Archive for November, 2016

Gotham Diary:
Illness for Dinner
November 2016 (IV)

Saturday, November 26th, 2016

22, 28, 29, and 30 November; 2 December

Tuesday 22nd

Yesterday, I went to our storage unit on 62nd Street with Ray Soleil, and together we evacuated a second batch of papers. Many were in French document boxes that I had found back in the days of the country house, where space was relatively unlimited. Some of the boxes were stuffed, others not. Many of the contents are curious. There is a stack of faxes from Fossil Darling that were dispatched in idle moments at the office, and most of these are both baroque and incomprehensible. They all seem to date from 1994, and the miracle is that the thermal paper on which they were printed is still legible. I don’t know what to do with them. Well, of course I do.

There are still more papers to bring home. These are not sorted, but rise in thick stacks from liquor boxes, and if we try to take them all at once, we shall have to summon a car to the delivery bay. Kathleen has volunteered to sort through them in her merciless way, but I’d like to know something about them before she throws them all away. Last week, Ray and I brought twenty of the French document boxes home, and I found somewhere for everything in them over the weekend. I doubt that the second batch will melt into the woodwork so easily. The end, however, is in sight. The end of papers, that is. “There’s still a lot of stuff here,” said Ray last week — he hadn’t been there in a while. “It’s nothing like it was, but…” I was very discouraged. I had done such a good job, I thought, of packing up fifteen boxes of books, and then finding someone to take them away. I had hoped that this amiable fellow would cart of the few remaining pieces of furniture, but when I called him after our trip to San Francisco in October, he told me, not in so many words, that furniture lay outside his métier, and I was so disheartened that I did not even bother to call the mover whom he recommended. It took several weeks to snap out of my inanition.

After we brought the boxes home, and I took Ray to lunch, I sat down with the first section of the writing project. I had been casting around for a better way to begin. The opening was the only part that Kathleen found weak and unfocused, which was no surprise given the reckless way in which I threw myself into working on it, back in July. I trusted that a true current would emerge from my splashing, and indeed it did. When I finished what I thought was the first draft, I realized that there must be some sort of final section, and, having worked on and off on this in the past two months, I decided to fix the start before settling the finish. It took an hour or two to write out the new beginning.

Between them, these two important projects took up the entire day, and in any case left me no mental space for devising an entry here. So, for the first time in an age, I missed a Monday for no better reason.


There is ever less to say. The whole world seems caught up in a riptide of reaction against all things humane. In yesterday’s Times, there was a piece about a book that the late Richard Rorty published in 1998, in which he foresaw something like the triumph of populist forces that has made Donald Trump our President-Elect, and in which he went on to speculate that civil gains by hitherto marginal groups, such as blacks and gays, might be erased. I’m quite sure that, had I been aware of the book at the time, I should have shoved it aside in horror, but even then I was beginning to doubt the foundations of secular democracy. In the current Atlantic, there is a handwringing piece by James Fallows in which Orville Schell’s fear that China is sliding back into Maoism is trumpeted. Fallows and Schell are old men now, and their hopes for the liberalization of the Central Country are being dashed, as such hopes have always been dashed. Meanwhile, my daughter, whose concern for the environment puts her very much at odds with the powers that be, also declines to applaud views labeled “liberal.” Sometimes, I feel that there is no longer anywhere to stand.

Of course, I have been writing about the shortcomings of the professional élite for years now. But by confining my attention to what I knew from the world directly around me, I missed the immensity with which that élite was resented, not just for what it failed to do well but for being what it was. My alarm now seems small-scaled, and my exhortations sound utterly inadequate. When I say that there seems no longer to be a place to stand, what I really mean is that there is no longer anyone to address. To the extent that indicators point to an increasingly inevitable violent social confrontation, I keep mum, because I know that there is no point to talking when general intelligence has been swamped by anger that can be exhausted only in destruction and bloodshed. One must wait for the fever to strike and run its course. I hope that catastrophe will be averted, but it is exhausting to sniff one over the horizon, and in any case I dread the resurgent authoritarianism that spells suspension of humane development while men stagger about in their fear of human nature.


A long time ago, when I discovered the online store at Chatsworth (there doesn’t seem to be one anymore), I bought a few books by or about Nancy Mitford that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. One was Selina Hastings’s 1985 biography, which I placed on the Mitford shelf and left unread until just the other day. It’s awfully good. Clear and brisk, it refreshes every familiar story that it retails, and places the events of Nancy’s life in an uncomplicated frame that highlights her ambivalences without agonizing over them. I did think that Hastings came very close to charging her subject with prostitution — with immersing herself, that is, in the life of a courtesan who seeks to please without demanding love in return. Of course there was no commercial aspect to this relationship; Nancy was if anything more prosperous than her Colonel. And she really did love him, if abjectly. Hastings writes of the affair, “But the excitement concealed a great emptiness.” (173) The excitement itself was a by-product of the Colonel’s emotional indifference to Nancy. He did not love her — they both knew this and acknowledged it — but he acceded to her willingness to play Scheherazade, to keep him entertained. But he was cruelly unreliable about rendezvous. Nancy’s interest in Mme de Pompadour can be seen as an oblique attempt to aggrandize her own amour, but the difference between the two women’s respective lovers was that Louis XV was nowhere near so cold-hearted. Hastings cannot resist suggesting that Nancy’s screams of agony, as she was being eaten away by the Hodgkins lymphoma that was only diagnosed at death’s door, represented “an expression of thirty years of suppressed jealousy, misery and rage over the disappointment of her love for the Colonel.” (245) Very delicately, Hastings raises the moral question posed by a love such a Nancy’s: is it all right to submit to an unrequited love? I myself have always thought, in general, that it is not, but I don’t judge Nancy. Judging really isn’t the point. But the question hangs.

One tidbit that deserves mention — I hadn’t seen this one before — is a blurb that appeared on a Swedish translation of The Pursuit of Love and that came to Lady Redesdale’s attention through a friend. “Everywhere in Europe men lost their heads when the beautiful elegant Mitford sisters dominated the salons.” Lady Redesdale quite rightly commented (in a letter to Diana), “Oh dear what nonsense.” Spectacular nonsense, really. It is hard to think of a single “salon” that any of the sisters ever entered. And while they were lovely and neat, the Mitford gels were never elegant, saving Nancy herself (and of course Diana, the great beauty). Nor is it easy to name any men who lost their heads. A more unfaithful bunch of philanderers can hardly be imagined, than the men in the sisters’ lives (this time excepting Bryan Guinness). The whole idea of a troupe of fatal Mata Haris coursing through the capitals is so utterly contrary to fact that it deserves its own monument. But what would it be? A manhole cover?


Monday 28th

What we had for Thanksgiving was illness. Things were even worse on Friday morning. In addition to the crazy scramble of hunger and no appetite that I recalled from the antibiotic after-effects of cellulitis recovery, I had a sidestitch that impeded breathing and an ache on my shoulder that felt as if someone had taken a hammer to it. In the back of a drawer, I found few tablets of the opiate that I used to take in the days before Remicade. Half of one of these got me through the afternoon, celebrating the second anniversary of Fossil Darling’s and Ray Soleil’s wedding. Actually, by the time dinner was put in front of me at the Knickerbocker, I felt all right, and although I took no more Percoset I never again felt as bad as I had on Friday morning. But the gastrointestinal confusion remained. And, by now nearly two weeks overdue for Remicade — four weeks if you go by the standard dosage — I was feeling lousy, not really lousy but a sort of discount lousy that left plenty of room for guilt. Malingerer!

