Archive for October, 2017

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (I)

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

31 October; 1 and 2 November

Tuesday 31st October

What is the life of the mind? No, I mean really. I’m tempted sometimes to call it a mirage, a hope or a dream that is never to be realized. But the very word “mirage” tips me off to the real disenchantment: I’m upset that there are no ivory towers, no secure retreats in which sense can be made of the world. There is only my apartment, which is quiet enough but occupied by an unruly refrigerator and dozens of small housekeeping problems. It seems to me that most people who have pursued the life of the mind have been in a position to overlook domestic distractions, so it would be plausible to attribute my shortcomings in the mind department to my not being in that position.

But the question persists: what is the life of the mind? What does it look like, feel like? What is it good for? Can any reasonably smart person have a go at it? Or is it a vocation? If it is, who’s doing the calling?

What is an “intellectual”? What does an intellectual do? Lead the life of the mind, or something else? Are intellectuals born or made? How smart does an intellectual have to be?


These questions buzz incessantly because they are unanswerable. It’s not up to me, or to any one other person to answer them; there has to be consensus, just as there is a consensus about who is and who is not an electrical engineer. Most of us don’t have a very clear idea of what it is that electrical engineers do, and we certainly don’t know what electrical engineers know, but we trust them to stake out their territory and to keep it in order. And so it is with other professions. Am I suggesting that the life of the mind is a profession? Don’t look at me. There seems to be a widespread notion that intellectuals spend their time being intellectuals, whatever that means. If that’s what they’re doing with their days, then it looks like a profession to me. If some people think that the life of the mind is a profession, do we want to persuade them otherwise? I gather that people who believe in the existence of professional intellectuals do not think very highly of the life of the mind.

All I know is how to make it even worse. “Intellectual” is vague. “Critic” is not. Nobody likes to be criticized. But I can tell you’re getting bored. Let’s talk about rapists. There’s a piece about rapists in the Times today. Well, that’s not what they called themselves. They denied that they were rapists, although they acknowledged forcing themselves upon unconsenting women.

Most subjects in these studies freely acknowledge non-consensual sex — but that does not mean they consider it real rape. Researchers encounter this contradiction again and again.

Asked “if they had penetrated against their consent,” said Dr. Koss, the subject will say yes. Asked if he did “something like rape,” the answer is almost always no.

Studies of incarcerated rapists — even men who admit to keeping sex slaves in conflict zones — find a similar disconnect. It’s not that they deny sexual assault happens; it’s just that the crime is committed by the monster over there.

And this is not a sign that the respondents are psychopaths, said Dr. Hamby, the journal editor. It’s a sign that they are human. “No one thinks they are a bad guy,” she said.

Indeed, experts note one last trait shared by men who have raped: they do not believe they are the problem.

I like this story, because it illustrates the need for critics. No one thinks they are a bad guy. You probably assume — I’m addressing men here — that if you raped someone, you’d at least know that you’d done so, but, no, that’s not how it works, apparently. You might admit, as some of them men described in the story did, that you were paying back someone for arousing you a sort of quid pro quo thing, not rape. You would make use of a handy disconnect to distance doing a bad thing from being a bad person.

The story also illustrates the difficulty of the critic’s job, which is precisely to identify and disable all those disconnects. And the problem is not limited to convincing these men that, no, they are rapists, they have raped. The odds are that, if you gathered the families of these men and confronted them with the record, they, too, would deny that their husband or son or father or uncle was a rapist. Is the critic, to do the critic’s job, suppose to insist that nobody can leave the room until everyone accepts the truth?

And what is the truth? We create an abstraction, non-consensual coitus, say (this would only be one kind of rape), and use it as a frame. If someone’s behavior puts him in the frame, then we cut away all the irrelevant details and shove him into the pen of rapists. By simplifying things, we make it possible to impose a uniform punishment. But of course no details are irrelevant to the people living them. I don’t mean to plead extenuating circumstances, but only to point out that nobody sees himself as an abstraction. In the heat of the moment, nobody sees much of anything.

It may be argued that, for this very reason, sexual misbehavior is not a good test of critical purposes. I would reply that, where social institutions are concerned, the problem is even worse. Sex offenders do seem to know that they’ve done something wrong. Institutional grandees — politicians, CEOs, university presidents — carry on as if they were not only good guys but great guys, on top of everything and in complete command of all necessary skills. As if the protocols of leadership had been established for centuries, as if the conduct of public affairs were as straightforward as driving a car. In fact, as any critic can see, we muddle in a mist. Our traditions are largely bogus and our arrangements are undermined by secret agendas. The effectiveness of our reforms is monstrously exaggerated. We consistently blame problems on their victims, because, after all, if the victims disappeared, there would be no problems, right?

We use disconnects, too. We “forget” what we have done as a society.  History is stuff that happened on the other side of a gulf of timelessness, or once upon a time. Life is now! Help yourself to a clean slate!

There’s plenty to keep a critic busy. The life of the mind is not one of idle relaxation!


Wednesday 1st November

When I was a boy, formality was on the way out, but it was still very much a part of life, at least in my upper-middle-class corner of the world. Boys bowed slightly and girls curtsied when shaking hands. You said, not “Thank you,” but “Thank you, Miss Smith.” Thank-you notes were a trial. Everyone hated formality, not because it was tedious or onerous, although it could be both of those things, but because it was felt to be meaningless, an empty hangover of olden days. If children hated it the most, that was because we could see how doomed it was, and how pointless it was for us to learn the ins and outs. We felt about formality pretty much what children sitting in a van parked beside a beach think about adults who are slow to open the doors and let them run to the fun.

The world was going casual. Comfort, not status, was the new criterion. Ease replaced attentiveness. Intimacy could develop as quickly as two people wanted it to. And women were going to be as free as men — someday.

And now we know what that looks like. The world is everybody’s living room. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the world is everybody’s hotel room.


Most people in Europe and America today are the descendants of men and women who were peasants and small farmers in the Eighteenth Century and earlier. In the past two hundred years, we have all come up in the world, and, as is always the case with upward mobility, we have had to learn how to behave like our immediate betters. There have been many steps on the ascent, not just one or two, and each one has involved mastering a slightly different code of manners. I think it fair to say that very little reflection was ever involved. It was like learning a dance. You watch the dancers who are good at it and try to follow their steps. You don’t ask why.

Well, some people asked why. Two hundred years of incessant “improvement,” of picking up new ways of doing things only to replace them with more desirable ways, inevitably produced a feeling of rootlessness, a worry that all this good behavior might not guarantee access to a genuinely superior way of life. As early as the 1820s, Transcendentalists were protesting against “conformity.” In the middle of the century, Flaubert mordantly ridiculed the aspirations of the bourgeoisie. What the many forms of modernism had in common was a rejection of polite conventions, whether by consulting psychotherapists or drinking cocktails in the middle of the day.

So, by the time of my boyhood — the years of glorious new prosperity for everybody — the jig was up. Keeping up with the Joneses would henceforth take on a brutally materialistic aspect. The Joneses might set the standard for cars, household appliances, and lawn care, but nobody cared anymore how they behaved at home. Now that social status could be established in terms of chrome (in) and crabgrass (out), there was no need to put on an act. You could be yourself, and risk spontaneity. The only rule of behavior in America was that you ought to be “nice.”


The great unmourned casualty of this new freedom from formality was “respectability.” I don’t think that young people have any idea of what this meant, much less of how vitally important it was as a foundation of feminism. To put things very briefly, respectability was a code of conduct that allowed middle-class women who followed it assiduously to move with relative freedom outside the home without bringing dishonor upon themselves or their families. If we tend to associate the preoccupation with female chastity with non-Western cultures, that is because centuries of respectable women weaned us from the idea that a woman alone in public will inevitably inspire sexual improprieties. A side effect of this long experience was the creation of a parallel zone of private conduct, stretching between married fidelity and outright adultery, in which unattached men and women might pursue intimacy tentatively and with impunity, but until the middle of the Twentieth Century, this was a secret — the woman was punished if she was caught. But it was a secret that eventually made the public routines of respectability look ridiculous.

It would be foolish to suggest that a return to the norms of respectability would provide today’s women with increased protection from sexual harassment and assault, and in any case such returns are never possible. The motive behind respectability — the apparently universal need to assure and to be assured of female chastity — has largely evaporated, and only religious primitives in the West are concerned about it. Our current concern is for the autonomy and safety of women. But I think it worthwhile to consider aspects of respectability that might be put to new use.

