Archive for June, 2017

Gotham Diary:
June 2017 (IV)

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

28 and 29 June

Wednesday 28th

In a screed published at n+1, Nikil Saval’s fury boils down a very intriguing equation.

What Plouffe and the ride-sharing companies understand is that, under capitalism, when markets are pitted against the state, the figure of the consumer can be invoked against the figure of the citizen.

This is so nicely put that it has the force of a revelation. Sure, we already “knew” it. We were aware, for example, that antitrust jurisprudence in the United States has been eroded to a brainless fixation with low prices. We understood that endless consumption, much less the endless growth of consumption, is unsustainable on its face. We sensed the circularity of everyone’s taking in everyone else’s wash in the extent to which Wal-Mart customers have jobs on a par with those of Wal-Mart employees. And I must have written somewhere that one of the professional class’s worst failings has been its opting out of public services. But Saval has steamrolled these complications into a nugget of wisdom: the only first step on the way to reversing environmental degradation is for citizens to stop being consumers.

Obviously, citizens have to eat. They have to get to work. Everyone needs a new couch from time to time. Far be it from me to preach a minimalist line! We can’t live without consuming resources. The difference between a citizen and a consumer is that the citizen frets about those resources. Are they renewable? If not, what happens when they’re exhausted? The citizen strives to consume only what can be replaced, and to do so in a way that does not foul his neighborhood or anybody else’s. The citizen supports government with taxes so that it can maintain a safe and healthy social infrastructure that would not be provided otherwise.

Citizenship has become a problem because the walls that used to demarcate and separate internally homogeneous communities have not only broken down but been ripped away in a whirlwind of raised consciousness. Nobody wants to recognize this as a problem that we have to solve. There are plenty of Americans who want to go back to the way things were, even if most of them aren’t old enough to remember what that was actually like; while plenty of others want to replace atavistic bonds with elective affinities. But the awful truth is that citizenship, at least when it’s a matter of shouldering the burdens of citizenship and not just enjoying the benefits, is a lot more enthusiastically undertaken when the folks marching in the parade look just like the folks watching from the sidewalks. This is a truth that is almost universally unacknowledged. Maybe just acknowledging it would help us. It would certainly be a start on the way to looking at each other with greater penetration and sympathy.

Of course, there is no need to Saval to mention capitalism. The apparent nexus of capitalism (a means of funding enterprise), markets (sites for trading goods), and consumers (egalitarian shoppers) is just that: apparent, as much historical accident as anything. If anything, the consumer is the bastard child of the French Revolution and socialism, demanding equal access to what everybody else has, whether it’s needed or not; genuine capitalists are parsimonious. These terms have gotten horribly mixed up in the course of my lifetime, and instead of taking on new meanings, they’ve mostly collapsed into whatever-I-want-it-to-signify incoherence.


Thursday 29th

Just now, I came across a very interesting post on a Web site that I hadn’t seen before, The Fifth Wave. It’s about my favorite subject, the failed American élite. The author — whether Adam Gurri or Martin Gurri I can’t tell — writes, as I hope I do, from inside the élite, and yet I feel that in both our cases it is without any self-interest that we declare the inevitability of élites. They arise naturally at the top of any society. The problem is that élites have children, and the children grow up at the top. This has obvious advantages (for everyone) but also some tricky disadvantages. We know a lot, anecdotally, about the disadvantages, but we don’t know much about preventing them. Very little attention has been given to the education of élite children, doubtless because of their powerful parents. It occurs to me out of the blue that one of the rare good things about the medieval propertied class was the practice of sending sons to grow up in the households of other landowners, usually wealthier ones. This must have been helpfully, if only partially, humbling.

Mr Gurri discusses the thought of Ortega y Gassett at length. The idea of an élite that is comprised of people whom others admire is a very appealing one. But it is greatly at odds with the theory and practice of meritocracy. Admiration has precious little to do with the rise of testably talented individuals, who learn among other things how to excite the admiration of the élites, not the people whose respect is essential to élitist legitimacy. Meritocracy produces an élite of the unknown, which is certainly part of the problem in throughout the West.

In a surprising acknowledgment of failure, a group of central bankers meeting at Sintra, in Portugal, to address the prospect of “robocalypse” — the takeover of blue-collar jobs by robots — has “conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out.” But wait. The “concession” appears without attribution in Jack Ewing’s Times story. Perhaps the bankers, who included Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi, never said any such thing at Sintra. Still, it’s a start. It would be wrong, I think, to call this snag in economists’ attention a dereliction. But it’s an example of the way in which highly-trained élites can miss new developments. More specifically, it’s an example of the tendency of liberal economists to let employment take care of itself, interfering only indirectly with monetary controls and the like.

