Archive for January, 2016

Gotham Diary:
Hope & Ignorance
January 2016 (IV)

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Monday 25th

The Sunday paper came this morning. Did the Times even print a paper today? I won’t mind if it doesn’t; Monday’s paper is almost always the most disposable. But for the Metropolitan Diary, which nowadays seems determined to show that, changes in style notwithstanding, New York is pretty much what it was in 1925, the Monday paper doesn’t have anything going for it, and its relative thinness — more a matter of content, at least for home subscribers (who get so many of the Sunday sections on Saturday), than of bulk — causes a small weekly spasm of withdrawal. On the other hand, plowing through the Review — a nosegay of bloviation (by regular contributors) and temptation (teasers for forthcoming books) — on a Monday morning can be harrowing. Monday’s paper, after all, reflects the severe cutback in leisure that Monday brings.

The big news — the only news, really — is that Michael Bloomberg is once again considering a third-party bid for the presidency. And that headline is really all there is to the story, for the moment. It will take a few minutes for reactions to accumulate. Maybe the phantom Monday Times is full of responses to a proposed Bloomberg candidacy. Everybody read about it online yesterday. Would Bloomberg get my vote? How many ways are there to say ‘yes’?

The big story, however, is the compare-and-contrast account of the water situation in Flint, Michigan: compare what officials said, once the decision was made to detach the city from Detroit’s supply (which was, it seems, “expensive” — however safe), with what was actually the case. This is perhaps the most dramatic tale of élite failure in our time, and I hope that it will be anatomized down to the last group-think minutes of the smallest political commission. The denial and disregard of the toxic pollution of a necessity of life by elected and appointed officials is so dire that one hears tumbrils over the horizon. What is keeping the good people of Flint from lynching the city manager, one wonders. Perhaps he has prudently left town. It difficult to fight off the conviction that, after due judicial process, Governor Snyder ought to be put to death by robots wielding lead pipes.

Meanwhile, snow. Looking at the Times’s Web site this morning, I see a lot about snow removal but nothing about store restocking. Not that I’ll need to shop for a few days yet. I still have the makings of Chicken Tetrazzini on hand, not to mention a Carbonnade à la Flamande that needs no more than sauce-finishing and a sliced baguette. As soon as the new pizza stone arrives, I can get back in the pizza business. The old stone broke because it was round, and I had to store it vertically. Inevitably, it did a wheelie, tipped over, and shattered. No more round pizza stones. King Arthur, source of the replacement, advises me to leave the new one on the bottom shelf of the oven. I’ll give that a try. I’m told that the stone, along with some re-usable sheets of parchment (now declared to be a necessity in baking pizza at home, probably because they reduce dependence on cornmeal, which scatters everywhere and then burns, like the crumbs at the bottom of the toaster), yeast and yet another sourdough starter, is in transit. Yes, but when will it get here?

Although I spent about four hours in the kitchen on Saturday, prepping this and baking that, and, more important, straightening a few cupboards, I did a lot of reading over the weekend. In the journals, there was Heather Havrilevsky on Nicholas Sparks (Bookforum) and Tanya Gold on the Royal Family (Harper’s), shrieks both. There was Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels (1955), which I pulled down from the shelf for pleasure. And there was Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1587? 1592?), which — well, I forget why I decided to re-read it. The decision was made a few years ago. When the Penguin Classic arrived (Five Revenge Tragedies, edited by Emma Smith; the first Quarto version of Hamlet (1603) is included — Polonius appears as “Corambis,” and the two flunkies immortalized by Tom Stoppard as “Rossencraft” and “Gilderstone”), I read the first couple of scenes of Act I but then stopped, defeated by the dreadful writing. In a more conscientious frame of mind, I pulled it down again last week, and struggled through it in a couple of days, finishing it on Saturday afternoon.

Having just read the Rosencranz and Guildenstern version of Hamlet, I was well-prepped to deplore Thomas Kyd’s prosody, which is long on witless repetitions and longer on witless rhymes. Consider the opening lines of 2.4, delivered by Horatio in what turns out to be his last scene. (Despite his expectation of security, he is murdered at the end of it.)

Now that the night begins with sable wings
To overcloud the brightness of the sun,
And that in darkness pleasures may be done,
Come Bel-Imperia, let us to the bower,
And there in safety pass a pleasant hour.

I don’t mind sharing what this reminded me of:

To you, my little prairie flower,
I’m thinking of you every hour.

That’s the poem that Daniel Leeson reads, having written it down on a sheet of paper, to Lucy Warriner, in The Awful Truth, while Lucy’s husband, Jerry, lurks behind the doorway, armed with a pencil, which he surreptitiously brushes against Lucy’s ribs, making her giggle inappropriately. The terrible thing about these verses is that they really are deathless! Their inanity is unsurpassed.

Though now you’re just a friend to me,
I wonder what the end will be. [Tickle]
Oh, you would make my life divine
If you would change your name to mine.

In my senior year at Blair, I wrote a paper on The Spanish Tragedy. We were given a list of works to choose from, and this was one of them. I can only imagine what drew me to it. The subtitle, perhaps (“Hieronimo’s mad againe”), or the promise of betrayal and blood. But all the gore in the world can’t make up for the complete lack of psychological shading. I dimly recall being distressed by the play’s tedium, and I’m sure that my paper did not get a very high mark. And how lucky we are that the name “Bel-Imperia” did not catch on.

Less Than Angels reminded me of Eileen Myles, the poet who has been much in the news because — I forget why. Myles has called for men to stop writing books for fifty years and making movies for a hundred. This makes a lot of sense to me, although if I am offered the chance to publish a book I shall not decline. When I was a boy, it was doubted that women were really capable of men’s work; a generation later, we have reached a stalemate in which women are permitted to do anything so long as they accept half-pay. If only more men would step out of the working world for a while, becoming dependent upon their wives, we might rectify this imbalance.

Less Than Angels is infused with a tamped-down impatience with <sigh. men. It bubbles away, just below the laughter. Every now and then it is allowed to spew forth, but only for a moment, and only through the cross mouth of Miss Clovis, the administrative battleaxe who likes nothing so much as needling men. The men in Miss Clovis’s life are mostly anthropologists, and Pym has a field day studying them.

The most romantic character in the book is not the nineteen year-old anthropology student, Deirdre Swan, who would be the heroine of a more orthodox novel, but her spinster aunt, Rhoda Wellcome. Rhoda is a Mary who would willingly be Martha to the right man — a quantity unlikely to materialize in her shy, protected life. Rhoda is one of Pym’s miracle characters, respectable, churchgoing, more than a little strait-laced, but lovable withal. Rhoda is always learning things. Here she is at a dinner that she and her sister are giving for an assortment of friends and neighbors, including Deirdre’s first love, Tom Mallow. Rhoda’s sister starts a conversation by asking what people eat in Africa.

“The Hadzapi tribe will eat anything that is edible except for the hyena,'”declared Alaric precisely.

“Oh, well…” Mabel spread out her hands in a hopeless little gesture.

“The butcher wouldn’t offer you hyena anyway,” giggled Phyllis.

“Most African tribes are very fond of meat when they can get it,” said Tom.

“Yes, and many of them relish even putrescent meat,” said Alaric solemnly.

“Do they understand the principles of cooking as we know it?” asked Rhoda.

“Oh, yes, a good many of them do,” said Alaric. “In some very primitive societies, though, they would just fling the unskinned carcase on the fire and hope for the best.”

“Yes, like that film of the Australian aborigines we saw at the Anthropology Club,” said Deirdre. “They flung a kangaroo on the fire and cooked it like that.”

“Now, who would like some potato salad?” said Rhoda, feeling that there was something a little unappetizing about the conversation. She had imagined that the presence of what she thought of as clever people would bring about some subtle change in the usual small talk. The sentences would be like bright jugglers’ balls, spinning through the air and being deftly caught and thrown up again. But she saw now that that conversation could also be compared to a series of incongruous objects, scrubbing-brushes, dish-cloths, knives, being flung or hurtling rather than spinning, which were sometimes not caught at all but fell to the ground with resounding thuds. In the haze brought about by Malcolm’s cocktail, she saw the little dark-skinned aborigines, swinging the kangaroo by its legs and hurtling it on to the fire. Certainly she had to admit that the conversation was different from what it usually was and perhaps that was the best that could be expected. (146-7)

Tom Mallow, for all his county background, is no more a hero than Deirdre is a heroine, and he comes to a Waughian end back in Africa. The older woman that Tom leaves for callow Deirdre is far more interesting. Catherine Oliphant writes advice and fiction for women’s magazines; it does not go without saying that she rarely follows her own advice. She has a marvelous scene with an aunt of Tom’s who “drops in” for a conversation that is right out of La Traviata, as Catherine herself points out. The aunt is too late: she is almost disappointed to learn that Tom is no longer living in sin with a woman so poised, chic, and intelligent as Catherine. This is not, however, to suggest that Catherine is Our Kind. There is a corresponding scene at the end that Pym handles just as well, and perhaps even better, by resisting classical echoes and even closure itself. Tom’s sister, a countrywoman, summons Catherine and Deirdre to her club in St James’s; Tom’s first love, whose first love appears to be golden retrievers, is also of the party. It is decided that Tom’s papers, currently en route from Africa, ought to be sent to Miss Clovis; beyond that, connection is resisted. Pym shows why this must be so.

Catherine did not think it would matter very much how they dressed since it would be most unlikely that they would attain the standard set by Josephine and Elaine.

When Catherine and Deirdre entered the lounge of the club, Catherine’s suspicions were proved correct, for they had hardly set foot on the soft carpet before two women, both wearing well-cut grey suits, small hats and pearls, and carrying fur wraps, stood up and advanced toward them. It was perhaps humiliating, Catherine felt, that she and Deirdre should be so easily recognized, hatless, in loose tweed coats and flat shoes. Deirdre had scraped back her loose and flowing hair into a kind of tail and darkened her eyebrows so much that she looked quite fierce. Catherine was just herself, but had made an effort to be neater than usual. (250-1)

Less Than Angels is not entirely misanthropist. There is a young man called Digby Fox, initially part of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern pair of poor young graduate students (the other winds up marrying a debutante and going into Leadenhall Street). When Tom Mallow leaves for Africa, his friends gather to see him off at one of those old-fashioned “air terminals” from which you would take a bus to the actual airport. As soon as Tom’s bus departs, Deirdre laments that she and the others are now part of the past.

“Only where he is concerned,” said Digby. “We are still ourselves, you know.”

He had taken her arm and was attending to her with great kindness and solicitude. Catherine was glad to see this and made no attempt to take upon herself the role of comforter, which is often regarded as a kind of female monopoly though it can be admirably filled by the right kind of man. (193)

Yet another novel that I was sad to put down.

I don’t know how far I’m going to get with Daniel Martin. The first chapter is rebarbative with agricultural terminology that nobody knows anymore. Nevertheless, John Fowles declared that the novel was “intended as a defense and illustration of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism, and also as an exploration of what it is to be English.” The exploration is undoubtedly dated, and I expect that I’ll disagree with Fowles about humanism, but I’ve got to read the book to find out.


Tuesday 26th

Two papers today: Monday’s and Tuesday’s. Having gotten through both, I want to go back to bed. And I should, if I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon. Also, there is this to write. It’s especially important to write something today, because I am not going to write anything tomorrow, nothing for The Daily Blague, that is, not tomorrow nor on any future Wednesday. Even without the help of such crude yardsticks as word counts, regular readers will have observed an increase in — more crudity — output. Volume. Verbiage. It has poured forth readily enough, but it has consumed all of the energy that I have for intellectual activity, loosely defined, by which I mean that I simply cannot bring myself to go through the mail or do anything else having to do with knowledge work. By the time I’ve proof-read what I’ve written, somewhere in the early afternoon, I am shot for the day, good for nothing that involves the brain. Oh, I can read. But reading doesn’t count.

There are the weekend days, it’s true — but they are weekend days. They are not work days. So I must reserve a weekday for housework: not just the bills and such but the magazine renewals and the insurance forms and the cards in which I send our grandson a contribution to his allowance — now shockingly overdue, just like everything else. Wednesdays have long been my day for going out, running errands, seeing doctors — yes, I’ll be at the dermatologist’s tomorrow — so it makes sense (or at least I hope it does) to clear the whole day for current affairs.

It seems increasingly clear to me that this site’s days are numbered, that, sooner or later, I am going to spend my mornings writing something else. I may very well do this online, but it will not be a Web log. It will be an intellectual memoir. That sounds pretty grandiose, doesn’t it. But I say that as modestly as one might speak of writing a novel. I myself am not going to write a novel. This is not to say that my intellectual memoir will be altogether free of fiction, for who can make such a promise? And I do hope to make a story of it, because it is the elemental urge to tell a story, my story, that propels me. I still don’t know quite what this story is, but I do know a great deal more about it now than I did, say, a year ago, or even last summer. I have been letting the DBR teach me what it is — one of the reasons for the increase in writing. Until very recently, I worried that my story was so peculiar that it would turn out to be a vaguely repellent curiosity, but lately I have felt the smack of cliché: my story, while indeed my own, is just like everybody else’s.


Like every lump of human stuff, I feel, at least at times, both incomplete and excluded: alone. Like everyone else, I want to put an end to these uncomfortable feelings. Some people believe that it is possible to overcome the isolation of the body, but I don’t; I believe that our very sense of who we are, each of us, is the consequence of being sealed within our skin. Union, escape, transcendence — call it what you will; it can’t happen the physical world. So we have invented a spiritual counterpart to our corporeal individuality; but we can never be quite sure that the spirits are real. Or we worry that our spirits are not as robust as we should like them to be. The strongest faith is not entirely, absolutely unwavering. Something is always missing. This is the story of everyone who is conscious of having a story. Something was missing, so I set out to find it. And I found something else instead.

Because all we have at the start is the sense of missing — incompleteness and exclusion. What we miss must, because we miss it, be somewhere. Where? So we look, but without knowing what for. Everyone who has a story — and this is by no means everybody, unfortunately — finds something else, something that takes the sense of being partial and isolated off the boil. It is something that we didn’t know was there, and to some extent it is brought into existence by our search. We must discover it for ourselves. This may sound trite, but it stands in sharp contrast to our idea that children needn’t be expected to stumble onto the rules of grammar or the multiplication tables by themselves. There are many things that can be taught, but the thing that each of us is looking for must be custom-made. It is created, if not by, then in the search.

Please do not misunderstand me to be saying that Man creates God. What I am saying is that each of us who believes in God creates his or her peculiar relationship to God — a relationship that cannot be fully comprehended by words. (To put the matter with greater piety, we allow God to frame our relationship.) The outward parts of this relationship may be rigorously orthodox, adhering in every particular to the pertinent catechism, and yet be privately distinct. For we can never know what some else’s relation to God might be. All we know is our own, and, as I say, we cannot fully express it even to ourselves. This is true no matter what the object of our relationship might be; all that is certain is that this relationship is the thing that takes the place of what we thought we were looking for.

For we began by looking for something that would make us feel complete and included within ourselves. Instead, we found relationship. To another person, perhaps. To a kind of work. To an understanding of the cosmos. The person, the work, the cosmos — these all remain outside us, beyond the envelope of skin that contains us. But the relationship to them stops the wound of incompleteness and exclusion. And that is the story told by everybody who has a story to tell. As I say, not everybody does. Some people do not, or cannot, find relationships. Some people will not settle for relationships; they demand thorough-going, self-sufficient autonomy. Some people are too damaged to sustain a relationship, and can’t seem to be healed. Some people fear that relationships are just another illusion. Many people have terrible judgment. All that we can do for these unfortunates is to tell our stories better. We can never tell our stories well enough.


I believe that what we find when we set out to look for what’s missing is, simply, humanity. Although we are human beings, we do not possess humanity. We participate in it unawares. I am part of your humanity, even though I don’t give it a thought. Humanity is other people. Humanity makes your life, your very existence, possible. It teaches you everything that you know. It creates the world that you inhabit on this planet. Humanity feeds you; indeed, there is no other source of nourishment. Without humanity, you would be nothing. And yet, you have to find it for yourself.

It is always hard to find what is standing right in front of you. We come out of childhood thinking that we know about the world, but we are mistaken: all we know is what is useful to a child. Unless something is terribly wrong, children do not know that they are incomplete or excluded: they are complete and included in their parents. Then — the horror of adolescence — their parents become other people. Rather, they cease to be what you thought they were. And yet, there they are, standing just as they always have. They are still your parents, but they are also distinct human beings, and you must find them again in humanity, that world of other people. This is understandably difficult.

I never knew my own parents, but I don’t know how important this is. Other people took the place of my parents, and the main thing to know about this is that I was told about the arrangement when I was seven years old. Perhaps the thing to know is the way I took the news. Some people, I understand, hear such news and don’t find that it makes much difference. They go on loving their parents just as much as ever, as parents. To my thinking, the salient aspect is surprise. If the news that you were adopted as an infant comes as a surprise, then I do not think that it will change anything. But if the news confirms something that you have always suspected, then you will permit yourself to acknowledge other feelings. If you are like me, you will undergo the totality of adolescence right there, in that teary hour by the fireplace. The experience will be grievously premature. What, after all, do seven year-olds really understand, about where babies come from? In any case, your parents will become human beings ahead of schedule. And, by their own admission, they are no longer quite your parents.


Thursday 28th

The foregoing paragraphs triggered an emergency response from an old friend who happens to be a doctor. She detected what I’ll call a note of suicidal resignation. I wrote back to reassure her, but I do see what bothered her, and I don’t dismiss it. I believe that some people do kill themselves because they are tired. They don’t do anything dramatic, but they stop taking care of themselves, they stop watching out. They walk in front of a bus, not deliberately but not unawares, either. They stop taking their meds. They let go. And I am very tired.

