Archive for July, 2017

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
October 2017 (II)

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Tuesday 12th

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations… but don’t worry! I haven’t got very far, and I don’t have anything to say, yet. I’m too busy trying to learn something.

Wittgenstein does, however, have an excellent bedside manner. He is calm and curious and he never shouts. Unlike Plato and Kant, he does not squint at you as if to say that perhaps you do not deserve treatment. Nor does he give the impression, which I always get from Descartes, of a well-behaved madman, the crackpot nature of whose theories threatens to reveal itself at any minute. The medicine that Wittgenstein pours out does not taste horrible. Regardless of whether what he’s saying makes any sense, he is reassuring. He has made my problem with philosophy go away, at least a little.

A very popular feature in the Times Magazine every Sunday deals with “ethical” questions that readers submit to such experts as Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Should I tell my sister that her husband is having an affair?” I never read it. The urge behind these questions is always, plainly, gossip. Insofar as gossip serves as a social regulator, making sure that nobody gets away with any fast moves, that’s as it should be, but it’s wrong, I think, to confuse gossip with the distinction of right from wrong. As an American, I have lived my entire intellectual life in an atmosphere of gentle pragmatism, which is governed by two principles — you do what you can, and you can always do better — and one caveat: if you beat yourself up, you’ll be no good for anything. I am rarely troubled by doubts about the right thing to do under the circumstances. This may account for my problem with philosophy: it bogs down under circumstances.

Thanks to Wittgenstein, however, I have at least been able to put philosophy in perspective. To be exact, it’s a perspective that relates philosophy to other ways of using words to settle questions of right and wrong. The law is one. By “the law” I mean the professional practice of law, with all of its technicalities and terms of art, that is brought to bear on everyday problems in and out of courtrooms. In the West, we have two very different types of everyday law, one that speaks English and one that’s inherited from the Romans. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of philosophers and theologians, we in the West settle our disputes in court. Many laymen feel that this is a mistake, but it has the advantage of operating without violence.

Poetry is another mode of talking about truth. Poems aren’t very good at deciding cases, but they remind us of the peculiar dimensions of the human space in which we live. The morality of poetry is a morality of diction: not of right and wrong but of good and better.

I don’t know what to do with philology or linguistics. Is philology just linguistics applied to ancient texts, a history of Western languages, in effect? Is linguistics a species of philosophy, or a branch of biology? What do we want these disciplines to tell us? The difference between philosophy, even as Wittgenstein practices it, and linguistics seems to be philosophy’s working assumption that there is something permanent about the language that the philosopher uses. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky appear to believe something of the sort, but I think they’re mistaken. The only thing that languages have in common — the different languages, with their simplifying labels (French, Urdu, &c), that people speak today, but also the different languages that each language has been throughout its history — is the need to provide a reliable medium for communication. Solutions to this need have varied widely.

Meanwhile, “Platte!” “Slab!”

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
Dissolu Typique
July 2017 (IV)

Monday, July 24th, 2017

24, 26 and 28 July

Monday 24th

Every now and then, I have to remind myself that I discovered Nancy Mitford in a perfectly respectable manner, one that she would have approved. I read her books. Not the novels, but the full-length historical portraits that came later, of Louis XIV, Madame de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great. (Voltaire in Love was never given the coffee-table treatment that created a new genre in Louis XIV and provided a new format for the book about Pompadour.) These three books were early treasures in my library — I still have them — long before my first wife handed me a copy of Hons and Rebels, and Nancy Mitford became Head Girl of the Peers’ Daughters Traveling Circus.

People often wonder why the antics of these spoiled darlings continue to interest readers. The answer is right there in the question: readers. Nothing that the sisters did became real (much less funny) until it was retold as a story, to accompanying “shrieks.” Many were written down in letters from one sister to another. Jessica’s nearly-libelous memoir brought a lot of these tales to the public, and the public was entertained. It wasn’t all laughs; there were plenty of dark chapters. But over the years the corpus of Materia Mitfordica grew and grew. Letters were published, biographies assembled. Nancy’s novels were re-examined, to compare them with what really happened. And most of the girls went on living from decade to decade. Already in the public eye as early as 1930, the sisters held on — four of them, anyway — until the mid Nineties. The youngest, Deborah, grew enormously in stature as the Duchess of Devonshire, chatelaine of a Stately Home that she and her husband had heroically saved from the maw of the tax man, and the marketer of many cannily upscale agricultural products. She was a monument herself by the time of her death, at 94, in 2014. (It is hard to imagine that there won’t be a big book about her; I only hope that I live to read it.) Diana, the notorious Nazi-defender— to her dying day, she refused to recant her support of her husband’s support of Hitler — died in the Paris heat wave of 2003, the author of several taut volumes of her own, aged 93 and beautiful to the end. Jessica had quieted down some by the time she succumbed, very quickly, to lung cancer, but her books, especially the hilarious, muckraking American Way of Death, were still in print. Print, print, print: almost everything was in print. Even letters from Unity, eventually. Unity was the one who became Hitler’s soul mate, his dream of English aristocracy. The two of them would sit by the fire and chat about who knows what — it drove the rest of his entourage crazy  with courtly anxieties. Unity shot herself when the war broke out, but she lived, somewhat damaged, for another nine years, being the second sibling to die. The first had been her brother, Tom, in Burma in 1945, shot in action. Nancy died in 1973, also of cancer, which seems to have gripped her right about the time when the love her life, Gaston Palewski, married somebody else.

And then there was Pamela. Younger than Nancy by three years and never brilliant in the way that her other sisters couldn’t seem to help being, Pam never wrote any books, and none were written about her. She remained quite staunchly out of the limelight — which, as I hasten to repeat, was a literary limelight. Pam’s life was by no means dull. She drove, by herself, all over Europe in the Thirties. She married a wealthy genius. She lived in Switzerland for some time. She knew as much about animal husbandry as any county matron in England, and was also a noted cook. She was famous for being able to remember every meal that she had ever had. But she was never in the newspapers. She never troubled her parents with eccentric views or naughty adventures. Everybody loved her, and there must have been two or three dozen women just like her in her class and generation.

For now, you see, there is a book: The Other Mitford: Pamela’s Story. It’s cheeky to say that the author, Diana Alexander, was Pam’s “daily” for several years, suggesting a char’s eye view of an Honourable, but Alexander also claims to be a journalist, a professional at loose ends when Pam, who lived across the green in the same Cotswold village, needed someone to clean her house. My faith in this claim was shaken by clauses appearing in two nearly neighboring sentences.

“… and on one occasion she told Pat and I, well in advance…” (137)

“… it was us who persuaded her to let us run the lukewarm water …” (140)

It may also seem churlish to report that there are enough repetitions in the book to  raise the suspicion that it is an unedited collection of separate, previously printed articles. But worse than churlishness will probably be my frank observation that Pam does not emerge as an individual until the end of the book, when she settles into her house in Caudle Green and becomes a presence in her biographer’s life. We are to be grateful for the addition to the Mitford corpus of stories that bear out the claim that Pam was the sister who took most after her thrifty mother.

