Archive for August, 2018

Gotham Diary:
Fifth-Tier Grifters
August 2018 (V)

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

28 and 30 August

Tuesday 28th

This Web log is becoming difficult to maintain. It is hard to think, much less to write, with all the background noise of crumbling. And is this noise a sound effect, an illusion projected by our growing confusion? Or is the world really falling apart?

Somehow, I manage. But I’m having an unusually hard time today, trying to assess the damage done, or at least intended, by Archbishop Viganò’s demand that Pope Francis resign. Such a demand has not, I think, been made since the Middle Ages, when complaints were made by armed forces, not open letters. It is the archbishop’s position that the pope protected the recently defrocked cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, and, behind McCarrick, a network of homosexual clergymen in the United States. The letter (which I haven’t read) doesn’t connect this network with the rash of pedophile abuses that have once again surged to the fore in the news cycle, thanks to a grand jury report in Pennsylvania. That’s an important point, one that I daresay many will miss. I have no doubt the archbishop hopes they will. In the prevailing confusion, many may take the archbishop to be accusing the pope of protecting pedophiles.

In parallel to the secular civil-rights struggle that has been irritating the American body politic since the Sixties, a fight for the spirit of American Catholicism has been raging for just as long. The contenders in both conflicts have had much the same objectives: conservatives who defend the status quo on one side, campaigners for the social justice of ending all kinds of outsider status on the other. Notwithstanding all the political rhetoric, this is nothing less than a battle for the nature of God. Is God righteous, or is he merciful? Does he love his creation, or does it disgust him? Did he endow man with a brain so that man can think for himself, or is the whole purpose of intelligence to praise what God has done? Doctrinally, the conservatives are on firmer ground; it is difficult, I think, to find support for inclusive social justice in the writings of Scripture, which bristle with anathemas. The question is whether the old doctrines still have much support.

The Church purports to be unchanging, but of course it cannot be in a world that changes constantly. Catholic authorities have developed a knack not so much for adapting to new circumstances as for retouching aspects of the past to make them look more like the present. This requires a good deal of cleverness, but in the end it is the sheer limits of common memory that do the work. Nobody today can remember a religious climate in which people could be condemned to death for their views on the Trinity. When confronted with such horrors, contemporary believers blame the long-dead authorities, not the Church itself.

Enlightened opinion from 1750 on regarded the Church as moribund, unlikely to survive the century. And, in a way, enlightened opinion was right. The Church did not disappear in the Age of Revolutions, but it underwent a metamorphosis — or rather, the opposite of a metamorphosis, for the outward Church appeared unchanged. The abstract doctrines that had dominated scholastic debate even after the onset of the Renaissance were shelved; the Church now stood ready to protect traditional ways of life, which of course presupposed membership in the Church, but also placed a new emphasis on the conformity of lay behavior to age-old norms. This has degenerated into a defense of “family life” against claims of sexual autonomy. The real issue is the superiority of celibate males.

Over the centuries, the purely practical reasons for taking a vow of celibacy have dwindled, at least in the West. It is hard not to sound cynical about this, when all I mean to do is sound humane. Why should a healthy heterosexual man renounce sexual pleasure and intimate companionship? I am not talking about monks here, retiring into bastions of piety. I’m talking about secular priests, living among and ministering to the laity. In any case, vocations have fallen, and American diocese are staffing parishes with priests from poorer countries. One must wonder where this trend will end.

For a time, it now appears, an increasingly significant practical reason for joining the priesthood was its accommodation of homosexual life. It is important here to distinguish pedophilia from any variety of adult sexuality: pedophilia is an erotic perversion that finds pleasure in commanding the powerless. To Archbishop Viganò, I suppose, the differences between pedophilia and homosexuality, considered as perversions, are not very interesting. As I say, it is hard to doubt that the timing of his letter is opportunistic. But the recruitment of gay men to the priesthood, on a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, was an early response to the drop in the number of seminarians. Unlike the Protestant denominations, whose ministers are free to marry, the Church has never been able to afford a rigorously inquisitive approach to its priests’ private lives. Archbishop Viganò and other conservative leaders want to change that. They want it so badly that they are prepared to force the resignation of a pope who seems to have grown up not very uncomfortable, given the press of other, more spiritual concerns, with the tacit tolerance of sexual deviance.

What kind of God, indeed.


Thursday 30th

A few minutes ago, I finished reading Ian Parker’s piece about Glenn Greenwald in The New Yorker. It filled me with a sensation that I can only call “the narcissism of small differences,” but that’s not right, because it not a feeling of antagonism toward Greenwald, whom I have always vaguely regarded, from the distance of someone who avoids all forms of media strife, as a troublemaker. It was, rather, an inquisition into why I, surprised to find that I share Greenwald’s conviction that American institutions were in very bad shape long before Donald Trump came along, and also, but not with the same intensity, his belief that anti-Trump “resistance” is little more than a campaign to restore the status quo ante (the only explanation of the resistors’ embrace of the FBI and the CIA), why I don’t share his outrage.

