Archive for December, 2013

Gotham Diary:
New Year’s Eve
31 December 2013

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

New Year’s Eve — really?

Tuesdays have evolved into a secondary housekeeping day. I do most of the tidying on Saturday, but I change the bedsheets on Tuesday, and I take the laundry downstairs, &c &c. (I also do a load myself. Some day, I’ll explain why I wash about half of our laundry myself, and send the rest out.) Since I’m already drudging, I might as well polish what silver needs it. Then there are closets to tackle — a shelf or two at a time. In any case, I began the day with a run to Fairway. Not the greatest thinking-ahead, that.

The aisles weren’t crowded, but the checkout lines were something else, and I shopped in a panic. Back at home, I got right to work on the bed. Then Kathleen and I had lunch at the coffee shop. She went on to shop for clothes, and I headed to Gristede’s for paper products, which I buy en masse there and have delivered. (Happily, we were short of everything. I’d have had to go just for Kleenex, what will all our sniffles.) The bags are always delivered by the same fellow, I think he’s Haitian but he might be Senegalese; I wonder what he’s qualified to do, wherever he came from. Ten years or so ago, there was a lot of talk about deliverymen who were doctors and accountants back home, and I perhaps ought to be ashamed to say that learning this made me careful to treat them with sincere respect and big tips. At Gristede’s, I forgot to buy Cokes in the very small bottles that Kathleen likes. The two that we have on hand will have to get us into the New Year.

And then, after Gristede’s, I did this, and I did that — the kitchen counter looks terrific! — and I forgot completely about writing here. There was a little problem there. We saw American Hustle yesterday, and, ordinarily, I’d write about that. But a masterpiece about con artists simply cannot be discussed until it comes out on DVD. Then, and only then, can I go into such gems as “science oven” and “If somebody needs to be intimidated, we’ll intimidate them.” (The latter line is delivered by one of my favorite character actors, Paul Herman.) The result of not being able to make use of such material and having devoted the day to the ultramundane (not to be confused with the ultramontane — no, the ultramundane is distinctly cismontane) can only be flushed away.

Kathleen is knitting a baby blanket. The newborn, a little girl, is two weeks old. Here’s hoping that she’s still a baby when Kathleen finishes the blanket. It’s not that Kathleen is slow — not at all. But she must always be doing something that she has never done before. This blanket has an intricate border and a sprinkling of “medieval hearts,” with the child’s initial at the center. A document only slightly thinner than an S-1 has been prepared, with measurements in inches.

We are finally listening to Christmas carols. Just made it! And while we’re savoring the mysteries of time, permit me to ask when, in your opinion, a certain little fellow turns four? EST or PST? Either way, some time between 1:30 and 2 AM. Party time, definitely. For people, that is, who are younger than we are, and older than Will.

Happy New Year! And thanks for reading!

Gotham Diary:
Such fun
30 December 2013

Monday, December 30th, 2013

At Timon’s Villa let us pass the day,
Where all cry out, “What sums are thrown away!”

Thus begins the excerpt from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Taste that appears in The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1926, reprinted 1963). Although I never quite memorized it, I read it many, many times, often aloud. I was enchanted by Pope in those days. His easy elegance and clear cleverness made writing look not only easy, but a fun thing to do. His moralizing was not disagreeable; I never felt that he was pointing at me. I could have my cake and eat it, too: while agreeing that Timon’s villa was emptily, unpleasantly ostentatious, I could also, perched over the page, savor every extravagant detail.

And now the Chappel’s silver bell you hear,
That summons you to all the Pride of Pray’r;
Light quirks of Musick, broken and uneven,
Make the soul dance upon a jig to heav’n.
On painting Cielings you devoutly stare,
Where sprawl the Saints of Verrio, or Laguerre,
On gilded clouds in fair expansion lie,
And bring all Paradise before your eye.
To rest, the Cushion and the Dean invite,
Who never mentions Hell to ears polite.

I had no idea who Verrio or Laguerre were. At some point, I learned that they were imported artists. I may not have known that Verrio painted the grand staircase at Hampton Court Palace until I visited the place in 1984. Later, on that same trip to London — Kathleen and I were visiting her parents, who were living there are the time — we went to Petworth House, where I got to see a staircase by Laguerre as well. Verrio and Laguerre, specialists in illusionistic, quasi trompe-l’oeil murals, are pretty much as mediocre as Pope suggests. The very nicest thing that you could say about them (or about the staircases that I have seen) is that they are resolutely second-rate. Their work is too self-important to be pleasing. Fussing with the mechanics of spectacle, it is not spectacular.

Over the weekend, one of these painters came up, in Francis Haskell’s Patrons and Painters, a book that I truly wish I might have read, or been able to read, in 1963. Antonio Verrio appears in the chapter about the attempts of North European patrons to attract Italian artists to their countries. Born in 1636, Verrio was representative of the caliber of those artists who, prior to 1700, accepted the invitation. Haskell is especially stinging.

Verrio, like Gentileschi before him, came to England from Paris, though he had been born in Lecce and liked to call himself a Neapolitan. In common with the other artists employed by Le Brun at Versailles, he had there been required to lose rather than develop a personality, but in his case the process cannot have been a difficult one.

Such fun! Turn the page, however, and the deprecation becomes bizarre. Haskell is discussing the unhappy fates of several artists who felt obliged to flee England after the fall of James II.

Verrio was more cunning. With his coach and horses, parmesan cheese, bologna sausages, olives and caviar, he left the court and worked for a time in a number of country houses. Before the end of the century, however, he had been taken up by the new régime and was being employed at Hampton Court…

Parmesan cheese and bologna sausages? The shock of this passage points up how little Haskell has to say about food, if indeed he does mention it anywhere else in the book — I’ll be on the lookout now! — but even more how seldom (again, if ever) Haskell is at all obscure. This must be a moment of unsuppressed donnishness. Haskell is alluding, I suppose, to an anecdote of greed or gluttony or, it may be, finickiness: Verrio, who was very well paid, must have insisted upon the comforts of home (although — caviar?). Haskell airs a few other remarks that are, arguably, unnecessarily withering. It must be, too, that there was no need to go to Italy to experience the mediocrity of Verrio; one needed, rather, to escape England to avoid it.

At the other end of the scale, reading about Poussin and his great Italian patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo, made me want to look at some Poussins, so I pulled down the catalogue to the Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions exhibition that visited the Museum in 2008. This show was chiefly curated by the Louvre’s Pierre Rosenberg, and in the introductory essay, “Encountering Poussin,” Rosenberg makes the most extraordinary claim. He calls Poussin “one of the finest artists of the seventeenth century” — certainly! — “and, together with Cézanne, the greatest of all French painters.” I had to read this several times, sure that I had missed some qualifying clause; but, no, there isn’t one. Poussin and Cézanne, the greatest of all French painters!

It’s a moralizing judgment rather than an aesthetic one, as I sense the minute I disagree. But what about Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, and Fragonard? The believer in the paramountcy of Poussin and Cézanne purses his lips in disdain; I have named four painters from a decadent period, three of them devoted to amorousness and two occasionally pornographic. My reply is to insist that each one of them puts vibrant human beings on paper and canvas with an accomplished brio that is altogether lacking in Poussin and Cézanne, neither of whom is especially gifted at drawing figures.* And let’s not forget the two de La Tours, Georges and Maurice-Quentin. I don’t argue that any one of these painters is superior to Poussin. But I deny that he is superior to them.

I did read a bit more of the catalogue, and a good deal of it covered the same territory as Haskell’s chapter about “The Private Patrons.” There was Cassiano dal Pozzo; there was Camillo Massimi, another Roman patron. It’s like meeting someone at a second party, and feeling that one has gotten to know more than just a face and a name.

Massimi’s face quickly becomes familiar, because its was painted by Velásquez. Massimi’s great collection of fine-art objects is memorable, too, not for what it contained but for where it went when he died, in 1677.

Among the purchasers of some of the finest pictures, drawings and antiquities were the King of France, the Spanish Viceroy of Naples and an English gentleman, Dr Richard Mead. The transaction is almost symbolic. There were, of course, other important collectors in Rome at the time, but they were becoming increasingly rare. The combination of wealth, enthusiasm, catholicity of taste and discrimination that had marked the the leading Italian patrons of the seventeenth century did not really survive Massimi, and a largely new tradition had to be forged again in the neo-classical period.

I’ve been learning a good deal of just plain history from Haskell. I have never had a very clear idea of Italy in the age of the baroque, and one of Haskell’s bass-note motifs is the decline of papal prestige. This had something to do with the aftershocks of the Reformation, but more to do with the emergence of modern nation-states in the period, and it was most glaringly manifest in the Peace of Westphalia, which resolved the crises of the Thirty Years’ War without taking papal concerns into account. Indeed, disregard for Rome seems to have been a sine qua non for peace. Urban VIII, the Barberini pope and something of the genius loci of Roman baroque, died four years before the Peace, but he was already protesting the conduct of negotiations. His successors were forced to wear smaller shoes.

Meanwhile, the English were gearing up production of milordi — rich, young men who toured “the Continent” with their tutors. The tutors espoused high-minded objectives while their charges had as much fun as possible. Haskell writes of one of these, Sir Thomas Isham. Isham

left England in October 1676 and spent nearly eighteen months in Italy, where he visited most of the important towns with his tutor. Though he enjoyed a series of extravagant love affairs and got heavily into debt, he also managed to acquire a certain number of contemporary paintings, advised mainly by a dissolute priest called Buno Talbot.

Curious to know more, I learned at Wikipedia that Sir Thomas kept a diary in Latin for a few years before his Italian junket, at his father’s instance — he wasn’t Sir Thomas yet — and that he died of smallpox not long after his return to England. I should like to know what inspired Francis Haskell to describe his Italian dalliances as “extravagant,” instead of, simply, “expensive.”

* What I should say of Poussin is that he can be very good at painting statues, and giving them plausible skin tones. But his figures do not move.

Gotham Diary:
The 150
27 December 2013

Friday, December 27th, 2013

It was only after I’d read almost everything else in the latest New York Review that I condescended to look at Thomas Nagel’s review of a book whose title, which I completely misunderstood, put me off: Death and the Afterlife. It didn’t take long to clear up my mistake. Here is Nagel’s second paragraph:

The afterlife referred to in the title is not the personal afterlife, the continued existence of the individual in some form after death. [Samuel] Scheffler does not believe in a personal afterlife, and some of the book is taken up with the question of how we should feel about our own mortality if death is the end of our existence. But his main topic is what he calls the collective afterlife, the survival and continued renewal of humanity after our personal death — not only the survival of people who already exist, but the future lives of people born long after our deaths. Scheffler argues that the collective afterlife is enormously important to us—in some respects more important than our individual survival—though its importance escapes our attention because we take it so much for granted.

This, I could see, was thrilling stuff. Somebody writing about a matter that is much on my mind.

Schefflin’s book collects two Tanner lectures with a third paper, and wraps them up with commentary by other philosophers (among them Harry Frankfurt) and a response by Scheffler. I don’t intend to say more about Death and the Afterlife, which I’m not sure I’ll read, because the philosophical tone of the writing, at least as quoted here, sounds tedious, and also because I don’t require Scheffler’s thought experiments to reach his conclusions. But I do want to copy a few more extracts from Nagel’s review, because they pull the discussion of leisure and cultivation that I began yesterday onto an interesting tangent.

Some examples of the dependence of present value on the existence of future persons are obvious: it would make no sense to pursue a long-term project like the search for a cure for cancer, or the reversal of global warming, or the development of an effective system of international law, if humanity were going to be extinguished shortly. But Scheffler believes that the prospect of extinction would probably undermine the motivation for many other types of activity as well: procreation, of course (in the doomsday scenario); but also artistic, musical, and literary creation, humanistic scholarship, historical and scientific research—even though these seem to be temporally self-contained. Their place in traditions that extend greatly beyond our own lives and contributions, Scheffler believes, is a condition of the value we assign to them, and of our motivation for pursuing them.

As I read this, I paused critically to note that very few people — sadly — are engaged in artistic creation and scientific research. And even fewer, I daresay, in humanistic scholarship. Later in the review, Nagel considers this explicitly.

On the other hand, Scheffler seems right that motivation for the kind of work that contributes to our culture, our knowledge, our economy and society would be hard to sustain under these scenarios, and that this would drain a good deal of meaning from our lives, and might well result in a general social breakdown. Yet this is most plausible with regard to creative activities of a kind that most people don’t engage in. Would it be natural for an electrician, a waitress, or a bus driver to think of what they are doing as essentially part of the collective history of humanity, stretching far into the future—so that it would lose meaning if there were no future?

Except for the link to their direct descendants, I suspect that for most people, horizontal connections with their contemporaries are far more significant in underwriting the value of their lives and activities than vertical links to the distant future. But while the exact scope of the effect may be hard to determine, it is clear that Scheffler has succeeded in posing a genuinely new philosophical question of great interest and importance. Value evidently has a long-term historical dimension.

