Gotham Diary:
Bullet Points
March 2016 (I)

Monday 29th

Rossini’s birthday! How old would he be, born in 1792? Not quite sixty?. I can think of no composer with a more fitting birthday.

On Friday evening, I checked out the equipment and determined that we should be able to watch the Academy Awards show on Sunday. I can’t say that “the television had not been turned on since last year’s Oscars,” because on at least one occasion there was what might have been a cable outage (it turned out that the router needed rebooting), and checking out the “TV reception” was part of the process of elimination. But in fact, neither Kathleen nor I has “watched television” since last February. I have put all the references to “television” in quotation marks because there is no longer any such thing as a television set, and broadcast television seems to be a vestigial affair. This technological change has nothing to do with the ghastliness of what is shown “on television,” but I wonder how long the monstrous term (an illiterate combination of Greek and Latin roots) will be with us.

Kathleen kept thanking me for indulging her — for watching the Oscars with her. But I wasn’t making any kind of sacrifice, even if it was true, as she said, that I had better things to do. I was curious. Not so curious as in years past, because I’ve seen so few of this year’s movies. I did see Spotlight in the theatre, and I was glad that it won Best Picture. I’d have been much happier if Rachel McAdams had won Supporting Actress, because she is and always has been so great, and she has now turned in three superb performances as a journalist — ie, smart person. (I’d have been happier, too, if Alicia Vikander, who did win, won it instead for Ex Machina, a film that I think about all the time.) The parade of technical awards that went to that dystopian Mad Max thing was dreary, on a par with the Academy’s inability to nominate a single black actor for any award. At least Ex Machina got the best one, for Visual Effects.

Chris Rock was not unbearable. By that I simply mean that I’ve gotten really tired of “comedy” and should like to see some charm. What I’d really like is for Emily Blunt to do the show. She could spend the evening saying lovely gracious things that were in fact loaded with little barbs for the literate. I have always wanted to know how many ways she has of saying “How nice for you.” Or she could be sweet, while Helena Bonham-Carter did the unruly.

When the show was over — well, long before — I was physically shot. My nerves were raw and jangling. “You don’t get out much,” said Kathleen, “so you’re not used to it.” The vacant noise, the violent changes of tone, the incredibly uninteresting footage of winners making their ways from seat to stage, and the ads — the racket of it all clobbered me. Watching that stubby white Cadillac progress through SoHo for the fifth time, I did have a moment of great peace. I thanked God aloud — yes, I really did, whatever that means — and Kathleen knew without my saying more what I meant: we don’t have a car. I wondered if our being grateful for not being saddled with an automobile was more or less unusual than our never watching “television.” Maybe, next year, watching the Oscars will be a sacrifice.

I’d like to have seen The Big Short and Brooklyn in the theatre. Especially in the winter, I don’t leave the apartment for pleasure, even to cross the street to go to the two remaining cinemas in the neighborhood. Actually, taking in a movie can be an irritation in the same way that “watching television” began to be an irritation: you have to show up on time. That isn’t how the rest of my day works. I won’t say that I flow from one thing to another at my own pace effortlessly, but I do get through the day and its various chores without a great deal of friction. All it takes is one date to screw up the rhythm. Today, I have to be the Hospital for Special Surgery at 3:30 PM, for a Remicade infusion. It’s still early enough in the morning that I’m not feeling any pressure to get ready for the outing, but by half-past one I’ll be a little restless around the edges.

Rossini retired at the top of his game, and had the time of his life for nearly forty years thereafter. I think that you must have to be born on 29 February to pull that one off.


Last week, the Times online featured a recipe for crumb cake with pears, and I saved it in Evernote. Now that Gristede’s across the street has shut down, we no longer have a regular grocery store here, only Fairway and Whole Foods, with their racks of olive oil and dearth of old-fashioned items like French’s onion rings or the little cans of evaporated milk that I use to make macaroni & cheese. Nobody within walking distance (two blocks) sells Entenman’s baked goods. We have come to rely on their regular crumb cake for weekend breakfasts. Not the rich butter crumb cake, the one without the confectioner’s sugar, but the square cake. Actually, it’s Kathleen who likes it a lot; I prefer the cheese danish. No matter — Fairway and Whole Foods don’t carry such “supermarket” merchandise.

So I thought I’d try to make the crumb cake with pears myself. And I did, on Saturday. There are three basic steps before baking. First, you tenderize slices of peeled pear in honey, butter, and lemon juice, over a low heat. Second, you make the streusel topping. Third, you make the cake batter. Then you combine these ingredients in a prepared pan and put the pan in the preheated oven. It’s not a breeze; unless your kitchen is set up like a pharmacy, you’ll be reaching into a lot of cupboards for spices and other things that one doesn’t use every day. But it’s not tricky, either, and everything went along very nicely until it came time to prepare the pan.

