Archive for September, 2017

Gotham Diary:
I Forgot Ward’s Island
September 2017 (IV)

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

26 27 and 28 September

Tuesday 26th

Now that David Brooks has said it, I hope that he’ll stick with it, and hammer at it until a few other columnists pick it up and see that he’s right.

Donald Trump came into a segmenting culture and he is further tearing apart every fissure. He has a nose for every wound in the body politic and day after day he sticks a red-hot poker in one wound or another and rips it open.

Although I’d quibble with a lot of Brooks’s finer points, I believe that I have been trying, for several years, to say what he has expressed in one column. The meritocratic dispensation that has governed the United States for fifty years, guiding people and institutions away from provincial moralism and toward open-minded acceptance of different backgrounds, has discredited itself, because it has also encouraged a startling self-centered economy that rewards unusual talent and punishes the merely ordinary. We don’t need Donald Trump to tell us any of this.

Or maybe we do, since so many Americans are responding to Trump’s eye-poking with indignation and outrage, as if these were still sufficient to stop him. But they have the opposite effect.

He is so destructive because his enemies help him. He ramps up the aggression. His enemies ramp it up more, to preserve their own dignity. But the ensuing cultural violence only serves Trump’s long-term destructive purpose.

How long will it take intelligent Americans to stop reacting to Trump and to get on with the serious business of designing and implementing a new dispensation? One in which, for starters, nobody mistakes Hillary Clinton for an inspiring political leader, or allows an unseasoned Barack Obama into the White House?

The football imbroglio is far more menacing than most Americans want to imagine, however they feel about “taking a knee,” and I tremble to think how ruinously its undigested contradictions could erupt on an unthinking population. Football is no longer a game that involves big guys and a torpedo-shaped ball, but a cultural phenomenon that engulfs masses of people in a stew of money, racism, and entertainment — and the “money” and “entertainment” parts are just as ugly and rooted in bad faith as the “racism.” Why, one thinks to ask, do games begin with patriotic displays the likes of which are not encountered in other social contexts? The game of football has now been hijacked by the venerable but gratuitous ritual that precedes it. It has always seemed to me that the function of the national-anthem business, whatever its purpose, has been to get fans in the mood for a fight. What else is the point of a cheer, in the absence of real danger?

If I were a poet or a symbolist, I would declare that the phenomenon of American football, at both the collegiate and professional levels, marks the meritocratic dispensation for destruction. As a realist, I simply worry that the mass of fans will sink into an unguided frenzy, a replay of The Bacchantes. While it rages, the president will claim to be surprised and bewildered by the charge that his words set it off. And his disingenuousness will not be altogether baseless. Donald Trump is the little boy who pointed out the emperor’s nakedness. Ever since the beginning of his campaign in 2015, he has been telling us things that are true, even if they are mixed up with lies. Right now, he is telling us that many football fans believe that the players ought to keep their political concerns to themselves. Who can doubt it? And yet who can doubt that many players believe that there is nothing political about the inhuman mistreatment of their brothers and sisters? Football has encompassed a host of inconsistent objectives because it is flush with money and thrills. The last thing it needs is scrupulous examination. I cannot imagine, in fact, that it will survive the generation that is coming of age with images of Aaron Hernandez’s damaged brain. But if football is not quite too big to fail, it is too big to fall apart. The NFL owners are nervously aware that it might.


In the current issue of Harper’s, thirteen writers have filed reports on the state of their part of the nation. I’ve read only one, myself: Marilynne Robinson’s, from Iowa. Robinson appears to have an acute understanding of the economic and political issues that divide Iowans, and I think that she would make a very effective adviser for candidates opposing the ideologically-besotted Republicans who have gerrymandered their way into power there. I would have only one word of advice for her: keep it local. I think that her views would be far more digestible and popular if they were not associated with a national organization of liberal bent. If Robinson and her friends established an Iowa Statehouse Party, and concentrated on matters of local governance, while avoiding issues that have little or no direct bearing on local affairs, they might be able to turn out the behemoths. In short, they would campaign for Iowans, not for issues.


Wednesday 27th

My theme for today is a conundrum: liberal leadership.

Last week, I postulated that liberalism began as the solution to a prolonged conflict between the kings of England and the leading English noblemen. An institution was required to regulate the royal council, to make it less vulnerable to royal whim. The institution was found in parliament, which, in typical English fashion, had already existed for centuries. There was no need to invent anything. Now parliament was repurposed. It developed an entirely new function: providing a leader. In the new arrangement, the king could consult with anyone in the world, so long as that person was the leader of Parliament (or not inimical to the leader) — who presently came to be called “prime minister.”

At the time of this arrangement, Parliament was still very much the tool of the great men of England. Commercial and urban voices were commanding more respect, but they were easily co-opted, often by marriage. Ordinary Britons were not involved in Parliamentary politics for a good long while. Not until 1867, nearly two hundred years after the liberal solution was inaugurated, did the electoral franchise spread to the broad mass of Englishmen. By 1867, the conflict that inspired liberalism was a ghost, and “liberalism” had moved on to other things, notably to ideas about global free trade. These ideas divided the two large parliamentary parties, but although one was called “liberal” and the other “conservative,” both organizations were liberal in nature. The conservatives, it is true, had sharper notions of ecclesiastical authority, but other kinds of authority were odious to both parties, at least as brought to bear on men of property. Despite a lot of things — imperialism, workhouses, the Irish potato famine — the United Kingdom had a worldwide reputation for being the homeland of liberty, largely because, if you were a gentleman with an income of £200 per annum, nobody could tell you what to do.

Liberals did not command; they persuaded. They believed that coerced support is unreliable — which it is, if the people doing the coercion don’t have their hearts in it. Liberals approached the body politic as if it were a club, dependent on the voluntary cooperation of all its members. Everybody was encouraged to believe that the healthy existence of the body politic was the first concern of the leading men, that high officials would never allow selfish motives to risk harming the political organism. This did not guarantee, however, that politicians would know what to do in the event of accidental emergency. The worst kind of emergency was found to be not war but the upheavals regularly engendered by the vagaries of economic liberalism, which came to be better known as “capitalism.” That is, political liberals turned out not to be the people to turn to for help when economic liberals (“businessmen” and “industrialists”) lost control of their affairs. Whether politicians or executives, liberals were averse to giving orders, to exercising authority. Financial downturns became serious threats to the body politic when the liberal economy employed almost all workers in large, interrelated blocs, adversely affecting all business sectors at once. By comparison, the command economy (socialism) seemed a lot more humane.

