¶ Prime: John Lanchester’s lengthy but extremely entertaining essay on the banking bailout, “It’s Finished,” has been generating lots of buzz, at least at sites that I visit. Someone wrote somewhere that it ends “unhappily,” but I don’t agree.
¶ Tierce: Toward the end of John Eligon’s account of Astor butler Christopher Ely’s testimony, my heart went into a clutch. The most horrific thing about this trial so far is the damage that it has been done to the reputation of attorney Henry Christensen.
¶ Bon weekend à tous!
§ Matins. The legislative entropy caused by the defection of two Democratic State Senators to the Republican caucus is exactly the sort of thing that keeps strong and confident politicians like Mr Bloomberg in office. If the state government went up in smoke (assuming that it hasn’t done so already), Michael Bloomberg would be a good man to have in City Hall.
§ Lauds. The bulk of Mr Morris’s discussion concerns the career of Han van Meegeren, a second-rate artist (not even?) whose forged Vermeer was sold to Hermann Göring on the eve of World War II. After the war, van Meegeren saved his bacon by revealing the forgery, selling himself as a foxy Resistance hero.
Van Meegeren is the subject of two recent books, and Mr Morris talks with both authors, Edward Dolnick and Jonathan Lopez. The problem with forgeries — however successfully they hoodwink contemporaries, they inevitably reveal their fraudulence to the naked eye — is briefly discussed, as is the mysterious power of provenance.
Van Meegeren asked: what was the difference between “The Supper at Emmaus” before and after it was revealed to be a fake. Van Meegeren’s question is thought provoking. Van Meegeren’s “The Supper at Emmaus” is the same painting as Vermeer’s “The Supper at Emmaus,” but it is a painting that is perceived differently.  It is seen to have a different provenance, a different history — and that of course is of crucial importance to art collectors and connoisseurs around the world. Changing the proper name involves changing the perceived provenance. “The Supper at Emmaus” was painted by Van Meegeren; in that respect, it doesn’t matter what we call it. Notwithstanding, the mere act of calling it “a Vermeer” — or signing it with a signature that looks like Vermeer’s signature — makes us see it as a Vermeer.  And this tells us in part: what’s in a name. A name is about a history, a provenance, and a trail that leads us back into the past, but the use of a name (appropriately or inappropriately) can short-circuit our need to verify that “it” is what we think it is. The name prevents us from looking into the possibility of a different and distinct history. The name overwhelms the thing itself.
But this is a Holocaust story, not an art-history story. Van Meegeren’s Vermeers were not only fakes, they were Nazi fakes, intended to appeal to a racist sensibility. The story’s blend of sham and pathos is morally dank, almost bewildering. But Mr Morris tells it very well, by treating motives and opportunities as the criminal suspects.
§ Prime. Not that the piece ends happily. Having demonstrated that banks got their assets and liabilities mixed up, Mr Lanchester rests his case on taxpayer rage: that’s what’s going to finish off banking as we knew it. Perhaps taxpayers ought to be upset, but even if they are there’s no predicting what that rage will tear up.
Still, it’s not every commentator who can bring René Girard, Northrop Frye, Alan Hollinghurst, and “late Mallarmé to bear on the elucidation of fiscal shenanigans. Mr Lanchester is bracingly and admirably unafraid to have fun:
It isn’t hard to know how to slay the zombies. The only way to do it is to hold a gun to the head of the various bankers – those various guys sitting with their heads in their hands staring at balance sheets with holes in them – and force them to admit what their assets are worth, right now. Many of the banks will turn out to be insolvent. In that case the bank is nationalised, or at the very least goes into administration and receivership. Then, a number of options become available, one of the principal ones being to break the bank up into the viable part of the business, which will eventually be refloated back onto the market, and a ‘bad bank’ of dodgy assets which must be sold off (or arguably held until the values recover) in whatever way makes the most possible money for the taxpayer.
Nobody in power wants to do that. Nobody with power in the banking system, and nobody with power in government. Both the British and the American plans to help the banks are very, very, very expensive variations on the theme of sticking their fingers in their ears and loudly singing ‘La la la, I’m not listening.’
