Archive for October, 2014

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Preparing to Vacate
31 October 2014

Friday, October 31st, 2014

There are still a few books on the bookshelf in here, but we’ve run out of 16 x 12 x 12 book boxes, so they’ll have to wait a few days. On the table by the window, there are two stacks of books, books that will be neither packed nor given away. They’re my temporary library, assembled in snatches during the packing.

I will be glad, I have to say, to see the last of this room. I have spent a long time in it, and I have tired of its darkness, which is partly the fault of an oddly-sited window but mostly, obviously, the consequence of painting a room in a dark color. (The ceiling appears to be white, but it is actually a pale shade of the same blue.) I am happy to trade the blue room for a new room. I’m going to paint the bookshelves in a color chosen by Ray Soleil for the living room shelves, Malibu Peach. What with the white walls, I may need sunglasses.

What I’ll miss the least is the sheer oldness, the palpable wear and tear. The carpet is twenty-five years old, and the paint on the walls nearly twenty. The only way to freshen things up would be to do exactly what we’re doing now: vacate the premises. And where would we put the furniture in the mean time? Not to mention the books. The very pictures on the wall take up acres when they’re anywhere else. We’ve been quite literally boxed in. I’m determined to keep that from happening in the new place. We won’t have a panic room, but I hope to preserve a panic space. When we don’t need it, we’ll call it the ballroom. (In humble fact, we will call it the “foyer.”)

The chair in the picture won’t be coming with us. It is one of four dining chairs made for us in 1990. They were not particularly well made, and we were relieved when Kathleen’s parents, downsizing themselves not many years later, sent us four of their eight chairs, made far more sturdily in England. This chair is the lone survivor of our set. Its left arm is broken, and the whole chair wobbles when I sit in. When someone else sits in it, the left arm pops out, a violation of the laws of hospitality. The green container that gives the chair its colorful chaise percée look is full of toys that Will used to play with. Whether or not he actually plays with them next time he visits, he will certainly hunt them down. I wonder where they’ll be. Almost certainly not in the green tub. But somewhere. I’m looking forward to seeing pictures of Will in his Hallowe’en  costume. Which of the three that his mother bought for him will he choose? Being me, I’m hoping for mix ‘n’ match.

I hope you can tell that the mahogany bookcase center right is empty. That’s why it’s hard to tell that it’s a bookcase.


Kathleen tells me that I’m holding up very well, that I’m taking the move much better than she thought I would. The awful truth is that, when I learned that we really would be moving, and where to, the news came as a deliverance. I’d been miserable for most of the spring and nearly all of the summer. Have you ever seen Roberto Rosselini’s wonderful (if bleak) Viaggio in Italia? At one point, Ingrid Bergman’s character is taken to see some pits in which lava bubbles at a low boil. That’s what this building’s elevators were like for most of the year, and still are, every now and then. Rumors about the building. Talk of leases not being renewed. The tale of a man who was stopped by security from trying to move out. It was quite sea-sickening. Kathleen was at work when most of this gossip fumed and sputtered, but I dreaded getting on the elevator, or passing a knot of tenants in the corridor. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the season of uncertainty began almost immediately after our neighbor committed suicide by jumping from her balcony. Did she see it coming? She was clinically depressed, I’m told. But I can’t be sure, especially at this remove in time, that she didn’t hear some preliminary remark, some vague suggestion that the building might be up for sale (as indeed it was), a sketchy comment that a healthy person would have overlooked, but that she, in her darkness, interpreted or over-interpreted. After she died, the chorus was invariable: “She was always complaining.” And what she was always complaining about was the building.

The news that we’d be moving came as a relief, not a shock. I had, I now see, been saying farewell to our home of thirty-odd years, day after day. I was wondering how much longer I’d be trying to keep it tidy. Reorganizing a closet or a cabinet felt dimly foolish, although I did it anyway, just as I will change the sheets and tidy the bedroom tomorrow — for the last time. The bedroom has been our living room for about three weeks, an island of calm. I can keep it that way for another week. Then it, too, will have to come apart.

How nice it must be to be rich enough to go away while all this happens, and to leave it to other people to see to. Yes, really — how nice! I can tell you that it has been rewarding, or something nearly as positive, to “go through my things” and to have whittled them down, but that’s true only because I’m stuck being my own housekeeper. If I weren’t, all this packing and sorting would be a senseless bore! A few weeks ago, I wrote a few pieces under the rubric “Broccoli,” in which I argued that the finer things in life are really quite pleasurable, not just good for you, and it was an argument that I can make quite sincerely. But if there is no longer anything aspirational about my appreciation of the arts and literature, I am still struggling to see the plus side of housekeeping. It has to be done, and it ought not to be done by anyone else — those are the ground rules, and they are broccoli. To be honest, I am trying hard to make broccoli more palatable. I’m a long way from sitting down to riz à l’impératrice.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
30 October 2014

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Before there was Lila, there was Colm Tóibín’s review, in the London Review of Books. I hadn’t got a copy of the novel yet, much less read it, so I ought to have set the review aside, because I prefer to read serious books fresh. I’m talking about books that I’m avid to read because I admire and follow their authors. There are reviewers whom I admire and follow, too, but I don’t want their commentary rattling around in my head while I’m discovering a new book.

I wasn’t consumed by curiosity to see what Tóibín would say about Marilynne Robinson’s novel. I had a fairly good idea, and it turned out that I was right, although he did not in fact say a lot about Lila itself. I read the review because I was hungry for Colm Tóibín. For reasons that other recent entries at the site might suggest, I’d have read anything with his byline. I came away from the review slightly bemused. It was hard to tell just what Tóibín made of Lila. He didn’t say anything really negative about it, but he didn’t rave. I realized that Tóibín must have written it with an upcoming date in mind: at about the same time American readers got hold of the LRB, he and Robinson would have had a public conversation at the 92nd Street Y. (Yes, I ought to have gone; I wanted to go. But, what with everything, I just couldn’t. Going out in the evening is still beyond me.) Tóibín and Robinson make a beautiful pair, at least in theory. He writes about the destructive oppression of the institutional church; she writes about the emptiness of life without churches. Perhaps Tóibín was keeping his options open.

After I’d read Lila, I reread Tóibín’s piece. I now saw his uncertainty in three dimensions. To pile on the metaphors, it — this uncertainty — was now, in light of the novel, enormously illuminating. The book and the review sat there in my mind, like masterpieces in a cathedral, shining upon one another, generating a blinding brilliance.


Structurally, it’s a clever review. Tóibín begins with a discussion of Larkin and Eliot, and their distinct thoughts about religion in modern life. Then he shifts into his own home territory. This means, first, Hemingway, specifically into Hemingway’s brief flirtation with Catholicism, and, second, Henry James, specifically the moment of transfigured humiliation at the end of The Aspern Papers. The purpose of all this is to showcase vibrant uses of religious language in secular literature. Wrapping up his introit, Tóibín writes of James,

It’s interesting that he used not only the word “soul” but also “absolution” and “angelic.” If he had wanted to use secular terms, he would have done so. Instead, he wanted to invoke something deeper and more urgently mysterious, beyond human explanation, extreme — and the lexicon he saw fit to raid was a religious one.

Only now does Tóibín swing round to Robinson. There is a lengthy discussion of Housekeeping, Robinson’s startling first novel — I remember being very startled, almost scared, too upset, in the literal sense, to want to re-read the book (I also remember recommending it right and left). There is something telling about Tóibín’s leisurely pace, although I didn’t see it at first. He is addressing issues raised by Lila, and examining them exhaustively enough so that when he finally gets round to the book under review, we’ll have all had more than our fill of Robinson and her faith. Gilead and Home, the novels substantially related to Lila, are also treated at length. I count roughly fourteen columns in the LRB review. Of these, only one and a half are devoted to Lila. Lila raises issues, as I say, but Tóibín declines to draw conclusions.

Let me bold and reckless: what this means, what this brevity, this lack of things on a great novelist’s part to say about a new book strongly suggest, is that it is much too soon to appraise a book of Lila‘s magnificence. What might have seemed to be a pendant, tacked onto two other now-beloved stories but telling a very different, and rather less agreeable (certainly less comforting) tale, turns out to be the explanation of the whole, the moment, I must say, of transfiguration. Lila doesn’t follow Gilead and Home so much as it consecrates them. And the experience is not merely aesthetic. It is as fully religious as the contemplation of a text by Augustine or Kierkegaard. And  yet it remains absolutely and simply a novel.

The parallels to Scripture, beginning with the humility of Christ’s birth in the stable and coursing through all the Bible stories that seem to come to a point in the figure of Mary Maudlin, tumble down like the beams of a collapsing structure. The structure was nothing less than my understanding of the possibilities of fiction before I read Lila. Or perhaps it was my understanding of the Gospels that gave way. The structure was not weak or unsound, but it was incomplete. It had to come down so that something more comprehensive could take its place. Construction will not be undertaken anytime soon, however. I am still nursing the bruises of all those falling beams.

Extensively bandaged though I might be, I want to focus on one aspect of Lila that Tóibín doesn’t mention. (I haven’t read anyone else on the book.) Lila works out on two time planes. In the foreground, Lila approaches the town of Gilead and comes to be known and loved by its Congregationalist minister, Reverend John Ames. (We know from Gilead that they will marry and produce a son.) In the background, Lila remembers her life before Gilead, a barely civilized childhood roaming the countryside in search of migrant work followed by a rootless subsistence in towns. As a young child, she is snatched from heedless relations by a wandering woman who calls herself Doll, although she is anything but pretty. Doll nurtures Lila with an intensity that is passionate and loving but not quite parental; Doll isn’t taking the place of a mother, but stepping in after the possibility of having a mother has been lost to Lila forever. It is after Doll’s death that Lila takes to town life, but she continues to keep the distance from other people on which Doll protectively insisted. Lila’s mistrust of other people is so absolute that the colorful word “feral” doesn’t begin to describe it.

From the beginning, Lila resists Ames’s outreach of loving kindness. She accepts small creature comforts from him, but always on the inner understanding that she’ll be leaving Gilead soon. She holds on to her plan of escape as though it were her only source of hope. This continues right to the end of the book, where she will only allow that her son will be raised as a proper Christian, and that she will stay with Ames for as long as he shall live. But she never surrenders entirely. She never fully accepts the balm that has been offered.

In this resistance, Lila dramatizes — vividly, hugely, with all the unforgettable power of a CinemaScope goddess — the soul’s resistance to grace. There is no allegory, and yet there is nothing but allegory. The stubbornness of humiliated, all-too-mortal pride to acceptance and love is arguably the deepest mystery of Christianity, the most terrible thing that Jesus discovered about people. At the same time, it is Christianity’s common yard; it is where every congregation stands and sings and repents — a place wholly taken for granted. It is this familiarity that Marilynne Robinson has exploded and enlightened. The shock of reading Lila will take long to subside, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a “believer” or not. (Only a simpleton would argue that a lack of faith in religious dogma renders Scripture insignificant.) The ash from the explosion, which is probably more like snow, or even dew, will settle on everything in your life. Eventually, Lila will become familiar, too. Everything always does. But the world will not be the same.

Beauty Mark:
Why Bother?
28 October 2014

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

In this biography of Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, John Campbell claims that his subject “was by no means a philistine.” Then he more or less takes it back.

Yet her taste in the arts was characteristically simple and relentlessly functional. She had no patience with complexity or ambiguity, no time for imagination. She thought art should be beautiful, positive and improving, not disturbing or subversive. … Her idea of the arts was essentially didactic. (335)

This rubbed close to the bone, because while I have no problem with complexity or ambiguity, and in fact insist on plenty of both, I do believe that art ought to be beautiful, or at least inviting. It ought to draw me in, to make me want to see and know more. I should not be wondering, as I find myself doing over and over again whenever I see the paintings of Pablo Picasso, whether some sort of insult is  intended, and, if so, directed at whom? Nor, as with Jeff Koons, should I have occasion to ask if the work is meant as a joke in the crudest, least witty sense — like a five year-old making farting noises. Gratuitous jokes and insults tear the delicate fabric of civil discourse precisely because they irritate it for no good reason. They pretend to an interest that they do not possess.

It’s the absence of complexity and ambiguity that makes Picasso and Koons unsatisfying as artists. Picasso’s dun-colored exercises of power over women and Koons’s glaringly plasticized consumerism are inappropriate, not complex or ambiguous. I don’t mean to say that they don’t belong in museum galleries. I don’t think that they belong anywhere. They are wastes of materials. Many of my friends feel the same way, however tacitly they defer to the published opinion of art critics. I was unable to find anyone willing to accompany me to a second viewing of the Koons show. What nonsense, everyone said. Why are you going? I went because I wanted to see the objects with my own eyes, to stand in the same room with them, to breathe the air around them. I wanted immediate contact, unedited by journalists, with these notorious creations. I discovered something that ought not to have surprised me: Koons’s pieces photograph “better” than they look “in person.” Shiny and sparkly on the page of a glossy magazine, they’re rather dingy in fact. What looks like stainless steel or even silver through the lens turns out to be cheap plastic, or its visual equivalent. (The balloon toys are the only exception — they’re as taut and polished as advertised. And people who stand in front of them for any time almost always begin to see them as fun-house mirrors, sources of amusing contortions. The cartoon animals thus disappear.) You cannot tell how drab and cheesy those statues of Michael Jackson and the like really are unless you see them for yourself. They’re unspeakably pathetic! Yes, I wanted to see what being in the same room with them would be like. When I found out, I couldn’t wait to leave.

I refuse to entertain the idea of art as a form of social criticism until everybody who claims to be interested in art stops watching television altogether and (yes, there’s more) clamors loudly for a just and equitable national infrastructure. Some things are just too uncomplicated and unambiguous to require the services of art.

