Archive for May, 2017

Gotham Diary:
Means of Production
May 2017 (IV)

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

22, 23, 25 and 26 May

Monday 22nd

When I was an undergraduate, someone told me that Cardinal Newman used to read Mansfield Park every summer. I was very impressed by this nugget of complex information, every part of which illuminated every other and increased the brilliance of the whole. I exaggerated the unusualness of a cardinal‘s reading novels; I knew that Newman was a convert, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant that he had started out as an English gentleman. Nevertheless, the anecdote was said of Cardinal Newman, bringing the force of a mature man’s wisdom. The anecdote suggested, moreover, that Jane Austen was singled out among all novelists for revisiting. That Cardinal Newman chose the singular unfunny title in Austen’s oeuvre, the most serious and religious-minded of her books, had the effect of transforming — transfiguring, really — the story of Fanny Price into a sort of seasonal devotion, a book of hours for long summer afternoons.

It was the ritual aspect that appealed to me, the faithful re-reading year after year, presumably in the same month, perhaps even in the same place. I will never live up to it. I have a hard-enough time remembering to listen to Bach’s Passions during Lent; for some reason, I much prefer them in the late autumn. I happen to be reading Mansfield Park at the moment, not in imitation of Newman’s example but pursuant to a more stunt-like plan: I am reading Austen in reverse. About a month ago, I gave up looking for new things to read on the Kindle, and started in on Persuasion. As I came to the end of it, I had the idea of reading Mansfield Park, and then Emma (which has always been my favorite), followed by the two antithetically-titled chestnuts. It would be perverse not to finish with Northanger Abbey. Perhaps I might go all the way and read Lady Susan for the second time. Will Austen’s greatness palpably diminish? If it does, I shall relish the satisfactions of the connoisseur. It’s always fun to play the pompous ass — as long as nobody is looking.

Mansfield Park has struck me in the past as unusually shapeless, a series of one damn thing after another. No sooner does Fanny Price arrives at Mansfield Park than Sir Thomas disappears to Antigua. Aunt Norris — the noisiest of wicked witches — arranges the Rushworth alliance, and the Crawfords arrive at the Parsonage. These developments swell into the embarrassing afternoon at Sotherton, the dull Mr Rushworth’s great house. Then, Tom Bertram, having been sent back to England ahead of his father (one needn’t wonder why), shows up with a new friend picked up at the races (or is it Weymouth?), and, next thing you know, Aunt Norris is fashioning a curtain for the “theatricals,” an amateur production of the sentimental but decidedly inappropriate play, Lovers’ Vows. Which never takes place, of course, because Sir Thomas shows up unexpectedly and puts a stop to it. Now the pace slows a bit, as if in respect of the unwise nuptials. With Maria and Julia off the scene, Fanny emerges as a pretty, if still quite timid, young woman. The occasion of her naval brother’s visit inspires Sir Thomas to give a ball at Mansfield, and Fanny shines — in her understated way.

Through all of this, there has been no sense of an impending crisis, of something that will happen and change everything. In Persuasion, we know from the start that Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth will have to come to some sort of terms, now that their lives have been thrown together again. In Emma, there is the immediate drama of snaring Mr Elton for Harriet Smith; this is followed by the murky interactions with Emma of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. In Pride and Prejudice, each of the Bennett girls seems to have her own impending crisis. But there is no early indication in Mansfield Park of a matter that must be settled. Rather, it appears that poor Fanny will just have to get used to Edmund’s eventually marrying someone else — for she can’t bring herself to expect that he will marry her, even if that is her heart’s desire. Not until the shocking chapter in which Henry Crawford boasts to his sister that he intends to leave “a small hole” in Fanny’s heart by making her love him does the crisis of Mansfield Park announce itself. And even then, Fanny cannot take it seriously. She loathes Crawford, and expects to bat him away with unwelcoming speeches. But these only excite him.

Mansfield Park is not shapeless at all: it is insidious. Step by step, Austen takes us into the nightmare garden of old-world libertinage. Henry Crawford is every bit the monster of depravity that Fanny takes him to be, but only she sees the devil behind the disguise. She does not see him with complete clarity. Aside from failing to realize that her discouragement is an aphrodisiac, she never quite grasps the grotesque impropriety of Crawford’s arranging for William’s advancement before opening his heart, or whatever simulacrum thereof he possesses, to Fanny. He saddles her with a heavy burden of gratitude that makes her rejection of his suit seem churlish. She senses it and she regrets it, but she doesn’t understand the mastery of his pinning maneuver. She would have to be older — Anne Elliot’s age — to examine Crawford with complete analytical detachment. Fanny simply wants him to go away. Exposing a virtuous maiden to the depravities of a perverted lover is one of the oldest thrills in storytelling, and Austen intensifies its horror by presenting it in a context of gracious good breeding. Everyone surrounding Fanny seems willing to regard Crawford’s pursuit of her as proof that he wants only her inspiration to repair the tarnish on his character. Even Edmund is willing to offer her up. In his “dignified musings,” Sir Thomas concludes that the best thing for Fanny is a taste of the shabby-genteel life from which he and Aunt Norris pulled her as a child. I want to save talking about Austen’s magnificent handling of this episode, which sinks the penitential in the transcendent, until I’ve read it again. But it is hard to give one’s complete attention to these humble scenes, knowing as one does of the explosion a-building in the background.


Tuesday 23rd

Good thing I decided to read the end of Mansfield Park before writing about it. “Sinks the penitential in the transcendent,” eh? On top of being wrong, it’s contradictory, for things can’t sink while they’re transcending, can they now? And it is wrong. I had it all backwards. The Fanny-in-Portsmouth episode of Mansfield Park shows Austen at her most Thatcherite. Fanny does not overcome initial misgivings to reach a greater understanding of her parents. On the contrary, she is rudely awakened from dreams of “home” and parental attachment to “bad smells,” to a father who is “dirty and gross,” and to a mother who is “a slattern.” There is nothing transcendent in this. Fanny cannot wait to leave. Scrupulous at first about referring to Mansfield Park by its name, by its county, she soon falls back on calling it home, and the shocking thing is that her parents are not offended. They have been discharged of her, and her departure gives them greater joy by relieving them of Fanny’s sister Susan. Austen has no sympathy for the Prices; as she paints them, they wouldn’t want it. They have made their soiled and pointless ways all by themselves. Mrs Price especially is not to be forgiven her imprudent marriage. The Portsmouth episode comports with the overall mixed message of the book, which is that poor people must take personal responsibility for their situations, while upper-class miscreants are discreetly translated to that era’s equivalent of a witness protection program. A hypocrite reader, I loved every minute.

