Archive for August, 2017

Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (V)

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

29 and 31 August

Tuesday 29th

Forty years ago this month, I left Houston forever. There were occasional visits, but they came to an end when my daughter graduated from high school in 1991. I have not been back since. I shall probably never see it again. From what I can tell, it has gotten bigger, but not really changed very much.

Although Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country — a status attained while I was living there — there is nothing urban about it. There is a curious, architecturally remarkable downtown, but relatively few people live there. Surrounding this and a few other islands of tall buildings is a vast sprawl of suburbs. Again, it was vast even then. A house address with a ludicrous number — 15926, say — was not unusual. The effect of this infinite homogeneity was to make a large population center seem very small, small in human terms: ordinary and forgettable. It is now clear that this ordinariness masked the imprudence of lodging so many millions of people on a crust of clay that has been steadily subsiding toward sea level. Climate change and rising sea levels are certainly playing their part in the havoc at Houston, but misguided land use has been even more critical.

Comparisons might be made to New Orleans, much of which lay below sea level long before Katrina struck. Quite aside from being incommensurately smaller, however, New Orleans was supposed to be protected by levees and other earthworks. Had these features been maintained in good repair, the city would have survived the storm; the scandal of Katrina is that they were not. In contrast, there is nothing to be done — there has never been anything to be done — about Houston’s vulnerability to floodwaters. It just sits there, a basin waiting to fill. It is hard to foresee how long it will take to drain, once the rain stops.

So many things haven’t changed about Houston — “more of same” is no kind of change — that I’m hoping for a fondly-remembered weather pattern to come to the rescue. Every September, there would come a night during which the temperature dropped twenty degrees or more, and the air dried out to temperate levels. People like me who had grown up elsewhere would feel human for a little while, before Houston’s damp and not very tropical winter set in. That’s what Houston is going to need — what it needs right now. Perhaps changes in climate now stop that cold front closer to Dallas; I hope not.

It is no wonder that ordinary people have a low opinion of government, although, to be honest, there is not much of it in Houston to begin with. As everyone knows, there is no zoning, so that Houston shows us what a developers’ paradise looks like. No American city can compete with Houston as a triumph of free-market growth. To me, the recklessness that Houston embodies is morally indefensible, as shocking an offense against the principles of civic life as any that this troubled country has ever committed. Now that the city has sunk into catastrophe, of course, scolding is perverse: there are people to save and to restore to human life. I ought to be happy: I can give up being angry at the the thought of Houston.

I hope that thoughtful Americans everywhere will be mindful that what made Houston so dangerous was fully in place before Donald Trump made himself notorious, in a very different city, by demolishing the salvageable signage of a long-beloved department store, Bonwit Teller.


Thursday 31st

At the moment, I’m reading Henry James’s important story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” If I’ve read it before, I’ve forgotten it. In a late chapter of the book that I am reading, Stanley Cavell pairs it with Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. I’ve never seen the movie, either, although I’ve got a DVD handy. Amazingly, I am nearing the end of Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. A great deal of it has slipped right through me, but I have stuck with it.

I read two sentences, from the chapter on Aristotle, to Kathleen last night, taking pains to remain in the syntactic current despite the pull of their many backwaters. When I was done, Kathleen said, “That was two sentences?” Then she pronounced it “bullshit.” The words were sleek and smooth, the texture jargon-free, and yet I had no grip on what Cavell was talking about. Here is the second of the sentences; the reference is to Wittgenstein’s insistence, in his Philosophical Investigations, that language is “a public, shared fact.”

It is as the teacher exhausts what can be said, and teacher and pupil fall silent with each other (then and there, subject to limitations of time, imagination, patience, good will, and to what we might call tolerance for anxiety), that one feels it becomes the responsibility of teaching to provide a reason for, a point, an aim, in speaking at all; a responsibility of philosophy, so far as philosophy, as in the Investigations, conceives of itself as instruction, instruction however in what no one could manage just not to know. (371)

…what no one could manage just not to know. What is that, that no one could manage “just not” to know? Just not? I’m lost. There must be an invisible pause, a breath, that conceals the missing nuance that would explain this statement to me. Why not simply say that teachers must explain why teaching is not only important but possible? Why not excise everything that follows the semicolon? So often, what confuses me about Cavell is his belief that what he is saying needs saying, and not just saying, but belaboring. Too often, he fails to teach me the importance of his lessons.

And yet I have kept going because I suspect that it might not be altogether useless to try to understand his patois. There are moments when I see through the apparent philosopher to the engaged writer. There are passages in the chapter on Plato (on pages 326 and 327) where Cavell seems to say that he is at least as attracted to Plato’s myths (such as the Cave) as to Plato’s arguments, that the myths illustrate more forcefully than the arguments do certain “turns of philosophical thinking that I have found myself convinced by.” I do wish that Cavell would explain, succinctly, what he takes “philosophical thinking” to be. And, as I complained the other day, I wish that he would unpack, with the greatest particularity, what he means by “reason” and “rationality.” It would be wonderful to have answers to these questions, and there are moments when I feel that I am about to stumble upon them in Cavell’s text. But they are too obvious to him not to take as given. Perhaps if I read the book again, in a year or two. After all, I didn’t understand The Golden Bowl right away, either.


The other day, I watched a movie that Cavell does not, and probably would never, discuss: Star! This film came up in John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio, his account of a year spent hanging around Twentieth Century Fox; Star! was one of the titles in production at that time. At that time, I had no desire to see it; I had made a point, a stink even, about not seeing The Sound of Music. I was deeply confused about Julie Andrews, and it’s not hard to see why, if you listen to her 1962 album, “‘Don’t Go in the Lion’s Cage Tonight’ and Other Heartrending Ballads and Raucous Ditties.” The ballads are creamy and sweet; the ditties are hilariously indelicate. I was besotted, when I discovered this LP in college, by “Burlington Bertie from Bow,” which Andrews doesn’t even sing, and by “Waiting at the Church,” in which Andrews positively snarls. I could live without “The Honeysuckle and the Bee.” Which one is the real Julie Andrews? Star! revealed that the public preferred the creamy and sweet, and Andrews’s own star power was tarnished by her impersonation of gritty Gertrude Lawrence, whom even in the late Sixties was all but forgotten. In many ways, the movie is a study in the difference between a star, who gets up on stage night after night and kills the people, and a celebrity, whose private life must always be at least slightly more interesting than anything he or she does for money. Julie Andrews was (and is) a star; for all of her long career, she has been something of a throwback, more interested in hoofing than in preening. For me, Star! is a sharply-executed monument to regret.

We’re asked to take it on faith that Julie Andrews shares Gertrude Lawrence’s determination as a trouper, and I see no reason not to do that. It’s also clear that Andrews venerates the vernacular traditions that shaped Lawrence and her chum, Noel Coward. But Julie Andrews is too pretty, and her voice is too pretty (or it can be) for her to be confused with the likes of Vera Charles, the dragon in Mame who, even though she’s fictional, seems much closer to Lawrence. Lawrence seems to have been almost reckless in her avidity for fun and life, but there is simply nothing truly reckless about Julie Andrews. She can act it, but she cannot be it, and Star! winds up being about her, not Lawrence. You almost forget that Andrews is there when Lawrence shows up drunk at a surprise birthday party and insults everybody, but the moment passes, and you find yourself reflecting that Julie Andrews would never behave like that.

The thoroughness of Star! as a flop is even sadder because the production numbers, which take the place of songs in a true musical, are so well done, and remarkably free of anachronistic missteps, to which the studios were awfully prone in those days. Great effort was evidently taken to re-create the look and feel of old entertainments, and if the coloring were not so lurid, success would have been complete. (Although I am not entirely persuaded by “Limehouse Blues.”) Unfortunately, the movie cannot inspire a revival of interest in the theatrical “review” — almost a variety of circus — that was so popular before the Depression. So it hangs on the story of Lawrence’s life, which is not interesting enough for Julie Andrews to disappear into it. What we’re left with is her valiant determination to put on a show. Julie Andrews is the heroine of this movie, and her false position sinks it.

