Archive for July, 2016

Gotham Diary:
Three Laws
July 2016 (IV)

Monday, July 25th, 2016

25, 26, 28, 29 July

Monday 25th

Was ever the Times so depressing to read? I say this at least once a week, as the feeling of being closed in and doomed intensifies. Whether the Russian hackers were out to help Trump or Sanders (I suspect it was the former), they did what they could to push the United States a little closer to chaos. Photographs of Bernie protestors in Philadelphia made me swelter with rage at the left, that race of unherdable cats (and just about as mindful of the general good). In her generously cut green suit, Hillary Clinton looked like a severely grass-stained Pierrot, just come in from a night of sleeping rough in the rain.

In  contrast to this confetti of sad banalities, the LRB has published a grave lament by John Lanchester on the folly of Brexit. The piece takes such a long view of things that it describes the American situation almost as well. Lanchester hammers a bit on the problem of élite inattentiveness; unfortunately, it’s problem that we’ve all awakened to too late, Lanchester as well. Although our top writer about economic malaise today, Lanchester came late to the party, via notes for a novel that he was going to write about the City after the Crash of 2008. The notes were so intriguing that he switched to non-fiction, and he hasn’t looked back; his last piece for the LRB was a brilliant assay of Bitcoin.

It may be abominably conceited of me, but I want to point out the one insight in Lanchester’s essay that had never remotedly occurred to me.

Immigration, the issue on which Leave campaigned most effectively and most cynically, is the subject on which this bewilderment is most apparent. There are obviously strong elements of racism and xenophobia in anti-immigrant sentiment. All racists who voted, voted Leave. But there are plenty of people who aren’t so much hostile to immigrants as baffled by them. They feel left behind, abandoned, poor, ignored and struggling; so how come immigrants want to come here, and do so well when they get here? If Britain is broken, which is what many Leave voters think, why is it so attractive? How can so many people succeed where they are failing?

The answer to this conundrum is something that I’ve read in the background of several recent discussions of the state of our political economy. We have been putting too much emphasis on the economy, and overlooking whenever possible the political. I speak of the liberal democratic governments that have prevailed in the West since World War II. This emphasis made a lot of sense round about the time I was born in 1948. Ideology was seen to be counterproductive when it was not simply poisonous. The unstable governments of the Fourth Republic in France made party squabbles look pointless and noxious. Meanwhile, improving everybody’s standard of living seemed to lower the vehemence of election issues. The complacency of affluence conduced to a bi-partisan élite that sent its barely-distinguishable two parties through the revolving doors of administration. So the sun shone on Les Trente glorieuses, the thirty postwar years of economic boom.

But the affluence was transitory, and it was never universal. This ought to have signaled a revival of interest in political solutions, but the only true politicians standing were cranks, extremists of right and left like Jean-Marie le Pen and Ralph Nader. Mainstream officials were economists down to the ground, whether they understood the subject or not. And yet economists had no way of solving the growing problem of superfluous people, workers no longer needed by the “healthy economy.” The economy was healthy only if the root significance of “economy” — household — were ignored. From a traditional point of view, “global economy” must be an oxymoron. One global economy; hundreds of nations. In the more prosperous nations, there came to be more and more people for whom making a living became deadening or impossible.

Immigrants, considered strictly as workers from elsewhere, and not necessarily as strange-looking outsiders, embody the dislocation between economics and politics today. They embody economic reality. Unfortunately, the global economy is wholly undemocratic. Nobody votes for its leaders, who would of course be the first to deny that they lead anything — I see now, quite clearly for the first time, that this denial of belonging to the élite that I regard as the élite’s identifying feature, represents the eclipse of politics in today’s liberal democracies. It makes sense, because the élites are participating in and reaping the rewards of the global economy; national politics are nothing more than an annoyance. But they are the only means for the un- and underemployed to express their wretchedness. It was foolish of the élites to leave all that liberal-democratic machinery in place. An essentially organic machinery, it has degraded not like a metal turbine but like a body politic: it has developed a tumor, tumors everywhere. What else can become of millions of superfluous people?

I see now that the puzzle that is Hillary Clinton can be solved quite neatly by the new dichotomy inherent in “political economy.” She is an assiduous economist. There is no trade problem on any scale that she cannot master. But she is careless about politics. Like a good economist, she wants results, and she often gets them, too. Like an economist, she does not particularly care what her sausage factory looks like, because everybody knows it’s a sausage factory, so please! But only the people who can afford to eat sausages are willing to accept her nonchalance. The excluded keep virtual kosher: sausage is unholy.

Last night, I found myself looking for a novel to read. Glancing at the fiction case, I perched on Ian McEwan’s novels. I haven’t read one in a while, and I haven’t re-read anything except The Innocent. It was after I first read The Innocent that I started buying new titles as they appeared. The very next one was Black Dogs. I didn’t know that “black dogs” was Churchill’s term for the depression that he suffered, and I’m not sure that McEwan’s dogs are quite the same. For I came away from Black Dogs somewhat uncomprehending. I wasn’t sure that I got it. This sense of failure would not trouble me again until Solar, but then the failure was McEwan’s, I thought, not mine. So it made sense to give Black Dogs another try.

I didn’t get very far last night, partly because I didn’t start until late, but mostly because I was almost immediately blindsided by a wallop of remorse. In one sentence, McEwan told me — had I but listened; had he — what we were doing wrong in 1992, we readers of good novels. We were worrying about ourselves. And we identified ourselves by what we were not. In this sentence, the narrator is musing on an ailing but glamorous woman who left her beautiful home in France for a nursing home in Wiltshire.

I did not know how she could bear it, giving up so much, settling for the dullness here: the ruthlessly boiled vegetables, the fussy, clucking old folk, the dazed gluttony of their TV watching. (12)

If, perchance, you grew up surrounded by boiled vegetables and gluttonous television, you crammed for your A-levels and left that world behind you forever. Your past became a graveyard, populated by inert family members who must be periodically propitiated but otherwise not thought of.

I see this all the more clearly now for the time that I’ve been spending with Alan Bennett’s BBC films. I’ve had a boxed set for years: I bought it for A Question of Attribution, but I never watched anything else until this weekend. (What treasures!) One of the films is a documentary, Dinner at Noon, in which Bennett visits a hotel in Harrogate and revisits his shopkeeping parents’ self-abasing attitudes toward outposts of posh. Suave on the outside, Bennett has nevertheless inherited their misgivings about fitting in. He, too, got out of their world. But he woke up sooner than anyone else, I think, to the danger of allowing the longings of those whom you have left behind fester. And if part of him never accepted that his position in the world of the great and good was secure, he was realistic enough to understand that it was secure enough. So he stopped running away from Leeds, and became instead its ruefully smiling informal historian. And he knows, I’m sure, that the TV watching is a political, and not an economic, problem.


Tuesday 26th

“We don’t own it, do we?” This is what Kathleen when I told her that the DVD of Lily in Love did not cost very much. We had just watched it, or, rather, I had; as I expected, it put Kathleen to sleep. But it was a protest sleep: she couldn’t stand Christopher Plummer. She couldn’t stand Christopher Plummer playing a ham — two hams — given that he himself is already a ham. The film is a very light comedy, with few big laughs, so it’s not surprising that the biggest laugh of all comes at the very end, just before the credits roll. There are photographs of the leading actors, with their names in larger type over their characters’ names. Even Playbills aren’t quite so theatrical. Plummer is featured twice, once for playing Fitzroy Wynn, a Broadway star, and once for playing Roberto Terranova, an Italian actor whom Wynn concocts, with prosthetic aid, in order to get the lead in a new movie for which his wife, Lily, has written the screenplay. Maggie Smith gets third billing, for playing Lily. Elke Sommer, also in the picture, can’t have been happy about having her name obliterate her mouth.

Lily in Love was made in 1984, although it has a distinct Seventies air, even before the location moves to Budapest. I think that Maggie Smith’s performance makes the film seem older, too, because she seems so young. She turned fifty that year, and yet most of her movies were still to come. She had made The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) Travels With My Aunt (1972), Death on the Nile (1978), and Evil Under the Sun (1982), and a number of other pictures, but she had never really been an ingénue. In the very next year after Lily, she would play Charlotte Bartlett, the preposterous maiden aunt in A Room With a View, thus inaugurating (if Travels hadn’t already done so) her career as an eccentric old lady.

Lily in Love stands out in Maggie Smith’s oeuvre as a film altogether without eccentric old ladies. Maggie Smith plays a normal, attractive woman — if a playwright living in a Brooklyn Heights mansion with her ultra self-absorbed leading-man husband can be said to have access to normality. She doesn’t look young, exactly, and the role of an established professional doesn’t call for her to be girlish, but she doesn’t look fifty, either. There’s an amusing scene in which, popping her eyes while sighing romantically, she reminded me of the grossly underrated Glenne Headley, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. She wears her coppery hair in the bob that Anna Wintour has never given up. She wears blue jeans.

Whether or not Frank Cucci’s screenplay had Norman Krasna’s My Geisha (1962) in mind, it attempts a retread. In the earlier film, directed by Jack Cardiff and starring Yves Montand and Shirley MacLaine in one of her most engaging roles, a Hollywood comédienne is passed over by her film-director husband (Montand) for a screen adaptation of Madame Butterfly. The husband flies off to Tokyo to audition unspoiled talent — and so does his wife, with an assist by their agent (Edward G Robinson). In no time at all, Lucy has put herself through geisha school, making My Geisha one of the classics of the genre that I call “Hollywood Loves a Makeover.” The director snaps her up and falls in love with her — an infidelity that Lucy and the filmmakers grapple with tenderly. Of course you know how it comes out.

The agent in Lily in Love is played by Adolph Green, and, this time, he has to help the husband to deceive the wife. When I saw Lily in Love the first time (it had just come out), I was amazed at the metamorphosis of Fitzroy Wynn, a trouper marinated in middle age, into sleek Roberto Terranova, but the second time, all I saw was “work,” and I cringed lest Lily actually touch his face and cause it to peel off. How long does it take Lily to recognize her husband? The movie is unclear about this, because, title notwithstanding, it is not about her. It’s about her husband, and Lily’s being in love (or not) is not a matter of great importance. I ought to say that the script, the lines that Maggie Smith is called upon to deliver, express an ambiguity. Smith’s face itself does not. It pops with ironic deadpan, arched eyebrows, and a mouth that is dying to giggle.

That’s why I’m not sorry to have an otherwise bad, and, what’s worse, dreary, movie in my library. As a public service, somebody ought to make Lily in Love freely available for streaming, so that everybody who’s beguiled by Downton Abbey, The Lady in the Van, or either of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotels can see what kind of career Maggie Smith might have had if Hollywood went in for attractive, intelligent women.


A word about Ruth, a novel that Elizabeth (Mrs) Gaskell published in 1853, the same year as her much better-known Cranford. Ruth is a social novel that was clearly intended to alter public opinion about one of England’s truly ironclad conventions. Unmarried women who gave birth to children were cast out of polite society, and their children were branded as bastards. It did not matter how young, inexperienced, poor or dependent the woman was — she was out. Respectable women and their families (their husbands excepted) could not meet her, in public or at home. No plague victim was ever so absolutely shunned.

Gaskell invokes plague itself to redeem her heroine. Having been discovered as a fallen woman in Book III (as triple-deckers go, Ruth is not so very long), the saintly Ruth takes up work as a nurse, and when typhus hits the town, she takes charge of the fever hospital and saves many lives. The town fathers fall over themselves in acclamation and gratitude. Of course, Ruth has to die anyway — there are limits — and Gaskell kills her off with a shamelessly melodramatic plot device that works like a charm. Tears will be shed! Everything is tied up in a most satisfactory parcel: Ruth was too good for this gross sublunary sphere anyway. Her little boy will be apprenticed to the town’s leading surgeon (himself a bastard!), and patriarchal Mr Bradshaw will pay for her tombstone.

Ruth shows just how good a writer Gaskell was, because as a piece of work it is simply ramshackle. You wonder how much Gaskell knew before she began writing it. I have never read an agreeable novel so devoid of foreshadowing. We’re all taught that foreshadowing is a good and clever thing that novelists do, but Ruth shows us why. The introduction of a good many of the characters has the same effect as bumping into someone in a dark corridor. A functionally significant minor character, Richard Bradshaw, passes almost inconsiderately from being a faceless child to being not quite the virtuous young man that his father thinks he is to being a loose-living young man to being a forger. What could be more villainous than forgery? Trollope would have crucified the fellow, but Gaskell dispatches him to Glasgow and a second chance. On another front, the political bribes that are spent in order to assure the election of Mr Bradshaw’s candidate for Parliament, are never brought home to roost on that high-minded dissenter. The parcel, as I say, is satisfactorily tied up, but it could have been bigger, more comprehensive.

Ruth herself was hard for me to take. She is said to be ravishingly beautiful and very sweet, also pious. Something must have happened to me when I was growing up that made it impossible for me to regard pious, sweet women as beautiful, or at any rate as attractive. I didn’t quite dislike Ruth, but it was close. I read the book dutifully — Kathleen had liked it — until Mr Bradshaw’s daughter, Jemima, emerged as a figure of interest, and, shortly after, her intended husband, Mr Farquhar. Jemima’s fits of impassioned jealousy, which do not make her unsympathetic, were far more frank than I expected them to be, and even when he was ranting about righteousness Jemima’s father never spoke in formulas. The scene in which he denounces Ruth and everyone complicit in her deception is very, very good.

In my reading pile is Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. I have never read any Scott and I don’t expect to care for it. I’m hoping that Ruth will have loosened me up a bit. I shouldn’t want to be like unforgiving Mr Bradshaw!


Thursday 28th

These are days of fear and trembling: I am old enough to be shocked, still, by the suggestion of a political bond (no matter how opportunistic) between the leaders of the United States and Russia. So it is not surprising that Pankaj Mishra’s piece about Rousseau, in this week’s New Yorker, threw my bowels into an uproar. The last mists of confusion about Rousseau were dispelled. I had always wondered how the Age of Enlightenment produced him, but now I see: he was the movement’s Wicked Fairy. He was the outsider who fastened on its weaknesses. He understood that it was more interested in the liberty of ideas than in the liberty of men, and he detected a certain hypocrisy in its disdain for the uneducated. The philosophes claimed to promote the Rights of Man, but Rousseau grasped that their conception of “Man” was limited pretty much to the sons of affluent businessmen such as themselves. This went double or triple for Voltaire.

Instead of recognizing the prophetic (Wicked Fairy) aspect of Rousseau’s work, I fastened on the defects of his person, which were many. He made virtual orphans of all five of his children. He had few lasting friendships. He was a Victim. Oh, if only I’d paid more attention to the Victim business.

Yet, because Rousseau derived his ideas from intimate experiences of fear, confusion, loneliness and loss, he connected easily with people who felt excluded. Periwigged men in Paris salons, Tocqueville once lamented, were “almost totally removed from practical life” and worked “by the light of reason alone.” Rousseau, ont he other hand, found a responsive echo among people making the traumatic transition from traditional to modern society — from rural to urban life.

Let me come quickly to my point, which is that Enlightenment ideas are paying dearly, these days, for their exponents’ arrogance.

What was disdain in the early days became contempt in more recent times. When education was the preserve of the privileged and the wealthy, it was accepted that not everybody had the opportunity to improve himself by being a good student — few had it, in fact. After World War II, however, different measures in different countries — the GI Bill here — opened up higher education to academic merit, and while the privileged and the wealthy continued to have an edge in access to and benefit from university training, students who were the first members of their families to get beyond high school became not uncommon. It was perhaps inevitable that the success of these new arrivals would calcify the status of those who were not academically gifted. In fact, the condition of “not academically gifted” was all but denied. With effort, it was thought, anybody could get a degree, and then get the job that the degree was thought to lead to. People who didn’t go to college became shirkers. For twenty years now, pundits have been telling the unemployed and the laid off to go back to school to learn the new skills that we need today, and whatnot.

