Archive for April, 2014

Gotham Diary:
No More Sports Talk
30 April 2014

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

At first, I was very angry with Maureen Dowd — and I’ll come back to her. But, thinking it over, I realized that, once again, I was disappointed by Barack Obama, and, as usual, disappointed for reasons largely the opposite of Dowd’s.

I very largely approve of what the President is doing. But I do wish that he would find a better way of going about it. His “how” is all wrong.

What I am learning from the Obama Administrations (thanks to the thinking of certain German émigrée who died in New York in 1975) is the profound difference between politics and government, and the problem that this differences poses for any successful politician — a leader. As a politician, Obama was a natural at inspiring hope in his listeners — hope for a better America. As chief executive, however, he discovered that the only way to make America better is to abandon superpower pretensions in favor of a strong major-power position. Such a position would require clearly-defined interests and policies, and a thorough jettisoning of hot air abstractions about democracy and freedom. The President seems to be working out the details of this position. But he is no longer acting politically: he makes little or no effort to persuade Americans that the new position is better than the old one. It is almost as though he were forced to choose between governing and leading, and made the responsible choice in favor of governing.

Is that the case? Must one choose?

Or is it rather that, in trying to lead Washington, he has neglected the general population? When Maureen Dowd complains that “we’re speeched out,” what she means, whether she knows it or not, is that only the pundits are following the President’s speeches. Only the educated people who still care are aware of what the President has to say. His orations are not pitched to the general public.

Not only that. He is not working to convince Americans that the worldview of columnists such as Maureen Dowd is wrong in many ways. For example, on leadership itself:

It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world.

What is this “command” thing? Leadership is not command, or, if it is, it is no more than a command of the situation on the ground, in other words a realistic grasp of the limits of one’s resources. I detect in Dowd’s gibe a call for action, action against Putin and the pro-Russian Ukrainians. Action in the South China Sea. Action in Syria. I am holding my breath until these crises change complexion in a way that either makes action unnecessary or makes the nature of the required action, including the likelihood of its effectiveness, crystal clear. Nothing the President himself can do will bring about that clarity. He must wait on events, and he must convince us that he is right to do so. That’s leadership.

He himself must understand that references to spectator sports (or to games of any kind) are terribly wrong-headed in government. He must not resort, as he seems to have done in Manila, to deploying metaphors drawn from baseball to describe his projects. The hold of sport on American “thinking” has reduced too many smart Americans (such as Maureen Dowd) to a moral depravity, in which “winning” is equated with virtue. Sometimes, the only way not to lose is not to play. There needs to be much more room in our political discourse for sport-free talk. Comparisons to games are not-thinking.

Most of all, the President needs to tend the fire of hope that he kindled in his first campaign. It may be that he needs to rekindle it. Right now would be a good time: I can think of no better to draw the young voters who tend to sit out midterm elections to show up and be counted in November.


What’s worst about Dowd’s catcall is its faith in short-term effects. This is, of course, an adjunct of the game theory that has effectively licensed the importation into high-level discourse of vernacular sports metaphors. The problem with game theory is that it does not allow for the players to change over time, from person to person (from parent to child), to make moves that might (or might not) guide successive players to make moves that are not at present possible or even thinkable. Reversing course on the depredation of the terrestrial environment is the most urgent example of a game that cannot be played to the end within a generation, much less an Administration. The final moves in this clean-up cannot be imagined today — which is why so many commentators indulge in despair, for catastrophe is very easy to imagine. Thinking ahead means most of all not forcing the game into a premature conclusion.

An American president should never say, as you did to the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, about presidents through history: “We’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

Mr. President, I am just trying to get my paragraph right. You need to think bigger.

This is almost stupid. Or depraved. By depravity, I mean the conviction that one’s course of action is the correct one, even the virtuous one, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. My favorite example of everyday depravity is the response of the ship’s bursar to the capsizing of the SS Poseidon: even though approaching the bow means walking downward, away from the water’s surface, the bursar has been instructed to lead passengers to the bow in an emergency, and, perhaps out of shock, he cannot see that the emergency at hand is radically different from the ones envisioned by his training.

It is in this sense that, I conclude, it is depraved of an educated man or woman to spend any time at all watching commercial television — refusing to recognize that it as bad for the brain as smoking is for the lungs. Smokers used to get away with claiming that, without cigarettes, they would never be able to relax. Similar claims are made for television, and they are equally spurious.

The President is absolutely right: we’re part of a long-running story. A very small part. This is not a traditional conservative view. The story, like every story, changes as time passes: characters die and characters are born. It used to be that the story could change all it liked, slipping from peace into bloodshed, without harming our habitat, but that has changed. We have to learn how to tell a story that has never been asked for. We are not going to conceive even the outlines of this story in a hurry. The need for action is outweighed by the need for thinking.

But not ivory-tower thinking. No: what’s needed is thinking in public, and that’s what the President ought to be doing — and inspiring others, especially the young, to do. We need to grow beyond our current world of professional writers and silent readers. Those readers mentally equipped for the task must hone skills of articulation at or near the professional level, not only because this is the only way to avoid the kind of vacarme that erupts in comment threads but, more importantly, because it is the only way for any reader to know what he or she actually thinks.

If you are not going to write about what you read, you might as well watch television after all.

Gotham Diary:
29 April 2014

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

I did come down with a cold — if that’s the right way to put it. (I was told once that the symptoms of a cold are actually the cleanup operation that follows victory over the virus.) It is not a very bad cold, but alongside Kathleen’s flu (from which she is recovering nicely) it makes for a domestic dreariness. Everything is an effort, and nothing sparkles.

In this morning’s Times, there’s a story about fallen ratings at MSNBC, attributable in large part to relentless CNN coverage of “the missing Malaysian airliner.” This is the kind of story that takes me right to the brink of abandoning all hope for the future of American civilization.

It’s not just that the plight of the plane does not merit anything like the attention that it has been given — that is not really the worst part of it. The worst part of it is the hunger for official narratives, narratives whose “official” quality derives not from the issuers but from the size of the audience. This is what bothers me about all those screens at Madison Square Garden, where the official, televised view of the game being played trumps one’s own eyewitness account from the stands. In both cases, the audience is relieved of the need to decide what is important about a story, while at the same time every viewer has the satisfaction, if that is what it is, of knowing that many other viewers are tuned into the same presentation.

Faits divers and spectator sports might be considered harmless entertainment, but it is in the context of entertainment that the guidelines for representing political events are honed. And the highest form of entertainment on commercial television is advertising. It has to be.

It is not wrong to watch television. It is wrong to watch television that you have not paid to see. (The cost of cable service is irrelevant to this argument.) In fact, you do pay for it, by subjecting yourself to the depravity of advertising, a dark art devoted to the erosion of human character. The advertiser wants to adjust your thinking about something, but surreptitiously, without direct discussion. The advertiser wants to persuade you, while sparing you any boring arguments, that adjusting your way of thinking will make you feel better about yourself. That many commercial messages are funny does not eliminate the corruption at the heart of the transaction.

Ideally, television would be like the old British gas meters: pay as you go. I don’t think that many people would pay, day after day, to keep abreast of a missing plane that is now almost certainly a coffin, ghoulish to contemplate beyond the feeling of sorrow that passes through us whenever we hear of remote suffering.

And I don’t think that very many voters would pay to watch political news, not as it is currently presented. Paying voters might consider entertainment at best a secondary consideration in the the mediatization of candidates and issues.


She incorporated deep conservatism in combination with radicality, an impulsive protectiveness toward the world and all the natural and cultural things it comprised along with a love of novelty, new beginnings — desires that seemed to others contradictory. People whose imperatives make them sheerly traditionalists or sheerly innovators appear as extremists to the independent minded. As Arendt once remarked, “Man’s urge for change and his need for stability have always balanced and checked each other, and our current vocabulary, which distinguishes between two factions, the progressives and the conservatives, indicates a state of affairs in which this balance has been thrown out of order.” (Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, For Love of the World, second edition, xv)

Things are so much more out of balance now than they were in Arendt’s day: the urge to innovate has been almost entirely abducted by technologists, who have steadily removed themselves from public, political life and set up something like the bubble that Dave Eggers describes in his grim satire, The Circle. Within this bubble, and despite all the displays of social consciousness (especially in matters relating to the environment), the technological elite live lives as detached from social mores as were those of the aristocracy of the ancien régime. (If they seem to behave better, that’s only because they’re working so hard.)

Meanwhile, the “traditionalists” are busy trying to tear down the world in which they grew up, in search of a bogus and cartoonish version of life as lived on the frontier.

But what struck me the other day was that conservative activists are following Arendt’s advice: they have formed councils. It’s true that the actual funding and organization of these counsels has been seen to, in a behind-the-scenes way, by the Koch brothers and others, but the Tea Partiers have indeed shown up to be counted, and their politically informal gatherings have had a mighty impact on government at every level.

The “Occupy” movement, which ought to have corresponded on the progressive side, was from the start non-conciliar. The protestors dropped everything else in their lives to man camps and demonstrations. They sought to interrupt business as usual. They seemed not to understand the greater effectiveness of trying to influence it, as the Tea Partiers have done. The Occupiers recapitulated many of the bêtises of the student movements of the Sixties, the worst of which is believing that Chanting Makes It So.

The secret to the success of local councils, never yet revealed, would be the ability to motivate participators during ordinary times. I’m not sure that Arendt would put it this way, but politics is inherently so exciting that it ought never to appear to be exciting.

In any case, Young-Bruehl’s characterization of Hannah Arendt’s political outlook can be taken for that of my own, and it is this sympathy, or harmony, or whatever, that has plunged me into the reading — I won’t say the study — of Arendt’s writing, which is really nothing but her thinking set down on permanent paper.


If I weren’t feeling lousy, I’d dilate on my reading of Elaine Pagels’s Revelations. I had a hunch that the Book of Revelation is at least a partial template for totalitarian rule, and Pagels’s book convinced me that I was right. The elements of totalitarianism that Arendt sets out in her study are mostly present: ideology (not so much Christian doctrine as the scenario of the end-times), an enemy to be eliminated (those who only appear to belong to the faithful, but who in fact espouse heretical ideas), terror (that lake of fire, those horrible beasts, the four horsemen — even Jesus on a horse!), enthusiastic movement in the place of political deliberation, and an acrobatic flexibility. This last is the most interesting thing about Pagels’s account.

Whoever actually wrote the Book of Revelation was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and he grounded his prophecy in the Old Testament tradition of voices in the wilderness. He was, in short, an outsider who opposed righteousness to power. By the time of Constantine’s conversion, however, Revelation had proved its usefulness in power struggles among the righteous, as factions — notably the Arian heresy — broke out in the new state religion. Now the book became a cudgel of force in the arms of the powerful. The original prophetic message was interpreted out of the text.

This history only hardened my conviction that the Book of Revelation has no place in Christian Scripture.

Gotham Diary:
28 April 2014

Monday, April 28th, 2014

My mind is humming along on several planes at once, making coherence rather difficult. I am reading Elaine Pagels’s book about Revelations, the final book in the New Testament, because I was attacked by a hunch that totalitarianism has strong roots in this dismal revenge fantasy.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt’s principal posthumous work. And I’ve started Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography, For Love of the World. Arendt herself does not disappoint: she continues to have surprising thoughts and to present them without much contextual preparation. I’m used to this momentary vertigo now — I know that’s temporary. I’m reading the biography out of a sense of duty: it is often quoted as an interpretive source. But to the extent that it captures Arendt’s life when she wasn’t thinking, it’s bound to be a difficult read, because Arendt’s life was hard, at least until her middle-aged flourishing in New York. There can’t be, in any story about her, the joy that there is in listening to her think — unless of course she is telling the story herself, something she rarely does.

Last night, I found one of Arendt’s interviews — the first of the four collected in The Last Inverview, the one in which she is interviewed by Günter Gaus. The interview is in German, of course, but I was able to trot along with the Last Interview translation, and anyway the principal attraction was hearing Arendt speak. The interview lasted about an hour, much longer than it takes to read. I didn’t mean to stay up so late, and I’m a bit headachy today as a result. (Also sniffly. Kathleen is feeling “better,” but only to the extent of speaking with gusto when she complains that she wants to cut her head off.)

