2020
Im Grünen

Δ My Boomerang
¶ Obligatory Reading (Re: Keynes, Margot, Hegel)
, Kudos
§ Sexual Revenge
Dracula
§ Namier Lost and Found
Δ Stubbled Curmudgeon
§ The Good Critic: A Vocation

Δ Although I seem to be reading about fifteen books concurrently, the one that arrived this afternoon is such a tonic that I have no trouble whatever paying attention to its every word. When I sat down with it at lunch, I opened it in the middle, just for a taste. I was still glued forty pages later.

The book is Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, by Anne Glenconner. Maybe “Shadow of the Crown” is a sort of code name for the late Princess Margaret, to whom Lady Glenconner, née Miss Anne Coke, was Lady in Waiting for thirty years. (This is reminding me of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother racket.) I’ve never been sure just what being a lady in waiting entails (as David Cameron said in another connection, How hard can it be?), but I hope to acquire a passing expertise from this subtly enchanting memoir. I have a favorite anecdote already. 

I’ll give you the punch line, but the rest I’m going to paraphrase, partly to save time but mostly to preserve the freshness of the tale, which like everything in Lady in Waiting owes a lot to the author’s special gift for wisecracks. Her tone is almost invariably kind, warm, generous and amused, but she knows how to make any reader with half a brain fill in the blanks even as she stares levelly out from the page, rightly if a wee bit pharasaically murmuring, “didn’t say that.” For example, this recollection of a state event in then-Swaziland:

Princess Margaret and I sat there, stifling in our English clothes, watching the different things happening in front of us. There were many dance troupes, who moved in perfect unison, and I admired the clothes they wore, knowing how much Colin [Lord Glenconner, the original Piece of Work] would have liked to wear feathers in his hair and parade around to a loud drumbeat.

The schoolgirlish tone of those last words, “parade around to a loud drumbeat,” which so volcanically understates the heart-of-darkness beastliness of her party-mad husband, is what transforms the dig into an excavation. I didn’t say that

The boomerang story involves the wife of the very grand governor of New South Wales. Back in London from an Australian tour with Princess Margaret, Lady Glenconner was approached by the good woman. Would Princess Margaret accept a present? Lady Glenconner, having inquired what it might be, went to tell the princess. “Ma’am, you’ll never guess what Lady Cutler is intending to give you as a present. A boomerang cover.”

Princess Margaret laughed. “How on earth does she know how big my boomerang is?” 

Of course, the cover turned out to be a quilt, embroidered by ladies all over Australia (“which was how it got its name — because it had gone back and forth”). All the more reason to admire Margaret’s quick-draw mastery of the Queen’s English.

***

For forty years, I have lived at the same three-block distance from the mayor’s official residence, Gracie Mansion, which occupies a corner of Manhattan hitherto but not at the moment unfrequented. I loathe the dull roar of hovering helicopters; I daresay no one likes it. I have gotten used to being out of the way. The noise on Tuesday afternoon was extraordinarily distressing. Yesterday, I ran an errand to Schaller & Weber, half surprised that it was open and doing business as usual. Today, I visited the local discount shop for health and household aids, for the first since it closed back in March, and had the satisfaction of stocking up without having to coach Kathleen. While I was gone, she was distracted by the sound of chanting protesters in the street, and dreadfully worried that I’d been caught up in it. For my part, I didn’t hear a thing until I opened the apartment door coming home. The marchers were on 87th Street, right out the window from where Kathleen was working, and not on 86th, where I had been. As always, the sound suggested a crowd rather bigger than a glance from the balcony revealed it to be. A jolly amble, is what it looked like. Even when I was young, though, it was the sort of thing I didn’t go in for. (4 June)

 

