Archive for 2019

March 2019

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

Video Note:
Antonioni in Color
21 March 2019

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

¶ Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Deserto rosso (Red Desert) was his last motion picture to be shot wholly in Italy. It was also his first to utilize color photography. His next feature, Blow-Up, would luxuriate in backgrounds of saturated greens and browns, but Deserto rosso is fastidious, often suggesting a monochrome manuscript that has been illuminated with occasional daubs of color. Reds and greens are vibrant, but blues and yellows are muted: yellow is usually the color of the poisonous emissions that drift from the chimneys that tower over a menacing industrial landscape. In this movie, that landscape signifies not the dreariness of working-class life but the oblique affluence of engineers whose hands, if they ever get dirty, don’t stay dirty for long. The most remarkable color is the pink of Richard Harris’s face, which seems lifted from a trecento fresco. Arranged in brilliant compositions captured by Carlo di Palma’s cinematography, colors compensate for the typically Sixties anemia of the art-house narrative.

It is difficult to watch Monica Vitti, whose starring role is supported by Harris and the others, without thinking of bipolar disorders and the medications that treat them. It is also difficult not to see in her almost violently ambivalent responses to Harris’s attentions a feminist critique of patriarchal good intentions, although Harris certainly contributes to this by shading his overt desire to help the distressed wife of a colleague with the impatient appetites of the hunt. At the time, of course — 1964 — we saw Vitti as an icon of the malaise that was supposed to disturb every right-thinking soul in those days. This existential discomfort was perhaps the final manifestation of modernism, which, made manifest in the essentially sensuous medium of film, could never appear to be anything but gratuitous — simply unnecessary. At the end of the following decade, Woody Allen would impersonate, in Stardust Memories, a filmmaker who wants to be as miserable as Vitti, but who can’t pull it off because his desire is actually a paradoxical bid for authenticity. Allen made the parody well worth watching by reviving Antonioni’s august and hypnotizing imagery. 

Considering how well — how beautifully — Il Deserto rosso has survived the aesthetic fashions that prevailed when it was made, and to which Antonioni certainly appears to have been attentive, we are reminded that great artists do best when they stop intending to do anything. 

Museum Note:
Distress
20 March 2019

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

I’ve just got back from my first visit to the Museum in about a year, and I’m almost wishing I hadn’t gone at all. On balance, the outing was a success: I was on my feet, either walking or shuffling in front of paintings, for nearly an hour. And then I came home. All well and good. But the Museum had suffered two changes that were more than a little shocking, making me wonder if I haven’t outlived the world I know. The first, and less serious, alteration was the elimination of the nice restaurant in the Petrie Court. Now, it’s just a “self-service cafeteria.” The Petrie Court was almost a destination luncheon spot, with its agreeable urban hum and a view, through that wall of windows, of the Park at its most forested. Now the space has the dismal air of a proletarian downgrade.

Much worse was the state of the Old Master galleries (as I call them) on the second floor. The Dutch paintings, it seems, have been remounted in a special show, somewhere else in the building, but that can’t account for the terrifying shrinkage of the collection, which now occupies about a third of the galleries. The unused galleries have been boarded up; perhaps they’re being renovated, but it’s hard to see what could have improved them. Those pictures that remain have been crowded together in what used to be the special exhibition suite at the south end of the space. The overall effect is one of unsettling improvisation, with a dash of disregard for the art of the ancien régime. Although still centrally placed in the Museum’s layout, the Old Masters are not, at least for the moment, the beating heart of the collection, the vital demonstration of why the past must be saved and care for.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is, at the moment, more of a barn than ever.

Library Note:
The Cake Shelf
19 March 2019

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

¶ A while back, I reorganized the top center shelf of the breakfront bookcase in the bookroom. I had moved my collection of bulky Dover opera scores somewhere else, which left me with considerable empty space. I decided to reserve that space — an empty row at the back of the shelf — for the works of Anthony Trollope, whenever the box containing them should materialize in transport from the uptown storage unit.

This materialization occurred a few days before Ray Soleil oversaw the transport of everything else. I opened the box as soon as it arrived and came to an immediate, somewhat surprising decision. I would save the Palliser and the Barsetshire novels, plus one or two others, and dispose of the rest. (Somewhere in the bookroom, I knew, there was an tiny, ancient Oxford edition of The Way We Live Now). I also found another, better place for the twelve-odd books that I would keep. This left the space at the top of the breakfront bookcase empty. 