Meanwhile, the papyrus arrived from White Flower Farm, and I’ve got run out to buy some potting soil.


On Saturday night, once I was sure that Kathleen was sound asleep, I came into the blue room and watched Being Julia, one of my favorite movies. Something about it had shifted, or rather it was I who had changed. I saw it quite differently. I realized that I’d always wanted the relationship that the ageing actress has with the young cad to work out. I understood that it wouldn’t and couldn’t, but I’ve always been pricked by the hope that the lovers would behave themselves. If they were behaving themselves, of course, they’d never get into bed together, and in fact there is no good reason to call them “lovers.” Why my perversity?

It hit me that I have a penchant for overlooking desire in seeking desirability. These are not good words; they’re too carnal. From the carnal standpoint, the actress and her beau are both quite desirable, certainly to one another. But my standpoint is a moral one. It is captured beautifully by Hannah Arendt’s idea of the imperishable possibility that people will refrain from doing things that will make it hard for them to live honestly with themselves. (If this is “existentialism,” then I’ve finally got it.) Tom, the young man in Being Julia, is a fairly amoral snob — he couldn’t care less about living honestly with himself. (It’s a care that it’s very easy for young people to shuck.) As for Julia, as an actress, living honestly with oneself doesn’t mean quite what it means with civilians, although I can’t say quite how it differs. I just know that it does.

My idea of “working out” does not imply that I want the affair to continue. Rather I want Julia to extricate herself from it without ludicrous and humiliating displays of jealousy. It’s only when Julia recovers from this very unpleasant and unattractive emotion that she is able to map out her sweet revenge — which, as revenge goes, is harmless at worst and probably somewhat salutary for all of its several targets. It is this marvelous scheme, cooked up not by Somerset Maugham, whose Theatre provided movie’s original inspiration, but by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, that makes Being Julia the delicious treat that it is. When, in the middle of the movie, Julia sobs through her cold cream, I want her to snap out of it and remember her job. So does the ghost of her drama teacher (played by Michael Gambon).

Desire has a funny way of making us undesirable.

The tempest of Julia’s fight with Tom is followed by a sweet scene with Roger, Julia’s son, who, a few years younger than Tom, wants to tell his mother that earlier in the evening, ironically on an outing with Tom, he lost his virginity to an aspiring actress. “I thought it was time,” he says. So it’s no surprise that he found the experience disappointing. You have to bring desire to bed with you; sexual acts aren’t going to produce it. (Without genuine desire, what sex usually produces is disgust.) Someone who thinks that “it’s time” is probably not even unconsciously ready to make love. But I always used to overlook this, because Roger is so sweet and decent. His “first night” doesn’t seem to be anything to be ashamed of. But the inauthenticity of it just might come back to bite him.

A new question: why do I blame Sigmund Freud for normalizing the swinish disregard for others where male desire is concerned? I am certain that the great doctor had no such intention. But I’m not at all sure that it’s better to live in a world in which frank sexual discussions are, under certain circumstances, considered “healthy,” than to live in a more buttoned-up place. The “evolutionary” view of sex strips the urge to use another person for one’s own personal gratification of its colossal ethical problem.

I don’t mean to say women are somehow more virtuous than men on this point. They’re merely obliged to appear to be, by social conventions.

In any case, yet another recognition that I can’t help feeling I ought to have made forty years ago at the latest.

Gotham Diary:
After Hours
25 April 2014

Friday, April 25th, 2014

When I dressed for lunch at Demarchelier and a visit to the Museum to see Goya’s Altamira family portraits, I expected to have a few hours alone in the late afternoon for writing here. I knew that Ray Soleil, my companion for these outings, had to be somewhere else at four o’clock, so I put off two errands until after the Museum. It was between the first and the second of the errands that I learned that Kathleen was coming home early: the malaise that she felt in the morning had congealed into something feverish and flu-like. I hurried home, arriving moments after she tucked herself into bed. And I spent the next eight hours sitting with her in the bedroom. That’s what I do whenever Kathleen is in bed: I sit nearby, reading. I do little things for her, mostly to do with food and drink. But please do not think of this as a sacrifice, at least until I officially complain. For seven of those eight hours at least, I was reading, with helpless gusto.

One of my errands had been to pick up a copy of Nina Stibbe’s memoir of life as a nanny in the home of an important editor at the London Review of Books. The book is a sort of Devil Wears Prada in reverse, because it’s the nanny who does the awful things, and, what’s worse, usually at the expense of the elder child of the editor, a boy afflicted by nameless disabilities that seem more physiological than psychological. Sam Frears is not even on the Asperger’s spectrum, much less autistic, and he is subject to terrifying fevers. (Update: it’s Riley-Day.) Even so, although the nanny is a gifted prankster, she is not cruel; she is not turned out of the house, as you might at first be led to expect from the letters that she wrote to her sister that constitute the text of Love, Nina.

This was back in the mid-Eighties, when there was no email, and long-distance, or trunk, calls were fearsomely expensive. The letters have an element of buffing, of “improvement”; even as a relatively uneducated girl of twenty (at one point, Nina observes that reading The Return of the Native is not like reading The Thorn Birds — a moment of literary awakening that children like her posh charges would experience no later than the age of fourteen), the correspondent displays an enviable knack for writing. The most regular of the the regulars in the editor’s household is neighbor Alan Bennett, and his distinctive voice is almost unnervingly captured — captured, I say, as if by the opposing team. This ought not to suggest that Stibbe doesn’t like him. But she knows how to twist his pride at being a butcher’s son into a foodie’s conceit that might or might not be endearing. The humor of the book is cumulative, so that it is very difficult to excerpt: things become funny and funnier as you read on.

As it happened, I was already in the middle of another exciting, engrossing book, Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out, a personal account of the career of “Clark Rockefeller,” a German imposter who may or may not have been behind the collapse of the Knoedler Gallery but who was certainly brought to trial for the murder of a young man from San Marino, California, twenty-eight years after the victim disappeared. At a certain point in the early evening, I put down Nina Stibbe to be done with Walter Kirn, not because his was the lesser book but because I sensed an occult Arendt connection with the latter book that it would take a few days’ half-conscious thinking to work out. It’s for that reason that I’m not now going to say anything about Blood Will Out, beyond recommending it as a very good read and possibly something much more seriously valuable than that. For the moment.

Last night, M le Neveu came to dinner. We haven’t seen very much of him since the end of his relationship with Ms NOLA (now quite happily married to someone else, a wonderful man), largely because the breakup coincided with a series of out-of-town fellowships on both sides of the Atlantic. Now he is back, however, living not far from where Megan and Ryan lived before they left for San Francisco. We had him to dinner in the the fall, and meant to see him again much sooner than, in the event, last night, but stuff happened, mostly the awful winter.

Another thing happened: I read a lot of Hannah Arendt, and a lot about her as well. And it so happens that my nephew is the only person among my acquaintance with whom Arendt might be discussed bilaterally. He hasn’t read as much as I have, but he has been professionally familiar with the outlines of her thinking, and the critiques of her commentators, for a long time. What happened last night was a very pleasant sequence of ka-chinks, as I demonstrated again and again, sometimes quite nonchalantly, that I knew, as his grandfather and my uncle used to put it, my onions. M le Neveu was so impressed that he sent me a text message this afternoon in which he described the evening as “a joy” — an absolutely unprecedented remark. There were no skirmishes, no arguments over fine points, nothing competitive. He kept rolling his eyes in pleased surprise, as though I were a student who had wildly exceeded his expectations. Now I think of it, I have always been that student, disappointing my teachers with lackluster performance until some chance attraction would draw me out and show me off.

It was no less agreeable to me, because I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about what I’d learned to anyone who knew more. I was as familiar with Arendt’s weaknesses as with the strengths that, weaknesses notwithstanding, make her a vital thinker for us, a thinker whom, the more I know about both strengths and weaknesses, I regard as the most vital thinker.

I’m not alone, apparently. Several times during the evening, M le Neveu repeated the criticism that he had heard from colleagues: “Arendt is the new Rawls.” Graduate students who used to write about A Theory of Justice are now writing about Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism. Bully for Arendt, bully for the graduate students — bully for us all. There’s hope yet.

Gotham Diary:
The Real Game
23 April 2014

Friday, April 25th, 2014

Waiting for the handyman to come and snake the kitchen sink drain, I re-read In a Summer Season, arriving at the final, one-page chapter just as the doorman called to say that the handyman was on his way up. My relief was extravagant. Not only would the kitchen situation be set to rights (I considered this as good as done — backed up by thirty years’ experience), but the novel had triumphed in that most crucial literary test, the Second Reading.

The first time you read a novel, it is merely another new novel. The second time, it is either a disappointment or literature itself.

Anxious about the handyman —when would he come? when?— I was anxious about the novel, too. When would it happen? When? As the pages flew by, the pace seemed to slacken. After a nasty rudeness, Kate and Dermot even seemed to be on their way to making up. I knew that this would never quite happen, but when would it be ruled out? Ten pages before the end of the penultimate chapter, Kate has some bad news. There is much worse news five pages later. Within a few paragraphs, she is a widow, and, very shortly after that, the daughter of the widower whom she will marry at the very end (a year later, on that last page), a girl whom Kate’s son hoped to marry, dies as well. I knew that it was going to happen, I knew it — but I began to lift my brows in doubt. Then, bam! The dashing sportscar, recklessly driven, spins out of control and overturns. Most tremendously satisfying!

For many connoisseurs of fine fiction, a last-minute catastrophe that clears the way for a happy ending must seem both slapdash and melodramatic, and such resolutions usually are signs of inferiority. But not here. The re-reader, who can’t possibly have forgotten how the novel ends, so shocking is its finale the first time, sees hints and augurs at every turn, from the very start. Kate, a wealthy widow in her forties, has married Dermot, a half-Irish charmer ten years her junior. The word for Dermot is “feckless.” He has never held a job or completed a project. He has never sustained a relationship before, and for a while he is borne up by the honeymoon of really loving Kate from day to day. Kate doesn’t mind his not working, and she regrets that he is shamed by his idleness. That is indeed the problem that all the love in the world can’t salve. Dermot is deeply unhappy with himself, but he lacks the character for change, because he invariably positions himself as the victim. We understand from the very beginning (although not because Dermot himself understands it) that this life of his with Kate is to be his last chance, and that if he muffs it, there will be nothing but bitter ingloriousness after.

And there is no reason to believe that Dermot won’t muff it, just as he has muffed everything else.

From the very beginning, the accident at the end feels inevitable, because Dermot is already somewhat out of control himself. Then, midway through, two new characters arrive on the scene. They are the husband and the daughter of Kate’s best friend, who died some time ago, before Kate’s first husband’s death. Charles Thornton shut up his house and took his daughter off to Europe. Now he has come back, and so has his daughter. Charles quite smoothly slips out of his role as “best friend’s husband, no man more forbidden” and into that of the man with whom Kate will find happiness if and when Dermot disposes of himself. Araminta, educated abroad, has grown out of recognition. She is a sylph — a sylph and something of a minx. She commutes to her job in London as a fashion model, drenched in the perfume of stylish heartlessness that, in retrospect, seems to have foreshadowed the wave of feminism that would presently transform the Anglophone world. Araminta cares deeply about absolutely nothing, and she does so enchantingly. (She is the only principal character whose point of view we are never allowed to share.) She responds to Tom’s affection with a “chilling friendliness” that nevertheless falls far short of outright discouragement. Meanwhile, she lets Dermot take her to the pub by the station whenever they happen to meet on the homebound train — Dermot’s commute is to a job that exists only in Kate’s imagination — and, fatally, she eggs him on to higher speeds when he takes her out for rides in his new car.

Araminta is probably never going to make anyone else happy, and Dermot cannot be happy with himself. They make a perfect couple, especially in death.


The handyman is replacing all the pipes under the sink. That’s new.