So while Scheffler’s argument certainly holds for these special people — and holds, as I say, for reasons that don’t depend on his argument — it is more tenuous where ordinary people are concerned. But that is what has to change if human beings are to become democratic stewards of Planet Earth.


Over the years, I’ve abstracted a general observation from casual experience. Most mature people, even most educated people, live at the center of a sphere of consciousness whose diameter is about 150 years. Although there are plenty of facts in the litter of the past 75, and nothing but hopes and probabilities in the future, the two halves are homogenous, because, at least in peace time, healthy people operate on the assumption that the future is going to resemble the past. At a distance of 20 years, I’d say, the past begins to blur, but there are clear landmarks — parents, grandparents, houses lived in, schools attended, perhaps even the schools attended by parents and grandparents. For most people, these living links to the past 75 years persist after the death of parents. Living links to the future are only speculative, but we extend what we know from the past into our imagination of what’s to come. Beyond this range, from the youth of grandparents to the old age of grandchildren, our sense of the living planet falls off the continental shelf of everyday awareness into an abyss that, if not impenetrable, remains unpenetrated. Beyond the lives of grandparents, there stretches an undifferentiated past that, again, for most people, is not altered by contact with history textbooks. Beyond the lives of grandchildren, it may almost be said that the world ceases to exist, imaginatively, except as the matrix for escapist science fiction.

Regular readers will know that I take a great interest in histories of all kinds, and I’ll aver that the objective of my mental cultivation, the fruit of my intellectual husbandry as it were, is an enhanced historical sensibility. I confess to being interested in history in much the same way that you might be interested in racecars — I like the details. But I get more than pleasure from history; I get insight into the future. No, I have no more idea of what’s going to happen next than anyone else does. But I have a lively sense of what might happen if what’s happening now continues. Thanks to my knowledge of history, I know that terrible catastrophes can erupt from nowhere. I also know that, so far, there has never been a catastrophe of complete devastation. These are everyday realities to me; I don’t go for more than six months without reading something new that bears on the Black Death that swept through Eurasia in the Fourteenth Century.

And I can see that we’re living in a crisis now, one that began with the first reliable steam engines nearly two centuries ago. This crisis has a dizzying variety of ramifications. One, obviously, is the lasting damage that we might have caused to the world we live in. Another is the increasing amount of labor that is performed by mechanical devices. A third is the state-change in human society that has been unfolding throughout the crisis, which has been marked by savage revolutions and unprecedented wars. Two hundred years ago, most people were illiterate farm workers. Now, most people have television sets. How does a society bear such transformation? It is so obviously much nicer to watch television than to plow a field that no one can be seriously expected to give the question the critical attention that it requires. That’s a fourth ramification. There’s no immediate payoff in understanding the crisis. There’s every human-nature reason to ignore it altogether. That’s why the crisis is met with general disregard, punctuated by dustballs of media-induced panic.

This crisis is not going to resolve itself pleasantly. Nor is it going to come to a stop within the lifetime of anyone currently breathing — barring a possibly human-induced natural catastrophe that we lack the perspective and the political will to foresee. Faute de mieux, I assume that it will continue for half of its duration so far, roughly another century. By then, either we will have begun to bring it under control or it will metastasize into something truly unmanageable. If we do begin to control it, that will be as the result of a plan, a plan developed sooner rather than later. We shall plan for a world in which we use less and cleaner energy, for both our devices and our own bodies. We shall also have to plan for a world of massively reconfigured resources. A world in which most people enjoy leisure.

Yes, that’s right: a world in which most people don’t have jobs, but don’t experience material want. That’s what we ought to plan for, anyway. We could always give the default model another spin, returning most people to peasantry. But if what we want to plan for is not always clear, planning against a collapse into agrarian autocracy is surely a no-brainer.

This planning can’t be done by some smarty-pants elite of thinkers and scientists. It must be embraced by everyone — so it must be understood by everyone. That’s why we have to break the 150.

Gotham Diary:
Approach to Leisure
26 December 2013

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

The other day, I began thinking about leisure. Not for the first time: back in college, I spent a lot of time with Josef Pieper’s then-important book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture. I’ve got a copy somewhere, but I haven’t dealt with that part of the library yet, and even if I could find it I should have to re-read it to say anything more than what I can say off the top of my head, which is that Pieper rooted everything that’s valuable about culture in leisure, specifically and originally the leisure of monks. His book — an impassioned pamphlet, really — was motivated by the horror of what he could already see, a “popular culture” that was not rooted in leisure.

What is leisure? Short answer: time to think. That may sound too “leisurely.” Thinking — the act of arranging thoughts — requires leisure.

More important: leisure is not the opposite of “work.”

Leisure is a concept that comes down to us from classical antiquity, during which slave labor enabled property owners to cultivate their minds instead of their fields. The OED reminds us that the origin of the word is akin to that of “license” — the man of leisure has permission to use his time as he sees fit, without regard to material necessity. The dictionary also suggests that to do something at one’s leisure is to do it with deliberation. A happy quotation from Dr Johnson (1780) makes a very important distinction:

I am not grown, I am afraid, less idle; and of idleness I am now paying the fine by having no leisure.

Some people — writers and professors as well as artists come to mind — are able to devote their professional lives to the pursuit of leisure because their cultivation produces marketable goods. This is not to suggest that there is anything leisurely about what professionals do. But the skill with which they do it is the fruit of leisure. To grasp the implications of anything as fully as possible, it is necessary, if only for a time, to cut free of particular objectives and agendas.

I am going to assume that some people are wired to resist the idea of leisure, to regard it as little more than an occasion of goofing off. I am not going to attempt to persuade them otherwise. Instead, I address this to people who understand the importance of vacations, breaks, intermissions, even distractions. For many such people, the refreshment of leisure occurs unconsciously. I vividly remember coming back to class at the beginning of a fall semester and immediately grasping the function of the subjunctive in French, a language to which I hadn’t given a thought all summer. Similarly, as an old man, I’ve had to learn that to recapture an elusive memory (usually the name of something), it’s essential to think about something else; for a reason that we don’t yet understand, memory is often frustrated by consciousness. I don’t intend to explain these foibles of the mind (I’ve just said that they can’t be explained — not yet), but if they are familiar to you, if you have accepted the current situation, one in which our minds, if only because we really don’t know how they work, or why they work in different ways for different people, are notably inefficient, then what I have to say about leisure might be of interest.


The other day, I mentioned an essay by Boris Groys about Clement Greenberg. (It appears in The Books That Shaped Art History.) I want to begin this discussion of leisure by quoting a chunky passage from it. The bit of Greenberg at the end comes from “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg’s seminal essay of 1939.

Greenberg does not expect from the start that the half-educated masses could be consumers of avant-garde artistic revolutions. Rather, he finds it reasonable to expect that the cultivated bourgeoisie will support the new art. However, the historical reality of the 1930s brings Greenberg to the conclusion that the bourgeoisie is no longer able to fulfil the role of the economic and political supporter of high art. Time and again he states that the secured domination of high art can only be guaranteed by the secured domination of the ruling class. At the moment at which a ruling class begins to feel itself insecure, weakened and endangered by the rising power of the masses, the first thing that it sacrifices to these masses is art. To keep its real political and economic power the ruling class tries to erase any distinction of taste and to create an illusion of aesthetic solidarity with the masses — a solidarity that conceals real power structures and economic inequalities: ‘the encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which the totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects (p 19).

As a Trotskyite (as he then was), Greenberg understandably talks as though immutable social laws were at work here, but we can overlook these mechanical pretensions and agree that Greenberg (through Groys) is describing what really did happen between the wars. The ruling classes of the West, anxious to avoid further revolutions from below, cast off a great deal of pomp and circumstance. Fine art, with its Western origins in royal and aristocratic courts, was disparaged for the ostentation that had been an important component of its original appeal. Modern art — that of the avant-garde — was taken up by some members of the elite because it didn’t look anything like the art that adorned the old palaces (and new museums). But it was ignored, along with the rest of art, together with the cultivation required to appreciate it, by most elites. The culmination of today’s illusion of aesthetic solidarity has nothing to do with art at all; it is the skybox.

Greenberg believes, namely, that the connoisseurship that makes the spectator attentive to the purely formal, technical, material aspects of the work of art is accessibly only to those who ‘could command leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort’ (p 9). For Greenberg this means that avant-garde art can hope to get its financial and social support only from the same ‘rich and cultivated’ people who historically supported traditional art. Thus the avant-garde remains attached to the bourgeois ruling class ‘by an umbilical cord of gold’ (p 8).

But, as Greenberg goes on to argue, that “umbilical cord” has been cut by anxious elites. Greenberg and Groys believe that the health of the art world depends on the support of a ruling class, and perhaps it used to do so. Looking forward, however, I believe that the health of tomorrow’s ruling class — ideally comprising everyone — will depend on fine art, and on many other things in life that require thought. Ultimately, it will depend on the “cultivation of some sort” that can be produced only by leisure — leisure seen not as “free time” but as a skilled activity that requires training and exercise.

What distinguishes leisure from work isn’t effort. The man of leisure may be just as industrious as the man who works the fields, but his industry, unlike the farmer’s, is personally refreshing. It wouldn’t be cultivation if it weren’t.

Gotham Diary:
The Problem is Z
24 December 2013

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Encouraged by the dry sunlight, I went out this morning to get a trim. The barber is off to Tampa for a week, and if I waited for his return my beard would become an ill-tended hedge. It was good walking weather. The temperature had dropped back somewhere closer to normal, but it wasn’t too cold. I’m almost looking forward to going out again! We’re due at Ray Soleil’s at six, after which we’ll head over to the Knickerbocker dinner. The original plan called for a traditional Christmas Eve here, but that was scratched over the weekend, and I’m sure that I’m feeling better because I haven’t been messing about in the kitchen. I’m still sniffling, but I’m clearly on the mend, and all I have to do is to take it easy.

It is the invisible Christmas. Christmas is going on elsewhere. Every now and then, Kathleen and I walk into it, smile, shake hands, and chat. But we haven’t caught the spirit of the season at all, which is what happens when one of us is ill or both of us are tired. Kathleen has certainly been tired, and with good reason. I’ve had this cold, but I’ve been tired, too, and I ought to wonder what I’ve got to be tired about, but I don’t, because I’m managing everyday life well enough. In other words, being tired might have nothing to do with it; I may simply have lost interest in things that matter to me a lot less than others. And one thing that matters to me more than almost anything else is leisure.

The foregoing paragraphs were followed by several more, but when it was time to get dressed for dinner I realized that I wasn’t even halfway through what I’d need to say about the topic raised by that last word, leisure. It’s a much bigger topic than I thought it was; all I can think right now is how queer it was of me not to see how big it was. In any case, I’ve just had a nice, big dinner at the Knickerbocker — the place was packed, and the oysters were tremendous! — and my capacity for ratiocination has dipped below the horizon. I’ve saved those extra paragraphs for later. And that is how I rather thought this entry would end: it’s Christmas Eve; you understand; sorry not to be able to say more.


But I’m that rarest of birds, capable of speaking long past the exhaustion of the ability to think. As I was getting into my nightclothes, I dwelt upon a conversational matter that recurred throughout the evening. A family friend, X, has a child, Y, who is not doing well in college. Y does not see the point of it, and in fact has spent two semesters, paid for by a generous but understandably knit-browed uncle, not going to classes at all (unbeknownst to X), and eventually failing in everything. The worst of it is that Y appears to be unrepentant — another way of saying that nothing whatsoever has been learned. A terrible situation, one that we should all hate to have any closer in our lives than this one already is. Needless to say, I exploded with comments and suggestions, but at every turn I felt obliged to add, as indeed I quite sincerely did, that I did not hold X at fault for any of it. X had been, it was clear, an exemplary parent. But the discussion teetered back and forth, in implication, between blaming Y and not-blaming X. As if it were somehow a problem that the two of them could be expected to solve. I did say that I thought that the whole system of higher education — Z — was screwed up. I say it all the time. But I didn’t feel it until I got home and was getting ready for bed, and thought about X and Y and the sorrow that made so little sense. What had been an objective observation at dinner became an outrage.

The problem is Z. The American model of higher education is a CROCK. Indulge me by regarding the word in caps as an emoticon spewing Krakatoan havoc.

Can we just admit that? Can we admit that American higher education works well only for those probably natural scholarly students who understand what “learning” is all about long before they get to college — long before they actually understand why it’s important? (And also for the ghastly race of parasites who “test well,” or are gifted at “psyching out” their professors.)  Can we? Because these kids are not models for all the others, all the ordinarily-endowed students who have been told that they need a degree to get a job. When, in fact, all they need is not not to have a degree. The degree itself is meaningless, the learning behind it meaningless — and the smarter (though still not scholarly) students among them understand this. It’s like a test for waiters: can you get this martini to the patron’s table without spilling a drop? (You’re not going to be the one drinking it!) Something altogether different is required — required!

