Archive for May, 2014

Gotham Diary:
The World and Meaning
30 May 2014

Friday, May 30th, 2014

There is only one Earth, but there are many worlds — at the finest grain, as many worlds as there are people. These worlds, however, differ only in detail, and most of us live in worlds that are largely shared with the people around us. All worlds contain a mixture of concrete monuments — shrines, churches, public buildings — impalpable conventions, and, the case of “advanced civilizations,” hybrids of the concrete and the impalpable (such as, for example, the novel). Each world also contains a civil society that supports and preserves it; without this support and preservation, the world collapses, leaving only ruins — the Roman Forum, Angkor Wat.

Civil society is comprised of individuals, and for most individuals there is only one world, the one in which they are born and raised.

It is in the nature of a healthy child to take the world for granted, to become familiar with it without understanding it. It is not necessary to understand the world in order to live in it. But it is necessary to understand the world in order to improve it. The individual who ceases to take the world for granted, and who instead considers its inequities and injustices, must not only imagine a better way of ordering the world but also understand the world as it is, and why it is, in order to assure that the improvement will take root, and actually put an end to injustice. The alternative is to upset the world with violence, and to hope for the best. While I should argue that worlds generally, especially in the West, have grown more humane over the millennia, the ratio of attempted improvements (planned or violent) to successful improvements is not inspiring. The most powerful argument in the quiver of those whose mentality we currently call “conservative” is the observation that most attempts at improvement fail.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has developed a new vulnerability. In earlier times, the usual reason for the withdrawal of civil society’s support for the world was military defeat. In the world of the modern Westerner — American or European — military defeat can be matched by ignorance, incompetence, and inattentiveness. Our world is made up of more delicate materials than stone monuments and ageless traditions. There is no correlative for the sheer mass of pollution-spewing factories or industrial farms in the pre-modern world.

The World into which anyone was born prior to the Industrial Revolution was local, and ringed by unknowns. There were few permanent material structures, and conventions, while wrinkled with complexities, developed a high degree of local autonomy. Control from outside the locality was sporadic and even capricious. In the Middle Ages, everything was given a Christian rationale. But this universalizing trend, while palpable in the upper reaches of hierarchy and power, did not register at the local level. Prelates might travel (indeed, few people traveled more), but hardly anyone else did.

At the beginning of the modern age — a zone stretching from the Black Death of the discovery of the New World — the rich began to gravitate away from their localities and toward the courts of powerful princes. From these courts issued almost all of the secular cultural institutions that underpin the culture of the modern West: styles of architecture and types of buildings; organs of government; academies of science and the arts; the arts themselves, including literature; and, perhaps most important of all, good manners. (It is in our manners, however hypocritically practiced, that the stamp of Christianity is most clearly seen.) With unprecedented wealth and power at their disposal, these courts reached deep into the localities and began a process of social homogenization that is still ongoing. At the zenith of the Sun King’s reign, Versailles was the center of the world, not only for ambitious Frenchmen but for emulating princes elsewhere. An earlier version of everything that we associate with “culture” could be experienced at Versailles.

Unfortunately, the center of this world of Versailles was not an institution but a mere mortal, and when Louis XIV died, his world collapsed. If Louis had been supported by his people (as he was, sometimes grudgingly), it was Louis himself who supported and preserved Versailles. He made it up as he went along, and he shaped it to suit his very personal objectives. No more unique than any other human being, he was disproportionately strong. Too much of his world suited only himself. Except superficially, it was not supported and preserved by those who followed him. As it collapsed, a new cultural constellation took shape alongside it. We generally call this new world “the Enlightenment,” but it was also a time of immense growth in the commercial sphere. the Eighteenth Century was probably not the first time that children were born into a world disturbed by loudly competing moral claims, and it was not difficult to combine lip service to the monarchy with commitment to the Enlightenment. But when the monarchy became insupportably expensive, as it did in the mid-1780’s, France succumbed to revolutionary crisis.

Historians and thinkers are still arguing about the extent to which the French Revolution was successful in the long term, but its bloodiness has long been mythologized. One thing is clear: the high-minded men and women who hoped to improve France in 1789 did not understand their world at all.

As I wrote of artworks yesterday, each work of art takes its place in a shifting network of meaning to refract, more or less luminously, other works of art. The same may be said of the world. The elements of the world, from its laws to its buildings, from its arts to its charities, form a network that makes each of them stronger than it would be alone. It is from this network that individuals derive the meaning of the world. The meaning of the world can be experienced, and it can be expressed in behavior, but it cannot be stated, or reduced to words. This is true of meaning to a greater extent than it is true of love or illness — other personal experiences that are difficult to talk about — because meaning is to statement as vision is to photography. Photography utterly fails to capture two vital aspect of vision, saccade and peripheral vision. Saccade is the rapid movement of our eyes as their focus shifts. It is by directing this motion that painters guide us to “read” their pictures, instilling them with liveliness. While we can just as easily “read” the photograph of a painting, the photograph itself cannot simulate or reproduce the movement of the eye. Peripheral vision is an adjunct of saccade; it, too, is constantly shifting, but just as saccade keeps things in focus, so peripheral vision keeps them vague, and even somewhat illusory. Meaning has a felt mobility that is defeated by the uttered statement, which in turn also fails to capture the vagueness — the sense of infinite, but blurred connection — that gives meaning such force.

The meaning of the world is therefore different for everyone. This is not to be regretted, so long as meaning inspires individuals to cooperate, as members of civil society, in the support and preservation of the world.

Daily Blague news update: Manhattanhenge.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Art and the World
29 May 2014

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Last night, after dinner, Kathleen and I watched The Monuments Men, the DVD having arrived in the afternoon. Kathleen liked it much better than she thought she would, and I liked it better than I did when I saw it the first time, in the theatre. Now I knew what to expect, I wasn’t disappointed. Unlike Robert Edsel’s book of the same name — which, although written in the straightforward breeze of manly books, devotes equal attention to the hurry-up-and-wait nature not only of war but of the acquisition of expertise — George Clooney’s film is a swashbuckling adventure, with great works of art taking the place of fair and helpless maidens. Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and John Goodman also remind us of Robin Hood’s sometimes unlikely heroes. The director, who also stars, and Matt Damon are of course more than equal to updating the Flynn franchise.

The historical Monuments Men were brought into being by the horror of Montecassino, the ancient Italian monastery that the Germans fairly decoyed the Allies into bombing to destruction. George Stout and James Rorimer were both officials in American museums, engaged in the hands-on curation of artworks that a wave of philanthropy that followed the Industrial Revolution had borne out of the private sphere and into public institutions — where, let us hope, they will remain forever, or at least until a better version of the same basic idea comes along. The idea that these artworks were important not just in themselves, as aesthetic objects of appreciation, but as part of a tradition of Western meaning, was not a very old one, and it would probably be hard to find written evidence that anybody, even George Stout, regarded artworks as constituting a network of objects in which each refracted the luminousness of the others. I should be very surprised to find a consensus among museum curators, even today, holding the idea inspired by Kant, that artworks “are the worldliest of all things.” But this notion glimmers at the back of Stout’s exhortations to government officials, when he sought permission to tell military men what they could and could not blow up.

In the movie, these government officials — an  adviser to Roosevelt in one scene, Harry Truman himself in another — ask whether it is ever right for a life to be sacrificed for the preservation of a work of art. Insofar as an artwork is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, it does not seem to merit the death of a human being. But the “worldly conception” of art makes a far bolder claim: art crowns, with beauty to be sure but also with something inspiring and ineffable that lies behind beauty and beyond words, the world into which we are all born. There are other things in this world, but the sense of beauty and meaning is apparent in very young children, as I learned from my grandson’s Utz-like regard for the differences between his (hideous) toy monster trucks. The sense of beauty takes years to mature, but there is little more to this maturing process than looking at things, having favorites and then outgrowing them. Choosing favorites is very important, because it constitutes an investment. Your choices mirror your understanding of the meaning of life, not just your own but everyone else’s. Conversely, the artworks that you regard as great mirror what the world means to you. They do more than mirror it: they embody its meaning. The existence of artworks, for anyone lucky or thoughtful enough to live among them, is a matter of unimaginable personal importance. To give your life for the preservation of a major work of art — and you decide what is major — even in a failed attempt, may be the only way to save yourself.

Cities are the matrices of worldliness, a truth recognized by both the friends and the enemies of civil society since the days of the Greek polis. Their man-made environments tend to evolve from the rudely utilitarian to the distinctive aesthetic stability that is best represented by Paris. (Although, the more I look at London, the more it seems an alternative Paris.) There are great buildings, of course, but it is the reach of the prevailing aesthetic into the back alleys and the peripheral neighborhoods that measures the worldliness of a city — the degree to which it has been intended by inhabitants of the city. It is hard for me now to resist the conclusion that cities are works of art. They are always unfinished, to be sure, and perhaps it would be better to regard them as projects of art. But they sound the depths of the great works of art, and I should not think twice about defending an evacuated city from destruction by any and all military means. How much richer our lives would be if the center of Augustan Rome still stood as it was built, and not in melancholy ruins.


Tante Hannah

Another friend of mine wrote,

Your “obsession” with Hannah Arendt you need to stop apologizing for! … Your authenticity is shining, unvarnished, as Arendt’s thinking and writing liberate the same in you.

Very nice to hear! But, being me, I reacted sharply to the idea of liberation. Almost the opposite seemed to be the case: what I feel Arendt’s writing has contributed to my thinking is consolidation.

Arendt was fond, in conversation, of talking about “trains of thoughts.” I am never entirely sure what this means, but it occurs to me that I, too, pursue certain trains of thought: about education, leisure, housekeeping, the study of history, political parties and “campaign finance” (a train that also lugs the problems of television and advertising), art and museums, and other topics. From the beginning of my serious reading of Hannah Arendt, which began with Between Past and Future, I have had at least the dim sense that Arendt was or would be providing me with concepts that would help me to “organize” my thinking. Responding to my friend’s compliments the other day, I saw that it was much more than a matter of organization, whatever that might mean. Arendt’s ideas have allowed me consolidate my trains of thought. Her idea of the world, for example, now informs my thinking about everything, from education (the point of which is to introduce the world to the “invaders,” as Arendt called children) to the arts (which, as I’ve just pointed out, quoting Arendt, constitute the worldliest of all things.) But the idea of the world is more than a common gauge that permits trains of thought to run on the tracks of others. It is the one and only thing worth fighting for.

Thus the strange asymmetry of the two World Wars. The First World War was vain and pointless, but its “resolution” created conditions conducive to bleak and alienated ideas about civilization that produced totalitarian movements in Russia and Germany. When these movements undertook the actual destruction of the world, it was necessary to fight a Second World War that was arguably the most valid and justifiable of all human conflicts. It would never have been necessary without the catastrophe of the First.

To suppress a peaceful culture by the imposition of a more powerful neighbor’s culture is to risk the destruction of the world so severely that it is better to regard it as undertaking to destroy the world. Even twenty years after the Cold War’s end, too many Americans and Russians remain in ignorance of this highest of moral laws.

Daily Blague news update: Asolando.

Gotham Diary:
What to do?
28 May 2014

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Every once in a while, Kathleen gets a bee in her bonnet and has to discover the origins of a popular idiom. This weekend, she unearthed an arresting history. What did “to fly off the handle” refer to when it entered the language? It referred, among the American pioneers who introduced the phrase, to an insufficiently-bound axe-head, which might literally, at a moment of great centrifugal force, “fly” off its axe-handle, risking all sorts of mayhem. A vivid image, indeed! Bear it in mind, next time you caution someone who seems to be getting out of control.

“Bee in the bonnet” was apparently first used in print by Thomas DeQuincey, in 1845. The development of this idiom is, compared to that of “to fly off the handle,” relatively gradual and obscure.


I thought it would be simple, but I was reckoning without the warm, still air that hugged the city until well past eleven. By the time Kathleen got home, at 9:15, everything was ready but me: having sat down (with The Crimson Petal and the White — I’m deep into the adventure, and half the time I think I’m living in late-Victorian London, or have at least just flown home from a visit), I didn’t want to get up again. But I did get up, and we had our simple dinner, and I was almost in tears at the prospect of washing the dishes.

I had taken a three-pound eye roast of beef and covered it with a paste of salt, pepper (tablespoons of each), minced garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. Then I set it in a roasting pan and put it in a preheated 500º oven. After fifteen minutes (five minutes per pound), I turned the oven off, but left the roast sitting in it for another two hours. Later, I made something called Henry Bain sauce, named after the long-ago maître d’ at a posh Louisville club. More or less equal amounts of chutney, chili sauce, steak sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and ketchup were combined in a small saucepan and not-quite-simmered over the low heat. As water cooked off, the sauce became thick and silky. Kathleen wound up liking it a lot better than she thought she would, because she doesn’t care for chutney at all (it’s too sweet). These recipes, by the way, were all published by Mark Bittman in the Times Magazine last year.

I ate very slowly, partly because of the heat and partly to delay washing the dishes. There were hardly any dishes, but they could be washed only in the kitchen, and I didn’t want to be in the kitchen at ten-thirty on an unseasonably warm night.

Now I have a small pot of Henry Bain sauce and a piece of meat that is not perceptibly smaller than it was before I cut two slices for dinner. With the help of the meat slicer, I’ll be able to make some great roast beef sandwiches. But my appetite for sandwiches has flagged somewhat, and I know that I won’t get through the whole roast in time. So I’ll cut it in half, and freeze one of the halves. I’ll also make the  cold-beef salad that Julie Child includes on page 250 of The Way to Cook. (Salade de boeuf à la Parisienne in her earlier books). The secret to this dish seems to be to marinate the beef in the mustard vinaigrette, basting it often. I’d like to master the salad because the other principal ingredient, French potato salad, is simple to make, and the composed salad can be garnished with all sorts of goodies. It’s really something that can be thrown together with ingredients on hand, in an hour or less.