Part of it is age, but by “age” I don’t mean the physical fallapart so much as the weariness of having seen enough. There’s a piece in today’s Times — today’s Upshot column. Josh Barro reports:

The process of labor market adjustment is “gummier than anybody realized,” said Mr. Hanson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. The persistent negative effects of Chinese trade on much of the American labor market have “toppled much of the received wisdom about the impact of trade on labor markets,” Mr. Hanson wrote with his co-authors, especially the “consensus that trade could be strongly redistributive in theory but was relatively benign in practice.”

Well, gee. Thanks for waking up, you guys! Barro gives economists a pass because, historically — and I can see you becoming tired enough to walk in front of a bus whenever I say “historically” — foreign competition did not disrupt labor markets. That’s because we were competing with Canada and Germany and other places of comparable per capita wealth. Who knew that China would be different? How could anybody not know? If you squint, Barro’s piece reads like a joke from The Onion.

Gummier — I like that. But it explains why I’m so tired.

In my fatigue, I have dreamed up yet another constitutional amendment: if voter turnout in federal elections (presidential or not) drops below sixty percent, then the government is disbanded — it simply ceases to exist. The Fed shuts down, the armed forces go home, and airports become much more dangerous but also much more convenient. The more I think about it, the less frivolous this suggestion seems. It might take the extremism out of American politics, like, forever.


I’m also tired because I want to say something about what living is like — and I’m thinking about all people alive today, now, not just Americans — but I want to say it without sounding “philosophical.” One of the things that disappointed me, when I tried to sketch my idea yesterday, was that, for all the jocularity with which I tried to loosen up my insights, I caught myself beginning a sentence with “It follows…” That’s what I mean by “philosophy.” If this, then that. The rigors of reason, the urge to account for everything in some grand, all-accommodating system. I disclaim any and all ambitions to think systematically, but the ground is so littered with the habits of systematic speech that it’s hard not to trip over them. Isn’t there another way of talking about how we live?

Yes, there is, but it takes much longer to get across. So much longer that, just thinking about it, I want to curl up and sleep forever.

And yet there is hope in “forever.” Do we have all day? We have forever. We have, at any rate, as long as we’re here.

That sounds nice: no rush. But look what happens when I say, “This is going to take forever.” Not so nice. It is not really the same statement, put in different words, at all. The difference between “have” and “take” is all the difference in the world.


Can we talk? I am a human being. I am stuck in the frame of a tall, overweight male, nearly seventy years old. I always have a beard, and sometimes a twinkle in my eye. I am a bundle — it really doesn’t matter whether “I” am the bundle or “my frame,” the thing I’m stuck in, is the bundle — of skills and experiences. The thing to know about me, since we are probably never going to meet, is that I like to read, and that I especially like to read things that make me laugh. I go in for shrieks, as the Mitford sisters put it. Just for the spice of it, I’ll add that I’m crazy about the fragrance of the carbonnades â la flamande that is filling the kitchen. I made the stew myself, but I credit its miraculousness to the veal broth that I bought at Agata & Valentina.

Philosophers ranging from Hume to Descartes tell me that I might be imagining that fragrance, not to mention the existence of Agata & Valentina. They warn that I cannot be sure about anything outside the bundle that contains me. I could be living in the middle of an illusion. Life could be a dream.

Well, that certainly sounds like the kind of thought that would preoccupy a thinker living in the middle of the intellectual storm that dumped the scientific revolution on us, and then the industrial revolution. Year after year ever since, students at the best schools have been taught what Descartes and Hume and the rest thought. Then they have forgotten all about it, most of them, because life is not a dream. Hume may be right — we see what we want or expect to see — but this does not mean that there is nothing to see. There is something self-cancelling about the idea that the material world in which we think we live does not really exist: it stops in its tracks and then evaporates. You cannot make anything of it. As Descartes might have ventured, the real world exists because we think it exists.

To understand this world scientifically, these days, is to get tangled up in entangled particles, and a lot of other rebarbative concepts. Knock yourselves out, say I to the scientists. But I’m going to go on experiencing the world from inside my bundle, no matter what you tell me. I am not going to try to figure out how my bundle really works, or what it really consists of. I am not interested in “really.” I am interested in “ordinarily.” I am interested in making the ordinary a little neater, a little more consistent, perhaps even a little more helpful.


What I want to talk about is the problem that we all have, as human beings, locked up in our bundles of skin and saddled with what we call “human nature.” This phrase, “human nature,” is used as if it expressed a scientific understanding of what it means to be human. As such, it’s a folk science, and not scientific in the least. “Human nature” is a collection of received truths about how people behave, grounded in the understanding that it is almost impossible for them to behave otherwise. This is why philosophers and others get so worked up about “altruism.” Altruism appears to be contrary to human nature, so how can it exist. Does it exist, skeptics ask. We could sit here all day, or even forever, and never get to the problem posed by the appearance of altruism, not because selflessness and sacrifice are hard to understand — they’re not! — but because it’s difficult to reconcile them with “human nature.” Our ideas about “human nature” have borrowed a great deal from genuinely scientific inquiries, and especially from the investigations of Charles Darwin, but these borrowings have been selective, and we have invested them with “meanings” that existed long before Darwin. Who needed Darwin to tell us that we are selfish? Nobody. What Darwin did, we say, was this: he proved, scientifically, that “human nature’ is selfish. Nonsense.

So, here we have this thing called “human nature” that, by and large, we deplore, even though we can’t escape it. So we say.

And over there, we have something called “humanity.” We associate that word not with selfishness or greed or lust or murderous rage, but with nice things — altruism, for example. We have a concept of “the humane.” The “humane” is all good. If everybody were humane, there would be no problems on earth. Well, illness and death, maybe, but you know what I mean. Humane behavior is admirable and desirable. But what is not human about “humane”? Why does our concept of human nature seem to exclude everything that is encompassed by our idea of the humane?

I have a hunch about this. It is not a theory. It is just a thought that emerged from thinking about these things. When I was writing about it yesterday, I expressed it in bullet points, which is what led me into if/then territory. So today, Instead of building up my argument, I am going to begin with its conclusion, and then support it, but with observations instead of proofs. I am trying to avoid the appearance of proving anything. There is one little axiom that I should like to deploy, for syntactical and rhetorical reasons: “humanity” is the manifestation of “the humane.” Not really, mind you; not scientifically. But that’s how we tend to speak of it. It’s how we think that interests me, because I think that we’d be better off if we thought a little more clearly.

Humanity, as I wrote the other day, is other people. For each of us, humanity consists of people we know, and, less importantly, of people whom we don’t know. This is my conclusion. I’m very well aware that some people are so disgusted by human nature that they don’t think much of the people whom they know, either, because they are also so visibly infected with human nature. For such people, humanity tends to exist on the other side of the world, among people who speak different languages and who live without the corruption of brass and marble mod cons. I feel sorry for people who take this dim view of things, although I’m a little impatient with them, too, because so many of them live in my neighborhood.

Humanity also consists of everything that people — and note here that I use “people” as a term for individuals in whom human nature and humanity intersect — have ever done. Most of this is invisible, but that doesn’t make it nothing. Our manners, our language — everything that we take for granted as children is the result of everything that has ever been done. Perhaps that is a second axiom; maybe it’s just common sense with a telephoto lens. Mozart is dead. His music lives on, and is very much a part of humanity. But I like to think that his fondness for dressing up and giving parties is still with us, too, however dimly. I like to think of him in his ballroom — he had an apartment big enough to hold one, for a while. Yes! His own ballroom. And here you thought he was poor, because aren’t all the best artists? Plus, Amadeus? But Mozart was not poor; he was broke, and now you know why. I like to think of Mozart insisting that nobody else could play the piano as well as he could. A real pain, this guy! I like the stories about Mozart, some of which are true. They are all part of humanity — along with the great music.

Now, the important thing about humanity, I want to suggest, is not that it is so much better than human nature. We like to make humanity out to be better than human nature because we feel stuck with our own human nature, but hopeful about everybody else’s humanity. When I say that humanity is other people, I’m saying a lot, and one of those things is that we like to think that it is up to everybody else to be humane. For ourselves, for each of us, it is just too hard. We can be humane every once in a while, but we are not the Pope or Mother Teresa. The Pope and Mother Teresa, however, are, or were, other people, and capable of great humanity. But this is just one of the things that I mean when I say that humanity is other people.

What I want to say most about humanity is that it is our connection with humanity — with other people, with what other people have done — that makes us humane. Each of us. We are transformed by each connection from bundles of self into something greater. The greater the number of connections, the greater the transformation. There is a certain limitation, of course. All the connections in the world are not going to relieve us of the need to take care of our individual bundles. We can’t give away all our possessions and hope for the best. (Maybe with Eileen Myles in mind, Jesus never seems to have asked a woman to give away all her possessions and follow him. He knew a good thing.) We have to take care of ourselves, if only to spare other people the drudgery. But this is a limitation, not an obstacle. We are still free to redeem our crummy human nature by making contact with what’s good about other people.

Do admit that I haven’t told you anything that you didn’t already know.

I have this little aide-memoire that I want you to take. Fix it on a lapel pin, if you like.



Friday 29th

These thoughts about humanity, and what it means for each of us — or most of us, or many of us, or the few of us who can be bothered to think about it, or maybe just for you and me; just me? — leads me to thoughts about hope and ignorance. The union of hope and ignorance is most clearly illuminated by the prospect of your death. You hope that your death will be peaceful, painless, surrounded by loved ones, &c. You hope that you will die neither in a violent explosion nor after twenty years in a vegetative state. Perhaps you hope that you will never die. All of this hoping depends on ignorance. The minute you knew, if you could know, the time and circumstances of your death, no matter how distant and rosy, hope would give way to a sentence of death — a heavy thing to live with. We may hate uncertainty when it comes to things that we want or need, but ignorance about many things that lie in the future is the cushion from which reposing hope springs to life.

Hope and ignorance are also joined in humanity, at least as I’ve presented it here. You will never know what is going on in another person’s mind. And this is a good thing, because it allows you to hope that the other person is well-disposed toward you, perhaps even in love with you (whatever that means to you). I don’t mean to be cynical; your hoping that someone loves you does not mean that you are not, in fact, beloved. It means that you don’t know what loving you means to your lover, and allows for hopes of an even more perfect union. What you don’t know may very well hurt you, but by the same token it clears the ground for hope.

When it comes to the benefits of forging connections with friends and lovers, or simply making the most of the connections that parenthood creates, our dispensers of general wisdom can get pretty dogmatic. There is more insistence than assurance in the claim that these connections are Good For You, that they will make you Happy and Fulfilled, and so on. Unfortunately, luck has a role to play here: we can only hope that we do not live up the Orinoco, stranded far away, in time or space, from the society that would encourage us to make the most of ourselves, and that would present us with our compleat soul mate. We shall never know; but some of us, certainly, will feel happy enough with where we are and whom we’re with not to be bothered by such thoughts. Others, just as certainly, I fear, will not know such satisfaction. They may devote themselves to their work and do their best to make happy families, but find themselves unable to suppress the question, Is this all there is? I have no words of wisdom for such discontent; I can only say that I respect it. This means that I refrain from suggesting making lemonade out of lemons.

I do feel, however, that connections, even when they fall short, contribute true wisdom and a sense of completion, neither of which can ever be mined from within. If I recognize that life can be rough, I nevertheless insist that stoicism and other modes of withdrawal are childish, little more than spiteful but pathetic reactions to (and would-be rejections of) life’s vicissitudes. John Donne:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.


A number of political humorists (citations?) have speculated that Donald Trump never intended his presidential bid to attract long-term support, and that many of his moves, such as his line about Mexican murderers and rapists, have been intended to sabotage it, the joke being that he can’t figure out how to turn the damned thing off. I love this idea almost as much as I love Alan Bennett’s portrait of the Queen as an “uncommon reader,” but I don’t believe either of them. Nevertheless, I won’t be surprised if the Donald makes use of this campaign analysis, if that is the word, in the event that last night’s pity party winds up putting him out of the running. The important thing for Trump is to win, and it doesn’t matter at what. Claiming to have pulled off an outrageous bluff would be just as good as winning the White House, so long as that improbable coiffure were wreathed in triumph.

“He clerked for Rehnquist?” Kathleen expostulated this morning, reading about Ted Cruz in the Times. I myself just learned that the other day, when the paper ran a photograph of Cruz, not even wearing a jacket, sitting to the left of the robed Chief Justice. I was more surprised to see how pretty Cruz used to be, how Elvis-like. The old maxim is true again: pretty people have to choose the face or the figure. If you stay trim, as Cruz has done, you risk becoming, as Cruz has done, extravagantly unattractive. Kathleen was also shocked to read that Cruz went to Harvard Law. Yes, and Princeton, too, I put in, making sure that her understanding of Cruz as a populist was complete. As I always say, Only in Texas.

The problem with Hillary Clinton as a candidate is that she seats the united couple of hope and ignorance on a very scratchy horsehair sofa, upon which comfort will always be an impossibility. You hope, considering the alternatives, that she will win, but you can’t quite summon the ignorance required to believe that she ought to win. Clinton has an unparalleled ignorance problem: we know her far too well. While it is generally true that we know nothing about what somebody else is really like inside, it is entirely possible that this unknowable somebody inside Hillary was strangled to death at some point no later than her Goldwater Republican days. Mrs Clinton is diligent and capable, and she will perform her presidential duties more than satisfactorily. But she will not be a leader: she will not fill the ignorant with hope.

In all fairness, it ought to be pointed out that even Barack Obama could not do that.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Exquisite Spleen
January 2016 (III)

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Tuesday 19th

Still afflicted by a cold — a cold, mind you; not congested sinuses with sniffles and coughs but a sense of being cold, almost all the time, even when the room is almost unbearably hot for Kathleen — I am indulging corresponding eccentricities. Once again, I went back to bed after reading the Times this morning. I wrapped myself up like an invalid in a deck chair, and fell asleep, napping for nearly two hours. During the nap, I dreamed furiously about a book that, I decided, I must re-read. Parts of the novel (which came in four boxed, paperback volumes, with interior fire-escapes and brick walls on the covers) came to me unbidden, but it was very hard to connect them, and there was also an uncomfortable feeling that the novel was about me. That it told the whole truth about me. As I woke up, and realized that I had dreamed the book up, disappointment gave way to relief.

The novel that I had fallen asleep while reading was Theodor Fontane’s Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich, 1891). A few years ago, NYRB republished Douglas Parmée’s 1964 translation, and I bought it on the strength of somebody’s review. But almost at once, my idea of the characters clotted unattractively — they would not be worth caring about, I feared. It took a deliberate policy of reading neglected NYRB volumes, combined with the success of Stoner, another such, late last year, to get me to take Irretrievable down from the shelf. Even then, it languished for a few weeks with the bookmark tucked into the third or fourth page. The book opens at a seaside mansion, recently built by a count. But what kind of count, and which sea? That’s to say, were we in Germany or Denmark, on the North Sea or the Baltic?

When I picked up the novel again last week, I learned that its tale is set in 1859. But it was only yesterday, when I took up Irretrievable in earnest — I have now reached the two-thirds mark, and should much rather be reading Fontane’s novel than sitting here writing — that the significance of the date registered. In 1859, Schleswig-Holstein, a pair of provinces north of Hamburg, still ran up into the neck of mainland Denmark; a few years later, it would be torn away by Prussia, in the first of Bismarck’s little German wars. I know about this war because it caused no small embarrassment at the British court. The queen’s oldest child, also Victoria, was the Crown Princess of Prussia; her brother, the Prince of Wales, had just married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. (I don’t really know what to do with little wars, memory-wise, until I have an embarrassing scene to attach them to.) As usual, Bismarck made cunning use of the accidents of history, which in this case threw up some uncertainty about the inheritance of the duchy of the provinces. I remember reading somewhere that Bismarck joked — but I’ve recently written about this, in connection with Syria.

I’m trying to do better about avoiding such repetitions. Last week, wasn’t it, I wrote about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95. Only when I was done did I search the site for a previous reference, and then I found that I had already said much the same thing about my favorite lines, but put it slightly differently in each case, such that I should be hard put to decide which one to keep. (I was also reminded to renew the struggle with William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity.) Within the space of a week, then, I have repeated myself twice, or nearly. Perhaps I have run out of material?

Anyway, Irretrievable is very good. It begins in what was Denmark at the time, and much of the action takes place in and around Copenhagen, involving an aunt of the then king whom I think Fontane made up — a worldly and amusing princess of seventy to whom the hero, as it were, is a Gentleman in Waiting. When I asked Kathleen if she had ever heard of gentlemen in waiting for princesses, she declared that they would be most inappropriate, but I had not learned the princess’s age when I asked. A worldly old lady definitely needs gentlemen in waiting, even if “being younger” puts them in their fifities and sixties. The trouble is, the princess has a very fetching, twenty-nine year-old lady in waiting, a very clever woman whom I instinctively cast as a blend of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alicia Vikander.


Thanks to a piece in Sunday’s Review section, the weekly potpourri of Op-Ed pieces, I learned about a Web site that I’d never heard of. I visited the Web site and read the latest entry, which is basically about the importance of dates in the study of history. Specifically, the author, who seems to be roughly the same age as the temptress in Irretrievable, felt obliged to insist that the only thing that is certain in history is the lifespan of historical figures. You can argue about the importance/virtue/depravity/&c of Innocent III, Copernicus, and Marie Antoinette, but you cannot argue about their dates of birth and death. The wonderful thing about knowing these dates is that they tell you who was alive at the same time. Josef Haydn and George Washington, for example, were very close contemporaries. (They were born in the same year, but Haydn lived for another ten.) Also a contemporary was the Qianlong (Ch’ien Lung) emperor of China (1735-1796). More interactively, Pitt the Younger and Napoleon were contemporaries, closer in age than, say, Churchill and Hitler. Nobody today needs reminding that Churchill and Hitler were alive at the same time, but just you wait. My point is that Pitt was the Churchill of his day, or Churchill the Pitt of his. (I also trust that you know what I mean by “nobody.”)