X and Y are not the people responsible for curing the systemic mendacity of Z — which seems to exist today, like so many of our enterprises, only to rake in revenues. The rest of us can help them out by demanding something honest.

Make my Christmas bright. Think about it, please.

Gotham Diary:
23 December 2013

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

For several days, I’ve been afflicted by a cold. It’s not a very bad cold, just enough to keep me indoors and away from most holiday festivities, something that, this year, suits both of us down to the box spring. (Kathleen, who has been conducting a small fleet of new deals since the spring, has survived a stretch of extreme exhaustion and is now convalescing.) I manage to do the regular light housework, and we order in a great deal.

In a little while, we’re going to watch Transsiberian, which I’ll tell anyone is the only film not by Alfred Hitchcock that can claim a close kinship with his aesthetic. Because Kathleen and I were sure that we’d seen it twice already, I was surprised not to find the DVD in our library, but now I know what must have happened: we saw the movie in the theatre and then rented it when it came out; despite my very high regard for it, I must have been on an austerity kick, and put off buying it until I actually forgot to do so. I was looking for it after we saw Side Effects, which stars the other Mara sister, Rooney. Kate Mara, who had played nice little girls (Tadpole, Brokeback Mountain), appeared in Transsiberian as a damaged drifter, in over her head on a rotten deal. I thought we’d have a little Mara festival. I did buy the DVD, by the way. New ones are out of stock at Amazon, but I was able to order a “Used — Like New” copy for 78¢. But I didn’t want to wait for it to arrive, so I had Video Room send over a(nother) rental.

However — reading. A cold that doesn’t reduce one to wretchedness is a great excuse to spend the day reading. Yesterday, I swallowed up Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, a book about the greats of Latin antiquity from 1957 that Donna Tartt said somewhere that she was reading. I don’t think that I’d ever heard of Tibullus, and Propertius was just a name. Highet presents the poets in his own translations only, so I had to search Google a bit to find the originals. I’m crazy about the distracted elegance in this line of Propertius:

cantabant surdo, nudabant pectora caeco

Two Loebs are on the way.

Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is a very quick read, as I found out this morning. Having gotten through a few chapters last night, I finished the whole thing off before lunch. I bought the Kindle edition — a somewhat questionable choice. Robert Stone is a master of slow-motion, intense excitement, and he combines the thrilling with the literary like no one else. Ordinarily, I should have bought the physical book. But I was down with my cold and in need to things to read on the Paperwhite at bedtime — now. Quite often now I wake up at four with my reading glasses resting on my chest, Kathleen’s beaded chain still around my neck. But the lamp on the bedside table isn’t on, and it’s nice to be spared that middle-of-the-night confusion. The Paperwhite falls asleep soon after I do, and gets lost in the blankets. I usually read mysteries, and am content to make them last — it took ages to get through Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale. But the new Stone had a very different impact. I woke early this morning, my sinuses dried-up and blocked, and I picked up where I’d left off as soon as I’d refilled my water bottle. I didn’t even look at the Times until I was done. It wasn’t a good Paperwhite read at all: now I have to buy something else.

I’m puzzled. Did Death of the Black-Haired Girl feel slight because I read it on the Kindle? Or was it slight? Certainly it was sparing. Thirty years ago, Stone would have served the philandering professor (whose first philander this was) a heap of misery, with more suspense for the reader into the bargain; and that satanic priest, “the Mourner,” would have appeared for real. (Maybe he had a twin.) The black-haired girl would have left a bigger hole in my heart when she died; as it was, I was glad to see the end of a self-absorbed pain in the ass. The novel would have been longer, with more about the former nun’s years in Latin America and the professor’s wife’s youth in a Canadian Mennonite community. There would have been more about the dean’s interesting wife, making her role in the resolution of a grievous conflict more satisfying. More — there would have been More. I don’t know what kind of complaint it is to wish that an author had written More — a fairly complimentary one, on the face of it. But in the end, the end came too soon; I didn’t spend enough time with the characters, and I don’t know how they’ll stay with me.


Another book that I finished today was The Books That Shaped Art History: from Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss, a collection of sixteen essays edited by Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard. The actual range of the book is Mâle to Belting — neither of whom I’d heard of before. Emile Mâle published a study of French iconography in the Thirteenth Century in 1898. Hans Belting came out with Bild und Kult ninety-two years later. The other writers covered are Bernard Berenson, Heinrich Wölfflin, Roger Fry, Nikolaus Pevsner, Alfred Barr, Erwin Panofsky, Kenneth Clark, E H Gombrich, Clement Greenberg, Francis Haskell, Michael Baxendall, T J Clark, Svetlana Alpers, and Rosalind Krauss. I saw the book at the Frick bookshop right after I’d finished reading Haskell’s The Ephemeral Museum, and it made me realize that I’ve read very little serious art history. I’ve got a couple of books by Gombrich (although which I can’t say for certain), and a collection of essays by Panofsky. I used to have something by Wölfflin. I always thought that I ought to read Kenneth Clark, but didn’t — not The Nude, anyway. (The essays focus, as the collection’s title indicates, on particular books, not on their authors’ complete output.) I read a bit about Rosalind Krauss recently, in Janet Malcolm’s 41 False Starts. I knew who Berenson, Fry, Pevsner, and Barr were, but I was ignorant of the last five writers. I dreaded reading about Clement Greenberg, because he was so notorious for pugnacity, but I found that Boris Groys’s essay, which focuses on “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” and “The Plight of Culture,” to be the most lucid piece in the book. Not only that, but I readily understood what (according to Groys) Greenberg was trying to say. I didn’t agree with it, but I did engage with it. Engagement did not occur in most other instances, and several essays were either too jargon-ridden or too philosophically preoccupied for me to grasp them. For the later writers, art history seems to have dwindled into a cudgel with which to bruise the bourgeoisie and other vectors of power, and has little to do with pleasure. The essayists would seem to be even worse.

(I did come away curious about Alois Riegl, who was mentioned in quite a few of the essays; his Stilfragen might well have been included among the Shapers.)

The idea that giving pleasure is not enough to merit serious attention is vital, but in the history of Western letters it has too often degenerated into the very bad idea that giving pleasure itself is not worth talking about. If we are going to take art (or anything) seriously, this noxious notion holds, then we must find something other than pleasure to talk about. Another bad reason for avoiding pleasure — it’s too personal; “there’s no accounting for taste” — draws support from the puerile obsession with system-building and generalization-generation that characterizes the modern intellectual. But pleasure is the beginning of art; to begin with anything else is to avoid seeing it. And, as Books that Shaped Art History will make instantly clear to any layman, the philosophical systems that art historians construct and contest are anything but enlightening, in the sense that none of them encourages contact with art. This contact is assumed, and assumed, one fears, to have been outgrown. It’s as though art were wine, to be savored only after a long rot. Rot.

(The singular exception is Francis Haskell, much too interested in vagarious history to succumb to theory — and a joy to read.)

If it were not for the code in my ‘ose, I’d expatiate upon these philistine themes, but there’s plenty of time for that.

Gotham Diary:
Where are the amateurs?
20 December 2013

Friday, December 20th, 2013

Schopenhauer on the novel:

The art [of the novel] lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life.

Actually, this may be Tim Parks’s reworking of Schopenhauer.* No matter. It seems the most perfect description of Henry James’s art.

Ten years or more ago, I decided that I needed to read up on Schopenhauer. I even bought a volume in German. I could swallow none of it, because I couldn’t figure out how to open it up. Schopenhauer seemed lost in a fog of abstractions. These might have meant something to someone conversant with Kant — which I most resolutely was and am not. Kant is rather like television — inconceivable if you’re not habituated. And, as far as I can see, just as pointless.

Schopenhauer, however, inspired Wagner, among others, and imported a lot of thinking about the religions of India. I did read a biography. It was not alluring. Schopenhauer’s life or the biography.

Speaking of which, did you know that Borges considered himself to be a “hedonic reader“?

Borges calls himself a “hedonic” reader—he seeks pleasure in books, and beyond that, a “form of happiness.” He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame. As a reader, he hunts for specific passages, or even just phrases, that move him. “One falls in love with a line, then with a page, then with an author,” he says. “Well, why not? It is a beautiful process.”

I don’t think that I’ve ever come across anything in Borges that made so much sense. Anyway, no Kant for me.


I recall saying the other day that Capital Culture, Neil Harris’s new book, is too dutiful to be brilliant. I’d like to add substance to this rather offhand remark. Now that I’ve finished the book, and slept on it, I can see that Capital Culture is a very good book of its kind — excellent, really — but that this kind of book can never be brilliant. The essence of Harris’s duty, as manifest in the book, is to document aspects of an institutional career. The institution in question is the Smithsonian, and the aspects largely relate to its semiautonomous “bureau,” the National Gallery of Art, as directed by S Dillon Ripley at the Smithsonian and J Carter Brown at the National Gallery. More specifically, these aspects relate to the mounting of “blockbuster” art exhibitions, three of which are described in detailed chapters of their own. Harris has sifted through voluminous archives and found a story that he can build upon them. That is what modern historians do.

So we are told a lot about Brown’s negotiations with owners, officials at other museums, diplomats, and legislators. We are told about his relations with his trustees and with his staff. An early chapter is devoted to the exciting acquisition of Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci. If someone said something interesting about a work of art, and it’s relevant to Harris’s institutional history, then he quotes it, but there isn’t very much of this sort of thing. The art itself remains largely offstage. Which is not a fault; I’m not looking to Harris for art history. The fault, rather, is in Harris helpless reduction of the point of all this effort to attendance records. Brown and his colleagues (and competitors) move mountains, or at any rate spend fortunes, to bring rare and precious works of art to the public. And what does the public do? The public shows up.

What more is there to say? What can be done with visitors beyond counting them? On the reception side, Harris makes reference to responses to the exhibitions as such and to the “politics” behind them — but only fleetingly to the constituent works in themselves. Missing from his documentary materials are testimonies to the effects that seeing these works might have had on individual visitors. This is hardly neglect on Harris’s part. The archive of such testimonies, exclusive of the trite, is undoubtedly very slim. We don’t expect museum visitors to file reports. We take it for granted that exposure to artworks is an inherently good thing.

I take it for granted that exposure to artworks is a great opportunity, but for the “inherently good thing” to happen, the visitor must do something more than pass by with an approving nod. What this something more might be, it is not easy to say, but Harris’s book makes it clear that museum officials do not seek to ascertain it. They’re content with raw exposure, which, in the case of most museums today, registers as box-office revenue. The same goes for outreach and educational programs. To the extent that they are offered and attended, they’re successful. My buying a ticket contributes to the reputation of The Girl with the Pearl Earring; I need do no more.

I’m afraid I see a hole here, a void where there ought to be something. It is not to be filled by the commentary of professional critics, who are as deformed by the configuration of art institutions (galleries and auction houses as well as museums) as the people who run them are. How rare it is for a journalist to discuss a work of art that hasn’t been moved from one place to another! I  remember a lovely piece from 2004 about Bronzino’s Ludovico Capponi (at the Frick) by David Masello, then the editor of Art & Antiques. Such essays are altogether too rare. John Updike’s writing about art is strong — but Updike was a professional writer, too. Where are the amateurs?

Late in Capital Culture, Harris describes the negative critical response that met a show called The Greek Miracle.

The first problem was the show’s rationale, or lack of one, beyond simply making available masterpieces normally accessible only to world travelers.

Many would argue that bringing masterpieces to people of less than ample means is a virtue in itself, all the justification that any transport requires, but I can’t agree, not until I know why the masterpiece itself, and not an excellent copy, such as can be quite conveniently produced today, thanks to digital technology, has to be viewed. Professional critics and other literary writers are equipped to assess that part of the experience of looking at art that depends upon seeing originals, but world travel is part of the practice of art criticism. There’s no need to shunt priceless canvases about for their discernment. Why put our patrimony of unique artworks at risk of travel when we have no meaningful evidence of the impact of their presence upon ordinary visitors?

Educating articulate amateurs is the next task of museums, and it will be even more arduous than acquiring masterpieces or building galleries. It will be just as problematic as conservation — but no less necessary. Without such amateurs, art museums will decay into elitist echo chambers, poor revenants of the palaces whose ornaments they now display. At the same time, these museums will be vulnerable to the worst sort of populism — the illiterate kind.

The sad truth is that the wonder of art, for all that it is alleged in Capital Culture, is never more than glimpsed. You have to take it for granted.