Well, it sank it. Star! is definitely worth watching, all three hours of it, and perhaps someone will find a way of seeing it that counteracts its box-office disappointment. For the moment, I can’t get over how often Julie Andrews reminded me of Kelly Reilly. That was a surprise.

More anon.


But maybe not now. Not only is it the Friday of a holiday weekend, with Kathleen transferring her summer and winter wardrobes from one closet to the other, but I have just received the first comments on the writing project. (Only Kathleen has read it, and that was in far more rudimentary shape, nearly a year ago.) The comments are positive! And I am disposed to celebrate by basking in feeling good. There is much to be done, but not today!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
More Conversations
August 2017 (IV)

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

22, 23 and 24 August

Tuesday 22nd

It was good to survive yesterday’s eclipse. I must have been hoping for a more crepuscular dimming of the afternoon light, because at a certain point it struck me that nothing had happened and that nothing was going to happen. Lots of people stood on street corners with their iPhones, special glasses, and even a kitbashed cereal box; the general mood was one of lighthearted glee. Free entertainment? Considering the terrified awe with which such an event would have been greeted a thousand or more years ago, I asked myself if it is necessary and inevitable that familiarity brings inconsequence in its wake. For myself, I have never been comfortable with the fact that the earth moves. Watching the moon blot out the sun is a discomfiting intimation of mortality, and I don’t mean my own.

I am now well into Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words. I have not yet discovered the key to the title, although, reading ahead, I encountered the phrase in the essay on Pygmalion, which manages to be dense and hard to follow even without the baggage of philosophical exposition. Sometimes, of course, Cavell is hard to follow because he isn’t as clear as he might be about whether he is stating his own thoughts or summarizing those of his subject, with whom (it will turn out) he disagrees. Sometimes, he is hard to follow because he writes like Henry James; I want to say, jeeringly, that he thinks he’s Henry James. (I should talk!) In order to follow his train of thought through one paragraph, I nearly used a red pencil to underline the the thoroughfare of his sentences. This is not that paragraph; the book is full of them:

The imperative to conversation is meant to capture the sense that, even when the veil of ignorance is lifted, we still do not know what “position” we occupy in society, who we have turned out to be, what our stance is toward whatever degree of compliance with justice we have reached. To know such things is to have a perspective on our lives, on the way we live, and this is precisely the province of what I call, of what interests me in, moral perfectionism. The idea of conversation expresses my sense that one cannot achieve perspective alone, but only in the mirroring or confrontation of what Aristotle calls the friend (what Nietzsche calls my enemy, namely one who is, on my behalf, opposed to my present, unnecessary stance), what Emerson calls the true man, the neutral youth, my further, rejected self. My sense of this outlook can be put this way: Without the register of moral perfectionism Rawls’s theory cannot reach its goal of being able to say (to oneself, if no further) that one is above reproach, or rather, to do what that claim, were it sayable, is meant to do. (174)

“Above reproach”! Heavens, what a ride that phrase took me on! And then, inevitably I suppose, there was the comparison of the rules of morality to the rules of baseball. Scratch a philosopher, and a boy with a ball will emerge.

Coming up for air, I mused on the lack of interest that women seem to have in perfection, as well in the existence of universal truths. In my experience, even the most educated women glaze over a bit when these abstractions are harped upon. I perceive that they share — perfection and universal truth — a binary characteristic, and I already suspect that the male mind, at least as it is acculturated in the world that I live in, has a penchant for binaries. Perfection is simply the absence of every conceivable imperfection, while truths that fail to describe all situations at all times are not universal. Either they are or they aren’t. On/off. What I would call the woman’s view is the far more complicated project of doing better. We can always do better, and this is somehow a weightier truth than the unlikelihood of our ever doing quite as well as we might. I am not yet certain that Cavell’s impossible phrase, moral perfectionism, does not hide, behind its reliance on conversation, the suspicion or anxiety that there is something to be learned about how to think from women, something that might conduce to the abandonment of a philosophical tradition that is based not so much on a masculine viewpoint as on the notion that men are more fully human than women — that women don’t count. Cavell’s book, after all, is thematically devoted to the study of a series of films, some of them “comedies of remarriage” but all of them involving men and women. In the comedies, the friendships are invariably heterosexual, usually masquerading as romances. Without needing to say that men and women are equal, in the sense that they are the same, Cavell recurs to the suggestion that, for most of us, the best mirror is a member of the opposite sex. Our moral standing is not to be judged by impersonal standards but by the highly contingent judgment of a spouse. (Hence: comedy.)

Beyond the universal truths and the pursuit of perfection, there is the overpowering trend of Western philosophers to address the individual in isolation. In one delicious parenthesis, Cavell observes that “the featured four examples Kant presents after introducing the first formulation of the categorical imperative seem to me fantasies of essentially isolated, friendless people.” (133) Perhaps it is this very impression of Cavell’s that ought not to be set aside in a parenthesis. The default stance of rigorous philosophy since the pre-Socratic thinkers has been that of the isolated male for whom friendships are merely accidents of existence. In the perspective of the development of relations between the sexes, this stance seems little advanced beyond the idea that only high priests ought to be taught to read. Its vision is exhausted.

I suspect that women also resist the supposition, raised by positing the idea of perfection, that human beings are defective. I must say that I snorted loudly when, in his chapter on Kant, Cavell wrote of beasts and angels. Comparisons of human beings to beasts and to angels is, in my view, supremely stupid, as well as totally unhelpful. The idea that humanity occupies a step in the great chain of being between beasts, who have no spirit, and angels, who are all spirit, is as quaint as the “science” of the four humors. It can no longer be entertained in serious discussion. Human beings are what they are, the latest versions of a species; the same might be said of the cheetah or the oak. The geological record suggests that extinction, not perfection, is the end of the line.

And while we’re talking about women (actually, I am always talking about women), permit me to vent the outrage that succeeded a sudden insight that I had late last week, which was, that if any of the women whom I have known well in my lifetime were in Eve’s Edenic position, she would have done everything she could to hinder Adam from screwing things up by dallying in the vicinity of the forbidden tree. It might have been a losing battle, but she, unlike the tart in the Bible, would not have been caught dead chit-chatting with the serpent. In short, far from being the first, archetypal woman, Eve is nothing but a squeeze, a misogynist’s idea of the joke of God’s setting out to provide Adam with a helpmeet. What gave edge to my outrage was the sudden displacement of quietly reading a book of ancient wisdom by the sense of being stuck at a loud table during a Las Vegas floor show.

And while we’re talking about perfection, let’s remember God’s apology after the flood: I’ll never do it again. The God of the Hebrew Bible is nowhere represented as perfect. Like his cousins in the Greek pantheon, he bristles with characteristics that would be regarded as shortcomings in a mere mortal. (Even Jesus, if you read the synoptic Gospels all the way through, is prone to tantrums.) Linking up perfection and divinity was the brainwave of learned converts to Christianity in the ruins of the Roman Empire. Consecrating their cake before eating it.


Wednesday 23rd

Meanwhile: Reason. What is this thing called Reason, really? I’ll tell you what it is for me. It’s the concept that makes philosophy indigestible. My brain cramps whenever it is introduced, because writers’ invariable confidence in the very existence of Reason seems more foolish with every passing year. Reason itself is never analyzed. There seems to be no need to expatiate on what Reason really is. Everyone knows what it is. Everyone but me.

In the Nineteenth Century, poets and others complained about Reason because, basically, it took the mystery out of things, rendering all of life predictable and prosaic. There was a (now) very understandable anxiety about the nature of feelings. Did they express meaningful passions, or were they nothing more than the gossamer illusions of faulty machinery? Reason, by rectifying everything that it was used to examine, suggested that passions were a kind of madness, an obstacle to the achievement of the “advanced civilization” that railroads and other amenities seemed to promise. My problems with Reason have nothing to do with any of this. I am no Romantic.

Western philosophers have been declaring Reason to be a human characteristic, or at least a masculine characteristic, for millennia now. It was never good enough to recognize reason as a tool, like so many other human inventions. No: to the philosophers, we came into the world bodily equipped with Reason, as well as with speech. We didn’t make use of Reason; we were intrinsically Rational (unless we were mad). In terms of physiological evolution, these claims don’t hold up, but philosophers continue to talk as though human beings were created in their present form.

