Gotham Diary:
The Awakening of Europe
February 2018 (II)

13, 15 and 16 February

Tuesday 13th

He’s a funny one, that David Brooks. He tries to end a rather apolocalyptic appraisal of today’s politics, in today’s Times, with a dose of stern hope.

Eventually, conservatives will realize: If we want to preserve conservatism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors. Liberals will realize: If we want to preserve liberalism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors.

Eventually, those who cherish the democratic way of life will realize they have to make a much more radical break than any they ever imagined. When this realization dawns the realignment begins. Even with all the structural barriers, we could end up with a European-style multiparty system.

The scarcity mentality is eventually incompatible with the philosophies that have come down through the centuries. Decent liberals and conservatives will eventually decide they need to break from it structurally. They will realize it’s time to start something new.

This is all very well, but what possible interest can it have for generations heading into a long stretch of scarcity on every front? When will this wonderful “eventually” come about? Will the authoritarianism of warrior clans have stifled the possibility of multiparty democracy? Will people still be able to read?


In one of the great stories in David Szalay’s All That Man Is, the protagonist is an academic whose dog-bone is the End of the Middle Ages. When did the Middle Ages end? In one way, I find the question endlessly interesting, because so many different dates can be plausibly argued, ranging from 1350 (the end of the first and most terrible wave of plague) to 1789 (the end of the ancien régime), with plenty of alternatives in between, the favorites being 1492 (Columbus) and 1500 (1492 rounded out). More seriously, though, it’s absolutely pointless to ask. The very idea of “the Middle Ages” is bogus.

“The Middle Ages” posits a certain sequence. First, there was Greece-and-Rome, or Classical Antiquity. Then there was a Dark Age, following the collapse of Roman authority. In between the Dark Age and Modern Times, which many conventionally (but unintelligently) date from something called the Renaissance, stretch the Middle Ages, an in-between time of movement from dark to light. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church provided a shelter that was inevitably outgrown and cast aside when, in Modern Times, men regained the intellectual clarity and material affluence of Classical Antiquity.

That’s one way of looking at it. It is more correct, I think, to  regard Classical Antiquity as an extremely rare and precious blossom that was unknown to the overwhelming bulk of its contemporaries. All those statues, all that poetry — well, there wasn’t very much of it, because only the rich could afford it. It was never in the sinews of everyday society. It is also important to note that Classical Antiquity was confined to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, never penetrating very far inland at any point. There were outposts of luxury, some as far away as Britain. But these were encampments in foreign territory, much like the old American settlement around the Aramco headquarters in Saudi Arabia.

By 800, about half of the Mediterranean littoral was in Islamic hands. The sea was no longer a binder but a border. The city of Rome was a shadow of its former self, its glories long since removed to Constantinople, and its empire newly placed in the hands of the Frankish upstart whom we know as Charlemagne. Cut off from the Eastern Empire, the Latin world lost touch with a great deal of its Classical inheritance. A new civilization, one that called itself Christendom, grew slowly and arduously in territories that had been wastelands in Classical times. It was weak and subject to invasion for about four hundred years, but thereafter it went from strength to strength. When Christendom fractured in the Reformation, it became more convenient to speak of this civilization as “European” or “Western.” This European world was not a continuation, in any meaningful way, of Classical Antiquity, and the so-called Middle Ages were its early years. Organically, we are still living in that world.

It is hard to be sanguine about the future of Europe — which includes most of the Americas as well as many far-flung regions (Australia, for example). In countless ways, Europe has destroyed the larger world which it developed; just one of those destructions has led to the disruptive influx of refugees into the heart of Europe, kindling xenophobic populism. The great European revolutions of circa 1800 have confused almost everything, while degrading, for the first time in human history, not just a local ecology but the planet as a whole.

Like David Brooks, I look forward to the realizations that thoughtful people are going to have to reach. Like him, I also worry that thoughtful people are among the scarcest of resources, not just in the world at large, where they have always been rare, but at the top of the tree, where they have been so extensively replaced by a mindless meritocracy.