To return to another matter entirely, what the “something” about Betrayal that mattered to me might be occurred to me later in the day. I neglected to mention that the scenes of this back-to-front history of a love affair are not presented in strict reverse chronological order. Three scenes (out of nine) occur “later” than the ones that they follow, just as scenes conventionally do. This makes for a certain “second act” built around Robert’s and Emma’s trip to Venice. There is the scene in Venice itself, in which Emma confesses to Robert that she’s in love with Jerry, followed by a scene at the Kilburn flat in which Emma unwraps the tablecloth that she bought for it on the trip and lies to Jerry about going to Torcello (implying that Robert didn’t go), followed by the scene in the Italian restaurant (with its mural of Naples and Vesuvius), in which Robert, furiously guzzling white wine, tells the truth about Torcello (he went alone). We might say of this “act” that it belongs to Robert, as it is characterized by Robert’s anger at the discovery of Emma’s affair. This is the time for the actor playing Robert to let loose, and Daniel Craig did not disappoint.

But there is one more “later” scene, and it is the second. Having been told by Emma that Robert knows about their affair, now long since extinguished, in the first scene, Jerry summons Robert in a panic. He can’t be still until he knows how Robert has taken the news — which wasn’t, of course, “news.” He must have it out, and take whatever medicine Robert dispenses. This scene ends with the two men practically cuddling upon the same couch, laughing at something. This is the end of the action; this is where the story stops.

Emma and her affair with Jerry have nothing to do with how Betrayal “ends.” That matters.

* I came across the remark in the NYRB, in a review of Parks’s latest novel that quotes Parks’s “demolition job on Salman Rushdie.”

In an essay entitled “On Some Forms of Literature,” Schopenhauer did say,

A novel will be of a high and noble order, the more it represents of inner, and the less it represents of outer, life; and the ratio between the two will supply a means of judging any novel, of whatever kind, from Tristram Shandy down to the crudest and most sensational tale of knight or robber. Tristram Shandy has, indeed, as good as no action at all; and there is not much in La Nouvelle Heloïse and Wilhelm Meister. Even Don Quixote has relatively little; and what there is, very unimportant, and introduced merely for the sake of fun. And these four are the best of all existing novels.

Parks puts it better.

Rialto Note:
19 December 2013

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

We saw Betrayal last night. The play itself did not engage Kathleen, but it certainly did me. We agreed that the performances were superb. Kathleen felt that the rather elaborate sets, involving rather spectacular set changes, simply underscored the play’s emptiness by attempting to provide substance where there wasn’t any. I was a kid with a model train set, hooked. In the end, I granted Kathleen this much: I appreciated Betrayal more as a show, almost as a ballet, than as a drama. But although I recognized the force of Kathleen’s argument that the play is “just a stunt” — scenes from an unremarkable and rather tacky love affair seen in reverse, beginning with an implicit post-mortem and ending with the first kiss — I was simply too moved by what I’d seen to dismiss it. And too dazzled by the wit.

Harold Pinter’s dialogue is so sketchy and hermetic — at times, he writes as if constrained by a set of not very literate refrigerator magnets — that it can be interpreted in different ways, and the way of Mike Nichols’s direction is to emphasize the wit. The characters don’t have particularly witty things to say, but they can say them with witty point, and the three stars in this revival, Rachel Weisz, Rafe Spall, and Daniel Craig are formidably equipped to make their encounters sparkle. Encounters, I say; confrontations (and their climaxes) are strenuously, successfully resisted. The married couple, Emma and Robert (played by the married couple in the cast), are like restless cats, prowling for excitement but leery of being scratched. Rafe Spall’s Jerry is a puppy dog, slow on the uptake. But Jerry is no dummy. He’s having an affair with his best friend’s wife. Emma takes it seriously enough to furnish a second home, a flat in Kilburn. She seems to have some idea that Jerry will leave his wife, the unseen Judith, but we know not only that he won’t but that it never crosses his mind to do so: Judith, clearly, is Jerry’s security blanket, his mother figure, his hearth. Or we knew it last night, thanks to Mr Spall’s affable characterization. In their refusal to answer simple questions simply, Pinter’s characters can seem dreadfully sullen; last night’s company made them look clever.

Judith is a doctor;  she is always busy at the hospital. Robert is a publisher, and Jerry is a literary agent. They’re not only best friends but professional colleagues. Jerry doesn’t want Robert to know about his affair with Emma, but this, if you ask me, this is the stunt: he’s drawn to Emma because she is his best friend’s wife. So he can pull one over on his best friend — who, it turns out, has been having affairs of his own. Jerry is so serenely untroubled by his betrayal of his friend that it amounts to not seeing the betrayal at all. Clearly, everybody’s moral compass, in this triangle, is on the blink, but Jerry’s is in worse shape than his friends’, because he is not a puppy dog. He is an adult human being, except not. More than once, it crossed my mind that the playwright may have chosen his male characters’ professions, so often felt to be parasitical by artists, with edifying malice.

Rafe Spall was new to me, although I have seen his father in many movies, so my response to his performance was one of uncomplicated pleasure. His costars were, I thought, old friends; I have seen them in many movies. But it was as if I’d never quite seen either of them before. Some screen actors fade onstage, although that’s doubtless less common in Britain, where theatre plays, proportionately, a vastly greater role in cultural life. Ms Weisz and Mr Craig, so far from fading, showed facets and faces that I had never guessed at; it was almost as though I’d only seen animated versions. She reminded me of Myrna Loy, of all people. (Kathleen thought she was Keira Knightley.) But she was much less “nice” than she tends to be in her films. He reminded me of — well, imagine that James Bond had a screw-up brother. (Mr Craig was very good at screw-ups before he became the leading man he is today.) These two actors had a grasp of what was wrong with Robert and Emma and their marriage that went deeper than rehearsal; their performances had the passion of people hoping to stave off a horror by playacting it. “Let’s try hard, darling, never to be like them.” Their one scene alone, the one set in Venice, was wretchedly pained.

What’s wrong with both Emma and Robert, or what makes them vulnerable to Jerry, is the bitterness of a restless disappointment that’s really Pinter’s hallmark. Mr Craig’s Robert fairly bursts with it in the restaurant scene, bouncing his leg like an activity-starved adolescent and trying to convince himself that he hates literature. Ms Weisz’s Emma begins each statement with a bright enthusiasm, as if hoping that her remark might summon forth a vision of satisfaction; when it doesn’t, her voice trails away. She only knows, as does her husband, that what she has got isn’t enough, not remotely. At the play’s beginning, you learn that Robert and Emma have decided to separate. At the end, you’re not unhappy about Jerry’s contribution to their breakup.

Betrayal is an essay in dramatic irony that leads to a hall of mirrors. Do they know about us? gives way to It doesn’t matter. That was Kathleen’s problem: it didn’t matter. But it somehow mattered to me. Something did.


In the old days, when I patterned pieces such as this one on professional reviews, I would be careful to run through the non-acting credits. Now I find that doing so is arguably misleading. But the sets — Ian MacNeil — and costumes — Ann Roth — were as witty, in their way, as the acting. Their work reminded us that, if Betrayal were to play out today, it would do so very differently. Wouldn’t it?

Gotham Diary:
18 December 2013

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

This morning, I want to return to Michael Anesko’s Monopolizing the Master, which I finished reading over the weekend. It is a book that everyone interested in Henry James’s fiction ought to read, not because it offers special insights into the work, but because it focuses on reactions to James’s complexity, reactions that tended to minimize this complexity, that tried to reorganize it. Monopolizing the Master is about misreading the Master.

Not just anybody’s misreading, but the gatekeepers’ themselves. These were James’s nephew and literary executor, Henry James III, known as Harry, an attorney by profession; and Leon Edel, a journalist who, in the course of writing a dissertation on Henry James’s stage plays, appears to have won the anxious Harry’s seal of approval. I do not mean to disparage lawyers or newspapermen, but it is no surprise to me that Harry and Edel liked to have things in black and white. Black was for shrouding the ambiguous, the ambivalent, the arguably inappropriate — everything that creaks underfoot as one traverses the spacious galleries of James’s novels and the winding corridors of his stories. Edel also enjoyed the clarity, for a time, of a working monopoly with regard to access to James’s papers, an arrangement with which academic libraries complied not out of obligation but from sympathy. The monopoly came to an end on 4 May 1973, when Harry’s nephew, Alexander James, rescinded it. Now, at last, the legacy of Henry James could be submitted to proper academic inquiry. It took nearly a generation for the effects of this liberation to be felt, so heavily had Edel’s hand clamped shut the possibilities of discussion. And we’re still calling James the Master.

The bootstrapping worked like this: James’s complexity was a sign of his mastery: he knew what he was talking about. If you couldn’t quite follow him, you could at least be sure that he had trailed into realms of fine exaltation. You might content yourself with this understanding, formulated by Pound, of James’s impeccable purposes.

What I have not heard is any word of the major James, of the hater of tyranny, book after early book against oppression, against all the sordid petty personal crushing oppression … the rights of the individual against all sorts of bondage. The passion of it, the continual passion of it in this man who, fools said, didn’t ‘feel.’ I have never yet found a man of emotion against whom idiots didn’t raise this cry.

(Anesko quotes this passage from Instigations on p 119)

Michael Anesko’s pen is the most sophisticated of instruments. Covering in full the protracted attempt to control the learned response to Henry James — which became, in time, the only response — Anesko never condescends to discuss the motivations behind this attempt. He does not conceal the matter altogether; on page 80 he lets drop a surmise about “the belated acceptance of heteronormative roles and conventions” by both Harry James and his sister, Peggy. He quotes from a very naughty pamphlet that circulated while Henry James was still alive, called What Percy Knew. (The fragment is titled, “The Better End, an uncompleted chapter from a novel by H nr J m s” — the Morgan Library has a copy, if you think they’ll let you see it.) The general effetness of Henry James’s circle of friends is mentioned as the reason why the James family didn’t get on with them. My point is that Anesko never dwells on the obvious wellspring of anxiety and control that produced the monopoly, that deep quaking and unspeaking dread of homosexual desire, out there in the world and, more horrible still, lying coiled within oneself. And because Anesko doesn’t dwell on it, it flies up from his pages, in all its bruised unhappiness, like a living, palpable ghost.

It would be anachronistic to charge Henry James himself with a homophobia similar to his nephew’s; Harry James’s attitudes were molded by the anti-feminine, muscularly Christian tide that swept the men of the West right into the folly of World War I. My own view is that Henry was too physically fastidious for actual sex; he was happy enough to write as if to lovers. That was the problem for Harry. It didn’t really matter what Uncle Henry did; what he wrote in his letters, and not just those to the hunky sculptor Hendrik Andersen, was blatantly faggoty. It wasn’t the sort of thing — it couldn’t be the sort of thing that the “Master” of American novelists, of novelists in English! could indulge in. So Harry saw to it that they were buried. Edel, not as squeamish on the subject but eager to secure his right to scoop everybody else, was happy to comply.

But James’s effusive letters, together with his nephew’s shame, actually make his novels much easier to understand, and at no expense to their mastery. The novelist’s private enthusiasms stand in for the thoughts and deeds of characters whose points of view are not shared with us. They give body to the menace of the unknown: they make it clear to us why the unknown must be kept unknown. This is not for a moment to suggest that most or any of James’s characters are gay. What they share with James is, simply, illicit desire. Many of James’s characters have a vaguely obscene desire for comfort — for the comforts, that is, of the well-appointed, beautifully-staffed private residence. This puts them in need of money, in pursuit of which they may do unspeakable things.

Pound is not off the mark: the most unspeakable act in James’s book of ethics is to pretend to love. What Henry knew was what follows innocence, and he writes about the mess as scrupulously as if he were shepherding atomic wastes. Within the spools of his finely-wrought paragraphs is tucked some very dirty linen. In the fiction, we can only guess that it’s there. In his letters, and in his nephew’s horror at the thought of their publication, we can get a good whiff.


And here I was going to quibble with something in Anesko’s book, his recurring references to James’s “cultural capital.” I have an idea what this phrase means, but I find it infelicitous in several ways. Real-world capital is always ascertainable down to the penny, and it is measured in one currency at a time. The power of novelists, especially with the passage of time, is both uncertain and profuse; I can think of at least two “currencies” in which the reputation of Jane Austen can be measured, and they are not mutually convertible. “Cultural capital” sounds Marxian to me, and therefore somewhat reductionist.

Perhaps I have just said all that I needed to say on the subject.

Gotham Diary:
Beaux Arts
17 December 2013

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Neil Harris’s Capital Culture is one very solid book. It also has an appropriate subtitle: J Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. It’s that last bit that caught my attention and induced me to buy the book. The museum experience — you have to be middle-aged or older (and Harris is ten years older than I am) to think of such a thing, to imagine that such an experience really can be reinvented. I wish I’d been a better observer when I was young, but I was too self-absorbed to pay real attention to anything else. So my recollections of the museum experience in the 1960s are dim.