Having had no economic training of any kind, I’m not qualified to judge the Keynes book that I mentioned at the end of May: Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace. But it’s more than “very good.” As usual, the subtitle is a missfire — I wish that publishers would fuss less with subtitles and more with proofreading — because, in this case, “Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” fails to herald the most important aspect of the book, which might in a conventional biography be confined to a brief sequel. In a text of 530-odd pages, Keynes’s life comes to a close by page 370. What follows is the long and sad story of the posthumous mutations inflicted on his ideas in this country. Reading it, I figured out at last why “Keynsian” has never described anything very definite to me. I might have figured out, had I thought about it harder, that Keynes’s trademark “deficit spending” had been perverted by Washington to pay for Vietnam and other follies, instead of improving, as Keynes would have expected, the general welfare. I closed Carter’s book in a thundercloud of disgust. Mind you, not with the book. I recommend the book heartily. Indeed, for any intelligent Anglophone, it’s obligatory reading

Once I was finished with Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting, I pulled down Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret for another look. The handful of stories that they both tell do not seriously conflict, which is reassuring, but Brown is stolidly unsympathetic to the princess, while Glenconner is both friendly and loyal — well, as loyal as one can be when writing a book at all. This is not at all surprising, for Brown not only wrote for Private Eye but never got to know — he may never even have met — his subject, while the lady in waiting was an old friend of the family; she and Margaret had played as little girls. Lady Anne was also scrupulous about observing the formalities; if she ever addressed the princess by name, it does unreported here. I did not find the accounts truly dissonant, because the erratic behavior of an intelligent and curious but uneducated and (it must be said) self-important person is only to be expected. As to the self-importance, it was never enough, alas, to be a royal princess, because Margaret was drawn to bohemian cliques where the creative types, although no less flattered by royal-ish attention than anybody else, did not stand on ceremony; they would have resorted to calling her Maggie or Margot if not kept firmly in line. So they stood on ceremony while she was with them and then made fun of her later. Why didn’t she stay among her own kind, you may ask, to which I can only repeat that she was intelligent and curious. As to the lack of an education, I can see why she hit it off so well with Gore Vidal: both were happy to indulge their shared taste for withering dismissals. In retrospect, her rudeness is amusing, which his isn’t. Both Glenconner and Brown, by the way, retail the note, meant to be very nasty, that “Tony Snapshot” left in his wife’s glove drawer, comparing her to “a Jewish manicurist.” 

Why read about Princess Margaret? I have no answer to that one, although it has something to do with the size of boomerangs. Let’s talk about Hegel instead — such fun! D’you know, I always thought that the “Young Hegelians” were students (ie, young) who studied Hegel for fun. Not so! They were, in fact, students who believed that the mature Hegel had betrayed his younger, apparently more radical ideas. As in, “Young Hegel.” You learn something every day. I learned this from Peter Singer’s dandy Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. It’s Nº 49 in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, and it was just what I was looking for, which was intellectual housekeeping. I have picked up plenty of things about Hegel over the years, and the accumulated mass was greatly in need of organization. Confident that Professor Singer put everything in its appointed place. I am also very impressed by the degree of his attentiveness to language issues. While the problem of translating Geist cannot be overlooked, it can be overworked, and Singer is nothing if not deft and suave. In short, the perfect char. (8 June

¶ Now that I have a diary to consult, I see that I was distracted, last week, by two errands and one grocery delivery. Between those, and copying out the entirety of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” into said diary, I find enough in the way of excuses for not showing up here.

It would be nice, perhaps, to be able to say that I’m finding it difficult to get “back to normal” after all that’s happened (the pandemic, the Floyd furor), but in fact my daily life has never been so normal; during the distancing (I will not call it a quarantine or a lockdown, for it met only a few of the dread limitations of those exciting terms; far better to call it a small-business lockout), I have been able to devote a lot of attention to the household’s pulse, which is a faint thing indeed until it is regulated by the rigid schedules maintained by upper servants. But in the absence of outside distractions (not to mention upper servants), I am bedeviled by internal ones. And of course I don’t count what most people would consider the principle distraction: the amount of reading I do. 