Mr. Ely also gave a clearer picture of what transpired in August 2003 when Mrs. Astor’s longtime lawyer, Henry Christensen III, came to her Westchester estate, Holly Hill, requesting authorization for a $5 million gift to her son.
Mrs. Astor met with Mr. Christensen in her bedroom and wore pajamas, something she would do only when she was not feeling well, Mr. Ely said.
Later that evening, after Mr. Christensen had left, Mr. Ely said, Mrs. Astor asked “what happened that day, why her lawyer had come.”
He said he told her that he did not know, but that she had signed something. So Mrs. Astor called Mr. Christensen and asked him what had happened, Mr. Ely said. Mr. Christensen told her it was nice to see her, Mr. Ely testified, and Mrs. Astor lost her train of thought and the topic of the signing never came up.
The following morning, however, Mrs. Astor again asked Mr. Ely what had happened, Mr. Ely testified. So Mr. Ely called Mr. Christensen, he said, and relayed Mrs. Astor’s request for a copy of the letter. Mr. Christensen said he would send it via FedEx, Mr. Ely said, but the letter never came.
On a subsequent call to Mr. Christensen’s office, the lawyer’s secretary told Mr. Ely that he would have to ask Mr. Marshall for the document, Mr. Ely said. In a telephone conversation, Mr. Marshall told Mr. Ely that he would bring the letter to his mother, Mr. Ely testified.
Kathleen gasped when I read this aloud to her. It was imprudent to deputize Anthony Marshall as the errand-boy here. Did Mr Christensen (and Mr Marshall) think that Mr Ely, who was clearly deeply involved in caring for his employer, was somehow not a real person, with the ears and judgment of a Buck House footman?
While I was working as the manager for the music department for my store I had to entertain weekly calls from a customer looking for the new Bob Marley album. I tried to explain, in as many different variations that I could manage, that there wouldn’t be a new Bob Marley album, and that maybe he was thinking of Ziggy or Stephen Marley, or even some other artist, and maybe certain recreational hobbies might be clouding his recollection, and occasionally I felt the message got though — but in a week to ten days he’d call again and we’d have the same conversation.
§ Nones. How very disconcerting! During the awards ceremony, during which Mr Sheen became a member of the Order of the British Empire, the actor “had to keep reminding himself he was not on a film set.”
Happily, Mr Sheen is in a position to tell us what we really want to know about The Queen.
Speaking after receiving an OBE from the Queen for services to drama, Sheen said: “I heard through a fairly reliable source that there was an agreement she was not going to watch the film and Mr Blair wasn’t going to watch the film either.”
He added: “There were only two people in the room when that happened and one of them told me. I’m not going to say any more than that.”
Helen Mirren once mused that “we will never know” what Her Majesty feels about the film in which she impersonates the monarch. Now, in a strange sort of way, we do: it’s “nothing.”
§ Vespers. As for Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba, which Mr Birnbaum does mention (if not at length), I’ve read it twice myself, and even taken a sheaf of notes. Somehow, though I never get round to writing it up. That and Netherland, which I’ve read three times.
§ Compline. Most American politicians are notorious for the philistinism; there’s nothing to be gained at the hustings from an arts habit. It’s one thing for wives to patronize the arts, as Jackie Kennedy did with signature grand charm.
The Obamas, however, appear to inhabit a world in which art is simply part of the environment. This is not to say that the First Family’s outings are not chosen with great care (and no small self-consciousness). Nor is it to deny that The Lion King barely scrapes by as theatre (for adults, anyway), much less as “art.” The Obamas nevertheless make it look perfectly natural to stroll into museums and theatres.
The example plays both ways. On the one hand, sophisticated Americans are reassured that the boneheaded anti-aesthetic of the Bush years has come to an end. Any self-possessed presidential family could work that magic. The Obamas’ special trick is avoiding the appearance of “elitism” — where elitism is that object of popular resentment, the alleged emission of airs of superiority. Barack Obama just may, in fact, break the connection between being smart and being stuck up.
We’ll know that this new model is working when we stop paying attention to it, and turn our attention, along with the Obamas to what’s going on onstage or hanging on the wall.