June 2019

Political Note:
Promise and Forgive
14 June 2019

Most discussion of the nature of political action concerns itself with the preliminaries only: what it takes to create a launch-pad, as it were, for decisions about new programs. The principal question is usually this: who gets to sit down at the bargaining table?  Who gets to decide? But what happens after the launch is generally elided. The consequences of political failure are deemed to be confined to the voting booth, involving nothing more onerous than loss of office. In this view, political action is itself not thought to be very important, or no more important than the whimsicality of “you win some, you lose some.” Indeed, it is presumed that successful political preparation will ferret out and exclude the probable causes of actual disaster. By this reading, an effective political system — something blatantly lacking in France’s Second Empire — would have precluded Napoleon III’s effectively suicidal declaration of war against Prussia in 1870. The American political system, with its checks and balances, notoriously constrains the freedom of its political actors — to a degree, perhaps, that simply stunts political imagination. 

For a sense of truly grown-up, dangerous political activity, Hannah Arendt is, predictably, a reliable source. In The Human Condition, she boils political action down to two deadly-serious kinds of action. The first is the ability to set off something altogether new, with unpredictable consequences. (Her emphasis is not on the novelty but on the unpredictability.) Implicit in this beginning is a promise of success. The second kind of action is forgiveness for any failure, owing to unforeseen consequences, to keep that promise. (In pre-political environments, failure brings attainder and execution.)

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfilment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfils, can dispel. Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self. (237)

To unpack this concise paragraph, I turn to the political tragedy of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Brought to the pinnacle of executive authority by what was widely (but not universally) considered a national catastrophe, Johnson embarked on his sponsorship of a domestic reform program, the Great Society. Tripped up, however, by a settler’s sense of masculinity, Johnson allowed himself to be misled into commitment to the Vietnam misadventure, which not only distracted him from his civil-rights projects but exhausted the funds needed to realise them. By 1968, he knew that he had failed on two fronts. He could not bring himself to ask forgiveness — and perhaps Americans at the time were not equal to the challenge of responding to such a request more substantively than by jeering at the man who made it; in which case Johnson’s tragedy is the nation’s. Johnson did the only honorable thing prescribed by his Texan ethos: he resigned. In essence, unfortunately, this was a private act, “no more than a role played before one’s self,” and the jeering, far from being prevented, grew all the louder and longer. Johnson’s causes were discredited, and the nation fell into the tender mercies, still more terrible than anything else that has ever happened in the White House, of Richard Nixon.

What makes political action so difficult — too difficult, I believe, for people who have not at some level actually exercised the skill — is being courageous enough both to hold leaders to account and to forgive them (not without penance!) on that account.  

Rep Note:
Needs Work!
13 June 2019

¶ When  I was a boy, my mother used to make open-faced sandwiches that she called “cheese dreams.”

As always with my mother’s gift for nomenclature, I’m tempted to leave it right there and take the rest of the day off. What can you say, after “cheese dreams”?

I can’t remember how these sandwiches were assembled, but the ingredients were sliced tomato, bacon, and cheese. In the broiler, the bacon never really cooked and the cheese always burned. There was still enough bacon taste, though, to make the things much more interesting that peanut-butter-and-jelly. If my mother had made them more often, perhaps she would have learned to make better ones — but probably not, given that, when cooking, my mother’s eyes were always on the exits.

Consider the alternatives. My father once got up early on a Saturday morning and decided to fry some bacon. Then he fell asleep in front of the TV, and the smoke woke the rest of us up. As for me, it was a truth of which my mother was certain that learning how to cook would turn me into a pansy. And as for my sister, she somehow managed not to be an alternative at all. So we were grateful for whatever Mother served, on the tacit understanding that she did very well for someone who was not a cook. Not.

Not that I have anything to crow about. My own attempt to recreate cheese dreams, after years of thinking how, possibly, to do it right — I kid you not — just met with odd but unmistakable failure.

First, I toasted a split mini-baguette. Then I spooned a hash of chopped cherry tomatoes, spring onion, and tarragon onto each half. This I topped with three thin slices of just-cooked Schaller & Weber breakfast bacon.

It’s what I did next that bombed. I opened a package of Cabot’s Vermont cheddar that, perhaps for too long, had been languishing in the fridge. (The wrapper is, after all, treated paper.) Or it may have been that I used too much cheese; cheese is definitely near the top of the “too much of a good thing” list. The result was an evacuation of flavor. Not only did the cheese taste like nothing, but the bacon disappeared, too, at least from the palate. The tomato mixture and the baguette were perceptible and pleasant, but theirs were supporting roles.

Next time, I shall probably construct the sandwiches in the same way, but using good old reliable Gruyère instead of Cheddar. Then we’ll see. The bacon-and-tomato tartines are a bit more complicated to put together than the ham tartines that I’ve been turning out on most Mondays ever since I made the first one, but they’re still quite simple, quickly finished, and (let’s hope) really tasty. 

