Jan 092004

David Fiore is back for a third helping (or fourth or fifth, I’ve lost count by now). His erudite reply to my Professor X piece investigates various ancillary points of Emerson scholarship, like his relationship to Coleridge and the important question of whether the notorious transparent eyeball can see itself. David is terrifyingly well-informed on these matters, which fortunately need not concern us here. The question was whether Emerson advocates surrender to emotion. David, to his credit, does not attempt to deny this, and really it would be impossible to deny; every second page of Emerson contains passages to this effect. He takes a different approach:

Having read some of Winters, I see now, Aaron, why you place so much emphasis upon the logical consequences of philosophical positions. But you cannot deal with Emerson (or me!) this way. For Winters, Crane is a superior Emersonian, because he is “not content to write in a muddling manner about the Way; he is concerned primarily with the End.” But this is precisely what makes him such a failure as an Emersonian–and a sane human being. Life is a problem. People, like works of art, are alive so long as they maintain their ideas in tension. To long for the resolution of these tensions, as you do Aaron, is to long for catastrophe. [Italics his.]

Since David has many distinguished predecessors in this view, like “Negative Capability” Keats, who can be excused on grounds of extreme youth, and F. Scott “Opposed Ideas in the Mind at the Same Time” Fitzgerald, I may be forgiven for insisting on some obvious points. Life is indeed a problem, many problems, which one does one’s best to solve, through exercise of the rational faculty. Man acts and chooses: each choice excludes many others. Some choices are wise, others foolish; some conduce to his well-being, others to his destruction. One can no more hold an idea and its opposite at the same time — what, in this case, could “hold” possibly mean? — than one can act on an idea and its opposite at the same time. In the face of these difficulties, Emerson recommends abdication.

Emerson sprang from the dominant 19th-century intellectual tradition in America, New England Nonconformist. It is best represented by the Holmes family (Oliver Wendell Sr. and Jr.) and the James family (Henry Sr., William, Henry, and Alice). Its products include Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Today New England Nonconformism is extinct; Katharine Hepburn (b. 1907) was perhaps its last degenerate scion.

New England Nonconformists, with very few exceptions, were hobbyists. They liked to toy with ideas, often radical ideas and often very brilliantly. They filled the ranks of the Abolitionists and suffragettes; but they tended not to reason to these positions but intuit them. Their motto could have been Holmes Jr.’s frequent remark that he hated facts, that the chief end of man was to form general propositions, and that no general proposition was worth a damn. Holmes père et fils, Emerson, and William James were all radical skeptics philosophically who conducted themselves personally with exemplary rectitude. What constrained them was a deep prudence and moral sense, informed by the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, the doctrine that although good works and success on earth technically avail one nought, as all seats in the Kingdom of Heaven are reserved, they yet demonstrate one’s fitness for Election. Yvor Winters calls this a “New England emotional coloration,” accurately. To put it flippantly, the vote for women was all very well, but “never dip into capital” was a real rule to live by. (On the other hand, in the dominant 20th-century American intellectual tradition, the New York Jewish, ideas became the ticket to success.) Henry James’ American characters act not on ideas but on an inarticulable “moral sense.” This moral sense attenuated as its doctrinal background exerted less and less direct influence, until it finally vanished altogether.

This is why Emerson died rich, old, and in bed, and Hart Crane jumped off an ocean liner.

Jan 012004

Sixty years ago Yvor Winters wrote a moving essay on Hart Crane called “What Are We To Do With Professor X?” Crane and Winters were correspondents and friends for several years; they broke over Winters’ largely hostile review of “The Bridge” in 1930; Crane jumped off an ocean liner two years later. Winters charges Crane’s suicide to his belief in Emersonian advocacy of instinct over intellect and change for its own sake. (To anyone who doubts that this is in fact Emerson’s philosophy I suggest reading “The Oversoul,” “Self-Reliance,” “Art,” or “Spiritual Laws” straight through, instead of the little snippets from them that are so frequently quoted.) He contrasts Crane, “a saint of the wrong religion,” who took those ideas with literally deadly seriousness, with genteel Professor X, who holds the same ideas but would not dream of actually practicing them:

Professor X can be met four or five times on the faculty of nearly every university in the country: I have lost count of the avatars in which I have met him. He usually teaches American literature or American history, but he may teach something else. And he admires Emerson and Whitman.