And Sir Thomas’s “dignified musings” were on the ball, too; I was wrong about that. Against the backdrop of her parents’ shabbiness, Henry Crawford, when he pays his visit, is more attractive to Fanny than ever, and she is quite softened in her regard for him. Who knows what a few more visits might have done? Certainly Crawford’s subsequent folly with Mrs Rushworth cannot be accounted as a rebound; he must have known that his stock with Fanny stood higher than ever. The situation is saved by Crawford’s vanity, not by Fanny’s caution.

When Edmund and Fanny discuss the moral vacancy of Mary Crawford’s reaction to the scandal, Austen astutely avoids religious references. She leaves all of that to the reader, giving leave to the reader who is not religiously inclined to regard the novel’s judgment as purely humane. It may have been unwise of Maria Bertram to marry Mr Rushworth, but having done so, she is obliged to bear with him; she is even more obliged not to insult him by deserting him, and herself by yielding to foolish passion. Crawford is all the worse for having permitted Maria to destroy her respectability without feeling any love in return. Mary Crawford regards it all as “folly,” and so might we, but Austen insists that we see it as outright wrong. We must understand that life is big enough for Fanny, who benefits in every way from the disgrace, nonetheless grieves — even if somewhat abstractly.

I was also mistaken in thinking that Mansfield Park was written after Emma, not before it. So much for my project of reading the novels in reverse. Not that I’ll abandon the reading — I’ve already returned to Hartfield and Highbury, and witnessed the cruel abduction of Miss Taylor.


Over the weekend, I watched Contact, and for the oddest reason. The night before, I had really enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. I was struck by Jodie Foster’s ability to incorporate Masha Skorobogatov’s performance as Clarice Starling’s younger self, despite the fact that the two actresses bore no mutual resemblance whatever. I remembered Foster’s doing the same thing in Contact, her brightening eyes recapitulating Jena Malone’s earnestness at the ham radio setup. This is how one thing leads to another in my life. (I also watched Broadcast News again, because Holly Hunter does such an amazing job of showing how little Gennie James grew up.)

There is one line in Contact that has stuck with me, as an abiding thought if not as a literary motto. Astronomer Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is asked by the member of a selection committee to state the one question that she would be certain to ask if she encountered intelligent life. “How did you do it?” Arroway replies. “How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourself?”

How are we going to survive it? That humanity has been plunged into something at least as unsettling as adolescence is more obvious every day. Leaders at every level are showing themselves to resemble teenagers with poor judgment driving cars after parties. An apparently endless string of bribery charges ties up officials the world over. Why did they think they could get away with it, especially in this era of ubiquitous cameras and flashpoint news updates? It is hard to tell whether the art of keeping secrets has been lost or become impossible. There are few signs that anyone is learning to live with conditions as they are. I have always suspected that societies will not regain their balance until all the people who grew up before the new technology is properly understood have died off. That might sound like a eulogy for the Baby Boomers. But “all the people” may include everybody alive today, and yet to be born for many years. The proper understanding of technology is nowhere in sight.

The current state of play is an allergy to strangers. Technology has done just the opposite of what it was expected to do in the postwar years. It has put us all in the same space without bringing us together. The human penchant for blaming the unknown for everything that’s wrong has been given too many opportunities. We blame other people, instead of re-examining social arrangements that haven’t caught up.

In the United States, it often seems that two distinct societies are finding it difficult to establish condominium. The pairs vary: the Coasts and the Heartland, the Urban and the Rural. I wonder, though, if it is not a matter of the same society in two phases — an old American story with a history of ugliness. When immigration was overwhelmingly Northern European, established Americans discriminated against those with strange accents or foreign tongues. Then, as Southern Europeans appeared, skin color became the shibboleth. Now, of course, it is Islam that distinguishes those who are pursuing the American dream from those who feel that they have achieved it, and that somebody is trying to take it away from them.

In the past, the problem could be solved geographically, but our landmass is settled now; nobody wants to live in the empty places. Our cities suggest that we could create more territory for groups by living more densely — something that would also solve a number of environmental problems. But who is to lead this move? Where are the adults?


Thursday 25th

All week, I’ve been mulling over something that I read via The Browser on Tuesday. It’s an interview with Israeli linguist Daniel Dor that I urge you to read, partly because I’ve probably misunderstood it, but mostly because I am not going to discuss it in terms of linguistic theories generally. All that I’ll say about that larger landscape is that the response of linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (different languages provoke different thoughts) strikes me as intellectually boorish, the equivalent of arguing that the quartets of Haydn and Mozart “sound the same.” Having said that, I am going to continue as if no one had ever proposed a theory about the origin of language before.

Daniel Dor, working with others, especially Eva Jablonky, speculates that language was invented by ancestors of Homo sapiens sapiens, as a response to necessities occasioned by “complex dynamics at the collective level.” I unpack that bit of mumbo-jumbo to mean that our ancestors were forming groups that required the kind of language that only human beings speak. Dor points out that all other languages that we know of are limited to the description of and commentary upon the here-and-now. Neither chimpanzees nor other animals are capable of communicating information about yesterday, much less planning for tomorrow. Another way to put this is that non-human languages cannot intelligibly articulate experiences that are peculiar to only one of two participants in a conversation.

In the interview, Dor does not come out and say what comes next, so you’ll have evaluate my inference for yourself. My inference is that he and his colleagues speculate that the newly-invented language wasn’t very effective. I would say that what was invented wasn’t the language so much as the need for the language. Dor continues, “language began to function as a selective environment for individuals.” More mumbo-jumbo, but I think it means that the ability to speak the new language became a factor in either natural or sexual selection. Those who had it did better than those who lacked it. “Eventually, Homo sapiens emerged as a language-ready species.” What this means, I think, is that the possession of all the capacities required for effective speech (tongue, windpipe, brain) became basic human equipment. (Dor is eager to insist that language itself is not part of our genetic inheritance. The ability to speak and understand it is what’s passed down.)

As you can see from my inferences and clarifications, I’ve already customized Dor’s hypothesis to my own way of thinking. This morning, it occurred to me to present an instance of the human dynamic underlying Dor’s theory in an entirely different, and far more familiar context. Let’s say —

Let’s say this: Henry Ford, in inventing the assembly line (which he didn’t, not really, but we’ll let that pass; he deserves the credit for running all the way with a good idea), also invented the need for robots. The assembly line itself was already partly robotic — the conveyors that moved parts from station to station until a car was assembled were mechanical. The assembly itself was performed by workmen, but from the moment the conveyors were activated it was probably inevitable that more and more of the assembly process would be performed by mechanisms invented for the purpose. Now, of course, cars can be manufactured with very little direct human action. Whether they are or not is a political and economic question, but it is not a technological question. The technology of automated automobile assembly is in place.