In the wake of the disaster that the popular mind dates to 1929, liberals developed a network of safety features that constrained the spread of collateral damage. They were designed, however, to prevent market fluctuations from putting people out of work. They were powerless to prevent the disappearance of jobs for other reasons, of which two very serious ones developed in the Postwar era. Both were inevitable in a liberal climate. Workers in the developed West were replaced by cheaper workers elsewhere and by machines. A third development was more difficult to foresee. Liberals have always been noted for their respect for the kind of education that imparts liberal values along with useful skills. These liberal values, which probably don’t bear close scrutiny, provide a kind of ballast of tradition, however bogus, that steadies the liberal course through the uncertainties of innovation. It is not at all ironic that the government of the most prosperous kingdom in history erected its official, central palace — Westminster — in an antiquated style that was yet not at all Antique but original to Europe itself: the Gothic (initially a term of scorn). This complicated attitude toward the past was swept away, however, by the meritocracy of the Twentieth Century.

It is only lately that I have seen how tightly the growth of liberal democracy and the liberal economy has been intertwined with the idea of automation, of things happening independently of human agency. The industrial technology, which is not just a matter of machines but also of social organization, is impressive enough. Our constitutional devices, with their checks and balances taking the place of human arbiters — “a machine that would go of itself,” ours was called — reflect great psychological ingenuity. But the capstone of liberal thinking has got to be the systematic gestation of an élite class by competitive examination. Such examinations slowly but surely drove out the “liberal values,” and the new élite soon demonstrated an astonishingly single-minded expertise at taking care of itself. The question is whether liberal solutions to this latest setback will be forthcoming.


Thursday 28th

Questions: Who is James Ward, and who paid (how much) for that Op-Ed page ad?

It took up more than a quarter of the space in yesterday’s paper. (I can’t find it online.) Boxed in black like a memorial notice, and printed in a font so distant from Times style that there was no real need to post the “Advertisement” disclaimer, the unbroken slab of type, with the name “James Ward” at the bottom, followed by an email address for “jamesoliver037,” promised not to be a crank letter.

Opposition to “Diller’s Island,” [sic] has often been portrayed as the work of a small group of obstructionist eccentrics, scheming behind the scenes…

Then it went on in the usual manner of crank letters. Which isn’t to say that I disagree with James Ward about “Diller’s Island”! What caught my eye was the reference, smack in the middle of the text, that I feel that I’ve been seeing not infrequently of late.

The proposed plans for Diller’s Island would also, apparently, have involved, at least intermittently, loud amplified music, given the developer’s stated intention to provide New Yorkers with a truly “dazzling” experience (in this age of hyperconnectivity, it is really necessary for every experience to be dazzling? [sic]; see Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”)

I had been asking the same question myself, ever since an editorial lamenting the collapse of the project, about two weeks ago, ended as follows:

Maybe Mr. Diller’s decision to pull the plug is reversible. Or maybe another person with deep pockets will put up money for this project or something similar. Private money is not necessarily to be shunned. It’s not as if the city is awash in government funds for new parks or other captivating public spaces.

Unlike Mr Ward, who devotes slightly less than half of his notice to grumbling ruminations on improper collusion between elected officials and private developers, I am not deeply invested in shunning private money. But whether or not the city can afford to create “new parks or other captivating public spaces,” there’s no question that it already has plenty of them. Not that I’m any more comfortable with “captivating” than I am with “dazzling.” Those are words that, at least so far as public spaces go, I associate with theme parks and other bogus attractions. For an honest cheap thrill, crossing the Main Course of Grand Central Terminal at rush hour can’t be beat.

As I recall, the plans for Diller’s Island showed an undulating pancake that appeared to float several storeys above the surface of the Hudson. It was dotted with various landscapes — parklike groves, an amphitheatre? and other play spaces. There was nothing urban about it, and nothing real, either. It brought to mind the projections of the future that were a feature of the 1939 World’s Fair. It looked like something that New Yorkers would expect to find far out of town, somewhere near the Pacific Ocean perhaps. It also looked like something that would draw lots of tourists, as an island of relief from the New York experience. It looked ridiculous. Probably harmless — here again I disagree with Mr Ward — but ridiculous.

What I couldn’t make up my mind about is the Neil Postman name-check. It’s a little off-base. Postman was talking about television, television news in particular, and about the dumbing-down that, in his view (with which I wholeheartedly agree), the television medium itself necessarily imposes on civil discourse. He was not talking about the problem of having fun when you go out to have fun. And yet. Isn’t that precisely the problem with Diller’s Island? There’s an unwonted shift in the meaning of “fun.” Wires seem to me to be crossed if going to a park leads to the experience of being entertained. There is a slippage, a displacement of the self — a dazzlement, perhaps. I go to the park to walk among lawns and trees, with maybe a few flowers. There are other people in the park, but I don’t go there to meet them. We enjoy the park together in silence — not that there’s anything wrong with striking up the odd conversation. Lots of people in Carl Schurz Park sit on benches staring at open books. They’re captivated, if at all, by what they’re reading, not by the public space.

I thought of the High Line. My friend Eric arranged for me to walk the High Line several years ago, and a few weeks ago I returned the favor by introducing him to Carl Schurz Park. It was a sunny, late summer weekend afternoon, and there were lots of people in the park. It wasn’t as crowded as the High Line had been, but then it is only a local park, much used by its neighbors but unknown to most New Yorkers (much less tourists). The High Line is quite something else — I don’t think I need dilate — but what strikes me is that, among its many charming features, Carl Schurz Park boasts a finer example of the only thing that the High Line has going for it, which is a promenade. Now, a promenade is a very good thing, a vital element in urban life that has gotten short shrift in auto-mad America. It is to be hoped that promenades like the High Line will eventually alert the people walking on it that they are not in fact encased in the cabs of SUVs, and that what they are wearing is an aspect of everybody else’s landscape. As promenades go, however, the High Line is either cramped or vacant. I don’t think that it’s ever actually vacant, but when it’s not cramped, and you can take in the fixtures and the plantings, it looks abandoned, which I believe is part of its design.

The promenade at Carl Schurz Park, in contrast, is the grandest passage on the John Finley Walk, an intermittent pathway along the borders of Manhattan Island. A lengthy terrace stretched across the top of a structure through which pass, one atop the other, the downtown and uptown lanes of the East River Drive, the promenade is possibly higher above the East River than Diller’s Island would have been above the Hudson. There is nothing to look at except the river and the sky. There are some buildings, but aside from the towers of Long Island City, off to the southeast, they are not very tall, and the manmade part of the view is dominated by the Queensborough Bridge, or half of it, twenty-five blocks away. If you turn around, you have the Triborough Bridge, Hellgate Bridge, Manhattan State Hospital, and even more river and sky. Everything seems to make the river wider and the sky higher. It is the most spacious Manhattan spot that I know, always exhilarating to step out onto from the arbors of the park.

Every now and then, a tourist boat swans along. If you wave, they wave back. It’s as close as most of them are going to get to where you are, but they probably think you’re a tourist, too.

In the end, James Ward couldn’t resist pulling the kitchen sink right out of the wall, and the stove with it, and hurling them both at Diller’s Island with the T word.

And, speaking more generally, for a city which prides itself on its liberal political heritage, this lock-step lining up of local and state politicians, their developer friends, and Hollywood royalty, together with the concomitant dismissal of legitimate local concerns, reeks more of a totalitarian approach to governing than the bottom-up and democratic process one should ideally look for in a city of our size and stature.

