Archive for August, 2013

Gotham Diary:
“Economistic Technocrats”
30 August 2013

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Clues? It’s the Connecticut River. And the image shows but a small patch of a large painting.

I’ve only recently begun pulling out my camera at the Museum. I recall being shocked, ten years ago, when young Asian tourists seemed to be taking snaps of everything at the Louvre. Was this allowed? The consensus seems to be that, as long as there’s no flash, there’s no harm done.

Only the other day, though, did I see the fun that could be had.

In other images, we had a Face Time call from San Francisco last night — a lovely surprise. Ryan was still at work, but Megan and Will had just gotten back to their temporary housing from school pickup and househunting. Perfectly aware that his mother needed a steady arm to hold the iPhone, Will scrambled all over her like a monkey — a very big monkey. He told us that he is in California, and he asked us where we were. (He also asked why my eyes were closed. Gawd, I thought, I haven’t hit the vodka yet!) Kathleen had the bright idea, after the call was over, of holding the phone sideways, so that we could both be in the picture, instead of just the space between us.

Megan and Will looked great, and it was great to see them.


I spent hours yesterday sniffing around Friedrich Hayek, trying to find out what the big deal is. One of the books that I’m reading is The Great Persuasion, by Angus Burgin. It’s a somewhat academic account of — but that’s what I’m not sure of. Something to do with the Mont Pélerin Society and the recrudescence of free-market, laissez-faire thinking. I’m in the middle of the chapter about Milton Friedman, who if nothing else inspires Burgin to write with verve. If Friedman was robust, Hayek was fastidious; he seems to have been almost too neurasthenic to develop clear and distinct ideas. I don’t understand the whole “Austrian School” thing. What, exactly, is aggregate demand all about? It goes in one ear and out the other. And Keynes: why is it that, even though I don’t understand what he’s talking about, either, he nonetheless always seems to be right? Does it all come down to rhetorical effectiveness?

I will hand it to Burgin for expressing my problem with economics in terms that do not highlight my stupidity.

Given Friedman’s indisputable influence on the political thought of both his time and the present day, he has received remarkably little scholarly attention outside the economics profession. He has been the subject of one short popular biography, several books of ideological analysis and synthetic condensation published well over a decade ago, a scattered collection of isolated articles, occasional polemics from his political foes, and countless cursory mentions in popular newspapers and journals. Milton Friedman’s rise to public prominence, despite its world-historical force, has yet to be historicized. This failure is in part a reflecion of the academic abandonment of the history of economic thought, which has been marginalized by economics departments focused wholly on the development of contemporary analytics, ignored by historians of science who maintain a restrictive understanding of the parameters of their field, and bypassed by historians wary of the relationship between abstract academic debate and processes of social and political change. The hybrid nature of Friedman’s career poses a further discouragement to research, because he blurred the lines between popular politics, forays into political philosophy, and work in technical economics that can prove difficult for nonspecialists to comprehend. The irony is that scholars have abandoned inquiry into these modes of analysis even as their importance to our public life has grown. For better or worse, we now live in an era in which economists have become our most influential philosophers, and when decisions made or advised by economistic technocrats have broad and palpable influence on the practice of our everyday lives. No figure is more representative of this development than Milton Friedman.

I’m not sure that I’d use the word “historicized,” but I love “economistic technocrats.” The point is, economists in the wake of Friedman have defected from humanism, and the humanists have sighed “good riddance.” As Burgin is too academically polite to say, that’s crazy! Just re-read the penultimate sentence until you get it.

I was not at all surprised to learn, earlier in Burgin’s book, that Hayek’s Road to Serfdom achieved its postwar fame largely thanks to a bowdlerized Reader’s Digest condensation. Hayek himself never got over the shame of it.

Gotham Diary:
29 August 2013

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Talleyrand was in his mid-fifties when François Gérard made this undoubtedly flattering portrait, in 1809. The former bishop and imperial diplomat, and future ringmaster of the Congress of Vienna, had momentarily retired from public life, and this picture illustrates what public life was the worse for losing. There he sits, surrounded by fine-looking things from the ancien régime, defying history itself: the old order would not be entirely swept away if he could help it. (He could and he did.) Disabled by an untreated clubfoot, Talleyrand was spared the military exercises that would have been a waste of his genius. It may also have freed him from the more unthinking habits of honor. Throughout his long life, Talleyrand exhibited the nimble opportunism of someone both rooted and wounded.

It is time to read up on Talleyrand again. I see that JF Bernard’s 1973 life, which I bought when it came out, has not been superseded. Opening the book at random, I came across this suave passage:

The American attitude toward wealth was as puzzling to Talleyrand as it would be to later generations of Europeans. His own interest in money was purely utilitarian: it served only to buy the things that pleased him: luxurious surroundings, books, paintings, fine clothing, presents for his friends. The idea that it might serve to purchase social standing was foreign to a man accustomed to a society in which position was inherited rather than bought and in which rank was an inalienable quality which had always, and would always, exist independently of the inventory of one’s material possessions.

Talleyrand’s American sojourn taught him that “the country has become acquainted with luxuries too soon. Luxuries are ridiculous when a man can hardly provide himself with the necessities.” This aperçu is illustrated by the contrast of a Sèvres table, purchased by an American “at the Trianon,” upon which someone had laid a hat so coarse that a “European peasant would not have been caught dead” wearing anything like it.


Rebecca Solnit’s meditation on intrusive media technologies and the corporations that foster them, in the current LRB, has been much on my mind, largely because it makes statements to which I already subscribe, but also because it suggests the nefarious possibility of an egalitarian tyranny in which each of us is reduced to the status of one customer. Solnit pulls an unlikely short story by Kurt Vonnegut out of her memory, and makes it pay.

A short story that comes back to me over and over again is Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’, or one small bit of it. Since all men and women aren’t exactly created equal, in this dystopian bit of science fiction a future America makes them equal by force: ballerinas wear weights so they won’t be more graceful than anyone else, and really smart people wear earpieces that produce bursts of noise every few minutes to interrupt their thought processes. They are ‘required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ For the smartest person in Vonnegut’s story, the radio transmitter isn’t enough: ‘Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.’

What too few people — especially the necessarily inexperienced young — grasp is that the plethora of media choices is actually a constraint, because it presupposes the abandonment of personal initiative. By personal initiative I mean something as simple as the reading of a long novel. To read a long novel, you have to abandon the plethora of media choices, at least for several hours a week. Also, the young are especially afflicted with something not unlike a skin irritation that has recently found a perfect name: FOMO. Fear of missed opportunity. This fear is closely related, probabilistically, with the hope of winning the lottery. If you are always doing things that are either necessary or meaningful, then you will not be worrying about the things that you are not doing. It is doing nothing in particular, hanging out, being on the lookout for something to happen, that is like buying a lottery ticket and then spending the day watching television.

The gravamen of Solnit’s lament, I think, is that it is always going to be hard to make technology serve personal initiative instead of supplanting it. Making technology suit you, instead of letting yourself suit technology, requires a great deal of knowledge, and no small amount of wisdom. It will be of only limited use to know what your friends are doing, and how they are doing it. You need to know about how you do things, and about how your mind works. How anyone is to know such things, really for sure, before the age of forty is beyond me. And the corporations make what was is already hard even more difficult, by offering us so much stuff for “free” — subsidizing our consumption with advertisements, and deforming our networks with the need to sell things.

But: early days.

Gotham Diary:
28 August 2013

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Well, I’ve got an iPhone. An iPhone 5. I had gone “off contract” with my first smartphone, an HTC, at the beginning of the month, and so was eligible for a special price on what was still a very expensive piece of equipment. I was advised, by an adviser very close to the family, a member of the family actually, to wit: Megan, that Android phones are unreliable. Mine certainly was. It had taken, most recently, to rebooting in the middle of phone calls. (More bothersome to me, I had also been unable to install a Chinese-character flash-card app.) There was an edge to Megan’s recommendation, an unspoken don’t-come-crying-to-me-if-you-miss-our-calls-from-San-Francisco, that completely overcame my instinctual resistance to All Things Apple. Kathleen, by the way, thinks that I already own All Things Apple, what with my clutch of Nanos, two classic iPods, and the old iPad. But I have never owned or operated an Apple computer.

That was yesterday. I had been putting off my visit to the phone store, which is only up the street, but the transaction was painless and would have gone quite quickly if relaying my contact information from the old phone to the new one had been straightforward, which it couldn’t be, because the old phone was misbehaving. In the evening, I found myself unable to buy the flash-card app on the new iPhone, but I worked round it by purchasing it on the iPad, whereupon it became available for installation on the phone. I spent an hour with the flash-cards and was spooked by my progress. Characters that I really didn’t know at all became familiar in a short time, owing to the stickiness of the drill. First, you have to choose the pinyin rendering of the character from one of four possibilities, and this gets tricky over time as tones come into play. (Shí is “o’clock,” shì is “to be.”) Having passed that hurdle, you hear the character pronounced, and now you have to choose the character’s meaning in English, again from four possibilities. This is tricky, too. Two early characters, néng and huì, for example, both mean (but in different ways) “to be able.” (It has always fascinated me that you cannot say, in English, “to can,” unless you’re talking about vegetables.)

I’m sure that I’ve forgotten most of the stuff that was new to me yesterday, but today’s drill will change that. You know, I’ve had cardboard Chinese-character flash-cards for years. Decades. But — largely because I was never sure about my pronunciation (rightly!) — they weren’t nearly as effective as the app is. (I sound out the character with the app, but I’m not tested on that performance.) The app highlights my mistakes, and confronts me with those characters more frequently.

Today, I am going to the Museum. I’m taking Ms NOLA’s mother, who is in town, to lunch first; then we’ll be joined by Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil. Two things that I want to see are the Gérard portrait of Talleyrand, which I’ve already ogled twice but about which I know a bit more now that the Museum has devoted an issue of its Bulletin to Gérard, and the Julia Margaret Cameron photographs. The Cameron show is the latest entry in a growing list of shows that, under Thomas Campbell’s frugal eye, the Museum has assembled out of its own vast holdings.


