Daily Office:


Matins: Caleb Crain examines the culture of economic adversity — in the Depression.

Lauds: Holland Cotter hopes that we have seen the last of the blockbuster exhibition.

Prime: Over the weekend, Times columnist Joe Nocera raised the “what if” question about Lehman, speculating that “it had to die to save Wall Street.” James Surowiecki isn’t so sure — and neither are we.

Tierce: More about the clothing style known as “trad”: this time from Joe Pompeo, at the Observer. (via Ivy Style)

Sext: We had never seen a picture of today’s Hilo Hero, Margaret Sanger, before.

Nones: Is Internet opinion in China driving a trade confrontation with the United Statess?

Vespers: At The Second Pass, John Williams passes on The Lost Symbol — in advance.

Compline: At  Good, 10 great urban parks, seen from above at roughly the same scale.


§ Matins. The occasion is a review, in The New Yorker, of Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark, “a bighearted, rambling new survey of American culture in the nineteen-thirties.” Mr Crain is particularly taken by the ambiguities the Depression’s greatest legacy, screwball comedy.

Seen in this light, screwball banter is almost as much an instance of the documentary impulse of the thirties as Agee’s catalogue of the insects at work on him one night in a tenant farmer’s shack (bedbugs, fleas, and “small gray translucent brittle insects which I suppose were lice”). The classic Depression argument about art was between those who regretted its compromise by politics and those who regretted its failure to take politics into account—between those who cried “agitprop” and those who cried “escapism.” Seven decades later, this distinction no longer seems the most telling one. “Sullivan’s Travels” defended escapism, but it had vermin, just as Agee did. McCrea twitches on a Hooverville pallet, to the amusement of Veronica Lake—until she’s bitten, too.

However honest screwball comedies may be about struggle, the thing one notices now is that the strugglers always seem to be flitting an inch or two above the earth that normal people tread on. The start of Gregory La Cava’s “My Man Godfrey” (1936) shows bums living in a Hooverville on Manhattan’s East River, but they take leave of one another with “Bonsoir.” This is comic and fanciful, but its purpose is to underscore the same truths that Agee was pursuing: these are people, not just types. When a high-society scavenger hunt leads Carole Lombard to the dump in search of a “Forgotten Man,” she falls in love with the one she finds, played by William Powell. “I’ve decided I don’t want to play any more games with human beings as objects,” she nobly declares, as evidence of her passion. The movie she’s in, however, continues to play games with human beings for another hour and a half.

Is that immoral? The movie’s answer to that question is to ask another: Would it be more moral not to? After Powell’s character is set on the path to economic recovery, he comes up with a scheme to employ the men he got to know in the dump, and a friend gently hints that he needn’t remain loyal to them: “After all, things have always been this way for some people. These men are not your responsibility.” “There are different ways of having fun,” Powell answers, a little self-deprecatingly, as if he’s warding off an imputation of moral seriousness and needs his friend’s indulgence. This nonchalance is what artists had to pull off during the Depression. They had to keep company with misery without adopting it as their purpose. With charm and cunning, they had to come up with different ways of having fun

§ Lauds. We think that the man is very, very bored.

I continue to suspect that the Internet holds promise beyond what anyone has yet imagined. But the paradigm I’m putting some hope in is one that briefly came into view in June when the nonprofit X Initiative in Chelsea hosted “No Soul for Sale: A Festival of Independents,” a four-day jamboree of artist collectives from around the world.

Some 50 collectives — I use the term loosely — showed up. And when everyone and everything was jammed together in one place, you couldn’t tell art from documents, artists from curators, artists from writers, writers from editors, writers or editors or artists from activists, galleries from zines, zines from Web sites, or people who were there from people who weren’t. In other words, total confusion. Fabulous.

When incoherence looks good, it’s time to take a sabbatical. We do like this idea, though — although we’d say “new juxtapositions” instead of “novelty” —

I propose that the Met convert one of its huge special exhibition spaces into permanent collection galleries to display some of the millions of objects it owns but never brings out for lack of room. And I recommend that that material be presented in small, smart, frequently changing shows that feed our hunger for novelty, but also change our habits of looking, our idea of what a great exhibition can be.

There are memorable examples from the recent past.

He neglects to mention the fantastic Montebello farewell show. (An especially ephemeral exhibition, as no catalogue was created.)

§ Prime. Mr Surowiecki certainly has one thing right:

One of the things that’s increasingly clear about the way financial markets work is that the order in which events occur matters quite a bit. So the fact that the TARP was eventually passed doesn’t mean that the initial vote against it didn’t matter. In other words, even if Nocera is right and Lehman had to die, it might have made a huge difference had its funeral gone differently.

If TARP had been passed before Lehman stumbled, then we’d have a government in Washington, instead of a pack of media clowns and their campaign contributors.

§ Tierce. We can only await the backlash.

Those who embrace the look say subtlety is key. 

“When done right, it should almost be invisible,” said John Tinseth, 52, an insurance broker and longtime traddy who’s been writing a blog called The Trad—anonymously, until now—for the past two years. He was on the phone from his West 57th Street apartment, dressed, he said, in L. L. Bean khakis and moccasins and a yellow university-stripe Oxford by Rugby.

“A guy should walk right by you and he’ll have the whole thing down and you won’t even notice,” Mr. Tinseth said. “That’s when it’s done perfectly.”

The clothes in our closet are pretty trad, but definitely without the scare quotes. We’ve been dressing more or less the same way since we were packed off to boarding school. Although we wear long shorts with our alligator shirts when we’re at home, ie right now.

§ Sext. Sanger was actually quite prim about sex — but that’s not the point. She is the first figure effectively to campaign for a woman’s right to avoid pregnancy and childbirth while living in the world (and not in a convent).

§ Nones. Keith Bradsher writes,

The Chinese government’s strong countermove on Sunday night followed a weekend of nationalistic vitriol on Chinese Web sites. “The U.S. is shameless!” said one posting, while another called on the Chinese government to sell all of its huge holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds.

But rising nationalism in China is making it harder for Chinese officials to gloss over American criticism.

“All kinds of policymaking, not just trade policy, is increasingly reactive to Internet opinion,” said Victor Shih, a Northwestern University specialist in economic policy formulation.

Mr. Obama’s decision to impose a tariffs on Chinese tires is a signal that he plans to deliver on his promise to labor unions that he would more strictly enforce trade laws, especially against China, which has become the world’s factory while the United States has lost millions of manufacturing jobs. The trade deficit with China was a record $268 billion in 2008.

§ Vespers. Somehow, Janet Maslin got a copy ahead of time, despite all of that harum-scarum security; her review appears in today’s Times. Mr Williams writes,

If you care, she says the book is “impossible to put down.” I’ll likely solve this problem by not picking it up in the first place.

That’s our plan, too. Dan Brown has mastered the art of concocting the literary equivalent of empty calories. We still haven’t forgiven Jeannette Watson, of Books & Co/Lenox Hill Books fame, for breathlessly recommending The Da Vinci Code to a customer — how could we help overhearing her?

So we’re planning on not reading The Lost Symbol.

§ Compline. We can see our house from here!


One Response to “Daily Office:

  1. Meryjoy says:

    There shall come a time when prison offiliacs will welcome the incarceration of new Muslim prisoners with the same sense of trepidation that they currently reserve for sexually active AIDS cases.In the absence of deportation or summary execution, radical Muslims should be subjected to solitary confinement. Preferrably with such a degree of sensory deprivation that they experience abrupt mental breakdowns. Rest assured that such harsh treatment would seem blissfully humane in comparison to how they would deal with us.