He says that Emerson in any event did not go mad and kill himself; the implication is that Emerson’s doctrines do not lead to madness and suicide. But in making this objection, he neglects to restate and defend Emerson’s doctrines as such, and he neglects to consider the historical forces which restrained Emerson and which had lost most of their power of restraint in Crane’s time and part of the country. [Crane was born in Cleveland in 1899.] … The Emersonian doctrine, which is merely the romantic doctrine with a New England emotional coloration, should naturally result in madness if one really lived it; it should result in literary confusion if one really wrote it. Crane accepted it; he lived it; he wrote it; and we have seen what he was and what he wrote.

Professor X says, or since he is a gentleman and a scholar, he implies, that Crane was merely a fool, that he ought to have known better. But the fact of the matter is, that Crane was not a fool. I knew Crane, as I know Professor X, and I am reasonably certain that Crane was incomparably the more intelligent man. As to Crane’s ideas, they were merely those of Professor X, neither better nor worse; and for the rest, he was able to write great poetry. In spite of popular or even academic prejudices to the contrary, it takes a very highly developed intelligence to write great poetry, even a little of it. So far as I am concerned, I would gladly emulate Odysseus, if I could, and go down to the shadows for another hour’s conversation with Crane on the subject of poetry; whereas, politeness permitting, I seldom go out of my way to discuss poetry with Professor X.

In the role of Professor X today is David Fiore, who is pleased that PETA exists. I have made my objections to the concept of animal rights elsewhere and will not rehearse them here; they are beside my point. Now PETA has been excoriated, properly and often, for its advocacy and funding of violence and terrorism. It is less often noted that these follow necessarily from its position. If you believe, like Ingrid Newkirk, that a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy, then fire-bombing a laboratory is a small price to pay to stop what, by your lights, is mass murder. I can respect this view even as I wish to jail anyone who tries to put it into practice.

David begins courageously enough: “I’ve made a radical choice. So have you.” But he fails to comprehend just how radical the choice is: “And certainly, I don’t condone any acts of violence Animal Rights people might commit. That’s just insanity, you don’t make change by terrorizing the majority. Change happens when the majority assents to it… Moreover, I don’t have the slightest desire to “convert” anyone, I like just about everybody, and I’m not suited to delivering harangues…” David has, and can have, no moral objection to violence on behalf of the bunny rabbits; it is a mere question of tactics: “you don’t make change by terrorizing the majority.” Winters writes that Professor X “once reproved me for what he considered my contentiousness by telling me that he himself had yet to see the book that he would be willing to quarrel over.” And so David, who likes just about everybody, prefers that PETA deliver the harangues on his behalf.

Sometimes hypocrisy is, as La Rochefoucauld says, the tribute vice pays to virtue; sometimes, as in this case, the tribute fanaticism pays to sanity. A significant minority of Americans believes that abortion is murder. Yet in their next breath they will condemn clinic bombers — because they are hypocrites, fortunately. In a society of mass murderers, armed resistance becomes a perfectly logical, even admirable, response.

The most shocking thing about 9/11 wasn’t the deaths, or the image of the World Trade Towers collapsing. It was the realization that some people are willing to die for their ideas, foolish as they are, while most of us treat ideas like shiny playthings that you can put back in the toy chest when you’re finished with them. I have friends who say the trouble nowadays is that no one takes ideas seriously. They should thank their lucky stars. When nearly everyone thinks as badly as possible, Professor X may be the best we can hope for.

(Update: David Fiore replies on his blog, and in the comments.

Dec 262003

Another bulletin from the Dept. of Almost Right: Larry Ribstein, blogging on the Forbes list of top ten business movies:

Forbes story on the Ten Greatest Business Movies and related stories on Forbes.com, says a lot about films attitude toward business. The top ten were: Citizen Kane, The Godfather: Part II, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Network, The Insider, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Tin Men, Modern Times… This film list provides new fodder for my theory. My thesis, again, is that, while films usually portray business in a bad light, they do not really say that business is bad. After all, the films most of us see are produced by big businesses. More precisely, films are made by people working in these businesses. Filmmakers see themselves as artists, the latest in a long line from cave painters through Michelangelo. Yet, unlike many artists, filmmakers art is so costly that films cannot get made without lots of money. Filmmakers must get this money from capitalists, who, in turn, must sell tickets. Because film artists resent their shackles, they often show struggling workers, greedy capitalists, and heroic artists. “Good” businesses are those where the artistic types have the upper hand, and bad businesses are those where the artists have lost. In other words, films see firms from the cramped perspective of the assembly line or the cubicle. From way out in Hollywood, firms often seem like beehives or rabbit warrens, unfit for human habitation.