Respectability was always extra-legal; its authority was drawn from the community of women. The ostracism of “fallen” women is well-known, thanks to La Traviata and the domestic life of George Eliot, but it should not be forgotten that men were disciplined, too. A man who made improper advances — among which we might class invitations to hotel rooms for any ostensible purpose — would be denied entry to respectable homes, thus making it impossible for him to contract a respectable marriage. In the court of respectability, a woman’s complaint weighed more than a man’s defense, and men took great care to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In today’s terms, a man of dubious sexual integrity might find the path to career advancement blocked. I go so far as to wonder if the concerted effort to police laddish misconduct might be a more effective propellant through the glass ceiling than mere individual ambition.

Desire being what it is, these efforts would provoke a fair amount of hypocrisy, and women would have to forego the delirium of sudden intimacy. But it would be men, now, and not women, who would have to prove themselves to be respectable.


In Jane Austen’s novels, there is a good deal of tension and humor about the use of proper names between young men and women. In two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, ambiguous extensions of the family circle allow the use of Christian names long before the milepost of engagement has been reached, creating circumstances in which familial intimacy leads to marital intimacy. And in Emma, much the same point is made in the opposite way by the heroine’s decision to go on calling the man she loves “Mr Knightley”; switching to “George” would be a move away from intimacy. But these instances are small exceptions to the vast authority of a correct usage that judged undue familiarity to be insolent and insulting. Something else to think upon.


Thursday 2nd

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a long book — much longer than its pages. Its perspective is immense, and, arguably, could be neither wider nor deeper. For it is really the history of a nation’s unwillingness and inability to reflect. The United States was founded on a Constitution in which the most advanced political theories of the Enlightenment were distilled, but within little more than a generation, its swelling population of backwoodsmen and immigrants regarded higher education with mistrust. Outside enclaves clustered in the Northeast, everyday life was crude and boisterous. The prohibition of established religion, far from encouraging a secular society, readily accommodated every variety of confessional caprice. Promoters, developers, and industrialists either single-mindedly or mindlessly pursued profits. For most of its first century, the United States was preoccupied by a bonanza of exploitation, punctuated by an appallingly bloody war that ended in exhaustion and without a significant victory. The main lesson of American history seems to be that no right is more cherished than the right to be stupid.

(Just how stupid, even I hadn’t guessed. Many of the yeoman farmers who figured in Jefferson’s agrarian dreams were ignorant of the rudiments of working the land; Hofstadter reminds us that their descendants mounted stiff resistance to the expertise offered by the land-grant universities. The trail of the pioneers was a desolation of despoiled acres.)

At the outset, Hofstadter expresses concern about “wounding the national amour-propre,” but that is something that I have never felt. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, anything I hadn’t lived through; it simply supported my conclusions with a wealth of corroborative evidence. Two sentences on, Hofstadter writes,

For all their bragging and their hypersensitivity, Americans are, if not the most self-critical, at least the most anxiously self-conscious people in the world, forever concerned about the inadequacy of something or other — their national morality, their national culture, their national purpose. (vii)

But, perhaps because self-consciousness is the trigger, Americans prefer to feel, rather than to think, their way through the questions that trouble them. Thinking is a matter of honestly asking those questions, and discriminating among the possible answers. Feeling is afraid of questions, precisely because they open on to the frightening unknown. Feeling finds its answers ready-made, packaged in the form of sentiment. Sentiment combines a picture of how things ought to be with an attitude of hostility toward other pictures. Anyone who thinks about the matter recognizes that a statue of Jefferson Davis must be offensive to all Americans. A sentimental response to the same statue is likely to hold that, since the statue has been standing for a long time, it ought to go on standing. (Of course, there is an alternative path of thought: the statue should stand because the idea of America is false.)

Living in America means getting used to living with people who mistake feeling for thinking. This is the number-one problem of democracy, and it is no longer confined to the United States. We simply have more experience with it. For a long time, people who believed in thinking — let’s call them intellectuals — professed feelings of alienation from their fellow-citizens. Alienation was still a big deal when I was growing up; it was the hallmark of a hipster. Now it just seems a silly pose, when it is not actually a mental disorder.

Perhaps the alienation is situational rather than personal. Hofstadter was inclined to believe that the American intellectual’s position is a tragic one, “either shut out or sold out.” (417) This assumes that the intellectual seeks to participate in the exercise of power. I have somewhat tentatively concluded that the intellectual has nothing to offer the public but persuasion. The intellectual who becomes an expert, at the public service, has in essence ceased to be an intellectual, at least with regard to the area of expertise; for no one consults an expert to hear his questions.

One question that Hofstadter leaves unanswered is the nature of the intellectual’s venue. Whatever it is that intellectuals do, where should they do it? Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study seems one answer to me, but I don’t know very much about it. I’ve always dreamed of Colleges, handsomely endowed institutions, rather like those artistic retreats such as Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, only permanent, and not necessarily residential. I try not to imagine the Colleges in any detail, because to do so would tie me up making imaginary arrangements that would guarantee me a place in one. But aside from a nice income, membership would provide introductions to other intellectuals. As Hofstadter suggests, intellectuals work best in solitude. But you still have to keep up.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Laundered the Costumes
October 2017 (IV)

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

24, 26 and 27 October

Tuesday 24th

For a long time, I put off reading the last two chapters of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. I had a good idea where he was going, and, indeed, in the ninth chapter, he went there. And how! All the great evils of the Nineteenth Century — oppression of laborers, extermination of indigenous peoples, imperial expropriation — were laid at the feet of a liberalism whose blessings were nullified by being limited to the occupants of a “sacred space,” property owners and their families. Stuffed with hypocrisy, liberalism was presented as a piñata to be repudiated and destroyed.

But the final chapter was surprising. Entitled “Liberalism and the Catastrophe of the Twentieth Century,” it seemed bound to argue that the Nazi persecution of the Jews represented a climax of liberal values, not their subversion. Losurdo had lined up the cases: since its inception at the time of the Glorious Revolution (1689), liberalism had detached whole classes of human beings from the claims of humanity. Slaves, servants, Native Americans, Aborigines, the Irish: again and again, prosperous and otherwise broad-minded élites made a point of finding people to diminish. As to the Holocaust itself, however, Losurdo seemed content to allow the reader to draw implicit conclusions. It was a great relief to be spared the flogging. By one of those strange accidents that characterize my reading life, James Whitman’s study, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, has just appeared to do the job for him, something that Losurdo might or might not have foreseen ten years ago, when Liberalism came out.

Instead, Losurdo ended on a hopeful, if still rather stern note:

[L]iberalism’s merits are far too significant and too evident for it to be necessary to credit it with imaginary ones. Among the latter is the alleged spontaneous capacity for self-correction often attributed to it. (344)

On the previous page, Losurdo had elaborated this point:

Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (the tradition of thinking that, starting with ‘radicalism’ and passing through Marx, issued in the revolutions which variously invoked him) to a far greater extent than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it.

In other words, while liberalism is not spontaneously self-correcting, it does respond to grievances, albeit for “practical” rather than lofty reasons. Losurdo regards Brown v Board of Education as such a reversal. The Cold War had altered the valence of racism. Opponents of slavery, from the age of revolutions onward, had been associated with the tyranny of radical Jacobinism, but now the Soviet Union, as the heir to the social justice tradition, could credibly claim that the United States, if it tolerated Jim Crow, must not be seriously committed to democracy. Call it optics, if you like. Liberal Americans undertook a wrenching shift, one that remains incomplete. Liberal Republicans suffered almost immediate extinction, and the Democratic Party, sixty years on, continues to incapable of stabilizing its opportunistic coalitions.

The most pointed lesson that I learned from Losurdo is that liberalism is not a philosophical or intellectual position. It is practical and realistic, and its thinkers write after the fact. Locke is usually credited with the introduction of liberalism, and he certainly argued that property owners ought to call the shots. But the specifics of liberal government were worked out on the fly, roughly in the fifty years that ended with Walpole’s ministry (c 1740), and then more minutely through to the early years of George III. Political theory had nothing to do with these developments, which were instituted by members of Parliament in the conduct of contingent affairs.

The parliamentarians’ overriding objective, it seems to me, was to solve what I call the “Great Men” problem of monarchy: to whom is the monarch bound to turn for advice? This was never a theoretical problem, for all the preaching of saintly clerics, but rather one of raw power, a contest fought again and again by kings and magnates of various skills and resources, until settled once and for all by constituting Parliament itself as the monarch’s one and only council. This is in practice pretty much the same thing as the rule of law. Not even the king is above it, but, more important, everyone knows what to expect. The great liberal achievement is the institutionalization of power. Modern civil society owes its existence to this abstraction.

Unfortunately, the dispersion of political power to institutions often leads to muddle. It requires great intelligence to operate an institution — it is almost a matter of herding cats — and where a number of institutions must function together, as is the case throughout the United States, even the most intelligent leaders must harmonize their actions. Otherwise there is noise: muddle. And muddle invites those who do not sympathize with the liberal outlook to repersonalize power. It seems to me that this is a fair statement of the state of play in America today. Our institutions appear to have wandered from their mandates, and it seems unreasonable to expect them to find their own way back.

