Archive for November, 2017

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (IV)

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

28 and 30 November; 1 December

Tuesday 28th

Last night, I started reading Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s account of the “life and times” of Jann Wenner, the creator of Rolling Stone. Icky Fingers would be more like it. The reviews warned me that I would take a deep dislike to Wenner; instead, I merely find him depressing. It’s not him so much as the world that allowed him to flourish. Like Donald Trump, Jann Wenner looks to me like an opportunistic disease: he doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the weakness in our body politic that he exploited. Even before the end of the first chapter, Hagan has handily presented the central puzzle of Wenner’s career: how did a celebrity-hound preppie become the pharaoh of youthquake excitement and unkempt disaffection? Bruce Springsteen is famous for, among other things, not returning Chris Christie’s fanboy phone calls, but one of Hagan’s photo pages shows him in a smiling lineup with Wenner and two other shorter, people (Bono and Mick Jagger). How to explain? Wenner is also shown at a benefit for Grand Central (then threatened with demolition) seated next to a rather glacial Jackie Kennedy; it might have been said at the time that the flow of cachet went both ways, that Wenner was a virtual fountain of youth for the noble widow: he made her cool. Now, of course, one just feels slightly sorry for her.

Why am I reading this book? I’d be very surprised if it could be shown that, during the years when it would have been conceivable for me to do so, I bought as many as ten issues of Rolling Stone; the number might be as low as three. Whatever I liked about popular music, it wasn’t what Greil Marcus had to say about it. The boys’-club misogyny of Rolling Stone’s editorial tone was as pungent as the stink of a locker room, redolent of bullying exaggeration and supersubtle theorizing. The magazine’s cheek was always a matter of puffing up adolescent noise with bogus significance, dandifying, where possible, the louche and the stubbly. In my opinion, its heartbreaking naïveté about the power of “popular culture,” more than any other single factor, engendered the careless disregard for social reality that deluded so many supporters of Hillary Clinton into imagining that their candidate could not possibly lose an election.

Joe Hagan, it must be said, writes with polished journalistic brio. A bit of bibliomancy turns up this jewel from Chapter 13: “The critical apparatus of Rolling Stone was in turmoil in 1975. Wenner’s writers didn’t like music anymore.” I ought to be ashamed of the smirk that Sticky Fingers has plastered on my lips. Meanwhile, there’s the tragedy of an educated generation resolutely taking desultory things seriously.


Can you tell? Does it show? Immediately before starting in on Sticky Fingers, I read “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” a lecture delivered by George Santayana to the Philosophical Union of the University of California in 1911. In the following year, Santayana left the United States forever, to die in Rome forty years later. I have never before managed to keep the figure of Santayana in focus. Now that I think I can, I see that his premature retirement from Harvard and withdrawal from the country of his education might explain my difficulty: we have reciprocated by withdrawing our attention and replacing it with mystification. Immediate evidence is presented by uncertainty about his name. I shall call him George Santayana, which is how he was known here and with which name his books, all written in English, were published. But he was born in Spain, in 1863, as Jorge. (I am mortified to discover that I have long confused him with Giorgio di Santillana, an Italian-American historian of science.) Although both parents were Spanish, Santayana’s mother had been married to a member of an eminent American banking clan, and it was to provide her children by the dead George Sturgis with an American education that she settled in Boston in 1869. Jorge and his father followed a few years later, but only the boy stayed on, becoming George. So Santayana was both an insider and an outsider. William James was one of his teachers, and, later, one of his friends: James’s death in 1910 may also have deprived Santayana of a reason for sticking around Cambridge.

Santayana had a knack for aphorisms. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is certainly the best known. I came across one in “The Genteel Tradition” that struck me just as forcibly. “To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.” Without putting it so well, I have understood the truth of this since my mind began working. Consolation from what? you ask. Earlier in the same paragraph, Santayana says,

Serious poetry, profound religion (Calvinism, for instance) are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself: but when a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them by that; and since human life, in its depths, cannot then express itself openly, imagination is driven for comfort into abstract arts, where human circumstances are lost sight of, and human problems dissolve in a purer medium. The pressure of care is thus relieved, without its quietus being found in intelligence.

