Archive for October, 2015

Gotham Diary:
The Second Step
October 2015 (IV)

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Monday 26th

Loose change: Let’s begin with a bit of lighthearted fun. In the current issue of the London Review of Books, Deborah Friedell takes a look at Michael D’Antonio’s Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. She’s very entertained by it.

‘I have made myself very rich,’ Trump says (over and over again). ‘I would make this country very rich.’ That’s why he should be president. He insists that he’s the ‘most successful man ever to run’, never mind the drafters of the constitution or the supreme commander of the allied forces. Bloomberg puts Trump’s current net worth at $2.9 billion, Forbes at $4.1 billion. The National Journal has worked out that if Trump had just put his father’s money in a mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 and spent his career finger-painting, he’d have $8 billion.

I laughed and laughed and laughed. Finger-painting is the exact infantile correlative of what Donald Trump seems to do when he is not actually writing or cashing checks.


Dept of Mission Statements: “Needs work, to be sure.” I’ll say. All weekend, I tried to remember how I’d put it (without cheating), and I couldn’t. All I could summon was a sense of its inadequacy. Just now, I had a peek. “…rover on the network of human connections.” I do recall thinking, last Friday, that, while this describes a sensation that I should like to convey here, what it’s like to do what I do — and not, as the tradition of objective writing ordains, to cover the tracks that take me to my little discoveries — it falls short as a statement of purpose. In fact, it doesn’t even begin to fall short.

Having just read an interesting and important essay that I wasn’t expecting to encounter, I’m perhaps by that shocked into taking a very different stab at answering the question, This blog, what is it about? What am I after? What am I trying to achieve? What is important to me?

What I am trying to achieve is a comprehensive and coherent but also new way of thinking and writing about the human world, which may arguably be the only world that can be thought and written about. Why “new”? Because I believe that critical thinking — weighing and considering what you are about to say before you say it — is in danger of becoming a lost art, sunk in a sea of power points and jargon. We are in danger of running out of voices that do not tell us what we want to hear.

Indeed, the very instruments of critical thinking are a bit rusty. That became clear to me over the weekend as I read another essay, one that I was looking forward to reading enough to have ordered the book that contains it. These two essays may keep me busy for the rest of the week — by which I do not mean that I’m not going to write about anything else. One essay inspires me, the other irritates me.

The essay that irritates me is Roger Scruton’s “The Aesthetic Gaze.” The one that inspires me is Marilynne Robinson’s “Humanism,” which surprised me when I opened this week’s issue of The Nation to the back pages. I don’t read much of the political stuff at the heart of The Nation, but the “Books and the Arts” section at the rear presents me with the most demanding criticism that I read. To find an essay by this writer with this title was an indescribable treat, meant just for me.


To begin with Marilynne Robinson, I read the piece with great excitement — hey, this is what I’m working on! — but also great caution, the caution occasioned by two brow-raisers. The lesser startler is a statement to the effect that Mozart was not famous when he died — that he was out of vogue and forgotten. This is not true. Mozart may not have been as hot as he had been five years earlier, but there is no way that a man who, within a three-week period and in two different cities, has had two new operas premiered, can be said to have died, a couple of months later, in a “period of eclipse.” It’s a small point, but a stark one.

The second cause for caution is a somewhat unseemly haste that provokes Robinson into firing critical shots upon a group that she calls “the neuroscientists.” Had I been her editor at The Nation (or at FSG, which is going to publish (tomorrow) the essay in a new collection, entitled The Givenness of Things), I should have urged her to find and replace “neuroscientists” with “neuroscience journalists.” For one thing, the reading public rarely comes into contact with statements by neuroscientists that it is prepared to understand. For another, most of what the reading public does understand about neuroscience is written by journalists, not scientists. Third, and sufficient unto itself, those neuroscientists who do address the reading public about their work tend to stress the provisional nature of their findings, the crudeness of their measuring sticks, and the almost incomprehensible strides that will have to be made before we can so much as track a thought in the brain. Maybe it’s just the neuroscientists that I bump into — and I’m sorry that I don’t have any names — but they’re a humble lot. They may not be so humble about Robinson’s imputations.

If you perform the find-and-replace for yourself, however, Robinson’s essay becomes unexceptionable — indeed, magnificent. She begins by asking why it is that the humanities are being neglected today despite having been the boon companions of all the many thinkers who brought forth the modern world from the “rebirth” of “pagan learning” in the Fourteenth Century, and very much “at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization.” She observes that the humanities are indeed “poor preparation for economic servitude.” It becomes momentarily tricky to distinction her sincere statements from the sarcastic ones, but only momentarily; presently, Robinson summons science itself to rescue the humanities. This would be the very latest science, the study of “entangled particles,” of “a cosmos that unfolds or emerges on principles that bear scant analogy to the universe of common sense.” She says a few words about this cosmos, in which “mathematics, ontology, and metaphysics have become one thing.”

Great questions may be as open now as they have been since Babylonians began watching the stars, but certain disciplines are still deeply invested in a model of reality that is as simple and narrow as ideological reductionism can make it. I could mention a dominant school of economics with its anthropology. But I will instead consider science of a kind.

Id est, neuroscience. (For clarity’s sake, I should have altered the first sentence to read “more open now than.”)

What follows is a sometimes intricate argument against the exhaustively materialist claims of neuroscience — or what I would call the claims of neuroscience journalists, among whom I should include Richard Dawkins. People who write about these things for the reading public tend to indulge in atheistical attacks that, Robinson rightly points out, also challenge the idea of personal individuality. How, however, in a world that acknowledges string theory and quantum physics, can anyone claim to know that individuality is unimportant (because only those characteristics that enable an organism “to establish and maintain homeostasis in given environments, to live and propogate” matter), or to know that the self and the soul do not exist? The genius of the essay is the case that it makes against “neuroscientists,” finding that they are not up to date in their scientific thinking and perhaps not really scientists at all.

One might reasonably suspect that the large and costly machines that do the imaging are very crude tools whose main virtue is that they provide the kind of data their users desire and no more.

I believe that this is very unfair. There are surely real scientists who are using this data to design better, less “crude” machines, and who don’t believe for an instant that they know anything final about the brain or about the mind sustained by it. But Robinson is correct, I think, to insist that science has not so much as scratched the validity of claims on behalf of individuality, the self, and the soul. (I ought to note here that, while I do make claims for individuality, simply because it is so material obvious in everyday life, as any walk through Manhattan will demonstrate, I have nothing to say about the self or the soul except “I don’t know.”) What most interested me, as I read her dismissal of “neuroscience as essentially neo-Darwinist,” and therefore as pursuing “a model of reality that has not gone through any meaningful change in a century,” is a surreptitious critique, launched with the mention of “Darwinian cost-benefit analysis,” of that good old “dominant school of economics.”

The worst thing about any kind of success is that it begets inappropriate emulations. As Joan Cusack’s character in Working Girls wisely observes, a passion for dancing around in your underwear does not make you Madonna. I have yet to read an argument holding that the material success of businessmen who kept strict accounts ever inspired any “natural historians,” as scientists used to call themselves, to do the same (but we might make note of those scientists, such as Boyle and Lavoisier, who grew up in somewhat entrepreneurial families), but it has certainly taken a long time for us to see that certain lines of inquiry, especially those concerning human beings, are only very partially amenable to metric analysis. I have always been disturbed by the air of post hoc, propter hoc that hangs over talk about natural selection. “Survival of the fittest” is a circular statement with little currency among biologists but great clout among free-market economists. What could be a more prolific example of “creative destruction” than the bombing of Europe in World War II, occasioning as it did what the French call Les trente glorieuses — the thirty years of booming prosperity that did so much more than just put the continent back together (and that turned out to be anomalous). “Cost-benefit” analysis will always fail wherever benefits cannot be priced accurately. Human benefits appear to be measurable, at least roughly, in the aggregate (this makes insurance practicable), but as the focus approaches the individual, the information becomes less and less useful.

In other words, one of my aims here is to identify important areas of human concern in which keeping strict accounts is not useful, and possibly damaging. Unless I’m mistaken, an alarming number of people, many of whom consider themselves to be successful, do not believe that there are any such areas, and they do a great deal of harm to those who are not successful. Another aim is to identify similarly dubious terms and phrases, many of which come from the world of commerce. Commerce has been the big success story of modern times. Commerce and science have thrived together. The engineer’s determination of how long and strong a screw needs to be flows ineluctably to the businessman’s determination of how much that screw ought to cost. Thus we sweep from science to salary. What’s not quite right about this is that the two determinations are not equally objective, much as they might seem to be. For the engineer is disinterested; he only wants to know something. But the businessman is not only determining a salary. He is also concerned with paying himself. I really do not see much possibility of objectivity there. It follows that the very language of science and of commerce might be inappropriate — certainly inadequate — in considering it.


Tuesday 27th

Now for Roger Scruton. I have here a copy of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (2000), the American edition of what was originally just Modern Culture. I have it because my friend Eric photographed a page from “The Aesthetic Gaze,” the fourth essay in the book, and shared it at Facebook. My eye was drawn to this statement:

Without tradition, originality cannot exist: for it is only against a tradition that it becomes perceivable.

I wholly agreed with this. Without tradition, or a sense of “normal,” originality is indistinguishable from the random and chaotic. The best examples of originality carry within them the bit of tradition upon which they are working a variation.

Eric’s Facebook entry was tantamount to a recommendation, so, as I make a point of following recommendations (unless I’ve a reason not to), I tracked down the author and his book, and here, as I say, it is.

Reading “The Aesthetic Gaze,” I was unable to find much else to agree with. it wasn’t that I disagreed with Scruton’s statements so much as that I disagreed with his way of thinking. Then I went back to the beginning of the book and read the first three essays, the second of which, “Culture and Cult,” is also quite substantial. Now I don’t know which to address first, “The Aesthetic Gaze,” with its antique philosophical apparatus (for which I have no use), or “Culture and Cult,” which ignited a cerebral explosion.

Before I’d read very far in “Culture and Cult,” I noticed that Scruton was talking an awful lot about the dead and death. What he was saying made sense — religion probably does originate in respect for the dead. But the focus on the dead, on the past, on judgment and atonement, and on alienation from the tribe made me impatient, because, to me, they are simply not that important. The dead are dead. They leave behind memories that die with the rememberers. In some cases, they leave independent material traces, artifacts that, made by them when they were alive, merit preservation, at least for the time being. In those cases, it is the artifacts that are of interest. Mozart’s music, and his rather interesting biography, remain, but it is something of a relief to me that no one knows where his bones lie.

Then I came to the following passage.

The cult of ancestors is the surest motive for sacrifice, and for the “readiness to die” on which the future of a society depends. It goes hand in hand with caring for offspring, and for offspring’s offspring, who come into being as a sacred pledge to those who have departed. The desecration of a grave is, on this account, a primary form of sacrilege…”

No, no! I broke off. Enough with the dead! Let’s get back to those offspring! They’re what matters, and regarding them as “a sacred pledge” to the dead is ghoulish. It was at this point that the explosion occurred. Or perhaps it was simply a moment of supreme illumination. In any case, new connections were made and fused in an instant. Unfortunately for some regular readers, these new connections were centered on a strange aspect of the thinking of Hannah Arendt.

When I was reading my way through Arendt, two years ago, I was regularly jarred by her references to “newborns.” Occasionally (perhaps only once), she referred to newborn children as invaders, which sounded bizarre, at least at first. I got what she was saying, but it still seemed out of place, like laughing in church, to talk about birth, infants, and children in a philosophical, or at least seriously thoughtful, discussion of contemporary crises. Once upon a time, thinkers didn’t talk about children at all, ever, except to call them innocent and ignorant. Then, thinkers developed a way of talking about children that highlighted their development, and new ideas about pedagogy were generated. But children were still bracketed apart, talked of separately. The weird thing about Arendt was her constant incorporation of them as invaders (whether she used the term or not) in her analysis of the human condition.

In the course of the explosion that occurred in my mind, Arendt’s talk about newborns instantly ceased to be weird. Newborns became, for me, the central, the original issue in any talk about culture, society, life — whatever. And then, a few lines later, Scruton said something that clinched it.

The sexual revolution of modern times has disenchanted the sexual act. Sex has been finally removed from the sacred realm: it has become “my” affair, in which “we” no longer show an interest. This de-consecration of the reproduction process is the leading fact of modern culture.

That’s as may be, but how can we regret it? The sexual act is of no interest, except to the actors. Whatever ought to be sacred (and therefore common knowledge), sex ought not. The reproductive act is significant only if and when it results in reproduction: it is birth that is significant. Now that we all know what birth looks like, from movies if not from personal experience — an idea that in my youth was regarded as nothing less than obscene — we understand, as never before, the miracle that the birth of a healthy child really is. We may understand the science (or think we do), but birth remains an obvious, self-proving miracle.

It was one of those intellectual reconfigurations that appears to have occurred in a great rush but which, as the excitement recedes, turns out to have already taken place, awaiting only illumination to be perceived. I saw that almost everything that I have written about here for the past couple of years has concerned, in some way or other, the transformation of rudimentarily human infants into contented but responsible adults. The common word for this transformation is “education,” but education covers, at best, only the things that adults can do to try to help the transformation along. Nor does education grasp the scope of “contentment” or “responsibility.” For, as we now know, the children of today will have to teach their children how to live in the world much more frugally than we do.

In short, we don’t know very much about the transformation of children into adults — into the adults that human beings are going to have to become if they are going to preserve their global homeland. All we know is that, while children do seem to need love, they don’t care to dilate on this subject, but prefer to behave as if they hated all authority. The management of children is an oblique, if not an occult, business.


Suddenly I understood why there are so few women among the philosophers — they’re not men. How like a man to focus on “the sexual act” in a guilty way. That was the fun part; and that is what chains him to responsibility for the ensuing child. And that’s what limits his interest to the welfare of his own children. I suddenly saw why the child care and the increased salaries for teachers that women have been crying out for since before the first bra was burned have not been forthcoming. Men remain profoundly unconvinced that they personally have any responsibility for the children of other men. (Liberal politicians are indeed simply giving other people’s money away.) Women certainly appear to believe that their own children are the best, but only disturbed women want their children to live apart from other children. It is my impression that women understand that the health of the community is a not negligible factor in the health of their children. Men seem inclined to view the community as an interference with their authority. I know plenty of elite men who believe otherwise, who share their wives’ view of the community, but no leader has emerged to change the mind of the general public.

You might argue that a man’s preoccupation with his own death is a function of his imaginative inability to engage with children.


Let me be perfectly clear: I am not trying to suggest that everybody ought to have children. Not at all! But beyond observing that some people seem to have more aptitude for raising children than others, and that some people don’t appear to be cut out for parenthood at all, I little to say: this is one of the many aspects of child-centered culture that requires a better understanding. Nor do I have any great insights about younger adolescents, except to recommend that they be housed away from home for a considerable stretch of this painful period.

I do want to point out that a culture that is focused on its children is in a state of constant self-review. What do we know that our children need to know? What do they need to find out that we don’t yet know? How can we lead them away from our mistakes?


The little patch that I’m working on is how to deal with the past. What to take from it, what to set aside. What, in rare cases, to lose. “The past” seems immense, and indeed, it has left us more books than anyone can read; but in fact very little of the past survives. Very little. In the area of writing alone, consider all the vanished shopping lists. Looking at a thick metropolitan telephone directory from the middle of the last century, consider all the conversations conducted via all those listed numbers. The oldest dresses that survive date to the late Seventeenth-Century; everything older has disintegrated. We have almost no idea of what Everyday Latin sounded like in the Roman Forum. Those cave paintings — what and why? Were there lots of such paintings, and only the ones buried in deep caves survived? Or was there a craze of adolescent derring-do? No, there isn’t much left.

But what do we do with what has survived? I hope that reading Roger Scruton will provoke a few ideas.


Wednesday 28th

And now for something completely different. (A Monty Python tag that I don’t know how to punctuate, but an agreeably ironic way of introducing the subject of this paragraph.) I went to the doctor yesterday. I went to two doctors, actually. I had that talk about scleritis with the rheumatologist. He agreed that my Remicade infusions can no longer be so widely spaced. (The protocol calls for eight weeks between infusions; for a few years, I was managing thirteen weeks nicely. The most recent infusion, which was preceded not only by the spontaneous inflammation of my eye but by a depression blacker than any I have ever experienced — only when I was writing here did life feel light enough a load to carry — followed the last one by eleven weeks.)

What I did not discuss with the rheumatologist — although I’d been prepared to — was my leg. My left leg was distinctly red and a little bit warm. There was no swelling, but the skin was tight. It did not hurt to walk, but it did hurt when I was just sitting down. The condition presented itself last Thursday, and there were several moments of horror over the weekend when another trip to the Emergency Room seemed to be in the offing. First thing Monday, I made an appointment with the internist, who is without a doubt my master doctor, the physician at the center of my many cases, even though endocrinology is not a specialty with any bearing on what ails me. I saw the good doctor yesterday. He examined me and sent me on my way without so much as a prescription. The leg still hurts, but the pain is unaccompanied by anxious uncertainty. And I knew all along that I was in for something.

I knew that I was “in for something” when — well, here’s what happened. The woman who cleans our kitchen and bathrooms had just been (this would be a week ago Friday), and when I went to take a shower after she left, I neglected to make sure that the bathmat was firmly pressed to the bottom of the tub. When I stepped in with my right foot, and the bathmat slid a bit, my left foot hastened to regain balance by closing the distance between feet. Unfortunately, my left foot was still outside the bathtub. There was an enormous thwack as it slammed against the tub. I steadied myself somehow; I don’t think that falling was ever a danger. (Except that falling is always a danger.) But I could tell from the ache in my calf that I was probably in for a big bruise.

