Archive for May, 2015

Double-Barreled Entry:
What Kind of Funny?
28 May 2015

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Every Wednesday, I see a different doctor. I’m very pleased with this arrangement, mostly because it works as an arrangement. I don’t have to think about it. All my waiting-room time (and I can’t complain about having much of that) occurs at the same time each week — after a nice lunch. Bad news is strictly rationed. So far, bad news has been amazingly rare and even then not very bad. I am always prepared for that trend to end, or at least I think I am. The weekly visits have the negative advantage of keeping me out of fool’s paradise, which I should certainly fall into if I went so long as a month without being picked and pawed over.

Yesterday, I saw the dermatologist. Half my visits to doctors seem to be visits to Dr Green. I last saw her three weeks ago. She advised applying a topical cream to rough spots on the back of my right hand and along my right arm. This was very hard to do, because you have only one really reliable finger for the two procedures. I made a hash of it for a few days, and then I enlisted Kathleen. Kathleen did such a good job of spotting the likely pre-cancerous areas and applying the cream to them that, after only five applications, the back of my hand near the base of my thumb “looked like Krakatoa,” as I put it to Dr Green yesterday. It was raw and red and it itched like hell. Kathleen and I agreed that we ought to discontinue the treatments. That was last week. The protocol for this cream is two applications a day for two weeks. After five applications, one per day for five days, I had to stop. I didn’t think that Dr Green would be pleased. I half expected her to send me to the Emergency Room, even though, by yesterday afternoon, the eruptions had calmed down completely, and the nasty red had turned to scaly white. Pretending that nothing was the matter, though, I read my novel in the examining room, waiting for her to come in and pronounce.

“That’s beautiful!” she pronounced. Protocols be damned: to Dr Green’s eyes, the cream had done its job. I was somewhat bemused. Beautiful, huh? I am not a hypochondriac, just an older man getting to be elderly, saddled with several ongoing chronic conditions (none of which seems to be the fruit of thoughtless self-indulgence), trying to be realistic. My hand was so ugly that I thought about wearing a glove when we went out to dinner over the weekend. And I know that, one of these days, one of the doctors is going to take a look at something and, frowning, go very grave.

But not today! (Yesterday.) My hand was “beautiful”! The cream was working — had worked. No worries! Then Dr Green took a biopsy from my scalp. Such excisions are de rigueur at these appointments, the only alternative being a procedure that “burns out” the cells in an area previously biopsied. Only rarely do I have to make an appointment with another doctor, for Mohs surgery.

Quite often, my next stop after Dr Green is Willy’s Barber Shop, two blocks away. Usually Tito cuts my hair. He never asks about the small circular bandages on my scalp; nor do they seem to get in his way. I had to wait a little while for Tito to finish with the customer in his chair, but I had my novel and didn’t mind.

In between the dermatologist and the barber, I passed the Video Room. This is not the time to marvel at the Video Room’s continued existence. Exist it does, and we ought to make more use of it while it does. I had the idea yesterday of asking for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Had it come out yet? I was told that it would be arriving on the premises later in the day. Would I like to have it sent over to the apartment? Yes, I should, I said.

The problem with renting new releases is that they’re due back the next day. I have flouted this rule more often that I care to think, but not recently; recently, I have avoided renting new releases. But it did appear that the evening would be free for video-watching. Kathleen would be getting home at a reasonable hour, and we’d have a simple dinner, after which I’d have nothing to do and, what’s more, very likely wouldn’t want to be doing anything. Watching something would be perfect. Why Kingsman, you ask? Very briefly: we saw Matthew Beard in a play over the weekend (scroll back a few entries). It emerged that Kathleen had not seen Matthew Beard in When Did You Last See Your Father. In that film, Matthew Beard plays the adolescent Blake Morrison, who grew up to be a poet (true life story) played, in the same movie, by Colin Firth. We watched the video, which I’ve got in our library, the other night. What was Colin Firth up to these days? I remembered Kingsman, which, as I recalled, didn’t do very well when it came out. Colin Firth in an unsuccessful movie — how interesting!

And Kingsman is, indeed, very interesting. Much too interesting, really. I will be taking second and third looks, because I have to figure out why Kingsman is both compellingly watchable and a complete train wreck. I think it has something to do with the exploding heads — the ballet of exploding heads, really. This ought to be gross, but it’s actually quite decorative, synched to “Pomp & Circumstance” for a moment — and that’s really gross. Then there is the early dismissal of a leading character. We encountered that phenomenon in Tommy Lee Jones’s haunting The Homesman, a movie that broke almost every Hollywood rule — something that you could almost predict before the action got going by the endless list of European producers. Like The Homesman, Kingsman plays with a venerable Hollywood genre in a way that is no more likely to be popular with American audiences than sweet-potato frites with tarragon aïoli. Give us the goddam fries!

Another maybe-problem is that Colin Firth plays a dry martini, suave and understated but — not a spoof! — saddled with the conscience of a Parsifal. That pained look that he brought to Mr Darcy nearly twenty years ago seems to have taken up permanent residence behind his face. And while Kingsman is over the top, it does not really fizz. Rather, as I just said, it explodes. There is something slightly orgiastic about death here, something that we haven’t seen since one of the greatest market-missers of all time, Zardoz. As Firth’s character observes, the quality of the old James Bond pictures depended on the inventiveness of the villain, and the villain here, played by Samuel L Jackson (looking a little pre-cancerous himself, I thought), is very, very inventive. Also very bad. The dark plot-within-the-plot of Kingsman, moreover, involves a hatefully tempting idea that must occur sooner or later to any intelligent person. (The only way to save the earth and its environment is radically to cull its human population.) Happily, this ugly idea is presented with maximum ugliness. There is nothing appealing about the vicious test runs or the sybaritic elites who have bought in on surviving the holocaust. We rejoice that the plot-within-the-plot is totally foiled — but then we go wash our hands, or consider taking a shower, even. Not a spoof!

Finally, working completely against the temper of the times, filmmaker Matthew Vaughn and his team have hit upon the rather delicious idea of having the agent of destruction be played by everyone’s smartphone. Delicious, that is, as in sweet-potato frites with tarragon aïoli. Kingsman loudly stands for the proposition that smartphones are for dumbfucks. It appears that these appliances can no longer be turned off. Still want one? It’s a question that no ordinary moviegoer wants to be asked.


I think I’ll just go right ahead and write tomorrow’s entry. There were three things that I wanted to talk about today, and I’ve only gotten through one. I also wanted to write about an Op-Ed piece that appeared in yesterday’s Times, in which Republican apparatchick Peter Wehner observes that the Democratic Party has moved more to the left than his own party has shot for the right. This seemed such a ridiculous proposition that I read the piece in 3-D, and what I saw was the complete absence (well, aside from the Affordable Health Care Act and the capital-gains tax) of issues on which there is a traditional left-right opposition. Economic issues, in other words. Wehner’s issues, in contrast, were the highly contingent ones, repeatedly taken up throughout American history by alternating parties, of immigration, incarceration, drugs, and climate change. There was a time, after all, when the Republican Party was the more progressive party — remember Lincoln? How about trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt?

There was also a time when the Democratic Party was the home of Dixiecrats, reactionary Southerners who were committed to the welfare of the working man only so long as the working man was white. Wehner’s piece, which expressed a bogus nostalgia for the “third way” of the Clinton and Blair governments, totally overlooked the metastasizing role of race in American politics, which, to a far greater extent than American society, has replaced outright racial bigotry with the overt pretense that there are no racial problems to attend to, a coded statement of the wish that poor blacks could be simply “disappeared.” As in: into prisons.

Well, enough about that. The third item on my agenda was the novel that I was reading while waiting for the dermatologist and the barber, Nell Zink’s Mislaid. It was not what I expected. I expected a more difficult read, with more challenging sentences and more obscure references. I expected not to understand it. It’s quite possible that I was too stupid to understand it, to understand that I wasn’t understanding it, and I shall follow the book’s reception, which has pretty much been a chorus in the key of Wowie!, with the greatest interest. What I made of Mislaid was an Appalachian shaggy-dog story, replete with anecdotal curlicues and unnecessary characters, related in the literary equivalent of high-octane stand-up comedy. Mislaid just may be incomprehensible — who am I to say? But it is certainly and unquestionably funny. Maybe the incomprehensible part lies in its being funny but not a funny novel. Because the argument can be made that the funniness of Mislaid gets in the way of its not-very-latent desire to speak unpalatable home truths about America today. It may be that the funniness of Mislaid is at odds with its satirical objectives.

After all, good stand-up makes you feel that you’re in on the joke, right? But what if the joke is really about how you are the problem? Not in the self-recognition sense of stand-up problems, which remind you of sins that you, too, have committed. The sins in Mislaid are sins that you’re probably too dumb to see as such. Mislaid makes you laugh, but it wants to make you laugh at yourself, at a self that you wouldn’t recognize.

And here is where the sprawling nature of the story becomes a liability. Mislaid wants to scold, but it has no self-discipline. It creates a “crazy” world in which anything can, and does, happen. In this world, a handsome gay male poet becomes infatuated with a lesbian virgin student, gets her with child, marries her, and then, years later, has sex with her biggest undergraduate crush (not a man). Threatened with commitment to a mental hospital, the mother absconds with one of her children, her daughter, for whom she secures a fake birth certificate according to which the girl is black. Her pale blondness means nothing, because the Commonwealth of Virginia, where the action is set, observes the “one drop” rule: one drop of “black blood,” no matter how genealogically remote, is all it takes to push a body over the color line. The purpose of this ruse is to make it more difficult for the poet father, who springs from an old Virginia family with Byrds in it, to track the mother and the daughter down. The daughter’s name, by the way, is Mireille — why? — and she is known to her father as Mickey. But on the run with her mother, she becomes Karen Brown. Perhaps these names exist in occult, Kabbalist harmony, but they look like dog’s breakfast to me. In fairness, I should note that the mother’s names are Peg and then Meg. There is at least a certain tidiness about that.

The only way to make a living on the run is to engage in illegal activity, and Meg — inevitably? inevitably? — takes to participating in a drug-distribution scheme. She does not take drugs herself, however, being a Good Mom despite everything else, and years go by before she is obliged, by a celebratory lapse, to inform her comrades that what they are peddling is not cocaine.

“It’s the finest coke on the East Coast,” the Seal insisted.
“Listen to me,” she said. “I know you’re experienced and all, but I used to run behind international faggotry, and I know cocaine when I taste it. This doesn’t feel like cocaine. Yecch!” She clenched her teeth and shuddered.
“It’s the stuff we been selling,” Lomax said. “Are you telling me they been shitting me?”
“I’m not a chemist,” she said. But seriously, if you were picking somebody to trust, at random, would you pick a drug dealer?”
“We’re all drug dealers here,” the Seal said.
“Are you wearing a really weird-looking shirt?” Meg asked him.
“It’s my sweatshirt I always wear.”
“Oh shit. I think it’s PCP. Honest to God. Fucking angel dust, man, I can’t believe it. You guys are the worst drug dealers in the whole godforsaken world!” She stood up and sat quickly back down. “Fuck!” she added.
“And we had them all paying cocaine prices,” Lomax said. “Aw, man. We were dicking people over right and left. Is that the kind of person I want to be?”

Consciences stricken, the Seal and Lomax consider Meg’s suggestion that they take up tennis. I’m not making this up, you know. “International faggotry” is funny; I get it; I know exactly what it means; you don’t know what dull is until you’ve been to one of their parties. But what kind of funny?

Bon weekend à tous!

Out of the Past:
Hello, Mr Robsjohn-Gibbings
27 May 2015

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

An odd little book arrived in the mail yesterday. It was published by Knopf in 1945. The illustrations are by Mary Petty, the New Yorker cover artist and occasional cartoonist best known for the monstrously oversized pinafores with which she dressed her discreet, efficient parlormaids. One of these parlormaids figures in several drawings for the odd little book, which is called Goodbye, Mr Chippendale. The author is a now-forgotten interior decorator and furniture designer, T H Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905-1976), whose chosen style was a kind of Graeco-Modern. He was, for a while, so popular with high-end clients that there is something almost churlish about his otherwise slim and graceful attack on the hold that “antique” furniture and “period” rooms had, and continued to have until quite recently, on American housewives. I suppose you might say that the obsession with what my father-in-law calls “Louie the Phooey” came to an end with the demise of the American housewife herself.

I had not seen this book since, oh, say, 1962 — at the latest. At some point in the early Sixties, I drifted through the card catalogue in the Bronxville Public Library, probably trolling the subject drawers for “Chippendale.” I stumbled on the card that led to the book. I quickly realized that the book was not for me; it was against Chippendale. It was for Modern. No, no, no! (But “Robsjohn” — was this name, so like my own, trying to tell me something?)

What was I doing looking up Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) in the early Sixties? I don’t really know, but I was certainly looking for information, not complaints. I associated Chippendale with ball-and-claw feet, which fascinated me. I don’t know the reason for that, either. In our living room, there was a love seat fitted out with ball-and-claw feet (the two feet in the front only, however). It would be years and years and years before I realized that the foot clutching the ball belonged to a predatory bird, ever since which recognition I have found ball-and-claw feet to be somewhat gruesome. The love seat is now in my living room, very nicely upholstered in scarlet silk shot with gold sheaves. The upholstery and the ball-and-claw feet are hidden, however, by slipcovers.