(Which reminds me: it would be useful to develop rules for determining the practical necessity of relative pronouns in writing. Grammatically, of course, they are always necessary. But for the sake of coherence, which is a more important factor, they can often be dispensed with —  although, to my mind, more often not. I’m inspired by the rule that I made for the use of Oxford commas: if the absence of the second, Oxford, comma in the series might possibly render the first one a functional colon (as in, “I dedicate this book to my parents, God and Henry James”), then don’t leave it out. In speech, intonation usually compensates for dropped relative pronouns, but that’s just what can’t be counted on in prose. At least once a week I find myself floundering in a wild misreading that could have been prevented by a simple, if admittedly plodding, “that.”)

All I did yesterday, for example, was read Kudos, the final volume of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy (is that really what she calls it?). There were about five moments when I had to overcome a strong desire to put the book down, and succeeded in doing so only because I was recovering from a minor weekend malady and still frazzled by the accompanying anxiety that it might not be an ordinary minor malady at all but you-know-what, and Kudos was (a) easier to read than Parade’s End, which I’m working on and (b) already in my hands. The book is a peculiar triumph: Whereas Cusk’s narrator (“Faye”; wherever did she get that?) never says and rarely even hints at her impressions of the things that she is told in the course of the action-minimal text, she lets her interlocutors themselves tell you. So that while the surface of the novel is sociable and polite, the sociability and politeness occasionally crystallize into a sharp, stabbing blade, often in a phrase that commences with some version of “To be honest…”) The men in the first (German?) part of the book — Faye’s fellow passenger on the flight out; her publisher; the chap named Ryan (the guide Hermann is a still a boy, not even at university) — are particularly dreadful, rigorously uncritical about the decisions that they’ve made. (Much worse, for these men, than making a bad decision — which, as I’ve said, never happens — is not making a decision at all. Cusk doesn’t say so, but I have already learned that this is because men need resolution.) Ryan, a former writing teacher and converted body-builder who outsources the drabness of “researching” a novel to a flabby female collaborator, is particularly odious. (Not that he’d give a damn if you thought so.) I hated reading about him not least because of his brutally evasive language.

The publisher who is excited by “combustion” could be played by (a younger) Bob Balaban at his most demonically impish. But I haven’t said anything about him yet. He’s at the top of the three passages that follow, which I’ll take up in order. 

“People enjoy combustion!” [the publisher] exclaimed. (38)

He was all for people speaking their minds, but it did make him miss the time when what was beneath the surface had been permitted to stay there. (166)

My son once admitted to me, I said, that when he was younger, he desperately wished he could belong to a different family, such as the family of a friend of his with whom at a certain period in his life he spent a lot of his time. The family was big and noise and easy-going, and there was always room for him at the time, where huge comforting meals were served and where everything was discussed but nothing examined, so that there was no danger of passing through the mirror, as he had put it, into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility. 

He understood that he had given some of his freedom away, through a desire to avoid or alleviate his suffering, and while it didn’t seem exactly an unfair exchange, I believed he wouldn’t do it again quite so easily. (200, 202)

“Combustion” is a wonderful word, so wickedly gleeful, but Cusk has its larger, more mundane sense in mind: “consumption.” The editor plays a little riff on the recycling of Jane Austen, retooling not only her novels but her life, and culminating, he believes, in a reality show. He is probably quite right to suggest that these pitiful zombies exhaust the material from which they are fashioned, but he sounds like the sort of guy who would frown knowingly at the claim that Price and Prejudice can be read again and again, with increased pleasure. He wouldn’t be a young, presumably hotshot publisher (fresh out of marketing, by the way) if he didn’t put all his eggs in the basket marked “novelty.” He is used to using things up; it’s how his world works. That such an outlook is tolerated above the level of publishing-house mail-room clerk gives a good measure of the extent to which rentier capitalism has confounded a commercial activity in which it has no place. 

The second extract is an indirect expression of something said by the Welsh writer, a figure in the Portuguese second half. That it captures my sentiment exactly does not blind me to its colossal, really rather hilarious inconsistency. Speaking of Jane Austen, it’s a zinger worthy of her, and you don’t run into those every day. But I couldn’t agree more, and to explain I will turn to the third extract, which comes from one the rare passages in which Faye is heard to talk about her own life and family.

