Gotham Diary:
House into Home
February 2016 (I)

Monday 1st

Never have I been so curious about the Iowa Caucuses. Even worse, I hope that Donald Trump wins. This is not because I’m sure that he would lose to Hillary Clinton, or because of any other calculus, either. He is simply the only one of the Republican candidates who is at all bearable. If he’s godawful, he’s like democracy: the worst, except for all the others. I am reminded that the United States survived Andrew Jackson. (Arguably, it did not.) My great fear is that Ted Cruz will win. Cruz is absolutely the worst. Speechless with anxiety, I shall now change the subject.

Ross Douthat wrote about decadence on Sunday. I remember being fascinated by decadence, in college. I mean, the very idea of it! You never heard about decadence in Bronxville. It was very alluring, perhaps because, for me, it was set to the music of Salome. Actually, aside from Salome, I had no experience of decadence. I had an idea of what it might be like — it was all in my head. I imagined dusky seraglios, piles of fruit, and exquisite bath oils. (The bath oils part was a real exercise, because it was difficult to imagine that bath oils could ever be anything but greasy and suffocating.) Over in a corner, Oscar Wilde, draped in an enormous bath sheet, made outrageous remarks, and cackled with his coterie. You had to look where you were going, lest you step on Huysmann’s jewel-encrusted tortoise.

I may have taken one bath. It was very boring. You can’t really read in the bath; I can’t, anyway. How do you keep your hands dry? After about a year of pining after decadence like one of Gilbert’s lovesick maidens, I realized that I was not cut out for languor. I suspect that I had been drawn to decadence because it might provide a creative cover for laziness. In fact, it was rather laborious. I can’t really read when I’m striking attitudes. In fact, I don’t want to be conscious of anything but what I’m reading. All you need for that is a good chair and a bright window. Simplicitas!

Later, I would understand that Wilde was transgressive, not decadent. In fact, decadence turns out to be one of those things that nobody is, except for the odd crackpot. Only other people are decadent. And you want to look closely at the people who call other people decadent. Ross Douthat, whether clever or kind, refrains from pasting the label of decadence on anybody, or, for that matter, on anything more particular than the entire United States. Here’s what he has to say about decadence:

But don’t just think about the word in moral or aesthetic terms. Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.

Whatever this tells us about the US of A, it reveals Douthat as a sentimentalist. He wants to advance, whatever that means. He wants the economy to grow — in my book, a shockingly unexamined desideratum. He wants people to have aspirations for their numerous children. He wants them to fight for the right causes, with complete conviction. These are all things that characterized America in the century that ended in 1970, almost a decade before Douthat was born. (1970 is about when I gave up on decadence.)

I wonder what Douthat would make of Robert J Gordon’s new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War. I nearly bought the book yesterday, but I’m on a budget, so I’ll have to get to it later. I already agree with his arguments, at least as Paul Krugman laid them out in his rave review, and as Gordon himself summarizes them in what you can read online of his Introduction.

This book is based on an important idea having innumerable implications: Economic growth is not a steady process that creates economic advance at a regular pace, century after century. Instead, progress occurs much more rapidly in some times than in others. There was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, only slow growth in the transition century before 1870, remarkably rapid growth in the century ending in 1970, and slower growth since then.

While I believe that Gordon underestimates economic growth prior to 1770, possibly because he overlooks an alternative measure of growth, I agree wholeheartedly with his other statements, because I have discovered them for myself in the course of reading a great many histories of this and that. And I have concluded that the astonishing changes in the relationship between man and the material world that have created generalized levels of health, safety, and comfort to which affluent societies everywhere have become not only accustomed but addicted in the formulation of their hopes and dreams have climaxed. Our task now is not to grow, but to organize what we have grown — an urgent business, since the unintended side-effects of the growth spell may prove to be terminally toxic for the planet. We have to sort out who owns what, and who provides what kind of direction. Our systems of government (I speak of the developed world here) were all conceived in the latter days of the old, pre-growth dispensation; the Founders, like other revolutionaries, believed, not without reasons, that the lessons of the vanished empires of classical antiquity had much to teach them.

One of the linkages with the ancient world that we’re inclined to overlook is that of communication. News traveled somewhat faster in 1790 than it did in Caesar’s day, but it was still a matter of days, and it was still carried on horseback. Such delays were necessarily taken for granted by political thinkers. It was also the case that rich and powerful people got their news faster than the general population did. (Lots of “news,” in fact, took the form of secret communication.) The mechanisms of proclamation and assembly in our Constitution would have been manageable in Roman times. We, in sharp contrast, are threatened by the panic that might be caused by the simultaneous reception by everybody of malignant misinformation. Something like this occurred after the breakup of Yugoslavia: corrupt radio stations broadcast false warnings that Christians were at imminent risk of slaughter by their Muslim neighbors.