In those days, my idea of heaven was 1740. A stately house, or even just a house, somewhere outside of but not too far from London. I had never been to London. I had been all over the United States, but it would be some time before I crossed the Atlantic. When I finally did see London (and England), it was even nicer than my dreams. But by then I had outgrown my fixation with the Eighteenth Century as the best of all possible times.

What had happened initially, really, was that Handel’s Water Music became the sound track of my life, and I simply wanted to make my world look like my theme songs. I cultivated an interest in Alexander Pope, reading his poetry aloud it fits of uncomprehending affectation that it would send me to the Emergency Room now to witness. Also, I decided that electric lamps were hideous innovations, and it’s a wonder that I didn’t ruin my eyes reading Pope by candlelight. Ergo: Chippendale?

It was at about this time that my mother, who was definitely one of Robsjohn-Gibbing’s targets, as besotted by antiques as anybody, began to introduce Victorian elements into our home. She did this with flair and aplomb — I must grant her that — but I was appalled. I loved Pope; I loathed Dickens. The Nineteenth Century was, to me, the river of death that cut me off from a Golden Age. I still find photographs of Victorians in their finery tremendously uncomfortable to look at. Everyone looks so hot! And the clothes usually look rumpled or dirty, especially the men’s. (I expect that photographs of eighteenth-century personalities would be even more sordid, but we don’t have any and my impressionable youth was untroubled by them.) Victorian furniture and Victorian knick-knacks were as repulsive to me as rotting meat. My mother’s treachery intensified my pursuit of actual knowledge about old stuff.

The only thing that I remembered about Goodbye, Mr Chippendale when I ordered it via Alibris a month or so ago — aside from the Mary Petty drawings, which are indeed lovely — was the mention of something called “the Turkish corner.” I had never heard of such a thing. It sounded appalling (Robsjohn-Gibbings shudders magisterially), but I’d have like to give one a spin, or, to put it better, a lounge. The idea seems to have involved placing a divan in an alcove, preferably behind a swooping portière, and lighting it with a lantern reminiscent of the Blue Mosque. In Petty’s illustration, a plain-faced matron is shown stretched out with a book. She is dressed like a matron, not a houri. That’s the joke, of course, because Turkish corners were designed to suggest very different pastimes. Somewhere, in the Sixties, there must still have been a few holdout Turkish corners in American mansions, but they were probably tattered and moth-eaten by then.

Robsjohn-Gibbings, who was a British import himself, has an interesting, not wholly successful writing style. He wants to be jocular, and he wants to write for Americans — he’s quite passionate about American design, which must needs be the design of democracy itself — but the rhythm escapes him. He can be quite funny, but he can’t sustain the comic tone, and a good deal of what ought to have sounded witty comes across as plummy and even slightly fatuous instead. This is especially the case when wires are crossed with the author’s distaste for housewives.

As far as the interior of houses goes, the average American man has most of his thinking regarding this part of his life done for him by his wife and her sisterhood of the interior-decoration seraglio, of whom the kindest thing that can be said is that they have revealed, with glamorous femininity, ideas of unparalleled confusion. (98)

A surprising number of currents pass through the short span of Goodbye, Mr Chippendale. Robsjohn-Gibbings could not have known where many of them would lead, and about others, such as the plight of the American housewife, he was not curious. He never stops to reflect that affluent married woman of his day were precluded from doing almost anything besides cooking for their families and decorating their homes — more accurately, overseeing the paid-for services of others. If they were silly and bored, no wonder! My mother would have loved to run a business, but as she was never a good student, and barely literate as a result, it’s hard to imagine that she would have been much more successful than Lucy Ricardo. When Kathleen and I were getting to know one another, one of the things that bonded us was discovering that our non-working mothers — and Kathleen’s mother had been a fashion editor at Parents’ Magazine — had both made rather businesslike projects of us. I should have much preferred benign neglect.

Robsjohn-Gibbings is also keen on New Deal planning. He has a thing for the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority that might seem misplaced in a book that lives to dish Elsie de Wolfe. He can have had little prevision that planning would come a cropper in the United States, the victim of know-nothing, anti-intellectual anti-Communism. (I’m waiting for a study of the extent to which Communists and their enemies alike made life stupid and miserable for millions, perhaps even billions, of people.) He doesn’t like plastics, but Petty presents us with a classic “Chippendale” armchair, ball-and-claw feet and all, that shimmers spectrally in transparent Lucite, an almost eerie prevision of the Kartell Louis Ghost chair. He has no use for “genuine” antiques, but his complaints about the Grand Rapids furniture industry neglect to mention their kitchifying effect. He praises chairs “built for the human body,” blithely untroubled by the inevitability of La-Z Boy recliners. Most interesting of all, he never discloses his day job. I’m sure the dust jacket did that for him.

Now, I suppose, I’d better read Goodbye, Mr Chips, or at least see the movie.

Rialto Note:
26 May 2015

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

It was not my intention to take Friday off from this Web log. I thought I’d write a short entry, wishing everyone a lovely Memorial Day weekend, but I never got to the desk. In the morning, Kathleen, taking the day off, was busy with her cameras, double-checking that she had rounded them all up, complete with manuals, cables, batteries, and so on. When she embarked on her errand — a beyond-her-dreams successful exchange at B&H Camera, from which she emerged with a very fine, mirror-less and therefore lightweight Sony — I settled in to a library-management session that took several hours. Then Ray Soleil arrived, to hang the last of the pictures, newly re-framed photographs taken by Kathleen years ago that had moldered, in the old apartment, along a wall that was half-blocked by a perpetually-open door. Just when he was about to leave, we got to talking, and soon we were sitting down to a good gossip, which lasted until it was time to dress for the theatre.

Except I was wrong about the theatre. After I’d gotten dressed, and while Kathleen, having had a nice nap, put her hair up, I made a show of examining the tickets, which I’d stashed in the breast pocket of my shirt. Yes, they were for Skylight. Yes, the curtain time was 8:00 PM. But how did it get to be the twenty-third so fast?

At least the tickets weren’t for the night-before’s performance.

So, we went out to dinner (I’d gotten dressed!), and nothing ever got written here on Friday. We went to Skylight the next evening. The John Golden Theater is on the small side, but its amenities — corridors, rest rooms — are smaller still. (There was a long line for the men’s room.) The prospect of the show to come —the curtain was raised — was equally dowdy. Skylight is set in a flat in Kensal Rise, in near-northwest London. While imaginative, Bob Crowley’s production design could not conceal the dumpiness of the premises, which would be demoralizing if the leading male character, here played by Bill Nighy, did not find it and them so outrageously unnecessary. The leading (and only) female character, here played by Carey Mulligan, has quite evidently elected a life of relative poverty, from which she could presumably escape at any time. The flat is, in short, a purgatory, in which she is expiating the sin at the heart of the play. Her redemption might not necessarily involve escape from Kensal Rise, but it would entail a deep understanding of it, something that we, too, come to feel in the final moments. Rarely can snow have fallen so beautifully — so pathetic-fallacy humanely — on a council estate.

But we did not go to see Skylight to be stirred up in a bubbling cauldron of infidelity, financialization, and social justice. David Hare handles his themes with amazing grace, but they’re still themes, and at this particular moment of 2015 there does not seem to be a lot to say about them.

  • Infidelity — in this case, not so much the husband’s cheating on his (now dead) wife as the protégée’s, his lover’s, betraying her mentor, that same wife — is wrong, but this is not entirely clear while it is secret, because love, after all, is wonderful. The deeper lesson is that it is either wrong or very unwise — take your pick — to keep important secrets from your closest companion. (If you are not married to your closest companion, clear this up at once.)
  • Financialization — the consumption and inevitable destruction of commerce by money — is capitalism’s most alienating consequence. (I still don’t regard it as inevitable, though.)
  • Social Justice — as Joseph Mitchell said, there are no “little people.”

No, we went to see Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy on stage. I’d like to say that we went to see Matthew Beard, too, but I’d forgotten that he was in it, and even that there is a third character in Skylight (the man’s gap-year son, who was much shorter the last time the woman in the dump saw him). We did not see the first Broadway production, with Michael Gambon and Lia Williams. Which is a pity, because Bill Nighy so completely inhabited his role that (a) you forgot that he was Bill Nighy and (b, more to my point here) you couldn’t imagine Michael Gambon in it. Well, Kathleen couldn’t. I reminded her of David Margulies’s play, Collected Stories, of which we have seen three very different productions, with very different leading ladies — the late Uta Hagen, Maria Tucci, and Linda Lavin. Three rather different plays.

In their two films together, When Did You Last See Your Father and An Education, Carey Mulligan and Matthew Beard played young people of the same age. In Skylight, Ms Mulligan plays a woman nearly a generation older than Mr Beard’s character. The actors are in fact four years apart. The other night, Mr Beard, now 26, was utterly convincing as a scatty teenager. You might say that he danced his way through the performance. He was certainly responsible for carrying the play to its smiling ending.

What to say about Carey Mulligan? Stage goddess, definitely. I hope that she makes many movies, but not so many as to interfere with a humming career on stage. She already has the deep voice of an ageless diva, capable of oracular power. Why, her big speech about social justice got a round of applause, the only aria (so to speak) to do so. She was great not because she was impersonating a spellbinding character but because by some miracle of misdirection she was aiming her speech at the audience even as she seemed to be spitting at Bill Nighy. Our applause was a political response to righteous exhortation. That’s not at all out of place in a play by David Hare, but the point is that Carey Mulligan is capable of eliciting, demanding it — all the while looking astonishingly like Gene Tierney, who I don’t think ever really shouted at anybody.

And when she told Bill Nighy that she’d loved him more than anyone in the world, maybe more than she would ever love anybody, you understood her need for a penitential life-style. This was also, in its way, a political matter, but I’m sure that most of the audience felt it as high drama.

Paideia Today:
The Three Histories
21 May 2015

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

What is a liberal education? This question gets kicked around a lot, but no one ever seems to pick it up for a close look and a clear answer. I’d like to do something about that, on the theory that a mistaken or even wrong-headed set of specifics will get people thinking about details.

The first thing to do is to stop talking about the liberal arts. This term refers, precisely, to an ancient and no longer useful division of the fields of learning into seven categories, which you can go look up elsewhere, and, while you’re at it, make a game of trying to remember which ones fit into the trivium (from which our trivial derives) and which into the quadrivium. Knock yourself out.

The second thing is to remember what I’ve been saying about the true meaning of liberal: self-governing. The point of a liberal education is to teach a pair of skills: self-government in the individual sense (how to take care of yourself — with an accent on taking care of your mind, which is not just sitting there like a potted plant while you work out at the gym), and cooperation with others in self-governing organizations (the idea being that every organization ought to run itself well enough to be allowed to run itself without much outside interference).

There are two possible approaches to the problem of self-government. The first way, popular, but, in my view, useless, is to envision what self-government ought to look like. Imagining perfection, how do we get there? I have less than no time for this.

The alternative is to look at other, earlier attempts at self-government. Seeing imperfection, what went right? And how did it all come to an end? Everything does come to an end (visionary perfectionists hate this about life and deny it with every blink of the eye), but in its own way. These partial successes and ultimate failures would be dispiriting, if they were not also interesting to the point of fascination — as they are when they are described by a gifted and comprehensible historian.

Gifted and comprehensible? Surely the first term includes the latter? Sadly, it does not. C V Wedgwood was a gifted historian, but you would not expect primary school students to comprehend her. She wrote for adults, not for students or scholars, but for people who had seen something of life. Having just re-read one of her studies of Charles I, a book that I pushed myself through in college, I’m inclined to say that Wedgwood can’t be fully comprehended by anyone who hasn’t got some experience holding down a job and raising a family. So, what I mean by “comprehensible” is really nothing but what you probably already feel about history generally, because you were forced to read books that were beyond your grasp at the time. History is awfully boring when you’re not ready for it.

We haven’t got time for the What is History? question, and, besides, there’s no need to poke into it. History, like self-government, has two closely-related aspects. It is a collection of biographies and group portraits, of stories about people. This is how history is generally presented. It is also, however, a framework for relating all those stories. Alexander the Great flourished (briefly) about a thousand years before Charlemagne (a long campaigner). In between the two, something called Christianity emerged from obscurity to mantle the entire Western World in an ecclesiastical edifice that provided, among many other things, an authoritative focus, the one voice of the one God — the pope — capable of anointing Charlemagne’s enterprise with a manifest blessing, a boon unknown to Alexander, who, without it, remained a mere opportunist. We may snicker at the pretensions of papal anointments, but we derive from them our sense (nowhere stronger than in some parts of the United States) that God is behind our nations, that they are not “merely” political setups. It is the framework side of history that shows us how to fit two eminently biographiable characters into one human history.

My examples have come from a branch of history — political history — that, for most people, is simply (and sadly) history. The bookshops will remind browsers of another kind of history, very popular with grown men, military history. But I regard political and military history as belonging alike to the history of government. The history of government is one of the three kinds of history that form the foundation of my idea of liberal education.

