Archive for May, 2016

Gotham Diary:
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May 2016 (IV)

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

23, 24, 26, 27; Vacation Alert

Monday 23rd

Said I to the psychiatrist, “I should like my life to be a work of art.” This was a long time ago.

The psychiatrist did not prescribe institutionalization, so I never learned what he made of my statement. Or of me. The only other conversation that I recall from my time with that doctor concerned my willingness to pay for my sessions, instead of my parents. I was horrified, extremely unwilling, and said so. This was all their idea.

Of the five psychiatrists and one psychologist whom I was to consult in my life, I liked the first — this one — the least. He lingers in my memory looking something like Nelson Rockefeller, but thinner and, if possible, more suave. He said almost nothing, ever, but it must have been very difficult to sit through my blabber. I’d say that I was a self-absorbed suburban adolescent gifted with some intelligence and a borderline narcissistic disorder. Self-esteem being what it is, I like to think that his diagnosis wouldn’t have been severely worse.

I liked the last psychiatrist best. When was he? A little more than ten years ago; it was during my time with him that I published my first site. He oversaw a painless withdrawal from Percocet, which had been prescribed when the ankylosing spondylitis was discovered. He persuaded me that my personality did not belong on the Asperger’s spectrum. (More narcissism?) We had great conversations. Finding more and more satisfaction online, however, I came to the conclusion that I was too old and too functional to fix, and I stopped going. I did pay off my bill. I always meant to write him a thank-you note, and I still think of doing so, every now and then.

I was wrong about being too old to fix. A few years later, I drank too many martinis and passed out on my feet. When I awoke, I could hardly move. For a week, I walked around with a strange pain in my neck. The surgeon who looked at the X-rays sent me straight to the hospital, and operated the next day. There were two further lessons, after-dinner slips in the bathtub, from which I was rescued by doormen. Nevertheless, I’m not quite sure what a psychiatrist’s interventions would have prevented.

These dangerous slips and falls were caused by my pursuit not of art but of fun. I don’t mean to evade responsibility for my misdeeds, but simply to be intelligible I feel required to point out that I grew up in a culture that inextricably bound up the prospect of fun with the presence of booze. It has taken a very long time to develop a better idea of fun, and to make that idea prevail.

The desire to make a work of art out of my life was, of course, ridiculous. The only excuse for such fatuity is that I didn’t understand art very well. But instead of laughing at my preposterous pretentiousness (or vice versa) — as I have been doing for forty years or more — it has now occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to find out what I was trying to say. This would not entail developing a better idea of art. Nor would it involve delving into old notebooks. It’s a matter merely of acknowledging that in a foolish statement can be found the seed of a life to come.

Here are the aspects of art that are not very hard to detect in my ambitions: an overall meaning, a high degree of internal consistency, and a positive claim about the goodness of humanity. In this pursuit, I was saddled with several drawbacks. In addition to my ideas about fun, I was cursed with a short temper and a shaming anxiousness. I ought also to mention an inordinate fondness for sitting in comfortable chairs.

It is at this point that a professional writer, as distinct from a would-be work of art, would insert a very funny, astonishingly illustrative story. I’ll keep my eyes out.


Meaning. I wanted my life to possess meaningfulness. This is not at all the same thing as wanting to lead a life that other people will hail as “meaningful.” To lead a “meaningful life,” one does meaningful things. I’ll leave the list to you. A sacrifice of the self is almost essential: the meaningful job comes first. That’s part of what makes life meaningful to observers. A life of “doing without,” a humble life of quiet service (but not so quiet that nobody notices — and I don’t mean that cynically), a total commitment to a highly demanding career of service. There are no absolute anchors that will guarantee that a life lived thus-and-so will be judged to have been meaningful. You can go to medical school and join Doctors Without Borders, and most people will admire you, but there will always be those who wonder what you were running away from. This is not to suggest that the meaningful life is not worth pursuing. But everything about the ambition to lead one is tricky.

The meaningfulness within my life is no great secret. It is a matter of reading and writing. Of reading and writing as I wish. During my radio days, I had a little gig with one of our advertisers, a neighborhood bookstore that I patronised when I could afford to. The owner (who was not the manager, but a sharp little woman who was good with figures) would hand me three books a month, and I would write reviews that, as I recall, would take up half a page in the radio station’s program guide. I got to keep the books, but of course they were books that I should never have read on my own, and for which my regard was nothing like what the reviews suggested. Because it was such a tiny job, it didn’t do any harm, beyond the small contribution to journalistic dishonesty, but it taught me that I could not make a career out of writing to order. We all have to make a living, and I would prefer to make it from remuneration by readers than from my wife’s kind support, but our economic outlook does not facilitate the creation of such institutional grants — and, no, I am not soliciting individual contributions. We have no way of providing the independent writer with credentials, save posthumously. Historians often achieve what publishers alone cannot.

However clear my gifts as a reader and a writer may have been when I was young, it took until just about the day before yesterday for me to have a coherent idea of what I ought to be reading and writing. Like everyone else, I was seduced by literary buzz, and I read a great many novels that have long since been given away. Like everybody else, I believed that I must try to write a novel. I also wrote three plays. I don’t think that it was particularly dim of me not to see, sooner than I did, that humanism was my theme, because humanism, as I have mentioned elsewhere, has come in modern times to be fought over by warring camps of cranks. This is not the time to dilate upon what humanism means to me, but I’d like to point out that the sustainable social generosity that is its principle object has also shaped my personal behavior. My private life takes place on a very small scale. I know few people well, and no more than ten percent of what I say (in person) is aimed at ears other than Kathleen’s. So I view my personal behavior as primarily a matter of dealing with strangers.

Is there much to say about internal consistency? I think that I have achieved a good measure of this. I am not confused by competing or contradictory aims. But it seems to me that internal consistency ought to make me an easy fellow to understand, and that is not the case. I suspect that I should be much easier to grasp if my internal consistency did not depend so heavily on a thoroughgoing rejection of television and the advertising business model upon which it rests. Just the other night, some old friends made an untiring attempt to convince me that, with the installation of a little box, I should have all the convenience of Netflix — or was it the Internet as a whole — at my fingertips. I tried to point out that Kathleen and I endeavor, but often fail, to see one movie a week. Sometimes there are binges, but it is more common for us not to see anything. This weekend, for example, we meant to see Flirting With Disaster. But we didn’t, because by the time dinner was done, it was too late for movies. (Just as I have learned that I can no longer drink unlimited cocktails, so has it been made clear that I need about two hours to wind down from a movie, thus risking the postponement of bedtime into the small hours.) No matter how easy it is to watch this or that great show, Kathleen and I don’t have the time, because it is more important to do other things. I don’t have to say what I’m too busy with; Kathleen settles the stress of her career with the tonic of playing Diana at eBay. (Or is it Sisyphus? She so rarely finds anything to capture.) The organizing principle of not watching television is simply too bizarre for even our closest friends to imagine.

Manhattan can be very noisy. Sirens alone are a constant nuisance, and helicopters can be unbelievably annoying. The backup of cars entering the garage directly below our windows prompts a great deal of exasperated but useless horn-honking. But the apartment is often silent as a tomb. Music is increasingly special, meant to be listened to, not merely to provide an aural backwash. (Certainly not when we are reading.) I have come to treasure silence. And I know that most of my friends would treasure it, too. But first they would have to wean themselves from the racket of television. Which in turn would mean forswearing the notion that television spouts the authorized version of reality.

Reading and writing may look like solitary activities, but that is only because they require solitude. They are in fact social, intensely social, though at a remove in time and space. By this I mean, among other things, that the dead can speak to us in living voices, and that we can speak in living voices to future generations. It is customary, in this connection, to rattle off something about timeless truths, but I don’t believe in timeless truths. I believe in evolution. Change may be imperceptibly gradual, but it is change just the same. There is a constant danger that changes will render language incomprehensible. Can you read Chaucer “in the original”? For that matter, how fluent is your Shakespeare? Sir Thomas Browne? Ivy Compton-Burnett? Language actually changes very quickly, in evolutionary terms. The generally well-educated reader cannot be expected to read, unaided, writing more than three hundred years old. Three hundred years! We’ve been jotting things down for more than five thousand. Almost all of it has to be translated into one “modern language” or another. And yet the truth, as we know from poetry, can never be translated. That is why reading in another language, whether foreign or an earlier version of one’s own, is enlightening.


Tidying up on Saturday, I straightened up a pile of art books in a low étagère, exchanging a few with books in the tall case on the other side of the foyer. This bookcase has not been organized since we moved in, and it wasn’t really organized even then, as I unpacked boxes of art books and stuffed them in as best they would fit. There are exhibition catalogues — Fragonard, Degas, Turner and so on. There are also children’s books, which are often as tall as art books and which are, in their way, art books themselves. Then there are the shorter texts (shorter in height): Arnheim, Panofksy. Haskell somewhere in between. There are also a few outsize ringers, such as a Shakespeare encyclopedia and a Geography of the World. In the dead center there is a disgrace, a book with a spine torn so badly that the discolored binding is what you see instead of the title. The book has been in this condition for a very long time, and, eyeing the bookcase prior to giving it a once-over, I thought that I really ought to get rid of it. I knew what it was: Michael Levey’s Rococo to Revolution, a Praeger Art Book from 1966. I pulled it down, and, next thing you know, I read half of it. Also, the cover completely broke down, front and back no longer attached to the book nor to one another. I shall not be getting rid of the book. I had somehow lost sight of the fact that most of my favorite painters worked in the Eighteenth Century, from Watteau to Fragonard. Boucher, Tiepolo, Gainsborough, Chardin, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. Even Longhi, sometimes. Levey does not discuss all of these, because some of them — Canaletto, obviously — do not fit on a line from rococo to revolution. But they all share an Apollonian devotion to clarifying daylight.

Rococo to Revolution, loaded with illustrations, some of them in color, was an expensive paperback in 1966: $5.95.


Tuesday 24th

Last night, I got through a second reading of Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace. One of my gloomy books, the others being The Idiot, Jonathan Sperber’s life of Karl Marx, and T G Otte’s The July Crisis. Crankshaw blunders in his final chapter: he writes that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated “in the middle of July.” The mistake makes me wonder if other assured-sounding details are also wrong. The book is tendentious around the edges — writing in the Seventies, the author clearly believed that the Soviet régime in Russia was simply illegitimate, But his sorrow seems to justify it. If the book is a prolonged lamentation, it is brisk and buttoned-up, martially tragic. Crankshaw doesn’t think much of any of the four Tsars who acted the autocrat during his period, but he is especially contemptuous of Nicholas II.

His shrinking from personal violence, one may believe, meant no more than his shrinking from telling the truth to his ministers and advisers. It is desirable to be clear about this. Nicholas was not fit to rule, and by 1903 he had finally demonstrated that his conduct after Khodynka Field was a fair example of what was to come. That he was a dear and loving father of his family is not in question. And very soon now he was to be faced with the tragic and desperately painful burden laid upon his shoulders by the discovery that the infant Tsarevich was a haemophiliac. For after ten years of married life, after bearing four daughters in succession, Alexandra Feodorovna, amid scenes of almost hysterical emotion, had given birth to a son and heir in July 1904. But although the stresses of the Tsar’s private life contributed much to what appeared to be the collapse of his authority and the delivery of Russia into the hands of the Tsaritsa’s favourites, venal or vile, towards the close of his reign, that authority in fact never existed. He had nothing to stand on but his inherited majesty. (337)

What made me decide to hold on to the book was this extremely felicitous passage a few pages later:

Our story may seem to have run ahead of itself again. But in fact it is the subject that is disintegrating, vanishing into thin air, leaving nothing but the terrible memory of the blood-stained cellar in Ekaterinburg and the haunting image of the last Tsar, deposted, and staring pas the camera into nothingness as he sits under guard on the tree stump. (389)

At one point, Crankshaw expresses surprise that nobody thought to shoot the Tsaritsa while the dynasty was still in power; she was certainly the worst single thing that happened to it. I have often wondered why Nicholas II himself was not removed in this way, as his great-great-grandfather Paul over a century earlier. But if I’ve stopped feeling sorry for Nicholas, my only feeling for his wife is one of execration.

At several points in his chapters about Nicholas II, Crankshaw faults the Tsar and his intimates for failing to realize that times had changed, that, for example, the peasantry no longer worshiped their “Little Father” with blind devotion. But even if you can sense that times have changed — so far, 2016 has been a year in which I can sense little else — it is difficult to assess the change, or to grasp its direction. What is changing into what? Only historians will know the half of it. I know that I ought to rustle up a go-bag, so that I’m prepared for that apparently inevitable emergency, but I can’t imagine enduring the physical stress of escaping an endangered Manhattan. My very sincere hope is to have died before the bad things happen. That has always been my hope. When I was younger, though, the bad things that might happen seemed remote and speculative. Now (if I may be allowed to mix ancient mythological catastrophes), the sacrifice of American government by a coven of male Lucretias puts me in mind of burning Troy. I also sense something deadly in the smartphone. Would it be correct, or even intelligent, to put any weight on these intimations of misfortune? I should prefer not to be a cranky bore.

Every time I step out of the building onto the street, I feel irrelevant. This is a new sensation. It’s not that I used to feel relevant: I didn’t feel anything one way or the other. But now I feel that I am no longer in the swim. It is a positive, oppressive thing. Kathleen often claims that she has become invisible: a little old lady. I’m not invisible, certainly, but I feel like a natural obstacle, not a human being, as I make my way among the other pedestrians. This isn’t because nobody looks at me. I can’t tell if anybody’s looking at me. When I walk, I can only see the sidewalk. But everyone who passes by is on the phone. Nobody is present.

I used to read when I walked. Books! I was very good at it. I, too, was not present. But I was the only one. Now it is everyone, and I have completely outgrown the feeling that walking down the street is a waste of time, dead minutes that ought to be put to some use. What change am I really sensing here? Is it merely the change of becoming an old person?

For me, being an old person is going to be somewhat different. I have no life of accomplishment to look back on; the accomplishing is happening now. It could not have happened sooner.


Reading Jonathan Sperber’s obscenely long — sixty-one pages! — chapter about Marx in the 1860s (“The Activist”), and feeling my eyes glaze over as yet another squabble is aired, it occurred to me that there were simply too many issues in the Nineteenth Century. Well, and no wonder. The ancien régime had been pulled down in France, but it flourished almost everywhere else in Europe right through to World War I. This was also the age of unimaginable industrial expansion, first in the form of large mills and other factories, then as railroads, and finally as a shower of domestic innovations that transformed intimate life. The economic consequences of this surge accelerated at their own velocity; it was madness to pretend that they could be made to stand still long enough for even summary analysis. Marx was very naive, I think, to believe that the deft use of traditional (if late-model) philosophical and rhetorical tools would enable him to predict what he thought to be inevitable, inherently necessary. He had this thing about “workers” — did it ever cross his mind that rising levels of prosperity would, without any help from revolutions, transform workers into his detested petits bourgeois? He blinded himself to the possibility not just of Archie Bunker, but of generations of Archie Bunkers.

Marx also had a strange faith in solidarity. Despite his own prickly narcissism as to small differences, he believed that these workers of his would band together, would unite, and would not only take the reins of power but govern themselves in peace. But people do not band together unless they have to, except when nothing is at stake except personal satisfaction. What makes it possible for people to cooperate in folk-dancing groups or battle re-enactments is precisely the fact that these activities are pointless, recreational. People do not band together to form banks, to be run as a cooperative enterprise of which no single person is in charge. Marx himself was never a worker. He was a journalist and a political organizer. What did he know about workers? What did workers know?

What bewilders me about Marx, and the Nineteenth Century behind him, is the eager confidence with which brainy people rushed about with explanations of immense changes which they could only partially see and with answers to the terrible problems that these changes engendered. A veritable chaos of confidence! There had never been so many steam engines, powering mills and railroads; there had never been telegraphy; there had never been mass-produced newspapers. And yet everyone seemed to be sure of the consequences of these novelties. There had never been universal franchise. There had never been an overt, political struggle for women’s rights. There had never been an acknowledged connection between language and patriotism. There had never been slavery, not as there was slavery in the South once the steam-powered mills of England developed their appetite for cotton. Democracy had never been attempted on anything like the scale of the United States. And yet everybody knew that it was all going to work out grandly. Everyone was going to be free and prosperous and literate and happy.

There were just a few little kinks to be worked out. As we all know, if you have a number of problems to solve, you must prioritize them, and work down your list. But what if the list is collective? Who decides which problem must be solved first? It turns out that the person who decides is the person supported by the most power. There is no guarantee that this person is right. For many passionate thinkers in the Nineteenth Century, nationalism was the most important problem. Looking back, we can see that these thinkers shared a weakness: they minimized the size and importance of groups within any area in which a language was generally spoken. They were willing to write off the clusters of Germans, for example, who could be found almost everywhere in Central Europe. Nationalist thinkers were inspired, and then deluded, by the idea that everyone in the nation spoke the national language. Later, nationalism developed its ugly racist force. You might speak the language perfectly but still not belong.

If we look at the invention of nationalism, there is good reason to view the concept with alarm. Nationalism was invented by French Revolutionaries. In 1789, France was still very much a patchwork of different languages and customs, held together by recognition of the monarchy. When the monarchy was removed, something called “the nation” was inserted in its place — but what did this mean? What was the nation? Saying that it was French didn’t get you very far, not until Napoleon, that savior of the Revolution, imposed standards of universal education. This highly coercive nationalism traveled with his conquering armies and was implemented more or less throughout Europe. It became a terrible problem for the Austrians, a minority in their own empire. Hungary fought for national independence in 1848. It lost, but subsequently accepted the institution of the Dual Monarchy, in 1867 (the year after Austria’s defeat by Prussia), as a substitute. The main thing now was that there were no Slavic nations, just Russia. Hungary could accept its partnership with Austria because there were no other partners. But then, as the Ottomans receded, the Balkans south of Hungary became dotted with Slavic states — Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumania. Oh, dear. Nationalism is still, to this day, a terrible idea. Nevertheless, everyone but a few old reactionaries was certain, as long as two hundred years ago, that only great things could come of it. Why? Because it was the new idea, and dynastic allegiance was the old idea. In fact, nationalism’s destructive powers were not fully revealed until the dynasties were swept away, one hundred years ago.

My point is not to critique the idea of nationalism, but to suggest that people are overly confident about dealing with new problems. There is now a great deal of certainty about environmental degradation. It is either catastrophic or non-existent, and if you believe that it is catastrophic, then there are certain steps that must be taken right now. That is to say that there is a list of actions that must be taken in a certain order, and it is imperative to recognize this list right now. The problem is that not everyone’s list is the same.

I am a great believer in deliberation. The ability to deliberate is a gift, like any other, that few people are given. Most of us are too impatient, too dominating, or both. I beg your indulgence; until quite recently, our common ideas about universal franchise were either unknown or abhorred. Then people began to dream of them. I dream of a deliberative body, one that, like the Académie Française, elects new members upon the death of old ones. The members, whatever their training, are not experts — except at deliberation. When faced with a cosmological problem — asteroid alert! — they consult astronomers. For more complex problems, they consult a wider range of experts. Then they deliberate. They argue; they write position papers. Eventually, they agree, or they agree to disagree. But they explain their judgment as lucidly as possible to the world at large. They cannot make anything happen; they can only persuade. Here my dream stops, with plenty of important details still to be worked out. Perhaps you can help.


Thursday 26th

My intention was to write about Nathan Heller’s Oberlin piece in The New Yorker, but this morning’s Times brought the breathtaking news that Daphne Guinness has released an album, which will come out this week. You know, songs — although Guinness’s vocals are described as sprechstimme, which basically means not singing. The problem for me, should I buy the album, which is called Optimist in Black, is to decide which collection it belongs to. Do I put it with the unlistenable CDs by Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling, or do I slip in among the Mitford books?

Where are those CDs? Birkin and Rampling are both English actresses who are domiciled in France. Their French is adorable. Since Birkin was married to the great Serge Gainsbourg, it’s not hard to see why she might have been tempted to sing. I don’t know the explanation behind Charlotte Rampling’s ventures, but it doesn’t really matter, given the particular aesthetic that her singing embodies. It is an anti-Wagnerian aesthetic. Singing is suggested by coy, hushed breaths. At least, that is what I recall of the thirty seconds in which I exposed myself to Rampling’s CD. I adore Charlotte Rampling, which is why I bought the CD, but the shame does burn. I bought the Birkin album (there are several) because Jane Birkin was going to appear in a New York venue, and I was thinking about buying a ticket. The CD was an inexpensive hedge: I did not buy a ticket. It was all I could do to suppress the imagination of disaster: how Kathleen would glare at me if she were to accompany me to such an event. I do not adore Jane Birkin, but I am very fond of her, which is perhaps even nicer. I think that she makes Merci, Docteur Rey, my most favorite train-wreck of a movie.