Larry’s point needs to be sharpened up a bit. All things being equal, people prefer good merchandise to bad, and they make exceptionally fine discriminations. Gillette mightily outsells Schick because its razor blades are better, not a lot, just enough. There are a few exceptions to this rule, mostly in aesthetic products, notably Hollywood itself. Bad art makes more money than good art, in general because bad taste is more prevalent than good taste, and in the specific case of movies because the audience for them is overwhelmingly young, and the taste of the average adolescent is even worse than that of the average adult. These are depressing facts if you work in the taste business. “From way out in Hollywood” it is Hollywood that looks “unfit for human habitation.” A screenwriter might rashly conclude that schlock always trumps quality; and in fact, as a survey of Hollywood movies about business shows, he usually does.

The anti-business movies deal overwhelmingly with schlock purveyors: yellow journalists (Citizen Kane), swampland peddlers (Glengarry Glen Ross), penny stock hustlers (Boiler Room), shady aluminum siding salesmen (Tin Men), and out-and-out gangsters (The Godfather). It’s a Wonderful Life gestures half-heartedly toward the notion of quality as good business, as in the scene where Mr. Potter’s rental agent lectures him on how all the nice houses in Bailey Park are killing his real estate business. But mostly it’s more people vs. profits hoo-rah.

In a “pro-business” movie like Executive Suite, our hero, William Holden, is the research chief for the furniture company, and in his big speech, as he ascends to the chairmanship, he tells the board that the company will never sacrifice quality, profits be damned. That it might actually be more profitable to manufacture good furniture does not cross the screenwriter’s mind. (Holden figures prominently in several famous business movies, Network of course and also the most authentically pro-business movie out of Hollywood that I know, Sabrina, which is disguised as a love story. He was, perhaps coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s best man.)

Or consider Tucker, a garish and tasteless but ostensibly pro-business movie. Jeff Bridges plays the real-life car designer Preston Tucker, who sets out to build a revolutionary automobile, and succeeds, only to be squelched by a conspiracy of the government with the Big Three. This happens to be pretty much true; but out of this pregnant material the director, Francis Ford Coppola, fashions only another morality tale of how, as Larry would say, the good company, in which the artist, Tucker, is in charge, goes down to defeat, or, as I would say, the evil capitalists foist off shoddy merchandise on an unsuspecting public. Hollywood doesn’t hate business. It just hates businesses that act all businesslike.

(Update: Larry Ribstein replies. Michael Williams comments.)

Dec 262003

A while ago Brian Micklethwait had a bit about discomfiture in art to which many bloggers linked approvingly:

As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don’t buy that. And I don’t believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda. They no more like being genuinely discomforted by art than I do.

As a psychological observation this is acute. No one ever talks this way about art that discomfits him, personally. And good art is never described in these terms — only epater le bourgeois stuff, which of course discomfits no one, certainly not the people who describe it as discomfiting, and not the people it’s supposed to discomfit either. “Discomfort” is the last-ditch argument of bad artists or their flaks, like museum directors.

So I almost agree with Brian, except I’d lop off the first sentence. Have you ever talked at length with someone who was far more intelligent than you? Such a person seems armed with all of your thoughts and experiences and much more besides; he answers objections that you have formed fuzzily or not at all. You get the most out of it by shunting aside your own prejudices, as best you can, and following him as he elaborates on his, which are more interesting. Later on you go back and reintroduce yourself, as it were, to your original prejudices, and compare and contrast. The experience is, in a word, discomfiting, not because your interlocutor tries to shock you like a cheap artist, but because he says things that have not occurred to you, and novelty is always unsettling.

Great art is like that, except that its commerce is with a mind greater than any you know personally and on a subject on which it has meditated deeply and you may not have thought at all. Henry James goes so far as to say “it is a very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the mind of the producer… No good novel ever proceeded from a superficial mind,” and he’s talking to you, Charles Dickens.