Again, what unhappiness? How very American to ask; for it is still somewhat inappropriate to be unhappy in this country. Unhappiness is something to be fixed, by therapy or medication or self-improvement. But Santayana, the outsider who taught himself another people’s memories, knew that this country was founded by Calvinists who regarded the human state as a fallen one, and the human condition as essentially, inevitably, unhappy. But the wilderness to which the Puritans had retired proved to be a colossal mockery, for instead of the hardship that would have provided the appropriate external accompaniment to their pious self-denial — or, at any rate, after the hardship — it opened a cornucopia of worldly riches that, when combined with the robust success of the new revolutionary nation, made austerity seem perverse.

If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is. He is convinced that he has always been, and always will be, victorious and blameless.

There is almost too much here to unpack. The victorious blamelessness that floated Americans in 1911 would be deflated by war and depression, but it would erupt with a new vigor in the 1960s, in time for Jann Wenner to preside over the renewed conversation about American renewal — and to do what he could to suppress mutterings about unhappiness. Behind this recent history, though, there weighs on my mind a paradoxical observation to which I’ve been led by Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If you were to describe Jaynes’s theory to an educated American today, you might reasonably expect it to be received with grave doubts about claim that human consciousness did not exist until three thousand years ago, but there would be no denial that the development of consciousness, whenever it occurred, was a very good thing, the capstone, perhaps, of human distinctiveness. And yet this development appears to have been experienced as a nightmare, as precisely what our religions have called the Fall of Man. I am almost paralyzed with fascination, to think that it was a tree of knowledge that caused the trouble in Genesis — the force of Jaynes’s ideas makes me wonder if I ever understood what this meant before. It is, of course, the unhappiness that must, in Santayana’s view, be consoled.

At the end of “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana exhorted his audience, “Let us be content to live in the mind.” I don’t altogether know how to take this; I am certainly not inclined to follow Santayana’s abstention from worldliness. But it does seem clear to me that understanding what we know (and what we don’t) is the only sure foundation of contentment.


Thursday 30th

It has always dismayed me to hear that the great virtue of a liberal education is its uselessness. This sounds like an Oscar Wilde witticism gone completely flat. The only people who understand what it’s supposed to mean have themselves been liberally educated, while, to the rest of the world, the “uselessness” is what resounds. Why fund such a self-declared waste of time?

But it was only the other day that I was able to come up with an alternative. A glance over recent entries will disclose the background of my thinking, which was provoked by Julian Jaynes’s 1975 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I will not recapitulate Jaynes’s theories, interesting as they are. It’s enough to say that the problems of liberal education do not figure in them. Had Jaynes written the books that he proposed to write, he might very well have had something to say about “the humanities,” as the subjects of liberal education are generally known, but as he did not, I’ve been muddling along on my own.

Liberal education makes it possible for you to understand what you know. It is hard for me, really, to imagine anything more vitally useful, especially as we proceed into an environment that forces us to choose either painstaking stewardship or social annihilation.

For illustration of the way in which consciousness transforms knowledge into understanding, I am not going to pick out an example from my school days, or from the books on my shelves, or even from the Op-Ed page of the Times. I am going to recount an anecdote from personal history and then share the astonishing and “obvious” explanation that was ventured by a friend. I have already told the story here before. This time, I will add some comments about my failure to arrive at the explanation myself.

The event at the core of the anecdote occurred at the great Parisian restaurant, Taillevent. The concierge of our hotel had booked a table for us in the restaurant’s outer chamber; from the door of the inner room, which was not far away, we could hear the gentle din of the gratin. Across the way, at a table set for eight or ten, a reasonably polished middle-aged gentleman was seated beside a pretty young woman. They were in festive spirits, although the young woman seemed somewhat more obliging than effervescent. Because of the exotic setting, I declined to draw conclusions from the incongruity of the happy couple’s occupation of such a large table, but when an enormous turkey was rolled out, and two thin slices cut for each of two dinner plates, whereupon the turkey was rolled back into the kitchen, I had to ask our waiter if the gentleman was an American. I was assured that he was not. No, he was French, and I didn’t doubt that the stammering waiter could have told me his name.

I forgot to tell you: in the United States, that particular Thursday in November was Thanksgiving Day. I needn’t add that turkey was not on Taillevent’s menu that evening.

Of course, the waiter wouldn’t have told me the man’s name, and of course I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask anything. I let the curious incident settle into my memory undisturbed. I’m sure that I regaled friends with it many times, making much of the great silvery cart with the rolling dome top that housed the turkey, and the sneering dispatch with which it was wheeled across the floor, but it was only when I told it to my friend Ray Soleil, years later, that the curiousness was displaced by something else — Ray’s likely story. Ray explained that the gentleman was embarking on a mésalliance (if only because his amie was so much younger), and that he had challenged his disapproving family to meet her, or to acknowledge their engagement, at a grand dinner at the grand restaurant, where he was well-known enough to command a great roast bird that must have imposed some inconvenience on the kitchen. Owing to some transatlantic connection or other — his line of work, perhaps, or a grandmother’s origins — the dinner would also celebrate the American feast.