The other two kinds are the history of science and the history of literature. I hope that you see what I’m up to with the history of science. I’m taking all the science and maths courses and gutting them for what’s needed to make the history of science comprehensible to people who will never ever be scientists. I don’t care if students know how to add fractions, unless it’s important for the understanding of a development in the history of science. What the liberally educated student needs to learn about is the painstaking, against-the-odds growth of a particular view of the natural world that has unleashed, in the past century, an astonishing and terrifying amplification of human power. I would also prescribe studying the history of the scientific humanities, sociology, economics, and psychology, that, because they concern human beings, cannot actually follow the scientific worldview.

(The study of science as it is currently practiced, in laboratories and elsewhere, does not belong to liberal education. It is a high-end vocational program. I envision limiting it to apt students, at urban institutions and on summer campuses. It has long been my argument that New York’s prestigious private schools ought to give up competing on the bunsen-burner front and pool or spin off their resources in one always up-to-date academy.)

What has the history of literature got to do with self-government? Simply this: it is from literature and its history that we learn how people have seen themselves, how they have appraised their virtues and vices, since they began writing things down. You could call it the history of psychology, if that were helpful in explaining that human self-consciousness has changed just as much as human government and human understanding of the world. We’re told that Homer’s heroes regarded the lungs as they center of consciousness and the mind. (They literally had no idea what brains were for.) It’s not hard too see, then, why those heroes encountered the world through their feelings, with gripping intimacy. Our apparently more correct view privileges the eyes, which sit right in front of the brain and feed it news updates all day long. To encounter the world through your eyes rather than your feelings is to do so more comprehensively but also more remotely. The history of literature tells of the ever-growing distance that we have stretched between our minds and the world. We see it better, and we can control it more effectively. But we also feel displaced. Many of us yearn to recapture the (blind) passions of Hector and Achilles, and throw ourselves into video games and battle re-enactments. Only connect, advised Forster. Easier, so much easier, said than done.

How to deliver this liberal education to growing children and young adults is a conundrum I reserve for another time. I do see the three histories as the backbone of the entire scholastic undertaking, beginning in first grade and running through college. Beyond that, I probably won’t have very much to say about it, because the stuff worth knowing about it will come from experience and experiment. I try not to envision.

Reading Note:
The Hell and High Water of Family Life
20 May 2015

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Last night, I finished reading Angela Bourke’s biography of Maeve Brennan. I’ve still got some of Brennan’s stories to read, and also her novella, The Visitor (written early but published poshumously), to get through. For the moment, though, I know everything that there is to know, conveniently, about this funny but elusive writer. And it seems to amount to nothing.

When I ask, Why was she such a loner?, I am merely betraying my own conviction that everyday life would be unendurable without a dear companion — or, at the very least, the memory of a long and dear companionship. I don’t think that I’d know how to make sense of the chaotic flush of small-time experience if I lived alone; I might learn to stop noticing it altogether, simplifying my days into unbearable sameness. But there are hints that the illness that overtook Brennan in late middle age was not unforeseeable. She seems always to have kept her distance. Her poise, her fashionable attire, her careful makeup — these were the tools of a geisha, attracting the interest of others even as she withdrew behind her appearance. Either she spoke with wit and humor, or she stayed silent. She was never, despite the moniker, long-winded. Long-winded speakers get lost in their own talk; they forget what they really want to say; they repeat themselves. Brennan never does any of these things. Everything that she writes is just as beautifully presented as she herself was, at least until the interior disorder became too distracting. She was not available (on the evidence that I’ve seen) for casual contact. Even when she stayed up late, drinking too much with the boys, she remained self-contained.

What was that interior disorder? Sometimes, it sounds like schizophrenia, because, without her medication, Brennan lost touch with reality, and frequently descended into paranoia. Sometimes, though, she sounds like the victim of some monstrous abuse, the memory of which could no longer be borne. Brennan’s penchant for disappearing without a trace — she was quite good at this — suggests occasional breakdowns, and a fatigued inability to deal with some kind of horror. This doesn’t mean that any horror actually occurred. There is no evidence of abuse in the family history that has survived — none whatever. Perhaps the horror was simply the realization, arrived at in childhood, that none of the options open to a woman in the Ireland of that time could sustain her, for the simple reason that Brennan was deeply, constitutionally disobedient. This trait was masked by an accord with convention and a belief in politeness. She dreaded commitment. So she would never be a mother, she would never be a nun, and she most certainly would never be the spinster who could be relied upon by her family to take care of everybody else. Brennan was a writer in a country that did not grant women the autonomy that the writing life requires. She was in exile before she ever left Ireland.

She later claimed that she had fallen in love with Walter Kerr, when they were both graduate students at Catholic University, in Washington, and that her heart was broken when he redirected his attentions to the woman who would become his wife (and famous, as the author of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, for being so). Well, maybe. Brennan strikes me as too steely to snap after one disappointment.

I come away not wishing that I had known Maeve Brennan well but rather wishing that more of her snappy commentary had been written down. Her impertinence could be delicious. Replying to a New Yorker reader who wanted more stories set  in Herbert’s Retreat, she pretended to be her editor, William Maxwell, and announced that Miss Brennan was dead, having shot herself in the back “with the aid of a small handmirror” in St Patrick’s Cathedral; whereupon fellow Irish writer Frank O’Conner, who was “where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving penance to some old woman,” stuffed her corpse into the poor box, whence it took six strong priests to extract her. New Yorker colleagues were summoned, and they bore her body back to the magazine’s premises “on the door of her office.”

I am glad to know that someone remembers her. As for her, I am afraid that she would only spit in your eye. She was ever ungrateful. One might say of her that nothing in her life became her.

This is great, huge fun, but what a warning those closing lines convey! I wish I’d been sitting at the next booth at Costello’s.


Speaking of funny writing, I’ve got Nina Stibbe’s novel, Man at the Helm, and it’s a good thing I’m taking four heart medicines. Every other word is shockingly funny. The story, so far, is droll and amusing. Two sisters seek to find a husband for their mother, lest, without a man at the helm, she go completely to pieces, and her children become wards of the court — victims of what we call the Child Protective Services. The mother, trying to recapture the glory of having been a produced playwright at the age of sixteen, and obsessed with the failure of her marriage, writes plays, or The Play, with dialogue such as the following:

Adele: I see you’ve remarried.
Roderick: Yes, a more accomplished woman with a nice tinkling laugh.
Adele: But plumper?
Roderick: Well, not a boyish stick like you.
Adele: But you like boyish sticks.
Roderick: Not any more. I now prefer accomplished pears.

Accomplished pears. There you have it. The story is smilingly good, but the writing is surgically hilarious. Really, if Stibbe were running electrodes over the funny bones in your brain, you couldn’t laugh any harder. Here are the sisters in confab:

“We don’t want too many unmarried candidates, they might not have the necessary.”
“The necessary what?” I asked.
“Experience etc. If they haven’t experienced the hell and high water of family life, they might go to the bad with the shock of it.”

Now, there is a sentence worth memorizing. Another example from these early pages: “When our mother told us this news, we didn’t think it very important, as you often don’t with important things until you realize.” There is a whole world of young-adult nightmare in that final but drastically incomplete clause, until you realize. The breeziness of Stibbe’s narrative voice confers something of the madcap transgressiveness of Kay Thompson’s Eloise, so much so that I should not be at all surprised to discover, within the next chapter or two, that the girls have transformed their new home, right under the eyes of their distracted, bibulous mother, into a bordello.

Gotham Diary:
19 May 2015

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Regular readers will be familiar with my assertion that, if you’re reading this Web log, you are a member of that elusive class, the American élite. I don’t mean — needless to say? — that the American élite reads this Web log, but only that anybody capable of reading these entries with pleasure will have had the benefit of the kind of education, as well as some of the “life experiences,” that are known, regrettably, only to a lucky few.

“Lucky few,” however, is by no means just another pretty way of saying “rich.”

Like an urban Dian Fossey, Wednesday Martin decodes the primate social behaviors of Upper East Side mothers in a brilliantly original and witty memoir about her adventures assimilating into that most secretive and elite tribe.

Excuse me, but this is a misuse of “elite.” Ghastly plutocrats with hedge funds — those ritzy parking lots for other people’s money — may be a secretive tribe, but nobody, save perhaps the more witless watchers of television, is looking up to them. Or to their wives.

Wednesday Martin — Dr Martin to you, if you can keep a straight face — is a primatologist who married a millionaire, or something like that. Her new book, Primates of Park Avenue, is coming out at the beginning of June. An excerpt, or a summary — a “tasting” is probably the mot juste — appeared in Sunday’s Times. Kathleen and I did the don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-to-cry thing. Mostly, we were horrified by the irruption, at the wealthiest levels of New York life, of manners associated with much poorer folk, viz immigrants from socially conservative places (in other words, everywhere). According to Martin’s précis, the men and women with whom she tried to fit in lead sexually segregated lives. They even have dinner parties at which the men sit at one table and the women at another.

The commingling of men and women on equal terms has been the hallmark of élite society in the West since the days of Louis XV. It has taught men how to care about other people’s lives and women to care about other people’s families. To turn your back on this heritage is to step back into a past with no future. In my opinion, a planet overrun by mere primates would not be particularly worth saving.

Part of me can’t wait to see Martin’s book, to swallow it in one great giggly guzzle. Another part of me is faintly nauseated, as is also the case with Look Who’s Back, Timur Vermes’s Hitler book, which is funny but, to say the very least, unnerving. I haven’t been able to get very far into it — but then that’s largely Maeve Brennan’s fault, and Angela Bourke’s. Bourke is Brennan’s biographer: Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker: An Irish Writer in Exile devotes fully half its length to Brennan’s Irish background and childhood, bringing her to the age of seventeen and the beginning of her sojourn in the United States. I have learned a great deal about early modern Ireland from Bourke’s book, and I have wandered through the surprisingly fresh hell of Brennan’s short stories. Look Who’s Back, in contrast, plays with material that is all too familiar. Primates of Park Avenue promises to be just as bizarre as Vermes’s account of a miraculously reconstituted Hitler (he wakes up on a sunny summer day in the Berlin of 2011), but its heart will probably be just as dreadful.

Nothing very interesting ever happens when men or women gather by themselves.


Almost as thorny as pinning down a definition of “the élite” is settling the meaning of a “liberal education.” I collect books on the subject, even when I know that they’re not likely to be very good. Consider Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education. It is, like everything else that I’ve read by Zakaria, a protracted speech — an oration intended to excite feelings. Although it has a lot of good things to say about its subject, it is not specific, and it draws heavily on the musings of businessmen for its persuasive arguments. Yet again, liberal education is seen as a kind of nourishing soup, with plenty of wholesome ingredients. Properly digested, it teaches its consumers how to write, how to speak, and how to learn.

Books like this are unhelpful, because they focus on the personal benefits of a liberal education, and leave important social benefits in the background. They seem mesmerized by the uselessness of liberal education, as if this could somehow be a good thing. This uselessness, they hastily argue, is only apparent. But they don’t attempt to describe the actual usefulness of a liberal education, usually begging off with the excuse that to do so would be coarse and heavy-handed. We must take it on faith that a careful reading of The Portrait of a Lady is a good thing, because different readers derive different insights from the novel. or from any novel. People who write as casually about liberal education as Zakaria does suffer from schizophrenic impulses: they hanker for a “common core,” but are determined to preserve the student’s right to take whatever courses catch his or her fancy. Zakaria writes about this conflict, but he does not seek to resolve it.

As I said the other day, the key objective of liberal politics is self-government. This means that every level of social organization — the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the commercial enterprise, the public institution, the town, the city, the nation — is to be capable of governing itself without outside interference. This is not to say that laws and regulations are unnecessary, but only that they’re signs that self-government is, at some level and at a particular moment in time, not effective. The ideal liberal polity would require no laws and no regulations.

I see very few liberals on the scene today. Political argument is limited to two points of view: the rejection of “society” by libertarian conservatives, and the vilification of “selfishness” by champions of social justice. Neither of these parties has much of anything to say to the other, so actual political discussion is just about nil. It’s worse than that: each side is doing little more than waiting for the other side to disappear.

A liberal education would teach men and women to govern both themselves and, in cooperation with others, the world. It would do so by teaching men and women about themselves as individuals who must cooperate in the world: it would have to teach them about the world as well. I have oulined the specifics before, and I shall do so again.

Gotham Diary:
Our Parties
18 May 2015

Monday, May 18th, 2015

The MTA has a little storefront on Second Avenue, between 84th and 85th Street, which is usually closed but which hosts occasional outreach meetings, mainly, I suppose, to answer questions (and to field complaints) about the construction of the new subway line. Walking past it the other day, I saw that a map of the new line had appeared on the fencing running along the street side of the sidewalk. This was very gratifying, because it absolutely confirms what I have been telling people for well over a year now — without ever having seen so bold and unambiguous a graphic. Every now and then, I would wonder upon exactly what evidence I was basing my predictions. No longer!

The map also confirms that I shall be able to get to Carnegie Hall in three stops, and without crossing a street. Although the map doesn’t show it, the next stop on the Q is 49th Street. If you have boarded the front of the train, you step up to 47th Street, the top of Times Square, from which most Broadway theatres are a short walk away.

