Archive for January, 2014

Gotham Diary:
Radical Elements
31 January 2014

Friday, January 31st, 2014

When did this happen? When was the Alan Garage disfaced? Who let the barbarians in?

Somewhere, I must have a photograph of the old facade, a terra cotta triumph. You can read about it in a “Streetscapes” column from way back in 1989, when Christopher Gray was writing up the development of the old Orpheum Theatre site. Thanks to his piece, I learned how the old garage, built in 1930, and the small hotel next door (the Franklin) got their names.

One shudders at the illiteracy of the Meyers Parking people. Why not just junk the old name? Why mount “Allan’s Garage” on a brutalist sign? Getting it wrong adds insult to injury. And the injury is not inconsiderable. The Alan Garage was one of the minor marvels of Yorkville. (There are no major ones.)

I took the picture, however, because I have always been curious about the “Shaftway” signs that appear on buildings throughout the city, presumably to signify that the windows (which are usually blacked out) open onto elevator shafts. Or maybe just shafts, in the very old days, with pulleys at the top. Here’s my question: who is the intended reader of these signs? Whom are they designed to notify, and about what? All I can think of is that second-storey men might find the warnings useful, but why would the city fathers worry about the likes of them breaking their necks?

Ah, these modern times! I have but to ask. Firemen, that’s who the signs are for. D’you know what? I think I knew that, and then forgot.


Yesterday, I devoted about three hours to translating three sentences of Confucius. Why do I say that? Translation had nothing to do with it. In fact, I was learning how to read the three sentences in Chinese.

How much time you devote to following the rest of this entry is, of course, entirely up to you. I’ve taken it upon myself to explain a few things about written Chinese that may be of no earthly interest to you — but you never know. I thought it worth the exercise. Can I make this intelligible? Can I make it interesting and intelligible? Can I convey the great but rather serious fun of dissecting an ancient text that seems to have unusual pertinence? All I’ll say is, I’m sure that it might be better done. I won’t find out how, though, until I give it a try.

My objective is to understand Analects 13.3 as well as I can, and on a matter of importance that I have mentioned before and for which I should like to conceive a better label than “rectification of the names.” I could trust the translations, and in fact I do trust them, but I want more; I want to get a feel for how Confucius expresses himself. To do that, I have to know something about Chinese (namely, how to look up characters in a dictionary), but I’m finding that I also have to know something about teaching myself. I have to devise a practice for studying Confucius in his native language. I have always played with Chinese before, as you might play with a bar puzzle or a word game. My present inquiry — studying Confucius — demands method as well as rigor. How do I find them?

I begin with the text — the Dover reprint of the 1893 edition of the work of Confucius prepared, with a translation, extensive notes, and a glossary of characters, by James Legge, an Oxford professor who set out in 1839 as a missionary to China, returning to England in 1873. There are seven sentences in 13.3. Being me, I began in the middle, with the fourth sentence. The first three sentences are relatively shorter, and I’ll find out how long it takes to work through them after I have posted this entry.

Once I have found a character, in the dictionary or elsewhere (I’ll come back to that), I write down its Pinyin romanization. This is invariably a syllable with an accent mark that signifies one of four tones. Then I copy the character. If the character has been simplified, I copy that as well. I have learned to write down the number of the character’s radical directly beneath the Pinyin. Then I write a word or two of definition, unless the character is one of the many that don’t yet have a clear meaning to me.

Given favorable winds, I find each character in the normal way, by recognizing its radical. Until very recently, Chinese characters, which were and still are pronounced differently throughout the country, were organized around the idea of radicals. There were 214 of these. They were all characters in their own right, but they were also components in other characters, which were formed by adding strokes to the radical elements. To get anywhere in written Chinese, you had to know your radicals; you had to be able to “see” one of them in any given character. Once you got used to it, it was fairly straightforward. Radical 50 (which looks like a small square or rectangle), plus four other strokes: jÅ«n: “monarch,” according to the dictionary (Oxford), but for Confucius the first half of a compound translated as “superior man” by Legge, and as “gentleman” by Simon Leys. Some radicals, however, were hard, at least for me, to discern. One dictionary that I used to use had a listing of “difficult” characters, grouped by total stroke count. You will see, then, that you have to know how to write a Chinese character before you can look it up. The little box of Radical 50 (formerly 30) is comprised of three, not four strokes.

In contemporary dual-language dictionaries, characters are organized by their Pinyin romanizations. The Pinyin convention for representing the sounds of Chinese as it is spoken in Beijing is officially recognized by the Chinese government. Dictionaries still provide tables of radicals at the beginning, but if you know how a character is pronounced, you can dispense with them.

The winds are frequently unfavorable: I don’t recognize the radical, or can’t find the character listed under the radical that seems clear to me. More often than I’d like admit, I simply miss the character, overlooking it where it belongs; I have correctly identified the radical. Sometimes this is the result of carelessness, but often its a failure to recognize the character in a different typeface. The 1893 typeface is massively woodcut: it looks tremendously Chinese-ey. (I spent twenty minutes looking up what I took to be a different character for “foot” because of a defect in one of the woodcuts.) The dictionary’s type face is far more rectilinear, and the lines are really lines, not the brushstrokes of traditional Chinese writing.

And, not infrequently, the character has been simplified. That’s to say that a less complicated character, with far fewer strokes, has been substituted for the traditional one — the one that appears in Legge’s 1893 edition. Simplified characters are official in the People’s Republic of China and, increasingly, used by scholars around the world. (They are, after all, often the work of scholars of the past, constituting a shorthand that allowed notes to be taken more rapidly.) The simplified characters are not, however, in use in the Republic of China (Taiwan), or — last time I looked — in the Chinese-American press. What makes simplified characters such an awful pain for anyone schooled in traditional Chinese characters is that many quite common radicals have been simplified. Take the traditional 149th character, which means “words.” In my traditional dictionary, the characters classified under Radical 149, and all of their more common compounds, run from page 1482 to page 1529. As it happens, the traditional radical has been retained as a character, but it is not much of a radical anymore, as most of the characters formerly classified with it have been reassigned to a two-stroke radical that doesn’t mean anything.

Having taught myself the traditional table of radicals pretty well, back in the early Seventies, I effectively stopped studying Chinese for a long time rather than deal with the simplified characters, radical lists of which, unlike the traditional one, are not standard. I don’t know how many there are, but I have two right here on my desk, the one in the Oxford dictionary (the one that I use), and the one in a devilishly handy study guide, published for I can’t imagine whom, called Reading and Writing Chinese: A Comprehensive Guide to the Chinese Writing System. Quite often, I go straight from the dictionary’s table of radicals to the study guide, via the Pinyin — which is why the Pinyin is the first thing that I write down. Chances are that the study guide will show me how to write the character properly. I know the basic rules, but I’m making more of a point of doing things properly. As you can see, I eventually got over my “sunk costs” attachment to traditional characters. Happily, both the dictionary and the study guide provide the traditional versions alongside simplified characters, or else I’d be lost.

Sometimes I find the character in reverse. Knowing what it means, I look up the word in the English half of the dictionary and then trawl through the listing in search of the character that I’m looking for. The Oxford dictionary, as is conventional now, will give both character(s) and Pinyin, for the Chinese half of the dictionary is arranged alphabetically — by Pinyin. And a funny alphabet that makes: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, W, X, Y, Z — the letters omitted from this list never appear at the beginning of Pinyin romanizations, and the omitted consonant — V — isn’t used at all.

Traditional Chinese-English dictionaries work differently. They arrange the characters in the traditional manner, by radical. On the first page of the dictionary proper (after the tables of radicals), you will find the first radical — the straight horizontal stroke that signifies “one” — followed by the characters that add one stroke to the radical; in my traditional dictionary, a rebarbative tome that dates from the Legge era (also a reprint, of course), the second listing is the character for “seven.” And so it goes, all the way to Radical 214, which consists of seventeen strokes and denotes, among other things, a flute. The last character in the dictionary adds nine strokes to this radical, to mean “implore” — one almost suspects a Christian interpolation, as all the compounds listed for the character suggest a distinctly Occidental fervor. But I’ve forgotten to mention: the table of radicals in a traditional dictionary directs you to the page where the definition is given.

Three characters that appear in the sixth sentence of the passage that I’m studying, meaning “ceremonies,” “music,” and (more or less) “flourish,” consist of many strokes — and positively occult radicals. (Well, they give me trouble.) I had a very strong, and, it turned out, correct, hunch that they had been simplified, so there would be no point looking for them in the Oxford dictionary. Following the basic method, I should have had to look them up in my traditional Chinese dictionary, which employs not Pinyin but an older system, known as Wade-Giles. Assuming that I found the characters in the traditional dictionary, I should have to hunt for the corresponding Pinyin, something I’m not very good at. Avoiding this headache, I looked up the three words in the English half of the dictionary, found what I was looking for, and copied the simplified versions of the characters alongside the traditional ones taken from Confucius. In two cases, identifying the simplified character’s radical was easy, but the one for “music” really stumped me for a while, until I got to the end of my rope, and there it was.

Hunting for radicals even after I’ve identified a character isn’t really necessary to attaining a better understanding of Confucius, except, who am I to say such a thing? If I want to understand Confucius’s text, I have to know the characters, and to know the characters implies knowing the radical, even if the character in use today no longer resembles the one in Confucius. In short, instead of beginning by deciding all the things that I don’t really need to bother with, I’m bothering with everything that seems pertinent to the text. This seems to be a more properly Confucian method.

The last step is to write out the Pinyin romanization of the text. This will help me to read the text aloud, and eventually I’d like to be able to read straight from the original, giving Kathleen the romanized text (and showing her how to follow it). Only then will I try to parse the characters that are at all obscure. Confucius was writing, after all, two and half millennia ago (roughly), and even as conservative a language as what used to be called “Mandarin” is bound to change a bit. We have in any case moved far from the agrarian world, dotted with watchtowers, that provided the meaningful referents in Confucius’ time. I want his words to tumble in my mind.

I don’t assume that Confucius has the answers. But he does seem to have a method, a line of inquiry, that stresses virtue as a social good. In the West, we have come to regard virtue as optional, almost vestigial. As long as you don’t break the law, you’re doing fine; and one man’s virtue is another man’s vice. I don’t like depending on law and order; a police state is no better than a nanny state. Our only hope of doing without either is to develop a flexible sense of social virtue, modest in scope but clear and comprehensive as regards public spaces, and considerate of the consequences to the world tomorrow. I think that Confucius can help me to identify a few basic principles. He has, for a start, inspired me to read him with respect.

I said something about fun, didn’t I. Oh dear.

Gotham Diary:
Modern Calamities
30 January 2014

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

At the bank yesterday, I slipped my card in and out of the ATM machine at the right-hand rear of the ground floor. I asked for a certain amount of money, and I typed in my PIN. Much to my unpleasant surprise, the screen announced that it did not recognize my card, and urged me to contact customer service.

Really! I decided to try another ATM. This time, the process netted me the desired oodles. After I tucked the receipt into my wallet and pulled on my glove, I strolled over to the greeter who stands by the door welcoming customer and directing their inquiries. I told her about the malfunctioning ATM, pointing it out specifically. She said that another customer had had that problem, and, with vast vagueness as to time, she added that she would inform the branch manager.

Later, I scolded myself for not climbing the stairs and telling the manager myself. It’s a very rude shock, especially for an older person living a settled life, to hear that one’s bank card doesn’t work, and it ought never to be transmitted in error — certainly not more than once. Naughtibank!

Earlier, I read of a ghoulish movie that’s showing at the Film Forum, Charlie Victor Romeo in 3-D. In this claustral film, a troupe of actors impersonates the crews of doomed flights, the script transcribed from “black boxes” recovered from the wreckage of crashed planes. Nothing is seen of the passengers. In the Times, A O Scott wrote,

A few of the scenes begin with playful banter, and even a hint of flirtation between a pilot and a flight attendant. As things go wrong, the language is dominated by a mixture of technological jargon (heavy on numbers and abbreviations) and profanity. Jaws clench, beads of sweat appear on brows, and breathing accelerates.

You might have a similar reaction. Whether you will find it pleasant, cathartic, thrilling or just dreadful is another question. After the third chapter of this 80-minute movie, my screening companion, a somewhat nervous flier, excused herself and went to wait for me in the Film Forum lobby. It was not only duty that prevented me from joining her, but also a morbid fascination with catastrophe.

Just dreadful. It’s just dreadful to know that this movie exists.


Especially on a day when Kathleen was flying.

For about half an hour in the early evening, my body was a septic tank of cortisol. Kathleen wasn’t answering her phone. She was at the airport in Miami, waiting for a delayed flight. It had probably been a mistake for me to watch Random Hearts while working in the kitchen before making myself an early dinner.

Random Hearts, which I haven’t seen in a long time, has aged very well. I think that that’s testimony to the skill of its director, the late Sidney Pollack. When the movie came out, fifteen years ago, it had an old-fashioned feel, and not in a good sense. Harrison Ford was a tad too old for the role of a hard-hitting Internal Affairs sergeant, and Kristin Scott Thomas seemed cautious in her first “American” role. (Her accent was much improved when she made The Walker some years later. In Random Hearts, she says “scare” and “care” in a way that, while not sounding at all British, doesn’t sound quite right. The French would say that elle venait de nulle part.) The unlikely romance between the cop and the congresswoman was almost swamped by its catastrophic premise. (Their spouses were having an affair, and died in a plane crash on their way to a tryst in Miami.) The Washington setting, replete with campaign managers and their sausage grinders, was too highly seasoned to serve as a backdrop.  As a title, Random Hearts was blandly uninformative.

