Gotham Diary:
October 2015 (II)

Tuesday 13th

Kathleen says that it’s the Remicade, and I hope that she’s right. She thinks that I’m ready for another infusion. I’m scheduled for one, for a week from tomorrow, and I think I’ll make, but I do feel very low. More precisely, it doesn’t take much to lower my spirits. As always, I’m fine in a crisis. This morning, we had a flood. A pipe on the seventh floor broke, and the floors in the kitchen and the foyer were soaked. Also, Kathleen’s bathroom and a bit of the bedroom. It happened after Kathleen headed out early, for a trustees’ meeting. I stayed in bed, and I did hear a dripping while I dozed. I figured that it was workers in the building. Unaware of a crisis, I didn’t deal with what seemed to be a little problem — a drip. When I finally got up, and went to get a banana, I discovered that the problem wasn’t so little. I called the super’s office, but before I heard back by phone I had an assistant super at the door. Soon there were handymen with mops and a wet vacuum. That didn’t faze me. But I still didn’t feel safe.

How can you feel safe in a country where most able-bodied young males believe that Steve Jobs was a great man, or a great inventor, or even a great marketer? Let’s be honest: the iPhone is a hula hoop for guys. Don’t tell me what it does; tell me what it does that really needs to be done. I’ve had one for about two years now. I find that it’s great for sending photos to Facebook. It’s a pretty lousy phone, although that may be AT&T’s fault. But I’ve always had AT&T mobile service, and it has never been so unreliable as it is on the iPhone.

Oh, and Evernote. But Evernote works on everything — even the Kindle Fire.

Why am I going on about Steve Jobs? Because how can I feel safe in a land where an admired columnist for the newspaper of record, Joe Nocera, complains about a movie because it leaves out the fun, engaging side of Steve Jobs’s personality? Because Michael Fassbender, the actor impersonating Jobs in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, never says, as Jobs often did — Nocera knows; he spent time with the man — that something is “really, really neat.”

Really, really neat — a remark, it seems of substance? A key to personality? Nocera complains that Jobs’s boyishness has been left of out of the movie. “Youthful mannerisms,” Nocera calls it, somewhat oxymoronically. (Maybe it’s just me. Maybe young people have nothing but mannerisms. In which case: no individual personality.)

I find Michael Fassbender interesting, because I have no sense of the man behind the actor. I don’t even have a sense of what he really looks like. He always seems to look like somebody. He reminds me of actors whom I can never place. He is an impersonator who, while convincing in any one role, takes on the character of an impersonator after two or three productions. This means that, to me, he seems always to be playing men who are hiding. I haven’t seen the new movie, but if I do, it will be because he’s in it, not because it’s about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was, on the evidence, a jerk, a determined adolescent, a Peter Pan; and he was lucky, I think, not to outlive too grossly his sell-by date.


The youthful mannerism that I find most grating these days is the habit of responding to “Thank you” with “No problem,” instead of “You’re welcome.” It took me a long time to realize that it was in fact a case of substitution. For a few years, I thought that the remark was thoughtlessly insolent, even though there was nothing otherwise offensive about the kids who used it. I haven’t entirely abandoned hope for the more customary phrase, which, after all, does answer one personal pronoun with another. I understand that “No problem” mirrors the usage of other languages, and may simply make more sense to people for whom the word “welcome” is already archaic around the edges. “Welcome home” is almost up there with “Many happy returns (of the day).” (So is “home.”) I notice that waiters who seem to be aspiring actors are likely to reply to “Thank you very much” with “You’re very welcome.”

I can’t get too upset about any of this, because, when I was young, I was insolent myself, and not always thoughtlessly. I regarded all the formulas of civil politeness as arrant hypocrisies. For several years, I sent out Christmas cards with the holiday greeting, “Merry Whatever,” and thought that I was daring and clever and frank. I grew out of frankness the hard way, by accumulating mortifying recognitions of gauche, irritating, and even wounding behavior. It all climaxed in the middle of reading Trollope’s Autobiography: I realized that I wasn’t much of a gentleman. I had never thought that being a gentleman meant much, but Trollope convinced me that not being one was a very bad thing, at least in someone who was brought up to be a gentleman.