People often shake their heads incredulously when they realize that only three subway stations will be built in this phase — not much of a Second Avenue Line. What they overlook is that these three stations feed the most densely populated part of the United States, which has been jamming itself into maddeningly crowded IRT trains (running under Lexington Aveue — but definitely not stopping at 63rd Street, as the map above might suggest to the uninitiated; the 63rd Street Station lies far beneath the 4, 5, and 6 tracks) for nearly a century. Not only that, but the Q line will carry Upper East Siders into the West Side of midtown, effecting that rarest of subway amenities, a crosstown run.

I should live so long.


Our first party in nearly two-and-a-half years went very nicely on Saturday. Part of me wishes that I were giving another party in two or three weeks, so that I could demonstrate what I learned from this one. And so that I could reinforce what I did right. But only a very small part of me wants to be entertaining anytime soon. I’m thinking about giving another party in October. We’ll see.

What made this party unlike every party that I had ever given was that it was merely an extension in quantity of life as we ordinarily live it. There was more of the stuff that we usually eat and drink — served on paper plates. I had thought, initially, of hiring a bartender, but the man who did a nice job for me a few years ago has moved on to real estate, and I didn’t feel like making the effort to find another. The only effort that I truly felt like making was to prevent the party from derailing my domestic rhythm, which, while it is no longer delicate, is still in development. When I accepted the fact that I would be giving the party without outside help, I decided that there would be nothing about it that could be called a “production.”

Two or three times over the years, I have rather desperately given “dump” parties: jugs of wine, bowls of potato chips, a few store-bought nibbles. But we don’t live like that, either. So the dining table was laden with cheeses and grapes and olives, and a beef tenderloin that I served sliced, with French toasts for open-faced sandwiches. There was a big bowl of shrimp that I had deveined (but not shelled) and boiled. For the first time in decades, I made a cheesecake. There were bowls of “mix” — what is the culinary name for these mélanges of crispy bits dusted with spices? — on the coffee table. The sideboard in the foyer was set up as a bar — far from the food. When the party was over, there was still plenty to drink, but almost nothing to eat. Only a quarter of the cheesecake remained — along with about two of the five pounds of shrimp, which stayed in the refrigerator. There ought to have been some sort of pâté, or perhaps two, as I can never make up my mind whether to do chicken livers, which I love, or Julia Child’s Pâté Maison, a meaty affair not unlike a very dense meat loaf. So: why not both? I spent very little time in the kitchen, even with all that deveining of shrimp. I had plenty of room in the fridge, because I have made a lot of progress toward my goal of keeping it less than half full at all times. If I’d known how roomy the fridge would be, I might have attempted deviled eggs. Deviled eggs, however, are borderline “production,” and they can’t be made too far in advance. I’ll save the deviled eggs for the more elegant cocktail buffet that I’m thinking about, for twelve to sixteen select friends.

There were the usual thirty people, the same people who always come. The people who never come didn’t come this time, either, even if only about half of them sent the requested regrets. When the party was over, I had had actual conversations with perhaps three people, and at first I was, as usual, disconsolate about this. But then I remembered an exchange that I had with one of Kathleen’s cousins, a woman who had played (and won at) tennis that morning, and then driven down from Portland, Maine, as she was on her way out the door. “But I didn’t get to talk to you,” I whined. “Oh, I knew that wasn’t going to happens,” she said, “but it was great to see you.” And that really was the point. The point of these parties is for a bunch of people who never cross paths outside our apartment but who have been bumping into each other at our crowded parties for decades — and this would include the lovely Ms NOLA, who has been a guest in our home for over ten years now — to get together for a chat and a laugh.

There is, in short, nothing important about our big parties. That is what we do, Kathleen and I. We don’t celebrate anything (perhaps a birthday, meaning a five-minute interruption in the chaos), we don’t show people off, we don’t present entertainment, we don’t even serve remarkable comestibles. Our parties are totally pointless, in fact, and this is what makes them agreeable, it seems, for the people who keep coming back. Well, okay, they’re not pointless. And it’s true that we were showing off the apartment for the first time. But our parties provide our friends, most of whom like to talk as much as we do, with a fresh but not unfamiliar audience.

When the time comes to plan the next party, whether or not it’s in October, I plan to invite at least fifteen new people, in hopes that five or six will come. And I hope that some of the old friends who had to be elsewhere this weekend will be able to come next time. I may even court a few of the people who never come. And that will be the angle of the party that I shall “work.” Everything else about our parties will remain just the same.

Only with better garbage cans. All those paper plates!

Gotham Diary:
Business and Capital
15 May 2015

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Before I get going, I want to make it clear that, as a retired lawyer, I am perfectly well aware of the legal definitions of the words that I’m going to compare and contrast in what follows — especially when, as with “businessman,” they have no legal meaning at all. I’m going to ignore all that legal and economic jargon, and use words as people do in everyday life. The difference between a business and a corporation, then, is a degree of remoteness and consolidation. A businessman runs a business in a specific location or area, where he is generally known, while corporations run many businesses remotely. The fact that there is no legal difference between a corporation owned by a businessman who (or whose family) is its principal shareholder and a corporation whose shareholders number in the tens of thousands is merely an instance of the poverty of the law.

Of course, businessmen require access to accumulations of money. There is no way to inch your way up to the amount of money required to start a business. If you don’t have it yourself, you must borrow it from investors. Down the road, you may see an opportunity that can be taken advantage of only if you can get your hands on another pile of money. For several centuries, it has been fashionable, but nonetheless misleading, to call these piles of money “capital.”

The businessman’s money is intended to launch a business operation. Capital, properly speaking, is deployed only to increase itself.

A businessman has to make a profit — that’s his living. A successful businessman makes more money than he needs, but making money is only part of his overall objective. A businessman — how often this is overlooked! — is somebody who wants to run a business. Being a businessman is his occupation. As such, he has all sorts of purely personal investments in the business. He has relationships with his employees, which may be good or bad. He has goals, such as extending a service business into a new territory. He may simply want to pay off his investors, and be the sole owner of his enterprise. The excellence of his product or services is unlikely to be a matter of indifference to him. Of course there are businessmen who are “all business” — that is, all about the money. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not businessmen. So long as they show up at work every day, they’re just stunted businessmen.

I repeat: profit is vital to any business. Businesses are not charities. But the men and women who run businesses are usually involved with them beyond the scope of a balance sheet. That’s simple human nature. Economists have been trying to tell us to ignore this non-financial involvement, or at least to regard it as superfluous to economic considerations, because it doesn’t mean anything to them. We ought to ignore them, and look at the businessmen we know. Businesses are intensely social. In addition to employees, there are contacts, and there are (of course!) customers. There are other people everywhere you look. It can be gritty and sloppy and nasty — occasionally. My bet, though, is that any business that has operated along much the same lines for ten or fifteen years is a viable social organization.

Economists much prefer capitalists, because capitalists have none of this engagement. Their concern stops at the balance sheet. They do not show up for work every day. Sometimes, they are immense humbugs, like Andrew Carnegie, who pretended to care about his steelworkers. They prefer to regard the people who do things for them as independent contractors, not employees. The capitalist’s ideal number of employees is zero.

A capitalist has no reason to consider the welfare of any workers. The businessman has every reason. The capitalist is a ghost. The businessman is a pillar of the community, or at least a contributor to the local police and fire charities.

It’s precisely this personal nature of business that produces great instability when the businessman dies, or retires and cannot sell his business or give it to a family member. This is when businesses, if they are successful, go “corporate.” Corporations are by nature capitalist entities, intended to maximize return on investment whatever it takes, but in reality corporations are run by people who, as often as not, operate as businessmen. The managers of a corporation are more like well-paid businessmen than capitalists. Like the businessman, they, too, have their employees and their contacts. They may even deal with customers, although isolation from customers is one of the key features that distinguish a business from a corporation. In my admittedly limited experience, managers talk like capitalists when they must but behave like businessmen when they can.

Am I suggesting that a businessman would never replace his employees with robots? Let’s not say “never.” But it’s my belief that a businessmen will be far more likely to equip his employees with semi-autonomous robots, especially as cost comes down (which of course it will), than to replace them with fully-autonomous robots. He may shave his payroll a bit here and there, but he is unlikely to want to be the only person who shows up for work everyday.

All of this is written with the assumption that any businessman would make a good capitalist, that businessmen have a choice to make. In most cases, I don’t think that they do, anymore than a gifted pianist can simply choose to be a concert artist. We applaud the concert artist and back away from the capitalist, but the fact is that both make tremendous sacrifices to focus.


I wrote this shortly before reading Tad Friend’s profile of Marc Andreessen in the current issue of The New Yorker. You could read the piece as making complete hash of the distinctions that I’ve been working through. What does Andreessen sound like if not a capitalist who wants to make the world a better place by getting rich (very rich, “1000x”)? It also appears to me that these paragraphs belong to the vanished world of my youth, before the financialization of everything. My belief in the humanism of commerce nevertheless persists, and I know a humbug, even a self-deceiving humbug, when I see one.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
This Robot Thing
14 May 2015

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

There has been a lot of buzz in the press lately, about how robots will soon be doing everybody’s job. Be afraid, be &c &c!

I think it’s time to drop the Chicken Little act. We are not helpless victims of a technological juggernaut — not unless we want to be.

Almost thirty years ago — in the fall, I think it was — I got my first computer, an IBM Peanut. Oh, how hopeful I was! I knew that the Peanut was a very limited machine, but I also knew that it was right for someone like me, without a tech background. We were, both of us, Entry Level. There were a few applications for the Peanut, although I can’t remember what they were. What did the damned thing do? I used it mostly to teach myself BASIC. I told my friends, very few of whom had computers of their own (or would even acquire computers within the next ten years) that there was an analogy to be made between now, the late Eighties, and the early days of automotion. As the owner of one of the first cars, either you or your chauffeur had to know how to operate the engine — and how to fix it. You did not simply slip behind the wheel and turn a key. Oh, no. At this point, my analogy creaked a bit, because I had no intention of opening the case and playing with the motherboard. I knew where that would lead. But I would learn a thing or two about coding, so that I could teach my computer what I wanted it to do.

This dream took a long, long time to die. Oh, I gave up BASIC soon enough. I saw that I was never going to be equipped to direct the operation of a computer. Besides, I was ready to move into the automotive analogy of easy ignition. Once I got the drift of how code worked, I lost interest, and reverted to my native English. I expected the market, which was always humming with newer and faster promises, to make my computer more automated. Just press a button!

I think I’ve said this before: every morning, before I write a word, I set up the day’s page with a patch of HTML. Then I select the day’s image. I assign a new name to the image file, and save it in a special folder. Then I open the image in Photoshop, where I see if Auto Smart Fix does anything to make it look better. I also decide whether to crop the image. Then I resize it, always to the same width, and save it again, this time with yet another name. If you place your cursor over the photograph, you can see the name. It is always the width of the image (always the same), followed by a spacer “x,” followed by the date, and usually with the letter “a” at the end. (Sometimes, I change my mind, dig up another image, and save it as *b.*) Then I return to WordPress and the day’s page. I insert the image. I save the draft. Only then do I start writing.

If my computer were truly automated, it could perform all of the functions that I’ve just enumerated, from the moment I chose the day’s image to the moment I began writing. The procedure is unvarying, and I rather resent having to do it myself. What’s the computer for, anyway, if not to pick up the tedious jobs? I should, however, reserve decisions about enhancement and cropping to myself. I do not believe that algorithms could take my place, especially as regards cropping — even if cropping is something I usually don’t do. In other words, if there were money to be made, someone would peddle a simple but foolproof application for mimicking routines and passing through discrete applications (ZoomBrowser, Photoshop, Windows Explorer, and the Web browser on which WordPress operates). But no one, not even I, even if I were gifted with all the coding savvy in the world, could create an algorithm that would take the place of my snap judgments about cropping photographs.

My point is not to say that we have nothing to worry about because robots will never be able to take the place of human beings completely. That may be true, but what matters is whether robots can do enough of the job well enough to warrant slight reductions in quality. Cropping, in this view, becomes an expensive add-on feature, because a human being has to do it. Does it really have to be done? That’s a classic business decision, and it would probably be answered, in most cases, in the affirmative. After all, the photographs that appear at this site are almost studiedly unrelated to the text that they accompany. You might still want to have a human being selecting the image, but there would be no need for that person to read the day’s entry.

For me, of course, this choosing, editing, and pasting rigmarole is not an occupation. Letting the computer do it all (except for the cropping!) would not put me out of work. But let’s pretend that it’s a full-time job, and that someone is paid a living wage to do it, day after day. Now imagine that a robot is designed to do everything but the cropping. Let’s suppose that the robot is not terribly expensive. This leaves me, the man in charge, with a decision. Do I fire the worker and do without cropping? Or do I retain the worker, and direct his efforts, when he is not busy cropping images, to other jobs that might need doing, but to discharge which I was and am unable to hire an extra worker?

Do I cut my expenses, or do I repurpose the worker, whose job it now is to discover new processes and capabilities, some of which may in turn be assigned to even newer robots?

The answer, in my terms, hangs on whether I am a businessman or a capitalist. Heavens, you will say, what’s the difference? Here’s the difference. A businessman is a provider of products and services for which he regards himself as personally and socially responsible. A capitalist is a trader who enhances the value of a commodity and realizes the profit. I think they’re very, very different. I’ll look into that difference tomorrow.