Then five more boxes of books materialized. A lot of them, it seemed, were books like Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, in a colorless Bobbs-Merrill edition. Am I ever going to read anything by Immanuel Kant? Even if the answer is “yes,” it’s probably not — probably — going to be the Prolegomena, which, let’s face it, I’ve held onto because of that very peculiar word, which as I recall means something in between “foundation” and “introduction,” with a big splash of “prerequisite” thrown in. You must do me the justice of believing me when I say that I have never tried to use “prolegomena” in a sentence, written or spoken. But I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of the book. That’s what the rather inaccessible empty shelf at the back of the top of the breakfront bookcase is for: having my cake (keeping the book) and eating it, too (getting it out of the way). 

I thought that it would be easy to fill the shelf, presto,with books of this kind. After all, weren’t most of the books that I had sent to the storage unit fall under the rubric of cake? Sadly, no. Quite a few of them turned out to be books that I had actually missed. (I’d even bought another copy of one of them.) The supply of readily available cake titles ran out just the far side of the halfway mark. Ray had carefully removed the books from the first and second rows of the shelf (music and movies), and it seemed an awful shame to wall up the back when it was still half-empty. But Ray, dear friend though he be, was quite rightly working on a clock, from which a bill would be calculated. Realizing that it would take some time to choose a balance of books for immurement on the cake shelf, I asked Ray to put the books in the first and second rows back where they belonged. 

There are still plenty of books to put away. More than half of them are works of fiction, bound for a bookcase that is already quite full. The other books will languish on the book cart, until I cull enough cake to make re-opening the cake shelf worthwhile.

Drama Note:
Philistines
18 March 2019

Monday, March 18th, 2019

¶ Kathleen and I are about to pass from Season 4 to Season 5 of Endeavour, neither of which we’ve seen before. We are struck by the distance into emotional complication that the corpus of all things Morse has traveled since the bright puzzles of Last Bus to Woodstock and The Wolvercote Tongue. The murder mysteries in each episode of Endeavour have become challenged for equal interest by the ongoing stories of the recurring characters — the coppers and the people attached to them. While the Inspector Morse series abounded in “personal” glimpses of the peculiar detective’s misfit character, Endeavour has made of Morse a satellite in the Thursday story.

Surely there was never anything in Morse or Lewis so poignant, if you know what’s behind it, as the scene between Joan Thursday and her father, Morse’s boss, Fred, when she finds him loitering outside her flat in Oxford. She says, not unreasonably, that we must all make our own mistakes, but it cannot be denied that Fred has had a much closer look at Joan’s mistakes than the ordinary father. (He has severely beaten Joan’s sugar daddy in Leaminigton, in a kind of intervention rarely seen above rather low socioeconomic levels.) For a moment, it is almost as embarrassing as if father and daughter were naked — and tragic to a degree far beyond the romantic disappointments that the maladroit Morse played by John Thaw so regularly experienced.

But while the emotional richness of the Thursday saga is deeply engrossing, it occasionally threatens to overtake the show, leaving Kathleen and me a bit disgruntled, feeling that we haven’t gotten what we paid for. 

End of Storage Note:
Stable
15 March 2019

Friday, March 15th, 2019

¶ How nice it would be to say that we have digested all of the stuff that arrived from the last of our storage units on Monday, and that the apartment looked as though nothing happened! In fact, we haven’t found places for much of anything. But everything has found a temporary perch, one that we can live with for another week or two. Litter and disorder have been Dealt With. 

The two clothes racks remain in the foyer. Since they’re on wheels, they’re easy to move out of the way whenever we need access to the sideboard. That isn’t too often, and they’re not in the way of regular traffic. 

The books are piled on two tray tables in the living room (remember, there are not so many as I feared), and on a garden chair in the book room. The garden chair used to sit outside on the balcony, but I shuffled it indoors to make room for another piece, a much more comfortable metal rocking chair that I had kept in the storage unit to sit on during the purely imaginary visits that I planned to make, every so often, to what I liked to think of as a library annex. (No such call was ever paid.) Also displaced was my grandmother’s French chair — which may have been venerable in her day. A small piece, nicely carved but not actually dainty, it has returned to its original spot in the foyer, where it has been missed.

Kathleen has tried on most of the clothes. The ones that no longer fit are going to charity, as soon as she fills out the form for a tax deduction. Ray Soleil and I hope to move the clothes to the shop on the clothes rack, saving us a bundle of extra work and giving Second Avenue a breath of Seventh Avenue atmosphere — if the charity will allow it. (They’ll get to keep the rack.) 