Actually, the recipe sets preparing the pan at the top of the steps, as the first thing to do. I’m very glad that I disregarded this protocol, because, having worked on the three constituent elements, I clearly saw that this cake ought to be baked in a springform pan. When you bake a cake layer, you simply invert the pan over a plate and hope that the layer comes out in one piece, as it almost certainly will do if you butter the bottom of the pan, line it with a piece of parchment paper, and butter the paper. Buttering the pan and lining it with buttered parchment paper was indeed called for by the pear crumb cake recipe. But inverting the pan was obviously out of the question. The streusel topping would fall off, taking some of the pears with it. (Now I think of it, I suppose I could have buttered a plate, inverted the pan over that, and then slipped another plate on the exposed bottom of the cake, but even that would probably have made a mess.) Springform pans were invented to deal with this problem; instead of removing the cake from a one-piece pan, you dismantle a two-piece pan, and remove it from the cake. As it happened, though, I didn’t have a nine-inch springform pan. Eight- and ten-inch, yes, and a twelve-inch for cheesecake. But no nine-. I resolved to buy one, if the cake turned out to be worth making again.

So, how did I get the cake out of the pan? When I was cutting the parchment, I provided for two wide “handles,” strips of paper that projected from the circle that would line the bottom of the pan. These handles would allow me to lift the cake out of the pan. Or so I thought.

They didn’t. Four handles might have done it, or maybe even just three. But you can’t do much cantilevering with paper. The two handles pulled up a diameter of the cake from which the halves began to crack apart at once. With Kathleen’s help — she held the pan — I was able to lift one handle just enough to slip my splayed hand beneath the parchment paper. That did the trick.

I’ll be buying that nine-inch springform pan, because the pear crumb cake is definitely worth the trouble. I thought that the pear, layered between the cake and the topping, might be superfluous, but it isn’t. It’s moist and fruity-flavorful, and just present enough to add a welcome complement. Thin slices are in order, though, because the cake is immensely rich. There’s a stick of butter in the streusel and another stick in the cake. But it’s a great all-around treat to have on hand, a substitute, say, for pound cake. It’s neither too breakfasty nor too desserty. It’s grand with tea.


Kathleen and I have been having a regretful conversation about how differently some things have turned out. Things have been different from what they were — the very fact that Kathleen is a partner at an important law firm is all the proof that you need of that — but we thought that they would be different from how they have turned out to be. We thought that women in top professional jobs would change the world a great deal more extensively than they have done. We thought that sexism would wither and die. Instead — well, all the -isms seem to be flourishing, if in discreet, occluded ways. But perhaps it’s something else. Racism and sexism, after all, are intellectual constructs. They’re ideas, to which racists and sexists subscribe but which they can be persuaded to reject. Mere bigotry — unconsidered contempt — has deeper roots. It is intellectually circular but emotionally adamant. The adventure of women in the workplace has certainly caught a great deal of bigotry (also known as entitlement) in the spotlight. But men don’t really have to misbehave into order to keep women and minorities in their place. They simply have to know how the road to success is paved.

The first thing about the road to success is that very little of it involves productive work. Productive work means that you show up in the morning and, by the time you go home at night, you have created a widget. You have bolted as many plates onto the hull of a ship as is possible in one day. A long time ago, productive work came to be overseen by managers, people who do not work themselves but who keep track of the “big picture,” coordinating workers, materials, and schedules. The modern business corporation has added a layer of managers to manage the managers.

(Young bankers will be screaming — no work? Are you crazy? But the work that young bankers do is makework, like military drills, to test endurance capacities.)

The further you get from actual work, the closer you get to fantasy. A ship is either seaworthy or it isn’t. But this month’s quarterly figures can be massaged. The categories into which raw data are sorted can be manipulated so that merely to control and assign the sorting is to come out on top. If you can persuade your managers to frame information in a certain way, you can make your rival look like a fool and a failure. The further you get from actual work, the closer you get to courtly life, where competition for influence with the boss is just about the only thing that happens.

One of the biggest mistakes made by public intellectuals in the past century has been to pretend — to claim — that princes and courts are things of the past, swept away by enlightened revolutions, and to have missed the reappearance of courtly machinery in executive suites. We rightly associate the courts of the ancien régime with corruption and deceit, with back-stabbing and disingenuousness. We wrongly fail to see that this old complex of sins is still spinning, and spinning even faster, in corporate headquarters. Work has got nothing to do with it.

The more you look at it, the more courtly life appears to be a way of going about things that powerful men adopt when their skill sets are superseded. The original European aristocrats were warriors — thugs, basically. Over time, being a thug required more disiciplined training; in their high-medieval heyday, aristocrats spent hours every day cultivating the skills required to fight on horseback. Gradually, however, infantries got bigger — more rank-and-file foot soldiers, as in ancient times — and new weapons changed the face of war. By the end of the Renaissance, cavalries — equestrian aristocrats — were being sidelined ; sometimes, they were just in the way. Now, it might have made sense for aristocrats to hang up their spurs and retire to private life; surely this is what would have happened if the end of cavalry occurred in the same economic considerations that prevailed when aristocracy emerged from the mists of Dark Europe. But a very different economic dispensation was in place, and aristocrats lacked the one thing that was needed to get by in it: money. Aristocrats had always been cash-poor. In the search for economic viability, they hit on a new approach: they could be ornamental. It became important to look good on horseback, a business very different from that of fighting effectively. Looking good in general became the aristocrat’s day job. Fighting actual enemies was replaced by fighting for military commands and commissions — and the pensions that went with them.

