Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
May 2018 (I)

Friday 4th

Of all her many novels, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Heat Wave is my favorite. Although on its surface an unremarkably representational narrative, generously supplied with the telling details of an accomplished English fiction, its starkly troubled depth is never out of view — or out of touch, perhaps. It vibrates off the page like the wheat that “hisses” in the summer heat; later it hums like the harvesting combine. It takes possession of the principal character, Pauline Carter, as she worries about the state of her daughter’s marriage.

Keeping this worry on the boil, Pauline, Teresa, and Teresa’s husband, Morris, are spending the summer together in a pair of attached stone cottages. The cottages stand in the middle of a field, somewhere in the South of England. Pauline bought them some time ago. She uses the smaller one, and has given Teresa the larger. This summer, Maurice, who is finishing up a book (a cheeky interrogation of local tourism), has decided to decamp to the cottage for the entire summer. I ought to mention that Teresa and Maurice have a little boy, two year-old Luke. Never has a child filled any novel with so much vivid but unconscious vulnerability.

It does not take long for the reader to discover that Pauline, who knew Maurice for several years before inviting him to a party, where he met her daughter, is not keen on her son-in-law.

Only when you know Maurice well — when you have had occasion to observe his habits over time — only then do you see that he practises a system of relentless manipulation. (20)

Pauline knows Maurice well. She does not trust him at all. She watches intently as he flirts, discreetly but unmistakably, with his editor’s girlfriend. Pauline is reminded of an earlier self, a young mother whose husband, Harry, an ambitious university professor, seemed to feed his career on the attention of female students. It is a tale that is possibly the most oft-told in modern fiction, but a great part of the pleasure of Heat Wave is watching Lively make it new. Pauline’s suffering and anger ought to be dispelling, but the genius loci keeps it fresh and cool, even as the cottages and the wheat bake in the ever-hotter sun. I don’t know how she does it, but Lively pins up against the oppressive brilliance of her setting a negative image, black as a starless night, that keens with the outrage of a Medea. There is no reason to fear that this will infect Pauline; she was long ago inoculated by it. She longs to spare her daughter the experience.

Because of other things that I’ve been reading, a line at the end of Chapter Twelve stood out in blinking bold-face. It is nothing but what guilty husbands tend to say, but this time it carried, for me, immense moral, as distinct from narrative, freight. When Pauline finally asks Harry why he’s unfaithful, “he shrugs.”

“These things happen, Pauline,” he says. “There isn’t anything I can do about it.” (154)

And I thought: that is depravity. What Harry says (as well as what he does) to Pauline is inhumane: no human being ought to be treated as he treats her, no matter how common such nastiness might be. But what he says to himself, implicitly — that he can’t do anything about it — is, to the extent that he takes it to be a true statement, depraved. Depravity is what happens when you stop treating yourself as a human being. Please note: Harry’s infidelities are not the issue here. The issue is the collapse of his responsibility for them. These things happen.

I am more and more convinced that the very idea of evil is thoroughly childish, and that adults ought to outgrow it. Evil is a thing, a blob, a vampire maybe, that can turn you into a monster. The ease with which people allow themselves to dismiss other people as monsters seems to me to be on the same order of moral turpitude as Harry’s exculpation. Evil is — exciting. The terrible things that happen in real life are rarely that. They’re grim and monotonous and wretchedly familiar. I am not talking about the horrors of psychopaths or other organically defective human beings. I’m talking about healthy men and women who let themselves get away with things, and who do it so carefully and successfully that they almost lose sight of the fact that they’re doing wrong. There is nothing monstrous about it. If they do, finally, lose sight of right and wrong, then their connection with themselves becomes depraved, a matter of lies. The difference between depravity and evil is merely poetic: we like to make evil out to be bigger and stronger than we are. Depravity is nothing but diminishment.

In the final pages of Heat Wave, Maurice says much the same thing as Harry, and what happens next is the climax.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Properly and Naturally Amassed
April 2018 (IV)

24, 25 and 27 April

Tuesday 24th

David, of course, was used to his mother’s busy people-filled life. As she liked to say, he had been brought up “on coats,” meaning she had dragged him along to the many parties and “happenings” and other events she had not wanted to miss just because she had a young child. … In fact, though he had a much stronger sense of privacy than Susan did, like her, he grew bored and restless when things were too quiet. He also had her stamina, and though he was perhaps somewhat less social than she, he was far more social than I, who already carried the seeds of the person I would become: someone who spends ninety percent of her time alone. (76)

That’s Sigrid Nunez, in Sempre Susan: A memoir of Susan Sontag. I read the book yesterday, with the greatest pleasure. I had understood it to be something of a hatchet job, but it wasn’t anything of the sort. Although Nunez itemizes Sontag’s foibles, she does not ridicule Sontag herself. She presents her rather as a mixed-up person like all of us, only much more determined to be famous. This pursuit of fame, which used to be positively admired in men, is treated by Nunez with kindness and generosity. She finds two great flaws in Sontag’s professional character. In the only passage in the memoir that I found “judgmental,” Nunez deems her subject to have been “mortally malcontented,” largely because, although famous, she wasn’t famous for her fiction. The other flaw, seemingly fatal for a writer, was that Sontag hated being alone. She had two ways of dealing with this problem, according to Nunez. She would create the undergraduate fugue state of dexedrine-fueled all-nighters, obsessively combing through piles of books in search of the mot justissime, or she would rope in a friend to play editor, and the two of them would decide where the commas belonged.

Meanwhile, Nunez was carrying those seeds.


I put the book down and talked about it with Kathleen — without whom I should certainly be someone who lived alone in more ways than one. I observed that I have never learned much from people directly, except, and I’ll come back to this, about who they are. What I mean here is that I’ve never learned how to live from the example of another person. I have never had a role model or a mentor. I thought for a long time that this signified a moral failing of some kind. Instead, I learn from books. And I learn, or demonstrate what I have learned, by writing. Reading and writing are something of a mining operation in which I excavate and assay myself and so find my place in the civilization around me. It is not an image that I want to push very far, but it feels like an apt description of how I have spent my life most profitably. The restless socializing, occasional thrill-seeking, the longing to find myself embedded in the alienated but romantic scenario of an Antonioni film — these were enormous, sometimes nearly catastrophic wastes of time, at least to the extent that it took so long to figure this out. The wonderful thing about being old is having outgrown, outlived all such urges.

What could be less “popular,” less “American,” less generally recommended, though, than learning about life, not from people directly, but from books. An interesting point occurs to me. Looking for wisdom in people, I would focus on one person at a time, as if interviewing prospective gurus. Nothing extraordinary about that. But with books, I was never looking for right one, the book that would unlock the secrets of the universe. (I’m amazed by the number of books that make such claims.) Certainly there were books that made an extraordinary impression at the time, but they never prevented me from reading other books, books that I never expected to be revelatory. When I say that I learned from books, I mean exactly that: from an undifferentiated pile, variously digested, of texts. It was only when I had read thousands of books — I hope that nobody takes that for a boast; it would be lame of me indeed if I could not at least make that claim — that the learning began, that the writing took on a purpose.

Kathleen — remember that we have spent more than half our lives together — agreed.


What I have learned from people is about them. This may have been what slowed me down in school: I learned more about teachers themselves than about what they were teaching. I’m not talking about secrets here. I learned what made people smile, what their smiles were like, what made them cross or impatient; I learned whether they were generous or mean (although almost everybody is both). I learned most about people when they were not paying attention to me — although this was another thing that it took me too long to realize. I would have learned more if I hadn’t been so fond of talking. I still like to talk, and Kathleen, bless her, insists that she likes to listen. But, more than ever, I like to watch people.

At lunch in a quiet restaurant, I am annoyed when my reading is interrupted by a telephone conversation that I cannot help overhearing half of. Sometimes, in cases of great witlessness, both halves — is there anything as passively obnoxious as activating the speakerphone option in a public place? These intrusions are never quite entertaining enough to justify the nuisance, probably because people who conduct private business in the company of strangers lack rudimentary discernment. Actual conversations between people sharing a table can be just as bothersome. The other day, I could not shut out the Elmer-Fuddish monotone of a sensible, plain-speaking Midwesterner as he lectured a younger person, who might have been his daughter but who was probably, given her animation, a more distant relative, on the virtues of an IRA account. Everything that I heard come out of the man’s mouth was worthy of the very earliest pages in some Life for Dummies handbook. No sooner had the two of them left than a woman about my age took a seat. She was not very glamorous to look at, but her voice reminded me very much of Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton at the beginning of Something’s Gotta Give, when she can’t wait to get rid of Jack Nicholson, her very laugh a sigh of dismissal. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the waitperson, with whom this customer was going to be both chummy and demanding. Not long after she had ordered, her phone rang — the “old phone” ringtone. All I could make out was that she was looking for a better package than what they were offering. If you’re going to complain like Diane Keaton, perhaps you had better look as good as she does, too.


Wednesday 25th

The last page of Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, a meditation on responsibility, built on interviews with Franz Stangl, the Kommandant of the Treblinka death camp, is entitled “Epilogue.” But it is actually a closing prayer. Here are the first and the last two paragraphs:

I do not believe that all men are equal, for what we are above all other things, is individual and different. But individuality and difference are not only due to the talents we happen to be born with. They depend as much on the extent to which we are allowed to expand in freedom.

Social morality is contingent upon the individual’s capacity to make responsible decisions, to make the fundamental choice between right and wrong; this capacity derives from this mysterious core – very essence of the human person.

This essence, however, cannot come into being or exist in vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense: not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole. The fact of its existence therefore – the very fact of our existence as valid individuals – is evidence of our interdependence and overall responsibility for each other.

There are no names on this page, no specifics — as befits a common prayer. Nevertheless, I take it to mean, in particular, that, had he grown up in a better world, without an abusive parent and then the social collapse into fascism, Franz Stangl would have remained a working man, as he was before and after his Nazi career as the attendant to exterminators. I don’t take it to mean that Stangl, in particular, wasn’t fully responsible for what he did, but only that we are none of us fully responsible for ourselves, and that we are all somewhat responsible for one another. Human society depends on this interdependence, but as we have seen again and again it is prone to break down when the reach of that society stretches too far, too quickly, beyond conceptions of family, community, and nation. At this very moment, thousands of American men — I hope they are only thousands — are nourishing the worst in one another, forming an adamantine opposition to the intrusion of “human society” into American life.

As it happens, I am also reading some of the essays in Lionel Trilling’s collection, The Liberal Imagination. Sadly, none of the essays bears this title, or describes what it refers to, but the opening essay, “Reality in America,” makes it clear to me that the book’s title ought to have substituted “American” for “liberal.” Writing during the Forties, Trilling could assume that ours was a liberal society, at least for the moment. He could write, in the Preface, that “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Not that he was complacent: he could project from recent European experience the lesson that “it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.” Even without the menace of a conservative movement (one that, at that very moment, ironically, was furiously developing ideas, mainly in the brain of William Buckley), there was for Trilling the crack in the liberal, or American, outlook:

Its characteristic paradox appears again, and in another form, for in the very interests of its great primal act of imagination by which it establishes its essence and existence — in the interests, that is, of its vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life —it drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.

Trilling gives this thought an almost poetic expression in “Reality in America.”

We live, understandably enough, with the sense of urgency: our clock, like Baudelaire’s, has had the hands removed and bears the legend, “It is later than you think.” But with us it is always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing. We seem to like to condemn our finest but not our worst qualities by pitting them against the exigency of time. (18)

So much has changed since Trilling wrote — which is practically the same thing as to say, during my lifetime — but not that. If anything, the tendencies outlined in that passage have, if you’ll allow me, massified, grown like the biceps of a committed weightlifter. They have done so primarily by means of broadcast television and its spawn: the biggest mistake that any media critic could make would be to downplay in the slightest degree the fact that our entertainments are mirrors distorted to flatter us. Understanding and thought are not only dull but idiosyncratic: it’s hard to understand what someone else is thinking, no matter how lucidly the thought is presented. But wrath is exciting, and what better way to wind up a sitcom episode than with a bit of moralizing? Bad enough for shows, these tendencies have wrecked the very idea of “news,” occluding complication with violence of every kind, from the automotive to the meteorological, and reducing public figures to the vocabulary of pap.

The liberal vision of enlargement and freedom and rationality — I would put it, the enlargement of civil freedom — is, like all hope, somewhat opportunist, ready to extrapolate success from promising signs, to expect that rackety improvisations will stabilize in time, and, ultimately, to invite disappointment. When we consider what happened in and to the United States during the forty years after Trilling’s preface, by which time only dimwits admitted to being liberal, the Columbia professor’s prescience can seem otherworldly. But I think that Trilling was simply more aware than most Americans wanted to be of the difficulty of the liberal project, and of its dependence for success upon a rigorous, not a freewheeling, imagination. The climate of life in which a human society can flourish on Earth demands much more than heartfelt commitment. That’s where things begin. From there, it is a matter of long, hard thought.


Friday 27th

If I have ever read everything in Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, then I have certainly forgotten it or, more likely, grown a different mind. In the past couple of days, two passages from essays in the the later pages of the collection have shocked me.

[T]here can be no doubt that a society in which homosexuality was dominant or even accepted would be different in nature and quality from one in which it was censured.


A prose which approaches poetry has no doubt its own values, but it cannot serve to repair the loss of a straightforward prose, rapid, masculine, and committed to events, making its effects not by the single word or by the phrase but by words properly and naturally massed.

The first comes from “The Kinsey Report” (p 241) and the second from “Art and Fortune” (p 273) Both are offensive in more ways than one. The functional equation of homosexual dominance and heterosexual acceptance is as bizarre, or gratuitous, as it is grating; the implication that the nature and quality of a society in which homosexuality is censured are superior to those of the hypothetical alternative is, among other things, evasive. This is clearly a topic about which Trilling believes that the less said is the better. He has postponed this distasteful discussion of “sexual aberrancy” almost to the essay’s final paragraphs. The other passage, which is preceded by comments on T S Eliot’s judgement of Nightwood, a novel whose name Trilling does not disclose, even though he must assume it to be common knowledge among his readers — more distaste; if you look up Djuna Barnes today, Google will tell you that Nightwood is “a classic of lesbian fiction” — yokes poetry to femininity and prose to masculinity, with the latter alone capable of “words properly and naturally massed.”

These remarks are offensive — today. Trilling, writing in the Forties, seems unaware of making controversial or exceptionable statements. His opinions are delivered with a conviction that can afford to be understated. And I do not think that he was mistaken. These are not the only instances of Trilling’s expressed belief in the salubrious superiority of maleness. (“Masculinity” is the figleaf essential to decorous writing.) It was widely if not universally shared at the time; alternative beliefs would have raised eyebrows. And yet they betray a certain unease, the “concern” that might attend efforts to extinguish a fire before it gets out of control. Kinsey and Eliot, perhaps without realizing it, are encouraging the forces of anarchy and upset. To be sure, Trilling is far more worried about the deadly substitution of ideology for ideas in American discourse, and with good reason. Very much contributing to the shocking effect of the passages that I have copied out is a tone quite unlike that of most of the text. As I say, it would seem that if Trilling could have figured out a way not to mention homosexuality at all in his critique of the Kinsey report, he would have taken it, and the entire collection is shot through with admiration for Henry James, whose sexuality was, in those days, a secret almost brutally suppressed by Leon Edel’s control over access to Harvard’s Houghton Library.

And yet I cannot help but be upset by these glancing blows. They betray the power of common, deep-rooted prejudices in a very fine mind.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Considering Privacy
April 2018 (III)

17 and 20 April

Tuesday 17th

If we want to blame our moral disasters upon the loss of dogmatic authority, we shall again find ourselves in the midst of notions which have little if any place in the great tradition of Western thought or in the history of ideas. For politically speaking, it was the fear of hell which acted as the most potent curb upon the potential criminality of human beings. And the idea that a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell should have restrained mankind from the worst crimes is no more palatable than the notion that such an intellectually unspeakably low product as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion should have had the power to influence the course of contemporary events. Yet, I am afraid these very unpalatable notions are closer to the reality with which we were confronted than any dialectic of ideas. It would lead us too far astray now, but I think it can be shown that the belief in hell is the only strictly political element in Western religion, and that this element is neither Christian nor religious in origin. If this is true, then it would follow that the politically most momentous consequence of the loss of dogmatic authority was the resulting loss of belief in rewards and punishments in a Hellfire.

To be honest, I copied out this passage* simply for the pleasure of repeating the phrase “a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell.” The Roman church’s exploitation of hellfire is arguably its most discreditable failing. We are left with a somewhat cynical question: did it work? I myself suspect that the totalitarian atrocities of the Twentieth Century would never have occurred without the many new facilities of technological convenience in communication, transportation, and manufacturing. We have no way of knowing (I suspect further) how many agents in the Holocaust and the Soviet purges found it easier to participate because they no longer feared eternal punishment. I often wonder if the hellfire element of medieval life (of which we know very little directly) wasn’t overdone, resulting in a demoralized population incapable of virtue. I wish I knew more about the paradoxes of Calvinist predestination, which  if anything re-moralized Europeans. This brings me to my other thoughtful lady.

It has been usual to treat the great school of writers who emerged from American Puritan culture in the nineteenth century as having put aside the constraints of the old faith and stepped into a larger conceptual world. But in fact the striking kinship among them suggests they found source and stimulus closer to home. Whatever else might be part of a Puritan world-view, the exalted mind is central for them as it for all these writers. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, share a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection. The Puritans spoke of their religion as experimental, that is, experiential. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention because reality is communicative and the mind is made, grace assisting exquisite effort, to experience its meaning. … The absence of shrines and rituals and processions that interpreted the world and guided understanding of it in England and Europe reflected, as absence, a sense of immanence that gave the theological meaning to anything in itself in the moment of perception — a buzzing fly, a blade of grass. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary, given discipline and desire.**

In this passage, what captivates me is the description of thinking as a communication with reality. Although Hannah Arendt belonged to an earlier generation and was trained in a very different cultural environment, I like to think that she would agree with Robinson on this point. A mind such as Robinson or Arendt’s is stuffed with learning, with highly articulated ideas of “authority” and “grace” (to pick an example from each), but the act of thinking is always an undertaking to find points of articulation by which the mind’s stock can connect with the palpable world. Connection is more important than explanation, if only because explanation is impossible without it. Both thinkers exhibit a gentle impatience with the sluggishness of connection — there is never enough of it; one is never satisfied. Arendt and Robinson combine a practical worldliness with tremendous suspicion — not unlike, say, Jonathan Edwards’s fear of religious hypocrisy — of the reduction of reality to the dimensions of a problem that can be solved.


Something to think about:

On the one hand, we have readers who nod deliberately when the Times intones that the President is not above the law. On the other, we have a television audience for whom those are just words, words like any others in the script, or the show, or whatever it is — the word does not exist, does it? that describes the contemporary entertainment experience, something categorically beyond symbiosis, in which the audience is part of the show, and the show is part of the real world, a world more vivid than the world perceived by the audience members when they are not watching, or, to put it better, involved with the show. One the one hand, we have political discourse. On the other, political discourse is suffocated by entertainment, entertainment that consumes all the oxygen (ie meaning) in the public space that is occupied by the audience.

Better than to say that television created this audience, to say that television inspired the audience to create this reality. The audience is wholly, morally, responsible.

*The extract is from “Challenges to Traditional Ethics: A Response to Michael Polanyi,” in Hannah Arendt, Thinking Without a Banister, ed. Jerome Kohn (Schocken, 2018), p 189-90.

** From “Old Souls, New World,” in Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), p 294-5.


Friday 20th

Kindly attribute my silence this week to my discretion on two points: first, that I have been thinking full-time about something that doesn’t appear to have been much thought-about by anyone (then again, I don’t get out much), and my thoughts are not yet fully fit for publication; second, an iron determination not to mention a certain German-American political thinker (1906-1975) more than once a week.

So much for her.

What I have been thinking about is privacy, and I have been thinking about it because the idea of privacy seems to me to be what’s missing from current social discourse, particularly in the context of lamentations about social media. The word “privacy” is mentioned all the time, but there is no real idea behind the word, just a bundle of legal concepts. This makes a certain sense, because our notions of privacy have their origin in jurisprudence, specifically in the arguments of Louis Brandeis and others, made around the beginning of the last century, that we all have the right to be left alone. Far from being a universal right, moreover, privacy is not only a relative novelty, apparently confined, until very recently, to the Anglophone world.

Isn’t that odd. Privacy is important to everyone — to mature adults, anyway. How can it not always have been?

In the old days, before the word “privacy” had much currency, the right to be left alone was limited to a few special cases, usually involving the word “privy.” Alone, it represented what we now call the privacy of the bathroom, although actual bathing was not covered by it, for the simple reason that bathers had to be provided with hot water by helpers capable of filling and lifting pails. At the other end of the scale — what scale, exactly, I hesitate to say — the king and his advisers met in privy council. I have a couple of scholarly to-dos to check off. When did the word “privates” come to be used as a partial euphemism for genitals, and how do we explain the positive right to privacy deriving etymologically from words denotating deprivation? But these don’t seem terribly important at the moment.

In the old days, ideas of modesty and discretion imposed the effects of privacy on everyone. And there was also an idea of the family that encompassed a large part of the idea of privacy that I’m trying to work out. It would be wrong to say that there was no need for privacy, but there was no thought of it as something that was missing from the rule book. Finally, aside from smoke signals and bonfires, there was no such thing as communicating at a distance.

The last thing I want to do is to lapse into treatise-writing mode, beginning with definitions and distinctions. That’s precisely what I’ve been doing all week. But if I have the sense to keep my doodles to myself, I still think that there is at least one worth sharing, and it’s something that I call social privacy. It is the privacy of two or more people living more or less together more or less intimately. That’s to say that they may or may not live in the same place all the time, and that they may or may not be what we’ll call lovers. They may be parents and children. They may be cousins or friends. They may be like the group of five or six former camp counselors who get together every summer in cabins on a pond in Maine (my wife being one), a gathering not to be confused with your garden-variety reunion.

The second thing that I want to say about social privacy is that it is nourishing, beneficial. Toxic relationships preclude it. Unhappy families do not enjoy it. Nor does it just happen by itself. It requires certain kinds of behavior, and working out what that behavior might be is my real concern here.

The third and last thing that I want to offer is a distinction between secrecy and privacy that might be useful. A secret is simply information that is purposefully withheld from universal knowledge. It is defined by the people who don’t know it. (Those who know that it exists together with those who don’t.) Privacy is positive, a possession really. Privacy operates on the assumption that those who don’t share it don’t exist. The right to know a secret might be disputed — it’s disputed every time friends argue about whether to tell someone about a cheating spouse. What takes place in private, however, is nobody’s business — which is why these arguments occur. Whether the social privacy of an adulterous relationship destroys the social privacy of a marriage is, I conclude from the variety of human experience, not a question to be answered by deduction from principles. I will leave this very thorny question here.

What makes these thoughts urgent is, of course, the mobile phone in all its varieties. The mobile phone has created a contested, confused space, one in which many people pursue their private lives in the company of strangers. Strangers are on record as finding this annoying, but the greater harm, it seems to me, is the nuisance to the users. Is it not foolish to detach private conversations from the affect of physically sharing a familiar interior?

