Archive for February, 2014

Gotham Diary:
Sit up!
28 February 2014

Friday, February 28th, 2014

It was as though I had never read the book — Sense and Sensibility. Only the opening chapters were familiar as writing; everything thereafter stood out as differing, in some way or other, either from what I remembered or from Emma Thompson’s screenplay. (Thompson wisely does away with several characters, such as Lady Middleton, who would clutter a movie but who garnish the novel.) Beyond that, the texture was uncanny. I expected something a little more serious than Northanger Abbey and a lot more satirical. I encountered instead something far more serious and not at all funny. There were smiles, to be sure, in Elinor’s wry resignation, but no laughs; all the surprises were horrors. By the end, I was reading Sense and Sensibility as a first run at Mansfield Park.

It’s easy to let antithesis carry you away; that’s part of its charm. But Austen uses antithesis (a well-worked device by her time) to deflate it. Elinor is reserved; Marianne is expressive. But if Elinor is sensible — in the predicate sense of the word that we use today — it is not the case, antithesis notwithstanding, that Marianne is frivolous. She is every bit as serious-minded as her sister. And if her passion for Willoughby is reckless, it is in dead earnest: there is no doubt but that she is in love with the man, and not at all with merely being in love. She has a capacity for deep attachment beyond her years, and she suffers accordingly. In the very middle of the book, Austen rips a gash in the polite text: Marianne,

though unable to speak, seemed to feel all the tenderness of this behaviour, and after some time thus spent in joint affliction, she put all the letters into Elinor’s hands, and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony.

If Austen were not already at this stage in her career an expert writer, those last four words would seem excessive if not ridiculous, but as it is they pull us behind the screen of civility for an instant, to give us a brief but unblinking look at raw human misery unparalleled in her work.

In Fanny Price, Jane Austen would pack Marianne’s emotional vulnerability within Elinor’s composure. Sense and Sensibility, though not as great a novel as Mansfield Park, is nearly as powerful. Its principal defect is its garrulity; there are too many things that Austen says more than once. There are perhaps too many characters; at the same time, there is not really enough of Colonel Brandon. (There cannot be more of Edward Ferrars, for the same reason that prevents Elinor from being forthcoming about Lucy Steele.) Because such drawbacks would all be overcome in the later novels, they have a certain piquant interest: they foreshadow (in their elimination) the extent to which Austen would become a master of compression. And, despite them, Sense and Sensibility is a very strong read. I closed the book with a regret that the young Marianne Dashwood would certainly applaud.


I knew that I should be going out today, but my plans didn’t really make sense: I was going to have lunch with Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil, and then meet up with Mr and Mrs NOLA at the Museum in the early evening. What to do in between? At the last minute, Fossil had to cancel — owing to an emergency, he was needed at work. Having booked a table at Demarchelier, I went there myself. Then, as long as I was out, I proceeded to Crawford Doyle (for the new Fay Weldon, of all things, Kehua! I read Alison Lurie’s rave in the NYRB at lunch) and from there to the Museum, where I took in the Marville show. By now, it was half-past three, and I wanted to get off my feet. I texted my regrets to Mrs NOLA and walked to the Orpheum, where I saw a showing of The Monuments Men.

When I read Robert Edsel’s book of the same name late last year, I knew that the movie would be coming out, and that George Clooney and Matt Damon would star in it. I pasted their faces, as it were, on the characters of George Stout and James Rorimer, and this made the book even livelier. (It was impossible to do this in the case of the woman impersonated by the beautiful Cate Blanchett.) I expected the movie to be a roaring success. Now I see why it hasn’t been one. The connection between the monuments and the men lacks vitality, leaving us with a rather quirky pseudo-military expedition that real fighting men were probably right to scorn. There is plenty of reverence and awe in the face of great art, but as the movie doesn’t tell us what made these men passionate about art, they come across as only slightly more mature versions of Indiana Jones. (John Goodman and Bill Murray are particularly loopy.) For a climax, it is necessary to fall back on the swashbuckling attempt to preserve masterpieces from the Russians. I did not expect The Monuments Men to be a great movie, but I did expect it to be about grown men. Top marks, though, to Alexandre Desplat, for yet another dazzling score.

Gotham Diary:
Look for Luck
27 February 2014

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

The extent to which our culture might be characterized as visual has been brought home to me by the Facebook selfie that I mentioned yesterday. I’ve been writing updates about Remicade infusions since I signed on at Facebook, however many years ago, but I’ve illustrated them with pictures of the Hospital for Special Surgery and suchlike. Responses to the image of an ailing older man suggest that some friends and even relations do not slow down for pictures of buildings. I’d had no idea that the selfie post would be news.


Freedom — what a conundrum. After her crystal-clear, authoritative essay on authority, Hannah Arendt begins the corresponding one on freedom with an almost desperate cry. “To raise the question, what is freedom? seems to be a hopeless enterprise.” I’ve reached the point, a few pages in, where Arendt argues that freedom was a concept that could have no place in pre-Christian Greek philosophy, because it was political in nature and there could be no politics in philosophy. Floundering in bed this morning — I couldn’t have called it “thinking” — I had one of those lightbulb moments. “Freedom” is a negative state, the absence of being something else, to wit, a slave. Without servitude, freedom makes no sense. Only slaveholders — such as the Virginian planters who co-founded the United States — could have a proper understanding of freedom. There’s nothing like beginning the day with a tart irony.

This is Isaiah Berlin’s freedom from, I think. Christianity introduced freedom to: the freedom, specifically, to override the dictates of fear and desire. In vernacular terms, this is the freedom to go on a strict diet, something that Americans, freedom from junkies that we are, don’t practically associate with “freedom.” Freedom to is austere; it is really freedom not to.  I delight in the freedom not to watch television — a freedom that I shall forego on Sunday night, to watch the Academy Awards ceremony. Watching television is an annual event for us; we haven’t turned it on since last March. The freedom not to watch television affords me lots of time in which to exercise my freedom to read and write. My freedom to read and right is therefore made possible by my freedom from television.

I have never taken the problem of free will seriously. I don’t see anything in it but a bone of contention for intellectual terriers with nothing better to do. I’m also inclined to believe that chaos is the key. Chaos is the key because it introduces unpredictability into determinist systems. Physics, in other words, is not all clockwork. I do not require metaphysical “free will” to rescue me from slavery to carnal procedures; I can look for luck. Yesterday, at the Hi-Life, where, given my recent habits, a regular staffer would have brought me a Manhattan the moment I sat down, I was confronted instead with the need to make a decision by a woman who didn’t know me. In the moment of ordering my lunch, I felt so good and clear and thoughtful and generally happy that the idea of pouring a wooze-making cocktail down my gullet was sharply repellent. In that moment. Two moments earlier, however, I’d been looking forward to the “Take it easy!” feeling that envelopes me with the first sip of a Manhattan. I have no idea what intervened to cancel my desire to “take it easy.” At no time did I have the sense of exercising willpower. Indeed, it was a mere postponement: I’d have a Manhattan for dessert. Only, when the moment came to order it, I asked for the check instead.

Besides, we are learning more every day about the physiology of decision-making. A healthy blood-sugar level is required, for one thing. For another, the number of decisions that can be made in any given period is limited. As an affluent white man with steady habits, I am rarely called on to make difficult decisions. (And for the most part, my difficult decisions concern getting rid of surplus possessions. I don’t have to worry about needs.) Nothing disgusts me more than the allegation that poor people are kept in poverty by their bad decisions, when in fact they are kept in poverty by their poverty, which denies them the resources and the stability to make a smaller number of decisions with well-fed composure. You might as well argue that the blind man has the “freedom” to see, if only he would learn to exercise it.

Rule of thumb: be wary of urging other people to exercise the freedom to. As for yourself, look for luck.

Gotham Diary:
Greek to Me
26 February 2014

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Sitting in my chair at the Infusion Therapy Unit yesterday, I was so pleased and relieved just to be there that I wished to share my good news with all the world — the world of my Facebook friends, anyway. So I took a selfie, careful to show the infusion pump behind me, and the by then almost empty bag of Remicade behind it. Modified rapture.

I didn’t pay much attention to the photo when I posted it; only when I got home and saw it on a larger screen could I savor the unflattering nature of my self-portrait. There was the obvious incongruity of my eyeglasses, askew as they often are — sooner or later, something about the configuration of my head warps glasses so that they seem to list on my nose from a high on the left to a low on the right. I might have given them an adjusting tug, though, and achieved a less loopy look.

Beyond the weird spectacles, there was the woolly-mammoth aspect of the selfie. I was holding the phone where I usually hold it — to look at it. It seemed not to have crossed my mind that a photograph might require a different point of view — or that point of view was even involved. The angle exaggerated (if I may say so) the fact that I was a few days late — five or six — for a trim at the barber’s. Waves were beginning to form in my beard — although “rivulets on a mud flat” is what actually came to mind.

Finally, there was my overall facial expression. I could not complain about this. It proved me beyond question to be a man in need of some sort of medical treatment. In this regard, the entire photograph was a documentary triumph.


Today, I’m feeling pretty good, thanks. Much better than I expected to do. Although it was snowing this morning, lightly, I got dressed for the weather, putting on my bad-weather oxfords, always a pain to tie, and went to the barber shop. In Willy’s gleaming, well-lighted mirror, I looked even worse than I did in the selfie. Who was this person? Had he just been rescued from a desert island? It is true that my standards are high. Willy himself calls me “Capitán,” because (a) I remind him of Captain Smith in Titanic and (b) he hails from Lima. As a commanding officer of the White Star Line lookalike, I have a duty to keep tonsorially spruce. Arguments could be made that I had indeed been rescued from an iceberg: the weather here in Gotham, together with my wilting somatic condition, made for a life barely more comfortable.

Back at home, after several subsequent errands, I found myself so bursting with high spirits that I hadn’t an idea in my brain.

One of these days, I want to write more about Hannah Arendt on authority, but I knew that I just didn’t have, today, what it takes to sell that sort of piece. The very idea of authority was at odds with the elation of health restored. For lack of anything better to do, I went through a pile of mail and came across the current Atlantic, which in turn came to my rescue. The cover story was in tune with my playful spirits: “The Fraternity Problem: It’s Worse Than You Think,” by Caitlin Flanagan.

Now, I don’t know anything about fraternities first-hand. They didn’t, and I presume still don’t, exist at the University of Notre Dame, from which I hold both undergraduate and law degrees. That was a great relief to me at the time, because I’m sure that my mother would have pestered me to join, or whatever it is that one does, some prestigious Greek house. It’s an even greater relief to me now, for after reading Flanagan’s report, I’m sure that I should have fallen at some point from a great height. That’s apparently what lots of kids do: they fall out of windows and off of roofs. Or drainpipes. Such incidents are 2% more likely to lead to liability claims than hazing accidents. (That’s, at least, how I read, or possibly misread, the bar graph in Flanagan’s piece.) Looking back on my college years, I tremble at the sight of a sort of carnival in which tremendous intellectual excitement alternated with tremendously foolish high-jinks. High jinks like swimming across a small lake, under the influence of various intoxicants, on a March night when there was still snow on the ground. Mind you, this was all my own idea. I didn’t have to be put up to it; there may even have been an attempt to restrain me. The structural imprudence of a fraternity would have finished me off.

Back then, common wisdom held that fraternities, like golf, would disappear within a couple of years. Membership declined; chapters closed. Then came Animal House. John Belushi has a lot to answer for: as Flanagan points out, he was the one actor with enough “radical cred” to make Greek life look subversive. No longer was there a divide between those who got stoned and those who got drunk, those who flipped out on acid and those who drove cars into trees. Now, all the vices were on offer, together with battalions of young women who took it for granted that they would be safe in rooms full of drunk adolescent males. Women had certainly advanced, but the new fratmosphere was a catchment for men who hadn’t.

