Weekend Note:
Longer Weekends
30-31 March. 1 April 2012


From now on, at least at this site, the weekend begins on Friday. What’s become clear in the past few months is that my schedule falls into two blocs: Monday-Thursday alone and Friday-Sunday in company. I’ve got to dash off right now, in fact, to have lunch with Ray Soleil, after which we’ll drop in at the Museum. I’ll be heading downtown this evening as usual, to see what my grandson is up to. It’s in the interest of mental health that I stop regarding Friday as one the alone days.

Not that I wouldn’t love one, just to spend it reading. The Righteous Mind is incredibly exciting — I have to put it down from time to time, just to swallow its mounting import — and Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour has just taken an unexpected turn. More anon.


Goodness. Just realized that I posted this entry at The Daily Blague but not here. It’s just past six, and I’m packed and ready to head downtown. I’ve had an hour or two to get my strength back after an unexpectedly strenuous tour of the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — that’s where the Museum keeps its “modern art.” I wanted to see the Clyfford Stills.

There’s an entire room of them, with I forgot to count how many large paintings, making Still something of a unique presence; if comparable at all, it can only be to the Msueum’s collection generous helping of Vermeers (a full seventh of that painter’s output). Of all the Abstract Expressionists, Still is my favorite because he’s such a painter. Let me qualify that: his images are the work of someone who painted with a brush in his hands. I don’t dislike Jackson Pollock; the proof of his mastery is that no one has ever been able to copy or even to adapt his visceral, iconic style. But I prefer the things that Still does, the shapes that emerge on both the large and the small scale. And I like to think what it would be like to live with one of them. I’m not sure that I’d want that.

At the moment, there’s also a nice little show, “XS,” of nice little paintings. There’s a quite beautiful Miró that I don’t recall having seen before. Outside the Galleries on the main floor is a fine collection of John Marin’s watercolors, arranged chronologically and growing ever more abstract. Because of his name, stupidly, I always think of Marin as a California artist. The subjects of the watercolors are all Northeastern, many from Maine.

I also love the Stuart Davises. But where are the Averys? Presumably they’re still on trustees’ walls. And why aren’t there a few Morandis? Doubtful: A Guy Pène du Bois revival. Also: I still don’t get Jasper Johns. He may work with paint but he is no artist in my book. A thinker, maybe. A symbolist. But not an artist.


It’s a dark day, suitable for mulling over the darker implications, apparent only to me, perhaps, of the third part of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I’m preoccupied by what he calls “the hive switch,” a transformation of egotistical individuals into a selfless unit — more precisely, a unit with only one self. I don’t doubt that his proposition is sound, but he seems to be unaware that this switch is activated in men far more often than it is in women. And of course I’m aware that it has never, to the best of my knowledge, been activated in me.

More about all of that later, when I’ve actually finished The Righteous Mind. At the moment, I’m considering Meg Wolitzer’s esaay, “The Second Shelf,” in this week’s Book Review. Wolitzer takes up the the VIDA Count, announced last month, showing that men dominate the literary scene is measured by book reviews (both as reviewers and reviewees, men take up more than two-thirds of the space). The essay poses many good questions, but offers little in the way of enlightenment, beyond the easy observation that simply to classify a work of fiction as “women’s” is problematic. What makes this strange is that men don’t read fiction, not nearly as much as women do.

I blame the academy. That’s where most men learn about literature and where their tastes are formed, for the most part by male professors. Most men go on after graduation to pursue non-literary careers, carrying with them the memory of books that they loved discovering as undergraduates but not venturing to keep up with newer trends as they develop. Most educated men who read regularly at all seem to prefer history to fiction, and military history to the arguably more important political or social studies.

The few men who do go into publishing or who become writers or literature professors appear to do a great deal of chest-thumping on behalf of the stars of their sex. Here’s a dirty little secret about “men’s fiction”: it’s event-centered. Lots of noise surrounds the publication of certain authors’ new novels — shock waves of advance buzz, in the case of a book such as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. One might almost say that a “hive switch” occurs whenever Michael Chabon or Jeffrey Eugenides comes out with new product: what I can only call universal hailure ensures. But what happens to these books over time?