The two bits in this third extract constitute the opening and the closing of an anecdote. One key word, “freedom,” appears later than the other, “human fictions,” and it was only when I got to it that my disagreement with Cusk took a clear shape. I have been thinking a lot about freedom, and wondering why it doesn’t mean much to me; why, in particular, the word “freedom” itself is dead in my ear. I suddenly saw, reading Kudos, that my mind fastens on a distantly similar concept, “autonomy.” Here’s the difference: if I am an autonomous man, I can decide whom and whether to marry; nobody makes those decisions for me. But at no point, having married or decided not to marry, am I free to shrug off either the commitment that I have made in marriage or the respect that I owe to the marriages of others. Put more bluntly, I have the raw power but not the freedom to be a fornicator or an adulterer. My autonomy permits me to bind myself and it makes those bonds meaningful, precisely because I retain that raw power to break them, a power that, as an autonomous man, I can exercise only at the risk of tragedy itself. Indeed, it is the nature of my obligations that distinguishes me from the unfree slave. Because “freedom” and “bonds” are so automatically opposed in the way Western languages have come to be spoken, the longing for freedom has degenerated into a childish tic that reminds me of the fake coonskin caps that lucky boys wore with pride during the heyday of Disney’s Davy Crockett. (Consider his nickname: “king of the wild frontier,” and what that tells you about the freedom of others.) No autonomous man can live altogether without the ties that bind human beings in one way or another. 

Now I turn to the other phrase, “human fictions.” Reading this, I had bristled on contact, but now, thinking about freedom and autonomy, I knew how I should rewrite it: “social conventions.” I will be here all day if I start unpacking my replacement, because I am only at the beginning of puzzling out the tremendous mystery that surrounds our tied inabilities, first, to reflect on the good things about humanity without framing them in individualist terms (often quite ridiculously heroic) and, second, to meditate on the terms and conditions with which our daily interactions are formed and enforced without dumping them into a vat of gruelly socialist goop. (Libertarians are as bad at this as communists.) Why doesn’t anybody ever think of comedy? But as this is probably no laughing matter, I will leave you with the wisdom of Jesus (Matthew 19:20):

For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst. 

It would be fair to argue, I think, that Jesus, and certainly Paul, urge us to work tirelessly on creating social conventions that are less fictional and more human. (16 Junes)

 

§ It may seem that I’m going to talk more about Kudos, in this run-on fashion that I’ve apparently been currying — we’ll see. First, a quotation from Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. In the middle of a dark passage about the terrible expertise of English gentlemen at gossip, this made me sit up in bed and perpend: 

She…was aware that in certain dark, full-blooded men the passion for sexual revenge is very lasting… (“Some Do Not…” (Book One), Part Two, Chapter III)

Now, what the devil does this mean? How does one identify a “full-blooded” man? As for “sexual revenge,” who would indulge such a waste of time? 

Well, in answer to the second question, all the ex-husbands mentioned in the Portuguese half of Kudos. That’s who. We don’t meet any of these men in Cusk’s book, but almost every woman who does appear is the ex-wife of such a one. “Sexual revenge” is usually worked through the child — where there has been a marriage, there is always a child in these stories. I’ll give my favorite example only. One little girl says to a friend of her mother’s, “Mama’s always talking about her work … but in fact it isn’t work — what she calls work is what other people would call a hobby. Don’t you agree it’s a bit of a joke?” This very same Mama has just had a call from her mother, who follows up an unreasonable request with a fling of verbal acid:

Look what all your equality has done for you — the men no longer respect you and can treat you like the dirt on their shoe. Your cousin Angela has never worked, she said, and she has been divorced two times and is richer than the queen of England, because she stayed at home and took care of her children and treated them as her asset. But you don’t have a house or any money or even a car, she said, and your child goes around looking like an orphan on the street. You don’t even get her fringe cut,  she said, so it covers her eyes and she can’t see where she’s going. And I said, Mama, Stefano likes her hair that way and he insists that I don’t cut it, so there’s nothing I can do. And she said, I can’t believe I brought such a woman into the world, who allows a man to tell her what to do with her own child’s hair.