Aside from differences in temperament — I am not a debater, which according to Parker Greenwald very much is; and I find that hostility is always an expense that exceeds its value — I conclude what damps the sparks that might ignite an angry outburst is my pessimism about the prospects of a democracy in a population that is too addicted to excitement to pay attention to what is actually happening. More and more, I regard Trump as a sort of Biblical plague, unloosed by a Jehovah indignant at his chosen people’s violation of the covenant.

This covenant incorporates what have come to be called The Federalist Papers, a series of epistolary essays designed to explain to the literate voters of the United States, from every angle, the nature of the constitutional democracy that the Federalists proposed — and the harm caused by human weakness that it was designed to mitigate. James Madison and his colleagues would have been horrified by the pride with which later generations would praise the Constitution as “a machine that would go of itself.” The Constitution was no machine, but only a guide, and a guide only as valuable as the quality of attention paid to it.

I often blame television for the low standard of public life, but I have come to see that doing so is no different from blaming the current president for long-standing evils. Television is simply the latest in the series of intellectually undemanding solutions that Americans have preferred ever since the Revolution, when impatience with the British government’s hostility to the colonies’ westward expansion fueled popular support for an élitist undertaking. The Founders’ tragedy is that Americans overall were always unworthy of their noble experiment. Once the Founders’ aura wore off — long before two of them, Jefferson and Adams, both contrived to die on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of independence — Americans rolled up their sleeves and greedily exploited the cornucopia of resources that was theirs for the taking. Andrew Carnegie would write a tract called “The Gospel of Wealth,” but he might better have said “of Taking.” Taking was justified by the takers’ knack for making something out of their loot, whether it be railroads, washing machines, or profits to be invested in new kinds of production, but during the 1970s an even better solution was hit upon (heavy irony intended) when the money men figured out how to put wealth to use in the production of more wealth. This, I predict, will be the last apple on the tree, after which we shall all be expelled from the dream of Easy Living that Americans have always hoped for, after which it will be necessary to think much more seriously about work.

Which is not to say that we’ll have to work harder. We’ll just have to pay more attention to what we’re working on — to what we’re doing. We’ll have a lot less time for idle watching.

I agree with Glenn Greenwald that, since the Second World War, the United States has inflicted more harm and death on the world than any other outside force. It is difficult to read the history of recent times without reaching this conclusion. (My phrasing is designed to except domestically-induced famines, in China and elsewhere.) What gives this awfulness its peculiarly American flavor is the fact that most Americans are genuinely unaware of the nation’s record abroad. For too many Americans, the kinds of “abroad” that are not represented at Disney World simply don’t exist.

Some Americans are very attentive — they’re paid to be. Recent books such as We the Corporations and Tailspin illustrate the cleverness with which lawyers and politicians hired by organized money have misled and bamboozled Americans who can’t be bothered to tune into anything but scandal and catastrophe. Paying attention does not usually involve the thrilling detective work of a Sherlock Holmes. It is often quite boring, and it requires a long memory. Engineers — notorious for dullness — pay scrupulous attention to the facts of the physical world. That’s simplicity itself, compared to the complicated sympathies that the citizen of a democracy composed of diverse human beings must exercise.

The pity of it is that Americans have so enthusiastically and even successfully pursued every other kind of virtue.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2018 (IV)

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

21, 22 and 23 August

Tuesday 21st

Reading the novella, “Reading Turgenev,” the first of two that William Trevor collected under the cover of Two Lives, I was reminded of a short story that I was pretty sure was also Trevor’s. In the short story, too, as I recalled, a girl rode a bicycle out of a small town into the countryside and visited a clever but sick young man in a remote house at the end of a drive. What I suppose it was about this motif that caught my attention was the unconventional inversion of the elements of a familiar trope: usually, it is the young man who rides out in search of the beautiful, but perhaps imprisoned, maiden. In any case, when I finished “Reading Turgenev,” I hauled down the bulky tome that contains all of Trevor’s stories up to 1992, and, after a good deal of searching, I found what I was looking for. It is called “Virgins.”

What the story and the novella have in common is the life-changing quality of the visits. But the young men are very different, and so are the visitors’ circumstances. Actually, there are two girls in “Virgins,” and each of them is altered by a parallel conviction that the charming invalid has chosen her. That they never discuss this between themselves is perhaps the first indication that they will soon outgrown their virginity; when the story begins, decades have passed, and the girls are now wives and mothers, tourists in Italy. They have not kept in touch. It will turn out that, during their second meeting with the dying boy, he asked both of them, quite separately, to write to him. Two much-treasured romantic correspondences ensued. Then the boy died. Because one of the girls is much more outspoken than the other, only the quieter girl fully understands what has happened; she knows about the boy’s humiliation of her friend because he wrote to her about it. But as she hasn’t acknowledged her own letters to and from the boy, she can’t express her sympathy. As it is, the other girl’s suspicions sour their friendship.