Looking back, I see a canon of fiction that is more evenly divided between men and women. Take England in the Nineteenth Century: Austen, Dickens, Trollope and Eliot are the indisputables, and if you had to kick one of them off the island, it would be Trollope. In Twentieth-Century American fiction, Wharton seems to stand alone alongside Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, but Powell and McCarthy stand unaccompanied by underread men who are gaining in acclaim. With the passage of time, British fiction of the same century appears to be dominated by a coterie of women, ranging from Ivy Compton-Burnett to Penelope Fitzgerald, who showed an eagerness to make use of whatever modernist tricks appealed to them, without concerning themselves at all with modernist theory. (The leading men, interestingly, seem to have been not only disproportionately homosexual but even less interested in modernism.)

What literature needs is a course for high school teachers entitled “Making Boys Laugh with Jane Austen.” Or at least to laugh when she smiles. I don’t know of a richer literary pleasure.  


Song for (about) my grandson:

Do-wah, do-wah, do-wah Kitty,
Tell us about the boy from New York City.

So fi-yi-yine. Da-doo.


I’ve finished The Righteous Mind, I’m sorry to say. Sorry because, now, I have to go back to Turing’s Cathedral. I plodded through a chapter entitled “Monte Carlo” that had only the slimmest connection to the principality and its casino; mercifully, the word “stochastic” didn’t pop up until I consulted Wikipedia. I wish I wanted to know more about numbers, but they’re empty to me. I’d rather wash a stack of dishes than add a stack of figures. I find mathemathical concepts intriguing to the extent that numbers are excluded, as in geometry. I like my π just the way it is, unsolved.

The number of inconvenient truths that tumble out of The Righteous Mind — such as the attribution of the nation’s political polarization to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — ought to generate a bit of nasty hum, but I’m grateful to have things out in the open. I’m delighted that Jonathan Haidt has explained, in terms that insult no one but do imply a strong case for the pervasiveness of arrogance amonst liberals, why conservative politicians fare better at election time. (They have much more to offer symbolically, and they promise to make fewer changes.) At the same time, I hope that the formerly liberal author doesn’t get too catnipped by his new ideas.

When I read, in Turing’s Cathedral, about the power of the first Soviet thermonuclear device, way back in 1961 (roughly equivalent to one percent of the sun’s output), I shuddered as if in the presence of the divine. Never mind the “as if.” We know almost nothing about how we got here, but we have somehow acquired the power to extinguish ourselves — and who would care? I find that the absence of a deity, of a known deity I should say, intensifies my sense of the sacredness of the mission, as it is clearly going to have to be, of human beings on earth. And when I consider the new world that is unfurling under the banner of the Cognitive Revolution, I feel — forget the “as if” — that we’ve just landed.


I was nowhere near sixteen going on seventeen when I saw The Sound of Music.  The one and only time, on Broadway. I’ve never seen the movie, and, at this point, I have a minor investment in keeping it that way. I wouldn’t see it the first time, so I’ll never see it. By “first time,” I mean the New York premiere, at the Rivoli Theatre, where you had reserved seats to see movies (in those days), and to which my parents were invited because my father had just joined the board of directors of Twentieth Century-Fox. (How nice: I got the hyphen right.) I ought to write to Matthew Weiner and offer up my experience, which would make a perfect Mad Men moment of adolescent insubordination.

I refused to go to this grand event, which, somewhere in my developing brain, I knew would involve kitsch of the blackest pitch. Fossil Darling has the documentary evidence: I sat down and wrote a soul-searing letter about how beastly my mother, whom I christened “Boris” that night (he still calls her that), was about my ick-factor reaction to the prospect of climbing every mountain. (You can’t blame her, but of course I did.) I was way past sixteen by this time, but that’s how long it used to take to make a movie out of a Broadway hit — and to dump Mary Martin (who was, it’s true, a real stretch as the virginal Maria) for Julie Andrews (who, remember, hadn’t been given either of her Broadway roles, Eliza Doolittle or Queen Guinevere). I take it that the clip that outro’ed this evening’s episode of Mad Men came from the film. I wouldn’t know.