Archive for March, 2014

Gotham Diary:
The Trouble with Productivity
1 April 2014

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Late yesterday afternoon, I watched Hannah Arendt for the second time. It struck me even more forcefully than it did the first time as an extraordinarily good movie with some extraordinarily regrettable lapses. Almost all of the latter concern the representation of America, either as landscape (mostly faked with obviously German stand-ins) or as  society. The problem with the movie’s picture of American society is that nearly every American in the film is a caricature. Whether this reflects an agenda on Margarethe von Trotta’s part or simply a fumble in communication between a Continental director and an Anglophone cast, I can’t say, but every time a braying or strident American interrupts the velvet flow of German, I want to stop my ears.

However: extraordinarily good, that’s the thing to bear in mind. As a movie about a thinking human being, Hannah Arendt is unparalleled. Thinking, of course, cannot be shown on screen — just the face of someone who is thinking. At this, Barbara Sukowa is as convincing as anyone. But she is supported by a superb screenplay, superbly photographed.

Hannah Arendt tells the story of how Arendt came to write Eichmann in Jerusalem, and how her book was received when it was serially published in The New Yorker. A very great deal of the movie is taken up with Ms Sukowa’s Arendt reacting to what she hears, both silently and in speech, and these reactions reveal thought in the same way that a powdering of snow reveals the Invisible Man. Arendt’s first reactions are to Adolf Eichmann himself. She is shocked, surprised. The man is a mediocrity, a nobody. He doesn’t boast or bluster; he just yammers on about swearing oaths and obeying orders. (That the man is physically so unprepossessing — not an accountant but the file clerk to an accountant — is also jarring.) You might think that the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which dilates on the relentlessness with which totalitarians destroy the humanity not only of their victims but of themselves as well, would be prepared for the moral cypher that Eichmann became, but she wasn’t. At one point, she calls him a ghost. Isn’t that what her earlier book would have foretold? Only in hindsight, it seems.

When she has considered Eichmann at length, she finds it difficult if not impossible to get any of her Israeli friends to hear her out. They can’t hear her out, because her mockery of Eichmann makes a mockery of the Holocaust. They can’t or won’t follow her into this classic instance, this actual case, of totalitarian annihilation. For them, the only victims are the shot and the gassed. To annihilate the humanity of the functionaries who managed the killing is to dismiss the criminality of the Holocaust itself, an inadmissable conclusion. But that was precisely Arendt’s conclusion, already reached, in theory as it were, in Origins, and now from experience, watching Eichmann. Totalitarianism is radically evil because it annihilates humanity and, with it, all meaningful conception of law. You can punish totalitarians, but you cannot judge them. Morally, they are already dead. That is what makes them banal.

To compare Hitler (or even Eichmann) to Satan is an insult to Satan. Satan is a fallen angel, a rebel against God. No one is more expert at parsing good and bad. Hitler taught us, I’m afraid, that we have outgrown Satan. But Satan is very familiar and we are attached to the very familiar. In the movie, Hannah Arendt has a hard time, understandably, making the case that Satan is passé. It has perhaps required the passage of fifty years for the case to become even presentable.


As a young woman, Hannah Arendt was a distinctly apolitical philosophy student, but she was still young when she learned that ignorance of political affairs can be very foolish. She became a political thinker, somebody who thought endlessly about politics — more precisely, about the environmental factors that must be in place for politics to occur — against the grain of her studies. I don’t know when she hit on her most elemental discovery, which is that all you need to understand politics is the ability to think, but she probably did not pick it up from her teacher, Martin Heidegger, who opportunistically/naively went along with the Nazis at a fairly early point. I don’t know how long it took her to see how destructive Plato had been when he advised philosophers to dismiss politics, but in fact she wrote very little between her exile to France (when her conventional academic career came to an end) and the end of the War (by which time she was in New York). She had been trained, as a thinker, to avoid thinking about politics, but over the course of her mature life, she taught herself how (to use one of her favorite phrases) to turn that on its head. While all the ingredients of her discussion were the familiar monuments of Western intellectual history, she rearranged them even more strenuously than Karl Marx did. (She certainly rearranged him.) In my (admittedly besotted) view, this rearrangement amounted to a reinvention.

To the end of later editions of Origins, Arendt appended an essay, “Ideology and Terror.” Initially, the essay was an attempt to classify totalitarianism among the forms of government à la manière de Montesquieu. This project led Arendt to a startling realization: once Plato started daydreaming about philosopher-kings, political philosophy was launched on a course that deliberately ignored politics — in Arendt’s terms, the free action of plural men. (The plurality and the natality of men — unique individuals are born every day, and grow up, some of them, to lead public affairs — is the second most-important idea in Arendt’s armory. There never has been and never will be any such thing as “mankind” — only a god, she says, would know what that was.) Plato, as exasperated by politics as we all are, decided to dispense with it by handing over the government directly to a ruler, and from then on, political philosophy was concerned with the different forms of rule.

In a republic, however, rule, or law, must be preceded by some sort of popular resolution, however you define “popular.” That is what politics is — not rule. No American ought to have any difficulty understanding this; it’s built into the Constitution. We elect legislators to make laws and a president to execute them. And yet — even the Founders didn’t understand politics, which they called “Faction.” Political parties, born less than a century earlier in England, still, in the 1780s, seemed a somewhat adventitious, accidental imperfection in an ever-improving design. I have yet to read Arendt on parties per se, if indeed she ever wrote about them, but I expect that she would have regarded them as imperfect necessities. (I also expect to learn more in this area from On Revolutions, which is in the mail.)

Somewhere in an interview, Arendt told the correspondent that, when it came time to write things down, she was always ready because she knew what she thought and she simply wrote that. Allowing for exaggeration, we must nevertheless admit that this spontaneity shows, in ways that make reading Arendt fascinating and hugely rewarding but also maddening. Arendt is an anti-journalist. She seems to be completely innocent of all the low-grade rhetorical cunning that was drilled into us in high school. Remember the rule about beginning an essay with a funnel (lots of broad statements at the beginning, narrowing down bit by bit until, voilà, the “topic sentence” at the end of the first or second paragraph)? Arendt begins in media res. You plunge into the deep end — there is no shallow — and swim as best you can. Every sentence is clear and reasonable-sounding, but its connection to its neighbors is sometimes invisible: it’s something that you, the reader, have to work out for yourself. This would have consigned the work of a lesser thinker to oblivion.

Not that there is anything heedless or macho about Arendt’s writing. Rather it reminds me of  a venerable “Catholic joke.” An old lady is in the middle of praying to the Virgin when she’s interrupted by Jesus Himself. He tries to tell her who He is, and to let her be the first to know about the Second Coming, but she dismisses Him unceremoniously: “Shut up, I’m talking to Your mother.” Substitute you, the reader accustomed to being persuaded, for Jesus, and the urgency of avoiding another outbreak of totalitarianism for the Virgin, and the old lady becomes Hannah Arendt.

That Hannah Arendt was a woman, whose books were written by a woman, seems significant not because the books display any “womanly” characteristics but because she and her work are free of two defects that beset the work of brainy males. The first of these weaknesses is what would be called “playfulness,” if you thought of what goes on between cats and mice as “play.” Although the disciplines underpinning systematic philosophy and multiplayer video games differ widely, I regard them as variant methods of scratching the same itch. The second weakness, which you might expect to cancel out the first, is the urge to conclude. But winning the game quite often requires continuing to play. Arendt never stops, either, but, even at her most thunderingly authoritative, she never offers propositions on a scale that would put her inquiry to rest. She is not trying to win a game. She is trying to make sure that no important questions have been overlooked.

(Decency requires me to mention that Albert Hirschmann, last spring’s crush, was, although a very brainy male, singularly free of the “besetting defects.” There are a few good men out there, to be sure.)

Hannah Arendt’s enemy was not intellectual or virtual, but dreadfully, catastrophically incarnate (even if also dead), and it can be said without stretching the facts that she dedicated her survival of the Holocaust to understanding it. She applied her skills as a crack intellectual analyst to shedding light on the evasive murk of anti-political impulses.


Every once in a while, a friend interrupts my rattling on about Hannah Arendt to ask if I’m afraid of a totalitarian outbreak anytime soon. The answer to that is “no.” But what does worry me is a misunderstanding about labor that might make such an outbreak more likely, and Arendt has taught me to phrase it that way. “Misunderstanding about labor” — am I talking about jobs? Yes, but not the ones you think. Marx, by misunderstanding labor — he seems to have regarded it simply as the opposite of idleness or unproductive activity — privileged the one kind of doing that human beings share with other animals: the labor, the ceaseless round, of trying to stay alive. The valorization of productivity for its own sake, as common among capitalists as it ever was for the Stakhanovites, has reduced almost all forms of work to the status of labor: job-holding. People worried about keeping their jobs, in a society that proclaims “grow or die,” are workers only nominally: the manufacture of tables and trust documents (work, in Arendt’s view) becomes a byproduct of the dire need to assure an uninterrupted flow of paychecks — labor. Everybody is working too hard and laboring too much, but the worst of it is that it’s the best and the brightest (and I don’t mean CEOs here — they’re the jokers in the pack) who are wasting their intelligence not on “careers” but on jobs. Leisure, the basis of meaningful political reflection, is lost, because “nobody has the time.” That’s why politics in America has become so polarized. It has been abandoned to the players.

If the graduates of our best schools and the recipients of our highest professional salaries can’t figure out how to organize their lives to their own satisfaction (which, by the wonderful geometry of humanity, correlates over the long run to the general satisfaction), we have a problem, Houston, don’t we? Before Arendt, I’d have said that the problem is that there’s not enough reflection in modern society. Now, thanks to her, I know why that’s the case — and I’m really worried.

Gotham Diary:
“This Just In”
31 March 2014

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Last Saturday, not this past Saturday but the one on which 22 March fell, we spent the day at Lincoln Center, enjoying two Paul Taylor Dance Company programs. We saw six dances altogether, three of them familiar, three new to us, and one a première.* More than ever before, our pilgrimage served as the rite of spring.

We had originally intended to see much more than we did, but then, as the winter set in, with its aches and complications, it began to seem that we wouldn’t go at all. Aside from two plays in the fall and a jazz concert on Valentine’s Day, we didn’t go out this season, not even for dinner, and that was fine with me. I was as delighted by my evenings at home as I am not to need to own a car. Much as I wanted to see some Paul Taylor, I shrank from making decisions as to which, and the hassle of purchasing tickets put me off even more.

But I rallied, ten days before the performance, spurred by the enthusiasm of a friend with whom I had lunch. She was going that very evening to a Paul Taylor preview. A sudden horror hit me: what if Michael Trusnovec retired after this season? He has been the company’s senior dancer since we started going, six years ago, and he joined in 1996, which is pushing twenty years. I hate to call him the star of the company, because I’m mad about at least five of the other dancers, all of whom do things that  Mr Trusnovec doesn’t (sometimes because they’re women), but there’s no getting round his Apollonian magnificence. Michael Trusnovec is the embodiment of strength stripped of all brutality. He appears to create both the air and the gravity in which he moves. If I were to miss his final New York season with the company, I should need a very good excuse.

Not having one, I bought the four Saturday tickets, quite painlessly, choosing precisely the seats that I wanted, online. Why didn’t I do this sooner? Let’s just say that buying tickets online hasn’t always been easy, and I still carry scars from the early days. (Or fancy I do.)

So, we went, and it was great. A favorite moment that still lingers was the pas de deux for two men, in Sunset, that Mr Trusnovec dances with Robert Kleinendorst, his Dionysian opposite in character but a dancer not a whit less in control. You can see some of it on this clip at YouTube. (Although the men wear the red berets that are part of the dance, the rehearsal is not in costume.) We were especially delighted by Funny Papers, a crowd-pleaser that we’ve somehow managed to miss.


And that’s all for now. From the very beginning, friends would say, “I love it when you review things. It’s almost as good as being in New York.” This always made me feel like Woody Allen’s character in Stardust Memories, whose fans tell him that they especially like his “earlier, funny” movies. I’m not going to say anything crude, such as “I hate writing reviews,” but I have to say that I have come to find reviews too problematic to write. There is something wrong about fitting the report of any “cultural event” into the mold of journalism.

And to tell you what it is, I’m going refer to last Thursday’s entry, in which I mentioned Cicero’s conception of the cultivated mind. Hannah Arendt writes (in the essay to which I alluded),

[Cicero] speaks of excolere animum, of cultivating the mind, and of cultura animi in the same sense in which we speak even today of a cultured mind, only that we are no longer aware of the full metaphorical content  of this usage. For as far as Roman usage is concerned, the chief point always was the connection of culture with nature; culture originally meant agriculture, which was held in very high regard in Rome in opposition to the poetic and fabricating arts. … It was in the midst of a primarily agricultural people that the concept of culture first appeared, and the artistic connotations which might have been connected with this culture concerned the incomparably close relationship of the Latin people to nature, the creation of the famous Italian landscape. According to the Romans, art was supposed to rise as naturally as the countryside; it ought to be tended nature; and the spring of all poetry was seen in “the song which the leaves sing to themselves in the green solitude of the woods.” But though this may be an eminently poetic thought, it is not likely that great art would ever have sprung from it. It is hardly the mentality of gardeners which produces art.