Thomas Friedman is an egregious offender against the dignity of ordinary people. No one is more blithe about the inevitability of a global economy. No one so good-hearted is more wrong-headed. His column yesterday carried an explicit banner at its head: “Web People vs Wall People.” There is nothing new or unfamiliar in the piece, and you may be forgiven for wondering why I call attention to it; I can only point to Mishra’s review of the latest book about Rousseau. With that in mind, the following snippet of Friedman seems worse than clueless.

Web People instinctively understand that Democrats and Republicans both built their platforms largely in response to the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal and the Cold War, but that today, a 21st-century party needs to build its platform in response to the accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change, which are the forces transforming the workplace, geopolitics and the very planet.

As such, the instinct of Web People is to embrace the change in the pace of change and focus on empowering more people to be able to compete and collaborate in a world without walls. In particular, Web People understand that in times of rapid change, open systems are always more flexible, resilient and propulsive; they offer the chance to feel and respond first to change. So Web People favor more trade expansion, along the lines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and more managed immigration that attracts the most energetic and smartest minds, and more vehicles for lifelong learning.

As I wrote the other day, the immigrant embodies the global economy. He or she moves from this nation to that nation almost as if nations didn’t exist. Friedman tells us that this immigrant is likely to be more energetic and smarter than other people. He does not ask us to think about those other people, the ones who don’t migrate, because they have nothing to offer, or the ones who, in the immigrant’s new country, likewise lack the skills that would allow them to travel, whether abroad or around the corner, to a high-tech outfit, in search of a better life. What about these people? I call them the superfluous people because, to the extent that they do not or cannot avail themselves of effective job-training programs, they do not figure in the accounting of global economics. In the absence of global politics, the superfluous people have no representatives in the counsels of decision.

So is it any wonder that, despairing of the current dispensation, they turn to a demagogue who fires up their resentments? We can blame them for surrendering to the demagogue, and of course we can blame the demagogue, too — if we’re lucky, we can arrest him and contain him. But there is no getting around our fault. We who wish to continue running things as we have been running them refuse to take honest account of the superfluous people.

There are social ways of being superfluous, too, as Mishra points out. It hasn’t been helpful of our newly diverse, socially enfranchised progressives to mock and taunt the straight white males who don’t belong to the élite. (The ones who do can fight back.) What President Obama said about clinging to guns or religion was unbelievably regrettable, even if it was appropriately framed by clauses of sympathy. I might have done as badly myself. How many times have I railed against the apparent “right” to be stupid?

In the course of writing this Web log, I have discovered three laws. First, there will always be an élite, no matter what, and no matter how composed. Second, the quality of an élite depends not on its makeup but on its commitment to the happiness and prosperity of all the people in its charge. Third, a decadent élite eventually provokes chaos. I think that everybody already knows this, but this is hard to square with everyone’s refusal to admit belonging to the élite. Hence: a fourth law. Until you understand that the élite is not “somebody else,” you must write out my laws ten times a day.

I have no proposals for dealing with the superfluous people, no great ideas or whizbang solutions. I can see only that mainstream discussion of political and social problems has little or nothing to say about these people. That is, it has nothing genuine to offer. It cannot even manage to be polite — to listen to the aggrieved. This has been the classic élite failing since the Enlightenment — for what do ordinary people know that is not mere superstition?

We need to start listening, to make a habit of listening. If you want to know how, George Saunders set a remarkable example (with all due modesty) in another New Yorker piece. What these people will tell us, I think — even if they’re not aware of doing so — is that our ideas about the relation between economics and politics is, at best, decrepit. It’s the society, stupid.


Friday 29th

Question for regular readers: Remember Elizabeth Taylor?

In my keenness to re-read Penelope Lively’s novels, I have felt unfaithful to Taylor; I’d read everything once and that was that. I have re-read In a Summer Season, and the rather long story, “The Ambush.” When NYRB books published a collection of Taylor’s stories, I ran through the table of contents and, missing “The Ambush,” decided not to buy the book. It would have been grand to have a lightweight collection of superb Taylor stories, but how could such a collection exclude “The Ambush”? Or “The Excursion to the Source,” also not very short. Worse, the NYRB collection reprinted “Hester Lilly,” a fifty-page novella that, to my mind, represents an experiment that Taylor did not repeat. Nicola Beauman, Taylor’s unauthorized (but excellent) biographer, believes that Taylor ought to have stuck to short fiction, and that the time that she poured into her twelve novels might have yielded a rich harvest of stories instead. I see the point, but I don’t altogether agree; the later novels are very strong, and then there is the nonpareil Angel. But “Hester Lilly” is both too long and not long enough. A rich harvest of stories might have taken its place in the NYRB selection.

Leafing through the doorstopper of The Complete Stories, I’ve read a few that also appear in the NYRB. Three come from the 1958 collection, The Blush, and two of them are jokes. I made a hash out of trying to tell the jokes to Kathleen last night; perhaps her being on the verge of sleep made it hard for her to appreciate them. One joke is funnier than the other, but the other is the bigger joke. In “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There,” Rhoda, a girl who feels painfully shy, is obliged to deputize for her mother at a commercial banquet honoring her father, the manufacturer of “homemade” cookies. At the high table, Rhoda is seated between her father and the mayor of a Midlands town. The mayor is wearing his gold chain or collar of office, and, finding that she is able to make small talk with him only if she never looks him in the face, Rhoda fastens her eyes on his chain. The only thing that she can think to talk about is her Burmese cat, Minkie, but even the cat’s connection to the town of which the man is mayor does not rouse much interest. After dinner, there is a dance. Rhoda notices that the man with the collar has left — because she doesn’t see the chain anywhere. A man asks to dance with her, barely concealing that this is an act of duty. As they waltz somewhat stiffly, she chatters on about Minkie. The man is rudely silent. Only afterward does Rhoda discover that the mayor has taken his chain off.

How mortifying for Rhoda! Now she’ll never go to another party! But I found it very hard not to sympathize with the mayor, not least because Taylor emphasizes the long-suffered routine of such dinners. She points out that the mayor doesn’t eat much of the turbot or the chicken — staples on such occasions, according to Rhoda’s mother. When the lady on the other side of the mayor asks him which ice cream flavor “crops up most often,” he answers, “jovially,” that it’s vanilla, eight to one. He has already told the girl that he does not care for cats, and yet here she is on the dance floor nattering on about Minkie again. How often do dimwitted young women crop up? Probably not as often as eight to one, but there are surely too many of them. I’m not sure that I was intended feel tenderly for the mayor, but I thought it quite ingenious of Taylor to get me to do so.

The other story, “Perhaps a Family Failing,” is about a mésalliance. The daughter of the abstemious Mrs Cotterell has just married the oafish son of gin-soaked Mr Midwinter. At the reception, every guest gets one (1) glass of port, with which to toast the happy couple. Driving the twenty miles to the honeymoon hotel, the thirsty groom pulls the car over at a public house. The bride forbears to complain. The hotel reached, the bride prepares herself to sacrifice her virginity. The groom goes down to the bar. Hours pass. The bride fumes in her flimsies, longing for Closing Time. But just before Closing Time, two patrons lose control over their respective dogs, and in the ensuing commotion, the groom is bitten, and then bitten again. Already fairly drunk, he is dazed by the wounds, and he is grateful when someone offers him a lift back to his parents’ house. He has completely forgotten the wedding.

Well, that’s why God provided for annulments.

Both of these stories are so rich — I keep coming back to that word, as if Taylor were serving extraordinarily savoury cakes — that I shan’t have spoiled either of them for you. Another story that appears in the NYRB collection is “The Voices.” At a modest hotel in Athens, a woman recuperates from a recent illness — depression? Instead of seeing the sights for herself, she lies in bed and eavesdrops on the touristic commentary of the women in the next room. Sisters, they are a perfectly matched pair of old birds, one vague and the other caustic It does sound like ideal therapy. But it is brought to an end by a sneeze. I also re-read “Summer Schools,” which, incidentally, also involves the discomfort of an abstemious woman in a drinks-driven environment, as does “Girl Reading,” the most glamorous tale of the bunch. Etta, who lives with her mother in a gloomy Thames Valley town perhaps not unlike Reading, where Taylor grew up, is invited by a school friend to spend a week at her roomy, idyllic home, also on the Thames, right on it. The river may be the same, but it is pointed out twice that the weather is different. Etta’s rapturous week is spent studying her friend’s older brother and his fiancée, hoping to see what love looks like in life, as opposed to books, while in turn her friend’s other brother, only a year older, moons over Etta. Very subtly, the comfortable stability of the friend’s home is called into question. The engaged couple is hardly a picture of married bliss, and there are perhaps too many cocktails being downed on the terrace. For Etta, however, a problem arises when her plans to return home are changed. Instead of taking the train, she will be fetched by her mother, in a borrowed car. Etta knows that her mother and her friend’s family will not mix.

Again, everything is done to present the mother sympathetically. The father is long dead, and the mother has had to scrimp and save and work long hours to afford her daughter’s school fees, only to lose her, effectively, to the easy-going ambience of wealthy people among whom the girl is unlikely to hobnob — unless, of course, she manages to escape the mother’s world altogether. When Etta is at home, the house is drab and lonely, and we understand her longing for livelier surroundings. When Etta is not at home, however, the house is even drabber and lonelier, and the mother feels it. It’s a triumph of sorts that she does not spoil the end of Etta’s visit. The tension of the averted awkwardness makes the mother’s sacrifices heroic.

Three stories that I’ve re-read don’t appear in the NYRB volume: “In a Different Light,” which begins on a Greek island and ends in the Thames Valley (what plays in stays in), “Mr Wharton,” which shows what might become of Etta and her mother a few years down the road — but only if Etta weren’t such a reader — and “A Nice Little Actress.” This last demonstrates the formidable concision with which a grown-up voice can refresh an old story. Iris is a bored suburban siren. She seduces a young musician who waits at the bus stop outside her house. The musician, rapt, decides to kill Iris’s husband, largely roused by Iris’s amorous complaints, inventions mostly. By the time he’s ready to act, however, Iris is bored with him. This is on the fifth and final page of the story. A page earlier, we’re told

She always took his love fiercely and crossly as if she bore him some grudge. He mistook this for passion.

Iris thinks that she might have made a good actress, but she is just a phony. The story is extremely sordid, but it’s over before it stales.

I found myself wondering if Taylor’s world might not be as vanished as Jane Austen’s. All the stories are haunted by the aftershock of terrible austerity, the austerity of the Depression, the austerity of the War, but most of all the odd austerity of victory. Reading Taylor’s novels in the order in which they were written is like watching the rising sun deepen the colors of things. At Mrs Lippincote’s, A View of the Shore, and, especially, A Wreath of Roses are pale books in which not many real comforts are on offer; in contrast, In a Summer Season and The Soul of Kindness have rather opulent backgrounds. It is not that the later novels are happier, but they are more vibrant. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is not quite so jolly as the lovely movie that Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend made of it, but it does twinkle. I find that this true of the stories as well. But who remembers this austerity? Who remembers what a demoralizing blow the near bankruptcy of Britain was? How quickly the Empire evaporated! And yet how intractably the demands of respectability continued to strangle spontaneity.

The other night, I watched My House in Umbria, an HBO movie that came out in 2003. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least, but I only just realized that it is not set in the present day. I had assumed, why I don’t know, that the men wore jackets and ties and the women dresses and scarves because they were simply nice people, living in civilized Italy (not too civilized for a terrorist bomb, however). Old cars were kept in good repair. What finally broke this spell was a chance detail, hitherto unnoticed by me. I will simply say that it is the steering wheel of an American car in America. Suddenly I understood that the film’s setting was late mid-century — 1965, perhaps. I’ve ordered William Trevor’s novella of the same name; it came out in 1991. We shall see.


For ages, I’ve wanted to make a delicious pound cake, something to remind me of the pound cake that tasted like heaven, literally, in Bermuda in 1955. But it has been a long time since my last cake of any kind — barring angel food, which I make whenever my bottle of egg whites fills up. (And why does it do that? Spaghetti alla carbonara.) I used to make Rose Levy Beranbaum’s poppy seed pound cake, but I baked it in a lovely glass kugelhopf mold from which it always emerged intact. When the mold inevitably shattered, I could neither replace it nor find a substitute; no matter what I did, some part of the cake remained stuck in metal molds. So I stopped making the cake, which will sound stupid to anybody who doesn’t cook a lot.

Beranbaum’s recipe is reprinted in the Guarnaschelli edition of The Joy of Cooking — the only edition I’ll touch — and when I went looking for a pound cake recipe I chose one nearby. I was very disappointed by the result, and after one slice threw the cake away. I can’t think what I did wrong, but I wasn’t tempted to try again. I turned instead to James Beard’s much more complicated recipe in American Cookery. Well, it’s more complicated because it calls for eight separated eggs. Eight! I often separate four or five eggs, to make a soufflé, but eight is asking for trouble. I resorted to a special cup with a trapdoor bottom, also useful for degreasing the juices of a roast. I broke each egg into a teacup, one at a time, then ran it through the separator. The white dropped into a ramekin, and then the intact yolk would be tipped into a measuring cup. So would the contents of the ramekin. Five vessels I had before me. It seemed to take forever.

I composed the batter in the bowl of a KitchenAid stand mixer. The mixer was certainly up to the job of combining a pound of butter with nearly the same quantities of flour and sugar, not to mention the eight egg yolks. But the bowl was too small for folding. Next time, I’ll turn the batter out into a large Mason-Cash bowl. Then I’ll be able to spoon on the beaten egg whites and, slipping a spatula along the bottom of the bowl, scoop up the batter over the whites, gently but comprehensively. The second adjustment to what I did yesterday will be to run the oven a little hotter. It took ninety minutes for the larger loaf to spring back to the touch. James Beard said that it might take seventy-five, at the most. As a result of the prolonged baking, the crust was a bit thick. I’ll also remember to put in somewhat more flavoring. I’m shy about overdoing extracts, but I wasn’t bearing in mind that I was making two rather dense loaves.

So the pound cake is a bit pallid, but the crumb is incredibly light. The cake seems to melt on the tongue. I had completely forgotten that that was part of the heaven in Bermuda.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
New Dispensation
July 2016 (III)

Monday, July 18th, 2016

18, 19, 21, 22 July

Monday 18th

Not too long ago, after Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan inflicted yet another crackdown on journalists, generals, or other dissidents, I predicted (to Kathleen) that he was going to have a coup on his hands if he didn’t ease up. Kathleen and I talk about Turkey regularly, having spent an extraordinary week in Istanbul in 2005, when Erdoğan was still new to office. He embodied the hope that cultural Islam and liberal democracy could work together. There were signs of the strongman to come, but we preferred to look on the bright side. Our emphatically secular Turkish hosts, however, did not see a bright side. Keeping up with Turkish affairs after our return, we came to share their pessimism.

On Friday evening, Kathleen called to say that she was leaving the office and would be home soon, and, by the way, there was a coup in Turkey. For about five minutes, I all but chuckled with self-congratulation. Then my dancing in the streets came to an end. Like most political dreamers, I had savored the delicious prospect of the End of Erdoğan. I had not given much thought to the Beginning of What Next. Whatever might be next, the confused and very limited reports that were available online did not promise a smooth transition. As Friday ticked into Saturday, I found myself hoping that Erdoğan would reassert himself and crush the coup. Which was bitter medicine indeed, since the man is an exemplar of the kind of leader who may be ushering today’s liberal democracies into vastly more repressive states of illiberal populism.