I’m unlikely to get worked up about fraternities, however, because, as regular readers know, I’ve altogether given up on American higher education. I do not believe that it can be salvaged; it can only be scrapped. I’m not preaching a replay of the Cultural Revolution in China; clearly, there must be institutions of higher learning. But we’ve got to build them from scratch. The buildings, actually, are the last thing that need replacement — although “student centers” and athletic facilities of all kinds ought to be sold off to entertainment providers. Nor need professors be lined up against the wall and shot. It’s the university administrators who have to go. Out with the presidents and the deans and the development officers and the duffers in alumni affairs — everything implicit in the pregnant phrase, “Larry Summers at Harvard.” Every effort ought to be made to reduce tuition to levels that pay teachers well and keep the lights on, period. The only gift acceptable from alumni, or from any outsiders for the matter of that, must be the endowed chair.

Most important, undergraduate life ought to begin where it currently ends, at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two. The final years of teenaged existence are probably the most uncongenial to academic learning that post-pre-K life has to offer.

But listen to me — I’m sounding like an authority!

25 February 2014

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A friend of mine who also takes Remicade insists that he can feel it coursing through his system during the infusion, kind of like Popeye with the spinach. Wouldn’t that be cool! It doesn’t happen for me. I leave the hospital in pretty much the same old shape. Usually, that’s not a bad thing: I go in feeling pretty well. (That’s the idea.) This time, I envy my friend. I’ll envy him even more tomorrow. The day after the infusion is always the lowest ebb of energy.

The rheumatologist came into the Infusion Therapy Unit shortly after the pump was turned on, expressed his satisfaction with the state of my eye, and ordained another infusion in six weeks. I have no objection, no objection at all. I like the idea of spacing the infusions as widely as possible — as a general proposition. This one time, I’m already looking forward to the boost in early April.

People ask me: what does Remicade do? It’s complicated, but I came up with homely metaphor — homely in that I’ve borrowed it from a DVD that I watch at home all the time, The Hunt for Red October (one of the best kitchen movies ever made): countermeasures. Countermeasures are decoys that the target throws off to distract the weapon. The gazillions of Remicade molecules that get pumped into me every so often are countermeasures that protect my body from my overeager, underemployed autoimmune system, which, rather like an adolescent sociopath, sends out nasty thingummies that inflame tissues for no good reason. Remicade prevents frolics like the attack that turned my left eye into an orb of blood last week. It prevents Crohn’s-like symptoms that, happily, I was largely spared, although there were intimations that my colon was about to go haywire. A lot of the inflammation is very low-grade, presenting nothing worse than a persistent fatigue. Nothing worse — considering the things that can go wrong, I have to say that. But persistent fatigue is insidiously demoralizing.

I did very little over the weekend, but yesterday I experienced a little burst of vim, and the simple project that I had asked Ray Soleil to help me with — adjusting the height of a particular shelf in the bookcase alongside of which I work in the blue room — launched a cascade of local fixes that, among other things, arranged all of my Penguin Classics (some of which date to the 1960s) on two neighboring shelves and unearthed my collection of Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness travel guides. Are you familiar with the DK Eyewitness guides? These books are priceless, and more or less timeless, guides to cultural artifacts around the world, and the entry for India is the one book that I recommend to anyone who wants to begin to learn something about the Subcontinent. The cover of the Istanbul guide nearly matches the view that we had from our room at the Swisshotel in 2005. The Upper East Side chapter of the New York guide includes two images that closely resemble photographs that I’ve taken myself and published here. Molto simpatico.

About a year ago, I began to wonder where they were, the Eyewitness guides. I knew where they’d been, but I’d moved them and forgotten whither. It turned out that they were sealed behind a brick wall in my brain, upon which it was written (in amontillado), This shelf is stuffed with NYRB editions. Of which I have an overflowing supply. Only yesterday did it occur to me to put my conviction to the test. The range to the front were all NYRB, but, behind them… Ordinarily, you find things when you’re not looking for them, a bittersweet experience because you don’t find what you were looking for. If I was looking for anything yesterday, it was bookshelf space — and I found that, too, when the Eyewitness guides were moved back into the bedroom, where they belong. Sweetsweet!

At the hospital, I read Sense and Sensibility, with the mounting conviction that it has been a long, long time since I last read the novel. I had rather allowed Emma Thompson’s screenplay to stand in for it. You could do much worse and probably not any better. But: accept no substitutes! Give me the plain Jane, black and strong and clear as a bell:

I have not wanted syllables where actions have spoken so plainly. Has not his behaviour to Marianne and to all of us, for at least the last fortnight, declared that he loved and considered her as his future wife, and that he felt for us the attachment of the nearest relation? Has not my consent been daily asked by his looks, his manner, his attentive and affectionate respect? How could such a thought occur to you? How is it to be supposed that Willoughby, persuaded as he must be of your sister’s love, should leave her, and leave her perhaps for months, without telling her of his affection — that they would part without a mutual exchange of confidence?

Jane Austen, of course, completely disagrees with this oration, delivered by Mrs Dashwood shortly after Willoughby’s unexplained defection. We are meant to understand that it is foolish for the doting mother to dispense with formalities where sentiment is so unmistakable. In fact, Mrs Dashwood’s consent has not been asked, daily or otherwise. Mrs Dashwood has simply given it — a meaningless gesture.

Now it’s time to go back to my easy chair for another episode of Lewis. (Something from Season Three, I think.) I just watched the one that ends with Juliet Stevenson immolating herself with gasoline. It’s not my favorite episode, but, hey — Juliet Stevenson. I will leave you with a crumb from Hannah Arendt’s magnificent essay on authority in Between Past and Future:

This is also why old age, as distinguished from mere adulthood, was felt by the Romans to contain the very climax of human life; not so much because of accumulated wisdom and experience as because the old man had grown closer to the ancestors and the past. Contrary to our concept of growth, where one grows into the future, the Romans felt that growth was directed toward the past. If one wants to relate this attitude toward the hierarchical order established by authority and to visualize this hierarchy in the familiar image of the pyramid, it is as though the peak of the pyramid did not reach into the height of a sky above (or, as in Christianity, beyond) the earth, but into the depths of an earthly past.

This passage gives expression to a sensation that has been mounting powerfully but wordlessly within me: I can see the past so much more clearly that I used to be able to do. I don’t know much more about it, and I’m certainly not talking about my past. It’s the past, all of it. What I see wouldn’t make much sense if literally transcribed; it wouldn’t seem to say anything. So I have to talk about it obliquely. I do know this: until enough of us see the past clearly, the past is where we are all headed. And I’m no Roman.

Gotham Diary:
24 February 2014

Monday, February 24th, 2014

I knew I knew her from somewhere. The actress playing Mrs Hudson in the BBC Sherlock series, Una Stubbs. Her face seemed familiar, but that was only because she looked like any number of other pretty English actresses. It was her voice that drove me to track her down. At IMDb, I had to scroll away for quite a while — all the way to the bottom, and even then I didn’t spot any likely titles. Scrolling back up more cautiously, I found what I was looking for in 1979: Fawlty Towers. In “The Anniversary,” Una Stubbs plays Alice, who with her husband (a cutup, played by Ken Campbell, who’s got all the laugh lines) is the first to arrive at the disastrously miscarried fête that Basil has planned as a surprise for Sybil on their fifteenth anniversary — a date which he thinks it’s funny to let her believe that he has forgotten. Ms Stubbs’s speaking voice is something of a squeal, high-pitched and “girlish” and almost, but never quite, annoying. It contrasts wonderfully with the hearty contralto of Pat Keen’s Virginia, the stout nurse who insists on palpating “Sybil’s” glands only to be socked in the eye by Polly. I recognized Ms Stubbs’s silvery voice because I’ve watched “The Anniversary” countless times. It’s locked in my head.

IMDb! Isn’t the Internet amazing!

You’re not quite so thrilled, eh? Of course not.

I came across an update at Facebook last night that made me holler. It was one of those posters that people share, like the one about shouting “Plot twist!” whenever something really bad happens. (Mmm, yes.) Here’s the one that caught my attention:

Q: If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?
A: I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.

The joke about trivializing the Internet with LOLcats and flame wars, I see more clearly now than I did last night, clinches my objection to the answer. It might, indeed, be difficult to explain smartphones to a visitor from the 1950s, but only because it would be hard to convince the visitor that smartphones were anything but a crazy new gimmick. After all, the Fifties witnessed the introduction of a remarkable device that had almost immediate repercussions outside the developed world: the transistor radio. Far more baffling to a visitor from the 1950s would be the way women dress — or don’t, as trouser-like garments have replaced skirts in the intervening decades. Only fashionable women, and women with dating in mind, wear dresses anymore. Oh, and very old ladies. Some of them, anyway.

Then our visitor would demand to know why even the men look like they left the house in their pajamas. It would take days to create the context in which a visitor could grasp the smartphone. Until then, he’d say, “Why would I need a smartphone?”


Remember when people used to say that about computers? There was always someone, back in the late Eighties or early Nineties, ready to assume a posture of defiant resistance. And the thing was, the challenge was unanswerable. There was really no way to persuade a computer illiterate of the uses of computers, a subject almost as inexplicable as parenthood. In the end, almost everyone had to use a computer at work. The Internet changed things — although perhaps I ought to point out that personal computers were around for about fifteen years before Internet use took off, a fact that younger readers might well overlook. Eventually, though, everyone had to find out for himself why he needed a computer.

And then, guess what! — nobody really needs a computer! Well, some people still do. Writers, designers, professionals in one line or another. But that’s all for work. The personal computer has evaporated. Rather, it has shrunk to such proportions that “computer” just isn’t the word anymore. “Pocket computer”? So Texas Instruments.

It turns out that, what you needed a computer for, was to learn how to make the most of a smartphone. So: not only was the “Why do I need a computer question” unanswerable, but nobody knew the answer — except, just maybe, Steve Jobs.

My eye, by the way, looks almost normal. I’m good to go — so I’m told. Tomorrow, alas, is another day.

Gotham Diary:
The Iron in “Irony”
21 February 2014

Friday, February 21st, 2014

For the first time in ten years, I was sent home yesterday from the Hospital for Special Surgery without the benefit of a scheduled Remicade infusion. The reason was a very bloodshot eye. It might be infected. For reasons that I’ve never quite understood, an infusion of Remicade is said to make existing infections much worse. That my eye probably wasn’t infected — that it was, instead, inflamed by precisely the kind of autoimmune attack that Remicade is designed to prevent — cut no mustard with the rheumatologist. He’s not an ophthalmologist, after all; it’s not up to him to diagnose bloodshot eyes. I ought to have called the ophthalmologist on Monday, when my eye began itching. That way, we’d have known for sure. Now we almost do. I’ve been, and the eye has been swabbed, and I’m no longer itching. I’m to take eyedrops every hour on the hour for the rest of today, and then four daily over the weekend. The drops contain both an antibiotic and a steroid; between them, they’ll return my eye to normal in time for the rescheduled infusion, on Tuesday. The ophthalmologist will call the rheumatologist and tell him not to worry.

So, although I’m still dragging myself around, the burden of hopelessness and futility has been lifted. It has been lifted, and I am not going to discuss it: Eccomi. But yesterday was not a good day. Wednesday was not a bad day; Ray Soleil was kind enough spend most of it with me. It was only when, after he left, I began thinking about writing an entry here, that all literary aspiration was snuffed by a rocketing anxiety about how the rheumatologist might respond to the bloodshot eye. I was so alarmed that I unearthed a bottle of eyedrops from the medicine cabinet and began fairly ladeling them onto my cornea.  These other, older eyedrops also contained a steroid, so I was not surprised that they made me more comfortable; but they had no real effect on the inflammation. No antibiotic effect, I should say. I looked no better in the morning.

I was so upset by yesterday’s decision that I walked home from the hospital in the wet, my inner despond perfectly matching the outer. You might ask just how depleted I really am. The fact is, anger is a stimulant. Once home, I was a useless rag, an ashen, barefoot Cinderella, good for nothing but watching movies. This morning, I had to wade across a very sizeable swamp of self-pity and misery-me before I could even think about getting dressed.

I was so encouraged by the ophthalmologist’s preliminary opinion this morning that I walked over to Madison, popped into a taxi, and treated myself to lunch at Demarchelier.