I completely disagree with Arendt on the last point, but that’s no matter: it is not art that is under discussion but the cultivated mind. It is in the cultivated mind that culture begins, and it is from the discussions of cultured minds that culture emerges into the light. Actual cultural events take place in and among minds, not in theatres, concert halls, or museums. Culture lies not in works of art but in the seasoned responses of men and women to works of art. An empty museum is absolutely devoid of culture, and merely to write about what happened at a concert or what was displayed in a gallery is, very possibly, to avoid cultural significance altogether.

The journalistic review came into existence with the rise of the bourgeoisie, who had to be told, in those early days, what was what. In the absence of higher education or, more importantly, swell friends, the rising merchant or aspiring barrister needed a guide to the finer things in life, among which, of course, the fine arts figured most prominently; and newspaper critics were happy to help. The very premise of the journalistic review, unchanged to this day, is that the reader is him- or herself less fitted than the journalist, if not wholly unable, to judge a picture or a performance. But today this premise rests on the shakiest foundation: it is no longer the critic’s judgment that is special, but rather his access to events: he sees them, as a rule, before everybody else, or he sees everything of their kind. He is in an excellent position to deliver the latest news about art. But this news is not at all inherently cultural.

I’m not claiming that journalistic reviews are wholly devoid of cultural comment. On the contrary, it’s the odd bit of really substantive comment that sparks my awareness of its rarity. Alistair Macaulay stuffs his Times reviews with genuinely cultural insight, but the pieces themselves are stunted and constrained by the obligation to highlight the dances that the critic has just seen. Writing about Paul Taylor, moreover, Macaulay harps on how great Taylor used to be. This point gets much more coverage, as it were, than Macaulay’s frequent but fleeting references to the astonishing performances that his dancers deliver, and the choreographic characteristics that distinguish any Paul Taylor dance go almost unmentioned. Refreshment is a vital part of the cultivation of the mind — that is why it is so important to re-read great books — but the journalistic review tends not to refresh but to overwrite. Macaulay’s regrets about Paul Taylor’s apparent dotage (“Though he’s certainly a master, it’s been decades since he seemed any kind of pioneer“) betray a conviction that the latest instance of anything is also the most significant. That’s the déformation professionelle of a journalist. It has almost nothing to do with culture.

So we have to figure out another way to talk about art, one in which “news” values are subordinated to accord with their limited cultural importance. I hope to be closer to a solution by the time next year’s Paul Taylor at Lincoln Center season begins. One thing’s for sure: I’ll order my tickets online and early.

* Familiar: Cloven Kingdom, Sunset, and Gossamer Gallants; New to us: Funny Papers, Dante Variations; Première: Marathon Cadenzas.

Daily Blague news item: The Skills Gap

Gotham Diary:
“They should learn”
27 March 2014

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

It turned out to be very helpful to read The Human Condition, even though, while I was plowing through it, especially through the outer chapters, which I barely understood (couldn’t see the need for), I worried that I’d made an awful mistake about Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem had shown me a writer of keen intelligence and reportorial diligence, with a seriousness leavened by blow-dart sarcasm. In Between Past and Future, the water was a lot deeper, but the philosophical tone was not too choppy. (I still don’t know how I came to read Between Past and Future “next” — a complete lack of plan is probably the best answer.) I knew that I should have to re-read the book, or at least parts of it, if I were to get my brain’s worth, but the occasional wisecracks refreshed my enthusiasm. Arendt talked about the most important things, but there was a comfortable familiarity in her tone of voice, as though the most important things were the things that we talk about most often.

The Human Condition seemed written by a different Arendt, all work and no play. Worse, it appeared to be an exercise in phenomenological philosophy, a discipline that it would be late in the day for me to be learning, much less assessing! I nearly lost my nerve in the final chapter, which portrays a world in which no one has recovered from the shock of Galileo’s discoveries (the earth really does orbit the sun!) and Descartes’s deflationary ideas. I didn’t recognize this world at all; either Arendt had let herself get carried away or I was somewhat dim. I skimmed a bit, something I never do.

When I went back to read the essay about art and culture in Between Past and Future, however, I saw pretty quickly that The Human Condition had been worth the trouble. I’ll get to that; first, let me take a minute to sketch the aspect of The Human Condition that I found enlightening. The bulk of this work is given over to a painstaking distinction between labor, work, and action. This analysis, although firmly rooted in the Western intellectual tradition from Plato to Marx, is all Arendt’s own. (Well, distinguishing work from labor was her idea, inspired by the fact that all Western languages have two words, such as “labor” and “work,” for activities that the Greeks bundled together.) This breakdown of the “vita activa” provides a very useful tool, I believe, for thinking about what it is that we are doing when we do anything. To put it very simply:

  • Labor is drudgery. Marx called it man’s metabolic relation to nature. Labor keeps human beings alive, and, as such, it is endlessly repetitive. Arendt uses the term animal laborans to highlight the point that, although it makes use of faculties that other animals lack, labor is not peculiarly human. Having consigned labor to slaves, the Greeks didn’t give it another thought.
  • Work involves means and ends: raw materials, tools, and human effort are consumed, not in the cyclical drudgery of labor, but in the production of lasting objects, which may be either  use-objects (a table or a chair — or a tool) or works of art (such as a sculpture). Mastery of the skill (τέχνη) to produce lasting goods transforms the laborer into a worker.
  • Action is political action: speech and deeds intended to persuade fellow-citizens.

The purpose of these categories, as I see it, is not to provide pigeonholes for every kind of human activity but to consider the nature of what we do. The range of work has expanded hugely since classical antiquity, and now includes the professions. But the number of workers appears to be set on a downward course, as the effort involved in work is increasingly outsourced to robots and laborers. Already in the mid-Fifties, Arendt was concerned about a world in which labor was no longer required of human beings — leaving them with nothing to do. This development has become vastly more worrisome in the ensuing decades, but few politicians — most of whom seem prudentially opposed to taking any kind of real action — dare to stare at the dawn of this ironic utopia.

Industrial labor, of course, did not exist in the ancient world; it has been a significant social factor for less than three centuries. But it is wise to see factory workers for what they are: laborers, not workers. Most factory work is endlessly repetitive, and in fact much of it regards overseeing the labor of machines. When politicians talk about “upgrading the work force” by teaching “workers” new skills, they are confusing laborers with workers. There is little current demand for a vastly enlarged work force, however — even if most laborers possessed the intelligence required to master genuine skills, a real question. The consolidation of business corporations invariably produces cuts in the demand for labor. The larger the operation, the more efficiently it can produce the same output — “efficiently” meaning “with less human labor.” What is good for investors and a bonanza for CEOs is terrible for ordinary laborers. The industrialization of work is terrible for workers. Arendt muses on “the consumer society,” in which cheaply-made use-objects replace the production of workers. (Think IKEA — unknown to her, of course, but clearly foreseen by her.)

There were no business organizations in the ancient world, and it is almost impossible to know where to place economists, marketers, consultants, human-resources specialists, and the ranks of other now common creatures on Arendt’s schema. Perhaps it is not important to do so, but I believe the case can be made that none of them are doing anything.


Art and culture. You think that’s bad, get a load of this: “The Crisis in Culture: its Social and its Political Significance.” Makes you look round for a fainting couch, doesn’t it. When it came to titles, the Fifties were fairly humorless.

The essay is so stuffed with ideas that I’m going to do little more than mention it now. There are two parts. The first considers the manifestations of “mass culture.” The second explores the relation between artists and politicians and concludes that aesthetic taste is a political faculty. Yes! Strange as it sounds, Arendt makes her case. I liked it the first time, but having ground my nose into the detail of The Human Condition, I love it now. It is tempting to type out the last three paragraphs, although they’re very long, but I don’t think that they can be excerpted — they constitute a grande finale that doesn’t make much sense (just a lot of noise) if you haven’t heard the symphony.

There is, however, one moderately-sized idea that I’d like to pass on, and that is Arendt’s discussion of culture. She does this authoritatively, by locating Cicero as the first person to speak of it and to speculate on “the cultivated mind.” Arendt shows that Cicero was building a metaphor on the field of agriculture, that the cultivated mind was for him the correlative of a well-worked farm. Productive farms don’t yield crops overnight or without a great deal of attentive care; nor do minds yield beautiful or useful ideas without intelligent management. If there is any idea in the world that I consider fundamental, elemental, paramount and core, it is this. I wrote that it is moderately-sized so as not to daunt, but it is the most important idea ever.

I learned it myself, years ago, from gardening. I knew nothing about gardening when we bought our house in the country, and much of what I taught myself could not be implemented amidst heavily-wooded properties. But what I was really teaching myself was how to build a model for growing a mind. Arendt has helped me to articulate this model, and I feel more confident than ever about insisting that the uncultivated mind is an outrageous waste of humanity that anyone possessed of a college degree ought to be ashamed of. (At the very least, demand a tuition refund!)

Have you seen Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt yet? Most of it is in German, but my favorite moment is in English. Arendt is going over Eichmann in Jerusalem with New Yorker editor William Shawn. It goes something like this.

Shawn (pediatrically): I see, Miss Arendt, that you begin with an epigraph in Greek. Now, many of our readers don’t read Greek.
Arendt (briskly): They should learn.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who dismisses Arendt’s retort as “arrogant” is no better than a laborer — and not necessarily a human laborer, either.

Gotham Diary:
What is she doing in the picture?
26 March 2014

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

The Wallace Collection

Raise your hand if you have seen this picture before.

I’m going to assume that you know who the four men are. (Yes, that child in skirts is a little boy.) But do you know (a) who painted the picture (b) when? And (c) do you know who the lady is?

I knew who the lady was. Her name stuck in my mind when I learned it, because it is not the name that I assumed at first. “At first” being when I was thirteen, and reading Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King for the first time. The picture, slightly cropped, is given a double spread (or truck) toward the end of the book, with a portrait of the man in red’s wife on the reverse of one page and a picture of peasants by Louis le Nain on the reverse of the other. The painting is attributed to Nicolas de Largillière, and the lady is identified as the duchesse de Ventadour. “Who’s she?” I wondered. Surely it ought to have been Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s secret wife — so I thought in my infancy.

And indeed it ought to have been that pious lady — which is why it wasn’t (because it couldn’t be), and why the picture is an astonishing fake.


I have been reading an historical novel. It’s in French. I don’t read historical novels in English, because they go in for a realism that does terrible things to the language — call it atrocity by anachronism. The French approach is (as usual) far more sensible. The overall narrative is precisely the sort of amiable recital of facts that Mitford made so entertaining — as nonfiction, mind. It is punctuated by occasional but always well-timed bursts of romance-fiction transport. French may not be the language of love, but it is the language of literary romance: there is a way to write about a pretty girl falling in love with a handsome young man, or vice versa, and, having mastered this art at about the time the Abbé Prévost published Manon Lescaut (1731), the French don’t fiddle with the formula. Chantal Thomas, in L’échange des princesses (2013) a novel about the marriages of two princesses, one French and one Spanish, performed by proxy in 1721 — displays a genius for the genre. She quotes extensively from the plentiful documentary sources, orthographic irregularities intact, but she manages to inflect their stiffness with a certain irony, largely by having already told us what her characters, all of them based on actual people, really felt. It reads like history, but as told by Vanity Fair, if there were such a thing as Vanity Fair in French. You learn dozens of things on every page, but you’re much too engrossed to mind.

I am tempted to quote some of the lovey bits, but I resist. Some other time, perhaps. I want to stick with the painting, which, in answer to question (a), is no longer attributed to Nicolas de Largillière. The Wallace Collection, which ought to know, pins the label “French School” where the artist’s name ought to be. Painter unknown! This is not what makes the painting a fake, but it certainly indicates that it is!

The duchesse de Ventadour figures prominently in L’échange des princesses. The action begins about twelve years after the scene depicted in the painting might have occurred (fake!), but Mme de Ventadour, we are told, is “encore belle.” Now, I didn’t think that she was “belle” to begin with, but I’m willing to go along with the conceits of French romance. The duchesse accompanies one princess, twelve year-old Louise Élisabeth, daughter of the Regent, from Paris to the Spanish border (on an island in a river somewhere between St Jean de Luz and San Sebastián), where the girl is exchanged for the Infanta Maria Anna Victoria of Spain, daughter of Philip V and his “viperine” second wife, Elizabeth Farnese (as we call her), and a child not yet four years of age.

Setting out on the journey, Mme de Ventadour assures herself that there is no danger of falling in love a second time, but in this she is mistaken, for the little infanta immediately captures her heart. I suppose that this is why the lady is “beautiful”: her romance is not carnal but maternal. She has already raised the king of France, twelve year-old Louis XV, and had him snatched away when the time came for men to take over the education of the prince. Duchesse and king have been heartsick ever since!