There is no getting around the importance of dates. And there’s no pretending that dates aren’t a nightmarish nuisance for anyone who isn’t really interested in history. The trick isn’t to make dates interesting, somehow; it’s to make history interesting. The history of anything will do. For me, it was classical music. Classical music is much easier to grasp if you know its history. For general purposes, that history, although it strictly begins much earlier, deep in the Middle Ages, covers the three centuries that run from 1650. The history of classical music consists of knowing what composers grew up hearing, or, more important, not hearing. The symphonies of Mahler did not inspire Bach or Mozart, but Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was explicitly inspired by Haydn’s symphonies. The dates will explain how this was so. Brahms wrote in a highly personalized version of what was for him a contemporary idiom, but it was deeply informed by music of the past, even though that inspiration does not show through stylistically, but only glimmers on the printed score. It is difficult to connect the turbulent, still-urgent operas of Verdi (who died over a century ago) with the relatively pallid court entertainments that Haydn and Mozart had to contend with. (Haydn was old enough to be Mozart’s father, but he outlived him by nearly twenty years. Their artistic primes, however, coincided.) But the links in the chain not only illuminate the connection but demonstrate its power, which it took the young Verdi about ten years to overthrow. With classical music, you have a choice: it can be either a jumble of “100 Best-Loved Hits,” in which case most of it will be complicated and boring; or it can be a development, with composers mining a few seams of musical possibility against the background of shifting audiences — a story, a history, told in music.

So it is with the history of everything. Everything that happens is the result of accidents. The man who would grow up to be Charlemagne was born in and shaped by, as we all are, the world he grew up in. That world was, in turn, shaped by him. (And how.) But if you want to understand Charlemagne’s works beyond the confines of the mere statement that he was a military leader who conquered a lot of territory — a statement that applies to Alexander the Great and to Genghis Khan as well, but so what? — then you have to know his dates. Happily, Charlemagne has left us one of the easiest dates in history: he became the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800 CE. Once you nail this date, the accidental quality of Charlemagne’s existence diminishes considerably. The establishment of the Holy Roman Empire is itself much less of an accident than Charlemagne’s birth (sometime in the 740s), and, with a little work but a lot of interest, a host of other dates can be nailed nearby.

There ought to be a Nobel Prize for the genius who devises an app that insinuates all the dates into the minds of eager young gamers.

As to the Web site that was mentioned in the Times, I can say that it seems to be very popular. But I’d rather not say more until I’ve had a longer experience. I’m told to expect two to four new postings in the mail every month.


Wednesday 20th

In today’s mail, a notice from Facebook reminds me that today is the birthday of my old friend from radio days. Alas, he died shortly before his last birthday, a year ago. What is the protocol for dying at Facebook? And while we’re talking about dates, let me to my shame confess that two days ago, when I was thinking of my late friend, I neglected to do the same for my father, whose birthday (102nd) it was. Year after year, I am mortified to remember him on the 19th or the 20th, but never on the 18th. Some sort of remembrance of one’s parents on their birthdays is the plainest form of piety, and I am a perennial disgrace. Me with all the talk about the importance of dates. Mozart’s birthday, which will probably not pass by without my thinking on it, falls a week hence; ‘twould be his 260th.

Thanks to Google, I was ready for the fire. I’d looked at the pictures and seen the ruins. On 16 December 1859, Frederiksborg Castle, then an hour by train north of Copenhagen, was consumed in flames, and that is why Theodor Fontane set his novel, Irretrievable, at that time — not, as I expected, because he wanted to make some interesting use of the imminent conflict between Denmark and Prussia, with its Holsteiner hero caught in the middle. Publishing in the novel in 1891, Fontane may well have expected his German readers to expect the same — why else make use of what was by then a “historical” setting? Fontane’s resort to history is more subtle. Doubtless other great buildings had burned to the ground in living memory, but it is hard to imagine a disaster that would have suited his story nearly so well.

Irretrievable is billed as the story of a failed marriage. Both the late Douglas Parmée, in the introduction to his translation, and Phillip Lopate, in his Afterword to the NYRB reissue, call it such. But the novel may well be the first fictional representation of what we call the mid-life crisis, with all its pain and foolishness. It is only the outer chapters that portray the married couple in their unhappiness. After sixteen years, they have simply grown tired of accommodating one another. She thinks that he is frivolous and he thinks that she is a prig, and they are both right. Some readers will have no trouble sympathizing with one over the other, but I wasn’t even tempted to take sides. At the beginning of the book, it is true, the wife, having been counseled by all her friends to soften her rigors and to exercise her superior intelligence with greater discretion, is about to embark on a project of self-reform, but this is interrupted by a summons to the capital. Count Helmut and Countess Christine Holk are Germans, but their duke is the King of Denmark. This late-feudal, pre-nationalist arrangement was about to be “corrected” by Bismarck, who would take advantage of the death of the king (and duke) to interpose a German claim to the territory. But all of that is a red herring, nothing to do with the novel beyond keeping the informed first-time reader on edge.

Count Holk is a gentleman-in-waiting to an aunt of the king, the Princess Maria Eleanor — a creature of fiction. I could never figure out whether the Princess is a widow or a spinster. It doesn’t matter. She is a genial sister of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, a royal who remembers the ancien régime for its aristocratic liberties. Although no less virtuous than anybody else, the Princess rejects the patina of nurturing respectability so thoroughly that she struck me as an Edwardian figure — as having thrown off Victorian propriety in disgust, rather than as having refused to take it on. To Count Holk, a country gentleman of good breeding but astounding naïveté, the Princess is a wonderful old sinner. Why he appears on the roster of her gentlemen-in-waiting is another mystery that Fontane can’t be bothered to clear up. Just as Countess Holk is about to try to be a nicer wife, her husband learns that, because So-and-so has the measles, while Whatsisname is on a scientific expedition, waiting for Mount Etna to belch, he will have to fill in at the Princess’s little court. In the past, Christine has accompanied him to Copenhagen, but she declines to do so this time, claiming the need to place her children in suitable boarding schools — a bone of contention between husband and wife — as an excuse.

So Holk goes off to Copenhagen by himself, thoroughly prepared to enjoy the city’s amusements, as well as the comforts of his excellent landlady, Frau Hansen. In the interest of concision, I shall say only that it is at Frau Hansen’s that Holk is softened up, so to speak, for his mid-life crisis, which we already know will involve extensive internal mutterings about Christine and what fun she isn’t. Although a beautiful woman is all but catapulted into Holk’s room at the boarding house, the danger lies elsewhere, at court. The Princess has a new lady-in-waiting, Ebba von Rosenberg. Ebba is twenty-nine and a saucy mix of Voltaire and Oscar Wilde — and pretty to boot. She sizes up Holk immediately as a man who has no business being a courtier, and she tells the Princess so; nevertheless, she plays with him. The Princess worries from the start that things will get out of hand, but, aside from a mild word to Ebba, she does nothing. Holk’s fellow gentlemen warn him that he understands nothing about women, but this, as you might imagine, only piques him, for he is not aware of needing to know anything about any woman other than his wife, to whom he has always been effortlessly faithful.

It is of the essence of midlife crisis for a man to find himself caught in a trap that, not having foreseen it, he regards as an insulting act of treachery. It never crosses Holk’s mind that his blameless record in the past is no guarantee, given his current state of grievance against Christine. He fails to see that this grievance encourages him to indulge in courtly games from which he might formerly have withdrawn. He becomes, at the worst possible time, daring. All the while, the words of the woman who increasingly fascinates him, spoken not to him but to the Princess, ring in our ears.

It’s his character that is his basic weakness. And the worst of it is that he doesn’t even know it. Because he looks like a man, he considers himself one. But he’s only a good-looking man, which usually means not a man at all. All in all, he hasn’t had the proper training to develop his very modest talents in the line that would have suited him. He ought to have been a collector or an antiquarian or the director of a home for fallen girls or just a fruit-grower. (132)

There is an astoundingly funny exchange in which Holk tries to impress Ebba with his knowledge of genealogy. Is she a Polish Rosenberg or a Czech Rosenberg? Neither, she replies; she is a Meyer-Rosenberg, descended from Gustav III’s “pet Jew,” ennobled by his king only days before the king’s notorious assassination. “Holk could not repress a slight movement of shocked surprise…” (97) We can just imagine.

As Christmas approaches, the Princess moves her court, as is her custom, to Frederiksborg, still a royal castle. After the fire, it would be rebuilt with contributions from the (new) king as well as from the state, but the lion’s share would come from the brewer of Carlsberg, J C Jacobsen, and the castle would be re-established as a museum. Fontane mentions none of this: he leaves his readers will a royal ruin, as in one sense it remained; there would be no more Christmas house parties hosted by princesses. And of course the new structure would have windows that closed shut and fireplaces that didn’t smoke and whose chimneys did not spark — complaints abundantly made in the novel.

Rather than spoil Fontane’s masterful but light-handed interplay of romance and catastrophe, I should like to point rather to his answer to the question that pestered me from the moment of the party’s arrival at the castle. I’d been asking it earlier, but now it became pressing. It also involved sparks: how would Holk wake up to his obsession with Ebba, hitherto so obvious to everyone but himself? How would he realize what was going on? Just as Holk didn’t know, so neither did I: I was terrified that his awakening would be prosaic, disappointing, and somehow unconvincing. But Fontane does not disappoint.

One day, there is a skating party. The Princess is installed in a sled, and the party sets out upon the frozen part of a vast lake that in fact opens to the part of the Baltic known as the Skagerrak. Holk pushes the sled, while Ebba and two officers follow; the local preacher leads the way. It is a handsome picture. The journey takes the skaters from the edge of the castle grounds to the bank of a small hotel, where others await them.

Holk, with one hand resting on the back-rest of the sleigh, raised his hand with the other and in a second they came to a halt beside a small wooden jetty leading to the hotel. Pentz had come up meanwhile, and offering the Princess his arm, he assisted her up the bank, followed by the two captains. Only Holk and Ebba remained standing by the jetty as they watched the others going ahead and then they looked at each other. There was something very like jealousy in Holk’s eyes and as Ebba’s seemed only to reply with a half-mocking challenge which said: “Nothing venture, nothing win,” he seized her hand violently and pointed out to the west where the sun was sinking. She gave an almost arrogant nod and then, as if the others’ amusement were only an additional spur, they sped away together towards the place where the narrow gleaming strip of ice between the receding banks was lost in the wide expanse of Lake Arre. (191)

Of course! It would be a physical challenge, a carnal exhilaration that would shock Holk into awareness of his forbidden desires. Holk’s mind has nothing to do with it, mediocre organ that it is. It is his body that awakes to itself. After that, he is helpless and, of course, ridiculous.

Also very interesting is the way that Ebba deals with Holk’s laughable picture of their future together. While she is ill for a few days, recovering from the stress of the conflagration, he takes the opportunity to burn his bridges, but she does not laugh at him when he comes to her with the unwelcome but expected news. I should say that I have never seen a fire put out so quickly.

Irretrievable rather spoiled me for other novels. For elegantly formed, gently funny fiction, it can’t be beat. As Phillip Lopate suggests, Montaigne would have loved it.


Thursday 21st

The latest Reviews arrived yesterday, both of them. I dipped into the London, but read nearly everything in the New York. There’s a piece by David Maraniss about football, as in the future of, in which the author describes a spell of giving up watching the game on television. He wonders what it would be like to be Garry Wills, who told him once that he (Wills) had never seen ESPN. I can’t claim never to have seen ESPN — it’s onscreen (if muted) at too many luncheon spots. But I’ve never watched it, certainly never at home. But it is not given to man to imagine what it would be like to be somebody else, much less somebody who never does what you do all the time.

Maraniss quotes someone as saying, We’re in the gilded age of football, but the thing about gilded ages is that they collapse on themselves. Somebody else notes that college students are showing up at football games with their smartphones, leaving at halftime, and not coming back. I should forgive smartphones a great deal if they put a damper on stadium events of any kind.


Then there’s Janet Malcolm on Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes — the one from which the Hughes Estate’s permission to quote anything was withdrawn. I read Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath not too long ago, but I’d forgotten what an admirer of Hughes she was. Or perhaps she has become one. She execrates Bate’s book with such exquisite spleen that you come away wondering if sales will plummet to zero. As a literary biography, she insists, it is a washout: Bate’s comments on the poetry are jejune and his interest is clearly in the sexual gossip. These are her closing words:

He [Hughes] emerges from his letters as a man blessed with a brilliant mind and a warm and open nature, who seemed to take a deeper interest in other people’s feelings and wishes than the rest of us are able to do and who never said anything trite or obvious or pious or self-serving. Of course, this is Hughes’s epistolary persona, the persona he created the way novelists create characters. The question of what he was “really” like remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. Biographers, in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.

Hear, hear! If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. This is not merely a moral claim, but the driest of truths, in that we cannot be known except by our deeds — the things that we do in public. The things that we do in private — which, certainly, we ought to do our best to keep private — are often incomprehensible to ourselves, and never intended to be comprehensible to anyone else. The minute sexual activity is intended to be anything it is no longer private or really even sexual. Some of Hughes’s lovers found him “forceful”; others, “sadistic.” Does this information help us to understand his poetry better? Or will it simply confuse us? Who knows, so long as no unfortunate is taken from the scene of passion to a hospital, what forceful and sadistic mean? The fact that everyone is naturally curious about everybody else’s sex life is the best reason in the world for excluding such tittle-tattle from literary biography. They ought to toss Bate out of Oxford.

A corollary that I can’t quite frame seems to emerge from Sue Halpern’s piece about Steve Jobs and Apple. Strictly speaking, it emerges from something that I read a long time ago, something that comes to mind every time I read about Jobs. I seem to have known something rather awful about Steve Jobs before I knew anything else, but that’s not possible, given the dates of Mona Simpson’s novels. A review of one of them mentioned that a certain character was based on Simpson’s “biological brother” — Steve Jobs. It went on to relate an anecdote about this character, who was so self-absorbed and heedless of others that he never flushed the toilet. (Never? Rarely? Sometimes didn’t? Doesn’t matter.) How I wish that I had never come into contact with this revolting information! But I don’t blame the reviewer, and I don’t blame Simpson, either. The blame falls squarely on Jobs, and his sociopathic disregard for the boundary between private and public. As to the corollary, I suppose that I’ve already expressed it: we have a duty to maintain our privacy — we owe it to everybody else. Impertinence works both ways.

Halpern, by the way, nails what’s wrong about Jobs and Apple.

Steve Jobs had an abiding interest in freedom — his own. As [the films and book under review] make clear, as much as he wanted to be free of the rules that applied to other people [ahem!], he wanted to make his own rules that allowed him to superintend others.

Earlier, she quotes something that Joe Nocera says in one of those films, Alex Gibney’s documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

The myths surrounding Apple is for a company that makes phones. A phone is not a mythical device. It makes you wonder less about Apple than about us.

Indeed. How long will Jobs go on being the superintendent?


The cover story in the Times Magazine over the weekend was about the Center for Applied Rationality, in Berkeley, California. In a nutshell, the Center’s goal is to help us all to overcome the wrongheaded biases outlined in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Jennifer Kahn reports on the ordeal of undergoing a four-day workshop there. Along the way, she comes into contact with immortalism, the belief that becoming immortal is humanity’s most urgent objective. If there is a distinction between immortalists and transhumanists, I’m not yet aware of it, but, as a humanist, I am committed to death. We must all die, so that humanity can evolve. The evolution of humanity is not the same thing as the evolution of the human species. Humanity is human society, and it evolves much faster than DNA. Whatever “human nature” really is, its expression at any time is governed by humanity, which is to say the human society of the moment. Humanity changes as newborns “invade” the world and old people leave it. If people started living forever, they would slow and possibly halt the evolution of humanity. Ask any Millennial how keen he or she would be to have a lot of Baby Boomers still hanging around in fifty years.

(I say this as one of the older Baby Boomers.)

It seems that the Applied Rationality movement is spurred by the fear that machines endowed with artificial intelligence will take over, and exterminate human beings. The only way to prevent this is to acquire superpowers oneself. No matter how you look at this, it amounts to self-hatred, or what I should call inclusive misanthropy, in which you really do hate yourself, or despise your weakness, more than you hate or despise anybody else. It’s an adolescent outlook, an easy way out of dealing with a complicated world. It is more difficult for mature, engaged adults to dismiss humanity as a failed undertaking. Whether or not we have any faults as human beings — it is arguable that we don’t, that we’re just humans — we certainly do suffer the disappointment of feeling faulty. It is easy to imagine an improved humanity. That’s what immortalists and transhumanists are after.

What appeals to me instead is the idea of making the world a better place for faulty human beings. There is still a lot to learn about education. It probabaly wouldn’t hurt to teach Bayesian probability instead of, say, trigonometry. But we are more apt to create environments in which accidents are unlikely than we are to think statistically. Babylonian libraries of self-help books to the contrary notwithstanding, nobody really wants to live life as an experiment — as a project, that is, of self-improvement. We all just want to live. We want to do the things that we like to do, and we want to love the people we love. We need help with these things, not lessons. We need to be steered away from such pleasures as devising rules that allow us to superintend everybody else, or to appropriate other people’s property; and we need to be shown, convincingly, that is is mistaken to love people (and I’m speaking about romance here, not Christianity) who do not love us back.

We need a world that does not require us to be entrepreneurs. We need a world that shelters us from addictions. I’m thinking not of drugs here but of power and wealth-amassment. Nor am I thinking about a nanny state. I’m thinking of a butler state. A butler doesn’t keep you out of trouble, but he performs tasks, or oversees the performance of tasks, for which you are not particularly skilled. He might balance your checkbook and offer sound financial advice. He might accompany you on dates, so as to have a good chat with your date’s butler. Above all, a butler must have a withering stare that you would do anything to avoid.

