Archive for February, 2016

Gotham Diary:
Bullet Points
March 2016 (I)

Monday, February 29th, 2016

Monday 29th

Rossini’s birthday! How old would he be, born in 1792? Not quite sixty?. I can think of no composer with a more fitting birthday.

On Friday evening, I checked out the equipment and determined that we should be able to watch the Academy Awards show on Sunday. I can’t say that “the television had not been turned on since last year’s Oscars,” because on at least one occasion there was what might have been a cable outage (it turned out that the router needed rebooting), and checking out the “TV reception” was part of the process of elimination. But in fact, neither Kathleen nor I has “watched television” since last February. I have put all the references to “television” in quotation marks because there is no longer any such thing as a television set, and broadcast television seems to be a vestigial affair. This technological change has nothing to do with the ghastliness of what is shown “on television,” but I wonder how long the monstrous term (an illiterate combination of Greek and Latin roots) will be with us.

Kathleen kept thanking me for indulging her — for watching the Oscars with her. But I wasn’t making any kind of sacrifice, even if it was true, as she said, that I had better things to do. I was curious. Not so curious as in years past, because I’ve seen so few of this year’s movies. I did see Spotlight in the theatre, and I was glad that it won Best Picture. I’d have been much happier if Rachel McAdams had won Supporting Actress, because she is and always has been so great, and she has now turned in three superb performances as a journalist — ie, smart person. (I’d have been happier, too, if Alicia Vikander, who did win, won it instead for Ex Machina, a film that I think about all the time.) The parade of technical awards that went to that dystopian Mad Max thing was dreary, on a par with the Academy’s inability to nominate a single black actor for any award. At least Ex Machina got the best one, for Visual Effects.

Chris Rock was not unbearable. By that I simply mean that I’ve gotten really tired of “comedy” and should like to see some charm. What I’d really like is for Emily Blunt to do the show. She could spend the evening saying lovely gracious things that were in fact loaded with little barbs for the literate. I have always wanted to know how many ways she has of saying “How nice for you.” Or she could be sweet, while Helena Bonham-Carter did the unruly.

When the show was over — well, long before — I was physically shot. My nerves were raw and jangling. “You don’t get out much,” said Kathleen, “so you’re not used to it.” The vacant noise, the violent changes of tone, the incredibly uninteresting footage of winners making their ways from seat to stage, and the ads — the racket of it all clobbered me. Watching that stubby white Cadillac progress through SoHo for the fifth time, I did have a moment of great peace. I thanked God aloud — yes, I really did, whatever that means — and Kathleen knew without my saying more what I meant: we don’t have a car. I wondered if our being grateful for not being saddled with an automobile was more or less unusual than our never watching “television.” Maybe, next year, watching the Oscars will be a sacrifice.

I’d like to have seen The Big Short and Brooklyn in the theatre. Especially in the winter, I don’t leave the apartment for pleasure, even to cross the street to go to the two remaining cinemas in the neighborhood. Actually, taking in a movie can be an irritation in the same way that “watching television” began to be an irritation: you have to show up on time. That isn’t how the rest of my day works. I won’t say that I flow from one thing to another at my own pace effortlessly, but I do get through the day and its various chores without a great deal of friction. All it takes is one date to screw up the rhythm. Today, I have to be the Hospital for Special Surgery at 3:30 PM, for a Remicade infusion. It’s still early enough in the morning that I’m not feeling any pressure to get ready for the outing, but by half-past one I’ll be a little restless around the edges.

Rossini retired at the top of his game, and had the time of his life for nearly forty years thereafter. I think that you must have to be born on 29 February to pull that one off.


Last week, the Times online featured a recipe for crumb cake with pears, and I saved it in Evernote. Now that Gristede’s across the street has shut down, we no longer have a regular grocery store here, only Fairway and Whole Foods, with their racks of olive oil and dearth of old-fashioned items like French’s onion rings or the little cans of evaporated milk that I use to make macaroni & cheese. Nobody within walking distance (two blocks) sells Entenman’s baked goods. We have come to rely on their regular crumb cake for weekend breakfasts. Not the rich butter crumb cake, the one without the confectioner’s sugar, but the square cake. Actually, it’s Kathleen who likes it a lot; I prefer the cheese danish. No matter — Fairway and Whole Foods don’t carry such “supermarket” merchandise.

So I thought I’d try to make the crumb cake with pears myself. And I did, on Saturday. There are three basic steps before baking. First, you tenderize slices of peeled pear in honey, butter, and lemon juice, over a low heat. Second, you make the streusel topping. Third, you make the cake batter. Then you combine these ingredients in a prepared pan and put the pan in the preheated oven. It’s not a breeze; unless your kitchen is set up like a pharmacy, you’ll be reaching into a lot of cupboards for spices and other things that one doesn’t use every day. But it’s not tricky, either, and everything went along very nicely until it came time to prepare the pan.

Actually, the recipe sets preparing the pan at the top of the steps, as the first thing to do. I’m very glad that I disregarded this protocol, because, having worked on the three constituent elements, I clearly saw that this cake ought to be baked in a springform pan. When you bake a cake layer, you simply invert the pan over a plate and hope that the layer comes out in one piece, as it almost certainly will do if you butter the bottom of the pan, line it with a piece of parchment paper, and butter the paper. Buttering the pan and lining it with buttered parchment paper was indeed called for by the pear crumb cake recipe. But inverting the pan was obviously out of the question. The streusel topping would fall off, taking some of the pears with it. (Now I think of it, I suppose I could have buttered a plate, inverted the pan over that, and then slipped another plate on the exposed bottom of the cake, but even that would probably have made a mess.) Springform pans were invented to deal with this problem; instead of removing the cake from a one-piece pan, you dismantle a two-piece pan, and remove it from the cake. As it happened, though, I didn’t have a nine-inch springform pan. Eight- and ten-inch, yes, and a twelve-inch for cheesecake. But no nine-. I resolved to buy one, if the cake turned out to be worth making again.

So, how did I get the cake out of the pan? When I was cutting the parchment, I provided for two wide “handles,” strips of paper that projected from the circle that would line the bottom of the pan. These handles would allow me to lift the cake out of the pan. Or so I thought.

They didn’t. Four handles might have done it, or maybe even just three. But you can’t do much cantilevering with paper. The two handles pulled up a diameter of the cake from which the halves began to crack apart at once. With Kathleen’s help — she held the pan — I was able to lift one handle just enough to slip my splayed hand beneath the parchment paper. That did the trick.

I’ll be buying that nine-inch springform pan, because the pear crumb cake is definitely worth the trouble. I thought that the pear, layered between the cake and the topping, might be superfluous, but it isn’t. It’s moist and fruity-flavorful, and just present enough to add a welcome complement. Thin slices are in order, though, because the cake is immensely rich. There’s a stick of butter in the streusel and another stick in the cake. But it’s a great all-around treat to have on hand, a substitute, say, for pound cake. It’s neither too breakfasty nor too desserty. It’s grand with tea.


Kathleen and I have been having a regretful conversation about how differently some things have turned out. Things have been different from what they were — the very fact that Kathleen is a partner at an important law firm is all the proof that you need of that — but we thought that they would be different from how they have turned out to be. We thought that women in top professional jobs would change the world a great deal more extensively than they have done. We thought that sexism would wither and die. Instead — well, all the -isms seem to be flourishing, if in discreet, occluded ways. But perhaps it’s something else. Racism and sexism, after all, are intellectual constructs. They’re ideas, to which racists and sexists subscribe but which they can be persuaded to reject. Mere bigotry — unconsidered contempt — has deeper roots. It is intellectually circular but emotionally adamant. The adventure of women in the workplace has certainly caught a great deal of bigotry (also known as entitlement) in the spotlight. But men don’t really have to misbehave into order to keep women and minorities in their place. They simply have to know how the road to success is paved.

The first thing about the road to success is that very little of it involves productive work. Productive work means that you show up in the morning and, by the time you go home at night, you have created a widget. You have bolted as many plates onto the hull of a ship as is possible in one day. A long time ago, productive work came to be overseen by managers, people who do not work themselves but who keep track of the “big picture,” coordinating workers, materials, and schedules. The modern business corporation has added a layer of managers to manage the managers.

(Young bankers will be screaming — no work? Are you crazy? But the work that young bankers do is makework, like military drills, to test endurance capacities.)

The further you get from actual work, the closer you get to fantasy. A ship is either seaworthy or it isn’t. But this month’s quarterly figures can be massaged. The categories into which raw data are sorted can be manipulated so that merely to control and assign the sorting is to come out on top. If you can persuade your managers to frame information in a certain way, you can make your rival look like a fool and a failure. The further you get from actual work, the closer you get to courtly life, where competition for influence with the boss is just about the only thing that happens.

One of the biggest mistakes made by public intellectuals in the past century has been to pretend — to claim — that princes and courts are things of the past, swept away by enlightened revolutions, and to have missed the reappearance of courtly machinery in executive suites. We rightly associate the courts of the ancien régime with corruption and deceit, with back-stabbing and disingenuousness. We wrongly fail to see that this old complex of sins is still spinning, and spinning even faster, in corporate headquarters. Work has got nothing to do with it.

The more you look at it, the more courtly life appears to be a way of going about things that powerful men adopt when their skill sets are superseded. The original European aristocrats were warriors — thugs, basically. Over time, being a thug required more disiciplined training; in their high-medieval heyday, aristocrats spent hours every day cultivating the skills required to fight on horseback. Gradually, however, infantries got bigger — more rank-and-file foot soldiers, as in ancient times — and new weapons changed the face of war. By the end of the Renaissance, cavalries — equestrian aristocrats — were being sidelined ; sometimes, they were just in the way. Now, it might have made sense for aristocrats to hang up their spurs and retire to private life; surely this is what would have happened if the end of cavalry occurred in the same economic considerations that prevailed when aristocracy emerged from the mists of Dark Europe. But a very different economic dispensation was in place, and aristocrats lacked the one thing that was needed to get by in it: money. Aristocrats had always been cash-poor. In the search for economic viability, they hit on a new approach: they could be ornamental. It became important to look good on horseback, a business very different from that of fighting effectively. Looking good in general became the aristocrat’s day job. Fighting actual enemies was replaced by fighting for military commands and commissions — and the pensions that went with them.

There seems to be a rule at work: when deprived of a genuine raison d’être, privileged people don’t just sink back into the mass. Nor do they learn new skills. Instead, they concoct a bogus but plausible replacement raison d’être. I said a moment ago that men adopt these changes, but that’s only because men have had a lot more experience at fooling around with power.

It’s still early days. We thought that the presence of women on the scene would change things. And perhaps it has, but in ways too new and unexpected for us to have looked for. Women may not have triumphed in the corridors of power, but they have certainly learned a great deal about how men carry on in them. Some have joined in. More, I think, have withdrawn slightly, to confer with other women. Some women are withdrawing further, into autonomous, more transparently cooperative spaces. The capacities of these new endeavors remains unknown. Meanwhile, men capable of self-criticism have learned from women that there is always real work to be done somewhere, much of it surprisingly satisfying, and that a life of lucrative posturing may be just as empty and unsatisfying as philosophers have always insisted. Too bad the philosophers’ example never did much good. At least we have women now.


Tuesday 1st

At the Infusion Therapy Unit yesterday, I was trying to finish reading Ronan Fanning’s Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power. But the woman in an adjacent chair was making it difficult. Had her voice been even slightly lower, I should have assumed that she was not only a man but a gangster. The mouth on her! She had the knack of an inside voice with outside penetration; it was impossible to miss a single word. And. When. She. Texted. Somebody. ,. She. Read. Each. Word. Aloud. As. She. Typed. It. Yes. She. Did. She was accompanied by a confidante whose voice was easy to ignore, but who could not have been a very close friend, given the biographical information that the patient felt obliged to disclose. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that she was a volunteer from the patient’s parish church, or perhaps even hired to sit and listen. It was hard to see how this awful woman could have any friends; she heaped invective on everyone she mentioned. She claimed to be very sick, subject to attacks that “were a long time coming,” whatever that might mean — really! She was too weak to walk from here to there, she said, but had she jumped from her seat and brandished a baseball bat at the rest of us, that wouldn’t have surprised me, either. After one particularly foul remark, I gave her a stern glance, but she probably didn’t see it, given her sunglasses and low-billed baseball cap. Thank goodness, her medicine was quickly infused, and she hobbled off with her Oenone. In her wake, I should have been happy to hear the Unit’s ordinary low burble of noise — voices, machines, phones — but instead there reigned a vast stretch of total quiet. I put my book down, took of my glasses, and drank it in, a second infusion.

Whilst still trying to read under the onslaught of Jersey miasmas, however, I’d lost my place at one point and restlessly looked ahead. I was two chapters away from “Conclusion.” It began,

Éamon de Valera had no interest in political power.

I snapped the book shut, shocked. Here I was, about to finish reading the biography of a man whose only interest was political power. How could Fanning say such a thing? I began to parse the sentence. Political power — that means haggling. De Valera certainly hated haggling. But who but a politician of the most sublime self-control could have taken the Treaty constitution that created the Irish Free State in 1922, and tinkered with it so gradually, clause by clause, from 1932 to 1937, that by 1938 the country was governed by a new constitution under which Ireland was an independent state, with only the emptiest and most notional reference to Great Britain, and done it all without exciting British “reprisals”? Who but a master statesman could have steered Ireland through World War II in a state of neutrality, the appearance of which concealed so many ways of aiding the Allies that the United States considered military awards for at least two officers? (As this would have been embarrassing to the Irish vis-à-vis the British, the idea was dropped.) Who but such a man could have put limits on the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, by refusing to make it the only permitted religion (and by refusing to acknowledge it as “the faith founded by Christ”), and by refusing to support Franco?

I could make no satisfactory sense of the statement. Proximity to the herculean self-regard of this mesmerizing tyrant — de Valera had no need of military support — must have softened Fanning’s brain.

By the time I reached the Conclusion in due course, I was truly perplexed. On the chapter’s second page, Fanning writes,

For it was then that he acquired an extraordinary composure, self-sufficiency and strength of will: the personality traits that served him so well in his later pursuit of political power.

See? Political power! But something in the sentence jingled distantly. My weary eye wandered back to the opening sentence.

Edward de Valera had no interest in political power.

Oh. Professor Fanning must have pricked the egos of countless students with this stunt. The Irish leader’s given name was changed before he even took up leading, when he joined the Gaelic League under the tutelage of his wife. It hadn’t appeared in the book for two hundred pages or more; who would expect to find it resurrected in the Conclusion? But the point is correct: as a young man, de Valera exhibited not the slightest political impulse. It was only in 1913, when Great Britain as it then was seemed about to explode with violence sparked by the intractable Irish Question, that de Valera caught the local enthusiasm and joined the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA). It was only in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 — in which the thirty-something, a battalion commandant, strictly followed his superiors’ orders, including the last one, to surrender to the British (and not to run away) — that de Valera emerged as the only surviving officer of the Rising, giving him a prestige among fellow prisoners at Dartmoor that stuck for the rest of his life. Fanning is quite right: the young de Valera was indifferent to politics.

We might talk about that all day. There are many discussions that one might pursue after reading this book, the scope of which is limited to de Valera’s political life. Fanning tells us that his purpose is to show that, horribly mistaken though de Valera might have been to reject the Treaty, in 1922 — worse than mistaken: catastrophically vainglorious — no matter how responsible he and he alone may have been for unleashing the bloody Civil War that he himself called an end to in 1923, he was the only man who could have demonstrated Ireland’s independence by maintaining its neutrality from the British struggle against the Axis. Churchill and many American leaders thought that Irish neutrality was despicable, but Fanning makes the case: it was the only way to show Ireland’s independence, and it did so. Fanning is persuasive about de Valera’s greatness.

But first you have to grant that independence was the paramount political value. And then you have to count the many costs that mounted up precisely because de Valera was not interested in anything but independence. Above all others, the ecclesiastical régime that effectively governed the Irish state for the first fifty years of its existence, suffocating dissent and curtailing intellectual freedom, not to mention the personal liberties associated with marriage and procreation. You have to recognize that de Valera’s lack of interest in the subject of economics, his commitment to an imaginary rural idyll that his own hardscrabble childhood ought to have snuffed out, kept Ireland poor much longer than it ought to have been. De Valera was one of the most conservative revolutionaries ever to draw a breath. But then his example forces us to examine this overworked word yet again. De Valera was not a revolutionary. He was, what is far more common in modern European and American history, a secessionist. And in nine cases out of ten, the secessionist seeks to preserve, not to originate.

Éamon de Valera was a benevolent despot, but the only object of his beneficence was Irish independence. Toward all other people and ideas, he was a dictator who insisted upon doing things his way. As I was leaving the Infusion Therapy Unit, I showed Fanning’s book to a native of Ireland, the only nurse who was on the staff in 2004, when I had my first treatment. When I remarked that de Valera was a tyrant, she answered with dead calm, “Yes, he was.” I didn’t know whether to hear refuge or exile in her reply. Fanning’s book had made it clear, even without going much into social matters, that Maeve Brennan was right to stay in the United States when her family returned to Ireland in 1944. (Her father, Robert, was the first Irish Ambassador to Washington; he is mentioned a couple of times by Fanning.) There was no place in Ireland for a funny, irreverent, feisty and independent woman. Maeve would have had three choices: to don one kind of veil, and become a wife, or the other kind, and become a nun; or she could have made sure that wives and nuns would never have to care for her parents. She might teach, but only so long as she remained unmarried. No other professions would be open to her. And there would be no glamorous fashion magazines to write for, much less what was arguably the only home that she ever would have found on the face of this earth, The New Yorker.

In the interest of social stability, the political regime sustained by Éamon de Valera snuffed out countless human possibilities. A line from Don Carlo comes to mind. Philip II has just claimed to have granted Flanders “peace,” by suppressing religious freedom. Posa, in a momentary and very dangerous loss of control, fires back,

Orrenda, orrenda pace!
La pace è del sepolcri!

(Verdi sets this explosion to music that is not music.) I find it impossible to give de Valera a pass. Fanning tells us that de Valera discovered Macchiavelli while imprisoned at Lincoln, and the rest of his book could be taken as advocating de Valera’s claim to be the Florentine’s star pupil. I can think of few leaders who have so unswervingly put national interest ahead of every other consideration, especially the personal ones. In the best and worse senses of Macchiavelli’s title, Éamon de Valera was indeed the Prince of Ireland.

It is difficult to overlook the man’s Spanish heritage when making this assessment. Indeed, his exotic name contributed to his upsider status. He was unsentimental to a degree not to be expected in Ireland. His piety was unleavened by Irish jocularity; I expect that he said his prayers with the dry but fierce conviction that God was on the other end of the line. He began his adult life as a teacher (of mathematics), and he remained one all his life. If you squint, he becomes a revenant, a Spanish Jesuit who beached at Kinsale in 1588 or at Wexford in 1798, and who lived on to oversee the instruction of the Irish, dying only when Ireland was unquestionably free. Although, by then, perhaps not so Catholic…

His work was done by 1945; had he not been addicted to power, he might have opened the door to more progressive — more humane — thinking a full thirty years earlier. It’s his holding on that I cannot forgive. Insofar as the Civil War was de Valera’s doing, it reflects partly his lack of experience in diplomatic affairs and partly everyone else’s in Ireland. He must be granted the wisdom to see that violence was not going to solve anything — and certainly not make Ireland independent. So, he called it off — he could do that. The Free State government put him in jail for his third and last taste of imprisonment. Then he set about his great work, as Fanning has it. When postwar voters threw him out of office in 1948, he was 64 — a fine time to retire. But no. Éamon de Valera took God’s gift of life as a mandate to rule. He came back to power in 1951, and again in 1957. When he gave up the premiership, it was to assume the presidency, which he held on to into his ninetieth year.

He died at about the same time as Franco, and the Cassock Curtain began to fall. The peace of the tomb began to be interrupted by the bustle of life.


Thursday 3rd

It was getting late, but instead of winding down, I was keying up. The novel in my hands was not only compelling but thrilling, combining the moral urgency of Dostoevsky with the dramatic vertigo of Ludlum. The writing, well-behaved to the point of invisibility, crackled with irony.

I knew that if I let myself go, and spent a few mad hours reading the thing through to the end, I should not tumble into a satisfied sleep but rise in fury from my seat and demand justice! Or something like that; as I say, it was getting late, and in my excitement I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I only knew that I disliked being excited after midnight: it seemed dangerous. So I put the book down and picked up Jigsaw, which I’ve been saving for bedtime since I took it up last week. Sybille Bedford calmed me down and delighted me. I was soon tossing her aside and turning out the light.

When I tell you the name of the novel that was juicing my nerves, and you cock a doubtful eyebrow, the mystery will thicken a bit when I add that I’ve read the book twice before, and that knowing what’s coming is at least as agitating as suspense. But then, it isn’t just any exciting old tale. No, the novel was chosen like a drug. I believed, rather desperately, that it would allow me to remain in the imaginative space that had been hacked out of mental wilderness by thinking about Éamon de Valera. Ronan Fanning’s biography had been as demanding as a lucid and straightforward account could be; getting my mind around de Valera had stretched the poor organ so thin that it winced at the thought of snapping back to normal. I needed to keep the mood alive. The Heather Blazing just might do the trick.

The Heather Blazing is Colm Tóibín’s second novel, first published in 1992. Although beautifully finished and effortlessly free-standing, it is in retrospect a rehearsal, a practice run at themes that would loom at the back of Tóibín’s later fiction. The hero is a severely self-controlled and -constrained judge who is obliged to reconsider his Bildung by the sweeping changes in Irish life that followed the fading of the de Valera dispensation. The judge is even named after de Valera: “Éamon” with one ‘n.’ He owes his success to his family’s support of of the great leader; even his obedience and his diligence, which would seem to be personal virtues for which one might take full responsibility, have an aspirational edge, as though the young Éamon were emulating the older.

I knew that I’d read The Heather Blazing recently, but not how recently, and now I’m amazed to see how sharply views can shift in a short time. The difference between my brain at the end of 2014 and now is that it has been fed a great deal of serious Irish history. All right, only three books, but as concentrated as demi-glace and as rich to digest. The Heather Blazing reads now as if it were in 3-D. As a work of literature, it is providing me with a dark, warm den in which to consider further the moral problems posed by a man who did Great Things, but who himself was not only not Great, but not even Good; a saint in his own eyes (what could be worse?), or, if not a saint, then a prophet, channeling the will of God. The Twentieth Century taught us to quail at the appearance of such figures.


Every now and then, a columnist at the Times will reduce a troublesome issue to perfect clarity, and in only a few hundred words. Nicholas Kristof accomplishes the feat today, and even then he devotes only half of his column to it. He sets up a Q&A with an imaginary but articulate Trump supporter and shows us why the incredulous and bewildered élites miss the whole point of Trump. He wraps up this little discussion with no little irony when the imaginary voter expresses his assurance that, once in the White House, the Donald will cast aside the “outrageous” things that he said because of his background as an “entertainment personality.” No, Hitler didn’t really mean it, either.

