Archive for September, 2015

Gotham Diary:
Seated Interpretive Dancing
September 2015 (V)

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Monday 28th

There was a racket outside, clearly involving a fire truck. The sirens weren’t wailing, but the horn was bleating. The horns on firetrucks are extraordinarily unpleasant. They’re somewhere between a foghorn and a braying donkey, only much, much louder than either. I find them utterly countereffective. They’re supposed to inspire the drivers of other vehicles to get out of the way, but in fact they don’t inspire anything: thought shuts down. That’s what was happening outside. Two cars were waiting to pull into the garage downstairs. The driver of the firetruck didn’t want to wait. I doubt that the truck was headed anywhere but to the firehouse on 85th Street. But right of way must be insisted upon.

A couple of garage attendants were signalling to the drivers, Drive on! Get out of the way! But the driver of the first car, a white sedan, was either stubborn or paralyzed. A door on the driver’s side of the firetruck opened, and I wondered what kind of confrontation we were in for. But the driver of the white car finally moved. He (or she) didn’t get out of the way, though; up at the corner of Second Avenue, the firetruck was still bleating. I didn’t feel like kneeling on the bench and trying to peer down to the end of the block, so I simply assumed that the driver of the white sedan, while consenting to move, was still in the way, and not pulled over, as the driver of the second car, a dark sedan, was, at the first opportunity.

Earlier on the weekend, I went out to investigate another racket. This one involved a firetruck — probably the same firetruck — as well, but only the engine was rumbling. The ruck had pulled over and blocked entry to the garage, and, behind it, there was a line of cars, some of which, waiting to get into the garage, were blocking the way for everyone else. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the firetruck, and the driver’s door was ajar. Nothing happened (except the honking of horns) for about a minute. Then a man in a uniform consisting to shorts and a shirt appeared, coming from the First-Avenue end of the block. He got behind the wheel and closed the door. Then he strapped himself in. The truck shifted gears, and the pitch of the engine rumble dropped. Still, nothing happened. Then the rest of the crew appeared, coming from the same direction, and clambered into the other doors. The truck drove off, and quite soon the only cars to be seen were the one parked by the sidewalks.

I can see the sidewalk on our side of the street now.


More anon. I am reading Purity. I really cannot think about anything else until I’m done with it. For more than three hundred pages, it was a dark thrill ride, much like Strong Motion and The Corrections, so reassuringly Jonathan Franzen at his best that I began to be genuinely curious about my lukewarm response to Freedom. Over time, that response curdled, leaving me with the fear that Franzen had lost his touch. I preferred not to think about Freedom at all, notwithstanding its many fine points.  I had been reluctant to read Purity, lest it confirm that fear. Happily, it canceled it.

Then I got to the section entitled “[le1o9n8a0rd],” and gasped to see how long it is. More than a hundred and twenty pages of Anabel Laird! It’s very well written, yes, of course; but Anabel Laird ought to have been put down in adolescence. She is the whining victim of masculine oppression who engorges me with a lust to disembowel her, and then to find other, nastier ways of killing her. In short, she makes me want to become the very image of her conceited, intolerable lamentations.

I’ve still got a few dozen pages to get through. (And then the final section after that.) Meanwhile, I read an interesting book review on Saturday. The first time I looked at it, I got as far as this:

If his outline is familiar, Orme benefits from his resemblance to previous Banville narrators. Sixteen novels in, and the author has stated he does not “really believe in the third-person mode.” His recent books are narrated by men adrift, prone to musing. “Why is there grass everywhere, covering everything?” asks Orme. “Why are there so many leaves?” These are men with painters in their pockets. Some look at the sky and think of Poussin, others turn to Bonnard. These men seep into one another; their tones intermingle.

That’s the second paragraph. It seemed to demonstrate why I don’t read John Banville. I certainly wasn’t going to read the book under review, The Blue Guitar (the impertinence!). But the review stuck with me, and, now interested, I read the whole piece. I came across this.

It’s not just that the extended cast of “The Blue Guitar” is underdrawn and the plot underfed, the difference here is that the narrator himself gets involved. Oliver Orme pre-empts any criticism of the book by repeatedly criticizing its melodrama.

You’ll have to take it from me that The Blue Guitar is filled with sumptuous prose. I think it’s fair to say that Craig Taylor’s review is not a very favorable one. I will come back to this later. Insufferable as I find Anabel Laird to be, I would rather spend time with her than with a character who can’t keep his hands off his neighbor’s wife and who muses about the prevalence of grass (in soggy Ireland). Spare me the poetic novels with sketchy characters and desultory stories!

I read a novel by John Banville once, Eclipse. It was one of the first books that I wrote about when I set up my first Web site. What I don’t say in my (not very lucid) published response is that Banville gave new heft to an existing prejudice against Irish literature. If Colm Tóibín hadn’t written The Master, I might still be laboring under a dreadful misapprehension.


Tuesday 29th

This morning, I couldn’t find my phone, so I had to call it. I could hear a distant ring, but it took two calls to track the thing down. It was in the pocket of my household shorts, hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Most irregular! I have a pockets-emptying protocol that is so habitual that I don’t have to think about it. Watch, wallet, and keys go here. Phone and handkerchief (and reading glasses, which I always wear suspended on a beaded chain that Kathleen made for me) go there. What happened last night? What happened last night was a combination of distracting excitements. After dinner, I spread Effudex on the backs of my hands and sat down to read for forty-five minutes. Effudex is chemotherapy for pre-cancerous skin cells. It is very effective, very itchy, and productive of very unattractive blotches. I walk into the doctor’s office with what looks to be plague, and she says, “Beautiful!” Even so, I felt thoughtless and gross walking past the outside diners at Maz Mezcal in a short-sleeved shirt, shortly before we left for Fire Island. Anyway, after forty-five minutes, I got up to take a shower, washing the Effudex off, something that you’re not supposed to do, officially, but that doesn’t matter, because Dr Green told me that the cream does its stuff in twenty minutes. (She does not, of course, approve of my washing it off, but doesn’t scold me about it, either.) In addition to the delight of erasing the worst of the itchiness, there was the prospect of a movie to watch: Victory. The watch, the wallet, and the keys were deposited where they belonged, and I gathered my handkerchief and glasses as soon as I came out of the bathroom, but I forgot about the phone. It’s probably worth noting that I watched the DVD without missing it.

Victory, adapted from Conrad and directed by Mark Peploe in 1996, is unusually faithful to the action of the book. Everything that happens in the story happens in the movie as well, with only a few slight divergences. (The prehistory with Morrison is summarized but cut.) What’s left out, however, is much that makes Victory worth reading. There is a great deal of reflection — Heyst’s and Lena’s — that tells us who they are, and how they’re not anybody else. I cannot imagine how the richness of this material could be folded into a movie, but Peploe, perhaps wisely, does not attempt it. What he might be more fairly faulted for is omitting most of the novel’s highly dramatic conversational set-pieces. The chief of these, the chilling encounter between Ricardo and Schomberg that constitutes the bulk of Part II, is reduced to a mere snippet. The sociopathy of Ricardo, so bewitchingly expressed in his tale of hooking up with Mr Jones, has to be communicated instead by Rufus Sewell’s off-key, eye-rolling eagerness. I like Rufus Sewell’s acting, and I wouldn’t say that he is miscast here. But he is very much a substitute for someone else — I can’t think who.

Irène Jacob is very good as Lena, better than I thought she could be. Because of course Irène Jacob is French, and Lena is English. Since Conrad never stops harping on the lustrousness of Lena’s voice, and since the “action” half of the novel begins with the lovers’ Tristan-esque discussion of their love, and since the decision was made to transform the Swedish Baron von Heyst into Willem Dafoe’s American from San Francisco, the film’s massive abbreviations are compounded, again, by substitutions. I daresay that Ms Jacob appears in the picture because one of the project’s many producers insisted upon it, and the same is probably true of Mr Dafoe’s.

The remarkable performance is Sam Neill’s. As a full-bodied man, trim and fit but by no means as cadaverous as the book’s Mr Jones, Mr Neill might seem yet another substitute, but he isn’t, because he completely captures Mr Jones’s malignancy. The substitution here is merely of one ghastly façade for another. An unhealthily bloated face is accentuated by tiny sunglasses. After the ordeal in the rowboat, the face bears poxy red patches. But the leering, louche way with words is right out of the book. The meaning of Mr Jones’s one phobia — women — is nudged into discreet, if arguably misguided, explicitude by his grazing the cheek of a Chinese waiter at Schomberg’s hotel. By the time we get to the climax, however, Sam Neill has outdone (in advance) the weirdness of his performance in Event Horizon. Somehow he completely obscures his own fit-and-trimness.

The other great performance, painfully brief, is Irm Hermann’s, as Mme Schomberg. Her smile may not be as “idiotic” as Conrad would have it, but it burns with placid intent. Having mentioned Ms Hermann, I feel that I must also say something about Simon Callow’s orchestra leader: I didn’t recognize him until he started talking. He carries himself like a jointed paper doll from the 1840s — at least until he has that fight with Schomberg. Schomberg’s vastly reduced, and therefore much less interesting part, is played by Jean Yanne. Actually, Peploe’s Schomberg is just a stereotypical ageing lecher. We’re told (by a sea-captain’s voice-over) about Schomberg’s electric hatred of Heyst, but we’re not shown it, not at all.


Most of the day went to Purity. Aside from making the bed and grabbing a burger across the street, I did nothing else but read Jonathan Franzen. Which is odd, because I hadn’t much left. When I was done, I rooted around for some reviews. There was James Meek’s, conveniently announced on the cover of the current LRB, but the only other review of Purity that I could find was Elaine Blair’s, in Harper’s. They made an interesting pair, because while they agreed about little or nothing, they fell into the same journalistic slot, as attempts to place a noted novelist’s latest work in a larger cultural conversation. For Meek, it’s “family”; for Blair, “women.” This accidental juxtapositions suggests spinning an argument that women are the true enemies of family, but I’m not going to go there. I was not interested in Purity‘s relevance to cultural conversations, even when its contributions were more essential than merely interesting. All I have to say about the two reviews is that their mutually unsympathetic conclusions seem like a sign of literary vitality.

Trying to avoid falling into any journalistic slots myself, I resist the big question, which is: What is Purity about? The question is as tempting as it is obvious, because the novel bristles with themes, ranging from the war between the sexes to the well-known dangers of the Internet and the overlooked dangers of nuclear arsenals. The characters think and talk intelligently (or at least passionately) about these themes. But, like every good novel, Purity is about a handful of people and the social environments in which they live and interact. As in every good novel, the characters are more interesting than the things they talk about — we’re more engaged, say, with Leila Helou’s worries about nukes than we are worried about nukes, because they her worries, and she’s kind of fascinating. (James Meek regards her section as “the weakest.”) We’re asked to consider both what the characters want and why they can’t enjoy it more. I think of Vladimir Nabokov with his butterfly net: what is a novelist but a hunter in search of imaginary glow-worms who will illuminate each other? Purity is a very good catch.

(My problem with Freedom, I’m coming to believe, was my problem: I couldn’t really deal with Walter Berglund. It was worse than dislike — much worse. I disliked Anabel Laird, in Purity, far more than I disliked Walter Berglund, but my dislike was passionate. Walter Berglund, I simply refused to think about, as if admitting Walter Berglund into the world of interesting people would spoil the world for me. He seemed to me to be an awfully familiar figure, and I do mean awfully. It’s perhaps à propos here to say that my big problem with Jonathan Franzen is partly that his characters are overinterested in sex and partly that Franzen is overinterested in showing me what they do about it. When I say that I don’t know anybody in real life whose genitals are so energetically autonomous, the accent falls on I don’t know, and that’s how I like it. I know that sex can be brilliantly creative, and abysmally destructive, and I even know how it can be both of these things. But the very fact that sex is (one hopes) private, and perfectly peculiar to those engaging in any given sexual act, it is not of general interest. And now I must immediately qualify that statement by conceding that Pip Tyler’s explicit idyll with Andreas Wolf in the Bolivian hotel room is an important scene that deserves its spelling out, because it is about Pip’s fluctuating moral register of the encounter. What people do behind closed doors is one thing. How their feelings about doing it shift is something else. I believe that, when, for some awful reason or another, you don’t really want to be embracing the person in your bed, you are having sex without making love, and that is an awful thing, quite literally an immoral thing. I seem lately to have read a number of accounts, fictional or otherwise, that highlight the sudden lack of interest in their partners that males feel after ejaculation (Knausgaard comes to mind). I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I have never experienced such post-coital withdrawal, even if that means what it implies, which is that I haven’t experienced “casual sex.”)

If I were obliged to vote for a Most Central Character in Purity, I’d be deeply puzzled, because to pick either of the two obvious candidates would be to overlook the other’s importance to the integrity of the novel. These two characters are Anabel Laird and Andreas Wolf. They never meet, which means that, if one is the room, the other can’t be. This is not to say that there are “two plots,” but only that this election gets in the way of understanding the book. The better contest might be for the choice of Prime Mover: who is the character who sets the story in motion. This character is clearly Pip Tyler, the Purity of the title. It’s true that she sets the story in motion by merely existing, but it’s a matter of existing when Andreas Wolf is looking for avenues of attacking sometime friend Tom Aberant. We understand this in retrospect, not at the beginning; but the book does begin with Pip, and moves quickly to include Anabel, although we don’t know that Pip’s mother is Anabel yet. (We do understand that Pip’s mother and Anabel are the same person long before it is announced, because they are identically impossible.) Perhaps it is a feature of the Prime Mover to be a young person who does not yet know what she’s dealing with or whom she’s up against, but it is definitely youthfulness that inclines us to root for Pip. By making her edgy and funny, and clearly very aware of the words that come out of her mouth, Franzen insures that his literate readers will root for her — will take, for the duration, her destiny as their own.


Wednesday 30th

About my eye: I mentioned last week that my left eye was inflamed, and that I was waiting to see the ophthalmologist who was covering for the doctor who has taken care of my eyes for decades but who was traveling — as I say, September is the month to leave New York. By the time I did get medical attention, the problem had pretty much cleared up by itself, with perhaps a little help from Advil. I saw the regular doctor yesterday, and he confirmed a diagnosis of non-infectious scleritis, an apparently spontaneous inflammation of the membrane surrounding the eye — the sort of thing that can happen to people with hypertrophic immune systems and, presumably, the sort of thing that Remicade ought to prevent. Something to talk about with the rheumatologist! The good news was that, if it happens again, and the pain is responsive to Advil, then I can use Predniselone drops to end the inflammation without bothering the doctor. Very good news indeed, since bothering the doctor about something that clears up by itself is expensive at any price, and, in this case, this being Manhattan, just plain expensive.


At the recommendation of a most regular reader (I ought to be able to put that in Latin), I diverted my attention from Carlo Cipolla’s Before the Industrial Revolution to his Clocks and Culture, a short book that is divided into the three parts. In the first, Cipolla talks about the invention of the “verge escapement with foliot” that is the basis of the mechanical clock. (Foliots have been replaced by fusées and pendulums.) In the section part, Cipolla runs through the interesting history of Western clocks in China and Japan, from the Sixteenth Century on. Finally, there is a brief epilogue. The epilogue is the heart of the book.

Although the epilogue is written in the clearest language, you must read the rest of the book in order to understood it, or you will wind up like the Chinese eunuchs. The Chinese eunuchs thought that clocks were fantastic toys. You probably think that clocks were invented to tell time.

Eventually, of course, clocks did get round to telling the time, but this took a few centuries — more than three. It wasn’t until Christian Huygens applied a pendulum to a clock, in the middle of the Seventeenth Century, that clocks told time more or less reliably. What, you may ask, did clocks do before that?