Ray Soleil, recovering from a broken arm, didn’t sleep well last night and, given the weather, decided to stay home, as did Fossil Darling, who is on that mandatory vacation that bankers have to take (now with email access, but no ability to delete messages and clear out the inbox). So, after lunch, Mme NOLA and I stepped through the shank of a thunderstorm to the Museum, where we saw a great many things by ourselves, including Julia Margaret Cameron’s wonderful still-photograph staging of Lear with his daughters. Cameron’s jolly husband played Lear (managing to look not jolly), while Lear’s daughters were impersonated by the three (three of the?) Liddell sisters, with Alice as Cordelia. Alice was, for the duration of this exposure, Cordelia. She wasn’t the vaguely pre-sexual beggar girl (Dodgson/Carroll) or the rebarbative Pomona (another Cameron), but Shakespeare’s heartsunk Cordelia. It was maddening to discover that neither of the books of Cameron’s photography on offer at a nearby kiosk included this amazing image. Speaking of amazing images, I took a picture of Mme NOLA from behind, as she was gazing at a Monet. And then I took a picture of the title card on the wall. Or I thought I did. Neither of these pictures showed up on my camera just now. (Drat.)

As you’ve no doubt read by now, James Wood gives Necessary Errors, the novel that Caleb Crain waited to be fully grown to write, an extraordinarily favorable review in this week’s New Yorker, confessing at the top that he read the book with competitive envy and had to admit that it was indeed “enviable.” (What that must have cost!) It’s the sort of review that, if you’ve read the book and liked it, encourages you to savor it again, from a more or less slightly different perspective. When I got home from the Museum, I communed with Necessary Errors by listening to the New World Symphony, possibly my least favorite thing by DvoÅ™ak, and to two movements from Smetana’s Ma Vlast, “The Moldau” and “From Bohemia’s Fields and Forests.” It was these latter two pieces that really reminded me of Crain’s novel. I don’t recall his ever referring to the river that flows through Prague by name — an elegant evasion of the difficulty of choosing between the easy-to-say but utterly German “Moldau” and the native “Vltava,” which (kiss of death for novels with foreign settings) looks harder to say than it is. If the river had an English name, such as “Danube,” there would have been no problem.

Anyway, as the river swirled in Smetana’s tone poem — swirling a lot like the Rhine in Das Rheingold, I couldn’t help noticing, wondering why I’d never noticed before (or had I, and just forgot?) — I thought of Jacob Putnam, Crain’s hero, growing, from from someone whose “one reliable pleasure” is reading, into someone with at least two reliable pleasures, and how sweet and innocent that is, the discovery that sex is good. Not everybody makes it. It’s easy to learn that sex is fun, but fun is not necessarily good; the distance between the two grows into an abyss over time, if there is a difference, and (suddenly) fun is the opposite of good — but it’s too late to go back. It’s my own opinion, so to speak, that sex is only all about sex, and nothing else, and I wouldn’t put this thought in anyone else’s head, but I suspect that Jacob reaches the same conclusion. Sex is not about anything else. It only seems to be, before you experience it, and can only think about it terms of other things. If you’re lucky, those other things burn away in the experience of sex, and, if the sex is good (it can be fun, but it has to be good, too), a certain harmony ensues.

I can’t wait to re-read Necessary Errors, but I’ll have to — six months at least, I’d say.

Gotham Diary:
Pizza Grande
27 August 2013

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

When Kathleen shuffles through the bedroom, her feet make the carpet whistle. It’s like something a kid might do, but she’s not a kid, and she’s not having fun. Every now and then, Kathleen throws a muscle in her lower back, and it takes a few days to relax. In some unknown way, she did this over the weekend. On Sunday, she asked for a cane — that was the worst. Heat packs, hot pads, Advil and tea are bringing her round slowly. In the afternoon, she will move into the living room to work on a document.

As if I were visiting in the hospital, I’ve been taking shameless advantage of Kathleen’s cripplement to spend hours reading magazines. It’s true that these are not found magazines, reluctantly settled for over a waiting room side table, but magazines to which I subscribe and don’t quite manage to keep up with. I seem to have spent most of Sunday with the July issue of Harper’s (there have been two since), which contains, among other things, a beguiling memoir by Julie Hecht and an exciting takedown of contemporary American poetry — Graham! Bam! Heaney! Ashbery! Bam! Bam! — by Mark Edmundson, the UVa professor whose new book, Why Teach?, is on its way to me. I didn’t just enjoy the piece, I reveled in it. Not only does Edmundson berate today’s poet’s for their pusillanimous solipsism, but he blames their cowardice on my favorite villains, the men and women of academe whom I would seriously consider vaporizing if given the chance: theorists.

Poets now would quail before the injunction to justify God’s way to man, or even man’s to God. No one would attempt an Essay on Humanity. No one would publicly say what Shelley did: that the reason he wrote his books was to change the world. But poets should wise up. They should see the limits emanating from the theoretical critics down the hall in the English department as what they are. Those strictures are not high-minded moral edicts but something a little closer to home. They are installments in the war of philosophy against poetry, the one Hass so delicately invokes [in a poem that I don’t know called “Meditation at Lagunitas”]. The theorists — the philosophers — want the high ground. They want their rational discourses to hold the cliffs, and they want to quiet the poets’ more emotional, more inspired interjections. They love to talk about race and class and gender with ultimate authority, and of course they do not wish to share their right with others.

Hear, hear! The practice of philosophy ought to be as obsolete as the practice that it inspired, back in the days when nobody knew anything, blood-letting.

Yesterday, I read that piece about drones in the Atlantic that everybody’s talking about — will there ever be a grand unification of the rules of engagement of military and police forces? — and then new LRB arrived in the mail, catnip as usual. After dinner, I read Susan Watkins’s somewhat exhausting review of recent books about the Eurozone and its crises; as the editor of the New Left Review, Watkins predictably takes a very dim view of the anti-democratic price-tag of fiscal rescue, and she is not hesitant to see “Washington and Wall Street” behind it.

I could not help agreeing that the ordinary people of Europe are suffering because elite governments permitted reckless behavior in the banking sector, and, ordinarily, it would have stopped there, but because of what I’d written earlier in the day for this space, I had a bit of a brainwave. In calling for “an articulate and functional doctrine of loyal opposition,” I had been thinking of structure, not content, but now I saw that the natural occupants of the loyal opposition in any democratic government ought to be the “moneyed interests.” It is clear, after a century of catastrophic tampering, that it is the moneyed interests that make society dynamic, but also that they do so only when they do not actually run the government. The golden age of upward mobility and broadening affluence that everyone likes to see in the Fifties and Sixties was definitely a time when “business” was in loyal opposition to an expanding welfare state. This halcyon came to an end for extrinsic reasons, but we would be much better off today if the relationship between business and government had not shifted so drastically. (For which I blame sourpusses such as Lewis Powell. Isn’t the money enough?)

A friend called to say that he had been shocked by the discussion that Bill Moyers had with This Town author Mark Leibovich. I almost didn’t read This Town, because someone said that it doesn’t really deal with the politics or with the issues or with the money. On the other hand, it was said to be a fun read (and it is), so I eventually found out that the failure to explore politics, issues, and money is no drawback in a book that captures Washington’s culture. This is a culture, most notably, to which there is no significant opposition of any kind, loyal or otherwise. People who boast that they’re going to go to Washington to change things by doing right are like thirteen year-olds who vow never to smoke, drink, drive or have sex. Leibovich doesn’t say this, but Washington is a court society with very strict etiquette. This etiquette has nothing to do with the politesse of Talleyrand; rather, it is a distillate of three distinguishing obsessions of everyday American life: sports, cars, and television. In other words: high school. And somebody few outsiders have heard of is both the principal and the cheerleader: Tammy Haddad.

This Town has no index — for a good reason, it turns out — but I would be vastly entertained by a compilation along the lines of Julian Barnes’s hysterically funny index to his collection of Letters from London (to The New Yorker). I can imagine something like this: “Haddad, Tammy: … as human ladle, 32.”

As I walk out, I get a big hug from Tammy Haddad, a veteran cable producer who repurposed herself in recent years as a professional party host, event organizer, and full-service convener of the Washington A-list. Haddad, a towering in-your-face presence with black hair bisected by a white streak, is a human ladle in in the local self-celebration buffet. She tells you how great you are, how you really need to meet the author, or cohost, or honoree, of whoever, and that by the way, she just talked to Justice Breyer! “Over the Rainbow” plays as Tammy and I and the rest of the Club schmooze our way up to the Kennedy Center roof for an actual cocktail party.

Or this: “Club, The: … metamorphic immortality of, 7.”

And the gathering itself [a memorial service for Tim Russert, to be followed by that “actual cocktail party” on the roof] is itself testament to The Club, that spinning cabal of “people in politics and media” and the supporting sectors that never get voted out or term-limited or, God forbid, decide on their own that it is time to return home to the farm. The Club can be as potent in DC as Congress, its members harder to shed than ten-term incumbents. They are, in effect, the city fathers of This Town. They are not one-dimensional and are certainly not bad people. They come with varied backgrounds, intentions, and, in many cases — maybe most cases — the right reasons. As they become entrenched, maybe their hearts get a bit muddled and their motives too. Not always: people are complicated, here as everywhere, and sometimes even conflicted (enough sometimes to see therapists, though we don’t discuss that here, don’t want to scare the vetters). But their membership in The Club becomes paramount and defining. They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything, self-perpetuation.

Is This Town cynical and depressing? No. It really is funny. Beyond that, it’s a vivid sketch of a social world that is very appealing to people who are powerful or who want to be powerful. (High school.) Entrée to this world is confined to several portals, most of them exacting stiff fees. The money side of Washington is not Leibovich’s brief; he just wants to show you what goes on and how all that goes on is part of one big pizza. He disposes of The Club’s financial machinery in a brief but superpotent quotation from Jack Abramoff, the formerly-incarcerated former lobbyist. (And, what do you know? The book opened to the very page — 163!)

In addition, tens of thousands of Hill and administration staff people move seamlessly into lobbying jobs. In a memoir by disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the felon wrote that the best way for lobbyists to influence people on the Hill is to casually suggest they join their firm after they complete their public service. “Now, the moment I said that to them or any of our staff said that to them, that was it, we owned them,” said Abramoff, who spent forty-three months in the federal slammer after being convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges. “And what does that mean?” Abramoff continued. “Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they’re gonna do. And not only that, they’re gonna think of things we can’t think of to do.”

It occurred to me, in the cryptic terms that haunt my meditations on “organized money” — a phrase that George Packer uses in The Unwinding, but without analyzing it — that putting “the moneyed interests” into some sort of structural loyal opposition to the administration of government just might organize the people who have money, instead of letting the money organize them.

