Archive for December, 2017

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (III) Draft

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

26 and 30 December 26

Tuesday 26

Merry Christmas! I may be a little late saying that here, but that’s because I was making sure that we would have one on time, which we did. I don’t know when I was last so active, day after day. There was very little time for reading, and none at all for thinking or writing. I’m still a bit blank.

But the rush is over. We’ve had all the dinners. We’ve been to Messiah at Carnegie Hall. We even took in Harry Clarke, David Cale’s brilliant dramatic monologue, brilliantly performed by Billy Crudup, down at the Vineyard Theatre. Harry Clarke ends with a terrific pair of one-liners, delivered in two of the protagonist’s three voices, and I wish I could quote them exactly. The show is about a gay man from South Bend, called Philip Brugglestein, who assumes a North London accent when he makes his way to New York City. Harry Clarke is a Cockney alter ego into whom Philip slips when under pressure. Whereas Philip is prim and hesitant, Harry swaggers like Michael Caine or Jason Statham. The transitions between personae are usually surprising and always entertaining, but the comedy of shifting identity becomes quite dark as the evidence of psychosis piles up. Mr Crudup sizzled with smiling danger. I hope never to meet anyone like the man whom he was impersonating.

At Carnegie Hall, Kent Tritle led Musica Sacra in his austerely beautiful interpretation of Handel’s Messiah. It was at least the third time that we’ve made a point of decking out our holiday with this event, and I am finally persuaded that a smaller Messiah is not necessarily a lesser one. Stripped of posthumous ornamentation by Mozart or anyone else, the oratorio emerges as an urgent vocal meditation. The light string band — a dozen violins, three violas, and a bass consisting of cello, doublebass and bassoon, with sparingly-used pairs of oboes and trumpets (and drums at the very end) — provides the solos with unobtrusively defining harmonies and then almost disappears into a wash during the choruses. The chorus of thirty produced the sound of sixty with complete precision. Once again, Kathryn Lewek sang the soprano airs with beauty, accuracy and grace to match the chorus. It’s gratifying to see her name in the program and to think, I know that this evening’s soprano is going to hit all the high notes with impassioned charm.

Most nights, during the week, I knocked off Michael Prestwich’s Edward I. I found myself wishing for a more overtly economic analysis of Edward’s catastrophic money troubles. (The catastrophe eventually befell his son, Edward II.) Edward was not a spendthrift, but he was often at war, almost uninterruptedly so from 1294 to his death in 1307. Military operations appear to have become considerably more expensive during his reign, which began in 1272. Some of the increase was attributable to the final stages of a shift from feudal dues to money salaries, but armies also became larger, and their arms and armaments more powerful. There was no English precedent for the great and very expensive castles that Edward built in North Wales; the last of them, Beaumaris, was never finished. In the background of Prestwich’s biography, royal bureaucracy and the judiciary seem to become more institutional and professional, and commerce, especially the wool trade, grows more prosperous. And of course Parliament begins to assume a representative complexion. But for all the adumbration of modern government, Edward’s England is unquestionably medieval in character. The king was well-liked by his people, but his incessant exactions were understandably unwelcome; most of all, they suggest a misconception of needs and resources. The overall sense is one of backing into the future.


Saturday 30th

Not long after I began noticing them in The New Yorker, I learned not to read Alice Munro’s short stories. I found them terribly bleak. Everything about them was plain, or worse. The people were dull and discontent. They lived in drafty old farmhouses or airless suburban cottages. Love was apparently the subject, but I could not conceive of love, especially in its joyous aspect (which meant more to me than any other), amidst such repressive circumstances. The stories were set, for the most part, in rural Ontario, a territory that I had no desire to imagine, much less visit. My time in South Bend and Houston had replaced my childhood ignorance of country life with adult aversion; it seemed inhuman to me to persist in inhabiting such places. It still does.