I want to contrast Turkey with China. China is very large country with some very large problems. Its financial health appears at times to depend on the structural integrity of a house of cards. Its élite is peculiarly unmeritocratic, composed of the children of long-dead revolutionaries, many of whom suffered disgrace. A vaulting national pride, if checked by the consequences of official miscalculation, could easily turn rancid. But if China “collapsed,” its own mass would absorb most of the energy released. The disaster would probably not spread to neighboring countries. It may be conventional to translate the Chinese for “China” (Zhongguo “中國/中国”) as “Middle Kingdom,” but a far more accurate rendering is “Central Country,” where “central” has the powerful resonance of the statement, “The sun is the central body in our solar system.” In this sense, however, China is greater than the sun, because it already contains its own periphery. And it has a history of collapsing every two to two hundred and fifty years.

Turkey is not a small country, and it has its share of problems. But it is no central country. It is a fragment of the Ottoman Empire, which was run — “governed” would not be the word — by a Turkish dynasty until shortly after World War I. Most provinces of the old empire are today’s Middle-Eastern trouble spots. Turkey also shares its borders with some remnants of the more recent Soviet Empire, whose local instability has been squeezed by Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s most serious internal problem is a border issue of sorts: Kurdistan. Kurdistan is yet another poisoned fruit of the treaties that refashioned the Middle East after World War I. Kurdistan does not exist, of course, but the Kurds were promised by the diplomats that it would come into being at some point. Like almost every other conflict in the Middle East, the question of Kurdistan was postponed by larger twentieth-century upheavals, and then forestalled by the Cold War.

That was my first thought: disarray in Ankara would provide Kurds with an excellent opportunity to rally to their own nationalist cause in Diyarbakir. More violence! What would Russia do? What about Greece, with its islands, like Lesbos, within sight of the Turkish mainland? What if one thing, as it always does, led to another? What if opposition to the military coup led to a surge in support for Da’esh (ISIS)? Good grief! This was no time for Turkey to be falling apart.

Unhappy but relieved by the suppression of the coup, I thought of Simon Winder and the “second step.” Discussing the revolutions of 1848 in his charming history of the Hapsburgs, Danubia, Winder pointed that, while everybody seemed to want to overthrow the government, whichever government that might be, there was no consensus on what ought to happen next. The success of revolutions, he surmised, depends on the viability of an agreed-upon second step. Military coups prove the point. A consensus among a small number of top brass, together with the kind of expert plan of campaign that military organizations formulate as a matter of course, all but guarantees success. In Turkey, however, President Erdoğan has been purging the Army for ten years, and the resulting fragmentation of leadership is militarily anomalous. When I first heard of the coup, I was amazed by what must have been a profoundly secretive and extensive conspiracy. Except there wasn’t one.


I wonder if I could get a job at the Strand Book Store. I know I could pass the quiz. They have a test, you see, to weed out illiterate applicants. It is not a difficult test. Well, I didn’t think it was. The Times actually printed five versions of the quiz, and I was midway through the third one when I realized that the answer-pattern was constant. You had to match authors and titles; the first author went with the sixth title, and the last author went with the fourth. The “trick” question was that there was no title for the second author; correspondingly, there was no author for the eighth title. So, bully for me. The Times reported that there is no quiz for applicants at Barnes & Noble. There’s a colossal understatement in there somewhere.

To give you an idea of what I do find challenging, here is a sentence from Helen Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats:

I call this new form of conceptualization an advance because in Melancholy each of the mistress’s companions is defined by a post-positioned clause which has a restrictive intent. (161)

What this means in plainer English is that the beauty of the mistress in the “Ode on Melancholy” will die, that Joy is always “bidding adieu,” and that pleasure is “metabolized to poison not after, but during, the moment of the ingestion of that pleasure.” When Vendler speaks of “advance,” she is referring to the ways in which the “Ode on Melancholy” surpasses the achievements of the four odes that Keats had already written. In the warmer half of 1819, Keats wrote six odes, four of them extremely famous: the “Ode to a Nightingale,” the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the “Ode on Melancholy,” and, finally, “To Autumn.”

At the beginning of her book, Vendler tells us what inspired it.

The polemic impulse from which this book began arose when I read Allen Tate’s judgment that the ode To Autumn “is a very nearly perfect piece of style but it has little to say.” I thought that To Autumn said everything there was to say. (13)

I bought The Odes of John Keats because it was advertised, along with other books by Vendler, on the back jacket of her book on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have always admired the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and I tried, in college, to commit the “Ode on Melancholy” to memory. For reasons not clear to me, I have always exempted Keats from my constitutional dislike of Romantic poetry. Keats can be as Romantic as it gets — I believe that what I mean by “Romantic” is what Vendler calls “luxurious” — but there is a firm foundation beneath the flowers. I have had the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Keats’s Poetical Works since it cost $1.75 — all but a few years of my life.

I did not know that Vendler was also inspired to write about Keats by her study of Wallace Stevens, the subject of her first book, On Extended Wings. So much the better. Wallace Stevens has become very important to me. This is not to say that I “love his poetry.” I don’t “love poetry.” But I live, if not on words, then on phrases, and poetry is the most concentrated kind of verbiage. The words in poetry — and by “poetry” I mean metrical verse; free verse I find just about as disagreeable as public nudity — are made to work hard, as is the reader of Helen Vendler. The reader of Helen Vendler must learn to sense at least a few of the words that a poet has not used for the important ones that he has.

Wallace Stevens liked to kid people who complained that they didn’t understand his poetry by saying that it didn’t matter, so long as he understood it. He also joked that the only way to understand it was to have written it. Vendler expressly recommends copying out poems in longhand, an exercise that I have yet to attempt. It is true that copying good poetry, even at a keyboard, is always surprisingly difficult, because while it usually sounds familiar (that is, it reads as regular English), it comprises numerous tiny departures from ordinary speech. Word-order might be inverted, or a somewhat uncommon verb be substituted for the one that you “remember,” even right after reading the line. In the “Ode on Melancholy,” one of the verses that I did manage to memorize does not read,

Though seen by none save him whose strenuous tongue

No; it reads “Though seen of none save him…” In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner starts out by telling us how clever he thought he was to select Marianne Moore’s three-line “Poetry” for a classroom memorization assignment. In the event, he failed to recite it accurately not just once but in three attempts, much to his classmates’ smirking satisfaction. There is something of the tongue-twister in these lines from Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was was she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word,
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Something of a mind-twister, too: I always want to say, “Since what she heard…” The deviation from expectation is what makes poetry surprising and fresh, and you miss it if you content yourself with reading a poem and turning the page. The great problem of poetry is that there is far too much of the very good stuff, more than anyone could ever practicably deal with in the manner that the enjoyment of poetry requires. You can read Shakespeare’s sonnets all the way through — in fact, you must, to savor Shakespeare’s grasp of the phases of love, as if they were the colors of the rainbow, leading from one to the next. But to delight in the sonnets, you must wrestle with them. You must memorize them of course, but you must also spot the instances of Shakespeare’s saying this and not that.

What I can’t decide is whether to equip myself with a biography of Keats. I don’t know much about him. How, in the space of little more than twenty-five years, can there be much to know? He must have been reading or writing all the time; except he can’t have been, given his professional studies as an apothecary and a surgeon. I did see Jane Campion’s Bright Star once, but it seemed more about Jane Campion than about Keats (although Abbie Cornish was lovely). The problem is that Helen Vendler’s book on the odes gives me the feeling of having overheard bits and pieces of a truly fascinating conversation. It may be that I have heard all the truly fascinating bits and pieces.

There is one development in the series of Keats’s odes that even the untutored eye can discern. In “To Autumn,” there is not a single reference to classical mythology. No goddess is mentioned, no Tempe or Arcady. There is only the harvest, and the stubble-plains from which it has been reaped. I am reminded of a passage from “Credences of Summer,” the poem that made Wallace Stevens important to me (not least because I was listening to a recording of him reciting it): This is the barrenness/Of the fertile thing that can attain no more. It is entirely possible that Vendler will quote this in her remarks on “To Autumn,” which I’m about midway through; she has been quoting Stevens throughout the book.

I don’t love poetry; I love language, and poetry is to language as love is to a lover. Had I but world enough and time, I still wouldn’t get through the half of it.


Tuesday 19

I must be doing something wrong. When I type in, nothing happens. If I ask Google, it returns a number of strange links, only one of which, to a story at Advertising Age, appears to be germane. Perhaps things are not quite up and running.

On page A5 of today’s Times, there’s a full-page ad for — for what? For Captain Morgan Rum? Or for a campaign to amend the constitution, to lower — and not, presumably, to eliminate altogether — the age restriction that denies eligibility to serve as president of the United States to persons under thirty-five years of age? The story in Ad Age asks if this is a serious political undertaking or a marketing stunt for the rum. Given the presence of Donald Trump on the scene, I don’t think it makes much difference.

When I came of age, the jungle drums counseled us not to trust anyone over thirty. As I have a higher regard for Millennials as a generation than I do for fellow-boomers, I am not unwilling to consider a petition to lower the eligibility age. Although my personal experience supports the view that wisdom comes only with time, I see so little evidence of this in the people around me that it seems foolish to generalize from the one instance of me. Millennials do seem to regard current derangements with a healthy, scoffing WTF. They bring truly fresh minds, uncluttered by received ideas, to the problems that face us all. They are not invested (yet) in the sunk costs of their careers (also known as the status quo), and they are not distracted by the novelty of computers, any more than they are aware of the coeval novelty of themselves.

But the good side is the same as the bad side. What do Millennials know about anything? Knowledge is a kind of investment, and the very freshness of the generation suggests to me that any investment in knowledge has so far been provisional. Worse, I am almost certain that the kind of knowledge that I should call humanist — knowledge about human nature and its limitations, and especially about the compulsions to and the frustrations of human cooperation — is likely to be dismissed by Millennials as useless old crap. Given the state of humanist education, one almost has to hope that Millennials would have nothing to do with it. This is no bar to lowering the eligibility age, however, as the Millennials’ elders are much worse: they think that they understand humanism. They don’t call it that, and of course it isn’t, but the jumble of pseudopsychology and playground heuristics that guide older people when they stop to think, which we must be grateful doesn’t happen more often, is piled precisely where humanist insight ought to be. No one today is in a position to say that merely being older than thirty-five increases the strength of one’s understanding. If a horde of kindergartners could be shown to be able to cancel Donald Trump’s political viability, I’d vote for the little kiddies.

It is impossible, really, to look at the Captain Morgan ad without weeping tears of hope. Covering a little less than half a page of the Sunday Review section of the other day’s Times, there was a piece by Stanley Fish for which I really think the Captain Morgan ad, however rum, may be the only antidote. Now, as we go through life, we inevitably encounter a few people who, try as they might, never fail to strike us as assholes. It is not that they do foolish things from time to time; rather, they are, existentially, assholes, incapable of being anything else. I am sure that I am so regarded by a number of the people into whom I have bumped in my scores of years. And I am sure that Stanley Fish will always represent to me the asshole of the most inveterate type. He will always be the overseer, or whatever he was at the time, of Duke University’s Social Text, the learned journal which accepted Alan Sokal’s parody of deconstructionist jargon, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” for publication in a 1996 issue. Fish will always be the idiot who defended the journal, in the Times, thus:

When Professor Sokal declares that “theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS,” he is at once right and wrong. He is right that sociologists will never do the job assigned properly to scientists. He is wrong to imply that the failure of the sociology of science to do something it never set out to do is a mark against it.

My point is finally a simple one: A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed as it is to its own goals and protocols, it doesn’t reach into, and therefore doesn’t pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies. Just as the criteria of an enterprise will be internal to its own history, so will the threat to its integrity be internal, posed not by presumptuous outsiders but by insiders who decide not to play by the rules or to put the rules in the service of a devious purpose.

This means that it is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine the intellectual standards he vows to protect. Remember, science is above all a communal effort. No scientist (and for that matter, no sociologist or literary critic) begins his task by inventing anew the facts he will assume, the models he will regard as exemplary and the standards he tries to be faithful to.

Lest you find dealing with this historic eyewash a struggle, I shall turn to what Stanley Fish had to say this weekend. His subject was historians. He was angry — perhaps that is too strong a word — at the historians who signed a public letter denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy, not because of the opinions expressed but because the historians claimed to be speaking ex cathedra, as historians, as though historians had any special insight into things. To Stanley Fish, the historians’ opinions were no more and no less valid than anyone else’s. He praised Ruth Bader Ginsburg for having made her deprecations of Donald Trump not from the bench but off the cuff, in her capacity as little old lady.

To demonstrate the historians’ ultra vires, Stanley Fish took the trouble to outline those skills and protocols for which historians are professionally qualified to call themselves experts.

No, it’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short, how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

There is nothing wrong with this summary, except everything, because the whole point of history is elided. Stanley Fish mentions the kinds of expertise that, as experience has taught, will help the historian to do his job well. But what is his job? Would Stanley Fish limit it to “build[ing] a persuasive account of a disputed event”? Perhaps. All history is somewhat disputed, or at least certainly disputable, because what we know about the past isn’t very much. But it happens to be all that we do know, and historians are the people who know what there is to know about the past. Some historians confine themselves to finding out more. Others, however, tells us what can be said about what we have been through as a species. They know our stories and they tell them well.

It is true that the idea of the historian as a storyteller has suffered a massive loss of prestige over the past several generations, along with the idea of history as literature. Stories and literature sit ill with the scientific urges, and pseudoscientific claims, of modern historians. At the same time, comprehensive histories — stories with lots of detail — are deemed boring by the public (they almost always have been). This is not to say that literary history has died out. One spine that leaps out from my bookshelf is Christopher Clark’s compelling account of the run-up to World War I, The Sleepwalkers. Nearby stands Andrew Thompson’s rather elegant life of George II, one of the kings of England who doesn’t get mentioned at all in 1066 And All That, and also the subject of a myth about standing up for Handel’s “Hallelujah!” (It cannot be said with certainty that George ever even heard Messiah.) But Thompson gives us a man who might quite intelligently take more interest in his position as a benevolent despot, as Elector of Hanover, than in his constitutionally checked role in a somewhat bourgeois game of politics. No, literary history is not dying. But how many Millennials are reading it? Who is teaching them to read it?

Who is making the case for history? Donald Trump’s claim, that he will be able to make America great again, bristles with historical questions. When was America great, and who said so? What did greatness really entail? If it is impossible to go back in time, how can greatness, or anything else about America’s past, be re-created? Donald Trump’s listeners are not interested in these questions. But his opponents ought to be. It seems to me that one of the constraints that keeps the Democratic Party earthbound and uninspiring is the belief among many active Democrats that America has been a disappointment, which is one way of looking at things. I prefer to regard this country as a promise, if indeed a promise that a disappointing minority of Americans have felt moved to keep. It was a promise already broken by slavery, broken again by the Jacksonians, and by the Redemptionists, and by a host of cranks and charlatans. It is a promise that Abraham Lincoln fought to keep (although I believe that he was mistaken in his objectives). It is a promise to which FDR and LBJ gave a great deal of material realization. It is a promise that Republicans since Nixon have refused to recognize as such, much less to honor. But it is a promise that is endlessly renewed. I say all of this not as a historian but as someone who has learned a great deal from historians.

Nothing, nothing could be further from Donald Trump’s language than the idea of the United States as a promise. The word itself would not pass from his lips.


De fil en aiguille, say the French. From the thread into the needle, or “one thing leading to another,” only homelier, without the agency of leading. A while ago, I got round to watching Carol, Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt. That in turn led to watching Side Effects, in which Rooney Mara is almost as spellbinding as she is in Carol. It also led to re-reading Edith’s Diary, a novel by Highsmith that I had grossly misremembered. It led to checking out IMDb, to see what other movies have been inspired by Highsmith’s books, in addition to the well-known Hitchcock and Ripley entries, and coming across something called The Two Faces of January.