Another failure that comes to mind is more collaborative in nature, with economists and journalists muddling together to leave economic terminology in a shambles. One of the most pernicious confusions is that of capitalism, a very important economic tool, albeit one whose usefulness is more probably more limited than would-be “capitalists” like to think, with the windfall fortunes that have accrued to a handful of lucky entrepreneurs and their heirs. If economists and journalists took the trouble to distinguish the one from the other, it might be politically feasible to put some limits on the windfalls without hobbling the effectiveness of the tool. As it is, far too many well-educated Americans are uneasily convinced that capitalism is some kind of necessary evil, while the real evil, insanely protected mountains of money, are allowed to continue piling up, almost certainly never to be taxed. On another front capitalism the tool is confused with the corporation, a legal construct.

If we were thinking more clearly, we might borrow some thinking from the idea of copyright, but first we’d have to clean up the mess that has accumulated around it in the age of “intellectual property.” Copyright (and its sibling, the patent) creates a temporary monopoly, as the reward for good ideas. We have seen the duration of these monopolies pushed further and further into the future, when in fact they ought to be shortened and their ownership limited to actual human beings. Thanks to sloppy thinking, patent and copyright holders have been encouraged to forget that their monopolies are gifts bestowed by society, not manifestations of personal genius or persistence. The very idea of contracting the reach of patents and copyright would probably be denounced as “socialist” — that ultimate insult, a term as nearly devoid of literal denotation as one of our most unprintable vulgarities.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Two Revolutions of circa 1800
June 2017 (III)

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

20 and 23 June

Tuesday 20th

Although outwardly quiet, my weekend was convulsed by two intellectual earthquakes. But why do I put it like that? Earthquakes are destructive, at least in the short term, and nothing was destroyed in my mind except for some inherited constraints, the sudden absence of which allows me to see farther and wider than ever. Both upheavals will have a great impact on the writing project — which is why, I think, they occurred at all. The pressure that revising the writing project has had on the jumble of ideas in my brain sometimes seems equal to the task of crushing coal into diamonds. As things fit better together, they are altered. My stock of metaphors cannot keep up.

Very brief summaries, then. First, and arguably more important, I responded to an essay in the Book Review with a statement. I mumbled it the first time, but not the second. Adam Kirsch’s piece about criticism and democracy is good so far as it goes.

A critic is just a reader or viewer or listener who makes the question explicit and tries to answer it publicly, for the benefit of other potential readers or viewers or listeners. In doing so, she operates on the assumption that the audience for a work, the recipient of a gift, is entitled to make a judgment on its worth. The realm of judgment is plural. Everyone brings his or her own values and standards to the work of judging. This means that it is also, essentially, democratic. No canon of taste or critical authority can compel people to like what they don’t like.

But I saw that it must be taken further. The goad was probably buried in the preceding sentences:

Yet as anyone who has received an ill-fitting or unsuitable present knows, the thought is not the only thing that counts. Once a work of art emerges from its creator’s study or studio, it becomes the possession of anyone who interacts with it, and therefore it is open to judgment: Do I actually derive pleasure and enlightenment from it?

We look to critics to tell us whether something is good or bad — and then we go ahead and do exactly as we please. I think that we have outgrown this understanding of criticism. We don’t need Leavises or Blooms to separate the wheat from the chaff, because, metaphors of nutrition aside, one man’s chaff is another man’s wheat. And what’s wheat today may become chaff next year. Critical judgment must shed its binary character and become, instead, relational. (This is NOT the “same thing” as relative.) For the critic, confronted by a work of art, or anything else, from which anybody derives pleasure — the critic’s pleasure is incidental — the question is this: Where does the item, whether an idea or a baseball bat, stand with relation to everything else? Where does it go?

Where do you put it, I mumbled. Then I said it aloud. Where do you put it?

The final mystery of the writing project cleared up instantly. The last section will provide a floor plan of the World, or at least some considerations that ought to be borne in mind in the process of laying it out. This is the critic’s job, and as it is also a kind of housekeeping, it is never done. For all the apparent stability of durable monuments and even of the old books in libraries, the World is constantly changing. No one critic can keep up with more than a fraction of it. (Critics may well find that in future they spend their time talking not to “laymen” but to other critics.) No critic has the last word, and seldom is heard a disparaging one. More anon.


About the other bit of excitement I shall say rather less, because I haven’t reached the mumble stage yet. It was brought about by a book that I carried back home from storage last week. A ticket stub that I’d used as a bookmark suggested that I got tired of the book in 2007 and set it aside, but I don’t remember reading a word of it before. It was one of those treasures, so often more promising than delivering, that I used to pick up on the sale tables in the Museum’s bookshop. It’s John North’s The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance.