To map Dor’s hypothesis over Ford’s experience, we can appreciate the difference between Ford’s assembly line and today’s. The automated assembly line has solved all of the problems inherent in depending upon a workforce made up of different human beings. Individual idiosyncrasies, desires for wage increases and other benefits, hostility to management: these are all vaporized by automation, on top of which, robots can be repaired by robots! Now, language has created vast human riches, but I think that it would be wrong to say that it has solved all the problems that people have in trying to communicate with each other. But I have made the comparison not only to translate Dor’s theory into Common Reader, but also to highlight a distinction that is both essential to constructive thinking about our future and woefully lacking in the unspoken prejudices and predispositions that govern what we say about it.


I have more to say about Dor, but right now, with the assembly line fresh in mind, I want to pursue the distinction between the human and the mechanical.

Mechanisms are systems or devices that perform pre-determined operations in a highly predictable manner. Variables such as speed and input can be simply controlled by levers and switches. Most mechanisms perform one of two functions. Some mechanisms perform highly-repetitive and/or intensely precise operations. Others perform operations that require energy and durability beyond the capacities of humans or animals. Some mechanisms, such as an airplane, perform both functions. Flight itself is an example of the second function, while the firing of spark plugs in the plane’s engine is an example of the first.

It could be argued that the animal body is full of mechanisms, but I have tried to capture the unhelpfulness of this argument in my definition. The predictability of bodily functions is too complicated to be “highly predictable”; there is still much to be understood about them. Nor can bodily functions be controlled simply. How wonderful it would be if our metabolisms could be switched, without adverse consequences, to produce the loss of ten pounds! Still, the mushrooming expansion of mechanical devices in the past two centuries and more has generated repeated campaigns, more or less overt, to treat human beings as mechanisms. Ford’s assembly line is of course a prime example, and it is also an example of dissatisfaction with such a campaign: eventually, the problem of the assembly line was solved not by making human beings more mechanical but by replacing human beings with actual mechanisms (robots). Manufacturers are ahead of everyone else on this. The very concept of “productivity” is an example of the persistent desire to treat human beings as machines. And while it may make sense to harness mechanisms in the production of manufactures, perhaps it also makes sense to stop assessing other human work by assembly-line standards.

It may be, in short, that the vast mechanization that we call the Industrial Revolution invented the need for a humane economics. One that has nothing at all to do with the means of production!


Friday 26th

Something else that occurred to me, while I was trying to take in Daniel Dor’s hypothesis about the origin of language, was that it serves as a template for the explanation of a lot of human frustration and suffering. We are all gifted with the ability to imagine a better world. What we have yet to develop — call it a need that hasn’t been met, just as “language-ready” human beings (according to the hypothesis) took a while to develop after the invention of language — is the body of knowledge that would tell us when to work toward our goals and when to wait. Planting a lovely garden involves an amazing amount of idleness: most of the time, there is nothing to do, and you have to learn how to leave it alone.

My current bugbear is “perfection.” I should like to see this notion drop-kicked out of the solar system. It is yet another bad idea from the Greek cornucopia. All it does is reify frustration. The idea of perfection proposes that our improved dreamworlds actually exist, if only in the superlunary world of form. The idea is that if you can imagine something, it’s real, even if its reality is not currently available on Earth.

From the pagan idea of perfection, the Christian Doctors created a metaphysics, without Scriptural support of any kind, that explained human shortcomings as imperfection. Our imperfection was explained as the price of our First Parents’ great sin. Since Genesis has nothing to say about the thoughts that Adam and Eve may have had about perfection as such, it’s unclear whether eating the apple stripped them of perfection or made them aware of their lack of it — an interesting point, if you go in for angels dancing on pinheads. The idea of human imperfection has permeated Western thought and is no longer tethered to religious thought. The Enlightenment, for example, is often faulted for having assumed the perfectibility of man, something that led straight to Totalitarianism. I believe that this is a misreading of the philosophes, as long as you exclude that hypocritical troublemaker, Rousseau.

The fact is, we are who we are. We are state of the art human beings. We could all do better. There are good reasons why we don’t. The things that keep us from doing better are not imperfections. They are features; aside from illness, there are no bugs. “Weakness” signals the impossibility, however momentary or long-lasting, to resolve conflicting objectives. Evil — I have thought a lot about evil lately and I have located it not in individuals (sociopaths are sick) as among them: evil is a matter of conspiracy. More about that some other time. To sin is to yield to an unwise or shameful impulse, almost always because of a “weakness.” The cure for weakness is not disciplined virtue but knowledge. Some of this knowledge, we already possess. Most of it, we don’t, not yet.

Another implication of Dor’s hypothesis is that the line between the group and the individual is unclear, and possibly nonexistent. Like “perfection,” the distinction is something that we can imagine, although it may have no correlative existence. We are responsible for our actions, but we are also responsible for helping others, and even more for not making the lives of others more difficult than they already are, something very easy to do if you’re a libertarian. I understand the libertarian critique of “government,” and it has nothing to do with the problems of people trying to constitute a society. It seems clear that we did not develop language for libertarian purposes. In fact, it would seem that the honest libertarian’s first duty is to shut up.


I’m taking next week off. I hope to have a very good time.

Bon week-end à tous!


Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (III)

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

15, 16, 18 and 19 May

Monday 15th

How often have I sat here on recent Mondays, with no idea of where to begin or how to proceed! The writing project is a legitimate distraction, but it doesn’t explain the knot in my tongue. To my great relief, Charles Sykes untied it yesterday, with an opinion piece in the Times’s Sunday Review.

But the real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

I don’t know why I couldn’t figure out how to say this myself, but I have been perfectly aware of it since the election. I suspect that I lack the courage to be nasty about people whom I fear, dislike, and don’t understand. It has always been easier to save my blasts for the liberal élite, which ought to know better than to do the things it does. The members of the liberal élite, them I know well.

Last week, when the Comey firing occasioned so much righteous indignation to the left of the alt-right, I frowned with dismay — at the outrage — but that’s as close as I got to grasping why I myself did not find the crisis very critical. There was nothing illegal about the deed; the worst that could be said was that the President had done something that looked bad. But looked bad to whom? It looked great to the anti-anti-Trumps — let’s call them the Auntie Grumps — precisely because of the conniptions that it provoked in the very bosoms that had bellyached about Comey all summer long, and then again right before the election. “It’s just insane actually,” Tucker Carlson giggled. I’m making up the giggling part; I’ve never seen Carlson in action. But there must have been at least the ghost of a smirk.