There was a great deal of swelling, a mound almost big enough to enclose an egg. But the bruising never materialized. The swelling receded, and by Tuesday (this would be a week ago yesterday), I was experiencing nothing worse than an occasional twinge.

Then, Thursday night, while Kathleen was flying home from a quick trip to California, I felt the tight skin at the bottom of the calf, and a soreness at the instep, and I saw the blush of red. As I say, there was no swelling, and that was somewhat reassuring. Curiously, the redness did not surround the area where there had been swelling; it was all below that. I began to wonder if there was even a connection between the bang in the tub and this new irritation. I imagined all sorts of things, and each involved the administration of massive antibiotics in the Emergency Room, along with, no doubt, another unnecessary fuss about my blood pressure, heart rate, &c &c, which are under medical supervision at the moment and of no genuine ER concern.

I walked to the doctor’s office, on 72nd Street. I was a bit early. He took me into his office as he always does. I told him what had happened, and I told him about the scleritis for good measure, for, by this time, I was almost hoping that the leg business was another crazy spontaneous inflammation, even though this would mean that Remicade had stopped being effective. The scleritis made a certain sense if I was overdue for an infusion (as I evidently was), but my red calf made no sense two weeks after an infusion. When I had done talking, the doctor led me to an examining room and took a look for himself.

His conclusion was that the collision had ruptured blood vessels close to the bone. He looked at me and told me something that I really didn’t know: “Tissues don’t like blood.” When blood gets into places where it doesn’t belong, inflammation results. Eventually, the haemorrhaged blood (my term, not the doctor’s) gets flushed out. In the meantime, I ought to elevate the leg whenever possible, and wrap it in warm cloths, because heat, and not ice, is what’s called for in this situation.

I walked home from the rheumatologist’s office, which is only a few blocks from the internist’s. My leg was rather red. Walking is kind of the opposite of elevation with warm cloths.

Like the scleritis, a big nothing. But until yesterday, I lived with this big nothing against the lurid backdrop of the Emergency Room, a trauma unit that I found utterly traumatizing. On top of all the discomforts of an inadequate cot and no convenient loo, there was the din. Imagine a crowded subway car in which every passenger is speaking in an outside voice. Top that off with perfectly maddening beeps and bells. Add the occasional cry of pain. The only certainty was uncertainty. When I try to remember what the Emergency Room actually looked like, I see instead those medieval illuminations of the Last Judgment, or perhaps of the moment right after that, when crowds of agonized naked people are being stuffed into the maws of two-mouthed monsters. Just as the rich owners of those apocalyptic visions were terrified by the thought of eternal torment, so I dread, a little bit every day, another trip to the Emergency Room. This dread enhances the alertness with which I take care of myself.


In the late afternoon, dead tired after my medical adventures, I read the last couple of pages of Simon Winder’s Danubia. As the friend who gave it to me promised, I found it thoroughly amusing. But it was also far more substantial than I expected it to be. It was substantial in an unexpected way. Winder is amusingly apologetic about the tale that he wants to tell — the careers of the Hapsburg Emperors — and frequently promises to tell us as little of it as is absolutely necessary, since he expects that we’d be easily bored by too much detail. Danubia is not a very demanding history in that sense of the word. But for anyone who has done a modicum of demanding reading already, Danubia is something more than a plain history. It is rich in judgment and reflection. Because I’d read Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, for example, I felt that, in the passage snipped below, Winder was reminding me of an experience that I myself had had, having entered the world of Balint Abady.

As the First World War approached it became ever more complicated to be a Hungarian politician — not only did many suffer from a pathological aversion to the Austrians and their relentless attempts to undermine the Compromise or at least revise its terms, but there was upheaval across much of the kingdom. However many Magyarized [adopted Hungarian language and customs], it was never enough.

The Dual Monarchy that constituted the Hapsburg’s next act, after the deconstruction of the Holy Roman Empire, was always doomed to be a farce, so long as the Emperor ruled always from Vienna and came to Budapest for ceremonial purposes only. It was also a folly because there were more than two major constituencies within it, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the heir who was assassinated at Sarajevo) dreamed of beginning his reign with an invasion of Hungary and a proclamation of “Trialism,” which would enlarge upon the duality, to recognize the new Empire’s many (and many different kinds of) Slavs. If you don’t know much about the Hapsburgs or Central Europe, Danubia is an entertaining introduction. If you do know a thing or two, Danubia becomes quite thought-provoking.

For example, I was impressed by the simple power of Winder’s explanation for the failure of most of 1848’s revolutions.

A very broad spectrum of people could agree with the statement “It’s disgusting and embarrassing to be ruled by King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies,” but a decision on what to do next was much harder.

It was the failure to agree on the next step that allowed the military their chance, and the results were ferocious.

The failure to agree on the second step. Oh, how true! My mind spun a bit, and, when it stopped, I saw that the most successful revolution in history may well have been the real American Revolution. Not the one that began in 1776 and ended in 1783. No, the one that ran from 1787 to 1789, the revolution that limited itself to clarifying that second step, which it did in the document that we call the Constitution. The Confederation of the new United States had quickly shown itself to be a failure; everyone could agree that it needed to be junked. But nothing happened until the second step was in place, and elections could be set for Congress and for the Presidency. There seems to have been not an iota of violence. Such revolutions are unlikely to be possible, however, as revolutions are rarely engineered by the grand and the great.

One insight that emerged from reading Danubia was the awareness that the Hapsburg arrangement was doomed by the Enlightenment not because either of its empires were confused, irrational entities but because increased literacy led directly to increased nationalism, and it was nationalism that made the Austrian Empire look anachronistic. Nationalism was new and good, back in those innocent days of the early Nineteenth Century. From the moment that Herder concocted the formula of Kultur, European cosmopolitanism was endangered.

To teach people to read, you have to settle on a language to teach them; you will find it easiest to teach them to read the language that they already know. The imaginations of the newly literate are quickly swollen with new ideas and undreamed-of vistas, and languages oblige by singing the praises — praising the “national virtues” — of their speakers. That literacy should be so closely connected to demagoguery is very depressing, but this has been known since ancient times. For centuries, it was a positive conservative defense of restricting literacy.

But that is not our problem now.


Thursday 29th

Last night, having sipped perhaps a bit too much wine, and at loose ends about what to read, I fell into a dim meditation on power. The tone, although unvoiced, was incantatory. I was telling myself things in the ringing tones of an Orson Welles. I was challenging myself with overlooked truths. And of course I was exaggerating. I could imagine Conrad’s Marlow as, having heard me out, he regaled a company of after-dinner sailors with an account of my astonishing remarks. “‘I was supposed to have been a mighty man.’ said Keefe, quite as if the thought had not occurred to him before.”

Power has always puzzled me. I have always had enough for my purposes, and so I haven’t had to think much about it. Although I had no idea, when I was young, of what I would “do” when I grew up, what my career would be, it can’t have been a serious problem, because here I am at nearly seventy, still without a career but pretty good at what I want to do, which is to read and write. What this has to do with my being a physically imposing man remains mysterious to me, but I am sure that there is a connection. I do not think of myself as particularly confident — I am always fretting about something — but my body is very confident, in an indolent sort of way. It is overweight and stiff, this body, but it is big. It is often frowning — perhaps scowling would be the word (because of the fretting) — but it is usually composed, still. Many people respond to this body of mine by surrounding it with a margin of empty space. When I walk through a crowd, the crowd has a way of parting like the Red Sea. I was unaware of this for most of my life (which is also part of the puzzle), and when it was pointed out to me, I was mortified to learn that I apparently behave with obnoxious entitlement. But it isn’t I. It’s this body that I’ve been stuck with. My body is entitled, and it knows it. Other people have always told it so.

Just think — as I suspect my mother never stopped thinking — what it would have been like had I been the sort of man to make use of this body! This body was meant to be inhabited by someone of importance! When I was getting to be big, as distinct from just taller than the other boys, I excited a lot of disappointment in teachers and other men in charge. I felt that they wanted me to be something that I wasn’t — athletic and commanding — but they were only asking me to be what they saw. They wanted me to live up, as they might have put it, to my God-given body. I didn’t pay any of this much attention, because there was always a bigger battle raging on the subject of my intelligence, which, it was felt, I also wasn’t using as I ought to do. I was ashamed of my inability to be smart in the right way, but it did strike me as a genuine inability. My problem, as I saw it, was to figure out what to do with my intelligence, and I poured everything into that. I ignored the body problem, and, long before I made much progress on the brains front, it went away. I didn’t notice that it had gone from being a problem to being an asset. I’m somewhat ashamed these days to realize how much and for how long I’ve taken advantage of it.

Or so I say. Then I snap out of it and realize that my body is me, not a suit of clothes on a hanger in the closet. It has a lot to do with the way I think. It has given me an unusual amount of freedom in the world. It has taught me, for example, that the exercise of power, to the extent that it is not also an exercise of authority, is very wicked, if only because it is so toxic for the person doing the exercising, and not unlike an addictive drug. How can such coercion be prevented? I have no idea. I feel lucky, for having been too distracted by reading and writing to play power games. And for being big enough not to have had to fight for my autonomy. But the very fact that I’ve been lucky is dismaying. What about everybody else?

Why can’t everybody be big? Why can’t we create childhoods in which big is a quality, and not a quantity?


I thought that I’d be writing more about Roger Scruton than I have done. I keep putting off re-reading “The Aesthetic Gaze,” the essay that got me interested in him in the first place. I put it off because reading it the first time stirred up so many ideas that, while perfectly familiar to me, were now, suddenly, ideas that I not only hadn’t entertained recently but in fact rejected. I want to deal a bit with some of those ideas before going back and finding out that I misread Scruton, that he wasn’t saying what I thought he was saying. I also want to have a clearer idea of what I do think instead.

In “Culture and Cult,” I believe, Scruton attributes to Matthew Arnold the first full articulation of the fine arts as a replacement for lost religion. If we can no longer sincerely worship the God of our fathers, then we can at least worship the beauty of a painting by Raphael. There is something desperate about this replacement and I have never believed in it. Easy for me to say, as I’ve never had any kind of faith in that way; but what I believed was that it couldn’t work — art could not take the place of God for people who had lost faith in God. This, I think, is what Adorno nailed when he said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Mere art, all-too-human-made art, could never present the ennobling, inspiring mirror of God’s love. Art has no ethical content.

But Scruton seems to believe that, as long as we go about it in the right way, art can provide our lives with meaning — with the kind of meaning that would guard us against the commission of horrible deeds. I have a lot of trouble with the search for meaning. I don’t really get it. If you asked me, “Why are you writing?”, meaning what is the purpose of what you’re doing, I shouldn’t have an answer for that, either, because the question makes no sense to me. But what interests me about Scruton’s thinking (if “interests” is the word) is his description of the right way to make art yield meaning. The way to do it is to pursue art as an end in itself, and not as a source of meaning. (Consciousness, as for so many conservatives, is often deadly for Scruton.) Using art as a means to meaning would be fatal. I can’t say that I don’t understand this language of objective and instrument — of ends and means — but I do believe that it amounts to no more than a puddle of words. You can talk about means and ends — you can profess to find an urgent difference between the one and the other — but you can talk about Ptolemaic epicycles, too, without making much less sense to me.

In human life, everything is means to an ever-unrealized end. I think that it’s because the end is endlessly unfolding that some people develop a hankering for purposelessness, for a withdrawal, however momentary, from the onrush of living action. Perhaps I can’t tell you what is meaningful about my writing, but I can tell you about the satisfaction that it brings and the hopes that I nurture for its readers. You could say that my satisfaction is an end, but does it really make any sense to apply the solid, product-y end to something as ephemeral as satisfaction? You could say, baldly, that my hopes are a means for making the world a better place, but I would probably talk about them as if they were ends in themselves. Whether my writing is a matter of “means” or a matter of “ends” depends upon how the light hits the discussion. To fuss over the distinction is to play one of those boys’ games that consume intelligence in pursuit of posturing.

I don’t believe that human beings are capable of the absolute disinterest that would be required for treating any thing or any action as “an end in itself.” We ourselves, our children and our children’s children are the ever-changing, never-changing end of everything that we do. If you want to feel that you are doing something as an end in itself, take a nap.


Friday 30th

It must seem that I’m not paying attention to the political news, which in fact I follow assiduously. I can’t bring myself to write about it, though; I’m only going to repeat myself. Whether the candidates and voters (or fans) are behaving exactly as I expect them to, or whether I simply can’t see what’s actually going on through the jungle of my old analyses is hard to tell. But it’s boring either way. It’s hard to believe that anything new is going to happen in this country anytime soon, or that it is going to do anything but slowly fall apart.

Of course I blame the South. That is, I blame Abraham Lincoln. Nicholas Lemann has a fine piece in the current New Yorker about the “Southernization” of federal politics, and in it he quotes Lincoln.

“It will become all one thing or all the other,” Abraham Lincoln declared of the beleaguered, slavery-stressed Union, in his “House Divided” speech. In fact, the South and the rest of the nation have one of those hot-blooded relationships — the major one, in American history — which never settle into either trustful intimacy or polite distance.

In other words, Lincoln was wrong. The United States is neither one thing nor the other, but simply a mess. Southerners are no longer confined to the South, and ever since Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” people of small minds everywhere vote Republican as a way of resisting attacks on the fantasy of American exceptionalism. By the way, as long as I’ve got Lemann on the page, I ought to finish a thought that he leaves dangling when he cites Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. Slavery certainly seemed to be essential to the Industrial Revolution, but when it was abolished, the quickly-evolved new model, sharecropping, was exported throughout the cotton-growing world, a development that Beckert covers in detail. So slavery wasn’t, after all, essential; it’s possible that it never made economic sense. Slavery was essential in ancillary ways — the massive kidnapping of Africans created a working population out of nothing; the sexual entitlement of white slave-owners degraded even as it generated a defenseless African-American community — but not in industrial ways.

When I say that the North ought to have let the South secede (and I do say that), I’m nonetheless aware that there would have been some kind of war, if only to keep the South and its slavery out of the West. But that didn’t happen, so there’s no point dwelling on it (except to take a much, much harder look at Lincoln, great and noble man though he were). The South is like a metastasized cancer, its music and its militarism flowing freely throughout the land. It sometimes seems to me that the Southern drawl has inflected not only the American vulgate but the Anglophone vulgate. Yadda yadda yadda; I’ve said all this before.

The truly awful thing about the “Southernization” of American politics is that it is fundamentally anti-political. In the traditional South, power is exercised through hierarchical processes; elections, where they are not confrontations between unitary blocs (blacks vs whites, for example), are token affairs. The guy who ought to win is anointed in the back room, from which issues a word to the wise. Women, God love ’em, serve almost as mechanical governors, making sure that hegemonic complacency doesn’t stray too far from rough ideas of justice. But that complacency does ensure a monumental stability, and a homogenization that either marginalizes or criminalizes social deviations. Nobody, anywhere, really likes political action; it is impossible without compromise and it often requires the alliance of enemies, characteristics that expose politics to the charges, however simple-minded, of dishonesty and hypocrisy. It is easy to see why some might prefer the “politics” of the firearm.

The disregard for political integrity — yes, there is such thing — coupled with economic adversities that no one seems to understand (and that make some people filthy rich!), has produced the clown car of Republican hopefuls among whom only one, Marco Rubio, is both attractive and viable. (As David Brooks points out, Jeb Bush would be a great candidate — if it were 1956.) We shall see if party operatives can assure that he prevails as the Republican nominee. On the Democratic side, voters are always demanding more political integrity — whatever that is — than Hillary Clinton can provide. Clinton is competent, certainly, but she cuts corners — corners that too often turn out to be the wrong corners. I pity the candidate her renewed exposure to the undying wrath of Maureen Dowd, but I do agree with Dowd that Clinton ought to have followed the Benghazi situation more closely and certainly more directly. Claiming that she had 270 ambassadors to worry about was precisely the typical Clinton gaffe. Having taken the first step, getting rid of Libya’s infamous dictator, she was responsible for the second step, what next, and this included, at the minimum, arranging for diplomatic security. So while perhaps Hillary Clinton didn’t do anything wrong in the Benghazi disaster, she didn’t do anything particularly right, either. And this is, as I say, typical. Clinton is a manager by nature, not a leader; her idea of leadership is for everybody to get out of her way. So it’s no wonder that genuine centrists are unhappy with Clinton, while those to the left are understandably wild about Bernie Sanders. Smart centrists will cast passionate ballots for Clinton, but only for the sake of the Supreme Court nominating process. And they’re worried that too many of the voters who aren’t so smart, and for whom the Supreme Court is something of an abstraction, will stay at home, throwing the election to the Republican cutie-pie. Or the Donald, as the case may be.

It would be a sin to let all this invective fly by without aiming a few shots at the media. We will take as read into the record the stupefying impact of network television news. In one of my fantasy variations on the Kingsman theme, anyone who watches more than an hour of television news a week is hypnotized into sleeping through the election, and a thousand and twenty-nine voters show up to vote, the twenty-nine being Republicans. What interests me somewhat more is television’s parasitic dependence on politics. Where does all that campaign financing go? But a parasite doesn’t just suck your blood; it makes you sick. Television serves up the likes of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, both of whom, say what you will, make for good television. Not to mention the tycoon who just fired Iowa. I should be mystified by the persistence of the extravagantly unattractive Ted Cruz, if it weren’t for the prominence, even in the Times, of news about zombie shows.

I wonder who told Jeb! that a diet would do it?