There seems to be a rule at work: when deprived of a genuine raison d’être, privileged people don’t just sink back into the mass. Nor do they learn new skills. Instead, they concoct a bogus but plausible replacement raison d’être. I said a moment ago that men adopt these changes, but that’s only because men have had a lot more experience at fooling around with power.

It’s still early days. We thought that the presence of women on the scene would change things. And perhaps it has, but in ways too new and unexpected for us to have looked for. Women may not have triumphed in the corridors of power, but they have certainly learned a great deal about how men carry on in them. Some have joined in. More, I think, have withdrawn slightly, to confer with other women. Some women are withdrawing further, into autonomous, more transparently cooperative spaces. The capacities of these new endeavors remains unknown. Meanwhile, men capable of self-criticism have learned from women that there is always real work to be done somewhere, much of it surprisingly satisfying, and that a life of lucrative posturing may be just as empty and unsatisfying as philosophers have always insisted. Too bad the philosophers’ example never did much good. At least we have women now.


Tuesday 1st

At the Infusion Therapy Unit yesterday, I was trying to finish reading Ronan Fanning’s Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power. But the woman in an adjacent chair was making it difficult. Had her voice been even slightly lower, I should have assumed that she was not only a man but a gangster. The mouth on her! She had the knack of an inside voice with outside penetration; it was impossible to miss a single word. And. When. She. Texted. Somebody. ,. She. Read. Each. Word. Aloud. As. She. Typed. It. Yes. She. Did. She was accompanied by a confidante whose voice was easy to ignore, but who could not have been a very close friend, given the biographical information that the patient felt obliged to disclose. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that she was a volunteer from the patient’s parish church, or perhaps even hired to sit and listen. It was hard to see how this awful woman could have any friends; she heaped invective on everyone she mentioned. She claimed to be very sick, subject to attacks that “were a long time coming,” whatever that might mean — really! She was too weak to walk from here to there, she said, but had she jumped from her seat and brandished a baseball bat at the rest of us, that wouldn’t have surprised me, either. After one particularly foul remark, I gave her a stern glance, but she probably didn’t see it, given her sunglasses and low-billed baseball cap. Thank goodness, her medicine was quickly infused, and she hobbled off with her Oenone. In her wake, I should have been happy to hear the Unit’s ordinary low burble of noise — voices, machines, phones — but instead there reigned a vast stretch of total quiet. I put my book down, took of my glasses, and drank it in, a second infusion.

Whilst still trying to read under the onslaught of Jersey miasmas, however, I’d lost my place at one point and restlessly looked ahead. I was two chapters away from “Conclusion.” It began,

Éamon de Valera had no interest in political power.

I snapped the book shut, shocked. Here I was, about to finish reading the biography of a man whose only interest was political power. How could Fanning say such a thing? I began to parse the sentence. Political power — that means haggling. De Valera certainly hated haggling. But who but a politician of the most sublime self-control could have taken the Treaty constitution that created the Irish Free State in 1922, and tinkered with it so gradually, clause by clause, from 1932 to 1937, that by 1938 the country was governed by a new constitution under which Ireland was an independent state, with only the emptiest and most notional reference to Great Britain, and done it all without exciting British “reprisals”? Who but a master statesman could have steered Ireland through World War II in a state of neutrality, the appearance of which concealed so many ways of aiding the Allies that the United States considered military awards for at least two officers? (As this would have been embarrassing to the Irish vis-à-vis the British, the idea was dropped.) Who but such a man could have put limits on the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, by refusing to make it the only permitted religion (and by refusing to acknowledge it as “the faith founded by Christ”), and by refusing to support Franco?

I could make no satisfactory sense of the statement. Proximity to the herculean self-regard of this mesmerizing tyrant — de Valera had no need of military support — must have softened Fanning’s brain.

By the time I reached the Conclusion in due course, I was truly perplexed. On the chapter’s second page, Fanning writes,

For it was then that he acquired an extraordinary composure, self-sufficiency and strength of will: the personality traits that served him so well in his later pursuit of political power.

See? Political power! But something in the sentence jingled distantly. My weary eye wandered back to the opening sentence.

Edward de Valera had no interest in political power.

Oh. Professor Fanning must have pricked the egos of countless students with this stunt. The Irish leader’s given name was changed before he even took up leading, when he joined the Gaelic League under the tutelage of his wife. It hadn’t appeared in the book for two hundred pages or more; who would expect to find it resurrected in the Conclusion? But the point is correct: as a young man, de Valera exhibited not the slightest political impulse. It was only in 1913, when Great Britain as it then was seemed about to explode with violence sparked by the intractable Irish Question, that de Valera caught the local enthusiasm and joined the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA). It was only in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 — in which the thirty-something, a battalion commandant, strictly followed his superiors’ orders, including the last one, to surrender to the British (and not to run away) — that de Valera emerged as the only surviving officer of the Rising, giving him a prestige among fellow prisoners at Dartmoor that stuck for the rest of his life. Fanning is quite right: the young de Valera was indifferent to politics.