Well, clocks were fantastic toys. They were big public clocks, mounted on cathedral spires and other highly-visible urban spaces. They might not have been reliable, but they were impressive. It was best to have just one, as the burghers of Dijon discovered when, in 1641, it was found to be intolerable that no two of the town’s public clocks kept the same time. The dirty little secret about pre-pendulum clocks is that they had to be “governed” by human attendants, who determined the correct time from sundials and water clocks and adjusted the big clocks accordingly.

We imagine a bunch of guys in a garage, or some similar shed, trying to figure out how to make a clock. That is a post-Scientific Revolution picture. Since the Scientific Revolution, one of whose first triumphs was Making Clocks Reliable, our technological developments have fallen within programs. The personal computer begins with human computers, battalions of men armed with adding machines, determining the trajectories of weapons. It is discovered that the desired computations are beyond the time and intelligence of any number of human beings. How to perform the computations otherwise is the problem, and the personal computer is the answer — or, rather, one side-effect of the answer.

But pre-modern technology was not so teleological. The picture was different. Inventions from far beyond Europe’s borders — water mills, windmills, and gunpowder — were appropriated by Europeans. And then they were improved. Why? Because the artisans who produced them became mechanics, or in other words guys who try to figure out a better way to do something just for the hell of it. The something was already a given. As in Before the Industrial Revolution, Cipolla quotes P G Walker in Clocks and Culture:

Before men could evolve and apply the machine as a social phenomenon they had to become mechanics.

This is a very subtle thought, not nearly as easy to grasp as it seems to be once you’ve got it. The Middle Ages were technologically fertile, but they were also technologically disorganized. This followed a world-wide pattern, in which men of learning believed that men of practical skill had nothing to teach them. Throughout the Middle Ages, university professors went on preaching Aristotle. They were not consulted by the builders of cathedrals, who confronted and solved daunting engineering problems on their own. (The cathedral, unlike the clock, is the produce of end-driven solutions.) It is difficult for us to imagine the divide between theoretical and applied science, but it was indeed absolute; the one had nothing to do with the other. As the centuries rolled by, however, smart educated men began to think about the world that they grew up in, a world of mills and clocks and square-rigged sailing ships, and they began to infuse high science with artisanal practicality. Both Galileo and Leeuwenhoek were dependent upon lens-grinders to produce the instruments that they needed for their discoveries. And because the schooled scientists began to want to measure things, they demanded reliable clocks — and got them, thanks to Huygens. The application of the pendulum to the verge escapement clock is, in its marriage of theory and know-how, the first invention of Modern Times.

Bear in mind that, discordant church bells aside, ordinary people did not really need to know what time it was. On a sunny day, they could tell perfectly well what they needed to know. You showed up on the right day and waited for things to get going. It’s still that way in many parts of the world. In Asia, the day was divided into six daylight and six night-time hours. Obviously, the length in minutes of these hours fluctuated throughout the year, and, when they began making their own clocks, the Japanese learned how to make adjustable instruments that told Japanese time, not “of the clock” time. The whole idea of clock time, the whole idea of deferring to a mechanical instrument instead of regarding it as an optional gadget that might or might not have anything useful to say, came from the Scientific Revolution, when it became very important to the new men of science to know how long processes lasted. Solid bodies no longer just fell; they fell at an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second.

In his epilogue, Cipolla reminds us that people cannot see what they are not looking for. To put it another way, they cannot see at all unless they are looking. The Chinese officials who could afford to own a timekeeping devices had no need to use them; they snapped their fingers, and things happened then. Europeans were no different. In the three hundred years and more between the invention of the verge escapement and the attachment of the pendulum, clocks evolved as entertainment devices. A single clockwork might power six different faces, showing the movements of the heavens and the changes of the calendar, and throwing in a mechanical floor show for good measure, Adam and Eve doing the hokey-pokey with a serpent. What distinguished East and West was the humility of Europe’s educated men, who stopped teaching and started learning.

What we need now is to learn not from the scientists but from Oscar Wilde. Here is Cipolla’s penultimate paragraph:

The machine is a tool. But it is not a “neutral” tool. We are deeply influenced by the machine while using it. De Saint Exupéry optimistically believes that “little by little the machine will become part of humanity,” and that “every machine will gradually take on [man’s] patina and lose its identity in its function.” However, in a world of machines we too are gradually taking on a patina and are little by little infected by a mechanistic outlook that is not always useful or beneficial in handling human affairs. As Oscar Wilde reportedly said, “the evil that machinery is doing is that it makes men themselves machines also.”

It’s hard to believe that Wilde wouldn’t have put it better. But it is too true that, since the Scientific Revolution engendered the Industrial Revolution, men have been regrettably inclined to regard other, allegedly lesser, men as capable of mechanical regularity: to show up on time, to repeat operations exactly, to disregard irrelevant impulses. I can’t think how often my blood has been brought to the boiling point by reading that businessmen have an interest in effective education because it produces skilled and reliable workers. Whether they do or they don’t, today’s public schools are indistinguishable from third-world factories, and students regard them as comic-book prisons. The clock is a tool, but it can’t prevent us from using it to make tools out of human beings. Only we can do that. And maybe the best way to begin that exercise is to remind ourselves of the guys in the pre-industrial garage.


Thursday October 1st

This will be brief. I have just lost my second attempt to add to this entry. I have no idea what the problem was, but fifteen hundred words just went poof. Then the three hundred that I managed to scribble down before I forget them vanished as well.

Losing text is always disheartening. I have a number of protocols for saving work as I go along — I can’t count on the software — but every now and then, I get so involved in what I’m writing that I disregard them, and today I’ve paid for that. I was writing about Angela Bourke’s harrowing true-crime book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, and about Amia Srinivasan’s review of a book about “effective altruism” by William Mac Askill, Doing Good Better. The latter poses important problems that I hope to come back to. When I finish reading about Bridget Cleary, I may be able to write again about her strange ordeal. But I’ve been at the machine for long enough today.


Later the same day

Kathleen had not slept well the night before. At the dinner table, her eyelids fell shut. “Why don’t you go to bed?” “I’m fine as as I can close my eyes. What were you saying?” What I wasn’t saying was that it’s discomfiting to sit over dinner with someone whose eyes are closed. We did not linger at the table. By the time I’d washed the dishes, and spread Effudex over the backs of my hands, Kathleen was all tucked in. “Would you like me to turn out your lamp?” “No, I may sit up and read a few pages.” I sat down and read for forty minutes, but Kathleen never budged.

Before I disappeared into the bathroom to wash off the Effudex and get ready for the night, I woke Kathleen up and asked her to take her meds, which would see to it that she stayed asleep. It turned out that she had forgotten to take them the night before; hence the bad night. Then I turned out her lamp and kissed her good night.

The book that I was reading rendered Kathleen’s mildly odd behavior rather disturbing. When did Kathleen ever have a problem falling asleep? When did she ever close her eyes at the table? What were those pills I’d given her? The book was Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary, one of the most harrowing true-crime books, not least because the perpetrators were not entirely sure that they were participating in a crime at all.

In 1895, in County Tipperary, a young married woman, Bridget Cleary, was killed by her husband, while her father, her aunt, and several cousins stood by. Two weeks later, when these family members were in prison, pending questioning, Bridget Cleary’s body was interred by four policemen. Not one villager, not even the priest, would attend the burial. What had Bridget Cleary done to bring down such an horrific end upon herself?

I haven’t finished reading the book, but, if you ask me, what she did was to apprentice herself to a dressmaker in Clonmel, the town nearby, and to acquire a Singer sewing machine. She might as well have  stitched herself a pair of trousers. Bridget Cleary was moving up in the world; unfortunately, she was still at home.

Angela Bourke was drawn to Bridget Cleary’s story because it is enmeshed in the lore of fairies. Irish fairies are not for children, if for no other reason than their penchant for ambiguity. When irritated, fairies could wreak nasty magic upon mortals and their animals. They could, among other things, abduct family members and “replace” them with changelings. Changelings were difficult and sickly. When Bridget Cleary came down with a touch of bronchitis, her family convinced her husband, with all the obliquity of which an Irish family is capable, that the woman in his bed was not Bridget but a changeling. If he was a real man, he would deal with it.

The way to deal with changelings was to expose them to fire. Fairies hated fire. They would run up the chimney, and restore the kidnapped family member. A number of burnings were reported by British doctors in nineteenth-century Ireland. (Oscar Wilde’s father filed a lot of those reports.) All of them but one involved small children who were not developing normally. A few were burned to death. The one adult victim of the burning cure was Bridget Cleary.

In addition to her business head and take-charge mentality, Bridget Cleary was rumored to have a lover, the Protestant bailiff who happened to live next door. The folklore of fairies allowed Bridget’s family to rectify an awkward and potentially scandalous situation by invoking the fairies. They persuaded themselves that they were doing no harm to their relative — they were only trying to get her back. How sincerely they held this conviction is open to question, but that was  part of the fairy point, too. Fairies did not subscribe to the ratonal law against contradictions. As such, they were weapons of a sort in the fight of a waning traditional society against British commerce, medicine, and justice. It is the ambiguity of the family’s beliefs, playing behind the stressed-out agony of Michael Cleary, who didn’t know what to believe but who was left no choice about proving his manhood, that makes Bourke’s book both fascinating and sickening.

The Cleary case attracted a lot of attention throughout Britain. The English seemed incapable of grasping the fairy angle, and kept asserting that Bridget had been burned as a witch. Nobody who knew her ever thought such a thing. With the precision of a neurosurgeon, Bourke — author of the Maeve Brennan biography; that’s how I came across her work — keeps the story’s many strands distinct, and makes what is in essence a scholarly case study yield a gripping read.


Almost as gripping a read is Amia Srinivasan’s review of a book about “effective altruism,” the latest version of utilitarian philosophy. Another term that comes up in the review is “existential risk.” These rather bland phrases turn out to be coded facilitators of slick selfishness. William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better: blah blah blah, is a lecturer at Oxford who is not yet thirty years old. It may be hoped that he will eventually outgrow his callow simplificatons.

Effective Altruism — the associated movement — errs at the starting line. Srinivasan observes that MacAskill’s

main claim, familiar from the utilitarian tradition out of which the movement emerges, is that we should not only do good, but to do the most good we can.

But nobody is in a position to know what that might be. MacAskill parades a troupe of trumpery metrics, all pungently redolent of the physics envy that induces economists to overlook the bent timber of humanity and dream of fungible individuals. He believes that good can be calculated — there is even such a thing as a Qaly, “a single year of life lived
at 100 per cent health.” Calculations involve highly even more speculative figures: “We must also think both marginally and counterfactually.” “Counterfactually” usually means that, if you don’t do something, someone else will. Marginal thinking is just that. Let’s say that you want to do some good by being a doctor. Being a doctor in America will do some good, but, marginally considered, not very much, because there are already lots of doctors here. (Tell that to someone with no coverage.) If you go to Africa, you can do a great deal more marginal good, but even better is to become a hedge fund manager, make a killing, and distribute your fortune philanthropically among a legion of doctors in Africa. Bill and Melinda Gates couldn’t put it better.

Even if “the most good” could be known, the virtue of pursuing it would be doubtful. For one thing, says who? For another, this somewhat bogus self-sacrifice would interfere with a clearer imperative: that we live as well as we can. Living well is the compromise that we make with all the imaginary possibilities for fulfilment that life seems to offer, for example, having a good time. To live well is, in the end, to live well  enough. Doing the most good surely requires us to forego doing anything else, and as such to ignore the limits on all activities that fleshly mortality imposes. Monomaniacs do not flourish.

We must consider existential risks. These are threats to humanity as a whole. At a recent conference on effective altruism hosted by Google, the hot issue was existential risk, according to a report filed by Dylan Matthews at Vox (and cited by Srinivasan). Asteroids, plagues, climate catastrophes and the other usual suspects took a back seat to the menace of robots, who will turn on their creators and destroy them (us) just as soon as we make them smart enough. This prospect is so totally, totally awful that any amount of money thrown at its prevention, no matter how unlikely the odds of success, is better spent than on any of the fixable problems all around us right now. Is it any wonder that Silicon Valley was gladdened by this ethical imperative? I can’t be the only one to be reminded of late-medieval chantries: why leave your money to the dirty poor when you can
endow a chantry, paying priests to say perpetual Masses for the salvation of your eternal soul? All the effective altruists have done is to substitute coders for clerics.

The ultra-rational MacAskill has a bias against bias: he believes that you oughtn’t to support a charity that benefits someone you know. Writing of his decision not to fund a hospital in Ethiopia that he visited and where he made friends — beware of friends like William MacAskill! — our Young Turk says that such contributions would be unfair and arbitrary.

If I’d visited some other shelter in Ethiopia, or in any other country, I would have had a different set of personal connections. It was artibitrary that I’d seen this particular problem at close quarters.

On which Srinivasan comments,

That word “arbitrary” is striking. It is indeed arbitrary that MacAskill went to this hospital and not another, in Ethiopia and no some other country, just as it is arbitrary that we have the family, friends, lovers and neighbors we do. But doesn’t such arbitrariness come to mean sometehing else, ethically speaking, when it is constitutive of our personal experience: when it becomes embedded in the complex structure of commitments, affinites and understandings that comprise social life?

The most pressing moral imperative that I perceive is the need to do what we can to sustain and improve our local environments. This just might counseling young people against becoming self-centered jerks. I don’t know about the robots, but we surely need protection from the effective altruists.


Friday 2nd

Reading the news from Roseburg, Oregon, I can’t do much more than register that I’ve read it. The urge to explain yet another shooting is irresistible, but it has been irresistible on so many previous occasions that it is difficult to marshal the energy. I applaud President Obama’s declaration of impatience with current gun regulation, but putting the accent on gun regulation suggests that these outbreaks are happening because they can. I suspect that that would be — arguably — a necessary but not sufficient explanation. The shooters seem alike, but we only get to know them when they’re dead. The Adam Lanza case reminds us that very disturbed people behave in ways that resist explanation. Is there a connection between Lanza’s temporary addiction to Dance Dance Revolution, as reported in a recent issue of the NYRB, and his attack on the elementary school in Sandy Hook? It’s an exciting, but not very illuminating question. Adam Lanza needed care that his mother thought she could provide on her own and that the state could not provide effectively. The only positive idea that we can take away from these episodes is that we do need to reconsider the balance of anti-social behavior and freedom, especially where young men are concerned. I’d like to get rid of the guns as passionately as anyone, but inadequate mental health care is a sore point that needs a great deal more attention.

It is also worth remembering that, until quite recently in human experience, the autonomy that adult males prize so highly used to be earned, and granted not by the mere passage of years but by the recognition of other adult males. I do not mean to prefer traditional societies here. It’s to be hoped that we have left them behind forever. There are many ways of being an adult in our world, and I cannot even begin to propose a scheme whereby boys are put in touch with sympathetic mentors. But I can begin thinking about it, and so can you.

In other loose change, I’m actually almost delighted that Pope Francis had his little talk with Kim Davis. (He did, didn’t he?) Even assuming that he knew all about her, it was perfectly pastoral of him to urge a woman conflicted over faith and duty to “be strong.” If she took that advice as an endorsement of her behavior, that’s her business. Our business is to heed the wake-up call, if needed, and stop dreaming about an overnight transformation of the Roman Catholic Church, which remains, emphatically, the domain of a confraternity of unmarried males, an organization many of whose members would not think twice about stifling His Holiness in his sleep, sooner than see him celebrate a same-sex marriage. Does Francis cower at their threat? I don’t think so. What he is doing is far more general, and at the same time more fundamental. He is insisting that Christian empathy is more important that Christian doctrine. Almost all self-styled Christians of every stripe have just about forgotten this message. (It was the power of empathy that inspired the doctrine. The doctrine did not prescribe empathy; empathy can’t be prescribed.) The Nunciature committed a gaffe by including Ms Davis in the receiving line, but those who are “disappointed” in Francis because he greeted her are not hearing what he’s saying.