Brokenland Note:
Tracks and Maps
13 May 2015

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

So, on the Op-Ed page of the Times this morning, we have what looks to me like cause and effect. On the front page: result.

The cause is a growing conviction among Americans that this country is “on the wrong track.”

The effect is the inability of Congress to manage a coherent federal funding program for interstate travel. Congressmen are elected, increasingly, by voters uncertain that there is anything that the federal government knows how to do. Congressmen are sent to Washington to stop it, and that is what they are doing.

The result is the death of six passengers on an Amtrak train in Philadelphia, after a derailing that effectively shut down rail traffic in the Northeast Corridor.

This last bit of news, of course, hit me before I got to the Op-Ed page, and left me outraged to the bone. I wanted to make every living Congressman, in office or retired, who has ever voted against Amtrak in any way, criminally liable for the deaths and injuries caused by the Philadelphia derailment. I want to send them all to jail, or, better, to roll out a guillotine in front of the Capitol and chop their heads off. Not just for revenge but pour encourager les autres. That is what I wanted.

You can’t always get what you want, and that’s a good thing, because rolling out guillotines… well, I don’t doubt that my own head would be rolling soon enough.

Having calmed down a bit by the time I read the Op-Ed pieces, one by Frank Bruni (“The Bitter Backdrop to 2016″) and the other by Bill de Blasio and Mick Cornett (“Let Our Cities Move”; Mr Cornett is the Mayor of Oklahoma City), I remembered that the problem with the United States is not Congress or “Washington,” but — Americans. Americans, after all, watch all that ridiculous political advertising and are influenced by it. Or so it is believed. Correlation is not causation. The airing of inflammatory ads may simply coincide with voters’ independent inclinations. The worst thing about political advertising so far as I can see is that it leads many ordinary people to associate campaigns with voting; bored and disgusted by the first, they don’t bother with the second. So, for today, I am not going to wag my finger at Americans for being stupid enough to let political advertising stand in for political education.

No, today I am going to argue that what really bothers Americans is that we are all on the same track.

Once upon a time, the United States was a growing nation, swelling with speed and prosperity never before seen on this planet. Its mission, insofar as it had one, was to shine the light of democracy and fair play for everyone else to see. I am sure that millions of Americans actually believed this. But the luxury of doing so was paid for by a vast and fertile territory that waited to be populated and developed. How long this would have taken without the transformative technologies of the Industrial Revolution is an idle question, but, eventually and inevitably, the process was complete. The frontier disappeared.

Today, the United States is just a country like any other. The windfall of novelty has been spent. Most would-be boom-towns are ghost towns. The big cities get bigger, the medium-sized cities get smaller, and the agricultural heartland empties out. But we are saddled with a system of political boundaries that reflect ever more poorly our everyday lives. Take my part of the world.

I live on an island at the center of an immense conurbation, which I shall call “the metropolitan area,” just as everybody does, except in political contexts — because the metropolitan area has no political realty. Only part of it lies within New York State. A very good deal of it lies in New Jersey, and it also stretches into the Connecticut panhandle. (Hence that ghastly and illiterate car-ad term, “the tri-state area.”) Nor is the City of New York self-governing. Its transportation system, for example, is controlled by a department of the New York State government. Even though the Metropolitan Transportation Agency meets in and operates within the city, it is overseen by state officials in that faraway, deeply corrupt hick town, Albany. Meanwhile, the metropolitan area’s airports, and the bridge and tunnels that cross the state line that divides New York from New Jersey, are controlled by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the vehicle for Chris Christie’s lieutenants’ dirty tricks. The purest disconnect between political and everyday reality is embedded in Staten Island, which not only dislikes being part of New York City but would prefer belonging to New Jersey. I do not believe that anyone in Staten Island dreams of relocating Richmond County outside the metropolitan area. If you drew a circle with a radius of 25 or 30 miles from Times Square, redefined everything within it as The Metropolitan Area, and made it self-governing, I think that even the Shaolinese could be happy with that.

Self-government is the great liberal idea: it is what swept despotism (benevolent or otherwise) from its thrones in the West. Self-government begins with the self; people who, for one sad reason or another, cannot govern themselves are denied their liberty. Next comes local government, badly neglected in this age of those Brussels sprouts, the professionalized overseers who “know better” and whose Industrial-Age dream it is to put everything on the same system. I’m not advocating any immediate return to local government, because local people haven’t trained themselves to do the job. Local government is the baby that the nanny state drops out the window.

Finding out what kind of government any given situation requires calls for trial and error, not vision. Transit operators will soon discover that a standard gauge will enhance the growth and maintenance of a transportation system; I daresay that, left to trial and error, they would also discover that running passengers and freight over the same rails is a bad idea, and that, in the long run, two sets of track is much more than twice as optimal as one. (We will soon be teaching ourselves that every dwelling requires two plumbing systems, with outdoor irrigation using a third.) But standards must serve a purpose, not just the satisfaction of an itch for uniformity. Why not have artists and Kip’s Bay decorators furnish and decorate the cars? Wouldn’t it be great to visit Chinatown on the Chinoiserie Line?

Given the country’s varied terrain, and its even more varied population densities, it would make sense to replace the states with regions, which we could label as “states” for form’s sake. Rising to the top, there ought, aside from matters of defense and foreign policy aside, to be very little left for the Federal Government to govern. I think about that whenever I come across news about Rand Paul.

Or maybe we are all off the track. Only the politicians care about their maps. Who else knows all the state capitals?

Gotham Diary:
Cheeky Devil
12 May 2015

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

My attitude toward keeping a Web log — also known as “blogging”; but I never use that word — is to move on. Correct a simple factual mistake if you must, I tell myself, but don’t call attention to it and don’t indulge in a commentary of second thoughts. Nevertheless, I’m a trifle embarrassed by yesterday’s attack on the authors of Hissing Cousins, not so much because I made a mountain out of a molehill — which I certainly did, and had fun doing — but because I regret its hostile tone. “Moving on” has been made difficult, if not impossible, because I have been moving on, quite literally, through the book, and I’ve not only enjoyed it but come to suspect that it might be important. Not just another “untold story,” but the revelation of complicated duet.

If I were younger, and sure of the usage, I might call Eleanor and Alice frenemies.

The story, which begins in 1884, when both women were born, becomes interesting in the early Twenties. In 1918, Eleanor discovered a packet of love-letters exchanged by her husband with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s former personal secretary. FDR accepted Eleanor’s offer of a divorce, but was talked out of it (somewhat at Eleanor’s instigation, once she had cooled down) by his mother and by Louis Howe, his political fixer. The couple embarked on a more companionate, but determinedly sexless, relationship, one in which Eleanor began to find her own voice. Then, in the summer of 1921, FDR succumbed to polio. His political career, if he was to have one at all, depended on Eleanor’s help and cooperation, which she provided, but on her own terms.

By the time of the attack at Pearl Harbor, Eleanor was widely recognized as a remarkable woman. She was a syndicated columnist and an activist in many social causes, and while she never roamed very far from her husband’s party line, she certainly didn’t hang around chiming in harmony. Once the “mousy” housewife, she had by now out-Aliced Alice. (Alice’s syndicated column was relatively short-lived. Eleanor was still publishing hers up to two weeks before her death, in 1962.) Surrounded by lesbians, Eleanor conducted her personal life as idiosyncratically as Alice always had done.

One could say, then, that Eleanor and Alice were well-matched rivals in the Forties. That seems to be how the Washington grapevine preferred to see them. Stories in which one of them bested (or was rude to) the other abounded. But the authors of Hissing Cousins, Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer, show that most of these tales were not true. The cousins’ relationship was more textured. Differences in their political views, no matter how insistently they voiced them, never calcified into personal hostility. The women remained first cousins whose deepest rivalry had always centered on a devotion to Alice’s father, Theodore. TR slighted Alice during her childhood; he disliked being reminded of her beloved mother’s death, and rarely if ever spoke of his first wife. At the same time, he openly adored Eleanor. The girls competed for his regard, not entirely without rancor but never forgetful of the family ties that bonded them. The widespread exaggeration of their mutual antagonism seems to have been the result of an inevitable confusion: as outspoken political figures, they were analyzed as if they were men. And that’s what makes Hissing Cousins important. Had they been men, they would have been enemies.

Take Alice’s oldest half-brother, TR Jr. Ted Roosevelt was not cut out for politics — he’d have preferred a military life, and he would have a military death — but it was only to be expected that his father’s parental ambitions would not stop at merely bestowing his own name on the boy. Nevertheless, Ted managed to occupy a post that both his father and his very distant cousin, FDR, had held: Undersecretary of the Navy. Alas, he had the bad luck to be sitting in this office when the Teapot Dome scandal erupted. (This is not the time to run through that.) When Ted subsequently ran for governor of New York (against Al Smith), Eleanor sabotaged not only his campaign but his political career by having a specially-fitted Buick shadow his whistle stops throughout the state. Known as the “Singing Teapot,” the car featured a spout mounted on its windshield, and handles where the convertible roof ought to have been. The Singing Teapot would stop in a small town, blow its steam whistle, and distribute literature.

Q: What is Teapot Dome?
A: A large body of government oil completely surrounded by Republican cabinet officers.

In a public debate, Eleanor called her cousin “a personally nice young man whose public service record shows him willing to do the bidding of his friends.” Ted Roosevelt never forgave Eleanor, never made nice, never tried to be understanding. If there was anything that Alice would have found unforgivable, it was the Singing Teapot stunt. She was angry to be sure. But she set it aside, business as usual. It’s possible that she was impressed by her once retiring cousin’s audacity.

In the end, Alice would be conspicuously absent from Eleanor’s funeral. (This is how Hissing Cousin begins.) She never explained herself; she never claimed to be boycotting the service, which was attended by the three men who followed FDR in the White House (as well as by the man who would be fourth). My own explanation would be that Alice, a certified fixture of Washington life, wasn’t in the mood for a trek to Hyde Park, and that she told herself that, after all, Eleanor wouldn’t be there, either. A little shabby, perhaps, but Alice was more demon than saint.


We’re told that our grandson, Will, objecting to the choices offered for dinner (none of them dessert) challenged, “You’re not my boss, you know.” Will is almost five and a half years old. Overhearing this in the next room, Will’s father called out, “Yes, we are, buddy,” but Will wasn’t listening. He was staring at his mother, who had turned away to hide her smirk. Had I been sitting at the table, I know, I should have said, “Wherever did you get that idea? Of course she’s your boss!” But I’d have said that only because I can’t really turn around anymore, and the only way to hide my smirk would have been to say something quickly. It is very hard to have an adorable wiseacre in the family.

I was a wiseacre in my day, but I was not adored. I was threatened with reform school, more or less continuously. (I was disgracefully old by the time I cottoned to the fact that reform schools no longer existed, and that, even if they did, people of my parents’ station in life could not make use of them. Luckily for all of us, nobody thought to bring up a “military academy.” That might well have led to fatal mishaps.) For about a week once, I took to answering the phone, “Keefe’s Bar and Grill.” This got a few laughs, until the boom was inevitably lowered. What can I say? I have always been a cheeky devil. And when I hear of Will’s daring experiments — he knows that they’re daring; he goes all funny when he makes them, like the green sky before a bad storm — I think how lucky he is to have parents who pay more attention to what he does than to what he says.

Reading Note:
11 May 2015

Monday, May 11th, 2015

The weather, having so recently been unseasonably cold and damp, is now correspondingly warm and humid: we’re at the receiving end of a tropical storm. The building’s air conditioning has not been turned on yet, so I’m dependent upon the kindness of breezes. As anticipated, the apartment has excellent cross-ventilation, and sometimes it is almost windy inside when the air is still on the sidewalk. There is, however, the small matter of humidity, which is always sapping. As a bit of armchair science, I have taught myself that it is not the humidity but the low pressure that wears one out: low pressure allows molecules in the body (and everywhere else) to expand, and, as we all know, expansion leads to oppression. Did I ever tell you that I grew up just a few blocks away from the home of Don Herbert, TV’s Mr Wizard?

Equally ridiculous, I’m afraid, is the first line of co-author Timothy Dwyer’s capsule bio, printed beneath his photograph on the dust jacked of Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Marc Peyser is the other co-).

Timothy Dwyer was raised on Long Island’s Eaton’s Neck, swimming distance from Theodore Roosevelt’s homestead at Sagamore Hill.

It’s a shibboleth. If you think that that’s an appropriate introduction, and not the worst kind of adolescent boasting cum name-dropping, then kindly get off the bus right now. The statement would be interesting only if we could go back in time, to when Sagamore Hill was new, and there weren’t quite so many souls within swimming distance. Come on: we’re talking Nassau County here, not Mount Desert.

I took a harsh view of Messrs Peyser and Dwyer when I came across a blooper that really ought never to have happened in the first place. That it wasn’t corrected by the co-author who wasn’t responsible, or by the book’s editor(s), shouts to me of End Times. I won’t quote the passage, just the dreadfully wrong attribution:

Lady Astor’s “400 list”

People make mistakes when they’re working in a hurry, but some mistakes are truly unimaginable. Something has to be wrong in the brain of a mind that can put “Lady Astor” on the same circuit as “400 list,” at least when that brain has the resumes of these gents. The list of four hundred names that Ward McAllister is said to have developed with his patroness and protégée, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor — Mrs Astor to youbecame a shorthand reference to the cream of New York society, of which Mrs Astor was a pillar. She was painted by Sargent’s teacher, Carolus-Duran, and her dates are 1830-1908. She and McAllister estimated that her ballroom could comfortably accommodate four hundred people, so the story goes. Which of course would have yielded a list of closer to two hundred names, unless this was for a dancing-school class. Which I don’t think so. Mrs Astor came from an ancient Patroon family, and her maiden name pops up all over town. New York town, that is.

