Archive for June, 2014

Gotham Diary:
Weary Confidence
30 June 2014

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Outwardly placid, summer so far as not been an easy time. The usual quota of life’s uncertainties is weighted down by the ongoing subway project, which appears to be in mild recession so far as equipment goes but which still makes something of a military checkpoint of the intersection of East 86th Street and Second venue. Making things darker still is the news that ownership of our building has changed hands. What if the new owner intends to demolish the building? I have no reason to believe that any such plan impends — except that it would make sense to me, while also being (not really) “the worst thing that could happen.”

Given this background, I’ve been something of an anxious reader. The Riddle of the Sands has me perched on the edge of my chair. I’m reading this classic spy thriller of 1903 because I was so piqued to learn that its author, Erskine Childers, was later involved in running guns to the Irish Republicans. It turns out that there is a lot to learn about Childers, but, right now, I’m up to my neck in dashing Edwardian gallantry — and learning the names of all those East Frisian islands. The undertow of longing for a brave and exciting war that was not the war that actually happened is rather sea-sickening.


And then there is Chapter II of Book Second of The Ambassadors, a mass of dense paragraphs in which the author takes highly idiosyncratic stock of his hero, having pointedly awaited his arrival in Paris (from Liverpool, Chester and London) to do so. The novel’s preceding paragraphs have followed what I call James’s “dramatic” template: a few scene-setting paragraphs followed by protracted conversations that quite often bring the stage to mind. These chapters have also featured Maria Gostrey, a character whom I have always found too interesting and appealing to regard as playing a supporting role, although that, of course, is what she does. There is also the phlegmatic lawyer, Waymarsh, whom I can never like: it’s because of men like him that men like me have a hard time in America. Waymarsh’s constitutional distrust of Europe is a crashing bore, and by chapter 2.2 (as it were), even Strether is tired of him.

Now, we have Strether alone, with no one to talk to. The narrator follows Strether from Cook’s or American Express, near the Opéra, to the Luxembourg Gardens, where newly-received letters from home are read and digested. At length, Strether retraces some of his steps, returning to the Right Bank to have a look at the building in which Chad Newsome, the young man whom it is Strether’s job to “rescue” and send back to his family (and family’s business) in Massachusetts, has a flat. There, he finds a young man lounging on Chad’s balcony. It is almost certainly not Chad himself, but Strether ends the chapter by crossing the Boulevard Malesherbes to pay a visit.

The walk to the Luxembourg and the time spent sitting there are filled in with an account of things that only Henry James would make. He hovers near his hero, and overhears many of the impressions that cross Strether’s mind as he passes through Paris for the second time in his life. The first visit, thirty years earlier, was a honeymoon trip with his even younger wife, from which he sailed back home with twelve “lemon colored” novels and dreams of a literary career. Those dreams have long since come to naught; the young wife died young, and their son died, too, as a schoolboy; Strether’s worldly career, finally, has been a succession of failures. I’m doing violence to the texture of this account by jamming details together, where they would belong in almost anyone else’s telling. James never stands back to give us a portrait view, not in this chapter or anywhere else; what we see is the application of brush strokes. And aside from the handful of personal details that I’ve mentioned, James is working here not on Strether himself but on the background of ashes in which, the man now sees, he has spent his mature life.

As usual, what we’re not told is interesting. Never are Mrs Newsome’s letters quoted. We are doomed to experience her as an offstage divinity, Strether’s generous but imperious patroness. Nor are Strether’s failures itemized. Instead:

The fact that he had failed, as he considered, in everything; in each relation and half a dozen trades, as he liked luxuriously to put it, might have made, might still make, for an empty present; but it stood solidly for a crowded past. It had not been, so much achievement missed, a light yoke or a short load.

Countervailing these gloomy reflections, but also inspiring them, is Strether’s sense of having made an escape. At this point, he chalks his invigoration up to fatigue. His life at home has ground him down, and now that he’s on holiday in the brightest of capitals he is immediately rejuvenated — quite as if Paris were an eagerly-swallowed tonic. So Strether concludes, but his author worries the point; and anyone who has read the book once before will recognize Strether’s weakness for happy explanations.

At a certain point, Strether’s thoughts turn to Chad, and, again, the narrative is pointedly selective. Strether has chosen to loiter in the Luxembourg because Chad no longer lives on this side of the Seine, so there won’t be any risk of running into the boy and his “Person,” the seductress who has presumably led him astray. But Chad did once spend some time in the Latin Quarter, and the hopeful plans that he wrote home about, plans that all too soon appeared to be a smokescreen, are revisited in such a way, and with such a conclusion, that what we are shown is the chance to be young and carefree in Paris that Strether himself should have liked to have.

He reconstructed a possible groping Chad of three or four years before, a Chad who had, after all, simply — for that was the only way to see it — been too vulgar for his privilege. Surely it was a privilege to have been young and happy just there. Well, the best thing Strether knew of him was that he had had such a dream.

Strether is wrong about almost everything here, so far as Chad goes, but what’s most wrong is his utter failure to see what these reflections ought to tell him about himself. James is writing as someone who also escaped, but who did so at an early age (and with the help of family money). I don’t think that he is imagining what his life would have been like had he stayed in Boston — nothing so literal as that. But he is projecting the climate, uncongenial to the point of unhealthiness, of a hostile American scene.

It had been a dreadful cheerful sociable solitude, a solitude of life or choice, of community; but though there had been people enough all round it there had been but three or four persons in it.

Strether continues to harbor the hope that he can make something of his American life. All he need do is to see through to success his mission on behalf of Mrs Newsome. If James produces any impression in this chapter, it is that of Strether’s weary confidence in himself — the very confidence that has doomed him to a life of heavy yokes and long loads. It will take the distant, almost inaudible thunder of a displeased goddess to wake him up.

Daily Blague news update: Death by Contractor.

Gotham Diary:
Ivory Tower
27 June 2014

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Kathleen had to be in the office this morning, so she arranged for a car to fetch her. I remained tucked in while she got dressed, and, after she gave me a kiss and left, I fell back asleep. My punishment was a rather dreary dream of farewells and long drives. This came to a point in the fruitless search for a tote bag containing my laptop. I woke up and swung out of bed in a panic, but before my feet reached the floor I knew that I needn’t bother. So I dozed for a bit more. Some people never learn.

While I was reading Alice James, the book that I wrote about yesterday, part of my mind was puzzling out a striking correlation. Jean Strouse’s book came out in 1980, which was also the year in which I came out from law school in Indiana to settle down with Kathleen in New York. We lived in another apartment in this very building, but we’ve been where we are now for over thirty years. That stability is mirrored in the ongoing simplification of my affairs, as, over time, I have abandoned projects of less than signal importance and focused on things that really mattered. The dark humanism of Henry James — Alice’s brother — is certainly one of those things. It almost seems as if I, like Alice, have taken to my bed — I have, in that sense, certainly taken to my apartment — but not in order to attract attention and malinger in hypochondria. I did it (at first quite blindly and inefficiently) in order to learn how to think.

And I see now that I have built up a kind of coral reef of ideas. It is time to take stock of that. But not here.


In the London Review of Books, I read a review of a book called Dangerous to Know, by the centenarian journalist Chapman Pincher. Pincher’s specialty was armaments: he believed that Britain ought to be well-armed, and he cultivated military and diplomatic sources whose concerns he shared and was happy to share with his readers. I knew at once that my father-in-law would love to read this book, so I ordered a copy — his ninetieth birthday is coming up — from While I was at the site, I came across another book that I’d read about, John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life. Almost against my will, I ordered this door-stopper as well. When are you ever going to read that? my prudence demanded. Where do these impulses come from?

I groaned all over again when the book arrived, more loudly, in fact, because Roy Jenkins really is a doorstopper. Wherever will you put that thing? What usually happens to these big, serious books is that, lying at the bottom of piles, they accumulate an ectoplasm of guilt and remorse that makes them even more unreadable. By the time they are finally disposed of, unread, they have become an embarrassment. Something different happened yesterday. I picked up Roy Jenkins and began to read it. I soon found that I couldn’t put it down.

Although I certainly don’t know very much about him, Roy Jenkins is a figure of interest to me. He’s part hero, part warning. He was a complicated politician whose mature instinct was always for an inclusive center and for means of social improvement that would involve the least dislocation. At the same time, he didn’t give larger economic matters much thought; he was too much the traditional parliamentarian for that. At the end of his life, he slipped into ceremonious irrelevance because his skill at maneuver and debate atrophied his ability to think about the objects of political activity.

At the same time, he was a successful writer who supported a “well-rounded” lifestyle (with a taste for fine wine) with his publications. My closest contact with him, until yesterday, was his biography of Gladstone, which came out in 1995. I doubted very much that anybody could make Gladstone interesting to me, but Jenkins succeeded — or at least kept my yawns to a minimum (Gladstone could be such a Victorian humbug at times). Jenkins was clearly amused by the sprawl of Gladstone’s long life — the family history, the penchant for chopping down trees, the strange marks in his diary that signified no-one-knows-what about his meetings with prostitutes — and he shared his enthusiasm on the page. But is Gladstone the thoughtful book that it might be? No, because Jenkins never investigates the contradictions at the heart of the Victorian experiment.

Similarly, as the LRB convincingly argued, John Campbell does not investigate the economic developments that transformed the postwar West into its current condition of noxious inequality. Jenkins was too complacent about business organizations, too ready to see them as providers of jobs — which they certainly were, until just about the prime of his career. Then something happened. What this something might be, neither Jenkins nor any other liberal could tell, because it happened in a corner of the world that didn’t interest them and marked a development that they could not have imagined as anything but perverse. This was nothing less than the financialization of everything that eventually brought about the market valuation of the priceless.

This was not only a political catastrophe for liberals but a collapse of humanism overall. But the liberals, who prided themselves on their understanding of big pictures and bold prognostications, and who were humanism’s most significant defenders, lacked the intellectual wherewithal to see it coming. Indeed, in their globalizing zeal — Jenkins sacrificed his own chance at 10 Downing Street to his commitment to the EU — they facilitated the early stages of trans-sovereign finance. This isn’t to say that they ought to have been more protectionist in the common sense of that word. But they might have given more thought to the protection of the structures and scales that would insure the widespread prosperity of their constituents. Today’s liberals on both sides of the Atlantic seem not even to possess the rudiments of a program for reforming business organizations as such for the social benefit. This would involve imposing conditions on businesses that preserve capitalist projects wherever they are useful, while protecting economic health from the excessive (thus malignant) pursuit of profits. By “as such,” I mean that business organizations must also be protected from governmental interference. Once the political decisions about organization and regulation have been taken, there is nothing for the state but its exercise of ordinary police powers.

We need business. We need more businesses — lots more. And we need a government capable of providing the large-scale services that make gigantic business organizations as unnecessary as they are undesirable.

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Blague news update: Literally.

Reading Note:
Alice James
26 June 2014

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Last night, for the first time in my life, I made a really good cheeseburger. The burger itself, a quarter-pound clump of ground chuck that I dropped into a hot cast-iron pan and pressed into a patty with a spatula, then cooked for two minutes on one side and for a minute on the other, was actually delicious. All by itself, it would have been a treat. But it was even better with a slice of melting cheese, a slice of red onion, a leaf of lettuce, and a toasted potato roll lathered with mustard. (I have a tendency to dress cheeseburgers with a slice of bacon. I was very glad to have resisted it last night.) Kathleen’s burger was served to her taste, with cheese and ketchup.

So simple, so fast, so tasty — where have I been? Not behind the counter at a diner stove, apparently.

The key to success in this production is something called “the smash.” I first came across it in a recent Williams-Sonoma catalogue. For about twenty dollars, I could buy a cast-iron thingy, a smaller version of those weights that some people use to inhibit curls in frying bacon, with which to flatten a clump of meat into a patty. For four hundred dollars, I could have my head examined to see why I didn’t just use a spatula. A simple spatula is what’s called for in Sam Sifton’s Dining Section article on the subject, “Deconstructing a Perfect Burger,” which appeared in yesterday’s Times. I’m not sure that “smash” is the word — trust men to infuse their food talk with violence — but the secret does seem to lie in shaping the burger in the hot pan, and not before. It is also important to use a pan, and not to cook burgers over (or under) an open flame: “The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit.”

George Motz, the documentary filmmaker and hamburger expert whom Sifton consulted, believes that the ground beef is best untouched by human hands. He uses a spoon or an ice cream scoop to form his clumps, and he advises working with meat that has been chilled in the refrigerator.

The potato roll is almost as key an ingredient as a the ground chuck. It’s very light, and by readily absorbing all the juices, it intensifies the burger’s flavor.


Jean Strouse’s biography, Alice James, came out in 1980. I dimly remember reading about it, and deciding not to read about someone whose neurasthenic, bedridden life was so dismally disappointing. A couple of years ago, the book was reissued by NYRB (which a preface by Colm Tóibín that seems startlingly phoned-in). By then, I knew a lot more about the James family and had also read dozens of wry snippets (it seemed) from Alice’s diary. So I bought it, but I didn’t read it until this week.

Alice James is a disturbing read, because Alice James herself cannot hold the center of her own biography. This might sound like some kind of fault, but it is actually the point. Strouse is to be praised for refraining from pushing her heroine forward, and indeed from decking her subject out as a heroine. She does not crudely “make a case” for Alice James. This case, presumably, would be that Alice James might have been a woman of achievement if her upbringing had not been so stifling. That she might have made an impact on the world if her older brothers had not been so successful at making their own. Indeed, far from presenting Alice as an unrealized version of William or Henry James, Strouse shows us a woman whose circumstances were not that unusual in Victorian America, where many gifted daughters were paled by successful older brothers. What sets Alice apart from the run of such women is that her older brothers are still famous well over a century later. Henry James is, if anything, more “famous” than he was in his lifetime. That we know about Alice at all owes entirely to her brothers’ persistent renown.

That Alice is an interesting figure, moreover, owes much to the egotistical nuttiness of her father, Henry James, Sr. James père is an exasperating windbag upon whom I don’t care to dwell — it is almost enough to say that he was a good friend of Emerson. When William James complied a book of extracts from his father’s “literary remains,” he introduced it with a deadly candor completely at odds with his family’s habitual veneration of their dear old patriarch.

With all the richness of style, the ideas are singularly unvaried and few. Probably few authors have so devoted their entire lives to the monotonous elaboration of one single bundle of truths.

The man didn’t have to support himself as a writer; he lived on a nice inheritance. He had ideas; he fancied himself an expert. He dragged his children around England, Switzerland and France in search of the ideal schooling for his four boys. Nothing came up to his mark, and his sons never formed strong attachments outside the home. This did not impair William much, and it may have been a great boon for Henry, but for the two younger brothers, Garth Wilkerson and Robertson, it was probably the root of their weedy failures. Alice, of course, was never sent to school at all.