The more I think about it, the more instant communication carries risks of environmental degradation. It does not involve chemical pollution, but it is no less an unintended by-product of something desirable. It tends to reduce the variety of information, much as pollution seems to reduce the number of animal species. Take a “harmless” example: today’s international art market, which is made possible entirely by the modernization of communication and transportation. It is possible for a small cloud of people to be conversant with participants and developments everywhere in the international market. Local art markets are deprived of the prestige that, for reasons of human nature, must accompany the production of art if it is to be taken at all seriously. Why should Denver have its own fine-arts world, if patrons can fly to an art fair? But who benefits from this monoculture? I ask the same question about commercial combinations. Are beer fanciers likely to enjoy cheaper, better brews when the AB Imbev acquisition of SAB Miller goes through? I expect not. Lots of jobs will be cut, and a handful of people, perhaps only two or three, will see an increase in power and income. (Oops! I forgot the bankers’ fees!) The desirability of industrial conglomerations ironically depends on ideas of efficiency that pre-date the Industrial Revolution.

The other day, I went to order something from Chef’s Catalog, a reliable source for kitchenware for many years, only to discover that it has been shut down. Shut down by its recent parent, Target, whose management determined that Chef’s business “did not align” with Target’s plans. Chef’s Catalog was not losing money. It wasn’t even in the way. Target paid a lot of money to buy it, but now decided that it was just clutter. I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry: closing down healthy businesses is wrong.

Let’s remember, after all that Adam Smith wrote in the pre-industrial world. Most workers in his day were agricultural laborers, and there was no reason to expect that that would change. The idea of commerce as the support (via employment) of the general population — well, since I haven’t read The Wealth of Nations all the way through, I can’t say that this idea never crossed Smith’s mind. But he does appear to have been principally interested in consumers, a preoccupation that has also outlived its eighteenth-century rationale.

From now on, growth will have to occur primarily in the human understanding. The attempt to revive the more ignorant outlook of another century is both sentimental and decadent.


Tuesday 2nd

The consolation, of course, is that the last two winners of Iowa’s contests for the Republican presidential nomination didn’t go very far.

Looking for news about the Bloomberg campaign — might Hillary Clinton’s failure to leave Bernie Sanders in the dust trigger some positive move toward Bloomberg’s actually running? — I came across a Times story reporting on a poll, sponsored by Bloomberg’s company, that showed very little support for the former mayor, at least in Iowa. This is far from surprising; people like me, who would like to acclaim Bloomberg before he delivers a single speech, are few and far between. But the poll also showed enormous support for Martin O’Malley — 46% of Democrats had a favorable view of him. So what? Having won zero delegates (in a vanishingly small Democratic turnout), O’Malley lost no time in dropping out of the race.

Are we ever going to get beyond polling? At the very least, isn’t it time to move from the random cold call to a better-organized online arrangement? Is there a way to limit polls to registered voters?

On the Op-Ed page, R R Reno says something that may strike regular readers of this Web site as familiar. (I certainly hope that it does.)

If these candidates [Trump and Sanders] have traction, it’s because over the last two decades our political elites, themselves almost entirely white, have decided, for different reasons, that the white middle class has no role to play in the multicultural, globalized future they envision, a future that they believe they will run. This primary season will show us whether or not they’re right.

A point that I might make more strongly than I do is that it is questionable and short-sighted of white political élites to imagine that they, they, are going to run a multicultural, globalized future.


I’ve been on a Gilbert & Sullivan jag. It’s very taxing; the Savoy Operas make me cry to the point of headache. Why? They’re supposed to be funny and entertaining, but I carry on as though I were a professional mourner. In part, it’s because my appreciation of the collaborative accomplishment has skyrocketed. The popularity of G&S in certain sectors of the Anglophone population does not diminish the very high polish of the music, which reveals a Mozartean fluency. Nor does it blunt the acute wit with which Gilbert volleys the English language. My tears are provoked by the dissonance between what I hear in the D’Oyle Carte recordings and what used to be produced in high school auditoriums all over the country. I used to appreciate Gilbert & Sullivan as a guilty pleasure, but now I regard it as a cultural monument of the first order, and the second cause of weeping is the fear that this monument is about to be shrouded in oblivion, in our new multicultural, globalized world.