Listen, these daydreams are lot less silly than transhumanism. After all, we have already invented self-flushing toilets.


Another thing that Sue Halpern mentions is Eric Pickersgill’s suite of photographs, Removed. Pickersgill poses people with handheld devices, which he then removes, asking the “sitters” to hold their stare as well as their posture. The results are interesting, but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be more compelling to edit something else out of the picture. For example, imagine a colorful street scene in which those pedestrians holding and staring at devices would be presented in black and white, or in some sort of semitone. Imagine interactivists standing in empty space, or, to borrow a joke from A Night At the Opera, in front of wildly dangerous or inappropriate backdrops. Even easier: remember Albert Brooks breezing past the Taj Mahal, on the phone and unseeing, in the underappreciated comedy, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005).

In terms of the evolution of humanity, everybody holding a device as if no one else were present has won a Darwin Award.


Friday 22nd

In the new LRB, I read something so arresting that I must get right to it, without all the preliminaries. One day long ago, presumably in the halls of the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom was overheard to say, “Well, you know that the ancient Greeks, even Plato and Aristotle, had no concept of ‘power’ as we know it today.”

I have sedulously quoted from anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s mini-memoir about his intellectual formation. It was he who overheard Bloom, and his reaction was the same as mine, except that he actually did it: he ran to the library for a dictionary of Classical Greek. “I could find tyranny, democracy, monarchy, city, army etc, but no entry for any abstract or general concept of power.” (LRB 38.2: 16)

How could this be? How did Allan Bloom find it out?

A cautious scholar would take months to answer the question. I’m content to take Bloom’s word for it. The power that men exercise politically was thought — I surmise, perhaps rashly — to inhere in them as men. It was like muscle: some people have more than others. But free-floating power, existing on its own, probably never did occur to classical minds, or to medieval ones, either. My thinking is that our idea of power, “as we know it today,” is Newtonian. A kind of gravity, which I think is the model for our ideas about power, it is “out there,” and it would exist even if the human race did not. Political power requires human beings for its expression and exercise, but it is a natural force, given humanity. Especially as regards vacuums: when an array of political power collapses, chaos ensues but is soon arrested by a new array. Where the ancients might see political collapse as an opportunity for new men to exercise their inherent power, we’re more likely to see the opportunity to seize power, and to grip it tightly, or else to die.

“Power” is one of our many doubled words. It comes from the Latin word for strength. We also have the English word for strength: “strength.” For the purposes of rough translation, the words are synonyms. But of course synonyms exist only at that rough level. Over time, every distinct word accrues its own special connotations. “Power” and “strength” are not words that can be used interchangeably. We may say that an athlete is powerful, but we’re more certain to say that he is strong. Whereas machines are not “strong”: machines have power. Or they are powered. As is usual in English, the twin with the Latin root has an abstract coloration. We can’t really see power, whereas we can see strength in the bulge of a bicep. You might go so far as to say that, in English, it is power that gives strength.

That is how we use the word in politics. Power comes from somewhere — voters? grass-roots movements? campaign contributions? — and gives politicians the strength to run things. As we understand it, power does not inhere in the politician.

I’m trying to describe power here, not to analyze it. I’m curious about how we use the word, not about what power really is. And yet I am interested in what power really is, because our way of talking about it may be — must be — mistaken. We do not really know what political power is: we are often surprised by its manifestation. (Consider the Donald!) We try to erect frameworks within which power must be exercised according to certain rules, but these frameworks are all more or less fragile, vulnerable to emergencies. (Consider Lincoln and habeas corpus.) We believe that power ought to be bestowed for limited terms, but we don’t know how long those terms ought to be, and we’re not sure about rules allowing politicians to extend their terms. (Consider FDR; consider Bill Clinton, who almost certainly would have been elected to a third term in 2000.)


Holding these questions about power in mind, I consider the portrait of Iowa that Richard Manning paints in the current issue of Harper’s. It is, to say the least, extremely unflattering. Any notions of Iowa as a bucolic cornfield dotted with well-kept farmhouses will be washed away by Manning’s report on the state’s terrible problems with dirty water, polluted by fertilizer and hog excrement run-offs that would bring down federal sanctions if they did not issue from farms. Iowan evangelists may claim that they want the government to leave them alone, but their monoculture of corn depends on federal subsidies that were intended to encourage the renewable energy source of ethanol.

I say that the federal subsidies were intended to encourage ethanol production because I doubt very much that they were intended to cause the pollution of Iowa’s rivers or the increased dependence upon fertilizers that accompanies any monoculture. To talk of monoculture is perhaps misguided, because Iowa’s farmers rotate corn with soybeans. Manning isn’t clear about the extent, if any, to which soybeans do the work of fertilizers, but soybeans are just as problematic as corn. Whereas corn processing gives us high-fructose corn syrup, soybeans give us linoleic acid, a fat that not only triggers inordinate obesity but also impairs cerebral development. Nor are hogs a monoculture: Iowa has been “Tysonized” by the vertical sharecropping system that produces chickens designed more for processing than for nutrition. (Chickens, also like hogs, produce excrement in multiples of human output.) Assuming that Manning’s piece is accurate, everything about Iowa’s agriculture is wrong. The state ought to be shut down as a biohazard and its farmers (and their corporate overseers) deported to Patagonia.

Only a cynic, however, would imagine that any of this awfulness was ever intended by anyone. Once upon a time, Iowa was old-fashioned farmland. Only bit by bit did agribusiness invade; only bit by bit was Iowa’s ecology subjected to the application of industrial heedlessness. One step at a time, subsidies were floated; one step at a time, they became guarantees. (They say that Ted Cruz is going to have to change his mind about the ethanol subsidy if he wants to win in the caucuses, despite some exalted endorsements.) I should venture that the biggest shifts in Iowa’s farming occurred during the Sixties and the Seventies, when national attention was focused on Vietnam and oil. Regrettably, no one was paying attention — except, of course, Iowans with a brain. That’s a recurrent problem with running a big democracy, where political opportunists can turn any crisis into a magician’s misdirection.

So: who has the power in Iowa to prevent the United States from enforcing its environmental laws? The United States itself is on both sides of the equation, what with those “renewable energy” subsidies. Merely to render the nation’s positions in Iowa consistent would be an heroic achievement. But that would be just the start. In an essay studded with trenchant observations, this is Manning’s most piercing:

There is no doubt that conservatives would like to win the presidency, but they don’t actually need to. We have a naïve sense that to correct wrongs in our country, we simply need to elect the right president, pass the right laws, and that’s that. Politics in a state such as Iowa, however, teaches us that laws are only the beginning of the process, the opening bell for litigation, lobbying, and defiance. Faced with a federal mandate to regulate hog manure, [Iowa governor] Branstad simply cut the budget that paid for inspectors. Likewise, he roundly criticized William Stowe, urging Des Moines Water Works to address its issues with collaboration and volunteerism.

“What we see every time we hear ‘collaboration’ is buying time, a defense for the status quo,” Stowe told me. “The status quo will ultimately bankrupt our rivers and seriously jeopardize the public health of our consumers.”

If the Water Works prevail in the suit that William Stowe has brought against the state’s rural drainage districts, we will have another chance to see the exercise of power in Iowa, whoever has it.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2016 (II)

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Monday 11th

On Friday evening, I watched Ex Machina. It was one of several movies that I wanted to see in the theatre last year but that I missed for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me. I ordered the DVD because I am very interested in the performances of Oscar Isaac. To me, he is one of the great actors of the day, capable of playing every kind of robust man. Sometimes, he’s a good guy; sometimes, he’s not; but his character’s relation to right and wrong is always complicated, and the complications are compelling. Isaac’s men don’t make trouble for the hell of it. Both as a screen presence and as an impersonator, Oscar Isaac is as serious as a heart attack. His best movie so far — it is also his biggest — is A Most Violent Year.

In Ex Machina, he plays a Silicon Valley bully called Nathan. He’s an insecure sadist masquerading as a smart, approachable guy, backed up with impressive hardware. Approachable, that is, upon invitation only: the pilot who ferries his few visitors to his mountain fastness must keep a distance of perhaps half a mile from the house. The house is a stylish, ecology-friendly hell, saturated in loneliness. Above ground, it offers plate-glass views of green wilderness; its subterranean quarters plaster minimalist chic on the architecture of a convention motel. (Think Cedar Rapids, without the bustle.) Nathan heads the world’s largest Internet company (a sort of Google), but he lives alone with his in-house slut, a strangely clumsy Asian woman who doesn’t speak.

Before we get to Nathan’s place, we visit the head office,  presumably in California, where a reedy young coder called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) hunches over his computer in what might as well be a cubicle but is not. We never see what Caleb sees when he looks up from the screen; perhaps it has no real existence for him. Within the minute, we learn that Caleb has won a competition. The prize is a week in the mountain fastness with Nathan. Cool!

I had read enough of the movie’s reviews to know that this would not be cool. Caleb is terribly naïve, but he isn’t too stupid to play mouse and cat with Nathan. Nathan is surly, obnoxious, and faux-apologetic by turns; he also drinks too much, and we wonder what that is about. If I had to some extent stayed away from Ex Machina, that’s because it was presented as a something of a horror flick. But even the creepier moments are overshadowed by an air of intellectual mystery: the answer to the question why Nathan has chosen Caleb to be his guest sounds not in horror but in science. Nathan is conducting an experiment. What is it?

Nathan tells Caleb that it’s a Turing Test. Nathan wants Caleb to interact with a robot that he has built and endowed with artificial intelligence. Caleb is to judge the quality of the robot’s AI. When Nathan asks Caleb if he knows what a Turing Test is, Caleb gives the correct answer, and this tips us off, or ought to do, to the irregularity of Nathan’s proceedings. When Alan Turing proposed the AI test that bears his name, computers came in boxes, and interactions were text-based. The extent to which a computer could enact the circuitous associations made by the human mind in conversation, presented, so to speak, as lines of dialogue taken from a play, would be the mark of its success. It would be able to fool its human interlocutor, however, only because, as a necessary pre-condition, the human would not know whether he was dealing with a computer or another human being, somebody hidden in the box.

There is no human “control” in Nathan’s version of the test, and no box, either: his computer is a shapely robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is a marvelous concoction of skin and gear that as of yet we can encounter, thanks to CGI, only in the movies. Her face, forearms and feet are covered with something that looks just like skin; the rest of her is prosthesis, except for a mesh-covered poitrine that will doubtless inspire a few nightie fashion shows. Separated by plate glass, Caleb and Ava talk about themselves. Caleb is very impressed at first. Then, puzzled, he asks Nathan why Ava has been designed as a pretty girl. Nathan replies with some hogwash about the hopeless interpenetration of intelligence and sexuality. It is at about this moment that Caleb stops judging Ava’s performance and starts trying to learn from it. Another way of putting this is that his interest shifts from the analytical to the romantic.

You can see all of this coming. You can even foresee that Nathan will never permit Caleb to return to the outside world alive. (The moment Caleb tells Ava that his parents were killed in a car crash when he was eight, you know that his goose is cooked.) But because Nathan is such a heavy, we’re distracted by the eeriness of Ava’s ability to flirt with Caleb; instead of cocking our brows, we sympathize  What you don’t see coming is something that you needn’t worry about my revealing. I have said just enough, I hope, to whet your appetite when I conclude, in general terms, that Ex Machina poses a reverse Turing Test. Its implications are perhaps monstrous, but they are entirely conjectural, something to be mulled over after the movie; as for the climax and finale, they are unbelievably elegant.

Talking with my daughter, who is studying the application of artificial intelligence to environmental and agricultural problems, I learned that Alan Turing’s test is little more than a party trick nowadays. The object of AI research is no longer to fool human beings into thinking that they’re talking to another human being. It is to teach computers to teach themselves things that human beings are incapable of learning. I don’t really understand it well enough to say much more than that the objective seems to be the creation of algorithms that will allow computers to make sense of massively complex (and minute) data, and to decide for themselves what is important, ie a call for action of some kind. Yes, it is scary and controversial. Short of a vast reduction of human population, it may just save the world. In any case, it is unlikely to feature machines as fetching as Ava. But Ex Machina reminds us — and some of us, especially the many Calebs out there, urgently need reminding — that, whatever we create, we shall remain stubbornly human. There is no escape for us from that lot, except into sheer inhumanity.

This stern object lesson is hidden in a beautiful and suspenseful movie, so clever that you don’t see the cleverness until the last few minutes, a dreamy half-mile nature walk that gives you just enough time to recompute everything that you have just seen. Alex Garfield has written and directed a magnificent étude on artificial intelligence that doubles as an old-fashioned masterpiece of indirection.


After my week with Marilynne Robinson, I read the weekend’s newspapers with something like incredulity: why all this depravity! Can’t people see? The short answer, for everything from Trump and Cruz to sexism in academia, is the existentially-crazed determination of power élites to hold on to what they’ve got, and the resentment of those who feel that they have gotten gypped. Same old story. But the long answer is a sheer blank. That is because ambition and resentment lose their vigor over time. Power inevitably dissipates, and resentments, while not always forgotten, invariably lose emotional force. Although we are all caught up in the toils of current affairs, we are all potential historians, too, and, when we look back, and as we look back more closely and more often, we become inerrant arbiters of good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, worth and junk. History, as I have argued, is a crucial component of The World, that composite residue of human achievement that has piled up since the earliest and most primitive of persistent human artifacts, of which the historical record is the youngest. Meanwhile, of course, we have to live in the world, the everyday chaos that we have imposed upon our increasingly fragile biosphere. Most of that small-case world will be swept away without an identifiable trace, but future generations will add a few items to The World, to enhance contemplation of human weakness and possibility.

This explains, I think, my rough optimism. Like most students, I live more in The World than in the world. The past is no better than the present, but it is easier to understand, because evil has a way of starving itself to death, foolishness eventually provokes resistance, and rubbish falls apart. I believe in history because it teaches how we learn (and don’t). That we learn is beyond dispute: the American Constitution is the fruit of the rich understanding of political history that was shared by the gentlemen who composed it. (Now we must learn from its shortcomings.) More people enjoy health, freedom, and prosperity than earlier sages ever imagined; at the same time, however, we are experiencing a second Fall, for, in the space of my lifetime at least, we have learned that modern wonders come at a steep price. We need new sources of income, and for these we must look to our minds: to our minds working together.

Our great model for working together is the team. The best team is composed of variously-endowed men and women who share a common ability to pursue common goals with intelligent discretion, under the direction of a leader with the lightest touch and the greatest natural persuasiveness. I myself do not belong to a team. I have never thought that I’d be good at it. But perhaps my sense of teamwork is stunted, and, just as possibly, the importance of teamwork, and a sense of how it would work, hasn’t reached my neck of the woods. What, exactly, is our common goal?


Tuesday 12th

When I think of The Hunger, a movie that I saw only once, on video, I don’t think of David Bowie. I know that he’s there, but I think about Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, and how unlikely it is that they were in a movie together (and yet, for that very reason, given those two actresses, how normal). I remember thinking, while I watched it that once, that The Hunger is about a certain urban glamour that I’d do anything to avoid. Or was it simply glamour of any kind, that sometimes lovely but always empty carapace? I think, if I watch it again, will I like it more than it frightens me? But I don’t watch it again. The ghosts of the actresses in their Forty-ish finery drift through my mind for a moment and then fade. David Bowie appears as a name, or as a supporting dancer, lifting the ballerinas. Thinking of The Hunger, I wonder how long a sense of vast loneliness would surround me if I found myself living in Queens. Queens has always been for me the place where people go to be lonely, just as Brooklyn is where you go for complete lack of privacy. It makes sense that vampires would live in Queens.

Whenever I see a picture of David Bowie, I think, WEIRD. Not “weird,” as in “spookily unusual,” and not “weirdo!,” as if I weren’t a bit weird myself. But declaratively, self-consciously abnormal. Which is weirder than merely weird, because I can’t really understand the willingness to put your misfitness out there, in front of everything else. To me, it is simply another way of saying, “I’m bored.” It’s like having a disease, but instead of seeking treatment for the disease, sitting in one of those lawn chairs in Times Square (do they still have them?) while wearing a placard that says, “Hypertension Victim.” “I’m not like you” is such an unsociable thing to say, why say anything?

The main thing is that I don’t associate David Bowie with music. I can’t recall a scrap of his singing. I know that I heard it, back in the Seventies, and that it failed to appeal. (It was never, as the anthems of Queen were for a brief but mortifying period, a guilty pleasure.) Since then, Bowie has only been a photograph in a newspaper or a magazine. And, of course, a vampire of some kind, that once.

A friend and I have a running argument. It comes to mind because this friend was one of many who posted a tribute to David Bowie at Facebook yesterday. My friend, who is a much better photographer than I am, is not tempted to take pictures in which people won’t figure, whereas for me the draw of a photograph is its deserted composition. There is always a man-made element. If I take a picture of a tree, it’s almost certainly a tree that was planted by a landscaper. I love ruins. We don’t have many good ruins in New York, but there are plenty of neglected things that have seen better days. My photographs are actually full of people; they’re just not around anymore. Sometimes, in what I think of as my best shots, you can just see them.