Being French, the man’s family decided to let him make a fool of himself — for everyone in the restaurant except for Kathleen and me, who would never have dreamt of such stunts, must have known exactly what Ray Soleil guessed — and they declined to appear. Kathleen and I might have been able to imagine such an episode, but we could not imagine it actually happening right in front of us. It would have been very upsetting. We should have felt disappointed, embarrassed, and even humiliated on the couple’s behalf, whether or not they were troubled by any of these things. It would have spoiled our lovely dinner — delicious pré-salé lamb from the Pyrenees for me. I know it. What we saw was certainly very interesting, but had we had any idea of an explanation such as Ray’s, it would have been much too interesting, certainly at such a short distance.

When we heard what Ray had to say, twenty years had passed, and we were sitting at our own dining table. I can vividly remember what a great fool I felt not to have seen what was so clear to our friend. Only now, meditating on the discomforts of consciousness, can I grasp the force with which I must have resisted understanding what was going on at that table for ten. Knowing — not understanding, but knowing, from what I could see with my own eyes — that something was wrong, I delicately swaddled my analytical powers and instead soaked up everything that seemed normal — normal for Taillevent, that is. I assumed that the theatrics of the turkey on the torpédo were not normal, and dismissed them as irrelevant to the Taillevent experience.

The purpose of a liberal education is to undo the many unconscious accommodations that we make for the interment of unpleasant possibilities. We learn that our kindness might really be condescension. We learn that our generosity might be controlling. Most of all, we learn how easily our arguments become tendentious, self-serving. At the very least liberal education raises our evasions — and this is what makes Freudian therapy so liberal, however unscientific — into consciousness. Only when our pack of just-so stories have been dispelled by interpretations whose truth and usefulness is revealed by the force with which they grip us do we understand the world around us.


Friday 1st

In yesterday’s entry, I set out to say something useful about liberal education, but wound up writing an entry in which the place of a liberal education was taken by my friend, Ray Soleil. Nor was there anything particularly academic about my illustrative example. Some readers might find that these displacements mitigated, perhaps even vitiated, the force of my argument. What has dinner at a fancy restaurant got to do with studying Aristotle and Hume?

I might observe that Ray himself is a liberally-educated man, trained in critical, skeptical thinking at a fine university. But why stretch a point? The truth is that Ray is a worldly man, gifted with sophisticated understanding of things. By “sophisticated,” I mean pretty much what Socrates didn’t like about the ability to defend both sides of a case, the inclination to see conflicting interests instead of right and wrong. That, I maintain, is the objective of liberal education. I believe that distinguishing right from wrong does not require much study; for that very reason, cases of right and wrong are rare. You could, of course, pick over the Thanksgiving turkey at Taillevent looking for rights and wrongs — was the patron wrong to arrange for the feast, was his family right to stay away? — but such judgments wouldn’t have much to do with how human beings actually get along in the world. We can leave the rights and wrongs to the parties involved, and savor the incident for its blend of curiosity and familiarity. We can wonder what happened next. Did the gentleman marry the young lady? Did the family patch up the quarrel? Was Ray’s explanation in fact correct? Perhaps the key element of a liberal education is its undying agnosticism, not about the existence of God in particular but about all of our attempts at understanding. Julian Jaynes’s way of putting it was to say that consciousness is never complete.


“You don’t get to do what I’ve done if you are an asshole.”

That’s Jann Wenner on his career. The remark appears late in Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, on page 486. By that point, I had come to the conclusion that you could do what Jann Wenner did only if you were an asshole. But I hate that word and don’t intend to parse it. It’s easy to pile up the negative personal qualities that Wenner has displayed all through his life, and Hagan serves generous portions. But the overall effect paints Wenner as a man who succeeded in spite of himself, and I don’t buy it. You don’t get to do what Wenner did if you are no more than an undisciplined hedonist. That’s what’s missing from Sticky Fingers, the “more” that enabled Wenner to parley his vices — his ruthlessness, his faithlessness, his craven pursuit of celebrity — into a run of five decades. If you want to know how flawed Wenner is as a human being, this is the book for you. If you want to know how he kept Rolling Stone afloat through good times and bad — how he connected with millions of more or less literate Americans in an enterprise that often seemed as Messianic as it was mercenary — you will wonder how Hagan managed to leave that part out.