Brian discusses visual art and music mostly, and I’m talking about literature, being wary of generalizations about all arts, although I seem to make them often enough. So maybe we are talking at cross purposes. But for all arts (oops, I did it again) the ideal aesthetic attitude is receptiveness — a provisional acceptance of the author’s cultural situation, the benefit of the doubt. You have to be willing to check your damaged self at the door. Many respectable aesthetic theories, like Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” and the “pseudo-belief” of T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards, reasonably begin with the attempt to inculcate this attitude: we need to read Christians and pagans without being either. So yes, good art makes you uncomfortable, but only incidentally, and anyone who makes a big point of the fact is a bad artist.

(Update: David Fiore comments. Great artists aren’t just different, David, they’re better. Get over it.)

Dec 222003

To understand the absurd seriousness with which Americans treat higher education, look at their cars. Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, which trails a Wesleyan admissions officer and six supplicants for places in the class of 2004, documents this magic moment:

A week before his decision was due, he mailed off a $250 deposit and his official response to Wesleyan: a form that had “YES” preprinted in large type at the top. Jordan then went out to his mother’s car and pressed a clear Wesleyan decal against the inside of the back window.

Jordan’s palpable awe was correctly analyzed Paul Fussell, twenty years ago, in Class:

Americans are the only people known to me whose status anxiety prompts them to advertise their college and university affiliations in the rear windows of their automobiles. You can drive all over Europe without once seeing a rear-window sticker reading CHRIST CHURCH or UNIVERSITÉ DE PARIS. A convention in the United States is that the higher learning is so serious a matter that joking or parody are wholly inappropriate… One would sooner defile the flag than mock the sticker or what it represents by, say, putting it on upside down or slantwise, or scratching ironic quotation marks around “College” or “University.” I have heard of one young person who cut apart and rearranged the letters of his STANFORD sticker so the rear window said SNODFART. But the very rarity of so scandalous a performance is significant.

Fussell, notably, does not assign this behavior to a particular class, but to Americans in general. The college decal afflicts uppers, middles, and proles alike. And I sympathize: if I were about to piss away 150 large I might want a souvenir too. Status anxiety being what it is, I see only one answer to the college decal problem: stop sending kids to college.

College, as a phenomenon, has nothing to do with learning. It is possible to educate oneself at Ball State or at Harvard, or alone in one’s room for that matter, like young Jimmy Gatz, studying electricity from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning and needed inventions from 7:00 to 9:00 every night. It is equally possible not to educate oneself at any of those places. I should know: when Harvard turned me down I beat my breast and rent my garments. I then proceeded not to educate myself at my safety school, Carleton College, which served the purpose admirably, just as Harvard would have.

For certain subjects college facilities are useful; it’s tough to learn biology or chemistry without lab work. But Tiffany will be majoring in sociology, and Eustace in political science. They could read Erving Goffman and Tocqueville on their own time, and $150,000, apparently the going rate for four years at a top university, buys a hell of a lot of private tutoring. Perhaps the parents consider the money well-spent if it simply gets the brats out of the house.

No, college is about bragging rights, and seeing to it that your child has the best possible start in life. Children who attend prestigious colleges are understood, correctly, to have more career success. Here, however, we run into a little cause-effect problem. College admissions officers look for good grades and high test scores and a documented record of achievement; employers look for the same things. If no one went to college, or if the bottom went while the top worked instead, would the income disparity, ten years hence, really be any different?

The children themselves dispense with these niceties. Of the six in The Gatekeepers, each, for all of his oft-asserted independence of mind and spirit, decides to attend the most prestigious school he gets into (as determined by the U.S. News rankings, which the schools follow as assiduously as the children). The single exception is a girl who courageously spurns Harvard in favor of Yale.

Steinberg, who graduated Dartmouth in 1988, is not, himself, the best advertisement for the admissions officers of the Ivy League. (I include Wesleyan, which billed itself for a while as “The Alternative Ivy” and is still trying to live it down.) As a writer he is a diligent reporter. His special weakness is for the inconsequential appositive, for “color,” and The Gatekeepers is full of sentences like this: “For Terri, the mother of a ten-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, the idea of traveling to Asia for five weeks a year on Wesleyan’s behalf seemed like a perfect segue to the nearly three years she had spent in Swaziland for the Peace Corps.” Neither the girl nor the boy nor Swaziland ever reappears, for which, I suppose, a more generous reader would be grateful.