There are five questions and answers, and I’ll summarize them very briskly.

  • Isn’t it a problem that Trump has no experience?
    He has plenty of business experience; our political system is broken.
  • Trump is such a liar that he’ll hand the election to Hillary.
    Nonsense. You pundits can’t predict anything.
  • Trump makes fun of people.
    It’s about time.
  • Trump is making the United States look ridiculous on the international scene.
    Ask me if I care. [Or no: let’s have Kristof’s text:] “Take a deep breath. I don’t care whether foreigners like us, as long as they fear us.”
  • Trump is offensive on the subject of women.
    [Stated answer:] That’s just campaign shtick. [Real answer:] I’m not offended.

The first exchange is as old as genuine political activity. Ideally, politicians ought to work their way up the ladder from smaller to larger constituencies. I wish that they were required to do so by law, so that no one could even think of running for president without having served successfully as a state governor, nor a legislator aspire to the Senate until after a few terms in the House of Representatives (to which he or she would come from state counterparts). I believe in career tracks that can’t be jumped, as happened with Eisenhower (even if he turned out to be a good thing, mostly). As for “business experience,” the financialization of commerce has made a joke of it; only when the primary point of business returns to doing business, and creating windfalls while making bankers rich is properly seen as a terrible distraction, will it be possible to estimate business experience. The only legitimate Republican contender, in my eyes, is John Kasich. The man himself is unimpressive, but he is the only governor in the race.

The second exchange is intriguing, because the imaginary voter doesn’t address Trump’s mendacity at all. He rightly fastens on the question’s shaky grasp of probabilities, opaque at the best of times and, in Trump’s case, more a triumph of improbabilities. The questioner assumes that Hillary’s supporters will flock to the polls and overwhelm the Right. Another story in the same issue of the Times questions this very expectation. I myself believe that a fight between Trump and Clinton just might force Clinton to abandon her understandable but ruinous determination to admit to no faults. Her sins have all been venial, but her refusal to acknowledge them might prove to be mortal. Hillary Clinton needs to shed the armor of Joan of Arc, which doesn’t fit her well, and, wearing nothing her clothes, attribute the curlicues of deviousness in her career to the difficulty of getting anything done with dolts like Trump in the room. She shouldn’t blame Trump or complain about him, but merely present him, with a dash of mockery, as a mountain through whom a tunnel must be bored. Instead of attempting to expose each of Trump’s many lies as such, she should embrace her listeners with the cool smile of Jon Stewart and repeat the mantra: Pants on Fire.

I have been considering the substance of the third exchange for quite a while now. When Trump made fun of a disabled reporter the other day, it was behavior that, had he been anywhere but on a political platform, might well have had serious disciplinary consequences. The great wave of consciousness raising that has so altered the complexion of American society in the past half-century has always packed an insufficiently-grasped undertow. It is one thing to set new standards of respect for formerly discounted groups, and to encourage their progress from the margins to the center of social life. It is quite another thing to pretend that no healthy, loving American could possibly cherish the old disrespect. It is more than merely regrettable that political correctness, that toxic brew of high-mindedness and zero tolerance, has been such an important tool in effecting the enfranchisement of “minorities.” It demonized ordinary folk while infantilizing its beneficiaries. I don’t see how children are to outgrow the cruelties natural to children unless they are allowed to acknowledge them.

My only comment on the fourth exchange is this: will the United States still be a democracy when its people become interested in America’s place in the world, and stop dreaming of floating Zeus-like above it?

When people claim that Trump doesn’t mean the hateful things that he says, they’re trying to excuse the hateful things that they feel but do not say. It is commonplace to refer to the many Germans who believed that Hitler would never really persecute the Jews, only to be shocked, shocked when he did. But this shock is of uncertain genuineness. Nobody but Hitler, perhaps, would have taken the first steps against the Jews, but once those steps were taken, they were ever more easily followed by others’. A man who will bet on a candidate’s hidden goodness is not especially troubled by his apparent wickedness. Voters trying to assume the mantle of Henry Kissinger’s superior realism get exactly what they deserve. Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t deserve it.


The punchbowl is back in our lives. It’s this hideous thing that my mother picked up somewhere at the height of her Victorian craze. Most punchbowls are simply big bowls, mounted on sturdy bases or feet to demonstrate their stability. Our punchbowl is more like a vase. It rests on what might be a inverted mini-punchbowl, a mound of hollow metal. The bottom of the punchbowl proper is narrow, almost wasp-waisted. It swells out with modest convexity until approaching the halfway mark of its height and swelling out on a concavity to a great diameter — more than a foot. Finally, it rolls back to a convex curve and tucks into a sculpted rim. It has always seemed to be a huge thing, incapable of fitting in anywhere, but our spacious living room has swallowed it up.

Once upon a time, it was a recognizable piece of silverware. Now its exterior is streaked gunmetal grey. It looks fit for a garden — not least because I’ve put a flourishing arum lily in it. I’ve had the plant for years, but now I am watering it so well that it almost always has a bloom at some stage of development. Its profusely layered foliage looks not unlike one of David Hockney’s splashes, but dark green rather than pool blue.

The one inexorable rule about vacating the storage unit is that everything must go. Everything must be either carted away by hired junksters or brought home. Nothing, no matter how undesirable, may be left behind. Some things, it is true, will be shipped to the uptown storage unit, but very few or these things will not be books, or the shelves to put them on.

On the next visit, I shall pack up a stack of cut-glass dinner plates intended for buffets: there are little dividers in the glass, just like the ones that keep things separate on children’s plates. There are about a dozen of these plates. We shall never use them. Then there are some silver candlesticks. They’re in even worse shape than the punchbowl, and we won’t keep them, either. After that, I’ve got 25 document boxes to bring home. Six of them would fit in a banker’s box. I’ve forgotten what’s in them. Kathleen and I tagged many of them with large Post-its, in lieu of more fixed labels, but most of the Post-its have fallen off over the years.

Then, then I’ll be down to books and just books. And LPs. The LPs will follow the unwanted books to wherever the junksters take them. The wanted books will go uptown. Nothing will come home, except of course for books that I really want.


Friday 4th

Regular readers will have tired of my complaining that I’m tired; finally, I have tacit evidence of the dire effects of this persistent fatigue. Whilst writing yesterday’s entry, I lost sight of the larger point that I wanted to make about Nicholas Kristof’s column in yesterday’s Times. I never got round to mentioning what made the column worth quoting and summarizing in the first place: Kristof’s recognition that Donald Trump’s supporters have a point.

The point is that nobody has been listening to them, and the proof of this is that Kristof finds it newsworthy to present their arguments with something like sympathy. Even I couldn’t quite hold on o this important development. Like every other liberal-minded critic, I deconstructed the imaginary Trump supporter’s remarks, trying to uncover the hidden agenda. That’s not hard to do. What’s hard is grasping the sheer humanity (if not humane-ness) of the supporters’ logic. Whether he intended to do so or not, Kristof captures not only their impatience and resentment but also, in the obtuseness of his questions, their justification.

Having pointed this sort of thing out to several friends in more alert moments, when, unlike yesterday, I was able to stick to the point, I have to add, with emphasis, that to understand the mind that would be happy to see Donald Trump in the White House is just that, and not tantamount to agreeing with it.

The United States was founded on very high-minded principles, but it has survived because so many dedicated public servants have kept their eyes on the ground and tried to break the inevitable falls. I don’t mean just government workers or elected officials, but also the professionals, especially clergymen and lawyers, who are licensed by the state to take a special part in public affairs. I should also include most journalists, although investigative research is attractive work for troublemaking spirits. (I wish that I could say something good about doctors in this connection; doctors do an unimaginable amount of good to countless individuals. But when it comes to social effort, they seem to become Ayn Randians, with the results that our medical care is preposterously expensive and our hospitals indistinguishable from roller-derby arenas.)

It would be easy for these public and semi-public monitors to slip into cynicism. It is easy. Has it happened on a large scale? How did the people who flatter themselves that they have America’s interests at heart fall for the fable of free-market economics and its attendants, the deregulation of nearly everything and casino-style banking? Surely not everyone was on the take — but that, of course, is what Trump’s supporters, by now cynical as well, really believe. They’re mad because so much of the res publica has been divided up amongst the élites, and they have been left out of the sweet deals. Wouldn’t you be?

I often think that the élites will be lucky to come out of what’s in store with their necks intact, but also that, one way or the other, they will have destroyed the United States in which they grew up. A new and better United States may take its place, without violence perhaps, thanks simply to generational change. I can’t say I’m sanguine about any of this.

I’m reminded of a law-school joke, which I’ll exaggerate. The A students become law school professors. The B students become judges. The C students become millionaires. The reason for this is a factor that dominates every field of endeavor in this country: luck always trumps merit. To begin with, luck is not even recognized as such; it is merged into “work.” I’m not saying that hard work isn’t required. All three classes of law students work hard; just getting into a good law school is hard work. But the millionaires are sailmakers: they know how and where to catch the favorable winds. Now, almost everyone who benefits from good luck has had to work hard just to be prepared to take advantage of it. But taking advantage of good luck is not work, it is not a sign of merit — at least with regard to all the other hard workers — and there ought to be limits to the extent to which its benefits can be exploited. Two cardinal sins that come immediately to mind are legislative lobbying (locking in your good luck and freezing out others) and tax breaks (tax break are prima facie indicators of the inadequacy of the taxation scheme in operation). In our pursuit of rewards for lucky individuals, we have lost all sense of proportion. Even the lotteries show it.

As a matter of course, I don’t follow Nicholas Kristof’s column. I am not keen on Human Rights or humanitarian issues. I’m not against them in the least; in a well-ordered world, they would never come up, because no one would be denied or mistreated. But the people who talk about these matters remind me of the people who talk about conspiracies. Both groups address real problems with unreal simplification. Both subscribe to the argument that Truly Terrible Problems require nothing but Heroic Determination to Stop Them. In fact, truly terrible problems are the result of truly intractable incompetence and resentment. If you ask me, incompetence is our biggest humanitarian problem: it is almost everywhere, and it is almost always covered up. If white Christian Americans were as competent as they are always claiming to be, their hegemony would have lasted longer, and might even be unquestioned to this day. But no. When civil rights regained traction for the first time in eighty years, white Christian men insisted that Communist agitators were behind it. Now, that’s incompetence piled on incompetence. Proof? Trump all but kissing Putin’s ass.

When I read about problems between police officers and black men (it’s usually men, but, as poor Sandra Bland reminds us, not always), I see decades of bad behavior and mutual mistrust. And men. Men being men, who’s going to be the first to do the right thing?

When I read about conservative refusal to allow hearings for the next Supreme Court Justice, I see the same thing. A big game of chicken. (More about progressive bad behavior in this connection some other time — but be it duly noted.)

Which brings me to the ultimate question: are American men good for anything but a big game of chicken?


I was so tired yesterday morning that I went back to bed when I finished writing, even though I hadn’t had much to eat and it was well past lunchtime. I slept for over an hour. Then I had to get up, so I stayed up and made a salami-and-smoked gouda sandwich, with chips and a huge tumbler of iced coffee on the side. I read for a while, trying to work out Éamon Redmond’s walks through Enniscorthy on Google Maps but refraining from searching yet again for evidence of “Cush,” the clutch of seaside cottages that by now, I think, have all been swallowed up by the waves. I did notice that the two sentences that open the first and the third parts of the novel, respectively, are identical.

Between six and seven, I got dressed and went downstairs for the mail. A bit of excitement: as I waited for the elevator, the light went out on the button, and the elevator whooshed me by. I pressed the button madly, but the light would go out instantly. Eventually, I went round to the service elevator, which did stop for me. On the first floor, I found a knot of firemen. They had shut off the elevator buttons with a key. By the time I had dropped off some laundry at the cleaner’s and collected the mail, whatever had summoned the firemen was settled, and I saw one of them use the key to reactivate the buttons.

When I got back upstairs, I did a bit of writing. Shortly after eight, I was done. I stood up and thought about dinner. Kathleen was attending a Bar Association gathering that included dinner, so I was on my own. Because I’d had lunch so late, I still wasn’t very hungry, and there wasn’t anything that I particularly wanted to eat. So I made the bed. I said to myself, “Why are you making the bed at this hour? It’s practically bedtime.” I replied to the effect that it didn’t matter when I made the bed, so long as I was home alone. The bed didn’t take any longer to make at eight o’clock at night than it would at ten in the morning. The important thing was that the bed be made when Kathleen came home.

And yet, when I told this to Kathleen as we got ready for bed, folding the quilt that serves as a bedspread, she said, “I know it makes you feel better when the bed is made.” Meaning that she could care less. So she says. But I don’t make the bed for her to notice it. It’s the absence of an unmade bed that I have in mind.


In the current issue of The New Yorker, Nate Heller evaluates A O Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism. Nearly three weeks ago, I wrote, “I read the book thinking that I should have to re-read it, perhaps several times, or else just let it go.” Although I mentioned it again the following week, à propos its reception in the Book Review, it appears that I did let it go. And Nate Heller showed me why.

Pointing toward interesting problems and promptly running away is a regrettable tendency of Better Living Through Criticism. To the extent that the book has a structure, it resembles a Rubik’s cube that has not been solved. The components of a cumulative argument exist, but they are broken up and scattered randomly throughout the text.

I see that I made a similar complaint last week, but nowhere near as forcefully as Heller does in these two sentences, with the image of a mischievous boy who points and runs away, and who leaves his Rubik’s cube unsolved. I was shocked by the insulting aftertaste of these lines, and wondered if I should have said such things. (Yes, but of a politician, not a writer.) But Heller’s piece was too gripping to pause for complaint.

Heller lays out a theory of criticism that seems comprehensive to me. “Beyond institutional affiliation, critics usually gain authority in three ways.” To summarize:

  • As “first responders” — Schumann on Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!”
  • As historians (Heller uses “scholars”).
  • As seducers.

If I like this, it may just possibly be because it outlines my own program. I don’t often look at things that are actually new, but I’m always finding new things in familiar works. (New to me, anyway.) And the works are familiar. This is what being a historian entails: “someone who knows the canon backward and forward seems a sound gatekeeper for esteeem.” Although I’m keenly aware that I don’t know the canon backward and forward, and never will, I know that that’s not the impression that I give to readers who are not historians or scholars. About seduction I shall say nothing. In the Times today, Ben Whishaw tells an interviewer that, when they were working together on London Spy, Jim Broadbent warned him not to talk about acting. Very sound advice.

And then there’s this:

Why do we follow him, then? Scott did not go to film school. He has not made any movies. He may or may not have a detailed knowledge of the complete oeuvre of Claude Chabrol. His powers of suasion come from his ability to make you feel that his experience was, or will be, yours. What the first responder and the scholar demand from us — “Defer to me; I see more than you do” — we give voluntarily to the seducer, who woos our consent.

I think that I’m trying to take this a step further: I want to make observations that might not make much sense if you don’t know things about me that wouldn’t come up if I were writing in the “objective” manner. As the element of seduction makes clear, the pretense of objectivity is a sham. Adults lose the taste for reading expository prose that is personality-free. Some people argue that there has to be a “story” to make anything interesting; I find that infantilizing. But everything that happens to anybody is the element of a story, whether it is ever woven into a tale or not. And it is through shared experiences (or through experiences that weren’t shared (!), even though the same thing happened) that we learn about the world from other people. And, as I say, we learn more if we know them better.

That’s a controversial view; lots of traditional journalists were passionately opposed to the insertion of the reporter’s personal experience (or opinions) into a news story. I still say that it was a sham, this belief in the possibility of neutral objectivity.

Meanwhile, here’s John Fowles on critics.

It was less anything personal that I had always disliked in Barney, in fact, than that he was a critic. No creator can like critics. There is too much difference between the two activities. One is begetting, the other surgery. However justified the criticism, it is always inflicted by someone who hasn’t, a eunuch, on someone who has, a generator: by someone who takes no real risks on someone who stakes most of his being, economic as well as immortal. (113)

To be fair, that’s Daniel Martin speaking, not his “generator,” but it has the pulpity ring of an author sharing his thoughts. Daniel Martin is Fowles’s autobiographical novel, I’ve always thought, and there is nothing in the text to suggest that Dan’s musings are not to be taken at face value. In any case, what a load! I giggled at the thought of Fowles’s encountering A O Scott’s idea that criticism is the “late-born twin” of art.

Geoffrey O’Brien once remarked, in Sonata for Juke Box, I think, that the Beatles, during their years of celestial fame, lived in such a tight bubble that they were the only people on earth who didn’t know what The Beatles phenomenon was. But this is true of every artwork; it’s what distinguishes artworks from other productions. Artwork is taken up by other people and appreciated by them in ways and for reasons that its creator might deplore. Criticism is simply observation, from the same private viewpoint as everyone else’s, that is rendered coherent and informative. For Dan to say that he cannot like critics is to admit, as he probably would if pressed, that he cannot like his readers, either. The idea that a critic is bad because he might have an adverse effect on one’s income is a very low blow, and shallow as well.

The relationship between criticism and paying popularity is absolutely ad hoc, different in each case. Can a critic kill a book? It would seem that the sales of a certain kind of “literary” novel are more vulnerable to the withering dismissal of Michiko Kakutani than are those of the latest Preston/Child. A O Scott’s rather narrow-framed objection to The Avengers had no discernible affect on that film’s box office, and it’s regrettable that Samuel L Jackson opened his big mouth to make a stunningly ill-considered complaint. On the other hand, I don’t know how many lousy new novels I’ve read because of enthusiastic reviews. That’s one thing that reviewing the Book Review taught me, slowly, to avoid. The novels were lousy for a simple reason: they weren’t for me. I learned not to talk, at length anyway, about things that are not for me.

Although: one of these days, I’m going to finish Moby-Dick, and then, watch out!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
A Visit from the Bishop
February 2016 (IV)

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Monday 22nd

In this weekend’s Book Review, two of the books that have interested me lately are reviewed. David Denby, who has not, I think, worked at the Times, gets half a page, a rather desultory and obscurely competitive review by Dale Russakoff. “Denby argues eloquently for ‘the character-forming experience of reading difficult books’.” But Russakoff isn’t sure that Denby gets past that bromide. (I’m not quite sure, either.) What Denby does demonstrate — and here I agree more whole-heartedly with Russakoff — is “the irreplaceable role of great flesh-and-blood teachers who unlock knowledge day and day out for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.” It was Denby’s account of the teachers that made Lit Up a breathtaking read for me. Their heroism faces down new monsters. Violence in schools is no longer much of a problem, it seems; nor are hostile administrators, at least in the classrooms that Denby visits. The enemy is the students’ immersion in a digital world that makes it almost impossible for news of a less banal way of life to find a point of entry.

A O Scott, the newspaper’s chief film critic, gets a full-page review, written by Daniel Mendelsohn, no less. Author and reviewer alike are astute critics of things ancient and modern, but Mendelsohn’s treatment is more rigorous, both as to analysis and explanation. Scott has a weakness for the new slang — for what Mendelsohn calls “a flippant, ‘popular professor’ tone.” Indeed, there were few moments in Better Living Through Criticism that made me slow down, much less stop to think what Scott might be getting at. Which is always a cause of wonder when Kant is the subject of discussion.

But then, Scott doesn’t actually “discuss Kant.” He dismisses him, after a respectable summary of the subjective universal, as no longer congenial. This is valid; I share Scott’s suspicion that neither philosophy nor neurobiology has a lot to tell us about the pleasures of art. But there is a polite flaccidity in the way Scott courses through the matters that he raises in his second chapter, “The Eye of the Beholder.” From Kant he goes to Maria Abramović, whose show at the MoMA attracted thousands. Then he moves on to Rilke’s engagement with the Archaic torso, and Larkin’s “Reasons for Attendance.” What he says is certainly intelligent, but it is not half, not a quarter, of what might be said. Nothing is really unpacked. Abramović’s allure — she sits still while sharing a mutual gaze with a line of visitors who take turns sitting opposite her — is likened to that of the Mona Lisa: “That enigmatic, long-dead lady in the Louvre is looking, and smiling, at me.” I’m afraid that I don’t consider that a very interesting or, in the best sense of the word, sophisticated response to da Vinci’s painting, but then, it’s no great favorite of mine.

On Rilke’s response to the Archaic torso — an extraordinary critical act, a beautiful sonnet into which everything is crammed: praise of the ruined statue, longing for the imagined mental/spiritual peace that is swept away by self-consciousness, the tension between the wild and the erotic, on the one hand, and the poised and transcendent, on the other — candidly betrays Scott’s excitement, the measure of which can be taken by his lament that, in today’s crowded galleries, it has become almost impossible to commune with masterpieces. Scott captures the interplay of critical perspectives that would make reading Rilke in front of the torso so thrilling, but he holds back from repeating the point of his first chapter, which is that criticism is the “late-born twin” of art. To say so in the context of Rilke’s sonnet would set an impossibly high standard for critics. It would also solve the problem of George Steiner’s thought experiment in Real Presences, by replacing comment on art with comment that is art. Nor does he recur to the example of Manet, at the end of the first chapter, as a critic of Titian and Velázquez. His own career as a writer of shortish pieces about movies would look almost shabby in comparison.

I was happy to see that Daniel Mendelsohn shared my view that Scott’s calling upon critics to be wrong is wrong.

But those errors of individual taste … are hardly proof that the critic’s job is to be “wrong.” The critic’s job is to be more educated, articulate, stylish and tasteful — in a word, worthy of trust — than her readers have the time or inclination to be; qualities eminently suited to a practice that (as Scott rightly if too glancingly points out) has validity and value only if it is conducted in public.

Ah, but what is “taste”? I have pondered this question viscerally ever since I heard Keith Jarrett’s recording of eight of Handel’s keyboard suites. For some reason, what I heard most clearly in his performances, far beyond his technical proficiency, was the display of good taste, something that I knew to be very important to Handel and his listeners, even if they never did a very good job of talking about it in terms that weren’t egregiously snobbish. (Taste was what highly-bred but worldly aristocrats liked.) What is taste? So far, I’ve tentatively concluded that it is actually a combination of Mendelsohn’s three other qualities: education, articulation, and style. At any given moment, one generally-shared vanishing point of taste — a particular blend or balance of the three attributes; I quite strenuously wish to avoid calling it an “ideal” — is coming into view, while an older one is slowly fading away. Education is simply exposure, serious, engaged exposure, the more of it the better, on the part of both artist and critic. (This is why the young ought to stick to criticizing the new.) Articulation is phrasing, modulation, emphasis. Listening to an old recording of Rudolf Serkin and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Brahms’s second piano concerto yesterday, I was struck by the difference between Serkin’s articulation of the music and what you would hear from the best players today. You might not like Serkin’s way with Brahms, but it is, if I may be indulged, a fully articulate articulation, coherent and consistent. Nobody is wrong about taste, and there is really no such thing as bad taste. (Only the lack of taste — although I suppose it might be useful to speak of uncertain taste, in which the balance is off.)  Style, finally, is the deviance that points toward future possibilities of taste. New generations develop different blends of education, articulation, and style. Taste does indeed change. But it is always constituted of the same elements.