But reason is a tool, and we have taught it — the powerful part of it known as Boolean Logic — to computers. It cannot be argued that human beings are more rational than computers. Now that the pressure is off, in fact, it appears that the human mind is for the most part an unstable memory bank, with each memory prone to reconstruction every time it is summoned. There is nothing rational about the contents or organization of the mind. Growing up in civil society, we learn to apply a handful of mental rules of the road. If today is Monday, it cannot be Tuesday. If I leave you standing at the foot of the stairs that I climb to my bedroom, I cannot return to your side by climbing another set of stairs. If Britain has a powerful navy, and navies are the ultimate military power, and Britain so chooses, then Germany, for all its North Sea and Baltic seacoast, is landlocked. These reasonable statements are highly personalized — Monday, Tuesday; you, me; Britain, Germany — expressions of the laws of physics, discovered long after man was declared a rational animal. In fact, the Scientific Revolution was, implicitly, a protracted demonstration of just how unreasonable people really are.

And yet Stanley Cavell will go on, when talking about Kant, as though Reason really were a light in the mind that reveals certain obvious, self-evident truths.


We watched Gaslight last night. I hadn’t seen it in years, and Kathleen had never seen it at all. In Cities of Words, Cavell discusses George Cukor’s movie in between the chapters on Mill and Kant. Perhaps because of his preoccupation with words, he overlooks the connection between Gregory’s increasing impatience with Paula with the frustration of not finding the jewels in the attic. (I suppose that most first-time viewers, even after they begin to suspect Gregory of something, imagine that he is stumbling about the attic simply to make “inexplicable” noises that will drive Paula crazy.) Nor does Cavell reflect on how Gregory’s discovery of the jewels on the climactic night of the story becomes, almost immediately, Paula’s triumph over him. Not only has the detective exposed Gregory’s dastardly campaign to reduce his wife to maddened self-doubt, but the underlying purpose of this campaign has at long last met with success. In an alternative telling, Gregory could walk right downstairs, out the front door, and away from the scene of his crimes, a free man carrying priceless stones. That is not, of course, what happens. What happens is that, walking instead into his own room, he becomes distracted by the broken lock on his desk. This leads, through scenes of intricate peripety, to his being tied up in a chair.

Cavell describes what happens next as Paula’s

concluding cogito aria to her husband, the man in the audience to whom she communicates her unspeakable hatred — as her aunt had communicated her undeclarable love to her lover by displaying on the stage the jewels sewn into her gown, whose significance only the two of them understood — Paula invoking her madness as her excuse not to be able to help Gregory escape. After this tirade, adopting the abuse of language, coating it wholly in irony, she is essentially silent, and the detective’s last words to her, asking to come talk to her sometimes, furthers the sense that she is going to have to learn to speak again, where that means learn to trust and entrust words again. (115)

Kathleen and I both wished that this “cogito aria” lasted a little longer. Ingrid Bergman is never less than magnificent on screen, but in Gaslight‘s earnest parody of a mad scene she is grandly, and of course suitably, operatic. When she finds the brooch that she feared she’d lost at the beginning of her troubles, and pretends to regret that it is no use as a knife to cut Gregory free, she unloads in a moment of fury the compressed bill of particulars against him. She remembers every episode of his treachery, and every episode is a log in the pyre of her hatred. There is nothing left of him when she is done; even the “fire in my brain” of his longing to possess the jewels has been consumed. When she cries out, “Take this man away!”, it is one of the great Amens of cinema.

I wonder how long it will be the case that Charles Boyer’s virtuoso performance as a vile cad will draw so much of its power from the cultural condescension toward the mental capacity of women that still prevailed in 1944, when Gaslight was made. His initially smooth and humoring dismissals of Paula’s alleged lapses succeed in deflecting suspicion for as long as they do (at least to the first-time viewer) not only because he is suave and sympathetic but also because women are like that. How did Henry Higgins put it? “Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!” It doesn’t take much to reduce Paula to a similar conviction. In fact, of course, Gregory is feeding his wife false premises. If he gives her the brooch, and she loses it without knowing how or when, there is no room for the fact that he did not give her the brooch at all, but slipped it into his pocket. If it weren’t so wicked, Gregory’s sleight of hand would delight us with it magic-act flouting of reason.

What really upsets Paula, moreover, is not that she is losing her mind but that losing her mind justifies her captivity in the house that she never leaves and in which she never entertains, her only feminine companion being the fantastically insolent parlormaid. When Gregory momentarily projects a visit to the theatre, Paula quite unreasonably forgives him for his snarky hostility. If she’s out of her mind, the loss of Reason is a very distant second to the need for fresh air. It is only after Gregory contrives for her to humiliate herself at Lady Dalroy’s, thus marking her as a social pariah (insofar as she is too sick for polite society) and foreclosing further public encounters, that Paula begins to sink into a mad-like melancholy.

In short, it may be that women have the reputation of being less rational than men because they quite reasonably find it to be less important than other things, such as the smiles of friends.

More anon.


Thursday 24th

The lead editorial in today’s Times ends with this paragraph:

On Tuesday, buoyed by his crowd in Phoenix, Mr. Trump was back to raging against just about everyone who crossed his field of vision, 77 minutes worth of anger that began, as the evening wore on, to exhaust even his most fervid listeners, who began quietly to fade away.

I wish I knew how much weight the final clause carries. Did fervid listeners really fade away? And what does it mean if they did? What if they left, not because they were bored, or not because of that, but because they wanted to continue to support the President? What if they left in a state of satisfaction, having heard what they wanted to hear, which is that their man is willing to break things, come what may?

How many Americans feel that way? How many believe that they only way forward is through the rubble of an unworkable present? I suspect that this number is much greater than that of outspoken Trump supporters. Established institutions, the Times preeminent among them, continue to warn against breakage as though this were not precisely what many Americans want.

We all agree that the country is divided between an élite that wants to maintain, and then improve, the status quo — count me among this group, no matter what I say — and a bloc of disaffected voters who resent having been ignored. There is also a third crowd, and I suspect that most Americans belong to it right now. They’re the ones who don’t care. For them, politics is noise that has nothing to do with anything. It goes on and on and it never changes anything. My question is this: what will they do when something breaks?

What if, for example, a government debt default has unforeseen consequences? Let’s go back to 2008. When Wall Street stood around and let Lehman Brothers fail (because Richard Fuld and his crew were so widely detested), nobody imagined that the repercussions would intensify minute by minute until even the short-term credit market, without which ordinary economic life in this country would come to a stop, was threatened. It took high-level, cooperative intervention to stave off that catastrophe. Wall Street and the White House worked together — fast. Can we count on anything like that if something breaks later this year? Even to ask the question is to shudder. To return to my broader question, what will ordinary Americans do when political breakdown turns out to have a big, sour everyday impact?

As I say, count me among the élite, even if it is carrying on like a pack of ninnies with the ocular acumen of Mr Magoo.

Permit me to sign off with a bonbon: Wealthy liberals tend to run for office themselves, while wealthy conservatives tend to hire agents to do the work. This is why each side regards the other as fraudulent.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (III)

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

15, 16 and 17 August

Tuesday 15th

One of the books that churned to the surface during the evacuation of our storage unit was philosopher Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words. From the movie buff’s standpoint, this is the big book about screwball comedy, which Cavell renamed “the comedy of remarriage.” Cities of Words — when I have an idea of what the title is supposed to mean, I’ll let you know; but perhaps you can tell me — is not concerned with how those movies were made, who wrote or directed them, not even who starred in them. Rather, it’s about their moral structure, the big questions about life that they try to answer. Each even-numbered chapter deals with a particular film, some of which, such as Stella Dallas and Gaslight, are not even funny, much less screwball. The odd-numbered chapters discuss individual philosophers, beginning with Emerson, and continuing through Locke, Mill, Kant, Rawls, and so on, if “so on” has any meaning here. The relationship between the philosophers and the movies, needless to say, is revealed only by reading the book.

Emerson! Was I going to keep the book, or give it away? Giving it away would be realistic, because keeping it would be aspirational. This is the kind of book that you buy not because you want to read it but because you want to have read it. You want to have learned what it has to say, but you don’t want to wade through the prose. The only way to deal with such books is to put them at the top of the reading pile: do it now. Get it over with.

