Archive for July, 2013

Gotham Diary:
31 July 2013

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

“Carlos Danger.” That’s apparently what New Yorker editor David Remnick said to the magazine’s art director,  Françoise Mouly, by way of command. Remnick wanted a cover featuring Anthony Wiener in his superpower capacity. We presume that he is very pleased with John Cuneo’s drawing, which was released to the Times a few days ago. So much novelty! Seeing a New Yorker cover in the paper, before it hits the newstands! Editorial requests for topical covers! Well, those are perhaps no longer a novelty, but they still seem new to me, after decades of seasonally-adjusted timelessness. The cover of The New Yorker is now its most prominent cartoon (sorry, “drawing”), with the added joke that you have to look at the Table of Contents for the caption, which, this week, is “Carlos Danger.”

One thing I miss about the old days is knowing so much less about the sex lives of others. Close to nothing, really. Pregnancy used to be the only evidence of sexual activity, and even that was much less on view when I was a little boy. Information about the sex lives of others is not only unuseful but corrosive, because our social lives are carefully constructed atop sexual privacy. Sex happens, all the time, but if it’s not happening to you, how are you going to feel, sitting down to dinner with the teenager whose sexting has somehow come to your attention? Carlos Danger, even worse. An adult male who wants you to vote for him! I’ll bet that Bill Clinton, when he gets down on his knees for bedtime prayers, thanks the Lord especially for having gotten him in and out of the White House before the invention of Facebook.

One of the major pieces in this week’s issue is Ariel Levy’s account of the Steubenville ordeal, “Trial by Twitter.” Over the past months, I have been aware of “Steubenville” as a label pasted on a sordid episode, as effective as a skull-and-crossbones at warning me away. Or perhaps it was the infernal cliché of football-star rapists. I could assume that whatever it was that made “Steubenville” more exciting than other scandals would eventually run its course, and that if there were still anything worth talking about when it did, it would at least be considered talk, not “news.” Levy’s story is indeed considered, and the real issue has little to do with sexting teens. Rather it is the somewhat confounding alliance between critics of America’s “rape culture” and seekers after vigilante justice — the latter, in my book, no better than rapists.

I’m reminded of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. One of the best things in that novel is the account, ostensibly composed by the victim herself, of the heroine’s rape at the age of seventeen. Patty Emerson’s parents urge her not to press charges, because the boy involved is the scion of a wealthy family whom it would be politically embarrassing to disgrace. Patty’s mother in particular finds it difficult to believe that an athlete as robust as her daughter could be forced into nonconsensual sex. Disgusted, Patty turns her back on her affluent Westchester life and migrates to the Midwest, just like the pioneers of earlier centuries. Her adulthood begins in acrimonious rejection.

Franzen times Patty’s rape to occur at a transitional moment. Her parents take the traditional view: rape cannot occur when the man is known socially to the woman and the woman declines to make a fuss during the act. Rape is a violent crime, perpetrated in sudden, unexpected encounters by brutal, barbaric men. Patty’s coach, who notices some cuts and bruises, takes the new view, one of much wider scope. If sex is unwanted, it’s rape, and it cannot be mitigated by the woman’s desire to keep the assault a secret. Ariel Levy’s piece suggests that there is a quasi-legal presumption at work today, according to which a woman does not have the right to suppress a rape.

“Rape culture” is the banner of this new thinking, which is far from universally shared — certainly not by teenagers with no experience of sexual repercussion. Some of the tweets that Levy quotes have an almost Islamic sound to them: girls who get falling-down drunk at parties deserve to be screwed. Indeed, the Internet and its refinements have increased both the incidence of sexual risk-taking and the volume of social disapproval. At the center of everything is a terrible silence, where effective sex education ought to be. I’m not talking about biology classes. I’m not thinking of something that we ought necessarily to look to public schools to provide. But adults could clearly do more to help young people navigate the treacheries of adolescence than blow up every time a wild party leads to bad behavior.

In any case, “rape culture,” as I see it, is just a subset of “football culture.” The sooner football is perceived to be a vice that damages and brutalizes young men (and the young men who watch them), the sooner we can worry less about rape.

Gotham Diary:
The Symptom
30 July 2013

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

When I got [to Harvard], the first thing I did was to persuade them to make me a sophomore. I shouldn’t have even been a freshman! But for some reason they agreed to make me a sophomore. Then I decided that it was beneath me to live in the dorms, so I talked my way into a three-room apartment at a place called the Center for the Study of World Religions, where visiting professors and graduated students lived. I was unbearable. But Harvard was unbearable, too.

If you re-read In the Freud Archives in its new, NYRB edition, you’ll find an Afterward at the back, in which Janet Malcolm sets forth a brief account of the libel suits brought against her by Jeffrey Moussaief Masson, the fellow who spent his sophomore year at Harvard living with visiting professors and grad students, and who came to feel that In the Freud Archives defamed him. The Afterword ought to be a Foreword, because Malcolm reports the passages that offended Masson. Having noted them, you can then read her book, your mouth agape at all the things that Masson did not feel to be actionable, such as the marvel of fatuousness that I’ve copied out, and which therefore have his implied, or at least legal, blessing. (Masson appears to be making fun of himself, but the impression is too calculated to be sincere.)

There’s a word that recurs several times in Archives that seems to apply to much of what I’ve read by Janet Malcolm: Menschenkenner. A Menschenkenner is someone good at judging the character of others, and especially good at resisting the overestimation of talents and charms. Malcolm’s work is in large part a gallery of men and women who are not Menschenkenner. Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGuinness, in The Murderer and the Journalist, are well-matched in their lack of Menschenkennerheit. And poor Sheila McGough! All three succumb to positive first impressions, and if they come to rue the consequences, that doesn’t imply a change of heart about the source of disappointment.

In In the Freud Archives, people who are poor judges of character have the stage pretty much to themselves, beginning with Sigmund Freud himself. “Breuer, Fliess, and Jung were the most prominent of those who came within the orbit of Freud’s propensity for idealization followed by disillusionment,” writes Malcolm. Then there’s Kurt Eissler, the dean of Freudian analysts, gruff but ultimately lovable, and completely bedazzled by the precocious Masson. (Masson’s lack of skill as a Menschenkenner appears to stem from a want of interest in other people, making him more reckless than idealistic.) Malcolm’s principal story concerns the hiring and firing of Masson by Eissler, as his successor at the Freud Archives, which Eissler directed — a complicated operation about which it need be said only that access to it is very difficult, and therefore bathed with prestige by those seeking entry. Almost everyone whom Eissler knew advised him that Masson was not the right man for the job, and not just because Masson had no experience directing an archive. Whoever held the position, it was understood, would necessarily stand as a sort of ideological guardian of the Freudian heritage. Few people regarded Masson as any kind of guardian of anything.

Malcolm explores this heritage — an interesting one, not least for its controversies — in some detail. The crux of the story is Freud’s abandonment of the “seduction theory,” and his subsequent development of its replacement, which still strikes non-Freudians as remarkably far-fetched — the theory of the Oedipus Complex. Jeffrey Masson, for whatever reasons good or bad, came to believe that Freud abandoned seduction for “non-scientific” reasons, and that he subsequently realized that he had been mistaken to do so, but concealed his misgivings. Masson wanted access to the Freud Archives precisely in order to discover some written evidence of his theory about Freud, and thereby explode the foundations of Freudian orthodoxy. In short, he was a Trojan Horse. But it can’t be said that he was a particularly damaging one. Well within the year of his contract, he showed his cards — to a reporter for the Times, no less — and was unceremoniously kicked out, without having found anything. As McGuffins go, Freud’s ideas about the unconscious are as good as any. Malcolm manages to discuss them without sharing her own views about Freud, but her withholding is too ostentatious to be overlooked, and we’re indirectly reminded of her mordant thoughts about writerly objectivity.

But this is not just a tale of intramural feuds. In the middle section of the book, Malcolm turns her attention to a young man who has the paradoxical effect of making everyone else in the story look simultaneously normal and crazy. As he puts it himself, Peter Swales is a resident alien in the world of learning. A self-taught historian, without so much as a college degree, Swales latched onto Freud after working with a professor of psychopharmacology on a book about Freud’s interest in cocaine. “Working with” was not something that Swales tended to do for very long, however, and soon Swales was working on his own book about Freud and cocaine. He became an avid student of materials relating to the gestation of Freud’s psychoanalytic propositions. When his path crossed Eissler’s — Eissler, then director of the Freud Archives, controlled access to certain letters that Swales wanted to read — it was not as an analyst or even as a psychologist that Swales introduced himself. He was an intellectual historian, searching for the roots of ideas. This hardly made him ipso facto welcome to an institution that but closely trails the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scientology in discouraging free exploration of its origins, but Eissler — never the Menschenkenner — was wowed by Swales’s work so far, and took the trouble to secure him a modest grant.

In the end, Swales turns out to have the usual defects of the autodidact. His doubts and his credulities alike are settled, and never subjected to the critical review with which Swales evaluates his evidence. His method is plodding and inexorable but also stubborn, with results therefore prone to what Malcolm calls “fantastical allegation.” But he has a voice that, as recorded by Malcolm’s tapes, shows a real gift for the English language, specifically for being dogged without being tedious. My favorite moment is Swales’s account of his role in the fracas that brought Masson down. Swales, having fallen out with Massoon, wrote a 45-page letter, addressed to Masson but circulated openly, in which he retailed the myriad ways in which Masson had disappointed him and, into the bargain, displayed shoddy habits of scholarship. (Malcolm insists that this tirade is “unfailingly interesting.”) The letter came to the attention of Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal. Blumenthal wanted to write up some of Swales’s findings, but Swales was involved in yet another Menschenkenner-less arrangement — an exclusives deal — with a London newspaper, and couldn’t expatiate on his saucy tales about Freud the adulterer and Freud the attempted murderer. Blumenthal naturally concluded that, if he couldn’t engage the writer of the long letter, he could at least talk to its recipient. “You do what you like,” replied Swales. He goes on to tell Malcolm:

And in that moment I saw what was going to happen. Blumenthal had had the idea that Klein was an authority on what was happening in psychoanalysis, and so had Klein steer him toward the seduction theory as the center of the article. I knew that Masson wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth shut. Ralph Blumenthal, being a newspaper reporter, is skilled at getting people to talk, and I knew Masson would succumb to Blumenthal’s flattery. So Masson, in turn, was steered by Blumenthal to blab about the seduction theory, and my story got lost and buried, and I was thankful. I had known that Masson would sooner or later put his foot in it. I didn’t know how, but I knew the guy’s got to blunder badly and get booted out, one way or another. When Blumenthal said, ‘I’ll talk to Masson,’ I more or less knew how the rest of the scenario would go. I knew that Masson would shoot his mouth off and that Eissler would finally have to face the truth about him.

Through all of Swales’ intelligent and careful diction, it is easy to see an ongoing carnival of resentful Schadenfreude.


But the funniest moment in In the Freud Archive came, for me, shortly after the passage that I quoted at the top. Masson again:

Erik Erikson was teaching at Harvard when I was there, and I went to him and asked if I could go into treatment with him. My main symptom was total promiscuity — sleeping with every woman I could meet. He said no, but he sent me to someone he said he had great respect for, and I was in therapy with this man for a few years. But eight years later, when I was teaching in Toronto, I still had the symptom, so I went into therapy again, and then into five-times-a-week analysis. The trouble never seemed to get any better, and I figured it must have something to do with my childhood.

There is no further talk about “the symptom”; we never learn if Masson discovered anything about his childhood that might account for “the symptom.” By the time we turn the page, Masson has traded in his professorship of Sanskrit for training as an analyst. A few pages later, we are not surprised, not in the least, to find out that being an analyst was not something that Jeffrey Masson was cut out to do.

I was left thinking of Mrs Grimmer (Ruth Draper’s most hilarious creation) and her three chocolate eclairs.

Gotham Diary:
29 July 2013

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Michiko Kakutani calls David Gilbert’s new novel, & Sons, “smart, funny, observant and occasionally moving.” Although I can’t understand how any attentive reader might reach such a judgment, I’ve seen it happen often enough to wonder what leads professional book reviewers to respond with such stupefied impatience. Let’s begin with “funny.” & Sons is not funny. Its cleverness and its sharp perceptions will make you smile, certainly, but laugh? I don’t think so. That’s largely because the novel is not “occasionally moving” but constantly, achingly mortal. It begins with one funeral and ends with another. Watts’s great hymn is not sung at either, but never have I read a book that brought these lines so clearly to mind, and kept them there:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream
Bears all its sons away.

The verse is doubly apt, because & Sons is indeed about sons. When I was talking about the book to Kathleen after I’d read it, she asked, “Why do men need rites of passage?” My first thought was to point out that women just have them, in menstruation and childbirth. The transition from boyhood to manhood is, in contrast, ambiguous and variable, and it frequently occurs only in retrospect. War, unfortunately, is the surest of the rites that we have come up with — war and training for war. The men in & Sons are spared, by the accident of timing, that particular ordeal. The older men (a little more than ten years older than I am) are too young even to have fought in Korea, while their sons miss Vietnam. Further complicating the business is the indiscussability of personal matters that characterizes masculinity in general but that achieves a stinging irony in the affluent, educated, and class-conscious world that Gilbert has chosen for his background. Almost anything can be talked about at length, so long as it is not important.

