I am just writing a piece about Maureen Dowd that begins with a quotation from William Hazlitt: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” La Dowd exemplifies the melancholy truth of Hazlitt’s observations in her girly, gossipy prose that brings the cattiest of sorority nastiness to the august pages of a once-serious newspaper. It’s the disjunction that causes the frisson: you’re expecting some sort of serious analysis or opinionating and what you get instead is this painful smart-ass calling people names and calling attention to herself like a poorly brought-up, pubescent brat who recently discovered that her sex could be deployed as a weapon as well as an excuse.
But let me leave Maureen Dowd for later on. Now I want to remark on the wide application of Hazlitt’s principle: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” You can, I’m sure, think of plenty of examples. Here’s one. My friend Kevin Williamson, a writer for National Review, author (most recently) of The End is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, and theater critic for the magazine I edit, The New Criterion, got tossed out of a theater last night. Why? Because Hazlitt’s principle was working overtime. Let Kevin explain:
The show was Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was quite good and which I recommend. The audience, on the other hand, was horrible — talking, using their phones, and making a general nuisance of themselves. It was bad enough that I seriously considered leaving during the intermission, something I’ve not done before. The main offenders were two parties of women of a certain age, the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels, and insufficient attention span for following a two-hour musical. But my date spoke with the theater management during the intermission, and they apologetically assured us that the situation would be remedied.
The situation was not remedied. On the contrary, “The lady seated to my immediate right (very close quarters on bench seating) was fairly insistent about using her phone. I asked her to turn it off. She answered: “So don’t look.” I asked her whether I had missed something during the very pointed announcements to please turn off your phones, perhaps a special exemption granted for her. She suggested that I should mind my own business.
This is where things got interesting.
So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.
Kevin wondered, as I would have done, whether management had come over to give him a pat on the back and congratulate him on dealing effectively with a public nuisance. I hope you will be as shocked as I was to learn that instead, he got the boot. There is, Kevin concluded, “talk of criminal charges.” I assume, but do not know, that he means he is contemplating suing the female in question, the theater, or both. It’s been suggested to me that, on the contrary, the possible charges might be directed at Kevin.That, I suppose, is possible, but only because William Hazlitt, with his laser-like insight, saw deeply into the heart of human folly.
Yesterday, a colleague passed along a request for some information about Robert H. Bork’s position on Martinis. Since Bob’s death in December, we have seen many reflections about his opinions regarding the law. Next week, Encounter Books, where I hang a hat, will be publishing Saving Justice: Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Other Adventures of a Solicitor General. This memoir about Bob’s tenure as Solicitor General and Acting Attorney General during the Watergate crisis provides a fascinating glimpse into the engine room of American politics in the tumultuous year of 1973. This period, too, has received its share of commentary.
Rather less ink, however, has been dispensed to explain Bob Bork’s philosophy of the martini. A full disquisition would doubtless be lengthy. Here I will confine myself to sharing with readers the comments I sent on to that journalist who is doing research into what H. L. Mencken called “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” “The first thing to be understood,” I wrote, “is that Bob Bork was an originalist when it came to martinis, just as he was about the law and many other things in life.
There is a recipe, whose exact origins are lost in the mists of time, but whose lineaments have been passed down through the generations. We introduce innovation into this hallowed process at our peril.
I once suggested Bob write a book with the title: Martinis: The Original Understanding. He was partial to The Road to Hell is Paved with Olives. Bob observed that the original martini was a careful mixture of three or four (or five or six) parts gin (preferably Bombay or Tanqueray) to one part vermouth. The whole was shaken (not stirred) over ice in a cocktail shaker, served in a chilled martini glass, and garnished with a twist of lemon. A twist of lemon, mind you. That is what a martini was.
On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, I gave Bob a silver vermouth dispenser in the shape of an tiny old-fashioned oiling can (you can get them at Tiffany’s). He found it amusing, but he regarded the unbridled diminution of vermouth, favored by many asking for a dry martini, as dangerously latitudinarian.