I finished reading The Wings of the Dove in the morning yesterday, and surely a small portion of my unhappiness later in the day owed to missing it, to being done with it or to its being done with me. At lunch today, by which time I was once again capable of thought, I was amazed by the novel’s perversity, mentioned by John Bayley in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of 1986 but not really explored. I’m not up to much exploration myself at the moment, but I’ll venture this: imagine that Maud Manningham Lowder, the wealthy and far from malignant dragon in the novel, really existed, and had taken out a sort of patent on all of the interesting facts behind the story that Henry James set out to tell us, and then refused permission for the author to be specific about any of them.

All of the things that would stuff a conventional novelist’s budget are withheld. The list of things that we don’t really know is almost as long as the novel itself. All we get are hints. What’s the disgraceful, “bad” thing that Kate Croy’s father did? Who was Mr Lowder? Does Merton Densher have a family? What’s Lord Mark’s last name? Where did Milly’s millions come from? What catastrophe wiped out her family, leaving her alone to own everything? And what’s wrong with her? We’re only told that it isn’t what she thought it was, but something else. I’m not kidding! And the really theatrical scenes, such as Densher’s final interview with Milly, are shunted “offstage.” We don’t witness any of them.

All of this suppression, of course, makes the moral drama of the novel throb unremittingly. We are never distracted from it by “interesting background.” Such stuff is of no interest to the three principals (and even less to the wonderful Mrs Stringham) as they weather, aware of doing so or not, Kate’s conspiracy, and we’re left with nothing to do but to judge, from page to page, just how wicked (or not) her scheme really is.

More anon, though, after I’ve copied out all the flagged passages — something that I can once again imagine living to do. Another book of recent interest is the Melville House publication of four interviews given by Hannah Arendt, as part of its “Last Interview” series. I recommend this book very highly, because it is a serious exposure of Arendt’s thought in a highly readable format. It is not a substitute for reading her big books, but I believe that any serious reader, otherwise unacquainted with her writing, will be moved by it to explore further. There are also topical matters, relating to current events at the times of the interviews, that wouldn’t pop up in books; one of these, which I take to be an eloquent if tacit indictment of Henry Kissinger’s baleful influence on the political culture of this country, I hope to mention next week.

Right now, though, I have a swamp to drain. The blue room is a mess!

Gotham Diary:
Convalescening Backward
18 February 2014

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

When I sat down to write a brief entry this morning, the server was down, having developed a problem over the weekend that didn’t surface until this morning. The site — both sites, actually — had to be restored, and yesterday’s entry would have been lost to the ages (perish, &c) had I not saved a preview copy. From now on, I’m backing up the entries myself, using Notepad. Considering all the other mindless hoops that I have to jump through every day, the backup is not much of an extra. It will be my way of signing off, as it were, on the proofreading.

But this entry will be brief. I have a little rule that forbids me to say that, unless there’s a good reason for the brevity, as today there is. The Remicade infusion is scheduled for Thursday. I’ve been doing fairly well, covering the terra incognita into which I crossed when the infusion couldn’t be given at the normal (for me) 13-week interval; but on Sunday afternoon, I fell into a kind of stupid fatigue for which there was no ordinary explanation. The same thing happened yesterday: I breezed through morning routines only to run out of energy after lunch.

It wouldn’t be worth talking about, if I hadn’t had what seems to me an interesting insight into what life is like when the Remicade runs out. It’s not like illness. I don’t feel that I’m sick, or even getting sick. No, what I feel goes at the other end of malady: convalescence. The crisis is over, the pain abated — but the body is ravaged by the fight. Convalescing, your strength comes back to you in small waves. But for me, it’s precisely that that’s reversed. It’s like going at illness from the wrong end, and I have no idea where it will take me. I don’t expect to be ill, quite, but every day, I feel my strength ebbing. It’s not altogether physical, either. Decisions are hard to make, especially where desire ought to factor into the choice. For example: what to eat when you’ve no real appetite. It would be heaven if someone would bring in trays of bland food from time to time. Some of my best memories of undergraduate life are of just such meals, brought to my bed in the Notre Dame infirmary, where I spent a few weeks one year with mononucleosis, and then again, sometime later, with pneumonia.

As it is, I have only to pick up the phone. But which number to dial? I’m very tired, as this long winter grinds on, of everything that’s available in the the neighborhood’s subway-shriveled cornucopia.


A word about Barbara Stanwyck, who has been much in the buzz, what with the chattering classes’ awakening to the idea that Stanwyck was one of the great Hollywood stars. Not requiring any persuasion on this point myself, I’ve simply nodded sagely at hearing her mentioned. But I was reminded, casting about for a movie to watch this afternoon, that a DVD of one of her films has been languishing at the back of the cupboard, a loan from Ray Soleil — a loan so overdue that it has been converted into a gift by Ray’s purchase of another copy — Lady of Burlesque (1943).

This is not to be confused with Ball of Fire, the terrific action comedy that she made with Gary Cooper and Dana Andrews in 1941. The closest to a “costar” that Lady of Burlesque has to offer is Charles Dingle, a Will-Rogers-y character actor who plays one of Regina’s nasty brothers in Bette Davis’s Little Foxes. Everyone else — you’ve never heard of them. (Although Michael O’Shea, the jeune premier, kept reminding me of Bill Clinton.) The production values are a notch better than those of the average Charlie Chan feature. The music is barely passable, and the screenplay is corny and boring by turns — whatever colorful bits might have held the reader’s attention to Dixie Rose Lee’s G-String Murders has been bleached to beige.

What makes the movie awful, though, is Stanwyck herself. She’s simply too good for it, too good by light years. She makes everyone else onscreen look like a high-school thespian. Much as you want her to, she makes no attempt to steal the spotlight. It would be a stretch to argue that her part is inherently better than anyone else’s, even if it is the lead; she doesn’t really have “more to work with.” But every time that she is in the frame, Lady of Burlesque is worth watching. And then — she’s gone! — it is maddeningly not.

That’s why I recommend seeing this movie at least once. I don’t know what brought Stanwyck to Hunt Stromberg’s production company, but my guess is that she was doing somebody a favor. Did it cross her mind that she might be making a bomb? Probably not. Movies with budgets like this one’s didn’t bomb; because of the exhibition system then in place, they couldn’t. Only big, ambitious, expensive movies could bomb. And Lady of Burlesque isn’t a bomb, insofar as it involves here: that’s the miraculous point. The role suits her (as anyone seeing Ball of Fire could have predicted), and she flies with it. You get to see what a star can do with almost no help at all.

Gotham Diary:
17 February 2014

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Regular readers will be astonished to learn that I did go to Jazz at Lincoln Center on Friday night, accompanying my dear wife to a Valentine’s Day recital by Dianne Reeves in the Rose Theatre. And I’m glad that I went, but only for Kathleen’s sake. Had I known what the event would be like, I think I’d have stayed away.

The Rose is a great venue for jazz musicians, but there is much to be learned about microphones and amplification. I believe that sound engineers ought to ratchet down the volume with which popular music is conventionally performed, and to try more closely to approximate the output of a chamber ensemble (where there is no sound enhancement beyond the hall’s acoustics). Instead, they’re taking it in the direction of stadium rock. After more than an hour of rumbling throbs, I can’t take it any more; the music, whatever else might be said of it, becomes annoying. This is not the complaint of an old man, by the way; after two or three rock concerts in the prime of my youth, I decided that such events were essentially unmusical, and I stayed away ever thereafter. I don’t mean to single out Dianne Reeves and her Beautiful Life band; the problem is in the Rose.

What I do fault Ms Reeves for is a certain confusion. Is she a jazz musician or a showcased singer? Is she a colleague, as everyone in a jazz ensemble must be, or a diva? The question wouldn’t come up if the Beautiful Life musicians weren’t the virtuosos they are, or if the audience didn’t appreciate their solos (which, man, they did), because Ms Reeves spends most of her onstage time on the diva side of the line. There weren’t many solos on Friday night. Dianne Reeves has a great big beautiful voice — it’s a wonder of the world, really, like Old Faithful or Niagara Falls — and that, together with what appear to be her temperamental inclinations, lead me to conclude that she would be more successfully herself if she were backed by a well-charted orchestra of the Nelson Riddle grade. She might no longer belong in the House of Jazz, but her concerts would be more satisfying. Less embarrassing, anyway: no one would fault her for not being generous to her fellow musicians. Peter Martin, Peter Sprague, Sean Jones, Tia Fuller, Raymond Angry, Reginald Veal and Terreon Gully at least ought to have had a jam for themselves. And the backup girls were so tamped down by the sound desk that they were audible only because they were visible.

Dianne Reeves’s CDs were on sale at a table in the lobby. I bought two, the new one (Beautiful Life) and and old one that I had missed. I expect to enjoy them a lot. Also: if I were planning a trip to Brasil, I’d try to time it to coincide with one of Ms Reeves’s visits. They must go crazy down there.


On the Bookends page of the Book Review this week, Francine Prose and Zoë Heller argue in favor of the negative book review. Their arguments must be dealt with.

Prose begins by pointing out something for which I admired her: for a long time, she refused to write negative reviews. In Reading Like a Writer, she collected so many lovely passages from books that meant a lot to her that the very existence of inferior fiction dropped out of sight. I regarded Prose as an ally on the bad-review front until recently, when I came across a review under her byline that displayed a dismaying number of the irritating characteristics common to bad reviews that don’t set out to be funny. (I ought to have made a note of it, but I didn’t, and now I can’t find it.) So I was not entirely surprised to read what she had to say at Bookends.

Prose gives two reasons for writing an unfavorable review. (1) “It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can phone it in, and that no one will know the difference.” (2) “I also tend to react when something about a book strikes me as indicative of an unfortunate trend.”

Zoë Heller’s piece is a response to some recent verbiage on the Internet, by Lee Siegel and Isaac Fitzgerald, that urged reviewers to be nice and to bear in mind that authors have feelings, too. Why Heller takes such spongy, sub-literary vaporizing seriously enough to debate is beyond me. She seems to think that (3) Siegel and Fitzgerald are infantilizing writers, who, in Heller’s view, have more than feelings at stake: they want to provoke reactions. Above all, they are adults; they can take it.

Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena.

Heller also claims that a signed unfavorable review “seems an altogether fairer way of dealing with a book one deems “bad” than banishing it.” This is not a fourth argument in favor of unfavorable reviews, but a recapitulation of Prose’s first argument.

Regular readers of long standing will recall that, for five or six years, I “reviewed” the Book Review every week. Whatever else this undertaking accomplished, it taught me the limitations of book-review form. Good reviews — by which I mean well-written and -thought-out reviews, not necessarily favorable ones (although, as I learned, good reviews were almost always favorable) — were uncommon. Bad reviews proliferated, and while there were many ways of writing a bad review, the one thing most bad reviews had in common was a focus on the reviewer. Most of all, I learned to ask what book reviews were for, anyway.

More precisely, what is the purpose of a Book Review book review? We must admit that, for many readers, the book reviews are gossip. They retail “book talk,” functioning as indiscreet baseball cards. They provide cheat sheets for the reader who doesn’t intend to read the book but who might want to mention it at a cocktail party. We cannot imagine, however, that supplying gossip is the purpose of the New York Times Book Review. Never!

Nor is the Book Review intended to weigh and consider matters of political and social importance as they are reflected in new books. Almost every other source of book reviews — the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic — does a much better job of that. Every now and then, an “important” topic gets front-page coverage in the Book Review, as often as not in the form of two reviews, printed side-by-side, of two different books. This week, Al Gore, no less, reviews Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Or, should I say, no more?

The Book Review also publishes reviews of books for children, and here we find the purpose of the Book Review unsullied by the blandishments of gossip. The purpose of the children’s-book reviews is to alert readers to new titles so that they may buy them for their children.

To say that the purpose of Book Review is to sell books is not to imply corruption. No, corruption is quite another matter, a matter of deceitful reviews. We must take it on faith that the Book Review‘s editors keep deceit to a minimum. It’s in their interest to do so, because propaganda will out.