The novel was published in 1964. The movie, written by Hossein Amini (Drive, Shanghai) and directed by him as well (it’s his only feature to date), came out in 2014. My movie attendance had already fallen off by then, but it surprised me to have missed a Highsmith adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac. I am something of a completist about Oscar Isaac, so I had to see this movie. I ordered it, sight unseen from Amazon, and when it arrived, Kathleen and I watched it. We liked it — Kirsten Dunst is also very good in it — but we felt that something was missing. In other words, I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of it. I decided to read the novel.

Reading the novel after seeing the movie was one of the most exasperating experiences of my life. Why? Why? Why? Why had Amini fiddled with Highsmith’s story? Before I had finished the first couple of chapters, I was aware that every deviation made by Amini from the novel was a mistake. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the climactic events at the Palace of Knossos, as I shall coyly refer to a surprising sudden death. Where Amini follows Highsmith, The Two Faces of January is lucid and exciting; where he differs, the movie muddles uncertainly. It almost goes without saying that the novel is vastly more exciting than the movie.

This is because of Highsmith’s trademark ability to capture the weird and creepy shifts in an anxious person’s state of mind. In Edith’s Diary, Cliffie oscillates between triumph and despair with almost insensate giddiness; in the end, it’s always luck that decides. In The Two Faces of January, there are two anxious people. One is anxious from the start; the other, by allowing a relationship to develop with the first, soon has good reason to be anxious as well. Highsmith, of course, can describe these flutters in luxuriant detail, and it is relatively difficult for a filmmaker to capture them. But that is what directing and acting are all about. And here I regretfully come up against the second objective problem with the adaptation. Much as I admire Oscar Isaac, he is not at all suited to play Rydal Keener, the damaged and aimless young American who forms a triangle with an American swindler and his much younger wife.

Rydal is a classic Highsmith creation. He could be Cliffie’s first cousin. He is not a narcissist, but he is wrapped up in a wound that he suffered as a teenager — a wound exacerbated by a father to whom the swindler bears an uncanny resemblance. (The father has recently died, as we learn in the movie as well. But the movie does not make it clear that the swindler looks like the father twenty years ago — that, as is never doubted in the book, the swindler could not possibly be, actually, the father. Instead, the movie plays with this uncertainty, an intrusive red herring.) It occurred to me as I read that one of Oscar Isaac’s recent costars, Domhnall Gleeson, would have made a much more plausible Rydal. Oscar Isaac is simply too solid, too sure in his body, and far too sexually confident to impersonate a man confused about his lovability.

The Now A Major Motion Picture edition of the novel describes Rydal on the back copy as “an American expat working as a tour guide, and running cons on the side.” The Rydal actually within the covers is neither a tour guide nor a con. He is a Yale law-school graduate who is bitterly running through a legacy from his grandmother before returning to the States and settling down. He is more a mark than a con.

The game might be called Adventure. It depended on meeting the Right Person, male or female. Something would take place when his eyes met the eyes of the Right Person, there would be a shock of recognition, one of them would speak, they would have some kind of Adventure together — or there wouldn’t be anything in the eyes, and absolutely nothing would happen. (12)

Rydal is smart, but not in Oscar Isaac’s character’s street-smart way. He is more of a Sherlock Holmes, working things out in his mind. He is scarily good at figuring out what is likely to happen next. This gives him strange powers over the swindler, who, at the beginning of the novel, is at the point of beginning to crumble into his own plinth, as if sinking in quicksand. Again, the book’s finale is far more breathtaking than the shoot-out in the movie, even if the latter is set in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It is the perfect dissolution of a broken character — I actually thought of Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Where the judge reveals his nature as a cartoon character by dissolving in acetone, Highsmith’s swindler dissolves in booze — never have I read a more convincing account of the horror of a blackout.

One final remark — I really don’t want to spoil this treat for anyone; read the book, see the movie concerns the title. Do you see the word “January” in the title? Yes, it’s also a reference to the ambiguities of Janus, but it happens to be the month in which the action is set. In January, it is cold in sunny Greece, and cold is a leitmotif of the story. The movie’s summer whites suggest a carefree way of life that no character in the book experiences for an instant. (Kirten Dunst would have looked so good, shivering in a mink stole!)

I haven’t said anything about Viggo Mortensen. You might not recognize him, not only because he has graduated from cute young man to Joseph Cotton, but because he acts like Joseph Cotton, too. There is something finely wrinkled about his tentative behavior. As in the book, he loses his grip joule by joule. He, too, would have looked terrific in a more faithful adaptation, suddenly terrified of death and confessing his sins as if that would keep him going. Viggo Mortensen would have lit up at the end.


Thursday 21st

This will be brief. I have already written my quota of words for the day. (I don’t begin to think about winding down until a total of two thousand is in sight.) But what I’ve written today is not going to appear here. I’ve kept it apart, as the start of something larger and longer, where it will be out of view for a good while. At a certain point, I shall ask a few friends to take a look, and then I shall decide whether to resume what I’ve been doing here, or to continue with the new thing. I hope to be able to do a bit of both — a thousand words there, a thousand words here. These things always take a while to figure out, because I’m making it all up. The process, I mean, not just the contents.

At some point, I’ve known, I was going to have to take a break from long entries here in order to begin work on the memoir that I’ve been sketching for nearly a year now — or for four years, or for ten, or fifteen, depending on how you want to look for beginnings. The difference between the sketches and the memoir proper is that the individual chapters of the memoir must be written in sequence, from beginning, through middle, to end. Everything must be introduced before it can be recognized, and each sentence must grow from the ones just before it. A great deal of the material in the sketches will be repeated, but I expect that it will be rewritten from scratch. I certainly have no intention of cutting and pasting the various entries at this site.

I expected as long ago as September that I’d be ready to begin with a serious full draft either by the summer of this year or never at all, and in the past couple of weeks I have felt stirrings of a change. Change is all that the shift has in common with giving birth: once there was nothing or nobody, then there is something or somebody. The commonplace of exploiting the image of gestation is misleading. I am not so overflowing with ideas that I must write them down. I have been writing them down. Now I need new ideas, ideas that come to mind only de fil en aiguille. I can pursue those ideas only by never putting down the needle and the thread, and also by writing privately. It is a great pleasure to write a few excited paragraphs and then to press the button that will publish them, and, as I say, I hope to continue doing that. But the new writing that I want to do requires a quiet that is at odds with publication. It is ridiculous for me to feel guilty about cutting back on the flow of verbiage here — not least because of abominable conceit — but I console myself, and, I hope, the regular reader as well, with the reflection that we shall all have more time for other things.

I had hoped that it would happen at the beginning of a week’s entry, or, better, on the first of August, which this year will be the first of the week as well as the beginning of a month. August is the month for vacation. Last year, I returned from it with the determination to write as great deal more. Now, somewhat earlier than I had hoped, I am determined to write somewhere else.

I don’t mind telling you that I wrote about Keats and Woolf today, and that the way that I wrote about them was the way that I should write about them here, not as any kind of expert in literary figures but as sources of interest and pleasure. I experienced a rather thrilling conjunction the other night, reading To the Lighthouse after having finished Helen Vendler’s book, The Odes of John Keats. Thinking about it yesterday, on my midweek day off, I realized that I had arrived at the moment of decision: would I write up the experience as yet another blog entry, or would I mark the event as an auspicious point of entry, a way of beginning? I was queasily uncertain. By this morning, as I finished reading the Times, I was almost nauseous — although waiting to hear that Kathleen had landed in Portland (yet another long weekend away, but the last for a while) certainly contributed to the sea-sickness. Her call came just as I sat down at the desk, before I could pull the petals off too many daisies.

I will be honest about one thing: I am not sure how much longer I could continue writing altogether publicly, in the face of Donald Trump. I was reading Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers last night, and his insistence that Greek science committed Platonic suicide as a way of dealing with an insupportable political mess was hideously convincing. Regular readers must know how I feel about Plato, but Koestler quite leaves me in the dust, he is so appalled by the desperate, soul-crushing mind-shift that was engineered by the Academy. Thanks to Aristarchus of Samos, heliocentric theory was on the verge of adoption; the measurements were astonishingly close, given the lack of telescopes and whatnot. But the educated public slipped the other way, favoring an unchanging universe moving in uniform circular motion around a degenerate, mutable earth, for which the only hope was a strong aristocracy. Two thousand years later, or nearly, that world-view would be effortfully overturned. But now the liberal democracies that grew up with what we call modern science seem as disordered as the ancient Greeks, and here is Donald Trump in the big ring. I need to do at least some writing about which I am not forced to consider how it will sound in a circus.


Friday 22nd

The second day of work on the new project was rather harder than the first, but not as hard as I feared it might be. I was afraid because yesterday’s work, like most good beginnings, was somewhat visionary, and written in a state of exaltation. Today, I had to pay a great deal of attention to small details of construction and pace, and I felt that I was continuing according to the principles that guided me yesterday. I won’t know until there’s more whether I have succeeded in managing the tonal complex that makes a long piece of writing coherent. I met my quota within a reasonable time, and ended with a thought to be taken up when I resume. The regular reader would have found more than a few familiar items, but I didn’t have to care about that.


At lunch, I was reduced to reading Vanity Fair — a sweet but nothing piece about the Umpteenth Marmaduke of Shaftesbury that wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for his father’s lurid murder some years ago — because two rather educated boors were having a political discussion from opposite ends of the bar. One of them was a Republican who went to Yale with Scooter Libby — I was stunned; that’s my vintage: it’s amazing how youthful voices remain almost to the end — while the other was sympathetic but more of an Independent. I believe that the topic for most of the conversation was FBI Director James Comey’s role in an alleged fix to exonerate Hillary Clinton, legally if not otherwise. But then the talk turned to Obamacare, and there was a dispute about the quality of American medical care. One guy argued that everybody able to afford it comes to America for treatment. The other insisted that Americans are going elsewhere for treatment.

I was tempted to put in my two cents. The United States is a paradise of specialists, while other countries are doing a better job at managing routine procedures. This makes sense: our country has become the land of stars, where celebrity standouts attract global attention. It has given up on competition, in favor of a never-ending pursuit of leverage. If you can bring this product to market before anybody else, or add that killer-app feature, or win the lottery, or get born with the fine-motor skills of a neurosurgeon, or write a book that, while soporfically dull from any literary standpoint, ignites a fashionable allure for debasement in millions of bosoms, if you dare to behave like Donald Trump; in short, if you do that one thing, then you win the jackpot. You suck up the air that any competitors could breathe: there is only you. I’m not saying that these are the thoughts of working Americans. But I think I’ve caught the American Dream 2.0. It is libertarian and antisocial. Pull up the ladder behind you! I should be very upset if I believed that most Americans shared this dream; most people don’t dream Dreams. But it’s pretty lousy.

As for the medical alternative, there’s good money to be made by suppliers and saved by consumers in an industrial approach to common woes. My favorite is the Shouldice Hernia Centre in Ontario. Could anything possibly be less glamorous? I’ve read that the clinic’s recidivism rate is very low: almost all hernias remain repaired. There are specialized American hospitals, of course. For my Remicade infusions, I visit the infusion unit at an institution that began as the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. But really, what has rheumatology got to do with that?


The two guys arguing at the bar were educated and articulate, but they were still talking too loudly, interrupting one another, and in general sounding like Fox News. What will become of Fox News, now that Roger Ailes has been deposed?

That’s not the real question, of course. The real question is whether opportunistic jingoism will find an equally gifted manipulator. If I were Dante, I’d make room at the bottom for Roger Ailes, right alongside Dick Cheney. This pair of Foo dogs did more to disturb the tenor of American politics than, well, anyone else, ever. They may not have been the worst at heart, but they rode the dragon of television on their apolcalyptic adventures, and were therefore more effectively destructive than mere mortals had ever been. Both perfected the manly art of shouting down while refusing to listen. Cheney was so good at it that he hardly raised his voice. Ailes was even better, though, because we never even heard him. He had an army of proxies.

If you shout “Fire!” in a theatre, are individuals in the audience to be forgiven for their participation in a deadly stampede? I pose this extreme question to underline the difference between panic in a theatre and the response of viewers sitting at home. Or between the involuntary audience hearing the malefactor’s cry and the voluntary audience listening to the entertainer’s cry night after night. There is a lack of connection between the urgency of the message and the prevailing civil calm. Roger Ailes, according to James Poniewozik (writing in today’s Times), operated on the principal that “an aggrieved group needed constant grievance, even in victory.” Surely the audience must take some responsibility for this addiction.

Surely we must begin to recognize, and treat, this addiction.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
July 2016 (II)

Monday, July 11th, 2016

11, 12, 14, 15 July

Monday 11th

For the first time in the more than ten years that I’ve been writing The Daily Blague, I’m beset, thinking about the sniper in Dallas, by the fear that anything that I say can be taken out of context as the affirmation of a stance that I am weighing and considering, but not adopting. A Times headline asked, “But whose side are you on?” (or words to that effect). I especially don’t know the answer to that question, and explaining my perplexity may be the best way of beginning the discussion that I think ought to be taking place — instead of the several that are already ongoing.

I single out for scorn the camp-meeting enthusiasm that proclaims our basic American unity. I don’t believe that Americans have the right to claim unity. Such unity as Americans have enjoyed has never amounted to more than dismissively tolerant cohabitation within very roomy borders. Americans have not had to put up with fellow-citizens of markedly different views. They have been cushioned from opposition by geographical and economic distances. They have been free to repudiate any commitment to national unity in the company of their friends and immediate neighbors. This is not to suggest that Americans have taken to advocating sedition. It is merely to note the ballrooms of hypocrisy that stretch behind polite speech about pulling together in a crisis. We do, I think, pull together in a crisis. But if there is no crisis, we prefer to forget about each other. And when it becomes necessary to recognize that there are Americans who want to do some things differently, we resort to contemptuous, caricatural language that smacks, politically, of anarchy.

The geographic and economic distances that I mentioned have largely collapsed in the age of pervasive media, just as television networks have flattened the difference in regional accents. But there remain secretive but powerful pockets of resistance to unity, and a fellow named Sam Polk opened the lid on one of them in a piece in the Sunday Review section of yesterday’s Times (“How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down”). Polk reports the routine small talk that focuses on objectifying women and treating sexual intercourse as a kind of victory. The point wasn’t, I think, to tell anyone that Wall Street men talk like this among themselves — what Times reader could have been unaware of it — but to connect it to the difficulties that women face in advancing their careers. Polk was very personal about this.

But a few years after I left Wall Street, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we learned that it was going to be a girl, I burst into tears. My daughter would soon enter a world not just of unequal pay and unequal opportunity, but one in which almost 20 percent of women are raped, and a quarter of girls are sexually abused.

If you think that this violence has nothing to do with bro talk, you’re wrong. When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. And even if we don’t participate, our silence condones this language. I deeply regret remaining quiet while women were being disparaged during my eight years as a trader.

What I want to say about Dallas right now — as distinct from what I might have to say after I’ve thought about it more, and over more time — is that this kind of talk, on Wall Street and elsewhere, extends to blacks and all other “minority” groups who have not historically prospered there. As a white man who worked on Wall Street (in no very exalted position) for seven years, I heard plenty of such talk, coming from all directions. I have no reason to believe that it suddenly came to an end when Bill Clinton was president. I no longer hear it, but I know it’s there. Sam Polk makes this impossible to doubt.

Another thing that I want to say about Dallas is to remind readers of the purpose of this site, which is to discuss and critique the culture of the American élite. I have spent my entire life in the élite, and I know it well. I know that it has not been doing its job. When asked for a response to Dallas, a Wall Street friend told me that it took him by surprise, that he had thought that race relations were “better” than they are, and that he had been preoccupied by the markets lately, and not been paying much attention to the general news. It was not a surprising answer. Dismaying, yes, especially because of the implicit shrugging-off of élite obligations. If you want to know who the élite are, you will know them by their insistence that they work too hard to familiarize themselves with “issues.” They leave that to journalists. As I always says, the American élite comprises all the people who deny belonging to it.