As if to highlight the uncertainties of achieving manhood, all of Gilbert’s men, with the exception of two boys, are products of the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and one of those boys is a student there. These men — the famous writer, Andrew Newbold Dyer, his “best friend,” the lately-deceased lawyer, Charles Henry Topping, and their sons, Richard and Jamie Dyer and Philip Topping — have all grown up in the smallest of small worlds. But familiarity does not breed understanding. To grow up in this world is to strain to grow out of it, into the autonomy of self-directed sex life and career. Straight boys do not spend their adolescence wondering what their best friends are going through inside. And  Gilbert’s men are all straight — or, at least, they seem to be.

A N Dyer, as he’s known to his fans, launched his career with Ampersand, a best-seller that, ever since, has rivaled The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. We are given enough extracts to want to read the book (even if Kakutani doesn’t think much of them as literary material), especially after we learn of the reason for the disgust and shame that inspired it. It would be wrong to charge Dyer with homophobia, I think, when he is so clearly guilty of the much worse failing of exploiting weakness wherever he finds it. In one of his novels, he plants verbatim entries from his son Richard’s journal, proferred by the emulative son for his father’s judgment, not for his pilferage. Such plagiarism is unlikely to be felt as the implied compliment that it is. But Andrew is a user, ever on the make, and never so heedless of other people’s feelings as when he consents to participate in an occult experiment.

Seventeen years before the demise of Charlie Topping, whose funeral opens the book and whose eulogy reduces Andrew to a shambles, the famous writer brought home an eight-month-old baby boy, allegedly the fruit of a dalliance with a Swedish nanny who has since died. He is genuinely surprised when his wife of thirty-odd years declines to help him raise the boy and instead leaves him, but what’s even more interesting is his decision not to tell her the truth (as he sees it), which is that the baby is a clone — a clone of him! Gilbert handles this intersection with science fiction very well. He wraps up the episode in a somber murk that ever so slyly parodies the gothic excitements of Conan Doyle. When the story is told (by Andrew to his older sons), the novel proceeds in a way that allows the reader to decide whether Andrew is delusional. (And cloning isn’t science fiction anymore.) What remains is this: is it better or worse, more or less unfaithful, to have a clone than to have an affair? It doesn’t take Andrew’s estranged wife (a lovely figure) to finger the narcissism of cloning. I was reminded of Wotan’s vain attempts to nurture better versions of himself in his son and grandson, while at the same time standing in the way of both. The impulse to redeem, to make amends, is tragically displaced.

As it is here. Andy, as the love child or clone is called, is now seventeen, and not quite a man. From the moment that he meets his nephew, Richard’s son, Emmett, Andy’s passage to manhood is put into play.

Emmett might have been a year younger but he seemed older by four, safely on the other side of adolescence while Andy struggled through chin-high water.

Andrew is not quite as remote from Andy as he was from his older sons, but he is remarkably obsessed with Andy’s safety; ever since Charlie Topping’s death, he has needed to keep an eye on his youngest son, betraying an anxiety about the boy’s passage to manhood that far exceeds Andy’s. Andy is understandably annoyed, and we are put on notice. How will Andy die? I could not put this question out of my mind until it finally happened, and whether or not it was the most meaningful conceivable death it is too soon for me to tell. But that doesn’t matter, because Andy is simply too good to be true. Too good, that is, not to disappoint Andrew’s orgulous ambition. To his father, Andy is better than a best-seller; he promises a world in which best-sellers and even ordinary fictions won’t be needed, a world free of disgust and shame. Such a world is simply not in the cards. This is not to say that Andy’s character is thinly drawn, not at all. Clone or not, Andy Dyer is a fully present human being, and the most appealing of happy-go-lucky teenagers, longing only to lose his virginity — that curiously ineffective simulacrum of adolescent dénouement.


So much for the men — I can only mention in passing Richard’s resentful itch to bully, and Jamie’s slippery absurdity; and as for that interesting villainaster and sometime narrator of the novel, Philip Topping, I’m saving the penetration of his character for a second reading.

& Sons is also a book about Manhattan, as in Upper East Side of. Its points of reference were so familiar to me that I wondered if anyone not a denizen of this quartier would find the book intelligible, never mind interesting. Time will tell. Gilbert doesn’t bother to say much about St James’s, the church in which both funerals are held, beyond pointing out that Andrew Dyer attended Sunday school there — which is really all that needs to be said. But Gilbert waxes gorgeous about the society that inhabits these precincts. In fact he survives comparison with Proust in this regard. Like Proust, Gilbert can deconstruct the glamour of the wealthy and the professionally self-important without tarnishing their allure. Admirable perhaps they’re not, but desirable sadly they remain. At the center of the book, but diffused throughout several chapters — we arrive at it several times — is a big party, a glittering reception at the Frick. The hedge-fund father of an anthropologist-turned-novelist hosts a superlative book party, and Gilbert presents the various guests in a delightfully sustained astronomical conceit. At the climax, an addled Andrew, searching for Andy, runs into his own alter ego in Ampersand. It is a famous actor who, in preparing to star in the film adaptation that Andrew will never in his lifetime permit, has memorized great chunks for the book and then dressed up in prep-school duds.

It was Edgar Mead straight from chapter 18. Even in his muddled state, Andrew knew this was too fantastic to be true, that there must be a good explanation, perhaps within the mixture of pills and alcohol, the overexertion, the long nights rewriting, the possible guilt and the goddamn gout. The last week had been fraught and he was likely hallucinating. Would any other characters drop in? All in all, he was amazed by the magic of his imagination, however delirious, and with curiosity he watched Edgar Mead beaver his teeth at this stand of long-legged women. What would he do next? Possibly something from chapter 23? Instead he spotted someone in the crowd and he went and dragged him over.

Andrew’s gut reversed course.

It was Andy.

“Have you met my new best pal?” Edgar asked the swaying trees.

I suppose that there might be some who would laugh at this. I was richly entertained.

Gotham Diary:
Old and New
26 July 2013

Friday, July 26th, 2013

It was time to renew our membership at the Museum — the right time. I renew in person because I like to split the cost between two credit cards, and doing so on the 25th of the month ought to result in the charges appearing on successive month’s bills. One in August, one in September.

After a pleasant time at the membership desk — in twenty years, the volunteer told me, she had never split a membership fee between two cards, perhaps her very nice way of wondering if I really belonged at my membership level — I went down to the cafeteria for a burger, fries, and iced tea. (The ice tea is not sweetened.) Somehow, this was not the fun experience that it used to be. The burger was dry and the fries were too thick. Nothing new about any of this. But while I used to think that it was fun to drop into a very stylish high-school cafeteria largely devoid of loutish adolescents, it seems that I don’t anymore. Perhaps I ought to try the salads.

When I was finished with lunch, it occurred to me that I was unaware of the current exhibitions, and had no plans to see anything in particular. I took the elevator up to the second floor, where what I call the Old Master galleries have been completely rearranged. They have also been expanded, taking over what used to be the special-exhibition space at the south end. It will take a while to get used to the new scheme, even though it clearly makes more sense than the old one did. There are lots of unfamiliar pictures, too.

Ruisdael’s Wheat Fields can’t be one of them, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been giving Dutch landscapes a pass for years. In fact, I’ve rarely taken close looks at anything but the Vermeers, the ter Borchs, and the de Hoochs. But the rearrangement of the paintings has scattered my prejudices, which are no longer grounded in the floorboards. I even looked at a couple of Rembrandts yesterday. I dislike Rembrandt for the same reason that I love Vermeer: light. Vermeer uses light to make the ordinary extraordinary. Rembrandt uses light to showcase his sitters. Vermeer’s figures, who aren’t sitters, make much more intriguing pictures. Where others see psychological penetration in Rembrandt, I see only the penetration of the masculine ego.

Wheat Fields captivated me yesterday. The light and the clouds are wonderful, of course, but I found myself haunted by the settlement hidden in the trees. Is it a farm? A village? A country seat with a fine view of the sea off to the left? If it were a village, there would probably be a steeple, but you can’t be sure. It’s early summer, perhaps even late spring: the wheat is still short and green. But why doesn’t the tree on the right cast a shadow? A photograph of this scene would not be so engaging, but why?

This is a painting that I look forward to seeing again and again.


Never have I seen so many people holding unfolded plans of the Museum’s layout: everyone seemed to be visiting for the first time. When I was young, a year could go by without my setting foot in the Museum, and it was really only after we disencumbered ourselves of a house in the country that I made a point of going to the Museum regularly. It has become a form of exercise for me; I walk around until I’m tired. I try to look at something that I’m not drawn to — another form of exercise. I’m enjoying the changes that the new Campbell regime is making. I actually like most of them, but that’s not as important as the charge that I get from mere change itself, in the vast but familiar building. It makes me feel old in the best possible way: I’m still here! Pasts have died behind me, but I’m still here.

In the piazzas to either side of the main outdoor staircase, in front of the Museum, work is proceeding apace on the new design. The fountain basins have been installed on both sides, and the ground has been prepared for the grove of trees on the north piazza. On the south piazza, they’re still working on that: fitting the irrigation pipes and depositing what looks like gravel granola. The trees will probably be planted in the late fall, when they’re bare. It seems so wrongheaded to put growing things into the cold, dry ground, until you learn how trees work. The subway-station construction at our intersection has of coursed stripped all the trees away, and replaced them with hulking piles of trailers. I miss the trees terribly, and I look forward to the groves at the Museum. Even now, you can tell that the new design is going to be much more appealing than what preceded it, a pair of minimalist, hippodrome-shaped pools, fitted out with low waterspouts that always made me wonder how much they cost to operate (the sign of unsuccessful fountains). Will the new configuration alter the popularity of sitting on the steps?

When clouds like Ruisdael’s are plowing overhead, watching them from the balcony is one of my favorite things to do.

Gotham Diary:
What I Wanted to Be
25 July 2013

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Reading Adam Gopnik on Edmund Burke in this week’s New Yorker, I had to pinch myself to remember that Gopnik trained as an art historian, not a political one. You’d never know from the piece, which explains, better than I’ve ever seen done, the difficulty of getting a fix on the monumental conservative. (There’s the American Burke — sympathetic to the rebels; the Indian Burke — an outspoken humanitarian and early critic of colonial misrule; and the French Burke — hysterical reactionary to the French Revolution, and the most familiar of the three.) The appearance of this excellent review of a new book about Burke by Drew Maciag was very convenient for me, as I’m in the middle of getting to know Condorcet, whose views Burke disparaged in a memorable passion about “endless discussions.” But it also reminded that, born before Adam Gopnik, I was deprived of the opportunity to tell my parents that I wanted to be him when I grew up.

I wish that Gopnik would translate Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments into “New Yorker.” Perhaps any staff writer could do the job. I don’t know what Rothschild’s target readership is, but it certainly isn’t the general one. Familiarity with the writings of Adam Smith and Nicolas de Condorcet seems to be presumed, as is a great deal else that might have been made less daunting by the liberal insertion of those brisk paragraphs that bring you up to speed in the typical New Yorker piece. This would not make the book longer, if the repetitions were cut from Rothschild’s book. The author seems anxious to make her points (which are very much worth making), and this always makes for anxious reading. Several passages went down the wrong pipe, as it were. I had to re-read the phrase “Necker’s administrative genius” three times to grasp that Rothschild was referring to the (imaginary) gifted administrator, posited by the autocratic financier, with a genius for knowing what would make everybody happy, and not the “genius” of Necker’s administrative schemes. (I’d edit Rothschild’s text to read “genius administrator,” and then try to find some less clunky, but no less clear, alternative.)

One consequence of the idea that politics exists only to determine the rules and conventions of everyday commerce — dare I call this “Condorcet’s Axiom”? — is that the language of politics as well as that of the actual rules and conventions (insofar as the latter are acknowledged in writing) must be clear and free of jargon. (It is possible that the concept of “terms of art” has outlived its usefulness, and that professionals ought to be discouraged from saying x when they mean y — particularly when x is not x.) It also follows that the language of social science — another sorry term — ought to be clear as well. Given that human beings are its subject, it ought to avoid the blandishments of systematic presentation; everyday life does not begin with first principles. I’m not calling for simplistic reductions, and I know that formulas are both necessary and boring to read. But the clarity of the New Yorker style is hardly unattainable. There would be a great deal of tough detail to work out in realizing Condorcet’s Axiom (the relationship between public discussion and legislative representation needs to be recreated, just for starters), but a stipulation on clear writing (and thinking) is the obviously and necessarily the first matter to settle.

Come to think of it, in schools today, why don’t they just throw out all the English and “social science” curricula and run seminars on each week’s issue of The New Yorker?

Gotham Diary:
George, formerly Baby Cambridge
24 July 2013

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Thank goodness that’s over — I was checking the Telegraph site every two minutes. (“Baby Cambridge” was their idea.) I applaud the choice of George. With one exception (the Regent), the bearers of that name have been conscientious kings, even if they weren’t always appreciated at the time. It’s a bit unnerving, though, to realize that the new prince’s great-great-grandfather, George VI, was king when I was born.