Henry James, Sr, also had ideas about men and women, and they were nicely exemplified by himself and his wife. Mary Walsh James was — well, the first thing that you want to say about her, once she comes into focus, is that she was not a “James.” She did not share her family’s febrile constitution. She was placid, literal, and inexorable. She “gave all but asked for nothing.” Strouse unpacks this ideal of maternal sacrifice enough to demonstrate that Alice could never, ever follow in her mother’s footsteps. Alice was clever, and even somewhat temperamental. As a woman, however — as a woman according to her father’s understanding, that is — she had no real alternative course. Believing that women were innately moral creatures, Alice’s father never understood that he denied his daughter that ability to be moral. She was never anything — for him — but an obedient receptacle. The idea of a creative life simply did not compute. So Alice got sick. That was an option. It turned out to be such a good solution to her conundrum that when, in her early forties, Alice learned of a breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver, she welcomed death with an ecstasy that would have been Wagnerian had it not been so decorous. From her late teens on, Alice was the object of her family’s loving and anxious concern. She thus secured their attention.

Until the cancer, of course, doctors couldn’t find anything “organically wrong” with Alice, so they diagnosed her as hysterical. She had a couple of dramatic, paralyzing breakdowns in her life, but for the most part she was a becalmed invalid. She got on well with her parents and her brothers, and she always had a passel of women friends to write letters to, but her somewhat petulant sarcasm and her mock-pompous rhetoric were not immediately appealing outside her coterie, especially issuing from her round, expectant face. No man ever expressed a romantic interest in her, and few seem to have sought her friendship. It is not surprising that the daughter of a benignant misogynist and the sister of brilliant brothers had little use for ordinary men, even the ordinary men of Boston and Cambridge.

Toward the end of her life, Alice kept a diary. Strouse stresses that this diary is not an undiscovered masterpiece. It has considerable documentary evidence, however; among other things, it shows what the family literary gift might produce with little or no discipline. Upon a surprise visit from William, she wrote,

What a strange experience it was, to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowing oasis in this alien desert, redolent with the exquisite family perfume of the days gone by, made of the allusions, the memories and the point of view in common, so that my floating particle sense was lost for an hour or so in the illusion that what is forever shattered had sprung up anew, and existed outside of our memories — where it is forever green!

This complicated passage cries out for editing and reshaping. So does most of what Strouse quotes from the diary.

We feel sorry for Alice, of course. But we also tire of her, despite (or perhaps because of) Strouse’s expert handling. Then we think of the hundreds of thousands of women whose lives were just a little less remarkable — for dramatic illness as for illustrious connections — and the waste of humanity assumes a massive horror, a feminine counterpart of the dead of the Somme. It is in awe of that horror that we close Strouse’s magisterial study. This is why we need to know Alice James.

Daily Blague news update: Klinghoffer and the Met.

Gotham Diary:
The App
25 June 2014

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

In the middle of lunch, the other day, a passing observation snagged my attention.

In this way, [Walter] Benjamin viewed the seventeenth-century drama as opening a prospect onto a very modern sense of spiritual emptiness and confusion.

I put The New York Review of Books down and gazed out the window. Spiritual emptiness and confusion. I have been hearing about these things all my life, yet I have never felt anything like them. Half the time, I have felt stupid, as if I weren’t getting a joke. The other day, it occurred to me that I had never experienced the loss implied by spiritual emptiness because I had never possessed, or thought I possessed, whatever it is that conduces to its opposite.

And what would that be?

At the time — at lunch — I thought that it might be a sense of entitlement. Jesus loves me, that I know. Really? As I saw it — and now, the time that I am talking about is childhood — Jesus was far more likely to scold, or at least to admonish me, than he was to love me. He asked me to love my neighbor as myself. These were all good things, I knew: we all ought to be and to do better, not out of duty but in order to put the world right. Even a child can understand that. But I did not see Jesus as a prop, as a support — as an insurance policy? — for my adventure in life. I had no such prop.

The curious thing is that I learned this from official Catholic catechism. Item one in The Baltimore Catechism, as I recall, was this Q & A:

Why did God make you?

God made me to know, love, and serve him.

The propping was all the other way. Thinking about this long-memorized text on my way to the market after lunch, I was shocked to see that it represented God as a spoiled child in search of a new and better doll. It seemed — I felt slightly faint — was the Church was blaspheming, big time. What kind of God was this? Anyway, I never felt that God was there for me, but only that I was there for God, which is probably why I lost interest in him almost as soon as I was old enough to think.

An interesting curlicue, and, typically, all about me. Today, revisiting the passage, which appears in Adam Kirsch’s review of a new biography of Benjamin, I put spiritual emptiness and confusion in a more appropriate perspective, the history of the modern West. It is generally conceded that a widespread loss meaning overcame the West in the wake of the Great War. It seems clear to me that this loss was actually one of confidence, not meaning. The preceding age, a century or more of revolution, social turmoil, industrial upheaval, and population explosion, was nevertheless marked by an almost mindless confidence. “Progress” was the capacious, almost palpable magic carpet that would carry civilization across the ruins of the old and the dislocations of the new to a paradise of leisure. Slavery was abolished, women were on the way to political equality with men; armed with bundles of progressive ideas, cheerful civilians walked right into something they could hardly believe still existed: unreconstructed empires and their imperial armies.

Even today, people are still asking, how did that happen?

The confidence, it seems, was — merely confidence. Confidence is very different from optimism. Optimism is the hope that things will turn out for the better, inspired not by confidence but by an awareness that expecting things to get worse is corrosive. Whatever happens tomorrow, you’re better off being an optimist today. Just don’t count on anything.

Confidence is a bluff; it anticipates, no less materially than heirs used to “anticipate” their fortunes, tomorrow’s happiness. Given tomorrow’s happiness, today’s decisions become a little less crucial. Because things are going to work out, right?

Confidence leads, inevitably, it seems, to ruin and despair. And, despite all the reasons against it, we are once again in a confident time. The modern West — significantly, its youngest cohorts, the ones who are going to spend their entire lives thrashing with the consequences — believes in The App. The App, when it’s discovered, will Fix Everything. Meanwhile, we ignore the reality around us as smugly as the prosperous bourgeoisie of the Nineteenth Century ignored poverty, human and environmental degradation, and smoldering social resentment. Why should we try to fix anything, when The App will do a better job? If and when.

Our faith in The App is, like the old faith in Progress, largely unconscious. It’s built into the new and rude virtual network of devices operated by pedestrians on collision courses with material reality. You cannot listen to mainstream television for ten minutes without hearing the peals of confidence exuded by self-assured men and savvy-sounding women. We’ve got it taken care of: just buy us! When the media is the message, you don’t have to be Plato to start thinking about leaving the global village — the cave, I mean.


For two days, I’ve been sorting through desk drawers, and also through the nice-looking boxes — I can never remember what they’re made of, but it’s not what I call it, rattan — which also serve as annexes to the desks. This has to be done every now and then, but the need was pressing because I could not overlook the fact that, during the past year, I rarely opened most of the drawers and never opened any of the boxes. I can no longer bear the idea that my house is a storage unit. Everything not in some kind of use must go!

And a lot of it did.

One type of item that always surfaces in these sortings is the notebook. I know that many people are far more seriously afflicted, but I have something of a notebook fetish. I have many notebooks, a few small, a few large, and a lot medium. Most of them are bound. There are Japanese notebooks with retro print on pale green covers. There are Field Notes. There’s a Moleskine knock-off. I have only recently lost sticky fingers for notebooks, which for years I acquired as women pile up lipsticks. I would imagine a kind of literary porn: there I am, scribbling a deathless thought, presumably against a scenic backdrop.

The reality — falls short. Many notebooks are abandoned after several pages of scribbling. The few that are full are not regularly comprehensible. I don’t think that my notes would make sense to anyone else, and a lot of them make no sense to me. Thinking about this, it occurred to me that I don’t make a lot of sense when I am the only person in the room. “Talking to myself” — transcribing flights of insight — I am something of a lunatic. I know what I’m talking about, and isn’t that all that matters? But, like a lunatic, I almost immediately forget the context from which the brainwave emerged. The next day, the “I” who reads the notebook, that “I” has no idea what I was talking about.

The sad truth is, I never learned how to take good notes. I realized this early enough to make a habit of never writing in books, but the notebook habit persisted, as fetishes will. What I did learn was to write coherent letters to friends, and it’s out of that that my skills as a blogger developed. The only context for what I say here is here, on this page. There are no “understood” special meanings. I assume that you, the reader, are a reasonably educated person who might nevertheless quite understandably never have heard of something I take for granted — which means that there is little, beyond a handful of stylistic conventions, that I can take for granted. And when I re-read old entries (as I’m doing now, in connection with a larger project), I am only very rarely puzzled by an elusive thought.

The question is, then, what to do with the notebooks. Should I just throw them all away unread? With every passing hour, this looks more like the right thing to do. Assuming that I go through them first, how should I go through them? I thought of scanning them, but while that solves the purely spatial problem, it doesn’t address the notebooks ontologically, as it were. Should I look for nuggets of eloquence and type them into Evernote?

Probably the worst thing that I can say about the notebooks that I have leafed through is that they don’t divulge personal or private material that I should prefer others not to see. They’re not even that useful.

Daily Blague news update: Performance Art.

Reading Note:
This & That
24 June 2014

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

It has been a good season for pulling books down from the shelf and reading them for the first time. There was David Nasaw’s Going Out, and then Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking. I’m in the middle of that. (Did you know that currants — as in Zante Currants, the small raisins — started out in English as grapes of Corinth?) Today, looking for something to read at lunch, I lighted upon Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James. It’s a real treat to come at the James Family story from a slightly different angle.

I’d have liked to read The Ambassadors, but I’m reading that in French. I read a chapter in English, and then, right away, the same chapter in French. I do not consult the dictionary, but I do look back, now and then, at the original. Jean Pavans’s recent translation is as complex syntactically as the original, but the vocabulary is, naturally, more contemporary. Thus Maria Gostrey’s term for Mrs Newcome and Lambert Strether, in their native Woollett, “swells,” which I found somewhat obscure, becomes “select(e)” in French: quite clear. This bilingual project forces me to pay very close attention to the original, as it’s to be my only key to uncertain words in French. I’d have certainly been obliged to look up “éclaboussures boueuses” if I hadn’t just read “fresh damp gusts.” Actually, I just did look up the French, sensing, upon closer inspection, that the translation is rather free on this point (“muddy splatters”). Interesting detail: words appearing in French in the original are marked with an asterisk. Bon!*

Pleasant as it is to go back and forth, I can only do so much at a time without flagging. Reading about Henry James’s invalid sister is an excellent stand-in.

Over the weekend, I read the three novellas by Michel Faber that are collected as The Courage Consort, the title of the first. “The Courage Consort” and “The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps” are the most clearly literary works of Faber’s that I’ve read so far. Under the Skin is as unliterary as a well-written book can be. The story sounds in science fiction (although it doesn’t really read as such, strange as it is), and the style is overtly workmanlike. But it is well-written, and there are unobtrusive nuances to be found. In this, Faber is the opposite of Stephen King, at least for me; King’s writing always breaks down into careless, almost clumsy bits, and leaves the impression that King doesn’t give a damn about language. He certainly doesn’t give my kind of damn! Faber does, so I’ll read anything. I was hooked by his Victorian melodrama, The Crimson Petal and the White. It made me feel almost sorry for Wilkie Collins, who could never have published anything remotely as carnally frank — but that he would have done, had it been possible, Faber’s artful re-creation left me in no doubt.

“The Courage Consort” is about a five-singer a capella group that retires to a Belgian chateau in the middle of a deep forest, in order to rehearse a difficult new work in a noise-free environment. The novella is told from the point of view of the group’s soprano, Catherine Courage, wife of Roger, the baritone and group leader (the pun, or double-meaning, is almost gracious). Catherine is very much lacking in courage at the start; the desire to go on living has somehow been drained out of her. Faber being Faber, there is shadow of Gothic menace in the woods that surround the chateau, and a good deal of play with the sense of being cut off from the world: despite being routinely flouted, this air of dangerous isolation persists. The story takes a surprising, but, in retrospect, perfectly natural turn toward the end, and “The Courage Consort” story closes with the prosperous satisfaction of an old New Yorker story. The same is true of “The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps,” set in Whitby, notorious as the point of entry into England for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vampires are not the story’s objects of curiosity, however; an apparently grisly deathbed confession is. Again, the point of view is that of a woman, and at the end I realized that the same is true of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White. I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I would bet that Faber’s view of the male of the species through the eye of the female is as far as you can get from that of E L James, without being simply lesbian.

The final entry in The Courage Consort, “The Fahrenheit Twins,” is not so much a novella as a fable. At the very start, the realism so persuasive in the preceding fictions is called into question.

At the icy zenith of the world, far away from any other children, Tainto’lilith and Marko’cain knew no better than that life was bliss. Therefore, it was bliss.

By the end of the story, which is terrifying without the aid of any special effects, the twins know better. The only thing missing is an embossed invitation to decode the tale. For the time being, I’m content to take it at face value. I relish the sensation that Faber is up to something that is somehow beyond me. In a writer less fluent and interesting, such mystification would annoy me. Let that attest to my admiration for this Nederlander who writes in English and lives in Scotland.

That leaves only Some Rain Must Fall: And Other Stories for me to read before Michel Faber’s new book comes out in the fall.


Stopping in at Crawford Doyle on Friday, I was arrested by a book on the front counter, James Turner’s Philology: the Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. The French word for this book, at any rate with regard to me, would be incontournable: there is no way that I can get around reading this book. Happily, it is lucid, and authoritatively historical as well.

Why Philology? Ever since I read Auden’s remark about Hannah Arendt — that The Human Condition is an “etymology,” explaining the proper meaning of certain words — I’ve been considering Arendt not as a philosopher but as a philologist. Turner’s book unpacks what philology is and is not. Just as “philosophy” doesn’t mean, simply, “the love of wisdom,” so “philology” means more (or less) than “the love of words.” Turner’s account of grammar, as it developed in Alexandrian times (but in Pergamum), is particularly rich.

But in antiquity grammar meant much more than parsing sentences. Dionysius [Thrax] divided grammar into six parts. His pupil Tyrannion separated it, more influentially, into four modes of treating a text: recitation, explanation, emendation, and evaluation. This program boiled down to teaching people how to read, with sophisticated grasp, in a culture of oral reading where voice mattered as well as comprehension. Yet here grammar gains almost the breadth of philologia itself. And why should it not? What did a refined ancient reader need, besides well-modulated vocal cords? He … required a scroll purged of errors, mastery of the language written on it, and knowledge of the historical and mythological lore to which the writer referred. Add some arguments about etymology and you have a summary of Hellenistic philology and its associated antiquarian research.

Now you know why, even in Shakespeare’s day, they called it grammar school.