My own claim to belong to the élite might seem grandiose, given my rather vacant CV. But I grew up in an élite town, attended élite schools, and participated in élite rituals. I rarely did this with any enthusiasm. I didn’t think that it was anything special until I was in my forties. Then I began to understand that my economically comfortable life had conditioned me to an outlook that few Americans, or people anywhere, could or would share. Had I merely stumbled along within that outlook, without becoming aware of it and, as a result, trying to grow a brain, I should now be excoriating the stupidity of Donald Trump’s supporters and the self-destructiveness of Leave voters. I should have simply gone on looking at the world with the élitist’s rose-colored glasses — and it would never occurred to me to regard myself as a member of the élite.

Instead of that, I set myself up as the scourge of the élites — a jocular way of putting it that I hope harmonizes with my intended victims’ insistence that they are not élit(ists).


In one of the many articles about tensions between American police and black Americans, one officer insisted that “we do not get up in the morning wanting to infringe someone’s civil rights.” (Or words to that effect.) This was a way of saying that policeman harbor no peculiar animus against blacks, that they’re not “out to get them.” I take this statement to have the same value as a Wall Street executive’s insistence that his firm is an equal-opportunity employer. I think that it’s very important to both the cop and the trader to protect the civil rights of people like themselves, people whom they see as orderly, and to protect these rights against infringement by unruly elements, people unlike themselves. People with a different way of speaking, dressing, walking, standing still even. This double standard is reinforced, and reinforced again, day in and day out, by what Sam Polk calls “bro talk.” I am not promoting a conspiracy theory here. I am describing the behavior of segments of the American élite. I haven’t spent any time in precinct houses, but I do know Wall Street. Sadly, I know Wall Street better than my wife does, although she has actually worked there her entire adult life. Only now are she and other women her age (sixtyish) beginning to suspect that they may have been victims of sexism in the workplace. They feel rather foolish about the possibility of having overlooked this. Perhaps they could not have continued on Wall Street if they hadn’t suppressed their inklings. Come to think of it, I can remember when Kathleen worked with young black lawyers. Those associates have somehow not turned into partners. Why is that? Where did they go?

I am trying very hard here not to appear to be making a case for Black Lives Matter. I believe that blacks are not treated equally in the United States, and that the prosecution of black Americans includes more than a small measure of persecution. This mistreatment is simply wrong, and it must stop. And so must I stop, right there. I am not competent to dilate on the problems faced by black Americans. I have no experience of those problems, not even at second- or third-hand. I have no right to righteous indignation.

What I can do is to call attention to what I increasingly regard as the decadence of the American élite. I know about this first-hand. I know about highly-educated professionals who ignore the world of humanist high culture and immerse themselves instead in the working man’s world of sports, not out of any solidarity with working men — the professionals buy the best seats, and don’t turn down invitations to skyboxes — but because the world of sports is the world of adolescence, of boys playing games. For men of a certain age, Arnold Palmer stands atop the plinth that might be more usefully graced by William Shakespeare, the man who played with the words that tie us together instead of with balls. As indeed highly-educated professionals are aware. But Shakespeare is unshakably adult.


Americans are like addicts who can’t begin the recovery process because they won’t acknowledge the nature of their addiction. Americans are addicted to a view of their history that will always stand in the way of genuine unity. It is the story of a bogus union that was formed during a so-called revolution (actually a war of secession) and then nearly sundered by a so-called civil war (also a war of secession) that was won by “the Union.” It is a story that acknowledges “slavery” but not the lives of slaves, nor the counting of black lives as “three-fifths” of the value of white lives for census purposes, while of course withholding the franchise from blacks altogether, nor the degradation of black lives after the grant of so-called “freedom.” It is a story that treats Jim Crow as either a necessary social crutch or a boys’ club rulebook that got out of hand — somewhere else. It is a story that cannot even be bothered to lie about Native Americans; Native Americans occupy precisely the place of a malarial swamp that required draining.

It is a story in which Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the greatest hero, for holding the “Union” together. I think that Lincoln was a fine man, but perhaps the worst president, for exactly that reason. What followed the victory of the “Union” was a series of social abscesses, festering under the pretension of social harmony. We are still lying about this, still telling ourselves that things are better than they really are. (Just for the record, I am quite certain that Andrew Jackson was the worst president — an early Trump.)

It is a story in which the United States has become an exceptional nation, the world’s superpower (lately incapable of winning wars, however), the victor in the Cold War (which more and more shows itself to have been the greatest stabilizing factor in postwar life), and an example to the world of how to conduct a democracy (no comment). And the people who tell themselves this story are so stuck in it that they cling to it even when they realize that some of the chapters are maybe a little misleading. The people who tell themselves this story are charged with managing the country, but almost everything that they “know” about the place is not true.

We have become obsessed with personal responsibility. Personal responsibility explains why people spend so much time working that they have neither the time nor the energy to attend to public affairs — except where “personal responsibility” (ie, enrichment) is involved. There is no thought of “public responsibility.” I am not talking about welfare or charity here — or not about those virtues only. I am talking about paying attention to the truth. And the truth is that the American élite denies its own existence. It pretends that “the élite” dress up in haute couture and diamonds and get driven around in limousines. It imagines that a gathering of “the élite” looks like the Academy Awards. This is perhaps a hapless default, for in fact the American élite does not gather. How can it, in its state of denial?

If you can read this, you are one of the élite. Armed with the foregoing ideas, give all the thought you can to healing the wounds inflicted by Donald Trump and Micah Johnson.


Tuesday 12th

It was foreseeable that we Baby Boomers would by and large fail to shoulder the public responsibilities of a functioning élite. We were raised in an atmosphere of social fantasy. It was assumed by our elders that things would be different in the future, if only because they would be so much “better,” whatever that meant. It was obvious to them that we had “advantages” that had been denied to them. They told us that things were easier for us than they had ever been for any generation, and we agreed: we set our defaults at “easier.” When we encountered difficulties that our parents had not foreseen (most notably, climate degradation), we resisted the tedium of sorting out priorities and methodologies. If I were a comedian, I would joke that Boomers who took mind-altering drugs were quick to acknowledge the threat of global warming, while those who did not lacked the imagination to grasp it. But there’s a piece in today’s Times about the disarray among those who don’t deny it.

The oldest Boomers were teenagers when the great civil rights legislation was enacted. We heard the nation’s leaders proclaim the end of segregation, and we took this as a done deal — if we lived in a region where blacks were inconspicuous. We smiled when liberal white Americans gestured to accept black Americans into their world. We frowned when black Americans declined to adopt the folkways of liberal whites, although we recognized that they had a point. We saw that wondrous progress into a future of racial harmony was stalled by a deal-breaking insistence on racial unison. This wasn’t our fault. We found other things to worry about.

We worried about authenticity. Who am I, really, and how do I know? We became a generation of self-absorbed individualists, hypnotized by doubts about our place in the world that soon ran up against the need to make a living. Countercultural experiments soon demonstrated that, beneath the scruffy hair and the seedy clothes, few of us were willing to abandon bourgeois supports, or to inflict the discomforts of roughing it on our children. But we were haunted by the insincerity of our accommodation. This unwillingness to commit explains a lot about our failure to lead — to behave as the élite ought to behave.


Questions about personal authenticity are as inappropriate for adolescents as exposure to adult sexuality is for younger children. Adolescents, quite rightly, are confined to the scale of adult approval. They can do the things that adults want them to do, or they can disobey. That’s about it. The very word “adolescent” means that, in the process of becoming adults, they are not adults yet. The mismatch between physical capability and social inexperience seems to get wider every day; it could that the dawn of true adulthood has been postponed into the late twenties at the earliest, and it is not altogether funny that 35 is the new 21. One certainly hopes that thirty year-olds will not behave as if they were half their age. But it might also be recognized that the social fontanelle does not close in our world until the onset of what used to be middle age.

Most college students are essentially incompetent to answer questions about authenticity, and ought to be protected from them. I re-read the foregoing sentence with reverberating astonishment: it is exactly the sort of thing that an illiberal dean of students would have argued in favor of banning access to pornography, back when I was in college. I certainly don’t mean to protect anyone from something by pretending that it isn’t there. Nor by insisting that it isn’t yet time to deal with it. But university is for learning about the world, not for deciding about the self. A student who arrives on campus with a well-buffed identity is simply going to waste a lot of people’s time.


We Baby Boomers believed that we invented sex, and this was not as wildly wrong as it looks. For we grew up with contraceptives that were both reliable and unobtrusive to men. We had sex without fear! And so we got to discover that inadvertent reproduction is not the only thing that is problematic about sex. Observing that it is orders of magnitude more likely for me to have friends who are seven years younger than friends who are three years older, I wonder if the “the Pill” is not the explanation. Anatole Broyard writes about this eloquently in Kafka Was the Rage, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. “One of the things we’ve lost is the terrific coaxing that used to go on between men and women, the men pleading with a girl to sleep with him and the girl pleading with him to be patient.” (136) Boomers never had to bother to coax. Relieved of the fear of pregnancy, nice girls discovered that they liked sex, too, and, what’s more, they discovered that men could be better at it than they were! This was a surprise that we have not yet, ahem, got over; it has complicated the hell out of feminism.

Now that, for all its failings, the élite has managed to junk Augustinian laws about what adults can and cannot do as sexual beings, sexual preference has become one of the first things that a young person can learn — something that, formerly, countless people never discovered (never hoped to discover) in their entire lifetimes. But this is not to say that every young person ought to settle on a sexual identity, that there is an obligation to know who you are by the time you are twenty-one. The only obligation that I can think of is that you ought to settle these matters before embarking on parenthood. But sexuality is only one of many matters that must be settled before children are allowed to come along. I speak as a Boomer who had settled few of those matters when his daughter was born — with as much regret as love for my daughter, pride in her achievements, and delight in her company allow.

But I don’t want to suggest that my peculiarities were caused by membership in a generational cohort. Being a Boomer exacerbated some of my faults, perhaps, but it had little to do with my oddity, because I was born, not “at forty,” as my mother used to say of my father, but at some indeterminate late-adolescent age. From the beginning, I was as crazy and mixed up as any teenager, madly impatient to grow up and bored to sobs (literally) by anything to do with childhood. I was writing to my daughter yesterday that one of my few childhood food memories is of pound cake and tea at the cozy Bermuda resort that my family visited in 1955, when I was seven. A lemon freshness made the pound cake and the tea so unlike anything that I had ever tasted before that it may have been then that I lodged the protest that would eventually make a cook out of me. At the age of twelve, I developed a troublesome passion for tea — troublesome for my mother, who disapproved of my laboring in the kitchen. I would have nothing to do with teabags, so not only did I buy tins of Twining’s Earl Grey at the fancy-food store on Park Place but I required two teapots as well, one for steeping. A world of delighful complication opened up.

I would sip tea in my room while struggling to read by candlelight. My particular strain of adolescent puritanism — no matter what drives their frenzies, puritans are people who have not yet grown up — regarded electricity as vulgar. Well, electric light, anyway; I might have read by candlelight, but the Water Music was playing on the phonograph in the background. What was I reading? I have no idea; whatever it was, it was over my head. When my mother got sick once, she was given a book of light verse that was illustrated by Edward Gorey. Light verse did not appeal to my mother, and the book was soon mine, along with a passion for Gorey. (I read my first complete Gorey, The Willowdale Handcar — published under another title — in one of my mother’s Vogues.) By the time I began reading The New Yorker, in the summer of my fourteenth year, I had outgrown my fastidiousness about lighting, but I lacked the fortitude to get through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. My eyes glazed over at the mention of DDT, at the dismay occasioned by its toxic effect on wildlife. My premodern lack of interest in the natural world seems connected somehow to an elided childhood. I am enchanted by the song of birds, so much more common in Manhattan now than it was thirty years ago that I am indebted to Carson; but I don’t want to know more — what the birds look like, what they’re called. But some of my earliest thinking concerned modern man’s ability to mess up the world in ways that had nothing to do with the Bomb.

Not that skipping childhood is a good idea — I don’t at all endorse it. It was simply something that happened to me. And it did not make me a precocious adult. On the contrary. I mark the launch into adulthood to the winter of 1975-76, when I realized that going to law school would probably be the most reasonable thing that I could do, and the landing, ten years later, to the death of my father. Even then, there was something provisional about my adulthood. I held on to certain foolish behaviors until an excess of martinis caused me to fall and nearly break my neck, an accident that is still not ten years in the past, and I within hailing distance of seventy!

Growing up isn’t entirely a matter of leaving youthful vices behind. It also took me a long time to know my own mind. One could say that it took me far too long to stop dabbling. But I didn’t know what else to do. When the Wall Street firm that I worked for folded, I half-heartedly looked for work in a field that I had discovered but not really been trained in. Kathleen claims that we decided at about that time that I ought to be a writer, however long it took to accomplish that. For, although I could write, I didn’t know what to say. This was not a case of having nothing to say, but rather the opposite, of not knowing where to begin. I believe that in the entries that I’ve been logging at this site since last September lie the beginnings of knowing where to begin. The salient aspect of this beginning is indeed why it took so long to reach. For I do not believe that it was always there, right under my nose. And yet —

“Swimming against the tide,” “going against the grain” — these images seem pathetically anemic when I consider the course of my own thinking. If I’ve been swimming, it has been up the face of a waterfall. For everything that I have learned in life, ever little bit of it, has taught me, somehow, that the flight from éliteness is not only a terrible mistake but an impossibility. It is in fact a kind of puritanism — the kind of puritanism that forced me to try to do without lightbulbs, and that also (little did I know how not-uncommon such bravado is) induced me to swear in writing (on onion skin paper, the only available substitute for parchment) that I would never smoke, drink, or drive a car — when I was thirteen. Like all puritans, I forswore things that I thought were bad but that I didn’t know anything about. I endeavored to prevent mistakes and regrets with the violence of Procrustes.

In 1789 the Western World inaugurated a serious experiment in equality. The notion that all human lives are equally precious is not intuitive, but like a genuine religious conversion its adoption seems irreversible. (I argue that this notion re-introduced the teachings of Jesus to Christendom and engendered a new Christianity that today’s evangelicals dismiss as unorthodox.) And yet it is obvious that the impact of human lives varies so enormously that no two lives are equally important. How to reconcile the ideal of equality with human multifariousness is now our central problem. Denying the existence, the virtue, or the necessity of an élite seems as blind and arbitrary as denying instances of the Pareto curve. Given a multitude of human lives, the emergence of an élite seems to be statistically inevitable. And yet almost everyone in my lifetime has wished that the élite and the idea of the élite would go away. One result is the monstrosity of Donald Trump, a born élitist who has exploited every élite advantage to advance his fame or notoriety — he doesn’t care which; no one has ever thrived so luxuriantly on the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity. (Until there is, let us pray.) The worst thing about the flight from éliteness is the evaporation of leadership. Leadership is the opposite of demagoguery: it inspires people to take pains for a good cause. Leaders may be hypocrites — brazenly, in the case of lame FDR — but their importance lies not in their authenticity but in their beneficent persuasiveness. Most of the people alive today have lived in a world without leaders.

What Shakespeare said about greatness in Twelfth Night applies to éliteness. There may be many more élitists (meaning: members of the élite, not advocates of “élitism,” of whom there is no need) than there are truly great people — many, many more — and those who have been born élite, or who have had éliteness thrust upon them, may find that they have to work harder than those who are merely saddled with greatness. But it must be recognized as an inexorable condition, at least by those who are familiar with it because it is theirs. The small privileges of belonging to the élite — the deference that must never been taken for granted and always ritually declined — are dwarfed to the point of invisibility by the huge and arduous privilege of belonging itself.