That’s enough for now. Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Ladies
April 2018 (II)

Wednesday 11th

The other day, a copy of Thinking Without a Banister arrived. This collection of essays, speeches, letters, and journalism by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn, takes its title from Arendt’s description of thinking in modern times.

I have a metaphor … which I have never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a banister — in German, Denken ohne Geländer. That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so that you don’t fall down, but we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.

I’ve read only the first essay in the book, but I expect that the second, “The Great Tradition,” will describe that banister and what happened to it. I’ll let you know. For the moment, I want to say something about reading the first essay, a two-part block of seriousness in which it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Arendt is speaking for herself or crystallizing the thought of her subject, Karl Marx. Sometimes my sense of perspective, of point of view, becomes unsteady, and I can’t really follow the train of thought. Sometimes I suspect that my problem comes down to not having had a German education.

It’s more likely that my problem comes down to not having read Marx and other modern political thinkers until rather late in life. I may be accused of having cultivated patches of ignorance, a slightly paradoxical endeavor in which I simply refused to learn more about something that puts me off. In the case of modern political thought (and action), what puts me off is collectivization, bundling individual people up into indissoluble lumps and dealing with them en masse. My humanism, I now realize, has always been liberal humanism. Not Roman Catholic or Christian humanism; not atheist humanism; not even the anthropocentric humanism that underlies the whizbang triumphs of material progress. Liberal humanism can be simply described but never simply lived. As a liberal humanist, I treat each and every person with whom I come into contact as an unaffiliated individual, a person with unique resources. I like some people more than others, of course, but I don’t like or dislike anybody on account of a tribal or ethnic allegiance. Even “Trump voters”! I cannot think in terms of “classes.”

Now that I am robustly resistant to ideology of any kind — I maintain that liberal humanism is not an ideology like any other but rather a set of rules for, among other things, withstanding ideologies — it is safe for me to read about the formation of modern political ideas, forms of government, and social organizations. And I think that I have done wisely in appointing Hannah Arendt as my tutor. She can be as ponderous and obscure as any mystical German, but she can also be homely, homely in a very sophisticated manner. (This comes out strongly in her correspondence with Mary McCarthy.) Denken ohne Geländer is a fine example of her everyday style.

The lesson that I have most strenuously postponed is Arendt’s insistence that Karl Marx is the central figure. That so much of what he wrote was wrong is not the point. The point is that he alone is our link to the Western intellectual tradition that came crashing to the ground in the multiple revolutions that clustered around the year 1800. Marx was one of the last thinkers to be formed by the old tradition, and one of the first to understand that it had been wrecked beyond repair. Being Marx, he celebrated the wreckage, and went all in for the new dispensation, the previously unthinkable enfranchisement of what Arendt calls “the laboring classes.” I was brought up to find laborers uncouth, and Marx an incendiary lunatic. Now I understand that laborers often have the wisdom as well as reason to hope that their children will not be laborers, and I agree with Arendt about the centrality of Marx, despite as much as because of his confused legacy of inhumane totalitarianism.

But what am I to make of this:

The social revolution of our time is contained in the simple fact that until not much more than one hundred years ago [Arendt was writing in the Fifties], mere laborers had been denied political rights, whereas today we accept as a matter of course the opinion that a nonlaborer may not even have the right to stay alive. (37)

We do? Where? Outside the nightmare of totalitarian régimes, where have “parasites” been put to death, or denied medical attention? This is the sort of perplexity that sometimes makes it difficult to digest Arendt.


Karl Marx gave us the concept of “capitalism,” and it has taken me several years to understand just how profoundly the term is, or ought to be, defined by the historical developments that inspired him. Unfortunately — most unfortunately — it has become synonymous with “business” and “private ownership.”

Last summer, I read a book that I wrote about in August, before I’d quite finished reading it, William Janeway’s Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge, 2012). What I took away from Janeway’s memoir of successful investing was an understanding of capitalism as a vital preliminary phase that, if prolonged, could easily become toxic. Mature businesses don’t need to issue equity shares; if they require cash, they can issue debt, and do so all the time. (It is a commonplace to observe that the public trading in Silicon Valley’s Big Five stocks was simply a reward to early investors, a liquidation, if anything, of capital commitment.) Capitalism is a necessary instance of gambling; when and if the gamble pays off, capitalism’s contribution to the enterprise comes to an end. At this point, shareholders ought to be replaced by stakeholders. The work of legally determining what we mean by “stakeholders” remains to be done — probably in step with environmental restoration. But it seems to me that there is plenty of room for options between state ownership and public (ie rentier) ownership.

Another book that highlights the transitory nature of capitalist enterprise is Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, by Joshua Freeman (Norton, 2018). Freeman’s subject isn’t so much the factory as the really big factory, the vogue for which has come and gone within the space of two centuries. What explains the trajectory is the workforce. In case after case, the workers at impressively huge new factories consolidated the power of their numbers, and by the postwar era it was a rule of thumb for industrial giants like General Motors and General Electric to avoid enlarging existing plants and to develop new works in smaller, geographically diffuse locations. Polish and other Communist authorities learned the same lesson the hard way.

I have known, ever since I began reading about medieval trading operations years ago, that capitalists hate one thing more than all others combined: the payroll. The ideal capitalist payroll does not exist, because it is unnecessary: there are no employees. If Freeman’s behemoths had been erected in order to nourish the prosperity of their workers, many of them might still be operating, and those that weren’t might have been neatly dismantled or repurposed. Imagine: a corporation in the business  of employing people and paying them well! Rocket science?


Thursday 12th

A great deal of the current issue of the London Review of Books (40/7) is given over to James Meek’s report on breakdowns in health care, particularly the care of frail, elderly people, in Leicestershire, an English county beset by a familiar strain between uncongenial urban and rural populations. Well on the way to being frail and elderly myself, I read it with harrowed interest. But nothing in Meek’s piece was as shocking to me as an innocuous sentence in another article, Rosemary Hill’s essay on “frock consciousness” — the phrase is Virginia Woolf’s, and she found it difficult to define — entitled “What does she think she looks like?

Clothes, for those who could afford to choose them freely, had always been to some extent an expression of the wearer – of their status, character and taste – but it was in the popular Modernism of the interwar years, when so many men had died and women consequently found themselves with more room to manoeuvre in society, that the particular compound of woman + clothes, Woolf’s ‘frock consciousness’, became a significant aspect of female experience, a colour on the writer’s palette, a possible agent in a narrative.

Forget parsing “woman + clothes.” The electrifying phrase is this: when so many men had died and women consequently found themselves with more room to manoeuvre in society. Haven’t we all — but perhaps it’s just we men — haven’t we long looked back on the Twenties and the Thirties as the time of a Lost — dead — Generation? Hasn’t it been customary to feel sorry for all the women who couldn’t find mates? An intellectual cliché, certainly; but we couldn’t get through the day without thousands just like it. Hill’s sentence takes a scalpel to the received view and scrapes a bloody gash. Many men dead -> more room to maneuver for women.

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” No, indeed I hadn’t. And I’m not sure that the point would register so sharply if we weren’t in the #MeToo moment, when every intelligent man feels estopped from generalizing about women. I felt no such constraint forty years ago, when men were pigs, period. Those were crude times. What did women want? They seemed to know only what they didn’t want. We learn to want things from what we see, and many women saw nothing desirable except career opportunities formerly available only to men. So this was changed, but that was about it. Men certainly didn’t change. Most women decided that they couldn’t do without pigs after all; they settled down.

Now a new generation has stood up to complain about men. The complaint is vastly more focused, and yet there is a blur at the center. What does the narrator of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” want? We know what she doesn’t want. But is there a way to describe her beau idéal that would serve as a template for young men to emulate? Something that isn’t simply negative (“don’t get any ideas from porn”)?

(Interestingly, most men accused of sexual improprieties have not put up a fight, but quickly folded. So that has changed.)

It seems to me that Rosemary Hill has hit upon something positive. Room to maneuver. It is a bit vague, but it is not at all negative, except to the extent that all freedom implies the elimination of limits.

Hill devotes several paragraphs to the wardrobe of Emily Tinne. Mrs Tinne was a doctor’s wife in Liverpool; the Tinnes belonged to “the solid Liverpudlian bourgeoisie.” When Emily Tinne died, in 1966, she left behind a rather grand collection of evening dresses, some with matching “coatees.” What she did not leave behind were matching shoes or handbags. Many of the outfits still carried price tags. Hill concludes that they were never worn, if they were ever worn at all, outside of Mrs Tinne’s chamber. Perhaps she merely went through them lovingly, with her hands, like Mrs Danvers with Rebecca’s underthings. It is too late for us to scold Mrs Tinne for wasting her husband’s money on a private wardrobe; she enjoyed it while she had it. Indeed, one lesson to be drawn from the exhibition of her gowns at the National Museums, Liverpool would be that pleasure, like taste, is non disputandum.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2018

2, 4 and 6 April

Tuesday 3rd

In Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, a woman agrees to adopt the Great Dane that belonged to an old friend, a man who has committed suicide, even though the lease to her apartment expressly forbids dogs. Whether or not she will be evicted by her landlord provides dramatic excitement. The woman’s friends are excited, anyway. They “stage an intervention” at one point, insisting that she cannot risk losing her apartment because of a delusional attachment.

None of that is what The Friend is really about, though. The eviction is issue is dealt with so calmly and assuredly that it becomes something of a tease; surely the reader can’t really have worried. The woman herself never seems perturbed. Several times, she blithely says that she’s hoping for a miracle, but no miracle is required, thanks to advances, sort of, in medicine. I’ll leave it there.

We could say that the woman narrates The Friend, but it would be better to say that The Friend is a letter that she writes to her dead friend. This might sound creepy, but so strong is the second person pronoun that it brings the departed squarely into view, if not quite back to life. (Indeed, the letter’s power draws from our awareness that it will never be answered: the letter is a final judgment.) We could say that writing the letter is the woman’s way of grieving the loss of her friend, but this would be arch. In fact, the woman grieves in the ordinary ways: she weeps and she remembers. Time passes. The need for a miracle disappears at just about the same time as the grief. The Great Dane has become her new friend: in the final chapter, the second person pronoun addresses the dog, not the suicide.

Everybody mentioned in the letter, with the exception of the apartment superintendent, the Great Dane — Apollo, the only creature bearing a name — and the dead man’s third wife, is a writer. Almost everybody is not only a writer but a teacher or a student of writing. The man was once the woman’s writing teacher. Then she became, more or less, his colleague. He wrote notable books, but he continued to teach, for the money: no Philip Roth he. The woman, who lives in Manhattan, can spot other writers anywhere. She can detect the complicity with which writers support the transfiguration of actual men and women, hitherto leading their private lives, into the characters who appear in published books. She quotes a famous writer who said that, when a writer is born into a family, that family is “finished.”

In the penultimate chapter, the woman sketches an alternative ending. The pronouns here are third-person. The woman visits the man, who did not die, who was saved at the last minute. He has come out of the hospital, and she is returning his dachshund, which she cared for in his absence. The two writers talk shop. The man is distressed to hear the woman announce that she has set aside what he considered a promising piece of work, a report on women living in a Victim of Trafficking refuge. These women have had horrific experiences, often having been sold into sex slavery by family members, and, in the third chapter of the letter, we are taken to the shelter and told some of those awful stories. The woman concludes:

Here is what I learned: Simon Weil was right. Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.

This was the lasst thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the new year. (76)

Weil’s observation is expressly negated by the man in the eleventh chapter — the alternative ending in which he is allowed to live.

“I find myself inclined to agree with people like Doris Lessing, who thought imagination does the better job of getting to the truth. And I don’t by this idea that fiction is no longer up to portraying reality.”

Here he breaks off into a tirade against his “self-righteous” students, for whom it doesn’t matter

“how great a writer Nabokov was, a man like that — a snob and a pervert, as they saw him, shouldn’t be on anybody’s reading list. … It upsets me how writing has become so politicized, but my students are more than okay with this. … That’s why I’ve decided not to go back to teaching. Not to be too self-pitying, but when one is so at odds with the culture and its themes of the moment, what’s the point.”

And not to be too cruel, she doesn’t say, but you will not be missed. (194)

That last line went through me like an arrow, and in fact it made me read the book all over again. As I say, this alternative ending allows the man to live, but it also denies him the right to be relevant, to engage with the future of writing. “You will not be missed” is a way of telling us that the friend is better off dead, as indeed may explain his suicide. It also tells us, of course, that the grieving is over, at least the grieving that is inspired by the death of an artist.

Reading The Friend a second time, I not only saw how beautifully woven it is, and how effortlessly it handles — without attempting to solve — the problem of priapic writers and their adoring female students. I saw that it is a conundrum, a sort of Möbius Strip. The dust jacket announces that The Friend is a novel. But it reads like a letter — at some points like one of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, or like an entry from the displaced diary, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The writer’s reflections on writing are never discursive or impersonal, but they are grave; intellectual positions are every bit as vital here as emotional states: not the stuff of regular literary fiction, much less fiction generally. The eleventh chapter is an argument, right out of a philosophical dialogue. The rigors of defined terms may be avoided, so that it really does read as two people talking, but you still have to know who Svetlana Alexievitch is and why she won the Nobel Prize. So, is the book a memoir? Did this really happen? Is Nunez exploiting a suicide? And yet, no one has a name, not the writer, not the dead friend, not Wife One, Wife Two, or Wife Three. Is that discretion or a process of enfabling?

I think that I had to go through The Friend a second time because, for such a serious book, it is awfully easy to read. And, thanks to Apollo, not without moments of great fun.


Wednesday 4th

In my enthusiasm for Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, yesterday, I elided direct reference to the rumbling argument that surfaces here and there in throughout the novel and before being taken up directly by the interlocutors in the eleventh chapter. It is not so much an old argument as the revival of one. Whether you call it a moral argument or an aesthetic argument probably indicates which side you’ve taken. It is proof, I think, that our literature culture (at least) has embarked on a confrontation with the “collapse of values” that characterized, or was said to characterize, the postwar years.

In the passage that I quoted yesterday, we see the man grasping the essence of the argument when he mentions Vladimir Nabokov, author, notoriously, of Lolita. Is Lolita a worthy novel or a dirty book?

It would be disingenuous to disclaim that Nabokov invites this question. Lolita is narrated not by a third person representing the values of the community, as shocked as anyone by the report, but by a pedophile. A European pedophile — a monstrous growth from foreign parts. Lolita luxuriates in its criminality, never more than in the narrator’s account of his aimless tour, both tortured and tedious, of America’s roadside motels. It would be one thing if Humbert Humbert carried Lolita off to a handsome chateau by a Swiss lake. Lolita is another thing altogether, altogether sordid. It is regarded as a triumph because the sordid details are expressed in such luminous prose.

Years and years ago, a friend and I were goofing around in a racy gift shop near Wall Street. She pointed to a nude male pinup calendar and asked, in a stage whisper, “But is it art?” “No,” I replied, “it’s Hank.”

The idea that art can redeem patent immorality is, like our taste for polyphony, unique to the post-medieval West. It is a notion whose prevalence in Europe and America encourages mullahs to denounce the depravity of our civilization. For quite some time, sophisticated Westerners have regarded such critics as primitive and benighted. But now, this kind of criticism is coming from Western students. They are no more impressed by the luminous language than are the mullahs. They are not saying that Lolita is not art. They don’t seem to get that far. They just don’t think, as the man in The Friend says, that Lolita belongs on a reading list.

This argument is bound up with another quarrel. Can truth be revealed by fiction? Generations of critics and literature professors have insisted that it can — that, indeed, it gets closer to the truth than any mere reportage of facts. But students — including former students, like the woman who writes the letter that is The Friend — are in open disagreement. The imagination may produce an account that is meaningful and compelling, and perhaps even morally useful. But it is not really true. It leaves things out, it alters slight details, it struggles to present a coherence that does not in fact exist.

If anything can account for this new moralism, this brisk change in the artistic climate, I think it is the failure of the sexual revolution to overpower and eliminate predatory men. Put this another way: the sexual revolution unleashed predatory men in the company of “nice” girls. Girls from good families, girls who had been to good schools, girls with professional futures. Before the sexual revolution, social norms had protected such woman from untoward advances (much less threats). It may have been conveniently forgotten by polite society, that predatory men exist. Some of these predatory men, moreover, like the suicide in The Friend, were and are nice guys. They ask politely and they don’t make gross requests. They are never coercive. But they manage to indulge their appetites. According to the man who later killed himself, “the classroom is the most erotic place in the world.” (28)

Guys who weren’t so nice (or nice-looking) took note.


Thursday 5th

Bob Odenkirk’s “Headlines You May Have Missed” is very amusing, but unlike most such pieces that appear in The New Yorker, I expect it to enjoy a long life in print. Its satirical view of the way we live now will be as easy to laugh at in twenty or a hundred years as it is now. Well, maybe not. But it captures our ludicrous obsession with screens, our insane conviction that the screen is the locus of reality.

It’s more than a little interesting to set Odenkirk’s mordant exaggerations next to something else that I read yesterday, this in the Times, an op-ed piece by Tim Wu arguing for the replacement, not the reform, of Facebook.

What the journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1959 of “free” TV is also true of “free” social media: It is ultimately “the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandizing.”

Wu has written a book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads. I haven’t read it, although I feel that I ought to, out of some sort of solidarity. It has long been obvious to me that promotion is the whole point of “free TV” and “free apps.” Promotions must necessarily get our attention, and do so in a very short stretch of time. Initially, broadcast television offered a series of “programs” — dramas, evening news, sports — with occasional promotions, or advertisements. Over time, every moment of broadcast television was surrendered to the promotion of something — the network itself, its stars, the excellence of its presentations, the careers of athletes; and then along came Fox News, with its relentless promotion of right-wing grievances. What Fox News effectually promotes is viewers’ anger and dissatisfaction. Where old-time ads urged members of the television audience to improve their appearance, Fox News marinates viewers in their own funk and applauds the stink. Fox News is really all about you, the viewer: that’s what it’s promoting. What an unbeatable product! What an orgy of egoism! No wonder the “you” whom Bob Odenkirk addresses in his funny piece has missed the birth of a grandchild and isn’t aware of any car trouble.

(That’s my favorite part of the piece: “The smell has to do with your brake pads. Doesn’t matter—just keep driving and ranting at the dashboard, and soon this problem, and all your problems, will end.” — and all your problems.)

The difference between persuasion and promotion is the disingenuousness of the latter, a deceptiveness that works only in the short term. Persuasion lines up the pros and the cons of an argument as objectively and comprehensively as possible. Promotion makes no such attempt. The pros are suited up like Marvel heroes, the cons look like the monstrosities in fun-house mirrors. Often the cons are simply left out, exploiting the genteel proposition that, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Promotions are rarely lengthy, even when they can afford to be, because, inevitably, infotainment begins to smell of shill, an indifference to right and wrong that is foreign to persuasion.

Has someone come up with a term that describes the behavior of people, whether at a crime scene or in the presence of a celebrity, who turn to their phones for the televised version of what’s right in front of them? The same behavior can be seen during a game at Madison Square Garden. Cameramen are the arbiters of our reality: they know what will interest us before it happens. The cession of personal judgment to professional interpreters is alarming, but I hear no alarms. More to the point, I don’t hear any discussions. No: I see couples sitting at tables for two in restaurants, each bemused by a device.

Doesn’t matter.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (IV)

27, 28, 29 and 30 March

Tuesday 27th

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Alison Gopnik appraises Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, and finds it wanting — as indeed all reviews that I’ve seen have done, but far less clearly than Gopnik. Gopnik is disturbed by Pinker’s complete failure to address what the editors call “small-town values,” perhaps in a bid to appeal to readers in the flyover. For Gopnik, the problem is that Pinker has no sense of those local commitments that are characterized by peculiar, rather than rational and universal, objectives and relationships. The peculiar has always been a problem for Enlightenment thought; the philosophes appear to have believed that higher levels of education would simply float everyone above it — everyone with a brain, anyway. But people with brains have family ties to people with other strengths. They are attached to circumstances that are not optimal. Maybe Harvard is the best place to study X, but studying X at Harvard means living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least for several years. In our matrix of higher education, a stint at Harvard might require, for optimization, a few years studying X at Stanford, on the other side of the country. As Gopnik says, a scientist may well be unable to settle down to family life before the age of forty. Especially, of course, a scientist who is also a woman.

Gopnik’s piece is not very long; she doesn’t have the time to lay out the extent to which education has been infected by globalist values, or what that means when education involves moving people in the way that investors move money. People, unlike money, are not fungible; everyone is unique, and brilliant people are notably unique. Bringing a few gifted and unusually congenial minds together in the same place may be all it takes to set the Renaissance going, or, for that matter, the Enlightenment. This sort of cultural globalism was apparent in the Mediterranean world of classical antiquity, beginning with the Greeks who went to study mysticism with the Egyptians. Even in what we think of as a Dark Age, in 972, Gerbert of Aurillac, a scholar and statesman who would die as Pope Sylvester II about thirty years later, moved to Rheims, because that was where the best students of logic congregated. Their being in Rheims meant, of course, their not being anywhere else. Ever since, Europe, then the Western World, and now the planet itself have been marked by cultural capitals, outside of which everything was dismissable as provincial.

This is a problem that the Enlightenment didn’t solve, just as it didn’t solve so many others. (There were so many that it never took up.) By and large, the Enlightenment concerned itself with useful, material improvements, and Pinker is right to celebrate them. But he is obtuse to expect readers to ignore the costs. The measurable improvements that he charts throughout Enlightenment Now intensify our sense of what’s missing, the much more difficult to measure but still biting decline in the strength and reliability of personal attachments. Low crime rates and improved nutrition might well seem empty boons to people living alone in featureless environments.

There has been a strong intellectual tradition, ever since the Enlightenment, of regarding the family as a dead weight on the man who would be autonomous and self-realizing. A powerful fuel of this tradition has from the beginning been a contempt for the countervailing bourgeois tradition of regarding the family as a business enterprise requiring cooperation and commitment to collective goals. Initially a struggle of sons against fathers, it has become a resistance of individuals to family responsibilities. Our institutions, so many of them shaped by the Enlightenment and its failure to treat women equally, provide few avenues of resolution. That, Gopnik says, has to change.

One challenge for enlightenment now is to build social institutions that can bridge and balance these values. Family policy is a good example. People on both sides of the political and cultural divides in the U.S. are in rare agreement that programs like family leave and preschool deserve more support, even if the political will for such measures never seems to emerge.

The question is whether the Enlightenment can transcend its preoccupation with specialization, which rests on the observation that it is much easier to do something well if there are no distractions. Family life is a tissue of distractions. So long as Enlightenment institutions prefer people who are willing to abandon the family context, or to rely on others (women) to minister to family life, the Enlightenment project will continue to have fierce enemies.


Wednesday 28th

It is often quite difficult to think of writing anything here while Donald Trump occupies the White House. I am of two minds about the man, or rather, of one mind and one body. To my mind, Trump is a vaccine, untested and possibly lethal, that nevertheless might at the very least render smart people allergic to spending nonworking hours in front of screens. For over a year now, men and women who believe in the benefits of procedure, compromise, and complexity have been reeling in toxic shock; to my mind, this is a great opportunity to develop greater political respect for those who don’t, if only because the alternative might involved tumbrils and Madame Defarge.