Now, what to do about Karl Ove Knausgaard? On the face of it, his gigantic opus, My Struggle, now half of it translated from Norwegian into English, is a grotesque demand for time and attention by a prima facie unworthy subject. Critics say the most awful things about it, not meaning to, and then they claim to love it. Here’s Dwight Gardner in today’s Times:

For all this Oedipal drama, Book Three of “My Struggle” isn’t grueling. There are expert, almost Mark Twain-like observations about being a boy, and for every scene in which he cowers from his father, there’s one in which he does something like stick his erect little penis into a discarded Heineken bottle, only to have it stung by an angry beetle.

Mr. Knausgaard writes well about lust and music (two of his great themes); throughout this novel, his young self escapes into records or cassettes of bands like the Police, Roxy Music, Motörhead, the Specials and Queen. He plays in a band and, at one concert, politely explains the meaning of punk rock before ripping into a song

(Why am I not surprised that Garner fails to offer an example of Knausgaard’s writing well about lust?)

A friend — my daughter’s age — told me that he read the first volume of My Struggle with great interest; I understood him to say that reading the book was like spending time with a good friend. But I cannot imagine having a friend like the Knausgaard Garner describes. If ever I were to conduct an experiment like the one with the Heineken bottle, I should never tell a soul, and certainly not a friend. I should, rather, endeavor to forget all about it.

So I’m inclined to put My Struggle in the “Not For Me” pile and move on. Lately, this pile has taken on a new, strangely lighthearted name in my mind: “Things That Happen After I Die.” I pretend that something has occurred prematurely, ie during my lifetime, but that it’s a mistake, to be noted as such. (The first glimmer of such developments came with the advent of rap, which still makes me wish that I didn’t know it existed.) This fiction cuts the cord that might bind me to an interpretation or evaluation of extremely uncongenial things.

I’m rarely wrong about music — wrong, I say, to dismiss works that I haven’t experienced. I’m somewhat more often wrong about movies, a fallibility that I attribute in part to marketing campaigns. But I’m often wrong about books. I was wrong about Edward St Aubyn right up until the appearance of the last Patrick Melrose novel, prior to which I had dismissed him as a catty, neurasthenic, and disaffected twit. Patrick Melrose may be all those things, at least at times, but Edward St Aubyn is a great writer. Bad News, the second Melrose novel, ought to be the gruesome and repellent account of a drug-addled weekend in Manhattan. Instead, it is the most gorgeous parody of War and Peace, with pills instead of soldiers lined up in battle. It was easy to catch up and efface my misjudgment: the Melrose books are short. I’ll be in a terrible pickle if I wait for the last of My Struggle!

Daily Blague news update: National Socialist.

Gotham Diary:
Holiday Weekend
27 May 2014

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

As I feared, we have gone straight to summer. It is humid, in the mid-eighties, and there is no air-conditioning yet. It is going to cool down with a storm, sometime tomorrow, perhaps even tonight — although my recent experience of summers indicates that cool fronts coming to the rescue seem to ride old and tired horses. At least there are fans.

The holiday weekend, however, was lovely, from beginning to end. True,  it drizzled on Friday, making our outing to the Roof Garden — Ray and Fossil, Ms NOLA and her husband (for whom I haven’t hit on a nom de blogue) — less than delightful. By dinnertime, it was pouring. The taxi driver who brought me home was wearing a turban, so I ventured to ask him if this was what monsoons were like, and he said, “Yes!” I’d never have gotten a taxi at all if it hadn’t been for the holiday weekend.

Instead of leaving town — as Kathleen did, not however for the holiday weekend but to make up for a visit to her father that was put off by flu — I went to the ballet, City Ballet finally. I saw Jewels. I regretted Kathleen’s missing it until she told me that she saw it years ago, at some point in school I should think; next time, I hope, we’ll go together. I did have a marvelous time taking our neighbor instead. This was Kathleen’s idea, and I jumped on it. Our neighbor, who was widowed last year, grew up in Franco’s Spain. She has always lived across the hall from our apartment, if you know what I mean by always — in fact, she and her husband moved in six or seven years before we did. She was thrilled to go to the ballet — she hadn’t been in years. Neither had I, not to City Ballet, more the fool I. It’s possible that my declining years will be devoted to dance. For one thing, there are no words. That makes for a welcome change from my everyday life. For another, there is almost always good music, and the orchestra at City Ballet played Fauré, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky well enough for the concert hall. A not inconsiderable point of appeal, especially for an older man, is that there are intermissions every twenty or thirty minutes. None of that “the play will be presented without intermission” horror.

Jewels is much too famous a Balanchine ballet for me to have anything interesting to say about it after having seen it just the once. I did love “Emeralds” more than the other parts, for its elegiac power, but this was a matter of degrees. “Rubies” was impossible to watch without thinking of Paul Taylor, and, given the ballet’s vintage, it would seem that the younger choreographer was the source of inspiration. (Had Jewels been created in 1957 instead of 1967, it would have been the other way round, but you don’t really have to get into the chronology.)

“Diamonds,” the most conventional of the three dances, was so richly satisfying that I hardly paid attention to it. It was everything that a grand ballet ought to be, but the score (four of the five movements of Tchaikovsky’s “Polish” Symphony) kept pulling me away from the spectacle of a stage that often seemed on the verge of being as overcrowded as a subway platform, to sad (and elegiac) thoughts about Tchaikovsky, his world, and the nasty end of both. I was about to say, a moment ago, that the good thing about a ballet is that there is something to look at while the beautiful music unspools, but during “Diamonds” I could hardly see. Tyler Angle made a very strong impression, but otherwise things were simply lovely — and doomed. That George Balanchine personally witnessed this doom made “Diamonds” unbearably authentic. I guess I did see it. Ungallant as it is to confess that I had to look her up in the program, I must say that Maria Kowroski was as regal and magnificent as her partner.

At least I got to see Jonathan Stafford dance once. He stood out for me immediately in “Emeralds,” doing nothing showy but doing it with immense authority. I didn’t know who he was until later. There is a lovely piece by Alastair Macaulay in today’s Times (the photo is from a performance given the day after I went.)

Over dinner, our neighbor and I talked about growing up, and I concluded that the difference between Franco’s Spain and Bronxville was that everybody in Bronxville was perfectly happy to live in Franco’s Spain. From what I hear, it is Franco’s Spain that has changed.


Before the ballet, and in the backwash of the previous day’s running around with the gang, I spent the day reading. I decided to put off Saturday’s tidying jobs for a day; the house would be bright and smiling for Kathleen’s return, as indeed it was. (But only because she so rarely visits the blue room, which still hadn’t recovered from all the library work.) Instead, I sat and read. I read Edward St Aubyn’s new novel, or satire, Lost for Words. It was sparkling and brilliant, but it was too brief to leave a trace. Too brief, that is, for a fiction with so many interesting characters. My personal favorite was Didier Leroux, the amiable but nonetheless detestable spouter of zero-gravity French insight, happily translated quite literally into English. Lost for Words is, as I say, great fun, but it has already been utterly eclipsed in my mind by a novel that I began, with some reluctance, on Sunday.

This was Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Inspired by my strange experience with Under the Skin a month or so ago, I asked Kathleen to read this other title by the same author. She’s a great fan of Wilkie Collins, and that’s what Faber’s book sounded like, in an updated way. I was reluctant to try it myself because I loathe historical fiction. While I try to figure out why I’m excited and even thrilled, in the same way that I was by the Patrick Melrose novels, by a novel set in 1870s London, let me at least say that I’m liking the book better than Kathleen did, because Crimson Petal differs from Wilkie Collins’s works in one very important respect: it takes its time producing a character who might capture Kathleen’s fiction-reading heart. This is not a problem for me; I’m a heartless old cynic. Kathleen did come to like the book very much in its later pages, and she promises that it gets very exciting, just as one wants a “sensation” novel to do. I have a very long way to go; I’m far from a quarter of the way through. But I can well understand why Faber’s friends beg him to apply for British citizenship (he hails from Nederland), so as to be eligible for the Man Booker Prize, the award that St Aubyn came within grains of winning a few years ago. I do hope that St A wins it some day, although it certainly won’t be for Lost for Words.

Daily Blague news item: 55 Thoughts.

Gotham Diary:
Leisure and Mindfulness
23 May 2014

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

In this week’s New Yorker, which I got to only yesterday, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a break from doomsday scenarios and reviews a book about what I shall call the lack of leisure. (Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed.) To get the essay going, she dips into a fanciful vision that John Maynard Keynes had, way back in 1928, about the “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes foresaw that a huge growth in economic wealth, coupled with increasing automation, would relieve “mankind” of the need to work to capacity every day, leaving everyone with plenty of free time. A lot of what he predicted has come true, but, to hear people complain, free time is less plenteous than ever.

Keynes was no futurologist; nor was he handing out carrots to make his serious policies more attractive. Keynes was piqued by the problem of leisure, which is, basically, that you have to be fit for it. You have to be in shape. Ideally, an undergraduate course in the humanities would show students how to make the most of leisure. Ideally, such courses would not to be open to anyone who had not worked for a living for three years — precisely because leisure means nothing unless you are familiar with what it is not. The defining negative characteristic of leisure is that it is unproductive: things are not made. In everyday use, “productive” has come to be a loose synonym for “good,” so it is important not to apply this vernacular word to leisure, which can be extremely “productive” indeed. By and large, though, objects are not produced, and money is not traded for time and effort.

Even worse is the vernacular idea of leisure itself, which, in American terms, seems to go out of its way to exclude the defining positive character of leisure, which is mindfulness. As anyone who has seriously striven to achieve mindfulness will tell you, it isn’t easy. Our nervous systems are cued to respond to all sorts of distractions, many of them internal, and not a few of them actually cerebral. To put it another way, it is difficult to concentrate on anything — unless you have the habit of concentration. Concentration is an incredibly intimate activity, as picky for satisfaction as anything carnal. Indeed, for concentration truly to take hold, so that the mind’s contact with what it is considering is wide-open, unobstructed, and sealed off from background noise, there has to be something of an erotic charge, a desire to make contact. I can’t imagine how concentration might be taught — perhaps by magicians, who keep playing tricks until something works.

In today’s “overwhelmed” world, of course, leisure seems laughably unattainable for anyone who has not retired from the working world. And it is unquestionably unattainable for a certain class of people: the parents of young children. The loving parents, I should say. All of a parent’s mindfulness during these years — until a child is eight or so — must be devoted to nurture, and this attention cannot rightly be delegated. (Except to pre-Kindergarten “schools.” One thing that the ideal course in the humanities would teach is how to endure the personal mindlessness of parenthood, the utter displacement of importance to a being outside oneself, how to bear in mind the fact that it will pass — only to be missed.) But we still need to correct for the gender bias that has by no means been stripped from serious ideas about leisure. This bias is a legacy of thousands of years of male monasticism, of male-only higher education. The importance of leisure is coded into the very architecture of schools like Yale and Princeton. Women have not been taught to read it. Perhaps women would prefer a different architecture. One way or the other, the bias ought to be removed. It explains why Brigid Schulte is so angry (in her book only, one hopes) with her husband.

The bias is not only unfair but corrosive. In an anecdote from Schulte’s book cited by Kolbert’s review, Tom, Schulte’s husband, decamps from the home on Thanksgiving Day, just as his wife is about to prepare dinner for eighteen guests. He grabs a sixpack of beer and heads over to a friend’s house. I very much doubt that true leisure is subsequently pursued by the  men. I somehow see a television in the picture, and, so far as mindfulness is concerned, television is an Orwellian device of monstrous, consuming distractions. Schulte, by the same token, ought to realize that, in today’s world, the preparation of a dinner party is no longer drudgery, if only because it is wholly elective. Properly planned — and note my insistence that the preparation must be planned — making a good dinner can be richly mindful. It doesn’t just happen. You have to know not only what you’re doing but who you are. There is no reason why following a recipe in Julia Child (for the tenth time) might not be a kind of leisure.


Tante Hannah

Nor is there any reason why everybody should devote leisure time to the reading of Hannah Arendt. No: she ought to be required in the final year of high school.

I’ve just read a book that anybody could pick up and get through without difficulty. You might have to know a little history — the Civil Rights struggle, opposition to the war in Vietnam (the “American War,” as the Vietnamese quite properly call it), student unrest in the late Sixties — all of which Arendt witnessed; it wasn’t history for her. But you won’t need any philosophical training. The four pieces in Crises of the Republic, one of them an interview with Adelbert Reif and translated from the German, appeared in either The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. And the problems that Arendt sees are still very much with us. Consider this nugget, from “Civil Disobedience”:

Representative government itself is in a crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.

If anything, things have gotten worse since the days of Nixon.

Ever since the Clinton Administration, I’ve been clamoring for the dissolution of the Democratic Party precisely because of that “disease,” although I didn’t know how to put it so well. It is no longer fashionable to talk about political “machines,” but they continue to crank away and shall go on cranking as long as political campaigns depend on the labor of political operatives, staffers who know “how to get things done.” These operatives constitute the bureaucracy that sets a campaign’s agenda in party terms.

Ideally, a party would dissolve upon the achievement of some precisely-stated political goal. The problem remains, however, of the professional operatives. These people want to keep their jobs, and they’re probably more sharply gifted at figuring out ways to do so than any other workers. They will never, however, be anything but a pox on the political landscape. This is but one reason why a combination of local counsels and voluntary associations, coupled with the restoration of indirect elections, might be the only way to save democracy from the parties.