Ever since my vacation on Fire Island, I’ve found it difficult to roll up my sleeves for housework. Last week, I didn’t get around to it at all. I simply shirked. I don’t know why, and I don’t know why the spell of laziness ended when it did. But it did end, on Wednesday. Yesterday, I was even more industrious. As the entry reports, I lost the morning’s work at the point of proofing it. These things happen, I told myself; and, probably because I have been working very hard here since the end of August — the fact that I’ve enjoyed doing so just means that I’m lucky — I actually listened. I dealt with lunch briskly and turned my attention to the half of the apartment that I hadn’t straightened up the day before. But first, I thought, let’s see if Web Expressions 4 is set up on the Lenovo in the dining ell — my “house,” as distinct from “work,” computer. Here’s what I had in mind: I’d use Web Ex, which allows saving work to the local disc, instead of the WordPress, with its cloud (the Cloud of No Undoing, I call it), to jot down bits and pieces of what I had written in the morning as I remembered them. I would come and go. I would dust a table, and then sit down at the laptop for a quick minute. What in fact happened was that I sat down for ninety minutes or more. By now, my head was clear of that awful lost-work staticky heartburn, and I was almost taking dictation from a surprisingly clear memory. Then I tidied the rest of the apartment. I made dinner, too, a mushroom and sausage ragù that was all right, but in need of some flavorful oomph (olives, maybe?).

Kathleen had a glass of wine at dinner, which may explain what happened next. She was in bed, about to resume reading Geza Vermes’s Christian Beginnings, which I’ve been urging her to read since it came out — she’s liking it, too — and I was ready for bed but sitting in my chair, The Burning of Bridget Cleary at my side. Instead of opening her book, however, Kathleen said, “It’s like the song. I love you more today than yesterday.” Our 34th wedding anniversary falls tomorrow, so we’ve been thinking such things for a while now. Instead of getting sentimental, however, I got the song, sung way back when by Spiral Staircase. We listened to that a couple of times. It seemed safe, after the passage of so many years, to treat the lyrics as a statement of fact (but, even so, I’m not taking anything for granted). Kathleen had her computer out by now, and she was running through songs on YouTube. She paused momentously at “This Guy’s In Love With You,” the Herb Alpert hit from 1969. So I bought that as well and loaded it onto the Nano. While it was playing, I was reminded of a terrible song that I was horribly in love with in Houston, not long before law school, “(They Want To Be) Close To You,” sung by the striking voice of Karen Carpenter. Kathleen almost exploded when I played it, but instead she launched a breathtaking interpretation of the song, using her skill and artistry as a Seated Interpretive Dancer. (That’s what we call it, anyway.) With her upper body, she mimed the song ruthlessly. The way she coyly embraced her heart with both hands at the title words was both beautiful and hilarious. And that “Waaah!” at the finale! Complete abandon! When Kathleen hates a song, she really throws herself into it. Never has an audience felt more privileged.

Then we put down our toys and set to reading.


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Real Soufflé
September 2015 (IV)

Monday, September 21st, 2015

Monday 21st

Dig we must, as Con Ed used to say. The grim scene shown above is actually a sign of progress. Second Avenue is being restored. The staging areas for the construction of the subway station are contracting. The ground floor of the yellow-brick building on the left will be given over to the 83rd Street entrance to the new station. The era of very ugly pictures at this Web site may be drawing to a close!

Over the weekend, my left eye developed a peculiar inflammation. How peculiar, I’ll find out tomorrow afternoon, when I’ll be squeezed into a covering ophthalmologist’s already tight schedule. When the Advil wears off, it hurts like the dickens, but it does not appear to be an infection. (I’m prone to peculiar eye problems, as a sideline of the things that are really wrong with me.) I’ve had some trouble reading — I can see, but the muscles hurt; so, last night, when I wanted to read Victory, but found the print in the Penguin edition to be rather small, I bought (a medical expense) the Kindle version of the Penguin. It was quite easy to read.

I had gone straight from Nostromo to Victory. As stories, they are very different. Nostromo sprawls immensely, capturing a revolutionary episode in an imaginary South American country (Costaguana, modeled chiefly on Colombia). The cast is immense, and Conrad’s narrative is so looping that early readers complained of too much “machinery.” Victory is intimate, and far more straightforwardly deadly. I haven’t read it before, so I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but as this is Conrad, I am not expecting happy endings. What’s particularly intriguing is its operatic construction. A summary of the action would look a lot like an opera synopsis. There are four acts, each divided into a few scenes, and they feature the handful of characters pretty much as a librettist would handle them. The beginning of Act III is, I believe, an intensely ironic love duet, powerfully reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde, because while the lovers air their ardor, a ship approaches from the distance, and we know that the ship does not carry friends. When I put the book down, late last night, incapable of reading another word (not because of the eye condition, but because I was exhausted), the ship had not yet arrived. It’s a wonder I’m writing here now.

Who might write this opera? The cat-and-mouse encounter between Schomberg and Ricardo (the end of Act II) has a Verdian inexorability. First, Ricardo boasts of the awful things that he has done in the service of his “gentleman, Mr Jones.” This gives Schomberg the idea of killing two birds with one stone. Already longing to get Jones and Ricardo out of his hotel, he contrives to interest Ricardo in wreaking his revenge on Axel Heyst, who, in his piggish eyes, has stolen a beautiful girl from his imminent embrace and carried her off to his remote island. (Schomberg wouldn’t, couldn’t know that the girl found him revolting.) But the horror of Ricardo’s nature might be too much for Verdi, whose characters are wilfull and grim but always grounded in normality — even Iago. The Schoenberg of Gurrelieder, meanwhile, might do the love duet quite beautifully, and shadow it with the approaching monstrosity.

Why the Conrad all of a sudden? Because I decided to re-read Nostromo last year. I am always re-reading things now. But when I got to the middle of the book, I stalled, because I was so swelled with hope that Martin Decoud’s political plan would succeed that I couldn’t bear the suspense of the chapter in which the rootless intellectual (made political by his desire to impress his lady-love) and Nostromo, that paragon of vanity, and, unbeknownst to them, the hide-merchant Hirsch, drift around the airless Golfo Plácido in a lighter laden with tons of silver ingots, while hoping not to run into an enemy steamer. The spine of the Oxford World’s Classics edition has been scowling at me for a year now, as has its cover, which shows the arresting self-portrait of the late Italian painter, Pietro Annigoni, whose somewhat reactionary portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in her somewhat windswept robes excited much midcentury derision.

On page 62 of The Last Love Song, biographer Tracy Daugherty quotes Joan Didion as calling Victory “maybe my favorite book in the world” — a recommendation that I had to follow up at once. But first, I must finish Nostromo. This didn’t take as long as I feared it would, probably because I was so primed for the action by the complications of Sybille Bedford’s Mexicans — Costaguanans at peace, so to speak.


This afternoon, I shall have to do something about the laundry. I have this week’s wash-and-fold to put away, and last week’s as well. There is an awful backlog of pillowcases and napkins to be ironed. I don’t understand my resistance to this chunk of housework, but I would rather follow Wyle E Coyote off a cliff than attend to it. Dinner will be simple. Kathleen wants another bowl of the chicken soup that I made for her last night — her tummy is off. I took a tub of Agata & Valentina’s chicken broth, simmered it with an ample tablespoon of aromatics (also conveniently available at Agata, layers of chopped celery, carrot, and onion, also in a tub), along with some white peppercorns, a sprig of thyme and a sage leaf. When I thought that the broth had picked up all the flavor that it was going to, I strained it, kept it warm, and then spooned in some of the Arborio rice that I had steamed for my own dinner. To me there was nothing special about any of this, but Kathleen said that she had never had chicken soup like it, had not imagined that chicken soup could be so satisfying, &c. Happily, I have a few more tubs of broth in the freezer. For myself, it will be spaghetti with butter sauce. I’ve discovered that butter sauce does not freeze well; it become pallid and watery for some reason. Since butter sauce is the knock-out punch of tomato sauces, pallid and watery won’t do at all. Nor does butter sauce keep for more than a week in the fridge. I used to wish that the recipe (28 ounces pulped tomatoes, 1 medium onion halved, and a stick of butter, simmered for ninety minutes or so, whereupon the onion is discarded) yielded more sauce, but I have learned better.

What I have not learned is how to resist the appeal of the vision of the writer at work. So often, I see myself writing — at times when I am not writing, that is — and the picture is so inviting! So quiet, so focused! So safe! Now, I am that lucky writer who enjoys writing, so I do not need the blandishments of conjured delights to woo me to the desk. But I feel cheated all the same, because the act of writing is simply never like that pretty picture. The problem is not that the actuality of writing yields other, less attractive pictures — again, I’m an easygoing writer who never tears his hair out or tosses crumpled sheets of paper into the bin. The problem is that there is no picture. When I am writing, I am not thinking of the fun that I am having writing (unless I have just thought up something very cheeky). I am not thinking of me at all, even when I am writing about myself! A true picture of the artist at work would show all the accoutrements of writing, whatever those might be (pens, typewriters, computers), but no artist. In the act of writing, the writer disappears, leaving only a husk of flesh and bone that could not be less real to him.

As a reader, however, I quite consciously relish the congruence of the pleasure of reading with the pleasantness of the setting in which I am reading. The picture of me reading is obviously not the same as the picture of what I am reading, if picture there were, but the pleasures harmonize. If picture there were, I say, because although of course I imagine visual scenes when I read, those scenes are violently unstable. Reading for me is not the translation of text into a spool of film. The words on the page never disappear. In between the words, above and below and before and behind them, flash animated snapshots of spaces, gestures, utterances, and responses. Sometimes these snapshots are imported, as for example the reminiscences of Tristan summoned by the beginning of Part III of Victory. The visions appear and disappear so quickly that they never interrupt the flow of actual words, or my sense of the lyricism in the words. The words printed on the page are the great source of pleasure. Notwithstanding the chaotic flight of inconsequent images, there is no picture of what I am reading. Only a sense and a pleasure.


Tuesday 22nd

Last night, I came across something new and unexpected, even though it oughtn’t to have been either. Writing in 1967, about a sort of think-tank, Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Joan Didion comments,

I have long been interested in the Center’s rhetoric, which has about it the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch.

Didion is a sharp writer, but she is rarely so forthrightly insulting. (I think kitsch is insulting, don’t you? It certainly was in the Sixties.) Even more fun is “the real soufflé,” which has the reckless dash of Tom Wolff. Didion’s sentence is anything but a soufflé — a chocolate mole, perhaps. “Ectoplasmic” sets you up for the fun, by sounding a clear note of bogus seriousness. (Ectoplasm was the “substance” of which visible “psychic phenomena” were constituted.) Then Didion suggests that she is a hunter — “on the track” — in search not of live prey but of dubious concoctions. The sentence comes from a very short piece, “California Dreaming,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of it.

The piece is so short that it really ought to be read, and not summarized. Didion has great Didionish fun with the Center’s activities and objectives, which the Center describes as “clarifying the basic issues.” Didion sees the Center as, primarily, a fund-raiser for itself. Its head, Robert M Hutchins, erstwhile University of Chicago worthy and co-founder of the Great Books curriculum, “has evolved the E = mc2 of all fund-raising formulae.” (If Didion is at all unfair to Hutchins, it is in her failure to appreciate his visionary exploitation of celebrities.) She retails an almost grotesquely embarrassing example of the “high-powered talk” at the Center’s conferences. It’s hard to believe that the Center survived her four pages of target practice.

“California Dreaming” was written when Didion was young, and still a contrarian California Republican. Aside from Barry Goldwater, she doesn’t seem to have liked any Republic leaders — loathing for Ronald Reagan would cause her to leave the faith once and for all — but that wasn’t important; her mission was to attack and explode liberal fatuities and government plans. In retrospect, there doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly liberal about Hutchin’s Center, and it’s possible that Didion’s training misled her into treating every vent of hot air as liberal output, but in the days of Goldwater and Nixon, that was a reasonable inference. If hot air were lava, Santa Barbara would have gone the way of Pompeii.

When I stopped laughing, I was left with “hot air” and “Great Books.” Regular readers already know that I majored in Great Books in college, following a curriculum adapted from the Hutchins model. Unlike most of my classmates, I was not drawn to Great Books as a “prelaw” program; nor was I drawn to the then somewhat cryptic study of Christian humanism, which has since that time become far more pronounced at Notre Dame. No; I was already the amateur historian: I thought that it would be a good idea to read books that had stood the test of time — even if I was already more than a little suspicious of what that test entailed. What were they thinking? I was not, in short, interested in “great books” per se. Were it up to me to design the curriculum now, I’d cut back on the overexposed thinkers (from Plato to Aquinas) and include more diverse material, indicative of the anorthodox scope of thought in Antiquity. (For example, I’d investigate Iranaeus’s infamous ban of heretical tracts, of which we knew only the titles in his list until the texts themselves were discovered in a pot in Egypt, in 1945.) I should certainly do everything possible to unseat what appears to have been Hutchins’s leading objective, the bolstering of the status quo with high-minded discussions of the works of marble busts.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read all that stuff, if for no other reason than that I’ve been able to go through life without feeling guilty about not having done so (as I do for not being fluent in Latin and Greek). I think that I’ve also remarked here that those who don’t read Plato and Aristotle are probably likely to repeat them unawares. Well, Plato is complicated: lots of people who read him have quite consciously repeated him, and in action, too, particularly in the stretch of utopian revolutions running from the 1790s to the 1910s. Aristotle, who is very appealing as an early humanist, set practical science back a thousand years, not because he was bad it — he is said to have been an astute observer of such out of the way but not altogether inaccessible phenomena as tide pools — but because he didn’t do it: he substituted, for science, armchair speculation. Aristotle gave the know-it-alls of the world a great deal of extremely regrettable and unnecessary encouragement.

The Internet has put an end to armchair speculation — or it will have done, when its last remaining exponents die off. In truth, casual research used to be difficult. For all the bulk of the standard encyclopedias, there were lots of things that you couldn’t really look up, especially things having to do with other cultures and civilizations. Synopses of the past always refract upon it an unconsidered belief about what is important now. One of the reasons why the old theological disputes, about such things as the nature of the Trinity, for example, are so deadly dull to read about today is that nobody cares about such things anymore, and probably won’t ever again. Encyclopedias catalogue what has been known as if it were gathering the husks of insects, and not the passion of knowing.

And in what reputable household reference book would you have been able to learn about the tulip craze that wracked Holland in the Seventeenth Century? Or the hula-hoop craze that — sometimes seems to be making a comeback?

In any case, we want to know about the past not because it was a golden age or in any serious way superior to the present, but because everything that we know about the past throws everything in the present into richer, more comprehensible perspective. Take our worrisome environmental issues, our sudden awakening to the vital importance of sustainability. Without a grasp of the historical record, we are all-too-humanly inclined to splutter that the people who went before us were too stupid or thoughtless to stop and think what they were doing. But this was never the case. What was the case, every now and then, was that pros and cons were weighed in an intellectual environment that was ill-informed about the cons. Such considerations attended the use of coal at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Coal’s immediate and local drawbacks were well-known in earlier times, and so long as European economies could rely on charcoal, which is carbonized wood, coal was eschewed. But then the forests dwindled, just as the demands of new uses were set to take off. The unofficial ban on coal was lifted, creating London’s fog and a European-wide epidemic of tuberculosis. These were deplored, of course, but they were also dimmed by the startling expansion of railroads, factories, steamships, and the other products of coal-fueled heavy industry. Not only were enormous fortunes accumulated, but wealth was ever more evenly distributed. In the Nineteenth Century, the long-term costs of using coal were concealed. Stupid and thoughtless are not the right words. Venal and ignorant are. They still are.