More to come: I’m only in the middle of Turner’s second chapter.

And on that note: Daily Blague news update: “Jirble.”

Mot Juste Note:
23 June 2014

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Very early in My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard steps forward from delivering the narrative to deliver himself of one of those chunks of authorial wisdom that have been depressing fiction readers since the time of Stendhal and Dostoevsky.

As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such a cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, five, sixty … Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning. My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time, through the eyes of an eight-year-old: unpredictable and frightening; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it. (11)

Really? I thought. But I was already engaged with the struggle of the title, so I set this passage aside as obiter dicta. It refused, however, to fade away. It was a like an equation that couldn’t be solved — not until I substituted knowingness for knowledge. Knowledge is not stabilized and fixed. It is always becoming more complicated — with luck, more complex. Knausgaard isn’t talking about real knowledge. He’s talking about the stuff that you learn in school, that you have to know, more or less, if you’re going to take a place among adults in the Western World, especially among people who work with their minds. You are supposed to know about river deltas and molecules, but not much — just enough not to appear “ignorant.” This dossier of information is indeed meaningless — that is the point of it. It is meaningless in the same way that knowing how to walk is meaningless. You just do it.

The distractions of modern life make it very easy for adults to forgo the pursuit of real knowledge — which begins, of course, with a declaration of ignorance at odds with the presumption of knowledgeability with which we invest ourselves and our social and professional peers. Some professional people really are paid to learn more about the world — surgeons, engineers, genuine scholars. But most people are paid to deploy their training. The pursuit of knowledge is relegated to hobbies. Nevertheless, the pursuit of knowledge is not only meaningful but driven by meaning: it is one’s sense of the meaning of things that governs the questions that one will ask. We might call curiosity an ache of meaning. I don’t want to get tangled up in Knausgaard’s assertions about time and distance, but I can imagine proposing that curiosity is a resistance to time: it requires a halt or a pause, for the clearing up of doubt or the confirmation of a hunch.

Every educated man and woman is in a position to pursue the knowledge that conduces to a better understanding of the civil society in which we all live — that is, or used to be, the declared objective of humanist education. But nobody has the time. What nobody actually has, in fact, is a sense of where to begin. A crash course in astrophysics might well appear to be less daunting. But a crash course in astrophysics is not going to teach anyone how to learn more about the cosmos. Knowledge about civil society is different: there is always much to be learned by each of us. We begin by knowing nothing: upon reaching adulthood, we need to dismantle the adolescent training wheels of knowingness, so that we can begin to know.

How to begin? By thinking. Thinking about what other people think, and thinking about what you see every day. Why, or how, does civil society chug along from day to day, given all its worn and broken parts? And who is in charge? Such thoughts will lead to understanding, and behavior informed by understanding (as opposed to behavior dictated by knowingness) is our only hope as a species. Provided that we respect the property and preserve the safety of others, understanding can do nothing but good, and not the least of its benefits is a sense of the meaning of life.

The meaning of life, which can never be reduced to words, is to be found in your relationship to the world. The relationship certainly exists (although it must not be confused with your relation to society — other people), but if you are not aware of it, then life will seem meaningless. So, find it.

Daily Blague news update: Tough Monday.

Gotham Diary:
20 June 2014

Friday, June 20th, 2014

There are many good reasons for not running out, the moment I finished reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first volume of My Struggle, and buying the second, but the best of these is the respect that I have for the integrity of Book I. What Happens Next? When I was agonizing about whether to take the plunge into Knausgaard, I worried that suspense would be a problem, because only the second volume of the translation is available in paper, and the latter three volumes haven’t appeared in English at all. The other curious thing is that I expected My Struggle to be a long, wearying read.

Instead of the one-damn-thing-after-another, blow-by-blow account of the novelist’s life that the lazier reviewers had led me to fear, I found an extraordinarily articulated narrative in which almost everything that Knausgaard had to say was gathered up and placed within one of two massive frames, each occupying the bulk of one half of the book. I don’t feel that I’ve read a big book; I feel, rather, that I’ve been to see two very large and complicated pictures. The first frame could be labeled “New Year’s Eve, 1984,” and the second, “A Shroud for the Dead Father.” There are clusters of only apparently miscellaneous narrative on either side of the first frame, and the second is preceded by a rather lovely account of a day shortly preceding (we’re not told by how much) the birth of Karl Ove’s first child, an event that followed the death of his father by about five years, by which time he had made a new life for himself, with a new wife, in Sweden.

I am not going to indulge in a close reading of either frame, but a bit of running commentary about the first, and simpler, one will not be amiss.

My Struggle opens with an episode illustrative of the child Karl-Ove’s difficult relationship with his father. He is eight at the time. We learn that he is wary rather than watchful, too tense sometimes to be entirely attentive. This split, as it were, is then taken up in a portrait of the author as, himself now, a father. The droll account of his contradictory feelings about children in the house is kept sharp enough to avoid sentimental or pitying responses in the reader, and this, too, is essential introductory material, because it assures us, by its very nature, that Knausgaard is capable of writing about his “intimate” life (but is that really what he’s doing?) without buttonholing or breathing down our necks. He writes, as I wrote yesterday, like an old friend, someone who by definition knows how far to go and how much distance to keep — so that the distance itself is eloquent. The reader has every reason to expect that, however unpleasant the individual stories might be, Knausgaard himself is not going to be a disagreeable companion. The book that follows has the character of a long, ruminative walk.

On page 38, the first frame is mounted. The author is sixteen, and newly enrolled at a gymnasium in Kristiansand, a port at the southern end of Norway. (A map of Kristiansand and its environs would have been most welcome, but it didn’t take long to get the lay of the land from Google Maps.) On page 57, the frame is labeled. Karl Ove and his best friend, Jan Vidar, “sit down” to figure out how they’re going to be invited to a New Year’s Eve party. Jan Vidar was a classmate of Karl Ove’s before the latter’s move to the gymnasium; Jan Vidar himself now goes to technical college, where he’s learning to be a baker. Whenever I read Book I again, I will be interested to note the nuances with which the author notes the breach in the friendship caused by this divergence in careers; at this point, it is hardly felt by the boys themselves. Karl Ove feels excluded at the gymnasium, so his loyalties have not been tested. Nonetheless the fault lines are apparent — the fault lines that demarcate people who work with their minds apart from everyone else. The events of the New Year’s Eve, as they unroll, are pregnant with doom — the doom of Karl Ove’s hold on his childhood.

On page 67, after one of the space breaks that mark off the narrative units — the lowest-key device imaginable — Knausgaard writes, “Getting drunk required careful planning” — planning that Karl Ove has already learned his drinking may unravel. He now tells us about the second time he got drunk, which I point out only because it is the first of many shifts in time frame. It also leads directly to a broader reflective account of Karl Ove’s early love life, in which a budding love affair is retailed. (Again, I beg reader to remember the image of the old friend. An old friend would know how to make this hyperfamiliar but awkward material interesting. Knausgaard does, too.) It is only on page 85 that we return to the run-up to New Year’s Eve — and for two pages only!

Now the excursus about Karl-Ove’s hopeless rock band begins. It is funny and horrible, like all the best adolescent literature, and it might very well stand as a short story. I had the vague feeling that I had momentarily put down My Struggle and picked up a magazine. Creating this impression is one of Knausgaard’s great skills. He does not change his tone of voice, but he deals with facts differently. The New Year’s Eve story into which everything else is set reads like a documentary: we did this, then we did that; what a hassle. The rock-band episode, on the contrary, reads like a history, not so much an annals as an appreciation of a part of one’s life. But the two lengthy tangents in the New Year’s Eve frame are composed to enrich the foreground narrative. Knowing all about the rock band, not to mention our hero’s erotic attainments, makes the party that Karl Ove winds up stuck with far less unbearable for the reader.

We return to New Year’s Eve from the rock band story on page 99. Karl Ove’s parents are preparing for their own New’s Year Eve party, a gathering of relatives. Knausgaard takes a page to make some general remarks about his parents’ house and his family, concluding with the motif of his “mixed emotions” about his father. When the grandparents arrive, we’re told a bit about them — just enough to make the grandmother’s reappearance in the second half of the book very upsetting. Finally, on page 111, Karl Ove sets out on the big night’s adventures, which will involve transporting bags of beer bottles, without being noticed, to another part of the Kristiansand metroplex. We almost immediately learn that Karl Ove has an Elmer Fudd problem with the letter “r,” but aside from that, the young peoples’ party finally gets going and stays going. It is as deeply unsatisfying as any sixteen year-old’s pursuit of the high life could be. And, because an old friend is telling you about it, you chuckle sympathetically on every last page.

This story about one night, with its preparations and its immediate aftermath, occupies a significant portion of a book that is widely, but erroneously, assumed to be a shapeless “dear diary.” There is, in this first book of six, no sense whatsoever of an autobiography. There is no question about Knausgaard’s having learned from Proust, among others, how to cover massive spaces with coherent blocks of narrative and reflection. Beyond that, however,  the two writers have little or nothing in common. Their agonies as little boys are so different that they hardly seem to belong to the same species. But that is how it is with childhood horrors. We might well remember Knausgaard’s title, which is not “My Life” but My Struggle. Accent on both.


My feeling about Knausgaard’s frames is difficult, because it creates a conflict. On the one hand, I believe that Knausgaard is a post-courtly writer. What do I mean by this? What I mean most is that whereas courtly novelists — Balzac, Turgenev, Proust, Henry James, and even, if with characteristic perversity, Flaubert — base their fiction on observation. Nobody is better at this, or at any rate more devoted to the technique, than James; observing others is all his characters to. I call this courtly because, as Norbert Elias allows in a footnote to his study, The Court Society, (page 106), it exploits and develops a skill developed in the courts, where observation was of vital concern to courtiers

Courtiers almost desperately needed to see through the masks of others, not to discover what they “really felt” — no one was interested in anyone’s “real feelings” until Rousseau came along — but what they intended to do, as well as how good their chances might be of accomplishing their goals. Elias quotes a piquant passage from Saint-Simon, piquant to us because Saint-Simon, sensing a chill in another courtier’s attitude towards himself, simply withdraws his claims upon the other man’s attentions as soon as he is sure that the chill is not accidental or inadvertent. He is not interested in why there is a chill. Because he already knows: there must have been a shift in the triangle linking Saint-Simon, the other courtier, and the complex of money and power that is the heart of every court.

In Henry James, too, everyone is after money and power. Otherwise Charlotte and the Prince would have married and lived happily ever after in gilded poverty.

Knausgaard is not in this sense an observer, and what he wants to talk about is his screwups. It is impossible to imagine a courtly reader’s taking any interest in his work.

And yet, what do the massive narrative frames of My Struggle bring to mind but the great Renaissance and baroque cycles of wall-paintings and tapestries. Why does Peter-Paul Rubens’s set of twenty-four pictures about the career of Marie de Médicis, of all things, haunt the afterimage of my reading of Knausgaard?

I am obliged to suppose that awe is the only explanation.

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Blague news update: “You, the Viewer.”

Gotham Diary:
19 June 2014

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

With the end so far out of sight, I’m wary of beginning any kind of commentary about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I can report I that read most of Book 1 in a day. Perhaps that’s the perfect beginning.

But a perfect beginning wouldn’t require immediate qualification: this was a book that I could put down — I just didn’t want to. I never felt captured, as one does by thrillers and the like. Someone told me — and this point, this note of intimacy was never made explicit in any of the reviews of the newly-translated third installment that I read — that reading Knausgaard was like listening to a friend, somebody you cared about and somebody who knew you. My friend and Knausgaard are about the same age, and that isn’t the only reason why I wouldn’t describe reading Knausgaard in quite the same way. But Knausgaard writes as comfortably as an old friend talks. He is never boring, and he is never bewildering. And because the things he writes about are the things that you talk about with an old friend, you have to take what I just said on faith, because to listen to anyone who wasn’t a good friend talk about them would be boring and bewildering — often, at the same time.

I can also report that my pleasure was not in the least diminished by the fact that I would never — once I went off to boarding school — have had a friend like Karl Ove. If it’s a bit premature to speculate on the nature of his struggle (although I’ve already got a very clear idea of it), I can tell you that my struggle has always involved steering clear, not in myself but in others, of a masculine impulse that Knausgaard, in his easygoing way, nails in one sentence. It comes from the mordantly funny recollection of his hopeless high-school rock band, in which he may very well have been the least gifted player. Why did he persist? Listen:

And the louder I played it, the closer I came to that ideal. I had bought an extra-long guitar lead so that I could stand in front of the hall mirror and play, with the amplifier upstairs in my room at full blast, and then things really started to happen, the sound became distorted, piercing, and almost regardless of what I did, it sounded good, the whole house was filled with the sound of my guitar, and a strange congruence evolved between my feelings and these sounds, as though they were me, as though that was the real me. (95)

As Kathleen says to me, “You never liked rock because you love music.” And that is true — I always loved music. My childish taste was inclined toward the cute and schmaltzy, but I went straight from 101 Strings to Mozart. I never felt that music expressed my feelings; rather, music taught me how to feel.


Classical music was born in the courts of princes, where professional musicians provided entertainment. It was pretty much dance music at first, but by the end of the Sixteenth Century the mathematical nature of music, which had always been understood by philosophers, and the practical limitations of uninitiated audiences, were brought into direct conflict. A nice word for this conflict is the word that was coined for the occasion, concerto, which according to the etymology that I prefer jams together the ideas of togetherness and competition. The challenge of classical music has always been this: how much can you get away with without making the audience fidget and yawn? How can you repeat themes and rhythms while keeping them fresh and alluring? How to be new and different without being alienating?

Courtiers, who soon learned to educate themselves in the appreciation of courtly entertainment, gave this competition a rein more free than it might have had; they were inclined to do so because the appreciation of “difficulties” so quickly became a status marker at court. These “difficulties” could not be very serious. If a connoisseur wished his opinion to have any currency, he might be at the head of the pack, but he must also be of it. And so a gradual process was set in motion, a dialectic between musicians and courtiers. By the time the third estate was allowed to sit in on the sessions, the game had developed a highly sophisticated differentiation between difficulty and novelty. This is most clearly seen in the very late work of Mozart, which was driven by the determination to write new music that was informed by old learning. Mozart was regarded as a relatively difficult composer at this stage, because, instead of novelty, he introduced the spirits of Bach and Handel, long forgotten by most musicians and completely unknown to the listening public.

This game, this dialectic, came to an end round about the time that the power of the European courts did — somewhere between 1910 and 1920. Throughout the previous century, the connoisseur might not actually be a courtier but he listened like one. (And bear in mind that from its origins until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, opera was an art form that only princely courts could afford to mount. Le Nozze di Figaro was permitted as an opera because only courtiers would hear it; productions of Le Mariage de Figaro as a comedy in German were strictly prohibited.)