The sheets were not always laundered after each guest, however. … Pam would announce, if her sisters’ visits were in close proximity, : “Debo is coming to stay next week and Diana will be here in two weeks’ time, so one of them can sleep on this side and other on that.” When one sister had left, Pam would stand on one side of the bed and me on the other, and we would tug the creases out of the side which had been slept on. This was not an easy task since these sheets were Irish linen (what else?) and creased very easily. If the sisters knew about this it must have amused them greatly; it was just one more example of Woman’s “carefulness.” (134)

Until these later, chapters, however, The Other Mitford is about the other Mitfords, and if you cooked it down to boil off all the well-known tales, you would be left with a sentence of three words: “Pam didn’t complain.”

There is a thrilling moment when Pam is buying a cut of meat for Diana on a visit to Paris.

To prevent any misunderstanding as to which cut should be used, she stood up and pointing to her own body pronounced: “Il faut le couper LA.” (150)

It’s so easy to imagine: Julia Child as a Mitford Girl! Isn’t that really all that was needed? It’s a poignant moment, really, especially in light of an earlier anecdote showing Pam to be a “natural” in front of the television camera. But Pam, unlike Mrs Child and her sisters, was simply not a restless person. She went about her life with quiet determination and appears to have been deeply contented. The Other Mitford is an oddly successful book, because it makes the case, with inexplicable interest, that it ought never to have been undertaken.


Wednesday 26th

Kathleen got home from her weekend with old friends in Maine shortly before eight last night; at five-thirty this morning, she left the apartment for Bermuda. She is giving a speech there on Friday. She worked at it on the plane. How? I asked, when she called from her room at the Hamilton Princess. How wasn’t she dead tired? How did she stay awake during the flight? Adrenaline is the answer. The speech is a big deal, and she wants it to be perfect.

So I slept in for her. She’ll be home on Saturday, with no plans to go anywhere very soon. Except, I forgot, Boston next week.


Kathleen wanted Chinese for dinner last night, so we had that. (I really ought to learn how to make sesame chicken myself.) We talked about the hypocrisy of liberal education. There was no scorn or contempt in what we said; we are both liberals up to our eyeballs and beyond. But there are difficulties that must be acknowledged. In a way, liberal education is perfectly straightforward: it teaches you how to be liberal. This means, above all, agreeing to disagree and to cooperate with people who see things a little differently. People who are not liberals call this “compromise” — and “hypocrisy” as well. But the hypocrisy of liberal education is that you don’t learn the stuff on the syllabus, not really. You cram it. You bone up on it, write papers about it, argue about it in seminars — and then you forget it. Liberal education does not produce scholars. Heavens, no! If there’s one thing that you’ve got to learn in the course of acquiring a liberal education, it’s the urgency of not giving the impression of being a pedant.

Liberalism relies perhaps a little too heavily on esprit de corps. If you’re in with a good gang, great things may happen, but in many liberal groups, small local chapters of liberalism, as it were, in offices of every kind — it is difficult to think of a liberal activity that does not take place in an office — the wear-and-tear of agreeing to disagree can get to be disenchanting. Liberal education teaches you how to sit through meetings, and even how to contribute to them without being disruptive, but it sometimes happens that disruption is what’s needed most. Only persons gifted with a special charisma are allowed to disrupt a liberal gathering, though, and such persons are rare. Others will be quietly but firmly shooed away, and business will continue as usual.

This raises the question that always lurks in the background: is liberalism a position or a style? If it is a position, it is a position of compromise — awkward to hold for any length of time. Considered as a style, however, liberalism makes more sense. For there are positions with which the liberal declines to agree to disagree, and they are the positions of extremists. On the one hand, social-justice radical egalitarians. Liberals are allergic to the egalitarian ideal, because their liberal education teaches them that the pursuit of absolute equality leads to pointless bloodshed. In the end, even the top Maoists have their little luxuries; or perhaps it would be better to say that that’s only the beginning. Liberals are also allergic to the views of those who have not had liberal educations. It doesn’t really matter what those views might be, because the problem is that they are never expressed very well. (See “charisma,” above.) Considering the totalitarian impulse of radicals on the left, liberalism does seem very much a style, a manner of living with difference. Radicals hate difference.

On the other side, conservatives. Now, to begin with, there are no conservatives in the United States, because there has never been a landed class working hand-in-glove with an established religion to perpetuate the status quo. So-called conservatives in America are really just anarchists. (The only difference between the radical left and the radical right is their very different sense of what “brotherhood” means.) True conservatives believe that everyone has a place in society, and that the secret to earthly happiness is knowing and accepting yours. Compassionate conservatives will guarantee every peasant a chance to work the plow. As I have already suggested, however, liberals are horrified by peasants. Because liberals are tremendous snobs about not being snobs, they tell themselves that it is not the peasants who horrify them, but the very possibility of peasantry. Liberals are always dreaming of ways of transforming peasants into liberals. This why they talk so incessantly about the importance of getting a (liberal) education.

A future made up of all-liberals seems perfectly plausible. Robots would do all the hard work, and liberals would keep them in their place — because it is perfectly all right for a machine to be a peasant. But what about the people who aren’t cut out to be liberals? In the early days of liberalism, liberals were property-owners. Now liberals are knowledge- and skill-owners. They are professionals. Not everyone can be a professional, surely. It is at this point that I am always reminded of Alan Blinder’s prediction, made ten or more years ago in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Blinder foresaw a polity in which rentiers, the actual owners of everything, would be serviced by educated professionals and by uneducated yardmen and housemaids. There would be no other kinds of jobs at all. Not a very liberal vision.


Reviewing a new book about Truman and MacArthur in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Andrew Bacevich writes,

At no time during the sixty-plus years since MacArthur’s downfall have existing civil-military arrangements worked as advertised. That is to say, never has the interaction of military and civilian leaders, conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and mutual respect, privileging the national interest rather than personal ambition and institutional agendas, yielded consistently enlightened policies. This remains one of the dirty little secrets the American elite is reluctant to own up to.

As I’ve already written a thousand words today, I’ll have to leave this passage for future discussion. Just to get your thinking started, though, I’d change “existing” to “American,” so that I could change “American” to “liberal.” And I would point out that making a habit of compromise is bound to fill dark corners with dirty little secrets. One thing that the liberal élite needs, it seems to me, is a self-cleaning feature.


Friday 28th

What do you do with funny little books? Do you keep them on the shelf, long after their jokes have become familiar, or do you put them in a box and send them to the attic? It’s very much a matter of mood. If you’re relaxed, and ready for a laugh, then you’ll keep these booklets near. If you’re stressed, and trying to make room for serious books, then off they’ll go.