Just as operatic love scenes work best in Italian, so it is with their prose equivalents in French. I wouldn’t dream of translating the scene in which the infanta, greeting her already very handsome future husband for the first time, immediately falls in love with him, while the king, who can tell at a glance that his “Maman Ventadour” has given her heart to her young charge, is paralyzed by jealousy. The music that lifts you out of your chair would be lost — it’s built into the language. In English, the scene would risk implausibility.

Suffice it to say that, until I began reading L’échange des princesses, I hadn’t given Mme de Ventadour much thought. But now I felt the hot knife of curiosity pressing against my neck. What was she doing in that picture?

Put it like this: find me another portrait of Louis XIV or any member of his family which features someone who is not. I have never seen, for instance, a portrait of Louis with any of his mistresses. Such a picture would have violated the rules not only of propriety but of portraiture: the portrait was an ideal representation from which all accidents, save those of fashion, were banished. Royalty could not be adulterated by the presence of non-royals.

In The Sun King, the picture is identified as “Louis XIV, with the Grand Dauphin, the Duc de Bourgogne and (supposedly) his second son, and the Duchesse de Ventadour.”

Here’s its title at the Wallace Collection: “Madame de Ventadour with Portraits of Louis XIV and his Heirs.”

As for the date of the painting: “1715-1720.”

Of course! Louis XIV died in 1715. His son, the Grand Dauphin, died in 1711. The Grand Dauphin’s son, the duc de Bourgogne, died in 1712, as did his wife and his elder son, all of measles. The younger son, the future Louis XV, was also infected, but he pulled through, under the care of “Maman Ventadour.” After the old king died, the duchesse must have felt at liberty to have her role in the preservation of the senior Bourbon line commemorated in fine style. The new king was too young to object, and his guardian, the reprobate duc d’Orléans, wouldn’t care. The result is more a conversation piece (a genre that would become wildly popular in England later in the century) than a court portrait — another giveaway.

If, dear reader, you happen to be a student of French history under the age of forty, you will probably have been laughing at me all the while, wondering how I could have been hoodwinked by this bald imposture. I can only reply that the day will come when you discover that some of the things that you learned in school were and are not true.

As for Madame de Maintenon, not only would she not have been shown in a painting with her secret husband, but she would have been guarding a quite different, and much older, child, a young man by this time — Louis’s adored but feckless bastard, the duc du Maine. That is another story.


Ray Soleil, when he read the foregoing, asked, “What got you going?” What was it that brought what I facetiously called “the hot knife of curiosity” to my neck? As this seems to be the most interesting thing about my “discovery,” I thought that it deserved mention, and here, not in some other entry.

What made me look into the background of the picture was a strange combination of familiarity and experience. The picture it self really could not be more familiar. I cannot say that I memorized it, but when I remark that, before I got to the computer to start checking things out, I imagined Mme de Ventadour to be standing between the king’s chair and the duc de Bourgogne (and facing the opposite direction), that will only underscore how present the elements of the picture were to my mind. I cannot recall not knowing it. From the first moment of contact, it stood as an emblem of the ancien régime, perhaps the emblem. Here were four generations of Bourbons, at ease in their opulence, one of them on a leash held by a lady in long kid gloves. When I saw it for the first time, I was more familiar with the look of the Eighteenth Century than a healthy child of my age ought to have been, but I was innocent of all power of discrimination. I swallowed the painting as evidence.

Which, as we have seen, it is not; it is a confection. (I should like to have been a fly on the wall when the duchesse riffled through her old gowns, looking for something that said “1710.”) My acquaintance with a lot of other paintings from the period, alongside a great deal of writing about it, have built up in the more than fifty years since I saw this picture into a mass of experience. As I read Chantal Thomas’s book, the frequency of the name “Ventadour” elicited a certain sparking flash from this mass, an irritation, an interference, a sense not unlike the one produced by a frame’s hanging askew. Something was wrong. Presently this sense crystallized into the words with which I headed this entry. I realized that I had never seen another painting like Mme de Ventadour’s. The image no longer made sense, and indeed it turned out to be a fake: the picture, not of something that never happened, but of something that would never have been depicted with the consent of the powerful man who sits in the chair.

The authority of Madame de Ventadour’s fake, owing simply to its seniority in my experience, was immense, but not, I’m happy to say, fixed.

I’m sure that you’ve heard of “Mondegreens.” I’d herewith like to propose the term “Ventadour” for the experience of finding out the truth about something that was misunderstood long ago, when one was too young to appreciate it.

Gotham Diary:
Different Point of View
25 March 2014

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Writing to a friend last night, on the subject of current perplexities, I went to search for something that I read last week but failed to note at the time. A blue-collar worker from the hinterland was quoted as saying that “you can’t take away a guy’s right to be stupid” — something like that. I was shocked, but also exquisitely delighted, when the Google search attributed a similar statement to a far more prominent speaker, Secretary of State John Kerry. The Reuters headline: “Kerry defends liberties, says Americans have “right to be stupid.”

“The reason is, that’s freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be,” he said, prompting laughter. “And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be.

“And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that’s a virtue. I think that’s something worth fighting for,” he added. “The important thing is to have the tolerance to say, you know, you can have a different point of view.”

Exquisite delight? I must have been looking for a casus belli.


Certainly, in America, you have the right to say whatever you want to say, so long as it does not disturb the peace. But that is not only where the “right” stops, but where a moral obligation begins. What moral obligation? The moral obligation imposed on every citizen in a democracy (where citizens do the ruling) to be as attentive and intelligent — to be as smart — as possible.

(Quite often, this imperative leads to the conclusion that the best exercise of your right to free speech is to remain silent.)

I ask myself if it is necessary to argue this point, to demonstrate logically that such a moral obligation exists. I decide that it is not. Anyone genuinely in need of the argument would probably not be inclined to follow it, and I am abundantly confident that my readers need no more than a gentle reminder — unless of course they have been so demoralized by contemporary discourse that they no longer believe that any moral obligations exist. I have nothing to say to such depraved hopelessness.

Most smart people don’t need a sense of moral obligation to keep their smarts in good shape. The difficulty lies in the conduct of civil discourse. What do you do when other people aren’t so smart? Do you just nod your head and say, “You can have a different point of view?” I hope not. Nor, however, can you simply tell people that they are being stupid. What you have to do is to move as quickly as possible to identify the differences in opinion that make persuasion impossible. If, for example, you believe that women are in any significant way inferior to men, then I cannot expect to converse with you on a very broad range of topics, because not only is my belief to the contrary fundamental to most of the ideas that I entertain but it is also derived from a working assumption that women, and not men, are the measure of humanity; if anything, it is men who are inferior. If I haven’t been more disappointed by the men I have known, it is because I have expected less of most of them. Women have rarely disappointed.

(It is entirely likely that my experience has been shaped by living among the elite at a time when women worked very hard to demonstrate their abilities, and men not so much.)

The moral obligation to be as intelligent as possible, however, has a social dimension that I have just ignored, by rattling on about men and women. I meant to offer an example of the kind of difference that might make civil discourse impossible, but then I went on, rather uncivilly, to mount a preliminary defense of my point of view — arguing the inarguable. We all tend to do this, but that doesn’t make it right. We ought to take great pains to avoid being obnoxious to anyone who might be thinking, “You’re so smart, I’ll never be able to keep up. Leave me alone!” Such defeated resentment is socially toxic. It leads to the desperate assertion that stupidity is okay. Smart people have a moral obligation to avoid creating the impression that other people are stupid.


Except when those other people are embedded in the elite. When they have been to the best schools, lived in relative comfort, and achieved prominent positions. When, for example, they have become the United States Secretary of State. Then, I believe, it is not only acceptable but obligatory to call a spade a spade. To my mind, the right word for John Kerry’s remark is “foolish,” but foolishness is a kind of stupidity. If Mr Kerry is trying to send a message of Democratic Party tolerance and even approval to supporters of the Tea Party  or believers in “intelligent design,” I wish he wouldn’t. Such outreach is not only unseemly but also, I hope, ingenuine. I do wish that President Obama would swiftly demand the Secretary’s resignation.

Gotham Diary:
Déjà vu?
24 March 2014

Monday, March 24th, 2014

It was the strangest thing — but perhaps I’d better get used to it. Reading about Scarlett Johannson’s upcoming movie, Under the Skin, I was unnerved by the familiarity of its story. I had no recollection of the title or the author. I was almost certain that there was no such book in the blue room. The dust jackets/book covers visible at Amazon rang no bells. It’s not the sort of book that I go in for. But the Scottish setting, the hitchhikers, the surgically-altered alien — even the word ‘vodsel’ — I’d been there.

It’s still the strangest thing, because I’ve just read the book — a Kindle edition — and I can’t tell if it was for the first time or the second. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I wasn’t thinking of Scarlett Johannson the first time around — if, indeed, this was the second. But then it turned out that I wasn’t thinking of Scarlett Johansson properly. Midway through the book, I had a look at the trailer for the film. Here I’d pasted Barbara Sugarman’s head (and hair) on Isserley’s deformed body, but that was all wrong: in the movie, Isserley is called Lauren, she’s a brunette, and (no surprise) she’s not deformed. I expect that she’s still an alien, though.

Checking out the author, Michel Faber, I was piqued to read that he has been urged to take UK citizenship, so as to be eligible for the Man Booker Prize. Well-conceived as the story of Under the Skin is, I’d hate to see its sure-footed but generic prose win any awards. (The last big paragraph made me think of romance fiction.) Faber is very good at making suggestion do the work of display, and he manages to mute the nastiness. But, like all the best science fiction, Under the Skin gives new life to stock figures by inserting them in an imaginative hypothetical. The interest lies not in the characters but in their strange predicaments. Their feelings tend to be — awesome.

I’m wondering if I might have read an enthusiastic review of Under the Skin, one that divulged its set-up so fully that it created a false memory. There was a period — roughly when Under the Skin came out, in fact — when I was reading a lot of Ian Rankin, and I took a fancy to anything that promised a Highland fling. I know that I’ve forgotten or only half-remembered dozens of novels, perhaps even a hundred or two. But it’s disturbing not to be sure that I’ve read something before. As I say, I’d probably better get used to it.

In the Business Section of today’s Times — not the Arts Section — there’s a piece by David Streitfelt about Wattpad, a “storytelling app” on which unpaid writers publish serial fiction, some of it very popular.

Wattpad is a leader in this new storytelling environment, with more than two million writers producing 100,000 pieces of material a day for 20 million readers on an intricate international social network.

We’re told that Anna Todd, “a former college student” (meaning what?) has just published Chapter 278 of her ongoing opus, After. Why not. Fifteen years ago, this story might have worked me into a lather about the degradation of everything in the Age of the Internet, but I’ve been around the block a few times since then, and I’m not so excitable. The next new thing usually turns out to be something very old, in this case, pulp fiction. There have always been far more consumers of words than readers of literature. Jane Austen is not going to lose any fans to Wattpad.

Jane Austen has her own problems. She will always have to find new readers to appeal to. So will every great writer. They’ll get a lot of help from readers who cherish their work, but no authority will ever oblige future readers to do the same. At the same time, Wattpad-grade material is probably not going to constitute static interference.


While finishing up The Human Condition, I re-read Albert Hirschmann’s elegant, important study, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. I pulled it down from the shelf partly because it is short (I didn’t want to be lugging a big book) and partly because I wanted to refresh my recollection of his argument, which is that it as at least as rewarding to study history’s intended but unrealized expectations as it is to expatiate on the unintended, realized ones. Samuel Johnson once quipped, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” Hirschmann’s comment is priceless:

In a sense, the triumph of capitalism, like that of many modern tyrants, owes much to the widespread refusal to take it seriously or to believe it capable of great design or achievement, a refusal so evident in Dr Johnson’s remark.

Gotham Diary:
Is this it?
21 March 2014

Friday, March 21st, 2014

On Wednesday, I had a call from the dermatologist’s office. Great news! Tests indicated that both growths, biopsied about two weeks earlier, were benign. I made an appointment to see the dermatologist anyway, at the beginning of next month; my scalp grows worrisome mutant cells like Iowa grows corn. The two most recent nasties had erupted since January.

Yesterday, the dermatologist herself called. “I don’t want to throw you into a panic,” she said, but I could tell that she was uncomfortable. It turned out that not all the tests came back on Wednesday. The one that came in yesterday suggested an unusual but not unheard-of possibility, a kind of lymphoma. Whereupon the doctor threw me into a panic by insisting that I get a second opinion, and from a doctor down at NYU.

Making the appointment with the second doctor presented no difficulties (I’ll see her at the end of next week). I hung up the phone and sat at my desk. A kind of dullness muffled the room.

I wanted to talk to Kathleen, but Kathleen was at a meeting in Washington, and her phone, set to vibrate, lay somewhere in her bag. I knew that she was planning to take a three-o’clock train back to New York, and I could expect that she would call me when she got to Union Station. That would be about ninety minutes from where I sat. I sent her a text, asking her to call me on the cell phone, something I’m trying to get her to do by default.