As for books…

There’s a copy of Julia Child’s My Life in France, published in 2006. I’ve also got the galley proof, which a friend sent to me to read before the book came out. Why do I keep it? Because on page 56, there’s the following gem: 

Out of curiosity, and partly inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s character in Sabrina, I dropped by L’École du Cordon Bleu, Paris’s famous cooking school. 

I remember scratching my head when I read this the first time. Mrs Child is writing of things that happened in the late Forties. (1949 to be exact.) According to IMDb, Hepburn’s first real movie appeared in 1951, Sabrina not until 1954. Inspiration appears to have been strictly retrospective. Happily, the French Chef’s appealing but false recollection, which had probably hardened into concrete decades before My Life in France was dictated, does not appear in the published text: kudos to an attentive editor at Knopf. It would have been mortifying had the mistake not been caught, but as mistakes go, this one warms the cackler in my heart.

End of Storage Note:
Stacks
14 March 2019

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

My idea was to stack the contents of the five boxes of books according to the bookcases into which they would have to be fit, but in the event I instinctively categorized them: biography, criticism, and so on. This yielded a modest pile of fiction and a much smaller one of history, the two kinds of book that have their own dedicated bookcases. There are also two books about music — Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s memoir and a history of music histories — that might be wedged onto the shelf dominated by Mozart (about whom I seem to have more books than about all other composers combined); but that’s not counting the biography of Ravel by Roger Nichols that I had to put down because the portrait of its subject was so unattractive, and that I can keep as a biography but not as a music book. 

Books of biography, by the way, like books of criticism, are shelved in various places, in both the book room and the living room. The height of the book places a non-negligible role in the just-where. 

There is a too-tall pile of books that don’t immediately fit into any category.

But the boxes have all been emptied and thrown away. The books are stacked on tray tables in the living room. (The foyer is still dominated by the two racks of clothes.) Discouragingly, few books strike me as obvious candidates for the discard bags. On the contrary, I was delighted to see that I hadn’t got rid of Frances du Plessix Gray’s Them, the acidulous memoir of her mother and stepfather that breathes the true atmosphere of mid-century Gotham glamour — and presents the reader with the bill. 

Nevertheless, a great deal of progress has not been made. I take consolation in the temporarily warmer weather

Health Note:
Still Unsightly
13 March 2019

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

¶ We interrupt &c&c.

It’s official: I’ve lost a lot of weight.

On the internist’s unimpeachable scale, the same instrument that weighed me in at 312 pounds at last summer’s physical (late summer), I was found to be carrying 256 pounds. I was elated the point of discombobulation. The doctor was pretty jolted, too.

I don’t think that either of us would have predicted that a simple ban on drink and crisps, over less than three months, would have such a dramatic effect. The crisps — why not adopt the British usage? It’s not as though “crisps” means anything else in American, while fish and chips is becoming increasingly familiar on tavern menus — were a double whammy, quite fattening in themselves but also, by their saltiness, conducive to serious water retention.

Any benefits of this weight loss will be strictly medical. If I used to look like a water balloon, I now resemble a rifled sack of potatoes, with pipecleaner limbs and a withered apple for a head, with the cadaverous effect of newly visible bones.  

End of Storage Note:
Cranberry
12 March 2019

Tuesday, March 12th, 2019

¶ It would be incorrect to say that we inherited the cranberry glassware, because the gift was not occasioned by death. Kathleen’s mother, to whose grandmother they had belonged, sent them along in the course of one of her downsizings. Stemware in three sizes — water, wine, and champagne coupes; the stems and feet are clear — it’s nineteenth-century American stuff. 

Although I can see why it’s not called “ruby,” I don’t know how anybody settled on “cranberry.” I suppose the name was meant to suggest a stylish homeliness worthy of Wallace Nutting. Its tint, one can’t help suspecting, was intended as a substitute for the colors of wine — which in fact it renders rather unappetizing. Even water looks wrong. But for decades, we went through the motions of treasuring the heirloom. Then we decided that it was somebody else’s turn. But none of Kathleen’s cousins, all of whom were not only younger but raised without my mother-in-law’s traditional rigor, wanted any part. So we boxed up the glasses and put them in storage. You can’t give away an heirloom. 

You can break it, though, and so, instead of having twelve of everything, we have four waters, six wines, and seven champagnes. Suffice it to say that the cranberry glasses were not meant for the dishwasher. It’s not that they’re delicate; they just don’t quite fit anywhere.