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
What’s It About?
October 2015 (III)

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Monday 19th

“Well-behaved women seldom make history” is a comment that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich made in a scholarly article in 1976. In 1995, it was picked up by a journalist. By the following year, it had entered a book of “quotations by women,” and, with Ulrich’s permission, it was printed on a T-shirt. I’d like to say that I was familiar with it, but I wasn’t, and that is probably why I flipped through Ulrich’s book when Kathleen brought it home. I noticed a chapter on Christine de Pizan, the educated courtier who, round about 1400, wrote The City of Women. There were also chapters on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf. I was intrigued by Christine, and irritated by not knowing anything about Stanton — except that, unlike Susan B Anthony, she was plump. And then I wondered what Virginia Woolf would look like in this company.

Ulrich is a historian; her subject, back in 1976, was the good women of Puritan New England, through whose obituaries ran a strange kind of praise: they were admirable because they didn’t make history. Ulrich wrote,

Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been.

History was made by men; everybody knew that — until it became clear, in the Seventies, that the traditional hierarchies of Western life were not going to survive the cataclysms of the Twentieth Century. The denial of civil rights to Jews in Nazi Germany turned out to be malignant not only to the Jews, but to the order that condemned them as well. As soon as the West recovered from the more percussive shocks of World War II, people who didn’t happen to be white heterosexual males decided, in millions of decisions made at millions of moments, in a cascade that has been pouring for decades, that white heterosexual males were not entitled to tell other kinds of people who they were and what they could and could not do.

As a corollary of this extreme revisionism — which, if you ask me, is responsible not only for the reactionary anti-politics, posing as conservatism, that has infected so many Americans with dangerous lunacy (and some Europeans as well), but also for the punitive anxiety of patriarchs throughout Africa and the Middle East — it began to seem, about fifty years ago, that the things that white heterosexual males had done were not the only things worth remembering. Hence the new fields of history that scholars like Ulrich began to plow.

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007) is Ulrich’s meditation on women making history. It is lucid and interesting, particularly in its account of the struggle of black women for personal autonomy, a tangent opened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s encounter with a runaway slave in 1839. “Slaves in the Attic,” arguably the heart of Ulrich’s book, ends with the ironic observation that Stanton’s autobiography, written in 1898, completely overlooked the new shackles of Jim Crow (and somewhat milder correlatives in the North). This is a reminder that the fight for freedom is almost always personal: I want mine; you fight for your own. The tendency, once freedom has been attained, is to ignore the fact that other people lack it. And men, fifty years ago, had no trouble at all believing that women were happy homemakers; women who weren’t happy homemakers were usually ugly, and that explained everything.

It was the sixth chapter, however, “Waves,” that stirred me most. At the beginning of the chapter, Ulrich touches on the metaphor of waves: waves come and go. They wash over the land, and then they recede into the sea. It is already common to speak of “third-wave” feminism. Does this mean that the situation of women today remains provisional? I believe that it does, and that the situation of gay men and women is even more provisional. I’d like to think that recent victories over the patriarchy are secure, but I can’t quite believe it, because newfound freedom naturally invites men and women to express themselves personally, individually. Every day, the bloc of women who identify as feminists in a unitary way grows smaller, because “feminism” means different things to different women. The same is true of the same-sex “community”: it, too, is breaking up. Meanwhile, white heterosexual males are traditionally habituated to form teams to defeat their opponents. They ally themselves with other men, whom they may dislike very much, in order to achieve a common goal: this is called “the principle of the thing.” I look at Silicon Valley’s campaign to replace the open freedom of the Internet with the limiting convenience of the “app,” and I shudder.

“Waves” got to me, too, by reminding me of stages in my own consciousness of women. Feminism was so simple at the start. Feminists demanded “equality.” In fact, they were asking men to shut up, and some feminists even said as much, but the opening discussions concerned political access and employment issues. There ought to be more women in Congress, and so forth; and women ought to be paid what men were paid, and so forth. You could disagree only if you believed that women were inferior to men. Many men did, and do, believe this, but in the absence of any “scientific” argument (beyond a cluster of ignorant misunderstandings about menstruation), it seemed bigoted to say so. So the opponents of feminism stalled wherever possible, and encouraged renegades like Phyllis Schlafly to remind women that most of them do, in fact, hope to have children.

The other day, Gail Collins noted that the percentage of mothers who work is dropping, largely because child-care costs are too high. (The costs are too high, and yet, ironically, the rewards for child-care workers are too low. The same is true of schooling, but most people don’t pay for that.) It bothers me enormously that so little work has been done to explore volunteer neighborhood child-care, a truly social (and positively anti-socialist!) solution to the problem. I can’t begin to understand why an updated curriculum along the old “home economics” lines isn’t taught to all schoolchildren, especially in high school. Everybody needs to know how to keep house — and child-care is a big part of housekeeping. In a neighborhood of educated housekeepers, residents could be trusted to take on, for a few years at a time, the care of small children. Working parents would contribute to the upkeep of the facilities as well as to a fund that would ensure the education of volunteers’ children or grandchildren.

As the foregoing suggests, feminism isn’t simple anymore. It oughtn’t to be.


Last week, Kathleen and I went to our downtown storage unit, tried not to faint at the prospective difficulty of clearing it out (which we’ve been meaning to do for years), and brought home ten cardboard boxes of documents — the rough equivalent of two banker’s boxes. Culling them yesterday, I brought the number down to five, with only a few small stacks of paper — three inches in all; I just measured it — to worry about keeping. I expect that another wearying session will see the end of three more boxes.

I have written before about my unwillingness to read the journals that I kept from my teens into my late twenties; having opened one or two from time to time, I’ve been horrified by what I’ve seen. It’s a sort of Dorian Gray experience, in reverse. Yesterday, I came across a sheaf of onion-skin copies of letters that I typed between 1966 and 1973. At the top of the sheaf were letters to a friend from Notre Dame written in late 1970. I was working at the radio station at the time, but I was still living at my parents’ house; they would gently throw me out the following summer. They had moved to Houston in 1968, and I had worked two very different summer jobs before graduating from college and finding my berth at KLEF. I worked at night and spent the days in my room, evidently unhinged. Reading the carbons, yesterday — I quite violently didn’t want to read them, but I couldn’t bring myself to dump the lot of them without some kind of review. Mixed in were some papers written for a philosophy class. I didn’t look at them at all; I just saved them for the time being.

When I was done, I made dinner and tried to recover my amour-propre. (One of the papers was marked with the professor’s admonition to use fewer French phrases.) All right: my self-respect. It wasn’t easy. Kathleen said, “But you were practically a baby then.” No, I was not a baby. I was, by simple fact of age, a presumptive adult. Actually, now I think of it, no child would have been capable of the profound immaturity that I not only displayed but trumpeted. What was I thinking? Well, I can reconstruct something of my thinking. First, nothing made any difference anymore. I was not the only writing type of person to think that in 1970. All the old values were bankrupt — an idea that dated to the end of World War I at the latest. It was demoralizing, also, to know that I lacked the spirit and enterprise to get out of Houston, an environment that never ceased to be uncomfortable. So, in the interest of finding out what I really believed, I disabled my decorum. I transcribed the stream of consciousness without regard for writerly politeness. I announced, an amazing number of times, that I was “bored today.” I wrote to say that I had nothing to say. And then I demonstrated it.

Just to make the composition absolutely retch-worthy, I adopted the tone of a cosmopolitan eighteenth-century wag. Having expressed the hope that things were not going as badly as they might be for my correspondent, I flourished, tremo e palpito. (I wonder where I got that. I do know where I got another patch of plaster, eh bien, mon cousinDer Rosenkavalier, not a work of the Eighteenth Century whatever its setting.) The insufferable combination of carelessness, fatuousness, insolence, and affectation on every page of those letters turned my blood to sludge. My ears and my cheeks burned. They burn right now at the re-telling.

I threw away all the letters to the above-mentioned, now very former, friend. I saved two or three that I wrote to a much closer friend who has since died. I held onto a sheaf of letters that I wrote to an art historian in the summer of 1973, oblivious of the fact that my marriage was falling apart. I didn’t read this last batch; that’s a pleasure that I’ll save for some other time. I saved a letter from 1966 concerning my account at Blackwells — did I really have a checking account already? It seems so. (I still have no idea how I paid for the books that I bought while at Blair.) Even what ought to be a simple business letter is pimply with pretension.

Dear Sirs,

I have just become aware of the fact that my latest bill has not been paid. I thought that it had been, some time ago. [redundant!] Wanting to maintain my credit, I should, of course, like to pay this due. I have no copy of the bill, however [figures], and would appreciate your sending by air-mail (please bill me if necessary [redundant curlicue!]) my most recent statement.

Thanking you [&c]

Every other second, I jump. How dare you keep a public blog? How, having written that trash, can you show your face? Then I remember that the letters are now dust. “They can’t be that bad,” Kathleen sighed. I declined further argument.

In the end, my project, my search for a truly natural style of writing was a success. I believe that I have described what I called “slash style” elsewhere. It dispensed with all forms of punctuation except the slash (/), and I didn’t capitalize any words. I forced a procrustean justification upon my text, breaking up words (without hyphenation) at the right-hand margin. This, on top of all the other violations, made for as minimal an appearance as could be achieved without giving up words, but it made my prose style seem even more florid. The appeal of this way of doing things got stale pretty quickly. Bit by bit, my radicalism weakened. I resumed ending sentences in the normal way, and beginning them with capitalized letters. I strove to make sense — to write sentences that I should understand a year later. Somewhere around the time of the conversion experience that I mentioned the other day — the Trollope-inspired realization that I must my life change and be a gentleman — I adopted an editorial commitment to writing clearly and with interest at all times. I fail at it all the time — more often than you might think, because I fix a lot of stuff when I edit these pages. I’m still drawn to complicated sentences that appeal to me even though I don’t know exactly what they mean. (Am I a poet?) I get rid of most of them. If I’m going to be difficult to read, it’s going to be for a good reason.

But, oh, how dare I.


Tuesday 20th

Loose Change: How surprised I am that the remarkable cover story in the current issue of The New York Review of Books has not generated more buzz. Am I living on a desert island? (Very possibly.) “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa” is not quite that (a conversation), but more of an interview, and the President is doing the interviewing.

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves and so on — against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know — I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.

But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive — “Love they neighbor as thyself” — which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as though it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?

Robinson: Right.

It’s hard to know where to begin to take account of this published exchange. But it makes me proud. The President of the United States having a literary, spiritual conversation with one of his country’s most important writers! This may happen all the time in France, but I cannot recall anything like it happening here. It is true that Barack Obama talks like a man on the campaign trail. He is someone who is trying to get things done, or at any rate on his way to the next speech. And it is also true that the conversation is not a casual event. If it recorded a bit of quality time that a busy man got to spend with a thoughtful woman, it would not be published. And when I asked myself who the intended reader might be, I couldn’t help thinking of the former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. Not that anyone would want to hear Hillary Clinton discuss Christianity — heavens no! Perhaps Obama and Robinson are volunteering to do it for her. They can talk about these things with complete credibility. They can try to persuade voters that there is nothing Christian — really, nothing — about the Republican Party’s policies and anti-policies. They can delicately suggest that the “Christianity” of automatic weapons fanciers is a fabrication not unlike the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


Something in yesterday’s entry left behind an irritating grain of sand. Why don’t white heterosexual men care to express themselves freely, as more recently liberated or enfranchised groups do?

Could it be that white heterosexual men are stuck with the datestamp of their hegemony?

I’m reading Simon Winder’s Danubia, an agreeably playful book about Central Europe. When it was published, a couple of years ago, I feared that it would be too playful, so I stayed away, but a friend gave it to me recently, and, dipping into it, I enjoyed the refresher. You can’t have enough refreshment where Hapsburgs are concerned. So many archdukes, so much geography!

Touring the Siebenbürgen — what Germans call Transylvania — Winder meditates on the fierce conformism that made the villages outside the German-settled towns viable. Everybody did what he or she was supposed to do, or else. There was no margin for creativity, no room for free spirits. The work was rarely very heavy, and often sociable, as Winder points out; but it was always the same. There were no new jokes.

And I thought, yes, that’s how life was everywhere, more or less. Men may have been in charge, but that hardly meant that they were free for caprices. They were as bound to their duties as everyone else, bound perhaps a little more tightly. They were expected to set an example, not just to boost morale but to instruct the young. Men were the fountains not only of virtue but of conformity.

Things changed. Being big and strong and free from child-care were no longer sufficient, or even necessary, to run things or to set society on the right path. What was necessary in the new, industrial world was intelligence. Amazingly, however — as any survey of executive suites will confirm — intelligence has not been a substitute for height and freedom from domestic concerns. Strength and freedom are still important criteria for top jobs. Intelligence has simply been added to the list of requirements.

And conformity has never been taken off the list, even though it’s very much at odds with the exercise of any kind of intelligence. This may be what has made courtiers out of business leaders. They hide in their suits and their golf bags and private jets, doing exactly what the other nabobs are doing. Meanwhile they scheme. They’re a useless lot, mostly, but that’s another matter. The point is that the new industrial order, which did eventually transform opportunities for people who weren’t white heterosexual males, did nothing for the guys. And not only that! Since being big and strong were no longer necessary, but somehow still required for success, it became difficult to demonstrate these qualities. It was no longer the case that the whole town saw you walk down the street with a ram over your shoulders. In traditional society, the markers of masculinity were tapped every day. At a certain point, a wife was acquired and children began to appear, and woe betide the man who could not keep his family in order. (In Lord Jim, which I’m also in the middle of, there’s an amusing little sideshow in which a petitioner claims that he beats his wife, but only a little, just to maintain his standing among the villagers.) You might clearly fail at being a man, but you needn’t worry about it, because, cuckholdry aside, there was so little room for uncertainty.

All that was swept away. Now you can win a shelf of trophies and marry the prettiest girl in the room — and find that it doesn’t salve the anxiety. Am I a real man? All that you can do is go on scheming, and do your best to look the part.

Oh, and you can “play the game,” whatever game it is. But games do nothing for society, local or otherwise.

So, men are bound to conform while at the same time being, thanks to their conformity, rather useless.


Something else clicked, too. Contact with the letters that I wrote when was young reminded me that I came of age at a peculiar moment. I was a misfit, but it seemed, for a brief period, that their might be a future in misfitness. It seemed that many things were changing, but the only thing that changed for good was style. Many years later, I would have a go at corporate life, and discover just how uncongenial it really was, and how confusingly hypocritical. But in 1970, there was a wonderful new word: alternative. It turned out to be French for broke. At the very best, respectably unsuccessful. More likely descriptors: eccentric and disappointing. It was my belief in alternative careers that kept me at the radio station for so long. I had a demanding job, and I did it well enough to keep it for more than five years. I derived a lot of satisfaction from it, too. But I was always running to my father for money; the job never really covered the basics. (And, in those days, books and records were my only luxuries.)

The declaration that I want to make now is that my parents — not my mother, and certainly not my father — had nothing to do with my growing up to be a misfit. There! What a relief to get that out of the way. I’ve been wondering what my parents did to make it take me so long to find real satisfaction in life, and it turns out: nothing.

They saw it coming, but, even though they did what they could to help me develop otherwise, and even though their efforts did nothing to make the problem worse, I was doomed, I think from birth, always to be odd. There was a period, about ten years ago, when I seriously looked into the possibility that I belonged on the Aspie spectrum — and I still haven’t ruled it out altogether, although the therapist whom I was seeing at the time laughed the idea out of court. (I am not currently seeing a therapist, by the way; it occurred to me that I was too old to fix.) What’s wrong with me? Well, for one thing, I’m almost pathologically rogue. Aside from cooking and talking, I do not enjoy doing things with other people. No; what I like to do with other people is to imagine what their lives are like. I’d love to say that I’m driven by empathy, but in fact it is the merest feline curiosity. I don’t envy anyone, especially as, now that I’m an old man, I know in my bones that people never truly appreciate those qualities that make them enviable. There is something awfully flat about being, consciously, enviable. Nevertheless, I wonder what it is like to be, not famous or brilliant or sexy, but just — somebody else. Novels have done nothing to diminish this interest of mine.

My imagination has developed a powerful inflection toward everything that is not, in fact, the case. This sustains my interest in history, which is all about people and places that are gone forever. (But history relates things that were, once upon a time, actual. This vital savor I find lacking in science fiction. Why follow Game of Thrones when you can watch Richard III?) It also makes me very annoying to work with. No sooner have I learned how things are done than I can “see clearly” how they might be done better. For a long time, the first thing that I would talk about after the curtain fell on a play was the scene that would certainly have been improved by a few changes in the dialogue, or maybe the blocking. You might say that I began to enjoy life only when I became too tired to sustain this impatience at times when I ought to be enjoying myself. I have tried hard to overcome the perverse variety of impatience that gets in the way of pleasure. I remain deeply impatient with the world in general, however, because it never turns at the proper speed, and is always falling off the counter onto this apartment’s unreasonably hard kitchen and bathroom floors, breaking, and making a mess. (!)

What nonsense! It’s true that I don’t envy anybody now, but, when I was a kid, I envied just about everybody. I wanted desperately to escape from my life. And my mother certainly had something to do with that; I wanted, quite openly at times, to escape her. I wanted to escape her because I was a misfit, not because she made one out of me. My mother tried everything short of incarceration and arsenic to make me one of the guys. And if she failed, I think anybody would have failed.

This is the point at which one might be tempted to lament the company of at least one compatible, congenial, similarly misfit parent, but I’m not stupid.