But I have learned better about Alice Munro. I have been reading her collections since the beginning of this winter, and my delight is teaching me even more. Yesterday, while I was anxiously wondering when I would ever hear from Kathleen — she was flying home from a visit to her father in North Carolina — something clicked. I was in the middle of “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” (collected in The Progress of Love) when I grasped something about Munro’s fictional background. Just as Leonardo’s figures hover in misty, rocky landscapes, and Gainsborough’s take their ease in green parks, Munro’s characters slog past and away from confusion about the past. It is the same in story after story, and the cause of my old discomfort with her work. It is the illusion of an old world that is slipping into oblivion, a vanishing way of life that cannot, especially for heroines, vanish fast enough. It is an illusion because that old world is actually dying very young. It did not exist a century earlier; fifty years before that, even the people weren’t around.

The moment that illuminated this for me yesterday is almost too densely buried in the context of Munro’s story to extract without belaboring it; I hope that it’s enough to say that it involves the termination of passenger railroad service to the town in which the story takes place, about ten or fifteen years earlier. The most important consequence of this development for the brothers at the center of the story is the loss of their father. A conductor on the passenger trains — does this term, “conductor,” mean anything to younger readers? — the father was transferred to another town, from which he could visit his family by bus, which however he disliked doing. He couldn’t drive, either, and so his visits home ceased, and he died before retiring, so his widow is free to speculate that he might have returned to her eventually.

So the train is gone with the wind, and, with it, the network that bound every town of decent size to the nation at large. From now on, country people would have to spin their own webs, as their personal resources allowed. Some would have cars. Eventually, everyone would have a car, but most of Munro’s protagonists can remember not being able to afford one. Her most characteristic narrator is a woman who grew up on a farm before World War II. Sometimes, the farm might be close to enough to town to walk to, but an aspect of the illusion of Munro’s background is that Ontario is so vast that family members are prevented by distance alone from coming together for decades at a time. A cousin pays a rare visit — once — and the chore of putting up new wallpaper in the visitor’s bedroom is what really lodges in the memory. The reader may begin to imagine that the railroads, however empowering and impressive when they were built, came to be regarded as the enablers of intrusion and desertion. There is something about Munro’s towns that can’t grow, or can’t outgrow the frontier provisionality that has long since gone stale. All the boldness required for settling the province seems to have been exhausted in the opening moves; the settlers’ children exhibit the same grim tenacity that would have kept their forebears in the old country. And now, in the present moment of Munro’s fiction, nobody can remember how or why they came to be there.

At the heart of the illusion is a kind of timelessness: the farmers whose daughters long to go to university in Toronto are scions of families that never left Scotland or Ireland or Norway. For Munro’s older Ontarians, this illusion is a delusion, a response to the shock of transatlantic relocation. For several decades in the Nineteenth Century — European peasants were given an amazing new option, a grab at freedom and prosperity in North America. Steamships and railways carried them far into the new land. Then, just as quickly, the steamships and railways themselves became obsolete, replaced by cars and planes, modes of transportation that erase the middle distance. Exciting novelties became outdated clichés — in the space of a generation. The former peasants had to learn that freedom and prosperity would mean something very different to their children, especially to their daughters. The farmers would be betrayed by their dreams. But their children, Munro’s characters, would be mesmerized by the illusion of throwing off the yoke of centuries of servitude.

I am aware that the foregoing is riddled with contradictions; Munro’s ability to blend them plausibly is what gives her stories such atmospheric power. It is this atmosphere that her characters seem to be fighting the hardest. There is the desire of the settlers’ grandchildren to believe that their people have always lived in Ontario, as if since the expulsion from Eden; at the same time, these grandchildren are oppressed by the peasants’ conservatism and limited horizons that survived the transplantation intact — that, indeed, may have been intensified by it. The prospect of upward mobility is shadowed by the possibility of total loss. Tradition, as always, is both reassuring and restrictive. And the ongoing social and technological changes that were unleashed by the revolutions that closed the Eighteenth Century pile up ever higher behind the up-to-date instant, belying their actual age, their altogether recent vintage.

How can our understanding possibly keep up?

Bon week-end à tous! Happy 2018!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (II)

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

12, 14 and 15 December

Tuesday 12th

Maddeningly, the entry is undated. But within the past couple of weeks, The Browser published a link to a presumably recent interview at Five Books in which Jane Jelley was interviewed about Vermeer. The point of Five Books, a British site, appears to be to get the author of a recent book to recommend five “best” books on the subject, whatever it is, and to make it very easy to buy all six — the five recommendations plus the author’s own work — with “Buy” buttons that take you straight to Amazon. Despite the shilling (I’d be much happier if they replaced “Buy” with”Browse”), I like Five Books almost enough to visit it regularly; if I don’t, it’s because I don’t need inducements to be buying books. In this case, I bought Jelley’s, Tracings of Vermeer.