I finished The Fall of the Ottomans last night, and was surprised to enjoy the last chapter quite a lot. Better late than never, I suppose. As I’ve already noted, Eugene Rogan’s book is a military history of British engagement with Ottoman forces at Gallipoli, in the Levant and in Mesopotamia. (There is also a chapter about the Armenian Genocide.) But the actual fall of the Ottoman dynasty did not occur until the war was over — as Rogan makes clear in his Epilogue. When the war ended, the Turks gained some eastern provinces, but that was more a matter of Russian withdrawal from the war than of military prowess. On other fronts, the Dardanelles had been held, but the Arab territories were stripped away. And this was before the Peace Conference. By the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which dealt with Turkey, chunks of Anatolia itself were disposed to the Greeks, the French, and the Italians; Thrace also went to Greece. The eastern provinces were taken away. Then Mustafa Kemal, soon to be known as Atatürk (or “Father of Turks”), put together a rebel army in Ankara and led it to victory after victory, until Anatolia and the eastern provinces were entirely Turkish again. It was at this point that the Ottomans fell.

I should like to see a good, readable history of Europe from 1918 to, say, 1929, framing the reconstitution of Europe with the cycle of inflation and depression in which it took place. The new nations that were conjured into existence by the conference at Versailles took their first raucous breaths, displacing millions, during this time. Nowhere was the new order shakier than in Turkey. The Greeks were awarded Smyrna and its hinterland, and these new possessions were promptly awarded to Greek settlers. They didn’t stay long, though; they were driven out by Atatürk’s men by 1922. The diplomat who talked Versailles into this folly, Eleutherios Venizelos, is still remembered as the Father of (Modern) Greece, and is so highly regarded that a slick operator, born in 1957, assumed his name (or at least claimed a relationship) and became Treasury Secretary in one of Greece’s rackety, pre-crisis governments. Venizelos was out of power during the brief war with Turkey, and this is sometimes taken as the reason for Turkish victory. Which all goes to show that you can’t lose, even if you do.

Not that Eugene Rogan so much as mentions Venizelos. I learned about him in Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919. Rogan’s interest is limited to the Ottomans, the Arabs, and the British (with a chapter about the Armenians). I did learn one interesting if outlying fact: it was Trotsky, of all people, who made the Sykes-Picot agreement public. He was airing what Rogan calls the tsarists’ “dirtiest” linen.


I subscribe to Letters in the Mail, a publication (I suppose) of the Web site The Rumpus. For a few dollars, you receive a letter every three weeks or so. I signed up at the start, out of civic duty, as it were; I shouldn’t know about it now, because I hardly look at anybody else’s Web site anymore (about which I am regretful but not exactly sorry). The mail duly arrived and just as duly piled up; I didn’t open any until last spring. The letters are written by young people who are associated with The Rumpus, or known to it, but usually, the writers are not known to me. I find the letters to be breaths of fresh air, even when all they really do is remind me that, when I was young, I had nothing to say, and that that was my anguished subject.

I opened one over the weekend. It was written by Brandon Hicks, who announced at the start that, as a 21 year-old, he wasn’t familiar with writing letters. I was surprised that he was familiar with writing at all, at his age, but it turns out that he is really a graphic artist, and a pretty effective one, too, as the illuminations adorning his letter show. One strip illustrates some of the future selves that he dreads becoming, including “impotent” and “Canadian writer” — it’s both clever and sweet. As for the letter, Hicks quite wisely ducks by posing fifteen questions. The questions appear to cover a wide range of topics; Q3 solicits advice about tools (pens) from fellow-artists. But they are all the questions of somebody who is 21 and has yet to know enough about the world to have anything to say about it. This is in no way a failing.

How come most highly educated [people] are never actually “reading” anything? They’re always re-reading something. For you, what is the value of re-visiting something you have already read? (Q4)

Is anything as maddening as hearing that some smart friend or acquaintance is re-reading a classic that you haven’t even got round to reading the first time? When you’re young, I mean, and haven’t really had the time to read much of anything, and you haven’t really understood very much of what you have read. I remember thinking it nothing less than miraculous, a wonder of piety, that Cardinal Newman (it was said) read Mansfield Park every year! (Now that I’ve been around for a while, I can see that re-reading Mansfield Park every year would be Newman’s kind of stunt.) I don’t know how old I was when I first re-read something, and I don’t want to know, either, because if I was younger than thirty-five, I was showing off.

Why re-read? Well, if you’re like me, and have to know the ending of every story before you read it, books lose nothing the first time. There are no virgins. If Jane Austen makes you smile once, she’ll probably do it again, provided you don’t revisit too soon. That is the first reason for re-reading something. Good books remain good books.

The answer that most people will give, however, is, I suspect, that good books change. Well, of course, they don’t change, any more than the sun goes around the earth. You change. And it’s like kissing someone whom, in the dark, you thought was somebody else. You’re all ready for one experience but instead you get another, and it is intimately shocking. The language seems different, or the characters make different impressions. Or you get something that went over your head the first time. The book has been unfaithful to you, but this only makes you love it the more. Bear in mind, however, that this is not what happens when you read classics of adolescence such as The Catcher in the Rye. Such books do not tell you that you’ve changed. They tell you that you’ve grown up, that you’re too old for this playground.

Later on in life, good books manage to be both, the same and different. More the same than different, perhaps, but it’s the difference that keeps things fresh. I have learned rather recently that re-reading a good book is an excellent way of living through an ordeal. While the ordeal goes on, you tuck yourself into the book and are surprised by its reassurance. This, too, shall pass.

For me, it is the writing. Which is not “words for words’ sake.” Writing is sense made flesh. Which is pretty much my answer to this question:

You’re going to think I’m pretty ignorant for this one, but … Poetry. What’s the deal with it? I don’t understand what anybody is saying half the time. And I don’t enjoy words just for word’s sake enough to appriciate [sic] the aesthetic arrangement within a poem. How is it in any way preferable to prose? Please, no bullshitty “It’s a window into the soul”-type answers. (Q14)

Somebody, I can’t remember who, tipped me off, last year, to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95. I didn’t know it, I’m ashamed to admit; I have yet to bear down on the Sonnets conscientiously. This one begins,

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of your budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!

O, what a scold this sonneteer can be. But the first two lines of what Helen Vendler would identify is Q3 (the third quatrain) dazzles me with a high-voltage thrill.

O, what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee

This is really pretty vituperative; I can imagine any number of dramatic dames of the stage spitting it forth, their contempt for the nonce blotting out their adoration. My advice to Brandon Hicks is to memorize a few sonnets — a few famous ones. Ask around. Sonnets 73 and 129 will come up a lot, along with 18 and 116. Memorize these now, while you’re still young, and then play with them. Speak them with funny voices. Try singing them. (It will add nothing; the Sonnets are already complete music.) In Sonnet 95, which I also recommend, notice how difficult it is to say “chose out thee” instead of “sought thee out.” The beauty part is that nobody with half a brain will think that it’s peculiar of you to memorize Shakespeare. Any other poet, and you’re declaring an interest; Shakespeare is too monumental for that. To recite Shakespeare is to convince other people that they ought to be able to do the same.

Eventually, after a decade or two, you will have an answer to your question about poetry, and you will fall to your knees and thank me. Treat your tongue well!


Wednesday 13th

This afternoon, I’ve got an appointment with the dermatologist that has already been postponed twice. I’m very tempted to postpone it again. But as I really do have to go outside today, I might as well visit the doctor. I need a haircut, and the larder needs stocking. It’s very cold, so there won’t be any running across the street in shorts. I haven’t been out of the building since Friday.

I had two bad dreams. In both, the fact pattern of an administrative matter that is driving Kathleen crazy at the moment (at the office) was repurposed, once involving a book that gave faulty instructions, and, in the other, a dog that wouldn’t bark at the right barkees. These dreams were saturated with the air of inescapable workplace tedium that I took away from our conversation before dinner.

I am reading Hamlet, because Marilynne Robinson says that it is all about grace.

Hamlet’s madness is both feigned and real, and it consists in his descent into the reality of his circumstances. He cannot naturalize himself to this reality, and, consciously, at least, he cannot see his way beyond it — except, perhaps, in the thought of death. As prince, and as madman, he is flattered, manipulated, spied on. His world would compel him to an act of homicide that, thoroughly as he can rationalize it in the world’s terms, and despite continuing provocations of the darkest sort, he finally seems to have put out of mind. And when he does this, he is restored to himself. He will die because he is a generous, uncontriving man in a world where these virtues are fatal vulnerabilities. (The Givenness of Things, 43)

When I was young, Hamlet was taught as an object lesson in the futility of intellectual preoccupation. Teachers and critics were impatient with Hamlet’s reluctance to act. Robinson’s argument is precisely the opposite: Hamlet is prevented by his very virtue from descending, as she puts it, into the reality of his circumstances — a descent into something worse than hell (for in hell, the promise of humanity is altogether broken). Hamlet would rather be pursuing his studies at Wittenberg, which may seem distracted and unrealistic to the average American male but which nonetheless signifies a distaste for exercising power over others. The fact that his destiny is to be Prince of Denmark is the essence of his tragedy, not his propensity to weigh and consider. What he can do is forgive, or, as Robinson insists (what is more than forgiveness), he can free all faults. That is what she means by “grace.” It is not Hamlet who is futile. It is everyone else. (And everyone else dies, too.)

What kind of a dream is it to wonder what authority would be like if it could operate without power? That is indeed how authority works in the cultural affairs of liberal democracies. Authority does not compel, but it is there to inform the ignorant and to guide the wise. I often entertain a daydream of two political zones, one a city of enlightened cooperation and the other a wilderness of senseless self-interest. I see it as a Darwinian experiment, with the thugs eventually extinguishing themselves. Wishful thinking! The thugs would manage some rudimentary form of cooperation and so survive, while the enlightened would bore themselves to death. A truly improved humanity cannot really be imagined. It might happen spontaneously, but only without conscious planning.

That is not a counsel of despair. When I think of Shakespeare’s brain, I see a vat of gently simmering words, bubbling up in response to tacit associations. I don’t want to credit Shakespeare with automatic writing, but I know from my own experience that some of the happiest language emerges unbidden and unsought. If I were to go looking for felicitous constructions, I’d return empty-handed. If Shakespeare had to think of all the wonders that Helen Vendler finds in his sonnets, he wouldn’t have written so many, much less the thirty-odd plays. This is Hamlet’s problem, because he does have to think what to do when he “descends” into the court of Elsinore. Nothing comes naturally to him; he has to think everything through from scratch. But his philosophy, his thinking about humanity and life — well, it’s world-famous, isn’t it? The fluency of Hamlet’s soliloquies never fails to astonish. You can’t make this stuff up.

Shakespeare’s simmering brain was not a sport of nature, I am quite sure. A lot of reading was involved. That may be why we know so little about the man: he was always reading, so there is nothing to discover. On the evidence of his writing, he soaked up everything there was to know about the world. Those who trifle with the idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays always argue that Shakespeare couldn’t have had the experience to know what he knew, but the experience that mattered for Shakespeare to be Shakespeare was an experience of words — written words. As Robinson points out in one of her many gleeful moments, those who doubt that Shakespeare could have known first-hand what life at court was like always overlook that what we know about life at court we know from Shakespeare.


The dermatologist, looking at my arms and scalp, said, “This looks great!” Then she said. “You have a lot of pre-cancers. I think we’d better try the blue lights again.” I used to use a very effective cream. Cheap, too. (The blue-lights sessions are not cheap.) But I got too sensitive. The cream inflamed my skin after three or four applications, and the inflammation took forever to die down. The cool thing about the blue lights is that you get a little portable fan. About the size of a prescription bottle, with three two-inch blades mounted at one end. A pocket windmill. The problem is keeping the fan intact. If you put it in your bag or backpack, it falls to the problem and the blades fall off. In one piece. That’s what happened to the fan I got last time. Also, I never once used it. Because the fan, while definitely cool, is not particularly cooling. I prefer old-fashioned fans, the folding ones that you snap open, if they’re any good. The paper fans from Pearl River are not very good at snapping open, but they do work. With minimal wrist action, they send up a nice breeze. Whether or not it cools you off or dries your sweat, it feels better than nothing.

It was good to get out of the house, I have to admit. In and of itself. My spirits lightened, just walking to the barber shop. Waiting in the barber shop. By the time I got to lunch, life seemed more or less normal. Home has become the place where I wait for Kathleen to come home, and where, when she comes home, we talk about her day at the office, very little of which can be discussed even with closest friends, much less here. The arrest of a partner sheds a wicked fallout. Almost every one of our friends has said something on the lines of, “We know that Kathleen has done nothing wrong, but human nature, being what it is…” The annoying thing is that everyone is so complacent about this sad truth. I’m not so fast to blame human nature. I think that the ethics of journalism (together with the exploitation of journalism by prosecutors) is a more proximate concern.

Thinking about Shakespeare as I was walking around, I dallied for about two minutes with connections between verbal fluency and “the unconscious.” Or (for ten seconds) “the half-conscious.” Suddenly I was peering over a familiar, if long-unvisited, abyss. I remembered the churning laundry cycle of puzzling out how Freud’s divisions of the mind functioned in the actual brain. How did the subconscious work? And, just as I was about to totter over the edge, I was saved by that superhero, Memory. We don’t know much about memory, but we do know that everything that we know is a memory of some kind. Sometimes we come up with new ideas (or associations) which, ipso facto, can’t be memories themselves; but they’re made out of memories and they quickly become memories themselves. Regardless of how the brain works, the mind is a bundle of memories. Some memories, as we all know, are more accessible than others. Some memories, as every senior knows, become inaccessible the moment you look for them. The same goes for verbal fluency. At least with the oblivion that clouds certain words from view just when we need them most — all we can grasp is that there’s a certain sound (the letter “o” at the start, or a Latinate root with “ion” at the end) — in such cases, we can turn to a thesaurus, where the word either will or will not stand out instantly. Retrieving names is nowhere near as easy.

(It seems that I haven’t written about this before, but my search engine may be letting me down: I was amused, a few months ago, to feel a cage of oblivion falling like a trap around the name of a very famous filmmaker. It was as though I could see it happening, but not quick enough to catch filmmaker’s name. I could remember the names of his movies, and also that of the famous film that he starred in but didn’t direct, but I was amused, as I say, by the phenomenon, enough to wait it out, instead of running to IMDb. I didn’t need to know. I wasn’t writing about him; I wasn’t even talking about him. It was a foretaste, or perhaps just a plain taste, of senility, and I was curious to see how long it would last. Now I can’t remember. It took more than a day, I do recall, for “Orson Welles” to ding like a bell. I could see him, in Touch of Evil and The Third Man, but I could not name him. I could name “Paul Masson,” but not Orson Welles. I almost felt that the name refused to present itself until my mind was certain that I’d forgotten the search. As I may have done, for a few minutes. It would be interesting to know what hidden subroutines, if any, were running in my brain for all that time. I don’t think that they were search subroutines, though. I think that they were oblivion subroutines, spinning a spell, keeping the shield up.)

I don’t know if it stands to reason, but experience suggests that it’s easier to remember things that come to mind often. Therefore — the moral of this story — it’s possible to manage your memory by keeping your attention on what used to be called worthwhile things. Not worthy things, but things of interest, items that spark curiosity. What’s especially potent is letting one thing lead to another, as Marilynne Robinson’s essays have led me to Hamlet. I hate to admit it, but in all my sixtysomething years, I’ve read Hamlet all the way through no more than three times, and I’ve never read it as carefully as I’m reading it now. I’m reading it carefully because I have a reason, a scent to follow — this thing that Robinson says about the role of grace in Hamlet’s progress through the play. Considering that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s sturdiest entry in the revenge-tragedy sweepstakes, it’s especially curious that the hero loses his interest in revenge somewhere in the second half of the play. And is saved by that, even if he dies. Human nature being what it is, Hamlet is able to triumph over it.


Thursday 14th

Today, I am in bed, with a cold. Officially. In fact, I am at my desk, and the bed has been made. I was awakened in the late morning by a dreadful nightmare, and then, having fallen back asleep, awakened again by the dream’s continuation. In the dream, I was being compelled to remain at a rented house by an extorting owner who somehow had the physical means (never put to the test) to detain me. How much he wanted for my freedom was also unknown. But the scenes were fearful and unpleasant. After a few hours of sitting up, I decided that I should not be going back to bed until bedtime.

We were up late last night, because Kathleen was working late, and, when she got home, we talked about her day, as I’ve noted we’ve been doing, only this time there was some sunshine in her report — some real sunshine. One heavy cloud had lifted and vanished; another showed signs of breaking up. The third instance of good news was not so much good news as the pre-emption of bad news: the cloud in this case was made to storm prematurely, before it had the force that it would have had in ten days. No outward harm was done, and embarrassments, which might have been dreadful, were minimized and duly forgotten. In this last matter, I may claim to have been the source of good advice, for which Kathleen, having taken it, warmly thanked me.

Yes, I think that last remark sounds like Polonius, too.


Hamlet and grace. What to make of Marilynne Robinson’s idea? Is Hamlet really Robinson’s “generous, uncontriving man”? How to reconcile such a description with Hamlet’s manipulation of the instructions carried by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to the King of England, a manipulation that will lead straight to their deaths? How to reconcile this with the fact that he actually does kill Claudius, finally — and deliberately? We can write both of these deeds off as impulsive, as is the killing of Polonius behind the arras. Hamlet does so explicitly, in connection with the counterfeited orders.

And praised be rashness for it — let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall (V.2.6-9)

But can these hotheaded moves be reconciled with grace? What sort of grace accommodates manslaughter?

And yet Hamlet does seem to have been changed by his time with the pirates, heading home to Denmark instead of on to England. His last words upon leaving were exhortatory:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth! (IV.4.64-5)

When he reappears, by Ophelia’s grave (as yet unaware that it is hers), Hamlet muses abstractedly on death and dust without a thought for Claudius or revenge. Indeed, so unbloody are his thoughts that he seems already to have died, to have savored the vanity of human achievement. As he muses on the dead attorney’s documents, which in addition to doing the late conveyancer no good, would not so much as fill his coffin, he seems to have anticipated Claudius’s death as well as his own.