Kathleen called right on time. Our conversation was brief. I told her my news; I did not tell her how awful the ninety minutes had been. The news was still disturbing, but I was no longer alone in an elevator that had just dropped fifteen floors.


Is this it? I ask, waiting to see the doctor. Am I now going to be told that there’s nothing to be done? It’s a stupid question, but it distracts me from a more wearisome one: what new course of treatments am I in for now? So far, I’ve been very lucky: I’ve been spared treatments like chemotherapy that make you feel awful. When is this luck going to run out? Will it run out gradually or all at once? These questions are always humming quietly in the background — every day. But as long as they’re in the background, they don’t slow me down. It’s when they’re brought up close by something a doctor says that I wilt. I don’t fall apart, or make scenes; I simply go quiet, holding hands with my mortality. It is not at all pleasant.

I cannot believe that I have managed to stay alive for sixty-six years. To put it better: I’m surprised to have survived my youth, which was moderately reckless and which came to an end when I gave up smoking and put on weight that I’ve never managed to lose. But a failure to take better care of myself is not what’s behind my visits to doctors. Take the dermatologist: I see her because my mother failed to protect me from the sun. How could my mother have been so thoughtless? Because nobody knew much about skin cancer back then, for the simple reason that it wasn’t a medicable problem in those days. Either people died before the disease set in, or the disease went undetected until it was hopeless. My autoimmune problems are rooted in what seemed at the time to be a healthy environment — in retrospect, too healthy. A grubbier existence might have given my immune system something real to worry about. As it is, doctors have been doing an excellent job of warding off serious illness and unbearable pain. I don’t count on them to keep this up indefinitely. In grim moments, I feel that I’m being kept alive so that something truly horrible can attack me. Something richly deserved. But I really have no idea what to expect, because the medicine is too new and ever-changing.

Or, my heart could just fail. Doesn’t that happen all the time?


We say that you can get used to anything, but that’s not how it works. You simply do get used to things. To the extent possible, you also make things get used to you. That has been the program for me, anyway — so far. Is this it? Is this the moment beyond which getting used to things is no longer possible? Probably not. Probably, the question will fade once again into the humming background. But the background will have inched a bit closer.

Gotham Diary:
Boy Scout Handbook
20 March 2014

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

To be sure, I blame the cold. Nothing makes staying in bed more appealing than the chance to stay toasty. But even in summer, I find, I like to loiter in bed every now and then, at least once a week. It has to be age. But I don’t take it as a sign of decrepitude. The pleasure is too rich and positive; it feels, really, as if I have simply outgrown the restlessness of youth. Lying perfectly still beneath my blanket in the quiet room becomes nothing less than luxurious. I think of decadent spas, of orgies even — and I’m so much happier to be lying perfectly still. I drift off. When I wake up, I wonder what time it is, but I can’t be bothered to move, so I never know what time it is until I finally do get up. But I never do get up until the sensation of immense luxury has receded.

Environmental factors that kept me in bed this morning included a call from the cleaner, who said that tomorrow morning would be more convenient for her. Delighted, I burrowed in. Also, Kathleen’s pre-dawn departure for Washington. What gets me up most mornings is my conscience: I like to give Kathleen her tea and toast. But not in the dark. I barely woke up to say goodbye. (Kathleen would have gone to Washington last night, but she had an institutionary dinner to attend here in New York. She was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award, the first of many I hope.) Also: Hannah Arendt. My brain is working harder than it has since Torts and Civil Pro. “No other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action.” What does that mean? I think I know, but it would take hours to tell you. It is, as Mary McCarthy said, “both amazing and obvious.”

Sorting through the mail yesterday, I came across this week’s New Yorker, folded among some catalogues, and after Kathleen went to sleep I opened it up. There I read Louis Menand’s review of Evelyn Barish’s book about Paul de Man. I sent up a silent cry of regret: what a magnificent companion to Eichmann in Jerusalem would have been Hannah Arendt’s book on Paul de Man! Because Mary McCarthy was one of de Man’s earliest sponsors in New York, I wondered if she had ever discussed him with Arendt, but if she did, it wasn’t in a letter — I checked the index to Between Friends. Arendt would have cracked the de Man case in two. First, there would have been the man himself, his shady youth, his anti-Semitic essays and his financial peculations, his bigamy, and his re-invention in New York after the War.

Second, and far more important, Arendt would have applied her formidably ethical learning to the matter of “Theory,” the intercontinental school of meditation on literature of which de Man was an exponent, and which began to be discredited, quite irrelevantly, when the sordid details of de Man’s youth were revealed in 1987, three years after his death. I am not by any means sure that Arendt would have disapproved of Theory, once she was through with her analysis of it. But that analysis would be priceless, not least for being informed by her intimate connection to Martin Heidegger, one of de Man’s sources of inspiration. The little that I’ve read of and about “deconstruction” — even the astute Menand is reduced to likening it to “digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water” — seems both obvious and obscure. Arendt might have been the one to fix that.


While I was writing the last couple of paragraphs, just above, I received a troubling phone call from a doctor. Troubling — nothing worse than that. I resumed writing after the call, but when I came to the last sentence, I could think of nothing further to say. I was, simply, too troubled. At lunch, I considered writing about what “troubling” means, as one gets older and such news becomes perceptibly more common from season to season. While I was mulling that over, however, I saw how I could say something very clear about Hannah Arendt, about whom I was, after all, already talking, and I decided to reserve “trouble” for another time.

Why read Hannah Arendt? For the intellectual exercise? Hardly — bracing as that is, and even though that’s precisely how she describes several of the essays in Between Past and Future. I don’t know why anyone else would read Hannah Arendt, but I’m reading her because, ever since Eichmann in Jerusalem late last year, I’ve been convinced that, more than any other writer I know, Arendt is concerned with the determination of importance.

Allow me to propose something: you have just seen the archaic torso of Apollo that Rilke writes about, or some other thing that has had the same effect, flooding you with the conviction that you must change your life. Now you are faced with a very practical problem: how do you change your life? In what direction do you proceed? Because the question is clearly important, possibly the most important question that might be asked — it is implied, I think, that you must change your life for the better — you want your answer to take importance into account.

You might prefer to substitute another term for “important”: “meaningful.” At the moment, I can’t argue against that; I simply feel, after too many decades (one of them the Sixties), that “meaning” is a chimera, if only because it means too many things to different people. “Importance” is much simpler. What do you do in case of fire? Bleeding? How do you avoid fires and wounds? These things are important. I might go so far as to concede the paramount importance of developing a world in which people might live lives that, to each of them, in all the plurality of human life, would be meaningful.

Arendt passionately believed that we must live important lives. This was conceived by her study of the thought of Greece and Rome. But she recognized that the ancient model for the important life was no longer viable; it depended on slavery and it generated instability. Nevertheless, the ancient model was the first to seek the realization of all human possibilities. Is that a definition of “importance’? It might be: the important is whatever conduces to the realization of distinctly human possibilities, where the degree of importance increases with both the number of possibilities that might be realized and the number of people who might be free to realize them. It is clear that no one can realize all of them; it may be that no one can realize more than a few. But it is also clear that “importance” is not a personal matter. We can’t individually determine importance and then pursue it, because we might then all wind up pursuing the same thing. Which would be bad for plumbing. No, the categorical imperative must be rejected and repudiated when considering worldly importance.

That use of “worldly” is something that I’ve learned from Arendt. The world, in her thinking, is the human creation that some people call “society,” others “civilization” — Arendt doesn’t seem to like either of these words, but they convey an idea of what “the world” means to her. It comprises “nature” to the extent that nature conditions human life. Everyone is born into the world, and the world is always being changed by the people who have been born into it. As Arendt also says, everyone is born a beginner: everyone has to learn how to live in the world. (The utterly private life, lived in complete detachment from the company of men, is, for Arendt, definitively unimportant.) Right here, in this relatively brief paragraph, I have captured what is important to everybody, everybody together and everybody singly: living in the world to the fullest extent possible.

In her discussion of important matters, Arendt consults the philosophers, a line of Western writers beginning with Plato and ending (more or less) with Marx. Why philosophers? Because philosophers, whatever their school or system, invariably seek to identify the important things. It is the important stuff, not the schools or the systems, that Arendt culls from her reading of the philosophers. She herself is the arbiter of what’s important, because she herself is conducting the inquiry. You are free to disagree. But I find that disagreements will have to be very well thought out if they are to escape mere petulance. Anyway, right now, I am not interested in disagreeing with Hannah Arendt. I’ll save that for later. Right now, I’m trying to pick up her knack for seizing on what’s important.

Another way of putting it would be that I’m learning how to think like Hannah Arendt — because, frankly, she strikes me as the most comprehensive thinker in the world. (It’s not all strange to me that the most comprehensive thinker in the world would be a woman.) And I’m finding that together, The Human Condition and Between Past and Future comprise a sort of Boy Scout Handbook for thinking about the world. Which I’m still learning to live in.

Gotham Diary:
19 March 2014

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

In the new issue of Bookforum, there’s a photograph of Stefan Zweig, sitting alone on the upper deck of a Fifth Avenue bus, the unmistakable spire of the Sherry-Netherlands Hotel rising in the background. Zweig looks on top of the world — which he was, and therefore wasn’t. Benjamin Moser writes,*

But precisely because he was rich and famous, Zweig was constantly besieged by the less fortunate. If Jewish refugees in America were lucky in one sense, in many other senses, of course, they were not: alive, to be sure, but stateless, impoverished, unemployed and — because they usually didn’t speak English — unemployable. It was only natural that they should look to Zweig as a savior — as natural as it was that Zweig found the pressure they put on him unendurable. … [T]he writer was forever aware that anything he could do was but the tiniest fraction of everything he could not.

Zweig fled to Brazil, where, several years later, in early 1942, he committed suicide.

I wonder what was going through Zweig’s mind when the bus photo was taken. Specifically, I wonder what he was thinking about New York. That it was a bad joke, perhaps? Here was the city’s most famous boulevard — at the bottom of an  Expressionist canyon, with not a tree in sight. It can have seemed no more natural to him — no more naturally civic or urban — than a computer-generated cinematic dystopia does to us.

But even as Zweig is having “the New York experience” — you can do the same today, although you won’t be alone on that upper deck unless it’s raining — I’m thinking, looking at the picture (which has the air of a publicity shot) how bogus it is. How definitely Out-of-Town. How many other great cities, I wonder, operate theme parks in their centers, locations in which the natives never linger, however often they may cross them? I have yet to meet a New Yorker who has gone to Times Square as one might go to Central Park — to be in the place. Times Square is a bizarre spectacle (especially at night, when darkness is defied) through which one passes on the way from one place to another. It is much safer than it used to be, but it is no more interesting. It is still a limbo for souls who have not found a perch in this town. (That many aren’t even looking for one heightens the ghoulishness.) Fifth Avenue is just as strange, and even less pleasant. Fifth Avenue is as gruesome as one of Saul Steinberg’s streetscapes of virago matrons and skull-headed cowboys.

And what, whispers a little voice, about the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Is that part of the theme park, too? An embarrassing question, because the Museum is the same, yes — but different. The difference is that while there aren’t any New Yorkers who think that it’s cool to hang out in Times Square, there are millions who complain that they ought to get to the Museum more often, but don’t, because — well, it’s there; you can go anytime. It was with this sort of thinking in mind that Kathleen recently said, of friends who were moving away from New York, that now we would see them more often.

Ruefully, I must admit that the New York shown in Inside Llewyn Davis is recognizable as the city that I have known all my life. It is not a place that anyone would want to visit, I don’t think; the Coen Brothers have captured how unattractive New York really is, and how unwelcoming. It is the city as seen by someone who has given up on it. Yesterday was perhaps not the right day for me to watch Inside Llewyn Davis for the first time. I was recovering from mild St Patrick’s Day excess, not hung over exactly but touched with the existential malaise that sets in when slick pleasures are withheld. This matched almost perfectly the malaise that I should have experienced had I been in Llewyn Davis’s shoes, and I didn’t need the double dose. Bad timing.

But not too bad. The film has begun to haunt me. I can’t get Carey Mulligan out of my mind — that scene, in Washington Square Park, in which she pours “vitriol” (Llewyn’s word) all over the man she wishes she hadn’t slept with, and you can see that it’s herself that she’s really so unspeakably angry with. And the scene at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago, where F Murray Abraham dispenses a dose of realism that would be astringent in a documentary. In real life, we know, people survive such dismissals; but vulnerable feature-film audiences oughtn’t to be asked to imagine doing so. And yet I can’t stop replaying the scene.


Also haunting me, the following passage from The Human Condition:

The one activity taught by Jesus in word and deed is the activity of goodness, and goodness obviously harbors a tendency to hide from being seen or heard. Christian hostility toward the public realm, the tendency at least of early Christians to lead a life as far removed from the public realm as possible, can also be understood as a self-evident consequence of devotion to good works, independent of all beliefs and expectations. For it is manifest that the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness’ sake. When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness, though it may still be useful as organized charity or an act of solidarity. Therefore: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them.” Goodness can exist only when it is not perceived, not even by its author; whoever sees himself performing a good deed is no longer good, but at best a useful member of society or a dutiful member of a church. Therefore: “Let not they left hand know what thy right hand doeth.”

