Archive for December, 2015

Gotham Diary:
Snobbery Doesn’t Come Into It
December 2015 (V)

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Monday 28th

At the end of her remarkable little book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo writes that it is not for everybody.

You won’t die if your house isn’t tidy, and there are many people in the world who really don’t care if they can’t put their house in order. Such people, however, would never pick up this book. You, on the other hand, have been led by fate to read it, and that probably means that you have a strong desire to change your current situation, to reset your life, to improve your lifestyle, to gain happiness, to shine.

This sort of thing usually appears at the beginning of self-help books, not on the penultimate page. Placed where it is, however, the statement about “you” is not just an alluring promise but a demonstrated fact. Well, it was for me, partly because I have, in my somewhat longer life, stumbled on a few of “KonMari’s” home truths already. I felt an enormous affirmation of all my housekeeping intuitions. This was all the more welcome for coming in the middle of a dark time, a screwed-up holiday season.

Life-Changing Magic preaches the importance of taking things seriously — the material things that crowds your closets and drawers. If they are truly important to you, if, in KonMari’s quaintly off-sounding phrase, they “spark joy,” then by all means keep them. If they don’t, then their importance consists in the need to get rid of them, no matter how profuse the excuses for retention. Once you have purged your life of things that fail to spark joy, you will find it easy, she promises, to find the places where everything that you keep belongs.

There is no need to buy anything. There may not even be the need to buy the book, because KonMarie encourages her readers to discard things that have served their purpose, and you might know one such reader. KonMari believes that you probably already possess more than enough of the storage equipment that you need — drawers, shelves, closets, and so on. The only thing that is required to make a success of her challenge is your attention. You must pick up everything that you own, one at a time, and attend to the feeling that holding it brings.

The end result is not a tidier home. It is a more sharply-focused sense of self. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is essentially a diet book, addressed to the thin person inside anybody who feels fat. This metaphorical fat is actual confusion. We have amassed heaps of stuff because we might find it useful. We intend to read this book when we have time, or to use that pot when the right party is on the calendar. You never know. You never know whom you might want to become, when you’ll need the right stuff.

This “never knowing” is obviously confusing, a cloud over your grasp of the future, such as it is. KonMari’s simple test is this: does the person that you want to become make you happy now? One of her favorite categories of clients’ discards is study guides for speaking English. Everybody seems to have a few of these, but the books never spark joy. Does this mean that speaking English is unimportant? Yes. For most people, speaking a foreign language is an accomplishment, like playing the piano. If you are passionate about it, you just do it. If you’re not, it means that you’re happy with your life as it is, but are cluttering it up with insincere aspirations. Once you clear your home of the material litter of these fond hopes, you will find the true ones. KonMari mentions a woman who pared down her library until it told her what she wanted to do with her life: When the only books left were all concerned with social work, she decided to launch a day-care center.

Modern life is characterized by cheap plenty. Just as there is too much flimsy clothing, and too much processed food, so there are too many options for “personal realization.” The odiously-named concept of the bucket list implies that life is not lived without certain special experiences. Most of these experiences are passive, even if they involve a bit of exercise. (Climbing the Eiffel Tower is possible only because Monsieur Eiffel actually built it. “The Eiffel Tower” belonged on his list in a way that it can’t on anybody else’s.) They are as inconsequential as postcards — for what, after all, does seeing the Grand Canyon bring to your life beyond yet another wow? It were better to study your local geology — better not to spend time and resources for an idle glimpse of some remote wonder. The best of these lists would include only one goal, and achieving it would be both difficult and fulfilling. It is hard to determine that one goal, however, if your house is full of how-tos.

Find out who you already are, and get better at it. Throw away all the stuff that who-you-are doesn’t need.


As it moves along, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up takes on a tone that some readers will find “spiritual,” not meaning it as a compliment. KonMari talks about welcoming her house when she comes home from work. She thanks the things that she throws away for having given her the pleasure of acquiring them, which was, apparently, all they were good for. She folds her clothing with something like reverence. Once she has presented her businesslike criteria for filling garbage bags, she lets her house tell her where everything that she retains belongs. This will certainly strike some readers as silly and new-age-y. Others might see the heritage of a Zen-like respect for the world. KonMari explicitly wants her house to have something of the sacred aura of a Shinto shrine.The secular reader in search of housekeeping tips might find this sort of thing annoying.

Asian thought, however, has never made a significant distinction between the material and the metaphysical; the spiritual world does not lie outside or beyond the one that we apprehend with our senses. There is little or no Platonic dualism. So it is entirely reasonable, in such an intellectual climate, to hold that material things, far from being vain appearances, can touch our souls. In fact, it is urgent that we recognize and accept this un-Reasonable proposition, because it is the central insight of environmental respect. The quality of the world in which you live influences the nature of the person you are.

Human beings have almost always acknowledged this, but with a fateful backwardness. If you were poor and uneducated, that was your destiny, and nothing that anybody else could help change. Perhaps it was necessary for some people to become rich and learned, just to see how far human capability might be stretched. Once that was discovered, however, and once it was at the same time discovered that most rich and educated people don’t stretch their own human capabilities very much at all, it was clear that, one day, the talk of destiny must be abandoned, and a world of more equitable distribution conceived. We are still a long way from any such achievement, and I don’t see any social tools that would realize it soon. Today, however, we have a peculiar problem. Because some people manage to organize their way out of wretched environments, we like to think that everybody living in poverty might do the same. In fact, the few who do emerge are as unusual as the figures who long ago became priests and kings, in the early days of agriculture. Ordinary people who happen to be disadvantaged need good-enough food, clothing, and shelter no less than others; above all, they need to be spared the terrible stress of being poor, the endless and exhausting decisions that navigating a hard life entails.

These are people who don’t need Marie Kondo’s book.

For those of us who do, the insistence of the connection between the world outside and the soul within is the same, despite our bland comforts. Affluent people are no less embroiled in the world around them than are the poor. Their inclination to believe that they can take or leave that world, that the freedom to do as they please assures that they will be who they please, is sadly mistaken. It is perhaps unintelligent to argue that we are all the products of the world we live in, but there is no doubt in my mind that we live in dialogue with it, and that conducting this dialogue with humility and respect will make the world a better place.


Tuesday 29th

Never having gotten round to selecting a photograph for this week’s entry, I forgot to post yesterday’s opening. This morning, I rooted around old pictures for half an hour, finally settling on something from a long time ago, a picture that someone took of me at work, shortly before or after Kathleen and I were married. So we end the year with a salute to the past, which is definitely another country.

Our trip to San Francisco is off. Kathleen is simply too swamped, doing the work of two lawyers; besides, there might be a new client in the offing. I thought, very briefly, about traveling alone, but that’s something that I haven’t done in more than fifteen years. I might travel with someone other than Kathleen, but not alone. And I don’t think that I’d leave Kathleen alone just now.


In passing, yesterday, I declared that mastering a foreign language is an “accomplishment” for most people, meaning that it is not vitally important. This judgment might seem at odd as with the genius loci of this Web log. I believe that the ability to read foreign languages is vitally important to all educated people, and even more to the society in which they live. We need as much experience as we can get of other ways of thinking, and I believe that this experience is best encountered in printed matter.

Growing up the Cold War, however, I was habituated to the drudgery of what were called language labs — rooms with cubbyholes, tape recorders, and headphones. To learn a foreign language meant to speak it. Reading it, especially reading it as literature, was secondary. The entire enterprise, I’ve since decided, was baloney. You can learn to speak a foreign language in an intense, immersive course, but you will not hold onto it, or make it part of your life, unless you spend some time — at least six months, I should think — living in a place where it is the spoken language. It would be wonderful if everyone had the opportunity to spend some time somewhere abroad, and I’m sorry that I missed my chance in college (although I was much too immature). But without such sojourns, a foreign language cannot be absorbed.

We ought to go back to the pedagogic idea that prevailed before the Cold War, when foreign languages were needed mostly by scholars who had to keep up with foreign scholarship. Learning to read a foreign language is much simpler than learning to speak it, because mere reading does not require you to stop thinking in your own — a bruising experience. Mastering a foreign grammar, as is far more necessary for reading than for speaking another language, probably gets in the way of learning to speak it, because vernacular speech everywhere is usually quite ungrammatical (or at least a-grammatical). But speaking a language will take care of itself, when the actual need arises. You will certainly not learn a foreign language better by studying it at home than you will if you’re surrounded by native speakers.

The effort to speak foreign languages is actually making us all more illiterate than we might be.


Another bit of received wisdom that has fractured for me in recent weeks can be formulated thus: the loss of religious belief has left modern man alienated and rootless, in constant but hopeless search for substitutes.

To the extent that this is true, it is true, I believe, only of highly educated people — people who formerly experienced religion as a source not only of spiritual meaning (I’m very uncomfortable with this phrase, but it turns up all the time in the received wisdom) but also of material explanation. For people who lost religious belief, the challenge of scientific explanations of the world not only dismantled their religious counterparts, as elaborately expounded by Thomas Aquinas, but undermined spiritual meaning as well. This didn’t have to happen; there are still plenty of people walking around today who believe in (the Judeo-Christian) God without discrediting science. Many of these people are highly educated.

As for uneducated people who have stopped going to church, it’s less likely that they lost their religious belief than that they are enjoying a modern liberty. If anything has changed since the old days, it is the license that our constitutional insistence upon religious freedom has given to people who want to sleep late or pursue a hobby, instead of attending religious services. This is new. You used to have to participate in the local religious rites, whether you wanted to or not. When the going gets tough, ordinary people will return to their pews — if they’re not setting up some new sect.

This, I think, is the root of the élitist anxiety about the alienation of the common man: what the common man has become alienated from is the idea that he ought to do what élitists tell him to do.

But élite alienation is much more serious. The loss of religious belief among élites is quite real, particularly among those sections of the élite that frame leadership propositions. For it must be understood that nobody has become alienated from the need for leadership. The problem is that, without some kind of divine backup, élites doubt their own authority to formulate responses to social problems. Élites throughout history have claimed supernatural support for their proclamations of what must be done. But God was divided in the Reformation — torn apart, literally; the élites of a very small portion of the earth’s surface could no longer agree on just what it was that God wanted. During the century following the demoralizing end of the Thirty Year’s War, in which Catholic Austria refused, refused, and refused again to recognize the claims of Protestant Germany, better minds devoted themselves to weighing the possibility of detaching Western élites from God.

They got no further, really, than insisting that there must be a detaching. Reattachments to other alleged sources of meaning and authority, such as art or education, have not succeeded. On the Times’s Op-Ed page, believers such as David Brooks and Ross Douthat assert, more or less emphatically, that reattachment is impossible; only the old, the traditional source of morality — Judeo-Christian scripture — will serve. (This is, after all, God’s world.) Most members of the élite — journalists, particularly — are agnostic and even self-denying. All but the most aggressive investigative journalists are uncomfortable with the claim that their reports are morally authoritative. This is particularly true in political reporting.

What constitutes leadership today? That is the very important question that lurks behind the limping complaint about “alienation.”

With the advent of nationalist, populist democracy in the Nineteenth Century, élitists found themselves to be unwelcome, for it was populism’s mad dream, wholly anticipated by the political philosophers of classical antiquity, that societies could function without élites. (Libertarianism is nothing but populism for nerds: Silicon Valley presents the comical spectacle of men (mostly men) who not only want to sweep away conventional existing élites but who regard themselves as smart guys just doing their own thing and telling no one else what to do. Just conducting orgies of creative destruction.) The emergence of an élite is just about the first thing that happens in any society.

With traditionally-trained élites ruled non grata, the nationalist democracies exposed themselves to the antidemocratic tyranny of charismatic leaders who made things up as they went along, trailing chaos and bloodshed. We were given good reason to fear the very idea of leadership. That may explain why, in all the long decades since the deaths of Hitler and Stalin, little has been done to configure the profile of a truly democratic leader. Thoughtful Americans recognize how lucky they were to have FDR — and how useless he is as a template. In any case, our leadership models are all deformed by the deadly crises that called them forth. Who was Churchill without the Nazis? An impetuous, imperialist windbag.

Fortunately, the idea of a “peacetime” leader need not detain us. We are not living in peacetime. Quite aside from the political confusions that disrupt the élite’s globalist dreams, there is the uncertain urgency of confronting environmental degradation, and the certain urgency of doing so with a patience capable of resisting apparent solutions that will only derail society.

I don’t think that we need God to inspire us to behave better than we do. I don’t think that we need the attractions of resurrection and eternal life to rivet our attention to saving ourselves from possibly immediate immolation. But we do need good leaders.

At the dawn of our industrial, then technological era, it was not unusual to hear oracular declarations that man had displaced his gods. It may be the greater part of the élite has lost its faith in supreme beings. But I doubt that there are any serious members of the élite today who entertain such orgulous notions. Lost faith in God may never be replaced, but neither will God.


Wednesday 30th

As everybody knows, the first issue of the London Review of Books for the new year features a presumably abridged edition of Alan Bennett’s diary for the year. The entries are superficially short and slight, until you read them. Humour, wisdom, a very dry nostalgia; a bemused affection for relatively unsophisticated parents — Bennett was surprised that his father found Nancy Mitford very funny. This year’s big event was the opening (or openings) of The Lady In the Van, which occasioned a trip to New York last month. In preparation for this, Bennett sprained his ankle. He was flown First Class across the Atlantic, he tells us, by the New York Public Library (which was going to make him one of its Literary Lions) and by Sony Pictures.

I wonder, though, looking at our fellow passengers, who is paying for them, so ordinary do they seem and even scruffy. Perhaps they’re all in the music business, in which case this not being a private jet is maybe a bit of a comedown.