A month or so ago, Kathleen went to Madison Square Garden to see a Knicks game. She did so, of course, as the guest of a client whose invitation could not be politely declined, and even I told her that it might be interesting. She certainly wouldn’t have to pay the game any mind. She could sit comfortably in the skybox and chat about other things. I knew this partly from experience (not in a skybox) but mostly from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. And I was quite right, too. Kathleen had a very good time, so much so that she remembered to tell me that the Knicks actually won.

What intrigued Kathleen was the plethora of video monitors, both in the skybox and throughout the arena. The monitors all showed the same thing: the game being played on the court. Even at the distance of a skybox, the game was not hard to follow, and presumably the fans in the bleachers, sitting that much closer, had no real need of the gigantic screens hanging over the court. Kathleen found this mystifying — why all the screens, with the game itself right there.

I wasn’t mystified. I couldn’t quite explain it, but I knew that it made some kind of dark sense. I was in the middle of The Human Condition, or perhaps I had moved on to Margaret Canovan’s book about Arendt’s political thought. I was thinking (almost all the time) about the plurality of points of view (one per human being) and the collapse of this plurality in the mass society that might or might not be swept up in totalitarian movement. I knew, somehow, that the real game was being shown on the screens. The actual game was only the raw material from which cameramen were fashioning the official game, the one that everyone could see from anywhere.

This image, of thousands of spectators watching the mediated version of an event taking place before their very eyes, has surcharged my mind ever since Kathleen sparked it. More to come, you may be sure. For the moment, I’m too distracted by the countdown timer on the dishwasher as I run it through a cycle to sit thoughtfully at my writing table.

Gotham Diary:
The Point of Fiction
24 April 2014

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This will be brief, not so much because I’ve got a lot on today as because the point that I wish to make is very concise. The idea behind it was one of those recognitions that you have from time to time that arrive with an air of such intense obviousness that not only do you bow down to them at once but you think yourself quite stupid for not having grasped them sooner. Later, you see that other people sort of said the same thing — but not exactly. And you can’t even say — not for a while — why the insight seems so tremendously important.

I had been wanting to say something clever about Elizabeth Taylor’s way with fiction, a way that is as palpably distinctive as any great novelist’s, but, in this case, much less studied, less covered by critics, less grappled with. Nothing very impressive came to mind, and I chalked my failure, perhaps rather opportunistically, up to Remicade, and to how rather exhausted I always feel the day after an infusion. This was very good thinking, because, the moment I absolved myself of any duty to think of something clever, something clever occurred to me. Something clever about Elizabeth Taylor, anyway.

Throughout the novel that I just re-read, In a Summer Season, what one person says is often “answered” by what someone else thinks in response but does not say. Here’s a good example, from the little picnic that Kate and Charles have near the end of the novel.

“Minty is overtired,” he insisted, dwelling on the safer issue. “That’s perfectly plain.”

“I do hope that she’s in love, too,” Kate thought. She could not bear it for her son if the girl were not.

Somewhat parenthetically, I want to note that it is “perfectly plain” to the reader that Araminta (“Minty”) is not in love with Tom, Kate’s son — or with anyone else, not even herself.

Sometimes, as in this acute passage from the “disastrous” dinner party that ends the first part of the novel, nobody says anything, and we’re only given an exchange — an exchange for us only, not for the characters — of thoughts. Here are Edwina and her son, Dermot:

She had glanced up and seen the pleasure and pride upon his face. “We were so very close in those days,” she thought now. He noticed tears in her eyes and felt that he could understand. “We are poles apart,” he thought, “but she was always concerned for me. The antagonism is my fault — I neglected her.”

Are mother and son “poles apart”? Probably not.

The contrast between what’s said and what’s thought in these passages — something that is generally called “irony” — is so beautifully textured, so piquant, as it were, that I found myself reveling in Taylor’s daring to presume to know not only what her characters think but that what they think is usually somewhat off the mark; these “thoughts” always signal a mismatch, a state of being out of step. It is a very common state in this novel, and perhaps in all novels. It was the sheer piquancy, however, that threw me back on an observation that I’ve been making repeatedly in recent entries. All that we know about other people is what they say and what they do. Their minds are otherwise closed to us. And that is all there is to be said about it.

The magic of novels is the appearance of precisely this thing that is never to be known in real life: what other people are thinking, how they are feeling. That’s why we read novels, because, psychoanalytical case studies aside, they are our only window — utterly imagined as it may be — into the souls of others.

And that is why it is best to read old novels, lots of old novels that have appealed to generations of readers. That fame, that sustained attention over generations, is the closest thing to proof that we have that the old novelist got it right, or was at least plausible. Great novelists remind us of how we ourselves think, of what we don’t in fact say. And they remind the readers who come after us as they have reminded the readers who came before.

Every now and then, a new novelist casts a spotlight on a new way of thinking, a new manner of thought, and everyone rushes to read his or her books. Sometimes, the new manner is a fad; sometimes it’s more lasting. I think that we’re still trying to decide which was true of Ernest Hemingway, who was without a doubt a reporter of arresting novelties. But no serious reader in the English-speaking world fails to recognize that Jane Austen and George Eliot captured vitally elemental interior experiences — thoughts — and made them available for all to consider.

I will say up front that, in my opinion, women are much better at this hunt than are men. But, man, does that figure.

Gotham Diary:
Shiva on a Tear
22 April 2014

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

It’s cloudy and wet now, but a few hours ago, it was spring out there, sunny and balmy. After this morning’s Remicade infusion, I walked homeward from the hospital along the East River. The current was rushing up toward Long Island Sound.

I left the embankment at the bottom of the new ramp that leads to the 78th Street pedestrian overpass. One of my favorite lunch spots, The Hi-Life was only minutes away, on Second Avenue. Once installed in my favorite banquette, I resumed reading the book that kept me entertained all the way through the two-hour infusion, In a Summer Season, the first novel by Elizabeth Taylor that I have re-read. That I shall have re-read. And very soon, too; I can’t put it down. I can’t put it down because I know what’s coming. I know what’s coming, but only in gross outline, and I’m greedy for all the forgotten, savory details. I can’t quite remember what Mrs Meacock, the cook, does at the end. Does she take another world cruise? Does she publish her long-nursed miscellany of humorous anecdotes? I’m 99% certain that Mrs Meacock does leave the employ of Kate Heron, the novel’s leading lady — unlike the cook in Taylor’s next novel, The Soul of Kindness, a woman who pines for the sounds of the deep countryside while toiling away in St John’s Wood. And — getting back to In a Summer Season — what becomes of Father Blizzard? Does he go over to Rome? I’m not quite halfway through: the fateful return of Araminta Thornton is about to occur.

This was perhaps my favorite Taylor novel the first time round, so it’s no surprise that, casting round for some substantial fiction the other night, it’s the one I chose. I have to say that it is very satisfying to know how the muddle of Dermot Heron is going to be cleared up. A relief, really.


The dishwasher is working, but I’m trying not to use it until the kitchen sink drain has been snaked, because clogged pipe is what caused the machine to shut down last week, happily without doing itself any harm. The repairman cleaned out what he could reach without plumbing tools. He did not suggest that I refrain from using the dishwasher (which he didn’t so much fix as reset; I could have done it myself if I’d deigned to fiddle with it), but I’ve rather fallen in love with washing dishes by hand. This is best seen as a spring fling, doomed to last no longer than the petals on the Bradford pears.

I’ll try to get a handyman up here tomorrow to look into the drain. I’m planning to spend the day at home anyway, as I often do on Wednesdays. I’m going to make a batch of madeleines, to serve to the neighbor who is coming to tea on Thursday. Also on Thursday, dinner with M le Neveu, who has not been here for several months. He is living in the city again, and although he has weathered well in the thirteen years since his arrival in New York as a graduate student, I like to make sure that he gets a very square meal now and then.

Although the dishwasher is fine, the refrigerator has me throwing tantrums. All too literally, I’m afraid, this afternoon, when I could not get the door to close completely. Shall we not talk about the plastic shelf on the door that has been held in place for several years with now-failing duct tape? A shelf crowded with half-empty, rarely-opened bottles, most of which I threw away in the course of throwing the tantrum. (See title of this entry.)

I often say that I want a bachelor’s refrigerator: a few condiments, a few dairy products, and a bottle of champagne. I’d like to keep most of the shelving empty and available for use in the preparation of dinner parties.

Instead, I have tons of condiments, an embarrassing amount of spoiled dairy and vegetable matter, and an appalling array of leftovers. As I don’t care for leftovers, the frugality that obliges me to wrap them up in plastic is either misguided or demented, I can’t decide which.

It would help to have the right kind of refrigerator, which I periodically beg Kathleen to buy. That would be the kind with the freezer in a drawer, at the bottom, obviously the preferable configuration for a portly gently with an immobile spine whose waist is not even two inches farther from the ground than the top of the door to the refrigerator compartment on the standard unit currently in the kitchen. The difficulty is that very few models will fit in the space allotted — none will, in fact, unless I remove the cabinet over the refrigerator. (Stuffed but never opened; I couldn’t tell you what’s in it.) Ray Soleil assures me that getting rid of the cabinet will not be difficult, but what keeps me from pestering Kathleen more vociferously is knowing that the swinging kitchen door will have to be removed in order to get the old refrigerator out of the kitchen. (Ask me why I know this.) Removing the kitchen door is just tricky enough to reduce my desire for a new refrigerator. But it does nothing to reduce the tantrums; on the contrary.

If I were starting out now, in our current tax bracket, I should undoubtedly replace everything in the fridge whenever I bought a new bottle of milk — everything aside from those “few” condiments and that bottle of champagne. But when I first had my own kitchen, I was very poor, and I held onto everything. Later, when we had the house in the country, there were emergencies to consider — getting to the store was not always easy, especially in winter. But now I live across the street from Fairway, which is rarely crowded on weekdays from morning until mid-afternoon. (But: the store will certainly teach you to sing “Never on Sunday.”)

In other problems, I cannot bring myself to dilate on the shipment of five books, either by or about Hannah Arendt, that Amazon shows as having been delivered, by the Post Office, last Friday afternoon at 12:45. No — I cannot. Not until the shipment has actually been delivered.


“St John’s Wood” — how do you say that, anyway? I turned to the Internet for help and it was immediately forthcoming. I have always said it by putting more or less equal stress on each of the words. Writing the name down a few sentences ago, however, I was seized with humiliated fear: what if it’s Sinjin’s Wood? But it’s not. It’s Sen John’s Wood, with a strong accent on “John’s.” While I was at it, I checked out St James’s Park, which I pronounced as though “James’s” were a word of one syllable with a sort of little growth at the end. According to the nice Brit at, it is a word of two very distinct syllables. Sen Jamzus Park.

In case you were wondering, Bogota, New Jersey, is pronounced to rhyme with “pagoda.”

Gotham Diary:
Once Upon a Time
21 April 2014

Monday, April 21st, 2014

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I wished that everything scheduled for the weekend could be postponed until next weekend. It had become clear that the rheumatologist was right to put me down for an infusion eight weeks after the preceding one (not that I ever disagreed with him). Kathleen noticed a day-by-day recession that couldn’t be attributed entirely to my immersion in Hannah Arendt, and on Friday I was actually in a bit of pain owing to the kind of spontaneous inflammation that would be my lot without Remicade. By next weekend, I should have the infusion behind me (I’m on for tomorrow morning at 11:30, just confirmed), and I’d be in better spirits for the festivities of Kathleen’s birthday and Easter Sunday.

But Kathleen’s birthday and Easter Sunday could not be postponed, so I rose to the occasion, and found that it was not very difficult to do so. Now I am trying to deal with the slight malaise that always follows a bit of having too much of a good time.

The cuisine at La Grenouille, the last but also the greatest of the grand French restaurants in New York, is superb — of course it is! But it is also something of an excuse, giving the patrons something to do while they sit in this corner of heaven. For me, the experience is rendered slightly peculiar by my spinal immobility. I can hear the people at the adjacent tables, but I cannot, without calling a great deal of attention to what I’m doing, get a look at them. Meanwhile, I can’t hear a thing that the people ranged along the opposite wall are saying. What with the famously immense arrangements of budding boughs and flowers, the brocade wall hangings, and the thick carpet, the restaurant is not noisy, and yet the atmosphere is very lively. The bustle of the staff — the maître d’, the headwaiters, and the waiters, in dark suits and bright ties; the white-jacketed servers and busboys — is ceaseless, but not at all agitated. The purr of discreet voices and the flash of sparkling jewelry, the ectoplasmic delight of all that good food — I have never experienced a more refined degree of exhilarating jollity. Kathleen, as (almost) always, had the Dover sole, and it made for a very happy birthday.