These defects, such as they were, appear to have died with the novelty of Pollack’s film. Ford looks, if not young, then not too-old, and Scott Thomas is at her prettiest, and possibly her sweetest. There is in her performance a touch of little-girl gracefulness that makes a change from her trademark tart, sometimes swaggering, sophistication. Together, the stars create a convincing and affecting instance of what might be grossly called grief sex. They’re bereft and outraged in different ways, but, they are bereft and outraged, and they are further united as the victims of the same infidelity. He wants to know what the guilty lovers’ plans were, and also (being a detective) what was the last thing about his wife that he knew to be true. She is angry at being denied the satisfaction of getting a divorce. He wants to visit the scenes of the illicit liaison; she doesn’t, but she learns from him that this might be evasion on her part. When you’ve been made a fool of, you ought to want very badly to know the how and the why.

The movie does not ask you to judge the long-term prospects of a romance between two people from such very different milieux. In many subtle ways, it minimizes the difference; for example, the two homes, one in the northwest quadrant of Washington, the other somewhere in New Hampshire, seem to have been designed and lighted by the same eye (which of course they were, but that’s usually to be hidden). The congresswoman has a flat in Washington that is, clearly, not home. I was never very sure of just what the cheating wife’s job at Saks entailed, but she was no blue-collar housewife. The cop has a shack in the country near Chesapeake Bay; when the congresswoman pays a visit, she seems perfectly comfortable. If these people are ill-matched, it’s not for economic reasons.

Instead, Random Hearts, which like a certain legendary movie ends at the airport, allows you to indulge your fancy. In the last exchange of dialogue, the cop says, “How would it be if I called you up sometime and asked you to go out to see a movie.” The congresswoman drops her forehead onto his chest. Then she looks him in straight the eye with the film’s first full blast of Kristin Scott Thomas’s alluring ambivalence. “Wouldn’t that be something,” she deadpans, grinning slyly. Then she turns away and, without looking back, walks off to catch her plane. In the final shot, Harrison Ford is smiling. We’ll always have DC.

Kathleen got home more or less in due course. Tired and a bit cross, but utterly intact.


Morbid fascination with catastrophe. Needless to say, this phrase, which seems to signal moral depravity when connected to a movie about plane crashes, pretty much sums up the attraction of Stranger by the Lake.

Gotham Diary:
The text’s the thing
29 January 2014

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Reading The Wings of the Dove, I’m almost knocked over by the theatricality of the text. The text is a theatre, complete with play in progress; all you have to do is to open the book, and you are there. This is not to say that the novel is the adaptation of a play that might be performed in a conventional theatre by human actors. It isn’t. It is the play, complete with theatre to house it. It could never be staged otherwise. But it works like a play.

It might help to remember George Bernard Shaw. If you’ve ever read one of Shaw’s great plays, you’ll recall the lengthy stage directions. I remember hearing, in college, that actors hate those stage directions, because they’re so confining, but they certainly make the plays easy to read at home. Strip them out, however, and you have drama of more or less conventional length. Speaking the lines, getting on and off stage, and so on, will take a few hours. And no one in the audience is likely to miss the stage directions.

I wonder how many people have become fond of filmed adaptations of Henry James’s novels without having read those novels first. Not very many, I should think. Merchant/Ivory produced the best ones that I’ve ever seen, the ones most likely to make an interesting impression upon viewers who haven’t read the books; I’m thinking especially of The Golden Bowl, which, despite its many eccentricities of casting and scripting, I should be sorry to be without. But the run of earnest BBC productions that began appearing in the Sixties is rather starchy. They have their fascinating moments, but they remain somewhat pale reflections of more powerful originals.

My point is that, if you strip away everything that isn’t dialogue in Henry James — and a great many of his conversations are not quoted, as it were, but rather indirectly reported by the narrator himself — if you boil his books down to the words between quotation marks, you lose most of the book, and what’s left is fairly lifeless.

In my Penguin edition of The Wings of the Dove, the first part of Book Second begins on page 85. The first line of quoted dialogue appears on page 94. Everything leading up to that line might well be considered as a kind of stage direction, with the narrator arranging the stage just so. He does this by telling you things that you can see with your mind’s eye. Consider the second paragraph.

He was a longish, leanish, fairish young Englishman, not unamenable, on certain sides, to classification — as for instance by being a gentleman, by being rather specifically one of the educated, one of the generally sound and generally civil; yet, though to that degree neither extraordinary nor abnormal, he would have failed play straight into an observer’s hands. He was young for the House of Commons —

in today’s English, we would say “too young for the House of Commons,” and it might be helpful to read in the intensifier at the appropriate spots in the following string of ruled-out possibilities —

He was young for the House of Commons, he was loose for the Army. He was refined, as might have been said, for the City and, quite apart from the cut of his cloth, sceptical, it might have been felt, for the Church. On the other hand he was credulous for diplomacy, or perhaps even for science, while he was perhaps at the same time too much in his mere senses for poetry and yet too little in them for art. You would have got fairly near him by making out in his eyes the potential recognition of ideas; but you would have quite fallen away again on the question of the ideas themselves. The difficulty with Densher was that he looked vague without looking weak — idle without looking empty. It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, of his straight hair and his well-shaped head, never, the latter, neatly smooth, and apt into the bargain, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands, place him for unconscionable periods in communication with the ceiling,  the tree tops, the sky. He was in short visibly absent-minded, irregularly clever, liable to drop what was near and to take up what was far; he was more a prompt critic than a prompt follower of custom. He suggested, above all, that wondrous state of youth in which the elements, the metals more or less precious, are so in fusion and fermentation that the question of the final stamp, the pressure that fixes the value, must wait for comparative coolness. And it was a mark of his interesting mixture that if he was irritable it was by a law of considerable subtlety — a law that in intercourse with him it might be of profit, though not easy, to master. One of the effects of it was that he had for you surprises of tolerance as well as of temper.

This is superb example of James’s late-stage approximations of straightfowardness. The syntax is dense, but it is complete. The last two sentences — I very nearly left them out — are not quite as clear as what precedes them; we’re told nothing about the “law” of Densher’s temperament save that it is subtle. But everything else is quite clear. It is the portrait — we can be frank about this now — of a young man on whom Henry James might have a great crush.

There is simply no other way to present all of this information, this deftly woven network of the professional possibilities open to an Edwardian gentleman that at the same time foregrounds Densher’s predilection for thinking. Nor could Densher’s unconcern with material success be so pointedly hinted at. But observe that James never refers to anything that we couldn’t see for ourselves if Densher were standing before us. James makes him stand before us, all the more substantially, I should argue, because James sticks to the apparent surface of the man. What Densher thinks about when he stares at the ceiling is elided so suavely that we are quietly assured that we don’t need to know. James tells us everything that we do need to know; he presents it for us to see.

An actor charged with impersonating Merton Densher in an adaptation of the novel for the screen — I can’t be brought to call such thing a “dramatization”; de-dramatization would be more like it — would be only doing his job to absorb as much as possible of the paragraph that I have extracted in shaping his role; at a minimum, he ought to strive to represent Densher’s as yet unstamped character, for it is this “fusion and fermentation” that makes Densher the right man for the scheme that Kate Croy will unfold. But no staged “version” of The Wings of the Dove will ever afford us a dramatic experience to rival the one provided by the novel.

It’s very much a question of language. To get the most out of Phèdre, you have to understand French. To get the most out of Henry James, you have to be a close reader. The only difference is that nobody is a born speaker of the latter tongue.

Gotham Diary:
28 January 2014

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

At about nine, this morning, I canceled my lunch date. I didn’t want to be dependent on the availability of taxis in the terribly cold weather, and any other mode of transportation would entail overexposure to the Vortex or the Clipper or whatever it is. Tomorrow will be a warmer day, or so they say.

The prospect of bundling up and setting forth for lunch kept me from going back to sleep at 5:30 this morning. I tried to think, as I usually do at such times (and it usually puts me under right away), of what I might write about this morning. This broke off into the question, when this morning? Or this afternoon? This evening? In no time at all, every uncertainty in my life at the moment, amplitudes raised by Kathleen’s absence, paraded through my imagination, and although I was quite comfortable under the blankets, I could not manage the slip into oblivion. Eventually, I got up, grabbed the paper, and read yesterday’s news. Then I turned to Bookforum, a new issue of which arrived yesterday. Pretty soon, I was back in bed, dozing. What an existence!

Tomorrow, Kathleen will be coming home. That will buoy me up.


When I finally got to my desk, there was a letter from a friend who mentioned, among other things, that he was reading The Other Persuasion. This Vintage collection of “gay writing,” published in 1977, features, my correspondent told me, excerpts from the work of Proust, Forster, Stein, and so on. It’s long out of print, although it’s available. Looking at the online photograph of its quietly tasteful cover, I thought how assertive it would have been to carry the book around, in 1977, outside of a few urban enclaves. Assertive and/or bold. Thank heaven that’s over. Or at least the enclaves are much, much larger.

It was in the 1970s that readers were invited to consider such categories as “women’s fiction” and “gay fiction.” I wasn’t comfortable with either. Insofar as works in these categories were primarily concerned with issues of gender and sexuality, they could be of interest — interest not merely anthropological — to similarly endowed readers. To the extent that women and gay men wrote novels that fully engaged me, the categorization was empty. Thus I stepped away from the question, and read what I liked, much of which was written by women and gay men. Actually, more and more of it was written, as my novel-reading years passed by, by women.

There’s one thing that women and gay men have in common: the need to pay pretty close attention to the world around them, in order to avoid harm of some kind. This makes the fiction that they write more interesting; it is actually about the observed world. More interesting, that is, than fiction written by straight men. Straight male writers seem always to be wholly wrapped up in themselves, possibly because this is their only topic, they only thing that they’ve had to become familiar with. I don’t mean that these writers are necessarily self-absorbed. I’m thinking here of Augie March, whose Adventures I put down in the middle, not because the book was all about Augie, but because it wasn’t about anything else, either. No other character held the stage for very long. Augie was like a chimp swinging from vine to vine, and when he reached the vine that would take him off to Mexico, I closed the book. I suppose that what I’m confessing here is that I don’t care much for the Bildungsroman — not in its American form, anyway.

I’ve picked up The Wings of the Dove — it has been a while since I read it last. Quite a while. I love the novels to either side of it, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, so I turn to them when I’m in the mood for late James. The Wings of the Dove does have the most extraordinary beginning, the drama-ness of which reminds us immediately of the Master’s frustrated career as a playwright. A woman alone in a room, pacing, impatient. Then she stops before a “dull,” “tarnished” mirror, and while she appraises herself, the author tells us a few things about her family’s fall from prosperity to dinginess — a very few things. But the drama is deeper than that. We are told absolutely nothing of what Kate Croy is thinking. I had already noticed that about James: he never burrows behind physical manifestations to tell us his characters’ secrets. So much for being a “psychological” novelist! It was agreeably ratifying to see Wendy Lesser say the same thing, on an early page of her new book, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books.

Despite James’s reputation as a novelist of great psychological depth, there are virtually no scenes in which he peers behind the verbal surface, telling us that whereas So-and-so appeared to think this, she really thought that.

So much of the excitement and suspense in James come from this reticence — this very loquacious reticence. Like a beautiful actress on the stage, his wheeling prose diverts us from the unsightly tangle of semi-conscious mentalities. Reading some of that prose just now — Lionel Croy’s surprising support for his sister-in-law’s plans for Kate, notwithstanding their hostility to himself — I felt something else: when James’s characters converse, they are either negotiating or gainsaying the need for negotiation. There is a transaction in every scene — sometimes more than one. It is odd to think of James as a businessman, but we forget how much more there is to business than money.


Kathleen has just called to tell me that the greatest of my current uncertainties, one that gave rise to an anxiety that I worked hard to conceal from everyone else, has been favorably resolved. The worst of it was, Obamacare was “to blame.”

Rectifying Note:
27 January 2014

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Confucius often said that if only a ruler could employ him, in one year he would achieve a lot, and in three years he would succeed. One day a disciple asked him, “If a king were to entrust you with a territory which you could govern according to your ideas, what would you do first?” Confucius replied, “My first task would certainly be to rectify the names.” On hearing this, the disciple was puzzled. “Rectify the names? And that would be your first priority? Is this a joke?” (Chesterton or Orwell, however, would have immediately understood and approved the idea.) Confucius had to explain: “If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language is without an object, action becomes impossible — and therefore all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless and impossible. Hence, the very first task of a true statesman is to rectify the names.”

That’s from Simon Leys’s introduction to his translation of the Analects, which also appears in a fine NYRB collection, The Hall of Uselessness.

Now, for a bit of rectification.


To consume something is to destroy it. Buildings are consumed by fire. Prey are consumed by predators. The English muffin with which I might begin the day does not survive my breakfast.