In the novel Never Let Me Go, a controversy boils in the background of the story told by Cathy, one of the cloned children fated to die by serving as an organ donor. It seems that Cathy’s small cohort of clones, unlike all the others in what appears to be a nightmarish experiment in barbarism, are brought up to appreciate art. What is the point of that, ask the special school’s critics. What is the point of that, Kazuo Ichiguro’s deadpan text tempts you to cry out — the children are doomed. But then, so are we all. It is no more cruel to teach Cathy a sense of beauty than it is to teach anyone else, when anyone else might die in a senseless automobile crash long before Cathy makes her first donation. No one is going to make it out of here alive.

The point, in fact, of art is to ask, why bother? Why yield to the invitation of art and try to learn more about it? What is the point of that? The point is that you are breathing and asking. You are alive and curious. My difficulty with Picasso and Koons is that they foreclose these questions with their peremptory, “disillusioned” answers. The work of the late Thomas Kincade, replete with illusion, is just as peremptory and just as objectionable. Hipsters line up to see Picasso and Koons and even Kincade because they know that nothing is less cool than curiosity, than the open display of ignorance. The only thing better than having the right answers to a test is no test in the first place.


I suppose that I ought to beg pardon. Even I know that Picasso is a serious, substantial artist, as Koons and Kincade are not. If I’m going to beat him up, I ought to do so separately. Perhaps. But Friday’s experience of his starkly unpleasant neurosis about the bodies of women is still fresh. I’m wondering not why I don’t get Picasso but why everyone else is so complacent about his brutality.The significance of these subhuman portrayals seems to be pathological and perversely anti-erotic. Picasso is not telling us something about women that would fail to see if he did not point it out to us. He is telling us that he is troubled. For too long, I think, his totemic figures have been associated with clichés about the horrors and dislocations of modern times. But they strike a note that no other artist of his time or eminence ever sounds.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Blue Onion
27 October 2014

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Over the weekend, a friend who has retired to Cape Cod called up, to say that he had been reading the blog (this blog), and WTF! — we were moving! At the end of the conversation, he apologized, because he and his wife were in town for a few days only, and wouldn’t be able to help us pack.

Everyone has said something like this. I am always slightly alarmed to hear it, because the idea of someone’s “helping” me with the packing is not as welcome as it is meant to be. Although I should desperately appreciate real help with this move, it would have to come from supernatural beings who know better than I do what to keep and what to discard. I suppose that if I were to pile up everything that we’re keeping in one corner of the apartment, I could say, “Please wrap this up and put it in a box.” But I should have to know what we’re keeping ahead of time. As it is, I decide as I go along.

Or I shall. Nothing besides books has been packed so far. At first, the house seemed to be nothing but a library, and, indeed, nearly seventy boxes have been filled with books. (I expect to fill a further twenty-five.) But the disappearance of books into boxes has highlighted the plethora of other things that seem to be everywhere, divisible into two groups, “ornaments” and “stuff.” As soon as I have packed all the books, I shall tackle the ornaments, and I’ve been saving the Times for weeks for just this purpose. Surfaces throughout the apartment will clear up as if in the wake of a rapture. Then there will only be stuff.

(Stuff, and the kitchen.

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting with All New Food, with not taking so much as a crumb from this apartment. Of course there would be exceptions: Parmesan cheese, for example, and that delicious lime vinegar that’s hard to get. Saffron, if there’s any lying about, and the dried mushrooms that don’t taste like cardboard. But canned and bottled goods int the pantry would not follow us downstairs. I will pitch the sourdough starter for a second time and order a new batch from King Arthur. (My plans to develop expertise with sourdough bread this autumn were potholed by last month’s illness.) The contents of the fridge — now that would be a good job to delegate to some helpful friend. “Just pitch it all and don’t ask me about anything.” The freezer, too.

Maybe — here’s an idea — I won’t wait until the last minute to implement this plan. I can pretend to be that friend!)

Once upon a time, when we were all young, moving was a communal experience, or so it seemed. Friends helped out, especially anyone with a truck. The other day, I came across photographs of every building that I’d lived in during my seven years in Houston; I moved, in those days, about once a year. (The pictures were taken later, after, greatly relieved, I had settled in New York.) I already had a lot of books — and a lot of LPs. But I didn’t have too much else, and moving was never a big deal. It was a kind of party, really, usually ending with sixpacks and wine. Or dinner somewhere (else). I don’t really remember very well; it has been nearly forty years since I left Houston for law school.

After law school, Kathleen and I and our best friend Barry packed up a U-Haul trailer. There was not a cubic inch of empty space when we were done. Somehow, the trailer made it to New Jersey, along with the car and Kathleen and me, and that’s where its contents were put into storage. For how long, I don’t remember — not very. I took a flat in Park Slope, and Kathleen spent the summer on a friend’s couch on the Upper West Side. In the fall of 1980, right after we took the Bar exam, Kathleen and her mother found a studio apartment in this building, and we’ve been here ever since. I kept the place in Park Slope, but lived in sin with Kathleen. Our plans to get married quickly were postponed by Kathleen’s parents’ relocation to San Francisco, so I didn’t feel too guilty. We maintained an elaborate ruse about my answering Kathleen’s phone whenever her mother called (which she did far more often than would happen after we were married) with the information that Kathleen, because she was “working late,” had forwarded the phone to my Brooklyn apartment. This was respected if not believed.

I remember a time, a weekend afternoon, when the phone rang, and it wasn’t Kathleen’s mother, but her brother, Kevin. “Mummy and Daddy and I are downstairs at the coffee shop!” he whispered in a sympathetic panic from a phone booth. “They want to come up and see your place!” Thanks, Kevin! I had five minutes in which to drag all my clothes from the closet to the floor under the bed. The very first thing that Kathleen’s mother did when she came into the apartment — and I do mean the very first, after saying hello and how are you — was to sweep open the closet door. “What a lot of space you’ve got!” she croaked with hollow triumph, undoubtedly noticing that Kathleen’s clothes were pressed into half the space available, but saying nothing.  On the night before the wedding, she came out and asked Kathleen if we’d been living together, and Kathleen said that we had. “Good,” was all her mother said, meaning “Good for you for managing appearances so well.”

We left the studio right after the wedding, moving downstairs to a one-bedroom, which we had for two years. Then, back upstairs, higher and bigger than ever. Another photograph that I came across over the weekend showed this apartment in the early days of our occupancy. We still didn’t have a lot of stuff. There wasn’t much art on the walls. The bookshelves were small. The draperies were home-made and looked it. The love seats that had been Kathleen’s grandmother’s were in desperate need of reupholstery. Sophisticated arrangement of what furniture there was could not entirely repress the air of student housing.

When I look around the apartment now, I’m reminded of two things. The first is the first Star Trek movie, which featured an unmanned spacecraft called “Veejer.” This was short, it developed, for “Voyager,” the probe sent from earth centuries before (in the movie’s time frame). On its travels, Veejer had picked up a lot of junk, and was nearly as big as a planet itself. (It had also conceived a lethal determination to cleanse its home base of “carbon units,” but that’s neither here nor there.) When I look at the apartment, or remember what it looked like before the eruption of corrugated boxes, I think of Veejer.

Then I think of the new apartment, which will not look like this one, and I think of Pauline de Rothschild. This elegant dame took a flat in the Albany toward the end of her life, and of course she furnished it in great style. She made a point of telling the journalist who wrote it all up, however, that, in contrast to the choice of 150 different china patterns at her French country house, she had selected just one for London — Blue Onion.

That’s what the new apartment is going to be like. No student housing, no impecunious exiguity. No exile’s warehouse, either. Just a few of the nice things that we have accumulated over the years. It’s the end of the blue room period and the beginning of the blue onion.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
With Cubist Chemise
24 October 2014

Friday, October 24th, 2014

When I left the house, it was to deposit some checks at the bank, and it wasn’t until I got to the bank that I decided to head over to Crawford Doyle, in hopes of picking up copies of Lila and the new Wonder Woman book by Jill Lepore. It wasn’t until I was approaching Madison on 83rd Street that I decided also to stop in at William Greenberg for some chocolate-chip cookies, but not long thereafter I knew that I’d have lunch somewhere at the Museum. Waiting for the guard to look through my tote bag (which by now contained Lila but not Lepore, as it had not yet reached the shop), I wondered if I should be denied admission because of the cookies, but I was waved through absently. There was a solid knot of people waiting for tables at the Petrie Court, so I went downstairs to the cafeteria. I was starving.

After lunch, I went to find the Cubism show, the collection of pictures that Leonard Lauder has given (or promised to give) to the Museum. It is a very handsome collection, whatever the merits of the individual pictures. The Braques are quite likeable, the Picassos mystifyingly but typically colorless and misogynistic. (The more I think about Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair, a repulsive and even, to resort to a contemporary shibboleth, inappropriate image, the more it seems only a matter of time before the bottom suddenly drops out from under Picasso’s reputation.) The pictures by Juan Gris and Fernand Léger flirt amusingly with commercial illustration. Overall, I’d categorize all but one or two of the early Braques as exemplars of Design, not Art. There is far too much thought in these works — too much telling and not enough inviting.

One sidelight of the show seems to me to corroborate this view. The first thing you see when you enter the gallery is a blown-up photograph of an arrangement of nine or so of the pieces, hung rather tightly on a paneled wall, above a comfortable modern sofa flanked by small but precious eighteenth-century French tables. I presume that this shows how Mr Lauder displayed the pictures at home (I didn’t bother to read the card). The grouping has an immense visual impact that (I believe) would be a good deal less harmonious if a true masterpiece or two were forced into the ensemble.

To me, the cubists’ frugality with paint is a visual correlative of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. It reminds me of skidmarks.


A friend has written to ask me to describe the new apartment. Beyond mentioning the north and south exposures, and the pleasant treetop views, I’m reluctant to go into detail, because, so long as the apartment is empty, its existence is speculative. Only when I fill it — or, even better, don’t fill it — with our belongings will it pop into life. I know what I’d like to do, and I hope that the space will accommodate my plans, but there’s no way to tell in advance. Kathleen suggested cutting out scaled bits of cardboard to represent the furniture, but I’m pretty sure that this would lead to confusion. How a room fits together is a matter of looks, not inches.

I will say that I’m in seventh heaven about the dining ell. I have never been happy about devoting nearly half of the living room to a dining table and its chairs, and now those things will have a corner of their own,  and the living room, I hope, will be much more spacious than the one we have now. The two chambers are a tad smaller in the new apartment, but spaciousness in private rooms is not so important. I have no hopes of creating an underfurnished atmosphere in the new living room, but I’m aiming in that direction.

If I’m sanguine about the furniture, I’m phlegmatic-to-bilious about the pictures. There are few stretches of unbroken wall space. We won’t be able to hang the large painting of a Houston yard in summer opposite our bed, which will be a loss no matter where the picture winds up. The long entrance hallway would seem to provide ample space for small framed works, but I’ve learned that cramming the walls of corridors can have a profoundly trivializing effect. The ideal would be to rotate all but a few things, but this is not really practicable in an ordinary New York apartment: where do you put pictures when they’re not on the walls?

The new kitchen is quite a bit larger — longer — and, in addition to its wonderful window, it has two entrances, one from the foyer and one from the dining ell. All of this (except for the window) means that it will be easy for someone to help me in the kitchen, something that is all but impossible where we are now. Whether anyone will help me remains to be seen. That’s to say that it will take me a while to relax my longstanding one-man-band culinary tyranny. People can’t help you if you don’t know what to ask them to do. (If they’re smart, that is, and know better than to volunteer in someone else’s kitchen.) For starters, though, it will be nice just to let someone stand in a corner and talk.


Yesterday, I found myself with an hour to kill. Now, this was extraordinary; the phrase “hour to kill” never comes up for me. Sometimes I’ll get dressed to go out a little ahead of time, and read quietly until I’ve got to leave, but I never think of this as killing time. There was no mistaking it yesterday, though. I had tidied up my desk, rendering my mind entirely unfit for any serious work, and there was an hour to go before Ray Soleil and our new friends from the UN would show up. So I sat down with a couple of shoeboxes of photographs.

(The “shoeboxes” came from a now-defunct outfit called Exposures. It trafficked in all the paraphernalia of print photography — albums, cases for slides, even shelving. Who knew that this business would dry up like the Colorado River, leaving countless boomers stranded with swollen collections of photographs that no one else in the world would ever want to see?)

The first box that I opened contained old Polaroid pictures, taken at two different periods. There were pictures from the Eighties, and pictures from ten years earlier, before law school. I set the later photographs aside and culled the earlier ones. I culled mercilessly. Dozens of pictures would have required mortifying dissertations to explain. I myself figured in entirely too many photographs in the character of the Life of the Party, my face a little blurred from drink. That might also explain why I no longer had names for many of the faces. It was exhilarating to toss Polaroid after Polaroid into the plastic Fairway bag that, when I was done, I tied up and tossed down the chute.

The second box contained — contains; I’m still working on it (Ray showed up early) — an astonishing number of photographs of Honolulu and environs, taken by Kathleen during a holiday of sorts that she spent with our good friend who teaches at the law school there. It was a working holiday, in the event; Kathleen was in the middle of a deal between players in London, New York, and Jakarta, and she had to rent a professional fax machine just to stay in touch. Where she found time to take nine million pictures of Diamond Head, I’ve no idea. Nor do I know what to do with the pictures, most of which, perhaps not surprisingly, are not up to Kathleen’s excellent standard. Now watch: Kathleen will tell me that these pictures weren’t taken on that trip. But will I be left holding the prints?