This is severe, I think, to the point of hysteria. (It appears on page 74 of my text, shortly into Section 10, “The Location of Human Activities”). Perhaps it reflects the limitations of pre-modern psychology, which is always uncomfortable with mixed motives and absolutely ignorant of the complexity of the brain. In its either/or world, it is only wise to aim for doing good without being aware of it, no matter how difficult this unawareness is to achieve. The alternative — the only alternative — is to be a vainglorious do-gooder, parading virtue to the point of hypocritical Tartuffery.

Our understanding must be more nuanced. We acknowledge, for example, that the recognition that one has done a good thing will probably make it easier to do other good things in the future, and that this in itself is a good thing. Aristotle, who had no conception of Christian goodness, praised the good man for his habits. To Christian ears, there is something weasely, wrongfully automated, about habits. Every sacrifice ought to be made from scratch, as it were. I believed this long after my faith (such as it was) lapsed completely. It was only in weary but experienced middle age that I saw that the zeal of eschewing habit was unnecessarily exhausting, and weirdly inhumane.

It’s important, also, to know that the thing that you’re doing is actually a good thing. This is not the simple matter that it used to be, and the inquiry that it fairly demands is incompatible with maintaining a cloud of unknowingness.

I am not sure that I value the distinction between the doer of good deeds (Arendt quite rightly understands that no one can be good) and the useful member of society, between the acts of goodness and acts of organized charity. It seems, in fact, rather vain to mark a distinction, to betray a concern for one’s personal salvation. I am reminded, for the umpteenth time, of the Hebrew school teacher’s dismissal of Hannah Arendt’s announcement of atheism: Who asked you?

*As of this writing, the piece has not yet appeared online.

Gotham Diary:
Baked Brain
18 March 2014

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Taking a quick break from Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers movie that we were all supposed to see last year but didn’t. Why? Because it’s the most depressing movie since Eraserhead, and not nearly as fascinating. I’ve reached the point where Davis looks about ready to fall asleep at the wheel on a highway in Ohio somewhere, and I can’t take it.

I’ve spent the day reading Hannah Arendt on labor. Tremendously interesting, but I’m still digesting it. For the first time in my life, I regret ignoring Karl Marx in school and thereafter: Arendt makes him sound interesting! Even if I am holding on for dear life. Yesterday, after Ray Soleil helped me with a tedious annual chore involving the HVAC filters, we went out to lunch and I was a bit too jolly, happily exploiting St Patrick as a pretext. (Some nice Irish people taught me how to say “Taoiseach.”) We had to go to a second restaurant because the fries at the first one were off. After which I dropped in front of the video screen in the blue room and watched three new DVDs: Captain Phillips, Fifth Estate, and The Dallas Buyers’ Club. Baked my brain, basically.

Llewyn Davis is the sort of person I was afraid of turning into, once upon a time. It scared me so badly that I ran off and joined the law school.


Well, he didn’t fall asleep at the wheel after all. But I was sorry to be stuck watching the movie, and even sorrier that I’d bought the DVD. It was like being locked in a tank from which the air was being sucked out. And I love Oscar Isaac! He is always great, and he is great even here. I hope that playing the feckless Llewyn doesn’t hurt his career.

At several points in her discussion of labor, Hannah Arendt seemed on the point of making interesting observations about housework, but she never did. This may have been a field with  which she was little more acquainted than her male colleagues. Although Arendt is aware that modern technology has made labor a lot less laborious, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that the dangers of the rich life — centering on deadly boredom — might be mitigated by regular, unceasing, but not very arduous housekeeping. Even if it had, she might not have mentioned it. Even today, intelligent women who intend to compete with men for intellectual prestige have every reason not to mention a taste for baking or vacuuming. When she was young, Kathleen made a point of not learning how to touch-type. Much as she rues that now, she can’t imagine having done differently.

But Arendt’s principle, which she draws from Marx, is that labor is the expression of human metabolism; it is what we do to stay alive. This is what distinguishes labor from work, which creates the world of human artifice that houses our meanings as well as our productions. I believe that it is in housekeeping that labor and work become parallel efforts, singing in unison as it were. To argue thus for Arendt, I should have to revisit my thinking about the bourgeois household, which unlike earlier households is not entirely private — not in this country, anyway. And I should have to get a better understanding of precisely what it is that Arendt means by “society.” I’m hoping that help on this point will be forthcoming in her discussion of action, a few chapters ahead.

I’m having a terrible time trying to convince Kathleen that Nebraska is funny!

Gotham Diary:
Three Dreams
17 March 2014

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Last night, Kathleen was in a dismal mood, so finding just the right movie to watch was especially important. I chose wisely, but it took a while to be sure. Kathleen was still dubious fifteen or twenty minutes in: I was laughing, but she wasn’t. When I turned around, all I saw was cocked eyebrow. A little while later, though, I heard a giggle. Then there was squealing. At last, there was gasping. Kathleen was airborne, buoyed by hilarity.

The movie: Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending. Long a favorite of mine, not least because Téa Leoni is very nearly as commanding as Cate Blanchett, and she has to play opposite the filmmaker.

As we were laughing, however, I saw what I was in for: some very bad dreams. Not mine, but Kathleen’s. Dreams are a terrible drag, and I shouldn’t dream of sharing them, but Kathleen hasn’t had them yet, and that allows for a bit of streamlining. Here are three bad dreams that Hollywood Ending is going to give Kathleen. So say I.

1. Kathleen takes the train to Washington to answer questions about a Bitcoin no-action letter at the Securities and Exchange Commission. At the meeting, regulators grill her about her recent visit to Mount Gox (which she finds she cannot recall in detail, except to say that the skiing was upsetting), and inquire about the local jurisdiction of Zulu chieftains. The meeting takes a turn for the worse when it is insisted that comments to the letter be discussed in Putonghua. It is only be after she awakes that Kathleen realizes that “Putonghua” means “Mandarin.”

2. Kathleen is asked to officiate at a wedding. She is happy to learn that the bride is her best friend from fifth grade at Sacred Heart, and that the best men are Eric and Kyle Weyerhauser, former dancing-school partners. But the bridegroom is a platypus, and he insists that the service incorporate verses from the Gnostic gospel of Thekla, a detested nanny. Also, he needs Kathleen to be tattooed. Kathleen is rescued by the Emperor Constantine, who demands tax opinions from all parties. At the ensuing ecumenical counsel, all propositions are presented on beautiful tiles, in Turkish. In her dream, Kathleen can read them, but she realizes that their messages are seditious — even though she has no idea why. She suddenly remembers that she is supposed to be taking an entrance exam at Robert College.

3. Kathleen’s newest client demands that she direct a feature film involving the destruction of civilization as we know it, masterminded by scientists at the California Academy of the Sciences, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The villains have already managed to turn the world upside down, and not just the world of the movie. For the actors and the crew, this isn’t a problem, thanks to Velcro, but for the fish tanks — that is a problem. While Kathleen wrestles with this disaster, her grandson, a hostage of the villains but more or less free to run around at will, pesters Kathleen to talk to a hermit crab who wants to do an ETF based on an index of all the fish in the sea, priced at local markets. This sounds easy enough until the crab insists on being Jewish. “But my new shell,” the crab announces, “is Nicole Kidman. So I’m kosher.” Kathleen awakes in a cold sweat.

Gotham Diary:
Same but Different
14 March 2014

Friday, March 14th, 2014

The first thing I did when I got home was to head for the iTunes store to buy the soundtrack album, and I’m listening to it as I write. (Our modern world!) Instead of suggesting things to say about The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, Alexandre Desplat’s score is simply projecting a series of faces, all lively and mostly smiling, or at least twinkling: Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Almaric, F Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law (playing the same person), Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, even Adrian Brody, whose character is very wicked, and Willem Defoe, wickeder still but outfitted with a prosthetic lower jaw. Harvey Keitel! Tilda Swinton, of course, although she’s not around for very long. I wouldn’t have recognized Léa Seydoux if I hadn’t known she was there — her part is small and distant. The members of the Society of the Crossed Keys: Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Waris Ahluwalia, Fisher Stevens, Wally Wolodarsky. Tony Revolori, a new actor who seems almost manufactured to suit Wes Anderson’s specifications. Last but not least, Jason Schwartzman and the aptly named Owen Wilson: “Monsieur Chuck.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an enormous trifle. It has the look and feel of a massive old-time studio spectacle, Grand Hotel meets Ben Hur. And yet it relies ingenuously upon obvious miniatures, and the story itself is so slight that even to sketch it is to feel foolish. Let’s just say that Monsieur Gustave, the concierge at the Grand Budapest (Ralph Fiennes) spends a lot of time either on the run or in a tight spot. His predicaments are looted from the disasters of the Twentieth Century and the many movies made about them, but we are to take none of them seriously, except as film. The old nightmares are transformed into a dream of pastry — a sacrilege, were it not a success.

As M Gustave, Ralph Fiennes talks like a beautiful fountain on a lovely day: it doesn’t matter what he says, especially when every third word is “darling.” His performance is all the more vivid because the other actors deliver their lines as stock characters. The point is that M Gustave is not an ordinary mortal (although he is certainly mortal), but rather, as his heir tells an inquiring writer, a figure from an age that ended before he even stepped into it. As such, he embodies the very movie in which he appears.

A concierge does not invent possibilities, but he arranges for them to be made available to those he serves. He is in that sense a purchased deity. He is also very much like a filmmaker. Wes Anderson is welcome to attribute the inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel to the writing of Stefan Zweig — and I hope that the acknowledgment will bring readers to Zweig’s rich sensibility — but the movie that Zweig may have inspired Anderson to make was itself inspired by nothing other than “the movies.” Complete with cast and crew of thousands.


If I didn’t say very much — or anything very coherent — about Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future, that’s partly because I was given the impression, somehow, that that book is a continuation of thoughts initially set forth in The Human Condition, a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Chicago in 1957. Also, I felt that I needed to read more in order to understand where to place Arendt’s thinking. What, for example, is her field? Is she a philosopher? A political scientist? The back cover of The Human Condition (Chicago, 1998) labels her “one of the leading social theorists.” I didn’t know that “social theory” was a field — is it? Certainly Arendt’s type of theorizing has little in common with the “Theory” that had taken over academic life by the time of her death in 1975. And yet, what she was doing was new: she was responding to particularly novel problems that faced civilization after the two world wars. One of these, of course, was the sweeping advance in technology. People were capable of new things, from splitting atoms to launching space ships; from refashioning the human body to automating not only labor but also information. Another problem was the thoughtlessness of modern life.

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experience and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness — the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty — seems to me among the the outstanding characteristics of our time.

Hardly had Arendt written her books than they became somewhat unfashionable. She was read, and even admired, but she was not followed. Now that the fashions that displaced her way of thinking have themselves been swept into trivial emptiness; now that the immediate future that she foresaw has passed from the speculative to the concrete; now, moreover, that we no longer have occasion to pause with wonder at the capacity of a woman to think both so deeply and so fruitfully — now, perhaps, we are ready to listen.

I’ve not gotten very far into The Human Condition, but already on page 8 there is something remarkable and something memorable. The remarkable thing is her grasp of the difference in repercussions caused by the two creation stories in Genesis, respectively. Here is Genesis 1:27, to which Jesus refers in Matthew 19:4:

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.

Whereas Paul, in I Corinthians 11, prefers the version given in Genesis 2. Here, “man” is created in Verse 7, but woman is not created until Verses 21-2. What difference does it make? “The difference indicates much more,” writes Arendt, “than a different attitude to the role of woman. For Jesus, faith was closely related to action; for Paul, faith was primarily related to salvation.” Action, Arendt has already stipulated, is what men do to and among each other, and this is indeed Jesus’ overriding concern. What men do, either to the world or to themselves, in order to make themselves more acceptable to God — that is not action even when it leads to action. Proper action manifests what Arendt calls “plurality,” and it is about plurality that she says something memorable:

Plurality is the condition of of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.

We know this from just looking around us, but we have a strong tendency to forget it when we are tempted by ideas of “human nature.” So the first, one might say hygienic, rule of humane discourse is to abandon all talk of humanity (as a substantive) and of man or mankind. (It is pertinent here to remind regular readers that by “people” I invariably mean “men and women” or “women and men.”) The recognition and acceptance of plurality is the first step in any political thought. Our understanding of equality, moreover, must harmonize the “same but different” character of every person alive.

What’s the real attraction of reading Hannah Arendt? Simple: when I read her, I feel that the Enlightenment is not only alive but ongoing.