We were addressed by name as we walked in. We were reminded that it had been a long time since our last visit (four years!), but without a trace of scolding. Kathleen chalked our welcome up to my lavish tipping practices, and I’m sure that smiles might have been a shade brighter for that, but no, such crassness is inconceivable. La Grenouille is simply but extraordinarily a very pleasant place, much too relaxed for its comforts to be an illusion.

Asked by her granddaughter about the array of silverware at each place, the matron sitting to the left of Kathleen advised beginning with the pieces farthest from the plate and working in, “as they do on Downton Abbey.” That, and a lot of other things that the old lady had to say, brought a muffled laugh to my lips and Kathleen’s elbow to my ribs. Whenever we dine in high style, Kathleen and I shamelessly violate the categorical imperative. Aside from the sporadic exchange of muttered commentary, we say almost nothing to one another, offering nothing to be overheard. Talking would distract us from the feast of eavesdropping.


Meanwhile, a very different scene was plying out only yards away, out on Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue — Fifth Avenue in midtown, that is — is a memory to me; it hasn’t existed for decades. The people who now patrol it prevent its revival. What they’re doing there, I’ve no idea. Calling them “tourists” seems overconfident; they almost make one believe in zombies. New Yorkers themselves, and snappier visitors from out of town, have recreated something of what Fifth Avenue used to be in Soho, especially along Broadway. Down there, pedestrians are stylish — and they’re shopping. The parade on today’s Fifth Avenue’s sidewalks is inexplicable. It is a horde of colorless, shapeless people who exude no sense of destination. They are merely moving along in great blobs of unconvincing humanity. Seeing them from the car as we waited for an opening through which to turn into Fifty-Second Street, I felt that I was confronted by Mass Man, that bogey of 1950s. This is what Communism looked like — shapeless, colorless, pointless, and astonishingly indistinguishable. This was why we must win the Cold War. What an ironic taste of our victory it is to witness such a massive display of the lack of self-respect.

Kathleen said, “You don’t get to midtown much. I see this every day.” That might explain why I don’t go to midtown much.

Once upon a time, the pedestrians on Fifth Avenue wanted to look as much like the patrons of La Grenouille as possible, and they dressed accordingly. You might say that the times we live in are more relaxed, but I don’t. La Grenouille is relaxed. The pedestrians are manifestly demoralized. Thank you, commercial broadcasting.

Gotham Diary:
18 April 2014

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The other day, I pulled out the big Everyman edition of Joan Didion’s nonfiction, having been inspired to re-read “Goodbye to All That” by Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. Last night, I got round to it. I remembered the great story about “new faces” (“… there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men..”) but I had forgotten the profound, ab initio alienation.

I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and I knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later — because I did not belong there, did not come from there — but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.

Later, she puts on a seesaw some suggestive names that are also very specific, familiar to those brought up “in the East” (at that time: FAO Schwarz, Best & Co, the Biltmore clock, and Lester Lanin) and the suggestive terms that are complete abstractions, having figured in her Sacramento dreams of New York  (Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue: “Money,” “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters.”). To her,

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane: one does not “live” at Xanadu.

Nevertheless, she kept putting off leaving, and was almost done in by the place. The sojourn, intended to last just a few months, went on for eight years. Didion finally did leave when her new husband, John Gregory Dunne, decided to relocate to Los Angeles. It’s hard not to think that he rescued her, because she was reduced to spending days in her underfurnished apartment, incapacitated.

I had never before understood what “despair” meant, and I am not sure that I understand now, but I understood that year.

I felt something very like this in Houston, and at about the same age. My solution was law school, in a faraway place. I have not been to Houston since Megan’s graduation from high school, in 1991, and I have no plans to pay another visit in this life. That’s by way of saying that I understand the roots of Joan Didion’s despair to have been her living in the wrong place, an unreal place, a place too imaginary for genuine responsibility.

I went to Houston not because I had ever dreamed of it but because it was convenient: my parents lived there when I graduated from college. I meant to stay only a short while, but I got a job at the radio station right away, and only left the job to which I was promoted when I left for law school all those years later. In between, there was marriage, fatherhood, divorce, and, for a while, despair. I never think about it unprompted. Some of the people whom I knew during that time have, in becoming Facebook friends, ceased to be people whom I knew during that time.

Nobody knows what it is like to live in any town without having actually lived there; but it helps to arrive without the baggage of romantic expectations. Every time I see Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though, I understand how hard this must have been, and might still be, for some people.


Something from The Attack of the Blob that seems well worth savoring (and Guess Who isn’t mentioned): of Carol Gilligan, Hannah Fenichel Pitkin writes,

Gilligan speaks accordingly of two competing “voices” in morality: one emphasizing general principles, the other emphasizing personal attention and care, the former more frequent among men, the latter among women. Although it is easy to jump to the conclusion — as numerous interpreters have — that the feminine tendency is more moral, the masculine tendency ruthless or hypocritical, Gilligan holds that a mature morality is the same for all, regardless of gender, that it requires combining principled impartiality with sensitive attention to particular persons and cases. What differs by gender is not morality but characteristic ways of falling short of morality. Morally immature men tend to a defensive, macho pretense at objectivity and impersonal authority, immature women to a reluctance to judge, take a principled stand, or defend their own views in the face of opposition. Reaching morality by different psychic routes, the two genders characteristically find themselves in different places along the way: men too coldly abstracted, women too abjectly adjustable.

This is wonderful. “What differs by gender is not morality but characteristic ways of falling short of morality.” It’s precisely what I mean when I say that there is no important difference between men and women.


Inevitably, The Attack of the Blob has led me to question the meaning of “society,” as applied to a mass of people. Romans invented the word (societas) to describe groups of people who got together to deal with a particular matter, and this sense survives in the names of the Royal Society and the ASPCA. The members of this kind of society can be made known to the society’s leadership, and possibly to all other members as well. There can be no such familiarity among members of “society” in the broad sense. Suddenly, the term seems to me to be worse than useless, because to talk about it is to animate an abstraction.

“Civil society,” however, is an extremely useful idea. It connotes the specific groups that recognize and share conventions and mores. People who live on Manhattan Island — not the same as the group of people who ride the subways in New York City. People who fly in commercial airliners. People who live in a gated community. Even incarcerated people. The conventions and mores of any group develop over time, and when they break down, because too many members disregard them, that particular branch of civil society stops functioning — something only very young people are likely to regard as a favorable development. You learn the rules of a given civil society by paying attention to how its members behave — how they act, that is, when they are doing everyday things to which they may not be paying much attention at all. Every now and then, you will run into a scold, someone who overtly calls attention to someone else’s breach of the rules, but civil society is hostile to few things more than it is hostile to violence of any kind, so the scolds themselves are usually in breach as well, and not only of civil society’s rules. The foundation of civil society is the belief that no one is in charge of it. What looks to one person like an infraction may simply be the way of the future. Civil society does not exist to act.

Everything that you do in civil society sets an example to other members. Setting a good example was highly esteemed among Victorian gentlemen, but they didn’t get it quite right, and moderns were quick to abandon the practice as empty hypocrisy. Setting an example works only if you set out to set an example to yourself, an honestly good example. You may be grateful that “nobody noticed” a lapse on your part, but you may never be relieved.

Gotham Diary:
Housework of the Literary Persuasion
17 April 2014

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The dishwasher is on the blink again, and I ought to be in a state, so I’m wondering how long this strange calm will last. I did have a bad moment when I discovered the problem, but the bad moment was quiet and contained. It did not take long to find the receipt from the repairman’s last visit (I couldn’t believe that it was where it belonged), and now I’m scheduled for a visit on Monday.

By the time the first stage of the dishwasher crisis was taken care of, my phone was ringing an alarm: time to call Jazz at Lincoln Center! The last day to renew our “Visionary Voices” series seats (and they’re very good ones) was last Friday. I called on Monday, but it was after hours. I did nothing on Tuesday. I thought about it several times yesterday, and almost went to the phone at one point, or toward it, but I was distracted on the way, and forgot about it until too late in the day. That’s when I set the alarm. The seats were still available. I used the charge card that I reserve for purchases in this price range.

There had been some loose talk about having lunch with Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil — Fossil is making a four-day weekend out of the holiday — but I’ve had my excitement for the day.


What to make of Lydia Davis? She’s fun to read, in a dark, scraping sort of way. By that I mean that many of her stories are satisfying in the way that taking a brush to a Le Creuset casserole and swooshing out the stuck-on bits is satisfying. There is a feeling of accomplishment rather than of achievement. There will be more pots to scrub and more stories to read — lots and lots of (very short) stories. It is as though Davis figured out how to bottle housework; rather than writing about it, which she does from time to time but often with reference to the other people who are actually doing it, she has instead captured the thing itself and transmuted it into prose. Here, in the entirety of its single sentence, is “The Cornmeal”:

This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal, set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it, too, is taking action in its own little way.

Just to think about this quietly dynamic tale is to do housework. Like most housework, it is largely undiscussable — more tedious than analyzing jokes.

At the same time, the stories are aimed at sophisticated readers. Consumers of vernacular material won’t get very far before tossing the book aside, with an exasperated WTF? On the page facing “The Cornmeal” is “Letter to a Frozen Pea Manufacturer,” a story that I can imagine making certain male readers actually angry. The letter to the manufacturer complains that the color of green used on the frozen-pea package is misleading because it is so much less attractive than the green of the peas inside. This is housework, too: not so much the thinking about the color of green on a package, or the judgment that the complaint is absurd in some way (if not in several), but the appraisal of the care with which the letter has been written. The premise of the story may be funny, but letter itself is not. The letter is reasonable and painstaking. There is nothing in its composition to make the reader laugh; indeed, effort has been made to prevent laughter. As the letter approaches its end, it flattens out in statements of the painfully obvious.

Most food manufacturers depict food on their packaging that is more attractive than the food inside and therefore deceptive. You are doing the opposite:

[Yes, you already told us!]

you are falsely representing your peas as less attractive than they actually are.

Finally, a statement of grievance and a demand for improvement:

We enjoy your peas and so not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.

Instead of a laugh line, Davis delivers an echo of Rilke.

These stories come from her new collection, Can’t and Won’t. (The title story has a different title: “Can’t and Won’t.”) Shortly before it came out, I bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which contains all or most of her earlier short fiction. The story that I find most striking is “Jury Duty,” a stunt of sorts in which the Q part of a Q&A, or interview, is omitted. We’re given only the answers. A woman is being asked about jury duty. In order to make sense of her replies, we have to imagine the questions. This is not difficult — not for anyone who has read interviews that follow the Q&A format. (Interviews that “degenerate” into discussions between two well-matched voices are more interesting precisely because they have discarded the formula.) But the ease with which we fill in the blanks is somewhat discomfiting. Why would we read such an interview, if we know what the questions are and where they are likely to lead? Haven’t we solemnly sworn never to pick up a copy of People? And yet the interviewer’s silence throws the answers into higher relief. The interviewee is a bland and ordinary sort of person, and there is some sense that she is being hung out to dry. But we don’t laugh at her. We don’t even look down on her. Rather, we look into her, into the fine grain of her expressed self. The look is long and slow, but not critical. We are not distracted by the interviewer; on their contrary, our attention is heightened by the interviewer’s absence. I flagged one response the first time I read it:

Yes, I thought of the word patient. But it wasn’t that. Patience is something you need in a strained situation, a situation in which you have to put up with something uncomfortable or difficult. This wasn’t difficult. That’s what I’m trying to say: we had to be there, and so it relieved us of all personal responsibility. I don’t think there is anything else quite like it. Then you have to add on to that the spaciousness of the room. Imagine if it had been a small, crowded room with a low ceiling. Or if people had been noisy, talkative. Or if the people in charge had been confused, or rude.