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Knowing the Enemy
23 October 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Having emptied two large bookcases, and piled up a great many books to discard, I’m disheartened by how much remains to be done. There is stuff everywhere. Take the sideboard in the image above.  How many boxes will its drawers fill? And where will we put those boxes, while we wait for the move?

There is no real free space in this apartment. There are only passing lanes.

Meanwhile, I pack ten or so boxes of books, and I’m done for the day. Exhausted! Yesterday, I also did the laundry, a regular job that doesn’t count toward the move. And I brought in a lot of heavy plastic tableware from the balcony, to run it through the dishwasher so that our new friend would have lots of choices for furnishing her bare kitchen. (She will be offered honest porcelain as well.) I scrutinized pots and pans. I’ll do more of that this afternoon,  along with generally tidying up incidental messes. The other night, Ray Soleil and I moved an armchair out of the apartment and across the hall. We had to move all sorts of other things to clear the way from the blue room to the front door. In the process, we made at least four incidental messes. I’ve got to straighten all of them out, or I shall go mad.

The bedroom remains untouched. You would never know we were moving. It is tidy and familiar. It will be the last to go.


When I had done with The Heather Blazing, I was struck by one thing that distinguishes it from The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster: not only is the central figure a man, but his carnality is noted in several graphic episodes. So is his hunger and, as an old man, his fatigue and wear-and-tear. Helen Doherty and Nora Webster keep their clothes on, as it were. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the author feels a shyness about women.

But it’s not that, I don’t think. It’s rather the development of a gay writer’s frankness and technique during a time of unimagined shifts in public attitudes toward gay life. Eamon Redmond, the High Court judge whose youth is recalled in parallel with his later life, in The Heather Blazing, is a complicated man in many ways, but not sexually;  sexually, he is simply straight. His sexuality is normal in the same way that his digestion is normal: he is unconscious of it except when it obtrudes, triggered by a young woman’s breasts or slim figure or smooth skin. It is not particularly intimate, as his wife, Carmel, complains. This is not to say that Eamon is absent when he has sex, but rather than sex does not open him up.

It does not occur to Eamon that opening up would be desirable. Toward the end of the book, at a point in the narrative when the observation drives home something that the reader already knows, but situated in a time frame that is neither youth nor old age, but an evening in the middle of Carmel’s first pregnancy, Eamon confesses to her that he believed that nobody ever wanted him. We have seen that he was cared for as a boy, by his widowed father and his extended family of aunts and uncles, and even that these older people meant to love him. But Eamon had grown up without a mother. He was very smart, but diligent rather than clever — the soul of responsibility at an early age. What he didn’t know, and the adults didn’t know, either, was that this responsibility was a carapace. Eamon was not only not a problem child, but he took very good care of himself. He was one less thing to worry about.

So, when he loses himself in the law, it is made all the easier by his skill at not listening too closely to what others say. He can shut himself off. Later, after  Carmel dies, Eamon cannot remember a single instance of her complaining about her father’s excessive drinking, even though he knows that there must have been many. Now, at least, even if it is too late, he is vexed by this failure.

Eamon’s highly selective attentiveness, engaged with legal concepts but not with personal intimacies, is stereotypical of bright heterosexual men. The scope of the professional intelligence which brings them worldly success seems to underline an equally worldly stupidity. The world excuses this clumsiness, made up as the world is of other equally maladroit men and the women who tend to them. In the course of the novel, Eamon issues two important legal decisions that come down heavily and even harshly on the side of conservative tradition. His wife and children are appalled, but he knows that his colleagues find his opinions to be eminently “sensible.” Eamon is a pillar not just of the law, but of heterosexual norms.

He is not a character that a gay writer might be expected to admire, but already we see Colm Tóibín treating an uncongenial subject with deep respect. Tóibin grasps that the attempt to understand a man such as Eamon Redmond requires him to honor Redmond’s experience, and Tóibín honors it so thoroughly that the dominating implication of the Fianna Fáil (Republican) Party in Irish political life throughout mid-century Ireland, a history of high-sounding but essentially tawdry compromises, especially with the Church, that must have disgusted the young writer, is itself presented as the result of honorable passions.

What we have in The Heather Blazing is an exalted case of Knowing the Enemy. I believe that if Tóibín were to tackle such a figure again, the result would be leaner and more revealing; having written so well about Henry James, might not Tóibín amaze the world with the fictional portrait of an even less widely known (but much grander) figure, Charlie Haughey? Nevertheless, to have accomplished so much in a second novel is a triumph. and the author has understandably moved on. In the short stories collected in Mothers and Sons and The  Empty Family, he has given us a gallery of men, none of them (as I recall) like Eamon Redmond, and most of them gay. But in his longer fiction, Tóibín has retained his interest in the obliquities of behavior and consciousness familiar of gay men of his age (and older), but not so much to younger men, by focusing on independently-minded women, whose dealings with straight men (and the world at large) have also been marked, and may still be marked, by such obliquities.

But women are not the enemy; they are less “other” than straight men such as Eamon Redmond. The alienation of the “merely personal” from the vitality of life doesn’t come into it.

In my current infatuation with Colm Tóibín’s writing, will I re-read Brooklyn (again)? And, if I do, will I be surprised to find that its themes have much more in common with those of The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, and Nora Webster than I think they do?

Doctrinal Note:
Making the Bed
22 October 2014

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

I had the idea, yesterday, of devoting today’s entry to the question, whether and why it is a good thing to make the bed in the morning.

Almost anyone who notices an unmade bed — an unmade bed that he or she has rumpled by sleeping in it — will probably be driven to make it. That’s a curious phrase, to “make the bed.” It suggests that the assemblage of boards and blankets, mattress and pillows is not a proper bed until its elements have been arranged in an orderly fashion, with sheets flattened out and tucked in, and with pillows laid out neatly by the headboard. Sleep is disorderly; only the very ill and the dead lie in a bed without disturbing it. In some deep sense, probably akin to the motivation that compels us to cover ourselves up in public, an unmade bed is not a bed at all. It is just a mess.

Why make the bed, though, if it is only going to be unmade hours later? Why not accept the inevitability of mess, and learn to live with it? Why not let the soiled clothes and dirty dishes pile up until they all have to be washed at once? Doesn’t it make more sense to ignore problems until they must be dealt with, and then to deal with them in a batch? And is a mess really a mess if there is no one to see it but you?

There are some good reasons for leaving the bed unmade. Airing out the sheets and the mattress is important. The average person, I read somewhere, sweats the equivalent of a cup of water during a night’s sleep. If we were more concerned about hygiene than we apparently are, we would hang out our sheets and blankets instead of folding and stretching them on top of each other. In short, we don’t make the bed because it’s the healthy thing to do.

Why bother?

(I wanted to work my way toward a sunny upland in which the “bother” of making the bed would disappear, to be replaced by pure pleasure. I would sing of the joy of being in touch with the rhythms of life. Making the bed, and taking care of all the other household chores, would be endowed with an ecstatic aura. Simple things! The thrill of being alive!

It’s amazing, how the damage caused by reading New Age texts during one’s impressionable youth can still be felt decades later. There is no rapturous answer to “why bother?” There is only the bother.)

Kathleen and I talked about it last night. It is almost always I who makes the bed, but when I was in the hospital last month, Kathleen found herself doing the straightening up. She said that it was demoralizing to come home to a messy bedroom after a trying day. This prudential outlook is probably the most effective goad to good housekeeping.  It’s a kind of insurance against the vicissitudes of life: if a tidy house won’t always cheer you up after a bad day, at least it won’t make you feel worse. To put it the other way, you can afford to have a sink full of dirty dishes and an overflowing laundry hamper only if things are going really well. Can you count on that?

But there’s more to it than prudence.

I keep coming back to the importance of private life for the growth of true self-respect.

“Private life” seems to mean very little to people today. In a horrible manipulation of our visual wiring, the makers of television shows have taught us that nothing is quite as real as an image captured on a screen. News stories can be far more exciting, traumatic, and ultimately stressful for television viewers than they are for the people living through them in the real world. Television professionals know how to edit out everything that distracts from the point of a story — the drudgery, the unintended consequences. Social media demonstrate that ordinary people have learned the lesson. In learning how to present ourselves most favorably, we learn how to live most publicly.

Taking good care of yourself when no one is watching has become confused with taking good care of yourself as if everyone were watching. Solitude has become meaningless. But it is where each of us really lives. We are all visitors here, each experiencing an uncertain, one way sojourn on earth. The only good thing that any of us can lay firm claim to is self-respect, and self-respect has to be earned, over and over, every day. Its components are many and complex. The reasonable belief that we are making the best of what we have is a large part of self-respect. Our generosity to others is an important element, and a very tricky one, too, for generosity itself must always exceed the satisfaction that we derive from being generous. (In other words, it is impossible to be generous enough.) Increasingly, human self-respect depends on a sense of leaving the world — the environment, the planet — no worse than we found it. A hard and bitter responsibility this is, for generations raised on thoughtless exploitation.

I wrote yesterday that we have become the gods that we used to dread: it is we who can destroy the world. Fear and trembling will not be helpful in coming to grips with this dreadful destiny. Only self-respect can prevent our too-potent weaknesses from devouring us.

Self-respect begins in privacy, whether we experience privacy alone or in an intimate relationship with another. It is in private that we manifest what we have truly learned about living human lives. If we have learned little or nothing — if making the best use of our skills and interests is unimportant, if generosity is merely unprofitable, if the state of the world is somebody else’s problem — then we live in disorder and mess.

So: make the bed already.

Gotham Diary:
Boxed In
21 October 2014

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

“What have you got on for today?” asked Kathleen on her way out the door. “Panic,” I said.

Yesterday, I filled another ten boxes with books. Two and a half shelves were emptied — two and a half shelves of books stacked three deep. That’s seven and a half rows of books, with each box holding most, but not all, of a row. There was also a cluster of odd shelves to clear — shelves designed to hold stereo equipment but long ago given over to atlases and bibles and law books. They filled two boxes. I brought Kathleen into the blue room to show her the progress so far (not impressive), and she picked up a roll of heavy-duty tape. “Is this the roll that you wanted me to look at?” It was a big roll of Scotch Extreme Shipping Tape — beyond strapping tape? — and there had only been the one roll at Staples. I couldn’t find the edge, but Kathleen quickly did, so now I can pack some more boxes this afternoon, and at least clear out the central block of the big bookcase. We broke down and ordered an expensive lifetime supply of strapping tape from Uline. We’ll probably go through all of it. Moving day is about three weeks away.


The cousin of a friend has just been appointed to a foreign mission to the United Nations here in New York, and she has arrived in town without much in the way of household goods — so she can take some of our plates. We’re getting together for dinner on Thursday. I shall put out the tableware that we no longer wish to keep, and throw in some pots and pans. (Against my better judgment, I’m giving away some small All-Clad pots. I never use them. Then there’s a gigantic Le Creuset dutch oven, a little the worse for wear but with years yet to go.) I hope that our new friend takes every last piece of it.

Tonight, we’re going to have macaroni and cheese for dinner. That’s what I make when I can’t think of anything else. We had grilled chicken last night, and very tasty it was. When I removed the chicken from the marinade (sesame oil, lime, soy sauce and canola), I replaced it with a piece of London broil, so that will be dinner tomorrow night, or perhaps over the weekend. We enjoyed the chicken picnic-style, with hunks torn from a baguette and chunks of cheese. It was very satisfying. Later, I fell asleep in my chair.

Falling asleep in the chair is better than not falling asleep in bed, which is what happens if I lie down too soon. If I lie down too soon, I am almost immediately disturbed by what I suppose might be called a primordial fear of wetting the bed. There never turns out to be much of anything in my bladder, but to the bathroom I must go. For several years before the doctor prescribed a pill that gets me to sleep but doesn’t keep me there (that’s not required; it’s the falling asleep that’s the problem), I would lose hours to this miserable phantom,  unless of course I’d had plenty of wine in the evening. The pill knocks me out nicely within about half an hour, and on most nights I seem to know exactly when to get out of my chair and slip into bed. If I fall asleep in the chair, no harm is done; I wake up an hour or so later, not the slightest bit uncomfortable, drift across the room, and fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. If I get into bed too soon, I might have to make three trips to the bathroom for no good reason. Even without the dread of insomnia, it’s not very pleasant to get comfortable under the blankets only to have to toss them off and get up again.

Or maybe I’ll pick up some bratwurst at Schaller and Weber — an even more mindless menu, teetering on the edge of delivery. (“Delivery” is what “take-out” is called in Manhattan.) You can buy the bratwurst cooked, but I like to poach and then brown it myself. Cucumber and potato salads come ready-made. I wasn’t going to go out today, but I see that I have to pick up a prescription at Duane Reade, which is practically next door to Schaller and Weber.

The thing about delivery is that we are so tired of it that it is easier to cook from scratch. That is what we’ve come to.


A gratifying stack of books did not get packed yesterday: rejects! German Self-Taught. I’ve been carrying that around for decades, but I’ve never used it. The World As Will and Representation, in two thick Dover volumes. I am never going to read Schopenhauer, any more than I am going to cook from Mrs Beeton. I am never, I now see, going to learn anything from philosophy, except the utter uselessness of it. Now, I use the word “philosophy” narrowly, to describe systematic metaphysical thought. What all philosophers have in common — and this is why I don’t consider David Hume to be one of them — is the belief in an immaterial reality that serves as the foundation for the world of sense impressions that we experience. Philosophers hold that our impressions are delusive at worst and misleading at best if the underlying reality is not understood. In almost every case, a Creator underlies what underlies.