I must have been stressed: At some point or other, probably when we moved into this apartment a couple of years ago, I sent The Preppy Handbook and The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook to storage. I brought them home the other day to give them a good look; this time, either I’ll keep them in my house or I’ll donate them to Housing Works. Kathleen and I did not find The Preppy Handbook altogether convincing when it appeared, and it’s possible that its English counterpart strikes just as many false notes that we can’t hear. (The case could also be made that there’s nothing in Sloane Ranger that isn’t presented even more briskly in Four Weddings and a Funeral.) Sometimes, funny little books lose their funny. But I also brought home something that I’m finding funnier than ever.

I hope that a few regular readers have their own copies of Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s little book of verses — a pamphlet, really — Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames (1967; Penguin, 1980). For those who have not encountered this book, I’m going to offer a rain check to anyone unfamiliar with French. Even if your French is Énarque level, I caution you against too-rapidly trying to make sense of van Rooten’s title. I’ll remind you instead of those books that were popular for a while a few years ago — big funny books that I had no trouble getting rid of last summer — that were full of 3-D illustrations if you could manage to relax your eyes just right. Subtitled The d’Antin Manuscript, van Rooten’s book is not what it appears to be. To be blunt: it is not in French.

Papa, blague chipe
A vieux inouï houle
Y est-ce art? Y est-ce art? Trépas que se foulent
Aune format masure, en nouant format thème
En nouant fleur-de-lis de bois de solive en deliènne.

What does this mean? But surely you already know! All you have to do is loosen up!

Easier said than done. Loosening up requires tying yourself to the mast. You must first of all resist the sense of the words, which of course don’t make any sense, notwithstanding the hilarious pedantry of van Rooten’s tongue-in-cheek annotations. Then you have to resist the words themselves, listening to the sounds line by line. But in order to do this, you have to read the lines as if — as if you didn’t know how to read French, but, at the same time, very quickly. If you don’t read it quickly, you’ll never get the third line to yield

Three bags full.

And finally, you have to hear what you’re saying as if you were a Frenchman whose English accent wasn’t very good.

Année olive tous guetteurs.

There are 40 nursery rhymes in this collection of renderings from Mother Goose (now you can give the title another try), and you can give yourself a good headache by tackling more than five at a time. It’ll be worth it. Because cracking the code is not really the best part. The best part is carrying around in your mind the absurdity of

Myriade évitent lames


Dissolu typique, c’tiède homme


Eau à guigne d’air telle baie indemne

There’s something about “dissolu typique” that explains those little piggies. I’ll be honest, though: I googled Mander ce châle. Among others.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Madeleine Montpellier
July 2017 (III)

Monday, July 17th, 2017

17, 18 and 21 July

Monday 17th

On Thursday afternoon, I finally got round to the ironing. It had piled up for a few weeks. I could make the usual excuses, but they’re never usual, they’re always unique, except that they all mask the blend of laziness and fatigue that makes the prospect of ironing extremely uninviting. The ironing is not especially tedious; I don’t do shirts or anything complicated, just flat pieces like napkins and handkerchiefs. It’s more the getting things out and putting them away that’s the nuisance. I have enough napkings to go about three weeks without ironing, which is what often happens. Last Thursday, there were three weeks’ worth of laundry to iron and hardly any napkins on the pantry shelf.

So I set up the board and plugged in the iron and picked a movie to watch. Having nothing in mind, I pulled out the first drawer of DVDs and grabbed a bunch of about ten discs. Atonement was the first, followed by L’auberge espagnole. I flipped through the rest, but couldn’t settle on one. Then I went through the bunch again. This time, I made a selection: Away From Her. Perhaps it would be better to say that Away From Her was selected. An odd choice, I thought. A movie about a long-married couple faced with the wife’s dementia would make pretty penitential entertainment for the ironing. On top of that — and this is no small thing — Away From Her is not only Canadian but set in Canada, based on a celebrated short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” by Canada’s best-known writer, Alice Munro. (Writer/director Sarah Polley is also Canadian.) Here is the Canadian predicament as I see it: all the gloom of Scandinavia is drained of its glamour by the proximity of and general resemblance to the American Midwest. I am bewildered that anyone lives in Ontario.  (Then I shrug my shoulders; after all, I remember, people live everywhere.)

On the plus side: Julie Christie.

As I was waking up this morning, something about the movie came to mind, and I thought that I would write about it. But first, it might be a good idea to read Munro’s story again. I had to get out the ladder (which is kept right next to the ironing board), because I’ve gathered all the Everyman’s Library titles on the top shelf of a book case in the living room, and although I can reach them, I can’t read their spines, which are far enough away so that reading glasses are no help. There might be a copy of the story in one of the collections in the bookroom, but I remembered that the Everyman’s Library collection included it — even that it is the last story in the volume.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation is about as faithful as one could wish, so far as tone and detail go, but it is a movie, and necessarily more diffuse than the story. The story is all about Grant, the husband, a retired professor of Norse literature. The sheer fact of Gordon Pinsent, whether or not he gives a wonderful performance (he does), diverts the flow of attention out into the world that Grant has to live in; this is always the case with movies. Grant’s infidelity — “philandering” in the story — is alluded to by Polley as delicately as possibly, just to explain his extremely conceited idea that Fiona, the beautiful wife whom he has brought to an assisted-living facility and who seems to have forgotten who he is after the first month’s probationary absence, might be working her revenge. Of course, if such a mad retribution were conceivable anywhere, it would be in a story by Alice Munro.

Perhaps because Polley’s movie is not so much about Grant but about the upheaval that Alzheimer’s wreaks in people’s lives, it is not nearly as concerned about Grant or Fiona in the past as it is about where they go from here. And yet Polley takes Grant’s jealous suspicion more seriously than Munro herself. Grant actually voices the idea to a nurse. It does give Julie Christie something to do besides looking sad and amazingly beautiful for her age (and also, oddly, more than a little like Ginger Rogers). The story’s Fiona doesn’t have much to say, but Away From Her is about doing just that, warding Grant away from her. She is desperately polite to him: “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, I s’pose” is a refrain. At one sharper moment, she flutters her hand even more desperately and beseeches her husband, “Don’t…” Don’t what? Don’t remind her of the life that she has lost? That would mean that she hasn’t quite lost it, that she still remembers life with him.

It’s the sort of scene that won Christie an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. There is nothing like it in the story.

Elided in the film is the difference between the couple’s backgrounds. Fiona’s is upper-middle-class: her father was an eminent cardiologist. Grant’s is plain. He is the kind of man who is vastly overrepresented in literature, because his intellectual gifts have set him apart from his origins, saddling him with lifelong doubt and alienation. Portrait of the artist! (You might say that Munro’s artistic secret sauce has been the experience on which she has drawn to show what this looks like when it’s a young woman, for a change, who goes off to university and a life of sophistication.) I can see that including this element of the narrative might clutter the film, but it provides a cinching bond in the story.

