Housekeeping Twaddle:
Picture This
20 November 2014

Ray Soleil came straight from work yesterday and got to work hanging pictures. Roughly an hour later, the house phone rang. The doorman on duty reluctantly reported that a neighbor “on your floor” had complained about the “banging.” So we stopped hanging pictures right away. The call left me feeling wretched — wounded, even (when was the last time a neighbor complained? How many decades ago?) — and worried. How will we ever get all the pictures up on the walls? Ray will come again tonight, and we’ll see how far we can get by six o’clock.

The sad truth is that there is no way that “all the pictures” are going to be hung in this apartment. The happy truth is that there is no reason to hang so many. The walls of the old apartment were plastered with pictures because, in several corners, the walls were so disfigured by nails and cracked nail-holes that they had to be covered up. In the eighteen years since the last paint job, furniture had been moved, with pictures necessarily following. The proper thing to do — removing all the old nails, touching up the plaster, and repainting the walls — was by no means impossible, but it was certainly beyond me. I dreamed of making a project of repainting the apartment bit by bit, which is what I should have done when I was younger, but I not only lack the energy for such an undertaking but, even more, have a clear sense, rather lacking in my youth, of what I ought to be doing with my time, and large-scale housekeeping campaigns are not on the list. Ultimately, it was he fact that more was involved than repainting that forestalled any attempt at renovation. The carpets needed to be replaced: how to do that without evacuating each room? (The downside of wall-to-wall, which we are trying to avoid in the new place.) The draperies in the living room and the bedroom, designed in a moment of regrettable pretentiousness and, worse, never really necessary, were filthy, but difficult to take down — and was the outfit that cleaned them last time still in business?

So. A combination of dark (or intense) colors and lavish clutter whited the sepulcher. Which we have now left behind.

A large part of the clutter was pictorial, and each picture was framed with great care. I spent a small fortune at the fine local framer’s shop, choosing mats and frames and dimensions as thoughtfully as if I were naming a child. The most whimsical items, including a postcard designed and signed by Roz Chast — very small — and, also signed, Edward Koren’s poster for Books & Co — rather large — have been hung in the long entry corridor here, where they can be seen up close. My favorite is a lovely thank-you letter from a little girl who was in the early stages of learning to think ahead. It begins, in grand letters,

Dear Kath-

Owing to the configuration of the walls, there is less real estate for pictures in the new apartment. (Also, the book room is significantly smaller than the blue room, and the bookcases almost completely line the walls.) But even if the apartment were twice as big, the evolution of my taste would prevent a repetition of Soanesque display. This shift took root a few years ago, when we did repaint the foyer, or entry hall, of the apartment upstairs. Walls previously hidden by CD shelving were decorated with a handful of well-spaced photographs. The new look was only relatively austere, but it did mean that I was no longer going to hang pictures just because I had them, and might as well get out the hammer and nails.

Tonight, Ray will hang two paintings, in the book room. And perhaps the one remaining painting in the bedroom. That will get all the paintings off the floor.


The other day, a couple of books arrived from England, books by John Carey, author of The Unexpected Professor, a memoir that I hugely enjoyed a few weeks ago. The new titles are What Good Are the Arts?, which I haven’t looked at, and The Intellectuals and the Masses, which I’m finding to be incredibly apposite to the thinking that Marilynne Robinson has been inspiring. About Professor Carey’s sociopolitical views I shall only say that they are those of someone who, when young, was a man of the left. More precise labeling would conduce to imprecision. Carey’s conception of “the masses” indicates the sophistication of his thought: he doesn’t believe in the existence of any masses. Neither, as I hope is clear to regular readers, do I.

Because I don’t believe in the masses, I am not afraid that they will damage Western civilization and culture, as a long line of artists and intellectuals has been since the middle of the Nineteenth Century. I have only just, since digesting Hannah Arendt’s essay, ““The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,” made the connection between the masses and what Carey reminds is only in English called modernism. Carey fleshes out this connection in the opening chapter of his book, which is all that I’ve read. It has been an object lesson in the jump from understanding something to understanding something so much better that understanding seems previously to have been lacking altogether.

Take Nietzsche. When I was a student, it was great fun to read Nietzsche, but it was essentially childish fun: Nietzsche was a sort of intellectualized Captain Hook. As I grew older, I was disturbed to see that many intelligent writers took Nietzsche seriously as a thinker. To me, he was always incipiently the mad man that he eventually became, as well as a fountain of toxic notions. (Carey quotes his ghastly warning to “frequent women” well-armed with whips.) Similarly, I’ve always been unimpressed by modernism. For a long time, I took this as a sign of my own stupidity, at least in the darkness of night alone. As I say, I only recently came to understand that modernism is somewhat misanthropic. But now I know that modernism is simply contrary to humanism: it is inhumane. Corey makes thiis perfectly clear, and then concludes,

I would suggest, then, that the principle around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity.

Which if nothing else is rendered pointless by the non-existence of any “masses.” It’s not the masses that I fear, but the intellectuals who have, in order to thwart an imaginary ogre, all but wrecked civilization with modernism.