Archive for February, 2015

Labor Relations Note:
Hot and Cold
27 February 2015

Friday, February 27th, 2015

There are too many books in the pile beside my reading chair. I’m not keen on any of them, but I’m also by no means disposed to relegate any to the limbo of lectio interrupta. At times like this, I choose the book that I’m likeliest to get through quickly and then hunker down, not to be distracted. At the moment, that book is Lee Standiford’s book about the Homestead Strike of 1892, Meet You In Hell. (It masquerades as a book about Carnegie and Frick.) I stayed up rather late last night, almost thrilled by Standiford’s harum-scarum account of the deadly but somewhat farcical intervention of the Pinkerton men, and drawing solace from the evidence that American humbug, which is all our political class has to offer these days, has at least the patina of a venerable tradition.

During the strike, the argument was made more than once that, just as Carnegie and Frick had property rights in their steel mill, so the workers had rights in, or to, their jobs. I want to agree with this, but I can’t. Jobs are too evanescent, at least in the long term. They come out of nowhere, and then they disappear, usually long before the people doing them stop collecting paychecks. Perhaps this will not always be the case; perhaps we will settle into economic patterns as unchanging as those that governed the European peasantry until the late Eighteenth Century. But we are in no position at the moment to try to identify the jobs that will always be with us.

The steelworker’s job, in the 1890s, whether skilled or unskilled, was not likely to be pleasant or healthy. Strong men were used up before they reached fifty. Talking about the right to have such a job sounds rather like insisting upon a good seat in hell. Men spent their own lives, literally, so that their wives and children would eat and perhaps prosper. The luckier children would push through the education barrier and never have to worry about manual labor. Everything about steelmaking in those days screamed short term. The mills themselves, huge and capital-intensive as they were, were constantly remodeled, and even replaced entirely, to accommodate changes in the market and in technology. Steel manufacture today bears little resemblance to Frick’s operation — so little, in fact, that the only common element may be the production of steel. Workers are immensely more productive — business-speak for expressing the fact that you can do the job with far fewer of them.

Always remember that the capitalist’s ideal number of employees is zero. Two things tend to happen when capitalists reduce their workforce, but these two things have an unsteady  relationship. Sometimes, the price of the product goes down. More often, the profits realized by the capitalist go up. Lower prices have always been thought to be a prima facie good. but the low price of gasoline at the moment is leading a lot of observers to question that assumption. It seems to me that the ideal price is “affordable.” That is, the people who need the product can pay for it without making unseemly sacrifices. Need is a key part of this calculation. Nobody needs a very large hi-def screen. (Quite the reverse, it may well be.) People need transportation; they do not need particular vehicles. Affordable health care is far more important. So is healthy food, something that is now available only to the affluent. And to get back to cars for a moment: the price of the automobile is socially negligible. Socially salient are all the other costs of operating a private vehicle: maintenance, insurance, and parking. We think too much about stuff. What if all the stuff that we needed were just given to us, but we remained responsible for all the upkeep. This is a serious vision: in the ideal economy, everything would be capable of updates and upgrades (rather than”repairs”), and nothing would need to be replaced. The ideal economy would be less mechanical and more organic.

“Affordable” is one of those concepts that defy definition while being instantly recognizable in everyday experience. Ideally, everyone can have a job paying a wage that makes a secure and healthy life, with something left over for discretionary fun, affordable. I’ll take that one step further: a good definition of the humane life is the affordable life. Anything less is stunting and wrong. Which is not to say that lives lived below the threshold of affordability are the result of anybody’s fault. But because of the entrepreneurial origins of even our most stolid utilities, we still put profits first, because that is how new businesses not so much flourish as just plain survive. As new businesses, that is.

I do believe that, if a job needs doing, then the incumbent who is doing it satisfactorily has a better right to continue doing it than a less expensive worker has to take it over. Has there been research, philosophical or otherwise, into how much profit ought to go to workers? It seems to me that this rate would be a figure that shifted with time. At the beginning of an enterprise, workers might quite fairly be ill-paid, or even asked to work for free (ie “equity,” which may well turn out to be a big piece of nothing). In a new business, it is typically necessary to plow most revenues into the enlargement and enhancement of operations. But as dividends rise — and by “dividends” I mean not just (re-)payments to investors but the “salaries” and “bonuses” of upper management as well — as the puddle of money that is not required to improve the business gets bigger, so, it seems, should the worker’s wages, and very much in some sort of proportion. Ultimately, capitalists ought to disappear from businesses entirely, replaced by credentialed, professional managers who have no interest in profits at all. Ultimately, a business is run as a social utility, committed to providing useful products or services at affordable prices (meaning prices that support affordable wages) while not harming the environment. That is where the Industrial Revolution ought to take us.

I’ll have a rather different report to file when I finish reading Standiford’s book. It’s not my sort of thing at all, but I couldn’t resist buying it at the Frick Collection gift shop. O the irony! For Henry Clay Frick was not himself a humbug. He was rather a very cool customer who knew how to exploit everyone else’s willingness to be one. An honest devil, really: “Meet you in hell” was his reply to Carnegie’s request for a deathbed reconciliation.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Hung Up
26 February 2015

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Ray Soleil came up after work last night and hung pictures on the last empty wall — the vertical sliver, a little more than two feet wide, behind the bookroom door. As I rarely close this door, even I will rarely see the pictures, but they’re safe, hanging neatly as they’re meant to do, and not slumped in a stack behind a sofa or voluminously wrapped up at the back of a closet. Now: to deal with the pictures that won’t be appearing on these new walls.

Three are handsome photographs from Jen Bekman, handsomely framed for the gallery in the old apartment. That they worked well in the old apartment is but a clear sign of the subtle disorganization that reigned in those rooms — the disorganization of accretion. Over thirty years, Kathleen and I acquired a lot of things, one at a time, and fit them in with what was already there. Every now and then, I would take apart the corner of a room and put it back together more coherently. Five years go, I even had the old foyer and the corridor leading to the blue room repainted — the corridor became the “gallery.” But although I was often moving things around, I was never moving everything around. In the bedroom, there was on one wall a crazy pavé of pictures large and small, most of them placed to hide the nail holes from earlier decorating schemes. There was a similar patch in the blue room as well.

The move, hellish as it often was, gave me the chance to re-place everything, and what couldn’t be placed was gotten rid of. The Bekman photographs — a pair of quietly arty shots of a pond in different weathers, and a long shot of a swimming hole in California, taken by somebody else — don’t work in this apartment because they’re not quite interesting enough to fit in any of them rooms, where pictures have been grouped with great deliberation. As to the long entry corridor, I have made it a very different kind of gallery, a miscellany of graphic images of all sizes, all of them important to me, and all of them requiring a close view. This is not the space for dreamy nature photography, to be seen at a distance. That three rather lovely pictures didn’t find a place down here, out of the dozens and dozens that did, is really no cause for regret. I’ll take them Housing Works and hope that they’ll find nice homes.

That leaves two groups of rejecta. There are pictures that have been used up. In one case, literally: it’s a print of that painting in Rome that is the centerpiece of Sacred Heart iconography. I can never remember its name (it’s a picture of the BVM), but it was given to Kathleen when she was a girl, and it is now almost unintelligibly faded, to shades of gold and cream. Then there is the “Bodley Plate” graphic of the principal buildings at Williamsburg, together with sketches of flora and fauna; copies of this eighteenth-century illustration are sold by Colonial Williamsburg, mounted in good-looking plastic frames. I had it in my bathroom for years, and I’d probably hang it in my bathroom down here, if that were possible, but it isn’t, because the tile goes almost all the way up to the ceiling. I have perhaps had my fill of the Bodley Plate. Then there’s the oval frame.

The oval frame, made out of a dark wood that I used to assume to be mahogany, is Victorian, about eight by ten, and pleasingly turned. Four ogival ridges surround the picture plane, rising to a crest about an inch above it. From this crest, four deeper ogival folds descend to the outer edge of the frame. I bought the frame a very long time ago, during one of my summer jobs on Wall Street. The shop that I bought it in was at the basement of one of the twin buildings that flank Thames street, just above Trinity Church. I recall a musty room with the air of an abandoned curiosity shop. I don’t know why I bought the frame, exactly, but I’m sure that I meant to replace the image that it came with (as frames always do), a bland botanical, no doubt cut from a rectangular page, showing a plant with small, pale yellow orchidy blooms, and leaves like Italian parsley. I’m familiar with the image, because I never did get round to finding something else to put in the frame. I’m reluctant to get rid of the frame, precisely because of the senselessness with which I’ve held on to it all these years. I feel bound to keep holding on to it, until it finally tells me the secret that it was always meant to impart. Perhaps it is telling me that message right now (it’s a lesson that I have really, seriously learned): don’t buy things just to buy things.

The final group is made up of gifts, many of them given to us in their nice frames! I review the pictures that are hanging on the walls. There are a few items of inheritance, but gifts? Here’s a little paper sculpture, showing a vine against a lattice. Kathleen, to whom it was given, was surprised to see it up on the corridor wall: “This isn’t very interesting.” (I disagree.) There is the two-page storyboard for an AT&T ad that a friend then at Young & Rubicam gave me — signed by the creatives — when I told him that I’d seen this ad on a plane and really liked it. That’s also in the corridor. There is a lithograph in the dining ell, showing a “woodie” — an old cabin cruiser — tied up on the Thames River at Mystic. It might be a gift, but it might also be a purchase, as we were taken to visit the artist, right aboard that boat, one day long ago. I’d like to think that it was a gift, because then I wouldn’t feel so bad about disposing of another picture, a gift for sure this time, from the same friend. Finally, there is the striking photograph of what turns out to be the Budapest Opera House, now finally hung for maximum visual effect. A friend of mine ran it on his blog and I asked him if I could download it. Permission granted, I had the print made myself. And then I had it framed. The extent to which this photograph is a gift, and not something that I paid for with a peppercorn, seems largely technical; certainly it lacked the element of surprise.

In the old apartment, I tended to hang anything that was presentable. Down here, you would never know how riotously we used to live. I sometimes feel that an art director has set up the apartment for a biopic. But whose? I’d like to think that it’s about a person I’ve yet to become.

Aesthetic Note:
The Design of Modern Machines
25 February 2015

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Last night, I read Ian Parker’s profile of Sir Jonathan Ive, in the current issue of The New Yorker. Ive wears his knighthood lightly enough to be known either by his last name or by “Jony” — surely “Jonny” would have been preferable? He is in charge of design at Apple, which makes him a very important person indeed, the fons et origo, now that Steve Jobs is gone, of Apple’s spectacular valuation. I had never heard of him.

In the accompanying photograph of half of Ive’s stubbly face, the designer vaguely resembles a friend of mine, and I had great fun imagining my friend in Ive’s shoes, or, more exactly, in the back of his luxurious Bentley, sighing “Oh, my God” when learning that a colleague drives a Camry. My friend, you see, reads Monocle. He still reads Monocle. In case you haven’t seen it, Monocle serves readers who believe that the key to paradise will be turned when everyone is finally drinking perfectly-brewed espresso from the perfect teacup. My friend does not believe this, but I think he would like to.

The usual New Yorker profile ends by leaving you feeling that you know all that you want to know, thank you very much, about the subject. Not so this one. It is possible that Ive has learned something from aesthetes of the past: talking about your refined sensibilities makes you look ridiculous. So he will not tell us what books he reads or what movies he watches. What is it like to see the world as he does? He can’t say. He can’t say more than that talking about how he feels is very hard for him. So we cannot linger over the person of Sir Jonathan Ive, much as Parker’s persistent buzz tries to hold our attention. We drift over Ive’s smooth, understated edges (stubble notwithstanding — another puzzle) and on to the consideration of excellent design, which, as everyone knows, is what makes Apple products so desirable.

Aside from my iPhone, which I bought in order to be able to have FaceTime chats with my daughter and her family when they moved to San Francisco, and a clutch of iPods, I own no Apple products. I gave my iPad to my grandson when he left town — and I had already given him one when iPads first appeared. To me, the design of an Apple product — and I’m talking about the way it works now, not what it looks like — is repellent. It reminds me of the French, whom I do not find repellent at all, because their conviction that there is one right way to do everything is the product of generations of trial and error. Apple’s convictions in this regard must obviously spring from a much shallower well of experience, and in fact Apple’s operating conventions strike me as having very little experience behind them at all. Perhaps it would be better to say that they reflect the rather narrow experience of very intelligent men who happen to be fascinated by the machinery of automobiles.

Sir Jonathan comes by his wizardry as naturally as possible: his great- and grandfather were precision metal workers, and his father a teacher of engineering. He was a prodigy in his youth; Apple snapped him up about twenty years ago. He would have left Cupertino not long afterward, but then Steve Jobs came back to head the company, and he and Ive clicked as few colleagues have clicked in this sublunary world.