So much for my mind. My body is, like everyone else’s, reeling in toxic shock. My mind counsels that things may very well get better. My body wants to throw up. My body is broken by the fact that the Short-Fingered Vulgarian has, not entirely unpredictably, exploited American media to make the derailment of American politics even worse than it already was. My mind argues that trains can usually be put back on the track. My body is not certain that it hasn’t been mauled by the derailment. Hush, hush, says my mind — why, you’ve hardly been out of the house. Exactly, says my body.

My body sees the man, hears the voice — nausea. And the knockdown stench of symbiosis — can his Republican and evangelical enablers ever be forgiven? Or will they kill us first?


Corey Robin’s “Easy Chair” essay, in the current issue of Harper’s, is one of the rare responses to Trump to indicate that the vaccine might be working; Robin, at least, has gotten beyond the allergic-to-Trump phase. Reading his essay, “Forget About It,” a second time, I wonder, actually, if Robin might have been previously inoculated. “Almost everything people found outrageous and objectionable about [Trump’s] candidacy — the racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law — I’d been seeing in the right for years. Little in Trump surprised me, except for the fact that he won.”

What Robin is saying here is that the Trump vaccine ought not to have been necessary, after Nixon and Reagan — and, although he doesn’t mention him, Dick Cheney. You can argue that Nixon and Reagan are different because they held elected office prior to the presidency, but all that means is that it didn’t, and doesn’t, make a difference. You can’t argue that Nixon and Reagan were better than Trump because one of them had been a vice president and the other a governor. If Trump is in any way worse than Nixon and Reagan, that might simply owe to the destruction that they wrought on our institutions and traditions. Trump’s damage is more spectacular but also less fundamental, more superstructural.

Robin notes that friends find his plus ça change observations about Trump irritating. Sadly, they do so because they are still allergic to Trump. If we could get of Trump, they feel, everything would be fine. But that is dangerously wrong, for getting rid of Trump might simply make room for someone more capable of deploying malignancy than a repeatedly unsuccessful casino developer. It is essential that we explain Trump’s ascendancy in terms of everyday political life, not monstrous electoral aberration. “The racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambivalent violence, the hostility to the rule of law” — these characteristics are hardly limited to the conservative leadership. Nor are they necessarily signs of blinkered intelligence. The rule of law, for example, has degenerated into the rule of technicalities. Law no longer pretends to speak with deliberate intelligibility, because our complicated environment has convinced us that law, as if it were a branch of engineering, need only be understood by lawyers. I have long argued (to anyone who would listen) that one truly amazing thing about American history is how little time it took for the United States to develop the very same paralyzing surfeit of competing jurisdictions that made getting things done in medieval Europe so expensive. Regard for institutions is inevitably diminished by such bureaucratic kudzu. As for violence and racism, both express widespread existential uncertainties about masculinity in an industrial world that no longer requires manly muscle; I see zero effort to respond to this other than by scolding.

Meanwhile, everyone is staring at screens — when it’s time to man the lifeboats. That is: do something.


Thursday 29th

In today’s Times, there’s a story about Douglas Greenberg, ace financial planner and serial wife- and girlfriend-beater. As of publication date, Greenberg was still employed by Morgan Stanley, although the firm has been aware for some time of his domestic issues.

It’s a clarifying story, because Greenberg’s misbehavior does not involve work associates (or clients, needless to say). Greenberg was not a Human Resources problem for the banking firm. What he did at home was his business, or rather, it was not his business; it was his something else. Call it recreation if you like. Professionally, Greenberg was an untainted star.

This is a classic case of the meritocracy at work. So long as Greenberg’s “personal life” evaded criminal conviction, and his derelictions were in no way financial, Morgan Stanley could ignore them. Until #MeToo, anyway.

The other day (14 March), I wrote that the meritocracy is under attack on two fronts, by parties that are themselves mutually opposed. They are, interestingly, attacking the meritocracy for complementary reasons. The deplorables-and-proud-of-it, also known as Trump supporters, charge the meritocracy with incompetence — ruling without merit. Meanwhile, women and others who have been slighted by heteronormative privilege are calling out the meritocracy for ruling without humanity.

At a minimum, the meritocracy is going to have to do a better job, even though this will not redeem it with women, and to treat women properly, even if this would excite Trump supporters’ contempt.


Friday 30th

Kathleen and I often ask ourselves, whatever happened to leadership? The answer came to me yesterday: meritocracy. And how obvious. What could be less conducive to leadership than pursuing the skills required to do well on examinations — in other words, learning how to follow.

In their zeal to eliminate favoritism, nepotism, and other routes whereby the unqualified might attain political or professional power, the architects of meritocracy did what they could to prevent the replication of networks of eminent, mutually influential men in future generations. Professionalizing (quantifying) eminence was one step. Making prominence contingent on competition and mobility was another. By continuing the steeplechase of tests in the guise of publications and prizes, meritocracy made it difficult to settle down in any one place or position. Two professors, say, at Stanford and at Princeton, who might have been friends in the pre-meritocratic dispensation, sharing information about promising students on either side of the country, were now rivals for a top job at Harvard.

When my grandfather went to law school, I’m told, he wrote to say that he’d be coming. This was not in reply to an acceptance letter. The distance between his hometown, Clinton, and Davenport, both on the Iowa banks of the Mississippi River, was not great, and doubtless the authorities at St Ambrose had heard a thing or two about the young man, and were happy to welcome him. They may have had an inkling of his future, even if they could not foresee that he would become active in the Democratic Party, and instrumental in holding the Iowa delegation together in support of FDR at the 1932 national convention —for which he would be rewarded with appointment to the bench of what was then called the Customs Court.

I am fairly certain that my grandfather would have done just as well in our meritocracy. But I think the United States lost something in the surrender to academic gatekeeping. We might recall, by the way, that Roosevelt distinguished himself at Harvard neither as a student nor as an athlete, but as editor of the Crimson.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
March 2018 (III)

21 and 22 March

Wednesday 21st

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been keeping my original Web log, The Daily Blague, and writing about the things that I do around the house or in the neighborhood, all the stuff that what I’ll call the thoughtfulness of this site has driven out. I still don’t really know what I’m doing at The Daily Blague, but as I grope my way along, one question persists: Is this important? Not, is it interesting. I try never to publish anything that’s not interesting, at least to me. That’s always the important question about writing. But the nagging thing about this subject matter — housekeeping, as I generally call it, or home-making, which I find awkward but more accurate — is that it has never been considered to be much worth talking about.

There’s a good reason for this. Until very recently — in terms of human social history, the Twentieth Century is very recent — there was nothing to discuss. Housekeeping was necessary, which made it important in itself, but in much the same way that most things that happen in a bathroom are important, but not generally talked about unless something goes wrong. Housekeeping in the old days was a matter of keeping things as clean as possible and meals as nourishing as possible. Every household adhered as closely to widely acknowledged standards as the householder’s resources allowed. Women worked inside the house, tidying rooms, caring for clothes, and cooking dinners, while men worked out of doors, in stables and gardens. Wealthy people could hire servants to do all the housework for them; in most middle-class households, some family members worked alongside a servant or two. But aside from minor idiosyncrasies, everyone living in a given town or countryside observed the same standards of housekeeping,  and every household was a cooperative endeavor.

The Twentieth Century is noted for the introduction of labor-saving domestic appliances. What has received far less attention is the introduction of domestic options. For one thing, it became economically feasible for people to live entirely alone. This was as utterly novel as mobile phones would be, seventy-odd years later. Keeping a small apartment in reasonable order need not require a lot of labor, and the whole problem of meals was refigured in terms of convenience, a transformation that climaxed with the appearance of the microwave oven. But people living alone could live as they liked. They were free to ignore, if they chose, those “widely acknowledged standards” that had been observed as part and parcel of respectable life in the old days. It is clear, in retrospect, that servants had served a supplementary function: they were the conscience of the household. They would refuse to work for employers who indulged bad domestic habits or who deviated too far from what servants understood to be correct. (This was particularly true of senior female servants.) Ordinary people, now living on their own, were free of such constraints.

I could insert a paragraph here about the impact of feminism on housekeeping, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The result of modern freedoms has brought about, as one might have foreseen, the collapse of housekeeping standards, and it occurs to me that this collapse is what makes talking about housekeeping important. What does housekeeping mean, now? What does it entail? Are there many ways of keeping house, some of them inconsistent with others? Does it even make sense to speak of housekeeping in the singular?

I think it does. While it might seem reasonable to discuss housekeeping in terms of practices, most of them optional — is it necessary to press bedlinens? — I prefer to look behind the things that housekeepers do to the reasons why they do it. Now, there is no doubt that, for some people, housekeeping is a fantasy, or a neurosis, something that must be done in a certain way to satisfy cravings or to alleviate psychological anxieties. Even in these pathological cases, however, housekeeping is still a matter of caring for someone. And wherever two or more people live together, there is almost inevitably going to be one who cares, in housekeeping terms, for the other(s).

We generally reserve the word caring for situations involving either children or disabled and elderly people who are dependent on others for very basic needs, and we understandably regard this caring as a regrettable, if potential ennobling, kind of drudgery. This reflects the derelict state of the idea of housekeeping, which has become synonymous with the endless repetition of tedious labors. But while it is understandable that we seek to avoid drudgery, it is diminishing to associate caring with mindlessness. I have long believed that caring requires a great deal of thought, especially since most of the people we care for in our homes are not helpless at all, and making them comfortable — the whole point of caring — is anything but straightforward. But even caring for the helpless is not mindless, a point made brilliantly by Jill Lepore in her essay on Rachel Carson in the current issue of The New Yorker.

Carson’s father died in 1935, followed, two years later, by her older sister, leaving Carson to care for her mother and her nieces, ages eleven and twelve; she later adopted her grandnephew, when he was orphaned at the age of four. These obligations sometimes frustrated Carson, but not half as much as they frustrate her biographers. For [Linda] Lear, the author of “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature” (1997) and the editor of an excellent anthology, “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson” (1998), Carson’s familial obligations—in particular, the children—are nothing but burdens that “deprived her of privacy and drained her physical and emotional energy.” Lear means this generously, as a way of accounting for why Carson didn’t write more, and why, except for her Sun articles, she never once submitted a manuscript on time. But caring for other people brings its own knowledge. Carson came to see the world as beautiful, wild, animal, and vulnerable, each part attached to every other part, not only through prodigious scientific research but also through a lifetime of caring for the very old and the very young, wiping a dying man’s brow, tucking motherless girls into bed, heating up dinners for a lonely little boy. The domestic pervades Carson’s understanding of nature. “Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed,” she wrote in 1938, “but the home of the wildlife is also our home.” If she’d had fewer ties, she would have had less insight.

It is not inapposite to point out that the words ecology and ecosystem are rooted in the Greek word for household. So is the word economy. The first and the last were coined in the old days, when households were complex undertakings that required a great deal of cooperation. Food, for example, must not only be prepared but produced or paid for, thus connecting housework to agriculture and commerce. Any idea with the root eco– in it represents our deep sense that all things are interrelated. Our struggles to analyze and compartmentalize produce many fine insights and vital solutions, but they also tend to induce the illusion that any part is detachable from the whole. It was that illusion that inspired the widespread use of DDT, which Rachel Carson so effectively denounced.

In one view, housekeeping is a matter of ticking items off a petty list: when to drag out the vacuum cleaner, what detergent to use in the wash, and so on. In the better view, housekeeping is a matter of ensuring that the household is a home to those who dwell in it. Housekeeping is not only important, but, perhaps precisely thanks to the optionality introduced by the mod cons of the last century, it is arguably as pressing as any of the more established humanities.


Thursday 22nd

What is this meritocracy that I keep talking about? What makes it different from other, earlier schemes for putting the most capable people in charge of things? In a word, its impersonality.

I haven’t written much about liberalism lately. My idea of creating a Web page for this site on which I would spell out my understanding of liberalism in an organized way has not generated any hard work. Meanwhile, I have been writing about “the meritocracy,” which I finally recognize as the correct label for what journalists and demagogues so sloppily call “the élite.” For the most part, I’ve dwelt on the failings of the meritocracy, particularly the decay of its sense of mission, from serving the nation to servicing itself — the inevitable decadence of a ruling class that is answerable only to itself. When I ask what makes meritocracy different from other ways, however, and I locate the aspect of its design that sets it apart, its impersonality, I see in this impersonality a constitutional flaw. This feature has a bug.

Impersonality is a core liberal value. The liberal revolution in late seventeenth-century England instituted, for the first time, a workable solution to what I’ve called the “great men” problem, in which the relation between the crown and the magnates had to be reestablished after the coronation of every successive monarch, according to the personal attributes of all concerned. Sometimes, relations were smooth, but quite often they were not, and in any case they were always unpredictable. The great landowners who fathered liberalism might well have tried to eliminate unpredictability by imposing a new system of government, as indeed the kings of the time were doing. Instead, they repurposed a venerable institution, Parliament. The control over Parliament that these great men exercised was very great, but also somewhat vague and indirect; only a cynic would have claimed that Parliament was their puppet. And of course the magnates, even the liberal magnates, were not a unified political bloc. Liberal lords would have to submit to Parliamentary rule, along with their king and their Tory opponents. (In the event, Tories would so discredit themselves by undermining the Act of Succession that they would disappear from Parliamentary politics for fifty years.) In the impersonal system of liberal Parliamentary government, the king would be free to choose any advisers he chose, so long as those advisers had already been chosen by the Houses of Parliament.

A little over a century later, liberals expanded this impersonality into lower and wider branches of government. And although I am almost certain that nobody ever consciously thought of doing so, the magnates once again adapted a venerable institution. This time, it was the title deed. Every landowner was expected to be able to prove his title to ownership by means of documentary evidence; great landowners established muniment rooms, in which such documents were organized and preserved. Unconsciously, I suspect, liberals hit upon the notion of treating certificates of academic achievement as proof of possession of a certain kind of property — inalienable, in this case. Competitive examinations would establish and recognize the leading holders of intellectual capital. To the owners of such property would go appointments to the principal public offices. Favoritism would no longer have anything to do with advancement.

It took another century for this system to be adopted by all large institutions — universities and great business corporations as well as government offices — but by 1945 the transition was complete. Students were obliged to run a steeplechase of impersonal examinations, focusing on specific, correct answers and avoiding the stylistic, distracting, and ultimately rather personal idiosyncrasies of written essays. Achievement was quantified in scores and numeric grades. Transcripts and test results were as sacred as deeds — which is why cheating became so much more than a personal moral failing.

Thus we came to be governed by men and women who do well on tests.

If that sounds hollow — and it ought to — that’s because our tests are so scrupulously impersonal that they do not examine such important traits as character, moral acuity, or vision. They completely fail as humanistic measures of worth. Doing well on tests is probably an essential skill, but it cannot be the only one investigated, if only because students will have no compelling reason to develop other values, the absence of which in our meritocracy has become so awfully obvious.

Ask yourself if a genuine meritocracy would permit the existence of a media complex in which a man like Donald Trump would achieve wide popularity with certain sectors of the population and then garner extraordinary amounts of free news coverage as a presidential candidate. No matter what you think about her, would a genuine meritocracy have stood by while Hillary Clinton lost the election to such a man? Indeed, I believe Hillary Clinton might be a different, more appealing person in a genuine meritocracy.

She might even be Hillary Rodham period.

More anon.

Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (II)

14, 15 and 16 March

Wednesday 14th

So, the meritocracy is under attack on two fronts — two fronts that, under the old dispensation (which appears to have passed, just as its predecessors have done, between fifteen and twenty years into a new century) would have been at war with one another. The meritocracy, formerly unassailable, has become the softest of targets, undone by habits of smugness and decadence. Smugness blinded it to its vulnerability to populist resentment; decadence rendered it oblivious of its sexual depravity. That the populists are led by an alleged sex offender is an irony that pales in the glare of the meritocracy’s hypocrisy.

Donald Trump has never claimed to be a great orchestra conductor or a sensitive editor or an innovative architect. He has never greenlighted film projects that raised consciousness of feminist issues. He has always been merely a developer who misbehaved like one — and, so far, he has been successful at denying the misbehavior, whether or not anybody believes him. Denial is part of the developer’s package; it’s what developers do. That we tolerate developers even though we know that most their product is only superficially beneficial, tinsel really, is our sin, not theirs. But leaders in the arts and media are supposed to be the flower of the meritocracy, the men and women — but mostly men — who not only display great skills but use them to make timeless contributions to humanist understanding. When we learn that these leaders have imposed their sexual whims on less powerful colleagues and students, what infuriates us is not so much the lurid, disgusting detail as the embedded, intensifying entitlement. Not only did they think they could get away with it, but they did get away with, often it for decades — objectively, no better than developers, and subjectively much, much worse.

The current wave of exposure and termination, which is characterized by the plunge of exalted celebrities into a sea of shame, is more spectacular than the last one, which concerned teachers and priests who abused their authority over the young. But those offenders, too, were exponents of their meritocracy, just as many of their victims were potential meritocrats. We are now hearing women of a certain age declare that they didn’t make a fuss about inappropriate advances; they took them in stride, just like generations of fraternity rushes who have undergone hazing as the price of access to the meritocratic arena.

A puzzle for historians to work out would trace the roughly parallel but occasionally intersecting developments of the postwar meritocracy and the so-called sexual revolution. It is now generally conceded that one of the principal consequences of the sexual revolution, and certainly its most unintended one, was that it made it so much easier for men — especially meritocratic men — to fool around. And the women who were most available for fooling around with were also members, albeit of lower status, of the meritocracy; women outside the meritocracy long remained old-fashioned about sex.

A big piece of this puzzle is the role played by privileged men and women who qualified for membership in the meritocracy. It is my impression that relations between the sexes at the top of the modern Western social order have been considerably less unequal than at lower levels for several hundred years. Anglophone women of property were among the first anywhere to enjoy equal rights and equal access in certain areas, beginning, probably, with the dining table, at which men and women routinely sat together by the end of the Eighteenth Century. Men from privileged backgrounds are consequently somewhat less inclined to regard women as inferior, while the women among whom they have grown up are more likely to resist being treated as inferiors — making them unlikely to be victimized by predatory men. I suspect that this privileged sexuality, however attractive in itself, has given “well-born” meritocrats a perch from which to look down on their upwardly-mobile colleagues, giving them a sense of superiority within the meritocracy that would hardly encourage them to blow whistles.


Thursday 15th

Via The Browser, I came across a provocative piece by Justin Stover, “quondam fellow of All Souls” &c, entitled “There is No Case for the Humanities.” At first, I expected to agree with Stover, because I believe that there is indeed no “case,” no instrumentalist argument, no claim to relevance or sociality utility, to be made on behalf of “the humanities.” But I soon grasped that my idea of what the humanities are differed sharply from Stover’s. His is certainly closer to received wisdom. Mine, I see, has evolved in the pressures of contemporary society.

In a word: scholarship. Scholarship is at the heart of Stover’s conception of the humanities. It is scholarship in the context of a particularly British tradition.

The humanities have always been, just as their critics complain, self-contained, self-referential, and self-serving. Those tendencies are exactly what enabled the humanities to create a class that continued to demand them. People have read Virgil for two thousand years, and people have built institutions designed to facilitate the reading of Virgil. Some people built their lives around reading Virgil, whereas others just spent fifteen years of their childhood and adolescence learning to read Virgil, before moving on to more lucrative pursuits. For reasons high and low, people have believed that the one qualification truly necessary—for civil service, for foreign service, for politics, for medicine, for science, for law, for estate management, for ecclesiastical preferment, for a life of aristocratic leisure—was the ability to compose good Latin hexameters. They did not do this because they thought that mastering prosody was something which would directly contribute to success in other areas. They were not looking for skills or creativity or values. They did, however, believe that conjugating irregular verbs would mysteriously produce moral improvement (perhaps it did), but they were not too concerned about how. They simply believed in the humanities, and knew from experience that they would bring students above the categories of nation, vocation, and time to become members of a class constrained by no such boundaries.

It is also, as Stover makes clearly elsewhere, the scholarship of a tribe or class of academics with shared interests not just in the LRB but in — I gasped — lifestyles. Stover writes with massive complacence of the durability of his version of the humanities, “which predate the university and may well survive it”; he seems to be saying, with stereotypical donnish weariness, not to worry.

But I don’t mean to get tangled up in cultural differences. I don’t want to appear to respond to Stover’s muddlesome Oxbridge virtues with American pragmatism, or to the self-serving tribalism of the senior commons room with leveling, purposeful populism. That’s all by the way. The nub of my contention is that the humanities have little or nothing to do with academic research and disputation. In fact, as Stover obliquely argues, it has nothing to do with the university itself.

If scholars in the humanities stopped researching arcane topics, stopped publishing them in obscure journals nobody reads, and spent all their time teaching instead, the university itself would cease to exist. We would just have high schools, perhaps good high schools, but high schools nonetheless.

I quite agree. Except for that little phrase “scholars in the humanities.” In my view, there are no such personages. There are only teachers of the humanities. Presumably, they have been trained by scholars, at least in part, and have done some sort of scholarly work themselves as part of their education. But the kind of interrogation that propels scholarship is different from and perhaps even inimical to the questioning that the teacher of humanities sets out to make habitual in students. And if the price of securing solid teaching in the humanities is to forswear the glorious name of “university” and to settle for “good high schools,” I’m happy to pay it.

Let’s grant that the current state of university scholarship is at the very least satisfactory and deserving of public support. Let’s not argue about that when the pressing issue is the education of ordinary citizens at affordable prices.

An idea of education that settles for the inculcation of skill sets is one that all thinking people will reject as inadequate, especially at a time when advances in automation threaten to execute many skills far better than human beings can. What more, then, are we looking for? I believe that citizens need two habits of mind. (The difference between skills and habits of mind is roughly comparable to the difference between amorous acrobatics and love.) They need the habit of critical thinking, of evaluating propositions in context, not just at face value. And they need the habit of curiosity, of wanting to know what is happening. And these habits ought to be yoked by a body of common knowledge: knowledge, specifically, about what has happened in the past, or, in everyday usage, how the hell we got here. Some would call this body of knowledge “history,” but I think it better to leave this term to the scholars. What happened is a less formal, more open-ended way of describing the context of any event, and therefore of any thinking about it. What we mean by “the humanities” — what I mean; excuse me — is simply the grasp of present circumstances in light of what has already happened; there is nothing about this grasp that does not touch upon an aspect of human character; hence: “humanities.” The humanities are a prerequisite to the conduct of a liberal democracy. I don’t think that scholars have done a very good job of teaching them.


Friday 16th

Now that Robert S Mueller III has subpoenaed Trump Organization business documents, it seems to me that his investigation has arrived at a new stage of divisiveness. Critics of the President may tremble with enthusiasm, but I sense that his supporters regard the inquiry as an illegitimate waste of time. Because the division between critics and supporters is pretty much a division between meritocrats and ordinary people, it is all the more difficult for either group to understand the others’ position.

Meritocrats necessarily put great stock in compliance with the rules of the game, because that is the reason for their personal success. Cheating and other forms of dishonesty, however morally reprehensible, are perceived as evil because they undermine the procedures by which talented people attain professional status and worthwhile projects achieve institutional support.