Gotham Diary:
Chattering and Clattering
13 March 2014

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Fay Weldon’s Kehua! is a smart and jolly book, and I enjoyed almost every page. Especially surprising was author’s ability to pause the fictional action for interruptions in her own voice, “I your Writer,” without damaging the integrity of her creation, which sprang to life every time she returned to it. Held up to the light just so, Kehua! is an object lesson in the psychology of reading novels, circa 2015 CE. Does it really make sense, anymore, to speak of “the willing suspension of disbelief”? In regular asides, Your Writer appraises her characters, frequently telling us that she only just now learned something about one of them, a detail that figured in the previous chapter. Is she indeed making things up as she goes along? It doesn’t matter, because when the characters resume their interactions with the world that she has created, they are as convincing as the subjects of nonfiction journalism, and we completely forget about having been taken backstage. We forget about the second set of characters in Kehua!, a party of ghosts, people who used to inhabit the house where Your Writer lives and works. It would be more reasonable to speak of involuntary amnesia.

Some readers will object to the Writer’s intrusions, preferring to get on with the story of the McLean women. There is Beverley, a septuagenarian, born in New Zealand but long resident in London; her daughter, Alice; Alice’s daughters, Mary and Joan, who have rechristened themselves Cynara and Scarlet, and Cynara’s daughter, teenaged Lola. The action begins with Scarlet’s decision to leave her partner, Louis — they have never actually married — for her lover, Jackson, an ageing movie heartthrob; and for a long time Louis and Jackson are the only men in the story. We are told that Beverley has been widowed three times, and that she had a son, now in Hollywood, but Weldon’s storytelling is so convivially generous that we never miss the unmentioned fathers. When Weldon takes to identifying them, later in the book, a rather gothic pattern emerges, but quite without gothic horror.

Horror has been disarmed from the start, with the introduction of figures from Maori mythology. The tone is set by the kehua of the title. In the glossary at the back, kehua are described as “the wandering spirits of the homeless dead, whose task is to shepherd the living and the dead of the [clan] toward the [soul of the extended family].” But Weldon has a lot of other things to say about kehua. If you squint, you can see them: they look like fruit bats. They “chatter and clatter” whenever they’re aroused, and they’re always aroused by excitement. They give advice, but the advice is often bad advice, because kehua are not very bright. Kehua are, in short, rather clownish — a nuisance, perhaps, but not a dangerous nuisance, unless you heed their warnings to run, run, run. Kehua have followed Beverley to England, an unwonted voyage that gives rise to many droll remarks but that results, not surprisingly, in the kehua going native in Highgate. (English trees are easier to hang from.) Why have they followed her? Because the proper rites and rituals were not observed when her parents met their untimely, gory fates. The gruesome murder-suicide in Beverley’s past is just that: in the past. Once it is disclosed in the present, the kehua will quiet down.

Why not? Why not introduce a troupe of exotic supernaturals from a relatively unknown culture? Our myths could use a bit of competition. (The only vampire in this novel is a movie role, played to death by Jackson.) Forget everything you know about women and witches and occidental afterlives. Let’s go Lévi-Strauss instead. The overt “anthropological” note harmonizes so beautifully with the metafictional incursions and the constant deconstructions of romance.

Will Scarlet actually leave Louis? Weldon makes a joke out of prolonging the uncertainty, all the while piling up the flaky reasons for and against. More than half of the novel “takes place” on a single morning, and when the first part comes to an end (to make way for the story of Beverley’s quietly lurid childhood in New Zealand), Scarlet is merely on her way to the assignation. Fifty pages earlier, Weldon assures us that kehua will follow Beverley and her clan wherever they go, even to Jackson’s “shagpiled” apartment in Soho: “should Scarlet ever get there, and I am beginning to think she will.” [Emphasis supplied.] Weldon is a past-master at keeping us thoroughly entertained even while “nothing happens.”

I do ask myself, however, if I’ll ever reread Kehua! I know that it won’t be entirely up to me. Something will have to trigger the itch — wouldn’t “itch the trigger” make more sense? — to have another look at it. For the moment, I’m amply entertained: I’ve been to a marvelous party. But there’s no hangover. I’ve not been haunted by memorable characters like Kate Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) or Kate Croy (The Wings of the Dove). But the demand for soulfulness might be wrong-headed. Alison Lurie winds up the review that got me to read Kehua! thus:

Kehua! is not only a good story and a lot of fun to read, it is a remarkable account of what it’s like to write a novel by someone who’s been doing this for over fifty years. Of course, Your Writer is not really Fay Weldon, but another metafictional invention, whose house and husband have different names from those of the author. Still, what she says about the process of writing a novel seems authentic, and matches experiences that Your Reviewer, who is perhaps not really Alison Lurie, has had.


After lunch, I read Andrew Solomon’s New Yorker piece about meeting and talking with Peter Lanza, father of the Sandy Hook shooter. The killings at the elementary school are mentioned, of course, but only in passing: Solomon’s focus is the mounting difficulty of Adam Lanza’s brief life — and the corresponding difficulty of living with him. After his parents separated, in 2001, Adam, aged nine, was asked by a psychiatrist how he felt about it. He is said to have answered that “his parents were as irritating to each other as they were to him.”

Assuming Solomon’s story to be comprehensive — assuming that he hasn’t left out some chunk of detail that would lead to a different conclusion — it stands as a demonstration of the ludicrous extent to which today’s Americans are abandoned to their own autonomy. From the moment that then-thirteen year-old Adam refused to accept the diagnosis of Asperger’s, his family had a problem that it could not be expected to handle on its own. We have largely dismantled the institutional resources that used to provide some help, to families if not to patients; they were usually invasive and often inhumane.

(Having been happiest, as a teenager, at boarding school, however, I am seriously open to the idea of institutionalizing all adolescents.)

It is heartbreaking to consider the task that Nancy Lanza — shot by her son four times before he headed to the school — believed that she could perform. Living alone with Adam, she gradually closed ranks around him, saying nothing about his difficulties to her friends and barring Peter from visits, thus denying the boy’s father a chance to form first-hand impressions. Nancy worried that Adam would withdraw completely into himself, but it never occurred to her that this withdrawal might occur in a convulsive form, ending with violent termination. Perhaps a less interested observer might have insisted that the firearms be removed from the house, but we’ll never know that; all we do know is that there was nothing to protect Nancy from herself.

All parenting involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s error seems to have been that she always focussed on the day, in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son. She thought that she could keep the years at bay by making each day as good as possible, but her willingness to indulge his isolation may well have exacerbated the problems it was intended to ameliorate.

By this time, Adam had been seen by enough doctors and therapists to wear a halo of red flags. Routine reviews ought to have been mandated, including placing Adam under observation at regular intervals. It seems the merest common sense to suggest that living alone together in a relatively secluded suburban house cannot have been healthy for either mother or son, especially when the boy refused to go out. Adam’s Internet activity ought to have been monitored, and teased into real-world encounters. Why are bright but asocial young men thrown back on themselves, when it seems obvious that they could be harnessed by research and military institutions?

Why are we satisfied with a culture that delights in lending a helping hand to those already marked for success, while dismissing everyone else as a loser? What are we afraid of?

Not Adam Lanza, it seems.

Gotham Diary:
Pipe Dreams
12 March 2014

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Phew! I’ve just finished reading Andrew O’Hagan’s lengthy account of his participation in the writing of Julian Assange’s autobiography, “Ghosting,” a muddle of the first magnitude. Most of it is a portrait of one very self-defeating narcissist. If O’Hagan weren’t the gifted writer (and thinker) that he is, the performance would be merely unedifying. Without his byline, I should have skipped the piece altogether. I’m not unhappy to have read it, but I’m not sure how much would have been lost had I confined myself to the following paragraph — which in fact I read first and which seduced me into reading the rest:

And here’s the hard bit. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the United Kingdom under Thatcher and Blair, those of us who lived through the Troubles and the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the deregulation of the City, and Iraq, believed that exposing secret deals and covert operations would prove a godsend. When WikiLeaks began this process in 2010, it felt, to me anyhow, but also to many others that this might turn out to be the greatest contribution to democracy since the end of the Cold War. A new kind of openness suddenly looked possible: technology might allow people to watch their watchers, at last, and to inspect the secrets being kept, supposedly in our name, and to expose fraud and exploitation wherever it was encountered in the new media age. It wasn’t a subtle plan but it smacked of the kind of idealism that many of us hadn’t felt for a while in British life, where big moral programmes on the left are thin on the ground. Assange looked like a counter-warrior and a man not made for the deathly compromises of party politics. And he seemed deeply connected to the web’s powers of surveillance and counter-surveillance. What happened, though, is that big government opposition to WikiLeaks’s work – which continues – became confused, not least in Assange’s mind, with the rape accusations against him. It has been a fatal conflation. There’s a distinct lack of clarity in Julian’s approach, a lack that is, I’m afraid, only reinforced by the people he has working with him. Only today, he sent me an email – hearing I was writing this piece – telling me it was illegal for me to speak out without what he called ‘appropriate consultation’ with him. He wrote of his precarious situation and of the FBI investigation into his activities. ‘I have been detained,’ he said, ‘without charge, for 1000 days.’ And there it is, the old conflation, implying that his detention is to do with his work against secret-keepers in America. It is not. He was detained at Ellingham Hall while appealing against a request to extradite him to Sweden to answer questions relating to two rape allegations. A man who conflates such truths loses his moral authority right there: I tried to spell this out to him while writing the book, but he wouldn’t listen, sometimes suggesting I was naive not to consider the rape allegations to have been a ‘honey trap’ set by dark foreign forces, or that the Swedes were merely keen to extradite him to America. Because he has no ability to see through other people’s eyes he can’t see how dishonest this conflation seems even to supporters such as me. It was a trap he built for himself when he refused to go to Sweden and instead went into the embassy of a nation not famous for its respect for freedom of speech. He will always have an answer to these points. But there is no real answer. He made a massive tactical error in not going to Sweden to clear his name.

What stood out when I read this paragraph the second time, in the course of reading the whole piece, was the beginning, in which O’Hagan expresses the optimism felt by himself and his cohort when WikiLeaks disclosed all those cables. I never shared it. My misgivings remained unfocused; there were other things to worry about. But I can thank O’Hagan for my sense of what ought to have happened instead, because his experience of Assange’s feckless sensationalism lead him to it. The release of classified information ought to have been vastly more disciplined and strategic. The material ought to have been organized, redacted, and presented in a coherent manner, not tossed like so many leftovers as scraps to a pack of hounds. Instead, it was largely compromised by the unseemliness of Assange’s Swedish problem, a brace of rape allegations that, indeed, he ought to have faced directly, for the sake of his own mission, at whatever personal cost.

What I fear young people miss — and I include O’Hagan among them, his age (46) notwithstanding — and miss especially when they focus on new ways of doing things, is that old power structures persist, whether or not they’re held in high regard by intelligent digerati. Parliaments and Congresses remain powerful, but so do swarms of smaller power centers: sheriffs, school boards, town councils, district attorneys, and regulators of all stripes, corrupt and otherwise.  One side effect of democracy seems to be a profusion of public elective and appointed offices at every geopolitical level. To the extent that things work at all, they do so with the consent of people of power. Many of them can be voted out of office, but it’s depressing how often they’re replaced by others just like them. It’s as though political power were an athletic skill, nurtured in apt youngsters with the skills, say, of Chris Christie. People who don’t play the game don’t get into office, because they never get the chance to run.

This has to be changed, but it cannot be changed by being overlooked and ignored. That’s what the Julian Assanges do. They believe that outmoded structures will whither away for lack of their attention. On the contrary: neglected power structures grow entrenched. They may become unresponsive, but people of power continue to seek the benefits of holding office, however empty and pointless the office might be. The chasm between public will and political action deepens, to be filled with dead bodies after insurrections or invasions. Such shocks are rarely productive, and only young people — young people who have grown up far from bloodshed — can believe in their efficacy.

I’m deeply troubled by a dystopian vision that recently occurred to me. Reading about income inequality, and the pile-up of colossal fortunes, together with the lack of interest in public life that young people display — surely they must be forgiven for seeing private action as more effective — I dread a particularly dark resolution of our political impasses. What is to stop men and women whose power flows from not from political office but from vast private riches, riches ample enough to pay for private “security forces,” riches generated by the production of goods valued by society (such as medicine, for example) — what is to stop such people from holding democracy, and indeed all other forms of regular government, hostage? Will it not seem a small price to pay, to sacrifice dysfunctional political power structures to the promise of general welfare?

We’ve made a terrible hash of democratic freedoms, and lost our way in the pursuit of chimerical liberties. But we will not be better off without them.

Gotham Diary:
Joy Unbounded
11 March 2014

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

When I went out to lunch, I did so without wrapping a muffler around my neck. No gloves! In the taxi, I lowered the window, and let the fresh air rush in as we glided down the FDR Drive. I had the driver pull over on 53rd Street midway between First and Second, because the traffic was backed up a bit by the light and I wouldn’t mind walking. I didn’t mind walking! It was lovely to be outdoors! Ditto coming home!

