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5 March 2021

§ Peace & Quiet
§ Butter on the Train
§ Astoria
§ Reading About the Enlightenment


In the nearly fifteen years since I actively maintained this Web site, I have forgotten almost everything I ever knew about HTML — aside from the few scraps that come in handy for blogging. So my contributions will be rudimentary for a while, at least from the architectural perspective. I expect that broken links will turn up like potholes, but I am not about to try to "start fresh." Instead, I do what Renaissance Romans did: I scour the ruins for what I can use. The old site, of course, is not itself in ruins, but it is something of a historical document.

Since this is not a blog, but a collection of pages, there are important decisions to make about what to preserve and what to overwrite. I've opted for the latter today, and without giving the matter much thought; what I wrote on Monday, when for the first time in all these years I uploaded new texts, had no intrinsic value, but rather was the sort of thing that you write when you wonder if the roof is going to cave in. ("Help! I am trapped in a fortune-cookie factory!") A couple of days later, I feel almost like a man of leisure. ("Take this down, Miss Parkinson.") In fact I am far too at ease to think of anything to say. Deathless paragraphs do not yet loom.

Then there's the vital matter of where to put the new stuff, at the top of the page, or at the bottom? I rather like the results of the experiment that I evolved last year at The Daily Blague, but even that arrangement requires adding new pages from time to time, and sending old ones to some kind of archive. Intimately attached to this issue is the question of what's worth keeping? I think of all the boxes of photographs that I've still got on hand after years of culling, most of which will never mean anything to anybody else. But writing is precisely unlike photography in this regard. I wouldn't want to push this thought too far, but, in a way, writing is nothing but labels and contextual explanations.

I'm beginning to think that this entire passage belongs on the "Housekeeping" page, to which I've as yet contributed nothing. And perhaps that's where it will end up.

§ Peace & Quiet

How quaint these words have come to sound! The state that they connote seems so unfamiliar to younger people that it doesn't occur to them to miss it. What astounds me is their captivation by screens. How can they believe that they'll miss anything if they slip theirr phones into pockets and purses? It is an addiction, surely, as toxic as any other.

In the current Bookforum, Marco Roth reviews a posthumous memoir by Richard Wollheim, an English philosopher whose creative or imaginative life appears to have been nursed by illness and convalescence. Sick children were confined to darkened rooms, sometimes with books, sometimes not, but in either case put at the mercy of their minds. Roth writes,

[Wollheim] leaves it to the reader to state the obvious: that the germs that grew into the freedom-loving, art-loving philosopher began with other literal germs. Without them, he would have beenunable to grow apart from the bewildering conformist world that he begins thinking about at he moment he was forcibly separated from it. The contrast with our own moment of medically mandated inactivity and mutual isolation is stark. Bombarded by stimuli, digital viruses, voices and imaged from all of our screens, we lack the perverse freedom of the convalescent and the late-bourgeois faith in the healing inviolability of the organism left to its privacy. (28 1 37)

Why does Roth sound helpless?

§ Butter on the Train

Joan Didion is a very gifted writer, her sense of rhythm almost perfectly congruent with her façon de penser. She is also, however, a glamorous woman, although this is overlooked partly because Americans still can't believe that an intelligent person would take the time to be chic and partly because Didion's style is severely understated. Didion has always known — or shown in her work that she knows — how to present herself as a little ahead of up-to-date, or in other words, cool.

For all her apparent hauteur, Didion is not an overt belittler. She does not trumpet her achievements. On the contrary, she denies them. Aside from the high quality of her denial, there is nothing original about this tactic. Anglophones have been doing it for centuries, certainly since the reign of George III. We suspect that such modesty is false, but its stylishness wins us over, and we, also Anglophones, are always glad to hear that our betters are no better.

In her review of Joan Didion's new collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Durga Chew-Bose writes,

Her memory of studying Paradise Lost on the commute between Sacramento and Berkeley, where she was an undergraduate, is rerouted by another, more sensory recollection: "I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the Earth at the center of his universe ... a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I casn still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco's dining car."

There are other ways to make it clear that she has forgotten something that was once pretty important to her (if only for temporary, "academic" purposes); she needn't advertise the oblivion quite so pungently. But we find oblivion endearing, and of course her endorsement puts us at ease about our own sloppiness.

§ Astoria

For many years, I have stood at the railing in Carl Schurz Park and gazed across the East River at Queens — more specifically, at the neighborhood known as Astoria — and I have wondered what it is like over there. But never enough to take the trouble to make the trip. Getting there isn't particularly difficult, especially now that we have the Q line (known parochially as the Second Avenue Subway). It's an easy drive, too. You can't get from where I live to LaGuardia airport without driving right through it. But you know how that is: how the gashes of highways and railways create scars that conceal what has been ripped apart. There is really nothing attractive about Astoria to be seen from a taxi speeding along the Grand Central Parkway. Far from it. The allure of unknown precincts, exotic at a distance, is crushed by the mere possibility of being suddenly stuck in Astoria in a broken-down cab.