Why have I been waiting to learn the baby’s name? I’ve been asking myself why it’s interesting, or trying to — since it just is, and has been for as long as I can remember. I memorized the royal succession from the Conquerer on down when I was in junior high school — a list that hasn’t changed since. In boarding school, I opened an account at Blackwell’s and purchased such worthy titles as GW Prothero’s Select Statutes and Other Constitutional Documents Illustrative of the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I (Oxford, 1894; Fourth Edition, 1913, reprinted 1964 and therefore hot off the press). (Don’t even think of asking how much of it I’ve read.) From the present perspective, it seems clear enough that I made this regal arcana (the mystery being: who cares?) into a sort of collector’s fantasy game that had the advantage of being played by nobody else that I knew. So I could be as good or as bad at it as I was, and keep things fun.

(I take little pleasure from congratulations for having done something necessary and difficult. I can only take pleasure if I enjoyed doing it, in which case necessity would be irrelevant and difficulty invisible. Balls of all kinds vex me, because unlike almost everything else in the world, they won’t stay put. I don’t think that I could explain my profound aversion to sports and unpleasant exertion more concisely.)

I collected facts about real people, mostly dead ones. The kings and queens of England began as baseball cards, but as I grew up, they became the principal nodes in ever-ramifying stories. I never regarded any of the crowned heads as heroes, or invested them with super powers. They just seemed to me to be extraordinarily privileged mortals, as prone to failure as the rest of us. But they had so much more to work with! At some point, this game of mine matured into an adult interest in the subject of English monarchy, which has certainly seen worse days as well as better. (Grander, anyway.) Over time, an interest in plain old regular history welled up around it. But the old expertise (such as it was) never faded much, and my ability to look back on the events of the past thousand years is kept limber by the armature of a thousand years of names and dates.


We have just heard news of rather more personal concern. Our son-in-law, Ryan, has been offered his dream job in San Francisco. Megan learned a few weeks ago that she would be welcome to transfer to her employer’s San Francisco branch, and that her package would include a moving allowance and temporary housing. Plans to move out there were cemented, however, long before either of them had jobs lined up, so we’ve had plenty of time to get over the shock of losing them, to the extent that their moving to the other side of the country is a loss. We have, as I mentioned the other day, our own plans, also cemented, to spend Thanksgiving with them there, and we look forward to annual Fire Island holidays. Wishing Megan and Ryan well makes it impossible to feel sorry for ourselves at any great length. But of course we do, momentarily, all the time.

Gotham Diary:
23 July 2013

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Kathleen asked me what was wrong — I’d been sitting still in my chair, looking, I suppose, fairly bleak — but, very unusually, I begged off, saying only that it was “nothing personal.” I wanted to stew in it a bit here first, and to leave the feeling undisturbed until the time to do so.

One fine day in the spring, Kathleen and I took Will to Central Park. Our outing had its ups and its downs, mostly ups — and one or two scares. I was remembering the worse of these last night. Will wanted to clamber on some rocks and I could not catch up to him. He was running away from me, and would not come back when called. Being Will, he did not push this too far.  He surrendered just soon enough for me to gag on the bitter horror of imagining him disappearing behind a boulder. Really disappearing.

Last night, what this memory triggered was the imagination of something else: the novel that might begin with such a scene. This was really more memory than imagination also, for what would such a book be, at least in its opening premise, but a variation on Ian McEwan’s The Child In Time?

I thought of the work of putting the novel together. The procedural encounters with police officers, to start with. The dreadful announcement to the child’s parents. How could anyone voluntarily imagine such scenes clearly enough to realize them on the page? How could anyone get up in the morning knowing that the day’s work comprised the writing of an episode involving the flutter of false hopes? Which would be more onerous, the unpleasantness of the story or the labor of composition?

I sat in my chair and experienced my massive lack of vocation as a novelist. It was nothing personal.


What’s worse is that what I do want to write about is beyond me, not that that stops me. I want to write about political economy, and I’m pretty sure that I don’t know what that term even means. Reading AO Hirschman, I clambered up a rock of my own, and now I’m running off into a wilderness, while common sense calls me back, in vain. I am possessed of the intoxicating illusion that something stupendous awaits discovery, just up ahead.

Why not “economic politics”? Why should one term modify the other, assuming thereby a supplementary role? Is there no way to balance two nouns?

The Russians, for all their talk of the means of production and their disdain of parliamentary procedures, saw the running of the country as a purely political matter. Theorists vied for political endorsement, and then their policies were imposed on industries. Or it might be that thugs did the imposing. There was no genuine economy.

The Americans did just the opposite. They saw the running of the country as a purely economic matter. Capitalists large and small were given free rein to invest at will. Regulators were captured, legislators bought off.

Both the Russians and the Americans wound up in the same becalmed boat: not enough — not nearly enough — real jobs.

Have we learned the lesson yet? Politics and economics cannot be sold separately.

The Chinese seem to be aware of this, but China is undergoing a transition so extraordinary — experiencing, in little more than a tenth of the time, the economic upheavals that played out in the West over two centuries — that nothing can be learned from their example until they either settle down into something stable (and less arbitrary) or blow up.

What is the “right mix” of politics and economics? How do you keep politicians from muddling the economy, and capitalists from rigging the politics? Is it a good idea for businessmen to run for political office? What distinguishes the deals that politicians make from the ones made by commercial traders?

It seems clear to me that the healthy functioning of any society depends on an arm’s-length alliance between politics and commerce in which neither predominates. In the past, such alliances have emerged fortuitously, only to disintegrate under pressure. What we need, and haven’t seen yet, is an alliance firm enough to control disruptive pressures.

Just for the record, I’m in the middle of two related books, Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty — I saved the best-known title (though not, in my view, the best book) for last — and Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment. I’ll leave you with a thought for the day that’s drawn from the latter: Emma Rothschild argues that Adam Smith intended “the invisible hand” not to stand for an actual economic force but as an ironic joke. Ha ha.

It’s like going back to school.

Gotham Diary:
22 July 2013

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

After an early dinner on Friday night, Kathleen and I watched two movies. The second feature was Hyde Park on Hudson, which I’d seen in the theatres but which was new to Kathleen. It’s a great picture, deftly combining two stories — the long-running affair that FDR had with his genteel but poor fifth cousin, Daisy Suckley, and the visit of George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the American president’s country house in 1939 (the first-ever royal visit to the United States) — with an extraordinary cast headed by Bill Murray and Laura Linney. (Mr Murray seems to have been born to play the trickster patroon.) It’s Olivia Williams, however, as Eleanor Roosevelt who catches my eye. With her relentless smile, touched up with condescension and impatience as if these were a new kind of face-powder, Williams brings home the way in which Eleanor was not only liberated by the collapse of her marriage but  emboldened to transform it into a political partnership that gave her the broadest imaginable platform for heavy-duty consciousness-raising. They used to tell a marvelous story about Eleanor giving an address at the United Nations, back in the day when the visitor’s gallery was also a peanut gallery. Her subject was to sing the praises of Adlai Stevenson. “Adlai Stevenson headed the Democratic Party slate in Ninteen-Hundred-and-Fifty-Two, and he headed it again in Nineteen-Hundred-and-Fifty-Six…” At this point, some wiseacre called out, “Adlai Stevenson’s an ass!” To which Eleanor replied, ineffably, “Nevertheless…”

The first feature was The Swan, Charles Vidor’s adaptation of Molnár’s 1914 play. The Swan might well be considered Hollywood’s wedding present to Grace Kelly. Not only was it released on the day of her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco, but it recanted fifty years of American story-telling by sticking to the tenets of European aristocracy, according to which, at least in those days, princesses do not run off with tutors. The conceit of the story, that princesses are like swans, beautifully majestic on the water (set off and apart) but waddlingly awkward on dry land (mixing with hoi polloi), is not quite borne out by the leading lady, who was never ungainly anywhere, but her Alexandra does conclude that she has been “a goose” before asking her intended, the crown prince played by Alex Guinness with his patented, barely-suppressed lunacy, to take her hand. The velvet gloves of MGM are ever at the throat of this light romantic comedy, itching to suffocate it with spectacle, but the actors — Louis Jourdain, Jessie Royce Landis, Estelle Winwood, Brian Aherne, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Coote (and even Leo G Carroll as the major-domo) — keep the air sparkling and electric.

This would be Kelly’s penultimate movie. (Her last would be, just as aptly, High Society.) She would waltz off to Monaco and break Alfred Hitchcock’s heart. Watching her in The Swan, I truly understood Vertigo for the first time, seeing it completely as the story of a film director who loses his favorite star to a stellar marriage; in the movie that he makes about this disaster, she is replaced by a common woman who falls to her death twice. Kelly and Hitch remained the best of friends, but Vertigo tells us how he really felt.

The other movie that I couldn’t help thinking about was The Prince and the Showgirl, a misbegotten project with Molnárian overtones that wouldn’t be worth watching (except as a train wreck) if it weren’t for Simon Curtis’s wonderful My Week With Marilyn. After seeing the latter a couple of times, I had to see the movie that it was all about. Set at roughly the same time as The Swan, The Prince and the Showgirl features the same aristocrats but a different kind of commoner; instead of earnest and brooding Louis Jourdain, we get the bodice-popping Marilyn Monroe. As Grace Kelly whirled around the dance floor in Jourdain’s arms, I couldn’t help seeing her as the self-possessed beauty that Monroe never managed to be. Monroe, saturated in sexiness, was a tremendous comedian, but she could never be serious for more than two seconds. Hitchcock himself told François Truffaut why.

Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face, and Brigitte Bardot isn’t very subtle either.

Hitchcock goes on to say that he is more excited by Nordic ice goddesses: “Sex should not be advertised.” Truffaut begs to insist that this is a minority position. Hitchcock concedes the point without conceding anything.

That may well be true, but you yourself admit that those actresses generally make bad films. Do you know why? Because without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possibility to discover sex. Look at the opening of To Catch a Thief. I deliberately photographed Grace Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classical, beautiful, and very distant. And then, when Cary Grant accompanies her to the door of her hotel room, what does she do? She thrusts her lips right up to his mouth.

There is no thrusting in The Swan; it wouldn’t be much of a wedding present if there were. But I ask you: how did Hithcock, given his fascination with monuments and celebrity addresses, fail to make use of Biltmore, the Vanderbilt faux-chateau in North Carolina? Vidor certainly puts it to wonderful use in The Swan.

Gotham Diary:
19 July 2013

Friday, July 19th, 2013

A week or so ago, Janet Maslin gave The Unknowns, a debut novel by Gabriel Roth, an indulgent review, suggesting that the book was good in spite of itself. The snips that she excerpted seemed literate enough, and as I was still in the mood for holiday reading, I thought I’d give it a try. I found a copy at Barnes & Noble, which I haven’t visited in quite some time, preferring to do my in-person book-buying at Crawford Doyle. I made the exception in order to buy a better Chinese dictionary (which indeed I found). As long as I was there… That was on Wednesday, and by late afternoon yesterday I had read the novel. It’s scrumptuous: engaging, smart, winsome, and funny. It’s also startlingly candid about human opportunism, or at least unusually frank about amatory calculation. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to like Eric Muller — I don’t think I’d like him in person — but I did. And The Unknowns is no mere holiday read. Even though we don’t have the rentrée littéraire, publication ought to have been reserved for the fall.

Roth tells two stories in The Unknowns, separated by a stretch of time. We first meet Eric in San Francisco, after he has made his Internet fortune. He and a high-school classmate have put together a data-mining program and then sold it to an established firm for millions and millions. This has left Eric with nothing to do but tackle his long-time problem with love. It is a problem that many men seem to have, but Eric is bright enough to describe it cogently. Brief: How do you achieve intimacy with a creature so alien as a woman? Do you really want to? Eric is tantalized by the second question, because, no, in fact, he doesn’t want to — but he’s afraid of missing out on something. At a party, he meets a girl whom he thinks might make a suitable intimate, and, although it takes a little while, he establishes a romantic relationship with her. There is an unforeseen problem, however. I’ll come back to that.

The other story is about Eric’s high-school career. This takes place in suburban Denver. To say that there are no undiscovered adolescent humiliations is like saying that every piano has eighty-eight keys; Roth plays the horror of high school with an uncommon virtuosity all his own. Like Jennifer Egan, he can charge his scenes with enough unstated meaning to make it very easy for the reader to proceed from one to the next with a minimum of explanatory fuss. You might, like Janet Maslin, dismiss Eric as a geek or a nerd, or whatever — someone hopelessly clueless about social interaction. But all teenagers are hopelessly clueless; the lucky ones are merely cynical. You bring what you have to the problem, and what Eric has is a fine mind. In pursuit of a girlfriend, he constructs a database. Unfortunately, the database is contained in a notebook, and the notebook falls into the hands of others. A romantic pariah, Eric devotes himself to writing computer code in compensation. But, not to pity: Roth manages the tonal registers so beautifully that the genial narration carries us happily along: disaster recollected in tranquility.

Back to grown-up Eric. (Well, he’s in his twenties.) There are always unforeseen problems in romance, but the one that Eric has to face seems designed to put him at a disadvantage. It turns out that the girl he has chosen, Maya, was sexually abused by her father, beginning at the age of nine. At least, that is what she thinks must have happened. With the stupefying grace of an Olympic skater, Roth addresses the issue of repressed-memory, and he makes you forget that it’s an “issue.” There are two nightmares: the former child’s, of course, but also that of the parent who is blindsided by the sudden destruction, possibly for no good reason, of his or her relationship with the child. It is the uncertainty of these nightmares — it seems that both cannot be legitimate — that gives Eric a nightmare of his own, one that he experiences when he has sex with Maya. He cannot forget what she claims to remember, and yet he cannot be sure that what she claims to remember really happened. Being Eric, he has to try to find out. Next stop: intricately satisfying dénouement.