Question: Is the Archaic torso, also sited in the Louvre, appropriately labeled as, somehow, Rilke’s?


The gift of gab.

Do I have it? And what kind of a gift is it? A good gift, or a curse?

And: Am I really Irish?

These have been ongoing questions all my life, never quite inaudible, and never seriously answered. For a very long time, I dismissed them with “I don’t care!” And I didn’t care; it really didn’t matter. The questions persisted, but so did weeds in the garden. I was lucky to live at a time and in a place that spared me the unfortunate consequences of being Irish that were known to earlier generations, both in the United States and in Ireland itself. (Not to mention England.) I never had reason to think that I suffered being Irish. If I was Irish. The adoption papers didn’t say.

My adoptive father’s forebears were wholly Irish. They came over in the middle of the Nineteenth Century and, instead of settling on the East Coast, headed straight for Iowa. My father’s father was born in 1874, in Clinton. His mother, considerably younger, was born in Davenport. A distant cousin told me that a courthouse fire destroyed most of the old records about the family. I have never done an iota of investigation. My adoptive mother’s father was of Irish background — again, wholly, I think. But her mother was of French-Canadian ancestry, born in Duluth, Minnesota. She was also a Protestant. Most interestingly, she was the eldest of thirteen children, her father having married twice. It’s possible that I made that up. From time to time, I would ask my elders to explain the family relationships, but I never wrote anything down, and I forgot most of it.

My adoptive parents were more people who had come from the Midwest than they were “Irish.” I was instructed, again rather interestingly, to tell anyone who asked that I got my red hair from my maternal grandmother, the non-Irish non-Catholic. Being Irish was a joke that my father put up with gamely. He let other people fuss over it, telling the jokes and using the odd Irish expression. We never discussed it, but I’m sure that he was aware of the irony that the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame were anything but, at least so far as the actual football team went. My mother collected Belleek teacups, perhaps unaware that Belleek — the factory, at least — is in Northern Ireland. She loved those teacups, she really did. But she never used them.

So you could well ask, were my parents, despite their inheritance, actually Irish?

In case you think I’ve been mooning about this lately, you’re right, more or less, as entries for 8, 10, and 12 June of last year show. I shall take them as read, particularly my distaste for the “crazy and common,” as well as how Colm Tóibín and Maeve Brennan helped me out of “My Ireland Problem.” What I didn’t say last summer was that Tóibín and Brennan work in a similar way: their stories are full of silences. Maeve Brennan, in person, apparently had the gift of the gab in spades. That’s why The New Yorker prefaced her Talk pieces with references to a “long-winded” lady. The pieces themselves, however, are not particularly long-winded; they’re moody and perceptive and soaked in nostalgia for a vanishing past, as the parts of Manhattan that Brennan loved were torn down and replaced, seedy old buildings giving way to soulless new ones. (Joseph Mitchell felt the same ache, but he was more concerned with vanishing ways of life than with buildings.) As a writer, my point being, Brennan shows and rarely tells, and what she tells is always palpably not the whole story. The stories that she set in Dublin, like Tóibín’s Nora Webster (set in Enniscorthy), show mostly by not telling, and their power doesn’t really come through until a second or third reading. It was precisely this anti-loquaciousness that aroused my interest in learning something about Irish history.

“They are both the sons of Belial,” Lloyd George said of the Ulstermen and the Sinn Féiners that he had to deal with in negotiating the treaty that would create the Irish Free State in 1921 (ratified in 1922). I used to think the same thing. The Irish were cursed with the incapacity to be governed, thought I in my ignorance. Then Tóibín and Brennan crushed that notion. They showed a willingness to be governed, yea, oppressed anew, that chilled me far more than my old picture of anarchy.

Nevertheless, it was clear that understanding modern Ireland, or, rather, what R F Foster called “The de Valera Dispensation,” would require boning up on the history of the place, and although I knew that the history was complicated, I had no idea how complicated. This weekend, I struggled through a chapter in Ronan Fanning’s The Fatal Path, “The Treaty Negotiations,” that was like a nightmare in which I’d suddenly become involved in a structured finance deal with too many parties to keep track of. It was extremely wearying. The Catholic Irish were already divided on the question of recognizing the sovereignty of the British Crown; they both refused to negotiate the partition the six counties of Ulster as a Protestant preserve. (At least, that is, until Lloyd George came up with his elfish “Boundary Commission.”) For their part, the Ulstermen were divided between realists, who would accept the Home Rule that was being thrust back upon them, and the die-hards, who wanted to go on being part of Great Britain, and to preserve the Act of Union of 1801. The differences between any two groups might be slight, but they were always worth fighting over. The only constant in the story — Fanning’s subtitle is British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 — is the willingness and determination of two prime ministers, first Asquith and then Lloyd George, to do whatever it took to hold on to the premiership. Lloyd George would do anything; Asquith preferred, if at all possible, to do nothing.

That “Irish Free State” thingy. Whatever happened to that?


Tuesday 23rd

The names were familiar. Eamon de Valera, of course: he was still the leader of Ireland when I was a boy. Charles Parnell. Michael Collins. The Easter Rising. The Black and Tans. Sinn Féin and the IRA, also of course, because of more recent Troubles. Roger Casement. Gladstone and Home Rule. And let’s not forget the Irish Free State.

There were other names that didn’t become familiar until more recently: John Redmond, Pádraic Pearse, the Curragh. But these were no different; I couldn’t put them in relation to the other names. I expect that mine was the sort of ignorance that characterizes a lot of educated adults, their heads full of loose nuts and bolts, gleaned inattentively during high school and college but never pinned to any sense of reality. It is not usual for me, however, to harbor such littered historical blanks. There is a great deal of history of which I am really quite completely unaware, but when it came to Ireland, until very recently, I was aware of quite a lot, but I didn’t know what most of it meant.

Now, thanks to the two books that I’ve been mentioning, I know what a good deal of it means, but by no means enough. Independence, for example. When did Ireland become independent of Great Britain? It’s a trick question, because independence came in stages, and was assymetrically recognized. (I think that’s right.) I am waiting for Ronan Fanning’s book about de Valera to arrive, after which I may read Thomas Bartlett’s Ireland: A History. I like Tom Bartlett already. (Ronan Fanning refers to him thus in the text of The Fatal Path.) I read the introduction to his book at Amazon and was presently birdseyeing the campus of his high school alma mater, in the Falls Road neighborhood of Belfast. Think what I’d know if we’d had Google Maps when I was growing up! Meanwhile, the advance of knowledge on this subject, if I’m to be honest, is glacial. The bare minimum has not sunk in yet.

I hope I’m giving some idea of what it’s like to be in the middle of learning a new subject.

Now, from a very early point, I was an enthusiastic, if extraordinarily uneven student of English history. At the top of the list of aspects of English history that I did not want to investigate was Ireland, an inclination that I appear to have shared with many leading English politicians. We all wished that Ireland would just Go Away. Especially because, if Ireland were to disappear, not only would it take the wild, incomprehensible and quarrelsome Irish with it, but it would no longer be available as a strategic base for French or Spanish invasions. Unlike the British statesmen, however, my fondness for England was supported by not knowing any Brits. I didn’t know many Irish people either, but Irish-Americans were everywhere, still distinctly Irish even if their parents had been born in the United States. The voices of those with Irish parents still echoed the old country’s way of talking. Americans of British descent were everywhere, too, but the background had been washed out of them by centuries of American life. (Plus, I learned from the dictionary, English speech and manners were far better preserved in the South, far away but its rebellion not forgotten.) I remember making my father laugh by declaring that all English people lived in big houses and had butlers. That I was trying to point out how disadvantaged we were now makes me laugh.

The first thing that I must do in trying to understanding my usually rather vague dislike of Irish-Americans (despite being arguably one of them) is to isolate the snob factor. It is difficult to distinguish this from general aspirationalism. Like my parents — at least when I was a child — I looked forward to a better world, and I believed that an essential step in advancing toward it was to get rid of the baggage of the past. In my case, that baggage included the present, my dreary everyday life. I was striving to reach a point at which I should no longer associate with the people I knew. I believe that I have discussed this eccentric snobbery elsewhere, and now is not the time to take it up. But I begin by recognizing that I was a snob.

Irish-Americans were unlike all the other hyphenated people in that they came equipped with English, but they did not speak it like the English, and there was something terribly wrong with them. They were Catholic. So were we, but, with us, it was different.

Rather than expatiate on the view taken of Catholics by the Protestant majority in the Village of Bronxville, New York — to tell you the truth, I have no idea what it was; I’d have died rather than find out — or to muse sociologically about the location of St Joseph’s Church, practically on the commuter railroad tracks, across which there were, in the tiny rump of Bronxville over there, no houses but only apartments, many of them over shops, and many of them inhabited by Catholics whom my parents did not know. Rather than all of that (for the moment, at least), I’d like to look at a few representatives of the species. Since Catholicism was the principal defining characteristic of Irish-Americans, I’ll start with Monsignor Scott, our pastor.

Here’s an Irish joke: Monsignor Scott was a feisty but prim Irishman who, if he was born on American soil at all, it was to parents who had conceived him in Ireland. He called my mother “Bee” for some reason, which was confusing, because the youngest of my Protestant grandmother’s twelve siblings was Aunt Bee (for “Beaulah”), and she was certainly no parishioner of Monsignor Scott’s. (Additionally, she was someone else.) Now, I had started out in the newish parochial school next door to the church, but I had not fit in with the nuns at all. (Being terrified of them did not render me docile.) So my parents took me out of St Joseph’s and sent me to Iona, over in New Rochelle. The grammar school was still on the college campus during my third-grade year, but in fourth grade we moved to a new structure on Stratton Road. The school was run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland, and I got along with them well enough so long as I was a little boy. But when I shot up into early adolescence, everything changed for the worse, because now sports began to be taken seriously. I had learned to hate baseball at a summer camp (also in New Rochelle); I was sent to the farthest reaches of the outfield and paid no attention whatsoever to the game. I turned my back to home plate to stare at the passing traffic, and was bemused when balls occasionally rolled close by, at least until the roar of imprecations reached my ears. At Iona, I simply refused to play. I was spanked, I was cajoled; I refused. I was a very good student in those days, probably because there was no library in which to discover topics that had nothing to do with my course work. I don’t remember how the baseball crisis was resolved. Doubtless by summer, and the end of the school year. In sixth grade, I began to “have headaches,” and this brought an end to my sojourn at Iona.

Because I was already something of a lawyer, I always had sins to confess. One day, I realized that Monsignor Scott was on the other side of the grille. This was unusual, but I listed my peccadilloes as usual. I had stolen some money — I was always stealing money in those days. I was always caught, because I was a terrible thief, and I really did learn my lesson, which is that crime doesn’t repay the effort that you have to put into it if you want to get away with it. Having been caught, I thought I had nothing really to lose by confessing my crime to Monsignor Scott. Imagine my surprise, then, when he barked at me by name and told me that he was going to call up the principal at Iona and make sure that he knew what a vicious miscreant I was. The lawyer in me knew that Monsignor Scott was way out of bounds, and that even to repeat to the principal something that he had heard in the confessional would get him in trouble if it ever came out, so I didn’t collapse in dread. I’d like to say that I adopted a more circumspect policy, that I stopped confessing to stealing, and took up coveting, a lesser included offense. But I never ran into Monsignor Scott in the confessional again.

Among the many factors that kindled my desire to know more about Ireland and its history was learning, from Maeve Brennan’s stories and movies such as Philomena, how common Monsignor Scott’s infraction was in the Ireland of the “de Valera dispensation.” I got the idea that the Catholic Church was an adjunct of the civil justice authorities, such as the police, or that perhaps it was the other way around. And yet I had always known this. I can tell you why my family wasn’t really Irish: we did not recognize priests as the highest authority with whom we came into contact. My parents never, so far as I know, turned to a priest for advice, except possibly with reference to me or to my sister. Certainly they never sought political advice in the parish bulletin. But true Irish-Americans were different. It made enormous historical sense, of course; in the old days of British rule, priests were the highest authority with whom an Irishman might deal. The priest was a source of strength and counsel then, a source of reaffirmation on matters of faith and morals, a reliable guide to right living. After the British pulled out, however, the relationship between priest and parishioner seems to have soured. No longer oppressed by a heretic power, the priests and their hierarchy nevertheless failed to relax their vigilance. Now the danger came from below, from heretics within the fold, from intellectual hooligans who believed in a free press, contraception, and divorce. The Church threw its weight into the ostracisation of such deviants. The result was a modest strain of totalitarianism. Irish wits went into exile, abandoning the country’s anti-intellectual suffocation.

Totalitarians can admit no faults, so it’s no surprise that the Church failed again and again — failed institutionally — to deal with pedophile priests. The priests of old may have been good shepherds, but more recent Irish and Irish-American hierarchies were almost helpless in the display, once it showed, of their contempt for their flocks. As a result, last summer, during the referendum on same-sex marriage, many opponents stayed home, declining to vote rather than appear to support the Church.

Did anyone seriously think, in 1960, that John F Kennedy would take his orders from the Pope in Rome? The fear that he might do so was often mentioned by the press, as existing somewhere, but I never heard anyone express it. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of papal history knows that popes have only rarely got kings and prime ministers to do their bidding, but the Irish-American Catholic Church presented a different picture, and I expect that it was Catholics themselves who worried that Kennedy would defer to Rome, because they could not imagine their own refusal to do so.


Thursday 25th

Last night, we had second helpings. Not just leftovers, but more of what we had had for dinner the night before: Chicken Tetrazzini.

Stouffer’s, now a division of Nestlé, is still cranking out frozen Turkey Tetrazzini, which is what Kathleen and I encountered as children. It was one of the few meals of that kind that we actually liked. (You can still buy a case of twelves boxes of the stuff for about $70.) Neither Kathleen nor I has ever seen this dish on a menu. The original calls for chicken, much more of a delicacy back in the day when Luisa Tetrazzini was wowing opera audiences with her embellishments on “Sempre libera degg’io,” from La Traviata. James Beard gives a recipe in American Cookery, claiming that the dish was probably invented to honor the soprano in San Francisco, which does seem to have been, for a while, second only to Paris in the pursuit and attainment of pleasure.

I tried Beard’s recipe a long time ago, and wasn’t particularly impressed. Our enthusiasm for Tetrazzini must have faded with childhood, I thought. But last fall, I decided to have another go. I had an idea that a reduced and intense chicken broth was the key, and so it turned out to be. By the middle of this month, I had developed a recipe that owed its success to the broth that Agata & Valentina sells. I wondered if I might obtain similar results from broth of my own.

My record with meat stocks is not good, for the simple reason that I always allowed them to boil. I discovered that this is a no-no rather late in life, long after I had given up even thinking about making chicken or beef stock. I knew how to goose up commercial broths, and that seemed good enough. But now, possibly inspired by Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal, I was beguiled by the idea of using one chicken to make the whole dish myself, at home. I already had another use for the dark meat, the parts that wouldn’t go into Tetrazzini. In fact, the only reason for roasting a chicken, and the reason for the problem of white-meat leftovers, is that the legs are the parts that Kathleen and I like to eat.

In the summer, I make chicken salads with the breast meat. But in the cold months, I want stews — pots of deeply flavorful bits of meat and vegetable swimming in delicious sauces. That is what brought me back to Chicken Tetrazzini last fall. The problem with classic chicken stews, such as Coq au vin, is that, as that name ought to make clear, they call for the sustained cooking of a mature bird. But nobody sells roasting hens anymore, much less cockerels. Stewing the kind of chicken that you actually can get your hands on simply kills the poor thing a second time.

Now, if I only knew what I was doing, I could make one chicken produce two dishes, both sure to be eaten up.

I bought a three-pound chicken at Fairway. I don’t buy meat at Fairway as a rule, but it wasn’t convenient to run down to Agata & Valentina (I wouldn’t after all, be needing their broth), and I thought that I might squeak by with a Bell & Evans bird. I spatchcocked the chicken; roasted it, along with the neck and the wingtips; served the legs to the two of us; and then dealt with the carcass. The breast meat, removed from the bone, was bagged and refrigerated. In a large stock pot, I gently browned a handful of mirepoix (diced onion, carrot, and celery). Then I tossed in the bones. After a few minuts, I poured in a lot of water. I lowered the heat a bit, and waited for the water to begin to boil. The moment it did, I reduced the heat further, so that the only motion in the pot was the rising of a shimmering lens to the surface, which never broke.

I had read that, if you don’t boil the broth, the albumen in the bones is not commingled with the broth, so that the broth stays crystal clear. Instead, the albumen forms a clear crust around the sides of the pot, nothing like the dirty foam that collects if the broth is boiled. After about an hour of cooking, I strained the broth into another pan, and discarded the solids. Over the same heat, I reduced the broth to the measure of two cups. It was quite brown, but also quite clear. When I was ready to use it, a few days later, it was a quivering jelly. A little more reduction, and it would have made a master chef’s aspic. All of this took time, but no effort.

When I was ready to concoct the Tetrazzini, I brought the broth to a boil and threw in the stems of a package of mushrooms. The caps I sliced and sautéed in the bottom of a large saucepan. Then I scooped them out and made a veloûté in the uncleaned saucepan. I’ll assume that you know how to make a veloûté. (In a wonderful little book from 1953 that my mother used, Casserole Magic, by Lousene Rousseau Brunner, veloûté is made less formidable by being called “rich cream sauce.”) When the sauce was almost as thick as I wanted it to be, I tossed in the cut-up chicken breast meat and the mushroom caps.

It remained only to cook some spaghetti. When the spaghetti was done, I tossed in some butter, as I always do with pasta, but this was a mistake, because the sauce was already quite rich enough. It would have been better to throw the veloûté mixture right away. After a good stirring, I poured the sauced spaghetti into a gratin dish, sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese on top, and ran it under a low broiler for a few minutes.

After two mouthfuls, we agreed that my Chicken Tetrazzini is ready for a dinner party for four. It is, frankly, comfort food, but the intensity of the chicken flavor brings haute cuisine not so much to mind as to the tongue. I believe that you could stir in peas at the last minute, but only they were worth dying for. (The mushrooms, it seems, are also my own idea.)


I have had to give some thought to the next part of my Irish-connection narrative. It has to do with naming names. This is something that I am very disinclined to do, for names belong to other people, whether they’re dead or alive, and they are not my playthings. At the same time, the alternatives to naming names are all a bit awkward, and they can slow things down. Also, as readers, we want the wicked pleasure of the dish. We want the thrill of hearing one person declare that another person is a pig. Especially when we’re young, and have no idea of the pain that can be caused, or, worse, the insult registered.

This question of naming names becomes particularly vivid at the fringes of family connections. Here, the measures of acquaintance and friendship are replaced by expectations of welcome intimacy. If you don’t feel particularly welcome or intimate with family members who are neither close nor remote, then there is a strong suggestion that you dislike them, that there is something wrong with them. You are supposed to like the members of your family, even though this rarely happens in practice, especially in metropolitan areas where people of very different backgrounds get mixed up together.

In 1957, retired, and two years a widower, my mother’s father married his secretary. It was all perfectly respectable. My mother might have been a little put out — she had always been a daddy’s girl — but Grace, the secretary, couldn’t have been less disagreeable. She was younger than my grandfather, yes, but she was older than my mother. Grace and my grandfather seemed to be very happy together, but it did not last for long, because within two years my grandfather was felled by a cerebral haemorrhage — a stroke.

The reason for my bringing this up is that Grace came from an Irish-American family in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood to the east-southeast of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Before marrying my grandfather, Grace lived in her father’s house, as did an unmarried sister whom I got to know well later, when she moved up to Bronxville to share an apartment with Grace after my grandfather died. There were brothers, and there were nieces and nephews. Someone might have been killed in the War.

We paid a visit to the house in Windsor Terrace. I thought it was gruesome; the idea of living there was so oppressive that I could not wait to leave. I have since realized that it was simply a respectable Catholic Irish house, not unlike the one that I mentioned last summer. It was austere, but it was not humble. Everywhere you looked, there was the gleam of highly-polished dark wood, on door frames, mirror frames, chiffoniers, and upholstered sofas and chairs. I have a strong recollection of colorlessness, but that may be an interpolation of other memories. There was also a great deal of glass, of old-fashioned Victorian plate glass. The effect was not to brighten the house so much as to remind me that light was somewhere else.

Grace’s father was still alive, a slim, compact man with a wry handsome face and white hair. Despite everyone’s best intentions, the visit entailed a clash of cultures, or rather the evasion of one. I could put it in socioeconomic terms, and wind up suggesting, without saying a word, that Grace’s father was determined not to be condescended to by relative grandees from Westchester who were Catholic in name only. I should rather talk about comfort. There was little thought of comfort in Windsor Terrace. I’m talking about physical comfort.

The house was ready for a bishop’s visit. Had a bishop ever visited our house, he would probably have relaxed into acting like an executive, like my father. The talk would have been of golf, and Scotch would have been the refreshment. A bishop in Windsor Terrace could behave as though such modern depravities didn’t exist. He could have shown up in vestments, surrounded by acolytes. (Grace’s sister, who was one of those quick-witted Irishwomen whom you don’t mess with, would have giggled, but only later.) Even in street clothes, he would have been treated like the ecclesiastical aristocrat that he was. And Windsor Terrace would have declared that it was worthy to receive him. Tea, biscuits, a glass of sherry at the most, all served with expensive Irish crystal and china and immaculate linen. A stiff and formal exchange of words would have afforded immense ritual pleasures to all. The visit of a bishop would have been an event second only to the birth of a child. Much more than a wedding! You never now how marriages are going to turn out. You never know how children are going to turn out, either, but there’s a big difference between little babies and full-grown in-laws.

All I could think, naturally, was that, if Windsor Terrace was what it meant to be Irish, then I didn’t want to be Irish. At the same time, without any conscious thought at all, I decided that Windsor Terrace was, without a doubt, Irish.

I can still hear the voices of Grace and her sister, though, and with pleasure. They could be impatient with me, but they were never really cross and certainly not unkind. They may have wondered why I was so peculiar, but I made them laugh and that was enough. Their voices were still very Irish. They had been born and raised in Brooklyn, and you could say that the sounds of Brooklyn haunted their speech as the sound of Britain used to haunt the speech of the most respectable Irish. But they spoke Irish, using English words. They could put ferocious palpability into the final “t” in “treat” or the “k” in “book.” I am sorry that I was not much older when I got to know them.