Jane Jelley is a painter who lives at Oxford. The flap doesn’t say what she does there, but it is clear from the book that she is a student (and possibly a master) of historical art skills. To put it briefly, she knows how to simulate the practices of a seventeenth-century Nederlander painter. She knows about linens and “sizes” (a glue), pigments and oils, pigs’ bladders and brushes, and she has the patience to wait for pre-modern paint to dry. (Three months, in the case of a newly-primed canvas.) Perhaps from years of casually reading Elizabeth David, Jelley knows how to write about all of this with a charm that paradoxically conveys immense tedium in appealing prose, and it is for her writing, more than for what she has to say about Vermeer, that she is to be most highly commended. Not that she hasn’t convinced me that she’s right about how Vermeer worked. On the contrary: it’s very much because she isn’t out to convince anybody.

The controversy is, of course, about Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura. Whether or not Vermeer made use of this device has been argued, apparently, since 1891, when American print-maker Joseph Pennell claimed that he must have done. From the start, this claim was refuted by critics who clearly regarded such use as a kind of cheating. It’s a profoundly nineteenth-century argument, loaded with disdain for “mechanical aids” and addled by contempt for the modern camera, which shares with the camera obscura nothing more than a lens. The actual camera obscura is no more and no less of a mechanical aid than a palette, and, as Jelley makes drolly clear, it would not have afforded Vermeer any shortcuts on the road to transcendence.

The camera obscura projects a doubly reversed image onto a dark surface. Upside-down and backwards, this image would be an extraordinarily unwieldy template for masterpieces. Nor is it really conceivable that a painter could apply colors in a dark room. It may well be that Vermeer’s paintings betray a focal point more rigorously fixed than that of an artist surveying the scene from behind an easel, but the idea that the artist simply traced the image thrown up on a wall by light passing through a peephole is childish. He could not have done any such thing.

Jane Jelley has effectively reoriented the discussion by looking not at the surface that we call can see but that the bottom-most layer of paint, what we might call the background but the technical name for which is “invention.” Vermeer’s inventions are revealed by x-rays to be unlike everyone else’s. There are no outlines, no rays of perspective — nothing linear at all. There is only an array of masses, dark against the light primer. The examples that Jelley provides look like very high-contrast reductions of the finished pictures. The composition is presented not in terms of lines but of light and dark. Jelley wanted to know how Vermeer did this. For an artist to see the kind of arrangements shown in Vermeer’s inventions with his naked eye struck her as implausible. But what if he traced the dark parts of a camera obscura image onto oiled (transparent) paper, using black paint, working very quickly, and transferring the traced image simply by printing it — she writes of pressing the back of the paper with a wooden spoon — onto freshly-pumiced, highly-absorbent canvas? What if Vermeer then continued to build up further layers of paint in the conventional way, out in the open with his model?

For the viewer, the question would be why Vermeer would do this. What difference could it make to me? There is something primordial about my own answer. The world is a dark place, pricked with points of light. An atmosphere of some kind of vapor is required to diffuse light in such a way that, say, a room facing north could be illuminated by sunlight shining from an invisible source. That atmospheric diffusion, precious at northern latitudes afflicted by heavy clouds of rain, is Vermeer’s principal resource. It is what he paints onto the dark. It is what penetrates his rooms, fading inevitably into shadows — shadows that are there from the start: figuratively, before the sun comes up; actually, in the masses of his invention. Every picture captures a moment’s exposure to light, to the light falling on the many different surfaces in a room. It holds together with such breathtaking force because the shadows have also been captured altogether in one moment. In this regard, yes, Vermeer “took pictures” just as we do, capturing the instant in an image. But this image was the rough preliminary of the painting that we esteem. To suggest that using a camera obscura is some kind of low, dishonest trick is no different from making the same charge about his grinding lapis lazuli into ultramarine.