Now that we are done with storage, the box has been unpacked and the glasses washed. I made space for them on a cabinet shelf that used to hold miscellaneous glassware, including my largish collection of shot glasses. Marie Kondo, I feel sure, would advise treating the cranberry glasses just like the other items currently on the dining table — wrapping them back up in newspaper and sending them to charity. But it seems more honorable to go on breaking them.

End of Storage Note:
Evacuation
11 March 2019

Monday, March 11th, 2019

Today, we marked an epoch by closing our outstanding account with Manhattan Mini Storage, and taking possession of the items that we had parked in a small room at their uptown-most facility. I gather that this facility was not the success that MMS’s other, more convenient locations have been, because Edison, the corporate owner, decided to convert the space to use as offices. Last fall, I was notified that my stuff, if I did not make other arrangements prior to a certain date, would be moved to “another location” — presumably at another (higher) rent. Then my foot went on the fritz, and I gave the matter no thought until a few weeks ago, when I was advised that the certain date had been postponed. By now, I was feeling well enough to confer with Ray Soleil, who, as usual, did all the work. He arranged for Man with a Van to pick our things up this morning. Forbidden by company policy to ride with the van, Ray managed to get to the apartment right behind it. While I made my way downstairs, Ray saw to it that the van was promptly emptied and driven away. He had his reasons.

The doorman was not going to allow us to cart my belongings through the lobby; we would have to go round to the service entrance on 87th Street. This very bad news, for which I had made no preparations, was not altogether a surprise, but I had hoped that eight boxes (five of books), a patio chair, two garment racks of clothes, and four paintings might squeak by the prohibition of moving furniture into the building via the front door. (People take furniture out that way all the time, although just a piece or two at a time.) I wailed, nicely, that I had been living in the building for nearly forty years, for most of which time such regulations had enforced rather lightly. And so on. Suddenly, my fairy godmother — a lovely woman from the management office who had been very helpful with our bed-delivery problems last fall — appeared and announced that there was no problem. Now the doorman affably held open the door while Ray rolled things in. I don’t know how the lady from the management office got wind of the situation, but I knew better than to ask.

Until Ray reported back from an exploratory mission last week, I thought that there would be at least twice as many boxes of books. That there were only five was very happy news. Well, six, but this sixth box was full of novels by Anthony Trollope, including a number of titles, such as The Vicar of Bullhampton, that I had never read. (There was also the endless Marion Fay, which may well have been the book that stifled my interest in Trollope, even if it was an aborted re-reading of John Caldigate that soured my taste for Trollope.) I thought that I had a plan for the Trollopes, but when confronted with the actual books, I came to a very different decision, quickly finding shelf space for the clothbound Barsetshire and Palliser novels, setting aside five or six other books to keep, and bagging all the rest for charity.

The disposition of the Last of Storage will take more than a week, but I hope to deal with everything but the clothes in the next couple of days, and that’s what I’ll be writing about this week.

More anon.

Rep Note:
Obvious?
8 March 2019

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

¶ It seems so obvious in retrospect that I’m somewhat embarrassed by writing it down. Remembering how much thought I gave to it ahead of time, I wonder if the simplicity isn’t a mirage.

I’m talking about today’s lunch — and simple lunch at that. Evidently, though, I had to clear away a lot of lumber to see what I wanted. My weakness for bacon was one of the more unwieldy items.

Should I go back in time, and tell you about a weekend treat that my mother used to make? She called it “cheese dreams.” It was a grilled open-faced sandwich, with bacon, cheese, and tomato on a slice of bread. That’s the idea. But it’s not enough to go on for a re-creation. For one thing, I can’t remember how these ingredients were layered. For another, the bacon, which wasn’t cooked separately, was always almost grossly underdone. 

What I did today — having, as I say, worked out the details in advance — was to take a medium length of baguette, slice it in half horizontally, and spread the pieces with butter and mustard. I topped them with thin slices of Prague ham and with heaping spoonfuls of grated gruyère. Then I broiled them in a very hot oven, for about a minute and a half. The result was something between a croque monsieur and a cocktail hors d’oeuvre. Altogether scrumptious. 

And very, how you say, obvious. You’ve probably been enjoying this for years. 

Meta Note:
Unread Books
7 March 2019

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

¶ In a nutshell, Pierre Bayard’s idea is that all books are unread. Nobody has read anything. 