History would help us to understand our health-care mess. It would teach us that key developments in modern medicine were paid for by bottomless pits of wealth — bottomless, because the pool of beneficiaries was very small. The armed services developed emergency-room techniques that, spread over a population of hundreds of millions, is quite literally ruinously expensive. The same goes for the fancy-schmancy diagnostic tools that were bought and paid for by corporate health-care plans, which in theory benefited all employees (already a very limited number of people) but in practice favored savvy, highly-educated executives — a goldfish bowl of users. For both the military and the mid-century corporation, it didn’t matter how high costs were, because expenses were so occasional. In short, our health care system was nourished by extraordinarily unequal access. Given that nobody gave it a thought, it is impossible to see how “affordability” could have failed to be the headache that it is.

History reminds us that we are the future’s past. In the old days, noble Romans read history in order to inspire themselves to behave greatly, so that they, too, would be remembered. The past, the present, and the future were the same thing. This is no longer imaginable. We can actually destroy life on this planet, should we be foolish enough to do so. Our footprints trample. The people who read about us, moreover, will have somewhat different ideas about what’s important. We cannot act, as the noble Roman could, on the understanding that our valor will be appreciated as we appreciate that of the people of the past.

We can’t afford hot air.


Wendesday 23rd

Part of the fun of reading Victory was imagining Joan Didion reading the novel in college and liking it a lot. I can imagine her feeling very severe about Axel Heyst’s belief that he could step aside from human entanglements, that he could sustain a disinterested position in the world. Reading Victory is not unlike reading Didion, not that her writing is all that stylistically similar. There is simply the same warm chill.

For most readers, Baron Heyst is going to be the good guy. He helps out a stranger with a small but absolutely essential loan, and is rewarded with a partnership in a coal company. The coal company fails, but Heyst stays on at its remote island headquarters, content to stop wandering. A business matter requires him to visit Sourabaya (as Conrad calls the town on Java); while there, he is drawn to a young woman who is in an unpleasant situation, from which he decides to rescue her. Together, they run off to his island, where they fall in love.

Needless to say, Heyst has a curious background. The son of a Swedish intellectual who was driven from his homeland and who settled in London, Heyst was taught by his father to cultivate contempt for worldly things: your basic Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is a difficult figure for us to grasp, because the impulse behind his thinking was an emotional response to the tumultuous upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. Contempt for worldly things was spiked by the shocking proliferation of worldly things. Rigorous materialism was the common weekday religion. The bourgeoisie was ascendant (even the military was infected). Practical people found that life was easier to negotiate if you kept a small mind, if you acted as though everything that you were taught in school were all that you needed to know. The triumphs of science, moreover, continued the Enlightenment’s enervation, vaporization of religion. Against such a background, pessimism looked almost chic. Schopenhauer cooked up a fragrant blend of Kantian other-worldliness and Indian fatalism.

What’s wrong with Heyst, in the stern view of Conrad, is that his rejection of life is not preceded by an engagement with it. It is simply Heyst’s idea good manners. He is affable but diffident. Everyone finds him strange, because he is obviously not cut out for a world populated disproportionately by opportunistic adventurers who do not see the Malay Archipelago as a locus of escape (except from creditors and European disgrace). Heyst is a good man, a quiet man, a man who takes advantage of no one. He walks through life without friends or enemies — until he falls in love. Too late, he discovers that loved ones require protection. Too late, he discovers that his loved one has ideas of her own about protecting him. Heyst is too good to be good for anything.

And Heyst is so careless about Schomberg! Conrad exploits the awfulness of Schomberg to tempt the reader into admiring Heyst. Surely the object of so abominable a man’s baseless vituperation must be a saint! We are even tempted to believe that it is fine of Heyst to be unaware of the terrible things that Schomberg, a hotel-keeper who gossips with his customers, says about him. (Without friends, how is Heyst to find out?) Schomberg has always regarded Heyst as a scoundrel and a thief, even as a vicarious murderer, but the idleness of Schomberg’s scandal curdles when, with silver-plated arrogance, Heyst steals Schomberg’s girl. She is not Schomberg’s girl yet, and she will never be Schomberg’s girl willingly, but Schomberg is so conceited that, once she is gone, he thinks of her as having been just about his. Rescue or no rescue, Heyst has made a mortal enemy — and he ought at least to know it.

It is at this point, in the wake of Heyst’s flight back to the island, that Conrad introduces a trio of malefactors. One of these villains is disgusting, or made out to be — a hairy aboriginal from the Mosquito Coast, Pedro is never so much as mentioned by Conrad without repulsive physical details. The other two, however, are nothing less than fascinating. The cadaverous gentleman who calls himself Jones is accompanied by feral Martin Ricardo. They’re as awful as Schomberg, but whereas you want to step on Schomberg and crush the life out of him, Jones and Ricardo perk you up. They conjure an amusing team of jewel thieves, working the Riviera in a glittering Fifties TV series. Of course they are actually much too malignant for popular entertainment, and dangerous, too. When Schomberg contrives to send them off against Heyst, convinced that the baron sits atop pots of ill-gained loot, you can’t imagine how Heyst will survive their attack.

And I’m not going to tell you how he does (or doesn’t). Victory put me in such a state of suspense that I almost lost the ability to read coherently. A hundred pages are devoted to the events of one climactic day, fourteen chapters of recombination and reversal. The dread, thick as humidity, ought to paralyze the six characters, but instead it shunts them onward: they must always be doing something. As I wrote the other day, the construction is oddly operatic, and the other part of the fun of reading Victory was imagining how it could be carved up for the lyric stage.

Conrad subtitled Victory “an Island Tale,” and that is how I take it — as a tale. As a novel, I think it fails, partly because it is too ingeniously pessimistic, and therefore something of a mere entertainment. It is also both unsocialized and sentimental about unsocialized ways of life. (Perhaps I should make myself clearer if I substituted “bourgeois” for “socialized”; gloomy philosophies aside, much nineteenth-century fiction, and even more of the Twentieth’s, celebrates the romance of rejecting bourgeois life as unredeemable.) This is another way of saying that, aside from the one beautiful and exemplary woman in the book, the rest are all some kind of hag. Mrs Schomberg’s appearance is deceiving, but is nonetheless a very unattractive appearance, marked by a perpetual idiotic grin that Conrad does not allow us to set aside. Conrad is second only to Trollope in his eagerness to discuss the nature of women, and he no longer appears, if he ever did, to be particularly well-informed. His thoughts about love are difficult to reconcile with his thoroughgoing pessimism. Love becomes something too glorious for human experience, and therefore doomed.

Already, with the consciousness of her love for this man, of that something rapturous and profound going beyond the mere embrace, there was born in her a woman’s innate mistrust of masculinity, of that seductive strength allied to an absurd, delicate shrinking from the recognition of the naked necessity of facts, which never yet frightened a woman worthy of the name. (Penguin, 262)

Chivalry rears its fatuous head. It even leads Conrad into nonsense: there was born in her a woman’s innate mistrust.

I am coming to believe that there is a important qualitative difference between the novel and shorter forms of fiction: the novel ought to show us how men and women (several of each at least) manage the society that they share. Societies too exclusively male or female fail to generate the necessary spark. And men really do need to learn what women have been chuckling about for a hundred years or more: many of the most ardent opponents of bourgeois life spend a great deal of their free time ensconced in amply upholstered armchairs.


Thursday 24th

On second thought.. It’s obvious that that last crack, about the upholstered chairs, is the comment of an old man addressing a vanished scene. The young men of today, at least the ones who write, appear to be quite aware of all the ironies of manly life. Bluster and hypocrisy — guilty as charged. (Doing something about it perhaps remains a problem.) Also: “bourgeois life”? What exactly is that, nowadays? Other than a way of life preserved (rather patchily, to be honest) by the likes of me? I last wrote about it about ten years ago; perhaps a rethink is in order.

Last night, I read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the long title essay in Joan Didion’s first book. Like most paranoid visions, it is so wrong that it’s funny. Also, like most paranoid visions, it springs from an important, uncommon insight.

Of course the activists […] had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values.

Didion seems to have been looking for signs of an imminent outbreak of anarchy; perhaps she was seized by a premonition of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. In the end, nothing much “happened,” beyond the shooting of a few students. By the 1980s, few people remembered the ugly and confused side of Flower Power. The experiments with communal living did not last long, at least in part, it seemed to me at the time, because the excitements of the late Sixties threw people together regardless of background, and it didn’t take long for differences in background to become annoying. People returned to wherever they’d been. Many were cynical about the experience; or rather, they were just cynical about experience generally. Some were able to keep a spark alive, an idea, at least, of what a new and more satisfying society would look like.

And then, despite nothing happening, society did change after all, did become more open and less oppressive. We’ve already become familiar with the resistance to this change, the foot-dragging or worse of white men of middle age and older. Whether they will be able to bring change to a halt, and perhaps even reverse some of it, is a very real question, because, outside the West, it is not just middle-aged men who are resisting. But I don’t want to follow Joan Didion in foreseeing an apocalypse.

Didion is absolutely right, though, about what she says happened “between 1945 and 1967.” She is especially right to suggest that “we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves.” I can still feel that. The grown-ups, round about 1960, no longer really believed in what they were doing. I don’t know why. Perhaps it had something to do with putting the world back in working order a little too quickly after the two wars. Perhaps it had something to do with the flood of creature comforts and easy entertainments that was nowhere near cresting in 1960. It wasn’t hypocrisy, but it was insincerity. The grown-ups were going through the motions. Young people were not inspired to emulate them. Even now, a generation later — or is it two? — young people are not inclined to believe that there is much to learn from older people. We older people are simply passing on what we weren’t taught.

I say that “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is “wrong,” but only as a political report. Neither utopia nor dystopia were over the horizon. As a social report, however, as a snapshot of the groovy, drug-centered lifestyle of hippies, the essay is nothing, for anyone who lived through it, but a flashback — a flashback and a slap. It seems so pointless now, that would-be way of life. For the drugs never did usher in an Age of Aquarius. They merely rattled a lot of heads and caused a bit of permanent damage. Which makes me ask: Why did I take so much acid?

It wasn’t for fun, let me tell you. Of course, it’s likely that I never came across anything like pure LSD, and that it was additives that inflicted the prolonged and wretched hangover cubed that would prevail for the duration. It wasn’t for the interior journey of discovery, either. I didn’t learn a thing about the world or about myself. I couldn’t even listen to music, because it was like throwing stones at beautiful stained glass. At first, tripping was just very unusual — it’s safe to say that much. Then, when it became familiar, it also got thrilling, because I got daring. No, I never did anything physically reckless. But socially! I went to classes. I participated in seminar discussions. And I passed. I was my own little Mr Superpower.

Whether it’s a coincidence that this was one of the lowest points in my life, as the terrifying approach of graduation from college highlighted ever more luridly my failure to imagine what on earth I should do afterward, I can’t say. Acid wore me out, I’m sure. I took it about forty times that year. But it replaced my worries about the long-term future with more immediate anxieties. And it gave me something to be perversely proud about. Acid did not turn me into the raving lunatic that my parents would have expected; quite the contrary. I was often dressed in jacket and tie.

In due course, I came to the edge of the waterfall, and tipped over into objective adulthood. There would be another flurry of drug-taking three years later, and it would climax in the flame-out of one of my colleagues at the radio station. (He survived, but relocated in Reseda.) There would be snorts of cocaine in the very early Eighties. There would be grass, but grass got to be odd. It has been a long time since I could imagine fiddling with any of these things, just as it has been a long time since I was bored, or worried that my life needed more oomph.

Joan Didion speaks of “the game we happened to be playing.” It was hip, even impious, to talk about “society” as it were nothing more than an amalgamation of people engaged in throwing dice. Life was supposed (but why whom?) to be more serious than a game could ever be. Since then, games have become extremely respectable, but I remain persuaded that if life is a game, only a game, it is not worth living. How can one talk of a game that must necessarily involve, just for instance, the love of and caring for children? What parent finds that to be a game? And yet I agree that something as trivial as a game was being played when I was growing up, and I’m sorry to doubt that anything more serious happens to be going on now.


Friday 25th

The Pope is in town, which means that you have to think hard before setting out to get from A to B in Manhattan. For those of us who live here, nobody, not even the Pope — much less the grandees who show up for the opening of the United Nations session — is quite worth the bother of traffic interruptions, at least in a town where employers pretend that nothing unusual is afoot. In the old days, visits from kings and cardinals were marked as holidays, so there was something in it for everybody. Now it is just the infliction of a celebrity crush. The police are partly to blame, certainly: they like throwing their weight around, and projecting their anxieties about social breakdown. (Besides: overtime.) The month of September is looking more and more like the real August — the time to get away.

None of this botheration affects me, of course. I stick to my corner of Yorkville, where nothing ever happens (yay!) and there’s a beautiful park that few New Yorkers know about. Of course, to a reading and thinking person who spends the greater part of the day alone, the need for a papal visit is somewhat obscure. I am second to none in my admiration for Francis; I think that he’s exactly the right pope for right now, and I worry a lot about his health. (What’s with this diet of fish and rice?) He isn’t going to change “church teaching” on the thorny sex conundrums that the Church oughtn’t to be involved with in the first place, but he has already stopped a lot of the scolding. There is a real possibility, for the first time since popes stopped having children, that Catholics who have been barred from the sacraments or whatnot by mean-spirited technicalities will be re-invited to participate, and that, really, is all that matters at this point. But everything that’s grand about Francis comes through loud and clear from Rome.

To say that I am disappointed that the Pope will celebrate the Mass in Madison Square Garden is a light-years-scale understatement. Every fiber of my sense of what is right and proper is offended. There are many reasons to hate Madison Square Garden — without ever having set foot in it myself, of course — but, basically, it is a gym that doubles as a venue for caterwauling. If Francis really must appear before sheltered multitudes, then at least he might have borrowed a page from the old Reformers and simply delivered a nice, long homily. We could use more of those. Communion from the hands of the Holy Father is no holier for that.

Kathleen, unfortunately, has been thrown into, or at least around, the thick of it. Instead of spending these two days quietly in her office, she has had to show up in Tribeca, the Flatiron District, and Madison Square (happily no longer the site of MSG). This has involved trying to avoid crossing the Pope’s path. She was nearly knocked down on an M train platform last night, by a charging woman only slightly taller than herself. She was going to stay home today, but she has a board meeting that must be attended. Kathleen would like to see the United Nations, St Patrick’s Cathedral, and the big Broadway theatres all moved to Governor’s Island.

Last night, sitting on the balcony, I could see the Pope celebrating Mass — in a church, definitely — on a television in an apartment across the street. I couldn’t hear a thing, and probably wouldn’t have even if the window through which I was peering had been open. The silent image flowed along as television images banally do. The broadcast’s producer betrayed a weakness for repeating the same withdrawing shot of the organist’s hands and the keyboards, but not the organist. If there was a clearer way to signal that liturgy makes for dull TV, I’d like to see it. Sometimes you’d see the Pope. Most of the time, though, not. Because the camera has to travel. Too bad if the other things to see in the church were even less lively than an elderly man conducting a contained ritual. Here is what television shouts to the viewer: You are not here! But you have to turn the sound off to hear it.