I have Jessica Mitford’s CD — Decca and the Dectones. To be fair, it was made as a fundraiser, and one can only hope that it was a success at that. The elderly writer and union activist tries very hard to sing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” There are passages of genuine song, if rarely in tune. I’m listening to it as I write. The CD is dated 1995; Mitford died the following year. If you can imagine Margaret Rutherford singing a Beatles song, you’re halfway there. Mitford’s accent is about ten times plummier, and curiously most pronounced when she “sings” that “oh – oh, oh, oh.” I can’t believe that I found it so quickly, in a CD case, about three feet tall, that stands just beneath my work table. The case is full of other curiosities – Karl Zéro and Bea Lillie, just to name two — that I really ought to listen to more than I do. That’s where Optimist in Black ought to go, if I take the plunge. The Birkin and Rampling albums, too, if and when I find them.

And Florence Foster Jenkins, to name another. (Who’d ‘a’ thunk that Meryl Streep would make a movie about her? Although the role really belongs to Broadway star Judy Kaye, who claimed to have wrecked her voice learning to sing like Jenkins, for that wonderful but short-lived show, Souvenir.)

And Mrs Miller. Don’t forget Mrs Miller! These boots are made for walkin’!


Nathan Heller’s Oberlin piece, “The Big Uneasy,” is clearly written by a young man. Someone more my age would have been less appalled by the evidence of illiberalism in today’s student bodies. I was there when the latest wave of it started, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much in fifty years. The personnel are different: almost all of the students interviewed by Heller are “of color.” In my day, the activists were just smart-ass white guys who had discovered an alternative to athletic prowess. Alternative excellence, however, still does seem to be the point.

I am very conservative about education, in case you hadn’t noticed. This does not mean that I espouse a “conservative” curriculum, although a list of books that I believe undergraduates ought to read would probably suggest that I do. I am certainly not a conservative in this regard: higher education is the duty that civilization owes to the future. If its élite is to function properly (and, repeat after me, there will always be an élite), then it must understand the world. It must be taught what civilization amounts to — how it rises and how it falls. In right-thinking countries, education is provided at no cost to qualified students, and nobody dreams of calling the student a “consumer.”

In exchange for this free education, students agree to learn what is taught. They accept on principle the assumption that, going in, they know nothing. Higher education makes no sense at all if you believe that students learn what’s academically important from some other source. Students who believe that colleges and universities do not know what’s important are wasting everybody’s time. They are not ready for/do not belong in college. That is really the end of it. Even though the activism of the Sixties made very small waves at Notre Dame, I saw enough to be terrified of the idea that students and teachers ought to switch roles. And I, as I have written elsewhere, was a terrible student myself.

Terrible as I might have been at following the curriculum, I never believed that nonsense about discovering myself. I was in school, very consciously, to learn the history of ideas: that is why I signed up for Great Books. (And I did read most of those that were prescribed.) I knew that I was young and unformed — I certainly hoped that I was unformed — but I did not expect school to turn me into an adult. I learned more about being an adult from the struggles of other students. It did not occur to me that what we were learning in class amounted to opportunities chosen or declined in the same way that our friendships and dating experiences closed some doors while opening others. There was nothing limiting about learning; only the time for learning was limited.

It also did not occur to me that I was being brainwashed. This is a delicate point, because brainwashing is very much the point of all education. In elementary school, kids are not encouraged to develop private writing systems or secret languages. No: they are taught to write as much like everyone else as possible and to add numbers in a way that arrives at the only correct answer. The coercive aspect of education diminishes as education progresses, but there is no denying that the debates about the correct way of thinking that flourish in universities take place on a settled platform of axioms and received ideas. Some students, in any time, are certain to suspect that this platform is creaky and in need of replacement; more than any other students, they need the guidance of gifted teachers to encourage them to postpone reformative projects until they have completed the course. Discourse occurs within agreed-upon parameters, without which there is no discourse but only shouting and babble.

Nathan Heller is concerned that a number of Oberlin students are pursuing parameter resetting rather than discourse. One student confesses that she no longer has much interest in hearing the thoughts of people who don’t think the way she does. That’s perfectly natural; it is the very inclination that, for the four years of undergraduate learning, a student is expected to submit to constant challenge. I have so far stressed learning as a matter of taking in information about the world, but the capstone of the undertaking is learning how to talk about it, and learning how to listen to others talk about it. The curriculum is a salient parameter of academic discourse. The reason for accepting it without argument is to foster the possibility that there will be a great deal of argument about what it all means. None of this has been brought home, on Heller’s evidence, to the Oberlin students he talks to.

Here are a few great lines from Heller’s piece.

At some point, it seemed, the American left on campus stopped being able to hear itself think.

“I’m actually still trying to reconcile how unhappy I’ve been here with how happy people were insisting I must be.” (Soon-to-be ex-student)

“Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” (Teacher)

“This is the generation of kids that grew up being told that the nation was basically over race.” (Teacher)

“One of the hypocrisies of the call for a globalized curriculum is that the people calling for it don’t give a flying fuck if a subject is being taught properly.” (Teacher)

Carey, like Bautista, went to élite schools on scholarships; she says that, for her, the past few years have been about “unlearning” most of what she had been taught.

American universities have always been able to boast of large populations of students who are the first members of their families to receive higher education. The diversity of American universities does something to cushion the shock of entering university culture from a disadvantaged background. Many first-time students (so to speak) go to schools with strong religious affiliations, for example. Many choose to stay close to home. Heller’s Oberlin students, in contrast, seem like the victims of a malignant experiment, yanked from socioeconomic deprivation into a zone of shimmering sophistication, one of the principle aspects of which is their mere presence in it. Cyrus Eosphoros, the trans man and projected dropout who expresses his unreconcilable unhappiness in the quotes above, complains of being “proof of concept for other people.” It couldn’t be clearer that Eosphoros was not ready for Oberlin, and that Oberlin did nothing to compensate. Possibly because I was so happy to get away from home, I have always believed that it is important for boys (especially) to attend boarding schools, which were called “prep schools” because they prepared students for the rigors of college life. Surely some kind of orientation is crucial to students’ success. Oberlin is an unusual school from almost any perspective; I’m sure that a lot of kids from affluent white families are shaken up there. The academic atmosphere of disruption and play must strike some scholarship students as pointless and/or frivolous.

Heller writes, “The historic bracket that opened in the the sixties is starting to close; the boomers’ memoirs of becoming no longer lead up to the present.” I’m not sure what this means, but I know that the era in which leftist boomers grew up to run academia is ending. Academia is now run by people who were given tenure by boomers. These replacements may be even more expert at teaching the boomer curriculum, but the very fact that they were students of the boomers — those boomers themselves were never really students at all; they came to “liberate” — signifies a falling-off in passion. Meanwhile, it has finally been acknowledged that boomers indulged in a lot of wishful thinking where race was concerned. Quite aside from dreaming that the nation’s sociopolitical problems were solved or on the way to being solved by the civil-rights activism of the Sixties, boomers cherished the old American dream of opportunity. Heller’s students seem unilaterally to reject the opportunities provided by Oberlin; perhaps it would be better to say that they reject the very idea of academic opportunity. They don’t jump at the chance to take a place in the white man’s world. They wish that the white man and his world did not exist. And who can blame them? Why, though, are they having their noses rubbed in it?

We boomers might have been told too often that we were special, but what really marked us apart was the way in which the world was made special for us. Unlike all previous epochs, it was a world of endless opportunity. This is usually seen as a side-effect of postwar affluence, but I see it now, as I’m coming to see many different things, as having roots in Cold War strategy. We were to be healthy and strong and bright — but not just for our own sakes. We were to flourish as individual Americans, but there was an ulterior motive: we were to show up the collectivized Russians. Everything that they did over there, except playing chess and musical instruments, we were supposed to do in the opposite way. We collaborated as members of a team, not as bees in a hive. Sure, there was a massive intensification of science education after Sputnik, but the generosity with which liberal arts studies were funded did not begin to slow down until it became clear that the Soviets were not going to prevail. It just about ended along with the Cold War. I don’t think that I’m being cynical here, but only realistic. Which is why I don’t regard my education as some sort of trick designed to make me fall into step with the march of the brave and the free. I was lucky to grow up, not as a boomer, but in the Cold War, and to have benefited from my side’s extensive, if self-interested, generosity.


Friday 27th

Perhaps it is a character defect, but I find myself maddeningly incapable of deriving any satisfaction from the disgrace of Kenneth Starr, who has been “stripped” (Times) of his title as President of Baylor University. And why? Because some of the school’s football players have been getting away with sexual assault. Predictably, the interests of boosting a winning football team have taken priority over more ethical concerns. Irony corkscrews through the story: Starr will retain his position as chancellor, because that job is, how shall I paraphrase it, more of a religious thing. (Baylor is a Baptist school.) I ought to be smirking at least. I always sensed that Starr was a great humbug, and that his very participation in the persecution of Bill Clinton trivialized it. Now I know.

But the ironic part of the story is but a small wave, followed by a much larger one: once again, it has been demonstrated that college football is incompatible with college life. There is not much to say about this; I ought just to let the wave knock me down, and try to remember that for lots of other American’s, it’s all great fun. It must be something like the taste for blood. Very bright people are more than keen on their favorite schools’ football games, especially the ones that their favorite teams win. I went to Notre Dame (twice), so I ought to know what it’s like, but I don’t know what it’s like; it’s sports, dammit, and what the hell is it doing on campus? I have to remember that for many people, college is primarily a social institution. This is especially true for professionals, who go on to pursue advanced degrees in extremely rigorous institutions. College, in contrast, is a time for fun, punctuated by occasional nightmares of cramming and exams. These bright people are deaf, absolutely deaf, to the idea that lucrative, pre-professional sports programs may be toxic to the schools that foster them, that the mere proximity of gigantic stadiums to libraries may deform young minds, may normalize extremely questionable behavior, and may dim moral objection to a game that does ruin young minds, literally. You can say all of this, and these very bright people will respond just like other addicts. They will not listen until catastrophe strips them of that option.

And television. If I wanted to be prosecutorial, I might point out that college football was a sideshow, of interest to no one but alumni (Notre Dame an interesting exception), and that professional football was a great deal less popular than baseball, until television made it easy to follow games without leaving home, and eventually transformed games into television shows, so that, if you did take the trouble to attend, you were, potentially, part of the cast. (Since Friday entries are supposed to be relatively lighthearted, perhaps I ought to ease up on the scolding for a sec to remind readers that my old pal Fossil Darling was caught snoozing at the US Open by a lingering cameraman — during the women’s games, of course. He was spectacularly identifiable to many of his friends.) I might try to make something of the connection between two encroaching aspects of American life that I fear are threatening our future. But it’s no longer a case of threatening the future. The damage has been done. Now that Donald Trump is the “presumed Republican candidate,” my worst fears have been realized: American voters have confused politics with entertainment. And why not? What do they see of politics that isn’t filtered through a medium that converts everything into entertainment? And what have established politicians done but transform themselves into characters out of a telenovela, prone to fibbing?

Television is not really addictive, but it is extremely habit-forming, with the habit pertaining not to following certain TV shows but to simply having the the thing on. I’m intrigued by the blurriness of the language that surrounds this subject: what does it mean “to watch television”? What is television? As I think of it, television is a system that integrates a range of components. Watching Laura on TMC is watching television, but watching a DVD of Laura is not. The latter experience lacks many of the components of watching television, and the component that strikes me most at the moment is television’s endlessness. If you watch Laura on a DVD, the show will come to an end. At a certain point, you will have seen everything that the DVD has to offer. You must either insert another DVD or turn off your television equipment. At the end of Laura on TMC, there will be something next, and if the TMC people are doing their job, you will want to watch whatever is next. Meanwhile, you will be treated to a gentle barrage of anchoring symbols that locate you in the realm of TMC’s brand. TMC’s brand is a significant component of watching Laura “on television.” It is much more than a label. It is a dual outlook, a split vision. Half of it is a “philosophy” that viewers can relate to; at TMC, the reigning philosophy holds that they don’t make movies the way they used to. The other half is an outlook upon the viewers, an inquiry into the viewers’ likes and dislikes that will help TMC to make its philosophy even more attractive. If you are watching TMC on a computer, your click will be added to the total. Watching television can be interactive in a surprising and unsettling way.

Ever since I woke up to the malignity of television, in the mid-Eighties, I have asked for only one thing of the medium: no news programs, no serious interviews, nothing but fluff. Seriousness is compromised by television because the medium cannot bear the hesitations of doubt. To shrug your shoulders on television is to annoy and terrify viewers, because they have become habituated to regarding the screen as the source of authority — its altar, as it were. If you are going to shrug, you must smile dopily, sending a message that viewers will read to mean, not that you are in fact a dope, but that whatever it is that you don’t know isn’t worth knowing.

I have also asked very bright people, the people who run things, not to watch television, and especially not to have it running in the background.


Last night, I began reading the fourth part of The Idiot, and I was immediately beguiled by Dostoevsky’s discussion of what Marx would call the petit bourgeois character. He begins by pretending that it is difficult to write about perfectly ordinary people in a way that makes them interesting. What does “ordinary” mean, if not “not interesting”? Then he shifts from the writer’s vantage to that of ordinary people, whom he immediately divides into two groups. The first is untroubled in its “impudence of naïvety,”

this stupid man’s unquestioningness of himself and his talent…

The second group, “more clever,” is not so sure. The urge to be singular, the belief that one is capable of doing great things but prevented from doing great things by the static interruptions of a nonsensical world, burns just as passionately in the breasts of both groups, but the “more clever” are at least sometimes aware that their capacity for greatness is imaginary. Dostoevsky pulls in to focus on the Ivolgin siblings, Ganya and Varya, who are both “more clever” ordinary people, as if to demonstrate his thesis that the “more clever” are the less happy. What he does instead is to show that ordinary people can be written about in a way that is very interesting indeed.

I’m still not sure what Ganya and Varya are talking about when they allude to something about their scapegrace father that they would prefer to keep secret — I haven’t got that far — but the dread and regret in their conversation made the mystery almost as hair-raising as the one that opens Act II of Lohengrin.

There is a great deal in The Idiot that I find it hard to grasp — impossible to grasp, really, as fully as I grasp whatever Jane Austen has to say. Aglaya Ivanovna is evidently the child of cultural forces that have gone with the wind. I don’t know quite what it means to call Prince Myshkin an “idiot,” although sometimes it seems almost clearly to mean that he is some kind of holy fool. At others, he appears to be a troubled Candide. The minor characters are often so surprising that they’re almost implausible — I’m thinking of the boxer, Keller, who is not altogether the brute that he appears to be at first. (But who — in life — is altogether the person he appears to be at first?) Almost everyone appears to be slightly insane — suffering from false consciousness, no doubt. Lizaveta Prokofyevna’s relation to respectability is wildly unsteady, not because she does anything at all improper but because she admits to doubts that her English counterparts would suppress. On top of everything, there is a wild-west character that suggests a society coming into being, a patina of manners that is not very thick, but yet thick enough to interfere with everyone’s sense of what it means to be Russian.

I am not trying to understand this world. I am trying to understand the story, yes, but instead of treating The Idiot as, how shall I put it, a window on the Russian soul, I’m seeing it as a gallery of strange people. Strange, but not exotic: I’m not romanticizing the differences. When I read Dostoevsky in college, I thought that my failure to understand his characters signaled my own lack of sophistication; when I grew up, I thought, I would know better. Actually, I know less, because there is more to see when you stop awarding yourself a high handicap and stop permitting inexplicable behavior to pass unconsidered. I consider it, but I do not press to decipher it.


The clock ticks, as it were; the minutes pass. I want to get back to The Idiot, but I have to decide what to make for lunch first. I’m stuck in the apartment, waiting for handymen to come and fiddle with the valve at the back of the stove. I don’t really mind being stuck at home today; I was out a lot this week, and there is no reason to be out in the warm weather, no errands that need doing today. There is plenty to do here, although waiting is always enervating. At the same time, it woke me up well before eight o’clock. I had heard grumbling on the elevator about waiting for handymen who didn’t show up, so I didn’t hasten to make an appointment.

I went for an annual physical checkup the other day. The doctor, who is very conscientious, asked me how I was doing, and he listened to me for a reasonable amount of time before cutting me off to quiz me on medications. I hadn’t quite got to the point of what I was trying to say, which is that how I am doing is elderly and out of it. A lot of the “out of it” owes to not watching television. I know that I am not missing anything important (the sound of Kardashians?), but I also know that I am missing more and more of what people are talking about. In other words, I have lived too long. Please do not misunderstand that for a suicide note. Living too long is a condition like any other — like my fused spine, for example. You live with it; you adjust.

During the next two weeks, I shall be taking a vacation break. I won’t say more about it, because I’ve found that things that I look forward to have a way of not happening if I mention them here. I shall return on Tuesday, 14 June — assuming, of course, that I survive the vacation, which, given that air travel will be involved, is by no means certain to me.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Ladies First
May 2016 (III)

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

16, 17, 19, 20 May

Monday 16th

If you had asked me yesterday who Julius La Rosa was, I should have recognized the name but been unable to place it. A gangster? A restaurateur? A mayor of Newark? Today, I know, thanks to an obituary in the Times, that Julius La Rosa was a singer. I don’t remember any of his songs, but I feel that I can place him comfortably simply by reciting the fact, gleaned from the obituary, that he married Perry Como’s secretary.

More intriguing is the fuss that Robert McFadden, the Times writer, makes about Arthur Godfrey. The obituary is even subtitled, “Singer Who Found Success After a Public Firing.” We go back to a day in 1953. On his national live radio show, Arthur Godfrey had La Rosa sing something. Then he told his audience that it had just heard “Julie’s swan song.” Right there on live radio, he fired the guy. And not because La Rosa couldn’t sing. What interests me about this episode is its disinterment of Arthur Godfrey. Who was Arthur Godfrey? I can tell you one or two things that I remember. Arthur Godfrey was plump, saturnine man with a gentle sense of humor. He had a TV show when I was a little boy. I had forgotten the ukelele. Arthur Godfrey was just there, along with Art Linkletter and George Gobel and Dorothy Kilgallen.

I remember the morning after Dorothy Kilgallen died, reportedly from an overdose of “barbiturates.” It came on the news as I was in the carpool, going to Iona Grammar School. Except not. Kilgallen died during my freshman year at Notre Dame. That I did look up. What I probably remembered just now was listening to Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick in the car. (Woody Allen spoofed it in Radio Days). Dorothy Kilgallen was also one of the panelists on What’s My Line, the TV show on which fancy people like Kilgallen had to guess what ordinary people did for a living. When the contestant was a “mystery guest” — a celebrity, as we should say — the panelists donned little black masks to cover their eyes. I’d love to say that I’m recollecting all of this, but I’m cribbing from Wikipedia, because my memory is so unreliable, especially about these figures in the early landscape. I knew about them at the time, saw them and heard them, but I didn’t think much about them, and when I went to boarding school and lost access to regular doses of television, I began to forget about them.

I have not looked up Arthur Godfrey. I am going to treat this as a version of the “Orson Welles” problem that I mentioned in January. In the case of Orson Welles, I could remember a great deal about him, but not his name. I could have looked it up in an instant, but I waited it out. It took “more than a day” to remember. I don’t think that I’m going to fare as well with Arthur Godfrey. I know his name, and have a picture of him in my mind, and suspect that he hosted a variety show. Was he the one with the talent show? Who was the one with the talent show? Do you remember The Gong Show? I saw it once, maybe twice, and was glued to it by horror. Before I could see it a third time, it featured in an episode of the Carol Burnett show. Carol was playing Eunice, one of her stable of characters. Eunice was going to sing “Feelings” on The Gong Show. Or was it “Memories”? Vicki Lawrence played a cantankerous grandma in these skits, the very woman I’d have liked to see get the “Good Man Is Hard to Find” treatment. It occurs to me now that Eunice and her family were Trump supporters ante lettera.