Thursday 15th

Last night, I stayed up very late in order to finish Chanson Douce, the novel by French writer Leïla Slimani that has just appeared here, in translation, as The Perfect Nanny. I first heard of the book from a piece in The New Yorker by Lauren Collins, “The Killer-Nanny Novel That Conquered France.” Slimani has appropriated the rough outlines of a grisly New York story — a nanny murdered two of her charges, a little girl and her baby brother, and then tried but failed to kill herself — and refashioned it in a French setting. This is a shrewd move, placing the novel above the fray of socio-political bickering. The immigrant who committed the actual crime in New York is transformed into a blonde woman from the native lower class; it’s the mother, in the story, who comes from somewhere else. (Slimani herself was born in Morocco.) And the fact that the crime is imported detaches the novel from the hostile debates about professional women and the poorly paid surrogates who raise their children that would surround a French scandal.

Not that Gallimard, the publisher of Chanson Douce, sought complete detachment. The blurb on the back cover tells us that “beyond its detailed portraits of a young couple and of the mysterious character of the nanny, the novel reveals our society’s conceptions of love and education, of the connection between power and money, of the prejudices of class and culture.” According to Collins, Chanson Douce

is not so much about motherhood as it is about what the cultural theorist Angela McRobbie has called the “neoliberal intensification of mothering.” An activity, not a state, mothering—along with its gender-neutral version, parenting—is competitive and outsourceable. Slimani tries to put a price on the anxieties, hypocrisies, and inequalities that arise from the commodification of our most intimate relationships. “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter,” she told me. “It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” The novelist Rachel Cusk has chronicled what motherhood did to her; Slimani examines what mothering is doing to society.

Well, maybe. Chanson Douce is not nearly so analytical or programmatic as Collins suggests. It’s much better than that. The nightmare that it relates unfolds naturalistically, convincingly, horrifically. If there is a theoretical aspect to this novel, I should say that Chanson Douce is a study in the discomfort of consciousness.

Slimani begins with the immediate aftermath of the crime. (Displaying a classical sense of the sacred, she refrains from depicting its commission.) Again, a shrewd move. She may have been inspired by the awareness that, if her novel took off, most readers would know what it was about — what happens — before turning past the title page. She may also have sought to exploit Alfred Hitchcock’s wisdom about the difference between suspense and surprise. Hitchcock claimed somewhere that he made his movies to be seen at least twice, and I doubt very much that there is a fan of his artistry who hasn’t seen the major films many times more than that. Slimani’s opening gambit amounts to making the first read a second read: we know what’s going to happen right away. For some readers, that’s a disappointment. For such readers, I suppose, it’s necessary to share the characters’ ignorance in order to identify with them. Or it may be that they have no time for the uneasiness of irony.


Consciousness is not the same thing as awareness. Awareness is a characteristic of all living things, plants as well as animals. Human awareness is arguably more complicated than any other kind, because speech allows us to grasp aspects of reality that are not immediately present, as well as imaginary things that might or might not be real. Sometimes, consciousness is thought to be an awareness of one’s awareness, also something that is almost certainly peculiar to human beings. But I believe that consciousness is essentially ironic, that it is a special, and usually bitter, kind of awareness: the awareness of the ignorance of others. This is what Hitchcock means by his example of suspense: showing the audience that a bomb of which the characters are unaware has been activated. The audience knows something that the characters don’t, and moreover this is something that the characters really do need to know. The audience longs to share its knowledge with the unsuspecting characters. (In real life, a wicked person might cherish and take advantage of the ignorance — the innocence — of others, but I am taking good nature for granted.) Consciousness is an awareness of difference, of asymmetry, of unevenness. Its affect, we might say, is the sense of defect: there is something wrong about that difference; it’s an inequality that ought to be balanced.

(This is why you have to be in a very grounded frame of mind to peruse old photographs of yourself. Otherwise, you will be overwhelmed by the impossible urge to throw yourself on the impending future — something like an activated bomb — so as to protect the figure in the image who doesn’t know what’s coming.)

It is common to talk of consciousness as the highest, or most distinctive activity of the human mind. Perhaps it is. But it is also something that we avoid wherever possible. It is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the bit of extra information that distinguishes unconscious nakedness (in the bath, say) from shameful nudity. Adam and Eve, waking to the fact of their nakedness, were really learning that they were not one and the same person. They were two different people, each with a certain demand for privacy. Sometimes, as #MeToo has made abundantly clear, our demand for privacy forbids other people from imposing their nakedness upon us.