So I cheated, of course. I read a few of the movie chapters: The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve, and The Philadelphia Story. It’s amusing to watch an a graceful but professionally non-jocular person handle these comedies. He is not really a connoisseur of comedy, so many of the funniest bits go unmentioned, but he has some provocative insights. He does not like the term “screwball,” as you may have guessed from the rechristening, and à propos of The Awful Truth he ventures to suggest that, since screwball comedies always involve “madcap heiresses,” if there’s a screwball comedy in this picture, then it’s the subplot of Jerry Warriner’s romance with Barbara Vance, possessor of “millions of dollars and no sense.” The perversity of this notion — there can be nothing less madcap than life with the Vances — is funny in itself. Cavell’s account of The Philadelphia Story is so richly humane, so celebratory of Tracy Lord’s triumphant moral trajectory, that the very idea of laughing while watching the film recedes into unlikeliness. When I got to the end of the chapter, I could not remember a single funny thing about it.

So far, so good; interesting, anyway. But: Emerson! My distaste for American prose writers of the Nineteenth Century, especially the famous early ones, is rugged. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville are all very bad dancers, by which I mean that when they take you in their arms they convey no sense of where they are going, and so end up stepping all over your toes. Their sentences have no center of gravity; their decorative touches are often misplaced; their uncertain reach for highfalutin tone is embarrassing. Consider this, from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

[Great works of art] teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.

Hey, Sister Bernadette! We need a diagram!

I tried reading a book by Stanley Cavell once. Little Did I Know is (I think) an intellectual memoir. I gave the book away a long time ago, so I have to trust my rickety memory when I say that it’s a portrait of the philosopher as Henry James. There’s a story in there somewhere, but ruminations on the nature of thought in America, together with something about becoming a Jewish-American mandarin, get in the way. At the time when I was trying to read it, moreover, my suspicion that philosophy generally is just rubbish was breaking through to consciousness. It was foolish, after my experience with Little Did I Know, to buy a copy of Cities of Words.

On the other hand, I certainly know the movies well enough. (Although, to be perfectly honest, I still haven’t seen Stella Dallas, ever.) Perhaps the movies would illuminate the philosophy. That’s probably not what Cavell had in mind. But I resolved to give it a try. I would read the philosophy chapters up to the point where one of them stopped making sense, and then, if that happened, I would chuck the book. I would start with the second philosopher, Locke.

But the chapter devoted to Locke is a continuation of the chapter about Emerson, so I had to go back to the beginning after all. And I had to check my attitude about Emerson at the door, because the point of this exercise was, after all, to deepen my understanding of the movies, not to amass evidence of transcendentalist inanity. And as I crept patiently through the pages, I had to admit that a rather lovely idea was taking shape in my brain. I was really learning something from Stanley Cavell! It’s too soon to put it in my own words, so I’ll have to give you his.

Moral perfectionism challenges ideas of moral motivations, showing (against Kant’s law that counters inclination, and against utilitarianism’s calculation of benefits) the possibility of my access to experience which gives to my desire for the attaining of a self that is mine to become, the power to act on behalf of an attainable world that I can actually desire. (33)

If I can extract any idea, not to mention a lovely one, from writing such as this, I’d better keep going. The important word in all that, the word that links the philosophizing to film, is “desire.”


Wednesday 16th

I’ve just re-read Brian Morton’s Breakable You. It’s startling to discover that I first read this novel nine years ago, and that I wrote about it not here but at my old Web site, Portico. It’s more than a little mortifying to read what I wrote then; it seems somewhat stilted, and it reminds me why I no longer attempt “book reviews.” I re-read Breakable You now because of Happiness, the memoir, by Morton’s wife, Heather Harpham, of their daughter’s blood disease and harrowing (but successful!) bone-marrow transplant. In what I recalled of Breakable You, the chapter about the little girl’s similar but fatal ordeal did not figure, and when it was mentioned by Harpham at a book signing, I thought that I must have another look. In any case, it had been too long since I had enjoyed one of the ten best novels I know.

I don’t, however, want to talk about little Zahra, who is already dead when we hear about her. It would be interesting to compare and contrast Happiness with Morton’s vastly compressed account in the twelfth chapter of Breakable You. But I wouldn’t be the person to undertake it. Just as Happiness gripped me more as a portrait of a marriage than as a medical history, so Breakable You is for me a book about grown-up love, whether between lovers or parents and children. It is a book about caring — about the problem of taking care of loved ones in everyday life. Illness, with its sirens and emergencies, pre-empts this problem by putting it in the hands of professionals, and leaving loved ones feeling helpless, the worst sensation that a caring person can have.

What I want to talk about is Adam Weller and the question of evil. I see that, on my Portico page, I refused to specify the awful thing that Adam Weller does, his crime against humanity, really, when I wrote about Breakable You in 2008. I did call him “a pluperfect shit,” but I supported this charge with nothing more damning than evidence of self-centeredness. Adam’s self-centeredness, however, is surrounded by a black hole of uninterest into which everything that is not useful or interesting to him simply disappears. Literary ethics, parental love — it makes no difference. If they don’t serve him, they don’t exist.

In Breakable You, Adam does two completely separate terrible things. Different readers will disagree about which is worse. The second offense occurs at the end of the book. Chastened by the defection of his young and lively mistress, Adam strokes his conscience by paying a visit to his daughter, Maud. Maud has checked herself into a clinic that she has visited twice before in her young life; this time, it’s voluntary, but only technically, because she has broken down as a mother and cannot tend to her infant son, who cries all the time. During the visit, which of course Adam finds very despressing, Maud tells her father that the food is terrible and that she longs for Internet access — forbidden because the older male patients root out porn sites — in order to keep up with her PhD peers. Still diminished, Adam resolves to visit her the next night, and he does so, bringing a bag of treats from Zabar’s. While waiting at the clinic for visiting hours to begin, however, he strikes up a flirtation with another visitor, an attractive woman who seems prepared to respond to further advances. His self-confidence restored, his itch for penance evaporates, and he walks out of the clinic without having seen Maud, dumps the Zabar’s bag in the garbage, and heads back to Manhattan and a literary dinner at Elaine’s, a renewed man. As with many of Adam’s sins, no one will ever know. This only makes him more despicable.

The other offense is infamous and gross, but the only victim is the literary community at its most abstract: a body of memories. Before the novel begins, Adam’s old friend and rival author, Izzy Cantor, has died. Not long into the action, Izzy’s widow, Ruth, summons Adam: it turns out that Izzy left a completed but unread manuscript. Would Adam take a look at it? Reluctantly — for he expects the novel to be a bore — Adam agrees.

Adam had come to realize that the problem with Izzy’s writing was the problem with Izzy. He didn’t have enough of the devil in him. Izzy always wanted to be the nice guy. He wanted to take care of everybody. This made him a wonderful husband and father: steadier, more responsible, more caring than Adam had ever dreamed of being. But it had made him a bland writer.

In his books, he always took care of his characters too much. He never wanted to believe than any of them could be evil. So if one of his characters dide something morally reprehensible, Izzy would never just go with it; he would surround the action with context, explanation, extenuation. It was as if he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a novelist or a social worker. (99)

Having read all of Brian Morton’s novels, I can well imagine that the charge against Izzy has been laid against his creator as well, and about Adam there is an aura of determination to present a character who really cannot be forgiven. Nine years ago, I wrote that Morton “clearly cares about his characters — even Adam, whose faults would not be so lovingly drawn if his creator truly despised him.” Now, I’m  not so sure. Instead of “lovingly drawn,” I might say “scrupulously anatomized.” But I pull back from branding Adam as evil.

The element that distinguishes evil from other varieties of badness is gratuitousness, and this is something of which I find sane human beings to be incapable. You could argue that sadists derive gratuitous pleasure from the suffering of others, but sadism is far too implicated in the expression of power to be purposeless. (Curiously, “sadism” today seems almost to have been detached from sexual cruelty, its original expression.) Adam has many grubby reasons for his aloof, unpunished wickedness. Izzy’s book, published under Izzy’s name, would cast Adam’s reputation into a chilly shade. His first tactic is to persuade Ruth that the book is not good enough to publish. When, shortly thereafter, she dies of cancer, the way is cleared to claim the book as his own, especially after Izzy’s unliterary daughter begs Adam to take possession of Izzy’s papers, among which lies a carbon copy of the novel. Step by step, in a gothic progression that brought Richard III very much to my mind, Adam compasses the crime of literary appropriation. He will be the famous writer; his reputation will be resurrected from the infertility of fallow years.