Now — and this is the only way to wind up my recollection — I could not have written any of this without having read Maeve Brennan’s Dublin stories. The idea of a bishop’s visit, in particular, would never have occurred to me. It is also the case that, without having read Brennan, I should never have had the slightest desire to revisit memories of Windsor Terrace. Which I’m very glad to have done.


Friday 26th

Having put down Jasper Ridley’s 1987 biography, Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue, to read R F Foster and Ronan Fanning on Ireland, I’ve returned to Ridley and am nearly done. It’s a good read. As I recalled from the first reading, when the book came out, Ridley has two points to make about Elizabeth. First, she could not make up her mind. Second, she was obsessed with the incarnation of royalty — not that he ever puts it that way.

Dithering — the inability to make up one’s mind once and for all — is regarded as a male weakness and a female characteristic. This is, of course, bosh. Men are simply more covert about it, as they have to be, if they don’t want to be mocked. The matters that Elizabeth dithered about were all matters of state, with serious, not to say fatal, pros and cons. Take the best known: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587. And take just one strand of the deliberations: murder or execution? Elizabeth knew that the assassination of Mary would meet with much less shock and outrage than an official execution by the state. Kings and queens got bumped off all the time. Three English kings had been done in, Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, all in dark and dirty dungeons with no spectators. Even after Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant (which she did, for many reasons reluctantly, including this one), she continued the search for a hit man. As aficionados of this episode know, when she handed the warrant to Davison, Secretary of State, she may or may not have told him to hold on to it until further word from her. He claimed that she did not. He passed it on to the Council, who sent it to the Chancellor for the Great Seal, whereupon it went its official way to Fotherghay Castle, the relatively remote castle in which Mary was imprisoned. The Queen of Scots was duly separated from her head.

Elizabeth didn’t hear about it for four days, but when she did, she went ballistic. Davison was sent to the Tower, while Elizabeth sought advice as to whether she could execute him without a trial. Once again, she couldn’t find anyone to cooperate — a motif that I should like to have seen Ridley make more of. Davison languished in the Tower for twenty months. He was eventually freed and made whole — he’d been fined, and prisoners had to pay for their food and lodging in the Tower — but he was never employed by Elizabeth again. The general understanding is that Elizabeth was projecting her guilt for killing Mary onto Davison, as if the execution had been his fault. I disagree. I think that she had felt thwarted and frustrated at every step in her dealings with Mary, and now that Mary was gone, she exploded — because she could.

Elizabeth’s indecisiveness was the product of her scruples. She wanted to do the right thing in every way, and such a thing rarely existed. She also hated to spend money, so she was always promising to aid Protestant warriors in Europe but never sending the checks in a timely fashion. If indecisiveness was at all gender-linked, it was the result of not being taken entirely seriously by the men who served her. The core advisers served her for decades, and got very good at handling her, but not so good that she didn’t feel handled, and she hated that.

By “the incarnation of royalty” I simply mean the institution of the crown as a transfigurer of the personage upon whose head it rests. Such a person becomes God’s appointed minister on earth, answerable to no human judges. There was something almost modern about Elizabeth’s insistence on this, something more abstract (and much less magical) than medieval theories of monarchy. As a woman, she was obviously incapable of carrying out the primary duty of a king, which had always been, however figuratively, to wage war and defend the realm. More important as a handicap was the associated inability to occupy the ceremonial center of military life. She could not hang out in the stables or oversee the sports that Essex and Henri IV set up for their men during their frolic and detour at Compiègne. Elizabeth liked gallant soldiers well enough, but she was surrounded by gifted civilians, forebears of today’s statesmen. (They might have a military past, and Leicester always seemed to be on some kind of active duty, but by and large they pursued the arts of peace.) Elizabeth’s touchiness about lèse-majesté was a vital reminder that she occupied the top job, or perhaps that the top job was occupied by her. And don’t you forget it. She carried this to almost ridiculous levels when arguing on behalf of, say, Philip II, against his Nederlander rebels. She really did believe that they ought to obey him. At the same time, she believed in the Protestant cause. And, at the same time, she loathed Puritans. It was up to her, and nobody else, to settle Church doctrine. Elizabeth’s views are clear and even admirable, but they clashed constantly.

Scrolling through Amazon, I don’t see any titles that suggest a genuinely feminist appraisal of Elizabeth’s career. There are plenty of books that are written by women and that highlight the domestic side of Elizabeth’s life. However interesting this might be, it is not why we take an interest in Elizabeth. She was the first woman in modern Europe unambiguously to rule a kingdom by herself. So far as England goes, she was also the last, until Margaret Thatcher. It’s easy to romanticize her as Good Queen Bess, doing a jig for the troops at Tilbury; it’s just as easy, if far less popular, to scorn her as a nervous nelly. When we say that she was a great queen, what on earth do we mean? She had a gift for oration that puts her in Churchill’s neighborhood, but what else beside speeches? And what did she teach men about women?


Ronan Fanning’s biography of Éamon de Valera has arrived, and I’ve read the first two chapters, which take the reader up to the planning of the Easter Rising in 1916. There is almost nothing in these chapters to suggest that de Valera would emerge as one of Europe’s most durable statesmen in the last century, and there is one detail that I wish Fanning explored more fully, because it makes de Valera’s rise seem even less likely. Perhaps it is an object lesson in Lessons Learned. In 1904, de Valera was due to take his BA examination. He had not dropped out of University College, Blackrock, but he had taken a year off to teach at a “sister” college in Tipperary. Fanning can explain this move, and he tells us that de Valera may have had the time of his life at Rockwell College, for the first time enjoying undergraduate high-jinks.

But Edward de Valera [it was “Edward” until de Valera got involved with the Gaelic League, largely through his wife, Jane Flanagan/Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin] seems to have paid a high price for his uncharacteristic excursion into this less than lurid self-indulgence: it allowed little time for focusing on preparing for his BA examination in the summer of 1904. Although he left Rockwell and returned to Blackrock as soon as the school year ended, only fourteen weeks remained before the examination began. It was not enough.(17)

De Valera wound up with a “Pass,” which ruined in one blow his chances for the career in higher education that he seems to have had in mind. “He was thoroughly disgusted and was to regret it all his life.” The curious thing is that de Valera was always diligent, dutiful to a fault. His classmate, future primate of Armagh and a fellow leader of Irish affairs, John D’Alton, called him “a good, very serious student, good at Mathematics, but not outstanding otherwise.” The question isn’t how a second-rate student came to rule a new country — certainly not! The question is why this “good, very serious student” made such a catastrophic misjudgment on the eve of his examination. I’m not going to speculate, and perhaps there is no more evidence than Fanning adduces — de Valera was having fun for the first time in his life. But at least I should like to see that disgust and regret connected to the character of the man de Valera would become.


Another Irish-American in my childhood was “Aunt Peg.” The widow of a policeman, Aunt Peg lived on the other side of our apartment building on Palmer Avenue — the building (and even the same side) in which Grace and her sister would share an apartment many years later — and she encouraged me to visit her. This was not encouraged by my parents. When I did visit, Aunt Peg would take me up on her capacious lap and embrace me lovingly. She was always hot and damp, and there might be a disagreeable aroma lurking beneath her perfume; like any little boy, I tired of her embrace much sooner than she did. I suppose I was taking the place of a lost child; in those days, you didn’t tell children anything, if you could help it. But she loved me absolutely, and that was a good thing. My mother’s mother also liked to hold me, even though, like my grandson, I was a tall boy and hard to fit on any lap. My mother disapproved of all of this, and I’m sure that she read somewhere or was told that any sign of unconditional love could prove fatal.

By the time my sister and I became parents ourselves, we were not surprised to see that, while our mother loved babies, she began to lose interest when her grandchildren could talk — could talk back. They remember her fondly enough, but my sister and I watched that enthusiasm wane to dutifulness. Kathleen and I talk about this often. Kathleen never met my mother; my mother died at the beginning of 1977, and in the fall, I met Kathleen. But Kathleen has never cared for babies — well, hardly ever. When she was a girl, she hated dolls. What could be more dumb (in every sense) than a tea party with pretend-people who had nothing to say? My mother never talked about dolls, but then she had the undivided attention of her worshipful parents. It was clear that she preferred children to behave like dolls.

There was the spectre of another lost child in the apartment building, but I never figured out where he fit in. He was not really a child; he was killed in Korea, and I often saw a photograph him outfitted for football; he had been some kind of star somewhere, full of promise. Nobody ever looked more the part of the young American hero. His name was Donny. His photograph was guarded by another Irish-American woman, Loretta O’Brien. Loretta and my mother were good friends. My father and Eddie O’Brien were friends, too, in their taciturn way. Eddie was almost a generation older than his wife and my parents, and he smoked gigantic cigars. I think that he was a stock-broker. He was one of those men, not uncommon in those days, who had a high old time until having a high old time was more trouble than it was worth, whereupon he married a pretty younger woman. (My father’s father followed the same trajectory, way out on the Mississippi.) Eddie was twinkling and genial, but I didn’t understand his terse sense of humor. For every word he uttered, Loretta spoke forty. She loved me, too, but the love was verbal, so my mother had no objection. There were times when I could make my mother laugh; Loretta was always laughing. She was either laughing or she was talking, but she was not at all a silly woman. She was simply long-winded. But her exuberance filled one’s sails.

Loretta was farther from her Irish roots than the folks in Windsor Terrace. She had some kind of New York accent — highly diluted Bronx, I’d say — and I don’t recall her using any Irish expressions. Loretta had worked, as a secretary I suppose, in a way that my mother hadn’t. My mother had had a job behind the counter at a jeweler’s in the village, but this was a lark, really a sort of Peace Corps experience only not so high-minded. Loretta had done a real nine-to-five, which was presumably how Eddie met her. He had plucked her from the typing pool, something like that. But I have no idea what the facts were — none whatsoever. For all I know, Eddie met Loretta on a summer cruise, and pushed an unmentioned first wive overboard so that he could marry her. But I don’t think that that’s what happened.

Every now and then, Loretta would pull Donny’s photograph out of her purse and start to weep. This was hard, because I could never remember how Loretta was related to Donny. I thought that he was her son until it was made clear, with laughter not entirely pleasant, that he wasn’t. (Loretta would have been an indecently young mother.) And the aggressive masculinity of a guy crouching with a football put me off. Oh, dear. I see that I am going to have to say something about being tough.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
February 2016 (III)

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Monday 15th

This cold of mine has begun to demoralize me. Am I feeling sorry for myself? Sort of, I suppose. What I’m really sorry about is that I have to live through this moment in American history. It’s an ugly one. With the body of Antonin Scalia still at the undertaker’s, partisans were already crying, Aux barricades! Not only do the Republicans deny President Obama the moral right to nominate Scalia’s successor, but they’re talking about overturning the same-sex marriage case. It seems that thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of hot buttons were pushed by the late Justice’s death.

For about ten minutes after hearing the news (Fossil Darling called to tell me), I was so exultant that it is now official: I am going straight to hell. Over the past thirty years, Scalia has been the reason why I couldn’t claim to be a person of good will, wishing death to none. If he had retired, I might have forgotten about him. But of course he did not retire, so my loathing ran right up to the moment of his demise.

When I was growing up, people like Scalia — and the people who admire Donald Trump — were thought to be beneath contempt, even in conservative Westchester County. Perhaps they were. But they’re not any more. This does not mean that they are not contemptible. It is very unpleasant to live in a democracy that requires you to respect contemptible people.

These people, I hasten to add, are contemptible only to the extent that they venture past the election booth into active politicking. And what is contemptible about them is simply that they want black Americans either to disappear or to settle back into slavery. At least that truth is being squeezed out into the open. For far too long, liberals and progressives have concluded that the fight for Civil Rights was over and won. If asked, black Americans would offer a contrary view, but we smart people always know better, don’t we. How could anybody get up in the morning, in our enlightened world, and embrace bigotry? It took Barack Obama’s residency in the White House to teach us.

Enough intemperance. Blame it on the cold. Or blame it on the chill of grand peur that I’m beginning to feel.


As I read Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, I wondered about its intended readership. Whom did A O Scott have in mind? College students, I concluded. (Folks in the book business, and other critics, too — but that’s a very small market.) It would be nice to think that general readers will pick up this book, but I doubt it. Even the self-help subtitle (for shame!) can’t lighten the lead weight of criticism. I don’t know when it became comprehensible English for one civilian to bark at another, “Don’t criticize me!”, but that is when the word was vernacularized, and lost to thoughtful writers. “Criticism” is something unpleasant that nasty people inflict on their supposed friends. That’s why even professional critics, the men and women who write reviews of books, plays, movies, concerts and whatnot, are believed to set out to knock things down. Even “positive criticism” has an air of the oxymoronic about it. It sounds like an inoculation: “This is going to hurt, but then you’ll be all better.” And Scott writes from a position that accepts all this negative feedback. He takes it as understood that what critics do is reprehensible, and that critics themselves are hateful.

Then he sets out to replace that understanding with a better one. On page 17, he states that criticism is the late-born twin of art. Now, that’s a wild claim! But three pages later, he is quoting H L Mencken: “Literature always thrives best, in fact, in an atmosphere of heavy strife.” Sounds like the same-old to me: Criticism is painful. Re-reading Mencken’s line just now, I was reminded of free-market economics, which also advances a duke-’em-out ethos. Let the best man win!

I really don’t know where to begin with Better Living. I read the book thinking that I should have to re-read it, perhaps several times, or else just let it go. I’m still undecided. I couldn’t find the center of the book, the point from which Scott’s thought might be seen to radiate. Perhaps it was unfair or wrongheaded to look for one, but I couldn’t help it, because I believe that I have figured out what criticism is all about, or at least where it ought to go from here. In the most basic sense, I have learned by doing, writing this Web log. What I have discovered is that the bundle of skills and judgments that distinguish the craft of journalism will no longer sustain what is worthwhile about criticism.

Perhaps it never has; I believe that I have always worried that it didn’t. Instead of writing more about Better Living Through Criticism right now, I’m going to take up another autobiographical question: why didn’t I try to be a journalist? Why was it something that I quite consciously shied away from?

I’ve just deleted a longish paragraph about how I did radio instead. Interesting perhaps, but not on point. I did radio because it came very easily to me. I did not have to work at it. Using radio to teach myself about serious music, I was always ahead of the requirements, such as they were. I went in, at the college level, knowing more than anyone else, and I stayed in that position for more than ten years. You may wonder how someone who never seriously studied music or played an instrument with proficiency could excel in this way, but in fact that’s precisely how I did it. I didn’t make music. I listened to it.

Journalism would not have been such a snap, not remotely. But what really kept me away was the ambiance. Is there a reason why the prototypical journalist always seems to be a sportswriter?

Life has taught me that, although I’m not bad in genuine emergencies, I wilt under routine pressure. I don’t like locker rooms, or other masculine enclaves. There is something terribly depressing — hellish, really — about hanging around with men-being-men. The smell is part of it, but so is the casual rudeness, and so is the cavalier attitude toward scratches and bruises. Throughout childhood and early adolescence, I was terrified of being drafted into the army. Being killed by the enemy never occurred to me; I was sure that I’d be killed by my sergeant. I was also a little afraid that I’d kill my sergeant. I was afraid of violence in part because I feared that I might like it, even thought it might kill me. I was afraid of a life so pointless.


Yes, I was afraid that journalism was pointless. Something to wrap up fish in. And yet, what an avid consumer I was — and remain! I read the Times every day, and a host of magazines. Didn’t I ever want to write for The New Yorker? (Come on, tell the truth.) Well, there were times when I’d have liked to be the sort of guy who writes for The New Yorker. But I always knew that I wasn’t that guy. This had, and has, nothing to do with not being good enough. It has everything to do with doing what I want to do. And that would be? Until recently, I didn’t know; I was still looking. You could say that my looking got serious when I launched Portico, a Web site, in 2000. (Or was it 2001?)

Portico was laid out like a magazine. There were departments — the top menu links — and these were subdivided. The cooking section, “Culinarion,” came in four sub-sections, “Sweets,” “Savories,” “Eggs,” and “Extras.” (I still find that to be an elegant disposition.) The page on Hollandaise is physically remote from the page on Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, which dates from 2005, by which time I had set up the first version of this Web log. The page on Didion is a review, no two ways about it. So are most of the other pages devoted to books; although, if you look at the page on Netherland, from 2009, you see that it is a “Note,” and that it deals with an aspect of Joseph O’Neill’s novel, making no pretense of comprehensiveness. Even the Netherland page, however, is more objective than anything that I’ve been writing lately.

By “objective” I mean something slightly different. I mean that the writer’s personality — mine, in this case — is only indirectly present. I make a lot of judgments on this page, but they appear as in the guise of truths.

Netherland is not only a novel about but a treatise on wistfulness. And what is wistfulness but nostalgia faced the other way? Not, in other words, nostalgia at all. It is the longing for things to happen again, now that one is capable of understanding and appreciating them. The wistful man does not want to go back in time. He wants to bring the past forward to the present, and refresh it with his enhanced grasp of how things might be, or might have been, otherwise.

Who is this “wistful man” that I seem to be familiar with? I can’t answer that. I couldn’t possibly write this page today. I don’t think that way anymore. I’m not sure that I should choose the same long passage (about a fellow called Cardozo) for comment. I’m glad that I wrote what I wrote, but it feels to me as though whoever wrote it is dead and gone.

The manner for which I am groping is “subjective” in that I embed what I have to say about a book or a movie or anything in a matrix of memoir. The idea is not to showcase my life but to plug books, movies and whatnot into it, and to see what happens in the long term; not what happens right after I’ve read the book for the first time, but after I’ve lived with it. I’m not reading a book because someone asked me to, or writing down a couple of interesting things about the book that may or may not kindle a desire to read it, and then collecting a paycheck and moving on to the next assignment. I’m not reading books that I don’t like and telling you what’s wrong with them. Everything that I write is intended to survive its ceasing to be news. In fact, I write for the second reading.

What authority do I have to practice criticism? That’s up to you to decide — and I am certain that, after you have read enough of what I have to say, you will know how to regard my authority — what it means to you. At the end of Lit Up, David Denby writes of the teachers in whose classrooms he has watched fifteen year-olds grow,

They were more experienced, certainly, than students; they were guides, leaders, dispensers of knowledge and justice, but also people subject to the ups and downs, the happiness and mishaps, that the students were subject to. They demonstrated that it was possible to do that without losing authority. In fact, in media-sozzled America, where skepticism is the prevailing mode of thought, candor may be a way of gaining authority. Teaching is about building trust. Acknowledgment of one’s own humanity is one powerful way of building it. (238)

As I say, I’m figuring this out as I go along. But it’s a matter of refining, now, not looking. I was thinking over the weekend of the time that I put into reviewing The New York Times Book Review, week after week, year after year. There was a long time in the middle when I didn’t know why I was bothering, because, on such close inspection, the Book Review turned out to be a pretty shoddy product. But I kept at it because there was something that wasn’t clear to me. This turned out to be what the whole point of reviewing was: to sell books. I say that tongue-in-cheek, because what I mean has nothing to do with shilling or publicity. I mean that a good review makes the people who will get the most out of the book want to read it. (A really good review also warns away those who won’t — without making one unfavorable remark.) I also learned that I wasn’t interested in reviewing books myself. It’s the other way round. I want them to live in me.


Tuesday 16th

The bleakness that prevails in a North Atlantic February — and that makes Februarys so hard to remember as times when anything happened — is intensifying, somehow, the sting that I gave myself yesterday, when I wrote that I went into radio because it came easily to me. Haven’t I always (and here I hang my head in shame) done the things that came easily to me? Kathleen says, “Nonsense,” but she is a great comforter.

The issue wasn’t why I went into radio. It was why I didn’t pursue journalism, which might seem to be the natural home for a fluent writer with a worldly take on varied interests. And the answer to that question, with the sting still lodged in my skin, seems to be that I was a chicken, a sissy, a coward. I didn’t think I could take it. Not the writing assignments, but the other guys. (What I should now, looking over a great distance in age and time, call the roughhousing. I have also learned that I am a very sore loser. I am incapable of sustaining the thought, “It’s only a game.” So I avoid competitions.) Questions of courage and confidence aside, moreover, I am allergic to esprit de corps. It is a reaction to growing up in the United States in the Fifties.

Whatever the personal issues, there was also the question of journalism itself. Not journalists or the way they might carry on, but the result of their labors: columns of print that are soon forgotten. This does not mean that journalism is unimportant. In our complicated world, journalism is often the only thing that suggests the possibility of making sense of things. But, as its name suggests, it is important for the day. Tomorrow, we shall require other instructions, other pointers, other commentary. Journalism embeds itself in the day that it addresses. The interest that it has for later readers, when not plainly historical or a matter of record, is almost always ironic.

Take Frank Nugent’s review of Bringing Up Baby. A O Scott does, in Better Living Through Criticism. The review appeared in the Times on 4 March 1938. If you have access to old Times pages, then you can read it for yourself. It’s not long, and it will make you smile. Aside from some framing matter, the review is a catalogue of the hoary old comic routines that Howard Hawks ran through, one after another, to provide a ridiculous but acerbic backdrop to his screwball comedy. You’re smiling not because Nugent doesn’t get it but because his litany reminds you of the fun of watching the movie. What’s actually funny about Bringing Up Baby isn’t any of the “clichés” that Nugent lists, but the cognitive dissonance between the nonstop circus in the background and David Huxley’s perplexity up front. (Huxley is played by Cary Grant.) When his precious intercostal clavicle (well, not his) is buried in the yard by George (a/k/a Asta, Skippy, Mr Smith — a terrier), Huxley is understandably upset, and not inclined to see what has happened as a cliché at all. Clichés are what happen to other people.

What may have lulled Nugent into missing this irony is that Cary Grant, even in the guise of a bumbling paleontologist, belongs in a circus himself. The actor grew up in one, and it is arguable that no movie brings out Grant’s acrobatic talents as much as this one does. Nugent may well have seen Grant’s performance as yet another cliché. The movie is dangerously smooth on this point — this dissonance, as I call it, between Huxley and the leopards. It is compromised by Grant’s physical grace in response to disaster. A more conventional leading man would have looked like — Frank Nugent; not funny. And it takes a while for Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) to declare her resolution to detach the man she loves from his dreary fiancée. Her strategy is anything but romantic. On the contrary: she hurls her future husband into a cyclone of trauma. That’s what’s funny, too. What a strange girl this Susan Vance is! And what a genius Howard Hawks was, to mount her triumph in the hyper-vaudeville collapse of a bunch of scary old dinosaur bones!