Laura, the more circumspect girl, knows why the boy humiliated Margaretta, because she grasps that the boy was playing with them. But that knowledge is her humiliation, and she keeps it to herself. The boy was dying; he needed amusement, and he enlisted the correspondence of two girls who would be away at school, writing to each of them exactly what she wanted to hear, and receiving no doubt flattering responses. Actual visits were unnecessary to this game, and actively discouraged. Margaretta was humiliated, in fact, because she ventured to pay an unsolicited, one might even say forbidden, visit to the house at the end of the drive.

It is sad and even a bit sordid, this story. Two girls are taken advantage of by an unscrupulous young man, and eventually horrified by the knowledge, in one case, and the suspicion, in the other, that they have shared both him and his mistreatment. “Reading Turgenev” is utterly different. Trevor’s virtuosity, usually implicit, becomes palpable when the story and the novella are considered together. He has put one rather striking motif (girls riding bicycles to visit dying young men) to two highly contrasting uses.

Mary Louise, the girl in “Reading Turgenev” is also a virgin, but disastrously. She has married a prosperous shopkeeper in order to escape the family farm. The marriage has not been (and never will be) consummated; the man, like his wife a virgin at the altar, too late discovers that she does not arouse him because she is not “his type.” The new bride is persecuted by her sisters-in-law, but she learns to ignore them. Then one Sunday afternoon, aimlessly cycling home from a visit to her parents’, she passes a familiar drive, at the end of which lives her aunt. The aunt’s husband was a feckless gambler who left her with a crumbling house and an invalid child. Years ago, when the boy went to school, Mary Louise had a crush on him, but she forgot about him when he stopped coming to classes (transferring her affections to James Stewart, whom the reader might not at first recognize as the movie star). Now, upon visiting him, she learns that he has always loved her, that he came to her wedding but stayed away from her wedding party because it would have been too painful. He takes her to an abandoned graveyard, adjacent to the burned-out hulk of a church, that nobody else knows about. There they have many Sunday-afternoon meetings, chaste until the very last one, when Robert kisses her. That night, he dies in his sleep. But Mary Louise knows what love is now, and it sets her free.

The freedom is purely internal. At home, over the shop, her mischievous disregard for the wickedly obsessed sisters-in-law eventually presents them with the opportunity they’ve been looking for. Mary Louise is interned in a home, where she spends thirty-one years, reading Robert’s beloved Russian novels, over and over, and eventually, one might say, she moves into them. It is not really madness; Mary Louise knows where she is. But she pays it no mind. She is disappointed when her husband comes to visit; “I thought you might be Insarov,” she tells him, referring to the hero of On the Eve.

I wish I could explain why “Reading Turgenev” needs to be about ten times longer than “Virgins,” beyond the obvious point that Mary Louise is a vessel of transcendence, whereas Laura and Margaretta are just pretty girls growing up. As teenagers, they have no reason to experience the desperation that prompts Mary Louise to accept the proposal of a dull draper who will take his first step into alcoholism on their marriage-night. They will have no reason to find out what really matters.


The other novella in Two Lives is “My House in Umbria,” which was made into a lovely motion picture starring Maggie Smith, for whose voice, indeed, the novella seems written. The movie is quite faithful to Trevor’s tale, although it amplifies the careless indulgence of Mrs Delahunty’s drinking. Also, there is no Giancarlo Gianni character, no charming, English-speaking detective to share her conclusions about what happened in the train. And the end — well, one knew that William Trevor could never have compassed it.


Wednesday 22nd

Oh dear, another “End of Trump?” piece at The New Yorker online. How many have there already been? Haven’t they heard of jinxes?

But what’s on my mind today is misogyny. There are men who really don’t like women, who use them (or don’t) for sex, but have as little else to do with them as possible. Clear misogyny.

But there are also men who regard women as delightful decorations, and who like being intimate with them. Some of these men steer clear of “challenging” women. There are (still) plenty of women who are happy to please a man, especially a well-behaved one. Some of these women are genuinely dim, but some are very clever Sheherazades. Some of the men who like women don’t mind an occasional challenge and are happy to spar with them on a recreational basis, perhaps even to lose an argument now and then. But these men, probably because they equate seriousness with their own masculine habits of mind, can’t be brought to believe that women have a place in public affairs.

Are these men, who like women but who also want to keep them “in their place” misogynists? Is there perhaps a better word?

“Please give an example of masculine habits of mind.”

Here’s VS Naipaul, in a Paris Review interview from a while ago, when the writer was in his late sixties.

You see, a writer tries very hard to see his childhood material as it exists. The nature of that childhood experience is very hard to understand—it has a beginning, a distant background, very dark, and then it has an end when a writer becomes a man. The reason why this early material is so important is that he needs to understand it to make it complete. It is contained, complete. After that there is trouble. You have to depend on your intelligence, on your inner strength. Yes, the later work rises out of this inner strength.

Have you ever heard a woman talk like this? It’s interesting that, throughout the interview, Naipaul never speaks of women. He expresses a number of sentiments that I expect most women would approve — he hates cruelty and appreciates generosity. He is no thug. But his concerns with power and strength and darkness and transformation might make it difficult for a woman to tell him about her day.