I’ve always liked Holbein’s double portrait of the French ambassadors who conducted a special mission to Henry VIII in 1533. It has some of the appeal of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: the flamboyant courtier on the left and the discreet clergyman on the right are a fine pair of salt and pepper shakers. And then there is all that impressive gadgetry littering the shelf on which they lean! What does that stuff do, and do the two guys know how to make it work? What is it supposed to tell us about them? I must say that I got over the “charm” of the anamorphic skull in the foreground many decades ago. It is of course a memento mori, but, now I learn, that’s not all. In North’s almost delirious unpacking, it is also a marker of Golgotha, for the entire composition is in part a meditation on the Crucifixion. According to North, the astronomical and time-keeping devices on the top shelf provide the picture with the timestamp of 4 PM, Good Friday 1533. But the very idea of putting precision instruments to such liturgical use is somewhat outlandish, and the association with the darkest day in the Christian calendar (and yet the brightest?) is certainly, given the face of the picture itself, occult.

Whether or not North’s enthusiasm runs away with him — whether or not the hexagrams and the horoscope square that he locates, tacit in the design of the picture are “really there,” or were actually intended by the painter (I find it difficult to doubt) — I found his exploration infectious. My own enthusiasm has a different cast. Most educated viewers would probably regard The Ambassadors as a picture of “Renaissance men,” distinctive, modern-ish individuals conversant with the latest scientific equipment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But even educated viewers might slip into forgetting that the cosmological views of these bright-looking fellows would have been stoutly antique. Nobody, in 1533, seriously questioned the geocentric understanding of the universe. The earth was still at the center of things, and God still peeped through the little star-holes in the outermost sphere of the firmament. Whatever their style, these men belonged, intellectually, to the Middle Ages. It would be another century before men of their stamp seriously considered what we now take for granted about outer space.

But what made the shift inevitable is right there beside them: those instruments. Those precision instruments. When I was taught the history of science in college, it was as a succession of Kuhnian paradigms. The impact of tools on paradigm shifts was not stressed; tools were for engineers. (We might indeed have been consciously aping the condescension of medieval thinkers.) But a thorn was planted in my mind by what I learned, a seed called phlogiston. From time to time in my adult life I would be annoyed by my inability to remember just what phlogiston was, and I would go back and read James Bryant Conant’s Case Study on the subject, only to lose my grip on phlogiston all over again. Eventually, I realized that phlogiston theory was done in not so much by a better idea as it was by Lavoisier’s precision instruments, especially his vacuum chambers. Oxygen would not have been discovered without his battery of devices. How did people learn to make them? This was a field that had little to with scientific theory. And wasn’t it curious that Lavoisier was a contemporary of James Watt, who put precision instrumentation to such different use?

So The Ambassadors shows us, like no other picture I can think of, the past and the future in one glance. That they were hopelessly muddled when Jean de Dinteville (the man on the left) took his new painting back to Polisy, in the neighborhood of Troyes, is embodied in North’s description of a book that Kepler would write early in the next century about a new star in Cygnus, a constellation that Holbein’s painting foregrounds.

Three generations had passed since The Ambassadors had been painted and still Kepler did not consider it incongruous to write a book of more than two hundred pages in which theology, astronomy, and revisionist astrology were intermingled from beginning to end. (325)

For the moment, I have reached a sense that something links the development of precision instruments in the West with the demand for political liberty — that the connection between the two sets of revolutions that culminated at the very end of the Eighteenth Century was a matter not of big ideas but of material tools. More anon.


Friday 23rd

How to say this in as few words as possible? The revolutions are over. Will they be undone?

Prior to 1800, almost everybody alive was a peasant. This was a constant, everywhere. For all the changes in empire, religion, population density, and all that stuff that we call “art history,” most people died where they were born and did the same chores that their parents had done. And nothing that anybody did had much of an impact on Planet Earth. Attempts to control the endless cycles of war and peace, of feast and famine, were fruitless.

Looking back, we can make out, sometimes clearly, sometimes only dimly, the developments that would break those cycles at the end of the Eighteenth Century. As the revolutions approached, it was obvious to attentive minds that great change was in the offing. But why the revolutions took the form that they did is less interesting than their simultaneity.

There were two sets of revolutions. The political one, erupting first in the future United States and then in France, overturned old régimes and experimented with new constitutions. There was a great deal of violence — far more in the United States than Americans like to think. There was reaction. Unlike all previous revolutions, however, these political upheavals sustained their momentum and were not put down.

The technological revolution began in Britain. It, too, might be thought of as two revolutions rather than one, for the development of the steam engine and the growth of cotton mills were independent for several decades before being harnessed — as a solution to labor problems, not just for the sake of technology. The climax of this revolution was the railway locomotive, a steam engine on wheels.

Between them, these revolutions changed almost everything about life as the old peasant class had known it. Interestingly, the thin crusts of privileged, powerful people that were as immemorial as the peasantry were able to use the wealth that the revolutions put in some of their pockets to preserve and even intensify old modes of life. That is what conveys the illusion, when we look back over the Nineteenth Century, of a continuity, through all the revolutionary turmoil, of luxury. For ordinary people, however, society was suddenly dynamic, by which I mean that children no longer necessarily followed in their parents’ footsteps. Wherever the old ways of doing things — traditions — stood in the way of revolutionary change, they were torn down and swept away. The past disappeared into merely personal experience. Perhaps because things changed so quickly and constantly, adaptation was often superficial. Beneath the resilience, old habits of thinking and longing persisted. The increase in prosperity was accompanied by an increased sense of loss.