Lady Astor — no less presumably Nancy Langhorne Astor than “Mrs Astor” is the subject of the preceding paragraph, and not just any Lady Astor — was the famous hostess of the Cliveden Set, British Tories who were inclined to go on and on appeasing Hitler. Yes! Lady Astor belongs to a decidedly later generation. Her dates are 1879-1964. She came from an ancient Virginia family, and she was the first woman to take a seat as a Member of Parliament. The following tireless story is told:

Lady Astor: Winston Churchill, if you were my husband, I should poison your coffee!
Churchill: Madam, if you were my wife, I should drink that coffee!

It amuses me to think of what kind of list Nancy Astor might have run up. A list of people to be especially mean to, probably. She was very beautiful (one of her sisters was the “Gibson Girl” model), and she was not stupid; but she was a great old dragon. I’m surprised that she didn’t actually poison somebody’s coffee.

The authors’ bios on the Hissing Cousins dust jacket mention that Mr Dwyer has at Time, and that Mr Peyser also worked at Condé Nast Traveler. Both also appear to have worked at Newsweek. Thus they are journalists who have toiled in lush vineyards. Even if they couldn’t keep the actual ladies straight, they ought to have known as well as they know their own names that Lady Astor —> Britain, “400 list” —> New York, and that these wires do not cross. Am I arguing that everybody ought to know about Mrs Astor and her list? Of course not. I’m arguing, however, that anybody who knows enough about it to mention ought to get it right.

Update: And they do get it right, on page 38. But the “Lady Astor” associated with the “400 List” on page 12 is indexed to “Astor, Lady Nancy.”


I spent the weekend reading the new biography of Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who famously showed up for work every day but didn’t produce anything for publication for nearly thirty years. Man in Profile, by Thomas Kunkel, is not a bad book at all. Kunkel’s discussions of Mitchell’s reportorial fabrications are important case studies in the literary breach of journalistic ethics, and Kunkel goes no further than cocking an eyebrow. He never quite says that Mitchell’s deceptions were justified by Mitchell’s achievement — and by achievement here I mean not his “getting away with it” but his having created nonfiction masterpieces that are more fully human because of his manipulations — but his unwavering belief that Mitchell’s work is great literature is exoneration enough.

The problem with Man in Profile is that it is not informed by the prose style for which The New Yorker is famous — a style to which Mitchell made rich contribution.

Like all young reporters, Mitchell was intoxicated by the romance of newspapering in New York. He loved the fact that every day brought a new, unexpected assignment. He thrilled when the newspaper’s huge presses rumbled to life, shaking the building and tingling the nerves. (73)

That’s another shibboleth: if you can imagine reading that passage in The New Yorker, with its sequence of hyperventilating verbs, its jejune second sentence, and the demand for a direct quote posed by the third, then kindly admit that you only look at the magazine “for the cartoons.”

The New Yorker is a great magazine, and perhaps the most vital literary artifact in the English language, not because it publishes ground-breaking articles about important subjects, although it does do plenty of that. (So do a lot of other periodicals.) What distinguishes The New Yorker is its concern for language, for balancing all of the demands that we make of speech. We want clarity, but we want comprehensiveness; freshness, but finish. We want to learn things, but without the tedium of the classroom. We want to be surprised, but never baffled. Other attempts to reconcile these conflicts have always fallen far short of The New Yorker‘s accomplishment. (At Time, for example, the style became precious and self-conscious; I’ll never forget the fatuous self-satisfaction of a pun, made in the late Sixties: “Now that flower children have gone to pot…”) The magazine’s solutions are not the only ones imaginable (nor are they permanent solutions), but they are the most consistent, and also the most highly pitched: the writing at The New Yorker is extraordinarily ambitious. It wants to be read by everyone, but it makes no concession to vulgar banality. It pursues the dream of being smart without being smug, arrogant, or condescending. Finally, The New Yorker treats language not as a sacred transformer but as a wearable garment that, like all clothes, ought to fit comfortably. The greatness is therefore easy to overlook. Celebrating a self-effacing master like Joseph Mitchell may a pastime limited to readers and writers who know how hard it is to write such seemingly easygoing prose, but all will be well so long as Mitchell is generally read.

Gotham Diary:
8 May 2015

Friday, May 8th, 2015

I had forgotten about people like Charles Runyon.

Charles Runyon is a recurring character in a chain of Maeve Brennan stories that is centered on an exclusive, “restricted” cluster of houses on the east bank of the Hudson River, about thirty miles from New York. This fictional enclave, called “Herbert’s Retreat,” is said to comprise thirty-nine houses, all built two hundred years ago. Two hundred years ago is highly implausible; in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, people built towns and isolated farmhouses, not suburban lanes. And nobody would have thought, in those distant days, about imposing “restrictions.” Restrictions are a relatively modern invention, introduced around the turn of the last century, when places like Herbert’s Retreat began to pop up on the outskirts of most American cities. The restrictions were clauses in the deed that bound the homeowner not to keep chickens (generally), and not to sell the house to Jews or to colored people. Such restrictions as to human beings became unenforceable in the middle of the last century, but they linger on in countless deeds, because it costs money to erase them. Two hundred years ago sounds like puffery that the denizens of Herbert’s Retreat would tell themselves.

Men like Charles Runyon flourished during the era of restrictions, and at the social and economic levels where restrictions applied. In a way, they were the product of similar restrictions. If they were not gay, it was usually because they could not afford to know it. Their difference from ordinary men was marked instead by their association with culture, and by their overegged way of speaking. They were often professional critics, or museum curators. To get by in the world, men like Charles Runyon had to cultivate a ferocious authority. They must praise this and denounce that with operatic fearlessness. They kept their cruel wits sharpened, and they danced like matadors — only their effect on potential bullies was not to attract but to deflect attention.

The women who clustered around men like Charles Runyon led monstrously restricted lives. There were very few jobs that a bright and curious woman would find truly satisfying (as well as available, that is), and a lot of jobs that were soul-crushing. A woman who was married to a reasonably prosperous man, moreover, was not supposed to work. If she must, she could run a shop that sold clothing of the kind that she herself wore or antiques with which she might furnish her house. In these restricted circumstances, men like Charles Runyon were dazzlingly colorful. They made exciting pets, capable as they were of human speech but dangerous for that very reason. They could never be reliably domesticated; they might well tire of one mistress and take up with another. (If they themselves became tiresome, if their colors faded, they could not, alas, be put down; they became awkward blots on their sponsors’ consciences.)

The struggle for status, authority, and ownership consumed the lives of the Charles Runyons and the women around them. There was nothing left for thought or reflection; everything was poured into performance. What might have been debonair and enlightening was hollow and brittle instead.

I don’t know why I’ve written all this; I could simply have said the name, Waldo Lydecker. The character played by Clifton Webb in Laura, the still-compelling but oddly off-center murder mystery produced and directed by Otto Preminger in 1944, is a kind of Charles Runyon. But the movie sets Lydecker in alien circumstances. He is assertive but unconvincing as a heterosexual, and his professional success as a broadcast columnist has made him financially independent. Being nasty has become an unnecessary bad habit. He’s missing something — a drinking problem, probably. Charles Runyons in full fig are too desperately busy staying afloat to have time for drinking problems, but all Lydecker wants is to control Laura’s life, as if he were Dr Coppélius.

The disappearance of Charles Runyons is one bit of proof that the world has not gone to the dogs since I was a young man. I never knew an examplar very well, but I learned that there was no point to trying to have a conversation with the type. At the first sign of intelligence in an interlocutor, they became overtly competitive, and I was such a careless doofus that I showered them with opportunities to ridicule me. Sometimes the ridicule stung, but mostly it seemed pointless, because I didn’t see what it was that we were supposed to be competing for. Once they found this out — that I was not competing — their eyes went dead and I ceased to exist.

In that, they were like most men. Here is the game that we are playing, and if you can’t play it well, or don’t want to play at all, then please go away. No wonder discoveries and inventions are made by crackpot loners. No wonder the advance of society, as a web of tiny conventions that assure our safety, comfort, and convenience in the world, has been so largely the work of women. The ordinary men have all been swallowed up by teams. Even the Charles Runyons, in their day.


I went to the Museum yesterday, to take advantage of a members’ preview of the new costume show, but it was packed with other members, and in my linen jacket I was dripping. So I didn’t stay very long. I’ll go back, of course, probably a few times, but I’ll be wearing light clothes, probably shorts, and feeling remiss for having abandoned the standards of dress with which the outfits on display were designed to comply. The world would be so much lovelier if women wore dresses — except, of course, it wasn’t; I can remember. Better to say: the world would be so much lovelier if we were all rich and trim. Admiring outfits by Jeanne Lanvin and Cristobal Balenciaga, I neglected to remember that they were produced in the era of restrictions.

I discovered a new name: Guo Pei. There are at least two remarkable gowns by this Shanghai designer. One of them imagines an enormous plate of blue and white porcelain, transformed into textile and massed in exuberant folds about the body of a new-age geisha. The other is a vast gold-embroidery number that puts Grace Kelly’s gold lamé in the shade — although I can’t imagine how anyone wearing it could manage to advance or retreat. The lucky princess would have to be dressed on a platform that could be wheeled about by lackeys. She could be honored and obeyed but not touched. Still, it looks like a ball gown, and not like an explosion of fabrics or the inside of a locker room.

For the exhibit, the Museum has covered the pavement of the Astor Court with a gleaming black material that creates the illusion of a pool. Overhead, and reflected in the dry water, is  a huge image of the moon. Droplet-like distortions complete the enchantment (but only if you are looking down). The scene is spectacular, and it completely upstages the dresses that float here and there. I can only imagine what Charles Runyon would make of it. Oh, what am I saying? The response of the Charles Runyons of the world is political and competitive, determined by alliances and enmities. Like Bunthorne, they’re aesthetic shams.

Gotham Diary:
What’s So Special?
7 May 2015

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

When I tell people what I’m reading, and it turns out to be something that they haven’t read, the responses fall into two classes. The first, and better, response is a silent, sage nod. Even if you don’t know anything about the book, even if you can’t imagine why anyone would want to read it, the sage nod suggests that you are filing the information away, and your graciousness has not made your interlocutor feel like a weirdo.

The other response is to ask what the book is about. This question is regrettable. If the book is really worth reading, there are only two answers. One is to restate the contents of the book — literally unthinkable. The other is to say that the book is about its author, a reply that most people who ask what books are about are likely to find offensive.

I have found it very agreeable to write about things here and there in a book that give me pleasure, without attempting the comprehensive, judgmental summaries that are perhaps more satisfactory, because they convey the illusion of having read the book yourself. I don’t want to convey that illusion. I’d much rather tempt, tease, or just plain annoy my reader into giving the book a try. The case of The Long-Winded Lady has been different, however, because I find myself driven to come up with a good answer to the question: What is this book about?

Yes, it’s about Maeve Brennan (the author). I’ll get back to her.

The Long-Winded Lady is a collection of anecdotes about city life in the 1950s and 1960s. Is it, though, is it about life in New York City? Well, obviously, yes, in the simple sense: all the anecdotes are set in rather small patches of Manhattan. But are they specific to New York? Could they have arisen elsewhere? This is the real question. It’s very easily overlooked, because all the Long-Winded Lady pieces originally appeared in the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker. But the point of these pieces, as of those by writers like Joseph Mitchell and James Thurber, was to remind the magazine’s readers of the ordinary people who make up the bulk of New York’s population, and who are just as provincial as people anywhere else. Although many people here take advantage of the city’s grand concentration of “cultural” opportunities (what I, following Hannah Arendt, call its  worldliness), most do not. Most people here go to work in the morning and come home at night, just like people anywhere else. Most spend their weekends doing things that you could do anywhere. It’s tourists who fill the museums and the Broadway theatres, not New Yorkers.

Maeve Brennan’s anecdotes steer clear of the “cultural.” When she goes to the theatre, she tells us how, running late in the rain, she tried to give a woman selling pencils a dollar bill, only to have the bill returned to her for being “too much.” Brennan doesn’t tell us anything about the play; she doesn’t even name it. She likes not naming things; it’s a game that I enjoy playing as well. Anyone with a comprehensive knowledge of the movies would know that the film Julie Andrews was shooting at the Algonquin was Star!, a biopic about Gertrude Lawrence and something of a flop, but Brennan cunningly elides this bit of information by calling Andrews a “Star,” complete with capital S. We all know that you can make movies anywhere, or, rather, that you can make movies about anywhere in Hollywood, on a sound stage. (Or, for a while there, Toronto.) The on-location aspect of Star! that concerns Brennan is not the flutter of sighted celebrities but the awkward nuisance of on-location film-making — a muddle in which the Star herself is caught. It may be very gratifying for New Yorkers to glimpse familiar neighborhoods in the movies, but can anyone else be expected to care?