Gotham Diary:
26 August 2013

Monday, August 26th, 2013

On this morning’s New York Times Op-Ed page, editor and columnist Bill Keller calls (“Adrift on the Nile“) for a withdrawal of United States aid to the “generals” currently in control of Egypt. I can’t make up my mind about the money, but I am quite sure that Keller is dangerously deluded about the nature of democracy, whether in Egypt or in the United States, at least insofar as he believes democracy to be something that is established in the latter country,  and exportable to the former.

In fact, the late Morsi government revealed with sun-saturated clarity that the democracy toolkit is missing a very important piece. We all understand that democracy requires free and fair elections, and the Islamic Brotherhood, after decades of repression, won more votes than any other party. Fair enough. But nobody really knows, not in Egypt, not in the United States — maybe in the United Kingdom, where these things were first worked out but, famously, never written down — what to do next.

Mohamed Morsi and his colleagues exercised power along majoritarian lines. Having won those votes, his government believed itself to be entitled to disregard its political opponents, particularly the cosmopolitan secularists who live mostly in Egypt’s cities, and to lead Egypt toward theocracy. This is pretty much what Hitler did after winning his election, with the difference that he himself was the god, unhampered by ancient scriptures. I would support any number of generals in the undertaking to dislodge such a regime.

Even our cherished mantra, “checks and balances,” does not provide useful insight into the majoritarian problem of democracy. Checks and balances are supposed to prevent the concentration of power in too few hands. But power is not the only problem in a democracy, and “the majority rules” fails as a maxim in the long run because majority rule invariably decays into what minorities rightly come to regard as oppressive occupation. We sense that minorities ought to be respected in a democracy, but we have no clear way of distinguishing benign dissidents — the loyal opposition — from malignant ones. The Constitution is silent on the mechanics of identifying the loyal opposition and giving it voice. This is not surprising, for the Constitution was drafted in a climate of very uneasy antagonism, which it awkwardly and hideously attempted to resolve by counting “unfree persons” (slaves) on a discounted basis for the purpose of establishing state populations and hence congressional representation. The Southern states, in other words, entered the Union as a semi-loyal opposition. Not only were they determined to preserve slavery in the teeth of Yankee hostility, but they insisted on inflating their size on the backs of their slaves.

Over the course of the next seventy years, the people of the majority became convinced that the minority, pro-slavery view was malignant. A terrible, very bloody war was fought, and the majority (eventually) won. Slavery was extinguished. But among the flurry of Constitutional amendments that crowned the majority victory, no provision was made for avoiding a repetition of the conflict, and the theory and practice of loyal opposition was ignored. It still is. We still rely on ad hoc, pragmatic solutions to governmental impasses. We wait for them to happen, as if counting on miracles. Sooner or later, impatience does the trick. But impatience can never be a part of orderly procedure.

The very idea of loyal opposition is unnatural. We are naturally hostile to our opponents — that’s just human nature. But it is to curb and correct the impulses of human nature that we subject ourselves to the confusion and inefficiency of democratic governments. We understand the role of elections in democracy, but that’s where our wisdom stops. We don’t know how to recognize or accommodate loyal opposition. We tend to mistake for it the minuet of political parties, a profoundly cooperative enterprise even in times of legislative gridlock. There is no loyal opposition currently at work in Washington. It wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. (Take your pick: George Packer’s earnest The Unwinding or Mark Leibovich’s rollicking This Town.)

Majoritarian oppression is unlikely in the United States because the nation is so plural. We’re said to be polarized, these days, but we’re polarized along a multiplicity of poles. Guns, health care, free markets, unions, education — there aren’t enough people aligned identically on these and other issues to seize control of the government. In Egypt, as in other Islamic countries, it is different, because there is one overarching issue: religion. The majority position in the West is that religion has no place in the operation of a democracy. The people of what used to be called “Christendom” learned this lesson in a succession of bloody conflicts that preceded American independence. A few leaders of Islamic countries, most notably Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, have sought to keep religion out of government, but the restraint tends to be elitist and unpopular. Ordinary Egyptians and Syrians have yet to internalize the rule that religious democracy is impossible. Ordinary Americans can’t show them the way, because, while we learned the lesson, we didn’t finish the course. Until we do — until we develop an articulate and functional doctrine of loyal opposition — we ought to refrain from oppressing the world with our own half-baked conception of democracy.

Gotham Diary:
University Place
23 August 2013

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Megan, Ryan, and Will have been enjoying the scenery at Glacier National Park. They’ve gone hiking to the Hidden Lake Overlook. It sounds idyllic — like the beginning of a horror thriller. Nor does it set my mind to rest to contemplate their drive across Interstate Highway 80 in Nevada — especially after reading the review in today’s paper of an apparently lousy movie in which two jerks get stuck/lost in Death Valley. Suddenly I understand why I feel so safe at home: no one has ever set a scary movie in Yorkville.

While Kathleen worked another late evening, I watched yet another movie: State of Play. I was reading This Town, Mark Leibovich’s laugh/cry book about Washington, and mention of the Washington Post Company’s sale of Newsweek reminded me of a more recent sale to Jeff Bezos.  I thought it would be interesting to see State of Play in a new perspective. Which was curious, in its way, because State of Play came out only four years ago. It looks a lot older.

Four years ago, Ben Affleck was just beginning his post-Gigli turnaround. He had made the sterling Hollywoodland in 2006, but it went largely unappreciated at the time, despite his very fine performance and an even more amazing one by Diane Lane. Company Men and The Town, in 2010, would reestablish his career, but things were still uncertain enough the year before for him to caricature his washed-up reputation in Mike Judge’s extraordinary Extract. In State of Play, he plays a flawed nice guy who turns out, at the last minute, not to be a nice guy. Russell Crowe is a shoeleathery reporter of prodigious resourcefulness who works for the Washington Globe. Rachel McAdams is the peppery tyro who represents the threat of new media to old-school newspapers before, of course, signing on as the reporter’s Girl Friday. Helen Mirren plays the embattled editor in search of sales, and Robin Wright Penn (as she then was) is the nice guy’s beautiful, humiliated wife. Director Kevin Macdonald knows exactly how to deal with his somewhat cobbled screenplay, and he never allows his film to take its issues (the demise of print journalism and the rise of the surveillance state) too seriously. State of Play is a perfectly satisfying popcorn movie, worth seeing just for its winsome coda, a sequence, showing the step-by-step manufacture of a daily newspaper, that always makes me cry.

I love the old movies, but I’m surprised that State of Play is already one of them.


It was only after I’d written the foregoing that I remembered being asked out to lunch by Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil. Ray had the stitches taken out of his arm, which of course meant getting rid of the plaster cast first; the great news was that there was no need to replace the cast. That deserved celebrating, I thought, so, against my shut-in inclinations, I got dressed and took the subway for the first time in so long that I almost went uptown. Then it turned out that my Metro Card had expired. Not to worry. Lunch at the Knickerbocker was classic: a witty trainee waiter was on hand to keep us on our toes. Oysters, fish and chips, chocolate sundaes, not to mention beverages — how is it that Fossil and I are still walking the streets? Afterward, we peered into a few University Place shopwindows before patronizing the downtown branch of Agata & Valentina, which I hadn’t been to before. I bought dinner — very handy! Dinner for two nights, really. It was lovely: the absence of Upper East Siders made me feel that I was on the Riviera. I came home in a taxi, up Park Avenue almost all the way. There is something about the Park Avenue route, from Union Square through Grand Central and on up into my own part of town that makes me take stock of my life. I usually conclude that I am older.

Meanwhile, Megan, Ryan, and Will are in Idaho. Fifty years ago, on a camping trip, I crossed from Idaho into Canada near Bonner’s Ferry. But I still can’t quite believe that there is such a place as Idaho. What I mean, of course, is that I can’t believe that there are people who want to be there, so far from everything that is important to me about human life. Taking stock of my life on Park Avenue (which I appreciate for its arboreal medians but do not find particularly grand), I understood that I have lost the ability to imagine living more than five blocks from it, in either direction. It’s a lucky side-effect of my Gotham provinciality that I have always made an exception for San Francisco.

Gotham Diary:
22 August 2013

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

In the end, I watched three movies yesterday, Kicking and Screaming (as noted) and then two French specials, De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone), which I hadn’t seen before, and Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One), which I had never found quite so thrilling before. More about the movies in a minute. In between movies, I finished off this week’s New Yorker, where Alec Wilkinson’s profile of the nonpareil art forger who generally goes by the name of Mark Landis got the electrons in my brain jumping again.

The Giveaway” is full of laugh-out-loud passages, but an abiding sadness prevents its being just plain fun.

In 1988, when Landis was thirty-three, he lost his savings in a real-estate investment and “returned to Mississippi in disgrace,” he said. He moved into his grandmother’s house in Laurel, with his mother and his stepfather, who had moved there to take care of her. He stayed in his room, hardly eating, and before long he grew catatonic and was admitted to a hospital.

Between 1988 and 1992, Landis gave away no art. For a year, he lived on disability payments in the company of nine other men in a halfway house, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He finally left and enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, where he took economics and math classes. He lived in a housing project, where the majority of the tenants were elderely black women. In church, he was the only white man among the congregants. When he started donating [his forgeries] again, recipients would sometimes collect pieces from his apartment. “They must have thought it was strange that you’d live in a housing project, if you had enough money to give away art to museums,” he told me. “I guess they thought I was eccentric.”

He stopped showing his gift deeds to his mother, though. She might have been proud of him when he lived in California, and she believed he was an art dealer and a benefactor, but the charade was not possible to sustain at close hand. “She wasn’t stupid,” he said. “One day I showed her one, and she just looked at me and said, ‘That’s nice’.”

It’s hard not to feel sorry, more condescendingly than empathetically, for Mr Landis, or for Father Arthur Scott, SJ, as Landis presented himself now and then, wearing the clerical collar but also driving his late mother’s red Cadillac. Told of this strange man’s forgeries of minor works by second-tier artists, all that I could conjure up was the forgiving smirk of Tennessee Williams. Diagnosed twice with schizophrenia, Mark Landis appears never have been involved with anyone other than his mother, who comes off in the piece as a milder Auntie Mame. As a would-be philanthropist who gives away his productions without any thought of remuneration, he wants to be famous (or at least highly regarded by grateful museum directors) for things he hasn’t done. I see nothing criminal in his gentle frauds, but there is no doubt that he is morally in the wrong, and probably sane enough to know it. Not funny. His stunts may be naughty, but the sharpness of his hunger for respect lets all the air out of them.

