Archive for January, 2018

Gotham Diary:
How to say “TPFDL”
January 2018 (V)

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

30 and 31 January; 1 February

Tuesday 30th

Juleanna Glover asks, in today’s Times, “Are Republicans Ready to Join a Third Party?” The question is interestingly phrased: join, not form. Would Republicans, in short, be willing to combine with people who aren’t Republicans? Glover proposes, just as an example, a Biden-Sasse ticket for 2020.

My question, of course, is whether this new party would have a hope of being a genuinely liberal party, and I ask it without being quite sure that liberalism remains viable, or even desirable. I’m inclined to believe that it is, but I can’t overlook the brittleness with which any given generation of liberals responds to altered circumstances. Liberals are gradualists, devoted to protecting rights and interests from state intervention, and, ultimately, from the encroachments of other interests. This has often led liberals to back the wrong horse. Liberal belief in the rights of free men was an important ideological prop to slaveholders, and George Dangerfield’s wonderful study, The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-1914 illustrates the slow-motion collapse of a great and powerful political party, undermined by the demands of rising new constituencies: labor, women, and the Irish.

Even more doubtful than the viability of liberalism as a political outlook is the viability of “liberalism” as an intelligible word. Glover writes,

There are many Republicans wary of a second term for Mr. Trump, and yet right now they are entirely reliant on the Democrats to deliver a winning centrist candidate out of a primary process that almost made Bernie Sanders their 2016 nominee. A contest between Mr. Trump and a liberal Democratic candidate like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would leave the middle up for grabs. And a big contingent of politically orphaned political strategists, academics and donors would be ready to lend support.

Elizabeth Warren may be a Democrat, but she is no liberal — because she is not a gradualist. A great deal of confusion in our political discourse would be cleared up if we all agreed that, beyond policy differences, there is the key issue of timing, which I call the “tipfiddle.”

This curious word, tipfiddle, derives from the acronym for an elaborate logistics schedule devised by the Pentagon, the Time-Phased Forces Deployment List, for the unrolling of new military campaigns. Donald Rumsfeld’s claim to infamy, I expect, will be based largely on his disregard for this schedule in embarking on the misadventure in Iraq (still something of a mess). It occurred to me not long ago that the complete lack of a tipfiddle does much to explain the disappointing aftermath of the 1960s campaign for equal civil rights. A couple of blockbuster Acts of Congress were expected to do everything, and the resulting failure of a top-down program to win the hearts and minds of white Americans, especially couple as it was with a similar failure in Vietnam, brought into the being the image of a liberal élite bogeyman that has rendered our government fairly ineffectual ever since.

Many white Southerners who hated segregation argued that the South wasn’t ready yet, in the Sixties, for equality. Liberals have a weakness for this kind of argument. Their largely healthy mistrust of abrupt change too often allows injustice to persist. Advocates of social justice can rightly claim that liberals will never get around to making necessary changes. The only liberal response lies in the preparation of tipfiddles. Looking back at civil rights, for example, we can see that there ought to have been (among many other things) some thoroughgoing consciousness-raising in the North, which, in the absence thereof was able to give itself a pass on its own deep-rooted racism. (Where was objection to busing more virulent than in Boston?)

Tipfiddles are couched in terms of actions that are staged in order to increase the effectiveness of each action. Goals are not the point, because they’re too obvious. So it is with political problems. We know what the goals are, but nothing is going to come of, say, specifying emissions caps by Year N if we don’t have a detailed and acceptable plan for achieving them. Such plans are what genuine statesmen, acting in a representative democracy, are supposed to sell to voters. It’s not easy, and it’s not glamorous, and it probably works best at the local level.

Of course, the great tipfiddle-failure story of our time is playing out with Brexit. (What’s this about Boris Johnson, of all people, wanting to build a bridge?)


Wednesday 31st

Since the weekend, I’ve been in a slight daze, involuntarily meditating on something that happened a long time ago, at the end of 1980. It didn’t happen to me, and I didn’t know about it until this weekend, when I read about it in a book. Here is what I read:

She did it partly to punish me for stopping wanting to fuck her and partly because she realized that I didn’t like her much. Well, I liked her as much as you could like anyone totally wrapped up in themselves and unable to tolerate the slightest competition or anything a raving lunatic could see as opposition and having to have their own way in everything all the time. Well, I expect reading between the lines there you can see that we hadn’t been getting on too well of late. Yeah, but not having her around and trying to take in the fact that she will never be around is immeasurably more crappy than having her around. I’ve had a wife for 32 years.

As I continued reading the book, and learned that the writer of the letter refused, once he understood that his wife really wasn’t ever coming back, to say anything at all nice about her. Which perhaps wouldn’t be surprising in an ordinary bloke. But Kinsley Amis, author of many novels and much nonfiction, much of it humane and humorous? When he was at home, it seems, he expected his wife to put up with his dislike, which visitors to the house toward the end of the marriage claim was palpable. He gritted his teeth. But no matter how remote he became, it seemed right to him that his wife should simply bear with the lack of affection. I’ve had a wife — interesting, that. To put it correctly, Amis had had two wives over that thirty-two year period.

And the first wife, the former Hilary Bardwell, came back to take care of him. She brought her second husband, an impecunious earl, with her, and the three of them lived happily ever after. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Jane Howard, by then the author of several novels and a figure in London’s literary life, lived alone for the rest of her life (excepting a brief fling with a con man quite late in life). Jane did not care to be alone any more than Kingsley did, but she couldn’t take life with a man whose feelings for her were rapidly approaching physical revulsion.

What makes the passage that I’ve quoted, which comes from a letter to the poet Philip Larkin and is quoted in Artemis Cooper’s new biography, Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence, so heavy for me is Amis’s perversity. Would you like to live with someone who made you grit your teeth every time she said something? Wouldn’t you be happier if she left? Wouldn’t you think of leaving? But no. Nothing personal, but you’re the wife here, lady, and you’ll stick with it. That seems to sum up his thinking. And of course it was traditional, since time out of mind, for husbands to think like that. I wonder if it occurred to Amis that he was betraying his roots. He had come from such a very traditional background, but had made it to university and achieved literary acclaim. That it might be a mistake for him to leave the future Countess of Kilmarnock for Jane Howard is suggested by Jane’s having cautioned him, during their early, lovey-dovey days, that she was not as posh as he thought she was. (Cooper writes that they came from the opposite ends of the middle class.) In their fifteen years together, he seems to have tired of her poshness, and she was at any rate posh enough to demand a reasonably affectionate husband.

Mind you, I’m not taking sides here. I’m just feeling a strange mix of pity, contempt, and disgust for Kingsley Amis, occasioned by this display of wounds of which he is not at all ashamed. It’s embarrassing to see an eminent novelist taking such a nakedly utilitarian view of marriage. Which apparently he had been doing for quite a while before Howard left him.


Cooper’s biography of Howard arrived while I was in the middle of re-reading her biography of Elizabeth David, to which I promptly returned and which I finished last night. A couple of interesting compare-and-contrast points stick out.

Contrast: As when I read about David the first time, I haven’t read anything written by Howard herself. I’ve ordered the five-volume series, a sort of family autobiography, about the Cazalet family, and look forward to reading it. But in the nearly twenty years since Writing at the Kitchen Table came out, I’ve acquired and read a lot of David, and I think she’s one of the great writers of modern times. She can inflect ostensibly expository prose with a wide range of dramatic attitudes without dimming her intelligibility in the slightest. And I don’t know anyone who is better at expressing speechless outrage, as she does in her introduction to the 1988 edition of her first work, A Book of Mediterranean Food.

From the hands of a publisher called Robert Hale, of whom I shall say no more than it seemed a singular misfortune to have had my books acquired by his firm, I was rescued…

The point of contrast is that David meant a great deal more to me the second time around, and in fact I kept putting down her biography to read her. I was not nearly as engaged by Howard herself, although I couldn’t put her story down. She was a character, not a creator. That will presumably change.