“Bottom up”? As I say, paid for by whom?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Je Promets
September 2017 (III)

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

19, 20 and 21 September

Tuesday 19th

Rolling Stone has always been something of a tease for me. Handsomely laid out, studded with impressive photographs, it looks like the sort of thing that I’d like to read. But it isn’t. Alive to most forms of music, I am resistant, to put it mildly, to rock. I object to the very idea of “popular culture.” I find denim astonishingly uncomfortable — why do people wear it? (And then, there’s what it looks like. The world is not your living room.) Rolling Stone is not, and never was, for me.

So I almost skipped Sydney Ember’s story in yesterday’s Times. Adorned by a dozen or so of Rolling Stone’s always iconic covers, the article seemed designed for the Styles or Arts sections, but it was in Business. “Rolling Stone, Once a Counterculture Bible, Will Be Put Up for Sale.” It was only when I’d gotten through the whole paper that I went back, micro-provoked by the last part of that headline. Will be put up for sale. I went through the article quite carefully, but the headline told the whole story. There was no mention of counterparties, bidders, failed negotiations, or any other newsworthy elements. The story was a glorified want-ad, published at no cost to the beneficiaries, the magazine’s founder, Jan Wenner, and his son, Gus, who currently runs things.

A few years ago, the story told, an outfit in Singapore called BandLab purchased a 49% interest in Rolling Stone. But BandLab’s role in the present story was that of an inert gas. It had no comment to make on the proposed sale of the Wenners’ remaining interest, not even “no comment.”

If I were a cynic, I’d say that the Wenners have been disappointed in their let-us-say preliminary encounters with bankers, and that a friend at the Times has cast for them a much wider net, one that might capture the attention of an idle billionaire who didn’t know, until he read Ember’s story, that it would be not only cool but possible to own Rolling Stone. But I am not a cynic. I am a critical thinker. It’s quite enough for me to ask questions. In this case: how does this piece meet the newspaper’s editorial standards?

It struck me right away that this questionable story, or perhaps my reaction to it, provides a little case history of critical thinking. In the absence of Critical Thinking for Dummies, how do you learn to think critically? What happens when you do? Any good high school teacher will probably tell you that it involves not taking things at face value, and a degree of low-grade skepticism, calm rather than fanatical, is certainly an essential ingredient in critical thinking. But familiarity with the context — particular knowledge, that is, rather than universal principles — is essential, too. I read the Times every day, and have been doing so for more than forty years. I have a good sense of “how the Times works.” For example, a piece about a new play that appears in the Arts and Leisure section the weekend before the show opens is not a review. It is a puff piece, aiming readers’ attention in the direction of productions that are likely to be successful or controversial or at least “interesting” — unlike, that is, the run of new offerings. Everything in the paper tells me something about the editors who put it there. There is nothing mysterious about this; it simply takes exposure over time to get a feeling for it.

It is not hard to imagine a very different piece about current events at Rolling Stone: two short columns of print, with no accompanying illustration at all, much less all those covers and two large images of Wenner père et fils. This other story would mention the name of a bank or a brokerage that has been retained to represent the magazine’s interests. At least the ghost of a real transaction would flicker between the lines. Such is the story that many years of reading The New York Story has led me to expect. Instead, I see something rather more like a Facebook update announcing that Sydney Ember’s uncle wants to unload his vintage Chris-Craft, a pleasure boat on which he and his friends have enjoyed many good times. (If Ms Ember actually has an uncle who owns a Chris Craft, I apologize.) Had the piece appeared in the Styles or Arts sections, my critical-thinking apparatus would never have been engaged, because in those contexts, the story contains real news. End of an era, and all that. But idle billionaires dismiss Styles and Arts as fit for — never mind.

Critical thinking doesn’t stop at resisting face value. It formulates what experimenters might call a control, an alternative that, all things considered, makes more sense because it conforms to recognized patterns. This alternative is not an abstract construction but the residue of experience, and by “experience” I mean a mode of paying attention, not just sitting through something. The paradox is that critical thinking is ignited without conscious thinking. This is what a good high school teacher might mean when cautioning that critical thinking can’t be taught.

It can only be learned.


Wednesday 20th

The week before last, an item in the New York Times Book Review caught me eye. A new novel called The Party, by Elizabeth Day, seemed to be just thing the thing for me to read at bedtime. It was compared to The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, and even to Brideshead Revisited. I downloaded it at once. Hours later, it seemed, I had read it. I had been unable to stop reading it, but rather in the way of not being able to stop eating potato chips. Much, much shorter than the novels by Highsmith and Waugh, it even made Fitzgeralds’ classic feel massively substantial. The reason was that Day delivered everything required by a certain fictional premise, but no more. The Party is a gorgeously garnished skeleton key.

A few days later, I wrestled with the fictional premise. What would be a good title for the archetype? The Clerk and the Prince came to mind and stayed there, even if I’m not happy with it. In this story, which, by the way, must be set in Britain — Gatsby and Ripley are not really prototypes at all — a reasonably attractive boy of unprepossessing background meets a golden boy of rather grand family at school, or later, at Oxford. The two boys become great friends, meaning that the ordinary boy spends all his holidays at his pal’s family’s castle, gradually burying his own origins (for shame!). It goes without saying that his homoerotic attachment to the semi-conscious prince is unrequited, not least because it is unknown.

After coming down (Americans, typically upside-down, call this “graduation”), the boys, now men, have adventures of varying kinds; this is where the author gets to ad lib. But the ending is invariable. The grand friend, sometimes alone and sometimes with the force of his whole family, turns on and rejects the bloke from nowhere, who is revealed as a fraud and a poof, and shamed utterly, unto the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Need I spell out the moral of the story? Don’t be getting above yourself! This is a very satisfying precept for Britons, most of whom have the good sense not to try.

A beautiful example of this story, with many brilliant grace notes, is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which I’ve just put down for the second time. The Line of Beauty came out in 2004, but is set twenty years earlier, during the Thatcher era, when greed was good and need was naughted. A further decade later, it seems obvious that the years in which homosexuals demanded recognition and rights also saw a revival of opulence — baroque on ice, as it were. The last opulence died with Edward VII, and was obliterated by the Depression. Postwar modernism kept austerity fashionable for a good thirty years. Then — poof! London and Paris and even bits of New York were re-gilt. Presently, Daphne Guinness emerged on her half-soles.