The profile, in case you were wondering why The New Yorker was given access to Apple designers who have never spoken to journalists before, appears to be occasioned by the impending release of the Apple Watch. This will be the first big post-Jobs release, and without Jobs’ dark-side charisma to introduce it, Tim Cook is being resourceful.


I have only two things to say about design. First, nothing really good-looking has appeared since 1939. Second, I have never adopted the modernist belief that there is virtue — or even interest — in a machine’s good looks. Not being a spiritual person to begin with, I am not uplifted by the shine and swell of a piece of metal. The only emotional effects that appliances can have on me are negative. An ugly thing is regrettable, certainly; but as the ugliness is corrected and made to disappear, so does the object itself. My ideal machine does its job somewhere out of sight. Machines that we have to use — computers, stand mixers — ought to be stowed out of sight when we’re not using them.

Do I hate machines? No. But I know how dangerous they are. Their speed, their regularity, their reliability, their sheer obedience — these can be intoxicating characteristics, in comparison with which human beings might well be dismissed as, well, very poorly designed. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there have been movements aplenty to reduce human beings to bits of machinery. We seem to have been unable to design workplaces for human beings — to conceive of the display and exercise of responsibility in non-mechanical terms. Although we understand that a great team, in any line of endeavor, is a collaborative commitment of variously-gifted people, we treat larger, more stratified groups as so much undifferentiated mass, incapable of self-direction; and we punish the human beings who stick out from it (ie, the variously-gifted).

The modern machine is an appliance that helps us to do things that are difficult, dangerous, or simply impossible by merely human means. We have not been living with modern machines for very long, roughly two and a half centuries. Until very recently, our response to the modern machine was the unreflective impulse to be wowed. Critical understanding does not go very far back. Only in my lifetime, for example, have numbers of human beings awoken to the possibility that our way of using modern machinery is endangering, and might even destroy, our planet’s ability to sustain life. (And of course the immediate response to that has been a splashing, unhelpful panic.) Meanwhile, there are more cars than ever, and if the ads that were shown during the Academy Awards presentation the other night are any indication, heaven on earth may be at hand as soon as cars come equipped with their very own drones, filming you from above while you drive along mountain highways. (The heaven part comes in when you drive off a cliff because you couldn’t take your eyes off the little movie of your own car being driven by you.) The idea that well-designed machines are endowed with salvific potency is very much with us.

But do think about it. Every time you make use of some cool gadget, are you hoping to be more of a machine yourself? If so, my counsel is: give it up. It never works. You’ll never work. Not like that gadget.

Gotham Diary:
Not Intellectual
24 February 2015

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Il y a quelques jours, il me semblait que je … que j’oops! En anglais, s’il vous plaît! Quelques jours se sont passés depuis qu’on a pris une verre avec le prof!

A few days ago, it struck me that I am now old enough to read about Karl Marx — to read a biography, that is. Among the giggles, I hear gasps of dismay from those who shudder to recall last year’s apparent infatuation with Hannah Arendt. I shouldn’t worry about my falling in love with Marx and his ideas. I’m certain that I’ll find in Marx an interesting critic of his own times (and what interesting times they were!) but an almost lunatic visionary when it came to the future (it is difficult to make forecasts in interesting times). The inevitabilities that Marx foresaw have become not only implausible but unimaginable. That is, you can share Marx’s visions only to the extent that you can overlook what you know, or ought to know, about human nature.

Nevertheless, Marx was on the ground in the white water of the Industrial Revolution, a passionate observer of the metamorphosis of just about everything by the entrepreneurial power of capital, a transformation unlike any seen before, and never to be repeated unless everything is forgotten. That’s why he intrigues me: I’d like to know more about what he thought he saw. And that’s what I mean when I say that I am old enough to read about Marx — perhaps even to read what he himself wrote. The old, overarching antagonism is dead. We no longer live on a pole between Bourgeois and Bolshevik. Personal property is no longer the issue that it was when few people had very much of it. No, our fault line runs very differently: between the cosmopolitan and the orthodox.

Which makes relatively recent history difficult to understand. I’m talking about the days of my youth. This came up yesterday, when I wrote about my refusal to to attend the premiere of The Sound of Music. The mere consideration of that episode unleashed the vivid memory of a whirlwind of arguments and contentions that blasted me whenever I tried to distinguish right from wrong. There was, of course, the right and wrong of my parents’ understanding. But there was another, very different standard, according to which my parents’ way of life was corrupt, incoherent, self-deluding, and very bad for the health of society — at least insofar as society itself was not condemned as a criminal enterprise. It would be wrong, very wrong, to associate this upsetting standard very closely with Marxism; it owed much more, as I would learn later, to Nietzsche and the intellectuals — among whom John Carey, quite rightly in my view, puts Adolf Hitler. And trust me: the middle classes, c 1960, were not a pretty sight. They were still immured in Balzacian anxieties about status and respectability. There was still the paralyzing dread of vulgarity — which was nothing other than the fear that one’s origins would be found out to be (as indeed they were) common.

Almost immediately, first American, then European, and finally global civilization experienced one of those origami folds that reassesses everything. Suddenly, there was nothing to fear about being middle class, because everybody who could afford the minimal accoutrements was middle class, and just as middle class as anybody else. There is no such thing as “common” anymore. That concept is defunct. The only alternative to middle class today is poor, and very few people really believe that poverty reflects a want of virtue. Billionaires, meanwhile, are just middle class folks with too much money.

But that’s now. When I was growing up, as I say, the middle class was still producing intellectuals. Before I continue, has anyone out there north of thirty-five noticed that intellectuals have disappeared? (There is something today called the “public intellectual,” but I believe that that’s quite different.) The intellectual was not necessarily a very smart person who knew a lot about the world, but often, au contraire, an ideologue, someone who had crammed a lot of more or less indigestible systematic thinking into his brain. And, as John Carey has taught us, the intellectual was usually as horrified by his bourgeois origins as his parents were by their common antecedents. As a result, the intellectual spouted frenzies of bad faith. There was the bad faith of the bourgeoisie, but there was also the bad faith of his own pretense that he was cut from some superior cloth, that by dedicating his intelligence to the cultivation of conceptual ideas he was purifying himself of his upholstered upbringing.

It’s hard to believe that intellectuals used to be so obnoxious — but, worse than that, they were, like all ideologues, exhaustive, orthodox. They alone knew what was really right, and everyone else (in America, anyway) was a fraud.

I’m going through all of this because I want to make it clear that my dismissal of The Sound of Music, yesterday, was in no way doctrinaire. The movie was fake, all right, but not because it exploited workers or constituted capitalist propaganda. No. The Sound of Music was, like so many artifacts of that artistically neutered decade, sheer junk.

I was accused of aristocratic sympathies in those days, and I should have been happy to acknowledge them, had I not understood, especially as an adopted child, that there is nothing elective about Western aristocracy. Once upon a time, there might have been, maybe (one always thinks of William Marshall), but for hundreds of years the only way for an outsider to penetrate the aristocracy has been in the person of his offspring, with an accent on great- or great-great-grandchildren. After a few generations, your commonness washes out like a bad dye. But your yourself do not, by virtue of your aristocratic sympathies, become a member of the aristocracy — ever. A class — moreover! — which does not exist in the United States. Where were my aristocratic sympathies going to get me?

Well, they did get me this: I was no longer a target of Marxism. Marxism, like Barbara Bush, had done with me. As a putative aristocrat, I could settle down comfortably with my true character, which was, just like everyone else’s, totally bourgeois.

It will not surprise the regular reader to hear that I am re-reading, painstakingly this time, Georges Duby’s study of The Three Orders.

Gotham Note:
I Can Tell
23 February 2015

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

How nice it is, to wake up without any shards of cold-syrup hangover lodged lingeringly in my brain. I judged, before going to bed, that I should be able to breathe through the night without the aid of turquoise tonic, and, for the first night in four, I fell back on the regular pill. I was asleep soon enough — relative to the time of swallowing it, that is. It was nonetheless awfully late.

People don’t believe us when we say that we don’t watch television — except for the Academy Awards, but it’s true. (Although I do mean to watch more TV5 in future, surely that won’t count as watching television until my fluency in French is complete?) It was terribly true in this year’s case. I had gone nowhere near the new cable setup since it was installed one night in November. As a good housekeeper, I should have made sure that I knew how to work it before the Oscars rolled around, preferably a visit from Tech God JM. But there were always plenty of other things to worry about, and, besides, I didn’t think I was interested in seeing this year’s show. I hadn’t been going to the movies very often, and there wasn’t anybody that I was keen to see win. (Or so I thought.) So I waited until five o’clock, yesterday afternoon, to see what would happen when I turned things on.

At first, not much. No signal, said the screen. After a bit of scrambling, I learned the the “Input” is not what it was upstairs, because our signal has been upgraded to HD. Having got a picture, however, I couldn’t get sound. Eventually, I turned the screen around to check its inputs. They seemed to be fine. As I was putting the screen back in place, it slipped out of my hands and dropped onto its supports, shutting off in the process. Great, I thought; now I’ve broken it. But when I turned it back on, the sound came on with it. You tell me.

I found WABC, adjusted the volume, and wondered what to do next. I didn’t dare shut anything off, now that I had it just the way I wanted it. So I muted the sound. Every now and then, during the next three hours, I would drift into the living room to undo the mute, and be relieved when sound came up to match the picture. Then I would mute it again. Shortly after ten, in the middle of the Academy Awards presentations, a warning appeared on the screen: the cable box would go into power save mode in one minute, if I did not “press any button.” I found the remote, which of course my failure to touch in the past five hours had triggered this warning, and pressed a button. The box disappeared.

So we watched the Oscars after all. I was thrilled when Alexandre Desplat won, for The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Two of his scores were nominated.) Desplat is one of the great film score writers, and I’ve been noticing him ever since De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (2005). He writes powerfully synesthetic music, capturing now the nervously ironic grandeur of The Queen, now the reasonable, headachy paranoia of The Ghost Writer. Not since the late, great Jerry Goldsmith has there been such a consistent producer of knockout scores.

When Scarlett Johansson showed up and began chirping about The Sound of Music, I could sort of tell what was going to happen. She looked much too pleased, too excited merely to be announcing a musical number. And, when this number began, I somehow knew that Lady Gaga was not going to inject transgression of any kind into her medley of airs from The Sound of Music. (And that this would be the transgression.) I knew, in short, that Julie Andrews was going to show up. Fifty years ago, said Scarlett, said Julie. Sixty — said I. And in fact it’s Sixty-One: The Broadway production of The Boy Friend opened in September, 1954, starring the then-unknown Miss Andrews. That’s how long Julie Andrews has been working.

No, I wasn’t there. But I could have been at the premiere, in March, 1965, of the film version of The Sound of Music.

I was supposed to go. My father, who had just joined the board of directors of Twentieth Century Fox, was given four tickets to this gala, reserved-seating event. If my mother wasn’t beside herself with excitement, she was close. My sister, I seem to remember, was wearing the kind of party dress that she might have liked at the age of twelve, and I remember it this way not because I paid a lot of attention to my sister’s outfits but because it tipped me off that something infantilizing was going on. That wouldn’t have been my word at the time, of course. The word would have been wholesome, for that in fact was the word that people used in the Sixties when they wanted to coax youngsters into infantilizing positions. I had seen The Sound of Music on Broadway, and quite liked some of the songs, but there was no denying the musical’s overall wholesomeness. I put my foot down and refused to go.

Quel tohu-bohu! The uproar couldn’t have lasted very long, though, because my parents had to bundle my sister into the car and drive into the city and get to the Rivoli Theater on time. And off they went, no doubt relieved not to be carting me along with them. I don’t know why I was at home at the time, actually, because this would have been in the middle of my last semester at Blair. Except that we had trimesters at Blair, and this might have been the break between the second and the third. My parents were no doubt congratulating themselves — as I was correspondingly grateful — for having shipped me off to boarding school. As they took their seats in the movie palace, were they afraid that I would burn the house down or blow the house up? Probably not. For I had found myself at Blair. I am sure that my refusal to go to the premiere was accompanied by an articulate, if tedious, dismissal of The Sound of Music as wholesome dreck — although dreck would not have been in my vocabulary at the time, either.

To this day, I have never seen that movie. I can’t say that it has been a matter of principle. My revolt at the premiere was just an early instance of my ability to avoid experiences that I won’t like to have. People say, how can you tell you won’t like something if you haven’t given it a try? I can’t explain, but I can certainly tell. The clips from The Sound of Music that were shown last night made me gasp, the film was so awful. No wonder audiences deal with it by treating it like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The show ended at some time past midnight. This meant, of course, that I wouldn’t wind down enough to be ready for bed until some time after two; and it was twenty past that hour when I remembered to take my pill. As usual, it did what it was supposed to do without my feeling its onset. But I did catch out what I had long suspected and now knew to be one of its ancillary effects: I was aware that it was calming my bladder. And that was more or less the last thing I was aware of.