It would be wrong, though, to imply that my disappointment is very great. I am not really curious about Wenner, Rolling Stone, or the definition of a cultural cohort with which I was never in sympathy. I still don’t know why I read the book, but I do know that I was drawn by the promise of substance that wafted from all the reviews. It was clear that Sticky Fingers was a good book about something. But what?

It’s about depravity, the depravity of adolescent anarchy extended into adulthood. The depravity of lavishing attention on rock bands and rare carpets while undermining it with mind-altering drugs, the depravity of declaring that the whole mess is not only important but of world-historical significance. The depravity of attempting to fashion a better society without any actual thinking. The depravity of distracting political and cultural élites from the problems of ordinary people, the utter depravity of dismissing the ordinary as boring. The depravity that Victorian painters loved to suggest in their murals of Rome’s lascivious decline (Hogan’s are equally alluring). That’s what Sticky Fingers is about. And here is how it ends:

Jann Wenner’s oldest and dearest friends — people who had worked for him in the 1960s and after — could not help but notice the likeness between Trump and the Jann Wenner they knew. The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to celebrity and power. … “High-functioning narcissists can be incredibly effective people.” (503)

It was a relief to read this, really, because I was beginning to worry that nobody had noticed. Just a few pages earlier, Hagan was describing Wenner’s reaction to the scandal of Rolling Stone’s libelous article about rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

Wenner took a degree of comfort in his libel insurance, but he swerved between denial and confrontation. One minute he blamed the source, the next the writer, the next Will Dana [the Rolling Stone editor who made the observation about high-functioning narcissists quoted above]. One minute he described himself as checked out of Rolling Stone, fading from relevance with his rock star buddies; the next he claimed he still controlled every aspect of the magazine down to the reader mail. “What a horrible thing to have happened,” he said, sucking his teeth, a thing he did when he was anxious. “The further it recedes on the horizon, the better I feel about it. Confronted with it on a day-to-day thing, it just makes me sick.” (495)

Isn’t that a shame!

Chalk it up to my being an indoors person, but its hard for me to worry more about the fallout from environmental degradation than I do about the consequences of moral vacuity. Trump and Wenner aren’t as unusual as they’re made out to be.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
November 2017 (III)

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Thursday 16th

Just the other day, a link from The Browser to Nautilus carried me away. Veronique Greenwood wrote a piece about a book from 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I could imagine what I would have thought of it when it was published (not much), but now I had to have it. Jaynes’s theory, which is that consciousness as we understand it did not exist until about three thousand years ago, makes a great deal of sense to me these days. The fact that the nature of consciousness remains somewhat mysterious even to thinkers like philosopher Daniel Dennett (who keeps “figuring it out”) and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio does not of course imply that consciousness is necessarily of recent origin, but its connections to language do. (I have long believed that true consciousness is an essentially verbal phenomenon. Perhaps it would be better to say that consciousness is shaped by verbal experience.) Jaynes hypothesizes that, before there was consciousness, there was the bicameral mind, in which the voice of gods called out from the right side of the brain to the left, human or self side. I am not going to begin to try to defend this theory, although I think that it’s probably correct.

Thanks to Amazon, a copy of the book arrived yesterday. It is fairly easy reading, at least for me, now. A great deal of it is familiar, not because I’ve read it elsewhere but because I’ve arrived at the same conclusions from experience. I’ll go into details some other time. I make the point about sailing through the book because what I’m really attending to is the marvelously peculiar prose. Here is the beginning of Chapter 2:

Thus having chiseled away some of the major misconceptions about consciousness, what then have we left? If consciousness is not all these things, if it is not so extensive as we think, not a copy of experience or the necessary focus of learning, judgment, or even thought, what is it? And as we stare into the dust and rubble of the last chapter, hoping Pygmalion-like to see consciousness newly step forth pure and pristine out of the detritus, let us ramble out and around the subject a little way as the dust settles, talking of other things.(46)

Let us speak of metaphor.

In the room, the women fairly come and go. In another passage, about thunderstorms, Jaynes writes of “bulgeous banks of burly air.” I just looked up “bulgeous” on the computer and, oh, dear, it is a word: it’s used to describe the fit of too-tight trousers at the male groin. The talk of metaphor is interesting, although I am not convinced that Jayne’s ideas are so different from those of I A Richards, who distinguished the tenor from the vehicle of metaphor, that we need new terms, metaphrand and metaphier. The important point, however, is that language is indeed largely metaphorical. We have a few words for simple things and functions — parts of the body, common objects, and basic actions — and from these we have elaborated clouds of nuance.

Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastnesses of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor which it is. Indeed, if we consider the changes in vocabulary that have occurred over the last few millennia, and project them several millennia hence, an interesting paradox arises. For if we ever achieve a language that has the power of expressing everything, then metaphor will no longer be possible. I would not say, in that case, my love is like a red, red rose, for love would have exploded into terms for its thousands of nuances, and applying the correct therm would leave the rose metaphorically dead. (51-2)

This is quite true. As I’m sure I’ve already written somewhere else, a lot of the power of ancient texts comes from the compression into single words of meanings that have long since split into words of their own. The “knowledge” that Adam and Eve digested along with the forbidden fruit is a fine example. A great deal of poetic force, if not actual poetry, owes to inarticulacy.


Consciousness is occasioned by stress. I’m not going to argue that right now, either. It’s my first law of consciousness, the second being the point about verbal origins. Consciousness is the attempt to answer questions presented by stressful situations. Many people respond to stressful situations without resorting to consciousness at all; possibly most people do. They just run, perhaps. Well, everybody runs. But the conscious person is someone who wants to analyse the problem, and no matter how richly supported by graphic aids, analysis is a communicable function. It is not a private, personal thing, but something that ought to be intelligible to any intelligent person. (The common belief that you can know what you mean even if you can’t put it into words is twaddle. You’re not talking about knowing, but about day-dreaming.) The close connection of stress and analysis means that most conscious people are critics.

The person who is neither reading, writing, listening nor talking is not conscious. Sentient, perhaps; aware, perhaps; but not conscious. Again, I think that this describes most people, most of the time. And it might explain why most people, and not just Hofstadter’s anti-intellectual Americans, dislike critics. It is not the specifics of the criticism so much as the persistence of stress. Why must the critic keep talking about a stressful situation that has been dealt with?

I often wonder about consciousness when I am listening to music, especially music that I know very well. To the extent that I am listening closely, and not following the thoughts that music can inspire, I don’t believe that I am conscious. That may be why I love music: it is a consciousness-blocker. Music somehow transfigures stress; it preserves our physical responses but eliminates agitation and fear. Even when music makes me want to dance, I remain contentedly passive. The great composers are in complete control of their complex structures: everything goes exactly where it ought to go. There is nothing for me to do but tag along, whistling.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
November 2017 (II)

Monday, November 6th, 2017

6, 8 and 9 November

Monday 6th

Last week, Kathleen attended a Bitcoin event in Florida. While there, she had a conversation with an Austrian economist, currently in the middle of a fellowship at Harvard, who was very enthusiastic about the book he was reading. After he said a few words about it, Kathleen said, “My husband would be very interested in that.” So she wrote down the particulars. Of course, the next time we talked, she didn’t have her notes handy, but she remembered the title — and I remembered where my copy of the book was. It was The Passions and the Interests, by Albert O Hirschman. I read it for the first time four years ago.

It was another one of those magic-seeming moments, when the book that I ought to read next simply presents itself. As I recalled Hirschman’s little essay in economic history, there was a line of argument, running roughly from Bacon to Hume, and flourishing in the thought of Baron de Montesquieu and Sir James Steuart, that distinguished interests, as predictable and benign (perhaps even constructive), from passions, which were violent and unruly, and that then proposed that interests could offset, or countervail, passions. The role that this line of thinking, however implicit, played in the development of liberal politics seems obvious, so I read The Passions and the Interests again.

Subtitled Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph, Hirschman’s book takes a line of Montesquieu for its epigram:

Et il est heureux pour les hommes d’être dans une situation où, pendant que leurs passions leur inspirent la pensée d’être méchants, ils ont pourtant intérêts de ne pas l’être.

It is fortunate for men that, while their passions incline them toward wickedness, it is in their interest not to be. (Esprit des Lois, Book XXI)

What I didn’t remember until I re-read the book was that Adam Smith not only abandoned but effaced this line of thinking, replacing Montesquieu’s idea of a marketplace controlled by checks and balances with one in which unfettered self-interest singlehandedly created prosperity. He saw interests and passions as synonymous, just as thinkers prior to Bacon had done. Montesquieu’s faith in le doux commerce — an idea that Marx and Engels openly mocked — was naive at best.