We might talk about that all day. There are many discussions that one might pursue after reading this book, the scope of which is limited to de Valera’s political life. Fanning tells us that his purpose is to show that, horribly mistaken though de Valera might have been to reject the Treaty, in 1922 — worse than mistaken: catastrophically vainglorious — no matter how responsible he and he alone may have been for unleashing the bloody Civil War that he himself called an end to in 1923, he was the only man who could have demonstrated Ireland’s independence by maintaining its neutrality from the British struggle against the Axis. Churchill and many American leaders thought that Irish neutrality was despicable, but Fanning makes the case: it was the only way to show Ireland’s independence, and it did so. Fanning is persuasive about de Valera’s greatness.

But first you have to grant that independence was the paramount political value. And then you have to count the many costs that mounted up precisely because de Valera was not interested in anything but independence. Above all others, the ecclesiastical régime that effectively governed the Irish state for the first fifty years of its existence, suffocating dissent and curtailing intellectual freedom, not to mention the personal liberties associated with marriage and procreation. You have to recognize that de Valera’s lack of interest in the subject of economics, his commitment to an imaginary rural idyll that his own hardscrabble childhood ought to have snuffed out, kept Ireland poor much longer than it ought to have been. De Valera was one of the most conservative revolutionaries ever to draw a breath. But then his example forces us to examine this overworked word yet again. De Valera was not a revolutionary. He was, what is far more common in modern European and American history, a secessionist. And in nine cases out of ten, the secessionist seeks to preserve, not to originate.

Éamon de Valera was a benevolent despot, but the only object of his beneficence was Irish independence. Toward all other people and ideas, he was a dictator who insisted upon doing things his way. As I was leaving the Infusion Therapy Unit, I showed Fanning’s book to a native of Ireland, the only nurse who was on the staff in 2004, when I had my first treatment. When I remarked that de Valera was a tyrant, she answered with dead calm, “Yes, he was.” I didn’t know whether to hear refuge or exile in her reply. Fanning’s book had made it clear, even without going much into social matters, that Maeve Brennan was right to stay in the United States when her family returned to Ireland in 1944. (Her father, Robert, was the first Irish Ambassador to Washington; he is mentioned a couple of times by Fanning.) There was no place in Ireland for a funny, irreverent, feisty and independent woman. Maeve would have had three choices: to don one kind of veil, and become a wife, or the other kind, and become a nun; or she could have made sure that wives and nuns would never have to care for her parents. She might teach, but only so long as she remained unmarried. No other professions would be open to her. And there would be no glamorous fashion magazines to write for, much less what was arguably the only home that she ever would have found on the face of this earth, The New Yorker.

In the interest of social stability, the political regime sustained by Éamon de Valera snuffed out countless human possibilities. A line from Don Carlo comes to mind. Philip II has just claimed to have granted Flanders “peace,” by suppressing religious freedom. Posa, in a momentary and very dangerous loss of control, fires back,

Orrenda, orrenda pace!
La pace è del sepolcri!

(Verdi sets this explosion to music that is not music.) I find it impossible to give de Valera a pass. Fanning tells us that de Valera discovered Macchiavelli while imprisoned at Lincoln, and the rest of his book could be taken as advocating de Valera’s claim to be the Florentine’s star pupil. I can think of few leaders who have so unswervingly put national interest ahead of every other consideration, especially the personal ones. In the best and worse senses of Macchiavelli’s title, Éamon de Valera was indeed the Prince of Ireland.

It is difficult to overlook the man’s Spanish heritage when making this assessment. Indeed, his exotic name contributed to his upsider status. He was unsentimental to a degree not to be expected in Ireland. His piety was unleavened by Irish jocularity; I expect that he said his prayers with the dry but fierce conviction that God was on the other end of the line. He began his adult life as a teacher (of mathematics), and he remained one all his life. If you squint, he becomes a revenant, a Spanish Jesuit who beached at Kinsale in 1588 or at Wexford in 1798, and who lived on to oversee the instruction of the Irish, dying only when Ireland was unquestionably free. Although, by then, perhaps not so Catholic…

His work was done by 1945; had he not been addicted to power, he might have opened the door to more progressive — more humane — thinking a full thirty years earlier. It’s his holding on that I cannot forgive. Insofar as the Civil War was de Valera’s doing, it reflects partly his lack of experience in diplomatic affairs and partly everyone else’s in Ireland. He must be granted the wisdom to see that violence was not going to solve anything — and certainly not make Ireland independent. So, he called it off — he could do that. The Free State government put him in jail for his third and last taste of imprisonment. Then he set about his great work, as Fanning has it. When postwar voters threw him out of office in 1948, he was 64 — a fine time to retire. But no. Éamon de Valera took God’s gift of life as a mandate to rule. He came back to power in 1951, and again in 1957. When he gave up the premiership, it was to assume the presidency, which he held on to into his ninetieth year.

He died at about the same time as Franco, and the Cassock Curtain began to fall. The peace of the tomb began to be interrupted by the bustle of life.


Thursday 3rd

It was getting late, but instead of winding down, I was keying up. The novel in my hands was not only compelling but thrilling, combining the moral urgency of Dostoevsky with the dramatic vertigo of Ludlum. The writing, well-behaved to the point of invisibility, crackled with irony.

I knew that if I let myself go, and spent a few mad hours reading the thing through to the end, I should not tumble into a satisfied sleep but rise in fury from my seat and demand justice! Or something like that; as I say, it was getting late, and in my excitement I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I only knew that I disliked being excited after midnight: it seemed dangerous. So I put the book down and picked up Jigsaw, which I’ve been saving for bedtime since I took it up last week. Sybille Bedford calmed me down and delighted me. I was soon tossing her aside and turning out the light.