I have read Jane Austen’s Emma six or seven times. Not only have I not consumed it literally — I still have two or three books that contain the novel, and I hope that there’s at least one such on your shelves — but I haven’t consumed it figuratively, either. I look forward to reading it a few more times. I’m not done with Emma.

“Consumer society” is a phrase that first appeared around 1950. I’d like to know more about precisely what it meant at the time — what was felt to be new about it — but it clearly referred to a shift in attitude toward durable goods. Previously, durable goods were intended by buyer and seller alike to remain in reasonably good working order, with repairs as needed, for a period approximating the buyer’s lifetime. The consumer society rejected this notion. “Consumers” would replace such goods for reasons other than need. Durables would now be discarded while still in working order or without recourse to repair. Unless, as in the case of clothing and automobiles, goods could be cleaned or refreshed to a degree that erased the palpable traces of a previous user, they were to be junked.

At the same time, the marketplace was newly awash in patently ephemeral goods, toys for adults as well as for children, that were not designed to last for a very long time. Many were actually labeled “disposable.” Bic pens, for example, could not be refilled, which made them prematurely worthless: the ink was consumed, but the pen was not.

Both cases retained a meaningful connection to the idea of consumption, but they introduced an element that had nothing to do with it. This was the notion that the “consumer” would make use of a thing until his desire to use it was exhausted. For example, someone might be concerned with owning the “latest” model of an appliance. This intangible value, whatever it might be, did not inhere in the object, and could not be consumed. When a dishwasher, for example, ceased to be “the most quiet” of available dishwashers, nothing was consumed.

Let’s call this new element “novelty.”

At some point within the past twenty-five years, people began to speak of consuming things when in fact all that had occurred was the novelty of those things had worn off. Thus began the improbable era of immaterial consumption, a period to which I should like to put an end with this entry.

You do not “consume” news, even if you burn your newspaper after you’ve read it. You do not “consume” art by visiting museums. News stories live on indefinitely in archives, and the most important function of a museum is to prevent the consumption of the works in its collection, by fire, theft, or otherwise. News stories and artworks are catalysts: they induce changes in receptive minds, but they themselves remain unchanged. Minds that remain unchanged are ipso facto not receptive: nothing happens, certainly not “consumption.”

The evil of this usage lies in this: it not very surreptitiously posits a value in news stories and artworks that is determined by the frequency with which they are “consumed,” and, as if that were not bad enough, “consumption” is equated with both “exposure” and “exhaustion of interest.” Having consumed the Mona Lisa, you move on to The Girl With the Pearl Earring. Two items off the bucket list.

Don’t get me started on bucket lists! Just try not to be somebody else’s marketing tool. Consume as much junk as you like, but bear in mind that you cannot consume anything truly worthwhile, except of course by physically destroying it.

Daily Blague news item: Circenses

Gotham Diary:
24 January 2014

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

Barclays Capital Grove! One sputters, wanting the eloquence of Pope and Swift. How to express, ineffably, the desire that this plaque won’t be around in ten years. One wishes its erasure more than to know What Were They Thinking?

It is almost not today anymore; shortly, it will be tomorrow. But what a wonderful day it was — a New York impromptu. Such as never happens, or only very, very rarely. It began with Fossil Darling’s decision to take today off, which he made yesterday, when someone at work pointed out that, in view of what we’ll call the inequality of income, he was in a very bad mood. So he decided to take the day off. Consubstantially — it would be a grievous doctrinal error to assert that his “next” realizaation preceded or followed the first — he remembered that today would be Ray Soleil’s birthday, something that Ray himself would never admit to doing. I was asked to join the two of them for lunch at Demarchelier (meaning that they would come over to my part of town), and, when I told her, Kathleen invited herself along even before I could tell her that Fossil had asked me to do so.

In the event, Kathleen, bedeviled by an upset stomach and crying clients, didn’t have lunch with us, but only showed up for a minute to wish Ray a happy birthday. As it happened, the widowed father of her oldest friend was having lunch at a table nearby, with a most interesting-looking lady, about whose age Kathleen and I later argued, Kathleen thinking that the lady was younger than herself, a position I emphatically pooh-poohed. The lady was very interesting, and semi-familiar. I won’t be surprised to learn, down the road, that I met her once. With her upswept, almost turbaned hair, and her complete eschewal of makeup, she looked like one of Edward Gorey’s dance mistresses.

Anyway, I had a plan. I had already looked into movies showing in the neighborhood after lunch, and found the tally wanting. But something made me look a bit further, and at Demarchelier I found myself proposing that we head over to Fossil’s neighborhood after lunch, to the Walter Reade theatre, to see the four-o’clock showing of Stranger by the Lake, the Alain Guiraudie movie that has elicited all the latest wide-awake reviews. Ray and Fossil had already talked about seeing it, and we needed but to cross town, buy tickets, and see it.

I might write about the cold here. It was terribly cold. We walked from the taxi at Broadway to the theatre (where we bought tickets for the 4 PM show ahead of time) and thence to Fossil’s flat across the street from Lincoln Center, freezing in the process. We could not believe that the distance between 65th Street one one side of Broadway could be so far from 64th Street on the other, but it was, absolutely, terribly cold. I suppose that the fact that we survived means that it couldn’t have been all that cold. But death did at times seem a sweet option. Later, walking back to the theatre to see the movie, and walking to Fossil’s from seeing the movie, it wasn’t so bad.

I have never in my life been so happy that a movie ended on an ambiguous note. That is all that I’m going to say about L’inconnu du lac at the moment. No, there’s one other thing. It’s not unlike The Swimming Pool, the François Ozon movie with Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. Deliberate as hell.

After the movie, we got comfy at Fossil’s flat. By now, we had decided on a dinner at Shun Lee West, with the young marrieds and Kathleen. Presently, the former arrived, the  couple of which Ms NOLA is a married half — we haven’t agreed on the proper nom du blog. We progressed to the restaurant, where we waited for Kathleen, although we didn’t wait to eat. She materialized at last.

Everyone agrees that Kathleen is an angel, but nobody can say why. I don’t have to argue, because I can see her wings.

Gotham Diary:
Can’t Take Я Us
23 January 2014

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Here it is, nearly four, and I’m just sitting down. Well, I went out today. I wrapped myself up nicely, and I grabbed a hospital cane — one of those metal, adjustable things — on my way out the door. I was glad I had it, just outside the building, where a patch of iciness was resisting the scattered halite on a sloping stretch, but, otherwise, the cane was more a comfort than an aide. The sidewalks were clear, if damp. There was slush here and there, and even a few puddles, but no ice aside from that patch alongside the driveway.

Although I set out to buy “only a few things,” I spent nearly seventy dollars at the discount cosmetics shop and nearly twice that at Fairway. You tell me. I had the Fairway stuff delivered, the first time I’ve done that there. I took with me some chicken and a couple of limes, to get the marination going for these evening’s dinner. The delivery took place about forty minutes later, and I put everything away. I’m trying to avoid putting off the little things — which sounds virtuous enough but is in fact tricky to the point of treacherousness, as the little things are numerous enough to swallow up an entire day. And they make writing more effortful; writing, for me anyway, is a carefree pastime, and if I’ve just applied my brain to the organization of a closet shelf or even to emptying the dishwasher (the household task that I’d like most to be spared — and putting away dishes that have been washed and let to dry in a rack on the counter is no better), the free play of ideas that Matthew Arnold mooned about is hard to get going.


I have a few books to write about, but I’m not in the mood just now to talk, or even to think, about either of them. I finished one of them late last week, and copied out all the tagged passages (nearly thirty) on Sunday. Whereupon I promptly lost interest in the subject (CIA Arabists in the early Cold War). The other book, Paul Hazard’s The Crisis of the European Mind, 1680-1715, I reached the end of last night, and have yet to copy out the tags. Not that that’s what holds me back. It’s rather that Hazard is so vastly erudite. As Anthony Grafton notes in his introduction to the new NYRB republication, Hazard appears to have read all of his source material in the original languages — Latin, Italian, German, and English, as well as French. He also seems to have exhausted the bibliography, so to speak, perusing the output of an alarming number of writers whose names were unknown to me.

More often, I’m happy to say, Hazard taught me things about writers whose names I did know, but not much beyond. (St-Évremond, for example, whose name was rather wickedly appropriated by Dickens for use in A Tale of Two Cities and whose work appears to be out of print even in France.) And I was able to follow Hazard’s narrative about the shift in worldview, from the static, classicist outlook that prevailed through the early part of Louis XIV’s reign, to the fractured currents of criticism and longing — sense and sensibility — that coursed through the Eighteenth Century. But I got no closer to understanding Spinoza. The Crisis of the European Mind is meant, I think, as an appetizer, as an invitation to read much more deeply. As such, it is intellectual history at its best.

At least I’ll have my notes.


What snagged my interest earlier today was a piece by Wyatt Mason in the new New York Review of Books (LXI/2), entitled “Make This Not True.” It purports to be a review of Tenth of December, the story collection by George Saunders that came out about a year ago, but it’s not quite that. (And what would be the point at this late date?) It’s partly a discussion of

two distinct directions fiction might take as it moves into the twenty-first century — two paths that have, in fact, been debated through recent years and that we may see, in Franzen and Saunders, flowering into competing visions, not merely of fiction but of being.

And partly an unlooked-for analysis, if that term is allowed in such a context, of the Buddhist ideas at work in Saunders’s writing. Actually, it is both things at the same time. In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, personal salvation is shown to be (quite literally) a matter of togetherness, of bodies pressed together for warmth. Meanwhile,

Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

No sooner do I type this out than I see the two currents that I mentioned earlier, springing apart at the end of Paul Hazard’s account of European intellectual (and spiritual) life at the end of the Seventeenth Century. This time, the cliff over which both currents tumble is the passivity and superficiality that communications technology, from broadcast television to the iPhone, has inflicted on so many otherwise intelligent minds. Jonathan Franzen writes copiously, and sometimes cantankerously, about resisting these effects, perhaps by dispensing with the technology; while George Saunders writes, in his fiction, about transcending them. (In several stories, such as Escape from Spiderhead, dead characters literally rise up into the sky over a receding earth, their understanding swelling with the altitude.) I would say that Franzen is an optimist, while Saunders’s outlook is not countervailingly pessimist but rather post-tragic. The awful thing has already occurred; it’s too late for it not to happen. In the bleakest imaginable way, there is nothing to be afraid of.

Call me a cantankerous optimist. I’m especially cantankerous these days because the Super Bowl is coming up, and for the first time in my life I’m seeing the game not as a non-event on my calendar, which it has always been, but as an arguable evil. Whether American football was ever a pardonable sport, it isn’t one anymore. We know too much about the lasting damage that ensues when men make a game of tearing each other apart. Evidence of the mental degradation that is caused by repeated concussions has piled up into an obscene mass. No less unpardonable — because no less degrading — is the dereliction that has allowed the Super Bowl to slide into standing as the pre-eminent cultural spectacle of American life. We celebrate our freedom by lavishing vast sums on luxury-raddled stadiums while not only neglecting to teach our children how to use and enjoy their minds, but showing them how to abuse them.

George Saunders knows how to make the forces that deaden American lives look lurid and ridiculous. He lights from within the mindlessness that reduces humanity to monstrosity. His writing is so powerful that it catches me off guard, and makes me laugh against my will. But it leaves me feeling hopeless. The people who are reading and responding to his stories don’t need them, and the people who do need them don’t read. I’m more heartened by Jonathan Franzen’s complaining. Buddhism seems, in contrast, a regrettable means of internal exile.

DVD Note:
21 January 2014

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

It seems wildly unnatural to be out of bed today. I got Kathleen her tea and toast before she went to work, but then I crept back under the blankets. The best way not to get sick is to stay in bed, right? I managed to read a few pages of Ruth Rendell before falling into a doze.

(I’ve just started A Demon in My View. Arthur Johnson is a creepy person. When Anthony Johnson, in the flat downstairs, finds out just how creepy Arthur is, what will befall? I am also soldiering through Bryan Cartledge’s history of Hungary, The Will to Survive. I don’t know when I last read a book printed in such small type. The accent, I can see, is on modern times; the reader arrives at the year 1825 less than a third of the way in. At least I know where to look when I need a refresher on the Principality of Transylvania.)


Yesterday, we had a bit of a Joseph Gordon-Levitt festival. We watched Don Jon in the afternoon and 50/50 in the evening. (Kathleen had not seen either.) I’ve been disappointed that Don Jon was shut out of the Oscars, but then, when I wrote about the movie in September, I did warn that “some early audiences may find it dissatisfying.” Watching it with Kathleen heightened my sense that viewers might find it obnoxious or even repellent. It is a genuinely daring movie, all the more for not particularly looking like one.

Don Jon is front-loaded with a lot of rather mindless vulgarity — guys hanging out around a bar, talking trash about the babes they want to squeeze. Then there is the hero’s apologia for his Internet porn habit. This is very well done, but, also, as they say, it is what it is. The second act, which begins sooner than it might but perhaps not soon enough to redeem some unfavorable first impressions, is a very subtle comedy slinking under a very brassy surface — the surface being Scarlett Johansson’s channeling of Barbra Streisand. This comedy is resolved in a manner that is not comic. The third act involves a major mood swing that doubles as a slow-motion climax, if such a thing is possible, at the summation of which the movie quietly ends. You don’t really know what Don Jon is about until the last couple of minutes. On top of that, Mr Gordon-Levitt has written for himself a role that departs from the ones for which he is known in two abrasive ways: Jon Martello is a bit nasty around the edges, and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anybody else. Don Jon, I have to concede, asks a lot from its audience.

