Archive for September, 2016

Gotham Diary:
September 2016 (III)

Monday, September 19th, 2016

19, 20, 22 and 23 September

Monday 19th

Over the weekend, I indulged in an orgy of French crime film, or rather I indulged a long-held wish to watch three movies that I regard as a trilogy all in one go. Then I watched another one, with stimulating results. Here they are, in the order in which I watched them.

  • Jules Dassin: Rififi (Du Rififi chez les hommes), 1955
  • Jean-Pierre Melville: Bob le Flambeur, 1956
  • Jacques Becker: Touchez pas au grisbi, 1954
  • Louis Malle: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Elevator to the Gallows], 1958

I also watched two more French films, Luis Buñuel’s Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972), and Merci, Dr Rey! (2002). Because they’re much easier for me to talk about, I’ll begin with them. While I write, I’ll try to deal with my amateur’s ignorance about the others. I am simply unaware of most of the films that were produced in France in the 1950s, and have no reason to think that Rififi and the rest are highly-regarded and arguably comparable other than the plain fact of their having been reissued by the Criterion Collection. I have not surveyed the harvest of that time and chosen unusually good movies. I have simply watched what the producers at Criterion have chosen for me. It is for reasons like this that I am not to be mistaken for a scholar, or for a person who “knows everything.”

I loved Discreet Charm, as I’ll call it, from the moment it came out, because I found it funny and strange, and also obliquely grand. The focus on six people, three irregular couples, stretched a bit to include a seventh, reminded me of the symmetries of Metastasio (the grand-daddy of opera seria librettos). Couples make for doubled drama: as they interact with one another as individuals, they interact with everyone else as pairs. This is humorously demonstrated by Henri and Alice Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassell and Stéphane Audran), who, on the verge of welcoming their friends to an afternoon lunch, become so distracted by lust that they must climb down from their bedroom into the garden (because Alice is “too loud” when they make love). By the time they return, vaguely disheveled and bedecked with straw, their guests have taken off, frightened that their absent hosts might have been warned of an attack. Why any of these people might have reason to fear an attack is not specified, but it doesn’t have to be, because we have just had a scene in which the Ambassador of Miranda (a fictional Latin-American country that boasts neither pyramids nor pampas) (Ferdinand Rey) delivers a sack of pure cocaine to his friends, Henri and M Thévenot (Paul Frankeur’s character does not have a first name), in exchange for a suitcase of cash. Alice and Henri, sloppy hosts though they may be, are least happily married. Simone Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig) makes herself available to the attentions of Don Rafael. This may explain why her sister, Florence (Bulle Ogier), having no one to play with — her brother-in-law treats her like a child — wants nothing but to drink les martinis dry.

This bloc of soigné criminals, complemented by the local bishop (Julien Bertheau), a charming man who appears in the wake of the escaped friends and petitions Alice and Henri to let him do their gardening, is led through a series of frustrated meals. There is a tea-room scene that oughtn’t to be as funny as it is. The waiter takes an order for tea. The ladies chat. The waiter returns: hélas, it has been a busy day, and there is no more tea. Coffee is ordered instead. Now the ladies respond to the attention of an army officer. He begs to join them, because he wants to tell them his story. This begins the movie’s other thread, which moves from the narration (and onscreen representation) of personal history, to that of a dream, and on to a series of dreams that afflict the characters, so that, by the end, we’re not sure what happened and what was dreamed. When the lieutenant is through telling the ladies how his tale of revenge, he takes his leave and the waiter returns: no coffee. Not even any milk. All the tisanes have been consumed. Simone remembers an appointment, and leaves for an appointment. Don Rafael is waiting for her in his apartment, champagne at the ready. But Simone never gets any champagne, because Don Rafael wants to make love first, and then out of the blue Simone’s husband turns up. Everybody gets in everybody else’s way.

As I watched the film yesterday, I realized that it was the “bourgeoisie” in the title that got in the way of my understanding the movie. I certainly didn’t understand its significance in 1972. I thought that bourgeois was bourgeois, wherever you were, and that Buñuel was simply taking pot-shots at rich-y people. But it isn’t and he’s not. The bourgeoisie of Europe has long tended to ape the delegitimated but still very lively class of the nobility. But it cannot quite share the nobility’s devotion to the two institutions that the nobility still influences, the church and the military. Eventually, confrontations with these institutions will reveal the bourgeois as an outsider. The absurdities of Buñuel’s film reflect the failures of his bourgeois sextet to behave in truly aristocratic fashion. This is not to suggest that Buñuel admires the highest of the social castes. But he understands that aristocracy is something that you are born to. If it stamps you with bigotry, that bigotry is authentic. All that Don Rafael, the representative of a jumped-up extractive economy can do is to run a drug ring through his Louis XV office and paw unattractively at Simone. Henri and Alice have a gracious home, and they strike gracious poses in it, but nobody ever gets to eat a thing at at their table (except in nightmares), and Alice betrays her lack of the due consideration that a true lady would show when, in a small crisis, she forgets that her gardener is a bishop and orders him around like a servant. These people are fakes.

A deliberately enigmatic shot wrenches the six principles completely out of context and shows them walking along a flat road in flat country. It is repeated twice. In the body of the film, they never walk anywhere, and their cars even come equipped with drivers. But here they are, in the middle of nowhere, walking on a windy afternoon. They do not look comfortable but they do seem resolute. Sometimes, Simone is seen leading the band; at others, she is arm-in-arm with Alice. It doesn’t make any sense. But then neither does this bourgeoisie’s dream.

I went from Discreet Charm to Merci, Dr Rey! because of Bulle Ogier. She looks younger than she is in the Buñuel; in Dr Rey she looks her age, and she’s a great deal more fun. There must be an interesting back-story behind this movie, but I’ve never heard it. Andrew Litvack, according to IMDb, was part of the Merchant/Ivory team on several projects; in 2002, Merchant/Ivory backed his directorial début. Litvack also wrote the screenplay. The result is a consummate train-wreck, but the performances simply refuse to fade, and every now and then I have to watch Dianne Wiest play an opera diva who goes mad on hash brownies. I have to watch Jane Birkin practically swallow her lines in neurotic enthusiasm. I have to hear the phrase, “curb your narcissism.” And then there’s that staggering moment in which Vanessa Redgrave, playing herself, says that Jane Birkin’s character reminds her of the “ghastly” woman who dubs her movies in French — as indeed that character does. Redgrave is like a fairy-godmother descending on a troubled project to oblige the backers who produced and directed three of her best pictures. And not in vain, because, as I say, once you’ve seen it, you have to see it again. It’s too bad that Stanislas Merhar’s English is too heavily accented to make him plausible as the son of Wiest’s diva; and any attempt to explain the murder of Simon Callow’s character is bound to go nowhere, if only because it’s a real murder, involving a real death, and not a commedia dell’arte device. The snippets of Turandot that we get to see suggest a wicked travesty of all the misconceived re-conceptions of grand operas that have littered stages during the past forty years, but that doesn’t excuse calling the opera “Turandoe.” Lots of movies are called “zany,” but this one really is. In the event that you watch it and fall for it, too, I counsel caution in recommending it to friends.


Tuesday 20th

A no-comment comment on Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed piece today, “The Age of Distrust.” Okay, almost no-comment.


Politicians are going to have to work very hard to earn back the trust of the people. A serious issue exists with what Stephen Walt of Harvard University has called the “ruling elites in many liberal societies and especially the United States, where money and special interests have created a corrupt political class that is out-of-touch with ordinary people, interested mostly in enriching themselves, and immune to accountability.” This has to end.

(Note to self: who’s this Stephen Walt? Why doesn’t he write Op-Ed pieces?)


The answer is not to build walls. Western societies need to build education and innovation and opportunity. A time of great uncertainty is upon the world.

This is Élite Nostrum #1. Education, innovation and opportunity are great for those who can make use of them. But many people cannot. Many people whose jobs have been taken over by computers have been permanently replaced — in current economic terms. So long as we stick to those terms, these folks are out of luck.


Technology has prized the world open. Nobody — not Vladimir Putin, not Xi Jinping, not Trump — can shatter that interconnectedness.

This is nonsense. The idea that global interconnectedness is here to stay is both myopic and ignorant. Myopic: history is littered with the ruins of “irreversible” arrangements. Ignorant: shutting down the Internet is not impossible. And if you can shut down the Internet (by pulling a lot of plugs), then you can shut down connections between here and over the hill, much less global ones.