What I’ve said of music here applies in one way or another to almost all the art forms of the modern West; at the core of each artistic endeavor, there was, during the courtly era (which we now call the ancien régime), a tidal tug between innovation and familiarity. This came to an end when artists refused to “play” with the nouveaux-riches who took the place of courtiers after the second, and final, collapse of the ancien régime during the years before 1918. From now on, “modern” art would be all about difficulty, and hang the audience if it couldn’t keep up. This “modern” phase appears to have come to an end. Whatever has taken its place, we are still left with glorious legacies of the courtly patronage of the arts.

It seems to me that intelligent people sooner or later get over regarding art produced in courtly environments as bearing the taint of that environment. But ever since World War II, it has been axiomatic for intelligent but idealistic adolescents to reject the courtly arts, as somehow contrary to social justice but also as demanding not just performing but responsive skills, thereby betraying the inequality of intelligence. I suspect that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s personal struggle involves overcoming the puritan aesthetic of the hip adolescent. (Where there used to be God, there is now “congruence.”) But his achievement, I think, is to have produced a rich and complex novel that is is no way beholden to courtly culture.

Daily Blague news update: Cronies.

Gotham Diary:
18 June 2014

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

As I was lying drowsily in bed this morning, hopeful of falling back to sleep, a train of thought that might have led to another interesting dream took instead a different turn, toward the actual. It carried me back to my season of skiing.

Four, or maybe five (or perhaps only three!) times, my Uncle John took me along on day trips to ski slopes in the Catskills. He had learned to ski at Dartmouth (or so I always assumed), and he must have longed for more exciting runs than could be reached within day-trip range, but with four children and a job to look after, he had to make do. As a consolation, he could teach his two sons, who were the older of the four.

How I came into the picture is unknown, but I strongly suspect my mother’s connivance, because after the first outing, she took me up to White Plains to be kitted out not only with boots but plus fours, heavy socks, a zooty parka, and goggles. Plus, doubtless, some silly tasseled cap. She had discovered a way to get me out of the house on the weekend, and, who knows, I might slam into a tree. I’m only … joking.

If you are born to ski, it seems, no amount of attendant tedium will curdle the thrill. I was not born to ski. Don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t bad at it. And I had (in those days) a certain desperate taste for recklessness — as we shall see. By the time of the last ski trip, I had just progressed beyond the snow-plow, and was managing turns with awkward competence. But all of these charms failed to numb me to the drawbacks. The drive was long and not very pleasant; my uncle’s car was “practical,” meaning low on creature comforts. Then there were the lines at the rope-tows. And of course I always had to go to the bathroom — even then.

Once my eagerness to join in these adventures faded — I have no idea what anybody else was thinking — it may be that my uncle decided to get out of the babysitting business, at least for babies other than his own.

The humiliation of the whole thing — I had, once again, let everyone down — is embodied for me in the memory of a train trip. Ordinarily, I liked train trips. But not this one. Because neither my parents nor my aunt and uncle could manage to ferry me from one house to other (upon our return from a ski run), I was put on the train at Rye. This I took to the end of the line, Grand Central Terminal. There I boarded another train, one that stopped in Bronxville. I don’t know how I got home from the station there, still dressed for the slopes. If you inscribe the Empire State Building in an isosceles triangle, with the short base the distance from Rye to Bronxville, the other two sides of the triangle will convey some idea of my extra mileage.

The first ski trip was, indeed, the best — a thrilling delight in its way. Had it been the only one! Not knowing any better, I was drawn, as soon as my uncle led my cousins off to a practice slope, to the ski lift. This took you all the way to the top of the hill. My uncle had quickly taught me how to snow-plow, but, other than that, I had no experience on skis. What I mean by “not knowing any better” is being unaware that riding the ski lift back down the hill was not allowed. I admired my uncle immensely and cherished the hope that he might really think well of me, too — I thought that this might be just possible — so I overrode my instinct for breakdown and airlift. I pushed out onto the slope, and began whizzing downhill.

Almost at once, the baskets on my rented poles fell off, rendering the poles more dangerous than useful. Soon, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t actually barreling down the hill, because I remained upright, but something happened to my goggles that made it difficult to see. Maybe that’s what happens as you approach the speed of light. I could make out the buildings and the people at the bottom of the hill, but they took a long time to come closer. And then suddenly they where whooshing right up to me. I managed to fall down on a flat bit of ground.

You must bear in mind that, although I was only fourteen, I was an inch and a half taller than I am now. That’s a lot of out-of-control.

By the time of the last day-trip with my uncle, skiing had clearly emerged as a sort of good-will bridge between my mother and me. Neither one of us were quite ready to abandon it. So I spent a few hours on different afternoons on the pathetic little hillock in Van Cordtland Park, with its pathetic little rope-tow, right alongside the parkway.

This story, like so many others of that time, clattered to a reasonably happy ending when I packed my bags and went off to boarding school.

As I recall, the skiing experiment followed an earlier attempt to make a sailor out of me. My uncle had served on a destroyer in the Navy, in World War II, and somewhere along the line he took up small sailboats. On three or four occasions, I sailed across Long Island Sound and back. If I were in the mood to do so, I’d catalogue the drawbacks of sailing on sailboats for someone like me. Instead, I come back to that line of Pascal’s, that all the trouble in the world is caused by man’s inability to sit still in a room. It seems to me now that I already had this ability in spades, even as an adolescent. All I have ever asked of this life was a comfortable, well-lighted reading chair.

That’s nonsense, of course. But the chair is one of dwindling number of things that I’m still asking for.


Have I told this story, about the baskets falling off the poles, before? Here, I mean. It seems hard to believe that I haven’t. Every time I tell the story, however, the point of it shifts a bit. It used to illustrate what a big idiotic galoot I was, because that’s what people said at the time, and they loved the “idiotic” part because it explained why my obvious intelligence didn’t “work.” Now, the point of the story is the uncongeniality of the lifestyle that everyone had in mind for me. It was impossible for parents and other authority figures to abandon the attempt to unearth the outdoorsman that must be lurking beneath my carapace of sophistication. They convinced me that failure to display this character was a personal defect, if not an outright perversity. When I un-convinced myself, the story reads differently.

In any case, I’m re-reading old entries. Yesterday afternoon alone, I went through the latter half of 2010. I was not impressed. The excitement of new-grandfatherhood is the only excuse that I can come up with.

Daily Blague news update: Unmarried Mothers.

Gotham Diary:
Things and Not Things
17 June 2014

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

The most interesting discovery that I made this season was that tea cosies work. They will keep a pot of tea hot for a long time. Kathleen says, “The British know a thing or two.” But true as that might be, the British also have a reputation for suffering and resignation. If anyone would cover a handsome teapot with an ineffective, dopey fabric covering, it would be the Brits. “Tea doesn’t seem right without it,” they’d say with a shrug.

But the tea cosy that I bought in Bermuda ages ago, and that, for years, I used to cover the toaster (when it was not in use), really works!

Here’s why I made this discovery: At a recent annual physical exam, my heart was found to have fallen into atrial fibrillation. This sounded like the end of the world for about five days (until I saw the cardiologist), but it turned out that there no need for anything but a bit of blood-thinning medication. (I keep calling it “Xaltra.” Isn’t that a great name? There ought to be something called “Xaltra,” don’t you think? But what would it do?) Among the causes of atrial fibrillation is caffeine. The cardiologist doubted that I could be drinking enough tea for caffeine to be a problem, but he didn’t know about my stove-top kettle, into which the cold contents of every teapot was poured and reheated, day after day after day. Having got rid of the microwave oven, this was how I supplied myself with mugs of slowly stewing, deepening, concentrating, possibly metastasizing tea. Every once in a while, I would get to the bottom of the kettle without having any fresh leftovers to pour in, and the kettle would go into the dishwasher for rehabilitation. Weeks might go by between such interventions. The cardiologist is undoubtedly right, but I’ve cut way back on tea, by 80% or more. I make tea in a small pot that yields about three mugs-full. The cosy keeps the pot hot right to the last drop.


I’ve been thinking a lot about some ordinary things, things so ordinary that the words for them come to everybody’s lips without thought or question.

The ordinary thing that probably comes less to everybody’s lips than the other two is the world. What is the world? It is not the Earth. It is the miscellany of stuff produced by generations of the past that continues to exist all around me — buildings, artworks, laws, printed literature, records of every kind. I don’t include streets or roads or airplanes or cargo ships, or many other useful things, because these wear out — that’s expected — and are replaced. (Some things that are regularly replaced, like the temple at Nara, are however very much part of the world. And we have made great strides in preserving old clothing — our most palpable contact with vanished ways of life.) A Stradivarius violin is part of the world. Almost anything surviving from classical antiquity, no matter how trivial its original function, is part of the world. Everything in the world can be destroyed, burned, repealed, or thrown into the sea, but one of the side-effects of our advancing humanity is the increasing solicitude that we show toward significant survivals.

(Disney World is seriously mis-named. Not a thing in Disney World belongs in the world. I don’t understand why “Disney Dream” wouldn’t be more appealing. Even better, “Disney Dome.”)

Like a child, I spend a lot of time deciding what belongs in the world and what doesn’t. It’s a kind of play, because, as the foregoing paragraph indicates, I already know. Here’s a handy example: the American Constitution is a worldly thing, but the British Constitution is not. The British Constitution has never been written down, and it does not exist in any objective form. There might be a few scholars who are genuine authorities on the “contents” of the British Constitution, but their authority pales into insignificance beside the written articles of the American Constitution, which have been there, unchanging (however amended), for everyone to read, since 1789.

This led to a bit of a flash. The British Constitution is really a tradition. And a  tradition is not a worldly thing. Robert’s Rules of Order exists primarily because nobody wants to rely on a tradition for organizing public meetings and registering public decisions. Let’s have it in black and white, please.

Nor is society a worldly thing. Tradition and society are the other ordinary things that I’ve been thinking about. Over the weekend, it occurred to me that tradition and society, while not the same thing, are the same sort of thing. They stand in the same relation to the world.

Very crudely — I may well live to regret making this alluring comparison — tradition and society are like software applications that, among many other purposes, govern the use of the hardware of the world. (Just as consciousness, as I think Daniel Dennett once proposed, is software for reporting on the activity of the hardware of the brain.)

Society and tradition change very slowly — or such is the impression of mortal men who rarely follow the course of either for as much as a century. Both society (a body of “rules” the observance of which allows me to live harmoniously with my neighbors) and tradition (a kind of liturgy for the marking of special occasions) can change quickly enough in times of upheaval, but their usual course is to leak meaning, like air from a punctured tire, until they become nuisances. Unlike the patched tire, however, the fixed, corrected, or reformed tradition or social order is never restored to its original condition but adapted to suit inevitably new circumstances. They develop, so to speak, new wrinkles.

The fact that there exists a popular book called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew testifies to the mutability of society and tradition. It is possible to read the novels of either of these writers without consulting Daniel Pool’s guide, but many of the details will be mysterious, and some even impenetrable. This is not the problem that Chaucer poses; the language of Austen and Dickens remains easily comprehensible to anyone with a high-school education. But many of the customs that governed the lives of their characters have passed out of use — and it is not so very long ago that they were writing, either: the bicentennial of Austen’s death is still a few years off. Now, two hundred years may sound like a long time, but the whole point of tradition is to seem timeless. We could quibble all day about whether the fact that, in Pride and Prejudice, Jane is “Miss Bennett” to the world, while all her sisters, at least until her marriage, are known by their full names, is a social rule or a tradition, but the simple truth is that the usage was extinct within a century. And I doubt that it was all that hoary in Austen’s day.

I might go so far as to subsume society and tradition within my 150-year rule. But I’ll have to think about it.

Daily Blague news update: In the Best Way Possible.

Gotham Diary:
The Third Reading
16 June 2014

Monday, June 16th, 2014

If I had lived in a mythic dimension on another planet, I could not now be more detached from whatever it was that caused me to acquire and to read George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914. I don’t even remember when it happened! Early mid Seventies is my guess. Someone told me, I’m sure, that it was much more than its title suggested, that it was a book that “everybody” (meaning exactly the opposite) ought to read: a secret handshake, almost. I was a sucker for that kind of private advertising, so I bought the book, and I read it. I don’t know what I got out of it, except that bits of it were very funny, and that all of it was much more sophisticated in tone than regular history books, but I certainly didn’t understand Dangerfield’s argument. I came away from the first reading, and from a second reading ten or fifteen years later, thinking that it was regrettable that the Liberal Party died. This was a sentiment that I came to the book with, and that Dangerfield, given my distracted reading, was powerless to correct.

I liked the idea of the Liberal Party, because it was “just right.” Not extreme, as Labour and the Tories were. And not anti-intellectual, either. (Labour was ideological — a manner of not thinking — and the Tories were simply idiots.) I was not living in Britain, mind you, but I worried that the two parties that vied for power over the gap left by the Liberal Party of Lord Aberdeen, Gladstone, and Harty-Tarty were tearing dear old England apart. I suspect that I believed, in my heart of hearts, that the Liberals, could they be revived, would possess the secret of stopping English history altogether. There’s no getting round it: the Home Counties, which I never even visited until 1977, were my own private Disneyland. You don’t have to be a Romantic to wallow in pleasing delusions.

In any case, this time, on the third reading (shades of the Home Rule Bill!), I got it. It helped, of course, that I had just read The Sleepwalkers and John Keegan’s The  First World War. In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark doesn’t talk about England much beyond Sir Edward Grey and the Cabinet meetings of the July Crisis, although he does mention that the Tories were pro-war simply for distraction’s sake: a European conflict would indefinitely postpone British action against the all-but-openly rebellious Ulster Volunteers. But Clark’s Britain appears to be serene and aloof, in full possession of the option not to fall into the abyss. You would never imagine that a book such as George Dangerfield’s could be written about it.

Dangerfield never quite says that the onslaught of World War I saved Britain, but he suggests it constantly. The three “rebellions” that are analyzed in the heart of Strange Death — the Tories’ (over Home Rule), the women’s (window-smashing suffragettes), and the workers’ (pursuing a minimum wage) — were all approaching critical outbreaks in the spring of 1914. For example, a general strike of miners, railway workers, and dock hands was expected for September, 1914; while, in March, dozens of Army officers had resigned their commissions rather than make supervisory but provocative moves in Northern Island. These rebellions had obviously different objectives, but they shared a total loss of faith in Parliamentary government, which was from 1906 until well into the War in Liberal hands — in the hands, primarily, of HH Asquith. Dangerfield’s Asquith embodies the emotional bankruptcy of the Liberal Party, its energies spent in the antagonism between progressive causes (such as Home Rule, which had split the party in the previous generation) and a Trollopean regard for the propertied classes. Asquith spends the bulk of the book pausing ten yards beyond the cliff of which he has just been tempted to run, still unaware of his impending drop.