Comparison: In the other David biography that I’m still re-reading, by Lisa Chaney, there’s a wonderful little flash of revelation about Laurence Durell that intensified my doubts about the importance of formal education, while at the same time giving an ironic cast to the achievements of David and Howard, despite their complete lack of higher education. Of Durell, who came from a good family but whose upbringing was highly unorthodox, we’re told that some of his friends in Cairo, during the war, thought that his “lack of a classical education made him not quite ‘pukka.’ (181) With regard to Durrell himself, this is already pretty rich, since he spent his adolescence on the island of Corfu, in Greece, instead of on the island of England, belaboring ancient Greek verses. Missing out on such academic exercises doesn’t seem to have done David or Howard any harm, either. David, indeed, became a genuine scholar, teaching herself how to set up a library in the process. One has to ask what, exactly, was so indispensable about the public school/university pedigree. Beyond, of course, the boys’ club shibboleth. Nancy Mitford used to wail about not having been properly taught anything, but I suspect she was imagining that there was more to schooling than there was. In all cases — Durrell, David, Howard, and Mitford — the joy of reading appears to have sufficed.


Thursday 1st

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Times in which A O Scott calls on each of us to reassess our impressions of Woody Allen’s movies. He doesn’t ask for a boycott, just a recognition that some of the behavior is not so charming or innocent as we might have thought, shrugging it off, at the time. I’ve always been aware of this problematic aspect of Allen’s work; to me, it heightens the interest. (Does anyone remember when “transgressive” was a good thing?) I think of Allen primarily as a magician — his most recent films bring this to the fore — and not as a moralist, which is, to be sure, what he pretends to be. Sometimes it seems to me that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He does what he thinks he’s doing extremely well, but he’s also doing something else, almost inadvertently, and this tension is what makes his movies so appealing — so much more than merely funny. I wish I knew what this something else was. There’s a hint, perhaps, in Hollywood Ending: Woody Allen’s character keeps breaking down in conversations with his ex-wife. He cannot sustain the businesslike tone with which they begin. Without warning, he breaks into wrathful denunciations of her unfaithfulness and her poor taste in men. I sense that something like this is happening beneath the surface of each one of Allen’s films.

Consider Oedipus Wrecks, perhaps his greatest film even if nobody knows it (because it comes at the end of New York Stories, following two really awful essays in self-indulgence by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola). In Allen’s exquisite little joke, a suffocating mother disappears in the middle of a magic act — she really does disappear! — and Allen, playing the son, is thrilled. He can’t stop smiling with relief! But then she appears in the sky over New York City, telling everyone about his unattractive habits as a child. He is driven to attempt suicide. “That’s no solution,” says his shiksa fiancée (played by Mia Farrow in one of their final collaborations). Indeed! His mother’s antics break up that relationship and steer him toward Ms Right, a bogus sorceress whom he enlists to put an end to them (Julie Kavner). If you lay it all out on the table, it’s a fairly ugly psychoanalytical problem. The guy really does want his mother dead. And yet we laugh! Of course, the mother doesn’t die; she comes back to earth when Allen hooks up with Kavner. (“Now her I like.”) Happy, healthy ending. The “moral” of the story? It’s pointless to be a self-hating Jew.

Owing to an enormous change in mores, a lot of wishes that men have entertained for good times with girls have recently become as unacceptable for acting out as the Oedipus complex. I remember seeing Manhattan for the first time with my future wife. When it was revealed that the Mariel Hemingway character was a student at the Dalton School, Kathleen (a Brearley girl) blurted out, quite audibly, “Figures!” That was how we registered the inappropriateness of the girl’s relationship with an older man — indirectly. The school and the girl’s parents ought to have stepped in, but they were either too progressive or too sophisticated to interfere. The fantasy being gratified by Woody Allen’s character was not itself held up to shame. Who wouldn’t want to have a beautiful teenage girlfriend? Well, as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t, but you check matters of fact at the door when you take in a magic act.

Fossil Darling has just called with news of the latest pin to be knocked down: 84 year-old John Copley, directing a revival of Semiramide at the Met, apparently made a joke that was misunderstood by a singer whose first language was not English. Fossil, who knows Copley, told me that he was already on a plane back to Blighty. What’s going on, I think, is a genuine consciousness-raising, the thing that was supposed to happen way back in the early Seventies but couldn’t, because the Terror-like uncertainty and violence (what other word describes such sudden terminations of careers?) would never have been tolerated. What it took to get where we are was a generation of women who grew up entirely within what was supposed to be a new dispensation, what Jill Lepore calls “empowerment feminism,” which, in her view, has been a failure, because it facilitates the villainies of the Harvey Weinsteins. This generation of women was not raised to guard its own integrity, as women everywhere have always been. That’s why older people are cocking eyebrows and humming “Victims!” The young women are victims, though — victims of a social failure to prescribe appropriate conduct between the sexes, or between the powerful and the powerless. It makes the old consciousness-raising look more like obliviousness.

And if I get started on Così fan tutte, which was unacceptable for over a century because it was thought, as it is still thought by some, to be wickedly cynical about love, I’ll be here all day…

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (IV)

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

23, 25 and 26 January

Tuesday 23rd

I don’t know about you, but as a bedeviled New Yorker I find great comic relief in Brexit coverage, especially in the London Review of Books, where it appears in the form of intelligent appraisals of books about the mess. In the current issue, Colid Kidd reviews Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem, by Tim Shipman. Like Fire and Fury, it is a “fly on the wall” assemblage of off-the-record interviews. According to Kidd, Shipman talked with “many of the dramatis personae in Theresa May’s topsy-turvy first year as prime minister,” a turn of phrase that could be applied exactly, save for the name and the office, to Michael Wolff’s book. There hasn’t been such fun since about 1720, when catastrophic financial bubbles burst almost simultaneously in Paris and London. A century from now, it will probably be a difficult to remember on which side of the Atlantic to paste “the Remainers” and on which “the Tea Party.” The role of xenophobic white supremacy in both upheavals is practically identical, which makes me wonder what, exactly, was accomplished by George Washington and his friends.

Over here, of course, the main event is the apparently self-destructive fever that is raging in both political parties. On both sides of the aisle, old centrists, fundamentally liberal in the classic sense of the term, are being sabotaged and discredited by no-longer-marginal extremes. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what “liberal in the classic sense of the term” means, but it is not liberalism itself that makes centrists so unpopular with activists (aside, that is, from the liberal willingness to compromise); rather, it is the centrists’ accommodation of business-as-usual practices. The most offensive of these, in the puritans’ eyes (and both fringes are puritan as only Americans could be), is taking money from rich donors. What makes rich donors so offensive is that they, too, have become activist: their gifts are not so much contributions as purchases. Rich people bought the Republican Party some time ago, but Democrats need money, too, and unions, the party’s traditional support, are shrinking. Whatever the source, campaign funding causes some degree of slippage between representatives and constituents. This is potentially fatal to liberal democracy, which is why I place Buckley v Valeo alongside the Dred Scott decision as an example of egregious Supreme Court error.

Colin Kidd points out that the 48% of Britons who voted to Remain no longer have any significant representation in Parliament on the issue. This is broadly true of many issues, such as housing and education, on which established elders seem deaf to the needs of the young. It’s an intriguing reversal of the situation in the Sixties, when, aside from serious differences about Vietnam and the Bomb, young people wanted little more than permission to live in a loosened-up society. We were a spoiled bunch, we boomers, and, like racists, we never understood just how spoiled we were. Our children and grandchildren are more hard-headed, but they’re having to teach themselves from scratch, because we denatured their educations in the name of — freedom, was it? Whatevs.


I came across an interesting new word the other day: paracosm. In the current issue of Harper’s, T M Luhrmann writes,

In the late 1970s, Robert Silvey, an audience researcher at the BBC started using the word “paracosm” to describe the private worlds that children create, like the North Paricific island of Gondal that Emily and Anne Brontë dreamed up when they were girls.But paracosms are not unique to children. Besotted J R R Tolkien fans, for instance, have a similar relationship with Middle-earth. … God becomes more real for people who turn their faith into a paracosm.