On the one occasion when I flew first class from London to New York, the scruffiness of my fellow high-livers was what struck me, too. But I didn’t have quite the wit — even if I did share the suspicions of the second sentence — to jump from looking too poor to be in first class to looking too rich, and to break through the pretenses of airlines in order to remind myself that really grand people don’t fly First Class any more. They fly Only Class.

Here is the entire entry for 1 September:

Oliver Sacks dies, my first memory of whom was as an undergraduate in his digs in Keble Road in Oxford when I was with Eric Korn and possibly, over from Cambridge, Michael Frayn. Oliver said that he had fried and eaten a placenta. At that time, I don’t think I knew what a placenta was except that I knew it didn’t come with chips.

I left college with an ironclad determination to avoid the Oliver Sackses of this world. People who fry and eat placentas, so that they can tell you about it. I had no idea that Sacks was gay until earlier this year, when he began dying in public, but when I saw the dust-jacket photo of him astride a motorcycle in Greenwich Village, looking as burly and butch as Bob Hoskins, I felt very sad. How many pointlessly thwarted lives! How much tedious transgression! Alan Bennett’s transgressiveness, in contrast, is genial even when it is tinged with bitterness.

As it happens, Bennett puts his finger on the importance of tact in an early entry (15 February). He has just read some good reviews of a play, Blasted, given at Sheffield. (He seems to be a friend of the director.)

In such a violent play, though, I find myself spiked by my literalness … If a character is mutilated on stage, blinded, say, or anally raped or has his or her feet eaten off by rats, the pain of this (I nearly wrote the discomfort) must transcend anything anything else that happens on the stage. A character who has lost a limb cannot do other than nurse the wound, no other discussion is possible. Not to acknowledge this makes the play, however brutal and seemingly realistic, a romantic confection. If there is pain there must be suffering. (But, it occurs to me, Gloucester in Lear.) Another topic concerning me at the moment is Beckett’s sanitisation of old age about which, knowing so little of Beckett, I may be hopelessly wrong. But Beckett’s old age is dry, musty, dessicated. Do Beckett’s characters even smell their fingers? Who pisses? How does the woman in Happy Days shit?

There are two beautiful reconsiderations — what Bennett would or should have done had he known what he knows now. He now wishes, having just seen a revival of An Inspector Calls, that he had taken advantage of an opportunity to plug JB Priestley for the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey; and he laments not have been sufficiently aware of it to remember hearing Kathleen Ferrier sing Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in 1950. (I, too, find that work both dreary and empty.) He had to be reminded by an old program. What he did remember was sitting behind the Princess Royal (soon to become HM the Queen) and her Lascelles relations. Well, who wouldn’t?

Whenever possible, Bennett heaps contumely upon the Tories. He does not say that he loathes David Cameron, but you get the sense that he does; yet when he says that he “did detest” Margaret Thatcher, you also sense that Cameron isn’t quite worthy of detestation, that he doesn’t measure up even as a villain. The remark about Thatcher (11 October) is provoked by Charles Moore’s recyling of Graham Turner’s “mendacious interview with me and other so-called artists and intellectuals in which we are supposed to have dismissed Mrs T out of snobbery.” Snobbery didn’t come into it, Bennett insists, because he and Thatcher arose from the same background. This ironic observation tickled me enormously, for while the Iron Lady may have impersonated Britannia during the Falklands War, in fifty or a hundred years she will only be read about, while Bennett will still be read. By the time Kathleen came in to get ready for bed, I had improvised a dactylic chanty:

For SHE was a GROcer’s DAUGHter from GRANtham,
And I was the SON of a BUTCHer from LEEDS.

Sadly — How very disappointing, I think Maggie Smith says somewhere in Evil Under the Sun — that’s not how Bennett puts it. He doesn’t mention Grantham or Leeds. “But she was a grocer’s daughter as I am a butcher’s son. Snobbery doesn’t come into it.” I do blunder so.


Friends from out of town will be coming to dinner tonight. They still share a family apartment on the Upper West Side, but they spend most of their time in Brewster, on Cape Cod. We have seen them only once since they relocated, and they have not been to this apartment. Which I shall be tidying up this afternoon. Dinner is “under control.” Also this afternoon, I shall make a soup of wild rice and mushrooms. I have already made a carbonnade. It filled the apartment with such lovely smells last night that I was afraid that all the flavor was dissipating. The secret, aside from a bottle of Chimay’s best ale, is a reduction of Agata & Valentina’s veal broth from one quart to two-thirds of a cup. And yet, when I took the casserole out of the oven, the sauce was still pretty runny. As I prefer creamy sauces, I may adulterate the dish by thickening the liquid with a roux. At the same time, my dreams of the soup involve at least the thickening of cream, so perhaps I had better leave the carbonnade alone.

I was supposed to buy two large onions along with the beef and the ale, but I forgot, and had to make do with the sorry-looking contents of the crisper. A tired Vidalia onion and a clutch of shallots. When I was through slicing everything, I had discarded nearly half. But it was enough.

The other night, we had Tetrazzini leftovers. I made the dish, comprised of chicken breast, velouté sauce, and spaghetti, two weeks ago. I dished it out into four of those lion’s head ramekins that are perfect for serving Hollandaise. I topped two of the ramekins with Parmesan cheese and warmed them in a hot oven. I covered the other two with plastic wrap and found room for them in the freezer. They made excellent leftovers. I worried that at least some of the spaghetti would turn into wires, but that did not happen. Again, I made the velouté with a severe reduction of chicken stock, which made the dish rich in every way. Kathleen couldn’t quite finish off her ramekin.


Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and Kathleen and I plan to observe it in the usual way, with champagne, caviar, and Radio Days. We’ve been watching Woody Allen’s valentine to the New York of his childhood on the last day of the year for two decades at least, and many of its lines are staples in our household macaroni. “Who is Pearl Harbor?” “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion.” “Hawk, the lions raw, is it the kingue approaching?” “I can’t take that much liquid.” “That’s no fluke!” Not to mention getting Regular with Relax. We even put up with the bathetic episode, right before the split, bittersweet finale, about the little girl in the well, because the montage, so to speak, of Americans of all walks united by the centrality of listening to the radio is so arrestingly beautiful, and at the same time testimony to an utterly lost world. Nobody listens today because everyone is too busy talking.

If we can manage to stay up, we shall speak to Will not just on his birthday but at the anniversary of his birth moment, 1:45 AM. It will be 10:45 PM in San Francisco, late for most six year-olds but not for Will, who has always been a night person.


Thursday 31st New Year’s Eve

Last night’s dinner went well. The beef was overcooked, but the sauce was delicious, and the soup was a keeper. Our friends brought a very tasty apple-cream pie. After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked until midnight.

The wives, high-school classmates, sat together on a love seat and chatted. The husbands sprawled, each on his own love seat, and argued. We argued about the failure of evolution to keep up with social and technological change. We argued about medieval science, which my friend believed to be a matter of church doctrine instead of scientific investigation. Our voices rising, we argued about universal franchise and the Voting Rights Act. Finally, even more heatedly, we argued about the Cold War. My friend asserted — without, I could tell, expecting to be contradicted — that the Cold War was not only successful but necessary, in preventing the spread of Communism around the world. Kathleen announced that it was time to go to bed.

I didn’t realize until later, after I’d loaded the dishwasher and Kathleen had gone to sleep, how far I have traveled from received wisdom on these as on so many other topics. I was appalled to surmise that a quick summary of my “positions” on many issues would mark me as an utter reactionary. But my “positions” are merely observations, informed by the historical considerations that I am always revising, and the historical connections that I am always working out.


It is one thing to examine prehistoric skeletons and to observe that we share ninety-odd percent our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. It is quite another to overlook the role of social evolution in human development. It is true that social catastrophe can undo many of the webs of support that suppress violence and other undesirable behaviors in normal times. But a reversion to some sort of natural setting, “the way we were” in, say, 175,000 BCE, has never really occurred. So far, no society has ever been “knocked back into the Stone Age” and persisted at that level. It may happen in the future — who can say? — but such a disaster would be unprecedented. And even the Stone Age is not to be confused with the State of Nature. Human society does not evolve backward. It can only be destroyed, which is quite different.

Medieval Science

Technology and science were not connected in the Middle Ages, any more than they had been in pre-Christian antiquity. Science was entirely a matter of theories, devised by philosophers and tested by other philosophers. Empirical observation played almost no role in these inquiries. Technologists (ie, cathedral architects) worked by trial and error. The roof of St Pierre de Beauvais, for example…

The origins of modern science do not lie in the overturning of church dogma. The overturning of church dogma was a consequence of modern science. The origins of modern science lie in medieval technology. I wrote about this in September, quoting a quotation:

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

Modern science began with the application of tools to scientific inquiry. One of its first manifestations was the pendulum clock, a collaborative effort dating from the 1650s.

Democracy in America

My friend agreed with me that the United States is a mess right now, but he wasn’t clear about why. In my view, he couldn’t be, because he doesn’t want to concede — and who does? — that universal franchise and the Voting Rights Act explain a great deal of our predicament.

We Americans like to believe that we have made amends for the things that the Founders got wrong, the most egregious being slavery. Instead, as I see it, Americans have substituted workarounds for atonement. This nation was framed, in 1789 (when the first presidential election was held), as a patrician republic. Voting was limited, in each of the new states except Pennsylvania, to landowners. This is to say that the Constitution’s function was thought to depend upon an educated, stakeholding electorate, with an interest in participating in local government and staying abreast of national affairs.

Universal male suffrage was a sales pitch for the new states in the Near West. The populism thus engendered, having spread to the original states, eventually flowered in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose face cannot be removed from the twenty-dollar bill fast enough for me. The patrician élites were encouraged by the Jacksonian persuasion to conceal their patrician façades in a masquerade of common-mannery. This led to élitist opportunism and the replacement of patrician élites by robber barons in the big-spender department.

The result was a permanent bifurcation of the free American population into two classes: Élite (wealthy or educated or connected to the wealthy or educated or all of the above) and ordinary. As we move further from 1945, the astonishing growth of the middle class during the decades of postwar prosperity seems increasingly that: astonishing, and likely neither to last nor to be repeated. When the wonder years were over, many in the middle class — professional people especially (doctors and lawyers) — settled among the élite. The rest of the middle class reverted to ordinary.

The élite in America today appear to be bent upon starving the ordinary American to death. That is the extent of current élitist interest in the common man. You’d think that something else that happened in 1789 has been forgotten.

Anybody who thinks that the problems created by slavery, particularly that of a large population of people immediately discernible as slaves or the descendants of slaves by the color of their skin (a problem unknown to slavery in antiquity), have been “solved” ought to be stripped of any and all academic diplomas.

With the abolition of slavery amended into the Constitution after the Civil War, the American workarounds went in the direction opposite to that of atonement. Keeping blacks separate was the unofficial work of Jim Crow. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 climaxed a long and arduous attempt to undo the discriminatory régime in the South. Unfortunately, it infected the ordinary class of Americans with a resentful fear. Now that blacks could not be kept in their place, or denied the right to vote, many white Americans no longer felt “safe,” in their homes, in their towns, or even in their country. There had always been lone rangers on the fringe of American life, but ordinary white America responded to the Voting Rights Act with an upsurge in antisocial, siege-mentality behavior: “Christian” academies and gated communities, the proliferation of firearms. Élite Americans, meanwhile, congratulated themselves on their high-minded legislative success, and refused to see that there was still a problem. I speak, of course, of those members of the élite who were not actively stoking the fears of the ordinary class.

“So,” my friend argued, “you would undo the Voting Rights Act, because most blacks aren’t members of the élite class to which the Framers sought to limit the franchise.” Or words to that effect.

I should do no such thing. As European convulsions from the Reformation to the Terror to the Holocaust demonstrate again and again, you can’t clean up messes by undoing their causes. You have to move on. But moving on is a lot smoother if you know where you have been — as indeed the Founders did, having just experienced the five-year fecklessness of American government under the Articles of Confederation. I don’t believe that anybody seriously considered petitioning King George to “take us back.”

The Cold War

This was going to be my only subject today. I’ve been reading a string of novels by John Le Carré, and they have brought the Cold War into focus — not just the spying (which David Cornwell has concluded was silly and pointless), but also the ideological battle. What this battle really consisted of was a pair of power centers’ barking at their underlings about the horrors of the opponent’s way of life.

After World War II, Russia, which had suffered more than any of its Allies by several orders of magnitude, sought, quite naturally in terms of its history, to surround itself with a defensive perimeter. Infusing this perimeter with Communist ideology was merely the surest way of securing the possession of Slavic Europe, Hungary, and the adjacent chunk of Germany (this last the region from which most eastward incursions into Polish and Czech territory originated). Despite having overthrown the Tsar and the plutocratic élite that controlled the country until World War I, Russia remained Russia, as indeed the vibrant stardom of Vladimir Putin, attended by flocks of Russian Orthodox clergymen, makes crystal clear. President Putin is currently engaged in restoring the former Russian Empire, which was for seven decades known as the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics.

My friend evoked the Soviet embrace of Cuba. Was not the Cold War required to limit such “expansion” to that island? Explaining at length why my answer was a resounding “No” would be wearisome for reader and writer alike. Suffice it to say two things: Russia wished to counter the American military appanage of Europe with a pied-à-terre ninety miles from Florida. The Cold War had little to do with the thwarting of this ambition. It was on the brink of a very Hot War that the world trembled in October 1962. As for Cuba’s embrace of Communism, it was inspired by much the same degrading inequality that provoked the Russian Revolution.