What did I do when I got home? I went straight out onto the balcony! I tidied up a bit — nothing serious; spring isn’t here yet. I beat the dust out of some pillows, and swept a bit of dirt that had fallen out of overturned pots. I saw that the ivy by the wall was doing fine, and that the ivy in the planter by the railing would probably start putting out new leaves. Over the in the far corner, I spotted a pot full of dessicated stalks and thought, “Papyrus!” Time to order papyrus from White Flower Farm! Which I thereupon did. The plants will be sent at the appropriate time — I don’t have to give the matter another thought.

I even sat outside for a little while. That was probably rash; I came in the moment I felt chilled, but, more than an hour later, I still feel chilled. I’ll be fine, though: the possibility of spring will see me through. I didn’t realize, until today, that I had really given up on spring. Which made today a lovely surprise.


As if spring weren’t enough, I’m unsettled by a movie that I watched yesterday afternoon, after I’d done what I had to do for the day. I’d been looking forward to it, but worrying about it, too, as is always the case when you get your hands on the DVD of an old movie that has languished in obscurity for decades, and only just recently been released for easy purchase. The movie was Roberto Rosselini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954), which I prefer to call by its Italian title, even though almost all the dialogue is in English. “Journey to Italy” sounds plain stupid. (“Italian Sojourn” would have been acceptable.) The movie is all about what happens to a married couple in Italy — in and around Naples, to be precise. This couple has been married for eight years, but the trip is their first time “really alone together.” This is to say that being in Italy forces them to see themselves and one another for what they are.

The actors playing the couple are Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, and if they’re even better than you expect them to be, it’s partly because they’re in a foreign movie — a movie shot without regard for Hollywood (or even Shepperton) conventions. One of the first great things about the film, in fact, is that the speaking of English sounds so foreign. Although the surface of Viaggio in Italia is rough and sometimes even crude, it displays the unmistakable structural elegance of a great baroque church. Rarely has a movie been so vividly “shot on location,” but never has a location been more integral to a movie.

We meet Alex and Catherine as they are nearing Naples in their car. They have driven down from London, and it’s clear that they haven’t been having a good time. Something has made them feel like strangers, and they don’t like what they see. It doesn’t take very long for their hostility — or at least their impatience — to become overt. The bald directness of their remarks is somewhat shocking, not because of what they say but because they’re so cool about it. They seem determined to deal with the newly-discovered unpleasantness between them as if they were still back in England, forging ahead dispassionately. But of course this is impossible in Italy, where ubiquitous invitations either to enjoy life or to remember how short it is only intensify their discomfort. Once actual pain has been acknowledged, the relation breaks down quickly. But the marital climax is swamped by another, richly cinematic one: Alex and Catherine must immediately, although they are hardly in the mood, put in a social appearance that they can’t wriggle out of. This is not a matter of attending a dinner party, either; rather, they are obliged to accompany their host to the ruins of Pompeii, where workers are unearthing plaster casts made in the cavities left by the long-decomposed bodies of a man and a woman. This is so much more than a mere metaphor for the love that has died between Alex and Catherine that the living husband and wife are nearly as crushed as the ancient victims of Vesuvius. In what I was sure would be the final scene, they stagger away, seemingly yards apart, across the stone pavement in front of a majestic arcade, fated to stumble off into insignificance.

I would bet that Rosselini wanted to end the film there, and that the producers wouldn’t hear of it. Alex and Catherine get back into their car, and soon resume bickering, but now Catherine seems to desire a reconciliation. When they are stalled by a grand religious procession, and are very nearly swept apart by the crowds, Catherine gets her wish, and the couple end up in a clinch. I found all of this very unconvincing, but it did no real harm; the departure from Pompeii, like the eviction from Eden, couldn’t be gainsaid. It was a moment of shattering cinematic truth, and I am still shaking.

Bergman and Sanders are transformed by the movie; or perhaps it would be better to say that their professional, actorly masks are pulled away, leaving them with little more than the muscle memory required to walk in and out of a scene. Alex is every inch the man to, as George Sanders would, claiming to be bored, kill himself, and Bergman’s search for salvific meaning is reduced to a tic. The whole thing would be unwatchably embarrassing with lesser talents; Sanders and Bergman make the experience just bearable. That is, they make it bearable enough to appreciate the grandeur of Rosselini’s filmmaking.

Apart from and despite the forgettable surplusage of the “happy” ending, Viaggio in Italia is the starkest of masterpieces.

Gotham Diary:
Kant’s Thief
10 March 2014

Monday, March 10th, 2014

It’s no wonder that I loitered away the morning beneath the counterpane. Skies were cloudy, the barometer low and falling. I was equally exhausted by reading done over the weekend, in two books that couldn’t have been more different on the surface, yet whose roots palpably intertwined in the soil of a rich, womanly humanism. The first was the Hannah Arendt book that I’ve written about already, Between Past and Future, and the second was a volume that I’ve mentioned, too, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Having closed Arendt’s book after breakfast on Sunday and then written a doubtless bewildering letter about it to a friend, I sat down with the novel, intending to read for an hour, or sixty pages, whichever came first. I ended up doing nothing else for the rest of the day.

What do I mean by “womanly humanism”? An anti-heroic cast of mind, unimpressed by pointless bravery. Take the following, from Arendt’s final essay, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man”:

The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, might well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man — the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropomorphic considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.

A habit of regarding humanity as an element in the landscape, not distinct from the rest of nature but in fact inconceivable without it.

Francie knew that autumn had come. Let the wind blow warm, let the days be heat hazy; nevertheless autumn had comed to Brooklyn. Francie knew that this was so because now, as soon as night came and the street lights went on, the hot-chestnut man set up his little stand on the corner. On the rack above the charcoal fire, chestnuts roasted in a covered pan.The man held unroasted ones in his hand and made little crosses on them with blunt knife before he put them in the pan.

Yes, autumn had surely come when the hot-chestnut man appeared — no matter what the weather said to the contrary.

As to the difference between the two books: there are nearly thirty Post-it flags in Arendt, and only three in Smith.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is, above all, an odd book. The only reader unlikely to find it odd is the beginner, someone who hasn’t read very much before and who is probably a teenager. Such a reader can’t yet know that novels tend to be either much more shapely or much less thoughtful. “Literary” or “mass-market.” Almost all novels are more focused and restricted in register. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is hardly artless, but its anecdotal construction, stitching together episodes of widely-varying length and style, indicates a lack of interest in discrimination that is sometimes no less awkward than a glimpse of the hem of a slip. We might more comfortably read it as a memoir were it not for the modulated, sometimes high-flying prosody and the slipperiness of the speech patterns. Somewhere in the middle of the book, a sympathetic teacher warns the heroine, Francie Nolan, that she must tell what really happened, reserving what might have happened for writing down. Smith seems to be alternate between the two.

I have a hard time reading about hunger, especially the hunger of children. It is an injustice, like torture, that swamps my readerly tranquility. The Nolans, working-class German-Irish living in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, at the beginning of the last century, spend what little money they have on clothes and rent, and freeze in their flat during the cold months while bobbing just above starvation. Pride makes reliance on charity impossible. The father, although a dear man, is fecklessness personified, and his death is both a deep loss and a liberation. The widow lands in comfort at the end, but not before a period of hair-raising reliance on her daughter, who is not only clever but able to pass herself off as old enough for work in an office. Characteristically, I read the last chapter early on, so I knew that Francie would (phew!) go off to college, but this only heightened the suspense of approaching that outcome. The finale of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is nothing less than the dénouement of five or six possible novels.

The tree that grows in Francie’s yard, an ailanthus that springs back after having been chopped down, is as much weed as tree. Despite its delicate canopy, it is not made for landscapes. It may not have much to do with the stories that Betty Smith set out to tell, but it is the perfect symbol of her manner of telling them.


David Carr, exulting with faux guilt in the glories of “TV’s new golden age,” reports that the profusion of dramatic series offered by cable networks is leaving him little time to read.

My once beloved magazines sit in a forlorn pile, patiently waiting for their turn in front of my eyes. Television now meets many of the needs that pile previously satisfied. I have yet to read the big heave on Amazon in The New Yorker, or the feature on the pathology of contemporary fraternities in the March issue of The Atlantic, and while I have an unhealthy love of street food, I haven’t cracked the spine on Lucky Peach’s survey of the same. Ditto for what looks like an amazing first-person account in Mother Jones from the young Americans who were kidnapped in Iran in 2009. I am a huge fan of the resurgent trade magazines like Adweek and The Hollywood Reporter, but watching the products they describe usually wins out over reading about them.

And yet he continues to write. He reminds me a little of Kant’s thief, a figure whom Hannah Arendt is fond of mentioning.

The thief, for instance, is actually contradicting himself, for he cannot wish the principle of his action, stealing other people’s property, should become a general law; such a law would immediately deprive him of his own acquisition.

Quite aside from the tendency of non-reading writers’ pens to dribble into cant.

Gotham Diary:
The World As It Is
7 March 2014

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Never have I read anything quite like Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Crisis in Education.” True to form, Arendt writes a piece far more compelling than her title portends. By the time she’s done, not only has everything familiar about “education” been upended, but a clear and workable “solution” has been proposed. And yet, although Arendt writes in fluent English, her points of reference derive from foreign conventions, presumably German ones, giving her performance something of the strangeness of a handball game played on a tennis court.

For example, I want to quote a passage that, while perfectly sensible as to content, struck, for me, an alien note: it is not customary in the United States now, and I don’t believe that it was any more so when Arendt was writing, to speak of family life as she does, at least in connection with education.

Because the child must be protected against the world. his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members daily return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitutes a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good not only for the life of children but for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed. In the public world, common to all, persons count, and so does work, that is, the work of our hands that each of us contributes to our common world; but life qua life does not matter there. The world cannot be regardful of it, and it has to be hidden and protected from the world.

Arendt ignores the liberal precept that respects privacy by refusing to discuss it. “Liberal” privacy is simply whatever happens behind closed doors; so long as no harm is done, private matters are of no public concern. We should not be surprised that this less-than-robust standard has been skeletonized by security agencies preoccupied with the harm that might be done behind closed doors, and Arendt is not content with such lassitude. She insists that there are things that must take place, because they can only take place, within the family. The personhood upon which civilization rests, she claims, can only take shape behind “these four walls.”

This idea of the family as a secure bastion of privacy is fundamental to Arendt’s expectations of education, which takes place in the prolonged transitional stage between infancy and adulthood. At the root of Arendt’s thinking about education is the concept of natality. I have never come across this idea anywhere else, and I cannot tell how much of it is all Arendt’s own. Natality describes civilization as under perpetual invasion by newborns. Civilization must be protected from the ignorance of these newborns, whose imagination in turn must be protected from civilization. “Education” is nothing more nor less than the reconciliation of civilization and newborns. If successful, education informs newborns about civilization in ways that allow them to adapt it to unforeseen circumstances. Ideally, education teaches children how to help a civilization to grow.

For this to happen, it is essential to have teachers who embody the authority of the civilization, who say, “I will teach you about the world in which you are about to take your place.” This means taking responsibility for the world as it is, “although [teachers] themselves did not make it, and even though they may, secretly or openly, wish it were other than it is.”

Anyone who refuses to assume joint responsibility for the world should not have children and must not be allowed to take part in educating them.

This startling outburst is clearly aimed at the countercultural drift that was taking hold of American education when Arendt was writing. It is a breathtakingly simple rule, and when I use it to look back on teachers good and bad in my own experience, it is obvious that the best ones were the most emphatic about taking responsibility for the world, even as the foundations of that world shifted beneath their feet. Such teachers were rare. By the end of the Sixties, American adults generally were prone to a self-pitying irresponsibility that Arendt clearly despises:

“In this world even we are not very securely at home; how to move about in it, what to know, what skills to master, are mysteries to us too. You must try to make out as best you can; in any case you are not entitled to call us to account. We are innocent, we wash our hands of you.”

It was a bleak time. The only common alternative to this lament was an unthinking, fundamentalist denial that the world had changed at all. Taking responsibility for the world as it is means understanding that the world is ever-changing. No one can ever expect to be certain about skills and careers. Nor is the world as it is simply the world of today. In order to grasp changes that are in process, the world as it was yesterday must be understood, too. If you are going to help a civilization to grow (or at any rate to keep fresh), you must understand how it has grown.

Arendt is very clear that education and learning are two different things, separated pretty much at the line between high school and college. (It is axiomatic for her that adults cannot be [re-]educated.) Pointing out that she is not herself an educator, she does not concern herself with educational curricula. I am confident that she would have best approved of a high-school program devoted to languages, living and classic, and to the history of science and politics, and that she would have been happiest with a perspective from which languages and histories were seen as two faces of the same quantity. Education prepares some people for lives of learning, but it must prepare everyone to function in civilization.

Since Arendt wrote “The Crisis in Education,” the world has been swept by a tide of technological change that is far from spent. It has, if nothing else, provided a powerful distraction from the problems that beset mid-century America; it has also begun to yield a crop of adults who have not been infantilized by an ignorance of new technology. Many of them are engaged in developing possibilities for a better world. I pray that they will not take long to recognize the importance of taking responsibility for the world as it is.