Reading Note:
Lively Nº Six
20 February 2015

Friday, February 20th, 2015

This morning, I finished reading Family Album, the sixth novel by Penelope Lively that I’ve read in a little more than a month. At the opening, I expected to dislike it, largely because it promised to compare unfavorably with Heat Wave, which I had just read. The big, shabby-prosperous English family, with the distracted, book-writing father and the Laura Ashley-clad mother, with plenty of delicious meals and one very juicy scandal, and with six children, all of them vaguely hostile — the set-up threatened to be an awful cliché, requiring only a murder to serve as the ironic backstory of an Inspector Morse episode. (The menace of ennui was heightened by the fact that Heat Wave, a morally thrilling book, had just climaxed with a homicide.) But one of Lively’s great strengths is the ability to refresh familiar, even stock figures, making them new and different and themselves.

I was drawn in fairly quickly. The children (soon adults) turned out to be not so much hostile as wary, and their wariness was directed at their parents, not at each other. The parents were indeed highly self-indulgent — irresponsible, really. Mum wanted a big family, much as you might want an arrangement of flowers for a party; that a family would necessarily be composed of individual human beings who would grow up to have their own lives was of little moment during the planning stages and grounds for complaint later on. Dad couldn’t have cared less about any of it. He liked having sex (apparently) and had a trust fund to pay for the consequences. Add to this parental pediment a Scandinavian au pair who, in Barbara Vine’s hands, would either kill or be killed, but in this case simply stayed on as a member of the family — for good reason. How can one resist a family album with nine subjects?

But in the end, the nicest thing about Family Album, circumstantially, was that I did not finish it with the feeling that it was the best of the bunch. A nice change! I’d begun to worry that I was becoming weak-minded. Hitherto, each novel seemed better than the one I’d just read. That was the other nice thing: my regard for the other books leveled off a good deal. How It All Began bobbed to the top only slightly faster than According to Mark; Heat Wave struck me as an accomplishment of such a different order that I had to judge it separately; The Photograph, understandably popular, is nonetheless crowd-pleasing in the same way that Family Album is; while the appeal of Moon Tiger continues to elude me. I’m glad that I read it first.

Perhaps it is finally time to read The Blue Flower, and to be done with the other Penelope (Fitzgerald). I’ve reached the point where the familiarity of some of Penelope Lively’s themes might curdle immediate further reading. Garden centers, authors (and their well-known problems with the quotidian world), cheating husbands and ambitious women — these seem to pop up in all the books with contemporary settings. Also the passage of time, or, rather, the passage of generations. This is a problem for both Lord Peters (How It All Began) and Charles Harper (Family Album): in the twilight of their careers, they can no longer find sympathetic readers among the publishers. They are vieux jeux. Experience warns me to lay off Lively for a while. I want to keep her as fresh as she does her Harlequins and her Columbines.


A favorite passage from Family Album:

Alison is a homemaker, a housewife, that now outmoded figure, but her management skills are not highly developed. She does not plan ahead enough, she runs out of things, she forgets to get the boiler serviced or the windows cleaned, children berate her because they have grown out of their school uniforms or she did not give them the money for the charity raffle. Ingrid is frequently reminding her (“What would I do without you?”); Charles merely looks resigned, and detached.

She is aware of these deficiencies but not particularly concerned. After, all, everyone is fed, everyone is housed and cherished and listened to and helped and supplied with pocket money and birthday parties and love and attention and a real four-star family life, which is what matters, isn’t it? Never mind if there is the occasional blip; never mind if this is not one of those homes that are run like a machine, what matters is being part of a family, isn’t it? One lovely big family. For Alison, Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth, and she is its guardian. This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them — a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog. And Denby ovenware and a Moulinex and a fish kettle and a set of Sabatier knives. She has all of these things, and knows that she is lucky. Oh, so lucky. (30-1)

Regular readers will not wonder why I single this out for attention. In the first paragraph, the author indicts Alison (“her management skills are not highly developed” — as a housekeeper, she’s a flop) — while, in the second, Alison indicts herself, with her warping way of talking, her rhetorical questions and tendentious dismissal of alternatives. In fact, her children are not “listened to.” Alison has a peculiarly successful way of dealing with inconvenient home truths. Whenever her children start conversing sharply about the reality of life at Allersmead, Alison flusters imperviously: Now don’t be so silly, children; I don’t know what you’re talking about. As a character “up denial,” she’s right out of Tennessee Williams.

In Alison’s defense, we can absolve her of the fetishism that afflicts so many women in her position (and men, too). For Alison, things do not have to be just so. She very much wants two things to be true: she wants her elder son, Paul, to be present at all family celebrations (he is, she has actually told him, her favorite), and she wants to keep her mother’s Limoges service intact. When Paul, stoned or drunk, shows up late for her silver wedding anniversary party and drops a pile of the dessert plates into a smash, it becomes something that Alison can cry about years later. But, for the most part, Alison is almost eagerly flexible.

I never quite worked out how this woman became such a good cook. At the end of the story, her expertise allows her to teach classes that have waiting lists. How did such a disorganized person ever master the discipline of getting dishes to the table all at the proper temperature? How did she learn to deal with “blips” — of which there must have been many? Maybe the explanation is that Alison is truly a monster.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
19 February 2015

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Yesterday, I re-read Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, published 35 years ago. All I remembered from the first reading, aside from the colossal buzz — colossal, that is, for a story set in Middle of Nowhere, Idaho — was a flood, some strange (but not at all sexual) relations among women, and a long bridge over a lake. I had no idea of what happened. And, again because of the setting, I had an impression of the surreal, because what could happen way out there? I came to the book a compleat Eastern snob. Ah, yute. Wasted on the &c.

1980 was a busy year for me. Getting out of law school, coming back to New York, studying for (and passing!) the Bar exam, finding a job; living, even, in Park Slope — perhaps I wasn’t equipped to give Housekeeping the attention it deserves. Perhaps it would be better to say that I read Robinson’s novel for the first time yesterday. Anyway, I read it and it was moving and luminous and all that; but I understand why Robinson took so long to produce another novel (Gilead, 2004). It was not so much a matter of craft. Robinson didn’t need to learn anything about telling a story. Nor was it a matter of courage, as I thought when I read each of the three later novels (Gilead was followed in 2008 by Home and in 2014 by Lila). All the courage in the world — in Robinson’s case, the determination to buck the adamant secularism of literary fiction — would not have seen those novels through to publication, much less won the critical acclaim that they received. It was a matter of purification, of concentration. Robinson taught herself, with perhaps a little help from Jean Cauvin (known to us as John Calvin), as well as from William Tyndale and the translators who succeeded him in the production of what became known as the Geneva Bible, to write about her Christian faith with the radical simplicity of Scripture. I can’t imagine that this process of purification could have been sped up by so much as a day.

So I am not going to say very much about Housekeeping. I understand the title now, I think, and it reminds me, of all things, of Wendy Doniger’s insistent way, in The Hindus — now a banned book in India — of calling Brahmins housekeepers, as if there were something wrong with being one. As indeed there is, from the spiritual point of view. I’ll come back to that in a minute. Housekeeping is largely about a grown woman’s lack of interest in domestic matters beyond the raw basics of food, clothing, and shelter. She recognizes these as needs, and does not try to transform them into arts. In the end, when the woman is about to be found unfit, by the community in which she lives, to raise her niece, she flies away, as the niece has expected her to do since her very arrival.

You can see the miracle of Lila beneath the pages, but only because you know that it will happen. Housekeeping does not really foreshadow it. Robinson already makes a connection between hobos, “transients,” vagrants, whatever you want to call them, and Christian pilgrims — Christians, that is, who follow Christ’s call to resist attachment to this world. There is a powerfully homely, one-paragraph account of Jesus’ career in Chapter 10, which is followed by an even more powerful distillation of the relationship between the guardian and her niece. (“She could speak to herself, or to someone in her thoughts, with pleasure and animation, even while I sat beside her — this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all.”) But what is missing is precisely what makes Lila the breathtakingly great American novel that it is: the gift of grace. At the risk of being blunt and perhaps tone-deaf, I should say that grace unites love and forgiveness (they are not two sides of the same coin) in a way that connects human beings without attachment. Robinson hints at it, as we might see in retrospect, when she has the niece, Ruth, say that her aunt, Sylvie, “gave almost no thought to me at all,” but as hints go, this is somewhat paradoxical.

Grace, to be extraordinarily specific and personal (I hope), is what keeps a marriage fresh after thirty-odd years, and you must pray for it as best and as ardently as you can. Grace is what keeps a marital vow from taking on the dead weight of duty. It is love — but whose love for whom, I shan’t presume to say. For grace is certainly a mystery.


In English, we have a commonsense critical term for domestic mania: we call it playing house. Playing house is of course what children do when they set out to imitate their parents. But it is also what adults do when their housekeeping loses touch with basic needs, and begins to impose conflicting “needs” of its own. Playing house as an adult leads to a failure of the generosity that ought to be housekeeping’s principal virtue. And every housekeeper is a sinner. Good housekeeping seeks to provide the basic human creatural needs in a way that erases the anxiety of need. Kitchens are well-stocked; clothes and bedding are clean and, to make that cleanliness visible, pressed; and houses are kept ship-shape. The overall idea is to make a house inviting. The moment this invitation becomes too fussy, or makes demands upon the invitees, it becomes forbidding, the very opposite of inviting.

The moment housekeeping becomes in any way forbidding, it also becomes a threat to the spirit of those who maintain the house, and a challenge to the spirit of those who enter it. This is the impossible aspect of housekeeping — impossible as love is impossible. For how do you oversee the provision of utterly material goods without becoming attached, not so much to those goods, as to your own ability to provide them? How do you learn not to take personal credit for your own good housekeeping? Wendy Doniger does not think that Brahmins have done a very good job of resisting these credits and attachments, which may be partial explanation of the ban of her book.

And how do you reconcile the requirements of good housekeeping with the needs of people who don’t belong to the household, people who pass by — people who may just be, beneath layers of dirt and grime, Jesus?

Gotham Diary:
Easy Virtue
18 February 2015

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

I did crawl back into bed yesterday and watch Gone Girl. Midway through, I got up and sat in my chair, the better to eat the Chinese lunch special that I’d ordered, when a tense moment in the movie elicited sharpish hunger pains. I remained in the chair for the rest of the show.

When it was over, it was two-thirty. The day seemed shot, and I decided to watch another movie. But as I was on the point of slipping another DVD into the machine, I was flooded by misgivings. What I diagnosed later as a surge of moral imagination flooded the room with images of discontent and the psychic taste or smell of wretchedness — I want to stress the sensory nature of this unpleasantness. If I did not see to my Tuesday chores right now, it would not only create a scheduling pile-up but coat the apartment with the grimy dust of demoralization. For a moment, I stood still, unwilling to shift gears, but this only gave the surge more time to buffet me about. After a minute or so, I put down the DVD, closed the machine, extinguished the monitor, and prepared to get dressed. By three-fifteen, I had made the bed, sorted the clean laundry, and begun the tidying. I reserved the right to stop if I got tired, but although I got very tired near the end, straightening the sideboard in the dining ell and vacuuming the carpets in the living room, I did not stop, but got it all done, and in little more than two hours. I listened to Don Carlos as I worked, Claudio Abbado’s recording of the grand opera in its original French. When I was done, and sitting down with a mug of tea and Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave, Katia Ricciarelli was singing “Tu che la vanità” (but in French). Well done.

I don’t think that I have ever felt the force of moral imagination so strongly before. Certainly it has priced at me often enough in my life, but it has rarely interfered with my doing what I wanted to do, at least where it was a question of not doing what I was supposed to do. This laziness is my great vice (although there is nothing great about it), and the goal of all my attempted schedules has been to trick myself into thinking that it’s almost as easy to do what I’m supposed to do as it is to do something else or, in the usual case, nothing at all. This is quite true, by the way: doing what I’m supposed to do is rarely more demanding than doing anything else, but I never think so, because there is something terribly off-putting about duty. I got off to a bad start on the duty front, and have spent much of my life trying to get in step. Yesterday’s wave, which I attribute to my latest scheduling scheme, was much more than a trick, however. It vividly insisted that the alternatives to my self-appointed duty would create pain and unhappiness.