To-Do Note:
A New List
12 June 2019

¶ A curious, disturbing feeling. A letdown?

The place looks great. There is nothing to be done. That keen little whisper no longer assures me that if I simply move this here or clear out that there, I will hear the music of the spheres in my own living room. Everything has been moved and cleared, but I don’t hear any music unless I start it myself.

It seems that I have come to the end of a protracted list of domestic improvements, some of them longstanding grievances, and some spontaneous improvisations. I ought to feel as great as the place looks.

Then — what relief! — I take note of the pyramid. What we have always called the pyramid is an exotic chest of drawers, faced in “fossil stone,” that tapers at it climbs to the height of my shoulders, where it is sectioned before it can come to a point. (Pyramidal enough.) The drawers are of many different sizes. Some are as wide as the cabinet, while others, much smaller, are ranged in rows of two or three. What you are supposed to use the chest for is the kind of question that never comes up when faced with such an obvious piece of decarola. As a result, the drawers are full of every kind of thing.

All right, junk. The two large drawers near the bottom constitute my tool chest. I don’t know what’s in them anymore, but Ray Soleil seems to, which is all that matters. Near the top, a squarish drawer holds nothing but packs of cards — cards that haven’t been used, some of them, ever. Do you remember those metal rings, like miniature savarin molds, that were to be filled with potpourri scents and then balanced on light bulbs, the heat of which would fill the room with fragrance? I am sure that a quarter-century has passed since the last time I made use of one of these things, but at the top of the chest there’s a lifetime supply — of rings and scent both. We’ve always kept batteries in the chest, but they’re no longer in just one drawer, so we have to hunt, and then of course we run out. The nicest word for the state of the cabinet’s drawers is “neglected.” 

And there are many other drawers in the apartment, too. A few of them have been straightened up recently, in connection with moving desks around. But it’s still anyone’s guess if you’re going to find a pair of scissors where you expect to find one.

Start a new list. 

Household Note:
Wastebaskets
11 June 2019

¶ Wastebaskets ought to be empty. That was my rule. It was a simplification of “wastebaskets ought to be (kept) emptied.” No need to empty them, though, if they’ve never got anything in them. One fewer little job. 

Why, then, have wastebaskets at all? Well, in case. In case of an emergency that can be met only by wastebaskets — empty wastebaskets. 

How long had this been going on? 

Never mind: put down another big change for 2019. During my convalescence from the foot infection, I had no choice. Tissues, banana peels, Q-tips and the Business Reply cards that drop, unwelcome, from the latest magazines, not only went into the wastebasket by my reading chair but kept filling it up. By the time I got better, I had the new habit of emptying the wastebasket into Fairway shopping bags.

This softened the ground for the wastebasket by the house desk. The new wastebasket, by the newly-positioned house desk. Now, the house desk is the smallest of the three writing tables in the apartment. There is no room on it, when sorting through the mail, for discardable mailings or for empty envelopes. Life is too short to put such rubbish on top of other things and risk throwing good stuff away. There must be a receptacle (handsome but not cute) into which one’s left hand can immediately dump unwanted items. Dump, dump, dump. By the end of an hour or so (the usual tour of duty at the house desk), the wastebasket is full, but emptying it is easy, because the kitchen, with its supply of shopping bags, is right there.

I’ve even begun to use the wastebasket in the bookroom. This rectangular bucket belonged to my parents. It has a tin liner that’s not so easy to slide out from the wooden case, especially when it’s full, and its long and narrow dimensions don’t readily fit into the shapeless and somewhat too-small mouth of a plastic bag. So I don’t wait for it to fill up. I empty it along with the other two, and take all three bags down to the garbage chute together.

Taking out the garbage yesterday, I walked just a little too far and nearly tried to open the door to the apartment that opens just beyond the garbage-chute door. How awful it would have been to rattle the knob unthinkingly, and then to wonder if anybody was inside! I could see myself being sent off for dementia counseling.

My reward for using the blasted wastebaskets. 

Reading Note:
Piles
10 June 2019

¶ My pile of books-to-be-reading got so high that I focused for a week on finishing the ones that I was halfway through or more. Unfortunately, this left a residue of books that I didn’t much want to read at all.

Kathleen says, “If you’re not liking it, then just put it down.” Partly because I see myself as a Serious Reader — somebody who can be counted upon to have read certain kinds of books all the way through — and partly because of that fundamentally adolescent dread that the book, like a party that you’ve decided not to go to or haven’t even been invited to, will turn out to have been wildly exciting, abandoning books midstream is not an option for me except in emergency cases. 