The essence of the archetype here is longing, and The Line of Beauty is stuffed with it, longing of all kinds. The longings for sex rather sparingly noted; at the beginning, what Nick is really longing for is the end of his virginity. Hollinghurst gives greater space to his hero’s more sociable ambitions. Nick Guest longs to be both Henry James and a Henry James character, the observer who is paradoxically more vital than what he observes. He wants to be acknowledged as that most Icaran of figures, the natural aristocrat, the man of instinctive good taste and fine judgment who requires no pedigree. He longs to know more than he does, to speak better French and to understand finance, for example, and he longs to stop making a fool of himself, as he does repeatedly in a closed world that not only insists on credentials but rather gruffly dismisses Nick’s brand of discernment. Nick also longs to be the middle child of Gerald and Rachel Fedden, a complicated if outwardly harmonious couple. Gerald, who is an MP and devoted fan of the Iron Lady, struck me this time round as an amusingly prophetic edition of Donald Trump, a little nicer perhaps but just as prone to destructive boredom. Rachel is the daughter of a exalted Jewish banking family, in full possession of the inside/outside ironies of ineffable but exotic grandeur. Their actual children are the beautiful but simple Toby — the original object of Nick’s fascination, true to prototype — and the manic Catherine, a painfully clever girl whom Nick is mad to trust. Nick spends four years embedded in the Feddens’ Notting Hill pile, but what he treasures most is the key that admits him to the adjacent Ladbroke Square Gardens. Longing seems to carry betrayal within it; perhaps this is the significance of the perfume that Hollinghurst has invented for his novel: Je promets.

At the end, Nick is consoling himself — such is his abasement — with the expectation that a recent test will show him to be HIV positive. Hollinghurst writes about the plague at the lowest possible pitch, as if to minimize the pain of remembering those days and losses, but in a way that captures the averted glances that became a tic of the times. From almost every vantage, it was rude to acknowledge the presence of AIDS. Many wished to deny it, of course, or to dismiss it as just deserts, but for this very reason those who were not ashamed and who did not regard it as divine retribution also hesitated to speak up, lest mention of the disease further diminish the afflicted. Only those close to death could treat it as an everyday thing, and nothing obliged them to do that.

The Line of Beauty satisfies the demands of the archetype, but then transcends it, enveloping us all in the folds of a universal pathology, the one that draws us to “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding Adieu.” What could be riper than the nostalgia of a twenty-five year-old man!

More anon.


Thursday 21st

Ten years or so ago, I became obsessed with the use of a term, élite. It was difficult to say what this term might be describing, beyond a hostile but shadowy gang that monopolized the levers of power. It was impossible to find anyone who would admit to belonging to this crowd, which seemed more and more to be the invention of openly powerful people who felt thwarted in their designs. Who wanted, in short, more power. The “élite” was a bogeyman that hid behind a screen and countermanded the instructions of potentates. A few things could be said with certainty: the élite was highly educated, and it lived on the East and West Coasts. Universities and film studios were hives of the élite. I wasted a lot of time looking for a synonym — a more informative word that would pin down the identity of “élitists.” Eventually, I came to terms with the idea that the élite was comprised of everybody with discretionary authority, the right (or power) to decide whether or not to do something. Almost everybody who complained about the élite was part of it.

Now I find myself engaged in a similar but brisker struggle with the term “liberal.” I am not trying to understand what “liberal” means, however, but only to keep track of how different people use the term. It has always been a tricky, even unconsciously ironic word. It is supposed to describe those who cherish freedom from tyranny. But the first thing to learn about the meaning at its root is that liberalism is not democratic, and that “liberal democracy” is more than slightly oxymoronic. Unlike “élite,” which dates only to the Postwar era, “liberal” has a history that stretches back more than three hundred years.

Or more: it’s my current hypothesis that liberalism is one final outcome of the most persistent and destabilizing political problem of the Middle Ages, which is to say of the formation of Europe on the periphery of old Rome. I call this the “great men” problem. What was the relation between the monarch and his most powerful subjects? Often — notably in the case of the Norman conquest of England — these great men had helped the king to secure his throne; they weren’t just strong, they were owed. To read the history of France and England during these long, slow centuries is to follow the uneven oscillations not only of power but of the theory of power, between the ruler as “decider” and the ruler as first among equals. The issue was always the same: when does the king have to pay attention to what his important subjects have to say, and who are the important subjects? Accidents of birth were responsible for many of these swings, perhaps most of them. Sometimes, rulers were not only strong men but materially fortunate. Sometimes, rulers were weak men and deprived of resources. Sometimes, kings got to decide when and where councils would meet, who would attend them, and what business would be decided. Sometimes, all of this was decided by powerful noblemen. The advantage of having a strong king was the same thing as the disadvantage of having a strong nobility: nobles were something like cats, hard to herd. Battles of nobles against the king quickly degenerated into battles of nobles against nobles.

Over time, aspects of the problem were institutionalized, as for example in the English Parliament. The king always had a council of some sort, but membership in the council was somewhat arbitrary, decided either by the king (whoever this might be at the time) or by leading noblemen. Membership in the House of Lords, in contrast, was not arbitrary, and, for a long time, noblemen sponsored most of the representatives who sat in the House of Commons as well. The king, it was determined after much tussling, had nothing to say about parliamentary membership*; birth determined the Lords and the Commons were duly elected. During the later years of the Stuart Dynasty (which lasted for most of the Seventeenth Century), the great men of England decided that membership in the king’s council would be determined by parliament. The great men of England, acting not as hot-headed knights-errant but but as participants in an orderly assembly, would check the potential tyranny of the monarch — that is, any attempt by the king to establish his council to suit himself — simply by showing up regularly in the Palace of Westminster and going through certain motions. A cascade of accidents, not least of them the accession to the throne of a German-speaking princeling, conduced to the cementing of the arrangement. We have called this solution to the great men problem “liberalism” ever since.

It doesn’t seem to have much to do with what Mark Lilla means by “liberalism” in his good little book, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla does not refer to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the liberal slaveholders that they were. (He does not mention them at all.) Liberals disavowed chattel slavery some time ago, but until the 1960s there was nothing about the liberal outlook that ordained a position one way or the other, and what happened in the 1960s was so uncharacteristic of liberalism that the term has been close to meaningless (by meaning too many different things) ever since. What happened in the 1960s (and began in the previous decade) was liberal engagement in the process of securing civil rights for citizens who were denied them — black Americans. But it did not alter the foundation of liberal thinking.

The foundation of liberal thinking remains the belief that the organization of men of property is the best defense against tyranny. We may define both “men” and “property” differently. “Men” now includes “women,” and property is more likely to be intellectual than material. But for all this, the idea that men of property are the best defense against tyranny retains its power because such “men” have the greatest stake in the commonwealth, not so much singly as in the solidarity of liberal government, which is clearly defined and established.

An inevitable side effect of the liberal belief in orderly government is that it makes “men of property” out of those who participate in it, meaning those who hold representative office and other important posts. Lilla has nothing to say about men of property, certainly, but an essential part of the program that he proposes for restoring liberal democracy in the United States could not be more liberal: he presses the need to run for office. To win elections. To keep the orderly government going, and to prevent it from being manipulated by enemies of liberalism in projects of civic dismemberment. This is the point on which “liberal” ceases to sound partisan and begins to describe a function. Many conservatives are liberal in this sense, even if, today, many more are not. To sit in the US Senate on the understanding that you will compromise some of your principles in the interest of a greater national good is essentially liberal. To sit in the Senate on the understanding that not even the least of your scruples will be compromised is to compass proto-tyranny.