Follow me through it — you can think about it over the weekend. Local counsels, comprising everyone in a locality who cared to show up for meetings (which might well be online) would elect local — municipal or county — officials. These officials, in turn, would elect the next tier of representatives —at the state or, better, regional, level — but not without the advice of the local counsels. While the members of the local counsels would vote as individuals for local officials, their advice to these officials regarding higher elections would be decided by majority decisions. So onto the top, or federal level.

Perhaps there might be two sets of counsels, one for local officials and legislators, the other for executives.

Go ahead and laugh. Then imagine it as science fiction.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Unwise Rave
22 May 2014

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

In the one mordantly funny story in The Other Language, Francesca Marciano’s superb new collection, the unnamed protagonist of “The Italian System” takes the subway from her flat in Brooklyn to her job in midtown, getting off at “the Q train at Lexington Avenue.” This must be a mistake, I thought; the Q train comes to an end by Carnegie Hall, at 57th and 7th. Eventually, it will run up to 96th Street and Second Avenue, and I shall be able to take it to Carnegie Hall, but that’s still a few years away. Might Marciano be casting her gaze into the future? A little research confirmed what I began to suspect: the Q train has already been pushed around the previously unused corner of track that connects the Broadway line to the relatively newish line that runs deep under East 63rd and beyond, with stops at Roosevelt Island and in Astoria, Queens. When the Second Avenue subway goes operational, the Q will turn left just beyond the Lexington Avenue station to follow its new route through the Upper East Side and Yorkville.

You learn something every day, and I suppose it’s especially likely that you’ll learn something from a Roman who writes fluently in English, and who appears to have spent time not only in New York but also in India and Kenya.

Only three of the nine stories in The Other Language take place entirely in Italy, and two of them have multiple settings. (The richly ironic “Roman Romance” alone is confined to Rome.) Nor is the unity of time shown much respect. The passage of years — decades — is not uncommon, and it invariably conveys a sense of novelistic expanse: I thought of Dr Zhivago (the movie; I’ve never read the book) more than once. I also thought of O Henry, which I probably ought not to say, since I do admire and recommend The Other Language. Marciano delivers enormous satisfactions. That’s why I should discourage anyone from reading more than one of these stories at a time.

With the exception of “An Indian Soirée,” which is the portrait of a discontented couple, Marciano’s tales are centered on women, and most of her women are wanderers, both geographically and linguistically. The professor in “Big Island, Small Island” has retained her home base in Italy, but as her wandering has hitherto taken the form of traveling to and from distant conferences, all of which are the same, she makes an impulsive decision to visit an old flame who has retired, in more ways than one, to the Spice Islands. The girl in “The Italian System” experiences a homesickness so colorful that she is able to make a salable book out it; only at the end does she discover that her picture of Italy is a delusion that she would never have fallen into had she stayed home. (Indeed, her “Italy” is the fantasy island that tourists flock to see.) The widow of a Goan doctor who practiced in Mombasa (in “The Club”) turns out to have been a pale girl from Glasgow; she has not gone back to her native isle since leaving it with her husband, and she has no regrets about that.

In “Quantum Theory,” however, Sonia, having grown up in Kenya, then married an Italian and lived in Italy, finds herself unhappy in New York, where her husband’s cancer is getting the special treatment it requires. Sonia was desperate to leave her unsophisticated homeland, but now, and not for the first time, she doubts the wisdom of her decision; and this longing for an alternative past is embodied in the handsome frame of an unnamed man who reappears not once but twice in her later life. This alternative past, which also figures in the title story and, highly muted, in “Chanel,” is the more erotic life that the heroine rejected or resolved not to pursue when, as a youth, she set out to make something of herself. (In “Roman Romance,” she was dumped.) To speak of “mid-life crisis,” however, only underscores the sharp difference between men, who tend to daydream passively and rather vaguely, as the husband in “An Indian Soirée” does, and women, who don’t so much know what they’re missing as experience it precisely and viscerally.

Men appear as desirable, but usually loutish, others, and never as soul-mates. Even the louts — especially the louts — are charmers. Friends can be less than helpful. “The Presence of Men,” in which the only romantic figure is an ex-husband, abounds in both men and friends, but the moral of the story is that we each have to find our own way — or, better, that we are each always in the middle of trying to find our own way. Nobody else can make you happy; only you can do that. Marciano is neither cynical nor moralistic about this, but it is clear that most of her women have experienced a certain shock, in learning that knights in shining armor are just guys underneath.

Also recurring in most stories is the conundrum faced by attractive, educated women when they shop in today’s Supermarket of Life, with its countless menu opportunities that mock the unhappy fact that there is only one meal to plan.

As to the language: something rather devilish just occurred to me. For a writer in a second language, Marciano is unusually informal, but for all the risk entailed in freestyle writing, she never slips. And yet her sensibility is not at all American. One might say that she has turned the old language student’s vice on its head, by learning to speak Italian using English words. Here is the professor, considering her old friend’s life in the middle of nowhere:

Fifteen years of never eating fresh vegetables, but only rice, chapatis and fried fish in coconut oil have modified his shape, the texture of his skin, the molecules of his inner organs. Fifteen years of not having access to decent books, but just airport paperbacks snatched from the few foreign visitors, must have starved his mind, shrunk his intellect. Fifteen years of not speaking his mother language, forgetting its poetry, its songs, its sonorities and rhythms. And how about going to prayer five times a day, kneeling on a mat, his forehead touching the ground? In which way might that strict discipline transform an agnostic, a free spirit, a biker with long curls? (105)

Although not the literal translation of an Italian text, it is obviously the translation of an Italian’s mind. I can think of only one other writer who has managed to do this, and she — also a woman — was born and grew up in New Jersey. She lives in Venice now, and writes about a police detective: Donna Leon. I probably ought not to have said that, either.

Gotham Diary:
Watching Jasmine
21 May 2014

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Exhausted after my library labors, I threw myself into an armchair and watched Blue Jasmine. What a mistake! To watch such a deeply disturbing movie alone — alone and tired. I felt as isolated as Cate Blanchett’s “heroine,” and, however fleeting this sense of isolation might have been, it made me share her culpability as well. I felt that I was just as bad as Jasmine, just as delusional and narcissistic. Surely I was about to carted off to jail! When the film reached the point where Peter Sarsgaard’s character discovers his about-to-be-fiancée’s deceptions, I had to leave the room.

Why the guilty conscience? To some extent, of course, it was just a natural human response to Blanchett’s formidable performance. But there was more to it than that. When I look back on my adult life, I remember the good things, just like everybody else, and have to be reminded of the bad; but I associate childhood with being in trouble. I was always in trouble. I certainly did some bad things. I learned, the hard way, that stealing dollar bills from my mother’s wallet was not worth the trouble. I almost started a forest fire once, and then had the unconvincing effrontery to deny that I had had anything to do with it. I pulled the chair from behind a sixth-grade classmate who was about to sit down — to see what would happen. (She fell, and burst into tears, and I knew instantly that I had done something terrible.) There were lots of bad things that I never did, such as cheating in school or getting into fights, but that didn’t count.

At a certain point, probably in the third or fourth grade, I gave up on being the son my mother wanted, and resigned myself to being a disappointment. (My mother was also not worth the trouble.) In my twenties, I saw a psychotherapist whose favorite mantra was, “Do you intend to be a monument to your parents’ failure?” Even then, I believed that the failure was mine, not my parents’, but I did see that I had become a monument to their disappointment, and I decided to do something about that. I went to law school at last, which pleased them (although my mother died of cancer days before the first acceptance letter came in), but I didn’t go to law school to please them. I did it for myself. I figured that it would lead to a better job with more pay, and put an end to my seven-year exile in Houston, Texas. While I did manage to get back to New York, the other objectives proved to be difficult to attain, but as time went by, the only disappointment that I had to deal with was my own.

Blue Jasmine took me back to before all that, to the time when, in the secret recesses of my heart, and despite the fact that I had an interesting job and a lovely little daughter, I had no self-respect, and saw myself as a hopeless failure with a weak character. The journals that I kept from college to law school are (I now see) the functional equivalents of Jasmine’s curbside monologues, endlessly probing attempts to understand myself while taking pains to understand nothing. Aside from being overly attached to creature comforts, I wasn’t very much like Jasmine in any way, but my life was governed by misgivings and dread.

At the end of the movie, Jasmine sits on a bench and resumes her monologue. It is fragmentary in nature; she boasts about her grand life, she accuses her husband of infidelity, she remembers the song that was playing when they met. These fragments will never be worked into a whole. Jasmine cannot bear to face the facts of her life, and she is too detached from other people to know what honesty is good for. Her chatter is all that she can do to spin a protective cocoon.

When I got serious about understanding myself, I stopped writing to myself.


Tante Hannah

I’m about to finish Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography, which I’ve been calling For Love of the World, although that is its subtitle. I’ve grown to dislike the book over its great length; yesterday, in the section about Karl Jaspers’s death, I realized that I had no interest in Jaspers at all, because Young-Bruehl couldn’t be bothered to make him interesting. She is so piously reverent about Jaspers, a beacon in Arendt’s life, that he becomes dangerously incapable of saying anything that isn’t luminous and all-wise. Young-Bruehl is a little more candid about her subject, but I doubt that I’d think much of Arendt, either, if this book were all I had to go on. Compare the biographer’s take on the toll that Arendt’s myriad commitments to speak here and there took on the writing of The Life of the Mind

At just the moment that she wanted to find peace and quiet for The Life of the Mind, Arendt was besieged. She accepted the price of her reputation dutifully, but impatiently. (447)

— with one of Arendt’s last letters to Mary McCarthy, about an upcoming conference outside Paris:

Finally: I got the invitation to the “International Symposium” in Paris about the Year 2000. The trouble is that it is not in Paris but in Jouy-en-Josas, about 30 km away from Paris. That means I am much less tempted and not sure that I shall not cancel. to go there would mean to be imprisoned for 4 days in something which, after all, interests me only because of language. When do you come back? Let me know. (22 August 1975)

The correspondence’s editor, Carol Brightman, tells us that Arendt did go to Jouy-en-Josas. But “dutifully”? Arendt herself gives the impression that she paid no more for her reputation than for what she enjoyed about it.

I’ve already begun The Life of the Mind. I’ve read the first section, about appearances. It’s very dense and referential, and I probably ought to read it again. There’s a lot of good stuff about science and common sense, plus how badly Descartes screwed things up.

Gotham Diary:
Another &c
20 May 2014

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Morning: Ray Soleil and I are in the middle of a project that got out of hand yesterday. The original plan was to organize and index the books on a certain bookshelf — one bookshelf in a large bookcase. But the moment we began, I saw that we should have to take on two bookshelves. These shelves are deep enough to hold three rows of books, and one of them is fairly low, meaning that I can access the books in the back only with a good deal of inconvenient excavation. Deciding which books belong in the back involves not asking, but being aware of the question, why I don’t just give them away. In the event, I was unable to fill the back row of either bookshelf, and I did decide to give a surprising number of books away. (Including Carl Jung’s Psyche and Symbol: is this not simply eyewash?)

Because most of the books on these two shelves were too old to have barcodes — many lacked ISBNs altogether — and they had to be indexed manually, the going was slow. By dinner time, the bookshelf that was the original target had yet to take its first two rows. So Ray will come back this morning, and we’ll get on with it.


Over the weekend, I received a one-sentence email from a friend: “I am not reading another dailyblague page until you get over this obsession with Hannah Arendt.” There! That’s the last time you’ll see the great thinker’s name in the regular text of an entry here. She will henceforth only be referred to in notes at the bottom of the page, each one labeled Tante Hannah.

I was not, of course, surprised by the complaint; I have been waiting for it. I’m sure that many readers have simply dropped me, unwilling to endure the protraction of “this obsession.” To me, it has been a combination of back-to-school and rehab. What I’m learning is not so much what a certain person thought about this and that but an ability to think more boldly and more rigorously. The rehab part takes place here, where I “share” the exhaustion of the training, and gossip about the teacher. That will continue, but only beneath a clearly-marked caesura.

It is still safe, I assume, to mention James Brooks, the conservative-ish Times columnist whose pieces are often dangerously alluring. Brooks is an adept at the calculated omission. Referrring, in today’s column, to a book by Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait, he does not mention the authors’ connections to The Economist, a periodical whose sedulous propagation of a distinctly paleolithic assessment of corporate business structure they captured in an earlier collaboration called The Company. This little book does a fine job of describing the burgeoning corporation of 1860, but the complications of today’s corporations, almost all of them the side-effects of elephantiasis, go unmentioned. The fact is, the modern corporation is too big and confused not to be ruled by anyone but an opportunistic manager. Today’s board members are not the men of affairs of bygone days, but fellow opportunists. And if you want to know how these men and women think, don’t read The Economist! Read Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods.

Wooldridge and Micklethwait have a new book, with a silly name, that’s apparently about the “Guardian state.” Think Singapore. Think South Korea. Think Confucius — not the actual, historical Confucius, but the stuffed idol beloved of Asian disciplinarians. Brooks dances his usual polite two-step, between sizing up the advantages and the drawbacks of the Guardian state, and sighing that Western democracy is going to hell in a handbasket.

The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws. Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning. Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for. The system of checks and balances can slide into paralysis, as more interest groups acquire veto power over legislation.