It’s so awful it’s funny. But the men aren’t funny.

I honestly don’t know what to make of it, what to make of these men and their pathology, because I can’t imagine thinking about someone you don’t like. I’ve done a lot of dumb things in my life, but pursuing revenge doesn’t seem to be one of them. Trollope says somewhere that we are all avenged, eventually, but will probably never know it. There’s not a lot of satisfaction in that, I suppose, but it’s what I think, too; and the surest way to let off someone who has hurt you is to try to hurt back. Or so I think until I read about the experience of these ex-wives, one of whom says that, if murder ever becomes legal, she’ll be dead before the first minute is out. Not that there seems to be anything that, mere women, they can do.   

The picture of the dark, full-blooded men, lurking no doubt in a dark, well-upholstered corner, makes me laugh — it’s pure Edward Gorey.

Here’s my question, though — since it’s clear that these Latin lovers don’t like women, and don’t like them precisely because they’re not ageless, inflatable dolls. (Deflate and stow when done — now, wouldn’t that suit them.) The question is, how is a woman to know? Well, if she lives in Portugal, I suppose she can take bone-deep misogyny for granted. But how is a nice American girl to know? For the matter of that, how is the boy she’s crazy about supposed to know? How old do you think these men usually are when they realize (if they ever do realize) that, despite their functional heterosexuality, they don’t like women? And do they ever, really? Or do they go on blaming the women for — being women? Are they like the ungifted, stupid criminal who blames his lengthy stays in prison on bad luck?

It would be handy to have a test, perhaps something breezy like the Minnesota Multiphasic. You know how, on that famous questionnaire, the same inquiries keep popping up, but phrased slightly differently so as to catch the unwary. (I hate my mother. No. My mother has caused all my problems. Yes.) The girl could ask to see the results before going out on the first date. (I love women. Yes. Women belong on a pedestal. Yes.)  

I suspect that I am not a full-blooded man. On the contrary, I’m a compleat bourgeois, more interested in peace and quiet than in property itself. The world would presumably be a duller place with more people like me about. But I have never once been asked, not remotely, to “liven things up.” (17 June)  

 

In the current Harper’s, there’s an article about Ireland’s peat bogs, and as I was reading it I came across the name of Bram Stoker, and I said to myself, “DraculaThat’s what I want to read now: Dracula!” And I didn’t even have to order it. I found my copy among the other Penguin Classics, although it belongs to an earlier generation of cover formats. It dates from 1993, in fact, and tucked into I found a bookmarker from the St Mark’s Place Bookstore, which is probably where I bought it. The bookmark gives a fax number but no Internet address. 

Anyway, Dracula. When I read it in college, I was very disappointed. The Transylvanian spectacle turned out to be a wash. Not only was it brief, but the exciting scenery and lurid goings-on were submerged in the ripe, fatuous prose that I had outgrown when I left Poe behind (another disappointment). Worse was to come when the action shifted to England. Vampires in Blighty? Don’t be daft! The language of the two ladies, Lucy and Mina, was vomitrociously sweet, and the plattdeutsch pieties of Van Helsing might have persuaded me that Stoker was paid by the word. 

By 1993, it seems, I was ready to consider a second look, but not ready to take it. 

This time, I couldn’t put it down. The difference had something to do with age, I’m sure, but it’s more clearly got something to do with Wilkie Collins. Although Collins is famous for his ripping yarns, his appeal, I think, lies in the grit and determination of his heroes and heroines. They simply don’t give up. And they always find courageous allies. It’s the moments when the good guys swear to fight to the end that are the most thrilling. I find them enormously encouraging, anyway. 

Wilkie Collins would have handled Dr Van Helsing better — probably much better. The worthy medico from Amsterdam is almost the novel’s real monster. His butchery of English is sui generis, not the plausible effort of a German- or Nederlands-speaker. Worse, he never shuts up. Worst of all, though, his blunders with the treatment of Lucy Westenra are so thoroughgoing — and so “misogynistic” — that they begin to seem deliberate. 