Is this where the intellectuals come in?


Thursday 26th

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction in 1964. I’ve had an undated but posthumous edition of the Vintage paperback for many years — Hofstadter died in 1970 — but I haven’t read the book until now. I’m thinking of awarding it a prize of my own, the Kondo Prime Award. I would call it Kondo Prime because, ever since the goddess of tidying-up persuaded me that there was no point to having hundreds, perhaps thousands of books in the house that I never looked at, I have been repeatedly blessed by my decision not to throw those books away but instead to re-read them; and, in the case of books that I owned but had never opened, I’ve enjoyed on more than one occasion the delightful surprise of reading a book for the first time at exactly the right time.

Much as I scold myself for not reading Hofstadter’s book long ago, I’m aware on every page that I am getting more out of it now than I should have done before. With regard to one issue, it’s a matter of bringing something to the reading that isn’t as developed in the book as it would be today. If we lucky enough to have a writer of Hofstadter’s caliber working today, we might look to this person for a study of Anti-Intellectualism and Misogyny in America. The vulgar insinuation that thinking people are effeminate was certainly familiar to Hofstadter, and he holds up two instances for frank evaluation. The first involves George William Curtis, who in 1877 sought to reform the New York State Constitution. Educated in Germany and the editor of Harper’s, Carter was ridiculed by Roscoe Conkling as an exemplar of “man-milliners,”

a reference to the fashion articles that Curtis’s magazine had recently started to publish … The more recent attacks by Senator McCarthy and other upon the Eastern and English-oriented prep-school personnel of the State Department, associated with charges of homosexuality, are not an altogether novel element in the history of American invective. That the term “man-milliners” was understood in this light by many is suggested by the fact that though the New York Tribune reported Conkling’s speech in full, with the offending word, Conkling’s nephew dropped “man-milliners” from his account of this incident in the biography of his uncle and substituted asterisks as though he were omitting an unmistakable obscenity. (189)

The second victim is Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1952.

The New York Daily News descended to calling him Adelaide and charged that he “trilled” his speeches in a “fruity” voice. His voice and diction were converted into objects of suspicion — “teacup words,” it was said, reminiscent of “a genteel spinster who can never forget that she got an A in elocution at Miss Smith’s Finishing School.” His supporters? They were “typical Harvard lace-cuff liberals,” “lace-panty diplomats,” “pompadoured lap dogs” who wailed “in perfumed anguish” at McCarthy’s accusations and on occasions “giggled” about their own anti-Communism. Politics, Stevenson’s critics were disposed to say, is a rough game for men. (227)

Now that women are in the game — please remember that, when I was a boy (and Hofstadter was writing), Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in Congress or at the top of any Federal branch —the usefulness of the effeminate man as a target has abated. I suppose that we can hail that as a genuine improvement. But so long as politics is a rough game for chest-pounders — a leading story on the front page of today’s Times indicates that Republicans who prefer to communicate in English are on the way out — it is difficult to be sanguine about the American experiment in democracy.

Hofstadter organizes anti-intellectualism onto four fronts.

The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the “purely” theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. (45-6)

I’m about halfway through the book. Its bearing on my inquiry into liberalism is somewhat tangential, for the term “liberal” appears only in quotations from conservative anti-intellectuals, eg “intellectually mongrelized ‘Liberals’,” taken from an essay written in 1926 by the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Like the allegation of Adlai Stevenson’s “fruity” voice, the conservative application of “liberal” is far more insulting than it is meaningful, a conclusion posing as an explanation. The important questions are these: what do liberals take “liberal” to mean? and: is there a continuous liberal tradition that dates back to the late Seventeenth Century? and: if so, what are its characteristics? If these questions intersect with Hofstadter’s thesis, they lead away from it toward a hypothetical, complementary study of the role of intellect in American life, and of constructive relations (if any) between the life of the mind and the liberal outlook.

Or, not so hypothetically, to my writing project. At the moment, I’m waiting for comments from two very busy people whom I’ve asked to read a presentable draft, and aside from composing slightly amplifying clarifications that my first reader suggested, I’ve confined myself to thinking about it. But I hope there won’t be any harm in pointing out how intimate my familiarity with Hofstadter’s thesis is. Although she could never have articulated it very clearly, my mother regarded me from an early age as guilty of all four of Hofstadter’s offenses. I was cold, I was unreliable, I was impractical, and I thought I was better than she was. If she didn’t accuse me of liberalism, that was probably because she regarded politics as a rough game for adults. And when my father joked that I had more books than sense, he was compressing Hofstadter’s observation that “we sometimes say that a mind of admittedly penetrating intelligence is relatively unintellectual,” and that “we see among minds that are unmistakably intellectual a considerable range of intelligence.” (25)


Friday 27th

Another Kondo Prize goes to Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I bought this fictionalized memoir when it was reprinted by NYRB, in 2001, or not long thereafter. I had never heard of O’Brien, but the combination of an arresting cover photograph by Slim Aarons and the promise of an Introduction by Seamus Heaney, together with a well-put-together pair of paragraphs on the back sold me the book. O’Brien was apparently the child of movie stars from the Thirties who broke up when he was still a kid and who then went on to amount to nothing. I read the first chapter, and didn’t get it. For a long time, the book stood among all the other NYRB reprints, but when the shelves got crowded, it was exiled to storage — from which I rescued it three months ago. There still wasn’t room for it here, so I slipped it in horizontally, atop the others, which made it very easy to pull out last week when I was looking for something to read.

I decided to pick up where the bookmark was, in the middle of the second chapter. A woman was telling her husband to shut up about the goddammed avocados. There was a Mr Amalfitano, who was crude, and then a very refined Mr Liszt. Mr Liszt, Mr Franz Liszt, struck me as the Tongue-in-Cheek cousin of Gogol’s Nose, but I kept reading. When I got to the end of the third chapter, I went back to the beginning of the second, but not to the first, which I was afraid might put me off again. At the beginning of the fourth chapter, I began to have a good time.

At fourteen I would reach the age of reason under California law and be able to choose between parents, but at thirteen I was happy in my mother’s company, content to benefit from her closeness and from such intangible riches as might accrue to me from living in an artistic atmosphere. Also, I knew little of the history, language, and culture of the Russian race; not having the means to travel, I was satisfied that by living in the Russian’s house, I could observe first-hand his habits, customs, rituals, and perhaps prevail on him to instruct me in the rudiments of his tongue. I would gain the fruits of a voyage to a distant land, without incurring the cost or inconvenience of transportation.

Laid on with a trowel, perhaps — but quite expertly done, the parody of an ingénu out of Fielding or Goldsmith not only amusing in itself but ironically establishing the narrator as the seasoned and mordant judge of his seniors that their delinquencies have provoked him to become. A Way of Life, Like Any Other tells its rather grim and depressing tale in a fleet and edifying prose that assures us that the young man is going to come out of it in good shape.

In the seventh chapter, I had a big laugh. The young man was making a tentative visit to his father’s house. He noticed that his father was spending all his time at church, so desperate to have something to do, it seems, that the

Ladies Altar Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacramental bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member.

Aspiring writers with a streak of witty malice will benefit from the study of this sentence. The rule of three is scrupulously observed, starting out short and simple, then roaming a little freely, but finally submitting to rhythmic concision in a blowout of silliness. There would be many ways of noting that the ladies of the Altar Society took good care of the Infant of Prague doll, and I daresay that most would refer to robes or to outfits, but O’Brien settles on the one that allows him to say laundered the costumes. If you do not hear the nonsense here, you will never really understand the wit of the English language. It as much a matter of sound as it is one of sense.

In Chapter 16, the mother turns up, after a long absence in Rome. The mother, qua mother, exhibits equal influences of Ida Farange, in What Maisie Knew, and Faye Dunaway, in Mommie Dearest. She is a monstress of egotism and a prodigious liar. Having adored her as a boy, the narrator loathes her now, and when she claims to have joined AA, his skepticism is rude and impolite.

“It’s too bad,” I said. “Drinking is a part of life, isn’t it? I mean drinking and getting drunk. Making an ass of yourself. Even making things unpleasant for other people. It’s too bad if you can’t do that any more. I would feel very deprived if I thought I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mother said. “You’re very young.”

“AA sounds very boring to me,” I said. “It sounds like some half-assed evangelical sect. People sitting around talking about not drinking. Why not tie one on and go to sleep?”

“People do terrible things to their lives,” Mother said. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“I bet they do.”

“I don’t like your tone,” Mother said.