Causation gives Steinberg some trouble. One of the students he follows, Jordan Goldman, connives his way, Steinberg never says quite how, into writing lessons with the distinguished novelist Richard Price. Goldman’s best friend has cerebral palsy and is bound to a wheelchair. Steinberg writes, “In Freedomland Price had created characters based on both boys and made them brothers, because he knew how badly they wished they were brothers in real life.” Cosmic stupidity lurks behind that “because.” Early in the book his admissions officer, Ralph Figueroa, interviews at Goucher College and dislikes it because there’s no decent Mexican food. At the end Steinberg says that Goucher has finally passed “the Tortilla Test,” not by improving the food, but by appointing a Mexican-American dean. You begin to feel a little embarrassed for the guy on the one hand, and to wonder, on the other, what Dartmouth is letting in these days.

Imbecility has its uses, letting Steinberg tell what he sees without noticing that it directly contradicts what he believes. Steinberg and his admissions officer firmly believe in affirmative action, a conviction unshaken by the fact that the two obvious affirmative action admittees, an American Indian to Wesleyan and an inner-city Hispanic to Muhlenberg, both drop out freshman year. Ralph rhapsodizes constantly about the importance of “diversity” at Wesleyan; yet he never seems to encounter anyone, on or off campus, with politics to the right of Howard Dean’s. One applicant “was intrigued that so many students were vocal in support of various political causes,” as Steinberg puts it — I would say coyly, except it does not seem to have occurred to Steinberg that there is more than one kind of political cause.

The Gatekeepers also makes clear what admissions officers really do for a living, during the nine months of the year when they aren’t reading applications. They solicit. Ralph spends months on the road, traveling from high school to high school singing the praises of Wesleyan and encouraging applications that he has every expectation of turning down. More applications means more rejections, which means more “selectivity,” which means a higher rank in U.S. News. Nothing scandalous about that, but nothing edifying either.

Suspiciously little in the way of actual academics seems to go on at any of these colleges — especially Wesleyan, which resembles on Steinberg’s account less an institution of learning than a year-round Burning Man festival — but there is an awful lot of travel. The Cornell girl spends six months in a pueblo in Costa Rica and a month in Rome “to write and draw.” The NYU girl goes to Prague, Jordan Goldman goes to Oxford. Only the Yale girl stays put, leading rallies on behalf of her fellow oppressed Yalies, demanding that all college loans be forgiven. The old aristocratic Grand Tour was more effective and no more expensive.

So parents, that round-the-world cruise that you’ve been promising yourself? The money’s just sitting there, in Junior’s college fund; help yourself. It’s his year abroad or yours.

(Update: Craig Henry points to a study that shows a surprisingly weak link between college selectivity and income. Maybe I was too kind. James Joyner comments. Julie Neidlinger comments.)

Dec 182003

With a title like that this should be in German and long. Instead it will be in English and short. George Hunka and AC Douglas have gone off the rails with this whole transcendence business. George, normally dyspeptic, soars into the empyrean:

As Kant will happily tell you, there’s no escaping the boundaries of human sensual experience, but as Schopenhauer will whisper in your ear, you can always seek to transcend it through renunciation of the world and through the highest expressions of sensuality itself. Art and religion provide the means for that renunciation. Artists, then, should encourage a path out of the materialist Hegelian world with the techniques at their disposal, whether those techniques are musical, linguistic or visual, just as the priests of all religions have their sacraments and their rituals as a means to transcendence.

This sort of art is utterly useless to the world, for it denies the world itself as a transient petrie dish of suffering and aimless, constantly unsatisfied desires for pleasure. The world itself can’t accept this denunciation of its own importance; therefore it invents Hegel.

Dude! Easy on the transient petrie dish of suffering there! If the alternative is, as it seems to be, being bored or tortured for eternity, then I’ll take my petrie dish of suffering, thanks. With fries. I concede that if the world had invented Hegel it would have some explaining to do, but I think we can let the world off on that score.

The aesthetic emotion is profoundly rooted in human experience. You watch the protagonist and think, that’s me (naturalism), or that’s what I wish I were (romanticism), or that’s what might become of me if things went really, really wrong (tragedy). You read the poem and think, I’ve felt that way, or I would, in those circumstances. You look at the painting and think, I’ve seen that, or I’d like to. (I’ve skipped music, which beats me.) There’s nothing terribly hifalutin about any of this.

Art seems different, somehow, and elaborately wrong-headed theories of aesthetics, like Benedetto Croce’s, have been constructed on this premise. But the word for sitting transfixed in the opera house, or the movie theater, or between the headphones, is not transcendence. It is absorption, or to put it still more mundanely, paying attention. I trust all my readers have become absorbed in a task. Becoming absorbed in a work of art is no different.