But what about forgeries generally? Since I’ve got no money in the game, it’s easy for me to trust my eye. Its first check is for beauty, and beauty is beauty no matter who produces it. The converse of this is that great artists can, and do, produce unbeautiful things. The important corollary is that I put myself under no pressure to attribute beautiful things to famous names. The second check is for characteristics. The painters who appeal to me most cover their canvases with characteristic ways of handling paint, and it is unlikely that any forger would capture them all. The third check is for what some might regard as arrogance. The importance of any picture is an invisible arc running from the canvas to my mind. It exists only when we are together in the gallery.

These principles, if that’s what they are, making me receptive to forgeries. They ought to be properly labeled and accredited, but don’t take them down because they’re not by Vermeer. I want to know as much as I can about art, but not in order to protect myself from being taken advantage of. As I say, this is not a problem: I’m not in the market for valuable art.


Rust and Bone is a decidedly unbeautiful movie. It did not appeal to me nearly as much as The Beat That My Heart Skipped did eight years ago, partly because Thomas, the hero of the earlier pictured (played so mightily by Romain Duris) was a tormented artist, and his story a surreptitiously romantic one in a way that reminded me of Flaubert. This dimension is missing from the new picture. Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) works with whales in an entertainment facility. My grandson would adore the kind of show that she and her troupers put on — until a terrible but rather vague accident. I thought that the loss of her lower legs and feet would be the worst thing that happens in Rust and Bone, but it’s not, because the guy in the picture, a mec called Alain who seems incapable of minding his five year-old son, commits a world-class error of judgment. Alain’s surface appeal never quite won me over. When he wasn’t fighting — boxing for money in illicit matches — he seemed a gentle giant, but perhaps he was only simple. Sullenness is the only aspect of adolescence that he appears to have outgrown, and on some fronts it might be argued that his adolescence has yet to be reached. I’ll be reserving judgment on Matthias Schoenaerts (who plays Alain) until Blood Ties, Guillaume Canet’s forthcoming movie about crime in Brooklyn the Seventies. Marion Cotillard is great in her part — ça va sans dire — but the part was not thrilling enough to distract me from worries about her legs in real life. How did they do that?

M Canet’s Tell No One is an adaptation of Harlan Coben’s novel. Kathleen read it years ago, and I tried to read it, too, but I couldn’t get past the first scene, which was full of furiously bad writing. The director seems committed to rendering pop American styles with a slight French accent, which makes his films challenging for American audiences, in that most Americans still won’t see them because they’re in French, while many of the rest of us will wish for something “more French.” Little White Lies, a remake of The Big Chill with an exclusively American playlist, works best as a sampler of how French people do things that American people do, too, but in a slightly different way. With Blood Ties, M Canet will be throwing off the burden of French altogether; in addition to Ms Cotillard and Mr Schoenaerts, his cast includes Clive Owen and Billy Crudup. I suppose a remake of Tell No One with George Clooney is not totally improbable.

But for all its accents aigus, Tell No One is a spirited thriller with a topnotch cast that hurtles through Paris like a runaway train.

Gotham Diary:
Jammie Day
21 August 2013

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

When Megan posted from Sheridan, Wyoming late yesterday afternoon, I was concerned. They’d never make it to Glacier National Park by bedtime! It took a moment to register that their speedy, two-day trip to Rapid City was simply their escape velocity. Now that they were out West, they could slow down. They’ve just passed Belgrade, Montana. I’m not sure that they know yet that the next exit, I kid you not, will be for Manhattan. There has to be somebody in New York who can stand at a bar and say, “I’m from Manhattan, Montana.” After a few drinks, you start sounding like Lucy, after a few ladlings of Vita-Vegemin. (Thank you, Google Maps.)

“Jammie Day” sounds decadent and self-indulgent, and, besides, you can’t have one all by yourself. But I can’t think what else to call these off-days, which seem to befall me once every two weeks or so. I am always especially tired, usually from the moment of waking up. The immediately previous days have been unusually productive, as a rule. It’s nothing to worry about personally, but it feels unprofessional. I don’t want to appear to be shirking. Shirking what, exactly, though?

So, anyway, I watched Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach’s first movie. I watched it because Caleb Crain remarked that David Haglund’s very nice review of Necessary Errors (in the Times) begins with a quote from the opening scene.

“Oh, I’ve been to Prague,” the lead in Noah Baumbach’s 1995 film, “Kicking and Screaming,” says to his girlfriend, shortly bound for that city. “Well, I haven’t ‘been to Prague’ been to Prague,” he clarifies, “but I know that thing, that ‘stop shaving your armpits, read “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” date a sculptor, now-I-know-how-bad-American-coffee-is’ thing.” His attempted put-down hints at how quickly the post-college stint in post-Communist Prague became, for a certain set of sophisticated liberal-arts types, a cliché.

What’s sad about the men in Kicking and Screaming is that they haven’t “been alive” been alive. They’ve only read about life, or seen it on game shows. I didn’t find the movie funny at all, except for the book-club scene, which made me roar with laughter. Chet (Eric Stoltz) delivers a nice summary of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. He begins by expressing relief that they both know Spanish. The other member of this “both,” the hapless Otis (Carlos Jacott), looks like a very unhappy horse at the mention of a foreign language. Then he fastens his eyes on the back of the book in desperation. It is only after his gassy regurgitation of what he reads there, spiced with bits of Chet’s précis, that Chet asks if he has read the book, but you’ve known it from that first terrified glance. “I’ve been remiss,” says Otis. That sums up his life. It sums up all their lives. On top of that, they weren’t very likable. I did find myself wishing that Grover (Josh Hamilton) had a passport, and could get himself to Prague.

In today’s Times, the book under review was Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach? A few years ago, I read Edmundson’s Why Read?, and rather liked it. (Good grief, one of the earliest Daily Blague entries!) If I knew where it was, I’d pull it down and dip into it again. Of the new book, Michael Roth writes,

Mr. Edmundson worries that too many professors have lost the courage of their own passions, depriving their students of the fire of inspiration. Why teach? Because great professors can “crack the shell of convention,” shining a light on a life’s different prospects. They never aim at conversion, only at what Emerson called “aversion” — bucking conformity so as to discover possibility.

I’m all for this, but something is missing. I’m reminded of a remark made by David Denby in Great Books, his account of going back to Columbia for a year and taking its great-books seminar. Every generation must rediscover the classics on its own, he observes. I’ve mentioned this many times before, I think, but I don’t think I’ve ever stressed something that probably ought not to be left to implication: in order to recognize classics, students have to encounter them, and this can’t happen if there is too much focus on the recent, the “contemporary.” It occurs to me that all liberal-arts professors are necessarily historians. They are intimately familiar with the development of the novel, or the changing tastes in oil painting, or the success arguments on a philosophical point. It’s not just the political historians who are historians, in other words. Everything we do — everything that we can learn — has a history, usually a lot of it. There is far too much history for anyone to learn, beyond the barest outlines, in four years of undergraduate life, but what a good teacher ought to do, along with inspiring students to think for themselves, is to persuade those students that the history of anything that interests you is also interesting.

Watching Kicking and Screaming, I wondered what the new graduates had learned in college, if anything. I suspected that one thing that they hadn’t learned was that they were the latest leaves on a very long vine. Life was as flat to them as their sense of the past.

Gotham Diary:
Lemme Outta Here!
20 August 2013

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

On Sunday, we saw Blue Jasmine. It came to the theatre across the street while we were out on Fire Island, so we didn’t have to go out of our way. We just had to show up in time. We went to the first show on Sunday morning. The line for tickets, as we approached, was a bad sign, but there turned out to be no competition for good seats, because most people wanted to see The Butler. (As do I.)

I remember when Crimes and Misdemeanors came out, nearly twenty-five years ago, and how shocking it was that someone was murdered in a Woody Allen movie. By a hitman! Blue Jasmine goes one step further. Although unmistakably a Woody Allen project, it is a star vehicle for Cate Blanchett. She makes the movie. I don’t want to suggest that Mr Allen lost control of it somehow; on the contrary, I think that he finally worked up the courage to let a brilliant actor run with her part. In most Woody Allen movies — the ones that I can think of off the top of my head — the pretty girl (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow) or beautiful woman (Charlotte Rampling, Marion Cotillard) is a muse of sorts; her role is to bewitch the male lead. There is no male lead in Blue Jasmine. The film is something of a solo turn, a one-woman show. Or, rather, maybe, a two-person show, with just you and her. You alone with her.

Blue Jasmine is said to be a mash-up of Streetcar Named Desire and “the Ruth Madoff story.” It’s clear that both of these elements provided working inspiration for the project. However, the roots of Blue Jasmine lie in Medea. In a moment of extreme humiliation, a woman commits an unspeakable act of vengeance, and, this being an update, develops a serious mental disorder as a consequence, because she cannot live with what she has done. Her attempts to deny it inevitably explode in her face. Also in keeping with the modernization of the tale, there is nothing initially attractive, except for her appearance, about this woman. Monstrous in her collapse, she was narcissistic to begin with. She belongs in a secluded convent, one where the mortification of the flesh is rigorous but the habits are elegant. Sadly for her, there haven’t been many such places since 1789.

Why care about someone so heartlessly self-involved, so useless to society? Because she is played so rivetingly by Cate Blanchett, of course — and the encounter is not prolonged beyond the two-hour mark. There is also the operation of Woody Allen’s magic. He lets you think that you’re watching a mash-up of Streetcar and “Ruth Madoff” right up until the moment when you expect the Bernie Madoff character (played by Alec Baldwin) to blurt out the bad news about his balance sheets. But that’s not what he does — he blurts out something very different. And there has never been the whisper of a suggestion that Ruth Madoff did what Jasmine does in response. It is only at this very late moment that the true nature of the story is revealed. You’re left with the grim pleasure of reconsidering everything that you’ve seen.