That’s to say that Communism in Cuba was never a rejection of Capitalism. Something much older and meaner than capitalism prevailed in pre-Castro Cuba, a blend of the American plantocracy and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Cuban capitalists (or industrialists) were mostly rentiers, not what we would call businessmen. Too many Cubans were trapped in the backbreaking production of sugar.

Communism has the advantage of being a well-articulated ideology. Capitalism, in contrast, means many things to many people. In today’s Times, Jon Caramanica writes about shopping as a way to relieve trauma: “This is one of capitalism’s many tricks, and one of its best: the notion that you might rewrite your emotional life via acquisition.” Capitalism? How about consumerism? What prevented consumerism from thriving in Warsaw Pact nations was state control of industry, which is not the opposite of capitalism. Today’s China is conducting an exciting, sometimes too-exciting experiment in authoritarian capitalism, officially “communist” but wise to the fact that markets lead, instead of following, economies.

The Cold War was less about economic theories than it was about power structures. The Authoritarians fought the Liberals. The Authoritarians’ eventual defeat did not herald the victory of Liberals, however, mistaken as the Liberals might have been about that at the time. The Authoritarians are back, everywhere, with a vengeance. Quite a few of them are Libertarians and other oxyMoronic followers of Ayn Rand. Liberals have lost academia, traditional the Liberal nursery, to the Authoritarians who enforce political correctness. Let us not forget the Higher Authoritarians who would institute a theocracy. And this is just in the United States.

The Cold War was, ultimately, a very expensive organizing principle. You knew where you stood, even you doubted your next-door neighbor. All other hostilities were either limited or suppressed by Cold War strategies. When the Cold War came to an end, the economic boom was echoed by political collapse.

Because Liberals are helplessly élitist. I’m one; if you’re reading this, you probably are, too. We are certain that peace would reign everywhere if only everyone could see things as we see them. But we see things with minds that have been overhauled by liberal education and reassuring affluence. We may understand that very few people, essentially nobody, can see things as we see them without those benefits. But not only have we failed to generate the economic wherewithal to spread those benefits — we haven’t learned how to domesticate wealth, how to make it appear where and when we want it to appear; we have also lost the art of persuading others that they are benefits.

I’m R J Keefe, and I’m a member of the liberal élite. And, notwithstanding all the many mistakes made by this group, proud of it. I believe that we are still humanity’s best hope for continuation on Planet Earth. That is why I am its scourge.

Happy New Year!

Gotham Diary:
December 2015 (IV)

Monday, December 21st, 2015

Monday 21st

It’s like binge-watching an electrifying serial. Or trying to. All the episodes haven’t come out yet, and, sometimes, nothing happens. It takes a while to realize that nothing is happening, because there are no signals. There is no rolling of credits, no trailers for what’s coming up next. On the other hand, every moment is a kind of cliffhanger. I’m mesmerized. When the atmosphere of crisis abates, and then nothing happens, it takes me a while to catch on. I find that I have no taste for resuming my regularly scheduled life.

But make no mistake: it is not fun.

On Saturday evening, the landline rang. It was Kathleen’s senior associate. The formulation of an agreement, which a client had declared, two days earlier, to be of no pressing importance, suddenly had to be completed by Sunday morning. There was an air of fire drill about the whole thing, but Kathleen and her team took it very seriously. The agreement was hammered out. The team met via conference call on Sunday morning, and then the client was dialed in. Everything was great, fine, super job and so forth; but something the client said in an offhand way gave rise to new worries.

Kathleen agonized over these new worries as she got into bed last night. She couldn’t see how she would ever get to sleep. So we talked about it and sorted it out. We were lucky. Sometimes, this sort of late-night discussion backfires, and makes things look even worse. Last night, however, the talk seemed to tire Kathleen out. We nailed down the issues, so that they stopped swirling in her mind. We worked out the implications of the various awful scenarios that she had imagined. This exercise didn’t solve any problems, but it did settle them down. Bit by bit, Kathleen’s fears were transferred to an unwritten checklist that she would run through when meeting with her team in the morning.

Kathleen asked me to play Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and even I began to feel that everything would work out all right. Then she fell asleep. Somewhat later, I, too, went to bed. It was very late.


This morning, I am tired and spent. A little drama goes a long way with me. Like a strong antibiotic that kills all the healthy microbes in one’s intestinal tract, worrisome excitement strips my mind of connectivity. Nothing is related to anything else; nothing is particularly interesting. There is only the static buzz of the latest crisis, and a longing to go back to bed. The idea of getting dressed and going outside is horrifying. The effort to write the next sentence calls up not an array of words but a tide of languorous fatigue. Close my eyes, and I’ll fall asleep at the desk.

And just think! Christmas is upon us! How jolly.


There’s a story in today’s Times about how difficult it is for local farmers to sell their produce at the massive Hunt’s Point market in the Bronx — the wholesale food operation that stocks the city’s grocery stores and restaurants. “Historically, it has been difficult for local farmers to pay the fees or follow the arcane rules of consignment necessary to sell in the Hunts Point market.” Any solution depends on cooperation between the governor and the mayor — two men who embody the impossibility of seeing eye to eye. But the problem is the problem. Yes, that’s what I meant to say. We’re so much in the habit of solving problems that we don’t devote much attention to preventing problems in the first place. The problem at Hunt’s Point is almost certainly the standard sclerosis that builds up between the regulators and the regulated. It all begins innocently enough. In the interest of public health and safety, regulators demand that certain conditions be met. The regulated comply, but in such a way as to create special interests and barriers to entry. The regulations, meanwhile, pile up like Ptolemaic epicycles. There is no mechanism for reforming the regulations as a matter of course, and, with the passage of time, there is no particular will for reform. On the contrary! The regulators and the regulated alike gain power and permanence from mastering the regulatory complications — those arcane rules. They work with and around them, transforming them into a virtual infrastructure that supports the way we do business.

It is not that no new businesses can join the club, but rather that new kinds of business cannot. Local farmers, in this case, inhabit a different economic environment from the one created to deal with large-scale growers and shippers. Local farmers do not deal in the volume of produce that would allow the time or expense required to master the regulations, even if compliance were in every case possible. It requires fiat from on high to create a separate space for outsiders.

This happens in almost every walk of everyday life. Licenses and permits are required to conduct most forms of legitimate business. There would be nothing wrong with that if the process of acquiring licenses and permits were made easy for those qualified to acquire them. But the people who already have permits and licenses are not keen to ease the entry of competitors, and they, of course, happen to be the only people with a political interest in the matter. That ought not to be the case.

At some point in last night’s discussion, Kathleen and I went off on a tangent about Puerto Rico and the hedge fund managers who, dazzled by a 20% yield and the implicit understanding that the federal government would somehow force the Puerto Ricans to pay it, come hell or high water, threw good money after bad earlier this year, swelling the island’s already unmanageable debt. Why shouldn’t the hedge funds managers expect to be bailed out? Look at what happened in 2008 and after.

But the federal bailout of Wall Street was pressured in part by something that the hedge fund managers can’t claim: the public interest, even if the public never gave it a thought. If the hedge fund managers go down, they and their investors will be the only losers. In 2008, in contrast, for a week to ten days, as I recall, the American economy trembled on the brink of a collapsed short-term credit market. This sounds banal and unimportant. Banal it may be, but only because the short-term credit market, which deals in something called commercial paper (among other instruments), is what puts food on supermarket shelves and pays the clerks at the check-out lines. In the short term, that is. The short-term credit market is what keeps the cash flow of the nation flowing at a regular pulse. You might indeed call it the heartbeat of everyday commerce.

The terrible eventuality was avoided — and then promptly forgotten. Few people ever knew that the risk was even there, because nobody is taught to look for it or to worry about it. Only professionals and their smarter friends are aware of such things. When I think of all the useless things on the high school curriculum, I boil at the perversity with which important matters of every life are not on it instead.

How many Americans know that the Interstate Highway System was initiated as a matter of national defense? Long before World War II, Dwight Eisenhower suffered years of frustration in the movement, with which he was tasked, of Army trucks from base to base, and, as president, he was determined to do something about it. It makes sense, therefore, to regard the highway system as a weapon. That’s why it was built. Not the ring roads around cities — they came later — but the long, uninterrupted stretches through farmland and wilderness. Now, a question for the class. How important is this weapons system today — qua weapons system? Is it budgeted as an item of national defense? Who is interested in keeping the system going now? Does that party (or parties) have the money to pay to maintain it, or does it have to ask somebody else?

It occurs to me to inquire into how new updates of operating systems, and other very complex software, are prepared. Do coders have to examine every line? Or have they developed algorithms for focusing on the lines that have to be changed? How automated is the update process?

Lots of boring things become quite interesting when they put on a little history. And then, what to do you know: They become too important to overlook.


Wednesday 23rd

There was no point to trying to write yesterday. The building announced that it would be shutting down the water to our apartment for five hours, from ten until three. That would have been an insurmountable distraction. Not to mention the lack of a working bathroom. So I got up and got dressed early (for me), and went off to the movies.

I’ve wanted to see Spotlight since it arrived on 86th Street, some time ago. Yesterday, the reasons for staying home disappeared. I expected a film that would feature scenes of confrontation between journalists and church officials, with perhaps the threat of violence to the reporters. That isn’t Spotlight at all. Spotlight is more like Apollo 13, another movie in which knowledge radiates outward and is accepted with reluctance (and fear, in the case of Ron Howard’s masterpiece). Once Spotlight gets going, the church officials (who already know everything) disappear, remaining an offscreen menace right up to the end, only to be neutered and disgraced by some concluding title cards that note the resignation of Cardinal Law, the number of pedophile priests and their surviving victims, and the towns around the world where investigations have uncovered priestly molestation. It’s as though the Roman Catholic Church were too shabby to appear in the movies.

At the beginning of Spotlight, which is set in 2001 and the early days of the following year, three priests have been involved in court proceedings. (Or something of the kind. I’m pretty sure of the number three, but I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the details because I knew too well what was coming.) For the new editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), there is an air of whitewash about the handling of these cases. His idea of exposing an institutional coverup (as distinct from bad priests) is met with horror by his staff of investigative journalists, all of whom seem to be lapsed Catholics. “So you want to sue the church?” asks the assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee, Jr (John Slattery), incredulously. Boston is a Catholic town, and a majority of Globe subscribers are Catholics. The pedophile priests are bad enough, but a manageable disgrace. A bad church hierarchy would be very unwelcome news.

As the movie unspools, it appears that every mature Catholic in Boston is aware of some small corner of the problem. Bad priests are an open secret. But what everyone also believes is that the evil is isolated and rare. It’s shocking to the journalists that there are as many as three, and suddenly four, ordained predators. In the end, their list will include 87 names, almost exactly confirming the prediction of an offscreen psychiatrist (and former priest; voiced by Richard Jenkins), who estimates that six percent of all priests are molesters. What’s more troubling is the revelation that, until now, the Globe has been burying this scandal as well. A defense lawyer and the leader of a survivors’ group both complain that their long-ago alerts were ignored by the paper. That the allegations are being taken seriously now is ascribed to the fact that Marty Baron is Jewish.

The action of Spotlight is a series of end runs around the submerged barriers that the Archdiocese has constructed, with the knowledge of Cardinal Law and a great deal of cooperation from lawyers and judges. Relevant documents have been sealed by the courts — where they exist at all; many cases have been settled as “private mediation” between victims and the Archdiocese, leaving no public records. The investigators form a four-man team, with Michael Keaton as the captain, and Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James as his lieutenants. They attack the coverup with all the devices of classic newshound cinema. Doors are slammed in their faces. Angry victims are mollified. Hours are spent poring over church directors with rulers, looking for priests who have been placed on sick leave and moved from parish to parish. A clerk is bribed to provide a reporter with copies of case files (because the courthouse copy center has closed for the day). You’ve seen it all before, but then again, you haven’t, because co-writer and director Tom McCarthy and his magnificent cast do what great performers always do: they make it new.


In the evening, I went to Carnegie Hall for the Messiah. I didn’t want to go at all, but I knew that Kathleen would be happier if I sat next to her. And she was. Eventually, I was almost glad on my own account. There were stretches in which the music shook me free of the embrace of pointlessness and cleared the air of disgrace. (Kathleen was just told that, before any bills could be paid, an important client would conduct an internal review of all work done by her and her out-on-bail partner.)

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” I overheard one concertgoer say to another as we left the hall. With one important caveat, I had to agree. The caveat is that I always prefer Mozart’s Messiah (1789; K 572) to Handel’s leaner original. I miss, especially, the clarinets. It wasn’t a big deal last night, because I heard them in my mind. Handel is grandly austere; Mozart is gorgeous.

But I also had to concede that my caveat might be wrong-headed. Messiah is a work for singers, not instrumentalists. And the singers last night were simply the best. They all had fantastically secure tops — soloists and chorus alike — and when they weren’t nailing a dramatic note they all sang with supple elegance. I should not have thought it possible to produce such a wall of sound with 32 singers, but that was the size of the Musica Sacra chorus — I counted — and the wall of sound was roaring. Yet, most of what we could see from our box seats at the extreme left end of the First Tier was the planking of the stage floor. There were nine violins, three violas, one cello and one bass. There were two oboes and one bassoon. That and the positif organ were it, with trumpets and drums added sparingly. From such slight forces, Kent Tritle conjured an insuperably powerful performance. Although brisk, it made time for a full da capo reading of “He was despised.”

I don’t know what it means when I say that I have never heard a countertenor who sounded so completely womanly: is that a compliment? There was nothing weird or uncertain about Christopher Ainslie’s voice; it was simply beautiful. I must confess to a certain lingering cognitive dissonance, watching such lovely sound pour out of a slender blond man in tails. But it was never really distracting. Kathleen, who closed her eyes, claiming that she hears better that way, simply forgot that the singer was a man.