My sojourn in the Land of Toys came to an end soon afterward. I put childish things behind me. I must have been confused, however, because, along with the childish things, I set aside a lot of vernacular things, especially vernacular speech. To me, vernacular speech is a powerful, one might even say overpowering, seasoning. Used carefully, it imparts a bit a jolt, a slight shock; a note, perhaps, of urgency. Unlike actual spices, however, the overuse of the vernacular results in the complete dissipation of spiciness. The result is childish. I thought of this the other day, reading Michael Kimmelman in the Times. The subject of the piece was something called the Flussbad in Berlin. For a moment, Kimmelman turned his attention to something similar in Chicago, the 606, “Chicago’s down-home twist on the chic High Line in New York.”

What I saw wasn’t sleek or even especially beautiful, with plantings that need time to grow, a little too much concrete and tall steel fencing. But it connects ground-level neighborhood parks and belongs to a larger, humanizing campaign by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to green up gritty areas of the city.

To green up? What kind of talk is that? I should have written something like, “a larger campaign by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to humanize the gritty parts of his city with ([optional:] more) greenery.” Elsewhere in his essay, Kimmelman casts a passing shot at “the fake Baroque palace” that is under construction in Berlin (a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern Schloss that was leveled by the Communists). I find his faux cowboy locution at least that offensive. (And, while we’re at it, that other “up” construction that allows men to weep without admitting to crying.)

My spirits took a nosedive when I read about greening up on Saturday. How can you feel safe in a place where grown men talk like this? Highly educated grown men? Art critics, for Pete’s sake. I have two issues with Michael Kimmelman, neither of them central to his profession. First, he and I clearly disagree about the wisdom of sounding much younger than you are. Second — and I think that this is really distinct from the first — he is pious about the vernacular. This is a pop-culture trope; it imagines and prizes a vernacular aesthetic that is accessible but not kitschy. It is simple but truly wholesome. It appears to be informal. It is relaxed but impassioned. That is, it celebrates a few beautiful and important things that we can all agree on while refusing to get caught up in styles. It is fine with accidental, negligent mess, but wary about intentional clutter. It saves sweat for the gym. Come to think of it, the High Line is the perfect embodiment of this aesthetic. To me, the High Line feels like an asylum, a desperate response to the unchecked profusion of automobiles in Manhattan, with the attendant narrowed, treeless sidewalks. The High Line is a spa. And like spas, the vernacular aesthetic is patronized by affluent people with plenty of higher ed. (Now, that’s a thought that I want to come back to.)


But it hasn’t been all that kind of gloom. I’ve been charging through Carlo Cipolla’s book about European commerce and industry prior to the Industrial Revolution. Excuse me: although I’ve actually read the entire book and am just re-reading “The Rise of England” for form’s sake, I set Cipolla aside so that I could read Arnold Pacey’s The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology. This astonishingly readable book is so crammed with information and understanding that, midway through each chapter, I forgot most of what was in the chapter before it.

Having studied the history of science in five undergraduate semesters, I long thought that I knew everything that here was to know about it. You must forgive me, because, in those days, to know anything about the history of science was to know so many orders of magnitude more than anybody else that there really was no local pressure to remind me of my tremendous ignorance. It was in my fifties that I began to feel rusty, and began to notice that the subject was a more generally familiar one than formerly. I also came across good books about the history of commerce in second-millennium Europe, such as Peter Spufford’s Power and Profit. What made me think about science, technology, and business in earnest, however, was the official craziness that began with the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Internet bubble, and the collapse of Enron, and that climaxed with the fall of the house off Lehman. And when I did start thinking harder about these things, it was against the background of terrifying environmental degradation.