I think that there were more career opportunities for someone like me in the ancien régime, or even a century and a half ago. I’m thinking of Trollope’s Mr Dove, the barrister who knows all that there is to know about paraphernalia, in The Eustace Diamonds. (And you, silly you, thought that “paraphernalia” was just “stuff.”) I could have been

soft as milk to those who acknowledged his power, but a tyrant to all who contested it; conscientious, thoughtful, sarcastic, bright-witted, and laborious. He was a man who never spared himself. If he had a case in hand, though the interest to himself in it was almost nothing, he would rob himself of rest for a week should a point arise which required such labour.

Perhaps not. Mr Dove was probably easier to get along with when he was starting out. I might have had a dandy career on Wall Street, if only the Labor Department had taken its ERISA responsibilities regarding pensions and IRA plans more seriously. But let’s not play that old song. I am definitely the kind of man who could bone up on obscure points of the law and still ask for more. All I ask is that they be obscure. The law was much more fun, you’ve got to admit, when it was still tangled up in medieval roots. My legal career was probably sealed when they stopped speaking Law French.

That kind of misfit. The pre-electronic smarty.


Wednesday 21st

We love our grandmothers, and we’re thankful to them, but we don’t want to be them. When I look around this room, at the faces of the women of my generation, I see women who want to express all the different sides of themselves. There are times when we want to speak out against the injustices of the world. And there are times when we want to put on stilettos and a little black dress and find a party.

That’s Willa Ruth Stone, allegedly the voice of younger feminists, in Brian Morton’s novel of last year, Florence Gordon. The title character, a leading grandmother, so to speak, is sitting on the stage right behind the young and pretty Willa, who is wearing a wireless microphone, so that, unlike the other speaker at this symposium, she can “glide around.” Florence is supposed to be the honoree, but Willa upstages her. We see what’s going on not through Florence’s eyes but through those of her granddaughter, Emily, the book’s actual heroine. Emily is appalled by Willa’s remarks, and her being appalled is a sign that her education is well under way. (Emily has dropped out of Oberlin in a state of highly appropriate intellectual confusion.) Florence, as we also know, has something else on her mind, something personal that is not and cannot be political. Emily is surprised that Willa’s virtual assault does not prompt her grandmother’s fiery rebuttal. Instead, it seems to drain Florence’s energy. From this moment on, the novel proceeds in diminuendo. For everything in life begins, at some point, to recede. Emily, as I say, is the heroine, but her advance is reserved for another time; her bildung begins with her grandmother’s recession.

What does it mean to say, I love you, but I don’t want to be you? The thought nominally expressed is gratuitous: you can never be anybody else. So it must mean, “I love you, but I don’t want to be like you,” which rather undercuts the meaning of “love.” What the statement really means is this: “I love you, but I wish you would go away and die.” Florence Gordon hears this, loud and clear.

What’s wrong with putting on a little black dress and going to a party? Nothing. I’m sure that Gloria Steinem has always had a few slinky numbers in her closet. The problem is in the words. Again, the real meaning, discoverable in the syntax, is not as sweet and anodyne as the words draped upon it. “Sometimes we are angry at the world; sometimes, we just want to forget about it.” The anger at the world is just as transient, just as much a costume, as the little black dress. There is no outrage, but only the appearance of it. The truly outraged remain truly outraged even when they’re out partying. They may smile and flirt — we are complicated animals — but they don’t leave their sense of injustice behind. There is no either/or here, and to claim one, as Willa does, is to preach a very different sermon.

What I take to be Willa’s real outrage is the outrage that has broken out across American universities. It is the outrage of young women who want to find a party without running any of the risks that party-going entails. They want to drink as much as they like, but they want their dignity to be respected even if they cannot stand up. The want to be caressed by casual boyfriends (or even strangers), but not raped. That girls are violated at fraternity drink-a-thons outrages them. When does yes mean yes? This is a question that I wish Joan Didion would take a crack at answering.

Didion’s dismissive essay of 1972, “The Women’s Movement,” is not her best work; it tries to score too many points in too small a space. It falls into two inadequately related pieces. First, she takes on the ideology, the notion that women are an oppressed class, their plight susceptible to Marxist analysis.

If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, “the very organization of nature,” the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, “that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.”

Didion is not impressed. “Ask anyone committed to Marxist analysis how many angels stand on the head of a pin, and you will be asked in return to never mind the angels, tell me who controls the production of pins.” (That’s a good one, but it sounds to me like something that Didion heard one of her dashing, scalawag men-friends say. It doesn’t sound quite like her.)

Then there is the romance, the feminism of women who don’t really understand “the movement” but who want more “fun” out of life. Didion takes this fancy more seriously; she responds to it with a sense of existential tragedy, of the human condition.

No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told that she should. The power of sex is just an oppressive myth, no longer to be feared, because what the sexual connection really amounts to, we learn in one woman’s account of a postmarital affair presented as liberated and liberating, is “wisecracking and laughing” and “lying together and leaping up to play and sing the entire Sesame Street Songbook.” All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it — that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death — could now be declared invalid, unnecessary; one never felt it at all.

Didion, usually lucid, gets pretty mythological herself here; references to living underwater and dark involvements with blood are explicitly murky. The mention of “irreconcilable difference” demands at least a few words about men. I think that Didion is mistaken, but on principle, not because she has the facts wrong. There are no facts, really, which is why I resort to something like Marilynne Robinson’s gloss on “love thy neighbor”: as my neighbor, a woman must be regarded as no less human than myself, no less worthy of respect. Differences may not be “reconcilable,” but they can be overlooked.

But the key paragraph in “The Women’s Movement,” the awful truth, as it were, follows a bizarre catalogue of errors that romantic, not ideological, women make in living out their femininity, such absurd things as amputating their toes to fit pointy shoes (did anyone really do this?).

The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves. The bitter fancies assumed their own logic. To ask the obvious — why she did not get herself another gynecologist, another job, why she did not get out of bed and turn off the television set, or why, the most eccentric detail, she stayed in hotels where only doughnuts could be obtained from room service — was to join this argument at its own spooky level, a level which had only the most tenuous and unfortunate relationship to the actual condition of being a woman. That many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and self-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package.

I read this with something like the expression that Cary Grant makes when he says, “If it gets dull, you can always go to Tulsa.” What do I mean by that? Too many things! That’s the problem with “The Women’s Movement.” There’s so much, all pressed up together. The “elitism” — I feel obliged to put the word in quotes, as if it were dangerously radioactive — of Didion’s outlook is breathtaking. (Oh, that reference to room service! Less-expensive hotels did not offer it even back in the day.) Elitist life has always bristled with feisty, independent women who made their own way in this man’s world. If you’re smart and determined and endowed with a modicum of independent wealth, you can work out an accommodation with the boys’ club. I should like at this point to say a few things about my wife’s experience, noting, among other things, the intellectual autonomy that that was annealed when she was passed from the clever hands of the mothers at Sacred Heart to the rigorous academic demands of the Brearley. But it is her story to tell, not mine. I will say just this: only lately, in her early sixties, has she stopped simply accepting and begun resenting the condescension and exploitation of many of the men with whom she has worked in the field of securities law. There was no other package. If someone (Joan Didion?) might counter, “Well, why not do something else,” I should reply, rather heatedly, that there is nothing about securities law per se that men excel at. And Kathleen has excelled; as I write, she is participating in panels at an ETF shindig in California, after which she will be interviewed (as she was last year, I recall), by Bloomberg News. Some of her male colleagues admire her with open enthusiasm. Others are, no two ways about it, condescending and exploitative. Kathleen is a woman; ergo.

At least as allergic to Marxism as Joan Didion — although I see its handful of truths more clearly every day — I have never been tempted to regard women as an oppressed class. I can’t approach feminism ideologically, beyond, that is, bearing the Golden Rule in mind, as outlined above. The political aspect of feminism, as distinct from the problematics of the little black dress, has, however, engaged me ever since it resurfaced in cosmopolitan discourse. I should like to see an Equal Rights Amendment. Equal pay for women is a no-brainer. Almost everything else, though, is more complicated. I’m not sure that we are ready to address child-care politically, because we have not even arrived at a viable politics of teacher pay. There is this idea in America, holding that billionaires shouldn’t be taxed redistributively, that rests on the assumption that, while billionaires create value, teachers don’t. If teachers don’t create value, then why do we require education? Teachers create more value than billionaires do; the billionaires simply monetize it. Until we get our thinking straight here, I don’t think that we’ll develop realistic programs for relieving some of the stress and anxiety of young parenthood.

And then there are the housekeeping issues, which aren’t even questions yet. No one is going to get anywhere by complaining that her husband washes a plate and two glasses and thinks that he has “done the dishes.” Again, it’s an educational problem: men should emerge from secondary schools knowing what housework is, and that good housekeeping is not something that women take care of but a badge of self-respect, not unlike the one earned by keeping fit.

Finally, there seems to be a structural limit to the development of a feminist, as distinct from a more comprehensively humanist, politics. Just as few men, after a certain age, dream of “running things,” so it is that not every woman seeks genuine independence. Does this mean that, like Mrs Wilcox in Howard’s End, any woman is genuinely happy about being unable to vote? Who knows? It is not incumbent on us as human beings to clarify our positions on any matter whatsoever, unless we wish to change our condition. In that case, we must have a few ideas. But many people, whether from luck or lack of imagination, seem to be genuinely happy with their lot, with what used to be called their “station in life.” It is all very well for enthusiasts to preach “fulfillment,” but, as I think Didion suggests, people in search of something generally know how to ask for it. Educated people do, anyway, and our official objective, since the Enlightenment, has been to educate everyone. It’s an ideal, but it is not a pipe dream.

We love you, but we don’t like you. And why would it be otherwise? Every generation begins as an ignorant invader and ends as an indignant guardian. Happiness in this life, over the long haul, begins when we accept those truths and look beyond them.


Thursday 22nd

In one indication of their fervor, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is from Guinea and leads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, told the synod, “What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.”

How is any family that is headed by a single-sex couple to feel safe, when an official of a global religious organization says such a thing and is permitted to keep his job? I am so offended on behalf of my friends and of plain decency that it is difficult to write more.

The Roman Catholic Church has long claimed that its teachings are immutable. This is always presented as a great virtue, as something remarkable to be proud of. It rests on the assumption that human society is unchanging, so that the Holy Spirit, believed to guide those who promulgate teachings, can speak at once for all time. This is to my mind the most ridiculous thing about the Church, vastly less plausible than the doctrines of the Holy Trinity or of the Redemption of the Body. We can’t, on this earth, be certain that the Church’s Trinity does not exist. But we can be certain that human society changes — that it changes whenever it has the chance. And no one reviewing the changes in human society over the past five hundred years can reasonably conclude that every change was for the worst, and thus attributable to the work of “the Devil.”

And the Church has changed its teachings. Take bastardy. This is something that I made a study of in law school, and I could floor you with dates and details, but my notes are in storage, so you’ll have to trust me. The Church’s original position on bastardy was one of enlightened indifference. At a point not too far from the first millennium, however, a very practical problem presented itself. Parish priests were bequeathing church property to sons who were also priests. It was already settled that priests could not marry; therefore the sons must be bastards. The simplest way to put an end to this testamentary abuse was to declare bastards unfit for ordination. Hence: a new teaching. I’m not entirely sure that the rule that bastards cannot be made priests has been replaced. (A workaround — ahem! — must have been developed by the Fifteenth Century.) It sounds like one of those things, those many things, that simply don’t come up anymore — like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

(Yes, painful as it is to say, human beings seem to have utterly lost interest in understanding exactly how three Persons can subsist as one God. They are no longer eager to kill people with different opinions. Is this change the Devil’s work?)

We know why Cardinal Sarah says what he says. His African flocks are engaged in mortal competition with Muslims. Leaders on both sides exaggerate their distaste for deviations from the conservative social standards that are common to all in that part of the world. (Observe the segue from sexual/reproductive matters to the entirely unrelated issue of “Islamic fanaticism.” All the bases are being covered.) It is regrettable that Cardinal Sarah says such things anywhere, but that he says them as the head of a Vatican Congregation ought to be impermissible. He may dislike and disapprove of homosexuality and abortion as much as he likes, but he may not compare them to Nazi and Communist horrors. He simply may not.

But, so long as he does with impunity, my friends are not safe.


Friday 23rd

Among the many bits of paper that I discarded last weekend as I sifted through the boxes that Kathleen and I had brought home from the storage unit was a wedding invitation from nearly thirty years ago. A Wall Street colleague of mine got married in a picturesque service at a farm in Dutchess County; Kathleen and I went. The colleague and I had lost touch; I made contact. We’re going to have lunch in two weeks.

At some point, we will talk about what I’m doing these days, and I will be asked what this site is about. And here’s what I’m afraid I’ll have to say: “I’m writing a couple of thousand words nearly every day, hoping to find out that very thing.”

Hey, it’s an improvement. When asked the question in the past, I’ve stalled, hemmed and hawed, looked at the ceiling, and generally behaved as though the effort of reducing my titanic opus to a descriptive word or two might bring on a nervous breakdown.

I am still smarting from a remark made six or seven years ago. “Your blog is about books, after all.” I hoped not, but I didn’t say anything. Because what could I have said that it was about?

I am looking for something, but I don’t know what it is. Mulling over this since the lunch date was set, I been worried that what I’m looking for is the central piece to a complicated puzzle. The missing piece will show how all the different regions of the puzzle connect, and also provide the key to thinking about them in ways that illuminate the puzzle as a whole. In other words, I’m as mad as John Nash, searching for a pattern in everything I see. Look for one long enough and you’ll think you’ve found it. The key to all mythologies.

Here’s something that I don’t think I’ve said before, but that feels as if it was been waiting to be said: The Daily Blague is a performance, a series of performances. I run through ideas and histories much as a jazz musician runs through standards. I do think that that describes what happens here, but I don’t think that it answers the “about” question. What’s it about?

Two years ago — almost three, now — when I was devouring Hannah Arendt, I quite often felt that I was seeing the world clearly for the first time. I was standing off in space and there, right in front of me, was the world and all its parts. (The World, I ought to say.) Without appearing to talk philosophically, Arendt laid out the universe and showed how everything related to everything else. My enthusiasm was as robustly green as any adolescent’s. I have not become disenchanted with what Arendt taught me, but I have recovered the sober awareness that nothing is ever going to explain everything.

There was a time when I would reply to the “about” question by laughing villainously and proclaiming myself to be a scourge of the elites. If I have a passion, it is a longing for education to work for other people as it has worked for me, by inspiring them to go on learning; but the problem is that my education was largely my own stubborn and inefficient doing, and no kind of model for anyone else. Instead of focusing on a career, I focused on nothing at all. I let things bump around in my mind, and I saw what stuck. If I were the beneficiary of a trust fund, you could argue that my intellectual freedom justified inherited wealth. But why? What have I done with that intellectual freedom? What’s it about?

This question did not occur to me when I started out. Like most blogs, this one began as a diary. A diary’s only justification is that it be interesting and readable. For a long time, I wrote about this and that, concerts and plays, and, yes, books, and cooking and housekeeping. A few years ago, however, I made what may have been a fatal mistake. I felt that I had gone to enough concerns and enough plays, and that my cooking wasn’t really serious enough to write about. The serious part of my life was all in my head. The serious part of my life was a memory, a history. It was serious not because I was me but because I had thrown myself into my brain, a brain. I had conjured my own way of being mindful.

And yet, at the very same time, I was discovering that we are not interesting in ourselves. This is ancient wisdom, but it was occluded in our time by Freud’s critique of the Enlightenment. The philosophes had posited an idea of unitary human nature. If reasonable people were given an adequate education, they would agree about all the important things. The difficulty is, however, that people are not reasonable. Freud sought to demonstrate not only that people are very, very unreasonable, but that irrationality is a powerful, positive force, not a mere defect. One side-effect of his case histories was the sensational lure of psychological monstrosity. We all harbored ids (James Strachey’s translation of Freud’s much simpler “it”); we were all potential werewolves. The unexamined life became an accident waiting to happen. The psychopathology of everyday life eventually produced the Weekly World News and reality television. Not to mention Oprah.

Although I never saw her the show, I happen to believe that Oprah Winfrey was on the right track, or at least heading in the right direction — away from that psychopathology. Her message seems to have been (at least as it reached me) that, if they can find connections to the world that work for them, even the most damaged people can find satisfaction and contentment. Perhaps we do have to figure out how screwed up we all are. But that’s the beginning, not the end. The end, which has no end, is the interrelating web of love and friendship that sustains us through adversity. And that web is what is interesting — interesting in a different way to everyone plugged into it.

I call the study of this web “humanism,” which is perhaps unwise. The word has been claimed by others, for whom it means antithetical things. There are the atheists who mirror libertarians, seeking an individual freedom not from government but from ideas of God. A smaller but much more traditional group calls upon men and women to take their places in a scheme of Creation in which humanity is second only to God. Now, I am not talking about God in any way. Nor am I talking about uniformity. Other people, with their other ways of doing things, can be very annoying, but when you take yourself out of the picture, they become wonderful.

The human web connects us to everything that we know about. The words that we use to express the thoughts that we think are the product of a massive and venerable group effort. The money that we earn, save, and spend is the product of another. History is the source of our understanding of these efforts. Because it has a lot to tell us about efforts that have failed, it teaches us the limitations of ambition. I no longer think of my mind as a ball of brain that’s locked inside my skull. I think of it as a rover on the network of human connection

My blog is about what it’s like to be a rover on the network of human connections. A statement that needs work, to be sure — but perhaps it answers the question.


