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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.

24.7.14

Britain

What happens when you set out to look the present in the eye but can’t quite bear the thought? Much of David Marquand’s powerful essay about ‘Britain, now’ is an elegy for a lost past, unsullied by ‘masterless capitalism’, a sad story of the light growing dim, good running to bad, the public realm hollowed out by vested interests, greed and unexamined selfishness: a ‘moral economy’ transformed by unfettered markets and the ideology that contrived to shove them down our (obliging) throats. All this is presented with the clarity of a historian who never lost his faith in Britain’s institutions – parliament, monarchy, church and family – but who senses we’re caught in a thrilling rush towards the abyss.
There’s nonetheless an eloquent song and dance before he takes us to the brink. The place he evokes in his subtitle ‘Britain, Now’ (what exactly is the force of that comma?) does eventually emerge, and his up-to-the-minute findings are fair enough, but they lack the assurance he brings to his story of the old country as he understood it, and the warning signs he detected early on. He’s a lover traduced, but is he right that Britain has become a self-harming, venal little nation since it spurned his affections? That’s how it looks, to be sure, and his evidence is depressingly thorough, yet he’s confident we brought this on ourselves and hopeful, for that reason, that we can come to our senses and reinvent the ‘solidaristic moral economy’ that we relinquished, or lost, in the 1980s.
It’s true that we have stuck a lot of what we had on eBay; we’ve learned to tell each other that the state is a costly prosthetic device we should cast aside to walk unassisted in the hazardous spaces of the market. But is this really a case of pure perversity or have we grasped that it’s time to stop dusting down the relics of a more egalitarian culture, sell them to the highest bidder, and move on? By 1979 we were ready for anything that would wipe away the memory of the previous ten years – willing, too, to throw the old values into the pot and take a world-historical punt. The Falklands War was an exemplary gamble and the gaming instinct played a bigger part than Marquand acknowledges in the story that followed on. Like Native Americans, we now have a thriving casino culture and perhaps our island reservation hasn’t done as badly as he thinks. According to the OECD we remain relatively tolerant of minorities (behind France but ahead of Germany), despite the hard turn against immigration; we may be sexist – according to the UN rapporteur on violence against women – but we’re not homophobic; and we’re no longer at the bottom of Unicef’s child well-being league table for rich countries, as we were in 2007. Britain’s unemployment rate is well below the average for the EU (and for the Eurozone countries).
Yet Marquand’s catalogue of ills is delivered with such conviction that it’s hard not to feel as angry and reproachful as he does, post 2007-8, when ‘the culture and institutions which procured the crash are still riding high’; hard not to share his impatience with ‘the attrition of the public realm’, the ‘marketisation’ of healthcare, universities and schools, and the conversion of ‘public goods into commodities’. ‘Britain,’ he writes, ‘is one of the least egalitarian societies in Europe with one of the highest levels of poverty’, a democracy ‘in form’, though increasingly ‘the policy-making process is dominated by an oligarchic elite of rent-seekers’: he means the rich and influential who extract wealth for their own use. ‘Legitimising and disguising their spoliation is a strange new holy trinity: a trinity of Choice, Freedom and the Individual, the three great mantras of the resurgent capitalism of our time.’
It’s the inequality that strikes Marquand most forcefully and distinguishes Britain not only from its European neighbours but from the place it once was. There is nothing unavoidable, he feels, about income disparity. If there were, then the proportion of the nation’s income after tax that went to the top 1 per cent of contributors would not have fallen – sharply, then slowly but steadily – from the start of World War Two until the end of the 1960s. In 1970 the Gini coefficient for British income equality stood at 25.9, considerably lower than for the US, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Norway (the lower it is, the lower the disparity in incomes). By the end of the decade it had fallen further, and it rose only a little during Thatcher’s first term. But in 1983 it began a steep ascent, hitting a peak around 1990 at 34, then falling slightly or levelling off in subsequent years (it depends who’s compiling the data), only to rise again under New Labour. It remains higher in the US, but in 2011, according to Marquand, only five members of the EU – Spain, Portugal, Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania – had worse inequality by income than Britain.
Marquand is strong on stats that suit his story, stronger still in his selective cast of political economists, led by Adam Smith and Keynes, and backed up by other big guns – Burke and Mill, above all – who appear here as adversaries of Mammon, signalling from a buried past that we can still weigh the need for benign public outcomes against the private wish to accumulate, own and subdue. We have to change the conversation – more on this later – in the hope of changing the ‘moral economy’, a term he borrows from The Making of the English Working Class. In E.P. Thompson the moral economy is in play once the seller’s price and the buyer’s ability to pay become irreconcilable – what follows is unrest. Among other things the moral economy regulates prices according to human need – when, for example, protesters requisition grain to sell on to members of a hard-pressed community at reasonable rates. In Thompson’s account of the bread riots at the end of the 18th century the moral economy is the exclusive property of the crowd, but Marquand argues that the millers and farmers, in their wish to maximise returns, proposed a rival moral economy; and that one version or another of moral economy is in the ascendant at any given time, whether it is ‘solidaristic’, laissez-faire or market fundamentalist. For Marquand market fundamentalism produces societies like Britain’s, ‘sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism’.
He likes Adam Smith for his historicism; Mill for his understanding of the common weal and his sense that property cannot be an absolute right; Marx for capturing the profane force of capitalism with the skill of an ace cameraman ‘contriving to photograph tanks manoeuvring in the murk of battle’. Other allies are drawn from the ranks of the 19th-century ‘clerisy’ who shaped ‘the mood of their age’: inter alia, Carlyle, Ruskin, Cardinal Manning and Matthew Arnold. They’re here because, as Dicey saw, they are identified with a collectivist turn in Victorian thinking. All four, along with Mill, were in Marquand’s phrase ‘custodians of the public conscience’. Keynes is a friend for obvious reasons, and one of the last economists who resisted the vice of ‘physics envy’: the pretension to science that leads them to dodge ‘the messy, the contestable and the contingent’ in their search for a ‘beautiful, timeless precision’. Amartya Sen is another, if only for his insistence that the best guarantee of democracy is a long, continuous process of ‘public reasoning’ that Marquand can’t find anywhere right now.