In today’s paper, Charles Blow tells us that the President’s approval ratings are dropping, dropping, dropping — and perhaps they are. But Americans are screwy about politics. Having been exposed to market-driven television news for so much longer than people anywhere else on earth, Americans respond schizophrenically to political figures who caper in front of the cameras. They know, and they can tell you, what’s good and bad about policies and programs. But they can’t help responding to politicians themselves as entertainers. The last truly entertaining American president was Richard Nixon, but he hated la publicité even more than Donald Trump loves to bask in it. To paraphrase CBS chief Leslie Moonves, Donald Trump is very entertaining. And one of the most entertaining things about him is — but you’re not old enough. You don’t remember Froggy, the impish puppet on the Andy Devine Show, one of the early kiddie programs. Maybe you’d better watch this first.

In this clip, the Auntie Grumps are the children laughing with delight at the self-sabotaging suggestibility of the tuba player, who can’t help picking up Froggy’s naughty interjections. Froggy is of course Donald Trump. The tuba player is you. Every time Froggy says something, you forget that Donald Trump is only pretending to be the president, and not very well. You take him seriously and explode with exasperation. The kiddies are thrilled!

The Froggy episode that sticks in my mind involved a professor of some kind, doing a demonstration.

Professor: And then you take this glass of water (pours a glass of water from a pitcher) —
Froggy: And you pour it on your head.
Professor: And you pour it on your head (does so).

One fears that the editors of the Times and The New Yorker are going to die of pneumonia.

We can’t tell yet just how autonomous Donald Trump is in the White House. What was the consensus in the West Wing when Comey was fired? We won’t know for a while. What, I’m particularly interesting in knowing, were Mike Pence’s thought on the matter? My suspicion is that nothing happens without a second opinion, without the input of a responsible adult. The President is surrounded by responsible adults. They let him play with Twitter because that is essential to his shtick as an entertainer. They let him ad lib for the same reason. But does he actually do anything on his own? It doesn’t seem to me that he does.

If the “Russia matter” is really at the bottom of the Comey firing, it, too, is a curious business. Certainly there has been a great deal of impropriety — or what would have been regarded as impropriety by the liberal élite’s predecessor, the (much smaller) power élite of the Fifties and Sixties. Remember what happened to Sherman Adams! In those days, Russia, or rather the Soviet Union, used to be our mortal enemy, and the mere suspicion of chitchat would have brought disgrace. Now Russia is just Russia, and, like the United States, it is flying on nationalist tailwinds. It’s hard to take private and no doubt conspiratorial conversations between top officials on both sides any more or less seriously than the parleys of two crime bosses. Impropriety is the least of it!

As Lenin asked — or was it Chernyshevsky? — Que faire? What is to be done? How do we react when Mount Trump erupts? Bearing in mind that Mount Trump is a concoction of plaster of Paris and kitchen cleaners, we must resist the temptation to erupt ourselves. We must not erupt. Trump’s applause is coming from goons who think we’re funny when we blow up. Maybe they don’t think it’s funny, but they’re so tickled that it is we, and not they, who are on the hotseat that they can’t help laughing.

Instead of erupting, we ought to be thinking, Where did we go wrong? Because we did go wrong. The liberal élite has almost ostentatiously failed to lead this country ever since it came to power in the late Sixties. (Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is a fine example of what has taken the place of leadership since then.) The liberal élite has given up leading and taken up catering.

If you’ll think about that for fifteen minutes, you have my permission to blow up.


Tuesday 16th

Then there is the Magazine’s cover story. The piece about “open marriage” that decorated the front of the Times Magazine on Sunday with four cute photographs: husband and wife, husband and girlfriend, wife and boyfriend, husband and wife (bis). Such depravity! (And, in my imagination, I say it with the bleak but gooey scorn of the late Fabia Drake.) As far as I’m concerned, an open marriage is either recklessly endangered or not serious. “Open marriage” is not a fit topic for public discussion, certainly not in a “family newspaper” that is so cloyingly prissy about refusing to print certain earthy words. What a heyday for the Auntie Grumps! Everything that provincial America hates about New York is right there in that collection of four photographs. It’s hard to know which is more depraved: the marriage or the publicity.

I didn’t read the story. Kathleen did, and told me that there wasn’t anything in it that surprised her. A married couple decided that the way to revive their flagging ardor was to pursue relationships with others, and to do so not with surreptitious one-night-stands but with out-in-the-open lovers. Significantly, these lovers were labeled “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” as if to avoid, by performative utterance, the Continental wickedness of “affairs.” Instead, our amatory adventurers evoked a high-school atmosphere, and the immaturity to go with it. What they want even more than good sex is unattainable youth. Not only being young and in great shape, &c &c, but being ignorant of what’s to come. Remember the good old days, when you didn’t know any better?

I keep hiccuping on the publication, the fact that the Times not only published this story but did so with the cover of its weekend magazine. The editors must believe that the objections to open marriage must be based on religious principles — principles that Times readers are presumably too sophisticated to share. Such thinking overlooks the likelihood that the religious principles involved, however gnarled by supernatural socketry, reflect existential wisdom rooted in the experience of intimacy, fidelity, and the “caring” part of charity.

Maybe bots will be the solution after all.


Thursday 18th

The other day, I received an alumni magazine in the mail. I flipped through it, almost annoyed by the smiling faces of students and teachers who had nothing to do with me. Many of the buildings in the photographs were unfamiliar. I could not imagine where they were on the campus, and in one case I couldn’t figure out what the building was for. There must have been a few shots of athletic teams, but I have a knack for not seeing those. Altogether, the magazine filled me with a desire to cancel my subscription. Better than that: could I write to the school and say that I was dead?

I don’t mean to be morbid. What’s dead here are my school days. The school itself has changed since then, but even if there were no new buildings, and even if students were still all male — if, that is to say, the alumni magazine were still in black-and-white — there would be nothing in it for me but a lot of familiar scenes. The teachers are long gone. Many of my classmates have died. But the main point is that my school days are over. They were very important while I was living them. I’m deeply grateful for the education that I received there, because it encompassed learning to teach myself. But in the moment of graduation, my connection with the school came to an end.

The pretense of its continuation was of course elaborately maintained. I was so deluded by the possible meanings of “alumnus” that, in the low years that followed graduation from college, I drove out to my old school with vague hopes of finding a job. Kindly, nobody laughed at me, but my hopes were ridiculous. I wouldn’t have hired me. Then, after my father died, I donated a modest four-figure sum, and suddenly found myself on a new invitation list. I meant to visit, but never got round to it. Kathleen was not interested. Reunions came and went without me. I was able to keep up my friendships with the two classmates whom I really liked without any reference to school.

If it hadn’t been for that old standby, my complete lack of interest in sports, it might have been different. Although everything else about a school changes, the games don’t. Football and basketball and soccer and swimming and wrestling go on featuring the same kind of competition, and I suppose they must provide an inviting portal for imaginative recollection. But I never took part in that sort of thing. It didn’t interest me at all, and I didn’t believe that it belonged in schools. I still don’t, all the more intently for understanding just how dependent schools are on sports for appeals to alumni. It’s an American cancer.