When I tell you the name of the novel that was juicing my nerves, and you cock a doubtful eyebrow, the mystery will thicken a bit when I add that I’ve read the book twice before, and that knowing what’s coming is at least as agitating as suspense. But then, it isn’t just any exciting old tale. No, the novel was chosen like a drug. I believed, rather desperately, that it would allow me to remain in the imaginative space that had been hacked out of mental wilderness by thinking about Éamon de Valera. Ronan Fanning’s biography had been as demanding as a lucid and straightforward account could be; getting my mind around de Valera had stretched the poor organ so thin that it winced at the thought of snapping back to normal. I needed to keep the mood alive. The Heather Blazing just might do the trick.

The Heather Blazing is Colm Tóibín’s second novel, first published in 1992. Although beautifully finished and effortlessly free-standing, it is in retrospect a rehearsal, a practice run at themes that would loom at the back of Tóibín’s later fiction. The hero is a severely self-controlled and -constrained judge who is obliged to reconsider his Bildung by the sweeping changes in Irish life that followed the fading of the de Valera dispensation. The judge is even named after de Valera: “Éamon” with one ‘n.’ He owes his success to his family’s support of of the great leader; even his obedience and his diligence, which would seem to be personal virtues for which one might take full responsibility, have an aspirational edge, as though the young Éamon were emulating the older.

I knew that I’d read The Heather Blazing recently, but not how recently, and now I’m amazed to see how sharply views can shift in a short time. The difference between my brain at the end of 2014 and now is that it has been fed a great deal of serious Irish history. All right, only three books, but as concentrated as demi-glace and as rich to digest. The Heather Blazing reads now as if it were in 3-D. As a work of literature, it is providing me with a dark, warm den in which to consider further the moral problems posed by a man who did Great Things, but who himself was not only not Great, but not even Good; a saint in his own eyes (what could be worse?), or, if not a saint, then a prophet, channeling the will of God. The Twentieth Century taught us to quail at the appearance of such figures.


Every now and then, a columnist at the Times will reduce a troublesome issue to perfect clarity, and in only a few hundred words. Nicholas Kristof accomplishes the feat today, and even then he devotes only half of his column to it. He sets up a Q&A with an imaginary but articulate Trump supporter and shows us why the incredulous and bewildered élites miss the whole point of Trump. He wraps up this little discussion with no little irony when the imaginary voter expresses his assurance that, once in the White House, the Donald will cast aside the “outrageous” things that he said because of his background as an “entertainment personality.” No, Hitler didn’t really mean it, either.

There are five questions and answers, and I’ll summarize them very briskly.

  • Isn’t it a problem that Trump has no experience?
    He has plenty of business experience; our political system is broken.
  • Trump is such a liar that he’ll hand the election to Hillary.
    Nonsense. You pundits can’t predict anything.
  • Trump makes fun of people.
    It’s about time.
  • Trump is making the United States look ridiculous on the international scene.
    Ask me if I care. [Or no: let’s have Kristof’s text:] “Take a deep breath. I don’t care whether foreigners like us, as long as they fear us.”
  • Trump is offensive on the subject of women.
    [Stated answer:] That’s just campaign shtick. [Real answer:] I’m not offended.

The first exchange is as old as genuine political activity. Ideally, politicians ought to work their way up the ladder from smaller to larger constituencies. I wish that they were required to do so by law, so that no one could even think of running for president without having served successfully as a state governor, nor a legislator aspire to the Senate until after a few terms in the House of Representatives (to which he or she would come from state counterparts). I believe in career tracks that can’t be jumped, as happened with Eisenhower (even if he turned out to be a good thing, mostly). As for “business experience,” the financialization of commerce has made a joke of it; only when the primary point of business returns to doing business, and creating windfalls while making bankers rich is properly seen as a terrible distraction, will it be possible to estimate business experience. The only legitimate Republican contender, in my eyes, is John Kasich. The man himself is unimpressive, but he is the only governor in the race.

The second exchange is intriguing, because the imaginary voter doesn’t address Trump’s mendacity at all. He rightly fastens on the question’s shaky grasp of probabilities, opaque at the best of times and, in Trump’s case, more a triumph of improbabilities. The questioner assumes that Hillary’s supporters will flock to the polls and overwhelm the Right. Another story in the same issue of the Times questions this very expectation. I myself believe that a fight between Trump and Clinton just might force Clinton to abandon her understandable but ruinous determination to admit to no faults. Her sins have all been venial, but her refusal to acknowledge them might prove to be mortal. Hillary Clinton needs to shed the armor of Joan of Arc, which doesn’t fit her well, and, wearing nothing her clothes, attribute the curlicues of deviousness in her career to the difficulty of getting anything done with dolts like Trump in the room. She shouldn’t blame Trump or complain about him, but merely present him, with a dash of mockery, as a mountain through whom a tunnel must be bored. Instead of attempting to expose each of Trump’s many lies as such, she should embrace her listeners with the cool smile of Jon Stewart and repeat the mantra: Pants on Fire.