Kathleen’s favorite singer was the soprano, Kathryn Lewek. This was because Kathleen’s favorite arias from Messiah are for the soprano, and Lewek had the kind of voice that Kathleen likes — which is to say that she didn’t have the kind of voice that Kathleen dislikes, which may best be described as “spinto.” (Kathleen calls it “screechy.”) Lewek’s voice was pure and secure. She managed to be youthful and mature at the same time. I thought that she was quite thrown away on Handel, and longed to hear her sing “Come scoglio,” from Così fan tutte. The tenor was Minjie Lee. His Chinese accent was almost undetectable — although I do wish that he had been coached to sing “comfort” more formally, and not as “comfert,” even if that’s how we all say it. I’d have put up with plenty more such faults, however, to hear a voice so warmly, effortlessly accurate. Matt Boehler was the bass, and he both sounded and acted like a prophet, at one point raising a warning finger at the audience (in the trio of “Why do the nations”). Tall and slim and almost piratically bearded, he had a solid command of the bottom of his register, and his top rang with an authority that was strangely inviting.

Over dinner afterward, I answered a lot of Kathleen’s questions about Handel. I saw what she was doing, even if she didn’t: she was validating the idea of useful knowledge. But I couldn’t help worrying about whether the musicians’ expertise will be carried on by future generations. Although the Carnegie Hall boxes were packed, and the balconies were respectably crowded, there were patches of emptiness at the rear of the parterre, and also up close to the stage. I had received an online message during the day headlined “Discount Messiah seats still available.” When a performance is as good as it gets, the hall ought to be as full as it can be.


In the afternoon, I read Stoner, the John Williams novel of 1965 that has become a widely admired classic since its republication in 2003 by New York Review Books. I’ve had it for years, but resisted reading it, because I was given to understand that it was a study in disappointment. The son of poor farmers goes off to the local state university to take an agricultural course, so as to help to improve the farm. Soon, however, he falls in love with literature, of which he has known nothing, and he switches his major. He goes on to spend the rest of his life at the university, as we’re told on the first page. We are warned from the beginning of impending obscurity. I was put off by the prospect of reading about provincial American lives, set forth in hardscrabble American prose. But the story of Stoner is not provincial, and its language is not hardscrabble.


Thursday 24th

It is the tone of Stoner that distinguishes the novel. It is a grave, occasionally exalted tone. The prose is not stuffy, but it is groomed and discreet; vernacular usage appears only between quotation marks. There is nothing to occasion laughter, but there is also no heaviness. Indeed, the limpid but somehow far from ingenuous candor with which Stoner’s life is unfolded reminds me of the great European fairy tales. There is no authorial voice, only an impersonal narration. This is what happened. Although world-shaking events are not only noted but dated, Stoner could be set in once-upon-a-time.

Another thing that struck me about Stoner is the absence of an American accent. If you repackaged it as the translation of a German or perhaps Scandinavian novel — now I think of it, Stoner could pass for the work of the Nederlands writer known as Nescio — no one would doubt you. The academic setting (which, while it is specific, lacks any non-accidental detail that, aside from its name, could not be found at any university) may be provincial, but it is not regionally provincial. This is not a book about Missouri, or the Midwest, or even the United States. It is a book about scholars and teachers in the early Twentieth Century. After all, universities are the same everywhere; they differ only as to how well they do what universities are supposed to do — a matter that was much clearer in Stoner’s day than it is in ours, unfortunately.

The following paragraph, which appears early in the book, while Stoner is still an undergraduate, describes Stoner’s budding imagination, a faculty that the young man discovered one day in class, when the professor, Archer Sloane, asked him to tell the class what Shakespeare’s great sonnet, “That time of year,” meant. Stoner can get no further than a stumbling start, “It means….” He raises his hands, and his eyes glaze over. The perceptive professor, understanding that this muteness betrays a deep (if new) love of literature, dismisses the class. Shortly thereafter, we find Stoner alone in his room, where we are confronted by the starkest limitation of the novel.

He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Archer Sloane had spoken to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape. Tristan, Iseult the fair, walked before him; Paolo and Francesca whirled in the glowing dark; Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence, rose from the gloom. And he was with them in a way that he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class, who found a local habitation in a large university in Columbia, Missouri, and who walked unheeding in a midwestern air. (16)

As I typed out this passage, it occurred to me that it is so much the heart of the novel that it could stand in for the entire novel. But of course it could not; you must read the whole novel to hear the heart beating. Stoner never outgrows this rapture, no matter how outwardly sophisticated, worldly, and disillusioned he appears to be. The problem with Stoner is that it is easy to forget the paragraph on page 16 in the small blizzard of tribulations that ensues. First, he marries badly; his wife is not only foolish and shallow but resentful, someone who nurses her grudges and learns how to wound while appearing to help. Second, he is afflicted by an unsavory colleague, also a reservoir of resentment (his shoulders and upper back are misshapen). In contrast to Stoner’s academic morality, Hollis Lomax has ambitions. Finally, Stoner falls in love, in high middle age; and for a moment — a matter of months — the vision of denseness is made flesh. Stoner shuttles between two worlds, and manages to distract himself from the knowledge that the two worlds cannot coexist for long.

These miserable episodes are very well done. You can see them coming, and you might wish that Stoner could see them coming, too; but he does not, and therein lies my tale. Stoner is still on page 16. Stoner is a love story that cannot be told — not as a novel, anyway.

In John McGahern’s Introduction to the republished novel, we’re told that the author, John Williams, regarded Stoner as a hero.

A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important. (xi)

We don’t really have to be told this. Time and again, we watch Stoner as, after every upset, he regains his footing and walks on. He is pained, to say the least, when things go badly, but he moves on. His childhood of inexpressive labor on an increasingly infertile farm endows him with the habits of stoic perseverance, but it is not mere resolution that sees him through. It is that love of literature.

But you can’t write a novel about a love of literature, no matter how sustaining it is for the lover. What you must write — but what only the lover can write — is literary criticism. Novels are about people in the substantial world. They may be limited to one character, but that character must inhabit a part of the world that readers can imagine because they have seen something like it themselves. General things about human life — food, clothing, shelter — cannot be entirely taken for granted; a fictional character must inhabit a plausible space with recognized needs. No one can love literature without seeing to those needs, either, but the love takes place in a world beyond them. It is not only private but invisible. It exists without manifestation. It exists without consummation, too.

So what we get, in Stoner, is something like the corolla of the sun. It is the periphery of Stoner’s life — the part that we can see, and that Stoner himself could see only if he could blot out his central attachment to words on the page and to the images that they conjure in his mind. We do not even see much of him as a teacher, and we’re given conflicting reports about his capacities as an educator. At the outset, we’re told that Stoner is unmemorable, but we’re also shown instances of his classroom incandescence — hints, really. The one anecdote that most nearly provokes a laugh recounts a misscheduled lecture into which Stoner pours himself so completely that he shoos away the university bigwigs who have an authorized claim to the hall. We’re told that Stoner becomes a “campus character.” But we don’t get to see it, for the good reason that we couldn’t. Nobody picks up a novel to read a lecture, no matter how magnificent, on Donatus’s influence on medieval Latin poets.

So, while I regard Stoner as a highly successful novel, a finely rendered “Portrait of an Assistant Professor,” I think that it is also successful as an anti-novel, as a demonstration that there are very important depths that fiction cannot sound.


It is two o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. You would never know that from the look of our apartment, which, for the first time in either of our lives, is absolutely devoid of seasonal decoration. Kathleen was insistent on this, and I was too sore to disagree. I can remember hoping, last year at this time, that the new year would be better than the old, but it was, to say the least, not; entirely half of it was consumed by the gross uncertainty of Kathleen’s search for a new law firm that would have her. And it has ended with the arrest of the partner with whom she undertook that search, in order to continue to represent a very substantial client. A client who cannot have been happy to be named in news stories about the downfall of Martin Shkreli. For us, it is a matter of the injustice of injustice. I nevertheless go on hoping, that 2016 will be a better year.

I’ll be back before then; we still have nearly a week of 2015.


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Read All About It
December 2015 (III)

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Monday 14th

Working my way through Granta 133, I came to the story near the end, “The Middle Ages: Approaching the Question of a Terminal Date,” by David Szalay. At first, I thought the story was apocalyptic, because the streets of Bayswater, in which the story opens, were deserted; then I realized that it was very early on a summer morning. The story is told in free indirect style from the point of view of a thirtysomething scholar whose name, we learn at the end, is Karel. He has grown up in Belgium but his family background is Polish, as is the young woman whom he picks up at an airport in Germany, en route to Krakow, where the young woman lives. Her father, a police chief, is looking forward to the arrival of the vehicle that Karel is driving across Europe from Nottingham — the nature of this transaction remains very murky, and is pinned to the story of the man and the woman by an accidental scrape that Karel inflicts on the paint job by an ill-considered maneuver in the airport parking lot.

The young woman’s name is Waleria. Naked in bed, on some earlier occasion in Oxford, where Karel is working on early-English vowel shifts, Waleria consults a Tarot deck. Waleria concludes that the message of the cards is that it is time for Karel to stop thinking with his dick. “That’s the headline,” she says. Not that she puts it quite that way. But she does touch his penis, to make her point.

How much time has passed since then, I don’t know, but from the moment in the airport that Karel tells Waleria about the “scuff” on the car, expressing his worries that her father will be unpleasant about it, I stopped thinking of him as an intellectual homme moyen sensuel and began to see him as a failed adult, swaddled in selfishness. Worse, I found myself to be glued to a nauseating identity with him. I felt dirty and found out. It’s true that I have a guilty conscience. It’s also true that, as Waleria accuses Karel, I like to have things my own way and have largely succeeded at that objective. Or you could say that I do and have. I ought to point out that this mortifying response was ignited by Waleria’s changing the subject from her father’s possible displeasure to her own being pregnant. Before he knows what he’s saying, Karel has expostulated, “That’s shit,” and Waleria is sobbing. She loves him; she’s not sure that she will have an abortion. Karel (whose name we don’t yet know — a blankness that possibly makes it easier for readers with guilty consciences to slip into him) is beside himself with discomfort. He doesn’t bother — Szalay doesn’t bother — to spell out the reasons why Karel is not eager for fatherhood. This is, after all, one of the oldest stories in the book, utterly unvarnished by some new plot twist. And yet it is riveting.

I have probably spoiled it by speaking of Karel, instead of resorting to “our hero” and conceits of that kind. It is clear from the beginning that the man driving the new car is no hero. He is a skirt-chaser, Waleria has told him. He thinks to himself that the “set-up” that he has with Waleria is “ideal.” It’s a damning sentence, one that drains his relationship with Waleria of the possibility of love. Waleria, despite her youth, is a successful television journalist in Krakow, someone recognized in the streets by strangers. He believes in her ambition — he believes, that is, that Waleria’s ambition will sidetrack her from lovey-dovey ideas about him. They meet at remote airports and spend days in quiet inns. (Once, they met in Greece.) Their home lives do not mesh, which is what makes the errand of delivering the car so strange. The car, in the oddest way, is the relationship unwontedly made flesh.

Szalay is very good at showing how, every time that his skirt-chaser opens his mouth on the subject of the abortion that must now be arranged, he makes things worse. When he says that he doesn’t want her to do anything just because it’s what he wants, the lie is as lurid as a triple rainbow. He tries not to mention the matter but cannot stay silent. His ideal set-up has gotten all screwed up, and he is no longer happy.

As I say, just because I felt massively complicit with Karel doesn’t guarantee that any other reader would, but it does seem clear to me that the story succeeds, if it does, because of complicity. When the oldest story in the book happens to you, it’s all new. Its awfulness is not in the least bit ameliorated by its familiarity. I felt that I was Karel. I had knocked somebody up and was fretting about getting rid of the consequences. I was saying stupid but revealing things. I actually “observed” that Waleria’s letting herself get pregnant because she loved Karel and wanted to take the relationship to a new level, unilaterally, was not very commendable. Then I sort of exploded with disgust — not commendable?! Meanwhile, I’m reading all this and blushing, perhaps actually.

By the time the story ended, I had peeled away somewhat from Karel (and Waleria). But I got up and went into the kitchen to fiddle with dinner. I had found a steak in the freezer at about five o’clock, and I was nursing it to room temperature. On the way home from Mass, Kathleen picked up a couple of potatoes, and I needed to get them into the oven.


Kathleen got home shortly before two on Saturday morning. Her flight had taken off late from LAX, but it landed early at JFK. By Sunday, the only trace of her trip to Sydney on my part was the pile of books that I hadn’t touched while she was away. While she was away, I read the first five of the George Smiley novels, by John Le Carré. I hadn’t been a fan; nothing, I thought while the Cold War was still on, could be drearier than reading about agents and counteragents and moles and checkpoints. And then, afterwards, I read The Russia House, and wondered if Le Carré’s basic story had collapsed with the Wall.

To me, the Cold War was an American nightmare that began right after the War. I didn’t understand until fairly recently that it was very different for the British. For the British, the Cold War was a final twist, or nearly, in the unwinding of imperial greatness. There was also the Oxbridge romance, during the Thirties, with anti-capitalism, and its sequel, the wartime alliance with the Soviets in the fight-to-the-death against Hitler. Finally there was the craven hatred, if not of Americans generally, then of braying American brashness. There was the humiliation of Suez. There were people like Chapman Pincher.