Everyone else in Blue Jasmine is very good, but, in his usual fashion, Mr Allen confines his actors within their commedia dell’arte roles. Sally Hawkins is the happy-go-lucky girl with a very short memory. Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale are big dogs from New Jersey. Michael Stuhlbarg’s dentist is a joke with a nightmarish punchline. Peter Sarsgaard is the one member of the cast who manages to tweak Woody Allen’s formula so as to put himself in control, by making himself as empty as the privileged trust-funder whom he plays. Like Ewan McGregor, Mr Sarsgaard brings a Zen-like perversity to acting, and even here, his character, though duped, turns out have lots of sharp, pointy teeth. (It would have better if they’d cut his tantrum, which somewhat spoils the effect.) I don’t mean to be complaining. It’s not a defect, in the end, that Ms Blanchett burns on a different plane. On the contrary, it feels like something altogether new and wonderful, and we have to go back and watch all the other Woody Allen movies for inklings and intimations.


At lunch — I went out to stop myself from checking Facebook every three minutes for pioneer news, and was rewarded upon my return with newly-published photographs of a climbing road presumably west of Rapid City, presumably posted by my still-intact daughter — I read Nicholson Baker’s dandy essay in the current edition of Harper’s, “The Case Against Algebra II.” More about that later. What sizzled in my brain as I read the piece was this question: why are Bill and Melinda Gates and Arne Duncan so keen  on teaching of a perfectly useless and even more perfectly (pardon my French) sadistic course?

My answer makes no sense, comes completely from out in left field, &c&c. But bear with. George Packer, the Unwinding is still on my mind (and so is your book).

The people who advocate Algebra II speak it, because Algebra II is the language of organized money.

From the Pearson text that Baker quotes:

If a is a real number for which the denominator of a rational function f(x) is zero, then a is not in the domain of f(x). The graph of f(x) is not continuous as x=a and the function has a point of discontinuity at x=a.

This is an unnecessary way of pointing out the obvious: no number can be divided by zero. There is no need whatever for the dehumanizing crapage of the text!

Remember: with organized money, as with organized crime, it is the money (or the crime) that does the organizing, not the human agents. The human agents are simply among its victims, helplessly driven by the money in their pockets to provide it with means of expansion, by flooding them with the existential horror of someone else’s competitive advantage. Organized money requires its victims — its avatars, you might say — to regard the world in terms such as x=a. In real life, of course, nothing equals anything else. Only money balances out.

Algebra II, as a requirement for admission to the best schools, weeds out the cranks who aren’t cut out for organized money.

Gotham Diary:
Not Wasted
19 August 2013

Monday, August 19th, 2013

To all but the last of the haircuts, I would bring Will uptown in a Vital black car, ordered by Kathleen, because you really cannot even dream of finding an empty taxi in Soho at four in the afternoon. He was never more the little gentleman than on these rides. He would sat still, even without a car seat; he would make occasional observations (which, in the early days, I couldn’t much understand) about what he saw out the window. He was always extraordinarily well-behaved, except that it wasn’t behavior, it was just who Will was and is.

He has apparently been very much this ideal traveler on his trip out West, so far at least. Yesterday, his parents crossed a good third of country, driving from the Delaware River to the capital of Wisconsin.


In other losses, I finished Necessary Errors over the weekend. The rich and full account of a young American man’s gap year in Prague, twenty-odd years ago, the novel comes to an end on several levels all at once. There is the book itself: you’ve read the last page, and there isn’t any more. Jacob, the young man, is on his way back to the United States, about to open a letter from a lover whom he may never see again. Prague itself has all but completely put socialism behind it, and is waking up every day a Western city, for better or worse. You are still trying to recover from the loss of Melinda, the beautiful Englishwoman who “defects” from her circle of English-teaching expats with an old friend of the hero’s. With only a few pages to go, Jacob shares a letter that he receives from her. Everything ends. For a book about twentysomethings in a time of peace, Necessary Errors is remarkably alert to mortality.

I have never met anyone like Melinda, but I’ve fallen in love with her type over and over again in film: English, university-educated, incapable of uttering a banality, and ravishing to look at. Melinda rather immediately took on the self-possessed glamor of Charlotte Rampling and Saffron Burrows. Her voice, I could tell, had a bottom. And everything that she said was pitch-perfect and true; although gay, Caleb Crain must love the Melindas of the world as much as I do. “You do turn everything to that account, don’t you,” she says when Jacob stammers his belief that the man whom Melinda has been talking about is not gay; she wasn’t talking about sex.

It’s presumably not just for the sex that Melinda leaves her boyfriend and all-but-fiancé, the equally glamorous Rafe, for Carl, a rather good-looking straight friend of Jacob’s who comes to visit and who steals, as it were, the golden apples. The problem between Rafe and Melinda is that Rafe is bored with Prague; he wants to give Kazakhstan a try, and that’s not the direction that Melinda has in mind. (With Carl, she  decamps to Rome.) Crain says something outstandingly clever about Rafe.

He had the excitement of a boy looking forward to a math test that has scared all the other boys, not because he’s better at math but because he’s better at thinking while scared.

The conversations that Jacob has with Melinda about her love-life are marvelously Jamesian, shot through with the tacit acknowledgment that to speak too clearly about love is to misunderstand it. As if they understood it! This is a book to read again, after I’ve taught myself Czech.


Along with its pleasures, Necessary Errors gave me the opportunity to be honest about something. For the past couple of years — ten, perhaps — I’ve been berating myself for not having had the courage to do something like what Jacob and his friends have done in the novel, to have gone to Europe after college and given living there a try. This complaint is accompanied by the automatic assumption that, had I done so, I should never have returned, because, according to my little reverie, Europe would have suited me so much better. It is all very pretty, this sentimentalized regret. So I needed the good poke in the pants that Necessary Errors gave me. My reason for not going to Europe had nothing to do with a want of courage or resolution. It was all about hating the life of a student. What I dreaded was the prospect of spending a night in a youth hostel — even if only once. Even in those days, I could have said, although it hadn’t occurred to me yet, that my idea of “roughing it” is staying at home. When I travel, I expect room service. No room service, no travel — it’s really that simple. What I want out of travel is an improved version of home; it’s not uncommon for me to have a brainwave about organizing my closets when I’m thousands of miles away from them. Over the weekend, I saw an ad for tourism in Hawaii that showed a young man peering over some boulders at molten lava. “Give your other vacations an inferiority complex,” ran the copy. This way of thinking about travel in particular and about life in general is contemptible to me — in the affectless way that dog food is contemptible.

I also didn’t want to spend any more time around students. The characters in Necessary Errors seem to be normal young people, enjoying their youth. I couldn’t envy them that. Youth was never a good fit on me.

Gotham Diary:
On the Road
16 August 2013

Friday, August 16th, 2013

It was an excellent distraction. I had just said goodbye to Megan — this time for real, finally; I won’t see her again until Thanksgiving — and I was having trouble speaking. Then we got to the top of Avenue C. I was in a taxi with Ray Soleil, having just overseen the removal of some items from Megan’s apartment; now we were on our way to deposit them in the downtown storage unit on Sixty-Second Street. As we pulled under the drive (it’s still Avenue C along the river), I saw this gigantic plume of very black smoke pouring quite unmistakably from one of the levels of the Queensborough Bridge. Some sort of fire was raging in the span over the East Channel of the East River, between Roosevelt Island and Queens. In the picture above, it might seem that something on Roosevelt was burning, but from the top of Avenue C, the smoke rose from a point over the river. Hours later, there still isn’t much news about it, but a truck seems to have exploded. We did see orange flames through the smoke.

Later, after lunch, we found that we had to walk home. Traffic on First and Second Avenues was at close to a standstill. There were few taxis, none of them empty. A dramatic afternoon, in its way. I was very grateful for the superficial disruption, although it must have brought massive inconvenience to many and rather worse, I imagine, to those in the vicinity of the truck.

As I carried Will to the car in which his other grandparents would drive him across New Jersey to a house in Pennsylvania where, tomorrow, Ryan’s mother’s family will celebrate its annual reunion — Megan and Ryan will join them after they’ve cleared out their flat — he told me that I had to come out to California soon, “because I don’t want to be out there all by myself.” I managed to keep on walking.

Early Sunday morning, the young O’Neills will begin their drive out West. They’re looking forward to a day at Glacier National Park, en route. Otherwise, they’ll try to make good time. We can’t wait to hear that they’ve reached San Francisco.

I’m feeling rather crumpled, as one does after tears not quite completely suppressed. I’m happy to be in the middle of Necessary Errors, which is as big a book as The Corrections, or at least as deeply plumbed a one. The novel also reminds me of What Maisie Knew — the indirection stemming, in this case, from the protagonist’s ignorance of just what is going on around him, and his finding out, slowly, where to look. It is astonishing that an attentive and highly-educated young man can be so innocent, but I remember being so myself.

Gotham Diary:
A Simple Pleasure
15 August 2013

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

On the whole, I’m finding Jacob Putnam, the protagonist of Caleb Crain’s new novel, Necessary Errors, to be appealing and sympathetic. As he is a big fan of Stendhal and Flaubert, I’m not sure that we’d get along in real life, but I’m enjoying the ways in which Necessary Errors tracks L’Éducation sentimentale and Le rouge et le noir, especially as Jacob is not nearly as shallow and callous as his romantic predecessors. There’s only one off-putting note in Jacob’s response to the world around him, and it gets louder as I turn the pages. It usually involves the word, “hunger.”

Jacob looked over the other men in the club with open hunger and curiosity. It seemed a place to be unabashed. He didn’t know if he wanted Markus or one of the others.

Jacob is a bright young Harvard grad who has only recently realized that he is gay; he is still, as a teacher of English in newly post-Communist Prague, finding himself; and, like Julien Sorel and Frédéric Moreau, he is doing so in a time of social upheaval that promises opportunities for self-transformation. Crain is very discreet about Jacob’s sex; beyond some kissing and caressing, we don’t see much. (I haven’t so far, anyway.) But this agreeable coyness seems only to make more lurid the nakedly generalized desire that overcomes Jacob in gay bars. It isn’t the sex that’s shameful; it’s the surrender.

By now, of course, I’ve realized that this is all about me, not Jacob Putnam. I’m the odd one, not Jacob. For a while, I thought that I was stubbing my eye on “hunger” because it is not the angle of desire that a straight man would emphasize. Straight men hunt. This means concealing their hunger with an appearance of some kind of assured ferocity. It is as though the ability to predate replaces the need implied by hunger. I’m assuming that the sexual impulse, among men straight and gay, is the same; but its expression seems to be colored very differently. It might be said that the gay man, acknowledging the need in his desire, is more honest than the bluffing, puffing straight man; and it might be countered that the straight man faces a stiffer challenge, because he must attract a person whose world view, most especially on the subject of sex and its consequences, is quite different from his own.