But that it’s worth the trouble I’m even more certain than I was in September. Every review of Don Jon that I remember reading at the time pointed out that the film had borne the working title, Don Jon’s Addiction. The ultimate emendation was wise. Don Jon is not about porn addiction. It looks like it is, and the hero’s “consumption” of porn not only takes up a fair amount of screen time — not too much for me, but almost, and probably too much for most women — but it also brings the second-act comedy to its unfunny climax. But the point of this pastime is not the pursuit of orgasms. All along, Jon is telling us something else about the release that he finds in responding to sex online. He loses himself.

That’s the key, not to his sex life, but to his entire life. Don Jon’s life is fully scripted: it is a matter of moves. The persona that he has built up in his short life is already a carapace, because there is no room for hesitation in his world. Jon is on all the time — with his friends, with his family, at the gym, in the confessional or in his car (we don’t, interestingly, see him at work) — even when he is alone, keeping his apartment spic and span. His only release from this relentless role-playing is online, where he has created a space in which to be private even from himself.

The pace of the film, in its first two acts, emphasizes this. It is fast, and the camera work is sure — bada bing! There’s a lot of sarcastic banter that passes for humor, and the scenes involving confession and the Mass are frankly satirical. We are invited to laugh at this New Jersey world of more respectable, but less affluent, Sopranos, where the men take off their dress shirts before they sit down to eat in their “dago Ts” and proceed to yell at each other. Jon seems very happy in his milieu; he’s just a naughty little boy who likes to whack off a lot, and surely that’s nobody’s business but his own.

Into this life walks Barbara Sugarman — very much at Jon’s invitation. Barbara is a princess, who has to be treated just right at all times. She is also a source of inspiration: she more or less commands Jon to take a night-school course in order to get a college degree. She wows his parents. She’s great. But misgivings arise from an unlikely source: it turns out that Barbara doesn’t think that it’s at all sexy for men to do their own housework. This revelation is all that the discerning viewer needs to know in order to see that Jon and Barbara are not made for one another. When, much more predictably, Barbara erupts in outrage upon discovering that Jon has been watching porn even after they’ve been to bed together, Jon’s crew rallies to his defense: the broad must be crazy to take offense. Jon’s life goes back to normal, to his mother’s dismay. Or so it seems.

In fact, Jon has entered another world, thanks to Barbara’s pressing. This world looks very different, and the camera shoots it differently, too; it is not always clear (as it has been, earlier in Don Jon) just what the focus of a wide shot might be. There are no bright lights; everything is in shadow. This is a world without moves. It is centered on a college campus, where the basic idea is to learn things you don’t know, and it is embodied in a woman called Esther, played by Julianne Moore.

We first encounter Esther in a doorway, sobbing, as Jon, nonplussed, passes by. Next, we see her apologizing for the sobbing. As her apology goes on, we see that she is offending against one of the cardinal rules of Jon’s world by sharing too much information. Jon is astounded when he learns the extent of this information: Esther reveals that she noticed Jon watching porn on his phone. He is almost unhinged when Esther presents him with a DVD of “better porn than what you’ve been watching.” But he is also confused by something entirely unprecedented: Esther, a woman, wants to be his friend. This is wrong, in Jon’s world. But he doesn’t really dislike it.

It turns out that Esther has a good reason for acting a bit strange. She has suffered some terrible losses. But she also breathes a richer air than what’s provided by the ventilation system in Jon’s microcosm. Esther knows what love is.

And you realize with a slap that love does not exist in Jon’s daylight world. Are his parents in love? It’s hard to tell. But they’re the only ones about whom one might entertain the question. Jon’s friends don’t know about love, the girls he beds don’t know about love, Barbara Sugarman most certainly does not know about love, and, as for the priest in the confessional —

We’re so inured to hearing that love is a commitment that we overlook its liberating side. Love certainly requires that it be honored and not betrayed, but that is not a lot to ask — it is nothing, really — because love, as it grows, expands the possibilities of being. Barbara Sugarman is right to ask Jon why he watches porn when he has her. She is right to doubt that he really loves her. But she can’t teach him about love, because she doesn’t know anything about it herself. Esther, who has lost love to an accident, is not sure that she can ever love again, but she is happy to teach Jon what it might be like, and, at the end of Don Jon, he is happy to learn. He is almost the Joseph Gordon-Levitt we recognize.


It’s interesting, in retrospect, that Adam Lerner, Mr Gordon-Levitt’s character in 50/50, doesn’t drive, because cars are so unsafe. Adam is not entirely logical about this, because he depends on friends and family for rides to and from his house on the outskirts of Seattle; he doesn’t always take the bus. One senses that, had the actor taken part in the screenwriting, the inability to drive a car would have been given some more satisfactory explanation.

50/50 is about a young man who develops a rare sarcoma along his spine; the movie title announces his chances of survival. By and large, however, this is an upbeat romantic comedy, albeit one with occasional gloomy moments, usually showing Adam’s shaved head on a pillow, his eyes glistening in the twilight. Adam has a problem with love, but, unlike Don Jon, this problem is not rooted in ignorance. No, Adam is very familiar with love: his mother’s. His mother suffocates him with loving concern. So he goes out with narcissistic “hot” girls who let him down. We can hope that Adam’s ordeal teaches him to accept his mother’s way of loving him, but in fact we don’t see him with her after he is wheeled into surgery at the climax. We only see how relieved his mother is when she learns that the operation has been a success.

Diane — Adam’s mom (played beautifully by Anjelica Huston) — is not lacking in self-awareness; she even says, at one point, “I suffocate him because I love him.” There. She can’t help herself. We see enough of her to know that the love is real, that it is not a cloak for discontented scolding. She doesn’t want anything but what a normal mother wants: her child’s health, and, eventually, upon finding the right partner, marriage. But she has no idea, I think, that she herself is making it impossible for Adam to find the right girl on his own, because she is forever teaching him that love leads to suffocation, to unlimited expressions of worry.

(Adam finds the right girl because his cancer throws him right into her lap, and he gets to know her in an unromantic context. Ideally, that is how lovers would always meet, whilst doing something other than looking for love.)

Me, I’m like Diane by nature. Only with effort — and not very pleasant effort, either — can I eat my worries about my daughter. There is no reason to worry about her, except that what happens to Esther’s husband and son in Don Jon might happen to her. Cars are unsafe! That is the level of my worry. People get pushed in front of trains. They fall through lose gratings. Stuff happens. I like to know that such things aren’t happening to my daughter. But I have to keep that worry to myself. I have to remind myself: Dude, you’ve seen too many movies.

I’ve seen so many movies that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s flouting of cinematic convention, in the interest of showing us something of the greatest importance about life, makes Don Jon a fountain of joy.

Gotham Diary:
The Discounting of Beauty
17 January 2014

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Nebraska is a light comedy that ends with all the satisfactions of a well-told fairy tale. Alexander Payne rarely allows his film to stray far from a laugh line. The funny bits would not be out of place in a good reel of Laurel and Hardy. It’s important to stress this at the outset. Watching Nebraska is fun. It is, arguably, a bit slow; several people walked out of the screening that I attended yesterday. Nebraska is probably more fun for viewers like me than it is for people who have never taken a film course. But I was certainly not the only person laughing.

Strangely, however, this fun is consumed by the viewing. As soon as I walked out of the theatre, it was difficult to recall anything about Nebraska that wouldn’t sound depressing in the telling. Within the hour, I was seized by a virtual panic, imagining what it would be like to spend as much as an hour in the fictional town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where most of the action takes place (a town called Plainview served as the location, according to IMDb). Shot in black and white, Nebraska unrolls a massive collection of stark images that recall the work of the great American photographers of the early-to-mid Twentieth Century, such as Walker Evans and Edward Weston. Visually, Nebraska is bracingly austere. There is nothing remotely amusing about the look of the film, which is, rather, intensely haunting.

What makes Nebraska special is, of course, Alexander Payne’s secret powder, the ingredients of which become a little less secret with each new release. Payne has a way of looking at American life that, while frowning, falls far short of scolding. It occurred to me after Nebraska that Payne is not so much a social critic as he is a collector of bad habits, some of them worse than others but most only faintly vicious. The worst, or at any rate the most pervasive, of bad habits on display in Nebraska is the discounting of beauty in everyday life. Any kind of beauty that you can think of — from handsome architecture and well-tended appearance to interesting conversation and disciplined imagination; call it “poetry” if that suits you better — is absent from the lives of these people. Decoration is meretricious, and entertainment banale.  These are settlers who have settled down but stopped there, with the erection of structures that are only more durable than the ones they have replaced. There is no evidence that anyone is aware of the surrounding natural beauty; Payne has a way of shooting it, of putting it on film, that somehow underscores his characters’ non-recognition. Without beauty, these folks lead very small lives.

The trick is that we don’t see this while the film is running. We’re caught up in the slow-motion adventure of David Grant, a decent, if not very focused man with a modest living in Billings, Montana.  David’s father, Woody, believes that he has won a million dollars from one of those magazine subscription outfits, and that all he has to do is get himself to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his prize. The problem is, Woody is not allowed to drive anymore. He drinks too much. He has been drinking too much since he got back from Korea, a long time ago. Just how well his brain works remains something of a mystery, but I think it fair to say that he seizes on the clearance-house letter, which his wife and sons insist means nothing, as a vital antidepressant. His motivation is quite literally Quixotic.

If no one will drive him to Lincoln, then Woody will walk. But he’s not well-prepared to do that, either, and he never makes it out of town. Kindly cops detain him, and bring him home. At just about the right moment in the film’s running time, Woody wears down David’s resistance. While Kate Grant, Woody’s wife and David’s mother, hurls imprecations from the driveway, father and son strap themselves into David’s car, and take off in a south-easterly direction.

Owing to minor misadventures, they land in Hawthorne, the town where Woody and Kate grew up. It is sort of on the way to Lincoln, but Payne keeps us guessing whether that city will ever be reached. Stalled in Hawthorne, David learns a lot about his parents, mostly in comic episodes. And when the townspeople hear about Woody’s million dollars, they get pretty funny, too. But when the movie is over, all you remember is their venality, and David’s brooding resignation.

Bruce Dern, playing Woody, is the big star of this film, and he does a wonderful job at keeping Woody’s inscrutable cussedness from becoming repulsive to the audience. Woody’s eruptions of lucidity ought to be exasperating, but they’re too funny, too well shaped and aimed. But as far as I’m concerned the picture belongs to Will Forte, who plays David. His good looks incline to the delicate and boyish, and in black and white his eyes are large, soft, and dark. there is a crinkle to the left side of his mouth that approaches but stops well short of a sneer. His voice is somewhat querulous. George Clooney has nothing to worry about (although he seems much more than nine years older). Mr Forte is perfect in the part, a quiet giant of modest decency. His David is a boy who becomes a man before our eyes, reluctantly but resolutely. He shows us David beginning to see his parents as fully three-dimensional human beings for the first time in his life. The adventure is truly his; Woody may be Quixote, but David is no sidekick. Years from now, it may be wondered why Mr Dern got the Best Actor nomination, and not Mr Forte. That’s what sometimes happens when an actor’s first serious performance is a great one.

June Squibb plays Kate Grant with a wickedly unhurried exuberance. She is the film’s social critic, and her relentless exposure of the hypocrisy of others has the effect of telling us things about Woody that he cannot. We learn that Woody is good-hearted and trusting — the most irritating thing, to Kate, about his belief in the million-dollar letter is that it is so tiresomely characteristic. Tim Driscoll and Devin Rattray make such a well-matched pair of toothy, knuckleheaded cousins that it’s hard to believe that they’re not brothers in real life, or even related. Mary Louise Wilson, as their mother, busies herself with keeping her heartland shine from being tarnished by too much reality. Stacy Keach gives us, effortlessly, it seems, a small-town bully whose opening gambit is the unctuous word delivered with a dreadful smile.

So sweetly appealing is Angela McEwan’s Peg Nagy — an old flame of Woody’s and now the town’s newspaper publisher — that she really must have her own paragraph.

The actors playing Woody’s many brothers are too numerous to mention, but they compose the most awful scene in the movie: a roomful of men, still and silent as corpses, staring at a football game. The shot captures them head-on, with the game offscreen. If they knew what they looked like — but how could they? They see only what is supposed to be there. That’s another bad habit, if one not unrelated to the discounting of beauty.

Gotham Diary:
No Turns
16 January 2014

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

It was my plan to stay at home yesterday, and not to go out, but in the afternoon, Kathleen called to say that she’d be working late, and grabbing a bite at the office — and would I mind picking up a prescription at Duane Reade? At first, I rather did mind, just a little, because I should have to change into outdoor clothes. But I rallied quickly. I would pick up the prescription, mail a few letters from the post office, and then treat myself to a fried chicken dinner at Jackson Hole. Amazingly, Jackson Hole had survived the onslaught of Second Avenue upheaval associated with the construction of the new subway station, even though it was only a few doors away from the south entrance, currently a covered-over hole in the ground about seven storeys deep.

