Gotham Diary:
Fountain of Wisdom
September 2018 (II)

11 and 13 September

Tuesday 11

Well, this Tuesday, the weather in New York is on the dismal side, humid, cloud-covered and glum. Nothing like what it was seventeen years ago.

(When was the last time the anniversary fell on the weekday?)


The more obtrusive anniversary is that of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Ten years ago this month, its fall precipitated a financial calamity that was forestalled by quick thinking and bold responses, but at a terrible cost. This cost wasn’t so much the amount of money that it took to restore confidence to the short-term credit market — without which such terrible-to-imagine outcomes as empty supermarket shelves might have ensued — as it was the way in which payment of the price was allocated. “Austerity” was the word heard in Europe, but the people at fault for the disasters were not the ones forced to tighten their belts. Here in the United States, the word was “bail-out.” The intrusion of this maritime term was probably bound to cause confusion. At the time, as I recall, one spoke more often of “pumping money into the system.” And the banks did repay, at least technically, all or most of the money that was pumped into them. But the pressure-drop that both caused and was intensified by Lehman’s implosion affected much more than the banking sector. Nobody rescued the victims of collateral damage; at times, it seemed that only the banks were going to recover. So the public and its journalists settled on an image suggesting that the beneficiaries of official largesse weren’t as deserving as the innocent bystanders who were allowed to go under. From the Tea Party to Trump, the results were pretty much what could be expected of bravura, emergency-room politics.

We’re celebrating the anniversary with almost daily predictions that there is going to be another really big crash sometime soon.

In case you’re bored by money, there’s William T Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies, which critic Nathaniel Rich has called a “suicide note.” It’s not exactly cheering to consider that worldwide economic failure may be the only thing to prevent Vollmann’s scenario.


Just what prompted me to order a copy of Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), I can’t say for certain. It must have been a review of Amis’s latest collection of critical essays, which apparently has a lot to say about luminous literary figures who happen to be male, and almost nothing about those who don’t. Is it condescension that I find so annoying, or indifference? Year by year, I’m more exasperated by the palpable extent to which many if not most men believe that, when it comes to important things, Women Don’t Count.

But what does this mean? And who am I to suggest not only that Women Count, but that I Know What They Count For, especially if what this statement really means is that I (claim to) Understand Women. I can’t run fast enough away from that implication.

The Rachel Papers is proving quite helpful in sorting this out. It’s the account of a very bright but very callow young man’s pursuit of a nice girl who, while pretty enough, lacks the vulgar attractions that adolescents fetichise. She is also not the brilliant, inaccessible creature that he takes her to be (just as he doesn’t recognize her as the hostess of the party where they meet). She does, however, have a boyfriend, and her detachment from him becomes the hero’s project. I suppose that it’s because he likes her that he dumps her at the end.

One of the troubles with being over-articulate, with having a vocabulary more refined than your emotions, is that every turn in the conversation, every switch of of posture, opens up an estate of verbal avenues with a myriad side-turnings and cul-de-sacs — and there are no signposts but your own sincerity and good taste, and I’ve never had much of either. All I know is that I can go down any one of them and be welcomed as a returning lord. (158)

Remember, before you dismiss Charles Highway (our hero) as hopelessly loathsome, that he is saying this on the verge of his twentieth birthday. Every bright young man (many bright young women, too, although they’re actively discouraged) has a vocabulary more refined than his emotions.

The observation is suffused with ignorance. The young man gets lost, but it doesn’t matter — why not? Because he lives in a world where men do not have to pay attention to anything but personal performance. Charles is obsessed with his; if you take out all the passages that relate either to the foreshadowing of decay that makes adolescence so fearful (the smells, the spots; the dirt, suddenly so noticeable, in all the body’s crannies; the endless grooming), the strategies and mechanics of lovemaking (Charles is keeping a dossier entitled Conquests and Techniques: A Synthesis), the self-appraisal in mirrors, and the stage-managing of future encounters (“Enter without glasses on : put them on a) if don over 50, b) if don wearing glasses”), precious little of The Rachel Papers remains. The appearance of others is not altogether insignificant: aside from the few sharp men from whom pointers might be taken, humanity is grist for the cynic’s mill. But Charles is adamantly uninterested in anyone else’s inner life — perhaps because he’d give anything to escape his own.