Poor Frank Nugent. He can’t have imagined that his unfavorable review of a movie that clearly annoyed the hell out of him would be brought back to life nearly eighty years later and reconsidered in an essay entitled “How To Be Wrong.” As Scott suggests, Nugent may simply have seen too many movies; he may have missed the subtle cues, at the beginning of the film, that a romance would be presented in a highly unlikely light, and this would make everything new. Hollywood’s gags had been recycled too many times — for Frank Nugent. Reviewers of Peter Bogdanovich’s remake, What’s Up, Doc? (1972), didn’t have Nugent’s problem at all; it had been ages since the “clichés” had been taken out of cold storage. In fact, the very antiquity of the jokes was part of the fun.

With the appearances of What’s Up, Doc? and, two years later, Chinatown, I realized that the old movies were back. That’s how I put it. I’d seen scores of old movies by then, both on the Early Show and Million Dollar Movie. The latter showcase played the same movie every night for a week: how’s that for a films course? I knew that color had somehow ruined everything, but I could see that Bogdanovich and Polanski knew how to fix that, even though I couldn’t have explained what I saw. I should venture now to say that Bogdanovich treated the color schemes of television’s new sitcoms the way Hawks treated the fiancée, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker): the benchmark of normal. (It was Eunice Burns, his film’s fiancée, played by Madeline Kahn, whom Bogdanovich would treat as the drunken Irishman.) The colors in What’s Up, Doc? seem to promise that all the awful things that happen to Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) couldn’t happen — and yet, of course, they do.

I wonder why Scott doesn’t mention What’s Up, Doc? I wonder a lot of things about the essay in which he talks about Nugent. It ranges over many subjects, all of them, allegedly, critical mistakes. Scott’s own mistake is to start off with a daring bid that the essay never quite delivers.

But it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong. Not on purpose, of course, and not out of laziness, ignorance, or stupidity. No: the critic’s task is to trace a twisted, looping, stutter-stepping, incomplete path toward the truth, and as such to fight an unending battle against premature and permanent certainty.

For one thing, I don’t see how you can call a duty sacred if the responsible party isn’t aware of trying to fulfill it. For another, I’m as tired as Frank Nugent could be of the metaphor of the unending path toward the truth.

“How to Be Wrong” reminds me of a priest at St Thomas More who used to give mesmerizing sermons, filled with name-checks and references to great art and literature. And yet nobody could ever determine what the point of the sermon was. (My father made the same complaint about Notre Dame’s Father Hesburgh.) Each one of Scott’s paragraphs flows from the one before it, and into the one that follows, making perfect sense — but the effect is miscellaneous. The closest we come to one of those “funnel paragraphs” that I was taught to write, and put at the beginning of each attempt at expository writing, appears toward the end of the essay, in the form of a summary. Scott runs through all the ways in which the critic can be wrong, pretty much as Nugent enumerates the clichés in Bringing Up Baby. Here is the end of that paragraph, and the beginning of the next one.

You can be earnest or flippant, plainspoken or baroque, blunt or coy, dilettante or geek. You can follow the precepts of theory or just go on your nerve. You can labor to be consistent or blithely and capaciously contradict yourself.

It doesn’t matter. Actually, it matters a great deal. It matters more than anything. You are guaranteed to be wrong…. (211)

Wrong? Only if you’re trying to be objective, as I defined it yesterday. You’ll be wrong only to the extent that you have pretended to make universal statements — statements that are true for everyone at all times. But why try? It’s silly, unnecessary, and — characteristically masculine to want to lay down the law, to pronounce an irreversible sentence. That’s a terrible power for a judge to have in a capital case, for a life is at stake. Outside the courtroom, however, there are no irreversible sentences. Everything is reversible, except — except the fact of you.

The fact of you, in subjective critical terms, exists only on the page. Every entry at this Web log presents the reader with the fact of me. Aside from quotations, I wrote everything that appears here. Now, it’s possible that no one will ever get to know “who I really am” — not even I. In fact, it’s certain. But what I’ve written is also a fact, and it cannot be wrong, no matter how many poor judgments I make.

This is much more than the sleight-of-hand, the turning-of-tables that it might seem to be. Such authority as my pronouncements possess proceed from the fact of me, the fact that I’ve written everything here (or chosen what I haven’t myself written). The more you read, what you read acquires greater authority, and the clearer, in your mind, the nature of my authority becomes. You may conclude that I am an expert on things that make you feel happy on Tuesdays. Or you may make use of me in the way that Kathleen and I think that designers ought to make use of us: for whatever we choose, in the line of china patterns or upholstery fabrics, it is always promptly discontinued, so it would be much cheaper to ask us first.

And, at the very end of the essay, Scott writes,

It should go without saying that every good critic, every interesting critic, will commit some of the crimes enumerated above, whether brazenly or unwittingly. A great critic will be guilty of all of them. (212)

Again, this is perverse, because of course Scott is saying that you have to be wrong to be right. Which is merely clever, just as his talk about “sacred duty” is merely cheeky. The only way that I can make sense of “How to Be Wrong” is to claim that Scott is trying to say exactly what I’ve been saying, while, however, holding on to that illusion of objectivity. In the light of that illusion, the critic may be wrong, but that doesn’t stop him from laying down the law or telling it like it is or however you want to put it. But I don’t want to put it; I don’t see the need.


Thursday 18th

At lunch today, I overheard a couple of women whom I’ve overheard before. They’re a mother and a daughter. The daughter has a rather penetrating voice, possibly because her mother is hard of hearing, and her mother can be heard pretty clearly, too, even though she is beginning to fail. They have reached the point of reversal, so that now it is the daughter who scolds her mother. The mother ordered a portobello burger. That’s a portobello mushroom done up to resemble a burger, not a meat patty with a mushroom on top of it. “All you’re having for lunch is this mushroom,” said the daughter, exasperated, but only mildly.”You need more protein.”

As they talked about this and that, the mother querulously interrupting the daughter and then saying, “I get it, I get it,” I realized that neither of them had an organized way of looking at the world, and that both of them were irritated by this, whether consciously or not. The subject was a young woman with “a shitty resume,” in the daughter’s words. (The daughter is very outspoken with her mother. One wonders if she’s always outspoken, or if her mother provides a vent.) The relationship between the daughter and the young woman was not clear, but what was clear was that the daughter didn’t have a point of view from which to judge her, or her situation. She and her mother together had several points of view. That, in fact, was the actual subject of their conversation: trying to decide on a point of view — from which judgment would follow. Had the young woman been taken advantage of by her employer, or had she acted improperly? Well, both; the facts were not in dispute. But whose fault was it?

We’re all in this boat. It’s not that we’re relativists. That would entail applying the same point of view but changing our minds about applying matters of principle. Take same-sex marriage. The old point of view was that homosexuality was a weakness (or a vice) exhibited by a minority of people (deviants). This made it easy to transform our regrettable inclination to regard non-conforming sex as disgusting into a principle. Nobody was talked out of maintaining that principle. What happened was a shift in point of view. From thinking about homosexuality, whatever that might be, we moved, as we became more familiar with actual homosexuals, as friends and family members, to thinking about people in love. The more we thought about people in love, the more we realized that the very idea of “non-conforming sex” was obnoxious, and that other people’s sex lives are their own business. Thus we demoted the principle that had been in force to the status of a personal preference. It’s important to distinguish this from relativism, which holds that certain behaviors, while sometimes wrong, are sometimes not-so-wrong, or perhaps even right. It is actually a form of hypocrisy, and rightly condemned for that reason.

Point of view has a lot to do with ethics, much more than the philosophers might care to admit. And yet ethical standards makes no sense without points of view. Do you view this world as a vale of tears, in which we are tempted and tried so that we can prove ourselves to worthy of paradise? That is probably still the gist of Roman Catholic teaching. The Church takes the point of view of the supremacy of the individual soul. Your soul is all that you have to worry about in this world. You can’t do anything for anybody else’s soul. Just how Church teaching came to diverge so sharply from Christ’s charity is one of many interesting stories in the history of Christianity, but like most such stories, it boils down to doing what the patriarchs tell you to do, and don’t even think of questioning their aristocratical privileges, because they have their own souls to worry about, too. Their being good is their problem, and none of your business. It is understandable that the Church’s hierarchy would take such a constitutionally dim view of political activity.

Most people assume a point of view that maximizes the importance of Right Now. Because you’re alive right now, right? What does it matter what happened a thousand years ago? Who has any idea what’s going to be happening a thousand years from now? You’ve got to think about where your next meal is coming from, a concern not shared by the dead and the unborn.

But the dead made the world that is feeding you now — I hope you’re being fed! And you are making the world that will feed future generations. This has always been the case, but the introduction of liberal democracy ought to make us more conscious of the way life works, because each of us in a democracy is involved, however minutely, in making political decisions that will set the course of the nation. Don’t ask what you can do for your country now. Ask what you can do to help it into the future.

Such a point of view, in which I take the present for granted (“Our lives are ruined,” says the mother in Radio Days — and it’s a laugh line), but want future arrangements to be better, involves economic considerations that probably don’t come up at the University of Chicago. But they’re familiar to every seriously striving family.


“Philosophy” is a vexed word. Most people — even educated folk — are cowed by it, because the professionals who present themselves as philosophers are usually utterly unintelligible. And yet the question, “What’s your philosophy?” is, I feel, almost always asked in earnest. It’s really just a grand way of asking, “What do you think?”, but the grandeur is valid because the world is a big place, with lots of moving parts, and nearly as many broken ones.

Philosophy is, or has become, profoundly male, patriarchal. As I suggested the other day, philosophy, like the kinds of criticism that emerge from a philosophical position, deals in universal statements, valid for everyone at all times. I think that Plato was one of humanity’s star crackpots, but his idea of the cave, with all the little people watching shadows on the wall, caught on with guys who liked to think of themselves as superior. From Plato’s notions of form and matter issued a mechanistic moralism — an ethic of unattainable austerity that distracts its postulants from listening to, and truly caring for, others — that we have only recently outgrown. We have outgrown it, but we haven’t found anything to take its place. I would suggest looking for a replacement that is neither mechanistic (it follows, therefore…) nor moralistic (that men are fallen creatures). I suggest something closer to home: a point of view.

A congenial point of view: a point of view that would attract sharers. In other words, a point of view whose leading feature would be that many other people adopted it. As recent nightmares demonstrate, however, congeniality is not enough. You must have something like humanism, too: the conviction that every human life is precious unto itself must be part of the point of view. My hunch is that it is possible to articulate a point of view that can grapple with life’s problems while at the same time remaining fundamentally vernacular — no higher education required. I think that you can have a comprehensive point of view that depends upon a mere handful of readily understandable principles, such as “Murder is wrong.”

Before you can have political life, you must have a pre-political, apolitical consensus. We see that now. For what does “polarized” mean if not “lacking a common point of view”? Historically, it can be demonstrated that the current polarization of American society can be traced to a breakdown of the consensus of white Americans with respect to black Americans. The minority of Americans who rejected this consensus, which basically held that Negroes, to use the word of the time, were second-class people, was very small, at least until the late Forties. Then, not very mysteriously, there were breakdowns in the barriers that excluded black Americans from participation in Major League sports (so to speak). One thing led to another, and by the Sixties, a sizable bloc of white Americans was willing to grant black Americans effective political equality. This seemed like a nice idea at the time — most white Americans who were pro-civil rights thought that they were being very high-minded and generous — but it turned out to be very complicated, as developments such as Black Power soon showed. The fracture of the old consensus meant not just that white Americans were ho longer of one mind about black Americans, but that many Americans became doubtful about sharing the country with other Americans. At the same time, civil rights legislation in the Sixties exacerbated a lack of consensus as old as Andrew Jackson, about the role of the government in social affairs.

A consensus about the role of government, however, is a political consensus. It does not have to be in place before a social consensus can make politics possible. One thing that the United States has always lacked is a forum for the civilian discussion of such issues as the role of government. Thomas Jefferson worried about this (late in life); he saw that the victory of the Revolution and the triumph of the Second (1789) Republic had put town meetings and larger regional gatherings out of business. The new Constitution, on its face, professed to have no need of such institutions, and if any of the State constitutions provided for them, I’m unaware of it. We need to do something about that. Look what happens when you leave it to the government itself to decide.

Local discussion groups — what Jefferson and, following him, Hannah Arendt called “councils” — would be a good place in which to consider a consensual point of view. Not that that’s going to stop me from proposing an idea or two.

I think that we can figure out how to share this country without treating anybody shabbily. The only hitch is, we have to want to.


In the current issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes about the simple candor about globalization that has made Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump so attractive to their supporters. As a member of the establishment himself, Surowiecki is careful to mention that adopting their policies “could well be harmful if implemented,” but even he is willing to face the facts that are already familiar to too many thousands of Americans:

American workers used to believe that a rising tide lifted all boats. But in the past thirty years it has sunk a whole lot of them.

The consensus about globalization was always more seriously embraced in the corridors of political and corporate power than anywhere else, but now it appears to have broken down. Globalization has had its chance, and it has failed. Or rather it has revealed itself as something quite unlike a rising tide. It is, instead, a funnel, getting smaller and smaller as it approaches outcomes. Globalization is nothing but a system of levers that increases the intake of those who control the levers. Everybody else gets poorer — certainly, relatively poorer. Walmart is not unlike the medieval Church, a machine for hoovering up the pennies of the poor and amassing the fortunes of a few.

In contrast to Sanders and Trump, all the other candidates — Hillary Clinton and the real Republicans — appear to be liars. They do not tell the truth about globalization, which is that they have no intention of seriously mitigating its damage. Previously untroubled supporters of Clinton are showing increasing discomfort with her appetite for this and other élitist Kool-Aids.

I would begin by breaking down “globalization” at home. You’ve heard all my nostrums before, so I’ll mention just one: large tracts of New Jersey and Long Island that have been ploughed under for suburban sprawl used to be fertile sources of local food. (It’s worth bearing in mind what any gardening catalogue will tell you: eastern Long Island lies in the same temperate zone as Virginia.) The cost of shipping things ought to be calculated more honestly, a change that would include better conditions for truck drivers, not to mention the upkeep of Interstate Highways. It is true that the Northeast will never (anytime soon) be able to support the vast monocultures of the prairie states, but I expect that an intelligent land-use program could produce enough food to support its very large population.

For the very reason that you get what you pay for, the lowest price is not necessarily the best price. Usually not, in fact.


Friday 19th

The other day, at Facebook, I came across a video clip in which Donald Trump was spliced into an episode of The Honeymooners. As Jackie Gleason fumed impatiently, Trump blathered on about his business acumen and so forth. I realized that I had not heard the Donald’s curiously light voice before, not at least for a very long time. And then, the very next day, I found myself asking, for the umpteenth time, how to pronounce Kanye West’s name. There it was, in the Times again. I hate reading words that I can’t say. “Ratiocination” used to drive me wild.

If I watched television, or even listened to the radio, I should know these things. From time to time, I’ll ask someone about Mr West, and I’ll be told, and I’ll forget it at once, because the only thing that I know about Kanye West is that I can’t say his name. Does he sing? Does he sell clothes? I’m never sure. There’s no good reason for me to know how to pronounce “Kanye” — not my opinion necessarily, but evidently it’s the judgment of my Memory Department. Kanye West inhabits a quarter of the universe that I do not visit. So does Donald Trump, although that may change. I have never seen The Apprentice; I cannot imagine wanting to watch it.

I do know the sound of Michael Bloomberg’s voice. Like almost everyone I know, I’d vote for Bloomberg for President in a heartbeat. Further proof of the extent of my removal from the center of American life.

I recently read a piece on the Internet that was hostile to Terry Gross, of Fresh Air. Hostility to Terry Gross is rarely expressed in public. I happen to admire her, primarily for her diligence: she reads her books, and, unlike the grotesque Charlie Rose, she does not attempt to create a bogus camaraderie. Listening to the show, you get the feeling that she is your friend, not her interlocutor’s. But I can understand that the modesty of her persona might very well metastasize, in the ears of someone who had come to find her irritating, into an egregious pretense. As I say, I admire Terry Gross — but I no longer have any desire to tune in to Fresh Air. I don’t want to listen to conversations in which I can’t take part. I’d read a transcript, I suppose, if it were put in front of me. I read “interviews” all the time. They’re not actually conversations; they’re exchanges of email. The interview subject “says” something, but nobody hears it until the “Send” button is pressed, by which time there has been opportunity for review and reconsideration.

I suppose lots of people listen to Fresh Air because they want to hear what a writer (for example) sounds like, and to estimate what kind of a person the writer is. It’s for this reason that people attend readings at bookstores. The writer reads a passage from the new book. Then questions from the audience are fielded. There was a time when I was a very competitive member of such audiences, and sought to score high points (with whom, though?) by asking penetrating questions that actually penetrated the writer’s necessarily bland, or at least wary, persona, and elicited an interesting comment. When I realized that this activity was not going to bring me fame or fortune, I lost interest.

While it lasted, though, I acquired a great many signed books. So many, in fact, that I finally did realize that there is no longer anything valuable about a signed book. Everybody has got at least a few. My rule is that, if the writer doesn’t know who you are, you should ask for a plain signature. You really ought not help the bookstore assistants who provide slips of paper on which to write your name, so that the writer won’t have to struggle with your peculiar background or manner of speaking. (“How do you write ‘Kanye'”?) The only value of having your name appear above that of the author lies in the extent of your own fame. “To Bismarck, Kind Regards, Lincoln.” Now that’s valuable. It’s called an “association” copy; it’s proof that two famous people at least knew of one another.

I have a duty to become famous in life — did you know that? It was settled upon me by Kathleen, in a remarkably material way. A hundred years ago, when she was a young associate at Hawkins, Delafield, and Wood, she bought a dozen or more copies of novels by Louis Auchincloss and carted them into his office, where he graciously inscribed them all to “Robert J Keefe.” Right there we have a problem: nobody who knew me at all would ever address me in such style, any more than anybody would call me “Bob” (and survive my Glare of Death). It is certainly the case that I never had a conversation with the eminent writer and lawyer about literature — or about anything else, either. The second problem is that Auchincloss may have come to regret knowing Kathleen at all, because when she left the firm under her partner’s shifty wing, it was bruited that the group departure damaged the firm’s capital structure, depleting major partners’ pensions. Finally, my opinion of Auchincloss’s fiction has slipped, over time, beneath the waves. As a young man — a lawyer myself — I naturally found his achievement impressive. He said many times that he could not just sit home and write. So he wrote on the subway, in odd free moments. I came to find that the results demonstrated good reasons for not going about the writing of novels in that manner.

So, there — I abjure my duty, by going on record that the apparent “association” in my copies of The Rector of Justin and The Winthrop Covenant is a sham. And yet — if I do become famous, might this pretty story not make those books more valuable? You never know.

(I want you to know that I have perused back pages of this Web log in search of the Auchincloss anecdote and not found it. If I missed it, and have already bored you silly with it, I do apologize.)

At the barber shop, I read an interview with Oscar Isaac. It was the cover story on a recent issue of GQ. So, the actor has got that far. Why is the world taking so long to see how great he is? I’ve admired him since Drive and W./E. I think that A Most Violent Year is the best mob movie ever made, its standing secure because there is no mob in the movie. But I like it because Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are so good. Inside Llewin Davis looked like a mistake, but who knows? Maybe over time we’ll come to love it — like Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca. In Ex Machina, Isaac does an astonishing job of being unattractive in almost every way. It’s what the story calls for, but, hey, the actor really throws himself into the job. If you ask me, he doesn’t look so great on the cover of GQ, either. Playing Outcome #3 in The Bourne Legacy, in contrast, he is almost pretty, with chiseled features (good lighting) and beautiful eyes. (As sometimes happens, I recognized his voice first.) It goes without saying that nothing was disclosed in the interview. It was a dusted-off resume with a few idle remarks on the lines of “Sorry I’m late.” I suppose that there was a positive nugget in the announcement that girlfriends would not be discussed. Neither was anything else. I couldn’t believe that I had fallen for the cover. I never read anything at the barber shop — my glasses get in the way. But this I had to read?

Is it ‘Eye-zik or Ee-‘zok? Tell me, and I promise to remember.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Okay and Not Okay
February 2016 (II)

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Monday 8th

There were all sorts of things that I meant to do on Saturday afternoon, and some of them did get done, but not after I sat down with Lit Up, David Denby’s new book — the prequel, as he calls it, to Great Books, now twenty years old and I wish I could find it here somewhere. In Great Books, Denby went back to Columbia, where he had been an undergraduate thirty years earlier, and sat through the great books course with a few very good teachers. This time, he visited a magnet school on the Upper West Side (and, in shorter stints, two other schools outside of town), and sat in on a class of tenth-graders as they made their first serious contact with literature. In 1996, it was all about him — what had he made of his education? what was there to hold on to? — but, this time, his interest was, he says, more “parental.” I’m still musing on that choice of words. But the teachers are once again the stars. They are brilliant and inspiring: they have ingenious ways of setting books up for discussion, and they know how to keep interest from flagging. Your first thought is that teachers can’t be paid well enough. Your second is that relative poverty attracts or at least presents no obstacle to ascetic people whose aloofness from common clutter is what high-school students need more than anything else. In any case, you keep reading, as I did on Saturday.

Denby says that today’s kids are “incredibly busy.”

School, homework, sports, jobs, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, social networking, games, texting) — compared to all of that, reading is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. “Books smell like old people,” I heard a student say in New Haven.

My recollections of those days, which are very patchy, can’t be trusted: they present a younger, unformed image of the man I am now. What I remember most clearly is that I was never busy. I avoided busy-ness even then. There have been busy passages in my life, matters of months, in which I lived out and about, but there have been longer stages of quiet. I’m in the middle of one now, and it often occurs to me that this one isn’t going to end until I do. But I was saying that fifteen years ago. I have been old and stiff and out of shape and physically lazy all my life.

Most of my classmates, wherever I was in school, did seem to be very busy. Busy was the smell of success. I thought it idiotic, certainly brainless. Busy people are very poor listeners, for one thing: so poor that they don’t even notice the failing, and I suspect that they don’t enjoy life very much for that reason. Young people are of course prone to restlessness; even I, Oblomov that I was, was all too familiar with restlessness. But restlessness and the urge to keep busy are not the same thing at all. I wish that adolescents were not encouraged to be busy. There may be lots to discover when you’re a teenager, but I don’t think that bits and pieces of everything ought to be served up in tiny slices day after day.

I certainly never knew an old person who smelled like a book, but I think I understand what the New Haven kid was trying to say. Perhaps what he really meant was that books sound like old people: they’re quiet.