My past, my memories, like anybody’s mean a great deal to me. But they exist only in my mind. The campus on which I was educated fifty years ago is purely imaginary now, and cannot be revisited in the real world. As for the education that began there, my boast is that it shows no signs of ending. It has transferred, with all its credits, to the academy of my book room.


Friday 19th

Because the author of the piece in The New Yorker was writing about a precocious visit to a voting booth, the statement of his height at the time was not irrelevant. He was nine years old and four foot one. He wasn’t really voting, of course, but his vocation had already declared itself: Thomas Mallon would pursue a career in politics. The comparison to my grandson, who turned seven in January and who stands four foot seven, and who by the age of nine may not require a beanstalk in order to climb into the clouds, was not one that worked in my grandson’s favor. He might be taller and larger — he easily weighs more than the nine year-old Mallon’s fifty-five pounds — but insofar as he has inherited other things besides his height from me, I wish that I might instead have passed on the genes that Mallon inherited. Making every allowance for the literate man’s ability to imbue recollection with coherence, the young Mallon still comes across as an astonishingly organized boy. Smart and healthy, all he had to do was grow up, and then, just like that, he could walk into his chosen way of life. My envy overfloweth.

Not really, not really. I don’t suppose that Mallon’s progress from political official to political novelist was a walk in the park. But even if it was, I don’t envy him or anybody else, because I know that I am special. Unfortunately, my specialness suffers from locked-in syndrome. It depends not on the blinks of my eyelids but on the taps of my fingers for attestation of its existence. It must be terribly difficult to divine the nuances of emotion from the binary code of one blink or two, but as to my own meaning in life, at least as expressed in these endless entries, I wonder if it is not Debussy’s sunken cathedral, sounding massive and hardly more nuanced chords from the bottom of a murky sea.

Mallon’s piece tells us, among other things, how, as an established man of letters, he was welcomed to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and given a glance at the letter that he himself wrote to JFK way back in 1962 to express his disagreement with the President’s “support” of the Supreme Court decision in Engel v Vitale, which banned public-school prayer. Mallon had preserved the response, from a West Wing factotum, but he had not kept a copy of his own letter (indicating, to my curialist eyes, a lapse worthy of inquisition), and it piqued him to see what he had written. The President had of course supported the Supreme Court, not the argument of its decision, but “[u]nderneath all that fustian, I can in fact find something attributable to John F Kennedy, to a climactic line of his Convention acceptance speech…” Short of a limitless amount of cash, together with the sense to spend it well, I can’t imagine a more satisfying fortune than Mallon’s inheritance.

I am still trying to figure out my own.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (II)

Monday, May 8th, 2017

8, 9 and 11 May

Monday 8th

As often happens, I forgot the best part. On Friday, writing about The Lake House, I ought to have added the following at the end.

But The Lake House is masterful at obliterating “technicalities.” The emotional climax of the film leads immediately to the finale. Kate is looking at Alex’s drawing of the lake house, but we’re looking at her from the wall. Behind her, Henry tells of Alex’s death. Kate’s face immediately succumbs to still, blind, weeping grief, but when Henry adds that Alex died two years ago this very day, Kate opens her eyes, and speech begins to flutter in her lips. We know what she is going to say long before she does — taking forever to form the word “where” is one of Sandra Bullock’s many triumphs as a screen actress. As soon as she hears that Alex was killed in a traffic accident at Daley Plaza — the anonymous death that we witnessed early in the film — she is out the door.


Over the weekend, I put two thick books behind me. The first was J D Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors. A measure of how much things have changed since this work first appeared in 1952 may be taken from its final, single-sentence paragraph.

Sound in her stock as competent in her institutions, instinct with life and energy, England awaited the arrival of Elizabeth.

You really can’t write this sort of thing anymore. It’s not so much the pathetic fallacy of speaking of England as “awaiting” anything at all, as the very definite attendance of something that hindsight (not quite the same thing as history) has long regarded as a glorious reign. The miracle is that Elizabeth made it through her first years, that the thicket of hostility in which she had been obliged to grow up from infancy not only failed to kill her but spontaneously disappeared with the death of her elder half-sister. Nor could it be imagined that Elizabeth would never marry, her most redoubtable achievement. Nobody could reasonably expect that the pale young woman of uncertain confession would rule as a virgin queen for forty-five years, or that by at long last executing her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, she would clear the way to the throne for Mary’s son, James. Mackie’s ending all but transforms England into the audience for a beloved movie, a cherished tale; at the same time, it transforms Mackie’s readers into proto-Elizabethans. The illusion — a confusion, really — is bewitching, which is precisely why it is no longer permissible.

The other book was Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelists. I really don’t know what to say about this tome. The book is well-written and intelligent, but there is something oblique about it, something that made me wonder why I had to plow through a hundred pages (a hundred and two, actually) about relations between Evangelical leaders and the first Bush Administration. I often had the queasy feeling, which I hate to associate with a writer whom I so admire, that Fitzgerald was telling everything that she knew in the hopes that a story would emerge.

Indeed, I sensed the presence of a number of strangled stories. First, as I said a while back, the book seems to be about the inerrantists, those who believe that what the Bible says is literally true. Not all evangelicals believe this, as Fitzgerald points out, but for most of the book the inerrantists hold her attention. And yet there is no discussion of the cherry-picking indulged by these literalists. For you cannot be a Christian inerrantist without making a few profound decisions about what in the Hebrew Bible still holds after Christ’s mission and passion. The openness of Paul to the gentiles increases the pressure. Ultimately, we want to know what makes the story of Creation so important, and just where the inerrantists find strictures against abortion with greater force than other, neglected, strictures.

Another story, broached but never explored, might have evaluated the theology of the Prosperity Gospel. Nor does Fitzgerald bring much critical thought to the Pentacostal movements, or to the role of mass excitement in American religiosity generally. So much about evangelism in this country necessarily strikes the outsider as the embarrassing endorsement of vulgar conceit, a sanctification of things as they are instead of a leadership toward what they ought to be, that mere reportage seems naïve. There is much cognitive dissonance between the rigor of Fitzgerald’s history and the slovenliness of evangelical anti-intellectualism. What a terrible waste of effort, to write so scrupulously about so many know-nothings.

I have been reading the Gospels; I am in the middle of Luke. Not a believer myself, I am usually inclined to regard Jesus as a very good man who preached a deeply humane message, one that rightly rests at the heart of Western civilization. Until I pick up the New Testament, that is.