But of course his tone is exactly what the reader likes. Seamus Heaney, naturally, points out how Irish this “quicksilver” badinage is, and there is a lustiness to the verbal confrontations that one doesn’t associate with Americans. The movie star father, however, is the actual Irishman in the story — Irish-Catholic American, anyway — and he sounds pretty much like Gary Cooper imitating a Wooden Indian. We come to understand that he has the moral spark of a Wooden Indian, too: none. At the end, he tries to finagle a valuable ring out of his son, who has rightfully inherited it. When he is outmaneuvered, we are delighted to find that the book has arrived at the happiest of all possible endings.

I went into the world well-armed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2017 (III)

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

17, 18 and 19 October

Tuesday 17th

Kathleen insisted that the movie wouldn’t disturb her. She didn’t want to watch it, but given her powers of concentration, she could ignore it. She could get on with her computer searches, and perhaps even take a nap. In the event, however, she crept out of the room about halfway through and stretched out in the living room. The movie was simply too loud, she said — not complaining. You will think me barbaric, not having turned the sound down a bit, but in fact the movie was too loud because the dialogue was inaudible at normal levels. This was not the problem that it might have been with a domestic film, because I was entirely dependent on the subtitles to understand what people were saying. But I did want to hear the sound of voices. So I’d turn up the sound a bit, and then, bam, there would come another outburst of rock ‘n’ roll. I knew that these music bits never lasted very long, but the contrast between whispered conversation and Bacchanalian revel was too much for Kathleen.

What kind of a movie is quiet, except for sporadic explosions from a noisy rock band? Well, one kind would be the movie that’s about the lives of young literary lions in Norway. I had been reading about this way of life in Volume 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, and when I was through with the book I remembered that there is a movie about it, Joachim Trier’s Reprise (2006). I was very taken with it when it came out, and I bought a copy on DVD. Now I itched to see it again.

Where Knausgaard’s book is about a writer living on the margins of a literary herd in Bergen, Reprise concerns two writers at the heart of a small club of still-boyish men in Oslo. Phillip and Erik have known one another forever. Phillip has been published. Then he has suffered a psychotic episode. At the beginning — more or less; there is a great deal of time-frame flipping in the early scenes of Reprise, so much so that the movie threatens to be difficult to follow — Phillip is being fetched by his friends from a hospital in the countryside and returned to his flat in the town. One big question is whether he will get back together with his old girlfriend, Kari, whom everybody seems to blame for Phillip’s breakdown. The other big question is whether Erik will publish his first book, Prosopopeia.

Now, I wonder: in today’s America, could even a writer as exalted as Philip Roth publish a book with that title? Even if you know what it means, you wouldn’t want to be telling friends that that’s what you’re reading. In a sly way, prosopopeia could be said to be what every fiction writer does: speaking in another’s voice. This may or may not be a little joke intended by Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt. A larger joke, also possibly unintentional, is that literary Norwegians might tolerate such pomposity because they’re still amazed that there is such a thing as literary Norway. I remember watching Reprise for the first time, and sensing in its unscratched sheen of prosperity the breeze of North Sea oil, which transformed one of the poorest countries in Western Europe — and one of the most recently independent — into a fairly cosmopolitan society. With a population smaller than that of Greater New York, Norway boasts a literary culture that supports the publication of novels in a language that relatively few people can read — and not just bodice-ripping romances or fantasy witch-fests, but novels with titles like Prosopopeia. Or, in the case of Knausgaard, Min Kamp, a jokey reference to Hitler’s screed, Mein Kampf.

And yet, to a man, these blithe spirits are aficianados of progressive rock. Even when they’re barely competent, like Knausgaard himself as a drummer (“I managed to produce a variety of beats for a variety of songs” — how I howled with laughter when I read that!), they all seem to play in bands. In Reprise, they sing along rowdily, as if they wouldn’t know a thesaurus from a slide rule. The music is always very loud and upbeat, and yet the lyrics are anthems of despair — well, of lost or unrequited love, anyway. It is not subtle stuff. Even the women join in from time to time: Tonje, Karl Ove’s first wife, is also a drummer.

This commerce between high writing and low music is not uniquely Norwegian, of course — Jonathan Franzen has rhapsodized the joys of knowing about bands whom no one else has heard of — but Knausgaard has done a great deal, intentionally or not, to suggest its unhealthiness, especially for a writer who seems to have nothing to say. Noise is not good for the sensitive mind. At the very best, it is a brutal, addictive anaesthesia.


Not that I think for a second that rock ‘n’ roll is the cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block, which stretches throughout most of the thirteen years covered in Some Rain Must Fall. The cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block is obviously youth. At the start, he is only nineteen. What does someone who is nineteen years old have to write about? Hopefully, nothing. But if there is some interesting trauma, it will probably exceed a young person’s powers of perspective and description. Setting poetry aside, writing requires both experience and distance, and it also requires, I have found, the experience of a lot of writing. I lingered over a moment, late in the book, in which Knausgaard hit on the nature of the problem and the appropriate solution, as I remembered doing many years ago:

After a few days in the house I realized that I could forget about writing. I tried, but to no avail, what could I write about? Who did I think I was, believing I could create something that would interest anyone apart from my mother and my girlfriend?

Instead I wrote letters. (553)

Ah, those letters! All that writing! Endless and bad it may have been, but, once I was out of school, it was the only teacher I had. It was also, for me, an effective teacher. I don’t know why this was so, and I feel very lucky to have had it. For what I write has a way of loitering in my mind afterward in a way that brings shortcomings to the fore. Bad sentences nag me. It’s not necessary to go back and correct them, or at least it wasn’t in those early days, when my letters were too voluminous to read once, let alone twice. It was enough that I didn’t repeat my mistakes. Later, writing for the KLEF Program Guide, I had the music to write about. And I had readers, too. The existence of actual readers demanded best behavior: if I was going to say something, it must be something worth reading — thinking about, judging. I had learned from the English teachers at boarding school that I had a gift for saying nothing and saying it very nicely; I had to make sure that I didn’t discredit my columns in the program guide with any of that.

What’s irritating about the literary life described in Some Rain Must Fall is the expectation of prodigies. Publishing a masterpiece at the age of twenty-five isn’t virtuous, but suspicious. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is to become a vessel of the Zeitgeist, a temporary medium for the fashions of a moment. Consider poor old J D Salinger, who wasn’t really all that young when his career took off but whose career ended when he was still fairly young. Consider The Great Gatsby, which was the novel of a moment, which it perfectly captured but which was not followed by other equally remarkable moments for Fitzgerald to transcribe.

What were they thinking, when they invited Karl Ove Knausgaard to participate in the Writing Academy at Bergen University when he was only nineteen? The reader notes that, in 1988, the Writing Academy was in its second year of operation; perhaps there was not much collective experience of thinking about these things. It turned out, I think, to have been a terrible step for the writer, confirming his doubts and misgivings while filling him with unnecessary frustration. Where were the mentors? In Reprise, a mentor materializes for a moment. He is the (fictional) writer whom Phillip and Erik most admire: Sten Egil Dahl. A recluse, he tells Erik that television is no place for the discussion of literature, and he also praises parts of Prosopopeia (which has indeed been published). After their encounter, Erik realizes that he must get away. He leaves Oslo for Paris, writes like a monk for a year, and then returns to his friends as a seasoned writer. I am not entirely convinced by this success story: Erik is still very young. But there is no doubt that Dahl’s advice invigorates him. No such figure appears in Knausgaard.

I have thought a lot about the absence of mentors. Like Knausgaard, I wouldn’t be the most amenable beneficiary of good advice. But there are objective explanations as well. Social arrangements have been fluid for too long, and minds that might have provided mentoring in the past have developed in circumstances of confusion. Which way is up? What a mentor must provide above all is assurance about one’s own inner voice, which one not only doubts but which is so easily drowned out in the din of jockeying youth. The very best mentor conveys the patience and conviction required to sit quietly in a room, at least part of the time, listening to that voice. But what have the old men of the past several generations known or wanted to know about youth and their voices? What was the Twentieth Century, if not a parade of bright young cohorts exploiting the latest in popular culture, from jazz to rap, as earplugs against the wisdom of older minds?


Wednesday 18th

In the closing pages of A Man in Love, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the author’s mother survives a heart attack that, when it struck her, left her thinking that she had had “a fantastic life.” Hearing this, Karl Ove is astounded.

If I keeled over now, and had a few seconds, perhaps minutes, to think before it was all over I would think the opposite. That I hadn’t accomplished anything. I want to live. But why don’t I live then?

There is His Struggle in a nutshell. Will he work it out? There’s still another volume to get through, written years ago now but coming out in English only next year, and who knows when if I wait for the paperback. The struggle, as I see it, is this: can you live if you are trying to accomplish? I’ve written about this before, always with the French verb achever in mind. It means what you think it means. But make it reflexive, s’achever, and what literally means “to achieve oneself” signifies death. To accomplish your life is to complete it, to end it, as if it were a project. Ever since Plutarch at least, men have been educated to regard life as a block of marble from which to chisel out the statue of a man of notable achievements.