In connection with work on the writing project (so different already from what it was the first time round), I wanted to put my hands on Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, which I read when it came out, a dozen years or so ago. I wasn’t sure that I still had it; I could easily imagine feeding it to the cull. But I found it without much of a search, and I’ve been re-reading it.

How to Talk is one of those clever productions, sometimes French but more often by Oscar Wilde, in which the world that you know is convincingly turned upside-down and inside-out. Let’s just say that Bayard makes the most of the claim, which I don’t dispute, that those of us without the gift of photographic memories retain very little of the actual contents of any book that we read. Indeed, I find that I tend to rewrite passages that I mean to quote even before I’ve finished the book itself. This was the aspect of Bayard’s book that I fastened upon the first time — no surprise that I found it pretty funny. I also came to suspect that Bayard has actually read most of the books that he discusses. 

This time, the book seems darker, and for a reason that is illuminated by the Balzac chapter toward the end, in which Bayard offers the following insight about Lost Illusions: 

Lousteau and Blondet’s attitude in encouraging Lucien to write contradictory articles would be shocking if the two articles were about exactly the same book. What Balzac is suggesting is that it is not exactly the same in the two cases. To be sure, the physical book remains identical to itself, but no longer represents the same knot of relationships once Nathan’s position in society evolves. Similarly, once Lucien has attained a certain social position, his Marguerites becomes a rather different collection of poems.  (146)

Bayard’s book has changed for me because, like the book that Lucien reviews twice, its context has changed. Perhaps the greatest question posed by the writing project — a question that I must answer in order to write it — is why I have never made a paying career, any kind of career, out of writing. The best answer that I have is still not very clear: I have always feared that doing so would degrade my interest in reading and writing, and hence my ability to do either. It is not that I have a problem with filthy lucre. Oh, no. But I would have a terrible time “writing to the market.”

A cliché that Bayard recycles (on p 98) is that readers never understand exactly what writers were trying to say — much to the dismay of writers who have to hear what readers have to say about their books. When I read this the first time, I agreed that it was sadly true. But since then, as the result of much hard work at The Daily Blague /reader (a site that I’ve had to retire while working on the writing project), I have acquired a slim folder of letters from authors who, coming upon my commentary via Google or somehow, have heatedly thanked me for being, finally, the one person who really got their books. There are not many such letters, six or seven perhaps, but they sound this theme in emphatic unison. So I know that it is possible to read a book well. Why doesn’t it happen more often? 

Bayard’s tone throughout How to Talk answers the question. He is writing to people who read and write for a living (and for students, who seek other, equally well-defined rewards). It is the recurring lot of such people to find themselves obliged to read books that don’t really appeal to them, or to read too many books in too short a time, or — most trying of all, it seems — to read books written by friends and colleagues. The magic of reading and writing, and the very liveliness of thinking, have been compromised by obligation. Pleasure pales into consumption. And I do pause to note that the publishers of book reviews are not particularly interested in wowing authors. Why should they?  

You may dismiss me as “idealistic.” But I know that husbands and wives would no longer live together if marriage entailed this degree of obligation. The institution wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Then again, nobody makes a living by being married.

 

Texting Note:
Apology
6 March 2019

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

¶ This morning, I received an intriguing text from an unknown source — “not in your contacts,” the iPhone warned.  

Here’s the message:

I have gone through memory lane and read some of the letters I’d written to you. I was so pretentious! I am so sorry for being the person that I was when I wrote to you.

The only person I could think of who might have had reason to write such a letter was — me. Me, myself, and I.

It could have been addressed to almost anyone with whom I’ve ever had a correspondence.  

But what at first looked like a bizarre attempt at phishing turned out to have been sent by someone I did know, someone with whom I had fallen out of touch and for whom I had not created a contact. So! Even if I should not have phrased my apology quite like that, I could certainly see how we had gotten to be friendly.

Vanitas Note:
Cadaverous
5 March 2019

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

¶ Looking at my reflection in the mirror facing the barber’s chair, yesterday, I was a bit shocked by the falling away of my face. I don’t seem to notice this in the bathroom mirror, perhaps because I am not really looking closely, or perhaps because, since I am standing and my head is bent forward by my fixed spine, the view isn’t very good. Seated in the barber’s chair, I can see clearly. Not only have my cheeks disappeared, leaving me with jutting cheekbones that might be sexy if they did not seem to be attached to a corpse, but the hollows of my temples are much deeper. I noticed this second change because of the shadows cast by the lamps in the barber’s ceiling. One thing that hasn’t changed in my scowl. Ripples of permanent frown score my brow, as they have done for thirty or more years. As it had been nearly a month since my last visit to the barber shop, I had the head of a Spanish mystic, or maybe a vengeful insurrectionist. It is really not an appealing — certainly not a welcoming — face.