I do not know for certain that there is no Creator, or that the world as I experience it is not underpinned by reality of another dimension, but I do believe that thinking about such things is a waste of time — a rather terrible waste of time, considering all the problems that I see around me. I am well aware of the philosopher’s curse: none of those worldly problems will be solved until the metaphysical nature of things is fully grasped. What troubles me more deeply is the sheer need that men seem to have for this invisible order. Primarily concerned with exhorting educated Americans to act up to their intelligence, I worry that traditionalists like David Brooks and Ross Douthat are right, and that the elites of this country will never Rise to Occasion without a compelling belief in something larger than themselves.

I have found something larger than “themselves,” and it’s a nightmare: the humanity that swarms over the earth, empowered by technologies that it does not fully understand and fully capable of destroying the planet. We have become the gods that we feared. Only as an attentive and articulate society of individuals will we survive our colossal aptitudes for blunder. If I could stick a halo on that and make it blow magic smoke rings, I almost would.


Update: Now I can back boxes, all right. The delivery from Uline arrived this morning. Where to put the boxes when they’re empty and flat is already a problem. (Maybe we ordered the wardrobe boxes a bit too soon.)


Gotham Diary:
The Sillies
20 October 2014

Monday, October 20th, 2014

There was a lot of giggling and chuckling, and some shrieking, this weekend. The silliness of the world was upon us. Kathleen finally read Patricia Marx’s piece about tortoises and alpacas (mentioned below). I came across a very funny story in a rather heartbreaking novel, Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship — the punchline, so to speak, goes something like this: “We haven’t noticed any change, Sister Emmanuelle; it must be the convent” — which reminded me of another funny story, this one retailed by Ray Soleil, taken from the ongoing low-grade sit-com that he has going with his mother, in which other family members get to play occasional roles.

Ray’s brother: So, you pissed him off [meaning Ray]…
Ray’s mother: Did he call you? [meaning ‘How did you know?’]
Ray’s brother: No. I figured it out for myself. [unprecedented plot twist]

The whole story made Kathleen laugh — not just smile.

Then there was Will, on Face Time yesterday. He was in a very jolly mood, whispering to us about the three Hallowe’en costumes that his mother bought for him. (The summer’s favorite, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, has been discarded, and the smart money seems to be on Wolverine.) At the end of the call, he gave me the look of a pure scamp as he echoed his father and said, “Bye, RJ.” This has been going on all year. He is trying to get me to acknowledge the unwonted form of address, but I never do; I just ignore it. Sometimes, but not nearly so often, he calls Kathleen by name, but she ignores him, too. We keep our amusement to ourselves. Had we, at Will’s age, experimented with using our grandparents’ given names, we should have been exterminated on the spot. Nor should we soon have been forgiven for asking, as Will did his father, “When you die, can I have your money?” Old people were no fun when we were young, and they didn’t have any fun, either. It’s very amusing to pretend to be unaware that Will is trying, in a wholly minor and insignificant way, to be a little bit naughty. Not that we actually fool Will.

The silliest thing, though, was in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue. It wasn’t so much the submersible automobile, capable of propelling itself through what a Russian communiqué. badly translated perhaps, has recently called “the aquatic areas of the world’s oceans” — at depths up to thirty feet. It is difficult to imagine a use for this vehicle other than desperately simulating the James Bond experience (sold separately) by taking a spin in sparkling Caribbean waters; it is certainly no alternative to the Holland Tunnel. No, the submersible car itself is just dumb. It’s the price that’s a riot. $2,000,000. You have to look at the figure a couple of times to be sure. In a catalogue offering a wide variety of nonsense priced at $99.95, $179.95, or even $595.95, the seven-figure pricetag (no cents) stands out, and the mind begins to boggle. “And what card will you be using, sir?” “My Fort Knox card, but if I tell you the number I shall have to kill you.” &c. Imagining the purchase and sale of a preposterous toy, sight unseen, via an 800 number, for $2,000,000 is a flight of looniness that even The Onion rarely attains.

When I was a boy, the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue had a more humdrum tone. It purveyed labor-saving gizmos that sooner or later provoked my mother into asking, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”, as if, had she only had an extra fifteen minutes here or there to spare from her busy life, she might well have conceived the automatic Scotch-tape dispenser or the self-winding shower curtain. (Unable to recall actual gee-whiz products, I’ve been forced to invent.) No matter how impressed she was with the catalogue’s offerings, however, my mother never put down any cash American toward the purchase of one. This was very disappointing to me. Immured in my suburban idyll, I had learned that the only interesting thing that ever happened was the delivery of a box from the outside world.

I was shattered to discover the same item for sale in the pages of Hammacher Schlemmer and those of the Sharper Image. Another illusion broken on the rocks! Here I dreamed that their respective cornucopias were stocked with unique items! And what we they both selling? Sharper Image mentions “aromatherapy,” while Hammacher Schlemmer calls the thing a “Sonic Scent Diffuser.” Either way, it looks pretty nasty. Slice a caldera out of the top of an old smudgepot, insert a hole that spews white smoke from the base of the concavity, and see if it doesn’t put you in mind of the first stage of an alien invasion!


When The Blackwater Lightship appeared in 1999 — it was, as I recall, Colm Tóibín’s first American success — AIDS was no longer killing people right and left, so there was a retrospective relief in his telling of a young man’s agonies in the later stages of the disease. This sort of thing wasn’t happening anymore. Another thing that wasn’t happening anymore, or not so much, was the shock and dismay of discovering, in the context of a deadly illness, that sons and brothers were gay. Helen Doherty, the central figure in Lightship, has known that her brother way gay, but not that he was sick; his wretched condition comes as a complete surprise. Although she’s not on bad terms with Declan, Helen keeps her distance from her family, especially from her mother, Lily. Helen has married a nice man and borne two bouncing sons without introducing any of them to Lily. (In fairness, Lily declined at the last minute to show up for a planned reunion.) It is not that Helen hates her mother so much as that she can think of no other way, besides strict quarantine, to prevent herself from turning into the same sort of passive-aggressive witch.

Declan’s dying wish — that’s what it’s all but — is to spend some time at his granny’s guest house, on the sea north of Wexford, where he and his sister were parked while their father took months to die of cancer, nursed by their distraught mother. Two friends of Declan’s (neither a former lover) more or less commandeer Helen into driving her brother from Dublin to her grandmother’s. Luckily, Helen’s husband has taken the two boys off to his home in Donegal, as he does every summer. The Blackwater Lightship is about Helen’s unexpected week in Cush.

Cush, according to Google Maps, is a beach town outside of Cork, not Wexford, so I daresay Colm Tóibín has seen fit to protect the scene of his childhood summers from prying literary fans. His fictional Cush, somewhere near the quite real Ballyconnigar, appears in at least three novels — The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, and, now, Nora Webster — and in each book it is a range of houses perched atop an eroding cliff of marl, some of them partially collapsed, all of them doomed. In each book, Cush is the modest summertime resort of a family from Enniscorthy, the cathedral town not far inland where the author was born, and which he writes about in all of his novels with Irish settings.

It was of The Blackwater Lightship that I was reminded unawares by Nora Webster. In addition to the physical settings, Tóibín reworks the themes of the earlier book, taking a very different point of view. The figure of the abandoning mother who has made her own way in the world, instead of dedicating her life to her children, moves from the periphery, where, as Lily, she is viewed unsympathetically by Helen, to the center, as Nora, a character for whom Tóibín demonstrates what it seems best to call a bottomless respect — an esteem tantamount to fondness but too discreetly “Irish” for overt displays. Nora and Lily are not the same woman at all, but their positions are strikingly similar, and the books, read together, evidence a writer deeply engaged with the shifting perspectives of a powerful myth.

Now I have turned to the third Cush book, the earliest: The Heather Blazing (1992). In this book, the central character’s mother dies when he is born, so the myth is partially, but not completely, averted. An old man looks back on his long life from the eve of retirement as an important judge. Like the other novels, The Heather Blazing comes from “a silent place,” but it is not nearly so closely situated to its point of origin as is Nora Webster. Still, a very good read.

Library Note:
Get Packing
17 October 2014

Friday, October 17th, 2014

As a rule, I keep my mornings clear, because that’s the best time for writing. The rule has been hard to keep, and sometimes impossible, in the face of the impending house move. There are often things that have to be taken care of first thing, and once I’ve taken care of them I find my head cluttered with everyday questions that make thinking quite impossible. I wish that I could grasp this problem more intelligently, and claim a better understanding of why some kinds of mental activity make others difficult or impossible, and quite beyond the reach of “will power.”

I’ve become very fond of Hannah Arendt’s homely way of referring to her “trains of thought,” but it has become clear to me that this imagery, while very useful for sorting out different strains of ideas, must never be allowed to suggest that there is anything like track involved. Trains of thoughts are much more like all-terrain vehicles than reliable passenger lines. They make no scheduled stops at specified stations but plunge unpredictably into what, at the risk of exciting terrible groans, I must call terra incognata. The relationship between a developing sentence — a cluster of half-realized clauses that will require certain syntactical resolutions regardless of “intellectual content” — and a new idea is as earthy and intimate and I daresay carnal as a cerebral event can be, and just as difficult to describe. Like other earthy relationships, it doesn’t flourish in bustling, public places. All I can say is that writing in the morning has become as magical, or potentially magical, as making love used to be, a very long time ago, when my head was as green and spongy as a new twig.

Yesterday, I began putting books into boxes. I filled ten of them before running out of steam, and almost out of strapping tape. These are book boxes, sixteen by twelve by twelve, small but heavy when filled. We ordered fifty, and I’m sure that I’ll fill them all.

I was working on the part of a larger bookcase that I had organized quite recently, a process that involved a good deal of culling then. The books on the shelves were keepers, for the most part. I took stern looks at some fattish tomes — a Taschen picture album about Alchemy seemed particularly stinky — and left them behind, at least for the moment, but I did not question, as I might have done, paperbacks with esteemed imprints, such as Penguin and NYRB, that I had shelved together. There are books in these groups that I ought to weed out; I’ll probably never read them, or even re-read the books that led me to them. But I prefer to treat these uniform editions as libraries within my library, possessed of an occult integrity that does reflect, however dimly, overarching editorial outlooks. Unlike many of the books still on my shelves, they are not miscellaneous. So, among many other things, the translation of Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel that I put down twenty years ago and never picked up again, will be following me to the new apartment.

I console myself, at least with regard to my poor score for culling, that other shelves will yield many dispensable volumes. I try not to think about how sound this consolation is likely to prove. At the same time, I wish I had time to re-read certain writers, as a way of judging their continued membership in my collection. What about George Steiner, for example. Have I ever really thought about George Steiner? I’ve accepted him on the strength of his reputation, which was, I can’t help noticing, much brighter when he was still alive. Now he seems pious — if not a pious fraud, exactly, then certainly something of an asserter of the received ideas of the better sort of senior commons room. Like so many intellectuals after World War II, Steiner was mesmerized by the horror of that great old oxymoron, mass culture. He did not see how this insidious growth was going to attack the republic of letters; he thought that jeremiads might be effective. They never have been, not since the time of Jeremiah himself. But I’m making all of this up out of dim recollections; I haven’t read Steiner in years. His books certainly lend an Augustan tone to the line-up of spines, and they scream to any half-literate visitor that I am a Serious Person (if not at all a Theorist), but I’m not sure that there is much connection anymore between Steiner’s essays and my thinking. I wish there were time to revisit the matter. I must make time.

I pulled down Chris Hedges’s The Empire of Illusion the other day. I’ve had it since it came out, but not read it. The book begins with a horrified review of several “reality TV” shows. Hedges is dismayed that so many ordinary Americans seem to share the values implicit in these productions — much as, I suppose, George Steiner would have been. I’ve come round to the view that it is a waste of time to fault uneducated people for their viewing habits. My concern is for the mere existence of educated people. Are there any? Of course there are — but they’re in hiding. It is so not cool to be educated. And there are good reasons for that — as well as bad ones.

What I wouldn’t give to have Nora Webster to read— afresh, that is, as if I hadn’t already read it. Colm Tóibín remarked somewhere that his fiction comes from “a place of silence,” and Nora Webster is a demonstration of this paradox. Nora, a youngish widow whose unguarded moments were devoted entirely to her late husband, finds herself without meaningful contact with the world. She has plenty of responsibilities, and in her world (Ireland in the years around 1970), that is enough for a woman and a mother. But Nora is no more likely to immure herself in her family now than she was when her husband was alive. Her discovery of a new life, however, is necessarily not only accidental but inarticulate. She discusses it with no one, not even herself. From Hemingway, Tóibín learned a literary frugality that is formidable precisely because it never leaves one hungry;  and, from Henry James, a corresponding representational frugality that presents wholly plausible characters without ever resorting to the commonplaces of psychology. The existence of Nora Webster is as implacable as that of an ancient Greek deity.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Emotional Support
16 October 2014

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

There’s nothing like a good laugh, and it was about time that The New Yorker prompted one. The magazine has been very dull lately, as if commandeered by morose young puritans in pursuit of a transcendental hip. At last, in this week’s issue, there is a page by Paul Rudnick, who can certainly be very funny, but also “funny” in the way that raises a strained smile: you long for the days when you (and only you?) thought that Libby Gelman-Waxner was the real-life wife of an orthodontist (wasn’t it?). It can’t be easy being Paul Rudnick; the prospect of satirizing a college-application letter must have inspired a search for very large barrels and very small handguns. There was one deathless crack, though, near the beginning.

Although, of course, as a biracial child, I wasn’t sure if higher education would even be an option for me. And, when I say biracial, I mean that my father went to Harvard and my mother attended Oberlin. When I was young, this situation tore me apart, because I never knew which world I belonged in. Should I follow my dad and become hugely successful and condescending to everyone, or should I dream of becoming every bit as creative yet talentless as my mom? I still don’t know the answer, but maybe not knowing is my greatest strength.