As Jelley’s entertaining walk-through of her experiment with the camera obscura makes very clear, an enormous amount of trial-and-error would have been required, by Vermeer or whoever taught him (Carel Fabritius, I strongly suspect), to produce workable tracings from the projected image. Oiling the paper, choosing a brush, finding a paint that would be transferable without running, these were all problems without self-evident solutions. (In the case of the oiled paper, she found the answer in a treatise from 1390.) Capturing the instant was anything but the work of an instant.

Not quite three dozen paintings by Vermeer survive. There no drawings, sketches, watercolors, or anything else. There are not many men in the paintings, and only two mature works that look out of doors. By my quick count, at least eighteen appear to depict the northeast corners of domestic interiors, and women appear in all but two, the pair known as The Geographer and The Astronomer (almost certainly the same model). In six paintings, women are shown wearing what looks like the same yellow satin jacket, trimmed in ermine. (All were painted within six years.) It was anything but unusual for Vermeer’s contemporaries to concentrate on specialties; the concept of branding was familiar in the arts. What was peculiar to Vermeer, however, may have been too subtle to be widely appreciated at the time. It is a unity of light that bathes an arrangement of surfaces that emerge with an appreciable indistinctness from the natural dark of shadow. Vermeer’s is a world of soft-edged intelligibility, in which nothing is altogether settled. Many of his pictures capture a privacy that our looking does not violate. Jane Jelley’s Traces of Vermeer persuades me that these illusions are all based on a foundation of shadow made solid. Now I think I know why it is that I can stare at one of his walls so expectantly, as if it were about to disclose another picture altogether: the dark of night lies directly beneath it.


Thursday 14th

As usual, I didn’t read the short story in last week’s New Yorker — until just now, having read about it in the Times. That was unusual; until very recently, it has always seemed to me that the magazine and the newspaper published in strictly separate worlds, each taking no notice of the other’s contents. But here in today’s Styles section was a piece about “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, an attractive woman (sorry!) in her mid-thirties who studied for the foreign service but turned to her first love when that didn’t work out. The story is about a twenty-year old sophomore who meets an older man — late twenties at least, she thinks — at a concession stand and gives him her phone number. A flirtation conducted in text messages ensues. I hope that readers learn from Roupenian’s mighty sorrowful story what a bad idea it is to try to size up a pen pal as a potential lover.

Robert, the man in the story, is thirty-four, and he lives alone in a house with little furniture. It seems to me that these are two of the many things that Margot ought to know about Robert long before she follows him into his bedroom. But Margot is only twenty. Worse, she is a very smart twenty, a very imaginative, empathetic twenty. She doesn’t need to know Robert; she can make him up. It’s enough that he makes her laugh. But does he? It’s the exchange of texts that makes her laugh, or smile, anyway, and that invites her to indulge in romantic speculations about him. The problem with these speculations is not so much that they are wrong as that they constitute an investment. You could call it a bet, but that just makes it out to be less serious than it is.

The preliminary, fun part of Margot’s relationship with Robert comes to an end with her return from a semester break, by which point she has been in the same place with him on a total of three occasions that could be timed in minutes.

When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie, she agreed right away.

The bulk of the story is an account of the date that follows. Nothing terrible enough for the tabloids happens, but the evening is, to put it mildly, deflating and demoralizing for Margot, leaving her with the sore conviction that she doesn’t want to see Robert again. It’s not that he’s a bit pudgy and slope-shouldered; Margot has dealt with these drawbacks before he takes his clothes off. It’s that Robert’s sex life has been pornographized. In the middle of things, he slaps her thighs and cries, “You like that!” He would probably never thought of such a gesture on his own. At their third meeting, in a convenience store, Robert made Margot feel like a very special doll; now he makes her feel like a rubber doll.

Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her.

“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful and hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say” —

but you’ll have to read it for yourself. I wouldn’t dream of upstaging Roupenian’s magnificent writing.