In the opinion section of the Sunday Times, Neil Gross wrote a piece that asked “Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?” The answer, in a word or two, is “critical discourse.” In the pursuit of almost any advanced degree, students must master critical thinking, an approach that tests every assertion and accepts nothing as given. Once critical thinking becomes second nature, the critical thinker has a very hard time remembering how unnatural it is. It is easier, I think, to remember what it’s like to see the world as a child than it is to see the world without critical habits of mind. This obliviousness is what drives the rest of the world crazy. It isn’t that highly educated people think differently. It’s that they can’t imagine how to think otherwise. They equate “thinking otherwise” with “not thinking.” And this is insulting to ordinary people. Educated people ought to think differently; otherwise, what’s the use of education? And for that very reason, highly educated people ought to bear in mind that ordinary people do think normally. Neil Gross is almost elementary:

But Dr. Gouldner’s new-class theory should alert Democrats to a lurking danger. It is probably right that something like a culture of critical discourse can be found in the workplaces and households and in the publications read by Americans who have attended graduate or professional school. The challenge for the Democrats moving forward will be to develop appeals to voters that resonate not just with this important constituency, but also with other crucial groups in the Democratic coalition. Some of the draw of Donald Trump for white working-class male voters, for example, is that he does not speak in a culture of critical discourse. Indeed, he mocks that culture, tapping into class resentments.

The twist is that normal thinking involves placing a good deal of reliance on authorities. Normal people — people without advanced degrees — haven’t got the time to evaluate policies, and they know it. Nor have they undergone the really rather painful drilling that inculcates the habits of critical thinking — so lack of time is not the only problem. Normal people expect authorities to have the answers. But today’s élites, including the lot of highly educated people, are markedly anti-authoritarian. They neither recognize authorities as such nor occupy positions of authority with any comfort. (They recognize credentials, which is not always a good idea.) The highly educated critical thinker has a nagging sense of her own ignorance, in fact. Tapped for the answer to a question, she will begin with a self-deprecating formula. This drives normal people almost as crazy as the obliviousness does. If you’re not an authority, who the hell is? Didn’t you go to school, like, forever?

It would be fun to go through today’s paper with a fat wax pencil and circle all the instances in which highly-educated Times writers and quoted pundits declare that Donald Trump’s oratory is nonsense — by the standards of critical discourse. Even now, the professionals don’t get it. They can’t believe it. If Donald Trump is willing to present himself as an authority, then a mass of normal people, starved for this very quality, will support him. It’s as simple as that.

What isn’t simple is claiming authority with a critical mind. It’s an uncomfortable fit, as I said. Playing the authority, highly-educated people come across as scolds or snobs, because they are annoyed by being asked to be authoritative. There is also the aristocratic angle. Like the earliest feudal aristocrats, round about the time of Charlemagne, critical thinkers are trained to fight. They do so with arguments, not weapons, but they can be just as ferociously single-minded. Unlike aristocrats, they don’t pay lip-service to loyalty, but while this dispenses with a lot of malodorous hypocrisy, it does not assist the struggle, which is to provide normal people with the authorities they crave. If you and I are both highly-educated critical thinkers, and I set myself up as an authority for normal people, you may take issue with my claim. This is where Donald Trump has the advantage on me. He will not respond to your arguments with arguments. He will sneer, and call you a loser and an idiot. He’d call me one, too, except in this example he is taking my place.

Kathleen used to work on deals with a Bay Area woman who could discuss her own Republican Party loyalties with candor. Presented with an unattractive Republican Party candidate, she told Kathleen, she would just “hold her nose” and vote the party line. It has been interesting to watch Republican stalwarts, from Paul Ryan to “social conservatives” decide to do the same. Unfortunately (for people with my point of view), this gift for olfactory occlusion is not common among Democratic Party supporters, especially the highly-educated critical thinkers with so much to lose.

This is why, I think, I’m so drawn to the wish that highly-educated critical thinkers would resolve to set a good example to society at large. As it is, they set such a poor example that disaster would ensue if it were followed.


Over the weekend, I finished reading Maeve Brennan’s Herbert’s Retreat stories for the second time. I read the seven of them in the order in which they appear in The Rose, a book that collects several groups of Brennan’s stories. Every other Retreat story features Leona Harkey and her pet critic, Charles Runyon. Two of the remaining three provide comic relief from this gruesome pair. The story in the middle, “The Joker,” is as cruel as the others but also quite sad. Isobel Bailey may be just as fatuous as the other residents of the Retreat, but there is something sincere about her desire to be Lady Bountiful. Unlike the other women in the sequence, she is neither a harpy nor a gold-digger. As a result, “The Joker” is pathetic rather than comic. It is also closer to the New Yorker norm.

If these stories aren’t better known, one reason might be the frequency with which Brennan sings sharp rather than true. There is an extravagance that invokes the discomforts of science fiction. Do people really talk like this? Did they ever? When Brennan writes that the thirty-nine houses in Herbert’s Retreat are two hundred years old, or even older (or, at least, that some of them are), is she simply mistaken, or is she quoting the Retreat’s misleading publicity, as it were? The houses were built to look “two hundred years old,” certainly, but this is merely to say that they are much newer, and designed in the Colonial Revival style that took hold toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. An American house dating from the Seven Years’ War would be almost uninhabitably rudimentary. So it is, too, with the claim that only the Best People own the houses. You’ll have to take their word for it.

In the story that I wrote about on Friday, “The Anachronism,” the housemaid is English, but all the other maids in Herbert’s Retreat are Irish. Brennan was Irish herself, but not the same kind of Irish. Brennan was a new kind of Irish; the housemaids would have disapproved of her, if only because she went out for drinks with the men she worked with. Her lady-writer gig wouldn’t have cut the mustard, either. Brennan’s Irish housemaids seem more authentic to me than their employers do, but I grew up among the employers, and never really knew an Irish housemaid. So I tend to take Brennan’s word for the latter. It is typical of Brennan to emphasize the asymmetry between masters and servants, with the masters delusive about the admiring good will of the servants, who in fact loathe them.

Bridie (Charles liked to refer to her as ‘that splendid Irishwoman of Leona’s) clumped in with the tray. The glare of pure hatred that was her characteristic expression descended in full on Charles silky gray head, but he was indifferent and she was silent, respectfully handing him his orange juice, pouring his coffee and his hot milk […], and departing. (“The Servants’ Dance”)

That sounds right, but how should I know?

Even John Cheever’s famous story, “The Enormous Radio,” is more realistic than the pure farce of “The Divine Fireplace.” Here we have four members of the ruling class and one Irish housemaid, and when the Irish housemaid says to herself, at the beginning of the story that she will narrate to a busful of fellow servants on their way to Mass,

There will be murder here today […]. No, no, I’m wrong […] — not murder today; the murder was last night.

you know she’s right, if you’ve read the story before. Perhaps there are no actual corpses in the house, but it is difficult to imagine the survival of any of the relationships. In the living room, a young woman wearing a rather insubstantial party dress is passed out on the sofa, while a raw steak curdles juicily in the middle of the carpet. In the kitchen, the stove has been yanked away from the wall, shorting out the entire house’s electricity, and a debris of brick and blaster clouds the air. Who knows where all the car keys are — the lady of the house took them into “safe keeping” at the end of the evening. We never hear much about that. Stasia’s narrative is cut short by the arrival at church, as Mr and Mrs Tillbright, Mrs Lamb and Miss Carter bear the steak away to the living room, where they propose to grill it over the fire. They are all very drunk. They have all said terrible things. Anyone who has ever awakened after too much partying with not enough recollection of the party will cringe horribly as Brennan’s merciless dance of death gets going. Mr Tillbright comes home two hours late with that young woman in her party dress. The young woman, having made a lot of catty remarks about life in the country, announces that she has to be at another party at eleven, and Mr Tillbright implausibly insists that he will drive her to it after dinner. Instead of making allies out of Mrs Tillbright and Mrs Lamb, who are dressed in relatively shapeless country outfits, Phoebe Carter seems to provide the perfect occasion for them to launch mutual insults. When Mrs Tillbright learns from Mrs Lamb, who was a good friend of the first Mrs Tillbright, that there used to be a fireplace in the kitchen, and that her husband never told her, she throws a tantrum. “I want that fireplace, and I want it now.” Really, it’s as though Captain Smith decided that he just had to have the iceberg.


Tuesday 17th

Why am I so bewildered by discrimination against women, by the notion that, when it comes to the things that men do well, and that are worth doing, women are lesser mortals? Why do these diminishing ideas strike me as ridiculous? I’m assuming that my own good sense hasn’t got much to do with it, because I’m actually a bit of a lunatic, and may not be doing women any favors by sitting here talking about them. I’m also assuming that it may have been the women in my life.

I was thinking about Sister Suzanne Kelly yesterday. Sister Suzanne taught History of Science at Notre Dame, and also moderated the Great Books seminars that took up the bulk of our time and attention in what was then called the General Program of Liberal Studies (“GP”). Sister Suzanne was a remarkable woman, working in a remarkable moment. The moment proved to be transitory, or at least premature: Sister Suzanne was not the harbinger of gender equality (or normality) within the Roman Catholic Church. So far as that was concerned, she beat a path to a dead end. But we did not know that at the time.

Sister Suzanne was a nun, a “splinter Benedictine” I think we used to say. She was one of a handful of highly-educated nuns who left not so much the cloister as the habit. They did not cover their hair; Sister Suzanne’s was dressed in the common mid-Sixties style to which the Queen of England has hung on all these years. They did wear black and white, but their white blouses had short sleeves. They wore low pumps — well, Sister Suzanne did. I don’t know how to convey how amazing this was. Sister Suzanne could be mistaken for an ordinary woman! Until you entered into discussion with her, that is, and discovered that she was a lot smarter than you were, and not shy about it, either.

I ought to add, I suppose, that Sister Suzanne was rather pretty. Perhaps “handsome” is the word. The point is that she was good-looking, and not at all plain. You never suspected for a second that her vocation might be rooted in unattractiveness.

Sister Suzanne had a favorite word, “weasel.” She used it to describe tendentious, flimsy, or spurious arguments, and she directed it quite often at me. “That’s a weasel term,” she would say, as though it were her job to point out when people farted. It was certainly as clear to me as it was to her that the charge was deserved. At that stage, I was like a lawyer who will say anything on behalf of his client, and rely on the judge to assess its validity. Sister Suzanne’s impatience with weaseling may, I’ll concede, have been a tad womanly. Women have good reason to find wearisome the mere cleverness of male show-offs. Over time, I’ve come to feel the same way.

I knew that Sister Suzanne was exceptional. But then, I was exceptional, too. Most of us were, in those classrooms. The fact that Sister Suzanne was a woman was, I’m afraid to say, remarkable. But it was not distinctive. Those of us with ears to hear came away from our classes with her with the sense that there was no positive difference between the thinking of a man and the thinking of a woman. The sexes might have different weaknesses, but their strengths could be matched.

Mine was an extraordinary experience; most students at Notre Dame never came across anyone like Sister Suzanne.

Was Sister Suzanne Kelly a feminist? That’s a tough question at the best of times, but I think that I should have to say “no.” I say that because I believe that feminism has to accommodate motherhood. Regardless of her costume, Sister Suzanne led a celibate life, and did not have to juggle the balls of home, family, and career. All she had to worry about was her career, just like a man.


The Book Review this weekend seemed to be full of books about women, but the Table of Contents mentions only three. There are books about particular women (Teffi, Frances Stroh), and a book on sex in Shakespeare that seems to be about spanking, but I’m not thinking of them. I’m thinking of these:

  • Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen; reviewed by Sarah Ruhl.
  • How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices, by Therese Huston; reviewed by Sheela Kolhatkar.
  • We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler; reviewed by Laurie Penny.

Kolhatkar writes,

There’s an enormous double standard when it comes to how men and women are perceived as decision-makers, and those differences can hamper much more than a woman’s career. One obstacle is the perception that women are indecisive, encumbered by their need to build consensus, weighed down by a lack of self-confidence and an inability to handle stress. The fact that Huston’s book even exists reinforces this point. Imagine, for a moment, an alternative universe in which it was felt necessary to publish a book called “How Men Decide” that dissected the male decision-making process. The very idea is laughable. Everyone knows that men simply stride onto the battlefield, survey the landscape and charge. Even if they flame out, they usually get credit for trying.

Not too long ago, I read a book that provoked some thoughts about “dithering” that are highly germane to the issue of how women decide, and I refer the indulgent reader to them here. (Search the page for “Ridley.”) Having just read what I wrote about Elizabeth I in January, it seems even more pungent in the context of Sister Suzanne and the three books that I’ve mentioned. My idea is that the first thing necessary in an evaluation of decision-making by women is to clear away the encrusted crap of masculine weaseling.

My second idea is to consider how long it has been since the world of modern decision-making came into existence. Not very long — no longer, in fact, than the professional classes, mentioned yesterday in connection with Neil Gross’s piece in the Sunday Times, have been around.

As Gross writes, the modern professional classes were developed to handle the affairs of rich people, and to handle them with discretion. That is, the professional man combined expertise in a given field with the ability to put himself in the place of the man who hired him, and to make decisions that bound that man. Prior to this development, rich people had to make their own decisions. They did, mostly, what other rich people did. Since the number of rich people was almost as limited as the number of investment opportunities, wealth management was not very complicated. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, especially when it began to produce very wealthy heirs who, unlike warlike aristocrats and agrarian country squires, might very well have grown up without an inkling about the source of their wealth. The professional’s ability to put himself in the place of a rich person was held to warrant the professional’s high fees.

Let’s say, then, that professional groups as we know them date to the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Their roots run further back, but not by more than a few decades. By 1900, professionals were in place. Now let’s make something else perfectly clear: for the purposes of this discussion, a professional is someone who brings nothing but professional training to the table. Insofar as a professional is independently wealthy, he is outside the scope of the argument. This is a very important point, because it is intertwined with the history of ownership. As a general rule, married women (in the West) could not own property until the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Men owned almost everything. Ownership obviously conveys a very real power. The power of professional training is a good deal more tentative. Owners of some kind or another must be impressed by a professional’s skills and reputation before delegating responsibility to him. And if men are the owners, they will be inclined to favor male professionals. But this prejudice was contested almost from the beginning of the professional class. Women might have understood why they did not own things — that was the way things had always been. But this professional thing was new, and women proved unwilling to sit by while men claimed, in effect, to be more proficient at professional training. If there was one thing that smart women knew for a certainty circa 1900, it was that they were better students.

This sketch of historical developments is intended primarily to demolish any traditionalist defense of the superiority of male decision-making. Until 1900 (say), the right to make decisions at all was limited to property owners. Such tradition of decision-making as there was was carried forward by the tiny population of owners. Most men did not make decisions; on the contrary, they seemed prone to beating their wives. The fact is that we do not have a long record of professional decision-make to examine. Men have not, in fact, established themselves as default decision-makers. I don’t think that a book about how men decide would be laughable at all. As Kolhatkar states, “…the evidence shows that groups come to better conclusions when there are more women involved.” Does it? I hope that Huston’s book shows that it does. And let us not forget that the ability to make good decisions is not at all the same thing as appearing to be “decisive.” The very usage is ridiculous. Reducing decision-making to a habitual character trait makes it sound like a tic.

When my distant cousin, the late Alicia Gallagher, graduated from Columbia Law School and began looking for a job, she was rebuffed by all the prominent Wall Street firms. Why? At that time (the Forties), even the secretaries at those law firms were men, and the firms did not maintain toilets for women. Now that’s masculine decision-making!


Enough of all that. I want to say a word about Gambit, the 1966 Ronald Neame caper comedy starring Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, and Herbert Lom. Kathleen and I watched it on Friday night. I was reminded of it by something the Alan-Alda lookalike said at the cocktail party last Wednesday. He wondered aloud if he had ever re-read a book. Ever. Part of me was aghast, but I was able to keep that reaction to myself because I know that it is not uncommon among readers. (Which is another way of lamenting that most people don’t read books at all.) I thought of the related challenge, encountered occasionally at Facebook, to name films that you would consider watching again. In all fairness, the quality of the books and films that most people read and see is pretty low; it takes some education to read the kind of books that are worth re-reading. I don’t know what to say about Hitchcock, who pointedly made films to be seen the second time — I always think of Hitchcock as a popular film-maker. I usually mention his films when the subject of watching movies multiple times comes up. But Gambit is an even better example of the rewards of the second look.

There are good things to say about Gambit. It ought to be required viewing for all would-be entrepreneurs and prospective criminals. It is an object lesson in the fat-headedness of disparaging feminine decision-making. Most of all, though, it’s hilariously funny, and much funnier the second time. The story is divided into two parts, which might be called “dream” and “reality.” In the dream, a smooth customer called Harry Deane (Michael Caine) proposes a caper to a showgirl called Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), the object of which is to distract an immensely wealthy sheikh (Herbert Lom). The dream also tells us something that Harry does not tell Nicole: the purpose of this distraction is to make it possible for Harry to steal a priceless portrait bust. Framed by shots of Harry and Nicole in a Hong Kong cabaret, in which Nicole says nothing, the dream also features a silent MacLaine. She is, all things considered, very good at shutting up. She snakes through the dream like a goddess, the perfect helpmeet. In the dream, everything ticks along perfectly, the obstacles to success little more than toy hurdles.

Reality takes over when Nicole opens her mouth in the Hong Kong cabaret. She is no goddess. She’s a working girl with an inquiring mind, and she wonders if Harry isn’t a crook. By the time they reach Dammuz, where the sheikh and his portrait bust are to be found, Harry is sick and tired of Nicole. At the same time, from the very moment of arrival, it is clear that things have changed since Harry — now “Sir Harold” — formulated his plans. There is no representative of the hotel to greet him. No Rolls-Royce to ferry him. No respect at all, title notwithstanding. When Nicole offers helpful suggestions (sometimes peppered with a dash of mockery), you can seem Harry straining to resist the urge to twist her head off. Because the dream was such smooth sailing, the discomfort of reality is very funny.

But what’s really funny is watching the dream the second time, knowing how things are going to work out in reality. The dream becomes astonishingly mendacious, like an advertisement for, say, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to refer to another movie. Harry and Nicole seem to be campiing their way through a silly silent movie. The elegance that was so impressive the first time round is now clearly sham, mere tinsel. And the sheikh (in the dream), with his fez and his monocle and his dinner suit — pricelessly wrong. The second time round, the dream isn’t impressive, as it was the first, but dim-witted. And it, too, is very funny. This time, you’re laughing at Harry from the start.

Oh, the look that Shirley MacLaine puts on Nicole’s face when it dawns on her that Harry intends to try to steal the portrait bust! She looks fit to burst! Her explosion involves only the smallest muscles. She — cannot speak.

At the end, Nicole, no longer pretending to be Lady Dean, remains silent throughout an entire scene. Or nearly: at the end, she says, “Thank you.” It is quite elegant. You don’t have to be watching Gambit the second time to notice that.


Thursday 18th

For about twenty years, I’ve been arguing that the Democratic Party ought to have folded its tent and retired from the scene in the late Sixties, once it had completed its projected reversal of federally-sanctioned unequal citizenship for black Americans, largely in the South. I had the impression that the party had lost its way after that victory. But I hadn’t much of an argument. An image, nursed, for all I know, in my ignorance, came to stand in the place of argument. I had this notion that mother octopuses, having raised their brood to autonomy, simply perish of exhaustion, quietly ceasing to tax their environment. However misinformed the image, it was a terrible substitute for the clear answer to the question why? that my assertion prompted. Only yesterday, as the racket made by the chairs that Bernie Sanders’s supporters threw in protest echoed in my head, did what I ought always to have gone on to say become clear.

Throwing chairs — did that really happen? Rather timidly, I searched for a You Tube clip, but stopped almost immediately, satisfied with this snip from another Times story.

But the state convention, held at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, deteriorated into chaos after nearly 60 of Mr. Sanders’s potential delegates were deemed ineligible amid a dispute over the rules. The convention concluded abruptly after security staff no longer felt it could ensure the safety of the participants, many of whom were yelling and throwing things.

That will do. Now, please don’t think that I’m refreshing my call for an end to the Democratic Party because of hooliganism. I’m not sure that the story itself has any direct bearing on what went on in my mind. It clearly served a catalytic function, though. When the racket stopped, I understood, for the first time, that the campaign for civil rights was, for the Democratic Party, a suicide mission. The suicide was at least partially successful: the party lost one of its two principal voting blocs, that of white Southerners. Almost immediately, the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” held out a net for voters who felt that their interests had been betrayed by the party to which they had been loyal for a century or more.