He recognized, however, that the battle to preserve the martini had far more radical enemies than the vermouth minimalists. One large heresy concerned the very foundation of the martini: gin. People might ask for a “vodka martini” (let’s say) but that concoction, though possibly delicious (my concession, not his) was not a martini.
This month in The New Criterion, I have a short note about “Original Sin: Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to Be the Party of White People,” Sam Tanenhaus’s tendentious and interminable article in a recent New Republic about how awful and racist the GOP is and why they will never, ever be able to redeem themselves until they give up on being nasty conservatives and start thinking just like — well, just like Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and therefore a man who has the right (i.e., the approved left-wing) opinions about everything.
As I observe in my note, what makes “Original Sin” so odd is what I call its “historical legerdemain.”
When it comes to racism, the elephant in the room for Democrats is the unhappy historical fact that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery in the nineteenth century, the party of segregation for much of the twentieth century, and the party of multicultural neo-segregation today. Tanenhaus does not put it quite like that, but his essay slyly acknowledges the first two items. When it comes to contemporary realities, however, he argues that conservatives, by opposing identity politics and supporting the ideal of limited government, have slid under the wheels of history. The changing demographic complexion of America, he says, has consigned the GOP to bitter irrelevance. Searching for an intellectual paterfamilias for this drama, he settles on Lincoln’s great antagonist John C. Calhoun. The reasoning goes something like this: Calhoun supported states’ rights and limited government. He worried about the tyranny of the majority. He also supported slavery. Conservatives support states’ rights and limited government, they worry about the tyranny of the majority, ergo they are racists.
Not much of an argument, is it? In many ways, Tanenhaus’s piece is reminiscent of his earlier exercise in ill-informed polemical logorrhea, The Death of Conservatism, which, like “Original Sin,” started life as a bloated article in The New Republic before darkening a few acres of wood pulp in its appearance between covers and on remainder shelves across the country. James Piereson treated that opuscule to at least some of the withering criticism it deserved in The New Criterion. That book disappeared without trace since the 2010 mid-term election did for his thesis what Cato’s denunciation helped do for Carthage.
Back in 2006, I wrote about a conspicuous, if quiet, bright spot on the troubled countenance of contemporary art: The Harlem Studio of Art, which was presided over by the artists Judith Pond Kudlow and Andrea Smith. “The school,” I wrote at the time,
“offers students something almost unheard of today: rigorous training in modeling, one-point perspective, cast drawing, and all the other technical aspects of art that, based in Renaissance practice, one used to assume would be part of an artist’s training but, for at least the last five or six decades, have gone the way of good manners and other accoutrements of civilization.”
In the intervening years, the school has evolved, taking over more of the building it occupies on 117th Street in Spanish Harlem. It has also changed its name to The NYK Academy and has, in a modest way, gone global, with an establishment in Rome called the Atelier Canova. Ms. Kudlow looks after the New York establishment, Ms. Smith the Roman outpost.
I had occasion to think about the efforts of these talented and intrepid artists last night when I visited the NYK Academy for its annual open-house party. It will be a bit of a trek for most New Yorkers, but it’s worth it. Stepping into the studio is like stumbling upon an oasis after a long trek through the desert. Last night was a buzzing hive of conviviality, but it was impossible not to sense the serious artistic pursuits that unfold within. The walls were festooned with paintings large and small, student work cheek-by-jowl with the masterly productions of the school’s teachers.
Everywhere one looked was evidence of painstaking technical labor, of the mastery of technique and absorption of the lessons of traditional practice.
It was a jolly evening enlivened by a constant flow of friends. Even more gratifying, however, was the recognition that institutions like the NYK Academy still exist. If all you read were trendy salon-establishment publications like The New York Times, if the only art you saw was in galleries approved by today’s tastemakers, then you might think that the rootless parody of cultural life represented by today’s pseudo avant garde was all that was left of the once great current of Western artistic practice.
Fortunately, institutions like the NYK Academy exist to remind us that all is not lost, not quite. It’s a cheering realization.