Is what makes New York unlike other American cities the fact that so many young people come here to give the place a try, only to leave after a few years and contribute to the seeding of America with bittersweet memories of Gotham? Young people are attracted to cities generally; I remember meeting many people in Houston who came from much smaller places and who thought that they were now leading metropolitan lives. Is New York different because it attracts so many “creatives”? In any case, where is the evidence, in the pages of The Long-Winded Lady, that New York is in any way special or unusual?

On the whole, the Long-Winded Lady takes a tragic view of this city.

It is in daily life, looking around for restaurants and shops and for a place to live, that we find our way about the city. And it is necessary to find one’s own way in New York. New York is not hospitable. She is very big and she has no heart. She is not charming. She is not sympathetic. She is rushed and noisy and unkempt, a hard, ambitious, irresolute place, not very lively, and never gay. When she glitters she is very, very bright, and when she does not glitter she is dirty. New York does nothing for those of us who are inclined to love her except implant in our hearts a homesickness that baffles us until we go away from her, and then we realize why we are restless. At home or away, we are homesick for New York not because New York used to be better and not because she used to be worse but because the city holds us and we don’t know why. (142)

And that’s the only answer that I can come up with. What makes New York special is that it held Maeve Brennan, even if she never figured out why. You know you belong in New York when you feel relief in your bones that you are living in the only place on earth where nobody is wondering what’s going on in New York. New York is simply out there, beyond the door to your apartment (or, in Brennan’s case, to her hotel room — she seems to have lived in dozens of them, a fact of silent volubility). To buy a bottle of milk, you have to go out into New York, even if only to cross the street. You may not see anything special, but you’d know in a heartbeat if you were someplace else.

It’s easy to read The Long-Winded Lady as a series of character sketches, capturing the odd people who wash up on this island. In the end, though — and not unlike the photographs of Diane Arbus — it is a portrait of the artist herself, a portrait veiled in misdirections worthy of the greatest magicians. Brennan used these pieces to tell us what she thought about herself, and few novels can boast heroines as grippingly beset by unseen menace.

Gotham Diary:
6 May 2015

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Last night, I spent a few hours snooping on my neighbors. This has only just become possible, given the extended winter. I’ve been sitting out on our new balcony — familiar in every way, really, but for the view — for a few weeks, now, on and off. But snooping requires patience, and patience requires balmier temperatures than those prevailing until the last couple of days. Yesterday was almost too warm; the promised rain never materialized. In the evening, it became more pleasant. After the whole business of dinner, I stepped down onto the balcony and took a seat.

No, I do not have a pair of binoculars. Snooping is not spying. Snooping is nothing more than attending to what can be seen by what used to be called the naked eye. (A naive concept, I suppose, what with computer screens.) Here is an excellent anecdote of snooping, set in the lobby at the Algonquin Hotel, during the making of the film, Star! The snooper is of course the Long-Winded Lady, Maeve Brennan.

I picked my way across to the newsstand and bought cigarettes, and I was starting to leave when I saw Julie Andrews. She was alone, sitting in a high, high-backed armchair beside the entrance to the Rose Room, having her box lunch. Her tight short dress seemed to be made of crystal and light, and she was wearing a crystal headband for a crown; she looked like Titania. The chair was much too big and too high for her, and to balance herself and her lunch she had put her knees together, and her feet, balanced on the tips of her toes, were far apart. She was very hungry. All her attention was on her sandwich, which she picked up with both hands, and she was just about to take a bite out of it when she raised her eyes and saw me standing and staring at her. I immediately stopped thinking of Titania and began thinking of Lady Macbeth. At the sight of me, Julie Andrews froze in fury. Behind her sandwich, she was at bay, her hungry face glazed with anger. She is a Star, no doubt about that. She shines and radiates, and she can case a spell, any kind of spell. (169)

There were two moments, last night, at which I wondered that the person in the apartment into which I was peering was peering back. But it was dark, and even if I could be seen sitting on my balcony, the direction of my gaze can’t have been discernible. I expect, however, that, by the end of the summer, some residents of the building across 87th Street will have begun to wonder about me.

The first question for a snoop such as me is simple: how many apartments are we talking about? Which windows belong to what apartments. My default model is the two- or three-window apartment, for the simple reason that most of the apartments in our (much larger) building are either one or the other. Our old apartment upstairs had three windows, one for each bedroom and one for the living room. A one-bedroom apartment will have two windows; although the one-bedroom apartments to either side of our old apartment each had an extra window, one in the kitchen and the other in the bathroom. Our new apartment is so brightly lighted during the day, despite being on a low floor, because, very uncharacteristically for this pile, it has eight windows: the three principal ones, two in the dining ell, and one each in the kitchen and the bathrooms. There is light everywhere. But this, as I say, is unusual.

The building across the street represents an older generation of apartment building. I don’t know when it was built, but I’d say that it could have been at any time between 1935 and 1955. There appears to be a doorman behind the desk in the lobby, and there must be elevators, but the front of the building (and presumably the back as well) is bedecked with fire escapes — artistically minimal fire escapes, but fire escapes nonetheless, those signs of downmarket premodernism. I expect that the apartment house went up during a transitional period in the building codes. It has been difficult for me to determine the overall level of affluence, but then that is simply the starting point for my snooping. As for the layouts, they follow, so far as I can tell at this early point, a model with which I am unfamiliar.

My efforts were hampered, as you might expect, by window coverings. Across the street, shades seem to be favored. Pleated shades in pastel colors — not cheap. I’m not a fan of shades. It has always struck me that shades ought to extend from the bottom sill upwards, not the other way around, but while such shades are available, they are uncommon, and nobody across the street appears to use them. A few windows have woven shades or glass curtains, which permit a certain publicity but not very much. One window only is draped with full formality, and I’m about to lose sight of that one as the leaves on the sidewalk trees get bigger. Pretty soon, my snooping will be limited by the greenery to the top three floors of the building across the street.

Shades not only block plain old snooping; they also make it difficult to answer my original question, which depends on getting a sense of the layouts of the different apartments. In order to connect the windows, I can rely on two kinds of evidence. I can watch a person disappear from one window and reappear in another. Or I can watch one window spring to life when the lights are turned on in another one. Two nights ago, women in two apartments, one above the other, established the connection of two rooms, one of which appears to be a kitchen. This did not come as a surprise (because of matching paint, one salmon, one powder blue), but it was satisfying to be sure. Last night, my patience taught me much more: the apartment directly across the street and one floor up is much, much bigger than I thought it would be. I watched a man proceed from one of those kitchens, through the big room adjacent to it, providing unnecessary confirmation of the previous night’s discovery, and then further on to the room behind the next window, and, sometime later, into the next, which I already knew must be connected because, by then, the light trick that I mentioned had occurred in the apartment directly beneath, demonstrating one of the inferences that can be drawn even when the shades are down. The big surprise was that this man, the one in the apartment across the street and up one flight, suddenly appeared in the room two windows away. I never did see him in the window in between, but I cannot imagine how that room, which was lighted and unshaded all evening but which never revealed an occupant, could possibly belong to any other apartment. Later, another man, with more hair on his head and a dark red T shirt, appeared in the kitchen and the big room, but I never did see him in any other window. In the distant room, the first man disappeared from view in the manner of someone getting into bed. After a while, the lights went out. Later, they came on again, and the man got up and came to the window. By this time, Kathleen had come home, and I was explaining my findings to her, and the man at the window seemed to stare in our direction. But then he opened the window a bit: it had been closed tight, and he couldn’t possibly have heard me. After a while, the light went out again. Aside from not learning where the man in the red shirt spent the night, I never all evening saw the woman who, the night before, had appeared in the kitchen and the big room.

Meanwhile, I saw an interesting group of people in the apartment directly below. There were two women, one a blonde and the other a brunette, and a man who, when he first appeared, was wearing a tie. All three were thirtyish and trim. I caught a glimpse of the back of a child as well, a boy of nine or ten.

Highly satisfied by this proliferation of puzzles and mysteries, I followed Kathleen into our apartment when she decided that it was time to go to bed. Our bedroom window, though open to viewing from many other apartments in our building, cannot be seen from the building across the street. It is almost like living in two apartments.

Gotham Wisdom:
“Once you choose the right people and set them free”
5 May 2015

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

The weather has been sunny and mild for more than a few days now, and we are all stumbling around in a daze, almost startled by the return of clemency after so prolonged an absence. Today, skies are grey, and rain is expected this afternoon. As it happens, I am in the exact mood for rain. I may dash across the street for a quick lunch, but otherwise I shall stay in, tidying the back of the house and continuing with the project of emptying the book room of materials pertaining to the household. I shall try to make a few contacts. I’m due for the annual physical exam, so I’ve got to call the internist. I want to write to the man who made (or who had made) our glass curtains, and to ask him to sell me a shorter version of the brass curtain rod that Kathleen ordered from him when she was still in charge of the curtain project. The rod turned out to be unsuitable for glass curtains in this apartment, but it has been mounted in the living room for months now, awaiting the arrival of draperies. What I need is a matching rod for the draperies in the dining ell. And I need it soon, because the draperies have already been dropped off at the post office. They’re on their way.

The weather is good for Kathleen, who has had an extremely rough winter, especially during April, when the unrelenting harshness of the weather made it hard for her to deal with some other struggles. Now she is doing much better, and that’s good, too, because work has picked up. She will be spending tonight, tomorrow night, and Thursday night working late at the office, preparing a filing for a client. I’ll have no excuse not to tackle the mountain of napkins and handkerchiefs that need ironing.

Ordinarily, I watch a movie when I iron, but I can’t think of a movie that I’d want to watch right now, even though there are so many good ones in my library. Basically, what I want to watch is a movie made by Maeve Brennan. Maeve Brennan never made a movie in her life, and, by all accounts, she probably lacked the most basic organizational skills that movie-making requires, but I want to be clear that I would probably be very disappointed by anyone else’s attempt to adapt her writing for the screen. No writer I can think of is more precise about exact points of view, about placing people exactly where they are and telling us what they can see. Her New York — the Alibris copy of The Long-Winded Lady arrived yesterday, and I am lost in it — is a city of specifics, in which it matters very much whether an insignificant incident occurs on West 48th Street or in Washington Place in the Village. It is also a city in which only a few Manhattan neighborhoods exist. Midtown, especially Midtown in the Forties, between Madison Avenue and Broadway. Greenwich Village, all the way over to the Hudson River. At one point, Maeve misses a subway stop at 168th Street, where she was planning to catch a bus. What bus, I wondered. At 168th Street, the two subway lines that run up to Inwood intersect, more or less at the foot of what I still call Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Walking two blocks west or three blocks east takes you to the edge of the island. Perhaps Maeve Brennan had a friend living in Jumel Terrace, which is a bit out of the way and which can be reached these days by a bus that you could catch at 168th Street and Broadway. Needless to say, what interests Maeve about missing the bus is not the excuse that she will have to make when she gets where she’s going, wherever that is, but the opportunity to drop into a bar for a quick martini and a backward glance.

While I was sipping it, trying to make it last exactly to exactly the moment that would get me a good place in the bus queue without having to stand too long in the cold, I wondered what I should have done about that man in the subway. After all, if I had taken his seat I probably would have got out at 168th Street, which would have meant that I would hardly have been sitting down before I would have been getting up again, and that would have seemed odd. And rather grasping of me. And he wouldn’t have got his seat back, because some other grasping person would have slipped into it ahead of him when I got up. He seemed a retiring sort of man, not pushy at all. I hesitate to think of how he must have regretted offering his seat. Sometimes it is very hard to know the right thing to do.

Maeve Brennan wasn’t fond of subways — she much preferred taxis — but they crop up in her pieces. On another occasion, she finds herself gripping a pole while reading a story in Life about “Miss Jerry Stutz.” Maybe that’s what people called the president of Henri Bendel in the late Fifties, but by the time I first heard of Ms Stutz she was, emphatically, Geraldine. And I heard of her because she was a woman and the head of something. Permit me to recall that this used to be very unusual. It is still regrettably unusual, but no longer remarkable.

On the subway, Maeve was hypnotised by a pearl of wisdom, graciously handed to the Life reporter by Miss Jerry Stutz. “Meanwhile, my first principle applies — when you come into a new job, put your eye on people, not figures. Once you’ve found the right people and set them free, you can’t lose.” Once you’ve found the right people and set them free, you can’t lose. This reminds Maeve of something, but she can’t think what, so she keeps repeating it until it sounds just as ridiculous as it really is. Instead of pointing this out directly, however, she deconstructs the sentence’s implications.

I couldn’t begin to guess how Miss Stutz recognizes a right person, but I did allow myself some naughty conjecturing about how she sets the right people free once she has put the finger on them. Does she take them up on the roof at Henri Bendel? Or out into Central Park? Does she set them free all at once, in a flock, or one by one? At dawn, or when? If by some mischance a wrong one starts out of a coop, how is he or she got back in again? A hand on each shoulder? Both hands together on top of the head? Net? What if a wrong one gets clear away?