I don’t need moral imagination to resist the temptation to steal things or commit other criminal acts. Whether or not I’d get away with them doesn’t come up; with my guilty conscience, right out of Poe, I know that I should never be able to live with the fear of being found out. I think it fair to say that I am simply never tempted to do bad things — bad things that are punishable by law, that is. I expect that most of my readers are similarly disposed — although they’re likely to have been motivated a little more by virtue and a little less by shame. I lead a life, as Marilynne Robinson would be quick to point out, in which it is relatively easy to be a good person. It’s possible that my new weekly schedule will make it even easier. That’s what my moral imagination was roaring on about yesterday.

Back in the Sixties, when I was a young person, taking advantage of the easiness of one’s life in order to become more virtuous still would have been scorned as fraudulent. Easy virtue wasn’t virtue at all. My thinking has developed a few nuances since then. Easy virtue is certainly not a point of pride. You can’t claim that you’re living properly because you’re virtuous. But that’s as regards other people. All that other people need to see is that you are living properly, or at least living well, morally. With regard to yourself, however, easy virtue is not unlike a well-developed muscle. The fact that it is relatively easy for a strong man to lift a great weight does not mean that he is not strong. So it is with good personal habits. The fact that they are easy (habitual) does not mean that they aren’t good.

It has always been easy for me to read. I can’t claim any credit for that; I was given a mind that encountered no difficulties reading printed texts. Studying the so-called great books in college, I learned that reading was a skill that could be put to good use, or to none, and whether from vanity or vision, I resolved to put mine to good use. It took a long time to learn to distinguish challenging writing from merely difficult prose; only very eventually did I discover that, indeed, the most challenging writing is very easy to read. (Du musst dein Leben andern.) I look for challenging writing in the way an athlete looks for incremental difficulties, because that is the best way to keep a strong mind strong. (It is at this point that the athletic comparison breaks down completely, because, the blandishments of Taylorist psychologists to the contrary notwithstanding, there are no metrics for mental strength.) Having a strong mind, I never have to worry about being bored or confused. Can I claim credit for this strong mind? I don’t think so. I can claim credit for that undergraduate resolution, and for sticking to it until it became a habit. Very ancient history by now.

I hope that there is nothing truly advisory about these paragraphs, except in the most general (and least helpful) sense. A few universally understood statements, perhaps. But no secrets of how I got where I am today. And you can, too. The best thing that I can do is to say something that quite accidentally triggers a moment of personal insight in the reader. My tangent becomes the reader’s orbit. More direct interference (do this) is unlikely to work, at least as planned. We are all too different, and the further we get from the grosser prohibitions, and the closer we get to what I’ll call happy virtue, the less we have to share in the way of useful information. All we can do is to remind each other of the primacy of personal difference. While we dance as conventionally as we can, the better to be good companions, we must bear in mind that we are all unalike, that each of us must find his or her own way through the world — preferably, without disturbing the dance of convention.

Nobody has any good advice to give. Only testament.

Reading Note:
17 February 2015

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Last week was a model week. Every day was devoted to its scheduled specialty. I won’t bore you with the details, but just tell you that the inevitable upshot was collapse: this week, I can barely tie my shoes. Starting off with a holiday didn’t help; nor did having Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil to dinner last night. They’d wanted to come on Sunday, which would have worked better for me as well, but Kathleen asked for and clearly needed at least one day of the weekend to be absolutely clear, and Monday was not a holiday for her outfit anyway.

I’m thinking of crawling back into bed and watching Gone Girl, which I haven’t seen. Never mind the schedule! The savage cold outdoors is so beastly that some sort of protest seems in order, even if protest will do me no good.


Over the weekend, I read 10:04. Finally. I’ll be interested to see how it ages. The writing is strong but mannered. I happen to like the manner very much, but I know how that can change. Ben Lerner’s manner is shaped, I should say, by his being a poet; he has a physiological understanding of English as she is spoke. I should say — but the poetry that Lerner includes in the novel is not as interesting as his prose, not by a long shot. And the strength of his prose is not drawn from sound. Does anyone remember a poetry textbook called Sound and Sense? (I have a copy here somewhere, although not the one I had in school.) Ben Lerner is a writer of sense, not sound. He is ferociously intelligent: he knows, I believe, as much as it is possible to learn in the few years that he has been with us (b 1979). The difficulty is that he doesn’t yet grasp how things fit together — for him. The overall tone is one of bemused exasperation. Lerner writes fluid, clear sentences studded with unusual words, such as “myoclonal,” which appears once, and “proprioceptive,” which shows up a lot without ever being explained. I don’t mean that we’re never told what “proprioceptive” means, but rather that Lerner never explains why it preoccupies him. Perhaps that is the message.

But really! I’m forgetting to mention that Lerner is very funny. I laughed and laughed. I laughed, it seems, even where I wasn’t meant to.

In the first chapter, or section, Lerner introduces us to the existential drama of being a poet who has written a successful first novel and whose best friend wants to impregnate herself with his sperm. (I’m assuming that everyone knows that Lerner’s fiction is “autobiographical,” and has gotten over that.) The flavor is nicely captured in the following paragraph.

While I stirred the vegetables I realized with slowly dawning alarm that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked by myself for another person — I could not, in fact, ever remember having done so. I’d cooked with people plenty, usually acting as a dazzlingly incompetent sous chef for Alex or Jon or other friends or family. On various occasions I’d said to a woman I was interested in, “I would invite you to dinner, but I don’t cook,” at which point I would hope she’d say, “I’m a great cook,” so I could ask her to come over and teach me; then we’d get drunk in the kitchen while I displayed what I hoped was my endearing clumsiness, never learning anything. Excepting the sandwiches I had made for Alex when she had mono — and even those I tended to buy and not prepare — I simply could not recall a single instance in which I had by myself constructed a meal, however rudimentary, for another human being. The closest memory I could summon was of scrambling eggs on Mother’s or Father’s Day as a child, but the uncelebrated parent, as well as my brother, always assisted me. Conversely, there was simply no end to the number of meals I could recall other people making for me, thousands upon thousands of meals, a quantity of food that would have to be measured in tons, dating from my mother’s milk to the present; just that week Aaron had roasted a chicken for our monthly dinner to catch up and discuss Roberto; Alena had made some kind of delicious trio of Middle Eastern salads the night before; in neither meal had I lent a hand, although I’d cursorily offered. Typically my contribution was just wine, itself the carefully aged work of others. Surely there were instances I was forgetting, but even assuming there were, they were exceedingly rare.

Unlike Lerner’s cooking skills, this is extremely capable, but it is also both “endearing” and “dazzling.” Throughout the passage, excess masquerades as scruple, climaxing in the absolutely uninformative reminder that wine is “the carefully aged work of others.”

Soon after this, watching an art-house movie, the narrator decides to write more fiction, “something I’d promised my poet friends I wasn’t going to do.” He plans to write a story based a story, told by his college mentor, about the experience of a French writer who tried to raise some cash by publishing a collection of letters from famous correspondents that were, in fact, counterfeit, written by the author to himself. Scandal was averted when the collection was repurposed as a prize-winning epistolary novel. Lerner sends his amplification of all of this, embedded in a transliteration of his own experiences that shifts identities, off to The New Yorker, where it is accepted; only, the magazine wants him to cut the bit about the counterfeit letters. Indignant, he refuses to make changes, but when his agent and his friends persuade him that the magazine is right, he recants. Turn the page, and there’s the story, “The Golden Vanity.”

How I laughed, reading this. It was so awful! The very idea that The New Yorker would ever publish such tripe was every bit as funny as a New Yorker parody. What the story boiled down to was a denatured, almost sing-song replay of 10:04‘s first chapter. (I positively howled when “there was a small washer-and-dryer unit in a closet” was repeated; it had already had struck the note of ludicrous surplusage in the novel’s opening.) But the joke wore thin; I couldn’t wait to get to the end of “The Golden Vanity,” so that 10:04 could resume.

It was only after reading the novel that I learned that “The Golden Vanity” was published in The New Yorker. I quickly wised to the fact that the first chapter of 10:04 must have been composed in part deliberately to subvert and ridicule the story. This was a very different kind of funny.

Gotham Diary:
Relativism Disposed
13 February 2015

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

Usually, I know when I’ve done it. But I was so entranced by my blatherations about changing tastes and Joseph Smith — the Venetian consul, not the Mormon — and the Canalettos and Vermeers in the Royal Collection that I didn’t notice that I’d knocked Kathleen out. She had been scrolling through eBay while I went on, and on, and on. It was only when I startled her with a question that I realized what I’d done. Kathleen came to, momentarily, from the deepest sleep, and I’m not sure that she was fully competent to agree to an hour’s postponement of dinner. But I saw that that was what she needed.

I had begun by talking about — well, we’ll get to that later. As long as I’m talking about my life as a doofus I ought to tell you about an embarrassing encounter with the doctor the other day. I was boasting about Kathleen, and telling him that she is one of the very few lawyers in the land with a personal brand. All you have to do is Google this brand name, and voilà. The problem was, I didn’t know the brand name. I thought it was “Spider Woman of Wall Street.” When I told this story to Kathleen, she said, “Oh, you made up the part about Wall Street.” And of course it’s not “spider” but “spdr,” for Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipts, the name of the first exchange-traded fund. (The ticker symbol is SPY.) The doctor was not very impressed by the results of my search. When I got home, I fiddled around at the computer until I got it right. Spdrwoman. Quel moronicus.


As a rather naughty boy, to put it mildly, I was spanked fairly often. After I pulled down my pants (but not my undershorts), I was spanked with a hairbrush. Later, as I approached adolescence, I was flogged. Isn’t that the word? I bent over and a belt lashed my derrière. This was all my mother’s doing. Neither of us thought that there was anything wrong or unfair or disproportionate or in any way objectionable about my punishment: I was only getting what I deserved. I don’t know when this controlled violence stopped, but 1960 sounds right.

Oh! I almost forgot. At Iona Grammar School, which I attended for a few years, the Brothers had a block of Cat’s Paw shoe soling. I really don’t recall its dimensions — you didn’t see it, you just felt it — but it must have been long enough to flex a bit. A few whacks of Cat’s Paw hurt a lot, and of course standing out in the corridor and being told to bend over was humiliating. It was supposed to be.

Things have changed. A New York court recently ruled that spanking by hand was a reasonable use of force. It seems likely, however, that belts and blocks of rubber would not have been approved. And as for teachers doing the spanking — ! Old-timers cluck and shake their heads. It is recalled that the great Doctor Johnson held that no boy ever learned Latin without its being flogged into him. But no one is studying Latin anymore — not in grade school, anyway. That has changed, too. The world is, as usual, going to the dogs.

Is nothing sacred?

But things do change. That is one of the characteristics of modern life. It has bedeviled thinkers for several centuries. How do we know that anything is true? More recently, the question takes this form: is there anything true to know? Attending these questions is the suspicion that humanity would be lost if there were no certainties.

Think of it as a connectivity problem. There’s you here, looking up things on your computer. Out there, there’s truth, and what’s really real. You need a connection of some kind to get to truth and reality. What if there is no connection? What if there is no truth to connect to? Then what do you do?

A lot of people seem to be dismayed by the possibility that there is no connection, and/or that there is nothing to connect to. It can’t be right! How are we to distinguish good from evil?

I call this bundle of anxieties the old model. In the old model, individual human beings sought meaning and validation through private channels. They prayed; they had visions; truth was revealed to them — personally. (The Roman Catholic Church tried very hard to interpose itself as the source of meaning and the fountain of virtue. When priests behaved themselves, this arrangement brought a lot of comfort to a lot of people.)

In the new model, here is what happens:

Something is “real,” a statement about that thing is “true” and therefore has to be taken seriously, when what I say about it withstands all the criticisms and questions people can bring up to discredit it. I’ve always thought that’s how sociologists should work. You anticipate what serious critics — people who really don’t want your conclusion about whatever-it-is to be true, people who have a stake in showing you are wrong in any way they can do it — would say. Then you do whatever you have to do to counter those criticisms, so that those critics can no longer make those criticisms, because you have answered them so well that they have to accept your conclusions. This is not the same as shouting louder or having greater political skills. Instead, it refers to the agreement between you and your critics that their complaint isn’t, by their own standards, logically or empirical anymore and therefore they will stop making it. (173)

That’s what I’d been talking about to Kathleen. It’s from Howard Becker’s remarks on “relativism” in What About Mozart? What About Murder? It makes sense that a sociologist would produce these definitions of reality and truth, shifting the locus of fact-finding from the individual’s connection to some out-there, superhuman authority to the multiplicity of human beings. This multiplicity, unlike group of human beings, has no leader. It has no common sense, only a small collection of propositions against which no one has managed to argue successfully. Individuals rigorously challenge other individuals, and the result is more rigorous than a consensus. It is also “relative” (ie, subject to change) only temporally, and not with respect to individuals. Given the conditions in which civil society can thrive, the important matters of right and wrong are settled. Ideas about right and wrong may change over time, but at any given time everyone is bound by the prevailing understanding. So relativism doesn’t come into it, except for those old enough to recall a different dispensation.