Had survived. When I reached the restaurant, it was dark, and its windows were papered over. Yet another casualty.

I turned around and walked back up Second. A new restaurant has opened in the space formerly occupied by Elaine’s. Well, according to Time Out, it opened in August, but I didn’t notice, even though I pass the place every time I go to the local hardware store. (This is why walking has ceased to be very interesting. When I’m in motion, my neck locks my view onto the pavement. To see what’s going on around me, I have to stop and turn. People often ask me if I suffer back pain, and I’m happy to say that I don’t. But the price is not inconsiderable: in my spine, there are no moving parts.) When I did notice the new restaurant, a few weeks ago — wouldn’t you know, Ray Soleil and I had just been to the hardware store, and it was Ray who noticed — it didn’t seem to be open, although I could see people through the windows. It turns out not to be open for lunch. It’s called The Writing Room.

Once again, I looked through the windows. Even at six-thirty, the place seemed to be packed. And there was a loud bar buzz, as if everybody knew or was getting to know everybody else. Maybe the old Elaine’s crowd had magically reconstituted itself. I never set foot in Elaine’s, and the same may go for the new place. If it’s open only in the evening, it’s probably not my kind of place, no matter how enticing the menu (buttermilk fried chicken). It’s very possibly a virtual club, open to the public but patronized by regulars who, again virtually, own the place. I don’t want to talk to strangers when I go out for dinner. I want to eavesdrop.

So I walked back a few steps to Café d’Alsace, which had been my fallback from the moment I’d shed a final tear for Jackson Hole. I sat in the back, because the restaurant was very dim and I wanted to read; in the back, there was just enough light. In a nearby corner, a man and a woman sat side by side. I didn’t get a look at them when I sat down (see above), but I was harpooned by the woman’s voice. She did not speak especially loudly, and I couldn’t make out much of what she said, but she modulated her voice so expressively that I felt that she was giving a performance. For a long time, the man seemed only to mumble unintelligibly. The woman, from what little I comprehended, appeared to be worldly-wise, even a tad cynical. What was her relation to the man? It was clearly not a romantic one; nor, however, did she seem to be talking to a business associate. And why did I take a dislike to her tone? Where there might have been friendliness, there was something else.

I ought to have had the steak tartare, but I asked for a burger instead, something that do only rarely, because they’re always — burgers at good restaurants — such big, juicy messes. There could be no thought of reading through dinner after all. Once I closed my book, I could give my entire attention to listening in, as if to an eccentric radio show. I certainly couldn’t see any better. I could not take a quick glance at the man and the woman; to see them, I should have to turn my entire upper body in my seat. Hardly unobtrusive! Had I been more curious than I was, I’d have staged a visit to the loo. But it was more fun, really, to work with my ears.

I was almost startled to hear the woman ask, “And what do your in-laws think about it?” Aha! She was his mother! Suddenly her trilling laugh, the Amanda Wingfield shade of which I had found annoying, made sense. I could hear his voice better now — it was nothing like his mother’s, but then he wasn’t being a mother, and she very definitely was. She was offering her wisdom while trying to respect his space. At one point, she said that something or other was “all tax-deductible,” with the assurance of an accountant that a friend might have found belittling. Her questions weren’t needling or pointed, but they seemed feinted, as if she were more concerned with how her queries were received than with the actual answers. I waited for something to be said that would disprove my hunch, but nothing was. No note of discord was struck. When the man and the woman got up to leave the restaurant, they passed in front of me, and he was, roughly, a bigger version of her, and definitely a generation younger.

There were so many unanswered questions! Did mother and son often have dinner alone together, or was this a special occasion? (I inferred that relations with the daughter-in-law were not unnaturally cordial.) Did either of them live nearby? (Something was said about books being on sale wherever they were going, so it may have been to a reading, although they were still at table at seven o’clock, which is when most Barnes & Noble events begin.) Did one of them live far away, in another part of the country? (They did not seem to be East Coast natives, although I can’t tell you quite why I say that — more manner than accent.) What did the mother do, aside from mothering? And the son, what did he do? Most of all, what was the woman like when she wasn’t alone with her son?

Was I right about any of this? It couldn’t matter less! One of the greatest pleasures of city life is letting other people’s lives take shape from dribs and drabs of evidence, and the best evidence is talk. Talk can be as entertaining as a play. To be honest, it usually isn’t, largely because people so infrequently pay attention to what the people around them are saying. Woody Allen has devoted his cinematic oeuvre to the demonstration of this cruel truth.

It’s unlikely that I should have overheard such a conversation at Jackson Hole. Decked out to resemble a Fifties diner (compleat with vintage gas pump), Jackson Hole was too loud, even without customers. The staffers were always yelling at one another in Spanish. It was not the sort of place where a mother and son would have had dinner alone together.

It was, it was not… It is not. It is no more. I don’t know about the other branches of Jackson Hole (there are quite a few, including one that’s visible from the Grand Central Parkway on the Queens end of the Triborough Bridge), but I expect that it’s just the one near us that closed, and that it closed for the same reason that so many other restaurants have closed. It occurred to me, as I walked up Second Avenue toward The Writing Room/Café d’Alsace, that the subway planners had made one terrible mistake: they had privileged automobile through traffic at the expense of every other kind of street life. Second Avenue ought to have been limited to local traffic from 97th Street to 63rd, with only the buses allowed to slip through. This would have put a stop to my favorite bugbear, the truck traffic that’s all about getting to Long Island without paying bridge tolls. Had Second Avenue traffic been limited, the sidewalks could have been left intact, instead of being shaved to strips barely wide enough for two people to pass. How ironic it is that a major mass-transit project should have had such a deadly impact on local businesses in the interest of preserving automotive normalcy. Future generations will laugh us to scorn.

Gotham Diary:
Be careful what you wish for
15 January 2014

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

At Crawford Doyle the other day, I saw lots of inviting nonfiction titles, and yet at the same time there were no must-haves. I picked up Hugh Wilford’s America’s Great Game, a history of CIA Arabism during and shortly after World War II, and felt pretty sure that this was something that I ought to read, but I groaned a little at the homework aspect. Like 1971, the book about Bangladesh that I read last week, America’s Great Game is about Western influence upon and interference in the development of national sovereignties that succeeded collapsed empires — developments that are roiling the world today, at the cost of massive suffering — and, after I’ve read it, I’ll have another look at James Barr’s A Line in the Sand, which I want to do anyway to refresh my grasp of the history of Syria. I’ve already jumped into Wilford’s book, and I’m happy with his writing, even if I didn’t really need to hear another word about Endicott Peabody and the Groton School (the Haileybury of the CIA).

While I was overcoming my reluctance to acquire yet another tome — not that America’s Great Game is unduly lengthy or at all crabbed; I can already tell that it’s going to be a gallery of clever fellows larking about — I was lingering over the nonfiction counter at the rear of the shop when a staffer placed a book in an empty spot. I looked down at it: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by Steven Grosz. In between the title and the author’s name there appeared a blurb by Andrew Solomon: “Impossible to put down.” Indeed it was — by now I held it in my hands. I read the inside jacket copy.

This extraordinary book is about one ordinary process: talking, listening, and understanding. Its aphoristic and elegant stories teach us a new kind of attentiveness. They also unveil a delicate self-portrait of the analyst at work and show how lessons learned in the consulting room can reveal as much to analyst as to the patient.

Had this been written on purpose to seduce me, it could not have been more effective. “Attentiveness,” “delicate self-portrait.” Flipping through the pages, I could see that The Examined Life would be easy, agreeable reading. But my curiosity was triggered by an alarm. How could a selection of anecdotes from psychoanalytic practice be anything but dubious? Psychoanalysis is a long, hard, slog, and it is bounded, for the analyst at least, by a kind of theoretical mechanics that at certain points is almost inexplicably complicated. (Just read Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives if you doubt me.) I have wasted untold hours trying to understand the finer points of transference, only to be repelled by the relationship’s inherent unseemliness. (I wouldn’t make a good thoracic surgeon, either.) How could such matter be shaped by a light hand and retain any substance?

I read most of The Examined Life yesterday, finishing it in the early evening. I had to put it down several times, and this was always difficult. I would finish one chapter and charge right into the next. No two patients had the same problem, and the analyst’s perplexity varied greatly. Some patients needed to be nudged into accepting the obvious. Others presented nothing obvious at all. There were men, woman, and children, old and young, gay and straight, neurotic and worse than neurotic. Some patients found relief, others not. On several occasion, the analyst was riven by self-doubt. Grosz makes it very clear that his expertise, such as it is, does not make him superhuman; patients might invest him with super powers, but he takes pains to ensure that the reader does not. The reader, after all, is not a patient.

I flagged only one passage.

Psychoanalysts are fond of pointing out that the past is alive in the present. But the future is alive in the present too. The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we’re creating, that in turn creates us. The future is a fantasy that shapes our present.

This sleek nuggest of wisdom — excuse my Wow! — concludes the story of a young woman who came to see Grosz after the sudden death of her father in an accident. She had been very close to him, emailing and talking on the phone often. She was disturbed to find that she wasn’t upset.

Then it emerged that her relationship with her boyfriend was at a standstill — and that this didn’t upset her, either. Instead of facing up to the man’s disinclination to marry and have children, the patient was entertaining fantasies of her father showing up at her wedding. Grosz realized that the young woman was stuck by her refusal to mourn the future — the future that she so lovingly imagined, and that now had been called into sharp question by her father’s sudden death. I think that this is what economists call the sunk-costs problem, but I didn’t make that clever connection until just this minute; reading Grosz’s account of his patient’s plight, I was almost as overwhelmed by her emotional investment as she was.

Grosz doesn’t tell us how things worked out for this girl. That is not the point. The point is that his insight might be useful to people who don’t need treatment. The future is a fantasy that shapes our present. Be careful what you wish for!


I used to say, of a late family member, that she was a fetishist. She was wholly unwilling to accept the “good enough.” There was no “good enough.” Something either was or wasn’t satisfactory, and to be satisfactory it had to meet her detailed expectations. She invested her happiness in things and rituals; she could not be happy without them. She did not define happiness in terms of her own feelings; she would never have asked, “Do I feel happy?” She defined happiness in a set of circumstances, so that the question was, instead, “Can I be happy here?” If the circumstances were deficient in some way, then, no, she could not be happy. It also struck me that being happy was not terribly important to her. She would much rather be unhappy than gulled.

So you can imagine your future, as many otherwise intelligent people do, as a sequence of status upgrades. As they progress through the ongoing present, people adjust this imaginary sequence to suit “reality” — they recognize that they will never occupy the White House — but this abandonment of “unrealistic expectations” can leave an abrasive residue of disappointment.

It is better to imagine a future in which you have a meaningful relationship with a special person, and in which you manage to support yourself by doing something that you like doing. These are not sequential dreams. It’s not a matter of going to law school, becoming an associate, and making partner at a big law firm, in that order. It’s much more complex, and it is totally immediate. To have a meaningful relationship with a special person requires you to become a special person yourself, right now; someone who listens, someone who anticipates correctly, someone prepared for unconditional sacrifices. You don’t have to be good at these things to embark on a meaningful relationship, but you must intend to get better at them. And you have to be clear-headed enough to have an open mind about what your special person might look like, because while this is important it is only one of several important things, among which are the ability to listen, to anticipate correctly, and to prepare for unconditional sacrifices. Not to mention quirks and foibles that you, and possibly you alone, find irresistible.

So it is with “work.” However important whatever it is that you make or produce might be to other people, it cannot be as important to you as the making or the producing. Other people get the end result; you keep the process. Ideally, this process not only suits you and brings in whatever income you require, but can also, on the off-chance that it makes you very rich, be adapted to an end that, while not so lucrative, is socially beneficial. Your dream of making tons of money ought to dovetail you into volunteering.

Our society does not make any of this easy, so that’s something else that we’ve got to tackle if we’re to be happy: we have to make the world a better place. Opportunities for doing so abound in everyday life, and they rarely involve real sacrifice. The Golden Rule still obtains, but there is a lot to be learned about it. How, precisely, do you want to be treated? What makes you happy? Take your time answering that question.

Gotham Diary:
The False Servant
14 January 2014

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Over the years, I’ve read a great deal of Ruth Rendell. But I don’t much write about it. There isn’t a lot to say about escaping into the lives of rather creepy people who manipulate their way, sometimes successfully, more often meeting with catastrophic failure, through the stunted worlds in which they imagine themselves to be living. Rendell’s writing, while always alert, is often desultory, perhaps because of the attempt to open up those stunted imaginations. I find that the creepy people don’t haunt me; most of them are forgotten soon after I’ve read about them, dissolved in the stew of Rendell’s creepiness. Rendell writes about depravity, and depravity, I’m happy to report, does not figure in my everyday experience. I know that it’s out there. But I do my best to avoid it. I don’t always agree with Rendell’s views — liberally dispensed in some of her books — but I heed the message that I hear loud and clear: Stay away from creepy people. Maybe that’s why I keep reading Rendell: to maintain my immunity.