But the worst of it all is that we élites are just standing here talking amongst ourselves. We have no reliable way of piercing the bubble in which we have coddled ourselves. And the people outside the bubble: they can see us now; they have our number. They’ve taken a hostage: Trump.


The three French films that I regard as a trilogy, Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi are linked by strong similarities that are made even stronger by interesting differences in the ways that the similarities are deployed. Each film involves a heist, as well as the relatively cool-headed thieves who commit heists. One of the heists never gets off the ground, which in an important way constitutes something like the success enjoyed by the other two. All three heists are treated as engineering problems, of secondary interest. Only one occurs on screen, in Rififi, and it poses only one serious problem to the thieves. This is no Ocean movie, with hurdle after hurdle to surmount. Once the alarm at a jewelry boutique has been silenced, the thieves are pretty much in and out. In Touchez pas au grisbi, the heist has occurred before the movie begins, and nobody even suspects the actual thieves.

In all three movies, the thieves are undone by women. At least one member of each gang blabs to his girlfriend about the heist. (In Rififi, this blabbing is not verbal, but worse: the safe-cracker slips an ostentatious ring on a nightclub-singer’s finger.) Again, the variation in Bob le Flambeur is interesting: word about the intended heist gets back to the police, and the chief officer, who takes an interest in Bob and wants to keep him out of prison, intervenes in such a way that Bob may walk. (“With a really top lawyer,” says Bob in the greatest of last lines, “I may sue for damages!”) Bob has been distracted from the heist by a run of very good, and very honest, luck at the Deauville Casino; as he is arrested, page boys are stuffing his wads of winnings into the boot of the police car. Things do not work out so well in Rififi, in which almost everyone, the thieves and their rivals alike, falls on his own finesse. The end of Touchez pas au grisbi is slightly enigmatic: the gold that was stolen before the credits rolled has been retrieved by the authorities, and Max (Jean Gabin), although polished and dandy as ever, won’t have that nest egg to fall back on. But others have been blamed for the heist, and he does have the comforts of Betty, the rich American girl who seems to be in love with him, to fall back on. I must note here that it was not Max, but his partner Riton, who couldn’t keep his good fortune to himself.

Bob le Flambeur is the most amiable of the three films; there is not a lot of violence. The actor Roger Duchesne carries his film much more than his counterparts, Jean Servais (Rififi) and even Jean Gabin, carry theirs. His Bob is always presentable, if not as impeccably groomed as Jean Gabin’s Max, and, as befits a true gambler, always up for something new. Max’s posture is essentially defensive; he’s trying to hold on to what he has. Servais’s Tony le Stéphanois is the odd man out here: he is obviously not in good health, and he seems to join in the plot because he can’t think of a more interesting way to die. As if to prove the point, he finally steps forward at the end and claims the hero’s role. There is nothing in the other two pictures that approaches the desperate resolve of Tony’s drive back to Paris, with his three year-old godson jumping back and forth in the convertible, having the time of his life, unaware that his father is dead and that his mortally wounded godfather may die at any moment and drive the car into a tree. Having carried the boy out of the muck of gang warfare, Tony expires. You have to see this movie just for its ending.

There is a great shoot-out scene in Touchez pas au grisbi that highlights its difference from Rififi. I was very surprised when I saw it the first time, because I didn’t think that the French had the resources for an action scene in 1954; made by Hollywood, the scene would be better lit, but it could not improve on the camera work. It’s an intricate scene, involving three cars in the middle of a country night. But whereas the violence in Rififi is bleak and totally film noir, the shoot-out in Touchez pas au grisbi is a tournament, staged for our delectation. Since this is a story about criminals, the scene must end with a joke: Max’s ingots, which he fully intended to retrieve from his enemy’s car, are barred from him by the flames engulfing the vehicle. In Bob le Flambeur, of course, the joke is Bob’s legitimate piles of banknotes. I chuckle at the comparison.

All three films feature nightclubs — nightclubs on Montmartre, near the Place Pigalle. Unlike Hollywood nightclubs, these boîtes seem real, or at least patterned on genuine operations. They are not too big, for one thing; for another, we are taken backstage in at least two of them. Touchez pas au grisbi even has a floor show: a choreographed catwalk of pretty girls who will be available for one-on-one dancing later in the evening. (And yet the idea of unseemly behavior between men and women at the club seems refreshingly inconceivable.)

Finally, all three films have somewhat uncertain soundtracks. Georges Auric’s score for Rififi is too self-important, and moments of high tension are blessedly silent. Two men are credited with the score for Bob le Flambeur, and that may explain the often rather silly musical accompaniment. The prolific Jean Wiener provides Touchez pas au grisbi with a haunting harmonica melody that suggests a plausible cowboy link, but his music for the floor show has the art-déco sheen that characterizes, in even more stylized form, some of the orchestral music of Poulenc.


Then I watched Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. On a line between Bob le Flambeur, the latest of my trilogy films and also the most “independent,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout du souffle (Breathless), Louis Malle’s first feature film lies more than halfway to the nouvelle vague. Paris itself is different: it is smarter, more up-to-date — and more alienating. A very great deal of the action takes place either in an elevator (in a square, glass-faced building with all the mod cons), at a futuristic motel outside Paris, or on the highway in between. Cars are even more conspicuously American — or, in one case, a German Mercedes sportscar. The only old-fashioned scenes feature Jeanne Moreau, who, by the way, was the moll to whom Riton boasted about his heist, in Touchez pas au grisbi. Four years separate that movie from Malle’s, but Malle as well as time must be responsible for the transformation of a very capable and eye-catching actress into the bombshell that Moreau has remained ever since. As Florence Carala, Moreau walks the streets in search of her lover, unaware that he is trapped in an elevator but convinced that she saw him driving away with a girl in his car. (The driver was in fact the girl’s punk boyfriend.) Tthe lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), caged in the elevator, does not have a lot to say, but Florence does, both in speaking imperiously to other people — she is the wife of her lover’s boss, whom she has put her lover up to killing — and muttering desperately, blankly to herself. And yet if Florence’s background is the Paris of the boulevards, her soundtrack is the music of Miles Davis, famously improvised while the picture was projected for his band. Florence’s love is both deep and wrong, and it makes Moreau the star of the film, something unimaginable in the masculine worlds of Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi. Florence is even more fatal than the women in those pictures, and her pre-eminence is back-handedly attested by the the commissaire who arrests her at the end (Lino Ventura, also in Touchez pas au grisbi, where he plays Angelo, the principal bad guy). The policeman surmises that the lover will get off with ten years, but that the jury will put the bad wife behind bars for twice that.

The story of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is staggeringly claustrophobic, and not just because of the elevator. The two sets of lovers — the ultra serious Julien and Florence, the joyriding Louis and Véroniqueare trapped in very small spaces: quite literally, their guilt is established by the strip of film in a microcamera. But as a movie, Ascenseur a l’échafaud is open-ended. It is shot as though really anything could happen next. In a world with electric pencil-sharpeners, the old conventions become unreliable. You can’t be sure, as you almost always can be in the earlier movies, of how long any scene will last. The fact that the principal characters don’t know what’s going on, which chains them, is transmuted into freedom for the viewer, who does. Florence wanders about unseeing, obsessed by the possibility that she has lost Julien, but we see a woman who doesn’t seem to have a plan, who does not so much make the rounds of places where she used to meet Julien as happen upon them. When she is told that Julien has not been heard of at a given bar or restaurant, she does not stick around, but wanders off again. Eventually, she is rounded up by the police in some sort of vice sting, from which, still the respectable industrialist’s wife, she is easily liberated by the very commissaire who will later arrest her. It is ever so faintly absurd. The earlier movies could be heavily ironic, but absurd, never.


So much for crime. As I say, I went on to the two very different movies that I wrote about yesterday; and then, last night, I watched a third, which somehow seemed to belong: Danièle Thompson’s Fauteuils d’orchestra (Avenue Montaigne). If Merci, Dr Rey! is a train-wreck, Avenue Montaigne is a fairy-tale, implausible in not dozens of ways but only one: a vast compression of time and space. Avenue Montaigne is Groundhog Day without the reiterations. Everything goes right the first time. And the backdrop is almost too luxurious, too sophisticated to sparkle à la mode Disney. All the sets are real! Well, the big ones: the two theatres of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées and the auction house Drouot-Montaigne. I hate to say “cinematic feast,” but that’s exactly what this movie is.