Many former peasants fared much worse in the new revolutionary world. More dangerous than political violence were the insalubrious tenements into which urbanized laborers were herded. Antagonism between laborers and employers exceeded anything seen between peasants and their masters. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, it was generally understood that the revolutions could not be left to laissez faire outcomes. The first half of the Twentieth Century saw major, sometimes disastrous attempts to lessen the brutality of the revolutionary world. New revolutions undertook to continue the work of the old, on the political and technological fronts alike. Many of the new measures were horribly drastic, and a terrible war ensued. But when it was over, the peasant class and its successor proletariat had disappeared. So, except for ornamental purposes, had the relics of the old ruling classes. Everyone, circa 1950, was middle class, or about to be. Everyone was a consumer.

But for everyone to attain consumer equality would require unprecedented growth. The only way to assure such growth would be to remove all controls on markets. Free trade alone could bring prosperity to all.

The result, as we know, has been not universal prosperity, but an unsustainable mess of environmental degradations. Almost as bad are the signs that the revolutions are over. Instead of spreading among the population, wealth puddles in dense concentrations. And the labor that increased global prosperity during the technological revolution’s heyday is everywhere being performed by machines. Are we too dazed and confused to move forward? What does moving forward look like? Is equitable ecological prosperity possible? Are we on a slide back into the ancien régime?

In case you’re having trouble imagining such a reverse, let me remind you that many Tuscan peasants on the eve of the revolutions were descended from highly literate, sophisticated business families whose fortunes had been undone by the depredations of war and empire centuries earlier.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Common Tongue
June 2017 (II)

Monday, June 12th, 2017

12, 13 and 15 June

Monday 12th

One thing you can’t argue about: Britain has a far more interesting political structure than we do. While we mumble “2020” over and over, nobody knows when the next general election will be held across the pond. How long will Theresa May hold on to the top job? Will the deal with the DUP work out? It almost makes one forget about Brexit.

Meanwhile, in New York, corporate funding has been pulled from the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, because Gregg Henry in the title role has been dressed up in Grump drag. (The show opens tonight.) I can’t make up my mind on this one. As Rebecca Mead points out in The New Yorker, Shakespeare’s play hardly endorses tyrannicide. But when I think of all the trouble that Giuseppe Verdi went through with censors who worried that his operas might give troublemakers ideas, a mere cut in funding doesn’t seem like a big deal.

I am beginning an investigation into why modern democracies don’t settle into massive Common Party centrism. The other day, I read somewhere that what got the Germans back on their feet after the War — the West Germans, I mean — was the extinction of pre-war political extremes. The conservative Junker class was obliterated, and the Communists went East. It’s too bad that there isn’t some natural method for purging public life of troublemakers, or that sometimes troublemakers are the only people who can make anything happen. But we are still new at this.

Over the weekend, Richard Reeves, a think-tanker at Brookings and emigré from Peterborough, England, published a piece that, for me at least, restructures our political discourse. For too long, he argues, the “favored fifth” at the top of the American economy has been taking cover behind the “income inequality” issue. Income inequality is an issue, no doubt about it, but as Reeves says, the upper middle class, which gets most of the education, staffs the professions — including journalism — almost completely, and derives a whizbang government handout in the form of the mortgage-interest deduction, has no business claiming to belong to “the 99%.”

There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

That, sadly, has become the fall-back excuse of the people who actually run the country, whether or not they believe in the mirage of the “liberal élite.” If everybody is doing it, then demoralization is inevitable. Not to mention skyrocketing tuitions — which many in the favored fifth manage not to pay. The people who voted for Donald Trump are right to hate this cohort. I can only hope that it wakes up and shakes off its bad habits before the tumbrils roll out.


Tuesday 13th

The dust jacket of John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio is a family job: one brother (Stephen) provided the design, while another (Dominick) snapped the author photograph. It is not a very flattering photograph; it makes the author look round and clueless, which the contents of the book make it clear that he is not. Perhaps this is exactly the disguise that gained him entrée to the offices of Twentieth Century Fox.

The portraits in The Studio are not flattering. They are not mocking or humiliating, but still. What were the executives expecting? There’s one little scene in which Richard Zanuck, then the production head and viceroy of his father, Darryl (who regarded Hollywood during this period as terra non grata), asks his secretary for the first name of someone about to come into a meeting. Then he greets the man by name. “Hi, Bob.” People do this all the time; one rather takes it for granted. There is certainly nothing egregious about sham familiarity in America. And yet its presence as an anecdote can only signify that Zanuck is something of a fake. Since everyone else in the book is shown to be something of a fake, even the pipe-smoking, circumspect David Brown (husband of Helen G), this is not much of a point. It’s true that “inside looks” like The Studio were still pretty unusual in the late Sixties.