The Oberlin zinger caught my breath a tad more stringently than it might have done because of a friend who not only attended the school but got a degree: he used to refer to Oberlin as “a crypto-Maoist institution,” or words to that effect. But Rudnick captures the uneasy fact that one hears much more about Oberlin students than about Oberlin grads. It’s not that nobody graduates, but what do they do? Where is their distinctive mark upon American society? (In Brian Morton’s new book, Florence Gordon, Emily, the budding granddaughter, has put Oberlin behind her after little more than a year, and is looking for another school.) “Creative yet talentless” has an ouchy-sticky feel. I hope that my friend wasn’t stung by it. It’s one thing to make fun of one’s school, quite another to have Paul Rudnick single it out for a highly-intended shaft of invective.

Then there was Patricia Marx’s even funnier piece about Emotional Support Animals, which also made me think of my Oberlin friend, because the very idea (and then the reality!) of taking a turkey on the Hampton Jitney or strolling through the galleries of the Frick Collection with a tortoise clutched to one’s bosom is — I surmise — symptomatic, in his view, of the peculiar madness, or lack of judgment, that corrupts today’s fashion for personal development. Marx, every inch the agent provocateur, was astonished that so few New Yorkers were actually provoked. You had to applaud the lone maître d’ who refused to seat Marx when she was wearing a milk snake called Augustus.

“But it’s a companion animal,” I said. “It’s against the law not to let me in.”

“I understand,” he said. “But I need you to take that out.”

It is not, in fact, against the law to bar animal-toting individuals from restaurants — except, of course, in the case of service animals. Service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind, are highly-trained and well-disciplined aides. There are no service turkeys or service milk snakes or service pot-bellied pigs.

Marx mentions in passing that more American households have pets than have children, and that eighty-three percent of pet owners think of themselves as moms and dads vis-à-vis their non-human dependents. Here in New York, real-estate prices have been somewhat displaced in the competition for outlandish extravagance by the price of cancer treatment for cats and dogs. I like to joke that dogs have been breeding human beings for fifteen thousand years or more, but pet MRIs suggest that the experiment is in the hands of the sorcerer’s apprentice. I grew up with dogs — a fine-coated black lab with a touch of Weimeraner in her, especially — and I used to have no qualms about pets. Didn’t everybody have them? When we came to New York, I wanted a dog, but Kathleen doesn’t like dogs. I wanted a cat, but Kathleen said that a cat would have to be de-clawed, and that that was cruel. So, no pets for me.

Over time, the imagined fun that I would have playing with a pet was eclipsed by the imagined tedium of various but inescapable clean-up chores. And then the pet clinics began sprouting on Yorkville’s side streets. They looked only slightly more casual than real-people clinics — and only slightly less expensive. When I heard about the agony (for the owner!) of submitting a dog to a round of chemotherapy, I snapped.

No more pets, was the grim line that emerged from the smoke and the hulkification. No more pets in the city. That was years ago. The vogue, if that’s what it is, for emotional support animals is all the proof I need that people ought to have listened to me.

I understand that some people are lonely. But people who are lonely in a city of millions of other people have a problem that it is unfair to expect a dumb animal to fix.

The next time I give a big party, I must remember to note in the lower left-hand corner, “No Support Animals.” I don’t want a repeat of the unexpected shiba inu who took a discreet dump on the turkey carpet. We very nearly didn’t see it.


On Tuesday evening, after work,  Ray Soleil came up to the apartment to help me empty out a closet. It took most of yesterday to process (throw away,  mostly) the things that came out of the closet, but I now had room for clothes that were stored in a dresser that I wanted to get rid of. Empty, the dresser could be carted down to the room with the service elevator, where the handymen would deal with it in their fashion. The floor-space occupied by the dresser would be available for stacks of boxes of packed books.  One thing was leading to another quite nicely.

But the dresser did not in fact go the way of the handymen. It went across the hall, into a neighbor’s apartment. We loved the dresser, which Kathleen bought for our country house, and were sorry about seeing it taken away to an unknown fate. At the last minute, we were spared that sorrow. The dresser has found a new and happy home. Of the five large pieces of furniture that we have decided to unload, it was the only one that we cared about. When I told Kathleen the good news — she is on a business trip at the moment — she cooed with delight.

And for the first time, the impending move seemed very real.

China Note:
Mao Turns in His Grave
14 October 2014

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Here is a mystery of literature: why, within five minutes of picking up Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster, did I feel that I had entered a new moment of life? I wasn’t just reading a book. When I lifted my eyes from the text to attend to something else, I remained in a bubble that there would be no leaving anytime soon. This wasn’t like the magnetic field that books of crime and suspense create. It was far more immediate, as if I had swallowed a sense-altering drug that took instant effect. I only appeared to be here in my Yorkville apartment. In fact, I  had stepped out of a noisy, crowded street and into a hushed, scrubbed interior, stern and repressive in appearance but lambent and expressive in feeling. Leaving only the husk of myself in cosmopolitan Manhattan, my spirit had traveled back fifty years or so, to a provincial town behind the Cassock Curtain, where the mere admission of an emotion is a declaration of depravity. This bygone world ought to repel me; I ought to be fighting to escape it. Instead, I am flooded with the deepest satisfaction. The air crackles and smoulders with the author’s titanic rage, refracted in the vessel of one of his mutinous women. Nora Webster is a good person, but there is nothing that she might not be driven to do.

It doesn’t matter that I’m deeply perplexed by a sense of déjà vu. The reference to Brooklyn near the beginning is clear, but where else have I read about the farming out of children to relatives while a healthy parent gives her undivided attention to caring for a dying one? I have the feeling that I’ve read that story, in different guises, several times in Tóibín’s work, in fiction and in memoir. I’m not going to try to track those stories down now. Not being sure where I’ve read them before heightens the intensity of the dream. If Nora Webster was a minor character in Brooklyn, or some other book, I’ll find out later.

Where else have I read about doctors who won’t prescribe enough pain medicine to comfort their dying patients, precisely because, behind the Cassock Curtain, suffering is good for immortal souls? It doesn’t matter. Here is Nora, months after her husband’s death, in her banked fury:

This was what no one had told her about. She could not have ordinary feelings, ordinary desires. Catherine [her sister] saw this, she thought, and she had no idea how to deal with it, and this made things worse. As Nora walked down the drive towards the road she felt a rage that she could not control. But she would have to control it, she knew. It made no sense to think that she would not come back here again, to feel a rage against her sister that up to now she had directed solely at the doctor who controlled the ward where Maurice lay in the last days of his life, a rage that caused her to write letters to him in her mind, letters she imagined herself signing and posting, letters that were abusive or coldly factual, letters threatening him that she would let people who wherever he went what he had done when her husband was dying, that he had refused to deal with the pain that caused Maurice to moan. She had sought out the doctor several times, having asked the nurses over and over if they could do anything. All of the nurses had come back with her to the bed and nodded and agreed with her that something would have to be done. But the doctor — the very thought of him made her walk faster and become even more indifferent to the clouds that were gathering overhead — had not come with her to the bed, but had told her that her husband was very sick, that his heart was weak, and so he did not want to prescribe anything to alleviate pain that might affect his heart.

This passage is a tour de force. The doctor’s heartless judgment is reserved for the final word, where it only confirms the coruscatingly impatient anger that fills the preceding sentences. Controlled the ward. Abusive or coldly factual. What he had done when her husband was dying. Over and over. The very thought of him. The outrage is contagious, because Tóibín  convinces us that Nora’s rage must have a reasonable explanation, as indeed, in the last lines, we find out that it does. He prepares us to learn that the doctor’s inhumanity embodies the fascist otherworldliness that controlled all of the Irish Republic in those days.

The death of Maurice Webster was an atrocity. How does his widow live with that?

All this scribbling is premature, because I haven’t quite reached the midpoint of Nora Webster. But that is my husk speaking. The novel has in fact no midpoint, neither beginning nor end. It is an eternity of righteous, silently screaming witness, a hurricane of rectitude that howls beyond the divine.


Something else that I can’t be bothered to look up is the number of occasions on which I have rather loosely asserted that the leaders of today’s China are refashioning the foundations of their power in harmony with the traditions of Chinese political culture — the very culture that Mao Zedong sought tirelessly but vainly to eradicate. Over the weekend, there appeared an article in the Times that seems all but designed to give support to my statements. I knew that I was right, but now I don’t have to leave it at that. According to Chris Buckley (an Australian journalist who has been denied entry into China, always a badge of distinction), Party leader Xi Jinping is engaged in a “restoration of tradition” that serves “to inoculate citizens against Western liberal ideas, which are deemed a decadent recipe for chaos.” It is not hard to imagine that Marxist-Leninism itself, already more a matter of style than one of dogma, might one day be included in the portfolio of dangerous Western ideas. What makes China incomparable, as I think I wrote the other day, is its integral longevity. Confucius has been at the heart of Chinese thought, setting not only its propositions but its very rhythms, for two and a half millennia, a matchless span of influence.

Chinese political culture has a conception of human rights that will never be reconciled with that of the liberal West, because its linchpin is the elimination of dissidence. Here, in the late Simon Leys’s rendering, is the heart of the matter (note how civil order is envisioned in terms of musical (and possibly choreographic) harmony):

If the names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object, no affair can be effected. When no affair can be effected, rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. Then punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand.

When you understand that dissidence is the practice of calling things by incorrect names (eg, claiming that Party leaders are tyrants), the cascade of disorder makes great internal sense. When the people do not know where they stand, there ensues the chaos that Chinese rulers have rightly dreaded for thousands of years. It is easy to understand that, from a Chinese viewpoint, nothing justifies running the risk of unleashing this chaos.

Neither the continuity of Chinese tradition nor the violence of China’s periodic upheavals has, as I say, any counterpart in the history of the modern Western nations or their medieval and classical forebears. Without counterpart in China is the West’s habit of judging itself by its elite achievements — its triumphs in the arts and sciences, the power of its literature, the glories of its courts, and the ever-finer dispassion of its justice. In Chinese eyes, these are trifles in comparison to the welfare of the people. Truth be told, the West has only recently — the day before yesterday, on a Chinese scale — taken an interest in the welfare of the people. Even the gospels of Jesus were distorted by an aristocratic establishment that ruled the Roman Church for the better part of two thousand years.

In Chinese eyes — and I can only surmise here — the value that Western liberalism places on outspoken, individualistic critics of authority might well seem like yet another idle frivolity.

From a Chinese viewpoint, it may well seem that Americans and Europeans have no business whatever talking about human rights. They don’t seem to know the first thing about it.

Do I agree with the Chinese? No. But I cannot quite disagree with them, either. They have too much to teach us about our own failings. Such is the weakmindedness of the Western intellectual.

Reading Note:
No One Is Responsible
13 October 2014

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Kathleen has always claimed that, of all the rocky times that she has been through — and she has had more than her fair share — one of the very worst was the first semester of law school. She could not overcome the impression that her brain was being invaded and undermined by aliens infected with a strange and horrifying view of the universe; in fact, her innocence about the way things work in our Anglophone world was being crushed. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker were disappearing behind murky frontiers of liability, not only for meats, loaves, and lighting equipment but for the condition of the sidewalks in front of their shops and for the actions of their employees. There was nothing for which someone, somewhere was not responsible, and the whole purpose of practicing law, it seemed, was to make sure that your client was not, to the extent possible, that someone. Kathleen insists that she never recovered.

She ought to read The Dog, the long-awaited but generally disappointing successor to Joseph O’Neill’s critically admired Netherland. I myself was not disappointed by The Dog, but I have to admit that I was determined to like it. This turned out to be easy for me, but I could see that the novel would not appeal to everyone. In fact, it seemed unlikely to appeal to anyone who — who couldn’t remember what law school was like. I almost said, “to anyone who wasn’t a lawyer,” but I suspect that many lawyers, especially successful ones who have put law-school traumas far behind them, would find The Dog irritating if not boring. The fellow does go on so — and nothing happens. Nothing happens, and yet the menace of disaster looms ever blacker and taller. The Dog recapitulates the agony of law school.

The Dog is set in Dubai, which is almost as remote from life-as-most-of-us-know-it as law school. Aside from the native population, it is filled with fellow ex-pats,  Westerners who, like X, the otherwise unnamed narrator of The Dog, are taking time out from “real life” to make a lot of money. That’s something like law school, too. The money in law school is entirely prospective, of course, but there is a curious resemblance between the summary de-personalization that can befall anyone who runs afoul of Emirati protocol, on the one hand, and failure to pass the bar exam (particularly the New York State bar exam), on the other. In both cases, there is an immense risk of losing all for nothing.

Daily life in Dubai, like daily life in law school, consists of stretches of “work” punctuated by evenings of dissipation. While the carousings of law students rarely involve jeroboams of Veuve Clicquot, the idea is the same, and needs no glossing here. It’s the “work” that bemuses. What is this work? If X is any guide, work is an endless, fruitless attempt to limit liability. X is the “agent” of several family trusts controlled by a wealthy Lebanese family. X authorizes transactions that come to his desk for authorization, some of them documented in languages that X cannot read. He does his job: he signs off. (If he has questions, they go unanswered by his employers.) But he is understandably uncomfortable about the implications of his authorizations. He seeks to narrow the scope of his responsibility, and to trumpet the “pro-forma” nature of his signature, by stamping his paperwork with seals that refer to a Web site in which the fine print of X’s claimed freedom from liability is spelled out. The madness of his enterprise will be immediately apparent to any attorney who has read so much as a page of Kafka. Like Kafka, X talks a fine game, but all he’s really saying is, and I quote,


A lot of good it does.