Ever since I got my first e-reader, I’ve been reading Rendell in that format, and not cluttering up the house with books that I probably won’t re-read. Amazon makes sure that I’m notified when a new title appears, and at the end of every book there are suggestions of others. Usually, I’ve already read them, but not always. Rendell is amazingly prolific. Have I read half of her output? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I haven’t.

The other day, I was roused from my state of tending to regard Ruth Rendell as a household commodity by Donna Leon. In a startling passage near the end of her collection of essays, My Venice, Leon sings the praises of Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone — a book that I hadn’t read. In “On Books,” Leon talks about the preliminary decisions that must be made before a crime novel can be started. One of the necessary ingredients, she blandly reminds us, is mystery. “And there should be a mystery,” she writes. Then she immediately discusses a book that ostensibly flaunts its lack of one.

Ruth Rendell’s early masterpiece, A Judgment in Stone, begins, “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” Apparently, then, there is no mystery because we know from the very beginning who done it and why they done it. But the book, as it unfolds, causes in the reader the same gap-mouthed horror as does Oedipus Rex, as he sees nemesis winging ever closer to its victims, sees them ask the questions and make the discoveries that will lead to their destruction, while the reader is forced to remain silent on the other side of the page, unable to save these good and generous people from the evil that has entered their lives. But she’s another genius, and we still are not, so the writer needs a mystery.

Leon is wrong, of course, about the lack of mystery in A Judgment in Stone, and I’m sure that she is aware of this. Rendell’s opening statement is hardly a conventional assertion of cause and effect; illiteracy does not breed murderers. There must be something more, and there is more, a lot more; with a wealth of sharp-eyed detail and sharp-tongued character assessment, the novel fills in the gulf that the first sentence opens. It is harrowing, but not so very remarkable from a technical point of view. Crime novels frequently conclude with detectives re-enacting the events leading up to a crime. In A Judgment in Stone, the re-enactment is replaced by an enactment that takes up almost all of the book.

But what Leon says about the effect of reading A Judgment in Stone is almost sublime; the comparison to Oedipus Rex is not impertinent. Rendell’s writing here is as polished as ever, and the suspense is unflagging. As Alfred Hitchcock repeatedly demonstrated, waiting for something that you know is going to happen can be as agonizing as waiting for something uncertain — something merely “dangerous.” Rendell works through her material with virtuosic dexterity, her text a sequence of exquisite juxtapositions. But I am not going to blather on about the virtues of A Judgment in Stone. What Leon had to say made me want to read it, and I hope that it will make you want to read it, too, if you haven’t already.


As usual, however, I didn’t see things quite as Rendell does — or Leon. Leon calls the Coverdales “good and generous people.” But this is easy virtue. The Coverdales are gentry; they’re expected to be good and generous. It’s as much a part of their station in life as shooting and going to university. They are certainly not bad people. But they’re not innocent, either. And while they don’t deserve to die, they do bring their problem upon themselves.

The Coverdales’ situation, at the beginning of the story, is one that becomes very familiar in the second half of Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants, to wit: servants, lack thereof. Jacqueline Coverdale has been unable to find a servant who will keep her house, Lowfield Hall, really clean. Although she cooks and gardens, Jacqueline is not about to take up dusting and polishing. So someone must be found, and, into this need, Eunice Parchman insinuates herself by fraud.

Eunice is not a servant, and never has been one; she fakes her references. What Eunice is is a diligent worker, a natural cleaner and polisher. So Jacqueline Coverdale is delighted to have her in the house, even though no one else is. (Jacqueline’s husband, George, indulges his wife, against his better judgment. Anything to make her happy! The two children who also die, the previously widowed George’s daughter, a university student, and Giles, Jacqueline’s son by a prior marriage, are similarly discomfited.) But Jacqueline mistakes Eunice for a servant. The dissonance between the two outlooks comes into screeching view as the Coverdales, imagining that they are treating Eunice better than a servant, in fact offend her as a worker. Eunice sees herself an employee, as someone who wants to do a job and then be left alone. The old problem of live-in service rears its head: how is it possible for homeowners to grant complete privacy to strangers employed to do menial jobs and who live in their attics? Once upon a time, the Coverdales would have had no trouble staffing Lowfield Hall. Now, though — the book came out in 1977 — they’re thrown back on a woman with serious personality disorders.

For there’s more to Eunice than the inability to read or write. These incompetences mask and symbolize Eunice’s deeper disengagement from normal social life. She is not a sociopath, quite, but her vigilant self-defensiveness and her preference for unobtrusive shadows betray a very damaged character. As does the fact, revealed not far into the story, that she murdered her invalid father by suffocating him with a pillow. She is also a natural blackmailer. Other people, in Eunice’s world, are there to be used.

That is not the outlook of a good servant, or even a bad one. It is the outlook of a creepy person.

Gotham Diary:
East and West
13 January 2014

Monday, January 13th, 2014

This weather will be the death of us all. Last week, it was either too cold to venture outdoors or wet, as shown above. I dearly wished to stay home today, but it was sunny and mild — just for the moment, with more wet on the way — so I had to take advantage of favorable winds and run a round of errands. Before lunch with Ray Soleil, I got a haircut, and stopped by Crawford Doyle. Also William Greenberg for cookies and Venture Stationery for Post-Its. After lunch, I bought a Le Creuset Dutch oven at Williams-Sonoma, to replace one that had cracked after decades of use, and made a quick stop at the bank. Back at home, Ray and I had a cup of tea — with some cookies. Then I went out again, to pick up prescriptions for Kathleen and to buy a couple of bratwurst at Schaller & Weber. Fairway turned out to be not too much of a zoo.

Now I don’t have to go out for a couple of days. (Gristede’s runs don’t count.) Tomorrow, I can continue some domestic maneuvers.


On Sunday, I read an item in the Times about the dueling matriarchs of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. The first lady was recently re-elected as prime minister; the second instructed her followers to boycott the election, which it seems they did. This superficially amusing but basically depressing story would not have meant much to me if I had not finished reading, the day before, a book about the troubled country at the mouth of the great rivers, Srinath Raghavan’s 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. I can’t remember why I bought it, but I’m pretty sure that somebody in one of the reviews gave it a strong notice. The book was hard going at first. Well, not at first; the first two chapters read briskly enough, as Raghavan relates the events leading up to the show-down between Agha Yahya Khan, the military president (dictator) of Pakistan from 1969, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the East Pakistani Awami League and winner of the 1970 parliamentary elections. Spurred on by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who would replace him after the debacle), Yahya failed to yield power to Mujib. East Pakistan rose in revolt in early 1971. West Pakistani forces suppressed the disorder, but at the cost of inducing nearly a tenth of the local population to seek refuge in India.

Just when you are ready to read about chaos in what would become Bangladesh by the end of 1971, Raghavan turns his back on the scene, the better to survey the response of the rest of the world to the situation; that’s what his subtitle means. This is where the difficulty began. It was hard to adjust to the fact that I would be reading a diplomatic history, in which communiqués and ambassadorial conversations would take the place of events. The structure of the book was initally off-putting as well. In each of the six central chapters, the crisis is reviewed from the perspective of one of the following points of view: the Indian government of Indira Gandhi, the White House of Nixon and Kissinger (a point of view in sharp conflict with that of the US State Department), the Kremlin, the United Nations and the growing humanitarian movements, the other international players, and, finally the China of Mao and Zhou En-lai. Each of these chapters begins at some point in the Sixties and advances tortuously through 1971, usually ending just a bit further into the year than did the preceding chapter. At first, this recurrence was annoying, but by the time I got to China, I was mesmerized. It was clear that Raghavan was telling his story in the most suitable way, and the cumulative pile-up of detail demonstrated the ingenuity of his sequence.

In the last two chapters, Raghavan picks up the crisis itself where he set it down at the end of the first two chapters, and, if you’ve been paying attention, the narrative is as rewarding as a great stew is tasty. After months of restraint, war finally broke out between India and Pakistan in December 1971. It lasted for twelve days, after which Pakistan surrendered and withdrew its claims upon the eastern wing of the country. No other country interfered — except, of course, the United States. The United States sent a fleet from Vietnam, which, happily, did not arrive in the Bay of Bengal in time to do anything stupid.

It would be a mistake to accuse Raghavan of an anti-American slant, but he does make almost gleeful use of White House tapes to illustrate the dickheadedness of the two guys in the Oval Office. The president and his national security adviser had only one big thing in mind, but it was a very big thing: the world itself, as rearranged by a rapprochement between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. In order to keep this matter of global strategic significance top secret, Nixon and Kissinger needed a supremo as their emissary, and the supremo they picked was — Yahya Khan. He did the job so well that the American plotters completely lost the ability to see the subcontinental crisis at all objectively. Yahya was great, therefore Pakistan was great. India was — ruled by a woman of whom the two men had nothing nice to say. (“That bitch played us,” Nixon would bay.) To be sure, Nixon and Kissinger are at a great disadvantage here. It is perfectly possible that that the chanceries of the world echoed with the same kind of pompous nonsense as passed for realpolitik in the Oval Office. But, if so, those inanities were not recorded. Americans aside, Raghavan is largely confined to the measured statements of governments. Everybody seems cautious — except the reckless, raucous Americans. “Pissing contest” is too polite a term for the kind of challenge Nixon and Kissinger imagined themselves to be faced with.

The United States was the odd man out in this game for another reason as well, the very simple one of geography. India and Pakistan are very far away from the US. They are very close to Russia and China, however, and the Russian and Chinese leaders acted as though this fact bore heavily on their thinking, as indeed it ought. Nixon and Kissinger were incapable of thinking on a sub-global level. Their grandiosity was ridiculous.

As government after government came to the same conclusion — the West Pakistani oppression of East Pakistan was regrettable and almost certainly bound to recoil upon the oppressors, but Pakistan’s sovereignty must be respected by other nations — I found myself more and more disgusted with the notion of “sovereignty,” at least outside of Western Europe and the English-speaking powers. As applied to the Pakistan of 1970, it made no sense at all. The borders were not yet twenty-five years old, and they had been drawn by outsiders. All that bound the people of East and West Pakistan was Islam and a history with the Raj. They shared neither culture nor economic outlook. Smaller by far in land area, East Pakistan was considerably larger than West Pakistan in population. That was the problem: after Pakistan’s first free and fair election, the parliamentary majority would have been held by a party that represented only East Pakistan.

Long before I reached the final paragraph of 1971, I was of the same mind.

The 1971 crisis also has a contemporary resonance well beyond the the confines of South Asia. For it proved to be a precursor of more recent conflicts in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East. The Bangladesh crisis prefigured many of the characteristic features of contemporary conflicts: the tension between the principles of sovereignty and human rights and the competing considerations of interests and norms; the virtues of unilateralism versus multilateralism; national lineups that blur the international divides of West and East, North and South; and the importance of international media and NGOs, diasporas and transnational public opinion. The Bangladesh crisis may have occurred during a watereshed moment in the Cold War, but it was a harbinger of the post-Cold War world. Inasmuch as it turns the spotlight on these dilemmas and debates, the history of the 1971 crisis is not merely a narrative of the past but a tract for our times.

Sheikh Hasina is Mujibur Rahman’s daughter. She survived the massacre of her entire family, in 1975, only by virtue of studying abroad. Begum Khaleda Zia is the widow of a president assassinated in 1981. Independence has not been kind to these ladies, nor to their country. We have a lot to learn.

Gotham Diary:
Gracious Living
10 January 2014

Friday, January 10th, 2014

There came my way, last night, a link to a site called Raw Story, where someone had gathered up some humorous tweets that were posted during the prolonged press conference that took place in Trenton, New Jersey, yesterday. Surely the best of these was the one posted by Michael E Cohen. “What do you call someone who dies because of a politically-inspired traffic jam? A ‘corpus Christie’!”

My favorite line in today’s Times coverage of the event appeared in Michael Barbaro’s commentary on the political performance.

But this version of Chris Christie — the chastened, penitent public official — was hard to keep up, and he occasionally lapsed into a familiar pique.

This reminded me of Alan Bennett’s judgment of Margaret Thatcher. Chris Christie, too, seems to be a “mirthless bully.”


I finished Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants the other day, but I have yet to type up all the flagged passages and (thereby) to compose my thoughts. What lingers is the phrase “gracious living,” a term that comes up several times in the book but that is never really defined. Its advocates,  one of them a certain Angus Maude, assume that gracious living is a good thing. They also assume that it requires domestic service — servants. They regret that people who might sacrifice themselves to the greater good by becoming servants prefer to do other things with their lives. This regret is odious, and I’m not terribly interested in hearing a defense of a way of life that rests upon the belittlement of anybody. But the term, gracious living, remains. What might it mean now? Seriously.

I’m not interested in the shelter magazine interpretation of “gracious living,” in which an attractive exterior is actuated by disingenuous pretension, usually for purposes of display. I’m interested in the kind of gracious living that might be enjoyed by people living together in a household, welcoming guests from time to time but making no extraordinary efforts when they do. It is a way of life that is clean, orderly, and comfortable — three virtues in balance. The pursuit of each of them, singly, can be carried to obsessive extremes; pursued together, they check excesses.

What does gracious living look like? This is a matter of taste. Gracious living looks good to the people in the household. You may not care much for someone else’s gracious home, but your own ought to please you. This is not quite the same thing as comfort. Our homes embody our identities, and if you don’t think that your home embodies your identity, you’re simply mistaken, because you’re an inattentive person and that’s what your home says about you.