Cécile de France plays Jessica, a spirited girl from Mâcon who arrives in Paris without prospects but who lands a rich fiancé in two days. She spends the first night in a rehearsal studio at the Théâtre and the second in bed with Fred (Christopher Thompson), the only son of a prominent shipper who is liquidating his art collection. The bed is in the showroom with the art. Both nests are handy to Jessica’s job, at the Bar des Théâtres, where women have never been employed before but where an exception is made for her. Dreams come true on a more exalted level when famous director Brian Sobinsky (Sydney Pollack, a famous director) finds that he cannot make his movie about Sartre and Beauvoir without the help of Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier), the star of a French soap opera who wants to break into more important work. Sobinsky makes this discovery literally overnight. And why not? Hasn’t Catherine had the wit to bend her performance in a Feydeau farce to pique him? (Hilariously, when her character takes of her hat, her wig comes off with it, revealing the coiffure for which Beauvoir was noted: an onstage screen test.) In a third strand, a concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) finds release from the straitjacket of concertizing by interrupting the finale of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto and stripping down to his T-shirt. (The music world appears to have followed the pianist’s lead, as orchestras have dressed ever more casually.) Meanwhile, the singer-actress Dani putzes around on the eve of her retirement as a placeuse at the Théâtre, her earbuds binding her to the pop glories of the past. She takes them off, though, to soak up the raptures of the Emperor‘s slow movement.

Avenue Montaigne is the perfect feel-good movie: you couldn’t feel any better, and if it lasted a second longer it would kill you.


Thursday 22nd

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is not a particularly interesting movie to watch, but it must be watched, because so much of the action is silent. The climax — well, I thought that’s what it was — is silent. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) crouches in the attic loft of her home in Norfolk, England, as she watches a slide show. There is nothing spooky or disturbing about the attic. It’s the attic of any long-married couple, stuffed with stuff. But Kate’s husband has been spending time in it lately, and although Kate knows why, there is room for a small shock. Does Kate gasp or groan? I can’t remember which. In short, 45 Years shows us how domesticated the alienating cinematic techniques of Bergman and the new wave directors have become. We’re right at home with them. Color, far from adding interest, merely deprives us of a black-and-white frisson.

Tom Courtenay, moreover, plays Jeff Mercer, the attic-haunting husband, as if he were not acting at all, but as if 45 Years were a documentary, and he were in fact a retired bloke who hates to shave. I found him unsympathetic and uninteresting, whereas Charlotte Rampling, weathered though she is, is still very much an actress of coiled and deadly possibilities. There was no mistaking her for an anonymous old dear. This lack of accord between dramatic registers — whether Rampling is “acting” more or less than Courtenay, the two of them are not acting in quite the same way — might be a fault, but in fact it is the point. When the movie begins, Jeff receives a letter informing him that a body has been found — the body of his long-ago girlfriend, who fell into an Alpine glacier and whose body has only just surfaced in melted snow. Katia’s accidental death occurred years before Jeff met Kate, but Jeff’s attachment is no more buried than the girl’s body. In a typically domestic instance of bad timing, the news comes days before Jeff and Kate are to celebrate their forty-fifth anniversary at a large party with all their friends.

Jeff told Kate about Katia way back when, but he must have kept the story light, because the wash of his intense bemusement comes as a very unpleasant surprise to her. As he recedes from her, she tries to hold on to him. Instead of giving him space in which to mourn, she bridles at the unearthed rivalry with Katia. She takes it hard that Jeff and Katia were pretending to be man and wife when they hiked through Switzerland; she takes it even harder that Jeff would have married Katia had she not died. It has evidently never crossed Kate’s mind that she is not first in her husband’s heart, and to learn that she might never even have become second, if that’s what she is, stops her breath. She lashes out with the absurd claim, hotly reasonable to her in the moment, that Katia has governed all of Jeff’s decisions ever since. She wails that Katia has taken away everything that she and Jeff have together. In her most foolish move, Kate tells Jeff to open his eyes when they are making love, and he goes soft inside her. “That’s okay,” she whispers, as if she didn’t know anything about men.

After a few days of odd behavior, Jeff seems to regain his balance. He will not go to Switzerland to view the body. Perhaps he will discard the souvenirs of his time with Katia. But the fever has jumped to Kate. How long will it take her to decide whether she is celebrating forty-five years of marriage, or forty-five years of living with a man going through the motions? The movie ends by leaving that question conspicuously unanswered.

That’s one way of looking at 45 Years. It was, I suppose, the one that was easiest to write down. It’s not untrue, but it is incomplete. It’s too focused on the extraordinary suitability of Charlotte Rampling for the part of Kate; she is still beautiful enough to command an exalted self-assurance, and still as impatiently angry as she was in Georgy Girl. Everything is muted, of course, but it is all there. Stepping back from this focus, I can regain the ambivalence that I felt before I began to write. My initial impression, formed as the movie rolled, was that Jeff allows the news about Katia to puff him up to tragic dimensions. He makes a decidedly masculine fuss over substantially healed wounds; reminded of old suffering, he bravely suffers anew. When I began to wonder if those wounds had indeed ever healed, I thought even less of Jeff; he became exactly what Kate comes to fear he might be, a two-timing monster enjoying the best setup ever, with a long-lost adored one for whom he maintains a chapel of memories, and a foxy wife to entertain him in this vale of tears. The brute!

What can be said uncontroversially is that 45 Years shows us the fragility of a marriage of two people who are young at heart. Hats off to Andrew Haigh.


Friday 23rd

The sense of an ending is very strong. When I return from San Francisco at the end of next week, the top job will be to construct a workable schedule around revising the first draft of the Writing Project, finding an exercise program, and doing a better job of keeping house. It will be much more like normal person’s life than what I’ve been living for some time, and I mean to throw myself into it. I will be able to spend much less time here; more to the point, I won’t begin my days, as I’ve been doing for years now, by drifting into the book room, after I’ve read the Times, and sitting down at the computer to see what comes out. During the past year, I’ve written longer and still longer entries, getting up from the desk at two in the afternoon or so and wanting only to go back to bed — although I have not done that even once, unless ill. It has been the work of a booster rocket, propelling me from one state of ignorance to another, far more articulate one. Now it falls away, no longer necessary. The difficulty is that I don’t regard it as necessary; it has become a pleasure that I shall have to do with less of.

An example of poor housekeeping arose this morning in the form of a prescription renewal. I had to pick up a Lunesta prescription at the doctor’s office and take it to the pharmacy. There wasn’t time (before next week’s trip) for the scrip to be mailed, and, besides, I’d put off renewal until my stock was very low. Worse, I’d failed to notice that there were no renewals. The doctor’s office was swamped, and I had to wait for a few minutes to get the envelope for the pharmacy; I had to wait ten minutes at the pharmacy, too. The waiting didn’t bother me as such; I had Middlemarch with me, and even now I am dying to get back to it to learn about Peter Featherstone’s testamentary dispositions. But waiting is rarely just waiting. It is always a sign to me that things are not working well, or that, even if they are working well, they might at any moment be disrupted, just as the cable connection to the Internet was interrupted this morning. The interruption was brief, and I might never have noticed it. Indeed, I wish that I hadn’t noticed it, because it made me uneasy. Uneasiness is a feedback loop that I have to do my best to stay out of. There was nothing to be done about the cable outage, but I might have managed the prescription renewal better. Figuring how to do that is one of things that I have to see to when I get back.

It’s hard to tell when, exactly, I began publishing a Web site. I believe that it was in 2000, but it might have been the following year. By the end of 2004, I had a Web log, which is still out there, although I haven’t updated it in a few years. The Web site is still up, too, as is its embarrassing, unfinished — almost unbegun — successor. The beginning of this Web log is easy to remember, because it was designed in response to the new iPad. I had bought two, one of them for my grandson, who was about three months older than the tablet. (He will be seven in just a few months.) It seems that I’ve been here longer. What I ought to do is to tidy up all those other sites, but that’s tedious, lowering work, even worse than going through old photographs. The joys of old age. Don’t worry; I won’t be giving up on this — even if I myself no longer own an iPad. I’ll only be cutting back. I do need to get out more.

I plan to post the next entry on 3 October.