The absurdity of X’s situation is not philosophical. It does not involve questions about the meaning of life or the nature of existence. X is not troubled — or troubled only as a diversion — by doubts about how we know what we know. But he is as preoccupied by the moral futility of human life as any existentialist. Unlike the existentialist, however, he resists rather than embracing this uncertainty. He tries to ward it off, using the magical powers of legal reasoning. On a few occasions, the reasoning is formal and pedantic, and almost certain to repel lay (non-lawyer) readers, just as all legal documents repel normal people. Mostly, though, X’s reasoning is a kind of low-grade, unstoppable viral frenzy. He is especially unable to resist post-mortems of his very unhappy relationship with a colleague in New York, where he once worked for a large law firm. These attempts to explain What Went Wrong With Jenn are devoid of romantic poignance; rather, they seem to describe the gestation of a still-born contract. One might easily wonder, on the basis of The Dog, whether it is really possible for two young associates working at the same law firm to fall in love. I myself have always doubted it.

Looking back at the opening passages of the novel for early signs of X’s ratiocinative tics, I found them on the first page, but the following paragraph seemed most pregnant:

The striking thing about him was his American accent. Few Americans move here, the usual explanation being that we must pay federal taxes on worldwide income and will benefit relatively little from the fiscal advantages the United Arab Emirates offers its denizens. This theory is, I think, only partly right. A further fraction of the answer [fraction!] must be that the typical American candidate for expatriation to the gulf, who might without disparagement be described as the mediocre office worker, has little instinct for emigration. To put it another way, a person usually needs a special incentive to be here — or, perhaps more accurately, to not be elsewhere — and surely this is all the more true for the American who, rather than trying his luck in California or Texas or New York, chooses to come to this strange desert metropolis. Either way, fortune will play its expected role. I suppose I say all this from personal experience.

By the end of The Dog, this habit of mind luxuriates in hair-splitting kudzu that drains the life from everything it touches, leaving only ghostly giggles:

(The Jenn Rule provides: It is wrong to Google a person who does not want to be Googled by you. As the name implies, the Rule was promulgated by me to me, in response to my incessant Googling of Jenn, an exhausting but irrepressible habit that did nothing to advance my understanding of how she was doing, if that was in fact my purpose. It dawned on me, after about a year of banging my head against a rigid superficies of data, that Jenn would not want me peering into and sniffing around her life; and it followed that I shouldn’t. I would not want her to shadow me online, that’s for sure. Once I had established, or discovered, the Jenn Rule, I saw no valid reason to limit its scope to Jenn. Thus, it applied to Mrs Wilson because she would likewise not want me to Google her. (Note, however, that the Rule does not apply to cases where A, the searcher, is unknown to B, the searchee, who by definition cannot want not to be Googled by A. (Confession: my observation of the Jenn Rule is not really attributable to any uprightness in my character. I broke the J-Rule many times. It was only when a “Jennifer Horschel” search consistently yielded only third party Jennifer Horschels (a few do exist) and it came to me that my Jenn had become unsearchable by me — it was only then that I stopped Googling her and found myself in compliance with the Rule. (I was of course terrified by Jenn’s sudden virtual absence, but I calmed down when I saw that nothing online or anywhere else pointed to her death. I could and can only conclude that she broke her own rule against getting married and in the process completely shed her maiden name, of which she also had no great fondness. (I did briefly re-break the Rule in order to track her down under her new identity, and I found out, by checking out the relevant photographs, that no Jennifer still working at my old firm was Jenn. Clearly she had also made a professional move. (I stopped my prying thtere, which again was hardly laudable. To refrain from making tricky investigative phone calls is not exactly a triumph of abnegation. (Is Jenn a mother now? I hope so. I she she happy? I hope so.))))))

Now you know why I’ve never been amused by nerds and geeks. First, they’re re-needlessly reinventing the galaxy of inter-referential epicycles that is already spinning so proudly at the heart of our legal system, and, second, they lack the rich vocabulary, the terms of art, and the gnomic afflatus of Law French that give lawyers their air of sophistication and bon ton. Computer trolls seem like unwashed children by comparison, members of a club in which comfortable seating is not to be found.

In the end, The Dog is a rigorous but drily hilarious fable about the overgrowth in modern affairs of a yearning to escape responsibility for everything. We see it all around us, in disclaimers nailed to every wall, and we can read about it in every day’s newspaper. (Today’s doozy is a story about a company that produces dangerous guard rails for American highways.) But a leisured, attentive study of The Dog will concentrate the mind upon the problem. In the past forty or fifty years, elites of all kind have paid lawyers to relieve them of the liabilities that they naturally incur and that they can shoulder far more robustly than the poor and uneducated upon whom so much “responsibility,” in the form of bad luck, now devolves. We shake off responsibility without thinking about it: it’s what everybody we know is doing. Not just the dogs.

I almost forgot. Joseph O’Neill started out as a lawyer, at one point working out of chambers in the Temple. You can read all about it, if you can get your hands on Granta 72, in his essay (clearly of great importance to the background of Netherland), “The Ascent of Man.”

Gotham Diary:
No One Tells Me Anything
10 October 2014

Friday, October 10th, 2014

It’s Friday, and it feels like an ordinary day. An ordinary day! How wonderful that would be. I don’t dare trust it.

Besides, it can’t be all that ordinary. There’s packing to see to, and my head is perfectly empty. I was thinking, earlier, about the insult of the coming Congressional election, implicit in the fact that a few relatively underpopulated states will determine the political cast of the Senate for the next two years. The rest of us are chopped liver? It’s yet another example of how badly the idea of the American state (as in “New York State,” an entity about which I have never heard a single human being express either zeal or pride) has let down the reality of American politics. It made sense, arguably, to treat small but urbanized and economically integrated entities such as Rhode Island and Delaware as the senatorial equals of larger and richer states, but awarding the same privilege to vast Western wildernesses devoid of everything that is vibrant and attractive about civil society was a terrible mistake. It was assumed, when these territories were admitted as states, that they would fill up and prosper; the fifty years after the Civil War was the great age of boosters. But Wyoming and the Dakotas did not fill up, and now they run extractive economies rather like those of the underdeveloped world, only with shinier corporate outposts. It seems to me that any state with fewer people than the least populous borough of New York City ought not to be allowed to participate in national elections at all.

There’s little more to be said about that, though, except to ask, where are the leaders who will do something about it? They’re still young men and women, I expect. They’re currently under the impression that technology will solve our political problems.  Give them ten years to be disabused of that idea, and hope that we really have the ten years to give.

Meanwhile, an ordinary day.

Who knew about Jenny Diski and Doris Lessing? Everybody but me? Lessing, who it seems took Diski in as a delinquent schoolgirl (and nuthouse alumna), is not even mentioned in Diski’s memoir, The Sixties. Is this autobiographical nugget something that Jenny Diski has decided to share along with her new cancer diary? I keep The Sixties right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education, salt and pepper even if I don’t know which is which. What they have in common — well, what An Education has in common with the disclosure of Doris Lessing’s “protection” that Diski has made in the current issue of the LRB is the revelation of somewhat shocking secrets about the modern world, just as I remember it, before the gravitational force of respectability, the only thing holding that world together, began to dissipate irreversibly. We’re only now finding out how many surprising things went on before the cultural revolution. The only thing that’s not surprising about them is how discreet everyone was.

Sometimes, revelations are so astonishing that they create the need for phantom revelations that would be even more amazing. Such as: Doris Lessing was willing to take on Jenny Diski, with all her problems, because of an earlier, and very rewarding, experience doing the same thing with Mary-Kay Wilmers. Why do wingnuts get to have all the fun conspiracies?

Still a very ordinary day. Il faut vider le lave-vaiselle. (Ça se dit comme ça?)

Yesterday, at the endoscopy clinic, I began reading The Dog, the new novel by Joseph O’Neill that nobody seems to like. I’ve read none of the reviews all the way through, but the general discontent has been hard to miss. Everyone must have wanted another Netherland. And the kernel of O’Neill’s story is pretty much that of Dave Eggers’s recent A Hologram for the King, a comparison that does not immediately work in O’Neill’s favor because Eggers’s story is marinated in a very anxious despair. There’s something contradictory about anxious despair: anxiety betrays at least a measure of hope. It’s something like picking up two closely-spaced radio stations while driving across some basin-and-range state popluated exclusively by two senators, their families, and their retainers.

The Dog strikes an entirely different note. I would say that it is the note of Julie Hecht, only without the self-consciousness. The note of Julie Hecht, even without qualifications, is very hard to describe, and I shall not attempt it, except to say, perhaps, “Kafka in Nassau County.” O’Neill’s  new narrator, who disguises himself as”G Pardew,” is strongly reminiscent of the anti-hero of the novelist’s first book, This Is the Life. The Dog belongs to the literature of corporate screw-ups. There is none of the mordant surrealism of George Saunders (pardon the non-sequitur) because, really, isn’t Dubai already surrealistic enough? I’m having a fine old time, anyway, or at least I was for most of yesterday, before a cloud of impending menace began to threaten “the dog’s” continued enjoyment of his Pasha massage chair.

After The Dog,  I’ve got Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. Irishmen in New York — the authors, I mean. Nothing extraordinary about that. Do they meet?

A friend writes to tell me the harrowing story of being locked out of her apartment. I have no choice but to scroll and scroll and keep scrolling until I reach the end, which finds her safely ensconced at home. Now I have to go back and be re-harrrowed. Something,  it seems, went wrong with the batteries in the lock on the door. Yes — one of these newfangled electronic locks that Kathleen, for one, would expect to fail. But until the problem is solved, and in the process analyzed, one is left with the modern nightmare of suddenly, without any warning at all, becoming a non-person. Access to home or to credit is denied, just like that. Everyone else says, surely you must have done something wrong. It is horrible!

Ordinary days exist primarily to lull one into a complacency from which unexpected shocks can tear one limb by limb.

Anxious despair: Joseph O’Neill’s new novel might not be saturated with it, but I’m afraid that I might be.

Note from the Doctor:
Starving, but Robust
9 October 2014

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

In the old days, I’d have posted a note yesterday saying that I was too distracted by fasting for a colonoscopy to think very clearly. I should have felt it remiss not to acknowledge the reason for my absence by, in fact, being present, however limited the basis. Without feeling the slightest diminishing of my professional commitment to this Web site, however, I recognize that I have outgrown a great many bureaucratic, t-crossing concerns. At the same time, I have never more scrupulously proofread each entry before letting it stand. You might say that I have put all my editorial eggs into that basket.

Anyway, it will be a long time before I regard Jell-O, not only as a food, but even as a substitute for food. Yesterday’s fast came perhaps too close on the heels of the dietary upheaval wrought by last month’s dose of monster antibiotics. Once again, I was hungry all the time, but could eat nothing — except Jell-O, and other liquidy things. The only difference was that I’d have been happy to eat anything. Last month, Jell-O served as a key ballast for the gigantic pills that I had to take three times a day, and that burned a terrible hole in my stomach if it was empty, even as they made food itself thoroughly unappetizing. Yesterday, Jell-O itself quickly became unappetizing, and I drew my sustenance from the laxative solution that I drank by the tumbler for about nine hours. That product has improved almost immeasurably in the more than twenty years that I’ve been taking it, but it still rather quickly becomes too much of a not-so-good thing. As bedtime drew near, I turned to Chablis for nourishment, and not in vain.

The colonoscopy itself went very smoothly. (I’d willingly undergo the procedure two or three times in a row if doing so would spare me the fasting.) So, here I am, with nothing much on my mind except the odd word “triathlete,” understandably unfamiliar in these precincts. Even by metaphorical stretch, I’m not entitled to the “tri,” but only to “duo.” Still, I think that it’s somewhat robust of me to have undergone not only a colonoscopy in the morning but an echocardiogram in the afternoon — in the early afternoon, at that. Aes duplex if not triplex. That’s it for intense doctoring for a while; although, when I got home from the cardiologist’s, there was a reminder from the dermatologist that I have to see her, presumably about the wasting condition of my scalp, which is being eaten alive by pre-cancerous cells. Unless, that is, the blue lights have been effective.

I have reached the stage at which each procedure is somewhat hedged in by, or required to be mindful of, all the others, and it is easy to foresee the time when I or my doctors will have to choose one procedure over another. Which is not to say that it will come to that. But I often think, lately, of the very sick old man with whom I shared the room on the telemetry (cardio) floor of New York Hospital. He was basically too ill for the heart treatment that he needed; all sorts of other things, including a urinary problem that would have maddened me, had to be dealt with first. Deep into his eighties, the man’s grasp of English seemed to be shaky — Polish was his native tongue, and the hospital rustled up, at one point, a nurse who spoke Russian to translate — but I gathered from this and that that the patient understood more than he let on. At one point, I had to sit by in foolish helplessness while he ate a meal that ought not to have been served him, because it foreclosed a procedure that required fasting. I remembered listening to the utterly brainless things that ECT patients would say when asked why, contrary to all orders, they had eaten breakfast before coming in for treatment. They would have to be sent home without it, of course. At the same time, I believe that the medical profession, considered en bloc, and not as a matter of individual technicians and doctors, often treats patients so callously that they have no humane option but to fight back, however impotently and self-destructively.