The opposition is thinner on the ground but formidable. Hayek is the big figure, with his iconoclastic attack on planned or mixed economies, and a functionary-heavy state: an attack, in Marquand’s words, on ‘the dream of a better, less selfish and more just society that suffused the public culture of wartime Britain’. Hayek’s utopia of an untrammelled market – its perfect workings obscure to people mollycoddled by statism – has a lot to answer for. The same applies to Milton Friedman, the Chicago School and all Hayek’s successors or pseudo-successors. No patience in Mammon’s Kingdom for notions of a ‘spontaneous order’ or naturalising theories of political economy.
We’re still a good distance from the present day when the argument starts to get odd. The jolt comes as Marquand charts the resurgence of individualism after several decades of ‘solidaristic’ thinking, and the subsequent apotheosis of the individual in the 1980s. For this to happen, two strands had to converge: on the one hand, Hayek’s ‘market individualism’; on the other, an earlier ‘moral individualism’ grounded in the cultivation of private worlds and heightened subjectivities, whose origins lie in what Marquand calls the ‘ethical narcissism’ of G.E. Moore. Moore’s narcissism transfers fluently from Cambridge to Bloomsbury, becoming a radical, anti-conformist appeal to individual choice along the way. Somehow Leonard Woolf’s socialism and Keynes-as-Bloomsberry are written out of this story, in which core values are undermined by a brilliant new scepticism: Lytton Strachey’s eagle-eyed Eminent Victorians (1918) is apparently a turning point.
With Hayek’s success in the 1940s, clouds start to gather on the horizon. The ethos of ‘social patriots’, including senior civil servants like Beveridge and trade unionists like Arthur Horner of the miners’ union, becomes harder to transmit. Their successors in the 1960s and 1970s are undone, at the very moment that capitalism seems to have been ‘tamed’, by a curious lack of self-confidence; the storm breaks with wage inflation, militant union opposition to wage controls, and the shrinking of the Western economies after 1973 and the oil price hike. From there to Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and the final demise of the Keynesian model, already under cultural assault from two assertive me-first creeds. Hayek may not have been a Gordon Gekko, but his theories lent weight to the belief that greed was the way forward – ‘whatever consumers wanted and entrepreneurs could supply, they were entitled to get.’ The defiant style of the 1960s, epitomised for Marquand by R.D. Laing and Herbert Marcuse, was also a ‘hyper-individualistic’, romanticised worship of choice by jejune students and lotus-eaters wearing paisley. ‘Slowly, incompletely, but unmistakably, today’s hedonistic and relativist culture elbowed aside the old culture of honour and duty.’ Marquand doesn’t care that many of those benighted hedonists went on to work in health, social services, education and local government, or that they behaved honourably – to use a word he likes – in the drama of Vietnam; or that many put together a politics in the 1970s campaigning against apartheid and, after the coup in Chile, against the Pinochet regime. To Marquand the period was all about posturing and self-regard.
The great years, therefore, are the Second World War and the Attlee administration, as ‘war socialism’ is followed by solid Labour government, in a golden age of honour, duty and solidarity. No one disputed the idea that wealth would have to be shared; everyone came up to scratch; the institutions were awash with men of probity putting their country and fellow citizens before all other considerations. From first to last it was a very good show. No trace here of the Rosamund Tea Rooms in The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton’s pitiless study of wartime Britain set in a provincial boarding house; no notion either that the 1945 election was anything but a unanimous call to extend the spirit of wartime solidarity, even though a fair number of the country’s ruling class, gathering at the Dorchester, Claridges and the Savoy as the results were announced, were horrified by the outcome (the episode is well told by David Kynaston in Austerity Britain). Plenty about the Beveridge Report but no reminder from Marquand that The Road to Serfdom, about which he has a lot to say, was an end-of-war book, published in 1944. Marquand’s war, like Marquand’s 1960s, is a highly partial accounting.
*
The strengths of Mammon’s Kingdom lie elsewhere, in the searching questions Marquand asks when he stands to one side of his gloomy pageant and explores the processes that move it along. Is it really the case that a flourishing neoliberal market culture erodes the state in the long term? He doesn’t think so: its nature changes as oligarchs spend their way into politics, and reconfigure public office as a series of private occasions, rotating out of trade and finance into public life, and vice versa. But this may not weaken a state; it may even consolidate its authority as it directs its duties towards the rich and away from the disadvantaged. Marquand doesn’t quite spell this out for us – not many writers go there – but he’s masterful on the way the state, and government, effected the transition from a broken corporatism to a radical rearrangement in the 1980s. Only a strong state at the disposal of a convinced prime minister, he argues, could have steered the new market doctrine into place. He’s right. Thatcher got hold of the state in a moment of crisis, as De Gaulle did in France. In Britain, we were told it was being rolled back: really it was being redesigned in London, in the service of Downing Street and parts of Whitehall, and fed on a diet of steroids.
Marquand is good too on distinctions we tend to blur in our effort to grasp what has happened; he is keen, for instance, to explain that ‘marketisation’ and ‘privatisation’ are not the same. Nor are the effects they have on public goods, which also need to be distinguished. He believes that privatisation, under Thatcher and Major, like New Labour’s PFI (a recipe for huge debt and, he adds, a way to bankrupt hospital trusts), changed ‘the face of the British economy’, but left ‘the body’ more or less in shape. Whatever their effects on the public sector, he doubts they had much impact on ‘the public realm’, one of his big topics. In Marquand’s eyes, the public realm is vastly larger and more valuable than a bunch of nationalised industries. It is – but here he gets less incisive as he falls back on his requiem manner … ah yes, ‘the realm of service, equity, professional and public duty’, protected in an ideal arrangement from the demands of the market on the one hand and the instinctive tug of private life (love, friendship, family) on the other. It expresses itself – a bit clearer here – in a commonwealth of rights and duties. Rights: clean water, fair trials, healthcare, libraries and a minimum wage, among other things. Duties: well, the duty to take an active role in public debate (Sen’s ‘public reasoning’) and behave as self-conscious members of a community rather than the solitary agents Thatcher identified when she declared that society was a mirage.