Ordinary people are more inclined to see the rules of the game as weapons used to keep them in their place. They are understandably alert to the self-serving tendencies of meritocratic virtues, and enraged by instances of meritocratic hypocrisy — as, for example, Bill Clinton’s definition of sex. This rage is pretty self-serving, too, as is all ressentiment. But the ordinary people who support Trump don’t give much of a fig for the niceties of influence peddling. And current events have made them cynical about civil safeguards that protect the validity of elections. If Trump has violated some technicalities, he has only been doing (a) what you gotta do to get ahead and (b) what everybody goes. Trump’s supporters can see quite clearly that the meritocracy is out to get their man, period, and that it will bend the rules any whichway to do so. Mueller’s investigation is never going to gain their trust, whatever it uncovers.

Boy, do I hope I’ll be proved wrong!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
March 2018 (I)

6 and 8 March

Tuesday 6th

This year, we did not watch the Academy Awards show. Kathleen wasn’t feeling well, and I was only too happy to give it a pass. Never keen on watching it anyway, I felt an extra resistance this year because of the Weinstein aftermath. While I don’t disagree that people ought to be protected, both socially and institutionally, from harassment of any kind, I dislike displays of righteousness in what are supposed to be congenial settings. I note that this year’s ratings hit a record low. (This was true, however, of the Super Bowl and the Olympics as well.)

I am also not terribly interested in what the movie industry thinks or feels about itself, which is of course what the Awards crudely measure. There’s an interesting chart in today’s Times that shows how relatively poorly Best Pictures do at the box office. (I can’t find it online.) Between 1980 and 2004, only one winner, The Last Emperor, brought in less than $100 million. Since 2005, there have been only four winners that brought in more — The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo — and none of them made more than $200 million. This is not a problem for The Industry; everybody gets paid. As long as box office receipts are not the measure of quality (and I’m certainly not suggesting that they ought to be), then I should prefer to have a truly disinterested body do the judging. Critics, for example, as with The Golden Globes.

As it happens, I went to the movies exactly once in 2017, to see Get Out, and Kathleen did not go to the movies at all. (To think that I used to go every Friday!)


Get Out got an Award — that’s nice, and especially nice, I’m sure for Jordan Peele, who won it for Best Original Screenplay. I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, but I still haven’t watched it, because the best thing about Get Out was watching it in a theatre with other people. Now, this is something that simply doesn’t come up with other films. I regard movies as an alternate form of literature, and I no more mind watching a movie alone than I do reading a novel. I’m aware that the viewer, like the reader, is a character, too, figuring in the fiction. But Get Out is the only great movie that I can think of where the viewer really ought to be plural. It’s rather like riding a roller coaster: when you’re screaming, it’s reassuring to hear the screams of others. In Get Out, it’s the oscillation between screaming and laughter that’s really wild. And that moment when Betty Gabriel (who ought to have won something) repeats “No” so insistently that tears pop out of her eyes — that’s really too scary to watch alone.


The new Vanity Fair arrived yesterday, looking very different from previous issues. (New editor, Radikha Jones.) The title was so hard to read that I had to stare it to be sure. The photograph of Jennifer Lawrence seemed artfully blurred in places, but, again, a closer look indicated strange lighting. Inside, the nomenclature remained the same (“Vanities,” “Fanfair”), but the typography was new. The impish designs that Graydon Carter brought from Spy (for which magazine I can never stop thanking him and his confederates) appeared to be suppressed. But sho ’nuff, there was a story (yet another) featuring rich Italians and their lovely villa — in this case, the family behind the shoemaker Tod’s. James Wolcott’s space was taken up by the discussion of a cable series that I shall probably never see. I read Nick Bilton’s content-free piece about Facebook — can it be saved or will it kill us all? — but I couldn’t decide how much twaddle about Jennifer Lawrence, a truly great actress, I want to have bumping around in my head.

That’s part of why I didn’t want to watch the Oscars, too. I’ve learned that attempting to satisfy one’s curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes is rarely rewarding. What’s he really like? is an inane question for strangers to ask. Publicity departments long ago learned how to dispense candy-flavored answers, and nowadays the more intelligent stars know how to invest their remarks with marks of personality that stop well short of intimacy. Mere simulacrum. It’s better to remain in the theatre audience, where I belong. There or here, reading and writing. Years ago, I had an interesting online exchange on the subject of musical structure with pianist Jeremy Denk. A few weeks later, I saw him standing a few rows ahead of us at an Orpheus concert, at Carnegie Hall. I went up and introduced myself, making a clear reference to our little discussion. That was that. The next time I saw Denk, he was onstage, accompanied by Orpheus — where he belonged.


Thursday 8th

Adam Gopnik has a piece about Andrew Lloyd Webber in the current New Yorker, and while it’s full of interesting insights — no small feat, given the subject — it overlooks the one technological development that explains why Broadway musicals, which used to overflow with angular, memorable tunes, have become puddles of musical insipidity: the microphone.* The microphone obliterates the limitations of distance, and it does so in two ways. Thanks to the microphone, it is no longer necessary to be in the same room with the performers to hear their music, and it is no longer necessary for the performers to fill the room with their sound. I remember reading the rather spiteful remark that the singing voice of Sammy Davis, Jr could not be heard across a small room without the aide of a mike. Inversely, opera singers heard on the radio usually impress listeners who have never been to the opera as fruity and pompous. Until the microphone came along, it was exciting to hear Ethel Merman fill a theatre with lusty singing; her very style was a remarkable expression of unaided vocalism. Happily, it’s still possibly to hear opera singers do the same thing. Waltraud Meier hasn’t got the most beautiful voice in the world, but at the Met or in Carnegie Hall, she’s a knockout. And the songs that Merman sang, as well as the operas that Meier sings, were written to be belted out.

The microphone obviously favors intimacy over assertiveness; it easily creates the illusion that the listener is alone with the singer. (For a listener stretched out in bed and equipped with headsets, the accompanying performers disappear into their music.) The microphone also alters the balance between words and music, making words, so often incomprehensible in unaided singing, almost always clear. Is this a good thing? In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, someone wrote a short comic opera called Prima la musica, dopo le parole. First the music, then the words. Richard Strauss built his final opera, Capriccio, as a debate on this proposition, but of course there is never any real debate, because anyone who “gets” music — and there are those who really don’t, and probably can’t — will put up with ridiculous words for the sake of a compelling tune, or even scrap the words altogether while whistling down the street. If words are as salient as music, the demand for good music will drop — as indeed it has, almost everywhere but at the movies.

The world of rock is full of unmusical people. Bob Dylan is usually at the head of my list. The music of Bob Dylan ranges from simpleminded to unpleasant, the unpleasantness rooted in the sound of his croaking, adenoidal voice. He sounds like someone for whom singing might be bad for his health. For his fans, it’s clear, le parole come prima. In which case, I suggest, we do without la musica altogether.

Since college days, I have been to two rock concerts, and only two. The first was given by Maria Muldaur, in Houston on tour. I had been a fan of hers for years, from back when she was Maria d’Amato, singing for Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. (Her “Richland Woman” is the most sweetly lubricious piece of music I’ve ever heard.) Now, with the big hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” she was something of a star. But, at the concert, I was surprised, and very disappointed, when the sultry nuances of her voice were lost in a blur of overamplified sound, a deafening, roaring noise. Everyone around me thought that the event was really totally cool, but I hated it.

Many years passed before I agreed to a second try. This time, I was lured by the venue, Radio City, to hear Kenny Loggins, long a favorite singer of Kathleen’s. Surely Radio City’s excellent acoustics would dampen the reliance on amplifiers, I thought, but I had forgotten what I learned the first time: most people in the audience liked, even craved, that terrible numbing racket.

A long time ago — nearly thirty years — Kathleen and I had the pleasure of sitting down with 1200 other people at a banquet in Palm Desert, California. Dinner was followed by a musical presentation for which most of the company, but not the people at ours or the surrounding tables, had to find seats set up before a makeshift stage. As a great treat, our hosts, Price Waterhouse, had imported some talent from Los Angeles to mount a chamber, abridged version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, and, lucky us, we were seated at an important partner’s table and could not quietly slip away. I cannot say that the show was unvaryingly excruciating. But it was often quite awful, and I couldn’t help noticing that the heroine’s music made her voice sound both shrill and immature. By “immature,” I mean not girlish but weirdly embryonic. Not ready to be heard. Why this should be so became somewhat more comprehensible when I read Adam Gopnik’s identification of Lloyd Webber’s music with progressive rock. There was really no place for women in progressive rock, and this, for all his emulation of Puccini, remained a stumbling block for Lloyd Webber. Phantom is still running on Broadway, though, evidence that, when washed over verbal drama and visual spectacle, shapeless music will offend few people.

I’m very much one of those people.

Bon weekend à tous!

* Please pardon my shorthand. The microphone is really just the most visible element of the chain of instruments used in the electrification — recording and playback — of sound.

Gotham Diary:
February 2018 (IV)

27 February; 1 and 2 March

Tuesday 27th

Max Boot has written a might-have-been book about Vietnam, or at least that is how reviewers are approaching his biography of Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken. Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, makes a connection that, oddly, Boot doesn’t: Lansdale was a model for Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American, the suite of satirical vignettes published by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958.

I may not remember when The Ugly American came out, exactly, but I remember when it was new, and much talked about (it stayed on the best-seller list for over a year). I couldn’t have been less interested. Growing up in the fifties, I didn’t need to be told that Americans were ugly. And ugly wasn’t the worst of it. At least you could look the other way if a photograph of first lady Mamie Eisenhower came up — my Lord, how drab and plain and out-of-place she looked; in comparison, Eleanor Roosevelt possessed the dignified hideousness of genuine royalty — but could you shut out the braying of grown men shilling the glories of big business? No. But metaphorically, I kept my fingers in my ears until I reached the piece and quiet of boarding school. By then, President Kennedy was already setting a new style for more measured discourse and subtler enthusiasm.

Still, I wasn’t interested in Asia, certainly not in present-day Asia. I was doubly not interested. Asian civilizations didn’t appeal to me, and the value of Asian nations — aside from Thailand and Japan, all of them only recently independent of foreign domination — as pawns in the Cold War appealed to me even less. The Cold War was as obnoxious as the braying about business, even if it was conducted in winks, nods, and whispers. And although I didn’t quite grasp that the nasty hot war in Vietnam was a collaboration of ideology and project financing, I understood that it was stupid and pointless. I do wish that I’d read The Ugly American at the time — in the late Sixties, anyway. As it happens, I bought a copy a while back, and was even able to find it. Reading it was great fun. Well, I laughed a lot. But Burdick and Lederer might as well have signed their book “Cassandra,” for it was no more likely that Americans would either avoid intervention in Vietnam or that they would intervene effectively than it was that Oedipus would marry somebody not his mother.

As I read through The Ugly American, I reflected on the problems of the British in India, which seemed fundamentally similar.

  • With regard to armed conflict, the British never learned to engage with Indians on the same terms. Either they overwhelmed them with crushing, hateful force, or they wasted their bullets.
  • British civil servants in India not only lived in gated communities but enjoyed a higher standard of living than their pay would have allowed them back home. This attracted opportunists.
  • The British committed themselves, with a combination of high-mindedness and profit-seeking, to “modernizing” India. This had nothing to do with real modernization, which would have attempted to bring Indian culture into line with Enlightenment values. It was merely a program of capital development that meant little or nothing to lives of ordinary Indians. The difference is highlighted by the fact that the Subcontinent’s extensive railways were not accompanied by urban sewage systems.

It seemed to me that Burdick and Lederer were suggesting that the follies of American aid in Southeast Asia were much the same, but just in case I failed to infer this from the mordant humor, they spelled it all out in an Epilogue.

  • American military leaders ought at least to read the writing of Mao Zedong. Two central chapters (11 and 12) in The Ugly American illustrate this point with cinematic gusto. Sixty years later, the American military is not very good at guerilla war. To be sure, the greatest impediment is overcoming the tribal nature of guerilla tactics: how does a tall, strapping blonde from Alabama blend in among smaller men with different features? But it doesn’t appear that much effort has been made. We are still drilling uniformed men as if it were 1600. (Perhaps drones will make guerilla warfare obsolete.)
  • Foreign-service recruitment in Washington and elsewhere presented a garishly vulgar picture of expat life in Southeast Asia, representing it as one big cocktail party punctuated by shopping sprees at the PX. This not only appealed to “mediocrities,” as Burdick and Lederer repeatedly call them, but repelled idealists who might have put service before career advancement.
  • Southeast Asians are peasants — subsistence farmers, preoccupied by getting enough to eat — and they need the kind of agricultural aid that (you’d think) the American land-grant universities were designed to provide. Better livestock management, more efficient water pumps — cheap, small scale improvements to the lives of ordinary country people. And yet all the Americans could think of offering were highways and canals.

One truly dismal side-effect of reading The Ugly American these days is concluding that Americans didn’t even learn anything from Vietnam: the failure was indeed totally complete. There’s something about our gun-control problem that seems deeply stupid in the same way the the misadventure in Vietnam was deeply stupid — the kind of stupidity that only meritocrats like Robert McNamara can whip up.



Thursday 1st

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has been sitting at the bottom of my book pile for a few weeks. When I got it, I read a chunk of it, then set it aside. It’s dispiriting stuff, and, during the past couple of weeks, I’ve often wondered why I bought it. Surely not just because everybody else did! Michael Wolff writes very well, but the subject matter is something else, right?

A day or so ago, I saw that I must decide whether to finish the book or to toss it. If it hadn’t been as well-written as it is, I’d have tossed it. But I picked it up instead and forged on. I was surprised to discover that it was no longer so unpleasant. Indeed, it had become, somehow, excitingly revelatory. It wasn’t that there were things in Fire and Fury that I didn’t really “know.” But there was something big that I hadn’t figured out.

It is a commonplace in my part of the world to pronounce Donald Trump as unfit to be president. He’s uneducated (not for lack of tuition payments); he won’t read, he won’t learn, he won’t listen. He believes that he already knows everything that needs to be known. This is political and institutional heresy to almost everyone in his entourage. Wolff tells us that, in the early days of the administration, many White House staffers resolved their cognitive dissonance by deciding that, having won the election, Trump must know something. But it isn’t what Trump knows. Trump doesn’t need to know anything. It’s who he is. Who is he? He is John Q Public, that’s who. He represents everyone in this country, everyone in the Western world, who is sick and tired of the smoky atmosphere of secret knowledge that surrounds all the institutions of public life. When Trump asks why he can’t do something, he wants an answer that anybody could understand, in three sentences max. And then he’s going to do what he wants to do.

Trump represents the voter who isn’t interested in studying the ins and outs of governments, and who doesn’t think it should be necessary. He’s the voter who is tired of being lied to.

There has been a lot of lying. For at least two generations, politicians and other public officials have deemed the public incapable of grasping the truth about anything, which is, basically, it’s complicated, and, even more basically, we’re on the take. As I was reading Fire and Fury, I was wondering how it was that Washington, DC, with its avenues of orderly beaux-arts office buildings and its legions of capable aides like Katie Walsh, came to be regarded as a swamp. How could something so highly organized be associated with shapeless slime? The answer — my answer, anyway — it twofold. At bottom, Washington has been purchased/corrupted by business interests. Without the financial support of these interests, it would be impossible for men and women from middle-class backgrounds to attain elected office, and they would face penniless retirement when their terms came to an end. The awful truth about representative democracy is that it requires a disinterested class of independently wealthy public servants. Failing that, our government is run by the dependently wealthy.

As for the it’s complicated issue, that’s the awful truth about all large institutions. Their complexity increases and then sprawls. All institutions are abstractions designed to organize the behavior and effort of many people: they’re really nothing more than what people think they are. Looking back on a thousand years of institutional history in the West, I think it fair to say that most institutions degrade over time in a very specific way: maintaining the existence of the institution becomes more important to its officials than the quality of its output.* And, even if that doesn’t happen, the output of an institution will, over time, cease to serve its intended purpose. Society evolves, and values evolve with it. Once upon a time, gentle birth was the sine qua non of political advancement. Nowadays, it’s doing well on tests — although that’s not working so well right now. No one has yet figured out how to identify and promote, in any systematic way, intelligent men and women of strong moral character.

The good thing about having Donald Trump in the White House is that he’s bored and irritated by institutional procedure — just like everyone who isn’t already part of it. Steve Bannon could hold Trump’s attention by entertaining him, usually with apocalyptic forecasts that miraculously involved success for the President. Many voters were similarly entertained, and they paid for their entertainment with votes. They didn’t expect Donald Trump to reveal that he was made of presidential timber. They expected him to go on being just like them. Whether this is a viable development in the government of the United States remains to be seen, but we know from Trump what it is that ordinary people want. We know from him what turns them off. We might actually learn from paying attention to him how to make our institutions more responsive and effective, or indeed how to design new institutions. This is the point to which our society has evolved — it has no more patience with meritocrats. If you regard an electorate made up of millions of Trumps as hopelessly degenerate, then there is nothing for you to do for the life of this country.

*Perhaps because its output is raw, absolute power, the British Parliament, with its genius for reinvention on the fly, is an exception to this rule.


Friday 2nd

Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, arrived the other day, and I read the last one, “Slander,” right away. It’s about how an addiction to Fox News poisoned Robinson’s elderly mother’s relationship with her daughter.

I … a self-professed liberal, was one of those who had ruined America. I would go to hell for it, too, a fact she considered both regrettable and just.

Robinson was not deceived by this appearance of high moral ground, however.

For my mother and her friends, this was excitement, a big dose of adrenaline…

I read this with interest because a member of our family, also in the tenth decade of life, has been similarly disturbed. Even though, in our case, hell and religion don’t come into it, conducting a conversation is very difficult, notwithstanding a ban on political topics.

Robinson’s complaints are by now familiar, but it’s odd that she is still the only person making them. Perhaps not: her complaints, are, after all, entirely positive. She wants to know why we can’t see that we live in a wonderful, fortunate country. A country that’s well worth the trouble required to make it better. She can’t understand why we seem to want to destroy it. Why do we have such low opinions of ourselves? There is no doubt that, if we all saw America as Robinson sees it, we would live brighter, happier, and more sensible lives — more or less automatically. Robinson doesn’t ask us to do anything difficult. She does not call for sacrifices. She only wants us to look around and pay attention. In “Slander,” her reference to adrenaline suggests an awareness that it is more fun to tear something down in a fit of excitement than to devote thought and patience to its betterment.

Robinson attributes our failure to do ourselves justice to the fun-house mirrors of right-wing television, dominated by a pseudomoralism that has drained Christianity of its appeal to love and generosity.

Dystopian media arose with this Christianity of the Right. It would lose a great part of its market share if Christian standards were applied to its product, and then the atmosphere of this dear country would change in a week. The truth about Obama’s birthplace or Trump’s relations with Russia will never be established to the satisfaction of everyone, but Christians know truth of another order, that human beings are created in the image of God. They are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights — that is, unalienable claims on our respect. This is the truth that has made us free.

I agree, I agree — except I don’t invoke God. I understand that Robinson’s argument isn’t with the likes of me. It’s with those who profess to share her religion and her theology without manifesting concordant behavior. Nevertheless, I wish I could overcome the feeling, which inevitably accompanies the reading of Robinsons’ beautiful writing, of being an uninvited guest. By no means unwelcome — but ininvited.


In the title essay, Robinson embroils herself with the irritating question, What are the humanities for? The question is irritating because it cannot, ought not, be answered. A similarly dunderheaded instrumentalism animates the question, What is this book about? To the extent that the humanities are for or books are about anything, they are not very important, something that the people asking the questions seem to know.

My instinct is to claim that books and the humanities are expressions of beauty, but “beauty” trails a lot of baggage that I should then be obliged to explain. Robinson provides an anecdote that, in its starkness, does the work of beauty without appearing to have anything to do with it. It comes at the end of a paragraph that begins with Tocqueville and Keats and that ends with this almost inconsequent statement:

I talked once with a cab-driver who had spent years in prison. He said he had no idea that the world was something he could be interested in. And then he read a book.

That’s it; nothing about the book itself, and nothing about where it was read. I ought to leave it there, perhaps. But I can’t resist suggesting that beauty is simply the fulcrum on which one book can reveal the whole world.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
February 2018 (III)

20, 21 and 22 February

Tuesday 20th

Because a friend of mine was reading it, I thought I would read it, too. The subtitle was certainly intriguing: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. But there wasn’t much in David Crystal’s Making Sense for me. It is a pedagogue’s book, intended for parents and teachers who want to help children speak and write as well as they can. Frequently quite witty, it made it laugh a lot. Here are two lines from a delicious verse that Crystal quotes (they come from a poem, published in a 1924 issue of Punch, that mocks the use of Latin plurals in English):

May the man who says ‘gymnasia’
Be afflicted with aphasia!

But I did not find the book at all glamorous.

I’m not altogether sure what grammar really is. Where does grammar stop, and rhetoric begin? You can draw lines where you like, but they dissolve in the heat of use. A fluent speaker is conscious of neither. Rules governing the parts of speech and the ordering of words have been mastered and are reinforced by the everyday stream of sentences. Rhetorical strategies for persuasive argument have become instinctive. Out of grammar and rhetoric, the good writer forges a personal style, a kind of very local accent with only one speaker. The challenge is to develop a style that is pleasing, distinctive, and yet readily intelligible. There are no handbooks for that, although F R Lucas’s Style is stuffed with things to keep in mind.

Genuine rules of grammar deflect the writer from ways of saying things that will slow readers down by making comprehension difficult or impossible. Prescriptivist rules, such as the notorious ban on split infinitives, are points of style masquerading as grammar; indeed, the whole prescriptivist program betrays an attempt to infuse English with Latin manners. I acquired the rudiments of my own style at a time when splitting infinitives was not worth the trouble — the cocked-eyebrow reactions — so I learned not only to avoid splitting infinitives but to avoid the occasions of splitting them as well. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with them, except that they’re usually ungainly.

Working in radio for several years taught me to speak almost as scrupulously as I write. And writing as many as 2500 words a day on this site has taught me to write as personally as I speak — to resist the rather architectural urge to offset my native long-windedness by means of unnatural compression. (You may be sure that, in the course of reading each entry through before publishing it, I remove at least one semicolon.) More important, and more difficult, than either of these is the ongoing effort to be a better listener. Listening well is more than a virtue: it is not until we listen that we know our own minds. People who don’t listen know only what they think they think.

It’s like everything else: you become yourself by paying attention to everybody else.


Wednesday 21st

Reading Ronan Farrow’s latest New Yorker exposé, this one about the President and the “slim brunette” whom he met at an Apprentice party held at the Playboy Mansion, I reflected on Hugh Hefner, who probably did more than anyone else to bring us to the #MeToo moment — that is, to make #MeToo inevitable.