I didn’t want to get up this morning. Job One would be to reschedule the Remicade. Never having been in quite this position before — on two occasions in the past, the infusion was postponed because of a bloodshot eye, which I knew must be an inflammation brought about by the lack of Remicade, but which had to be checked out by the ophthalmologist; this time, in contrast, I really had an infection, which had to be cleared out by Ciprofloxacin — I didn’t know where to begin. Would the rheumatologist have to examine me? Getting hold of him would not be fun. Forcing an end to self-coddling, I got out of bed and prepared Kathleen’s tea-and-toast, which she has had to do without lately, and as she was asking if I wanted her to stay home while I tried to reschedule, the phone rang. It was a fellow from Infusion Therapy Scheduling. He told me that there had been a cancellation and that he could slot me in at four this afternoon. Utter magic. I’ll believe it when the nurse activates the pump.

I can tell my few close friends that I am not feeling well, and sketch a brief explanation that will put an end, if not to their worry, then to their uncertainty, which is the worst thing, really, about hearing about someone’s illness, especially in later years. As for the rest of the world, I prefer to remain, if not silent, then vague and unforthcoming. Up through the prime of life, most of us seem to get sick in the same way. We succumb to a relatively small number of diseases that run their courses on clear and distinct schedules. But with age, individuality finally makes a stand. We fall apart with increasing variety, at varied speeds and with varying degrees of drama. It is not uncommon to suffer two or more ailments simultaneously, and it’s not always easy to attribute symptoms to one or the other. Common sense about aches and pains breaks down, because there is so little that is truly  common.

On top of all that — and now I’m speaking of my own experience — even educated people cannot be expected to understand the concept of autoimmune disease. This was the case even before AIDS, which is a deadly inversion of the usual autoimmune disease precisely because the “D” stands for deficiency. It’s extremely counterintuitive that an excess could cause illness, but that is how the autoimmune diseases, the ones that are not qualified by that “D,” work. Our prehistory lingers with a force. An emergency crew that was called out all the time during our first two hundred thousand years (not to mention the millions of years since the first animals developed such defenses), some autoimmune systems respond to modern hygiene not by scaling back but by not waiting for the alarm. By rushing to put out fires that aren’t there, they cause rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s Disease, and the much less common disorders that have afflicted me. And others.

I must be feeling better. The idea of explaining all of this here, to account for my late absence, was almost as oppressive as the prospect of rescheduling the infusion. And now I see it’s done. I’ll try to talk about something else tomorrow.


Tuesday 29th

And I shall. But first:

Between running out to grab a burger and heading off to the Hospital for Special Surgery for the Remicade infusion, I took a bag of garbage to the chute. The chute is in a closet near the elevators, and it was just across the hall from the apartment that we lived in for thirty years. Now, it is far away. Everything is. The apartment that we’re in now, which is really too charming to complain about anything, is at the end of the longest possible stretch of corridors. No longer can I dart, so to speak, here and there.

As I closed the front door behind me, I heard two voices. One belonged a male in his prime. The other was confusing. I couldn’t understand what either was saying until I turned the corner and saw them. I saw the back of the younger man mostly. He was almost my height, and even more burly. His hair was close-cropped and he wore a blue-checked dress shirt. He was propping up, in some way that I couldn’t make out, a much older man, of whom I couldn’t see much, just a patch of tousled hair at the top and thin white socks on the carpet. The young man was saying, “Push,” “Heel to toe,” “Great,” and “Faster,” more or less in that order. The old man wasn’t saying anything. He was moaning with each tiny step.

The moans sounded like a scraping noise that the dishwasher makes; I have also heard it in Contact. For all that, it sounded completely human. In a movie, the old man’s misery would have indicated some kind of torture. It was hard to believe that this exercise was doing him any good. I don’t say that it wasn’t, just that the appearances strongly suggested otherwise. It was as though he were being kept alive for some malignant purpose.

I didn’t feel so much better myself. The sidestitch made walking effortful, which ought to have made me grateful that I, too, had to take tiny steps, but didn’t.

Although getting to the hospital involved tangling with some very bad traffic — the taxi driver managed it like a top-flight video gamer — the infusion itself was uneventful. I feel better already.


Working on the writing project has been difficult, given the overriding desire to be put out of my misery, but I have managed to reconceive the beginning, and from that has first trickled then flooded the conviction that I know now, finally, what the whole thing is about. That was my reason for undertaking the project: I believed that it would clarify the intellectual landscape in a way that not only highlighted the important things (not just the interesting ones) but also revealed something that I felt on the edge of discovering. Since I haven’t done the writing, I won’t say that it’s done. But I see not only where I’m going but where I ought to stop. The something has been revealed.

As usual, I’m not going to summarize any insights here. I bring the matter up because it’s obvious that I have been helped along by Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Yes! Now, I’m no happier about the outcome itself than anyone else I know, but I’m fascinated by the themes that are showing up, revealed by the black light of disappointment, in the commentary of those who find themselves weeping by the waters of Babylon. For example, take this snippet from Paul Krugman’s column last Friday:

To be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment. In particular, I don’t know why imagined liberal disdain inspires so much more anger than the very real disdain of conservatives who see the poverty of places like eastern Kentucky as a sign of the personal and moral inadequacy of their residents.

To be honest, Thomas Frank would appear to have voiced this perplexity years ago, in the very title of his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? But where Frank went on to investigate, Krugman seems to feel discharged by the acknowledgment that he doesn’t “fully understand this resentment.” Nor is he likely to try to grasp the reasons for hostility to “imagined liberal disdain” when it is so clear to him that “the very real disdain of conservatives” is the culprit. What he doesn’t grasp is that this very cluelessness of his, shared by so many of the great and the good supporters of Hillary Clinton, was the raw material for the fuel that rocketed Trump to triumph.

For one thing, they encouraged the Democratic Party to nominate Clinton, when it was obvious, and cited throughout the campaign as “unpopularity,” that she was no more suitable than Trump, as a candidate. And indeed it appears that Americans whose primary concern was keeping Hillary out of the White House voted with vehemence, while those in her own party who had come out for Barack Obama stayed home this time. There was nothing surprising about any of this. In retrospect, suspense about the election’s outcome was just another spurious media-punditry story. Some will say that Americans are not ready for a woman in the Oval Office, but that’s distracting. Americans were never going to be ready for Hillary Clinton in the top job.

Just as the best and the brightest came out against Brexit in Britain, so they came out for Hillary here, and with the same effect. Again, it might be said that they failed to persuade. But I think that the élites on both sides of the Atlantic were very persuasive. They persuaded ordinary voters to resist the bloc of professionals, financiers, and academics who are helplessly, because unconsciously, united by an obvious contempt for ordinary voters. No matter what the experts said, what ordinary voters heard was a plea: Let us have another go at feathering our nests without screwing you over too baldly. It reminded me of Mime the dwarf in the second act of Siegfried. Mime bubbles over with glee at the prospect of poisoning the hero and absconding with Fafner’s treasure — altogether unaware that Siegfried understands every word, and prepares to deal with Mime accordingly.

Liberal democracy has undergone a decay in the West and elsewhere. Whether this can be reversed depends upon how quickly it can be understood. The people who need to do the understanding are, unfortunately, the members of the various élite groups that have flourished in the early stages of this decay. I’ll feel much better about the viability of resistance to authoritarian populism when people like Paul Krugman start taking responsibility for what happened. Until then, the right-thinking men and women who were appalled by the support for a reality TV star will be indistinguishable from the unthinking mass whom they so articulately but benightedly opposed.


