Gotham Diary:
Turn It Off
January 2018 (III)

18 and 19 January

Thursday 18th

Amazon claims that Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is temporarily out of stock. I don’t wonder. It got written up by David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Today it got a review by Jennifer Senior. And this is just the New York Times coverage. I’m beginning to think, however, that I’ll make do with the Kindle edition. The more I learn about Deneen’s book, the less willing I am to give it precious shelf space.

But of course I do have to read it. What does Dineen have to say about liberalism? What does he think it is? According to Senior’s review, he holds that the idea of liberalism was born 500 years ago. That seems a stretch to me, off by about two centuries. (I take it to be more recent.) So we probably don’t have the same thing in mind when we talk about liberalism.

I was tempted to quip, in response to Dineen’s title, Because that’s what liberalism does. Failure is what liberalism is good at. But I am not in a humor for framing clever paradoxes today. All I can do is suggest that liberalism fails because it always depends on the transcendent ambition of worldly-wise people to serve the common interest, and because it relies so heavily on organizational schemes to prevent governmental caprice. Liberalism requires excellent men and women — not superheroes, but something much harder to imagine — and there are never enough of them. But the alternatives — certainly including Deneen’s, if Senior does them justice — are unacceptable. Either we strive to make liberal democracy work, or we slide into tyranny and worse.


Having turned seventy, I am now, officially, a cranky old man. I don’t for a moment imagine that I can make my crankiness entertaining, so I keep it locked up in a little box. Every now and then, though, I have to open the box, for a brief exhibition of its contents. A quick blink is all it takes, because my crankiness, which is really an impatience so extreme that it would kill me if I didn’t bundle it away, is very simple. Everything that everyone is complaining about these days, from Trump to racism and misogyny, is directly attributable to the depravity of television, and by “television” I don’t mean the myriad streams of shows currently on offer but the habit of living with a screen that is on for hours at a time. Although, now that I mention it, the glamorization of crime, violence, and amorality that made highly-regarded shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men so “compelling” is pretty depraved, too. How can this not be obvious? But then, television is a lot like smoking. You don’t know how disgusting it is until you break the habit. The people who intone, “But there are good things on television” are no different from folks who believe that it’s all right to smoke if you keep it to two or three cigarettes a day.

There! I’ve closed up the box again. I just wanted to make it clear why I don’t write more than I do about the Trump problem, #MeToo, and other vibrant controversies. I know how to make them all go away, and I have just told you the secret.

I can live with the curse of television only because it does not disturb my own home. In my home there is silence. Or there is conversation, or good music. Every now and then, whenever I’m too tired to think, there is a feature film — two hours, more or less, of visual entertainment. That is almost always enough. But I am miserably aware the the curse of television is vitiating my homeland and my civilization.


Friday 19th

My literary life has always been solitary. I’ve rarely had long discussions of books with friends and others. This is not because I don’t know the right people, I suspect, but because I don’t like to talk about literature. I prefer to write about it. So I read a great deal — not just the novels but the commentaries that stream through the Reviews, and even the odd critical book — but I don’t hear very much. Which is to say that my inputs, if you’ll forgive that word, are not casual, but edited, printed, and sold to subscribers. And of course they are not written with me in mind. Writing about Henry James, Colm Tóibín, for example, is in no position to make a point that he thinks that I will find particularly interesting. I have to find those points for myself. I’m pretty good at it now, but for a long time, I was at sea, struggling just to keep my head up. How could it be otherwise? I knew very little. I hadn’t read very much. I wasn’t sure of liking anything. And I was awfully fond of fun. Robert Benchley and Edith Sitwell took up so much of my attention that sober friends could dismiss the idea of my having any taste at all.

Who was afraid of Virginia Woolf? Without presuming to understand precisely what Edward Albee meant by that line, I’ll just say: everybody. Everybody was, back then in the Postwar years when I was growing up. The problem was simple: was she any good? Was she a “serious novelist” who deserved to read carefully and thought about? Or was she an ornamental experimentalist, an odd woman (occasionally mad and finally a suicide) who belonged to a group of effete men, the Bloomsbury Group, that had a peculiar take on Modernism? And on top of that, or rather beneath it all, Woolf was a woman. Were women capable of art? The debate was still lively in those days, and few women were recognized participants. Either way, Woolf was a risky proposition. You were putting your reputation on the line.

There had been a craze for Hermann Hesse. Some books, such as Demian, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha, had been available in English, but now everything was coming out — Narcissus and Goldmund, Magister Ludi, Beneath the Wheel. I read quite a few of these an an undergraduate, tickled for a while by what I took to be Hesse’s endorsement of my conviction that it was really stupid to study hard for exams. Just at about the point when his fiction began giving me gas pains, I read something in The New Yorker that dismissed his work with one clean sweep: “This isn’t literature, but incense.” I burped with relief, and haven’t looked at Hesse since.

Several years later, there was a Bloomsbury craze. And why not. As the flower children grew up, the fantasy of a group of élite, educated bohemians chattering away in pleasant, well-staffed houses while conducting rather irregular amorous affairs with impunity was hugely appealing. Rather than read Virginia Woolf herself, and trying to figure out what she was going on about, you could read about her and her friends. Quentin Bell wrote a two-volume biography of his aunt that was itself something a novel about Bloomsbury in its own right. (It wasn’t what he made up, but what he left out.) Inevitably, we tired of Lytton and Duncan and Dora and Ottoline; we tired of Vanessa (was she an artist?), and nobody liked Leonard to begin with. I don’t remember reading Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse in those days. I do recall romping through Orlando, and finding it strangely unsatisfying.