You can’t argue with this. But everything changes if you change voters by giving them more to do. This is another way of saying that democracy cannot rest on a foundation of mere voters, who will too often barter their votes for personal rewards. Voters need to have skin in the game, as they say; the Founders were certainly aware of this, even if their reliance on state franchise restrictions (to property owners) was somewhat complacent. The moment that new states in the Midwest began offering universal suffrage to all male residents — a move functionally identical to giving away toasters to new-account openers — the balance between benefits and burdens, the metabolism of democracy — was knocked out of whack. Direct election of senators and the president made things even worse. Mere voters want a great deal more than “more government services.” They inevitably demand the right to be stupid.


Evening: Who’s talking stupid? I can barely spell my name. Remember the two shelves that Ray Soleil and I were going to work on? Well, it made no sense to stop at two, so we did all four. Deciding what to put where was every bit as draining as getting in and out of my chair every two seconds and typing ISBN numbers from books published prior to bar codes. Ray, of course, did all the heavy lifting.

The last time we worked on the library — or perhaps it was the time before that — Ray and I cleared out a bookcase that was full of books about music, the movies, and the other arts, including poetry and cooking. (The poetry books were books full of poems, not books about poetry.) Then we stuffed it full of fiction, beautifully arranged. All the art books went into the shelves vacated by the fiction, but they were sorted only to fit the differing heights of the individual shelves, and they weren’t indexed at all. I had no idea where anything was in this new (non-) arrangement — not until today. Now I know. At the same time, it is also true that I know nothing, because my brain is on Empty.

The curious thing is that there weren’t enough books to fill the shelves, according to the new scheme. I mentioned the hard-to-reach third rows at the back earlier, but I had trouble with the middle rows as well. I had to cannibalize another bookcase for contributions, one that has never been organized at all. It used to stand in the bedroom, where it housed Kathleen’s collection of Oz books and ripping yarns illustrated by NC Wyeth. Upon its migration to the blue room, it became a dumping ground. It’s the easiest bookcase to access, and I am always setting up tray tables alongside it and pulling down books to see what’s behind what. After today’s project, the bookcase is just a dump, with books stuffed in every which way, however they’ll fit. I’ll deal with it tomorrow; tomorrow is another &c.

One of the rows — B4F (the front row of the fourth shelf down in the B range) — holds books that arc from Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (a book that I shall never, ever read, but: what a title!) to Mircea Eliade’s Myth and Realty. As we worked, we fell into the habit of calling this the “God” shelf. Because there was so much extra room, Jung got reprieved.

Wouldn’t you really rather hear about —

Tante Hannah?

Gotham Diary:
19 May 2014

Monday, May 19th, 2014

On Saturday night, the lemon soufflé fell, in the oven. I think there was too much lemon juice. Otherwise, the dinner was a compleat success, proceeding exactly as planned, and without a single unruffled moment. “You’re very organized,” said one of the guests. Actually, what bothered me much more than the soufflé (which tasted like a very hot pudding, and very lemony beneath the chilled raspberry sauce) was the fact that, having sat down at five past eight, at five past nine we were done. The pace was a bit brisk — Here’s your hat &c. We managed to chat through two more hours.

Seated next to me at dinner, Ray Soleil tried to persuade me to pay a visit to New Orleans. I’ve never been; it has always been my impression, developed in Houston and clinched by Key West, that I should dislike it. Ray’s campaign amounted to a persecution. It meant nothing to him that I’ve decided not to leave New York for any American destination unless it is to see my grandson. Nor did he seem to hear that all of the wonderful things that he trumpeted about New Orleans — the great food, the friendly people, the charm of the various neighborhoods, and the great food — aren’t the sorts of things that tempt me to travel. I pointed out that New Orleans is missing something that I look for in cities — not so much a literary as a literate vibe. What I want out of a city is to prowl the streets of Bloomsbury or the canals of the Centrum, preferably under grey, menacing skies, on my way to browse the shelves at the London Review Bookshop or to struggle with Het Parool at the Café Luxembourg. I remembered being surprised, years ago, when, in college, Megan told me that Prague had reminded her of me: everybody looked at least mildly distressed. What finally put a stop to Ray’s siege was an appeal to Kathleen, who, I observed, has never suggested a trip there. Unlike me, she has actually been, several times. “I don’t think it’s his sort of place,” she said to Ray (she was sitting on his other side). I’ve never been to Prague, but it sounds much more my cup of tea.

Speaking of which, I had a cup of tea yesterday afternoon. Several mugs of it, actually. And, because I knew that the tea in the pot would be tepid by the time I got to the last of it (and I wouldn’t be pouring it into my stovetop kettle, recently retired from the kitchen), I decided to see if tea cozies really work. In all these years, and despite having a couple of tea cozies patterned after Bermuda cottages, I had never actually used one for its intended purpose. And I was surprised — why? — to discover that, yes, a tea cozy will keep a pot of tea nice and warm for well over an hour. I could tell just by gripping the handle — most surprising!


I must have been tired yesterday, because as I was reading about Die Meistersinger, in Peter Conrad’s book about Verdi and/or Wagner, the transformation of the Prize Song came to mind, and my eyes were overwhelmed by sudden tears. In the first part of the long third act (which could be cut in two, did not an extra intermission unduly prolong the evening), Walther sings his song, and Hans Sachs writes it down. At the end of the act, Walther stands up among the good people of Nürnberg and sings it again — but only up to a point. At that point, there is a tremendous turn in the harmony, a muscular list-off that transfigures the song. Never has soaring inspiration been so powerfully suggested.  The glory of it pierced my heart, even though I couldn’t actually hear it.

It took me a long time to warm to Verdi. For some reason, I got to know, and to like, Rigoletto while I was still an undergraduate. Un ballo in maschera became a favorite during my radio days. I bought a recording of Aida on my way to law school. Everything else waited for me in New York. I was never inspired to like a Verdi opera by a performance. (I shall always consider it one of the few strokes of bad fortune in my life to have lived during a time of religiously unmusical performance practice in the opera world, and in a town cursed by the acoustic inadequacy of the Metropolitan Opera House —about which, to be honest, I seem to be the only person to complain.) I learned everything that I know about opera from studio recordings. I have five or six of Don Carlo alone, two in French. I still haven’t warmed to La forza del destino, but that is the exception.

For some reason, the only opera that appeals to me these days is by Verdi, by Mozart (in collaboration with da Ponte), or by Bellini (I puritani). I do love many other operas, especially all the ones for which Richard Strauss is famous — but not right now. Now I think of it, I’ve also got an occasional weakness for Manon Lescaut and La Bohème: it would appear that I want my opera in Italian.

I’m on a Macbeth kick at the moment. I’m even reading the play. I may be a philistine, but I believe that Otello is a huge improvement upon Othello. It is more thrilling and terrifying than a spoken play could ever be. I haven’t read Shakespeare’s Macbeth since I got to know Verdi’s opera — his first masterpiece — but, as with Othello, there’s a good deal of cutting. Macbeth and his Lady feature in all but two scenes of the opera — Banquo’s failed escape and the chorus of Scottish exiles. Poor Lady Macduff and her porter do not appear, either — don’t you remember how the porter’s monologue was taught to us as an example of “comic relief” (and also of “dramatic irony”)?

Whenever I listen to Falstaff, I start weeping when Nanetta and Fenton exchange their radiant love-motifs. It’s amazing, what some people can do on the eve of their eightieth birthday. Well, one person.

Gotham Diary:
16 May 2014

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Tomorrow night, I’m giving a dinner party. I’m doing the cooking today.  The menu is an exact repeat of the one that I used for another party, about a month ago. A soup (wild mushrooms in a broth), a stew (blanquette de veau), and a dessert (lemon soufflé with raspberry sauce). At the last party, I made a miscalculation about the soufflé that I want to correct this time. The soufflé came out perfectly, but I waited until we were done with the stew to put it together, and then it had to bake for forty-five minutes. Everybody seemed to be happy enough to talk at the table, but I saw right away that the soufflé ought to have gone into the oven just before we sat down to the soup. It had been a long time since the previous dinner party.

It has taken me years — all my life, really — to get beyond the idea that giving a dinner party is a big deal. There are really only three things to think about.

First and foremost, a well-composed table. There is no point to a dinner party if the guests are not congenial. Putting together a good table, especially when you have only four or six seats to fill, is probably the most difficult part of giving a good party. And then you have to hope that everyone will be able to come on the appointed day. You must genuinely believe that it will not be a catastrophe is one (or even two, in the case of a couple) of the guests has to cancel at the last minute.

The second consideration is the menu. What can you make that people like to eat? What don’t they get anywhere else? As you get older, it becomes important to weed out the laborious dishes. Nor should you be spending a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking, during the party. The meal ought to be easy to serve.

Ambition will always be a problem for young people. The desire to try something new, or something daring and a bit risky — is understandably strong. The sooner you get over this itch, however, the better your parties will be, and the more will you enjoy them yourself.

The third hurdle is timing. Once everyone is seated, dinner ought to move along at an easy but steady pace. There can’t be any long gaps between courses. The rice that I’ll serve with the stew tomorrow night will have been boiled and then set to steam before we sit down to the soup — which means in turn that I shall have started the boiling right after I have whipped the egg whites for the soufflé. This will give me ten minutes to compose the soufflé and pop it into the oven and to dish out the soup. The rice will steam for fifteen minutes, which is just about how long a first course ought to last. That leaves about twenty minutes for the stew — then the soufflé comes out of the oven, and must be served at once.

Timing is very personal, and it requires a lot of practice and experience — much more than actual cooking does. At first, it seems to be a matter of schedules and stopwatches. Gradually, it becomes a rhythm. There are wonderful moments when it actually seems that the timing is doing all the work.

Timing is the one aspect of giving a dinner party that is shared with restaurant practice. Nothing else is. You are not a restaurateur. You are not running a business. You want to make people happy and comfortable; you don’t want to impress them. And you don’t want to knock yourself out: when the dishes are all washed and put away, you want to be thinking of the next dinner party.


Of course, I’d really much rather be reading. I’m very near the end of The Sleepwalkers, and it won’t be long before I’m done with For Love of the World. The latter, which is Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Hannah Arendt, has become a somewhat annoying read. Young-Bruehl clearly adores her subject, but the whiff of hagiography sets off an allergic reaction after a while. There is too much discussion of Arendt’s work, which Young-Bruehl doesn’t write about as interestingly as others do, and there is not nearly enough plain old biographical information.

Young-Bruehl is not alone in papering over the plumbing. In Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s movie about the writing of Eichmann in Jerusalem and the controversies that it excited, there is not a single scene in which Arendt and her husband sit down to dinner. (Indeed, the only dinner that he eats is prepared by a friend, while Hannah is off in the country.) At one point, Arendt lets herself into her apartment, sets down her keys on the hall table, walks into the kitchen, pours herself a mug of coffee, and sits down to read the paper. Who made the pot of coffee? How did these people live? Arendt herself wouldn’t have thought, I suppose, that this was an interesting question: how she lived was nobody’s business. But that privacy died with her. And the organization of the household of a woman who almost pointedly refused to think or to write about it (but who thought and wrote about everything else) is a tantalizing secret.

At Crawford Doyle the other day, I asked one of the staffers what fiction people were reading. He handed me a book that I’d never heard of, and might well have overlooked. It’s collection of short stories by an Italian writer who lives in Rome but who writes in English: The Other Language, by Francesca Marciano. I’ve read three of the stories so far, and they’re really very good. The narration is distinctive but not distracting; Marciano’s Roman sensibility is refracted in perfectly fluent English. Two of the stories, “Chanel” and “Big Island, Small Island,” contain stealthy packets of meaning that keep opening up long after the story has been finished — because, as to meaning, neither story comes to an end.

The Sleepwalkers, all too sadly, does come to an end, on 1 August 1914. More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Changing the World
15 May 2014

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Running around with Ray Soleil yesterday, I visited this year’s Roof Garden installation at the Museum for the first time. It’s very agreeable. The pavement has been covered with some sort of turf, and the structure, which consists of facing panels of ivy linked by a sinuous “S” of reflective glass, is beguiling — although it might be more so if the two open chambers did not end in culs de sac. The most exciting thing about it — not that this work is meant to be exciting — is the fun-house reflection of the skyscape to the south of the Park.

Yes — but is it art? My ideas about art have undergone an extraordinary consolidation in the past couple of months, inspired somewhat by Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance” but more, I think, by The Human Condition, a book that presents a view of human affairs that is both simple and comprehensive. In this view, the plurality of human beings — all of us who have ever been or will be, in all our differences — are separated, one from another, by a space that is called “the world.” Human beings can change the world (although few leave any material trace), but they are all born into it and they leave it behind when the die. The only lasting objects in this world are man-made.

Most objects in the world serve a purpose. As tools or buildings, they permit human beings to create human habitations. But some objects are useless — although perhaps it might be better to say that they serve the purpose of “uselessness.” Perhaps it would be better still to say that these apparently useless objects testify to human meaning — hardly a useless existence. I don’t care to quibble. These objects, called “works of art,” represent states of human existence (whether or not a human being is actually represented). As such, they produce in viewers the aesthetic responses that constitute a distinct set of links in our common sense of life.

This understanding of art, like many of the works that it comprises, is fairly recent, no more than a few centuries old. The museums in which we have grown accustomed to encountering art are more recent still. Our Metropolitan Museum of Art will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020, but the Museum as it is experienced today did not exist until about 1975. I call attention to these dates as a way of explaining the uncertainty of our ideas about art. An approach to art — I refrain from calling it a philosophy of art — that is grounded in the experience of art has not had a long time in which to develop. I would argue further that the experience of art was, until the Postwar era, limited to a coterie of mandarins. Very few ordinary people were permitted to have much of an experience of art; it would be fair to say that the presence of ordinary visitors was tolerated by museums, but not welcomed. That is what changed when the modern museum came into existence. So our common sense of life as it is embodied in art is not remarkably articulate. The experts are still much better at telling us what to think than at telling us how.