There are serious questions to answer in aesthetics. I suggest we try to answer them, and leave Never-Never Land to Tinkerbell, and Schopenhauer.

(Update: George Hunka replies. David Fiore weighs in (and here), as does JW Hastings. Stirling Newberry comments.)

Dec 142003

I tire of having to straighten everybody out on everything, but really, all these intelligent bloggers discussing great covers and not one mention of Devo’s (Can’t Get No) Satisfaction? Satisfaction never truly belonged to the Rolling Stones anyway. The Who might have made it their own but never the Stones, who were too smug and well-adjusted for a song so damp and anxious. The famous Keef guitar lick, great as it is, could just as well have shown up in Jumpin’ Jack Flash or Street Fighting Man, it doesn’t fit the lyrics at all. Truth now, Mick: did some girl you were trying to make ever tell you to come back baby later next week? Devo grasps the meaning of “He can’t be a man ’cause he does not smoke the same cigarettes as me.”

(Update: Props to Jeff Taylor, who lists Satisfaction in his top five. David Fiore comments, and posts a more interesting list than any I linked in the first place. The Warrior Monk plumps for the Otis Redding version.)

(More: Ian Hamet, George Wallace, Rick Coencas — yes, it’s godofthemachine.com, where the fun never stops!)

Dec 062003

These are my first words about Michael Jackson, and I promise they will be my last. What interests me about Michael is not Michael himself, whose habits and daily life are so far outside the realm of ordinary human concerns that the word “eccentric,” implying that he might still be in orbit with the rest of the solar system, no longer applies. It’s the parents of Michael’s little friends who interest me: what could possess them to send their children off to consort with him in Neverland? It can’t be the money — most of them were quite well-off — so it has to be the fame. These wretched people want to be near Michael. They want to talk to him, to ride in his private plane, to be sprinkled with a bit of that magic celebrity pixie dust.

And what exactly is that pixie dust? Let’s channel Tyler Cowen here and consider this in economic terms.

Everyone craves distinction, identity, that special something that sets one apart from, that makes one better than, the neighbors. Distinction, by its nature, must be scarce, or it isn’t distinct any more, and scarce goods in America are increasingly difficult to find. Distinguishing yourself in your profession is one possibility, but that’s a lot of work, and even if you succeed you’re likely to be appreciated only by your colleagues. The Joneses won’t give a damn.

Mere money-making is out. In America, where the plumber makes more than you do and movers take Caribbean vacations, money is no longer a mark of distinction: it is common, in every sense. From this observation Paul Fussell derived a whole book, the horribly snobbish but amusing Class, and Tom Wolfe the better half of a career.

To replace money Wolfe and Fussell proposed taste. Not real taste of course, in the sense of cultivating a well-honed appreciation for some field of endeavor — like professional distinction, that’s hard work, and unlikely to be widely admired. No, Fussell and Wolfe meant taste as fashion, knowing what to listen to, to read, to wear, and to eat. This worked for a while but eventually everyone wised up. There is an episode of Cheers in which Woody’s father wants him to leave his Boston bartending job and come back to the farm in Indiana. The pseud waitress, Diane, makes a movie to persuade Mr. Boyd to let Woody stay and sends it to him. She asks Woody how his father liked it. Woody says, “He liked it all right, but he thought it was too derivative of late Godard.”

Fame at its most rarefied, when one is known by a single name, always has been and always will be scarce. Michael Jackson has been famous this way for thirty-five years and his pal Elizabeth Taylor has been famous for sixty. Even Warhol’s famous aphorism, wrong as it was, implies that there will never be enough fame to go around. Fame is the last universal currency. It collateralizes loans for Donald Trump; it buys a bully pulpit for Rosie O’Donnell and literary influence for Oprah Winfrey. It secures the best table in the restaurant, no reservation required. In an age of almost unimaginable abundance, celebrity is the last scarce good. Is it any wonder that people pursue it, and proximity to it, so assiduously?

Nov 222003

More pixels for Terry Teachout: he links to a list of Bill Clinton’s 21 favorite books and comments, more discreetly than I will, on its obvious fraudulence. The usual suspects are rounded up — Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, also cited by German ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as his favorite book, and as sure to appear on a politician’s list as Nietzsche is not to. If we must have philosopher-kings, Plato’s Republic would be more to the point. For gravitas, Max Weber, Thomas à Kempis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the two safest poets of the 20th century, Eliot and Yeats. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, possibly the worst-written famous novel of the last two hundred years. The list looks like America too, with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is quite a good book but, like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, can be dated to virtually the month it came out, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I doubt Maya Angelou’s mother has read cover to cover: certainly I couldn’t. Clinton throws in The Confessions of Nat Turner and Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement for good measure. His wife’s Living History is there; It Takes a Village I presume just missed the cut.