Thursday 14th

Mrs Gaskell’s Ruth is in my reading rotation at the moment. Kathleen picked up the novel in her travels and liked it. I’ve never read a novel by Mrs Gaskell that I didn’t like, and yet I’ve never gone on one of my jags, running out and buying everything of hers that I can find. So I still haven’t read, for example, North and South. I had not heard of Ruth at all. The editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition, Tim Dolin, naturally claims that it is underrated. I’m not especially keen on it, especially now that the villain, or the heavy, or the whatever-he’s-going-to-turn-out-to-be (maybe just a man, if you know what I mean), has made his appearance. I’m in no mood at all for Mr Bradshaw.

I will say that Gaskell introduces Mr Bradshaw with sly éclat — you won’t forget this about him:

The country people came in sleeking down their hair, and treading with earnest attempts at noiseless lightness of step over the floor of the side, and by-and-by, when all were assembled, Mr Benson followed, unmarshalled and unattended. When he had closed the pulpit-door, and knelt in prayer for an instant or two, he gave out a psalm from the dear old Scottish paraphrase, with its primitive inversions of the simple perfect Bible words, and a kind of precentor stood up and, having sounded the note on a pitch-pipe, sang a couple of lines by way of indicating the tune; then all the congregation stood up and sang aloud, Mr Bradshaw’s great bass voice being half a note in advance of the others, in accordance with his place of precedence as principal member of the congregation. His powerful voice was like an organ very badly played, and very much out of tune, but as he had no ear, and no diffidence, it pleased him very much to hear the fine loud sound. He was a tall, large-boned, iron man, stern, powerful, and authoritative in appearance; dressed in clothes of the finest broadcloth, and scrupulously ill-made, as if to show that he was indifferent to all outward things. His wife was sweet and gentle-looking, but as if she was thoroughly broken into submission. (126)

Lord, how I detest this man! A page or so later, Ruth — a young woman in trouble who has been rescued by and is staying with Mr Benson — receives a gift of cambric from Mr Bradshaw, and her immediate instinct is to refuse it. I posed three questions to Kathleen.

  • On a scale of one to ten, with one as the worst, how wicked is Mr Bradshaw?
  • (I forget the second question.)
  • Is Mr Bradshaw in the novel until the very end?

Kathleen’s answer to the first question was “three.” Oh dear. “You were counting zero?I asked hopefully, reformulating my question after the fact. The third answer was unintelligible, because it turned out that Kathleen was slipping off into asleep. I closed Ruth and picked up something else.

I’m sure that I must have encountered a heroine in the act of refusing a gift from someone whose generosity she did not welcome, but I can’t think of one. Ladies refuse to receive letters and packages all the time in fiction, but we are not privy to their decisions; we’re usually looking over the shoulder of a disappointed lover. Ruth’s expresses her wish not to accept Mr Bradshaw’s cambric with surprising alacrity; after all, she has never spoken with him. He can hardly harbor the usual designs. And yet one agrees at once with Ruth. It is curious — although this is not noticed by Ruth or Mr Benson — that the cambric does not come from Mrs Bradshaw.

“It’s interesting,” Kathleen said of Ruth when she finished reading it. I have to agree that it is — intermittently. To conjure an image from Mrs Gaskell’s day, it is like being driven along an avenue, from which unexpected sights can be glimpsed in the distance, by horses who want to veer off the road and plunge the carriage into the worst sort of Trollope. The worst sort of Trollope is that author’s tendency to get carried away, to put it mildly, by the pure virtuous steadfastness of his nubile heroines. Mrs Gaskell seems equally obsessed with Ruth’s innocence, which is so extreme that the moment of her deflowerment is never directly referred to. By the end of Volume I, Ruth, seduced in East Anglia and abandoned in Wales, is pregnant, but for all she seems to know about it the Holy Spirit may have been the father. But then Mr Benson, a deformed man with a great soul, says something earnest, and I sit up. Sally, the Bensons’ housemaid, a woman old enough to have brought them both up, is a particularly saucy-mouthed servant. But I think that I have yet to strike what it was that provoked Kathleen’s “interesting.”


There is a page-and-a-half story (very big deal) in today’s Times by Nicholas Confessore. You can read it online, but you’ll miss the headline in the print edition. I am thinking of stepping out and asking the nice men who are working on the subway station if they have a crane that might help lift my jaw back into place:

Trump Mines Grievances Of Whites Who Feel Lost

Then, in smaller print,

His Charged Words Allow the Disaffected to Vent Feelings Usually Unspoken.

It’s almost as if the editorial staff at The Onion had taken over. “Area Man Hails Trump As Much-Needed Demagogue.” How about “Sky Is Blue On Sunny Day”? Why Now? Kathleen and I asked when we saw the paper. What took them so long to state the obvious? Confessore may have answered that question quite well, with his references to Pat Buchanan, a presidential candidate, albeit better-mannered, whose message was essentially the same as Trump’s. Buchanan was ahead of his time; most white voters confidently dismissed him as a crank. Now that most white voters seem not to be confident about anything, the supremacist message is much more appealing. I do wish, though, that the Times’s editors were quicker on the draw than the average voter. Confessore’s story is at least six months overdue.

Confessore writes of conservative white resentment that it includes “a sense that an America without them at its center is not really America anymore.” It has become commonplace to dismiss this feeling as retrograde and unwelcoming; the United States is a land of diversity. “Diversity” is probably one of the more unexamined concepts in the current-affairs lexicon. My sense is that the cooperation of people of different backgrounds flourishes most robustly when the term is not bandied about. Diversity is not encouraged by self-conscious effort. Self-consciousness emphasizes feelings in which the advantages of diversity are likely to wilt. And of course it is monstrously hypocritical to impose diversity in neighborhoods far distant from one’s own unexceptionably affluent suburb.

The very word diversity is sharp and definite. I should prefer a word that sounded vague. Vagueness is much on my mind these days, although I am trying not to be vague about it myself. Partly it’s a consequence of my battle with the complex of words that are based on “élite.” This is a very old battle, going back fifteen years at least, with a never-ending skirmish over the word for a member of the élite. If you believe, as I do, that élites are as inevitable as ice cubes on the surface of a scotch on the rocks, that there is no way of preventing the emergence of an élite over time — three generations at most — no matter how levelling a political system sets out to be, then it is simply horseshit — sorry! — to talk of élitism and élitists. Élites require no support, no advocates, no theorists. Élites are as inevitable as death and a good deal more inevitable than taxes. You can make the leaders of today wear sackcloth and live in hovels. It doesn’t matter. Their grandchildren will wear designer sackcloth and have servants to clean their hovels.

And yet what else to call a member of the élite but an élitist? You give it a try. It is no help at all to go back to the French from which we have taken the term, because élu, which is what you can call a member of the élite in that language, is never ever going to join its relative as an borrowing in English. It’s both too slight and too difficult to say. Also, when spoken as an American is likely to say it, it sounds too much like “hello.” (I actually considered “halo” for about twenty minutes.)

So why not find another word? This is everyone’s suggestion. But it turns out that there are no real synonyms for “élite.” When C Wright Mills published The Power Elite in 1956, it made sense to identify “the élite” with a small coterie of leaders in various fields — politicians, business executives, and military officers — but that only shows how quickly things change, for the whole problem with today’s élite is that it is utterly devoid of leaders. Leadership is in fact frowned upon by many members of the élite. So is any act or demonstration of power. This explains the élite’s denial of its own existence. Which would work — banishing the term to the world of fantasy — if people, members of the élite among them, did not complain so much about the villainies of “the élite.”

The weirdly cosmic vagueness surrounding “the élite” as a term turns out, I finally see, to be an advantage. There was a time when someone who didn’t attend an Ivy League college could be ipso facto excluded from the élite, but those days are over. There are no rules of thumb, no shibboleths, for distinguishing insiders from outsiders. I often quip that, if you can read this, you belong to the élite, but that is not to say that every member of the élite can read this. I can only wish it were so, while recognizing with tears in my eyes how very not-so it is. The vagueness surrounding the insider/outsider switch does, however, make it easier to speculate on what it is that we need élites — members of the élite — to do.

There is another interesting aspect to this vagueness. Once upon a time, the people in charge were men with armed supporters. They knew who they were and you knew who they were. The natural trend of any society, however — barring invasions and environmental catastrophes — is to socialize people, to raise them to internalize the laws under which the society operates, minimizing the need for displays of external constraint. A society which has less reason to fear manifestations of power (which are always to some degree violent) will feel freer; truly socialized people are so unaware of their internal self-regulation that they feel free even as they observe every social convention to a nicety. Some people, it is true, have so much difficulty resolving this apparent paradox that they cannot live with social conventions; they must go off into the wilderness. But even they do not feel free not to care for themselves. Nobody except rapt intellectual adolescents regards suicide as an act of freedom. (Although it may of course be an act of liberation — liberation from extreme illness and pain, not from the wholeness of life.)

In the Western World, the postwar era that began in 1945 saw an unprecedented expansion of social freedom. Governments operated with ever-lighter hands. Decisions perceived to be arbitrary were not only denounced but resisted and repudiated. The loss of authority by religious and other institutional leaders nearly amounted to complete evaporation. The effect of all of this was to put more people in charge of smaller jobs. Nobody is in charge of everything, not even nominally, and that’s a good thing. But several generations of this freedom have produced, inevitably, its corresponding élite. People who are educated, affluent, locally influential, capable of forming interest blocs — there are many more such people than ever before. But like the society of which they are the élite, they don’t have a very clear idea of “the big picture.” Perhaps there is no big picture, just a lot of small pictures. But that’s not a good thing, because it opens the door for a very bad man to project a big picture of hatred and resentment — the worldview of those who are rightly sure that they do not belong to the élite. They can be sure, as I’ve said, because nobody asks them. Nobody asks a woman living in a trailer park if she is in charge of anything greater than the trailer park. Nobody asks a man hanging out at a garage if he is running anything. For decades, nobody has been asking such people anything at all. Worse, nobody has been really thinking about them — except to think how to bring the existence of such people to an end.

To the member of the élite who sits at a desk puzzling out ways to bring the existence of such people to an end, this is a matter of helping people to become other, more desirable kinds of people. To the person in the trailer park or the garage, however, it is a matter of personal extermination. The same goes for Americans who no longer feel that they’re at the center of America.


Friday 15th

The other night, Kathleen and I got to spend some time with the new baby of old friends, a beautiful three month-old child. It was very hard, when I was looking at her, to resist the thought that she was looking back at me, but I managed. I knew that she was seeing bits and pieces of me — although I couldn’t say which — and I should go so far as to say that she was aware of me as yet another human being. But her mind was not yet sufficiently organized to sort the particulars in a retrievable way. She would never remember our first meeting. She was experiencing, not learning. I knew this because I wasn’t just looking at her. I was also thinking about the weirdness of infancy.

Infancy does not occur in other animals, or rather, it doesn’t last for long. Newborns must be autonomous within a very short space of time, a matter of weeks at the most. For a number of reasons too well known for me to rehearse, human beings are born long before they’re ready to take care of themselves. When they become what we call toddlers, somewhere in the second half of their first year, they begin to be people in the world — small and helpless, but people. They respond when called by name; they learn to walk, and so on. But their presence as infants is dramatically unclear. In the first few months of life, a baby’s neural circuitry is inchoate, at least so far as higher-order functions such as consciousness are concerned. I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying things when I say that few of the connections (synapses) that characterize the brain of an eight year-old, much less an adult, have been made. And the wiring is uncertain. I have never seen an infant who did not, for at least a moment or two, seem to gasp in dismay, prompting me to do what adults always do, and fill in the lack of inputs with projections of my own experiences, in this case, the dreadful surprise of a power outage. It seems to me that the baby’s circuits have crashed, and taken down the sense of familiarity. Bearings are altogether lost. It lasts for a only an instant, and, if you’re lucky, it does not lead to tears. The system comes back on, and the baby knows where it is.

The really weird thing about infancy, though, is how we adults forget it. Although I know that there was a time when my grandson behaved in much the same way as this lovely little girl, with the same alternations of contentment, sleeping, crying, and confusion, I cannot remember it. Or, rather, I cannot associate the things that I remember with my grandson. My grandson, at the moment, is eternally six and a half. He is a fascinating (to me) instance of someone poised at the brink of “the age of reason,” and, being the boy he is, he is not going to cross the border until he has worked out the angles to his satisfaction. There are a few little souvenirs. I remember him poring over his brand-new iPad, sitting at the glass dining table and swinging his legs. I remember how he used to say, with the strangest blend of insistence and tonelessness, “Up, up,” meaning that he wanted to be picked up. I remember being able to understand what he was saying on the telephone. But when I think of him, he is who he is now. He has sucked up his infancy and his toddlerhood like a self-cleaning snail. Our friends’ child will do the same.


As I mentioned last week, one of the books that I brought home from storage last week was Arthur Koestler’s The Watershed. Koestler did not actually write a book with this title; “The Watershed” is the fourth part of his survey of the origins of modern cosmology, The Sleepwalkers (1959). Some gang of bright lights decided that the thick central portion of The Sleepwalkers, which tells the story of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), ought to be excerpted in a book of its own, as part of a series of “up-to-date, authoritative, and readable science books.” I shan’t know why until I read the intact original; it’s still in print, and I’ve ordered a copy. When it arrives, I may get rid of The Watershed. It is riddled with embarrassing marginalia and underlinings, almost all of which reveal an intellect in its toddler phase.

I’m not sure that I knew what a watershed was, when I read the book in college, and even now that I understand what Koestler is trying to say, I question the metaphor. Koestler’s subject, so brilliantly exemplified by Kepler, is the transition from one comprehensive world-view to a very different one. Kepler does indeed stand at the watershed of the new dispensation — way up there in the hills among countless little streams that have not yet been collected into a big river. But he also stood in the twilight of the classical outlook, which had been developed nearly two millennia earlier by Aristotle and Ptolemy. Twilight is not a water image. If you insist on finding a water image for Kepler’s relation to what had gone before, the Nile delta (or the Louisiana bayous) seems most apt — which is fine, but rather impossible to hook up to a watershed.

The just-so story about modern science is that the Aristotelian, Ptolemaic worldview had to be “overthrown” in order for new ideas to thrive. What new ideas? I come back to the clock, the history of which captured my fancy last fall. (30 September 2015) Koestler quotes Kepler likening the universe to a clock; whether he was the first to do so, it was an idea that would capture the attention of almost every intelligent mind over the next two centuries. The kernel of explosive novelty here is that the universe worked like a machine. It partook of the same substance as that of sublunary earth. It was not composed of “ether”; it was not exempt from the laws of physical causality that operate on earth. For this reason, Kepler could not permit himself to do what astronomers had been doing since antiquity: fudge. His preliminary theory about the orbit of Mars was plausible enough until he submitted it to the test of some rare observations that Tycho Brahe had made. The result was an eight-minute error in the arc of the orbit. That would have been negligible in the old days, when ten minutes was an acceptable tolerance. Tycho’s precision instruments, and the multitude of observations that he had made with them, drastically reduced the permissible margin for error. Eight minutes was too gross. Years of work (calculations made without the aid of a computer) turned to ash.

Tycho is perhaps the real draw in The Watershed, partly because he was such a character (but then, so was Kepler), mostly because he stance in relation to science is modern. Tycho was mad for metrics. He discovered just one thing: “that astronomy needed precise and continuous observational data. (88) Copernicus deployed a total of twenty-six astronomical observations in support of his heliocentric theory. Tycho amassed thousands of observations, whether or not in support of any theory. Tycho did have a theory, but aside from being wrong it was unoriginal — as indeed was Copernicus’s. Almost every imaginable theory had been put forward in Classical Antiquity. Most theories were discounted because they flouted higher-order theories about how the world must work, such as Plato’s notion (not original) that the planets must move in uniform circular motion. Kepler was perhaps to abandon this pair of notions (uniform motion, circular) in a statement about reality. Kepler didn’t claim that astronomical phenomena made sense if you imagined that the planets traveled in elliptical orbits, and at such varying speeds that equal areas of those orbits were swept in equal amounts of time. Kepler claimed that planets really did travel in ellipses, and sweep equal areas in equal time. He did not undo Aristotelian theory so much as replace the Aristotelian universe.