So I have had to strategise. You may recall that I didn’t finish Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us. I stopped, about fifty pages from the end, and peeked through the remaining text to confirm my hunches about how the story was going to work out. Then I set the book aside. But at some point, I had to read those pages. This was, after all, Ian McEwan, no matter how disappointing the book. So I knocked it off yesterday afternoon, sitting out on the balcony. Now I am free to think about the book’s many interesting themes (no longer lumbered with the book’s unattractive protagonist) without being pestered by the reminder that you didn’t really read it

When that was done, I read a chapter, and just one chapter, of a novel that I have not been enjoying. I don’t care for the prose, which strikes me as self-conscious to the point of dutiful translation, and I don’t like the tone of the story. The only word that I can think of to describe the latter is the utterly forbidden “primitive.” I was deceived by the praise of a very favorable reference (not a review) made in passing by a writer whom I admire, and by a title that I rather lazily misunderstood. On the jacket, there is a raving blurb by a British master that I can only regard as political. If and when I get through the novel, I will tell you the name; otherwise, I’ll have no right to cloud it with my unhappiness. 

For this book, I decided to limit myself to a chapter a day, which I would read during daylight hours. (Nighttime is for adventure.)

Over the weekend, I picked up a book with the firm intention of browsing, and not re-reading it through. The book is Them: A Memoir of Parents, by Francine du Plessix Gray. I was reminded of this book last year — by what, I can’t remember. Immediately, I wondered where I had shelved it and if I had even held onto it. Before I ransacked the library, it turned up in one of the boxes of books that came down when we closed the second storage place, a few months ago. Phew. 

Them is a nonpareil book that manages to suggest an entire genre. (One is very sorry that Dawn Powell didn’t live to read it.) How should we describe this genre? How about “Cinderella at Spence, as Illustrated by Cecil Beaton Irving Penn”? In a world of white enamel walls and white vinyl upholstery, circa 1942, we find lonely Francine, a poor half-Russian, half-French immigrant who seems nonetheless to lead the life of Eloïse, bearing up under her parents’ stylish neglect and struggling, through the Café Society hours that they keep, to do well enough on her college-entrance exams to get into Bryn Mawr.  (Since Francine will grow up to be a famous writer, we don’t doubt that she’ll succeed.) Anyone who has read the book can tell from this facetiousness that I opened the book, by design, in the middle; I didn’t want to read about the milliner mother’s youthful service as muse to the poet Mayakovsky. I don’t really know what I did want, but I did relish the espresso-cup doses of Tatiana Liberman’s coronal narcissism. Mama may have been a monster (albeit the kind that isn’t cruel), and stepfather may have been a scheming careerist who never made any true friends, but daughter is not ashamed of that Penn portrait of the three of them, dressed to go out on the town, but leaning their chins on their elbows with amusing ennui.  

I could take only so much of this, and as it happens there was only so much of it to be taken. What I needed was something exciting. Happily, I remembered Henry James’s The Awkward Age

Mr Mitchett had so little instrinsic appearance that an observer would have felt indebted, as an aid to memory, to the rare prominence of his colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the precipitation of its retreat from detection. (II, vii)

Now, that’s thrilling. 

Bedtime Note:
After Dinner
7 June 2019

¶ I am giving some thought to enjoying the hours after dinner a little better than I do.

In the old days — until very late last year — I gave no thought to the matter at all. As soon as I had cleaned up after dinner, I simply refilled my wine glass for the umpteenth time and went back to whatever I was reading. Going to bed was would take care of itself.

Now that there is no after-dinner wine glass, I am balancing the desire to collapse into a chair against the prudence of getting ready for bed ahead of time: brushing the teeth, hanging up the clothes, taking the shower, putting on the nightclothes. There is one more thing that I must do before going to bed: I must fill the water bottle with ice. In the old days, I filled the water bottle with ice right before I turned out the lights, or, in other words, right after I stopped drinking for the night. It has taken me four or five months fully and completely to recognize that this signal moment no longer occurs. Now I want to go to bed with the water-bottle business behind me, not a lingering condition-precedent.

Eleven o’clock is a good time for some, or perhaps all, of these things to happen. But it’s likely that I will quickly tire of the “obligation” to do the water-bottle thing the moment I’m in my sleepies. The only thing that’s clear is that the water bottle comes second, after the shower &c.

This is only Part I of the Bedtime Reform Act. Part II will concern the drinking of tea — just how late in the afternoon, that is, to permit it. I find that the diuretic effect of tea takes about five hours to kick in. And then, if I have drunk a lot of tea, I’m in the bathroom every fifteen minutes in a maddening round that I can only hope will be over by midnight. This is only partly an effect of ageing. I have always suffered, so to speak, for drinking too much tea.

Not to mention water bottles. 

Cerebral Note:
Inquiring Minds
6 June 2019

It has always seemed clear to me that inquiring minds are rare. Most people — particularly very intelligent people — are simply too impatient to wait for answers that take a long time to settle. Not to mention the long wait for the right questions to emerge. It’s for this reason that, while curiosity is certainly a feature of the inquiring mind, it is usually unaccompanied by the stamina required to see genuine inquiry through — through, that is, not to the end, but just to the next step. Curiosity can be satisfied. The inquiring mind cannot. 