I have been considering the substance of the third exchange for quite a while now. When Trump made fun of a disabled reporter the other day, it was behavior that, had he been anywhere but on a political platform, might well have had serious disciplinary consequences. The great wave of consciousness raising that has so altered the complexion of American society in the past half-century has always packed an insufficiently-grasped undertow. It is one thing to set new standards of respect for formerly discounted groups, and to encourage their progress from the margins to the center of social life. It is quite another thing to pretend that no healthy, loving American could possibly cherish the old disrespect. It is more than merely regrettable that political correctness, that toxic brew of high-mindedness and zero tolerance, has been such an important tool in effecting the enfranchisement of “minorities.” It demonized ordinary folk while infantilizing its beneficiaries. I don’t see how children are to outgrow the cruelties natural to children unless they are allowed to acknowledge them.

My only comment on the fourth exchange is this: will the United States still be a democracy when its people become interested in America’s place in the world, and stop dreaming of floating Zeus-like above it?

When people claim that Trump doesn’t mean the hateful things that he says, they’re trying to excuse the hateful things that they feel but do not say. It is commonplace to refer to the many Germans who believed that Hitler would never really persecute the Jews, only to be shocked, shocked when he did. But this shock is of uncertain genuineness. Nobody but Hitler, perhaps, would have taken the first steps against the Jews, but once those steps were taken, they were ever more easily followed by others’. A man who will bet on a candidate’s hidden goodness is not especially troubled by his apparent wickedness. Voters trying to assume the mantle of Henry Kissinger’s superior realism get exactly what they deserve. Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t deserve it.


The punchbowl is back in our lives. It’s this hideous thing that my mother picked up somewhere at the height of her Victorian craze. Most punchbowls are simply big bowls, mounted on sturdy bases or feet to demonstrate their stability. Our punchbowl is more like a vase. It rests on what might be a inverted mini-punchbowl, a mound of hollow metal. The bottom of the punchbowl proper is narrow, almost wasp-waisted. It swells out with modest convexity until approaching the halfway mark of its height and swelling out on a concavity to a great diameter — more than a foot. Finally, it rolls back to a convex curve and tucks into a sculpted rim. It has always seemed to be a huge thing, incapable of fitting in anywhere, but our spacious living room has swallowed it up.

Once upon a time, it was a recognizable piece of silverware. Now its exterior is streaked gunmetal grey. It looks fit for a garden — not least because I’ve put a flourishing arum lily in it. I’ve had the plant for years, but now I am watering it so well that it almost always has a bloom at some stage of development. Its profusely layered foliage looks not unlike one of David Hockney’s splashes, but dark green rather than pool blue.

The one inexorable rule about vacating the storage unit is that everything must go. Everything must be either carted away by hired junksters or brought home. Nothing, no matter how undesirable, may be left behind. Some things, it is true, will be shipped to the uptown storage unit, but very few or these things will not be books, or the shelves to put them on.

On the next visit, I shall pack up a stack of cut-glass dinner plates intended for buffets: there are little dividers in the glass, just like the ones that keep things separate on children’s plates. There are about a dozen of these plates. We shall never use them. Then there are some silver candlesticks. They’re in even worse shape than the punchbowl, and we won’t keep them, either. After that, I’ve got 25 document boxes to bring home. Six of them would fit in a banker’s box. I’ve forgotten what’s in them. Kathleen and I tagged many of them with large Post-its, in lieu of more fixed labels, but most of the Post-its have fallen off over the years.

Then, then I’ll be down to books and just books. And LPs. The LPs will follow the unwanted books to wherever the junksters take them. The wanted books will go uptown. Nothing will come home, except of course for books that I really want.


Friday 4th

Regular readers will have tired of my complaining that I’m tired; finally, I have tacit evidence of the dire effects of this persistent fatigue. Whilst writing yesterday’s entry, I lost sight of the larger point that I wanted to make about Nicholas Kristof’s column in yesterday’s Times. I never got round to mentioning what made the column worth quoting and summarizing in the first place: Kristof’s recognition that Donald Trump’s supporters have a point.

The point is that nobody has been listening to them, and the proof of this is that Kristof finds it newsworthy to present their arguments with something like sympathy. Even I couldn’t quite hold on o this important development. Like every other liberal-minded critic, I deconstructed the imaginary Trump supporter’s remarks, trying to uncover the hidden agenda. That’s not hard to do. What’s hard is grasping the sheer humanity (if not humane-ness) of the supporters’ logic. Whether he intended to do so or not, Kristof captures not only their impatience and resentment but also, in the obtuseness of his questions, their justification.

Having pointed this sort of thing out to several friends in more alert moments, when, unlike yesterday, I was able to stick to the point, I have to add, with emphasis, that to understand the mind that would be happy to see Donald Trump in the White House is just that, and not tantamount to agreeing with it.

The United States was founded on very high-minded principles, but it has survived because so many dedicated public servants have kept their eyes on the ground and tried to break the inevitable falls. I don’t mean just government workers or elected officials, but also the professionals, especially clergymen and lawyers, who are licensed by the state to take a special part in public affairs. I should also include most journalists, although investigative research is attractive work for troublemaking spirits. (I wish that I could say something good about doctors in this connection; doctors do an unimaginable amount of good to countless individuals. But when it comes to social effort, they seem to become Ayn Randians, with the results that our medical care is preposterously expensive and our hospitals indistinguishable from roller-derby arenas.)