I put “misogynistic” in quotes because it’s the only word rather than the right one. “Misogynist” has come to describe any person or attitude that deprecates women in any way, and this is too broad. It’s also not quite right: the word properly ought to denote a dislike of women, and thus to exclude the very patronizing behavior of men who profess to adore the fair sex. It is this latter failing that marks the five heroes of Dracula. The author himself plays a more ambivalent game, if only to suggest that the men can’t really afford to patronize Mina Harker. Their attempts to protect her are often ineffective, and they have to learn to let her tell them what she needs. Again, Collins would have done a better job, for he truly believed that women are as strong as they need to be, or in any case not appreciably weaker than men under the circumstances. Much as I liked reading Dracula, it worked up an appetite for Collins’s totally natural thriller, The Lady and the Law

 

§ Something rather curious and unlikely happened yesterday. I was taking some shirts to be cleaned down to the package room (a dual-purpose operation), and whilst waiting for the fellow behind the counter to take them, I noticed a book on the counter. It was the kind of clothbound book that I read: thickish, with a black dust jacket graced only by the profile of a young man and some sober lettering. Conservative Revolutionary was the title, but the subtitle made my eyes bulge: The Lives of Lewis Namier. Namier! With a shock, I realized that this was my book!

I ordered it from Amazuke on 1 February, along with two novels by Arnold Bennett. The Bennetts arrived presently, in an intact envelope. Some time later, I happened to notice that, according to Amazon, D W Hayton’s Conservative Revolutionary had also been “despatched,” and ought to have arrived at the same time. I thought about making a fuss, but by now it was March, and one had many more pressing things on one’s mind. From time to time, I would think about the book that I hadn’t received, smolder a little, and forget about it. I had plenty of other things to read, and I wasn’t altogether sure that I’d find the life of Namier as interesting as I hoped. 

Now who is this, you may be asking, this Namier person. Sir Lewis Namier first came to my attention a long, long time ago. I can’t say just how long, but the fact that the book that introduced me to him carries the very first bookplate that I ordered from Antioch, together with the fact that the bookplate is affixed incorrectly (pasted onto the flyleaf rather than the inside cover), dates Herbert Butterfield’s George III and the Historians as one of the first books in my library. I’m pretty sure that I bought it from Marlboro Books, back in the days when the Times often carried an advertising section stuffed with thousands of titles that could be purchased for very little money. The books were often junk, frankly, but I did well with Butterworth, whose Origins of Modern Science (not a Marlboro book) is still an extremely useful introduction. Of course, George III and the Historians went right over my teenaged head; it’s a work of critical historiography, not history. (It’s not about George III but about how historians have treated him.) But I held onto it. 

An entire section of the book is entitled “George III and the Namier School.” Whatever “the Namier School” might be, it was the sort of thing that electrified my adolescent brain. “Namier” sounded sort of French (although not with “Lewis” attached to it), and it was all I could do to resist the conclusion that the Namier School was a going concern in the 1760s, perhaps in opposition to Lord Bute. I took stumbling command of the basic facts from Butterfield: Namier was a historian (duh) who was active between the Twenties and the Fifties. I learned only later that Namier was born Ludwik Bernstein in that corner of the world that still hasn’t entirely settled down and of which the best that can be said is that Lemberg/Lvov/Lviv is its regional capital. Bernstein grew up speaking Polish, disdaining both the Ukrainian of the peasants who worked on his family’s estates and the Yiddish of the shtetlers. Via Lausanne and the LSE, he arrived as an undergraduate at Balliol. In 1910, he changed his name, smoothing off the edges of his father’s Jewish surname, Niemirowski. (Does this make him a relative of Diane Arbus?) Eventually, Namier developed an approach to history that subordinated the role of intellectual to that of cultural life, influenced perhaps (I haven’t got that far in Hayton’s book) by his field of study, the Whig Ascendancy. It is difficult to conceive of an intellectual platform for the party of Walpole; the Tories who supported George III’s attempt to retrieve the reins of of sovereignty were a different story, although perhaps not all that different in the eyes of Sir Lewis Namier. As I say, I haven’t got that far. 