Given the great shifts that have occurred in the social and economic life of the West since, say, 1689, the year of the “Glorious Revolution” through which modern liberalism was inaugurated, it is not surprising that liberalism is no longer the viewpoint of great landowners who believe that great landowners, working together, ought to run the country. But liberalism has never shaken its conviction that some people are better fitted for political life than others. This is, once again, a functional matter, not one of party platforms. In this, liberals oppose democrats, who believe that everybody ought to participate in government, or in any case that nothing should be allowed that privileges the participation in political processes of some people over that of others. On this point, the liberal is inclined to throw up his or her hands, mutely insisting that, given human nature, privileges are unavoidable. Liberals don’t believe that a world without élites is possible. Lilla does not make such an avowal explicitly, but it would be hard to find a passage in The Once and Future Liberal that does not address a reader who is not only educated but who also subscribes to the intellectual consensus of liberal tolerance. Indeed, his subtitle, After Identity Politics, points to the bulk of his discussion, which is an argument against the illiberal intolerance that has vitiated the sense of American citizenship. Identity politics is the democratic outlook with the smallest possible “d”: no interest group includes more than one person.

To a liberal, the complaint that representative democracy makes national citizens of us only one day in four years is wrong-headed, but only to the extent that it is a complaint. The liberal complaint, which Lilla does make, is rather that representatives and other officials fail to pay attention to their constituents every day. It is the liberal politician’s job to understand and to lead the people who vote for him, and it is liberal government’s purpose to confer power upon those who are both interested in and skilled at exercising it in a humane and orderly fashion.

Bon week-end à tous!

*Almost nothing. The one thing that the monarch could do — a step never resorted to — was to pack the Lords by elevating sympathizers to the peerage.

Gotham Diary:
Last Entry?
September 2017 (II)

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

12, 13 and 14 September

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!”


Wednesday 13th

It may be that language is too fluid for philosophy. Not only does it change over time, but it means different things to people who have been brought up differently. This used not to be a problem, because all literate persons had the same education — there weren’t very many of them. You may imagine than literacy used to be an elitist preserve, but this did not become the case until the Renaissance (in the West). Many medieval grandees could neither read nor write, and many more, while they could get by if they had to, and if the context was familiar, preferred to have their reading done for them by secretaries. Only last night, I was reading, in Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, that Aramaic was the language of the Persian court secretaries, because the Persians themselves “were illiterate.”

So, when Socrates was holding forth, or, more to the point — since Socrates was opposed to literacy (yes he was!) — when Plato was writing things down, there weren’t very many people (and all of them were men) who were capable of following his arguments, and almost all of those people had been educated in such a way that Plato could take a lot of things for granted, such as the idea that heavenly bodies must move in uniform circular motion. Plato’s only argument for this notoriously non-observational proposition is that heavenly bodies are perfect, because they are up there — above the moon, to be precise. Only a savage would demand to know how Plato knew this.

Philosophy flourished in the Middle Ages because it was conducted in Latin, which everyone had to learn as a second language. Modern philosophy, which dates from the death of Latin in the Renaissance, is divided into two main schools, deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology speaks German (and other “Continental” tongues); utilitarianism speaks English. Each of these schools makes much more sense in its own native language than it does in the other.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian, created a third school of philosophy at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, by concentrating on words rather than ideas. I’d like to say that he came to language from mathematics and logic, and wanted to know the extent to which language could be as exact, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I bring up Wittgenstein only to point out, what may seem an ephemeral observation, that when I read the Philosophical Investigations, with the English on the right-hand page and the original German on the left, I am amazed that anyone could regard them as related languages. Certainly there are many similar words. But the habits of thought that are reflected in the structures of sentences are not at all alike. This may not be because English and German are “different,” but rather because educated speakers of English and German have developed widely different styles of assumption and expression. It’s faintly comic to see what happens to a sentence in German in which Wittgenstein is struggling to pin down the significance of utterly ordinary, sub-literate expressions — “Slab!”, for “Bring me a red slab.” — when it appears on the facing page. The simple expressions are much the same, but the explanatory language in which Wittgenstein presents them are not. How can we be sure that we understand him?

There has always been a tension in philosophy between description and prescription — much like the struggle that is familiar to us from the dictionary wars, but of much greater scope. The dictionary wars are waged by those who believe that dictionaries ought to lay down the law on correct usage against those who expect no more than a record of how words are actually used. (Although I believe in using words correctly, I do not expect dictionaries to guarantee my usage, so certain words, such as “fulsome,” hopelessly compromised by widespread contradictory usages, must simply be avoided. I remain, however, a stickler for inferring what other people imply.) Does philosophy describe the world, or does it tells us what to do? Aristotle got as close as anyone to having it both ways: if you know what is good (that is, if you have observed the world correctly), then you will do what is good (thus obviating moral decisions). There is also a further tension, between the universal and the particular. Philosophers are people who, in my view, are inordinately interested in universals, in finding out what is always the case everywhere and under all circumstances. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is always the case everywhere under all circumstances, nothing at all. But lots of things are usually true, so I concern myself with those.

If I have a pressing philosophical question, it’s this: what is critical thinking, exactly? What are the rules — or are there rules? Reflecting on what I’ve written here today, I’m tempted to say that critical thinking is the attempt to account for the coexistence of as many particulars as possible. As such, critical thinking is always sailing toward chaos, but never reaching it, because it organizes and settles whatever it touches. I hear an echo here of Freud’s psychotherapeutic mission, to reveal (and thereby tame) as much of the unconscious as possible. I would say, somewhat patly to be sure, that critical thinking transforms complication into complexity. Never mind what that means; just observe my taking two words that have evolved from the same root, from one original idea as it were (complico, to fold over or embrace) and turned them into a pair of contradictions. That is how language evolves. It is also how language so naturally destabilizes philosophical statements.


Thursday 14th

Old joke:

— I know what’s in every book in every library in the world.
— What?
— Words.

But that’s just it: words exist in books, yes — but what about outside of them?

I remember receiving a scolding letter, while I was in college, from my father. It was crisply typed by his secretary. “For all intents and purposes,” he wrote, prefatory to some unpleasant judgment. But never mind. I’d always heard the phrase as “for all intensive purposes.” Kathleen would later confess to the same misunderstanding. Not until we saw the phrase in print did we grasp our mistake — if mistake is what it really was. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell the difference, given the way the phrase is, or used to be, flung about.