The experience of art, then, is a matter of viewing artworks that other human beings — many other human beings — have also viewed. Museum art is art that has become part of the world, and, in so doing, changed it.

There is, of course, another, much older experience of art: the production and acquisition of new art. “New art” relates to “museum art” much as new wine relates to brandy. Most new art will never grace a museum’s walls. That is my hunch, anyway; as I say, the experience of art is still rather new and, if familiar, inarticulate.

One important difference between new art and museum art is the presence of artists. While it is certainly important to the appreciation of art to know as much about the circumstances of its creation as possible — this kind of knowledge can pile up indefinitely without disturbing the aesthetic response — the artist remains absent from the museum because our responses cannot effect him. The popularity of the Mona Lisa is no longer a source of inspiration (or contempt) to Leonardo da Vinci. Living artists, in contrast, are always aware of fashions among contemporary viewers of art — especially those who purchase it. Over most of modern Western history since the Renaissance, artists have sought to steer their patrons within the aesthetic frame, but that frame has been shared by artists and patrons alike.

In the Nineteenth Century, however, there arose a new class of patron, the bourgeois. What made the bourgeois a new kind of patron was his determination to do the steering. Even though he knew nothing about art (except what pleased him), the bourgeois arrogated to himself an authority for the production of art that few kings or popes had ever dreamed of. And, unlike kings and popes, the bourgeois was not concerned with the public impact of art. He tended to want art that would adorn his residence with impressive grandeur. Unlike the aristocrats who had usually commissioned this sort of art, however, he had not grown up with grandeur. The bourgeois had what artists, and those few men and women who had the opportunity to experience art, called “bad taste.”

The philistinism of the bourgeois patron eventually inspired the artistic rebellion that we call “modernism.” Modernism was characterized by the invention of new and therefore initially incomprehensible aesthetic frames. It is my belief that much of the work created within these new frames is not art — not museum art — but rather a kind of momentary, time-bound criticism of current affairs, current affairs in the art world certainly. From Marcel Duchamps’s ready-mades to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes to Jeff Koons’s cartoon sculptures, we see an array of statements about art that are deliberately devoid of aesthetic meaning and incapable of inspiring a genuine aesthetic response. The term “conceptual art” has assumed a widespread acceptance, but as I prefer to avoid any confusion about art, I stumble around among alternatives, such as “graphic criticism.” To the extent that any of this work is at all meaningful, it is as a kind of literature — but definitely not the only kind of literature that has much in common with art: poetry.

It is not hard to understand why graphic criticism appeals to the patrons of new art, but it is also clear that the appeal stops pretty much there. Graphic criticism is unlikely, I believe, to take much a place in the world — the world in which we all live our different lives.

To return to the first question, is Don Graham’s pavillion, set in Günther Vogt’s landscape, art? I have no answer, for the simple reason that the structure is going to be dismantled in a few months, and, wherever it might be re-erected, it will not engage in the same relationship with Central Park and the midtown skyline. So it will become something else (if anything at all), and it will therefore mean something else. The aesthetic quality of temporary art is difficult to assess. No one who passed through Christo’s The Gates will forget how those orange banners transformed not only the Park but the act of walking through the Park, and yet a great deal of the power of that transformation owed to our awareness that that those banners would never get old. The Gates did not change the world in the way that works of art change the world. Perhaps it did something else.

Gotham Diary:
No Contact Sports!
14 May 2014

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

You tell me. How did the work of Adolf Portmann, a Swiss zoologist who specialized in marine morphology, come to the attention of Hannah Arendt? There’s a great story there, I’m sure, but it’s not really why one asks the question when, out of the blue (her trademark blue), Arendt introduces a discussion of Portmann’s thinking about appearance and reality in the third section of the first part of The Life of the Mind. The book has hardly got off the ground, and already it’s off on a tangent.

But Arendt’s tangents are never really tangents; they’re her new thinking on old topics. Portman, Arendt starts off,

has shown that the facts themselves speak a very different language from the simplistic functional hypothesis that holds that appearances in living beings serve merely the two-fold purpose of self-preservation and preservation of the species. From a different and, as it were, more innocent viewpoint, it rather looks as though, on the contrary, the inner, non-appearing organs exist only in order to bring forth and maintain the appearances.

Okay… And we’re talking about this because….? (Questions the experienced reader of Arendt doesn’t bother asking. It will all come out soon enough.) We’re talking about this because Arendt wants to reverse the polarity of Kant’s distinction between being, which is “real,” and appearance, which is possibly deceiving. Arendt doesn’t believe in inner realities, at least to the degree that they might be somehow superior to apparent realities.

Two facts of equal importance give this reversal its main plausibility. First, the impressive phenomenal difference between “authentic” and “inauthentic” appearances, between outside shapes and inside apparatus. The outside shapes are infinitely varied and highly differentiated; among the higher animals we can usually tell one individual from another. Outside features of things, moreover, are arranged according to the law of symmetry so that they appear in a definite and pleasing order. Inside organs, on the contrary, are never pleasing to the eye; once forced into view, they look as though they had been thrown together piecemeal and, unless deformed by dseas or some peculiar abnormality, they appear alike; not even the various animal species, let alone the individuals, are easy to tell from one another by the mere inspection of their intestines.

I thought of this as I lay on my left side — something I never do in life; it was most uncomfortable — while the cardiologist pressed a wand into my chest, and we watched my heart beat. Hannah Arendt was unfamiliar with the possibility that a beating heart could be exposed to view without damaging it; in another passage, she reminds us that to show the roots of a plant apart from the “ground” in which it grows is to kill it. To see the roots is not to see something more “real” about the plant than the parts that nature has made visible.

I daresay that heart surgeons see the appearance of beating hearts all the time, unmediated by technology — an experience that I hope and expect to be spared. Watching my own heart on the screen, in a vision made possible by the miracle of ultrasound, would have been unsettling and even gross if I had not felt completely detached from it. It was my heart in a technical sense only. I can have no direct dealings with it — just as I cannot flit through my lungs, sponging up mucus. I can “take care” of my heart, but only indirectly; and there is no diet or way of life that is guaranteed to protect me from heart disease. Why have I developed atrial fibrillation? Possibly because my blood pressure runs high, which in turn is possibly the result of excess weight. But not necessarily. Considering what I do eat, there is no explaining my “slightly better-than-average” cholesterol numbers. It’s possible that my very picky sweet tooth — desserts have to be extraordinarily interesting to appeal to me — and the small role that processed foods play in my diet have combined to protect me from diabetes. But maybe not.

What goes on inside my own body is private from me. It makes sense to the doctors — hallelujah! — but it seems to have its own life story. To a great extent — to the extent that I’m healthy — that story is, as Arendt points out, just like everybody else’s. That’s what makes medicine possible.

When Portmann defines life as “the appearance of an inside in an outside,” he seems to fall victim to the very views he criticizes, for the point of his own findings is that what appears outside is so hopelessly different from the inside that one can hardly say that the inside ever appears at all. The inside, the functional apparatus of the life process, is covered up by an outside which, as far as the life process is concerned, has only one function, namely to hide and protect it, to prevent its exposure to the light of an appearing world. If this inside were to appear, we would all look alike.

But do we? A further conundrum is produced by my skin. My skin is, of course, visible. Here we can talk about a privacy that divides me from everyone else: it’s up to me to decide who sees what. Again, though: except for the doctors. The doctors look at my skin, and they see all sorts of problems — mainly various kinds of nasty pre-cancer cells in my scalp. I participate directly in the treatment of my skin by applying creams to ever-shifting crime scenes. But, when I do, my skin is no longer my skin, but a medical problem.

Have I ever told you about my femur? Yes, I know I have two, but it was the X-ray of one that excited a wave of what I can only call primitive narcissism. “Is that actual size?” I asked the doctor. Yes, it was. Really! Wow! That was one big bone. It was over two feet long and as thick as my forearm. At each end, a colossal knob. It was impossible not see my femur as an amazingly impressive weapon. It makes you wonder: did primitive human beings size up the oldsters for post-mortem harvests? It seems not — very much not. Only the alienation of modern medicine has made such fantasies possible. Barring a freak accident, I will never hold even one of my two femurs in my grip. It is mine — technically. It is mine, but I can’t have it. The things inside my body are not individual things, but a mass that keeps me alive.

And then there was the time that I had to stand very still for an hour while a radioactive isotope coursed through my bloodstream, causing an image of the vessels in my bones to appear on a screen. Eventually, I beheld my skeleton.

Eventually, my body will stop working, and that will be the end of me — whatever becomes of my remains. There will be no me to stand opposite and apart from them. I will die just like everybody else; but: just like everybody else, there will never be anybody else to be mistaken for me.

Meanwhile: no contact sports. I’m taking a blood thinner, to prevent the one considerable side-effect of the atrial fibrillation (clotting). I am still very much in the zone.

Gotham Diary:
Between Sickness and Health
13 May 2014

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt couched her discussion of human affairs in terms of the Greek polis of classic antiquity. Many readers objected, charging Arendt with a sentimental nostalgia for an Ancient Greece that, if it ever actually existed, was quite short-lived. But Arendt was not singing the praises of bygone times. She was merely describing the foundation of politics in the West. It was in the polis that genuine political action first appeared — in the recorded history of the West, that is — and as it was not only at this time, but in the form of a negative reaction to the muss and tumble of political life that the speculative philosophy of Plato and Aristotle was born — another Western foundation — it made a great deal of sense to analyze that particular moment. Arendt particularly wanted to know how political action stood with relation to the human condition as she understood it. Because her writing is impelled by the heat of her ideas rather than by the rhetorical accommodation of the reader’s ignorance — precisely, in short, because Arendt assumes that her reader knows everything that she knows — The Human Condition is a demanding read. But, as difficult books go, I give it top marks for payoff — for the rude satisfaction of grappling with ideas and really understanding them. There is no wizardry in Hannah Arendt — just a lot of learning.

Something else made the polis an appealing object of study, and this was the very opposite of antiquarianism. The political world of the polis soon passed away, but the world in which it had arisen persisted for centuries — the human condition remaining much as it was, and had been, even by the time of the polis, for several millennia. Arendt’s snapshots of the polis — of the private household, in which bodily needs were seen to; of the workshop, in which artisans made objects of durable use and artists chiseled sculptures; of the agora, in which citizens discussed political possibilities among other matters of public and commercial interest — portrayed a way of life that did not change until modern times. Her analysis of human life in the polis established a Degree Zero for a fully human world in which political action constituted the arena of new and unpredictable things.

Needless to say, we don’t, in these fine times, look to politics for new and unpredictable things, and we haven’t done so since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. For a couple of hundred years now, human beings have been working hard, not to change the political order of human life, but rather to alter its natural order.

Consider medicine. I’m certainly considering it; in a few hours, I’ll be seeing a new specialist. This is hardly an uncommon thing for a 67 year-old man to be doing, but in fact I have been seeing specialists since my late thirties. I have been living in a strange new zone that is neither “health” (if I were healthy, I wouldn’t need the doctors) nor “illness” (modest and widely-spaced medical interventions allow me to live a life that, at least to me, looks and feels normal enough). The language for discussing life in this zone does not exist, possibly because the zone has no generally-recognized name. My attempts to describe it almost always fail, because the people to whom I’m talking clearly understand me to be suffering from secret illness. Illness there may be, but of suffering there is little or none.

It helps to know how new this zone is. Why, it did not even exist when I was born! The focus of medical attention in those days was on the wonderful new antibiotic drugs, unprecedented lifesavers that vanquished mortal illness. Where people had once sickened and died, now they recovered — hallelujah!

The heart surgeons followed, with equally stirring achievements. Again, very sick patients were saved from certain death.

With cancer treatments, we see the opening of the new zone. For cancer patients, the zone is called “remission.” The disease is checked, sometimes only temporarily, sometimes more lastingly. Much remains to be learned about cancer, but one interesting thing about the history of cancer treatments — very interesting to me, indeed — is that treatments that failed to check cancer might well turn out to block the progress of other diseases. Remicade is such a treatment: it didn’t do anything for cancer patients, but it brought relief to Crohn’s Disease patients. It has brought relief to me. Whatever’s wrong with my autoimmune system is unaffected by the treatment; only its effects are blunted — just about completely.

The same is true of the many people who are enjoying life thanks to life-sustaining HIV drugs.

In any case, it is no surprise that our thinking has hardly caught up with our powers. This is true on almost every front that has seen the alteration of the natural condition of human beings, and nowhere more than with regard to the environmental consequences of those alterations. A lot of what we’ve done to “improve” the conditions of human life has degraded the natural life of everything.

It is possible that the specialist will tell me that I have crossed the line into real illness. I do hope not, but I’m somewhat strengthened by the meditation that has been forced upon me by life in the new zone, which has lasted, as I’ve said, for many years. And I’m grateful for the benchmarks that Hannah Arendt so firmly planted in The Human Condition. More than any other thinker — no; with a success achieved by no other thinker — she has shown me where I am.

Gotham Diary:
12 May 2014

Monday, May 12th, 2014

So, I’ve got this little problem. I don’t know about you, but my idea of a Supreme Court Justice does not mesh with a man who openly acknowledges, to a reporter from the paper of record,

“I get most of my news, probably, driving back and forth to work, on the radio,” he said. “Talk guys, usually.”

Listening to talk radio is bad enough. Crowing about it is unacceptable.