Time passed. Michael Cunningham published The Hours, which was presently transformed into a very powerful movie. I was in my fifties by now. Not only did I have a much clearer idea of what I liked in fiction, but, far more important, I had learned the patience to let a writer persuade me to enlarge it. Somewhere along the way, I had learned (from reading it) that To the Lighthouse is very great; two years ago I read it for the third time, and was inspired to undertake my writing project — which, by the way, I am about to reconstruct. I had read Night and Day and The Voyage Out, and liked them both. Mrs Dalloway I recognized as a success, even though it didn’t bowl me over. The Waves remained — tedious. But as for Woolf’s non-fiction, her personal memoirs and her literary criticism, I couldn’t get enough of it.

In the course of evacuating our storage unit last summer, I dealt with two of Woolf’s books differently. An old copy of The Years went into the box of donations, without my thinking twice. Somehow I had got the idea that this novel, Woolf’s last, was a failure, or at any rate a disappointment. She had tried to do something, but she hadn’t pulled it off. The book that I held onto was A Writer’s Diary, an even more ancient Signet Classic, purchased, it appears, in the summer of 1969, when she was seventeen, by the girl who would become my first wife. That’s why I couldn’t get rid of it: it wasn’t mine. But I wasn’t going to make a fuss about returning it, either. So it wound up the bathroom. Eventually, instead of just opening it anywhere, I kept to the entries for 1935 — when Woolf was writing The Years. I know that there is too much information in this paragraph, but I don’t know how else to explain why I’ve just read and loved a novel that I was sure as recently as six months ago that I would never read.

I wish that I had read it a long time ago, even though I know that I’d have disliked it, not understood it. What’s to understand? That’s the great question with Woolf: what is she going on about? There is no mystery at the textual surface: characters act and react in normal, everyday ways. And they think the kind of half-baked philosophical questions that we all think. What is life all about, and so forth. It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing happens, but most of what happens happens in between the scenes, which, as the title suggests, are set years apart. Nor is the spacing even: we go from 1880 to 1891, and thence to a cluster of eight scenes from 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1917 and 1918. The final quarter of the book is set in “Present Day,” which we can take for 1934-1936. In between, people die or go off to Africa for fifteen years. Everybody gets older. The final chapter, a riotous family party, is a very worthy homage to Proust — but it is also, like the rest of The Years, utterly lifelike. If had only read it long ao, then I could have enjoyed it so much more the second time.

Woolf’s original title was The Pargiters, the name of the family whose various members she variously displays. At the center, there are the seven children — four girls, three boys — of Abel and Rose Pargiter. To one side, there are also the daughters of Abel’s brother, Maggie and Sara. To the other stands Kitty Malone, the daughter of an Oxford eminence who rejects the Pargiter son who is in love with her in order to make a very good marriage. (Kitty is also a cousin somehow.) If there is a central figure, it is Eleanor Pargiter, the eldest of Abel’s children, but that is only because her persistent questioning about the knowability of life, experience, selfhood echo Woolf’s own concerns. The great experiment at the heart of Woolf’s fiction is the attempt to “capture” life on the page without really understanding what’s going on. (Many people go through life without ever seriously doubting that they understand what is going on, and Woolf is not for them.) The very nature of the experiment also cautions the reader against trying to figure out why, with a cornucopia to choose from, Woolf chose these particular moments for her novel, and excluded all of the others. There is a clarity both comic and formal about the very brief scene from 1918, but there is an almost uncomfortable jerk in the life of Maggie Pargiter, as 1910 gives way to 1911, that is never explained, and that feels like a loose tooth.

Woolf was probably as prone to ask why people do things as anybody, but she knew better than to expect to find out. At the end of the 1914 chapter, Kitty Lasswade (as she now is) gives a dinner party in her house in Grosvenor Square. Kitty is obviously a great lady in the world, but she is still unsure of herself; her introduction of cousin Martin to the prize debutante of the season is a dud. Throughout the dinner, but especially afterward, as the ladies wait for the men to leave the table, Kitty worries that she will miss her train. We are not told why she plans to leave her house after her own dinner party to catch a train, but we are invited, by Woolf’s reticence, to imagine an improper adventure. Finally, everyone leaves, and, without exchanging a word with her husband, Kitty proceeds from her dressing room to the car that waits at the door. She makes the train with minutes to spare. In the sleeping compartment that has been reserved for her, her things have been set out and the bed has been turned down. When she wakes up a few hours later, another car is waiting at the station where she gets off — this other car is a birthday present from her husband. The car whisks her up through the countryside to a castle — her husband’s castle. Breakfast awaits her in the morning room. Then she changes into country clothes and goes for a walk, climbing to the high point on the property. Here she throws herself on the grass — how wonderful it is to have nothing to do! I can’t tell you how satisfying I found this conclusion to the breathlessly luxurious episode.

Now, to re-read all those diary entries.

Bon week-end à tous!