Here is what Pacey has to say about environmental degradation, and do please note his mild humility:

The seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy has persisted, in some of its fundamentals, down to our own time, and may have led us into some of our modern dilemmas.

For example, the idea of the natural world as being something mechanical freed people from any old-fashioned doubts about whether, in making a machine or digging a mine, they might be encroaching on the prerogativves of the Creator. The thirteenth-century idea of clocks or cathedrals as symbolizing heavenly things — the idea of their construction as a reaching-out woward the source of light and life — had been replaced by the notion that the heavens themselves were little better than a piece of well-made clockwork. So there was no particular reason for feeling any humility before nature. I was a machine that one could tinker with. And the machine analogy gave no warning hat there were checks and balances in nature that could easily be upset, because seventeenth-century machines did not incorporate feedback loops or any other automatic control systems to prevent them getting out of control or running away. The only exception was the escapement mechanism of clocks, but this evidently did not prove sufficiently suggestive.

I think that I have written several times here that, prior to the very late Nineteenth Century, nobody had the least suspicion that the actions of man could affect the earth to any extensive degree. Pacey puts it better, and explains how technology itself generated the blind spot. If you extrapolate from clocks and looms that depend on very simple power sources, and if, what’s more, you extrapolate from the small-scale perspective of artisanal production, then it might very well seem nothing less than madness to have foreseen what in fact ensued. There is no doubt about the Industrial Revolution: it swept through Europe on a wave of elite enthusiasm that elicited no serious objections. Luddite opposition provoked the standard elitist riposte: learn new skills. Grumpy complaints about dark, Satanc mills did not forecast the London fog. Nobody appears to have objected that crowded, unsanitary cities were breeding grounds for the “Romantic” epidemic of tuberculosis. By the time the doctor told you to go to the mountains for a change of air, it was already too late for most patients. It may be too late for us, too. But that doesn’t let us off the hook for looking.

When I was a student, the strange part of my studies was science. The history of science sounded odd. Now, of course, it’s the history of science that raises brows. The history of anything excites whining: do we have to? Yes, we have to. There is no manageable way out of the mess that we’ve made that doesn’t begin with the story of how we made, and what we thought we were doing.


Wednesday 14th

Something happened at the server yesterday, and this site was unreachable for much of the afternoon and evening. I was advised to avoid working on it (ie, writing) until noon, just to be sure that systems were stable. I would be further advised if things were not stable at noon. Noon came and went without notice. Me voilà.

But it is a day of very crooked timber. Until yesterday, I was wondering how I would make it to next week’s Remicade infusion. Aches and pains I’ve been spared, but a fire curtain of depression has draped my mind in a funk of pointlessness. All I want to do is crawl into bed and watch movies — I want to forget about me. It’s scary and unusual. Kathleen says that she has seen it before, always right before the next infusion. I don’t remember anything like this, but, then, why should I? I have no idea why the depletion of Remicade in my bloodstream makes life so bleak, but it’s a reminder that depression is a physical disorder, in my case brought on by some weird cousin of arthritis.

Until yesterday, I said. The phone rang; it was the hospital, confirming my appointment for today. I couldn’t even read my own calendar! The appointment is for late in the afternoon, 5:30. I’ll be there!

Well beyond sixes and sevens, I completely lacked focus until I had my lunch, about half an hour ago. I worked on an entry without conviction, and I wrote a letter that is probably the first draft of another letter. It was only as I was making the bed, after lunch, that I remembered the indignation that I’ve been feeling these last few days (when I’ve been feeling anything at all), that I was never taught how a clock works. When I think of all the useless science classes that I sat through, the omission of clocks and their anatomy seems not only barbaric but perverse. Like Kathleen, I “supposed” that clocks were driven by pendulums. The weights lurking in the dim recess of my grandparents’ tall case clock bothered me a bit; I wondered what they were for — perhaps they powered the pendulum? (This would have been correct, but more indirectly than I could imagine.) As for all those wheels and gears…

Sometimes it seems that the nerds have set it up so that they’re the only ones who learn about science and math, by the simple trick of making these subjects repellent to normal people. In order to fit in, you have to be a misfit. The nerds are the kids who revel in complication and inscrutability, and who have no interest whatever in sharing what they know. If someone had offered to show me how a clock worked, I should have declined, lest it give me a headache. So I’m not just angry about not having been taught how clocks work — and I’ll get to the why of that in a minute — but infuriated by the flaccid pedagogy that governed teaching even at my high end of the scale.