A touch of flamboyance in the long white hair, a hint of fantasy at the corners of the mouth gave the face a certain incongruity, as though a passage of correct and scholarly prose had been set up in too fanciful a type. Mr Asquith was essentially a prosaic character. (4)

For the worst thing about Asquith was that he was “safe.”

There is a fantasy abroad that World War I came as a bolt from the blue, interrupting a sequence of dreamy years in which it was widely believed that war was a thing of the past. But the only two groups who shared this belief were self-absorbed members of the rising bourgeoisie, more kitted out with new gadgets than ever, and royals who believed that a conference of three or four emperors could avert disaster. The fantasy of widespread dismayed awakenings is a retrospective, douceur de la vie daydream. The slow-motion grind of the July crisis (in which, for the most part, the coming belligerents sat round waiting for the friends and foes to do something) does indeed emit the incompatible whiffs of greased lightning and suspended animation. But, in Britain at any rate, crisis was already very much in the air.

Britain was not at peace with itself, and war was bound to break out somewhere. Dangerfield argues that everyone — the Tories, the Lords, the ladies, and the workers — was sick and tired of what he calls “respectable security.” This might seem to be nothing more than a fancy way of saying that people were bored after an extended period of peace, and that the wars that didn’t break out within Britain because of the war that broke out across the channel were mere evidence of human perversity. But “respectable security” was worse than boring. It was static. Parliament, the shining guarantor of this security, was unable to move in any direction, and the downfall of the Liberal Party began, for Dangerfield, at its moment of triumph, when “the Lords decided to die in the dark” and to submit to the dismemberment that Tony Blair would complete decades later. They chose this fate over the disgusting alternative of sharing their House with the five hundred upstarts who would have been ennobled by George V (at the Liberal Party’s “advising”) in the event that they stood their ground against the Liberal budget. That they chose honorable suicide over conciliation is indicative of the temper of the times. “Liberalism,” Dangerfield writes, “implies more than a political creed or an economic philosophy; it is a profoundly conscience-stricken state of mind.” Stricken consciences were out of fashion by the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, and by 1910 they had become just about intolerable.

The Strange Death of Liberal England appeared in 1935, when Winston Churchill, one of Dangerfield’s most reliable comic figures, was living out his Parliamentary wilderness. As if to supply a magic carpet that might transport readers across the chasm that has ever since seemed to separate the years before 1914 from everything that followed, Dangerfield writes in a very high style, often more archly than is conducive to easy comprehension. As an impressionist, however, he is unsurpassed.

At present one can only say that pre-war society was changing in a remarkable manner: one can detect, in that confusing assembly of dances and night clubs and extravagance and vulgarity and emancipation, some evidences of death and of rebirth.

Rebirth. There is the sign-post, pointing the way to that yet undiscovered reality. It is customary to think of that society as a doomed thing, calling in the traditional doomed manner “for madder music and for stronger wine,” and plunged at last, with no time to say its prayers, into the horrors of war. The scene may even be given some of the qualities of a pre-Raphaelite canvas. The sky is massed with tall black clouds; but one last shaft of sunlight, intolerably bright, picks out every detail of leaf and grass; and in the midst of it those little figures go through their paces with the momentary precision of a dream. There is, too, a satisfying irony in this: the spectator knows what is going to happen, the actors do not; they are almost in the happy condition of Oedipus and Jocasta, before the news arrived which made the unhappy gentleman remove his eyes. And the conception is, above all, a convenient one. It is easier to think of Imperial England, beribboned and bestarred and splendid, living in majestic profusion up till the very moment of war. Such indeed was its appearance, the appearance of a somewhat decadent Empire and a careless democracy. But I do not think that its social history will be written on those terms. As has already been shown in the activities of politicians, and women, and workers, there was a new energy which leavened the whole lump of society from top to bottom. You can see this energy flitting, in 1914, across the faces of those middle class people, as they are portrayed in the ingenious pencil of Punch, and you believe that you can hear it, winding its discordant horn amidst the costly merriment of the upper classes. And you know that the abandonment of respectable punctilios and worn conventions, which was such a feature of society after the war, had already begun before the war. It is worth repeating once again that it was not death which gave Imperial England such a disturbing appearance in the spring and summer of 1914: it was life. (393-4)

The first time I read this wonderful book, I was overwhelmed by my own ignorance; I knew very little of the material that Dangerfield all but takes for granted. The second time, I believe, I fastened on the “strange” part of the story, of which the foregoing passage is so illustrative; but the details went in one ear and out the other: Parliament, labor questions, suffragettes, Ireland and especially Northern Island — these were dingy, almost repellent matters, and I wasn’t ashamed to know little about them. By the time I came to Strange Death the third time, that arrogance had long been upended.

If you can get hold of The Strange Death of Liberal England, read it as quietly as you can — and try not to shiver at its moments of uncanny timeliness.

Daily Blague news update: “Secret Weapon.”

Gotham Diary:
On Watching Philomena
13 June 2014

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Last night, I got round to watching Philomena, Steven Frears’s film, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It had languished in a pile of unwatched DVDs for quite some time. I was afraid of it, afraid that it might be mawkish, afraid that a “decent” Steve Coogan character might be embarrassing. I was also afraid that it might be so well made that I would find it unbearable. Of course it wasn’t mawkish (how was that even conceivable, given Judi Dench’s steady gaze); Steve Coogan’s character was slightly less embarrassed than his usual run and not at all embarrassing; and the film was so well made that, in the end, it was thrilling and not at all unbearable.

But there is a scene that is almost unbearable to think about, afterward. An old nun, disinhibited by age, pours forth her toxic scorn for the unmarried mothers whom her abbey exploited, and for their infants as well. Their pain and suffering were penance for their sins! The nun seems horrifically, Satanically proud of having prevented both Philomena and her late son from meeting in later life. Philomena, who walks in on this diatribe, is not surprised to hear it, and with a masterful regard for her mental hygiene, she promptly forgives the nun. This transfiguring moment is quickly blotted out by Martin, the journalist who has helped Philomena solve her riddles. “Well, I wouldn’t forgive you,” he says, with barely-polite disgust.

And there you are. Philomena is right to forgive the nun — it’s the only way to discard a huge block of hateful resentment that will do no one any good. But Martin is right to withhold his forgiveness, as a representative of society at large. Personally, the conduct of the religious order that separated Philomena from her little boy might be forgivable, but socially it is not. Earlier, a much younger, and nicer-seeming nun tells Philomena that there has been a fire, and that records have been lost. Martin promptly discovers that this “fire” was no accident, but a bonfire of potentially unpalatable documents (relating to the sale of babies to affluent Americans) — a conflagration from which all papers advantageous to the abbey were preserved. The institutional dishonesty of the abbey must somehow, we feel, lead to punishments.

Thumbnail summaries of Philomena present the film as the story of a woman who wants to find the little boy who was taken from her, but, if that’s the premise, the point of departure, it’s not the story. The story tells of a woman who at every turn in the approach to closure — a relatively smooth advance, thanks to Martin’s highly-developed skills as a reporter — is overwhelmed by a new and different response to her undertaking. She wants to pursue it; she wants to give it up. She wants to pay Martin not to publish her story; she believes that everyone ought to know what happened to her. She longs to connect with her child; she senses only the futility of such a meeting. He must have been a good boy; but he probably never gave her a thought. That he is dead, having died, with horrible prematurity, like legions of gay men, from AIDS, does not distress or confuse her, but everything else about him, and about her feelings for him, seems to hit her in a new way at every stage of the search. It might seem cynical to say that Dame Judi has a field day with this labile volatility, but it is indeed her sheer liveliness that sees us through the floods of tears.


I was also afraid that Philomena might stir things up for me. I’m more than a little familiar with Philomena’s volatility. It has been nearly eight years since I read Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, an exhaustive study of what I came to call “the Anglophone adoption racket,” and I didn’t want to experience anything like the turmoil that that book brought about in my life. There was nothing to fear, though, because when all the involuntary reassessments of my childhood were completed, in the wake of reading the book, I stood for the first time in my life upon solid ground, which is to say, my own. I stopped seeing myself as a disappointment, and I ceased to be oppressed by might-have-beens that never meant anything to me and never could have done. I saw what had happened — again, for the first time.

I have no idea how carefully my adoptive parents were vetted by the Foundling Hospital and by the State authorities who oversaw adoptions, but the closest scrutiny would have failed to show them, I am sure, as anything but sterling people. They were ideals in so many ways: financially comfortable, socially engaged, neither too young nor too old, somewhat long-married, and close to their parents, all of whom lived in the same little suburb. There could be no saying what kind of parents they would make, but there would have been no reason to expect anything like failure.

And they did not fail. That I am sitting here, writing, in the middle of a life that, for all its banal vicissitudes, seems to me (the only person who matters here) to be rich, satisfying, and endlessly interesting, is proof that they did not fail.

But it did turn out that they had one little problem — one that, again, would never have come up in the closest investigation. My father, who was disciplined but easygoing, had perhaps foreseen it; I’m sure that it occurred to him that the child who came into their home might not make a perfect fit. I am equally certain that this never occurred to my mother. When she saw that it had indeed happened, that there were ways in which I was not only an imperfect fit but a seemingly perverse one, our mother-and-child relationship was dealt a blow from which she could never quite recover it. She couldn’t trust me, because she couldn’t understand me. I think that my father did understand me, and that, level-head practical fellow that he was, he responded with the mildest of dismissals: I was someone for whom he could have no real use. He remained loving and generous, much moreso than I understood at the time. But my mother, although she continued to do all the proper things, stopped being a mother.

Quite a few times, in the ugliest years of early adolescence, before boarding school was discovered to be the perfect solution to our problems, she said things like, “You have killed my love for you.” I felt terrible about doing this, and I didn’t quite understand how I’d done it, but I knew that the love was dead. She had, perhaps as a measure of self-protection, reverted to being the foster parent that she officially was for the first year and a few months that I lived with her.

It was a terrible time to be in this situation. Everything was unraveling; everyone was tired of the old ways. People put their hopes in bigger fins and newer appliances. I was more fundamentally conservative than anyone I knew — not reactionary, but already on the lookout for things to gather up and protect from the impending upheaval. Everywhere I turned, however, people were trying out new ways of doing things. Take, for example, learning French, an ordeal that took place, at the college level, in “language labs.” (Oh, how the term betrays the inhumanity of it! Language in a laboratory!) The other day, re-reading a book, I came upon a passage that shed light on the futility of this sort of pedagogy:

The close connection between these two things — the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working — is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages: the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not — it is possible, to a limited degree, only when one can keep the child all day in the foreign-speaking environment — it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the old child as far as possible at the infant level. The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood.

(That’s Hannah Arendt, of course; “The Crisis in Education,” in Between Past and Future, p. 180)

I studied Great Books, but was distracted by endless arguments about “relevance.” I was horrified by Course Evaluations — and I still am. Everyone seemed to be rushing in a direction that struck me as the Wrong Way. Educated people knew their Mozart and their Henry James, but had they learned anything from them? Was culture merely ornamental?

For my mother, culture was definitively ornamental — that was what was so admirable about it, beauty that asked nothing in return. Looking back today, with lenses distorted by what has in fact become of me, it seems that fully half, if not more, of our acrimonious disagreements sprang from my contemptuous insistence that culture was the only thing that mattered, that it had to be preserved from ornamental status. In the context of the times, I must have looked like a bohemian in reverse — just as alienated by materialism as any beatnik, but dressing as sharply as my frame allowed, and drinking tea, from a cup on a saucer, every afternoon.

My mother was always inclined to be a Romantic. My allergy to all things Romantic (I still can’t bear Byron and Shelley) emerged very early, but it was my worldliness (masked by an apparent other-worldliness as, even then, I spent a great deal of time reading and writing) that alienated my mother: to her, I was heartless.

I thought I was, too. Not absolutely heartless, perhaps, but damaged in the “heart” department. Then I read The Girls Who Went Away, and that changed. Watching Philomena, I saw how completely that had changed.

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Blague news update: A Tartt Debate.

Gotham Diary:
Organized Money Hits a Pothole
12 June 2014

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Eric Cantor’s surprising defeat in the Virginia primary has everyone talking. Nothing like this was supposed to happen. And the most least-likely-to-happen aspect of the surprise was that Cantor’s challenger, David Brat, seems to have spent about $200,000 on his campaign. Muffling this singularity somewhat — but only “somewhat” — is the post-mortem analysis that faults the Cantor campaign for its attack ads, which brought Brat to the attention of more voters than he could have paid to access.

One way or another, David Brat’s victory in the primary signals to me a breakdown in the operation of organized money.

“Organized money” is a term that I found in George Packer’s The Unwinding. Packer was not precise about its meaning, so, intrigued, I speculated about what that might be.

I have long believed that, while people do not act in ways that might be predicted by scientific laws, money does. At least when it is not simply hoarded under a mattress, money tends to seek the best value, whether this is an appliance or a return on investment. I also suspect that money becomes more efficient at finding best values when it is concentrated. It is always possible for the human beings who possess a money to act counter to money’s inherent tendencies, but it is not really likely.

As if to help money out, we have created a pseudo-world in which everything, or almost everything, has a “value.” In other words, a price. The value of your job is embodied in your salary — period. If you think that you deserve more, because you do a lot of overlooked and uncredited work, then, from the point of view of money, you are a fool, because while money is always seeking the best value, the equation dictates that values seek optimization. The strange-sounding proposition that your job is always seeking to be worth more money than you’re being paid is demonstrated whenever a competitor comes along and does it better.

In this pseudo-world — fake because it is utterly inhuman — everything is liquidatable, convertible, through money, into something else. Detroit’s municipal collection of art masterpieces is convertible, in this pseudo-world, into a means of paying off the city’s debts.

Organized money is a step beyond mere money because it exists in such concentrations that one of the values that it seeks is sheer self-preservation.

Organized money is not to be confused with the rich people who have a lot of money. The people themselves are not organized. They don’t really have to be. Their money organizes itself in a way that protects itself, and, incidentally, their personal bank balances. In the real world, of course, there are severe constraints on the power of money to organize itself. There are taxes, and rules about offshore banking. There is anti-trust legislation. There is unemployment insurance and health care. In the real world, there are many priceless things that cannot be traded for money — such as Detroit’s collection of art.

But when this real world is abandoned, as it has been for the past thirty-odd years, for the pseudo-world of universal valuation, there are no real constraints on the power of money to defend its concentrations. This is in part because a generation has grown up without any familiarity with the worth of the world.

At the moment, organized money’s principal weapon of self-defense is campaign financing. This takes a number of forms, from television advertisements to lobbying efforts (which include tailoring proposed legislation to organized money’s need for security). The fundamental purpose of campaign financing, from organized money’s point of view, is to persuade voters to support political arrangements that, whatever other impact they might have, leave organized money untouched. Given the fact that many concentrations of money have resulted from business consolidations, job cutbacks, offshore outsourcing, and environmental degradation, campaign financing is charged with tricking voters into voting against their own interest.