But “hunger” still bothered me, because it seemed unworthy of Jacob. That this thoughtful, well-intentioned memorizer of Emily Dickinson should yield to a much grosser appetite disappointed me. And that he would do so, of course, at a bar, because alcohol makes surrender so much easier. Jacob himself might not drink very much, but the very air in a gay bar is erogenous. Either that or absolutely terrifying — depending on how much you’ve had to drink. Because I’ve had so many more gay friends than straight, I’ve spent more time in gay bars than in their straight counterparts; in fact, I can’t remember actually being in anything like a straight meat market. I have never gotten to know a woman with whom I had a first encounter over drinks. This is very largely attributable to the time in which I grew up, now remembered as permissive but in then quite constrained, as to liquor as well as to sex. I feel the luckier for that, than otherwise.

But there is something in me that is determined not to surrender. (Why not just say, I am determined not to surrender?) Do I fear it? I suppose I must. What are we talking about here? Surrendering to another person, whatever that might mean? Or setting aside that other important aspect of autonomy, responsibility for one’s social self-control and good behavior. I would never surrender to another human being, sexually or otherwise, and I would be disgusted by anyone’s offer of surrender to me. (Mutual surrender would compound the problem, not cancel it out.) My amour propre, self-respect, call it what you will, is much too strong, too powerful a source of other pleasures, for me to consider giving it up. As for the other kind of surrender, are you mad? Experience attests that mortification is the one and only outcome of experiments in that direction; happily, I have never wound up in jail — but let that be a warning to me.

It’s academic, at my age, given my way of life. But I still wish for nice people like Jacob that they would get to know people before having sex with them. Abandon can be exciting, I’m told, but my own constitution has drawn pleasure from giving pleasure, and this is something that you can do much better if you know the person whom you want to please. There’s a lot of writing out there that suggests that the great thing about sex is that you get to check your personal baggage at the bedroom door, that sex is an escape from self. But is this true? Doesn’t this reduce sex to an adventure, a lark? In which case there are better things to do. (Become a missionary.) In Jacob’s case, it seems to be only the prospective part of sex that is mysterious.

They embraced quickly for a leave-taking, and the smell of Luboš, rising off his body as they touched, first disgusted Jacob, then melted him, the second response succeeding the first almost instantly, disorientingly. This was the body he had been lying next to, the aroma reminded him, with whom he had taken a simple pleasure. He had somehow forgotten it upon waking up.

I’d be happier if Jacob’s simple pleasures could follow simpler meetings. Then he might skip that initial, disorienting disgust. But wait! There’s lots of Necessary Errors still to read.

Gotham Diary:
Big Time
14 August 2013

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Ray Soleil, laid up as he is with a broken arm, managed to send me the link to someone’s blogpost about Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, and their flat at Kensington Palace. I lacked the fortitude to read more about this newsy couple, he the most dashing of the royals and she much too pretty to be one, but I did learn that some of the smaller apartments in the palace are let to “suitable” tenants. There’s an Alan Bennett play in there somewhere! For some reason, the piece also put me in mind of the Duchess of Cambridge’s uncle Gary, not that I know anything about him except that his house in Ibiza is called the Maison de la Bang Bang. It doesn’t get less royal than that, innit?

Gary Goldsmith sounds like promising material for a JK Rowling novel, although I can only say that now that I’ve read the one, The Casual Vacancy. At lunch, a friend was telling me that she had been unable to get far into this book, which came out last year and did not do very well, not here in the United States, anyway. My friend thought that she might have let too much time elapse between readings, making it difficult to keep track of the characters, of whom there are about a dozen principal ones — characters to whose thoughts and feelings we’re made privy to. I could think of other reasons why the book might have been hard to get into. The setting is very English; it amounts to a cliché about antagonism between the conservative and comfortable inhabitants of an Olde English village and the sprawling impertinence of an adjacent municipality. But this picture begins to fall apart right away, with the death (by aneurysm) of a village councilor. It turns out that the council is divided (if unevenly) about a very important local issue, and the unexpected death, which creates the vacancy of the title (in which “casual” means something like “casualty”), knocks the blocks from under the status quo. What promises to be a darkish comedy of bad manners, though, gradually reveals itself to be something else, something more volatile and dangerous, as the antagonisms among the villagers induce them to act with a recklessness that we don’t associate with novels that open so picturesquely. You know that somebody is going to get hurt, and badly.

The pleasures of the English novel are all here — the sharply-drawn characters and the indefinite precision of their speech — but the moral of the story, which Rowling holds at bay with the spare elegance of her prose, is harsh: the people who get hurt are the ones without resources. Disaster might menace the prosperous (sometimes invited by irresponsible diet), but the prosperous have cushions to fall back upon. And they know how things work. They know what they’re doing, even when they’re being rash. (That’s what makes their foolishness feel dangerous.) The young and the disadvantaged are more at risk, just as in real life. Rowling is a great storyteller, capable of engineering a plot, with many moving, interactive parts, that comes to a dramatically satisfying conclusion. But this ending is very bleak. It encapsulates the proposition that only the dead have stories that end.

This is ironic, because most of Rowling’s characters are driven by the desire to restrain others. Village life, a competitive, zero-sum game, is replete with negative satisfactions: anyone’s loss is someone else’s gain. As the novel rolls along, you realize that the death at the beginning has gravely reduced the amount of generosity in circulation. The late councilor appears to have been the only person in town with a genuine interest in furthering the lives of others. It is not hard to see The Casual Vacancy as a scathing indictment, as they used to say, of provincial English life. It doesn’t read like one at all, but it closes like one. The affluent characters fumble their way onto less precarious ground. Beneath the others, the ground gives way.

It is no surprise that Rowling creates adolescent characters who are as vivid as her grown-up ones, but I can’t recall a novel in which teenagers’ problems have equal weight. But this is no young-adult novel. The machinery is far too brutal. Rowling animates her stock tropes with the sordid thrill of edging along the borders of wrongdoing, never overstepping them sufficiently to invoke the very different mechanics of the crime novel, but roaming far from the attractive hearths of social comedy. It is something like Ruth Rendell’s territory, but more crisply described, the writing less inflected by the self-justifying illusions of Rendell’s protagonists.

It rained on Barry Fairbrother’s grave. The ink blurred on the cards. Siobhan’s chunky sunflower head defied the pelting drops, but Mary’s lilies and freesias crumpled, then fell apart. The chrysanthemum oar darkened as it decayed. Rain swelled the river, made streams in the gutters and turned the steep roads into Pagford glossy and treacherous. The windows of the school bus were opaque with condensation; the hanging baskets in the Square became bedraggled, and Samantha Mollison, windscreen wipers on full tilt, suffered a minor collision in the car on the way home from work in the city.

The hopefulness of the young also serves to highlight the depravity of their elders. Adolescence is more likely to be outgrown than the failings of the mature. This contrast is keen in the relationship between Simon Price and his older son, Andrew. Simon is a vicious man whose weakness for shortcuts and cheating has reduced him to self-pitying monstrosity, and Andrew longs for the courage to stand up to his father’s verbal and physical abuse, but his revenge is similarly underhanded. The difference is that he seems to learn something from its fallout.

The Casual Vacancy is not a nostalgic novel; it will not please readers in search of appealing bygones. Instead of the amusingly quaint tale of bucolic foibles that she seems to promise at the start, Rowling gives us something much bigger. How much bigger, it is too soon to say. The great rural novels of the Nineteenth Century, by Brontë, Eliot, and Hardy, were rooted in the unthinking, heartless placidity of country life. Theirs was a world not yet engaged in the profusions and complications that followed the Industrial Revolution. It is hard to know whether their stolid grandeur might coexist with our post-industrial litter, but I daresay that even the Internet will eventually be found to rest on timeless, human-natural foundations. JK Rowling is well on track.

Gotham Diary:
Stick To It
13 August 2013

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Taking care of those million things, and running a ring of errands that ended in the Museum bookstore, freezing and dripping at the same time, kept me away from the desk for most of the day; the rest was spent glued to The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first post-Potter novel, and every page a book for grownups. It was midnight when I closed the book, and Kathleen walked in from a late night at the office.

Kathleen went straight to bed, but I stayed up for a while, starting Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors.

I should like nothing more than to devote the rest of this damp and rainy day to writing about all the good reading that I’ve been enjoying, but it cannot be. I’ve got to run to Fairway for the fixings for dinner, do a bit of prep, taxi down to Alphabet City to pick up Will and his Granma Fran — for the last haircut. This evening, Will’s parents will dine with us at the apartment for the last time in a long time. Kathleen won’t see them again until Thanksgiving. I’ve got to fetch some things that are coming back to us, on Friday, amidst the movers, but I won’t be hanging around to chat. By Saturday, they’ll all have left New York.

Megan and Ryan are off to what look to be great careers in San Francisco; Ryan is especially pleased with his new job, which is not wanting in the prestige department. Will is enrolled at a very attractive pre-school. Finding a house to rent in the chosen part of town is not expected to take very long, and temporary housing has been made available in the meantime. In their minds, Megan and Ryan are already out there, setting up their new life. It is impossible not to be very happy for them, and proud of them as well.

Will knows that something is afoot, but he’s game.

Kathleen and I aren’t quite sure what’s in store for us, but we’re very glad that we’ve got one another.


Fairway was about as empty as it ever gets, this morning. I pushed a shopping cart on the rounds, picking up very little that I shouldn’t be needing for this evening. When I was done, I stood in the shopping-cart line, just as I always do — because I always use a shopping cart, even if I’m going to buy only a few things. I don’t want to carry a basket, much less an armful of items. No matter how few things there are in my shopping cart, however, I know that I have to go through the shopping-cart line, because that’s the Fairway rule. I don’t mind, because the shopping-cart line is usually much shorter and sometimes even faster than the shopping-basket line.