As I say, though, I wondered what it was like, and now, thanks to the pandemic, I know. My nephew was kind enough to secure appointments for me to be injected with the Moderna vaccine at the Rite-Aid branch near the intersection of Broadway and 21st Street. (In Manhattan, the throroughfare known as Broadway crosses East 21st Street.) Kathleen engaged a car not just to take me but to wait for me as well, and bring me home. Somehow the address that she gave to the dispatcher was incorrectly copied down, so that I saw a bit more of Astoria than I might have done. But not too much more. I had studied my maps and knew at once that the driver had made some kind of mistake — and that it was not a serious mistake. On the contrary, he got me to Broadway quickly enough. But it was about ten blocks from where I needed to be, and as we crept along the wrong block, I felt a little bit like Eunice Burns on Derilla Street. But only a little. I could see that the subway, which is elevated in that part of town, was ahead of us, when it ought to have been behind. All we had to do was keep driving.

But, oh, how small everything seemed. The streets and sidewalks were narrow, and the little houses, which manage to be both rectangular and shapeless, seemed pushed into the road. The blocks were short, too, as if Astoria were a miniaturized town, almost a toy. (But not a pretty toy.) I might have wondered what it would be like to live there, but a friend of mine who is at least as clever as I am gave it a try, and he never got beyond feeling both cramped and disengaged. For him, there was no there there, and this despite his passion for languages, especially culturally ageless languages like Greek, signs in which are much in evidence throughout Astoria. Indeed, by the time he gave up on the neighborhood, it seemed to him that references to gods and regions depicted by Homer had been emptied of significance for those who could read them. One hears that all successful Greek immigrants retire to Greece, and Astoria certainly looks like a place inhabited by people who have done all right or worse.  

The little strip mall to which the pharmacy was attached shared the rest of its block with a parking lot. A free parking lot! I had imagined from across the river that Astoria would be a different kind of city. Instead, it is a crowded suburb.

Rite-Aid pharmacies began offering vaccinations in the middle of last month. The initial plan was to provide each branch with enough medicine for a hundred doses a week. The Rite-Aid on Broadway seemed hardly prepared to accommodate that many vaccinees. The inoculations are administered in the separate room that can be espied, when someone leaves the door open, in most chain drugstores; these rooms are used for ordinary flu shots and blood pressure tests and other retail medical procedures — presumably, I say, because I don't really know what I'm talking about. But there is no setup for those who are waiting for their shots. There was one chair at the Broadway Rite-Aid, and, as I arrived when no one happened to be there, I sat in it for a while. An elderly lady with a rolling suitcase soon appeared, and I wondered if I ought to offer my seat to her, but she found something else to sit on pretty quickly. As more people came in — not a lot more, but it didn't take many to make a crowd — a sense of uneasy milling-about developed. This made the old lady uncomfortable; there being no line, literal or otherwise, she feared losing her place. "When are we going to get the needle," she squawked, only to be chided by the instantly-appearing pharmacist, a pleasant-looking young woman who gave the air of going as fast as she could but who probably ought not to have remarked that "Many people are waiting five hours for this shot." Both she and the old lady tacitly agreed, however, that I would get the shot first, and I was taken into the little room right away.

Therein, I received the first dose. I have been unable to decide on the degree of detail that would intriguingly but not tediously convey the horrible mass of anxieties that swarmed about this event when it was still an item on my calendar. So I shall confine myself to the mention of two general worries. The serious one requires immense discretion, for it is a matter of perrsonal plumbing. At the risk of belaboring the point, I can say that I am satisfied that actual colitis has had nothing to do with the colitis-like attacks that have made me reluctant to wander too far from the bathroom ever since last weekend, when we learned that Kathleen's father had died — he was 96, and failing, so it was no "surprise"; but death is always a surprise — and that my daughter had taken an ugly fall that struck me as pregnant with possibilities for sinister sequelae. No, the attacks could be attributed entirely to news of these upsets as well as to the other general worry, a conglomeration of fears about getting lost, or stuck in traffic, or, owing to some clerical goof-up, denied the vaccine. But my intestinal fortitude held up, and I have already described the only logistical hitch. I walked out of thar Rite-Aid feeling, if not like a million dollars, then like someone whose missing million dollars had just been found and restored.

What never crossed my mind was relief about having been vaccinated. I was stolidly certain that I would manage to live, uninfected by COVID, until the opportunity for vaccination presented itself — just as I have lived, pretty much worry-free, for the past year. But I had been made to feel that this insouciance was almost as irresponsible and unpardonable as taking a stand against being vaccinated at all. What I will not forget about the pandemic is how shamelessly many intelligent people have given up the effort to find something interesting to talk about and simply fallen back on the cheap thrill of second-grade showing-off — the child's version of gossip. Almost everyone I know who has had the shot(s) has done so thanks to the effort of someone who, like my nephew, is crafty enough to penetrate the thickets of frustration that have made finding appointments online such a widely-lamented misery. There is no warrant for these selfsame people to announce the details of their vaccinations in terms properly reserved for personal achievement. What I was relieved about was the end of my outlaw status.  