The premise was always ridiculous: Playboy would domesticate male sexuality. Perhaps there was something about the Cold War, that great unhinger of steady thinking, that made this objective seem possible, even desirable. In any case, the premise, stated in another way, insisted that there was nothing pornographic about Playboy‘s everyday exposure of bare breasts. On the contrary, those images of naked bosoms would nourish healthy libidos. (There really was a midcentury anxiety that men were becoming lackluster lovers.) Lounging amid the ponds of print in which Hefner’s “philosophy” and his talented writers’ hip arts criticism were made to look soberly adult, the rosy nipples of smiling beauties would arouse a response that could not really be called impure, because, after all, the walls of the great museums are covered with the same sort of thing, and as long as actual genitalia were cropped out of the shot, how erotic could Playboy be?

But Playboy was about access, not eros. You could buy the magazine, for one thing. From the start, it proclaimed itself as being a respectable publication — a somewhat ironic move at the very moment when the social architecture of respectability was beginning to collapse. Newsstands carried Playboy right next to Time — or at least somewhere in the same rack. While bringing the magazine into church might be frowned on, Playboy wasn’t something that had to be kept hidden. You could let the world know that you had access to the centerfold, to look at if not wherever then at least however you wanted to.

You could go to a Playboy Club. So much has been said about the indignity of pouring women into bunny suits and making them behave like playthings that our attention has been directed away from the fact that the clubs provided access to this kind of fun. They made it available, at least in the major metropolitan areas. It might not have been much fun for the girls, but they did the job, for whatever reasons of their own. That was their business, and all it took was money. But you weren’t buying flesh by the hour. You were buying access to the company of pretty girls, girls who smiled at you when they brought you drinks.

Playboy promised a supply of willing young ladies who might be willing to follow dinner at a romantic restaurant with a visit to your bedroom, and who then afterwards, like Karen McDougal (the slim brunette), might sweetly decline any payment. Imagine that! It’s almost as though the girls learned about the world from Playboy, too!

Now, none of this would have been news to the old Hollywood moguls. But very powerful men were rare back then, as indeed they always are, and it was not difficult for them to behave with discretion. But Playboy, however coy it was about pubic hair, threw sexual discretion to the winds, and it invited every healthy male with a modicum of disposal income to join the party. In the fleshpots of New York and Hollywood, the fun became so pervasive that the moguls themselves became brazen. I don’t think that Harvey Weinstein would have believed that he could ask Gwyneth Paltrow for a massage without being laughed at if it hadn’t been for a lifetime pickled in Playboy. If not the magazine itself, then certainly its philosophy, as American as latte grande.

When I think about all the grave discussions about Playboy that I sat through in college, debates that always ended with a judgment in favor of the magazine — it was serious, it was okay; it wasn’t prurient — I can’t decide whether to laugh or to howl in outrage. Of course, there were no women at Notre Dame back then. The women were all across the street, at St Mary’s. As I recall, Playboy was not delivered to campus mailboxes (the university had its own post office). That had been true of Time, too, at one time. Looking back, I’m glad that the school put up some resistance to Hugh Hefner, just as I’m grateful that it prohibited fraternities of any kind.

Maybe the Playmates were okay. But the fact that most of the women who appeared in Playboy were in a state of undress was not okay. And yet the confinement of women to cuddlesome contours was precisely the whisper of access that misled several generations of American men.


Thursday 22nd

Facebook. If it weren’t for my daughter and a friend or two, I’d cancel my account. Can you do that? In today’s Times, Farhad Manjoo warns that we may soon be living in “Alexa’s World.” I think that we’ll be giving that a pass. If Facebook can morph into the destroyer of democracy, what’s to stop Alexa from summoning armed drones to exterminate the peons?

Yesterday, I read a piece in the New Statesman about Jacob Rees-Mogg. They say that this man of archaic, not to say reactionary outlook can never lead the Conservative Party in Britain, but they said that a grabbing lout like Donald Trump could never lead the United States. It’s arguable that nobody knows anything about Western society anymore. It seems apparent that élites everywhere have provided themselves with gala echo chambers. How many Democrats, how many Remainers failed to vote because they were assured that their cause would prevail? On the other hand, say that Hillary Clinton won a couple million more votes than her opponent; does that make her more representative of the American people? How is it possible to represent a polarized body politic?

How did life-and-death issues like abortion and gun control become so divisive? How do we explain the failure of clear-headed leaders to be both more calm and more persuasive? My wife recalls a recent conversation in which a man told her that it was good to have assault weapons in the house because it would “improve the odds” when the government attacked. Whence this mad fantasy? Please point to the well-armed, innocent American who saved the lives of himself and his family from official assault. Ruby Ridge and Waco are not good examples! Whither do rogue males escape?

How long do people have to poke at an iPhone before abandoning the dream that it will surprise them with undreamed-of delights? Why does one person talking on a phone sound so much louder and more intrusive than two people talking together?

Why does everyone deny being prejudiced? How did we ever get so comfortable looking the other way?

For the answers to these and many other urgent questions, send a gold doubloon and forty boxtops to Basil Fawlty at his place in Torquay.

Bon week-end à tous!

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!

Gotham Diary:
What Everybody Knew
February 2018 (I)

6, 7 and 8 February

Tuesday 6th

“Everybody knew,” he says in a disgusted whisper about Harvey Weinstein. “Everybody knew.”

That’s actor Tim Robbins in the Times. The same can be said about the case of James Levine: here in New York, everyone interested in serious music “knew” about the great conductor’s irregular sex life. Well, of course there were only a few people who actually knew — relative to the overall population, anyway. But most people had heard tell. And what happens, when everybody knows, is that nobody does anything. Offenses already committed go unpunished, while further offenses go unstopped.

Something beyond knowing is required. In the old days, that something was religious sanctions, often backed up by the power of law. We don’t want to go back to that. We don’t want to give anyone the power to forbid Harvey Weinstein to do things, because that power necessarily includes the power to decide what to forbid.

Back in the days when religious officials had secular clout, there was also a social institution that protected women from the Weinsteins of the world. This was called respectability, and, like religious sanctions, it had many harsh side effects. In the name of protecting women, women punished women, whenever women disregarded respectable scruples. Nineteenth-century novels are full of the heartbreaking tales of fallen women, whose shame so often seems to lead, however mysteriously, to poverty and illness, and ultimately to death. A few women braved this treatment. George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans) lived openly with a married man for years, and although the men of literary London were not ashamed to be seen at her receptions, their wives stayed away. But then, she was a very famous and successful novelist. Few women had her resources. Outside metropolitan areas, women deemed to be not respectable risked being hounded out of town. We don’t want to go back to that, either.

My wife, Kathleen, a lawyer in her mid-sixties, has never attended a meeting in a man’s hotel room. She doesn’t believe that she has ever been asked to do so, but she knows that she would have refused, or, even more likely, headed off an invitation before it was made. She says that she cannot understand why a woman would do such a thing, but then she is a graduate of Brearley, Smith, and, did I mention, a lawyer. Let’s throw in the Convent of the Sacred Heart while we’re at it: everything about Kathleen’s upbringing instilled an almost militant self-respect, a powerful deterrent to unwanted advances. Like George Eliot, she has had unusual resources. What about ordinary girls? What about girls who are naïve, or starstruck, or very ambitious, girls whose judgment, for whatever reason, is a bit faulty? What about girls who are lonely or needy, whose imperfections may make them somewhat complicit in abuses of power by those who employ them? We appear to have arrived at a new unwillingness to dismiss the bad things that happen to these girls as just desserts or business as usual. That’s great. But how do we prevent them in the first place?

And how about men? It seems to me to be absolutely typical of Anglophone culture that here’s the deal: boys will be boys, but if you get caught, we’re gonna shoot you. Viva Las Vegas! Play your cards right, you can grab at will. Miss a trick, and you lose your job, possibly forever. So far, the #MeToo conversation has not sprouted a #NotI correlative.


As usual, liberalism is at the heart of the problem. (Cue mordant laughter.) Although the Founders piously believed that separating Church and State would allow churches to flourish, in mutual toleration, it wound up killing them, because a tolerant church is not a religious church. That’s to say that a religion that doesn’t frighten its observers into compliance loses observers, and a church that is complacent about the noncompliant folks who attend the church across the street isn’t very frightening. The Fear of God is something that, in the secular West, only observant Jews appear to have internalized, and even in that case, life in self-segregating neighborhoods entails frightening social pressures.

Most of us don’t want to go back to that. We’re happy with the liberal convention: in exchange for observing the public laws of society, we are granted the quiet enjoyment of our privacy. The problem with this social contract is that it is still rooted in the vision of a world of benign men who are the only parties to it — the dream of Enlightenment Europe. Women have fought successfully for participatory rights, but only to find that arrangements made by roughly equal males do not easily accommodate peculiarly female difficulties. Liberal society has always presupposed a membership of men who can take care of themselves, so that it doesn’t have to. This is why liberal society has been so bad at protecting the weak, aiding the poor, and, most notoriously, freeing the enslaved.

I want to pause here to address the widespread misconception that protecting the weak and aiding the poor are “liberal values.” They are not. That is why liberals have had to pass specific laws to deal with egregious social problems; left to itself, liberal society was prepared to go on living with them. As indeed it did, even after “liberal” laws were enacted. As we are finally openly admitting, it was one thing to enact laws that granted equal access to voting booths and decent schools, and other thing to enforce them. The liberal solution to social problems is to pass a law and hope for the best. Anything more invasive would disturb that quiet enjoyment — which in awful cases involve wife-beating, and in worse ones, children locked up in basements.

What would a liberal society look like of women undertook to re-imagine it?


Wednesday 7th

It’s time to get back to work on my writing project, an intellectual memoir in which I try to account for the way I think. My first draft, while readable enough, was encrusted with a great deal of biographical material that wasn’t relevant to my thinking life. That this material was also incomplete and even evasive annoyed one reader.

I’m having trouble deciding what do to with this second paragraph. Should it touch on the inspiration that I’m getting from Elizabeth David’s writing about food? From re-reading two biographies of David, both of which stress her proud and insistent privacy, which rejected all attempts to elicit information that she did not deem suitable for publication? The biographies are stuffed with such information, much of it unflattering. The result, however, is that the character of Elizabeth David that emerges from the pages of her own work seems to be the real, the important woman, while the subject of the biographies is an accident of human frailty. My own life story is full of mortifying incident. Tall, glib, and headstrong, I was a grossly presumptuous young man, usually unconscious of my manipulations, but inexcusably so. I ought to have known better. The only interesting thing about my catalogue of errors is that it seems to have come to an end, perhaps for no better reason than that I outgrew it. Or, perhaps, I finally figured out what I was trying to make of my life, and stopped thrashing around in dead ends.

In the alternative, my second paragraph might have jumped ahead to what’s on my mind today, which is three aspects of my intellect that seem to have been firmly in place by the time I got to college.

First, I regarded “academic success” as just that, a notion that must be buffered with scare quotes. It did not seem to me that, sciences aside (and I was never interested in science except as a subject of intellectual inquiry with a fascinating history), anybody was the wiser for having performed well on an examination. At boarding school, examinations dropped out of the picture during my senior year, in my favorite subject, English History. Tests were replaced by “papers,” an apparently unending stream of essays of six or seven pages in which I analyzed and discussed historical issues as well as I could. These papers were not about questions and answers but about me, about how well I not only understood something but could write about it persuasively. All that I remember of that year, at least so far as schoolwork was concerned, is typing those papers, week after week.

It was obvious to me that writing essays was the heart and soul of an education. It was hard work, because, probably as a consequence of being headstrong, I always seemed to know too much about some things and not enough about others. But there was tremendous satisfaction in typing up what I’d learned in my own words.

It was also obvious that there was no connection between the work that I was putting into my papers and the practical matter of getting a job some day, unless I wanted to teach English History, which wasn’t very likely, regardless of my own inclinations, because overall “academic success” eluded me. Studying for tests was inherently pointless and boring. It wasn’t always necessary for me, but when it was, the results were disappointing.

I outgrew this fussiness later, when, seven years after graduating from Notre Dame, I went back as a law student. I studied for tests; I studied hard. And even though the examinations all took the form of essay questions, I did not necessarily do very well, because by now I had a somewhat idiosyncratic prose style, with a Jamesian distaste for straightforward writing. Nevertheless, I got through it, and subsequently passed the New York State bar exam. But although I did learn to buckle down to the weary work of of evaluating proximate causes, my conviction that there was something bogus about American education was as firm as ever. American education was not about education, but about staffing a meritocracy.

Second, I was never a “person of faith.” I never believed in God. Walking down the aisle in my white First Communion suit, I worried about being struck down by lightning, my fraudulence exposed. But even my faith in a god who would punish me for not believing in him was wobbly. Looking back from early middle age, I thought I must have been a materialist from the beginning, incapable of believing in anything I couldn’t see or touch, but now that I’m an old man I have to confess that I believe, and have always believed, in a lot of things for which there is little or no positive evidence. I believe that a society in which people treat each other reasonably well is a functional and reliable as well a happy society (or happy enough). I believe that learning is important. But I can’t even imagine believing in a supreme being of some kind. Which is to say that, if it could be somehow demonstrated to me that there is such a being, I would still dismiss the news as meaningless, because I cannot comprehend such immensity.

As a consequence, I believed that human beings are the most intelligent and capable beings in the known universe. Existence must be its own significance.

Third, I was sure that nobody knew what was going on. I am about to try to explain what I meant, just now, by saying that existence must be its own significance. What was going on, really going on, way back in, say, 1960, was an almost but not quite chaotic cascade of the consequences of the great revolutions in human life that were launched in Western Europe at the end of the Eighteenth Century. As Zhou Enlai was said to have said, it was still much too early to assess the implications of these upheavals. The meaning of life, which is to say the meaning of my life in a Westchester suburb during the Eisenhower Administrations, was nothing but the unfolding of contingencies triggered less than two hundred years earlier. Now, I didn’t know at the time that this was what was really going on. I knew that I didn’t know what was going on, either. But I was sure that people were wrong to think, as so many people seemed to do, that the world had been recreated in 1945, that the wonders of technology and the horrors of the Cold War were unprecedented novelties. Now I understand why they thought this: what adult wouldn’t have wanted to forget everything that had happened since — pick a date — 1848? 1860? 1870? 1914? 1929? 1933?

How, you may ask, can a little boy of nine or ten, no matter how smart or clever, see the emperor’s new clothes for what they are? As the Sixties would demonstrate, lots of kids had noticed the embarrassing nakedness. I never claimed to be unique.


Thursday 8th

It took a little while for me to order Justin Spring’s new book, The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy; eventually, I bought it for comic relief — which it amply provided. The comedy is intentional, I hasten to say, and confined largely to two chapters, one of which I’ve re-read with great glee; but more about that in a minute. I have been, as I’ve reported, reading about Elizabeth David, and it was getting to be too intense, as was reading her books themselves. I mentioned yesterday the connection that I feel between her story and mine (which has nothing to do with content or achievement); this only made the immersion more suffocating. Justin Spring provided marvelous respite. I’m not sure that this amounts to a recommendation, because reading Gourmands’ Way deepened many of the misgivings that I’d had about it before reading it. Nevertheless, it was a great treat.

My question going in was what, really, Spring’s six food writers had in common. Not even food, really, for Alexis Lichine, one of the three outliers in my view, wrote exclusively about wine, and he would have written more if he hadn’t been so busy marketing and selling it. The other two oddballs are A J Liebling, who doesn’t seem to have boiled an egg in his life, and Alice B Toklas, whose famous cookbook is a notoriously unreliable literary relic, written in conditions of dire financial distress. This leaves three figures who do form a group of sorts, Julia Child, Richard Olney, and MFK Fisher. But Fisher really doesn’t belong in such company; she has more in common, as a writer, with Toklas. Only Child and Olney can be regarded as developers of a “New Gastronomy,” although even that seems wrong, since both were students of traditional fare. The novelty, of course, was their persuading Americans to give it a try.

And this is where the “Americans in Paris” theme goes flat. Child and Olney were part of a larger Anglophone movement to respond to some social changes, most notably the disappearance of household servants, while resisting others, primarily the industrialization of food. And nobody expressed this movement’s mission better than the ultra-English Elizabeth David.

Good food is always trouble….Even more than long hours in the kitchen, fine meals require ingenious organization and experience which is a pleasure to acquire.

Lisa Chaney, who quotes this remark on page 264 of Elizabeth David, does not provide a source, but I’ll be on the lookout for it. In her television shows, Julia Child liked to assert that what she was doing was really pretty simple, but of course it would be simple only to someone who had done what she was doing — a lot. The idea that good food can be tossed off in ten minutes is irresistible, but it’s at best a gross deception, rather as it would be to say that it take only a little over a minute to play Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz. Chaney italicizes the last phrase in David’s comment, which is a pleasure to acquire. If acquiring experience in the kitchen is not a pleasure, then cooking is not for you. What surprised almost everybody during the Fifties and early Sixties was that the people who found it a pleasure constituted a substantial market.

In many ways, David spearheaded the movement, and was regarded, by Child and Olney along with everybody else, as having done so. And when we look at how and why David spearheaded it, we encounter a third element of change: travel. There had always been journalism for rich people looking for good restaurants, but David was a more serious, older kind of traveler. She actually lived on the shores of the Mediterranean, spending most of World War II in Alexandria and Cairo. She wrote her first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food, in a kind of despair. It was partly the same despair that motivated Alice Toklas (money), but much more than that it was revolting against the deprivations of food-rationed postwar Britain. David famously wrote that merely writing words like “apricot” provided “assuagement.” Child and Olney also did more than just tour Paris and Provence. They lived there, Child for a time and Olney for most of his life. A great part of the appeal of following the recipes of these writers was and is to feed either memories of visits past or dreams of visits to come — visits that included or would include a kitchen in a foreign land.

Then — to return to Gourmands’ Way — there are the fascinating people whom Spring leaves on the sidelines, like Dione Lucas and “Philippe of the Waldorf,” the latter an extraordinary operator who controlled a $2.5 million food and wine budget (in the Forties!) and who was arrested for extortion and tax evasion — a most interesting character. There’s Philippe’s sometime wife, the extraordinary Poppy Cannon, a major perpetrator of processed food. There are Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. There’s James Beard, who did for American food what Spring’s crowd did for French. There’s Simone Beck, without whom Child’s career would not have launched. These characters rumble beneath Spring’s narrative like lumps under a carpet. I wanted them in the big picture. Needless to say, Elizabeth David languishes on the sidelines as well.

Spring aims for balance, but a bias very much in favor of Richard Olney and slightly against Julia Child is evident. Olney gets the lion’s share of the narrative, creating a suspicion that Spring felt that he didn’t have enough for a stand-alone book, or that, even if he had, Olney lacked the star power to carry one. There is something strangely muted and humorless, something almost overly decent, really, about Olney; his devotion to his siblings was, to me at least, unusual. Only an American could have had his career, which combined a refined palate and knowledge of food and wine, the worldly sophistication that goes with being a painter in Paris, and a knack for building construction and renovation. While many French men combine two of these qualities, the French educational process more or less assures that few will have all three.

The fun chapter is the fourteenth, “MFK Fisher and The Cooking of Provincial France.” I am not going to quote more than a single quip. When this Time-Life production was translated into French, in 1969, it was annotated by a very conservative man who larded it with footnotes contradicting Fisher’s many mistakes and misjudgments. The book was published before anyone in New York vetted the commentary, leading to great embarrassment. Times writer John Hess wrote that The Cooking of Provincial France was “self-roasting.” Spring’s account of the whole fiasco, which sprang from the buzz that accompanied the rediscovery of Fisher’s books and the associated assumption that she knew what she was talking about, is hugely entertaining. Also as much fun is the chapter about Alice Toklas second cookbook, in which Poppy Cannon provided breezy alternatives to Toklas’s laborious recipes, right on the same page.

On page 444 of her biography, Lisa Chaney wonders why Elizabeth David never met MFK Fisher on one of the many visits that she paid to San Francisco in her later years. On page 319 of her biography, Artemis Cooper ventures an answer. But once you’ve read Justin Spring, you’ll see that it’s ridiculous even to ask the question.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
How to say “TPFDL”
January 2018 (V)

30 and 31 January; 1 February

Tuesday 30th

Juleanna Glover asks, in today’s Times, “Are Republicans Ready to Join a Third Party?” The question is interestingly phrased: join, not form. Would Republicans, in short, be willing to combine with people who aren’t Republicans? Glover proposes, just as an example, a Biden-Sasse ticket for 2020.

My question, of course, is whether this new party would have a hope of being a genuinely liberal party, and I ask it without being quite sure that liberalism remains viable, or even desirable. I’m inclined to believe that it is, but I can’t overlook the brittleness with which any given generation of liberals responds to altered circumstances. Liberals are gradualists, devoted to protecting rights and interests from state intervention, and, ultimately, from the encroachments of other interests. This has often led liberals to back the wrong horse. Liberal belief in the rights of free men was an important ideological prop to slaveholders, and George Dangerfield’s wonderful study, The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-1914 illustrates the slow-motion collapse of a great and powerful political party, undermined by the demands of rising new constituencies: labor, women, and the Irish.

Even more doubtful than the viability of liberalism as a political outlook is the viability of “liberalism” as an intelligible word. Glover writes,

There are many Republicans wary of a second term for Mr. Trump, and yet right now they are entirely reliant on the Democrats to deliver a winning centrist candidate out of a primary process that almost made Bernie Sanders their 2016 nominee. A contest between Mr. Trump and a liberal Democratic candidate like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would leave the middle up for grabs. And a big contingent of politically orphaned political strategists, academics and donors would be ready to lend support.

Elizabeth Warren may be a Democrat, but she is no liberal — because she is not a gradualist. A great deal of confusion in our political discourse would be cleared up if we all agreed that, beyond policy differences, there is the key issue of timing, which I call the “tipfiddle.”

This curious word, tipfiddle, derives from the acronym for an elaborate logistics schedule devised by the Pentagon, the Time-Phased Forces Deployment List, for the unrolling of new military campaigns. Donald Rumsfeld’s claim to infamy, I expect, will be based largely on his disregard for this schedule in embarking on the misadventure in Iraq (still something of a mess). It occurred to me not long ago that the complete lack of a tipfiddle does much to explain the disappointing aftermath of the 1960s campaign for equal civil rights. A couple of blockbuster Acts of Congress were expected to do everything, and the resulting failure of a top-down program to win the hearts and minds of white Americans, especially couple as it was with a similar failure in Vietnam, brought into the being the image of a liberal élite bogeyman that has rendered our government fairly ineffectual ever since.

Many white Southerners who hated segregation argued that the South wasn’t ready yet, in the Sixties, for equality. Liberals have a weakness for this kind of argument. Their largely healthy mistrust of abrupt change too often allows injustice to persist. Advocates of social justice can rightly claim that liberals will never get around to making necessary changes. The only liberal response lies in the preparation of tipfiddles. Looking back at civil rights, for example, we can see that there ought to have been (among many other things) some thoroughgoing consciousness-raising in the North, which, in the absence thereof was able to give itself a pass on its own deep-rooted racism. (Where was objection to busing more virulent than in Boston?)

Tipfiddles are couched in terms of actions that are staged in order to increase the effectiveness of each action. Goals are not the point, because they’re too obvious. So it is with political problems. We know what the goals are, but nothing is going to come of, say, specifying emissions caps by Year N if we don’t have a detailed and acceptable plan for achieving them. Such plans are what genuine statesmen, acting in a representative democracy, are supposed to sell to voters. It’s not easy, and it’s not glamorous, and it probably works best at the local level.