It would be easy for these public and semi-public monitors to slip into cynicism. It is easy. Has it happened on a large scale? How did the people who flatter themselves that they have America’s interests at heart fall for the fable of free-market economics and its attendants, the deregulation of nearly everything and casino-style banking? Surely not everyone was on the take — but that, of course, is what Trump’s supporters, by now cynical as well, really believe. They’re mad because so much of the res publica has been divided up amongst the élites, and they have been left out of the sweet deals. Wouldn’t you be?

I often think that the élites will be lucky to come out of what’s in store with their necks intact, but also that, one way or the other, they will have destroyed the United States in which they grew up. A new and better United States may take its place, without violence perhaps, thanks simply to generational change. I can’t say I’m sanguine about any of this.

I’m reminded of a law-school joke, which I’ll exaggerate. The A students become law school professors. The B students become judges. The C students become millionaires. The reason for this is a factor that dominates every field of endeavor in this country: luck always trumps merit. To begin with, luck is not even recognized as such; it is merged into “work.” I’m not saying that hard work isn’t required. All three classes of law students work hard; just getting into a good law school is hard work. But the millionaires are sailmakers: they know how and where to catch the favorable winds. Now, almost everyone who benefits from good luck has had to work hard just to be prepared to take advantage of it. But taking advantage of good luck is not work, it is not a sign of merit — at least with regard to all the other hard workers — and there ought to be limits to the extent to which its benefits can be exploited. Two cardinal sins that come immediately to mind are legislative lobbying (locking in your good luck and freezing out others) and tax breaks (tax break are prima facie indicators of the inadequacy of the taxation scheme in operation). In our pursuit of rewards for lucky individuals, we have lost all sense of proportion. Even the lotteries show it.

As a matter of course, I don’t follow Nicholas Kristof’s column. I am not keen on Human Rights or humanitarian issues. I’m not against them in the least; in a well-ordered world, they would never come up, because no one would be denied or mistreated. But the people who talk about these matters remind me of the people who talk about conspiracies. Both groups address real problems with unreal simplification. Both subscribe to the argument that Truly Terrible Problems require nothing but Heroic Determination to Stop Them. In fact, truly terrible problems are the result of truly intractable incompetence and resentment. If you ask me, incompetence is our biggest humanitarian problem: it is almost everywhere, and it is almost always covered up. If white Christian Americans were as competent as they are always claiming to be, their hegemony would have lasted longer, and might even be unquestioned to this day. But no. When civil rights regained traction for the first time in eighty years, white Christian men insisted that Communist agitators were behind it. Now, that’s incompetence piled on incompetence. Proof? Trump all but kissing Putin’s ass.

When I read about problems between police officers and black men (it’s usually men, but, as poor Sandra Bland reminds us, not always), I see decades of bad behavior and mutual mistrust. And men. Men being men, who’s going to be the first to do the right thing?

When I read about conservative refusal to allow hearings for the next Supreme Court Justice, I see the same thing. A big game of chicken. (More about progressive bad behavior in this connection some other time — but be it duly noted.)

Which brings me to the ultimate question: are American men good for anything but a big game of chicken?


I was so tired yesterday morning that I went back to bed when I finished writing, even though I hadn’t had much to eat and it was well past lunchtime. I slept for over an hour. Then I had to get up, so I stayed up and made a salami-and-smoked gouda sandwich, with chips and a huge tumbler of iced coffee on the side. I read for a while, trying to work out Éamon Redmond’s walks through Enniscorthy on Google Maps but refraining from searching yet again for evidence of “Cush,” the clutch of seaside cottages that by now, I think, have all been swallowed up by the waves. I did notice that the two sentences that open the first and the third parts of the novel, respectively, are identical.

Between six and seven, I got dressed and went downstairs for the mail. A bit of excitement: as I waited for the elevator, the light went out on the button, and the elevator whooshed me by. I pressed the button madly, but the light would go out instantly. Eventually, I went round to the service elevator, which did stop for me. On the first floor, I found a knot of firemen. They had shut off the elevator buttons with a key. By the time I had dropped off some laundry at the cleaner’s and collected the mail, whatever had summoned the firemen was settled, and I saw one of them use the key to reactivate the buttons.

When I got back upstairs, I did a bit of writing. Shortly after eight, I was done. I stood up and thought about dinner. Kathleen was attending a Bar Association gathering that included dinner, so I was on my own. Because I’d had lunch so late, I still wasn’t very hungry, and there wasn’t anything that I particularly wanted to eat. So I made the bed. I said to myself, “Why are you making the bed at this hour? It’s practically bedtime.” I replied to the effect that it didn’t matter when I made the bed, so long as I was home alone. The bed didn’t take any longer to make at eight o’clock at night than it would at ten in the morning. The important thing was that the bed be made when Kathleen came home.

And yet, when I told this to Kathleen as we got ready for bed, folding the quilt that serves as a bedspread, she said, “I know it makes you feel better when the bed is made.” Meaning that she could care less. So she says. But I don’t make the bed for her to notice it. It’s the absence of an unmade bed that I have in mind.