English may be the most common second language on the planet, or at any rate seem to be, but full appreciation of Gilbert’s verses strikes me as hardly less demanding than a taste for Shakespeare. Gilbert’s usage may be closer to us temporally than Shakespeare’s is, but it is far more precise, written, as it were, to be parsed. And its references are almost equally arcane. Gilbert was a failed (or uninterested) barrister whose whole sense of topsy-turvy was inspired by legal nonsense, which was far more abundant in his common-law times. He was astonishingly alert to the comic possibilities of ambiguity, as in this exchange from the end of Iolanthe:

Celia: We are all fairy duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses.
Lord Mountararat: It’s our fault. They couldn’t help themselves.
Queen: It seems they have helped themselves, and pretty freely, too! (II.554-557)

And then along comes the Lord Chancellor, with his simple suggestion that Fairy Law be amended to read that “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” This might seem fatuous to those who regard law as embodying scientific truths, but, as Gilbert was doubtlessly aware, quite a number of laws were amended in this fashion, not once but twice, during the 1550s alone — laws about acknowledging the authority of the Pope, for example. What looks like a breezy jest turns into a variation on a Reformation Theme. (I have already written about the farcically inexorable about-face at the heart of Patience.) As we move further from Gilbert in time, the sauciness of his humorous imbroglios becomes less salient, while the roots of his absurdities burrow deeper into obscurity. You can decide to let it all go, or you can decide that intelligent speakers of English ought to be educated to enjoy it, as we do with regard to Shakespeare. This is more than a matter of explaining the jokes; it entails nothing less than the fullest possible relighting of the world in which Gilbert wrote.

Music dates differently, and I don’t think that Sullivan is ever going to be difficult to like. This is a problem insofar as it makes his music seem negligible to the discerning. A prolific tunesmith, Sullivan was somewhat ashamed of his facility. He struggled to be not only “great” — an exercise that usually resulted in soggy pretentiousness — but also “English,” whatever that meant. At the bright beginning of his career, critical observers entertained high hopes that Sullivan would develop a distinctively English idiom. When it turned out that Elgar developed it instead, Sullivan was branded as a failure, and his immortality, depending as it does on the Savoy Operas, is yoked to an idea of second-rate hack work that Sullivan himself appears to have shared. But if you just listen to the music, and forget about the toils of nationalism, what emerges is a glorious Second-Empire style, as spacious as the Palais Garnier, all the fun of a can-can, and the dispatch of a crack express train. There is always more going on than the ear can take in, and if this is not distracting, it preserves the work from triteness. Gifted at mimicking the styles of the past, Sullivan is a self-demonstrating historian of music. At the same time, his work betrays an ardent, as well as up-to-date admiration of Verdi’s way with the orchestra, itself an under-appreciated subject. (I believe that orchestration provided Verdi with the means of planting himself as a character in his operas.) The music to which Sullivan set Gilbert’s articulate ballads is equally articulate; more than that, it shines with the most straightforward, good-humored love of life. Like Mozart, Sullivan is a master of lubricating his complexities so smoothly that they never get in the way of the unschooled. Unlike the words, the music is never superficially puzzling.

There is an astringency in Gilbert & Sullivan that sets it apart from the Victorian world outside the preserve of the Savoy Theatre. Sullivan is like one the great chefs imported from France — delicious. Gilbert is English to the bone, but he has swallowed a lozenge that makes it impossible to trust in romantic impulses. There are moments of deep yearning in his texts, but over the course of the collaboration with Sullivan, these drift from the comely heroines, such as Josephine Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, to the battleaxes, the Katishas and the Lady Janes. Young love is mocked by the young lovers themselves.

Phyllis: We won’t wait long.
Strephon: No. We might change our minds. We’ll get married first.
Phyllis: And change our minds afterwards?
Strephon: That’s the usual course. (Iolanthe, II.438-41)

This astringency saturates everything in the Savoy Operas, particularly, if invisibly, the very idea of social reform. When I first got to know The Mikado, I was naive enough to believe that Victorian audiences must have been shocked and offended by what struck me as a transparent critique of the Establishment. I see now that my surprise — my surprise that performances of The Mikado were permitted while the old sourpuss sat on the throne — says a lot about the plush, suffocating hypocrisy of life in Bronxville circa 1960, a little world in which it was forbidden not only to sell houses to Jews but to hint at the existence of the prohibition. I was so conscious of the injunction against speaking the truth about society that I mistook Gilbert’s pantomime caricatures for overt social criticism. As David Cannadine points out in his important essay, “Gilbert and Sullivan as a ‘National Institution’,” there was no social criticism in the Savoy Operas.