The difficulty for the writer is the immateriality of the achievement. A book is not like a bridge. It is the very opposite: it ceases to exist the moment it is published. Writers complain about this all the time, but I don’t think laymen (or other writers) pay attention. When you finish a writing project — when it is sent out into the world — you’re done with it, it has nothing to offer you anymore. A writer is someone who writes, not who has written. To read something that was done with ten or twenty years ago is to have the odd conviction that it was written by someone else — as indeed it was. The written book is a bubble that pops, leaving its author gasping for a new project and leaving behind nothing else, except of course the money and fame, if any, that never mean anything to a writer. Only writing really matters.

The trick for the writer — and this is what I hope Knausgaard will realize before all that smoking kills him — is to learn how to live alongside the writing, to accept that writing will never lead to real accomplishment. If you are a writer, then writing is how you live. For most writers, this requires some peace and quiet, some distance from the madding crowd. But it does not require monastic withdrawal. Nor more than any other profession, writing is not going to be all there is to life. But it will be a well of misery if the writer hopes to pull up accomplishments.


Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer you to one of several entries that I posted two years ago, after finishing A Man in Love. Scroll down to the final section, the one with the bullet points. What I said then still seems to hold as a description of how Knausgaard creates an architecture capable of infusing his highly vernacular story with literary interest, and also how he makes reading My Struggle so comforting, even during the most harrowing scenes. I must, however, repeat the last line: What will it be like to re-read the damned thing?


Reprise, My Struggle, rock ‘n’ roll, casual misogyny — speaking of which, if I may interrupt, I noticed an ad for Emirates, the airline, that featured a young man snoozing in a first-class pod, looking great but unshaven. Well, more than unshaven. That stubble thing. Now, I have a pretty full beard myself, trim I hope but about two inches long at the chin. Stubble is not a beard. It is a signal that always reminds me of Tom Ford’s confession that I cultivated his stubble in order to look his age. Without the stubble, he looked twelve years old. But I see something different. The message is not “I am older than I look,” but “I am not a girl.” And the point is not to clear up confusion. The point is to make a gratuitous statement. It’s rather like that prayer with which some Jewish men are said to start the day, Thank God I am a man, or words to that effect.

Men adrift.

Thursday 19th

On a weekend in 1961, my sister spent her allowance on two 45 RPM records. I was disgusted by her choices, and had to be told to stop saying so. Thus came to an end my belief that being a white man entitled me to tell other people how to live.

I knew that there was pop music, of course. My father listened to it all the time, on WNEW. An announcer called William B Williams had a show, called “The Make-Believe Ballroom.” My problem with this show was that the music he played wasn’t any good for dancing, and by that I mean the kind of dancing that people did at a night club. I had never been to a night club, but I had worked my way through several years of dancing school, fox-trotting and waltzing and cha-cha-ing with girls in party dresses. (We would learn the Twist the following year — a silly dance, I thought, because you couldn’t hold the girl.) William B Williams played Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, now recognized as centerpieces of “the American Songbook,” but still, not really dance music. I preferred the bands that my parents had grown up with: Eddie Duchin and Tommy Dorsey. I had unearthed my mother’s 78s in the attic, and, amazingly, they were still playable, although with the undulations of a fun-house ride.

I knew about Elvis, yes. We had done silly imitations of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” in kindergarten. I thought it was revolting. From the very start, I longed to live on a planet where the phenomenon of Elvis Presley was unknown. I am still convinced that it would be a better planet. When I think of the late Duchess of Devonshire’s notorious passion for Elvis — she visited Graceland the way normal people visit Chatsworth — I conclude that Elvis must have served as a sort of plumbing purge, a clearing-out of clogged cloaca. Useful, perhaps, but nether.

But to have my sister bringing such swill into the house! It was as though she had succumbed to a white-slaving Orphic cult. I had always known that she was not artistic, but who but a degenerate could stand to listen to “Tell Laura I Love Her”?

Years later, I would decide that the other song that she bought that weekend, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was really rather sweet, if totally dumb. When I say “rather sweet,” I mean it. Only rather. You could get diabetes from Ray Peterson’s hit. At the time, though, I thought that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” set African culture in a bad light.


The next bad reaction was prompted by Bob Dylan. He was as revolting as Elvis, certainly, but mystifying, too, because he was so unmusical. I don’t mean that his voice was ghastly or that his tunes were jejune, although he and they were certainly those, but rather that he was so unpleasant. Rude. Listening to Bob Dylan was like offering a guest a glass of water and being told to piss off. As with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” I could not understand voluntarily subjecting oneself to the experience.

In 1968, I found myself in Houston, and Fossil Darling found himself in Austin. He came down a couple of weekends, but mostly I went up, driving my new Beetle along the endlessness of US 290 with the radio on. I would listen to whatever was playing. Steppenwolf. The Doors. Blood Sweat and Tears. Jose Feliciano. It was part of the penance of being in Texas.

Aside from one-hit-wonder Grace Slick, and the Mamas and the Papas (and, come to think of it, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66), women’s voices were rare in the more sophisticated pop that I was learning to tolerate. Someone had given me an early Joan Baez record, and I kind of liked it, but not much — not as I would love her collaboration with Peter Schickele, Joan. I knew of Judy Collins, too. Everybody knew “Both Sides Now.” But I kept the writer of that song, Joni Mitchell, at a distance. There was something off-limits about Joni Mitchell. It seemed to me that she was writing either for angry women or for men who were up to no good. As a fun person whose depressive tendencies were already well tended by Bach and Wagner, I had no room for Mitchell’s critiques. And, yes, I thought that she sounded shrill at the top of her voice. It would take Kathleen to change my mind. Or, rather, it would take Kathleen to make me a fan. I never disliked Joni Mitchell. She just wasn’t fréquentable.

There is no need to say that I loathed the sound of Janis Joplin, and was relieved when she died, because she was clearly not going to stop screaming otherwise. Soon after that, Ellen Willis announced that rock was dead, which was also a relief, and kind of funny, too, a sort of fuck you to the burgeoning Rolling Stone. What would it have to talk about now?

No, that’s right; almost forgot. I disliked the Rolling Stones, in pretty much the same way that I disliked cauliflower. I always loved the Beatles, but the Beatles had nothing to do with any of this.


Well, almost.

Reading the Times today, I felt an oddly coincidental synergy. Here I am, thinking about rock ‘n’ roll much more, this week, than I usually do, wondering why such music would put anyone in the mood for love, when the Times presents me with two pieces, in two different sections of the paper, about the semi-surreptitious homosexuality at the bottom of things! On the one hand, so what? So what if the managers of famous rock bands were gay? That’s the now hand. On the then hand, we have nothing but scandal and professional suicide. Would the Beatles have been welcomed by Ed Sullivan, in their cute suits and mop haircuts, if it had been known to the television audience that manager Brian Epstein was a lonely gay man? Not bloody likely. Might the macho of the Who have been deflated by the widespread outing of manager Kit Lambert? Epstein and Lambert didn’t just book gigs for their bands, they managed them. The musicians knew, but weren’t bothered by it. (I can hear Ray Soleil chirruping, “More for me!”) They welcomed the input. Arguably the evaporation of general hostility to gay men may have begun in the offstage warrens of rock venues. It used to be thought that gay men posed a security risk because of their vulnerability to blackmail. Rock bands appear to have provided a counter-conspiracy, a black hole in which blackmail wouldn’t work. When you recall the homophobia of the time, it seems remarkable.

That’s all in Jim Farber’s Styles Section piece, “The Gay Architects of Classic Rock.” Just to imagine the title appearing in, say, 1968 is stupefying. Joe Coscarelli and Sydney Ember have a somewhat lighter story to tell in the Styles Section. The gay aspect of this story is certainly not news; Jann Wenner came out a long time ago. Nevertheless, his plausibility as the editor of Rolling Stone would have been dented if not totaled by the revelation of his sexual preference when he launched his epochal magazine. The now and then are the same, so far as homosexuality goes. The now part of Jann Wenner’s story is that he’s really beginning to remind me of Donald Trump. He’s feuding, see, with the latest author to attempt a biography, Joe Hagan. Like the president, he wants attention, but only the right kind of attention. Seasoned pros will tell you that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the publisher and the chief executive share not sharing this view.


At the end of this period of my life — my first youth — my sister more than made up for “Tell Laura I Love Her” by discovering Laura Nyro and introducing me to “Flim-Flam Man.” I was impressed.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2017 (II)

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

10, 11 and 12 October

Tuesday 10th

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Kazuo Ishiguro, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Ishiguro is one of the most interesting writers of the past several decades, and everything that I’ve read (which is just about everything) has stuck in the mind. What makes the award especially delightful to me, however, will sound somewhat carping: it illustrates a hunch that I have about the Prize, which regards all the writers in the world as eligible, regardless of the language in which they write. Aside from books written in Swedish, the judges at the Swedish Academy necessarily read the finalists in translation, or in what for them is a second language. The entry at Wikipedia quotes Alfred Nobel’s specification: “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Ideal.