Certain languages, such as Turkish, are described as “agglutinative,” because the parts of speech are fused into single words, so that the statement, “I have just come inside out of the rain,” may appear as one word. But is this so very remarkable? What may distinguish Turkish is that the agglutination is written. If I say to Kathleen, “Would you mind setting the table for dinner,” she will register this as a formulaic clump. There is nothing in the request to analyze, because there are no variants to discriminate. Assuming that I am speaking in the late afternoon, I am not proposing that she set the table for breakfast; nor do I want her to set the books in the book room in order, or to make the bed, or to do anything in the world except a very regular task. (Nor do I have to explain what setting the table for dinner involves.) In her mind, she is not diagramming the sentence to make sure that its logical import doesn’t elude her. She does not even come up with an answer: with the “would you mind” part of my statement, I am telling her that she mustn’t say “no” unless there is a problem that I’m unaware of. But this “would you mind part” is not really detachable from the rest, either, because what I am really asking for is her acknowledgment, via participation in the presentation of a meal, of her status as a member of the family. (In fact, I never ask Kathleen to set the table for dinner.)

In §20 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein muses on something like this point.

Someone who did not understand a language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard something giving the order “Bring me a slab!”, might believe that this whole sequence of sounds was one word corresponding perhaps to the word for “building stone” in his language.

This is not so very different from intensive purposes, and it raises the question, to which we have only the roughest, crudest sketches of answers, of how it is that children learn language. Most of what we know is merely evidence showing when and that they do learn languages. We know, for example, that they go through a phase of applying general rules to exceptional cases (abundant in English) and so seeming to revert to more childish usage by saying — after having spoken correctly for some time — “I goed to the park.” But what do we know about learning? What do we know about all the judgments that children learn to make as they pass from toddlerhood to kindergarten? It seems to me that children learn to speak much the same as they learn to walk, more or less unconsciously. That is, the effort itself is largely unconscious. No one will ever know how language is learned.

What complicates things is a second phase, undergone by those children who will grow up to be readers. Those children begin paying explicit attention to learning language well ahead of their uninterested classmates. They are often aware of learning new words, and of learning that some words are quite ambiguous. Wittgenstein hits on one of these words — equally ambiguous in German and English — in §29:

Don’t say: “There isn’t a ‘last’ explanation.” That is just as if you were to say: “There isn’t a last house in this road; one can always build an additional one.”

Last is a tricky word, and, rather like my opposed pairing of complicated and complex, it can mean contradictory things. It can mean “final,” but it can also mean “latest,” which is emphatically not final. I must say that Wittgenstein seems to be floudering here, if not actually going under. He does not take the time to express the distinction. Throughout the book so far, he writes about ostensively teaching simple phrases (“That is a slab.” “Bring me a slab.”) as if ordinary speakers of the language and sophisticated, highly literate speakers such as himself, went about learning in the same way. But of course no ordinary speaker would be at all interested in his speculative investigations into the operation of language. For the ordinary speaker, language is a presence not unlike the sky or the moon. It is simply there. The ordinary speaker’s relation to language is neither dynamic nor analytical. At best, it is comic.

I watched a funny old movie yesterday, Lovers and Other Strangers (1970). It is the adaptation of a Broadway hit of the same name, written by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, and it refreshes the familiar social frictions of a wedding by focusing on the nonsense that is spoken by all parties concerned. The parents of the groom, Bea and Frank Vecchio (Bea Arthur and Richard Castellano) exemplify the total incapacity of ordinary speakers to make sense of new situations. They cannot learn to speak more clearly; they can only wrap up what they know in stranger formulations. Their elder son brings dismay into their kitchen by saying that he wants a divorce. He says that he wants to be happy. His parents mock this: they don’t want to be happy. Then why do you stay together? asks the son. After a moment of nonplussed reflection, they reply that they are “content,” as if this solved anything. Later, the son confides to his father that he feels like a stranger to his wife, and she to him. The father agrees that this is how things are. You start out as strangers, he says, and then, over time, you become deeper strangers. It is all deliciously absurd. Far from springing from witty aperçus, the humor of the dialogue is a mordant commentary on the failure of ordinary language to keep up with new demands.

As if to prove my point by contradicting it, there is a bridesmaid (Marian Haley — can she really have made as few movies as IMDb lists? I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else) who is always quoting from books — voguish books of the period, by Khalil Gibran and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. But she drops their nuggets of wisdom like so many indissoluble pearls into her neurotically detached contributions to the conversation that she is trying to keep up with a randy usher who, for his part, only wants to “score.” This woman is bookish without being literate.

In a certain light, Wittgenstein looks like a precursor of Claude Shannon, trying to work out the circuitry of language at its most basic level. For Shannon, the great insight would be to grasp the consequences of Boolean relationships between propositions, which he could translate into the mechanics of digital electronic switching. Shannon learned a new way to write down what we say, one that stripped away all the complications of literacy. So far, I find the author of Philosophical Investigations incapable of developing any such novelty. As stripped down as his examples are, his explanatory language, the language of his own thinking, remains richly, ambiguously literate.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2017 (I)

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

5, 6, 7 and 8 September

Tuesday 5th

Just now, I’ve been reading the opening paragraphs of Now, Voyager, the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty that was adapted for the classic Bette Davis film. Prouty wrote Stella Dallas, too, and Stanley Cavell, in Cities of Words, claims that these novels are better than their current oblivion suggests. The opening of Now, Voyager is certainly more sophisticated than its author’s name suggests. Indeed, I had to make myself stop reading. It does not promise to be a great novel by any means, but it clicks along smoothly. It begins at Gibraltar, not in the Vale mansion (and not in Rio, either), and Charlotte is on a terrace, surrounded by beautiful views (including “the proverbial flower-filled urn with hanging vines”), dressed in one of Renée Beauchamp’s outfits, waiting for her new friend to return from sending a cable. It is a much more inviting start than the one offered by the movie.

Earlier, I was looking at Castle Nowhere, a story by Constance Fenimore Woolson. The dialogue, between a white man and a spirit, was not so promising. The prose was somewhat starchy, in the earnest American way that Henry James learned very early to parody, thus distancing himself at the level of the sentence from his native countrymen. Woolson wrote six novels and four collections of stories, plus a great deal of travel writing, journalism, and verse, before defenestrating herself at Venice in early 1894. At the time, some of Woolson’s friends thought that James could have saved her. They thought that he had “led her on,” raising hopes of marriage and companionship that in fact — in the actual history of his friendship with Woolson — had she entertained them, would have been groundless. In The Master, Colm Tóibín presents Woolson as James’s best reader, treasured by him as such. Theirs was a friendship of writers. But few of the men and women in their world could have understood such a thing, and James was uncomfortably aware of being in the position of a cad.

I am asking myself, of course, if I ought to read on. Prouty comes with a high recommendation: Cavell’s is exactly the sort of tip that I pocket carefully. About Woolson’s work, however, neither James nor Tóibín has anything to say. James does not appear to have been Woolson’s best reader, and Tóibín doesn’t even provide titles. In a very quiet way, The Master refutes the prejudice, generally shared by American men at the time of James’s youth, that only women wrote “stories,” by showing that only James wrote stories worth reading — worth reading, that is, a century later. Like every successful novelist, Woolson wrote for her contemporaries. Like many great writers, James has had a posthumous readership educated for him. In recent decades, his sexuality — a same-sex preference that in the opinion of Tóibín and others remained virginal, but that earlier men of letters felt would tarnish his luster if disclosed — has had the unexpected effect of normalizing him, of saving him from the condescension now heaped on dead straight white males. He remains challenging to read; today’s readers are even less likely, without some training and much conscious effort, to find him congenial than Woolson’s readers did. But he is read, and read, I think, with pleasure.