For thirty-odd years, marketers — the wizards who deploy the principles of psychology to deceptive purposes — have modeled stupendously successful campaigns, often by introducing irrelevant considerations. Would you rather your neighbor had a job, or would you rather live in a Christian community? The remolding of political debate along religious lines has done much to cloud economic issues. Sometimes, the ostensible economic debates are themselves bogus, as in the controversy over immigration. Right-wingers can scream all they want to about protecting jobs for “native” Americans, but their demographics prove that they’re simply hostile to “Mexicans” and to the intrusion of Spanish.

Eric Cantor’s defeat was symptomatic of a disaffection, spreading through the “liberal democracies” of the West, with political elites, which, like elites everywhere, are always prone to lose touch with the larger bodies of which they are the elite. It is no wonder that, in the pseudo-world of universal valuation, unemployment and immigration — both inevitable consequences of universal valuation (unemployment because money seeks better value for jobs, thus reducing the stock; and immigration because it is a form of economic prostitution, a willingness to do mindless or degrading things for a salary) — should be the points on which ordinary voters feel most disenchanted with their representatives, because their representatives have no real experience of either unemployment or immigration. Representatives and other members of the elite live according to an entirely different value system — by which I mean, of course, an entirely different price list. It’s greater than the difference between the menu at McDonald’s and the menu at Per Se.

I wouldn’t worry about organized money, though. That is, I shouldn’t worry that it might fall apart. If campaign-financing ultimately turns out to be ineffective, there are always the options of private security system and economic blackmail. (What if Big Pharma started behaving like Amazon? Don’t imagine that “there are laws against it,” because there aren’t, and there probably can’t be unless we overhaul our fundamental ideas about intellectual property.) I should go on worrying about the body politic upon which organized money is an unthinking, and therefore malignant, growth.

Daily Blague news update: Sorting.

Gotham Diary:
11 June 2014

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Nothing would please me more than to issue a pleasing stream of enlightened commentary about Joshua Ferris’s new, third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, but I’m not that smart. I’m still digesting.

At the simplest level, this is a novel about a break-up. We’re told about the break-up at the beginning, because the narrator thinks it has already taken place. He is a dentist in his early forties, with a thriving practice just off Park Avenue. (Sixty thousand in billings monthly. Is that a lot? I’ll ask my dentist next time.) He has broken up with Connie Plotz, a beautiful girl ten years his junior, but she is still his “office assistant.” They broke up — and it’s never entirely clear who started it — over the dentist’s disinclination to marry and have children. The dentist is also, however, disinclined to move on. Connie is not so stymied. By the end of the novel, she has given him a good, much-needed push.

This brings us to a somewhat trickier level. Paul, the dentist, has a history. His parents were poor, largely because his father was bipolar. When Paul was nine, his father “sat down in the bathtub, closed the shower curtain, and shot himself in the head.” (41) Thereafter, Paul developed insomnia, caused by a dread of being the only person awake. He also developed a neediness that attracted him to pretty girls from happy families — or, at least, families that stayed together. That was part of the attraction with Connie. Connie’s big Jewish family appealed to Paul almost as much as she did. He thought about converting, but, as he doesn’t believe in God, that’s a non-starter. (Maybe I ought to stress it a bit more clearly: Paul is not Jewish. He’s not Italian, either, but I couldn’t stop thinking of my dentist, and wondering what he would make of this book.)

Otherwise, Paul’s life is all about loss and mortality. He watches Red Sox games compulsively, and cultivates a profound ambivalence about the team’s success.

Sometime in 2005, I told Jeff, the unlikely fact that the Red Sox had won finally sank in, and a massive malaise crept over me. I wasn’t prepared for the changes that accompanied the win — for instance, the sudden influx of new fans, none of them forged, as it were, in the fires of the team’s eighty-six year losing streak. They were poseurs, I thought, carpetbaggers. With this new crop of fans I worried that we would forget the memory of loss across innumerable barren years and think no more of the scrappy self-preservation that was our defining characteristic in the case of humiliation and defeat. (147)

As a dentist, Paul looks into his patients’ mouths and invariably sees bad going to worse. (Except when he doesn’t, in little “hurrah” moments that reveal his kernel of hopefulness.)

Thus we reach the mystery of the novel, which is why an alienated jerk who talks a lot about osteonecrosis and “the crap-ass Rays” is at all bearable. Paul is hardly the sort of protagonist with whom I should identify for two nanoseconds. “I’d been to the great Metropolitan Museum, that repository of human effort mere blocks from my office, exactly zero times.” Why, if he is such a compleat guy — a slightly kinky average sensual man with no meaningful connection to anything outside of himself except, arguably, an existential despair about the (im)possibility of meaningful connections — is he so funny? A hint to the solution of these conundrums lies somewhere in the following passage.

I’ve tried reading the bible. I never make it past all the talk about the firmament. The firmament is the thing, on Day 1 or 2, that divides the waters from the waters. Here you have the firmament. Next to the firmament, the waters. Stay with the waters long enough, presumably you hit another stretch of firmament. I can’t say for sure: at the first mention of the firmament, I start bleeding tears of terminal boredom. I grow restless. I flick ahead. It appears to go like this: firmament, superlong middle part, Jesus. You could spend half your life reading about the barren wives and the kindled wraths and all the rest of it before you got to the do-unto-others part, which as I understand it is the high-water mark. It might not be. For all I know, the high-water mark is to be found in, say, the second book of Kings. Imagine making it through the first book of King! They don’t make it easy. I’ll tell you what amazes me. I’m practically always sitting down next to somebody on the subway who’s reading the Bible, who’s smack in the middle of the thing, like on page one hundred and fifty thousand, and every single sentence has been underlined or highlighted. I have to think there’s no way this tattooed Hispanic youth has lavished on the remaining pages of his bible such poignant highlighting so prominently on display here in the hinterlands of 2 Chronicles. Then he’ll turn the page, and sure the fuck enough: even more highlighting! In multiple colors! With notes in a friar’s hand! And I don’t mean to suggest he simply turned the page. Dude leaped forward three, four hundred pages to reference or cross-check or whatever, and there, glowing in ingot blocks, was the same concentration of highlighting. I swear to God, there are still people out there devoting their entire lives to the Bible. It’s either old black ladies or middle-aged black guys or Hispanic guys with neckties or white guys you’re surprised are white. Thousands of hours they’ve been up studying and highlighting Bible passages, while I’ve been sleeping, or watching baseball, or abusing myself carnally on a recliner. Sometimes I think I’ve wasted my life. Of course I’ve wasted my life. Did I have a choice? Of course I did — twenty years of nights with the Bible.  But who is to say that, even then, my life — conscientiously devout, rigorously applied, monastically contained, and effortfully open to God’s every hint and clobber — would have been more meaningful than it was, with its beery nights, bleary dawns, and Saint James and his Abstract? That was a mighty Pascal’s Wager: the possibility of eternity in exchange for the limited hours of my one certain go-round. (7-8)

This sounds almost like stand-up comedy, with its sharp but careful exaggerations and it projectively self-deprecatory rhetoric, but it is too fine for a noisy club. This is stand-up for quiet readers who will savor “superlong” and “hinterlands” and “my one certain go-round,” and relish “I’m practically always sitting down next to somebody on the subway.” Who will delight in the oscillations between carefree vernacular and deliberate precision. Paul’s way of talking shows him to be a sensitive, helplessly reflective guy who is also bored to death, because his sensitivity reminds him, over and over, that we are all going to go through some sort of bathtub experience in the end.

Copious discussion of the problem of the Bible at such an early stage in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is perhaps almost as indicative as the title itself that our story is going to concern a perplexed man’s struggle with questions of faith and religion, and indeed it is, but in a manner quite free of transcendent impulses. Indeed, the impulses are all the other way. They are most searingly embodied in the character of Grant Arthur, a disaffected child of privilege, now an old man, who is the offstage architect of the ostensible plot, which ranges with agreeable implausibility over the repercussions of the Chosen People’s encounter with the Amalekites. Grant, like Paul, is drawn to the Jews, but much more powerfully and transformatively. Lest this sound pious and uplifting, I must insist that the tale of Grant’s youthful passion for all things Jewish, including the daughter of a rabbi, is delivered with all the exquisite aplomb of a fine old Jewish joke — only to shape shift, with startling chutzpah, into a Talmudic commentary on what it means to be a Jew, delivered, of course, by a gentile.

As a gentile, I can’t help noticing that I find Joshua Ferris to be a lot funnier than Philip Roth or Sam Lipsyte. Frankly, I don’t find either Roth or Lipsyte funny at all. There’s a sourness in their pawing at the grossness of physical life that kills the laughter. A sweet-breathed angel seems to be in charge of refilling the ink in Ferris’ pen. And Ferris is altogether unafraid of being heartwarming. Not that he is ever merely heartwarming. When the ball connects with the bat on the last page, contact is made with another great novel, one that sees baseball and cricket from the opposite perspective: Netherland.

And, as I wrote the other day, this is the book that gives us “me machine.” Joshua Ferris may have made it up, or picked it up; it doesn’t matter. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour just may put it in the language for good.

Daily Blague news update: “God and the World.”

Gotham Diary:
Mixed Grill
10 June 2014

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

The first time the term appears, it is in connection with a woman who just might own a unique infernal device; in the alternative, she might be mad. But the second time Joshua Ferris deploys “me machine,” it’s clear that he’s referring to a smartphone. We must all adopt this usage at once, to connote phones that are used for prolonged periods of time in inappropriate places. There can be no word for those who so abuse both their phones and the other people around them.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris’s new novel, is, at least at the start, convulsively funny; I haven’t laughed so hard in months. And yet I can’t say what’s funny about it — not yet — or why it’s even readable, seeing that it’s the highly vernacular monologue of a dentist, one Paul O’Rourke, who runs a business (as he puts it) just off Park Avenue. O’Rourke is the disenchanted husk of a Compleat Guy, someone who has failed to find any meaning in the world, whether because he doesn’t know how to look for it (and he doesn’t) or because he’s stuck inside himself (which he is), or both. I really oughtn’t to be talking about the novel, as I’ve only reached page 38, but talking about it is one way of putting off reading it, which I began doing at lunch yesterday. I know that, once I pick up again, I’ll never be able to put it down. That, at any rate, is the kind of novel that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour feels like now. As I have read Ferris’s two previous novels, though, I know that things can change.

Is the book funny because O’Rourke is given to a kind of hip Rabelaisian logorrhea? There must be more to it than that. “Hip Rabelaisian logorrhea” sounds intensely annoying.


Over the weekend, we watched the three Bourne movies, the ones that star Matt Damon.

Why do we tolerate the “national security” establishment? Some sort of intelligence operation is clearly necessary, but must we not draw the line at “operations”? To put it another way, wouldn’t it be better if the assassination of Osama bin Laden were the model for covert operations? Carried out, that is, by the military, using intelligence resources. And then promptly announced to the world. We did it.

There is no way that the CIA and the NSA, to the extent that they do more than collate information, can be defended without resorting to thoughtless. “To make an omelette, you have to break some eggs.” “To save a thousand lives, you must take a hundred lives.” Human beings are not eggs, and nothing good can be made out of their destruction.  The only lives that may rightly be taken by the state are those that are freely given up by those who die in its defense. These and the many other aphorisms of ersatz realpolitik are not political statements at all, but incantations designing the abandonment of political action altogether, and the embrace of tyranny.

Such questions are made earnest by Matt Damon’s performance, which has the virtue of making the ostensibly fictional feel dreadfully actual. It is hard to imagine taking these movies, and the doubts that they give rise to, at all seriously, had the role of Jason Bourne gone, as it might have done, to Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Tidying the apartment on Saturday almost came to a stop when I couldn’t find my wet rag. I work with a dry rag, for polishing, and a damp cloth, for wiping objects not made of wood. Toward the end of tidying the foyer, before moving into the blue room, I put the wet rag where I couldn’t find it. This sort of thing literally drives me crazy: I must have spent twenty minutes looking at the same few places where it might have been before “moving on” and wetting another rag. I tidied the blue room and put all the cleaning things away. The house was in apple-pie order — but the missing rag was not disclosed.

It was only yesterday, about twenty-four hours later, that I found it. I had draped it on the handle of the utility cart that I move in and out of the kitchen. And when I did find it, I remembered the little voice that had warned me against putting it there. Draped on the handle, it ceased to have anything to do with the rest of the apartment and became part of the kitchen, a room with its own ecology. Had I dumped on top of the cart, I might have found the rag right away, but in among the tongs that hand on the handle, it simple vanished. I’m really rather surprised that I found it at all.

At the same time, I’m greatly relieved, because I have a dread of throwing things away unintentionally. Just the other day, I nearly entered the garbage-chute room with the laundry. It’s for this reason that I always have my housekeys in my pocket, except when dressed for bed. Even when I have no plans for going out, the possibility of locking myself out on a trip to the laundry room is only too alarmingly vivid.

How much longer will I be able to keep the apartment looking good? Ten years? On some days, that sounds wildly optimistic.


Tante Hannah

Also over the weekend, I found shelf space for more than two feet of books by or about Hannah Arendt. It was high time! The stack, which began piling up in January, was becoming unstable, and it had long since become clear that Tante Hannah was not the object of any fad.

I knew that WH Auden was a friend of Arendt’s — an admirer, anyway — but I had never come across a very nice thing that he wrote about The Human Condition. I’m (obviously) not referring to his blurb on the book itself, but rather to a line from an essay (a review?) that Auden published in Encounter in 1959.

It would not be inaccurate to call The Human Condition an essay in Etymology, a re-examination of what we think we mean, what we actually mean and what we ought to mean when we use such words as nature, world, labor, work, action, private, public, social, political, etc.”

Exactly so! Except, of course, for “social,” which was more a dustbin than a concept for Arendt, as I’ve mentioned in connection with Hannah Pitkin’s The Attack of the Blob. “Etymology” is so much closer to what Arendt is up to than “philosophy.” Each term in Auden’s list (except for “social”) is easily defined and clearly but not mechanically related to the others. Together, they do not form a system for thought but rather an organized point of departure for trains of thought. What I meant when I said earlier that Paul O’Rourke (Joshua Ferriss’ dentist) could not find meaning in the world is not at all vague: he has picked up, tried out, and discarded all sorts of things that Arendt would call “worldly,” from golf to Spanish, but because he approaches each by itself and by himself, he is unable to make a connection, because he never actually enters world itself but remains isolated within his ego. He is like someone who insists upon taking the Mona Lisa home for personal, private appraisal. The moment the Mona Lisa slipped into his Brooklyn Heights flat (if it did), it would leave and be lost to the world.

Daily Blague news update: Solitude.