The purpose of a Book Review book review is to present a book to as many potential buyers — readers who will enjoy the book — as possible. People who won’t buy the book, who wouldn’t like it, are of no account. I can think of no instance in which the Book Review ever published a piece in which, clearly, few-to-none readers would take an interest. Indeed, a good many unfavorable reviews are infused with the kinds of resentment, spurred by the very success of allegedly dodgy books, to which Prose confesses in both of her arguments. No, the Book Review assumes that the titles that it covers are out there and selling. Not best-selling, of course; the Book Review doesn’t review best-sellers either. There would be no point. The readers of best-sellers don’t need the kind of help that the Book Review, at its best, has to offer.

The good reviewer begins by liking the book. (This is what the editor is for.) Liking may not be love, but a favorable breeze of some strength will inspire the reviewer to present the qualities of the book as attractively as possible, thus drawing in more readers. I want to stress the note of presentation: the good reviewer is genial and more or less transparent. The good reviewer also knows how to warn readers who probably wouldn’t like the book to stay away. Cleverness is required.

I am not going to talk about the bad reviewer; instead, I am going to propose that the unfavorable review is not a presentation, but rather a kind of personal essay. It is about the presenter. The author of an unfavorable review may tell you that she didn’t really get the book, or he may complain (at length), that the author of the book ought to have written a different book — a book that the reviewer would have liked (is there any purer way of talking about oneself?). The reviewer might, as Prose would, charge the book with meretriciousness, making a culturally-rooted moral argument outside the scope of a platform like the Book Review. Or, again like Prose, the reviewer might regret a “trend.” This, too, would be outside the scope of the Book Review, because writing about trends takes up a lot of column inches, and necessarily addresses more than one book.

Is there a place for personal essays of this kind? I certainly think so. But the Book Review isn’t it.

Heller’s argument justifies the unfavorable review that scolds an author for something worse than “phoning it in.” If you follow the link at the bottom of this entry, you will be directed to Rick Pearlstein’s essay in the current issue of The Nation, “From & Friends,” an engrossing takedown of Al From’s self-puffing book about the Democratic Leadership Council. It is not a personal essay, but a summation of recent political history, written as a corrective to From’s party line. As book reviews go, it is strongly unfavorable. But it appears in The Nation, not the Book Review. Just as the Book Review ought to show us things that we might like, The Nation warns us about things that are bad. That is why we read The Nation if we do.

Having said all of this, I’m almost too weary to observe that the newspaper’s daily “Books of the Times” column, for which three or four professional critics write most of the contributions, does a much better job of reviewing books. Could it be that the Book Review really is all about the gossip, paid for by ads for books that are never, in its pages, reviewed?

Daily Blague news item: Ghosts and Zombies

Gotham Diary:
14 February 2014

Friday, February 14th, 2014

It’s Valentine’s Day, and the weather is sunny, bright, and cold. Kathleen and I have tickets to hear Dianne Reeves sing at Jazz at Lincoln Center this evening. To spare me the risks of falling on icy pavements, Kathleen will have a car pick me up beforehand. If, for any reason, she can’t get a car, then she’ll give the tickets away or, possibly, go by herself. But I’m sure that a car will be available.

I’ve heard about older people losing interest in novels, and I hope that that won’t happen to me. But I do seem to have lost interest in the performing arts. There’s more to it than the inconvenience, such as it is, of going out in the evening (which overlays a dislike of leaving the neighborhood). It has something to do with being tired of watching people perform. Sitting in a concert hall, my mind wanders far more than it does when I’m sitting in the blue room and listening to a recording.

When I am feeling rather more robust than I do these wintry days, waiting for Remicade, I can snap on an urbane carapace that fools even me: I become the seasoned theatregoer, the music lover who knows when to applaud at a concert. I would hate for it to be known how much time I spend stewing in vanity while actors, dancers, and musicians knock themselves out, simply because I can appreciate what they’re doing. Every now and then, performers manage to carry beyond mere appreciation and out of myself. But such moments are rare. It is much easier to respond to music without the burden of the sophisticated mask that I instinctively don when I leave the neighborhood.

Solitude is important to me. (I am convinced that some aspect of my neural circuitry is autistic.) That’s, I think, why I’ve become so much more interested in the visual arts as I’ve grown older. As with books, I can be alone with them. I can spend as much time with them as suits me. And I can do something of which I’m pathologically incapable when other people (with whom I am not in conversation) are around: I can think.

Then there’s the fact that almost everybody onstage and in the audience is younger than I am, largely by a generation or more. This is depressing because youth, I now see, is an infirmity that only a very few people are allowed to outgrow.

The only thing that redeems the effort of going out and sitting through things is the delight of talking them over with Kathleen afterwards. It’s when I’m with her that my enthusiasm achieves a genuine flush. If there was anything to be enthusiastic about.


I re-read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent the other day. I bought my copy in 1970, in my last undergraduate term. (It’s the Doubleday Anchor paperback of 1953 that sports a cover drawn by Edward Gorey.) Inside the back cover, there’s a note indicating a second reading in 1976. Did I read it again at any point in the nearly forty years between then and now? I don’t recall. I rather think not, in fact, because, this time, the novel was very surprising. If you’d have asked me to sketch a thumbnail, I’d have told a story much like the one that Alfred Hitchcock tells in his 1936 adaptation — entitled Sabotage, by the way, not The Secret Agent (a different picture altogether).

It would focus on the dissatisfactions of the Verloc household, with the remote head of the household and his mysterious friends, his attractive, younger wife, and the wife’s mentally-challenged brother, whom the husband sends to his doom by instructing him to deliver a parcel to a certain destination by a certain time. The boy is incapable of ignoring the many distractions that he encounters on his mission, resulting in the explosion of a bus and the death of many passengers. When the wife, who was devoted to caring for her brother, discovers what happened, she murders her husband in cold-blooded rage. I can rattle this off so readily because I watched Sabotage last year, and it seemed an excellent and not significantly unfaithful adaptation. There was no movie theatre in Conrad, I knew, but this addition was really the interpolation of Hitchcock’s signature.

That Sabotage is a freely unfaithful adaptation of Conrad’s novel is unimportant; what’s interesting is that it captures what I remembered of the novel. What I remembered was the merely sensational part. The actual novel is rich and complex, and the story does not unfold in a straightforward, linear manner. (It also, I’d argue, goes off the rails at the end.) There is no exploding bus, and in fact the bomb detonates prematurely, because boy carrying it trips on a tree root in his path and stumbles. He is blown to smithereens, but there is no other damage. More interestingly, we find out about this from news reports read by other characters. The omniscient narrator does not witness the event. This is part of a greater indirectness that characterizes the sabotage itself: we never understand just why Verloc, the husband, didn’t plant the bomb himself, or why he thought that his seriously impaired brother-in-law would be able to carry out the task. The answers to these questions would be too uncomfortable for Verloc to handle, so he does not so much as acknowledge them, even in the miserably great scene in which he tries to talk his wife into getting over her grief.

The novel begins with a bit of stage-setting; we’re introduced to the Verlocs — Mr Verloc, Winnie Verloc, Winnie’s mother, and Winnie’s brother, Stevie, and to the unprepossessing shop which, fairly transparently, is the front for other, surreptitious activities. We’re presented with the considerations that made Mr Verloc a good catch in the eyes of Winnie and her mother, but the more we’re told about him, the more we doubt his soundness. The soundness of Verloc’s position is shown to be wanting in the very next scene, which takes place in a West End embassy. A Mr Vladimir, newly assigned to his country’s London mission, expresses extreme dissatisfaction with Verloc’s efforts as a secret agent. Mr Vladimir is tired of reports; he wants action. He wants to provoke the English authorities into clamping down on the anarchists who roam freely (if under surveillance) in British liberty. He proposes an attack on “science” — that will scare the public.

Verloc leaves the embassy in shock and despair. He is far too indolent to dream up a plot, much less to implement one. He’s capable of little more than hosting sedentary gatherings of highly feckless revolutionaries, such as the one we’re shown in the third chapter. Knowing that such “news” as might be gleaned from these meetings will no longer earn him the stipend upon which he depends for his livelihood, Verloc goes to bed foredoomed to insomnia. It is all excellently dismal. Conrad writes as if he were refashioning Henry James’s work to suit the impatience of his brother, William. The sensibility is there, but not the abstraction. Verloc’s hopelessness is like a carpet in which he has been rolled and tied, prior to being tossed into the sea. We can’t imagine how he’ll get out of it.

We find out a few pages later. Conrad has elided the passage of a month or so; Verloc’s attempt at escape has just occurred, with the explosion of a bomb in Greenwich Park, near the Observatory. (We can’t know it, but almost the entirety of the remaining story will take place on this day.) One of Verloc’s revolutionary friends confronts a fearful little man known as the “Professor” with the news, and the Professor readily acknowledges that he designed the device and delivered it to Verloc. This meeting is followed by an encounter in the street between the Professor and Chief Inspector Heat. Heat surprises the Professor (and the reader no less) by asserting that he’s not interested in the Professor just yet, even though he is investigating the Greenwich Park bombing and has no reason not to connect it with the Professor. It may be that Heat is aware that the Professor is “armed,” like a terrorist martyr, with an explosive that will certainly take the life of anyone who tries to apprehend him, but Conrad seems to be pointing to the Chief Inspector’s blustery careerism, which renders the dispensing of justice an incidental consideration. From this encounter, we follow Heat, who presently discovers a clue, in the remains of the dead bomber, that leads straight to Verloc. The investigation promises to be wrapped up with dispatch.

It is at this point, however, that the tale deviates from the conventions of crime genre fiction and becomes contrapuntal. Heat’s report on the case to his superior, the unnamed Assistant Commissioner, reveals not only that the two men are mutually antipathetic but that they seek to pursue contradictory ends in resolving the case. The only thing that they have in common is a lack of interest in arresting Verloc. During the evening that follows, the Chief Inspector and the Assistant Commissioner conduct competing inquiries into the case. We see more of the latter, which takes us into the great world of elegant salons and cabinet offices. The class divide between the Assistant Commissioner, who is a “gentleman,” and the Chief Inspector, who is not, is more salient than the one between owners and workers that would motivate the revolutionaries if they were not so sluggish. The Assistant Commissioner astutely senses the pressure of Mr Vladimir behind the bungled terrorist act, and he consults with a “Great Personage” — who happens to be the Secretary of State, but who would be a great personage in or out of office — before proceeding. The discussions between these men (including Heat) are the marrow of the novel; they outline the different ways in which the vested authorities propose to deal with the plots against the national security. They give the novel the form that in Mozart’s music is known as a romance, with an interlude of contrasting material separating the outer, mutually reflecting thirds of a piece.

It is only after the Assistant Commissioner has spent some time with Verloc that we return to the depressing shop. After a brisk, but not brief, account of the elided month, Conrad delivers a scene of virtuoso drama that would be operatic if it were not so suspended. Winnie, overhearing the Chief Inspector talking with her husband,  learns most of what has happened, and the news launches her into what can only be called a catatonic fury. For what seems a great deal of time only because the pages take a great deal of time to turn, Winnie lurches from pillar to post, unaware of what she’s doing. All the hopelessness that Verloc felt in the third chapter is reprised in Winnie’s bosom, and it, too, eventually climaxes in violence and death.

And now, I think, Conrad loses his grip. Winnie, we are repeatedly told throughout the body of the novel, is not a talker; she does not make a habit of getting to the bottom of things. I should have been more satisfied if, having murdered her husband with a Chekhovian carving knife, she put the matter out of her mind, as Verloc would have done. But no; she sinks into arias of confusion and dread. These arias are sung, as it were, to the revolutionary who informed the Professor of the blast, Comrade Ossipon, a strapping and exotically handsome young man who has made his way to the Verloc establishment with a precise view to charming the new widow into sharing her fortune with him. This, I think, is what ought to have happened. It would have constituted not a happy ending by any means but a just ending deferred. And it would preserve the tonal register of the Verloc flanks of the novel. Instead, Winnie Verloc undergoes an unwonted character transformation, apparently driven to mad loquacity by her crime. It is unconvincing stuff, and it goes on and on.

But by this time, Conrad has ferried us to something quite as awful as the heart of darkness. Verloc’s bland egotism, and his habit of seeing himself as the victim of what are in fact his own mistakes, are not as exotic as Kurtz’s jungle-bound megalomania, but the man’s sheer common vernacular puts his senselessness much closer to our everyday world. Conrad masterfully transmutes Verloc’s self-pity into cackling mockery.