Wednesday 30th

Reading Peter Stearns’s brisk but magisterial textbook, The Industrial Revolution in World History, I’m making comparisons to the crisis of puberty. Puberty is a dreadful experience for many people, but we cannot seriously wish that childhood should be eternal. Eventually, puberty runs its course, leaving a self-standing adult. Sometimes, sadly, puberty results in schizophrenia, and at others, death (from suicide or drunk driving, say). Mostly, though, when the bad skin clears and the stormy emotions settle down, a young man or woman achieves a more or less permanent character, knowable and reliable (even if reliably unreliable) for decades to come. Plus the skill and sympathy, not to be found in most children, to engage with the world. Phew.

Will the Industrial Revolution ever run its course?

The secret of the Industrial Revolution was not so much the technological advances or the social changes wrought by a new economic order as the intoxicating prospect of immense payoffs. Possible return on investment rose to levels never before imagined. Successful manufacturers, later successful industrialists, amassed huge pools of capital, which they invested in — gambled on — evolving opportunities. At first, it was the production of consumer goods, textiles mostly. Then the growth of railroads, built to carry the goods with unprecedented efficiency, changed the accent of the revolution. The mass transportation of resources spurred the growth of heavy industry, which produced goods that were not aimed at any consumer, but at an industrial nexus best embodied by the steel mill. The secret of heavy industry, in turn, was military prowess. Beginning with the American Civil War, the fruits of heavy industry were put to use in war. Railroads, steamships, all sorts of heavy artillery, these changed the face of battle.

In the next phase, heavy industry became big business. The accent was once again on consumers. Railroad locomotives, although still in demand, were vastly outnumbered by automobiles. There were new household appliances, accompanied by an array of useful chemical products, that promised to make the clean, comfortable home an economical proposition. Heaven on earth — Utopia achieved! Except not. Heavy industry was beginning to slip, as lighter materials and smaller production facilities made formerly belching smokestacks the gravestones of their blast furnaces; and overproduction — another outcome that the old world had not thought possible — brought the economies of the world crashing down.

The truly terrible thing about the Industrial Revolution is the routine mistreatment of workers. This is a constant feature of Stearns’s account of the revolutions, successful and the unsuccessful alike, that followed Britain’s everywhere else. The very emblem of the new order is the managerial demeaning of laborers, which in every case becomes self-justifying (proletarians have no self-respect and must be told what to do). Indeed, it’s hard not to see the Gestapo as the climax of a long trend. In recent times, conditions have improved for workers in the developed West. But wait! There always seem to be fewer workers in the West! Now there are more workers elsewhere, where conditions are still pretty ghastly!

We have learned a lot about how an industrialized world works, but we haven’t known it for very long, so nothing can be forecast with real confidence. But I propose that the revolution will be over when industry no longer requires workers. Many observers find this an appalling possibility. Where will jobs come from? I don’t have a simple answer to that one, but I do want to point out that at the heart of all discussion of industrialized economies, there is an error that inevitably produces wrong answers. It is the very use of the word “worker.” The whole point of the Industrial Revolution has always been to replace human beings with machines — this is where the huge payoffs come from — and, quite frankly, human beings ought to be grateful to be spared the performance of brutal and degrading mechanical operations.

This is where Marx and everyone else went wrong. When Marx wrote of “the means of production,” he was really talking about the actual workers. The machines did the work, not the people who tended them. And the jobs held by people who tended machines were doomed from the start. Almost every technological advance has promised a reduction in the number of such jobs. Just consider the telephone industry! Where are the operators and the linemen now? The machines take care of everything.

We cannot really wish to return to the old order, in which a few people were immeasurably safer and more comfortable than everybody else, with poverty, ignorance, and disease the common lot. We have to hope that the upheavals of the past two centuries will create the means of a new order. I doubt that it is up to us to decide what that new order will be, but it would help to have a few good ideas. At least we can clear out some bad ones. One of these would be the notion that industrial jobs involve work.


Friday 2nd

In this morning’s email, the closing of Crawford Doyle Booksellers was announced. It is a death of sorts, for the bookshop was a node of connections. I don’t mean to sentimentalize what was always a business. Books were set out for sale, to customers who browsed and bought, in a room that was hushed and not in the least bit bohemian. Most patrons were neighbors, but it seems discordant to apply that word to people living in very expensive apartments. Now that I think of it, young people were very rarely seen there, except of course on the staff.

Perhaps because the shop was so small — I’ve been in many larger living rooms, even in the city — there was a relentness furtiveness, an uninterrupted but fruitless attempt not to notice what other people were looking at. Men gathered round the broad table toward the rear, where nonfiction titles were stacked facing in all four directions, but mostly east and west. There was a smaller table of recent paperback fiction toward the front, with poetry nearby. The entire north wall was shelved in literary fiction, but the selection could not begin to be comprehensive, given the space, and it was unwise to pop in with expectations of finding, say, To the Lighthouse. (They might be fresh out.) New fiction, in glossy wrappers, was stacked in an L-shaped arrangement whose system I could never decode; it was easier to ask at the desk, something that I did more and more over the years. And then there were the delectable little books on the desk itself, bonbons most of them. I bought more than a few myself — there was one called, I think, 100 Quiet Places in London — but the last one was fatal, not to me but to my book-buying habits, and I later told one of the staff that the shop really ought not to be selling Marie Kondo’s book about tidying up. I have not altogether stopped buying books, but I certainly buy fewer than I used to do, and I never go browsing just to see what’s new. I don’t know how long it has been since my last visit to Crawford Doyle — oh, but I do; it was in April, about seven months ago. So I’ve become a former customer, really. If I feel a bit guilty about that, it’s not because I imagine that my patronage might have saved the store (although of course that’s precisely what comes to mind when shops close), but because I dropped out of the node.

I had thought about hiking over to the bookshop to buy a copy of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m looking forward to reading, eventually. For the moment, I’m enjoying all the reviews. When I say that I’m enjoying them, I mean that I’m not keeping track of them; I can’t recall who said what. Everyone has noted that Smith, in her first use of first-person voice, has not named her narrator. I think that anonymous narrators are a mistake, because the lack of a name makes it difficult to talk about any character, and fixes like “the second Mrs De Winter” are not often handy. So there has been a sort of quiet tsking about that, if only because there aren’t a lot of synonyms for “narrator” to help reviewers avoid repetition. Everyone has said a word or two about Swing Time the movie (1936), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although I haven’t got a sense of the meaning of Smith’s reference. Most if not all reviewers have passed along, almost as a bit of gossip, the anecdote of the unnamed narrator’s playing a video of Swing Time for a friend (as an adult) and only then realizing that Fred Astaire dances the “Bojangles of Harlem” number in blackface. But what stuck with me most was the claim, by one reviewer, that Swing Time is the best of the Astaire-Rogers series.

I think it’s the worst. I watched it last night just to be sure. To begin with: the dancing. The dancing is of course very good, but there is nothing as grand as “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat), “Night and Day” (The Gay Divorcée), or “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet). (There’s nothing like Follow the Fleet‘s “Let Yourself Go,” either.) The Bojangles number is very well done, but it’s nowhere near as distinctive Astaire’s solos in “Slap That Bass” (Shall We Dance) or “Nice Work if You Can Get It” (Damsel in Distress). Even Broadway Melody of 1940, with Eleanor Powell, is a more exciting dance film.

But the story of Swing Time is actually bad, veering between the annoying and the offensive. The opening routine, in which Fred’s plans to marry his hometown sweetheart are sabotaged by the chorus of wiseguys who support his dance act, has not aged well. Stealing a bridegroom’s trousers and distracting him with gambling simply aren’t funny anymore. The bride may be all wrong for our hero, but we don’t laugh at undesirable brides anymore, because our ideal of companionate marriage makes it seem cruel to do so. At the end of the movie, the knot of misunderstandings is resolved not with grateful smiles but with raucous, inane laughter — and, as if that weren’t bad enough, the trouser stunt is rehashed. There’s a dopey scene in which the principle couples drive to an abandoned hotel in a snowfall — with the top down. Californians perhaps forgot that snow is not just pretty.