Museums themselves were pretty dim in those days; they didn’t attract attention to themselves. The idea was to showcase the art by providing as little showcase as possible. We recall the noisy exuberance of the Sixties easily enough. What’s harder to recapture is the austerity of everything deemed to be serious. Pleasure was intellectually suspect. I do remember that.

John Walker, director of the National Gallery prior to Carter Brown, wrote to his former teacher, Bernard Berenson, in 1948, about the crowds showing up to see an exhibition of German treasures. “I have almost come to the conclusion that interest in the arts in America is overstimulated.” It’s an astonishingly contemptuous thing to say, now. In 1948, it was conventional mandarin wisdom. “Overstimulated” was a word much used in those days in connection with children who were too wound up to take anything in, who ran around senselessly, crashing into things. It was a byword for “unthinking.” The crowds at the National Gallery were too enthusiastic, were having too good a time. That Walker disliked this did not make him mean-spirited; he simply cherished the hushed serenity of understated grandeur that is still the reverberant note on the West Building’s main floor. John Walker rarely appeared in public, one imagines, not wearing a suit and a tie.

How quickly things change: not ten years after Walker’s retirement, President Jimmy Carter showed up for a special viewing of the great Treasures of Tutankhamen show wearing a sweater and an open shirt.

Museums were not dim in the old days because they were neglected. But their austerity — their chilly, quiet, underlighted institutional ostentation — was completely out of fashion. The great museums weren’t what they had been intended to be: timeless. Perhaps their timelessness was simply incompatible with youthfulness. This did not go untouched by our cultural revolution. By the end of the Sixties, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art were in the hands of young men, neither yet forty: Thomas Hoving and J Carter Brown. Sometimes working together, mostly in earnest competition, they gave us the blockbuster exhibition, bigger museum shops, and, above all, welcoming (if noisier) museums. Hoving and Brown put an end to austerity wherever it was not inherently stylish. Brown, at heart a very gifted broker, kept his job much longer than did the restless and mercurial Hoving, but he was no less a showman.

Even when buildings in the beaux-arts style of the West Building were erected, their degree of ornament was curtailed by puritanical modernism, which held that, whatever the work of art, it must be seen without distraction. There ought to be, ideally, nothing else to look at. Decades of this proved to be enervating. Almost all the older paintings in any museum were intended to adorn walls in relatively opulent rooms, and they were very much part of the furniture. Modernism, wrenching them out of context, almost wrenched the life out of them. Today, it is fashionable to restore some of the contextual opulence by suggestive lighting, an old trick in retailing. Sometimes the suggestiveness is a little loud, and you wonder where the pricetag is. This is an unwelcome distraction. Knowing that you cannot take this home is one of the great pleasures of visiting a museum. (Ah me, I am an old man.)

Whether or not the Frick Collection is timeless, time has come to a full stop there — except, sadly, in connection with a few lampshades that are in dire need of replacement. The idea, at the Frick, is to see things as the collector saw them, and to enjoy them in his very fine mansion. (That’s why the shabby lampshades have to go!) You need not pretend that you live there to appreciate how much richness the paintings and other artworks draw from their surroundings. Bellini’s absolutely timeless St Francis is honored, not only by the company it keeps, but by the wood-paneled wall behind it.


So, what have I learned from Capital Culture? (I’m not done with it yet.) That the Smithsonian is a bewildering Institution, certainly. Smithsonian Secretary (director) Dillon Ripley gets two chapters in Harris’s book. It’s an intelligent way to put Carter Brown’s career in relief, because Ripley went about things very differently. Both men were Ascendancy WASPs — “You’re just visiting” — but if Ripley affected, in the manner of FDR, to be a man for the people, if not quite of them, Brown was a chic patrician. Curiously (or maybe not), Ripley was the one who persistently invited unwanted Congressional inquiries, while the wheels of Brown’s triumphal chariot were optimally oiled. Ripley was riotous sprawl; Brown, elegant containment. Each of them headed the right museum.

Chapter Eight, “Trouble in Paradise: The Light That Failed,” is a testament to Brown’s negative capability. In 1977, Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote about the cleaning of an alleged Rembrandt, The Mill, in a way that upset Paul Mellon, son of the National Gallery of Art’s prime mover and himself not only a trustee but also President of the museum. Six months later, Mellon interfered in  museum operations by calling a halt to all conservation work. Over the summer of 1978, a battle raged between rival camps of conservators, with the “English” or “European” connoisseurs vilifying the American technicians installed at the National Gallery. Aside from the embarrassed staffers, who could rightly complain of kangaroo-court treatment, the museum official who stood up for them and who took the blows was Charles Parkhurst, the Assistant Director, not Carter Brown.

In effect, during the coming firestorm Brown largely absented himself and let Parkhurst take on the role of mediating between the staff and the Gallery president. By now, almost ten years into the director’s job, Brown may well have realized the potential costs to his staff of Mellon’s decision to call a moratorium on conservation. But he was always deferential toward his superiors, and the role Mellon played in the Gallery made him even more indispensable to its continued success than Brown himself.

So far, that’s the worst that I’ve read about Brown. I would want to know more before passing judgment.

Gotham Diary:
Mr Congeniality
16 December 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Goodness, the time. I thought that I should write today about Maureen Dowd’s column in yesterday’s Times, but it turned out that I hadn’t really given the matter enough thought. Nor had I read the piece by Tom Scocca, appearing at Gawker, to which Dowd principally referred. In “Do Snark,” Scocca finds that the evils of snark are vastly outweighed by the dangers of smarm. I’m not sure that I want to write about snark or smarm. I suspect that I’m too old ever to understand either term properly. I was drawn to Dowd’s column by her vote for negative commentary. Where politics is concerned, I couldn’t agree more. But I think that critics, especially of politics, ought to take pains to clear their work of any charge of snark. No winking jokes addressed to the gallery. No sloppy sarcasm. And no focus on what’s wrong. The point of criticism is to point out that something is not right, and in order to do this it is necessary to fly a clear banner of what’s right. Always focus on what’s right.

At one point, Scocca writes, “It is also no accident that [Dave] Eggers is full of shit.” I like Tom Scocca. I enjoyed reading his book about working in China. His tough-guy tone is not my cup of tea, but he manages to make it attractive, most of the time. Not so, however, here. This is pointless rudeness.

Back to Maureen Dowd. Dowd quotes The New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier, who in turn quotes Rebecca West, a writer of vexed temper.

“In the very first issue of my magazine, almost 100 years ago,” he told me, “Rebecca West established what she called ‘the duty of harsh criticism,’ and she was right. An intellectual has a solemn obligation to speak out negatively against ideas or books that he or she believes will have a pernicious or misleading effect upon people’s understanding of important things. To do otherwise would be cowardly and irresponsible.”

Looking around, I am trying to think of a book currently on the landscape that I fear will have a pernicious or misleading effect on anyone. I fail, doubtless because the dangers once posed by books have changed venue, and are now at work on television. For reasons outlined long ago by Neil Postman, I regard all telejournalism as insidious and misleading at best. I don’t even approve of listening to audiotapes of books that you’ve never read! We are born with five senses but are educated to command a sixth: literacy. Literacy is a complex but not incoherent bundle of skills involving memory at its most objective and judgment at its most dispassionate. Reading cannot be replaced by listening or (worse) watching, neither of which is sufficiently critical of inputs. Having said this, I have said all that I have to say about the dangers of pernicious or misleading effects, and I hope that I’ve done so as matter-of-factly, and as free from harshness, as possible.

Wieseltier often makes me wonder if I have any moral fibre at all, because, if I do, it doesn’t look like his. I am wary of solemn obligations; they seem to burden, disproportionately, self-important people.”The duty of harsh criticism” is a bleak concept, one to which I should never consider myself fit to respond — not with regard to books or ideas, anyway. Dowd writes,

Not to review books negatively is in essence to subsume book reviewing into advertising, public relations and promotion. Succumbing to uplift, edification and happy talk is basically saying that there’s something more important than telling the truth: not making enemies, not hurting people’s feelings.

I don’t agree at all. Because I should never write insincerely, I should never treat favorably a book that I didn’t care for. The alternative to favorable response is sometimes silence, but brief mention is perhaps more effective. It narrows the range of explanations for the fact that X doesn’t have much to say about Y, and it leaves the reader with the impression that part of the explanation must be that X fails to find Y congenial. There’s my moral fibre, you see. Congeniality is of the essence. It leaves me with little energy for detecting and denouncing plausible dangers. I’m too busy maintaining the good health of my appetite for the congenial.

And I frankly avow that the whole point of a favorable review is to induce sales. Frankly, I say! If I think that a book is worth reading, I want to persuade other people to give it a try. I won’t say that I’m absolute proof against the book that is written to express no higher passion than the desire to make money, but I don’t think it can be said that I’m a shill for commercial interests. If I like a book, I want the author to be rewarded for his work: buy the book! That’s how it’s done, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Gotham Diary:
Jolly Case
13 December 2013

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Was it premature, yesterday, to speak of Michael Anesko’s Monopolizing the Master as a delicious bonbon? Further reading has begun to give me the creeps. It’s a jolly case of the creeps, to be sure, but it is edged in black doubts. The story so far — about the handling of the literary (and epistolary) remains of Henry James — is so marked by suppressions, evasions, denials and distortions, all in the name of promoting the author’s position in the pantheon to one of preeminence, that it sounds rather like one of the Master’s ghost stories. Then there is “little B” — Theodora Bosanquet, the intelligent young stenographer who took James’s dictation in his later years and who, snubbed by the James family (they liked to think of her as a sort of charwoman, all the worse for being literate and prone to what they regarded as eavesdropping), convinced herself of a parapsychological bond with Henry James’s ectoplasm, which continued to dictate. Creepiest of all, though, is wondering whether I’ve been — to use one of James’s favorite horror-words, always put in scare quotes — “sold.” Oohing and aahing my way through a re-reading of The Golden Bowl — was I nuts?

This uncertainty is an anxious response to Anesko’s persistent sounding of the dissonance between, on the one hand, the aloofness from vulgar material concerns said, quite falsely, to be a shining virtue of the late novelist’s by almost all who survived him, and, on the other, James’s actual endless whining about money matters (suppressed from the early editions of his Letters), not to mention the commodification and branding of his oeuvre that was well underway by the time of his death. Anesko’s stated subject is the struggle for control over James’s legacy, which ended only a few decades ago, but his leading subordinate theme, it seems to me, is, simply, the packaging of Henry James. No one was more interested in this aspect of things than James himself; the Prefaces that he composed for the New York Edition of his novels and stories are presentation cases designed to make the fictions that follow them look even more elaborate and remarkable than they already do. It was hoped, by his publishers, that these prefaces would be both informal and intimate, sharing “trade secrets” in plain English and thereby inviting the reader to feel a familiarity with the author that might make his highly-wrought prose somewhat easier to digest. In fact, the Prefaces achieve this end, but by precisely the opposite means: never is the question, What the hell is this man talking about?, more pressing. One comes with relief to Chapter I of whatever has just been addressed. The Prefaces are as fancy as the most ostentatious jewel box, but they are also as difficult to open as the plastic cases in which we nowadays are forced to acquire so many articles of domestic utility.

Thus lurks the horror of sunk costs. What if it is nothing more than our unwillingness to acknowledge that we’ve made an awful mistake that produces the feeling of satisfied elation that accompanies the fourth or fifth re-reading of The Ambassadors?

Am I one of the doomed sybarites in the closing frame of Edward Gorey’s masterpiece, The Curious Sofa?

And I’m not even halfway through.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
In the Blue Room
12 December 2013

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Kathleen flew home from Phoenix yesterday, and there was rejoicing in the land. There was also sleeping-in.

Kathleen’s flight landed about an hour before I expected it. I was busy with CDs in the blue room. Yesterday marked an era: all of the CDs in my collection have been “processed” — a term that it makes me queasy to use so soon after reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. The jewel boxes have been discarded; the discs slipped into labeled sleeves, and the associated paperwork (booklets and such) arranged just so about each of them, and all are somewhere more or less appropriate in the filing system. The filing system is not as coherent as it might be, largely because I altered the “process” quite a bit in the early days of organizing the library in a way that would take up less space, but clearing up the filing inconsistencies is the only job that remains.

In this prolonged tear through the project, I came across a lot of music that I haven’t heard in five or six years. The only time I play a CD these days is when it’s new. I load it onto iTunes right away, and, from there, sometimes, onto playlists. It’s the playlists that I listen to. So, if the music isn’t iTunes, I haven’t heard it in a while. (The first playlist dates to September 2008.) And, now that I can breathe — now that there aren’t any stacks of jewel boxes tottering accusingly on my desk, in my closets, or anywhere else — I can see what I have, especially among the odd labels.

