to want their animal, even if they no longer do. Because the dog or the cat is still healthy and loveable, &c &c.

On a table in the blue room, there’s a small plastic basket loaded with stainless-steel flatware — knives, forks, and spoons, and also a host of measuring spoons. It’s all perfectly good, useful stuff, decently heavy and nicely decorated. But I don’t want it anymore; I’ve upgraded to better. Better measuring spoons, and much more stylish flatware. (Why, I like it even better than our silver!) Surely somebody wants my castoffs — there’s nothing wrong with them.

I take that back. It’s not evident to me that somebody wants my castoffs, as I’ve written recently about the collection of books that I call “my library.” So I’m not going to offer the stainless to the young people I know, who might know someone who’s just starting out, &c. I’m going to put it all in a shopping bag and take it to Goodwill on my way to lunch tomorrow. And that will be that.

But I remain stung, because, even if I know better, I rationalize my agreeable but strictly unnecessary houseware upgrades by assuring myself, in advance, that the serviceable items that I’m about to unload will find a welcome somewhere else. How generous of me to give them away!  

I’m sure that there are people in every culture who are afflicted with wobbly thinking of the foregoing stamp. But I wonder if, to the rest world, American culture itself appears to be deluded about the nature of its generosity.


Nature Wars is full of fun and a joy to read; I read about half of it aloud to Kathleen. It’s a reporter’s book, brimful with information but also tonally skeptical, as older reporters tend to be when they finally accept the sad fact that most people don’t share their passion to look into things. The drawback to the journalistic style, even when, as in Sterba’s hands, developments are chronologically traced, is a certain paleness in historical perspective. Sterba is writing about problems besetting Americans today — or, as in the case of Canada geese and Flight 1549, until quite recently. How we got here is of great interest to him, and he follows many pathways back through the wrinkles of time. But Nature Wars is indelibly a book about the transformation of the American landscape by a virulent plague of careless and forgetful human beings. Americans like to think that there is something in the land they inhabit that brings out the best in them. Maybe it does, but it certainly seems to have brought out the worst in their forebears. And Americans still don’t know how to pay attention; they can only obsess. Nature Wars is stuffed with enough evidence to make this case five times over, but it doesn’t interest the genial writer. He is content to show how American ideas about nature came into conflict with American housing preferences, and he does that very well.  

The big question at the outset of the book is this: why did nobody notice the reforestation of the Eastern seaboard while it was taking place? Farmers began abandoning New England in the early Nineteenth Century. Today, something like three quarters of American forests stand east of the Appalachians. As forests go, these Eastern woods are densely populated by animals and human beings alike — that’s the Nature Wars problem in a nutshell. Americans who know about Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon even before they visit have little or no idea that the oldest part of the country has reverted to the condition that it was in when it was the only part, if now with roads and houses. How come? Sterba draws an answer from Michael Williams’s Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography (1989).

So imagine what happened when farmland began to be abandoned to forest in the nineteenth century. To let precious land, cleared by backbreaking labor, go untended, unprotected from an invasion of trees, as the opposite of progress. As Michael Williams interpreted it, the process was “retrogressive, difficult to comprehend, and even sinful to contemplate.” It was an abdication of a farmer’s responsibility to be a good steward of the working landscape (although farmers themselves didn’t mind giving up scrub acreage), and as such it was largely ignored by government statisticians.

Step back for a moment, and you can see that American history went West. What happened back East ceased to matter; it even began to look suspiciously European. But, for all that farmers gave up on New England, the East was hardly abandoned. The population of the colonial states skyrocketed, and it remains both dense and high. The density, I surmise, is the problem; there’s something unamerican about density. New York may be a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Even if, from a strictly environmental point of view, it made the most sense, as indeed it does. (And there are millions of trees within the city limits, Sterba reminds us.) No, America is a nation of open spaces — where nobody lives. Go figure.

I do wish that Sterba had made more of the material that he has amassed showing that Walt Disney’s visions of nature and American life, bogus through and through, seem to have overwhelmed the more useful and correct views that one would hope to find taught in schools. That’s another problem, like the reforestation that Sterba examines so fruitfully, of which not many Americans seem to be aware. It’s a problem with education, I hasten to note, not a Disney problem. Disney is entertainment. Writing about the “denatured life” led by Americans today, out of touch (literally) with any kind of nature, Sterba touches the problem lightly:

What that meant was that early boomers were the last generation to be able to appreciate a nature presentation on film for what it was and not confuse it with the real world. They knew the difference from experience as subsequent generations could not. As a preboomer, I certainly did.  We farm kids of the late 1940s and 1950s put down our Porky Pig comic books and went out to slop the hogs. We watched Bugs Bunny on TV and then watched Dad shoot a rabbit and Mom skin and cook it for dinner. I watched Daffy Duck cartoons and also accompanied my uncle into the swamp come autumn to shoot green-headed mallards I dubbed “Daffy ducks.”