Central to Hirschman’s study is the role of change in time: old circumstances generate new conditions in which it is difficult to imagine or remember the old ones. The thinkers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century who contributed to the passions/interest argument were looking, energetically and almost desperately, for a means of restraining the destructive force of aristocratic “heroism.” The partial success of their search is attested by Romantic disaffection with the commercial peace that the Enlightenment brought about. The Gothic Revival began only minutes after thinkers like Montesquieu congratulated themselves on having gotten rid of all the old barbarisms that they denounced with the label “Gothic.” Hirschman puts it pungently: In sum, capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature. (132) He cautions that, while history never repeats itself exactly, ignorance of history may condemn thinkers to recur quite precisely to ideas that have demonstrably failed in the past.

Hirschman is also engaged with the notion of the intended, but unrealized consequences of social action. We are familiar with unintended, realized consequences because they are there to see. The abuse of Facebook is perhaps the leading instance at this moment in time of unintended consequences. Hirschman considers the unintended consequences of Calvin’s doctrines of predestination upon the growth of European commerce, but only to consider at the same time the intended but unrealized consequences of the passions/interest argument — a concurrent development. If capitalism did not turn out to be inherently stabilizing, Hirschman concludes, then it is in the general interest to forget it was ever expected to be.

[W]hat social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so? (131)

Setting aside Hirschman’s particular economic case, it seems to me that his conclusion applies with grim force to the liberal Civil Rights project of the Fifties and Sixties. This was supposed to unite all Americans in a common citizenship, but the patchwork of voting, schooling, and housing laws that constituted the actual program signally failed to achieve anything of the kind. As Hirschman says on the same page, “the illusory expectations that are associated with certain social decisions at the time of their adoption help keep their real future effects from view.” If you put these observations together, you pass through the looking-glass into a world in which social objectives, despite being set aside or forgotten, continue to mask their failure. For fifty years, the Democratic Party minimized its legislative commitment to equality for black Americans while pretending that equality had been achieved. The climax of this delusion was the election of Barack Obama as President. We now  know that this remarkable event precipitated right-wing movements throughout the country that were determined to demonstrate just how little progress had been made over time. And black Americans themselves felt obliged to remind us that their lives matter.


Wednesday 8th

In September, the New York Times Book Review published an essay by Douglas Brinkley on the topic of Larry McMurtry, a writer whose short journalism I have often enjoyed but whose books I have never read. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University, was inspired to re-read the three novels that constitute McMurtry’s “Houston” trilogy. In his judgment, they had held up well. What interested me was the idea of reading a novel with whose now-distant setting I was personally familiar. McMurtry wasn’t writing historical fiction, of course, any more than (aside from one or two exotics) Trollope was. But the Houston of 1960 was already being plowed under when I arrived at the end of the decade. I thought I would give the first one, Moving On, a try. It took a while to engage me; I was not immediately attracted to the picaresque road movie that takes up the first quarter of the book. But I liked the tone of it, and the heroine, Patsy Carpenter, appealed enormously: an intelligent girl — very much a girl, no matter that she’s married and sexually candid — trying to make a place for herself in the respectable world. When the action settled in Houston, where Patsy’s husband enrolls as a graduate student in literature at Rice, I found myself reading with the keenest attentiveness.

So keen was I that when Fleming Park was mentioned, I had to have a look at Google Maps, because I couldn’t remember just where it was. It’s between the Rice campus and the neighborhood where my first mother-in-law built a modernist house, on North Boulevard. Early in my marriage to her daughter, before the house was built, this quietly formidable woman made a deal with me. Money in some form or other would come my way if I would keep the grass mowed at the empty lot. She provided me with a gas-powered lawnmower for the purpose. I was young and inexperienced enough to accept the proposition. I did not yet know myself very well; I did not understand how non-existent, except as a source of annoying guilt, that empty lot would be in my imagination. I utterly failed to keep my part of the bargain. Not long after the house was built, my wife decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore, and she took refuge at her mother’s. Many years later, my daughter told me that new owners had demolished her grandmother’s house and built something more conventional for the neighborhood.

As long as I was “there,” I thought I’d have a look at my parent’s house, in Tanglewood, a tract that was developed in the Fifties. Tanglewood was developed rather like the Monopoly board, with the smaller houses at the south edge grading to ever-larger ones at toward the north. My parents’ house was at the rich end, on Sturbridge — just “Sturbridge,” no “road” or “drive” — and, encompassing 5500 square feet, it was not what the term “ranch house” calls to mind. Like all the homes at that end of Tanglewood, it was a low-slung building, with elements borrowed from both the English cottage — a leaded, diamond-paned bow window adorned the only stretch of the front wall that wasn’t hidden by bushes — and the Palm Beach villa.