Of course, I can’t help being pleased — pleased and yet chastened. It’s wonderful to have lost so much weight (thanks to No Drink, and also to No Crisps). But what’s the point, really? This new look will not be making me more attractive as I sail through the rest of my life. My sailing days are over. The best that can be said is that I’m working toward a somewhat less hampered and painful old age.

The trouble with that particular objective is that my bloodstream has gone through the last infusion of Remicade — which was three months ago. There are no plans for another one. The doctors are Looking Into Alternatives. Meanwhile, my shoulders ache as if I had just moved a ton of bricks and then caught a serious sunburn.

My foot is doing fine, though. 

Sunday Note:
Queasy
4 March 2019

Monday, March 4th, 2019

¶ On Saturday morning, the paper was late. On Sunday, it was so late that we eventually gave up on its being delivered at all. Much as we hate paying six dollars to buy the Sunday Times the day after we’ve read nearly half of its sections (they’re printed earlier and arrive on Saturday), Kathleen got dressed and headed out for the tabac across the street. She was back in an instant, bearing the paper. “It was right by the elevator.” (For some time, address labels have been stickered on the Times, so we knew that it was ours.) We settled down to read it in the usual way.

While Kathleen read the Weekly Review, I read everything else. Broadway actor Andrew Rannells’s “Modern Love” piece raised an eyebrow. I’m not sure that I approve of public figures airing their love lives in what is supposed to be a homely column featuring men and mostly women unendowed with rich romantic prospects. (Rannells is almost terminally cute.) Besides, the piece wafted more than a whiff of All About Eve: the romance under discussion broke up after Rannells got a part for which his lover had not even been asked to try out. They had both been turned down for it in the early days of their relationship. Rannells seemed quite upbeat about it all, and completely failed to strike the appropriate, contrite note of “just a couple of scrapbooks and some French provincial furniture,” or however it goes. 

Did I mention the time, two months or so ago, when the deliveryman simply dumped the entire East Wing’s newspapers by the elevator on the fifth floor?

Social Note:
What to Do?
1 March 2019

Friday, March 1st, 2019

¶ Re-reading Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw, I see that a great deal of the pathos toward the end of the book springs from the sheer novelty that confronts the narrator and her stepfather. They don’t know how to handle the morphine addiction that overtakes the mother because they’ve never had to think about such things, because they have never known such a disaster to overtake anyone in their acquaintance. And they cannot see that the mother’s self-regard will make true recovery impossible.  

I can enter into the caregivers’ ignorance, because I shared it throughout childhood. I did not even imagine that there were ingestible substances capable of eviscerating an upstanding individual’s moral character. And I understand why the first impulse of anyone surprised by the catastrophe of drug dependency is to hide it, to tell no one, to seek as little help as possible — a tactic made all the easier by a world that doesn’t want to know. Jigsaw ends in about 1930. Even in 1960, conventional wisdom held that such things don’t happen to respectable people. 

But all that has changed. Nowadays, everyone knows something about addiction, if only from television. I hope that this hasn’t spoiled the drama of Jigsaw for new generations of readers. 

February 2019

Friday, March 1st, 2019

Movie Note:
Longing
28 February 2019

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

¶ During my daily lying-down period yesterday (it was followed by an actual nap), I watched Michelangelo Antonio’s L’Eclisse (Eclipse). It is not as notorious as L’Avventura, but it is almost as enigmatic and boring. Boring, that is, for the first-time viewer, especially the young first-time viewer, which I was, once upon a time in college. No matter how hard I tried to figure out what Eclipse was about, I was left with the suspicion that Antonio had exposed extraordinary lengths of film to tell a very short story.

I am not going to explain how much more sophisticated my response to this somewhat hypnotized movie has become over the years. What I want to mention is the durability with which the opening scene stuck with me for decades, long after I’d forgotten just which movie it belonged to. This scene, which seems, the first time you see it, to be much, much longer than it really is, features two adults in an affluent interior. There are lots of carefully-arranged things in a decor that combines the modern with the worthy. The adults are not so well-arranged. Although dressed in street clothes, they look tired and unkempt. They have, it is revealed, stayed up all night discussing their future together. The woman has decided that they don’t have one. The man wants to know why. The woman cannot begin to say. So she says very little, and he doesn’t say much more, and the scene unrolls in silence broken only by the sound of the woman’s heels on the floorboards — she is constantly, rather pointlessly, moving around the room. When she leaves, he follows her — through a bizarre landscape of well-paved streets and sidewalks, and strangely open fields. What kind of a neighborhood is this? And what is that mushroom thing, that tall edifice like a saucer on stilts? Is this science fiction?