In the facility, Fiona doesn’t just forget who Grant is, she takes up with another man, Aubrey. She is bereft when Aubrey is removed by his wife. It turns out that the wife, Marian, had parked him there for a few months while she took a break; she cannot afford to keep him in the home full time without losing her house. Grant finds this out when he visits Marian, and asks her to let him take Aubrey to visit the disconsolate Fiona. The movie expatiates with grace and humor on the relationship between Grant and Marian, and while Munro’s ironies are not altogether blunted, her bleakness is greatly relieved by a shot of romance. In the story, Grant realizes that the only way to make Fiona happy is to take up his philandering again, but it heart won’t be in it.

And yet in some depressing way the conversation had not been unfamiliar to him. That was because it reminded him of conversations he’d had with people in his own family. His uncles, his relatives, probably even his mother, had thought the way Marian thought. They had believed that when other people did not think that way it was because they were kidding themselves — they had got too airy-fairy, or stupid, on account of their easy and protected lives of their education. They had lost touch with reality. Educated people, literary people, some rich people like Grant’s socialist in-laws had lost touch with reality. Due to an unmerited good fortune or an innate silliness. In Grant’s case, he suspected, they pretty well believed it was both.

That was how Marian would see him, certainly. A silly person, full of boring knowledge and protected by some fluke from the truth about the life. A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts. Free to dream up the fine, generous schemes that he believed would make another person happy.

What a jerk, she would be thinking now.

“What a jerk,” says the movie’s Marian, the breathtaking Olympia Dukakis, as she closes the door on Grant. But if she’s thinking what Munro says she’s probably thinking, we don’t know it, and we certainly don’t know that Grant imagines it’s what she’s thinking.


Tuesday 18th

What I was thinking about as I woke up yesterday morning was the role of Madeleine Montpellier, in Away From Her. In Alice Munro’s story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” there is no character with that name, but only an unnamed supervisor, a woman who has two conversations with Grant, both about the rules at the assisted-living facility into whose care he has put his demented wife, Fiona. It would be going to far to say that Munro’s supervisor has no personality, only an official persona, but she is certainly a pale presence in comparison to the movie’s Madeleine. The transformation of the supervisor into Madeleine almost perfectly overlaps the transformation of a story about a man into a movie about a couple. In the process, and quite incidentally to the story of Grant and Fiona (and Aubrey and Marian, to complete our quartet of intimates), Madeleine embodies what, as I woke up in a mist of forgotten dreams, struck me as a difficulty of liberal society.

One of the differences between reading fiction and watching movies, for me anyway, is that consciousness of the writer’s craft, moments in which an apt turn of phrase stands out from the flow of the narrative, intensify the satisfaction of the fiction. There are two passages in Mansfield Park (so it struck me when I read the novel a few months ago) where Jane Austen’s imitations of Samuel Johnson’s Augustan, authoritative, but ever-so-slightly paradoxical manner raise the entire novel’s pitch of truth. Here is one of them.

I believe there is scarcely a young lady in the United Kingdoms who would not rather put up with the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man, than to have him driven away by the vulgarity of her nearest relations. (Chapter 41)

It isn’t just the phrasing, of course; Austen’s decision to make this pronouncement when and where she does is also part of its excellence. Taken out of context, “the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man” loses some of its punch; I have to note that it refers to Fanny Price’s feeling that she is being persecuted by the unwanted attentions of Henry Crawford. Although superficially severe, the passage is actually rather comical — but the point is that, no matter how long I dawdle over it, I am not distracted from the power of Mansfield Park as an essentially true story. Language such as Austen’s provides incessant confirmation of that truth. Nobody else could have told the story of Fanny Price nearly so well.

So it is with the passage from the end of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” that I quoted yesterday. The contempt for people like Grant expressed by the sentence fragment, “A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts,” not only diminishes, in his own sight, the life that Grant has tried to lead but connects seamlessly to the fact that, like Grant, I have also had occasion to imagine the people around me feeling similar scorn for my complicated thoughts. The language swallows me up in an act of sympathy.

Watching movies, in contrast, is a social event. Other people are other people. Instead of characters on the page whom I must flesh out, I see actors pretending to be people that they’re not. If the actors and director are skilled, this does not get in the way of the movie’s narrative, but I remain conscious of a doubling that is additive: the character is there on the screen before me, and so is the actor impersonating him. This makes movie-watching a very complex pleasure. When I watch Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith, part of my mind is remembering the other Carole Lombard movies that I know. (It is also remembering the work of Hitchcock himself.) Sometimes, these recollections obtrude upon my consciousness, but they manage somehow not to interrupt the movie.

I found Wendy Crewson’s Madeleine Montpellier to be a gripping, almost terrifying character. She is everything that a board of directors would look for in a hospital supervisor. She is cheerful, resourceful, attentive, and politely firm. She remembers everyone’s name — and everything else as well. But as Crewson plays her, Madeleine’s self-control is not quite complete. How could such a paragon of capability not be pestered by moments of impatience? And it is this potential for impatience that gives Madeleine her immense authority. You do not want to tempt it. You might wind up on the facility’s second floor.

A close reading of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” might reveal the precise extent to which Munro borrows horror-movie techniques to invest “the second floor” with the nightmare of dementia. When the movie takes us to the second floor, it doesn’t look so bad; the furniture is almost as nice. That almost all the patients are slumped in their bathrobes, frowning but not appearing to see anything, and that so many of these patients are women, seems to correspond with expectations of what terminal illness might look like. There is no suggestion of mistreatment. But the story never visits the second floor; it is an unseen menace, rather like our experience of hell. When the supervisor informs Grant that Fiona may have to be taken up to the second floor, because, in Aubrey’s absence, she seems to have given up, Grant redoubles his efforts to reunite his wife with Marian’s husband.

In the movie, Fiona is transferred to the second floor. It is not itself a descent into hell, but in the movie, the story’s note of hellishness is translated, like a demon, into the person of Madeleine Montpellier. Like the supervisor in the story, she has the authority to send patients to the second floor, but in Crewson’s body this authority flashes like lightning, as if everything that she beholds, visitors included, is potential second-floor material. It is not that Madeleine is a sadist, eager to push helpless victims into a terminal ward. It’s rather that she is determined to maintain a certain level of mental hygiene on the ground floor. No matter how twinkling Madeleine’s smile might be, her eye is on a constant lookout for lapses from well-being. In her spotless domain, the only problem is the population of people who are losing their minds. That’s all right, but only so long as they don’t spoil the spotlessness.