This is not exactly “revealing,” but it is certainly suggestive. But I sense that it is suggestive only to people who read a lot and who also do housework.

The kind of housework that Lydia Davis specializes in, I believe, is called “teaching.”

And that’s what I’m making of Lydia Davis right now.

Gotham Diary:
Position Papers
16 April 2014

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Hannah Arendt everywhere…

Even at the Lost Kingdoms exhibition at the Museum, which I took in at a “preview” last night. (The show has already opened to the public.) I felt her presence beside me, respectful and very much prepared to discover something remarkable, but also somewhat impatient, as I was, to be done with it.

Lost Kingdoms gathers objects — statuary mostly, but also architectural elements — excavated from sites in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, that reflect the spread of Indian religions to those regions a long time ago. Most of the objects date from the Sixth to the Ninth Century, and most were locally produced. There are Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Vishnus and Shivas, in sandstone and copper alloy. (The works in stone are large, but badly weathered; the works in metal are small, but in pretty good shape.) The religions that these images represent were taken up, not very systematically one imagines, by the rulers of long-vanished kingdoms, and their wealthier subjects. One of the pieces that sticks in my mind is the head of a “male devotee” of one or another of the gods. With his intriguing turban, his “earplug” ornament, and his pleased expression — he smiles like a child who is about to be given an ice-cream cone — he has a lot more going for him than the bland divinities. I don’t know why I kept imagining the bloody slaughter of the defeated in the temples where these statues once stood.

Lost Kingdoms is no display of Yankee loot. Almost every wall card named a museum from one of the Southeast Asian nations as the owner. Perhaps because I was simply underwhelmed by the exhibition itself, I began to see it as the wing of a diplomatic stunt of some kind. After all, the United States has been on very bad terms if not actually at war with half of the contributing countries. And in my lifetime, too.

As usual, the postcards were disappointing. Museum postcards go for the timeless and avoid the quirky. Quirkier than anything in the Lost Kingdoms show are the makara, or “aquatic monsters,” that grace the ends of lintels. These creatures are all jaw, studded with big, blunt teeth. Seen in profile, they show one enormous eye, and they seem to rest on one foot, but that is all there is too them: they exist solely to devour. But they look very jolly, and I’m sure that Will would be tickled, not frightened, by them. But I am not going to buy the catalogue just to get a picture of them.

I thought of the worlds for which these objects were created, worlds of meaning, culture, architecture, government, and so on — all of them, like most human worlds, incomplete worlds, by Arendt’s standards, because they lacked any kind of political space — any forum for political action, discussed by equals and launched by courageous individuals. When The Human Condition came out, in 1958, many readers felt that Arendt had succumbed to nostalgia for The Glory That Was Greece. Her relentless but not analytical references to “the polis” and to its free, but slave-owning, citizens could indeed at times take on the “inspiring” quality of a mural in a public building. But for Arendt, the polis was the first attempt in human history at her political ideal, the republic, and, as a thinker making use of history, but not actually a historian (except, of course, of thought itself), Arendt was free to treat the polis as an ideal — as if it had actually been realized and sustained.

One of the many things that I am stewing over is Arendt’s understanding of power. Power is a problem that, like poverty, has always been with us, but perhaps, again like poverty, a problem that we might continually shrink. Almost everything that goes wrong in government can be attributed to the unwillingness of human beings to relinquish power. (Government, I say; not politics.) I have always tended to regard power as a kind of energy source, not very unlike electricity, over which people in power — whether elected or appointed (or self-appointed) — have control. Arendt has already shown me how stupid this is. Power is not something “out there” that some people are allowed to harness. No: power comes from people themselves, and its manifestations are as different as people themselves. Power is a manifestation of the plurality of human beings: when we say that X is a powerful man, “powerful” is just as general and non-specific, as devoid of comparative detail, as is the predicate in X is a human being.

Then there is the apparent paradox inherent in Montesquieu’s understanding of balanced powers.

Power can be stopped and still kept intact only by power, so that the principle of the separation of power not only provides a guarantee against the monopolization of power by one part of the government but actually provides a kind of mechanism, built into the very heart of government, through which new power is constantly generated, without, however, being able to overgrow and expand to the detriment of other centres or sources of power. (On Revolution, 142-3)

Arendt writes here as if power were indeed a current; Montesquieu almost certainly saw it in the Newtonian terms that were so glamorous in his day. But what I’m puzzling over is whether the quoted passage supports the idea that power can be created to arrest abuses of power. (Only abuses of power involve actual violence.) I think that it does. And I think that the best generator of power-checking power is the local council.

What local council, you ask — quite rightly. Local councils are at present a negligible force in representative democracies. Where they exist, it is usually to sound and express a consensus regarding local affairs. As such, they are far from uninfluential, but their operations are of no general interest. But why should there not be a plethora of local councils devoted to the consideration of such extreme if occult sources of power as the rules by which our two federal legislative chambers govern themselves? These councils would not have the power to alter those rules directly, but I surmise that they might well develop the power to persuade that changes be made.

I can imagine a council for everything, in one or more of which everyone possessed of at least normal intelligence participates.

And I imagine that, a few social gatherings of these councils aside (so as to put faces on names — and so much more that is important about shaking someone’s hand), the business of these councils would be conducted online. Online, not because of the relative convenience, but because the product of every council’s deliberations would be a position paper, modeled perhaps on the Declaration of Independence. (The discussion of the position would be conducted as a series of annotated drafts.) Conclusions and resolutions would be stated clearly, as unambiguously as possible, and in as friendly a spirit as possible (and by “friendly” I do not mean “nice.”). Then they would be circulated to other councils undertaking similar deliberations.  The endorsement of and amendment by every council of any such statement would increase its power — the power, that is, of all its supporters. A point to stress is that these ongoing councils would not resemble popular demonstrations or protest marches. Councils would be myriad and endless, interesting but rarely exciting. They would largely replace “political news,” and certainly wipe away the disgrace of political advertising.

There is nothing in the federal constitution, by the way, that would prohibit the “election” of representatives in this manner.

I myself am considering the establishment of a Committee on Public Manners, whose first position paper would cover the use of handheld electronic devices in public. Not only is there a need for such a manifesto, but the its composition would impel the spread of that expanded consciousness that Arendt is always thanking Kant for discussing: the ability to see things from the point of view of someone else.

Gotham Diary:
15 April 2014

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

I was done with Dept of Speculation, yesterday, by the end of lunch. I liked it, really, because, even if the protagonist aroused my disapproval, she did so in an interesting way. She also seemed to be learning, by the end, to be a less self-centered person, thus freeing her attention for dealing with unconsidered prejudices. (Her husband’s background — he comes from “Ohio,” and his family is a “whole blond band” — excites both her envy and her contempt.) But it was a line from the Acknowledgments page that arrested me somewhat more than even the most startling statements in the novel proper:

Thanks to my agent, Sally Wofford-Girand, who stood by me all these years and knew just when to wrench this thing out of my hands…

That is the narrator/wife in a nutshell: someone who needs to have something wrenched out of her hands.

My surmise is that Dept of Speculation is a hit — with the critics, at least — because it folds beautifully narrated vignettes into a matrix of stand-up comedy. It is not difficult to imagine an adaptation for the stage.

So, now: back to Hannah Arendt. The state of play so far: I have read five major works (The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Between Past and Future, The Human Condition, and On Revolution) and one book of commentary, Margaret Canovan’s Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought, which tops everybody’s list of must-reads, alongside Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of The World (which I have not read). It was Canovan’s book that I had in mind when I compared reading about Arendt to flying (reading Arendt herself is like crawling).

And this is the state of why — why the obsession with Hannah Arendt?: When I read Eichmann in Jerusalem last year, which I did because the fiftieth anniversary of the controversial book’s publication was something of a chattering-class event, nothing more eggheady than that, I found Arendt’s insistence upon the importance of thinking — not systematic thinking, or reasoning, really, but, as she puts in The Human Condition, “thinking what we do” — truly admirable, and I wanted to give her kind of thinking another try. I had been somewhat bewildered by The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I read about nine years ago (I had thought that it was longer ago than that), and discouraged by the book’s leftish critique of imperialism, which I agreed with overall but which struck me as somewhat doctrinaire — a reaction to which I’m prone whenever Karl Marx is mentioned. Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed to have a far more cogent grasp of the catastrophe that motivated Origins. In between these two books, of course, Arendt wrote the three others that I’ve now read, in which she worked her way out of Marx. Indeed, they take the place of a book that she planned but never wrote on the totalitarian aspects of Marxism.

What I discovered, as I read Arendt, was that nobody else even approaches her compellingly articulate analysis of the political problems facing the United States right now. And, make no mistake, the United States never had a more passionately devoted citizen.

You will not be surprised to hear that I am seeing references to Hannah Arendt everywhere. There are two, or at least there appear to be two, in Dept of Speculation itself. The first occurs on page 6.

Life equals structure plus activity.

Can this be mistaken for anything but a vernacular expression of the Arendtian idea (note well that I’m not actually quoting) that “humanity occurs in a world of institutions that support political action”? And then, on page 56,

It seems to me a useful but impressive phrase along the lines of “The Human Condition” or “The Life of the Mind.”

Those are both the titles of books by Arendt.

And then, on the front page of yesterday’s Times, there was a story by  Jason Horowitz, “Obama Effect Inspiring Few to Take Office.”

“If you were to call it an Obama generation, there was a window,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “That opportunity has been lost.” He said the youth who came of voting age around the time of the 2008 election have since lost interest in electoral politics, and pointed to a survey he conducted last year among 18- to 29-year-olds. Although 70 percent said they considered community service an honorable endeavor, only 35 percent said the same about running for office.

“We’re seeing the younger cohort is even less connected with him generally, with his policies, as well as politics generally,” Mr. Della Volpe added, referring to Mr. Obama. Sergio Bendixen, who worked as a pollster for Mr. Obama, blamed a social media-addled generation accustomed to instant gratification for the drop-off. After getting swept up by the Obama movement of 2008, he said, “They went on to the next website and then the next click on their computer. I just don’t see the generation as all that ideological or invested in causes for the long run.”

It was electrifying to read this within days of digesting the passages in Arendt’s On Revolution in which she shares Jefferson’s concern that there was no space in post-revolutionary America for most Americans to exercise their political freedom, and her endorsement of the third president’s call for a return to the “ward system” that preceded the Revolution — the network of town meetings that not only elected provincial legislators but also oversaw the bulk of local government. Mr Della Volpe’s survey’s figures for community service and running for office suggest that young people are vitally aware of the loss of power that polarizing party politics has inflicted on established government institutions. I would suggest to Mr Bendixen that he is barking up an empty tree. Arendt would have rejoiced to learn that “the generation” is not “all that ideological.” She loathed ideology.


When I came home from lunch, there was a package that I didn’t even have to open to know what it contained. The return address named the “Friends of the Santa Fe Library.” The Friends, it seems, decided to de-acquisition its copy (can the library have possessed more than one?) of  Hannah Fenichel Pitkin’s The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, and I happened to be in the market when they were selling. I was both impressed that the Santa Fe Library owned such a book and dismayed that it wanted to get rid of it. I suppose that what happened was that, somewhere along the line, a librarian neglected to read the subtitle, and acquired the book thinking that it was a pop-culture title, only to find out that it is so not. Or that it is about pop culture, but very, very obliquely.

“The Blob” is Pitkin’s name for the strands of inconsistent thoughts that Arendt packed together and labeled “the social,” or, sometimes, “society.” What was worse, Arendt invested this mass with the very same monstrous and deterministic powers that she chided other thinkers for dreaming up. Arendt asserted that “the social” was devouring both the public and the private spheres of life almost as if it were an alien from outer space, and she offered no suggestions about how to stop it. Pitkin believes that The Blob comprises genuine social problems, not just a bundle of notions that Arendt failed to work out, and her book is an attempt to clarify and deal with those problems. So far, it is, like almost everything that I’ve read about Arendt, comfortably lucid.