I’ve been thinking of this as a way of trying to hold on to something while being tossed on the roaring seas of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a book from 1987 that I have not read since then. The difference between then and now is that, in 1987, I could understand about half of what Bloom was talking about. In 2019, I wonder how much Bloom understood. The advantage is somewhat unfair; I have survived middle age, which Bloom, cut down by AIDS, did not. 

Bloom himself does not appear to have had an inquiring mind. He was a pedagogue — an excellent one, by all accounts, and certainly on the evidence of his having conducted an honorable career as a gay man surrounded daily by bright young men (at the University of Chicago, which isn’t as hard to get into as it ought to be, because it is thought to be too hard to attend). Bloom was devoted to introducing fresh minds to what he regarded as the great question — How To Live — in terms that had been set by Socrates and Plato a long time ago. I myself do not think much of Socrates or Plato, although I give them a lot of credit for getting the ball rolling. (As for the third member of the trinity, I really do admire Aristotle, but I wish that he had been less eager to shine in public, a failing that led him to waste a lot of time on the Macedonians and to spread himself too thin to sit down and actually write his books — aside from the Poetics, he left us with his students’ rather boring notes.) Bloom seems to have been content to accept Greek priorities and analyses as dispositive. His belief in Reason makes me feel like a visiting time traveler, or maybe a Martian. 

And as for How To Live, I’m afraid that the young person who doesn’t have a strong, almost unteachable grasp of this question long before he arrives in the groves of Academe is probably never going to be more than an apparatchik. 

If inquiring minds are as rare as I think they are, then nurturing them cannot be a principal objective of the university as we know it, unless we adopt the position that two or three schools (Oxford, Cambridge, and maybe UCL) are enough. (This position was not held by anybody in the days when Oxford and Cambridge were all there was.) The inquiring mind in its academic phase is scholarly, and not at all pedagogic; I have always doubted that there is a real place for most undergraduates at a genuine university. It makes sense, at least to me, to concentrate scholarly activity (and the resources that it requires) in a few places. And there are never so many inquiring minds — assuming, optimistically, that these can be spotted in secondary school and shunted to the right place — as to require anything like the thirty leading universities in America, much less the plethora of outfits with such aspirations that dot the countryside. 

Once upon a time, there were Schools. As in Chartres and Reims; as in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. Before the secular and ecclesiastical powers decided that it was best to confine inquiring minds to “a few places,” although certainly not for my reasons. Reims was particularly famous for its newly robust program in logic. Research had nothing to do with it; young men went to Reims because the discussions were, for a time, both livelier and more rigorous than they were anywhere else. (Dare we say that it was “hot.”) Most successful graduates went on to careers in the growing fields of church and royal administration — the Énarques of the day. Schools, headed by teachers like Fulbert of Chartres and Allan Bloom, are where undergraduates belong. And as I have argued elsewhere, real schools ought to be inexpensive to operate and to attend, with the lion’s share of revenues going to teachers. 

School and scholarship alike are wasted on many bright minds. What Bloom would call natural scientists are professionally obliged to subject their curiosity to a broad prohibition on many types of questions, most notably, What Does It Mean? Their inquiries are strangely (but very fruitfully) monophonic. They speak mathematics, not the humane languages, and if this is as it should be (and I think it is), there is little reason to clutter their lives with literature surveys. (Certainly we can agree that well-roundedness is an aptitude, not an acquired skill.) So I take science out of education altogether, just as we take doctors and lawyers out of “grad school.” Only by keeping science and humane letters apart can we stifle the latter’s occasional bouts of what has been aptly termed “physics envy,” the source of all the misbegotten “social sciences.” Scholarship — particularly historical scholarship — is not at all scientific in its rigors but rather a learned profession, like the law, a specialty whose rules appear woolly and capricious to non-initiates. 

Bloom’s physics envy is almost rank in his assessment of university disciplines. It leads him to the following rather tragic conclusion: 

The problem of the humanities, and therefore of the unity of knowledge, is perhaps best represented by the fact that if Galileo, Kepler and Newton exist anywhere in the university now it is in the humanities, as part of one kind of history or another — history of science, history of ideas, history of culture. In order to have a place, they have to be understood as something other than what they were — great contemplators of the whole of nature who understood themselves to be of interest only to the extent that they told the truth about it. If they were wrong or have been completely surpassed, then they themselves would say that they are of no interest. To put them in the humanities is the equivalent of naming a street after them or setting up a statue in a corner of a park. They are effectively dead. … On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, “There is no truth — at least here.” (371-2)

This is what spending too much time trying to be Rational will do to a man. 

Housekeeping Note:
Shirkery
5 June 2019

¶ I’m afraid that I don’t change the sheets as often as I used to do. It has become too laborious. First, there is the removal of all the toppings — the quilt, the bedspread — and the pillows. Worse, though, is the fitted sheet. Our mattress is slightly oversized, and pulling at the corners of the fitted sheet is quite arduous. I am not as strong as I used to be, especially since the winter’s weight loss — still ongoing, by the way, although not at its original clip.