And yet he never shook off the quasi-mysticism that had surrounded numbers since Pythagoras and before. Kepler never abandoned the idea that the orbits of the planets are at such a distance from the sun that — fasten your seatbelts; there are going to be some bumpy words — the orbit of Mercury can be fitted into a dodecahedron, that of Venus into an icosahedron, that of the earth into an octahedron, Mars into a tetrahedron, and Jupiter into a cube, leaving the one-sided perfect solid, the sphere, to Saturn. This is pure moonshine, and Kepler could never have demonstrated that it was true, but he never really tried. Perhaps he knew better than to try.

Galileo, however, is in contrast a wholly modern figure, and Koestler loathes him. Galileo represents a serious problem of modern science, which is that great genius is exhibited by “moral dwarves.” When Koestler is finished with him, Galileo is lost to heroism forever. He is a brilliant opportunist who never says thank you but who will use the worst language in the world if you cross him. Koestler explains that Galileo never in fact languished in Vatican dungeons, but he doesn’t mention the house arrest that confined Galileo to him home and garden for decades, which I used to regard as undue hardship. Not anymore.

Koestler quotes a remark of Alfred North Whitehead that seems to me to explain a great deal of what’s distinctive about the Western World.

All the world over and at all times there have been practical men, absorbed in “irreducible and stubborn fact; all the world over and at all times there have been men of philosophic temperament who have been absorbed in the weaving of general principles. It is this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalization which forms the novelty in our present society.

Koestler makes the case for Kepler as one of the first men to harmonize these habits of mind.


Although I sound like a know-it-all most of the time, I am really the one who is learning here. Yesterday, for example, I learned, as I wrote, that my idea of “the élite” is much larger and more comprehensive than I might have thought when I first took up my battle with the word, which struck me as a puzzle because the first thing that I noticed about it in general, journalistic use was that nobody admits to belonging to it. There are minds that would respond to this phenomenon by postulating the existence of a small band of conspirators, secretly running the world from mountain fastnesses — Davos! But I knew from my own life that that wasn’t true. Davos is just a lot of hot air, and a group of three or more people cannot be counted on to keep a secret. But it was only this week that I realized that I can see no reason to exclude from the élite anyone who has any discretionary authority whatever over how other people behave. This means, for example, that everyone who writes code for a smartphone is a member of the élite. It may mean that the school nurse is a member of the élite. Anyone to whom discretion over anything has been delegated is in the club.

Club? Anyone to whom discretion has been delegated has been saddled with responsibilities. We are living in a world that likes to pretend that this isn’t so. Whenever possible, people claim to be acting under orders. But it is rarely true. Every police officer makes countless personal decisions, and I daresay that most officers make very many good ones and very few bad ones. But I should be happier if I had reason to believe that policemen knew more about the development of the society that is under their supervision. Why is our world like this and not like that? I dismiss out of hand the idea that men in blue are intellectually incapable of overcoming a few popular mythologies.

Anyway, I saw that it is possible for the number of members of the élite to exceed that of the non-members. This is a fantastically good thing.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Simplex Heritage
July 2016 (I)

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

5, 6, 8 July

Tuesday 5th

Over the weekend, I read Ben Lerner’s tract, The Hatred of Poetry. I haven’t read Lerner’s poems, but I did like his two novels, or at least I read them with interest. I didn’t much care for the protagonists, very well-read men with no sense of direction. The Lerner of Hatred is no different. Again, he writes very well, but the things that bother him are not the things that bother me. Which is fine with me but not, perhaps, with him; for he is preoccupied by universal truths and realizations of the ideal and I am asking myself, why? Why is Ben Lerner concerned by what Plato has to say about poetry? Why, in the Twenty-First Century, is anyone?

I am always going on about the importance of history: we can never know enough about the past. But this is not the same thing as looking to the past, especially the distant past, for “answers.” The past is full of mistakes that we must hope not to repeat. Plato was a contemptuous misanthropist who had a few big ideas, all of them wrong. Unlike Aristotle, who stumbled through fields of learning with an open mind but inadequate tools, and whose thoughts are full of insight even though his understanding of science is hopeless, Plato was an mechanic with a horror of the organic squishiness that makes life possible. His political thinking, in particular, is nothing but a catalogue of errors, as we have good reason to know, looking back as we can on recent attempts to realize the totalitarian potential of Plato’s ideas.

Ben Lerner, instead, “acquired my idealism via Platonic contempt.” The Hatred of Poetry is a book about the peculiar idealism that mourns the failure of “Poetry” to transcend human limitations. If it were a meditation on Keats’s “ditties of no tone,” it might actually attain to poetry itself, instead of being a whine in prose. To hate poetry because it doesn’t live up to its superhuman billing — how is this not merely childish? How is it unlike the addict’s inevitable frustration with the need for ever more powerful stimulants, or John Ashbery’s lament that life cannot be one endless orgasm?

But I digress. I wanted to rap Ben Lerner’s knuckles about something completely different: his take on the first line of a terrible poem by William Topaz McGonagall, “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Now, the poem is really and truly terrible, but what Lerner has to say about its first line made me uneasy. Here is the first line:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay

Inane it might be, but it reads fluidly enough. Not to Lerner, though. Lerner devotes a paragraph to describing what he sees as a “mishmash of meters,” “the mismatch of duple and triple measure” in this line. This would be more compelling if another the first line of another poem, widely, I believe, considered to be competent at least, did not surface like the great Tay whale:

They that have power to hurt and will do none

There is no questioning the manifest superiority of the beginning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, and McGonnagal’s verse has an extra (but insignificant) syllable (“the”). But the two lines read much the same to me, so far as mere meter is concerned. True, “will do none” could, and probably ought to be read spondaically, as a series of equally tonic words, but Lerner’s criticism focuses on the first three feet, where Shakespeare and McGonnagal are identical. Why didn’t Lerner think of Shakespeare? He’s the poet, after all.

What I can’t answer is why I knew about McGonagall, why I had a copy of Pegasus Descending, the collection of very bad verse that Lerner mentions, in my library. How did I learn about this awful stuff, which really is too ghastly to be funny?


We are approaching the time for setting aside this experiment and consolidating its conclusions in some other form. It’s not that I’m repeating myself, although I certainly am repeating myself. It’s that some things have become very clear in the past couple of years, and have become clear because I have tried to abandon conventional forms while still attempting to make sense. The forms are those of journalism, such as the review, the political analysis, the (brief) history of current affairs or of the development of scientific understanding, just plain news stories, and, latterly, the personal history. Journalism is a sprawling field. I want to write as though it were small enough to fit inside me — because it is.

I want to write about how everything that I know is connected to everything else, and about how the connections, while intelligible, remain unique to me. How to make my difference clear to another reader — clear, that is, and not an irritation that provokes reflexive disagreement, or shock or disgust — that is what I’m after. How to write a text that is neither larger nor smaller than I am — how, quite literally, to take my own measure. But: strictly as a social being, as person who reads and writes. I don’t want to write about myself at all, except insofar as I have responses to some of those phenomena that might be apparent to everyone.

Growing up in the ever-more permissive Sixties, I watched so many barriers fall that I wondered if they all would. I very nearly lived in a commune, an undertaking that attempted the dissolution of boundaries between people. Eventually, I learned that the body is an imperishable boundary — imperishable so long as the body is alive. When the body dies, the boundary disappears because the person inside it ceases to exist. This is very hard to accept as a practical matter, as I’ve learned with age from the death of friends and acquaintances. How can it be that these people no longer exist? Conversely, how did the world ever fail to contain my grandson? I never had the same doubt about my daughter, because I was so young myself when she was born; and nobody near me had died since childhood, when I was too young to know my grandparents well enough to lose them. When my own parents died, it was after many-staged illnesses that prepared me for their deaths. But when an old friend died a few years after the last time I’d seen him, when he looked as healthy as ever, I couldn’t compute. He left a vacuum, a vacuum powerful enough to tempt one to dwell on thoughts of the afterlife.

One of these days, I, too, shall leave a vacuum. I want what I write to fill that vacuum. I want it to sound like me. And yet I don’t want it to be about me, because I don’t really know anything about that. To know about me, you have to be somebody else. What was it like when I came into the room? I’ll never know, not really; and, what’s more, I should prefer not to know. What was it like “to be me”? Forgettable, for the most part. Such thrills and ills as there were will remain fantasies to you, fantasies that you conjure from I say about the thrills and that you resist when I talk about the ills. Insofar as I was just myself, not connected to something that others could see as well, I was nothing, nothing but a organism of processes generally ubiquitous but personally unique, broadly understandable but incomprehensible in detail. My shorthand word for all of this part of life is “plumbing.” The effects of good or bad plumbing can be apparent to others, but the experience itself does not admit of articulation, precisely because words are shared but plumbing is not. Because I can’t tell you about it, I’m not interested in it. Good fortune is largely a matter of unobtrusive plumbing.

What is special about my life — the reason why an account of it, and especially my account of it, might be interesting — is the unusual opportunity that I have had to live as a philosopher. With academic or systemic philosophy I have had nothing to do — nothing since nodding over Hume. But instead of a career I have had a pasture. I have not tried to accomplish anything except the expression of ideas, and I believe that I have been blessed with the ability to judge those expressions. (The persistence to improve them appears to have come of itself.) When I find myself saying the same thing several times, I begin to wonder why, and curiosity carries me to another level of connection. One thing that I should like to work out is an internally consistent but extended discussion of what it means to be “conservative,” and the connection between a “conservative” outlook and the accrual of experience over time. I should like to write about the conservative outlook without using the word “conservative,” if for no other reason than my hunch that every truly conservative person is profoundly liberal.

I have come to understand — we all know this, but few of us have the time to understand it — that everyone is different, that “e pluribus unum” is an impossibility even in the case of a pluribus of two. At the same time, it is not at all problematic if you stop thinking about identities and consider instead a multitude of interactions within a system of conventions. There would be no Interstate Highways if e pluribus unum were not in some way quite readily realizable. At the same time, the system of drivers, all following the same rules at any given moment, is not as interesting as the system of audience members in a theatre or a concert hall, responding to a performance. The most interesting, the most vital conventional systems are those in which discussion takes place. In discussion, people undertake to express their differences without permitting those differences to create interference. Language is the grandest convention of them all.

Another thing that I have come to understand is that there will always be an élite, or a constellation of élites, or however you want to put it. (By “always,” I mean the foreseeable future.) There have always been élites, but they used to be taken for granted. We tend to fixate on the élite now because our social conventions allow the élite to exercise its power so obliquely that we don’t know exactly who they are, the people with power. And what do we mean by “power”? A policeman certainly has a kind of power, but does he belong to the élite? No. And yet the Mayor or the President is almost certainly never going to tell you what to do. Power is very widely distributed in our society, and its efficiency depends upon its not being felt very often. The élite of today, in fact, is comprised of all those people who claim not to belong to the élite — for it never occurs to those who really don’t belong to insist upon the fact.

There is an understanding abroad that membership in the élite entails vague but oppressive responsibilities. My hunch is that the responsibilities are oppressive only because they are vague; no one has worked them out in detail. We have an educational system that is still based on a model of academic scholarship that has no bearing on the lives of most people, least of all the élites who oversee the organization of society. Sciences and professions are all very well, but all the specialized skills in the world are not going to turn on the lights without an understanding of the human nature that expresses itself in millions of different ways. Permit me to replace “human nature” with “human variety.”

For example, I was thinking, yesterday, of one of my billionaire projects. I have about five or six of these: what I would do if I were a billionaire. One thing that I should do would be to start a new kind of college. I’ve touched on it before. Students would have to be in their twenties, with some practical work experience behind them, the point of the experience being not the job itself but the contact with other working people as well as the responsibilities of maintaining adult autonomy — seeing to one’s own food, clothing, and shelter. Classes would consist of seminars, in which readings would be discussed. Et cetera and so forth.

I was thinking about the teachers. I should want to pay the teachers well, but I should also want the flexibility to hire and fire teachers readily, in order to find out what works. What kind of people ought to teach? I’m assuming, you see, that we don’t know. The question I was left with was why anybody would sign up to be a teacher in my highly unstable college. What if I guaranteed salaries for a few years? As a billionaire, I could afford to do that. (I should be spending little or nothing on the construction of “facilities” — seminars would take place in apartment living rooms.) But how to distinguish teachers who tried to teach well but failed from opportunists who went straight to the guarantee after a deliberately sloppy performance? In no time at all, my fantasy had crashed. Human variety makes it impossible to predict what would happen, in the circumstances stated. Clearly, there need to be more circumstances.

This is what, among others, behavioral economists are trying to grasp. What are the circumstances in which people will act simultaneously in their own interest and for the common good? There can be no answer that predicts the behavior of every person on earth, but there can be answers, probably, that predict fairly well what large groups of people with some shared background, or perhaps complementary backgrounds, will do. I myself am not deeply engaged in such inquiry. All I want to do is observe that theories about how people behave are always going to dampen our awareness of the circumstances in which they do behave, at least when theories proliferate, as they tend do to, from earlier theories, and not from the study of circumstances. I don’t think that we know very much about how to study circumstances, and I think we’re wasting our time on theories. You have only to consider the popularity of Donald Trump to see what I mean.


Wednesday 6th

At first, I was going to blame the weather, but it’s going to be even hotter tomorrow. In fact, I’m staying home today (and writing) because I’m convalescing. It has been about a week since I felt this good, or this far from bad, and I want to enjoy it. Running down to the storage unit and packing more boxes of books to get rid of would be virtuous, certainly, but everyday virtue rarely justifies a relapse. What is my malady? I usually call it fatigue, and leave it at that. “Fatigue” is the name that I can put on a plumbing problem. I am, or have been, after all, tired. For about five or six days, including almost every moment of the holiday weekend, I was so tired that my appetite for living curdled, and took on the worrying coloration of its opposite.

If I try to explain the symptoms further, I will inspire in you the kind of fantasy response that I wrote about yesterday. If I were to describe what I called the thrills in my life — and it will be a test of your adulthood that you can figure out what I mean by that — then you would respond, helplessly, with fantasies of your own, and no greater understanding of me. If I were to describe the ills, I wrote, the result would be “fantasies that you resist,” and one of the best ways to resist imagining the pain of others, to forestall painful sympathy, is to play doctor. I tell you what hurts, and you tell me what to do, or what I ought to have done, or how I have jeopardized my life itself by behaving stupidly. And you might be right. But the indulgence would not make the world a better place. As it happens I am well attended-to by real doctors. And good ones. They are not going to make me live forever; on the contrary, they are going to take the full measure of me and deal realistically with that.

So fatigue it is. I stayed in bed after Kathleen left for work, not least because she told me to. I dozed and then I slept. When I woke up, I felt comfortable, which was good, but the comfort was too lively, so I got up, and here I am. I’ll stay here today, and visit the storage unit tomorrow, when, if today goes well, I’ll be stronger.


There is a remarkable juxtaposition of articles in this week’s New Yorker. Both concern presidential campaigns. Adam Gopnik writes about Iceland’s. George Saunders writes about Donald Trump’s. And that seems par, at first, because Gopnik is level-headed (although very colorful, as befits a former art critic), and Saunders is, well, “imaginative.” I avoid science fiction and fantasy as a rule, and I observe this rule with something like grim determination, but I make an exception, which I don’t even try to explain, for George Saunders. Somehow, Saunders does not cause the horripilations that make those genres creepy and illiterate. Perhaps that’s because he is really writing fairy tales. Fairy tales always have a strong moral point. They do not end on a note of “what does it all mean?” Everything that Saunders writes convinces me that he knows what it all means, and my only fear is that he will tell it more explicitly than he does.

