New York is a philosophical city, a city of love and strife, of ruthless ambition and holy luck, of fluid social mobility and clotted social distinctions. Here there is refinement which is then papered over by the new nouveau riche. And there is always the new nouveau riche: the barbarians supplanting the decadents. A philosophical city, then, because it awakens thought about itself–its rhythms, its histories, its truths, its wounds–in the minds of those still bestirred by hope yet also repulsed by fate. It is a city unto itself and, like the monarch, it expects our fawning love, which we give so wryly in return.
I am reading John Armstrong’s inestimable In Search of Civilization. I am reading it slowly. On page 123, Armstrong observes,
It is said of Poussin–one of the most thoughtful of painters–that he owned only nineteen books. Of course this was in the early seventeenth century–an era when personal libraries were much smaller than today and books were luxury items. But still it is a beguiling idea: to have only a few books, but each one to be fine and serious, and to read them again and again–to get to know intimately and deeply what they are about. Rereading allows for the thoughts in them and one’s own thoughts to grow together: for the secrets of the works to be carefully and slowly appraised, for their content to be thought over and thought through.
Last night I had cocktails with Robert Rowland Smith, who’s in town promoting his book, Driving with Plato. Back up because I’ve already fudged things a bit: I had cocktails, and he had beer. There we are. Temple Bar. Noho. The darkness, as you walk into Temple Bar, is seductive and complete. The figure greeting you from out of the shadows is barely visible and therefore seductive. She appears and moves and is in front of you. A shadow amid the shadows. Seductive, escorting you into a room that evokes another day and time. A speakeasy where alcohol flows freely, executives woo their interns, filmmakers draw on napkins and then cry into their napkins and then crumple their napkins.
different friend: The early side, yes, because after that’s when the true alcoholics and bosses having affairs with their secretaries like to assemble.
A: Art’s better than philosophy. For art comes in the nick of time while philosophy comes a moment too late.
B: Philosophy’s better than art. For while art raises life up for a moment, philosophy raises it up for eternity.
The curtains are pulled back, and the magnolia stands in full bloom, its petals like painted seashells collecting below. It takes up the bedroom window, only softly. In the yard off to the right, bikes, baskets, handle bars lean against a chainlink-wooden fence. A pumpkin, small and orange, sits half-submerged in the spring marsh. Through the magnolia, part of a brown back bobs up and down: now shoulders, now spine. I just make out that it belongs to a man. He is jumping rope. Ah!
When we left off last week, we were stuck in a conceptual trap. Patronage systems have dried up or gone on holiday. Work was drudgery, whether well-paid or ill-paid. Life—that is to say, the life of the mind—was isolated from work. Accordingly, it was either left untouched like week-old leftovers or left unsupported like lovers’ cold hands.
I find the spoof exceptionally funny but also–and here’s the twist–entirely wrong-headed from the first. Its target: The stuffiness of manners. Its strategy: Anachronism. Its implicit aim: To show that manners are the kinds of straitjacketed conventions that those of us living after the 60s can naturally get beyond. I don’t think so.