I went to Crawford Doyle yesterday, for the first time in an age, and bought Purity, along with one or two other things. I bought Jonathan Franzen’s new novel because I was asked by a couple of friends what I thought of it. They assumed that I’d have wangled an advance copy somehow, and they were surprised to hear me say that I wasn’t sure that I was going to read Purity at all. I was somewhat surprised to hear myself say it. But the plain truth was that I have felt no desire to put my hands on it. This may explain why I left the Crawford Doyle bag in the taxi that took me home.

I regard patronizing Crawford Doyle as a public service, so, having done my bit, I had no qualms about ordering all the books from Amazon the minute I sat down at the desk. Purity may arrive as early as tomorrow. Along with it will come Lord Jim. I’ve been thinking a lot about the poke that I took at Victory the other day — it “fails as a novel” — wondering, basically, who died and made me king. Just what did I mean? I went on to make a pronouncement about what novels ought to be, going forward, and observed that Victory does not provide much in the way of a model for the novel of tomorrow, but there had to be more to it than that.

I’m against the idea that the best novels are those that pit a man against the consequences of his actions, especially where the consequences are unforeseen (but perhaps maybe they ought to have been foreseen, &c). This is the attempt to shoehorn tragedy into fiction, and the result, as I said of Victory the other day, is usually mere entertainment. Genuine tragedy is a spectacle. There is the tragic hero, but there are plenty of other characters, too, plus the chorus. Tragic fiction is interior, focused on one point of view, one consciousness, at a time. There is also just one reader. The atmosphere is generally airless, even if a storm is rumbling overhead.

The characters in Victory are introduced as strange birds, and Conrad appears to have no interest in understanding their strangeness. The three villains are plainly sociopaths of some kind, and it is the nature of sociopathy to throw no light at all on the human condition. Heyst likes to keep to himself, but his freedom from restlessness (which has nothing to do with real curiosity) is somewhat superhuman. For me, the fact that Heyst likes to read a lot (if not to write) only underscores my preference to share his interest whilst living in Manhattan, not on a desert island. As for Lena, she comes perilously close to being a heroine of the melodrama, miraculously undamaged by her uncertain childhood and ghastly youth. I don’t know how Lena would be able to recognize Heyst as a hero (which she clearly does, even if she has to protect him). In any case, Conrad packages her too prettily, endowing her with a beautiful low voice.

“The horror, the horror.” To me, the great horror in literature occurs in The Golden Bowl, swelling throughout the final hundred pages or so. It is not scary; there are no monsters, no poisons, no risks to life and limb. What there is is worse, the dreadful isolation, from everyone else as from one another, in which Maggie and Charlotte fight their final duel. It is a horror of consciousness, of simply being aware that such a duel must be fought and why. The ostensible family intimacy in which the two women must live is also a horror: their hostility is the tightest of secrets. Every move is silent, invisible. James is very clever for having pulled off the stunt of describing a mortal confrontation without so much as the sound of a pin dropping, but the confrontation itself is no stunt at all; it’s in the deadliest earnest. It is a grand negative fantasy, and it could not be represented but in the pages of a book.

I have already suggested that Victory would make a good opera — with a libretto written for Puccini, but with music composed by Britten — and this is a way of saying that what’s important or arresting about Victory is not its moral judgment but its emotional tension. Emotional tension is a reality that music expresses best (with an exception for Henry James, whose dictated later novels have at least a parlando musicality). All of this said, I would certainly encourage you to read Victory. It’s a great book.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
How Would You Like It?
September 2015 (III)

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Monday 14th

“I love listening to you talk,” said Kathleen. “Except… except when you get on one of your tangents, like Hannah Arendt or Joan Didion.”

Hannah Arendt I understand. How long did that go on? The first half of last year (2014), or nearly. But Joan Didion? Two weeks tops. It wasn’t until we returned from Fire Island that I got my hands on Tracy Daugherty’s biography. Until then, I had no reason to talk about Didion. Perhaps Kathleen was anxious that something protracted might develop. It is true that, having done with Daugherty, I read through After Henry; and I have Play It As It Lays in my pile. At the moment, though, I’m reading A Visit to Don Otavio, Sybille Bedford’s first book (published by Gollancz under another title, in 1953). Given the new rules, I can’t say anything about it, except that it is crammed with instances of embedded, understated hilariousness that can’t be retailed without a lot of setup.


“You wouldn’t want to make that trip twice.”
“Not under ordinary circumstances, no.”

There is absolutely nothing funny about those two lines; you have to have read what comes before for the quiet riposte to explode. As indeed it does, slowly, quietly, but with so much force that you cannot laugh. You can only put the book down, and wonder if tears are going to burst.

Both Didion and Bedford are harsh, in incidental passages, about New York City. “Sentimental Journeys,” Didion’s long essay about the “Central Park Jogger” case, contains a denunciation of Gotham that begins (more or less):

What is singular about New York, and remains virtually incomprehensible to people who live in less rigidly organized parts of the country, is the minimal level of comfort and opportunity its citizens have come to accept.

and ends (more or less):

It was only within the transformative narrative of “contrasts” that both the essential criminality of the city and its related absence of civility could become points of pride, evidence of “energy”: if you could make it here you could make it anywhere, hello sucker, get smart. Those who did not get the deal, who bought retail, who did not know what it took to get their electrical work signed off, were dismissed as provincials, bridge-and-tunnels, out-of-towners who did not have what it took not to get taken.

I am sure that if Joan Didion were to apply the critical skills that she brings to bear on California in Where I Was From to New York, she would find the “criminality” of the city to be the consequence of change outrunning comprehension: just how do you regulate the flow of a Niagara of money? Or a Niagara of immigrants? Both at once?

Bedford’s complaint has been answered, pretty largely, by air-conditioning.

Through the day a grey lid presses upon the City of New York. At sunset there is no respite. Night is an airless shaft: in the dark the temperature still rises; heat is emanating invisible from everywhere, from underfoot, from above, from the dull furnaces of saturated stone and metal. The hottest point is reached in the very kernel of the night: each separate inhabitant lies alone, for human contact is not to be endured, on a mattress enclosed in a black hole of Calcutta till dawn goes up like a soiled curtain on the unrefreshed in littered streets and rooms.

Perhaps, also, our clothes have gotten lighter; we certainly wear fewer of them. I did not spend a lot of time in the City when I was a child, but I do remember it as stuffy, always stuffy. Bedford is right about this:

In spirit and in fact, in architecture and habits, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States remains harshly northern, a cold country scourged by heat.

These snippets of Bedford come from the very first pages of A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey; they describe what Bedford is about to leave behind. So it’s okay to mention them. (I’ll have more to say about that rather bogus-feeling subtitle when I’ve finished the book — tomorrow, almost certainly.)


I’ve ordered a couple of books about the Industrial Revolution from Amazon. One of them looks to be the standard college text — it’s certainly priced like one — and the advantage of that is that I’ll be reading the party line, the received academic wisdom, about a very complicated business. The book’s story begins in 1760. I’m interested in much earlier developments, the pre-history of the Industrial Revolution really, and the other book that I’ve sent for is a history of Western technology that runs from 1000 to 1700.

Why am I interested? Because, the more I think about it, the more it seems that the values of Western humanism — individual conscience and voluntary commitment — are most persistently challenged not by their pre-modern antagonists, ecclesiastic and sovereign authority (think Putin), but by side-effects of the Industrial Revolution, particularly the allure of automatic efficiency. You’re familiar with “physics envy,” the pressure in the “human sciences” to establish rules of gravitational predictability, a pressure that has eroded the study of human behavior that can’t be measured. I fear that this envy has spread to every public discourse. Politicians rattle on about the high ideals of the Founders, but then they try to sell implausible programs for retooling Americans with skills for the Information Age — a pipe dream rendered frankly silly by the widespread fear that robots are going to take over all the jobs. Economists are the worst, for in their view, the robot has taken over, in the form of “the market,” which works, according to them, precisely because nobody is managing it.

What made the Industrial Revolution so exciting for those with the leisure to think about it was the miracle of producing so many goods without lifting a finger. The owner of a factory, unlike the artisan who preceded him, made nothing. Other people, of course, had to lift their fingers, and more than their fingers, but they were not really workers, either, only temporary extensions of the machines, to be replaced as the machines became more sophisticated. This is where Marx came in, and it is where he made his greatest mistake (“workers”). Before the mill or the plant starts turning out widgets, however, a great many decisions have to be made, and made correctly: business decisions, engineering decisions — and political decisions. We have gotten rather passive about the political decisions. I’m not talking about political control. I’m talking about decisions about the right way to live in a society. Ought there to be a guaranteed living wage? Affordable, or perhaps even free, health care? Education? Sustainable environmental practices? And, if there ought to be these benefits, how do we pay for them? In a humane society, one that prizes the values that I mentioned, political decisions such as these must attain widespread assent in order to be effective. It is difficult to think about them in the climate of political anxiety that has fallen over not just the United States but all of the states that were formed by the inspiration of Western humanism. As usual, I look to history, to what we can make out about how we got here, for security.

We are not machines; we shall never be machines. Considered as machines, we shall always be defective. We must also understand, however, that the idea that human beings are defective is as ancient as anything about us. It owes to our imaginations: we can so easily imagine being better. (It is even easier to imagine that other people could be better!) I will not claim that these imaginings have produced divinities, but they have certainly colored our ideas of divinity. Western humanism emerged when a significant number of men grew impatient with analyzing human beings as defective something-elses. They wanted to grasp men and women as such. We are still learning. We have almost thrown off the wishful delusion, half humanist, half proto-Industrial, that “man is a rational animal.” (A great deal of classical Greek philosophy is hopelessly confused in just this way.) We are trying to understand the differences between men and women — without assuming that men are normative — so that we can minimize the risks of sexual assault without resorting to purdah. We are trying to learn that sexual practices that do not attract us need not revolt us. We are trying to reconcile our deliberated belief that, for society to work at all, each member must be treated as an equal member (for otherwise we descend into bullying) with the dizzying differences among us and the sheer peculiarity (the “uniqueness”) of each. Sociological studies will provide information that is useful in framing our questions, but it will never begin to answer them.


Tuesday 15th

Here is my hypothesis.

The introduction of firearms into Western warfare (in the Fourteenth Century) brought about a double, simultaneous revolution. In order to prevail over cavalry (mounted warriors), infantry required numbers of soldiers firing numbers of weapons. Both soldiers and weapons posed problems of coordination. The soldiers had to be trained to organize their shooting (to maximize effectiveness against the enemy as well as to avoid firing upon each other), and the guns had to be produced in such quantities that standardization was at a premium. The effectiveness of firearms, in short, depended on the availability of replaceable parts (men and matériel).

Perhaps not for the first time ever, but this time foreshadowing an overhaul of the world of work, human beings were reduced to the role of adjuncts in a mechanical organization. Of a well-drilled troop of riflemen, it is interesting to ask which, of the man and the gun, is the tool, and which is the user. That the soldier uses the weapon’s ammunition to defeat his enemy is obvious, but it may also be said that the gun uses the soldier’s eyesight to defeat the enemy of the generals who have put the weapon into the soldier’s hands. From the general’s point of view, soldier and weapon are one, and the more easily replaced the better.

Cavalry charges required teamwork, at least to get started. But they devolved into exploits of individual courage and dexterity. Cavalry no longer fought head-on, but became a kind of mounted police, surprising and harrying groundlings from the rear. The aristocrats who rode into the battles that it was their born duty to fight slowly ceased to be forces of domination and became forces of upset. Increasingly, they stood for resistance to the organizing tendencies of the centralized state.

Why have I worked out this hypothesis? Because I’m looking into the history of the idea of productivity, a concept that reduces human beings to the status of easily-replaced tools.

We usually regard the Industrial Revolution as something new, as something that burst upon the European scene toward the end of the Eighteenth Century. But here is the late Carlo Cipolla, sometime professor at Berkeley and author of Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000-1700:

The world in which we live and the problems we face cannot be understood without referring to that momentous upheaval known as the Industrial Revolution. Yet the Industrial Revolution was only the final phase, the coherent outcome of a historical development which took place in Europe over the first seven centuries of our now expiring millennium.

The final phase. The Industrial Revolution was as much the outcome of developments as the cause of others. But what developments? I know a enough about the new inventions of the old world — the water- and windmills, the fleet Nederlander boats that ferried the bulk trade in commodities from the Baltic, the gunpowder and the printing, the clocks, the horse-driven mining railroads, the pumps and the looms — to understand that the Industrial Revolution rested on centuries of tinkering with gadgets without which the steam engine would have been neither imaginable nor reliable. But I sense that the historians have missed the factor that ignited the Industrial Revolution. This was not a matter of inventions or technologies but a profound shift in the view, among élites, of the relation between man and nature (as it would have been put then), between men and human nature (as I should like to put it now). Let me make it clear that I regard the Industrial Revolution as a force for the good overall. But, like its formidable steam engines, it harnessed explosive forces less than perfectly. It is the relation between men and human nature that will determine the revolution to come in the world of work, and that, not the technology of robots, is what we ought to be studying right now.

I shall do my best to keep Carlo Cipolla from becoming a new Hannah Arendt.


Wednesday 15

According to the colophon of the Eland edition of A Visit to Don Otavio, Sybille Bedford’s first book was published as A Sudden View in 1953, and then under its present title in 1960. No mention is made of the subtitle that appears on the jacket, but not on the title page: A Mexican Odyssey. I have a hard time believing that Bedford would have applied “Odyssey” to her long sojourn in Mexico, if only because the Odyssey, and by reference any “odyssey,” is a homecoming. It is not just a trip with lots of stops. Mexico was not on the way to wherever it was that Bedford was ultimately headed.

The journey was decided at the last moment. I was not at all prepared for Mexico. I never expected to go to Mexico. I had spent some years in the United States and was about to return to England. I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible. I longed in short to travel. Surely there was scope in the Americas, the New World that had touched the imagination of the Elizabethans. Canada? One did not think of Canada. The Argentine was too new and Brazil too far. Guatemala too modern. San Salvador too limited. Honduras too British. I chose Peru.

But of course she does not go to Peru: the flight, we’re told, was too expensive. Bedford could not afford it. What could she afford? We are never told. Unanswered questions litter the opening chapters so thickly that Don Otavio ought to be unreadable. Who is “E,” Bedford’s traveling companion? (This one is easily dealt with; she is Esther Murphy Arthur, the book’s co-dedicatee.) Is E also Bedford’s lover? (An impertinent question, admittedly.) Why has E joined Bedford, when she seems to dislike the prospect of Mexico so? If Brazil is “too far,” why is Argentina even considered?

What was Bedford doing in the United States? Why was she “returning” to England? (She grew up, mostly, in France.) We are told nothing. It emerges much later that both Bedford and E are writers, because they’re lugging typewriters, but what do they write?

These questions do not actually oppress the reader at all, because Bedford is both busy and lucid about describing the moment. There was one question that did beguile me: what sort of person, with what sort of freedom, decides, “at the last moment,” on the verge of a return trip, to detour into a third country for an indefinite term and with no worked-out plans? In the teeth of any pecuniary wants, this liberty makes Bedford a very free woman indeed. She cannot afford the air ticket to Lima, but she can wander around Mexico for almost a year: not being obliged to reconcile those two propositions is a freedom all its own.

Who is Don Otavio? Is a visit to Don Otavio planned from the outset? Here we have the crowning freedom, the freedom of an author to shape material. When I came to the end of the last page, I sighed and laughed, remembering outrageous inconveniences and hooting anecdotes, and felt as if I had just returned myself from the trip that Bedford had taken (deeply grateful that I hadn’t actually had to); but presently I was imagining Bedford at work on her book. She drifted into Mexico with few plans and even fewer letters of introduction; she departed not only with plenty of stories but with an encounter around which she could render her aleatory junket in terms of almost foreshadowed coherence. Further, she could use this narrative arc as a restraint, so that she would disclose no more of herself than was necessary. She and E would carp and complain and even, every now and then, bitch, but they would remain ladies of a certain age and privileged background: unfamiliar. Their very elusiveness would become the most familiar thing about them, while all the time the focus was on what they saw.