I changed the bedding yesterday and am still feeling quite sore today — sore and, also, tired. Not too tired, however, to catch up with the ironing. Am I the last man on earth who irons his own pillowcases? It’s possible. (I’m not talking about paying somebody else to do it.) Not to mention the dinner napkins. I had let the ironing — clean but unpressed “linens” — pile up for three weeks. I had quite run out of napkins for the table; I’m not sure that buying a bunch of new ones is the answer.

I was a little less conscientious about the ironing this time. I folded the napkins carefully into their finished shape, sprayed them with water, and let the iron sit on them for a bit. That seemed to do the job.

I put “linens” in quote because I remember being quite shocked to learn as a boy that our sheets and pillowcases were in fact made out of something unappealingly called “percale.” I felt distinctly gypped. Do people still speak of linen closets? 

Reading Note:
Zinger
4 June 2019

¶ Leo Damrosch’s The Club continues to beguile me, because its tale of a group of well-intentioned but foible-riddled great men is deeply encouraging. But I do wince with impatience when the author makes such mistakes as claiming that George I was George III’s grandfather, when it is far from occult knowledge that America’s Favorite King was George I’s great-grandson. It is also not true that George I couldn’t speak English. Why not just say that he didn’t speak it very well? Are these points too minor to matter? As far as I’m concerned, such absolute errors, in a printed text, are never minor. What’s really objectionable, though, is the insidious implication that the first Hanoverian kings were unworthy of close attention, because they were, well, German. In reality, of course, George I and George II (George III’s actual grandfather) were sophisticated and cosmopolitan magnates of the Holy Roman Empire, inclined to regard Britain as semi-barbarous and mercenary outlier on the European scene. It was their luck — good or bad, I leave it to you to decide — that this general assessment was about to be displaced, even among the English. 

I feel better now.

I do thank Damrosch, though, for including a remark of Johnson’s that I had never heard. It is so brief and annihilating that it sounds more like Oscar Wilde, who is really Johnson’s only rival at this sort of pyrotechnics. Bored by a violin recital, Johnson, who was “not musical,” was urged by a companion to attend to the difficulty of the piece, as if that were somehow interesting in itself. “Difficult do you call it, Sir”? retorted Johnson. “I wish it were impossible.” (214)

PS: More mistakes! On page 344: 

Something that reformers deplored was the way clergymen were appointed to parishes, known as “livings.” Those were in the gift of individual country gentlemen, who were free to make appointments entirely on their own with no outside consultation.

This is doubly wrong. The owner of the right to present a living, which was known to the law as an advowson, was (and is) limited to nominating an ordained clergyman of good character for the bishop’s approval. The line between the rights of realty owners and the proper conduct of ecclesiastical affairs was ingeniously clear. 

Social Note:
Sacking Sacklers
3 June 2019

¶ I am quite sure that this must have happened at least five years ago: I was walking through the Museum with my grandson when I noticed the sign posted over the entrance to the Sackler Wing. (Which houses, among other things, the Temple of Dristan.) How long can that last, I wondered; for I had already heard of the connection between the Sackler family and the OxyContin/opioid crisis. (I read Beth Macy’s Dopesick last summer.)  It seems to me to have taken the general public a long time to catch up with the embarrassment of the situation. Only this weekend, the Times ran a clutch of Letters to the Editor on the subject.

Should the Museum give the money back? Amazingly, the answers split right down gender lines, with the male writers responding pragmatically while the female writers fulminated radically. (The ladies’ letters were, at least as printed, much shorter. Bam!) 

I tend to side with women on most issues, but here I have to side with the men, almost all of whom pointed out that all the famous museums (and arts organizations) have been enriched by philanthropic fortunes derived in nefarious ways. Would the women really rather go without? Or, as I suspect, are women just a little bit impatient with history? With men’s ability to use it to justify anything?

My solution is very simple: we’ll take your money, but we won’t acknowledge you as the donor until you’ve been dead for twenty years, and then we’ll see how your reputation smells. There used to be a consensus that it was unseemly to erect statues in honor of living persons. We need to rekindle that one. 

May 2019

Reading Note:
Monumental Johnson
31 May 2019

Leo Damrosch’s new book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, is published by Yale. Its orthography is American, and at one point Damrosch sees fit to explain that a guinea is a pound plus a shilling. And yet, when I ordered the book (from Amazon.com, mind), it was shipped to me from Blackwell’s in Oxford. Does Yale expect sales of The Club to be negligible in the United States? Yale’s robust institutional commitments to British art and history suggest that it would publish The Club anyway, but still… It’s a heavy book, but I was charged only three dollars for the shipping and handling. A little mystery.  