In the story, there is a nurse, and the nurse has a name, Kristy. In the movie, Kristy is very well played by Kristen Thomson, and her role is nicely filled out, especially in connection with Grant’s suspicion that Fiona might be faking, if not her incipient dementia, then at least her affection for Aubrey. Interestingly, however, two of Kristy’s lines in the story are handed over to the movie’s Madeleine. The first one concerns the flowers that Grant brings on his first visit to Fiona. “They must have cost a fortune” sounds much more judgmental coming from Madeleine than it does (in the story) coming from Kristy. But the second switched line is actually seismic. It occurs while Fiona and Aubrey are weeping over their farewells.

“I just wish his wife would hurry up and get here,” Kristy said. “I wish she’d get him out of here and cut the agony short.”

From Kristy, this is only human. From Madeleine, it is a frightening slip of character, a dreadful outburst of impatience.


Friday 21st

In the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the history of liberalism. I haven’t made a study of the matter; I’ve simply tried to organize what I already know.

Liberalism is a bit more than three hundred years old. It arose in England, and came into focus during the short reign of James II. James hoped to replicate in Britain the centralized, authoritarian régime of his cousin, Louis XIV of France. Louis’s approach, which is often called “absolutist,” was one solution to the problem of state power that all but defined the sovereignties of Western Europe as they emerged from medieval precariousness. Liberalism was another. The roots of absolutism and liberalism in their respective countries can be traced back to the Thirteenth Century and beyond, but it was at the end of the Seventeenth that they clicked into focus.

The problem of state power is this: what is the role of the “great men” — the males of the royal family, the leading aristocrats, the higher clergy, and, with the passage of time, the plainly rich — in the exercise of power? Is the monarch or other ruler truly supreme, or is he obliged to defer to his council? From Charlemagne’s time on (and Charlemagne died in 814), every reign of meaningful duration arrived, ad hoc, at some answer to this question, only to have the arrangement put at risk by the following coronation. Rocky as medieval disagreements might be, the Protestant Reformation introduced incendiary violence; by this I mean to point out that Europeans did not make steady progress over centuries of grappling with the issue. In 1688, however, the fires in Great Britain were put out once and for all (as it turned out) with the institution of limited monarchy. The ruler alone was not supreme; indeed, when acting alone, the ruler had no power at all. It was only when acting in concert with the council that the monarch exercised authority. Over time, the council in England had evolved from a posse of hotheaded horsemen into the robustly articulated institution of Parliament. Great Britain to this day is ruled by something called “the Crown in Parliament.”

English liberalism was based on the wisdom of experience that held that men of substance are the best judges of their own affairs, and this kernel of thought is the one constant in liberal thinking throughout its history. Although hailed as “democratic” by later, mostly Victorian writers, the first English liberals were plainly oligarchic.

The sole object of society and civil government in their view was to preserve rights and to ignore almost entirely the functions or duties of citizens. By this theory all the stress was laid on the privileges of property-owners until it became doubtful if the really poor had any rights at all theoretically. (Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy. Oxford, 1939, p. 6)

Setting aside the “really poor,” the middling classes enjoyed a steady growth throughout the Eighteenth Century, and then an explosion of wealth with the Industrial Revolution. The power of the oligarchs was correspondingly reduced, and eventually — with the reformation of the House of Lords twenty years ago — reformed out of existence. But the liberal idea remained; there were simply many more “men of substance.” Women, too. Two commonplaces have fueled liberal legitimacy throughout the overtly democratic Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. A rising tide manifestly lifted all boats (even if, regrettably, not everybody was sitting in one), and the best way to acquire and maintain a boat was to get an education. These commonplaces were taken to be universal truths, but in fact they were time-bound functions of the great transition launched by the harnessing of steam power. I believe that this transition is complete; the widespread employment that constituted the rising tide has ebbed, and promises to ebb further, as the Industrial Revolution completes its inexorable search for an automated, robotic workforce.

The absolutist view held that divinely inspired kings, working with a divinely-established church, could establish the rules of right living, self-evident to the intelligent and justifiably imposed upon the dim. The liberal view was expressed by Adam Smith, who pointed out that while the butcher and the baker don’t care very much about our welfare, they do care about their dinner. He was only making respectable the thought of Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who settled in London and learned English well enough to write a poem called “The Grumbling Hive.” This brief and sparkly satire brought no end of opprobrium upon its author (who later bulked it out with essays and “remarks,” under the title The Fable of the Bees) not because of the acuity of his acerbic couplets about worldly and impious London but because of his insistence that its prosperity depended on its viciousness: almost half of the poem describes the downfall of the hive when Jove actually listens to the bees’ prayers and puts a stop to fraud. This was too bald, and although Mandeville is probably the first penetrating thinker on the subject of liberal economics, you will not find The Fable of the Bees on many canonizing reading lists.

It is not difficult to see why a political outlook that, come what may, always favors oligarchies and thrives in commercial opulence is not altogether popular today.

It is also easy to see why liberalism’s horror of coercion is a problem. At least since the palmy days of Gladstone, liberals have been split on the merits of social engineering — whether it is possible, or even desirable, to enact social changes. This may have something to do with doubts about the ability of statesmen to conceive of viable alterations to the body politic, but it has much more to do with distaste for obliging that body to accept alterations. As time passes, it becomes more obvious that the passage of Civil Rights acts in the 1960s and thereafter was not enough to end racism in America, not by a long shot. The alternatives to those laws, however, were even less attractive. Doing nothing, waiting for the country to outgrow its bigotry over time, was morally repugnant to many. Doing too much more, however, would have required the strongman tactics that we deplore in Turkey’s Erdoğan and the Philippines’ Duterte; forcibly integrating schools was as far as the nation’s liberal establishment could go. Throughout its history, liberalism has scrambled for compromise positions that excite little passion. Which is fine with liberals, who by and large dislike and distrust passion, especially in public life.


What has this to do with Madeleine Montpellier, you may well ask. Well, there I was, half-asleep last Monday morning, and it suddenly struck me that Madeleine Montpellier could be the face of liberal democracy. She encourages us to behave well enough to remain on the ground floor. And when I say “us,” I mean us, members of the liberal élite, educated as in no other subject in reading the implications of her smiles and frowns. Imagine how blandly impenetrable she must look to people who haven’t had that education, who need more than a wink or a nudge to keep themselves in order. It is very easy to hear Madeleine Montpellier dismiss such people as “deplorables.” People like Marian. I just wish…

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Economy and Justice
July 2017 (II)

Monday, July 10th, 2017

10, 12 and 13 July

Monday 10th

Over the weekend, I read something that was so congruent with my own thinking that it was better than being published myself, and rather more like exciting, desperately looked-for proof of intelligent life in a distant galaxy. It was a book review in the Times Book Review, by law professor James Kwak. The title of the book, by Jesse Eisinger, isn’t very nice: The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives. The answer to the question raised in the subtitle is provided by Professor Kwak:

Increasingly, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys on opposite sides of the table are the same people, just at different points in their careers. Conducting a criminal investigation of an executive isn’t just risky; in addition to jeopardizing a future partnership at a prestigious law firm, perhaps most important, it incurs “social discomfort,” especially for the well-mannered overachievers who now populate the Justice Department. No one wants to be a class traitor, especially when the members of one’s class are such nice people.