Now the suicide was completed by the emergence of genuinely left-wing policies in the Democratic Party program. To pick a relatively mild one, Eugene McCarthy proposed, in his 1972 presidential bid, to impose 100% estate taxes. You have to remember that there was a lot of chair-throwing in those days, or at least the expectation of it. Bombs went off; an armored car was held up, not by common criminals, but by political terrorists. This leftism repelled the other great Democratic-Party voting black, blue-collar labor. Labor was increasingly unprotected by union negotiation, and workers came to share the Southerners’ sense of betrayal.

When Bill Clinton won in 1992 — with a lot of inadvertent help from Ross Perot — he ran as a Third Way candidate. It is a pity that this Third Way never became a party, neither here nor in Britain. Roy Jenkins’s hopes for a third-way party were dashed by the trumpery of the Falklands War — very unfortunate timing. After that, liberal progressives like Clinton and Blair resolved to work within the frame of the established parties of the left, which necessarily made them look like connivers and hypocritices. They weren’t Democratic (much less Labour) so much as they were kinder, gentler exemplars of good old Rockefeller Republicanism. But their party machinery — and this is what truly ought to have come to an end in the Sixties — demanded ritual gestures that repelled moderate conservatives.

The Democratic Party has limped along, trying to present itself as benevolently egalitarian while staggering under the burden of association with “big government.” This has worked far better in presidential campaigns than it has in congressional races. People vote for presidents with their hopes, but for their legislators with their pocket books. Now the Republicans are in a position, as Jon Stewart pointed out the other day, to complain about an incapable government that they themselves have hobbled. Voters seem disinclined to force Republicans to “own” the conditions that they have brought about; incapable government still seems like a Democratic Party failing. With her mandarin backbone, Hillary Clinton seems fated to prefigure an inexorable bureaucracy that, if it were actually to function properly, would be monstrously effective. Talk about bad timing.


Last week, I wrote about the terrifying scenario behind the movie Kingsman, and I thought that I exhausted the usefulness of the reference when I suggested that the free Internet access offered in the film had the same pernicious effect upon social responsibility as the reduction of politics to a form of mass entertainment. But there remains something deeper to be mined, something even more disturbing. It has been noted since the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, but instead of being questioned and discussed since then, it has quietly come to be taken for granted. But it was a little thing, a matter of interest, in 1960. It is now unimaginably more.

Pundits are not the only ones to complain about the absence of traditional authority in “today’s world.” I’m not sure that I’ve ever complained about it, but I’ve expressed a good deal of anxiety about the nature of an inevitable replacement. What would take the place of the authority that was founded on the now hopelessly corroded foundation of religious patriarchy? All the time, it was right there in front of me. Except it wasn’t, because I so rarely turned it on. The TV screen is our authority, and the cameraman the god who makes sense of everything.

I wrote a paragraph or two about this two years ago, but I see that I was very discreet about sources, so much so that the inference might have been drawn that I had been inside Madison Square Garden, which I haven’t, ever. It was Kathleen. She attended, for business reasons, a Knicks game at the Garden. Her party occupied a skybox, so she was relatively comfortable. But she was a bit disconcerted to find that everyone, not just everyone in the box but everyone in the arena, was watching a screen. The game was proceeding on the court, but hardly anybody seemed to be looking in that direction. From the regular seats, eyes seemed to be fixed on the JumboTrons suspended over the players. In the skybox, all eyes were fixed on one of the many smaller screens mounted in every direction. Kathleen had the sense that they all might as well have been in a windowless basement room.

In that case, of course, they’d have missed the cheering, and the cheering is a vital part of the game. But watching the game appears not to be vital. Why? My theory is that we have developed a reflexive preference for the mediatized image. This is not because we’re boobies. It’s because the mediatized image is the work of expert cameramen. These professionals, as athletically deft as the players they follow, know where to look. They know where things are going to happen. They cut out the inconsequential action. They present clear and compelling images of the game.

It is the display of these images on a multitude of screens that converts what the cameraman sees into something as close as we’re likely to get to objective reality — what really happened. And not only that, but also the relative importance of everything that did happen. Fans in the seats are in constant view, but because the camera is following the players and not lingering on the fans, it is difficult to maintain a sense that every fan is a man or a woman with a private life — who in hell cares about the fans! (But let them keep cheering.) Referees are something else. They, too, tend toward fanlike immobility, or at least they move slowly. But the camera looks at them. The mere shift of the camera’s gaze from herds of running men to a figure standing still, but now up close and in focus, signals trouble. We have learned to interpret the work of the cameraman at lightning speed.

It is not that nothing is real until it has been seen. Rather, nothing is real until it has been registered and implicitly approved by a cameraman (and by the producer who cuts to his camera) and then fed to a world of screens. Nothing is real that cannot be seen by everyone at the same time.

Will it make a difference now that everyone can watch the same YouTube clip any old time? I wonder — I really do. Ought we to worry a tad less because our great common mediatized experience is a football game, larded with commercials, and not a political event? Against that, how worrisome is it that an entertainment heavyweight can send ratings soaring by participating in a presidential debate, even though he is a political clown? (In my view, any political event is subverted by mediatized presentation.)

A person comes upon a newsworthy disturbance that is already being captured by a cameraman. This person immediately pulls a smartphone from a pocket or a handbag and locates the broadcast in a browser. Following my argument, we can say that the person is now — only now — in touch with reality. Can it also be said that the person is protected from the disturbance by the mediatized image on the connected phone? Feels protected? If you watch something on TV, are you implying that this is not happening to you?

Television makes it possible for all of us to see things from the same point of view, something physically impossible in the real world. It is the cameraman’s point of view, infinitely distributed. But it comes at the cost of actually seeing things. Sometimes, it is not important to be there in person. Much of what appears on television is utterly trivial. Sometimes — in scientific contexts, I surmise — it might be very useful to share a single image. But I believe that it is harmful to homogenize our experience of importance, and I insist that it is mistaken to wait to be told what is important until it appears on a screen.


I have read the Gospel of Mark, in the translation of Richmond Lattimore. Lattimore, who died in 1984, was an eminent translator of Homer, but he began translating the New Testament (beginning with Revelation) in the course of teaching Beginning Greek. I am reading the Gospels (and perhaps the rest of the New Testament as well) as a simple matter of cultural literacy. Raised Roman Catholic, I had no direct experience of Scripture until I went off to a Presbyterian boarding school. Sporadic attempts to familiarize myself with it were blocked by the tediousness of translations. I read the Book of Esther in the Authorized Version, and notwithstanding the occasional lambent passage I had no idea what was going on. Ten or fifteen years ago, I came upon the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, in the Jewish Publication Society’s edition. My eyes were opened. The language of the translation was supple but grave, clear but not simple-minded. Looking for the same sort of thing in the Testament that we cannot expect from the JPS, I settled on Lattimore and J B Phillips. I read a page or two of Phillips, and liked it, but I turned to Lattimore because he begins with Mark, now understood to be the first evangelist.

I read Mark in two comfortable sittings. I’m inclined to say that it is a short, simple narrative, but many of the simplicities go unexplained. Why does Mark attend to Jesus’s missionary itinerary in such detail? The impression of constant recrossings of the Sea of Galilee is curious. I also hoped for some explanation of a recurring dual phenomenon: Jesus asks or warns those whom he has helped not to say anything about him, and yet they all do. Jesus is vexed by the size of the crowds that follow him about. Another recurring vexation is “this generation” — “this adulterous and sinful generation.” This is also curious.

At roughly the halfway point, Jesus announces that “the son of man,” meaning himself, “must suffer much.” He would also “rise up after three days.” Instead of a discussion, there is the Transfiguration. I had always wondered where that fit in. In the eleventh chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and visits the temple, upsetting the moneychangers. In the twelfth chapter, he has a confrontation of sorts with the religious authorities. The tonal shift is complete: what began as a sunny “road” narrative has become menacingly dark, with miraculous highlights. Instead of healing the sick, Jesus makes predictions about the End Times. But he never speaks of himself as God, or as the son of God. And when God calls Jesus the son in whom he is pleased (as after the baptism in the Jordan, for example), he is clearly using the word in its Mediterranean sense, where sons are anybody who will listen to an old man.

In the fourteenth chapter, the Last Supper is reported, and then the night in the Garden of Gethsemane; most of the Passion is contained in the following chapter. Everything seems to be there, from the cock crowing three times to the split in the Temple veil, but the pace is brisk, as if a student were struggling to make all the necessary points in a short space of time. In the sixteenth and final chapter, more than half of which (according to Lattimore) appears to be a later addition, the Resurrection is not witnessed; the tomb is already empty. And it is only the two Marys (neither of them Jesus’s mother) who visit. They are told by a young man in a white garment that Jesus has already gone. He then directs them to tell Peter and the others. And that is that.

Matthew and Luke, I understand, adapted Mark and enlarged upon it. Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism — there’s not a word about his birth or childhood. For those, we must look to the next two Gospels.


Friday 20th

Friday already! Once again, the week has zipped by. The most memorable event was a problem with the hot water on Tuesday night that had me worrying how long it would last. A couple of hours turned out to be the answer. I spent those hours in a puddle of anxiety, dwelling on decline and fall. Almost as memorable: the following night, Kathleen bought some airline tickets, so now we’re going to spend a long weekend in San Francisco next month. We can’t wait to see our grandson, who is now taller than an emperor penguin — I read Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker piece about Antarctica yesterday — and who therefore doesn’t seem very tall to me. I am hoping that he will say something outrageous. Grandparent-grandchild privilege prevents my giving examples, but I tell everyone that I get my personality from him. I almost believe this myself.

But when I look over the week’s entry, Monday and Arthur Godfrey seem very distant. Surely it cannot have been this past Tuesday that I wrote about Sister Suzanne Kelly! Even yesterday’s topics feel remote. Perhaps Antarctica had something to do with it. The piece will be of interest to anyone who was engrossed by The Corrections. Alongside his trademark sourpuss travelogue, Franzen tells us how he came to treat himself to an expensive Lindblad cruise. He came into some money when his godfather died. His godfather was his father’s sister’s husband, and Franzen came to be very fond of him. Uncle Walt’s is a lovely story, and I have no intention of spoiling it. But: Aunt Irma was a piece of work. The second time that Franzen mentioned Aunt Irma’s penchant for formal furniture, I registered a connection to Enid Lambert. I seem to recall that Franzen insisted, when his novel came out, that The Corrections was not “autobiographical,” and I came to agree, on the strength of his nonfiction autobiographical sketches. But the extremely vivid portraits of Enid and Alfred Lambert are written with a child’s mercilessness. I now suspect that Franzen harnessed that mercilessness to a novelist’s imagination and spun the figure of Enid from his Aunt Irma. He never suggests having done so in the Antarctica piece. It’s just a hunch. But I shall definitely clip the piece out of the magazine and tuck it into my copy of The Corrections.

Then there is The Idiot. I raced through Part I, thrilled by its Figaro-like massings of characters, all set in one very long day, but could hardly drag myself through the early chapters of Part II. The two big scenes, first on the terrace of Lebedev’s dacha in Pavlovsk, and then in the Epanchin’s dacha, bewildered me; I’m surely not the only reader to find that Prince Myshkin is the only one of Dostoevsky’s characters in this book who is not an idiot. Now that I’ve passed into Part III, and a duel may be in the offing, I’m beginning to feel like one of the inmates. Is Aglaya in love with the Prince? Is the Prince in love with Nastasya Filippovna? Is Nastasya Filippovna insane? By the way, I learned what a fool I’ve been making of myself, ever since I began reading Russian novels. I’ve been stressing the wrong syllable of feminine patronyms. Perhaps because of my recent frolics in Italian (see “sdrucciolo”), I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong when it occurred to me to compare how I said Ardolionovich with how I said Ardolionovna. That didn’t make sense, and, to be sure, I was wrong to say the latter. But Ardolionovna is hard to say; it pushes the ‘v’ and the ‘n’ too close for the comfort of my Anglophone tongue.

Because I was reading The Idiot, I pulled out Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift To Revolution 1825-1917, which I came across while reshelving some history books. Reading both at the same time might have been a good idea, but it certainly made for a depressing experience. I almost miss the Soviet days, for it was possible then to believe that Russia was growing in a new direction. I did not, in fact, believe this, but the possibility was comforting. Now we might as well be back to the days of Alexander II or Alexander III. The communist experiment has been set aside. Did I mention that Crankshaw’s Shadow prompted me to resume a book that I put down months and months ago, Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life? Sperber keeps saying that Marx is brilliant, but I see only a quarrelsome bookworm. I just had a look at the opening passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. I always wondered what this title could possibly mean, since 18 Brumaire VIII (9 November 1799) was the date of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup. The solution to the puzzle is contained in Marx’s second sentence.

Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”

Ah. I considered buying the book, but I’m not sure that it is a book, since even the first page is littered with analphabetisms redolent of very cheap Kindle editions. Marx’s brilliance seems limited to sarcasm. He reminds me of Robert Moses, who built highways (some ruinous) without ever learning to drive.

As Chou En-lai said (and I like to put his name in Wade-Giles when I repeat this), It’s too early to tell. “Capitalism” remains an unknown quantity. It is the kind of poorly-defined term that everyone is sure of understanding. Today, it means “big corporations.” But it no longer conjures images of steel mills and automobile factories. For one thing, those factories that haven’t closed down altogether have gotten a lot smaller. And many big corporations, no matter how many “knowledge workers” are on their payrolls, don’t employ many workers. In this, capitalism has reverted to its pre-Industrial-Revolution profile, before the invention of “capitalism” as a term. In those days, it meant amassing enough money to buy low and sell high. Capitalists didn’t manufacture anything — they contracted out. Aristocrats didn’t grow their own food or shepherd their own flocks; they simply rented out their landholdings. The curious thing about the Industrial Revolution is not that it was made possible by capitalism, but that it transformed capitalism, by raising the amounts invested and the risks of failure to unimaginable levels. When people talk about the roller-coaster dynamics of capitalism, they are talking about the disasters of nineteenth-century experiments with credit. (I’ve always regarded what happened in 1929 as a crisis of consumerism.)

Has capitalism degraded the environment? I find it sloppy to think so. Mass consumption is the culprit: mass consumption has produced massive exhaust. I do not see a connection between commercial banking and the blight of plastic bags. You can work one out, but it will bypass the actual culprits: thoughtless ordinary individuals. Is capitalism responsible for income inequality? Certainly not. Today’s income inequality is the direct result of élitist amorality. You can see it in the upwardly-shooting multiple that ties rank-and-file pay to executive compensation. (“Compensation”! For what?) When I was a boy, the chairman of AT&T lived in a sober house around the corner, on a quarter acre just like everybody else. I’m not saying that he wasn’t “wealthy,” but wealth carried far fewer zeroes in those days. Tax laws and other regulations had nothing to do with the subsequent change in climate.

And yet I do believe that, in most sectors, capitalism has had its day. The only way to prevent the predations of private-equity firms is to eliminate the profit, the rente, the return on investment. I’m not saying that enterprises oughtn’t to “make money”; but the money left over, when all the bills have been paid and, yes, the managers handsomely paid, ought to be treated as capital, not profit. It belongs to the enterprise, not to investors. Obviously, you need investors to get things going. But when growth levels off, then it’s time to exchange equity for debt, and then to pay off the debt and be done with it. No large enterprise ought to be in the business of enriching investors. It doesn’t work.

That’s to say that it doesn’t work for anyone but the investors. It doesn’t work for workers, or for the towns that workers live in. It doesn’t do anything for customers, either. An enterprise ought to be in the business of providing goods and services that customers want while adapting these goods and services as needed with a view to stabilizing the lives of workers. Business enterprises know best how to train and retrain their workers, and they know best how to conduct research into product and service development. Investors’ demands for higher returns, at the expense of this training and research, is a horrible, even damnable distraction. When you get down to it, investors are business pollution.

So how is a rentier to make any money while eating bonbons on his chaise longue? There used to be something called “clipping coupons.” Bonds. Debt. When you buy a bond, you are guaranteed a return, in the form of an interest payment, for your investment, which is called a loan. That’s where your engagement with the issuer stops. So long as the interest is paid, you have nothing to say. It is not very exciting, and that is a very good thing. Rentiers who crave excitement can always invest with venture capitalists.


This evening, we are hoping to catch up with old friends whom I haven’t seen in ages. Originally, of course, I was going to serve a nice dinner. As recently as last week, I was still planning to cook, notwithstanding the lack of a proper stove. But in the course of fixing breakfast over the weekend, I learned that there is still much to learn about operating electric appliances in a kitchen not wired for the purpose. I didn’t throw any circuit breakers, I’m happy to say, but that may have been thanks to surge protectors, which did shut off when I tried to do two things at the same time. I may have four appliances — a kettle, a hotplate, a frypan, and a convection over — but as a rule I can use only one at a time. If the gas is out for a long time (as I expect it to be), I shall gradually develop an expertise of workarounds. But gradually, and certainly not by tonight. So we’ll go out.

Since I won’t be doing the ironing, we won’t be watching a movie. But we watched one the other night. Passing by the Video Room on Wednesday, I stopped in and rented Joy. David O Russell’s latest movie features some principal members of the little rep company that he has been building up since Silver Linings Playbook. In American Hustle, these actors, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert de Niro, were united with two of the stars of The Fighter, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and it’s interesting to think of The Fighter, because, as in Joy, parents can be the source of the worst career advice. I wanted to smash de Niro’s head in for his shambling, Teflon apologies to his daughter, Lawrence, pretty much as I had wanted to shoot Melissa Leo.

Joy is an interesting blend of realism and kabuki. The performances — the ways in which the characters speak and move — is realistic, but the set-ups are very stylized, so that scenes that seem natural on the surface are inflected with ritual power. Characters encounter and confront each other. They brandish arguments instead of swords, but they are framed in a formal manner. A clear example is the graveyard scene. When Joy, flush with newfound success at QVC but devastated by her grandmother’s death, sits down next to her father, he mumbles about some business trouble that she’s facing, and how he has attempted to “help her out.” What he has done is to send Joy’s resentful half-sister, Peggy, to deal with the problem, something that Joy knows Peggy will screw up. And voilà, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm, also a member of the rep company) arrives in a taxi, straight from the airport, dressed in black but carrying a wildly blue suitcase. Peggy takes a seat on the other side of the grave and stares at Joy with mindless defiance. Was Russell thinking of Kurosawa? The ensuing argument takes place in Joy’s living room, where it belongs, but its initiation in a scene of actual ritual fuels the rest of the film — the dénouement to which it directly grinds. If we didn’t know going in that things are going to work out for Joy — Joy Mangano, the true-life inventor whose story Joy adapts, was an executive producer of the film — we’d never make it to the end.

Watching Lawrence play the scene in which Joy introduces her fantastic mop to QVC viewers is an experience of great cinema. At first, Joy is abashed; as she was warned, the lights are very bright, and she can barely move. Her Pygmalion, played by Bradley Cooper, is losing it — he has given Joy’s mop a second chance and it is sinking! The situation is saved by “a call.” A viewer calls and is put on the air, to talk with the person selling the product (who might be Joan Rivers — played by her daughter!). This caller is in fact Joy’s oldest friend (Dascha Polanco); we’re not told if the maneuver was preconcerted by the two women or a desperate save by the friend. Anyhow, it works. Joy perks up, slowly at first. As she finds her rhythm and gets into the shtick (and the orders start pouring in), Lawrence shows us that some things are better than sex. She is mesmerizing. It’s like watching a horse nose its way to the front near the finish line. Russell is very good at getting you to root for his characters, but Joy isn’t fighting anyone but herself. She’s fighting her doubts and what she has internalized of her sister’s doubts and her father’s doubts and her father’s girlfriend’s doubts. (The girlfriend is played, with indie bravado, by Isabella Rossellini. She is all kabuki.) Joy is fighting the natural instinct to cut and run. You know just how she feels. You know as if it were you, standing on the stage. And you’re as thrilled as she is.

I must mention two other performances. Diane Ladd is superb as the grandmother, and I apologize to her for thinking that she was dead just because she wasn’t there at the Oscars last year to stand with Bruce and Laura on the red carpet. I guess it’s a case of old-fashioned divorce. There is nothing remarkable about a superb performance by Diane Ladd, except, of course, the performance. The other delight was Virginia Madsen, who was truly wonderful as Joy’s dotty, self-absorbed mother. She exemplifies the movie itself: the weird strangeness of banal people.