What you don’t know about the travelers creates an unobtrusive negative force, a sort of vacuum, that pulls you from page to page no matter what Bedford is writing about. There are occasional chapters of background — about Mexico of course, not about her. She is especially intrigued by the 1860s folly that put Maximilian von Hapsburg on an imperial throne in Chapultepec Park, and the consequences that swept him off it (and into a painting by Manet that illustrated his execution). Her treatment of this chaos-as-usual episode in Mexican history is a sort of book within the book, but its drily tragic sense of life informs all of A Visit to Don Otavio. It argues against plans and projects, or at least for a suppleness that makes it possible to change plans to fit changed circumstances. (Plans are tragic because we are so unwilling to recognize changed circumstances.) The memory of Maximilian is a kind of guardian angel, seeing to it that Bedford’s occasional obstinacy about the itinerary does her no real harm.

In short, Sybille Bedford lays out A Visit to Don Otavio to impose upon the reader the same veil of ignorance about what’s to come that confronted her from day to day in Mexico, while at the same time patching her load of stories into a narrative that could only have been conceived retrospectively. The result is that you are never annoyed by not knowing what’s next. There is one thing that you can sure of: whatever is next, it will be wonderfully presented by Bedford.

Were I to stop here, I think that I should written a few words that other readers of this book would agree with, even if they’d never thought of it “that way”; but I doubt that anyone unfamiliar with Bedford’s first book would be inclined to pick it up. I want so much to keep the book’s surprises! But I recognize that there must be the irresistible temptation of well-chosen corroborative detail. Here’s hoping:

One-third of the way in, S (as Bedford refers to herself) and E are joined, in Guadalajara, by E’s younger cousin, Anthony. Anthony is a tolerably callow youth, recently graduated from Princeton. Quite unintentionally, Anthony, who is mostly out for a lark, makes the connection that will give the book its second, superior title.

He had also met, in barber shops and bars and without benefit of grammar, some Guadalajarans, male members of the jeunesse dorée, the sons of the gentlemen in silk suits at the Glass of Milk [the top restaurant, apparently]. They took him to the French Club and a rodeo, engaged him in versions of gin rummy played for high stakes, and he ceased to wear his Mexican hat.

E and I were full of curiosity. “What do you talk about? Do tell us what they’re like,” we said.

“They’re all right.”

Later he said, “They talk about sex all day, but they don’t seem to know any girls.”

One morning, he said, “We’ve had a bust-up. You see there was this night club. It didn’t amount to much in the first place. And there were all these whores. It wasn’t any fun. I mean who wants to dance with a lot of whores? Some of them just kids. I mean what’s the point. So I said to Don Orazio and to Don Joaquím, now if we had some nice girls to take out, haven’t you boys got any sisters to introduce to a fellow? Then didn’t they get mad. They said their sisters were at the True Cross in England and the Sacred Heart at Seville and my suggestion was an outrage and they guessed I didn’t know any better. They were sure my intentions were not dishonourable, but I ought to have realized that as a Protestant I wasn’t eligible and where was I brought up. So I said to Don Orazio and Don Joaquím, in the first place I was an Episcopalian, and not to be such boobies, and all the men in Princeton asked one another’s sisters down to the proms; and they said they’d rather die and they expected I believed in divorce too and I was lucky I was their guest. And then they all started jabbering to each other in Spanish.”

“Poor Anthony.”

“I was right, wasn’t I? What would you have done?”

“Never ask for a member of the family that isn’t on the table,” said E.

“What happened finally,” said I.

“Well, the father of Don Joaquím came in. And he said it was the best joke he had heard in a long while, and I was a Yankee but a good boy, and they all calmed down. So I said, let’s forget about it, and what about a round on me. Then they got mad again and acted as thought I’d insulted them. Jesus, what a night.

“Poor Anthony.”

Nevertheless his touchy new friends seemed to love him well enough… (113-114)

And so one thing leads to quite something else.

The foregoing passage conveys something of the culture clash that pervades A Visit to Don Otavio, providing much of its often exasperated but rarely condescending humor. The clash is manifold, not simply a matter of Anglophone ladies trying to make sense of Catholic Mexicans (and vice versa). There are the three levels of Mexican as well, the fewer than a hundred thousand blancos, the seventeen million mestizos, and the two or three million Indios. (This is more than sixty years ago, remember.)

After some hundreds of years of living together, neither Indians nor Spaniards were quite what they had originally been. In some ways they have become like each other; in others, they share nothing at all. The gulf between conqueror and conquered has settled into the gulf between class and class. Each still draws from a different tradition; neither has tried to learn consciously from the other’s. When they are on good terms, they call each other niños, children. There they live side by side, in domestic proxmity, familiar and remote, trusting and aloof, like so many frères de lait, boys, one from the village, one from the manor, who shared the same wet nurse. (208)

But for everything that Bedford tells us, we sense something larger, left unsaid.


Later the same day

Why not go to the movies, I thought at lunch. I checked the schedules. Grandma had arrived uptown, as I knew it would, so I went to the 4:30 show. It’s a short feature, at 82 minutes, but there is nothing rushed about it. I assume that it is set in Los Angeles, the vernacular city where there is little worth looking at, as if a comfortable climate made vision superfluous. It was hard not to see, in the background, the darker Los Angeles of Joan Didion’s prose. Los Angeles has always felt to me, on the few occasions when I’ve been there, like a moraine on which everything broken or no longer honest about American life has beached. Not that that’s all there is out there.

It was also hard not to see Grandma as a project, as a script that was pitched to producers and agents, read by actors, and passed around. In other words: “Hollywood,” that strange place where glamour is confined to red carpets and valet parking. La publicité! I kept looking around, as it were, and conjuring the crew. I imagined the set when no one was shooting. There’s a late scene, I think at the abortion clinic, in which Lily Tomlin’s hair, for the first time in the picture, looks done. I thought about how that happened; it was almost a lapse in continuity. Tomlin looks better and better as the film approaches its final scenes, a more muted version of the metamorphosis undergone by Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. Tomlin’s voice gets softer, too; she becomes more like the woman that one imagines she actually is. This is very agreeable, because her character is hopelessly rebarbative, at least until that moment in the abortion clinic.

Is there a genre name for the movie whose action is confined to a day (or to two days, in Julie Delpy’s case)? I can think of plenty of examples, from The Long Good Friday to The Day Trippers; the curious thing about these films is that they seem so leisurely, so full of extraneous encounters. Take Henry Jaglom’s Eating, perhaps the longest movie ever made, in terms of perceived duration. The closer the action gets to real time, the slower it is. Why is that?

There is usually an adventure in these pictures, something relatively straightforward that must be accomplished within twenty-four hours or less. In Grandma, Sage (Julia Garner) has scheduled an abortion, but her boyfriend hasn’t come through with the money. Now, on the morning of the appointed day, Sage turns to her grandmother, Elle (Tomlin). Elle is a once-famous poet whose long-term lover, a woman called Violet, has been dead for about a year. Elle, as luck would have it, has just paid off all of her bills, including a medical item for $27,000, and cut up all her credit cards, leaving her with only $43. The terms of the adventure are thus established: Elle and Sage must raise $600 by a quarter to six.

They try this and they try that. Seeking to raise money by selling some feminist first editions a shopowner called Carla (Elizabeth Peña, in her last role), they run into Olivia (Judy Greer) the much-younger woman with whom Elle breaks up a four-month relationship at the start of the movie. Elle literally melts down with embarrassment. (Peña, Greer, and Laverne Cox, playing a tatoo artist, are all divine.) Writer/director Paul Weitz spares us the tedium of spending too much time in the car, although he does give Grandma a snappy vintage sedan that usually runs. What he lingers over is the personal stuff. A long scene with Sam Elliott, who plays Elle’s one great heterosexual fling, consists of a string of peripeties that seems altogether free of the artifice of such chains; it also enables Elliott to widen his character far beyond the usual Marlboro Man limitations of his roles, showing us some bitter, unattractive pain and teary, but not self-pitying, regret. You would have no idea how this scene would play out, if you hadn’t seen the trailer, and known all along that, eventually, Elle and Sage will have to resort to the one person from whom they want to keep news of the pregnancy, Judy, Elle’s daughter/Sage’s mother (played, with great interest as always, by Marcia Gay Harden). (Is there a genre name for the kind of movie — The Blackwater Lightship, Georgia Rules — in which a transgressive granddaughter enlists a transgressive grandmother in opposition to a conformist mom?)

Julia Garner, playing Sage, has a face the likes of which haven’t been seen in the movies in my lifetime. It’s the kind of late Victorian face that was still alluring at the beginning of the Depression. Big eyes, tiny cupid’s-bow mouth, porcelain skin. It’s a look that is simultaneously childish (as in baby dolls) and very adult. Sage is a lost young thing whom nobody has ever tried to teach anything really serious. Whatever. Unexpected pregnancy makes her thoughtful, but she has little to think with beyond comic-book morality. Elle has plenty to think with, but the death of Violet has left her even more sour and difficult than she was. “Why did you stop writing?” she is asked. “Because people stopped reading,” is her angry but evasive answer. Judy is a lawyer (I think), which is movie-speak for too busy to have normal family relationships. All three women are in some kind of mess, but although immediate crises are sorted out by the end, at least enough to spare the audience the futility of a “foreign movie,” there are no epiphanies, no indications that tomorrow will be better. The fetus is aborted, but as Elle tells her granddaughter at the start, “This is something that you are going to think about at moment every day for the rest of your life.” The critical is replaced by the chronic.

Grandma made me laugh out loud, not that that’s hard to do; but it left me marveling at the ability of a movie to capture the lengthiness of life in little more than an hour. The message from Lily Tomlin’s face was, I may not be particularly old, but I have been around a very long time. So long, that something about her — Lily Tomlin or Elle Reid — is cinematically transcendent. In the end, Hollywood is escaped.


Thursday 17th

Another box arrived from England yesterday, and in it was another book by Sybille Bedford — a novel, A Favourite of the Gods. I read a few pages, then realized that I must put it down for a while. I’m not ready to efface the impressions of A Visit to Don Otavio. What I must read next, I realized, was Nostromo. I must go back to that. I was reading Nostromo — when? last year, I’m afraid — when something came up; perhaps it was the Penelope Fitzgerald craze. I remember also being very keyed up, very concerned about the safety of Martin Decoud, the doomed intellectual drenched in Eau de Stendhal. (I have read Nostromo before.) The long night on the silver-laden lighter, drifting around the awful Golfo Plácido, was too oppressive to read, at that time anyway. I picked it up last night and finished the chapter that I had been on the point of beginning. It was just right, somewhere between Bedford and Didion.

When I was a boy, the standard one-word epithet for the Latin-American Weltanschauung, viewed from a Yankee perspective, was Mañana. “I’ll get to it mañana” — if ever. “Mañana” was always accompanied by a rueful laugh, at the thought that this philosophy of indefinite procrastination could ever work. Well, of course it couldn’t: consider the proposition. Work. Work was not the priority in Latin America. Living was the priority. We gringos were the fools. We were the ones willing to be robots. We could have our progress. I thought about this all through Don Otavio, as the sensible ladies from the North ran up against irregularities and breakdowns. Against, as at the Guadalajara railroad station, a Möbius strip of ineffectiveness. (The man with the forms who cannot fill them in.) Individual Mexicans were usually quite competent and willing to do what was asked of them, but when the coordinated effort of several Mexicans was required, outcomes became uncertain. The railroad, an institution requiring the coordination of the greatest number of people, inflicted upon our travellers the ghastly ordeal of a nine-hour stall in the middle of a buggy swamp.

These problems did not arise out of laziness, but rather out of a profound disinclination to be part of a mechanism. A mechanism is a physical system of moving parts, and it functions with conditional necessity: if this, then that. That must be ready and able to perform whenever this occurs. Some mechanisms are made up entirely of human beings. Sports teams and performing arts companies depend upon mechanical coordination. Effective bureaucracies are highly mechanical. Vehicular traffic is viable only when most drivers respond mechanically to most situations.

In a flurry of notes exchanged with Ray Soleil, on the “man is a rational animal” business, I arrived at a different conclusion: man is an unstable animal, particularly in society. I’ll say more about this in a moment. Our tendency has always been to regard our instability (everywhere acknowledged) as a defect, as a problem to be solved. But it is no more a problem than our inability to drink salt water: it is simply who we are. Just as it makes more sense to desalinate water for drinking than to try to create a drug regimen that would allow people to drink salt water, so it makes sense to think about society as a composition of unstable members, rather than trying to force all the members to be stable. I put this observation here because the suppression of instability required for mechanical performance (dancing, driving, &c) is exhausting: you can’t keep it up forever.

Consider a school, an American public school, where bureaucracy and party line (both essentially mechanical) effectively prevent most genuine learning from taking place. (Learning requires the destabilization of the mind). Consider the school in Dallas where Ahmed Mohamed is a gifted student. Ahmed made a clock, and brought it to the school to show to his engineering teacher. This teacher, whatever his or her name is, ought to find another line of work. The teacher admired the clock (said it was “nice,” according to the Times), but advised Ahmed not to show it to other teachers. What the teacher ought to have done was to keep the clock in his or her office. Failing that, the teacher ought to have taken Ahmed and the clock to the principal’s office, in order to defuse the problem pre-emptively. The teacher foresaw the potential for massive instability (among colleagues and the police, responding to an apparent terrorist threat), but took no steps to prevent it, save cautioning the poor student. A flash of insight smothered by mechanical breakdown: not a problem confined to Mexico.

The instability of human nature has always been salient wherever men and women are granted some degree of freedom and autonomy. It’s called “choice.” What will you choose? What do you want? Desire, like learning, is destabilizing: if posits a world that does not yet exist. Imagining non-existent worlds is one of the things that marks as unstable beings. Will you vacation on the shore or in the mountains? There is no rational (mechanical) way to answer this question, hard as we try to confect one. If the decision is to be made by a family of five, and why not throw in an aunt or a grandfather, then any attempt at rational solution will create a lot of frustration and disappointment. Assuming that conditions do a reasonable job of living up to expectations, the happiest trip will be the one that is sold by an ardent and persuasive member of the family, because the pitch will have created a corresponding desire in all the others.

If the family were too poor to take a vacation, the problem would not arise: poor people have few everyday choices (which may be why their explosions are so violent). Very wealthy people are often jaded, blown by the scope of their choices. They think that they have seen and done everything, but in fact they have stuck around for very little, and so seen and done practically nothing.

The pursuit of productivity in the modern world is an attempt to put employees in temporary equivalence with very poor people — people with no choices. Why would anybody want to do this? Because another little characteristic of human nature is the tenuousness of empathy. In Before the Industrial Revolution, Carlo Cipolla quotes the saw that we regard what we consume as necessary and what others consume as superfluous. Similarly, we tend to imagine that our lives (meaning, our choices) would be more agreeable if other people were more predictable. We are eager to see others as unstable, but not ourselves. It seems to me that a much better job could be done teaching children to avoid these misjudgments.

The accent on productivity, moreover, mutes the attention that ought to be paid to what, in fact, is being produced.

I read somewhere that a trading desk at a financial firm was reorganized in a surprising way. The managers were all retirees, or semi-retirees. They had had their halcyon days as traders; they had made their pots of money. Now, without the material need to work, but with an undimmed desire to be engaged in something they knew, they served as disinterested overseers, advisers, and mentors to the rising generation. It was to be hoped that the undesirable symbiotic relationship of sponsor and protégé would be avoided, if only by the managers’ structural lack of influence. The somewhat diminished importance of the bottom line might well cut the risk of imprudent gambles. Did I make this up?