Can I say a word about Zazie dans le Métro, Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s novel? Someone called Jonathan Rosenbaum is quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page as saying that it is Malle’s “best work,” but I suspect from the rest of the quote that Rosenbaum doesn’t think much of Malle overall, if only because he adds that Zazie is “certainly worth a look.” That’s not very enthusiastic, is it? My favorite Malle has always been Atlantic City, a supremely lucid film behind which real people stumble, but for a long time it was the only Malle I knew. I have always known the name of Zazie dans le Métro; who, having heard it, could forget it? But it was said to be absurd, so I stayed away. The attempt to make art out of absurdity usually produces a residue of cruelty.

The absurdity in Zazie is to a great extent nostalgic. Malle wants to enjoy the silliness of the original movies, which weren’t silly at the time but came to seem so as the medium grew more sophisticated. There is a great deal of overt longing for la belle époque, the “gay Nineties” and the early years of the new century. But there is also a very contemporary contempt for “story.” The characters who are invested in order and continuity, Mme Mouaque (Yvonne Clech) and Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), are the victims of many pratfalls, while Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) has an altogether fluid identity, even if we never actually see him in the dress that he is said to wear as an entertainer. There is a guitar-smashing intoxication with destruction for its own sake, as when the bistro is torn apart near the end. There is contempt for tourism, exemplified both by the bus full of gargoyles and the insolence about monuments — they never do get St Sulpice right. And of course the Métro is on strike, so that Paris is unattractively choked with cars.

Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) herself is adorable, I suppose. I didn’t come to hate her, as I often do children in the movies. (Those kids in Jurassic Park — how I wanted the juice to reach the fence in time to fry them!) She grew on me, as did the movie. But if I never see her or it again, I don’t think I’ll regret it. I am not a fan of improvisational film. It’s one thing for an instrumentalist to weave spontaneous variations on a theme and to wander through the scales to see what happens, but film is far too cumbersome a medium to travel so lightly, and it is arguably a physiological distinction between how hearing and seeing are set up that we are less tolerant of visual racket. Right at the start, when Zazie’s mother’s boyfriend is lifting and turning her like a mad danseur, I asked myself why this constant twirling couldn’t be allowed to stop, what made twenty revolutions better than five? Whether or not Malle disciplined himself in the making of Zazie dans le Métro, the result looks extremely undisciplined, as if to say, or shout, Je m’en fiche de la discipline! It was a common feeling in those days, but I think we learned that discipline becomes burdensome only when it ceases to serve our humanity; it is we who are at fault, not the idea of discipline.

Maybe that’s why the most precious moment for me was the pang of watching Zazie sleep through her one Métro ride. I was sorry that she was missing the experience that she longed for, but I was happier that she was finally asleep, the poor thing.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fail Better Still
September 2016 (II)

Monday, September 12th, 2016

12, 13, 15 and 16 September

Monday 12th

The disgrace is almost asphyxiating. It seems that a number of networks and cable channels are vying for ratings by celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsay, the publicity of which was grotesque when the news was fresh. The little girl’s world of precocious beauty pageants was grotesque in itself (it was quite beautifully satirized in Little Miss Sunshine), but the media hugely amplified the lubricious element, tantalizing onlookers with the possibility that a sex crime might be involved. What kind of people are we?

That wasn’t how I intended to begin this entry, and it has nothing to do with what follows, except perhaps this: I want to ask you to use your imagination as intensely as you can, but I sense that the American imagination — the imagination of the liberal West, actually — has been so degraded by disgusting spectacles that it cannot be expected to respond to questions that lack a salacious charge. That means, I know, that I’m worrying about whether you’re up to my challenge, and I apologize for that, because I don’t really doubt that you are. It’s just that the sludge of recycled brainlessness gets so thick sometimes that it’s hard to stand up in it.

Over the weekend, I finally read Stuart Firestein’s Failure. I have had the book since it came out, earlier this year, but the right moment for reading it never seemed to come round. But then it did, and I swallowed it whole. To tell the truth, I couldn’t read two pages altogether without pausing for a revival-service affirmation; quite unlike even the most congenial reading matter, Failure often provoked moments of ecstatic clarity. I am not going to talk about it right now; its aftermath remains turbulent. I am going to talk about a tangent that it sent me off on.

I could label this tangent with the deadly term, “phlogiston theory,” but I’d rather not, even though that theory will play an important role in my challenge. The challenge began as one to myself: despite reading Herbert Butterfield’s chapter on the subject in The Origins of Modern Science three times, I could not explain “phlogiston theory” in a nutshell. For those of you who are unfamiliar with phlogiston theory, I will say at the outset that it was always, by our lights, completely wrong, so that it is difficult now, knowing what we educated people know, to imagine how anyone could ever have subscribed to it. That is one part of the difficulty. The other is the overthrow of the phlogiston theory. This is difficult to imagine, too, and for much the same reasons, but it occurred in stages, as discoveries were made by men who nonetheless failed to grasp the implications of their findings for the reigning theory. Although I was able to follow Butterfield’s narrative, I could not seem to hold it in my mind. So I resolved to read the chapter once again, and this time get to the bottom of my imaginative problems.

At the risk of fatuity, I will joke that the difficulty is elementary. What you have to do, before trying to understand phlogiston theory and the huge importance of its overthrow, is to see the world as every educated mind did circa 1600. It was still a world composed of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. By 1800, as a result of the overthrow of phlogiston theory, belief in the old four elements was impossible; new elements, the ones that we are familiar with, had begun to take their place.

All four elements were involved in phlogiston theory and its overthrow, but earth not so much. The element of fire was no longer regarded as the flame itself but rather as a substance — this is the earthy part — contained in all combustible materials that was released, as Butterfield puts it, “in the flutter of flame.” Somebody proposed that this substance was an oily kind of earth, and called it terra pinguis. Somebody else saw the need to go Greek: phlogiston means, roughly, “imflammable.” Phlogiston was this inflammable substance that, although it could not be isolated, inhered in combustible things and was released by combustion. It was the element of fire, somehow — while also, somehow, an earthy substance.

This inconsistency might seem damning to you, an indication that even scientists in the Seventeenth Century weren’t very bright. But that’s why I want you to exercise your imagination. I want you to imagine what how the world could be explained if you believed that both air and water were elements, irreducible substances. Next, I want you to imagine what it would be like to try to solve the problems raised by this elementary status, given the interesting twist that air and water are not elements in different ways. Water is a compound of elements. Air is but a mixture.

Water is created by the explosion of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, as I suppose many of you were reminded by The Martian. In this compounded form, oxygen is no longer available for breathing, even by fish. Fish breathe pure oxygen that has been dissolved in water; their gills extract it. Land animals don’t need gills because atmospheric oxygen is not compounded, but free alongside the other elementary gases (mostly nitrogen) that consistute “air.” What you learn in the course of demythologising water, in short, is not going to help you to demythologise air, and vice versa. Worse, air and its constituent gases are invisible. Worse still, you have to have reason to believe that the elementary status of air and water are myths in the first place.

The virtue of imaginary phlogiston was that it offered a relatively simple explanation for a common phenomenon, couched in terminology rooted in the doctrine of the four elements, that had the effect of organizing what might have been unrelated developments in scientific inquiry. Cavendish, Black and Priestly all made discoveries that were crucial to the overthrow of phlogiston theory, but their belief in the theory persisted nonetheless. Cavendish, for example, concluded that “common air” was four parts of phlogisticated air — a compound, as it were, of air and phlogiston released by combustion, and not to be confused — then! — with something called “fixed air,” or what we know as carbon dioxide — and one part of dephlogisticated air. Cavendish had the right idea, but the wrong terminology. His phlogisticated air turned out to be elementary nitrogen, which is not the product of combustion. It was Lavoisier who gathered together everyone’s findings, for the purpose of debunking phlogiston theory.

Why did Lavoisier want to do this? Because phlogiston theory was failing to make sense in the light of replicable discoveries. Oxygen and hydrogen were isolated (if not understood), but phlogiston never was. In order to account for mounting discrepancies between fact and theory, scientists did what they always do: they patched. They claimed that phlogiston worked differently in exceptional circumstances. Phlogiston theory explained x, except when it didn’t. Sixty or seventy years after its formulation, the theory was in tatters, but most scientists continued to work under its banner. Lavoisier, the rich, elegant tax farmer, resolved to give the theory the boot. What I ought to have said was that it was the overthrow of phlogiston theory that required the organization of widespread experimental findings. These were coming so fast and free at the time that it is not possible to say with much finality who discovered what, and Lavoisier discredited his own great work by claiming credit that was not his due — he was a synthesizer, not a discoverer. But the result was that the battle against phlogiston produced modern chemistry.