The default pattern in domestic style is the preservation of the familiar: you make your home look like the one you grew up in. Except for those who suffered miserable childhoods, familiarity is probably the healthiest root of comfort, as well as the reference point for ideas about cleanliness and order. Begin with the familiar, but pay attention to it and improve upon it. There is always more to learn.

Some stylish and affluent people like to treat their homes as if they were wardrobes, in need of regular updating, but this is hardly a characteristic of gracious living generally and can easily interfere with it. The same is true of luxuries. There is nothing wrong with opulence that is sincere and manageable, but it must be affordable in both senses: you must be able to pay for it without sacrificing necessities, and you must have the time and space in which to maintain it. Silver tureens and marble bathrooms don’t take care of themselves. Nor, in the current dispensation, do servants take care of them. You take care of them. That understood, knock yourself out.

It is, unfortunately, common to talk about the look of a home as if it had nothing to do with the daily routines of the people who live in it. This is totally wrong. The interplay between function and decor is constant and complex — or, at least, it ought to be. The handsome dining room that nobody uses is mere meaningless ostentation, but it might become something else the moment one of the members of the household claims it as a writing room. (I have always believed that dining rooms ought to do double duty as libraries.)

How does the notion of gracious living accommodate a big-screen television? Ideally, it places it in a home theatre, where all seats face it and the lights can be uniformly dimmed. An unfinished basement might have to serve. The one place where it doesn’t belong is in a room where people gather to talk or even to read.

How is gracious living managed? I shall take this up in a later post. For now, two words will do, regularity and anticipation. Gracious living is the easygoing anticipation of irregularity.

Gotham Diary:
Body Jersey
9 January 2014

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

What bothers me most about Chris Christie is the general failure, among a majority of New Jersey voters, to recognize the man’s unfitness for public office. This has nothing to do with his stated political views or the kinds of programs that he would like to see enacted. He is not unfit, that is, simply by virtue of being a conservative Republican. It is something else altogether. It has something to do with bullying, with throwing his weight behind actions that only those in political power can take.

What’s interesting about many of these actions is that they’re not necessary or useful to the bully; they don’t further the cause or advance the program. All too often, they betray a lack of judgment that exudes the locker-room stink of aggressive insecurity. The Watergate break-in is a classic example. Nixon was leading in the polls and had nothing much to learn from “intel” about what the other side was planning for the election campaign. More recently — right now — in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan, still a very popular leader, makes self-defeating moves against his political opponents, apparently for no better reason than to demonstrate that he can. Such men are surrounded by loyal retainers who, in Ian Kershaw’s phrase, “work toward the Führer.” They ask themselves, what would the boss like me to do here? This is how the trouble starts. It metastasizes when the boss decides to protect the retainer who has laid an egg. Faced with an embarrassing situation, the boss flails in confusion, his brain flooded by conflicting, but not contradictory, moods: You are supreme! You are vulnerable!

Whether Nixon or Mr ErdoÄŸan was prone by nature to succumb to this confusion, it is pretty clear from the discourse of Governor Christie that aggressive insecurity is a defining characteristic. The governor’s response to the Fort Lee fiasco seems to parallel the decision-making that led a Port Authority executive to block local access to the George Washington Bridge. Because the governor was supreme in the land, one of his lieutenants reasoned, a dissident such as the Mayor of Fort Lee must be punished. Except, of course, that it was the residents of Fort Lee, not the mayor, who suffered, and the vindictive act turned out to be a clumsy mistake. The governor’s first response was one of supremacy: he dismissed complaints with any argument he could think of, including the ridiculous proposition that the blockage was a traffic-planning test. Now that the mechanics of working-toward-the-Führer have come to light, the governor bewails his vulnerability: he was duped! What the blockage and the governor’s response to the ensuing scandal share is a lack of commitment to clear thinking.

In 1908, a new phrase came into usage: “body English.” It denotes “a bodily action after throwing, hitting, or kicking a ball, intended as an attempt to influence the ball’s trajectory,” according to the Internet. You don’t hear it much anymore, although as I recall it came up often during my very brief law-school fling with pinball machines. Body English is usually unconscious, but it is always pointless. I propose adapting this phrase for political use. Let’s call it “body Jersey.” And let’s agree that men and women who lack the self-awareness and self-control to resist the body Jersey impulse don’t belong in politics.


In this week’s New Yorker, Evan Osnos writes about the renewed prestige enjoyed by Confucius in today’s China. He is quick to point out the highly mediated quality of this prestige, which renders Confucius a kind of Colonel Sanders of wisdom, complete with smiley-face popularizations by the likes of Yu Dan. “Unlimited possibility leads to chaos,” Yu tells Osnos, because you don’t know where to go or what to do.”

We must rely on a strict system to resolve problems. As citizens, our duty is not necessarily to be perfect moral persons. Our duty is to be law-abiding citizens.

On balance, I take this to be a distinctly un-Confucian remark, but it ought to surprise no one that a compilation of sage statements put together over two millennia ago is open to interpretation. A great deal of what Confucius has to say strikes me as completely passé, especially his understanding of relationships, predicated as it is upon thoroughgoing inequality. I respond keenly to his injunction to “rectify the names,” to call things by their proper names — in short, to be clear about what is going on. But Confucius is not best approached as an authority figure. Osnos writes that Confucius “never imagined that he would become an icon.” He was clearly an inspiring speaker; that is why his remarks were collected by his disciples. But he would be better honored by a new book of wisdom, a collection of contemporary observations. It would be a handbook of everyday counsel for intelligent people, designed not to illuminate anyone’s inner life but to help differing people share the same world. It would have the force not of law — Confucius was suspicious of laws, and in any case we’ve already got more than we need — but, more powerfully, of convention.

I don’t know how Analects came to be the title by which Westerners know the most personal of Confucian texts. The word comes from the Greek for “to pick up,” and, if the connection seems obscure, I encountered a stray ray of enlightenment a few weeks ago while reading somewhere about a Roman servant called the “analecta,” whose job it was to sweep crumbs off the dining table. (The Chinese, Lun Yu, means, roughly, “selected sayings,” and is as plain as “analects” is arcane.) I suppose there would be no harm in calling my proposed update The New Analects, especially if “crumbs” figured in the subtitle. But would you file “body Jersey” under “B” or “J”?

Gotham Diary:
8 January 2014

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

After dinner last night, while Kathleen pored over documents in the living room, I retired to my easy chair in the blue room. There I watched one of three new DVDs in my collection, none of which could be described as funny.

Somewhere along the line, when the movie came out and was showing in the theatres, I missed the part about how foreign Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is. Foreign to everything except, arguably, the aesthetic of David Lynch. I thought of Eraserhead a lot. I thought of Mulholland Drive. I even thought of Dune. Among other tics, Refn indulges the Lynchian penchant for hypnotic still shots: if the camera stares long enough, something will be revealed. I’m still waiting.

I could also see — and this was somewhat more helpful in trying to come to terms with the new movie — how Only God Forgives proceeds from Drive, both as a narrative and as a vehicle for Ryan Gosling. In both, Mr Gosling plays characters who are forced into uncongenial contexts by personal attachments. The attachment to the young mother next door, in Drive, was beautifully expressed; Carey Mulligan was the perfect match for a love affair that was somehow made lighter than air by its very hopelessness.

The attachment in Only God Forgives is wildly different, and I’m not sure that it is even competently expressed, much less well done. That’s because Only God Forgives is made for a mongrel audience. The English-speaking characters are there to attract Americans interested in indie film. They may be there to attract other audiences  as well, but the long and the short of it is that the film would never find American distributorship without stars of the magnitude of Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas. Ms Scott Thomas plays the attachment here. She is Mr Gosling’s character’s mother. That’s what we’re asked to believe, anyway.

Bear in mind that both actors, while very successful and justly celebrated, like to play unusual parts from time to time. Mr Gosling’s Julian is an extension of Lars Lindstrom, of Lars and the Real Girl. He’s a quietly damaged man who doesn’t say much. It is hard to see Ms Scott Thomas’s Crystal as an extension of anything that she has done before. Perhaps, way back in the beginning, when she had supporting roles in long-forgotten French movies, she did something like Crystal. Maybe. But the odds are that you’ve never seen her like this.

“Like this”: conjure up Donatella Versace — the long, straight, ingenuine-looking hair; the pouty eye makeup; the attitude of profound discontent. While you’re doing that, completely forget Kristin Scott Thomas’s richly modulated speaking voice, and replace it with something shrill, monotone, and perhaps even untalented. The voice of someone like Jane Forth, perhaps, or someone else from Andy Warhol’s production company. One of the less reflective characters in John Waters’s oeuvre, perhaps. Like someone really unpleasant from Long Island.

Because, if Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas appear in this movie to appeal (in part) to American audiences, they do not perform for it. They act as if for viewers who don’t speak English, viewers who regard English-speaking Americans as exotic monstrosities with too much money and no common sense. Viewers in East Asia, let’s just say.

The titles are in Thai, by the way. The hero of the story — he’s more like a god than a hero, really — is a somewhat dough-faced police agent played by Vithaya Pansringarm, an actor who burst upon the scene, as it were, two or three years ago, starring in his own screenplay, Mindfulness and Murder, directed by Tom Waller but otherwise a Thai film. Mr Pansringarm’s day job — featured in a sweet little scene (all the more a standout), in which his character dances alone with a long knife — is ballet.

Ballet is as good a way to approach Only God Forgives as any. The most appealing element, overall, is its score, by Cliff Martinez. This is not one of those scores that you’re not supposed to notice while you’re watching the film. Both minimalist and assertive, it took me back all the way to American Gigolo.

Am I sorry to have bought the DVD? Not at all — I’m a KST completist. (Although I have yet to buy Bel Ami; I’m still smarting from that experience.) The next item on my goddess queue is Man to Man, which is not about pretty men on a beach but rather about field anthropologists and pygmies a century ago. Seen it?


It was supposedly very cold out today, but it did feel anywhere near as — depraved; that’s what the temperature was, yesterday: depraved. I had to go out for yet more doctoring, and I ran a few errands after lunch, arriving back home with just about as much as I could carry, and not another step.

Gristede’s, across the street, has dismantled the freezer shelf in which Jones’s sausages were stocked. Whether the shelf is going to be reactivated, no one could tell me. I’m making a note of it just in case this is the Beginning of the End for Gristede’s, which, I predicted, John Catsimatidis would lose little time closing down — the chain, I mean, not just the Gristede’s across the street — if he did not win the mayoral election. This was not a genuinely conditional prediction, as the “if” clause could be taken for granted.

They say that the old Food Emporium space downstairs is going to become a CVS. I’ve been in only one CVS, and that was long ago, up in New Milford. Here in town I patronize Duane Reade exclusively, not that there’s anything exclusive about them; there’s one on every corner. It’s all so boring. Speaking of which! Ray Soleil and I noticed the other day that a new restaurant, called The Writing Room of all things, is setting up in the space formerly occupied by Elaine’s. I never went to Elaine’s, not once, in thirty years of living around the corner, but I’ll probably give The Writing Room a try, before it does whatever it’s going to do. I wonder if they’ll deliver?

Gotham Diary:
7 January 2014

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Back in 2000, I created a convention. The trick of naming document files with dates, in YYMMDD format, which had worked so well in the previous century, suddenly yawned with a sea of zeroes. So I replaced the YY part with L, where L is a letter of the alphabet, beginning with “A.” (B0911 was that day; on E0425 I had my first Remicade infusion.) Slowly or quickly as might seem to be the case, the years passed by. My grandson had his first birthday when L=”L,” but “L” is still in the first half of the alphabet, if only just. The letter “O” is not. The letter “O” — which is how 2014 is represented in my convention — is right next to PQRST, which is nothing but a greased banister to the end of things. I seem to have tumbled into the wrong end of the alphabet overnight. So stunned am I by this development that I can think of nothing else to say. The end.


What happened was, I had to go to the dentist. I should have rescheduled for a presumably warmer day, but I had already rescheduled a December appointment, on account of snow. So I bundled up and went out. By the middle of the block between Second Avenue and Third, I was in a state of physical alarm. It was 10:30, sunny and dry, but it was also very windy, and the wind seemed about to knock me down, not by blowing me over but by rushing down my trachea and freezing my lungs. I covered my mouth with a gloved hand. When I reached the subway station, I had to tear off the gloves, because they were thoroughly penetrated by the cold. All of this after just two blocks!

Later, after the dentist’s, it wasn’t so bad. I went out to lunch and then to Fairway. Both the restaurant and the market were pretty empty. (Come to think of it, so were the sidewalks and the subways.) While I was at Fairway, the idea of brewing a pot of coffee in my stovetop percolator came to me, and that’s the first thing that I did when I got home. By the time the perking started, I had changed into my house clothes and put the fresh flowers in vases. By the time the coffee was ready to drink, I’d emptied all the bags and was dealing with the contents. There was a chicken to cut in two, one half to cook tonight, the other to freeze. (I chopped fresh tarragon, beat it with butter and sea salt, and spread it under the breast skin.) There were greens to replace (iceberg lettuce, parsley). Beans to cut for dinner. Everything to be put away. All of this took rather more than an hour.