At first, I couldn’t see what this last paragraph had to do with all that preceded it, but now I do, although I shan’t dilate. I wrote that dancers, among others, depend on mechanical coordination. But great dancers transcend that by introducing a measure of instability. I don’t like putting it that way, because it suggests a formula (how much instability?) where none is really possible. How much simply depends. The dancer figures it out in the moment. The dancer resolves the tension, if only for a moment, to create a feat of mechanical prowess that is transfigured by imaginative insight. The ability to shoot through general skill to personal expression generally develops with age. It requires a lot of experience. That’s what the trading desk managers have. They know how things ought to be done, but they also have better intuitions; and they are not distracted by thoughts of personal advancement. Neither is the great dancer, who has only to live up to herself.


Friday 18th

Every now and then, after I’ve written something here, I’m stung by a sense that it is mistaken, or that I’ve left something important out. Usually, the swelling begins about half an hour after posting. I have the option to go back and fix what bothers me, but, except in cases of plain error, I usually leave what I’ve written and go on to write more, as I’m going to do now. (And while I observe no statute of limitations on correcting typos or clarifying punctuation, I otherwise refrain from altering entries after the earth’s turn.) Yesterday, the phrase “the tenuousness of empathy” got stuck in my mind, like some unwanted pop song. For I’m not really sure that I know what empathy is.

I know what sympathy is. It’s what you feel when somebody dies. Not for the somebody but for the people left behind. I remember when it was all right to feel sympathy for people who were sick, or to whom bad things had happened. Actually, I don’t really remember any such thing; what I remember is when it ceased to be all right. What we were supposed to feel instead (this was the Sixties, natch) was empathy. We were not to feel sorry; we were to feel what the former object of our sympathy was feeling. This sounded plausible at first. What a fine thing to do, to imagine the pain of another! Over the years, though, it began to look more like a spiritual exercise than something helpful. The important thing is to stay in touch and to ask if there’s anything that you can do (and then to do it). This is not as simple as it sounds, because illness and divorce and job loss induce many people, therapeutically, to retreat from social contact. Whether to go along with that or not is a fine question for the answering of which there are no general rules. Someone I’m very fond of is doing that now — she’s quite ill, and chooses to be alone with it — and I’ve decided to write a chatty letter. (And now I have to do it.)

I was troubled by having used a term that I suspect of being somewhat bogus. When I tried to rethink what I was trying to say, however, I saw that the problem with “empathy” is not the nature of the feeling. The important difference between sympathy and empathy is not a difference in point of view. It’s that sympathy is occasional: you take it out of the drawer when something bad happens to someone. It is a way of honoring a sad occasion. Empathy is not occasional. It’s a habit of mind, permanently at work. And, if that is so, it has even less to do with sympathy, because we cannot go around trying to imagine everybody’s feelings all the time. Not in New York City, anyway.

Empathy is more focused. It takes the form of a question: What would that person think if he knew what I’d like him to do? How would I feel about it if I were he?

This is Jesus 101, I know. But I still think it’s terribly practical, at least in the world we live in. The world we live in is a world without servants.

Is it something about men, or just something about men today that leads so many men to respond to this servant problem by withdrawing from human intercourse? Is that what makes fiddling with games and apps so preferable — that they do what you tell them to do? I worry about it. The destructive power of disaffected males vastly exceeds the worst that our nuclear arsenals can do; in fact, the only way that our nuclear arsenals can do any harm at all is by falling into the hands of disaffected males.

The call for empathy provokes a lot of troglodytic responses from exponents of the traditional command structure: That’s just the way it is. I came up through that system, and it was the best thing that happened to me. This is a workplace, not an encounter group. We’re being paid to get something done. Well, we used to live in caves. We used to endure cholera-prone water supplies. That’s just the way it was. The particular modest improvement that I have in mind for today is the replacement of a habit of mind that willingly or unthinkingly regards employees (human beings) as adjuncts of their tools, instead of the other way round.

This is the fork in the road that leads, one way or the other, to a world full of robots. Do the robots assist human beings, freeing them for jobs that we can’t even imagine? Or do the robots replace human beings, cutting people out of the world of work and, with it, remuneration?


As I’ve already spent much of this week thinking out loud here, I might as well wrap things up by doing a little more. I read something yesterday that illuminated an unexpected connection between two things that are much on my mind. The first will not be a surprise to regular reader: it concerns the variety of human experience — and the variety of human beings that experience things differently. Rebecca Solnit has a piece in the current issue of Harper’s, “The Mother of All Questions.” The prompt on the cover of the magazine says, “Solnit: Why I Don’t Have Children.” But although Solnit does answer that dreadfully impertinent question, she laments its thoughtless ubiquity. The editors of the magazine are no better than the others whom Solnit complains about; they, too, showcase the question. What Solnit really goes on about is the circular futility of current thoughts about happiness. Surely everybody wants to be happy. Surely motherhood is the one way in which a woman will certainly find happiness. Therefore: why aren’t you having children, when it would make you so happy?

Solnit doesn’t say this, but nobody “has children.” Women do give birth, yes. And that is precisely the end of possession. Nor do “children” really exist. There are infants, toddlers, kindergartners, Boy Scouts, sweet sixteens, undergraduates, and adults with in-laws. Many mothers have a favorite phase, only to watch their child pass right through it without leaving a trace — only memories. Most children do not begin to imagine their mothers’ fierce love until they have children of their own; parenthood is not reciprocal but endlessly giving. (Most mothers whom I know wish they could give more.) The very idea of “having children” is so lumpy and clunky that there is nothing to do with it but let it rust in the sun and rain.

To pick up a theme of this entry, however, there is something adjunct about motherhood, at least in the eyes of others. This is one reason why Solnit did not have children. She did not wish to become (no more than) the generator and support system for a troupe of offspring. We do not think of motherhood as mechanical, but it can be just as numbing as tending to a machine or standing on an assembly line. Nothing ever “gets done” — the aspect of parenthood to which most men seem allergic. As if getting through the day alive and well were not an accomplishment.

The thing at the other end of the connection is something that I need to talk about more, and from several angles. For a few years now, I have been asking myself “Why didn’t you become a journalist?” I knew very early on that I did not want to be a journalist, even if I didn’t know why. Certainly it had something to do with the offhand way journalists have of talking about what they do. But even though no one has ever really pressured me on this point (perhaps it’s obvious to anyone who meets me that I could never be a journalist), I go on asking the question, because I’m still not sure that the word that I have for what I became instead — critic — is the right one. What I need to talk about is journalism. It connects to Solnit’s problem — almost explicitly, in her piece — because journalists take the place of moralists in the modern world.

Journalists tell us what is right and what is wrong. The problem is that, to make sure that they’re read, and paid for what they write, they tend to tell us what we want to hear. They reinforce the conservative notions of their readers, whether those readers are libertarians or Marxists. They uphold the party line and defend the status quo. The best of the bunch know how to be thought-provoking and reassuring. They sustain the pleasing illusion that to read about a problem is to do something about it. Well, who would read them, otherwise? I’m quite serious. But so is the problem of journalism.

I’m describing a moment. Journalism wasn’t always as weighty as it can be these days, and who knows what will follow it. Also: what kind of journalist is Rebecca Solnit? I should say that she isn’t one at all, even if she does a good deal of plain old reporting. I should say that she, too, is a critic.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2015 (II)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Tuesday 8th September

Something has been bothering me. Before heading out to Fire Island, I listed the books that I was going to take with me, and said more than a few words about one of them, The Tale of Genji, which I hadn’t read in decades.

The first quarter of The Tale of Genji is like the forest surrounding Sleeping Beauty — almost impenetrable. It is little more than a court calendar, a gazette of important ritual functions, with accounts of who showed up and, more important, who wore what. (9/3/15)

I’ve already noted that this is just plain wrong, but it’s so wrong, and spoken with such assurance, that feel foolish about the whole enterprise of keeping this Web log. Surely it would be a public service to refrain from writing further entries.

Then, after an early dinner last night, I found something that I’ve been looking for. That has happened a lot lately, finding things, because, having been away for several weeks for the first time since we moved into this apartment, I’ve returned with fresh eyes and new ideas. One of the latter was to store the drip-dry shirts from LL Bean that I bought four years ago, and wear only on Fire Island, in a milk crate in my clothes closet. The crate turned out to be full. Full of what? Damask napkins! What were they doing there? Who knows; but I’d been looking for them. They belonged in the middle drawer of a commode in the foyer. Why weren’t they there? Because the drawer was already full — full of photo albums. I’d been looking for them, too. The albums were in the drawer, and the napkins were in the crate, because I hadn’t known what else to do with them when they surfaced during the crazy weeks of moving in.

One of the photo albums, titled “Our Baby,” was full of snapshots of me. Lots and lots when I was a baby, then fewer, then lots when my sister was adopted, then even fewer. The last picture shows the two of us, me decked out for my first communion — I think. One of the pictures of just me has held my interest in recent years, because I built a little theory around it. I daresay I’ve written about this theory somewhere, drat it. It’s as wrong as my faulty recollection of Genji, and I can hardly bring myself to state it. It has to do with my becoming glum and introspective when my sister was adopted, at the age of eight or nine months; having to share the stage not with a sleeping infant but with a laughing cutie put my nose out of joint (as an aunt later put it to me — I hope that I’m not making up what she said!). And here was photographic evidence, showing a traumatized little boy. But the picture was obviously taken long before Carol came home. I doubt that I was even two years old. A photograph that appears a little later, in what does appear to be a conscientious attempt at chronology, shows me in my playpen. It is dated March 1950 — age two years, three months — along with a note, “Last day of playpen.” In the photograph, I do not appear to be keen to part with the playpen. With one elbow resting on the railing with proprietary satisfaction, I stare into the camera with a gaze that strikes me now as superficially non-committal and profoundly stubborn. It is not a hostile look, but it is clearly not a friendly one, either.

At the time of this photograph, I am still the only child in the house. I may have heard something about my sister-to-come — her birth-mother’s parents wanted to keep her, and that was holding things up (am I making this up?) — but that can’t have had much to do with my impassive expression in the playpen. When I look at the picture, I see myself already fully formed, completely me. All the schooling, all the tedium, all the dead ends, the petered-out friendships especially — none of all this was necessary for me to become me. All that was necessary was to stuff that little head with a lot of reading, and to wait for a critical mass to develop (somewhere between forty and fifty), after which I should be capable of thinking about what I’d read. Now, in my late sixties, I’m re-reading a lot of books that I read when I was young, and I’m finding that I misread most of them. You can tell from the picture of me in the playpen that I would read books the way I wanted to. Had I read them correctly, instead of flying off into daydreams on every page, perhaps the serious thinking would have begun sooner, maybe even in college.

As for the playpen, which I could easily climb out of but (I’m told?) always climbed back into, it was the exoskeleton that I have recreated numberless times in my life. I am sitting in the latest one now. I have never said, to Kathleen or to anyone else, that the book room is my room and to stay out of it, but it seems that I don’t have to. Kathleen is reluctant to come in here, whether I’m in the room or not. I’m not happy about that, but I don’t blame her.

It is easy to see that people are not going to line up to be friends with the man whom the boy in the playpen will grow up to be. Well, it’s easy to see now because I’ve been thinking a lot about it, as periodically I do. This time, thoughts about failures in friendliness have been triggered by the biography of Joan Didion. Joan Didion has always had scads of friends. Well, at least she has known just about everyone. I don’t know anyone. What’s wrong with me?

Did I say “thoughts”? There I go again, getting it wrong.

These days, I ponder the question for a reason. Day after day, I write entries for this site that hail the virtues of sociable citizenship, of setting a good example, of being generous. Day by day, I stay quietly in my apartment, which I never leave for any length of time without plenty to read. Is the dissonance merely cognitive?

I am not shy. I am wary of entering into conversation with conspiracy theorists. By “conspiracy theorists,” I simply mean all people who read neither the New York nor the London Review of Books. What’s unfriendly about that?

I have posted the playpen picture at Facebook. Two friends have commented that I ought to use it as my Facebook portrait. The portrait of an unreliable narrator.


Wednesday 9th

It is very hot. The apartment is cool, almost chilly — the renovated HVAC in this apartment works stunningly well, contrasted with the vintage 1963 fittings in the old apartment — but there is only so much that air conditioning can do to the environment, and the low atmospheric pressure is wearing. (My armchair science explanation is that everything expands, getting in the way of everything else. How many times have I written this twaddle?) I don’t sleep as well as I might, and even the lightest blanket can be too heavy. Take it off, though, and I’m freezing! It becomes difficult to get through simple tasks. It took the duration of that 1955 Callas/von Karajan performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, the one in Berlin with the encored Sextet, to process this month’s bills — late as usual (but there’s always an explanation!). At one point, there was mess everywhere — see above for rediscoveries of damask napkins and old photograph albums over the weekend — and I thought that once I’d put it all away, I’d have no energy left for making dinner. Plus, I forgot to take the ball of pizza dough and a fennel sausage out of the freezer until five-thirty. But it all got done, and Kathleen said that it was my best pizza ever. I agreed that I’d never made a better one. I think it may be time to get a peel and a stone.

After dinner, we retired to the bedroom, where Kathleen climbed into bed with her laptop, and I read in my chair. Casting about for something to read, yesterday, I was happy to find something that I’d forgotten about, Andrew Solomon’s novel, A Stone Boat. Published in 1994, it precedes by many years the nonfiction works for which Solomon is famous, and I had no idea what to expect. I need to write this as quickly as possible, because it is about my mother. That’s the first sentence, and I liked it. The words are nicely turned, but they’re also puzzling: of all the subjects in the world, why should one’s mother require a hastily-drawn account? The second sentence suggests an answer, but here my account of A Stone Boat will stop, because I’m reconsidering the habit, into which I’ve fallen this year, of talking about a book that I’m in the middle of and then never mentioning it again. Not to mention the even worse habit of reading books and never mentioning them at all.

Goodness: could I have put that more misleadingly?

When I was new at this blogging thing, or even before that, during the four or five years of Portico, I wanted to write about books because they are a big thing in my life, so to speak, and always have been. But the only models that I had were the book review and the literary essay, and neither was satisfactory, because neither provided very much room for the big thing in my life part. Reviews and essays were supposed to be “objective.” They were to be written as though by an incorporeal spirit, a free-floating intelligence unsullied by the accidents of personality. I knew how to write these things, and I flatter myself that I wrote a few good ones; but I was never happy with the templates. I wanted to show how the books affected me. What put an end to my reviewing, however, was the decision to stop reading new novels just because they were new and talked about; and to re-read old novels that had made an impact, with a view to reassessing that impact. My altered reading list entailed a shift in judgment. I was much less concerned about how a book measured up as literature, and much more concerned with the very point of literature. This led me into the thickets of humanism where I find myself today.

So to read a book and then not to mention it is a waste. I could mention it somewhere else, in a letter to a friend; but I like the scrutiny that I imagine regular readers bring to bear on what I have to say, so I say it here. And then I know, or at least have the beginning of a substantial understanding, not “what the book means to me” but where it fits in the dense fabric of what I call the World. Not every book has a place in this fabric: beach books are like bridal magazines, endlessly self-replacing novelties. I tend not to read many of those; my “beach books” tend to be delightfully quirky reads like Talk. But I did read a distressingly empty novel while I was out on Fire Island, and I quickly saw that its place in the World was as a Mistake, the less said about which the better. I shall be coy: it is not surprising, given the author, that the extracts of verse, attributed to a fictional literary legend, that appear in this novel are more than merely presentable; what’s surprising is that, given the author, the rest of the affair is as breezily clichéd as an article in New York Magazine. Instead of the sophisticated meditation on literary life that I expected, I got a not very enlightening young-adult novel.