Marketisation – the introduction of ‘market mechanisms and market norms into activities hitherto run on non-market lines’ – is, he thinks, more insidious than privatisation: it’s ‘a coherent programme aimed at radical social transformation’.Once marketisation is underway, most human activity – manufacture, agriculture, energy; statecraft, education, health and law; publishing, curating, leisure and affective life itself – is redefined, its self-descriptions colonised and its intrinsic values overwhelmed. There is now only one way to speak, and one set of standards – choice, freedom, the individual – which have little to do with ‘duty’ or any of Marquand’s sunken treasure. In due course the public realm gives way entirely to a ‘market realm’ and eventually to a ‘market society’. Whatever your quarrel with his idealised public realm, the best parts of Mammon’s Kingdom read like the history of a draconian five-year-plan, rolled over with minor adjustments for another five and then another, with no end in sight: that’s six or seven five-year plans in Britain since the early 1980s (under Stalin there were four). The plan requires our compliance, and daily rejoicing that we’re no longer captives languishing in the wastes of a managed economy. Either we get the plan or we don’t. Marquand would like us not to get it and launch a counter-revolution.
Where should we begin? Or rather, where should we have begun, if we’d lit on the opportunity to do things differently? Perhaps, like Marquand, we could have run behind Blair with our tails up during the first New Labour administration, with its early promise. Perhaps, like Marquand in 2002, we could have given our blessing to Blair’s ‘impeccable’ handling of the 9/11 fall-out and urged him on in his ‘rhetoric of liberal nationalism’, only to see the light a year or so on, as Blair’s liberal nationalism was hitched to Bush’s and tested, in a criminal experiment, on the inhabitants of Iraq. (Marquand zooms down the road he didn’t take first time around as though he’d never had to hit the brakes and execute a three-point turn.) Should we, perhaps, have been more circumspect about private property and noticed, as he seems to have done, that our sense of ourselves as public persons was withering as home ownership became an obsession and governments did what they could to drive it forward? At the end of Blair’s first term 69 per cent of Britons were homeowners, while other developed societies, including Germany, remained happy – and performed well – without majority home-ownership. Should we, as a consequence, have refrained from buying property?
It’s 2014, and, according to Marquand, we need something comma now. Again according to Marquand, what’s required is a new conversation. The public realm is not yet totally destroyed by populist politics and rent-seeking; it’s not too late to relaunch Carlyle’s Condition of England question – a debate about resources, how they’re distributed, how we think of ourselves and the widening gulf between rich and poor – for the 21st century. Who should be involved? The main political parties, the church, religious leaders in general, NGOs and protest movements. ‘The conversation should not be an end in itself. The ultimate objective is change, not talk. But there can be no worthwhile change without a new public philosophy; and the last, best hope for discovering such a philosophy lies in talking together and learning from each other.’ It is, despite the lofty tone, a non-conclusion of the first order, more like a bit of dreary filler for Thought for the Day than a message for our times.
If Marquand’s set-piece conversation were a possibility we’d have had it already. By now, however, we’ve got the drift, we know who we are and we’re too embarrassed to rake over the coals, let alone consider an ‘ultimate objective’ – and Marquand should allow us a shred of dignity. He is wrong to say we brought the whole sorry business of market fundamentalism on ourselves, though it’s true we colluded. We borrowed, we spent, and merely by prospering – nothing more, nothing less – we imagined we were performing a public service, with much self-regard, for extravagant rewards, as the value of our bricks and mortar increased at inconceivable rates. We’re now so far down the road of private gain that the conversation he wants would involve a Soviet-style re-education programme. At the moment we have an urgent argument on our hands about official secrecy (post-WikiLeaks) and citizens’ privacy (post-Edward Snowden), but Marquand barely mentions these. For the rest, we’re locked into a national version of the interior monologue, burbling to ourselves about immigrants, ‘Europe’, paedophilia, food and celebrity. We vote in larger numbers for The X-Factor than we do for people seeking public office. This is the stuff of conversation as we know and enjoy it. Perhaps we should be ashamed, but we’re not, and that’s okay in an age where it pays to think well of oneself. Would Britain be a nicer, more civic place if we changed the subject? Marquand won’t accept that the time for this question has come and gone.

Marriage

Professors of philosophy Janet Radcliffe-Richards and Derek Parfit. © Mark Allan
Professors of philosophy Janet Radcliffe-Richards and Derek Parfit. © Mark Allan
In the 1980s there was a seminar held regularly in the wood-panelled Old Library at All Souls College in Oxford. It was known informally as “Star Wars.” Four giants of moral and political philosophy would take turns to lead the discussion and spend the best part of two hours sparring with each other at one end of the room, which would be packed mostly with eager, awestruck postgraduate students. I was one of them and attended for a term.
The four philosophers were Derek Parfit, Amartya Sen, Ronald Dworkin and GA “Jerry” Cohen, all of them in their scholarly prime. In 1982, Janet Radcliffe-Richards, who had just moved to Oxford, decided to go along to see for herself what everyone agreed was the best show in town—dazzling, preening intellectual pyrotechnics. She was then in her late thirties, and a lecturer in philosophy at the Open University. She had recently published a book entitled The Sceptical Feminist.
Sen, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in economics, already knew Radcliffe-Richards and after the seminar went over to greet her. “Who was that?” Parfit asked him. After extracting her name and being told that she had recently separated from a partner, Parfit wrote her a letter, which she says she will publish one day. “The most remarkable chat up letter in history,” Radcliffe-Richards calls it. He’d boughtThe Sceptical Feminist as, according to her, “a sort of audition” and proceeded to pursue her assiduously, oblivious to the fact that he was in competition with four other men.
Today, Parfit is considered by many of his peers to be the world’s most important living moral philosopher. His first book, Reasons and Persons, published in 1984, is routinely described as a work of genius. He is now married to Radcliffe-Richards, herself the author of three widely admired books characterised by unflinching logic and a willingness to tolerate uncomfortable conclusions. Not only are Parfit and Radcliffe-Richards arguably the world’s most cerebral romantic partnership, they are a fascinating study in the extent to which a philosopher’s professional convictions, particularly in the sphere of moral philosophy or ethics, shape his or her personal conduct—as Parfit thinks they should. I recently visited them in their north London home.
Janet says she was initially “utterly baffled” by Derek. He lacks certain common traits and doesn’t pick up on many normal social messages. He has no envy or malice (though he is no stranger to pride). During the “courting” process there were none of the usual wooing signals—no flowers or chocolates—but he did once thrust into her arms the complete keyboard scores of Bach. He also lent her an old desktop computer sold to him by Ronald Dworkin. It kept crashing. “It was an indication of the strangeness of what was going on, that when Derek suggested he come round at midnight to deal with the computer, I thought he meant it.” He didn’t.