I suppose that the bit stands out because, unlike most of the The Studio, it has not aged well. That a fifty year-old book about movie-making remains a compelling read is even more astonishing when you consider that the movies that were being made while Dunne was on the lot included such immortal fatuities as Dr Doolittle and The Sweet Ride. And Star! I remember when Life Magazine ran a picture of Julie Andrews on a trapeze as a cover. If it weren’t for that, I’d have wondered if the film was smothered on the cutting room floor, never to be exhibited in public. In the desultory stab at an epilogue that precedes the final scene — the red-carpet Los Angeles opening of Dr Doolittle — Dunne doesn’t bother to tell us what an utter flop Star! was. Then again, The Studio is no case study.

At the outset, Dunne implies — or at least I inferred — that his interest in the Studio is anthropological.

I had the feeling that by spending some time at the Studio I could get close to the texture of life on the subtropical abstraction that used to be called The Motion Picture Capital of the World; that by watching motion picture people at work I could see and perhaps understand their ethic.

The book might have been five or six times longer if this were what Dunne had given us. But Dunne already understood the ethic of motion picture people. Hollywood is often jokingly described as high school with money, and there’s probably a lot of truth in that if you’re talking about the stars and the people who make them look good. For the guys in the office, though, whether it’s Zanuck’s tony paneled sanctum or the back room of a bungalow, Hollywood is a special kind of gambling den that requires the players either to do an insane amount of hard work or to worry nonstop about things that they can’t control. It isn’t fun. The ethic of motion picture people is to produce motion pictures in a hostile environment for the benefit of a capricious public.

This is what Dunne shows us, and yet at the same time it’s the very thing that his book conceals. For The Studio is an amusing read. It is a masterpiece of deadpan, brilliantly edited understatement. Dunne never so much as hints, for example, that Dr Doolittle is a foolish project, a children’s movie that is unaccountably test-previewed on adults only. He never suggests that the time in which Rex Harrison might have breathed life into the material has long since passed. The absurdity of diapering costumed animals for the premiere — they pull up, with their handlers, in limousines — is allowed to speak for itself. Dunne never gets in the way of a good snort. It may not be fun to make movies, but the problems entailed are rich in irony and slapstick. I’m thinking of Barbra Streisand tripping over the train of her gown in rehearsals of Hello, Dolly! She does it again and again. I’m less surprised by Zanuck’s imprimatur than by Dunne’s survival.

Planet of the Apes was also in production while Dunne was roaming the Studio — it shared its producer, Arthur Jacobs, with Dr Doolittle. It would be a big success, although Dunne’s book reminds us that we can’t be sure who reaped the rewards. The Studio? The producer? Other? I see at Wikipedia that it took Sammy Davis, Jr, to complain about the racist tone of the film, which now seems obviously designed to respond to white anxieties about black equality. (I say that, however, without ever having seen it.) No one thought so at Twentieth Century Fox; and if the idea crossed Dunne’s mind, he decided to keep it to himself.

The Sixties was a crude period for Hollywood. The film industry had grown up in a very different world, one that in retrospect from 1968 must have seemed a paradise of simplicity. In the Golden Age, almost everyone in the audience was poor, or had relatives who were. David Nasaw’s brilliant Going Out shows how the illusion of pre-war simplicity was created by excluding blacks from general audiences. Also missing from the old world was the threat of Soviet nuclear attack. And there was no television. The people who made movies in the Fifties and Sixties had a lot of new issues to get used to. John Gregory Dunne took some terrific snapshots of them trying.


Thursday 15th

There’s a piece about St Augustine in this week’s New Yorker. I don’t know why. It’s not a review of some new book, and I’m unaware of any other factor that would make Stephen Greenblatt’s essay timely. But I read it with the greatest interest, because Augustine of Hippo is among the blackest of my beasts. He may have been as brilliant as fans such as Garry Wills claim that he was, but he put that brilliance to toxic use when he explicated the Christian catechism of sexuality. It’s not unlikely that somebody else would have come along spouting ideas just as bad, but as it is we have Augustine to thank for centuries — millennia, nearly — of misery and inquisition.

When I read The Confessions, finally, about ten years ago, I was disgusted by the preening self-deprecation of a figure who, while he would never have sex with a man, would never truly love a woman, either. It is not an uncommon profile among human males, and undoubtedly the sheer ordinariness of Augustine’s constitution contributed to the influence of his views. But it is regrettable that a grasp of human possibility as unimaginative as his determined Christian orthodoxy for fifteen hundred years and more. Augustine’s extraordinary egotism pressed him to generalize his own peculiar experience of sex, and to lay down the rights and wrongs of it for every man and woman. The generalizing principle was his notion of original sin, undoubtedly the most cloacal distillate conceivable of classical dreams of golden ages and superlunary perfections, a nightmare legacy of Hellenic thought.