What with constant flights to the bathroom, it took a while to see all of Emmanuelle Bercot’s 2013 film, Elle s’en va, starring Catherine Deneuve. One has come to love the old Deneuve — and why not call her that, if she’s was all but seventy when she made the movie, and will turn 71 later this month? She has made the wise decision to get a bit plump, for this has preserved the soft beauty of her amazing face. She’s lovelier than ever, really, because she’s more human than ever. When she made films like Repulsion and Belle de Jour, she often looked as if she were made out of plastic, which suited the aesthetic of the Sixties but now looks pretty repellent. One has come to love the way Deneuve lets herself go, in movies like Place Vendôme and La Potiche. I’m happy to say, though, that she has outdone herself in Elle s’en va. Never has she played such a fundamentally ordinary woman. It’s true that Bettie, as her character is called, was a beauty-contest winner in her teens, rising to Miss Bretagne and favored for Miss France. But in this film, a pretty face is just a pretty face. Bettie herself has gotten very little out of her good looks. There’s a wonderful moment, early on, when, being flirted with by a young man barely a third her age, Bettie trembles with naked insecurity, as though, were she to take this fellow at his word, she be laughed out of the bar. (What is she doing in a bar, come to that?) Ordinarily, Deneuve trails something of the impassivity of the great diva that she is in real life, always capable of staring someone into giving her at least part of what she wants. That’s completely missing here, and it’s frightening. Even Deneuve is mortal! It’s as though we couldn’t be sure until now.

It goes without saying that the English title, On My Way, is completely wrong. Bettie hasn’t got a clue about what her way might be. If she’s entitled to the film’s mildly sentimental happy ending, that’s because she has come to terms with this cluelessness. The vagaries of life will probably do a better job of guiding her steps than the empty and hypocritical propriety that has dictated her life so far.

This is not to say that Elle s’en va entirely lacks the Deneuve magic. It certainly doesn’t. When Bettie’s grandson expresses shock at learning that Bettie lives in the house she grew up in, with her mother, he exclaims, “You have a mother?” Bien sûr, comes the answer. And why wouldn’t Catherine Deneuve, still very much the regina Cnidus Paphique, not have a living mother?

Gotham Diary:
Fair Share
7 October 2014

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

In Power and Civility, Norbert Elias tells the story of Louis VI (the Fat), who “ruled” what is now France from 1108 to 1137. In the manner of a bedtime tale, Elias simplifies his material. Louis has only one problem: clearing the road between his two urban centers, Paris and Orléans. In the middle, more or less, stands the fortress of Montlhéry. Louis’s father, Philip I, devoted his life to subduing this castle, enfeoffed by Robert I to a loyal servant whose descendents had their own ideas, but it is Louis who completes the task. Also, Louis has to overcome the nuisance of rival claims to power made by other families in the Orléans area. It’s a pretty modest story. The extent of Louis’s domain is pretty much limited to the Ile-de-France. But from his consolidated territory, modern France would grow, and the Capetian “kings” of Francia would indeed become the powerful kings of France, among which Louis figures as one of the first.

The story is quickly read. It is followed by a generalizing section on the “sociogenesis of monopoly formation.” This, I did not recall reading before, but my jaw dropped as I took it in, glancing through the book yesterday. True to his title, Elias really was setting forth a theory of power. Assuming a condition of free competition among many small, roughly equal parties, competition itself along with the vagaries of good and bad fortune affecting the individual competitors will naturally conduce to a trend in which stronger competitors vanquish weaker ones, and on and on until a top competitor emerges: the monopolist. For a while, this victor may do as he pleases, but he will soon discover that, in order to maintain his monopoly, he must do a few things to keep his new dependents happy. Eventually, the monopolist will become as fettered by obligations are the people who work for him — his loyal soldiers in the medieval example, his castellans, his cooks and bottle-washers, and even the womenfolk. In The  Court Society, Elias shows how the interdependence of various “ruling classes,” monolithic when seen from a distance but highly differentiated upon close inspection, eventually brings about an immovable arrangement in which no one’s power, not even the king’s, can be extended so much as an inch. All privilege has been claimed and solemnized. Such stasis quickly turns brittle, largely because political reality is never still, and privileged social structures with origins in defunct power structures cease to make political sense.

Thus we fly from Louis VI, trying to cobble a unified state out of a core province of France, to Louis XVI, who had no idea at all of how to adapt his throne to the bourgeois insurrection  that erupted in 1789. He was powerless to move it this way or that, and he himself rebelled in pious frustration when the Revolution went after the Church.

But Elias is way ahead of us. Having shown how the bourgeois Revolution preserved the royal monopoly on death and taxation and bestowed it on a series of more or less “democratic” governments in the name of the people, Elias reminds us, in case we’d forgotten our recent history, how, no sooner had the field been cleared of violence and extortion than the entire monopoly game started up again, only this time in commercial terms. In the course of a century, a field of small-time entrepreneurs was consolidated into the massive trusts forged by Rockefeller and Morgan. The “sociogenesis of monopoly strutures” persists in today’s business mantra: grow or die.

Since Elias wrote, however (Power and Civility, originally entitled State Formation and Civilization, appeared in German in 1939), the “monopolists” — the people who run big businesses — have developed a few new tricks that challenge Elias’s model. They have learned to avoid the direct employment of many of the workers who make their products or perform their services. They have learned to farm the actual work out to independent contractors, often in other countries. Keeping dependents happy is no longer, or not at the moment, a matter of much concern to these tycoons. There is a long-term problem here, however, because large corporations still hold the monopoly on jobs: that’s why so many Americans can’t find one. Let’s remember the role of “sociogenesis” here: these monopoly structures arise in a social setting. It is human beings who compete, not robots or “forces.” The structure works well only if every human being has a place in it. What happened in France was that power structures remained rooted in feudal concepts of warlike service, while the economic power of modern times was overlooked. The holders of economic power (as distinct from holders of wealth derived from economic power who were willing to trade their money for titles) had no place in the French power structure. The power structure itself, locked and immobile as we have seen it to be, could not make room for the economically powerful. The smash was inevitable.

Today’s unemployed are hardly possessed of economic power. But they retain enormous political power, should they wish to make use of it (and to learn how to do so). They also possess a terrifying mob power, should they come together in opposition to the massive inequalities in property holdings that inevitably flow from income inequality. We desperately need leaders who can shepherd the relatively disadvantaged away from anarchy and toward political reform. Even more, we need business leaders who can see beyond the next quarter. Above all, we need a revolution in our “business schools.”

Meanwhile, I’m fascinated — somewhere between fascinated and stunned — by the thought that the very social mechanisms that produced the modern nation state, with its core monopolies over violence and taxation, have also produced the array of large business organizations. No wonder the modern executive suite so closely resembles (in power distribution, not style) the old princely courts!


Elias’s work seems to stand for the proposition that competition is self-destructive, tending inevitably to create monopolies. We see the same pattern in tournaments. Wherever there is “a winner,” there is a monopoly, a single-handed control of something, even if it is only a trophy. This seems to be human nature. But a lot of undesirable outcomes can be described as “human nature.” Take crime passionnel, for example. The private settling of marital vendettas is no longer tolerated, and has become uncommon. The notion that men somehow own the bodies of their wives has been challenged to death. Human nature is not to be thought of us as bony hard tissue. There is a lot soft tissue in human nature as well.

Couldn’t it be that our inordinate interest in athletic playoffs betrays a longing to shunt winning and losing out of the everyday world, in order to make it easier for everyone to have a fair share?

Gotham Diary:
Packing China
6 October 2014

Monday, October 6th, 2014

For some reason, I find myself sunk this morning in a meditation on China. Why? Why not. China is almost always in the news, for some reason or other, and the serious lay periodicals, The New Yorker and the two Reviews of Books, pour forth a constant stream of commentary. The story in the foreground right now, at least so far as The New York Times is concerned, is the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. But when it passes (as it will), there will still be China’s antics in the South China Sea, the government’s attempt to control the Internet, or breakaway movements on the far fringes of a sovereignty that has traditionally sought to incorporate, and then eradicate, its opponents, instead of expelling them. (The banishment of individual members of the elite, also traditional, is quite something else.) The economic relationship between China and the United States, which is almost something new under the sun, has too many moving parts for anyone to understand, but perhaps it only seems that way because no one seems interested in learning from it.

Mostly, I think about how old China is, how continuously long-lived the idea of it. Who else goes back as far? Bear in mind that China is still, fundamentally, a “Confucian” civilization. China misreads the dickens out of Confucius when it suits, and periodically makes a great fuss about rejecting Confucius’s influence root and branch, but it is difficult to read a passage from the Analects and a recent Party pronouncement without discerning a strong authoritarian resemblance.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that “India” carries as much millennial baggage as China does, but India is a patchwork, a subcontinental unit only at the highest levels of organization — where educated people speak English as the common language. India remains culturally fractured by the intrusion of Islam six-odd centuries ago — that recently. I’m willing to concede that Indian civilization is as old as China’s. But it far more pluralistic and nowhere near so conceptually organized.

China has a way of changing with the times that ends up changing the times more than changing China. Periodic upheavals mark the history of China with a planetary regularity in the range of two to three hundred years. China collapses almost as a matter of course. Then it stands up, dusts itself off, and resumes being China — wearing, perhaps, a new kind of hat. Next to China, the nations of Western Europe are yesterday’s kittens, and the United States little more than an unproven and arguably crazy experiment. I don’t know how willing today’s Chinese are to acknowledge that they lost their lead in technology at about the time of the European Renaissance, but I doubt that they much care. As a traditional rather than an historically-minded people, they are happy to appropriate Western inventions and to make them their own. Dazzled by a belief in its own superiority, China has a hard time learning from others. This is where the occasional collapse comes in handy. Instead of a new hat, China might well emerge from one of its breakdowns carrying a new handheld device.

One thing that China is unlikely to learn is how not to be China, and yet this is the fondest dream of Western pundits. Well — the second-fondest dream. The fondest dream, which always makes me giggle, is that China will become a mass market for Western products, made either in the West or in China. This delusion fails to note that China is very, very good at filling its markets with Chinese products. China is not interested in imports. Well, who is? We call countries that are interested in imports “underdeveloped.” Everyone with a brain wants to export. And China, as every American has reason to rue, is a master exporter. The American dreamers who envision expanded markets for American goods are outnumbered by the American realists who are thinking of nothing but keeping costs down. China is there to help them.

Democracy in China is not to be ruled out — eventually, as Manuel says in Fawlty Towers — but without question it will be a Chinese version of democracy, one that probably disregards the Western touchstones of “free elections” and “free speech.” We ought to be taking a closer took at these touchstones ourselves. Our obsession with free elections has withered all other forms of citizen-based democratic action, and, quite astonishingly really, free speech has taken us to Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. If I could have one purely political wish, it would be that the West would stop trying to export democracy until it knows how to make it work at home, instead of dumbing down the standards and whiting a lot of sepulchers.


Over the weekend, I forced myself to go through a large tote bag full of old Christmas cards. These had been culled, along with post cards and a few letters, from earlier masses, but they needed culling again. Optimistically, I’d say that I discarded twice as much as I held onto. I spent about an hour at it on Saturday, but much more than that yesterday, and the longer session almost did me in. What’s more churning than a clutch of greetings from people who have entirely dropped out of one’s life?

As I went through what already seemed to be the relics of another life, I sensed two things very deeply. The first is that, since the death of her dear friend and Smith roommate, Julie Reynolds Shaw, nearly ten years ago, Kathleen has been in a kind of mourning for friendship itself. She keeps up with a handful or two of friends who have been determined not to let her slip away, but the initiative is rarely hers. More recently, in the wake of another partial loss, Kathleen expressed a bitter doubt that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Second, I understand more clearly than before that I grew up hoping to make the best of any social situation without expecting any return beyond the absence of grief and shame. Quite often, this meant simply keeping my head down, but even in more congenial situations I seem to have learned how to entertain, not how to befriend. I rarely ask people questions about themselves, for example, not because I’m indifferent, but because, in the world I grew up in, quite simple questions might easily be taken as impertinent, and the appearance of prying was to be assiduously avoided. Having just re-read Norbert Elias’s The Court Society, I’m more aware than ever that I grew up in the modern-day equivalent of old Versailles — the world of corporate executives.

This courtliness, in turn, made it very difficult for me to get to know intellectually-inclined people, and it gave them no interest at all in getting to know me. I thought that they were rude and rather tone-deaf about other people, which they certainly were, and they thought I was a vacuous preppie, which is what I had been brought up to look like. The number of intellectually sympathetic friendships that I have enjoyed in my life can be counted on one hand. An additional but accidental hamper, it is true, was the persistence, throughout the first half of my life, of Marxian leftism as the thinking person’s tic, with its accompanying dismissal of history and its artifacts. My own prejudices, while not at all politically conservative, ran in just the opposite direction. Only recently, and then thanks to Hannah Arendt, have I been willing to admit that Marx might not have been a completely woolly barbarian. And my preoccupation with understanding the history of the human world has become more insistent, as well as, I hope, more articulate.

Many of the cards that went into the discard pile reminded me that I’ve known a lot of bright people who “knew better” than to grow their brains for unremunerated pleasures.

Gotham Diary:
Evil? What about Indecency?
3 October 2014

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

There’s an editorial in today’s Times about the the moral horror of ISIS, and, on the facing page, a column by David Brooks about the futility of pragmatism. Both pieces exhort readers to feel passionately engaged in the struggle against evil in the world. This is not time for liberal aloofness and impartiality, or for taking the time to see both sides — so goes this latest variation on one of the oldest themes in human history, older than the Hebrew Bible, in which, among many other dreadful things, you can still read about the ISIS-like conduct of Joshua’s armies in Canaan. As far as I can tell, appeals to combat evil have always fallen on deaf ears until it is “too late,” or almost.

Which makes you wonder: is there something defective about the concept of evil?

I’m agnostic about the existence of evil. I don’t doubt the existence of malignity, but, unlike evil, malignity can be almost always be explained, and could presumably be explained in every instance if we knew more about the nature of things. We must certainly respond firmly to malign acts and intentions, but we must also acknowledge that, in the ordinary course of affairs, malignity is uncommon. Only a small fraction of those who are convicted of drug offenses, I am quite sure, could be charged with the desire to inflict harm, as distinct from the willingness to do whatever it takes (but no more than that) in the pursuit of a criminal course of action.