Adam Liptak’s piece about the “political polarization” of the Supreme Court didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know (except for the new low about Justice Scalia), but it did set me to wondering if “political” is the word. Can political activity occur in a polarized climate? I don’t think so. Politics, it seems to me, can happen only within a cultural consensus, an agreement about (most) basic principles and (most) everyday conventions. Without this consensus, would-be politicians merely shout at one another, and nobody really listens. That’s what the United States has come to, at least at the level of federal government.

In the past fifty years, the Republican Party has become much more than a political organization. It is now an alternative culture within the United States. Unlike the alternative culture of the Sixties, Republican culture is self-conscious, willed, and fearful. What Republicans fear is that time is running out. Time is running out for white men on top. Time is running out for environmental complaisance. Time may even be running out for organized money. The Republican Party is here to help with organized money, the four Roman Catholic Justices as eagerly as anyone.

Time is running out on a chimera called “freedom.”

There is the Republican consensus, and there is everyone else’s consensus. (We need more and better jobs.) If the Republicans would just lock themselves up in their gated communities, things would be fine.

It could be worse. A Manhattan-based apologist for the policies of Vladimir Putin has come up with something unheard of since the 1936 Olympics: “the good Hitler.”


I spent the weekend lost in two books, one of them The Sleepwalkers. Top marks to Christopher Clark for narrative expertise! How bold an undertaking, to explain “how Europe went to war in 1914.” Clark has a knack for clarity, and he devotes it to detailing the stunning complexity of his tale.

The story so far seems to be that of Murder on the Orient Express: everybody did it. Far from being an unlucky chain reaction in which reluctant diplomats were pulled into the abyss by their alliances, the runup to World War I looks more like a postponed blockbuster premiere: when is it going to open? To make things even more piquant, there really does seem to have been a lull, a loss of interest in war and international crisis, in the spring of 1914. The assassination in Bosnia of the heir to an imperial throne was required to rekindle the excitement.

The story is fascinating simply because it is impossible to stifle the cry, don’t do it! The part of the story that Clark hasn’t really addressed so far is the cluelessness of the governing elites about the chaos that the war would unleash. We are still disturbed by it, as the United States and Russia, blinded by their Cold-War monomania, stumble about in a world that increasingly has no use for either of them, and that wants them to pack up and go home. To the foreign ministers of 1914, the impending war was going settle things; men would know where they stood when the dust cleared. The uncertainty most in need of settling was the power of Russia, which almost everyone hugely exaggerated. (The war can be seen as the popping of a Russia bubble.) The war would also demonstrate — this appears to have been a widespread expectation — that Austria-Hungary would prove not to be a viable sovereignty. Once these matters were straightened out, the world could wake up and move on.

No one foresaw the ideology and terror that would grip Europe and the world for decades to come. Nobody suspected the toxicity of nationalism. We still don’t know quite why it all happened as it did, but it still seems important to find out as much as we can.

Meanwhile: cast of thousands. Clark makes it easier than most historians to keep track of the players, especially the innumerable envoys in foreign capitals.


After some frustration with Face Time — resolved by the updating of operating systems — we celebrated Mother’s Day with a remote visit to the San Francisco branch of the family. Will was in fine form. Asked about school, he said at first that it was “good,” and then reformulated: “It’s a BLAST.” (Somewhere in there, I’ve always felt, is a bottled-up teenager.) We saw that he has learned to write his name quite legibly — if backwards, right to left. We were treated to a pillow fight with his father.

Although Will is very tall for a boy his age (four and a half, almost), he looks like a little boy to me. He is only a foot shorter than Kathleen, but for some reason that’s not what computes. I suspect that my judgment is governed by his face, which is right for his age. That’s what I see. It’s the face of a kid who is about to run off in some direction, to whoop and holler like a berserker.

Unless, that is, he’s in altar-boy mode. This side came to the fore when his new allowance was discussed. He became a little man, the soul of responsibility and prudence. He looked so angelic, in fact, that I almost burst out laughing. No, seriously; he was most admirable. In addition to his allowance, he earns extra money from odd jobs. Not chores, his mother pointed out, but just helping out, as for example, with washing the car. He’s a good little boy, except of course when he’s not. When he’s not being a good little boy, he reminds Kathleen of me.


As I feared, we have gone from winter to summer, from polar to sultry. Makes no never mind; I still need a haircut.

Gotham Diary:
The Projected Siege
9 May 2014

Friday, May 9th, 2014

While tidying the blue room yesterday, I watched Hannah Arendt for the third time, and now I have to write to my friend Eric and tell him that there are only three scenes in which Arendt is shown on the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (That’s how you got to Jerusalem in those days.) The fourth bus ride, the trip that would have taken her back to Tel Aviv after her rejection by Kurt Blumenfeld, is not shown. The film cuts directly from Arendt’s dejected walk through Jerusalem to the pile of hate mail that has accumulated in her New York apartment in the wake of Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book that many condemned without having read it.

When I saw the movie the first time, I had recently read Eichmann in Jerusalem, and, long before, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The “book by Hannah Arendt” that I really loved was the collection of her correspondence with Mary McCarthy. I knew that there had been an “affair” with Martin Heidegger, a philosopher about whose work I seemed to be incapable of understanding a thing, and that was pretty much it.

Now, I know rather more.

Last night, reading after dinner, I put down Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt and picked up Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, because, really, it was easier to keep track of the Serbian factions that destabilized first the Balkans and then all of Europe in the years before 1914 than it was to follow the competing Zionist interest groups that squabbled in 1940s New York.

Most of what Clark discussed was new to me, or only very vaguely familiar — the 1903 military coup, for example, in which the king and queen of Serbia were murdered in their bedroom. I knew that that had happened, but I had no idea of the context or the consequences. I didn’t know that the new Karadjordjic régime shifted Serbia’s international relations away from Austria-Hungary, making the country a client of France.

But what I did know was something else about Serbia — from much more recent history. Clark’s account of “Serbdom” — the self-righteously opportunistic movement to annex all of the western Balkans, something that really did come about in 1918 with the creation of Yugoslavia — made for vertiginous reading: the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s seems in retrospect to have taken the players right back to the state of play in 1900. Another thing that I had learned about were the Serbian epics that were sung, to the accompaniment of a one-stringed guitar, by bards who, if you squint, look a bit like Homer; for hundreds of years, their performances kept the peasantry viscerally aware of the tribal tragedy of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. I had learned quite a lot about Serbia and the Balkans from current events as they unfolded over a period of roughly fifteen years. So had anybody else who paid attention. Now, for the first time, I was seeing how passions of much the same kind prompted the roiling undercover activities that climaxed in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

Do I think that the Serbians caused World War I? No, but they lighted the fuse that, for once, didn’t squib. It burned all the way to Germany’s paranoia about being vulnerable on two fronts. And that is what turned the war on the Western Front into the weirdest siege in the history of warfare. It was a projected siege that would not have been technologically possible in earlier times. Germany basically projected its perimeters into France and Belgium and dug in, forestalling the enemy “attackers.” The trenches were strangely inverted battlements, sunk into the ground instead of towering over it, but they were more effective than any fortress had ever been. And although the siege went on for years, it ended for a very conventional reason: the besieged (as the Germans saw themselves, even though they had invaded other countries to plant their defenses) ran out of food, and had to sue for peace.

Conventional warfare in World War I was limited to the East, or to Italy at the westernmost. The Russians were dealt with almost immediately, at Tannenberg in East Prussia. Because the Ottomans had made the mistake of aligning with Austria-Hungary and Germany, there was a great deal of confused activity in the Middle East, of which was born another muddle with which we’re all too familiar. But the important part of the war, the part that engendered the senselessly punitive “peace conference” at Versailles, was the projected siege in France and Belgium. Had the German invasion been summarily repulsed at the start, the war would have ended almost as a skirmish. France would have been happy to repossess Alsace and Lorraine. But the Germans would have remained just as paranoid — at least until they learned what their English cousins had been trying to tell them for a hundred years: economies are more powerful than armies.

(Hitler replayed the game in 1939, extending German’s perimeters to the shores of Europe. This time, the enemy prepared its attack for years, doing little or nothing in the mean time. Instead of four years in the trenches, there were four or five days on the beaches. This time, the Russians had not been so easily dealt with.)

The most interesting question about World War I is this: what was it about the conflict itself that prompted the massive reconfiguration of Europe’s postwar frontiers, creating a continent of discontent? This will probably always be the most interesting question.

The most interesting question about the short century of conflict between liberal democracies and dictatorships that began in 1914 and ended in 1989 is this: how does Vladimir Putin’s Russia really differ from that of Nicholas Romanov? That is the most interesting question right now.

Gotham Diary:
So, after dinner last night
8 May 2014

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

So, after dinner last night, I watched Roger Michell’s Enduring Love. Before the first half hour was out — once the London Review Bookshop scene was over — I couldn’t wait for the whole thing to come to an end.

It wasn’t the faithlessness of the adaptation per se. Ian McEwan’s novel is an intensively literary document, abounding in quietly reverberant echoes from and references to other books and even to older styles of reading books. As a work of art, it cannot be adapted to the screen without sacrificing what makes it a literary achievement. Adaptations are necessarily violent affairs, which is perhaps why so many people, whether they prefer movies to novels or the other way round, feel obliged to make a choice as to which is “better.” Since novels enlist the reader’s imagination to supply the countless details that novelists, over the past two or three hundred years, have learned to exclude from their texts, anyone who “loved” the book is almost bound to be disappointed by the movie, because of course the filmmaker will have imagined many of those details differently.

But Joe Hall’s screenplay does something besides translating the novel into film. It brutally reconfigures the characters of Joe and Clarissa. Why, I don’t know. Clarissa, a Keats scholar in the book, becomes Claire, an oppressively non-verbal sculptor. Worse — far worse — Joe’s clear-eyed sense of adventure is chucked in the course of transforming him from a contemporary Candide into a standard-issue, mid-century, disaffected British intellectual, the sort of crank that obsessed John Fowles. No longer a science writer, Joe is now just another teacher of some vague humanities course; the film’s most tedious scenes show him bloviating cynically in front of his students. Daniel Craig invests Joe with a distinctly uncivilized fury that does not fit his professional milieu. I am sure that the actor is simply providing what was asked for, but neither his performance nor anything else in the film can explain why Joe is so self-absorbed and unpleasant. The heartbreak of the novel is that the aftermath of the balloon catastrophe might have destroyed not just one man’s life but the equilibrium of many others’. There is no equilibrium in the movie worth worrying about. Claire turns away from Joe not because he is obsessed with Jed but because, for some reason or other, Joe has become a dreadful boor.

Jeremy Sams’s score is lovely, though.


The other day, needing something to dip into, I pulled The Pillow Book off the shelf. I didn’t read very much of it, but then it doesn’t take very much to bring back the world recorded by Sei Shonagon nine hundred years ago. To bring back, that is, what one already knows: the fastidiously acerbic observer of courtly mores, with her eye for beauty and her unblushing contempt for the lower orders; the preoccupation with garments; the understatements about love, so discreet that one wonders if the lovers are ever actually in the same room (that they keep most of their clothes on is hard to doubt); the annual round of glacially-paced festivals; the fragrance of unimaginable antiquity that betrays more recent inventions. These are the things that you can learn from simply reading The Pillow Book, or at least understand a little better with reference to Ivan Morris’s notes, or to his book about Heian high culture, The World of the Shining Prince.

But never has that world seemed so lost, so twisted by time and change into inaccessibility. Nothing can bring Sei Shonagon’s world back. It has vanished into the interstices of living language. The courtier filled her notes and accounts with descriptions of the details that interested her, but she never attempted a comprehensive survey of court life. Why should she? Her readers would know all of that already. Her scribbling is like the decoration of a fan — highlights and accents marking up an implicit context. That context would be disrupted within the century following Sei Shonagon’s death. The pudgy gentlemen with their bows and quivers would give way to leaner and far more martial aristocrats; the life of the court would shrink into a parenthesis from which it would not emerge until the Nineteenth Century.

The Pillow Book is one of the great works of literature, partly because it encompasses an aesthetic vision that is unhampered by preciosity — always a problem in the West — and partly because it places strenuous demands on the imagination. Unlike a work of science fiction, it does not describe an alternative way of life, but rather takes such descriptions for granted. The reader knows only that the world of The Pillow Book really did exist at one time, in a Kyoto much farther off in time than it is in space. (You can visit only the latter.) How to make sense of what Sei Shonagon has to say? Morris is a great help, of course; it is also very likely that he himself is salient in his inflection of her ancient text. But how do you flesh out the following?

When one is sitting in front of someone who is writing, it is very unpleasant to be told, “Oh, how dark it is. Please get out of my light.” I also find it painful to to scolded by someone when I have been peeping at his calligraphy. This sort of thing does not happen with a man one loves.

True, modern verse — inspired to an enormous extent by contact with the elliptical, symbolic styles of China and Japan — has accustomed us to open-ended, tentative meanings; we don’t have to be told everything. But what it is it, exactly, that does not happen “with a man one loves”? Is the light better? Is the lover more forgiving of inconvenience? What does “sitting in front of someone who is writing” even mean? I ask that as someone who rarely writes a word when another person is in the room.

And yet, just by turning the page, I come upon a note of clearly recognizable humanity that brings Proust to mind:

A man’s heart is a shameful thing. When he is with a woman who he finds tiresome and distasteful, he does not show that he dislikes her, but makes her believe she can count on him. Still worse, a man who has the reputation of being kind and loving treats a woman in such a way that she cannot imagine his feelings are anything but sincere. Yet he is untrue to her not only in his thoughts but in his words; for he speaks badly about her to other women just as he speaks badly about those women to her. The woman, of course, has no idea that she is being maligned; and, hearing his criticisms of the others, she fondly believes he loves her best. The man for his part is well aware that this is what she thinks. How shameful!