A great discouragement, the result of fatigue, came upon Mr Verloc. He had had a very full day, and his nerves had been tried to the utmost. After a month of maddening worry, ending in an unexpected catastrophe, the storm-tossed spirit of Mr Verloc longed for repose. His career as a secret agent had come to an end in a way no one could have foreseen; only, now, perhaps he could manage to get a night’s sleep at last. But looking at his wife, he doubted it. She was taking it very hard — not at all like herself, he thought. He made an effort to speak.

Gotham Diary:
These Low Prices
13 February 2014

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

George Packer has an interesting piece about Amazon in the current issue of The New Yorker. There’s not a lot that’s actually new in the report, but, as usual with Packer, deeper depths are sounded, and one of these helped to clarify my vision of an unexamined “truth” in today’s political economy: lower prices for the consumer are the highest good.

Well,  hardly “unexamined.” In 2009, Ellen Ruppel Shell published an excellent survey called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. I mentioned this book at the time, but I did not do much more than that. (As I now see. You can too, if you do what I did.) Perhaps the book is worth a re-read. Here’s a fascinating quote from the prefatory “Note to Readers”:

And why was there such a scarcity of things reasonably priced? It seemed that almost all consumer goods were cheap, like the Chinese boots, or extravagant, like the Italian boots. Where, I wondered, was the solid middle ground that offered safe footing not so very long ago?

This is eerily like asking, What happened to the middle class? I believe that they’re the same question.

Do you remember Amazon’s 2012 FTC complaint against Apple and five of the largest publishing houses, which were attempting to introduce the “agency model” into e-publishing? Amazingly, the government, in both commission and court, came down for Amazon — leading to some malignant conspiracy theories that everyone involved ought to have foreseen. But even the substance of the government’s position, Packer writes, seems mistaken:

Apple, facing up to eight hundred and forty million dollars in damages, has appealed. As Apple and the publishers see it, the ruling ignored the context of the case: when the key events occurred, Amazon effectively had a monopoly in digital books and was selling them so cheaply that it resembled predatory pricing — a barrier to entry for potential competitors. Since then, Amazon’s share of the e-book market has dropped, levelling off at about sixty-five percent, with the rest going largely to Apple and to Barnes & Noble, which sells the Nook e-reader. In other words, before the feds stepped in, the agency model introduced competition to the market. But the court’s decision reflected a trend in legal thinking among liberals and conservatives alike, going back to the seventies, that looks at antitrust cases from the perspective of consumers, not producers: what matters is lowering prices, even if that goal comes at the price of competition. Barry Lynn, a market-policy expert at the New America Foundation, said, “It’s one of the main factors that’s led to massive consolidation.” Judge Cote’s opinion described Amazon’s business practices in glowing terms, and she argued, “If Apple is suggesting that Amazon was engaging in illegal, monopolistic practices, and that Apples combination with the Publisher Defendants to deprive a monopolist of some of its market power is pro-competitive and healthy for our economy, it is wrong.

It is right, Judge Cote, and you are wrong. I remember the migraines that studying anti-trust law gave me in law school. No other body of the law seemed remotely so infected by the party-line opportunism of totalitarian pronouncement. There was no logic whatsoever, only a desirable outcome: low prices. Healthy competition, supposedly the objective of anti-trust jurisprudence, was jettisoned whenever it got in the way of low prices.

The cost of these low prices is jobs, and, behind the jobs, the very fabric of the national polity. The unintended side-effect of these low prices is the consolidation that Barry Lynn mentions, and therefore these low prices are also the cause, not only of income disparity (a matter of wiping out the middle class) but of grotesque wealth accumulation by a tiny number of Americans. These low prices have driven the sensible, well-made shoes from the stores. And for what? So that we can all have closets full of stuff that we don’t use? Storage units crammed?

There is an unseemly demagoguery here. The fact that liberals and conservatives agree about low prices is disturbing; it suggests that low prices per se can’t be very important to either tribe, but that they serve as a distraction from differing partisan objectives. Lower prices (usually in the form of cheap goods afflicted with Homer Simpson’s “fallapart”) will obviously make Republicans less objectionable to lower-income voters. Less cynically (but not much), liberals desire to make consumer goods “affordable” to the same voters. But it’s a bad bargain, because the pressure to lower prices has no internal governor, no brake. Workers are beginning to fight back. We can only hope that they understand that success will entail some sacrifice in the range of things that they are able to buy.

I thank George Packer for putting this all so neatly, for bundling the Apple/publisher challenge with Barry Lynn’s observation and Judge Cote’s dismal wrongheadedness in one paragraph. What goes in there comes out here.

Competition is a subtle concept. Everyone understands competition on price: that’s what I’ve been writing about here. But when prices are fixed, competition emerges on other fronts, such as quality and design. One might well argue that the “lower prices” mantra leads to fixed prices, or at any rate to successive plateaus of them, where it is the consumer who  effectively fixes the price. Sadly, the consumer is not as savvy as the producer when it comes to manufacturing. Nor is the consumer as conscious as a government agency might be of the effects of lower prices on general economic health. Anathema it might be to Tea Partyers, but the ordinary American is not the best judge of most things. Especially the ordinary American living under the noisy hairdrier of a big screen.

You can call me a cultural snob if you like. I’ll even go along with you, as long as we agree that you’re not imputing any hypocrisy with the application of “snob.” But my snobbery has a purpose beyond the propagation of Matthew Arnold’s “all the best.” I want to live in a society that affords its members opportunities to do meaningful, or at least not-degrading work. This seems to me to be the only stable, sustainable model. It requires that more attention be paid to the operation of social institutions (including jobs), but the objective is to improve those institutions. There is no worthwhile alternative.

Gotham Diary:
12 February 2014

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

When I was a boy, I thought that the title of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was highly unlikely. Okay, maybe one tree. Which would be more depressing, in a way, than no trees at all.

I knew that there were no trees in New York City. The trees were all out in the suburbs, where we lived. That was what the suburbs were for: living with trees.

My mother did not like the city, and whenever we had occasion to drive in — we always drove; we never took the train — she had a knack for the unsightly route. On our way to a theatre matinee, for example, we’d pass through a number of side streets in Hell’s Kitchen. My mother made certain that we knew what the neighborhood was called and why. My stomach sank into my shoes. I knew that it wouldn’t take much for her to stop the car and order me to get out. I knew that this was what she wanted to do, even if she never did. I knew that I exasperated her, and that in some profound way she had given up hope of not being exasperated by me. And I knew that the tough Hell’s Kitchen kids would make short work of me.

There were no trees in Hell’s Kitchen. Nor were there trees on Third Avenue, beneath the El. Once, perhaps twice, we drove to Yorkville, where the charity shops were, to drop off old clothes, before the elevated tracks were demolished. The El horrified me. It blocked out the day, and it made a growling racket. It was more hellish than Hell’s Kitchen. If you’d told me that I’d spend most of my adult life in an apartment a couple of blocks away, I’d have sobbed, and, in a way, it would not have been true. The charity shops are still here. Everything else is different. Fewer and fewer of the old tenement buildings that lined Yorkville’s avenues still stand. And there are trees, if perhaps not as many as there might be.

When I was twelve, I was allowed to take the train to Grand Central and to walk a predetermined route, along 42nd Street and then Fifth Avenue, to Polk’s Hobby Shop, near the Empire State Building. I would buy something for my electric trains — the most that I could afford was an unimpressive shunting engine, but at least it was the model of a kind of steam locomotive — and then retrace my steps. Thus began my discovery of my New York City, very different from my mother’s. Eventually, I discovered Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There were easily as many trees in Central Park as there were in Bronxville.

Now I am reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Kathleen bought it at an airport bookstore on her way to a conference last month. She read it and was very moved by it. When she told me that she saw a lot of herself in Francie Nolan, I knew that she really wanted me to read the novel. I don’t believe that I would give it a try for any other reason. As Roger DeBris says in The Producers, “It’s too depressing!” There’s the poverty of Williamsburgh at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, and there might be — I couldn’t tell, but “Betty Smith” certainly pointed in this direction — pedestrian prose.

But the prose is not pedestrian; it is very tricky. Not hard to follow, but full of winks and implications. It is, in short, Brooklyn Irish. By the same token, the poverty is effervescent.


It is not unusual for our after-dinner conversation to turn to some aspect of history. It is really a kind of mythology, only with “actual people.” (How “actual” is my grasp of the character of, say, Elizabeth Tudor? Worries on this score do not prevent me from spinning my yarns.) I am always talking about people, not movements or trends, and the people to whom I recur become a few atoms more massive every time I revisit them. Kathleen claims to learn a lot from the stories that I tell (which utterly lack beginnings and endings), but in fact I learn even more. Every now and then, as I’m talking about something familiar, an unforeseen suggestion steps out of my words.

This happened the other night, and the suggestion that emerged concerned the disappointment of reform.

The other night, it occurred to me to ask why I associate historical reform movements with disappointment. Why are programs of reform so vulnerable to incompetence? Pick a reform movement — the Reformation, the French Revolution, The New Deal, it doesn’t matter. Reforms begin with bold moves and striking changes, sometimes quite violent ones. But they almost always seem to fizzle out without accomplishing the intended goals. (Not only did the first Reformation — Luther’s — fail to reform Rome, but it also engendered a second — Calvin’s. Instead of universal Christianity, there were three and soon more implacable antagonists.) Why is this? “Too much too fast” seems to be a constant failing of reform movements. Might this not be because reforms are invariably envisioned in terms of years, of decades at the most? Because reformers expect to implement their reforms themselves?

If we can dream up a better way of doing things, then we can put it into practice — if only everyone would cooperate! But everyone never does cooperate. Making reform universally congenial requires multi-generational planning.

Because we don’t see the need for it, we don’t know how to engineer intellectual evolution. We don’t know how to devise development plans that will take several generations to unfold. We don’t know how to teach children how to carry on our missions — we only know how to present our missions as fully-formed things, and we exhort children to maintain them. If anything, we teach children to react against our missions.

This is a hunch, not a finding. It mirrors my thinking about environmental reform and the development of positive human stewardship — whatever that might turn out to mean.

In this connection, I’d like to mention Albert O Hirschman’s elegant tract, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, which not only analyzes the reactionary disdain for reform but shows that the reformers exhibit a complementary confidence that stands on no firmer ground.

Gotham Diary:
11 February 2014

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

At Crawford Doyle, I was asked if I had read any grand novels lately. The question surprised me a little, because I try to make a point of buying fiction that promises to be grand, or even just plain engaging, right there at the bookshop. But how would one staffer keep up with that? I stopped thinking about the question and considered an answer. I couldn’t think of any novels that I’d read lately, aside from a few short things on the light side, including two or three by Ruth Rendell. But, as if to make the staffer sorry that she’d asked, I pulled out my iPhone and consulted Evernote. (I’ve been keeping track of my reading there since November.) The Golden Bowl bottomed the list. Between then and now, no, no grand novels. “Was she impressed?” Kathleen asked at dinner. “Not at all. But I was impressed.” Nearly thirty years into digital life, I couldn’t quite believe that I had all that information at my fingertips. Not just what I’d read, but all the passages that I thought worth copying out! Right there on my iPhone.

Returning to the question, I was there to pick up a novel that I’d asked them to order for me. It got a brief but favorable mention in The New Yorker, and I was pretty sure that Crawford Doyle wouldn’t have stocked it. (And if they had, tant mieux, but I was right.) This was ages ago. The book duly arrived and I was duly notified by phone message. More than two weeks passed; I called the shop yesterday to apologize for not having come round to get it. I didn’t say when I’d be in. I had this feeling that if I called today, as it then was, I just might, following some incomprehensible but familiar perversity, actually venture forth from the apartment to pick the book up tomorrow, which is what happened.