As for the supporting cast, so important to the flavor of these productions, I wanted to shoot Victor Moore in the first scene, as oatmeal dribbled out of his mouth instead of English. Helen Broderick was never given anything truly clever to say, making her performance more physical than it ought to be, to the point that I began to confuse her with Charlotte Greenwood, and to worry, when Broderick told Rogers that she’d stand on her head, that she might actually try to do so. Even Eric Blore was sandbagged. With his little moustache, he almost looks like a plumped David Niven. Follow the Fleet is supposed to be the earthy, unglamorous entry in this RKO parade, but Swing Time verges on witless vulgarity. Bojangles of Harlem! Pretty excruciating stuff, now.

I still look forward to reading Zadie Smith’s new book, but my mind is preoccupied by Jane Smiley’s classic, A Thousand Acres. I was casting about for a novel to read, not in a bookshop but surrounded by my own bookcases, when the Jewish-mother/librarian who took up residence post-Kondo directed my attention to it. I read it in 1991, when it was new, but I hadn’t read it since, and the old hag was tapping her foot impatiently. “You’d tell anyone that that’s a great novel, and you give it pride of place on the shelf, but do you read it?” There was only one way to fight this imputation of fraudulence, and that was to pull it down then and there. So I did, and it was ten times worse — more upsetting — than I remembered. I haven’t read King Lear, which inspires it, in a long time, but my notion that the contemporary setting in the American Midwest would somehow soften the barbarity of the legend was quickly trampled. In any case, A Thousand Acres is not just a “retelling” of the Lear story. The horror of Smiley’s novel, which is only implicit in the play, is her recreation of the shock with which we sometimes learn that the stories that we’re content to tell ourselves about ourselves would be questioned by those around us, even by those for whom we believe that we have done our best. Reserved and dutiful at the beginning, Ginny Cook comes to see that she is a terrible person, meaning, just another human being, as well as someone to whom unmentionable things have been done. She turns on her correct but bogus life with ugly ferocity and abandons what she does not destroy. There are several violent scenes, but the real violence is in Ginny’s nerves.

So I read it again, with the suspense that only a second reading can spell.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Take Six
November 2016 (III)

Monday, November 14th, 2016

14, 15, 18 November

Monday 14th

After reading a few chapters of The Pursuit of Love, Lady Redesdale, the author’s mother, wrote to another daughter, Jessica Mitford, drily and dismissively, “This family again.” She was wrong. Yes, Nancy Mitford had written another novel based on her family. But this time it was different: Nancy had grown as a writer. And she did not so much write about her family as reinvent it. The Mitford Sisters Phenomenon as we know it originated with The Pursuit of Love; fifteen years later, it was given another big boost by Jessica’s Hons and Rebels, a purportedly factual account; Nancy would claim that Jessica presented the world of her childhood through the lens of Nancy’s own creation. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that almost everyone who takes an interest in the Phenomenon — who has been entertained by it — begins with one or the other of these two books, both of which are great good fun.

The Mitfords again — but not quite again. An avid consumer of Mitfordiana, I justified the purchase of Linda Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters on the score of its being the first book to appear since the death of the Duchess of Devonshire — Deborah, the youngest of the girls — in 2014. Still, when I opened the box in which it was shipped, I wondered ruefully what it could possibly have to say that I hadn’t already heard. I sat right down, of course, to find out. Long before the halfway point, I understood that this is an entirely new book. For one thing, it is an essay, not a collective biography. (For that, there is Mary Lovell’s The Sisters.) It is a meditation on the complexity of perspectives that arises, Rashomon-like, when several highly independent, strong-minded people remember a common experience.

In 1946 Diana had written to Nancy that she had seen a performance of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, the story of a stern matriarch with five daughters, whose lives she controls and whom she confines to her house: “It is all about Muv and us.” This was a joke, but it was another kind of truth. Sydney [Lady Redesdale] was the dominating force in the family. Her daughters had eluded her, but their mother remained inescapable. What Nancy and Jessica thought of her is yet another truth; so too what Diana thought; so too what each sister thought about the other. The interpretations of the play multiply, and in the end none is definitive, although, given the nature of the Mitford girls — the capacity for conviction that lay within them all — they probably believed that they alone had it right. (331)

The nature of the Mitford girls also included a way with words. Four of the six girls published books, several books each. Nancy and Jessica were financially successful writers, and not just because they mined their juvenile antics. Jessica wrote a muckraking classic, The American Way of Death, that manages to be funniest when it is most gruesome — that leaking vault! — while Nancy’s studies of Louis XIV, Mme de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great are important aristocratic appreciations of the ancien régime. Diana wrote a very good book about her friend, the Duchess of Windsor. Deborah’s stunt was to capture the everyday nature of her extraordinary domestic situation. All this book-writing, however, dates from the third period of the sisters’ lives, when their independent positions were firmly established. The Phenomenon was by this time an historical relic that the surviving sisters found rather annoying. Each had her own life and her own views, and while they remained, for the most part, on sisterly terms, they preferred not to do so in public. Their sisterhood, like their family history, was an intimate matter, and nobody else’s business. This was true of Nancy and Jessica despite their entertaining disclosures. What they had to say was intended as the last word on the subject — not, as inevitably happened instead, the beginnings of a discussion.

What made these four women something more than ordinary sisters — more than successful people who happened to be related — was their experience of the earlier periods of their life, an eccentrically idyllic childhood that did nothing to prepare them for adult life, followed by the troubled, and one case fatal, entry into adult life (This part Deborah was spared). It was the first phase that everybody wanted to read about later on, but the second that had made three of the girls more or less notorious by the end of World War II. At a tender age, Jessica ran off to Spain with a cousin; she was rescued by government intervention. Later, she and her young man, married by now, would run off again, this time to America, where Jessica joined the Communist Party. Diana and Unity leaned the other way politically. After a few years of apparently contented marriage to a scion of the Guinness family, Diana left her husband for Sir Oswald Mosley, a political maverick who would launch the British Union of Fascists. Unity, whom Diana regarded as the only unusual Mitford, decamped to Munich, where she stalked Hitler, met him, and chatted with him — on some 150 occasions. When war broke out, she shot herself in the head, but lived. Hitler arranged for her to be carried to Switzerland, whence her family brought her back to England. The following summer, Diana and her husband were detained, and then imprisoned, probably because Unity herself was an invalid. When the Mosleys were released, at the end of 1943, there was a demonstration in Trafalgar Square: “Put Him Back!”