It’s important to clear up The Blob as part of understanding Arendt’s thinking because it took the place of a confrontation with economic matters for which Arendt had little but contempt. It was still possible, in the middle of the last century, to omit from political discussion any more extensive consideration of the economy than the assertion of the general right to home ownership. That is no longer the case; as Arendt herself feared might happen, the economic has swallowed the political. What do we do now? How can we put down organized money and revive the republic? I’m curious to see if Pitkin is right, and that the clues will be found in the anatomy of The Blob.

Gotham Diary:
14 April 2014

Monday, April 14th, 2014

The darling novel of the moment is Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, and I am nearly halfway through. It’s an agreeable read, but I am looking forward to being done with it.

I am looking forward to being done with it because I have taken a dislike to the narrator — the first-person narrator who, I’ve been told by all the reviews (which have also previewed many of the novel’s more trenchant passages), will soon disappear into the third person. “Dislike” may be the wrong word. What I’m feeling as I read is more like impatient disapproval.

The narrator is a thirty-something woman is unhappy with herself. This unhappiness is never really discussed, but it is woven into every sentence. Here, in a passage that refers to her husband and her daughter, is a throbbing instance of her unhappiness:

There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it. (44)

Nothing can straighten our hearts, but we must come to terms with them on our own. Here’s how I read the second sentence: “I had thought needing two people so badly would straighten it.” And of course that’s the wrong way round. The only thing that it is at all proper to need from another person (emergencies aside) is inspiration — the inspiration to be a better, happier person than you are. Ideally, you wait to meet an inspiring person before falling in love. Meanwhile, you must prepare yourself for inspiration. You can’t be happier until you find something that makes you happy to begin with, and you must find this for yourself.  Once you have found it, however, the search is over; what follows is the hard, interior work of making yourself more apt at whatever it is that makes you happy, together with nurturing the faith that your happiness is important — that you must, out of self-respect, take care of it.

“Happiness” is a much-abused term, and I wish I didn’t have to use it, but no other word captures the delight-in-the-world that is the most important characteristic of happiness — what distinguishes it, sharply, from the idea of pleasure. Pleasure has been regarded as dangerous since people started writing things down, but it is only rather recently — since the abatement of religious strife in the Seventeenth Century — that happiness was discovered to be safe. Happiness involves pleasure, to be sure; but it turns its back on it, as it were, in order to make the world a more pleasant place. Adult happiness is the state of being pleased to give pleasure.

None of this appears to have occurred to our narrator, and I have to wonder if that’s because she is too sophisticated for happiness — too hip, perhaps. She certainly does not seem inclined to believe in anything. She trusts her husband, but that is not the same thing as believing in him. Belief is a kind of happiness that reaches far beyond contractual trust. The narrator loves her husband, but he does not really make her happy — nothing does — because she has not prepared herself for happiness.

In this she is like countless young people (who eventually become not-so-young) who come to New York in search of something. But there is nothing in New York except a handful of monuments and millions of other people. Aside from the monuments and the millions, New York is just like anywhere else, so there is no point to coming here to find something that can be found anywhere. The people who will succeed in New York already know upon arrival what that something is, and they have reason to believe that the sheer plurality of the city will encourage them.


The difference between reading Hannah Arendt and reading about Hannah Arendt is the difference between crawling over the Rocky Mountains on your hands and knees and flying over them in a jet plane. Although fast, easy, and comfortable, however, I’m not sure that there would be much of a point to the flight if it weren’t a return trip. That is all that I am going to say about Arendt today.

Except also this: reading about Hannah Arendt has given me the impression that I treasure her because she is a lapsed philosopher.

13 April 2014

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Although there is no commenting utility at this site, I am happy to publish articulate responses from readers. Please do take a minute! You’ll find the address at the bottom of the page.


In response to the entry entitled “XX” and dated 7 April, Walter Wade writes,

Why did this succinct and so to the point observation not find a wider audience?

In other words, what had happened in colonial America prior to the Revolution (and what had happened in no other part of the world, neither in the old countries nor in the new colonies) was, theoretically speaking, that action had led to the formation of power and that power was kept in existence by the then newly discovered means of promise and consent. The force of this power, engendered by action and kept by promises, came to the fore when, to the great surprise of all the great powers, the colonies, namely, the townships and the provinces, the counties and the cities, their numerous differences amongst themselves notwithstanding, won the war against England. But this victory was a surprise only for the Old World; the colonists themselves, with a hundred and fifty years of covenant-making behind them, rising out of a country which was articulated from top to bottom — from provinces or states down to cities and districts, townships, villages, and counties — into duly constituted bodies, each a commonwealth of its own, with representatives “freely chosen by the consent of loving friends and neighbours,” each, moreover, designed “for increase” as it rested on the mutual promises of those who were “cohabiting” and who, when they “conjoyned [them] selves to be as one Publike State or Commonwealth,” had planned not only for their “successors” but even for “such as shall be adioyned to [them] in any tyme hereafter” — the men who out of the uninterrupted strength of this tradition “bid a final adieu to Britain” knew their chances from the beginning; they knew of the enormous power potential that arises when men “mutually pledge to each other [their] lives, [their] Fortunes and their sacred Honour.

Because she was a woman and men did not listen to, much less hear, women back then.

Because, while cultural antisemitism was on the wane, that was still an Eastern phenomenon and in any case, no group of WASP men likes to learn the essential truism of their nation from an outsider.

Because, when a society is in chaos, as the 60’s was, conservative Pablum trumps reasoned truth, especially when the message is from a perceived representative of a group (liberal, cultured Jews) who at the time were closely identified as championing the dangerous new freedoms that were roiling the nation; the message was lost for want of an acceptable messenger.

Had she been a middle-aged, white male from an Ivy background, her laser beam precision might have been hailed by the nation’s educators and her work used to strip away, without destroying completely, the saccharine sentimentalism that had grown to enshrine the Founding Fathers.  That sentimentalism was appropriate for an earlier nation of relatively unlettered citizens who needed history, patriotism and the idea of a national identity fed to them in small, pre-digested bites, in much the same way as the Catholic Church taught it’s tenets to the great unwashed immigrants in the New World, and elsewhere.  It is a shame that Ms. Arendt’s work did not reach its intended audience, high-school and college students who had rejected the myths but had nothing at hand with which to replace it, without jettisoning the concept altogether.

Gotham Diary:
11 April 2014

Friday, April 11th, 2014

This evening, we’re having a small dinner party, six à table, including the lovely lady who, like our neighbor the suicide, has lived in her apartment for longer than we’ve been in ours. I am hoping that she arrives early, or that I run into her in the hall beforehand, so that we can get the tsk-tsking out of the way.

Owing to another recent death — that the very opposite of suicide: prolonged, with multiple illnesses and ever more alarming signs of failing health, in an agony lasting several years — there are now only three people living on the floor who were already here when we arrived. Owing to shifts that occurred not long after we moved in, and that led to a pattern of shifting, we became old-timers on the early side. Four apartments have turned over so often that we’ve never gotten to know the tenants, and it seems that they’re being joined by a fifth. One apartment has been vacant since the holidays; another, next door to us, has not been regularly inhabited for decades, but sublet, on who knows what terms, from time to time, with no one staying for more than a year. (One of the subletters, inspired by a spell of fine weather to make cell phone calls from his balcony, had to be told that I could hear everything that he said everywhere in my apartment.) Another apartment houses a nice woman who moved in when her son was a baby; he’s got to be nine or ten by now, so I suppose that his mother is entitled to think of herself as an old-timer, too. These are the people whom I have in mind when I speak of “our neighbor,” although of course she was known to people living on other floors, and, you bet, to all the doormen.

The manager of the package room told me that he couldn’t remember what our neighbor the suicide looked like. This was so hard for me to imagine — not knowing what she looked like — that I blurted out, rather inconsequently, that he’d remember her if he heard her, because she was always complaining. He looked at me keenly and replied, “That’s what everybody says.”

That’s what everybody says. What an epitaph: She Was Always Complaining.


Here I ought to mention something so obvious to those of us who knew our neighbor that it might well go unremarked, creating unnecessary mystification in others. Our neighbor was not at all a “hateful” person — her manner, until she opened her mouth, was quite pleasant. Her characteristic expression might be compared to the archaic smile of old Greek statues, pleasant but not non-committal. She walked through this mortal bourne of ours with a sweet complacency that was undoubtedly the quality that protected her from real rudeness on the part of others. She spoke in a tone of resignation that only over the long term proved to be misleading — for the only thing that our neighbor was resigned to was the fact that she would spend it whining. It took years for me to stop being surprised when whatever it was that she had to say established itself as a grievance (just as it took forever to note the impatience behind that smile), for her bearing promised something so much closer to intelligent conversation. She was not stupid, our neighbor; she shared all the prejudices of the good Yorkville progressives who teem in our ark. But it was hard for her to escape the gravitational pull of her own disappointments, which often concerned matters that the rest of us regarded as things that “big children” overlook. We all agreed that the elevators were slow and not entirely reliable — but our agreement was (and is) implicit; having it pointed out to us by our tirelessly dissatisfied neighbor did not make life any easier.

Indeed, the more I remembered what our neighbor looked like — how, for example, she passed our booth in the diner across the street on weekend mornings and said “hi” (with a querulousness that was not immediately apparent) — because, after all, dying the way she did brought to mind the horror of her falling through the air to her death, which it seems a young tenant caught sight of — the less I remembered the sound of her voice, to the point that, about two hours after I first heard the news, I was overtaken by the creepy conviction that I had made it all up, or perhaps had a dream. I knew that this was a delusion, but, just to be sure (and to loiter about, eavesdropping, in the lobby), I went downstairs and asked the doorman who had just come on duty if it was true. I cannot say that he smirked when he assured me that it was, but his eyes crinkled with glee. They really did.

Had our neighbor died what is called a natural death, no one would have said much about her, because nobody wants to speak ill of the dead. People aren’t saying very much as it is, but the atmosphere is positively constipated. Normally — well, who am I to say what’s normal about such cases, happily rare as they are. But I imagine that the normal suicide elicits not only shock (somebody jumped!) but surprise (who knew?). The surprise is what’s missing here, not because anybody was expecting the suicide, but because speculations about our neighbor’s state of mind are drowned out by the the intense recollection that she was always complaining. We knew plenty about her state of mind.

Given this notorious disposition, it is not surprising that our neighbor had few visitors; in addition, there never seemed to be any close family. Her mother used to live in Lincoln Towers, across town, and that was a source of complaint — getting there, getting home, &c — that we all shared, because crossing town is the Trail of Tears in Manhattan. Then her mother died, and that sympathetic topic dried up. I seem to recall her mentioning relatives in Toronto. Now there is talk of a niece. (There always seems to be a niece, doubtless because I read too many novels.) No notice has appeared in the lobby, as is usual when a long-term tenant passes away, announcing the fact of the death and the date of a memorial service. Perhaps it’s too soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

This makes me uncomfortable. It occurred to me this afternoon that our neighbor, perhaps improperly medicated, alone and without a sounding board, and probably not in full possession of her faculties, intended her fall from the eighteenth floor to send a message to the rest of us, a mixed bag of people who were however of one mind about her: you are always complaining. I don’t really believe that our neighbor intended any such thing, but the hypothesis underlines the fact that what she left behind was confusion. Her lurid act makes it strangely urgent to find out why she was always complaining. Is there anybody who knew her well enough to be able to tell us?

For our neighbor’s legacy (at the moment) has a double senselessness. Suicide usually seems selfless, certainly when there is no note or “explanation.” But the way our neighbor lived in the world was also senseless, at least to the extent that such habitual discontent needs an explanation, too.

How bizarre and almost inhuman this blend of familiarity and ignorance, this everyday contact devoid of involuntary intimacy, must seem to those who don’t make Manhattan their home!

Gotham Diary:
A Shock
10 April 2014

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

In the lobby yesterday afternoon, the doorman who has always addressed me as “Mr Moriarty” approached me with shocking news. A neighbor down the hall, already here when we moved into our apartment more than thirty years ago, had killed herself in the morning, at about 8:20. She had let herself drop from her balcony, onto the courtyard at the back of the building.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. I hadn’t seen her in some time. It seems that she had been hospitalized (presumably with depression), and that she came home, in all probability, prematurely, and in a state that the mail deliverer described as “confused.” Her copy of the Times had had, for a week or so, a way of lingering at her doorstop until well into the afternoon, but the newspapers never piled up. Even before that, during the holidays or thereabouts, I noticed a change in her behavior toward me. It was as though she had finally accepted the fact that I found her to be an unpleasant nuisance (something that I never expressed in words but that must, over all those years, have leaked out), and that she would simply disregard my token greetings. It was as if she didn’t see me.