By now, I was in New Haven myself. As usual, I skipped from the end of the Introduction to the middle of the book, and found myself in a class of unadvantaged students. Amazingly, their teacher, Jessica Zelenski, managed to get them interested in three of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all of them classic standouts (Sonnets 18, 130, and 73). All of this happens in three or four pages — it’s rather miraculous. But what stuck to me was Denby’s reading of Nº 73, which begins,

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Denby writes that this is about “the poet’s diminishing passion for a lover”; a few lines later, he attributes to it the “grief over a passion consumed by its own strength.” I ran straight to Helen Vendler’s commentaries on the Sonnets and was relieved to find no mention of such ideas. Sonnet 73 is about ageing, and Vendler has very interesting things to say about how Shakespeare changes his mind about it in the third quatrain. The first line of the concluding couplet,

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

hardly describes the reaction to a lover’s spent passion. It isn’t love that is “consum’d by that which it was nourish’d by,” but life. I can dimly make out the grounds for Denby’s thinking what he does, but why he would want to think it — why it would be interesting to think such a thing — is beyond me.

Helen Vendler has convinced me that what’s interesting about Shakespeare’s sonnets is their construction, which, notwithstanding the form’s limitation to fourteen rhymed lines, varies enormously among the 154 poems. I should send Denby to one of the most strangely put-together sonnets, Nº 75, “So are you to my thoughts as food to life.” Whereas the bulk of sonnets consist of three quatrains followed by a couplet, this sonnet is laid out 4-6-4, with the eleventh and twelfth line joining the the couplet, to conclude the thought presented in the first four lines: I love you so much that I know what a miser feels.

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometimes all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starvèd for a look;

“Sometimes,” Vendler writes, “when a sonnet seems otherwise unremarkable, as in the present case of 75, we may suspect that Shakespeare’s interest lay less in the theme than in its structural invention.” This is disingenuous; I am almost certain that Vendler believes that Shakespeare’s interest in invention is always greater than his interest in the theme. The less interesting the theme, the greater the scope for invention. Shakespeare may keep us guessing about the people to whom he addressed these poems (if indeed they were real), but he doesn’t try to hide his meanings. Sonnet 75 addresses an aspect of love that, while it rarely gets poetic treatment, much less treatment of this caliber, will be familiar to everybody. You are in love: you want the world to know it, and to admire you for it, which is a little queer, because you also want the world to go away, and leave you alone with your lover. (Sometimes, you want to be alone with your love.) The first two instances of indecision are thoughtful, somewhat abstract, as if the lover were planning the next day’s schedule. The third pair crackles with naked longing, “clean starvèd for a look.” That’s about as plain as Shakespeare’s English gets in the sonnets.

To return to what has become a favorite sonnet, Nº 95, I want to call attention to an awkward moment. The moment calls attention to itself, but you have to go to 95 to find it. It’s in the second half of the third quatrain, the first half of which I’ve already shouted from the rooftops.

O what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Line 12 would offer a prime instance of bad writing if Shakespeare did not know perfectly well what he is doing. The line ought to read,

And turns all things to fair…

Reversing this order doesn’t just muss up the expected syntax. It creates the impression that a new image is going to be introduced, an image of which “all things” is the subject. (Equal accents for “all things turn” also slows down the scansion, so that there seem to be too many syllables in the rest of the line.) To begin with “And all things” is, in the nature of spoken English, to signify that the preceding line is complete unto itself, that we have done with veils and blots. “And all things turn,” which is how we read the line until we get to that seemingly out-of-place ‘s,’ might very well borrow from the cankered bud in the sonnet’s second line, and suggest a patch of sunflowers turning toward the sun, just as everyone seems to be turning, admiringly, to the secretly vice-ridden young man. Then we screech to a stop: is that ‘s’ a typo?

It is not a typo, and the fact that it is a chiasm (as Vendler tells us), while good to know, isn’t particularly material, either. It’s a jerk, intended to make us feel, in the reading of the sonnet, what we cannot see: something is wrong with this young man. His beauty’s veil is not quite up to the task of smoothing over his blots. It twitches awkwardly and reveals disorder. I don’t know how many times you’d have to read Sonnet 75 (from the top!) before the jolt would fade; I doubt that it would ever dissipate altogether. Shakespeare is quite right to regard his sonnets as living monuments that will breathe long after poet and lover are dust.


Now that I am about to finish R F Foster’s Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, I can complain about it without whining. Having attained the penultimate chapter, “The de Valera Dispensation,” I am where I wanted to be when I bought the book in June. I wanted to understand the world that Maeve Brennan, whose work I was reveling in, had to reject, a world in which a woman could be a wife, a caregiver, or a nun — and nothing else. Something that I had noticed without noticing finally clicked, something that I had seen in Colm Tóibín as well: priests had a strange power in Ireland. They were social policemen and social judges whose findings were often grounds for official enforcement. Priests had perhaps always played this role in peasant societies, but in Ireland the priests kept the educated middle classes in line as well. None but the very rich enjoyed what an American would consider everyday freedom. I believe that Irish priests are no longer the authorities that they used to be, and that today’s Ireland is as much like a modern secular democracy as a country with its hungover history can be. But I’m intrigued by the use that the new Republic made of the Church, as a stabilizing force that would forestall the social unrest that for centuries always seemed to be gathering at the edges of Irish society. Now that it’s over, I’m less inclined to regard it as the asphyxiating thing that it must have been for many Irish men and women, especially the ones I’d want to know.

Foster’s book is not written for tyros. It is a political history that assumes familiarity with events. Thus the Easter Rising is never presented as the subject of a narrative in which insurrectionaries seized public buildings, only to be overpowered and executed. You must find out what happened elsewhere. Likewise, the 1801 Act of Union is simply the after-effect of several decades’ commotion among the Protestant Ascendancy. Foster never makes much of a point of the implicit historical irony: no sooner had the Protestants upgraded their position in the English hegemony by taking parliamentary seats at Westminster instead of at College Green than the Catholics began working up to demanding what had just been abandoned: Home Rule. In any case, I was in over my head for much of the book, until I reached the run-up to the Troubles, which George Dangerfield discusses so eloquently in The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Even so, what were “the Troubles”? Just the Civil War of 1922-23? The Civil War plus the Anglo-Irish War that preceded it? Those two wars plus the Easter Rising of 1916? I’ll have to do a bit more reading before I can answer the question. For the moment, I’m panting with delight, celebrating my arrival at the end of Foster’s book. I can’t think when I’ve re-read so many sentences and still not understood what they meant. Next up, Ronan Fanning’s far more readable Fatal Path, a study of incompetence with which the British handled the Irish problem between 1910 and 1922. I know that it’s more readable because I’ve already been through the first chapter. I read much of it to Kathleen, while she was knitting. So far, I’ve discovered that Fanning (something of a grand old man in Irish history, I gather) has a fantastic knack for quoting passages that make H H Asquith look like a humbug. Great fun!


Tuesday 9th

This morning, I got back into bed again, after the Times. I felt not only tired, as I had done for about five days up to the middle of last week, but rotten as well, beset by the symptoms that most people think of when they think of a cold. (And, as always, I was cold.) For a little while, I lay in bed, feeling rotten but at rest, and superficially warm. The other two stages of this morning bedrest, with which I had become familiar, followed in due course. First was the nap, from which I awoke without being certain that I had been asleep. It took a few minutes of staring around emptily to register the time lapse, the lack of recent thoughts, that indicated sleep. The final phase ended with sharply waking from a clear dream.

In the dream, I had different parents. After the dream, I would realize that these alternative parents were borrowed, in large part, from a friend of mine, the death of whose mother several years ago had a strange effect on me. I never met her, but my friend wrote beautifully about her, and talked to me even more eloquently — although, perhaps in the talk, it was the silences that were eloquent. In the dream, she was about to go to the hospital. She was going to be tested for possible treatments; a serious cancer had just been discovered, and we all knew — my alternative father, even more like my friend’s, lurking in the corners of the dream, included — that she was going to die. But we were able to keep up good cheer because the ravages of the catastrophe were not yet evident. She was wearing a white dress, white-on-white, a cross between a summer dress and something that you might see on a débutante. Although simple and slender in outline, it was floor-length, in honor of this special occasion: a token of our brave simulation of optimism. I joked that she would be mistaken for an already-admitted patient. Her face fell a bit, and she said, in a voice that was no longer bright, “No, scrubs are blue.” I chimed in at “are blue.” Rhymes with rue.

Then I woke up. My figure in the dream had been distinctive enough for me not to think immediately of my friend’s mother; I thought, rather, of myself. (Also: patients don’t wear scrubs. Always the critic.) Was I dying? Was that why I was so cold and tired in the mornings? I wasn’t worried; it didn’t seem to matter. So long as death comes without violent pain and huge medical bills, I won’t mind it much. (Or so I fancy.) My mind wandered along until I remembered my friend’s mother. As I understand it, she decided, upon discovering the cancer, to go straight into hospice care. Now, when my aunt did the same thing, after she was told that the consequences of her appendectomy (of all things!) would involve feeding tubes and prolonged hospital stays, I was very angry about it. She was dead before I could get to New Hampshire. I had always been very fond of her, but now I discovered that she was not just the center but the entire embodiment of the alternative family that I had imagined in my unhappy childhood, an alternative that would become quite actual, I’d been told, if “anything happened” to my parents. I was angry with my aunt for removing herself from my life by, effectively, committing suicide. The atmosphere of peace and serenity with which I endowed imaginary scenes of my friend’s mother’s death were the result, I suppose, of having no actual emotional commitment to anyone in the envisioned scenes, except possibly to my friend, as to whose sentiments (whose grief!) the very decorum of friendship dictated that I keep a certain distance.

I have written here about my friend’s mother’s death several times. I was surprised by the intensity of my response. “Intensity” is perhaps the wrong word, but there’s no doubt that the death was catalytic for me. I have been on a different track ever since. Or perhaps I have had a more assured sense of what’s important. My friend’s mother’s death was distant (ie, it occurred in the Midwest), quick (a matter of three or four months), peaceful and serene, as I say (lots of pictures were published on a family site), and also undramatic. By “undramatic” I mean that my friend went into the ordeal on very good terms with his mother. There was no need for reconciliations or absolutions. She had always, it seems, regarded his sexual preference with equanimity, for one thing. I gather, on the basis of sheer inference, that she had a better opinion of my friend than he has of himself. Not that she expected more, just that she found him to be okay.

That may sound tepid, but I speak as a parent who knows that okay is the best possible state for a child to be in. There is a great deal of wisdom in the title of the film, The Kids Are All Right. Let a child be brilliant, successful, famous, whatnot: to a parent who is not living vicariously, these are all unstable conditions, and they have well-known adverse side effects. Nothing makes me feel more grounded than hanging up the phone after a chat with my daughter and feeling saturated with the conviction that she is okay. Doing okay might be a better way of putting it, because this kind of okay requires a good deal of hard work and serious thinking to achieve, and I know that being okay is not something that fell into my daughter’s lap, as if it were her destiny.

To my mother, I was never okay. Objectively, I have never been okay, at least by one important measure: I have never supported myself. The fact that this has never bothered me could be taken either way. Whenever I am beset by doubts, Kathleen insists that I am doing what I ought to be doing, and better than ever. But to most people, my unconcern with supporting myself is proof positive of my being the opposite of okay. Not that it is discussed, ever.

When I woke up, I knew that I had borrowed my friend’s parents for my dream, because I’d been okay, and I still felt okay when I opened my eyes.


In the Book Review this weekend, Tom Bissell wrote a birthday card of sorts to the late David Foster Wallace, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest. He had a couple of interesting things to say — interesting because of the starkness with which they declared a mentality unlike my own.

This difference was not surprising. I had been unable to get very far with Bissell’s first book, or first big book, The Father of All Things. I don’t remember why, but I suspect that it was a matter of punchy sentences. There was a violence in the book, not merely referred to by its contents, that I disliked in pretty much the same way that I would dislike seeing a portion of streetside slush on my dinner plate.

The first passage consists largely of a quotation that in itself has little to do with what interests me about this passage, but I give the sentence entire anyway.

In “How Fiction Works,” the literary critic James Wood, whose respectful but ultimately cool view of Wallace’s work is as baffling as Conrad’s rejection of Melville and Nabokov’s dismissal of Bellow, addresses E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between “flat” and “round” characters: “If I try to distinguish between major and minor characters — round and flat characters — and claim that these differ in terms of subtlety, depth, time allowed on the page, I must concede that many so-called flat characters seem more alive to me, and more interesting as human studies, however short-lived, than the round characters they are supposedly subservient to.”

What interests me — to the point of astonishment — is that, while I’m not familiar with Conrad on Melville or Nabokov on Bellow, I can well imagine what they have to say, and I’m pretty sure that I should agree with them. I admire Conrad greatly, and Nabokov mildly, not so much as I did when I was younger. But I have no use for Melville, at least until I’m reduced to using an outhouse, and Bellow is the midcentury American author whom I dislike the least — but I still dislike him. And all of these men, possibly even James Wood himself, are full of themselves as men, by which I mean that simply being male (and not female), being possessed of male genitalia and having access to the locker room, seems to them to be a terrific, transformative characteristic. These writers might acknowledge that there is actually nothing very remarkable in being a man, but they would all claim, in one way or another, that, just as only a man can be a military hero, so only a man can understand a man’s burdens, and only a man who is a gifted writer can explain these burdens to the world. In other words, being male is the problem that the great male writer solves. But first, the male must be posited as an object of interest, and that’s what “interests” me, because I don’t limit heroism (or creative genius, &c &c &c) to men and therefore can’t accept men as objects of interest.

In any case, how neat of Bissell, I thought, to line up the writers I like on the one side and the ones I don’t on the other — and to be baffled by the ones I like.


Here’s the second passage.

As a member (barely) of the generation Wallace was part of, and as a writer whose closest friends are writers (most of whom are Wallace fans), and as someone who first read “Infinite Jest” at perhaps the perfect age (22, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan), my testimony on this point may well be riddled with partisanship.

Again, my interest isn’t so much in the statement as a whole as it is in that glancing phrase, “whose closest friends are writers.” I have been feeling rather glum this February, this Black History Month, because I don’t have any friends who are black. Somehow the world around me has sifted and shifted to the extent that even my acquaintance is almost entirely white, the exceptions being Asians. Aside from two doorman and an extraordinarily capable handyman in the building, and the array of check-out personnel up and down the shops and stores of 86th Street, I don’t see any black faces unless I leave the neighborhood via subway. (Or visit the Museum.) To say that this is a problem is to beg for a solution, and solutions all sound both ridiculous and patronizing. The only real “solution” would be to have a friend who happened to be black. And it’s not odd that I don’t, because I don’t have many friends to begin with, a point that I’ve been trying to make, or to puzzle over, for some time now. Bissell’s phrase brightened the situation considerably, because I have only one friend who is a writer, and that is Ms NOLA, who entered my life via family.

It’s odd, don’t you think, that someone who likes to read and write as much as I do doesn’t know anybody else who is equally committed? Especially since I live in New York, a magnet for writers?

But what about my friend whose mother died? He no longer lives in New York, but I met him when he did, and I met him through his Web log. He writes, as I say, beautifully. On the handful of occasions when we have met, however, I have always come away thinking of him as a thinker. Not as a philosopher — that word is tainted for me, and probably unsalvageable — but as someone who thinks a lot. I’ve read a lot about writers getting together, and thinking never seems to play much part in their encounters.

I suspect that my lack of incentive to have friends is attributable in part to growing up in Bronxville. In the Times Magazine, over the weekend, I read that NFL chief executive Roger Goodell lives in Bronxville. Figures, said I to myself.


Thursday 11th

Let 10 February stand as the anniversary of the beginning of the evacuation (okay, emptying) of our oh so expensive storage unit on East 62nd Street. That will obscure the existence, and the failure, of earlier attempts. Until about eight years ago, I had been consistently getting rid of things, so that what began as a large box in which not a cubic meter was empty, stuffed as it was with everything that we retained after we sold our house in the country, but could not house in our apartment, was largely empty space, with a clear floor and only the walls lined with shelving.

Then, there was a hiccup. I could not bring myself to get rid of a piece of furniture that no longer “worked” at home. Actually, it was the top half of a piece of furniture, a hutch, in common parlance, although I never thought of it as such. I didn’t have a name for it, because it ought to have been inviolably attached to its bottom half, constituting a cabinet that I called “the breakfront.” I wrote about this piece about a year ago, and won’t repeat myself. I don’t seem to have mentioned that the “glass-fronted” top half was removed because some of the glass was broken, along with the little frets that held them in place. Repairs would have cost the earth, if you could find someone to do it, and I knew that the piece wasn’t worth it, sentiment notwithstanding. The shelves behind the glazed doors didn’t hold much, really — they were quite shallow — and I coveted the wall space that it blocked, room for more pictures. So I did something unimaginably transgressive, and dismantled what had once been something just short of an altar. I remember that Ray Soleil and I had a hard time getting it off; there were a few cunningly difficult screws at the back. But we managed in the end.

What I don’t remember is how the hutch, as I shall call it now, got to the storage unit. It can’t have been easy. I must have hired some sort of hauler. Ray, of course, advised me to get rid of the thing; whenever I’d say that, someday, down the road, I’d like to be able to hand on the breakfront complete, if not quite in one piece, he said nothing but assumed his wistful, people are like that smile. So the hutch went into storage and promptly blocked the lower shelves on one of the unit’s short walls. It also became a convenient surface on which to dump things. Then, three years ago, I did another stupid thing. When Megan and her family moved out to San Francisco, I thought that I would just hold on to the countertop dishwasher that we had given her shortly after she found their flat on Loisaida Avenue. Once again, Ray, who was helping me, said “Don’t,” and, once again, I did. The dishwasher, a very bulky piece of equipment, squatted on the floor in front of the hutch, making even the unobstructed shelves on the short wall incaccessible.

Then we moved, last year, from one apartment to another. In the process, ten book boxes were deposited in the unit. Three were full of the fantastic plastic paving bricks that we used to humanize the concrete floor of the balcony. Our balcony downstairs is much smaller, so that even after we shared some of the bricks with a neighbor who has the same-sized balcony, there were three boxes left over. (You never know!) The rest of the boxes were full of books; most of them, I had not even opened after the move. As I recall, I took them downtown in a black car, and schlepped them up to the unit myself. You could sort of tell, by the haphazard look of the two stacks of boxes, just inside the unit’s drawer. Throw in an old hamper full of fabrics that Kathleen had bought for the house whose sale had prompted the rental of this room, and the unit was once again impassable.

Only now I was significantly older. More decrepit, yes; no longer up to spending hours in a virtual basement without good lighting or a place to sit. A cage of four tinned walls, a concrete floor, and a screen-fenced top. For all its books and shelves, it was less a library than a moraine of disorganized deposits. The spirit of the place was, and still is, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” But I was also much more focused on what I’m doing right now, this, what you’re reading. I had less time, and certainly less drive, for other things. The storage unit might be an expensive nuisance, but when I thought about it at all, it almost seemed to be somebody else’s problem.

For a year, I sporadically flapped my arms up and down and whined for help. Nothing happened. One day in October, I dragged Kathleen to the unit, to show her the situation and to elicit her suggestions. I don’t believe that she saw anything, except overwhelming impossibility. When we left, with two totes full of document boxes, it seemed to me that Kathleen had simply turned off her eyes. But late last month, we had a more urgent talk. It had been time to stop spending hundreds of dollars a month for years, but now it was really time. At least I had an idea of what must be done first. All the items that I have mentioned above had to be cleared out, carried off and disposed of we cared not how. Kathleen volunteered to find someone to do the hauling.

She sent an email to someone whom we’d used before, but never got an answer. She also found that another outfit was still going, and when it became clear that we weren’t going to hear from her first choice, I called the second. It had blossomed into a very professional outfit, with a Web site, credit card payments, and insurance even. I made an appointment for yesterday. I was told that the movers would show up at some point between eleven and one. So I went to the until at about ten. Getting myself dressed and ready and out of the house was grim, anxious business, but I made it, and I was rewarded with a quick taxi ride. While waiting for the movers, I began to sort things out. As I piled up the smaller items to be got rid of (the boxes of bricks; Will’s playpen, hardly used — he hated it; the battery-powered patio lamp that proved too dim to read by), and as I emptied the boxes of books and set aside a few treasures to take home (James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, George Sand’s Consuelo), a warm sense of achievement stole over me. I knew that, even if the movers never showed up, and I not only had to make another appointment but also return everything to the storage unit, I’d have made real progress. More than that, I should have breached a barrier. I knew what we would do next, and then after that.

It was not long past eleven when the movers called from downstairs. Ten minutes later, fifteen at the outside, they were gone again, and so was all the stuff that for so long made it impossible to think about the storage unit. Because I could never quite bring myself to let go.


I say that I brought home a few treasures, but they weren’t all treasures. I seem to have filled the tote bag without paying attention. There were at least three books that I couldn’t consciously have brought home. One was Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, a memoir that contains an important account of the formation of the alliance between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and conservative Evangelical organizations that has driven the Pro-Life movement. Now that it’s here, I’ll make a place for it. I don’t think that I’ll do the same for The Essential Talmud. Well, I take that back. Picking up the book just now, to remind myself of the author’s name (Adin Steinsaltz), I see that it’s a history of the Talmud. I’d bought it thinking that it might be a sort of abridgment. While I might no longer have any use for an abridgment (is “abridgment” conceivable?), I’m sure that I’d find a history of the Talmud quite interesting. So I’ll give it another go. I’ve had the book for a very long time; it has spent decades on shelves, hidden behind the books standing in front of it. If it turns out that I like it, The Essential Talmud will be yet another instance of the grave difficulty of getting rid of books. They can be lumber for years, and then…

But it’s true, mostly they don’t change. They just going on being lumber. Also brought home was 201 Russian Verbs. I have dabbled with Russian on two occasions; the only word that I seem to remember is uchitel, teacher. Since I never took a course, I’ve never understood what those small-b thingies are. On the whole, I am not interested in Slavic languages at the moment, and if I were to change my mind about that, I’d focus on Czech, because it has a romantic claim on my imagination, embodied I suppose in the Charles Bridge, which I have never seen. At the moment, I’m keen to learn how to pronounce things in Irish. How to turn Taoiseach into tea-shack, for example. There is a suite of four maps in Foster’s difficult Modern Island that shows a slow and steady decline of spoken Irish from 1851 to the present, notwithstanding the Republic’s investment in its resuscitation. Its use in today’s Republic seems to be purely ornamental and ceremonial. It is never going to be another Modern Hebrew. I have no intention of trying to make myself understood in Irish. I learned, from reading Brigid Brophy, to avoid a voyage to Drogheda — years ago. But the book that I ordered comes with two CDs. They’ll be fun to listen to.