Greenblatt opens an angle of perspective that was new to me — and here I must say that, while I can read about Augustine, I cannot bear the man himself; if presented with a trolley problem in which I had to decide between Augustine and Hitler, I might very well be paralyzed. Never having come closer to Augustine’s promulgations on sexuality than Peter Brown’s The Body and Society, I was unaware that what came to bother Augustine most about sex was its “unquiet, involuntary character.”

How weird is it, Augustine thought, that we cannot simply command this crucial part of the body. …

Augustine returned again and again to the same set of questions. Whose body is this, anyway? Where does desire come from? Why am I not in command of my own penis?

It is difficult to impossible Augustine framing questions in quite this way, but I don’t think that Greenblatt is mistaken. What Augustine understood about the workings of the body is hardly worth trying to recreate. An armchair investigator, he was prepared to say anything plausible that met his argumentative needs. Did he object to the heart because its beating is uncontrollable? Did he exploit intestinal irregularity as the basis for dietary restrictions? (He might have done, come to think of it.) It makes “perfect sense” that a man like Augustine would regard his penis as a kind of limb, protruding from his body and therefore to be faulted for not sharing the submissiveness of hands and feet, legs and arms.

Why am I not in command of my own penis is a complaint that almost every man faces at some time or other, but it is not, for all that, a serious question. For it to be a serious question, one would have to suppose that sex would be nearly as interesting as it is without its involuntary quality. What’s so deplorable about Augustine as a teacher about sex is that he seems never to have found it interesting. It was simply an appetite that, in earlier years, he looked forward to giving up — “but not yet, Lord.” He kept a mistress, with whom he had a son, for many years, before packing her off to Africa so that he could marry a patrician. The wedding fell through because, I suppose, the Lord had waited long enough. I can’t help but feel happy for the prospective bride, who would have been just another receptacle for Augustine’s penis. Once the appetite was outgrown, or at any rate foresworn, Augustine threw himself into the project of demonizing it for everyone.

If I do have a quarrel with Greenblatt, it is for his assertion that sex is “the greatest bodily pleasure.” This puts it on a continuum with bodily pleasures where it does not belong. I think it somewhat reductive to call sex a pleasure at all. It is what it is, something at least slightly different for each one of us, and nobody has any business making universal claims about the nature of sexual experience. It would appear on balance that, for Augustine, it was more humiliation than pleasure, too enslaving to be quite enjoyable. The idea of sex as fun is recent. It’s recent not because human beings have taken a long time to figure out that it can be, but because it took centuries, and no end of social upheaval, for Augustine’s strictures to lose their persuasive force, which however continue to cripple the Catholic Church, a confraternity of celibate males.

I think it better to leave it at this: sex is very interesting. And yet there is very little to say about it that is worth hearing, because so much of what is precious about sex lies outside the meadows of our common tongue.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Wishful Thinking
June 2017 (I)

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

6, 7 and 9 June

Tuesday 6th

Taking off this week as well was a very tempting prospect. My daughter and I had so many rich conversations during her visit last week that my mind feels too turbid for plain speaking. Work on the writing project seems more urgent than ever, also as a result of  those conversations. Watching my seven year-old grandson was an irresistible invitation to try to remember what it was like to be his age — a momentous year for me. Although I have a few bundles of memories from earlier times, it seems that my life as me really began in 1955. But here I am.

I’ve just read something that surprised me but that seemed so obvious and true that I felt dumb for not having known it before:

It’s interesting that the world of rumors and gossip is a world of wish fulfillment.

That’s James C Scott in an interview at Gastronomica that filtered through The Browser. More than any other statement on the subject, it explains both why gossip is so persistent and why it meets with such persistent disapproval. But the most important thing about it is that it says what gossip is.

A lot of what I’m reading in the Times and elsewhere feels like gossip. The topic is always the same: Grump’s inevitable self-destruction. Commentators and, if not reporters themselves, then the editors behind them seem to be hugging this eventuality with a mad glee. Perhaps it will “come true.” In which case, I hope that we won’t be remembering the admonition to be careful what you ask for. Whatever happens, this particular strand of wishful thinking has certainly distracted everyone’s attention from the fact that the liberal élite platform, at least as imagined both by the liberal élite and by its enemies, has not been altered very much (if at all) since its defeat in November’s election. As the administration has dismantled bits of it, there has been no indication that, if restored to power, the liberal élite would not simply restore the status quo ante. Talk about dumb.