None of this foretold suicide, of course, but it put change in the air.

Our neighbor was a persistently discontented person who seemed to open her mouth only to bemoan the weather and to whine about the building — about declining services, minuscule rent hikes, that sort of thing — and several times she rang my doorbell to say, “You’re a lawyer aren’t you…?” I finally did give her the card of a lawyer who might know how to help her, but I’ve never heard that she contacted him. The very fact that she complained about the MCIs indicated to me that she was not likely to run up bills with an attorney.

I remember that, for three or four years, some time ago, she seemed happy. The complaints dried up, and were replaced with smiles. She would talk about now nice the weather was. The alteration in her commentary was too stark not to be attributable to medication, and it ended just as abruptly. Once again, the weather was mentioned only if it was terrible, or about to be terrible.

She did not permit casual conversations to end gracefully. She would talk for as long as she had my attention, repeating herself like a circling airplane. Sooner, or sooner than sooner, I would have to cut her off with some formulaic excuse. On one of her doorbell-ringing visitations, I interrupted her lawyer question by saying that this was not a good time, and closing the door with apologetic urgency. If I could not hide my unwillingness to hear her out, she could not hide her unvarnished desire for attention.

She had been, I believe, a librarian in the public school system. Occasionally, she would ask me what I was reading (because she would see me reading; I always carry a book when running local errands, partly as a defense), but my answers never seemed to mean anything to her. I never saw her read anything. She would always go through the books that I began leaving in the window embrasure by the elevator, a custom that other neighbors have since followed. She rarely took one, and, when she did, it reappeared in a day or so. The idea that she had been a gatekeeper to books and literature with whom children must deal made me grit my teeth.

I hated being rude to her, even though I was never rude rude. I don’t have to be on good terms with everyone, but I like my enemies to show some self-respect, and our neighbor was lost in a maze of low-grade self-pity. I knew that her life must be very unsatisfactory to her — I knew it as well as we can know anything about someone else. I should be very surprised indeed to learn that she led a secret life of fun, and I shouldn’t be happy to hear it, either, because she must have in that case been working very hard to keep it a secret from me. Whenever I wasn’t in the actual train of avoiding her, I felt sorry for her, very sorry.

And when I told Kathleen about our neighbor’s death, on the phone, and Kathleen said that she felt very sorry for our neighbor, I said that I had felt sorry for her for years — “I know,” said Kathleen — and that now I could stop feeling sorry for her.

If I had cared for her, and really known the cause of her suffering, I might, perhaps, stop feeling sorry for her. I might be happy for her, knowing that she was out of her misery. But I didn’t know her well enough to care for her, and the assumption that she has found relief in death feels heartless. So, nothing has changed. I still feel sorry for her.

The awful truth is that our neighbor is remembered by almost everyone in this building (and, by “almost,” I am marking just one exception) as “the lady who was always complaining.” Had she died quietly in bed, the legacy would have been the same, although certainly more lighthearted. Most people would have said nothing, and soon forgotten her. But dying as she died — how does one really describe a 76 year-old woman traversing a balcony railing and then letting go (an awkward business, but — perhaps not!)? — she insured, intentionally or not, that everyone would remember her as the lady who was always complaining. Who was always complaining and who jumped off her balcony.

And her complaints, I hasten to to note, were the opposite of the kind of warnings that prompt people to sit up and take notice of a problem. Our neighbor’s complaints were embalmed in a scent that made them her complaints alone — even when, as sometimes happened, we actually shared them.

There is nothing simple to say or to think about our late neighbor. Sorry, of course: God rest her soul. I don’t believe in God,but I believe in that hope. Call me human.

It’s too early to say whether I’ll miss ducking our neighbor. I don’t expect to, but you never know, with shocks like this.

Gotham Diary:
The Courtly Hiatus
9 April 2014

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

It is probably somewhat premature, in the course of my tutelage, to object to this or that point in Hannah Arendt’s writing, but all that I’ve learned in my longish life is to begin with such observations. The objections themselves flow on regardless. There aren’t many; in fact, there are only three. They have been provoked not by Arendt’s passing remarks but by views to which she has recurred in the three meaty books that I’ve read this year, The Human Condition, On Revolution, and Between Past and Future. (Proof of prematurity: I haven’t quite finished the middle title.)

First of all, there is the problem of Arendt’s ideas about “society” — something that, to her mind, warrants a ten-foot pole to deal with. She hates “society.” I can see why, having digested her comments, but I remain puzzled by her de-validization of a concept that is generally thought to be quite basic. Puzzled enough to jump at the discovery of a brilliantly titled book, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, by Hannah Fenichel Pitkin. I found the book, “new” (sold by the Friends of the Santa Fe Library), at Amazon, and was able to take a peek at its opening.

This book traces the career of one problematic concept in the thought of one major political theorist of our time. The concept merits attention not because the theorist got it right and used it to teach an important truth, but quite the contrary, because the concept was confused and her way of deploying it radically at odds with her most central and valuable teaching. If studying it is nevertheless worthwhile, that is because its significance transcends the technicalities of textual interpretation and the critique of a particular thinker’s work. If the concept was a mistake, that mistake was not just idiosyncratic or careless, and the problem that the concept was intended to address remains problematic.

The thinker is Hannah Arendt, arguably the greatest and most original political theorist of the mid-twentieth century, the concept is what she called “the social.”

I ordered it immediately. I can only hope that it lives up to this exordium. Even more, I hope that Pitkin restores the words “society” and “social” to me; Arendt has put them in detention.

Another matter that strikes me, the more I read Arendt, as ever more undigested, not properly worked out, has to do with Arendt’s statement, repeated in all three books, that political power comes into being when men come together to work for a common purpose, and it ends when they disperse. I agree, heartily; but the thought is sidelined in On Revolution whenever Arendt falls into one of her raptures (as they must be called, although to do so is hardly meant to cheapen her thinking) about the Founding of the American Republic. She insistently takes the view that the Founding was irreversible, that it could not be undone no matter what circumstances might prevail subsequently. This was the view of Abraham Lincoln, and it has been the view of all established scholars of the subject. I do not agree with it, and I believe that Arendt was inconsistent to do so. It seems contrary to her understanding of political power to hold that the failure of men to join in common cause represents any kind of power at all. I can well understand that a woman in her position, stateless for more than a decade and quite at home in the country that granted her both asylum and citizenship, would be inclined to assert the paramountcy of her government. But her position on the Civil War — a crisis not, so far as I know, confronted directly in her writing; the position is nevertheless implicit in what she says about the Founding — remains inconsistent with her articulated ideas of political power.

The larger point in which my objection rests is something to which Arendt repeatedly attested: the death of the old traditions in the paroxysms of the last century. It was a strange death, because traditions don’t just die. They lose authority. Arendt devotes an essay in Between Past and Future to this problem, but it is more descriptive than prescriptive. It does not end by locating a source of contemporary authority — as I recall. (As I say, I intend to review this topic with rigor; right now, I wish merely to flag it.) Her failure to do so does not surprise me, given the time in which she was writing.

The first inkling that I had of where authority might rest in today’s world was presented by David Denby’s wonderful book, Great Books (1996). This is the account of a middle-aged journalist who returns to his alma mater, Columbia University, to audit a course that he was required to take for credit as an undergraduate. What he discovered, of course, was that the books had changed. Their titles were the same, but they resonated very differently, proving that Denby had grown since graduation — something that few college graduates manage, in my experience, to do. The point about authority is almost an aside, but it knocked me over the moment I read it, because it was made in reference to a writer who is certainly the most sacred of my sacred cows, Jane Austen. In the course of talking about one of her novels (I forget which), Denby asserted that each generation must rediscover and reclaim the masterpieces of the past — it must reauthenticate them, as it were. Now, it’s clear that the role of teachers is to help students with this task, and also that it is forgivable if teachers inculcate their own preferences. If a teacher is persuasive, that’s authority. But the teacher cannot simply say, “this is a book that you must not only read, but respect, and if you don’t respect it, you’re a dummy.” That,  I’m afraid, was the ethic of all education prior to World War II; teachers saw students not as future teachers but as inferior human beings. They didn’t have time for student preferences. Nor do I. But I saw the truth of Denby’s assertion instantly, no matter that it meant putting Jane Herself on probation even for an instant.

This idea, that standards must be passed on from generation to generation persuasively, is an exact fit with Arendt’s understanding, repeated again and again in The Human Condition, that political power in the polis — the Greek unit of government — operates not by violence or any other kind of coercion, but by persuasion. And it spreads from Denby’s discussion of the study of the humanities to the center of the political arena. Every political decision must be ratified by every generation, and so must every Founding — even if the bar for testing a Founding necessarily be raised significantly higher.

The third point is the case about which, I am certain, Arendt wrote more out of prejudice than from understanding, and that is the rottenness of the French royal court in the last centuries of the ancien régime. This contemptuous view was an easy winner among smart people from the Second Empire (and perhaps earlier) to the day before yesterday. In a paragraph close to the end of her chapter on “The Social Question,” in On Revolution, Arendt writes,

The Reign of Terror, we should remember, followed upon the period when all political developments had fallen under the influence of Louis XVI’s ill-fated cabals and intrigues. The violence of terror, at least to a certain extent, was the reaction to a series of broken oaths and unkept promises that were the perfect political equivalent of the customary intrigues of Court society, except that these wilfully corrupted manners, which Louis XIV still knew how to keep apart from the style in which he conducted affairs of state, had by now reached the monarch as well. Promises and oaths were nothing but a rather awkwardly construed frontage with which to cover up, and win time for, an even more inept intrigue contrived toward the breaking of all promises and all oaths. And though in this instance the king promised to the extent that he feared, and broke his promises to the extent that he hoped, one cannot but marvel at the precise appositeness of La Rochefoucauld’s aphorism. The widespread opinion that the most successful modes of political action are intrigue, falsehood, and machination, if they are not outright violence, goes back to these experiences, and it is therefore no accident that we find this sort of Realpolitik today chiefly among those who rose to statesmanship out of the revolutionary tradition. Wherever society was permitted to invade, and eventually to absorb the political realm, it imposed its own mores and “moral” standards, the intrigues of the perfidies of high society, to which the lower strata responded by violence and brutality.

It will be seen that this case, as I put it, overlaps the first one that I mentioned, but I don’t think that it does so to the point of identity. The heart of the case is not society but high society, the “Court society” instituted by the Bourbon kings of France and their two most eminent ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Court society was perfected by Louis XIV, in the building of Versailles, its palatial habitat. The wickedness of this society and the monstrosity of its palace were taken for granted by almost all thinking people in the later Nineteenth Century.

What interests me isn’t so much that Arendt shares this commonplace outlook, and even manages to incorporate it into the structure of her argument about the failure of the French Revolution (doomed from the start by the perfidy of “high society”!), but rather that, in order to do so, she must overlook two historical matters, both linked in a much longer-termed revolution in human manners. Just as she identifies the “wandering in the wildnerness” periods that separate “then” from “now” in the two foundation legends that were known to classical antiquity — the Hebrews, led by Moses, out of Egypt, and the Trojans, led by Aeneas, into Rome — so she might have seen that court society constitutes just such a hiatus between the brutal “then” of medieval society and the peaceable “now” of modern Western life — a “now,” moreover, in which a woman such as Hannah Arendt might speak out and be heard, respected even. Such a woman would have been burned as a witch in the medieval “then.”

It was within the framework of court society that the transition occurred. The rulers of France, determined to put an end to all unofficial violence, relied only partially on official violence or coercion to achieve this aim. They also offered an alternative way of life, lavishly accoutered and, for favored subscribers (courtiers), materially rewarding. Why spend money beating up your aristocratic neighbor when you can show him up by making money at court? Concealing the impulse to fight behind the wreaths of courtly smiles inevitably encouraged a culture of hypocrisy, but, over the long term, pretense in many instances was transformed into sincerity, as witnessed in the orgy of renunciation on 4 August 1789.