More on art at PJ Lifestyle:
Your right arm, for example. I had arthroscopic surgery on my right shoulder Monday — rotator cuff and labrum repair (I didn’t even know know I had a labrum) — and I’ve been moping about since with my arm in a sling and hooked up to a machine that circulates ice water around the traumatized bit of anatomy for 20 minutes every hour or so. Here’s a fun test: try tying your shoes with only your left hand. Or (assuming you are right-handed, as I am) try signing your name or using a fork. Your incapacity, I suspect, will be almost comical.
The nerve block I had Monday at about 11 a.m. lasted far longer than predicted: until 5 or 6 Tuesday night, which meant that I couldn’t move my arm and my thumb and first two fingers were all pins and needles and, beneath that, numb as a parboiled tenderloin. The upside of that situation was an absence of pain, which only arrived on the scene last night about bed time. (Another thing you take for granted: being able to sleep on your side: if you have shoulder surgery, be prepared to sleep — or try to sleep — on your back, your head and affect arm propped up by a few pillows.)
Pretending you’re Paul Wittgenstein is amusing for about 5 minutes. Then the tedium sets in. I typed a bunch of emails Monday evening and yesterday using only my left hand. Polonius’s observation that “brevity is the soul of wit” never seemed so forcefully pertinent. The sling is basically a 24/7 prescription, except for the morning shower. The surgeon has also given me permission to sit with the sling in my lap while I type, which, now that I can move the fingers of my right hand effectively, makes life with writing deadlines much easier to contemplate.
We’ll see whether the operation was worth it. Right now, of course, my arm feels far worse than when I presented myself to the sawbones’s ministrations. When I sat in the doctor’s office discussing the surgery he spoke airily of a “two to three week recovery.” Turns out that is only phase one. I have similar problems with my left shoulder but I suspect I will wait a good long while before embarking down this road again.
There are, however, salutary side effects of such incapacities, not least that sobering recognition I mentioned of things you take for granted: tying a shoe lace, buttoning your shirt, signing your name: it’s all so effortless when everything works as it should, nearly impossible when something goes wrong. What a stupendous thing it is, though, that most of us are such casual experts dispatching the complex tasks of everyday life. It’s irritating to be incapacitated, but really our chief emotion should be gratitude: gratitude for the quite extraordinary medical interventions we’ve concocted to say nothing of the general competence most of us enjoy in our circumnavigation of life’s little chores and obstacles. Aristotle defined man as “the rational animal.” I know what he meant. We homo sapiens sapiens are unique in our possession of self-conscious reflection. I’ve been struck, though, by the thought that “ungrateful animal” often seems to be a much more widely dispersed human characteristic than reason. I wonder what the old Stagirite would have to say about that.
(Image via Shutterstock.com.)
Er, Hallows: Deathly Hallows. It was more than a decade ago that I heard about the Harry Potter series. My wife, who was the first adult in our neighborhood to become Potter Proud and Rowling Ready, told me about the clever Mrs. Rowling and her school full of witches, wizards, magical creatures, and spells. It sounded like a cross between Tom Brown’s Schooldays and J.R.R. Tolkien. The best thing about the former, I’ve always thought, was that it provided George MacDonald Fraser the inspiration for his hilarious if also troubling “Flashman Series.” As for Tolkien, I think Edmund Wilson had it about right in his 1956 essay “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” (“Certain people,” Wilson observed, “have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy.”)
Anyway, I didn’t pay much attention to Mrs. Rowling’s creations until one evening in 2000 when I wandered into a Borders Bookstore (remember Borders?) in New York. I had just published a book called Experiments Against Reality:The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age and I was a man with a mission. I strode boldly up to customer service and asked the clerk whether they had copies of this indispensable volume. The answer, I am happy to report, was yes: they had a grand total of 3 copies in stock.