How can I buy one of those mops?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fatal Addiction
May 2016 (II)

Monday, May 9th, 2016

9, 10, 12, 13 May

Monday 9th

For a few months, my reading has been either serious (The Idiot, Wallace Stevens’s longer poems) or demanding (Natalia Ginzburg’s delightful Sagittario — but in Italian, and without a translation) or both. The other night, at the point of going to bed, I found that I had nothing to read, nothing that I could bear to read. Everything in the pile or on the Kindle was at the same time stimulating and exhausting. My mind churning, I would have to put down whatever I was reading because I couldn’t take any more. Thought provocation was killing me.

I’ve had a rough time getting to sleep lately. Sometimes, Lunesta doesn’t seem to work; either I’ve taken it soon, and the effect has worn off before I’ve climbed into bed, or I’ve ingested something incompatible, such as a chocolate or a cold remedy. Sometimes, I’ve forgotten to take the pill actually; I’ve set it out and then assumed that I’ve swallowed it, only to find it on the nightstand hours later. On Saturday night, I had taken the pill and wanted to go to bed, but I had nothing to read, and the idea of having nothing to read was terrifying. So I sat in my reading chair and let my mind wander. This is something that I have been doing too often, but only after an hour of bedridden sleeplessness. I thought, on Saturday night, that I would do my sitting-in-the-dark before I got into bed. It turned out to be a not-bad idea. I wondered, briefly, if more structured meditations might be helpful.

Meditation is the only thing that makes sense of my first idea of better bedtime reading material: I wondered if reading the Gospels would be good. I’ve been meaning to read the Gospels for some time, but only if I could find a literate translation. The Authorized Version is more about King James’s secretaries and the glories of the English language than it is about Jesus, and modern translations are pap. I wanted something that would bear comparison with the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament). I had asked one or two friends, but I’d drawn blanks. Last night, I had the brilliant (!) idea of scrolling through Amazon, where, indeed, I found not one but two candidates, and bought them both: renditions, in chapters but without verses, by J B Phillips and Richmond Lattimore. I was able to “look inside” both books, and was electrified to read, in the Phillips, which begins with Matthew, the exhortation of John the Baptist: “You must change your hearts and minds!” I was very sorry not to have a German New Testament, to see how close Luther’s translation was to Rilke’s “Du musst dein Leben ändern.”

But I wanted to read the Gospels in book form, not on the Kindle, and now that I had them (or should have them in a day or two), I realized that they would not make very good bedtime reading, not, in any case, night after night. A new idea appeared, rather blasphemously in juxtaposition: funny. I needed light reading. How about another Penelope Lively, I wondered, leaning over the chair in front of the small wire bookcase in the bedroom in which all of Lively’s novels are lined up. Hmm — Lively is sparkling, but not funny; and her stories certainly have their harrowing moments. My eye wandered a bit, and settled on a thick book, lying on its side: an omnibus volume, the compleat collection. Really, I thought, as if on a dare. I had to pull out four books that were lying atop it, and when I extracted it, I had to keep the row of upright Livelys from tumbling into its space before I could replace the others. I sat down in my chair and opened the book, leafing page by page to the start of — could this work? — E F Benson’s Queen Lucia.

I have not read the Lucia books — or, as they’re better known now that they have been dramatized a couple of times, the Mapp and Lucia books — since the tome in my lap was published, in 1977. I went on to read a lot of other Benson, and then a biography of the writer (and his seemingly all-gay family); then came Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales (and Nigel Hawthorne) to sing their way through Donald McWhinnie’s gorgeously costumed production. The idea of re-reading the Lucia books seemed merely laborious. My favorite line appeared very early, on the third page of the omnibus text. Here it is, at the end of a description of the “famous smoking parlor” in Lucia’s Riseholme cottage:

with rushes on the floor, and a dresser ranged with pewter tankards, and leaded lattice windows of glass so antique that it was practically impossible to see out of them. It had a huge open fireplace framed in oak beams with a seat on each side of the iron-backed hearth within the chimney, and a genuine spit hung over the middle of the fire. Here, though in the rest of the house she had for the sake of convenience allowed the installation of electric light, there was no such concession made, and sconces on the walls held dim iron lamps, so that only those of the most acute vision were able to read. Even then reading was difficult, for the bookstand on the table contained nothing but a few crabbed black-letter volumes dating from not later than the early seventeenth century, and you had to be in a frantically Elizabethan frame of mind to be at ease there.

My regard for the last clause is boundless; it encompasses everything from Shakespeare to Victoria (the queen of italics), and not excluding Pope. Trying to conjure a frantically Elizabethan frame of mind is easier, I’ve discovered, if you try to imagine someone else thus afflicted. The whole passage concludes:

But Mrs Lucas often spent some of her rare leisure moments in the smoking parlor, playing on the virginal that stood in the window, or kippering herself in the fumes of the wood fire as with streaming eyes she deciphered an Elzevir Horace rather too late for inclusion under the rule, but an undoubted bargain.

The first time I read this, I had no idea what an Elzevir Horace might be (okay, a very dim one), and I am still ignorant of the “rule,” but the funniness was plain and powerful, and it still knocks me over. Benson’s deployment of fussy phrasing is brilliant; for the most part, his sentences are straightforward and unadorned. It is clear that he does not identify with his heroine; he poses rather as a practical, ordinary man who thinks that windows are for seeing out of. You wouldn’t find him kippering himself with streaming eyes just to read about Postumus and his wine cellar. At the same time, he is alert to Lucia’s imposture, and able to register the hard-headed shrewdness of her apparent flights of fancy with grains of businesslike language, such as “no concession made,” or, in the following line, an almost burlesque interruption:

Though essentially autocratic [pardon the dangler], her subjects were allowed and even encouraged to develop their own minds on their own lines, provided always that those lines met at the junction where she was stationmaster.

There is even a nice touch of Foreign Office calculation:

With the memory of the Welsh attorney in her mind, it seemed clearly wiser to annex rather than to repudiate the Guru.

I hope that these excerpts do more than make you smile (or, better, laugh); I hope that you can see how completely impossible it would be to try to film them. This is humor that can be seen only with the special blindness of the reader. We could drag a camera into a room that met the smoking parlor’s description, but it would just be an old dim closet full of Jacobean tat, a period room in which no person born after 1900 could be expected to spend more than a few cursory minutes, dull minutes completely lacking in occasions for giggling. There is no way to show Lucia acting as a stationmaster, or annexing rather than repudiating. These images are lively on the page but dead to the point of nonentity beyond it. So it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve watched the serializations. Sure, they’re very funny, too; but it’s a different kind of funny, and, relative to Benson’s deft brushwork, incomparably coarse.

As for bedtime reading, the Lucia books might be ideal, precisely because they have been adapted for television. I can drift off to sleep long after my short-term memory has stopped working, but I won’t have to re-read anything when I pick up the book the next night. I know the story. Most of it, anyway; a lot gets left out. Lady Ambermere, for example, the local grandee who has witnessed Lucia’s transformation of a peasant village into an upper middle-class suburb without the slightest interest; to Lady Ambermere, there is not much to distinguish Lucia from her agrarian predecessors, save that none of the latter would dream of imitating Lucia’s “push.” Riseholme as a whole gets cut, because nobody seems to know where it is; while Tilling, as everybody is aware, is a town with Cinque Ports luster on the Sussex Coast; you can go there if you can find “Rye” on the map. (Ray Soleil and Fossil Darling paid a visit, and it is just possible that Ray’s frantically Lucian frame of mind threatened for a while to be permanent.) But even if I can’t remember arriving at the point where I left off, and have to go back a page or two, it’s no trouble, because the only serious thing about the Lucia books is the writing. And it is richly pleasurable, completely undemanding writing.

After a few pages of the omnibus edition, I realized that I must switch to the Kindle. My fear that only the one-volume abridgment of the stories would be available in Kindle format were allayed immediately. Although I figured that the cost of the omnibus had been amply amortized over nearly forty years, I was no less delighted than Lucia would have been to find that the Kindle edition could be had for a mere ninety-nine cents. In no time, I was tucked in with the lights out, already so sleepy that trying not to laugh out loud was no longer much of a problem. I was sure that I should soon be asleep, and soon indeed I was, with nary a twitch.


Kathleen and I watched The Big Short on Friday night — Kathleen had not seen it before — and, as the film came to an end, I found myself weighing how much wind the popular resentment of the bank bailout might have put in Donald Trump’s sails. Twenty-four hours later, I had moved completely beyond conventionally political estimations of Trump’s campaign. I had read Mark Danner’s piece in the current New York Review of Books, “The Magic of Donald Trump.” For the moment, I am going to quote only one early passage.

Observe the celebrity known as Donald Trump saunter onto the stage at Boca Raton, twenty minutes after his helicopter swoops in. The slow and ponderous walk, the extended chin, the pursed mouth, the slowly swiveling head, the exaggerated look of knowing authority: with the exception of the red “Make America Great Again” ball cap perched atop his interesting hair the entire passage is quoted from the patented boardroom entrance of The Apprentice, something that does not escape the delirious fans, even if it does most journalists. If when you see that outthrust chin you shiver with intimations of Mussolini, well, you were never a fan.

(“But what about me?” wails Silvio Berlusconi when this is translated for him.)

Danner’s piece made me sit up and recognize the extent of my self-censorship. I try very hard not to talk about “television.” That is, I put a lid on shrieking with alarm about its perniciousness. What would be the point? I should only alienate or bore readers. Every now and then, I say, as simply as I can, Turn It Off. Danner’s piece made me realize how this restraint had prevented my saying what I think, or even knowing what I think, about the Trump campaign, which is that it is proof positive of a mass addiction to the stress and depravity of popular network shows, particularly the ones that go by the modifier “reality.”

As I repeat every year, Kathleen and I watch television only once in any twelve months. We watch the Academy Awards show. Some years the show is more entertaining than others, but we always have a good time, and we always stick it out to the end. The cheesiness of the production, by which I mean not so much the antics on the stage as the camera work and the what-do-you-call-it, the animated doodles that are superimposed on the live images at the end of each segment, together with the voice-overs reminding you that you are watching the Academy Awards show and promising what’s up next, is no more wearying than the more self-indulgent expressions of thanks delivered by shocked, exultant winners. The show itself is relatively harmless.

What I mean by “television” is the stuff in between those doodles and voice-overs. This includes commercials, of course, but it also includes bigger, more complicated doodles and much louder voice-overs. These remind you what network you’re watching, and what shows are coming up. The tone of these reminders is fraught with a furious mental violence that suggests what it must be like to suffer schizophrenic attacks. It is a whirlwind, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable. I get up and leave the room, ostensibly on the usual errands to the bathroom and the kitchen, but mostly to escape the racket. It is not lost on me that this racket is the medium’s ligament. People who watch a lot of television, who sit while one show bleeds into another, are exposed to a lot of this pandemonium, which of course ceases with repetition to be at all disturbing. My hunch is that it also ceases to be negligible: viewers develop a dependency, and addiction.

I have never seen a reality show, but Kathleen has been told by many colleagues and fellow workers about the fun of watching Donald Trump scream at the other people on the show. Some people like it because they’re yelled at themselves, and, like the little girl in Mommie Dearest scolding her dolls, they find relief in passing it on, watching other chumps suffer belittlement. Some people like it because they dream of yelling at their bosses some day — the people who yell at them. The net is that people find a great deal of satisfaction in Trump’s behavior. There is no word for this other than “depraved.” I could not watch The Apprentice for a full minute, but I know that if I were to manage to watch it for several episodes, I’d begin to find it entertaining. So I am not going to watch it “just once,” to “see what it’s all about.” I have conducted that experiment. I was once very dependent on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a night-time soap opera in which almost everything that happened was either ridiculously implausible or profoundly unimportant. I hung on Louise Lasser’s every word, but I hung more on her dropped jaw.

There was a piece in the Times this morning in which data pundits like Nate Silver acknowledged that they’d wrong, again and again, about Trump. Perhaps there was something defective about their polling, such as the absence of young people, untethered by landlines. As I read the piece, I thought, You admit you were wrong but you are still wrong. They’re still wrong because they continue to approach Trump politically. And when they ask their questions of the general public, the general public is prompted to put on its voter gravitas, something that very well might not accompany them into the voting booth on Election Day. In the voting booth, they may be seized by an echo of the delirium that Danner mentions. Their voter’s selves may fall away like horror-film pods, revealing reality-show habitués. Hillary Clinton could well lose by a landslide, and never have seen it coming. But I see it coming.


Tuesday 10th

Now that I see Donald Trump’s bid for the Presidency as a “reality show” from the front of my mind, not the back, the spectacle makes sense. As a political figure, Trump is an authoritarian, bullying buffoon. Transcripts of his remarks betray a mind more concerned with sending a miscellany of surreptitious messages than with making consistent sense. The commentariat was right, then, when it began, last summer, to proclaim that he would not go far — as a political figure. In fact, he never went anywhere as a political figure. It wasn’t that he played the political game badly, but rather that he never played it at all, and this, this faithfulness to his bearing as a reality show’s Master of Ceremonies, has assured his supporters that This Time, It’s Different.

The difference ought to have been clear from the moment that the weekend press shows allowed Trump to phone in. I remember those long-ago early days, when Meet the Press was pretty much the only show of its kind, and Lawrence E Spivak was the host. It was the most boring TV show imaginable! That was its certificate of authenticity: it established that television could be serious and adult. But it couldn’t last, because television is a kind of entertainment.

Entertainment occurs when a handful of people do something while a larger and entirely passive audience watches. In a theatre, on or off Broadway, this audience is very much a living thing, breathing, coughing, signaling to the acute ears of actors that certain nuances are favored over others, a favor that may be completely negated by tomorrow night’s audience. Paying constant attention to the deep-forest sounds that rustle from the audience, actors retune their performances accordingly; this is what keeps a play fresh throughout its run. In the early days of television, shows were performed in front of live audiences, but it did not take long to see that the small “live” audience got in the way of the much larger one watching at home, and the laugh track was substituted. This was part of televised entertainment’s slow drift away from the criteria of performance to the absolute numbers of ratings. The complicated response of a live audience was reduced to a single unproblematic factor: on or off. Was the TV set tuned to this broadcast network or to that one? Otherwise, the television audience was passive to an extent never experienced, and I wonder if it hasn’t changed the nature of entertainment, at least within the context of television.

Mr Spivak would never have allowed phone-ins. He wouldn’t have understood why anyone would wish to decline the opportunity to sit in front of the camera and so become “known,” recognizable, to viewers. Donald Trump, however, is already known to viewers. He has no need for further publicity; on the contrary, he publicizes not himself but his fellow entertainers.

Since I have never seen a reality TV show, and am not about to watch one, I can’t pontificate at length. But the old idea, that entertainment is some kind of “pretend,” that men whose real names are Joe and Mary, and who really live in studio apartments with no views, pretend to be people called Marmaduke and Isadora, living in stately homes with vistas replete with hedges and fountains, has given way to something entirely different. Now entertainment is a view of the actual, edited and filtered perhaps, and by no means comprehensive, but a view that has nothing to do with assumed identities. Someone called Donald Trump, a man who lives in an ostentatious apartment on Fifth Avenue, appears on television as himself. In the old, theatrical, model, the audience provided the element of reality. Everyone sitting in the audience was aware of being surrounded by other similarly-situated “real people.” (This assumption could be fiddled with for dramatic surprise, but only very occasionally.) Sitting in the theatre, the audience was taking a break from reality, devoting its attention to a show that was no more real than a dream. Now, however, it is Donald Trump who constitutes the reality. He is really there, more substantially than we who are sitting at home. We can see him, but not the other people in the audience. We cannot be sure that there are other people in the audience. Looking across the street, we may see a television screen that is showing the same show that we are watching, but we cannot be sure that there is anybody in that room across the street. But there is no doubting Donald Trump. His voice will do perfectly well as a substitute for his presence. The voice of Donald Trump is an apotheosis, the voice of a god. He is not participating in a political process but observing it (and guiding it) from on high.

Like the pandemonium that I wrote about yesterday, this reconstitution of reality, this relocation of reality to the other side of the TV screen, is strongly addictive. The pandemonium indicates helplessness, as you, the viewer, endure it for however long it lasts. (And, the longer it lasts, the less desire you have to escape it.) The displacement of reality signifies that you are not as real as what you see on the screen. You already knew that, for you are only you, a nobody, while Donald Trump is a god, or at least a billionaire, or at least someone through whose fingers a great deal of money has passed in various directions. Watching Trump, you are in the presence of reality. How can withdrawal from that reality not be painful?

In politics, the audience is not passive. Members of the audience stand up when the speech — the performance — is over, and ask questions that the speaker is expected to answer. Reality is in the audience. The speaker sketches promises and possibilities; the members of the audiences bring him back down to earth with when and how much. They want to hear the details that were omitted in the speech, and only when they do does the speech become real. Until then, it is hot air.

Donald Trump could not possibly thrive in politics. He has only one answer: trust me. Trust him, because he knows how to get things done. Some day, perhaps some day soon, an exact accounting will be prepared, listing the projects that Trump, having assured us that he knew how to get them done, got done — and the projects that did not. In the meantime, we can only trust him, or not. Politically, we are probably disinclined to trust him. But what if he is not really asking us to trust him? What if he is saying is: watch me. What if he is saying, with his stupendous aplomb, I am who am. What if?


On several occasions on this Web site, I have mentioned a movie called Kingsman: The Secret Service. Among the few things that one can say for sure about this movie is that, despite a starring role (or possibly because of it, as those who have seen it will understand) for Colin Firth, it did not “do well.” I venture to suggest that Kingsman was a confusing film. It was not at all difficult to figure out what was going on at any particular moment; the confusion was in the packaging. What kind of film was the audience led to expect, and did the film satisfy that expectation? Whatever the answer to the first question, the answer to the second was “no.” As a result, the film’s varied and inventive scenes of extraordinary violence had a gratuitous air, and were easily dismissed as “gross.” Although I was massively haunted by Kingsman, I never even began to undertake to persuade Kathleen that it was worth watching. For her, it would never be. That is why I am going to write about the nightmare at the heart of Kingsman as best I can, so that nobody will have to watch the movie to understand why I keep coming back to it. To the extent that I succeed, I shall have contributed to the demonstration that it is not a very good movie. And yet I must acknowledge that the scenes of violence that I am not going to paraphrase cannot be paraphrased: they are as unspeakable as they are unforgettable. At such moments, Kingsman becomes an astonishingly powerful film. Please bear that in mind, while I talk about not so much scenes as a concept. Since this concept is my real subject, I am going to dispense with the names of characters and the actors who play them.

Some science fiction is required. Imagine a sociopathic billionaire — easy peasy. This billionaire believes that the human population of Planet Earth must be, at the very least, culled; and he has invented a kewl way to get the population to cull itself, without the use of outside force. Well, there is an outside force. But it is not an army or a bomb. It is a signal. When emitted by a smartphone, this signal blocks all human emotions except hostility and fear. Thus stripped down, people can be counted on to try to kill each other. All the billionaire has to do is press a few buttons.

He presses a few buttons from a mountain fastness, into which he has herded cooperative fellow billionaires and other members of the deserving élite. I am not going to talk about them, except to propose a rebus. (Take the mountain-fastness party scene, and the scene from Being John Malkovich in which everyone looks the same, and the head, complete with its interesting hair, of Donald Trump: the result would make many viewers wickedly happy.) All you need to know is that the Top People are preserved from the cull. (Fat lot of good &c.)

As I said, the fatal signal is delivered via smartphone. This is the key to the nightmare, even if it is not particularly essential to the concept. (The billionaire could just as easily have erected transmission towers, or even co-opted existing ones. The signal effects everyone, not just smartphone owners.) In order to place the necessary operating system in the maximum number of smartphones, the billionaire offers free Internet and phone access to anyone who signs up. So, of course, everyone does.

The corollary to that wise old maxim, You get what you pay for, is that, If you don’t pay for what you sign up for, you don’t know what it is.

Owing to glitches, the signal is never activated for very long. There are a few rather cartoonish scenes of random, insincere-looking violence, ostensibly occurring in major cities around the world. (They bear no resemblance to the blitzing orgy of malevolence that ensues when the signal is given its test run, on a sort of pilot audience as it were, from which only one man emerges alive.) The culling scenes are redolent of laddies half-heartedly throwing each other from rooftops. In a much more engaging parallel thread, a mother who has been warned ahead of time to lock her baby in the loo and slip the key under the door is overtaken by a pathological desire to break down the door and murder her child. (She gets far enough in this endeavor to remind us of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.) What’s going on in the mountain fastness while the signal is activated, or about to be activated, or hobbled by glitches, is far more engrossing than the crowd scenes.