Tuesday 9th

Work on the writing project is once again a major part of my day. I read somewhere not long ago that, when a writing project — hopefully but quite prematurely a book, in common parlance — is going well, almost everything that you read seems to throw a new ray of light on it. That is indeed happening to me. Whether it’s a book that I’ve had in my pile for months or a piece in a magazine that arrived in the mail yesterday, whatever I’m reading seems lit from within by the ideas that are already on my mind. It’s rather like the scene in A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is surrounded by panels of illuminated numbers — but I know that it’s just me. The uncanny thing is that these confirmations are reinforcing, not distracting.

I encountered another one yesterday, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Michael Walzer reviews On Betrayal, by Avishai Margalit. I’m torn between ordering a copy of the book right away and believing that I’ve already extracted all that I need from it. According to Walzer,

Two strong distinctions are central to Margalit’s arguments: first, between thick and thin human relations, and second, between ethics (which deals with the thick) and morality (which deals with the thin). Thick relations begin with family and friends but can be extended in various directions.

I have been writing about growing up as an adopted child, which for a long time I thought had blighted my life. As I grew older and more deliberate, however, I had a harder time identifying any actual damage. My childhood was unhappy, but I grew up around it and beyond it, and the longer I lived the less blighted my life felt. Now it feels quite robust. But Margalit’s distinctions remind me that the conditions of adoption were more than a little problematic. I have formed very, very few thick connections, and they most certainly didn’t begin with “family.”

My connection to my wife was thick even before she agreed to proceed beyond friendship. Now it is massive. I don’t mean to boast here. We’ve grown together, we’ve survived a few serious scrapes, but we remain entirely different, if sympathetic, people, and the thickness owes a great deal to our not feeling dominated by the other. Mutual support is now pretty much built into everyday life, so much so that I don’t have much of a sense of ethics in my behavior with Kathleen. Ethical questions just don’t come up. I’m not saying that they couldn’t, or that our relationship couldn’t be shaken to the ground in the blink of an eye — I’m too old not to have seen a few terrible things — but I’d be very surprised if it did. And yet, not entirely surprised, because I grew up without thick connections, and I don’t, as most people seem to do, take them for granted.

I’m much more aware of ethics with regard to a small handful of close friends. But I don’t find myself confronting ethical questions on every day.

Ethics, according to Margalit, governs our thick relations, our lives with lovers, friends, fellow believers, and fellow citizens.

Having dealt with love and friendship, I can quickly write off fellow believers, since I am allergic to religion — to witnessing my faith in the company of other people. But I can understand the connection that co-religionists feel. It’s the idea that my connection to fellow citizens might be thick that makes no sense. I cannot imagine standing in an ethical relationship with someone simply because we were both born in the United States.

I think of ethics as a conflict, and morality as a duty. With ethics, there is always a tension between what I want and what is best for the people near and dear to me. (Almost all of my ethical battles concern taking care of my health.) With morality, there is no decision to make, right and wrong are perfectly clear. The only question is whether I will make the effort to do what’s right, or at least to resist complaining when someone else does something wrong. (One issue that provides no end of everyday vexation to city-dwellers is the use of elevators.) Because moral imperatives, however slight, arise at every turn in city life, while ethical conundrums are quite uncommon, and because of my unusual childhood, I regard thin human connections as more important than thick ones. If Kathleen were taken from me tomorrow, I believe that I would manage to keep going. But if there were a steep rise in casual rudeness among strangers in the street, I would be utterly demoralized.

I wonder if I have ever betrayed anyone. Yes, once, unforgivably. More than once, if abandoning failing relationships counts. Betrayal or not, the experience was always unpleasant enough to make me wary of risking it. Did I betray my parents? Did they betray me? Did we never quite establish the thick connection that, according to Margalit (but not to Walzer), is required for betrayal? That I’m really asking is a kind of answer.


Thursday 11th

But a day or two of further thought about betrayal obliges me to change my tune. I remember a keen reluctance, at several moments in childhood and youth, to cross lines that I would not be allowed to cross back. I see now that crossing those lines would have constituted betrayal, a violation of allegiance. Literally, a decampment — folding up my tent and setting it up somewhere else.

I hated my name. I really hated my first name, Robert. I loathed its principal nickname, and often refused to answer to it, as if I were deaf. “Keefe” was awkward. Most people heard it as “Keith,” and spelling it out wasn’t much of a help. When confronted with the difficulty on the telephone, I still recite my mother’s bit of birdsong, “K double E, F as in ‘Frank,’ E,” although I often sense bewilderment at the other end of the line. Lots of people look at it and say “Keefie.” My poor father was tormented as a boy by being called “Beefy Keefy.” The difficulty is entirely attributable to his grandfather’s decision to prune the original “O’Keeffe.”Nobody has any trouble with that.

One day, in the car — I hated being in the car, because it was boring, and I got carsick if I tried to read — I announced that I was going to change my name when I grew up. My father must have been driving, because my mother turned her upper body against the seat back and glared at me with the bronzed rage of Medusa. I had not expected anyone to be delighted by my plans, but I hadn’t expected them to be taken so seriously, either. This was not one of those occasions when I was spoiling for a fight. So I was surprised as well as alarmed by the fury I had ignited. Also, wasn’t she cheating a little? What gave my mother the right to carry on as though she came from a long line of Keefes? Whatever she said — and you would have had to be me at the time to take it all in — I was made to understand that further mention of this topic might very well lead to loss of hearth and home and indoor plumbing and regular meals and all the rest. I caved. Comfort-seeking worm that I was, I resigned myself to a foreseeable future of Bobs.

The row about homosexuality, a few years later, was a black tornado. I had come into possession of one of those physique magazines that were sold over the counter (even in Bronxville!), and its alternative world was astonishing. The world that I lived in, although relatively discreet and well-behaved, was heavily populated by women struggling to be appropriate sex objects in an environment of nonstop male commentary. Photos of bodybuilders chatting by the pool clothed only in tiny pouches or making breakfast in the altogether were intriguing in ways that had something to do with sex, certainly, but that also promised another, much nicer world, in which men were not bullies or rivals or contenders or stooges but friends.

I knew that this magazine was forbidden, but I didn’t really understand why, and I wasn’t ashamed of having it. It was only after my mother discovered it — I hadn’t hidden it very carefully — that shame erupted, the shame of being associated with the objects of her vituperative disgust. I was made to understand not only that the magazine was unspeakably filthy but that I would be thrown out of the house if anything like it showed up a second time. To be thrown out of the house: this was the price of betrayal. And the betrayal was not the vice itself but the vice revealed.