For all its size and comfort, it always struck me as totally unimpressive. I don’t mean that it wasn’t ostentatious (although it wasn’t), only that it made no impression of any kind, except that of making no impression. A lot of brick and window and shrubbery went into the effort of being unmemorable. It wasn’t ugly, but it was, somehow, not architecture. It would take me decades to admit what the choice of this house had to tell me about my parents, because, at the time, the only message that got through was that they had no taste, and that wasn’t true. If I never looked at the house without a feeling of disappointment, that was because I didn’t know how to look at it. Now I know that, to my parents, both raised in the Midwest, the house on Sturbridge was a great relief from the pretensions of the Northeast to which they had been transplanted as young people.

When Google Maps’ street view function was introduced, I “passed” in front of the house a few times. The last time I looked, a few years ago, someone had had the very bad idea of imposing a mad portico upon the front door. I can’t remember its details, but the effect was Las Vegas. It made the façade memorable in the worst sort of way. The other night, wondering about the latest status of this mistake, I dragged the map across the screen until Tanglewood and then Sturbridge came into view. There I had a shock. There could be no doubt about it. Our house had been removed, demolished, undone. The pool and the patio were gone, too. Aside from a strip of driveway, and the crowns of some very mature trees, there was nothing but grass.

The curious part of my brain quickly learned that a number of other houses close to the now-vacant lot were not the ones that I remembered. Immediately to the west, somebody had put up a broad center-hall Colonial, with white clapboard and black shutters. It looked not terribly unlike the house that we had left behind in Bronxville, where it belonged. Much less agreeable was the house now across the street, a Southwestern confection of stucco and red tiles, with an appalling motel-like porte-cochère jutting out from the front. Already, during my last years in Houston, people were talking about “tear-downs,” perfectly nice houses that were razed to make way for bigger and better ones. My parents’ house was over sixty years old. My father had had to rewire it and replace the air-conditioning, staggering expenses. Perhaps the slab cracked. (If you don’t know what that would mean, you don’t know how lucky you are.) Things get old, and nothing is forever.

In some other part of my brain, all I was aware of was annihilation. I had not set foot inside the house since 1978, but the place where I had set my foot no longer existed to step into. A major setting of the most interesting decade of my life (in the sense of the Chinese curse) had been wiped off the surface of the earth; now it existed only in the minds of a handful of people. In fact, of course, my parents’ house had ceased to exist, except as a shell, the moment the new owners moved in, nearly forty years ago. It had been another house, for other people, for a very long time. But for most of that time, it had looked the same, which made it easy to pretend that it was still the same inside as well. I had taken the monstrous alteration to the entrance as a great insult, but utter erasure was almost impossible to comprehend.

Once upon a time, I should have had to journey back to Houston to make this discovery. The return itself would have done much to prepare me for the enormity. I haven’t been to Houston since 1991, and a great many things have changed, even if, as I suspect, it is still the town that it was when it became the fourth-largest city in the United States. A friend, if I still had friends in Houston, might have told me that the house had been torn down. But I came upon it all unsuspecting, snooping through Google Maps. I believe that it was the sheer ease of finding out that the house was gone that made its disappearance so overwhelming.

When I went back to have a second look, I noted that the street view is dated October 2015; perhaps there is a new house there now, yet to appear on the satellite photo. If you’re in the area, have a look, and drop me a line. Be sure to take a picture!


Thursday 9th

“The Paradise Papers” — how oddly appropriate this nickname is. Is it supposed to refer to Bermuda, where a law firm called Appleby and numerous corporate-services providers have been busy planting money in tax-free plots? Although quite pleasant for parts of the year, Bermuda is too hot in summer and too chilly in winter to pass for heaven. What I take the name to signify is the unrealistic fantasy of legal tax evasion. Call it a tragedy of the uncommons: when too many players park too much wealth in hidden accounts, laws will be changed.

Inevitably, the early reports were studded with boldfaced names, from Madonna to Her Majesty. But focusing on individuals is a mistake, as is worrying about getting caught. If you don’t stand so close to the problem, if you step back and see it from the ordinary person’s perspective, the Paradise Papers project a blurry galaxy of élite entitlement. Not only do élites have all the money, but they write laws that allow them to keep all the money, too. The ordinary person is a chump who’s supposed to pay taxes. The élites have created a paradise in which taxes are not imposed. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve done.