If James is great because he is read, it does not follow that he is read because he is great. Nobody is, outside of school. Henry James may be “great” because he wrote complex studies of the American character as it was revealed against European backgrounds. He may be “great” because of his highly sophisticated grasp of the issues of good and evil. But he is read, if you ask me, because his stories are scary. They are charged with ineffable menace; the invisibility of wickedness in James is what saves him from melodrama. So does his hard-headedness about romance, which never triumphs, in his books, over the power of money, comfort, and propriety. The horror of losing self-respect to disgrace is vastly closer to the general reader’s everyday concerns than the threat of brigands or vampires, and James’s great trick is presenting that horror with all the relish and excitement of tall, gothic tales. Nothing, really, is as thrilling in all literature as the cat-and-mouse game played by Princess Maggie and her step-mother at the end of The Golden Bowl. Learning how to hear James describe it — accepting that his immense obliquity is simply the most powerful way of dramatizing it — is unquestionably worth the effort.

One does not expect such payoffs from Prouty or Woolson.


Wednesday 6th

The strangest thing about Henry James’s second-most-famous ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” is its title. For years, I assumed that this referred to an inglenook by a fire in an old English inn, wherein some venerable sportsman told tales to any who would listen. (In those days, I couldn’t be bothered with mere stories. I must have novels.) In fact, it refers to the intersection of Fifth Avenue and some sidestreet between Washington Square and Fourteenth Street, specifically to a large house there, wherein the protagonist of the story was born and grew up. In his early twenties, this fellow, Spencer Brydon, departed for Europe, where he has remained for thirty-odd years, sustained by the rents of his family’s Manhattan properties. Now he has returned. It would be vulgar to put too much effort into determining why he has returned, but it will suffice to say that he is supervising the renovation of a parcel not far from the “jolly corner” and the erection there of an “apartment house” (author’s quotes) that will make him really rich.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, jolly about the large house on the corner, especially once we learn that Brydon believes that it is haunted by his alter ego, the man that he would have become had he remained in New York. This is an intriguing fancy, and, again, we mustn’t put too much weight on it. By that I mean, we mustn’t ask what sort of man would entertain such an idea? The point is that Henry James is entertaining it, and that he manages to be entertaining about it. Brydon is presented, to be brisk about it, as a version of Chad Newsome, the supposedly wastrel heir in The Ambassadors who turns out to be far more polished (if no less depraved) than his family back in Massachusetts fears. Brydon is a sportsman who has hunted big game and visited the tombs of the Pharaohs. He has enjoyed and suited himself in a world that does not frown on pleasure. Now fifty-six, he is perhaps too creaky in the joints for the joys of his youth.

“The Jolly Corner” appeared in 1908, inspired by James’s visit to the United States five years earlier, after an absence (punctuated by a return occasioned by his father’s death) about as long as Brydon’s. Brydon is, as one can well imagine, astonished by the transformation that New York has undergone since 1870, an era of, among other things, massively increased urban densities. The city has spread upwards as much as outwards; it is no longer a town, as even many of the most charming neighborhoods of London’s West End are still towns.

He had been twenty-three on leaving New York — he was fifty-six today: unless indeed he were to reckon as he had sometimes, since his repatriation, found himself feeling; in which case he would have lived longer than is often allotted to man. it would have taken a century, he repeatedly said to himself, and said also to Alice Staverton, it would have taken a longer absence and a more averted mind than those even of which he had been guilty, to pile up the differences, the newnesses, the queernesses, above all the bignesses, for the better or the worse, that at present assault his vision wherever he looked.

In the heart of the story, Brydon stalks his alter ego in the deserted house in the middle of the night — and is stalked by him. If I understood James’s art better than I do — and I’m not sure that I want any such thing, lest it break the spell — I could explain how James invests his fairly incredible fantasy with horripilating detail and how he makes these details pay. There is a protracted confrontation with a closed door — surely Brydon had left it open — that precipitates the climax. Then there is the alter ego himself, standing, assuming that Brydon is not dreaming or dead, at the base of the stairs. None of this is what makes “The Jolly Corner” interesting to me. I’m interested in James’s grasp of the alter ego, and the problem that it poses for Brydon. In the very first line of the story, Brydon complains that everyone in New York wants to know what he thinks of the place; he senses, rightly, that he’s being invited to speculate on the life that he would have lived had he not fled to Europe. It seems to be generally assumed that this life would have been a life of accomplishment rather than idleness; had he stayed, Brydon would have shouldered the wheel of progress and become a billionaire. This is America’s view of itself: it inspires prosperity.

James isn’t having it. His view of Brydon’s alter ego is of a stunted, damaged knave. For want of big game and pyramids, not to mention the effortful refinement of European pleasure, Brydon might very well have taken to cards and drink and worse. In an unforgettable image, one of the hands covering the face of the alter ego, when it finally stands before Brydon, is missing two fingers, as if they had been shot off: Brydon’s prey would have been his own self. It is obvious to me that Europe saved Brydon’s life, and made it as well, so that he will be free, if he so chooses, to remain in New York without being destroyed by it. He will also be free either to tear down the house at the jolly corner and to build another apartment house or to re-occupy it. The alter ego has been exorcised. Its very confinement to the empty house represents the emptiness of the life that Brydon left behind. As I’ve suggested, this is an idea that James takes up at much greater length, and without the apparatus of midnight stalks, in The Ambassadors. Paris does not make Newsome a better man, perhaps, but it certainly makes him a more civilized, sociable, and thereby worthwhile man.

What interests me even more about “The Jolly Corner” is the economy with which James captures, in the one sentence that I have quoted, and for all time, the extraordinary disorientation that Americans who lived through the transformation of urban life after the Civil War did not feel, precisely because they were living through it. It is this disorientation, I maintain, that we must all learn to register, now that the nature of change has become so much less palpable than it was for two centuries. We will continue to build big things, but not so many of them; most of our efforts will be on the microscopic level of smartphones and DNA manipulations. The current of everyday change has slowed down, and, I suspect, it will continue to slow down further. Now we can acknowledge the violence and the disruption with which that current, running so much faster, altered human society since the revolutions of the Eighteenth Century. We can begin to take stock of how very many developments we have not quite kept up

Thursday 7th

My personal interest in immigration issues is not very great. Emigration is my thing. I wish that I could just go live in Amsterdam without any fuss, not because I identify as Nederlander (I don’t), but because I simply like it there, grey skies and damp and all. I feel terribly sorry for British men and women who have settled throughout the EU — they’ve been living my dream, and theirs may well come to an end with Brexit.