Civil society, then, guarantees what is right, and that is a good-enough grasp of what is real and what is true. Clearly, however, the prosperity of civil society is vastly more important to the functioning of the new model than it is to that of the old.

No wonder Kathleen dropped off.

Bon weekend à tous!

History Note:
Love Ancient and Modern
12 February 2015

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Yesterday, I wrote a few paragraphs about the Middle Ages, thinking out loud about some ideas about the period that are all my own. That’s not to say that they’re not anybody else’s; they might very well be. But I arrived at what I said yesterday on my own, sifting years’ of reading and bearing in mind the absurdity of the monicker: Middle Ages. How unreal! It was over before it existed! But this is true of almost all historical periods. No one thought of such labels until the Nineteenth Century. So you could argue that the Middle Ages “happened” two hundred years ago. I could argue that what I was doing yesterday was trying to separate things that really happened, and that people were actually aware of, in, say, 1200 from things that happened when modern historians began to appraise those things.

Here’s something similar. I’ve always “known” that the thinkers and poets of Antiquity regarded what we call romantic love — that involuntary surrender to transcendental emotions — as a madness, or an illness of some kind. If you were lucky, you never experienced the fever. How different we are! Ever since Rousseau and Shelley, we have been longing for the miseries of love, prizing them above all other experiences. Not until you have had your heart broken, we believe, can you be said to be fully human. But there’s a little problem. I cannot actually point to any primary source for either of these views. I can’t quote a Greek or a Roman on the subject of love-as-disease. Is it true that the ancients took this view of love, or did “this view” come into focus only after 1800? I should have to study the matter — which is to say that I don’t really know about it yet.

I was thinking about it — love as a regrettable condition — while reading According to Mark, a novel by Penelope Lively that openly treats a certain kind of love in this way. The moment at which Mark Lamming, a literary biographer more or less happily married to a stylish gallerist, realizes that he has fallen in love (with Carrie, the ginger-haired operator of a Garden Center who never reads books) could not be more dysphoric: sitting glumly in the Tube, “he knew what had happened to him.”

The reader is of course way ahead of Mark, having seen this coming; but Lively is way ahead of the reader, too. Lively knows what damage readers expect to follow the thunderbolts of passion. Scenes, evictions, marriages broken, jobs lost, &c &c. (This is perhaps her great theme: she knows what readers expect, and she gives them something else instead — something that turns out to be rather more plausible.) Oh, dear, she sees the reader thinking. Poor Mark, his whole life overturned by a stroke of bad luck. Not that Mark is romantically “blameless.” In romantic terms, that is, Mark is a dried-up pedant, impatient with those who don’t belong to the chattering classes, and certainly an intellectual snob when it comes to women whose true loves are primulas and saxifrage. But this was always the point of the ancients’ bouleversements: a would-be innocent bystander is undone by a vulnerability which he believed to be quite impossible. Guilt and innocence aren’t the point; irony is. And that is how Lively treats Mark’s malady.

At the same moment as Mark entered the room, saw her and experienced that universal thrill that is compounded of panic and exhilaration in equal proportions, it came to him that he was, quite simply, suffering a form of illness. He was temporarily disabled; there should be some kind of treatment for men of his age and situation thus stricken. It should be possible to go along to some professional but understanding bloke in a consulting room and say, “Look I have this tiresome problem; I’m a busy man and I’ve fallen in love with a girl with whom I have nothing whatsoever in common and I happen to love my wife anyway and I can’t afford the expenditure of time or emotion.” And the chap would nod and reach for a prescription pad and say, “There’s a lot of it around at the moment. Take these three times a day — they usually do the trick.” And that would be that. (82)

This comic deflation of what are usually taken to be deathless agonies is very amusing, but it happens to foreshadow the development of the “love plot,” which, I’ve rather shabbily neglected to mention, is not the heart of the novel. (According to Mark is a dramatic meditation on the relationships, not altogether unlike a love triangle, between biography, biographer, and subject.) The place of the professional but understanding bloke is taken by Mark’s wife, Diana. Does Diana have a fit when she finds out, from Carrie of all people, not only that Mark has fallen in love with her but that they have been to bed together four times? Not bloody likely!

Diana, inspecting Carrie, felt a further uprush of the energy and planning ability that had seized her ever since that moment in the café in Sarlat. Crises always brought out the best in her; she actually enjoyed episodes like burst pipes or scalded limbs or domestic drama among friends requiring immediate bustle and organisation. She had seen what to do at once. You stepped right into the centre of things and took over. What you certainly did not do was send the girl packing or heap recriminations or stow Mark away under lock and key (as if that were possible). No, what you did was establish control.

She would drive. Mark would come in the front, because he would have to map-read. Carrie and the luggage would go into the back. She, Diana, would draw up an itinerary which Mark in his present shell-shocked state would be unlikely to query. She would see to it that everyone was kept busy, fed, and slightly overtired. They would be under her eye. The whole thing would be domesticated and once she got them back to England, she would have had time to work out the next phase. Carrie, who was basically docile, would have accepted her as administrator and decision-maker. Mark … well, Mark would probably be all to ready for the comforts of home and routine. (145-6)

And that is how it all works out — on the surface. Carrie and Mark go on to have further adventures, not with one another but conditioned by the peculiar relationship that they have had. Lively brings us around to the truly up-to-date understanding that “love” was never what Mark felt for Carrie, and that it was probably somewhat grandiose of him to think that it was. Indeed, the kind of love experienced by Mark is better known as infatuation. The ancients were right — just not about love.

But which ancients, exactly?

History Note:
The Middle Ages
11 February 2015

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

The Middle Ages. It’s curious, isn’t it, that we go on bundling the centuries between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance (the rebirth of Rome) as “the Middle Ages,” as though that in-betweenness were a of characteristic of the period, which of course it can’t have been. We can see it in retrospect, but it was unimaginable to people alive in those days. And, really, is “middle” the best that we can say of it? (Not that I am about to suggest an alternative.)

Judeo-Christian/Greek. The Middle Ages witnessed the development of an intellectual orthodoxy — something new under the sun. There was, of course, a religious orthodoxy, also developing, but by the Thirteenth Century, this religious orthodoxy — a matter of liturgical observances, monastic regularities, relations between the clergy and secular leaders, and so on — was permeated by the intellectual abstraction that we call philosophy. The flower of this permeation was the theology of Thomas Aquinas, still largely the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was only partially religious, or rooted in Scripture. Structurally, it was broadly Greek, reflecting the absorption of the various Greek philosophies of Antiquity. But while Scripture was settled, the Greek element was not. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Greek contribution was Platonic in nature, because neo-Platonism was at the time a vital alternative to Christianity as a way of looking at the world. But, a few centuries before Aquinas, the very different worldview of Aristotle took hold of the Western imagination. Where Platonism counseled withdrawal from a corrupt and secondary world of the senses, Aristotelianism embraced experience, and it fanned such intellectual enthusiasm that Thomas was able to place the Jewish God Jahweh as the Prime Mover of the universe, outside but encompassing Creation, and to analyze Christ’s sacrifice in terms of Aristotelian categories.

The union of the Judeo-Christian religious and spiritual tradition with the motley Greek philosophical tradition was never stable, and it never had the consent of both families, as it were. Plenty of religious thinkers dismissed Thomas’s theories as presumptuous, and his books were even burned as such. On the Greek side, opposition took the form of needling speculations on ever-less meaningful topics. (This was when angels dancing on pins began to be counted.) Neither tradition altered the other in any essential way. But, for a moment at least, the pursuit of Judeo-Christian/Greek intellectual orthodoxy (now deep-frozen as unalterable Catholic dogma) was what young people call hot. And it cooled not to ashes but to iron.

Europe and Geography. At the Fall of Rome, Europe was a frontier, much of it unsettled by Christians. A thousand years later, it was a hive of nation states and the center of burgeoning empires. If there is a good book out there about this transformation, I’d like to see it. I’m familiar with many of the pieces, but it would be enlightening to see a historian focus on a general arrangement. The work of Norbert Elias comes to mind, but Elias was a sociologist, not a historian. He was interested in cases, whereas I’m interested in flow.

I’d also like to see a history of Europe that muted the sovereign boundaries and highlighted instead the relationships among great cities, and between cities and what Jane Jacobs called their hinterlands. These cities paid for and exploited sovereign defense systems; their taxes supported royal militaries, which in turn increasingly supported the interests of urban populations. However, after the French Revolution, which effectively substituted Paris for the head of state, sovereignties were refitted with mechanisms favoring the influence of the hinterland: almost every American state capital is, by design, a hick town. Reaction is always anti-urban and anti-cosmopolitan.

Whereas imperial expansion was usually violent, sovereign expansion quite often depended on dynastic consolidation via marriage. The disparate peoples brought together by a marriage were allowed to think that they had not been conquered. Patterns of consolidation (and dissolution) are fascinatingly varied. There are three models: the Hapsburg, the French, and the Italian. The Italian model is of course one of dysfunction: with the celibate pope shut out of marriage at the center of Italian affairs, the lesser powers of the peninsula (among which the bizarre example of Venice ought not to be counted) were thrown back on factions and fighting.

The French model was always centered on a geographical kernel, first the Ile-de-France and later the regions surrounding it (Touraine, Champagne, &c). Throughout the later Middle Ages, much of France was in English or Burgundian hands. The English experience taught a lesson that no one wanted to learn. Of the so-called “Atlantic Isles,” the only region that England was able to subdue was the nearest, Wales. Scotland lay too far from the settled parts of England for conquest and occupation; it eventually came to England by the marriage route. England’s rule of Ireland has never not been contentious. Similarly, English possessions in France, also separated by the sea, required constant military maintenance.

In fact, the English is an early example of the Hapsburg model of dynastic expansion. As emperors in Vienna and kings in Madrid were to discover bitterly, the English came into their French possessions by dynastic, relatively peaceful means but could not hold onto them, because geography intervened, just as it did to prevent the military conquest (once and for all) of Scotland and Ireland. The Burgundian expansion, which would be so important to the Hapsburgs, was essentially an example of the French model. It expanded by marriage and inheritance — and no small measure of guile. Unlike France, however, Burgundy — as the congeries of provinces running from the banks of the Saône to the Frisian islands is known to students of the Late Middle Ages — lacked a metropolitan center, and with it, a territorial focus. Burgundy was an early example of international activity, for it united territories within the sovereignties of France and of the Holy Roman Empire. (Burgundy was indeed the ghost of the vanished third realm contemplated by Charlemagne’s heirs, Lotharingia.) When Charles the Rash died without male issue in 1477, Louis XI of France and Maximilian of Hapsburg swiftly divided his parcels between themselves, and “Burgundy” was no more.

How ironic, then, that the richest part of this old Burgundy — Holland — proved to lie beyond the powers of both Hapsburg branches. When it finally broke free of Spanish tyranny, it did so as a Republic; but it promptly spawned a dynasty, the one that rules today’s kingdom. Dynastic or any other kind of expansion is not longer to be contemplated by the nations of Europe.

France today is pretty much the France of Louis XVI. Officially, it sees itself as a Platonic perfection: L’Hexagone. It is divided into départements and régions of roughly the same geographical size, and, in theory, all of these units are equal. In fact, of course, most of them are hinterlands. Without having studied the matter, I venture to guess that an unusually high percentage of educated French citizens live in metropolitan areas, with a stratospheric concentration in Paris. To what extent is the stability of geographical France maintained — or contested — by the flow of resources (such as educated citizens) from the hinterlands to the cities and back?

Geography may also explain the absence from our modern maps of a sovereignty encompassing what used to be the County of Toulouse, in the South of France, and Catalonia, still part of Spain. As vibrant as cultural connections between these two regions were in the Middle Ages, they remained divided, rather bluntly, by the Pyrenees.

Medieval Empires. A promissory note: I am out of time for today. I shall say only that there were three empires in medieval Europe. The first was the Holy Roman Empire, established by Charlemagne and Leo III in 800. The second and third were rough contemporaries: the kingdoms of the Holy Land during the Mediterranean crusades, and the territories of the Teutonic Knights around the Baltic. Geography may be said to have determined the life span of each; nothing is left of any of them today — except bad memories.

Gotham Diary:
Political Imagination
10 February 2015

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Writing in the current LRB about Hillary Clinton’s exceptionalist foreign-policy outlook (the United States is “the indispensable nation”), Jackson Lears proposes that

The triumph of fantasy entails the failure of imagination.