I myself am inclined to be skeptical about repressed memories of sexual abuse, but I also suspect that boys and girls deal with the trauma of abuse in different ways. What stuck in my mind as The Unknowns wound down was a question about the meaning of “sex,” which I take in a direction opposite to that of the last impeached president. To me, sex comprises all physical intimacy, at least potentially, and it is not for one party to determine whether sex is involved in any given contact. It’s for both. Once again, I see a fundamental difference in the way men and women define sex. For men, sex must involve at least one of a number of specific acts, and the acts must engage erogenous zones other than the mouth. For women, sex is not so limited. Where the sexual contact might be unwanted, men and women seem to disagree about the contact that precedes what men mean by sex: for women in such cases, this contact might be an assault. As a man, I’m included to the menu view: at least one item must be checked. As a human being, however, I understand that women can feel very differently. So, unlike Eric, I would dispose of the either/or conundrum posed by Maya’s repressed memories (more precisely, her formerly repressed memories) by resolving it into “and.” It’s possible that Maya and her father are both right. This seems to be Eric’s position near the end, when he asks Maya for permission to touch her like this and like that. His requests are vaguely ironic, but her welcoming responses are unambiguously robust.

I’ve got a memory, too.

I remember the bedroom, so it must have happened when I was between seven and twelve. Eight or nine, I’d say. The other thing that I remember is my mother, perched on the side of my bed in her nightgown, clearly intoxicated (after a dinner party or somesuch that ended long after our bedtimes), telling me how much she loved me. I remember her embraces, but not very clearly, because I was so confused and frightened. It goes without saying that a carnal assault never occurred to me. I did not know how to respond — how to make this unwanted attention stop — without making her angry. I dreaded her anger, not because it was violent but because it could be so existential: I myself was its object, not my bad behavior.

I don’t recall how the scene came to an end; I don’t remember any further embarrassment. I am certain as I can be that it never happened again. If you asked me to speculate on my mother’s motivation, I would say — speaking as someone familiar with morning-after remorse — that she got wound up at the party and wanted it to continue. My father, I suppose, didn’t want to play anymore, so she hatched one of those plots that seem so plausible and unobjectionable and indeed revelatory when you’re really loaded: she decided to be the doting mother. Or maybe it was one of those spells, not quite rare, when she was dissatisfied with her husband. In any case, what she was doing, perched on the bed, was trying something out as a way of keeping the night going. It was very inappropriate and also very harmless. The situation might have been unprecedented, but my discomfort was not: there were years and years of not knowing quite what to say or do, and being made to feel wicked and worthless. (Later, almost as smart as Eric, I had my revenge, and got very good at saying the cruelest, most painful things. I ought to be ashamed, but I’m glad I got it out of my system. I’ve met too many unhappy adults who didn’t.) This lurid experience was a unique moment. I recount it merely to suggest that, had our genders been reversed, I might have grown up to be Maya.

Gotham Diary:
La Perruque &c (suite)
18 July 2013

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Yesterday, writing about Anthony Pagden’s new book, I focused on the worldly side of the Enlightenment. No less important is the philosophical side. But if the dream of a cosmopolitan federation of states was fairly well sketched by the end of the Eighteenth Century, the Enlightenment’s intellectual objectives were, in retrospect, not entirely conscious, much less fully developed. Kant, as I mentioned, is the climactic Enlightenment thinker for Pagden on the subject of the cosmopolis. In my view, however — Pagden does not explore this as fully as he might have done — Kant is at odds with the French writers who preceded him. Although he was inspired by Hume to critique all previous philosophy, he composed his thoughts into three ponderous tomes that, if they were not quite the foundation of a systematic philosophy, inspired Hegel to sink that foundation, and to build a mighty metaphysical theory about history that would rival the complications of Ptolemy’s epicycles, giving us Marx into the bargain.

Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot detested systematic philosophy. The project of describing the universe in terms of a handful of axioms and working out the implications in those terms and in those terms only struck them as closed-ended and pointless. Systematic philosophy is beguiling because it appears to shut the door on ignorance: all will be explained! But this is to deny the possibility that its axioms might be faulty. The philosophes were writing in the aftermath of the fatal blow that the discovery of the New World, together with greater familiarity with the peoples of the East Indies, dealt to certain axioms of Christian theology.

There was little or nothing essentially Christian about these axioms, but they had worked their way into the central fabric of Catholic dogma, following a development that Pagden briskly summarizes.

Theology had begun … as an attempt to grasp the nature of the Christian God, through the scattered writing his adherents had left behind them. But since these writings offered little beyond a rudimentary ethics, Christian theologians had been forced to go elsewhere to find answers to the larger questions about the nature of the universe. Inevitably they had gone to Greek sources, the only ones they had, and in the process they transformed Christianity from what had been, in essence, a world-rejecting late Roman mystery cult into — to use a recent term — “Hellenized Judaism.”

This Hellenization married the sometimes contradictory ethics of Scripture to the systematic philosophy of Aristotle, the Mr Answer Man of classical antiquity. By the time Christian theology entered its final, “scholastic” phase, in the High Middle Ages, philosophers were no longer looking at or thinking about the world in which they lived. They were thinking only about their books.

The method employed by the scholastics was essentially what is called “hermeneutical.” That is, their science consisted in the painstaking reading and rereading of a canon of supposedly authoritative texts, which by the sixteenth century had been expanded from the Bible to include the writings of the early Greek and Latin theologians, known as the “Church Fathers,” and those of a select number of saints called “Doctors of the church” (there are thirty-three of them to date), together with a canon of classical Greek, and some Roman, authors. By far the most important of these was Aristotle, whose authority throughout most of the Middle Ages was such that he was commonly referred to simply as “the Philosopher.”

The Hellenization of Christianity, in other words, tied Catholic dogma to the constellation of Aristotelian axioms about the nature of the world, a union that remains to this day. Although the Church has developed a very sophisticated way of talking around the problem, its theology remains, essentially, that of the most illustrious scholastic philosopher (and perhaps the most fervent admirer of Aristotle), Thomas Aquinas. In effect, Christian theology was as worldly as the clerical interference in political affairs, because it professed an expertise about how the universe actually works. This expertise was challenged most famously by Galileo, whose sentence of house arrest, following his recantation of the heliocentric theory that, by the early Seventeenth Century, was already accepted by many leading minds, shocked intellectual Europe with the realization that the Church would henceforth stand in the way of learning and punish those who challenged its now discredited cosmology.

At this very moment — as what we now call the Scientific Revolution was gathering unstoppable momentum — the political system of Europe, fragmented by the Protestant breakaways, deteriorated into a continental war (fought mostly in Germany) that lasted for almost the Thirty Years for which it is named. (The last few years, largely peaceful, were occupied by negotiations that would produce the Peace of Westphalia.) The doctrine that emerged at the end of the war, cujus regio ejus religio (the religion of the prince determines the religion of his subjects) did not, obviously, stand for religious toleration within states, but only among them. Of the European powers, only one, France, prescribed internal toleration. Ironically, just as other states were testing the possibility of religious toleration, France turned her back on it. Revoking the Edict of Nantes, Louis XIV restored the Roman Catholic Church (albeit a church that he intended to control himself) as the official religion of France. This instantly made French universities hostile to the new thinking that was simmering throughout Europe. And it meant that genuine intellectual life would have to take place elsewhere. Hence the non-academic quality the Lumières, perhaps the aspect of the Enlightenment that appeals to me most. Elsewhere — in Prussia and Great Britain — academics were free to take up the Enlightenment, and, not coincidentally, the works of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant were of academic length and amplitude. The philosophes in France were more like journalists, following stories instead of working out theories.


The intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment was, in my view, a matter of seeds, not fruit. When the season of open inquiry came to an end with the upheavals of the end of the Eighteenth Century, and European minds turned to the increasingly technological objectives of the new Industrial Revolution (entertaining themselves in the meantime with romantic rhapsodies that the philosophes would have found rather mushy), it does not seem that the Enlightenment had gotten much further than proclaiming a universal curiosity. The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert — a gathering of all that was known about the world — revealed itself to be a project that could never be completed without being massively obsolete; so far as what we call hard science goes, the Scientific Revolution launched in the Seventeenth Century would not find its current foundations until the early Nineteenth, making most of what was “known” to the Encyclopédistes incomplete if not wrong. The utter transformation of chemistry effected by Lavoisier and Priestley in the 1780s was the singular achievement of eighteenth-century science; nothing else on that scale happened in the century of the Enlightenment.

The philosophes endure as critics, but it cannot be denied that they were as eager to ignore their own ignorance as any systematic philosopher. Voltaire in particular wished to be seen as something of a Mr Answer Man. It remains for us to work out the constructive role of critical ignorance.

We are right to expect experts — professionals — to command the knowledge of their specialties. The man or woman who takes up physics, or patent law, or neurosurgery, or aeronautics, is free to explore new possibilities, but is not free to ignore any established branch of the profession. In a professional, such ignorance is not just a bad thing but an impermissible one.

It is with respect to every other kind of knowledge that we are free, whatever our professions, to be critically ignorant. We may acknowledge that there is much that we don’t know, and we may speculate about it — critically. Critical speculation imposes a certain rigor and discipline on ignorance; very roughly, it binds us to follow lines of thought that comport with what we’re pretty sure about knowing. When reading history, for example — and history is a vast ocean of lost knowledge of which we are doomed to remain ignorant, dotted with archipelagos of facts upon which we construct our pictures of the past — we work hardest (as lay readers) at drawing inferences, from what is known (what was written down, generally), about what was felt and thought and intended by long-gone men and women. Our ignorance persists; all we can have are speculations. But when these speculations begin to conform to a broader picture — when a sermon in England helps us to understand a ministerial action in Vienna — then speculation begins to firm into something like knowledge.

But it is not knowledge, knowledge in the sense of professional knowledge (even for professional historians), and there is no need for it to be, for what we are trying to do, after all, is to understand the world, and that is emphatically not a profession. That is what the Enlightenment stands for in its opposition to the stranglehold of Catholic theology. “Throughout the Middle Ages,” Pagden writes at the top of the first paragraph quoted above, “and in some places as late as the eighteenth century, what today we would call moral philosophy, jurisprudence, epistemology, and psychology were studied as ancillary to theology.” He might have thrown in physics, astronomy and law as well. These “ancillaries” are all professions now. But the “science” of theology has been replaced by the Enlightenment of inquiry. We begin, not with the unmoved mover, but with our own ignorance. Slowly, we learn — even if, sometimes, it seems that we’re learning very quickly. But we learn only to the extent that we acknowledge our ignorance.

Gotham Diary:
La Perruque de Voltaire
17 July 2013

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

[F]ew sixteen-year-old boys dream of being a father, yet every good writer spent his or her teen-age years dreaming of being a writer, plotting how to become one, rehearsing and practicing, fantasizing and preparing.

So says James Wood (in this week’s New Yorker, reviewing Greg Bellow’s book about his father). I certainly intended to be a writer, almost from the moment puberty hit, but the plotting, rehearsing, practicing and fantasizing, not so much. Did I prepare? Well, I wrote a great deal. All of it rubbish, except perhaps for the history papers that I wrote in school. (They weren’t very good, but they weren’t rubbish.) And I read a great deal. It’s hard for me to resist the very strong impression that I dreamed of becoming precisely the writer that I am today. I never wanted to be a novelist (even though I did try to write one, twenty years ago) — which may be why I skipped the rehearsals and the fantasies. As for what I did want to write, that took a long time to find out. It took time and it took a lot of reading. Like a wine, it took ageing.

But although I wanted to be a writer, I was never very ambitious about it, and this makes me wonder, from time to time, if I’m any good at it. I wonder if I don’t suffer enough when I write. I don’t groan at the keyboard, or struggle to get things just right. (I do a lot of editing with that end in view, but editing is a kind of reading, not writing.) I like to write. I like having written very much, but the actual writing is a pleasure as well, if not exactly a form of bliss. Writing is how I think.


Reading Anthony Pagden’s new history, The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, I gradually recalled how attracted I was to the writers of the Enlightenment when I was young. I just might have fantasized about wearing a wig like Voltaire’s. The writers of the Enlightenment were always being quoted, and their remarks were always both pithy and elegant. There was a relaxed, off -the-top-of-the-head quality to their observations, which they could pull off because their heads were packed to the crown with interesting information — interesting, if not always reliable. Their opinions were clear and they enjoyed expressing them as economically as possible. The French writers, anyway. Écrasez l’infâme! It just doesn’t fly in English.

Pagden’s subtitle expresses an opinion that infuses every page of his book. The author, new to me, has written extensively on European identities and empires. He is aware that “the Enlightenment project” has taken a beating from the postmodernists, but he saves that for his final chapter. Instead of defending the Enlightenment, he demonstrates that it is still in process. We, the WEIRD people of the world, are still working out the details of plans first sketched by the men of the “republic of letters.” The constitutions of today’s liberal democracies embody ideas that were floated by Locke and Montesquieu, among many others, and we are still trying make representative government work more responsively.