It isn’t just nature that has been denatured for Americans, but America itself. George Saunders does a fine (if disturbing) job of satirizing the results. It would be helpful for a reporter to anatomize them.

Not that I’m complaining!  

Gotham Diary:
The Classical Tradition
4 February 2013

Monday, February 4th, 2013

When The Classical Tradition was published two years ago, I picked up a hefty copy despite my fears that the book would sit on a shelf untouched — as indeed it has done until today.

I would get to it eventually, I told myself whenever my glance fell on its broad white spine. The editorial staff at The New York Review of Books must have felt the same way, because a review of The Classical Tradition appears in the current issue. Better late than never! Even as the book, a collection of essays by more than a hundred writers, bears the names of its three editors —Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, and Salvatore Settis — on the cover, so the review is signed by two critics, Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner (although only Greenblatt is named at the Review‘s web site); collaborations are easily held up by unforeseen developments. I for one am deeply grateful for the time lapse. The good reviews that accompanied publication in a more timely manner may have motivated me to buy the book, but they didn’t get me to read it. What made this good review potent enough to induce some heavy lifting (and heavy holding: do not try to read The Classical Tradition on your lap!) was the yeasty mulch of two years’ guilt. There was also the reek of smug bürgerlich contentment: why, I’ve had that book for ages! Let’s see if it’s what they say it is!

When I was done with the Times, I fetched the book and opened it to one of the sections of color plates. There were a few photos of antique sculptures, but most of the images were of objects created in post-medieval times. This didn’t really register. What registered was the presence of an essay on “Opera,” to which my hand idly turned the pages. There was, of course, no opera in the classical world, but modern opera was born of the attempt, first undertaken at the very end of the Sixteenth Century, to recreate Greek drama, which was thought to be sung, and not until Mozart’s maturity, two hundred years later, do we find a grand opera on a non-classical theme. (I’m thinking of Don Giovanni.) The older I get, the more essentially classical — true to the original baroque objectives — Verdi’s operas seem. Opera is fairly inconceivable without its foundations in the tragedies (and the comedies) of ancient Greece and Rome.

Robert Ketterer’s essay on opera focuses, reasonably enough, on the texts of operas, not the music. (There are few things in Western culture more detached from its classical antecedents than our music.) What kind of stories have been told, and with what degree of simplicity or complication? It was interesting to encounter this material, all of it very familiar to me, arranged in the perspective of “the classical tradition,” and I was able for the first time to grasp the relentlessness with which arguments for operatic “reforms” have always been grounded in appeals to (somewhat imaginary) classical standards. Metastasio (1698-1782), the great librettist whose texts were recycled and updated long after his retirement, was a reformer, and Gluck’s Orfeo is not so much a reform opera as it is a repeated reform — an umpteenth recurrence to original positions. Wagner and Berlioz were consumed by the drive to relight the classical flame, and, in Elektra, Hugo von Hofmannsthal (writing for Richard Strauss) recreated a play by Sophocles in psychoanalytic terms that Freud might have found congenial.

Ketterer suggests that one of the earliest operatic tropes, the lament of Ariadne, survives in “the grieving heroines of Verdi and Puccini,” but, as I say, Verdi at least seems more powerfully connected to the classical tradition than that. Take Don Carlo. With its sprawling, five-act action and its preoccupation with superstition and tyranny, Don Carlo doesn’t look very classical; Metastasio does not fly to mind. But turn it around, and it will be seen to complete the classical project: in this opera, the gods of mythology and their Olympian/pastoral haunts have been transformed into powerful people and historical setttings. Nothing about the incarnation in mortal flesh reduces the epic scope of the drama; on the contrary, it reveals our own sparks of divinity. The opera breathes as grand an air as any; it is, arguable, the grandest of grand operas.

I also read Anthony Grafton’s even longer essay on “Tacitus and Tacitism.” If nothing else (and there is a great deal else), the piece demonstrates the elasticity of ancient sources; just as Augustine inspired both sides of the debate about church reform, so Tacitus could be enlisted to support either the endurance of tyranny or its overthrow.  

The classical tradition has, from the moment that it was taken up by Dante and Petrarch, jostled somewhat uncomfortably alongside the official tradition of Western Christendom. Indeed, it seems more than coincidental that the climax of the Renaissance occurred so shortly before the rupture of the Reformation. 


Ordinarily, I should have written a great deal more about my dip into The Classical Tradition this morning than in fact I did — if I hadn’t been distracted by anxiety about this afternoon’s Remicade infusion, which in the event went swimmingly. The reason for my anxiety was boring and perhaps overscrupulous, but there was a nuggest of general importance in it, for, with a proclivity to skin cancer and an inconveniencing autoimmune disease, I shuffle between occasionally incompatible therapies. Any ordinary person of my makeup, a century or more ago, would be dead already — it’s that simple. (Did I say “simple”? I’d be dead of colon cancer, which doesn’t even figure in my everyday maladies anymore.) It is not lost on me that I am living in the freshest frontier of baby-boom expense.

