Gotham Diary:
23 December 2013

For several days, I’ve been afflicted by a cold. It’s not a very bad cold, just enough to keep me indoors and away from most holiday festivities, something that, this year, suits both of us down to the box spring. (Kathleen, who has been conducting a small fleet of new deals since the spring, has survived a stretch of extreme exhaustion and is now convalescing.) I manage to do the regular light housework, and we order in a great deal.

In a little while, we’re going to watch Transsiberian, which I’ll tell anyone is the only film not by Alfred Hitchcock that can claim a close kinship with his aesthetic. Because Kathleen and I were sure that we’d seen it twice already, I was surprised not to find the DVD in our library, but now I know what must have happened: we saw the movie in the theatre and then rented it when it came out; despite my very high regard for it, I must have been on an austerity kick, and put off buying it until I actually forgot to do so. I was looking for it after we saw Side Effects, which stars the other Mara sister, Rooney. Kate Mara, who had played nice little girls (Tadpole, Brokeback Mountain), appeared in Transsiberian as a damaged drifter, in over her head on a rotten deal. I thought we’d have a little Mara festival. I did buy the DVD, by the way. New ones are out of stock at Amazon, but I was able to order a “Used — Like New” copy for 78¢. But I didn’t want to wait for it to arrive, so I had Video Room send over a(nother) rental.

However — reading. A cold that doesn’t reduce one to wretchedness is a great excuse to spend the day reading. Yesterday, I swallowed up Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, a book about the greats of Latin antiquity from 1957 that Donna Tartt said somewhere that she was reading. I don’t think that I’d ever heard of Tibullus, and Propertius was just a name. Highet presents the poets in his own translations only, so I had to search Google a bit to find the originals. I’m crazy about the distracted elegance in this line of Propertius:

cantabant surdo, nudabant pectora caeco

Two Loebs are on the way.

Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is a very quick read, as I found out this morning. Having gotten through a few chapters last night, I finished the whole thing off before lunch. I bought the Kindle edition — a somewhat questionable choice. Robert Stone is a master of slow-motion, intense excitement, and he combines the thrilling with the literary like no one else. Ordinarily, I should have bought the physical book. But I was down with my cold and in need to things to read on the Paperwhite at bedtime — now. Quite often now I wake up at four with my reading glasses resting on my chest, Kathleen’s beaded chain still around my neck. But the lamp on the bedside table isn’t on, and it’s nice to be spared that middle-of-the-night confusion. The Paperwhite falls asleep soon after I do, and gets lost in the blankets. I usually read mysteries, and am content to make them last — it took ages to get through Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale. But the new Stone had a very different impact. I woke early this morning, my sinuses dried-up and blocked, and I picked up where I’d left off as soon as I’d refilled my water bottle. I didn’t even look at the Times until I was done. It wasn’t a good Paperwhite read at all: now I have to buy something else.

I’m puzzled. Did Death of the Black-Haired Girl feel slight because I read it on the Kindle? Or was it slight? Certainly it was sparing. Thirty years ago, Stone would have served the philandering professor (whose first philander this was) a heap of misery, with more suspense for the reader into the bargain; and that satanic priest, “the Mourner,” would have appeared for real. (Maybe he had a twin.) The black-haired girl would have left a bigger hole in my heart when she died; as it was, I was glad to see the end of a self-absorbed pain in the ass. The novel would have been longer, with more about the former nun’s years in Latin America and the professor’s wife’s youth in a Canadian Mennonite community. There would have been more about the dean’s interesting wife, making her role in the resolution of a grievous conflict more satisfying. More — there would have been More. I don’t know what kind of complaint it is to wish that an author had written More — a fairly complimentary one, on the face of it. But in the end, the end came too soon; I didn’t spend enough time with the characters, and I don’t know how they’ll stay with me.


Another book that I finished today was The Books That Shaped Art History: from Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss, a collection of sixteen essays edited by Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard. The actual range of the book is Mâle to Belting — neither of whom I’d heard of before. Emile Mâle published a study of French iconography in the Thirteenth Century in 1898. Hans Belting came out with Bild und Kult ninety-two years later. The other writers covered are Bernard Berenson, Heinrich Wölfflin, Roger Fry, Nikolaus Pevsner, Alfred Barr, Erwin Panofsky, Kenneth Clark, E H Gombrich, Clement Greenberg, Francis Haskell, Michael Baxendall, T J Clark, Svetlana Alpers, and Rosalind Krauss. I saw the book at the Frick bookshop right after I’d finished reading Haskell’s The Ephemeral Museum, and it made me realize that I’ve read very little serious art history. I’ve got a couple of books by Gombrich (although which I can’t say for certain), and a collection of essays by Panofsky. I used to have something by Wölfflin. I always thought that I ought to read Kenneth Clark, but didn’t — not The Nude, anyway. (The essays focus, as the collection’s title indicates, on particular books, not on their authors’ complete output.) I read a bit about Rosalind Krauss recently, in Janet Malcolm’s 41 False Starts. I knew who Berenson, Fry, Pevsner, and Barr were, but I was ignorant of the last five writers. I dreaded reading about Clement Greenberg, because he was so notorious for pugnacity, but I found that Boris Groys’s essay, which focuses on “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” and “The Plight of Culture,” to be the most lucid piece in the book. Not only that, but I readily understood what (according to Groys) Greenberg was trying to say. I didn’t agree with it, but I did engage with it. Engagement did not occur in most other instances, and several essays were either too jargon-ridden or too philosophically preoccupied for me to grasp them. For the later writers, art history seems to have dwindled into a cudgel with which to bruise the bourgeoisie and other vectors of power, and has little to do with pleasure. The essayists would seem to be even worse.

(I did come away curious about Alois Riegl, who was mentioned in quite a few of the essays; his Stilfragen might well have been included among the Shapers.)

The idea that giving pleasure is not enough to merit serious attention is vital, but in the history of Western letters it has too often degenerated into the very bad idea that giving pleasure itself is not worth talking about. If we are going to take art (or anything) seriously, this noxious notion holds, then we must find something other than pleasure to talk about. Another bad reason for avoiding pleasure — it’s too personal; “there’s no accounting for taste” — draws support from the puerile obsession with system-building and generalization-generation that characterizes the modern intellectual. But pleasure is the beginning of art; to begin with anything else is to avoid seeing it. And, as Books that Shaped Art History will make instantly clear to any layman, the philosophical systems that art historians construct and contest are anything but enlightening, in the sense that none of them encourages contact with art. This contact is assumed, and assumed, one fears, to have been outgrown. It’s as though art were wine, to be savored only after a long rot. Rot.

(The singular exception is Francis Haskell, much too interested in vagarious history to succumb to theory — and a joy to read.)

If it were not for the code in my ‘ose, I’d expatiate upon these philistine themes, but there’s plenty of time for that.