The big mystery is why we still read about Dr Johnson and his friends, or at least those of his friends who aren’t famous in their own right. We certainly don’t read Dr Johnson directly. At best, we read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a literary monument that transcends mere biography — not least because Boswell, whether considered as a man or evaluated as an author, simply doesn’t fit the role of biographer. Every facet of Boswell’s character but one suggests that Boswell was too flighty and self-indulgent a pipsqueak to begin to do his subject justice. Johnson’s other friends certainly sniffed in disdain. But what emerges from the pages of the Life is nothing less (and perhaps something more) than Michelangelo’s Moses. His Johnson is an incarnate allegory of Alphabetic Virtue, and Boswell is his disciple and evangelist. The gospel of Johnson has displaced his own testimony. 

Boswell’s singular exceptional characteristic was his obsession with telling the truth. There were things that he left out of the Life, and names that that he elided, but he does not appear to have materially misrepresented a single detail of Johnson’s expressiveness. In his journals, Boswell was unprecedentedly candid. Damrosch quotes a mordantly funny exchange with Rousseau, whom Boswell pestered with his fandom while in Switzerland. We have the following account, of course, from Boswell himself:

Rousseau: You are irksome to me. It’s my nature. I cannot help it.
Boswell: Do not stand on ceremony with me.
Rousseau: Go away. (112)

What saved Johnson’s fame and Boswell’s book alike from oblivion was the great sympathy felt by the bearded men of the Nineteenth Century for Johnson’s figure, which belonged more to their own time than to what they regarded as an effeminate age. The tall and strong, mighty and masculine Johnson was not so much slovenly as he was too large and craggy to be dapper. How right it was that he toured the wild and remote Scottish isles, rather than the fleshpots of the Continent! That Johnson was afflicted by the dark spells that we recognize as clinical depression only heightened the contrast with his age’s ethos of elegant but brittle self-control. Johnson was also a great Tory, a natural conservative. So natural, in fact, that he was quite comfortable with women and untroubled by anxieties about their subjugation. He may have regarded the differences between men and women as socially functional rather than essential — in our word, “constructed.” Unlike today’s critics, Johnson would not have seen the human construction of gender roles as a reason for abolishing them; quite the contrary. In some ways, Johnson was the first high Victorian.

When I think of Samuel Johnson, it is usually because Jane Austen has just reminded me of him, with one of her quiet burlesques of his periodic style. Austen was the kind of fan whose admiration took the form of elated fun, which is certainly not mockery or satire but rather the mischievous prodding of almost surreptitious exaggeration. Her famous aphorism about the needs of men in possession of great fortunes is apotheothetical tribute to Johnson that has gradually become better-known than anything uttered by Johnson himself. Johnson’s syntax is the ribbing in Austen’s graceful vaults; I think that she would agree that it is what keeps them standing.

All this might account for Johnson’s fame to the present date, but whither forward? I am reading Damrosch for clues. Johnson’s profound comfort with The Way Things Have Always Been, inflected as it is by an even less fashionable sense of Original Sin, makes him an uncongenial subject for an age in search of revolution. Will Johnson become another Falstaff, a shadowy cluster of anecdotes enlivening the pages of British history? 

Scarily, it seems up to Boswell. 

Rear Window Note:
Revelation
30 May 2019

¶ From the bedroom window, you can see a storefront on the other side of 86th Street — one storefront. For years, the space was occupied by a mattress store.

About two months ago, perhaps longer than that, I noticed that the lights in the mattress store burned very, very bright at night. I could also see that couples lingered by the window, making romantic silhouettes. Odd and odder still. Who looks at mattresses longingly, late at night, through a window? Not these healthy and slender young people. 

Well, it’s not a mattress store anymore. The mattress store has moved several shops to the east. The other day, I had occasion, very unusual, to walk down the other side of 86th Street. Mind you, I can’t even take note of the stores that I pass right in front of, much less the ones across the street, unless I stop and survey. I am obliged by fortune to make the most of a neck with no moving parts. Passing what I would soon discover was the former mattress store, I became aware of those very bright lights, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. I stopped and surveyed. The window was hung with a dozen or more views of available apartments, each one framed in a fluorescent, rectangular halo. I didn’t have to turn around to check out my own bedroom window. I knew it was there. 

It’s more pleasant than I should have thought to have that little bedtime mystery cleared up. 

Rep Note:
Potato Salad
29 May 2019

¶ For as long as I can remember, I’ve made potato salad according to a recollection of the French manner advocated by Julia Child. Small, steamed potatoes — halved when still hot but just cool enough to handle, and immediately marinated in olive oil — sliced shallots and chopped cornichons, tossed in a mustard vinaigrette. I made the vinaigrette by following an equally immemorial formula: six tablespoons vinegar to two-thirds of a cup of olive oil. The only alternative that I was aware of was American potato salad, about which I knew nothing more than that it combined potatoes with mayonnaise and unpleasant childhood memories.

I wasn’t really looking for a new potato salad recipe, but in truth I was unhappy with the old one, mainly because it didn’t keep well. The potatoes grew mushy and dry at the same time; bringing it to room temperature after a spell in the refrigerator, I always had to add more dressing, or, more usually, because I don’t seem to be capable of keeping vinaigrette on hand, more oil. Really good when fresh, my potato salad was almost immediately thereafter a candidate for the other kind of tossing.