It reminds me of a friend’s experience during a year-abroad program in France. His French was really quite good, and I thought that it was a great compliment that natives would say of him, “Vous venez de nulle part.” You come from nowhere — ie, you don’t sound like an American. But that’s not what they meant, really. They meant that he didn’t really  have a French accent at all, because a French accent betrays origins in a part of France. My friend came from an uncanny valley that was — nowhere. Another word for his accent: ideal.

A moment’s reflection suggests to me that, when Nobel was endowing his prizes, the idea of an ideal literature was attractive. A universal literature — we would say global. The things about a book that were peculiar to the language in which it was written were like friction in classical physics: negligenda. At best they were unimportant; for the most parts they were faults, the features that make any language incomprehensible to outsiders. The Nobel Prize for Literature stands for the proposition that ideal literature is the most worthwhile literature.

I am not going to dilate on the shift in sophisticated attitudes on this point. They are best summarized by the statement that poetry dies in translation. Either you read Dante in Italian or you settle for a prose rendering. Same for Homer, Racine, or Goethe. I have a book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Nederlands. It is extremely faithful to the original, and quite a few passages sound as though someone very drunk were slurring his English. But one of my favorite lines, 95/9 —

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got

— misses, if not by a mile, then by a great many yards:

O welk een woning kregen die ondeugden

First, of course, a woning is just a house. “Mansion” is the most distinctive word in the poem, as certainly befits the beautiful young man whom the poet addresses.

Oh, what a mansion hast those vices got,
Which for their habitation chose out thee, [!]

It’s a brilliant, Shakespearean-sexy, image: the grand house occupied by wicked inmates. Second, at the end of the line, the almost guttural outburst, as if of contempt (but also keeping company with vices), is completely missing. I don’t mean to fault the translator, Albert Verwey; he’s done a great job. I keep the little book by my reading chair, alongside the originals in Penguin, for the purpose, all too rarely pursued, of keeping up my Dutch. But while it is conceivable that one or two of Verwey’s lines are better than Shakespeare’s, most of them are simply not the same. They can’t be.

The thing about Kazuo Ishiguro is that he writes his unforgettable books in a toneless, everyday English that has little to lose in translation. Am I saying that he writes poorly? No. The maxim about poetry’s death does not extend to fiction as a rule. Some great novelists are not particularly poetic: it is a matter of style. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy come to mind. Eliot and Hardy create intense moods, certainly, but those moods are shaped by language — masses of it — of a distinctively indicative nature. Trollope has a style that, being more pronounced (even if it is really a rather unstylish style), pales without its native ironies. As for the end of the range furthest from the noble Victorians, I can’t imagine Edward St Aubyn in any language but English, or Alan Hollinghurst, either. But Ishiguro’s fiction is announced not by a highly educated writer but by rather ordinary people. A great deal of his fiction’s power comes from the pity of watching ordinary people endure extraordinary trials — trials so extraordinary, in fact, that the narrators can’t quite fully grasp them.

Indeed, Ishiguro’s literary artistry may consist of nothing more (nothing less!) than a knack for avoiding the trap of first-person narration, into which almost everyone who tries it falls. Sooner or later, the narrator says something that is beyond his or her imaginative reach, and we see the writer’s hand at the puppet-strings. This doesn’t happen in Ishiguro’s work. Ordinary people generally fall into two speaking styles. One is relatively inarticulate. “I don’t know how to put it.” The other is given to something like cant. “We had the most marvelous time!” Both make for unreadable copy. The ability to describe an experience or to recount an episode in a voice that is both interesting and true is very rare. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, and Kathy, in Never Let Me Go, are astonishingly convincing. One is a vain and pompous old man, the other a passionately caring woman. It is tempting to say that they stay out of the way of their stories, but their stories emerge from their ingenuousness — in Stevens’s case, a failed disingenuousness. In Ishiguro’s most recent book, The Buried Giant, the story emanates from a consciousness that has been damaged somehow.

It’s not irrelevant to remember that Ishiguro is a writer whose first language, like that of Jhumpa Lahiri, is somewhat uncertain. Until he was five, he lived in his native Nagasaki, but then his family moved to England, and his schooling was entirely Anglophone. As Lahiri writes, in her Italian book, In Altre Parole, a language that is spoken only at home and never with other school children is not really “first.” In Ishiguro’s case, there is the further complication of his first career, as a rock musician. It is hard to think of a creative field in which English is more routinely blunted and compromised.

Kazuo Ishiguro, then, is an ideal writer for the Nobel Prize. If that statement smacks of mockery, it is not aimed at the writer. Not only does he deserve the Prize, he saves it.


The publication of Autumn, the first book of a new cycle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, reminded me to get a copy of Volume 5 of My Struggle, which has been out for a while. Subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, the book is divided into unequal parts. The shorter first part deals with Knausgaard’s undistinguished year at the Writing Academy in Bergen, to which he was admitted at the age of nineteen. (What were they thinking?) Only afterwards, in the fall of his first year of university proper (surely a case of carts before horses), does he wake up to what was he was so hysterically unaware of at the Academy:

There was also something panicked about my desire to acquire knowledge, in sudden terrible insights I saw that actually I didn’t know anything and that it was urgent, I didn’t have a second to lose. It was also impossible to adapt this urgency to the slowness that reading required. (272)

I have to work this into my writing project somehow: it’s as good a motto as I’ll ever find. Knowing nothing is simply the state of nature at the age of twenty, and the slowness that reading requires only intensifies over time.


Wednesday 11th

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s new memoir, At the Strangers’ Gate, I’m finding it hard to think straight. Gopnik and his wife, Martha, arrived in New York at the same time as Kathleen and I, and, what’s more, we lived across the street. Unbeknownst, of course. They got married, at the end of 1980, about ten months before we did. We still live across the street, but they left, for Soho and the Upper West Side, long ago. These little coincidences simply cast the many differences in a stronger light. Adam Gopnik rather quickly found himself and began his remarkable career at The New Yorker. I discovered the nature of my career only the other day, writing to a friend. (I am a Terminologist. A couple of hundred years ago, I’d have called myself a Moralist.) As a thinker, I think it fair to regard Gopnik as a hard-headed realist, nobody’s fool, but I’m feeling an edge of cynicism in the memoir that I’ve never sensed in his writing before.

As I wonder why that might be the case, I mull over the decision, to which I recommitted myself again and again when I was young, to resist the very idea of “going into journalism.” I was certainly afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, but this anxiety had little to do with my abilities. It was more a matter of feeling uncomfortable around journalists. My exposure was brief, an hour or less at the Blair Breeze, my prep school’s newspaper, and more frequent visits to the Scholastic, Notre Dame’s student magazine. For the Scholastic, I wrote a couple of theatre reviews one year, and I visited the office only to drop off my copy. I don’t know what I was doing at the Breeze. In both cases, I thought, I don’t want to be here. I was uncomfortable in the same way that I was uncomfortable in locker rooms. To me, there seems to be something horribly mindless in the hustle of men working together in a crisis (and what is the production of a newspaper or a magazine but a permanent crisis?) — purposeful, yes, but mindless, too, blithely unaware of something. I still don’t think of journalists as writers. Writers are people who spend most of their lives in solitude, writing. Ideally, I think, writers are neither seen nor heard. They’re just read.

Of course, what I do here is a sort of journalism, literally. I reflect daily on the state of things. But my thesis, my political position if you will, is that the state of things is widely misunderstood because people have little or no grasp of how it came to be, or, worse, have a very mistaken idea. Adam Gopnik throws around the term “capitalism” as if it explained the state of things, when what I think he means is “the advertising model of generating revenue.” But there is a little cocktail-party Marxism in there, too, as when he jokes that the point of shop talk is to focus attention on the talk and away from the shop. These observations of mine are a kind of anti-journalism, because they are explicitly historical. It is always history, and never journalism, to urge listeners to rectify the names.

I don’t actually have much to say about the state of things per se. Donald Trump is in the White House, a state of things so awful that to discuss it is to wallow in despair. The story of how he got there, however, is not only amazing but less accidental-seeming the better you know it. Things might have worked out differently, had people — and here I mean, specifically, liberal élites — not been burdened with misconceptions about their fellow Americans. I have seen little evidence of any effort to clear up these misconceptions. For example: Americans who are unhappy about Trump seem to believe that it explains something to point out that he lost the popular vote. But what does it explain beyond the obvious, which is that under our Constitution it is possible to lose the popular vote and win the election? It has happened several times in our history. Get over it! Another example, which I mean to look into one of these days, is élite obliviousness about the problem of “political correctness.”