Accordingly, the attention that he pays to desirable women is reminiscent of Cole Porter’s very funny but sadly overlooked song, “The Physician.” Random verse:

He murmured “molto bella”
When I sat on his patella,
But he never said he loved me

(And if he had, he’d have been lying.) There are breasts, and the “elusive shadows” lurking above the hems of short skirts; there is hair and skin and overall emotional climate. But the whole woman is more elusive than the shadows. Think, for contrast, of Jane Austen’s extraordinary range of leading men. The two military officers among them bear understandable similarities, but the others have nothing in common by way of personality; her heroines are rather more homogeneous. Austen, whom Amis somewhat grudgingly sort of respects, doesn’t understand this; he has said that her novels are all the same. But how can this be, when the men in them are all so different? The differences, moreover, are registered entirely in carriage and speech. Austen is famous for never having imagined a scene in which men interact without women, but there was no need for her to worry about the secret life of men. She had only to watch them carefully, as thoughtfully as appraisingly. She describes their appearances rather blandly, wisely letting her readers fill in the details, but the whole men appear with absolute distinctiveness. (It is impossible to settle on just how well Mr Knightley and Mr Darcy would get along.)

It’s not enough to charge Charles Highway with the self-important egotism of young men; that would miss his panic, a no less manly characteristic that can be revealed only in novels.


Thursday 13th

As I hope I suggested earlier this week, I do not propose myself as a champion of women. The only thing that women have ever asked from me is recipes.

A corollary of the notion that Women Don’t Count is that What Counts for Women Doesn’t Count. This is really just another way of defining “important things,” such as politics and leadership and business growth and military strategy, as particularly in need of masculine attention. And yet every campaign or operation begins with the establishment of a housekeeping unit — a quartermaster, an HR chief — to enable smooth running. Housekeeping chores are assigned on a spectrum of drudgery, so that the top guy never lifts a finger, while buck privates peel the potatoes. There is nothing sentimental about these units, and there is no intention of producing something like a home. Although absolutely necessary, housekeeping is not “important.”

One begins to suggest that masculine culture regards “necessary” and “important” as antonyms. Necessity pre-empts a lot of opportunities for making decisions; and decisions, as Hannah Arendt proposes in The Human Condition, are the summit of human action. Necessity is drudgery — work for slaves.

But there are problems with decisions in the larger culture. The larger culture is risk-averse. Mistakes that lead to broken bodies are not readily forgiven. Nor is the larger culture willing to endow anyone with the power to make sweeping changes. It is more difficult than ever to be a man. It would be nice to think that this difficulty might finally distract men from their fear of being mistaken for women — the panic that I mentioned the other day.


Women often write about trying to decide whether or not to have children. Quite often, they speak of “having a baby,” which confuses the spectacular achievement of producing and nourishing a living infant with the long-term commitment to caring for children who are rarely adorable. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if they asked themselves whether they were willing to make a home — by which I do not mean some comfy little nest with all the modcons, and television sets in every room. (I wonder if what I do mean is a home altogether without television sets.) Nor do I mean a domestic order that requires anybody’s full-time attention. The domestic order that I have in mind is oriented less towards service and more toward cooperation. Do something about the problem of unpaid housework: pay children handsomely to keep themselves clean and their quarters ship-shape. Maybe with money, maybe with something else. Dr Johnson claimed that no boy ever learned Latin without having it flogged into him, which unfortunately became a good reason for giving up Latin. (It was one of Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite subjects, though, and he wasn’t flogged.) Now that punishment has come to be widely regarded as an inhumane and unacceptable inducement to good behavior, the demands that parents make on children have dwindled to a handful of minimal daily requirements, largely centered on “doing well in school.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t involve being part of a family, or contributing to the health of a home.

A home is a place where people know each other well, and want to know each other better. A home that children can’t wait to escape is broken, whether or not the parents remain together. (Indeed, I can think of a couple of happy marriages that were so fulfilling to the spouses that there was nothing for their children to do except endure childhood. Roz Chast illustrates one in her memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?) At the same time, a home without children can still be a home.

Children, as we know, take care of themselves somehow or other. They deal with necessity as best they can. For good parents, providing children with the necessities is only the first step. Every other step requires the thoughtful attentiveness to people as they are that we call wisdom.

Bon week-end à tous!