The book was sitting on the counter, just as it’s sitting in front of me now. There was no packaging over or about it. The bottom of the dust jacket was a bit wrinkled and torn, evidence of some heavy weather, but the book itself was in fine shape. Given the war footing on which the package room has been operating since the pandemic began to be a concern (weeks before sheltering was ordered), I can’t be surprised, and certainly not scandalized, by what presumably was minor damage to a package. Happily, my claim to the book was not contested. I daresay the package-room staff had debated tossing it into the garbage, since, without envelope or receipt, it could not be connected with any tenant. Now, it’s true that our apartment building is large, and not inconceivable that someone else hasn’t received a longed-for copy of Hayton’s book. But — probably not. That I should happen to come along at precisely the moment when it was on the table, as it were, is the unlikely part. That the  book meant anything to me in the first place, and why — that’s the curious part. Sure enough, Hayton’s index contains a reference to George III and the Historians. This warms the cockles of my amateur scholar’s heart. (26 June)

 

Δ By appointment, if you please, I got a haircut yesterday. My beard was reduced to stubble. There’s no knowing how long the window will be open, so to speak, and what with three months’ profuse growth and my  barely competent attempts to keep things in trim, there seemed to be little point to trying to shape what remained. In the mirror, I caught myself staring out of the dead-white fringe with the accusing eyes and shriveled ruddiness of a veteran curmudgeon. My forehead seems more engraved than ever with its ancient scowl (surely not wholly unintentional, I’m afraid), and because I still see myself as a vague, mouth-breathing adolescent it is a terrible shock to behold such a stern visage instead. This is followed by immediate relief: I am not a vague, mouth-breathing adolescent. Were we to meet, I’d have some sharp words for that younger self, let me tell you! I wonder how long he’d listen, before making excuses and taking flight. 

After reading the Times this morning, I felt that I had just sat through a not particularly interesting science-fiction film about maddened young people vandalizing the few remaining scraps of civilization. If only I could find something else to do with my hands in the morning! The habit of turning the pages of a newspaper is one of the oldest in my life, but I might as well be sorting a fishmonger’s wrapping-paper for all the good I get out of it. What’s most hateful about the Times these days is its sanctimonious misapprehension that rendering the world even more depressing than it already is merits kudos. 

Now that I am keeping a diary, I can see that I returned to working on the Writing Project not quite two weeks ago; it already feels that I’ve been doing nothing else for months. I set the Writing Project aside at the beginning of 2018, shocked and stung by having asked intelligent people to read such a breezy and shallow account of my life. (All I can say in my defense is that I was afraid of being a bore. ‘Twould have been better to remain silent.) Later in the year, I tried “coming at it from different angles,” but that led nowhere, and then I got sick. Convalescing, took up the Essay, something altogether different. Now that I’m nearly as unhappy with the Essay as I was with the Writing Project, I am trying to make of the latter what it ought to have been, and this time I am blessed — yes, it’s a blessing — by doubts that I have the brains or the skill to do the job.

If I were to keep a notebook in which to  collect fine specimens of the poetry of English prose, I might very well begin with Horace Walpole’s yoked judgments of Queen Augusta and the Earl of Bute (Walpole was writing of the foundering of the young George III’s plans): “a passionate domineering woman, and a favourite without talents.” (quoted in Jeremy Black’s contribution to the Yale English Monarchs, p. 45.) In comparison with the virago of a queen mother, Bute is simply puny. (1 July)

 

§ The education of a good critic begins by finding fault with the world, and it comes to a climax by finding fault with one’s education. Thereafter, the good critic is less interested in finding fault. 

Today, for the first time in my life, I see that the practice of criticism is a vocation, a calling. I’m sure that I’m not the first person to think so. But I intend to contemplate the matter. My offhand impression is that the word, as I intend to use it here and I expect my readers will understand it, does not enjoy anything like so robust a currency in other languages. But even in English the word does not connote a profession. That certain journalists are known as “critics” sheds little light, because there is much about the practice of journalism, which we already recognize as a profession that requires a vocation, that is completely at odds with the value and purpose of criticism. At the top of the list we must put the journalist’s mortal but also vital fear of boring readers. More concededly important is the journalist’s obligation to report the news. 