In the Times interview, Jonah Engel Bromwich’s last question begins with a statement: “The story’s last exchange gives the clearest view of who Robert is.” Well, Bromwich said it, Roupenian didn’t. I’d like to know if she agrees. The “last exchange” is ugly but familiar. Just as Robert seemed to be following a script in bed, so he seems to be acting the troll in his text. How else do you sign off on these devices? How else do you say “Good bye the hell to you, too!“? Of course it’s better not to say anything, but it’s better not to do most of the things that Margot and Robert do in this story. Robert is sadly unattractive in a way that now seems indicative of a cultural pathology; I feel an urge to help him out just for the sake of the body politic.

Roupenian tells Bromwich:

[Margot] thinks she can see inside Robert; she believes she knows more about him than she does, and that keeps the date catapulting forward when it might otherwise have come to an end. The people I know who tend to be drawn to the most troubled men are these incredibly empathetic, imaginative young women, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a piece of it: how good they are at creating a compelling back story for men who have done nothing to earn it.

Robert is also imaginative, but like most men (or so it seems), he is not empathetic; life gives his imagination little to work with. What the “last exchange” gives us a clear view of is where Robert is stuck. Although I can feel the blow of his last text to Margot’s stomach, I know that she will recover and possibly flourish (she is only twenty!). But is there a way out for Robert? A way out of his board games and vinyl collection and lack of self-respect? Ist auf deinem Psalter, Vater der Liebe, ein Ton…?


Friday 15th

It’s likely that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I consulted Google’s Ngram Viewer just now about the use of the phrase “meaning of life.” I was reading an entry at Less Wrong that explored the meaning of life as understood by several “cultures,” for example “SJW” and “4Chan.” It was one of those pieces that make me feel both old and uncertain. Do I have a lot more experience or a lot less understanding? Forget the meaning of life — has the meaning of words undergone a shift? Does language work in a new way that I don’t hear? In this case, however, the sogginess of the author’s anxieties about the meaning of life was very familiar. Familiar in an unexpected way: could it be that I remember when concern about the meaning of life was still something new, or new-ish?

I wasn’t surprised by the results of my Ngram enquiry. The phrase made its first appearance in about 1895, and slipped out of view in 1910. Since 1920, however, it has never been out of use, and its peak popularity, a recurring point in decades thereafter, was reached about 1940. Aside from that blip in the late 1890s, the phrase was unknown to the Nineteenth Century — to all those Romantic poets and novelists, in other words. For most of the Twentieth Century, we looked hard for the meaning of life, but until the outbreak of World War II, we didn’t give it much thought.

I still don’t.

What would the meaning of life look like? What would it feel like? Would it feel like that aha! that wraps up every TED talk? Like the Less Wrong writer, who goes by the name Elo, I stopped watching TED talks a long time ago, as soon as I realized that they were simply upscale versions of those old nature and science programs on TV that left you convinced that you knew everything that there was to know about volcanoes or beetles. TED talks were shorter, wittier, and syntactically more sophisticated than the old shows, but they were (are) scripted with the same alchemy, the same psychological prestidigitation. There would be no harm in this if the results were useful, but the presentations are always too closed-ended to be fertile. They have to be, in order to be entertaining. Open-ended shows would end not with a nugget of “realization” but with a panorama of all that remains to be learned. Instead of flattering the audience with a spritz of knowingness, it would demoralize it with a burp of ignorance.

Knowledge decays. The point on which I agreed most heartily with Elo was this:

We start out wanting meaning, we start out getting meaning, and after a while we don’t really get the same thing any more. We are not designed to notice meaning wearing off – we expect it to keep being there. Until it’s well and truly worn out so bad that it’s a shock to the system. The same way that we go blind a little each day and don’t notice until we crash a car. “that’s how blind we are”.

The meaning of life, in short, would look like something that we needed to replace pretty frequently, if we didn’t embalm it. “The meaning of life” promises to explain everything forever, but of course it can’t do anything of the kind. We are always outgrowing what we know.