I had asked to be taken to Astoria via the Triboro Bridge, partly because it is the very familiar route to the airports but mostly because, except during rush hour, it can handle all the traffic that passes over it. Indeed, we had plenty of time to get lost ten blocks from where we ought to have been, and this was good because the Rite-Aid instructions were clear about not aarriving more than five minutes early. (Obviously: there would be no place to put you.) About going home, though, I said nothing, and the driver just took a left on 21st Street and headed south toward the Queensborough Bridge, which crosses over that road just is it passes above York and First Avenues at its Manhattan end. I wondered how complicated a business it would be to get onto the bridge, which I'm pretty sure I haven't been on more than ten times in my life, and then mostly in the dark. Even while my doubts were growing — I saw us negotiating a circle of stoplights that would take half an hour to get through — the car pulled on to what looked like a driveway but which turned out to be an access ramp. My jaw really dropped as we quickly ascended to the bridge itself and kept on climbing. O Manhattan! You can see why moviemakers love this view, even if they usually misuse it. I would have been home in minutes if it hadn't been for newly normal traffic on First Avenue.

If the weather isn't too bad over the weekend, Kathleen and I will take an early-spring walk over to Carl Schurz Park. I really do need, if not the exercise, then the stretching, or, to put it better, the striding. Of course I'm dying to find out what Astoria looks like now, now that I've been there. (5 March 2021)

§ Reading about The Enlightenment

I'm reading the second volume of Peter Gay's study of the Enlightenment. Although the movement, as such, was British and French, the word is German — Kant's, I think. We haven't translated it exactly. "Aufklärung" means something closer to "clarification." (My dictionary ingeniously proposes "elucidation." So many words we have, in English.)

Our word suggests turning up the lights; the German proposes explaining something — making it coherent. But what? Some philosophes sought to explain the wickedness of organized Christianity — superstition. (What they missed, I believe, was the intimate association between the European Church that was established round about 1000 AD and intimately associated with the burgeoning power structure of medieval Europe — the first burning of heretics, around 1024, was prompted by political, not doctrinal issues.) Others simply saw a new understanding of the natural world, speaking the truly international language of mathematics. But what they were all trying to explain to themselves, I think, was human society.

The difficulty was that the philosophes themselves were at the hottest center of the ferment that would erupt in 1789. They saw themselves as representative men, gens d'esprit. But they all belonged to the deeply-confused bourgeoisie. As Gay points out, sort of (pp 46-7), the upper middle class was divided between Dissenters (let's call them, all, even if they're French) and Nobles of the Robe (even if they're English). 1789 would place this block of moneyed former serfs at the center of European power, but it would not provide them with a constitution, and their division would only intensify. Their relation to those members of the Third Estate (peasants, now proletarians) who had not bubbled to the aristocratic border during the ancien régime, and/or who declined or were unable to climb the clearly-marked passes that formerly separated aristocrats from non-aristocrats but that now separated the educated and affluent from everybody else, was not defined. Reactionaries wished to reconstruct the three estates; progressives claimed to speak on behalf of a new "mass" with whom they had very little in common. Nationalism rushed to fill the gap, with horrific results. The masses had no taste for politics but they donned their new team uniforms with enthusiasm. There are probably people still out there who associate "Enlightenment" with rural electrification.

Peter Gay doesn't seem to be any more aware of the Estates than the philosophes were. The idea of summoning the Estates, to be consulted by the king, was certainly archaic throughout Voltaire's long tife. Nobody really knew how, constitutionally, it would work. The Estates had last been summoned, and not very conscientiously, in 1614, by a government replete with powers that were merely notional in 1789. Under Louis XIII, the Estates were what the crown said they were. But in simple truth, participation in what little actual political activity there was in old-regime France was absolutely limited to the First and Second Estates. But the Second Estate was no longer a caste, as it had been during the Middle Ages. Or rather, it was, but only for the purpose of full admission to Versailles, which was limited to those with titles attained prior to 1400 (and therefore presumably not purchased). The political function of Versailles was to create a space in which the old nobility could pretend that the aristocracy had never been corrupted by royal hunger for filthy lucre. (Norbert Elias has written brilliantly about this, presenting Louis XIV not as a genius but as a tightrope walker with a preternatural sense  balance.) As such, Versailles, and its decadence under Louis's successors, who hardly thought of themselves as acrobats, was the second-most-serious cause of the French Revolution. (The first was the lack of a Bank.)

As gens d'esprit, the philosophes were perhaps naturally tempted to believe that they hailed from the superlunary ether. But they were men with incomes and mailing addresses, and they ought to have seen the urgency of sorting out the Third Estate. (3 May 2021)

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