More and more, “evil” seems to be shorthand for “I can’t bear to think about it.” But the bad behavior of someone like Adam Weller requires very close attention. The conditions that allow him to escape the consequences of his misdeeds are almost as reprehensible as he is. Everyone close to Adam suspects — or knows — that he is a beast, but because his surface is sleek and civically virtuous, it’s easier to put up with him than to complain: that’s a problem, too. Adam is an injustice for which we have not yet evolved a remedy — a remedy not just for his victims, but for us all.


Thursday 17th

Last month, The New Yorker published Alexandra Schwartz’s rave review — I want to come back to that cliché — of Conversations With Friends, the first novel by a twenty-something Irishwoman named Sally Rooney. Before saying a word about her fiction, Schwartz informed us that Rooney is an ace debater, the best in Europe, actually, in her year on the circuit as a college student. I regard debating as a dubious activity — so does Rooney, apparently; she gave it up — but it certainly teaches one not to waste words, and surely there is nothing so intimidating as sound knowledge presented with fierce concision. I was panting with dread by the time Schwartz got round to the book, concisely enough, in the second paragraph of her review. By the end of the piece, I was raving. I ordered the book immediately. Then, by some miracle, I forgot almost all of the plot details that Schwartz had divulged. During the brief period between order and delivery, I thought of Conversation With Friends as the book by the smart girl from Trinity.

The thing is, I don’t trust myself to discuss this book in such a way that you’ll forget everything that I say, except that it’s very, very good. I can do no more, for example, than refer to a piece of email that appears at a climactic point. I read it with a racing pulse. Like so much email, and despite the recipient’s hunch that it has been heavily edited, it is a naked document, luridly revealing the contortions of a violently uncomfortable consciousness, contradicting itself again and again in spirit if not in statement, hopelessly stuck on the urge to be enraged and forgiving at once. Already, I think I’ve said too much!

How about this: the only thing that happens in this book that doesn’t happen in almost every book about a college student and a somewhat older married man who have an affair is that the girl discovers that she has endometriosis. This is certainly an interesting disease for a woman in her position to develop; from a novelist’s standpoint, it provides a powerful way of externalizing her heroine’s agonies, manifesting her pain in real symptoms, instead of the loops of acrimonious verbiage that are usually spun out. But it does not really explain how Rooney makes her story so interesting, nay gripping, to begin with. There are no exotic ingredients involved. But then, I forget: it is not I who am having the affair. It is a brilliant virgin. For her, this is all new, and not what she expected, and by giving us that, the twisted novelty of it all, Rooney makes it new for us.

Perhaps it’s age. As I get older, youth seems more and more dangerous. Being young amounts to little more, in my long view, than being ignorant, and, like the writer of the email, torn between contradictory viewpoints. Smart young people especially are uncomfortably aware of their ignorance. At the same time, they think they know where this ignorance sits, and how to avoid its very bad advice. The dissonance makes them occasionally reckless. Both Frances, the girl in Conversations With Friends, and Nick, the married man, who is also a generically great-looking B-list actor, are more complicated and more vulnerable than they think. In the middle of the novel, there is a moment when Frances, thwarted by a momentary impasse, says something so wounding to Nick that I was afraid that he might take his own life. My reaction was not so very melodramatic; I must have already sensed what I presently learned, which was that Nick has been hospitalized with depression. I read Conversations With Friends as if, on every page, it were only moments away from veering into bloody catastrophe.

There were a few lighter moments, in which it seemed to me that Frances was conducting an illicit affair with herself, with an obbligato carbon unit acting as a sort of sex doll/punching bag. (But these were early moments, before Nick revealed himself to be a genuinely appealing human being, the very opposite of the self-seeking shit that he is set up to be.) In the old days, women having affairs (in novels) deluded themselves into thinking that they could contain their love, keep it under control and in proportion, only to find out that love is not love that knows control. Today’s smart girl — and I keep saying “girl” because Frances is so palpably not grown up — thinks that she can keep things superficial and not fall in love at all. To fall in love is humiliating. To fall in love with a married man and then discover that you hate his wife is humiliating. To respond to humiliation by cutting yourself is humiliating. But the humiliation abrades the bored self-respect with which Frances has navigated her life so far, shearing it away like a callus. The novel’s thrillingly romantic final line signals Frances’s surrender to adulthood. You don’t know which is more overpowering: that, or Rooney’s literary triumph.


As I looked back the sex scenes in Conversations With Friends, which are indeed all about surrender, my signals were interrupted by lines that couldn’t have come from the novel, such as:

And here he was with this woman, this woman who had nothing to do with his life, pushing his cock into her anus, something he’d never done before with any woman and had never wanted to do, but with [her] he wanted to do everything, but he didn’t want to want to do everything with her, because…

This couldn’t be Rooney’s Nick. What else had I been reading lately? Oh, yes: Breakable You. The passage appears on page 119, and the elided “her” is Maud Weller. The man having the thought is Samir. Both novels involve what Maud calls a “sexual carnival,” and both couples “do everything.” Neither novelist is especially graphic, but both are explicit about variety. And both follow variety to the point of pain. Never having experienced this kind of pain, I take it on faith in these writers’ authority that it is sweet rather than perverse, pain without malevolence. But I am allergic to pain. I shut down at mere discomfort. “He wanted to do everything.” I’ve heard people say this — well, I’ve read it, if I haven’t exactly heard it — often enough that it no longer seems crazy, which it did for a long time. Now I just file it alongside “I would like to climb Mount Everest.” My body has no curiosity whatever.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Clowns of Bohemia
August 2017 (II)

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

8, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 8th

Ross Douthat said something interesting in his Sunday Times piece. (He’s almost always interesting, but you know what I mean.)

The second problem is that mainstream liberalism has gone a little bit insane on immigration, digging into a position that any restrictions are ipso facto racist, and any policy that doesn’t take us closer to open borders is illegitimate and un-American.

He’s right, of course, except that “liberalism,” mainstream or otherwise, has nothing to do with this development. The moment you go “a little bit insane,” you’re no longer a liberal.

Dispassion is both an essential component and a major defect of liberalism. It is what allows the liberal to sympathize with positions that he does not hold, to understand “where they’re coming from” and to try to work out accommodations. This desire to accommodate, this ability to compromise, these are the traits that non-liberals revile. To the illiberal mind, dispassion signals an inability to care. The liberal mind is painfully aware of the ease with which caring leads to conflict. Accommodation is very difficult — and it is not always possible. But the liberal keeps trying. Right now, true liberals are as rare as any endangered species.

When Douthat goes on to say, “Liberalism used to recognize the complexities of immigration,” what he’s really saying is that liberalism has dropped out of mainstream political discourse. The ghost of liberal approval of certain positions on certain issues hovers over the center-left, but the distaste for zealousness has disappeared. “Liberalism” is a term that so-called educated people used to respect, even if they didn’t know what it meant, but now it just seems weak and confused. It was an important banner in the Cold War. Now it is an empty shell, nailed to a post as a shooting target.

How did this happen? Liberalism has long been expelled from its native, Republican party, and it has never been welcomed by Democrats. I have suggested elsewhere that liberalism has been fatally corrupted by a belief in meritocracy. Meritocracy suits the liberal mind, which is uncomfortable pronouncing judgments on people and fears the abuse of discretion. Much better just to make everyone sit an exam. But there are too many important human qualities that can’t be tested.

“Liberalism” has become identified with feminism, environmentalism, and the embrace of social diversity, but there is nothing liberal about any of these issues, especially the last. You can be a liberal feminist or a liberal environmentalist, but your willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy and sincerity (if not the correctness) of conservative opposition to these “isms” will probably discredit you in the eyes of more ardent advocates.