After decades in which Wall Street masters of the universe were lionized in the media and popular culture, star investment bankers — rich, usually white men in nice suits — just don’t match the popular image of criminals. Democrats as well as Republicans cozied up to big business, outsourcing the Treasury Department to Wall Street and the Justice Department to corporate law firms. Even after the financial system collapsed, the Obama administration’s priority was to bail out the megabanks — to “foam the runway,” in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s words. The Justice Department became increasingly staffed by intelligent, status-seeking, conformist graduates of the nation’s top law schools — all of whom had friends on Wall Street and in the defense bar. In that environment, the easy choice was to play along, strike a deal with an impressive-sounding fine (to be absorbed by shareholders) that held no one responsible, and avoid risking an acquittal or a hung jury. (The book’s title comes from then-U.S. Attorney James Comey’s name for prosecutors who had never lost a trial.) Corruption can take many forms — not just bags of cash under the table, but a creeping rot that saps our collective motivation to pursue the cause of justice. As Upton Sinclair might have written were he alive today: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his résumé depends upon his not understanding it. [Emphasis supplied]

It would be difficult to find a more sterling example of élite bankruptcy: the Justice Department, in this reading, is corrupted by its staff’s craven hopes for remunerative futures. There is no actual wrong-doing, but by the same token, there is no actual right-doing, either. Our institutional arrangements are worse than inadequate.

I have two answers, two solutions, to the underlying problem. First, we must strip corporations of “natural person” status. Without this status, a corporation could neither be party to a criminal lawsuit nor represented in such a suit by counsel. Only the actual human beings in charge of operation could be charged with criminal conduct. Given a healthy alteration of corporate law that would deny corporate funds to employees for the purpose of paying legal expenses, my bet is that, overall, the business of representing corporations would become less lucrative over time. This would make the second step easier to impose: the door between public and private service ought to be closed. This need not be formal or overt. If government lawyers are paid more, while private attorneys’ fees drop, the careerism captured by Professor Kwak’s review would become unusual and eventually shameful.

For shareholders, the upside to abandoning corporate personhood would be that their investments would no longer be diminished by immense fines. The downside would be that, if cleaning up after reckless behavior were no longer a legitimate cost of doing business, there would be a lot less “creative destruction.” I’m not so sure that that would be bad for the rest of us.

The United States’s meritocratic élite faces a severe crisis of legitimacy at the moment, and it is impossible to dismiss President Trump’s grandstanding anti-élitism as mere opportunism. Jesse Eisinger’s book points to a house on fire. We had better put it out.


Corporations are legal fictions. They exist nowhere but on paper, and it is what is written on that paper that constitutes the only evidence of corporate existence. The purpose of the fiction is to stabilize the ownership of certain kinds of property, historically churches, schools, and hospitals. The ownership of these institutions is “embodied” in the corporation that continues unchanging even as the different people who manage it over time come and go.

The modern business corporation added (in the middle of the Nineteenth Century) something very useful to the fiction: limited liability. The liability of a business corporation itself is unlimited. If it cannot pay its debts, it is bankrupted. But the liability of the shareholders is limited to the extent of their investments. This is why corporate structure is so important to a new business, as a protection to investors. Capitalism would be impossible, or at least very dangerous, without it.

In the United States, corporations have been regarded as “natural persons” since 1886 — more or less. It was in that year that a certain case came before the Supreme Court. For unusual reasons, the Court’s adjudication of the case is cloudy, but its authority has nevertheless been respected. As one consequence of the ruling, corporations have been permitted to contribute to political campaigns. More remarkably, this disembodied legal fiction can be charged with crime. These are win-win arrangements for senior executives. They can increase their own personal political contributions by dipping into the largesse of the corporate treasury. And, as Jesse Eisinger’s book demonstrates, they can leave their shareholders holding the bag for bad behavior.

Because I am not a silly person, I do not believe that a legal fiction can misbehave. There must be some other culprit.


Wednesday 12th

The other day, as I was tearing through the last chapters of James Lasdun’s exciting, disturbing novel, The Fall Guy, I was brought up short short by the protagonist’s culinary note on the evening’s dinner, its menu featuring a leg of venison, cooked sous-vide.

Topping up his drink, he salted the lean crimson meat, vacuum sealed it in one of the plastic pouches, and set it to cook. He’d picked up boysenberrries for a compote, a red cabbage to braise with a slab of pig cheek, and potatoes for a herbed spaetzle.

It was the red cabbage braised with pig cheek that stopped me. This was more signal than side-dish. The very nonchalance of the remark fairly screamed sophistication. I wondered a little why Lasdun was interrupting the tense atmosphere with a prosaic roll-call of elaborate dishes. A part of my mind reflected that, when I was growing up, no cook would have prepared a dish of red cabbage and pig cheek and called it that. There would have been a fancy name of some kind. In those days, you were supposed to know that “Crécy” meant carrots and “Florentine” meant spinach, so humble vegetables need not be named. Nowadays it is just the opposite, because the ingredients are, if humble, rather unusual. Pig’s cheek? That’s guanciale, isn’t it? No hiding behind Italian here, however! Something was going on.

This passage came immediately to mind when I read David Brooks’s column in yesterday’s Times. The column was extraordinarily interesting overall, because it not only addressed the issues that I’ve been discussing in connection with meritocracy but woke me to the current state of play, which I had rather overlooked. For the most part, his subject was higher education and highly-taxed affluent neighborhoods, the two most prominent institutions by which the favored fifth — the top economic quintile of Americans — ensures that its children will inherit its advantages. But I want you to look at the brief passage in which Brooks shows how food is put to work in this cause.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Not a light bulb but a flood lamp illuminated the scene: it was like catching a clutch of domino-wearing conspirators in flagrante. Once upon a time, it was done with utensils: faced by an array of silverware alongside your plate, how did you determine which one to use in order to eat what had just been put in front of you? This was a mine field for the unsophisticated and a spectator sport for the well-mannered. Now it is the food itself. How do you know what has just been put in front of you? And are you supposed to dig in with relish when someone tells you that it’s pig cheek?

It would be wrong to attribute the desire to exclude 80% of Americans to the increasingly middle-aged high-achievers whose lives in the best ZIP codes look just like everybody else’s, only newer, shinier, sleeker, and quieter. Today’s ostentation is unlike earlier styles, in that it strives to be unnoticeable, at least in the middle distance. To be cynical, I’d venture that the favored fifth would prefer that the rest of their countrymen not notice the countless little ways in which it lives the nicer life. The pig’s cheek is a kind of smiling shibboleth, intended only to reassure the members of the tribe, which is, after all, composed of people who grew up all over the place. Pig’s cheek puts everybody with access on the same page. Finally, I understand the ubiquity of short ribs on restaurant menus.