Looking back on that awful hour — I remember that I lifted up a side table, pretty much as if I were a lion tamer, trying to keep my mother from coming any closer in her wrath; if she struck me, I suspected, I would strike back — I understand the misery of closeted life in a different way. I have always thought of it as a horrible inconvenience, a constraint on the freedom to do as one would. But that is only part of it, the part that an outsider could imagine. Inside, there is the very different nightmare of betrayal, of being found out by and cut off from one’s own family. Curiously, the case of betrayal that comes to mind has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s the tale that’s told about Rod Dreher, of The Benedict Option, in the recent New Yorker profile. It seems that Dreher’s father and sister always treated him as though he did not belong to them, as if he had betrayed them simply by being born. Why? Because, it would appear, he had a critical intelligence.

No doubt, the father and the sister felt righteous. But it is they who ought to have felt ashamed. Mulling over the treatment of homosexuality as a betrayal of “family values,” I am even more appalled than I was before reading about Avishai Margalit. Ethics — what a dubious pastime. Comparison on this point to morality is enlightening. Quite often, perhaps even in most cases, at least here in the United States, the parents of homosexual children eventually come to feel that they have not been betrayed, and the breach is healed. We have certainly witnessed a massive shift in cultural ethics on the matter. Morality, in contrast, doesn’t change much. Kindness is always right.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
May 2017

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

2, 4 and 5 May

Tuesday 2nd

The news stories about Jean Stein’s jump from her apartment in 10 Gracie Square can’t help reminding us that Carter Cooper, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, jumped from a penthouse balcony in the same building nearly thirty years ago. Somehow, this detail seems less ghoulish than it might be, attached to the woman who (working with George Plimpton) gave us Edie, the oral history about Edie Sedgwick, in 1982. On Stein’s Wikipedia page, it says that Norman Mailer wrote of Edie, “this is the book of the Sixties that we have been waiting for. [citation needed]” It was certainly a jaw-dropping read. I had never heard of Edie Sedgwick before — I was perhaps a little too young — but I couldn’t put it down when it came out. For me, it was absolutely an Eighties book.

Jean Stein, Edie Sedgwick, the Vanderbilts — remember that picture in Vanity Fair in which Anderson Cooper looked older than his mother? — George Plimpton: these people occupied, or still occupy, a curious intersection of New York life, where inherited money meets publicity. Perhaps “publicity” isn’t the word. Perhaps what I mean is that, for some people who grew up wealthy, doors that don’t beckon to most rich people are open. Connections are easily made with influential people who aren’t “social.” Everybody benefits. There is nothing quite so fascinating as the scion of a moneyed family with an interesting mind; more than half a brain will often do. Fortune has so obviously smiled on such people that it’s almost reasonable to expect that a little of that fortune will rub off. I’m speculating, of course; I’ve never actually known anybody who lives on the corner that I’m talking about. But the existence of Vanity Fair suggests that my surmise is not entirely fanciful. And while there must be such intersections in other places, New York’s is the only one that counts.

What wouldn’t I give for a fly-on-the-wall seat at the next meeting of 10 Gracie Square’s co-op board.


Although I haven’t thought of taking a swan dive onto Eighty-Seventh Street from our balcony, I have been somewhat oppressed by a sense of the futility of speech. For one thing, I have the awful feeling that I’ve said everything twice already, and look what good it has done! More generally, the modes of exhortation appear to have been overworked, making people so stubborn that, if you urge them to come in out of the rain, they’ll stay out and catch pneumonia — gladly. Ideas fall into two categories: too familiar to bear repetition or dangerously novel. And no sooner do I say that than I read the capsule review of Shattered, a book that Amazon has been trying to get me to buy for my Kindle, in this week’s New Yorker. (Burning question: is this Bruce Eric Kaplan’s first cover for the magazine?) Shattered is a “withering account of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign”.

Robby Mook, who ran the operation, is portrayed as being obsessed with analytics and demographics, to the exclusion of the traditional politics of persuasion.

Traditional politics was just too familiar!

the Clinton campaign never had a clear picture of its own candidate or of what was coming.

In other words, Donald Trump was too insanely unlikely to take seriously; any serious plans to prevent his victory would have likewise been weird. What happens when bright young minds are faced with a choice between the tedious and the risky is a hasty retreat to numbers, to data, to the oracle of the computer.

Over the weekend, I thought of sharing a link, at Facebook, to Bret Stephens’s Op-Ed piece, printed on Saturday, against “The Climate of Complete Certainty” in environmental discussions. I’m glad that I didn’t. I’d have been tarred as a Trumpista! But I do think that the journalism of climate change does have a real Chicken Little problem, and that warnings about dire inevitabilities ought to be leavened by constructive proposals, and infused with the leadership quality to make them viable.


Thursday 4th

Currently reading James Harvey’s very important Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, Kathleen has been asking to see some old movies, either for the first time, or for a second look after immeasurable years. This week, I rented three videos that we don’t happen to own.

  • Dinner at Eight
  • It Happened One Night
  • The Thin Man

Although I may perhaps add It Happened One Night to our library, watching the other two titles convinced me that, although it sometimes seems that I have bought every DVD with a pulse, I do discriminate. If I want to see Myrna Loy and William Powell, I can always watch Libeled Lady — which will also give me a bigger helping of Jean Harlow than I’d dream of asking for. In Dinner at Eight, Harlow’s bedroom scene with Wallace Beery — a pre-Code instance of spousal abuse — is just about the most pointlessly nasty thing that I’ve seen in the movies. The contrast between the white-on-white-on-sequins luxe of the setting and the grim unhappiness of the marriage it shelters makes me seasick. The only problem with not having Dinner at Eight on call is missing Marie Dressler, whose immortal last line, addressed to Harlow, does not completely upstage the preceding scene, in which the worldly old lady counsels a disappointed, if shallow, young girl.

Watching It Happened One Night, I had one of my insights. After mulling it over for a while, I thought I’d better look at Ed Sikov’s book on the genre, Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies. I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that Sikov had not had my little insight, but what did bowl me over was how his interpretation of screwball comedies with a newspaper theme inadvertently highlights the hypocrisy of the Production Code — and of popular American culture itself.

It Happened One Night is often hailed as the first of the screwball comedies, but it doesn’t feel screwball to me at all. Of course, I’m comparing it with later films, made with a heightened consciousness of the genre’s possbilities. Actually, I doubt very much that Frank Capra thought that he was making a screwball comedy as such — neither the term itself nor the formal hallmarks of screwball would have occurred to him. To the extent that Capra had a genre in mind at all, it would have been “the newspaper movie.” And even that isn’t very likely.