It doesn’t seem to be much different on the other side. Real conservatism is the party of faith in God. It is not a front for the Chamber of Commerce, and it ought to steer clear of greedy plutocrats.

What we’re left with in this country is a pair of radicalized blocs. On one side, people cry out for social justice. On the other, they demand the end of the state. There is no interest in politics. But why would there be, when everything that’s “real” happens on a screen?


Wednesday 9th

Yesterday, David Brooks wrote in his Times column that he is going to pay less attention to the President. That may be a tall order, but if it means that he is going to talk less about what he sees, I’m all for it. It’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since the Inauguration. This is not because I’ve succumbed to magical thinking, and believe that Grump will go away if I ignore him. It’s rather because I’m waiting for something to happen. So far, nothing has. If you set the tumult in the West Wing to one side — I remember the good old days, when no one knew where the West Wing was, much less who was in it — all you have is the failure to Repeal and Replace. I realize that this could change. We could have fire and fury. But nothing has happened yet, certainly nothing worth paying attention to. More dismaying is the fact that nothing has happened in the Democratic Party, either.

For a few days, recently, I wondered if we’re not in for a repeat of the Carter Administration. I got the idea from something that I read somewhere, and was haunted by the way I had carried on, in the early Reagan days, about what a bad president Jimmy Carter was. “The worst!” I cried. Jimmy Carter was so bad that, even with his incumbent’s advantage, he could not defeat an ageing actor. I was in my early thirties at the time, and not very seasoned. Now that I’ve seen more of what the country can come up with, Carter doesn’t seem so bad.

Then I was reading a book about China. It was published in 1992, when lots of China-watchers believed that the Tiananmen Square massacre would bring the Communist Party down. Nobody in 1992 could foresee what the Internet was going to do for China — in terms of manufacturing profits, not political liberation — or that the sons of Mao’s adjutants were going to assume power as if by hereditary right. The book — The Tyranny of History, by WJF Jenner — is invaluable even in its unrealized expectations, but I’m particularly glad to have re-read it because it made me realize that Grump is less like Carter and more like Mao. Like Grump, Mao bored easily, and he could take only so much peace and quiet. So far, there is little to suggest that the President has the Chairman’s ability to whip up chaos — something like the Cultural Revolution, say — throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Far more interesting than anything going on in Washington is the firing of James Damore at Google. I’m with Voltaire on this one: we have to fight to the death to protect people’s right to say stupid things. At the same time, not everything can be overlooked. Insults, for example. Was Damore’s memo insulting? It was disrespectful, but that’s something else. Advocates of political correctness ought to reflect that careful speech has done very little to advance the struggle against racism in this country. It may even have done positive harm, by lulling bystanders into believing that racism is a thing of the past. The same can be said for misogyny. If there are men who believe that women lack the equipment to cope with stress, then how are we going to know who they are unless we let them speak their minds with impunity? Only then can we investigate their valorization of stress, and thank them for pointing out that women lack the equipment to be self-destructive.


The other day, I weathered an attack of the vapors by watching A Thousand Clowns. I had just rescued the videotape from the room by the freight elevator where Ray Soleil had dumped a bag of discardenda from the storage unit. I had declined to paw through the tapes at the unit itself, because I had just culled piles of LPs and books and was tired of making decisions. Back at the apartment, though, I saw A Thousand Clowns peeping out from a shopping bag, and I grabbed it.

It was a very big movie in 1965, at least for me. For the first time, I watched a grown-up, played by Jason Robards, Jr, stage a protest against the regimentation of nine-to-five life. It is a doomed gesture, of course; in the end, to keep not only the custody of his tween nephew (a fantastic Barry Gordon) but also the romantic interest of Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris at her most winsome), Murray Burns puts on a suit and goes back to work — writing gags for a TV clown. But the movie is an extended day off, an ode to the joy of playing hookey in Manhattan. And what a Manhattan it was! The light in midtown was always dusty with particulate matter. The men in their fedoras, the women in their gloves — it all really existed; I saw it myself. The Metropolitan Opera House was under construction! In the Wall Street skyline (seen from the Statue of Liberty), rectangles had only begun to dwarf the spires.

A Thousand Clowns started out as a Broadway show, and Fred Coe’s film toggles between theatrical scenes, set mostly in a one-room walkup, and cinematic montages, in which many local landmarks make an appearance. There is a feeling, also palpable in Robert Mulligan’s Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), of a new world waiting to crack through the old edifice. It’s much easier to see the old than the new, because the new hasn’t really taken shape yet; it’s just about to. The harshness of the change is blared by Don Walker’s marching-band score, which promises a more carefree life to come even as it makes fun of the commuters running to catch a bus. Arthur Ornitz’s cinematography suffers the period’s addiction to zooms whenever the camera is set up out of doors.

What keeps the movie from flying off into fecklessness is Martin Balsam’s award-winning performance as Murray’s brother, who has settled down to the responsibilities of a wife and three kids. He used to be a free spirit, too, but he has matured, and his tired but proud defense of bourgeois commitment makes Murray look stunted. Also arresting is the performance by William Daniels, as a social worker who’s supposed to be a figure of fun. According to IMDb, Daniels hasn’t made all that many feature films, but he always seems hugely familiar, probably because he always plays the same character, a creature of the period, the respectable, rule-bound priss who battens down his massive anxieties by insisting on correct procedure. He gives a little something extra in Coe’s picture, and never misses a chance to be inadvertently funny.


Thursday 10th

It’s a small world — in another sort of way. Ray Soleil dropped by yesterday afternoon, in connection with our impending evacuation of the downtown storage unit*, and as we chatted over iced tea I showed him a book that I was reading, Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal. Flipping through the pages, I was surprised by a bit of artwork that I hadn’t noticed before (the book is illustrated with drawings and photos), not having got that far in the text. It was an Al Hirschfeld drawing for the Times, and it didn’t take me long to see that it was his rendering of A Thousand Clowns! There they were, Jason Robards, Jr and Barry Gordon, strumming their guitars and (you could almost hear it) singing “Yes, sir, that’s my baby”— but not, surely, to Barbara Harris. Could that be Sandy Dennis? Indeed it was. Sandy Dennis played Sandra Markowitz in the 1962 Broadway production of A Thousand Clowns. Here I had just been writing about the movie, and a book that I happened to be reading tossed me a delightful picture of the play on which it was based. Of all the Hirschfelds that Tamara Shopsin could have picked!

Her choice of A Thousand Clowns seems by no means accidental. It quite beautifully suits her winsome and comic memoir of la vie de Bohème in the middle and late decades of the last century, when Manhattan was a teeming dump of crazy genuine diversity and not the bloated pied-à-terre that it has become. I’m not quite sure what prompted me to buy Arbitrary Stupid Goal, because I have strict rules about new acquisitions on the library front (having no more room for books), involving parameters that Shopsin’s book doesn’t meet. Moment of weakness, I guess. I had never heard of Shopsin or her family or her family’s famous restaurant, which makes a lot of sense and leads me directly to say that this is what books are for: to take you to places that you can’t or wouldn’t want to visit. The restaurant described in Arbitrary Stupid Goal is an outstanding example of the latter — for me. First of all, it’s tiny and crowded, and probably not very quiet. Second, it’s full of famous people. Third and most, it’s definitely not my kind of cuisine. But the book is a delight, and I’m afraid that I’m going to have to keep it, and find out how to put it right next to Ben Ryder Howe’s My Korean Deli.

A Thousand Clowns and Arbitrary Stupid Goal have something else in common — although maybe it’s not really something else. Maybe it’s already included in the New York chapter of Bohemia. They’re both the same certain kind of Jewish. There’s nothing religious about this, nothing even racial. Post-tribal at the most. This certain kind of Jewish manifests itself in a way of speaking that, like Irish English, expresses a heightened consciousness of how the language works along with a complete lack of respect for its formalities. Grammatically, Arbitrary Stupid Goal is a Superfund site; nobody under the age of thirty ought to be allowed to read it, lest its pungent vernacular denature basic literary standards. In A Thousand Clowns, the tone is just the opposite, mock-polite and faux bureaucratic. But in both cases, things don’t mean what they say. They mean things that it’s not cool to say, things that can only be hinted at by articulate indirection. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand. Maybe you do have to be a New Yorker.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Once known jocularly as “Westphalia,” because “that’s where we keep detritus.” The jocularity evaporated more than five years ago. If I were to give the storage unit a nickname today, it would be “Don’t!”

Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (I)

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

1, 2 and 3 August

Tuesday 1st

Yesterday, the new record-player arrived. I could call it a phonograph, but that would be untrue to the experience of playing records, which is what I did for an hour or two in the afternoon. Playing records was something that teenagers did in the Fifties and Sixties. It didn’t matter whether the records were pop, classical, or jazz. Or comedy — comedy was very popular with brainy kids. Later, when we acquired components, we would refer to the stereo. The record-player itself gave way to the turntable. Unlike record-players, turntables were incapable of making a sound; you had to hook them up to amplifiers, which in turn fed speakers. If an amplifier included a radio dial, as most did but rarely mine, it was called a receiver.

Last week, Ray Soleil, who is diligently evacuating our storage unit — as of Friday afternoon, if all goes according to schedule, there will be no more books in the room, not a one — brought a few dozen LPs that I’d elected to save up to the apartment. When I unpacked the record-player, an inexpensive Ion product, and plugged in the power (and figured out how to turn it on), I reached for one of the oldest LPs in the bunch: Heavenly Echoes of My Fair Lady, played by George Feier, “with rhythm accompaniment.”

The record belonged to my parents and is quite scratchy. I don’t know how they came to have it. Did someone take them to the Café Carlyle, where George Feier was as much a fixture as Bobby Short would be later on? It’s hard to see them there, but this would have been in 1956 or 1957, when My Fair Lady was the toast of the town, and my mother was still in her thirties. It’s not impossible. Nor is it impossible that someone simply gave them the record as a gift.

The album cover is a sketch of George Feier at the piano. Overhead, on clouds not terribly like the one that Al Hirschfeld created for his iconic poster for the musical, several gentlemen in various historical costumes are standing around. They are, of course, great composers. The “heavenly echoes” are Feier’s parodies of the showtunes, each written in a composer’s recognizable style, which, in case you don’t get it, is supplemented by an obvious quote from the composer’s actual music. Bach and Mozart are immediately identifiable, and, when I appropriated the LP, sometime between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I duly labeled them with a ball-point pen. I got Liszt and Johann Strauss right, too. But I identified Verdi as Rachmaninoff before scratching that out and labeling him correctly — once you listened to Feier’s entertainment, you knew who the parodied composers were. Rachmaninoff and Chopin confounded me. On  Chopin’s frock coat, “Rach” and “Chopin” are both scratched out, and “Rach” written again; while Rachmaninoff’s figure bears a scratched-out “Rogers,” ostensibly corrected by “Loewe.” I must have decided that the composer of “The Rain in Spain” was also in heaven, and I already knew enough about Broadway to assume that Richard Rodgers must be connected to a hit show. I won’t describe my later defacement of the album cover further than to say that it involves the name of Sigmund Romberg and constitutes embarrassing testimony to my very uncertain early-adolescent tastes. It amazes me that the LP and its jacket are still in my possession.

While the record played, I sat in my chair and sipped iced tea. I don’t usually sit around listening to things. I listen to music when I’m in the kitchen, or doing housework. (I find that I can no longer read or write if music is playing.) But listening to music usually involves a playlist on an iPod that lasts for hours. Listening to records, in contrast, is a matter of playing one or two cuts from an LP and then moving on to something else. It was one thing to sit through George Feier; the rest of my record playing was more ambulatory. If I sat down, it was only to get up again in a minute. I hadn’t heard any of these records in years — decades — and a lot of what I played yesterday was frankly surprising. Beverly Sills’s recording of Victor Herbert’s “Art Is Calling To Me” — a novelty march sung by a princess who dreams of being a “peachy screechy cantatrice” — is strangely muffled, as if Sills were singing from inside a double bass. In my first recording of Bach’s Cantata BWV 78, the second number, a duet, “Wir eilen mit schwachen doch emsigen Schritten,” is sung not by two women but by two choir sections, and the sopranos are rather shrill. The harpsichord, taking the place of the more conventional positif organ, is not entirely audible. But this was how I got to know the music and I loved it; it does sound somehow more angelic. Lovely as ever was the mazurka from Messager’s Isoline, which I’ve never been able to find on CD; I don’t know why the piece isn’t better known. The last cut on that LP, oddly, is a recording of Berlioz’s grandiose arrangement of “La Marseillaise,” with the final verse sung by children, joined by the adults at the thundering end. I couldn’t resist revisiting this performance, although the anthem itself, bellicose and nationalistic, always makes me squirm.

In a different key, I listened to “Phobos and Deimos Visit Mars,” from an electronic album by Larry Fast called Synergy: Cords. The LP is translucent and milky white. And then I listened to something that I do have on CD, as well as in MP3 format, “Simoon,” by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. I kept that LP because of its cover art, which turns out to be shockingly prophetic of Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina. But if there was ever a song made for playing records, it is “Simoon.” This sinuous rhumba transports the listener right into a Gong Li movie set in Shanghai in the Thirties (but not Shanghai). The room filled with virtual cigarette smoke.

It goes without saying that the record player comes equipped with a USB cable; the point is to play the records once, to feed the music into the computer, and then, if you live in an apartment and are haunted by Marie Kondo, to get rid of the vinyl. But I can’t even think about that until I’ve shredded all the bank statements and other useless documents that slumbered in the storage unit, and found places for the thirty-odd books that decided to keep at home. Playing records was very charming, but I don’t know when I’ll do it again, once I’ve sampled everything that arrived last week.

Then I went out. I don’t usually go out in the late afternoon, either, but there was a reading at the Barnes & Noble up 86th Street that I didn’t want to miss. You could say that I’d been playing records as a way of passing the time without getting caught up in something. Which is pretty much how it was, when we used to listen to records while we waited to grow up.


Wednesday 2nd

The reading at Barnes & Noble that I mentioned yesterday was given by Heather Harpham, to promote her new — and her first — book, Happiness. I had not heard of Heather before receiving, sometime last month, a circular email from her husband, the novelist Brian Morton, announcing the event. I am a great admirer of Brian’s novels, and, as my use of first names suggests, I have exchanged a few letters with him over the years. Since he lives and works pretty much where I grew up, notoriously “sixteen miles from Times Square,” I have blathered about taking the train up to Bronxville and having lunch with him, and I still hope to do that. At the moment, hobbling up 86th Street the two blocks to Lexington Avenue was just about the most I could do.

Although I have re-read Brian’s novels several times, and notwithstanding the sporadic emails, I wouldn’t say that I know him personally. He gives every evidence of being a private person, and also seems to be the sort of man, rare enough, who would much rather hear what other people are thinking about than talking about himself. So when I read a few lines of publicity prose about Happiness, I developed an almost instant Too Much Information rash. It seemed a betrayal of our cordial non-intimacy to learn that when Heather got pregnant, shortly after the turn of the century, Brian didn’t want to be a father. He was forty-five, Heather nearly fifteen years younger. He was comfortable in his Upper West Side life — but don’t let me get in the way.

After our third date, we went back to his apartment. He was a studio dweller on the Upper West Side, twenty-sixth floor, a view of the George Washington Bridge, which he revered. A wall of windows and little else. He had a single pot and stacks of books. Against the barrenness, he’d waged the smallest possible stand — a decorative postage stamp. Joe Louis.


But Brian knew how to work. His life was ordered, boundaried to the extreme. A man who, by his own admission, ate broccoli with brown rice and garlic every night for dinner. A man who pruned back the trivial decisions, who wore French Blue dress shirts and black pants every day of the week for consistency’s sake. A man with an embedded internal clock, which told him to sit and write at the same hour, day after day. A man with a gift, and the dense garden of his habit grown around it for protection. (12-13)

I think that Heather puts this all very well, very well, and in a voice that I find distinctively her own. (The “dense garden of habit” is the richest metaphor that I’ve encountered this year — so rich that I have to ask, is it a metaphor?) I suppose that, if you don’t pay attention, Heather might sound like just another woman writing about her child’s harrowing disease, and, on the basis of the snips that I read before I had the chance to open the book, that is what I was expecting. Despite the risk of betrayal, I would read Happiness out of loyalty to Brian.