But you do see enough. You see people having fun on the beach, and then turning feral. And you know that this however-awful thing is happening because everybody signed up for the free access.

And, Mr Keefe, this has exactly what to do with Donald Trump and the presidential campaign? Good Lord, do I have to spell it out?

Free access = entertaining politics. Donald Trump is not to be confused, however analogous his position in this argument, with Kingsman‘s sociopathic billionaire. The film’s evil genius depends, after all, on a science fiction trick currently unavailable to the Donald, who would hardly wish to cull his audiences anyway. But it would appear that Trump’s supporters have confused serious political consequences with rejuvenating entertainment. Unlike the movie’s suckers, the Trumpistas ought to have an inkling of the disasters to which their fearless leader’s proposals would almost certainly lead, and certainly, no “almost” about it, in concert.

You won’t get anywhere by dismissing Trumpistas as “stupid.” They are addicted.


Thursday 12th

With most books, I know where I stand. I am here, the author is there. We differ to thus and such a degree. Under the impression that I understand what I’m reading, I move along as briskly as possible, noting interesting passages (but never in the book itself; I do not write in books, not even to print my name), and getting through the dull parts as dutifully as possible. Without my paying very much attention, I judge the book page by page. I do not feel that this judgment encompasses myself as well.

Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture has been unusual in that regard. I don’t know where I stand with relation to the book at all. I agree, strongly, with this; I disagree just as strongly with the following sentence. The confusion owes to the meaning and use of the word “conservative.” I think that it’s fair to say that this word, at least in English, is undergoing a great deal of stress, as people with very different outlooks either lay claim to it or label others with it. I am not the only man to feel that the self-styled conservatives in American politics are anything but; at the same time, I know that my own conservative inclinations do not stretch so far as to cover a good deal of the traditional ground. I am somewhat conservative — and Roger Scruton is somewhat reactionary. Reading the Guide is often an awful muddle.

The difference between a conservative and a reactionary is implied by Tancredi’s famous remark, in The Leopard: everything must change in order for everything to stay the same. That is conservatism. The reactionary simply wants to go back to the way things were — no change! Tancredi’s paradox describes fairly well the course of human history, but for all the massacres and mayhem. But only historians and their students have access to the perspective from which to observe the way in which things really do remain the same by constantly changing.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, not a historian. He knows about a lot of things that have happened, but he does not see them as a historian does. The historian’s principal struggle is to understand remote events as they might have been understood at the time, by people who did not know what was going to happen next. This is the one universal truth about the history of humanity: the future is never known. Everything else about human history is a matter of local context, about which we can only guess the grosser outlines. People always need to eat, but their ideas about what foods are good to eat, and how they ought to be eaten, and when, and with whom, shift slowly but, over time, distinctively. That’s just one example.

Roger Scruton has an idea about art. He sees art as rooted in religion. I myself do not; I root art in play — play that is eventually ordered and controlled by social authorities. But we won’t go into all that. Scruton’s idea is undeniably familiar. If I disagree, I do so quietly; I can follow his use of this idea to see where it takes him.

Where it takes him is to this:

In no genuinely religious epoch is the high culture separate from the religious rite. Religious art, religious music, and religious literature form the central strand of all societies where a common religious culture hold sway. Moreover, when art and religion begin to diverge — as they have done in Europe since the Renaissance — it is usually because religion is in turmoil or declining. When art and religion are healthy, they are also inseparable. (18)

This familiar indeed — so familiar, in fact, that I discovered, when I read it again yesterday (for I am grappling with Roger Scruton), that I had outgrown vague resistance and developed some sharp objections. Here’s the sharpest: when was religion ever healthy in the European West? Beginning wherever you like — with the conversion of Constantine, say. The conversion of Constantine, you might have thought, ushered in a reign of peace. But that is not what happened. Emerging from persecution like fugitives from a sewer, Christians erupted into a mass of contention. Constantine was so vexed by the Christians’ inability and apparent unwillingness to agree on the basic principles of Christianity that he summoned a conclave of bishops to Nicaea, where, somewhat under imperial duress, a creed was hammered out. It took nearly a century for this creed — a minimal statement about the nature of God — to be generally accepted in the European West. Centuries later, a squabble over the placement of a particle, -que, would lead to a schism between the Roman Catholics of the West and the Orthodox Christians (including Russians and most Balkans, such as Serbians, but not Croatians or Slovenians; I hope that you’re getting the picture) that persists to this day.

Say, then, that the Nicene Creed was generally acknowledged at the beginning of the Fifth Century. Were peace and harmony ushered in then? No. As I see it, peace and harmony have never been ushered in. Christianity, both as to its doctrines and its administration, has always been contentious. Even during the period that Scruton hints at so clearly that he doesn’t see the need to name it.

He is thinking, let us imagine, of the Twelfth Century — the age of the first great cathedrals. It is true that very little remains from this time that does not have some ecclesiastical bearing. Nothing at all survives that could be called “nonreligious art.” Bishops and their agents controlled the production of art to the extent that kings and other secular potentates commissioned nothing lasting that did not belong to a religious context. This was the great Age of Faith, when song was chant and poetry was liturgical.

This was also the time of Abelard, the wildly brilliant but dangerously undisciplined philosopher who wrote a book called Sic et Non, an exercise book designed to teach students how to argue hot questions. For there were hot questions, and the hottest question of all concerned the role to be played by reason in religious matters. We may think that we see an Age of Faith, because the cathedrals are so grand. But the impression derives from extraordinarily widespread illiteracy: aside from the clergy, no one had the training or the platform required for the dissemination of ideas. And the clergy was at war with itself over the hot questions. So dubious is the very idea of an Age of Faith that at its climax, in 1277, there burned, at Oxford and Paris, bonfires of proscribed writings. The most famous author to go up in flames was Thomas Aquinas, who had died a few years before. His work survived destruction and was rehabilitated; he remains the semi-official theologian of the Roman Catholic Church. But the hot question itself was consumed; never again would faith be supported by reason, much less challenged by it, within the Church itself.

Now, you might argue that for a religion to be “healthy,” there must be robust debates about doctrines and practices. But the Church rarely stopped at debates. From the time of Augustine, bishops exploited their extensive temporal powers to enforce their rulings, with violence if necessary. You will recall that some people were burned at the stake. The Reformation of Christianity, largely but not exclusively an event of the Sixteenth Century, did nothing for the cause of peace and harmony. Perhaps Scruton regards the Reformation as a sign of religious decline, since it did take place during the later phases of the Renaissance (and was clearly fueled by Renaissance thought). But I am unable to find a sustained period of “healthy” religion — which, I insist, must be free of secular violence — in all the history of Europe until the rulers of the West imposed religious toleration upon their subjects, over the strenuous objections of churches everywhere. Even then, religious intolerance persisted in many of New England’s colonial settlements, where, as the Chinese might say, the king was far across the sea. I cannot call this “healthy.”


Roger Scruton, as I say, is not a historian, or even the follower of historians. This is clear at the beginning of his chapter on “Enlightenment.” He points out in the first paragraph that Kant defined the term in 1784; as in most cases, the movement was given its name as and when it came to an end. This means that most “thinkers of the Enlightenment” were unaware of being any such thing. To be sure, they were aware of advancing new and contrarian positions, often at personal risk. They were conscious of membership in something called “the Republic of Letters.” They knew that an old order was in a critical state of decay, and they called this order “feudal.” The United States, also defined at the end of the “Enlightenment,” was the European West’s first experiment in post-feudal possibilities. But you will have to look very hard and long through the writings of “Enlightenment thinkers” to find anyone who seriously advocated universal, or even majority, suffrage. Upon examination, most of these figures turn out to be no less élitist than the aristocrats whose secular (as distinct from social) power was slipping away.

When Scruton looks back upon the Enlightenment, he is mindful of the consequences of the movement’s philosophy. He knows what happened after 1789, which he regards, as so many people smart enough to know better do, as a culmination of the Enlightenment. Here he would agree with Marx: the bourgeoisie overcame the aristocrats so that a new order could prevail. Again, a very retrospective take on history. The bourgeoisie did not in fact overcome the aristocrats. It had no idea of doing any such thing. Instead, it watched, appalled, as the aristocratic props of the civil order collapsed faster and more violently than anyone had imagined. They collapsed in yet another peasant uprising, only this uprising was the one that could not be put down by royal authority. Royal authority collapsed with the aristocratic power. The habit of spending money that wasn’t there was brought to its inevitable end: just as we can thank the Bourbons for supporting the American cause, so French republicans must thank Americans for providing the occasion on which the Bourbon régime bankrupted itself. It will not, I hope, be argued that the Bourbon régime bankrupted itself to make it possible for the Enlightenment to prevail.

The Enlightenment, as it was lived, was a response to a problem that began no later than at the end of the Fourteenth Century, when the Last Crusade’s cavalry was mowed down by Turkish artillery, at the Battle of Nicopolis, in 1396. From this moment, the aristocracy made no functional — military — sense. More than a few aristocrats would dismount from their horses and direct their troops from the rear, as generals, but most of the actual fighting would be done by career soldiers, ordinary men who knew how to fight on their feet. For four hundred years, European monarchs (Britain aside) struggled with the increasing uselessness of the aristocratic order in which their thrones were inextricably bedded. Four hundred years! The Enlightenment was an aspect of the final stages of this struggle. Its success derived from its statement of the obvious.

What is too often overlooked is the very great feudatory role played by officials of the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops and abbots enjoyed extensive aristocratic powers. What’s more, unlike the secular aristocracy, churchmen acted in concert. Literally owning the schools, the French episcopacy was able to shut down higher education for nearly a century. It is no wonder that public intellectuals like Voltaire would attack the Church, not because it espoused what Voltaire chose to call “superstition,” but because its feudal powers, its secular force, gave these superstitions muscle. In short, the thinkers of the Enlightenment objected to religion because religious authorities interfered in affairs that ought to have been none of their business.

“History” that explains events in terms of their outcomes is not history. It is retrospection, looking back in hindsight, and a childish waste of time.


Friday 13th

It is something like a fever — a fever that I’ve read about, but never actually suffered. (Literature can be thicker than life chez moi.) When it rages, I read thirstily from three vaguely-related books: Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx, Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace, and T G Otte’s July Crisis. These are all more or less about the fall of the old régimes that survived the ancien régime after 1789. They tell the end of the story that began in Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society.

When the fever subsides, I have nothing to read. Without the fever, I cannot bear Marx’s obsessions or the soul of Russia or anything to do with Serbia. It’s all just narcissism really. I shuffle through the book pile. The Idiot. I’m halfway through that. Prince Myshkin arouses my sympathies, but everyone else seems ill-mannered. Which reminds me. I was reading about someplace the other day, and it was pointed out that, wherever it was, formality and deference did not characterize social life. The comment suggested that, where you find formality, you will find deference, that there is something hierarchical about good manners. (Good manners and formality are hardly synonymous, but in this case that is what I took “formality” to mean.) I disagree! Good manners have one objective only: to make other people comfortable. To be easygoing, but not sloppy. To take an interest, but without prying. To listen sincerely. That has always been the hardest thing for me. I tried to be a good listener last night. I was talking with someone at a party. He could have been Alan Alda’s brother, and, in addition to this resemblance, he told me that he was a commercial real estate broker specializing in Queens properties. That’s another story. We were standing near the window, and he said what a fine day it had been. Yesterday, he went on, he had to go to a funeral in Newark, and it was nice there, too.

I let a few beats go by. I had to flush an instant response out of my mind: I don’t know anybody, so I never go to funerals. It is true that I have been to very few funerals in my life. Again, another story. When my mind was clear, I asked, “Was it a friend?”

“It was my aunt,” he replied brightly, “and she was 108 years old.” He spoke the number in a jocular manner, “one oh eight,” something like that, so that I was briefly confused. It was a great relief to everyone, he said. The aunt had been in a nursing home for three years, but she had all her marbles — a phrase that is never used except in connection with the lucidity of the very old. His own mother, my interlocutor continued, had suffered some kind of dementia. She would tell a story and then tell it again five minutes later. He mentioned a story about turnips. His mother would tell her story about turnips. Then (he said) the family would sit down to dinner and someone would say, “There are no turnips.” This would prompt his mother to tell her turnip story again. I was wondering if “turnips” actually happened or if “turnips” were something that he had snatched out of the air in order to make his point. Still slightly confused, I found it very easy to remark that I already repeat myself (implying that I was not very old nor yet demented). My companion by the window nodded. “It does get hard to remember things,” he said, with a rueful laugh. “Oh, that’s just a part of it,” I said. “I like my stories. I’m always in the mood to tell my stories.” He laughed more ruefully. I really wanted to ask him what he thought of the film, A Most Violent Year, which, in my mind, I could imagine him in. But the conversation turned to NPR podcasts. He said that he was a big fan. TED talks. Terry Gross. “Oh yes,” I said, non-committally. I mentioned that I used to listen to NPR all the time, but then “the towers fell,” meaning the World Trade Center towers, atop one of which rose a gigantic broadcasting antenna, “and we lost reception for a while.” I got out of the habit of listening to the radio. Actually, I got out of the habit of listening to the radio because I began writing on my Web sites. You cannot write and listen to talk radio at the same time.

At this point, a very old friend whom I hadn’t seen in some time walked up, and I spent the rest of the time at the cocktail party talking to her. Later, after dinner with Kathleen, I found myself in the subsidence phase of my fever. I thought about what to read. There emerged the desire to read a story about someone in New York, not now but a while ago. I thought of Dawn Powell, whom I haven’t read in a while. Then the desire took a sudden lurch, and I set out to find the book with Maeve Brennan’s “Herbert’s Retreat” stories. (I don’t want to spend the rest of the morning perusing old entries, but I did find this in the archive.) I read “The Anachronism” aloud to Kathleen.

“The Anachronism” is a strange construction, probably because the central figure, aside from being an awful person, is slightly difficult to bring into focus. Liza Frye is a thirty-nine year-old married woman, two years older than her husband. The Fryes have been married for seven years. Before that, Liza was “sick with lack of money.” The things that money can buy did not really interest her; it was “position” that she longed for. Having married Tom Frye, she insisted that they move to Herbert’s Retreat, because she had been there once, and all the established women had looked down on her (she felt). By the time the story gets going, Liza is consumed by status anxiety. Everything that her neighbors say or do is a potential slight. This dreadful immaturity is at odds with her age, and I kept slipping into seeing Liza as a young, inexperienced woman. In fact, she is not young, and she is beyond the reach of experience. Oh, and she has her mother living with her.

Liza and Mrs Conroy detested each other, but it suited them to live together — Liza because she enjoyed showing her power, and Mrs Conroy because she was waiting for her day of vengeance.

Then there’s Tom. We’re told early that Tom’s “real life was spent away from home anyway.” But this doesn’t mean what you think. He doesn’t have a great job; he doesn’t have a mistress; he doesn’t even have an eccentric hobby. Tom’s “real life” consists of spending the day at a snooty Fifth Avenue club to which he has belonged since he was twenty-one. His father belonged to the club before him. His grandfather, however, the man who made all the money, did not belong. Every morning, Tom sits in the chair by a window that was formerly occupied by the club member who personally saw to it that Tom’s grandfather was not admitted. Tom reads the papers. Every day, Tom has a two hour lunch by himself. Then he goes back to the chair and looks out the window. At five, he calls for his car and drives home to Liza. Brennan’s point seems to be that there are people whose lives are so dull that they are not worth writing about. Nor does Brennan bother to fold Tom into the story. He disappears after the description of his day at the club, only to be summoned to fetch a housemaid, whom Liza has imported from England, when her liner comes in.

This housemaid, Betty Trim, is supposed to be “the anachronism” — the very incarnation of old world deference. She has been spotted, working in a London hotel, by one of Liza’s neighbors, who then writes her up for the Herbert’s Retreat newsletter. Liza decides that she must have this maid in her otherwise all-modern house. The negotiations between Liza and Betty, concerning salary, length-of-contract, transatlantic passage, bonuses and so on, amount to a pile of “top this!” gestures. They reminded me of something else by Maeve Brennan, a spoof so stupendously funny that I can’t believe I didn’t quote it here last year. (I did summarize it.)

William Maxwell, Brennan’s editor, received a letter from a reader who wanted to know if any more Herbert’s Retreat stories would be appearing in The New Yorker. Brennan got hold of the letter, and Maxwell’s brief reply (“we hope to have something by Maeve Brennan in a forthcoming issue”); she added the following:

I am terribly sorry to have to be the first to tell you that our poor Miss Brennan died. We have her head here in the office, at the top of the stairs, where she was always to be found, smiling right and left and drinking water out of her own little paper cup. She shot herself in the back with the aid of a small handmirror at the foot of the main altar in St Patrick’s Cathedral one Shrove Tuesday. Frank O’Connor was where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving a penance to some old woman and he heard the shot and he ran out and saw our poor late author stretched out flat and he picked her up and slipped her in the poor box. She was very small. He said she went in easy. Imagine the feelings of the young curate who unlocked the box that same evening and found the deceased curled up in what appeared to be and later turned out truly to be her final slumber. It took six strong parish priests to get her out of the box and then they called us and we all went and got her and carried her back here on the door of her office.

There is a distinctly pickled fragrance to this flow of blarney. (“He said she went in easy.”) But there is a brilliance to its twists. Imagine the feelings of the poor reader who received this letter — which is all that can be done because the reader never received it. This was an “internal use only” document, a highly compressed satire of The New Yorker itself, where heads are mounted at the top of the stairs and writers spend the afternoons impersonating priests. (Well, the implication is, they might as well.) Imagine, too, the response of Maxwell’s and any other editorial eye to the egregious afterthought of “the door of her office.” (Did they take it with them when the priests called? Of course not. Brennan hadn’t thought of it yet.)

Anyway, in the story, Betty Trim and Mrs Conroy come to an understanding. Here’s the story’s end:

In the living room, sitting in sepulchral silence, Tom and Liza were first startled, then appalled, by the sudden screeches of laughter that came at them from the kitchen — screeches of laughter that was rude and unrestrained, and that renewed itself even as it struck and shattered against the walls of the kitchen.

Considered alongside the run of New Yorker stories, this and the other Herbert’s Retreat stories have a recklessly intentional gimcrack quality; there is an inconsequence, a one-thing-not-leading-to-another that I associate with inscrutable old myths. What holds “The Anachronism” together isn’t subtle. It’s the brutal fascination of dreadful Liza. What keeps you reading is the promise of an adroitly-placed banana peel.


Our gas crisis got written up in the Times, where the story differs from what we were told. (I didn’t know that our hot-water heater was gas-fired, and that we have Con Ed to thank, seriously, for relenting about that.) I can’t say that I did much cooking this week. I still haven’t used the electric oven — about an inch higher inside than the largest toaster ovens; big enough for roasting a medium-sized piece of meat — for anything but toasting. On Tuesday night, we had a chef’s salad for dinner, and then we went out the next two nights. Tonight, I am going to warm up a quiche. I should like to make a crumb cake. But I’m recovering from Wednesday’s burst of energy.

I went to the storage unit on Wednesday and bought fifteen book boxes in the lobby. Also, a tape gun. I went upstairs to the storage unit but had to go back downstairs to learn how to use the tape gun. The agent at the desk did not find this odd, and she even complimented me for not having gone through a lot of tape trying to figure it out myself. Back upstairs, I taped the bottom of a box. The first book to go in was an extravagantly large folio called The English Florilegium. I expect I bought it cheap at the Strand. It’s a lovely book, but somebody else will appreciate it more. My host last night reminded me of something that I’d completely forgotten, and still don’t remember, doing. At a Christmas party some years back, I piled up books under the tree and instructed guests to take them home. My host had taken the catalogue to the Artemesia Gentileschi show at the Museum. I do remember buying that big book, and the buyer’s remorse that ensued. Tiepolo and Canaletto aside, I am not keen enough on Italian painting to collect catalogues. (Oh, and Veronese.)

Finding a second book to put in the giveaway box was harder. I had made two piles on a shelf, one of keepers and one of discards. But they both had keeper books in them. Didn’t they? As my eyes narrowed, it became clear that there were discards in one of the piles, and then I sort of snapped into realizing that all of the books in that pile were discards. When I filled the first box, I taped a second box. I did not tape the first box shut. Nor, when I finished filling it, the second.