I believe that “the invisible hand,” which has come to mean something that Adam Smith didn’t quite have in mind, is the phlogiston of today. If I were a trained economist, and half my age, I should devote my life to attempting to repeat Lavoisier’s success.

But wait: did I just say “success”? Was Lavoisier’s overthrow of phlogiston theory a success? Stuart Firestein doesn’t say much about success in Failure, but I think that he makes an implicit case against its usefulness, and perhaps even against its existence. Success may be just as bogus as the four elements. I’ll come back to this tomorrow.


Tuesday 13th

What is success? Let’s not bother with that question. Everybody knows what success is. The better question is, can success (or its negative, failure) inhere in the character of a human being? Is it reasonable to speak of successful people?

One of the old Greeks — Solon, perhaps? — counseled against regarding anyone as a success until he died. Then you could draw the line under his achievements and shortcomings and make a permanent calculation. This sounds very prudent — don’t count your chickens, &c — but it is actually short-sighted, because it assumes that success is an immediately post-mortem assessment. It overlooks the possibility that the next generation, or the generation after that, may revisit the dead man’s life, and come to a conclusion that differs from the one reached by his survivors. Modern history involves constant re-evaluation. Jeremy Bentham’s corporeal remains may be (more or less) permanently preserved, as an “auto-icon,” at University College London, but his reputation is no less fluid than anyone else’s.

We all love two kinds of stories about success. The first one is about the outwardly successful person who is inwardly miserable — or who ought to be. The second story is about the person who touches the lives of everyone who knows her — this sort of successful person is a bit more likely to be a woman — with love and inspiration, but whose success as a human being goes unsung, because it is too local and complicated. The stories of Dorian Gray and Dorothea Brooke suggest that success does not really attach itself to people. If anything, it flows away from them, either turning to dust in the hand or spreading generously among truly loved ones. Not a few fairy tales insist that true success lies in letting it go.

This is all very high-minded; what about good old-fashioned money, pots of money? Isn’t the man who has lots of money, who has earned it, one lawful way or another, a success? There are plenty of people who think so. I would bet, though, that many such successful men and women would, upon the application of some gentle pressure, admit that their success is really a matter of controlling that money, of knowing what to do with it. The man with a gazillion dollars in the bank who spends his life sipping umbrella cocktails in a hammock is not likely to inspire the admiration that success deserves. Letting money sit in a vault is just another way of losing it — everybody knows that.


Kathleen, my wife, is very skeptical about success. “I’m supposed to be a success,” she sighs. And she is supposed to be a success; she wouldn’t have been profiled by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year if she weren’t. “But it’s really just one thing after another. You go on to the next thing.” Sometimes, Kathleen forgets how bored she would be if she didn’t have the next thing to go on to, but talk about success does invite dreams of hammocks. If successful people have to go on to the next thing, just like people who aren’t successful, then what difference does it make? The difference, I point out, is that Kathleen, as a success — or, as I prefer to put it, as someone associated with success — is engaged to go on to the very small number of possible next things that will continue her success, or her association with success. The person who fails must try something altogether different. Movie stars keep having to prove their stardom, in film after film. That happens to be the proof of their stardom. Actors who don’t establish stardom quickly aren’t permitted to make a second or a third bid.

Success is never attained, never achieved. A very good thing, too, say I, mindful of the French meaning of s’achever — to be achieved. It is said of those whose lives are over.

What Stuart Firestein appears to be arguing in Failure is that we diminish the bounty of success by trying too hard to avoid failure. It is easy to see why failure is avoided, at least in the world of scientific investigation that is his métier. Science is expensive. Laboratories require recurrent infusions of grant money, and grant money is not awarded to scientists who openly plan to design experiments that will fail. His nutshell advice is to reform the grant-award process so that decisions are made by other scientists, not necessarily in a related field, who look for proposals that are interesting and credible, rather than by administrators with a check-list of predictors of success. Firestein critiques the vogue for citing Beckett’s line, “Fail better.” Beckett is not cleverly suggesting that there is a way to fail that is tantamount to success. “Failing better,” Firestein writes, “meant leaving the circle of what he knows. Failing better meant discovering his ignorance, where his mysteries still reside.”

It is this unordinary meaning of failure that I suggest scientists should embrace. One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious, beyond what you know and beyond what you know how to do. Failing better happens when we ask questions, when we doubt results, when we allow ourselves to be immersed in uncertainty. (27)

“Too often you fail until you succeed,” he continues, “and then you are expected to stop failing.” He might have added that this comes to the same thing as being expected to play dead.


Scientific failures are expensive in money; properly conducted — as clinical trials sometimes manage not to be — they are not expensive in health or happiness. It is different in most other fields. We all can learn from our mistakes, but mistakes made by engineers or central bankers or by judges can be costly in very undesirable ways. I read somewhere that the passengers who died in the early days of commercial aviation ought to be regarded as heroes for having contributed, so to speak, to the database that has made flying much safer than driving. Maybe so, but I’m not inclined to encourage experiments that kill people. (It might have been better, if such human sacrifice were going to be sanctioned, for them to offer themselves up to medical experimentation.) The moral of the aviation story as I see it is that there ought to have been more funding. And for my part, I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been made sick by my cooking.

But science at Firestein’s level is a branch of intellectual history — the proudest growth in the Western world. It not only costs nothing but money but also requires failure to grow. One of the reasons for Firestein’s advocating the publication (on a low-cost Web site) of failed experiments is that other people’s failures may very well inspire your success. He urges his students to consider failed experiments that have been reported in Science — fifteen or twenty years ago, when the technological resources were vastly more constrained. Failure, like success, can be reconsidered later. Revisited failures may be transformed into successes. But first you have to have the failures.


By a stroke of luck, I read a story by William Trevor yesterday that couldn’t be more on point. It’s called “Traditions.” It is set at an English public school. A group of boys have been capturing jackdaws and teaching them to speak (sort of) in a barn that is strictly off-limits. One morning, the boys discover that the birds’ necks have been broken. All but one of the boys suspects another student of committing this atrocity. The exception, a boy called Olivier, has another idea, one that he keeps to himself. It so happens that Olivier is in hot water with the headmaster, because he is doing poorly in his science classes — classes that he elected to take. Olivier offers to drop the science course, but this makes the headmaster even angrier: you don’t quit. If you sign up for science courses, you commit to doing well at them. You don’t fail, whether by doing poorly or quitting; you succeed, because success is a tradition at this school. The headmaster is incapable of grasping that Olivier has already succeeded in his science classes. He was curious about things, and so he learned about them. He could not be bothered with boring laboratory procedures. This unorthodox cast of mind is what has alerted Olivier to the identity of the culprit in the jackdaw case — and in other unsolved mysteries at the school.

Many a time in school, especially in college, did I drive teachers mad by seeming to play the dilettante, by taking what I needed from a course and flunking the rest. Even I was not particularly at ease about this habit, but there was no changing it. My curriculum was dictated by an inner voice that overrode official criteria. No doubt that inner voice required a seven year spell in the desert before confronting the requirements of law school, to which it deferred. I should not recommend Stuart Firestein to take on Oliviers as grad students, but I think that he would agree with me that we need to open up undergraduate education to more freewheeling minds, especially if the direction those to which those minds tend is toward the heart of the traditions, and not away from them. No matter how firmly I insisted on the relevance of coursework to my self-directed inquiries, I was the last to argue that “relevance” ought to shape the curriculum. I’m certainly not saying that colleges ought to be overhauled for the likes of me. But there ought to be more room for failing better.


Thursday 15th

Last night, Kathleen brought home two sets of print-outs of the proofed first draft of the writing project. 187 pages, 83 thousand words. A good beginning, I think — but also an uncomfortable ending, as this first stage of the work comes to a halt. For weeks, it was the center of my everyday life, even on the three days each week when I did not write. It felt “organized,” whatever that means in this context, from the start, and it quickly established its own rhythm. There were other things to worry about, but they were unusually easy to overlook, as I focused on the project. Now all of that is over.