To be sure, the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath still seem to have drawn a line marking the end of the Enlightenment, and many of the horrors of subsequent centuries are still attributed by many to the philosophes’ radical anticlericalism. But Pagden digs up the Enlightenment’s roots in the Reformation, which left Europe divided against itself and made organized religion a serious problem for all seekers after tolerant peace. The Enlightenment was headquartered in Paris for a simple reason: nowhere was organized religion more intertwined with government power than in France. With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, Louis XIV rescinded France’s commitment to pluralist progress, and his death, thirty years later, brought an end to what had always been a highly personal style of monarchy. The two kings who followed him were unwilling and unable to keep his blaze alight,  but they were also indisposed to tinker much with his legacy, especially in the area of religion. The men of the Enlightenment could see that France’s magnificent conservatism would end in bankruptcy of some kind or another, and, far from a blueprint for its destruction, their work deserves to be seen as a storm protection plan.

It is true that the laicization of the church — the fatal move, in historian William Doyle’s view, that would carry an ever-more paranoid France right into the Terror — appears to be the realization of an item high on the Enlightenment’s agenda. But Kant, in Pagden’s estimation the climactic Enlightenment thinker (Kant lived to celebrate the Revolution, if at a safe distance), would have argued that the move was premature, and Pagden’s portraits of the philosophes convince me that most of them — all but the dodgy Rousseau, in fact — would have agreed. We need to recall, however, that the Church of 1792 was a temporal, foreign power, and its priests its putative agents. This was always the specifically Catholic problem of the post-Reformation world: alone among the religious leaders of Europe, the pope commanded an actual army. From his state in central Italy he engaged in diplomatic alliances just like any secular prince. He also bore the singular power of anathema. It is not hard to see why the revolutionaries deemed it important to cut the French church’s ties to Rome. I am inclined to see the church’s worldly power as a greater evil than the radical excesses of the Revolution. The Terror was hatched by the Inquisition.

(It is for this reason that I regard Augustine, the first leader to invoke state force in dealing with religious matters, as the most wicked figure in Christian history. As the inventor of “original sin,” he is merely the most deluded.)

The great theme of The Enlightenment is cosmpolitanism. This was certainly very important to the philosophes, but it is even more important to us today, because the world is one place at the moment, and we need to do much better at living together with people who think very differently. At this, I believe, we WEIRDos are in the lead, because we have the most experience at agreeing to disagree. In the Islamic worlds, such toleration is impossible even between Sunni and Shia. The Morsi government has just been ousted in Egypt because of its majoritarian intransigence. In Iran, hysterical anti-Western sentiment has been allowed to consume much of civil society and even more of the country’s wealth. I am all for standing on principle, so long as the number of principles does not exceed three. (No killing, no taking, no defaming.) Beyond that, firmness is merely stubborn and childish. The whole thrust of the Enlightenment was to question, to critique, the validity of oppressive doctrines. It did not seek to substitute oppressive doctrines of its own, although oppression was certainly felt by those who would not welcome cosmopolitan acceptance. We must deal with the recalcitrants with Kantian patience, by never abandoning the Enlightenment project of cosmopolitan education. Anthony Pagden’s final paragraphs:

The realists may claim, as realists invariably do, that most of these institutions (the EU aside) are only fora in which people merely talk. But talking counts, and states today spend a great deal more time doing it than they ever have in the past. Then, on another level, few of us the West can, or would probably want to, live out our lives unaffected by the lives of often radically different others. The world of communicating beings that Kant saw as providing the necessary basis for any future cosmopolitan world may still be some way off. But it is far closer than it was in, say, 1945.

None of this was achieved, and nothing in the future will ever be achieved, by shutting ourselves up in communities, by measuring out our lives by the horizons of what our fathers and our forefathers have set down for us, or by regulating our actions, and our desires, according to the dictates of those who have appointed themselves to be the representatives on earth of a highly improbable divinity. Much of what modern civilization has achieved we obviously owe to many factors, from increased medical knowledge to information technologies to vastly improved methods of transport, which although they are an indirect legacy of the Enlightenment and the revolutions in science and technology that both preceded and followed it, have no immediate or direct connection to its ideals. But our ability even to frame our understanding of the world in terms of something larger than our own small patch of ground, our own culture, family, or religion, clearly does. And in that, we are all, inescapably, the heirs of the architects of the Enlightenment “science of man.” For this, then, if for no other reason, the Enlightenment still matters.


To me, writing has always seemed to be a way of being private in public. I never thought of it as involving, business aside, meetings with other people — I wanted to share my words, not my company. If I became famous, it would register as letters from appreciative readers. (I’m still working on quantity, but I’ve become familiar with the quality of letters from appreciative readers, and it is exactly what I hoped for.) No, my fantasies about “being a writer” definitely stopped with that wig.

Gotham Diary:
We Are All Insiders
16 July 2013

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Something is bothering me. I don’t know what it is, but it’s making me impatient and irritable. Certainly the subway-station construction is a factor. I went to Fairway last night to pick up some deli food that I wouldn’t have to cook and that we could eat cold. A simple walk across the street. But the street is anything but simple. The sidewalks have been narrowed, and the walkways  that take the place of completely obliterated sidewalks, such as the one in front of our building (whose foundations stand exposed in the pit where the station access will be placed), are constricted and not infrequently work sites themselves. Workers swarm about like invading Goths, while traffic police try to unwind the snarls of pedestrians and turning vehicles. The heat intensifies the unpleasantness. The intersection of Second Avenue and 86th Street is a deeply unpleasant place right now. Construction projects ought not to be so blithely uncivil. I worry that I won’t live to see it cleared up.

So, that’s one thing. But there must be more to it, because I blew up this morning, went barking mad in fact, when I read Adam Ross Sorkin’s story about greed on Wall Street. What drove me crazy was the shocked, shocked tone of Sorkin’s piece. It seems that a partner at a law firm commissioned a survey of 250 Wall Streeters.

While the results may not be scientific, they are stark. For example, 26 percent of respondents said they “believed the compensation plans or bonus structures in place at their companies incentivize employees to compromise ethical standards or violate the law.”

There is a view that the ethical problems come from the very top: 17 percent said they expected “their leaders were likely to look the other way if they suspected a top performer engaged in insider trading.” It gets even more troubling: “15 percent doubted that their leadership, upon learning of a top performer’s crime, would report it to the authorities.”

There is nothing acceptable about these responses.

The last sentence blew my top.

Do I think that greed is good? No, but I think that it’s normal, and I’m exasperated by the pious pretense that Wall Street bankers are committed, or supposed to be committed, to high-mindedness and putting their customers first. After World War II, the government and Wall Street spokesman tried to sell the idea that retail capitalism is a good idea. Ordinary people were encouraged to invest their savings in shares of American companies. They were assured that Wall Street was not rigged against them, and the rules against “insider trading” were flown as a banner. The playing field was allegedly level.

Piffle. It not only wasn’t level but the attempt to level it ought never to have been undertaken. It is high time to drop the Cold-War charade. Wall Street ought to be draped with red flags emblazoned with cautions. Retail investors ought to be steered into highly-regulated investment companies (mutual funds) and ETFs. What we call retail brokerage ought to be limited to high net-worth clients who are deemed, by their very wealth, to be insiders; ergo, no more “retail.”

All I ask of bankers is that they not steal deposits. All I ask of the government is to replace the Glass-Steagall Act.

Insider trading is an element in some genuinely fraudulent acts, such as front-running and dumping. But merely taking advantage of information that has not been made public, and buying or selling shares for one’s personal account, seems to me to be an entirely valid perquisite of working on Wall Street. I reject the distinction between “inside” information and rumor. The distinction is a nice one, but it serves no worthy purpose. Information of any kind is the oxygen of Wall Street, inhaled in huge quantities by every trader of any kind. To sticker one particular type of information with a penalty warning is artificial. By “artificial,” I mean that it will never have more intrinsic meaning for traders than the prohibition on that piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden. Let’s stop playing God. Instead of penalizing human nature, we need to civilize it.

Behind the hypocrisy about insider trading lies the intensifying American dissonance between empty-headed campaigns for public virtue and a depraved popular culture.

Gotham Diary:
Chinese Music
15 July 2013

Monday, July 15th, 2013

We were lucky with the weather. It was grey, and a bit sprinkly, but cool (coolish), and breezy — comfortable balcony weather. Almost everyone was out there. And then, about an hour after the party was supposed to end, the restaurant where I’d made a reservation for dinner called to ask if we were still coming. We were! On his way out, Will went through the rooms, calling out, “The party’s over! The party’s over!”

We were celebrating the engagement of Ms NOLA and Messir di T, and most of the guests were friends of theirs whom we hadn’t met. I was not surprised to find that they made up a clever and appealing bunch — what other sorts of friends would the happy couple have? I kept thinking of them as “the young people,” but that’s kind of silly, as they’re all in their mid- to late-thirties and quite grown up. You could tell as much from what they didn’t drink: wine and Arnold Palmers. The hard liquor was seriously dented, and a good deal of the beer. Still, I could have had twice as many guests, and we shouldn’t have run out of anything. Not a problem: aside from three gigantic bottles of seltzer, I’ll go through the leftovers in a couple of months. Except for the sideboard by the kitchen, the apartment looks as though nothing happened.

It was also Ms NOLA’s birthday, and when she left our party, she went to another. The wedding will take place in October, in King’s County. I realized that I’ve known Ms NOLA for a quarter of her life; our friendship is only a slight bit older than this blog.

For the party, we hired a bartender and a server, and I ordered canapes from Agata & Valentina. (We could have used a few more of them.) Bill and Jhon ran the party beautifully, but they complimented me, when they left, for being “pretty organized.” Most of my preparations for the party involved tasks that I had been putting off for a few months, but I did spend an afternoon reconfiguring the kitchen for the party — clearing out the refrigerator, clearing off the countertops. The burners on the stove were almost completely covered by a large, sturdy pastry board. One of the tubs in which Will’s toys are stored in the blue room was emptied for beer and ice, while a third, nesting under the other tub, went into the kitchen as an ice chest. (The tubs come from Gardener’s Supply, and are as colorful as they are versatile. Every once in a while, somebody gets plastic right.)

When the party started, I found myself drifting into a slight haze. There was nothing more for me to do, except of course to be sociable, and, while that came easily enough, I could not quite unbend my mind from the four-day exercise of getting ready. Also, Kathleen had booked our Thanksgiving trip to San Francisco — a happy event that, right now, has  melancholy undertones. (I am not quite at liberty to say why we’ll be flying across the country for the holiday — not just yet, but I’m sure that the astute reader will guess.) I could not, in any case, snap out of a certain pensiveness that, while it didn’t interfere with my duties as a host, made it difficult to remember much in detail. Suddenly, an hour after it was supposed to end, the party was over!

But everyone seemed to have had a good time, and Ms NOLA said something really quite lovely in her note of thanks the next day. I couldn’t ask for more.


At dinner last night, Kathleen asked, and I can’t recall quite why it was on her mind, where the English rule of primogeniture came from. (This is the rule according to which land passes automatically to a landholder’s eldest son upon his death. It must be borne in mind that land could not be devised by testament.) It had been a long time since I’d read any English legal history — I’ve been more concerned with the somewhat disingenuous invention of the feudal system by Italian lawyers, in the eleventh century — and my brain flashed a COBWEBS! alert. But in my stumbling response, I got it mostly right, as we found when, back at home, I pulled down Volume II of Pollack & Maitland, and I read the chapter on the law of inheritance to Kathleen. The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I is mostly the world of William Maitland, and his crisp, irony-edged style is beautifully Edwardian (that would be Edward VII, of course, and a bit in advance, as the book was published in 1895). I was surprised at how really readable he is, even when laying out abstruse cases. Infusing the thousand-plus pages is Maitland’s conviction that the development of medieval English law, while never systematic, was always driven by a desire for efficiency. That may sound strange, even anachronistic, but in fact it was the simplifications that rebounded on themselves, creating the complications that, by the Nineteenth Century, made wholesale reform necessary. (And, indeed, today’s British law is a bullet train to our American Toonerville Trolley. It has occurred to me that we declared independence so that we could preserve the ancient sport of adversarial litigation.) Maitland is amused, almost to the point of condescension, by the attempts of Glanvil and Bracton — legists writing before and after 1200 — to explain the law of their day as if it were governed by philosophical principles, but he is also mindful of the legal historians of his own century, many of whom were quite similarly naive.

It is as a general rule convenient for the lord that he should have but one heir to deal with; but as already said, the lord’s convenience has here to encounter a powerful force, a very ancient and deep-seated sense of what it right and just, and even in the most feudal age of the most feudal country, the most feudal inheritances, the great fiefs that were almost sovereignties, were partitioned among sons, while as yet the king of the French would hardly have been brought to acknowledge that these beneficia were being inherited at all. It is the splendid peculiarity of the Norman duchy that it was never divided. And, as this example will show, it was not always for the lord’s advantage that he should have but one heir to deal with: the king at Paris would not have been sorry to see that great inheritance split among co-heirs. And so we can not believe that our Henry III was sorry when his court, after prolonged debate, decided that the palatinate of Chester was divisible among co-heiresses. A less honest man than Edward I would have lent a ready ear to Bruce and Hastings when they pleaded for a partition of Scotland. That absolute and uncompromising form of primogeniture which prevails in England belongs, not to feudalism in general, but to a highly centralized feudalism, in which the king has not much to fear from the power of his mightiest vassals, and is strong enough to impose a law that in his eyes has many merits, above all the great merit of simplicity.