Something about William Norwich’s recipe caught my eye. This is not the time to discuss the Times’s online newsletter of recipes, but there it was, and I copied it into Evernote. I made it on Sunday, and it was an instant hit with Kathleen, who claimed that she would be happy to make a meal of it. (I don’t doubt her.) The real test came last night, when she helped herself to an even larger portion. (“I couldn’t eat any more!” she laughed. ) I didn’t have any myself, but the salad certainly did look, well, sparkling.

We both agreed that cornichons had no place in this dish, so I won’t be fiddling with it.

Uncanny Note:
Neil Postman
28 May 2019

¶ Once upon a time, I decided that I’d been making soufflés from memory for too long, and that I’d better have another look at the Julia Child recipe that had taught me all I knew. There was no real reason for this caution; my soufflés were as good as they had ever been. But I felt sure that little variations must have crept into my procedure in the course of ten or fifteen years.

But they hadn’t. I had completely internalized Mrs Child’s instructions.

I’m having a similar experience re-reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). I must confess that I remembered “entertainment” for “show business,” and I’m even now wondering which term is better. (I’ll probably stick with “entertainment.”) Otherwise, the first few pages of the book are so overwhelmingly familiar, even though I haven’t looked at them in more than twenty years, that I’m tempted to make a tongue-in-cheek observation: 

The Internet was invented for the SOLE purpose of demonstrating just how horribly right Neil Postman was, even though his book predated widespread Internet use by more than a decade.

In watching American television, one is reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. It must be beautiful, he said, if you cannot read. (86)

Locution Note:
Cooking Food
24 May 2019

¶ Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a movie stuffed like a piñata with delights — welcome pleasures, given its two grave story lines (not to mention its extraordinary presentation of George Clooney as an ordinary-looking guy). One of these is Nick Krause, the actor who plays Sid, the boyfriend. Not altogether welcome by Matt (Mr Clooney), Sid trails along with his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) and her little sister (Amara Miller) as their father conducts them through the improvised rituals of his injured wife’s last days alive.

Mr Krause’s performance has grown on me over the years. When the movie came out, in 2011, I found Sid to be cute but clueless, an adolescent buttinski. I was not entirely unsympathetic when the very dislikable Robert Forster character told him, “I’m going to hit you,” and then punched him in the eye. But much laid-back wisdom has since emerged. It doesn’t have much to do with pithy sayings, but is more a matter of the way Sid holds himself.

Matt is deceived by Sid’s still-unpolished speech patterns, and, in a brief late-night conversation, he tells the boy that he is “not smart.” Sid takes issue with this by listing his achievements, which include serving as an officer of his élite school’s chess club. (By now, this is not a surprise.) It’s another thing that Sid does that always snags my attention, though. “I cook food,” he tells Matt. “I cook food all the time.” Is this some new barbarism creeping up from the vernacular swamps? Or is it just something that Sid is trying out? Perhaps it’s something that he picked up in Mandarin class, where indeed he would learn that the Chinese “cook food.” 

In English, though, we either cook particularities, such as meals or food substances, or we just cook. It’s the same with reading. You can read War and Peace, or you can read “all the time,” but you do not “read books.” (People who say that they don’t read books obviously and ipso facto don’t read at all.) What else would you read? Tea leaves? They don’t count. What else would you cook? A batch of meth? Better not talk about it. 

“I cook food” sounds gross. It suggests indiscriminate orgies of ingredients, caviar poached in ketchup. “Food” is actually something that doesn’t appear in the Anglophone kitchen. Whether euphemistically or otherwise, we don’t let “food” in the house. I can remember when nice people didn’t speak of “meals,” either. “Meal” was still the word for uncooked, edible grain, and its appearance on affluent tables, as cooked mush, was rare. (“Oatmeal” comes to mind, and we remember what Dr Johnson had to say about oats.) There was something almost vulgar about “three meals a day”; certainly the phrase struck an institutional, undomestic note. To stay at a resort “on the American plan” meant to eat whatever they put in front of you — and to show up on time for it. 

It would be interesting to know what Sid’s culinary specialties are. “I cook food all the time” suggests burgers and nachos for a bunch of hungry surfers. But Sid’s father recently passed away, and his mother is struggling, he tells Matt. Perhaps he is helping out by serving healthy dinners to younger siblings. Being a very young man, he has learned a skill set before learning how to talk about it. Most important of all, though, to his girlfriend is that he radiates an innate faithfulness. Whatever he cooks, it will be good for you. 