The novel is Famous Writers I Have Known, by James Magnuson — a new name to me. So far, it is keen and funny. I don’t know how keen and funny it would be if were not also a literary satire, and I have not yet taken the measure of the satire. But the tale has hooked me, and I would still be sitting in a nearby café, engrossed, sipping Calvados — but the waiter there takes good care of me and does not facilitate overservice. The impulse to linger passed, and I bundled up to go back out into the cold. Now that I am home, however, and sipping tea — oh, I almost forgot: the action takes place in Austin, Texas, so there is the possibility of Texan satire as well — I am going to sink into my cozy chair with it.

Right now.


Delicious! I cannot recommend this entertaining book highly enough. It banished our midwinter for a day. I read it within twelve hours, breaking for meals and a few chores. You can probably get through it faster, not that hurry is the thing.

Forget writing programs, forget Texas. Famous Writers I Have Known is a glorious con, with a con man to love. And, in creating Frankie Abandonato, the author proves himself every bit the sterling con man that a good novelist ought to be. I’m not going to try to write about it at this hour; I want only to type out two passages. They’re not far apart in the book, as it happens, but they do compass the range of the con. Emphasis supplied.

I hate it when people think they can take advantage of us writers. They think we’re naïve, that we have our heads in the clouds, that we’re so hungry for any crumb of praise they can treat us like children. (239)


“I’m not flattering you. You know that poem by Rilke?”

Which one?”

“The one where he’s looking at a statue of Apollo? And the trick of it is that the headless torso is somehow scrutinizing him … And the last line is, ‘You must change your life’.” I stared at him, speechless. That didn’t sound like much of a poem to me. (244)

One wonderful thing that James Magnuson has done is to give us readers a view of literature that’s uninfected by chatter. This is what we look like to the secular world.

I’m sorry; there’s a third must-quote.

How far I had fallen. It had been just a few months before that I’d been sitting at a table, surrounded by adoring young women, discussing point of view.

I nearly w— my p—s.

Ivory Tower Note:
10 February 2014

Monday, February 10th, 2014

It has come to this: photographs of the apartment. Yesterday, I dashed across the street for breakfast and then paid a visit to the madhouse that is Fairway on Sunday. Aside from that outing, I had not left the building since last Tuesday. How much of this can be attributed to the postponed Remicade infusion and how much to what used to be called “the vapors” is unclear. What’s certain is that the beastly weather makes things worse.

I slept very late — too late. The penalty for oversleeping is bad dreams. I found myself in Battery Park, with no wallet, no money, no nothing. I had searched my bag for a blank check, but not only had I not found one but I’d left the bag behind as well. So: no camera. That’s what must have roused me: it’s one thing to fret about money and “the material things,” quite another to worry about the quality of blog entries!

The waking world wasn’t much of an improvement. The Times was a parade of horribles, or so it seemed. The vanishing middle class, the vanishing American behind the wheel of a taxi, the vanishing Wikipedia editors vexed by the difficulty of working with a smartphone — everything was slipping away. Then, The Nation. The Nation now arrives with the Monday paper, don’t ask me why, instead of in the mail. I always read the back first; that’s where the reviews are. I stopped in the middle of a long piece about neo-evangelical movements during the Cold War, because I had to eat something. Also, I couldn’t take the onslaught of distress. I’d read about a wicked judge in Pennsylvania who jailed naughty kids willy-nilly, the crazy hyper-development of China’s urban areas, and the Romanian New Wave in film. The Romanian New Wave sounds more hopeless than novel.

Whilst boiling an egg, some residue of Paul Krugman’s column about the soft-headed, hard-hearted Republican Party made contact with an ongoing conversation that parts of my mind are having on the subject of commercial concentration. Commercial concentration — the consolidation of business activities — makes sense from many short-term economic viewpoints (it increases efficiency, improves systems of control, and guarantees a reliable output), but it inevitably slashes jobs, at every level from the factory floor to the executive suite. What hit me in the kitchen was that the process of concentration is aided and abetted by peace, by stable social conditions. With everything running along smoothly, it is easier than ever to merge and to acquire. The result is all around us: wide income disparity, increased executive control. One neighbor loses a job, then another, but as long as you’ve got cable you’re assured that things are fundamentally okay.

Nobody wants war or social instability. But I’m not seeing much creative destruction. Where’s the capitalism?


I have been reading every essay in Simon Leys’s collection, The Hall of Uselessness, on the alert for the gratuitous disparagement of same-sex marriage and parenting. As noted here, I had been shocked to discover the bracketing of “homosexual families” with such evils as “incestuous fathers” and “despotic leaders” in a footnote to Confucius, and I wanted a better sense of the extent of this tarnishing tendency of mind. I came across another gem, this one not quite so ripe, in an essay on Chesterton.

On society: “It has been left to the very latest modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility … the next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially sexual morality. And it is coming not from a few socialists … The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, much more in Manhattan.” (He was writing this is 1926.)

And this — which is ominously apposite to our present situation (I do not believe for instance that it is a mere coincidence that we are witnessing simultaneously the development of a movement supporting euthanasia and the development of a movement in favour of homosexual marriage):

Leys goes on to quote a chunk of Chesterton. (He was writing this in 1997.)

My sympathies are usually with Leys. He appreciates the wealth of tradition. He is somewhat more horrified than I am by the arrogance of modernity and the disasters wrought by its incompetence — but I’m horrified, too. Where we cannot agree is, I venture, on the place of Augustine in Christianity. Very simply, I believe that Augustine has no place in Christianity. A preachy bully, he imposed his sexual peculiarities — he could never sleep with a man, but he could never fully love a woman — upon Western orthodoxy. Perhaps these peculiarities are not so peculiar; I daresay they’re not exactly rare among heterosexual males. That doesn’t make them any less stunting, especially for the majority of human beings that doesn’t share them.


Authority and power. The trick is to imagine an authority that doesn’t depend upon power, and then to realize it. Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi come to mind, two fiercely courageous moral leaders. I’d be happier if neither of them took office (thereby attaining political power), instead of continuing to shine as beacons of high humanity. Power is a toxic substance, easily mishandled. Mandela handled it well; we can only hope that Daw Suu, if she gets it, will do the same. Better not to have to worry. Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan used to be an admirable man.

Closer to home, I look for cultural authority. Some will argue that cultural authority has been dissipated in the recent past, but I’m of the opinion that there has never been a cultural authority, just the cultural preferences of the powerful. Over centuries, these preferences have spurred important human achievements in the fine arts, but now, the powerful have developed other preferences, and are no longer committed to maintaining the fine arts. How is opera to survive without millionaire patrons? How are the fine arts to be made approachable by ordinarily intelligent citizens? How to salvage and promote courtly grace, if only as a habit of mind?

Writing that last bit, I feel as foolish as Cicero flying from Mark Antony.

Net Note:
Unintentional Oracle
7 February 2014

Friday, February 7th, 2014

“Conceptual art” is an oxymoron to me. Such a thing simply cannot exist, and every time I come across the term, I think of Confucius and his gu. Turning the matter around, I seek out a better rubric for the products described in this blithe, brainless manner. Lately, I’ve been fond of “applied philosophy,” but let’s be honest: I have no use for regular philosophy. “Cognitive criticism” might be more apt, because the purpose of most “conceptual art” appears to be a realignment of the viewer’s awareness. It casts a spotlight on habits of mind and half-conscious assumptions. It “makes you think.” That’s why it has nothing to do with art. Art stops you thinking.

It’s interesting to me that so much of this stuff is created by young people. They’re criticizing a world they’ve barely discovered. Perhaps criticism is a mode of discovery? The natural response of clever people to new things?

I want to get these ideas out of the way before writing about Susan Orlean’s piece, “Man and Machine,” in this week’s New Yorker. I want it understood that none of the activities described in the report struck me as having any relation to “art.” Orlean begins one paragraph with the statement, “Art has never been easy to define…” That may be, but for all its relevance to “Man and Machine” it might as well be a polynomial equation.

It’s not that I want to belittle the projects of Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, two young men who have been friends and co-conspirators since the third grade. I just believe that they’re easier to consider if the associations of “art” are swept away. Art draws your eye away from yourself. It does not require you to provide its meaning, because, if it is good, it has no meaning at all.


Orlean discusses what I count as five major Bakkila/Bender projects: Cowboy, This is My Milwaukee, Pronunciation Book, Horse_ebooks, and Bear Stearns Bravo. (They were all news to me, which is not very surprising, given the falling-off in my attentiveness to once-absorbing Web sites that marked 2013.) Of these, Horse_ebooks caught and held my attention, not because of what it “did” but because of its effect upon followers. Originally a spam bot controlled by a Russian seller of ebooks such as Sexual Fun and Games for Christian Couples, Horse_ebooks was acquired by Jacob Bakkila in order to provide him with an existing Twitter account with which he could gradually replace the mindlessness of the bot with his intentional imitations. He exploited the bot’s incompetence at capturing complete sentences, so that a text that he discovered, “Everything happens so much faster when you’re retired,” became the “koanlike” “Everything happens so much.”

Bakkila never wrote anything original for Horse_ebooks; like a bot, he just combed the Internet for text. (He had pulled the phrase that I watched him tweet at our first meeting from The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Raising Swans.) “There are so many weird, unindexed sites out there. When you go down the rabbit hole of spam, it’s an infinity of infinity.” He added, “One person could curate or remix endless amounts of information.” The first pulled text that he chose to tweet was “You will undoubtedly look back on this moment with shock and,” on September 14, 2011.

Following tweets of this nature appears to have become obsessive for thousands of people, many of whom were wounded when they learned that the tweets at Horse_ebooks were not a natural occurrence: “they felt cheated that Horse_ebooks wasn’t … an unintentional oracle but the work of one person who plotted its course.”

You’re probably waiting for me to roll my eyes and throw my hands up at this massive waste of time. I agree that it would be ridiculous for me to make a point of savoring a daily dose of amputated banalities, but I’m an old man, and an old man who hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be young.

One of the things that I don’t miss about being young is restlessness. Restlessness seems to enliven many people, but it enervated me. It was simply uncomfortable. I regarded it as a physiological problem, and I still do. In my day, there was nothing to be done about it, but now there is Twitter. Twitter shapes the pointless distraction of restlessness by providing it with a minute terminus, making aimlessness feel purposeful. There is no need for focused effort, no need for any kind commitment. You might just as easily look up into the sky to see a passing balloon, although the variety of tweets is more comparable to counting stars. That’s certainly what made Horse_ebooks attractive: it was accidentally interesting (or so followers thought) on precisely the scale of a tweet. “Everything happens so much” is the compleat tweet, and yet at the very same moment it constitutes an anti-tweet. There is no more to be said, no link to be followed. The thread begins and ends in four words, offering the relief of stillness in the torrent that is Twitter. In my twenties, I might very well have made a religion out of Horse_ebooks, retweeting its Delphic nonsense with vigor. I understand the appeal very well.

It also occurred to me that the “big data” generated by Horse_ebooks — what if you could tabulate the location of all the followers, the time of day at which they registered the tweets, which ones they retweeted, the commentary of those retweets; what if you could treat the following as an organism, and anatomize it in detail — has something to tell us about curiosity and cognition, something unavailable at the local level.

In short, I propose a joint humanities/computer science program of sociological cognitive study.

Bakkila and Bender are aficionados of corporate babble and the unintentional humor of bad advertising; in the course of ordinary conversation, they often quote commercials and sales pitches. They thought that tourist-promotion videos, with their unalloyed cheerfulness and obfuscation of inconvenient truths, were wonderful in an awful way, and therefore perfect for repurposing.

The repurposing of language intended to gull the naive into entertainment for the sophisticated is not just idle fun. It illuminates the nature of sophistication itself; it puts some precision into our grasp of things like “irony.” It might do so more efficiently without the obfuscating talk about art.

Gotham Diary:
After the Ball
6 February 2014

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Everyone, but everyone who was anyone in le monde, circa 1950, appears in Thierry Coudert’s rather dispiriting tome, Café Society — everyone but Nancy Mitford. I made the mistake of picking the book up this morning, after reading the Times, because I hadn’t felt up to the chore of excavating it from the pile on the writing table in the living room yesterday. (It used to be at the bottom, but now it rests atop Allure.) I feared that I was on the edge of a cold yesterday morning, and exploited this worry to take it pretty easy all day. This morning, I feel somewhat more robust. I must make myself devote a few hours to paperwork this afternoon, or I shall be thoroughly demoralized. I shall listen to Der Rosenkavalier and plow through.