But loyalty to Brian is hard for any reader to sustain after the first couple of pages, because Heather uses snapshots of falling in love with him in New York as somewhat ironic cushions to soften the blow of her newborn daughter’s endangered life not so very many months later in San Francisco. There is something wrong with the child’s blood: her red blood cells don’t mature, but fall apart, releasing raw iron into her body. Keeping her alive requires transfusions, monthly. And while Heather tries to cope with this chaos — as I understand it, although Gracie’s disease was cured, it was never actually diagnosed — Brian is back East in his dense garden. Wounded by his rejection of fatherhood and marriage, Heather has returned to her native Marin County and she has not kept in touch. For all intents and purposes, she and Brian have broken up, and, although his readiness to provide child support is never in doubt, Heather is set to be a single mom.

That’s very well what might have happened, had Gracie been healthy. It wasn’t long after I realized that I wasn’t reading Happiness out of loyalty to Brian or to anybody else — that I was reading Happiness because I couldn’t put it down — that I began to expect Heather to surprise me. I knew that the story was going to end happily; Gracie was present at the reading, after all, and her mother told the audience that she was cured. But I also knew, not too far in, that the story was not really about Gracie, or about illness and the dread of waiting for test results, even though there’s plenty of all that. The story was about a marriage, a marriage that did not survive a crisis but that was undertaken because of one, a wedding that took more than four years to perform. It is a story told by one party to the marriage, very much alone and uncertain about her partner, and not from the bogus viewpoint of the first person plural. Happiness is full of small gusts of dark anger. The anger passes; the bruises heal. But the distance between spouses is registered, and without the pretense of even-handedness. Writing the book, I should say, Heather Harpham was not angry at Brian Morton. But she certainly had been angry with him, sometimes murderously so. Through it all, she loved him. I can think of very few novels that have encompassed the emotional complexity of marriage as well as this memoir, and even fewer that portray marriages between two such well-intentioned people. In the following passage, these well-intentioned people, closer to the end of their ordeal than they dare think, are also exhausted.

We brush our teeth, climb under the covers, in silence. It is obvious what should happen next; it has been weeks. Maybe months. I’ve lost track. But it is equally obvious this is not going to happen. I turn away, but let my foot drift over to touch Brian, the smallest of conciliatory gestures. He doesn’t move away or toward me; just lets my foot rest against his. Toes to toes, the best we can do. Brian turns to face me. “Alone is one way to get through adversity, but is it the best way?” This formulation is a joke, something we say. That’s one way to … whatever the thing is … but is it the best way? No response from me. No giggle, no touch. Silence.

“In hard times,” Brian says, “people typically do better when they huddle together for warmth.”

“Who are you, Shackleton? I know how to cope with adversity, Brian, but thanks for the lesson.”

This silences us both. I have no idea why I’m lashing out. Gracie is OK, she’s sleeping not six miles away. But I am bizarrely furious. Fury in search of an object.

We’ve been dangled by our ankles while children dropped around us; children fell. Surely there is someone to blame. (258)

Yes: children. Gracie has a younger sibling, and the younger sibling saves Gracie’s life. Of course it is her parents who do this, by engendering the sibling, which, characteristically, they manage to do in spite of themselves. Everything that blooms in this book, flower or weed, is the fruit of one relationship, one pair of stumbling human beings, determined to do the right thing, even when they don’t agree what that is, while never being misled by ideals, the narcissistic voice of righteousness. From time to time, righteousness blows through Heather at gale force, but it never knocks her down. As for Brian, Happiness is not his story. And although the TMI problem faded almost immediately, I did learn enough about Brian Morton to doubt that he is ever going to tell it.


Thursday 3rd

A few years ago, a regular reader suggested that I have a look at William Janeway’s Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge, 2012). I bought it, but did not look at it; the book drifted farther and farther from my reading pile, and a couple of weeks ago I rescued it from the storage unit, whither I think it was sent when we moved into this apartment and many very hasty decisions were made. Janeway’s book is clearly daunting, not really meant for general readers. I hate to think what it cost: the paper is very heavy, and the general presentation is that of a classy textbook. The dust jacket is not particularly inviting. The title takes the top half, while the bottom shows a smartphone; there’s a blurb in between. The pale blue background creates the clinical effect of a handbook on the side-effects of chemotherapy.

I did what I often do with perplexing books: I began in the middle, with the chapter called “The Banality of Bubbles.” It turned out to be a sharp history of European and American bubbles since the tulip craze, including a few that I hadn’t really heard of, such as the joint-stock bubble of the 1690s, which was swept into oblivion by the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Midway through the following chapter, “Explaining Bubbles,” though, I realized that I was going to have to go back to the beginning if I was to make sense of the author’s frequent references to “the three-player game” and to “Cash and Control.”

Janeway, a venture capitalist at Warburg Pincus with a PhD in Economic History from Cambridge University, is a very serious contrarian. He rejects neoliberal economic theory, the efficient market hypothesis, and all the bad ideas that landed us in the soup in 2008. I’ve worked my way back to where I was in the book, and am now in the middle of “The Necessity of Bubbles,” but although this might sound callow, Janeway makes an important distinction between asset bubbles and credit bubbles. The latter are not so good. But without bubbles, there is no innovation, because innovation, in his view, arises from waste, from spending millions of dollars on hundreds of start-ups so that one or two will pan out. He is also a believer in big-state capitalism, but I haven’t reached his discussion of that, so I’ll limit myself to observing that he recognizes and applauds the government’s role in fostering medical and technological advances.

It is all fairly difficult to digest, because although Janeway is a clear writer who avoids jargon, he is very much writing from deep within the enterprise space, where the physics is a little different from out here on city streets. And as a historian, he is informed but somewhat amateur; he does not always frame the developments that he writes about as clearly as a professional might do. But it’s also true that I’m reading against him, noting the places where his enthusiasm for innovation occludes the importance of sustainability.

As I’ve written at least once, I think that the arc of innovation that arose in the Eighteenth Century has touched ground. I don’t mean that there won’t be anything new in the future; for all I know, we’re on the eve of the most sweeping innovation of all. But I believe that we have passed the point at which we can abandon the old when we adopt the new. There is simply too much of the old. We need a government that will take the maintenance of American infrastructure as a serious national-security issue, and spend on bridges and aqueducts instead what it is currently blowing on weapons that seem designed for wars that nobody is ever going to fight. (It is certainly time for hackers to be militarized.) Our cities are surrounded by peripheries that need to be repurposed with large-scale vision. Sprawl makes no sense to anyone but the opportunistic, small-time developer, and has degenerated into a gamble that most players will lose. In short, we have a lot of junk to take care of; it is not going to go away. We need an Upkeep Economy.

Paradoxically, this may require some innovations in finance. No, no more of that! I hear you cry. But I’m not thinking of novel financial instruments. I’m thinking of micro- or even nano-transactions, payments or levies so small but so numerous that funds pile up automatically and painlessly. I’m thinking of an EZ Pass that you carry in your wallet and that charges you a penny every time you step out on the pavement. Or the first time every day that you step out on the pavement — it really won’t do to get too specific at this stage. A tenth of a penny! Those pennies would be marked for funding the repavement of the street. Funds might even be used to develop better paving technologies — quicker, less intrusive, more lasting — replacing the role of asset bubbles in innovation with activity bubbles. In a way, I suppose, I’m trying to turn the waste process of innovation around, and run it in reverse. I don’t command the language or abstraction of economics well enough to explain what that might mean, and in fact it might be impossible. But my thoughts bend in that direction.

Certainly it had never occurred to me that innovation depends on financial bubbles. If that’s the case, then we might explain the Industrial Revolution not in the conventional terms of technological advances but rather in terms of financial preparedness: by the end of the Eighteenth Century, Western economies had experienced several bubbles (albeit unproductive ones), which, instead of inoculating investors against them, appear to have created an itch. Not everybody who participates in a bubble loses his shirt! As Janeway points out, the American railroad bubble of the 1850s provided the Union with the transportation network that played such a great role in its victory.


Bon week-end à tous!