So the word isn’t actually new at all, just new to me. The idea, however, has been billowing in my brain for some time, in search of a name. In my application, the paracosm is simply “the real world,” the world that we believe in, with more or less force, whether we can see it or not. In my paracosm, for example, the people who live in my neighborhood, however crabby and impatient and occasionally loud, are good people. They want to be good people, anyway. Being good people in New York means accepting a pretty wide range of personal differences, or at least feeling safe among strangers. The good people of Yorkville may be individually embroiled in hateful relationships and ghastly family feuds, but as regards the people they don’t know, they’re good people. Feeling that I am living in a society, a largely invisible cloud, of good people makes me feel good.

Another element of my paracosmic reality is the belief that there is nothing imperfect about human beings. What we are is all that we can expect to be. Our complications, our contradictions, our confusion — these are features, not bugs. It is adolescent to wish otherwise. Our mortality is essential to our species. None of this is to deny for a moment my modern liberal belief that we must do everything that we can to help everyone to live a life of comfort and dignity: that, and nothing less, is the only happiness worthy of pursuing.

And yet I sit here, in my quiet apartment, reading and writing. In my paracosm — and some readers may take this to be an indictment of it — reading and writing amount to doing something. It is something that I feel that I do well, even if I have done almost nothing to spread this opinion. I try to persuade people to think, because I believe that thinking may lead them to act. I don’t believe that it is possible anymore to persuade people to act without causing them to think first. The direct connection between powerful words and meaningful active responses has been corroded or broken by decades of advertising. The only way to persuade someone to do something without inspiring them to think about it first is to do it yourself.

In another piece in Harper’s, part of the same collection of essays about persuasion, Mychal Denzel Smith writes,

The proper role of protest is to dramatize the unequal distribution of power.  What protests are not charged with is upholding reverence for the institutions that make them necessary. A brutal system of police, prosecutors, and politicians has rendered American symbols meaningless, and the onus is on the US government to restore their meaning — to convince the marchers and kneelers and petitioners and organizers of its commitment to progress. We achieve peace not by demanding hat those who expose our contradictions be silent but by pressuring the powerful to convince the rest of us that there is no reason to shout.

In other words, the élites who have been doing business as usual for the past several generations have to stop talking and start doing. My self-appointed job is to figure out what, in a liberal frame of reference, is doable, and to distinguish it from what is doable as an emergency measure. Since I only just now figured this out, I’m hardly an expert. I know little more than where to begin.


Thursday 25th

Seeing that it’s Virginia Woolf’s birthday — a hundred years ago today, she turned 36 (my father was already four years old, and my mother would be born later in the year) — I should like to revisit last Friday’s entry, in which I wrote about reading Woolf’s last novel, The Years, and really liking it, even though six months ago (not even) I discarded a copy of the novel because I’d gotten the idea that it was a failure.

After finishing Friday’s writing, I pulled out Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf and realized that it from her book that I’d heard that The Years was not a success. Worse, I made the demoralizing discovery that the entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary that had inspired me to read the novel —

The miracle is accomplished. L put down the last sheet about 12 last night, and could not speak. He was in tears. He says it is “a most remarkable book” — he likes it better than The Waves — and has not a spark of doubt that it must be published. (4 November 1936)

— was rooted in mendacity, for Leonard Woolf confessed, years after Virginia’s death, that he had not thought that The Years was very good at all, but feared that it would kill Virginia to hear this. He lied to her! I feel somewhat ridiculous, sounding shocked, shocked about something that all Woolf scholars and students must know perfectly well, and even though even I know that the essence of the marriage was that Leonard took care of Virginia. I’m grateful that Virginia’s diary at least temporarily obliterated whatever I remembered reading in Lee; I’d never have read The Years otherwise. It was interesting to read (once again, but I don’t recall the first time) that The Years was a publishing success.

So, I’m a chump who liked it.

What’s wrong with it, then? Lee writes,

Because of her horror of propaganda, her feeling that art should subsume politics, and her fear of being laughed at, a good deal of the book’s explicit argument is buried. And so The Years is a kind of crippled text, which disables itself while writing about a disabled society. As she rewrote and rewrote, struggling for a language that would “fit” what she was thinking about, she came to think of it as a kind of failure: but as a deliberate failure. (665)

It’s an interesting notion, “a disabled society.” It’s a distinctly modern idea — I want to say modernist — in its professional detachment. If there’s something wrong, then the critics will point it out, so that something can be done by the experts. The very idea of a disabled society posits the image of a healthy one, and the more that I read of and about the period 1850-1950 (to be very rough), the more palpably looms the tormented sense of a near-Eden that had come to an end with the revolutions of the late Eighteenth Century. Certainly those revolutions — political, industrial, scientific, social (the women’s revolution, which began with the others, is still burning) — disrupted traditional social arrangements. But to claim that they disabled society, as indeed most modern artists did, was to reject revolutionary aims, and another thing that becomes clearer over time is that modernism was an essentially reactionary movement. (This time, it would be the artists and intellectuals who got to carry on, living the irresponsible high life that the aristocracies of birth had earlier enjoyed.)

What was arguably “disabled” about British society in Woolf’s day was its pretension of stability. In this, most Britons were complicit, naturally responding to surprising upheavals by hunkering down with traditions. In The Years, it is the men who cling to the past, while the women itch with impatience. Woolf shows us this without telling us a thing. She shows us the succession of Kitty Lasswade’s automobiles, which get sleeker and faster; the 1914 chapter ends with an exhilarating drive from a railway station uphill to a castle, lingering over a moment of suspense on a steep grade where, in earlier cars, Kitty would have had to get out and walk. But not this time! Despite the fact that Kitty is very rich, and cars still rare, and despite the fact that the the cars that appear at the end of the book are unimpressive taxis that clog London’s traffic, any attempt to read this passage as a critique of society has to be perverse and contorted. It is the joyous celebration of a new but simple pleasure.

Something that struck me quite forcibly about the party at the end of the novel was the insouciance with which the younger people push the furniture to the walls and roll up the carpets — true, Delia, the hostess, helps them, but without comment or complaint — so that they can dance to phonograph records. Woolf leaves it entirely to the reader to savor the sheer unimaginability of such doings back at the novel’s beginning, in the double drawing room of Abel Pargiter’s house in Abercorn Terrace, c 1880. It’s not so much the dancing as the empowerment of youth. Abel’s children were more or less imprisoned in his household, ruled by an unquestioned patriarchy. This has entirely disappeared fifty years later.

At the bottom of the same page from which I have already quoted, Lee goes on,

No one in the novel is allowed to make a speech or complete a statement. Instead of “preaching,” the structure of the novel itself makes a gesture against totalitarianism. There is no hero, no tragic or climactic plot, no resolution. Instead there is open-endedness, uncertainty, collective voices. The novel, by the very method of indirection and suggestion which cost her so much to achieve, resists the agents of tyranny. Those figure repeatedly in the book: they are men saying “I, I, I”; oppressive icons of worship, loudspeakers, searchlights, hectoring voices at Speakers’ Corner…

and so on. It seems to me that Lee is describing a triumph, not a failure.


As we come to the end of the month, I can regard one new development as an overall success, and that is the revival, at the beginning of the year, of the original Daily Blague. Several years ago, I tried bringing it back to life, but it didn’t take. I have higher hopes this time. While the struggle to provide an entry every day has been beyond me, I can feel the life ot it. Although I like to think that I write about many things, it is very clear that I have two different kinds of interests, and the kind that might best be described as “housekeeping” will be the one animating the old Daily Blague. Regular readers of this site (the Daily Blague / reader) will not have to dread prolonged accounts of my ransacking the apartment in search of a missing book, but if you like to hear me laugh at myself, yesterday’s Daily Blague entry may bring a smile. I hope to write a lot of short pieces about food, ageing, and so on, but the underlying issue will be this: the secret of masculine efficiency is that most men don’t have to think about housekeeping. It’s not the doing housework that’s distracting, but the planning. And while most men will happily confess that it is not worth their time to dwell on such matters, American society appears to be drifting toward the conviction that no amount of achievement or glory justifies reducing another person to servility. To put this another way, nobody ought to be just a housekeeper, and everybody ought to be one part-time. What that would look like is pretty much the experiment of my everyday life.