Last night, I finished reading Lord Jim. Then I read the introductions to two different editions (Penguin, Oxford World Classics), and learned that Joseph Conrad considered ending the novel at Chapter XXXV, with Marlow sailing away and straining for a last glimpse of Jim on the strand. I can’t help feeling that that would have been better.

I’ve even imagined another ending to prefer. In this alternative, Jim sanctions the destruction of Gentleman Brown’s party of desperadoes.

As it was, I could hardly read two paragraphs of the final chapters without putting the book down and sighing. It was like following a log on its way to the saw. I was utterly engaged in the slow-motion horror of Jim’s extinction. But by the time I finished reading the introductions, both of which harped on the revival of chivalry that was flourishing when Conrad wrote Lord Jim (and would continue to flourish past the outbreak of World War I), I had calmed down, and by the clear light of the next morning, I can see that Jim interested me only to the extent that he interested Marlow. It is Marlow who keeps Jim from sinking into the “bottomless pit” that would have yawned beneath him had not Marlow acted to shore him up, first as Denver’s water-clerk, and then as Stein’s agent in Patusan. Why does Marlow go to the trouble? Because, I suspect, he wants to test his supposition, broached to the French lieutenant (who rejects it utterly), that heroism might “reduce itself to not being found out.” When Jim jumped off the Patna, he did so because he was certain that the ship would sink. What if it had? Jim would not have been a hero, but he might not have been a disgrace, either. Marlow wants to put Jim somewhere beyond his record, to see what he might become in a world that has not found out about the Patna. He wants to give Jim a chance to redeem himself; unlike the French lieutenant, Marlow believes that redemption is possible.

Putting a stop to Gentleman Brown in the only really reliable way would, I think, have redeemed Jim’s abandonment of the Patna. Whether or not it restored his honor, that vexed baggage, preserving Patusan from the depredations of a psychopath would have been a good thing, a very good thing. Keeping the peace at Patusan would be the best way to show respect for his work there; the peace at Patusan was Jim’s doing. But of course this couldn’t be allowed to happen; the author must prevail over Marlow. Readers of the day would have been horrified by Jim triumphant at the end. He had to die, for that is the only possible redemption for dishonor. Marlow accomplishes nothing but a prolongation of the tale.

Conrad waxes fairly Freudian himself, through Marlow, in the “bottomless pit” passage that I mentioned.

It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope and flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp. (XVI)

This sounds like an argument against trying to help one’s fellow man, but of course Marlow proceeds, and keeps proceeding, to do just that. Marlow’s agonies over Jim’s character are immeasurably more arresting than Jim’s own would be, precisely because Marlow is another man, standing outside the envelope of flesh and blood within which we are mysteries to ourselves. (We must remember that Freud did not recommend that people try to figure themselves out; they must seek analysis conducted by someone else.) Marlow is in fact Jim’s redeemer: he holds Jim up for us and obliges us to share his concern. Our caring about Jim is his redemption.

The mystery to me is why educators have considered Lord Jim a novel for high school readers. I can’t remember precisely when I was supposed to read it; I know only that I didn’t. The title alone made me uncomfortable: was Jim a lord, or wasn’t he? If he was, he ought to be minding his grand estate, which I’d much rather read about; if he wasn’t, then he was an imposter. Plus, the boat loaded with pilgrims was highly unsavory. Most boys and young men might, unlike me, enjoy the adventurous particulars, but how on earth would they get through the prose?

To the white men in the waterside business and to the captains of ships he was just Jim — nothing more. He had, of course, another name, but he was anxious that it should not be pronounced. His incognito, which had as many holes as a sieve, was not meant to hide a personality but a fact. When the fact broke through the incognito he would leave suddenly the seaport where he happened to be at the time and go to another — generally farther east. He kept to seaports because he was a seaman in exile from the sea, and had Ability in the abstract, which is good for no other work but that of a water-clerk. He retreated in good order toward the rising sun, and the fact followed him casually but inevitably. Thus in the course of years he was known successively in Bombay, in Calcutta, in Rangoon, in Penang, in Batavia — and in each of these halting-places was just Jim the water-clerk. Afterwards, when his keen perception of the Intolerable drove him away for good from seaports and white men, even into the virgin forest, the Malays of the jungle village, where he had elected to conceal his deplorable faculty, added a word to the monosyllable of his incognito. They called him Tuan Jim: as one might say — Lord Jim.

That’s from the second page, and, while far from dense in the manner of late Henry James, it is thick stuff. It is a paragraph that reads easily only after you have read the novel. Until then, it is a mass of teases, in which all the important information is withheld. The most important fact about Jim — more important by far than the “fact” mentioned here, or the “deplorable faculty” behind it — is not disclosed until the middle of the book, when Stein diagnoses Jim as “a Romantic.” Yes, that is Jim’s problem all over. While he dreams of rescuing the drowning, his classmates are scrambling toward an actual emergency. (The third page.)

The worst of it is that Jim is not really bright enough to be a successful Romantic — to discipline and harvest the fruits of his imagination. He is as reckless as a yellow Lab puppy.

I was going to read Heart of Darkness next, and I shall read it, when I find it. Meanwhile, I’m gripped by the brisker thrills of Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer.


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2015 (II)

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

Tuesday 13th

Kathleen says that it’s the Remicade, and I hope that she’s right. She thinks that I’m ready for another infusion. I’m scheduled for one, for a week from tomorrow, and I think I’ll make, but I do feel very low. More precisely, it doesn’t take much to lower my spirits. As always, I’m fine in a crisis. This morning, we had a flood. A pipe on the seventh floor broke, and the floors in the kitchen and the foyer were soaked. Also, Kathleen’s bathroom and a bit of the bedroom. It happened after Kathleen headed out early, for a trustees’ meeting. I stayed in bed, and I did hear a dripping while I dozed. I figured that it was workers in the building. Unaware of a crisis, I didn’t deal with what seemed to be a little problem — a drip. When I finally got up, and went to get a banana, I discovered that the problem wasn’t so little. I called the super’s office, but before I heard back by phone I had an assistant super at the door. Soon there were handymen with mops and a wet vacuum. That didn’t faze me. But I still didn’t feel safe.

How can you feel safe in a country where most able-bodied young males believe that Steve Jobs was a great man, or a great inventor, or even a great marketer? Let’s be honest: the iPhone is a hula hoop for guys. Don’t tell me what it does; tell me what it does that really needs to be done. I’ve had one for about two years now. I find that it’s great for sending photos to Facebook. It’s a pretty lousy phone, although that may be AT&T’s fault. But I’ve always had AT&T mobile service, and it has never been so unreliable as it is on the iPhone.

Oh, and Evernote. But Evernote works on everything — even the Kindle Fire.

Why am I going on about Steve Jobs? Because how can I feel safe in a land where an admired columnist for the newspaper of record, Joe Nocera, complains about a movie because it leaves out the fun, engaging side of Steve Jobs’s personality? Because Michael Fassbender, the actor impersonating Jobs in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, never says, as Jobs often did — Nocera knows; he spent time with the man — that something is “really, really neat.”

Really, really neat — a remark, it seems of substance? A key to personality? Nocera complains that Jobs’s boyishness has been left of out of the movie. “Youthful mannerisms,” Nocera calls it, somewhat oxymoronically. (Maybe it’s just me. Maybe young people have nothing but mannerisms. In which case: no individual personality.)

I find Michael Fassbender interesting, because I have no sense of the man behind the actor. I don’t even have a sense of what he really looks like. He always seems to look like somebody. He reminds me of actors whom I can never place. He is an impersonator who, while convincing in any one role, takes on the character of an impersonator after two or three productions. This means that, to me, he seems always to be playing men who are hiding. I haven’t seen the new movie, but if I do, it will be because he’s in it, not because it’s about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was, on the evidence, a jerk, a determined adolescent, a Peter Pan; and he was lucky, I think, not to outlive too grossly his sell-by date.


The youthful mannerism that I find most grating these days is the habit of responding to “Thank you” with “No problem,” instead of “You’re welcome.” It took me a long time to realize that it was in fact a case of substitution. For a few years, I thought that the remark was thoughtlessly insolent, even though there was nothing otherwise offensive about the kids who used it. I haven’t entirely abandoned hope for the more customary phrase, which, after all, does answer one personal pronoun with another. I understand that “No problem” mirrors the usage of other languages, and may simply make more sense to people for whom the word “welcome” is already archaic around the edges. “Welcome home” is almost up there with “Many happy returns (of the day).” (So is “home.”) I notice that waiters who seem to be aspiring actors are likely to reply to “Thank you very much” with “You’re very welcome.”

I can’t get too upset about any of this, because, when I was young, I was insolent myself, and not always thoughtlessly. I regarded all the formulas of civil politeness as arrant hypocrisies. For several years, I sent out Christmas cards with the holiday greeting, “Merry Whatever,” and thought that I was daring and clever and frank. I grew out of frankness the hard way, by accumulating mortifying recognitions of gauche, irritating, and even wounding behavior. It all climaxed in the middle of reading Trollope’s Autobiography: I realized that I wasn’t much of a gentleman. I had never thought that being a gentleman meant much, but Trollope convinced me that not being one was a very bad thing, at least in someone who was brought up to be a gentleman.

My sojourn in the Land of Toys came to an end soon afterward. I put childish things behind me. I must have been confused, however, because, along with the childish things, I set aside a lot of vernacular things, especially vernacular speech. To me, vernacular speech is a powerful, one might even say overpowering, seasoning. Used carefully, it imparts a bit a jolt, a slight shock; a note, perhaps, of urgency. Unlike actual spices, however, the overuse of the vernacular results in the complete dissipation of spiciness. The result is childish. I thought of this the other day, reading Michael Kimmelman in the Times. The subject of the piece was something called the Flussbad in Berlin. For a moment, Kimmelman turned his attention to something similar in Chicago, the 606, “Chicago’s down-home twist on the chic High Line in New York.”

What I saw wasn’t sleek or even especially beautiful, with plantings that need time to grow, a little too much concrete and tall steel fencing. But it connects ground-level neighborhood parks and belongs to a larger, humanizing campaign by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to green up gritty areas of the city.

To green up? What kind of talk is that? I should have written something like, “a larger campaign by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to humanize the gritty parts of his city with ([optional:] more) greenery.” Elsewhere in his essay, Kimmelman casts a passing shot at “the fake Baroque palace” that is under construction in Berlin (a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern Schloss that was leveled by the Communists). I find his faux cowboy locution at least that offensive. (And, while we’re at it, that other “up” construction that allows men to weep without admitting to crying.)

My spirits took a nosedive when I read about greening up on Saturday. How can you feel safe in a place where grown men talk like this? Highly educated grown men? Art critics, for Pete’s sake. I have two issues with Michael Kimmelman, neither of them central to his profession. First, he and I clearly disagree about the wisdom of sounding much younger than you are. Second — and I think that this is really distinct from the first — he is pious about the vernacular. This is a pop-culture trope; it imagines and prizes a vernacular aesthetic that is accessible but not kitschy. It is simple but truly wholesome. It appears to be informal. It is relaxed but impassioned. That is, it celebrates a few beautiful and important things that we can all agree on while refusing to get caught up in styles. It is fine with accidental, negligent mess, but wary about intentional clutter. It saves sweat for the gym. Come to think of it, the High Line is the perfect embodiment of this aesthetic. To me, the High Line feels like an asylum, a desperate response to the unchecked profusion of automobiles in Manhattan, with the attendant narrowed, treeless sidewalks. The High Line is a spa. And like spas, the vernacular aesthetic is patronized by affluent people with plenty of higher ed. (Now, that’s a thought that I want to come back to.)


But it hasn’t been all that kind of gloom. I’ve been charging through Carlo Cipolla’s book about European commerce and industry prior to the Industrial Revolution. Excuse me: although I’ve actually read the entire book and am just re-reading “The Rise of England” for form’s sake, I set Cipolla aside so that I could read Arnold Pacey’s The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology. This astonishingly readable book is so crammed with information and understanding that, midway through each chapter, I forgot most of what was in the chapter before it.

Having studied the history of science in five undergraduate semesters, I long thought that I knew everything that here was to know about it. You must forgive me, because, in those days, to know anything about the history of science was to know so many orders of magnitude more than anybody else that there really was no local pressure to remind me of my tremendous ignorance. It was in my fifties that I began to feel rusty, and began to notice that the subject was a more generally familiar one than formerly. I also came across good books about the history of commerce in second-millennium Europe, such as Peter Spufford’s Power and Profit. What made me think about science, technology, and business in earnest, however, was the official craziness that began with the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Internet bubble, and the collapse of Enron, and that climaxed with the fall of the house off Lehman. And when I did start thinking harder about these things, it was against the background of terrifying environmental degradation.

Here is what Pacey has to say about environmental degradation, and do please note his mild humility:

The seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy has persisted, in some of its fundamentals, down to our own time, and may have led us into some of our modern dilemmas.

For example, the idea of the natural world as being something mechanical freed people from any old-fashioned doubts about whether, in making a machine or digging a mine, they might be encroaching on the prerogativves of the Creator. The thirteenth-century idea of clocks or cathedrals as symbolizing heavenly things — the idea of their construction as a reaching-out woward the source of light and life — had been replaced by the notion that the heavens themselves were little better than a piece of well-made clockwork. So there was no particular reason for feeling any humility before nature. I was a machine that one could tinker with. And the machine analogy gave no warning hat there were checks and balances in nature that could easily be upset, because seventeenth-century machines did not incorporate feedback loops or any other automatic control systems to prevent them getting out of control or running away. The only exception was the escapement mechanism of clocks, but this evidently did not prove sufficiently suggestive.

I think that I have written several times here that, prior to the very late Nineteenth Century, nobody had the least suspicion that the actions of man could affect the earth to any extensive degree. Pacey puts it better, and explains how technology itself generated the blind spot. If you extrapolate from clocks and looms that depend on very simple power sources, and if, what’s more, you extrapolate from the small-scale perspective of artisanal production, then it might very well seem nothing less than madness to have foreseen what in fact ensued. There is no doubt about the Industrial Revolution: it swept through Europe on a wave of elite enthusiasm that elicited no serious objections. Luddite opposition provoked the standard elitist riposte: learn new skills. Grumpy complaints about dark, Satanc mills did not forecast the London fog. Nobody appears to have objected that crowded, unsanitary cities were breeding grounds for the “Romantic” epidemic of tuberculosis. By the time the doctor told you to go to the mountains for a change of air, it was already too late for most patients. It may be too late for us, too. But that doesn’t let us off the hook for looking.

When I was a student, the strange part of my studies was science. The history of science sounded odd. Now, of course, it’s the history of science that raises brows. The history of anything excites whining: do we have to? Yes, we have to. There is no manageable way out of the mess that we’ve made that doesn’t begin with the story of how we made, and what we thought we were doing.


Wednesday 14th

Something happened at the server yesterday, and this site was unreachable for much of the afternoon and evening. I was advised to avoid working on it (ie, writing) until noon, just to be sure that systems were stable. I would be further advised if things were not stable at noon. Noon came and went without notice. Me voilà.

But it is a day of very crooked timber. Until yesterday, I was wondering how I would make it to next week’s Remicade infusion. Aches and pains I’ve been spared, but a fire curtain of depression has draped my mind in a funk of pointlessness. All I want to do is crawl into bed and watch movies — I want to forget about me. It’s scary and unusual. Kathleen says that she has seen it before, always right before the next infusion. I don’t remember anything like this, but, then, why should I? I have no idea why the depletion of Remicade in my bloodstream makes life so bleak, but it’s a reminder that depression is a physical disorder, in my case brought on by some weird cousin of arthritis.

Until yesterday, I said. The phone rang; it was the hospital, confirming my appointment for today. I couldn’t even read my own calendar! The appointment is for late in the afternoon, 5:30. I’ll be there!

Well beyond sixes and sevens, I completely lacked focus until I had my lunch, about half an hour ago. I worked on an entry without conviction, and I wrote a letter that is probably the first draft of another letter. It was only as I was making the bed, after lunch, that I remembered the indignation that I’ve been feeling these last few days (when I’ve been feeling anything at all), that I was never taught how a clock works. When I think of all the useless science classes that I sat through, the omission of clocks and their anatomy seems not only barbaric but perverse. Like Kathleen, I “supposed” that clocks were driven by pendulums. The weights lurking in the dim recess of my grandparents’ tall case clock bothered me a bit; I wondered what they were for — perhaps they powered the pendulum? (This would have been correct, but more indirectly than I could imagine.) As for all those wheels and gears…

Sometimes it seems that the nerds have set it up so that they’re the only ones who learn about science and math, by the simple trick of making these subjects repellent to normal people. In order to fit in, you have to be a misfit. The nerds are the kids who revel in complication and inscrutability, and who have no interest whatever in sharing what they know. If someone had offered to show me how a clock worked, I should have declined, lest it give me a headache. So I’m not just angry about not having been taught how clocks work — and I’ll get to the why of that in a minute — but infuriated by the flaccid pedagogy that governed teaching even at my high end of the scale.

Every educated person ought to know how clocks work because, long before they became reliable, clocks were perceived by thinkers of the West as models of the universe, and by the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, the simile had switched itself, positing a universe that was simply a great big clock. It is from this intellectual metaphor that men of the Enlightenment derived the “deistic” idea of a Creator Clockmaker, a remote being who, having designed a magnificent instrument and set it in motion, receded from human affairs. This is the original positive agnostic faith: whether there is a god or not, there is no need to know if he’s there, because we have his work. At the same time, the clock became the coordinator of human affairs, preparing the way for schedules and appointments. Clocks became reliable because the need to measure the physical dimensions of things discovered a need to measure their duration. They became reliable when they were needed to be reliable — and not before.