I hope never to find out just what the doctors and nurses mean when they warn, frowning, that if you have an infusion of Remicade while you’ve got an infection or (inference?) are taking antibiotics, not only will the Remicade not work, but you can never take it again. Sometimes I feel a bit like a child who’s being spooked into good behavior. Sometimes I feel that, when push comes to shove, as it arguably did today, the schoolroom rule will be relaxed. But I’m way too old (and old) to discount the admonition.

Ray Soleil asked me, is this something new or have people always had it? Meaning my bundle of autoimmune problems. The answer is “yes” to both, and the proof is that Rameses II, if he didn’t quite have ankylosing spondylitis, had something rather like it, just as I do, and that he had it, probably, for the same reason: upbringing in an unusually clean environment. I spent a huge chunk of my childhood in undeveloped “woods” across the street, and did plenty of burrowing and digging and dirtying. But it’s the dirt from other people that builds strong bodies twelve autoimmune ways, and that, in my Bronxville bubble, was completely missing. Once upon a time, your father had to be a pharoah to provide such a germ-free environment. All I needed was an executive with a Dow-Jones Utility.


And while we’re on the subject of Who’s Smarter Now?, how many Greeks and Romans, educated Greeks and Romans, d’you think knew anything about Rameses II’s health problems?

Gotham Diary:
1 February 2013

Friday, February 1st, 2013

From Trent: What Happened at the Council (p. 210):

Another strong personality had meanwhile at last arrived at Trent, where he would from this point forward play an important role. In the General Congregation on May 21 Count Luna made his formal entrance to the council chamber and took his assigned place. He would prove a sharp thorn in the legates’ side. The long interval between Philip’s naming him for the office and his arrival was due in part to a bitter dispute with the French over precendence among the envoys, settled at last by an uneasy compromise.

John O’Malley does not provide the details of the precedence dispute, but one can imagine that it involved priorities that readers circa 2010 would dismiss as ritualistic rather than substantive, based on the competition for glory between the two crowns (those of Philip II of Spain and the the child Charles IX of France), and having nothing to do with the important business of the council. But we should not be too hasty to dismiss Luna’s standing on ceremony as an empty relic of inherited orgueuil.

The contest between France and Spain, heralded by rivalry between the kings of Aragon and the dukes of Anjou for the control of Sicily and Naples, two centuries earlier, began when the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, repulsed the last Arabs from the Iberian peninsula at the end of the Fifteenth Century and, at roughly the same time, marrried one of their daughters into the Hapsburg family. Their Most Christian Majesties, François I and his son, Henri II, were soon surrounded by the Hapsburg heir to Spain, His Most Catholic Majesty, Charles I, better known as the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The reach of Hapsburg power was not greatly diminished when Charles detached the sovereignties that had come together in his person, ceding his Central European possessions to his brother, Ferdinand, and everything else (including the Low Countries, which came into the family through the extinction of the dukes of Burgundy) to his son, Philip. Philip’s grip on Spain was about as firm as any monarch’s, but the relation between title and authority in Charles’s other domains was fluid and even conjectural. France, meanwhile, was slipping into a series of civil wars, in which religious reform served as something of an opportunistic pretext. The times, in short, were unsettled for both sides.

The thing about diplomatic protocol — who goes through the door first, who gets to sit down in front of whom, who can wear a hat and when — is that it mollifies the rankling urges of self-importance that can lead to awkward, even catastrophic physical skirmishes. Protocol settles power by obviating violence. There are always loopholes and exceptions, and doubtless Luna’s argument with the French made much of these. But established diplomatic precedents about precedence (often hammered out in treatry negotiations) made it possible for international business to be conducted without overtures of protracted jousting.

So it is with the Rules, so often maddening and counterproductive, with which our representative assemblies govern themselves — Rules about which the voting public is never invited to comment, much less make decisions. So it is with the order of business at a corporate meeting, and the parade of executives that conducts it. It is true that we have cast aside a good deal of what we think of as aristocratic posturing — behavior that reflected the old grandees’ sincere belief that they must present themselves as heroes — but when we fail to honor the procedural compromises that make political life possible, we become no less obstructionist than the intransigent nobles of the ancien régime.   


I don’t know anything about the annual conference at Davos beyond what I read here and there, and I’m never quite sure of its importance. But I hope that someone has been taking notes about the evolution of its diplomatic arrangements, even if no one in attendance would call them that. I gather that the meetings used to be very breezy, but then were saddled with prestige, not to mention pro-bono invitations to nice people with no money, and that now they’re getting simpler again. My leading question for the historian of protocol at Davos would be this: who has precedence, the person with the greatest personal fortune or the person who controls the greatest corporate resources? I suspect it’s the latter.

On very bad days, I fear that the new world order, one that will supplant the nations that we know, is being born at Davos.