Chanson Douce is readable — bearable — because Slimani allows us to forget, from time to time, what’s going to happen; she enables us to get lost in the present awareness of the most sympathetic characters, the parents of the two children who are going to be killed. They are Paul, a recording engineer and a hearty blond, and Myriam, his maghrébine wife, an attorney who retires from a promising career when she has her children, but who soon tires of the domestic round of daycare. She is ambitious and willing to work hard — at the law. She appears to resolve her uneasiness about possibly neglecting her children by befriending Louise, the woman whom she and her husband hire to take care of them. “Befriending” is of course too strong a word, but Myriam only gradually comes to understand this, to realize that friendship with an uneducated woman who wears nail polish in vulgar colors is impossible. For his part, Paul is a more generic figure, which is no failing on Slimani’s part: most men are generic when it comes to fatherhood, wanting to do the right thing, and waiting to be told what it is.

Although we see a good deal of Louise from the moment that she takes charge of little Mila and Adam, we don’t get inside her until her employers take her with them on a Greek-island holiday. For Louise, it is an awakening to beauty. She is as transfixed by the glories of Aegean sunlight as any poet, but unlike poets and other educated types she isn’t prepared to think through the impediments to her taking up residence in Greece. All she knows is that she wants it, and so she holds on to Paul and Myriam, because they can give it to her, at least for a few days each year. If she is aware of the possibility that Paul and Myriam might not invite her to accompany them a second time, she deals with this by denial, the most common way of resisting consciousness. We learn, as the novel proceeds, that Louise is adept at denial, at believing that what she wants will be granted, despite all the evidence in her past to the contrary.

What Paul and Myriam take away from their Greek sojourn is also subconscious. They understand, but dimly and without articulation, that they have erred in blurring boundaries with Louise. Paul begins to feel a visceral dislike of Louise’s person. Myriam is not so resolute; she can’t afford to be. Louise has made herself indepensable — the children adore her — and Myriam’s career is taking off. The honeymoon, in which Louise seemed to be too good to be true — not only does Louise take excellent care of the children, she also keeps the apartment wonderfully clean and fresh — begins to feel like a trap that has shut behind Myriam.

Gradually we realize that Louise is a monster, or at least a monstrosity. Her own childhood is never discussed, but we infer, from her treatment of her own child, a “disruptive” girl called Stéphanie who, by the time of Louise’s employment by Paul and Myriam, has long since disappeared, that it must have been characterized by violence and neglect. Sensing, again unconsciously, that she may lose her job — Adam will soon be going to school — Louise resolves that Paul and Myriam must have another baby. Her pathetic attempt to bring this about is so distracting that she no longer delights the children with her dark fairy tales. In the end, she cares more about herself than she cares about them. In this moment, she realizes that she has never known how to love, and that she will be punished for not knowing. This is what gives her permission resolve an awful situation in the only way that she does know how.


Every grade of consciousness is manifest in Chanson Douce, from Louise’s denial to our prescience. I rather doubt that Slimani set out to write a novel about consciousness, so the matter of her intentions, of the nature of her awareness of what she was doing, is also in play. But we shall leave the meta for another time. Chanson Douce is a story about people trying not to become aware of uncomfortable truths, while denying the reader any such comfort, and in which illumination, such as it is, leads directly to disaster. It makes Myriams of us all.


Friday 16th

(I might as well confess right now that I wrote what follows without looking back to what I wrote on Tuesday. I didn’t mention The Making of the Middle Ages then, but of course I was reading it, and I apologize for recurring to a topic as if I hadn’t mentioned it in some time.)

The other day, scanning the bookshelves for something lightweight and agreeable to carry along on a round of errands, I pulled down R W Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages, first published in 1952. I had read it before, and I knew that it was very good, despite the title, which ought to be The Awakening of Europe. I tossed it into my bag. Later on in the day, I was reminded by something in Southern’s book of a well-told tale involving a reforming pope. On a tour of the Rhineland, the pope stage-managed the relics of a saint so effectively that a gathering of of senior ecclesiastics was spooked into confessing their sins. I had read this story recently, but where? I went back to the shelves and looked through a few likely suspects, but the story wasn’t in any of them. Had I been more patient, I would have come across it, twenty or thirty pages later, in the very book that reminded me of it. And, yes, I had read it recently: according to my library notes, I read The Making of the Middle Ages in May 2016.