In 2011, the night before they were due to get married in a register office, Derek and Janet were walking down Little Clarendon Street in Oxford on the way to a low-key celebration at an Indian restaurant. They had been together for 29 years, and had taken the decision to marry largely on pragmatic grounds. They felt they were getting old, and formalising their relationship made it easier to settle issues such as inheritance and next-of-kin. There were to be only four witnesses at the ceremony: Janet’s sister and brother-in-law, her niece and her niece’s partner.
As they approached the restaurant they passed a wedding shop. In the window was one of those meringue bridal dresses, all petticoats, hoops and trains. “That,” said Janet, jokingly, “is what I shall be wearing tomorrow.” “Do you mean that exact one,” replied Derek, in all seriousness, “or one just like it?”
It was the kind of literal-mindedness that Janet has become accustomed to, though it still tickles her. It had taken her some time, after first meeting Derek, to figure him out. “You shouldn’t take up with Derek if you want a normal domestic relationship,” she says. “But I knew by then that I didn’t.”
Janet and Derek are both now Distinguished Research Fellows at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, where I am a research associate. I was supervised by both of them as a postgraduate. Derek supervised my BPhil dissertation and Janet was the supervisor for my doctorate. My PhD was on the philosophy of discrimination, a subject on which Janet has written a great deal, though Oxford University Press is still waiting for the book she promised them.
My BPhil dissertation was on “future generations” (or population ethics), a topic that falls within the broad category of moral philosophy. It deals with questions such as what obligations and duties we have to people as yet unborn and whether we make the world a better place by bringing in more happy lives. Parfit didn’t so much shape this sub-discipline as create it. Most of the writing on the subject takes issues he has raised as its
starting point.
One conundrum that has exercised him is the so-called “non-identity problem.” Imagine that a woman knows that if she conceives a child now it will be born with a disability, but if she waits a couple of months she will have a “normal” child. Now, most people would probably say that she should wait, and not just because of the effect that a disabled child might have on the family and wider society. The stronger intuition is that it is better for the child.
But a moment’s thought allows us to see that this idea is misguided. If the woman delays conception she will not make the life of the disabled child better; she will have a different child. Provided that the disability is not too severe, the woman who does not delay getting pregnant is not making things worse for the handicapped child—if she puts off her pregnancy this handicapped child would not exist at all.
It took Parfit’s brilliance to recognise that this moral dilemma had far-reaching implications. Decisions over climate change or other forms of environmental degradation, for example, have a similar structure. Suppose we have to choose between two policies. Policy A will conserve our resources, while policy B will deplete them. If we choose A, then the quality of life will be lower for a period than if we choose B. But after 300 years, say, it will be much higher, and will remain so indefinitely thereafter.

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Different people will be born depending on which policy we opt for. After three centuries there might be nobody alive who would have been born whichever policy we choose. In Reasons and Persons, Parfit suggests we will grasp this complex point more clearly if we ask ourselves, “If railways and motor cars had not been invented, would I still exist?”
Normally, when we think that something is bad, we think that it is bad because it is bad for one or more individuals. But in these non-identity cases there is nobody for whom the decision is bad. Parfit claims that this makes no difference. If in either of two outcomes the same number of people would live, he argues, it would be bad if those who live have a lower quality of life than those who would have lived.
The reasoning seems watertight. But more perplexing difficulties arise when we are faced with decisions that will create different numbers of people. Parfit draws us down a path that leads inexorably to what he calls the “Repugnant Conclusion.” This has to do with the very real practical issue of what would be the ideal population size. The Repugnant Conclusion holds that “For any possible population of at least 10bn people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.” Parfit’s label for this conclusion makes it clear that he regards it as unpalatable, but he and other philosophers have found the logic that got him there hard to refute.
As well as future generations, Reasons and Persons makes seminal contributions in other areas of philosophy, including time (and our puzzling bias in favour of the future over the past) and personal identity (what kind of changes can we survive and which changes involve our ceasing to exist). The book overflows with rich and intricate arguments, which are often advanced through the use of wonderfully strange and creative thought experiments.
Two years ago, having hit the mandatory retirement age, Parfit had to vacate his rooms in All Souls for a small house he had bought in the centre of Oxford. The change in circumstance would have been a shock for him if Janet had not returned to Oxford at that point. Derek had lived almost his entire life in institutions—he was a scholarship boy at Eton, then went to Oxford as an undergraduate, to study history, and after winning a Prize Fellowship at All Souls aged 25 he never left. All Souls is a unique Oxford institution in having no undergraduates, only academic researchers.
“Derek has no idea what it is for a building to exist without a manciple and domestic bursar,” says Janet.
“Are you implying that I require looking after?”
“Not at all. That’s what’s so interesting. You don’t demand
looking after at all”.
Nonetheless, had Janet not been around, his habitat would have rapidly turned feral. One of Derek’s friends is the Harvard professor Frances Kamm. Derek regards himself as semi-American, and has spent many semesters at Harvard, New York University and Rutgers. When he stayed in Kamm’s apartment he noticed that the plughole in the kitchen sink was blocked. She hadn’t known, because she had never used the sink. “Kamm is the person who is most like me,” says Derek.
He does not know how to operate his oven, though his dietary regimen is scrupulously maintained. Ludwig Wittgenstein once stayed for an extended period with friends in Ithaca and told them that he didn’t mind what they cooked for him so long as it was always the same. Derek does mind. He eats the same staples every day. For breakfast there’s muesli, yoghurt, juice and an enormous cup of instant coffee, industrial strength and often made with hot water from the tap because boiling it would require putting on the kettle. In the evening he has raw carrots, cheese, romaine lettuce and celery dipped in peanut butter. Food has to fulfil two basic criteria: it must be healthy and involve the minimum of preparation. Like Janet, he is vegetarian.
“Isn’t this rather a boring topic of conversation?” asks Derek. This is not auspicious. Derek once wrote that he can’t remember ever being bored. Janet and I retire to the living room upstairs, leaving Derek to his muesli and instant coffee.
Published in 1980, The Sceptical Feminist was a book that seemed calculated to annoy everybody, though Janet denies any mischievous intentions. The “sceptical” bit, which infuriated some feminists, was the assertion that many standard feminist arguments were shoddy or incoherent. The “feminist” bit was a brilliant deconstruction of the illogical justifications used by men to validate their position of privilege over women.