Of course, the great tipfiddle-failure story of our time is playing out with Brexit. (What’s this about Boris Johnson, of all people, wanting to build a bridge?)


Wednesday 31st

Since the weekend, I’ve been in a slight daze, involuntarily meditating on something that happened a long time ago, at the end of 1980. It didn’t happen to me, and I didn’t know about it until this weekend, when I read about it in a book. Here is what I read:

She did it partly to punish me for stopping wanting to fuck her and partly because she realized that I didn’t like her much. Well, I liked her as much as you could like anyone totally wrapped up in themselves and unable to tolerate the slightest competition or anything a raving lunatic could see as opposition and having to have their own way in everything all the time. Well, I expect reading between the lines there you can see that we hadn’t been getting on too well of late. Yeah, but not having her around and trying to take in the fact that she will never be around is immeasurably more crappy than having her around. I’ve had a wife for 32 years.

As I continued reading the book, and learned that the writer of the letter refused, once he understood that his wife really wasn’t ever coming back, to say anything at all nice about her. Which perhaps wouldn’t be surprising in an ordinary bloke. But Kinsley Amis, author of many novels and much nonfiction, much of it humane and humorous? When he was at home, it seems, he expected his wife to put up with his dislike, which visitors to the house toward the end of the marriage claim was palpable. He gritted his teeth. But no matter how remote he became, it seemed right to him that his wife should simply bear with the lack of affection. I’ve had a wife — interesting, that. To put it correctly, Amis had had two wives over that thirty-two year period.

And the first wife, the former Hilary Bardwell, came back to take care of him. She brought her second husband, an impecunious earl, with her, and the three of them lived happily ever after. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Jane Howard, by then the author of several novels and a figure in London’s literary life, lived alone for the rest of her life (excepting a brief fling with a con man quite late in life). Jane did not care to be alone any more than Kingsley did, but she couldn’t take life with a man whose feelings for her were rapidly approaching physical revulsion.

What makes the passage that I’ve quoted, which comes from a letter to the poet Philip Larkin and is quoted in Artemis Cooper’s new biography, Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence, so heavy for me is Amis’s perversity. Would you like to live with someone who made you grit your teeth every time she said something? Wouldn’t you be happier if she left? Wouldn’t you think of leaving? But no. Nothing personal, but you’re the wife here, lady, and you’ll stick with it. That seems to sum up his thinking. And of course it was traditional, since time out of mind, for husbands to think like that. I wonder if it occurred to Amis that he was betraying his roots. He had come from such a very traditional background, but had made it to university and achieved literary acclaim. That it might be a mistake for him to leave the future Countess of Kilmarnock for Jane Howard is suggested by Jane’s having cautioned him, during their early, lovey-dovey days, that she was not as posh as he thought she was. (Cooper writes that they came from the opposite ends of the middle class.) In their fifteen years together, he seems to have tired of her poshness, and she was at any rate posh enough to demand a reasonably affectionate husband.

Mind you, I’m not taking sides here. I’m just feeling a strange mix of pity, contempt, and disgust for Kingsley Amis, occasioned by this display of wounds of which he is not at all ashamed. It’s embarrassing to see an eminent novelist taking such a nakedly utilitarian view of marriage. Which apparently he had been doing for quite a while before Howard left him.


Cooper’s biography of Howard arrived while I was in the middle of re-reading her biography of Elizabeth David, to which I promptly returned and which I finished last night. A couple of interesting compare-and-contrast points stick out.

Contrast: As when I read about David the first time, I haven’t read anything written by Howard herself. I’ve ordered the five-volume series, a sort of family autobiography, about the Cazalet family, and look forward to reading it. But in the nearly twenty years since Writing at the Kitchen Table came out, I’ve acquired and read a lot of David, and I think she’s one of the great writers of modern times. She can inflect ostensibly expository prose with a wide range of dramatic attitudes without dimming her intelligibility in the slightest. And I don’t know anyone who is better at expressing speechless outrage, as she does in her introduction to the 1988 edition of her first work, A Book of Mediterranean Food.

From the hands of a publisher called Robert Hale, of whom I shall say no more than it seemed a singular misfortune to have had my books acquired by his firm, I was rescued…

The point of contrast is that David meant a great deal more to me the second time around, and in fact I kept putting down her biography to read her. I was not nearly as engaged by Howard herself, although I couldn’t put her story down. She was a character, not a creator. That will presumably change.

Comparison: In the other David biography that I’m still re-reading, by Lisa Chaney, there’s a wonderful little flash of revelation about Laurence Durell that intensified my doubts about the importance of formal education, while at the same time giving an ironic cast to the achievements of David and Howard, despite their complete lack of higher education. Of Durell, who came from a good family but whose upbringing was highly unorthodox, we’re told that some of his friends in Cairo, during the war, thought that his “lack of a classical education made him not quite ‘pukka.’ (181) With regard to Durrell himself, this is already pretty rich, since he spent his adolescence on the island of Corfu, in Greece, instead of on the island of England, belaboring ancient Greek verses. Missing out on such academic exercises doesn’t seem to have done David or Howard any harm, either. David, indeed, became a genuine scholar, teaching herself how to set up a library in the process. One has to ask what, exactly, was so indispensable about the public school/university pedigree. Beyond, of course, the boys’ club shibboleth. Nancy Mitford used to wail about not having been properly taught anything, but I suspect she was imagining that there was more to schooling than there was. In all cases — Durrell, David, Howard, and Mitford — the joy of reading appears to have sufficed.


Thursday 1st

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Times in which A O Scott calls on each of us to reassess our impressions of Woody Allen’s movies. He doesn’t ask for a boycott, just a recognition that some of the behavior is not so charming or innocent as we might have thought, shrugging it off, at the time. I’ve always been aware of this problematic aspect of Allen’s work; to me, it heightens the interest. (Does anyone remember when “transgressive” was a good thing?) I think of Allen primarily as a magician — his most recent films bring this to the fore — and not as a moralist, which is, to be sure, what he pretends to be. Sometimes it seems to me that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He does what he thinks he’s doing extremely well, but he’s also doing something else, almost inadvertently, and this tension is what makes his movies so appealing — so much more than merely funny. I wish I knew what this something else was. There’s a hint, perhaps, in Hollywood Ending: Woody Allen’s character keeps breaking down in conversations with his ex-wife. He cannot sustain the businesslike tone with which they begin. Without warning, he breaks into wrathful denunciations of her unfaithfulness and her poor taste in men. I sense that something like this is happening beneath the surface of each one of Allen’s films.

Consider Oedipus Wrecks, perhaps his greatest film even if nobody knows it (because it comes at the end of New York Stories, following two really awful essays in self-indulgence by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola). In Allen’s exquisite little joke, a suffocating mother disappears in the middle of a magic act — she really does disappear! — and Allen, playing the son, is thrilled. He can’t stop smiling with relief! But then she appears in the sky over New York City, telling everyone about his unattractive habits as a child. He is driven to attempt suicide. “That’s no solution,” says his shiksa fiancée (played by Mia Farrow in one of their final collaborations). Indeed! His mother’s antics break up that relationship and steer him toward Ms Right, a bogus sorceress whom he enlists to put an end to them (Julie Kavner). If you lay it all out on the table, it’s a fairly ugly psychoanalytical problem. The guy really does want his mother dead. And yet we laugh! Of course, the mother doesn’t die; she comes back to earth when Allen hooks up with Kavner. (“Now her I like.”) Happy, healthy ending. The “moral” of the story? It’s pointless to be a self-hating Jew.

Owing to an enormous change in mores, a lot of wishes that men have entertained for good times with girls have recently become as unacceptable for acting out as the Oedipus complex. I remember seeing Manhattan for the first time with my future wife. When it was revealed that the Mariel Hemingway character was a student at the Dalton School, Kathleen (a Brearley girl) blurted out, quite audibly, “Figures!” That was how we registered the inappropriateness of the girl’s relationship with an older man — indirectly. The school and the girl’s parents ought to have stepped in, but they were either too progressive or too sophisticated to interfere. The fantasy being gratified by Woody Allen’s character was not itself held up to shame. Who wouldn’t want to have a beautiful teenage girlfriend? Well, as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t, but you check matters of fact at the door when you take in a magic act.

Fossil Darling has just called with news of the latest pin to be knocked down: 84 year-old John Copley, directing a revival of Semiramide at the Met, apparently made a joke that was misunderstood by a singer whose first language was not English. Fossil, who knows Copley, told me that he was already on a plane back to Blighty. What’s going on, I think, is a genuine consciousness-raising, the thing that was supposed to happen way back in the early Seventies but couldn’t, because the Terror-like uncertainty and violence (what other word describes such sudden terminations of careers?) would never have been tolerated. What it took to get where we are was a generation of women who grew up entirely within what was supposed to be a new dispensation, what Jill Lepore calls “empowerment feminism,” which, in her view, has been a failure, because it facilitates the villainies of the Harvey Weinsteins. This generation of women was not raised to guard its own integrity, as women everywhere have always been. That’s why older people are cocking eyebrows and humming “Victims!” The young women are victims, though — victims of a social failure to prescribe appropriate conduct between the sexes, or between the powerful and the powerless. It makes the old consciousness-raising look more like obliviousness.

And if I get started on Così fan tutte, which was unacceptable for over a century because it was thought, as it is still thought by some, to be wickedly cynical about love, I’ll be here all day…

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (IV)

23, 25 and 26 January

Tuesday 23rd

I don’t know about you, but as a bedeviled New Yorker I find great comic relief in Brexit coverage, especially in the London Review of Books, where it appears in the form of intelligent appraisals of books about the mess. In the current issue, Colid Kidd reviews Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem, by Tim Shipman. Like Fire and Fury, it is a “fly on the wall” assemblage of off-the-record interviews. According to Kidd, Shipman talked with “many of the dramatis personae in Theresa May’s topsy-turvy first year as prime minister,” a turn of phrase that could be applied exactly, save for the name and the office, to Michael Wolff’s book. There hasn’t been such fun since about 1720, when catastrophic financial bubbles burst almost simultaneously in Paris and London. A century from now, it will probably be a difficult to remember on which side of the Atlantic to paste “the Remainers” and on which “the Tea Party.” The role of xenophobic white supremacy in both upheavals is practically identical, which makes me wonder what, exactly, was accomplished by George Washington and his friends.

Over here, of course, the main event is the apparently self-destructive fever that is raging in both political parties. On both sides of the aisle, old centrists, fundamentally liberal in the classic sense of the term, are being sabotaged and discredited by no-longer-marginal extremes. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what “liberal in the classic sense of the term” means, but it is not liberalism itself that makes centrists so unpopular with activists (aside, that is, from the liberal willingness to compromise); rather, it is the centrists’ accommodation of business-as-usual practices. The most offensive of these, in the puritans’ eyes (and both fringes are puritan as only Americans could be), is taking money from rich donors. What makes rich donors so offensive is that they, too, have become activist: their gifts are not so much contributions as purchases. Rich people bought the Republican Party some time ago, but Democrats need money, too, and unions, the party’s traditional support, are shrinking. Whatever the source, campaign funding causes some degree of slippage between representatives and constituents. This is potentially fatal to liberal democracy, which is why I place Buckley v Valeo alongside the Dred Scott decision as an example of egregious Supreme Court error.

Colin Kidd points out that the 48% of Britons who voted to Remain no longer have any significant representation in Parliament on the issue. This is broadly true of many issues, such as housing and education, on which established elders seem deaf to the needs of the young. It’s an intriguing reversal of the situation in the Sixties, when, aside from serious differences about Vietnam and the Bomb, young people wanted little more than permission to live in a loosened-up society. We were a spoiled bunch, we boomers, and, like racists, we never understood just how spoiled we were. Our children and grandchildren are more hard-headed, but they’re having to teach themselves from scratch, because we denatured their educations in the name of — freedom, was it? Whatevs.


I came across an interesting new word the other day: paracosm. In the current issue of Harper’s, T M Luhrmann writes,

In the late 1970s, Robert Silvey, an audience researcher at the BBC started using the word “paracosm” to describe the private worlds that children create, like the North Paricific island of Gondal that Emily and Anne Brontë dreamed up when they were girls.But paracosms are not unique to children. Besotted J R R Tolkien fans, for instance, have a similar relationship with Middle-earth. … God becomes more real for people who turn their faith into a paracosm.

So the word isn’t actually new at all, just new to me. The idea, however, has been billowing in my brain for some time, in search of a name. In my application, the paracosm is simply “the real world,” the world that we believe in, with more or less force, whether we can see it or not. In my paracosm, for example, the people who live in my neighborhood, however crabby and impatient and occasionally loud, are good people. They want to be good people, anyway. Being good people in New York means accepting a pretty wide range of personal differences, or at least feeling safe among strangers. The good people of Yorkville may be individually embroiled in hateful relationships and ghastly family feuds, but as regards the people they don’t know, they’re good people. Feeling that I am living in a society, a largely invisible cloud, of good people makes me feel good.

Another element of my paracosmic reality is the belief that there is nothing imperfect about human beings. What we are is all that we can expect to be. Our complications, our contradictions, our confusion — these are features, not bugs. It is adolescent to wish otherwise. Our mortality is essential to our species. None of this is to deny for a moment my modern liberal belief that we must do everything that we can to help everyone to live a life of comfort and dignity: that, and nothing less, is the only happiness worthy of pursuing.

And yet I sit here, in my quiet apartment, reading and writing. In my paracosm — and some readers may take this to be an indictment of it — reading and writing amount to doing something. It is something that I feel that I do well, even if I have done almost nothing to spread this opinion. I try to persuade people to think, because I believe that thinking may lead them to act. I don’t believe that it is possible anymore to persuade people to act without causing them to think first. The direct connection between powerful words and meaningful active responses has been corroded or broken by decades of advertising. The only way to persuade someone to do something without inspiring them to think about it first is to do it yourself.

In another piece in Harper’s, part of the same collection of essays about persuasion, Mychal Denzel Smith writes,

The proper role of protest is to dramatize the unequal distribution of power.  What protests are not charged with is upholding reverence for the institutions that make them necessary. A brutal system of police, prosecutors, and politicians has rendered American symbols meaningless, and the onus is on the US government to restore their meaning — to convince the marchers and kneelers and petitioners and organizers of its commitment to progress. We achieve peace not by demanding hat those who expose our contradictions be silent but by pressuring the powerful to convince the rest of us that there is no reason to shout.

In other words, the élites who have been doing business as usual for the past several generations have to stop talking and start doing. My self-appointed job is to figure out what, in a liberal frame of reference, is doable, and to distinguish it from what is doable as an emergency measure. Since I only just now figured this out, I’m hardly an expert. I know little more than where to begin.


Thursday 25th

Seeing that it’s Virginia Woolf’s birthday — a hundred years ago today, she turned 36 (my father was already four years old, and my mother would be born later in the year) — I should like to revisit last Friday’s entry, in which I wrote about reading Woolf’s last novel, The Years, and really liking it, even though six months ago (not even) I discarded a copy of the novel because I’d gotten the idea that it was a failure.

After finishing Friday’s writing, I pulled out Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf and realized that it from her book that I’d heard that The Years was not a success. Worse, I made the demoralizing discovery that the entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary that had inspired me to read the novel —

The miracle is accomplished. L put down the last sheet about 12 last night, and could not speak. He was in tears. He says it is “a most remarkable book” — he likes it better than The Waves — and has not a spark of doubt that it must be published. (4 November 1936)

— was rooted in mendacity, for Leonard Woolf confessed, years after Virginia’s death, that he had not thought that The Years was very good at all, but feared that it would kill Virginia to hear this. He lied to her! I feel somewhat ridiculous, sounding shocked, shocked about something that all Woolf scholars and students must know perfectly well, and even though even I know that the essence of the marriage was that Leonard took care of Virginia. I’m grateful that Virginia’s diary at least temporarily obliterated whatever I remembered reading in Lee; I’d never have read The Years otherwise. It was interesting to read (once again, but I don’t recall the first time) that The Years was a publishing success.

So, I’m a chump who liked it.

What’s wrong with it, then? Lee writes,

Because of her horror of propaganda, her feeling that art should subsume politics, and her fear of being laughed at, a good deal of the book’s explicit argument is buried. And so The Years is a kind of crippled text, which disables itself while writing about a disabled society. As she rewrote and rewrote, struggling for a language that would “fit” what she was thinking about, she came to think of it as a kind of failure: but as a deliberate failure. (665)

It’s an interesting notion, “a disabled society.” It’s a distinctly modern idea — I want to say modernist — in its professional detachment. If there’s something wrong, then the critics will point it out, so that something can be done by the experts. The very idea of a disabled society posits the image of a healthy one, and the more that I read of and about the period 1850-1950 (to be very rough), the more palpably looms the tormented sense of a near-Eden that had come to an end with the revolutions of the late Eighteenth Century. Certainly those revolutions — political, industrial, scientific, social (the women’s revolution, which began with the others, is still burning) — disrupted traditional social arrangements. But to claim that they disabled society, as indeed most modern artists did, was to reject revolutionary aims, and another thing that becomes clearer over time is that modernism was an essentially reactionary movement. (This time, it would be the artists and intellectuals who got to carry on, living the irresponsible high life that the aristocracies of birth had earlier enjoyed.)

What was arguably “disabled” about British society in Woolf’s day was its pretension of stability. In this, most Britons were complicit, naturally responding to surprising upheavals by hunkering down with traditions. In The Years, it is the men who cling to the past, while the women itch with impatience. Woolf shows us this without telling us a thing. She shows us the succession of Kitty Lasswade’s automobiles, which get sleeker and faster; the 1914 chapter ends with an exhilarating drive from a railway station uphill to a castle, lingering over a moment of suspense on a steep grade where, in earlier cars, Kitty would have had to get out and walk. But not this time! Despite the fact that Kitty is very rich, and cars still rare, and despite the fact that the the cars that appear at the end of the book are unimpressive taxis that clog London’s traffic, any attempt to read this passage as a critique of society has to be perverse and contorted. It is the joyous celebration of a new but simple pleasure.

Something that struck me quite forcibly about the party at the end of the novel was the insouciance with which the younger people push the furniture to the walls and roll up the carpets — true, Delia, the hostess, helps them, but without comment or complaint — so that they can dance to phonograph records. Woolf leaves it entirely to the reader to savor the sheer unimaginability of such doings back at the novel’s beginning, in the double drawing room of Abel Pargiter’s house in Abercorn Terrace, c 1880. It’s not so much the dancing as the empowerment of youth. Abel’s children were more or less imprisoned in his household, ruled by an unquestioned patriarchy. This has entirely disappeared fifty years later.

At the bottom of the same page from which I have already quoted, Lee goes on,

No one in the novel is allowed to make a speech or complete a statement. Instead of “preaching,” the structure of the novel itself makes a gesture against totalitarianism. There is no hero, no tragic or climactic plot, no resolution. Instead there is open-endedness, uncertainty, collective voices. The novel, by the very method of indirection and suggestion which cost her so much to achieve, resists the agents of tyranny. Those figure repeatedly in the book: they are men saying “I, I, I”; oppressive icons of worship, loudspeakers, searchlights, hectoring voices at Speakers’ Corner…

and so on. It seems to me that Lee is describing a triumph, not a failure.


As we come to the end of the month, I can regard one new development as an overall success, and that is the revival, at the beginning of the year, of the original Daily Blague. Several years ago, I tried bringing it back to life, but it didn’t take. I have higher hopes this time. While the struggle to provide an entry every day has been beyond me, I can feel the life ot it. Although I like to think that I write about many things, it is very clear that I have two different kinds of interests, and the kind that might best be described as “housekeeping” will be the one animating the old Daily Blague. Regular readers of this site (the Daily Blague / reader) will not have to dread prolonged accounts of my ransacking the apartment in search of a missing book, but if you like to hear me laugh at myself, yesterday’s Daily Blague entry may bring a smile. I hope to write a lot of short pieces about food, ageing, and so on, but the underlying issue will be this: the secret of masculine efficiency is that most men don’t have to think about housekeeping. It’s not the doing housework that’s distracting, but the planning. And while most men will happily confess that it is not worth their time to dwell on such matters, American society appears to be drifting toward the conviction that no amount of achievement or glory justifies reducing another person to servility. To put this another way, nobody ought to be just a housekeeper, and everybody ought to be one part-time. What that would look like is pretty much the experiment of my everyday life.


Friday 26th

Even before I got to David Brooks’s column this morning, my fears for the collapse of civilization were on the boil, stirred by a paragraph in the current New Yorker.

Kushner had an interim clearance that gave him access to intelligence. He was also added to a list of recipients of the President’s Daily Brief, or P.D.B., a top-secret digest of the U.S. government’s most closely held and compartmentalized intelligence reports. By the end of the Obama Administration, seven White House officials were authorized to receive the same version of the P.D.B. that appeared on the President’s iPad. The Trump Administration expanded the number to as many as fourteen people, including Kushner. A former senior official said, of the growing P.D.B. distribution list, “It got out of control. Everybody thought it was cool. They wanted to be cool.”

This is from “Soft Target,” a piece about Jared Kushner by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos. They wanted to be cool. I presume that none of the recipients of the PDB were teenagers, but the persistence of an adolescent outlook is obvious. Real adults learn to trae in the term “cool,” and all that it stands for — I’ll let you fill in the list, but don’t forget “sexy” and whatever currently passes for automotive distinction — and settle for the relatively detached “interesting.” This is more than a change of vocabulary. Having outgrown the infantile implication of “cool,” which is “I want it now,” the adult says instead, “I’ll think about it.”

But perhaps adolescence is preferable to the cure offered by this Jordan Peterson fellow whom David Brooks writes about today. Peterson is apparently the brainy version of Tim Ferris. Life is tough, read the Stoics. Stop whining, stand up straight, take responsibility, &c &c. My problem with this sort of advice is that it presents life as an ordeal that must be undergone individually, a fraught series of rites of passage. Collective action is rejected out of hand. I’m no socialist, but I see civilized life as an essential collective action, requiring genuine commitment, not just lip service. That is certainly not Peterson’s view (according to Brooks).

All of life is perched, Peterson continues, on the point between order and chaos. Chaos is the realm without norms and rules. Chaos, he writes, is “the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.”

Chaos, the eternnal feminine. Yikes! From Goethe to Beowulf; surely progress lies in the opposite direction? It’s sickening to think of a young man wrapping up an imaginary and ignorant idea of what women are like and expelling it from his vision of humanity. And as for those “choosy maters” — I chuckled appreciatively at that extraordinary pun — cf the adage that there is no such thing as a man who cannot find a wife if he really wants one.

Adolescence is at least more sociable. The healthy adult male, in my view, can set aside what are really nothing but shocked responses to the newly maturing body, without walling himself up in defensive armor. He does not fear grizzlies in dark caves because he does not enter dark caves alone, or without plenty of illumination. He cultivates and enjoys the benefits of civilization. Other people can count on him so that he can count of them.

Adults also accept death, early on; they don’t wait for the death of a parent to spook them. They realize that they must die, to earthly existence anyway, for life to go on. Life is not a temporary possession but an open-ended organic sequence of births and deaths. For there to be a future, there must be a past. If death stops, life stops. At the highest levels of theology, all religions caution that the meaning of it all might lie beyond human understanding.