It is Mussolini fiction. Half the movie is shot in the Rome that coexists with the one that tourists know. The other half is shot in EUR, a large development south of the city that was to have been the site of a world’s fair in 1942. When Antonioni shot Eclipse, in 1962 (or maybe the year before), EUR was still being developed, in a style that can only be called Angeleno. Full of weedy vacant lots and buildings under construction, EUR provided the perfect set for Antonioni’s study of modern anomie. Plus, it was real! But that’s not what I want to talk about, either. 

What I want to say is that for years, I viewed the opening scene with envy and ambition. If there is anything that is not troubling the lovers, it is money. They’re fixed for money. They can indulge in hours of disappointed, disaffected conversation, a sort of slow-motion spat, without giving a thought to their bank balances. Impecunious and improvident wretch that I was as a young man, I longed for such soundly luxurious unhappiness. I didn’t so much mind being anxious and miserable; what I hated was being anxious and miserable about money. The protracted beginning of Eclipse captured my dream. 

Recovery Note:
Dusting
27 February 2019

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

After yesterday’s exciting visit to the podiatrist, I decided that I could dust the bedroom (for the first time since 22 December), so long as I did it in fifteen-minute segments, with fifteen-minute breaks. This decision turned out to be sound, or at least not unsound. My right foot did not swell up or change in any way. There is still a small bit of swelling, but the podiatrist pronounced the foot’s condition to be “great,” “looking really good.” He didn’t say anything about staying off my feet, and neither did I.

The excitement was provided by my left foot, which so far has served as a control for what a normal foot, attached to me, ought to look like. Only it was not normal. Owing to the extremely dry skin on the soles of my feet (I think), my big toe was adorned by a blood blister, which the doctor pierced to volcanic effect. Well, there was a lot of blood in the blister. The doctor did not breach a nearby artery. He told me about it, though. When he instructed me to remove the compression bandage, which his aide had wrapped around this new wound, with its solitary stitch, at bedtime, and to replace it with a Band-Aid, he added, “Now, this is not going to happen, but if when you remove the bandage there are jets of pulsating blood, put your finger over your toe and go to the Emergency Room.”

I can laugh now, but I was not fun to be around when Kathleen got home last night, especially since it was she who would be removing the bandage and applying the Band-Aid.

Which she did without incident. As the doctor “assured” me, nothing happened. There was no pulsating blood and no need for a trip to the Emergency Room. When I see the podiatrist in another two weeks, he’ll remove what’s left of the stitch.

About an hour after the tidying was done, I began to feel a bit off. It wasn’t my foot, which I’d have been ready for, but the other end of me, my shoulders. I have not done much with my shoulders in the past two months, and removing all the books from the chin-level dressers, so that I could remove the shag carpet of dust, provoked lively and painful protest. They still ache today, a little.

Meanwhile, I have to moisturize the palms of my hands as well. Same sort of skin, I suppose. Kathleen rubbed a special cream on my feet this morning, and then pulled on the little socks that she calls “peds.” I have to get some more of those, to wear under the new, supposedly wide-enough slip-ons that I ordered when I got home from the hospital. The doctor says that I must wear socks. Wearing gloves would probably be a good idea, but that’s not going to happen.  

History Note:
Hoover in the Ninth Circle
26 February 2019

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

Eric Rauchway’s Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal is an unexpected book. Covering the months between Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first presidential victory, in November 1932, and his first inauguration, in March 1933, it ought to be both tedious and insubstantial. We have become familiar with the almost instant forgettability of transition-team maneuverings, which not only provide fodder for the newspapers but suggest that the best use for newspapers is wrapping dead fish. What a surprise it is, then, to find in Winter War a compelling, sometimes electrifying read. 