Loose change: I came across the work of Roger Scruton today: “Without tradition, there can be no originality.” I subscribe to that notion; to me, it explains the chronic lack of originality in our times, the collapse of the thirst for discovery to an excitement with handheld devices that tell us nothing we don’t already know. Whether I shall pursue Scruton is another matter. I see that he has recanted his traditional, and traditionally contemptuous, ideas about homosexuality, so he appears to be a conservative capable of learning in old age. Conservatives usually aren’t. I am a natural conservative myself, but I cannot accept the self-validation of authority (which is usually a great deal less traditional, or at any rate venerable, than its supporters make out), and I cannot work from divine causes.

I’ve been thinking about The Martian — it’s a very thinkable movie. It often feels like a true story; you have to pinch yourself and remember that, no, man has not yet set foot on the Red Planet. But the moment of touchdown is far from inconceivable. It is largely a matter of budgets and political will, at this point. And I do wish that we would try to put people on Mars, not because the idea is exciting (it isn’t, not to me), but because it is clearly the place best suited to teach us the next things that we need to know about the world beyond our atmosphere. Although I should never counsel cutting off funding for the search for habitable planets in other solar systems, I do wish that the press would drop it, because the information is worse than useless to anyone without the training to conduct such searches. Let’s say that a planet somewhere out there is identified as life-supporting; let us further suppose that this life is life as we know it. Let’s imagine that the creatures on this planet send us radio postcards, Come on in, the water’s fine! There remains the small problem of getting there. It stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that, before we undertake to travel over lengths of light years, we master the art of travel to Mars. The trip will take a long time, but the time will be our kind of time — not light years.


Thursday 15th

Yesterday’s Remicade infusion lasted about two hours, which is how long infusions are supposed to last. They usually take longer, though; lately, they seem to. And it can take a while to settle in, and then for the IV bag to come up from the pharmacy. But things were zoom zoom zoom yesterday, because I had the last appointment of the day. The nurses were putting on their coats and turning out the lights as I was leaving, a few seconds after eight. Also, I was the only patient in the unit for nearly an hour. It was beautifully quiet. I’ll try for the late slot for the next infusion, and, if it’s anything like it was last night, I’ll make a habit of it. By the way, I felt something that a friend of mine who has been taking Remicade for longer than I have says that he always experiences: I felt that I was getting better during the infusion. I walked out of the hospital feeling pretty normal.

I read almost the entirety of this week’s New Yorker. I had already begun reading Jane Kramer’s genial profile of Gloria Steinem, and when I was done with that I almost turned to Lord Jim. But there was my blood pressure to think of. Now that I have finally cracked Marlow’s rhythms, which can be as baroque as Henry James’s late narrative style, Lord Jim has become pretty exciting. So I stayed with The New Yorker and went through pretty much all of it. Not the fiction and not the piece about Dietrich and Riefenstahl — I wasn’t in the mood for those two. Nor the Laurie Anderson review. But I gobbled up the “Talk,” which I usually skip, and then Kathryn Schulz’s take-down of Thoreau, which reminded me (a) why I’ve never read Thoreau and (b) how reliable my antennae are. Everything that I have ever heard about Thoreau in general and Walden in particular has warned me away. Schulz writes,

In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.)

Horrors! Even better, Schulz points out that Walden is naturally appealing to its principal readership, high-school students. “Thoreau endorses rebellion against societal norms, champions idleness over work, and gives his readers permission to ignore their elders.” That got a good laugh. (Happily, there was only one patient in the unit at that moment.) Typing out Schulz’s remarks on “Economy,” I remembered that abstinence can be powerfully appealing to seventeen year-olds. Schulz rightly observes that Thoreau’s rhapsodies about simplicity are unlikely to be shared by the genuinely poor, but teenagers are only temporarily poor, and austerity is a self-dignifying way of rejecting what you can’t have, yet. Renunciation may even constitute a premature advancement into adulthood! Not that it did so in my case. I remember presenting my parents with a charter — written on onion-skin paper with a quill pen (imagine the unsightly blobs of ink, and laugh all you like!) — in which I bound myself, at the age of thirteen, to abstain from smoking, drinking, and driving even when I became legally able to take them all up. My parents, I have to say, were neither unduly alarmed by this gesture nor encouraged to take its promises at all seriously. I remember feeling that I had solved a tremendous problem. If I was already disinclined to read Thoreau (I had done with the treehouse thing), perhaps I didn’t need him.

Sometimes, a given issue of The New Yorker feels like a miscellany, an accumulation of unrelated pieces that have dumped together within one cover, but I often feel an occult connection, even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. In the current issue (Oct 19, 2015), the connection is not occult at all; the editors could have called it “The Influence Issue.” The Steinem profile certainly fits under that rubric: Gloria Steinem, now 81, has been one of America’s most influential women since her thirties. She’s the kind of person who influences groups and individuals most, as distinct from movie audiences or those who attend stadium events. Having been influenced by Gloria Steinem is likely to be a personal experience rather than a crowded one. (But the lady certainly gets around!) In contrast to her influence for the good, there are the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about youthful shooters, such as Evan Harris and Christopher Harper-Mercer. As always in one of Gladwell’s glimpses of modern problems, there is a powerful hook, a discovery that seems to explain everything because what it’s really doing is giving us a new way of looking at the subject under review. In this case, the hook is explicit in the title: “Thresholds of Influence.”

Forty years ago, it seems, a Stanford sociologist by the name of Mark Granovetter published a “famous article” in which he examined, primarily, riots. In riots, people do things that they would never do otherwise. They throw things, they break windows; they loot and steal. How does this happen? Until Granovetter’s essay, the received wisdom was that people in crowds are intoxicated by crowd itself, by the gathering together of so many others that the self surrenders to otherness. This sounds plausible, but it presumes a crowd of more or less identical people making identical surrenders. Granovetter assumed otherwise, that crowds are composed of many different kinds of people, and that their interaction might or might not result in riots. He proposed that the differences between people in a crowd might be regarded as thresholds of violence. One man might have no threshold; at the slightest provocation, he might pick up a brick and throw it through a window. Another man, nearby, might have a threshold of one, meaning that he would do something that he would never do alone if he saw one other person doing it. Other people, with higher thresholds, would refrain from violence until their higher thresholds were crossed; then they would join in the fray. Eventually, the entire crowd would go berserk. In crowds consisting of a few people with thresholds of zero or one, and many people with thresholds of twenty or more, no riot would ensue.

Gladwell suggests that we apply this model to the shooters. The riot occurs in slow motion and the thresholds are crossed by the viewing of Web sites. He suggests that we regard Evan Harris, the psychopathic Columbine shooter, as a successful revolutionary. Harris launched a Web site that transformed a chaotic horror story into a ritual. Every new killing spree increases access to those with higher thresholds, to young men who would never have imagined doing such things on their own. Eventually, as in a riot, guys with no serious emotional baggage might find their thresholds crossed. Cool.

To illustrate this, Gladwell has a second hook up his sleeve, the story of John LaDue, a high-school student from Minnesota who was encountered at a storage locker full of explosives. LaDue had an elaborate plan for blowing up his school, and he had most of the stuff that he would need to realize it. First, however, he would have to kill his parents and his sister. It turned out that LaDue had Autism Spectrum Disorder — he’s an Aspie, a term that still seems to me to be useful even though it no longer means anything medically. On the one hand, he was capable of following his version of the shooter checklist more or less as disinterestedly as, in an early, more innocent time, he might have conducted a chemistry experiment in his basement. On the other, however, he really loved his family and did not want to kill them. The police were able to intervene before any harm was done because LaDue was sabotaging his project in little ways, by not buying a necessary appliance “yet,” by buying the wrong kind of ammunition, and so on. LaDue was just a boy whose threshold for violence had been crossed; he had no need whatsoever of a troubled personal history (aside from his ASD, which clearly impaired his judgment), of abuse or bullying or anything of that kind, to be inspired to blow up his school. (One might argue that LaDue has multiple thresholds, or that the shooter epidemic is not really a riot, given that almost everyone is working alone.)

I was glad to see that Gladwell is scrupulous, at the end of his piece, to puncture any balloons of problem solved that might accompany his readers’ sense of new enlightenment.

The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

I can already hear the NRA urge that we simply shut down the Internet.


Friday 16th

As I was making the bed this morning, I found myself thinking more about riots and rituals. Or, rather, I experienced one of those slips of thought that makes things look new without changing very much.

We’ve all known about the way in which the Internet has, so to speak, rewritten suicide notes, ever since Palestinian youths began making home movies before blowing themselves up. The Internet allowed people to infuse their parting gestures with a visual and compelling insistence on martyrdom that no mere document could ever express. Inevitably, certain gestures were found to be so effective that they were repeated, eventually becoming essential elements in what looked more and more like a liturgy. Malcolm Gladwell, in the piece that I was talking about yesterday, refers to a certain move that has become standard in shooter videos, involving a gun and outflung arms.

I have never seen any of these productions, Islamic or American, and I really oughtn’t to be generalizing about them. But from my distant perspective, they sound like the centerpieces of burgeoning religions. I’m reminded particularly of the cult of Mithras, which was popular (I’ve always read) with Roman soldiers (and confined to male participants), and which sacrificed bulls. This cult flourished throughout the Levant at the time of great religious fermentation in which Christianity was born. Cults that had been around for centuries were stale, and co-opted by the state. The search for spiritual meaning took a syncretic, somewhat underground turn. Might we not be seeing the same thing today? A number of Palestinian women have blown themselves up, but, so far, there hasn’t been a female shooter here in the States. Instead of bulls, these young people sacrifice other people, none of whom is regarded as specifically guilty of anything more than existence — just like those bulls.

With mainstream religions losing their hold on Western youth, and their Islamic contemporaries beset by the inability to reconcile faith with patriotism, it is not surprising that these two otherwise different groups have developed a similar artifact, the pre-immolation video that tries to make the case that secular hypocrisy must be rejected with violent gestures.

Having considered the idea for a couple of days, I’m having an ever-harder time regarding the epidemic of mass shootings performed by adolescents and young men as a riot in slow motion, as Gladwell has it. It seems more like a series of conversions, in which young men participate in the manner so increasingly favored by young people for dealing with intimacy: in isolation. It’s as if being alone in their rooms permits them to join vast like-minded throngs, viewers like themselves. We adults tend to call this kind of socializing “virtual,” because it isn’t face to face, but perhaps the secret of this new religion is that it spreads the uncritical assurance that the solitary person is the most connected. Certainly the solitary person retains a greater liberty, a freedom that no physical participant in a public rite could ask for. Our young man can leave his computer for bathroom and snack breaks. He can surface in the “real world,” washing the dishes and going to class. Then he can sit down again at pick up right where he was. No one interrupts him. No one coughs or smells or giggles a few pews away.

I do think that Mark Granovetter’s concept of thresholds is useful, although probably not as a means of preventing massacres. I’ve been thinking about thresholds while reading Lord Jim. A great question that might be asked of Conrad’s great novel is what were the thresholds that Jim had to cross before he could jump off the Patna and into a lifeboat, and how did the chaotic situation that preceded his fatal move lift him over them? I don’t mean to pose a puzzle; it would be foolish to look for a comprehensive explanation. One of Conrad’s points, I think, is that there is no getting to the bottom of such mistakes — only the clarity of the penalty. I had the strongest sense of this in Marlow’s conversation with the French naval officer, three years later, in Sydney.

Man is born a coward. It is a difficulty — parbleu! It would be too easy otherwise. but habit — habit — necessity — do you see? — the eyes of others — voilà. One puts up with it. And then the example of others who are no better than yourself, and yet make good countenance.

This stumbling insistence on circumstances and “example” leads Marlow to believe that the Frenchman is taking “the lenient view.” At this charge, however, the officer pulls himself up and takes firm exception to that supposition.

Allow me … I contended that one may get on knowing very well that one’s courage does not come of itself. There’s nothing much in that to get upset about. One truth the more ought not to make life impossible. … But the honour — the honour, monsieur! … The honour … that is real — that is! And what life may be worth when […] the honour is gone — ah ça! par exemple — I can offer no opinion. I can offer no opinion — because — monsieur — I know nothing of it.

I haven’t read much further than this chapter, but it is unquestionably the most exciting thing in Lord Jim so far. It is Jim’s tragedy compressed to the utmost. As someone who has serious difficulties with various concepts of honor, let me make it clear that I regard Jim’s obligation not to abandon the lives in his charge as no more questionable than any court of naval honor would have it; I should rather call it an imperative of decency. In his long conversation with Marlow on the hotel verandah — to me, it seemed to be the real, the genuine Inquiry, conducted by Jim himself, with Marlow as a witness — Jim seems to suggest that, because he could not save all eight hundred souls in what would probably be a confusion in which many died before they could drown, the thought that he might save whom he could is not worth thinking about. Because he cannot be a hero, and save everybody, he might as well retire from the field. Indeed, of his later life, as a water-clerk, Marlow comments,

He had loved too well to imagine himself a glorious racehorse, and now he was condemned to toil without honour like a costermonger’s donkey. He did it very well.

The matter of crossed thresholds is interesting because our speculations allow us to sound ourselves, and to measure the distance between our hope that we might do well and our fear that we might not. But Conrad’s Frenchman is adamant: no matter what it was that allowed Jim to jump — fear of death (probably not), fear of emergency (Marlow is sure about this), disgust with the third engineer’s corpse at his feet, the terrible racial superiority of well-bred Englishmen — whatever it was, it doesn’t matter, because nothing can excuse the act of abandonment. It can be explained, but not excused, not ever.

An even more interesting question would ask about the thresholds that that paragon, Captain Brierly — one of Jim’s judges — had to cross in order to commit suicide, shortly after the Inquiry. What was it about Jim’s downfall, which Brierly rather wildly hoped to prevent, if only by paying Jim to run away, that cost Brierly his self-respect? Did he throw himself overboard in order to preserve his self-regard?

It is interesting to note that these marine executives — these captains of ships military and mercantile — belong to a powerful confraternity that meets, and then only very partially, when they are onshore, and not at work. When they are at sea, they are as solitary as young men in basements.


Next week, I hope to review some thoughts provoked by a book that Kathleen brought home recently, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I read it instead, and felt, in places, that I was reading a history of my own consciousness. (Yes, how like a man: it’s all about me.) Meanwhile,

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Dinosaurian Ethic
October 2015 (I)

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Monday 5th

It is cold right now, but it’s going to get warmer. It was cold all weekend. Outside, it was only in the 50s, but there was no heat, and the apartment got chilly. All the apartments got chilly: on Saturday night, there was no hot water. Everyone had taken a bath by dinnertime. We were at home, instead of at a restaurant celebrating our anniversary, because the weather was not only cold but wet. I had made a pizza that had not performed as expected. Happily (I suppose), I foresaw that the pizza was not going to slide right off the peel onto the stone. I managed to transfer it to a cookie sheet, but the result was not pretty, and of course the crust didn’t really bake. It just steamed like all the pizzas I’ve made so far, in cheap pizza pans. There is much to learn about sliding the pizza onto the stone. (But it was good.) As I washed up, I noticed that the hot water was not hot. Everybody had used up the hot water. At least, that is what Kathleen said. I hoped that she was right, but I knew that if I relied on her theory, the water would be freezing by bedtime, because her theory would be wrong; what would have happened was a boiler breakdown. So I took a cool shower. An hour later, the hot water was hot again.

Today, the nor’easter that we had instead of the hurricane is moving off, and the temperature will climb into the 60s. Kathleen’s throat is sore. She is thinking of staying in bed today.

After the cool shower on Saturday night, I watched Casse-tête chinois (Chinese Puzzle) the third film in Cédric Klapisch’s Xavier Rousseau trilogy. I missed it when it came out — I had stopped going to the movies by the spring of last year. Then I forgot about it — also characteristic of last year, and of this year until last month. Toward the end of last month, I remembered it and ordered it from Amazon. On Saturday night, we were going to watch Shanghai. Kathleen saw an ad for it in the Times. She had never heard of it; she didn’t know that it was made five years ago, and that it was supposed to come out ages ago, that Ray Soleil and I went to a theatre in the East Village that announced showings, only to find out that the showings had been canceled. (As I recall, we saw Bel Ami instead.) Kathleen didn’t know that we had the DVD. She said she wanted to see it. So I got it out of the drawer. By showtime, however, Kathleen was engrossed in a stitching project — she’s making Christmas ornaments to give as Christmas presents. So, since she wouldn’t be watching the screen, I asked for a substitution, and she was fine with that.

Casse-tête chinois takes place in New York City, in Chinatown, mostly. I know where Chinatown is, of course, and I have walked around some of its edges, but I have never really gone in. I keep talking about going, but it’s just talk; I never go anywhere. Not since Ms NOLA and Ray Soleil went back to work have I gone anywhere, by which I mean anywhere new, because I can’t see where I’m going. All I can see is the sidewalk. To see where I’m going, I have to stop and try to stand as straight as I can, then look round. I should feel both foolish and vulnerable shuffling around Chinatown in search of a good wok, which I do need. Casse-tête chinois reinforced this reluctance. But I enjoyed the cinematic visit.