When I got back from the morning’s expedition, the water was still off in my bathroom. There had been the usual notice, alerting tenants that the water in certain lines of apartments would be cut off between 10:30 AM and 3:30 PM. But this time, the water had actually been cut off. It was running in the kitchen and in Kathleen’s bathroom, which abut, so I shouldn’t be without. But I was a little grumpy just the same, and then a lot grumpier when it didn’t come on at 3:30, or at 4. At five, I went downstairs and asked the nice lady in the management office about it. She assured me that it would come on in a second. It came on shortly past six — I won’t say that I’d given up on it, but I’d almost stopped thinking about it. The configuration of Kathleen’s bathroom is such that it is a bit cramped for me, and I disliked the prospect of having to manage, but I was getting used to the idea. But suddenly there was the unmistakable sound of surging in the pipes. I turned on the water in my sink, and a very brown liquid gushed out. Disgusting, but transitory. I returned to my reading with a lightened heart.

About an hour later, I began to hear dripping. I could also hear the hissing hum that the pipes make when someone nearby is running a bath. The dripping, which sounded quite electronica, was clearly behind the wall between our bedroom and my bathroom. But I didn’t like the sound of it, the dripping and the humming: it was pretty clear that someone had opened the faucets somewhere upstairs and neglected to close them when no water came out of the tap. And then walked away and forgotten about it — gone out for the evening, perhaps. So I went downstairs and told the doorman. I was advised to expect a handyman. Waiting for him near our front door, I noticed that a small stream of water was trickling from the base of the house phone faceplate. Miles from my bathroom! I went downstairs again. I was told that the handyman and his crew were in the apartment directly above me, mopping up. Sure enough, when I got back to our place, the humming had stopped. The dripping was still going on, but without much of a pulse. Presently the handyman appeared, to check for leaks. There weren’t any — or so we thought, because we missed the bulge over the showerhead in my bathroom, which I noticed at bedtime and which may or may not require repairs. But there were no leaks in places that ought to be dry, hallelujah!

The apartment directly overhead is untenanted. “They’re working on it.” Meaning that it is being renovated, presumably by outside contractors. That’s why the water was turned off, so that “they” could do something about new plumbing and fixtures. It now appears that one of “them” was an idiot. The handyman pinched his thumb and forefinger until there was nearly an inch between them. That’s how deep the water was before he mopped it up.

Too much excitement for one day.


The night before, I stayed up late, to finish the last pages of Lit Up. It’s probably no accident that David Denby, as an eminent film critic, knows how to write about classrooms with cinematic vitality. You, the reader, are very much there. You get to know the tenth-graders who express themselves so vividly and so individually, as they use the books that they are reading and discussing to differentiate themselves from the sullen, unwilling mass to which they all belonged at the beginning of the school year. Their teacher, Sean Leon, a wiry young man of mixed descent who was born in Northern Ireland, never knew his Italian-American father, and was taken by his mother’s second husband to grow up outside of New Orleans, comes across as a not-too-distant, if altogether mortal cousin of Jesus. I don’t mean that he is particularly holy, but his personal austerity is almost overshadowed by his passional commitment to helping young people in the struggle between the individual and society. That, “The Individual and Society,” is the name of his course, as it were, and his solvent is the urgency of literature.

Mr Leon’s syllabus is skewed to the recent; Denby’s persistent objection is to the omission of Shakespeare. As I mentioned, Denby finds, in his briefer visits to two other schools, that tenth-graders can be guided to a true if preliminary appreciation of the riches of extraordinary poetry, even if it is four hundred years old. And Mr Leon’s list is at least as precocious: Slaughterhouse-Five and Notes from Underground, not to mention No Exit and Waiting for Godot. Sometimes, Denby frets that these books might be brutal assaults on tender minds. What he’s forgetting, of course, is the inexperienced mind’s ability to ignore what it is not ready to suffer. I was pleasantly surprised by what Mr Leon’s kids could get out of what they were reading. Of course, he pushed them relentlessly. But they expected that; they pushed each other relentlessly and were conscious that relentlessness is a sign of metropolitan life.

I couldn’t put the book down, but it was also true that I never lost the feeling that I should have hated being one of Mr Leon’s students. I should have withdrawn into some sort of angry obstructionism, refusing as a point of pride to join the group discussion by taking one side or the other. The entire experience, for me, would have been nothing but a gross invasion of privacy. I hated being a student even more than I hated being young; I hated knowing so little of what there was to know. I never cared for hearing what classmates had to say, and by the time I reached the Great Books Seminar in college, I was exhibiting that dubious verbal dexterity that justified calling the program “Pre-Law.” Parry and thrust, but never support; it wouldn’t be until I was in my late thirties that I saw the importance of backup up other voices, if only by trying to say more clearly what they meant to say.

And I should have hated the recentness of the reading list. Indeed, even to this day I have not read most of what’s on it, including Slaughterhouse-Five. From what I know about the book, I’m grieved to think that it constitutes the gateway through which many students pass from complete ignorance to a sense of modern history, giving them, undoubtedly I should think, a picture of meaningless horror and incompetence that completely masks the awful but enlightening story of How We Got There. I can remember complaining in high school that we were being taught history backwards: beginning with New York State history (the idea!), we moved on to US history and then to Europe. That’s what happens when you introduce notions of “relevance” into education.

I haven’t read Brave New World and I haven’t read 1984. It is generally conceded that they are not works of great literature; if they have things to teach to adolescents, I learned those things elsewhere and wanted no further doses. (I’d be interested to know what students would make of them as parts of a trio that included The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. The appalling fact that so many adults are reading and liking these dreculacious scrawls is proof of the importance of high-school inoculations.) I couldn’t believe that Paolo Coelho made it onto the list, even if Mr Leon’s idea seemed to be to shoot down the idea of life-as-a-journey. Nor have I read Siddhartha. I read a lot of Hesse in college, but it was all the stuff that was being translated for the first time, such as Beneath the Wheel, not the established chestnuts like Demian and Steppenwolf. (Was it Naomi Bliven who wrote of the newly-translated books that “This isn’t literature, but incense”? I never read another page of Hesse after that.)

I think of these as books for people who don’t hear very well. They require shouting. Fine modulations are lost on them, or dismissed as “elegances.” Shakespeare is all very well as a robust lover, consumed with jealousy. But the minute you lift the hood, as it were, and examine the mechanics of a sonnet, he becomes “aesthetic” and “refined.” Refained, as British snobs put it. They think that Jane Austen is all about class and marriage and property; they can’t feel the devastating heartlessness of Emma’s clever remark at Box Hill — nor suffer Emma’s agony as she later reflects that she is unworthy of Mr Knightley. It is all too fine.

It is a matter of music. Music without melody, without open-throated sound. It has rhythm, intonation, modulation, rises and falls — just no song. Even great poetry does not actually sing, which is why, Goethe aside, so many great German art songs are settings of second-rate verse. (The cry of the poet in Capriccio is ever at my lips: when the composer snatches his sonnet and runs off to the clavier, Olivier wails, “Er komponiert mich!”) But it does something like singing, something that a feel for music brings out as vital.

You can’t really hear that sort of thing in your teens.


Friday 12th

You are doubtless wondering what I, recluse that I try to be, do for a good time. Well, I cackle.

I’ve been reading Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré, a book that I had no intention of reading when it came out. But then I read A Perfect Spy, le Carré’s most autobiographical novel, and got to meet, Rick Pym, the extraordinary con man who is the hero’s father. I knew from reviews of the biography that this figure was very closely modeled on Ronnie Cornwell, Le Carré’s father, and, when I was through with A Perfect Spy, I had to have more of him. Indeed, Ronnie is even more outlandish than Rick — threatening to sue his son, if I got this right, because he wasn’t mentioned in one of Le Carré’s books. This hasn’t happened yet in the biography, but: the reviews had great fun with the time that Ronnie picked up a girl in Berlin (or somewhere) by pretending to be his own son.

Yes, but was she the kind of girl that David Cornwell (John le Carré at home) would pick up? For Cornwell jeune does pick up girls. It says so, in Sisman’s book, in a horripilatingly embarrassing paragraph that’s written in the present tense. I am not going to quote it. I am going to try to explain my cackling without any quotations — a bad idea, perhaps. Because first-hand evidence is part of the fun, isn’t it. Look at this! Now look at THIS! But you’ll have to take it all on faith from me. Adam Sisman tells us that David Cornwell is — “tormented” would be too strong a word — about his need for brief, meaningless affairs with attractive women. His wife — his second wife, Jane — is more or less understanding. “Nobody can have all of David,” she tells Sisman.

It’s unspeakably sordid. Not the philandering, but the talking about it. I can only guess that Cornwell’s sex life has occupied the patter of chatter among the classes that matter, and that it was thought wise to deal with “rumors” proactively, by saying, “Yes, it’s all true, and Jane knows all about it” — Sisman stops short of saying that she arranges the trysts, but you do wonder — “so deal with it.”

I found myself wondering how a particular woman would deal with it. Now, this woman is not one of Cornwell’s conquests. She claims to have led a long and happy married life. Her fiction is not quite so autobiographical, although in one of her best books, she revisits pivotal moments in her life and writes about what might have happened had things gone the other way. What if she had that baby in her teens, and lost her university slot? What if her husband had taken an American teaching position? And so on. I think about Making It Up all the time. The woman who made it up is Penelope Lively.

My favorite Lively novel is Heat Wave. Presumably, Lively made up the backstory of Pauline, the middle-aged book editor whose ex-husband not only carried on à la Cornwell but justified it in more or less the same way: I’m sorry, but I’m made that way. These things happen. &c. Now dry-eyed, Pauline remembers the sleep-deprived anguish of wondering where her absent husband was, or, worse, of knowing. Pauline has done with him; but only to discover that her daughter, Teresa, is married to a man who looks bound to take after her father. Pauline can hardly bear to stand by and watch this, but that’s what she does, as the summer gets hotter and hotter.

Not far, in the pages of the biography, from the “straight-up” passage about our author’s infidelities, Sisman discusses the writer’s home in Cornwall. It’s a refurbished terrace of three workers’ cottages, high atop cliffs overlooking the sea.

Three workers’ cottages?

In Heat Wave, the terrace of three workers’ cottages stands in the middle of a wheat field. It, too, has been refurbished — by Pauline. One of the cottages is her own weekend house. The other two have been knocked together into one unit, and, having decided to spend the entire summer in the country, Pauline has asked her daughter and family to spend it next door.

What would Penelope Lively make of this — is “coincidence” the word? She might ponder. “Attractive in what sense? Are these women ‘his type’? Or are they more objectively chosen, as likely to excite the envy of other men?”

I like to think that she’d say something like this: No need for cliffs, if you’ve got a nice steep flight of stairs.

This is what literature is all about. Sorry to be so shallow.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
House into Home
February 2016 (I)

Monday, February 1st, 2016

Monday 1st

Never have I been so curious about the Iowa Caucuses. Even worse, I hope that Donald Trump wins. This is not because I’m sure that he would lose to Hillary Clinton, or because of any other calculus, either. He is simply the only one of the Republican candidates who is at all bearable. If he’s godawful, he’s like democracy: the worst, except for all the others. I am reminded that the United States survived Andrew Jackson. (Arguably, it did not.) My great fear is that Ted Cruz will win. Cruz is absolutely the worst. Speechless with anxiety, I shall now change the subject.

Ross Douthat wrote about decadence on Sunday. I remember being fascinated by decadence, in college. I mean, the very idea of it! You never heard about decadence in Bronxville. It was very alluring, perhaps because, for me, it was set to the music of Salome. Actually, aside from Salome, I had no experience of decadence. I had an idea of what it might be like — it was all in my head. I imagined dusky seraglios, piles of fruit, and exquisite bath oils. (The bath oils part was a real exercise, because it was difficult to imagine that bath oils could ever be anything but greasy and suffocating.) Over in a corner, Oscar Wilde, draped in an enormous bath sheet, made outrageous remarks, and cackled with his coterie. You had to look where you were going, lest you step on Huysmann’s jewel-encrusted tortoise.

I may have taken one bath. It was very boring. You can’t really read in the bath; I can’t, anyway. How do you keep your hands dry? After about a year of pining after decadence like one of Gilbert’s lovesick maidens, I realized that I was not cut out for languor. I suspect that I had been drawn to decadence because it might provide a creative cover for laziness. In fact, it was rather laborious. I can’t really read when I’m striking attitudes. In fact, I don’t want to be conscious of anything but what I’m reading. All you need for that is a good chair and a bright window. Simplicitas!

Later, I would understand that Wilde was transgressive, not decadent. In fact, decadence turns out to be one of those things that nobody is, except for the odd crackpot. Only other people are decadent. And you want to look closely at the people who call other people decadent. Ross Douthat, whether clever or kind, refrains from pasting the label of decadence on anybody, or, for that matter, on anything more particular than the entire United States. Here’s what he has to say about decadence:

But don’t just think about the word in moral or aesthetic terms. Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.

Whatever this tells us about the US of A, it reveals Douthat as a sentimentalist. He wants to advance, whatever that means. He wants the economy to grow — in my book, a shockingly unexamined desideratum. He wants people to have aspirations for their numerous children. He wants them to fight for the right causes, with complete conviction. These are all things that characterized America in the century that ended in 1970, almost a decade before Douthat was born. (1970 is about when I gave up on decadence.)

I wonder what Douthat would make of Robert J Gordon’s new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War. I nearly bought the book yesterday, but I’m on a budget, so I’ll have to get to it later. I already agree with his arguments, at least as Paul Krugman laid them out in his rave review, and as Gordon himself summarizes them in what you can read online of his Introduction.

This book is based on an important idea having innumerable implications: Economic growth is not a steady process that creates economic advance at a regular pace, century after century. Instead, progress occurs much more rapidly in some times than in others. There was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, only slow growth in the transition century before 1870, remarkably rapid growth in the century ending in 1970, and slower growth since then.

While I believe that Gordon underestimates economic growth prior to 1770, possibly because he overlooks an alternative measure of growth, I agree wholeheartedly with his other statements, because I have discovered them for myself in the course of reading a great many histories of this and that. And I have concluded that the astonishing changes in the relationship between man and the material world that have created generalized levels of health, safety, and comfort to which affluent societies everywhere have become not only accustomed but addicted in the formulation of their hopes and dreams have climaxed. Our task now is not to grow, but to organize what we have grown — an urgent business, since the unintended side-effects of the growth spell may prove to be terminally toxic for the planet. We have to sort out who owns what, and who provides what kind of direction. Our systems of government (I speak of the developed world here) were all conceived in the latter days of the old, pre-growth dispensation; the Founders, like other revolutionaries, believed, not without reasons, that the lessons of the vanished empires of classical antiquity had much to teach them.

One of the linkages with the ancient world that we’re inclined to overlook is that of communication. News traveled somewhat faster in 1790 than it did in Caesar’s day, but it was still a matter of days, and it was still carried on horseback. Such delays were necessarily taken for granted by political thinkers. It was also the case that rich and powerful people got their news faster than the general population did. (Lots of “news,” in fact, took the form of secret communication.) The mechanisms of proclamation and assembly in our Constitution would have been manageable in Roman times. We, in sharp contrast, are threatened by the panic that might be caused by the simultaneous reception by everybody of malignant misinformation. Something like this occurred after the breakup of Yugoslavia: corrupt radio stations broadcast false warnings that Christians were at imminent risk of slaughter by their Muslim neighbors.

The more I think about it, the more instant communication carries risks of environmental degradation. It does not involve chemical pollution, but it is no less an unintended by-product of something desirable. It tends to reduce the variety of information, much as pollution seems to reduce the number of animal species. Take a “harmless” example: today’s international art market, which is made possible entirely by the modernization of communication and transportation. It is possible for a small cloud of people to be conversant with participants and developments everywhere in the international market. Local art markets are deprived of the prestige that, for reasons of human nature, must accompany the production of art if it is to be taken at all seriously. Why should Denver have its own fine-arts world, if patrons can fly to an art fair? But who benefits from this monoculture? I ask the same question about commercial combinations. Are beer fanciers likely to enjoy cheaper, better brews when the AB Imbev acquisition of SAB Miller goes through? I expect not. Lots of jobs will be cut, and a handful of people, perhaps only two or three, will see an increase in power and income. (Oops! I forgot the bankers’ fees!) The desirability of industrial conglomerations ironically depends on ideas of efficiency that pre-date the Industrial Revolution.

The other day, I went to order something from Chef’s Catalog, a reliable source for kitchenware for many years, only to discover that it has been shut down. Shut down by its recent parent, Target, whose management determined that Chef’s business “did not align” with Target’s plans. Chef’s Catalog was not losing money. It wasn’t even in the way. Target paid a lot of money to buy it, but now decided that it was just clutter. I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry: closing down healthy businesses is wrong.

Let’s remember, after all that Adam Smith wrote in the pre-industrial world. Most workers in his day were agricultural laborers, and there was no reason to expect that that would change. The idea of commerce as the support (via employment) of the general population — well, since I haven’t read The Wealth of Nations all the way through, I can’t say that this idea never crossed Smith’s mind. But he does appear to have been principally interested in consumers, a preoccupation that has also outlived its eighteenth-century rationale.

From now on, growth will have to occur primarily in the human understanding. The attempt to revive the more ignorant outlook of another century is both sentimental and decadent.


Tuesday 2nd

The consolation, of course, is that the last two winners of Iowa’s contests for the Republican presidential nomination didn’t go very far.

Looking for news about the Bloomberg campaign — might Hillary Clinton’s failure to leave Bernie Sanders in the dust trigger some positive move toward Bloomberg’s actually running? — I came across a Times story reporting on a poll, sponsored by Bloomberg’s company, that showed very little support for the former mayor, at least in Iowa. This is far from surprising; people like me, who would like to acclaim Bloomberg before he delivers a single speech, are few and far between. But the poll also showed enormous support for Martin O’Malley — 46% of Democrats had a favorable view of him. So what? Having won zero delegates (in a vanishingly small Democratic turnout), O’Malley lost no time in dropping out of the race.

Are we ever going to get beyond polling? At the very least, isn’t it time to move from the random cold call to a better-organized online arrangement? Is there a way to limit polls to registered voters?

On the Op-Ed page, R R Reno says something that may strike regular readers of this Web site as familiar. (I certainly hope that it does.)

If these candidates [Trump and Sanders] have traction, it’s because over the last two decades our political elites, themselves almost entirely white, have decided, for different reasons, that the white middle class has no role to play in the multicultural, globalized future they envision, a future that they believe they will run. This primary season will show us whether or not they’re right.

A point that I might make more strongly than I do is that it is questionable and short-sighted of white political élites to imagine that they, they, are going to run a multicultural, globalized future.


I’ve been on a Gilbert & Sullivan jag. It’s very taxing; the Savoy Operas make me cry to the point of headache. Why? They’re supposed to be funny and entertaining, but I carry on as though I were a professional mourner. In part, it’s because my appreciation of the collaborative accomplishment has skyrocketed. The popularity of G&S in certain sectors of the Anglophone population does not diminish the very high polish of the music, which reveals a Mozartean fluency. Nor does it blunt the acute wit with which Gilbert volleys the English language. My tears are provoked by the dissonance between what I hear in the D’Oyle Carte recordings and what used to be produced in high school auditoriums all over the country. I used to appreciate Gilbert & Sullivan as a guilty pleasure, but now I regard it as a cultural monument of the first order, and the second cause of weeping is the fear that this monument is about to be shrouded in oblivion, in our new multicultural, globalized world.

English may be the most common second language on the planet, or at any rate seem to be, but full appreciation of Gilbert’s verses strikes me as hardly less demanding than a taste for Shakespeare. Gilbert’s usage may be closer to us temporally than Shakespeare’s is, but it is far more precise, written, as it were, to be parsed. And its references are almost equally arcane. Gilbert was a failed (or uninterested) barrister whose whole sense of topsy-turvy was inspired by legal nonsense, which was far more abundant in his common-law times. He was astonishingly alert to the comic possibilities of ambiguity, as in this exchange from the end of Iolanthe:

Celia: We are all fairy duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses.
Lord Mountararat: It’s our fault. They couldn’t help themselves.
Queen: It seems they have helped themselves, and pretty freely, too! (II.554-557)

And then along comes the Lord Chancellor, with his simple suggestion that Fairy Law be amended to read that “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” This might seem fatuous to those who regard law as embodying scientific truths, but, as Gilbert was doubtlessly aware, quite a number of laws were amended in this fashion, not once but twice, during the 1550s alone — laws about acknowledging the authority of the Pope, for example. What looks like a breezy jest turns into a variation on a Reformation Theme. (I have already written about the farcically inexorable about-face at the heart of Patience.) As we move further from Gilbert in time, the sauciness of his humorous imbroglios becomes less salient, while the roots of his absurdities burrow deeper into obscurity. You can decide to let it all go, or you can decide that intelligent speakers of English ought to be educated to enjoy it, as we do with regard to Shakespeare. This is more than a matter of explaining the jokes; it entails nothing less than the fullest possible relighting of the world in which Gilbert wrote.

Music dates differently, and I don’t think that Sullivan is ever going to be difficult to like. This is a problem insofar as it makes his music seem negligible to the discerning. A prolific tunesmith, Sullivan was somewhat ashamed of his facility. He struggled to be not only “great” — an exercise that usually resulted in soggy pretentiousness — but also “English,” whatever that meant. At the bright beginning of his career, critical observers entertained high hopes that Sullivan would develop a distinctively English idiom. When it turned out that Elgar developed it instead, Sullivan was branded as a failure, and his immortality, depending as it does on the Savoy Operas, is yoked to an idea of second-rate hack work that Sullivan himself appears to have shared. But if you just listen to the music, and forget about the toils of nationalism, what emerges is a glorious Second-Empire style, as spacious as the Palais Garnier, all the fun of a can-can, and the dispatch of a crack express train. There is always more going on than the ear can take in, and if this is not distracting, it preserves the work from triteness. Gifted at mimicking the styles of the past, Sullivan is a self-demonstrating historian of music. At the same time, his work betrays an ardent, as well as up-to-date admiration of Verdi’s way with the orchestra, itself an under-appreciated subject. (I believe that orchestration provided Verdi with the means of planting himself as a character in his operas.) The music to which Sullivan set Gilbert’s articulate ballads is equally articulate; more than that, it shines with the most straightforward, good-humored love of life. Like Mozart, Sullivan is a master of lubricating his complexities so smoothly that they never get in the way of the unschooled. Unlike the words, the music is never superficially puzzling.

There is an astringency in Gilbert & Sullivan that sets it apart from the Victorian world outside the preserve of the Savoy Theatre. Sullivan is like one the great chefs imported from France — delicious. Gilbert is English to the bone, but he has swallowed a lozenge that makes it impossible to trust in romantic impulses. There are moments of deep yearning in his texts, but over the course of the collaboration with Sullivan, these drift from the comely heroines, such as Josephine Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, to the battleaxes, the Katishas and the Lady Janes. Young love is mocked by the young lovers themselves.