In my rambling way, this is how I answered Kathleen’s question. English primogeniture was a consequence of  the “splendid peculiarity of the Norman duchy.” The Norman story is one of the most exciting in dynastic history. In little more than two centuries, a band of Norse brigands pillaging the Seine and the rest of the northwest peninsula (or quasi peninsula) of what is now France transformed themselves into the liege men of a leader on whom a Frankish king bestowed the title of count; the count’s successors took to calling themselves dukes; and in 1066 Duke William successfully invaded England and assumed the crown. At first, he and the Saxon aristocracy tried to get along, but they didn’t try very hard, and soon the antagonistic Saxons were eliminated and replaced by loyal Normans in one of the great land grabs of all time. William became, without a doubt, the most powerful man in Europe. Unlike the Continental rulers, he did not have to worry about local customs and ancient practices, because he faced no powerful opposition with an interest in upholding them; whatever got in his way, he paved right over it.

Maitland’s remark about the French king’s attitude toward the hereditability of beneficia — an earlier term for what would later be regarded as feudal holdings — is worth pausing over. When William was paramount in England, the French king had only just consolidated his control of the Ile de France, a territory much smaller than Normandy (not to mention England). Nominally king of France, he was effectively king of the Ile de France, period. He could squawk all he liked about the hereditability of beneficia, which, back in the days of Charlmemagne, reverted to the crown upon the death of the holder, so that the king could hand over the land’s income to some new strongman. As royal power dwindled, the sons of strongmen, often strongmen themselves, did as they liked, and the king might mumble some words about appointing the new strongman to take his father’s place without so much as a breath about inheritance. The French king never had the power — not even in the blazing days of the Sun King — to lay down any general law of inheritance, or to ride roughshod over local practices. It took the French Revolution to sweep all of those away, seven hundred years after William, and six hundred after his equally formidable great-grandson, Henry II, bent English law to their liking.

It took a while, as I read, to remember the meanings of such terms as scutage and sokeman, gavelkind and borough English, but when Maitland began talking about seisin (as a key concept in the inheritance of land by half-blooded siblings), I had to put the book down. We had a professor in law school who was fond of saying that English property law was like “Chinese music,” full of notes that make no sense to Western ears. In fact, Chinese music is Top Forty in contrast to property law, and seisin is one of the strangest notes at all. It is unlikely that Maitland’s explanation, which I am looking forward to re-reading, might be surpassed.

Gotham Diary:
12 July 2013

Friday, July 12th, 2013

At the Video Room, yesterday — I was returning The Wrong Man, which I’d thought I owned until the moment I was ready to watch it: oops! — I picked up a film that must have gone straight to video, because I’m sure that I’d have noticed an ad for Leonie, starring Emily Mortimer as the mother of sculptor Isamu Noguchi. I had no idea what to expect, and I’m still not quite sure what I saw. Based on Masayo Duus’s biography of Noguchi, subtitled A Life Without Borders, the screenplay is credited to the team of Hisako Matsui and David Wiener; Matsui directs. The project appears to have been backed by Japanese funding. I say this because it suggests an explanation for the brittle, almost pedagogic quality of the result. Leonie Gilmour, in 1897 a graduate of Bryn Mawr (the first recipient of a four-year scholarship), was a sort of precursor of Katharine Hepburn, albeit one born without the silver spoon. She was a lady who dared to bend the rules, the high-minded mother of two children born out of wedlock. The screenplay makes far too much use of extracts (voiced over by Ms Mortimer) from Gilmour’s writings (letters? diaries?) — if Gilmour is to be remembered, it will be for what she did and how she lived, not for what she wrote. The wiseacres in Hollywood would have cut the voiceovers out.

To be sure, Gilmour’s story isn’t going to be easy for anyone to tell. At a time of rising nationalism in the two great powers of the Pacific, the marriage of a Japanese man and an American woman would be fraught so long as the couple remained in either homeland, and, as we’ve seen, there was no actual marriage. Gilmour took her son to Japan, in 1907, to protect him from the taunts of nativist boys — she was living in Los Angeles at the time (the movie puts her in a Pasadena that consists entirely of tents — surely not?), and then sent him back to the United States in 1918, this time, to protect him from the growing Japanese military. It’s something of a relief when the movie comes back to New York, where it began, because, as we all know (were it only true), the city accommodates all kinds. If there is a critique of nationalist bigotry, the makers of Leonie are much too polite to make it explicit. Their Gilmour appears to be ingenuously surprised by the force of custom, and then, as a high-minded type, she seems to resolve the conflict by remembering that, as she is more enlightened than ordinary people, it doesn’t matter much whether the ordinary people are Japanese or American. There’s a deeply interesting story here, one full of embarrassment and humiliation. The man whom Gilmour hadn’t married, poet Yone Noguchi, deserted her for other lovers before returning to Japan and taking a lawful Japanese wife. (And yet he persisted in seeking the editorial assistance that had brought them together in New York!.) It’s a classic case of proud lady and caddish rogue, but with an unusual international twist. Instead of telling it, the movie is itself rather embarrassed about the irregularities. They are hinted at whenever possible and never discussed. That the identity of the father of Gilmour’s second child was uncertain is mentioned only once, by the caddish father of her first. (Yone Noguchi is played by Shido Nakamura, here rather pudgily pretty.)

What the film wants to be about is the mother who nurtured a great artist, and perhaps it might have been better to cut the first half of the screenplay and develop the second, in which Leonie pulls the clever Isamu out of school at the age of ten and commissions him to design a house, in the construction of which he participates. This is a truly remarkable business, also a very interesting story, but aside from a few scenes in which a carpenter gruffly encourages the boy to work with wood, the house materializes out of cinematic magic, not narrative logic. Later, in New York, Leonie tells her son that he’s an artist, not a medical student. The persuasiveness of this diktat is not filmed; all we see is the result, Noguchi in an art class. As for any struggles that he might have had attaining notice as an artist, they are omitted. (The Wikipedia entry suggests that there weren’t any.)

Movies about artists are the most difficult to make, because the narrative of artistic development is submerged in the artist’s nervous system and impossible to observe. Nothing is more occult than the wellsprings of inspiration, and the movies’ attempt to photograph them is rarely more than horribly crude. Artists are simply not interesting to watch. (Interesting accounts of artists at work simply leave out the boring stretches.) Leonie gracefully sidesteps the problem by focusing on Leonie’s emphatic support of her son’s creativity, however it might manifest itself. And she gave him the example of her free-spirited passion. But the vagueness of the support, its very blank-checkedness, reduces Leonie’s encouragement to greeting-card generality.

In the end, Leonie is an hommage, a cinematic memorial to the remarkable mother of a sculptor whose remarkable work the filmmakers leave it to you to discover.

I took a gamble on Leonie because of Emily Mortimer, and so far as getting a great performance was concerned, I was not disappointed: Leonie is one of the best pictures that this great actress has made. I have rarely seen fortitude so deeply engraved on a beautiful woman’s face. Ms Mortimer’s Gilmour is not so much a determined woman as a strong human being, endowed with education as well as grit. At the end of the movie, a flashback takes us to her final parting from Yone Noguchi, in a grove of cherry blossoms. The full measure of the man’s narcissism is sounded when he tells her that he wants to give her a kiss unlike any other. She looks at first as though ready to let him, but it’s really only shock; as she gathers herself together, what becomes clear is her decision not to laugh in his face. She quietly turns her back and walks away.


And now you’ll excuse me, as I have to prepare for a party. The windows are open to the relatively cool air — I couldn’t have asked for better weather for tidying the blue room, which tends to stuffiness. Before that, I’ve got to do a bit of shopping — beer, wine, and a very few other beverages; a few munchables (canapes from Agata and Valentina will arrive tomorrow), and things like plastic glasses and paper napkins. I should very much like the living-room windows to be clean, something I’ve had nearly three months to see to but have neglected.

Kathleen got back last night, safe and sound — but exhausted. Although surrounded by the tranquility of Thomas Pond, she spent quite a few hours on conference calls, and I almost told her host to impose a one-dollar fine for every outburst about Citrix. I’m not counting on Kathleen to help with any of the preparations, but it’s a relief to have her here.

Gotham Diary:
11 July 2013

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

My Hitchcock jag came to a full stop last night, in the kitchen. I had been watching North by Northwest on and off since the middle of the afternoon. That’s when I set the video boombox on the counter and slipped in the DVD, as entertainment for the day’s project, clearing the kitchen for this weekend’s party. Clearing the kitchen was something that I’d been meaning to do for months, and now I had to do it. The work produced several dishwasher loads, and while the dishwasher ran, I sat in the bedroom (the coolest room in the apartment) and read Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw. Shortly before five, Kathleen called from the airport in Portland. Her flight had been delayed. Then it was canceled. Happily, the friend with whom she had been staying could come pick her up and take her back for the night. (She is still in Maine, booked on a flight for late this afternoon, but she is also looking into buses and trains.) Once it was clear that I’d be alone for dinner, I ordered a trio of appetizers from Wa Jeal, our go-to Chinese restaurant (come-from, really; we’ve never actually eaten there). When they arrived, I set up a tray table in the kitchen and pulled up a dining chair. It was cosy, to say the least, but the timing was good: by the time I’d gobbled up the food, the train was plunging into the tunnel.

Not a very rigorous way of watching a movie, you may say. Indeed, North by Northwest wasn’t on the list; as foreseen, the experience of watching Hitchcock’s films of the Fifties was complete with Vertigo. We’ll  not quibble. It’s possible that I have seen North by Northwest as many times as I’ve seen all of Hitchcock’s other movies combined. Watching it is something of a default setting. Having it on, I should say, while I’m doing something else. I don’t know when I last sat down and gave it my undivided attention. I’m thinking of scheduling a Hitchcock series from Rebecca to Family Plot. (Someday, I hope to see them all in order.) Because I was in and out of the kitchen all afternoon, and often had my back turned to the screen, I didn’t notice anything new, as I had in all the other Fifties movies.

Before going to bed, I read what Donald Spoto had to say about North by Northwest, in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. Nobody is better at unpacking the recursions on which Hitchcock films are founded, but there’s no need for me to paraphrase any of that. Spoto sees North by Northwest as a remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which, while perfectly plausible, only emphasizes how very different the two movies are to watch. I wish that I could say that the following passage had dated, instead of becoming more apt than ever:

On this journey, governments are, of course, as fraudulent as advertising or spies: the Capitol, seen behind the scheming intelligence men, offers no sure safety. At the United Nations, chaos easily erupts, and the symbol of national order and tradition embodied in Mount Rushmore is ominously dangerous. All these solid institutions are powerless to save Thornhill from metaphysical absurdity and human perversity. … Like advertising (the crowded chaos of Madison Avenue veils deception and disruption), and art (the African statue camouflages the secret microfilm), the “ordered” life of the nation has been penetrated by fraud.

Regardless of when it was actually made, North by Northwest is as much a movie of the Teens as anything that will open this year, and I expect that it will be movie of the Twenties as well.


I want to call Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire a Chinese novel, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about, as, aside from Dream of the Red Chamber, I haven’t read any Chinese novels — novels, that is, written for Chinese readers, bearing little sign of Western influence. Five Star Billionaire is written in fluent English (and quite perfectly edited and printed, so far as I could tell), but it still seems Chinese to me. Its compelling stories are dominated by ambitious objectives, moral crises, and fateful accidents. There is very little irony and a great deal of sincerity, even when the action is duplicitous. The characters know their own minds, even when they don’t — they may be undecided at times, but they are never, as so many characters in Western fiction are, torn. And the narrator eschews understatement, that detached countersuggestiveness that keeps us smiling through Jane Austen’s pages. The third-person point of view is decidedly uncritical. It may seem that I am deprecating Five Star Billionaire, but I don’t mean to do so. I’m trying, rather, to appreciate a different kind of novel, one that fully addresses the reality of a different culture.

Five Star Billionaire gleams with assurance, and observes an almost Horatian economy. It is a “literary” novel in tone if not content. This is where it differs most sharply from popular beach books and thoughtless quickies. Five Star Billionaire is not a guilty pleasure but its opposite, a pleasure to read. If there is no understatement, there is no excess, either. Saying that, it suddenly occurs to me that there might be one note of irony: in the title itself. There is a book by (almost) the same title in the novel, but there is no five star billionaire. There are four strivers and one con man. Guess which one of them wrote that book.

Tash Aw was born in Taiwan but raised in Malaysia, and Malaysia is the homeland of his quintet of principals, all of whom are struggling, in one way or another, in Shanghai. Well-educated Malaysians are taught English, as happens in most South Asian remnants of the British Empire, and a curious side effect of this, at least for the Malaysians of Chinese extraction whom I’ve encountered, is that English is not so much a second language as it is another way of speaking Chinese.