Gotham Diary:
The Horror
9 June 2014

Monday, June 9th, 2014

In those days, I was living a much more distracted life. I was oscillating between the apartment in Yorkville and the house on Candlewood Lake. The Internet lay a few years in the future, so I was still stuck in  the cell of my own reading and writing. (And, oh dear, what I was writing!) So I spent a lot of time working on my sun-starved garden, hanging out with the Connecticut neighbors, and of course driving back and forth along Route 7, IH 684, and the Bronx River Parkway. I was in my middle forties, and I had no idea of what to do with myself.

Would it be any different today, even though I’m very clear about what I ought to be doing? I think so, but I can’t say why. I don’t run out and buy every book that gets an interesting review. (It only seems that way.) Perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree.

Maybe there was nothing exemplary about how David Nasaw’s Going Out came into my library, only to sit unread for several years. This is not the sort of thing that “happens all the time.” What happened with Nasaw’s book was that I read a terrific review during that distracted time — twenty years ago —and did not follow up with a purchase. (Among other things, there was no Amazon.) Eventually, I forgot its author’s name and its title. But I did not forget an arresting proposition that the review attributed to Nasaw. Nasaw’s book, it seemed, argued that, by excluding African Americans, and only African Americans, from most venues of public entertainment during the decades in which American “popular culture” was launched on its modern course, the men who ran show business homogenized the rest of the population. Swarthy immigrants from Southern Europe who had earlier been eyed as all but “colored” now became as white as anybody else. If America was a melting pot, blacks were the pot.

This insight, which seemed obvious the moment it was shared with me, became fundamental to my understanding of life in the United States, and I was soon embarrassed by the awkwardness of referring to an idea that was not my own but that I could not source. Beneath this lay the discomfort that always dogs me when I talk about racism. Growing up, I saw a lot of racism, but, a handful of Jewish shopkeepers aside, I never saw its objects. That’s to say that Jews (until I went to boarding school) and blacks (until I wound up in Houston) were simply not present as human beings. They were service providers who guarded their privacy with a ferocity that I did not understand until late middle age.

I’m sure it was Amazon that came to the rescue, with one of those queues of books that buyers who bought what you bought also bought. The moment Going Out showed up, several years ago, I recognized it and ordered it in a fever of relief. But when it arrived, I didn’t read it. I didn’t check to make sure that this was indeed the book from which sprang the connection of mass entertainment to mass (and unconscious) racism. My life was much less distracted now, but still distracted enough.

Last week, I pulled it down from the shelf in a fit of caprice: I had just read two thick books about the Great War, and I needed something that, above all, wasn’t lengthy.

Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements turned out to be the book, all right. Nasaw introduces his bleak thesis on the second page, and he devotes the fifth chapter to it. I think that he might have done a little more with the role played by the rage of newly-liberated blacks, in the decades after 1945, in the demise of “public amusements,” but he by no means neglects this aspect. In every way, Going Out is a standout in the social history of a very sore point. But I learned something more terrible still. Skin color had nothing to do with it.

Or rather — since I’ve always known that skin color has little or nothing to do with racism directed at Africans and their descendants — I learned that the differences in facial features between blacks and whites were grotesquely distorted by popular entertainment to make monstrosities of African-Americans.

David Nasaw reproduces a couple of illustrations showing caricatures of “darkies” — by far the least obscene term — that ornamented sheet music and theatrical posters in the years around the turn of the Twentieth Century. They are too disgusting to describe. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have probably seen the like. But here, in Nasaw’s book, the context produces an unbearable calculus: even as African-Americans were being hideously misrepresented on the stage and screen (often by white impersonators), there were no African-Americans in the audience with whom a spectator might make a corrective comparison. The very natural result of systematic and prolonged segregation — its illegality throughout the northern states never enforced upon exhibitors except in the form of paltry fines — was a white population for whom the mere presence of an African-American amongst them (not just serving them) signaled something wrong, a disturbing breakdown of the accustomed order. By the same token, everybody in the audience, no matter how hairy or dark, could be assumed to be white.

Nasaw makes his case adroitly, but the most eloquent passage in Going Out is drawn from a 1906 book by HG Wells, The Future in America.

African Americans, alone among the American peoples, were considered to be not only lacking in respectability but also constitutionally incapable of acquiring it. For HG Wells, visiting the United States in 1904, this fact of American life was virtually inexplicable. Try as he might, he could not understand the attitudes of white Americans toward “colored” people, especially as many of these “colored” people were, he discovered, “quite white” and had “the same blood,” the same Anglo-Saxon blood, flowing in their veins as the oldest, finest southern planter families. Wells was particularly confused by the difference between the way southern European immigrants and African American “natives” were treated in the city’s public spaces. Though many of the blacks had patrician white ancestors, they were shunned and segregated. European “immigrants,” on the other hand, who shared no biological or cultural heritage with American whites, were afforded every social courtesy and right. Wells confronted his southern hosts with his confusion. “These people … are nearer your blood, nearer your temper, than any of those bright-eyed, ringleted immigrants on the East Side. Are you ashamed of your poor relations? Even if you don’t like the half, or the quarter or negro blood, you might deal civilly with the three-quarters white.”

North and South, Wells’s questions were met with the same sorts of answers, all testifying to the “mania” with which whites explained and defended segregation. “One man will dwell upon the uncontrollable violence of a black man’s evil passions … another will dilate upon the incredible stupidity of the full-blooded negro … a third will speak of his physical offensiveness, his peculiar smell which necessitates his social isolation.” More than once, Wells was told stories about light-skinned blacks who married “pure-minded, pure white” women who gave birth to children “black as your hat. Absolutely negroid.” Anecdotes such as these about “the lamentable results of intermarriage” were used not simply as an argument “against intermarriage, but as an argument against the extension of quite rudimentary civilities to the men of color. “If you eat with them, you’ve got to marry them,” Wells was told. There was no acceptable compromise, no halfway point between miscegenation and segregation.

What this thinking on the part of whites meant for African Americans was obvious. There was no escape from biological destiny, no way blacks could change their appearance, rid themselves of what Wells’s hosts had called their “evil passions,” or their “peculiar smell.” The “taint” of black blood was such as to render attempts at respectability foolhardy. To sacralize public amusement spaces and sanctify their audiences as decent, African Americans had to be excluded or segregated within them.  No exceptions could be permitted.

My mother had a thing about “peculiar smells.”

Going Out gives much more space to the development of “automatic entertainment,” of which cinema would be the apex. At one point, his discussion of crusading attempts to exclude children — the poor children of immigrants, mostly — from “risqué” nickelodeons suggested a second segregationist front. But no: what these moralists sought was the demolition of all obstacles to the lower classes’ attainment of respectability. They couldn’t have cared less what African-Americans were exposed to.

Those books about the Great War turned out to have made for much lighter reading.

Daily Blague news update: Ownerism.

Gotham Diary:
Nothing New
6 June 2014

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Aristotle says somewhere that the true aim of war is peace. He does not say that the true aim of war is victory.

In the light of this precept alone, World War I is the most egregious conflict since Roman times — since the militarization of powerful classes in the wake of the ancient empire’s collapse. In 1914, Europe was at peace, aside from the rash of Balkan affrays that characterized the subsidence of the Ottoman Empire. There was no genuine casus belli. The assassination of the heir to the crown of Austria-Hungary simply does not qualify as a threat to peace that would warrant war. No, World War I was ignited by a restless anxiety that afflicted Europe’s military leaders. The most restless and anxious of them all was Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his counterpart in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II — both men were the supreme military authorities in their respective empires — while not particularly restless, was anxious lest he be seen as timid and irresolute. Most of the generals and chiefs of staff were ageing men, who in another time might have contented themselves with trophy blondes. (Although Conrad von Hötzendorf’s love-life appears to have made him even more aggressive.) The three powers of central and eastern Europe — the three empires that collapsed during or at the end of the war — were armed by men who, for lack of anything better to do, cultivated hallucinations of vulnerability to sudden attack.

The kindling was provided by diplomats, who created a network of buzzing fretfulness throughout the capitals. Diplomats are supposed to avert war, but in this case their fussing over how to respond to the assassination at Sarajevo only amplified its illusory importance. (Austria never considered punishing Switzerland for “harboring” the assassin who stabbed its Empress to death in 1898.) In their minuet of communiqués and not-so-secret meetings, the ambassadors and attachés seemed to be imitating the great character actor Franklin Pangborn — exasperated beyond endurance but having the time of their lives.

The folly of the arms race that preceded the war is simply stupefying. How could presumably intelligent German policy-makers not understand that the pursuit of colonial ambitions required an unfettered access to the high seas that Germany could never have without Britain’s permission? No matter how large its navy, it might never be able to deploy its ships beyond confines of the North Sea. Having wasted millions on deadnoughts and cruisers, Germany would find lethal effectiveness in tiny submarines.

In short, I have learned nothing from John Keegan’s The First World War — nothing but a horde of details. Everything is as it was before; I might as well have spared myself the gruesome close-ups of the pointless slaughter of millions of men. And yet I feel that I have at least in a small way honored their sacrifice, simply by paying attention to the battles that, until now, were rather meaningless names.

At the end of his book, Keegan asks a number of questions, the most pointed of which is, Why did the war continue? Once it was clear that the war would not be a brisk affair along the lines of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, why didn’t everyone simply withdraw, if only to prepare to fight another day? And the best answer he can find is the camaraderie that grew among the troops as they fought together. “That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates, we would be nearer to understanding the mystery of human life.” What bottomless pathos in that! The ability of men to find meaning in absurdity is itself an absurdity, for even as it protects men from the horrors of senselessness, it validates senseless conduct.

An idle question that I find pressing me with an insistence that is not idle: why didn’t the Germans think to push on recklessly for Paris, surround the city with heavy artillery, and hold the Allies hostage to an unconditional armistice? In other words: to wage war for peace. In the end, we read about the Great War the better to understand the inevitability of the Worse that followed.


Tante Hannah

Reading The Life of the Mind, I’m having my first serious problem with the thought of Hannah Arendt. Her rigid insistence that thinking can occur only during a temporary withdrawal from the world, a complete putting-down of all worldly engagements that would seem Buddhist if it were not so purposeful — is she daft? Did she never have a useful insight during the course of a lively conversation with her brainier friends? Did she not attend thoughtfully to what others said in lectures and seminars? Arendt was a very sociable woman, warm to old friends and always eager to dispute a point. It is hard — impossible — to believe that this part of her life was intellectually fallow.

I suspect that it’s a question of cherchez la femme. When Arendt wrote — this may have been true of her speaking as well — she was clearly determined to make it difficult to find the woman in the author. Her elision of conversation — from the standpoint of serious German philosophers, a womanly weakness for chatter, or, worse, a decadent French pastime — reminds me of her elision of housework. Housework comes up for Arendt, in The Human Condition, only as the concern of household slaves in the ancient Greek polis — almost as if it came to end with slavery itself. Accustomed to servants throughout her childhood, the mature Arendt took no notice, in her ongoing appraisal of human activity, of what they did. With typical generosity, she contributed to the tuition of her “part-time” housemaid’s daughter. The ban on discussing womanly matters is so intense that Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, mentions the maid only to note Arendt’s largesse; there is no other mention of household matters. (Although we are told that Hannah’s mother “kept house” for Arendt and her husband during the early years in New York.)

I don’t really fault Arendt for this evasion; it’s too clearly part and parcel of her déformation professionelle as a philosophy student in what was still the highly traditional world — to which women themselves only recently had been admitted — of the German university. Arendt was also living in a world all too inclined to dismiss women as intellectual inferiors; she must therefore be as little womanly as possible. (Happily, she managed this without unsexing herself personally.) All I hope is that future students of Arendt will tease out, not what she might have said about conversation and housework had she felt more free to do so (I’m fairly certain that she was unaware of the inner constraint), but what might be said in the comprehensive terms of her world view.

When I withdraw from the world, the best I can do is watch the clouds float by. I cannot really think unless I am at the keyboard; for me, thought is not a dialogue between me and myself, but a tussle between me and the sentence that I just wrote. I am certain that Hannah Arendt would dismiss me as a stupid slob.

Daily Blague news update: Getting Inflation Wrong.

Gotham Diary:
5 June 2014

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

At The Bygone Bureau, Nathan Pensky writes a fine piece, gracefully detailed but broken by the shock of loss, about his mother’s death from lung cancer. “The doctors gave her six months,” and Pensky and his wife wanted her to spend that time with them, in their Pennsylvania home. But four days after they fly her out from Arizona, she has to go into hospice care, and within ten days altogether she is dead. It all seems somewhat pointless, especially as mother and son seem not to have had any “quality time” together: mom was simply too sick. (Pensky’s description of her final hours is just harrowing enough to make you pray that you never have to watch someone drown, effectively, in bed.)

Like the best essays at The Bygone Bureau, “My Own Private Arizona” is understated and impressionistic, with just enough information to propel the reader’s imagination. But it was nevertheless something of a surprise to find, near the end of the piece, what might well stand as the site’s raison d’être.

A week after we return, I remember a few things. Things and people and books I love. It doesn’t matter which ones they are. They are more important for what they evoke than what they are. And there seems to be a direct correlation between the meanness of the thing and the depth of its evocation. Describing them would be misleading.

(I suspect that “meanness” is supposed to be “meaningfulness.”)

This clicked with me immediately, for I was still somewhat confused by my inability to come up with anything interesting to say about Monday’s visit to the Cloisters. Anything interesting to say, that is, here. I worked off my frustration in a letter to a friend in which I suggested that what might be the most important thing about the Cloisters for me now is simply that I’ve been visiting it for so long. There is also the fact that the terrain of Fort Tryon Park, in which the Cloisters stands, is the terrain of my childhood, which is not surprising, given that they are about ten miles apart at the most. The earth, after a heavy rain, smells the same — a Proustian discovery, let me tell you! None of this has anything to do with the objects displayed at the museum, nor with the fabric of its building. But it has everything to do with the Cloisters as a repository.

My favorite thing at the Cloisters has always been and will always be the Merode Altarpiece. My second-favorite thing right now is the remnant of the Nine Heroes tapestry. But my third-favorite thing is the built-in lavabo in the Cuxa Cloister. The water spouts from the visage of a jolly monster, but the real monstrosity is the title card, wherein the lavabo is described as “a modern creation.” Which is true enough; but the object is on view at a museum devoted to the arts of the Middle Ages not because it is “a modern creation” but because it is a fake.

The Cloisters itself a modern creation (regular readers will recall just how modern, at least in relation to me), but it is not a fake. It is, rather, an appropriate shelter for a collection of relics of a vanished way of life. It has also become, for me, a pile of evocations. Remote from the rest of town, brooding romantically over the Hudson and the undeveloped Palisades, its grey arcades and stairwells in perfect accord with the old bits and bobs, The Cloisters almost seems designed to serve as a vault for personal memories, especially for someone as fortunate as I have been, in having easy (but not too easy) access to it for most of my life — all but the Houston and school years. To visit it is to make a pilgrimage to traces of myself.