Vainglory is the shocked adolescence response to mortality, an attempt to evade it. Let me die, then, says the would-be hero, so long as my deeds are known to all men at all times. You have a better chance of winning the lottery, however, than of leading the life of a new Alexander, and, anyway, making and belonging to a happy family is more useful and more satisfying.

There! And I’ve managed not to drag in Andrew Sullivan!

Bon week-end à tous!

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!

Gotham Diary:
The Bentley
January 2018 (II)

9, 10 and 12 January

Tuesday 9th

Ageing is not for sissies, they say. But it’s the sort of thing that gets said only the morning after, when conditions have returned normal, leaving behind nothing worse than an intensified recognition that “normal” is always inching toward death.

On Sunday morning, I awoke feeling warm enough under the covers, but disturbed by the menace of a chill. I ought, I thought, to pull another blanket over me, or perhaps just the luxurious beach towel that Kathleen and I call “the mink,” because it brings instant warmth. But I wanted to stay under the covers, so I did nothing — nothing, that is, but dwell on the impending chill, which in a little while became real enough. The occasional shiver soon gave way nonstop shaking in my arms and shoulders. Kathleen can sleep through anything, and even my mewling and whining on top of the seismics did not disturb her, so, after half an hour, I had to cry out to wake her. She covered me with more blankets, but the shivering went on unabated. Eventually, I had to go to the bathroom, where, overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability, I incidentally discovered that there was nothing wrong with my GI tract. Nor did I have a fever. Back in bed, still possessd by an upper-body tarantella, I ventured, through chattering teeth, the diagnosis that I was suffering from an anxiety attack. Kathleen had a pill for that and she gave me one. Whether it was the right pill or not, I stopped shaking almost immediately. I felt awful for the rest of day, largely from the wear and tear of all that involuntary rock ‘n’ roll, but it was clear that nothing would have happened if I hadn’t been such a sissy to begin with.

I managed to “get through Christmas.” I really did enjoy it. But I am in terrible shape and must do something about it. Just to cheer me up à la Bronx, my blood pressure, taken during this afternoon’s quarterly visit to the rheumatologist, was 124/80. Smoke and mirrors! I told the nurse that if she would come back in fifteen minutes, I could guarantee 164/105, but she didn’t take me up on it.


For some reason, a novel called Lunch With Elizabeth David, by Roger Williams (Little, Brown; 1999) has been shelved high up the living room amidst a clutch of poetry books, instead of with the novels. So I see it whenever I am sitting with Kathleen before or after dinner. Had it been with the novels, I’d probably have given it away by now, for I remember not liking it very much. I appear to have ordered it from Amazon in the UK at the tail end of an Elizabeth David craze. I can’t find either book right now, but in the mid-Nineties two biographies of the famous British food writer appeared almost simultaneously (one of them by Artemis Cooper [née Diana, after her grandmother]), and I read them back to back. Instead of going on to read David herself, however, I followed other tangents. Most memorably, I read South Wind, which I’d never heard of, by Norman Douglas, whom ditto. I disliked it rather a lot; it struck me as a sort of Lucia without the fun. There were too many maxims and too much poetical prose. Then, along came Williams’ novel, with a big, big part for Douglas and not much for David.

Before the biographies, I had been awakened to Elizabeth David by a feature in The World of Interiors devoted to the kitchens in her Chelsea house, the contents of which were about to be auctioned (the kitchens and the auction figure in Lunch almost as surrogates for David herself). Yes, two kitchens, one for summer and one for winter. The kitchens were aggressively retro, with nothing more advanced than a four-burner cooker and not an electric appliance in sight. In later years, David was said to sit at one end of an enormous kitchen table — from an old stately home, probably — and occasionally check on whatever was cooking in the oven, without having to leave her seat, or, for that matter, to put down her wineglass. Unhappy in love throughout her life — she was too good for the men who attracted her, and not attracted to good men — David drank herself, not into an early grave exactly (she made it into her eighties), but into a premature seclusion from the world that was dictated by the erosion of her charms and the deterioration of her mobility.

Eventually, I got round to reading her, and, on the page, she is eternal, the match of any writer in any field. She is one of the lasting literary feminists, women who persuade any sensible reader of the balanced equality of the sexes simply by being as interesting as any man. She had the genius to write about food like a gourmand, hitherto an exclusively masculine specialty, and only where absolutely necessary as a cook in a kitchen. She was totally guyish in the ostentatious display of a not-entirely-honest thesis that everything culinary is really easy-peasy, no sweat, once you understand it correctly. She and Julia Child had nothing but ingredients in common and, wisely, they never met. David’s recipe for veal scallops cauchoise (apples, Calvados, and cream) is indeed, as she insists, the only interesting thing that can be done with this particular cut of meat. (Wienerschnitzel works much better with chicken.) At the same time, I utterly disagree with her contempt for gadgets. An uncoordinated doofus with a knife, I need all the help I can get. Nevertheless, I read her screed against garlic presses with glee just the same.

Shirley Hazzard wrote a lovely little book about Douglas and his crowd in her memoir, Greene on Capri. Greene was an unlikely friend of Douglas, I’d have thought, but no, there was some concord of bells in their alternative modernisms. Douglas wanted to be a pagan, Greene a Christian. In Capri, they could be lapsed, and let the environment supply the baroque and the classical as needed. Hazzard features an important member of the cercle whom Williams omits, the formidable Dottoressa (lady doctor, need I say? but doctor of what?). I forget everything about this doughty Italian woman but her title, which I faintly recall to have been medical. I foresee a spell of truffle-hunting in my shelves.

Roger Williams’s novel — I’ll tell you later, in connection with another book, why I chose to re-read it now — is really rather good, if you’re willing to let him treat the lady of his title, as so many great playwrights have done, as a tantalizing offstage presence. She does appear, and not just once, but the book is “about” her only to the extent that it is about enjoying the great simple pleasures. And what would those be? In Chapter 5, Douglas and his young charge run into an inn-full of Italian emigrants to America, Pittsburgh mostly, who have returned to Apulia for the St Michael festival. Whatever their status in their newfound land, they are lords of the earth back in Italy, and they can’t imagine why anybody stays.

Douglas smiled. “How right you are. There is no fucking money here. And that is why I like it.”

The man looked at Douglas’s twinkling eyes for a moment, wondering if they were patronizing him. Then he laughed and clapped Douglas on the back. “More wine for this Mister,” he shouted, and he put his face close. “Of course you like it,” he said, “because in the land without lire the man with a soldo is king.” (80)

And there you have it: why a world of easy sophistication vanished in the era of Postwar prosperity. It costs a lot of money, relatively speaking, to make veal cauchoise nowadays. Even a good Granny Smith apple isn’t cheap.


Wednesday 10th

Oprah, Don’t Do It,” ran the headline of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times. If I had all day, I’d wonder (as Frank Bruni did in his Op-Ed column today) how long the Oprah bubble is going to float, and how we will remember it when it pops. The most interesting thing about it right now is the enormous personal authority that Ms Winfrey brings to her intersection of the political and media worlds, which might possibly pierce the former with the latter’s new insistence on the integrity of women. And her (black) life is one that matters as much as anybody’s.

Williams’s piece looked to be, like so many recent Op-Ed entries, obvious, jejune, and unnecessary. And it was, but I’m glad that I read it, because it clarified the muddle of blue-state politics down to one muddled word, and that word is “serious.” It is time to get serious about what this word means in politics, by insisting that it signify not an attitude but a platform. Mr Williams:

I am not immune to Oprah’s charms, but President Winfrey is a terrible idea. It also underscores the extent to which Trumpism — the kowtowing to celebrity and ratings, the repudiation of experience and expertise — has infected our civic life. The ideal post-Trump politician will, at the very least, be a deeply serious figure with a strong record of public service behind her. It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act.

Hmm: at the very least, be a deeply serious figure… Serious about what? Serious about what, exactly? Experience and expertise sound great, but what kind of experience and expertise are we looking for in a president? Here we can at least point to presidents who have accrued political experience and expertise in statehouses, as governors, and if I were re-writing the Constitution, no one but state governors could be elected Chief Executive. “Serious,” in contrast, doesn’t seem to mean much. A frown? A deliberative air? As I say, it can’t be a mere attitude. What are the qualities of the serious politician? And to what extent do we forgive that politician for taking his or her career seriously? These are two very serious questions raised by the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was nothing if not deeply serious.

Oprah Winfrey’s appearance on the political scene is exciting because she brings a proven gift for leadership into the discussion. Seriousness is no substitute for leadership. Seriousness is helpless, as we have seen, when confronted with leadership’s evil twin, demagoguery. And yet how exactly does leadership distinguish itself from demagoguery? Der Führer means “the leader”; how do we institutionalize, as every liberal democracy must, and yet none has yet done, protections that prevent embryo Hitlers from posing as leaders? This problem has not been solved, which is probably why Williams doesn’t talk about leadership. Twentieth-century nightmares have left everyone uneasy with leaders, so that aside from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, we have done without leadership in this country, settling instead for uneasy blends of seriousness and charm. I’m pretty sure that President Winfrey would have a self-improvement Program for every American man, woman and child that many would follow and that most would admire. But we’d be lucky to have her. Nothing in our political culture that could take credit for producing, or even nourishing her.

I hope that the Oprah bubble floats long enough for it to teach us to be more specific about what we’re looking for.


Friday 12th

A word or two about Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

First of all, why?

Because Craig Brown wrote it. We do not follow Craig Brown in America, perhaps because his humor is so deeply embedded in an ear for the varieties of spoken English that he is a virtual philologist. We do not speak English in America; we speak American, a mongrel patois. The British are not fond of mongrels. Britons seem devoted to breeding, horses or sheep or petunias or even swedes — er, turnips. The “class system” is the inevitable application of this passion for distinction to human beings, as manifested not only by accents but by manners of speaking. (It would be “such fun!” to hear the Queen talk about “our Charlie.”) For me, the philosophical question is whether English can be spoken by someone who is not invested in the class system. Craig Brown gives proof that one can listen with the coolest dispassion.

Brown is a mimic, a parodist. He listens closely, and then repeats with interesting, vaguely dissonant variations. He imagines an alternative universe in which Margaret Rose was born first, before Elizabeth, and he gives us a Christmas Message from Margaret I, dated 1977. It is not the highlight of the book, but I can imagine that English readers, few of whom can have been alive before the tap of royal bromide was turned on (by George V), must experience a frisson of dismay mixed with transgressive glee at Margaret’s closing:

And with this in mind, I’ll wish you all a very happy Christmas, not because I really want to, but because I suppose I must. (397)

It is difficult to imagine the reign of Margaret I stretching all the way to 1977. Second, where do I get that idea? I refer you to Brown’s sixty-eighth glimpse, which raises but does not explore the whole curious business of British royal-watching. He doesn’t even mention that they don’t go in for such things elsewhere, even where crowned heads still nod. I believe that the highly ambivalent pastime of following the doings of Princess Michael of Kent and the rest is itself rooted in the English language, in its peculiarly sophisticated strains of mockery, by which I mean sophisticated ways of being crude. I was thinking about a lewd joke involving Princess Margaret and an automobile that I’d otherwise forgotten, but that’s why God invented Google, so here it is, if you dare. I’m not saying that the joke wouldn’t occur, or wouldn’t work, in another language, but the funny bit is not really the chauffeur’s remark but the setup, which is the dainty confessions of the the Queen and Lady Di to the Queen Mother, after their encounter with the highwayman. It is very funny, somehow, to imagine these particular ladies speaking of “private places.” You almost expect the punchline.

It’s the sort of sordid sexual caricature that doomed Marie Antoinette and Alexandra. In Britain, though, it has no political bite whatsoever, even when told by a republican who feel that the Firm is a waste of money. Something about the House of Windsor, interacting with something about the Twentieth Century — perhaps Wallis Simpson was the catalyst — precipitated an enormous volume of impudent and irreverent commentary, all of it written down somewhere, mostly in newspapers, about the Royal Family. A corpus of nicknames and euphemisms was developed over the generations, complete with contributions by the Royal Family itself (“the Firm,” for example). Instead of alienating the monarch and her family from her subjects, it has bound them together in a ritual disrepect — calling the Queen “Brenda,” and so forth — that drains pomposity from the ritual pomp. It is a sleight-of-hand show in which everybody knows, or thinks he knows, how it’s done.

From an early age, and quite openly once her sister was crowned, Margaret behaved like an in-house Wallis: naughty, impatient, fun-seeking, faux-bohemian. Margaret ought to have been a lollipop of a girl who professed to like everything. Instead, she dropped her middle name. She discovered that it was much funnier to say that she hated everything, whether she meant it or not, simply to overthrow the expectation. It was beyond her intellectual reach to make truly interesting comments, so she had to settle for the shock of being rude.

It’s an emblem of the enigma of Margaret — was she imaginative or dim? — that she seems to have regarded herself as more royal than her sister because, while they were both daughters of a king, only Margaret had a queen for a sister, too. There is something compelling, if hare-brained, about this conclusion.

That is why everybody knows that Margaret would have made a botch of the monarchy, and perhaps even brought it to an end.

Third, speechless. If you have doubts about the pleasures of Ma’am Darling, I suggest that you find a copy in a quiet bookshop, retire to a quiet corner, and see if you can keep it quiet while you read Glimpse Nº 70 (294)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
January 2018 (I)

2, 3 and 4 January 2018

Tuesday 2

Halfway through the book, I’ve already flagged a dozen passages with Post-its. Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries (hereinafter “VFD“) has turned out to be amazingly more important than I thought it would be. I expected fun, guilty pleasure, recollections of youth, that sort of thing —  vanity, in short. I dithered for weeks about buying the book at all, finally justifying its purchase as a holiday treat. I did not expect to like Tina Brown.

Whether I would like Tina Brown in person is neither here nor there. But on the page, she appeals to me as winningly as the heroine of any novel I can think of (except perhaps Emma Woodhouse, who has her own heaven). Tina Brown is smart and good in almost equal measure, and the difficulty of determining which quality is preponderant makes for suspenseful reading. Her brains are obvious — prodigious brains, three or four times more charged than my own were at the time (and I’m five years older). Of course she captures the rush, rush, rush of New York’s media life, the thrill and occasional despair of taking on a chancy publishing project (advertisers took a while to catch up with Vanity Fair‘s circulation), and I helplessly hear these dramatic passages as if Helen Mirren were reading them. But Brown’s range is as wide as any good novelist’s, and sometimes she steps back to transcribe a conversation (more likely an argument)  in which she herself does not take part. Once she becomes a mother, she reveals a streak of serenity that must always have been there. But she never spares herself. From an early entry:

Everyone at the party was so famous but unfortunately I had never heard of them. I said to Shirley MacLaine, “What do you do?” She gave me a manic, hostile stare and went on talking to Ed Epstein about how he should research a book about flying saucers. (43)

What grips me, though, is the sense that, even as she roars from success to success, Tina Brown is making a terrible mistake, in the way that we watch Isabel Archer make a terrible mistake in The Portrait of a Lady. The difference is that Brown’s mistake concerns not her personal life but American culture. The nature of the mistake glimmers in the final entry for 1984:

We are seeing the invasion of DC by California and Park Avenue, the fusion of Women’s Wear Daily values with Washington Post power watching, a cast of characters who see everything through the lens of Hollywood and Le Cirque. It’s perfect fodder for a magazine called Vanity Fair. I have been experiencing the endless round of black-tie dinners and openings as a trivial sidebar to the main event. But now it seems at this moment they are the main event, central to understanding how the money moves around and why. It could all collapse and we will see it as some fin de siècle gallery of grotesques and wish we had been more attentive. (127-8)

Attentive to what? That Tina Brown, endowed with ultra-sensitive antennae, could be missing something is hard to imagine. But her remarks betray the fact that the important thing that’s possibly being overlooked is not small. It is not elusive or difficult to track down. It is as huge as the country itself. It is the coalescence of all the various local, state, federal, professional, industrial and financial élites into one mass of equalized celebrities, held in balance by “the money.”

It is easy to dismiss glamour, but just as easy to underestimate its power, particularly when a genius like Tina Brown figures out how to bond it with seriousness to produce a brand-new compound with miraculous properties. From late 1985:

Just in from a soirée for the cabaret pianist Bobby Short. Some diamond-studded socialite crooned at me, “My dear, you have certainly found your audience, and it’s me! Vanity Fair is a society movie magazine. You don’t remember what they are, but you’re it.” She’s half-right. But it’s more the VF attitude to fame and the mix of stories that ensnare the reader with juxtaposition. We give intellectuals movie star treatment and movie stars an intellectual sheen and the same is true of the audience. Brainy people in our pages seem more glamorous and movie people seem more substantive. I love putting madcap Princess Gloria von Turn und Taxis in the same issue as Schiff’s profile of the editor of the National Review. Both of them are hidden stars in their own world, but combined in a magazine that has Dustin Hoffman on the cover, they confer fascination on each other. It’s funny how sometimes the mix takes on a life of its own and goes off the cliff. The January issue is suddenly so full of people with bald heads that I had to kill three of them today. (176)

Reading this thirty-four years later, at the beginning of the second calendar year of the Trump presidency, I gasp at the unwitting adroitness with which Tina Brown and her staff made straight in the desert a highway to the White House for the man whom she compares, in these pages, to Elvis Presley. Vanity Fair became a universal directory of notable Americans, splitting the nation into teams of those who would do almost anything to break into its pages and those who could be stoked into hatred of established institutions by carnival barkers who mocked its membership. Worse, the people with listings in Vanity Fair were distracted from their regular duties by the “trivial sidebar” of showing up to honor their hordes of peers, not to mention the stress of looking after “the money.” There are moments in VFD when Tina Brown sounds like a naval architect who has just designed a cruise ship to capsize in a tsunami.

As I say, I’m only about halfway through. I expect that I’ll have more to say. My feelings toward the heroine of VFD are forgiving. She came from a small country where the élite has for generations come from a handful of schools, and everybody has always known everybody else. With just a couple of issues under her belt, Tina Brown opined,

America is too big, too rich, too driven. America needs editing. (96)

I agree, but maybe it’s a good thing that, unlike Tina Brown, I couldn’t do anything about it.


Wednesday 3rd

Then there is that magic place, which Tina Brown calls “Transatlantica.”

That place between England and America is the only world where I can be happy now. (308)

In the kingdom of Transatlantica, well-dressed people with well-dressed minds work hard during the week but luxuriate in well-upholstered tranquillity during the weekend. There are two capitals. One is very charming, as cities go, and it is surrounded by sopping green lanes. The other is the acme of excitement, and it is within reach of one of the world’s longest beaches. A handful of grand old universities nourish rigorous learning alongside quaint, antediluvian tradition. The students are bright young people who go on to rise to the top in their professions and produce more bright young people. Transatlanticans share the general human interest in sex, but they have a peculiar passion for talk. They publish all the books printed in English, and little of cultural note happens outside of their realm.

If you ask me, it was inordinate belief in the magic of Transatlantica that put Donald Trump in the White House and that may put the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Transatlantica does not exist. Its would-be inhabitants share real-world citizenship with millions of men and women who have never heard of it, and would resent it if they did.

For some people, climate change and global warming are the big problem. For others, it’s late-stage capitalism and the unintended side-effects of a global economy. For me, it’s the tendency of every thoughtful Anglophone to find companionship if not comfort in London or New York. Or rather, it’s the tendency of Transatlanticans to imagine that the lives that they feel very lucky to enjoy would be desirable by all.

After the beauty of the [Elkhorn Ranch in Arizona] the Tucson mall was disorienting and depressing: a sprawling, characterless mess of Kmarts and gas stations and drugstores. As we drove around in the blinding rain, or cruised down the fluorescent-lit aisles of throbbing products in the gigantic pharmacy where we went to collect G’s prescriptions, I thought how this is an America I will never warm to, America as a huge, vacant, product-filled, centerless, culturally sterile parking lot. It’s fiercely alien to me and in a way I’m glad that it is. If it weren’t, I’m not sure I’d be able to successfully edit Vanity Fair. I might not have the confidence to choose with uninhibited focus what interests me to read about. (ibidem)

I am no fan of fluorescent-lit aisles. But I can remember when they didn’t exist, when American shops were dingy and poky, just like everybody else’s. I can remember when, in the Seventies, the big Targets and Kmarts went up in the center of parking lots, their merchandise plentifully arrayed on clean, brightly-lighted shelves. We were all wowed. Nobody expected Tarjay to be charming, but nobody expected it to be ubiquitous, either, and it took a while to realize that these emporia were really warehouses, the merchants having been swept away with the dust. That’s when it dawned on educated Americans that their country had become “huge, vacant, product-filled,” and so on. But it was only the educated who had these misgivings. Everyone else just parked the car, ran in for whatever was needed, paid for it, and ran back to the car again. No biggie.

Education has failed Transatlanticans in one respect. It has not helped them to live with their uneducated countrymen. To be sure, when Tina Brown was writing her diary entries, it wasn’t so obvious that education ought to have forestalled, instead of perversely feeding, the mounting contempt with which educated Britons and Americans regarded their uneducated neighbors — who, of course, soon ceased to be neighbors, as the affluent segregated themselves in expensive conclaves. Education appears to have taught that it’s the lack of education that’s the failure. I only hope that this mistake won’t turn out to be as fatal as contempt for the common people was for the French upper classes not much more than two centuries ago.

It goes without saying that I’d be a happy Transatlantican myself, if I could, if it were possible. But it isn’t. I can’t even pretend to believe in Susan Sontag’s metaphor about Manhattan, as an ocean liner tied up to the docks of America. For one thing, guess where Donald Trump has lived for most of his adult life.


Thursday 4th

Regular readers, if asked to free-associate from the name of Tina Brown, would probably sooner rather than later come up with the word “glitz.” This isn’t because Brown or her Vanity Fair were particularly glitzy, but were rather taking the whole fun of glitz way upmarket. Anybody might look at her magazine, but only educated people could read it, or would want to. That meant us. It had been a long time — more than fifty years — since the likes of us had been tempted by qualities spelled with the letter ‘z.’ When Tina Brown took over Vanity Fair, glitz is pretty much all we saw. We would not have been surprised to read Brown’s judgment of one piece that appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair before she got her hands on it: “There’s a brainy but boring Helen Vendler essay next to an Amy Clampitt poem…” (26) Helen Vendler is never boring, but she might, admittedly, be miscast in a publication devoted to the more ephemeral manifestations of wit and sophistication. We would have ironically clucked that Vendler isn’t glitzy enough for Vanity Fair, but we would have been wrong to think that that meant there was something wrong with the magazine.

There is very little glitz in VFD. Brown notes several lunches at the Four Seasons over the years — she must have sat through dozens — but it’s always for business, and such pleasure as is on offer tends toward the mordant. (The patrons are all “plotting each other’s downfall.”) The restaurant itself leaves her cold, as indeed it did me the couple of times I was there and Kathleen the many more. “So antiseptic and colorless. Why do power people want to go there?” (ibidem) Why, indeed? After a while, the bold-face names that stud the VFD entries shrink a bit into who they actually are: people Tina Brown knows and, on occasion, must put up with. And do business with. Tina Brown likes to do business, if it’s the media business. She loves competition and is always elated by success — no false world-weariness here. Her house at Quoque is a blessed asylum, but, like Horace, she would always like to be in the other place. She is onto that about herself, though, and self-pity never has a chance.