Many people who knew Naipaul in the Fifties were shocked to learn that he was married, that he had been married since Oxford. Then, when they did find out, he was not thought to have treated his wife as well as he might have done. His second wife appears (on a quick glance) to have done the Sheherazade thing.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the clear misogynists whom I mentioned at the outset are people who simply don’t regard gender as a determinative characteristic. It is much more significant, one might almost say that it is much more appealing, to be kind, or bright, or imaginative, than it is to be a man or a woman. Gender is an accident; kindness and attentiveness are not.

The question is what to call the men in the middle.


Thursday 23rd

Collecting the mail yesterday, I found lovely new magazines in the box: a New Yorker and Harper’s. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, each contained a first-rate piece about American depravity.

Depravity is both the act and the consequence of surrendering to a meretricious rationalization in order to render odious and immoral conduct permissible. In practice, having surrendered to a rationalization of fairly limited scope, we ever more comfortably accumulate a stack of further exemptions from decency until, step by step, we wind up with things like major-league football, in which white blowhards pay big bucks to see black giants trash one another’s bodies, and “activist investing,” in which rapacious fund managers upset firms and the people employed by them because they can, for the hell of it. No right-minded society would permit either of these depravities, much less sing their praises.

At Harper’s, Kevin Baker sits in the Easy Chair — a sweet name for the magazine’s monthly seat of judgment — and holds forth on the all-but-explicit racism of Donald Trump’s tweets and rants about how football ought to be played. He believes in a frankly gladiatorial fight to the death — by CTE if not quicker means — waged by players who check their humanity in the locker room, which Trumpsters believe ought to be easy to do because these guys aren’t human in the first place. One wonders how often such games, minus the flashy outfits and the snack-riddled stadiums, were staged by plantation owners and overseers in the ante-bellum South. Certainly the spirit is the same: righteous protest is registered as disrespect, as if the flag belonged to whites only and whites were somehow deserving, just by being white, of anyone’s respect.

Baker notes that football used to be “a very different game.” Most players played both offensive and defensive positions. How interesting it is that this began to change in the wake of the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties.

Playing one-way football also allowed for the development of the sort of freakish physique that is now ubiquitous in the NFL — linemen who weigh 350 pounds or more, with bellies hanging over their belts, but who can run a forty-yard dash in less than five seconds. Players who increasingly injure themselves just by falling down, who look like so much of American livestock, purposely bred to be short-lived, walking meat vessels.

And like those other animals, their shapes are made tenable only by drugs.

Mushrooming salaries have made these degrading opportunities irresistible to boys emerging from poverty. Prostitution is the only word for it.

At The New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar writes about Paul Singer and his hedge fund, Elliott Management, and frames the piece with the story of Jonathan Bush, nephew and cousin to the former presidents. Bush had built a successful medical-records firm, but, something of a good-time Charlie, he was not the conscientious manager, at least as regards cost-cutting, that he might have been. He was also somewhat promiscuously photographed in fun-seeking settings, looking more like a spruce beach bum than a CEO. None of this ought to have been of interest to anyone but his near and dear, since his company was doing well. The right to argue, as did Singer and his lieutenant, Jesse Cohn, that it might be doing better, ought to have been reserved to the firm’s clients, since better performance ought to yield lower prices. But Singer cared nothing for prices. Better performance, in his view, would mean better returns for investors. Although Kolhatkar never makes the point explicitly, her piece highlights the irrelevance of investors in the conduct of a going concern. This is the reason why “capitalism” ought to be confined to the start-up, entrepreneurial phase of any business, and then quietly shed as investors are paid off once and for all.

Kolhatkar’s account of Singer’s battle with Argentina, moreover, illustrates the pernicious embrace of court-supported neoliberalism. Anticipating a restructuring of Argentina’s debt, Singer purchased severely discounted bonds, and then refused to agree to the restructuring. The bad faith of this opportunism is grotesque. In a protracted fight lasting for fourteen years, Singer squeezed out a $2.4 billion, 1270% return on his investment at a time when ordinary Argentinians were squeezed for everyday expenses. Sovereign debt, of course, is not an example of capitalist enterprise at all; international law ought to be adjusted so that holdouts to those restructurings to which a very high percentage of bondholders have agreed are forced to join in or lose everything.

The important thing is to recognize these outrages for what they are. They are not evil. They are not rooted in some dark, incorrigible recess of the human soul. They are, on the contrary, obvious excesses with clear explanations. They are social agreements that it is okay to do things that are wrong — things that everyone knows are wrong and that everyone usually frowns upon. These agreements, which are not compromises any more than they are evil, are the surrenders to momentary convenience or desire that, precisely because they are social, almost inevitably explode into full-blown depravity. It is up to all of us to withhold support, even if we can do no more than call depravity what it is.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2018 (III)

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

16 and 17 August

Thursday 16th

Most human organizations that fall short of their goals do so not because of stupidity or faulty doctrines, but because of internal decay and rigidification.