What is irksome about this list, besides its content, is its length. A favorite book? No. A top ten? A top twenty? No, Clinton needs twenty-one favorite books. The number signifies terminal vacillation. Say what you like about Al Gore, but when he was asked for a favorite book he coughed one up. Stendhal’s The Red and the Black may be a curious choice for someone like Gore, but it is a choice at least.

Terry claims, as if it were an established fact, that Clinton is “known to be unusually smart,” for which I can discern no evidence whatever. He is justly famed for many acts, none of which, except getting himself elected, could remotely be classified as intelligent. During his eight years in the White House — and before, and since — he never shut up. If we exclude “I never had sex with that woman” and “It depends on what the meaning of is is,” did he ever utter a memorable sentence? Calvin Coolidge left a far richer legacy to Bartlett’s than Clinton will, and he barely spoke at all.

Terry doubts that Clinton has read all these books: I don’t. I merely doubt that he has understood them. Clinton is notorious for being able to repeat back reams of what he has read, verbatim. Speaking as someone who had the same faculty in my youth, I am not impressed. It’s a parlor trick, like having an internal hard drive, useful for politics and getting through law school. You can pull up the material on your internal monitor, that’s all. You still have to read it, which is where the thought comes in. A memory is not a mind.

To anyone who subscribes to the myth of Clinton’s coruscating intellect I commend Edith Efron’s mightily persuasive 1994 article for Reason in which she diagnoses him as “cognitively disabled.”

Clinton’s high school friend David Leopoulos visited Clinton when he was at Oxford and found that Clinton had suddenly become a fount of information about painting. Leopoulos told a reporter, “He is interested in everything and wants to consume everything. He is almost a fanatic about information. He gathers and retains it better than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post jokes, “That’s Clinton: well-versed in every subject, has memorized the leading economic indicators for every quarter since the ’20s, knows how to say ‘fungibility’ in Farsi.”

Finally, Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis in The Comeback Kid describe the Clinton of the presidential campaign: “Clinton became known as a ‘policy wonk,’ a politician who could spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question. Members of the national press were amazed at his ability to formulate answers to complicated questions, seemingly without thinking.”

It is not “seemingly” without thinking. Very often, it is actually without thinking. Clinton can memorize as he breathes. But he finds thinking — analysis, evaluation, reaching conclusions — intensely difficult.

What we have here is a Jeopardy champion. (Bush, in personality the anti-Clinton, is “stupid” with reference to the same implicit standard.) It is an intellect for our time, in which, as Jacques Barzun puts it, an editorialist can commit a gross non-sequitur without comment and will be deluged with letters if he misstates by ten feet the height of the Chrysler Building. Clinton’s bloated book list, I suspect, was composed the same way he decided to nominate Steven Breyer for the Supreme Court, the only difference being that he couldn’t nominate twenty-one judges:

On May 23 [1994], Newsweek portrayed the absurdity of Clinton’s “waffling” in greater detail than ever before. It gave the readers a three-day scenario: “On Wednesday the president had been about to nominate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when he suddenly changed his mind. On Thursday, his choice had been an old Arkansas friend, Judge Richard Arnold, but by Friday, Arnold was out and [Judge Stephen] Breyer was in. ‘Let’s go,’ Clinton announced after yet another last minute phone call, and his staff, stung by a rash of media stories about White House dithering, rushed to carry out the presidential command. But before they could get out the door, Clinton hesitated. Maybe, he mused, he should put Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes on the court. That way he could elevate Baltimore’s promising young black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, to the Senate.” This, Newsweek reported, caused the president’s legal counselor, Lloyd Cutler, to grow “exasperated” and to insist that Clinton decide there and then. And thus did Breyer emerge triumphant from Clinton’s “maddening” decision-making process.

In early June, Clinton again felt impelled to defend himself from the charge of indecisiveness. But this time he got someone else to do it for him. Who better than legal counselor Lloyd Cutler? So there was Cutler, who had been privately “exasperated” by Clinton’s indecisiveness, explaining publicly in a long op-ed piece in The Washington Post that the president had not been indecisive at all, that, on the contrary, he had been wonderfully decisive.