Now, as for my political interest in immigration, my objective is, like any sensible person’s, a rational, consensus-backed program that encourages the inflow of future citizens, no matter what their skills or background (so long as it isn’t violently criminal). This objective is not worth talking about, because, as everyone can see, there is no consensus in the offing, not remotely. So I sit the matter out. This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not paying attention. On the contrary, because I’m not emotionally invested in the arguing, I can see things a little more clearly.

Here’s one thing that I see, and I’ll pass it on for what it’s worth. It’s probably nothing new, but it’s easier to see now that the Democratic Party has all but dropped out of the political equation. We hear that the Republican Party is divided on the immigration issue between nativists — a bloc almost as old as the United States itself — and “business interests.” Nativists want to restrict immigration to a trickle. “Business interests” are said to rely on immigrants, especially seasonal migrants, for cheap labor, much of which, it is pointed out, is not competitive, because Americans won’t take the jobs. Agriculture is the key sector in this argument, with the advocates of open immigration warning that, given a shortage of migrant workers, agribusiness may arrange for prison populations to be put to work in the fields, a disgusting revival of slavery. You’ll note that these advocates are not harmonizing with “business interests,” but instead diametrically opposing them.

You’ll also notice, if you listen, that there is no actual “business interest” policy, no single position to counter that of the nativists. And you’ll also see that these “business interests” have, in the past, shuffled their immigration concerns off to Democratic Party proxies, thus sparing the need for a stated “business interest” policy. In fact, different businesses have different objectives, and there is no positive point around which coherence might develop. By this I mean that, having argued for unfettered access to cheap labor, “business interests” have nothing more to say on the matter. They have no position, for example, on the welfare of immigrants — whether, that is, and to what extent it ought to be extended to them.

As I considered this, I saw something behind it, which explains the absence of a clear “business interests” position on immigration even better than the diversity of actual business interests. Business divides laws into two groups. Laws that involve property rights and laws that are enforced, in effect, by accountants are tremendously important to business, and such laws are comprehensive to the point of unintelligible detail. Every contingency is provided for. Other laws, in contrast, are of little or no interest, so long as they are ineffective. We may gather laws in the latter class under the rubric “regulation.” Regulation, very simply, purports to restrict business to a certain degree of operation within and impact upon society at large. Business dislikes restrictions. More precisely, the men and women who run any particular business dislike the regulatory constraints that pertain to them, but are indifferent to constraints that don’t. This makes perfect sense. The tricky part, as I see it, is that business has learned to count on ineffective regulation in general. In particular, a business will resist regulation by society. But in general, it shrugs: have as much regulation as you like, the more the better, because the more there is of it, the less effective it will be. It doesn’t really matter which policy is chosen, so long as it cannot really be implemented. This is why “business interests” have been happy to leave pro-immigration advocacy to the Democrats. There was no need, so long as the Democrats were players, for “business interests” to invest in any specific immigration policy, or to risk awkward confrontations with nativists. “Business interests” could reap the rewards of Democratic Party fecklessness and Capitol Hill gridlock.

Now what?

My purpose here is to sharpen the point that “business interests” ought to have no role in political discourse. The men and women who run businesses are, of course, citizens like everybody else, and are no less entitled to be heard. But: no more, either. When “business interests” have a say in public affairs, then these men and women are able to make use of business resources to wield undue influence in political campaigns of every kind, whether electoral or legislative (ie, lobbying), and, even worse, to corrupt regulation by means of regulatory capture, promising docile regulators lucrative futures within the business fold.

That rich citizens can sway elections by opening up their pocketbooks is a serious political headache without an easy solution, but removing “business interests” from the political scene requires nothing more than the revocation of a Supreme Court opinion that is not, in fact, an opinion at all. Without this support, businesses would no longer have the standing of natural persons, and therefore no standing to participate in politics. The polarity of regulatory capture might even be reversed.

Given the pro-immigration stance of “business interests,” some liberals might feel that this is not the time to be barring them from political action. That would be — and I say this as a committed liberal — a typically liberal mistake.


Friday 8th

In law school, the property-law professor started off the semester by comparing the feudal tenures that were still part of the syllabus in those days — is it possible that they still are? — to “Chinese music,” which, according to him, was comprised of tones whose differences were too subtle for Western ears to distinguish. Having listened to a fair amount of actual Chinese music, ranging from xiqu (“Chinese opera”) to erhu solos, I wondered where he got this idea. The Fu Manchu Book of Chinese Inscrutabilities seemed a likely source. (He was wrong about the tenures, too.) Nevertheless, “Chinese music” came forcibly to mind as I reached the final pages of Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words.

I felt as if I had endured an endurance test. Whether I had passed the test, I couldn’t say. I had certainly learned a lot, but I couldn’t be more specific than that. I wished that I were younger, so that I could comfortably imagine re-reading the book, with greater comprehension, in twenty or thirty years. The persistent problem, as I’ve already written, wasn’t that I couldn’t understand what Cavell was saying. I couldn’t understand why he was saying it. I could not trace his thinking from one sentence to the next. But I began the book expecting that I wouldn’t make it through, that it would be too tedious to keep at. It wasn’t ever tedious. It was like driving along a leafy avenue on a sunny day. I came to relish not always knowing what was going on. And I could feel myself growing, vaguely, somewhere.

So much for that. It turns out that Cities of Words was not the book about “comedies of remarriage” that I was looking for. Cavell’s The Pursuit of Happiness is. When I have read that, sometime soon I think, I’ll get out the yardstick.


The Master is billed as a novel, so it’s entirely possible that Colm Tóibín made this up:

There began then a conspiracy between them, a drama in which each knew the roles and the lines and the movements. Henry learned to walk slowly, never to run, to smile but never to laugh, to stand up hesitantly and awkwardly and to sit down with relief. He learned not to eat heartily or drink his fill. (151)

This comes from Chapter 7, which concerns the James’s brothers’ various responses to the Civil War. William, the eldest, buried himself in medical school. The two younger brothers, Wilky and Bob, fought, and Wilky was severely wounded. For a while, Henry was without an excuse, and the conspiracy that Tóibín postulates was a tacit agreement between Henry and his mother to create the impression of back ailment serious enough to keep Henry out of uniform. Eventually, Henry’s father took him to a back specialist in Boston, and Tóibín tells us that James exacted his revenge for the doctor’s brusque diagnosis of perfect health by using him as a model for Dr Sloper, in Washington Square. What Tóibín doesn’t tell us is that James ever resumed eating heartily, if indeed he had ever done such a thing. He never went to war.

I remember reading this passage the first time, and feeling sorry for James. The second time, last week, I felt only envy. How I wish that I had been capable of acting the invalid. My restlessness always gave me away. Sick people, in case you haven’t noticed (I hadn’t), are not twitchy in the way of boys under confinement. They are wan and enervated and reluctant to move. My career as an academic malingerer came to an end the day I spent the afternoon, while my mother was out shopping, rearranging all the furniture in my room.

I had to wait for age to take care of things. I must say that it has done a pretty good job.

Bon week-end à tous!