There were seven Mitford children: Nancy (1904), Pamela (1907), Thomas (1909), Diana (1910), Unity (1914), Jessica (1917), and Deborah (1920). All seven were photographed for The Tatler at the Heythrop hunt in 1935 — the early part of the second period. A doctored version of the photo appears on the jacket of The Six (Tom has been removed and the crowd in the background dimmed). I have no idea how much thought went into placement, but the configuration is interesting. At the ends of the lineup stand Unity (to the left) and Pam (to the right), and they are indeed the outliers in the family. I have already said enough about Unity to make that clear; just for form’s sake it might be noted that she was the only one who never married. If I haven’t said anything about Pamela, that’s the reason why she is an outlier: Pam is the sister who never did anything newsworthy. (She is the subject of a new biography that I shall probably wade through, simply to marvel at its mere existence.) Flanking Unity to her left is Deborah; Nancy stands to Pam’s right. These are the sisters who most appreciated convention. (Nancy, it is true, would go in for French convention, while Deborah was every inch an English sportswoman.) In this regard, Nancy and Deborah were counterweights to the radical sisters at the center, Diana and Jessica. In 1935, most of these distinctions were not yet at all clear; although Diana had left Bryan Guinness by then, she would not marry Mosley until 1936 (not only in Berlin, but in the Goebbels’s apartment). Deborah was fifteen; in the photograph, she is dressed for riding (and she has not fully grown). It is hard to say whether Jessica is retiring behind Nancy or Nancy is blocking Jessica. Diana’s arm is linked in Deborah’s, and these two have also crossed their ankles, doubtless in some sort of private joke. Joking, however, seems to be the last thing on the future duchess’s mind. I used to wonder why Deborah always looks so dour and grave in her youthful photographs; then it occurred to me that she had (perhaps rebelliously) taken to heart the venerable precept that nice people don’t make faces for the camera. Unity and Pam aren’t smiling, either. Jessica and Nancy are perhaps whispering “cheese,” but Diana is grinning like a madwoman.

Laura Thompson devotes most of The Six to the second period. As I say, it is not really a group biography, and anyone unfamiliar with the Phenomenon will be treading water once the book gets going. And yet her book is indispensable because it grapples with the moral questions that so much of the girls’ behavior raises. In Hons and Rebels, Jessica presents her escapades as heroic acts; to Thompson, they were selfish and thoughtless. Was Unity mad? Did she know what she was doing? She wrote a letter in which she described her new Munich flat as previously occupied by a Jewish couple that had “gone abroad.” How much responsibility must be heaped on the shoulders of this strange girl, who could seem selfish and thoughtless all the time? And what about Diana, who was infinitely cleverer — arguably the family intellectual?

The sordidness of the whole thing [Diana’s period between husbands, during which she aborted a child by Mosley] is overwhelming, so too the temptation to travel back in time and say to Diana, what in hell do you think you are doing? (145)

And yet, pages later, when Diana is interrogated by the Advisory Committee that will determine whether to imprison her, the excerpts given by Thompson (who compares Lady Mosley’s performance to that of Anne Boleyn) make one cry out for a complete transcript. Asked whether, now that Britain and Germany were at war, Diana believed that her country was wrong, she retorted, “Not my country. I absolutely differentiate between my Government and my country.”

Thompson, who has written a biography of Nancy, declares that The Pursuit of Love did “more than any public recantations could ever have done to remove the taint on the family name.” (296) This is a central fact of the Phenomenon. In the Thirties, Lady Redesdale was said to tremble whenever she read the words “peer’s daughter” in the newspaper, and that would become part of the Mitford Joke — once Nancy made it funny. In fact the girls’ conduct was often egregious, and of course they got special treatment, as the daughters of a peer, right at the moment when the general public’s disapproval was making special treatment a gold mine for reporters. Thompson assumes that we know the Joke and have all had a laugh. Then she takes it away, the humorous frame confected by Nancy and Jessica. They made everything seem funny, a great wheeze; Thompson approaches the scandals with dead earnest. The glory of the book is that she can be as funny as her subjects, if in a different way. She has a fine nose for hypocrisy and self-contradiction, as well as for the quips that were not made public, such as Nancy’s attempt to console Jessica, who was worried that her daughter, traveling in Mexico, might have been injured in a major earthquake there.

People like us are never killed in earthquakes & furthermore only 29 people were, all non-U…. (22)

It’s staggering, but I’m afraid that I’m the sort of person who laughs at this sort of thing because it is so outrageous. Nevertheless: what in hell did they think they were doing? When Mary Lovell’s book came out, I wrote,

Individuals give rise to legends, but true mythology requires a cast of characters. That’s what makes ‘Bloomsbury,’ ‘The New York Intellectuals,’ and Camelots ancient and modern more interesting than most of the constituent personages would be if considered individually.

This plurality (soluble in a common lingo) is what makes the sisters interesting as a group, even when the mythology is scrubbed away.

It is frankly therapeutic to think of Diana, shaking helplessly with ill-suppressed laughter at the hey-nonny-nos of the folk singer “who had so kindly come to Holloway to amuse the prisoners but had not meant to amuse them quite as much as that.” (23)

The Six makes three-dimensional women out of fabulous characters, and grounds them in a set of mismatched parents. By the time Unity arrived at home from Germany, David could no longer bear to live with Sydney. Their fun days were over: he had gone through all his money (to an almost Wodehousean degree, he had a negative head for business), and she had become remote. They disagreed violently about Hitler; on this subject, Sydney was almost as nuts as Unity. So David retired to a cottage with the housekeeper, a woman whom the sisters found unbearably dull and mean. On her own, Sydney seems to have become a mother at last. She nursed Unity for nearly ten years (washing her incontinent child’s bed sheets every day), visited Diana in prison whenever she could, and performed epistolary cartwheels to keep an open channel to Jessica. Nancy, who claimed that her mother didn’t love her, never put this to the test; she enjoyed perfect health and independence until about six years after her mother’s death, in 1963. I think an argument might be made that Sydney was the oldest of the sisters, rather than their mother. Her youth, from the death of her own mother when she was seven, was devoted to keeping house for her father, the publisher of Vanity Fair and The Lady. The cleverness came from her, or at least the irony, which the writers among her progeny amplified to comic levels.

In the end, that is what will keep the Mitfords alive: writing. They were superbly verbal. They shared a peculiar dialect of understated exaggeration, so that, especially when they are writing to one another, it is easy to confuse writer with recipient. And yet, not least because they had very different views of the facts, there was plenty to write about. And of course they will be written about. Now that they have all died, and sunk somewhat back into their large families (at the time of her death, Diana had forty descendants), what remain are the words. Whether the words remain funny it may be too soon to tell. Nancy grappled with the problem in The Sun King, writing about Mme de Montespan, the mother of so many of Louis XIV’s bastards. She and her brother and her sisters were exponents of “the Mortemart wit.”

They had a way of talking which has unfortunately never been precisely described but which people found irresistible. Their lazy, languishing, wailing voices would build up an episode, piling unexpected exaggerations upon comic images until the listeners were helpless with laughter. Among themselves, they used a private language. [Jessica spoke one nonsense language with Unity, and another with Deborah.] They were malicious, but good natured; they never really harmed anybody; they liked laughing and had the precious gift of making other people sparkle. (43)

Perhaps the Mitfords’ way of talking requires no precise description; one need only read it.

I caught two really dreadful mistakes in The Six, which I am sure would have been pointed out as such by each of its subjects. First, it would have been impossible for five surviving sisters to meet in 1980. Second, Dr Johnson did not travel to Scotland with anyone by the name of Samuel Boswell. Do admit, yourself.


Tuesday 15th

Although something terrible has happened in this country — voters have put an amateur entertainer in the White House, and the Republican Party in charge of just about everything else — I am hoping that the moment will have come for something very good: the liquidation of the Democratic Party. This is something that I have been looking forward to since the Nineties.

When I was a boy, the Republican Party was high-minded and boring. It was all for business development and polite civil behavior. The Democrats were a sleazy bunch, tarred by the barely-literate slum-dwellers who supported them. Miraculously, they had produced FDR, but that was just the problem: witchcraft must have been involved. The Democrats were a coalition party, combining union workers in the North with landowners in the South. (Blacks, if they voted at all, voted Republican, the “party of Lincoln.”) These groups could work together only because they didn’t live anywhere nearby.