Consider a rule like “Women should be barred from driving buses” (examples such as this felt much more urgent in the unreconstructed 1970s). What’s wrong with it? It can’t be merely the different treatment for men and women that it implies. After all, someone who fails to get a job is treated differently from the person who gets it. In a labour market distinctions are inevitable. Alcoholics are not allowed to become pilots, but we don’t conclude that alcoholics are thereby discriminated against.
What is wrong, Janet argues, is that the rule cannot be justified even in terms of the general standards set by those who propose the policy. Most of these people profess to believe in a meritocracy, but this moral standard is not consistent with the arbitrary disadvantaging of one group.
Janet likes to quote John Stuart Mill. Often those proposing a rule such as the one prohibiting female bus drivers will insist that women aren’t good enough drivers to be permitted behind the wheel. But as Mill pointed out, “what women by nature cannot do, it is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing.” In a genuine meritocracy, in other words, if all women were really hopeless at driving buses, they wouldn’t be employed—it would be unnecessary to have an additional rule excluding them.
One of Parfit's photographs of the view from his office in Oxford: he tends to photograph the same subjects repeatedly. © Derek Parfit
One of Parfit’s photographs of the view from his office in Oxford: he tends to photograph the same subjects repeatedly. © Derek Parfit
This argument reflects a trademark Radcliffe-Richards manoeuvre—she grants an opponent their premise or premises and shows that their conclusions nonetheless don’t follow. The abortion laws, she argues, don’t make any logical sense. If the foetus really is a human being, why should we draw a distinction between a woman carrying a deformed child, a woman who has been raped and a woman who simply got pregnant by mistake?
“The nearest we can get to a coherent account of [current] law,” she says, “is that it is to punish women who have sex when they didn’t intend to have children. The idea is that if you were raped it’s not your fault, you haven’t gone in for sex as an end in itself. If you have a deformed foetus you were properly intending to have children, but were just unlucky and that wasn’t your fault. But you couldn’t just have an abortion because you didn’t want a child after having sex.”
When Janet takes up a subject she does so from scratch, working from first principles and eschewing established templates and frameworks. This is the source of her originality. In her second book, Human Nature After Darwin (published in 2001), she examined aspects of philosophical reasoning through the study of Darwinism. She was particularly interested in claims about innate differences between men and women, which had been left open in The Sceptical Feminist.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that men are more disposed to take up random sexual opportunities than women. Would this imply that society should try to thwart or otherwise re-direct male urges? Or should we just accept that men and women are likely to behave differently and will make different choices? Janet is convinced that there are sexual differences—that men are more competitive and status-driven, for example—but this is not what really concerns her. She cares about the “so what?” She wants to show that feminists have nothing to fear from natural or genetic sexual variations.
In conversation, Janet is more nimble than Derek. She is also an in-demand interviewee and public performer (she lectures fluently without notes). For a couple of series, she was a regular panellist on the BBC Radio 4 radio discussion programme, Moral Maze, although she wasn’t rude enough really to excel in that format and she had what must have been the exasperating habit of telling the presenter and her fellow panellists that they were posing the wrong question.
Unlike Derek, who is proudly a philosopher’s philosopher, Janet’s writings have shaped debate on practical matters—on feminism, naturally, but also on bioethics. More recently, she’s gained attention for her work on the ethics of organ transplants. Most people have an instinctive aversion to the idea of a market in kidneys or hearts, especially as those most likely to be willing to sell their organs would tend to be the poorest in society. But, Janet argues, it is far worse to prohibit such a market. “Of course it’s dreadful if people have to sell their organs. But how does a ban on them selling their organs improve things?”
She cites the case of a poor Turkish peasant desperate to raise the funds to pay for his daughter’s leukaemia treatment. “And we rapidly passed legislation, and sent him back, presumably to watch his daughter die. Then we patted ourselves on the back. Well, really!” As for the campaigners against the trade: “There are these sanctimonious rich American surgeons with second homes on Cape Cod travelling the world, presenting themselves as heroes for saving poor people from exploitation. And of course what they do is force the desperate—for money or kidneys—into a black market where there’s no protection.” Her voice drips with contempt as she says this.
Later, as I’m exchanging domestic trivia with Janet, Derek walks back into the room. The conversation undergoes a handbrake turn. We stop gossiping. The talk is all philosophy. And it is Derek who does most of the talking.
His current preoccupation, and the main focus of his second book, is the question of whether there are objective ethical or moral truths. That book, On What Matters, appeared in 2011 in two gigantic volumes, totalling nearly 1,500 pages. It received the ultimate imprimatur of cultural significance—a lengthy article in the New Yorker—and was also the subject of a substantial review in the New York Review of Books.
While Janet won’t duck controversy when she believes an argument is either bad or dangerous, or both, Derek says he finds conflict over ideas and values uncomfortable. “I’m unusual among philosophers in the extent to which I’m worried by disagreement.” It unsettles him that many leading philosophers, dead and alive, believe that there are no objective reasons for action. Take the example, discussed by the late Bernard Williams, of a man who treats his wife terribly and doesn’t care. Williams claims that although there are several things we can say about the husband—that he is nasty, sexist and brutish—he has no reason to improve his behaviour. We cannot insist that he has a reason to be nicer if he cannot be motivated to change. But Derek’s book is a prolonged defence of the claim that whatever the man’s actual desires or motivations, he does have a reason to behave well.
Questions such as whether morality is objective and what constitutes subjectivity and objectivity are fundamental questions in the area of moral philosophy known as “meta-ethics.” But do they matter outside the seminar room? Parfit thinks they do and argues that people who have doubts about the objectivity of ethics are less likely to behave well. He struggles to remember a passage from a poem by Yeats, and turns to Janet for help identifying the lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
I suggest to Derek that it is unlikely that a person’s meta-ethical views will sway their actual conduct one way or the other. Over the past few years there has been some fascinating empirical research into the links between the opinions and the behaviour of professors of ethics, much of it conducted by Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosophy professor at UC Riverside in the United States. It suggests, for example, that although ethicists believe that people should give more of their income to charity than do non-ethicists, in practice they are no more generous. Parfit retreats a little. He concedes that it is an empirical matter whether subjectivism—the view that there are no objective moral truths—corrodes our ethical responses, but “it would be surprising if it didn’t weaken at least some people’s moral convictions.” And he frets that his arguments about future generations might undermine the belief that something must be done about climate change.