This, in essence, is the social universe of the Savoy Operas: a universe selectively but perceptively modelled on the real and recognizable Britain of the years 1871-1896. There is monarchy on the way to apotheosis, and there is aristocracy on the way to decline. There are those great professions most concerned with domestic security and international peace. But, apart from Dr Daly in The Sorcerer, there are no clergymen… In the same way, the commercial and entrepreneurial bourgeoisie hardly appears at all, apart from the gentlest references to middle-class social climbing in The Mikado. … As for the working class, they are invariably picturesque and dutiful rustic maidens, country bumpkins, jolly jack tars. And the settings are almost always pastoral and sylvan: country houses and villages predominate, and apart from Titipu (which is a Japanese town) and the Palace of Westminster (significantly bathed in yellow moonlight in Act II of Iolanthe), the press and pace of urban life hardly intrude.

The complete lack of social criticism leaves Gilbert & Sullivan free to contemplate such universal social problems as the difficulty of attracting and holding on to the attention of others, the itch to be too clever for one’s own good, the false consciousness of striking noble attitudes, and the longing to bury disappointment and frustration with material wealth. We laugh because we are not asked to cry. And yet, here am I, crying as I laugh. And then not really laughing, just crying. It is not sentimentality, but an emotional discomfort, as ordinary little people are presented in magnificent language and ravishing music while emphasizing the fact that they are neither magnificent nor ravishing in themselves. As we none of us are.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Ian Bradley’s Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and followed the D’Oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore (the last of several; the company recorded it in 1908). Pinafore, the first Savoy Opera that I ever saw, has never been a favorite of mine. It is perhaps too hearty and masculine for my taste. (Have you noticed? When I approve of a sex-linked characteristic, I say that it’s “manly” or “womanly.” When I disapprove, I use the other words, which also, for me, suggest a strong whiff of the bogus.) There are some great numbers in Pinafore, and I used to think that “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” was Sullivan’s greatest tune. But in later years I have not been drawn to listen to it. Perhaps it would be better to say that, while I have listened to it, I haven’t been inspired to pay much attention.”We sail the ocean blue…” All right, then, off you go!

At the outset of this personal overview of the Savoy Operas, I’ll declare a marked preference for the four central works, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, and The Mikado, created in that order between 1880 and 1885. I am not going to say that they’re perfect, only that (what’s much better) they’re Just Right. Princess Ida is perhaps a bit less Just Right than the others, but Acts I and II are very fine, and “This Helmet, I Suppose” redeems the rackety nature of the finale with a grand Handelian blaze. It is hard to think how the other three operas might be improved in any way. Not only do the collaborators exhibit complete mastery of their formula — a gross word for a subtle understanding of good theatre — but they mock it along with everything else.

HMS Pinafore is far from Just Right. The romantic scenes are poorly paced, and there is a great deal of confusion about Captain Corcoran’s status — is he the owner of a “luxurious home” (Josephine) or “lower middle class” (Sir Joseph)? Also, ahem, is it not pathological, rather than merely absurd, for the demoted Corcoran to wind up in the arms of the woman who took care of him as an infant? Then there’s Dick Deadeye, a character whose one virtue seems to be serving as a reminder of how lucky we are that Gilbert did not go in for real villains. (Buttercup’s swerves into gypsy effrontery are also unnerving.) I conclude that Pinafore is still too close to the kind of melodrama that the Savoy Operas eventually supplanted.

The music of Pinafore is miscellaneous. A great deal of it is merely rousing, almost nakedly patriotic. (Bradley notes that in the early years of the last century, the company ended performances with “Rule, Britannia!”) There is a black joke in the notion that Ralph Rackstraw is good enough for Josephine Corcoran simply by virtue of being an Englishman — a participant, that is, in the most tirelessly class-conscious and self-policing society in the the world — but Sullivan drowns the sting in tub-thumping jingoism. The operatic scena, “The hours creep on apace,” is quite out of joint in Pinafore‘s good-humored atmosphere, and so is “Refrain, audacious tar.” In all of these slippages the problem seems to be that Sullivan had not yet learned how unsuitable it was to be plainly earnest in the house of topsy-turvy. He would solve this problem by going over the top, out-antheming the anthems, as in Iolanthe‘s “When Britain really ruled the waves.”