The “meaning of life” has nothing to do with distinguishing right from wrong. Nor can it offer an ideal of happiness that is more satisfying than the one already familiar to every thoughtful person: health, good fortune, and — here’s the part that searchers for the meaning of life ought to be working a little harder on — the company of loving family and friends. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the past century, it’s not the meaning of life but the stabilizing power of liberal democracy to enable many people to build happy lives. Whatever the meaning of life might be, the happiness of life is not something that you discover on a remote mountaintop, but something that you do your best to bring about in your life every day.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (I)

Friday, December 8th, 2017

5, 6 and 8 December


Tuesday 5th

Given the state of current events, it often feels foolish to be thinking about liberalism. The current state of affairs can be summarized as a drift toward radicalism, an impatience with real-world complexities and a longing for simple, straightforward solutions. Perhaps the first thing that can be said about the liberal outlook is that it struggles to be patient and doubts the viability of simple solutions. To the liberal mind, radicalism is little more than the realism of two-year-olds.

Just like small children, radicals know what they want, and they want it now. And they are equally incapable of behaving well if they are thwarted.

It is no fun, being a grown-up around small children. It is hundreds of times less agreeable to be a liberal surrounded by radicals. Unlike small children, radicals can shoot.


In the wake of the French Revolution, or perhaps even when it was still making life hell for clever Frenchmen, a new metaphor for political life came into circulation. The vehicle for the metaphor was the amphitheatrical arrangement of political assemblies, rendered simply by the curve of a half-circle. As the new world of representative democracy took shape, political significance attached to the right, center, and left of this curve. Socialists, communists, and levelers of all kinds sat on the left. Royalists, aristocrats, and religious conservatives sat on the right. Those who sat in the middle, if only because they did not agree with the extremists, were known as centrists. Sometimes, they were called liberals. It was never very clear, in contrast to those on the left and the right, what the centrists stood for, unless it was the unprincipled opportunism of compromise.

I don’t think that this metaphor works anymore. For one thing, the old conservative party has completely evaporated. As defined classes, royals and aristocrats have played no political role for a very long time, and it is a mistake to associate the religious conservatives of France and England in 1800 with the evangelists and millenialists of today. Evangelists have always been reformers, not preservers. They are obviously as dissatisfied with today’s society as socialists are, and just as eager for change. The drift of many wealthy businessmen toward libertarianism is equally radical. In the old, semicircular arrangement, the left was the party of action, the center the party of moderation, and the right the party of reaction or inaction. Today’s right wing is as activist as the left. What they share is a fear and loathing of liberals, who are now, by default, the only political actors interested in maintaining social institutions that work. Liberals have become de facto conservatives.


Rather than bloviate further upon these brisk observations, I’ll direct your attention to a nifty little book that, like so many interesting things, came to my attention via The Browser. Irene Yuan Sun is a Harvard-educated consultant at McKinsey & Company. Her new book, The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment Is Reshaping Africa, is the most eloquent defense of liberal economic policy that I have ever read. It is also a collection of fascinating business stories. Thanks to Sun’s work, we are able to revisit the conditions of our own “capitalist” past, the rough and ready chancing of bygone days — for they are not bygone in Africa. If you have any interest in figuring out what “liberal economics” means in practice, Next Factory is the book for you. I hasten to add that it is a great read.

After graduation from Harvard College, Sun signed on to teach English and other subjects in a Namibian public school. Her doubts about the value of this work were intensified when she met a young Chinese businessman on a blind date. He was in the market for a wife, and not particularly appealing in any other way, either, but Sun understood that he was contributing something more immediately important to Africans than English lessons: jobs. Sun doesn’t spell out what happened next, but presumably it was her return to Harvard, this time to the Kennedy School, and her research into African industry. She tells us that it was on a research visit to Nigeria that she had her “aha! moment.”

Until she was six, Sun lived in a town in Northern China that was dominated by an automotive works. The company’s colors, a distinctive blue and white, were everywhere. Not long after she was born — and Sun is about thirty now — the factory began a cooperative project with Volkswagen to produce Audi sedans in China. Sun can remember her first ride in one; it was her first ride in any car at all. That hundreds of millions of Chinese people share Sun’s conscious memory of a first car ride is a key of sorts to the economic realities that come to life in her book. Chinese entrepreneurs are not just investing in African business, but moving to Africa and settling there, partly because it is not so very different from the China of their childhoods. They feel the hardships less keenly than ordinary Americans would, and so are less distracted by them. And they also know how China transformed itself, not by aiming for perfection but by settling for good-enough results. What was good enough for China a few decades ago and is good enough for Africa now has not been good enough for America for nearly a century, and if nothing else Sun reminds us of the forgotten costs of our standard of living. She herself woke up to them when, at the end of a tiring day of factory visits, she realized that the color scheme of the factory at her last appointment paired the distinctive blue and white that characterized her original hometown.