Kathleen will read the first draft on a flight to California on Sunday; whether she finishes by touchdown (she probably will), the point is that she won’t be reading it here, with me hovering in the background. The timing of her business trip to Dana Point could not be more providential. It gives a term to the fallow period that must in any case, I think, follow the long burst of thinking and writing and (in proofing) thinking further that produced the draft. I have to set the whole thing aside for a few days — not that’s entirely possible; I’m already thinking very hard about enlarging the shortest section — but, thanks to Kathleen’s trip, I don’t have to wonder when it will be time to get going again. Coming all at once, her comments will change everything.

For I have been very careful to make sure that, when Kathleen does read the first draft, it will be fresh. I have resisted the impulse to read her the great little bits that seem so striking when they’re new but that, with time, settle into their texts. (If they don’t, it’s a problem.) I did, fairly early on, read three paragraphs from the second section that I thought were very funny. Kathleen thought they were funny, too, but my reading was interrupted by trying to make sense of typos and to fill in missing words. I decided not to repeat the performance. So I have shared what I have written with no one. I have not even described it to anyone but Kathleen. I have waited until it can be read as a coherent whole, a text that, while not perfect by any means, is fluent and comprehensible.

It occurs to me that this would be a good time to take a holiday here, as well. We still plan to spend the last week of the month in San Francisco, so I shall be silent then certainly. But I may begin tapering off before then. While Kathleen is away, I may set up the card table in the foyer and pile it with all of the extraneous stuff — in bags, in piles, and in desk drawers — that hasn’t found its place in this small book room. It seems that I’m the only person who ever walks in here freely; Kathleen won’t enter unless asked, and no one even comes to the “back half” of the apartment except to use the bathroom. I’ve taken advantage of this atmospheric privacy to make up for the absence of adequate closet space (the apartment’s one real drawback), but the joke is that that the only person who’s bothered by the bags and the piles is me. To me, they’re very noisy. They’re also in the way of the bookcases. Getting rid of them (how?) would not be a fun pastime, but this might be the time to have a go at it.

It seems to me, and to everyone that I know, that the United States is on the precipice of a national disaster. Every day, it appears just a little more possible that Donald Trump will win the presidential election in November. Why? Because he is the “honest” candidate. Charged with a wide array of failings, some of them arguably criminal, he simply shrugs, as if to tell his supporters, “If you don’t care, I don’t care.” And of course they don’t care. But what’s awful is that this comes across as candor, and candor appeals to many voters, not just to his supporters, as the key virtue, because it has come to be seen as the virtue so lacking in Hillary Clinton’s makeup. Don’t look now, but Hillary Clinton has foot-in-mouth disease; everything that she says, including “and” and “the,” sounds like a prevarication. She ought to stop touting her abilities and simply throw herself on the voters as —

As what? As a non-reality-TV-star? This is where Trump’s kind of candor highlights Clinton as the worst possible opponent — from her standpoint. She has only two ways of challenging him. Presenting herself as a capable politician and administrator plays into his hands; most people don’t really care about politics and administration right now. And to respond to Trump’s disparagements in kind is always going to be a losing battle. She’s a woman in an America that still wants to think of itself as a white Christianist homeland, and that is quick to take offense at language such as “basket of deplorables.” There is no good reason to regard Clinton’s remark as a gaffe, but the mere fact that it was questioned shows how sick the country’s political culture really is. Had Dwight Eisenhower said it, he would have been applauded.

In the end, it’s a contest between someone who wants to lead a gang and someone who doesn’t understand leadership, not with the visceral capability of Lincoln or FDR. Ordinarily, this would not be a great failing; in naming two presidents for comparison, I have not named most of them. But there is nothing ordinary about Donald Trump. Wanting to lead a gang isn’t “leadership” either, but it looks like it now, when appearances are all that matter.

Reagan, Bush, and now Trump: it’s impossible not to see an arc of mutation, as telegenic shams replace warty professionals in the top job. I’d really have to include Bill Clinton in this arc, too: he won because he was better at flim-flam than Bush’s father was. President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters by replacing the hope of his campaign with the rigor of fighting a recalcitrant Congress. How wonderful it would have been, had Hillary won in 2008, so that her vice president, Barack Obama, could battle Donald Trump now. Mind you, we’re talking only about campaigns here. But campaigns have been devouring administrations for forty years or more, as television’s broadcasting standards have become ever more dementedly sensational. I don’t know when I began to suspect that television might be more than just a terrible waste of time, that it might actually kill liberal democracy. But if Donald Trump wins in November, we’ll have had proof of its capacity to deal possibly mortal blows.


Friday 16th

While I was working on the first draft of the writing project, I was protected from chill winds and swampy miasmas. Bad news didn’t really get to me. Now, it’s different. Now, I’m overwhelmed by the awfulness of social failures. David Denby, in the London Review of Books, writes about the videos of white police shooting black men without objective reasonable provocation, and then treating the dead or wounded body as if it were still resisting arrest — handcuffing it, just to be on the safe side! James Surowiecki, in The New Yorker, explains why: police unions depend upon crime committed by black Americans to justify their budget demands and their refusal to reform police procedures. Is there a way out of this? Yes, according to Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root and a native of Forsyth County, Georgia, from which, in 1912, the black population was driven away by every kind of force. That’s one solution.

And then there are two reviews of The Girls, Emma Cline’s adaptation of the Manson Family murders, one in the LRB, one in the New York Review of Books. Both reviewers, like the author, are American. Both say much the same thing about the novel. But novelist Diane Johnson is far more enthusiastic than Emily Witt. Johnson complains, at the end of her piece, that the literature of California is “the Canada of American regionalism.” Witt gives a demonstration of this treatment by collapsing Cline into Didion, as if to say that nothing has been added. Johnson, of course, raised a family in Los Angeles; Witt appears to be a New Yorker — there may be nothing more to their different takes than that. Both Johnson and Witt regret the almost vacant impotence of fourteen year-old girls in a consumer society, as they wait for boys to notice them and make them real. Cline’s heroine, it seems, gives up on men.

In a William Trevor story that I read last night, “Bravado,” a very pretty girl, Aisling, walks home from a Dublin nightclub to her affluent neighborhood. Her boyfriend, Manning, calls her “drop-dead gorgeous,” which, without comment, she rather likes. Manning is the alpha dog of his pack, and Aisling likes that, too, although she thinks she thinks it’s silly. As they climb the suburban hills, Manning’s group spots a nerdy kid whom Manning dislikes. While the kid, also walking home from the nightclub, finishes peeing on an old lady’s house, Manning swoops down on him, knocks him over and kicks him. It turns out that the nerd has an unusually weak heart, and he dies. Manning goes to jail. Aisling visits the dead boy’s grave, ever more clearly aware that, although she was horrified by the violence of Manning’s attack, she was pleased by the obvious tribute — he did it to show off to her. And now she cannot bear this acquiescence.

These patterns of contempt and inferiority — I was sure, when I was young, that I would live to see them broken forever. I believed that consciousness would be raised, and that people would see these horrible follies for what they are. I now understand that my expectations were not reasonable. They betrayed, pretty clearly, a desperate optimism. If racism and sexism were not overcome, then American society would collapse from within. And that seems to be what is happening. Feminism and the fight for equal civil rights have wounded the old patriarchy, perhaps mortally, depriving it of the strength to restore the status quo ante. But beleaguered white men will believe that it is heroic to pull down the whole structure in the death-agony of their self-importance. Cops will continue to persecute the black drivers of automobiles with defective taillights until everyone else begins to see the police as an oppressive occupying force. Boys will go on badgering girls to show their breasts to that the quality of these features can be judged until mothers realized that they have raised their sons to be depraved. And all of it will be cycled into televised entertainment.

David Denby writes of the shootings,

Something more than ineptitude and panic is there in these acts: refusing to accept that a man is dead may be a way of refusing to acknowledge that one bears any responsibility for his death. Feelings of pity have been chased away, as far as we can see, by fear.

Are we still in the Sixties?


I feel that I learned a few things from writing the first draft. I put it that way because I only sense them; they are not very clear. And some of them are negative: I’m learning that there are things that I not only don’t know but don’t know how to talk about. One of these things is the human mind. The mind is something that we ought to be able to talk about, because each of us has one and many of us are reflective enough to have a sense of how minds differ from one person to another. The differences that I’m thinking of are not pathological; they have little to do with the health of the brain. They are not moral considerations, either, because morality is, or purports to be, standard, and we are shy of the systematic and legalistic standards that characterize traditional morality.