Basically, the title of the film is the title of the book that Xavier (Romain Duris) is working on, and also his way of describing his crazy situation. His relationship with Wendy (Kelly Riley) has broken down, and she has taken their two children to New York, where she has met a banker, John (Peter Hermann), with an apartment on Central Park South. Xavier decides that he must follow the children so that he can be a good dad, but, needless to say, Central Park South is not in his neighborhood. It turns out that his old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France), the lesbian who became his best buddy back in Barcelona (and L’auberge espagnole), is living in Brooklyn with Ju (Sandrine Holt), a Chinese-American woman who, conveniently, has held on to her tiny Chinatown apartment. Finding a place to live is only Xavier’s first big problem, however. To have any kind of say in how Wendy brings up the children, Xavier will have to get a job, and to get a job he will need a green card. Perhaps because the concept of anchor babies doesn’t exist in France, the scenario overlooks Xavier’s role as Isabelle’s semen donor — her child is born in New York — and commits Xavier to the usual routine of a sham wedding. This brings in the INS, which Klapisch handles just as distinctively as Anne Fletcher did in The Proposal. Meanwhile, Martine (Audrey Tautou), Xavier’s girlfriend at the very beginning of the trilogy, comes to New York on business. Guess what! Martine speaks Chinese well enough to confront a powerful tea mogul in his own boardroom! (The board applauds, but we are not provided with subtitles — because Xavier, also in attendance, doesn’t understand a word.) And then Martine comes back for another visit, this time with her two children.

And then Isabelle falls for her babysitter, also Isabelle. Oh, what a pile-up!

Xavier’s apartment is tiny so that the climax will be funny. In what begins as a bedroom farce, people keep pouring into the apartment. Even the INS. It’s almost as good as the finale of Act II of Le nozze di Figaro. And yet there is nothing mannered, nothing that whispers, This sort of thing never happens in New York. This is a French movie. No; it’s all hilariously naturalized. The crowd not only symbolizes but embodies Xavier’s crazy situation, which is, basically, that he is the father not of two children but of five, with three different moms, and probably more to come. (Kids, that is.) Cédric Klapisch is probably the world’s leading director of social films, by which I mean films about groups of people, or perhaps clusters of people, the different clusters of people that we all know, and whom we usually manage to keep separate. Keeping his clusters separate is a skill that Xavier lacks, probably because he is a writer, and inclined to let things happen.

(I must interrupt here to mention a delicious instance of the perversity of writers, novelist Elinor Lipman’s contribution to the Times’s “Modern Love” column. As a new widow, Lipman felt that she must “get out of the house,” so she signed up at

Dates followed. Not all were horrible, but the reporter in me liked the worst ones for their anecdotal value. There was the man who stuck his Nicorette gum under his seat, the 70-ish actor who had been among the six husbands of one of the “Golden Girls” and the guy who asked proudly if I had noticed that he stirred his coffee without the spoon touching the cup. I had not.

“Sincerity” can be a zero-gravity proposition for writers.)

There is a moment in Chinese Puzzle when it appears that Xavier is going to earn money as a bicycle messenger, but this plotline is quietly shed, like a jacket that doesn’t quite do anything. A more disciplined filmmaker would have cut it all out, but Klapisch is more interested in conveying the madcap chaos and the countless dead-ends of starting out in a new place. I was grateful for this, because the confusion and the noise and the subways — there is even a subway drummer in Casse-tête chinois — quite often reminded me of another picture, the vastly less cheerful movie about illegal immigrants, The Visitor.

Writing all of this down, I’ve been chuckling over Joan Didion’s “In Hollywood” (from The White Album), which I read last night.

Making judgments on films is in many ways so vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place.

The answer is that people love to read about the movies, but Didion has a point: what are the critics talking about? Don’t they realize that Hollywood is a gambling den, and that films in release are a by-product of the game? The producers make their bets, and then they wait for the box office. Each film is indistinguishable, from the standpoint of what Didion calls “the action,” from all the others: it is just another spin of the roulette wheel.

The “motive” in Bullitt was to show that several million people will pay three dollars apiece to watch Steve McQueen drive fast…

My father was on the Board of Directors of Twentieth Century Fox when The Poseidon Adventure project was floated. My father and his worthy colleagues decided that the action was too hot, or maybe too cold (I’m so not a gambler), and they voted to limit the studio’s participation instead of bankrolling the whole thing. They got to watch Irwin Allen’s production company walk away with millions every week. You can be sure that they took a bigger piece of Towering Inferno.

In other words, there would be no movies without the gamblers. This thought is uncomfortable in the same way that being aware that the earth is spinning around the sun in the middle of nowhere is uncomfortable. Could it be that foreign movies are more interesting because foreign producers get to gamble with other people’s money?


Tuesday 6th

A week ago Friday, I think it was, I noted my lack of interest in reading Purity. In the prospect, that is, of reading Purity. Actually reading Purity turned out to be very exciting., but it has been difficult for me to add, to “exciting,” any other literary characteristics. The longest section of the book, which really ought to have been called “The River of Meat,” if only because it’s a lot easier to read, not to mention to type out, than the actual title, is written as if by someone who has had a peculiar kind of stroke: the language is still there, but the style has vanished. Or perhaps, being narrated by Tom Aberant, it has no style because Tom has no style. (So without style is Tom Aberant that he is seduced by Anabel Laird’s, marking him as not even ingenuous.) Most critics seem to like this part the best (although not Diane Johnson!); James Meek praises its “emotional rawness” and “visceral engagement” — figures of speech that, in such close proximity, remind me of an abattoir. I found “[le1o9n8a0rd]” deadly, or almost, because the writing was so flat-footed, just like Tom. The other sections are viscerally engaged with the art of writing. Those featuring Pip and Andreas, for example, are firmly set in appropriate keys, signifying and sounding (respectively) Pip’s head-scratching discovery that her father’s identity isn’t the only mystery in the world, and Andreas’s insane attempt to organize his own disorder. Every sentence is composed with regard to these states of mind. Tom’s section has all the style of a contribution to class notes in an alumni magazine. He’s writing about one of the nuttiest women in literature, and although he knows it he doesn’t show it. Which is to say, he doesn’t feel it. He tells you that she was a pain in the ass, but you already knew that. What you want to know is what in hell was the matter with him, putting up with Anabel for eleven-plus years. “There’s no accounting for love,” seems to be Tom’s hayseed answer. You are left to imagine how far even Flaubert or James would get with that.

Tom Aberant is what I was afraid of finding in Purity, only I feared that it would be all Tom, which it isn’t. (Even his girlfriend, Leila, has more style; she has survived and even faced down her compromises, but she’s still the happy opportunist — I mean, reporter — at heart.) Some commentators suggest that Tom is a stand-in for the author, and while I don’t agree, I do suspect that Tom is supposed to be the book’s all-American guy, tweaked to carry, instead of the ball, Jonathan Franzen’s disdain for sport. I do hope that Franzen will outgrow the confinement of being an, even the best, American novelist. Being American has never been so meaningless, as the presidential contest ranging from Trump to Sanders makes clear. Many Americans, particularly on the coasts, have outgrown being American, only too many of them are still trying to hog the word for themselves. Those Americans who have not outgrown America have been fertilizing it with so many noxious notions that it stinks like a corpse flower.

Worse, being American is no longer interesting. Being an American — as distinct from being a New Englander who stayed behind or a Southerner with a wicked sense of humor — always involved taking Christian civilization to new places — to places previously devoid of Christians. It meant reformatting the territory to suit the needs of settled agriculture, no matter how unrealistic such an undertaking might be. It meant quitting the compromised old world and heading out for the virgin new. It meant courage, endurance, and tenacity, and sixty years of television have rotted its teeth right down to the gums. Even if it hadn’t, there are no more frontiers, no more regions in which to plant crosses for the first time. The terminus of our expansions has dimmed our wits. Once resilient and adaptable, we can’t, for example, figure out how to conduct warfare in a non-European manner. Donald Trump is right: the country is broken. That his claim to the presidency is greeted with anything but incredulous laughter is proof of that.

Purity is vexed by many of the foregoing concerns, and it would be unfair to charge the author with handling them in a provincial, Yankee-centric manner. In one of the novel’s truly grand passages, he likens the apparatchiks of the DDR (a/k/a East Germany) to the shills of Silicon Valley.

The apparatchicks, too, were an eternal type. The tone of the new ones, in their TED Talks, in PowerPointed product launches, in testimony to parliaments and congresses, in utopianly titled books, was a smarmy syrup of convenient conviction and personal surrender that he remembered well from the Republic. He couldn’t listen to them without thinking of the Steely Dan lyric So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last. (Radio in the American Sector had played the song over and over to young ears in the Soviet sector.) The privileges available in the Republic had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all-important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC. The appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism, but inside, victory over the class enemy was assured. Inside, the professor and the engineer were learning at the German worker’s feet. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, centralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity. (448-9)

Finally, I thought, when I read this. Finally, someone noticed that the Pages and the Cooks and the Thiels talk as though the United States, as a complex governmental structure requiring a great deal of care and understanding, simply no longer exists. Perhaps it is obsolete. But it still commands a big budget and major armed services. Several hundred thousand men, and even a few women, are serious stakeholders in its standing as the sovereign authority in this part of the world. You would never know this, to hear the California dreamers. The dreamers have imagined them out of the picture. Their sense of reality is only virtual. (Our experience with television could have told us that this would happen.)

But this outside/inside conundrum is not peculiar to America. It is the condition of educated elites everywhere on earth. It is the plight of everyone who failed to make sure that a package labeled “liberal democracy” would, upon being opened, benefit all or most people, and not just a cohort of deep-pocketed businessmen. Perhaps it is only human nature to overlook the importance of all the educational factors that have encouraged you to think as you do, but face it: you’ve been supposing that people without any of your background, with rather hostile backgrounds, even, would leap at the chance to share your outlook. The higher Europeans are living a nightmare at the moment, one that I suspect would militarize rural America if the influx of refugees were happening here. What’s happening across the sea was never foreseen, because Europeans lazily supposed that governments on the other side of the Mediterranean would continue to do what they themselves have abandoned, and maintain firm border controls. We were habituated the Cold War to see the world as opposed camps, with plenty of guard-towers overlooking no-man’s-land. Now, however, the world is divided between places where everyone wants to live, if only for the chance of making a living, and places where nobody much cares if you stay or go. In fact, if you’re not just like the people around you, in those places, you’d better go. Newcomen’s engine comes to mind, with the floods of would-be immigrants climbing out of the cold sea and condensing decades of European hot air.

Talk about hot air: all I meant to say was that Purity doesn’t particularly need the ramblings of a regular guy whose bland personality is doughy enough to embrace the bristling peculiarities of Anabel Laird’s privileged egotism. What it needs — well, not it, Purity, but the next novel — is an anti-Andreas, someone sane and clear-eyed and armed with a plan, even a doomed plan, to rectify the elites without sending them all to the guillotine.

A leader, in short. Would the novelists of the world please try to imagine a realistic leader? A genuine leader, someone relying entirely on persuasion and not at all upon force.


Wednesday 7th

By now, you will surely have read Nicholas Lemann’s profile, in The New Yorker, of Reid Hoffman, “The Network Man.” That’s my way of saying that, even though the current issue of The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox only yesterday (as usual), the piece is too urgent not to read at once. There can be no dispute about this. Nicholas Lemann has been dean and/or faculty member at the Columbia School of Journalism for a long time, and he usually speaks with great natural authority. Not so here. Here, Lemann sounds like an ER patient who is babbling after an overdose. He also sounds like someone who has had very unfortunate “work” done, not to his face, but to his brain. Don’t be surprised to read, somewhere down the line (this has not in fact happened), that he has just married a twenty-five year-old majorette in digital cheerleading. What Lemann has to say about “the network economy” is morally depraved.

Never have I read a less critical Profile. A great deal of it was so riddled with enthusiastic jargon that it barely made sense. I found two points of distance between Lemann’s thought and his subject matter — two points at which Lemann stood back, like a good reporter, and frowned skeptically — but in neither case was the distance very great. He is clearly almost as intoxicated by Hoffman’s vision of the future, in which our LinkedIn profiles are utilized to compose entrepreneurial teams that will create “solutions” and, with luck, massive wealth, as Hoffman himself is.

These dreams may never be fully realized. But what if they are? Hoffman and LinkedIn represent the distilled essence of Silicon Valley’s vision off the economic future. People will switch jobs every two or three years; indeed, the challenge is to prevent them from switching more often. Hoffman’s friend Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter and the founder of Medium, showed me around Medium’s San Francisco office. Gesturing toward the open workspace, he said, “Everyone out there has had a call from a recruiter this week.” Hoffman’s most recent book, “The Alliance,” argues that it should be considered honorable to remain in a job for an unmistakably long four years.

Because Silicon Valley jobs don’t carry with them twentieth-century expectations about security and benefits, employers compensate people as much as possible with stock, so that they think of themselves as owners rather than employees. It’s assumed that what everybody really wants is to quit and create a startup, and, for those who aren’t in tech, the future as imagined in Silicon Valley may not entail full-time employment at all. Instead, people would assemble their economic lives through elements provided by online marketplace companies from Silicon Valley: a little Uber driving here, a little TaskRabbiting there.

If you grant Hoffman’s premise that the networked economy is the new model, you can view its advent with excitement or with unease.

Or how about both: Panic. Little did I think, when writing yesterday’s entry, that an example of the worrisome delusions that hypnotize our socioeconomic elite would pop right up as if in response. It is assumed that everybody really wants to quit and create a startup. I don’t detect a flicker of awareness that the size of everybody in that sentence is tiny, minuscule, infinitesimal. An economic model designed to accommodate this particular everybody would be punishingly useless to most, to nearly all, of the world’s able-bodied and -minded workers.

I don’t think that I need to dilate on the horror of all this. It’s enough to point to two grave flaws in network thinking. The first, of course, is the supposition that there is a significant population of workers, with any amount of useful skills, who would be capable of attaining sufficient network competence to support themselves. Network competence requires a mind capable of high degrees of abstraction; it is not a matter of reading want-ads and showing up for job openings. It’s rather a matter of fashioning a sophisticated self-portrait and then refashioning it as shifting circumstances require. Nobody is truly fungible in the network economy — a great thing, perhaps, for very bright people who are driven by personal missions, but terrible for ordinary souls. The second fault is that the network model calls for reading want-ads all the time. At the beginning of the Profile, Lemann tells us that what Reid Hoffman likes to do most is to network. There is a chart in his office, it seems, that places him at the center of many networks, and that labels him as “Ubernode,” the world’s most-networked person. What kind of a model spins from that? There is only one Ubernode. Most of us enjoy doing things that take us out of ourselves, or that engage what’s inside us with the world around us. Networking is not that kind of activity. It is nothing but jockeying. If you want to be a truly networked macrame artist, then you will have no time for macrame. Or, at any rate, not enough time.

I should point to a third flaw, but I’m not sure that it is one, because I just don’t get gamification. Or rather, to me it seems to be just another Industrial-Revolution evisceration of human activity, a drastic reduction in the scope of life. “Business is the systematic playing of games,” Hoffman tells Lemann. Really? I asked Kathleen if she agreed, but when she did, it turned out that what she meant was that “businessmen” play games instead of doing anything useful. Business cannot be a matter of games. The whole point of games is to simplify the complexity of experience by imposing foreordained rules. Games also propose a verifiable outcome: this or that will or will not happen. When this or that does happen, the game is over. Business isn’t like that at all, or General Motors would have gone out of business just when it was taking off. Business is open-ended. Indeed, I don’t think that there are nearly enough rules for the conduct of business — and I’m thinking not of governmental regulation here but simply of moral integrity. Maybe I just have a different idea of business satisfaction. While a business ought to strive to provide the best goods and services that it can, it ought to be content with managing its affairs well enough. I don’t think that it’s a capitulation to discredited command-economy thinking to judge the liquidation of a functioning, profitable business, solely for the purpose of allowing its owner to cash in, to be a wicked, immoral thing to do.

Behind Silicon Valley, there hangs a curtain of oblivion. What has been forgotten is the meaning of the word medium. A medium enables the connection of two or more distinct entities, whether people or institutions or radios. As a matter of function, the medium is not itself a distinct entity. It exists only to link. To the extent that Google is a corporate entity, with many businesses alongside its search engine, it is not a medium at all, or, in any case, not a trustworthy one. Even then, however, it cannot take the place of a genuine non-medium, an entity that would exist without media. There is an inability to see such entities in Silicon Valley. The “Internet of Things” looks like a mad attempt to make a medium out of everything, but even “smart” refrigerators must be manufactured according to design and engineering principles that have nothing to do with connections. The smartest refrigerator must still keep things cold. If it can’t, then its smartness becomes moot and empty. Silicon Valley prefers to believe that, if you slap WiFi capability on an appliance, its nominal function, whether to make toast or to mop the floor, will click into place. The boring stuff will take care of itself.

But no. The boring stuff will come back and eat you.


Almost as if to refute everything that I’ve just said, I’d like to say a word about Evernote. I used to wonder what my life would have been like had the Internet been there when I was growing up. Now I ask the same question about Evernote — which, to be sure, requires the Internet. Officially, I suppose, Evernote is a project-management tool, an application that allows managers to organize the elements of a project and to share information with pertinent staff. I have no use for any of that, so I have to wonder how I should have organized my life — my reading, my thinking, my grasp of my possessions (and where they are), plus all the personal and contact information that was already a part of modern life, even if a much smaller one, when I was young.

As it is, I’ve been using Evernote for nearly three years, and I keep finding new uses for it. Even though it has no calculating tools that I can find, I’m using it for keeping track of bills and expenses, and using Quicken only for printing checks. Why? Because Evernote, even if it doesn’t add things up, allows me to keep information in a manner that suits me, not the coders at Intuit. That’s just one example. I’m also letting it teach me how to keep a journal.