But The Making of the Middle Ages is one of those special books that stand out on the history shelf, partly because they’re elegantly organized and partly because, no matter how reasonable and straightforward their syntax, they are inflected by a strong personal accent. I’m thinking of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England; I wish I could think of others. I suppose that Albert O Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests is one, too.


Like Hirschman’s, Southern’s book is an intellectual history, a history of the development of ideas. He begins by defining the period that he intends to study, which runs from 972 to 1204 — a little more than two centuries, but not just any two centuries. His opening date lies right beyond the edge of the confusions of Merovingian and Carolingian Francia, an epoch that closed for good with a decisive military battle in 955. His closing date, which marks the launching of the “deplorable” Latin Empire in Constantinople, only slightly precedes the establishment of Modern Europe’s political outlines.

Having discussed the geographical boundaries of Europe and the hostilities beyond it that shaped the intellectual climate, Southern settles down in the core of medieval Europe, which ran from Southern England across Northern France, stretching from there into Germany and Northern Italy. The thinkers whom he writes about roamed throughout these regions with a readiness that belies the difficulties of travel. The sense of a unified intellectual bloc, contentious to be sure but more or less “on the same page,” is enhanced by Southern’s disregard for the narrative of political history. This is not to say that Southern overlooks the secular world altogether; he spends several profitable pages on the growth of the County of Anjou under the upstart line of Fulks and Geoffreys that climaxed with the passage of the territory into the bosom of the English crown. But an intellectual history of the period is bound to be slanted toward clergymen, who were by and large the only literate Europeans, and increasingly responsible during this time for civil administration.

It was during these centuries that the Roman Catholic Church became the autonomous confraternity of celibate males that it remains to this day. The blurred frontiers of religious and secular life that characterized the less organized arrangements of earlier times were brought into sharp focus, eagerly patrolled by churchmen who were determined to take no orders from kings or emperors that did not already comport with their own views. It was also at this time that hosts of robust horsemen were transformed from gangsters into hereditary aristocrats. The dwindling power of both groups, many centuries later, is the preliminary stage of modern history.

Women are almost invisible in Southern’s world. Agnes of Poitou, a lady of the Eleventh Century who was Empress, then regent, and finally papal ally, makes an interesting appearance, as does the pre-Conquest Countess of Northumbria, Judith of Flanders. Although Southern’s concluding essay, “From Epic to Romance,” looks at the work of Chrétien de Troyes, it is devoted to the growth of what we might call passionate Christianity, a faith in which the suffering of Christ is more salient than the Resurrection. This shift marks the final acceptance of an indefinitely postponed Apocalypse. The promise of corporal afterlife was never withdrawn, but even if we are, at the end of time, to see God in our flesh, we must learn how to live until then, and the message that St Francis made as clear as anyone ever did was rehearsed by Saints Anselm and Bernard. Pity and sympathy are presented in emphatically male, if not exactly masculine, dress. Eleanor of Aquitaine, a figure of the first cultural and political importance, is not mentioned.

Reading The Making of the Middle Ages this time, I noticed something that I’ve missed until now. I have always thought of the influx of Greek learning into Europe that followed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as a longed-for illumination; for the first time, the readers of the West could read Homer’s epics (even if most did so in translation). I have, I supposed, regarded this transfer of texts as the germination of the Renaissance. But doing so overlooks the plain and dumb fact that in 1204, Southern’s end date, the Crusaders who were pillaging Constantinople had all the access to Greek texts that could be desired, and yet they were interested only in relics. Far from taking an interest in Greek culture, they tried to pave it over with their own Latin one. They were not ready for anything like a “renaissance.” And the actual Renaissance was underway long before 1453. By 1440, for example, Lorenzo Valla had completed his philological exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a fabrication on its face, as the forgery of a document that could not possibly have written in the Fourth Century. Had the Renaissance depended on inspiration from the East, it would have taken much longer for the study of Greek to spark the critical study of the New Testament that was so instrumental to religious reformers at the beginning of the next century. But of course: I had never imagined the possibility of an early thirteenth-century flowering because “Crusader” and “Renaissance” are words that cannot fit into any single thought.

By the way, the Pope was Leo IX (1049-1054), and the business with the bones of St Remigius took place at Rheims, which is not on the Rhine but on the way from the Rhineland to Rome. Southern tells the story very well.

Bon week-end à tous!