This isn’t what museums are for, I know. But to describe the Cloisters as a museum would be, as Pensky says, misleading.


I had hoped that reading John Keegan’s history, The First World War, would give me some insight into the catastrophe, but instead it has taught me that the measure of the catastrophe is, precisely, its opacity, its rebuff of insights. Keegan is very good at pointing out mistakes that, had they not been made, might have made for a smoother, more mercifully dispatched conflict, but as everyone seems to have made mistakes, and as the mistakes all seem to involve failure to coordinate facts on the ground with plans for future action, the overall impression is one of massive incompetence, spiced every now and then with an arrogance that we now recognize as the expression, not so much of upper-class presumption, as of nineteenth-century confidence. It was a Lake Wobegon affair: everyone thought himself to be above average.

As I was finishing reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s thrilling account of the run-up to the war, it occurred to me that the war on the Western Front, at least, was just an old-fashioned siege, and Keegan has confirmed some of that. Whatever the execution of the Schlieffen plan was supposed to produce (the gift of a North-African colony or two to Germany?), its failure created a situation in which Germany defended itself from Allied besiegement. The difference from a conventional, old-time siege was of course that Germany’s defensive perimeter was located in Belgium and France. What I’m waiting to discover is whether I’m right about the end of the war, which was, like the end of most sieges, the capitulation of the besieged. Because of Germany’s massive offensiveness at the beginning of the war, it seems inapt to character the German position as “under siege,” but if we bear in mind that the German military was designed to compensate for a sense of fundamental geographic vulnerability, we might better understand Germany’s toxic postwar resentments, as well as its inability to understand why the French demanded such colossal reparations. Never has the cliché about the best defence’s being a good offense been so spectacularly exemplified.

It is a commonplace to fault “the generals” of 1914 for the pointless slaughter of millions of soldiers, and although Keegan is diligent about evaluating each senior officer on his own, rather than as the member of a class, he does not quite gainsay the conventional wisdom. The generals knew how to create a mess without knowing how to clean it up. Each seems to have believe that the mess would overwhelm the enemy, but, when this didn’t happen, they hadn’t a clue. Sound familiar?

Daily Blague news update: Clarity.

Gotham Diary:
4 June 2014

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Leafing through The New Yorker yesterday after a chapter of Tante Hannah’s Thinking, I was game for just about anything, so I read Christine Smallwood’s piece about reading stunts in general and Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: From LEQ to LES.

Rose first gets the idea for “The Shelf” while browsing the stacks of the New York Society Library, on the Upper East Side. Founded in 1754, it is the oldest library in the city, a place where a grandfather clock keeps time and the décor runs to “marble, murals, and mahogany.” (Its patrons have included George Washington, Herman Melville, and Willa Cather, and though the reference room is open to the public, to borrow books you must pay a yearly membership fee of two hundred and twenty-five dollars.) Rose has gone to the library to get the book “Hurricane,” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame), recommended by friends who were on their own mission to become Nordhoff and Hall completists. But when she finds the book she realizes that she does not want to read it after all. Looking around idly, she sees dozens of Nordhoff and Hall titles, and she has never heard of any of them. “What were the other books like?” she wonders. “Who were all these scribblers whose work filled the shelves? Did they find their lives as writers rewarding? Who reads their work now? Are we missing out?” It is a decidedly contemporary feeling, this FOMO, this fear of missing out. She will conquer it.

The Society Library is a quaint and pleasant place; Kathleen and I belonged for a few years, back in the Eighties. I wandered the stacks a bit myself, but instead of feeling that I was missing out on things, I felt distracted. Already, however, my vocation as a writing reader was taking shape, and even before the appropriate subject matter was clear to me, I knew that I was not going to be the discoverer of forgotten masterpieces. I simply didn’t trust my judgment anymore. I had been so capricious and pigheaded as a young person, exercising my eye for the unusual without any real idea of what was “usual” (except that it must be very dull). This fatuous phase didn’t last long, and it did yield a few valuable nuggets, such as Strauss’ Capriccio (which no one here seemed to have heard of in those days, much less actually heard). But I soon learned how silly I sounded, and also how dangerous it was to wait to run into things.

I’ve been thinking about FOMO ever since I first encountered the acronym, not so very long ago I should think. FOMO is definitely one of the irritations that I have outgrown — or so I tell myself. The only thing that I’m afraid of missing out on is a clearer sense of what’s already in my head, and how it interrelates; in short, I want to understand what I’ve seen and heard. And then I want to make a few persuasive remarks about how I did it.

(When Strether tells little Bilham in Gloriani’s garden, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to,” he is not prescribing the composition of a bucket list, but merely warning against falling into a mental routine. It is, after all, in our minds that we truly live — as any hangover will tell you.)

I am no longer worried about missing out on the unknown. This is partly because I have learned where to look — Crawford Doyle’s shopwindows, for instance — for unexpected things that might prove to be interesting — Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvian Trilogy, for example: unsurpassably interesting! Aside from such priceless spots, I give the up-and-coming a wide berth. I no longer follow the blogs that focus on young, slightly experimental authors; I’ve had to give away too many disappointing promises. I’ve given up trying to keep up, not because I can’t but because it’s not very satisfying. My thinking on other fronts, moreover, has led me to doubt the importance of the merely new, especially if it is blocking out everything else; I worry a lot about what I see as a national novelty addiction. If there are forgotten masterpieces out there, I hope that other readers will unearth them; it’s not my fach to do so.


As you can see, I was not particularly afflicted by FOMO even in adolescence, hooked as I was on my own idiosyncrasies. But in fact I had a much worse form of the disease. I wasn’t worried about missing out on books, or even on travel. I was terrified of missing out on feelings.

Just writing that down chills my blood.

Stendhal claimed — didn’t he? (but where?) — that people wouldn’t fall in love if they hadn’t read about it first. I can divide my life into two parts, first the one in which I was without a doubt one of Stendhal’s people, and then the part that I spent (and am still spending) with Kathleen, which I think would have happened even if I had never read about love, because it was all about “Kathleen” and not about “love.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have appreciated her so quickly and clearly if I had not knocked around and been knocked around by my curiosity about love. But that would be a matter of degree.

Growing up, I knew of two kinds of love: dutiful relationships, high forms of charity, really; and mad, irresponsible passion, which I never saw first-hand but which I knew led to death or to prison. Looking back on the adults I knew as a child, I see a crowd of couples at a cocktail party. For all the flirting that goes on at a good cocktail party, no other kind of gathering could be less romantic, not even a quilting bee. I never saw these people at any other time. You might hear of love, but you never saw it in action, as it were, no matter how many children were produced.

When I went off to Notre Dame, after a couple of happy years minding my own business at an all-boys boarding school, I was confronted head-on with the mystery of love, which I was most determined not to miss out on. (Mind, this had nothing to do with hormones. I’m talking about love.) There were no girls at Notre Dame itself, but there were plenty of them across Highway 31 at St Mary’s. I went to a mixer promptly, and emerged with a girlfriend. Just like that! This relationship lasted until the Christmas vacation that was followed by a personal disarray that it seems grandiose to describe as a “suicide attempt.” My next foray, which lasted longer and ran much deeper, causing terrible wreckage (not to me), occupied my sophomore year — the one in which all the friends I’d made as a freshman the first time were juniors. I cannot bring myself to write with any particularity about this relationship, which got as far, despite parental discouragement, as a ring, partly because it is still so mortifying (and rightly so!), and partly because any kind of discussion seems disrespectful to the woman involved. It’s not that I was a wicked cad. But I was a cad. I got in way over my head, in this pursuit of love, and I did not heed the incredibly sage friend who responded to my rhapsodies by saying, “You sound like you’re more in love with love than in love.” Ouch! My wounded vanity made sure that I did not agree, or act accordingly. But perhaps I caught a glimpse of my spectral stubbornness. It’s the only remark made by an outsider to the relationship that I can recall from the whole awful mess.

Which reminds me of something else from this week’s New Yorker: “If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.” That’s the advice to young men given by Young Adult author John Green. I wish somebody had tried to teach me that when I was still young. I wish also that someone had been wise and/or interested enough to tell me how unlikely it would be for me to find a loving companion until I had done a lot of growing up. Ditto for my companion-to-be! But that’s Bronxville for you. Despite my good manners, I was feral where I ought to have been decent.


Puzzle to chew on: I read the other day (well, in last week’s New Yorker) that the last of Edward St Aubyn’s maternal grandmother’s husbands — the writer is descended from the husband before that — was a Prince de Talleyrand. This prince, for whom his wife bought the Villa Colombe, Edith Wharton’s place in St-Brice-sous-Forêt, held onto his wife’s money when she died, instead of dispensing it to his stepdaughters, setting up a chain of disinheritances that would in due course injure St Aubyn. Now, what I want to know is whether this is the same Prince de Talleyrand whose subsequent wife, and later ex-wife, married, in turn, Gaston Palewski, the Polish-French diplomat whom Nancy Mitford called “Col” and hoped desperately to marry. He told her that he couldn’t marry a divorcée, not if he wanted to remain DeGaulle’s right-hand man. But he went and married a divorcée anyway, just not Nancy. Next thing you know, Nancy was attacked by a terrible and presently fatal cancer. And now that the son of the Prince de Talleyrand above has himself died (if I’ve got this right), the Museum has been able to purchase Gérard’s magnificent picture of his illustrious collateral ancestor. Please observe that there are three major writers in this tea-dance, plus one statesman of world-historical significance.

Daily Blague news update: Irony.

Gotham Diary:
3 June 2014

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Whenever I have to re-read something in order to try to make sense of it, and the re-reading doesn’t help, I set the proposition aside. I can’t actually dismiss it, because it remains lodged in my mind as an irritant — for a while, anyway. Its persistence as an irritant makes me more sensitive to claims that either refute or support it.

A passage of this type came before me this morning, in David Brooks’s column — an unusual venue. I almost always understand what Brooks is trying to say, and I understand why I agree or disagree. The same goes for most of the writers whom he quotes. Reading David Brooks is an agreeable mental exercise: it keeps me aware of the frontiers of my natural conservatism, which is something quite different from that of the American political right. Today’s column,  however, left me in a muddle, and I was not surprised to find that the culprit was psychologist Adam Phillips. I picked up one of Phillips’s books not long ago, got twenty pages in, and had to put the book down because it felt so unhealthy. Much worse than “wrong.”

The point of Brooks’s column today was to suggest a method by which we might recapture the focus and ability to concentrate that the Internet has undermined. I don’t happen to have experienced any such loss myself, and I recall hearing plenty of complaints about distractions long before the appearance of home computers. (If anything is new, it is the nakedly antisocial rudeness that mobile devices have somehow made possible — not that I blame the devices!) But I read the piece anyway, just to assess the viability of Brooks’s conclusions.

The conclusions turned out to be Adam Phillips’s. Phillips believes (if Brooks doesn’t misrepresent him) that we can learn how to focus from children, who focus naturally. Point one, be in a safe place. Check. Point three, don’t be so self-conscious. Check. It was the second point that bewildered me.

Second, before they can throw themselves into their obsessions, children are propelled by desires so powerful that they can be frightening. “One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have,” Phillips observes. “How much appetite they have — but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children … will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. …

“One of the things it means is there’s something very frightening about one’s appetite. So that one is trying to contain a voraciousness in a very specific, limited, narrowed way. … .An appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways. … Everybody is dealing with how much of their own alivenesss they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”

If the first paragraph seems incorrect to me, the last one strikes me as almost crazy. I try to imagine what “dealing with how much of my own aliveness I could bear” might be like. I get nowhere. My appetite for Hannah Arendt has aroused some impatience among the near & dear, but, fool that I am, perhaps, I’m not at all frightened by it. On the contrary, I worry about whether my aliveness levels might be too low; and loss of appetite I associate with depression. It has never crossed my mind to fear that my appetites connect me with the world, unpredictably or otherwise.

As for the pickiness of children, this has always seemed to me to be an expression of their huge appetite for rules and regulations. Everything on a plate must be just right; it must fit with the other things on the plate; and — no touching. In addition to which it must comport with the Platonic ideas that children develop in the womb.

There’s really nothing to argue: either Phillips is out of his mind or I am.

But I do agree about points one and three. Increasingly, I see them as aspects of the same point. Self-consciousness is, at bottom, a feeling of vulnerability, of being in the wrong place or of being in the wrong. It is a mark of fear, and we are wise to heed its warning and to seek a safer place.

Nothing is worse than the feeling of self-consciousness in isolation — there is nowhere to go! And the whole universe appears to be watching!


I went to a garden party at the Cloisters yesterday. It was oddly comfortable. I felt none of the excitement or elation of doing “something special,” which nibbling on snacks and sipping wine in the Cuxa Cloister is by definition. You had to set down your glass and crumpled napkins in order to leave the cloister for the other parts of the museum, but that was not too much to ask, especially as there was more food and wine in the two cloisters downstairs. We went to look at the Merode Altarpiece — not my idea, either, although I was delighted to see it again. We agreed that the proper term for its kind of painting ought to be “Burgundian,” referring to the territory of the four Valois dukes of Burgundy, much of which was not in France, much less Burgundy proper. (And not — clotty word — “Netherlandish.”)

The Merode Altarpiece embodies more than almost any other painting of the Fifteenth Century the handsome domesticity that was a hallmark of Burgundian prosperity. The room in which Mary receives the Angel’s annunciation is adorned with a richness that stops short of opulence; neither too plain nor too fancy, it is just right. The symbolism that Erwin Panofsky so loved to unpack has the strange effect of making the scene even more homey. It is not a sacred place at all, the proceedings notwithstanding, but a room in which, given a couple of centuries, one might enjoy a cup of tea in an upholstered chair. The painting is a promise of ordered comfort, and I feel not so much that it is a part of me as that I am a part of it.

We took one of the special buses back to the Museum. The route was very simple, almost all of it along Broadway. It would have been more agreeable had the lights been timed progressively (as they are on First and Third Avenues). Instead, we stopped for a red light every five or six blocks, and more than that at the start of the trip. It was a bit wearisome, because Broadway is not much to look at above Columbia University, and it was getting dark by the time we got that far.

We had dinner at a favorite old place that may actually have lost that status, owing to serious changes in the menu. The food is still vaguely Northern Italian, but as our friend remarked last night, it’s from the wrong side of the Adriatic. The entrées are too heavy, too copious, or both. There is too much reliance upon tomato sauce. The tiramisù, however, is still perfect. They haven’t changed that.


Almost as unpleasant as the feeling of self-consciousness is waiting for something that might happen right now or maybe not for a few hours. Such as the arrival of a handyman to unclog my bathtub drain for the umpteen-thousandth time.

Ah! Enfin!

Daily Blague news update: Retire to Coach.