Take the theatre critic, the writer who reports news about new plays for a newspaper or magazine. The essence, not so much of the training or philosophy that characterize theatre critics as of the writing that they produce, is comparison, for comparison is the essence of theatrical news. Theatre critics compare plays both vertically (in terms of the playwright’s other work) and horizontally (in terms of current and recent shows). They compare performances in a multiplicity of directions, too: the members of a cast to each other, the other work that an actor has done, the better work that other actors have done in the same roles, and so on. Some of these comparisons reach pretty deeply into the social themes that some playwrights address, while others — made by the very same critics — attempt to grasp ephemeral phenomena, in a mad but irresistible attempt to capture the thrill of an exciting evening of theatre. Different as the objects of these comparisons are, the journalist who covers the Rialto will be judged by the felicity of the comparisons themselves. The mot juste about a noted actress may well prove to be more memorable than a truly penetrating insight into Shakespeare. Most readers will be perfectly innocent of the kind of meta-criticism that I am indulging in here. 

Journalists in general, moreover, whether serving as critics or not, are no respecters of persons. One might even say that all journalists are critics. Without getting too bogged down in origin stories, I think we can agree that in modern times it has been found useful not only not to punish but to reward public-affairs faultfinders. How else are we to know that the emperor is naked? We cannot take his word for it — which means that we can’t take his courtiers’ word for it, either. A corollary of this faultfinding role is an insistence upon disinterest. We cannot be expected to pay journalists to exploit their vantage by lining their own pockets or promoting their own friends. 

Yet how, you may ask, is all of this “completely at odds” with criticism? It may take a while to answer that, but preliminarily, you must set journalism aside. If you find yourself thinking of book reviews, you must smack your head and sit up.

But wait: there is much more to the field of book reviewing, as distinct from reviews of other kinds of artistic performance, than journalism. If I were to go through the latest issues of the New York Review or the London Review of Books, I might find very little plain journalism. Fintan O’Toole, for example, has yet another piece about the awfulness of Donald Trump in the new Review. I should say that O’Toole is a political commentator by profession, which means that to some extent he looks like a journalist. But he writes sort of commentary that readers may still find valuable in twenty years or more, when nothing that he has to say can be considered “news” anymore, but will have shaded into a kind of historical record. As I recall, this piece is not a book review at all.

Far more conventional is Michael Gorra’s appraisal of the life and work of Constance Fenimore Woolson, the American expatriate writer of short stories and novels who is familiar to readers of and about Henry James. Library of America has just issued a collection of twenty-three of Woolson’s stories, and Gorra recommends reading it: this is where the news stops. What Gorra’s piece actually amounts to is what used to be called “an appreciation” — a term that ought to jolt unconsidered notions of what criticism really is. For Gorra makes the case that we have overlooked Woolson as a writer — who died, after all, in 1894 — and making cases of this kind is closer to the art practiced by those who are called to be critics than is pointing out writers’ shortcomings. When Gorra writes that “Woolson’s five novels don’t have as much to recommend them,” the net effect is to enhance the value of the stories that he has devoted most of the essay to describing. Good criticism takes it for granted that nothing is perfect, and does not belabor the point. It eschews faultfinding. 

My words about Fintan O’Toole may give the impression that he is a faultfinder, but I doubt that he would waste his time enumerating the president’s personal failures. His point is rather that Trump’s behavior exacerbates tensions and ambivalences that were latent until he came along; arguing that he is a menace to American democracy is far more serious than “faultfinding.”

There are at least two more points to be made. First: good criticism is a necessary ingredient of intelligent understanding. We need to know why good things are good and how they might be better still. Second: there is as yet no suitable job description for the good critic — a role, that is, that is properly remunerated. Who is to pay for the benefit that the good critic provides? Who can be expected to, given the unpleasantness of bad critics? (2 July)

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