Structurally, the book deals with the political views that divided Republicans and Democrats in the handling of five broad issues — the international debts still lingering from World War I, the impact of overproduction on farm prices, social issues such as Prohibition, the rise of Hitler, and the rash of bank failures that erupted in early 1933 — with a sixth chapter describing the Democrats’ inability to expand their progressive outreach to include black Americans. But Rauchway’s discussions are driven not so much by ideology as by the personalities whose letters and diaries he has mined for the insiders’ view of a confrontation that was largely invisible to the public. Hoover and Roosevelt and their entourages — Hoover himself particularly — were acutely concerned with the stage-management of their positions; the pity for Hoover (not that I can pity him) is that he was playing to an emptying theatre. Winter War is aptly titled, but Winter Siege might have been better. Rauchway presents Hoover as the defender of a fortress under attack by a mortal enemy. Attempts to co-opt (and so disgrace) this enemy give way, as the old year gives way to the new, to essentially traitorous plots to undermine the fortress so that it will blow up once it has been occupied by the attackers.

Rauchway’s tone is is neutral and objective, but his narrative presents Hoover as a villain, if a highly-principled one. Hoover’s animus toward Roosevelt was bone-deep; he thought that the crippling caused by polio alone rendered Roosevelt unfit for office. Rauchway never speculates on the resentment that Hoover must have felt in being challenged and defeated by the sophisticated, “Eastern” inheritor of wealth and position, but the behavior that Rauchway describes is absolutely typical of that all-too-familiar species of ill will. Hoover’s schemes to hoodwink Roosevelt are crude and, to a worldly eye, transparent, and Hoover seems bewildered by Roosevelt’s knack for sidestepping them. More than once, Hoover’s antics reminded me of Mime, in Siegfried, the dwarf so cocksure of his nefarious plans that he loses all sense of vulnerability.

Although he would never regain leadership of the Republican Party, Hoover would vigorously promote the life-is-tough-for-losers, fundamentally libertarian strain of Republicanism for the rest of his life, inspiring Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. I never found this outlook at all congenial, but now I despise it, pretty much as Dante despised Brutus. When I didn’t know much about them, libertarians seemed to be interesting cranks; now they’re nothing to me but anarchists with money. Like anarchists, they ought to be kept out of politics altogether, and their pseudo-Darwinian, quasi-racist ideology permanently archived, alongside Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, under “Politically Toxic.” I’m not sufficiently savvy to trace the libertarian inheritance from Nietzsche, and, more to the point, I’m never sure just how seriously to take what Nietzsche has to say; the discrepancy between any idea of Superman and the frail professor, who never seemed quite large enough to support his moustache, is too great to overcome the stink of a rotting irony. But insofar as libertarians might regard themselves as the heirs of Nietzsche, or even spout the same sort of nonsense, they must be dismissed as essentially inhumane. Those among them who long for the opportunity to download themselves into more permanent, computer form could not be more explicitly anti-human. 

Hoover’s libertarianism was primitive in comparison with today’s, and more distinctly American; it derived from myths about the settlement of the nation, stories that not only responded with dry eyes to the preponderance of individual failure in this immense undertaking but that also minimized the roles of accident and chance in the triumphs of the rich. Men like Hoover, an engineer who worked his way up from rural poverty, were not only successful but rewarded with success, for having done something special, something beyond putting in the blood, sweat, and tears that characterized so many of the failures. In the case of victors like John D Rockefeller, this something special was altogether a matter of chicanery; Rockefeller’s luck was to live and thrive in a particularly amoral, disenchanted period. Eric Rauchway, who sticks pretty close to his chosen period, does not tell us how, exactly, Hoover made his fortune, but his picture of Hoover’s post-election campaign against Roosevelt and the New Deal suggests an extensive familiarity with the toolbox of dirty dealing. 

The blackest of the five chapters in which Hoover plays a leading role is the last one. Here, Hoover grimly prosecutes his conviction that failed banks deserve their fate, and that the government ought to stand back, offering only notional succor, until the last bank has collapsed. In the classically libertarian manner, Hoover confused his causes and effects. If a bank failed, failure was proof of its unsoundness. This ridiculous proposition was exploded within days of Roosevelt’s new administration. A quickly-imposed bank holiday, closing all banks instead of leaving it to the states to improvise different approaches to the wave of panic that surged in February 1933, almost immediately quieted the fever. A new theory took hold: while a bank might be weak, even unsound, its depositors did not deserve to fail (ie to lose their deposits)Hoover’s pitilessness, together with his ostensibly cooperative offer to take action if Roosevelt would collaborate with him by endorsing a rescue program, damn him, in my judgment, to the hottest and darkest of hells. The enormity of Hoover’s wickedness, indeed, made me completely forget the conduct of his current successor.  

Winter War is a must-read.