Another book that I read by the bay was an account of the Atlantic War, A Measureless Peril, written by someone I knew. Someone I knew a very long time ago, when we were in tenth grade at Bronxville High. Actually, tenth grade was when our acquaintance ended; I went off to boarding school the following year. I had known Richard Snow since fourth grade, when we were signed up for Miss Covington’s dancing school. Richard went on to work at American Heritage, of which he was editor for decades. His father, an architect, had served in the Navy’s campaign to protect shipping between the United States and the United Kingdom during World War II, and his letters home, together with his spoken reminiscences, must have inspired Richard to write, not so much a history of the Atlantic War, as a sequence of personal recollections of it. Military history is not at all my cup of tea, but the story was dramatic (to say the least), and A Measureless Peril is every bit as well-written as I expected it to be. Nevertheless, what stuck with me was remembering Richard’s parents, who were almost a generation older than everyone else’s. I was in their home only once, as I recall, but while I was there I played, with Mrs Snow, the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria.” It was the only time that I ever performed a piece of music with another instrumentalist — a fond memory, and an unforgettable glimpse of how very different life might have been. I chose to read A Measureless Peril in the wake of one of those moments, made so dangerously tempting by the ease of Internet research, in which I thought about dropping Richard a note. It seemed unseemly to point him to this site without having read one of his books.


Thursday 10th

The title of Andrew Solomon’s novel, A Stone Boat, reminded me of the marble folly that China’s Empress Cixi had built for the Summer Palace outside of Beijing, using funds diverted from China’s naval campaign in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. (Wouldn’t most of Solomon’s readers have the same thought?) But the explicit reference is to something that someone says in the novel.

But sometimes I look at you and I think it’s as though you’ve chosen a boat carved from diamond with sapphire masts and sails of rubies and emeralds for your journey across the sea. It’s breathtaking to watch it cutting through the waves, but it’s a stone boat. You have to be crazy to choose a stone boat. Anything else would be easier to sail, Harry.” (194)

The stone boat is Harry’s relationship with his mother, or perhaps the way in which he prizes her love for him. I think that it’s also a good symbol for the novel itself, which is extravagantly luxurious and only implausibly seaworthy. Somehow, it completes its narrative journey, jewels blazingly intact. There are several passages of the very highest literary quality, compelling statements of truth that immediately feel essential to have read. But the experience is somewhat exhausting, and I note that Solomon has not chosen to have another try at fiction.

Is it fiction? I want to come back to that later. For now, it’s enough to say that Solomon lost his dearly beloved mother to cancer when he was still a young man. In the update to the Acknowledgments that he appended to the 2013 edition, he identifies the mother in his novel with her. (I am not a hundred percent sure, but my impression is that the mother remains unnamed.) Solomon has changed some of the details: in the novel, Harry is a concert pianist, about to release his first CD. (Schubert and Rachmaninoff, a rather intriguing pairing.) But the grief certainly feels autobiographical. It is greater than any novel can hold, so that, at times, A Stone Boat reads like a tribute. Such overstepping is almost always curtailed by Solomon’s stylistic inclination to analyze from a distance, however, and this keeps the book afloat. The author’s masterful way with words allows him to say, over and over and over, I loved my mother and My mother loved me, without ever lapsing into tediousness.

This is all the more surprising because of the preoccupation with perfection that pervades the novel. Perfection is something of a stone boat. It doesn’t really exist; what exists is the sense, after something happens, that it was perfect. Perfection figures highly in Harry’s memories of his mother and of the world that she brought forth. Mother, as I shall call her (because she is always “my mother” in the book, and I can’t be saying that), is an unflappable juggernaut of careful planning. She is beautiful; she dresses beautifully; she creates beautiful rooms; she gives beautiful parties. But she also knows how to have a good time, how to surrender to the moment. She is, when you get down to it, French. When you get down to it — Solomon never puts it this way — Mother is a prestidigitator, a mistress of misdirection capable of rendering invisible all the little things that aren’t quite right. You sense the magic act, but all you see is the illusion of perfection.

Then along comes cancer, and in two years, Mother is dead.

Mother is not, in fact, perfect; she and Harry fight all the time. We don’t see these fights, and we don’t learn the details; some readers might consider it a flaw that Solomon merely mentions the bad times with his mother. A few moments of unpleasant disagreement are shown. These share the same cause: Mother is not happy about Harry’s homosexuality. She does not want to hear that Harry has happily settled down with a lover in London. She wants him to marry a woman and have children — well, until very recently, what mother wouldn’t? Besides, it isn’t true that Harry is happy with Bernard. How can he be? He is the captain of a stone boat. One of the most powerful passages in the novel is a portrait of this captain, or a series of them, photographs taken at the party that the narrator gives to celebrate the release of his CD. It is quite a set piece, this party, a virtuoso display of disciplined excitement. You might be excused for mistaking it for a billionaire’s daughter’s wedding reception; there is in any case a photographer.

I look at the photos of myself from that party and this is what I see: I see a young man in the middle of a party as stunning as the feast day of an ancient king. I see him surrounded by many friends and a few lovers. I see him looking as though he is entirely in control, negotiating his family and overseeing the waiters and making introductions; he is evidently a master builder who has constructed everyone else’s delight. I see him utterly at ease, and clearly very happy: I see someone of vast competence, looking out at me from clear confident eyes. I look at him and I wonder who this young man is, not yet thirty, so sure of himself and of the world. I wonder what it would be like to be on top of the world like that, to have so much of what youth dreams maturity might hold. I look into his clear blue eyes and I envy him, because he is so full of laughter, because he seems not to know about or not to mind the effort life is, because he has the face of someone who has all the things that I have always wanted, but who couldn’t possibly care less about them. (208)

A Stone Boat is worth reading just for things like that. How difficult it is to bear in mind that sophisticated people train themselves to act with a self-assurance that they may not in fact feel! How hard to remember that the point of good manners is to take over, to command all decision-making, in social situations, whether or not they’re important. We fear that we won’t measure up even we assume that everyone else is effortlessly surpassing. Here we see a man confronting his well-bred shell, astounded by the appearance of supreme indifference to everything that he craves. It is a queasy, bitter feeling to experience envy of yourself.

While cancer ravages Mother — in another great passage, the narrator tells us what he is not going to tell us about the ordeals and humiliations of her treatments, and he’s as good as his word — Harry copes with the demands of his musical career, and struggles with his sex life. Here is it important to recall that A Stone Boat first appeared in 1994. A lot has changed in gay life since then, and a lot had already changed. (Interestingly, AIDS is mentioned only once, very much in passing.) Harry’s early sex life, he tells us, was furtive and incidentally regrettable. Sometimes, it was dangerous. Harry wishes that he were straight, not least because it would make his mother’s life perfect, but also because he would be normal — there he goes again, thinking that everyone else has an easier time of things. Harry is something of a familiar gay type: he has great taste in things, and he has a taste for rough trade in men. By the beginning of the novel, Harry knows that he is bored by his relationship with Bernard, who, it seems, is just about as bored with him. They live out a dream of polite content, but eventually Harry grows impatient with Bernard because Bernard does not seem to know what he’s going through, losing the love of a perfect mother. One of the later chapters is devoted to an account of Harry’s romantic experiences after breaking up with Bernard; suffice it to say, there is a lot for Harry to learn about love — love, that is, that doesn’t involve his mother. I should note, by the way, that Harry’s  mother is so perfect that she thinks that he’s more than a little bit carried away by his attachment to her. Again Solomon never says any such thing, but I thought I caught her winking: This perfection is an illusion, Harry.

Mother never says any such thing, either. She pours out her love for her two sons. (Harry’s younger brother is a straight med student, and usually somewhere else, although when the brothers and their parents are together, it’s perfect, even if someone is throwing a tantrum.) She says that she wants to die so that she can spare her sons the agony of watching her die. She talks about how she would have died for her boys when they were born. She says that she loves her husband so much that she wants him to get married again when she’s gone. You might say that she deals perfectly with the mystery of love and death, by not attempting to puzzle it out.

The last chapter provides almost documentary details about the arrangements for Mother’s funeral. Cut, cut, cut! I was about to scream, when suddenly the scene changed, as the narrator recalled a trip that he took, with just his mother, to Venice, when he was eleven. If I copied it out here, you’d see that it’s great stuff, but you wouldn’t see how great, because the scene in the Piazetta transfigures all the book’s excesses by closing on a moment of heartbreaking innocence. It is here that Andrew Solomon is finally able to convey what that perfect love felt like, and with a kind of Proustian triumph, he arranges for it to signal the end of childhood.


Friday 11th

Kathleen has once again taken the Friday off; we are both going to work on our closets, emptying their hanging contents onto clothes racks and “editing.” My mind is on the happy banalities of the day. The last thing I want to do is to write about the aspect of A Stone Boat that never quite stopped bothering me as I read it. But if I don’t write about it now, I never shall.

Even then, I wonder if I ought to write about it at all. I’ve just suggested that there was something wrong with the novel, but in fact it’s something wrong with me. A Stone Boat is a kind of photographic romance. Against the background of intense passions — a man’s love for his mother; his mother’s love of life in all its happier manifestations (and therefore necessarily a love for her sons — certain details are pinpointed and rendered clearly. The picture is so rich that you do not think much of all that’s left out, such as the extended family that makes no appearance at all until Mother’s funeral, or the addresses of various apartments, or the names of favorite restaurants. All of that is elided beneath an unstated assurance that it was as perfect as it could possibly be. The family was fine, the addresses were “good,” the restaurants genuinely notable. All of that is “understood.” It is a lot of detail to take on faith, particularly for a novel set largely in New York.

New York is not a dreamy city. It is not, as a city, particularly luxurious; its luxuries are tucked away. New Yorkers, especially affluent New Yorkers, have different ideas of luxury. They don’t all go mad for peonies, for example. I cite peonies because Andrew Solomon makes a great case for the peony as the most special of flowers. In addition to being as beautiful as any flower, the peony remains stuck to its season, the early summer. You cannot have peonies the year round; for some reason or another, the horticulturalists haven’t figured out how to produce its blooms at will. Knowing that the narrator of A Stone Boat prizes peonies tells you a lot about the kind of luxury he goes in for. It is not a decorative detail at all, but enlightening information about a certain milieu. As I read A Stone Boat, however, I was, as I say, always a bit bothered by the omission of a detail that, had it been provided, would have been even more enlightening. And I blushed to be bothered.

In college, I had a friend whose French accent was very good. When he spent a year abroad in Angers, his accent was so good that one of his teachers — or perhaps it was the formidable madame who kept the house where he lived — said to him, “Vous venez de nulle part.” You come from nowhere. This was certainly a compliment, to the extent of implying that my friend did not sound like a hopeless American. But it also meant that he did not have a French French accent. He did not sound as if he came from Lille, or Dijon, or Bordeaux, or anywhere else. I didn’t understand this part of nul part until I was puzzled by certain American accents on display in British shows, such as Inspector Morse and Miss Marple (the one with Joan Hickson), the Eighties and Nineties. These accents had been purged of British echoes, but they weren’t really American, either. Each of the sounds was American, but no single American produced them together.

Something like this puzzle bothered me in A Stone Boat. Where are these people really from, I wondered. “New York” was not the answer. New York was the problem, the very matrix of the puzzle. Because nobody in New York, at least no one whom I’ve ever met or even read about, combines all of the characteristics of Mother and her family. Not quite. Perhaps it is more a case, as I suggested earlier, of omitted characteristics, characters that would anchor the romance in firmer ground — something that I can well imagine Andrew Solomon’s wishing to avoid. So I should perhaps better say, nobody is like this family without being more. Without being something or something else. Without, in short, being either gentile or Jewish.

Just to make this point is to evoke the horrors of anti-Semitism, I know. I also know that, by 1994, when A Stone Boat was first published, homophobia was a much bigger deal than anti-Semitism; and Solomon, moreover, set out to present a bisexuality in which many onlookers simply refused to believe: you were one or the other; to be both was simply (and temporarily) to be confused. In Far From the Tree, Solomon writes that, while his mother disapproved of his homosexuality because she believed that it would diminish his chances at happiness, she also didn’t particularly like being the mother of a gay man. With this one sentence, he illuminates all the “fights” that are mentioned by never described in A Stone Boat. I certainly don’t think for a moment that Solomon, while daring to discuss his then-problematic sexuality in a novel (still something new for mainstream fiction), regarded being Jewish as unmentionable. But I think that he miscalculated in thinking that it was a detail that didn’t matter.

I raise this uncomfortable issue not because I want to suggest that Andrew Solomon is a self-hating Jew; I most certainly don’t. I want to register, rather, an awkward moment in a momentous social shift. When I was young, Jews and Gentiles were equal but separate to a degree that was only imagined by Plessy v Ferguson. It is a grave mistake to imagine that all New York Jews were recent immigrants, uncouth and uneducated and poor. Most may have been, but then most Gentiles belonged to the working class as well. Exceptionally, however, there were rungs of Jews who could put Gentiles to shame for culture, philanthropy, and sophistication. These members of “Our Crowd” tended, if anyting, to make their Gentile equals look like slobs. These people thrived in New York, unlike their doomed distant cousins in Europe. By the time I was in college, the equality was so strikingly balanced the other way, so to speak, that the effort of maintaining the separation seemed to be not worth the efforts.

But the world doesn’t stop turning. In 1994, being Jewish in New York was simply not a big deal. Like fraternities, Jewish ways of life seemed to be on the way out. Well, we know what happened instead. Jewish culture is livelier than it has been in a long time, and there are towns on Long Island that have all but restructured themselves as positive ghettoes. But the resurgence of Jewish culture has about it the wonderfulness of just that: the resurgence of a culture. Ideas of “race,” never more than the most dubious of constructs, have nothing to do with it. Being Jewish is a matter of growing up in a Jewish household, with Jewish relatives and Jewish holidays. It is not a matter of coming into the world with a Jewish body. Jewish culture is a culture like any other, no better or worse — but only from a perspective that nobody can seriously maintain, because we all belong to the culture that we grew up in. From that imaginary objectivity, I might say that I should rather be a Jew than a Gentile from Bronxville — a place that defined itself by those who were not allowed to live there. In fact, I am a self-hating Gentile from Bronxville.

In 1994, Gentiles in New York still regarded themselves as regarded as top dogs. Solomon clearly wanted to fix his family portrait at the top of the social tree, because, I think, that is where he felt it belonged. So (I’m reasoning) he left out the one detail that would have led some readers to disagree, or at least to ask questions. The result of his omission is the blur that, for example, makes the constant tears of Leonard, Mother’s husband and the boys’ father, seem somewhat odd (because in Gentile culture, men really did not cry, except maybe once.) For another example, it the absence of cousins — of any living relatives outside the four members of the immediate families — seem strange, as if Leonard and Mother materialized out of nowhere, instead of from a background that, had those relatives figured forth, would have identified the family as either Jewish or Gentile. It makes a mystery of Harry’s piano career — the reality of life among the upper Gentility of New York might lead one to suppose that truly exceptional children are strangled as soon as they’re seen to be. The problem with A Stone Boat is not that it goes on and on about love and the agony of losing a still-vibrant mother to cancer; if it does these things, it does them very well. The problem is that A Stone Boat comes not from New York but de nulle part.

Actually, for all the family’s preoccupation with comme il faut, you could argue that the family in Solomon’s novel comes from Mother’s beloved Paris. The author begins with a chapter suggesting that that is how it would be if Mother’s deepest wish were granted.

Bon weekend à tous!