A duty-free paradise: the French aristocracy thought it lived in one, too, before the Revolution. The nobility was exempted from taxation because it provided the national defense. That was the theory, but by 1789 it had long since ceased to correspond to reality. What is expected of the American élite? What are the rewards? Liberal democracies do not recognize élites as a social or political class, and this may be a mistake, a bit of constitutional naïveté. In the absence of official status and explicit responsibilities, élites exercise their power in the shadows cast by groves of dense legislation. No wonder Donald Trump’s supporters want to chop things down.


I have been thinking about business. I’m beginning to gather some notes. It’s hard not to sound as if I were plotting out a treatise.

What is business? It’s a way of making money that can be entered into without professional training.

There seem to be three kinds of business. First, there is commerce. Trading. For a long time, this was the only kind of business, because the second, manufacturing, was not extensive enough to be differentiated from it, and because the third, extraction and development, was captured by property owners, quite often royalties. Anyway, there they are.

Commerce has experienced well-publicized vicissitudes in what we call the Information Age, particularly in the area of retail sales. It is not clear how this turbulence will settle. Whatever happens, commerce will remain the most vibrant, socially important kind of business. I include banking and transportation under this heading, and I find it useful to call commercial business organizations firms.

Extraction and development involve altering the surface and accessible contents of the planet. Although people have been building towns for millennia, and nabobs have undertaken many monumental works, development as we understand dates back to the Seventeenth Century, when property owners began sponsoring coherent building projects. The Place Vendôme in Paris is a fine example. The duc de Vendôme divided a piece of land into a central square and surrounding lots. The lots were leased to prospective builders, who were bound to erect their structures behind uniform façades; the structures themselves were not uniform. London’s Belgravia is an enlargement of the idea; the second Earl Grosvenor hired an architect and a builder (Thomas Cubitt) to produce dozens of nearly identical residences on the grounds of what had been a family estate. These happy examples of development are sadly atypical, as is New York’s Rockefeller Center.

As for extraction, it usually takes the form of mining, although forestry and large-scale, monocultural agriculture belong under the heading. As currently practiced, extraction and development usually cause environmental degradation.

Manufacturing detached itself from commerce when, around the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, it became possible to produce massive quantities of cotton cloth with mechanical looms and other devices. It must always be borne in mind that the machines did the work. Human beings were employed to tend to the machines, not to perform the machines’ labor. Although hundreds, then thousands, and even millions of people were hired to service factories, it was almost never correct to call them workers, common usage notwithstanding. The history of mass manufacturing has ever since been a matter of creating machines that required ever fewer human attendants. We speak today of robots as if there were some essential difference between the prehensile instruments found on today’s assembly lines and the spinning jenny. There isn’t: they share the essential similarity of not being human. For several decades now, the millions of factory “workers” have been giving way to thousands; upper limits of hundreds and even dozens are within view. One objective of capitalist manufacturing has always been to finance the means of reducing the number of human employees required for any operation.

What extraction and manufacturing have in common is that, between danger and tedium, they degrade the humanity of many, and possibly most, employees. Much as policy-makers regret the “loss of jobs,” it is difficult to regard mining, for example, as a desirable occupation for anyone. Indeed, it is to be pitied that extraction has not gone the way of manufacturing.

Three hundred years ago, of course, almost everyone on earth was engaged in some kind of farming. The activity of the peasant could not be distinguished from the peasant himself; one can only call it “subsistence.” Only at the smallest upper margins was it a way to make money. Farming today is either extractive or commercial (as, for example, the rooftop kitchen gardens in Brooklyn and Queens), but in either case it involves the application of “business” techniques to an area formerly devoid of them. There will be no large-scale going back to the land.

No, our only hope is to create more commercial jobs. One way is to introduce an inexpensive degree of inefficiency. Imagine, for example, that Amazon were to become a wholesaler, selling books only to tradesmen. The prices of books would rise slightly, and the convenience of delivery might decline (although in some cases it might just as easily improve); there would be many more jobs for the kind of people who have always worked in bookshops, and yet book prices would not rise very much. Similarly, Wall-Mart might stock all sorts of shops of various kinds, instead of operating its own mammoth ones. Everybody interested in this issue ought to take a look at Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

It should also be borne in mind that artisanal manufacture is a kind of commerce.

Bon week-end à tous!