I don’t mean to heap contumely upon a very popular work of art, but only to measure the sublimity of the collaboration in terms of the pitfalls that had to be traversed. (I ought to have begun with The Sorcerer, which I have seen but hardly know.) The difficulty for me is that Trial By Jury, the one-act inauguration of Gilbert & Sullivan, is as Just Right as a thing can be. But of course it is a shank, a large fragment — a spacious finale for the unwritten romance of Edwin and Angelina. And both legal absurdity and aversion to matrimony were not only quite familiar to Sullivan’s funny-bone, but also matters that would never intrude upon his serious compositions. It was much harder for him to make fun of the Royal Navy, or even to have fun while portraying it. The triumph of Sullivan’s Savoy achievement lies in his eventual success at overmastering his own impeccable manners, without, at the same time, doing anything actually rude.


Yesterday evening, I watched Bridge of Spies, which has come out on DVD. (I picked it up at the Video Room on my way home from a session with the blue lights at the dermatologist’s.) I knew that Kathleen wanted to see it; I didn’t know that she had already done so, on the flight to Australia in December. So I watched it by myself, before she came home. Considering that Steven Spielberg directed it, I liked the movie quite a bit; this may be attributable to the Coen brothers’ screenplay. It’s too bad that “Stoikiy muzhik” couldn’t have been used as the title, because it perfectly encapsulates what Bridge of Spies is about: a man who stands up for what’s right. That it is a Russian phrase intensifies the compliment, but it also guarantees that the man of whom it is said would never, speaking only English and a little German, say it himself. Tom Hanks is of course the man — “stoikiy muzhik” could be his job description. Hanks brings a barely-checked garrulity to the trivial details of life that intensifies his reticence about the big things. One senses the piety observed by a good man in the face of righteous holiness, precisely where piety is everything.

The compliment is paid by a Russian spy called Abel, who has been caught by the FBI and then defended, pro bono, by Hanks’s Jim Donovan, a lawyer who takes Abel’s case more seriously than his friends and family think he ought to do. It is just as difficult to detach Mark Rylance from this character, who submits to Hanks’s questions with silent aplomb. Rylance is the trickster god among today’s actors; you can’t even be sure that you’re being tricked. At several points in the story, Donovan expresses surprise that Abel doesn’t seem to be worried about what will happen to him, to which Abel invariably replies, “Would it help?” Does that work? is what you want to ask. Can you ease your cares by acting on the knowledge that fretting doesn’t help? Most of us cannot. Is that because we lack the power, or haven’t trained ourselves to develop it? If we asked Abel, he might give us a riddle for an answer.

For me, however, the really scary character was Amy Ryan’s Mary Donovan. If there had been more of her in the movie, I should have had to cover my eyes, because she evoked the ferocious moms of the Fifties so powerfully that I dreaded hearing my mother summon me peremptorily to come downstairs for some awful reckoning or other. Trim and blonde, perfectly made up and with every hair in place, she simmered with conflicting responsibilities. On the one hand, she was the realistic, de facto head of the household, charged with putting food on the table for a houseful of kids (while remaining sublimely unmussed). On the other hand, she was the law-abiding helpmeet, the ultimately subservient second banana. Ryan gives us both a woman who is completely in love with her husband and an imminent train wreck. She also tells us everything that we need to recall about those times — those times when the world was a great place, but only if you were one of the Jim Donovans.

I’ve seen a bunch of other Berlin-Wall movies lately. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Funeral in Berlin, The Debt, and, in a different key, The Man from UNCLE. I know there really was a Wall — as well as I can, never having been to Germany. But it seems unreal now, probably because it is. I believe that portions, or at least a portion, of the Wall were left standing, but of course the Wall was much more than a pile of bricks topped by barbed wire. It was a battlefield, where real people were really killed. For those people, and for the soldiers who shot at them, the Cold War was Hot. This active Wall was always evidence of the failure of the Russian experiment with Communism, just as it was evidence of the West’s failure to contain Russia within borders that had long been too fluid.

More forgotten than the Wall — so much harder to visualize — are the nuclear arsenals that the Cold War was fought to keep in their silos.


In The New Yorker, Elif Batuman writes about not wearing a head scarf in Turkey. Batuman’s parents were born in Turkey, but she herself grew up in New Jersey. (Even though I went to boarding school in New Jersey — way west Jersey, as I used to insist, practically the Delaware Water Gap — I share the suburban New Yorker’s bottomless contempt for the Garden State, and I always feel sorry for the Indian and other immigrant families who have for some reason perched there, of all places. I think that it has something to do with Science, but still… And by “suburban New Yorker” I am referring to folks from Westchester County and the nearer reaches of Fairfield, in Connecticut. In the mind of the “suburban New Yorker,” those parts of Long Island that are neither horse farm nor beach simply do not exist. The Hamptons are an island floating somewhere between Block Island and the Statue of Liberty.) Batuman grew up a secular (atheist) humanist. This would have made her right at home under the Kemalist régime that, after decades of rule, came to an end when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over, in 2003.