But no matter how much of this signalling remains invisible or meaningless to the 80%, some of it is always going to be intercepted, by the likes of David Brooks’s hapless friend, not to mention J D Vance. And what’s going to anger the have-nots is not so much the not having as the faux sharing. Brooks takes his friend to a place that specializes in gourmet — sandwiches? Pig cheek? What is this fake vernacular? Donald Trump, in his gilded baroque condo, at least knows how to be rich!

This is another one of the problems that the liberal meritocratic élite is going to have to work on if it has any hopes of returning to power. Ordinary Americans have had it with the élite’s stuck-up pose of being just folks.


Friday 13th

Last week, I wrote that “five more sessions” ought to be all that I’d need to finish sorting my books in the storage unit. In the event — the other day — it took only one. I could certainly whittle the number of keepers by a boxload, and I probably shall — but I needn’t. My conscience is clear. Everything in the unit is ready to be disposed of by other hands. This afternoon, I spent an hour there going through LPs, and out of at least a hundred discs I set aside about a dozen to hold on to. I’m done.

Instead of dilating upon this historic, or at least liberating, occasion, I’d like to share my solution to the American political mess. I’ve got it all figured out.

No, this is not going to funny. But it does make me feel good, because even if it’s not likely to happen tomorrow or in time for the next elections, it makes sense. That it’s also quite simple may be proof that I’ve lost my mind, but then again maybe not.

Remember Nixon’s Southern Strategy? The old Dixiecrats were persuaded to change their political allegiance. Almost overnight, they became Republicans, members of the once-hated party of Reconstruction. (As long as we’re on the subject: Nixon also recognized the People’s Republic of China, something even less likely to have been forecast for his terms in office. Really, anything’s possible.) The Southern Strategy worked because the white people of the South suddenly realized, after having been betrayed by Lyndon Johnson, the prime mover of civil rights in America, that they weren’t really Democrats at all. They weren’t exactly Republicans, either, but they took over the party and changed it to suit themselves.

It’s time for this to happen again. This time, the turncoats that I have in mind are the Favored Fifth, the top economic quintile in the country, the people who have all the best jobs, live in the best ZIP codes, eat the best food, and send their kids to the fanciest schools. At the moment, a good many of these people tend to vote Democratic. Lots of them supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. But they are really no more Democratic than the Dixiecrats were. Like the Dixiecrats, they were electrified by the advance of Civil Rights, but their reaction was more confused. The problem was the term “liberal.” Liberalism has always been tangled in contradictions, mostly between a lively regard for property rights and a somewhat dimmer faith that the injustice of social inequality will work itself out eventually. The sleight of hand in liberal thinking holds that inequality, although it will clearly be an injustice when it is trampled out of existence in the happy future, is not an injustice right now, because it can’t be helped.

When it you get down to it, “liberal Democrat” is a contradiction in terms. We ought to stop expecting liberals to support the Democratic Party. They don’t, not really, and they never will. They are all Rockefeller Republicans at heart, and this is a good thing for the nation. It’s time for the Favored Fifth to return to its natural home. That nationalists and white supremacists and evangelicals won’t be happy to receive them makes it so much the better.

I would rechristen this revived Republican Party the Economy Party, because maintaining the economic health of the nation would be its priority. For starters, a number of business consolidations might be reversed, recreating some of the many jobs that have been lost to that profoundly inhuman objective, “economy of scale.” The new Economists would not forget that they take their name from the idea of the household, and that even if nations are not bound to handle money quite the same as housekeepers are, they are still charged with the primary job of nurturing people.

Democrats, meanwhile, would support their own newly-named Justice Party. Bernie Sanders, the ACLU, Ralph Nader — I’m not so sure about Elizabeth Warren’s place in this new alignment. One of the great things about the Economy Party would be that Warren would make its best watchdog.

On and on I could go, but the only thing that I feel it necessary to add is that Justice and Economy would be friendly antagonists, not mortal enemies. If liberals would just give up pretending to be Democrats, the friction generated by their awkward pose would cease to provide a flourishing atmosphere for extremists of all kinds.

Just a thought.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
July 2017 (I)

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

5 and 7 July

Wednesday 5th

In the paper today, I see that Edward Albee’s will calls for the destruction of work left unfinished at his death. This provision comes as no surprise, given the late playwright’s peppery disposition, but it ought to be ignored. Control of works of art ought to come to an end with the artist’s death, for much the same reason that courts do not honor instructions to erect statues in memory of the deceased.

By all means, let the playwright’s estate continue to collect the royalties and other emoluments that Albee enjoyed while he lived; let that continue unto the generations. But control is odious. Already, Albee’s executors have interfered with the casting of a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the West Coast. To what good? Eventually, the work will pass into the public domain, and producers of Albee’s plays, should there be any, will enjoy the same freedom of interpretation that invigorates and sometimes even enlightens Shakespeare’s. Why wait? Why not detach the moolah from the author’s dead hand now, while people who saw original, authorized productions are still alive to make comparisons? Why permit Albee to sink his own ship? The idea that the artist’s memory is somehow honored by respecting testamentary wishes is plain foolishness: it is obscene to permit the dead to exert “creative” control. Die, you zombie!

It is difficult not to regard Albee’s instruction as so much magical thinking. Not convinced that he would ever actually come to an end, Albee did not man up and destroy the papers himself. As a fallback, in case he was wrong, he would leave the dirty work (and some tricky decisions) to his executors. From a moral standpoint, Albee’s shirking makes his will doubly unenforceable.


Formality, etiquette, propriety, decorum — we Americans aren’t very clear on the precise meaning of any of these terms, because we’re basically agreed that they’re all bad things, except maybe at funerals. We like to think that we have cast them aside, even though human beings cannot live in society without rules for certain occasions. American informality has become almost as rigid, and certainly as predictable, as its sometime opposite.

My mother hated formality, but she was sentimental about a few ritual observances. Holiday dinners, as a result, could be confusing. There was a great deal of fuss and bustle, but this did not improve my mother’s mediocre cooking, particularly when it came to “holiday” dishes such as creamed vegetables. The mood was always festive but the food was never the real centerpiece. (So, what are we doing here?) And tradition was always at the mercy of caprice: when we moved to Houston, boxes of wonderful old glass Christmas ornaments were left behind; my mother had discovered the decorator tree, a prefab eternal number with flocked foliage and blue satin balls.