Although it can hardly have been a conscious objective of the reforming Bourbons, the alternative way of life that they developed also created a growing space for the autonomous woman. Women had always graced royal courts, but now they did more, as we see in the miraculously long career of Mme de Pompadour (cut short only by her illness and death). The abatement of violence conduced to the safety of women, by which I mean that men were transformed from the weaklings who in semitic societies can so expect to be undone by the slightest display of female allure that women must be covered up whenever in public into self-controlled individuals prepared to regard women as human beings and to negotiate, not to compel, sexual favors. Court society created opportunities for women to express themselves, and the quite different salons that arose after the death of Louis XIV, led by women, became nurseries of social equality to the extent that aristocratic titles were obviated by urbane appearance.

The transformation of the elite — Arendt’s “high society” — was complete by 1789. This was manifest in the American Revolution. True, women’s suffrage would wait another century or more, but the most important precondition of women’s suffrage was firmly in place: women were safe in good society.

The problem that arose when the courtly hiatus came to an end was, precisely, one of extending the abstention from violence and the respect for women to the previously shackled masses, who now, for the first time, were free to be as violent and as misogynistic as they liked.

As always, Arendt’s silence on anything to do with the position of women in the world is fascinating.

Gotham Diary:
The Prowst Problem, cont’d
8 April 2014

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014


Well, I say that, but of course I never am.

Frank Bruni writes about a class that he is teaching at Princeton — he doesn’t say what he is teaching, and he doesn’t specify “Princeton University,” so perhaps this is just a test-cramming course on the Upper West Side.

Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

Oops! I was wrong. He does specify Princeton University.

Can anybody tell me what Princeton University is for, if it accepts students who know so little of the world into which they were born — who seem to know almost nothing that happened before they were born? This would appear to put Princeton in the position of a high school — and not a very good one.

I don’t blame the students. I look at Mr Bruni and his colleagues, because it’s they who are the problem. Confronted by minds deprived of perspective, not so much by the “plethora” of “media choices” as by a shocking want of juvenile discipline, they throw up their hands.

I brought up this Balkanization of experience with Hendrik Hartog, the director of the American studies program at Princeton, and he noted that what’s happening in popular culture mirrors what has transpired at many elite universities, where survey courses in literature and history have given way to meditations on more focused themes.

“There’s enormous weight given to specialized knowledge,” he said. “It leaves an absence of connective tissue for students.” Not for nothing, he observed, does his Princeton colleague Daniel Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history, call this the “age of fracture.”

“The Age of Fracture” sounds like a problem. I can think of only one solution. (American Studies, indeed!) It’s called History.

History is not just the names and dates of battles, kings, empires, and all that. It is far more dense. The masterpieces of art that are housed in our museums make full sense only when their roots in particular times and places are grasped as the springboard of their timeless universality.

The whole point of the United States of America, its very reason for being, cannot be comprehended without a familiarity with the history of classical antiquity (“Greece and Rome”), together with everything in between. Most of modern literature, from the Eighteenth Century on, is incomprehensible without a solid understanding of the rise of the bourgeoisie.

(You might say that our current muddle owes to the triumph of the bourgeoisie, a class with its sights fixed ever upward. Now there is no one to look up to.)

Capitalism has a history. It’s important to know that all the social sciences have been deformed, from their inception, by “physics envy,” the urge to find invariable laws in human behavior. Economics is arguably the most deformed of the social sciences — don’t be fooled by the veneer of mathematics!

History is nothing but The World So Far, and it is all that. Nobody can be expected to know very much of it in detail, but the outlines are assimilable, and a well-educated mind is a mind that is able to relate, roughly, any two pieces of information about it, and to relate what happened to what’s happening. Think of history not as an avalanche of facts but rather as a tree. This tree grows in the mind, with the mind, but it does not produce its own foliage. Leaves are furnished by familiarity with The World. The well-educated mind knows, as I say, where to put what it knows on this tree, and the more knowledge that’s arranged on any part of the tree, the bigger it grows.

The English language has a history. It used to be quite different. Chaucer’s verse is no longer intelligible to untrained listeners. Shakespeare becomes more difficult every decade. The point of university education is to cultivate a class of students (ideally, all young men and women) who are made familiar with History at a time when their minds are developing. Let me put it another way: university education has no other point. The familiarization with History is supposed to occur at the high-school level. Why isn’t Princeton insisting on properly educated students — instead of looking for “well-rounded” achievers? A lot of good “meditations on more focused themes” are going to do terminally myopic students!

Why are the people in education walking away from their jobs — but not their paychecks?

Remembering the daunting Regents Exams that were so feared in my day, I turn to Wikipedia and find the following depressing tidbit:

In April 2012 the Board of Regents decided to formally consider a proposal that would eliminate Regents Examination in Global History and Geography as a graduation requirement for some students beginning September 2013. Global History and Geography is the most frequently failed examination.

That’s just great. If students fail examinations, drop the course. The one course that really matters.

Whatever happened to teachers?

Perhaps Mr Bruni doesn’t see the importance of the problem. After all, he titles his column, “The Water Cooler Runs Dry” — a frivolous reduction of higher education to the dimensions of mass entertainment.

Now I really am speechless.

Gotham Diary:
7 April 2014

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Three sentences.

In other words, what had happened in colonial America prior to the Revolution (and what had happened in no other part of the world, neither in the old countries nor in the new colonies) was, theoretically speaking, that action had led to the formation of power and that power was kept in existence by the then newly discovered means of promise and consent. The force of this power, engendered by action and kept by promises, came to the fore when, to the great surprise of all the great powers, the colonies, namely, the townships and the provinces, the counties and the cities, their numerous differences amongst themselves notwithstanding, won the war against England. But this victory was a surprise only for the Old World; the colonists themselves, with a hundred and fifty years of covenant-making behind them, rising out of a country which was articulated from top to bottom — from provinces or states down to cities and districts, townships, villages, and counties — into duly constituted bodies, each a commonwealth of its own, with representatives “freely chosen by the consent of loving friends and neighbours,” each, moreover, designed “for increase” as it rested on the mutual promises of those who were “cohabiting” and who, when they “conjoyned [them] selves to be as one Publike State or Commonwealth,” had planned not only for their “successors” but even for “such as shall be adioyned to [them] in any tyme hereafter” — the men who out of the uninterrupted strength of this tradition “bid a final adieu to Britain” knew their chances from the beginning; they knew of the enormous power potential that arises when men “mutually pledge to each other [their] lives, [their] Fortunes and their sacred Honour.”

Never have I read a more powerful paean to the United States of America as constituted in 1789. It astonishes me that the words that I have just extracted were not taught to me in school, and taught again and again. Had this passage formed part of the backbone of elite education in the middle of the last century, I am quite sure that the troglodyte, conservative sentimentalism about “the Founders” spouted by the likes of Antonin Scalia would be far more broadly dismissed as the bunkum that it is.

Why wasn’t it? I asked Kathleen, having been almost swept away by reading it to her.

Could it be the title of the book in which Hannah Arendt published this oratorical gem? On Revolution. Not the happiest title in 1963, what with Cuba &c. Revolutions were “bad things” in those days, for the simple reason that, as Arendt herself pointed out repeatedly, no revolution except the American had been a “good thing.”

Kathleen thought it might be that Arendt was Jewish. I disagreed. While social antisemitism was still virulent in the early Sixties, academic and “cultural” antisemitism had been dismantled for some time.

Could it have been the distinction that Arendt makes between a republic and a democracy, as in the following perhaps too-brainy passage?

The American revolutionary insistence on the distinction between a republic and a democracy or majority rule hinges on the radical separation of law and power, with clearly recognized different origins, different legitimations, and different spheres of application.

In Arendt’s view, the USA was a republic, and not a democracy. It was certainly more of a republic in 1789, with the indirect election of the Senate.

Could it have been Arendt’s erudite humanism, so at odds with the American enthusiasm for guts? She roots the success of the American Revolution in a dense matting of civil compacts, not in battlefield heroism. This might well have been found unappealing.

I felt that we were getting closer to an explanation that stood up. In the end, however, we shook our heads irresolutely. The best explanation that we could come up with was so dumb, so stupid, and so piggish, that it was hard to credit.

Hannah Arendt was a woman.



Gotham Diary:
4 April 2014

Friday, April 4th, 2014

On Revolution arrived yesterday. At the moment, it appears to be the last “big” book by Hannah Arendt that I’ll be reading; after this, I’ve got some books about her to read. The adventure so far has carried me much further than anything I dreamed of when I read Eichmann in Jerusalem (because it was fifty years old and people were talking about it). I’ve never had an intellectual experience remotely like this one, half of it a struggle with a fiercely independent, self-directed thinker who was, at the same time, deeply versed in tradition; the other half a deeply satisfying resolution, a bringing into focus of ideas that I’ve been nursing for years. It is as if Arendt had handed me a pair of glasses that at the same time corrected my vision, making every detail crisp, and intensified the three-dimensionality of the world. I have never known a philosopher to deepen my awareness of things.

I’m beginning, though, to look forward to writing without mentioning her: I can already see just how far she is going to take me, the point from which I shall have to continue on my own, or with someone else’s help. I don’t see it very clearly now, but I know that it is the portal beneath which totalitarian probabilities drop their world-historical pretensions and assume, instead, the skimpier garb of market totalism. Market totalism is the drive to put a price tag on everything, and to reduce all human activity to productivity. We’re in the thick of it now. When I say that Arendt will take me so far and no further, I’m not talking about events to come. The events are already at hand. The point that I refer to is the one at which I will be putting to full use everything that Arendt has taught me, as I try to understand the catastrophe-in-process.

Three stories are swimming together in my brain right now: GM’s ignition-switch mess, the McCutcheon decision, and Amazon’s Fire TV. What to they have in common? The elite’s capitulation to the values of mass entertainment. We have allowed mass entertainment to take the place of civil, democratic discourse, so that anything that doesn’t fit the parameters of mass entertainment is ipso facto intolerably pointless and boring. Would GM be able to pretend that no individual is personally responsible for the Cobalt fiasco if educated Americans (a) repudiated the notion that an artificial person can commit a criminal act or (b) were less willing to “liquidate” damages in financial settlements?  Would McCutcheon matter at all if educated Americans set the example of doing their own political homework, or if American institutions supported clear and distinct ideas about political honesty? Would Amazon, a huge online emporium, be permitted to engage in media distribution if the spirit of human-sized modesty that underlies all US trade regulation were enforced? If Americans — the elite included — were not, as the late Neil Postman put it, entertaining themselves to death, would any of these stories even exist?

I don’t bother to object to mass entertainment itself, not least because I know that it would be quite different if the elite withdrew its attention and pursued humane culture instead. It’s the crazy misapprehension of leisure currently prevailing among the elite that makes me sea-sick. Here is a “little list” of ersatz leisure activities that affluent and degree-carrying Americans expect friends, not without warrant, to want to hear about:

  • Short-term travel to exotic regions, with no hope of personal engagement with the people of those regions. Bucket lists.
  • Real-estate prices — considered as awesome natural phenomena.
  • Collections of comic books and other quondam ephemera. Downton Abbey, in season.
  • Spectator sports. Children’s sports.
  • Automobiles and their “recreational” use.
  • Privileged access to celebrities.

The best that can be said of these topics is that they refer to forms of vacation. Vacation is vital: prolonged effort requires periods of relaxation. Today’s elite, however, perverts vacation by making it strenuous or at least rushed wherever possible. What ought to be relaxed hours are as pressed as worktime. Without the moderating and cohering — steadying — influence of thought, varied pastimes melt into miscellaneous occupation.

What’s worse, vacation ought to be a private matter, with little or nothing to be said about it. (Golf!!!) By devoting masses of free time to what ought to be occasional pastimes, the elite leaves itself with nothing better to talk about. It’s as though the decision had been taken that it’s all right to leave the house in your underwear.

It will be imagined that I am calling for more “high-minded” conversation. No — just “minded.”