Or would it? The Kemalists were tough guys. They were a social minority determined to hold on to power. You know how that goes. Batuman is a fiercely intelligent reporter, which makes her a helpless, nonstop critic. Sooner or later, she will offend everybody who believes that holding on to power requires imposing limits on free speech. You just know that, if Batuman had been old enough to visit Turkey professionally before the AKP era (which she just about was, but let that pass), her traveling companion would have been an Armenian from New Jersey. She’d be writing from prison. If she was lucky.

In any case, Batuman writes about visiting Urfa, a provincial town on the Syrian border where interesting archaeological remains have surfaced. One day, she visits a holy site, the Cave of Abraham, and dutifully dons a head scarf for the occasion, as required by law. When she leaves, she forgets to take the head scarf off. Suddenly, everyone she encounters on her way back to the hotel is, as she puts it, “so much nicer” to her. She entertains the idea of observing local custom for the rest of her visit, but she decides against it, on the not unassailable grounds that this would be pretending. In the middle of arguments pro and con, she discusses Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, the novel that forecasts a democratically-elected Islamic government of France early in the coming decade. She quotes a passage, which I shall quote as well, and adds a fascination interpretation.

“Huysmans’s true subject had been bourgeois happiness, a happiness painfully out of reach for a bachelor. …to have his artist friends over for a pot-au-feu with horseradish sauce, accompanied by an ‘honest’ wine and followed by plum brandy and tobacco, with everyone sitting by the stove while the winter winds battered the towers of Saint-Sulpice.” Such happiness ispainfully out of reach for a bachelor,” even a rich one with servants; it really depends on a wife who can cook and entertain, who can turn a house into a home.

You can see why I find this “fascinating.” Only a woman can cook and entertain, and only a married woman can turn a house into a home. I am not only fascinated by this rubbish — which I’m pretty sure Batuman regards as rubbish, too — but paralyzed. Where to begin?

Let me begin with convincing selfishness. While I’m heartily sympathetic to all women who would rather do something that does involve turning houses into homes, especially to those who would like, or who actually need, someone else to effect this transformation, what pisses me off about Batuman’s paraphrase of the prevalent traditional worldview is the taboo that forbids men to do these things. I have broken it all my adult life, and I have enjoyed good-enough comfort, hygiene, and household organization, not to mention a perfect record (to the best of my knowledge) on the score of making sure that nobody gets sick at my dinner table, throughout. I have lived the life that I wanted to lead.

I discovered early that women are not natural homemakers. As with many women, my mother’s domestic expertise stopped pretty much at the frontiers of her wardrobe. A cleaning lady was engaged to run the vacuum and so on, and if there is one single reason why I took up the art of cooking it is self-preservation: my mother was a terrible cook. At her best, she was uninspired. When inspired, she was a dangerous lunatic. It’s true that no one got sick. Everything was guaranteed dead, even the bacteria. In order to hold on to my father, my mother had to learn how to broil a rare steak, ditto lamb chops, and do something with chicken. Everything else came out of a can or a box. Reheating aside, more food was cooked in the oven than on the stove. Her batterie de cuisine would have been sniffed at by cowboys at home on the range. Terrible knives, paper-thin pots and pans, an enameled cast-iron frypan that was wrong for everything.

From this unpromising environment I moved on to the vie de Bohème, where I discovered that female flatmates were without exception slobs. They were perhaps a little cleaner than young men new to the independent life, but their closets, drawers, writing surfaces and such were all tangles of whatnot. Beds were made only when parents came calling, and not always then.

Parenthood introduced me to the reality that I could change diapers as well as anybody. If you pay attention, and your baby is healthy and a good sleeper, child care, while exhausting, requires no special skills. If you know how to make love (and I do mean love), you know how to hold an infant.

I did inherit one thing from my mother: I liked to entertain. Or rather, like François in Hoellebecq’s novel, I wanted to serve friends pot-au-feu by the stove. But I wanted to make it, and I wanted it to be delicious, so that people would be glad that they were dining chez moi. I did not want to farm out the cooking to a woman; I wanted to do it myself. Most of the serious chefs in the world, are, after all, as you may have noticed… In the one kitchen that I got to design from the ground up, I created an atmosphere that Kathleen described as “a wood shop, but with curtains.”