Now, 3 is not a very large number of copies, but I have to say that I found even that modest requisition heartwarming. You will find it hard to believe, but there were many bookshops across this great land that had no copies whatsoever. No wonder traditional bookshops are having such a hard time of it. (Commercial alert for PJMedia readers who wish to impress their friends and stymie their enemies: you can still become a proud owner of Experiments Against Reality: Click here and Amazon will do the rest. Go ahead, you owe it to yourself.)
As I say, I at first found it heartwarming that that particular Borders possessed 3 copies of my new book. At first. For as I proceeded around the bookshop I noticed large piles of another book, not my book. And when I say large, I mean stacks and stacks of the things. Nor were these literary obelisks congregated around one table. No, they were spread all over the main floor: veritable Eiffel towers of books — scores, no hundreds of copies of that one title. Not my book, alas, but Ms. Rowling’s. The Prisoner of Azkaban, I believe, the third in the septology. Original sin being what it is, I confess that the experience jaundiced my view of Harry Potter. OK, there are no spells or incantations in Experiments Against Reality (did I mention a copy could be yours in just a day or two by clicking here?), nor are there dragons, impossible potions, a game called Quidditch, or cute English school kids who grow up to model for Lancôme. But there is a fair amount about Good and Evil, the battle between which was (I am told) important to the success of the Harry Potter series. Alas, I did not think to personify Evil in the figure of a disembodied, snake-like creature with a memorably creepy name. Perhaps that’s why there were only 3 copies of Experiments Against Reality at Borders (available right now at Amazon, by the way, if you just click here) while there were 300 or maybe 3000 copies of The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. In any event, about the time our son became potty about Potter, I read through the first installment of the series, which in England is called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (“Philosopher’s stone” was apparently considered too recondite a reference for American readers, so the book appeared here under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, whatever a “sorcerer’s stone” might be.) It’s quite a lot of fun, as all the world knows, even if it would be unlikely to pass muster with Edmund Wilson.
It’s often remarked in The Literature that the Harry Potter books get increasingly dark as the series progress. There’s something to this, though I just saw the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, (which John Boot reviews elsewhere at PJM) and, though physically dark because of the 3-D glasses, I found it less grim than its predecessor. Maybe it’s because (surely I am not giving anything away?) Good triumphs in the end. Maybe even the cast, after all these years, oozed a sense of relief that, at long last, they could move on to something besides Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Do not bring Edmund Wilson. He wouldn’t like it. But most young teens will, including, I think, the young teens that survive somewhere in most of us older folk.
I see several of my fellow bloggers at PJM are mentioning movies and television shows, so I thought I would mention a series from the sixties that I remember with fondness and which I am now enjoying all over again with our twelve-year-old son. It’s Mission Impossible, which you can find at Amazon in various packagings as well as at Netflix, where you can order the discs or download to your “Instant Queue.”
Many readers will know the recent Mission Impossible movies with Tom Cruise. What I chiefly remember about the first installment was the assurance during the ending credits that “no fish were harmed” during the scene where doughty Ethan Hunt has to detonate an aquarium in order to escape from the evil CIA (or whatever) boss. The movie (at least the first one) has the terrific theme music — the best, possibly, of any television show — by Lalo Schifrin, in the original 5/4 time and it also reprises a few familiar gimmicks from the original television series.
But the tone, and the point, of the television series is antithetical to the souped-up, cynical, politically correct movie franchise in which the real enemy is the U.S. or even other members of the team. The television series now seems like a period piece. Most of the actors smoke, for heavens sake, and the beautiful Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) is a pre-feminist, i.e., a feminine woman who is sassy and smart as well as luscious. The plots tend to involve nefarious Communist tyrants, drug peddlers, or other n’er-do-wells: we, the U.S., are the good guys — imagine that! — and the ingenuity of Mr. Phelps, Barney the engineering whiz, and Roland the “man of a thousand faces” is deftly if also predictably directed to a satisfactory ending in which the bad guys get theirs and our heroes drive or fly off in the nick of time, having once again saved the day. It’s not great theater, but it is, I can confidently report, calculated to engage to unwavering interest of any 12-year-old with the requisite quota of red corpuscles.