Then the fight for Civil Rights began in earnest. Black Americans began to struggle for change. It was quickly insinuated that their demonstrations were fomented by Communist infiltrators. I like to think that it was LBJ who had the great idea of pre-empting those infiltrators by granting civil rights himself, and putting an end to the struggle. In any case, something like that is what happened, very quickly. Who knows what would have happened next, if it hadn’t been for the stupidity of our misadventure in Vietnam? LBJ skedaddled. While blacks won real, if marginal, gains during the following decades, American political life was dominated by military and economic problems. The Democratic Party took the view (shared, with a smirk, by the Republicans) that the civil-rights problem had been taken care of: the laws were on the books, and compliance was all that was needed. Also, the civil rights of abortion displaced awareness of racial problems, at least among whites.

When civil rights for blacks came up at all, it was often related to the twee, Alice-in-Wonderland issue of “affirmative action,” which quickly became a scholastic plaything that enabled a handful of whites to claim that they were being subjected to unfair discrimination. Meanwhile, thousands of blacks who had never entertained thought of higher education were sent off to prison instead, under a “law and order” régime that was designed to keep people who didn’t know their place in place. When this project began to cost too much, local police began to see themselves as the first line of defense in the protection of law-abiding whites from unruly blacks. Being black while driving became strangely dangerous, and too often fatal.

Throughout this history, it was hard to tell that the Democratic Party had lost all of its Dixiecrats. Democrats did little or nothing to object to “law and order”; they didn’t have the courage to appear “soft on crime.” They did nothing to make the integration of the people of the United States a political reality; they simply passed laws and hoped for the best. Gradually, the party’s leadership and the party’s “base” changed, just as the Republican’s did, but something organizational about the old Democratic Party, its penchant for short-term fixes, perhaps, persisted. It remained the back-room party, as Hillary Clinton’s trivial but embarrassing email problems indicated. Not to mention her accession to the nomination! It was her turn — come hell or high water. By the time Donald Trump came, it was too late.

I don’t mean to say that the Democratic Party is somehow worse than the Republican Party. Republicans have nothing to do with it. What I mean to say is that the Democratic Party is no longer a legitimate advocate of the political objectives that most of its supporters share.


I am not calling for a third party — not unless I’m also calling for a fourth, a fifth, why not a fiftieth party. Fifty parties would be good. You think that’s a bad joke. But consider: the Republicans have attained control of national affairs through control of statehouses. Rather than try to engineer a national party to reverse all these local victories, why not launch an anti-Republican party in each state? New York could certainly use a party that extended the appeal of a progressive, or cosmopolitan, or humanitarian platform to voters upstate and on Long Island, eventually wresting the State Senate from the Republicans who have controlled it forever. Sometimes it’s a matter of speaking the local accent, and sometimes there’s a program of local interest, but whether the draw is stylistic or substantial, the locals probably know best. Locals are certainly better listeners. If nothing else, they could make sure that New Yorkers — I mean the city-dwellers here — knew more about the issues that matter, both upstate and in the suburbs. Who knows how much would be accomplished if only the people outside the city had no reason to resent our inattention?


Friday 18th

What next? I wondered, after finishing The Six. It didn’t take long, somehow, to settle on The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. I’ve had the book for years, and dipped into it often, but I’ve never read it through. Even this time, being me, I couldn’t begin at the beginning, with the spate of letters from 1944. (The two writers had known each other, if not well, for many years; in 1929, as Laura Thompson so drolly puts it in The Six, Waugh spent his mornings reading Vile Bodies to Nancy’s sister, the expectant Diana Guinness, perched on her bed “like a prospective doula.”) I began instead with Part III, comprising letters written in 1950-2, during which period the frequency of the correspondence reached its peak. By the time I got through these, I was so densely engaged with the rhythms of the exchange, and so familiar with the stock company of friends-in-common, about whom Mitford and Waugh liked to make such amusing if unflattering comments, that I simply kept on going. I shall have to go back to the start when I am done, which will be soon. I have reached the beginning of 1962 (during which the letters flew back and forth again, after a late-Fifties slump); Waugh’s demise, in 1966, is about fifty pages away.

At one point, Nancy declines to accompany Evelyn on a trip to India because “we should quarrel.” She was always mad to see him for a dinner, if they could get together in the same city (which doesn’t seem to have happened often), but she had the wisdom to grasp that this was a friendship that would keep best at the other end of a mailbox. The Letters quite literally embodies the relationship. Both were writers, both were wags. Evelyn was an Olympic misanthrope who loved to say unspeakable things, while Nancy was a socially conventional woman who had moved to France largely to escape the loud boorishness of Bullingdon boys. (“What is your definition of Barbary? Outside the range of Randolph [Churchill]’s voice?”) She would rather shriek over Evelyn’s letters at her writing table than wince in a room full of embarrassed people.

The letters have a dashed-off, sporting feel. From the standpoint of composition, they are as far from Lord Chesterfield as one can go without becoming incoherent. Questions often go unanswered — I was quite disappointed that Nancy never explained “Mrs Simpson’s Neptune,” and that Evelyn couldn’t be bothered to discuss rumors that Lady Mary Grosvenor was turning into a man. Nancy repeats favorite jokes. Every year, she spends a week or so with an old lady, a Mme Costa, at her house in Artois. Mme Costa is in her eighties, and she spends “up to 8 hours a day in the chapel, the rest of the time she plays bridge & talks about Dior and déclassé duchesses.” Two years later, and it is eight to ten hours on the old lady’s knees; the curé worries that all that prayer may be boring le bon Dieu a bit.

My favorite theme is Americans. Waugh was condescending about Americans, but they had their uses, and, in his view, New York was a great health spa, where he could bustle about for days on end without meeting any of the natives. Mitford, who never crossed the Atlantic, simply hated Americans, because all she saw were tourists. All she heard were tourists. Here she is on Torcello, in May 1956:

Between 2 boats there is a flood of Americans dangling deaf-aids & asking each other where they live in America. What difference can it make? The word duodenal recurs. I mingle with them, hating.

Both of them greatly disliked the familiar tone that Americans took in those days (it was much worse than today). Both had a tendency to tear up letters from Americans, but Waugh usually read them first.

Every once in a while, Evelyn lectures Nancy, either about Catholic dogma, which he so painstakingly explains that Nancy never quite gets it, or about grammar, for which Nancy sought his help. (Characteristically parsimonious with commas, Nancy was so anxious to please that she once produced a sentence in which nearly every third word was followed by some sort of punctuation.) Nancy was always trying to persuade Evelyn to leave England, for either France or Ireland. He replied that France no longer existed — the France with which Nancy was besotted was the spectre of a dead magnificence — and that Ireland was populated by spiteful peasants; its priests were “not suitable for foreigners.” (Nancy’s Madame de Pompadour was banned in Ireland, she wrote, simply because of the title.) Nothing that Waugh said was ever entirely trustworthy, but nothing tickles me more than his obvious humbugs.

It is not a sin to cheat over taxes in most modern states. Don’t worry your head about the theology of this. Just take it from the theologians. (22 October 1953)

[Waugh’s] Children come flooding in by every train. It is rather exhilarating to see their simple excitement & curiosity about every Christmas card. “Look, papa, the Hyde Park Hotel has sent a coloured picture of its new cocktail bar.” (18 December 1954)

As I read on, however, I began to feel a strange sadness. The world that they wrote about, a world of which I had tiny glimpses from my elementary-school desk, has become more appealing than ever, not least because of the modern conveniences that didn’t then exist. (Waugh refused to have a telephone in his house.) Reading their letters, it is easy to overlook all the bad parts. Neither Waugh nor Mitford was a feminist, quite the contrary, and yet, there they are, a man and a woman exhibiting the respect of equals over a very long term. Of course, they wrote everything out in longhand; I could never bear that. And I’d have died at least ten years ago if not earlier with even the best medical care of that time. But it’s really the language. I forget the enormous impact that Waugh’s novels had on my adolescence: I took to him like a drug. By the time of the correspondence, he had mellowed considerably, but there is the occasional sparkle.