It is also true that I avoid the store at rush hour. Running over to Fairway for a bunch of parsley last night at 6:30 was the sort of aberration that would occur only on the first day back from a trip. I was going to make spaghetti alla carbonara for myself while Kathleen worked late, and I had everything but the parsley. Simple, I thought. I ran into the very crowded store, grabbed a produce bag, and stuffed a bunch of flat-leaf parsley into it. Done! Then I went to stand at the end of the shopping-basket line. Only it wasn’t. Wasn’t the end. This was pointed out to be the lady who, I now saw, was next on line. standing where it stretched round a corner. So headed down to the end of the line and — wrong again. This time, I was politely alerted to my gaffe by a Fairway staffer. Sure enough, I had mistake a bend in the line for the end of the line. When I found the actual end, it was so far from the head that I thought I’d take my chances on the shopping-cart line. I had never seen anyone with a shopping-basket asked to leave the shopping-cart line, although suddenly, now that I was standing at the end of it, it seemed that this ought to be so, because I would probably be out of the store before the woman who rightly complained about my cutting in. (My inadvertent cutting in, I want to protest; but, let’s be honest: I wasn’t paying attention.) Already mortified by having risked assholery not once but twice, I felt that I was getting away with something anyway, and therefore being an asshole, by standing in the shopping-cart line, especially as it moved even faster than I expected it to do. Indeed, I was out of the store in minutes.

A lot of good it did me, because I felt ashamed of myself — I hate giving the impression of oafishness — and angry about having been put it (read: having put myself in) a mortifying position. At the time, I wondered if my sensitivity to the gaffe had been heightened by my complicity in the awful but mundane vanities that bloom in JK Rowling’s characters, in The Casual Vacancy, like acne on the teenagers’ cheeks. Just reading the book made me feel a low-grade, free-floating guilt. It took quite a while, home from the store, to settle into complacency — or at any rate the uneasy comfort of losing myself in Rowling’s novel.

This morning, I drew a different moral: if you have an everyday routine that works for you, stick to it. I ought to have used a shopping-cart to by the effing parsley.

Gotham Diary:
12 August 2013

Monday, August 12th, 2013

It took three hours, door-to-door. Traffic was heavy on the Long Island parkways, and the driver opted for a route that was unfamiliar to me. We took the Cross Island Parkway to its nominal end, at the foot of the Whitestone Bridge, but swept right along onto an extender called the Whitestone Expressway. Soon we joined the Grand Central Parkway, which had backed up somewhere between the Cross Island and the Van  Wyck. There were ten minutes of drag along the lower reaches of Little Neck Bay. So this is Bayside, I figured to myself, but I did not get so far as to work out that it must be Douglaston across the water. I was vexed. I wanted to get home, and the brake-and-roll congestion seemed to threaten my getting there, ever. But then, as usual, our speed picked up, and most of the cars along side us peeled off for one of the two bridges, without any sign of the cause of the backup.

Everything in the apartment seemed to be as it ought to be. There were only two messages on the answering machine — two for a whole week! And one of those was rubbish.

It would have been nice to stay on at Fire Island, but when I awoke yesterday morning — to ice-blue skies that would cloud over with the passing day — knowing that we would be leaving that afternoon, I found myself ready to go home.

And now I’m home. There are a million things to do, but I already saw to the most important one: watering the plants on the balcony. Ray Soleil was going to stop by last Thursday to give them a drink, but before we even left for Fire Island he broke his left arm. (He’s doing well!) A few of the plants were a bit wilted, but they bounced back nicely overnight. Nothing else on my to-do list is at all urgent. But I’d like to get some of it taken care of before writing about what I’ve been reading, or rather whom — J K Rowling. For the moment, it suffices to say, damn, she’s good!


And of course I’m not talking about Harry Potter & Co.

Gotham Diary:
9 August 2013

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Grey and damply cool, this is no day for the beach, but here we are, and here we shall gather with Megan, Ryan, and Will for a third Fire Island stay. Even though they’re off to San Francisco at the end of next week, we look forward to many happy returns.

It is lovely just to hear the wind soughing in the reeds.


For forty years or so, I’ve never let a certain compact yellow paperback get too far out of sight. It is one of my aspirational touchstones, promising swift self-improvement if given a minimum of attention. I have never managed to give it that minimum, at least until now, but, as I say, it has always, this little book, been near to hand. It is called 1200 Chinese Basic Characters, edited by W Simon, then of the University of London, and first published in 1944. My copy dates to 1975.

It happens also be an orphan of history, a remnant of violent upheaval. 1200 Characters is the adaptation, for English speakers, of a Chinese primer, People’s Ten-Thousand Character Lessons, published by China’s Commercial Press in pamphlet form and distributed in bulk as part of a literacy campaign. The original Chinese text, divided into four books of twenty-four lessons each, has been supplied with English translations, of both the lessons and the individual characters. The idea, according to the foreword, is that, by learning ten characters a day, one might become proficient in Chinese in three or four months. Rather, I should say, proficient in reading and writing Chinese. The lessons are explicitly aimed at people who have spoken Chinese from birth.

This is not the kind of book that you would expect to find in a contemporary modern-language course. It is on the contrary a vehicle of indoctrination for the Republic of China. Not the People’s Republic of China, but its predecessor, so to speak, and currently the government of Taiwan. Nevertheless, the lessons are sufficiently charged with collective spirit to sound Communist, at least to Western ears. What would be different about the PRC version of this book (and I’m sure that at least one exists) is that the characters would be “simplified.” Many of them would look quite different, and it would require a new orientation to be able to look them up in a dictionary. To this day, the two character systems thrive, the simplified within China and the traditional everywhere else — Singapore, Taiwan, and in Chinese-language publications in the United States.

Another odd thing about 1200 Characters is its devotion to an ill-fated romanization scheme. Older readers will recall the Wade-Giles way of representing Chinese sounds in English — Ch’ing Dynasty, Mao Tze-Tung — while younger readers will have bumped into pinyin, currently the standard romanization — Qing Dynasty, Mao Zedong. Only Chinese language specialists and a handful of elderly readers would have any call to remember Gwoyeu Romatzyh, the romanization scheme employed by Professor Simon. We need not say much about Gwoyeu Romatzyh, except that it looks very odd, replete as it is with extra-looking letters.

Back to the text, though. The first lesson teaches the student how write “My name is…” “I am N years old,” “I come from X.” There is no dialogue, no simulation of real-life exchanges. There would be no need for that, as the student is presumed to be a fluent speaker of Chinese. Rather, the student is facing the daunting challenge of learning how to write Chinese characters — and to write the Chinese characters that the rulers want to be sure that she knows, the better to read banners and proclamations.

The second lesson puts us firmly on the path to propaganda. Entitled “The Blind,” it consists of four lines: “People who cannot see are blind, And people who cannot read may also be considered to be blind. The blind suffer; Those who cannot read suffer also.” Jumping ahead to the seventeenth lesson, “Community,” we see that the order in which the characters are to be introduced to the student is not governed by considerations of everyday frequency. Two new characters in the lesson denote management or control, as does a third, introduced in an earlier lesson. In the following transcription, these words are italicized. “While as men we value independence [“self-reliance” would be more literal], We also value living in a community. Each private individual should look after his private affairs, While the community should handle communal affairs. The power of the community is unlimited, While the power of the individual is limited. If only there is the spirit of cooperation in the community, Anything can be achieved.” The beginning student may not know how to write about the weather or what he had for dinner, but he is already capable of grasping the public agenda.

My immediate goal is to master the 305 characters introduced in the first of the four books. So far, the indoctrination has made me feel very Chinese. My favorite line so far comes from the fifth lesson, “Working and Studying”: “Study and work: joy without end.” Yes, it sounds funny; how could anybody make such a statement with a straight face? Except that I pretty much can, these days.


1200 Characters omits a vital aspect of learning to write Chinese, which concerns the very fixed order in which the strokes of a character are to be written. It would be up to the teacher to impart that knowledge during the lessons.

I was drawn to the study of Chinese by an exhibition, mounted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spring of 1972, of Chinese calligraphy. I spent the following summer buried in books from which I learned how to write characters and how to look them up in a dictionary. I did not learn anything very useful. I lacked even then the steady hand required for calligraphy of any kind, and I still can’t say anything intelligent in Chinese. The characters have remained the draw. And I really do know how to write them, even when I don’t know what they mean.

So it was extremely encouraging to read, the other day, something that I must have unwittingly suspected all along. Simon Leys, in a 1996 essay, “One More Art: Chinese Calligraphy,” writes of the “frenzied” cursive script that forms one of the principal calligraphic styles,

Only practitioners and specialists can decipher it — and yet, even for the common viewer, it is one of the most spectacular and appealing styles. Its illegibility poses no obstacle to the enjoyment of the ordinary public, since — as we have just said — this enjoyment does not reside in a literary appreciation of the contents but in an imaginative communion with the dynamics of the brushwork. What the viewer needs is not to read a text but to retrace in his mind the original dance of the brush and to relive its rhythmic progress.

Thus accredited with a skill that I already possess, I shall be making my way to the galleries surrounding the Astor Court at the Museum, to enjoy some imaginative communion with the brushwork — without feeling guilty about having no idea what the damn thing says!

Gotham Diary:
8 August 2013

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

I can’t remember being happier. In the middle of the night, I woke to the fall of rain upon leaves, inches from my pillow. Little gusts of clean air puffed every which way. I felt very safe and very young.

Later, however, we were disturbed by a low grinding sound, as of a whining, futile motor. I wondered if someone was very unnecessarily running an air conditioner. Kathleen actually got up to check the toilets. It was merely rain in the drain. It soon put me back to sleep.

This morning, it wasn’t a case of oversleeping. There was simply no better place in the world to be.


By 1909, Freud’s unassuming quest for a cure for nervous disorders…had improbably flowered into the vast system of thought about human nature — psychoanalysis — which has detonated throughout the intellectual social, artistic, and ordinary life of our century as no cultural force has (it may not be off the mark to say) since Christianity. … It was as if a lonely terrorist working in his cellar on a modest explosive device to blow up the local brewery had unaccountably found his way to the hydrogen bomb and blown up half the world.

So writes Janet Malcolm in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, which I’m reading because I found it on my Paperwhite and was (am) still in the mood to read anything written by Malcolm. However, it has been a very long time since I gave serious thought to Freud’s ideas. For twenty years or more, they have struck me as extremely culture-bound, unlikely to have been produced anywhere but in the buttoned-up milieu of high-Victorian respectability. As a teenager, I’d wondered where, exactly, Freud’s three psychological agencies — id, ego, and superego — might be located in the brain. But in good time I understood that Freud and the neuroscientists were not dealing with the same material. There is no ego in the brain, I told myself, and that was that.