I’ve wondered a lot, lately, how different my life would have been had I studied library science. Any at all? It seems, rather, that the organization of a small collection of items — and any collection that can be housed in an apartment is small, no matter whether three or six thousand books are involved — is a terribly personal matter. I’m the only user, after all. I don’t aim to be arcane; I daresay anyone who had the run of the place would figure it all out in a month or less (and learn a lot about me). But as I’ve got older there has been a shift. I used to organize things in a way that made sense. Now I have a different objective: I want to suit myself. Yes, the history books are in one book case, and the novels in another. But I do seem to understand myself a lot better than I know what makes sense in some abstract way. I have a lot of books that don’t lend themselves to glib classification. Biographies of great composers, for example — music? or biography? At the moment, they’re in music, just as political biographies are in history. The biography section, such as it is, is reserved for books about writers. It stands alongside all the other books — and sometimes, I think that this is the heart of the library — that could be classified as non-fiction literature. What it comes down to is that the reallocation of a shelf or two of books is indeed, as someone (Borges?) once put it, a form of literary criticism, and I believe that, in my case anyway, this criticism is progressive, that I’m getting better at it, that I’m learning what literature is. My bookshelves are the essay in which I express what I’ve learned. So I do wonder what I should have learned from professional study.

I rarely mention it, but managing my library is made considerably more difficult than it might be by my insistence that all these books and bookcases be presentable. A very this-worldly thinker, I cannot tolerate heaps and piles and stacks of things. The blue room must masquerade at all times as a gentleman’s sitting room.


Which it most certainly did not for most of this week. Oh, my dear (to quote Mrs Grimmer), it was a fright. There was folded laundry everywhere, and a litter of scraps on the writing table, not to mention that final stack of CDs — one of which, a recording of Cherubini’s Missa Solemnis, seems to have gone missing when an inadvertent armswing sent the stack flying. Now there’s just an overflowing basket of Reviews of Books, copies of The Nation, and other mail. No, now that I look more closely, there’s also wire-mesh thingy that is wildly overstuffed with papers to be acted upon in some way or other (not bills!). I know how I’m going to deal with these disorderly remains. I’ve just called the Video Room and asked them to send over a copy of Now You See Me. This was the feature on the plane flying home from San Francisco, as I could tell from occasional glances at the screen, but I was busy with The Golden Bowl. I expect that it’s a not-very good movie with a very good cast. I’ll put it on to ease the drudgery of playing Russian clerk.


I’m in the middle of so many books at the moment that a charge of ADD could fairly be made against me. But two books in the rear-foreground are related in a highly piquant compare-and-contrast way. One is Neil Harris’s book about Carter Brown and the National Gallery, Capital Culture, that I mentioned the other day. It is scholarly and dutiful. By contrast, Robert Edsel’s Monuments Men is hard-charging and, in a way that seems to appeals to most male readers of history (ie, military history of the you-are-there stripe), artlessly complicated. Monuments Men has been adapted for film and will be released early next year, with George Clooney directing as well as playing a leading role. The leading role, I gather, belongs to Matt Damon, who plays James Rorimer. I have to stop when I say that, because, to me, “James Rorimer” is the author of the guide to the Cloisters that I grew up with, and they are one and the same man. Much as I admire Matt Damon, I can’t quite see him at the Cloisters, not yet. It’s just as hard to imagine, though, that the movie won’t be a hit, at least among people who liked The American, and I hope that the good folks at the Museum are planning some kind of tie-in — surely this is the time to name something after Rorimer, who was also a Director of the Museum, with a benefit dinner attended by Mr Damon.

(One link between these two books is that John Carter Brown, the gallery director’s father, served on the Roberts Commission, which oversaw the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied recovery of Europe after 1944. Another one is the business — and recklessness — of moving artworks around.)

But the book in the near-foreground is Michael Anesko’s Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship. The subtitle makes the book sound deadly, I know, but fear not: this is one delicious read. Serious but provocative, Anesko’s book is a giant bon-bon, a guilty-pleasure glance at high-minded people behaving, er, not so highly. Beginning with the Master himself, who rewrote William James’s letters and then destroyed the originals! All this is a mere warm-up for the exposé of Leon Edel as a mediocre opportunist whose “skill” consisted in missing much that is important (ambiguous, queer) in James’s writing. Anesko reminds us that the James family fortune was rooted in real property, and the Jameses seem to have little trouble regarding literary output as a kind of fruitful acreage, to be husbanded with assiduity. I’ve only just begun the second chapter, and already the temptation to drop everything else is very strong. Anesko can’t be charged with imitating the voice of Henry James, but he echoes its modulations — certainly more than does Colm Tóibín. who, by the way, isn’t even mentioned in the index! Here is Anesko on William James’s well-known remark about his brother’s nationality.

Though James obviously prided himself on his deliberate cosmopolitanism, even members of his own family sometimes wondered about the cost entailed by cultivating it. William most famously addressed this when he described his younger brother (in a letter to their sisterr, Alice) as only superficially Anglicized, despite “all the accretions” from his years of living in London. “His anglicisms are but ‘protective resemblances,’ William pithily observed. “[H]e’s really,  I won’t say a yankee, but a native of the James family, and has no other country.” If citizenship in that country conveyed extraordinary privileges, it also imposed peculiar defensive obligations: and all the Jameses seem to have understood and accepted the need to shield the family and its sometimes vulnerable members from critical scrutiny.

That “that” sets the very cadence of James.

Modern Moralist Note:
Trust With Truth
11 December 2013

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Reading about Nelson Mandela’s achievement in South Africa has had a special piquancy picquancy, because Mandela seems to be exactly the antithesis of Hannah Arendt’s Adolf Eichmann, that clown about whom I’ve been reading. Mandela was intelligent, he was in possession of a simple truth (revenge is every bit as wrong as apartheid), and he was determined to press this truth home. He suffered badly, but he survived his suffering, or at least appeared to have done so; he was not broken by the eighteen-year stay on Robben Island. Above all, Mandela made a habit of doing the right thing. Moralists from Aristotle on down have insisted that this habit is the key to the good life.

In today’s Times, Thomas Friedman contrasts Mandela’s “moral authority” with the “formal authority” that is vested in duly elected officials. This distinction has been on my mind for decades, but I have never been able to put it so neatly. I can safely say that the overarching experience of my life has been witnessing the collapse of formal authority on almost every front. It is never enough, not anymore, to command respect. The best it can do is to command the police in an attempt, more or less successful, to preserve the status quo; formal authority can usually depend on the support of the propertied classes. The word for this abuse of formal authority is tyranny.

What is “moral authority”? To answer this question, Friedman turns to Dov Seidman, a “governance” coach and author of the book, How. Seidman, Friedman writes,

argues that another source of Mandela’s moral authority derived from the fact that “he trusted his people with the truth” rather than just telling them what they wanted to hear. “Leaders who trust people with the truth, hard truths, are trusted back,” said Seidman. Leaders who don’t generate anxiety and uncertainty in their followers, who usually deep down know the truth and are not really relieved, at least for long, by having it ignored or disguised.

Well, yes — although people trusted with the truth don’t always “trust back” right away. Sometimes, the leader has to spend some time in a place like Robben Island. But Seidman’s idea shows us, I think, what authority is going to be like in the future. What it means to be “moral” in this context is to pursue the truth as seriously and intelligently as one can, and to express it in language that allows its clarity to shine forth. What it means to be a “moral authority” is to trust other people to receive the truth into their hearts.

Let’s grant that the truth is sempiternal, always the same. At the risk of sounding condescending, I want to respect the grave need that many very intelligent people have to believe that truth is incorruptibly “out there.” I don’t believe this myself, but I don’t believe that it isn’t the case, either. I don’t know — and I don’t need to know. What I do know is that the truth is very complex, far too complex for comprehensive understanding by mortal minds. The history of civilization is essentially a sequence of shifting perceptions of the truth. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was “true” that the earth stood at the center of the universe. That’s just one example, but I think it sufficiently demonstrates just how massively wrong the truth can become in human hands. What is true, in this case, is that the world generally appears to stand still. So often, we are seduced into untruth by the powers of a meretricious logic — few words are as worrisome to me as “extrapolate.”

Human beings appear to have grasped an elementary set of commandments, or truths, about the conduct of life, but the application of these commandments is rarely straightforward. (How does a military chaplain parse “Thou shalt not kill”?) In our own time, we are bewildered by conflicting claims about truths of an economic nature. These claims appear to me to be both premature and self-serving (a combination characteristic of moral failure). Competing for attention, other people advance claims about the damage that human beings are doing to the Earth’s environment, and urging various courses of action that nevertheless have in common a dimness about the economic fact that human beings need good jobs in order to live meaningful lives. The only voices that come close to making sense of everything are the preachers of apocalpyse.

Most truths are not as simple as the evil of apartheid. They require questioning in the dark, measured discussion, and genuine humility. Grasping the nature of true humility is difficult enough all by itself; in great men, it looks more like an athletic skill than anything else.

What is so inspiring about Mandela, explained Seidman, “is that he did not make the moment of South Africa’s transition about himself. It was not about his being in jail for 27 years. It was not about his need for retribution.” It was about seizing a really big moment to go from racism to pluralism without stopping for revenge. “Mandela did not make himself the hope,” added Seidman. “He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others, so they would do the hard work of reconciliation. It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment.”

I can hope only to be fractionally as inspiring as Nelson Mandela, but know this: I trust my readers.

Gotham Diary:
Third Life
10 December 2013

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Can I tell you about this dream I had? No? Not even if Frederica von Stade, the beautiful mezzo-soprano, was in it? She sat down next to me at a large party, something between a wedding reception and a barbecue, and, without saying anything, communicated to me the complete collapse of her interest in me as a human being. Never having made enough of a commitment to feel disappointed in me, she was merely irritated at my having imposed upon her attention. This done, she stood up and walked away, as nonchalant as an espionage agent quitting a park-bench interview.

I blame Facebook. For some reason, Ms von Stade’s picture has been showing up alongside Tom Meglioranza’s, as a “musical interest” of mine, or somesuch, on my page. Mr Meglioranza I do know. As for Ms von Stade, I sat in on an interview with her once, at the radio station, when she was singing Octavian in the Houston Grand Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier. This was in the early-mid Seventies — ’74 or ’75  (I can’t find a list on the Internet) — the darkest years of my Houston sojourn. Who knows? Maybe she contributed to my determination to get my act together and go to law school. She was lovely! She was smart! She was just like the girls I’d known from King Street. She was a reminder that I was in the wrong place, in so many ways. As things were, I didn’t stand a chance with the likes of Frederica von Stade.

My colleague at the radio station couldn’t have been pleased that I was hanging around in the cramped studio while he tried to establish a rapport with the singer. I don’t know how I came to be in the room. Perhaps I greeted her when she arrived, by happenstance, took her where she needed to be, made pleasant chit-chat, and then wouldn’t leave. In any case, shortly afterward, I did study hard. I got into law school and actually passed the Bar exam! If I did not make a success as an attorney, I did marry someone who did, and she happens to be an alumna of 91st Street.

It is all right, then, for Frederica von Stade to walk away from me in my dreams. Now, if I can just remove her from my Facebook page…


It is a day for dreaming. Snow is falling outside, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m engrossed in a new book, on a subject with which I am no more than passingly familiar. Capital Culture: J Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience, by Neil Harris, tells an important story; I only wish that he told it a bit better. He writes well enough, but that’s just it: the story deserves brilliance, and Harris is too dutiful to dare to be brilliant. He has undoubtedly written the correct book, and I am going to learn a great deal from it. I have already recommended it. But, just as he writes of the National Gallery, that it is in the Smithsonian Institution but not of it, so Harris is of the crowd that he’s discussing, not above it.

It’s an interesting crowd, to be sure, about as interesting a crowd as the American patriciate could produce. But the interest is somewhat smothered by the typically American horror of flamboyance. None of Harris’s characters (so far) is extraordinary, except to the extent that anyone who does well at Groton or St Paul’s and Harvard or Yale is extraordinary with respect to the American in the street. The air is purer up there, and it used to be even purer still. Virtue and merit flourish there as nowhere else — which is not to suggest that everyone who breathes in that atmosphere displays either. But those who do can accomplish more with their talents than other people can, because they’re better-connected. They’re better-connected to everything worth being connected to, from important people to opportunities for travel to highly privileged access to the truly fine things in life. It’s a pity that their outward manner is so deliberately dull.

And when one of them manages not to be dull, as, say, Thomas Hoving did, relieved gratitude is not always one’s lasting response. Carter Brown was not as “charismatic” as his counterpart at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and rival for, well, buzz, and I’m hoping that Harris’s finished portrait will show him to have been neither dull nor unbearable — we shall see.