Friday 26th

Even before I got to David Brooks’s column this morning, my fears for the collapse of civilization were on the boil, stirred by a paragraph in the current New Yorker.

Kushner had an interim clearance that gave him access to intelligence. He was also added to a list of recipients of the President’s Daily Brief, or P.D.B., a top-secret digest of the U.S. government’s most closely held and compartmentalized intelligence reports. By the end of the Obama Administration, seven White House officials were authorized to receive the same version of the P.D.B. that appeared on the President’s iPad. The Trump Administration expanded the number to as many as fourteen people, including Kushner. A former senior official said, of the growing P.D.B. distribution list, “It got out of control. Everybody thought it was cool. They wanted to be cool.”

This is from “Soft Target,” a piece about Jared Kushner by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos. They wanted to be cool. I presume that none of the recipients of the PDB were teenagers, but the persistence of an adolescent outlook is obvious. Real adults learn to trae in the term “cool,” and all that it stands for — I’ll let you fill in the list, but don’t forget “sexy” and whatever currently passes for automotive distinction — and settle for the relatively detached “interesting.” This is more than a change of vocabulary. Having outgrown the infantile implication of “cool,” which is “I want it now,” the adult says instead, “I’ll think about it.”

But perhaps adolescence is preferable to the cure offered by this Jordan Peterson fellow whom David Brooks writes about today. Peterson is apparently the brainy version of Tim Ferris. Life is tough, read the Stoics. Stop whining, stand up straight, take responsibility, &c &c. My problem with this sort of advice is that it presents life as an ordeal that must be undergone individually, a fraught series of rites of passage. Collective action is rejected out of hand. I’m no socialist, but I see civilized life as an essential collective action, requiring genuine commitment, not just lip service. That is certainly not Peterson’s view (according to Brooks).

All of life is perched, Peterson continues, on the point between order and chaos. Chaos is the realm without norms and rules. Chaos, he writes, is “the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.”

Chaos, the eternnal feminine. Yikes! From Goethe to Beowulf; surely progress lies in the opposite direction? It’s sickening to think of a young man wrapping up an imaginary and ignorant idea of what women are like and expelling it from his vision of humanity. And as for those “choosy maters” — I chuckled appreciatively at that extraordinary pun — cf the adage that there is no such thing as a man who cannot find a wife if he really wants one.

Adolescence is at least more sociable. The healthy adult male, in my view, can set aside what are really nothing but shocked responses to the newly maturing body, without walling himself up in defensive armor. He does not fear grizzlies in dark caves because he does not enter dark caves alone, or without plenty of illumination. He cultivates and enjoys the benefits of civilization. Other people can count on him so that he can count of them.

Adults also accept death, early on; they don’t wait for the death of a parent to spook them. They realize that they must die, to earthly existence anyway, for life to go on. Life is not a temporary possession but an open-ended organic sequence of births and deaths. For there to be a future, there must be a past. If death stops, life stops. At the highest levels of theology, all religions caution that the meaning of it all might lie beyond human understanding.

Vainglory is the shocked adolescence response to mortality, an attempt to evade it. Let me die, then, says the would-be hero, so long as my deeds are known to all men at all times. You have a better chance of winning the lottery, however, than of leading the life of a new Alexander, and, anyway, making and belonging to a happy family is more useful and more satisfying.

There! And I’ve managed not to drag in Andrew Sullivan!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Turn It Off
January 2018 (III)

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

18 and 19 January

Thursday 18th

Amazon claims that Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is temporarily out of stock. I don’t wonder. It got written up by David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Today it got a review by Jennifer Senior. And this is just the New York Times coverage. I’m beginning to think, however, that I’ll make do with the Kindle edition. The more I learn about Deneen’s book, the less willing I am to give it precious shelf space.

But of course I do have to read it. What does Dineen have to say about liberalism? What does he think it is? According to Senior’s review, he holds that the idea of liberalism was born 500 years ago. That seems a stretch to me, off by about two centuries. (I take it to be more recent.) So we probably don’t have the same thing in mind when we talk about liberalism.

I was tempted to quip, in response to Dineen’s title, Because that’s what liberalism does. Failure is what liberalism is good at. But I am not in a humor for framing clever paradoxes today. All I can do is suggest that liberalism fails because it always depends on the transcendent ambition of worldly-wise people to serve the common interest, and because it relies so heavily on organizational schemes to prevent governmental caprice. Liberalism requires excellent men and women — not superheroes, but something much harder to imagine — and there are never enough of them. But the alternatives — certainly including Deneen’s, if Senior does them justice — are unacceptable. Either we strive to make liberal democracy work, or we slide into tyranny and worse.


Having turned seventy, I am now, officially, a cranky old man. I don’t for a moment imagine that I can make my crankiness entertaining, so I keep it locked up in a little box. Every now and then, though, I have to open the box, for a brief exhibition of its contents. A quick blink is all it takes, because my crankiness, which is really an impatience so extreme that it would kill me if I didn’t bundle it away, is very simple. Everything that everyone is complaining about these days, from Trump to racism and misogyny, is directly attributable to the depravity of television, and by “television” I don’t mean the myriad streams of shows currently on offer but the habit of living with a screen that is on for hours at a time. Although, now that I mention it, the glamorization of crime, violence, and amorality that made highly-regarded shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men so “compelling” is pretty depraved, too. How can this not be obvious? But then, television is a lot like smoking. You don’t know how disgusting it is until you break the habit. The people who intone, “But there are good things on television” are no different from folks who believe that it’s all right to smoke if you keep it to two or three cigarettes a day.

There! I’ve closed up the box again. I just wanted to make it clear why I don’t write more than I do about the Trump problem, #MeToo, and other vibrant controversies. I know how to make them all go away, and I have just told you the secret.

I can live with the curse of television only because it does not disturb my own home. In my home there is silence. Or there is conversation, or good music. Every now and then, whenever I’m too tired to think, there is a feature film — two hours, more or less, of visual entertainment. That is almost always enough. But I am miserably aware the the curse of television is vitiating my homeland and my civilization.


Friday 19th

My literary life has always been solitary. I’ve rarely had long discussions of books with friends and others. This is not because I don’t know the right people, I suspect, but because I don’t like to talk about literature. I prefer to write about it. So I read a great deal — not just the novels but the commentaries that stream through the Reviews, and even the odd critical book — but I don’t hear very much. Which is to say that my inputs, if you’ll forgive that word, are not casual, but edited, printed, and sold to subscribers. And of course they are not written with me in mind. Writing about Henry James, Colm Tóibín, for example, is in no position to make a point that he thinks that I will find particularly interesting. I have to find those points for myself. I’m pretty good at it now, but for a long time, I was at sea, struggling just to keep my head up. How could it be otherwise? I knew very little. I hadn’t read very much. I wasn’t sure of liking anything. And I was awfully fond of fun. Robert Benchley and Edith Sitwell took up so much of my attention that sober friends could dismiss the idea of my having any taste at all.

Who was afraid of Virginia Woolf? Without presuming to understand precisely what Edward Albee meant by that line, I’ll just say: everybody. Everybody was, back then in the Postwar years when I was growing up. The problem was simple: was she any good? Was she a “serious novelist” who deserved to read carefully and thought about? Or was she an ornamental experimentalist, an odd woman (occasionally mad and finally a suicide) who belonged to a group of effete men, the Bloomsbury Group, that had a peculiar take on Modernism? And on top of that, or rather beneath it all, Woolf was a woman. Were women capable of art? The debate was still lively in those days, and few women were recognized participants. Either way, Woolf was a risky proposition. You were putting your reputation on the line.