In Café Society, I encountered the faces of many people I’d been reading about in Diana Cooper’s letters, thanks to which, in many cases, they’ve acquired stable places in my memory. That many of them were interesting and amusing people cannot be doubted, and they seem to have had a lot of fun when they weren’t dolled up for dancing. When they were dolled up for dancing, they frequently had their pictures taken, and the pictures are not pretty. Money, couture, gilt, starch, disdain, envy, beauty products, the ravages of ageing, and more money — these are what the cameras captured. It’s a kind of hell. That’s how Diana Cooper seems to have felt about balls, although she never missed one. Noblesse oblige, I suppose.

I remembered that, in The Last of the Duchess, Caroline Blackwood paid a visit to Lady Norwich (Lady Diana Cooper that was; when her husband was given a peerage, she complained to her son about her “big step down”), and I thought I’d revisit the interview to see how closely Cooper’s voice resembled the one in her letters to her son. I found there to be a perfect match. To Blackwood, the octagenerian complains about hating being old, but she has a way of making her complaints amusing. It’s as though she knew how to infuse her speech with her great beauty. Eventually, Cooper got round to talking about the Duchess of Windsor. She told a story about an embarrassing evening at Elsa Maxwell’s, followed, at the Duchess’s insistence, by a frolic at a nightclub called Monseigneur, throughout which the Duchess found various ways of humiliating her husband.

It’s about the worst thing that I’ve ever read about the woman, and I’d like to hear a second account, because Diana didn’t find Wallis congenial. Anyway, I returned to the letters, where, wouldn’t you know, I came upon the very same story, this time written days after the event, not recounted decades later. The earlier version is, as you might imagine, less pointed in its details, and the bad behavior seems sillier and less nasty. Years of retelling made the story shapelier, and nowhere moreso than at the end. Cooper shared a ride with the demon of the evening, Jimmy Donahue, the gay Woolworth heir with whom the Duchess was conducting a flagrant, and possibly even unchaste, affair.

In the car he came quite clean. “Lady D,” he took to calling me. “Do you hate me for all the scandal? — it’s not our fault you know, it’s the newspapers. Isn’t Wallis your favourite duchess? She is mine — or would you rather have Alice Gloucester? I adore Wallis — she knows she’s only got to call on Jimmy and I’ll anything for her, I love her — like my mother you know — not any other way because I’m not that sort,” etc etc. I don’t write what I answered, it seemed useless to say much to someone quite beside themselves. I said the indiscretion of it all was idiotic and wounding and unsuitable to the Duke. Isn’t it all desperately sad? He showed nothing, I have to admit, on his royal wizened face but it it’s true and he learns it, the wife is gone, the legend dead, he’ll have to throw himself off the Empire State Building.

I include the peroration because it contradicts what Cooper told Blackwood all those years later: “The Duke immediately started to cry, he felt so humiliated.”

“It was ghastly,” Lady Diana told me. “The whole evening was ghastly. And once it was over, I ended up alone with Donahue. I had to drop him home in a car. I couldn’t bear him. He was so pleased with himself. He lolled around on the car cushion looking as puffed as a toad because he had proved he had the power to cause distress. I thought he was seriously cruel and common. I really loathed the way he talked about the Duchess. The car had no glass partition and he embarrassed me because the chauffeur could hear everything we said. “Don’t you love ‘Our Duchess’?” Donahue said to me. “Don’t you think ‘Our Duchess’ is fantastic?”

Lady Diana had tried to snub him. “I happen to be the daughter of a Duchess,” she said that she’d hissed at Donahue. “So Wallis can’t ever be ‘Our Duchess’ to me.”

Trust me, if Cooper had actually wound off such a zinger, John Julius would have been the first to read about it.

It’s fun to read about these shenanigans, at least when retold by someone clever. That’s what makes Nancy Mitford’s omission from Café Society so galling. It’s true that she wasn’t really part of it, and rarely appeared even at the fringe. She got an invitation to Charlie de Beistegui’s famous ball at the Palazzo Labia — the high point of both the 1951 Venice Film Festival and café society itself — but decided against going because the costume would cost too much, plus Venice. Mitford didn’t have the money. She didn’t have a husband with money, either. She was the mistress of a man who preferred not to be seen with her in public. But she knew all the interesting society folk in Paris and London, and she wrote about them in her copious letters. She’s the only reason, really, why I know anything about all of this, and why I care.

The pictures in Café Society, alluring as they occasionally are, make me rather ashamed of caring. I did get what I was after, though, a knockout photograph of Lady Diana Cooper being walked into the grand ball. She seems deeply frightened beneath her stunning looks, and that’s part of what makes them stunning. (She was very shy, I read, although I find it hard to believe.) It’s as though she has gotten stuck playing the Madonna in The Miracle, and can’t move. Having experimented, lightly, with plastic surgery, she looks magnificent for her age, 59. But she does look 59, if only in the eyes.

She doesn’t mention the ball in the letters, apparently because their recipient joined his parents in Venice just before the Film Festival crowd broke up; she would have told him about it in person. Then again, what was there to say?

Gotham Diary:
5 February 2014

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

While I was watching Hannah Arendt last night, Kathleen came home and said that she was too tired for anything but sleep. (It was about half-past ten.) I put the DVD on pause and went in to sit with her while she got ready for bed. She had lots to say about work — she usually does, these days. The stream of mordant commentary seemed to rouse her, so, when it subsided, I ventured an idea that had come to me the other day while we were on the iPhone with Megan and Will. She seized my proposal with interest, and was soon lost in “the one thing the Internet is good for.” She was still at it when I came back, over an hour later, after I’d seen all of Margarethe von Trotta’s film.


It occurs to me that some readers might raise their eyebrows at my interrupting a movie that I was watching for the first time for a chat with my wife, but I rather think that I got more out of the picture for the break. More and more, worthwhile movies seem to handle like worthwhile novels, and need to be put down from time to time, especially around the middle, just to settle the mind. I know, for example, that the two keys to the film’s narrative climax were more on my mind than they might have been, for having bobbed up repeatedly while I was in the bedroom with Kathleen. Both were introduced with barely more than a glance in the earlier part of the film.

In the first, one of the three judges in the Eichmann trial puts it to the defendant that, had there been more “civil courage” in Germany, the Nazi scourge might have been resisted. In the other, the young Hannah is seen telling her mentor and soon-to-be lover, Martin Heidegger, that his talk of “passionate thinking,” bringing together two things that everyone is taught to keep separate (passion and reason), deeply unsettles her. At the end of the movie, as Arendt was losing dear friends who were alienated by Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was clear to me that her stubborn display of civil courage was motivated by her passionate thinking on the subject of Eichmann and the “Jewish leaders” with whom he so adroitly interacted. My insight enlarged what was in any case a powerful drama — with a performance by Barbara Sukowa, in the title role, that I can only call enchanting — into perhaps the most compelling movie about the actively intellectual life that I have ever seen.

Part of me wants to rattle on about the fantastic, almost lurid sexism in Hannah Arendt. It is all a matter of words, but it nonetheless makes the male offenders look grotesque. The gravamen of the charge against Arendt was that she was “arrogant,” committed to her convictions no matter how much pain they might cause in others. She is accused, in effect, of unwomanly behavior. But the glory of Hannah Arendt is that she was essentially a brilliant thinker and only incidentally a woman or a Jew. This would not be so remarkable in a man; indeed, the gender aspect wouldn’t even come up. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt carefully constructed the argument that the “Jewish leaders,” with whom Eichmann became so palsey when it was a question of encouraging Jews to emigrate, steamrolled the delivery of the unfortunates whom they represented to the death camps. This was, perhaps understandably, mistaken for “blaming the victims,” but that isn’t what Arendt was doing at all. She made it clear that the members of the Judenrat didn’t see themselves as victims; they believed that they would be given special treatment. This delusion took a very long time to dissipate. If Eichmann in Jerusalem had a message for contemporary readers in 1963, it might well have been a warning to be wary of the old men who were used to being in charge. In charge of Israel, especially.

Part of me is more interested in a distinction, which I think von Trotta’s movie illuminates with attractive clarity, between courage and heroism. I called Arendt’s courage “stubborn” just now; it certainly wasn’t heroic. The filmmakers take pains to show how uncertain Arendt was of the virtue of her position. She could not convince herself of a preferable alternative, so she stuck with it, but doubts assailed her. She was deeply wounded by friends who turned their backs on her, and she showed it. There was none of the reckless self-regard that characterizes heroism, even if her enemies charged Arendt with it. She suffered for being right, but she never reveled in her suffering.

Having read Eichmann in Jerusalem for the first time late last year, I can’t say how well Hannah Arendt might stand up for viewers unfamiliar with the book, but perhaps my suspicions would be best expressed by my advice to anyone who has read the book: Re-read Chapter VI, “The Final Solution: Killing,” and the four chapters on deportations. (This might well kindle a desire to re-read the book in toto.) It’s not the contents of these chapters that is so important as the blend of evidence and sarcasm. In the end, Arendt wasn’t arguing a point in Eichmann in Jerusalem so much as showing that those who thought that they were doing justice weren’t doing a good job of it. She detested the sentimentalism that infused the proceedings. She was appalled that Eichmann might be taken to be the victim of a show trial. And she wanted to show that the intellectual mediocrity that made Hitler appealing to millions was still a force to be reckoned with.

Anyone can be a hero, if the circumstances are just right. But only a deep thinker who is truly engaged with the world can be courageous. True courage is never foolish, and without deliberation we are all likely to be fools.


Another part of me wants to shriek: “All that smoking!” Smoking indoors has become so unusual (at least in my part of the world) that I felt that von Trotta was overworking the old vice to a distracting degree. That was only one of many small imperfections in Hannah Arendt. Another was Janet McTeer’s portrayal of Mary McCarthy. One of the bonds between Arendt and McCarthy was their formidable self-possession: like brilliant generals, they were in full command of their resources as a matter of course. McTeer’s McCarthy struck me as too loose, too noisy. Another bumpy presentation was that of The New Yorker‘s Frances Wells (Megan Gay). Neither of these actresses is an American, much less a New Yorker, and it showed. (Nicholas Woodeson was, however, quite good as William Shawn.) Manhattan was represented by views across the East River from Brooklyn and Queens, but Arendt lived on the Upper West Side (of course), and it would have been more interesting to show the view of the Hudson from the front door of her apartment building, at 370 Riverside Drive. Overcoming all of these little defects was Barbara Sukova’s utterly convincing impersonation of an émigrée in New York. She was magnificent when addressing students, and I was left with distinct regret at not having been lucky enough to take one of her classes.

Gotham Diary:
Old Hobblesticks
4 February 2014

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

When I opened the fridge this morning to fetch milk for Kathleen’s tea, the light bulb sparked and went out. At the very same time, it seemed, the fridge stopped humming. I feared worse than a blown bulb. As the morning wore on, I stepped into the kitchen to listen, and the fridge was always silent. I emptied the cubes from an ice tray and filled it with water. An hour later, the water was beginning to freeze; but whenever I listened, the fridge was silent.

By the time that the ice started forming in the top ice tray, I had called Ray Soleil to ask if he was up for visiting the sick. He didn’t ask for an explanation, and he agreed to pick up an appliance light bulb on his way uptown. His coming was a great kindness, as I had been teetering on the edge of self-pity. I’d read the paper and eaten an English muffin, and, if there was more to life, it was too much work. Surely everything could be put off until tomorrow! Surely not: tomorrow, it will probably be snowing again. So I called Ray, as a way of getting myself out of the house.

With Ray’s company at lunch to look forward to, I found the resolve to change the sheets, a task for Tuesdays, and then to deal with a batch of small paper jobs. Meanwhile, I got dressed — for indoors. At this time of year, I can’t wear outdoor clothing in the apartment without boiling. When Ray arrived, I wasn’t feeling too shabby, especially as the fridge was humming. We wouldn’t have to check out the stock at PC Richard for a replacement after all. While Ray changed the bulb, I popped into street clothes.