I know that there is a book in the second box that I may retrieve. It is called Darlinghissima, and it contains the correspondence between Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray. This is another book that I bought cheap at the Strand. When I bought it, I knew who Jannet Flanner was (of course), but nothing about the other woman. Only yesterday, a day after putting Darlinghissima in a giveaway box, I came across a very rosy mention of Murray in Sybille Bedford’s late memoir, Quicksands — which I find myself calling Graveyards, why? I adore correspondences, with the letters of both writers appearing in the same book; and Flanner and Murray must have known a lot of people about whom I know a thing or two, and they might teach me a third.

Nevertheless, the giveaway is underway. When I have packed all fifteen boxes, I’ll summon the handy service that already carried off the plus-sized items that were cluttering up the unit. I’ll have to call them, because fifteen boxes of books will be very much in the way.

I wrote a note to Ray Soleil, to tell him that I had finally gotten started with the boxes, and that I hoped to be out of the unit by the end of the year. He had the cheek to urge me to finish by the fall, “before the weather turns.” Easy for him to say.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Robert the Wet
May 2016 (I)

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

2, 3. 5, 6 May

Monday 2nd

In the Sunday Review section of the Times, there was this, by Gerald Marzorati:

Most of us got good early on at something that took time and devotion. For me it was reading. My mother, a blue-collar homemaker, saw that I liked looking through books and began teaching me how to read before I turned 4; I entered kindergarten reading at a second-grade level. I had a sixth-grade English teacher I wanted to please, which meant hours and hours of conjugation drills. I was placed in advanced-reading classes in high school, where I was forced to articulate what I comprehended; majored in English in college, where I learned the theoretical aspects of reading; and always had a book on my night stand. I went on to spend nearly 40 years as an editor, reading and reading. I loved it, still do. But I doubt I improved at it much after college. (I probably peaked trying to unravel “Finnegans Wake” in my James Joyce seminar.) I suspect you are not unlike me, whatever you’ve done with your life. The gradual, continuous improvement petered out before you reached midlife.

I know that this is what usually happens, but why? And how do we change it? (And what are the “theoretical aspects of reading”?) The bulk of Marzorati’s essay concerns the new life that he has discovered by making a commitment to improving his tennis game. He does not expect to become any kind of champion — he’s beyond proving himself to other people. He finds the challenge, the exercise, the whatnot rejuvenating. He hopes that the endeavor will prolong his life, not by months but by years. If nothing else, “Better Aging…” made me feel sublimely wise about never having tried to enter the world of publishing and journalism. I have yet to begin petering out.

I doubt I improved at it much after college. I shudder. I know that people thought I was pretty smart when I got out of college — that I’d read a lot, knew a lot — but I was just beginning. For me, college was a preparation for a life of the mind. That is what it is supposed to be but so rarely is in our ill-conceived economy. In fact, I knew next to nothing in 1970, and a lot of what I did know was wrong. I don’t want to consider the nullity of my grasp of anything at the age of twenty-two. But I had made a commitment to keeping my mind alive — no, that sounds too noble. My mind had made a commitment to staying alive, dammit, and somehow it survived the decades of carousing that followed.

The night before reading Marzorati’s piece, I had been shaken to my bones by Helen Vendler. I mentioned her book about Wallace Stevens, On Extended Wings, last week. I’ve since begun to read it. Oh, I did the usual thing when I bought it, ages ago. I wanted some insight into “Credences of Summer,” so I jumped into the chapter devoted to that poem — and jumped right out. It is a bad idea to pick up one of Vendler’s books in the middle. She builds her work carefully, and every page is prerequisite to the next. I set On Extended Wings aside. Until last week.

As I read the book now, a dismal through-bass sounds: On Extended Wings was published in 1969, when I was still an undergraduate. Vendler, about fifteen years older than I am, was not yet forty. And yet she writes as if she had been dipped into the marinade of Stevens’s poetry fifty years before he started writing it. She knows it better than he did. As I read Vendler’s discussion of “The Comedian as the Letter C,” I thought to myself, my life is nearly over, and yet I am only now learning this. By which I mean that what Vendler has to say strikes me as, literally, elementary: it’s stuff that you have to know if you’re going to get anywhere in thought. Her authority is immensely persuasive.

I had not read “The Comedian as the Letter C,” so I spent a half hour glancing through it. I didn’t not try to understand it, or even respond to it; I simply wanted the lay of the land. I noticed a curious onrushing quality in the blank verse, as line ran to line after line, narrating an account that, personally, I should prefer to have had in prose.

His western voyage ended and began.
The torment of fastidious thought grew slack,
Another, still more bellicose, came on.
He, therefore, wrote his prolegomena,
And, being full of the caprice, inscribed
Commingled souvenirs and prophecies.

I always hear Hiawatha in the background when poets go on in this way — Hiawatha in the counting-house, calculating meters. But I liked the canto about the four daughters; it reminded me, in a jolly way, of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that is always fun when you don’t have to look at it. Then, when I had read the whole thing, I returned to Vendler. The jolly daughters soured and curdled. I’ve since recovered from the shock; now, two days later, what she has to say seems obvious and refreshing. But on Saturday night I had not conceived the possibility of giving Wallace Stevens a dressing down.

Stevens’ resolute attempts to make himself into a ribald poet of boisterous devotion to the gaudy, the gusty, and the burly are a direct consequence of a depressing irony in respect to the self he was born with and an equally depressing delusion about the extent to which this self could be changed. These ribaldries take two stylistic forms in Harmonium — the willed and artificial primitivism of poems like “Earthy Anecdote” and “Ploughing on Sunday,” and so on, and the verbal mimetic reproduction, persistent only in the Comedian, of the actual density of the physical world. Neither is destined to become Stevens’ persistent mode. Stevens as ironist never fades entirely … but the corrosive deflations of the Comedian are nowhere else so relentless. (52)

By “corrosive deflations,” Vendler means, I think, “mistakes.”

A page or two earlier, Vendler ascribes to Stevens

the vantage point of the man for whom the senses do not provide transcendent moments, who is repelled as the provocations of the senses reach excess, who is almost indifferent by temperament to any world except an arranged or speculative one — and who nevertheless “knows” that this world is all there is, that this is the unique item of ecstasy. (50)

This was an electrifying line, for I felt that Vendler was talking, somewhat, about me. Not me now, but the younger me who struggled to experience all sorts of things that he had read about. Real life, this younger me believed, was something that everyone else seemed to understand much better than he. He “needed to get out more.” But when he got out, he discovered only that his “comfort zone” — the thing that we’re all exhorted to leave in order to discover the richness of life — was not only not a plush fainting couch on which to daydream but the very portal to thought and understanding, a portal through which, on his best days, he passed quickly and surely, entering another zone that was too cosmic for comfort.

There is a moment in the film A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is beguiled by the flashing of lighted panels, in which he detects, or thinks he detects, occult patterns. I am never deluded by the majesty of inexpressible harmonies; if I can’t write something down, it doesn’t exist, except as a phantasmic scrap of neuronal goo. But I often feel Nash’s thrill. My ecstasies are also interior.

I’ve just read “Ploughing on Sunday” for the first time.

Remus, blow your horn!
I’m ploughing on Sunday.
Ploughing North America.
Blow your horn!

For years, I was beset by the occasional urge to sing this kind of song, but it always came out as Stevens’s next lines,


I ought to say right now that I have yet to read most of Wallace Stevens’s poems for the first time. When I was young, instead of being roused by adolescent yearning, I preferred childish play with words, so I liked Pope and Sitwell best. I’ve been ashamed of that preference, but now I understand that I was only listening — listening, that is, for music, rhythm, pulse, antiphon and response. I didn’t care what poetry said, if anything; I wanted an armature for my prose. Once I had built one, I could read the real thing, but I was too old to be exhaustive. I have not yet got over the embarrassment that flushes through me whenever I read a great poem for the first time and think, oh dear, I ought to have known this a long time ago, and I wonder if I ever shall.


I mentioned “the life of the mind.” In most cases, this phrase is a richly-upholstered pipe-dream, signifying not much. The life of the mind is like any modern life: it has its beginning (ignorance), its education (training, or, in the much better French term, formation), and its career (thinking critically about the world). Its career, unlike Gerald Marzorati’s, apparently, is the real workout. I do not understand why or how Marzorati failed to apply the zeal that he is bringing gratuitously to tennis to the work that he did for a living. Is there, as many artists have believed, something dulling about negotiating — exchanging — one’s work for a salary? Does the figure on a check surreptitiously take the place of less liquid criteria? I don’t think so. The problem is collegiality. Anybody who is great at anything needs to spend a lot of time alone, and solitude is heavily discouraged by modern economy. Modern economy likes to have people show up in a certain place at a certain time; it wants them to produce a certain amount of something in a certain number of hours. Modern economy would prefer to gather a number of workers together for a perfectly pointless meeting — modern economy regards meetings as essentially productive — than allow individual to wander off into their own minds. Modern economy is preoccupied by common denominators. Participants in modern economy are at risk of being degraded by the infection of common ideas.

No two lives of the mind are the same. Each mind must create tools for evaluating its own performance. This is to say that everyone must develop a personal style of writing, for it is only in writing that thinking is manifest. The quality of writing reveals the quality of the life of the writer’s mind. Anything that the writer does not write down is almost a kind of madness, a private, unanchored wildness, the incoherence of which, if approached too closely, is terrifying. I’m thinking of what John Nash thought but could never express.

I wish I knew more people to talk to about the things on my mind, but after a lifetime of banging my head against a wall I see that this is like wanting to win the lottery. It is difficult to understand why one won’t win the lottery, because winning is so easily envisioned. Even though we know perfectly well that the numbers are stacked against us — massively against us — we think that we know just what it would be like to win. Such excitement! such pleasure! All we’re doing is enlarging small moments of good luck that we have actually experienced. So it is with important conversations. Their likelihood is very small. The interlocutors must be strangers, at least in the sense that friends are not, and yet they must share certain familiarities in order to be mutually comprehensible. They must have read much of the same sort of thing but each must have read certain unexpectedly important things that the other has not. And, at the risk of sounding new-agey, I’d venture that important conversations can occur only when two bodies are biorhythmically in some kind of synch.

That’s why writing is so much better — any kind of published writing. You send things out: that is your contribution to the conversation, a conversation which may not begin in earnest until after you are dead. The life of the mind has at its disposal everything ever written down by anyone, everything that survives to be read.

The world’s maladies can be remedied by two things only: acts of generosity and the expressions of lively minds.


Tuesday 3

I should like to write an entry about something without ever using the word that serves as its label.

After work and lunch yesterday, I hoped to spend some time with various kitchen papers, to make up a list of common weeknight and weekend dinners for two and divide the ingredients into “fresh” and “staple” categories, the better to organize my shopping. It’s the old problem: on any given day, I’ve got no idea what to make for dinner. What do I want for dinner is countered by what did we have last night and the night before that; less often, I’ve got to consider a dinner that’s coming up. How hard to I want to work at it is, in its turn, countered by what do you mean by ‘hard’? Pretty soon my mind a blank, with epicycles turning on epicycles, and the idea of lying down almost overpowers me. Yesterday, I thought, a bit of overview might help. What are the dishes in my current repertoire?

Well, that didn’t happen. I sat there with the LRB, which I’d been reading at lunch, and just continued to sit there. I read Jacqueline Rose’s very long piece, “Who do you think you are?” If I quote the article’s subtitle, I shall be obliged to use the word that I want to avoid.

Rose writes, with a comprehensiveness that outdoes even Andrew Solomon on the same subject (although his work is more penetrating), about confusion and clarity in matters of sex and gender. We can agree, for present purposed, that “sex” is an absolutely flesh-and-bone issue: your body presents your sex, which is almost always either male or female, at birth. For most people, the clarity of that presentation remains unproblematic. (I gather that some of the people about whom Rose writes — Susan Stryker, for example — might contest this assumption.) We can also agree that “gender” is less clear, more fluid. Gender, it is commonly thought in advanced circles, is socially constructed. Your sex may be male, but for your gender to be male as well there are things that you have to do. You must learn a body language — a way to stand, a manner with unoccupied arms, a tilt of the head — or at least exclude from your body language those gestures that are commonly associated with the female gender. You must walk and talk like a man. You must have at least a few of the skills that are strongly associated with men (even if there are plenty of strong women who demonstrate those skills as well or better). You must respect certain taboos; you must profess not to notice certain things. I remember finding it very funny, once, that a marriage announcement in the Times told readers the name of the fabric out of which the bride’s gown was constructed (peau de soie) before it revealed the name of the man whom the bride married. A woman standing nearby eyed me with anxious disapproval. A real man, I could tell she thought, simply wouldn’t have seen “peau de soie” on the page. And a clever man would have kept it to himself.

Gender does, of course, find sexual expression. Jacqueline Rose quotes Jennifer Finney Boylan: “it is not about who you want to go to bed with, it’s who you want to go to bed as.” In general, however, gender manifests itself in everyday behavior that everybody can see; it has little to do with caresses. Kathleen and I have been leading, for thirty-five years in October, lives that defy one of the key gender markers: Kathleen goes to the office, while I stay home and keep house. I do the cooking; Kathleen closes deals. But the confusion, if that’s what it is, is pretty confined to that one swap. In her free time, Kathleen knits and beads, while I read the classics and bloviate about social problems. But just as we are well-matched in opinions and outlook (and the ability to express them), we are, as a couple, really bad at wedding presents: each one thinks that the other ought to choose them. In short, there are matters in which we observe gender conventions, matters in which we defy them to the point of negation, and matters — our conversation, for example — in which we ignore difference altogether.

If people think that Kathleen and I are doing something wrong — something even remotely immoral — by spending our respective days where we do, she at the office and I at home, then we are utterly unaware of it. There must be people who do, but we don’t know them, or they don’t speak their complaints. I’m sure that my father-in-law has wondered what the hell is wrong with me, that I don’t earn a living, but he is more inclined to express gratitude that I take good care of his daughter. Kathleen and I grew up in an affluent, highly-educated world (which both of us nevertheless regarded as provincial, its “sophistication” but the merest of veneers), and we live in that world still. We have a great deal more personal freedom than do people at the other end of the socio-economic scale, freedom that we have done nothing to deserve. I believe that it is this freedom that has spared us the doubt that we might have been born with bodies of the wrong sex. Kathleen does not want to be a male, and she does not want me to be a female. And vice versa. Each of us is quite comfortable with the sex situation in our household. I can be a male and a good cook. My father-in-law, in his early nineties, fully approves — he used to be a good cook himself. For my mother, however, my culinary interests were always a worry. Her ideas about the alignment of sex and gender were rigid. The fact that I noticed the mention of peau de soie because I’m a reader and a writer would have meant nothing to her, either. But she died forty years ago next year. Things have changed a lot since 1977.

Reading Jacqueline Rose prodded me with an observation that I had also gleaned from Andrew Solomon’s chapter on this subject, in Far From the Tree: few of the witnesses come from backgrounds like the one that Kathleen and I share. Few of those who have undergone what I am going to call sex-alteration procedures of any kind (I include cross-dressing) seem to have enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom as children. A great many seem to have been physically abused, and a great many seem to have been bullied, a complementary form of abuse. Rose wonders if many young people who seek sex-alteration procedures do so under pressure from parents and other adult advisers who seek the arguable protections of clarity, as if a sissy’s problems will be solved by uncomplicated femininity. Most of all, sex-alteration procedures appear to be undertaken with a view to bringing sex into alignment with gender. As a complete reversal of the cruelties of the traditional priority, which has always rather brutally subordinated gender to sex, this sounds like a good thing, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt the wisdom of trying to solve a broad miscellany of gender problems, about which there is, by the way, no overarching consensus, by playing Frankenstein with the body. I take the reference to Victor Frankenstein from Susan Stryker, who loudly proclaims the unnatural state of her sex-altered, stitched-over body.

Jacqueline Rose winds up her long essay with a thought that chimes with my own judgment, but before quoting it I shall break my restraint in order to suggest that my “problem” with the “transsexual” is very largely an aesthetic rejection of the term itself. Almost all the words ending in “-sexual” are more or less revolting to me. They pretend to give a mere fact (genital endowment, “sexual” preference) as much weight as fully human possibilities, whereas humanity begins where the facts of the human body and its inborn or unconscious proclivities stop (by having expressed themselves as inexorable). I always stumble in the middle of sentences that begin, “I’ve been reading about transsexual —” Transsexual what? “Transsexualism”? If there is a word with a more retrograde redolence, then please don’t tell me what it is.

On the other hand, I would tentatively suggest that we are witnessing the first signs that the category of the transsexual might one day, as the ultimate act of emancipation, abolish itself. In “Woman’s Time” (1981), Julia Kristeva argued that feminism, and indeed the whole world, would enter a third stage in relation to sexual difference: after the demand for equal rights and then the celebration of femininity as other than the norm, a time will come when the distinction between woman and man will finally disappear, a metaphysical relic of a bygone age. In the second Transgender Reader, Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade call for a trans and queer movement which would set its sights above all on a neoliberal agenda that exacerbates inequality, consolidates state authority and increases the number of incarcerated people across the globe.

I’ll vote for that. It seems obvious to me that sex-alteration is, fundamentally, a form of political protest, even if — hell, especially if — the politics at stake are utterly local. (Those particular bullies are to stop abusing this particular child.) To the extent that a scalpel can enhance human happiness, I cannot object to the procedure. But to the extent that it is raised as a proxy for prison reform, I can only hope that our pursuit of clarity will advance beyond uncertainties about the sex and gender of individuals.


In the same issue of the LRB — the first to appear (here) since the death of Jenny Diski; perhaps not the first to carry an ad for a book by Jenny Diski but nothing by her name in the list of articles — there is a review, by Alice Sprawls, of a show, or installation, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, celebrating the centenary of “Brogue,” or British Vogue. More than a review, Sprawls’s piece is a capsule history of the magazine, which was inaugurated when U-boats interfered with transatlantic shipping. According to Sprawls, the NPG show attains nothing like the success of recent photography exhibitions about Lee Miller (at the Imperial War Museum) and Horst (at the V&A), but the catalogue is a must. Sprawls herself is full of fun stuff. For example, owing to paper shortages during World War II, Vogue’s subscription list had to be limited, so that the only way a new subscriber could get a copy was for an old subscriber to die. (I’m not sure that I really believe this, or that it was a policy in force for more than a fortnight, but it’s certainly fun.) Also fun: it was the robust market for Vogue patterns that kept Condé Nast financially afloat after the Crash wiped out his extensive speculations. I see that Vogue patterns still exist, but at a web page belong to McCall’s. During the past thirty years, has Anna Wintour been in the same room with one?

Sprawls does not mention Wintour, which must mean something. She glides from Beatrix Miller to Alexandra Schulman, overlooking the chance to deploy “Nuclear Wintour,” which is also fun, if pretty predictable, given The Devil Wears Prada. Coming home last night in a taxi, Kathleen, who has quite given up looking at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and wonders why they still appear on the coffee table, got stuck in the traffic created around the Museum by limousines ferrying guests to the Met Gala at the Anna Wintour Costume Center. In the Times online today, Sarah Jessica Parker talks about her “Hamilton look.” The theme of this year’s gala, as it has been for every season since Wintour took the gala under her wing, is “Commerce By Night.” I’d like to know what Anna Wintour thinks about Germaine Greer’s opinion of MTF transsexuals, which Jacqueline Rose cites at almost incredulous length. It appears that Greer does not recognize sex alteration, at least in cases involving a body born as male. To her, these former males are “pantomime dames,” imperialists for the masculine cause trying out a new gambit. My suspicion is that Wintour agrees, but doesn’t mind.

I don’t know what the alternative to Brogue is, but I prefer Harper’s Bazaar, which always seems to have been more literary than fashionable (and I’m talking about the staff, not the paid outsiders). Diana Vreeland was much cleverer at the Bazaar than she was at Vogue, or perhaps I mean much less; I am still waiting for someone to publish the compleat Why don’t you…” The only other point that needs to be made about the superiority of Bazaar to Vogue is that it is an issue of the former that Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is really reading at the end of Rear Window. Paid product placement, perhaps, but still — Grace Kelly.


Thursday 5th

What is to be thought? About a week after proposing Carly Fiorina as his running mate, Ted Cruz has folded his tents and departed. So has John Kasich. The improbable Donald Trump alone remains, a genuinely popular candidate, at least among Republican Party voters. Already, the Times is helping us to imagine what Trump’s first hundred days in office will be like.

In a series of recent interviews, he sketched out plans that include showdowns with business leaders over jobs and key roles for military generals, executives and possibly even family members in advising him about running the country.