No sooner does Hamlet learn that the grave will be Ophelia’s than he tumbles into it to wrestle with Laertes, each claiming to have loved the drowned girl more. Is Robinson asking us to see this violence as gracious youthfulness? Thinking of John Ames’s quiet rhapsodies about baseball, in Gilead, I’m inclined to think that she is.

I myself do not believe that human achievements are vain. It is true that they do not prevent death, and it is also true that “you can’t take it with you” — but isn’t that a strange idea. Why should you want to? What would you do with it? Are we still beset by the relatively primitive idea, brought to an absurd high point by the Egyptians, that our corpses must fitted out for sustenance in the underworld? This idea seems to be commingled with a less primitive notion, which holds that certain things meant so much to the deceased that they ought to be taken out of circulation, and made to disappear from this world. But that is our doing, the doing of the living. The man who wants to take his wealth with him — is he conscious of any implication of denying it to those he leaves behind?

It is a very good thing that our achievements, so far as they leave positive material traces, do not die with us. Consider the doctor: the diseases that he has cured, the lives that he has (for a time) saved, the human happiness that he has added to the world, and that will stay, lingering in the air after the saved have passed away. The lawyer’s good works have made titles secure. Perhaps they have been secured to bad people, but their being secure minimizes litigation, encroachment, and even family resentment. The world is a better place because people have done well in it, morally if not materially. Human achievements, for good and ill, live on in buried roots. We are inescapably surrounded by the consequences of the past, amongst which our deeds will inevitably figure, even though we ourselves be forgotten.


I don’t know how long this is going to go on.

At the dermatologist’s office yesterday, I was asked for the phone number of my pharmacy. I had no idea, I said, but when they asked me where it was, I remembered that the number was probably on my mobile phone, so I dug it out and sure enough. Well, it was a number for Duane Reade. When I go back to the doctor next week, I’ll make sure that I have the number that’s printed on my prescription labels. Anyway, by the time this was taken care of, I was spooked again by The Bourne Legacy. Every time I pick up medications at the pharmacy counter, it happens. I feel like one of the Outcomes in Tony Gilroy’s movie, the Bourne episode that stars Jeremy Renner instead of Matt Damon. (Both actors are connected with future episodes at IMDb, but the Renner project is undated.) This almost instantly became my favorite, because it’s so monstrous. To close down a clandestine program, US security officials kill off everyone connected with it. (Stacey Keach plays a Cheney-like figure.) The Outcomes, or field agents — their mitochondrial DNA has been altered — are given new pills. Well, the South Korean agent is given new pills. But, the next thing you know, three Outcomes are on the ground, dead, with telltale nosebleeds. The Outcome played by Oscar Isaac is blown to smithereens by a drone bomb. Jeremy Renner’s character contrives to appear to be killed. Now it’s the turn of the doctors who developed the “science” that made the Outcomes possible. One of their number has been doped, and he shoots all the others in a horrific massacre at the lab. Only one doctor — played by Rachel Weisz — survives, and she’d be cooked soon if it weren’t for Outcome #5 (Renner), who shows up at her house in the nick of time. He’s looking for more meds. The doctor and her patient run for their lives.

Their adventure climaxes with a protracted chase through Manila, largely on motorcycle but also involving a dash of parkour. It is just bearable for someone like me; even my autonomic nervous system responds to the dangers of high speed. Up until then, though, the movie is a triumph of understatement. The murder of the three Outcomes who get “new meds” is particularly implicit. Everything is happening very fast — as fast as a cycle chase — but it’s happening all over the world and there is no noise. Outcome #6 (Rob Riley), built like a linebacker, pauses on a deck, surrounded by pleasure boats, then drops to his knees and, with a body-length spasm, falls on the planks. Outcome #1 is discovered on the streets of Karachi. Best of all is the death of Outcome #4. A subway pulls into a station, and as everyone gets off, you notice that three women are staring at someone whom you can’t see because of the exiting passengers. Then the camera pulls around, and you see the Korean agent who queried the change in pills. Her head is back against the window, and her eyes are open. There’s the nosebleed.

I don’t really wonder how I would meet my end if my meds were replaced with poison — I suspect that the agents’ new pills raised blood pressure to deadly levels — but I’m aware that it might happen every time I interface with someone about them. That’s because the scene in which the Korean agent gets her new pills is so banal. She’s curious about the switch, but she accepts the explanation that is given to her by the kindly but in fact diabolic security agent, who shows up as a deadly enabler in a later scene. You can’t trust anybody. You probably don’t even know who anybody really is.

Somewhere, in one of his prefaces to the reprints of his George Smiley novels, David Cornwell (John Le Carré) says that the Intelligence exercises of the Cold War, while murderous, were a waste of time, both foolish and feckless. They accomplished nothing. The truth is, they gave a lot of clever people something to do with their brains, a sort of three-dimension, real-life chess. I wish I’d known this; I stayed away from the Le Carré books because I thought that they glorified the spies and their “tradecraft.” (So does Cornwell, at least so far as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is concerned.) My suspicion that there was something seriously off about the Cold War didn’t take on any flesh until I read something that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about his time at the State Department: bright young men cultivated their sources for scandals that would attract the attention of the higher-ups. I don’t know how he put it exactly, but the upshot was that the bright young men on the South Asian desk made the most of instability in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and got all the attention. There’s no inside secret about this; Graham Greene made great fun of it in Our Man in Havana. But I had trouble accepting that grown men would spend real money and endanger real lives in the pursuit of such empty contests.

That they would bundle it all up as “patriotic,” and get away with it, is probably the worse smack in the face that Americans have ever sustained.


Show of hands: how many readers think that Donald Trump is the only American who admires Vladimir Putin? How many would be surprised if Putin showed up in Iowa, campaigning not for presidential nominee but for godfather? How many believe that Trump would have a hard time deciding whether to challenge the Russian or to settle for consigliere?


Friday 15th

There’s a surprising photograph of Henry Kissinger in this week’s Nation. Taken in 1968, when he was about 45, it makes him look like Mike Nichols’s smart-ass brother. He’s standing to the side of someone, Richard Nixon probably, but because the photograph has been cropped, you can’t be sure about that, and what would have been an expression of happily admiring support is instead the very image of the cat that ate the canary. When he was younger, Kissinger tended to look wonky-dorky; in the prime of his international influence, which began not long after the picture in The Nation was taken, he tended to look pompous. But here, he looks kind of fantastic, but also untrustworthy. Or, as the review to which it is attached proclaims, he looks like an opportunist.

The thing about opportunists is that that’s what they look like to everyone but the source of their opportunities. Kissinger was a creature of the Rockefellers for a long time, but when it became clear that Nelson Rockefeller was never going to be President of the United States (even then, his positions were too centrist, and he would give his name to a political party that came to an end in the Sixties, the “Rockefeller Republicans”), Kissinger put himself up for auction. He wound up where he wanted to be, in the White House.

It’s surprising that this Harvard-educated German scholar of Metternich and Castlereigh turned out to be so simpatico with Nixon, but as the White House tapes that are quoted by Srinath Raghavan in his account of diplomatic and military responses to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, 1971, make uncomfortably clear, Kissinger could assume the persona of an avid football fan at the big game.

Kissinger: If the Soviets move against [the Chinese], and then we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.
Nixon: So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?
Kissinger: Well, if the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown. If the Russians gete away with facing down the Chinese, and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis … we may be looking right down the gun barrel. (1971, 256)

In an earlier conversation, Kissinger urged action because “at least we’re coming off like men.” The upshot of this was to send an American fleet into the Bay of Bengal. What would have happened had it arrived before the ceasefire is not hard to guess. The point of all this posturing, by the way, was to prove to the Chinese, whom Nixon was courting, that Americans were tough.

In “The Opportunist,” British scholar David Milne reviews two books, and one of them is the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s study of Kissinger. Ferguson is a clever fool, capable of spinning persuasive illusions that banish inconvenient contradictions. He wants to see Kissinger, as his subtitle indicates, as an idealist. But, Milne writes, “the written evidence that Ferguson provides is both vast in quantity and slight in explanatory utility.” I can easily imagine that this is the case, and that Ferguson’s book would be a terrible slog to get through. In one paragraph alone, Milne provides a prospectus of what a more accurate, but also more nightmarishly entertaining book about Kissinger would look like.

Kissinger was consistently reckless, and Ferguson is blind to the pattern. Throughout his career, Kissinger was quick to detect potential humiliations for America — in withdrawing from Vietnam too quickly; in the coming to power of Salvador Allende in Chile; in allowing a dependable friend, Yahya Khan’s Pakistan, to lose a fight with India, led by the unreliable Indira Gandhi — and quick to recommend the deployment of US military resources (whether ground troops, bombing campaigns, covert destabilization programs, or military aid), all in the interests of US “credibility.” The responses he counseled as Nixon’s national-security adviser helped to create catastrophes in each of the regions they affected: the destabilization of Cambodia and the rise of Pol Pot; the ousting of the democratically elected Allende government and the rise of the murderous Augusto Pinochet; a brutal war on the subcontinent during which Pakistan slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in what historian Gary Bass has described, in The Blood Telegram, as “a forgotten genocide.” Kissinger’s brutal policy advice did not stem from realism in any meaningful way, and it certainly wasn’t inspired by the idealism of Immanuel Kant. It was about demonstrating American power to the world, absent a moral core and a sense of proportion.

That is the legacy of Henry Kissinger, and some critics, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, have been shouting it for years. Kissinger is a grand old man now, but I am confident that the historians will get him right within the next couple of decades.

Kissinger would contend, presumably, that Milne is wrong about the lack of a moral core: what could be more moral than America’s protection of the free world in the Cold War? But the Cold War was an imaginary war. The hot war that it was supposed to forestall never took place, but this happy outcome cannot be attributed to Cold War strategies. The Cold War oversaw a number of local hot wars, from Korea to the now difficult-to-imagine wars between China and Vietnam (forgot that one, didn’t you) and Iran and Iraq. Perhaps these conflicts protected the free world, but it is difficult to see how, except as distractions that gave military men something to do. The advantage of American wealth was undercut by the persistence of American cluelessness: what a record we racked up, during the Cold War, for backing tyrants! Ordinary Americans understood next to nothing about foreign affairs, and still do. American governments try to convince voters that certain actions must be taken (or avoided), but they never make the slightest attempt to remove the provincial blinkers. As a result the political scene has been prepared for little more than bluster. Looking right down the gun barrel, Kissinger was a pastmaster in that department. Unfortunately, his bluster was loaded with shrapnel.

I’m sorry that Milne doesn’t mention Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” with Israel.


Eventually, I got round to reading David Cole’s piece, “The Trouble at Yale,” in the NYRB, and it surprised me, because I expected it to provoke a world-going-to-the-dogs response. Instead, I went all plus-ça-change. Perhaps college disturbances are doomed always to be the same. Either one thing or the other. Student revolts at fee increases and silenced teachers have an ancient history. These essentially administrative squabbles are easy to understand. The other kind, the political uprising, goes back to the early days of nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. First, nationalism was, from the start, tied to literacy — literacy in native languages. And literacy is concentrated in schools. Second, students seem to have more free than everybody else. They can afford to go out into the street and throw stones.

There was no throwing of stones at Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate. Father Hesburgh kept a very tight lid on protest: he declared that unwelcome protesters were trespassers on the campus, liable to eviction by the police. I found this a bit heavy-handed, because it wrote a script for would-be martyrs, but those martyrs never emerged. (Maybe one or two did.) Unrest at Notre Dame remained a matter of talk. This put it on a par with the university’s proper business, also a matter of non-violent expression.

When I was in college, I assumed that, in the event of revolution, I’d be one of the first to be taken to the guillotine. (I’d have been rather put out, otherwise.) It wasn’t so much my conservative political views — I was very much a liberal even then — as my personal resistance to all things new. I also believed in good manners, and the idea that good manners were a tool of social oppression made me laugh, because I had outgrown that very idea somewhere between the ages of nine and eleven. I did not see the advantage of being young, but only the disadvantage of being inexperienced and immature. And ignorant. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to be sure that what I learned was solid. So I signed up for Great Books, because it promised to be a safe place from novelty. (And it was.)

(When you are young, you cannot imagine the physical advantages of youth; you wake up to them only when they begin to slip away. This is the saddest fact of humanity, sadder by far than death.)

If I did let my hair grow a bit (an awful mistake, given my hair), I maintained and even raised my standards of hygiene and dress. This also doomed me.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I was a terrible student. I flunked nearly all of my electives, usually losing interest in mid-course. (And it was a great mistake to take a History of China course that met at eight in the morning.) I was no better than classmates who devoted themselves to thinking about social action instead of classwork; I simply indulged in different passions. A lot of it came very easily to me, but it was therefore something of a waste of time, because I wasn’t really learning. I drove the professors crazy with my shows of occasional, unreliable brilliance. But I did read the Great Books.

The overarching problem of any attempt to evaluate my younger days is trying decide whether to blame the environment or myself. If I was only rarely inspired to work hard, whose fault was that? I learned to work hard later, at the radio station. It had nothing to do with being on the radio and everything to do with scheduling the music programming and typing it up in time for the offset printer. This new skill saw me into and through law school. I passed the New York State Bar Exam, something that I think nobody does without a spell of hard work. But after that, I lost the sense of mission. There was no reason to work hard. (The idea of working hard just to make money has flitted through my mind, but never stuck round long enough to establish itself.) This dodgy profile, which suggests a life of failing to live up to capacities, is another reason for seeing myself in the tumbril.

Capacities for what, though? When I ask this question, I feel that I’m up the Orinoco. What if the time for my talents has not yet arrived?

So the hard work of my later life has been to look at the world as closely as I can and to write down what I see. Correction: to write down what I see that doesn’t seem quite right. I try to notice the mistakes. The things that the people around me seem to think, but that don’t seem to be the case to me. Unfortunately, I am not a trained examiner in many fields. Economics, for example. It has never been demonstrated to me that economic growth is essential to economic health. Am I stupid, or is this just (a) something that it suits businesspeople to believe or (b) a reasonably accurate summary of the past three centuries only? Shakespeare grew, then grew old, then died. But his work is still very much with us, and likely to remain so. Why can’t the economy be more like Shakespeare’s work and less like Shakespeare?

Why can’t people see how unattractive, how really stinky and blotchy, selfishness is? Perhaps because they can’t afford to? Kathleen has worked closely with a gifted paralegal for nearly thirty years, and the two women are good friends. The paralegal is great source of information about life on the other side of the professional divide. An associate may be all smiles and compliance with Kathleen, while treating the paralegal like a washerwoman. Not too long ago, the paralegal was carrying an immense pile of documents, and having a hard time getting her key out for the glass door at the elevator. (Modern security.) Through the glass, she could see a partner standing nearby, on the phone. He could see her. Instead of putting down the phone and opening the door for her, he turned his back and walked as far away as the cord would allow. Why? My presumption is that, having grown into the habit of treating lesser mortals with less respect, he can’t make exceptions: he is imprisoned by his own bad behavior, which will stand revealed as such if he ever corrects it. The paralegal got through the door eventually and is anything but condemned to carry a heavy weight through some circle of the Inferno. But she will never forget the partner’s turning away, and neither will Kathleen, and neither will I. And neither will you, although, unlike us, you don’t know who he is.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Structure of the Next Sentence
January 2016 (I)

Monday, January 4th, 2016

Monday 4th

The Givenness of Things is a collection of essays, most of them originally delivered as lectures, by Marilynne Robinson, the author of Housekeeping and the Gilead trilogy, plus a number of non-fiction books. The lectures were given here and there, not as a prestigious university series, and there is an amount of repetition in the collection that might annoy some readers. But I suspect that these readers would be annoyed anyway. Repetition is the least of Robinson’s divergences from current standards and practices. The Givenness of Things is off the academic grid. (And who but academics deliver lectures?) Its author is a mainline Calvinist Christian who would like to sweep “Christianist,” fundamentalist demagogues right off the bench. Her fellow academics are probably embarrassed by her acceptance of “the givenness of God” — the fact that, for Robinson, God is simply there — while the Christianists would be squirming unknown beneath remote rocks if there were more believers as robustly vocal as Marilynne Robinson.

So much I think I can say. I haven’t finished reading the book. Much of it will have to be re-read. I shall even have to read a bit of Calvin himself, because what Robinson has to say about Calvin is not what you were taught in school. I need say no more than that Robinson’s Calvin is sunny and sweet. Either generations of pastors have been taking his work in vain, or Robinson is off her rocker. But an early glimpse at Calvin suggests that she is not. In Chapter 10 of Calvin’s Institutes, “How to Use the Present Life, and the Comforts of It,” I read,

If we are only to pass through the earth, there can be no doubt that we are to use its blessings only insofar as they assist our progress, rather than retard it. Accordingly, Paul, not without cause, admonishes us to use this world without abusing it, and to buy possessions as if we were selling them.

That’s not how I interpret 1 Corinthians 7:30-31, which in both translations immediately at hand speaks of “those who buy as if they had no possessions” (Oxford Annotated). But Calvin’s gloss is appealing, obviously, because it sounds the note of stewardship: prepare to leave your things behind in as good repair as you received them. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I have simply grown to be so old at heart that Calvin is no longer so prominently a party-pooper. I ought to note that I was not directed to this passage of Calvin by Robinson herself, although she does provide John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant: Selected Writings with a Preface. I simply opened the book and there it was.

There is no hellfire in Marilynne Robinson. There isn’t very much about resurrection and eternal life in paradise, either. Robinson’s concern with religion is terrestrial. She testifies to the joy that believing in the God of her fathers brings to her, but her lectures are directed to the problems of living with and according to faith in our particular moment in time.