Every educated person ought to know how clocks work because, long before they became reliable, clocks were perceived by thinkers of the West as models of the universe, and by the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, the simile had switched itself, positing a universe that was simply a great big clock. It is from this intellectual metaphor that men of the Enlightenment derived the “deistic” idea of a Creator Clockmaker, a remote being who, having designed a magnificent instrument and set it in motion, receded from human affairs. This is the original positive agnostic faith: whether there is a god or not, there is no need to know if he’s there, because we have his work. At the same time, the clock became the coordinator of human affairs, preparing the way for schedules and appointments. Clocks became reliable because the need to measure the physical dimensions of things discovered a need to measure their duration. They became reliable when they were needed to be reliable — and not before.


Loose change: I came across the work of Roger Scruton today: “Without tradition, there can be no originality.” I subscribe to that notion; to me, it explains the chronic lack of originality in our times, the collapse of the thirst for discovery to an excitement with handheld devices that tell us nothing we don’t already know. Whether I shall pursue Scruton is another matter. I see that he has recanted his traditional, and traditionally contemptuous, ideas about homosexuality, so he appears to be a conservative capable of learning in old age. Conservatives usually aren’t. I am a natural conservative myself, but I cannot accept the self-validation of authority (which is usually a great deal less traditional, or at any rate venerable, than its supporters make out), and I cannot work from divine causes.

I’ve been thinking about The Martian — it’s a very thinkable movie. It often feels like a true story; you have to pinch yourself and remember that, no, man has not yet set foot on the Red Planet. But the moment of touchdown is far from inconceivable. It is largely a matter of budgets and political will, at this point. And I do wish that we would try to put people on Mars, not because the idea is exciting (it isn’t, not to me), but because it is clearly the place best suited to teach us the next things that we need to know about the world beyond our atmosphere. Although I should never counsel cutting off funding for the search for habitable planets in other solar systems, I do wish that the press would drop it, because the information is worse than useless to anyone without the training to conduct such searches. Let’s say that a planet somewhere out there is identified as life-supporting; let us further suppose that this life is life as we know it. Let’s imagine that the creatures on this planet send us radio postcards, Come on in, the water’s fine! There remains the small problem of getting there. It stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that, before we undertake to travel over lengths of light years, we master the art of travel to Mars. The trip will take a long time, but the time will be our kind of time — not light years.


Thursday 15th

Yesterday’s Remicade infusion lasted about two hours, which is how long infusions are supposed to last. They usually take longer, though; lately, they seem to. And it can take a while to settle in, and then for the IV bag to come up from the pharmacy. But things were zoom zoom zoom yesterday, because I had the last appointment of the day. The nurses were putting on their coats and turning out the lights as I was leaving, a few seconds after eight. Also, I was the only patient in the unit for nearly an hour. It was beautifully quiet. I’ll try for the late slot for the next infusion, and, if it’s anything like it was last night, I’ll make a habit of it. By the way, I felt something that a friend of mine who has been taking Remicade for longer than I have says that he always experiences: I felt that I was getting better during the infusion. I walked out of the hospital feeling pretty normal.

I read almost the entirety of this week’s New Yorker. I had already begun reading Jane Kramer’s genial profile of Gloria Steinem, and when I was done with that I almost turned to Lord Jim. But there was my blood pressure to think of. Now that I have finally cracked Marlow’s rhythms, which can be as baroque as Henry James’s late narrative style, Lord Jim has become pretty exciting. So I stayed with The New Yorker and went through pretty much all of it. Not the fiction and not the piece about Dietrich and Riefenstahl — I wasn’t in the mood for those two. Nor the Laurie Anderson review. But I gobbled up the “Talk,” which I usually skip, and then Kathryn Schulz’s take-down of Thoreau, which reminded me (a) why I’ve never read Thoreau and (b) how reliable my antennae are. Everything that I have ever heard about Thoreau in general and Walden in particular has warned me away. Schulz writes,

In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.)