Perhaps simply because I haven’t thought about Freud in a long time, I had an open mind as I read Malcolm’s account of the development of his ideas. A mind open enough to be struck, and almost as shocked as one of Freud’s early readers, by the possibility that his famous tripartition, while it answers to no physiological arrangement, describes pretty well how we organize our minds as social creatures. The id is an inborn compound of anxiety and desire, the superego is our internalization of the cultural rules that we are taught as small children, and the ego is our character, the “decider,” around which we create our sense of self and with which we hope to excite our neighbors’ admiration. That the superego is a completely cultural construct I have no doubt, and it readily follows that the conscience of someone brought up in a tribal community (as almost all Americans are, outside the more affluent quarters of the great cities) will follow dictates quite different from those of someone raised in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. We may all agree that cold-blooded murder is wrong, but the further we get from that absolute, the more we will disagree, first over priorities and then over substance. This isn’t what Freud had in mind when he divided the mind into three parts, but it still seems to work.

I completely reject Freud’s “complexes,” especially as regards boys’ hypothetical fear of castration and the idea that anybody regards girls and women as castrated. Great thinker that he was, Freud was an unregenerate sexist, and his notion that the female superego is accordingly defective in rigor is ridiculously Martian. Sex is important in Freud because the denial of sex was such a prominent feature of the bourgeois life of his time. (He may also have underestimated the frequency of actual sexual molestation — a prominent theme of Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives.) When it comes to his theory of transference, essential for psychotherapeutic success, I would root it in the struggle to achieve autonomy in defiance of authority — the ego’s everyday job. The therapist embodies the superego’s social power, but at the same time he does not contemn the id’s passions. Thereby, his consulting room becomes the patient’s whole world. At least for fifty minutes.

Gotham Diary:
How Will She Do It?
7 August 2013

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

It’s all right there in the second paragraph:

At forty-five, Jodi still sees herself as a young woman. She does not have her eye on the future but lives very much in the moment, keeping her focus on the everyday. She assumes, without having thought about it, that things will go on indefinitely in their imperfect yet entirely acceptable way. In other words, she is deeply unaware that her life is now peaking, that her youthful resilience — which her twenty-year marriage to Todd Gilbert has slowly been eroiding — is approaching a final stage of disintegration, that her notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.

And as for that marriage…

Since I’m reading The Silent Wife on the Kindle Paperwhite, I can tell you that I’ve covered 66% of it. The suspense is almost unendurable. The late Susan Harrison writes like a student of Ruth Rendell who has figured out how to supercharge the formula. Several times already, I have cried out in shocked alarm.

More anon.


Well! That was a smashing read! But, beyond recommending it as heartily as I can, there is absolutely nothing for me to say. Not yet. Time will tell whether it’s a stunt, a magnificent entertainment, or a book of more literary haunting. Either way, it will be widely read. For young women, it will be seized on as a cautionary tale. Young men will fondle the moral conundrum that it poses. It may become a book that is read by everyone before leaving college, and rarely touched again afterward. I think that it tells one of those stories, composed of all the usual elements but to its own very peculiar ends, that everyone with some education will be expected to have read, whether or not there’s a movie.

The weather, somewhat cloudy late this morning, is sunny again, and still quite beautifully cool. Walking to dinner, we’ve carried sweaters that we’ve worn on the way back to the house. Tonight, we will stay home, just for a change; although I was determined not to cook, I couldn’t see the harm in poaching some chicken, boiling some orzo in the water, and grilling some large mushrooms, all for a salad with avocado and bottled Caesar dressing. I did bring a chunk of parmagiano reggiano. I’m throwing it together as I write, so that it can sit and steep while we take our walk on the beach — a walk that will be somewhat shorter than Monday’s and yesterday’s. (We’re sore!)

When we weren’t walking yesterday, I was bent over Confucius. Confucius say, “Vessel no vessel! Strange vessel! What a vessel!” Simon Leys pronounces this to be one of the most “terse” statements in the Analects. It is anything but incomprehensible, though, if you know that a ritual vessel characterized by squared corners was at some point replaced by one of a different shape, but called by the same name. Leys puts it thus: “A square vase that is not square — square vase indeed!” But there is no way to render the point in English. In Chinese, the name of the vessel, gu, was also its description — a single character that I can’t wait to hunt down in my modern dictionary at home. When the description no longer fits the object, the name ought to be changed, too. Confucius’s first act as a minister, he always said, would be to “rectify the names” — to call things what they really are. This is the opposite of what dictators usually attenpt, which is to rectify the named.

What makes “study” of this kind engaging is the classical language’s extradordinary pithiness: Confucius puts it all in seven characters, and only three different ones: gu not gu, gu wonder gu wonder. Hunting them down in Legge’s appended dictionary was wonderfully time-consuming

Gotham Diary:
New News
6 August 2013

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

We slept in this morning. We both had crazy dreams. In my case, they were unusual and not unpleasant. (Has there ever been an opera called Amelia al ballo?) The air was uncommonly fragrant, more floral than woodsy; there is always a touch of the jungle about the backyards of Ocean Beach. It was also deliciously cool — too cool to get out of bed at first. We’ve been promised bad weather for most of the week, so every clear blue sky, such as the one above us now, is precious.

While waiting for the verve to get out of bed, I read the last couple of paragraphs of an old Ruth Rendell mystery, which I simply hadn’t been able to keep my eyes open for last night, called No More Dying Then. It’s in this novel that Mike Burden, Inspector Wexford’s number two and recently widowed, falls in love (or fancies he does) with the mother of a missing child. They are all wrong for each other but the sex (discreetly sketched) is quite passionate on both sides. Happily — very happily, when you think about it — the mother’s reunion with her child, who was kidnapped not murdered, puts an end to Mike’s by now merely honorable plans to marry her. His feet are already cold enough. I read the novel in dribs and drabs, half-asleep sometimes, and didn’t quite follow the action — something that has happened several times with mysteries read in ebook form. We’ll see what happens with the next title on the list: Susan Harrison’s The Silent Wife.

Color me happy at the news about the Washington Post. One thing that has becoming clear became even clearer last week, when the Times sold the Globe for a a very small fraction of what it paid for it twenty years ago. The people running newspapers today don’t know how to do it — for today, and much less for tomorrow. Jeff Bezos has demonstrated visionary abilities in the world of print, and, more important in a newspaper owner, he has demonstrated heroic patience. He’s not perfect or above criticism, but the alternative to men like him is men like Murdoch. With luck, Bezos will create a new business model for newspapers that inspires the Times to stay in print after all. To browse a newspaper and to browse a Web site — it’s misleading to use the same verb.

Yes, it’s true that I grew up reading newspapers, and that I’m an old man. But I’ve known a few fashions to come and go. The Seventies, after all — need I say more? And when I see people tapping on their smartphones while walking down the street, or, as we did last night at dinner, both members of a young couple fixing their attention on their screens instead of upon one another, I say to myself, they’ll grow out of it. Eventually, people will prefer not to be on the receiving end of such rudeness. At some point, a venerable app that’s wired into our roughly civilized brains will kick in.


A book that arrived in the mail as I was planning to pack for the week here on Fire Island was Simon Leys’s collection of essays, The Hall of Uselessness. Leys (a Belgian sinologist who settled in Australia and adopted this nom de plume) is a noted translator of Confucius, and he has always struck me as someone who understands what is the same and what is different about China, something few scholars and pundits do. Leys gets China right, to put it crassly. A book of essays by such a writer seemed just the thing to have by the sea, and, in case I fell into a serious mood, I brought along the Analects as well, which I’ve had since it came out in 1997. In case I got really serious, I added James Legge’s translation of the Analects, too. This hardy tome is more than a translation. The original text appears on facing pages, a scholarly apparatus crowds the back of the book, and there is even a dictionary of the characters.

Leys is a Catholic and, in the best sense, a conservative. It suits me now to read thoughtful, pious books that are nevertheless not dogmatic. When Leys is upset, as he is by Christopher Hitchens’s attacks on Mother Teresa, his indignation is personal, not propagandistic. As a born non-believer (as I have long understood myself to be), I naturally have no interest in spreading my lack of spiritual inclination; I wish only to be left alone. That granted, I’m happy to attend to religious meditations, so long as they’re not flamboyant. There are no actual meditations in The Hall of Uselessness, but Leys’s devoutness is palpable, and not at all disagreeable.

This interest in conservatism — which ought not to be taken as the sign of a political drift to the right; for the right would be my natural home, if it were possible to be an American conservative since Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Reagan’s Personal Responsibility (with its odious long tail of “deregulation” — has brought me to the point of wanting to learn more about Friedrich Hayek, who is such a (misunderstood?) totem of market fundamentalists. I’ve got two good books, in addition to The Road to Serfd0m, in my pile at home. One, which I’ve so far found very intriguing, is Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression.  (The other is Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek.) I’m wondering what Hayek would have made of the big Sunday Times story about the cartelization of orthopedic implants, by Elisabeth Rosenthal. As I’m on vacation, I’m not going to say more about that now than to toot my own horn: back when the Clinton’s were working everyone into a frenzy about health insurance, I wondered why they didn’t begin with an attempt to rationalize health costs, which are still, as Rosenthal’s story makes clear, capricious and quite contrary to the spirit of American law. Toot!

Gotham Diary:
So far, —
5 August 2013

Monday, August 5th, 2013

There used to be a police station where the grey structure to the right stands now. The station itself has been set up in the trailer at the rear, where the ferry terminal used to be. (What the closer building is used for, I’ve no idea.) Aside from the missing terminal, however, we have seen very little in the way of Superstorm Sandy damage here in Ocean Beach; everything seems much as it was. But we haven’t yet gone for a walk to the beach, where we understood that the damage was pretty severe.


We love our house. It’s on the bay — one in from the water, if you want to get technical, but the deck has an unimpeded view of, among other things, the Suffolk County Courthouse over in Islip. I’m looking forward to some spectacular sunsets.

The minute we stepped inside the house, we put the city completely behind us. It took the walk from the realtor’s to the house to do the job. The wagon was a bit rusty, and of course, being us, we’d overloaded it. I thought we’d never make it. And then we weren’t immediately sure which house it was. But the key fit in the lock — our first key, but also our first agency rental — and we have made ourselves at home. I’m about to go to the market, f/k/a Whitney’s, now called The Pantry. I’m buying only frivolous things; Kathleen and I agreed that, since we’d be out for seven days (and six nights), I wouldn’t lug my kitchen essentials. But I think I’ll boil a dozen eggs for snacks.

Nice to be online, too. We weren’t sure about that.