No ordinary American could have written Next Factory, because Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa would not have talked to them. Even if their English were good enough, they would never share their insights with outsiders. Sun herself stands on an edgy border. At a garment factory in Lesotho (which benefits from a favorable trade arrangement with the United States), the owner cannot quite make up her mind about Sun. On the plus side, Sun’s mother also comes from Shanghai, and even shares the owner’s surname. On the con side, Sun herself cannot speak Shanghainese. In general, Sun’s background makes her a privileged explicator of Chinese business culture, not only because her interlocutors are frank with her but also because she can tell when they’re not being frank. She is not a journalist but a business scholar herself, so she has a good idea of the garment factory owner’s capital costs, and can tell when they have been overestimated.

My favorite story from Next Factory comes in the second half of the book. It is an essay in humility and insight that is untainted by the air of bragging that so often leaks into the accounts of Americans abroad. Sun was working on an ambitious skills-training project in Kenya. Just when everything seemed to be coordinated, Sun and her colleagues ran into an intransigent bureaucracy. Months of work and dozens of contacts suddenly seemed wasted. Sun had to return to America and move on. Mortified by what she regarded as a complete failure, Sun did not talk about the project for over a year. When she did — she was writing Next Factory and felt that she must confront what happened — she was surprised to hear a collaborator working for the Chinese corporate partner declare that the project had succeeded in many partial ways. Nor had he ever given up on it, and, shortly thereafter an altered version of the skills-training program was launched. “Far from the stereotype that developing country actors move slowly, I [the American expert] was the holdup.”

In my view, Sun illustrates a key characteristic of the liberal mind, the willingness to settle for good-enough in order to learn from experience how to do better. Constitutionally, this outlook is directly at odds with the all-or-nothing insistence of radical ambition. It is so unpleasant to admit failure that many people simply cannot bear to do it. Most of them simply give up; a few cheat and lie about the results. (And you can always blame everything and everyone else.) Liberals understand, I think, that failure is the royal road to education; what helps them to follow this difficult path is a faith in time as an agent of change. Such change, of course, can be for the worse, and it probably will be if no one is paying attention. (This is what makes so many so-called liberals unworthy of the name — how else to explain the loss of nine hundred state-level seats during the Obama years?) The liberal advantage over the radical is the patience to get things right over time. Liberals understand what radical and small children can’t bear to hear: we have all the time in the world.


Wednesday 6th

In today’s Times, music critic Anthony Tommasini asks, “Should I put away my James Levine recordings?” I was asking myself more or less the same thing last night. The underlying question is this: will the pleasure of listening to these recordings be stunted by the allegations that have provoked the conductor’s ejection from the Metropolitan Opera? I think that everyone of a certain age had heard stories about Levine, so to some extent the news is not news. But the element of coercion was not hitherto salient. Perhaps it rarely is in gossip; while we like to hear what other people have got up to, we don’t like hearing that undue pressure was involved. (Is Harvey Weinstein still claiming that his many imbroglios were all “consensual”?) Sex isn’t fun if it’s forced, and sex that isn’t fun isn’t sex. It’s something else, something so pathetic and unpleasant that, so far, not a single former eminence has stood up and demanded, “What of it?”

As for the recordings, time will tell, as it usually does. When I was young, Richard Strauss’s reputation was still suffering, at least here in New York, from his brief association with the Nazi régime. There was an understanding that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose Nazi associations were less equivocal, would never be invited by the Met to sing the role of the Marschallin, in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, so long as manager Rudolf Bing had any say in the matter, and, indeed, she never did.* Looking forward, I’m more inclined, somewhat pessimistically I admit, to wonder if anyone at all will be listening to anybody’s recordings of Mahler’s Third in thirty years. So much of the world that has been engulfed by the harassment and abuse scandals seems almost too fragile to survive the alterations in public sympathies that have brought these scandals forward. While Anthony Tommasini and I may be asking whether Levine’s artistic achievement will shine through the tarnish, the public may be signalling simply that brilliant orchestral performances are neither interesting nor important enough for the question to be raised. It may not be the case that power has been stripped away from villainous producers and politicians; it may be, rather, that the power itself has dissipated, so that what Al Franken and Leon Wieseltier do in the way of day jobs, and what their more virtuous colleagues also do, no longer matters quite as much as it has done in the past.