Growing up Catholic, I learned that rituals are really supposed to mean something. It was clear in the late Fifties that our secular rites no longer meant much of anything to anybody. Widespread sentimentality aside, the prevailing spirit during patriotic displays was “let’s get it over with.” As I look back on the Sixties, I see one long battle against propriety; what kept it going for year after year was stiff opposition, literally: the resistance of the dead. Things had always been thus and so. It seems that much of this warfare was confined to affluent strata on the Coasts; Vice President Pence is still set against dining alone with a woman not his wife. Kathleen, who has had countless business lunches and dinners alone with men who were not moi, rolls her eyes.

I was never a fan of standing around doing the comme il faut. But I was curious about the worlds in which propriety and formality, now reduced to dead relics, had been formed. What had they been thinking?

Etiquette, I believe, is designed to sort people by status. When making introductions, you introduce the less important person to the more important person: “Your Majesty, may I please introduce Joe Schmoe” — not the other way round. In America, etiquette identified the established élite: the old families (who still owned local firms), the notable professionals and clergymen. This élite met with deference until World War II. By the end of that ordeal, progressive thinking worked a change in the mentality of the West: the established élite would be replaced by a meritocratic élite. I have already mentioned some of the drawbacks of meritocracy, which is not so much a bad idea as an incompletely developed one. The “testably talented,” as I prefer to think of them, come from nowhere and owe gratitude to none but the puzzlers at ETS. They have little or no social presence as such (as meritocratic élites); they don’t expect deference and don’t get it. This leaves the bulk of ordinary people without much sense of who is important in the world, a gap that, as we have seen, is quickly filled by bogus celebrities. The established élite, meanwhile, have long since sold up and retired to Hobe Sound, whence never to return. The cultural values of which they were the exponents fade out of view, and are likewise replaced by thoughtlessness. While it’s too bad about the resulting neglect of the arts, the real catastrophe is the the disappearance of exemplary behavior — self-respect and noblesse oblige — that the established élite (at its best) made a point of displaying.

I believe that “popular culture” is an oxymoron: there can be no such thing. Culture is not to be confused with passing fads and fancies. Ultimately, the élite at hand is responsible for establishing the tone of society. Had she been more of a thinker, Margaret Thatcher might have observed — what the failures of socialism have taught us — that there is no such thing as “the people.” There most certainly is such a thing as society, but how on earth are we to achieve a coherent one if meritocrats at the top don’t see the point of it? And, by the way: what, aside from what’s on the test, do they know about life?

More anon.


Friday 7th

For eighteen years now, or nearly, Kathleen and I have rented a rather large storage unit — large for Manhattan, that is; you could fit a Smart Car in it, but nothing bigger — at the other end of our extended neighborhood, the Upper East Side. It is my hope to evacuate the unit very early in the nineteenth, if not sooner. Arrangements have been made to cart off the odds and ends that remain; all that I have to do is make decisions about the books. There is no room in the apartment for any more books, but we happen to rent a smaller, and much less expensive storage unit at the northern tip of the island. Never mind why; I’ll be here all day if we get into that. There is room in the small unit for a few boxes of books. Most of the books in the large unit, though, have to go.

Meanwhile, quite a lot of old paper — bank statements and the like — have been brought from the large storage unit, where it has festered since we sold our lake house in 1999, to the apartment. Prudence dictates that it be shredded. The small shredder that has taken care of my regular needs for several years is not up to the job, so we have acquired a bigger one, a shredder on wheels, a quiet shredder. It was advertised as capable of shredding eighteen sheets of paper at a time, but this is nonsense, unfortunately; seven or eight pages is the practical maximum, and all but the thinnest envelopes must be opened and their contents unfolded. Emptying the bin is another drag. It’s easy enough to tip the contents into a large trash bag, but just try tipping a second binload into that bag! Regular-sized garbage bags can take one load apiece, but they do not open wide enough to fit over the top of the bin. With what feels like a good deal of body English, however, the transfer can be effected. Most of the shredded paper in the bin coheres into a tangled ball, and it passes from the bin into the bag as if it were a dying organism fished from the sea, resisting at first but then suddenly bulging forth. It’s almost gross.

Yesterday, I had my first go at the books, and made quite startling progress. If I keep going at that rate, I shall be done in four or five more sessions; I had planned on ten. Only last year, I labored for weeks to fill fifteen boxes with books to give away. Severity comes more easily now. I have re-read so many books in recent months, found right here in the bookcases at home, that it has become much easier to distinguish books that I’m likely to look at again from books that I’m not. This has nothing to do with the usual aspirational eyewash, which of course would make it impossible to get rid of anything, because “you never know what might be interesting.” Having perused the spines on the shelves as often as I have, you do know.

The consolation of these amusements is that I will never have to entertain myself with them again. But I am too old to believe it. So, today, having been busy for what feels like weeks, I’m doing nothing.


In the current issue of Harper’s, Zadie Smith writes about Jordan Peele’s Get Out — by far, the oddest movie that I have seen in a very long time. The oddness, as I think everyone who has seen it will agree, lies in its being both scary to watch and hilarious to remember. In retrospect, the white folk are so ludicrous! Deadly, yes; but ridiculous, too. They think they want to be black! They think that would be way cool. It’s a grim joke, but it’s still a joke. When the young villainess sifts through the photos of all the young men whom she has traduced, her evil blurs into pathetic comedy. What’s wrong with a nice white boyfriend? Can’t she get one? Peele made me hear black audiences asking this question, and it made me laugh.

What makes me just as uneasy, but without the laughter, is the parade of magazine covers featuring black faces at The New Yorker. When I was a new reader, back in the Sixties, New Yorker covers were studiously un-topical; they reflected the passing seasons instead. Human figures appeared from time to time, but rarely as characters. This changed with the arrival of Tina Brown and Art Spiegelman. The cover became just another “drawing” — a cartoon — like the ones inside the magazine. The seasons still have a place, but social commentary that would have given William Shawn ulcers is far more common. And now, it seems, there is a quiet campaign to compensate for decades of racial — racist? — disregard. The Independence Day cover (July 3) brought the old and new together with Kadir Nelson’s crisp picture of a long-limbed black woman in a blue starry bathing suit, holding a red-and-white striped beach ball. It would be impossible to describe her expression as welcoming.

Que faire? What is to be done? I mean, by me, right now. Covers such as Nelson’s make me feel that I have been doing something wrong, and that I must change my ways at once. But just what it is that I’ve been doing wrong remains vague, and maybe the warning isn’t meant for me. The cover seems intended to be startling, but am I betraying a surreptitious racism by feeling startled? Had the cover appeared fifty years ago, it would have produced unimaginable commotion, perhaps even Senate hearings; “startling” would not have been the word. But if it’s the right word now, it’s clear that “shocking” isn’t. We are on our way somewhere, and there is a first time for everything. But I do wish that Nelson’s woman looked happier to see me, even though I can well understand why she wouldn’t.

I also wish that I liked Zadie Smith’s fiction as much as her essays — but I’ll take the essays!

Bon week-end à tous!