At the restaurant, I saw two gentlemen of my vintage, neighbors from the building who often have lunch together; we’ve never been introduced, but I enjoy more than a nodding acquaintance with them, especially with the bigger of the two, whom I ran into once at the midtown big and tall shop where I buy clothes. For no particular reason, I asked him how long he thought Gristede’s would stay in business. I was just making conversation, preparing to repeat my joke the grocery chain’s owner, who ran for the Republican nomination for mayor last year, and lost. But my neighbor, who tends to know what’s really going on, gave me a far more detailed answer than I bargained for, and I am still whistling.

I am also frowning at something else that he told me: when the excavators withdraw from the scene in the fall, they will be replaced by the construction workers who will actually build the subway station — laying tiles, installing escalators and lighting, and so on. I do hope that the newcomers won’t take up as much surface area aboveground as their predecessors. Meanwhile, our building’s balcony railing replacement project is running behind schedule, which is dismal because the scaffolding that surrounds the building on three sides (covering — and narrowing — all sidewalks) cannot be removed until the entire project is complete. The unexpected news about Gristede’s (and not just Gristede’s) provides a welcome diversion from the dreariness of our war-torn building site of an intersection.

I asked Ray to come back to the apartment with me for a cup of tea. I knew that there were things I wanted to ask him about, or to tell him about, concerning the apartment and its problems, but I couldn’t think what any of them were, and I hadn’t been keeping a list. As we sat in the blue room, Ray entertaining me with tales of his adventures with obnoxious locals — “I told her, ‘If you turn that radio on again at midnight, while I’m trying to sleep in the next apartment, I’m going to cut your head off and shove the radio down your throat” — the little matters came to mind. There is a stain on a ceiling. That corner needs a can light. And what about the light fixture over the sink? After an hour or so, I called the barber to ask when I might come in. (That was what I really had to do today; I couldn’t touch my face without feeling shag-carpeted.) Forty minutes, he said. After about twenty-five, we left the apartment, and Ray walked with me to the barber. I was so lost in chitchat that I almost overshot both the correct side street and the barber shop itself. I thanked Ray for getting souls out of Purgatory — that’s what Fossil Darling said Ray would be doing by coming up to see me — and he went on his merry way.

Tito, the barber, told me about seeing 12 Years a Slave at the theatre in Queens, where he and an equally dark-complected Peruvian friend were the only non-blacks. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be white,” he said, meaning me. I couldn’t have agreed more. I haven’t even seen the movie here in Yorkville. I’m waiting for it to come out on DVD, so that I can stop it every few minutes and take a deep breath. I know that I have to see it, not just because of the cast — it was news to Tito, by the way, that Chiwetel Ejiofor had made any other motion pictures — but because I have to be reminded how much worse the life of slavery was than I imagine it to have been.

From the barber shop, I went round the corner to the Video Room, just to see what I hadn’t already seen elsewhere, and after a while I spotted Hannah Arendt. That’s what I’m going to watch after signing off here.

My next stop was Eli’s, just a block up Third Avenue. I ducked in to buy frozen croissants. These are treats for weekend breakfasts. They come packaged in threes, so I buy two, which makes for three breakfasts. I hardly ever go into Eli’s for any other reason; it’s both somewhat out of the way and very dear.

Then I headed for Fairway, where I thought I’d better buy a new bottle of milk, not that anything was wrong with the old one — not yet. Along the way, I passed both McDonald’s and Burger King, having crossed neither threshold in many a year. Kathleen would be working late, and ordering in with her team at the office, so I was on my own. — You can’t be serious, half of me said. — I can’t imagine anything I’d rather eat, said the other, the half that is ordinarily rather inconspicuous but that swells up to grotesque proportions when I am deprived of Remicade, and teetering on the edge &c.

At Fairway, I bought a chicken Caesar salad, knowing that it would be nowhere near as good as one that I made myself. It looked almost unappetizing in its plastic shell. After paying and walking out of the store, I turned left instead of right and headed straight for Burger King, two doors away.

That I brought the Whopper &c home instead of consuming all of it right there tells you how long it has been since my last descent into fast-food hell. French fries don’t travel well, nor do they wait for you to change back into indoor clothes. This didn’t stop me from eating them, however, and the Whopper,  I have to say, was indecently satisfying. As I ate, I read the letters that Diana Cooper wrote from St John and St Elizabeth’s hospital, where she spent several weeks in an as-yet unspecified malaise at the beginning of 1949. Nothing could have been more congenial than reading these very letters — short, that is, of crawling into an adjacent hospital bed and writing letters to Will, were he old enough to receive my nonsense. I wallowed heartily, like one of Cooper’s pigs.

Only then did I roll up my sleeves and sit down at my desk. In my inbox, there was a note from a friend asking me if I’d read a certain story mentioning Kathleen. I hadn’t; I hadn’t had to. It was the subject of much weekend conversation here. But I did take a look and was glad to see that everything had been straightened out. Kathleen learned from the experience that it is not a good idea to talk to a reporter about Project A when you are about to speak on a panel about (related but distinct) Project B — and are really thinking of nothing else.

Hygiene Note:
False Categories
3 February 2014

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

After completing the first stage of my work on Analects 13.3, I turned to another passage, signaled by James Legge’s notes as a functional correlative: 12.11. Here is Simon Leys’s translation:

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “Let the lord be a lord, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son.” The Duke said, “Excellent! If indeed the lord is not a lord, the subject not a subject, the father not a father, the son not a son, I could be sure of nothing anymore — not even of my daily food.

This is Confucian conservatism — fundamentalism, really — at its most stringent and least imaginative, and it’s the sort of thing that I’ve got to work around if I am to get anything out of the Analects. To do so, I turn passages such as this one upside down. Let us understand what ought to be expected of lords, subjects, fathers, and sons. Is the hierarchy implicit in this passage still useful? Confucius would argue that, if it was ever useful, it must still be, but on no point do I disagree with the Sage more sharply. Everything changes, over time, including human nature and the constellation of values on which human beings depend in order to make sense of the world. Justice today is not what it was circa 500 BCE. I find hierarchy distinctly useless for our times. I don’t have to worry about how I would answer the Duke of Qi, precisely because we have largely done away with rulers of his kind. We have different, more complicated problems that do not yet yield to elegant formulations.

There was nothing surprising about 12.11, but Simon Leys’s note on the passage was something else altogether. I already knew that Leys, whose real name is Pierre Ryckmans, is a Belgian Catholic of orthodox faith. (Ryckmans has lived since 1970 in Australia.) I should have to re-read all of The Hall of Uselessness, the NYRB collection of his essays that I mentioned last week, to cite the glinting references, but there is something rather handsome in the man’s harmonious blend of Christian piety and grave respect for the heritage of traditional Chinese scholarship, even if his contempt for the mainstream of modern thinking in the West is less appealing. But I was surprised — surprised and horrified — by the reactionary bent of his annotation to 12.11, a part of which follows.

In the Confucian view,  the sociopolitical order rests upon a correct definition of each individual’s function, identity, duties, privileges, and responsibilities. It is a teaching that, even today,  has lost nothing of its relevance: the moral chaos of our age — with its infantile adults, precociously criminal children, androgynous individuals, homosexual families, despotic leaders, asocial citizens, incestuous fathers, etc — reflects a collective drift into uncertainty and confusion; obligations attached to specific roles, age differentiations, even sexual identity are no longer perceived clearly.

What is “homosexual families” doing in that sentence? That’s not the only problem that I have with the statement, but it certainly the biggest, and nothing less than excision would satisfy me if a new edition of the translation were forthcoming. I doubt that Leys can have known any “homosexual families” well enough to pass judgment, but Leys would argue that that is not the point. He is not reporting on the world but concluding from values. Homosexual families can be no more permissible that incestuous fathers. I’m hugely embarrassed to have spoken so enthusiastically about Leys’s writing without knowing of this dreadful stinkbomb.

Leys was writing in the late Nineties, which was another world so far as same-sex marriage goes. But more than ten years earlier, Kathleen and I submitted affidavits testifying to the good character of a friend who sought to adopt her partner’s natural daughter. We supported what Leys dismisses as “homosexual families” from the first that we heard about it. Because we utterly reject the traditional prohibition of same-sex relationships, we cannot see a reason for preventing same-sex partners from raising children, whether natural or adopted.

As for the other alleged sinners on Leys’s list, I wonder why “incestuous fathers” doesn’t come first. (And I would insist upon mentioning “pederast priests”!) Despotic leaders are nothing new; most people in most places at most times in history have lived under some form of military dictatorship, usually with despotic tendencies. The  Communist Party in China, which Leys clearly hates so intensely that he doesn’t seem interested in its mutations, clearly wishes to minimize its own despotic features, however ineffectively. “Androgynous individuals” is a curious entry. There are certainly men and women who play with androgyny, and they make me uncomfortable precisely because they enjoy creating confusion, but I would not call robust women or delicate men “androgynous,” although I suspect that Leys might. I have the good fortune to have been spared acquaintance with any precocious criminals. (I don’t, in fact, know any criminals — but then, I don’t get around much.) This leaves “infantile adults” and “asocial citizens,” two categories that I should prefer to collapse into one. It is precisely in search of guidance for long-term adolescents that I’m combing through the wisdom of Confucius. Perhaps my reply to the Duke of Qi would be this: “Let the child be a child, and the adult an adult.”


Stricken as I was by the shame of possibly appearing to endorse Simon Leys’s benighted views on sexuality, I was grateful for the surprise itself, because it left me in no doubt of what I must write about this morning; otherwise, I’d have been at wit’s end. I’d have been tormented by the difficulty of deciding how much of my anxiety to “share.” For I was very anxious indeed. During most January, it was uncertain that my next Remicade infusion, which ought to have taken place this week, would be approved by our health plan, the operation of which has been upset by the surge in new plans mandated by much-needed amendments to our health-care laws (please note what I am not calling this). It appears to have taken a long time to find out whom the hospital ought to contact for approval. Last Wednesday, the request was finally submitted. This morning, approval was granted — I found that out as I was writing about Simon Leys — but, as no appointment can be made without approval, I now face the problem that I foresaw when I began this process about the tenth of last month: the seats are booked! There are only nine, I believe, at the infusion therapy unit, and it is unusual for any of them to be empty for more than twenty minutes. No, the unit is booked for a few weeks, in fact. If there’s a cancellation, I may get to go sooner, but it’s best not to count on that. Rather, I’m going to see what happens to me as I push two weeks beyond the furthest space that there has ever been between infusions.

The normal dosage is an infusion of some hundreds of millilitres of Remicade every eight weeks, making for six infusions a year. For some time now — the tenth anniversary of my receiving these treatments will occur in April — I’ve been getting by on four infusions per year. Expense is not the issue, although it would quickly become one if I were no longer insured. Rather, it’s the possibility that the drug will cease to be effective that guides me. It will take longer for this to happen, the reasoning goes, if I take it less often.

Sometimes, I begin to feel a bit off as much as ten days before the infusion. This seems a small price to pay. I don’t know how I’m really feeling right now, though, because anxiety about the insurance approval has jammed a lot of signals. (There are few things that I fear more than an uncertain bureaucracy.) We shall see how I feel — shan’t we. But I shall feel what I feel. That is not at all what anxiety is about. Anxiety is a state of not knowing what to feel. And when it ends, it vanishes — at least for me. I remember that I was anxious, but I don’t — can’t — remember being anxious. My body refuses to go there. That’s why I don’t like to write about it, even when I’m worried sick about something. One doesn’t like to leave traces of transitory unpleasantness lingering behind. It is a matter of hygiene, not stoicism.


Something else distracted me from my appointment worries — the sorrow of losing Philip Seymour Hoffman. I neglected to mention that I watched Charlie Wilson’s War the other day, and was once again hugely entertained by the deadpan exuberance of Hoffman’s impersonation of a disaffected CIA officer. I’ve been hugely entertained by everything the actor did. His films will continue to marvel, but the thought that there won’t be any more of them is oppressive. Philip Seymour Hoffman was, simply, a great artist.