This necessarily makes Robinson something of an historian, and she rises to the challenge modestly but sturdily. Her history is mostly American, and mostly recent — but it is history, not mere received wisdom or just-so stories about cherry trees. It is the history of a strange silencing, either that or an acquiescence. “Nevertheless, the mainline churches, which are the liberal churches, in putting down the burden of educating their congregations in their own thought and history, have left them inarticulate.” (104) There is also the history of “liberal,” which went from being a proud self-identifier to a stinkbomb. Robsinson does not discuss these histories at length, but they pop up everywhere. Robinson is a prophet, lamenting the withering of American generosity. Like me, Robinson believes that a lot of the blame goes to right-thinking people who have come to mistaken conclusions.

It’s curious: I feel a sympathy, an agreement with Marilynne Robinson, greater than I have ever felt with any writer. There are pages that provoke me to exclaim that I might as well stop adding pages to this blog and instead simply refer readers to her books. But it is an intellectual sympathy rather than a personal one: Robinson is stoutly Midwestern, given to muting her sophistication; I am a corrupt Manhattanite. She loves America almost as much as she loves God; a resolute agnostic about God (if that is possible, which it probably isn’t), I haven’t managed to love anything larger than a few human beings. I agree with Robinson completely about, say, Greece — Greece the economic sinkhole that spent so much time on the front pages earlier this year. But I have different things to say about it. For me, the foremost thing about Greece is not, as for Robinson, an attachment to native, traditionally Christian ways that might not harmonize with free-market economics. The foremost thing about this problem-version of Greece is that it signifies an absolute failure on the part of the European élite to do its job — to keep the affairs of the European Union running smoothly. Everybody knows now that Greece ought never have been admitted to the Eurozone, but it was pretty clear at the time, to anyone caring to look, that the books had been cooked. Greece got in because probity gave way to ego-fulfilment. It was certainly, from a viewpoint such as Robinson’s, an ultimately ungenerous, uncharitable deed — not consistent with Christian ethics. But for me, what’s more, is that it was flat-out incompetent.

So we are allies, not co-religionists. Alliances are hard to puzzle out, because allies come together from very different backgrounds, and their cooperation is always tainted by opportunism. I find that, while I can describe what Robinson has to say (and not just repeat it), I cannot quite judge it. The big question for me is this: can you feel as joyful about “Creation” and humanity as does someone for whom a loving God is a given?

The question that The Givenness of Things poses, whether Robinson intends this or not, is whether it is possible to feel any joy at all when the people in charge are making such a total hash of things.


One of the more intriguing examples of how Robinson does history appears, along with many other matter of great interest, in the essay entitled “Decline.” (I have not been able to work out the relations between Robinson’s titles and the contents of the essays upon which they are pinned; it often seems to me that the titles could be randomly reassigned.) This is her discussion of trends and fads. Although “closely related, almost synonymous,” trends and fads differ on the existential level: fads are being, while trends are becoming. Fads really happen. The financialization of the economy that has done so much harm, and produced so much economic inequality, in the past thirty years is a fad. Trends are simply anxieties. For a while, in the Nineties, we worried about being overtaken by the Japanese. Now we’re worrying about China. It is very foolish to pay too much attention to trends, not because they’re so rarely realized but because the real trends in human affairs are occult.

Who could have foretold, in 1936, that anti-Semitism would lead to horrific “solutions” in Germany, rather than in France? Robinson raises this question in connection with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in “Value,” which I haven’t finished reading. How mistaken — as distinct from being the victim of bad luck — was Bonhoeffer in deciding to stay in a Germany that would ultimately shoot him? How wise is Robinson to hang on here in the United States?

I won’t go back to Gilead to find a supporting passage, because the text wouldn’t convey any sense of the surprise that I felt when Robinson, writing as John Ames, rhapsodized about playing baseball on a sunny afternoon, and so charged it with genuinely holy grace that the words and what they really meant seemed to tumble out of the Song of Solomon. Or the way in which John Ames’s wife, Lila, in the book named after her, scratches out lines of Ezekiel with an intensity that is neither entirely sane nor entirely reverent. When it comes to blending aspects of life not commonly seen together, Robinson’s artistry is sublime. The following might be shouted down in any senior commons room, but Robinson makes it inarguable.

God is the God of history. Christianity is a creature and creator of history. On these grounds alone it is absurd to think history could possible lack relevance. Then, too, if human beings are images of God, aware of it or not, and since they have been an extraordinary presence on Earth for as long as they have been human, what they have thought and done cannot be irrelevant to very central questions about Being itself. We are grass, no doubt of it. But with a sense of history we can have a perspective that lifts us up out of our very brief moment here. Certainly this is one purpose of biblical narrative and poetry. (154)

More anon — definitely.


Tuesday 5th

Since writing here yesterday, I have lumbered through two of the essays in The Givenness of Things, “Metaphysics” and “Theology.” Their difficulty for me was their distance from the metaphysical and theological discussions that I am familiar with, that I attended to in school. I had a very hard time chasing Marilynne Robinson’s idea of metaphysics — what she meant by the term — and all I got was that it was different from Kant’s and Hegel’s in characteristic, if not essential ways. “Theology” was a bit easier; it might well have been titled “Christology,” the term that Robinson uses throughout to denote the immancence in Creation of Christ, at least from the moment of earliest humanity. She finds in this view a means of overcoming the idea of Christian exclusivism, the denial of Christ’s blessings to all non-Christians, a doctrine that she considers to be a woeful misreading of Scripture. Bear in mind, however, that I was merely keeping my head above water, or trying to. For quite aside from understanding what Robinson means to say, there is the problem of grasping her reasons for saying it.

An important thread — rope, really — that runs through Givenness is the care of the poor, and how the poor are being neglected, as they almost always have been, but now with the added bitterness of its having appeared, for a few decades, that a liberal, affluent society might put an end to poverty once and for all. Robinson’s dread of a growing oligarchy is the issue with which I am in most complete agreement with her. She argues, however, that neglect of the poor is a sin against Christ. As indeed it is, if Christ is in view. I think that it is enough to call it a sin against ourselves. Dissonances like this are a kind of gentle torture: am I missing something, or am I including it?

Two passages of great importance to me, from “Theology”:

Religions are expressions of the sound human intuition that there is something beyond being as we experience it in this life. What is often described as a sense of the transcendent might in some cases be the intuition of the actual. (212)

I have spent all this time clearing the ground so that I can say, and be understood to mean, without reservation, that I believe in a divine Creation, and in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the life to come. I take the Christian mythos to be a special revelation of a general truth, that truth being the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order, with its theological corollary, the profound and unique sacredness of human beings as such. (222)

Before responding to these statements directly, I want to pause with a comment that is much on my mind these days, a thought of surprising simplicity. If you believe in God, why not believe in all the rest — Robinson omitted the Virgin Birth. Another, even more pronounced thread in Givenness — this one a cable from the Brooklyn Bridge — is Robinson’s squabble with the rationalist fallout of the Enlightenment. She all but jeers at atheists whose cosmology remains quaintly mechanistic, and has not yet mastered quantum physics, which fill Robinson with an almost theological exuberance. I think that she is quite right to complain about the evaporation of articulate dogma in mainstream Protestantism. She is right to belittle thinkers who have lost their faith because it cannot be reconciled with common-sense views of reality.

But Robinson is overlooking a couple of things — things that I overlooked, too, when it occurred to me that a believer might as well go whole hog vis-à-vis complex, even abstruse dogmas. Commitments to various theological niceties are all very well today, when nobody is going to burn for them; we easily forget how readily these points of dissension provided the volatile fuel of martyrdom and religious warfare — how materially wracked Europe was by what ought to have been a spiritual reformation. Robinson also forgets, I think, that the disillusionment that ex-believers wear like a bad perfume reflects the very plain fact that, for centuries, for a millennium almost, the brightest minds in Europe were devoted to proving the existence of God, quite as if faith had nothing to do with it. These smarties were the heirs of leisured pagans, who had competed to create persuasive world views. It was not enough to believe something yourself; you must convince other people to agree. When the administration of the Roman Church fell into the hands of aristocrats who also controlled education, a thousand years of suppression and oppression might have been seen as getting off easy.

Marilynne Robinson is not interested in proving the existence of God; for her, God is given. Rather, she is interested in showing that the existence of God cannot be disproved, and that there is something inhuman about the attempt to prove that God does not exist. I agree with her there.

As one would guess from her novels, Robinson’s creed is a matter of joy, blemished only by the persistence of evil, which in her view comes not from God but from the failure of human beings to be their best selves. I agree with her judgment as to human weakness. (Natural disasters, and diseases that take the lives of children, may be “evils,” but they are not evil. Only man is evil.) But I leave God out of it. For it happens that my intuition that “there is something beyond being as we experience it in this life” is a very dull thing. I grant it, which is to say that I do not deny it. But I do not really feel it. As intuitions go, it is my most anemic one.

Sometimes, I think that I have internalized Christianity. I have literally incorporated its moral teachings in the habits of my mind. I try to act accordingly, as if I were Christian, but without regard for the externalities — God, the Fall, the Incarnation, and all the rest. To the extent that God and the rest exist for me, they exist altogether inside me, as hidden from my view as the structure of the next sentence. At other times, I fear that these thoughts are grandiose, and perhaps even pathological.

Somehow, however, my resistance to Christianity, my conviction that while it was right about a few basic things it was maddeningly wrong on myriad points of detail, has collapsed. Part of this doubtless owes to the character of Pope Francis. He has discarded the mask that exponents of Catholicism have worn since I was a child in their care — a mean, frightening, and authoritarian joylessness.

I am also beginning to see in Christianity — genuine Christianity, not smug christianism — the best hope for reversing the wanton depravity of environmental degradation. The monetizing, in effect, of our only home.


I think of what the late historian Carlo Cipolla had to say about coal.

Coal was well known in London in 1228, for in that year there is a definite record of a “sea-coal lane” which, it is suggested, was then used as a landing place for sea-coal from boats. In the same year coal fumes allegedly drove Queen Eleanor from Nottingham Castle. In 1257 mention is made of shiploads of coal imported into London. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the English — like all other Europeans — remained very reluctant to use coal extensively, instinctively regarding its fumes as toxic. Early in the seventeenth century, however, the English were forced to put aside all their reservations, and after 1500 they resorted extensively to coal not only for domestic heating but also in industrial processes such as oven-drying of bricks and tiles and of malt for beer, the refining of sugar, the production of glass and soap, and iron-smelting… Concentrating on iron and coal, England set herself on the road that led directly to the Industrial Revolution. (Before the Industrial Revolution, 270-1)

When I read this, a few months ago, I realized that I had always assumed that the toxic nature of coal fumes was a discovery of the Industrial Revolution. Now I saw that the Industrial Revolution, particularly as it foregrounded steelworks, reflected a decision on the part of “capital” to overlook, or to work around, the deleterious impact of burning coal, now on a massive scale. Eyes were open. The positive result is a world transformed by ingenious applications of electricity, a resource as necessary to our society as oxygen is to our respiration. The negative results, of which the London fog was an emblem, have been cleared up, pretty much, in the developed West. The developing world is both another story and the same old story. I am perhaps unreasonably optimistic about putting the Earth back to rights, but I know that it will take a century or two simply to stop making things worse, at least in certain parts of the world.

There is an echo of the Fall in the story of coal. It has been argued that Adam did not become fully human until he disobeyed the word of God. It is an argument that can never be settled, because it is really a matter of taste. Most of us have learned to accommodate the existence of evil, if not evil itself, by finding it interesting; educated people are especially prone to quip that life would be a colossal bore if we were all good all the time. But the coal story is only an echo. It cannot be said that actual good came from the Expulsion from the Garden: the knowledge of evil and its aftermath are entirely cautionary. It would require, in contrast, a perverse austerity of mind to believe that the consequences of the Industrial Revolution have been altogether regrettable, that, indeed, they have been devoid of wonderful enhancements of human life and dignity. The Industrial Revolution was complicated, prolific, and multifarious; it was not a simple disaster. If you believe in the Fall, you know that it was redeemed by Christ but that it remains in effect: to orthodox Christians, we are all still born sinners. I believe that the negative sequelae of environmental degradation can be stopped — not now, but someday.


Wednesday 6th My Birthday (68)

Finally! Buried in the Business section, the story ought to have appeared on the front page: “Racial Identity, and Its Hostilities, Return to American Politics,” by Eduardo Porter. It appears (at last, in the pages of the Times) that white voters are prompted more by their identification as whites than by their economic status. Well, uneducated whites. I remember saying this a while back and feeling mighty indiscreet about it, as though I were calling attention to a fart. Because, where I live, it has become politically incorrect even to imagine such bigotry. Where I live, almost everybody is white. Almost everybody is educated, too. It is rude and mean to look down on the uneducated, since, where I live, the uneducated people tend not to be white. New York City does not attract uneducated white men. (It attracts almost everybody else.) On no point in the political calendar are New Yorkers more out of touch with the United States than that of the consequences of racial identity.

Speaking of the Donald, did anybody read the story, which appeared over the weekend, about his brother, Freddy Trump? It’s a sad, if familiar story: the oldest son who fails to follow in his father’s footsteps, the life-of-the-party who succumbs to drink and dies in his early forties. The remarkable thing was the tone of his younger brother’s comments. Given what we’re used to hearing from the would-be candidate, Donald Trump sounded sage, respectful, and even circumspect on the subject of his brother’s failure. Instead of screaming, “Freddy was a loser; I’m the greatest Trump,” he said (in connection with his father’s stinginess with praise), “For me, it worked very well. For Fred, it wasn’t something that was going to work.”

Oh, what’s wrong with me? I’m clutching at straws. Give me the slightest evidence of Donald Trump’s humanity and I slump with relief. What a sucker. Donald Trump is a developer. There isn’t anything that he doesn’t itch to repackage.


Fossil Darling just called to wish me a happy birthday. Every other ping tells me that a Facebook friend has done the same. I don’t know why, but this birthday feels different, just as this holiday season felt different. On the surface, the holidays were awful, owing to repercussions of the Shkreli arrest, but beneath the surface I felt a great change, the clearing of a new perspective. At the same time, a feeling of resignation and contentment that seems distinctly monastic. What’s monastic is the quiet. The quiet is not silence, just the absence of noise, particularly of the vocal variety. Most of the time.

There seems to be a new woman in the building, a new tenant, which I don’t think I’d have noticed if she were not a brayer — bruyante, as the French would say. Have you ever blushed, while traveling abroad, to notice how many Americans come unequipped with an inside voice? The new tenant is one of those. I first heard her when I tried to catch an elevator. The car was already jammed, mostly by the luggage cart but also by the guard whose job it is to prevent renovating workman from using the passenger elevators — even though there hasn’t been much evidence of renovating workmen in recent weeks (months)? But it was also full of her voice. “I don’t think so!” she said, meaning that there wouldn’t be room for me.

The elevator went down to the ground floor and then bounced back up for me. I could hear the braying woman in the lobby when I stepped out. She was asking a handyman for his name — fifty feet away from me.

I did what I had come downstairs to do and was waiting for an elevator to take me back upstairs when the braying woman sidled up and commented on my indoor clothes (a Take Ivy outfit with shorts). “I hope that you haven’t been outside, young man,” she said, brightly, even congenially, but loudly and impertinently. “It’s very cold out there!” Thinking that this must be put a stop to, I slowly turned my gaze in her direction and stared. “No,” I said, after a beat. Then I looked away. What I’d seen was a large woman, not fat, not even stout, really, but very much there, with a somewhat doughy, indistinct face and scraggly gray hair. Her expression might have been friendly, but it might just as easily have been impatient. She clearly expected to be welcomed sociably, but to me she was as annoying as an Irish setter. She was wearing a track suit — an indoor outfit, I hope, “young lady,” a thought I kept to myself.

In the elevator, the braying woman expressed admiration for the chain of beads that Kathleen made for my reading glasses. I usually smile, say thanks, and add that my wife made it — because, I’m ashamed to say, even I think that it’s a bit fruity to go about wearing what could pass for a very attractive but not particularly manly necklace. Lately, I have been pondering hitherto unguessed aspects of this sort of exchange, and how the mention of my wife might strike an interlocutress as unwelcome news. It’s still very odd and confusing to suppose, even for a moment, that anyone is trying to pick me up. But the other day, in Fairway, I had just put two six-packs of eight-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola into my shopping basket — that’s how Kathleen likes her Coke — when an attractively-dressed older lady nodded at me with a smile. “That’s the way I like my Coke,” she said, approvingly. I smiled, but for a few minutes I was thirteen, or twenty-two, or even thirty at the oldest, being complimented by one of my mother’s friends. I was wearing another Take Ivy outfit — sportscoat, sportshirt, slacks and loafers. In a few days, I shall need a trim at the barber’s, but even at my wildest I’m pretty kempt. I might be overweight, and a permanent scowl might be engraved upon my forehead. But I am male and walking without assistance. You don’t see many like me at Fairway.

Abominable conceit? I almost wish.

In the elevator, I said “Thank you” to the braying woman, but I did not turn to return her glance and I did not mention Kathleen.

I knew it: as soon as I had gotten off the elevator and was out of sight — but not out of earshot; the elevator doors take forever to close — I heard the brayinig woman say something about my not being very conversational. For my part, I felt like saying to her, “Perhaps, when I have seen you in the elevator for five years, or, more likely, twenty or thirty, I may decide to chat with you.”

This brief encounter passed from my mind — well, not really. But it stung rather badly when I was reading Marilynne Robinson a little later. In “Experience,” which is about judgment and revelation and souls, she writes, “I do believe we blaspheme when we wrong or offend another human being.” Blaspheme! I certainly did mean, if not to offend, then to reprimand, the femme bruyante. It was all the worse because Robinson had just sent me to the Bible, by wrapping up her remarks about the soul — “But the souls we let our theories and our penuries frustrate are souls still, and, if Jesus is to be trusted, they will be our judges, they are now our judges” — by observing, “Clearly I am very much influenced by the parable of the great judgment in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.”