In the current issue of The New Yorker, Nate Heller evaluates A O Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism. Nearly three weeks ago, I wrote, “I read the book thinking that I should have to re-read it, perhaps several times, or else just let it go.” Although I mentioned it again the following week, à propos its reception in the Book Review, it appears that I did let it go. And Nate Heller showed me why.

Pointing toward interesting problems and promptly running away is a regrettable tendency of Better Living Through Criticism. To the extent that the book has a structure, it resembles a Rubik’s cube that has not been solved. The components of a cumulative argument exist, but they are broken up and scattered randomly throughout the text.

I see that I made a similar complaint last week, but nowhere near as forcefully as Heller does in these two sentences, with the image of a mischievous boy who points and runs away, and who leaves his Rubik’s cube unsolved. I was shocked by the insulting aftertaste of these lines, and wondered if I should have said such things. (Yes, but of a politician, not a writer.) But Heller’s piece was too gripping to pause for complaint.

Heller lays out a theory of criticism that seems comprehensive to me. “Beyond institutional affiliation, critics usually gain authority in three ways.” To summarize:

  • As “first responders” — Schumann on Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!”
  • As historians (Heller uses “scholars”).
  • As seducers.

If I like this, it may just possibly be because it outlines my own program. I don’t often look at things that are actually new, but I’m always finding new things in familiar works. (New to me, anyway.) And the works are familiar. This is what being a historian entails: “someone who knows the canon backward and forward seems a sound gatekeeper for esteeem.” Although I’m keenly aware that I don’t know the canon backward and forward, and never will, I know that that’s not the impression that I give to readers who are not historians or scholars. About seduction I shall say nothing. In the Times today, Ben Whishaw tells an interviewer that, when they were working together on London Spy, Jim Broadbent warned him not to talk about acting. Very sound advice.

And then there’s this:

Why do we follow him, then? Scott did not go to film school. He has not made any movies. He may or may not have a detailed knowledge of the complete oeuvre of Claude Chabrol. His powers of suasion come from his ability to make you feel that his experience was, or will be, yours. What the first responder and the scholar demand from us — “Defer to me; I see more than you do” — we give voluntarily to the seducer, who woos our consent.

I think that I’m trying to take this a step further: I want to make observations that might not make much sense if you don’t know things about me that wouldn’t come up if I were writing in the “objective” manner. As the element of seduction makes clear, the pretense of objectivity is a sham. Adults lose the taste for reading expository prose that is personality-free. Some people argue that there has to be a “story” to make anything interesting; I find that infantilizing. But everything that happens to anybody is the element of a story, whether it is ever woven into a tale or not. And it is through shared experiences (or through experiences that weren’t shared (!), even though the same thing happened) that we learn about the world from other people. And, as I say, we learn more if we know them better.

That’s a controversial view; lots of traditional journalists were passionately opposed to the insertion of the reporter’s personal experience (or opinions) into a news story. I still say that it was a sham, this belief in the possibility of neutral objectivity.

Meanwhile, here’s John Fowles on critics.

It was less anything personal that I had always disliked in Barney, in fact, than that he was a critic. No creator can like critics. There is too much difference between the two activities. One is begetting, the other surgery. However justified the criticism, it is always inflicted by someone who hasn’t, a eunuch, on someone who has, a generator: by someone who takes no real risks on someone who stakes most of his being, economic as well as immortal. (113)

To be fair, that’s Daniel Martin speaking, not his “generator,” but it has the pulpity ring of an author sharing his thoughts. Daniel Martin is Fowles’s autobiographical novel, I’ve always thought, and there is nothing in the text to suggest that Dan’s musings are not to be taken at face value. In any case, what a load! I giggled at the thought of Fowles’s encountering A O Scott’s idea that criticism is the “late-born twin” of art.

Geoffrey O’Brien once remarked, in Sonata for Juke Box, I think, that the Beatles, during their years of celestial fame, lived in such a tight bubble that they were the only people on earth who didn’t know what The Beatles phenomenon was. But this is true of every artwork; it’s what distinguishes artworks from other productions. Artwork is taken up by other people and appreciated by them in ways and for reasons that its creator might deplore. Criticism is simply observation, from the same private viewpoint as everyone else’s, that is rendered coherent and informative. For Dan to say that he cannot like critics is to admit, as he probably would if pressed, that he cannot like his readers, either. The idea that a critic is bad because he might have an adverse effect on one’s income is a very low blow, and shallow as well.

The relationship between criticism and paying popularity is absolutely ad hoc, different in each case. Can a critic kill a book? It would seem that the sales of a certain kind of “literary” novel are more vulnerable to the withering dismissal of Michiko Kakutani than are those of the latest Preston/Child. A O Scott’s rather narrow-framed objection to The Avengers had no discernible affect on that film’s box office, and it’s regrettable that Samuel L Jackson opened his big mouth to make a stunningly ill-considered complaint. On the other hand, I don’t know how many lousy new novels I’ve read because of enthusiastic reviews. That’s one thing that reviewing the Book Review taught me, slowly, to avoid. The novels were lousy for a simple reason: they weren’t for me. I learned not to talk, at length anyway, about things that are not for me.

Although: one of these days, I’m going to finish Moby-Dick, and then, watch out!

Bon week-end à tous!