But I digress.

I’ve always felt foolish about my unwillingness to “go into journalism,” because I don’t know much about it and have no real experience of it. So it’s a relief of sorts (as well as a blow of sorts) to hear what Adam Gopnik, who has had a lot of experience, has to say.

I sensed then an essential truth — or at least as essential as truths can be in the magazine game. Magazines are — or were, when they mattered more — essentially vehicles of fantasy, far more than even the most hardheaded ones can be of fact, or information of any kind. Every magazine in a sense only exists next month. They sell fables of aspiration, and get their power from being quietly attuned to a social class just beneath the social class they seem to represent. Playboys do not read Playboy, and voguish women do not obsess over Vogue, and twelve-year old, not seventeen-year-old, girls read Seventeen. Our magazine [GQ], ostensibly directed to an audience of upwardly mobile young executives, was read by high-school students. But had we addressed them directly we would have failed, as the Playboy of those days would have if it had taken off its smoking jacket and put on the baseball cap its readers actually wore. An elaborate artifice of shared fantasy had to be sustained in order to sell advertising pages, which was, of course, the aim of the enterprise. The final artifice was … next month. Everything we did, we did in order to sustain the illusion of next month’s issue. (104)

(Every magazine? What happens when you feed The New Yorker into this algorithm? Is the magazine really aimed, after all, at the little old lady in Dubuque?)


Thursday 12th

The dust jacket of Adam Gopnik’s At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York carries an alarming photograph. We see everything but the head of a man in a suit and tie, seated in a Breuer chair. Where his head ought to be — what is it? I thought of Jerry Uelsmann, the virtuoso of photomontage. Was the thing supposed to be a bug? A surrealist cloud? Only when I held the book up to strong light did I grasp that the picture is a wedding photo. If you want to see a companion shot that shows the handsome faces of both bride and groom, it can be seen via Google. Both photos were taken by Gopnik’s brother, Blake. You probably didn’t need me to tell you any of this.

Meanwhile, who knew — everybody but me? — that Jennifer Egan went out with Steve Jobs when she was an undergraduate? That explains a lot, I think, about the “prescient” aspects of Look at Me and A Visit from the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel, is at the top of the pile; whether I’ll wait to read it until I’ve finished with Knausgaard 5 I don’t know. On the way from England are the new St Aubyn and the new Hollinghurst. I’ve never had such a sense of rentrée.

Knausgaard writes something that helped me to get a little bit closer to why I am really, totally not a novelist.

The clock chimed twelve. Someone was up and in the hallway, a door was opened and closed, the toilet flushed. I liked being in other people’s homes so much, I thought, I always had, although what I saw there could seem unbearable to me, perhaps because I saw things I wasn’t intended to see. The personal life that was peculiar to them. The love, the helplessness that resided in that, which was usually hidden from others’ eyes. Oh, trifles, trivialities, a family’s habits, their exchanged glances. The vulnerability in this was so immense. Not for them, they lived inside it, and then there was no vulnerability, but when it was seen by someone who didn’t belong. When I saw it I felt like an intruder. I had no right to be there. At the same time I was filled with tenderness for them. (325)

I have never much liked being a guest in other people’s houses, no matter how comfortable the arrangements, for precisely this reason. I feel everything that Knausgaard reports, but without the tenderness, which seems to alleviate his sense of being an intruder. I don’t want to know what other people’s families are like. As I used to say, when people would ask me if I intended to explore my birth parentage, “one family was enough.” Also, I don’t want anyone to know how many times in the night I’m trying to open and close doors, flushing toilets. I’m happy to read about these things, and sometimes even curious. But I want it sorted out in prose, knowing that it will all be over before I turn the page.

My problem with Knausgaard is a ridiculous one. I happened to see a YouTube clip of his appearance on Charlie Rose’s show. All the photographs that I had seen of him before that showed a scowling, rather undernourished young man, a punk with a vocabulary. His hairdresser was clearly none other than Mother Nature, on one of her hurricane days. But sitting at Charlie Rose’s circular table, wearing a rather sporty light-colored jacket, about as far from leather as you could get, and possibly even a tie, but certainly a pressed dress shirt, with the hair on his head scrupulously barbered, he looked like my internist’s younger brother, assuming there is such a person. He was polite, slightly impish, and definitely out to please. The terrible thing is, this image comes to mind all the time when I’m reading the novel. It’s not at odds with his persona, really, but it makes him a rather unconvincing fan of the latest rock music. It’s impossible to regard him as the rebel he wants to be.

That is surely the secret of My Struggle. It’s not “my struggle to be a rebel,” but just the opposite: “my struggle to be a loving husband and father, not to mention a serious writer, given all the nonsense that masculinity is saddled with in this generation.”

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Beautiful Decorative
October 2017 (I)

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

3, 5 and 6 October

Tuesday 3rd

Two extracts from the same Op-Ed piece, “The Disastrous Decline of the European Center-Left,” by Sheri Berman. Don’t try too hard to make sense of them; merely observe that each refers to liberalism.

These new center-left politicians celebrated the market’s upsides but ignored its downsides. They differed from classical liberals and conservatives by supporting a social safety net to buffer markets’ worst effects, but they didn’t offer a fundamental critique of capitalism or any sense that market forces should be redirected to protect social needs.


But the decline of the center-left has larger implications. Most obviously, it has created a space for a populist right whose commitment to liberalism, and even democracy, is questionable.

In the first quote, Berman distinguishes New Labour from “classical liberals and conservatives,” who are grouped together for the purpose of making a point about safety nets, which in Berman’s view, apparently, are contrary to classical liberal policy. In the second quote, Berman regrets the populist right’s lack of a commitment “to liberalism, and even democracy,” the implication being that the commitment to these values of the center-left — this would presumably include New Labour —is robust.

I’m not sure that I would have caught this inconsistency if I hadn’t been struggling to pin liberalism down. Perhaps you don’t see the inconsistency even now that I’ve pointed it out. Perhaps it is not so much an inconsistency as a change in context. In the first quote, Berman is talking about economic liberalism; in the second, political liberalism. Are these two versions of the same thing, or two things, “twin births” as Domenico Losurdo has it (in Liberalism: A Counter-History). Which one is the “real” liberalism? Which kind of liberal are you? Am I?

It’s a serious problem. This persistent ambiguity contributes a great deal of confusion to political discourse, making “liberalism” everything and nothing, whatever an unreflecting speaker takes for granted. Unlike most words that have been misused so extensively that they must simply be avoided by careful writers (fulsome is my best example, as it means quite contradictory things to people who use it without being aware of this), “liberalism” can’t be done without. We need a convention to determine its proper application. Failing that, there’s me.

I had the image of a pair of horses in harness, pulling a carriage. The horses are definitely two different animals, and the smoothness of the ride depends on the health of each. This metaphor would construe political and economic liberalism as associated but different. But because political and economic liberalism came to dominate Anglophone life at the same time (in the Eighteenth Century), it’s easier to think of them as two aspects of the same thing, and I had another image. Political liberalism looks up, wary of the power of capricious monarchs. Political liberalism curtails the power of tyranny from above. Economic liberalism looks down and out, assessing the property that makes the liberal régime prosperous and also the vagrants who, owning no property and having no investment in the commonwealth, threaten tyranny from below. Political liberal concerns itself with constitutions and the rule of law. Economic liberalism protects individual property owners from interference of any kind, even from the well-meaning state. Essential to the liberal DNA is a preference for indirect solutions, for making the most of favorable winds, for counting on enlightened self-interest, for muddling through.

For a long time, liberals looked in both directions. Over time, though, humans invariably specialize, and inevitably liberals who looked mostly in one direction or the other saw different things. By the postwar period, dissonance between political and economic liberals on the subject of social welfare became so grating that the latter began to call themselves “neoliberals”: they sought to restore the outlook of the previous century. Political liberals, moving away from exclusivism, were determined to complete the project of endowing all members of society with equal access to and protection by constitutional law. While economic liberals wanted to continue to exclude (and even to punish) the vagrants, political liberals sought to improve them, out of existence as it were.

More recently, the gulf between liberals and neoliberals has stretched to encompass contrary attitudes toward the environment. Political liberals are aware that economic liberalism, to the extent that it failed to constrain predatory capitalism, has made a mess of the world, and endangered the Earth itself. Neoliberals appear to be in denial. Meanwhile, the fear of tyranny, so reasonable three hundred years ago, his become chimerical. In the absence of dictators on the one hand and hordes of unwashed “human garbage” on the other, the constitution itself has assumed the role of tyrant, or at any rate it has become the big gun that populists and elitists try to aim at one another.