The “great judgment,” the division of all the people as into sheep and goats, with the goats being relegated to “eternal punishment,” is extremely clear. If you feed the poor, clothe the poor, and visit the poor when they are in prison, you go to heaven (“eternal life”). If you don’t, you’re one of the goats. This sort of thing always makes me feel completely pharisaical, because despite all the nice things that I try to say here, I do not drop coins in the cups of beggars along 86th Street. I take clothes to Goodwill and don’t claim a tax deduction, but is that clothing the poor, exactly? I certainly don’t visit the poor in prisons. Haven’t things changed a bit since Scriptural times? It feels weaselly even to suggest such a thing. I don’t in fact do a damned thing, directly, for the poor.

My excuse? “It’s the rich who need my attention!”

Which is abominable conceit.


Marilynne Robinson says something so well, in “Experience,” that I propose using it as a text, in an examination for would-be members of the élite, on which to write a thousand words.

We can no more generate ideas that are strictly our own than we can acquire ideas without making them our own. (232)

We can be neither original nor objective. We can be only imaginative and critical. We can only add and amend; we are far more likely to be forgotten utterly. I have accepted this as the plain truth for so long that it is no longer humbling. I should no sooner feel humble about lacking a third arm or an angel’s wings. It is just the way things are for everybody. I’m all for abominable conceit, but delusions of grandeur must be resisted.


Thursday 7th

I celebrated the day after my birthday by reading The Givenness of Things through to the end. I don’t know how to evaluate this experience. A great deal of “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” one of the later essays, seemed to involve the Evangelists’ way of dealing with Jesus’ identity as Messiah, but I couldn’t get a purchase on it. I never knew why I was reading it, or what I was supposed to take from it. It went over my head somehow. I’d like to think that I’ll give it another try, but while this is not altogether unlikely, there are many other uses for my time. It will depend on how the book as a whole settles in my mind.

Our friend the Deacon told me that one of his scholarly Dominican friends (a priest, that is) quipped that the world would have been a better place if only John Calvin could have been like Marilynne Robinson. These Dominicans do think that Robinson is indeed nuts about Calvin. I’d like to hear that, or the opposite, from some other voices.

For the moment, Robinson’s is a very singular voice, here or anywhere. She wants to revive Calvinist doctrine, but only for those who wish for a more robust faith. Let others find their own ways. (Not once, I think, does Robinson mention Catholicism. She goes straight from the “Early Church” to the Reformers. Her only real heretic is Marcion.) If she would change anything, it would be Christian exclusivism — the limitations of Christ’s grace and blessings to Christians. This must mean that good people anywhere can intuit Christian ethics and lead lives that put them among the sheep rather than the goats. When I say that Robinson has a high opinion of America and is proud to be an American, especially vis-à-vis Europeans, I must hasten to add that she is revolted by christianist fundamentalism, which to her way of thinking is just positivist balderdash that substitutes Scripture for Principia Mathematica, and denatures Christ’s blessings in the process.

Last week (on the 29th), I wrote about something that had only recently occurred to me. What’s wrong with modern American society today is — a general addiction to television and spectator sports aside — confined to the élites. Robinson seems to come to a similar conclusion, in “Realism,” the final essay in Givenness.

Cynicism and vulgarism are cheek and jowl. One teaches us helplessness in the face of the abuses and atavisms the other encourages us to embrace. (278)

Ordinary people do not need to be taught helplessness or encouraged to embrace atavism. It is the élite class that, being in a position to backslide, does so. I wish that Robinson had more to say about journalism, or at any rate more occasion to mention journalists, because I sense that she would agree that it is this quartier of the élite, the men and women who write for magazines and, to a lesser extent, newspapers who promote, “helplessly” themselves, these unnecessary evils. Perhaps the judgment is unduly harsh. But if journalists are quick to admire the genuinely pious, particular where piety is found with generosity, they are also quick to insist upon the exceptionality of pious, generous people, and to endow them with a hint of the miraculous, as if to warn readers away from emulation. But piety and generosity are very simple habits to grasp, if not to acquire, and they are available to everybody. If everyone sincerely wished to be pious, or more pious, and generous, or more generous, then the world would be a much safer place. And I believe that those wishes would be spread more generally among the élite if journalists would stop counseling them that cynicism is cool and that vulgarism is fun. (Why am I thinking of Pinocchio?)

Perhaps it is this simple: journalism has its roots in one part of problem-solving. The identification of a problem is the first step in solving it, and that is what journalists profess to provide. They also report on attempted solutions. But they don’t put their personal weight behind these attempts, because that would not be “objective,” and it would not be cool. Only those journalists who were also activists could write such reports, and journalists have a habit of expelling activists from their number. This is why I wish we could replace our advertising-supported apparatus of journalism with Jeffersonian councils — a dream that Hannah Arendt took up in “Thoughts on Politics and Revolutions.” Such self-selecting committees would act as fact-finders and as legislatures, at least to the extent of proposing reforms. I try not to talk about these councils, because they have never existed and we shall know little about them until we give them a try in some relatively harmless area — relatively — such as (my semi-jocular suggestion) the use of mobile phones in public. I know only that these councils must be local and that they must operate textually, with the exchange of written documents — drafts, revisions, and all the rest. The minute you allow people to stand up and speak their minds, sad experience proves, you reduce politics to bad theatre. If limiting participation in councils to those who are fluent with their pens is élitist, then that — hardly a surprise! — is the kind of élitism that I am in favor of. And I can think of no better use for empty churches than for periodic meetings and discussions. No action would be taken at these gatherings, but people would get to meet and know each other, and, very occasionally, a proposal might be read aloud. This is just about all I have to say on this subject, and although I think that it is vitally important, I try not to mention it more than twice a year.

For the moment, my council pipe-dream provides at least a conceptual alternative to current arrangements for informing public opinion. To translate Robinson’s mission into my terms (wrenching it not too violently, I hope), the idea is to foster the three social virtues (which are rooted in Christianity) of decency, self-respect, and generosity. Journalism as it is currently practiced will never be very good at doing this.


An American novel that I have re-read several times and come to love is John P Marquand’s B.F.’s Daughter (1946). I am always quietly thrilled by the opening chapters, in which Polly Fulton Brett, the cherished daughter of a rich industrialist, pays an impromptu, off-season, wartime visit to her country house in Massachusetts. Given the winter snow, driving from the train station to the house is inconvenient, but by the time the reader arrives at Polly’s front door, the deep white silence of the New England night is a forceful presence. Polly walks through the house with a sense of failure: her husband, Tom, has never made the use of it that she intended. He has been distracted by political celebrity, and he lives in Washington for the most part, while Polly stays in New York. The marriage, we soon discover, is in tatters. From this beginning, Marquand takes us back through Polly’s life and loves, while at the same time moving forward. Before she can even slip into bed, she is summoned to New York by her father’s poor health; later, she will go to Washington to attempt to reclaim her husband. And Marquand will take us into the heart of the perfect gentleman who has always loved Polly, even after she wouldn’t have him, a lawyer named Bob Tasmin. Tasmin cuts an extraordinarily knightly figure, and is every inch the hero, but his weapons, so to speak, are modesty and discretion.

When I re-read the novel for the first time, ten or fifteen years ago, I learned that a movie had been made of the novel, starring Barbara Stanwyck. I had never heard of it, and it did not seem to be available for hire or purchase. That has changed. I came across the DVD at Amazon the other day, and ordered it at once. I wondered how bad it would be — to be a hitherto forgotten movie starring a great actress whose stock is ever on the rise.

First of all, it isn’t a bad picture. Second, however, it is deeply untrue to the book. Bob Tasmin is played by Richard Hart, a promising but perhaps alcoholic actor who died in 1951 at the age of 35. Hart presents Tasmin as a nice guy with snobbish tendencies and cold-fish inclinations. As in the book, Tasmin won’t marry Polly, his unofficial fiancée since forever, until he makes junior partner at his Wall Street law firm: he is determined not to rely on BF’s fortune to support Polly in half the style to which she is accustomed. But in the book, Tasmin’s ardent love shows through to everyone; Hart gives us only commonsense prudence. No wonder Polly’s eye wanders when she runs into Tom Brett, a dodgy man of the left. In the movie, Tom is played by Van Heflin, and not as in the book, Heflin’s Tom grows quieter and more discreet over time. In fact, he takes on Bob’s virtues. The marriage is still in tatters by the time we get to the War, but the blonde mistress that the book’s Tom keeps in Georgetown becomes a blind Dutch refugee for whom his care is strictly Platonic. And it is Tom, not Bob, that Polly throws herself at in the final clinch. You realize, of course, that Marquand’s novel could not have been properly adapted to the taste of mid-Forties studios and moviegoers. (In the book, Bob, who has married someone else, removes himself from Polly’s arms, because he is, after all, the perfect gent, but Polly is left alone with her millions.)

The movie deserves to be watched by any admirer of Stanwyck. Without being at all fierce, she glistens at times with the seismic intensity of Joan Crawford. But it’s the air of surprise with which her Polly falls in love with Tom that has to be seen. It’s almost as though the shoe in The Lady Eve were on the other foot.

The charming but not charmed country house of the book, however, is transformed into a Tara-on-hill, more studio-imperial Georgian than BF’s grand Park Avenue apartment. Tom never even spends the night there.


Friday 8th

Continuing to take it easy, I watched another movie yesterday, also starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. Ray Soleil had told me about this one, and I picked it up with BF’s Daughter. Either Ray presented it, or I understood him to do so, as a cute conceit: in East Side, West Side, a married man lives with his wife on the East Side, and keeps a mistress on the West Side. That’s not really how it goes, but no matter. The real problem with East Side, West Side (1949; directed by Mervyn LeRoy) is that it is very hard to synopsize. I found this out when I tried to tell Kathleen about it. I’m not sure that I want to try again.

It’s much easier to tick off the film’s strengths. East Side, West Side easily lives up to its claim to be a movie about Manhattan. I doubt that any of it was shot here, but great pains were taken to convey that impression. The views from the interiors of cars were particularly authentic. La Guardia in the old days, for example — I felt that we were dropping my father off, as we used to do fairly often. (La Guardia was only twice as far in miles and not nearly twice as far in time from our house in Bronxville as it is from our apartment in Yorkville.) The Triborough Bridge — as I shall continue, resolutely, to call it, until the new name goes the way of the Avenue of the Americas — looked just like the toy that it is. Gramercy Square. Washington Square. Little Italy. The East River, seen from a terrace on Gracie Square (which is just a street). The terrace was supposedly on an actual building, 10 Gracie Square, as I could tell when a limousine pulled into its through-building driveway (the exit from which is right across the street from Kathleen’s old school, the Brearley). A portion of this driveway, with its pillars and niches, was faithfully recreated, with a shot of the paling at the south end of Carl Schurz Park mounted in the background.

Not that the art direction was perfect. The Del Rio, a nightclub with an entrance giving onto a nulle part configuration of streets and alleys — James Mason and Ava Gardner sauntered up and down an improbable thoroughfare in an early scene — was improbably spacious inside. The same was true of a high-end dress-shop. New York’s buildings may be impressively tall, but its interiors tend to be compact, if not cramped. Generations of designers have gotten very good at concealing the paucity of cubic square feet, and suggesting grandeur by means of theatrical sleight-of-hand. But the movies generally flunk the test. I will say that the Gracie Square apartment was plausible, with its staircase tucked into a small fold.

The easy part of the story concerns Brandon and Jessie Bourne. Some time ago, Brandon (Mason) had a torrid affair with Isabel Lorrison (Gardner), but he broke it off and she left town. Now she’s back, and she wants him back. He says no, but he keeps sticking around saying no, and you realize that he’ll go on saying no even after he starts kissing Isabel. Gardner is very cheap, and quite frank about it. She doesn’t live on the West Side, though. She lives at 20 Washington Square, which is too close to Fifth Avenue to be East or West.

Along with saying no to Isabel and not really meaning it, Bran promises his wife (Stanwyck) that he’ll never see Isabel again, and he doesn’t really mean that, either. Jessie fluctuates between reassurance and despair, states that Stanwyck somehow manages to personalize for just this movie. Then somebody gets murdered, and Bran is the suspect for a while. During this fracas, Jessie’s love and affection for her husband mysteriously but convincingly evaporate. But you know that this is going to happen when Bran pays a call on his mother-in-law (Gale Sondergaard), once a famous actress. She has always been fond of him, so he is surprised when she tells him, from the comfort of her bed pillows, that she has never been so fond of him as she is now, now that Jessie is going to be free of him. The rich, ironic demi-glace of the scene, in which Sondergaard is wonderfully spooky, just about knocks you out.

Perhaps Jessie’s attention has drifted to Paul Dwyer (Heflin). How he comes into the story makes perfect sense as it unfolds on the screen, at least to a New Yorker, which is both as big as the world and a very small town. But I would put you to sleep if I tried to explain, because first there was this, see, and then that happened, and then the pretty model was headed for LaGuardia to pick up her “fella,” and Jesse gave her a lift, and what do you know. Nevertheless, by the end of East Side, West Side, all attachments are off. We see the back of James Mason, leaning against the terrace door, with the East River humming in the middle distance.

Cyd Charisse plays the pretty model. William Frawley is the bartender at the Del Rio. William Conrad investigates the murder. But the real treat is former first lady, then Nancy Davis. She plays Jessie’s best friend and is very good at it. No starlet she! It took a while for me to recognize her (as Mrs Reagan), but by then I was impressed. I found myself working out where Joan Didion was, in 1949.

I suppose the fact that East Side, West Side whizzes by at a speed seldom reached these days by Manhattan traffic,and is just too hard to summarize (sorry, two facts), prove(s) that it is a real New York movie. There aren’t very many of them.


Not having The Givenness of Things to read is a bummer. I could start re-reading it, I suppose, but my mind is enjoying the rest. However, I have nothing else as interesting to read. I have two chapters, maybe less, of The Fall of the Ottomans to get through; I’m still at the start of The Museum of Memory, and somewhat stuck on the possibility that I don’t like Orhan Pamuk as a romantic lead. Then there is Osman’s Dream, a history of the Ottomans by Caroline Finkel. That’s a lot of Turkey! The English and Their History is a new arrival, but already faintly disappointing. Robert Tombs ends each part of his history with a chapter about how the English of the time saw their past and themselves in the world. I read the first of these chapters to Kathleen, to put her to sleep. It didn’t work; she was much too interested. I, in contrast, didn’t learn a thing. I do have Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance, but I’m saving that for just the right mood. Which is another way of saying that my mind is enjoying the rest.

Oh, I know! This is the time to re-read Aria, by Brown Meggs. It’s a novel about making a recording of Otello in Rome in the late Seventies, and I read it with the greatest interest back in 1980, when I returned to New York and stayed for a while with Fossil Darling. I wonder how it has held up. I’ve had my own copy for a few years now, and it has just been sitting there.

What I miss about The Givenness of Things is the constant references to Scripture, which I faithfully checked out. The impossibly, wonderfully old-fashioned thing about Marilynne Robinson is her combination of scholarship, which she wears lightly, and religious enthusiasm, which is forceful rather than insistent. She refers to Jonathan Edwards a few times, and I began to see her as a worthy successor to that divine. But how would I know? My scurryings to the Bible reminded me that I have never read it. The whole thing. All the way through. Plus, I lack the classical languages — no Hebrew, the Greek alphabet and rhododactylos Ios, and just enough Latin to fake it with a Loeb. Let’s face it: I’m illiterate!

In today’s Times, there’s a favorable review of Tom Holland’s new book, Dynasty, which tells the bloody story of the Julio-Claudians, the family that ruled Rome from the murder of Caesar to the suicide of Nero. Tom Holland has been praised by Donna Leone as a first-rate storytelling historian, and, on the strength of this advice, I bought his Rubicon, but soon bogged down, because, like The Fall of the Ottomans, it is (at least at the start) a military history. From what I gather, war is often experienced as an appalling bore, and that’s what I find reading about it to be as well. War is also chaotic, which means that it can’t really be captured in intelligible prose. I don’t know why anybody would want to know the details of the Siege of Kut, a British disaster on the Mesopotamian front that ended ingloriously in 1916. Professional historians have to know, of course, but I don’t. Holland’s new book sounds more like a family romance in the key of Kiss of Death. Should I give it a try?

There does seem to be this new school of vernacular historians in Britain. Dan Jones has been working on the Plantagenets and their Lancastrian and Yorkist successors (Plantagenets all, really). I have one of his books and it is very brisk. I don’t want to be derogatory, but the tone is something between Time-Life and Boy’s Life. The story is well-enough told, but it is a very small story, about a handful of people clutching for the crown. There is no background at all. I don’t mean “boring details,” but background — a sense of the country muddling through. The problem with vernacular history is that it falls into an eternal present. The struggle for power is unending but also unchanging. There are new faces, but no new moves. You wreak grievous bodily harm on your enemies and hope to get away with it.

Actual history is richer. Take John of Gaunt — what was he like? (“Gaunt” means “Ghent,” John’s birthplace.) So far as I know, this second son of Edward III never attempted to parley his wealth and position, which were immense, into a grab at the throne. He was bright and ambitious and filthy rich, thanks to his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster. But he was Richard II’s honorable uncle, despite that immature man’s travails and his unwise banishment of John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. (After his father’s death, in 1399, Henry would return to England and usurp his cousin’s crown, becoming Henry IV.) I don’t intend to claim that John of Gaunt was a nice guy, but he was interesting, especially in his military and political failures, which he was eminent enough to survive. “Colorful” is the word. Also, John of Gaunt was a friend of Chaucer. So saith Wikipedia. Can this be true? What would “friend” have meant? And how much of any of this can be known?

How did Archbishop Chichele, the fifteenth-century founder of All Soul’s, pronounce his name? The Internet is not authoritative.

Bon week-end à tous!