I love seeing the red dot on those stationary public maps in an unfamiliar place: “You Are Here.” I love that the place where the map stands was there before I arrived and will remain after I’ve moved on. It’s not like your phone’s GPS showing you as the center of the universe—or the Uber map where that coveted role temporarily goes to your approaching driver. No, it’s the real world that Copernicus grabbed hold of to shatter Christian illusions that the sun and planets revolve around the Earth.
The red dot is humbling—a minor footnote to Carl Sagan’s pale blue one. The red dot says that you are the variable, whereas this place (museum, town square, whatever) is the constant with longitude and latitude. Many among the more privileged of us have spent a year and a half being paid for our non-physical presence. We didn’t have to get dressed for things, didn’t have to put money on our Metro Cards or gas in the tank. We had only to trudge as far as our phones and laptops. Our lives became impressionistic, the question of when we’d return to the workplace as fog-shrouded as Monet’s Houses of Parliament.
A few months before the 2016 election, the New Yorker ran a cartoon by Paul Noth that has become iconic. It shows a wolf in a suit on a campaign billboard over the words “I am going to eat you,” while nearby one grazing sheep says approvingly to another, “He tells it like it is.”
What’s interesting about that cartoon beyond its prophecy is that it came from the left. For more than a generation, charging Democrats with being “sheeple” to the lockstep of political correctness has been a core tactic of conservatives and their libertarian apologists. The first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell was, after all, a fluffy thing named Dolly, prone to being herded and led, not a vicious lone carnivore howling in front of a full moon. The cultural implantation of the sheep/wolf metaphor gained traction with The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and hoofed along to the Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 blockbuster for which Donald Trump supposedly requested a role that wasn’t just a walk-on.
To ensure that America’s economic recovery continues apace, the Federal Reserve has the power to take any steps necessary to tamp down inflation, such as raise interest rates. It is understood that you can’t allow something as important as the U.S. economy to bob along on the open seas; you need intervention by “experts.”
On the progressive left, self-designated experts are becoming more and more demanding that Americans also think this way about language—that we need sanctioned versions of how we conduct public and private conversation.
Last year’s COVID shuttering was probably less of a blow for the Frick Collection than for other New York museums, as the Frick had planned to close for major renovations and temporarily relocate to the former site of the Whitney. Frick Madison opened in March, but I was glad that, at the end of 2019, I got in a visit to Henry Clay Frick’s Fifth Avenue mansion and some of the world’s greatest paintings.
The most memorable part of that trip, however, turned out to be a reunion with the bronze angel—forged in 1475 by Jean Barbet—that overlooks the fountain in the Garden Court. The slim, comely figure points his left index finger in a way that people used to do in mimicking Bogart-style gangsters. Or maybe it’s what the bartender in a polo shirt does when you ask for another round: You got it. I’d forgotten that when I first visited the museum in 1992, I came away thinking of Barbet’s sculpture as “the necessary angel of earth” from Wallace Stevens’s “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” the final poem in his 1950 collection, The Auroras of Autumn.
Barack Obama reportedly calling Donald Trump “a corrupt motherfucker” and Barack Obama indicating there could be UFOs and Barack Obama mourning the death of Bo. We’ve recently had flashes of our beloved First Dad seeming as vulnerable and uncertain as we feel ourselves to be—this exemplar whom Brian Beutler described as always taking a “methodical, ethic-of-responsibility approach to the many crises he faced in his presidency.”
There’s a phrase in Julian Barnes’s 1991 novel Talking It Over that has stuck in my mind all these years even though I’d forgotten the plot—“Everything Starts Here.” Before consulting my Vintage paperback from 1992, all I could recall of the book was that it’s one of those intimate “relationship” novels where people with very-British names wind up fighting in a French village. The the book reminded me that it’s a love triangle told from the perspectives of Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian.
“Everything Starts Here” is the title of a chapter that begins in the voice of Stuart:
But then Gillian came along, and everything starts here. Now. I love that word. Now. It’s now now; it’s not then anymore. Then has gone away. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed my parents. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed myself. It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t ever get myself across to other people. That was then, and then’s gone. It’s now now.
Once in a while you read articles in the same sitting that seem to be parts of larger narrative, or maybe it’s that the second one is a clap-back to the first.
This happened recently when I read an archived article by A.J. Liebling that the New Yorker online reprinted after the death of Prince Philip. Liebling’s post from November 29, 1947, looked at how the press was covering the royal wedding of the future queen, honing in specifically on reportage by one correspondent billed as “Noted American Society Woman and Authoress.”
Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Trump era arrived during the voted-out President’s most recent impeachment trial, with the defense’s video montage of prominent Democrats using the word fight.
Here, in perfect Pee-wee Herman “I know you are but what am I?” fashion, lawyers for the greatest serial liar of the modern age attempt to show that there is no difference between their client and members of a party that he calls “Radical Left CRAZIES.”
In the Senate Chamber, 43 know-nothings affirmed their knowing nothing of Constitutional law—for instance, Brandenburg v. Ohio, which holds that protected First Amendment rights do not include “inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” They did so by acquitting their Gambino-in-Chief, making him free to incite lawless action on many other days.
The two weeks between the Capitol assault on our democracy and the inauguration of our 46th President roughly coincided with Sotheby’s “Americana Week, January 8 to 22.” In promoting furniture and folk art up for virtual bid, the auction house oddly designated a “week” as lasting 14 days.
But that wasn’t what diverted my attention to the Sotheby’s ad. It was View of Hallowell, Maine, an “American School” painting described in the catalog as “a mother and her son gazing upon the bustling waterfront and business district . . . from Butternut Park on the Chelsea side of the Kennebec River.”
Back at the start of the pandemic, one strain of the thinking internet’s insatiable need for copy was served by warnings against making a metaphor of the coronavirus. Forget that it came from China, that it was happening in an election year, that Trump had dismantled the National Security Council directorate charged with protecting us against such threats. Don’t take the bait.
Most of these exhortations were against casting COVID-19 as payback from some unknown dispensary of karma. Paul Elie in the New Yorker reminded us that Susan Sontag in the New Yorker had the final word on illness as metaphor in 1978 and again in 1989. She poked massive holes in this human impulse, so we mustn’t narrativize the pandemic as we narativize our individual lives.