Although there is a good deal of opulence at the very end of It Happened One Night, it is as empty of appeal as the Packard bedroom in Dinner at Eight. It certainly doesn’t cheer up the heroine, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert). She has just spent a few days on the road, living a very dusty and hungry life — but loving it more every minute — with Peter Warne (Clark Gable), trying to evade the search parties loosed by her immensely wealthy father (Walter Connolly). Ellie has worn one outfit for at least three days, and although it remains as fresh as her makeup throughout, it does get a bit old on the eye. There is nothing really screwball — funny — about Ellie’s road trip from Florida to New York. What is screwy is Warne’s crazy idea, anticipating the climax, of running off to New York while Ellie sleeps, shaking his editor up for some cash, and running back to bring her to town in style. It never occurs to him that she might be evicted from their motel in the middle of the night, which is of course what happens and what brings her back to her father’s house and the big wedding. Warne throws a second screwball when he tells Ellie’s father that he doesn’t want the $10,000 in reward money, just $30.69 for cash outlays on the road. Then, as if we might have missed something, Warne says, “I’m screwy myself.” If It Happened One Night is a screwball comedy, it’s one that doesn’t involve a lady.

What do I mean by calling it “a newspaper movie”? Simply this: whether a movie involving newspapermen is happy or sad, the first commandment is invariably that a good newspaperman will do anything for a story. “Anything” usually encompasses lying and cheating and other forms of deception, but as Libeled Lady shows us, it also covers being ridiculous, as William Powell’s Bill Chandler is in several ways, whether as the husband of somebody else’s fiancée or as an angler in a trout stream. Newspapermen are urban cowboys, tough guys in suits. If they will do anything to get a story, they can do anything, or almost anything, without risking their masculinity. This, I think, is the germ of screwball.

According to James Harvey, Cary Grant didn’t want to make The Awful Truth. He thought it would make him look ridiculous. Now, why was this, you may ask. Certainly, when Grant discovered that screwball capers did not make him look ridiculous, he embraced the genre with open arms, as in Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife, in both of which he exposes his highly professional inner clown to greater extent than in The Awful Truth, where Irene Dunne commits most of the nonsense. Why, though, would Cary Grant have been worried in the first place? And why — a related question, I insist — did The Awful Truth sink into oblivion, known only to connoisseurs and long unavailable on tape when all the other oldies came on the market in the early days of home video?

The answer: Jerry Warriner, Grant’s character in The Awful Truth, doesn’t have a job. He is certainly no newspaperman. He hasn’t got a license to misbehave. What makes The Awful Truth the great screwball comedy that it has become is Archie Leach’s license to be Cary Grant — a license that, as Grant knew better than anybody, had yet to be burnished in 1937.

Ed Sikov finds the roots of screwball in the Production code, and while there certainly are such roots, no question about it, Cary Grant’s squeamishness requires another explanation. While pondering that, we can consider Chapter 7 of Screwball, in which Sikov quite unironically catalogues the depravities of Wally Cook (Fredric March) in Nothing Sacred and Walter Burns (Cary Grant) in His Girl Friday. Far from regarding newspapermen as heroes of any kind, Sikov seems to agree with the doctor in Nothing Sacred, whom he quotes:

You’re a newspaperman. I can smell ’em … The hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of depravity.

I don’t want to fault Ed Sikov for appearing to agree with this. But I think that it ought to modulate his understanding of the Production Code, which of course did little or nothing to restrain the antics of cinematic journalists. Nothing Sacred tells a very bleak story, to be sure. It tells it hilariously well, but still. One has to ask, what kind of morals-protecting regulation would permit such a film to be released? And the answer, of course is: only in America.

In other words, screwball was indeed an accommodation of the Production Code’s severe restrictions on the portrayal of carnality on screen. (One begins to wonder how the close-up kiss survived the censorship.) But it flourished because the Code punished only certain kinds of immorality. While gangsters had to come to their just ends, newspapermen might at the worst have to embark on a long cruise while clouds blew over. And by sharing the reporters’ freedom from retribution, male characters generally, up to and including playboys like Jerry Warriner, could be spared the consequences of their dubious conduct.

Just how dubious is revealed, in the way that a black hole might be revealed, at the beginning of The Awful Truth. In the second scene, we find ourselves in a grandiose house, with white-painted pilasters and paneling, and plenty of Chippendale furniture. But, aside from the housemaid, no recent occupants. Jerry Warriner has been “away,” but not where his wife thought he was. Anyone over the age of ten will not wonder if he has been playing a lot of squash at his club. As for his wife, Lucy, why, she has been to an out-of-town “junior prom,” and stuck on the road overnight by a flat tire. The flattest tire in the world couldn’t be flatter than this couple’s aliases. I don’t know how this scene got past the censors, because the innuendo is almost asphyxiating, and it leads straight to talk about the air-clearing virtues of divorce.

At the other end of the film, we once again find ourselves in a private home that, in its blandly impersonal (and old-fashioned) luxury might serve as an upper-crust clubroom. This is what Jerry and Lucy were living in before their adventures. It’s what they had to leave behind, and when they leave it behind a second time, they know what they’re doing.


Friday 5th

Striking a completely different cinematic note: after lunch, I watched a movie that has been haunting me for a while, Alejandro Agresti’s The Lake House (2006).

I watched it several times after it came out. I tried to figure out how the time-travel worked — it’s limited to letters in a mailbox — but I always got distracted by the tidal wash of melancholy that sweeps through the movie. This afternoon, I saw that the machinery was so unquestionably impossible that the characters must be killed by it, not just the one who gets saved at the last minute, but the both of them. In the final shot, the lovers walk into the eponymous house. I don’t think they will ever come out again.

That’s all right. I’m fine with the love philtre in Tristan und Isolde, too. Love is enchantment, and, as Tristan tells us, when the enchantment is complete, real life is no longer possible — and don’t ask why. Who cares? I found that the melancholy is still sweeping. Kate (Sandra Bullock) is enveloped by it from the start; Alex (Keanu Reeves) succumbs to it little by little. Reeves plays Alex with a manly optimism that lightens Kate’s sense that she is doomed to live alone, but he cannot defeat it. In the end, all he wants is to join her. Kate is the Tristan here, the one who knows that daylight — life — makes love unbearable. Instead of looking like the overtired doctor that Kate is supposed to be, Bullock radiates a beautiful hopelessness. She falls in love with Alex because he isn’t there.

What I brought to the film as a spectator was the fearful sadness that the film’s setting, Chicago and its environs, always arouses in me. Nowhere else is my imagination of what growing up would have been like without the proximity of moated Manhattan so painfully vivid.

I will say this: The Lake House would be a lot more plausible if it weren’t for the character of Henry, Alex’s brother (Enoch Moss-Bachrach). Two details, the book about their father’s architecture that Alex does not share with Henry (minor), and the meeting in Henry’s office that immediately precedes Kate’s last drive to the lake house (major), make too intrusive a wrinkle between the parallel worlds. It’s when you try to smooth this out that the host of other difficulties looms.

Bon week-end à tous!