Gotham Diary:
28 April 2014

My mind is humming along on several planes at once, making coherence rather difficult. I am reading Elaine Pagels’s book about Revelations, the final book in the New Testament, because I was attacked by a hunch that totalitarianism has strong roots in this dismal revenge fantasy.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt’s principal posthumous work. And I’ve started Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography, For Love of the World. Arendt herself does not disappoint: she continues to have surprising thoughts and to present them without much contextual preparation. I’m used to this momentary vertigo now — I know that’s temporary. I’m reading the biography out of a sense of duty: it is often quoted as an interpretive source. But to the extent that it captures Arendt’s life when she wasn’t thinking, it’s bound to be a difficult read, because Arendt’s life was hard, at least until her middle-aged flourishing in New York. There can’t be, in any story about her, the joy that there is in listening to her think — unless of course she is telling the story herself, something she rarely does.

Last night, I found one of Arendt’s interviews — the first of the four collected in The Last Inverview, the one in which she is interviewed by Günter Gaus. The interview is in German, of course, but I was able to trot along with the Last Interview translation, and anyway the principal attraction was hearing Arendt speak. The interview lasted about an hour, much longer than it takes to read. I didn’t mean to stay up so late, and I’m a bit headachy today as a result. (Also sniffly. Kathleen is feeling “better,” but only to the extent of speaking with gusto when she complains that she wants to cut her head off.)

Meanwhile, the papyrus arrived from White Flower Farm, and I’ve got run out to buy some potting soil.


On Saturday night, once I was sure that Kathleen was sound asleep, I came into the blue room and watched Being Julia, one of my favorite movies. Something about it had shifted, or rather it was I who had changed. I saw it quite differently. I realized that I’d always wanted the relationship that the ageing actress has with the young cad to work out. I understood that it wouldn’t and couldn’t, but I’ve always been pricked by the hope that the lovers would behave themselves. If they were behaving themselves, of course, they’d never get into bed together, and in fact there is no good reason to call them “lovers.” Why my perversity?

It hit me that I have a penchant for overlooking desire in seeking desirability. These are not good words; they’re too carnal. From the carnal standpoint, the actress and her beau are both quite desirable, certainly to one another. But my standpoint is a moral one. It is captured beautifully by Hannah Arendt’s idea of the imperishable possibility that people will refrain from doing things that will make it hard for them to live honestly with themselves. (If this is “existentialism,” then I’ve finally got it.) Tom, the young man in Being Julia, is a fairly amoral snob — he couldn’t care less about living honestly with himself. (It’s a care that it’s very easy for young people to shuck.) As for Julia, as an actress, living honestly with oneself doesn’t mean quite what it means with civilians, although I can’t say quite how it differs. I just know that it does.

My idea of “working out” does not imply that I want the affair to continue. Rather I want Julia to extricate herself from it without ludicrous and humiliating displays of jealousy. It’s only when Julia recovers from this very unpleasant and unattractive emotion that she is able to map out her sweet revenge — which, as revenge goes, is harmless at worst and probably somewhat salutary for all of its several targets. It is this marvelous scheme, cooked up not by Somerset Maugham, whose Theatre provided movie’s original inspiration, but by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, that makes Being Julia the delicious treat that it is. When, in the middle of the movie, Julia sobs through her cold cream, I want her to snap out of it and remember her job. So does the ghost of her drama teacher (played by Michael Gambon).

Desire has a funny way of making us undesirable.

The tempest of Julia’s fight with Tom is followed by a sweet scene with Roger, Julia’s son, who, a few years younger than Tom, wants to tell his mother that earlier in the evening, ironically on an outing with Tom, he lost his virginity to an aspiring actress. “I thought it was time,” he says. So it’s no surprise that he found the experience disappointing. You have to bring desire to bed with you; sexual acts aren’t going to produce it. (Without genuine desire, what sex usually produces is disgust.) Someone who thinks that “it’s time” is probably not even unconsciously ready to make love. But I always used to overlook this, because Roger is so sweet and decent. His “first night” doesn’t seem to be anything to be ashamed of. But the inauthenticity of it just might come back to bite him.

A new question: why do I blame Sigmund Freud for normalizing the swinish disregard for others where male desire is concerned? I am certain that the great doctor had no such intention. But I’m not at all sure that it’s better to live in a world in which frank sexual discussions are, under certain circumstances, considered “healthy,” than to live in a more buttoned-up place. The “evolutionary” view of sex strips the urge to use another person for one’s own personal gratification of its colossal ethical problem.

I don’t mean to say women are somehow more virtuous than men on this point. They’re merely obliged to appear to be, by social conventions.

In any case, yet another recognition that I can’t help feeling I ought to have made forty years ago at the latest.