An interesting way of putting things, to say the least. What is fantasy but the purest, least trammeled product of the imagination? But for imagination to proceed without trammels, Lears seems to be saying, constitutes a kind of failure. The problem becomes clear if we plug in the word “political.” The triumph of fantasy, which always soars high above politics, is indeed a failure of the political imagination. We do not indulge the political imagination for sheer amusement. Political imagination does not support such assumptions as human immortality, no matter how arguably desirable. Political imagination allows us to conceive of social and administrative arrangements that do not currently prevail, and that might have prevailed so long ago that they are forgotten. (Lears’s example of the latter would be the idea of the “sphere of influence.”)

The case can be made that, prior to 1945, the United States was the indispensable nation, but the cause was more a matter of geography than one of virtue. No sooner was the second World War over, however, than the United States yielded to Cold War hysteria, seeing the spread of Russian communism everywhere. It quickly became a capitalist stooge, acting against its own interest and buckling to the demands of assorted capitalist rentiers. The net-net result of this commitment is today’s shrunken and degraded jobs market. The case can be made that, after 1945, the United States was the paranoid nation.

The fantastical nature of Clinton’s thinking is reflected in Lears’s gloss on a statement that she makes in her latest book, Hard Choices.

Her reflections on Benghazi are some of the strangest passages in her book. She says she appointed Chris Stevens as ambassador to the Libyan rebels’ new government because he knew that the most dangerous places in the world were ‘the places where American interests and values were most at stake’ and seasoned diplomats were most needed. This assertion deserves some attention. Are the most dangerous places really the most crucial to US national interests merely by virtue of the danger? ‘When America is absent, extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened,’ she writes. It would be possible to rewrite the same sentence, substituting ‘present’ for ‘absent’.

Does Hillary Clinton really believe this stuff? I have my doubts. She has certainly schooled herself to ignore contrary views, because she wants to get elected. She has a very good idea of what it will take to get elected, and pragmatism notwithstanding, it must be said to her credit that she does not pander to the selfish followers of Ayn Rand. But somebody is going to have to lead Americans out of the murk confected by Cold Warriors and the ugly Chicken Littles who followed them, and Hillary Clinton does not promise to be that leader. If the United States cannot take care of itself without taking on the rest of the world — without absolutely refusing to be “indispensable” — then it is certainly doomed.


Let me make it perfectly clear that I have no ideological opposition to capitalism. Without capitalism, business development of any kind is difficult at best and usually impossible. But many businesses do not need development — urban bookshops, for example — and many enterprises are not or ought not to be businesses at all — power production, ore extraction, and, in my view, housing. We seem to be evolving toward the view that human needs ought not to be subjected to commercial caprice. We have certainly learned from our Cold War opponents that government does a very poor job of playing industrialist, but there are far more options than the ideological duopoly of capitalism and socialism insists. Consider the not-for-profit corporation. Consider the B Company. Socialism and capitalism are both, after all, philosophies of the universal market. We have begun to realize that many vital transactions occur outside of the marketplace. Instead of value or price, they have worth. They are incomparable.

Many things are incomparable. Most things are only very roughly comparable. No good poem can be accurately translated into another language; the very idea of fidelity crumbles in the translators hands. The incomparability of things, however, seems to be objectionable to many. Certainly our empires of sport have been erected in order to correct this alleged problem. Two teams of so many members, playing against one another according to agreed-upon rules, are as comparable as human organizations can be, and almost everything that they do can be scored. It is therefore easy to determine which of all the teams is best. But this best has no intrinsic meaning.

The notion that the best might be a problem swerved into view over the weekend, as I digested Howard Becker’s What About Mozart? What About Murder? I don’t so much recommend the book as challenge you to read it. Oh, it’s readable enough; there are only traces of jargon, and moments when Becker directly addresses fellow sociologists are rare. The difficulty is that Becker presents his ideas so well and clearly that you cannot imagine what objection might be made to them. And then you realize that he rejects the existence of the normal. Without the normal, there can be neither best nor worst. A very widespread way of thinking about the world gets the heave-ho from Howard Becker.

Mozart stands in for the best. It took all my readerly dispassion to follow the implications of Becker’s response to the question, “Surely Mozart was an absolute genius?” (Similarly, I had to put my Western chauvinism on a leash when Becker analyzed “the classical music package.”) Had Becker chosen Beethoven, I shouldn’t have learned nearly so much, because I’m not remotely tempted to regard Beethoven as the best composer. The fact is that there are musical traditions in which Mozart is not really comprehensible; as the Emperor put it, there are “too many notes.” By the same token, murder only seems to be the worst thing when you don’t look closely. When you look closely, you have to think about self-defense and war.

I want to discuss all of this further, but, for the moment, I ask you to consider how much baggage we should cut free of if we stopped our interminable pursuits of the best and learned to be content with the very good. Now, strictly speaking, you can argue that the very good is better than the merely good but not as good as the best, but that is not what we mean when we say, with feeling, “Oh, this is very good.” The very good will do quite well. It’s piggy to ask for more — and distracting, too.

Gotham Diary:
The Real Scandal
9 February 2015

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Grey, cold Mondays are bad enough, but it’s harder than usual to get through this one because of the Brian Williams scandal. I mean the totality of the scandal, its very existence, not just the fact, as it seems to be, that the news anchor told a lie about his experience in Iraq. That is very bad, of course, but what’s a lot worse is NBC’s failure to deal with that lie, of which it was aware a year ago. It was left to servicemen to make a fuss, which they did at Facebook. The latest move is Mr Williams’s voluntary withdrawal from the public eye, but I doubt very much that it will have been the last one. I doubt that I should have paid attention to any of this if it had not been for David Carr’s column about the matter, in this morning’s Times. It wasn’t what Carr had to say about Mr Williams that bothered me; it was his peroration.

We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it. That’s why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer.

We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy. It’s a job description that no one can match.

This strikes the same note of moral bankruptcy that Carr hammers whenever he comes up against a tough call. Rather than salute the military — “The soldiers who ended up in harm’s way and survived that day are calling him out because their moral code requires it” — Carr ought to emulate it, and do his duty, which is to exercise judgment about media matters. Instead of breast-beating, instead of repenting that we ask the impossible of our news anchors — I certainly don’t; I ignore them altogether — Carr ought to be making suggestions about how we can change our lives and stop fueling a system that inevitably produces Brian Williams scandals.

Sixty years of television have taught us a few things about what it can and cannot do. It can show us things but it cannot explain them. It can share eloquent, but hardly objective, film clips of events as they occur, but it is absolutely impotent when it comes to official responses. All it can provide on that front is what officials wish it to provide. Discussion, negotiation, decision-making — these cannot be broadcast, because they are both incomprehensible and tedious.

A medium that can show what’s wrong with the world but that can’t show what anyone is actually doing about it is bound to generate a climate of cynicism, especially given the lingering aura of civic duty that still clings to the act of “watching the news.” Compounding this cynicism is the passivity inherent in all broadcast systems, which work in one direction only. Television news shows, skewed brainlessly toward the visual, quietly persuade their viewers that there is nothing to be done by people on their side of the camera.

Maureen Dowd wrote about the scandal yesterday, and her column brought me up to speed. It also far outstripped David Carr’s.

Although there was much chatter about the “revered” anchor and the “moral authority” of the networks, does anyone really feel that way anymore? Frothy morning shows long ago became the more important anchoring real estate, garnering more revenue and subsidizing the news division. One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.

Dowd points out that the comedy shows have become more serious about the news than the network news departments. It is obvious to everyone that “the evening news” has become a decadent, meaningless ritual, incapable of informing a segment of the public that prefers entertainment to information — the same segment that watches the news. Television news in the age of the Internet is a civil toxin, a drug that metabolizes real life into nursery tales.

Walter Cronkite was indeed a man of substance. It is obvious that a replacement has never been sought. Brian Williams doesn’t deserve to be in the news, and the very fact that he is in the news is the indictment precisely.


Last night, I made jarrets de veau — veal shanks, or osso buco without the tomatoes. Kathleen and our dinner guest thought that it was great, but I was very dissatisfied. The meat hadn’t been cooked enough, and wasn’t, as I like it to be, falling off the bone. It hadn’t been cooked enough because it was still partially frozen when I started cooking. I had pulled the meat out of the freezer the night before, and stuffed it into the refrigerator; I ought to have taken it out of the fridge and put it on the counter when I made brunch yesterday. I also ought to have prepped it as soon as I came home from the store. I ought to have coated the shanks in olive oil and sprinkled them with an herb or two, and then wrapped them back up in the butcher paper and stored them in the refrigerator for a day or two before freezing them.

Ideally, I shouldn’t have to freeze them; I shouldn’t have had to buy them ahead of time. Ideally, all cuts of meat would be available at my favorite market every day, and, ideally, my favorite market would be across the street, where Fairway is, and not down on 79th Street. Ideally, the weather would be fine for a stroll instead of crushingly unpleasant. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to rely on my developing winter rhythm, which sends me down to Agata & Valentina every Monday with little or no idea of the cooking that I’ll be doing during the week. Hence the need to prep.

Last night’s first course was more successful, if only because I liked it as much as the ladies seemed to. It was a salad of fresh corn and chopped shrimp, tossed in olive oil and oregano before being sautéed togther, and sliced roast beets, which I tossed into the pan at the last minute. (I also tossed in some quartered cherry tomatoes, but they contributed nothing to the dish and will be omitted in future.) This continues my experiments with adding beets to an already established combination of shellfish and corn.

They say that Whole Foods will be opening next week, just around the corner, on Third and 87th. I have never been to a branch of Whole Foods, and I’m not sure that I’ll like it, or like it any better than the wildly expensive Eli’s. But I pray that it will ease up the crush at Fairway.

Reading Note:
6 February 2015

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Thinking about The Photograph this morning — I finished reading Penelope Lively’s novel for the first time early last night — I was obliged to remember how large a role disapproval used to play in my reading of fiction. I freely disapproved of many characters, especially those appearing in English books. They were selfish, mostly — I was very turned off by that. And disappointed. Why, I pouted, were the English so unhappy? As you can see, even into my forties I was looking to fiction for a better world than the one I live in. I wanted inspiration. Very few realistic novelists were interested in providing this, or even equipped to do so.

In this mindset, I decided, whenever it was — more than ten years ago, I hope — not to read The Photograph. Another thing that I didn’t like about English fiction was that nobody liked anybody else. Now I would say that I found the lack of generosity dispiriting.

Without noticing it (usually), we grow and we change. My priorities for fiction are different now. I still require good writing. But it’s not enough to say that, because everyone demands good writing, of one sort or another. My sort of good writing assures me, from the first sentence on, that every word has been chosen with every other word in mind — in the ear, really. I want the writer to make certain assumptions about what I already know. (I do not want to be told that London is “the English capital.”) I want to be addressed as a reader of fluent novels. (I do not want it to be pointed out that a character is remember something from the past.) Although I delight in the occasional tirade, I prefer a regular diet of understatement — quite aware that it is flattering to me. (This reminds me that I am as foolish as the people I am reading about, something that I now find deeply satisfying when I don’t find it totally horrifying.) I want to be expected to take an interest in how human beings act, or try not to act, on what’s going on in their minds, while, at the same time, I want each character’s way of thinking and speaking to tell me who that character is. My idea of good writing, however, has probably not so much shifted over the years as focused. Like every old dope, I know what I like.

Somehow, the old disapproval — which I remember being triggered for the first time by John Fowles’s The Magus — has melted away. I don’t really know why, but I’m happy that it has. Now I believe that the only proper target of a reader’s disapproval is the writer. In any case, reading The Photograph entailed confronting an older, evidently less sophisticated self.

(And what do I mean by sophisticated there? I mean “detached,” in the sense of being able to form dispassionate judgments. We ought to be detached from art in the very way that we are attached to life. Sophistication is appropriate to judgments about the world (as Hannah Arendt had it; what Marilynne Robinson calls “history”), but very inappropriate to judgments about people. Our judgments about people ought to be cosmopolitan — cognizant that everyone is unique and was shaped by unique circumstances, some of them quite difficult for us to imagine, but, nevertheless, there they are. It is not uncommon to treat sophisticated and cosmopolitan as synonyms, but clearly a mistake to do so.)


In The Photograph, Glyn, a historian in his sixties, discovers a photograph in a closet. The photograph, together with an attached note, gives evidence that his late wife and her brother-in-law were at one point conducting a love affair. Glyn is shaken by this, of course, but, perhaps because he is a historian (a “conceit” of the novel), he immediately resolves to study the nature of his wife’s hitherto unsuspected infidelity. How many, he wants to know: from the moment of shock on, Glyn is preoccupied by the number of such affairs. His jealousy burns off quickly, leaving a peculiarly wounded vanity. That his wife would seek other lovers does not bother him nearly so much as his failure to have noticed. Therefore, he must find out exactly how much he missed.