You can’t imagine David Cornwell (Le Carré when he’s at home) and Pincher having an amiable conversation. Pincher seems, in Dangerous to Know, to have known everybody, but for all of Pincher’s scorn for British Intelligence — in Their Trade Is Treachery, which I’m looking forward to reading, he makes that case that MI5 was run by a traitor — it does not put him in Cornwell’s boat, and Cornwell does not appear in his index. But Le Carré’s novels made for a counterbalancing sequel to Pincher’s autobiography, and an even greater escape from the wretchedness of worrying about Kathleen, on the other side of the world.

(Kathleen herself had a great trip, and that is what I shall remember.)

My favorite of the five books is, hands down, The Looking Glass War. It simmers on the edge of comedy. It’s too serious and sombre for laughter, but the dismal glee of Evelyn Waugh is more than detectable. Smiley is a peripheral figure; the Circus is off to one side, a rival organization. “The Department,” as it is called, appears to stand in the same relation to the Ministry of Defense as the Circus does to the Foreign Office. But unlike the Circus, the Department has shriveled. The Circus has poached much of its staff, for one thing. For another, it has not conducted an operation in the field for some time. Its senior officers show up late in the morning and twiddle their way through the day, with nothing much to do. The fun is in watching the Department’s chief, a small man named LeClerc, try to parley a new lead about nuclear weapons in East Germany into a return to active life.

A man of Polish background, Fred Leiser, who conducted espionage for the Department during the War, is re-enlisted and, as it were, dusted off. He is whisked off to Oxford and subjected to a month of training; he is also led to believe that the Department is still what it was twenty years ago. You know that everything is going to go horribly wrong for Leiser, once he crosses into East Germany, because LeClerc is living in a dreamland, enabled by cynics and enthusiasts. His right-hand man, Haldane, seems to regard the operation as a smooth way of pushing the Department into extinction, but all he does is to follow orders. We learn early in the book that LeClerc has a gift for minimizing prospective difficulties. His penchant for looking on the bright side is tantamount to proving that there is no bright side.

Kathleen’s return found me poised on the early pages of The Honourable Schoolboy, which is much longer than its predecessors and also set in Southeast Asia. I may have to start reading it again at a later date. With Kathleen safely tucked in, I took a new look at the bedroom and saw that the reading pile was too tall; I was in the middle of too many books. So I wrote all the titles down in an Evernote and set to finishing them off.

By Wednesday — I have a Remicade infusion tomorrow afternoon — it will have hit me that Christmas is upon us.


Tuesday 15th

The book in my reading pile that I’m most reluctant to finish is Marie Kondo’s guide to “tidying” — a poor choice in translation from the Japanese for “getting rid of stuff; I tidy the apartment every week without getting rid of anything. When I finish reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I shall have to have something to say about it here; not, as you might suspect, because I want to appraise its homemaking secrets (which are quite sound, even if I don’t agree with each and every one), but because the case studies — the examples provided by clients — so richly illustrate the attempt to modify age-old habits, culturally reinforced for so long that they seem to be hard-wired, to suit modern circumstances. For most of human history (all but a tiny fraction of it, really), inadequacy and want have been the characteristics of nearly everybody’s material possessions. Now, within the space of two centuries, whoosh! — our closets are overflowing with useful things that we never use.

My favorite anecdote concerns the woman who cleared out her house by sending all her sentimental mementos to her parents, for them to store. Both mother (also a client) and daughter had to be told that they would not graduate until the boxes of mementos were removed from both houses. What did the daughter think she was accomplishing? Well, it’s clear that she wasn’t thinking, because if she had been, she would have seen that she was merely postponing a problem, not solving it. She would presumably have to clear out her parents’ house eventually. But how clever we are at substituting postponements for solutions.

You could argue that the daughter did solve the problem: she cleared out her house. But the “life-changing magic” that Kondo promises requires more than just getting things out of the way. They must be discarded. Kondo has an interesting test for distinguishing the things that you ought to keep from the things that you can rid of: when you hold them in your hands, do they “spark joy”? That’s another translation problem, at least because sparking is so ephemeral and joy is so extreme. (Problem, I say, not necessarily a mistake. There may be something to learn from Japanese itself.) I’ll tell you what sparks joy for me: no longer hoarding stuff that I thought I ought to hold on to, but which for the most part I forgot was even there.

When I laid out our current apartment a year ago, I bore a lot of Kondo’s ideas in mind, even though her book hadn’t appeared here yet. I sequestered all the stuff that was of doubtful utility in rooms and parts of rooms that hadn’t been settled yet, and the extension of settlement led inexorably to the elimination of stuff. There are still boxes to go through, and, yes, they’re in a closet. It’s enormously tedious to go through the past, and not just wearying but depressing as well. Just weeding through photographs can be upsetting. I recently found a small shopping bag from the Museum that was full to the brim of photographs that Kathleen took in 2001. There were three groups of pictures: the view from her office at that time, which included the wreckage at the base of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, along with shots of the Wall Street area in the aftermath of 9/11, with armed guards and American flags everywhere; pictures of Singapore and Amsterdam, which Kathleen visited in October 2001, flying around the world, east to west, in the process, notwithstanding the recent “events”; and a mountain of photographs of Bermuda. Over the weekend, I gave her the easy piles to cull, Singapore and Amsterdam. The Bermuda pile will be harder to deal with only because it is so much thicker. But I’m reluctant to present Kathleen with the 9/11 shots. I may cull them myself, and ask her to approve my decisions. Most of the 9/11 images are of poor quality, but the aesthetics of such photographs are different, and almost more literary than visual.

But when I come into the apartment from outside, or when I go from room to room, I am still conscience of a relief, a relief from the oppression of our rooms upstairs, which were crammed with hidden caches of stuff. This despite almost constant weeding. Here, there is only that closet with its stuffed bankers boxes. The apartment feels genuinely light and airy, and the relief that I used to feel has grown into something more positive, a calm contentment that is not always traceable to or associated with the ejection of rubbish.

Whenever I think about the storage unit on 62nd Street, I am almost crushed by hopelessness: how will we ever empty it? It tires me just to open the door, and I rush to fill a few tote bags with stuff, so that I can escape. Months pass between visits. It is shockingly expensive to maintain, and brilliantly inconvenient to unload. My advice to people who are thinking of renting a storage unit is: don’t do it! These moments of despair, however, do not spoil my happiness at home. Unlike the woman who sent everything to her parents’ house, I’m living in a space that never held what I need to get rid of.

At least I have stopped accumulating new things. (Credit card statements back me up.) Sure, there are always new books and new discs. But not so many as before, and, at least so far as the books go, I’m managing to stay in equilibrium, donating books to Goodwill to make space to new arrivals. Perhaps it’s just age: I really don’t want new things anymore. You might say that I no longer believe in them.


A more genuinely problematic book is Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture. I have read through it once, but I have hardly begun to digest it. I swerved from agreeing to disagreeing with what Scruton has to say so many times that just thinking about the book gives me a headache.

Roger Scruton is a conservative British philosopher. Although he is only a few years older than I am, he belongs to the pre-baby-boomer generation. This is evident on every page; Scruton could pass for a thinker twenty years older. Many of his ideas are simply old-hat. For example, he believes that it is the duty of adults to train children to preserve social values intact. He dismisses feminism and gay rights out of hand, as simply unnatural. (Although it ought to be noted that he has retracted his homophobic teachings.) He is resistant to the idea of social evolution not, I think, because he disbelieves in it, but because social change in our time has been so rapid and ill-considered — not really evolution at all. On that point, I’m inclined to agree. I agree, too, with his contempt for “youth culture” and for the adults who have heedlessly paid for it. I agree with him about the wrong-headedness of higher education. I could not agree more heartily with his analysis of Theory as a Satanic religion — no exaggeration!

But I disagree with him about religion, about the relation between religion and art, about the importance of rites of passage and other “tribal” survivals in modern society, about modernism itself — just to name the significant bones of contention. I find his protracted discussion of means and ends, in Chapter 4, to be a stew of overcooked words and stale philosophical notions. I have never accepted the idea that there is anything particularly new about “alienation,” except that it became a behavioral fashion of the early Twentieth Century. Working through these disagreements would take days; reading the book, I could hardly keep up with them. I tended to agree with Scruton’s conclusions while taking exception to his assumptions. I have arrived at many of his positions, that is, by following very different paths, and those paths also lead me to disagree with many of his positions. So the Guide is both very interesting and quite frustrating.

Fundamentally, of course, I don’t believe in philosophy. I have gotten rid of philosophy, just as I have gotten rid of clothes, books, and papers that no longer “spark joy.” By “philosophy,” I mean systematic philosophy, the attempt to explain all phenomena in relation to select metaphysical concepts. I am especially allergic to metaphysics, which I place on a level with video games. Boys’ stuff, in other words.

So you might say — this just occurred to me — that, while I have no use for Scruton as a philosopher, I prize him as an articulate observer of the current scene, albeit one confused about — how to put it? — gender issues. I may have to leave it at that for a while.


Wednesday 16th

Regular readers will recall, probably with a groan, my Hannah Arendt phase, almost two years ago. If I didn’t read everything, I read a very great deal, and, as in all encounters with deeply engaging thinkers, I felt my world change. I was old enough to know that the surface enthusiasm would abate, and that Arendt’s ideas would lose their point as I digested them. Eventually, they would weave their way into my own thought, altered to some extent, and I would no longer be aware of them as Arendt’s. And that is what happened — with two exceptions.

The first is The World, a conception that makes its appearance in The Human Condition. The World is entirely manmade; it consists of objects (such as, say, the Eifel Tower) and ideas (political life, for example). More to me than to Arendt, The World is the history of humanity — what we know or remember of it. It also comprises our scientific understanding of The Earth and The Universe. The World is nothing less than the object of all education. Although divided into “subjects” for convenience, The World is a seamless whole. It is the society of human beings.

(It may well be that it is because The World is so vast and complex, so beyond any one mind’s full comprehension, that I have no time for and only impatience with fantasy. This raises an interesting distinction: where does imagination end and fantasy begin?)

The second idea that I have taken from Arendt is one that I thought a great deal about as I read Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture. It is the idea of Newborns. Certainly Arendt’s frequent reference to “newborns” — newborn children — is the oddest thing about the experience of reading her work for the first time. Why does she insist on dragging the most basic fact of life into her philosophical discussions? Eventually, it occurred to me that she is angling to divert attention from another most basic fact of life: death. Death doesn’t seem to interest her; she accepts it and moved on without comment. Everybody dies, The End. In contrast, Everybody is born, and who knows? Who knows what the newborns will get up to? Who knows what circumstances will surround them? Will they be given a Washington to vote for, or a Trump? Will they face a plague, or a startling medical advance? What will they think about us? Within how many generations of newborns will we and our problems be forgotten? Who knows? Nobody.

At one point, somewhere, Arendt even refers to newborns as invaders. Here we are, thinking that we’re reproducing ourselves, when in fact we’re raising the portcullis and admitting a host of aliens! This one thought has been spinning like a top in my brain for nearly two years.

For of course we are not reproducing ourselves. It is a category mistake to refer to the whole business of intercourse, fertilization, gestation and birth as “Reproduction.” It might make sense to say that a species reproduces itself in successive generations, but not if the species consists of billions of individuals, living in all sorts of places under all sorts of conditions, some dozens or hundreds of whom may leave a mark upon history. Reproduction is the one thing we don’t do. It would be better to rename the subject Newborns and Where They Come From.

Each one of us was a newborn once. Then we “grew up,” a process lasting, for official purposes, eighteen or twenty-one years but capable of stretching well beyond thirty. We had children of our own, and they had children. The astonishing thing about grandchildren is that one did nothing to create them. One could do nothing — that is the wearying frustratioin of parents who long for grandchildren. Grandchildren are a forward-view mirror: getting to know them gives us the only idea that we shall ever have of what will happen after we die. The very lucky live long enough to see their grandchildren become adults, people who no longer need the protection of elders. We never quite believe that our children don’t need our protection — mothers especially. But grandchildren are independent of us.

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have made The Earth a dangerous place. We used to hope that God would be good to our grandchildren; now we must hope that our grandchildren will be spared the consequences of the damage that we (and our forebears) have inflicted on the environment. This damage, in turn, has made the environment, which used to exist alongside The World, part of it, and a politically combustible part at that. Actually, we must do more than hope. We must teach our grandchildren about The World into which they have been born. They won’t have time to figure it out by themselves. And we must persuade them — persuade them — that we have useful things to teach them.

Do we? Do we have useful things to teach them? I believe that we do.

But can we? Can we speak to them persuasively through the din of so-called “youth culture”? This question is particularly lively for men and women of my age, now approaching seventy. For we were the baby-boomers; we were the first to claim that youth culture was the only culture. We were the first to insist that grown-up ways could be ignored. There are signs that the young people of today — the more intelligent ones — are tired of youth culture, which has grown only louder and more vacuous over the decades. That’s for the good. But will they deign to listen to repentant baby-boomers?

Who knows?


Thinking about Newborns has led me to the conclusion that it is wrong, immoral, to want to live forever. Personally, I think that it’s daft, as well. But as I mull over the ambitions that so-called “transhumanists” are nurturing, I see them to be inhumane, anti-human. The transhumanist project, if successful, will rob future generations of the right to be free of their forebears’ direct interference. This will endanger the most natural aspect of human life: its evolution.

The young man grunts with relief when the old hands die off and let him do things in his own way. The middle-aged man, especially if he has been what we call “successful,” denies that the new crop of young men is as worthy as he was. Their wishing that he would die off is not like his, for they are ignorant and self-absorbed. He cannot believe that he was just like them, once, or that he looked just like them to his elders. This is the egotism of success: it sanctifies the successful man, at least in his own eyes. Successful people are special, and they spend a considerable portion of their material rewards on assuring special treatment. Because they are special, they are spared the everyday tedium of crowds and queues, and because they don’t have to deal with crowds and queues they are even more special. It is not difficult for successful people to imagine that they deserve immortality.