So the editors seem to have done the normal thing, assigning a sober writer to a sober subject, and allowing the surrealist to have fun in the dark carnival of resentment that Trump sets up wherever he goes. But something happens, and this is the remarkable part. It is Adam Gopnik’s story that strains credulity. As someone tells him, Icelanders suffer from “ecstatic numeric aphasia.” I don’t know what this means, but it has something to do with the fact that there are about as many people in that country as there are in his congressional district here in New York. How can you have a country with so few people? The internet tells me that there are more people in Wyoming, and more than twice as many people in Alaska — all still well under a million each. There is that other question: why does anyone live there, where “any good June day” dawns “overcast and in the forties”? Is Iceland a joke?

This is not a question that comes up in George Saunders’s piece. Saunders has only one question, and he poses it as a statement at the very end. I have been asking the same question myself in these pages for several years, every now and then, but Saunders writes with much greater authority, because (a) he is not only a published author but a respected writing teacher and (b) he got in his car and went to the rallies: his report is what they used to call “first hand.” “Trump Days” is a triumph of journalism. And yet it seems wrong to speak of triumph in a context of such sadness and confusion.

The piece “has everything.” There’s the data-driven nitty-gritty of Saunders’s response to the claim, made by a husband-and-wife couple of Trumpies (as Saunders calls the supporters throughout), that there are more people “on welfare” under Obama than there were under Bush. Saunders checks this out, and learns that it is correct, but far from the whole picture. The whole picture is made up of data that support inconsistent conclusions. The whole picture is too complicated to understand in less than a semester of lectures at Johns Hopkins or the University of Chicago. There is almost no point in trying to discuss it publicly. I was thinking along these very lines the other day, when I was wondering over dinner with Kathleen how many Americans believe that Hitler “took over” in 1932-3, that he seized power by non-democratic means. How Hitler did in fact come to power is also a very complicated picture, but it seems to have been effected according to the rules — which were, of course, immediately scrapped. The point is that Americans, and advocates of democracy everywhere, seem to believe that nothing bad can happen if there are genuine, honest elections. The consequence is that the fact of Election Day relieves Americans from doing the kind of homework — about economic issues, immigration issues, about how Washington works, all of it. Everything is more or less too complicated to understand, unless you’re like me and have all the time in the world plus a patiently educated mind plus a conviction that sound bites are meaningless. And yet every voter is expected to make an intelligent choice.

When Saunders talks to Trumpies, he asks them to back up their claims, and the supporting evidence always turns out to be pathetic. Claims about globalization and immigration turn out to be validated, for their proponents by something as piddling as the layoff of a friend’s friend last week — one. Or a neighbor who keeps goats and chickens, endangering the Trumpie’s property value; whether “documented” or not, this neighbor is “not assimilated.” The interesting thing, of course, is that the Trumpies are so forthcoming with these ludicrous vapors. You wonder why they don’t mind being challenged. The reason for that, it seems, is Saunders’s manner. He asks them without interrogating them. He may not support Trump, but he does feel their pain.

Something is wrong, the common person feels, correctly; she works too hard and gets too little; a dulling disconnect exists between her actual day-to-day interests and (1) the way her leaders act and speak, and (2) the way our mass media mistell or fail entirely to tell her story. What does she want? Someone to notice her over there, having her troubles.

That would be George. At several points in “Trump Days,” Saunders gives the impression that all that the Trumpies want is someone to listen to them. If they believed that their elected representatives had their interests at heart, they would not be showing up for Trump’s raucous rallies. But they have no reason to believe any such thing, and those of us who enjoy more prosperous and informed lives have had every reason to know about this problem since the time of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, of which Trump’s campaign is the latest fart. The Southern Strategy convinced Southern voters that the African-Americans among whom they had lived their entire lives were alien others, and probably pathological criminals. (Why did they fall for it? Why did Bosnian Christians believe overnight that their Muslim neighbors were preparing to slaughter them?) Over the ensuing decades, the Identi-Kit picture, as it were, of the Other has shifted, and it no longer comprises every brown face as a matter of course; Trumpies aren’t lying when they deny that they’re racists, if that’s what you mean by racist. But they are no less anxious about the Other, and they feel no less betrayed by an élite that has given the Other free rein to compete for jobs and health care.

Saunders writes two extremely good paragraphs about the American and the Other, and the violence that half of America “has always held … nearby.” But this does not exonerate failed American leaders. There are no American leaders. We have only demagogues, politicians who exploit native weaknesses for personal gain. Representation is notional, and election districts have been so extensively gerrymandered that the question of representation abscesses beneath a bandage of apparent homogeneity. Politicians derive their credibility from other politicians. They make no attempt to lead their constituents — to inform them, to advise them, to counsel them, or, most of all, to educate them. All of this requires a degree of inspiration that only an élite alive to its responsibilities can instill in its young. But our élite is just like every other group in the country: benefits are welcome; burdens are shunned.

There is a moment of delicious personal history, when Saunders admits to having been a fan of Ayn Rand in college, where he was an aggrieved budding Republican, trying to concoct a story that would find heroic qualities in his thoroughly lack-luster academic performance. (Tell us about your Emmaus moment, George.) There is the perfect metaphor for describing Trumpies:

In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.

The autobiographical detail and the dream metaphor both conspicuously lack leaders, figures of natural authority who might nip fabulist inclinations in the bud. Leaders are people whom we admire. Who is there to admire in the land of television? Increasingly, only cynics are admirable, because they get away with stuff.

That’s why all the exposés about Donald Trump’s personal and business history are so much less devastating than pundits used to expect them to be. Isn’t Trump saying, at each rally, something like this: “I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch, because that’s what it takes to get ahead in this world; but, because I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch, that is the one thing that I am not going to say, because it’s true.” You cannot deny that this is an exciting message. To use the language favored by the politically correct, it is “transgressive” — electrically, ecstatically so.

I found the ending of “Trump Days” to be very surprising. I had thought that anyone capable of writing the vividly critical fiction that George Saunders has produced would have long ago accepted the very dismal possibility that America might be “fragile,” might be “an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.” For a moment, Saunders sounded like one of his distraught characters, like the dad in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”

When kids born, Pam and I dropped everything (youthful dreams of travel, etc, etc) to be good parents. Has not been exciting life. Has been much drudgery. Many nights, tasks undone, have stayed up late, exhausted, doing tasks. On many occasions, disheveled + tired, baby-poop and/or -vomit on our shirt or blouse, one of us has stood smiling wearily/angrily at camera being held by other, hair shaggy because haircuts expensive, unfashionable glasses slipping down noses because never had time to get glasses tightened.

And after all that, look where we are.

Is unfortunate.

In this unforgettable story, the experiment may not have failed, but it is no longer worth pursuing. At least the picture painted by “Trump Days” is not that bad. Really not.


Friday 8th

“So,” said Kathleen after dinner last night, “are you happy to have the gas back on?” Then she said, “Silly question.” But it wasn’t entirely silly, because, as I sat there a moment, before removing the plates, I was conscious of having worked to put this meal on the table. I’d had three of the four burners on the stove going, and the oven as well. I had timed everything nicely, something that is always harder than it looks. I had wanted to serve dinner pretty much the moment Kathleen walked in, an objective that ruled out those holding patterns that permit me to sit down for a spell and read. I had been on the go.

But yes, of course, I was happy to have the gas back on. Well — I was already beginning to take it for granted. After two months, making do with electric appliances — an oven just big enough not to be labeled “toaster,” a rectangular, immersible frypan, a hotplate, and an electric kettle — had gone from being resourceful and unfazed to tedious and demoralizing. Two months had shown that about half of my already reduced repertoire of dishes for two simply didn’t taste as good without the gas. I don’t altogether know why. I do know that the electric oven simply wouldn’t get hot enough to broil chicken, which is what I decided to make the minute the Con Ed men left (I had a packet of brined thighs and drumsticks in the freezer, and enough time to defrost them in a teriyaki marinade). Last night’s chicken was crisp and juicy and delicious. It was a dish that I resolved not to attempt until the gas came back on, and I was right.

I suppose that I felt the relief of any good cook. If I had to work more, I didn’t have to think so much.

I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know what I’m talking about, but it seems that electric heat cycles (much as gas ovens do); the heating element is either on or off. When you turn the dial to a particular level, you simply evoke a ratio between the two states that will average in the desired temperature. This was particularly noticeable in the electric frypan, which turned out to be good for breakfasts and not much else. The strips of bacon would sizzle, then they would stop sizzling. Then they would sizzle again. In this way, they cooked very nicely, but of course it seemed half the time that they weren’t cooking at all.

I had intended, at the outset, to expand my electric-kitchen skills. But I never baked anything in the oven except potatoes. I never attempted a soufflé, although I hope to do so now. It would be great if the electric oven could function as a second oven — the feature, to my thinking, that distinguishes a real kitchen from a mere galley. I meant to make a crumb cake, and to bake a loaf of white bread (for French toast), but I never did, partly because I wasn’t feeling well. (I had begun to feel better this week, so who knows.) Any experiments with the electric oven going forward will be cushioned by the confidence that dishes cooked on the stove will be as tasty as usual. And I won’t be wondering, when are they going to turn it back on? Have they forgotten me?

We thought that the outage would last longer, especially given the size of the building. All those lines to test; all those apartments to access! The worst part was learning, last week if not earlier, that the gas had been restored to some apartments. If there had been a posted schedule, the delay would have been more bearable, but of course there wasn’t.

Anyway, it’s over. The frypan (having been immersed in the dishwasher) and the hotplate have been tucked back into the cabinet over the refrigerator, behind a row of cookbooks. I’m thinking of getting a new hotplate; maybe there’s a better one out there. (I’ll know what to look for.) The one that I have been using got rather dirty in hard-to-clean ways. The frypan, in contrast, is pristine. The electric oven will keep its counter space, as of course will the kettle. I’ve always had an electric kettle, to boil water for tea and coffee, but I decided to leave the old kettle in the old apartment when we moved downstairs. Rather, I decided not to replace it — not right away. Instead, I used this fabulously expensive stainless steel kettle from England — I regarded it as the Aga of teakettles. I like to think that it was the last status acquisition that I shall ever fall for. It had a piercing, irritating whistle, and it took forever to heat up. Perhaps you’ve seen it. The base of the kettle is ringed by a dense coil, the purpose of which I never could imagine. By the time I put it away, on top of the cabinet over the refrigerator, I had extracted the maximum of pleasure from seeing it on the stove.


As suggested here, the day before, I meant to go to the storage unit yesterday. But as I was reading the Times, I learned that Con Ed would be coming (to do what, I wasn’t sure), and that I ought to stay home. But I didn’t want to stay home; I wanted to go the storage unit, not only to continue the project of boxing up books to discard, but to look for the two thick literary biographies by Hermione Lee (of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton) that I couldn’t believe I’d banished from the house. Where else, however, could they be? I looked everywhere, and then I looked everywhere again. They must be in storage! The itch to find them made every other occupation irksome. I could not write. I could not see to a thousand little tasks, of a hundred different varieties. I could barely read, so antsy and floundering was I. Imagine my delight — you can’t! — when the doorbell suddenly rang at about twelve thirty. The men were in and out of the apartment within ten minutes, and I was out of the apartment within the hour.

The books were there, in a teetering stack on my old dresser. My old dresser was part of the “suite” of bedroom furniture that I grew up with, and it’s odd that I still have it. My parents, clearly already afraid of where my emerging sensibility might carry me, thought it best to offset my delicacy with the robust atmosphere of the Old West. My twin beds, nightstand, and dresser were finished in natural oak; I already preferred mahogany, or at least something that didn’t require sunglasses. Now I can appreciate that the finish was the full extent of the cowboy element. The pieces were not ungracefully routed with motifs that, while perhaps not actually Mexican, belonged in a proper home and not a bunkhouse.

I got rid of the twin beds and the nightstand in 1977, after I moved back into my parents’ house. This move was not the retrograde action that it might have been. First of all, my mother was dying, of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. We knew it, but she didn’t, and my helping out at home was part of the ruse. What she was told was also true: I was bound to get into law school somewhere, so I’d be leaving within about a year. (As it happened, she died a week before the first letter of acceptance arrived.) After she died, I made a few changes (all paid for by Dad, of course). I replaced the twin beds with a full-sized mattress and frame, with a simple headboard. But I kept the dresser. Now that it was in Texas, where it belonged, it looked okay. I went off to law school, and time passed. Later, when my stepmother moved back to Brooklyn after my father’s death, and my sister divided the furniture in his apartment, the dresser was shipped back to New York. I used it in our bedroom at the lake house, and then brought it back to the apartment when the lake-house chapter came to an end. A few years ago, I sent it to the storage unit. I have tried to find another home for it — I hoped that my grandson might grow up with it — but there were no takers. It sits in storage still, and who knows what will happen to it when we finally evacuate the unit. There is absolutely no room for it in this apartment.

Anywhere, that’s where the books were. I remembered taking huge loads of very good books to storage when we moved into this apartment. The decisions were not always very good ones. I’m sure I thought that I could always bring books back — which is true, but which overlooks the awful inertia of storage units, which can go unvisited for years, if there is no program of periodic stock-taking. There was another inertia at work as well. Once we got the apartment looking good, we relaxed and enjoyed it. Everything stayed more or less where it was, for about a year. Only this spring did I begin questioning the arrangement of certain kitchen cabinets, for example. At about the same time, I got serious about cataloguing the books that I can’t see because they’re ranged behind rows of other books. Until these recent developments, the effect of the combined forces of resistance was that the theory that I could bring back books anytime I wanted to was disproved by my ignorance of where the books actually were.

(I pause to consider the reader of a century hence: will the problems of owning a lot of books still be familiar? If not, will it be because people have learned to live without books, or because book technology has made better use of technology? I envision a GPS system that can locate any book instantly, that could even find books that I wasn’t looking for — as my own hands did yesterday, uncovering, in the process of sorting books, Ivan Morris’s edition of The Pillow Book, Koestler’s book about Kepler (which Kathleen and I had been talking about), and Balzac’s Le Curé de Tours. In the future, will libraries be enriched by the inevitability of forgetting what is in them?)

I wanted Lee’s biography of Woolf because I wanted to refresh my memory of Sidney Saxon. This member of the Bloomsbury Group so enthralled the others with the flow of his magnificent conversation that a stenographer was hired to take down his every remark, sitting in a chair in the corridor outside the drawing room. It was discovered, to general dismay, that the flash of the man’s talk did not transcribe very well; in fact, there was nothing at all remarkable in the whole extent of his utterance. My memory was indeed in serious need of refreshment, because there wasn’t anybody called “Sidney Saxon” in Woolf’s life, and the Saxon Sydney-Turner who was seems unlikely to have spellbound anyone; his Wikipedia entry notes how little he talked at meetings of the Apostles at Cambridge. So, of whom am I thinking? And why did this anecdote seem pressing? I shall have to re-read Lee.

Right now, I am reading Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz. It has been in my fiction pile for a very long time. Since November 2012, to be exact — as I just found out by “trying” to buy it again at Amazon. I forget the impulse behind the purchase. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like the novel before me, which is indeed a masterpiece. I don’t think I’d have bought it if I’d known. I managed to turn Kathleen resolutely against the idea of reading it by telling her, last night over crispy broiled chicken — no, it was the curried squash soup that we had as a first (because I manage a first course with a real stove)! — about the suave merchant and his rigorously disciplined family. To tell the story that Mahfouz tells, but without telling it exactly as he does, is to ruin it, to make it sound like an awful nightmare. To read the actual novel is a strange delight. Sure, you can indulge your outrage, shooting off on anti-Islamic tangents (the patriarchy! the misogyny!). But the whole point is to enter the family, not to criticize it; to appreciate, as best one can, what it must be like to grow up in a certain kind of world.

My copy of To the Lighthouse is missing. I’m sure I’ve lost it somewhere.

Bon week-end à tous!