I am quite deaf now. Such a comfort. (March 1953)

And there is even one moment of reflection that I feel obliged to endorse personally:

I can only bear intimacy really & after that formality or servility. The horrible thing is familiarity. (10 February 1953)

Of course, I should use different words, “friendship,” “deference,” and “presumption.” I should retain “formality,” however, and that is what makes 1953 feel much closer right now than the day after tomorrow. Formality has been forgotten; only the very luckiest children are taught anything about it. Everyone associates formality with the rich and the privileged, but it operates at every social level — except, lamentably, at the top, where it has been replaced by a clumsy and often irritating professionalism. The idea of formality has been lost. New York City thrives in no small part because of the immigrants who have brought their native formality with them, but perhaps it is too much to hope that their children will retain it as they melt into American society. It is true that formality has a tendency to crystallize in hardbound codes; instead of doing away with it altogether, perhaps we might simply bear in mind that the point of formality is to treat strangers with respect.

The correspondence between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh fell off because Waugh retreated into Catholicism, where his old friend could not follow him, and because Mitford suffered a terrible blow to her joie de vivre when the man in her life, Colonel Gaston Palewski, arranged to be made the French ambassador in Rome. He did this in part, it seems, because he was having a complicated relationship with a married woman who lived near Nancy in the Septième. Later, of course, he would deal her a much bigger blow by marrying yet another woman. Because of my unsound medical conviction that this betrayal launched the cancer that killed Nancy at the age of sixty-nine, I am not a great fan of ‘Col.’ But I like the virtual friendship that sprang up, mediated entirely by Nancy, between him and Waugh. It has every appearance of being motivated by the desire to be kind to what her family called “the French lady writer.”

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
November 2016 (II)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

7, 9, and 11 November

Monday 7th

At breakfast yesterday, I remarked that nothing could bring me to read another word of Maureen Dowd. It was more a fulmination than a remark, really, and I was surprised when Kathleen asked me why. Surprised that she would. Surprised that, at first, I couldn’t say. It took a minute or so to reflect that Dowd’s manner of speaking has become intolerable. It’s not her views, whatever those might be — it’s hard for me to tell, which is no small part of my disgust. It’s her everlasting cleverness, and the shallowness to which its relentlessness confines her. There’s her unresolved ambivalence about politics considered as a game: she knows that there’s much more at stake than simple wins and losses, and that scoring points can be pointless, but she admires the pros who play the game well. There is her more explicit resentment of people getting above themselves, as well as her anger with those at the top who commit sins of sloppiness. These are both, basically, high-school concerns, motivated by the adolescent need for a consensus of style, masquerading as moral judgments.

All I said to Kathleen was, “It’s her abuse of language.” I’d gotten the notion of language abuse from John Lanchester, who in the Magazine inaugurated a series of essays about finance and the economy by lambasting money men for conversing in a jargon that laymen, particularly uneducated laymen, cannot understand.

Banks and the financial elite can’t just talk to each other as if nothing has changed, as if the little people are just going to accept that they can’t follow the big words, so the rich should just keep running things in their own interest. The experts need to set terms for the debate that everyone can understand. So yes, when it comes to economics, language matters.

Lanchester is concerned with reading levels: texts can be scored according to various metrics, and in order to reach a general audience without taxing it, you must, apparently, aim no higher than a tenth-grade reading level. “Private sector banking output,” it seems, requires a twelfth-grade reading level, and while that may be necessary for the banking industry to function efficiently, just as the sciences tend to require very high levels of proficiency in mathematics, it is unacceptable for civic discourse. Lanchester reminds us that Richard Feynman was able to explain many abstruse concepts in modern physics at the eighth-grade level. If bankers won’t do it, then journalists must step in, as indeed Lanchester himself has done. John Lanchester is the go-to writer for understanding money today. I’m not sure that his fantastic pieces for the London Review of Books aren’t rather more demanding than his piece in the Times Magazine (which he ranks at a grade 9.6 level), but financial patois has become so hermetic that it needs to be simplified even for those of us with sixteenth-grade skills and more.

But reading levels have not been a political issue in this election campaign. Sure, Donald Trump has pitched his talk to sixth-graders of all ages. Hillary Clinton’s resistance to frank apology, however, is a different kind of language problem. And so is the hypocrisy of columnists who attack her for it. In case you smell a whiff of misogyny in my complaint about Dowd, I can say that I have a corresponding objection to Thomas Friedman’s irritatingly jockular manner [sic!]. My dislike of Friedman’s arrogant exaggerations, of his simplistic divisions of the herd into those who get it and those who don’t, is actually so intense that I almost always give his byline a pass. I’m more naturally attracted to Maureen Dowd’s wit. But I’ve become terminally discouraged by her persistent undermining. If I were to characterize Dowd with an offensive stereotype, it wouldn’t be misogynistic but cultural: she’s so Irish-American.

(To which I cannot quite add that I’m Irish-American, too. All I can say is that I’m not anything else.)


When I was in college, I wanted to write a book that would be titled The Age of Cool. In it, I would describe the toxic side-effects of cool, the necrotic tendency of the minimalist aesthetic that underpins it. I would capture the numbness and the enervating fastidiousness of what had yet to be called hipsters. But I’d have my cake and eat it, too, because there would be at least one character, ideally a plausible version of myself, who was so innately cool that no pruning would be required. He would rarely talk, but whatever he did say would be wise and vital. The main difficulty with this teen-aged fantasy was that I could never make up my mind about the roles of nature and nurture. If my hero was naturally cool, that would imply a certain regrettable, or at least uninspiring lack of effort. Nurture, however, would clearly take too long to bear fruit, and, besides, it would entail a polluting degree of self-consciousness. This was a very Sixties issue. We wanted to believe that excellence could be easily achieved once the correct attitudes were adopted. Baby-boomers have had a hard time letting go of that wishfulness.

We believed, for example, that racism could be eliminated by legislative fiat. We confused sanctions against certain official kinds of racial discrimination with a massive change of heart. It isn’t so much that we were wrong as that we didn’t bother to check. We just assumed that new laws would make a new society. No wonder so many of us were vulnerable to the infections of Theory, according to which the approved analytical terminology was both all-powerful and wholly artificial.

Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius insisted upon something that in the first English translation of his Analects was called “the rectification of names.” The Chinese is simpler, zheng ming, or “right names.” Call a spade a spade. Confucius was not discussing mere usage. Had Confucius’s advice been taken, a would-be prince would have been retitled a usurper — an illegitimate ruler. Whether or not it was politically viable to enforce this formal demotion — it wasn’t — Confucius claimed that civil order depended on it. He had no idea of “mere usage.” I don’t think that we can attempt to imitate such rigorous nominalism today. (In the West, nominalism has usually been projected onto imaginary or metaphysical spheres). Our affairs require a great deal of supple flexibility. But the kernel of Confucius’s verbal hygiene is indispensable, and we must carry it with us at all times. It is regrettable to temper one’s speech to facts on the ground. However necessary, it is never okay. We must always struggle to avoid or at least to confine it.

“Racism” — what is it? Specifically, what is it in the United States, between European-Americans and African-Americans? Is it discrimination on the basis of skin color? Somewhat, perhaps. I don’t think that skin color would be significant in the absence of other features that it is impolite to discuss, of resemblances to other species that ought to be unthinkable, of manners evolved in circumstances of acute involuntary degradation. “Skin color” is a euphemism. The first step toward true reconciliation is the truth: come to terms (literally) with the fact that humanity assumes many features — without ceasing to be humanity. We are all the same, and all different, and the feeling that some people are more the same as we are and less different is a powerful and perhaps essential emotional convenience but nothing more than that. It is always wrong to believe that this convenience reflects humane reality. We must keep the names straight.