Gotham Diary:
Tee Many Martoonies
6 March 2014

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

A cousin from Maine wrote the other day to say that she would be in town this weekend. I asked her to come to dinner on Friday night. When she accepted, she asked if she could bring her sister and her daughter, both of whom live here. Of course, I said. Then I wondered what on earth I would make for dinner.

I haven’t had anyone to dinner in months, and there haven’t been more than four people at the table in a very long time. Between my post/pre Remicade sluggishness and Kathleen’s crazy-busy working life, we’ve been ordering in a lot. For variety’s sake, I’ve made simple dinners once or twice a week. It seems that I am never in the mood to cook. So now what was I going to do?

I had lunch with Ray Soleil, that’s what I did. Gradually, a plan of campaign took shape. For starters, we’ll have ravioli from Agata & Valentina, in a sauce from the same place. Then, a lobster soufflé. This might sound daunting to some, but it’s a dish that I’m very comfortable with. I’ve already parboiled the lobster (and set it out on the balcony, where, strangely, things don’t freeze). I’ll shuck some corn tomorrow, sauté it with butter and oregano, and then toss in the lobster meat to finish the cooking. The rule of soufflés is that you can put three-quarters of a pound of anything into the basic veloûté, and I may just add an extra egg white. I’m taking full advantage of the fact that I’ll be the only gent at the table. Also, I’m bearing in mind that it’s a Friday in Lent, a consideration for Kathleen.

I’ll whip up some hollandaise for the soufflé, and serve it with a salad of asparagus, raspberries, and heirloom tomato. The raspberries and the tomato are pickling in sweet vinegar as I write. For dessert: fresh pineapple and little chocolate eclairs. (There will be almond cookies for Kathleen, who gives up chocolate for Lent.)

I also picked some frozen hors d’oeuvre. There’s plenty of champagne, which to my mind lobster always call for.

To be on the safe side, I set up the boombox DVD player in the kitchen. A boatload of movies arrived yesterday, including Celeste and Jesse Forever, and I slipped that into the boombox. I haven’t seen it since it was showing in the theatres, which I guess is a while ago. I love it when the two friends talk in their dry German accents; I wish I’d known somebody to do that sort of thing with when I was young. But I see the downside: Jesse and Celeste are too busy being knowing to understand much of anything properly. That’s what the movie is about.

Another thing that I like about Celeste and Jesse Forever is that it reminds me of the days when I wished that my life were interesting enough to inspire a feature film. Happily, I put away this childish longing decades ago — but I find that it has been resurrected by Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. Although it was made only a year or so ago, however, Hannah Arendt is set in the Sixties, when people still thought things through with a passion. (They smoked then, too. I’ve begun to wonder if nicotine had any measurable impact upon intellectual life for the fifty-odd years during which intelligent people smoked as much as they drank, and a lot more than they ate.) Today, Eichmann in Jerusalem is no longer seriously controversial. Is anything controversial anymore? In one sense, we’re too polarized for controversy — we tune out adverse views. In a deeper sense, we conduct discourse in such different modes that what stands for intelligent conversation between these two people over here sounds like incoherent yakking to those two over there.


Another movie that showed up yesterday was Beat the Devil. Why had this been on my mind? I hadn’t thought about it in years — since the early Eighties, in fact, when then-new VHS tapes provided an unprecedented medium for personal film libraries, and all sorts of “forgotten” titles were “discovered.” Beat the Devil had a lot going for it: Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, Truman Capote. How could a movie written by Huston and Capote, directed by Huston, and starring Bogart fail?

But fail it does — as indeed I recalled. It’s an interesting failure, however, a movie made up entirely of interesting scenes. They simply fail to cohere, fail to tell a single story. The cast falls apart as well. It might have been expected that neither Huston nor Capote would write really good parts for women — meaning, good parts for the women they had to work with. But even the four fraudsters — Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Ivor Barnard, and Marco Tulli — dfail to constitute a real quartet. Indeed, Peter Lorre seems to have only one line: “I want to be in another picture!”

The heart of the problem, however, is Bogart himself. He, or his character, doesn’t give a damn about anything or anyone, beyond getting through the day in reasonable fighting trim. The two women who dangle themselves in front him, Gina Lollabrigida and Jennifer Jones, fail to make his temperature rise by so much as one degree. Where did anyone get the idea that Bogart could play comedy? The most he can manage is breezy insouciance.

It seems that John Huston wanted to spoof The Maltese Falcon. Why, I can’t imagine, but Beat the Devil could have used a falcon, or anything properly tangible —visible — to fight over. Subterranean lodes of uranium in distant Kenya don’t play well on film. It also seems that Huston, Capote et al wanted to have a gay old time on the Amalfi Coast. The Wikipedia entry for the film states that the script was written “on a day-to-day basis.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Roman Polanski has claimed the same to be true of Chinatown. But the night-to-night revelry may have clouded the collegial judgment. Another interesting facet of the disaster is that Beat the Devil often seems on the point of developing into an Ealing comedy, only and invariably to poke off in the direction of a Western.

I must see the movie again before saying anything much about Jennifer Jones. At times, she seems very capable, very good, even, but then you wonder: is she capable of being good in this particular picture? I don’t think so: she turns in a performance that is too “professional” for what is really a very eccentric movie. Her character is forever spouting preferable but fictional alternatives to the reality at hand. These little speeches are delivered with brave conviction. Perhaps Jones was trying to tell us something. As for Gina Lollabrigida, oh dear — she had a reputation for hotness so Venusian that it is still surprising to see her with her clothes on. It was as though “Lollabrigida” were the Italian for “D cup.” I’m not kidding! Some members of the audience must have been disappointed to see her play a nicely-dressed Italian lady with a head for dollars and sense.

Also, although I can’t speak from experience, I believe that it is impossible to row away from a sinking ship so fast that it slips over the horizon before it disappears under the water. I can hear the two Americans cackling, late one night in the bar. “And then we’ll have the Nyanga sail back into port. Won’t that be something!” Well, it’s something, all right. But it’s not good film.

Gotham Diary:
You don’t know what trouble IS!
5 March 2014

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Pretty soon, Roz Chast will have been publishing funny drawings in The New Yorker for forty years. I remember liking her right away. Kathleen didn’t, at first, but by the time “Other Hamptons” appeared (“Tubhampton,” “Fanhampton,” and, one that we still have occasion to use whenever we gaze down from our balcony and spot a young person stretched out on a towel, “Roofhampton”), we were united in giggling admiration. Roz Chast is almost always very funny, and the fun is weirdly amplified by its appearing in The New Yorker, where, at first, her scribbled style seemed deeply transgressive. Now that the magazine has developed a few other rough edges, not to mention a flock of other scribbling artists (Danny Shanahan comes to mind), and now that she has been appearing in The New Yorker since before a lot of readers were old enough to enjoy it (or even born), she might not stand out in such sharp contrast. Then again, she might, for her drawings have always been acts of gleeful misbehavior.

Chast’s graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something Pleasant?”, appearing in the current issue of the magazine, is a protracted exercise in what used to be called “being fresh.” The subject is the decline and death of her parents. This is a topic for which Chast’s graphic style and campy sarcasm are wholly unsuited, and the result could not be more delightful. Noting that her parents were “a tight little unit,” she has her mother say, “‘Codependent’? Of course we’re codependent!” To which her father adds, “Thank GOD!!!” Later, Chast shares her impatience with the leisurely pace of her mother’s subsidence. Finding her mother, neat and cheerful, at lunch with her Jamaican nurse, Chast complains, “I knew her retreat from the abyss should have filled me with joy, or at least relief. However, what I felt when I saw her was closer to: ‘Where, in the five Stages of Death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?” There is no direct evidence in these pages of the five stages of grief — except, of course, for the last one.

That Chast’s artistry is deeply verbal is clear from these quotations, which require no description of the accompanying artwork to make sense. Indeed, the artwork seems to me to be an extension of the verbiage. When Chast draws herself in a state of trembling jealousy — her mother gets on better with the nurse than she does with her daughter — she gives us something close to a pictograph, illustrating not so much a woman being jealous as jealousy itself. Her drawings are dashed off, like Chinese running script, and her rare attempts at prettiness are always heavily ironic. Certainly, Chast commands the graphic skill to make her primitive-looking figures funny — goofy, silly, pompous, idiotic, and every shade of brain- from -dead to -storm — but it is her language that bites. She uses text to display a persona of utterly disrespectful exasperation, and she offers her drawing as the justifying explanation. If the world looked like this to you, you’d be screaming, too.

And that’s the key: the most ridiculous figure in Chast’s work is her personal stand-in. She presents herself as either unremittingly incompetent or dangerously unstable, and here, too, her slapdash manner of drawing slyly tempts you to agree. In “Can’t We Talk About Something Pleasant?”, Chast faces a series of hurdles. She clears each of them, but this is not shown; what’s shown, lovingly, are the hurdles. She attempts to tease out her parents’ thoughts about funerals and burials; she tries to convince them to move into an assisted-living facility (called the PLACE); she keeps her mother stocked with Depends; and she gives herself oy for effort. Her parents die — but not in the frame. All we see is the kvetching. What it adds up to is a memorial-by-omission that is both poignant and heartwarming. Like a grand drag queen, Roz Chast draws attention to the unspeakable by leaving it unspoken, and gesturing around it. Where drag queens meditate on the mystery of gender, Chast contemplates the conundrum of growing up normal and Jewish in Brooklyn. Equally muddlesome! The comparison has another point of interest: a drag queen is a kind of stand-up comic. Chast is not a performer in this sense at all. She is a writer and an illustrator. The humor is in the ink.

“Between their one-bad-thing-after-another lives,” she writes of her parents, “and the Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, in which they both lost family — it was amazing that they weren’t crazier than they were.” Even more amazing is Roz Chast’s wonderful long run at The New Yorker. May it continue for decades to come!

Gotham Diary:
Monty Python at home
4 March 2014

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Even a day later, we were so traumatized by Kim Novak that we were still talking about “work.”

Kathleen and I know nothing about cosmetic surgery — nothing — except, of course, what we can see with our own eyes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We have drawn two inferences from this experience. First, that surgeons have gotten better at what they do (especially when this means that they don’t); second, that some people respond better to cosmetic procedures than other people do.

“Take Steve Martin,” I said last night, as we were rehashing the subject. Kathleen was getting ready for bed, slipping in and out of her bathroom. “Steve Martin looks better than ever.” It’s true. Mr Martin is really quite distinctly more classically handsome now than he was thirty years ago — a fact brought home with force by a recent re-viewing of an old Carol Burnett show. Over time, his features have grown more regular, his face more lean and fit. Perhaps he has no one to thank but Mother Nature. Assuming that this is not the case, we may conclude that the actor has benefited from a course of small, effective operations.

“What about Clint Eastwood?” Kathleen asked. “Do you think that he has had work?”

No, I did not. I didn’t think, that is. There’s no need, when you’re rehashing. Clint Eastwood is a member of my Pretty Boy Trinity. The others are Nick Nolte and Harrison Ford. When you look at photos of these actors taken in their twenties, before they became famous, they’re disturbingly baby-faced, almost queasily beautiful. It was only after time (Mother Nature) was allowed to rough them up a bit that their faces suited their otherwise manly personas. Now, of course, they are obviously reveling in being crusty old patriarchs.

“What about Paul Newman? He was really cute when he was young.”

“That’s true,” I replied. “But Paul Newman always had the eyes of a predator.”

What I meant by this, I think, was that Paul Newman, from the start, looked as though he had been transfigured by an encounter with the transcendent — in the form of a cosmic joke. He had only one way of sharing this joke, and that was to look at you with his still, dancing eyes. “Predator” wasn’t the right word, but perhaps it came to me because I was thinking of the woman with the ice cream in her purse. Have you ever heard the story about the woman who was so flustered by the sight of Paul Newman in person while waiting for an ice cream cone that when she paid and took her change, she couldn’t find the cone? Until the actor very gently told her that she had put it in her handbag.

What an exalted topic to be writing about! But that’s the glorious freedom of blogging, and I’m lucky that Kathleen is second to none in her belief that, if I’m writing about something, then it must be worth writing about.

At the same time, she clearly thinks that I’m a complete idiot, because she said, “What do you mean, ‘Paul Newman has the eyes of a creditor’?”


We laughed for a moment about that. I can’t believe that Kathleen thinks I say these things. “Well, it did sound a little odd,” she said. But what she never does say is, “I must have misheard you — could you repeat that?” She assumes that I have said something absurd.

“Paul Newman would have laughed at ‘creditor’,” I ventured, “given that his father ran a hardware store.” Don’t ask me why I thought any such thing. Standards are never very high in connubial rehashings.

Kathleen was half in, half out of her bathroom. “What do you mean, ‘Paul Newman’s father ran Harvard’?” She sounded alarmed. She might not have any idea what the eyes of a creditor would look like, but she knew a thing or two about Harvard.

Who needs work?