A journalist once backed Clinton into a corner and asked him to choose one record, just one, to take with him to a desert island. Clinton waffled, hedged, and finally picked Colors of the Day, The Best of Judy Collins. “She inspired a whole generation who had the same kinda dreams,” said Clinton. He should have checked with Lloyd Cutler.

(Update: I take it all back. Clinton’s favorite book is 100 Years of Solitude — when he’s having dinner with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

Nov 192003

There was a discussion about Henry James and the movies a while back (here and here) at Terry Teachout’s blog, and I shall join the James Gang, fashionably late as usual. (Terry’s blog is called “About Last Night”; mine should be called “About The Week Before Last,” or “About Last Century.”)

It seems paradoxical that James should be so popular in the movies, because he is known as such a literary sort of writer. In fact he is not literary at all, in the sense that, say, Joyce or Borges is literary. There is no self-reference in James, no Joycean polylingual puns, no Borgesian labyrinths, nothing really but incident. His characters marry, cheat on their wives, win and lose fortunes, and on occasion, as in The Princess Casamassima, resort to violence. James had a taste for melodrama — true crime accounts were among his favorite leisure reading — and a talent for it too: Isabel Archer’s “kiss like summer lightning” with Goodwood that ends Portrait of a Lady, Strether’s exhortation to Chad Newsome to “live! only live!” in The Ambassadors, the entire plot of The Wings of the Dove. The last scene in The Heiress, Montgomery Clift pounding on Olivia de Havilland’s door as it dawns on him that he will never again be let in, may not be true to the text of Washington Square but is certainly true to its spirit.

James only seems literary because, especially in the late novels, he is constantly trying to catch the precise attitudes of his characters toward each other, reflected not just in their conversation but their gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections. This results in the legendary clotted prose that gives the impression, as H.G. Wells described it, of an elephant trying to pick up a pea in the corner. Examples are everywhere; one from The Awkward Age will serve:

Mr. Longdon stared; but even in his surprise seemed to take from the swiftness with which she made him move over the ground a certain agreeable glow. “Does ‘Aggie’ like him?”

“She likes every one. As I say, she’s an angel — but a real, real, real one. The kindest man in the world is therefore the proper husband for her. If Mitchy wants to do something thoroughly nice,” she declared with the same high competence, “he’ll take her out of her situation, which is awful.”

Mr. Longdon looked graver. “In what way awful?”

“Why, don’t you know?” His eye was now cold enough to give her, in her chill, a flurried sense that she might displease him least by a graceful lightness. “The Duchess and Lord Petherton are like you and me.”

“Is it a conundrum?” He was serious indeed.

“They’re one of the couples who are invited together.” But his face reflected so little success for her levity that it was in another tone she presently added: “Mitchy really oughtn’t.” Her friend, in silence, fixed his eyes on the ground; an attitude in which there was something to make her strike rather wild. “But, of course, kind as he is, he can scarcely be called particular. He has his ideas — he thinks nothing matters. He says we’ve all come to a pass that’s the end of everything.”

Mr. Longdon remained mute awhile, and when he at last raised his eyes it was without meeting Nanda’s and with some dryness of manner. “The end of everything? One might easily receive that impression.”

He again became mute, and there was a pause between them of some length, accepted by Nanda with an anxious stillness that it might have touched a spectator to observe. She sat there as if waiting for some further sign, only wanting not to displease her friend, yet unable to pretend, to play any part, and with something in her really that she couldn’t take back now, something involved in her original assumption that there was to be a kind of intelligence in their relation. “I dare say,” she said at last, “that I make allusions you don’t like. But I keep forgetting.”

The passage is lovely in its way, but James is attempting something to which what James Baldwin called the “disastrously explicit” medium of prose is completely ill-suited. Half of it is stage directions, and it could be done better, and more compactly, with movie actors who can follow such directions — which admittedly is asking a lot. James tried, unsuccesfully, to write plays, but the stage, where the actors have to project to the back row, is still too histrionic for what he has in mind. What he needed was the talkies. If James had been born a century later I’m guessing he would have done most of his writing for film, and maybe tossed off a few novels in his spare time.

(Update: Michael Blowhard, while not commenting exactly, jumps off from here to an amusing game of his own. Our Girl in Chicago comments.)