Phyllis: We won’t wait long.
Strephon: No. We might change our minds. We’ll get married first.
Phyllis: And change our minds afterwards?
Strephon: That’s the usual course. (Iolanthe, II.438-41)

This astringency saturates everything in the Savoy Operas, particularly, if invisibly, the very idea of social reform. When I first got to know The Mikado, I was naive enough to believe that Victorian audiences must have been shocked and offended by what struck me as a transparent critique of the Establishment. I see now that my surprise — my surprise that performances of The Mikado were permitted while the old sourpuss sat on the throne — says a lot about the plush, suffocating hypocrisy of life in Bronxville circa 1960, a little world in which it was forbidden not only to sell houses to Jews but to hint at the existence of the prohibition. I was so conscious of the injunction against speaking the truth about society that I mistook Gilbert’s pantomime caricatures for overt social criticism. As David Cannadine points out in his important essay, “Gilbert and Sullivan as a ‘National Institution’,” there was no social criticism in the Savoy Operas.

This, in essence, is the social universe of the Savoy Operas: a universe selectively but perceptively modelled on the real and recognizable Britain of the years 1871-1896. There is monarchy on the way to apotheosis, and there is aristocracy on the way to decline. There are those great professions most concerned with domestic security and international peace. But, apart from Dr Daly in The Sorcerer, there are no clergymen… In the same way, the commercial and entrepreneurial bourgeoisie hardly appears at all, apart from the gentlest references to middle-class social climbing in The Mikado. … As for the working class, they are invariably picturesque and dutiful rustic maidens, country bumpkins, jolly jack tars. And the settings are almost always pastoral and sylvan: country houses and villages predominate, and apart from Titipu (which is a Japanese town) and the Palace of Westminster (significantly bathed in yellow moonlight in Act II of Iolanthe), the press and pace of urban life hardly intrude.

The complete lack of social criticism leaves Gilbert & Sullivan free to contemplate such universal social problems as the difficulty of attracting and holding on to the attention of others, the itch to be too clever for one’s own good, the false consciousness of striking noble attitudes, and the longing to bury disappointment and frustration with material wealth. We laugh because we are not asked to cry. And yet, here am I, crying as I laugh. And then not really laughing, just crying. It is not sentimentality, but an emotional discomfort, as ordinary little people are presented in magnificent language and ravishing music while emphasizing the fact that they are neither magnificent nor ravishing in themselves. As we none of us are.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Ian Bradley’s Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and followed the D’Oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore (the last of several; the company recorded it in 1908). Pinafore, the first Savoy Opera that I ever saw, has never been a favorite of mine. It is perhaps too hearty and masculine for my taste. (Have you noticed? When I approve of a sex-linked characteristic, I say that it’s “manly” or “womanly.” When I disapprove, I use the other words, which also, for me, suggest a strong whiff of the bogus.) There are some great numbers in Pinafore, and I used to think that “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” was Sullivan’s greatest tune. But in later years I have not been drawn to listen to it. Perhaps it would be better to say that, while I have listened to it, I haven’t been inspired to pay much attention.”We sail the ocean blue…” All right, then, off you go!

At the outset of this personal overview of the Savoy Operas, I’ll declare a marked preference for the four central works, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, and The Mikado, created in that order between 1880 and 1885. I am not going to say that they’re perfect, only that (what’s much better) they’re Just Right. Princess Ida is perhaps a bit less Just Right than the others, but Acts I and II are very fine, and “This Helmet, I Suppose” redeems the rackety nature of the finale with a grand Handelian blaze. It is hard to think how the other three operas might be improved in any way. Not only do the collaborators exhibit complete mastery of their formula — a gross word for a subtle understanding of good theatre — but they mock it along with everything else.

HMS Pinafore is far from Just Right. The romantic scenes are poorly paced, and there is a great deal of confusion about Captain Corcoran’s status — is he the owner of a “luxurious home” (Josephine) or “lower middle class” (Sir Joseph)? Also, ahem, is it not pathological, rather than merely absurd, for the demoted Corcoran to wind up in the arms of the woman who took care of him as an infant? Then there’s Dick Deadeye, a character whose one virtue seems to be serving as a reminder of how lucky we are that Gilbert did not go in for real villains. (Buttercup’s swerves into gypsy effrontery are also unnerving.) I conclude that Pinafore is still too close to the kind of melodrama that the Savoy Operas eventually supplanted.

The music of Pinafore is miscellaneous. A great deal of it is merely rousing, almost nakedly patriotic. (Bradley notes that in the early years of the last century, the company ended performances with “Rule, Britannia!”) There is a black joke in the notion that Ralph Rackstraw is good enough for Josephine Corcoran simply by virtue of being an Englishman — a participant, that is, in the most tirelessly class-conscious and self-policing society in the the world — but Sullivan drowns the sting in tub-thumping jingoism. The operatic scena, “The hours creep on apace,” is quite out of joint in Pinafore‘s good-humored atmosphere, and so is “Refrain, audacious tar.” In all of these slippages the problem seems to be that Sullivan had not yet learned how unsuitable it was to be plainly earnest in the house of topsy-turvy. He would solve this problem by going over the top, out-antheming the anthems, as in Iolanthe‘s “When Britain really ruled the waves.”

I don’t mean to heap contumely upon a very popular work of art, but only to measure the sublimity of the collaboration in terms of the pitfalls that had to be traversed. (I ought to have begun with The Sorcerer, which I have seen but hardly know.) The difficulty for me is that Trial By Jury, the one-act inauguration of Gilbert & Sullivan, is as Just Right as a thing can be. But of course it is a shank, a large fragment — a spacious finale for the unwritten romance of Edwin and Angelina. And both legal absurdity and aversion to matrimony were not only quite familiar to Sullivan’s funny-bone, but also matters that would never intrude upon his serious compositions. It was much harder for him to make fun of the Royal Navy, or even to have fun while portraying it. The triumph of Sullivan’s Savoy achievement lies in his eventual success at overmastering his own impeccable manners, without, at the same time, doing anything actually rude.


Yesterday evening, I watched Bridge of Spies, which has come out on DVD. (I picked it up at the Video Room on my way home from a session with the blue lights at the dermatologist’s.) I knew that Kathleen wanted to see it; I didn’t know that she had already done so, on the flight to Australia in December. So I watched it by myself, before she came home. Considering that Steven Spielberg directed it, I liked the movie quite a bit; this may be attributable to the Coen brothers’ screenplay. It’s too bad that “Stoikiy muzhik” couldn’t have been used as the title, because it perfectly encapsulates what Bridge of Spies is about: a man who stands up for what’s right. That it is a Russian phrase intensifies the compliment, but it also guarantees that the man of whom it is said would never, speaking only English and a little German, say it himself. Tom Hanks is of course the man — “stoikiy muzhik” could be his job description. Hanks brings a barely-checked garrulity to the trivial details of life that intensifies his reticence about the big things. One senses the piety observed by a good man in the face of righteous holiness, precisely where piety is everything.

The compliment is paid by a Russian spy called Abel, who has been caught by the FBI and then defended, pro bono, by Hanks’s Jim Donovan, a lawyer who takes Abel’s case more seriously than his friends and family think he ought to do. It is just as difficult to detach Mark Rylance from this character, who submits to Hanks’s questions with silent aplomb. Rylance is the trickster god among today’s actors; you can’t even be sure that you’re being tricked. At several points in the story, Donovan expresses surprise that Abel doesn’t seem to be worried about what will happen to him, to which Abel invariably replies, “Would it help?” Does that work? is what you want to ask. Can you ease your cares by acting on the knowledge that fretting doesn’t help? Most of us cannot. Is that because we lack the power, or haven’t trained ourselves to develop it? If we asked Abel, he might give us a riddle for an answer.

For me, however, the really scary character was Amy Ryan’s Mary Donovan. If there had been more of her in the movie, I should have had to cover my eyes, because she evoked the ferocious moms of the Fifties so powerfully that I dreaded hearing my mother summon me peremptorily to come downstairs for some awful reckoning or other. Trim and blonde, perfectly made up and with every hair in place, she simmered with conflicting responsibilities. On the one hand, she was the realistic, de facto head of the household, charged with putting food on the table for a houseful of kids (while remaining sublimely unmussed). On the other hand, she was the law-abiding helpmeet, the ultimately subservient second banana. Ryan gives us both a woman who is completely in love with her husband and an imminent train wreck. She also tells us everything that we need to recall about those times — those times when the world was a great place, but only if you were one of the Jim Donovans.

I’ve seen a bunch of other Berlin-Wall movies lately. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Funeral in Berlin, The Debt, and, in a different key, The Man from UNCLE. I know there really was a Wall — as well as I can, never having been to Germany. But it seems unreal now, probably because it is. I believe that portions, or at least a portion, of the Wall were left standing, but of course the Wall was much more than a pile of bricks topped by barbed wire. It was a battlefield, where real people were really killed. For those people, and for the soldiers who shot at them, the Cold War was Hot. This active Wall was always evidence of the failure of the Russian experiment with Communism, just as it was evidence of the West’s failure to contain Russia within borders that had long been too fluid.

More forgotten than the Wall — so much harder to visualize — are the nuclear arsenals that the Cold War was fought to keep in their silos.


In The New Yorker, Elif Batuman writes about not wearing a head scarf in Turkey. Batuman’s parents were born in Turkey, but she herself grew up in New Jersey. (Even though I went to boarding school in New Jersey — way west Jersey, as I used to insist, practically the Delaware Water Gap — I share the suburban New Yorker’s bottomless contempt for the Garden State, and I always feel sorry for the Indian and other immigrant families who have for some reason perched there, of all places. I think that it has something to do with Science, but still… And by “suburban New Yorker” I am referring to folks from Westchester County and the nearer reaches of Fairfield, in Connecticut. In the mind of the “suburban New Yorker,” those parts of Long Island that are neither horse farm nor beach simply do not exist. The Hamptons are an island floating somewhere between Block Island and the Statue of Liberty.) Batuman grew up a secular (atheist) humanist. This would have made her right at home under the Kemalist régime that, after decades of rule, came to an end when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over, in 2003.

Or would it? The Kemalists were tough guys. They were a social minority determined to hold on to power. You know how that goes. Batuman is a fiercely intelligent reporter, which makes her a helpless, nonstop critic. Sooner or later, she will offend everybody who believes that holding on to power requires imposing limits on free speech. You just know that, if Batuman had been old enough to visit Turkey professionally before the AKP era (which she just about was, but let that pass), her traveling companion would have been an Armenian from New Jersey. She’d be writing from prison. If she was lucky.

In any case, Batuman writes about visiting Urfa, a provincial town on the Syrian border where interesting archaeological remains have surfaced. One day, she visits a holy site, the Cave of Abraham, and dutifully dons a head scarf for the occasion, as required by law. When she leaves, she forgets to take the head scarf off. Suddenly, everyone she encounters on her way back to the hotel is, as she puts it, “so much nicer” to her. She entertains the idea of observing local custom for the rest of her visit, but she decides against it, on the not unassailable grounds that this would be pretending. In the middle of arguments pro and con, she discusses Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, the novel that forecasts a democratically-elected Islamic government of France early in the coming decade. She quotes a passage, which I shall quote as well, and adds a fascination interpretation.

“Huysmans’s true subject had been bourgeois happiness, a happiness painfully out of reach for a bachelor. …to have his artist friends over for a pot-au-feu with horseradish sauce, accompanied by an ‘honest’ wine and followed by plum brandy and tobacco, with everyone sitting by the stove while the winter winds battered the towers of Saint-Sulpice.” Such happiness ispainfully out of reach for a bachelor,” even a rich one with servants; it really depends on a wife who can cook and entertain, who can turn a house into a home.

You can see why I find this “fascinating.” Only a woman can cook and entertain, and only a married woman can turn a house into a home. I am not only fascinated by this rubbish — which I’m pretty sure Batuman regards as rubbish, too — but paralyzed. Where to begin?

Let me begin with convincing selfishness. While I’m heartily sympathetic to all women who would rather do something that does involve turning houses into homes, especially to those who would like, or who actually need, someone else to effect this transformation, what pisses me off about Batuman’s paraphrase of the prevalent traditional worldview is the taboo that forbids men to do these things. I have broken it all my adult life, and I have enjoyed good-enough comfort, hygiene, and household organization, not to mention a perfect record (to the best of my knowledge) on the score of making sure that nobody gets sick at my dinner table, throughout. I have lived the life that I wanted to lead.

I discovered early that women are not natural homemakers. As with many women, my mother’s domestic expertise stopped pretty much at the frontiers of her wardrobe. A cleaning lady was engaged to run the vacuum and so on, and if there is one single reason why I took up the art of cooking it is self-preservation: my mother was a terrible cook. At her best, she was uninspired. When inspired, she was a dangerous lunatic. It’s true that no one got sick. Everything was guaranteed dead, even the bacteria. In order to hold on to my father, my mother had to learn how to broil a rare steak, ditto lamb chops, and do something with chicken. Everything else came out of a can or a box. Reheating aside, more food was cooked in the oven than on the stove. Her batterie de cuisine would have been sniffed at by cowboys at home on the range. Terrible knives, paper-thin pots and pans, an enameled cast-iron frypan that was wrong for everything.

From this unpromising environment I moved on to the vie de Bohème, where I discovered that female flatmates were without exception slobs. They were perhaps a little cleaner than young men new to the independent life, but their closets, drawers, writing surfaces and such were all tangles of whatnot. Beds were made only when parents came calling, and not always then.

Parenthood introduced me to the reality that I could change diapers as well as anybody. If you pay attention, and your baby is healthy and a good sleeper, child care, while exhausting, requires no special skills. If you know how to make love (and I do mean love), you know how to hold an infant.

I did inherit one thing from my mother: I liked to entertain. Or rather, like François in Hoellebecq’s novel, I wanted to serve friends pot-au-feu by the stove. But I wanted to make it, and I wanted it to be delicious, so that people would be glad that they were dining chez moi. I did not want to farm out the cooking to a woman; I wanted to do it myself. Most of the serious chefs in the world, are, after all, as you may have noticed… In the one kitchen that I got to design from the ground up, I created an atmosphere that Kathleen described as “a wood shop, but with curtains.”

What has made my life different from other men’s is, I conclude with increasing conviction, my size. This meant nothing to my mother (except that, as she gloriously put it, I ought to find “a nice, tall queen” to marry), and my father was just as big. But in the rest of the world, it has granted me a good deal of license. It is simply easier to stand in the way of other people, meaning people other than me, and the blessing of humanity is that there are only so many people who enjoy standing in the way of others.

And I did have a secret agenda: I wanted to prove, beyond doubt, that you don’t have to be Mary Donovan to turn a house into a home.


Friday 5th

David Brooks writes about “rational saints” in his column today. He mentions Larissa MacFarquhar’s Drowning Strangers, the title of which refers to a moral challenge. If your mother is drowning over here, and two strangers are drowning over there, where do you jump in? Do you save one life or two?

Regular readers will be able to guess what I think of “rational saints.” They might be confused, however, about where I’d jump in, because I say such nasty things about my mother. But of course I should jump in to save her. I don’t think I’d give it a thought; I’d just do it. There would be no calculus of two against one. Under the circumstances, the strangers would not be morally equivalent to two of my mother. (Two of my mother! Turn this conversation off now!)

Somehow, saving my drowning mother reminded me, by the inverted logic that is my substitute for rationality, of what I was already thinking of writing about today, which is that making and keeping friends is a rather small part of my life.

Now, like most people in New York (or so it seems to me), I have a fluid idea of “family.” My family includes several people to whom I am in no way related. The exemplar is Fossil Darling, my roommate at Blair more than fifty years ago. I know that he is a family member because I should never put up with him as a friend — he is that irritating. You think I’m joking! Fossil’s spouse, Ray Soleil, is in contrast both a family member and a friend. The point is, however, that I should jump in to save Fossil, and let the two strangers fend for themselves.

M le Neveu is family on two levels. Which reminds me — we haven’t seen him in a while, and I ought to have him up to dinner. It may seem that we are always having people to dinner, but that is not the case. I can think of only four occasions since Thanksgiving. Of those occasions, one involved neighbors, one involved family-family, and our guests at the third were friends who would be family if they did not have enough family already. (They have also moved to Cape Cod for part of the year. Last year, “part” pretty much meant “all.”) Finally, we had Ms NOLA and her husband — a classic case of Gotham friendship. Ms NOLA used to date a family-family member, but quickly became a member of our elective family.

After family come the correspondents. Some of these are friends with whom I used to spend face-to-face time. In one case, a friend became a correspondent years after moving away from New York. In other, the same thing happened, years after we got out of law school. I have always liked to write letters, and I treasure my correspondents. There are two problems on this front, however. One is that few people want to be correspondents. In the old days, before the Internet, people would say that my letters were beyond their capacities to reply in kind. If you’re a good cook, you probably get this, too. (I have.) Nowadays, I make no effort with friends who don’t like to write. The other problem is that I have little to say that doesn’t appear at this site. It not infrequently happens that I find a letter that I am writing turning into material for an entry here, but only rarely do I write a letter with that end in view from the start. In any case, I don’t see my correspondents very often, maybe twice in a year, maybe once in two years. Maybe almost never.

Then there are the people with whom we used to spend a lot of time and with whom we now catch up via telephone, and the very odd Manhattan layover, every now and then.

Beyond these thinly-populated rings, there are uncountable acquaintances. Some of them might become true friends, if we were to spend more time together, but in most cases that is unlikely. Most of the people whom we have met more than once or twice, we may meet once or twice more, before shuffling off &c. A small slice of this group shows up at the annual parties that we give, usually in the spring.

Up to this point, Kathleen knows everyone just about as well as I do, with the exception of some, but not all, of the correspondents. For the correspondents also include people whom I met after an initial encounter on the Internet. I met a lot of people that way, back in the heyday of blogging. Now I keep with almost all of them at Facebook. Only a few exchange actual letters.

And that’s that.

But what about old friends?

I’m thinking of the friend who was our best man when Kathleen and I were married. We met when Kathleen and I were in law school, and Barry was writing a dissertation on the mechanism of “cohabitation” in the constitution of the Fifth Republic (France, of course). Cohabitation was still a speculative matter in the late Seventies; it would come up, as I recall — but why recall, when there’s Wikipedia? Barry and I lived in the graduate-student dorm (few law students did), and we became fast friends. Not long after Kathleen and I settled in New York, Barry joined the Peace Corps, and spent a couple of jolly-sounding years at Azemmour, in Morocco. Then he landed in Washington. When Kathleen and I bought the house by the lake, Barry was our most frequent guest, and he had a lot of sweat equity in its improvements.

You might think that it was selling the house that dented our friendship — the house gave us a place with enough room for hanging out, something that becomes increasingly difficult in apartments as you get older. (For one thing, “hanging out”?) But it was the Internet. I became an internaut when I joined a Trollope listserv over the Fourth of July holiday in 1996. There was no looking back for me. Thenceforth, I kept in touch with everyone via email. For some reason, Barry didn’t do email. I don’t recall ever receiving a piece of email from him, although I must have done. I wasn’t just writing email, either, of course; I was exploring a new universe. It wasn’t that I dismissed the bricks-and-mortar world; I just knew that it wasn’t going to go away if I ignored it for a while. I do know that Kathleen and Barry were in touch, because Barry thought that he had been mistreated by a former employer, and asked Kathleen to refer him to a specialist in employment matters, which she did. By then, however, two new blows had been dealt to our friendship.

The one that I knew about was George Bush. Barry was always a rather gleeful conservative. When Reagan took office, two friends of his, both lawyers years ahead of us at Notre Dame, long gone by our arrival, became well-connected young men. They were all, Barry included, pious Catholics. Somehow, though, political alignments didn’t get in our way in the early days. Kathleen and I believed that Reagan was bad for the United States, but only because he was inconceivable as an actual president. He was an actor — a view from which I have never shifted. But Barry and I reveled in our arguments. We were still too young to take politics very seriously. By the time George W Bush came along, things were different. I was fifty-two. Bush was not a joke, or he was a different kind of joke. He represented the party that had impeached and tried to convict Bill Clinton, in what struck me as a gross misprision of justice. Barry’s participation in Republican campaigning, in 2000, bothered me a lot, and I cut back on initiating contact.

One fine day, I realized that I hadn’t talked to Barry in a very long time. This was partly because I didn’t want to pick up the phone and say, “So, how’s the job search going?” If Barry wanted to call me up and tell me about that problem, I’d give him my undivided attention, but my decorum with men who are out of work is to make the second move — unless, of course, I have a plausible lead, which is sadly unlikely. A long time went by, and then one of Barry’s two other Notre Dame friends called Kathleen (because she had helped Barry to find an employment lawyer). I forget exactly what he told her, except that Barry wasn’t well, that his friends were helping him out, and so forth. Some time later — years — we were told that Barry had died, out in Spokane, where he grew up and had family. He died of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I see now that I made use of a dementia of my own. I stopped remembering things about Barry. Not the old things but the new things. He had a girlfriend for a while. She was just right for him, Kathleen and I thought, and we hoped that they’d get married and enjoy the rest of their lives together. But it didn’t work out. And I don’t know why. I think that it was when the signs of things not working first appeared that I stopped keeping track, stopped remembering how things stood when last we talked. It became another thing not to talk about.

I could see that Barry’s life was falling apart, for some invisible but inexorable reason, but I couldn’t think how to respond. And I wasn’t, by this time, very powerfully motivated to respond. Barry had cast his lot with the enemy; plus, he never read my Web site. We quite literally had nothing new to talk about.

Barry’s diagnosis let me off the hook, technically: there was nothing that I could do. Short, that is, of moving in with him and caring for him like a nurse. But perhaps I exaggerate. The fact is, I don’t know what I could have done, because I never looked into it, never tried. I let time do its ever-rolling thing and bear my old friend away. I’m still on the hook.

Another old friend has disappeared. I haven’t felt too bad about not trying to hunt him down — to determine whether he’s dead or alive — because a posse of my Blair classmates worked itself into a lather attempting to do just that, complete with a round-robin argument about whether you have the right to get lost to your old chums, last year, when our fiftieth reunion came round. I knew that Michael did not want to be found, whatever the problem was. He, too, backed away from computers and the Internet, but snail-mail addressed to him was also returned. I knew that, assuming that Michael were physically well — psychologically, he was never at ease — he had simply moved from one flat in Laguna Beach, where he lived modestly on the income from a trust fund, to another, and committed the partial suicide of leaving no forwarding address. Unlike Barry, though — Barry who stopped being Barry — I do miss Michael, who made me laugh more than everybody else combined by the time I was twenty-one, and who still made me laugh forty-odd years later when, in conjunction with an annual convention that Kathleen used to attend (it was held either in Palm Desert or Coronado), we made a point of swinging by Laguna Beach for lunch or dinner. Michael had some serious issues, but he knew how to make them very funny.

You tell me what any of this has to jumping into the water to save my mother.

Bon week-end à tous!