All the time I was giggling over this, my tears worshiping Maeve Brennan’s oblique manner of poking holes in the lady president’s first principle, I was remembering an article in this Sunday’s Times, in the business section. Sunday occasions a lot of commercial hot air in the Times, mostly in everyday vernacular chats that parallel those inspirational posters, showing sailboats and sunrises, that has such fun with. One regular feature interviews a company head whom you’ve never heard of, but there is no need to read the ensuing Q&A because each one is taken verbatim from the HBS Book of the Dead, an ancient treatise on how to lie about your success by attributing it to some common skill or characteristic that anybody can develop. This week’s subject, for a change, was the very well-known Diane von Furstenberg, and even if you haven’t memorized the contents of the HBSBD, there is no reason to read further after swallowing the headline: “The Key to Success Is Trusting Yourself.” This is really just another way of saying, “Once you’ve found the right people and set them free, you can’t lose” — because, of course, you have trusted yourself to free the right people. Even though the former princess goes on to say that she is a terrible manager.

They key to success is being prepared to take advantage of very good luck — being prepared, that is, for very good luck that, in the manner of luck, may never come along. And what Miss Jerry Stutz’s insight reminded Maeve Brennan of turned out to be that old Chinese fortune-cookie joke: Help! I’m being held prisoner in a Chinese bakery!

Geography Note:
GPS At Play
4 May 2015

Monday, May 4th, 2015

On Saturday night, we went out to Long Island, to attend a wedding. The ceremony and the reception were held at one of those North Shore mansions that are now elderly curiosities on the campuses that have grown up around them, on what used to be what Americans called “estates.” It is difficult to find these places even without GPS; GPS makes things worse by being assertively incorrect. In our case, it not only directed us to a neighboring property — a lane of hideous neo-Victorian piles culminating in a gate bristling with CCTV cameras — but indicated, with the little pin that tells the driver’s distance in minutes, that that’s where I was when I called for an Uber car to pick us up. The map showed quite clearly the institution where I actually was, so this was not a case of mere mislabeling. The driver managed to find us without much ado, and we were soon home and in bed.

I had decided that it was time to go home. Dinner was over, and dessert would be served in another room, along with dancing. Depending on how long an Uber driver would take to reach us, we might or might not continue the fun. Because of our sojourn down the lane of ugly mansionettes — because that driver had been transfixed by the false assurance of GPS (surely our destination must be here somewhere!) — I was a bit worried about the trouble that this driver might have in finding us. Little did I know that Kathleen was so consumed by anxiety on this point that, behind her gay façade of chatter at the dinner table, she was considering feigning a medical emergency, so that we would be rescued by ambulance. It was only in the nice Uber car that she thanked me, in a tone that surpassed any measure of politeness, for summoning it. She continued to thank me during the drive home, and when we got home, and several times yesterday. She thanked me this morning, before she left for the office. I had done something heroic, but, blast it, I hadn’t known it at the time. I had done no more than press a few buttons on a smartphone, and then fret unheroically (but privately) about those minutes. Even they were misleading. The number stuck, agonizingly, at 25, only to drop at the speed of sound thereafter. Even so, the driver pulled up significantly sooner than the ETA.

I had bought a tuxedo for the occasion. Kathleen urged me to do so. As a result, for the first time in my life, I was the first person to wear what I was wearing. It was all very comfortable, especially the shirt, which was made of a substantial piqué cotton that kept me ventilated even though it didn’t wrinkle. I’d have been grand, if, as we were setting out, the coat button (which wasn’t tight, but which shouldn’t have been buttoned at that particular moment) hadn’t popped off as I climbed into the car. I retrieved the button when we reached our destination, and will take it downstairs to the dry cleaner, along with the rest of my duds, on my way to lunch.

The happy couple take off for Bora Bora tomorrow night. I hope that they enjoy living in a hut in the middle of a lagoon, but, I tell you: the very thought of such arrangements makes me feel that I’m living it up at the Ritz right here in my own apartment.

My own apartment — soon to be festooned with draperies that were put into the mail this morning. In plenty of time for our impending housewarming.


It is taking a while to put my hands on a copy of The Long-Winded Lady, the collection of Maeve Brennan’s “Talk” pieces for The New Yorker. I own the book, but cannot find it — no surprise. I have ordered a copy from Amazon (Kindle not available), but the order’s status has been stuck at “Not Yet Shipped” for about a week, which is not promising. I’ve ordered another copy from Alibris. That has shipped. Meanwhile, other books by Brennan are about to pile up alongside it, and one of them has already arrived. It is a collection of “Stories of Dublin,” named after the most famous of the bunch, “The Springs of Affection.”

Kate Bolick writes, in Spinster,

The story itself is fiction — and yet the landscape and characters, houses and rooms, are all pulled directly from real life, meaning Maeve’s relatives experienced the brutal shock of seeing themselves transformed through another’s unforgiving eyes. Everybody knew that Min was none other than Maeve’s beloved spinster aunt, the eight-five-year-old Nan Brennan, and everyone agreed that she didn’t deserve such vicious treatment. After the story appeared, Aunt Nan wrote on the back of a snapshot of Maeve, “Greatly changed for the worse, 1972.”

Addled by this gossipy excitement, I read “The Springs of Affection” first. Later, I came to think that this was a terrible mistake, but now I’m not so sure. “The Springs of Affection” is the last of eight stories about Martin and Delia Bagot, whose romantic marriage is ruined by the death, after three days, of their first child, a son. Delia descends briefly into a grief that permanently repels her husband. The story in which we see this crisis up close is the fifth in the series; we already know the rough outlines. The final story begins with a sentence that dispatches both Delia and Martin from this vale of tears, and proceeds to look at the marriage from the viewpoint of Martin’s twin sister, the spinster Min. Min is a mean old thing, a miser really, who enjoys pinching her pennies. Not to mention curling up in Martin’s reading chair, having hauled off the Bagots’ belongings to her flat in Wexford. (So the tale leaves Dublin behind as well.) From the depths of the empty cave of her loot-accoutered heart, Min cherishes, if that is the word, the recollection of her brother’s wedding day, after which, in Min’s view, nothing was ever the same as it had been. Everything changed for the worse. By marrying out, Martin mauled his own dear family.

The artfulness of the story’s construction is almost stupefying, but I won’t venture further comment until I have read it again, in its proper place at the end of a very sad novel. For that is what these stories constitute: a novel. “The Springs of Affection” is often regarded as a shortish novella, but this is wrongheaded. Like the seven stories that precede it, “The Springs of Affection” is an enchanting read (and I mean that strictly), but, also like them, its full meaning is visible only in the light of the stories that precede (or surround) it. This is not an example of that always disappointing genre, the collection of “linked short stories.” No; it is a novel about a particular marriage, and each story is a chapter in the portrait of that marriage, the sadness of which is finally and brutally framed by Min’s bitterness.

One of the strangest strengths of this novel — I’d be inclined to name it after another story, one that I’ll write about presently, The Sofa — comes from what ought to be a weakness, the redundancy of reintroduced details. In a normal novel, we should probably be told only once that Bennie is a devoted terrier and Rupert a greedy cat. But Brennan manages to present these characters, and the house that they inhabit, with slight differences each time, and the effect, rather than tedium, is a manifestation of the estrangement between Martin and Delia. The surface of their life together is polite and correct. Beneath that surface, Delia rages to be loved and Martin regrets not having remained an unencumbered bachelor. (He sleeps in a little room over the kitchen.) The novel is very much about the house that Delia and Martin share; it, too, is proper and correct, and as well looked-after, wood and brass polished to a luster, as can be. Delia manages to make this house a home to her two daughters, who are little older in every story until the penultimate one. (If they are disposed of in “The Springs of Affection,” I don’t recall it, but then “The Springs of Affection” rivals Joyce’s “The Dead” for the casual display of intense richness.) But the house is not a home to Martin, especially not when Min shows up to take care of him for the six years that follow Delia’s death. It is only right that every familiarity of the Bagot household is properly and formerly greeted at the beginning of each story. Any decision to elide these repetitions in repurposing the collection as a novel overtly would be a terrible mistake. May this novel-manqué continue to masquerade as a collection of short stories punctuated by a rather long one.

“Socialist” Note:
The Morals of Property
1 May 2015

Friday, May 1st, 2015

In his column today, Paul Krugman says that “Everyone has an ideology…” This is sloppy. Very few people have ideologies, and those who do have them are all either intellectuals, cranks, or both, ie, economists. What everyone has is an outlook, a “philosophy” — as Krugman goes on to misdefine ideology, “a view about how the world does and should work.” An ideology, in contrast, is a system of beliefs that predicts outcomes, and a true ideologue will not be defeated by facts that contradict his predictions. Ideology is yet another byproduct of the bedazzlement introduced by steam engines and power looms in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. It seeks to reduce ideas to mechanisms; like all schemes from the Age of the Machine, its ultimate purpose is to eliminate labor, in this case the effort of thinking. Ideologues may appear to be brilliant, but they have extraordinarily limited minds, and their impatience with muddle and confusion is inhuman.

In an adjacent column, NDB Connolly writes brilliantly (but unideologically) about the true nature of the problem with the poor black enclaves from which so many of the recent victims of police overenthusiasm emerge.

The problem originates in a political culture that has long bound black bodies to questions of property. Yes, I’m referring to slavery.

Slavery was not so much a labor system as it was a property regime, with slaves serving not just as workers, but as commodities. Back in the day, people routinely borrowed against other human beings. They took out mortgages on them. As a commodity, the slave had a value that the state was bound to protect.

Now housing and commercial real estate have come to occupy the heart of America’s property regime, replacing slavery. And damage to real estate, far more than damage to ostensibly free black people, tends to evoke swift responses from the state. What we do not prosecute nearly well enough, however, is the daily assault on black people’s lives through the slow, willful destruction of real estate within black communities. The conditions in West Baltimore today are the direct consequence of speculative real estate practices that have long targeted people with few to no options.

Hear, hear! I hope that Mr Connolly, a black history professor at Johns Hopkins, will write more about those “speculative real estate practices.” I am pretty sure that they will turn out to be evils of Dickensian dimensions.

Bernie Sanders running for president? I don’t much see the point of the exercise, because a Democratic Party challenger who is openly “socialist” will only give the Republicans something to ramp up the hysteria with. Socialism is about as useless a word right now as elite. Just as nobody will admit to belonging to the élite (an inchoate body whose principal characteristic is that no one is elected to belong to it), so nobody knows what socialism means. It’s either very bad or uniquely just. It pertains to the ownership of property. Limits to ownership of any kind are invariably denounced and dismissed (or heralded) as “socialist.” This is a point on which the 1% and most of the 99% agree, and it explains why so many of the latter vote Republican.

In this way, socialism is a very crude ideology. It predicts that limits to ownership (of any kind) will sap commercial energies and inevitably lead to economic collapse.

I am no socialist when it comes to human beings. I’ll even let the gazillionaires hold on to their loot. But I don’t believe that corporations and other business organizations are “natural persons,” and I’m disinclined to allow them own anything — let them lease it from an entity possessed of heart and lungs — other than property that is maintained for public benefit (and not the gain of passive investors). I am turbulently opposed to the corporate ownership of “intellectual property.” Ideology has nothing to do with these ideas of mine. Far from predicting outcomes, they reflect experience. Look around you, and see if you can find an example of a corporation where workers are working harder (or over longer hours) and seeing an increase in compensation that exceeds the return on investment for shareholders.

The possession of capital is not a virtue. It is a stroke of luck. The most self-made man in the world depends on dozens of public services for his success; indeed, in the United States, there are many “public services” that benefit only the self-made. (Consider our needlessly complicated tax code, a gift to accountants and tax lawyers.) Work — industry, labor, diligent attentiveness to production; call it what you will — is a virtue. And virtue, in any well-regulated polity, ought to be rewarded. (Do you disagree?)

It may be imagined that I should like to see a lot of changes in our laws, but, once again, experience tells me that social engineering by means of legislation is effective only in communities that are regulated in order to protect the group from malefactors. (Gee, that sounds like socialism, doesn’t it? I’m thinking of Wall Street and the SEC, however.) In other words, legislation works when it formalizes and ratifies a clear public opinion. The one bad thing about the New Deal, in my view, was that, in acting ahead of public opinion, it encouraged a cynical disregard for public discussion. If the government is going to declare and enforce the right thing to do, then why bother debating it? Only fanatics and opportunists are undeterred by this hurdle.

Besides, isn’t there something ideological about legislating social improvements? If this, then that. We have seen how rarely that works out as intended. We have also seen that laws, unlike morals, lose potency over time. One generation may feel passionate about progressive laws, but the ones that follow are likely to take such laws for granted and then to find them tiresome. Laws, unlike morals, are specific to the times in which they are enacted. Thirty years ago, Kathleen participated in a review of municipal laws that was sponsored by Staten Island separatists. She discovered, among many, many other things, that movie theatres in the city were required to provide white-gloved matrons for the supervision of afternoon matinees. They probably still are. There is nothing quite so bad as a law that no one is obliged to regard.

So, cockeyed optimist that I am, I look forward to increased moral enlightenment. Gimlet-eyed materialist that I am, I think that a robust moral sense is a vital aspect of self-interest. It is the only thing that stands between us and our brutish anxieties. Like Confucius, I believe in few laws, most of them aimed at punishing the untrustworthy.

But I’d be glad indeed to see the laws that enable the speculative exploitation of the poor wiped off the books.