What has made my life different from other men’s is, I conclude with increasing conviction, my size. This meant nothing to my mother (except that, as she gloriously put it, I ought to find “a nice, tall queen” to marry), and my father was just as big. But in the rest of the world, it has granted me a good deal of license. It is simply easier to stand in the way of other people, meaning people other than me, and the blessing of humanity is that there are only so many people who enjoy standing in the way of others.

And I did have a secret agenda: I wanted to prove, beyond doubt, that you don’t have to be Mary Donovan to turn a house into a home.


Friday 5th

David Brooks writes about “rational saints” in his column today. He mentions Larissa MacFarquhar’s Drowning Strangers, the title of which refers to a moral challenge. If your mother is drowning over here, and two strangers are drowning over there, where do you jump in? Do you save one life or two?

Regular readers will be able to guess what I think of “rational saints.” They might be confused, however, about where I’d jump in, because I say such nasty things about my mother. But of course I should jump in to save her. I don’t think I’d give it a thought; I’d just do it. There would be no calculus of two against one. Under the circumstances, the strangers would not be morally equivalent to two of my mother. (Two of my mother! Turn this conversation off now!)

Somehow, saving my drowning mother reminded me, by the inverted logic that is my substitute for rationality, of what I was already thinking of writing about today, which is that making and keeping friends is a rather small part of my life.

Now, like most people in New York (or so it seems to me), I have a fluid idea of “family.” My family includes several people to whom I am in no way related. The exemplar is Fossil Darling, my roommate at Blair more than fifty years ago. I know that he is a family member because I should never put up with him as a friend — he is that irritating. You think I’m joking! Fossil’s spouse, Ray Soleil, is in contrast both a family member and a friend. The point is, however, that I should jump in to save Fossil, and let the two strangers fend for themselves.

M le Neveu is family on two levels. Which reminds me — we haven’t seen him in a while, and I ought to have him up to dinner. It may seem that we are always having people to dinner, but that is not the case. I can think of only four occasions since Thanksgiving. Of those occasions, one involved neighbors, one involved family-family, and our guests at the third were friends who would be family if they did not have enough family already. (They have also moved to Cape Cod for part of the year. Last year, “part” pretty much meant “all.”) Finally, we had Ms NOLA and her husband — a classic case of Gotham friendship. Ms NOLA used to date a family-family member, but quickly became a member of our elective family.

After family come the correspondents. Some of these are friends with whom I used to spend face-to-face time. In one case, a friend became a correspondent years after moving away from New York. In other, the same thing happened, years after we got out of law school. I have always liked to write letters, and I treasure my correspondents. There are two problems on this front, however. One is that few people want to be correspondents. In the old days, before the Internet, people would say that my letters were beyond their capacities to reply in kind. If you’re a good cook, you probably get this, too. (I have.) Nowadays, I make no effort with friends who don’t like to write. The other problem is that I have little to say that doesn’t appear at this site. It not infrequently happens that I find a letter that I am writing turning into material for an entry here, but only rarely do I write a letter with that end in view from the start. In any case, I don’t see my correspondents very often, maybe twice in a year, maybe once in two years. Maybe almost never.

Then there are the people with whom we used to spend a lot of time and with whom we now catch up via telephone, and the very odd Manhattan layover, every now and then.

Beyond these thinly-populated rings, there are uncountable acquaintances. Some of them might become true friends, if we were to spend more time together, but in most cases that is unlikely. Most of the people whom we have met more than once or twice, we may meet once or twice more, before shuffling off &c. A small slice of this group shows up at the annual parties that we give, usually in the spring.

Up to this point, Kathleen knows everyone just about as well as I do, with the exception of some, but not all, of the correspondents. For the correspondents also include people whom I met after an initial encounter on the Internet. I met a lot of people that way, back in the heyday of blogging. Now I keep with almost all of them at Facebook. Only a few exchange actual letters.

And that’s that.

But what about old friends?

I’m thinking of the friend who was our best man when Kathleen and I were married. We met when Kathleen and I were in law school, and Barry was writing a dissertation on the mechanism of “cohabitation” in the constitution of the Fifth Republic (France, of course). Cohabitation was still a speculative matter in the late Seventies; it would come up, as I recall — but why recall, when there’s Wikipedia? Barry and I lived in the graduate-student dorm (few law students did), and we became fast friends. Not long after Kathleen and I settled in New York, Barry joined the Peace Corps, and spent a couple of jolly-sounding years at Azemmour, in Morocco. Then he landed in Washington. When Kathleen and I bought the house by the lake, Barry was our most frequent guest, and he had a lot of sweat equity in its improvements.