Call me naive, but I see something in our midst that is at least as bad as evil is cracked up to be, and that is indecency — the failure to treat our neighbors, including the strangers among them, according to our sense of right and wrong. What’s more, I don’t understood how evil, whatever it is, can spread throughout a society without countless individual failures of decency, lapses of individual moral integrity. Whether the Hitlers of the world are dismissed as nut cases (as Hitler himself initially was) or brought to power depends, at least in our modern democracies, on the decisions of countless men and women. Our own United States has been eaten alive by the indecency of legions of bankers and traders, men and women (but largely men) who, in the course of financializing everything over the past thirty years, have replaced principles with values, and paid top dollar to prioritize their own highly liquid values. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been reduced to stunted economic conditions as a result. The talking heads who attribute this shift to technological change and the need for better-educated workers carry their indecency to levels that I am happy to decry as wicked.

If you can read this, then it is indecent of you not to be aware of the specific perniciousness to which so-called private-equity operations are prone. Human nature is extremely conservative: we still expect raping and pillaging to be accompanied by bloodshed, and tend not to notice it when all we see are balance sheets. But financialization is raping and pillaging all the same, and you would see that quite clearly if you looked into the matter, and never forgot that the pricelessness of each human life means that it can have no negotiable value at all.

Then we might discuss what to do about it — if only. The gravest indecency of modern society is its structural preference for judgments arrived at by individuals in purely private and independent terms. As a result, we have lost the skill of civil discourse,  which is all too easily ruined by narcissistic bores whom no one can be bothered to shout down. We have lost the knack for qualifying the difference between intelligent positions and stupid ones. We have abandoned political life to moral zombies whose only ambition is to maintain and increase personal power.

The indecency of television, coupled with the indecency of indiscriminately watching it (by which I mean to include the watching of advertisements of any kind), is simply beyond comment. There are many things in our society that need to be worked on and brought back to repair, but of television the decent man can only say, Stop watching. Now.

When I was a boy, nobody would have used the word “indecency” as broadly as I have used it here; indecency meant pretty much one thing. But the word is available for repurposing precisely because it has fallen out of civil discourse, knocked down by the long-swelling onslaught of depravity of widespread personal immodesty. Is depravity evil? I don’t see the need for the question.  Depravity, which is the willingness to perform inhuman acts in order to indulge a weakness for physical pleasure or for money, is quite bad enough as it is. In a current video campaign, attractive young people tease viewers by lowering zippers and otherwise seeming to disrobe. It is not the teasing that is so bad; it is, rather, the commercial, mediated setting. The viewer will never enjoy the company of these models, but it is suggested that the purchase of advertized products might cure that defect. It is grossly indecent not to be offended by such a marketing campaign, on one’s own behalf no less than for the sake of children who ought to be protected from such images.

When Hitler was coming to power, there were plenty of observers who declared that he must be stopped. But their attempt to demonize him as evil was almost completely ineffective. Had Winston Churchill not been on the scene in 1940, it is likely that England would have capitulated to Naziism just as France had done. Was it evil of France to yield? Charles DeGaulle does not appear to have tied himself up trying to answer that question. But it was certainly indecent. The greatness of Churchill and DeGaulle inhered in their ruthless, ironbound decency. They had to be heroes, too, of course, but they were driven not by virtue but by the common sense of right and wrong that is the essence of decency.

We ought to have the common decency to work on righting wrongs at home before charging distant enemies with evil. I can think of no more powerful way to recommend the principles of liberal democracy to the rest of the world.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
2 October 2014

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

As we were coming home from Ocean Beach in August, I said, semi-jocularly, “I wonder what will happen this year. Something always happens after Fire Island.” There was a hurricane one year, and then the dishwasher motor broke the following September, and, last year, Will and his parents moved to California. We saw that one coming, of course, but we didn’t know how it would hit. The winter that followed made an old man of me.

So much has happened this fall that I feel as though I’ve spent a few weeks in a large tumble dryer. There is still much to happen: next month, we leave this apartment, after thirty-one years. I have a good idea where we’ll be going, but I’m too superstitious to go into details here. That can wait until it’s all over. Meanwhile, though, my head is something of a beehive.

I came to a momentous decision the other day: I’m not going to try to maintain a computer catalogue of my library anymore. I suddenly saw that it was more trouble than it was worth, and that a far better way of library management is to reduce the size of the library. By at least half. That sounds radical, I know, but the clarity which with the new rule of thumb has emerged is even more convincing than it is surprising. Very simply, it’s time to let go of merely aspirational books. How to tell? Tick one:

  • I’d like to learn something about that someday.
  • I’d like to learn more about that,  sooner rather than later.

Books described by the first statement must go. So must most curiosities. Example? A (cheap) facsimile edition of Mrs Beeton’s tome on household management. Very amusing, in its way; then again, not. It’s amusing until you read a bit of it, and then you begin to gasp for air. The heavy fustian of Victorian respectability (at bargain prices) blocks out all light and air. The heavy dinners! The dodgy servants! The dark, over-upholstered rooms! I’m glad to have spent some time with the book over the years, and I’m not sorry that I owned it, but it’s of no further use to me. My household management problems are beyond Mrs Beeton’s imagining.

Speaking of upholstery, I am not sorry to be saying goodbye to the draperies in the living room. They were always slightly ostentatious (“window treatments”), and now they are pretty dirty. Dirt may in fact what is holding them together. That’s what happens when you live in a place for decades on end. The services that used to come and take such things away for cleaning are fewer and farther between, and it is much more difficult to get them in and out of the building. (Homeland Security at home.) Much better to buy reasonably-priced ready-mades, and replace them after a few years. Fabric is not forever. Slipcovers are your friend. Although, now I think of it, the gent who made the newest slipcovers that we have was so old that, although still expert at his craft, he had to be guided to and from the apartment by one of his sons, a middle-aged man who was not otherwise going to follow in his father’s footsteps.

We used to look down our noses at white walls. There hasn’t been a white wall in this apartment since we moved in. Even the ceilings are painted light shades of the color on the walls — they look white, but aren’t. I have enjoyed the colors of this apartment very much. But it is time to settle for ease and convenience. And light. The blue room is actually very dark, which is charming by night, but not so much by day.

Everything in the apartments that we’ve looked at is so new and clean! How I look forward to using a spacious kitchen — complete with window — that does not suggest the slightly updated corner of some very dingy apartment photographed over a century ago by Eugène Atget. I’m mildly astonished, and have been for some time, than anyone who has ever seen it was willing to sit down at the dining table and eat, as it were, from it.

I know that friends will look back and say, “That was such a great apartment!” I’ll nod, perhaps a bit absently, trying not to think of the gyres of dust, or the ingrained filth of the parquet floors peeping up between the carpets. Some people say that this apartment is “cozy.” Others, less sentimental, pronounce it “cluttered.” Even though everything has its place and there are no unsightly piles of newspapers and magazines or battalions of knick-knacks, there is still too far much stuff. Surfaces tend to sprout objects, usually quite useless objects. The solution is not to have emptier tables, but fewer tables.

When I was in my forties, I formulated my design scheme as that of an exiled landowner who had managed to take only a few of the best things with him — enough, say, for only one ballroom. My new design scheme is somewhat simpler: Assisted Living. Something tells me that the new apartment will fall short of this ideal, or, rather, much, much further.


I don’t know how many times I’ve consulted my internist since I got out of the hospital last month, but in all our conversations I completely forgot to mention that I needed a new prescription for my sleeping tablets. I didn’t  mention it because I failed to check the number of refills on the label. The other day, I discovered that the number of refills was “No.” No refills. I called the internist’s office yesterday and asked that the prescription be held for to pick it up today. No problem, I’m happy to say. I took a taxi to the doctor’s office, and walked home, via my favorite restaurant for club sandwiches midway. I used to indulge in a Manhattan or two whenever I had lunch there, but those days are over. I like the way my clothes are falling off me and would like to continue in the same direction. Liquor is of course no good for anybody, beyond that sacred daily glass of red wine that I never drink, but abstinence is the last thing on my mind. It’s my weight that I want to bring down, almost as earnestly as I want to slim my library. I’ve already been watering the plonk that I drink out of a box (one part water to four parts wine) for several months, and, to tell you the truth, I can’t tell the difference, except, on rare occasions, the next morning.

I embrace the lesson that I learned, in adverse circumstances, at the hospital: I now live a very quiet life. I think that I have put my adolescence entirely behind me. It’s always hard to tell, in this country.

Skeptical Note:
One Reality Fits All
1 October 2014

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Norbert Elias, The Court Society (1984):

On this level of self-consciousness where people, when thinking about their thought processes, can already detach themselves enough from these processes to perceive objects as something independent of themselves, and especially from their affects, and in this sense as autonomous, but where they cannot yet distance themselves sufficiently from themselves and their own thought processes to include the structure of this distancing as itself a basic element in their conception of the subject-object relationship, such questions are ultimately insoluble. (254)

“Such questions” include the doubts, familiar since the time of Descartes, about the reality of everything outside the mind. All of modern skeptical philosophy, in short, together with the bone-chilling alienation that has afflicted artists and intellectuals for more than two hundred years.

Norbert Elias was a German sociologist who believed something very unusual: that human consciousness is altered by changes in social structures. The passage that I’ve quoted, which, I admit, is not the easiest reading in the world, is embedded in Elias’s discussion of the internalization of social imperatives — learning to do the proper thing without being told to do it, a process sometimes called “socialization” — that swept through European elites in the wake of Renaissance state-formation and the convulsions of the  Reformation, and that has since become unconsciously familiar to most inhabitants of the nations of Europe, North America, and other European outposts.

Prior to the “distancing” that set in with the Renaissance — more about that in a minute — human beings naively projected their feelings about things directly onto those things. If you disliked something, it must be bad (or, if the something in question were virtuous, you must be mad). Behavior was generally spontaneous, as we can see in the records from Genesis and Homer to Livy and Suetonius,  even to Augustine, and beyond, into the medieval legends of warrior knights. After the Renaissance, men and women, at least those with much to lose, learned to play their cards closer to their chests, and violence gave way to disputation. A friendly courtier might have ulterior motives — indeed, he almost certainly did. Low-grade suspicion became the hallmark of intelligence. The new scientists taught the same lesson on a cosmic plane: the sun did not, as it appeared to do, revolve around the earth. On the contrary!

What Elias is writing about in the quoted passage is the stage in the development of human consciousness (now quite tediously familiar to one and all) in which it is generally understood that things are not always what they seem to be — but in which it is not understood, generally or otherwise, is that the apparent abyss that opens up when I regard the world with skepticism, the distance between my closed-up mind, locked in its skull, and what is really going on in the world, that this structural hiatus is itself no more actual than my impressions of the world. It is a statement about me, not about how things are; it is the condition of my consciousness. Unaware that this is the case — unaware that my alienation from the world is a feature not of the world or of its reality but only of my consciousness — I labor in vain to distinguish the true from the misleadingly apparent. If I’m really rigorous, I retreat to Descartes’s tiny corner, and confess that I know no more than that I am conscious. The rest I leave, as Descartes did, up to God, who may not exist but who better had.

There are signs, fugitive enough, that David Hume was one of the first men to reach the next step of consciousness, in which skepticism itself is understood to be a phenomenon like any other, and not a marker of some essential difference between ourselves and everything else. For we learn, in this new stage, that we are in fact, just like everything else, not always what we seem to be. Secrets aside, we don’t really understand ourselves, in any natural way, any better than we understand anything else. This is the relentless trumpet flourish of the cognitive revolution. Daniel Kahneman is here to tell us that most of our “reasonable” conclusions about things are actually irrational, that the premises from which we reason are not axioms and fundamental truths but dogs’ breakfasts of prejudices and misinformation. We now understand socialization to be not the tyrannical oppression of the natural, unspoiled self but the self-discipline necessary to ensure a minimum of social cooperation and to prevent the collapse into anarchy, than which there is no greater human horror.

Well, some of us understand this. It can’t be denied that many ostensibly educated people remain locked in the conundrum that Elias describes in the passage above. Permit me to try a more colloquial rendering:

The undertaking to distinguish truth from “mere appearance” is doomed to vanity so long as the faculty of judgment is believed to occupy a different plane of reality from that of the things being judged. Judgment is no more (and no less) real than a tree or a rainbow or a lover’s smile. We are still obliged to make judgments, but we must be aware that we have no special, privileged toolkit for judgment. Everything comes down to experience and practice. Nothing is for sure, but experience and practice tend to lead us toward the more likely.


Don’t ask me why, but I hear the scurrying of mice in the background — the vermin of something called relativism. Relativism, to hear people talk of it, is a failing that only other people are afflicted by. The critic who denounces relativism knows better (says he or she). What is relativism? It is the delusion, which quickly follows the loss of respect for the absolute truth of some revelation or other, that the good and evil in things is a relative matter that depends on the circumstances. For example, a relativist might hold  that it is not as bad for a starving man to steal a crust of bread as it is for an accountant to indulge in a course of insider trading. A relativist might even believe that it is perfectly okay for the poor man to steal the crust of bread! Absolutists know better. They know — doesn’t it say so in Scripture? — that it is right for the poor to suffer on earth and await their heavenly reward. Absolutists of certain denominations also know that some superior people are entitled to an earthly reward as well, and that their property interest in this reward is sacred, not to be interfered with by the state or by the less fortunate.

Absolutists are not skeptics, of course, but they share the skeptic’s eagerness to distinguish the truth from the merely plausible amidst the complications of mortal reality — from which they are, however, just as cut off, “distanced,” as the toughest skeptic.