What is shameful is listening to other people’s criticisms. I always assume that what people say about others gives a good indication of what they will say about me — the best possible encouragement to keep my business to myself.

Gotham Diary:
Enduring Love
7 May 2014

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

One thing leads to another: I read Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, a collection of letters that Stibbe wrote to her sister when she was nanny to the two sons of Mary-Kay Wilmers.

Mary-Kay Wilmers is the editor of the London Review of Books. The London Review of Books operates a bookshop (or perhaps it’s the other way round) that served as the set for a scene in Roger Michell’s Enduring Love (2004), a movie that I saw a long time ago.

The recollection of this scene kindled a desire to visit the bookshop, which I did on my last trip to London, in 2012. It is in Bury Place, close to the British Museum.

Now that I’d not only been to the bookshop but learned all sorts of fascinating things about Mary-Kay Wilmers (she is dry and droll), I wanted to see the movie again.

But when the DVD arrived, so did the novel, by Ian McEwan. I hadn’t read the novel, either when it came out or later, which was very odd; but there was an explanation. I was still angry with Tina Brown for excerpting a particularly lurid bit in The New Yorker. Out of context, the violence of the scene was shockingly gratuitous; the whole point seemed to be to make the reader jump. Why I should take this out on Ian McEwan, I don’t really know. Interestingly, the movie itself did not make me want to read the book. The movie made a very muted impression on me, actually — as indicated by the fact that what I remembered most was the London Review Bookshop. When I saw the movie the first time, I don’t think I really believed that there was such a thing.

Well, of course I remembered the beginning. Everybody knows the beginning of Enduring Love. (A man dies in the attempt to restrain a helium balloon with a little boy in its basket.) But as I read the novel, I found that I had no idea how the story ended. So I read Enduring Love in a day, in a blaze of grim suspense.

(Needless to say, there is no London Review Bookshop scene in the novel. I wasn’t expecting one.)


What struck me early on was the tone of the novel, which is largely narrated in the first person by a science journalist called Joe Rose. His idiom is contemporary, but his manner and pacing go way back, to the “accounts” of travel and exploration that began to appear in the Eighteenth Century, in which the detailed pursuit of accurate description is lightened by wide-eyed wonder.  Joe’s absolute faith in his own reliability as a narrator (and, of course, as a witness) sparkles like a lake on a sunny day. He regards the doubts of others as perverse, as if there could not possibly be a good reason to question him. This offended obstinacy, of course, drives his friends to doubt not only his story but his sanity. Meanwhile, reading along, we have to ask what sort of games the virtuoso novelist might be playing with our credulity. Enduring Love, a briskly-told tale to begin with, is therefore something of an infernal machine.

But, if there is no putting it down, that’s very much because Joe’s account is not only richly comprehensive but also morally sound. Here he is, walking up to the body of the man who has just fallen hundreds of feet from the end of a rope drifting from the rising balloon.

Not until I was twenty yards away did I permit myself to see him. He was sitting upright, his back to me, as though meditating, or gazing in the direction in which the balloon and Henry had drifted. There was a calmness in his posture. I went closer, instinctively troubled to be approaching him unseen from behind but glad I could not yet see his face. I still clung to the possibility that there was a technique, a physical law or process of which I knew nothing, that would permit him to survive. That he should sit there so quietly in the field, as though he were collecting himself after his terrible experience, gave me hope and made me clear my throat stupidly and say, knowing that no one else could hear me, “Do you need help?” It was not so ridiculous at the time. I could see his hair curling over his shirt collar and sunburned skin at the top of his ears. His tweed jacket was unmarked, though it drooped strangely, for his shoulders were narrower than they should have been. They were narrower than any adult’s could be. From the base of the neck there was no lateral spread. The skeletal structure had collapsed internally to produce a head on a thickened stick. And seeing that, I became aware that what I had taken for calmness was absence. (25)

Is it right to call this naive? And if so, with regard to what? To the self-conscious awareness of everyday psychopathology, perhaps, that might motivate a sophisticated observer to attend more to the propriety of approaching a corpse than to its description.

The novel is not about that corpse but about the Joe’s encounter with another man who, appearing out of the blue, as they all did (as did the balloon itself), to try to prevent the accident, seems unable to walk away afterward. At a strong moment, Joe smiles at this fellow, and that warmth engenders, he soon suspects, an inappropriate, possibly psychotic response. The man, Jed Parry, attaches himself to Joe, much to Joe’s dismay. In the course of the ensuing story, Jed makes three claims over and over, beginning the moment he arrives at Joe’s side by the dead body. (1) He is responding to Joe’s offer of love, (2) he represents the love of God, and (3) Joe is no longer free to ignore him. As Jed’s subsequent harassment becomes insupportable — he loiters outside Joe’s flat, he leaves strange messages on his answering machine, and he sends Joe disturbing letters — Joe rummages through his science lore and realizes that Jed is suffering from a rare erotomania known as de Clerambault’s Syndrome. That’s all well and good, but, because Jed times his appearances so that only Joe sees him, and because Joe makes the mistake of erasing the messages, Joe’s wife, Clarissa, gradually comes to believe that the whole business is sheer fabrication on Joe’s part.

Enduring Love is tense with narrative ironies. As a successful author and journalist working in a field noted for its “objectivity, Joe is cannily aware of the role played by persuasion in the success of his writing. But when the subject of his report is his personal situation, and not some body of facts for him to bone up on, professional shrewdness takes a back seat to an almost self-righteous ingenuousness. Believing himself to be under attack by a madman, he also believes that the rest of the world ought to respect this belief as conclusive. Such candor is the very opposite of convincing, and the dawning realization that no one is going to help him intensifies the appearance of a mania. When Joe decides that he needs a weapon, the reader cowers.

I think that it was the name “Clarissa” that first tipped me off to the novel’s debt to the English literature of Jane Austen’s day. Clarissa is very beautiful, and very loving, too, but she is not a goddess; she makes mistakes, and to some extent they’re the mistakes that a modern professional woman would be likely to make. After Jed’s illness has come to a crisis and Joe has been vindicated, Clarissa cannot simply repent her lack of faith in her husband. No, she has to blame Jed on Joe, by claiming that, had he handled the matter differently, Jed’s madness might have been defused without violence. There is no reason to think that this is true; Clarissa is simply yielding to the cant of emotional counselors and other problem solvers. She is also resisting the full recognition that Joe came to her rescue at the climax. That he came to her rescue by acting alone (as heroes always do) constitutes an offense in itself — one smells the resentment of “male chauvinism.” The real question is whether this modern marriage can survive the irruption of a very old-fashioned evil.

Now I can watch the movie. But I already wish that it were Vera Farmiga, and not Samantha Morton, playing Clarissa.

Gotham Diary:
Not For Sissies
6 May 2014

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Oh, how sorry I felt for myself this morning! Having to get dressed and go out — for two doctor’s appointments! Well, the dentist. And then the dermatologist. I had already canceled the dentist once, having been gastrically distressed, and I couldn’t cancel again; as for the dermatologist, I was scheduled for a new treatment. The dermatologist doesn’t even come into the office on Tuesdays! But she wanted to get me started, and the rep who sold her the apparatus (an array of ultra-blue lights) was going to show up to see how the first treatment went. I didn’t know about the rep, but I knew that I had to show up, too.

So I did. I showed up for both of them. The dentist wants me to have two of my wisdom teeth extracted. “Will it hurt?” “Not at all.” “Things have changed, then, since my last visit to a maxillofacial surgeon,” I said with a smirk. “That’s what they’re called, right?” “Right,” said the dentist, and then he asked, did I want to go back to that guy? I said that I didn’t think so, because that visit was a long time ago; the Nixons were in the office. Later, on the street, I realized that he must have thought that I’d said, “Nixon was in office.” But no, this was ten years after that, and the Nixons, Dick and Pat, were in the maxillofacial surgeon’s office. Pat was the one with the problems, so while the doctor oscillated between treating me and treating her, a secret service agent chitchatted with the former president in the waiting room. You could hear the agent, but not make out what he was saying. Nixon, in contrast, seemed to think that he was making a stump speech. His voice boomed into every cranny of the surgeon’s complex. At one point, we all heard him say (and this on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, mind), “Sammy Davis — he’s Jewish, isn’t he.” I also remember that the extraction was very painful.

Everyone has to go to the dentist, but I am going to the dermatologist because I am old. I am old, and my body is at last yielding to the sun damage wrought upon my scalp by the suns of childhood summers. The new treatment is supposed to kill all the pre-cancerous cells that crop up these days like corn in Iowa. The doctor is tired of taking biopsies, much less cutting bits out. Also, there is not an unlimited supply of scalp. So, let’s hope.

In the current issue of the LRB, Jenny Diski, who is only six months older than I am, reports than a correspondent in her eighties recently scolded Diski for claiming, at 66, to be old. I’m with Jenny. Might as well get it over with. Stop pretending that this is late middle age, that we have lots of spry years left. Why not be young for being so old, instead of the other way round? If, as they say, ageing isn’t for sissies, then courage must be exercised.

On top of which, I feel that my mind is finally beginning to work. What I’m getting out of reading everything by Hannah Arendt really does require all the bits and pieces of history and philosophy that I have piled up over long years. I didn’t pass the critical mass of understanding until somewhere between five and ten years ago. So, I more or less have to be as old as I am to be thinking as richly as I am.

But I had to nod with Diski about the downside.

It comes to you that whatever ailment you’ve got at this point is decay inflected by decay, in one form or another, and, to people who aren’t you, only to be expected. It is, to put it simply, which they won’t, a recognition of the beginnings of the approach of death. And it can come to you in many ways, none of them alone necessarily recognisable. Things happens, this and that, which don’t in themselves mean anything, until the incremental signs pile up to the fact that there’s nothing to be done that’s worth doing. You are old, getting older, you won’t get younger, you are physically wearing out. You will die, sooner rather than later. Some things about ageing, such as whether we mind showing our wrinkled arms or living alone, are perhaps a matter of choice and decision, but then there comes the ordinary decay and breakdown of the old body. Eventually it’s out of our control and even our social and economic situation will affect only the conditions not the way in which we die.

Call it the hillside. No one ever knows how quickly the slope is going to steepen.

Diski talks a lot about being a boomer. We are both of us elder boomers; we sensed from the start a swelling phalanx of younger kids behind us, and we were both in the abyss of adolescence when the Beatles and the Stones enchanted us with their siren songs. The Beatles and the Stones were not themselves boomers, of course; nor were the Beats or the first hippies. But they got the party going just in time for us, and nobody much minded until our lot showed up. They were adults; we were still “children.” Kids today.

I did not stay for very long. For one thing, “the Sixties” took a long time fully to reach South Bend, Indiana, where we were insulated by many factors. My intense engagement with the famous decade lasted for no more than about two and a half years. I went along partly because the values to which my parents paid lip service were obviously as flawed as Henry James’s Golden Bowl. I didn’t understand until much later that what had broken was the centuries-old towrope of the rising bourgeoisie: respectability. It had begun to fray during the First World War, and had snapped by the end of the Second. In the massive recovery from all that nightmare, people just went on behaving as they had done before, but now it was mere behavior, obviously insincere. Infractions that would have been severely punished excited nothing worse than polite disapproval. (There might be an argument for explaining McCarthyism as an early panic attack at the collapse of respectability.) The history of Hollywood movies from the War to 1967 can be assessed as an onslaught against the censors, who finally gave up the ghost in the season of Bonnie and Clyde. The old rules were hollowed out, and then they were swept away.

And the new possibilities were plausible, for a while. I joined a food co-op; I considered living in a commune. I did let my hair grow — so not a good look for me. But I was a naturally monogamous sort of person, and I never cared much for real rock ‘n’ roll. Drugs — we’ll talk about that some other time. But by 1973, I was rolling my eyes whenever the “New Age” was mentioned. In fact, it was the obvious crockery of New-Age metaphysics that eventually led me to reject any and all metaphysics; flimsy, all of it.

Being an elder boomer, I came to have almost as much contempt for the bulk of the cohort as its successors. My first negative reaction to new developments occurred when course evaluations were introduced during my undergraduate years. This seemed a very bad idea to me, and it still does. Students are students because they don’t know much about anything. I was unusual in not having trouble accepting this fact. Being the smartest person in the room is still a horror on a level with being pinned under a bed.

Whenever the dentist or the dermatologist or one of their assistants asked me how I’d been, I would tell them that this winter made an old man out of me. I was never pressed for details. I myself took it only slightly more seriously than the Marschallin’s complaint to her hairdresser.

Gotham Diary:
5 May 2014

Monday, May 5th, 2014

On the surface, of course, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is just a cartoon, or a book of cartoons, executed in her trademark scratchy style, and sounding the same kind of humor. People living humdrum lives are made to look crazy by an artist who passionately believes that you have to be crazy to live a humdrum life. As soon as possible, Roz Chast escaped the world of dingy paint, funny smells, and screaming tenants that she grew up in, and she has been entertaining us for over thirty years with the brilliantly-captioned drawings with which she offloads her dreary memories. Woody Allen’s alter egos joke in several movies about their mothers’ gift for removing all the flavor from the food they cooked. Until very recently, Roz Chast didn’t talk about her parents, but it is no surprise to learned that they were expert at taking the fun out of everything. That’s not quite right: Elizabeth and George Chast had a lot of fun on their own. But it was their own private brand of fun, one that they did not try to share with their daughter — who wouldn’t have shared it, anyway. For her — for Roz Chast — childhood was a bleak Gobi Desert of dull joylessness, periodically interrupted by her mother’s critical outbursts — self-styled “Blasts from Chast.”