There had been a craze for Hermann Hesse. Some books, such as Demian, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha, had been available in English, but now everything was coming out — Narcissus and Goldmund, Magister Ludi, Beneath the Wheel. I read quite a few of these an an undergraduate, tickled for a while by what I took to be Hesse’s endorsement of my conviction that it was really stupid to study hard for exams. Just at about the point when his fiction began giving me gas pains, I read something in The New Yorker that dismissed his work with one clean sweep: “This isn’t literature, but incense.” I burped with relief, and haven’t looked at Hesse since.

Several years later, there was a Bloomsbury craze. And why not. As the flower children grew up, the fantasy of a group of élite, educated bohemians chattering away in pleasant, well-staffed houses while conducting rather irregular amorous affairs with impunity was hugely appealing. Rather than read Virginia Woolf herself, and trying to figure out what she was going on about, you could read about her and her friends. Quentin Bell wrote a two-volume biography of his aunt that was itself something a novel about Bloomsbury in its own right. (It wasn’t what he made up, but what he left out.) Inevitably, we tired of Lytton and Duncan and Dora and Ottoline; we tired of Vanessa (was she an artist?), and nobody liked Leonard to begin with. I don’t remember reading Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse in those days. I do recall romping through Orlando, and finding it strangely unsatisfying.

Time passed. Michael Cunningham published The Hours, which was presently transformed into a very powerful movie. I was in my fifties by now. Not only did I have a much clearer idea of what I liked in fiction, but, far more important, I had learned the patience to let a writer persuade me to enlarge it. Somewhere along the way, I had learned (from reading it) that To the Lighthouse is very great; two years ago I read it for the third time, and was inspired to undertake my writing project — which, by the way, I am about to reconstruct. I had read Night and Day and The Voyage Out, and liked them both. Mrs Dalloway I recognized as a success, even though it didn’t bowl me over. The Waves remained — tedious. But as for Woolf’s non-fiction, her personal memoirs and her literary criticism, I couldn’t get enough of it.

In the course of evacuating our storage unit last summer, I dealt with two of Woolf’s books differently. An old copy of The Years went into the box of donations, without my thinking twice. Somehow I had got the idea that this novel, Woolf’s last, was a failure, or at any rate a disappointment. She had tried to do something, but she hadn’t pulled it off. The book that I held onto was A Writer’s Diary, an even more ancient Signet Classic, purchased, it appears, in the summer of 1969, when she was seventeen, by the girl who would become my first wife. That’s why I couldn’t get rid of it: it wasn’t mine. But I wasn’t going to make a fuss about returning it, either. So it wound up the bathroom. Eventually, instead of just opening it anywhere, I kept to the entries for 1935 — when Woolf was writing The Years. I know that there is too much information in this paragraph, but I don’t know how else to explain why I’ve just read and loved a novel that I was sure as recently as six months ago that I would never read.

I wish that I had read it a long time ago, even though I know that I’d have disliked it, not understood it. What’s to understand? That’s the great question with Woolf: what is she going on about? There is no mystery at the textual surface: characters act and react in normal, everyday ways. And they think the kind of half-baked philosophical questions that we all think. What is life all about, and so forth. It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing happens, but most of what happens happens in between the scenes, which, as the title suggests, are set years apart. Nor is the spacing even: we go from 1880 to 1891, and thence to a cluster of eight scenes from 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1917 and 1918. The final quarter of the book is set in “Present Day,” which we can take for 1934-1936. In between, people die or go off to Africa for fifteen years. Everybody gets older. The final chapter, a riotous family party, is a very worthy homage to Proust — but it is also, like the rest of The Years, utterly lifelike. If had only read it long ao, then I could have enjoyed it so much more the second time.

Woolf’s original title was The Pargiters, the name of the family whose various members she variously displays. At the center, there are the seven children — four girls, three boys — of Abel and Rose Pargiter. To one side, there are also the daughters of Abel’s brother, Maggie and Sara. To the other stands Kitty Malone, the daughter of an Oxford eminence who rejects the Pargiter son who is in love with her in order to make a very good marriage. (Kitty is also a cousin somehow.) If there is a central figure, it is Eleanor Pargiter, the eldest of Abel’s children, but that is only because her persistent questioning about the knowability of life, experience, selfhood echo Woolf’s own concerns. The great experiment at the heart of Woolf’s fiction is the attempt to “capture” life on the page without really understanding what’s going on. (Many people go through life without ever seriously doubting that they understand what is going on, and Woolf is not for them.) The very nature of the experiment also cautions the reader against trying to figure out why, with a cornucopia to choose from, Woolf chose these particular moments for her novel, and excluded all of the others. There is a clarity both comic and formal about the very brief scene from 1918, but there is an almost uncomfortable jerk in the life of Maggie Pargiter, as 1910 gives way to 1911, that is never explained, and that feels like a loose tooth.

Woolf was probably as prone to ask why people do things as anybody, but she knew better than to expect to find out. At the end of the 1914 chapter, Kitty Lasswade (as she now is) gives a dinner party in her house in Grosvenor Square. Kitty is obviously a great lady in the world, but she is still unsure of herself; her introduction of cousin Martin to the prize debutante of the season is a dud. Throughout the dinner, but especially afterward, as the ladies wait for the men to leave the table, Kitty worries that she will miss her train. We are not told why she plans to leave her house after her own dinner party to catch a train, but we are invited, by Woolf’s reticence, to imagine an improper adventure. Finally, everyone leaves, and, without exchanging a word with her husband, Kitty proceeds from her dressing room to the car that waits at the door. She makes the train with minutes to spare. In the sleeping compartment that has been reserved for her, her things have been set out and the bed has been turned down. When she wakes up a few hours later, another car is waiting at the station where she gets off — this other car is a birthday present from her husband. The car whisks her up through the countryside to a castle — her husband’s castle. Breakfast awaits her in the morning room. Then she changes into country clothes and goes for a walk, climbing to the high point on the property. Here she throws herself on the grass — how wonderful it is to have nothing to do! I can’t tell you how satisfying I found this conclusion to the breathlessly luxurious episode.

Now, to re-read all those diary entries.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Bentley
January 2018 (II)

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

9, 10 and 12 January

Tuesday 9th

Ageing is not for sissies, they say. But it’s the sort of thing that gets said only the morning after, when conditions have returned normal, leaving behind nothing worse than an intensified recognition that “normal” is always inching toward death.

On Sunday morning, I awoke feeling warm enough under the covers, but disturbed by the menace of a chill. I ought, I thought, to pull another blanket over me, or perhaps just the luxurious beach towel that Kathleen and I call “the mink,” because it brings instant warmth. But I wanted to stay under the covers, so I did nothing — nothing, that is, but dwell on the impending chill, which in a little while became real enough. The occasional shiver soon gave way nonstop shaking in my arms and shoulders. Kathleen can sleep through anything, and even my mewling and whining on top of the seismics did not disturb her, so, after half an hour, I had to cry out to wake her. She covered me with more blankets, but the shivering went on unabated. Eventually, I had to go to the bathroom, where, overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability, I incidentally discovered that there was nothing wrong with my GI tract. Nor did I have a fever. Back in bed, still possessd by an upper-body tarantella, I ventured, through chattering teeth, the diagnosis that I was suffering from an anxiety attack. Kathleen had a pill for that and she gave me one. Whether it was the right pill or not, I stopped shaking almost immediately. I felt awful for the rest of day, largely from the wear and tear of all that involuntary rock ‘n’ roll, but it was clear that nothing would have happened if I hadn’t been such a sissy to begin with.

I managed to “get through Christmas.” I really did enjoy it. But I am in terrible shape and must do something about it. Just to cheer me up à la Bronx, my blood pressure, taken during this afternoon’s quarterly visit to the rheumatologist, was 124/80. Smoke and mirrors! I told the nurse that if she would come back in fifteen minutes, I could guarantee 164/105, but she didn’t take me up on it.