Wedding Note:
Not-Silver Souvenir
23 May 2019

¶ My newly-rigorous policy of leaving no closet unplumbed and no storage box left to moulder has turned up some interesting items. The latest, it is true, surfaced some time ago, and was wedged in a pile of oblongs — books and papers, mostly — in the dining ell. Having straightened up all of that area’s bohemian corners, and covered half the dining table with stuff to deal with once and for all, I found a small (but not very small) box wrapped in a silver-cloth bag. I figured that it was a silver frame or photograph album, but although it said “Cartier” on the box it turned out to be the engraving block from which our wedding invitations (3 October 1981) were printed. The answer to the obvious question — why was this thing floating around, instead of being packed with all the other wedding memorabilia — was that there was unfinished business. 

What you were supposed to do as a young married couple in those days was to buy a handsome silver tray and to have the wedding invitation printed on it. I don’t know what the permissible time frame was, but I suspect that, now approaching our thirty-eighth anniversary, Kathleen and I have let the job go well past the outer limit. When we were a young married couple, however, we could not really afford to buy handsome silver trays, and by the time we could, we were not making much use of the handsome silver trays (none of them blank) that had by then come into our possession.

The solution, now that I was determined to finish the business somehow, was obvious. Whenever I’ve got to figure out what to do with something nice or interesting that is also relatively flat, I have it framed. 

Not out of the woods yet, though. Where on earth — this apartment’s walls — will I hang it? Stay tuned. 

Reading Note:
Furious Hours
22 May 2019

¶ In her new book, Furious Hours — about which it will be impermissible to talk generally until everyone has had time to read it (think Psycho) — Casey Cep tells us that what drew Harper Lee to the idea of reporting on the sensational trial, involving a serial murderer, that began in the fall of 1977 at Alexander City, Alabama, was at least in part the chance to write the genuinely fact-based “true-crime” book that, as she knew all too well, Truman Capote hadn’t quite delivered with In Cold Blood

What Capote had done with In Cold Blood gave Lee qualms and compromised their friendship, but it also presented her with a challenge: whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired, and whether it could be as successful as the fact-bending accounts of her contemporaries. (214-5)

As we know, however, Lee never wrote a book about the trial. Cep suggests plausible reasons for this blockage, but what occurred to me, and what I think ought to occur to anyone reading Cep’s captivating book, is to ask why Lee never realized that, if she ditched the “challenge,” and forgot about writing straitlaced journalism as well, the business at Alexander City might provide her with tremendously congenial material. Although it might not have centered on the black murderer and his black victims, the sensational background might have sustained book, perhaps a novel, about the white people in the town whom Lee got to know well in the course of her sojourn there.

The second half of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is something between a detailed sketch of the writer and a full-dress biography. I came away with the impression that Nelle Harper Lee never really grew up. She remained fifteen or sixteen for life, smart as a tack about things that could be learned, preferably from texts, but obstinately resistant to the lessons of experience. She greatly depended on family and friends to point her in the right direction, and she was not always willing to take their advice. I was horrified to discover something that I had never come across in all the copious annals of the last century’s literary drunks: asked to leave a party because her behavior was out of line, Lee would presently return and beg for another drink.

Everyone who could have told her what to make of the trial — everyone who had guided her to the shaping of To Kill a Mockingbird — was, in 1977, dead. So Casey Cep has walked away with the story, writing a remarkably good book that one nevertheless suspects might have been lifted to the transcendent heights if only Harper Lee… if only what? My short answer: if only Lee had been an adult. 

Plumbing Note:
Don’t Plunge!
21 May 2019

¶ My bathtub was draining sluggishly, which made me unhappy. Ray Soleil had told me that his grandmother dealt with this sort of thing by pouring a kettle of boiling water down the drain every week. Missing the point about regularity, I poured several kettles of boiling water down the drain. Satisfied with the result, I proceeded to do nothing further. No weekly routine. Soon the drain was sluggish again.

This time, perhaps because I wasn’t feeling well, I continued to do nothing. The situation went from “sluggish” to “clogged.” Boiling water no longer sufficed, not in any quantity, so I resorted to plunging. This was not difficult: the drain is right there, easily accessible, unlike the ones in other apartments. But plunging seemed to make it worse. Perversely, this inspired me to redouble my efforts.

When “clogged” worsened, to “backed up,” I relented, and asked the building management to send up a handyman with a snake. A few hours later, a handyman appeared and got to work. It took him a while to clear the drain. I was beginning to worry that something more drastic than snaking might be necessary. One time, I remembered, it was decided to replace the pipe altogether, which took the bathtub out of commission for a few days. That was upstairs, though, where all the fittings dated back to 1963 and I’d been calling in handymen for decades. Down here, everything had been renovated before we moved in, and I’d had a handyman in only once, and even then long before reaching the backed-up stage. 

“What was in there?” I asked the handyman when he was done.

“Air.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Excuse me?”

“Air.”

No wonder using the plunger seemed to make things worse! It did make things worse. 

Later, Ray explained how the plumbing involved in an apartment bathtub’s drain might make the building up of an airlock possible. If I had really understood what he said, I might just bore you with it. As it is, I’ve got to figure out how to establish a reliable routine.