I suspect that the source of this anxiety is his extrapolation from the case of one individual—himself. I am quite willing to believe that if he were persuaded that subjectivism is true it would change his behaviour. When I ask what his and Janet’s philosophy have in common, he answers that they both accept that there are “normative” or ethical truths out there waiting to be discovered. The thrust of his moral thinking has tended in an impersonal direction. It’s consistent with this that both he and Janet have signed up to the Giving What We Can campaign, which requires people to make a public pledge to donate at least 10 per cent of their income to charities that work to relieve poverty.
There are no offspring to whom they could bequeath assets. Given that one half of the couple is a specialist on Darwin and evolutionary psychology, and the other on future people, their decision to remain childless is striking. Janet long ago came to the conclusion that there were already too many people in need in the world, and felt no urge to create any more. Derek was indifferent to the prospect of kids. Janet has never regretted not becoming a mother: “In fact, the more I see about ageing parents the more I’m glad that I have no one to feel resentful about if they don’t look after me”.
Derek is now 71, but he remains the Alexei Stakhanov of the philosophy world. He rises late, but then works with only a few short breaks until 11 o’clock at night, seven days a week. This has been his habit for half a century. It is not an entirely reclusive existence, however, since he’s in constant e-mail contact with philosophers around the world. The acknowledgements page in Shelly Kagan’s book The Limits of Morality is typical. After thanking a number of people, Kagan writes: “[The book] got still longer thanks to the extraordinary and painstaking attention showered on it by Derek Parfit. Derek commented on the whole, not once, but three times, and I have incorporated his suggestions in well over a hundred passages.”
former student of Parfit’s, Jeff McMahan, who will soon become the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, recalls arriving for a supervision with him and leaving 14 hours later. On another occasion, McMahan showed up not long after getting off a transatlantic flight. The philosophy began immediately. It didn’t occur to Derek that his guest might need a glass of water or to go for a pee.
The deluge of draft papers and manuscripts into Parfit’s inbox continues, and his extensive notes are returned quickly. “The only thing I pride myself on is the speed with which I can send people comments,” he says. He reads when he’s eating, when he’s on his exercise bike, when he’s putting on his socks and when he’s brushing his teeth. Each year he goes through dozens of toothbrushes, which he purchases in bulk. He has been known to read 80 page articles during a single brushing session. One of the reasons he dresses in the same outfit every day—black trousers, white shirt—is so he doesn’t waste time selecting clothes. His friend Ingmar Persson, the Swedish philosopher, calls him the “most erudite of living philosophers” and says his hard graft has “contributed to make his work tower high above everyone else’s.” His modus operandi is to write multiple drafts and then to re-draft (he quickly wears down letters on his keyboards). He is not secretive about how his work is progressing. Numerous pre-publication versions of On What Matters had long been circulating in the academic world, each of them varying slightly from one another. The acknowledgements section in the book runs to over 250 names.
When his world is not filtered through books, it is mediated by the lens. Or rather, it used to be. For decades his main “hobby” was photographing St Petersburg and Venice, returning numerous times and taking countless shots of the buildings in different light: in St Petersburg each photograph captures the snow under grey skies. “I may be somewhat unusual,” he told the New Yorker, “in the fact that I never get tired or sated with what I love most, so that I don’t need or want variety.” His admiration of certain architectural styles has led him into trouble. Many years ago he insisted that he and Janet buy a house together in rural Wiltshire after falling for its charming Georgian façade. It was miles from Oxford and outlandishly overpriced. In the eight years they owned it, Derek took precisely two walks in the countryside, both reluctantly. The top floor study had breathtaking views, but the curtains were kept closed.
The photographic holidays are no more. After three years of snowless Februaries in St Petersburg, Derek regards that project as complete. A reformed duomaniac, he’s now a mere monomaniac: from now on, it’s all and only philosophy. He’s busy on another book, Does Anything Really Matter?, in which he’ll respond to critical responses to On What Matters.
His reputation, though, is already secure. He has just been awarded the prestigious Schock Prize and two generations of philosophers in their forties, fifties and early sixties revere him. Roger Crisp, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, says Parfit is the most impressive philosophical interlocutor he’s ever met. “In his work on personal identity, Parfit has taken the Humean tradition much further than any previous thinker,” Crisp says. “He has done the same with the rationalist tradition which stretches back to Plato via Immanuel Kant. And he has transformed the utilitarian tradition.”
McMahan, with whom Parfit used to stay when visiting Rutgers, and who called his basement, the “Parfit Suite,” says that his writings, especially on population ethics, have “forced a rethink on almost everything in ethics, including the value of life itself.” What makes Parfit so special, he says, “is that, like a good chess player, he sees many moves ahead—he can see the implications of claims that no one else can see.”
Reasons and Persons is an archetype of a particular approach to philosophy in general and moral philosophy in particular. It proceeds carefully, and methodically, constructing arguments and testing intuitions with thought experiments, from which it generates principles that can be transposed, or so it is claimed, onto the real world.
Many moral philosophers practice their discipline in this way, though none with Parfit’s depth or sheer inventiveness. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that he is universally venerated. For many philosophers, Parfit’s approach is wholly misguided. Among the objections made to it, perhaps the most powerful is that ethics does not lend itself to a sort of algorithmic analysis. As Roger Scruton puts it in a caustic forthcoming review of On What Matters, “One way of being a bad person is to think that [moral dilemmas] can be resolved by moral arithmetic.” Another notable critic is Simon Blackburn who, in his review of the book, asked whether it was really, as Peter Singer suggested in the Times Literary Supplement, the “most important publication in moral philosophy” since Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics in 1874. Or was it, Blackburn wondered, instead “a long voyage down a stagnant backwater?” He left the reader in no doubt as to his own verdict.
n the 1940s a Viennese paediatrician Hans Asperger carried out pioneering work on a group of troubled children. But it was only in the 1980s that Asperger’s Syndrome became recognised as a medical disorder. There are a number of symptoms. They include literal-mindedness, the failure to read social signs and narrow, obsessional preoccupations. Because Asperger’s is relatively new to the psychological literature, few people older than 40 have been diagnosed with it.
Several of Derek’s friends mention “Asperger’s” when I ask them about him. What does he himself think? Might it explain the quality of some of his social interactions and his unusual lifestyle? “There may be something in this suggestion,” he says, though he also attributes it to a boarding school education. The same friends also comment that his remarkable nature has required a huge amount of adjustment on Janet’s part. She agrees. “But the adjustment was relatively straightforward once I had figured him out and stopped looking for what was not there. His way of life gives me enormous independence.”