I’m thinking of differences that, while annoying, are harmless. Am I thinking of worldviews? We use “worldview” fairly freely, but do we analyze it with any rigor? Isn’t it the case that most talk about “worldview” boils down to an idea of what moral standards ought to prevail? There’s more to worldview than that, a lot more. Surely a worldview is literally shaped by the views that one has had of the world: I know that my worldview was changed, and not insignificantly, by a week spent in Istanbul. Although I had visited Guangzhou (Canton) very briefly, Istanbul was really my first experience of a Western-seasoned city outside of Christendom. Most of the impressions that I can talk about were either touristic or “curious,” the latter being notes of correspondence with the world I already knew (such as the pastry shop in Istiklal Street called “Markiz”), but I am haunted by inarticulate recollections of the very old city that Orhan Pamuk has struggled to commit to paper. I read My Name Is Red years before Istanbul, and was perplexed by much of it; Snow, which I read while I was in Istanbul, was far more intelligible, even if I couldn’t tell you how. l also know that my view of Europe shifted perceptibly when I stood at the water gate of the Dolmabahçe Palace, looking through the palings out onto the Bosphorus, and all the ships that were on their way to or from Black Sea ports.

“Mindset” is an equally vague word. Is there a way to give it substance? I am on the verge here of that hoary old psalm, “the life of the mind.” Strictly speaking, the phrase is ridiculous, because there is no other kind of life. “The life of the mind” is an ignorant stab at guessing what it must be like to read a lot of books and to think a lot about equations and syllogisms. Or, in the alternative, the poet’s life of words. The life of the mind is something that other people have. One might pretend to want it, too, but not very sincerely.

Our minds are all different, and we are forever misunderstanding each other. It’s annoying, but potentially enlightening. There is something wrong with the way we work together (most of us), because the differences between us too often get in the way instead of sparking greater understanding. Is it prudence or a lack of intelligence that makes us cling to what we know how to deal with and dismiss everything else? I like to think that it is a rectifiable ignorance, but how hopeful can I be about that, given the the hopes with which I began this entry — hopes that ought to have withered by now?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2016 (I)

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

6, 8, 9 September

Tuesday 6th

Our luxuriously idle holiday weekend was somewhat marred for me by a pane that appeared on my computer on Saturday evening. It warned me that the computer was not running “genuine Windows,” and menaced interruptions unless this improper situation were set right. A link was provided, “to resolve online.” I did not click it.

One way or the other, this was bad news, and although I established contact with Jason, the greatest tech support ever, he was out of pocket until the following evening. That gave me a whole day to stew. If the pane was malware, which I strongly suspected, the bad seed might prove difficult to exterminate. At the same time, a legitimate warning made some sense, too, since just a couple of weeks earlier Jason had replaced the hard drive on the computer with a much more capacious one. The operating system had been “cloned” onto the bigger drive, but perhaps there had been a  glitch. Which was worse, poisonous software dementing the foundation of my computer, or the legal attentions of Microsoft?

It turned out that the message was genuine. We are now hoping that the second fix will work. If it doesn’t, Jason has a third in mind. I’m feeling very Jessie Royce Landis: “Roger, pay the two dollars.” How much can the licensing fee be? Maybe I’d better not smile when I say that.

In the past, I’d have bought a new computer sooner than upgrade the drive on an old one, but in the past, I was younger. I have lost the taste for learning curves, be they ever so minor. They’re no longer worth the trouble. A new computer simply presents me with a different way of doing the same old things — except of course when it makes doing the same old things impossible. I no longer want to do new things with a device. I have given up on the whole idea of the “personal computer.” What I have is something else. It is a glorified typewriter with a built-in filing system. It also has a feature that enables the kind of television that pioneers in that medium hoped it would be. The computer is an improvement — great improvement — but it’s basically old stuff, and I don’t want to do new stuff.

In the paper today, I read about how the new iPhone’s big new feature is actually an absence: no more headphone jack. That’s the rumor, anyway. Apple is the ultimate modernist corporation, devoutly committed to sacrificing convenience for cool. Maxfield Parrish was no modernist, but I think that it’s apt that his mural, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, is in the bar at the Palace Hotel, where we’ll be staying at the end of this month on a trip to San Francisco.


“Only connect…” That’s what appears on the title page of Howard’s End. Only connect what, though? Most people seem to think that Forster is calling upon people to connect with each other, but, if so, the call is indirect. At the beginning of Chapter 22, Margaret Schlegel hopes to help Henry Wilcox, the successful businessman whom she is going to marry, with “the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.” Without this connection, she believes (and the author is audibly breathing over her shoulder), we are part beast, part monk. A few lines down, the phrase on the title page makes its first appearance, rephrasing the formula. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” Once the prose and the passion have been put into mutual relation, connections with other people will occur without effort. In other words, there is no need to try to like somebody, to be more generous or outgoing. This will take care of itself if you only connect with yourself. Unfortunately, it will take care of itself only with respect to other people who have also bothered to build their own rainbow bridge.

“Rainbow bridge” — an interesting allusion to Wagner. At the end of Das Rheingold, Wotan commands Donner to create a rainbow, which Donner does very theatrically by first making some thunder. Then the rainbow shimmers, and the gods can process from earth to Valhalla, their new home in the sky, to which the Valkyries (stay tuned!) will carry heroes slain in battle. It is one of those musically glorious moments in Wagner that glitter over detestable vulgarity — not Wagner’s, but the gods’. Wagner submits his opinion of the Valhalla project at the end of the Ring cycle — it goes up in flames, and the gods and the heroes die a final death. Valhalla has by then proved not to be worth the price that it has cost in blood and hate. Although the rainbow bridge certainly lights up the end of the first opera in the cycle, it is clearly meretricious rubbish, and we are coarse to be impressed by it. I doubt that this is what Forster was thinking when he connected his salvific idea to a bit of Wagnerian trumpery. To say that Forster wasn’t thinking of Wagner, however, is to accuse him of not paying attention. It’s a conundrum.

I re-read the novel almost in a day, and then we watched the Merchant/Ivory movie. I haven’t seen the movie in years, largely because I watched it almost obsessively when it was new, twenty-five years ago. We had our lake house then, and in my dreams, our house was like Howard’s End. The opening shots, in which Vanessa Redgrave, playing the successful businessman’s first wife, a woman who may be aware that this will be her last summer at her beloved birthplace, strides outside the house, her long violet skirts trailing in the sopping grass, haunted me without surcease. The camera caught that moment of twilight in which flowers seem lighted from within, with a sharp dimness that captures the ambiguity of the light, which fades without seeming to change. It became my favorite time of day, and I longed to be outside in it. I would walk around my house, too, and once or twice the illusion clicked in. The illusion was that my house had always been there for me, that the ground that I trod had always belonged to me. In an instant, it was gone.

The house used in the film looks nothing like the house described in the novel, with its “nine windows” (in three rows) facing the garden. Not like either of these was the Queen Anne house in the drawing on the cover of the paperback edition of the novel that I stole from a cousin’s library. Years later, I put the book back where it belonged, even though I was pretty sure that it hadn’t been missed. I liked the Queen Anne house best, but I knew that it was wrong.


Thursday 8th

Why, oh why, do I read the Times? Some days! Don’t miss the story about China. Economists are worried about China: should you be? If there was something new in this story, perhaps it was the mention of George Soros, who is worried, but that’s no surprise. Nor is it surprising that nobody really knows what will happen in an economy structured as China’s is. If it is, I say to myself, structured at all. China has a Fiat economy, and all it requires is a human being with sufficiently divine power to say “Let there be!” If, when that power slips from Xi Jinping, nobody else manages to assume it, then there will be catastrophe.

And then there is President Obama warning us that our environmental prospects are “terrifying.” I think that we have passed beyond the usefulness of observations of that kind. Aside from those who are determined to think otherwise, everybody already knows that the prospects are terrifying. We are on board with that. Now what? We can panic. We can stop driving cars altogether. We can turn out the lights, and never use the washing machine again. We can plant victory gardens and subsist on the produce — or try to. Panic? It’s not really an option. Back to now what?

And that is what I want to hear the President talk about. I don’t want him to use his official gravitas to try to convince, convert, or shame. Even if we all agreed that the prospects are terrifying, that would only get all of us to now what? We don’t need unanimity to start dealing with this next question.