What they fail to see is the Midas touch of success: it turns you into a statue of yourself. Spared the frustrations of striving, free for a life of golf and symposia, you cease to learn about the world — for haven’t you demonstrably learned everything that you needed to know? You cease growing; you go on being your same old self. If we want to consider just how dismal such endless continuation can be, and how much worse it would be if death were vanquished, we have only to consider two rulers from the not-too-distant past, Franz Josef of Austria and Winston Churchill. They had little in common beyond the fact that they held onto ruling power for so long that they suffocated their successors. They withdrew so late in life that those who followed them were unprepared for the sudden new world that erupted with their withdrawal. In the Austrian emperor’s case, the new world erupted before his withdrawal (but partly because he was an ineffective old man), and two successors, his son and his eldest nephew, were withdrawn even before he was. Churchill’s persistence saw to it that Anthony Eden would be overly anxious to assert himself when he finally got to the top — and the humiliation of Suez was the result. The old emperor was mistaken by many for an assurance of permanence, a guarantee that things would go on forever as they were. Many of us hate such prospects, but more of us find them comforting.

We need to be trained — educated — to see the future with the same eyes with which we see the past. The good man crowns his success by looking for worthy successors. The great man crowns his by exercising power so light-handedly that worthy successors spontaneously present themselves. He knows that worthy successors will do things as they must be done: at least somewhat differently.


Thursday 17th

The other day, casting about for something to read at the Hospital for Special Surgery during a Remicade infusion, I grabbed yet another novel by Penelope Lively, How It All Began. This was the second Lively novel that I read, on a binge at the beginning of this year, and I remembered liking it very much. But there’s got to be more to it than that. I like all sorts of books, but I don’t re-read them within the year. Lively is unusual in that I find her to be both entertaining and comfortable, and I wonder if I am saying something terrible about her with that comment. The comfort lies in the language, not the situations. But that may not be much of a save. Literature is not supposed to be comfortable.

How It All Began, which is still Lively’s latest (2011) and may well be her last, was a delightful companion at the hospital. I remembered some story lines before I opened the book; others sprang forth when characters were introduced. The book works out a conceit that is implicit in every novel: the ramifications of chaos, known in chattering circles as “the butterfly effect.” All standard novels trace the working-out of an unpredictable chain reaction. Mr Elton arrives in Highbury; complications ensue (Emma). Lively’s contribution is a droll commentary, quite as if everything in her story were really happening, and she not making all of it up. She also invites us to believe that the story is set in motion by one root cause, the mugging of an elderly woman. That is a comfort, too, and one that we can safely accept, because “it’s only a novel,” and we look to fiction to organize life. In fact, of course, muggings are themselves caused by muggers, whose criminal behavior has its own causes. Everything has multiple — myriad — causes. The paradox of the butterfly effect is that it cannot be demonstrated in the real world.

Lively is a top-notch illusionist. Her characters may be unusual (although most are not), and we may not quite understand them (although we usually feel that we do), but they all have the presence of real people confronted by real circumstances. The first branching of Lively’s story occurs when Rose Donovan has to bring her mugged mother, Charlotte, home from the hospital. As a consequence, she cannot accompany her employer, Lord Peters, on a lecture junket to Manchester. Lord Peters, who is in his seventies and reluctant to travel alone, enlists his niece, Marion, to take Rose’s place. This substitution, in turn, produces three more complications, first because Marion has only the vaguest idea of what Lord Peters implicitly expects of a companion, and not only the train tickets but the lecture notes are left behind in London. She is also seated next to a banker at luncheon. Rose and the banker would have had little to talk about, but Marion and the banker are soon doing business. Finally, Marion leaves a text message, regretting that the Manchester trip will require a change of plans, on her lover’s mobile, and the message is discovered by the lover’s wife.

And so on. Each of the characters is shunted out of the ordinary and into an unexpected, although perfectly plausible, situation. And in every case, except perhaps one, everyone ends up more or less exactly where he or she began. Even the exception is not all that divergent. How It All Began twinkles with the suggestion that Penelope Lively has deliberately subverted her alleged project.

The odd thing is that I was finally experiencing something that I’d read about but never found: the novel that can be counted upon at any time for nothing less than friendship: for counsel, for comfort, for distraction, for laughter — all on demand. I’ve always had to be in the mood for any given writer, so it seems that I am always in the mood for Lively.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Not for me, but for Lively.


If the foregoing makes any sense, it’s tribute to a writerly detachment that I did not possess until late middle age. Kathleen and I were awakened this morning by some terrible news: the lawyer with whom Kathleen moved from her last firm to her current firm was arrested earlier today, on federal charges of conspiring to commit securities fraud. Ordinarily, this is not something that I should mention here, because it has nothing to do with Kathleen beyond the accident of association on other matters, representing other clients. But the arrest will be notorious because the client in the case, also arrested this morning, is Martin Shkreli, a young man who has been much in the news for jacking up the prices of drugs to which one of his businesses holds the patent, and also for paying $2 million — I can’t quite bring myself to follow this story — for a Wu-Tang Clan LP. The alleged fraud has nothing to do with either of these matters, either. But it is pointed out that the lawyer, Evan Greebel, used to work at one place (where the fraud is said to have been perpetrated) and now works at another, a pattern that fits Kathleen exactly. I was so certain that my son-in-law would piece the story together that I called my daughter to tell her all about it. She hadn’t heard the news yet, but she agreed with my anticipation, and was grateful not to have to wonder whether to be the one to bring it up.

So much is public record — all but the telephone call that brought us the news. All but the shock and sorrow. I saw a clip on CNBC of the defendants being walked across a Brooklyn Street. I couldn’t be much more grieved if Kathleen’s partner were my son.


Saturday 19th

Yesterday got away from me. Or perhaps I was never really there. Kathleen had to be up early, for a conference call — she has spent her life on the phone, since the news broke on Thursday morning — and, when she was done, she got dressed and went into work. I read the paper, and went back to bed. I dozed for hours, but I didn’t sleep; the atmosphere of agita, which is what sent me back to bed, saw to that. When I got up, I heated a bowl of soup. I had planned to go out for lunch, but my heart wasn’t in it. After the soup, I looked in the closet that we call “the attic,” and found not just a few but about a dozen packages of bubbled mailers for Kathleen’s 2016 calendar. I shouldn’t have to go to Staples after all! I was so happy that I almost looked forward to going to the Post Office.

Once dressed, I tucked five envelopes into my bag and headed over to our brutalist branch; truth to tell, the Farley Post Office hasn’t even got enough style to be called brutalist. A comparison with the branch on 70th Street speaks volumes to the socioeconomic history of the neighborhood. I forget the name of the latter branch, but it is an elegant, Frenchified Georgian gem, with marble and soft lighting everywhere. When the Farley branch was built, in the 1950s, Yorkville was a working-class neighborhood; the Third Avenue El was dismantled at about the same time. A gigantic, overlighted room is edged by what would be tellers’ counters in a bank, and most of them are usually shuttered. No matter how clean, the place is incorrigibly dingy. It conveys a sense of what life in Russia must have been like in Soviet times. Nobody goes to the Farley branch for fun.

Most of the windows were open yesterday, because of the holidays, and the line, which was not that long to begin with (I was thirteenth) moved along nicely. I was lucky to land at the window of a very helpful woman. Among other things, she stamped the two calendars that I was sending to Europe without obliging me to fill out customs forms, as clerks have always done in the past. And her scale was steady: each of the domestically-bound calendars rang up at $1.42. I was set to buy postage for a hundred calendars at $1.50 each, just to be sure that none would be returned for insufficient postage — in past years, there has been a differential of up to five cents, even though each package is absolutely identical to the others. But the nice lady convinced me that two 72¢ stamps on each envelope would do the trick. The current 72¢ stamp features a butterfly. Mother Nature hasn’t evolved a Christmas-colored butterfly yet, but one could wish for something closer to seasonal than yellow and black. But who will notice.Who’s complaining.

Keeping busy turned out to be a good idea. It didn’t distract me from the shocking upset of learning that the partner with whom Kathleen represented her most important clients had been arrested — news trumpeted to every corner of the earth, thanks to the notoriety of that other, former client (never Kathleen’s), with whom her partner was alleged to have conspired to break the law — but it kept me from wallowing. Today, I tidied the apartment, just as I used to do on Saturday afternoons, did a load of laundry, and baked bread. I baked bread twice, in fact, because the first pair of loaves was so slow to rise. Perhaps it was the weather. I ended up baking the two, and they weren’t all that runty. The second pair is in the oven now. I shall order a new package of yeast this week — there was something funny about the way it wouldn’t quite dissolve.

The bread will be sliced for French toast tomorrow. A neighbor is coming to brunch. I thought about sticky buns, but I should have had to do a little shopping, for pecans particularly. As it is, I’ll run out to buy a pineapple in the morning. I’ll core and slice it into rings, and then run it under the broiler. That and Nueske’s bacon ought to be enough for anybody.

I’ve almost settled on buying a tabletop Christmas tree, but we’ll see when we get there.


Better late than never: Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Trump Was Not on the Test
December 2015 (II)

Monday, December 7th, 2015

Monday 7th

Last night, I went to bed early — early, that is, considering that I spent almost the entire morning in bed, luxuriating in repose. I had spoken to Kathleen just before she went to bed, and I had felt for the first time that she had gone no farther than Australia; she was not blowing through a wormhole to some inaccessible galaxy. I rejoiced and relaxed. When I eventually got up, I had a good day. I managed to shelve all the poetry books together. I emptied and sorted the contents of a porcelain bowl into which I had been dumping the contents of pockets for years. I read a great deal, fascinated, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. When I went to bed, I set the alarm for seven o’clock.

It turned out to be a bumpy night. I would sleep for about an hour, after a good deal of dozing, and then I would wake up. At some point between five and six, I had just crawled back into bed when I heard the Whats App ping. Kathleen’s text told me that she was exhausted after an intense day of brainstorming about Bitcoin, and that she would struggle to stay up until eleven, seven my time. So I called her then and there. It was balm to hear her voice. She told me that the group had spent the evening at on a terrace at some well-known quai, from which she had taken “probably lousy” photographs of the Opera House. She was very glad about attending the Bitcoin workshop, for practical reasons as well as for the sheer excitement. She asked me for a wake-up call, at seven-thirty her time, three-thirty mine.

By the time Kathleen leaves Sydney, I’ll be an expert at telling you what the time is in New South Wales. Roughly, you subtract eight hours from the local time, and then add a day. To know what time it will be in New York when it is a given time in Sydney, you add eight hours and subtract a day. (This works better with the twenty-four hour clock.) As it happens, there is a certain accidental elegance about the time difference, at least at this time of year. The sixteen-hour difference invites a division of the day into three shifts — as, for example, the three shifts of doormen in our building. When New York begins the first shift, at midnight, Sydney is beginning the third, at four in the afternoon. This is the only shift in which the two cities share the same date. When New York goes into the second shift, Sydney goes into the first — of the next day. The problem with all this calculating is that I don’t know where the hell I am, or even what day of the week it is. It is Monday here but Tuesday there. Kathleen is already on the second day of her five-day workshop — well, she will be, when I wake her up this afternoon. I keep thinking that she will leave on Thursday, but for her it will be Friday. Her Friday will last a lot more than twenty-four hours, because after a few hours in the air, she will cross the International Date Line, and it will go on being Friday right through the change of planes at Los Angeles and nearly all the way to New York, where she will land between one and two in the morning on Saturday. It’s like watching a 3-D movie without the special glasses, only worse.


What’s wrong with those people? This seems to be the standard Northeast Corridor response to shootings out West. The one, and very terrible, incident that has hit close to home was the work of a clearly deranged young man: Adam Lanza’s parents split up over the proper way to deal with his antisocial behavior (and it’s hard to feel sorry for the mother who enabled him, only be murdered for her pains). I don’t suppose that many Northeasterners are waltzing around in serene confidence that a domestic terrorist shooting will not happen here. But we worry more about outsiders, and another 9/11.

What’s wrong with those people, I think, is that they’re unhappy in the America of today, and have no place to go. The West (including the Southwest) is our last frontier, beyond which there is nowhere. There has always been a residuum of disappointed people in the West. What’s new, I think, is the temperature of rhetorical violence in today’s political discourse. Donald Trump is of course the worst example by far: day after day, he invites his audiences to hate their neighbors. He and his followers believe that everyone else is a loser. But Republicans have been spewing vitriol for decades. They have been talking in polarized, we versus they, tropes since World War II. (“We versus they” sounds odd, I know, but I stick with it because it illuminates the grubby passivity of the standard usage, “us versus them.”)

Everything about our political life encourages partisan responses. Preaching for inclusiveness is not altogether unknown, but there is nothing in the way of true, persuasive leadership. I’m afraid that I’ve heard very little from President Obama that can’t be labeled “bromide.” Whatever his manner in the 2008 campaign, he has abandoned the possibly uncool approach of inspiring us to want to be our best selves. Neither he nor anyone else is engaging in dialogue with racists and libertarians; no one is trying to talk these people off the ledge from which their jumps may carry the nation to destruction. The ownership of an automatic weapon has become the emblem of stubborn/heroic resistance to a nanny state. How did that happen?

It happened because American élites, particularly those of the liberal persuasion, put too much reliance on the edifying power of progressive legislation. The first response to any problem is to propose a law that would obviate it. (In nine cases out of ten, the law already exists.) But genuinely liberal democratic states do not act in loco parentis. They do not maintain order by spanking the naughty. The naughty are shamed by their neighbors before their naughtiness becomes unruly.