For some reason, a novel called Lunch With Elizabeth David, by Roger Williams (Little, Brown; 1999) has been shelved high up the living room amidst a clutch of poetry books, instead of with the novels. So I see it whenever I am sitting with Kathleen before or after dinner. Had it been with the novels, I’d probably have given it away by now, for I remember not liking it very much. I appear to have ordered it from Amazon in the UK at the tail end of an Elizabeth David craze. I can’t find either book right now, but in the mid-Nineties two biographies of the famous British food writer appeared almost simultaneously (one of them by Artemis Cooper [née Diana, after her grandmother]), and I read them back to back. Instead of going on to read David herself, however, I followed other tangents. Most memorably, I read South Wind, which I’d never heard of, by Norman Douglas, whom ditto. I disliked it rather a lot; it struck me as a sort of Lucia without the fun. There were too many maxims and too much poetical prose. Then, along came Williams’ novel, with a big, big part for Douglas and not much for David.

Before the biographies, I had been awakened to Elizabeth David by a feature in The World of Interiors devoted to the kitchens in her Chelsea house, the contents of which were about to be auctioned (the kitchens and the auction figure in Lunch almost as surrogates for David herself). Yes, two kitchens, one for summer and one for winter. The kitchens were aggressively retro, with nothing more advanced than a four-burner cooker and not an electric appliance in sight. In later years, David was said to sit at one end of an enormous kitchen table — from an old stately home, probably — and occasionally check on whatever was cooking in the oven, without having to leave her seat, or, for that matter, to put down her wineglass. Unhappy in love throughout her life — she was too good for the men who attracted her, and not attracted to good men — David drank herself, not into an early grave exactly (she made it into her eighties), but into a premature seclusion from the world that was dictated by the erosion of her charms and the deterioration of her mobility.

Eventually, I got round to reading her, and, on the page, she is eternal, the match of any writer in any field. She is one of the lasting literary feminists, women who persuade any sensible reader of the balanced equality of the sexes simply by being as interesting as any man. She had the genius to write about food like a gourmand, hitherto an exclusively masculine specialty, and only where absolutely necessary as a cook in a kitchen. She was totally guyish in the ostentatious display of a not-entirely-honest thesis that everything culinary is really easy-peasy, no sweat, once you understand it correctly. She and Julia Child had nothing but ingredients in common and, wisely, they never met. David’s recipe for veal scallops cauchoise (apples, Calvados, and cream) is indeed, as she insists, the only interesting thing that can be done with this particular cut of meat. (Wienerschnitzel works much better with chicken.) At the same time, I utterly disagree with her contempt for gadgets. An uncoordinated doofus with a knife, I need all the help I can get. Nevertheless, I read her screed against garlic presses with glee just the same.

Shirley Hazzard wrote a lovely little book about Douglas and his crowd in her memoir, Greene on Capri. Greene was an unlikely friend of Douglas, I’d have thought, but no, there was some concord of bells in their alternative modernisms. Douglas wanted to be a pagan, Greene a Christian. In Capri, they could be lapsed, and let the environment supply the baroque and the classical as needed. Hazzard features an important member of the cercle whom Williams omits, the formidable Dottoressa (lady doctor, need I say? but doctor of what?). I forget everything about this doughty Italian woman but her title, which I faintly recall to have been medical. I foresee a spell of truffle-hunting in my shelves.

Roger Williams’s novel — I’ll tell you later, in connection with another book, why I chose to re-read it now — is really rather good, if you’re willing to let him treat the lady of his title, as so many great playwrights have done, as a tantalizing offstage presence. She does appear, and not just once, but the book is “about” her only to the extent that it is about enjoying the great simple pleasures. And what would those be? In Chapter 5, Douglas and his young charge run into an inn-full of Italian emigrants to America, Pittsburgh mostly, who have returned to Apulia for the St Michael festival. Whatever their status in their newfound land, they are lords of the earth back in Italy, and they can’t imagine why anybody stays.

Douglas smiled. “How right you are. There is no fucking money here. And that is why I like it.”

The man looked at Douglas’s twinkling eyes for a moment, wondering if they were patronizing him. Then he laughed and clapped Douglas on the back. “More wine for this Mister,” he shouted, and he put his face close. “Of course you like it,” he said, “because in the land without lire the man with a soldo is king.” (80)

And there you have it: why a world of easy sophistication vanished in the era of Postwar prosperity. It costs a lot of money, relatively speaking, to make veal cauchoise nowadays. Even a good Granny Smith apple isn’t cheap.


Wednesday 10th

Oprah, Don’t Do It,” ran the headline of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times. If I had all day, I’d wonder (as Frank Bruni did in his Op-Ed column today) how long the Oprah bubble is going to float, and how we will remember it when it pops. The most interesting thing about it right now is the enormous personal authority that Ms Winfrey brings to her intersection of the political and media worlds, which might possibly pierce the former with the latter’s new insistence on the integrity of women. And her (black) life is one that matters as much as anybody’s.

Williams’s piece looked to be, like so many recent Op-Ed entries, obvious, jejune, and unnecessary. And it was, but I’m glad that I read it, because it clarified the muddle of blue-state politics down to one muddled word, and that word is “serious.” It is time to get serious about what this word means in politics, by insisting that it signify not an attitude but a platform. Mr Williams:

I am not immune to Oprah’s charms, but President Winfrey is a terrible idea. It also underscores the extent to which Trumpism — the kowtowing to celebrity and ratings, the repudiation of experience and expertise — has infected our civic life. The ideal post-Trump politician will, at the very least, be a deeply serious figure with a strong record of public service behind her. It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act.

Hmm: at the very least, be a deeply serious figure… Serious about what? Serious about what, exactly? Experience and expertise sound great, but what kind of experience and expertise are we looking for in a president? Here we can at least point to presidents who have accrued political experience and expertise in statehouses, as governors, and if I were re-writing the Constitution, no one but state governors could be elected Chief Executive. “Serious,” in contrast, doesn’t seem to mean much. A frown? A deliberative air? As I say, it can’t be a mere attitude. What are the qualities of the serious politician? And to what extent do we forgive that politician for taking his or her career seriously? These are two very serious questions raised by the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was nothing if not deeply serious.

Oprah Winfrey’s appearance on the political scene is exciting because she brings a proven gift for leadership into the discussion. Seriousness is no substitute for leadership. Seriousness is helpless, as we have seen, when confronted with leadership’s evil twin, demagoguery. And yet how exactly does leadership distinguish itself from demagoguery? Der Führer means “the leader”; how do we institutionalize, as every liberal democracy must, and yet none has yet done, protections that prevent embryo Hitlers from posing as leaders? This problem has not been solved, which is probably why Williams doesn’t talk about leadership. Twentieth-century nightmares have left everyone uneasy with leaders, so that aside from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, we have done without leadership in this country, settling instead for uneasy blends of seriousness and charm. I’m pretty sure that President Winfrey would have a self-improvement Program for every American man, woman and child that many would follow and that most would admire. But we’d be lucky to have her. Nothing in our political culture that could take credit for producing, or even nourishing her.

I hope that the Oprah bubble floats long enough for it to teach us to be more specific about what we’re looking for.


Friday 12th

A word or two about Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

First of all, why?

Because Craig Brown wrote it. We do not follow Craig Brown in America, perhaps because his humor is so deeply embedded in an ear for the varieties of spoken English that he is a virtual philologist. We do not speak English in America; we speak American, a mongrel patois. The British are not fond of mongrels. Britons seem devoted to breeding, horses or sheep or petunias or even swedes — er, turnips. The “class system” is the inevitable application of this passion for distinction to human beings, as manifested not only by accents but by manners of speaking. (It would be “such fun!” to hear the Queen talk about “our Charlie.”) For me, the philosophical question is whether English can be spoken by someone who is not invested in the class system. Craig Brown gives proof that one can listen with the coolest dispassion.

