Dear Diary:


Today was the day for a trim. I called the barber at about eleven, and was told that no one was in the shop. So I threw on some street clothes and marched down to 81st Street, encouraged by propulsive music from the Nano. When I got to Willy’s, the chair was indeed empty, so I was in and out in twenty minutes — or however long it took to play “I Am the Walrus” and three Steely Dan classics (including “Deacon Blue”), plus ads and talk. Willy calls me “Capitán,” because he thinks that I look like Captain Smith of the Titanic. (I’m sure that I’ve told you this before, but site searches turn up nothing.) Which is fine, as long as he understands that he is keeping my beard as spruce as Captain Smith’s. My beard is the customer.

I was wondering, as I sat in the chair, if I might have done a better job of ferrying the liner across the Atlantic. Certainly not, I thought: I wouldn’t have known the first thing to do about getting out of port. We think that all that Captain Smith had to know about sailing the Titanic was to avoid icebergs. But by the time of the deadly collision, he had already made countless correct decisions, I’m sure. Maybe not. But nobody tells me that I look like Kenneth More.

Is the Enlightenment at fault here? Is that the source of the idea that any intelligent person can take on any job, with a little bit of practice? How dearly we have paid for this misapprehension in recent times! The lumières were largely unaware, from what I can tell, of the role of conditioning, not just upon muscles (which they must have guessed at) but upon the brain as well. They seem to have had a resistance to the idea that repetition (which they saw as drudgery) was essential to mastery. I don’t know; I’ve never read anything about Enlightenment thinkers on that level. It’s easy to find out what they thought. But what about what they didn’t think about?

Had things worked out differently, for example, Aristotle would have been an intellectual  polestar of the Enlightenment. Instead, because of the abuse to which his scientific ideas had been subjected by medieval thinkers, Aristotle was a byword for passé. The substance of Aristotle’s scientific thought is, indeed, intrinsically useless, and of no more than historical interest. But Aristotle’s optimism about the benefits of learning about the world shares the Enlightenment’s watermark.

From Willy’s, I walked over to Crawford Doyle. I’ve been meaning to buy Gail Collins’s new book there for ages, and I shouldn’t have been surprised if they no longer had a copy ready to hand. But they did. I adore Gail Collins in the way that we all used to adore Russell Baker (and still do!); we all wish that we could be as funny at self-deprecation as they are. The new book is about feminism, a public issue now for almost forty years. I don’t think that the number of decades had anything to do with my also buying Peter Wilson’s new book, although “The Thirty Years War” will, I expect, turn out to be the perfect title for a book about gay marriage in America.  

I wish I knew whether Willy means “Capitán” as a compliment. I would say that he does, as a matter of professional prudence — that he sees in me a resemblance to great Edwardian personages. And yet, it might really be a resemblance to great Edwardian jackasses, to the clueless pooh-bahs who dragged the world into the Great War. It may be that, for Willy, there’s no difference between Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.

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