— James A Garfield

What attracts me to this gem, found in Beth Macy’s stupefyingly discouraging Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Company That Addicted America, is certainly not its prosody, which I would characterize as homefalutin, a peculiarly American patois. I think that it’s the vintage that appeals. I don’t know when Garfield said it, but it wasn’t after 1881, the year of his assassination. Also, it’s a president speaking, expressing what I regard as a central fact about humanity. It concerns not individual humans, with their widely differing characters, but people acting in concert. No matter smart or well-intentioned those people may be, the organizations that they design inevitably fail — unless, as seems to be the case at Oxford University, they periodically renew themselves from within. Come to think of it, the British have a knack for stealth radicalism that may explain the uniqueness of such institutions as Parliament. (A good argument in favor of Brexit would be that membership in the European Community stifles the United Kingdom’s vitally important genius for muddle.)

Americans, who are really much more German than English, do not share this skill; Americans like their reform noisy — revivalist, almost. We also have a passion for writing brand-new laws instead of overhauling old ones. The other night, Kathleen and I were speculating on the benefits that might have accrued from a mid-Seventies re-think of the three major securities laws (which in this house we call the ’33 Act, the ’34 Act, and the ’40 Act), and it occurred to me that such an overhaul would have been a splendid occasion for folding the Glass-Steagall Act into the regulatory framework overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. I doubt that, had he had to deal with the SEC, Sanford Weill would have had such an easy go of annulling Glass-Steagall — by violating it. (No event more directly precipitated the Crash of 2008, and lots of us predicted disaster when the knot was untied ten years earlier.)

A brilliant and well-seasoned lawyer recently told me that he believes that all human arrangements need to be reconstituted every hundred years. It sounds appalling at first — an invitation for organized highjacking. On reflection, I think it would be better not to wait so long. Let’s say that reform is designed and imposed by one clear-sighted generation. The next generation grows up with it, and the third generation takes it for granted. The fourth generation begins to specialize in workarounds, as circumstances and opportunities never dreamed of by the reformers develop in the normal course of social evolution. The backbone of the original reform may have lost none of its importance, but it may be embedded in stale and outdated provisions. For example, did you know that New York State public health law still requires movie theatres to staff glove-wearing matrons, to supervise children’s matinees? Well, it did in the 1980s, when Kathleen was working on a commission related to the secession of Staten Island. It was laughable then. Laws should never be laughable.


Dopesick is about two things: a pair of twisted addictions — to drugs on the one hand and to money on the other — and the hopeless mess that we have made of treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery. The addiction to money is illustrated by the nicely contrasting examples of Purdue Pharma sales rep bonuses, which were legal at the time (and may still be, albeit curtailed) and the story of Ronnie Jones, for six months the Shenandoah Valley’s heroin kingpin. Known in the trade as “DC,” Jones never used the drug. “He was much too scared of heroin to ever use it,” one of his henchmen told Macy.

But from the first moment he sent one of his subordinate dealers out in Woodstock to sell a gram’s worth of heroin he’d paid $65 for in Harlem — and the dealer returned with $800 in cash — DC was hooked on another drug. (153)

It is hard to believe that opioid addiction would have mushroomed as it has done without the boost that it got from money addiction. And let’s not forget the money addiction that drug addicts themselves quickly develop, as they lose their jobs, their homes, their assets, and in general all lawful sources of income.

As for the hopeless mess — I just can’t. I can barely read Macy’s crackerjack reporting. The nub of the problem is an only-in-America polarization between believers in medically-assisted treatment (MAT) and believers in abstinence, among whom figure the proponents of Twelve-Step programs. The message that the destructive effects of alcohol come nowhere near those of opioid drugs is not universally accepted.

Adding to the confusion is the plethora of organizations charged with partial responsibility for treatment, together with the authority of competing jurisdictions. There are programs at the municipal, county, state and federal levels. There are also religious and other charitable operations. Each of them may be above reproach, but taken together they inflict a lot of stupidity and faulty doctrine.


Friday 17th

The most extraordinary little book came my way yesterday. Published for the first time in 2017, and now appearing as an NYRB imprint, it was written in 1939 and 1940, the diary of an Italian aristocrat of complicated, Anglophone background. Entitled A Chill in the Air, it documents the slow-motion whirlwind of Italy’s descent into World War II. That is its only topic.

Iris Origo was the daughter of Bayard Cutting, an American millionaire, and Lady Sybil Cuffe, the daughter of an Irish peer. Her father died when she was seven, and her mother brought her up at the Villa Medici in Fiesole, above Florence. Although the girl’s ambition to go to Oxford was thwarted by her mother’s preference for débutante cotillions, Iris was educated by the galaxy of brilliant visitors to her mother’s salon, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Bernard Berenson among them. Craving a simpler, more purposeful life, Iris married the aristocratic scion of Italian industrialists, Antonio Irigo, in 1924. They settled down on a desolate estate in Tuscany with a view to restoring its agricultural fertility. The loss of their son, Gianni, to meningitis put a strain on the marriage, but as the warclouds gathered, Iris recommitted to her marriage and to her estate. It was at this point that she decided,

Perhaps it might be useful to try to clear my mind by setting down, as truthfully and simply as I can, the tiny facet of the world’s events which I myself, in the months ahead, shall encounter at first hand.