American élites, seeking the rather impracticable sophistication of a modern, open state, one in which shaming played little part, not only invited members of the body politic to delegate social surveillance to the nation, but made it illegal, in many cases, not to do so. In one well-intentioned but retrospectively sad instance, local loitering laws were declared “unconstitutionally vague,” way back in the early Sixties. It is true that loitering laws were enforced with a racist bias, but doing away with the laws themselves was probably not the answer. I should have argued (with the wisdom of hindsight) for a more fine-grained response. I should have invalidated arrests that could be shown to be racist, and I should have weighted each case for its economic element. (If poor whites were shooed out of nice neighborhoods along with poor blacks, then the racism charge would not stand.)

My example of loitering may seem wrong-headed, given my premise. Loitering laws were struck down. But the opinions that informed the Supreme Court decisions about loitering had the effect of new laws, and the laws that they struck down were highly discretionary tools in the hands of local enforcement, which presumably acted in concord with the expectations of local society. That was indeed the essential legal argument against them: they were too discretionary (“vague”) to amount to any kind of law. But discretionary enforcement is still distinguishable from arbitrary enforcement.

In the back of my mind, I’m playing over Chapman Pincher’s remarks in support of Enoch Powell, the conservative British politician who, because he argued that the large-scale immigration of ex-colonials from the Caribbean and Pakistan was a mistake, got branded as a racist. I’ll have more to say about this later. Forty and more years ago, figures like Powell were regarded as radical reactionaries — crazy people. Today, however, their positions have been adopted in this country by mainstream Republicans, who want to promise that whites will remain the majority “racial” group. Forty and more years ago, you could tell white Englishmen (the only kind, in their view) that it was discreditable to view other peoples as indigestibly alien, but you can’t tell that to white Americans today.


One of the books that surfaced in the bout of reshelving that I wrote about last Friday was Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. I have no recollection of buying it nor any idea of why I bought it. It is only recently that I have taken a practical interest in memoirs, and I learned from Birkerts’s first well-known book, The Gutenberg Elegies, that he and I do not judge alike. Reading the first chapter, I fairly boiled over with objections. Objections, that is, to the notion that Birkerts’s generalizations about truth, life, and memory applied to me. Where I felt most volcanic was on the subject of childhood, which seems, for Birkerts as for many other writers (such as Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, and Dillard), to be the fons et origo of memoir. I vehemently believe that my childhood was only superficially formative: I learned all about table manners. The me who I am now was always there, and my attitude toward childhood while I had to endure it was one of relentless impatience. I longed for it to end not because I wished to be autonomous and to call my own shots — indeed, I was afraid of that eventuality — but because I needed to know about the world. From the dawn of my consciousness it was clear that most sure things about the adult world, when tested, turned out to be unexamined piffle. My impatience with childhood was, therefore, not inspired by admiration for the grown-ups. If I had thought of knowledge as a tool of heroism, I should have wanted to grow up so that I could save the planet.

I did not associate heroism with intelligence; nor did anyone else. Intelligence, in the wondrous Fifties, was associated with subversion, with treason. Any intelligence that was not required to pass a test was to be regarded as tumorous, and probably malignant. We were living in the best of all possible worlds. Not! It is true that I never gave much thought to the victims of social injustice. That is because I believed, as I believe still, that social injustice would disappear if anybody were living in the best of all possible worlds. Which is to say that I thought that nobody was living in the best of all possible worlds in those days. I should have had to walk miles from my home to encounter serious disadvantage, but I always knew that the long walk would not take me through any part of paradise.

My only question about childhood is this: how did I know that it was so bogus? Why does innocence seem to have been so conspicuously lacking?


After saying good-night to Kathleen, I puffed up the pillows and finished the Le Carré. More anon.


Tuesday 8th

Curiously, reading Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir is reminding me of things that I haven’t remembered in a long time. For example:

While I was a lawyer in the Law Department at E F Hutton & Co, a national brokerage firm or “wire house” that disappeared from the face of the earth shortly after I left it in 1987 (my last job), something very unusual happened. In the Law Department, we handled customer complaints, negotiating settlements, participating in arbitration proceedings, and hiring outside lawyers to deal with lawsuits. (We also dealt with certain internal affairs. For years, I reported to the General Counsel on the “outside business activities” of the stockbrokers. Quite a few brokers, I was surprised to learn, were also commercial airline pilots. This did not present any conflict of interest or other problem. My favorite example of an outside business activity that did present a problem — and a rather bulky one it was — was the publication by one of our brokers of a book entitled Riches Without Risk.) We had absolutely nothing to do with securities law.

I don’t remember how a particular customer complaint metastasized into a complaint about the Law Department itself, but it so happened that a number of our attorneys were deposed. No, we were not fired. We were, rather, required to give sworn, out-of-court testimony before a court reporter. The questions were put to us by the plaintiff’s attorneys. (In our part of the action, E F Hutton & Co was always the defendant.)

I don’t know why I had to give a deposition. I don’t remember the name or the face of the colleague whose activities formed the basis of the complaint; I seem to remember (what does that mean?) that the lawsuit came to nothing; that it was abandoned in the discovery phase. All I’m sure of is that I was asked, as I expected to be asked, about office procedures — the nuts and bolts of our workday.

We were also asked our opinions of what our colleague did or did not do. This is the part that I remember most clearly, because I steadfastly replied to these invitations to speculate with three little words: “I don’t know.”

And I didn’t know. I could surmise, I could make a good guess. But I didn’t know. Saying “I don’t know” was not evasive; it was the truth. And saying it, again and again, was perhaps the most resolute thing that I have ever done. It felt horribly rude, even unnatural. When someone asks you a question, your instinct is to answer as helpfully as you can. If you don’t know the answer, then you offer a good guess. “I don’t know, but I think I saw that book in Ben’s office.” When asked how my colleague handled his caseload generally, or the plaintiff’s complaint in particular, I had to resist this impulse, which I could override but not suppress. Every time I overrode it, I felt a bit more monstrous, more sociopathic. I was a bastard, I was a prick: I could feel the insults that such conduct would have elicited in more vernacular circumstances. But I stuck with it, and had the consolation of feeling quite proud of myself.

If I were to write a rigorous memoir, it wouldn’t be very long. “I don’t know.” Because I don’t remember. The only detail of the foregoing anecdote that I am absolutely sure of, besides my employment at E F Hutton & Co, is that I answered a lot of questions by saying “I don’t know.” I remember that much because it was simply unforgettable. Doing the right thing is often very difficult, very painful. But only rarely, in circumstances that one might well call “tragic,” does doing the right thing feel sharply like doing the wrong thing, the bad thing. Lawyers, who do things that look to others like the wrong thing, the bad thing, all the time, have been trained — indoctrinated, really — by law school professors to see things otherwise. It’s unusual for lawyers to sit in the witness box themselves, and submit to cross examination.

Now, how do I know all of that, that business about lawyers and law school indoctrination and so forth? Because I am married to a lawyer, a classmate at a particular law school, and we reminisce often about the intellectual trauma of our first year. (Kathleen has a vivid way of describing it, but I don’t remember her exact words, so I’ll just say that it sounds like a horror film involving brainwashing.) I don’t have to root about in memories that are approaching their fortieth anniversary.

On the whole, I don’t think much about my past. I am stung by certain unwanted memories that snap at me spontaneously; they all involve misconduct on my part and they can still flood me with shame. I try to find comfort in the fact that there are not very many of them. (But how many?) I have a lot of general impressions about the course of my life, but few reliable still images, so to speak. And the things that I do remember clearly are characterized by the element of unusualness. I have always preferred my life to be outwardly usual, because it frees my mind. So the unusual things are not terribly common, and either I don’t register them at all or I remember them clearly, but meaninglessly.

For example, I remember driving from Bronxville to the Woodlawn subway station on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, so that I could pick up my friend Michael, who lived in Manhattan (just a block from where I’ve lived for decades). I don’t know why I didn’t drive into the city to fetch him, but I surmise that he took the subway because it was cheaper than the commuter train; for both of us, simply being on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, alongside Woodlawn Cemetery, was an adventure. On top of this, Michael brought me a treat, one that I had asked for. I had asked him to go to Sam Goody’s and buy, if it was available, a recording on Deutsche Gramophon by an ensemble directed by Herbert von Karajan of Mozart’s Divertimento K 334. Which he did. Why I asked him to do this — had I gone to the Sam Goody’s in Cross County Center, not far from home, and discovered that they didn’t have it? — I have no idea.

This recollection is like a snapshot in that it represents an actual event or moment but is embalmed in a great cloud of So What? I wish I knew how to flesh it out, by telling you which of my parents’ cars I was driving (a blue Oldsmobile comes to mind, but that may be corrupting influence of a car that I had in law school), or what I was wearing, or how characteristically cheeky it was of me to ask Michael to go out of his way to buy me a record that I just had to have. (How did I even know about this divertimento of Mozart’s?)

And, come to think of it, it might have been a different LP: Eileen Farrell singing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung.

Kathleen and I took our honeymoon at an inn in New Hampshire, not far from where my aunt and uncle and some of my cousins lived. I am reminded of it every time I hear songs from the Hall & Oates album, Private Eyes. But I didn’t know a single one of those songs at the time. It was only when we came home that we got the record. I suppose that still-lively memories of the inn in New Hampshire got mixed up with the new music. And the only thing that I am really sure of here, aside from the effect of the songs, is that I have long been mystified by this association. Perhaps the mystification is itself a mistake. Maybe, in fact, I did know the songs. Did I bring a boombox along on the honeymoon? Did we have a cassette tape of Private Eyes? I don’t remember one way or the other. All that I remember is that, for years now, I have thought how odd it was that the songs make me think of a trip that took place before I knew them.

I don’t know.


Wednesday 9th

How black can political despair get? In all of today’s Times, the statement that I most fully agreed with was this:

“Anyone who thinks@realDonaldTrump comments will hurt him don’t know the temperature of the American ppl,” the radio host Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter.

On the Op-Ed page, Frank Bruni scolded the Donald for his addiction to attention; I wondered who needed to read, or would benefit from reading, this column. Because: The problem is not Donald Trump. The problem is that Americans seem to be crowding into meeting halls to hear him. The only thing I really want to know is how many Americans. I want Nate Silver’s squad of data sifters to keep track of Trump’s support in bodies. That way, I can keep my horror to reasonable proportions.

The Times reported on the worldwide dismay at Trump’s call for a ban on non-citizen Muslim entry into the United States. This dismay is largely official, which makes sense, because it is the crust of officials, a worldwide club of élite managers, that constitutes Trump’s prime target. He’s only going after Muslims because he wants to whip up his fans into a frenzy that will break that crust. “Down with the leaders!” That is Trump’s message. When pressed for a detailed second step, Trump fails utterly. “We’ll figure it out.”

Donald Trump wants attention. How long could his pre-eminence endure, I wonder, if it were challenged by those who want not attention but power? I can see Ted Cruz signing Trump’s death warrant.

Laura Ingraham is right, I’m afraid (very afraid): too many Americans have given up, not so much on our way of government, which they don’t really understand, as on the men and women who show up in the news as political leaders.

Meanwhile, in the Business section, you will find a room-temperature piece about private equity returns that reads like a communication from another planet, if, that is, you can still keep the Trump nonsense in mind. Also the news of a proposed merger of DuPont and Dow, which will be followed by the consolidated company’s breakup into three pieces. Bill Gates is “nudging” world leaders and “tech billionaires” to “team up on clean technology.” Business as usual. The lone interesting story is about a new study showing that Walmart’s Chinese imports have displaced 400,000 American jobs. Hirocho Tabuki handles the story well, providing a lot of comment that is critical of the study. A Walmart spokesman claims that job losses are offset by job creations, in such fields as transportation, &c. There’s plenty to think about in this piece, not least that 400,000 is not a lot of jobs. We need to know more, because economic insecurity at the local level has a negative impact on the temperature of the American people.


For the moment, I’m going to call it a mutable icon. That’s something of a contradiction in terms, I know, but I think that offers a better description of what I’m going to talk about than memory does.

When I was thirteen, my life changed. My body had already changed; I was fully grown. It happened very quickly, and without the glandular swings that can make adolescence a living hell. Now my personality changed, or rather, it emerged — the one that I still have. We had moved house the year before, and my electric trains — a complicated but underfunded operation — were left behind. My childhood seems to have been left behind with them.

My interest in music underwent a rapid evolution. I had always listened to my parents’ records, which were mostly original cast albums of Broadway shows. One that wasn’t featured a choral group, and songs such as “I Love Paris” and “No Other Love” — very haunting, somehow. There was a recording of “You Belong to Me” — I’m thinking that it was Vera Lynn, and not Patti Page. From this song I learned that it told me everything I wanted to know about the pyramids along the Nile and Old Algiers. Some fond adult introduced me to Mantovani. The Mantovani album of (grossly cut) Strauss waltzes led to the purchase of a much more beautiful LP: Six waltzes by Waldteufel, played by a real orchestra under a real conductor (but I forget which and who). Joining the chorus at Bronxville High, I was soon singing bits of Mozart’s Requiem, and that, I can state with unusual assurance, was my first “classical record.”

I made the mistake of mentioning Mantovani to the chorus director, in front of a clutch of seniors. The ensuing blast of scorn taught me a highly useful discretion. It did not dampen my eclecticism, but it did teach me that if I were going to venture to talk about serious music, I had better know more about it. But that could wait. The seniors who talked about classical music were dismissive nerds. I was to discover that this was typical of all the boys who knew anything about the arts. (I was given no reason to think that there existed girls who listened to Mozart. Older women, yes, but not girls.) I was to discover later still that hermetic superiority was a feature of modernism itself. Modernism and dismissiveness alike made me uncomfortable. I preferred solitude to competition — another lifelong trait.