Although Janet returned to Oxford to teach in 2008, there is still a great deal of shuttling back and forth between there and London, sometimes together, but often separately. Not surprisingly, she says, “many people don’t realise that [Derek and I] are connected.” But the couple have always communicated constantly. Whenever I went to Janet’s house in London to discuss my doctoral thesis, the sessions would invariably be punctuated by calls from Derek. Janet was then teaching at University College London and spent most of her life in the capital. Derek was in Oxford. They spoke many times every day. Here was obviously an extremely close and affectionate relationship between two people who were intellectually, morally and aesthetically compatible. Yet, at some level, Derek seemed strangely unaware that Janet was 60 miles away. “It matters to him that I exist,” she says, “but it matters much less that I’m around.”

New Yorker


newyorker_cover
Yesterday, The New Yorker made all of its magazine pieces since 2007 freely available online for three months. After that time, everything will go behind a metered paywall, along the lines of what the New York Times has in place. So what should you read during this three-month free-for-all? We canvassed Slate staff for their favorite New Yorker articles, essays, profiles, and fiction from 2007 to the present. Our annotated list of 30 stories, divided semi-arbitrarily into seven categories, is below.
Perhaps once you’ve gotten through these, you’ll decide to shell out for a subscription and enjoy unlimited access even after this grace period is over.
POLITICS AND WORLD AFFAIRSHellhole,” March 30, 2009. Atul Gawande provides a groundbreaking examination into whether solitary confinement in the United States constitutes torture.
Eight Days,” Sept. 21, 2009. This exhaustively reported story by James B. Stewart recounts the closed-door dealings that went down after Lehman Brothers imploded.
The Empty Chamber,” Aug. 9, 2010. George Packer offers a sobering take on the staggering dysfunction and obstructionist theatrics that prevent progress in the United States Senate.
Getting Bin Laden,” Aug. 8, 2011. This moment-by-moment account of the mission to get Osama Bin Laden, written by Nicholas Schmidle, is every bit as thrilling asZero Dark Thirty, and much more rigorously fact-checked.
Netherland,” Dec. 10, 2012. Rachel Aviv delivers a powerful, shocking, and brilliant story on LGBTQ homeless youth.
Taken,” Aug. 12, 2013. Sarah Stillman’s reporting illuminates an appalling, pervasive practice that you won’t believe actually exists.
PROFILESMaster of Play,” Dec. 20, 2010. In this surprisingly rich profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario Brothers and grandhomme of Nintendo, Nick Paumgarten explores what we seek out when we play.
The Apostate,” Feb. 14, 2011. Lawrence Wright’s heavily vetted and fact-checked reporting on the Church of Scientology, which later evolved into the book Going Clear, offers a rare look into the notoriously secretive organization.
How To Be Good,” Sept. 5, 2011. Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit addresses deep questions of morality, happiness, and suffering.
Dr. Don,” Sept. 26, 2011. Peter Hessler’s profile of a small-town druggist in Colorado is a story of place as well as simple humanity.
You Belong With Me,” Oct. 10, 2011. In Lizzie Widdicombe’s profile of Taylor Swift, the songstress comes off as a genius purveyor of teen-angst in tune form and an earnestly sensitive and precocious star.*
The Yankee Commandante,” May 28, 2012. David Grann profiles William Morgan, an American who fled to Cuba and fought alongside Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the Revolution, only to be executed by firing squad under Castro’s orders.
CRIMETrial By Fire,” Sept. 7, 2009. David Grann’s gripping story demonstrated that by executing Cameron Todd Willingham for the murder of his family, the state of Texas may very well have killed an innocent man.
The Pink Panthers,” April 12, 2010. David Samuels’s account of a band of brazen jewel thieves from the Balkans reads like a sophisticated detective novel.
Iphegenia in Forest Hills,” May 3, 2010. Janet Malcolm turns a murder trial in Queens into a study of crime, the legal system, journalistic ethics, and insular immigrant communities. Like several pieces on this list, the story was later expanded into a book.
The Throwaways,” Sept. 3, 2012. Sarah Stillman provides a crucial exposé about the use of young offenders as confidential informants.
A Loaded Gun,” Feb. 11, 2013. In this thorough and troubling crime story, Patrick Radden Keefe examines the life of Amy Bishop, who killed six of her colleagues in a mass shooting, and 25 years ago, may have killed her brother, too.
SCIENCESwingers,” July 30, 2007. This widely celebrated story by Ian Parker complicated the popular notion of the bonobo, a type of chimpanzee that had been hailed for its supposedly peaceful, sex-loving disposition.
The Itch,” June 30, 2008. Atul Gawande probes the fascinating medical mystery of a woman whose puzzling itch caused her to scratch all the way through to her brain. Warning: might make you itchy.
The Sixth Extinction?,” May 25, 2009. Elizabeth Kolbert’s consideration of the history of mass extinctions led to a book of the same name, published this year.
God Knows Where I Am,” May 30, 2011. Rachel Aviv’s look at mental health patients who reject their psychiatric diagnoses is smart and heartbreaking in equal measures.
PERSONAL ESSAYSThe Running Novelist,” June 9, 2008. Translated from Japanese, this essay by Haruki Murakami chronicles the parallels between a career as a novelist and a passion for running.
Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Nov. 18, 2013. Ariel Levy’s candid personal account of her brief but life-altering experience with motherhood is devastating.
The Unmothered,” May 9, 2014. Ruth Margalit tenderly captures her experience of grief after losing her mother to cancer, detailing the unexpected ways in which it unfolded.
ARTS AND CRITICISMNoble Savages,” Feb. 27, 2012. One Slate staffer recalled reading James Wood's review of Edward St. Aubyn and “just thinking that it is impossible to write any better than that.” 
Danse Macabre,” March 18, 2013. David Remnick exposes the Bolshoi, once the jewel of Russian culture and favorite for political patronage from the Kremlin, as an organization struggling to retain its relevance, artistry, and prestige in modern times.*
Home Fires,” April 7, 2014. George Packer takes on the literature of war, the memoirs of veterans, and the power of the storytelling.
FICTIONThem Old Cowboy Songs,” May 5, 2008. This melancholy story about a young couple on a homestead won a National Magazine Award and appeared in Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way It Is.