It is quickly established that Glyn is one of those gotta-do-what-you-gotta-do guys, and this made him less attractive to me than he might be to other readers. Additionally, it might have tightened my critical squint. In the third chapter, Glyn shares the photograph with his late wife’s sister, who is still married to the erstwhile lover, thus setting off a chain reaction of events and responses, many of them mordantly comic. As the novel moves along, however, it becomes clear that Glyn is peripheral to the group of people whose lives he has startled (to say the least). This, too, made me look at him more keenly. Why has he been out of touch with everyone for so long? Don’t they mean anything to him?

There are two aspects of The Photograph that seem to be to be magisterial, to make this a book that ought to be taught in literature courses. The principal one, which I am only going to mention here, is the artistry with which Lively judges attentive readers to an understanding of the story that makes the denouement both unsurprising and highly satisfying. As if she were reversing the mechanism of the mystery novel, Lively seems to hope that her readers will have “figured it out” before she tells them what happened — “what happened” being a matter that is quite brilliantly shrouded in background obscurity. When I say “brilliantly shrouded,” I mean that Lively is almost ostentatious about deflecting our attention. It’s as though she stands in the middle of the road, wearing clown drag and carrying a huge arrow marked Thataway. Young readers will probably miss much of this, and be agreeably amazed to find that it’s all there, which is why the novel ought to be taught.

The other masterstroke is the portrait of Glyn — the double portrait. There is the lively sketch of Glyn the man, which we can sum up here as showing an imposing man with a successful career as an academic on television. Although he would hate to hear it said of him, he is an entertainer. It’s a sideline for him; his real interest is history, research, the hunt. Thinking about him now, I see a sort of all-purpose service dog, possessed of all the useful canine virtues, from the patience of a St Bernard to the remorselessness of a Cairn terrier. So much for the outward Glyn. What took my breath away as I read about Glyn, however was the sculptural manner in which his thoughts and suspicions betrayed, line by line, a monumentally self-contained, monumentally stunted man. It’s unclear that other human beings mean nothing to Glyn, because it’s unclear that he means anything to himself. But he has an insuperable resistance to intimacy.

No, they didn’t mean anything to him.

Near the end, the devastating revelation, which one knew must be in store, is delivered by a figure of severe impartiality.

And at some point then, Glyn has had enough. He can’t manage any more of this, he wants out, he wants to get in the car and head away from Mary Packard, from what she has said. Except that nothing can now be unsaid, her voice will be there always. He must walk down her garden path with her words in his head, and take them home with him.

You will have to read the novel yourself to appreciate how grandly this passage connects tragic irony with the finality of the Expulsion from the Garden: Glyn, as his wife would often tell him, in her gentle way, never listened. Now he won’t be able to help it.

Amarcord Note:
5 February 2015

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

What a shock it was, to read in this morning’s Times that Walter Liedtke was killed in the horrific Metro-North commuter train crash on Tuesday. Liedtke, a Vermeer specialist, was the Curator in European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I recognized his name, printed under his photograph, but could not believe my eyes; so I went to the art bookcase and pulled down the catalogue for the Delft School exhibition and there it, or he, was.

It turns out that Walter Liedtke and at least one of the other victims who were also prominent in their fields, Eric Vandercar, chose to sit in the first car of the train because it was the quiet car. The location of the quiet car ought to be reconsidered. Grade crossings in northern Westchester ought to be reconsidered. Metro-North ought to be reconsidered. Every Senator and Congressman who has ever acted in derogation of this country’s passenger railroad system ought to be sent to Guantánamo.

As for the Taconic State Parkway, its hair-raising curves designed to accommodate the estates of millionaires — shut it down! Turn it into a bike path.


Last week, I had dinner with a woman who lived in Bronxville — served by the same Metro-North branch, but much closer to the city — for twenty years. She doesn’t live there any more; she has returned to her home town, a major European city. She moved to Bronxville initially because her husband worked for an international corporation that found him housing there. (On the very next street to the one in which I suffered through adolescence and from which I was gratefully packed off to boarding school — but my dinner companion, whom I shall call Joan — didn’t arrive until nearly twenty-five years after my family relocated to Houston.) She went on to have several other Bronxville addresses, and I knew each of them. It was very strange to talk about Bronxville at this level of detail. It’s not only that Bronxville is a very small town; for generations, its population has held steady at about five thousand. Most people with a history of Bronxville don’t have much to say about it, beyond that it’s lovely and safe and endowed with a great public school. Joan and I were talking in detail because we were both very uncomfortable there. Joan told me that a bunch of her friends took to calling it “Deathville.”

These friends did not live in Bronxville themselves. Joan didn’t make any real friends while she was there. But she did make the acquaintance of a grand old lady. This lady was one of Joan’s best customers. I can still recall the prickle of resistance that swept over my skin when I heard that Joan and her husband had run a business in Bronxville. It was just a prickle, possibly because Joan is European, and not to be expected to understand how things work here. It turns out that the grand old lady did more than prickle. She gave Joan some advice. “Don’t tell anyone that this is a business, Joan. Tell them that it’s a hobby, that your husband indulges your desire to do this while he works at the bank in the city. If you let anyone know that you depend financially on this business, they will boycott you.”

It sounded so strange! I had never heard of such a thing. And yet I instantly knew that the old lady’s advice was the best that Joan could have been given, and I said so at once. If I never knew of any instances of boycotting and so on, that’s because, to the best of my knowledge, the provocation never arose. None of my mother’s many friends, nor even the people whom she didn’t care for, ran a business, even as a “hobby.” The dawn of my social consciousness was the realization that it was “funny” that nobody who worked in Bronxville lived in Bronxville, and that everybody who lived in Bronxville worked, if he (or the very occasional she) worked at all, in the city. I grasped that this arrangement did not prevail in most places known, as Bronxville so insistently was, as “villages.”

(I honestly do not remember not knowing that it was wrong that Jews and blacks were not permitted to live there.)

Bronxville had been a village, once, a long time ago. A rather frontier-looking place, from the look of the old photographs. Then, in 1889, along came a millionaire, William van Duzer Lawrence, with a vision for development. Such visions were almost commonplace at the time; the oldest suburbs of New York, many of them within the city line now, were built as middle-class utopias. There must have been something mildly progressive about Bronxville, because support for an excellent public school arose early; but it would also have been “progressive” to exclude blacks and Jews, who were, in most middle-class minds, associated with poverty. (Prosperous Jews were believed to be dishonest.) Over time, Bronxville’s proximity to midtown Manhattan, not to mention a train station that anyone could walk to in half an hour or less, became a powerful magnet. Houses there are now very expensive, and of course the school is supported by high property taxes.

There are two Bronxvilles, the real or legal one (roughly a square mile in size) and “Bronxville PO,” the area covered by ZIP Code 10708 that is not within the legal Bronxville (another square mile, give or take). Most of Bronxville PO is in Yonkers, a city that stretches from the Hudson River to the Bronx River, but some of it lies within the unincorporated town of Eastchester, with a slice in Tuckahoe. (Both Bronxville and Tuckahoe are incorporated villages within Eastchester.) If you live in the real Bronxville, your kids go to Bronxville school (K-12) for free. If you live in Bronxville PO, your kids can go to Bronxville School if you pay a lot of money. William Lawrence’s former estate, now the nucleus of Sarah Lawrence College, sits in the middle of the part of Bronxville PO that is known as Lawrence Park West.

Joan told me that, while she was in residence, the Clintons were thinking of settling in Bronxville. But the Secret Service nixed it. According to village scuttlebutt, the Secret Service will not permit a former president to live on a property smaller than three acres. I don’t believe that there is a parcel of that size in Bronxville. The three-acre rule sounds slightly dubious to me, but I can understand the squeamishness about a relatively densely-packed suburb.

I haven’t been to Bronxville in a long time, but I expect that its principal beauty is still its trees. I have never heard that there is an official village forester or arborist, but I shouldn’t be surprised to discover one. (The village will, however, mow your lawn if you neglect to do so, and charge you punitively for the favor.) When I was a boy, before the Dutch Elm blight, Elm Rock Road was a cathedral of leaves, a truly exalting interior space. It may be that I am largely unimpressed by wilderness woodlands because I grew up in a sort of park that offered all the beauty of the forest without any of the inconvenience. As for the houses, however, they are for the most part not village houses, which is to say that they are too large and too formal for their small lots.  In Lawrence Park, which sits athwart the ridge that rises from the train station to the northeast, some houses are preposterously huge, perched on steep hillsides with only a patch or two of grass.

In one sense, though, Bronxville really is a village. Joan recounted several anecdotes attesting to the abiding absence of cosmopolitan mindsets. Having been married before, and having kept her maiden name, she ran into endless red tape at the school, because her name was different from that of her husband and two of her four children.

And I forgot! An exception is made for doctors. Doctors and dentists can both live and practice in Bronxville. I suppose that a lawyer might get away with doing the same, but I never knew of one to try. I know I haven’t spent any time in the village for decades, but Joan’s stories strongly suggested that not much has changed.

Mixed Grill:
In a Far Room
4 February 2015

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Two further but convergent thoughts inspired by the Charlie Hebdo massacre — both of them opposed to the editorial policies of that publication.

First: Why are images considered speech? Confucius never said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but when we consider the immediate emotional impact of images, the proverb is a gross understatement. Since the Charlie Hebdo killings, it has often been noted, mockingly, that the attack was launched not against serious policy makers who might influence and even shape socio-political circumstances but against cartoonists, the implication being that nobody takes cartoonists seriously. If this is literally true (and I believe that it is), then what is the virtue of protecting images from legislative prohibitions intended to prevent graphic insults to religious beliefs? All kidding aside!

Second: In the United States, insulting speech is judged preliminarily by the public standing of the victim. The idea seems to be — and I find it an eminently sensible one — that people who step forward into public life (not including those who are pushed into public attention by accident) can be expected to bear with a certain degree of mistaken allegations. What is a libel to a perfectly private citizen becomes punishable, if directed at a public figure, only if the statement has been made with reckless disregard for the truth.

The victims of religious libel are, surely, not the long-dead prophets and deities made to look ridiculous, but the private citizens who observe the religion in question. Making an exception for living religious leaders, I should welcome a ban on the publication of derogatory representations of sacred figures and their associated ethnicities, if any. I cannot believe that anyone would defend the broadcast publication (anywhere but in serious works of history) of any of the numerous, purposelessly disgusting antisemitic caricatures that began appearing soon after Jewish emancipation in the late Eighteenth Century.  


A few weeks ago, the always-interesting Adam Gopnik published a Paris Journal entry in which he wrote up Howard Becker, a sociologist of whom (no surprise) I’d never heard. If Gopnik hadn’t been the author, I’d probably have skipped the piece, as my opinion of sociology is fairly dim. Actually, Becker’s work, of which I now know something, having wasted no time ordering a copy of his new book, What About Mozart? What About Murder? and then having read about half of it, is free of sociology’s worst vice, the persistent search for normal. Becker has developed a method for conducting rigorous if not always “scientific” experiments without a “control.” He divides experimental groups, yes, but in such a way that the behavior of each tells him something that he didn’t know about the other.

In the New Yorker piece, Becker observes that he is more interested in how people come into power than in the fact that some people are powerful. At last, I thought to myself, thinking of my problem with “elites.” People talk endlessly (although not as endlessly as they used to do) about what the “elites” do or don’t do, but nobody seems to be very curious about entry into elite status.

In the book, Becker takes apart the relationship between users and drugs, a relationship that almost always involves permission. He begins with the startling and counterintuitive history of opiate addiction. In the last century, this was associated primarily with impoverished black men. Earlier, however, it turned up far more often among middle-aged white women. What happened? Shortly before World War I, the United States joined an international convention that forbade the unlicensed sale of opiates, that’s what. The women, mostly post-menopausal, went “more or less cold turkey,” while the opium business descended to neighborhoods too shaky to defend themselves from illegal activity. The irony simply could not be richer. There are, happily, few more ludicrous stories of official, “progressive” backfire — except that, if you had told the responsible officials what would probably happen by sharply limiting the sale of opiates, you might have perceived a very wicked gleam in their eyes. Becker is tremendously interested in how the people who give or withhold permission are chosen. To say that permission is granted or denied by “elites” is to say nothing at all.