Brown is a mimic, a parodist. He listens closely, and then repeats with interesting, vaguely dissonant variations. He imagines an alternative universe in which Margaret Rose was born first, before Elizabeth, and he gives us a Christmas Message from Margaret I, dated 1977. It is not the highlight of the book, but I can imagine that English readers, few of whom can have been alive before the tap of royal bromide was turned on (by George V), must experience a frisson of dismay mixed with transgressive glee at Margaret’s closing:

And with this in mind, I’ll wish you all a very happy Christmas, not because I really want to, but because I suppose I must. (397)

It is difficult to imagine the reign of Margaret I stretching all the way to 1977. Second, where do I get that idea? I refer you to Brown’s sixty-eighth glimpse, which raises but does not explore the whole curious business of British royal-watching. He doesn’t even mention that they don’t go in for such things elsewhere, even where crowned heads still nod. I believe that the highly ambivalent pastime of following the doings of Princess Michael of Kent and the rest is itself rooted in the English language, in its peculiarly sophisticated strains of mockery, by which I mean sophisticated ways of being crude. I was thinking about a lewd joke involving Princess Margaret and an automobile that I’d otherwise forgotten, but that’s why God invented Google, so here it is, if you dare. I’m not saying that the joke wouldn’t occur, or wouldn’t work, in another language, but the funny bit is not really the chauffeur’s remark but the setup, which is the dainty confessions of the the Queen and Lady Di to the Queen Mother, after their encounter with the highwayman. It is very funny, somehow, to imagine these particular ladies speaking of “private places.” You almost expect the punchline.

It’s the sort of sordid sexual caricature that doomed Marie Antoinette and Alexandra. In Britain, though, it has no political bite whatsoever, even when told by a republican who feel that the Firm is a waste of money. Something about the House of Windsor, interacting with something about the Twentieth Century — perhaps Wallis Simpson was the catalyst — precipitated an enormous volume of impudent and irreverent commentary, all of it written down somewhere, mostly in newspapers, about the Royal Family. A corpus of nicknames and euphemisms was developed over the generations, complete with contributions by the Royal Family itself (“the Firm,” for example). Instead of alienating the monarch and her family from her subjects, it has bound them together in a ritual disrepect — calling the Queen “Brenda,” and so forth — that drains pomposity from the ritual pomp. It is a sleight-of-hand show in which everybody knows, or thinks he knows, how it’s done.

From an early age, and quite openly once her sister was crowned, Margaret behaved like an in-house Wallis: naughty, impatient, fun-seeking, faux-bohemian. Margaret ought to have been a lollipop of a girl who professed to like everything. Instead, she dropped her middle name. She discovered that it was much funnier to say that she hated everything, whether she meant it or not, simply to overthrow the expectation. It was beyond her intellectual reach to make truly interesting comments, so she had to settle for the shock of being rude.

It’s an emblem of the enigma of Margaret — was she imaginative or dim? — that she seems to have regarded herself as more royal than her sister because, while they were both daughters of a king, only Margaret had a queen for a sister, too. There is something compelling, if hare-brained, about this conclusion.

That is why everybody knows that Margaret would have made a botch of the monarchy, and perhaps even brought it to an end.

Third, speechless. If you have doubts about the pleasures of Ma’am Darling, I suggest that you find a copy in a quiet bookshop, retire to a quiet corner, and see if you can keep it quiet while you read Glimpse Nº 70 (294)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (I)

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

2, 3 and 4 January 2018

Tuesday 2

Halfway through the book, I’ve already flagged a dozen passages with Post-its. Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries (hereinafter “VFD“) has turned out to be amazingly more important than I thought it would be. I expected fun, guilty pleasure, recollections of youth, that sort of thing —  vanity, in short. I dithered for weeks about buying the book at all, finally justifying its purchase as a holiday treat. I did not expect to like Tina Brown.

Whether I would like Tina Brown in person is neither here nor there. But on the page, she appeals to me as winningly as the heroine of any novel I can think of (except perhaps Emma Woodhouse, who has her own heaven). Tina Brown is smart and good in almost equal measure, and the difficulty of determining which quality is preponderant makes for suspenseful reading. Her brains are obvious — prodigious brains, three or four times more charged than my own were at the time (and I’m five years older). Of course she captures the rush, rush, rush of New York’s media life, the thrill and occasional despair of taking on a chancy publishing project (advertisers took a while to catch up with Vanity Fair‘s circulation), and I helplessly hear these dramatic passages as if Helen Mirren were reading them. But Brown’s range is as wide as any good novelist’s, and sometimes she steps back to transcribe a conversation (more likely an argument)  in which she herself does not take part. Once she becomes a mother, she reveals a streak of serenity that must always have been there. But she never spares herself. From an early entry:

Everyone at the party was so famous but unfortunately I had never heard of them. I said to Shirley MacLaine, “What do you do?” She gave me a manic, hostile stare and went on talking to Ed Epstein about how he should research a book about flying saucers. (43)

What grips me, though, is the sense that, even as she roars from success to success, Tina Brown is making a terrible mistake, in the way that we watch Isabel Archer make a terrible mistake in The Portrait of a Lady. The difference is that Brown’s mistake concerns not her personal life but American culture. The nature of the mistake glimmers in the final entry for 1984:

We are seeing the invasion of DC by California and Park Avenue, the fusion of Women’s Wear Daily values with Washington Post power watching, a cast of characters who see everything through the lens of Hollywood and Le Cirque. It’s perfect fodder for a magazine called Vanity Fair. I have been experiencing the endless round of black-tie dinners and openings as a trivial sidebar to the main event. But now it seems at this moment they are the main event, central to understanding how the money moves around and why. It could all collapse and we will see it as some fin de siècle gallery of grotesques and wish we had been more attentive. (127-8)

Attentive to what? That Tina Brown, endowed with ultra-sensitive antennae, could be missing something is hard to imagine. But her remarks betray the fact that the important thing that’s possibly being overlooked is not small. It is not elusive or difficult to track down. It is as huge as the country itself. It is the coalescence of all the various local, state, federal, professional, industrial and financial élites into one mass of equalized celebrities, held in balance by “the money.”

It is easy to dismiss glamour, but just as easy to underestimate its power, particularly when a genius like Tina Brown figures out how to bond it with seriousness to produce a brand-new compound with miraculous properties. From late 1985:

Just in from a soirée for the cabaret pianist Bobby Short. Some diamond-studded socialite crooned at me, “My dear, you have certainly found your audience, and it’s me! Vanity Fair is a society movie magazine. You don’t remember what they are, but you’re it.” She’s half-right. But it’s more the VF attitude to fame and the mix of stories that ensnare the reader with juxtaposition. We give intellectuals movie star treatment and movie stars an intellectual sheen and the same is true of the audience. Brainy people in our pages seem more glamorous and movie people seem more substantive. I love putting madcap Princess Gloria von Turn und Taxis in the same issue as Schiff’s profile of the editor of the National Review. Both of them are hidden stars in their own world, but combined in a magazine that has Dustin Hoffman on the cover, they confer fascination on each other. It’s funny how sometimes the mix takes on a life of its own and goes off the cliff. The January issue is suddenly so full of people with bald heads that I had to kill three of them today. (176)

Reading this thirty-four years later, at the beginning of the second calendar year of the Trump presidency, I gasp at the unwitting adroitness with which Tina Brown and her staff made straight in the desert a highway to the White House for the man whom she compares, in these pages, to Elvis Presley. Vanity Fair became a universal directory of notable Americans, splitting the nation into teams of those who would do almost anything to break into its pages and those who could be stoked into hatred of established institutions by carnival barkers who mocked its membership. Worse, the people with listings in Vanity Fair were distracted from their regular duties by the “trivial sidebar” of showing up to honor their hordes of peers, not to mention the stress of looking after “the money.” There are moments in VFD when Tina Brown sounds like a naval architect who has just designed a cruise ship to capsize in a tsunami.

As I say, I’m only about halfway through. I expect that I’ll have more to say. My feelings toward the heroine of VFD are forgiving. She came from a small country where the élite has for generations come from a handful of schools, and everybody has always known everybody else. With just a couple of issues under her belt, Tina Brown opined,

America is too big, too rich, too driven. America needs editing. (96)

I agree, but maybe it’s a good thing that, unlike Tina Brown, I couldn’t do anything about it.