What stopped him from ringing her now was the absence of achievement. He had done little with his life and had been reduced to absolute zero. On at least half a dozen occasions he had paused with his phone in his hand, her card on the table before him, the number already tapped into the little screen. All he had to do was to press the green button and she would be there. What would he say then? How would he fill the spaces in the conservation if not with tales of what he was doing in Shanghai, descriptions of success? He would have loved to be able to say, Didn’t you hear? Well, yes, I’ve been running an art gallery for five years now, showing a few avant-garde Chinese artists. Or, I moved into film production a few years back —  yes, I gave up the family business completely.

In fact, Justin has been given up by his family’s business — and it was never really his family anyway. Taken in as an infant from a cousin so distant that she might not have been actually related to the grand family that adopted him, Justin has been raised to carry on a small but growing empire of property developments in Malaysia and China. Nearing forty, he is dying of asphyxiation at the beginning of the novel; his existence, outwardly successful — Justin is something of a genius at compromise — is starved of meaning. We eventually realize that he has been unable to replace his first true love, the woman he is now abashed to telephone. Her presence in the novel might be dismissed as “convenient” or “trite,” but it’s not, for the simple reason that Yinghui’s story is even more interesting than Justin’s. Back in Kuala Lumpur, when her father was a minister in the government, and Justin was silently adoring her, Yinghui was deep in a very Western-looking affair with Justin’s brother, the suave and good-looking but basically caddish C S, as he’s called. When that relationship ended, as it would have done even if her father had not been disgraced, Yinghui took off for points East, settling in Shanghai, and made a successful businesswoman out of herself — the very thing that Justin, inwardly at least, has never managed to do. Yinghui is mildly dissatisfied by her celibate lot, but she prefers it to being with a boring man. Then she meets Walter, a tycoon with a business proposition, and by the time she does, you’ve really no choice but to keep reading just to find out how badly her life will be upended. In due course of time, the catastrophe is related in a single sentence, and the dust settles quickly. Yinghui is still on her two feet, but she is ready to take Justin’s call.

The other two characters are Gary, a pop star shot straight from poverty to glittering celebrity, and Phoebe, a girl on the make. Neither of these characters is an empty as ambition requires. Gary has come to hate his millions of fans, without knowing why; and, when she arrives at the threshold of a lucrative relationship with a man, Phoebe has a few brandies and breaks every rule in her many self-help books. Phoebe is at least as interesting as Moll Flanders, and Gary turns out to be quite sympathetic as well.

As I read Five Star Billionaire, I began to have an eerie feeling. Each of the characters has at least one moment like this one, of Justin’s.

He rang two or three other people, but it was the same every time. They’d heard the news [about the collapse of his family’s business back in Kuala Lumpur], they were sorry to hear about his family, and, yes, they’d of course love to meet up but things were so busy in China these days, you know what things are like, just nonstop. They promised to call, but their voices were full of a fake cheeriness that signaled to him that they would not, of course, call back. He had done the same so many times in the past; he never thought he’d be on the receiving end of it.

This was what life was like in China, he thought: Stand still for a moment and the river of life rushes past you. He had spent three months confined to his apartment, and in that time Shanghai seemed to have changed completely, the points of reference in his wold permanently rearranged and repositioned in ways he could not recognize. Just as he had lost his car and driver, he was also navigating his way through life without a map — as if the GPS in his brain had been disconnected, leaving him floundering. Everyone in this city was living life at a hundred miles an hour, speeding ever forward: he had fallen behind, out of step with the rest of Shanghai.

I say that Tash Aw does not exaggerate, but there is something so lurid and catastrophic about this description of the loss of momentum, repeated, as I say, in each of the characters’ stories (except for that of the con man) that I was reminded of the histrionics, as I should call it,  surrounding ghosts in Chinese culture. Ghosts there are not unsettled, sometimes benign presences. Rather they are heralds of malignancy, wielding curses like pathogens. There are no ghosts in Five Star Billionaire, but the despair with which Phoebe and Gary and Yinghui and Justin contemplate their momentarily stalled lives suggests the power of evil spirits. But the stalls are momentary, the spirits not so evil. The despair passes. Perhaps Shanghai is the problem. (Aw lived there for a while, but now he lives in London.)

Five Star Billionaire is not at all my kind of novel, which is why, enjoying it as much as I did, I felt that I’d had a two-day holiday. A holiday — not a vacation.

Gotham Diary:
Depths and Shallows
10 July 2013

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Last night, I watched Vertigo for the first time in several years. Because I had just read Dan Auilar’s book about the making of the movie, and because, over the past week or so, I had watched the Hitchcock films that preceded it, from Strangers on a Train on, and in order, Vertigo was not the same movie that it had been. It was more disturbing than ever. Well-known layers of meaning peeled back to reveal deeper layers, layers that perhaps could not be perceived when the film was made, because our assumptions about life (especially American assumptions) were relatively naive. Time has also served to stylize the action, by making palpable — visible, even, in the more formal costumes — the polite distances that were maintained by ladies and gentlemen in those days, distances for romance to punch through. To the charge that Vertigo is “dated,” one could only agree, on the understanding that it is no more dated than Hamlet or Aida.

Vertigo is, proverbially, about obsession. It is about a man’s obsession with a woman whose suicide he was unable to prevent, and it is about a film director’s obsession with a woman whose elevation into unreachable royalty he was unable to prevent. I saw last night that it is also a study of depths and shallows. Scottie Ferguson’s obsession with Madeleine Elster rocks him to his core, and in that sense may be said to be “deep,” but this passion is excited by Madeleine’s surface — by a surface that seems to close off such depths as she might have; the cause of Scottie’s obsession may be said to be “shallow.” He is not interested in who Madeleine is; he seems not to want to know her. He wants to possess her qua mystery. And this, unlike his obsession, is not abnormal. Many men seem to be wired just as Scottie is. Whether this wiring is inborn or acculturated remains to be determined, but it is unquestionably related to the conviction, widely held and effectually challenged only within living memory, that women are second-class, inferior human beings. Their beauty and their desirability depend upon it.

Like many fans of Vertigo, I’m always inclined to scold Scottie for the callousness with which he whiningly commands Judy to change her appearance, but it has until now seemed no worse than a lapse of gallantry — no way to treat a lady. Last night, I was more distressed by the imprisonment into which Judy was reluctantly preparing to enter. Madeleine’s looks and costumes would constitute a prison wall through which Scottie would never pass to pay a visit. Judy’s casual, good-times personality (so powerfully dressed by Edith Head), would have to be suppressed, reserved for girls’-nights-out. I must have been aware of this on some level, but, last night, it emerged as a clear wickedness. I began to see that Scottie had been chosen to serve as an unwitting accomplice to the crime of murdering the real Madeleine not just because of his vertigo.

Although I admire James Stewart as an actor, I am usually grateful that I don’t have to spend time with his characters. I find his all-American guys to be more frightening than appealing; however capable, they’re horse-tempered, unnerved by ignorance. Perhaps it was this misgiving that highlighted a minor passage in Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. Art Director Henry Bumstead told Dan Auilar something that I found most interesting.

In the early days, we kept good set pieces to reuse, and I was building an apartment for this one character, so I was using three great-looking bookcases that we had in storage. When the director walked through, he didn’t say anything critical, just “Hm, this guy must like to read.” And, in fact, he didn’t. It wasn’t in his character at all. That’s when I began to realize that the set has to match what’s happening with the character.

Now, I misread this remark as a statement about the making of Vertigo, and it isn’t. Hitchcock and the movie are not mentioned. But it’s apt: the walls of Scottie’s apartment are manifestly not book-lined. And when he wants to research the life of Carlotta Valdes, he turns to a bookshop owner from whom, rather rudely, he purchases nothing. Another kind of shallow.

And in Scottie’s discontent with the natural person of Judy Barton, I found reconfirmation of my belief that the last thing you want to do is meet your favorite movie star. They don’t want to meet you, either, and not because you’re nobody. They’re paid to be other than they are (as Judy was paid to play Madeleine), and it’s that “other” that you fall in love with. Actors can only disappoint you, except as actors.


More surprising was the reprise of the line, “Try, just try.” This line comes up twice in Vertigo — Scottie begs Madeleine to try to wake up from her bad dream, and Midge says the same thing to Scottie when he is hospitalized. The line is a reprise of Manny Balestrero’s plea in The Wrong Man, also made in a sanitarium. Watching Vertigo on the same day as The Wrong Man, which I’d seen in the afternoon, made the connection between the two movies remarkably obvious. Between them, The Wrong Man and Vertigo feature three cases of mental disturbance. The two that aren’t feigned, moreover, might be bracketed together as what Scottie’s doctor calls “acute melancholia.” Scottie’s unresponsiveness to Midge mirrors Rose Balestrero’s to her husband.

Even Hitchcock, I think, missed the paralleling counterpoint of the Balestreros’ story. Hardly does he get out of jail before she enters the prison of her depression. Depression, it’s true, is profoundly undramatic — that’s the problem: nothing happens. What sets depression apart as a disorder is that it rouses such massive impatience in healthy people. Dan Auilar writes,

The Wrong Man‘s microscopic focus on the justice process left little screen time for Manny’s wife. Dressed down and psychologically shattered by Manny’s unjustified arrent, Miles’s character is never fully developed. Hitchcock seemed impatient with the wife’s story line, and his indifference shows on screen. The film’s sanitarium scenes are similar to the scenes in Vertigo, with the same overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of psychological crisis, yet there was little occasion for Vera Miles to do much else on screen to make an impact.

At the end of The Wrong Man, a nurse tells Manny, “She’s not listening to you now.” This is a stab at educating the audience about the powerful clamp of deep depression. The effort to engage with other people is too exhausting to be kept up; Rose says, “You can go now.” We’re told that the real Rose Balestrero left the hospital two years later, “completely cured.” That’s not very likely. Patrick McGilligan, in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, writes,

Hitchcock kept in touch with the real-life Balestreros … asking how Rose remembered feeling, but they were consistently discouraged by the couple’s responses. The Balestrero’s had only mild anecdotes. Far from flooding him with intriguing details, reality let Hitchcock down.

Floods of intriguing details are precisely what cannot be expected from the ordeal of depression. I sense that, had Hitchcock (or anyone else at the time) properly understood the disorder, a way would have been found to set Rose’s plight more effectively. (Perhaps she might have been presented in a locked ward.) As it is, Vera Miles’s performance is deeply truthful, and I sobbed at the end. The Wrong Man is arguably Hitchcock’s grimmest film, but it is indeed what Donald Spoto calls it: a fine piece of Kunstprosa.

Gotham Diary:
9 July 2013

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

After a visit to the ophthalmologist yesterday — a routine checkup with happily routine results — I took a taxi to the Museum, hoping to get to the cafeteria before it stopped serving lunch. As the photograph suggests, I was too late, so I went upstairs to the Petrie Court. Aydimè. The burger that I ordered appeared instantly, before water had had a chance to be poured. While I ate, I attempted to read Dan Auilar’s Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, another book that has stood unread on my shelves since it was published (1998). It was difficult to hold the book open on the small table while gripping the dripping burger, but I managed. After lunch, I went to see the Boxer at Rest.

I’d have missed this great bronze’s visit to the Museum entirely if I hadn’t been prodded by Messir di T. He discovered it during his graduate studies in Rome, and just as excited to see it again in New York as I should be if my favorite Degas, the early Belleli Family, were to reappear in town. Together with Ms NOLA, we went to see the statue last Friday, and I was knocked out by the presence of the thing. It reduced everything else in the Greek and Roman Gallery to the status of plaster cast. I’d never seen anything like it. Small bronzes, yes, Renaissance and baroque bronzes, yes; but never a life-size bronze from antiquity. Few survive; most were melted down by armories. Most seem to have been recovered from the bottom of the Aegean or the Mediterranean. Boxer at Rest was buried, probably in the Fifth Century, to protect it from barbarian predation. There it remained, in the side of the Quirinal Hill, until 1888. Now it stands in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Well, that’s precisely what it doesn’t do now. Now, it’s blocking up the Gallery corridor. How much nicer it would have been to place the bronze in one of the side chambers, along with a few benches. Next week, it will be gone.

Unlike the marble statuary that graces the Gallery, Boxer at Rest is the portrait of an athlete. According to the accompanying brochure, it “draws inspiration from two statues of Herakles sculpted by Lysippos in the fourth century BC,” but a quick Google search fails to return any seated figures. The boxer sits on a boulder, his elbows resting on his thighs, his hands crossed with an easy modesty that, for all his nakedness, screens his privates from most viewpoints. This is not some ideal, some representation of divinity. This is a fighter, bashed up but basically in good trim, taking a breather after a fight and reacting, I think, to hearing something that he doesn’t want to hear. He is incredibly natural.

Which is the conundrum. Why is Boxer at Rest so powerful, when a tour of any gym’s locker room might offer up a very similar sight? He’s just a guy on a bench. And he’s not going to be there for long: his feet make that clear. They are not planted on the ground; this is not a pose. Bronze may have something to do with it; the replacement of skin by dully glowing brown metal is a bit eerie, as though King Midas had been paying a visit on a discount. The metal is in many places somewhat corroded, as well it might be after its thousand-year burial, and this, too, announces the absence of skin. How can something so lifelike not have skin? How can something so lifelike not be alive?