Horrors! Even better, Schulz points out that Walden is naturally appealing to its principal readership, high-school students. “Thoreau endorses rebellion against societal norms, champions idleness over work, and gives his readers permission to ignore their elders.” That got a good laugh. (Happily, there was only one patient in the unit at that moment.) Typing out Schulz’s remarks on “Economy,” I remembered that abstinence can be powerfully appealing to seventeen year-olds. Schulz rightly observes that Thoreau’s rhapsodies about simplicity are unlikely to be shared by the genuinely poor, but teenagers are only temporarily poor, and austerity is a self-dignifying way of rejecting what you can’t have, yet. Renunciation may even constitute a premature advancement into adulthood! Not that it did so in my case. I remember presenting my parents with a charter — written on onion-skin paper with a quill pen (imagine the unsightly blobs of ink, and laugh all you like!) — in which I bound myself, at the age of thirteen, to abstain from smoking, drinking, and driving even when I became legally able to take them all up. My parents, I have to say, were neither unduly alarmed by this gesture nor encouraged to take its promises at all seriously. I remember feeling that I had solved a tremendous problem. If I was already disinclined to read Thoreau (I had done with the treehouse thing), perhaps I didn’t need him.

Sometimes, a given issue of The New Yorker feels like a miscellany, an accumulation of unrelated pieces that have dumped together within one cover, but I often feel an occult connection, even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. In the current issue (Oct 19, 2015), the connection is not occult at all; the editors could have called it “The Influence Issue.” The Steinem profile certainly fits under that rubric: Gloria Steinem, now 81, has been one of America’s most influential women since her thirties. She’s the kind of person who influences groups and individuals most, as distinct from movie audiences or those who attend stadium events. Having been influenced by Gloria Steinem is likely to be a personal experience rather than a crowded one. (But the lady certainly gets around!) In contrast to her influence for the good, there are the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about youthful shooters, such as Evan Harris and Christopher Harper-Mercer. As always in one of Gladwell’s glimpses of modern problems, there is a powerful hook, a discovery that seems to explain everything because what it’s really doing is giving us a new way of looking at the subject under review. In this case, the hook is explicit in the title: “Thresholds of Influence.”

Forty years ago, it seems, a Stanford sociologist by the name of Mark Granovetter published a “famous article” in which he examined, primarily, riots. In riots, people do things that they would never do otherwise. They throw things, they break windows; they loot and steal. How does this happen? Until Granovetter’s essay, the received wisdom was that people in crowds are intoxicated by crowd itself, by the gathering together of so many others that the self surrenders to otherness. This sounds plausible, but it presumes a crowd of more or less identical people making identical surrenders. Granovetter assumed otherwise, that crowds are composed of many different kinds of people, and that their interaction might or might not result in riots. He proposed that the differences between people in a crowd might be regarded as thresholds of violence. One man might have no threshold; at the slightest provocation, he might pick up a brick and throw it through a window. Another man, nearby, might have a threshold of one, meaning that he would do something that he would never do alone if he saw one other person doing it. Other people, with higher thresholds, would refrain from violence until their higher thresholds were crossed; then they would join in the fray. Eventually, the entire crowd would go berserk. In crowds consisting of a few people with thresholds of zero or one, and many people with thresholds of twenty or more, no riot would ensue.

Gladwell suggests that we apply this model to the shooters. The riot occurs in slow motion and the thresholds are crossed by the viewing of Web sites. He suggests that we regard Evan Harris, the psychopathic Columbine shooter, as a successful revolutionary. Harris launched a Web site that transformed a chaotic horror story into a ritual. Every new killing spree increases access to those with higher thresholds, to young men who would never have imagined doing such things on their own. Eventually, as in a riot, guys with no serious emotional baggage might find their thresholds crossed. Cool.