All the men in this crowd (and their wives) had to cope with Washington, DC, arguably the most beautiful city in the United States but also (aside from New Orleans) certainly the strangest. It is a world capital that behaves quite as if it were the only capital, making it about as provincial as one of those thriving merchant towns in Galicia during the Hapsburg sunset. There is simply no other explanation for Mamie Eisenhower, who in my view was the rule to which Jacqueline Kennedy was a striking exception. At the same time, it denies that it is a capital at all: the Capitol is nothing less than the meeting-house of representatives of the sovereign States, whose various capitals — dreadful backwaters, most of them — are the actual constitutional wellsprings of power. (They may not be able to tell the President what to do, but they can certainly deny him the money to do it with.) Of all the cities in the world — since it’s snowing, I’ll throw in Moscow — Washington probably has the highest per-capita population of people one was glad to see the last of in high school. On bad days, it seems to be a sort of Third Life, the real-world version of a computer game.

There is simply no other explanation for the very strange story that appeared below the fold on the front page of this morning’s Times. “Spies Infiltrate a Fantasy Realm of Online Games,” by Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott, never gets round to drawing the only possible conclusion, which is that a consortium of knuckleheads and opportunists has convinced itself that money, and plenty of it, needs to be spent to make sure that World of Warcraft and Second Life are not chat rooms for terrorists. The reporters go no further than to quote a gamer:

“If they ever read these forums,” wrote a goblin priest with the user name “Diaya,” “they would realize they were wasting” their time.

I’ve got a strong hunch that no sphere of human activity is more likely to produce unpaid whistleblowers than the world of online games. Third Life is paid for, of course, by tax dollars. On bad days, I sympathize with Grover Norquist. But I always sympathize with Edward Snowden, to whose indiscretion we owe news of this activity.

Even before television, Washington life required an outer blandness characterized by dark-suited men attending committee meetings. Reading about it can be depressing, and I’m doing so now only because I do believe that Andrew Mellon’s dream of creating an American counterpart of Britain’s National Gallery was substantially realized by the institution whose fairy godfather he was. If the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a galaxy of different worlds, bringing together good, and sometimes great, things from everywhere, the National Gallery of Art is a diamond necklace put together by Harry Winston. How this necklace has been worn, and how it is worn today, is a matter of no small interest to anyone interested in the display of fine art in a museum.

Then there’s the bonus: S Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and thereby in some queer way an overseer of the National Gallery. I’m perfectly willing to set aside my passion for crazy characters for the sake of a good yarn about a turf battle.

Gotham Diary:
Just me
9 December 2013

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Nothing starts off the week like waking up to an Internet connection problem! I’m limping along with my trusty but sluggish MiFi card while I wait to find out whether there’s a cable problem or it’s just me. But limping along is a bad pace for writing.

What’s really in the way this morning is Eichmann in Jerusalem, which I finished last night. I want to copy out all the flagged passages — somewhere between twenty and thirty, I should think — into an Evernote, and see what I have. There is a great deal of wisdom in Hannah Arendt’s book, and so much legal savvy that she might have trained as an attorney. I think that she’s absolutely right to conclude that, having tried Eichmann, Israel ought to have kept him in jail pending a mandate from the United Nations or some such international organ.

Arendt’s discussion of genocide (as a crime wholly distinct from murder or even mass, indiscriminate murder) got me thinking: genocide and nationalism grew up together, you might say. Killing everything that lived in a city — we read about this in the Bible, and we know what the Romans did in Corinth — is not quite genocide. Punishing a city is not exterminating a race. The very concept of race in its current form is new, having been more or less figurative until Darwin and others explored the nature of inheritance. This isn’t to say that race itself is a scientific concept — it’s very much not. Neither, therefore, is nationalism — the idea that a proper nation comprises, exclusively, the members of one race.

Something like genocide inspires anti-immigration hysteria in certain parts of the United States. The race that this hostility targets is the tribe of Mexicans and other Latin Americans who dare to enter this country illegally. If they die in the crossing,  it’s their own damn fault. But they’re targeted because they’re Latin American, there’s no doubt about that. I don’t mean to disparage those who would build a palisade along the Mexican border so much as to suggest that this sort of impulse is inevitable in any nationalistic context.

What’s next, after nationalism? Can something more positive take its place, or will nationalism put an end to modern civilization, as it has tried to do several times since its appearance on the world stage just over two centuries ago? I hope that it is not a necessary stage in civil development, because most of the Arab world has not yet arrived at nationalism. (This can be seen as the secret of Israel’s success.) The step beyond nationalism would be a way of thinking that provided people with a sense of social coherence, but now without depending on the demonization of other societies. It would fold a horror of violence into the sense of self. A pretty tall order.

I keep coming back to the euphoria with which Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s palpable on the page, in her sparkling, contemptuous wit, which glitters in almost every sentence. Some readers might find this inappropriate — the Eichmann case is no occasion for Arendt to prove herself to be the smartest person in the room. I see it differently, with less ego. Being the smartest person in the room was probably old hat to Arendt when she sat down to write about this trial. The possibility of being smart, the power of thought — these are what the book celebrates. It celebrates courage, too — the courage of the Danes, for example, and the courage of Anton Schmidt — but courage for Arendt is simply the determination to do the right thing. She certainly demonstrates that the Nazis were no more courageous than they were thoughtful. Writing her book, Arendt may have felt that she had discovered something as mighty as, and vastly more meaningful than, a nuclear warhead.


It was just me, after all. I should recover from the panic attack shortly. Maybe by Thursday I’ll be able to keep my eye off the connection icon.

Gotham Diary:
6 December 2013

Friday, December 6th, 2013

This morning was so dark and dispiriting — and we were up so late last night — that, instead of making the bed, I got back into it. When I wasn’t dozing, I was reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. After a few hours of this, various events along the alimentary canal brought my day into focus, and here, accoutered with sandwich and slippers, I am.

I had been a regular reader of The New Yorker for the better part of a year when the first installment of Hannah Arendt’s “Report on the Banality of Evil” appeared the magazine. I don’t recall deciding not to read it; I may even have given it a try, and then given up, defeated by Arendt’s allusive manner — writing about the most enormous horror of modern times, she was not about to begin with a précis of events — as well as by her tone of mordant, at times comical, contempt, which is by no means focused exclusively on the defendant and his Nazi past. I’d have missed the references, and passed out on the ironies. The book was in every way too old for me.

But there was, or must have been, I’m sure, a certain additional peculiarity to my resistance. What the Nazis had done to the Jews was an abomination, everybody knew that; and yet I lived in a town where realtors uniformly advised Jewish inquirers that no house within the sacred square mile of Bronxville would be sold to them. This was one of our civic achievements. My mother, in any case, was quite proud of it. She was not shy about expressing her anti-Semitic views. The vague but persistent feeling that there was something wrong with these views made me very uncomfortable (she was my mother, after all), and as long as I myself lived in Bronxville I preferred not to think about them. The thinking would start later in 1963, when I packed off to prep school, which abounded in Jewish classmates. In February, when Eichmann began its serial run, I almost certainly felt that it would scold me for something that I hadn’t done.

I’m reading the book now because — presto! — it’s fifty years old, and everyone’s getting a word in. So far, I subscribe without reservation to Arendt’s core idea, which is that truly thinking people could never have committed such atrocities; if you disagree, then you don’t understand what thinking really is. I also accept her portrait of Adolf Eichmann as a bureaucratic clown, a doofus whose braggadocio was concocted from stock phrases and decked out in borrowed plumes. I haven’t reached the most controversial part of the book, in which Arendt comes down hard on the Judenräte, the Jewish “elders” who helped the Nazis “organize” the Jews.

One thing that can’t be said of Arendt, I feel, is that she was a “self-hating Jew.” She no more struggles against her Jewish ancestry than she does against her gender. It is not the most important thing about her, certainly; she is most passionate about the soundness of her intellectual life. She was the kind of idealistic Zionist who could only be dismayed by the disappointments of the actual Israel. She belonged where she wound up, here, in Manhattan, although by that I don’t mean that she deserved the drubbing that she got from American Jews, whose principal settlement has always been this city, after everyone had a chance to read her Report. Mary McCarthy made a very interesting remark about the character of the debate (I can’t find it, so I’ll have to paraphrase): one felt either like the only child in a room full of reproving adults, or the other way around. People on each side claimed that there was something that their opponents didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand. Philip Rieff (in The Nation) and Mark Lilla (in The New York Review of Books) both argue that Arendt was, at best, “tone deaf.” But Eichmann in Jerusalem refuses to be bewildered by the Holocaust, and I admire that.

The Holocaust was the purest expression of the nationalistic passion that infected Europeans during the French Revolution. Tribes and “peoples” had always been recognized, but no one had ever seriously considered building states atop them.  Quite the reverse: civilized life, in (admittedly slave-bound) classical antiquity, was seen as post-tribal. When you became a Roman citizen, it didn’t matter if your mother tongue was Latin or Greek or something else: you were Roman. Why this broke down in the early modern period I’m not quite sure, but the emergence of England’s maritime power must have had something to do with it. England was a natural “island nation,” notwithstanding the inconvenient persistence of Celtic aboriginals. France was just the opposite, a small heartland along the valleys of the Seine and the Loire, surrounded by ambiguous marches. Without a monarch to unite them, the French fell back on being French, even though most subjects/citizens weren’t. But there had always been a France, for ages and ages anyway. There had never been a Germany, and fashioning one out of the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire called for a lot of invention. In retrospect, it seems obvious that these new Germans would inevitably need to define themselves by expelling the Jews. That was indeed Eichmann’s original objective: “helping” Jews to leave the Reich. The war made genuine emigration difficult — impossible, really — but Eichmann kept going, shipping Jews from here to there. What happened “there” was not his department.

This isn’t to say that Eichmann wasn’t a criminal, that what he did was somehow excusable. But what he and the other actors did on the Nazi stage was made possible by the virulence of the terrible sickness of nationalism that infected the general population, and that the interventions of a racist American president, Woodrow Wilson, wrongheadedly exacerbated at the end of World War I. (“National” is, after all, what the party’s nickname comes from.) What happened in Germany could happen anywhere similarly afflicted. And it does.


I am haunted by a passage from late in The Golden Bowl. It’s about the Prince, and his imperturbable self-possession in the wake of being confronted by his wife’s awareness of his infidelity.

He had taken from her on the spot in a word, before going to dress for dinner, all she then had to give — after which, on the morrow, he had asked her for more, a good deal as if she might have renewed her supply during the night; but he had had at his command for this latter purpose an air of extraordinary detachment and discretion, an air amounting really to an appeal which, if she could have brought herself to describe it vulgarly, she would have noted as cool, just as he himself would have described it in any one else as ‘cheeky’; a suggestion that she should trust him on the particular ground since she didn’t on the general. Neither his speech nor his silence struck her as signifying more or signifying less, under this pressure, than they had seemed to signify for weeks past; yet if her sense hadn’t been absolutely closed to the possibility in him of any thought of wounding her she might have taken his undisturbed manner, the perfection of his appearance of having recovered himself, for one of those intentions of high impertinence by the aid of which great people, les grands seigneurs, persons of her husband’s class and type, always know how to re-establish a violated order.

What came into my mind as I read this was the Marschallin counting, in the third act of Der Rosenkavalier, “eins, zwei…” and sending the Baron back to the boonies. Copying out the passage just now, I think of another Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, in which grandiose elements commingle with vulgar ones.

There’s no doubt in my mind that those two titles, Eichmann in Jerusalem and Ariadne auf Naxos, come out of the same box of classical allusion.

Gotham Diary:
5 December 2013

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Kathleen Moriarty

Schadenfreude isn’t one of my weaknesses, or so I like to think. When bad things happen to other people, my response is usually sympathetic, because merely imagining bad things makes me feel vulnerable. Especially self-inflicted bad things. The older I get, the more astonished I am that I manage to get through the day without being arrested or inadvertently killing myself. And that’s now. When I was young and reckless — but I can’t be thinking about that. No, the possibility of bad things happening is far too vivid for me to derive any satisfaction from the misfortune of others.

And yet, this morning, I found myself sunk up to my neck in a bath of agreeable wickedness, as I read a tittle-tattle story in the Times about Nigella Lawson. I am so bad.

Back in the mid-Aughts, not quite ten years ago, Lawson had a weekly column in the Times, which I think was called “At My Table.” I didn’t know who she was at the time, except that she was obviously British and just as obviously in possession of a well-upholstered wallet. And she could cook. She could cook for a crowd without breaking a sweat. Her recipes, which always sounded both straightforward and interesting, never seemed to have more than four ingredients, and these ingredients seemed to cook themselves immediately upon introduction. She had an enormous kitchen in a townhouse somewhere — Greenwich Village, was it? Every now and then, the existence of not just a cleaner or a nanny but a considerable domestic staff would be hinted at. I hated Nigella Lawson. My envy had nowhere else to go.