Perhaps the point of the bronze is to allow us to contemplate the boxer as we never could if he were actually present. He would not sit still long enough to contemplate, for one thing. For another, he might want to know what the hell we thought we were looking at. He’s a big guy, almost as tall, I should think, as I am. Broad-shouldered and lean (but for incipient love-handles), clearly strong-legged, the boxer is no brute, but someone who fights with his brain. He’s wired for it. His body is more of a cloak than a weapon, a package for his nervous system. At the same time, there is something crushed about him, some hunching of the shoulders that suggests limited possibilities. Whether or not the boxer is legally a slave, he is as bound to his métier as any successful entertainer. There is nothing for him to do but to keep doing what he does, until the inevitable moment when he cannot do it anymore. It is the boxer’s posture, not his broken nose, cauliflower ears, or dinged forehead, that proclaims his mortality. No, I don’t think that these rich meditations could be triggered by a panting athlete. The living athlete would probably give rise to another line of meditation altogether.

Not to sound too Wallace Stevens-y, but perhaps it is only in inhuman form that we can appraise our humanity. Nobody wants to be bronze.

Gotham Diary:
8 July 2013

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Over the weekend, I immersed myself in Hitchcock, as one might in a swimming pool — a dark pool at night, with inexplicable splashes at the far end. It was an uneasy rest.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ultimate counsel to anxious colleagues and actors was, “It’s only a movie” — variant: “We’ll make another movie” — and his films do flirt with routine. There is an almost mechanical slickness, for example, manifest in the formulaic way in which subsidiary characters deliver their lines. Policemen and shopkeepers and maîtres d’ all sound like polished stereotypes with no individual quirks whatsoever. Hitchcock deploys the flat predictability of these minor figures as expressions of the unthinking normal world from which the principal characters have been momentarily expelled. They are more functions of the incisive narrative than real people. As such, they trail a certain staleness. This may explain why it took foreigners — the French — to perceive Hitchcock’s greatness; they couldn’t be put off by what to an American ear might sound tediously familiar.

Although my latest plunge into Hitchcock’s movies began somewhat randomly, moving from Psycho to Frenzy and then to Strangers on a Train, from that point I stuck to the order in which films were made: I Confess, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Four on Saturday, and two on Sunday; before angling my chair in front of the screen for The Trouble with Harry yesterday afternoon, I went through magazines. I wish I hadn’t, in a way, because I’d have liked to move on to The Wrong Man, but it was too late. I ought to mention that I watched all the featurettes on the DVDs, each of produced by Laurent Bouzereau. These began to be monotonous and, at times, vaguely irritating — if John Forsythe could be persuaded to reminisce, why not Shirley MacLaine and Jerry Mathers? But the featurettes buffered the features.

Seeing the films in order gave them a surprising freshness, and emphasized their somewhat surprising variety. We’re so accustomed to thinking of Hitchcock as an auteur, and to seeing his films as the work of an extraordinarily methodical producer, that it’s easy to forget that he drew his material from very different sources and maintained a remarkable heterogeneity of tone. I Confess is so transfigured by the miraculous fit between its abundant Catholic imagery and Montgomery Clift’s brooding saintliness that it doesn’t seem like an American, or even Anglophone movie. The next two films on the list have nothing in common except Grace Kelly, and that only nominally, considering the transformation wrought by opportunites fro acting development presented by John Michael Hayes’s screenplay. For the first time ever, the fireworks in To Catch a Thief did not annoy me; they seemed quite suavely done. And Francie Stevens was a real girl, not Grace Kelly pretending to be one. The Trouble with Harry is a “minor” picture that refuses to feel minor while it is actually running; the four principals are engaged in an ensemble that has a glittering commedia dell’arte quality, an effect heightened by Mildred Dunnock’s occasional contributions. If I was shaken by The Man Who Knew Too Much, that owed in part to personal circumstances; the story seemed less about international intrigue and more about kidnapping. But it had me in tears at several points, and the scene in which Doris Day’s Jo McKenna lashes out at her husband, played with magnificent uncertainty by James Stewart, for having sedated her before telling her the awful news about their son made me forget that I was watching a movie. “Only a movie,” my foot.


I continue to wrestle with the problem of loyal opposition, more convinced than ever that it is not just a crucial element of democracy but something like the good fairy that wasn’t invited to the birthday of our modern republics, for whose exclusion we have been paying dearly ever since. The modern faith in democracy was engendered in the optimism of Enlightenment, molded by an untried conviction that, given the chance — freed from the shackles of monarchical despotism, that is — reasonable men would come to see things the same way. What we call political parties, the Lumières called factions, and they were regarded as dangerous. George Washington’s second administration was riven by internal dissension between Jefferson and Hamilton that seemed impossible to account for without marking one man or the other as a traitor, and this confusion has never been altogether resolved. There was no conception of loyal opposition in the 1790s, and none was developed in the course of the following century. Indeed, the Civil War was brought about by a professedly disloyal opposition.

The lack of a concept — of a belief in the importance — of loyal opposition underlies many of today’s political crises, if not all of them. From Putin’s Russia to al-Assad’s Syria to Chávez’s Venezuela, we see what happens when the opposition is demonized instead of being respected. “Winner Take All” is not a political motto but an anti-political one.

The lack of constitutional provisions governing the behavior of loyal political parties made it possible for Hitler’s Nazis to take control of Germany via democratic process; the same thing happened in Morsi’s Egypt. Upon assuming power, both regimes set about disemboweling political life and, in the process, making a mockery of democracy. The free election of leaders is not the climax of democracy, but its opening move. Because elected leaders cannot represent everybody — a sad truth about human nature of which the Enlightenment was blithely unaware — it is only when they assume power and engage in compromise with their opponents that we can tell whether the polity is a true democracy or merely a majoritarian tyranny. Such tyranny is the “mob rule” that the thinkers of classical antiquity identified with democracy, and that inspired them to prefer almost any other kind of government.

The wrestling, then, is a matter of nuts and bolts. How would a provision for loyal opposition read, constitutionally? What are the criteria? I would argue, for example, that the loyalty of an opposition not be determined by religious factors, and, by extension, that the constitution ought to provide more robustly than it does for the separation of church and state. And yet there must be agreement between administration and opposition about substantive fundamentals, such as the recognition of human dignity (which comprises privacy) as a personal possession that must be protected by law. And certainly the behavior of political parties, independently of office-holding, out to be prescribed by the constitution. All this, without stifling evolution. I’m glad that it’s not my job to work all of this out.

Gotham Diary:
Recovering Suburbanites
5 July 2013

Friday, July 5th, 2013

Above, the old Food Emporium (a grocery store) downstairs, its shelves emptied and abandoned at the end of April, but the check-out terminals still glowing — something that I didn’t notice when I took the photograph. I never set foot in the store after Fairway opened across the street, about two years ago. The Food Emporium was overpriced and spottily stocked: I could never be sure that I’d be able to find most of what I needed.

Why are the lights on (not to mention the terminals)? I have taken to avoiding this side of Second Avenue, because the walkway between the building and the hopper from which the great blocks of blasted rock are dumped into trucks is uncomfortably narrow. (That’s what finally put the Food Emporium branch out of business.) The other day, though, I wanted to stay in the shade, and I was surprised by this view. If I don’t miss shopping at the Food Emporium, I miss the check-out ladies. One of them was always very sweet to me, while another — a very short Asian woman bearing a resemblance, I thought, to Yoko Ono — did her job as if in a fit of distraction: she was efficient enough, but without paying attention to what she was doing, or where she was doing it.

Presumably, a new tenant for the space will not appear until after the construction stops, sometime late next year. I always wonder if I will live to see the end of the mess into which our quartier has been plunged.


Kathleen is on her way to Maine, for her annual junket, a reunion with the cmp counselors she worked with nearly forty years ago; two of them have cottages on Thomas Pond, not far from the summer camp. We had a cottage up there, too, for a while, and I often wish that it was the only house that we ever bought. But not so much, since we rediscovered Fire Island. We’re going out to Ocean Beach for a week this year, just a week, but that’s enough after what has been a year that was unsettled from the moment we returned from Fire Island last September.

I am really hoping that the agitation and uncertainty that marked the past school year will have climaxed in Kathleen’s moment of fame on Tuesday. It is very agreeable to read about yourself (or a loved one) without having the slightest reservation about the report. I know from experience that the pleasure is also very, very rare.

In any case, I’ll be alone for a couple of days — the better part of a week. At the moment, I’m grateful: I need some time by myself. And the blue room needs me to itself. Now that the chair has arrived, it is time to clear the piles of books that give the blue room its overwhelmed look. The only way to tackle the problem is to hang out in here and meditate while listening to operas or watching movies. I need a few hours of aimlessly standing around, appearing to do nothing, and then finally bursting through my impatience to do something. I wonder what it would be like to live a life in which such fits of reorganization were unnecessary.


When I read Sanford Schwartz’s favorable review in the NYRB, I decided to read Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy, an autobiography written with Michael Stone. It is one of the most useful books of art criticism that I’ve ever read, because Fischl is not only thoughtful, intelligent, and reasonably worldly, but committed to a tradition of artwork that was strained to the snapping point by modernism and its aftermath. For all the transgressiveness of his early-Eighties work, he is a true keeper of the flame.

Eric Fischl is my age, give or take a few months, and, like me, he grew up in an aspirational suburb of New York City — Port Washington and Sands Point, on Long Island, in his case. At every stage in his book, I could ask myself what I was doing then — how, in short, I was dealing with things at the same age. When Fischl achieved his first real fame, in the early Eighties, I was a law school graduate struggling to find a place on Wall Street — I never did — while having my first real taste of life in Manhattan, something that I had wanted all my life, and still want, much more than fame. I remember being disturbed and somewhat repelled by Fischl’s paintings — the few that I saw, anyway — because they  captured suburban malaise so precisely, and I wanted to put the suburbs behind me. I especially wanted to avoid the dodgy moral climate of the American dream. It is only now, in fact, that I’m comfortable considering it at all, and the real draw of Fischl’s book wasn’t his reputation as an artist but his background, so much like my own, leading as it did to a similar search for foundations upon which to build a good life.

Fischl writes about the early days of a celebrity art market with ingenuous frankness that comports with what one remembers of the buzz.

But the glamour and excitement came with costs. Two years before, I was living on $1,000 a month. Now it had risen to several times that. I’d discovered I could defray some expenses by swapping my work — sketches and preliminary paintings — and the art world, suddenly flush, underwrote a portion of my social life. What’s more, having worked to support myself with my teens, I was judicious with money. But now I was taking taxis instead of the subway, drinking wine instead of beer, fine wine rather than screwtop or Gallo. I had started out working just enough so I could focus on my painting without feeling I had to make work to support a lifestyle. Twelve thousand a year had seemed plenty. What surprised me was how fast you grew into living on more. What had once seemed a fortune to me because something I could easily spend in a year.

That certainly sounds familiar. But it was clear that the downtown art scene was not a world that Kathleen and I were ever going to move in, and we more or less stopped paying attention to contemporary art. It wasn’t our taste, anyway; we liked older things. And although I was familiar with a great deal of art, old and new, and knew its history fairly well, I didn’t understand much about painting and sculpture. It was just there, and I had not begun to ask why. I did not begin to ask why until I began wanting to write about what I saw at museums here, or one of my earlier sites. Writing forced me to think. Writing every day forces me to think a lot — even if I always end the day in a heap of questions.

It was neat to feel so completely simpatico with Fischl’s reservations about conceptual art and his total contempt for the empty trifles of Koons and Hirst.

As it happens, I’m going to the Museum this afternoon, to meet up with Ms NOLA and her fiancé, Messir di T. In Bad Boy, Mike Nichols is quoted as having donated Fischl’s portrait of him to the Museum, and I wonder if it’s on exhibit anywhere. (It may well be one of those testamentary donations that will take effect when the writer/director dies.) That would be nice to see — nothing suburban about it, I expect.

Gotham Diary:
3 July 2013

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

The chair is not as small as I thought it would be. Ray Soleil and I had more than one moment of mutually concealed despair. The arms were a quarter-inch wider than the doorway and they wouldn’t give no matter what. In the end, it took an extreme deployment of body English, probably enough to get you arrested in public. But we were home. Later, when Fossil Darling sat in it, he looked exactly like Mao Zedong. Mao in shorts and a pressed blue shirt, but Mao nonetheless. Do I look like Mao when I sit in the chair?

It’s a very comfortable chair. If I could, I’d tell you all about it, but at the moment — what a week of celebration this has been! —I can hardly speak English. Nevertheless we have the chair. The totally Mao chair. Maybe it will help to remember my radicals.


The foregoing, WUI, was a desperate bid to clock an entry on an ordinary weekday that was working out anyway but ordinary. All day yesterday (I’m writing on the fifth), I mean to tidy up my scribbling, and add a more substantial paragraph or two, but I much preferred to read in the bedroom while Kathleen sorted through closets and drawers and eventually packed for her trip to Maine. We celebrated the Fourth by having dinner at the Café d’Alsace, where Kathleen forgot how plentifully filling the bowls of gazpacho are — meals unto themselves, really — until she was halfway through the plate of John Dory that came after. I reveled in steak tartare, brightly seasoned to counter its inherent richness; most satisfying.

After dinner, I finished reading Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy (written with Michael Stone). Fischl never mentions television, but I found myself thinking about it, rather fiercely, as I turned the pages.