Readers who think of Tina Brown as glitzy might feel justified by the passage that I have copied out below, but I beg them to study it until it becomes clear that no merely glitzy, or even significantly glitzy writer could have composed it. It is a masterpiece of expanding view. Beginning with “what I wore” it widens by sure steps to include the full-throttle, almost hilarious vitality of a Costume Institute opening in the Eighties. I know — I went the year before. (Strictly B group.) Fashion may be vain and silly, but it is also utterly human, and virulently infectious. And I think it’s pretty clear from Brown’s tone that this is an experience that would pall if it were not always presented in new settings and with new people. There can be only one Costume Institute opening a year. And the secret, which has been lost in the social insecurity state, was that the doors were flung open much wider in those days; the event was not nearly as exclusive as it would become.

It’s also worth noting that any man who expressed such open pleasure at simply being somewhere would almost inevitably be gay. Why is that?

I borrowed a silver velvet evening coat from Jackie Rogers to wear over a thin black silk full-length evening sack she made me to hide the bulge. A professional makeup artist came to do my face, which I didn’t much like, but it made me feel suitably glam. I loved the excess and finery and ostentation of it all, teetering past the Egyptian mummies and fading frescoes in our silly heels, herding into an elevator in a clash of perfumes and rustle of silks, disembarking into the darkened Costumes of Royal India show to oohs and aahs over outsize gold mannequins swathed in glittering silks and jewel-encrusted turbans, with the appreciative murmur of visiting Indian high society and the excited chatter of Gayfryd Steinberg and her posse. The walkers were out in force — the mincing gait of Peter Schub with Lynn Hyatt one arm and bouffante Judy Peabody on the other. Reinaldo Herrera in a tux has the inverted A waist of the society man par excellence, escorting on his left hand his lofty, expensively-coiffed mother, on his right, Carolina, his Eva Peron-like wife. After dinner we wandered into the Temple of Dendur, where Peter Duchin was pounding the piano and a million candles lit the drafty spaces where the B group, who didn’t get seated, sparkled and networked and hustled. As Nick said, the bravery. This is what I appreciate most about the city at night, the life force of New York aspiration, wanting, wanting to be seen. The erratic flames of the myriad glowworms — the striving fashion assistants, makeup artists, art gallery gofers, photography apprentices, gossip stringers, all the glamour wannabes dressed up with their “looks” in place. How they danced. How they gestured and waved and admired one another’s glad rags, cutting like flamboyant tugs through the sea of jaded vessels such as the SS Jerry Zipkin and the SS Barbara Walters. This is the moment when the social energy of the city — in Diller’s word — metastasizes, when individual crassness and need are absorbed into the bedazzled, glory-seeking hum of “Look at me! I’m alive!” (179)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (III) Draft

26 and 30 December 26

Tuesday 26

Merry Christmas! I may be a little late saying that here, but that’s because I was making sure that we would have one on time, which we did. I don’t know when I was last so active, day after day. There was very little time for reading, and none at all for thinking or writing. I’m still a bit blank.

But the rush is over. We’ve had all the dinners. We’ve been to Messiah at Carnegie Hall. We even took in Harry Clarke, David Cale’s brilliant dramatic monologue, brilliantly performed by Billy Crudup, down at the Vineyard Theatre. Harry Clarke ends with a terrific pair of one-liners, delivered in two of the protagonist’s three voices, and I wish I could quote them exactly. The show is about a gay man from South Bend, called Philip Brugglestein, who assumes a North London accent when he makes his way to New York City. Harry Clarke is a Cockney alter ego into whom Philip slips when under pressure. Whereas Philip is prim and hesitant, Harry swaggers like Michael Caine or Jason Statham. The transitions between personae are usually surprising and always entertaining, but the comedy of shifting identity becomes quite dark as the evidence of psychosis piles up. Mr Crudup sizzled with smiling danger. I hope never to meet anyone like the man whom he was impersonating.

At Carnegie Hall, Kent Tritle led Musica Sacra in his austerely beautiful interpretation of Handel’s Messiah. It was at least the third time that we’ve made a point of decking out our holiday with this event, and I am finally persuaded that a smaller Messiah is not necessarily a lesser one. Stripped of posthumous ornamentation by Mozart or anyone else, the oratorio emerges as an urgent vocal meditation. The light string band — a dozen violins, three violas, and a bass consisting of cello, doublebass and bassoon, with sparingly-used pairs of oboes and trumpets (and drums at the very end) — provides the solos with unobtrusively defining harmonies and then almost disappears into a wash during the choruses. The chorus of thirty produced the sound of sixty with complete precision. Once again, Kathryn Lewek sang the soprano airs with beauty, accuracy and grace to match the chorus. It’s gratifying to see her name in the program and to think, I know that this evening’s soprano is going to hit all the high notes with impassioned charm.

Most nights, during the week, I knocked off Michael Prestwich’s Edward I. I found myself wishing for a more overtly economic analysis of Edward’s catastrophic money troubles. (The catastrophe eventually befell his son, Edward II.) Edward was not a spendthrift, but he was often at war, almost uninterruptedly so from 1294 to his death in 1307. Military operations appear to have become considerably more expensive during his reign, which began in 1272. Some of the increase was attributable to the final stages of a shift from feudal dues to money salaries, but armies also became larger, and their arms and armaments more powerful. There was no English precedent for the great and very expensive castles that Edward built in North Wales; the last of them, Beaumaris, was never finished. In the background of Prestwich’s biography, royal bureaucracy and the judiciary seem to become more institutional and professional, and commerce, especially the wool trade, grows more prosperous. And of course Parliament begins to assume a representative complexion. But for all the adumbration of modern government, Edward’s England is unquestionably medieval in character. The king was well-liked by his people, but his incessant exactions were understandably unwelcome; most of all, they suggest a misconception of needs and resources. The overall sense is one of backing into the future.


Saturday 30th

Not long after I began noticing them in The New Yorker, I learned not to read Alice Munro’s short stories. I found them terribly bleak. Everything about them was plain, or worse. The people were dull and discontent. They lived in drafty old farmhouses or airless suburban cottages. Love was apparently the subject, but I could not conceive of love, especially in its joyous aspect (which meant more to me than any other), amidst such repressive circumstances. The stories were set, for the most part, in rural Ontario, a territory that I had no desire to imagine, much less visit. My time in South Bend and Houston had replaced my childhood ignorance of country life with adult aversion; it seemed inhuman to me to persist in inhabiting such places. It still does.

But I have learned better about Alice Munro. I have been reading her collections since the beginning of this winter, and my delight is teaching me even more. Yesterday, while I was anxiously wondering when I would ever hear from Kathleen — she was flying home from a visit to her father in North Carolina — something clicked. I was in the middle of “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” (collected in The Progress of Love) when I grasped something about Munro’s fictional background. Just as Leonardo’s figures hover in misty, rocky landscapes, and Gainsborough’s take their ease in green parks, Munro’s characters slog past and away from confusion about the past. It is the same in story after story, and the cause of my old discomfort with her work. It is the illusion of an old world that is slipping into oblivion, a vanishing way of life that cannot, especially for heroines, vanish fast enough. It is an illusion because that old world is actually dying very young. It did not exist a century earlier; fifty years before that, even the people weren’t around.

The moment that illuminated this for me yesterday is almost too densely buried in the context of Munro’s story to extract without belaboring it; I hope that it’s enough to say that it involves the termination of passenger railroad service to the town in which the story takes place, about ten or fifteen years earlier. The most important consequence of this development for the brothers at the center of the story is the loss of their father. A conductor on the passenger trains — does this term, “conductor,” mean anything to younger readers? — the father was transferred to another town, from which he could visit his family by bus, which however he disliked doing. He couldn’t drive, either, and so his visits home ceased, and he died before retiring, so his widow is free to speculate that he might have returned to her eventually.

So the train is gone with the wind, and, with it, the network that bound every town of decent size to the nation at large. From now on, country people would have to spin their own webs, as their personal resources allowed. Some would have cars. Eventually, everyone would have a car, but most of Munro’s protagonists can remember not being able to afford one. Her most characteristic narrator is a woman who grew up on a farm before World War II. Sometimes, the farm might be close to enough to town to walk to, but an aspect of the illusion of Munro’s background is that Ontario is so vast that family members are prevented by distance alone from coming together for decades at a time. A cousin pays a rare visit — once — and the chore of putting up new wallpaper in the visitor’s bedroom is what really lodges in the memory. The reader may begin to imagine that the railroads, however empowering and impressive when they were built, came to be regarded as the enablers of intrusion and desertion. There is something about Munro’s towns that can’t grow, or can’t outgrow the frontier provisionality that has long since gone stale. All the boldness required for settling the province seems to have been exhausted in the opening moves; the settlers’ children exhibit the same grim tenacity that would have kept their forebears in the old country. And now, in the present moment of Munro’s fiction, nobody can remember how or why they came to be there.

At the heart of the illusion is a kind of timelessness: the farmers whose daughters long to go to university in Toronto are scions of families that never left Scotland or Ireland or Norway. For Munro’s older Ontarians, this illusion is a delusion, a response to the shock of transatlantic relocation. For several decades in the Nineteenth Century — European peasants were given an amazing new option, a grab at freedom and prosperity in North America. Steamships and railways carried them far into the new land. Then, just as quickly, the steamships and railways themselves became obsolete, replaced by cars and planes, modes of transportation that erase the middle distance. Exciting novelties became outdated clichés — in the space of a generation. The former peasants had to learn that freedom and prosperity would mean something very different to their children, especially to their daughters. The farmers would be betrayed by their dreams. But their children, Munro’s characters, would be mesmerized by the illusion of throwing off the yoke of centuries of servitude.

I am aware that the foregoing is riddled with contradictions; Munro’s ability to blend them plausibly is what gives her stories such atmospheric power. It is this atmosphere that her characters seem to be fighting the hardest. There is the desire of the settlers’ grandchildren to believe that their people have always lived in Ontario, as if since the expulsion from Eden; at the same time, these grandchildren are oppressed by the peasants’ conservatism and limited horizons that survived the transplantation intact — that, indeed, may have been intensified by it. The prospect of upward mobility is shadowed by the possibility of total loss. Tradition, as always, is both reassuring and restrictive. And the ongoing social and technological changes that were unleashed by the revolutions that closed the Eighteenth Century pile up ever higher behind the up-to-date instant, belying their actual age, their altogether recent vintage.

How can our understanding possibly keep up?

Bon week-end à tous! Happy 2018!

Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (II)

12, 14 and 15 December

Tuesday 12th

Maddeningly, the entry is undated. But within the past couple of weeks, The Browser published a link to a presumably recent interview at Five Books in which Jane Jelley was interviewed about Vermeer. The point of Five Books, a British site, appears to be to get the author of a recent book to recommend five “best” books on the subject, whatever it is, and to make it very easy to buy all six — the five recommendations plus the author’s own work — with “Buy” buttons that take you straight to Amazon. Despite the shilling (I’d be much happier if they replaced “Buy” with”Browse”), I like Five Books almost enough to visit it regularly; if I don’t, it’s because I don’t need inducements to be buying books. In this case, I bought Jelley’s, Tracings of Vermeer.

Jane Jelley is a painter who lives at Oxford. The flap doesn’t say what she does there, but it is clear from the book that she is a student (and possibly a master) of historical art skills. To put it briefly, she knows how to simulate the practices of a seventeenth-century Nederlander painter. She knows about linens and “sizes” (a glue), pigments and oils, pigs’ bladders and brushes, and she has the patience to wait for pre-modern paint to dry. (Three months, in the case of a newly-primed canvas.) Perhaps from years of casually reading Elizabeth David, Jelley knows how to write about all of this with a charm that paradoxically conveys immense tedium in appealing prose, and it is for her writing, more than for what she has to say about Vermeer, that she is to be most highly commended. Not that she hasn’t convinced me that she’s right about how Vermeer worked. On the contrary: it’s very much because she isn’t out to convince anybody.

The controversy is, of course, about Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura. Whether or not Vermeer made use of this device has been argued, apparently, since 1891, when American print-maker Joseph Pennell claimed that he must have done. From the start, this claim was refuted by critics who clearly regarded such use as a kind of cheating. It’s a profoundly nineteenth-century argument, loaded with disdain for “mechanical aids” and addled by contempt for the modern camera, which shares with the camera obscura nothing more than a lens. The actual camera obscura is no more and no less of a mechanical aid than a palette, and, as Jelley makes drolly clear, it would not have afforded Vermeer any shortcuts on the road to transcendence.

The camera obscura projects a doubly reversed image onto a dark surface. Upside-down and backwards, this image would be an extraordinarily unwieldy template for masterpieces. Nor is it really conceivable that a painter could apply colors in a dark room. It may well be that Vermeer’s paintings betray a focal point more rigorously fixed than that of an artist surveying the scene from behind an easel, but the idea that the artist simply traced the image thrown up on a wall by light passing through a peephole is childish. He could not have done any such thing.

Jane Jelley has effectively reoriented the discussion by looking not at the surface that we call can see but that the bottom-most layer of paint, what we might call the background but the technical name for which is “invention.” Vermeer’s inventions are revealed by x-rays to be unlike everyone else’s. There are no outlines, no rays of perspective — nothing linear at all. There is only an array of masses, dark against the light primer. The examples that Jelley provides look like very high-contrast reductions of the finished pictures. The composition is presented not in terms of lines but of light and dark. Jelley wanted to know how Vermeer did this. For an artist to see the kind of arrangements shown in Vermeer’s inventions with his naked eye struck her as implausible. But what if he traced the dark parts of a camera obscura image onto oiled (transparent) paper, using black paint, working very quickly, and transferring the traced image simply by printing it — she writes of pressing the back of the paper with a wooden spoon — onto freshly-pumiced, highly-absorbent canvas? What if Vermeer then continued to build up further layers of paint in the conventional way, out in the open with his model?

For the viewer, the question would be why Vermeer would do this. What difference could it make to me? There is something primordial about my own answer. The world is a dark place, pricked with points of light. An atmosphere of some kind of vapor is required to diffuse light in such a way that, say, a room facing north could be illuminated by sunlight shining from an invisible source. That atmospheric diffusion, precious at northern latitudes afflicted by heavy clouds of rain, is Vermeer’s principal resource. It is what he paints onto the dark. It is what penetrates his rooms, fading inevitably into shadows — shadows that are there from the start: figuratively, before the sun comes up; actually, in the masses of his invention. Every picture captures a moment’s exposure to light, to the light falling on the many different surfaces in a room. It holds together with such breathtaking force because the shadows have also been captured altogether in one moment. In this regard, yes, Vermeer “took pictures” just as we do, capturing the instant in an image. But this image was the rough preliminary of the painting that we esteem. To suggest that using a camera obscura is some kind of low, dishonest trick is no different from making the same charge about his grinding lapis lazuli into ultramarine.

As Jelley’s entertaining walk-through of her experiment with the camera obscura makes very clear, an enormous amount of trial-and-error would have been required, by Vermeer or whoever taught him (Carel Fabritius, I strongly suspect), to produce workable tracings from the projected image. Oiling the paper, choosing a brush, finding a paint that would be transferable without running, these were all problems without self-evident solutions. (In the case of the oiled paper, she found the answer in a treatise from 1390.) Capturing the instant was anything but the work of an instant.

Not quite three dozen paintings by Vermeer survive. There no drawings, sketches, watercolors, or anything else. There are not many men in the paintings, and only two mature works that look out of doors. By my quick count, at least eighteen appear to depict the northeast corners of domestic interiors, and women appear in all but two, the pair known as The Geographer and The Astronomer (almost certainly the same model). In six paintings, women are shown wearing what looks like the same yellow satin jacket, trimmed in ermine. (All were painted within six years.) It was anything but unusual for Vermeer’s contemporaries to concentrate on specialties; the concept of branding was familiar in the arts. What was peculiar to Vermeer, however, may have been too subtle to be widely appreciated at the time. It is a unity of light that bathes an arrangement of surfaces that emerge with an appreciable indistinctness from the natural dark of shadow. Vermeer’s is a world of soft-edged intelligibility, in which nothing is altogether settled. Many of his pictures capture a privacy that our looking does not violate. Jane Jelley’s Traces of Vermeer persuades me that these illusions are all based on a foundation of shadow made solid. Now I think I know why it is that I can stare at one of his walls so expectantly, as if it were about to disclose another picture altogether: the dark of night lies directly beneath it.


Thursday 14th

As usual, I didn’t read the short story in last week’s New Yorker — until just now, having read about it in the Times. That was unusual; until very recently, it has always seemed to me that the magazine and the newspaper published in strictly separate worlds, each taking no notice of the other’s contents. But here in today’s Styles section was a piece about “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, an attractive woman (sorry!) in her mid-thirties who studied for the foreign service but turned to her first love when that didn’t work out. The story is about a twenty-year old sophomore who meets an older man — late twenties at least, she thinks — at a concession stand and gives him her phone number. A flirtation conducted in text messages ensues. I hope that readers learn from Roupenian’s mighty sorrowful story what a bad idea it is to try to size up a pen pal as a potential lover.

Robert, the man in the story, is thirty-four, and he lives alone in a house with little furniture. It seems to me that these are two of the many things that Margot ought to know about Robert long before she follows him into his bedroom. But Margot is only twenty. Worse, she is a very smart twenty, a very imaginative, empathetic twenty. She doesn’t need to know Robert; she can make him up. It’s enough that he makes her laugh. But does he? It’s the exchange of texts that makes her laugh, or smile, anyway, and that invites her to indulge in romantic speculations about him. The problem with these speculations is not so much that they are wrong as that they constitute an investment. You could call it a bet, but that just makes it out to be less serious than it is.

The preliminary, fun part of Margot’s relationship with Robert comes to an end with her return from a semester break, by which point she has been in the same place with him on a total of three occasions that could be timed in minutes.

When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie, she agreed right away.

The bulk of the story is an account of the date that follows. Nothing terrible enough for the tabloids happens, but the evening is, to put it mildly, deflating and demoralizing for Margot, leaving her with the sore conviction that she doesn’t want to see Robert again. It’s not that he’s a bit pudgy and slope-shouldered; Margot has dealt with these drawbacks before he takes his clothes off. It’s that Robert’s sex life has been pornographized. In the middle of things, he slaps her thighs and cries, “You like that!” He would probably never thought of such a gesture on his own. At their third meeting, in a convenience store, Robert made Margot feel like a very special doll; now he makes her feel like a rubber doll.

Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her.

“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful and hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say” —

but you’ll have to read it for yourself. I wouldn’t dream of upstaging Roupenian’s magnificent writing.

In the Times interview, Jonah Engel Bromwich’s last question begins with a statement: “The story’s last exchange gives the clearest view of who Robert is.” Well, Bromwich said it, Roupenian didn’t. I’d like to know if she agrees. The “last exchange” is ugly but familiar. Just as Robert seemed to be following a script in bed, so he seems to be acting the troll in his text. How else do you sign off on these devices? How else do you say “Good bye the hell to you, too!“? Of course it’s better not to say anything, but it’s better not to do most of the things that Margot and Robert do in this story. Robert is sadly unattractive in a way that now seems indicative of a cultural pathology; I feel an urge to help him out just for the sake of the body politic.

Roupenian tells Bromwich:

[Margot] thinks she can see inside Robert; she believes she knows more about him than she does, and that keeps the date catapulting forward when it might otherwise have come to an end. The people I know who tend to be drawn to the most troubled men are these incredibly empathetic, imaginative young women, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a piece of it: how good they are at creating a compelling back story for men who have done nothing to earn it.

Robert is also imaginative, but like most men (or so it seems), he is not empathetic; life gives his imagination little to work with. What the “last exchange” gives us a clear view of is where Robert is stuck. Although I can feel the blow of his last text to Margot’s stomach, I know that she will recover and possibly flourish (she is only twenty!). But is there a way out for Robert? A way out of his board games and vinyl collection and lack of self-respect? Ist auf deinem Psalter, Vater der Liebe, ein Ton…?


Friday 15th

It’s likely that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I consulted Google’s Ngram Viewer just now about the use of the phrase “meaning of life.” I was reading an entry at Less Wrong that explored the meaning of life as understood by several “cultures,” for example “SJW” and “4Chan.” It was one of those pieces that make me feel both old and uncertain. Do I have a lot more experience or a lot less understanding? Forget the meaning of life — has the meaning of words undergone a shift? Does language work in a new way that I don’t hear? In this case, however, the sogginess of the author’s anxieties about the meaning of life was very familiar. Familiar in an unexpected way: could it be that I remember when concern about the meaning of life was still something new, or new-ish?

I wasn’t surprised by the results of my Ngram enquiry. The phrase made its first appearance in about 1895, and slipped out of view in 1910. Since 1920, however, it has never been out of use, and its peak popularity, a recurring point in decades thereafter, was reached about 1940. Aside from that blip in the late 1890s, the phrase was unknown to the Nineteenth Century — to all those Romantic poets and novelists, in other words. For most of the Twentieth Century, we looked hard for the meaning of life, but until the outbreak of World War II, we didn’t give it much thought.

I still don’t.

What would the meaning of life look like? What would it feel like? Would it feel like that aha! that wraps up every TED talk? Like the Less Wrong writer, who goes by the name Elo, I stopped watching TED talks a long time ago, as soon as I realized that they were simply upscale versions of those old nature and science programs on TV that left you convinced that you knew everything that there was to know about volcanoes or beetles. TED talks were shorter, wittier, and syntactically more sophisticated than the old shows, but they were (are) scripted with the same alchemy, the same psychological prestidigitation. There would be no harm in this if the results were useful, but the presentations are always too closed-ended to be fertile. They have to be, in order to be entertaining. Open-ended shows would end not with a nugget of “realization” but with a panorama of all that remains to be learned. Instead of flattering the audience with a spritz of knowingness, it would demoralize it with a burp of ignorance.

Knowledge decays. The point on which I agreed most heartily with Elo was this:

We start out wanting meaning, we start out getting meaning, and after a while we don’t really get the same thing any more. We are not designed to notice meaning wearing off – we expect it to keep being there. Until it’s well and truly worn out so bad that it’s a shock to the system. The same way that we go blind a little each day and don’t notice until we crash a car. “that’s how blind we are”.

The meaning of life, in short, would look like something that we needed to replace pretty frequently, if we didn’t embalm it. “The meaning of life” promises to explain everything forever, but of course it can’t do anything of the kind. We are always outgrowing what we know.

The “meaning of life” has nothing to do with distinguishing right from wrong. Nor can it offer an ideal of happiness that is more satisfying than the one already familiar to every thoughtful person: health, good fortune, and — here’s the part that searchers for the meaning of life ought to be working a little harder on — the company of loving family and friends. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the past century, it’s not the meaning of life but the stabilizing power of liberal democracy to enable many people to build happy lives. Whatever the meaning of life might be, the happiness of life is not something that you discover on a remote mountaintop, but something that you do your best to bring about in your life every day.

Bon week-end à tous!