To illustrate this, Gladwell has a second hook up his sleeve, the story of John LaDue, a high-school student from Minnesota who was encountered at a storage locker full of explosives. LaDue had an elaborate plan for blowing up his school, and he had most of the stuff that he would need to realize it. First, however, he would have to kill his parents and his sister. It turned out that LaDue had Autism Spectrum Disorder — he’s an Aspie, a term that still seems to me to be useful even though it no longer means anything medically. On the one hand, he was capable of following his version of the shooter checklist more or less as disinterestedly as, in an early, more innocent time, he might have conducted a chemistry experiment in his basement. On the other, however, he really loved his family and did not want to kill them. The police were able to intervene before any harm was done because LaDue was sabotaging his project in little ways, by not buying a necessary appliance “yet,” by buying the wrong kind of ammunition, and so on. LaDue was just a boy whose threshold for violence had been crossed; he had no need whatsoever of a troubled personal history (aside from his ASD, which clearly impaired his judgment), of abuse or bullying or anything of that kind, to be inspired to blow up his school. (One might argue that LaDue has multiple thresholds, or that the shooter epidemic is not really a riot, given that almost everyone is working alone.)

I was glad to see that Gladwell is scrupulous, at the end of his piece, to puncture any balloons of problem solved that might accompany his readers’ sense of new enlightenment.

The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

I can already hear the NRA urge that we simply shut down the Internet.


Friday 16th

As I was making the bed this morning, I found myself thinking more about riots and rituals. Or, rather, I experienced one of those slips of thought that makes things look new without changing very much.

We’ve all known about the way in which the Internet has, so to speak, rewritten suicide notes, ever since Palestinian youths began making home movies before blowing themselves up. The Internet allowed people to infuse their parting gestures with a visual and compelling insistence on martyrdom that no mere document could ever express. Inevitably, certain gestures were found to be so effective that they were repeated, eventually becoming essential elements in what looked more and more like a liturgy. Malcolm Gladwell, in the piece that I was talking about yesterday, refers to a certain move that has become standard in shooter videos, involving a gun and outflung arms.

I have never seen any of these productions, Islamic or American, and I really oughtn’t to be generalizing about them. But from my distant perspective, they sound like the centerpieces of burgeoning religions. I’m reminded particularly of the cult of Mithras, which was popular (I’ve always read) with Roman soldiers (and confined to male participants), and which sacrificed bulls. This cult flourished throughout the Levant at the time of great religious fermentation in which Christianity was born. Cults that had been around for centuries were stale, and co-opted by the state. The search for spiritual meaning took a syncretic, somewhat underground turn. Might we not be seeing the same thing today? A number of Palestinian women have blown themselves up, but, so far, there hasn’t been a female shooter here in the States. Instead of bulls, these young people sacrifice other people, none of whom is regarded as specifically guilty of anything more than existence — just like those bulls.

With mainstream religions losing their hold on Western youth, and their Islamic contemporaries beset by the inability to reconcile faith with patriotism, it is not surprising that these two otherwise different groups have developed a similar artifact, the pre-immolation video that tries to make the case that secular hypocrisy must be rejected with violent gestures.

Having considered the idea for a couple of days, I’m having an ever-harder time regarding the epidemic of mass shootings performed by adolescents and young men as a riot in slow motion, as Gladwell has it. It seems more like a series of conversions, in which young men participate in the manner so increasingly favored by young people for dealing with intimacy: in isolation. It’s as if being alone in their rooms permits them to join vast like-minded throngs, viewers like themselves. We adults tend to call this kind of socializing “virtual,” because it isn’t face to face, but perhaps the secret of this new religion is that it spreads the uncritical assurance that the solitary person is the most connected. Certainly the solitary person retains a greater liberty, a freedom that no physical participant in a public rite could ask for. Our young man can leave his computer for bathroom and snack breaks. He can surface in the “real world,” washing the dishes and going to class. Then he can sit down again at pick up right where he was. No one interrupts him. No one coughs or smells or giggles a few pews away.