What sort of book might she have written if her parents had died earlier, and more suddenly, after brief stays in the hospital or perhaps at home in bed? I am not sure that she would have written about it at all; she would simply have gone on producing drawings inspired by her memories. But Elizabeth and George did not die like that. Elizabeth lived to be 97, and George (born in 1912 just a week or so before her) made it to 95. They lived to be too old to take care of themselves. They lived to be so old that their only child had to take care of them. Elizabeth, sensing perhaps (the thought just occurred to me) the book that would be the ultimate result, stubbornly resisted her daughter’s attempts at intervention, but the complications of a fall (from a stepladder) ultimately forced her to concede dominion. She consented to take George to settle in what is no longer called an old folks’ home. George lasted about six months; his senile dementia was already far advanced upon arrival. Elizabeth lived on for another two years. That doesn’t sound like a very long time, but anyone who can remember what it is like to have lived with a two-and-a-half year-old child since its birth know what an eternity can be compressed in an apparently short span.

Elizabeth’s longevity was complicated by the fact that, to understate, she was not her daughter’s favorite parent. By profession an assistant principal in New York City’s public elementary schools, Elizabeth was no fan of children generally — perfectly normal in a day when adults were expected to represent the opposite of everything that children were being taught to outgrow. Having a child was a duty to be discharged responsibly, but not necessarily with displays of warmth. Elizabeth prized her own hard-headedness, her inborn resistance to dreamy speculation of any kind. She was a “no-nonsense” sort of person, which is hardly objectionable in itself. But as a mother, at least in her daughter’s account, she was an enforcer of tedium, a monster of banality.

(The muffled voice of Elizabeth’s ghost will be heard to bellow, “Tedium Schmedium! George and I were world travelers! We even went to the Galápagos Islands!” Aside from the mention of this trip, however, and of two others to Israel, Chast’s exclusion of this aspect of her parents’ life is troublingly sonorous.)

Elizabeth’s daughter believed that she took after her father, George. George was a born linguist but not good at much else. “Around the house,” he was a catastrophe, breaking everything that he handled. He seems to have been something of a hypochondriac, and he yielded gratefully to Elizabeth’s firm advice, no matter how minute the point. It would not be complete exaggeration to say that, for him, assisted living began with marriage, or, at any rate, soon after his service in World War II. To say that he was genial in comparison with his wife is not saying much, but in his daughter’s telling, he was given to smiling whenever he wasn’t panicking. A firm believer that “mother knows best,” he did not stand up for his child, or would probably not have done so had she thought to seek his support.

From a very early age, Roz Chast put her head down, and dreamed of growing up and leaving home.

And, when she did leave home, she left Brooklyn as well. For eleven years, from 1990 until 2001, she did not set foot in King’s County.

(Did her parents come to visit her in her new home in Ridgefield, Connecticut? They must have done, just to see their grandchildren, but we’re not told.)

When she did go back (two days before 9/11), she was appalled by the grime that had accumulated in her childhood home. That is the discovery with which Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? begins.


The other day — in last week’s Home Section — Times reporter Sarah Lyall (excellent choice) paid a visit to the house that Roz Chast shares with her husband, in which she raised her two children. Photographer Randy Harris tagged along, and the images reproduced in the paper focus on the quirky things that Chast has acquired — one can almost hear her saying, with profound mockery, “curated” — over the years, such as the shelf of “amusing cans.” But the corner of the living room with the sectional sofa is inviting. Light, color, and simplicity govern the atmosphere. Considerations of interior design are muted, and somewhat subordinated to the art on the walls. There are lots of windows.

There are no windows in Chast’s drawings of her parents’ apartment. The only windows that I can find in Can’t We? appear in rooms at the assisted living facility, toward the end.

I can’t help thinking of this memoir as a book about homemaking, perhaps because there is so little of it in evidence. To me, homemaking is something that has to happen when two or more people are living together. Not just occupying the same residential unit but living together, and doing so with conscious self-expression. Homemaking creates a home — the anchor of your sense of self, the fixed abode from which “who you are” is free to explore the world. But it is also a place that is shaped, partly, by “who you are.” A home encourages its dwellers to live and to grow.

Without homemaking, a household is more like the slime that a snail leaves in its path, a residuum, a byproduct. It will be characterized for outsiders who visit it by thoughtlessness or heartlessness or both.

The arrivistes of the Victorian age were notorious for living together under pre-determined conditions, following conventions set by others. After World War I, sociologists and advertisers spoke of housewives as “homemakers,” but this was soothing flattery: housewives were expected to master and to practice “home economics” — a priceless redundancy. These oppressive environments did not amount to homemaking.

Chast tells us that her parents grew up in (relative) poverty, and that her more distant forebears endured terrible hardships. In such circumstances, staying alive would be the important thing. Elizabeth and George Chast seem never to have outgrown a certain hand-to-mouth disregard for the values that take hold when rude survival is no longer challenged. “Do not die” is in fact, the last item on Roz’s childhood “to-do” list. On page 29, there’s a “Wheel of Doom,” a sort of mandala to the inescapability of death, which can be brought on by playing the oboe or being hit by a falling flower pot.

When people live together, they eat together. Among Chast’s childhood recollections, Elizabeth’s gifts, or lack of them, as a cook are never alluded to. George’s self-diagnosed delicacy made him a picky eater, to say the least, and Chast, writing about the time he stayed with her in Connecticut while Elizabeth convalesced from the fateful fall, is almost merciless.

Dinner was tough. I felt as if I was dealing with a child who had never been taught how to behave normally at a table. It wasn’t much rudeness as his idiosyncratic approach to food, which was lifelong and unrelated to senility.

I loathed watching him cut with a knife. He didn’t plant the blade and saw back and forth while applying pressure. He sort of scraped away at whatever morself he wanted to place in his mouth. It was not only ineffective, but somewhat disgusting.

When I was growing up, all the serving utensils would always end up on his plate, which drove my mother bats.

Perhaps Elizabeth and George were beset by a superstitious fear that any attempt to live more comfortably than their parents had been able to do would amount to courting disaster. Perhaps Elizabeth and George did their “living” elsewhere — at work or on their travels. For whatever reason, though, they denied their daughter a true home. They fed and sheltered her, they looked after her health and her schooling. But although Roz lacked nothing important in a material way, she grew up in a spirit of domestic subsistence, of forever getting by. One has only to think of Francie Nolan, the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a girl familiar with real deprivation, to see what Roz Chast was missing.

Elizabeth must have sensed something of this when, not long before moving to Connecticut, she wrote one of her poems (now we know where Chast’s gift for mock-treacly greeting card verse comes from), this one about the apartment in which, no longer capable of traveling and long-since retired, she found herself stuck.

Her parents’ lives are empty
No excitement, no change,
As days melt into each other
In a stillness so strange.

They, who once traveled
All over the map,
Are forced to lie down
For their afternoon nap.

To be sure, this is in part the inanition of old age. But it also makes clear that excitement, change, and travel all involved leaving the house.

The brutality of the second half of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? lies in the immense difficulty that Chast experiences when it becomes her job to make a home for her parents. That she cannot share one with them is a given. That she must do so in the artificial terms of “assisted living,” with its monumental expense and its hired caregivers, is maddening, not least because her parents are almost completely beyond being able to take pleasure in life. She is old enough herself to foresee, and to dread, her own end.

I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly “done,” there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you became addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors from the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you’ve had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRIs, the boring food, and the pills that don’t do anything at all. Would that be so bad?

She almost sounds like her mother — except for the books and music.

Can’t We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant? is, for the most part, a very funny read. But when it is over, it is the darker, unillustrated prose passages, together with the photographs of her parents’ abandoned apartment, that dwell in the mind. The sense of loss is matched by the sense of never having had. The reader ought to allow for an hour or two of grief.

Why, then, read this book? Why for the matter of that, write it? Certainly we are not dealing here with some sort of therapeutic transmutation of mourning into art. There is plenty of art, but it stoutly resists any transmutations. What it offers instead is an object lesson in how (not) to live, and a cry of pain for the importance of pleasure. By demanding no more of life than mere survival, Elizabeth and George Chast shortchanged themselves and did something much worse to their daughter. I don’t think that that “something worse” could be better described than it is in the fullness of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Let it be a lesson to us all.

Gotham Diary:
The System
2 May 2014

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Almost perfect weather for running around! Lunch with Ray Soleil, followed by a patrol of Madison Avenue, from Crawford Doyle to Feldman’s. I bought the new Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, some of which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker but mostly not. (“Where, in the five stages of death, is cheese sandwich?“) There are photographs of the author’s parents, sometimes shown with the author. They had been married for quite a long time before Roz came along, and they don’t seem to have been youthful at any period. But I shall read the book before saying more. Also (seen in the bookshop’s window) Simon Thurley’s The Building of England, as much a guide as a history, with plenty of photographs. (It weighs a ton.) At the flower shops, geraniums were appearing at last, and I had some sent home. Lots of walking, though, and now I’m tired.

First thing this morning, I changed the sheets and tidied the bedroom. Kathleen went in to the office, with high hopes of returning in the afternoon — hopes dashed by circumstances. But if she had come home, the bedroom would have been ready for her, dusted and polished and spruce. It was good to be up at a reasonable hour, instead snoozing beyond ten o’clock, but that’s another reason why I’m a bit droopy. We’re going to have a quiche from Agata & Valentina for dinner. It’s just enough for two, and it’s a thoroughly American combination of ham and Swiss cheese.

We were going to watch Nothing Sacred last night, to make a trio of Carole Lombard pictures (we saw My Man Godfrey on Tuesday), but by the time we were done with dinner and talking, it was a bit late to start a video; and now Kathleen wants to watch something more “current,” preferably a comedy. We’ve got plenty of those.


Kathleen put in a full day’s work yesterday, mostly from bed, but later sitting outside, and then in the living room. Throughout, she was fuming at Citrix, the application that provides a secure access to her legal documents. When it’s working, that is. I have never used Citrix myself, but I’ve listened to Kathleen complain about it for years. She’s right to complain — without warning, she is occasionally disconnected from “the system” and her work, despite all her efforts to save it, simply disappears. But she’s wrong, I think, to keep complaining: she is, after all, a partner at the firm, and therefore something of a boss. Can’t she do more than complain (to me, mostly)? Everyone complains about Citrix, she tells me; ask any lawyer who has to use it, and you’ll get the same response, according to her. I asked Megan about it once, and Megan rolled her eyes, half at unreliability of Citrix and half at my assumption that Citrix was any different from death and taxes.

Free market economics certainly doesn’t explain Citrix! What does?

It’s that “system,” I think. The system didn’t exist thirty years ago, not outside the military, anyway. Thirty years ago, lawyers maintained word processing departments, using limited precursors of the personal computer. “Word processing” was simply the latest name for the typing pool. Lawyers worked with pen and paper; other people turned their drafts into distributable documents.

When personal computers came along, they gradually erased the need for word processing departments, as more and more lawyers worked on screens. With the explosion of the Internet came the possibility of working remotely, from somewhere outside the office. This in turn brought security problems. Citrix seems to have been a satisfactory solution, and maybe it was at first. But popularity was a weakness. Too many users signed up at the same time could cause crashes (so I understand), while at the same time security risks mounted with the ever-increasing sophistication of hackers. The result is the probability of working remotely, with the considerable possibility of merely wasting one’s time.

Year after year, Kathleen has been complaining about Citrix. On more than one occasion, she has gone in to the office because she absolutely could not afford to risk its caprices.

We’re not quite at Idiocracy yet, but when the smartest people in the room are obliged to work under conditions of stupidity…

Smartest people in the room, sure, sometimes. But not necessarily the best managers. Lawyers are like cats: they really don’t herd. As the spectacular recent failures of some of New York’s most prestigious law firms demonstrates, senior lawyers can make terrible business decisions. There’s a saying that lawyers who have a gift for business go into business, and make even more money. Lawyers working at a large firm collectively lack something that many of their clients collectively enjoy: an ability to deal with “the system.” Law firms themselves are not systems; at best, they’re federated provinces, each of which comprises numerous fiefdoms. An operational problem that causes nothing worse than a lot of inconvenience and hair-tearing is not likely to increase the collegiality of partners whose mutual esteem depends on keeping one another at arm’s length.

Thinking about all of this from the perspectives afforded by my new guide to thinking, the lady Virgil who used to live at 370 Riverside Drive, I’ve imagined a conciliar solution. A task force ought to be constituted, consisting of senior associates (not partners, but lawyers approaching the partnership threshold, which not all are invited to cross), Internet technology workers, and engineers from Citrix. This task force would be charged with thrashing out the problem of unreliable connections and finding solutions, including workarounds. But for the very reason that partners prefer to work at arm’s length, the lawyers on this council ought to be drawn from as many large firms as possible, with only one lawyer representing any one firm.

The council would proceed counterintuitively: in place of the lawyers hectoring the engineers with their demands, the engineers would explain “the system” to the lawyers, who in turn would have to make an untiring effort to understand what they were being told. This would, I suspect, give them unprecedented insight into why Citrix is unreliable or, as very well may be the case, it is perceived to be unreliable by the lawyers who use it, but don’t know anything about how it works. The lawyers would do most of the learning, but the engineers would learn something, too, about the relationship between the lawyer’s mind and a very large document on which a number of lawyers are working at the same time. It is not really at all like the collaboration that produces large bodies of code.

By understanding “the system,” lawyers might be able to make it disappear.