In Larry McMurtry’s Moving On, published in 1970, the heroine and her husband consult a psychiatrist to see about saving their marriage. When Patsy complains that she doesn’t always want to have sex with Jim, the doctor informs her that it is simply her duty to oblige him. If she wants to remain in the marriage, she must yield to his desires, regardless of her own, because, after all, he is the man and she is the woman. Is the doctor condoning coercion? However you or I might answer, it seems clear that, in the doctor’s view, coercion has nothing to do with it. It makes no sense to speak of coercing people to do their duty; what makes sense is to speak of punishing those who won’t. To do one’s duty, if only in order to avoid punishment, is not to yield to coercion. Coercion comes into it only when one rejects the claims of duty. In the nearly fifty years since Moving On appeared, our ideas of conjugal duty have been altered at the root, but the older men who constitute the principal cohort in today’s sex scandals were all raised under the previous dispensation.They had every reason, if no right, to expect that there would be no ex post facto review of the stories that were whispered about them.


Friday 8th

As we were on our way to lunch, Ray Soleil sighed heavily and asked, “How did we get here?”

I looked right at him and said, “Reality television.” “Of course,” he said.

It’s easily forgotten, I suppose because there is immense resistance to regarding television as degrading. Television is degrading because you must sit still to watch it, still in your body but even more in your mind. (That you can “work out” while watching television proves my point.) It’s not your decision; television enforces these responses. Television cannot help being bad for you.

I once got caught up in an early season of Project Runway. Inevitably, I got sick of it, especially the urge, widely shared, to imitate Tim Gunn’s vocal tics. I thought I was very funny for a while; then I felt a perfect fool. One of the contestants reminded me of someone I’ve never much liked, and I reveled in her misfortunes. I pondered the mystery that even in a professedly feminist age, most designers seem to be men. What do they know that women don’t? Mostly, though, I frothed on cue. I would actually call up a friend to say, did you see that! Then I saw myself on the phone doing my own sort of that, and mortification put a stop to misbehavior.

So far, the reality show being broadcast from Washington has been inconsequential: nothing has actually happened. Does the transfer of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem count? Like everything else coming out of the White House, it seems symbolic, gestural, and very much the kind of excitement that whips up an audience for reality TV. Oh, look what he did now! The idea that “he” is doing it in the name of a world power means nothing, because there is no such thing in television. There is only entertainment.

The mad tax bill — mad-at-blue-states tax bill — may well be enacted, but laws don’t really happen; popular responses to them do. The audience may find itself confronted by some very unentertaining realities, realities that aren’t taking place on television. There is a lot of anxiety about nuclear warheads, but, so far, it is just that: anxiety. The dream of reality television is that things that are worried about will never quite happen, because happening will put an end to the fun, which is waiting for something to happen. There is no fulfillment in happening; immediately, a new wait must begin. I derive no small comfort from believing that the formula for soap-opera drama takes the place of imagination in the mind of Donald Trump. Not to mention attentiveness to ratings where conscience ought to be.

I wish that, instead of resigning, Al Franken had insisted on keeping his seat until the ongoing sexual inquisition deals with the president. Some might argue, as Michelle Goldberg did at the Times, that there will never be a reckoning for Trump, because he can’t be shamed. But that’s precisely why I’d like Franken to stay on. There ought to be more to this scourge than pressing decent men to admit their indecencies and then counting on them to withdraw. It’s genteel and toothless — true to reality TV, not to reality. It certainly hasn’t stopped Roy Moore. What’s the point, if only the good guys topple?

I expressed concern that younger men will conclude that female colleagues are more trouble than they’re worth. “I don’t think they’d have the legal right to act on that,” said Ray. I looked right at him.

Bon week-end à tous!

*This is incorrect. Fossil Darling informs me that Schwarzkopf sang several Rosenkavaliers at the Met in 1964.