The diary runs from March 1939 to July 1940; Origo set it aside after the birth of her daughter, Benedetta — an event that is prefigured in the most unusual way. In an entry from the previous month (15 June 1940), Origo writes,

William Phillips has come up from Rome. After a second air raid last night, he does not recommend it to me as the most restful place for my accouchement.

There has been no earlier mention of a pregnancy. We do know that William Phillips is the American Ambassador and Origo’s godfather. She will be delivered at the American Embassy — and that will be the occasion for abandoning the diary. By then, of course, the ambiguity and confusion that set the tone of the diary’s atmosphere will have evaporated in open hostility, with Churchill’s Britain Hitler’s only opponent. But the rigor with which Origo’s attentiveness to “the world’s events” eclipses all merely personal notations is stunningly professional, and it goes far to recreating, in a way that I have never seen done, except perhaps in Jean Paul Rappeneau’s glamorous film, Bon Voyage, the nightmare of not knowing what’s going happen next in the world at large. (And the film, it must be noted, is riotously personal.) Most narratives of World War II focus on the terror of being hunted down, a horrific experience that disturbed relatively few people. The crisis that Origo covers affected everyone.

She is a privileged observer. This does not mean that her information is better than anybody else’s (although she has a great deal more of it than most Italians), or that she “really knows” what’s going to happen. In fact, she teaches the opposite lesson. Her richly-networked perch allows her to see something that the man in the street is unlikely to discover.

The truth is that, according to the company in which one happens to be, one knows beforehand what the opinion will be on any of the current topics. Among the anti-Fascists, Chamberlain is spoken of with contempt and Bonnet with loathing; Roosevelt is admired. In Fascist circles the odium falls on Churchill and on the Labour Party; Catholics unite to deplore the advances to Russia. Moreover one also knows beforehand where the blind spots will be. The Fascist averts his mind from the refugee problem [in the Tyrol] and the situation in Czecho Slovakia (“All very much exaggerated — one must allow for foreign propaganda.”) The Catholics turn a deaf ear to all accounts of executions in Spain; the anti-Fascist has seldom heard of any trouble in Russia. Only on one point are they all agreed: they don’t want war. (6 August 1939)

This lockstep chaos is magnified, of course, in the press, and in the radio broadcasts that, until the very end, announce nothing not already known. There rumors, of course, and the diary is stuffed with the lively anecdotes in which they’re embedded. (Origo has a good head for dismissing the baseless ones.) In an astonishing promotional gesture that I had never heard of, Mussolini had himself filmed in a cockpit, apparently flying through a storm, reminding viewers that you don’t bother a heroic pilot with unnecessary questions.

Even Mussolini didn’t want the war, but he had no choice — not in the summer of 1940. After the Fall of France, his only alternative was to invite a German invasion that would in all likelihood have repeated the French capitulation. As A Chill in the Air progresses, the contemporary reader’s chill is likely to emanate not so much from the uncertainty of war (which cannot be fully shared, knowing, as we do, what happened) as from the figure of Il Duce. The fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the United States is not currently anywhere near Italy’s pre-war crossroads, is the only source of warmth when I consider the following entry. The speaker, Count Senni, belongs to a “Black Roman” family, more loyal to the Papacy than to the Kingdom, notwithstanding which he has served Mussolini for years.

Count Carlo Senni has just been talking about his years with Mussolini, to whom he is whole-heartedly, but not wholly uncritically, loyal. He emphasizes one trait which strikes everyone who has ever worked with Mussolini: his unbounded, almost undisguised, utterly cynical contempt for his own human instruments. Except for his brother Arnaldo (now dead) and perhaps, to a lesser degree, his daughter, there is no human being in the world whom he loves and trusts. He believes in the ability of his son-in-law [Count Ciano]; he does not trust him. A sentimentalist about “the people” en masse, he is completely cynical about all individuals, and measures them only by the use to which he can put them to … Yet so great is his personal ascendancy that his underlings — knowing that they themselves will be kicked away as soon as they cease to be useful — to retain their personal devotion to him. (31 July)

Perhaps, in the case of Donald Trump, the ascendancy is less personal than symbolic: Trump stands for destruction. That is why, says the discarded Steve Bannon (if not in so many words), he is mobilizing for Republican candidates at the midterms: it will keep that wrecking-ball swinging. The awful truth is that some Americans do want war.

Iris Origo (1902-1988) was an accomplished biographer whose reputation has faded, as reputations do when new titles stop appearing. Until, that is, the writer is for some reason or other rediscovered. A Chill in the Air ought to prompt such a rediscovery. The woman certainly knew how to write.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
No Critics, Please
August 2018 (II)

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

7, 9 and 10 August

Tuesday 7th

Nearly fifty years have passed since Jane Jacobs published The Economy of Cities, and nearly thirty since the appearance of its sequel, Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. Re-reading the latter, and interrupting that re-reading to read the former for the first time, I thought of two things that had developed since 1984. One, of course, was the Internet. In my ignorant way — understanding so little about the basics of economics and technology gives me the freedom to dream — I wondered if some inversion of China’s Internet, in other words an Internet connecting and available to the inhabitants of what Jacobs would call a “city region,” and only to them, might be tweaked to provide the feedback loop that Jacobs locates in sovereign currencies. That’s pretty much where the ignorant dream ends, though, at least for now.