I do think that Mark Granovetter’s concept of thresholds is useful, although probably not as a means of preventing massacres. I’ve been thinking about thresholds while reading Lord Jim. A great question that might be asked of Conrad’s great novel is what were the thresholds that Jim had to cross before he could jump off the Patna and into a lifeboat, and how did the chaotic situation that preceded his fatal move lift him over them? I don’t mean to pose a puzzle; it would be foolish to look for a comprehensive explanation. One of Conrad’s points, I think, is that there is no getting to the bottom of such mistakes — only the clarity of the penalty. I had the strongest sense of this in Marlow’s conversation with the French naval officer, three years later, in Sydney.

Man is born a coward. It is a difficulty — parbleu! It would be too easy otherwise. but habit — habit — necessity — do you see? — the eyes of others — voilà. One puts up with it. And then the example of others who are no better than yourself, and yet make good countenance.

This stumbling insistence on circumstances and “example” leads Marlow to believe that the Frenchman is taking “the lenient view.” At this charge, however, the officer pulls himself up and takes firm exception to that supposition.

Allow me … I contended that one may get on knowing very well that one’s courage does not come of itself. There’s nothing much in that to get upset about. One truth the more ought not to make life impossible. … But the honour — the honour, monsieur! … The honour … that is real — that is! And what life may be worth when […] the honour is gone — ah ça! par exemple — I can offer no opinion. I can offer no opinion — because — monsieur — I know nothing of it.

I haven’t read much further than this chapter, but it is unquestionably the most exciting thing in Lord Jim so far. It is Jim’s tragedy compressed to the utmost. As someone who has serious difficulties with various concepts of honor, let me make it clear that I regard Jim’s obligation not to abandon the lives in his charge as no more questionable than any court of naval honor would have it; I should rather call it an imperative of decency. In his long conversation with Marlow on the hotel verandah — to me, it seemed to be the real, the genuine Inquiry, conducted by Jim himself, with Marlow as a witness — Jim seems to suggest that, because he could not save all eight hundred souls in what would probably be a confusion in which many died before they could drown, the thought that he might save whom he could is not worth thinking about. Because he cannot be a hero, and save everybody, he might as well retire from the field. Indeed, of his later life, as a water-clerk, Marlow comments,

He had loved too well to imagine himself a glorious racehorse, and now he was condemned to toil without honour like a costermonger’s donkey. He did it very well.

The matter of crossed thresholds is interesting because our speculations allow us to sound ourselves, and to measure the distance between our hope that we might do well and our fear that we might not. But Conrad’s Frenchman is adamant: no matter what it was that allowed Jim to jump — fear of death (probably not), fear of emergency (Marlow is sure about this), disgust with the third engineer’s corpse at his feet, the terrible racial superiority of well-bred Englishmen — whatever it was, it doesn’t matter, because nothing can excuse the act of abandonment. It can be explained, but not excused, not ever.

An even more interesting question would ask about the thresholds that that paragon, Captain Brierly — one of Jim’s judges — had to cross in order to commit suicide, shortly after the Inquiry. What was it about Jim’s downfall, which Brierly rather wildly hoped to prevent, if only by paying Jim to run away, that cost Brierly his self-respect? Did he throw himself overboard in order to preserve his self-regard?

It is interesting to note that these marine executives — these captains of ships military and mercantile — belong to a powerful confraternity that meets, and then only very partially, when they are onshore, and not at work. When they are at sea, they are as solitary as young men in basements.


Next week, I hope to review some thoughts provoked by a book that Kathleen brought home recently, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I read it instead, and felt, in places, that I was reading a history of my own consciousness. (Yes, how like a man: it’s all about me.) Meanwhile,

Bon weekend à tous!