Wednesday 9th

May we hope, at least, that this is the End of the Clintons? Not even that, perhaps.

I did not sit up into the early hours, waiting for the bad news to be confirmed. I got into bed because Kathleen was having trouble falling asleep, and then wouldn’t you know I fell asleep. The last time I looked, though, the Electoral map looked a lot like the speculative one that circulated a few weeks ago — it even popped up in a New Yorker cartoon — showing which states Trump would win if only men voted. My gut feeling throughout the election has been that Hillary Clinton was not the right choice for a first attempt at piercing the ultimate glass ceiling. Trump supporters made a lot of outrageously unlikely predictions about the terrible things that would befall the country if Clinton occupied the Oval Office, but the outrageousness itself was telltale: they were talking about a witch. They talked as though Hillary and the Democratic Party were the same thing — as if Hillary were a body snatcher. And I was never surprised that they did.

I’m trying to puzzle out this gut feeling, that Hillary Clinton was far more “unelectable” than Donald Trump. The simplest way to put it, I suppose, is that I felt, however irrationally, that Clinton would need to win two-thirds of the popular vote in order to win at all. She could be carried into office only by the most massive landslide in history. But it seemed unlikely that she would ever rouse any such phenomenon. This was implicit in the seriousness with which her e-mail imbroglios were taken. The issue was nonsense, but the actual black magic of Hillary converted what ought to have been a venial sin into a mortal one. It was the same with her “basket of deplorables.” It took no time at all for deplorable to become a badge of honor: Deplorable Lives Matter. To be a contender against Donald Trump, a woman running for the White House ought to have wielded deplorable like Thor’s hammer, thundering relentlessly. But instead she backtracked, as if it were rude to point out her opponent’s unelectability. Trump took care of his unelectability all by himself, but he made sure to saddle her with even more.


I’ve already read one blog post that seeks to comfort those of us who are dismayed by the prospect of a Trump presidency. I want to keep things in proportion, too, but I can’t quite manage to argue that the country has survived worse disasters than Donald Trump, and the fact that many Americans don’t see him as a disaster at all is even more upsetting. It is in fact the problem. Tim Urban is wise, but too youthful, I think, to worry seriously about a civil war. Regular readers will at the very least suspect that I not only worry about civil war but fear that it is inevitable. Instead of rattling on about that, though, I want to share a tangential distraction that I have found more than a little beguiling.

If you look at the five centuries preceding the present one, you will find, in the second decade of each, a disruption or sea change that’s conspicuously lacking in the first. It’s as though it took fifteen years or so for the old century to run out of steam, or for the new one to get a sense of itself. George Dangerfield writes hauntingly about noticing changes in style and attitude in the early part of 1914, long before whispers of the war to come. In any case, the war did come. In 1815, a long war came to an end. In 1715, not only did a long war end but Louis XIV died, taking with him the gravitational system with which he personally governed France. In 1618, there began a long war that was comparable in horror and length to the two-part catastrophe of the Twentieth Century. And 1517, Martin Luther posted his complaints about papal indulgences.

If I feel that an era is coming to an end now, it’s probably because I’m feeling old; whatever objections I have to the way things were is outweighed by comfort and familiarity. I’m in no mood to learn new tricks; I wasn’t all that good at learning the old ones. New can be great, new can be terrible. But I felt, for most of yesterday, as if I had already died, and were just going through motions. At the polling station, Kathleen and I took turns filling out our ballots while waiting on a longish line for the scanner. Then an official offered us the chance, as seniors, to go to the head of the line. People ahead of us in line actually encouraged this! So we took the offer, sheepishly in my case.

We needn’t have voted. New York State was solidly blue, with almost 59% of votes going to Clinton. That gave a certain more-the-merrier feeling to taking the trouble. It was a beautiful day, but that only reminded me of the terrible thing that happened here on another beautiful fall day. I felt, as I did on and after 9/11, that we were badly out of gear, connected but tearing apart.

On the one hand, something that made me sick with worry has happened, so I needn’t be sick with worry anymore. Instead — ?


Friday 11th

What worries me most is the prospective administration’s bent for authoritarian policies. How insistent will this be? And what, if any, opposition will it meet with in Washington, where everything will soon be in Republican Party control? Because they can would be worrisome enough, but dictatorish witch-hunts will certainly be tempting if the material policies, such as trade, jobs, and immigration, run into more intractable resistance than Trump’s supporters seem to think possible.

It ought to be no news that Republicans have achieved a victory for which they have worked long and hard. Whether they will enjoy this victory is another matter: they may have won it only to pass it on to the alt-right. The Republican strategy was to exploit control of statehouses to determine national outcomes. This may have been made easier by their opponents’ attitudes. Liberals and progressives and everybody else who would be horrified by what has happened tended to view statehouses with something like contempt. I am sure that you would not have to scratch the hides of Hillary voters very deep to discover the conviction that states themselves are anachronisms. Certainly the actual American states no longer correspond to social reality. This, I think, is our most serious problem: how to replace outgrown borders. It is a problem that we share with other parts of the world; arguably, it is everyone’s biggest problem right now, in view of planetary degradation.

It is also pretty clear that Americans to the left of the Republican Party have complacently believed that their worldview sells itself. Who could possibly oppose something as enlightened as same-sex marriage? We may well find out who: what the Supreme Court giveth, it can take away. Probably because I’m an old man, I’ve felt that social liberalization has proceeded far too quickly. Certainly it has proceeded without sufficient account taken of resistance, for resistance has been slapped with the label of bigotry. It may have been wiser to allow small businesses involved in what we might call intimate issues to decline to participate in rites that their owners regarded as unconscionable. Liberals seem not to have learned, from the Soviet example, how obstinate people can be about changing their minds.

So, while Republican operatives were working overtime to tweak every little advantage, the rest of us were basking in the tanning beds of self-congratulation. We elected a black president! In a book reviewed in today’s Times, Wesley Lowery notes the persistence of Ferguson-style shootings during the Obama Administration. Dwight Garner:

Mr. Lowery’s book is valuable for many reasons. He circles slowly and warily around the question of why, during Barack Obama’s presidency, so little has seemed to improve on the racial front.

“The headlines of the Obama years often seemed a yearbook of black death,” he writes, “raising a morbid and depressing quandary for black men and women: Why had the promise and potential of such a transformative presidency not yet reached down to the lives of those who elected him? Even the historic Obama presidency could not suspend the injunction that playing by the rules wasn’t enough to keep you safe. What protection was offered by a black presidency when, as James Baldwin once wrote, the world is white, and we are black?”

What if the black man in the White House made things worse for black men everywhere else — just by being where he was?

If I thought that the Supreme Court to which Donald Trump is going to subject us would be inclined to make its overriding maxim Justice Brandeis’s dictum about states as the laboratories of democracy, I’d breathe a lot easier. Unfortunately, it was the liberals who turned their back on that idea, when, in pursuit of equal civil rights for all Americans, they tarred the idea of states’ rights with contempt. Am I trying to say that the campaign for civil rights in the Sixties was a regrettable mistake? No, I am not. But I am saying that a program that was inspired primarily by Cold War optics, far more than by any new-found concern for justice, was bound to have unwanted side-effects. And it made the Democratic Party untrustworthy at its core. That problem has never been reformed; at this point, nothing short of liquidation could cure it.

Who are we, anyway? And what do we really want? I hope that it’s more than just feeling good about things.

Bon week-end à tous!