The other thing was chaos theory, again something that I don’t understand very well. It turned out that Jacobs was not as unaware of chaos as I thought at first, as I discovered when I resumed reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations and encountered her discussion of bifurcation, and then the devotion of her final chapter to the idea of “drift.” These are both alternative expressions of chaos. Bifurcation is a form of discontinuity, an unforeseen tangent. Drift, it seems to me, is not the happiest choice of terms, for while it might, as the Japanese thinker cited by Jacobs proposes, suggest inadvertent discoveries, what it suggests more forcibly is the economic stagnation that Jacobs deplores. Drift is pretty much passive. What Jacobs has in mind in her final chapter is a partial passivity, coupled with dynamic engagement: unplanned action. This is, from a political point of view, contained chaos. I wish that Jacobs had written a third book, about how to encourage the fertile experimentation and shift in objectives that lie at the heart of her many tales of unexpected enterprise — such as the invention of the brassiere industry. But this imaginary third book would not have involved much reporting — Jacobs’s forte. It would have been speculative, like the dark books about politics that Jacobs did go on to write.

What I’m left with, then, is the model of an economy that is (a) devoted to the sustainable provision of everyday material needs, (b) protected from fear and violence by civic institutions that may or may not be political in nature, and (c) constructively dissatisfied with the commercial status quo.

The United States fails most glaringly on the first count. Owing, perhaps, to their history, Americans don’t know the meaning of “sustainable,” which may explain the glibness with which the term is retailed. Until a point very much within living memory, it was always possible, in this country, to move on to new opportunities, leaving old messes behind for others to worry about (or not). I needn’t belabor the environmental aspect of this problem. But “sustainable” also encodes an economic principle that is not very developed in our culture, as a corrective to the concept of “profit.” While financiers are perfectly alive to the meaning of profit, the man in the street often has a different idea, one much closer to breaking even. The man in the street might say that a businessman is entitled to a “decent profit,” meaning, however not genuine profit but just the extra revenue sufficient to pay himself for his troubles, or to repay his backers. There is a widespread vernacular misunderstanding that owners and managers (unlike rank-and-file workers) are paid not out of revenues but out of profits. Journalists focused on economic matters ought to be working hard to correct this.

From an economic standpoint — that is, from the point of view of the people participating in an economy, considered together — the ideal business is one that breaks even. Nothing costs more than it ought to cost, allowing for the compensation of managers and backers. This is where the difference between a genuinely capitalist enterprise and a mature business ought to be marked more clearly than it is. I have belabored this matter, in several earlier entries. A capitalist enterprise is essentially a gamble, in which the generation of revenue is uncertain. The revenues of mature business, in contrast, are quite predictable over the medium term, if not the long. Americans appear have developed an impatience with mature businesses, and for the past forty years have been needlessly subjecting them to capitalist gambles. (There is no other way to judge the private equity racket.) This may be nothing more than a side-effect of the constantly trumpeted message that we live in a capitalist economy. But for the purposes of this paragraph it is enough to say that the managers and backers of a genuinely capitalist enterprise are entitled to increased compensation, to make up for the managers’ trial-and-error search for revenue, and for the backers’ losing gambles.

Because we do not clearly understand the meaning of terms such as profit and capitalism, we flounder in a widening swamp of unseemly incomes and sickened businesses. It is a swamp because the United States is beset by a fear of what it calls “socialism,” an imaginary alligator that approaches unseen — unseen because it is not there. This is failure on the second count. Our civic institutions seem increasingly incapable of calming fear and preventing violence. Our depraved popular culture — a non-political civic institution — actually celebrates fear and violence, arguing somewhat disingenuously that doing so is just a way of telling it like it is. In America, socialism is a bogeyman, a Freddie Krueger waiting just around the corner. Politicians have been exploiting this monster since the interwar period; during the Cold War, it meant little less than enslavement by Russians. Socialism is a mirage in the same way that the large business corporation is a mirage. There can be no abstract “state” or “corporate” ownership of anything. It will always be people, individual people, who are running things, either overmastering managers or faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats.

We fail on the third count because American curiosity and inventiveness have been directed away from the nitty-gritty of nuts and bolts, or, in other words, how things work. I attribute this to educational fastidiousness, to the misapprehension that intelligent people do not get their hands dirty. At the same time, there is a lot of romantic nostalgia for dirty hands. The modern equivalent to the old dream of running away with the circus is the ownership of a motorcycle repair shop. Perhaps the introduction of the first mass-produced home robot will straighten this out. In the mean time, I would encourage a lot of would-be journalists to sharpen their inquiring minds on the resistance of the material world, and give opinions and eyeballs a break. And just to be clear, electronic circuits and the instructions that govern them (a/k/a “code”) are utterly material.