And yet I don’t waste much time waiting for the liberal élite to come up with better ideas. I am hoping for something more like a conversion experience, in which broad swathes of smart people come to understand that the role of the market in society requires major alteration. The first thing to say is that it requires preservation, so that markets stop killing the social environments that cannot flourish without them. The second thing is to demand enhanced property rights for ordinary people while capping or otherwise limiting the amount of property — particularly property in assets other than cash — that extraordinarily wealthy people can expect to be protected by society. How much is too much? Reading another piece via The Browser, Hamilton Nolan’s astringent report on hedge fund managers in Las Vegas, I wondered if excess might not be measured at the point (not that there is a point) where possession shades into risk. At first glance, this might seem too personal and idiosyncratic to serve as a measure, but societies everywhere are equipped with rough intuitive standards.

The third thing is to strip corporations and other business organizations of their “natural person” status. The fourth thing is to replace federal regulation of almost everything with multi-state or regional compacts. In connection with this, the local must be prioritized. Local food is an obvious preference. Why not, in the age of the 3-D printer, local shoes? The idea that it’s fine to ship goods around the world in search of savings that will accrue only to the largest organizations — global baleen whales — is junk. We also have to stop making stuff that can’t be fixed. Why, and, more important, by whom, were the virtues of local production and routine repair deprecated? And what are the real benefits?

Those are a few market-centered planks that are, as I say, intended to make markets more constructive (if only by creating more jobs). Markets need to be removed from at least two nodes of human growth and health: education and medicine. Perhaps what I mean is that markets in commerce need to be replaced by markets in information. (That’s what schools really are, anyway, or what they ought to be.) Both fields currently shoulder bloated administrations that would shrink pretty quickly if money were no longer the object that it is of medical and educational operations.

Until I see more evidence of new thinking on the side that I’m rooting for, I’m happy to watch Grump & Co expose the old ideas for the shabby leftovers and workarounds that they are.


Wednesday 7th

Not too long ago — okay, a couple of centuries — Western Europe was governed by religious ideals. The influence of religion itself was always somewhat conflicted, because neither emperors nor popes ever managed to overpower the other once and for all, and their quarrels eventually fractured religious solidarity beyond hope of repair (we call this break the Reformation). The fighting over which religious ideals, and how interpreted, would regulate civil life inevitably tarnished the prestige of religion. On the eve of modern times, educated Europeans sifted general principles of right and wrong from finer points of theological dogma (we call this abstraction the Enlightenment).

In the four decades on either side of 1800, Western Europe was overcome by a dust cloud. A cloud of meta-dust, perhaps. We know what happened — revolutions, cotton mills — but the causal chains linking events are too fine and too numerous for us to trace. (We call disagreements about these chicken-and-egg problems Academics; perhaps they will be solved by Big Data.) The relationship between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution becomes more complex and obscure — like the depths of a Mandelbrot set — the harder we look for it. It’s enough to know that, when the cloud blew away, an entirely new model of society was in vogue. It was the original souped-up hot rod, a machine that was lubricated by money.

Lubricated, not fueled. The fuel was still labor, whether or not people were doing the work. Money, by making the engine run so much more smoothly, enabled vastly increased levels of production. The idea that society itself was a machine quickly filled the vacuum left by violent religious partisanship, and almost everybody hailed this development as a good thing. Some passionate people complained that the new arrangement was soulless (we call them Romantics), but they piped down when it became clear that the new money paid, often handsomely, for their operas, art exhibits, and volumes of verse. It turned out that everybody could be taught the language of money. Some people had a lot more money than others, and large fortunes allowed their owners to lead lives on what seemed (and seems) different planes of existence, but for everyday purposes, your money was as good as anybody else’s — regardless of whether you were. Among its many other perceived benefits, the lubricant and language of money put an almost complete stop to persecutions of all kinds.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that we have taken the language of money as far as it will go before it kills us.


The complexities of religious discourse that characterized pre-modern Europe were replaced by a new simplicity that may have reflected the ubiquitous steam engine. Just as a piston cycled back and forth in a cylinder, so the discussion of money settled into a two-stroke argument about something called capitalism. Capitalists argue that they know best how to put money to use. Their opponents point to periodic breakdowns in the wisdom of capitalists, breakdowns that cause the modern equivalents of plague and famine. These opponents are almost always called socialists. Their record is not very inspiring, either. If the world of capitalism is sometimes too colorful and exciting, socialism can be awfully dull and drab. Whereas capitalists think of nothing but money, socialists are obsessed by control.

Amazingly, we are still having this argument! It makes one long for a Certs mint. Society is not a machine. Human interactions are not mechanical. Human institutions do not hum along like dynamos. Society is fractal, always teetering on the edge of chaos. It depends entirely on the inertia, on the predictability and security of stability, for its continuance. Call those into question, and our relationships fray, our fears overwhelm us. We cannot be as free and open to chance as capitalists believe; nor can we be trained against our will to follow the party line. We need order, but an order that allows us to believe in something better. At no time in history has this order been realized as widely as it was in the postwar West, when jobs not only seemed to be plentiful but also promised workers a means of propelling their children into greater prosperity. The best job was one that allowed you to make sure that your children wouldn’t have to do it.