At some point in that year when I was thirteen, Handel’s Water Music became the thing I liked to listen to best. The Water Music is an element of the icon. So is Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Although I spent a great deal of time with books in those days, I was not a very good reader. Whenever I came up against something that I didn’t understand, I relaxed my focus and drifted effortlessly through the pages. In the very long run, this turned out not to be a bad thing, but in the short run it filled my head not with the contents of books but with abominable conceit, a portrait gallery of me reading now this book, now that one, and now the next. I was so aware that reading adult books for pleasure was an unusual pastime for anyone my age, much less one with my physical attributes, that actual reading required extra effort. A little competition might have shaped me up, but only at the cost of being able to say, as I can now, that my experience of the arts has been led by love, by the pursuit of pleasure.

So, there I was, reading A Tale of Two Cities, with the Water Music playing in the background. The novel, I knew, was written in the Nineteenth Century, but it was set in the 1790s. The Water Music, as best scholars could make out, was first played shortly before 1720. My grasp of history was still sufficiently inchoate for me to bunch everything together in a sort of Georgian moment. A George I moment. The liner notes told me the tale about the Water Music. It was a musical apology, a peace offering. Handel was still the court musician in Hanover — officially, that is; in fact, he had long been AWOL, first in Rome and then in London — when the Elector of Hanover became the King of England. The new king discovered that his old music director was already, one might at best say “prematurely,” very busy and very famous in his new capital. The extent to which George I honestly gave a damn about any of this is unclear. He blandly continued to patronize Handel. Handel was such an exponent of prevailing Hanoverian dynamics that he was disliked by George II and adored by George III.

I imagined George I, as we see him in his state portraits, listening to the Water Music. An unlikely scene, in fact; but I imagined it to the degree of inhabiting it. There was a quiet but bizarre synchronicity of images: me sitting in my room; George I sitting on his throne — both of us listening to the Water Music. Dicken’s novel of the French Revolution was the unlikely catalyst of this magic.

This is my mutable icon. It is not the memory of a particular moment. As a self-image, it was not permanent. But it is the first in a series of “Our Baby” photographs, all of them variants of the icon. Throw in a candlestick and a cup of Earl Grey tea, as I did whenever I could circumvent my mother’s firm opposition to playing with matches and eating or drinking in my room, and you have a picture of my life as, aged thirteen, I badly wanted it to be. For of course the icon was aspirational. Most of the time, I was a bored, restless teenager, discovering new things to do every day but taking forever to learn how to do any of them, watching too much television and eating too many Fig Newtons.

I lived, in effect, two intellectual lives, for what happened in school had nothing to do with what happened in my room. School presented an entirely different, and, in my view, rather useless, approach to knowledge — the pleasure-free approach. As I grew older, the parallel lives bent a bit and headed toward a future intersection. Amazingly, the intersection occurred while I was a law student, thirty years old. But that’s another mystery. Is it another icon?


Thursday 10th

Ever since Thanksgiving Day, part of me has smouldered in a slow burn. The little fire was lighted by the Op-Ed piece that Kevin Dowd, given the floor by his sister, Maureen, offered Times readers for holiday dégustation. I disagreed with his estimation of the Republican candidates, although I sympathized with some of his reasons for supporting them. What bothered me much more was the tendentious self-assurance with which he overlooked inconvenient downsides. To begin at the beginning:

Donald Trump: With all his bombast and incivility, Trump has joyfully debunked political correctness for the complete fraud that it is. With his talent for making debate ratings soar, he has allowed all the other candidates to be seen and heard at celestial levels unreachable without him. He has touched a nerve because people are fed up with liberal groups being offended at every slight, real or imagined. (I can assure you none of these people were taught by Jesuits.)

It’s certainly true that Trump has livened up the campaign. But at what terrible cost? And would Dowd be as cheery about Trump today, only two weeks later, after Trump’s malignant proposal to ban entry by non-citizen Muslims? I certainly hope not. Another favorite:

Marco Rubio: Young, whip smart and self-assured, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign affairs and is a stunning contrast to Hillary Clinton both in generation and vision.

If anything can be determined about Rubio, it is that he puts Hillary Clinton to shame as an opportunist. His defection from the Gang of Eight appears to have been all too characteristic of the man. Rubio is whip smart all right, when it comes to determining which way the breeze is trending.

The comparison of Ben Carson to Dwight Eisenhower is perhaps Dowd’s perfect flame. This is nothing but the smart-ass provocation to which Irish-Americans, although they have no monopoly on the gambit, have given their own twinkling sarcasm, which opens up wiggle room for treating everything as a joke. The proposition is cleverly made: “Not since Eisenhower has a complete novice politician been so legitimate a contender.” This doesn’t mean that Carson is any good. What it means is that, if you disagree, if you object to framing the talk-circuit surgeon with the coordinator of Allied forces, it’s up to you to name another “novice politician.” But before you can think of Ross Perot, you have to swallow the insult, because that’s what the comparison is meant to be. Which is to say that Dowd is perfectly aware that his remark will reduce most liberals to sputtering rage.

In short, you have to be tough as well as whip-smart (which presumably Dowd is as well). And it’s the note of toughness that rankles. It becomes the key of the second half of the piece, which trembles patriotically about national weakness and American exceptionalism and the heroism of our police forces. Dowd’s rhetorical swagger may be less ridiculous than Trump’s “bombast and incivility,” but it is no less offensive. For eventually you must make a choice, between stoic, vale-of-tears conservatism such as Dowd’s, with its presumptions of male supremacy, and the humane generosity of spirit that Montaigne, initially a would-be stoic, learned from the writing of his Essays. You have to decide whether Dowd’s way of talking, and the worldview implicit in his style of speech, is acceptable in public discourse.

On balance, I admire the Jesuits. They introduced a briskness to serious discussion that made it accessible to intelligent non-specialists. Conservatives of the ancien régime were probably right to discern seeds of revolution in Jesuit teaching. But the Jesuits were inclined to the vanity of always having an answer for everything. They disliked saying “I don’t know,” so instead, they said a lot of things that were plausible and glib. Kevin Dowd assures us that he was taught by Jesuits.


I have often complained of the lack of a synonym for “humanism” that isn’t grubby with the fingerprints of (a) secular, atheist humanists, for whom the whole point of humanism is to erase the role of gods in human affairs and (b) neo-Thomists, whose objective is just the opposite. What I mean by humanism is the fundamentality of human beings — people — as they live together, in all their myriad uniqueness.

I have come to wonder, though, if anything called “humanism” isn’t the wrong tree to bark up. I can state my misgivings in two ways. I don’t intend to take people “as they are,” and I’m not interested in individuals as such. I’m interested in individuals working together while remaining individuals, learning how to make the most of both cooperation and disagreement. I don’t want everyone to be the same, but I do want everyone to make an effort to live helpfully and comfortably with everyone else. I don’t really endorse our national motto, E pluribus unum. I don’t want “one thing” to result from the bustling of many. Union is not unity.

I’ve also become disenchanted with the language of “society.” Margaret Thatcher was a creep, given the context, to say that there is no such thing as society, but she was right; there isn’t. She was especially right in that society does not exist at the national level. What I mean by society is a very local affair: the people I pass in the elevator or up and down 86th Street. It is composed of familiar strangers. (In a small town, of course, everybody does know everybody else, and it become possible to talk about “community,” but community can be stifling, and of course bright people, exceptional by definition, often find life in their communities to be suffocating. Such, at least, is the story of every other newcomer to New York.)

I value peace and stability, but I also believe that intelligent change is vital. I dread violence and stupidity. I think that violence and stupidity are the fruit of loneliness and alienation; peace and stability are rooted in trust and decency. Expedience is costly and corrosive. Is there a word for my outlook?


Friday 11th

Last night, while doing the ironing, I watched Mystic Pizza. I was watching it for what has become the usual reason: a particular actor was in it. In this case, the actor was Matt Damon. Did you know that he was in Mystic Pizza? I was surprised to find it at the bottom of his credits at IMDb. He was seventeen or eighteen when it was shot, and you wouldn’t recognize him if you weren’t on the lookout. I’d almost given up waiting for him to appear when, there he was, at a family dinner, the younger brother, known as “Steamer,” of one of the supporting male leads’ character. It was very small part, in a single scene dominated by all the other actors. And it would have been a pleasant surprise, like spotting Lucille Ball in Top Hat, if it had been a surprise. But it was interesting anyway to see Matt Damon way back when.

Released in 1988, Mystic Pizza is coming up on its thirtieth year, and it looks it. Julia Roberts, whose first big role was Daisy Arujo, the wild and cynical romantic in the troika of young women who waitress at the eponymous pizzeria, is all big hair and puffy dresses. She looks best with her hair combed straight down and her body clad in a man’s dress shirt. As in another movie from 1988, Working Girl, Roberts’s exuberant look is supposed to register as low-class and uneducated. The posh women in Mystic Pizza have what would now be regarded as big hair, too, but theirs is more restrained, more coiffed.

Unlike Working Girl, which tells one story, Mystic Pizza tells three — or four, if you consider the Everyday Gourmet plotline, such as it is. There are two sisters, Daisy and Kat (Annabeth Gish), and their best friend, Jojo (Lili Taylor). The action, rather ingeniously, is footed by the displacement of a summer story. Daisy and Kat both run into men who ordinarily wouldn’t be hanging around the Connecticut coast in cold weather. (Jojo’s counterbalancing story suits her with a local boyfriend, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, an actor who had already established his cred in Full Metal Jacket.) One of these men is a married architect, working on someone else’s summer home, with a wife in London; the other has been thrown out of law school for cheating on an exam (played by William Moses and Adam Storke respectively). I found both of these stories of socioeconomic mismatch to be trite when the movie came out, and I still do.

There is nothing about the world of privilege as represented here that you couldn’t learn from any issue of Vanity Fair. That family dinner that I mentioned, the one with Matt Damon, is particularly painful, because the former law students’ parents and aunt are so clumsy about snubbing Daisy. When the mother says that there’s nothing wrong with being a waitress, she might as well be saying that there is nothing wrong with being Portuguese. I’ve been to a few dinners in which someone from the outside world was being introduced to the family, and the reception was invariably determined by personal appeal rather than snobbish standoffishness. Nor was it taken so seriously. Families don’t invest in real scrutiny until the fourth or the fifth dinner.

As for the married architect, Daisy calls the cliché before Kat even knows how seriously she has fallen for her situationally single employer (she babysits his daughter). It turns out to be no more and no less. Kat’s heart is broken when, upon the sudden return of his wife, the architect gives her, if not a cold, then a hangdog shoulder. But Kat has Yale to look forward to; she’ll find a more eligible cute guy among the undergraduates. At the end, when Jojo finally marries her boyfriend (in a twist, he refuses to have sex with her unless she does), Leona, the pizzeria owner, hands Kat a fat envolope of cash. “You three girls are our children,” she says. The former law student is still in the running when the curtain comes down, but you know that Daisy is going to give him the right kind of hard time. (His father gave him the wrong kind.) And no sooner does the Everyday Gourmet tell his television audience that Mystic Pizza’s Mystic Pizza is “superb” than the phone rings. Leona tells the caller that reservations are not necessary. Big win all round.

A law school friend of ours was living in Mystic at the time. (She was working in nearby New London.) She drove us around, and taught us that Mystic Pizza was shot largely in neighboring Stonington, a far more picturesque seaside village. This information symbolized for me the air of fantasy in the movie.


There’s no need for me to say any more about public affairs this week; it’s all in the first section of today’s Times. The essence is captured in Simon Romero’s report concerning a glass of wine tossed in someone’s face: “Some Brazilians also pondered what the encounter says about a self-obsessed and increasingly polarized political establishment.” Show me a political establishment in a liberal democracy that isn’t self-obsessed, as well as increasingly polarized! Please! Paul Krugman nails the two flavors of populist discontent, European and American, in his Op-Ed piece. There’s even a story about how Hillary Clinton is no longer laughing at or about Donald Trump. Took her a while, eh?

What’s depressing isn’t so much the apocalyptic cast of political discourse as the absence of positive critique. No one seems to have any serious idea of a better way. For several generations now, political establishments, business organizations, and news media have recruited men and women who perform well on tests. (What these prodigies retain of their tested learning is very uncertain.) While it is true that life presents endless challenges, life’s tests are not written by an older generation of educators. Agility with ignorance and the unknown is not a testable skill. For that, you have to look to designers, the creators of everything from smartphones to the software that operates them. Insofar as designers are formally schooled, they enter their schools with demonstrable talents, like the journeymen of old. They show up already knowing how to make things, like that little boy in Texas with his clock. (It is richly symbolic of education today that an object was immediately suspected of being a “device.”) I’m not suggesting that designers have much to tell us about how to run the world. What their example does suggest, though, is that the prevailing template for training élites is long on abstraction and lacking in practical experience.

That’s why our élites — in politics, business, and the press — talk only to themselves. Everything outside the élite bubble is perceived as a management problem. Which is fine, so long as the non-élite population is willing, however unenthusiastically, to be managed.

Twenty-five or thirty years of rather disastrous economic mismanagement have inclined significant numbers of people to ignore the élites and to listen to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and others of their ilk — fear-mongerers who in the happier days of Les Trente Glorieuses were written off as cranks. Ms Clinton has just received the memo: cranks are in. Neither she nor anyone else in the establishment has a clue about how to respond to cranks with anything but laughter. That is why there has been no anti-Trump. The élite cannot produce a character with, say, Michael Bloomberg’s money and Christopher Hitchens’s wit. So Trump’s insults go uncontested.

Trump was not on the test.


Bon week-end à tous!