Thursday 9th

The manuscript of the writing project has been moved from atop the printer to the writing table, but otherwise it has not been touched since last year, when two friends read it. (A third never got back.) In all this time, I have often wondered where to go with it. One of the readers liked it very much, but I’m not sure that she would have paid for a copy. The other reader, more rigorous, noted tonal incongruities and undeveloped propositions. His judgment convinced me that I would have to start over. From time to time, I would have an idea for reshaping the material, but nothing came of these daydreams, not even the slightest sketch.

About two weeks ago, maybe three, I was writing to a third friend about my impasse. It was a bleak paragraph and I deleted it. Then I blurted out the remark that I was trying to convey an idea of what it’s like to be me. Intellectually, I mean. What it’s like to be curious and expectant, obsessive and undisciplined, accountable to no one. Well, I didn’t spell out the latter two sentences. But I realized at once that this was exactly what I had set out to write in July 2016. And what I had stopped aiming for when it proved to be very, very difficult. What I went on to write was a highly selective, rather jumpy autobiography.

I remember how hard it was to make the first section, the original material, intelligible, and how bit by bit the complications were simply erased. At the heart of the piece was an attempt to express the rapture, which had overcome me earlier that July, of reading a passage from the dinner party chapter in To the Lighthouse as though it were one of Keats’s odes. Something about Mrs Ramsay “diving” into the daube, in search of prize morsels for William Bankes, sparked the “festal lyricism” of the great poems that I had been closely reading, in Helen Vendler’s magisterial study. And the joy was mine. It was something that had always been promised, but never quite attained — until now. The part that was hardest to get across was this very postponement: why had it taken so long? And why hadn’t I given up the pursuit?

The whole thing was ecstatic and incoherent, a bog of uninfectious enthusiasm. A year later, after much revision, it remained the weakest section of the manuscript. With every revision, the writing project withdrew its commitment to intellectual atmosphere — what does it mean to say “Yes” to the question, “Have you really read all of those books?” — and invested more in amusing anecdotes, funny things that happened to me on the way to old age. The writing got easier and easier as I forgot what I had set out to do.

But the manuscript remained studded with souvenirs of the original enterprise, and my more serious reader fastened on these. Either they would have to be given more substance, or they would have to go. Hearing this stern advice, I didn’t grasp how far I had drifted from an arduous path. All I could think of was the dreadful facility with which I had edited the various sections into readable shape. It had bothered me very much that this was too easy.

What it’s like to be me. Abominable conceit, or recovery memoir? Either way, what’s different about me? I didn’t — and still don’t — know, but I hoped that the writing would show me. If it failed to produce this revelation, I see now, it might be because I didn’t work hard enough. I remember thinking that the important thing was to get something down on paper, but I succumbed to the temptation to regard this preliminary something as a finished product, a mistake that it became ever easier to make as my revisions kneaded the text into the contours of a slightly exotic magazine article.

I have an idea. I am going to try to explain an unusual but nonetheless characteristic episode in the growth of my mind. In 1972, I was inspired to teach myself Chinese by an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I expect that this is going to be nearly as hard to write about as the learning experience was. With a lot of effort and a bit of luck, I may even learn something new.


Friday 10th

For weeks now, the Times has been running environmental disaster stories above the front-page fold. Quite aside from the depressing attempt to capture some of the excitement of television with photographs that seem determined to tell us nothing that we don’t already know, the newspaper is ignoring the constellation of poor commercial judgments that lead to every kind of disaster except volcanoes and earthquakes — and where fracking is concerned, even the earthquakes are manmade.

Meanwhile, the Times’s business pages appear to be clueless about this causality. The spice of thrilling danger is unwelcome there. Wildfires are out of place amid the financial tables. But so are stories about suburban sprawl, lawn-grass monoculture, heavy automobile use, and other bad things that looked good at the time but that now need to be scaled back, arguably eliminated, in order to reduce wildfires. If the Times does not want to take a stand on these issues, can it not find organizations that speak out about them, or that attempt experimental alternatives?

It seems to me that the Times is stuck in the bind common to media that depend on advertising. Printing or airing ads (and collecting a fee) is only the visible part of the deal between advertisers and media. The invisible part is the media’s obligation to frame the reader or the viewer as a consumer, as someone who buys stuff. What advertisers don’t want is an audience of critics and fault-finders. They want people who feel good about themselves and the world — good enough, anyway, not to be demoralized by all the bad news (which, if it must be reported, ought to be presented as happening Somewhere Else.) They want people who look to the media for entertainment.

In a story about new limits on Uber cars in New York City, two reporters make a blandly passing reference to “the city’s failing subway and buses.” Why doesn’t the Times have a weekly special section, mapping out the parties (human beings) responsible for operating the subway, and exposing, if nothing else, how each of them can point to someone else as the problem. Feet must be held in the fire!

Bon week-end à tous!