For very good reasons, it could not last. The postwar model of prosperity has gone forever and will never be replaced; nor is this a bad thing. It was built on subtle but significant misconceptions, most notably that blue-collar laborers were genuine workers. They weren’t. They were proto-robots, prototypes to be replaced by genuine machines. Genuine, truly human prosperity does not and ought not rest on the prevalence of assembly lines. Another mistake was that modern industry requires big machines — and the fortunes to pay for them. It did, but it no longer does. Almost everything about the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath has been transitory. For decent occupations that allow us to imagine and implement improvements, we are going to have to fashion a post-industrial environment, perhaps one that revives not only pre-modern artisanal practices but a more extensively moral social life. The capitalists and the socialists are arguing about a vanished world. Let’s stop choosing sides.


Friday 9th

Merely as an object, the book is interesting. The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne. It was my father’s — and my father did not keep books. He does not appear to have bought this one; there is no price on the dust jacket, but the words, “Book Club Edition,” instead. My father did not belong to any book clubs. Someone must have given it to him. A friend who thought he might be interested in a book about Twentieth Century Fox, because he had a seat on the board of directors for nine years, 1968-1977. How do I know that it was those years? Because that’s what it says on the Elephant Prod. In 1968, Dunne was granted unusual access to behind-the-scenes scenes at the film studio. His account begins with a board meeting at the Waldorf Astoria, before shifting to Hollywood, and for half a second I wondered if my father would be named. Had he been, I’m sure that it would have been brought to my attention when the book came out, in the following year. Instead, the book languished on the shelf of my father’s books, before coming to me when he died in 1985.

Every now and then I would pick up The Studio and try to figure out what it is. A novel? Not a novel? The dust jacket calls it a “cinéma-vérité study of Hollywood at work.” So it’s a movie, only in words. I would forget this until the next time I picked up The Studio. I thought about giving it away. It was, after all, one of my father’s books. I had not found his books, many of them about swindlers, to be particularly congenial. Or well written. Now, I knew that John Gregory Dunne was a serious writer, but I had him pegged as a man’s man, like the very irritating Norman Mailer. On the other hand, The Studio is a thin book. Until yesterday, it was in the storage unit. For a whole bunch of reasons, I brought it home, and finally opened it up to read it.

Are you still wondering what the Elephant Prod is?

I have told the story many times, but not here, it seems. One sunny afternoon in Houston, a car with a driver pulled up to the front walk of my father’s house. Perhaps it was a limousine, but it was probably a less ostentatious Continental. The passenger, who rang the doorbell, was expected. It was Dennis Stanfill, the president of Twentieth Century Fox. My father and I received him in the living room. His visit was as brief as politeness permitted, but as it was also ceremonial in nature we did not feel slighted. He had come to present my father with a token of the studio’s esteem, and in thanks for his years of service on the board of directors. I forget how the ceremony played out, but Mr Stanfill conveyed, I think without actually handling, a decorated box. Within the box, nestled in satin lining, was a brass rod with a sort of crook at the end. It was very shiny, and it was supposed to look like gold, but its value was symbolic: it was a prop. From the movies! From The King and I, to be exact. A clip-on badge identified the object and the reason for its presentation to my father. Unlike the Elephant Prod, which is still resplendent, the badge has tarnished badly and is almost impossible to read.

To my discerning eye, the Prod’s design elements were Gothic Revival, not remotely South Asian. It came with a bracket for mounting on the wall, and we showed the thing off to everybody who came through the house. I quipped that there was a factory in Burbank (my little joke) that produced elephant prods in volume. This was not supposed to be funny, really; it was just my way of signalling bewilderment: what kind of trophy is a movie prop? Beneath this bewilderment coiled a darker discomfort with the nature of sitting on a board of directors. My father was not asked to sit on boards because he was a self-assertive, opinionated sort of man. How noble was the service thus rewarded?

More to the point, does the Elephant Prod appear in the picture? To look at it, you would think that it’s a sort of scepter, something that Yul Brynner’s King ought to brandish every now and then. Does he? Although The King and I was the first movie that I saw twice, and although I was made to pipe “Hello, Young Lovers” whenever my mother thought that she could inflict cheap entertainment on cocktails guests, the movie no longer appeals to me very much. (It seems to have been disillusioning to realize that “Shall We Dance?” is a polka, not a waltz.) In any case, I have been unable to peel my eyes while watching the DVD for flashes of brass.

My stepmother was very proud of the Elephant Prod. My sister wanted it, too. It was settled that my stepmother would have it for life. By the time she died, my sister had lost interest, so the executor left it with me. I have not mounted it on the wall; it leans in a corner of the living room that is easily overlooked. Every time I do notice it, I think that I had better put it in a closet somewhere. You could hurt somebody with it.

For a while after Dennis Stanfill’s visit, I feared that Der Rosenkavalier would be ruined for me, but it wasn’t.

Bon week-end à tous!