Shortly after the Nov. 8 election, President-elect Trump and his vice president — most likely a governor or member of Congress — would begin interviewing candidates for the open Supreme Court seat and quickly settle on a nominee in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia.

It sounds like a movie. Which is why I repeat the question: what is to be thought? How much conviction are we to invest in this prospect? How earnestly ought we to prepare for change in the political culture of a magnitude not seen since Andrew Jackson’s day?

Many think that the White House now belongs to Hillary Clinton. I’m not so sure. Which is more reason to be thinking. Thinking — but not concluding. Conclusions are premature. What has ended is the scrimmage on the right. The horse race there is over. There may be an insurrection, forcing Trump to run as a third-party candidate. Now that the voters have spoken, how will the Party establishment settle its stomach? There are so many problems with Trump, problems on different levels. There is the burlesque aspect of his demeanor, which some people see and others don’t. He is a clown to many. He is also a tyro, incapable of speaking articulately about anything, but probably not because of stupidity. No, probably because articulateness means little to his supporters. If Trump wins the election in November, his mandate will be to tear down the house. Coherent policy statements will mean nothing in the smoke and dust. How eager are Republican mandarins, and the organized money behind them, to participate in the pillage?

Is it possible that there will be no pillage? If Trump has a truly “presidential” mien up his sleeve, he is probably not going to display it until after the election.

All this must be thought about. What must not be thought about is “how this ever happened.” We’ll leave that question to the historians; with their longer perspective, they’ll see things that we cannot. I myself have been mildly surprised by the extent of Trump’s success, but the success itself does not surprise me at all. What surprises me — and it oughtn’t — is the shock and awe that seems to have been dealt to political commentators. For too many of the men and women who tell us what to think, Trump’s advance has made Aleppos of their workspace. They cannot function without saying panicky things. A Times editorial yesterday castigated the Republican Party for allowing Trump to happen. Not so fast! I would bet that a big chunk of Trump’s supporters either used to be Democrats or are the children of people who were Democrats until the Civil Rights/Nixon disaster.

I hope that Hillary Clinton and her supporters will not embark on a wild vilification of Donald Trump. Without doing much to recognize Trump’s existence, the Democrats need to create a welcoming but realistic political atmosphere that will draw every conceivable voter to the polls, while conferring by implication the air of a sideshow monstrosity on Trump’s berserkers. I have my doubts about Clinton’s ability to oversee a project of this kind; her character is marred by a profound arrogance that seems to me to be pregnant with tragic possibilities.

Here’s what I think: if Donald Trump is able to present himself as the more generous candidate, more sincerely committed to the welfare of the American voters of today than his Democratic rival, then he will win in November. Other issues pale to insignificance beside this one.


It may be that generosity is much on my mind anyway. Thinking, late last night, about Mavis Gallant’s novel, A Fairly Good Time, I was tickled by the ease with which I could dissolve every scene, every confrontation, and every plot point in a colloid of understanding and generosity. “Understanding” is generally another word for “sympathy,” but not in Gallant’s world. Again and again, the heroine, a twenty-something called Shirley, runs up against generosity withheld by people who claim to understand her, while she herself is generous without understanding.

Because the novel is set in Paris, in the early Sixties — still the late Forties, in other words, in all but the most superficial appearances — the dissonance between understanding and generosity might easily be seen as a comic take on French cynicism. Gallant certainly plays this card. The two principal men in the story, Philippe, Shirley’s vanishing husband, and Papa Maurel, the unhappy patriarch of a discordant family, treat Shirley with a contempt bordering on sadism; they are virtuosos in turning her arguments of self-defense against her. As a disheveled North American of undeveloped habits, Shirley lacks the ideal personality profile for would-be Parisian expats. But she runs into much the same hard-heartedness in fellow North Americans, such as her quondam friend Renata and her touring godmother, Mrs Cat Castle. The only truly gentle people in the book, aside from the rackety heroine herself, are the Higginses, Mr and Mrs and their son, Pete. Shirley was married to Pete, briefly. Gallant makes you wonder about the “why” behind the “briefly,” but then discloses the history in the tumorously outsized, seventy-page twelfth chapter: Pete died in a stupid vehicular accident. The sweetness of the Higginses is a small cloud of dust in the bedlam of Shirley’s protracted apology. The Higgenses belong to the relatively distant past, and they are completely effaced by such supporting characters as Madame Roux, the inexplicably malignant shopkeeper on the ground floor of Shirley’s apartment house.

Speaking of “generosity,” I do not have money in mind. Shirley is not rich by any means, but she is not needy, either. Shirley is not turning to people for financial help. She is looking for friends, for people who will make sense of her life in Paris. Too often, she is told that bad things will happen to her, and the warnings are not meant in a friendly or generous way. Here are two passages, a page apart, taken from Shirley’s recollection of her first dinner with Philippe.

All these rude questions have a reason [says Philippe], and you are certainly as conscious of it as I am. Otherwise you would not have bothered to see me again. I have another question — I hope not the last. Between the time I met you and today, and I have been asking other questions about you. Your friends tell me that you give everything away. Why do you give everything away? It sounds like a kind of imbalance. Has anyone ever tried to stop you? (240)

He spooned two strawberries on to my plate and insisted I taste them. I wondered if he had been raised to think that women need to be coaxed. It seemed to me an extraordinary physical gesture, as if we were already lovers. I didn’t know then that we could not be friends. I don’t know why, but we never became friends. (241)

One is reminded of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal: a novel that begins with the disappearance of a husband climaxes with the insight of a first date observed. We never became friends. By page 241, the reader is well aware of this; the reader has known it from the start, when Shirley, alone in the apartment, goes through Philippe’s desk drawers and reads bits of the strange novel that a female friend, somehow not a mistress (she is perhaps not physically robust), hopes that Philippe will be able to publish. Philippe holds this woman in higher regard than he does his wife. Looking back from page 241, we may nod: Geneviève Deschranes and Philippe are friends, just as Philippe and Shirley are not. Shirley claims to love Philippe, but she never says anything about liking him. This may be the failure of her generosity: it is indiscriminate. She gives everything away, to anybody. And she does not understand that, for that and other reasons, she and Philippe could never be friends.

A tangential encounter that no one of ordinary discretion would allow to blow out of proportion thrusts Shirley into the bosom of the Maurel family. If Shirley fits in with the Maurels, that’s because the family is already running a substantial friendship deficit within itself. The force of bourgeois custom is all that holds the Maurels together. Papa, a thinnish man who closes his eyes in frequent exasperation and who forbids what he cannot ignore, was bought by Maman Maurel’s rich father. When the marriage didn’t work out, Papa moved in with his rich uncle. But Maman’s father was a friend of Papa’s uncle, and Papa was sent back to Maman, whereupon they actually became the parents of two girls, eight years apart. Marie-Thérèse, the elder, is stern and correct, the mother of four boys of her own. (Maman, a delicate eater, loathes the Alsatian in-laws with whom Marie-Thérèse’s husband, Gérald, has brought her into contact.) Claudie, the younger daughter, is something of a wild child. She has borne a child out of wedlock; Papa and Maman are raising little Alain as their own (they moved to a new neighborhood to avoid the disgrace). I never did decide what was wrong with Claudie, but something was. Something involving the imbalance of a strong will in a weak mind.

The Maurel’s live in Boulogne-Billancourt, far away from Shirley’s flat in the 6ième, but Shirley seems to spend every free minute with them, at least for a while.

The Maurel family were still trying to overtake their first failed invitation. Shirley had now sat down to four meals in their dining room, each a disaster. The Maurels quarreled so violently that no one save Gérald had time to swallow. Only Shirley seemed to be distressed by it; to the Maurels, normal conversation was either a whine or a scream. Except for Papa, who never looked at her, and Marie-Thérèse, who mistrusted Shirley with all her heart, Shirley had become everyone’s tutelary saint. (141)

Giving it all away yet again.

A Fairly Good Time is itself marked by the tension between understanding and generosity. A famous and highly-accomplished short-story writer, long published in The New Yorker, Gallant wrote only two novels; this one is the second. When short-story writers produce novels with odd shapes and strange focus, it is difficult to distinguish the experimental from the incompetent. A Fairly Good Time is certainly not an incompetent novel; its very irregularities (and these are considerable) are engrossing. They reproduce, without annoying insistence, the irregularities of twenty-something life, when overwhelming possibility engenders limitless procrastination. It is hard to tell who one’s friends are. What I mean by raising the idea of incompetence is the uncertainty, betrayed by the tale’s unexpected emphases, of affect attempted and achieved.

The title is taken from Edith Wharton: “If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.” I don’t think that I’ve ever read a more characteristic line: the bleak irony behind Wharton’s decision to let beauty stand in for joy infuses all her work. But I am not aware that Shirley has made up her mind about being happy, or about much of anything else. Shirley accepts that, as a plain woman, she is not entitled to top-drawer treatment, but her search for personal satisfaction does not suggest that happiness has been crossed off her list. Does she have a fairly good time, amidst all the disaster of a novel that, while set in Paris, is chilled by the frontier gusts of empty west Canada? Gallant is replete with understanding; like Diane Johnson after her, Gallant delights in showing us the French bourgeoisie at home, with its rabbity misgivings and its mindless disdain for Americans. (There are good reasons for looking down on Americans, but these little people are not in possession of them.) Gallant is not criticizing the French so much as warning Anglophones against trying to be chummy. She does this best by inflicting the Maurel’s chumminess on Shirley.

But, perhaps haunted by modernist fashions, Gallant doesn’t want to tell us too much about Shirley. In an almost slavish adherence to fictional modes of the Sixties, she allows Shirley to say goodbye to everything in the story that she has just lived, but tells us not a thing about what’s next for her heroine. Shirley leaves her old apartment for the last time; she posts a hastily-improvised letter to Philippe that could mean anything. “She supposed that they would see each other again in time, in dreams and recollections.” We are allowed to follow Shirley no further. This is an arguably stingy way to end a story about a woman who gives everything away.


Friday 6th

Yesterday’s entry was not one of the best; I wasn’t feeling altogether well. “What is to be thought?” I wrote, intending to bring Lenin (and Chernyshevsky) to mind. They wrote, What Is To Be Done? Well, aside from voting, there is not much for the citizen of today’s representative democracies to do; in fact, one factor contributing to the avalanche of support for Donald Trump is the monopolization of political activity by professional officials.

In today’s Times, I read a much better-expressed version of my own thoughts, in Paul Krugman’s column. In “Truth and Trumpism,” Krugman ticks off a few of the regrettable perspectives that journalism is likely to propose in the coming weeks. Indeed, I mentioned one of them yesterday, the Times article that sketched Trump’s first hundred days. In today’s paper, there’s a piece about the security briefing that Trump may receive now that he is alone on the field of Republican candidacy. There is no need for any of this now. Additionally, Krugman warns us against “centrification” and “false equivalence.” These are both symptoms of a decayed understanding of enlightened fair play. Both will tend to minimize Trump’s distance from the political center, by making him (and his supporters) look less radical than he is and more like Hillary Clinton. I do not mean by what follows to compare Trump and Hitler except in this regard, that both emerged from outside traditional political contexts; that was Hitler’s initial appeal and it is also Trump’s. We must fight the tendency to regard Trump as an insider simply because he has gotten this far in the process. He is bringing the outside in with him, instead of adapting to the inside.

In the course of this discussion, Krugman showed me something that we, you and I, can do during this election season. We can remind everyone we know of this:

Finally, I can almost guarantee that we’ll see attempts to sanitize the positions and motives of Trump supporters, to downplay the racism that is at the heart of the movement and pretend that what voters really care about are the priorities of D.C. insiders — a process I think of as “centrification.”

That is, after all, what happened after the rise of the Tea Party. I’ve seen claims that Tea Partiers were motivated by Wall Street bailouts, or even that the movement was largely about fiscal responsibility, driven by voters upset about budget deficits.

In fact, there was never a hint that any of these things mattered; if you followed the actual progress of the movement, it was always about white voters angry at the thought that their taxes might be used to help Those People, whether via mortgage relief for distressed minority homeowners or health care for low-income families.

Now I’m seeing suggestions that Trumpism is driven by concerns about political gridlock. No, it isn’t. It isn’t even mainly about “economic anxiety.”

Trump support in the primaries was strongly correlated with racial resentment: We’re looking at a movement of white men angry that they no longer dominate American society the way they used to. And to pretend otherwise is to give both the movement and the man who leads it a free pass.

Donald Trump seems to be silent on the subject of black Americans, but this can be seen as a way of giving his supporters a free hand to fill in the blanks. What we can do is argue that the omission of blacks from Trumpaganda is disingenuous. It’s all right, for some reason, to denigrate Latinos and Asians in the United States, but, after the Sixties, blacks must be treated with honor and respect. This party line has done no one any good, neither blacks, who have not benefited in any more material way from the lip service — indeed, it has tended to make them look unworthy, when in fact they’re only human — nor the vast bloc of Americans who, too young to remember the civil rights struggle itself, simply don’t see a problem. It seems a tall order to ask black leaders to draw the truth from the Trumpistas, but someone will have to make the angry white men acknowledge that their loathing is not limited to Latinos or Asians — no, indeed. The only people who have been served by false piety about black Americans are those who have quietly stoked racist bigotry.

In an adjacent Op-Ed piece, “A White Church No More,” evangelist Russell Moore writes, “This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.” One thing that we can do is to man those searchlights and turn up the wattage.


Friday is supposed to be the day for lighthearted entries, but I’m not really in the mood. Some knucklehead knicked the wrong pipe during the renovation of an apartment on the other side of the building, and as a result they had to turn off all the gas. Translation: the stove in the kitchen is a temporarily non-functioning appliance. Happily, I am not unprepared. Last year, poor Fossil Darling went without gas in his apartment for several months, because it took that long to locate a leak that a Con Ed worker investigator discovered in the wake of the dragnet that followed that big explosion on the Lower East Side. I was certain that a similar leak would be found in this badly-ageing pile, so, after a spell of freaking out, I bought three electric appliances: a hotplate, an electric water kettle, and a large rectangular frypan thing. I took everything out of the boxes, to save room, and stowed the three items in the cupboard over the refrigerator. If know anything about kitchens, you know that the cupboard over the refrigerator, being high, hard-to-reach, and small, is just about useless, but it was a dandy place for my new, unnecessary equipment. And there it was when I needed it. I had to lug all the cookbooks off the top of the fridge to get to them, but I did not have to use a ladder. The kettle and the hotplate have already shown themselves to be in working order.

I boiled water in the kettle just to make sure that it worked. I used the hotplate to finish boiling some eggs. I was going to make a Thousand Island dressing yesterday, so I had to boil at least one egg; I boiled three. I was fiddling around in that part of the apartment — reorganizing drawers in the pyramid, if you must know — and not paying much attention to the boiling eggs. Suddenly, though, I noticed that they were not boiling. The timer was still running. I thought at first that water might have splashed out of the pan and put out the fire. Odd, but possible. Not so, though. None of the burners lighted.

Someone in the management office told Kathleen that “they’re working on it, but they don’t tell us anything.” So I am looking into ovens. (Don’t call me Hansel.) I have never been a toaster-oven person. My mother adored hers, but it was the rattiest, dirtiest thing, out of place in our spic ‘n’ span home. I suppose that it didn’t bother her because the mess was confined to the inside of a small metal box. “Small” is another part of the problem. I bought a very large electric oven through the late, lamented Chef’s Catalog, but it still wasn’t really large enough, and although the copy explained that it was a “professional” unit, and that “professional” meant, “no insulation,” I didn’t take that very seriously. The thing turned out to be horribly dangerous to use; I was always risking serious burns. Nor did mounting it on an eye-level shelf help. I left it in the old apartment. I have a chicken in the refrigerator, prepped for roasting. It occurred to me about twenty minutes ago that I can brown and braise it in the frypan thingy. I will miss making pizzas.

Also, did I say that there is no hot water this morning, either.


In April, I started a new notebook: the triumph of optimism over experience. It was part of the series of Field Notes “memo books” devoted to great American crops. Cotton, in this case. I kept it on the Pembroke table next to my reading chair, along with a pen. The idea was that I would make notes of things that occurred to me during my evening reads, and also in conversation with Kathleen. I was tired of running into the bookroom to look things up, something that I never do on the smartphone — I. Just. Won’t. I do use Evernote on the phone, but it’s still easier to write things down, illegibly and incompletely, than it is to type on a tyny keyboard.

So I made notes, and even remembered to look things up in the morning. I discovered that the former Camilla Shand is an “HRH.” I discovered the meaning (and pronunciation) of “seneschal.” (You’d think I’d have done the latter long ago — and perhaps the problem is that I did, long ago.) The first note is dated 3/15-16. Sporadic notes follow, until 4/8/16. (“Memling — Memel?” I haven’t checked that one yet. Kathleen adores Memling, thanks to that show at the Frick a while back.) Then the inevitable happened: the notebook, cotton white thought it was, became part of the furniture.

It was rescued from this moribund state last Monday. I was reading A Fairly Good Time. I flagged a passage with a Post-it, but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out why. So I made an accompanying note.

Rigobert: Gallant 96. AFGT — Rodibert — my feelings about Robert. A Friday thing.

On page 96 of the NYRB reprint of A Fairly Good Time, you will find Shirley on a “gray street.”

She saluted the marble bust of an entirely forgotten figure of the Third Republic. She and Philippe had given a name — Rigobert Arcadius — and acknowledged him their private high priest.

Rigobert is one of those Frankish names that has not come down to us in shorter form. (Rigbert?) Rodibert is one that has. That’s why you don’t see “Rodibert” very much; it is presented in its modern form, “Robert.” I don’t know where or how long ago I first came across the full spelling, but I can’t say that I’d have preferred it. (I’m overlooking its persistence in Spanish, because that’s not how I found it.) In any case, “Rigobert” started me thinking about “Robert,” and how much I hate it.

A Friday thing? Well, the hot water has come back on, so my mood has improved. I always knew that there was something fishy about “Robert,” because my parents so insistently called me “Rob.” The name was, my father later insisted, not their choice; I came from the Foundling Hospital with it. They added “John,” after my uncle, but it never occurred to them to call me “Robert John.” That started at Notre Dame, where a group of us, probably having read too much Dostoevsky, decided that there were too many Michaels and Johns, as indeed there were. Of course there were too many Bobs, too, so I became Robert John. I had never been a Bob. I don’t know how anybody stands it. I have met Robert Shiller, and he is a man of such quiet probity that you have to assume that he lacks the vanity to consider his own name. Of course, he may have been called “Bob” by the people who loved him when he was growing up; I suppose that might do it. Otherwise, I can see no difference between “Bob” and “Drip” or “Ooze.” It is a label of insignificance.

It was lucky that I went straight from Notre Dame to Houston, because they have a thing for double names in the South as well. Long before I left my Lone Star exile, however, I had shorted things to “RJ,” and that’s who I remain. I briefly toyed with changing it to “Archie,” because you wouldn’t believe how many secretaries and receptionists wrote that down on “While You Were Out” slips. Archie is not a very classy name, it’s true — that’s why they changed it to “Cary” — but it is also just too boyish for me. Besides, when I was young, I had the same red hair as the comic-book Romeo, and although I am a terrible flirt, my seductions are conducted along less naïve, fresh-faced lines.

Dynasty — I almost forgot. For ten years or more, I was JR to everyone who didn’t know me.

I hate “Robert” mostly because of “Bob,” but the name by itself is still pretty wet. No pope, tsar or Chinese emperor has ever been called “Robert.” There was a rash of Roberts between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. The first King Robert of France was a usurper who was booted out within the year. The second and last royal Robert got himself excommunicated. To make amends he became “Robert the Pious.” Both of these men were descended from Robert the Strong, one of Charlemagne’s leading lieutenants. He came from the Rhineland, as did Charlemagne, who moved him around until he settled in Anjou. I’d like to know more about Robert the Strong, because he is an eminent example of the kind of local bigwig who punched through the mists of time and landed in history proper. But even Robert the Strong does not inspire me to like my name. Robert the Devil, by the way, was a forebear of the Conqueror. There’s an opera about him, but it’s never put on anymore. That’s how it’s getting to be with the name “Robert.”

I also thought (much earlier) about spelling it backward: amazingly, this works. “Trebor.” I can only imagine how different my life would have been as “Trevor.” Possibly, it wouldn’t have been different at all: I’m pretty Trevor-ish as it is, don’t you think? Or do you think I should be more like Bob Shiller?

Bon week-end à tous!