Wednesday 3rd

Then there is that magic place, which Tina Brown calls “Transatlantica.”

That place between England and America is the only world where I can be happy now. (308)

In the kingdom of Transatlantica, well-dressed people with well-dressed minds work hard during the week but luxuriate in well-upholstered tranquillity during the weekend. There are two capitals. One is very charming, as cities go, and it is surrounded by sopping green lanes. The other is the acme of excitement, and it is within reach of one of the world’s longest beaches. A handful of grand old universities nourish rigorous learning alongside quaint, antediluvian tradition. The students are bright young people who go on to rise to the top in their professions and produce more bright young people. Transatlanticans share the general human interest in sex, but they have a peculiar passion for talk. They publish all the books printed in English, and little of cultural note happens outside of their realm.

If you ask me, it was inordinate belief in the magic of Transatlantica that put Donald Trump in the White House and that may put the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Transatlantica does not exist. Its would-be inhabitants share real-world citizenship with millions of men and women who have never heard of it, and would resent it if they did.

For some people, climate change and global warming are the big problem. For others, it’s late-stage capitalism and the unintended side-effects of a global economy. For me, it’s the tendency of every thoughtful Anglophone to find companionship if not comfort in London or New York. Or rather, it’s the tendency of Transatlanticans to imagine that the lives that they feel very lucky to enjoy would be desirable by all.

After the beauty of the [Elkhorn Ranch in Arizona] the Tucson mall was disorienting and depressing: a sprawling, characterless mess of Kmarts and gas stations and drugstores. As we drove around in the blinding rain, or cruised down the fluorescent-lit aisles of throbbing products in the gigantic pharmacy where we went to collect G’s prescriptions, I thought how this is an America I will never warm to, America as a huge, vacant, product-filled, centerless, culturally sterile parking lot. It’s fiercely alien to me and in a way I’m glad that it is. If it weren’t, I’m not sure I’d be able to successfully edit Vanity Fair. I might not have the confidence to choose with uninhibited focus what interests me to read about. (ibidem)

I am no fan of fluorescent-lit aisles. But I can remember when they didn’t exist, when American shops were dingy and poky, just like everybody else’s. I can remember when, in the Seventies, the big Targets and Kmarts went up in the center of parking lots, their merchandise plentifully arrayed on clean, brightly-lighted shelves. We were all wowed. Nobody expected Tarjay to be charming, but nobody expected it to be ubiquitous, either, and it took a while to realize that these emporia were really warehouses, the merchants having been swept away with the dust. That’s when it dawned on educated Americans that their country had become “huge, vacant, product-filled,” and so on. But it was only the educated who had these misgivings. Everyone else just parked the car, ran in for whatever was needed, paid for it, and ran back to the car again. No biggie.

Education has failed Transatlanticans in one respect. It has not helped them to live with their uneducated countrymen. To be sure, when Tina Brown was writing her diary entries, it wasn’t so obvious that education ought to have forestalled, instead of perversely feeding, the mounting contempt with which educated Britons and Americans regarded their uneducated neighbors — who, of course, soon ceased to be neighbors, as the affluent segregated themselves in expensive conclaves. Education appears to have taught that it’s the lack of education that’s the failure. I only hope that this mistake won’t turn out to be as fatal as contempt for the common people was for the French upper classes not much more than two centuries ago.

It goes without saying that I’d be a happy Transatlantican myself, if I could, if it were possible. But it isn’t. I can’t even pretend to believe in Susan Sontag’s metaphor about Manhattan, as an ocean liner tied up to the docks of America. For one thing, guess where Donald Trump has lived for most of his adult life.


Thursday 4th

Regular readers, if asked to free-associate from the name of Tina Brown, would probably sooner rather than later come up with the word “glitz.” This isn’t because Brown or her Vanity Fair were particularly glitzy, but were rather taking the whole fun of glitz way upmarket. Anybody might look at her magazine, but only educated people could read it, or would want to. That meant us. It had been a long time — more than fifty years — since the likes of us had been tempted by qualities spelled with the letter ‘z.’ When Tina Brown took over Vanity Fair, glitz is pretty much all we saw. We would not have been surprised to read Brown’s judgment of one piece that appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair before she got her hands on it: “There’s a brainy but boring Helen Vendler essay next to an Amy Clampitt poem…” (26) Helen Vendler is never boring, but she might, admittedly, be miscast in a publication devoted to the more ephemeral manifestations of wit and sophistication. We would have ironically clucked that Vendler isn’t glitzy enough for Vanity Fair, but we would have been wrong to think that that meant there was something wrong with the magazine.

There is very little glitz in VFD. Brown notes several lunches at the Four Seasons over the years — she must have sat through dozens — but it’s always for business, and such pleasure as is on offer tends toward the mordant. (The patrons are all “plotting each other’s downfall.”) The restaurant itself leaves her cold, as indeed it did me the couple of times I was there and Kathleen the many more. “So antiseptic and colorless. Why do power people want to go there?” (ibidem) Why, indeed? After a while, the bold-face names that stud the VFD entries shrink a bit into who they actually are: people Tina Brown knows and, on occasion, must put up with. And do business with. Tina Brown likes to do business, if it’s the media business. She loves competition and is always elated by success — no false world-weariness here. Her house at Quoque is a blessed asylum, but, like Horace, she would always like to be in the other place. She is onto that about herself, though, and self-pity never has a chance.

Readers who think of Tina Brown as glitzy might feel justified by the passage that I have copied out below, but I beg them to study it until it becomes clear that no merely glitzy, or even significantly glitzy writer could have composed it. It is a masterpiece of expanding view. Beginning with “what I wore” it widens by sure steps to include the full-throttle, almost hilarious vitality of a Costume Institute opening in the Eighties. I know — I went the year before. (Strictly B group.) Fashion may be vain and silly, but it is also utterly human, and virulently infectious. And I think it’s pretty clear from Brown’s tone that this is an experience that would pall if it were not always presented in new settings and with new people. There can be only one Costume Institute opening a year. And the secret, which has been lost in the social insecurity state, was that the doors were flung open much wider in those days; the event was not nearly as exclusive as it would become.

It’s also worth noting that any man who expressed such open pleasure at simply being somewhere would almost inevitably be gay. Why is that?

I borrowed a silver velvet evening coat from Jackie Rogers to wear over a thin black silk full-length evening sack she made me to hide the bulge. A professional makeup artist came to do my face, which I didn’t much like, but it made me feel suitably glam. I loved the excess and finery and ostentation of it all, teetering past the Egyptian mummies and fading frescoes in our silly heels, herding into an elevator in a clash of perfumes and rustle of silks, disembarking into the darkened Costumes of Royal India show to oohs and aahs over outsize gold mannequins swathed in glittering silks and jewel-encrusted turbans, with the appreciative murmur of visiting Indian high society and the excited chatter of Gayfryd Steinberg and her posse. The walkers were out in force — the mincing gait of Peter Schub with Lynn Hyatt one arm and bouffante Judy Peabody on the other. Reinaldo Herrera in a tux has the inverted A waist of the society man par excellence, escorting on his left hand his lofty, expensively-coiffed mother, on his right, Carolina, his Eva Peron-like wife. After dinner we wandered into the Temple of Dendur, where Peter Duchin was pounding the piano and a million candles lit the drafty spaces where the B group, who didn’t get seated, sparkled and networked and hustled. As Nick said, the bravery. This is what I appreciate most about the city at night, the life force of New York aspiration, wanting, wanting to be seen. The erratic flames of the myriad glowworms — the striving fashion assistants, makeup artists, art gallery gofers, photography apprentices, gossip stringers, all the glamour wannabes dressed up with their “looks” in place. How they danced. How they gestured and waved and admired one another’s glad rags, cutting like flamboyant tugs through the sea of jaded vessels such as the SS Jerry Zipkin and the SS Barbara Walters. This is the moment when the social energy of the city — in Diller’s word — metastasizes, when individual crassness and need are absorbed into the bedazzled, glory-seeking hum of “Look at me! I’m alive!” (179)

Bon week-end à tous!