You might think that it was selling the house that dented our friendship — the house gave us a place with enough room for hanging out, something that becomes increasingly difficult in apartments as you get older. (For one thing, “hanging out”?) But it was the Internet. I became an internaut when I joined a Trollope listserv over the Fourth of July holiday in 1996. There was no looking back for me. Thenceforth, I kept in touch with everyone via email. For some reason, Barry didn’t do email. I don’t recall ever receiving a piece of email from him, although I must have done. I wasn’t just writing email, either, of course; I was exploring a new universe. It wasn’t that I dismissed the bricks-and-mortar world; I just knew that it wasn’t going to go away if I ignored it for a while. I do know that Kathleen and Barry were in touch, because Barry thought that he had been mistreated by a former employer, and asked Kathleen to refer him to a specialist in employment matters, which she did. By then, however, two new blows had been dealt to our friendship.

The one that I knew about was George Bush. Barry was always a rather gleeful conservative. When Reagan took office, two friends of his, both lawyers years ahead of us at Notre Dame, long gone by our arrival, became well-connected young men. They were all, Barry included, pious Catholics. Somehow, though, political alignments didn’t get in our way in the early days. Kathleen and I believed that Reagan was bad for the United States, but only because he was inconceivable as an actual president. He was an actor — a view from which I have never shifted. But Barry and I reveled in our arguments. We were still too young to take politics very seriously. By the time George W Bush came along, things were different. I was fifty-two. Bush was not a joke, or he was a different kind of joke. He represented the party that had impeached and tried to convict Bill Clinton, in what struck me as a gross misprision of justice. Barry’s participation in Republican campaigning, in 2000, bothered me a lot, and I cut back on initiating contact.

One fine day, I realized that I hadn’t talked to Barry in a very long time. This was partly because I didn’t want to pick up the phone and say, “So, how’s the job search going?” If Barry wanted to call me up and tell me about that problem, I’d give him my undivided attention, but my decorum with men who are out of work is to make the second move — unless, of course, I have a plausible lead, which is sadly unlikely. A long time went by, and then one of Barry’s two other Notre Dame friends called Kathleen (because she had helped Barry to find an employment lawyer). I forget exactly what he told her, except that Barry wasn’t well, that his friends were helping him out, and so forth. Some time later — years — we were told that Barry had died, out in Spokane, where he grew up and had family. He died of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I see now that I made use of a dementia of my own. I stopped remembering things about Barry. Not the old things but the new things. He had a girlfriend for a while. She was just right for him, Kathleen and I thought, and we hoped that they’d get married and enjoy the rest of their lives together. But it didn’t work out. And I don’t know why. I think that it was when the signs of things not working first appeared that I stopped keeping track, stopped remembering how things stood when last we talked. It became another thing not to talk about.

I could see that Barry’s life was falling apart, for some invisible but inexorable reason, but I couldn’t think how to respond. And I wasn’t, by this time, very powerfully motivated to respond. Barry had cast his lot with the enemy; plus, he never read my Web site. We quite literally had nothing new to talk about.

Barry’s diagnosis let me off the hook, technically: there was nothing that I could do. Short, that is, of moving in with him and caring for him like a nurse. But perhaps I exaggerate. The fact is, I don’t know what I could have done, because I never looked into it, never tried. I let time do its ever-rolling thing and bear my old friend away. I’m still on the hook.

Another old friend has disappeared. I haven’t felt too bad about not trying to hunt him down — to determine whether he’s dead or alive — because a posse of my Blair classmates worked itself into a lather attempting to do just that, complete with a round-robin argument about whether you have the right to get lost to your old chums, last year, when our fiftieth reunion came round. I knew that Michael did not want to be found, whatever the problem was. He, too, backed away from computers and the Internet, but snail-mail addressed to him was also returned. I knew that, assuming that Michael were physically well — psychologically, he was never at ease — he had simply moved from one flat in Laguna Beach, where he lived modestly on the income from a trust fund, to another, and committed the partial suicide of leaving no forwarding address. Unlike Barry, though — Barry who stopped being Barry — I do miss Michael, who made me laugh more than everybody else combined by the time I was twenty-one, and who still made me laugh forty-odd years later when, in conjunction with an annual convention that Kathleen used to attend (it was held either in Palm Desert or Coronado), we made a point of swinging by Laguna Beach for lunch or dinner. Michael had some serious issues, but he knew how to make them very funny.

You tell me what any of this has to jumping into the water to save my mother.

Bon week-end à tous!