Then it was time to pay the bills. I pay bills the old-fashioned way, although I do make use of Quicken to keep track of things. If I were a young man, I’d be paying my bills online, but I’ve followed a routine for about twenty years that it would be foolish to change now. Paying bills by mail — tearing the stubs from the statements, printing checks, signing checks (with a stamp, of course), putting everything in the right envelope and then affixing postage — has become a pleasant routine, and it takes a lot less time than messing in the kitchen with chickens and beans. So I did that.

I thought I might watch a movie, but I couldn’t decide on one, and in any case I was distracted (from deciding on a movie to watch) by Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-Century Britain, which I dipped into while running an errand down to the lobby, where I was able to finish this year’s round of holiday tips to building staff. Back in the apartment, I sank into my reading chair and read about “lady-helps” and servantless houses. Servants is engaging and readable, and from time to time it’s also very funny, but I’m reading it for a reason. I’m stocking my mind with food for thought on the subject of living a comfortable life while seeing to all those comforts myself. I’ll have more to say about this when I finish reading the book.

I was about to begin writing here when an old friend called. Calls from old friends are not common events in this household, and I had no desire not to take this one. But as Kathleen, equally an old friend, wasn’t at home, I was able to schedule a call for the weekend. Even so, by the time I hung up I hadn’t got an interesting thought in my head. Besides, it was time to start dinner.

I will say that we watched Gosford Park last night, partly because it seemed like a nice birthday treat but also because Lethbridge had me thinking about it. I certainly saw it in a new way. The system of servants, it was clear, screenwriter Julian Fellowes had thoroughly anatomized, to the point that the movie might serve as an animated model of the parts of Lethbridge’s book that deal with great houses. But there was something else that I’d never quite noticed, not quite, and it had nothing to do with servants. The key to this view is Lady Trentham’s withering dismissal of Morris Weissman’s fastidiousness about keeping the plot of his new Charlie Chan movie a secret. “None of us will see it,” she assures him. And that mirrors the movie’s approach to all the genres that it traduces, most particularly the upstairs/downstairs movie and the country-house murder movie. It’s as though the movie were made by people who never saw another movie — but only, very much only, “as though.”

At every turn, Gosford Park goes the other way. None of the characters is very disturbed by the murder of Sir William, not even the few who liked him. No one is the least bit worked up about staying under the same roof with the murderer. Life goes on — as the dead man’s widow puts it, it must. The entire film is soaked in Lady Trentham’s aristocratic disdain for irregularities. As a result, the actual drama of the show, the mother’s self-sacrifice for the sake of the son who does not know her, leaps up at the end with a spectral flame that is far more haunting than any whodunit could ever be. The scene that Helen Mirren and Kelly Macdonald have in the housekeeper’s office is not long, but it packs a wallop. And the speech that Ms Mirren delivers, as fine a moment as any in her career, begins with the key to running a well-kept house.

Gotham Diary:
What I’d like for my birthday
6 January 2014

Monday, January 6th, 2014

Over the weekend, I received a very nice note from a reader — which I accepted from the fates as the best kind of birthday present — who was struck by a paragraph in a recent entry, “The 150.” Here is the paragraph that the reader quoted:

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 was one of those passages that surprise me even as they seem to write themselves. I don’t want to suggest that I was unconscious while my fingers tapped out these sentences. But as I was concentrating on matters of diction and syntax, the actual ideas in the paragraph seemed to fall into place. There is nothing remarkable about any of them (however important they might be); it’s the putting them all together, as a collection of “ramifications,” that’s forceful — if I do say so myself. The reader commented,

It’s a heady distillation of so many profound discernments that I collected it for my quotes file… I don’t know what to do about it, but the integration of insights was powerful.

I don’t know what to do about it, either — about the crisis of the Industrial Revolution — but I believe that the way to begin is to organize its effects as comprehensively as possible, so that we can keep as much of the problem, what is to be done?, in our minds at one time as possible. This will prevent “solutions” that, addressing one aspect of the matter, make another worse. For example, we do not want to put an end to the degradation of the environment in a way that forces people back into lives of pre-industrial drudgery.

We also must begin with the understanding that nothing truly transformative is going to happen overnight, or possibly even within the lifetime of anyone currently breathing. We need what used to be called a plan of campaign. This military metaphor is not inapt; it recurs to a time when the most important thing for any warrior to know was the lay of the land. We have to plan for a somewhat distant future, and arguably the most important part of that plan must be to educate our children to educate themselves the better to advance the campaign. Instead of pouring the learning of the past into students’ heads, we ought to present it to students as raw material that might be re-engineered into steps and solutions. Certainly a great deal about what not to do can be learned from history, sociology, and psychology — three faces of humanism that regard our ambitions with a firm awareness of our limitations.

How did we get into this mess? How can it be that, a mere sixty-odd years ago, Americans were triumphant about mushrooming consumption? How did what looks like depredation now look like prosperity then? Where, for another example, did Pat Weaver (whose biography I should very much like to read) get the idea that television could be a medium of cultural fertility — and why was he wrong? (Was he? Or were his ideas never given the right chance?) How can we be sure that we understand things any better than our forebears did? Merely knowing where they were wrong does not put us right.

We begin with a lot of questions. But there’s also something that we know for certain: at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, no one suspected for an instant that human effort could conceivably alter the constitution of the planet. Aside from a small crew of atheists, everyone believed that the Earth was in God’s hands. Today, that view is confined to a small crew of believers. Everybody else knows that God is not going to keep us from wrecking everything.


Plans have a terrible reputation these days. Planning is associated with socialism, and few -isms are as discredited as socialism. Yet we require plans that work, and we need to work together to implement them: somehow, we need to think around the problems of planning and socialism to arrive at their objectives by different paths. We need plans that are less efficient and more open to feedback, something that, more than incidentally, calls for an entirely new job description and aptitude assessment for the people who administer them. We need a new way of looking at property, one that begins with accepting the fact that people like to “own” things, and to be materially rewarded for their efforts, but that doesn’t stop there. A great deal of property is owned by business corporations. What does this really mean? We need to drop the idea that shareholders own this property. Shareholders own shares, period. (We need to be Confucians: we need to rectify the names.) What is capitalism, exactly? I wonder sometimes if it actually exists.

Tell me what capitalism is. That’s what I’d like for my birthday.

Gotham Diary:
3 January 2014

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

The haunting began before Christmas. Brahms songs. Lottle Lehmann singing “Lerchengesang.” Marjana Lipovsek singing “Von ewiger Liebe.” Thomas Allen singing “Botschaft.” It had been years since I’d heard any of these songs, as a look at my iTunes cupboard, bare of Brahms lieder, instantly proved. An ordinary person would have rustled up the CDs and listened to them. I managed to rustle them up, all right — amazing, really — but instead of listening to them, I went straight to Arkivmusic and ordered recitals by other singers. Then I listened. My reward was an ache for Brahms that persisted through the Christmas season. Only now that we are safely into the new year can I soothe it.

I’ve quickly fallen in love with Bernarda Fink’s all-Brahms disc, but here’s something odd that happened when I opened up a “Liederabend” recording made by Irmgard Seefried back in the mid-Fifties. Seefried was “my first soprano,” because she appeared on my first classical record, Bruno Walter’s recording of Mozart’s Requiem. I never collected her very much, so to speak, because little of what she recorded was in stereo, but now I’m old enough to overlook that in certain contexts, lieder recitals being one. Seefried sings only a handful of Brahms songs, along with Schumann, Schubert, Mussorgsky, Wolf, and, at the end, one little song by Strauss. “Ständchen,” it’s called — like so many German songs; the word means “serenade.” That being the case, it’s customary to give the first line after the title, just to clear things up. This is the amazing thing. As I was reading this line, the song came to my lips. I have not heard it in thirty years; I forgot that it existed a long time ago. But the words, “Mach auf! mach auf! doch leise, mein Kind,” prompted the tune. How I used to love it! How did I know it? I suspect that it appeared — sung by whom, man or woman, I still can’t recall — on a collection of then-old recordings called “The Seraphim Guide to the Lied,” or something like that. There were three LPs in the box, and songs by Schubert, Schumann, Loewe, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss. I think. But nothing is very clear.

This Strauss “Ständchen” is a young man’s ecstatically hushed call to his beloved, imploring her to join him in the moonlit garden — without waking anybody up. The accompaniment is a transfiguration of what you hear in Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” — recursive drudgery made spinning flame. At the end, the lover forgets himself, and fairly bellows the first words of the last line — “hoch glühn” — twice, and louder the second time, in what I believe in pop music is called a “big finish.” It must be acknowledged that Richard Strauss had a unique gift for making adolescence attractive. How did I let this song slip away?

It ought not to be inferred from my longing for Brahms that I got nothing out of the annual diet of Christmas carols. Possibly because I’ve been reading Frances Haskell on baroque painters and their patrons, and Paul Hazard on the Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715, I heard something new in something very familiar. Ever since Kathleen and I set up house together, we’ve had a copy of The Many Moods of Christmas, a Robert Shaw LP that Kathleen knew from childhood. (It made a very early reappearance on CD.) Shaw did a lot of very fine Christmas music over the years, but Many Moods is over-the-top baroque. I don’t mean that it sounds like Bach or Handel so much as that, like those celestial vistas in baroque churches, the arrangements transform what was originally rather humble and simple material into grandiose spectacle. The album opens with three mighty blasts of orchestral firepower, then some vaulting curlicues, then the thundering threesome repeated, followed by more curlicues, and finally five close chords, each of them as massive as the pillars in St Peter’s, which fade away as the choir comes in with “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” This doesn’t sound very clever, but it is, even if it did take me years to recognize “Jingle Bells.” (Kathleen never did hear it until I pointed it out to her the other day.) Somehow the phrase “hiding in plain sight” seems inapt. I’ve always thought that The Many Moods of Christmas was great seasonal fun, but lately I’ve been given to imagine the horror that it very likely aroused in serious music listeners back when it was new. This is seasonal fun, too.

I also learned that we can no longer be content with randomly shuffling through a playlist into which all the better Christmas CDs have been dumped. I’m going to have to “put something together.”


The snow and the cold contrived to keep us in bed until it was nearly afternoon. We never thought of going out, although I’d hoped to get to the Museum. Instead, we watched movies. Ages ago, Kathleen went through couple of the bins in which DVDs are filed, and wrote down the names of movies that we own/she likes. For some reason, her list begins with “H” and doesn’t quite reach the end of the alphabet. We watched Hanna, the very first title on the list, after we watched Mortal Thoughts, an unjustly neglected movie from 1991 with Demi Moore, the great Glenne Headley, and Bruce Willis. (Also a fine John Pankow.) As if inspired by playing a supporting role instead of the lead, Bruce Willis gives an astounding performance as a hateful, self-involved prick who, happily, dies early. Just desserts with a cherry on top! The ladies are shrouded in big hair, as befits the Bayonne setting. Mortal Thoughts is the pepper to Working Girl‘s salt.

Gotham Diary:
How to Read
2 January 2014

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Happy New Year, now from 2014!

It’s really ghastly out there on 86th Street, killingly cold and wet with coming snow. Kathleen and I ran a round of errands this morning that entailed circling the block. We sat for passport photos at what used to be the place where you took film to be developed. We mailed some calendars from the post office. We opened a joint account at a retail bank that has a coin-counting machine — you just dump them in. Then we went to lunch. At Café d’Alsace, the split-pea soup is so delicious that I’m thinking of making it again, after a hiatus of well over twenty years. If I can find a good recipe.


Now for today’s lesson. I am going to share with you something that I learned, quite gradually, in 2013. I wish that I had been taught it in my youth, but of course that wouldn’t have been possible. In addition to an interesting book, you will need a supply of Post-It flags, or tabs, or whatever they call them, and an Evernote account. I strongly urge you to set up an Evernote account right now, even if you think that this is the only thing you’ll use it for.

As you read, use a Post-It flag to mark (temporarily) any interesting passages. You will probably overdo this at first. I have come to regard 25 flags as maximal. You’re not composing an outline of the book. Your objective is to create a record of your reading, an ephemeral thing. The passage that you mark will say more about your state of mind at the time of reading than they will about the book itself.

When you have finished reading the book, create a note at Evernote. At the top, type the author’s name and the book’s title. In the note proper, indicate the date on which you finished reading the book. Then begin copying the flagged passages into the note. (Remember to provide the page reference.) Remove the flags as you do this.

If you’ve just read a Kindle edition, you can open it on your computer and find all your highlighted passages. Type them into the note as you would extracts from a physical book. As of this writing, the “cloud” version of Kindle editions provides a page reference as well as a “location.”

If you come across a flagged or highlighted passage that no longer speaks to you (why did I flag this?), summarize it briefly and move on. If you come across several such passages, you need to have a talk with yourself.

Consider your extracts. Do they seem to capture what was interesting about the book? Now is the time to hunt for the odd remark that you didn’t flag when you read it but that came back to haunt you later.

When you shelve the book, record its location in the note. If you discard the book in any way, be sure to mention that, too.

No more marking up books, no more illegible and/or mislaid notebooks, no more lost insights. I haven’t yet learned how many times the Post-It flags can be recycled. There’s probably a lot more that I haven’t learned, but this will do for the moment.