An ecstasy of agony: I keep putting off The Blue Flower, and, with it, the last chapters of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I cannot believe that I will find it to be Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, so I’m afraid of being disappointed. Everything of Fitzgerald’s that I’ve read — seven of the novels (all but the first and the last) and the collection of wildly different short stories (different in length and setting, but all distinctly Fitzgerald) — is a masterpiece in some way or other. She tells good stories, certainly, but she tells them strangely, so that you dwell on the things she doesn’t tell you. Not that you try to work them out for yourself; it’s more like rubbing the gum from which a tooth has been extracted — an obsessive, haunting sensation. She spins in the opposite of Wagner time. Wagner’s operas go on for hours, but if you’re in the grip of one, it passes in a few blinks. Fitzgerald time vastly prolongs the experience of rather short books, not by making them feel endless to read but by creating the illusion of having read a Victorian triple-decker. As with Jennifer Egan, expansiveness springs from the unnoticed common ground between any two featured episodes. It is enchanted stuff.

On the strength of a photograph in Penelope Fitzgerald, I have shifted my attention to Penelope Lively, a novelist of the next generation after Fitzgerald’s. I’ve read the novel that won her the Booker, the awfully-titled Moon Tiger (graced, in the edition that I found most available, by an equally embarrassing graphic); I liked it, but I much preferred the more recent How It All Began, a roundelay in which the mugging of an elderly woman derails not only her own but at least six other lives. The mugging victim, Charlotte, is an appealing, retired teacher of English, famously gifted at inspiring her good students to be even better ones. Charlotte is dismayed to discover that she cannot rely on her project of re-reading classic novels to ease the tedium of a long convalescence. (Her hip was broken by the tumble.) I’ve read about this sort of thing before, always with profound alarm. Is there really a point at which good fiction no longer has anything to say? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard about ageing — which shows you what a spoiled brat I am.

Very curiously, Charlotte finds that she can read Henry James, of all writers, and she plows through What Maisie Knew, in my opinion James’s most difficult book. Sometimes, I simply don’t know what, precisely, James is talking about, while at others the basic scheme of retailing unpleasant behavior through the eyes of an uncomprehending child threatens to collapse from implausibility. That this should be open and available to the suffering Charlotte was very surprising, but while I have my doubts about Maisie, I had none about Charlotte. And then something absolutely uncanny happened. I don’t think that there is anything about How It All Began, aside from a certain fine, dry humor, that would remind a reader of Henry James — except this one tiny detail, which for all its tininess set off an alarm that wailed with pleasure.

The setting is the V & A, and never you mind about the lovers, whom for freshness’s sake, I have rechristened A and B.

The ceramics galleries did indeed turn out to be less frequented. A and B wandered alone past case after case, in which were gathered the crockery and the ornaments from everywhere, and every age, the plates, bowls, jars, tureens, vases, figures. The eye was caught by color, by shape, by glaze, by all this variety and ingenuity. They stopped, time and again, to admire, to comment, and came to rest at last in a far room which offered a comfortable seat from which you could contemplate more homely and local material…

They came to rest at last in a far room. Isn’t that exactly the blend of vagueness and specificity that James patented? How far? Far from what? Answer: the everyday, the ordinary — the licit. Far from “the reality” to which the couple will have to make separate returns. The oeuvre of Henry James was incorporated by sense memory.

Next up: The Photograph, which seems to be Lively’s most popular novel. We had a copy once, and I gave it away, in a fit of pique. Reading the first couple of pages, I was assailed by a sense of déja vu: I had read this before! But I couldn’t have done! There was nothing to do but get rid of the thing. This time round, I have no sense at all of a previous encounter, which underlines how thoroughly unreliable the power of déja vu really is.

Gotham Diary:
3 February 2015

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

David Brooks and Ross Douthat — I always read their columns in the Times. I want to see what they’re up to. Both are appealing writers of conservative allegiance, which, ordinarily, I should find repellent. But both write a good deal about faith and religion, and this is what draws me to them. What have men of faith got to say for themselves?

It is difficult for them to talk about God without sounding like the Dominican nuns who taught me in the first years of elementary school. Belief in God is good because it makes you behave. There is always a whiff of scolding.

Here is David Brooks this morning, listing the things that “secularists” are missing.

Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.

Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

One other burden: Past secular creeds were built on the 18th-century enlightenment view of man as an autonomous, rational creature who could reason his way to virtue. The past half-century of cognitive science has shown that that creature doesn’t exist. We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.

“Unconscious boredom” is pretty sneaky, don’t you think? But vintage Brooks: The Doctor Is In.

The weakest item on the list is the one about the Sabbath. Strictly speaking, the matter has already been covered by the first item — to which I should argue that there is nothing to prevent a secular person, somebody like me, who doubts very much that one’s thoughts about God are anybody else’s business, from weighing and considering existing moral philosophies and adopting whatever seems right. Having been educated in moral philosophy since childhood, I am hardly forced to dream up one of my own from scratch. It’s true that I was somewhat self-servingly eclectic in my youth. But life had a way of showing me the error of my ways, and encouraged me to think a little harder about the wisdom of the ages.

But Sabbaths! It seems desperate.The idea of setting an entire day apart for everyone to “drop worldly concerns” strikes me as both invasive and primitive. Hearkening back to Iron Age behavioral precepts always “reminds” me that life without bathrooms is much simpler, because you never need a plumber. Less is, quite often, just less — and “simple” a euphemism for “impoverished.”

I completely agree with the final item. I have been aware of this problem — that we are not rational animals — for all of my adult life, and I’m somewhat mystified that it’s news to anyone. It’s true that I have also tended to find manly talk about rationality perfectly ridiculous. Human beings are almost absolutely irrational by nature. But it’s also in their nature to want to do better. Hence diets and reading lists.

At the end of his column, Brooks writes, “The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second.” “Enchanted” sounds agreeably poetic, but I can’t make sense of it. Enchanted by what? And with whose consent? Enchantments are usually involuntary, or at least unasked for. I’m seeing fairy dust here. Otherwise, however, I agree. I might put it a little differently: “… one that better weaves together emotional commitments and the irrepressible longing for autonomy.” Only in miserable situations do human beings like being told what to do. We need to work harder on preventing miserable situations.

My belief is that robust self-respect is fully capable of the moral heavy lifting that compels religious people to follow commandments. I’m aware that the word “robust” might be guilty of the same special pleading made by Brooks’s “enchanted,” so I’d like to try to be clear about it. Robustness requires a number of positive circumstances: good health, particularly mental health; a reasonable degree of prosperity; social tranquility. The whole point of civil society — which may be seen as a slowly-evolving dialogue between human beings and their human nature — is to ensure these circumstances. Yes, we have a lot of work to do. Yes, it would be much simpler just to believe in an invisible supreme being who, to top it all off, created us.

I am not keen on community. In my experience, community is a platform for subjugation and renunciation, offered as a sort of insurance premium that promises to minimize the desolation of bad times. I frankly regard communities as herds: no thinking, please! I support civil society because it is based on conventions that can (with care) be changed, not dogmas that lead to fighting words.

Which takes me right to France, where Islamicist unrest is also featured in today’s paper. (“France’s Ideals, Forged in Revolution, Face a Modern Test.”) I have not had a chance to study (ie, to read about) the growth of France’s impoverished maghrébin community, but following recent developments has led to two conclusions. First, the presence of unassimilated North Africans in France reflects an irresponsibility on the part of the French state. Whether these people were allowed into France for economic reasons or to grant political asylum, it ought to have been clear that immigration was the first step in a long process, not the last in a short one. Successive governments have built the ghastly banlieues and imprisoned the newcomers and their descendants in meaningless lives.

Second, we have been through this religious freedom business in the United States. There are limits. Human sacrifice is not permitted. Nor is polygamy. I am no less opposed to distinctive headgear for women than I am to polygamy — no matter how “meaningful” either may be claimed to be by subscribers, the practices are both patently degrading to women and flattering to men. (The idea of flattering men makes me angry.) I am also opposed to minarets, if only because their primary purpose is to facilitate the call to prayer. I am all for bells, however, if French Muslims are willing to consider a shift.

But the faults of French Muslims are decidedly secondary. It is up to the government to envision a radical improvement in the quality of life in the banlieues. And the people of France must do everything to cooperate. They cannot at this time repudiate the mistakes of earlier leaders. The maghrébins are in France now, not the Maghreb, and they’re not going anywhere. France, just like everywhere else in the developed world, is in desperate need of good leaders.

Gotham Diary:
Alter Ego
2 February 2015

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

It is hard to think today. I had a couple of shocks late last week, and the worst of them was the very unexpected news of an old friend’s death. Although I don’t know quite why, this loss seemed to pack a warning to me, and I don’t know where to begin deciphering it.

That my friend had cancer I knew, but it wasn’t the cancer that killed him. On his birthday — we were almost the same age, he two weeks younger — he went into the hospital with pneumonia. Things just got worse and worse, and he died of sepsis after renal failure. Was it the chemotherapy? I watched chemotherapy kill my mother, but that was nearly forty years ago. Questions are idle. My friend never told me the nature of his cancer; he was too much the Southern gentleman to expose himself to pity. On the few occasions when we exchanged messages, he minimized the importance of his treatments, highlighting instead their nuisance value. I knew better than to press.

Our friendship had long had an emeritus quality. We had been colleagues for six years in our twenties, at the radio station. We both worked very hard to conceal the fact that we were in competition with one another, a task made easier by the fact that our jobs were in parallel. I was the music director — a rather jumped-up title of my own devising — and he was the program director, a vital position at any broadcasting station. He oversaw the announcing staff, produced the spots (commercials), arranged interviews, and in general ran the operation. I sat in a little room with my immense card catalogue, shuffling the month’s musical programming and then typing it up. My friend interacted with everyone; the only person I had to deal with was not even at the station: he was the offset printer who had to cope with my perpetual tardiness.

So our competition was not really professional. It was more professorial. We were both smart, presentable young men — actually, we would have been more presentable had we not been so damned full of how smart we were — who, instead of going to law school or doing something else to make money, were throwing our lives away (our nice families’ view) doing something “meaningful.” We were above, or below, the struggle for filthy lucre. We competed at playing this role, the object being to look cool and brilliant and not too shabby. I was better at brilliant, but somewhat unreliable; my friend was never not very cool. He had a beautiful voice that was most comfortable at the microphone, to which you might almost say that he made love. In person, he was inclined to mumble, so devoted was he to understatement, but on the air he was perfectly clear, if not loud.

Even though we were not at all alike, or thought that we weren’t at all alike, he served as my alter ego for almost all of the time that I spent in Houston. Another way to put it is that we were bound together during the passage from boyhood to manhood. And then I did go to law school, and, after leaving Texas for good, saw my friend no more than a dozen times during the rest of his life.

My friend was born and raised in Galveston, got a degree from Rice University, and until later life hardly ever traveled, but you would never have known that he was a Texan. A Southerner, perhaps — but one who had, long before I ever met him, scrubbed his voice of any trace of Dixie. This isn’t to say that he sounded like a Yankee, or a Midwesterner, or any other kind of American. That was an important part of his cool, as it is of mine.


Texas. One of the things I like most about Manhattan is that manhood doesn’t come up much. You don’t see young men worrying about whether they measure up to Clint Eastwood. No; they’re far too worried about their professional lives, real and projected. They’re not wondering what it takes; they’re just trying to prove that they have it. If you can make it here, you probably ought to stick around.

Over the weekend, I came upon an interview with Sebastian Junger, author of A Perfect Storm and now the director of three documentaries about war. In a nutshell, Junger believes that war is a good thing because it puts an end to doubts about masculinity. We ought to be grateful that war exists, because otherwise we would be menaced by hordes of insecure men looking for penny-ante ways of proving themselves. Just look at chimps &c.

To agree with this set of arguments — because they do seem to be correct, on the rough evidence — is not, however, to concede that war is any kind of ideal solution, or that we might not come up with something better.

And war — really, how long has it been since there was one? Nuclear weapons put an end to war as it was known from the dawn of history until the stalemate of Korea. “War as it was known” was an affair in which armies of roughly equal character confronted one another en masse, and at some distance from densely-populated areas. The only such war that I can think of since 1950 is the one that raged between Iraq and Iran in the Eighties. All the other recent conflicts have been what used to be called guerilla wars, and now are called insurgencies. In an insurgency, there is a profound imbalance between the opposing forces. One is massive and organized, the other local and improvised. Almost all recent conflicts have involved foreign occupation — usually, despite its refusal to see things as such, by the United States.

I doubt that the people of Syria have anything positive to say about war. Junger’s idea of war is effectively a sophomore-year-abroad program for men too poor or too lacking in intellectual firepower to attend a university. These “wars” are very far away, so much so that its veterans struggle with the cognitive dissonance between here and there. It was not very nice, or thoughtful, or productive, or anything else positive, of Chris Kyle to dismiss the people of Iraq as “savages,” but I can understand that it was one way of solving the conundrum that Fallujah and San Diego are on the same planet. If these wars were bought within the United States itself (as I sometimes dread will soon be the case), there would be very little talk of chimpanzees.