And the meritocrats, brainchildren of the liberals but zombies without political consciousness, continue to pile up wealth in the coffers of the lucky. Nothing succeeds like success.

What does any of this have to do with what just happened in Las Vegas? Perhaps it’s an indication of how deeply-dyed my political liberalism is that I’m not jumping up and down calling for gun control. Do I believe that Americans have a right to possess automatic or semi-automatic weapons? No, I do not. But the weapons are out there, not least because we are a world-leader in arms manufacture. I don’t see in gun control the effective restraint that’s needed, and to me ineffective laws are a matter of great shame. What upsets me about these shootings is their reflection of an entertainment culture (comprising video games) that makes killing look exciting, even to people who have never held a weapon. The intensity of calls for gun control suggests to me a desire to look away from something far more troubling.

Rectify the names!


Thursday 5th

Venerable man of letters Robert Gottlieb was found slumming, over the weekend, in the candycane lanes of romance fiction. Why, he didn’t say. His omnibus review of recent titles ended, however, with a lengthy account of Danielle Steel’s The Duchess. I have never read one of these productions, but I’ve noted the dependability with which passages quoted from Steel’s books reveal a dislike of writing, a wilful rejection of all the wonderful things that words can do, matched only by Stephen King. What struck me as new in The Duchess was the ghost of a parody by Robert Benchley that, for sheer awfulness, made me laugh out loud. Note the chill of dreadfulness (or is it camp horror?) when Gottlieb’s prose yields to Steel’s.

It was a love match, despite a big disparity in age, and Marie-Isabelle loved Belgrave Castle as much as the duke himself did, “helping him to add beautiful decorative pieces to his existing heirlooms.”

Which is worse, “beautiful decorative pieces” or “existing heirlooms”? I have to vote for the latter. A duke with a castle — the Grosvenors really ought to bring a trademark-infringement suit against Steel and her publisher — has a collection of “heirlooms” (shades of Lizzie Eustace), and the best adjective that the author can come up with to describe its appeal is the utterly redundant “existing”? What a failure of the imagination!

But then it occurred to me that Steel’s readers are not looking for imagination. They already have plenty of their own, such as it is. What they’re looking for is armature, support for their own “existing” dreams. They don’t want Steel to call the furnishings that they long for “beautiful” or “decorative” when she can say that they’re both, even though these words are uninformative singly and together. “Pieces” is almost a Mad-Libs blank, only instead of calling for a noun or an adjective it specifies “dream item” beneath the line. Fainting couch? Butter churn? Louis XV lava lamp? Marie-Isabelle will love it!

This isn’t literature; this is sales. It isn’t about the experience of beauty; it’s about the ownership of beautiful decorative pieces. This is the language of QVC.

And The Duchess is probably cheaper than the stuff on TV.


On today’s Op-Ed page, Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Santa Barbara, suggested why gun advocates are so much more effective at political discourse than their gun-control opponents. Did you know that there are “more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonalds”? These are places to which people are drawn by their sense of who they are, not by a desire to debate the meaning of the Second Amendment. They do not come together in order to “take action.” (Not yet, anyway.)

My friends who support the N.R.A. did not join a club because of politics. They joined because they wanted somewhere to shoot their guns.

The problem for gun-control advocates is that what they want to do, or to have done, is entirely negative: they want guns to go away. They have no positive affiliation with each other. They believe that guns have little or no use in civil life. Gun owners, in contrast, are linked by a sense of vulnerability that, however meretricious a product of NRA propaganda, feels real to them, and my suspicion that it is altogether unreasonable to look to semi-automatic weapons for self-protection does not entitle me to disrespect their point of view. Such is my commitment to political liberalism. Also hampering gun-control activism is the liberal distaste for identity politics. Yes, you read that right. Whatever the Democratic Party says, liberals do not engage in identity politics. They promote something altogether different: respect for other people’s sense of identity. The conservative identity politics that makes people bond at the shooting range is, as Han says, “intimately tied to questions of race and identity.” Their own identity.

I do hope that the Route 91 massacre will seriously crimp the argument that guns make people safer. Guns wouldn’t have protected anyone from the attack.


Friday 6th

Last night, I downloaded the most recent Inspector Rutledge novel, No Shred of Evidence, onto my Kindle. I discovered Charles Todd’s detective mystery series in the summer of 2014. Proof of Guilt, the fifteenth entry, had just come out in paper, so I decided to give it a try. Completely hooked, I realized that I must read all the books, and in order, something that I appear to have done — if Amazon’s records are reliable — in little more than a month. Torn, after swallowing the fourteenth book, The Confession, about whether to re-read Proof of Guilt, so as to follow the thread faithfully, I set the whole business aside. It wasn’t until last month that I took it up again. Classically, the trigger was a reference to Todd in David Remnick’s long piece about Hillary Clinton. Todd was mentioned, along with Donna Leon and a writer who wasn’t familiar to me, Louise Penny, as Clinton’s favorite sleuthers. I was casting about for something to read on the Kindle at bedtime, and enough time had passed since the 2014 binge for several new titles to accumulate; so, presently, I found myself in the fen country around Ely, with a windmill creaking in impenetrable mist.

This morning, I clicked on a link to a Guardian story about tech innovators who have succumbed to alarming concerns about the noxious effects of the attention economy. Paul Lewis cites an astonishing factoid: “research shows” that “people” “touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.” When I read this sort of thing, I feel that I am peering into the future. Where I live, the phone is still, mostly, a phone. But of course where I live is in a seventy year-old body in a very quiet apartment where even the landline seldom rings and the Times is delivered to the front door every morning. Oh, and the television is almost never on — accent on never. The music is usually Schubert or Brahms, but it doesn’t play when I am reading.

In short, I am living in a Charles Todd novel, relatively speaking. The Inspector Rutledge mysteries are set in the wake of World War I. The first one takes place in June, 1919, and the next one in the following month. Then August, September, and so on. The Todds — it is hard for me to speak of “Charles Todd,” because the books are actually written by a man called Charles Todd and his mother, Caroline Todd (I note with relief that they live in different Eastern States) — have now reached the fall of 1920, but nothing has changed since the previous year.

The countryside is unspoiled, and the villages and small towns blend into the landscape. Nice people live in genuinely Georgian or Tudor houses situated on extensive acreage. Telephones and automobiles are rare, and enjoyed only by the very wealthy. Photographs are more common, but hardly the ubiquitous “images” of today. England is a redoubt of respectability, but the stylish sophistication that would climax on the eve of the next war is already in evidence. It is also confined to the élite. Most people are servants or agricultural workers. Education is unusual, and liberal education is the preserve of the gentleman, that apogee of British manhood. Needless to say, Ian Rutledge is a gentleman. If he is not so grand as Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Whimsey, he is still too grand to be an inspector at Scotland Yard. He comes from the professional gentry, and would not be out of place at a royal garden party.

Since these are mystery novels — richly-detailed rather than fast-paced — there is always something exciting going on, and Inspector Rutledge is easily as busy as anyone tapping a phone 2,617 times a day. But behind the action there is a quiet world, which I am pretty sure is the basic draw. The only thing that disturbs this world is the weather, which is often pretty bad. Indeed, the Todds take us back to a time when the weather really was the only thing to talk about. What we call distractions were known as attractions in those days; they were much harder to come by.

By the time I encountered the Internet, I was already immunized against media dazzle. I remember being horrified by the political blogs that, around fifteen years ago, were being updated every few minutes. I already understood that there is simply not that much news in the world — not real news. And I regarded advertising with something close to fear and loathing. What horrified me much more than those updates was catching myself smiling at the pretty picture of life presented in commercial announcements. It was also disturbing to note that people who managed to read through television shows always looked up when the ads came on. The advertising model of content packaging — instead of paying for access, you put up with the ads — obviously tended to dumb content down toward the lowest common denominator. Valuable content, regardless of how much advertising it carried, remained tremendously expensive. Subscribing to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of books runs $300 a year or more.

So, while Ian Rutledge leads a life that is rather more advanced that than of most of his countrymen, I lead one that lags behind. Although no cosplay is involved, even I catch the fragrance of nostalgia. When Kathleen gets home from work, the candles in the living room are lighted, and the Times awaits her on her favorite sofa — which belonged to her grandmother. After dinner, we often talk for longer than it took to eat, our companionship at the table undisturbed by devices. Then we read. If the phone rings in the evening, it’s an emergency (usually related to Kathleen’s practice). Every now and then, I take a peek at the Times online at bedtime — for example, to see how the Catalonians are doing — but as a rule, the world could come to an end and we wouldn’t know about it until we read the paper in the morning. It is not paradise, but it is closer to paradise than it is to dystopia.

Paul Lewis’s Guardian story, “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: the Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia” is frightening, to be sure, but I think I have the answer. But first, you have to turn off everything except what you’re reading right now.

Bon week-end à tous!