The problem of keeping a journal is like that of networking: it’s an interruption, a distraction from the things that I want to do, and, presumably, to keep track of in a journal. This Web site might look like an intellectual journal, a record of what I’m thinking. But in fact it is the thinking itself. A true record of my thinking would be the index that this site so conspicuously lacks. It would trace the development of ideas that, for the most part, I’m too immersed in to be aware of any development. At any given moment, you have a choice: you can do what you’re doing, or you can create a record of it. Ideally, the record is created automatically, but we’re a very long way, I fear, from Apple Watch capabilities that grasp intellectual history. Somewhat less than ideally, therefore, the record must be brief but intelligible — a contest in itself.


More anon, about the brief but often unintelligible notes that I’ve been keeping with Evernote, about how I’ve begun at least to re-read and try to make sense of these notes, and about how one entry made me re-read a novel by Penelope Lively.


Thursday 8th

Yesterday, I went to the movies — I saw The Martian — and then, after dinner, I watched one of our favorite movies, perhaps the most engaging satire ever put on film, Mike Judge’s Extract. Kathleen was stitching, but she was howling, too: Ben Affleck’s hirsute impersonation of an inconsequent hedonist cum spiritual adviser nails a very ridiculous type of person. We love it when Kristin Wiig gives David Koechner a heart attack. We can’t imagine how anyone smart enough to behave in front of a camera could look as dim and dumb as Dustin Milligan, but when he admits that he did have sex with somebody else’s wife sixteen times and helplessly smiles, we’re blown away. We adore Beth Grant’s twanging announcement that “if he’s not going to do his job, then I’m not gonna do mine,” and, even though we never get the line quite right, we repeat it all the time. We cringe with delight when Gene Simmons offers to drop the lawsuit if only… well, you just have to see it. And, of course, we have a soft spot for Jason Bateman. Did I forget dinkus? I mean, J K Simmons? And we love the bong. Can you buy them, or did Judge have this one made?

Then there is Mila Kunis, the trickster goddess. She steals across the landscape, wreaking havoc, right into our hearts. I don’t mean that we fall for her feminine wiles. I mean that we respond to her screen presence as though Extract were, during her appearances, a great drama, a sort of Soviet Anna Karenina. No matter how false her character’s intentions, she is always a genuine diva. When she begs Jason Bateman not to call the police, she communicates an horripilating dread of incarceration that is veiled only just enough to be decent. Yet the last thing you see, during the credits, is Kunis blithely driving a stolen car toward the nearest state line. A very great actress playing a damned good actress.

But, as I say, I also saw The Martian, a film that, for all of Matt Damon’s wisecracking, is absolutely pure of satire, as adventure stories usually are. (Satire appears when the adventures are over.) I should say that it is a worthy successor to Robinson Crusoe, but I have never read Robinson Crusoe, not even in a bowdlerized version for children. (I have not read The Martian, either, although Kathleen and Ray Soleil have.) I find the language of adventure to be flat-footed and boring. Best to be done with it in the run-time of a film. Also, unsafe conditions make me wretched, and I seem to be more aware of them in the movies than I am in life. I will not have anything to do with an adventure story unless I can be sure that it ends well. Otherwise, it’s just a nightmare.

And, even though The Martian does end well, there are several near misses with disaster. I cannot dismiss the image of Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon waltzing in a festively disordered garland of orange tape. Nor can I stop seeing the sleek Hermes, more a billionaire’s severely modern hideaway pavilion than a space ship. All very disconcerting. So, I could hardly get out of bed this morning. I was clinging to the comforts of blankets and pillows. I felt very safe there, and equally disinclined to leave that safety behind by getting up. But when the alarm that reminds me to take my meds began pealing, I responded appropriately, and here I am.


We were talking about Evernote. The iPhone app of Evernote keeps changing its opening screen, but there is always the one-button option to create a new note. Such a note will be headed with an address, as, “Note from 1498 2nd Avenue in New York.” The address is usually slightly incorrect; there is a lot to learn about GPS. Whenever I start a note at home, it’s got “87th Street” in the address, even though you cannot, in any regular way, get to our apartment from 87th Street. Nevertheless, because of our views, I do feel that I live on 87th Street, so it’s all right.

For the sake of clarity, I am going to distinguish the note that is an entry in Evernote from the note that simply refers to something by capitalizing “Note” in the former case. Each mobile Note is full of miscellaneous notes and reminders of a general nature. (I keep an excellent shopping list Note for groceries that is not only furnished with check boxes but organized according to the layout at Fairway.) I pour everything in using as few keystrokes as possible, and I often forget key details. For example:

Hobsbawm LRB – thought
Left doesn’t accept human nature
Right panders to it

Which issue of the LRB? Incidental clues suggest a date from last April. The latest Note stays open indefinitely, usually coming to an end when I take one of my rare trips, and a new Note is headed with an address in San Francisco or Fire Island. There’s no need to create new Notes when I travel; I just do. This means that some Notes cover a range of many months.

Most of my Evernotes are not at all miscellaneous. They’re lined up in numerous notebooks and sub-notebooks. I keep a list of books that I’ve read, with each book having its own Note. Into this Note I may transcribe passages that have caught my attention. I am not as diligent about this as I should like to be, but I try.

Until last Sunday, the messy Notes that originate on the iPhone rather than on a computer were allowed to pile up unreviewed — I might as well not have bothered to make them. In the afternoon, I began with the most recent Note. Unfortunately for today’s purposes, I edited it (instead of working in a new note), so it no longer resembles what I had to work with, which was a handful of words and page numbers from Victory, Purity, and other recent reads. I got out the books and transcribed the full passages. It was easy work, because the books were still fresh in my mind. Soon, however, I was working with a Note from last spring.

photographs (ph) 150

What could this mean? Thanks to my book-reading list, I was able to identify the source as Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happiness. The word “photograph” does appear on page 150 of Perfect Happiness, but why had I made a note of it?

She looked, unable not to, and it was as though she saw, with the eyes of inexorable experience, a ghost of herself; thus she remembered recently meeting the eyes of the five-year-old Tabitha in the photograph on Frances’s dressing-table: eyes that did not now, and did not wish to, and to which there was nothing to be said.

But who was Tabitha? Who was Frances? Holding Perfect Happiness in my hand, I found it perfectly unfamiliar.

Regular readers may recall that I read most of Lively’s novels last spring. I simply went through them, one after another. I can see now that they were a tonic for the distress that I experienced while Kathleen was consulting head-hunters in search of a more congenial law firm. The process wound up taking six months, and day by day throughout that time it became ever clearer that Kathleen could not stay where she was. That in itself was rather dire. Then there was the fact that Kathleen had never dealt with head-hunters before. She had never, so to speak, had a screen test, and undergoing the experience for the first time past the age of sixty was more than mildly disconcerting. It all worked out very well, very well; but I didn’t know that it would when I was reading Penelope Lively.

How could Perfect Happiness be so unfamiliar? I decided to re-read it. What was interesting about the second reading was what came back, and what didn’t. Also interesting was the nature of my recollections. Sometimes, I remembered having read something only when I re-read it. Sometimes, I saw things coming, and in one case, I saw how the whole thread was going to be knotted from the first mention of a character’s name, at the bottom of the first page. Another line that came back to me, as I held the book, was the introduction of Frances Brooklyn, which appears at the top of the second page:

Frances, sitting with hands folded and face blank, recollecting not in tranquillity but in ripe howling grief her husband Steven dead now eight months two weeks one day.

I began to remember: Perfect Happiness is a book about bereavement, about the oppression and then the fading of grief. Steven Brooklyn, Frances’s dead husband, was something of a paragon. First off, he was faithful to her. They had an officially happy marriage. But Frances learns that she has to put it behind her. Steven left her living in it, alone, and of course she had no immediate desire to leave it, but leave it she must. For it was not, despite the title, a perfectly happy marriage. How could it be? Second thing: Steven lived for his work. He was one of those television academics whose opinion is so much more prized in Britain than in the United States, probably because Britons enjoy hearing their native language spoken well. Steven was often away on trips, participating in conferences. He was also a very reasonable man, which meant that his everyday attire was somewhat unfeeling.

There is an interesting Alice-in-Wonderland aspect to Perfect Happiness. Not far into the book, there is an episode in Venice, which happens to be where Frances and Steven spent their honeymoon. Frances becomes convinced that if she cannot hold onto her recollections of that honeymoon, if she cannot hold on to remembering that she and Steven walked here, that they ate in that cafe, then she will lose her husband forever. In the process, she loses touch with the present, and almost has a breakdown at the front desk of the hotel where she and Steven stayed — but at which she is not staying this time. I saw this scene coming about ten pages before it happened. But the moment Frances arrived in Venice, I knew that she was going to be sustained, if not rescued, by her sister-in-law’s friend, a music critic called Morris Corfield. I knew that Morris — the character mentioned on the first page — was going to fall in love with her, and that she, while very friendly, would not fall in love with him. I remembered a very poignant moment at which Frances registered this asymmetry in the middle the night, in bed with Morris. But I was wrong, there, because it is Morris himself who registers it in that moment.

It was much later, in the cold small hours, that Morris woke and realized, almost dispassionately, that Frances did not love him and perhaps never would.

Frances’s sister-in-law is a journalist called Zoe. The novel could perfectly well have been called Frances and Zoe, or Sisters-in-Law, because the book is really just as much about Zoe as it is about Frances. Zoe has never married, but her life has hardly been virginal. Where Frances is polite and reserved, and very much the caregiver, Zoe is brusque and impatient. She and Frances have been friends since university; it was Zoe who introduced Frances to her brother, Steven. But there is an even stronger tie between them, and Steven’s death obliges them, they both conclude, to disclose it. No, they are not lovers. It is rather that Tabitha, who has always known that Frances and Steven adopted her, is in fact Zoe’s child. The passage about the photograph of five-year-old Tabitha is expressive of the immediate alienation felt by the twenty-one-year-old Tabitha once she has heard this news.

And yet, I didn’t see it coming. I forgot at first that Frances’s children were adopted. Very gradually, Tabitha’s parentage came back to me, as my recollection was refreshed, or perhaps beguiled into reappearance, by vaguely-reported discussions that Frances and Zoe had about “it’s time.” It’s time to tell her is what they weren’t saying. (There is no such exciting backstory about Harry, Frances’s son. His relief at discovering that his adoption was just an adoption can only be called British.) I’d also forgotten that, contrary to all her planning with Frances, Zoe blurts out the story at an odd moment, without even telling Frances that she’s going to do it.

Two of the notes about Perfect Happiness were references to passages on facing pages, 164 and 165. I wasn’t quite sure why I’d noted these passages, but I found them and copied them out. As I re-read the novel, however, I found out that I’d completely forgotten the episode in which they appear. I’d forgotten that Zoe has a cancer scare, complete with richly-described hospital visit. The passages that I noted both capture Zoe’s exultation at being alive, before her tests. Ave morituri.

The world had never shone so brightly. Wherever she went in the city she was transfixed, as though she saw for the first time the crisp frontages of the Nash terraces, the symmetries of the darkly stooping trees in the parks, the opalescence of clouds above the river. She watched from her window, from buses and taxis, and recorded its indifference. She could not decide if the inhumanity of what she saw outweighed its pleasure; she worried at this as though there might be a correct answer. Is the physical world a comfort or not?

There is time, which is supposed to be linear, and there are seconds and minutes and hours which are supposed to be of a particular duration. And there are also days, in which we live. The day on which Zoe went into hospital was not linear, neither was it composed of minutes or hours that bore any resemblance to one another. They raced, or they crept. Occasionally the day stopped altogether and hung suspended in the greenish light of the ward, quite self-contained, like the sterile world of a space capsule.

I must have been moved by the poetry here, by the “universal experience” of facing a question of life and death in the way that most of us face them these days, before a biopsy or some other exploration.

The second Alice-in-Wonderland episode is quietly graded to show Frances’s gradual recovery: she is not quite so undone. It involves her neighbors after a move to the precincts behind King’s Cross. Just down the road, there’s a bomb site from the War, and wouldn’t you know that in the house next door to the crater lives a man who has resented Steven Brooklyn since their days at prep school, where Steven was the golden boy and Philip the perpetual loser. I didn’t remember anything about him, or his strangely bedraggled wife, until Frances’s new puppy (an unwanted gift from Harry) dodged into the bomb site, and Frances, rescuing him, needed to be rescued herself. Something that couldn’t be perceived on a first reading was the finality with which Philip and Marcia are dismissed from the novel when the Alice episode is complete. It’s as if they’d been exiled, banished from the insight of Penelope Lively. The third Alice episode, in which Frances is just fine and not unnerved at all, or only slightly, is her little romance with Morris. It is through this episode that Frances walks out of the cage of her dead marriage.

I did remember, once I’d read it again, that I loved Perfect Happiness the first time. Somehow, though, it didn’t stick in my mind as a novel. Not as novels such as According to Mark, Heat Wave, Family Album and How It All Began have done. I’ve no idea why I remarked on those passages, either, why them? This time round, I didn’t note any passages. But I did take notes for the entry that I have just written.


Friday 9th

Instead of tidying the apartment yesterday, I wrote a few letters, and one of them produced an almost instant reply. My letter had caught an old friend in a mood that she described “full of piss and vinegar.” Nothing to do with me, but it did inflect her answer. In her opinion, the robot question (can we design robots, and our commercial lives as well, to assist human beings, and not to replace them?) is already moot, because “people are already themselves turned into robots.” Then she said,

People en masse have become dangerously dumbed down. You are keeping alive a dinosaurian ethic of intelligent inquiry.

I think that this was the piss and vinegar talking. “Dinosaurian,” I mean. I don’t think that my friend meant to say that what I’m doing here amounts to nothing more than rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. Well, maybe she did, a little. I am fairly certain that she would retract the tangle of oxymorons in “dinosaurian ethic of intelligent inquiry.” Anger can make you say such things.

This is not the sort of thing that my friend usually writes. She cultivates a positive outlook. But I know that maintaining a positive outlook obliges her to avoid giving much thought to politics and society. She has pretty much written them off. The violence of her disavowal is reflected in a somewhat fractured sentence toward the end of the paragraph written in response to me.

I think the only solution to our morass is overthrow and distributed wealth, not mere subsistence. I await that revolution.

I realize that this statement reflects a momentary impatience. But my dread of overthrow and revolution is such that no encounter with such words can be casual. The violent overthrow of power invariably creates a vacuum that is quickly filled by opportunists — people who are undistracted by concerns other than self-interest. A landscape of opportunists just as quickly creates a climate of reasonable paranoia: no one can be trusted. History shows that only the exhaustion of the revolutionary impulse puts a stop to the bloodshed. Eventually, people want order more than they want reform.

My friend’s letter betrays a hopelessness that I shall try not to take too seriously. I am nonetheless aware that she is expressing what almost everyone I know thinks about American society. Nobody really believes that education, economic assistance, or improved housing will improve a lot of lives at the bottom of the ladder. Nobody expects the shrinking middle class either to outgrow the rhetoric of polarization or to become conversant with actual current affairs. My friends are not at all surprised that a minority of their countrymen holds passports.

The people I know — affluent, well-educated men and women who are trying hard to get the most out of life — have, in short, just about given up on liberal democracy as a practical matter. Men and women whose wealth and education ought to have inspired them to be model citizens, activists for a healthy, inclusive society, instead feel politically pointless, trivialized by television entertainment. Their disgust with political parties goes back to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. They no longer even ask what is to be done.

Meanwhile, serious jobs go on disappearing, leaving only “a little Uber driving here, a little TaskRabbiting there.” Without jobs, people will be either destitute or the beneficiaries of “free stuff.” Neither course is meaningful or satisfying to human beings.


I don’t know why I’m any different — it must have something to do with the dinosaur in me, or at any rate the historian — but I believe that the situation is only as hopeless as the people in it. To quote The Martian (more or less), when everything goes south and you know you’re going to die, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. You have to begin with an idea of a more hopeful situation. Easy for Mark Watney: staying alive is easily imagined. Making it possible to stay alive is not easy, but it’s doable, at least with heaping doses of ingenuity and determination. We’ve got plenty of both, plus all the necessary resources. What we don’t have is that idea. We don’t really try to imagine a more hopeful social situation. I don’t think that we ever have. We don’t really believe that we can make this terrestrial world a better place, so we imagine paradise. We imagine lives of dolce far niente. This is what we have always done, because we couldn’t make the world a better place.

Until, that is, we discovered that we could make it much worse place. Until recently, we believed in progress. Progress allowed us to increase health, wealth, and speed. We believed that progress — these three increases — would improve the lives of millions. We believed that progress would stop there. We did not imagine that progress would poison the earth or destroy meaning. We never had a comprehensive plan for progress; we simply settled for more and better. I suppose it’s no wonder that the people who benefited most from progress were the first to see through it, or at any rate to see how inadequate the idea of progress really was.

We need an idea of the world that accounts for more than the idea of progress did. Then we need an idea of what, given our resources, the first step toward that world would look like. This is not what do we need most but what can we do right now without upsetting our human ecology (and creating power vacuumes, &c). There are lots of things that we can do as individuals, and we know what they are. But there are things that we can do only as a society, not in compliance with some socialist diktat but as fellow-citizens imagining together. (That’s how the United States got going, in case you missed class that day.) What is the most urgent of the things that we’ll have to do together?

We have to imagine how to provide everyone who wants one with a meaningful, sustaining job, with something to do in the world that earns a decent wage. The first step seems to entail imagining how we could simply create more good jobs right now. As Americans, I think we have a duty to imagine jobs for Americans; every other nation has the same duty. So, can we begin with that?


Bon weekend à tous!