Later, I discovered that she was the daughter of a Thatcherite Chancellor of the Exchequer whose name was Nigel Lawson, and I felt very sorry for her. Nigella, indeed. What was he thinking?

Now I find out that she really did have a domestic staff. Not back then, maybe, but more recently, while she was married to Charles Saatchi. (Why?)

When a friend offered her cocaine, she said, she took it, adding that she had smoked marijuana from time to time in the last year of her marriage to Mr. Saatchi. Not knowing how to roll a marijuana cigarette, she asked others in the well-staffed household to do it for her. “This was not behavior I’m proud of,” she said.

It seems that two members of that staff, or two employees of her former husband, were stealing from the couple. The thieves claim that they were given “free rein” to use their bosses’ credit cards, in exchange for keeping mum about Lawson’s drug use. This is why my mother disliked having servants. You just never know.

How is it possible that a “celebrity chef” doesn’t know how to roll a joint? Boggles! Even  I know how… But, really, Grey Lady, “marijuana cigarette” is carrying the “family newspaper” thing a little too far!

A proper teatime is a meal, not a snack, so it’s good to have something savory to hand around. My salmon sandwiches are not exactly traditional — in the old days it would have been fish paste spread between the slices — but rather a new take on an old theme. The star anise in the poaching water for the salmon and the ginger in the mayonnaise (along with the shredded Chinese leaf, or, easier to find, romaine) give a vaguely Asian flavor, but this is still a substantial English offering.

That’s from a column published ten Thanksgivings ago. Isn’t it hateful? I’m going to make the sandwiches this weekend. Ha, you say. How do you know that I’m not going to waltz into my huge kitchen and tell the staffer in the white apron what I want for tea?

Gotham Diary:
Pious Exhortation
4 December 2013

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Kathleen Moriarty

My eyes rarely stray to the editorial page at the Times — what is one supposed to do with all that pious exhortation? — but I was immediately drawn to commentary on the other day’s Metro North derailment. This disaster seemed awful but faintly ho-hum to me until I learned that the train was barreling along at 82 mph, on track where 30 mph was the limit. That, and the queer fact that the driver bore a plutocratic name, got me interested. The editorial complained about foot-dragging in the railroad industry, which has heretofore resisted attempts to require “positive train control,” as the latest in safety mechanisms is known. Since 1969, no less.

You have to wonder why a business concern would have to be admonished on the subject of safety. No, you do! What kind of moral fail enables the managers of unsafe systems to get to sleep at night? I’m not talking about guarantees; nothing can be absolutely safe. But the automated prevention of excessive speeding is a no-brainer. Ideally, speeding trains would be brought to a stop at the nearest station — an inconvenience for travelers, yes, but a sure way of focusing attention on mechanical problems and/or human negligence before harm is done. The expense of implementing safety procedures is no argument against them, unless the cost be proved to be staggering. How demoralizing it must be, to work in a business that shrugs off such obvious responsibilities.

Metro North is not an ordinary business, It spends more on operations than it takes in in revenue — as do all modes of human transport, in one way or another. Airlines are subsidized by “free” airports and a federal traffic-control system. Automobile drivers do not have to pay to use most roadways. Railroads are cursed by having been set up as moneymaking companies, back in the Nineteenth Century. Freight haulers still run in the black — witness Warren Buffett’s investment in Burlington Northern. Passenger trains used to make money, just as ocean liners did, by carrying the mail. But history does not point the way here. It tells us only that American railroads were altogether ramshackle at inception, a characteristic that evidently still clings. My own bright idea would be to replace American bosses with French and German ones, and to mandate a European stint for every manager of operations. The devastation of World War II provided Europeans with the opportunity to rethink their rail systems after 1945. We could use a similar reset.

That Metro North is operated by the State of New York emphasizes the drawbacks of governmental regulation. David Brooks wrote about this yesterday, in the broader context of national affairs.

It is just too balky an instrument. As we’re seeing even with the Obamacare implementation, government is good at check-writing, like Social Security, but it is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down. It’s hard to use economic incentives to get people moving in one direction. Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.

We don’t really know how to set up regulatory schemes, because we still expect that the people who run them will be enlightened and reasonable. As they might be, I think, more often, anyway, more consistently, perhaps, if we shared a strong sense of civic commitment, which it’s quite obvious we don’t. Just to be clear about it, civic commitment is the opposite of patriotism, that worst of self-inflating vices.

“Civic commitment” — talk about pious exhortaton! What makes the notion interesting to me is my belief that it’s an undiscovered country. We imagine that there used to be a better time in American life, one characterized by vibrant public spirit, but that is a mirage; what we’re really seeing is the boosterish optimism that intoxicated our forebears for several generations after the Civil War. We don’t, in fact, know what civic commitment would look or feel like. We never have.

We don’t know a lot of things, and we have four dead passengers to prove it.

Reading Note:
Nel Palazzo Verver
3 December 2013

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Kathleen Moriarty

Grand settings — impressionistically sketched, to be sure, so as not to bog down the drama in inorganic detail — are common in the novels of Henry James, but in his final masterpiece, The Golden Bowl, they become the rule rather than the occasional exception. James’s treatment of Fawns, the immense country house in Kent, is characteristic: he suggests that the place is simply too large to compass, so he doesn’t even try. The terrace front at Matcham, before which one of the novel’s most thrilling — and most hushed — scenes plays out, is also unimaginably long, and with its view of three cathedral towns it appears to float on a magic carpet over the Cotswold countryside instead of rudely surmounting it. We are encouraged to imagine that the London houses occupied by Adam Verver and his daughter, Maggie, in Eaton Square and Portland Place, respectively, are larger than they might possibly, in actuality, be. Colonel and Mrs Assingham live in Cadogan Place, not meant to be especially grand by James but grand enough today. Even the queer little antiquarian shop in Bloomsbury, however faded in 1904, has been polished up by that quarter’s subsequent history, and it is also associated with the one great old pile that the reader can visit in person, the British Museum. Everywhere in The Golden Bowl, one stands as if in halls too vast to make out, the distant corners of which, far from being dark or obscure, seem to dissolve in mists of great wealth.

The irony of this gift for imaginative stage-setting is as immense as Fawns, for it embodies James’s dismal failure as a playwright — the great disappointment of his professional career — in a novel that is as intensely dramatic as anything ever performed on the stage. James’s demands of the theatre and of theatre audiences were so excessive that he would be completely forgotten today if he had not learned to mount his productions, on tour as it were, in individual readers’ minds, where among other things he could count on finding the necessary props, flats, and costumes ready to hand and supplied at no charge. (Most important, James could take full advantage of the novel-reader’s willingness to devote not hours but days to sitting through the show — with all the comforts of home.) All he need do was to write out the lines of dialogue. Even then, however, he might not have amounted to much, for the dialogue in his novels usually follows a crisis, instead of leading up to one, and works primarily as a relaxation of dramatic tension. The stuff of his novels is something beyond the reach of the most accomplished theatrical company. The bulk of The Golden Bowl, as it is in all of James’s novels, is given over to the description — in this case, sharply, even bewilderingly articulate — of his characters’ impressions, and the inferences that they draw from these impressions. James is, profoundly, not a psychological novelist. He could not be less interested in motivations; he takes them completely for granted. And why not? His people want nothing but money and/or love. (More rarely, as in The American, they want power as well, but this, too, is an elemental lust.) The complications of James’s mental interiors lie not with the observing character but with the character observed, to whose interior we are not, for the moment, granted admission. It is probably best to conceive of these interiors, not as located within any of the characters’ minds, but rather as observatories into which certain characters are placed by the stage-directing author. These observatories, it must be noted, are very unlike the houses and gardens in which James’s characters outwardly move. They are as dark as deep caves, and lighted only, when lighted at all, by pinpoints of insight.

But I would propose that, if James is reluctantly happy to liberate his reader from prolonged confinement to a chair in the stalls, he is nonetheless not willing to dispense with the salience of location that reminds us where we are when we go to see a play. Re-reading The Golden Bowl for the fourth or fifth time last week, I found myself not only sitting up straight but, unaccountably, fretting that my shoes needed polishing. I was also quite conscious of my perch, in a well-appointed hotel living room, with an interesting vista of San Francisco that might, thanks to my ignorance, stand in for the view of Florence from Fiesole that it has not been my good fortune to see for myself. The suite was quiet and everything was in order. This seemed unnaturally important until I recognized that James was solemnizing the reading of his story by creating for it a virtual architecture that adds, to all the emotions triggered within the tale, a readerly awe. The Golden Bowl is itself a palace, an assemblage of rooms, great and small (mostly great), indoors and out (always thrilling when out), through which the reader is guided, in a sequence of scenes that are as clearly demarcated, as by the fall of a curtain, as are the acts of a play.

Movement from one room to another occurs during the intermissions. Between Book First and Book Second, for example, several years pass, and the Prince and Maggie not only marry but become parents, their little son, the Principino, born in New York, of all places. Between Book Second and Book Third, a deeper transformation occurs, as Charlotte becomes not only Mrs Adam Verver but also a bored housewife. Then we have the jump from Part One, “The Prince,” to Part Two, “The Princess,” which is a shift in focus that entails no gap in time whatsoever. Both Parts, all six of the Books, and most of the constituent chapters transpire in different wings, apartments, or parterres of the huge palace conjured by Adam Verver’s millions. The longest of the Books, also the most exciting, is the Fourth; for the re-reader who can remember what’s going to happen, it takes place in a long dim nave, at the end of which stands the vessel of the title atop a chimney-piece, bathed in a sullen glow.

The golden bowl is the physical token of everything that happens to Maggie Verver in this novel. It represents the secrets that were deemed too dark, or at any rate too unsettling, to share with her before she married the Prince. It represents the righteous American morality of a respectable American heiress whose good name is her only important asset. It represents the girl whom Maggie outgrows in the course of Book Fourth; in fragments, having been sent crashing not by Maggie but by her sometime deceive, Fanny Assingham, it represents her molted skin. When the bowl is broken, Maggie becomes in reality what she has long been in title, a true Italian princess, as ruthless as a Borgia in keeping what belongs to her. Not so much as a whisper of outrage at her gross betrayal at the hands of her husband and best friend (and mother-in-law!) crosses Maggie’s lips. Not a scintilla of recrimination takes shape in her throat. Maggie contents herself with a couple of hard, silent stares. Then she packs her rival off to the trans-Mississippian wastes of American City (oh, the horror!), and lets her husband give her a big hug.

It kept him before her therefore, taking in — or trying to — what she so wonderfully gave. He tried, too clearly, to please her — meet her in her own way; but with the result only that, close to her, her face kept before him, his hands holding her shoulders, his whole act enclosing her, he presently echoed: ‘”See’? I see nothing but you.” And the truth of it had with this force after a moment so strangely lighted his eyes that as for pity and dread of them she buried her own in his breast.

I run ahead; that’s the end of the novel, not the end of Book Fourth, which consists of a very different exchange between Prince and Princess. It is this earlier exchange that shows Maggie to her husband in a new light. To put it into the language that we might allow ourselves today, what Maggie says to the Prince is this: “Bearing in mind that you are still my husband, and that you are going to go on being my husband, go fuck yourself.” And, in that moment, the Prince abandons his lover, not just out of duty or prudence but because he has fallen in love with someone else, or at any rate — it comes to the same thing — discovered that his wife is more interesting than his mistress.

The curtain thuds to the boards. When it rises, the scene is familiar but the atmosphere new and rather awful. In Books Fifth and Sixth, Maggie is the spectator of a passion play that she has written and produced, entitled The Agony of Charlotte Stant. Fawns has become a chamber of horrors through which Charlotte stumbles in miserable ignorance, denied access to one of the author’s observatories because there would be nothing to observe, so in control of the situation is our “little” princess. True, Maggie has a few lines in this melodrama, but their importance consists entirely in their perverse incommunicativeness. Like a well-prepared and disciplined witness under cross-examination, Maggie volunteers nothing and concurs in no speculative lines of inquiry. Unlike a good witness — and unlike the nice American girl that she used to be — Maggie also perjures herself. She does so in part to bundle herself offstage, so that the show may go on. The virtual room in which James has placed us is the bustling saloon of an auction house, where everything in the plutocratic collection is being knocked down, not least its mistress and principle cicerone, the tall, proud, glorious, but unenviable Charlotte.


It had never occurred to me before I conceived the heading for this entry, but “Verver,” which sounds a lot like “fervor” in English, takes on a Venetian cast — Vairvair — when placed next to the Italian for “palace.” In either language, the name speaks to truth, but the truth of the novel is not one with which Americans are comfortable even yet. It is this: virtue, in the end, is inescapably an abstraction, acknowledged in its generality by millions, but love is the most peculiar, and therefore precious, reality in the world.

When I went out to lunch yesterday, I made sure to have my shoes shined. I even toted along a second pair.