I don’t have any answers, but I do offer one insight: any answer that proposes a solution within the lifetime of anyone alive today is simply a variation on panic. It is going to take several generations (at least) to undo or reverse the damage that two hundred years of Industrial Revolution has wrought. Therefore, what we need no less than technological wizardry (and, yes, a measure of abstinence) is a way of assuring the continuation of the corrective projects that we begin. There can be no guarantees: the men and the women of the future cannot be bound by our schemes. We have to begin building something that they not only can adapt but will want to.

That’s what terrifies me: all of our political arrangements have to be reconceived with this hope in mind. Democracy pales in importance, and even in virtue, beside the imperatives of stewardship.


I have watched Muriel, the movie that everyone seems to be writing about, now that the Criterion Collection has dusted it off, for the second time. I found it very, very clumsy. I tried to discern a virtue in this, but I could not. One of the clumsiest aspects of Alain Resnais’s 1963 film is its misuse of color. When you use color to score points, as Resnais tries to do in many ways, among them the contrast between the young and the old, you have to establish a base, not because it is philosophically necessarily but because the eye is not a reasonable organ. The color in Muriel, particularly the alternations between the dim and the bright, is noisier than Hans-Werner Henze’s score, and it results in a heap of banality. The lies that Hélène and Alphonse tell themselves and anyone who will listen don’t mean much in a a world of visual chaos. Muriel might just work in black and white.

Nor does the romance (or not) between the former lovers signify, since both of them are disabled by weak-ego problems. Hélène is a compulsive gambler. It’s a sick-making moment when you grasp that she is going to ruin her life at the Casino. For his part, Alphonse is a hopeless opportunist, a man who will always run off if something better comes along. To ask whether these two will be able to rekindle love nearly twenty-five years after it was broken off is almost idiotic. Just as Françoise, the young woman who is in some sort of cahoots with Alphonse, is bitterly impatient with him, so was I impatient with Resnais.

What makes Muriel compelling to me is Delphine Seyrig’s presence: Seyrig has the very odd gift of being absent, right in front of your eyes. There are moments in Muriel that make me think of her Joan of Arc, had she ever taken on the role. She would be very convincing at simulating dialogue with invisible, inaudible interlocutors. She is always elsewhere, even when she is trying to make you feel at home. Otherwise, her roles have little in common; even her absence is irregular.


Friday 9th

Occasionally, when the windows are open, we hear someone playing a piano nearby. Actually, I am convinced that there are two pianos. The somewhat but not very distant sound reminds Kathleen of Rear Window, but not me, not when they’re playing Bach. Again, I hear two people playing together. Or I think I do. One of these days, as soon as I hear it, I’m going to make my way down to 87th Street, a long walk from the apartment even though we overlook it, and try to place the source. It won’t surprise me if I can’t hear anything in the street, because (it won’t surprise me to surmise) the sound is traveling over the roofs of the buildings across the street from a room in the complex of Holy Trinity Church, on 88th Street. What’s more likely is that the music is coming from the handsome, understated Gothic building that projects from the church to front on 87th Street. A rehearsal room is exactly the use to which I should expect a room in a modern Episcopalian office annex to be put.

We were sitting on the balcony last weekend, and the pianists were going over the same passage of music with a strange insistence. Kathleen got quite tired of it. Sometimes, they played it very slowly, as if to master some difficulty. What difficulty? If we could have heard it more clearly, it wouldn’t have sounded like a trite seven-note phrase that any child could play, but that was all that was flying through the dozens of yards between us. I began to recognize it. It was Mozart, certainly, and it was a piano concerto, just as certainly, but which one? I kept waiting for the pianists to play on through the score, so that they would eventually hammer out a tune that would answer my question, but they did not continue. They looped over the same ten or twelve bars of what was clearly the end of an intense development section, always stopping short of the cascade that would lead to the recapitulation, in which the main theme would be stated at once, and I would know which concerto they were working on. It was maddening.

The pianos could be heard in the living room as well as on the balcony, so when I came inside to get something I went straight to the bedroom at the back, where I couldn’t hear pianos at all. I played the music in my head, and although I could break the pianists’ loop by a few bars, I couldn’t remember my way to the end of the development. Not to be able to name an utterly familiar stretch of music was unacceptable.

It was understandable, though. As you know, the development section of a piano concerto by Mozart comes in the middle of the first movement. Before it, there’s the exposition, in which an array of tunes fans out in contrasting keys. After it, the exposition is repeated, but with subtle changes in the keys, the effect being to resolve the exposition’s feeling of going somewhere into the recapitulation’s sense of having arrived. In the development, certain themes or sub-themes from the exposition are explored in a manner very similar to the jazz instrumental solo. The music is taken apart and the bits are repeated with tiny alterations, as if the composer or the performer were trying to hear everything that could be done with a figure of notes. Sometimes, in Mozart, the tunes that are subjected to development are clearly recognizable fragments from the exposition, but sometimes they are not, and every now and then Mozart yields to the impulse to see where his jazz will take him, and something that feels as unpredictable as a foxhunt ensues, with the piano flying up and down runs and scales. It would be tedious if it were not so acutely exciting. Harmonic pressures propel the performers across pages of notes, increasing with every bar, until the conflict can be stretched no further, and the music subsides back into the tonic, or home, key. What I was hearing was that sort of passage, a set of thrilling runs without much thematic significance.

The fragment that was drifting across the street from the two pianos was dramatically minor-key, so I thought of the two concertos that Mozart wrote in that mode. I ruled out the 24th, because its first movement is in some sort of triple time, and what I was hearing was resolutely common. So I listened to the 20th Concerto, in D minor, although I felt from the start that I was barking up the wrong tree. The overheard fragment belonged to the general area of the 20th, but not to its particulars. In fact, the development section of the 20th Concerto is given over to very clear restatements of leading themes of the exposition. The two concertos in minor keys could be ruled out, leaving eight or nine of the mature piano concertos to hunt through.

By now I was parked in the bedroom with the boxed set of all the concertos, played and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. I tried the 27th first, although I can’t think why; I knew that it was not the right concerto the moment I heard its gently waving opening, and I stopped listening at once. Then I gave the 23rd a try. This felt like a mistake just as the 20th had done, but this time I listened through the whole movement (which could not be more familiar). Until now, I’d had a problem holding onto the fragment while listening to the recordings, so that I worried that I might not recognize it when I heard it. I had already been fooled by a passage in the 20th Concerto that was very close. (Curiously, it came at the end of the exposition, not in the development at all.) The motifs that seemed so familiar on the balcony were at first impossible to remember in the bedroom. I finally pulled down the scores, which come in two stout Dover volumes that have held up magnificently over the years. They do have one drawback, I noticed: the bars aren’t numbered, so I won’t be able to tell you where to find the music that I presently recognized, except that it turned out to be the development of the 21st Concerto, the one that everybody knows by its midcentury nickname, “Elvira Madigan.”

Cuthbert Girdlestone, whose book on the concertos (also in Dover) is both poetic and microscopic, and whose idiom, I find, is often so uncongenial that I don’t recognize the music that he is talking about, indulges in a lot of sentimental fuss of linking the 20th and the 21st Concertos, but he point out that the minor-key phrase that forms the germ of the passage in the latter concerto by which I was now obsessed could have been stolen from the former. So I wasn’t wrong to be nearly fooled. It’s as though Mozart had not quite exhausted the vein of Gothic drama that he mined for the 20th Concerto, and introduced some of it into the majestic work that followed. (Girdlestone, in a mystic mood, calls the 21st Concerto “motionless.” Fiddlesticks.) In my search, I proceeded from the 23rd Concerto to the 21st because, the more I thought about it, and the more the 23rd sang its way through pages that could never have accommodated the my fragment, the more likely “Elivra Madigan” became, because its martial vigor could certainly find room for, nay, might even invite, its surging melodrama.

It’s funny. I never understood why Elvira Madigan was such a big movie. I don’t know that anyone ever watches it any more. But recording impresarios were quick to stamp the concerto with the name of the film that had made treacle out of its sublime second movement. When I hear the now all-too famous music, I try not to think of the pretty blonde who played one of the doomed lovers. But at the same time, I strongly associate the first movement with the penniless officer, the other doomed lover, in his Civil War-era uniform. I ought to rename the concerto after him, Sixten Sparre.

Now, of course, I can’t get the fragment out of my mind.

Bon week-end à tous!