Midnight in Dostoevsky,” Nov. 30, 2009. This short story by Don DeLillo centers on a pair of college students taking a logic class together and wondering about a stranger they see around town.
HUMORGuy Walks Into a Bar,” by Simon Rich, Nov. 18, 2013. This Shouts & Murmurs piece this is the best 12-inch pianist joke of all time.

Memory

This happened in 1967. That year, the American author Truman Capote, then forty-three years old, published a beautiful essay he titled “Ghosts in Sunlight.” The piece—it’s not very long—describes the author’s experience on the set of the film adaptation of his 1966 best-selling book, In Cold Blood. At one point Capote relates how the actors impersonating the real-life protagonists in his famous “non-fiction novel” unsettled him, rattled him, for there they were, alive and interpreting the thoughts and feelings of men he had known long before, dead men he could not shake. Capote describes this experience as being akin to watching “ghosts in sunlight”—a lovely metaphor about memory and the real converging to make the world something else, and the artist someone else, too. Standing on that film set, the Capote who had written In Cold Blood was a relative ghost to the film being made; he was a specter standing in the sunlight of his former self.
I think I understand something about the anxiety Capote expresses in the piece; I certainly understand when he relates how, at some point during his In Cold Bloodprocess, he’d fall into bed with a bottle of scotch and pass out, the victim of a disorienting emotional flu. Nostalgia is one thing, but making art out of the past is another thing altogether, a Herculean effort in that known and unknown landscape we might as well call the metaphysical. It’s the land where all artists dwell, and that your years at Columbia’s School of the Arts have prepared you to meet head on*; by now you have developed the stamina of Hercules, or Sisyphus, as you do the joyful, maddening, and true work of artists, those sometimes whistling and sometimes wretched builders and destroyers of truth and memory, makers who take from the past—their memories—to create a present that shimmers with veracity and poetry.
I wonder if you, like me, feel, just now, like a ghost in the sunlight, awash in memories as your life shifts from student to professional, and your professors become your colleagues. I’ll pull rank now—but just for a moment—and say that my ghosts are probably older than yours. I mean almost Madonna old, and her 1980s music is there in my reminiscences along with so much more as I recall that the majority of my ghosts became just that during the AIDS crisis, which I first read about while I was a student at Columbia—in 1981 or so. I met those now gone boys at Columbia some time before I met you. In memory they wear what they wore then: Oxford button-downs, and they smoke and gossip in the sun that always makes the steps of Low Library—the very steps you’ve sat on yourself—look like a sketch in a dream. Tomorrow was faraway then. And then it wasn’t.
I see those gone boys and hear their laughter and love them even more as I watch you all now in your sunlight. For your time at Columbia and your life in this particular section of Manhattan is becoming part of your past very quickly now, all the moments of making your self—your artist self—mixed up these final days and hours before you face other realities, other dangers, other hopes, and other presents that are destined to become the past, too. And undoubtedly you will try to make art out of this beautiful ephemera, the merging of the past with the present, because you’re artists, chroniclers of who you are, and who you might be, and who we all are, together.
In order to achieve that—that is, to push further into being the kind of truth-telling artists I already know you are—I should tell you something about myself, so that we are better friends, and you can accurately transform this moment or the next into one of your stories. Let’s begin with my time at Columbia. I loved studying with great scholars ranging from Elaine Pagels to Kenneth E. Silver—I was an art history major in the General Studies program—but I must confess that I wasn’t much of a student.
It didn’t take Elaine and Ken long to suss out that I wasn’t an academic, I was a writer. I didn’t know how to call myself that; that is, I didn’t know what you now know: that there are professors out there, at the School of the Arts, for instance, who can help nurture your voice. So I just bungled along, finding much to love along the way, including authoritative reading lists that gave me a frame to begin understanding not just emotionally, but philosophically and intellectually as well, how the past leads to the present and beyond. By reading I discovered that art-making was a tradition that was bigger and no bigger than myself.
I did not feel crippled by this knowledge; in fact, I was liberated by it: being an artist meant you were connected to other people—ghosts—who had been as moved by the enterprise of creating as you are now; evidence of their love was all the movies and performances and books and dances and music that informed your present so deeply and indelibly, acts of creation that stirred your imaginings to the point of making you wonder: How do I make the kind of film I want to see, write the kind of story or poem I want to read, perform the music, play, or dance that is expressive of the artist I’m meant to be?
In her lovely memoir, Smile, Please, the Caribbean-born writer Jean Rhys says that she considered her writing to be the tiniest stream, one that trickles into the vast ocean that is world literature. But without those streams there would be no ocean, and if there is no ocean there is no shore, and if there is no shore there is no place for our ghosts to gather in the sunlight, those artistic forebears who wave us back to dry land when a project seems beyond us and we lose our way, which is at least half of the time.
As I’ve said, I was a terrible student. Or put in a different way: I was a miserable student, a dropout at heart who didn’t know how to look for, let alone find, what you found: a conservatory-like atmosphere that affords one the freedom and discipline to do one’s true life work. I didn’t come from a world filled with much worldly information, other than how to survive. I grew up in a family of West Indian women who raised their children in what social workers used to call “socio isolation.” First we lived in East New York, and then in Crown Heights, and then in Flatbush. When I stepped through those gates on Broadway, that was all I knew. I was a student at a time when the school was segregated by gender, and also you could smoke in class.
This was not the world I knew, certainly not at home. In order to acclimate myself, I took a great many classes at Barnard. Still, I didn’t give myself a chance to take advantage of the opportunities Columbia offered up because I didn’t know how to: it takes a long time to make it to the welcome table if you’ve been standing at the sink of making do.
Part of what makes your experience so valuable to me is that you allowed yourself this experience, you are graduating with the license or degree you’ve already conferred on yourself—to be artists, to be thinkers, to be. As the artist Kara Walker noted once vis-à-vis her experience as a woman artist of color, it just takes a lot to give yourself permission to get into the studio, to claim that space.
If anything, your education, the conservatory-like atmosphere the School of the Arts has built over the years, has helped minimize those kinds of complications, no matter what your race or gender, and anyway all artists feel “other.” There’s not an artist on God’s green earth who feels, emotionally speaking, that he or she has been invited to the prom. It’s in our DNA—to stand to the left or outside of life’s fray, in our tennis shoes, in our painter’s smocks, in our director’s caps, in our moth-eaten writer’s sweaters, awash in memory even as it becomes that in the just-now past. Your various educators understand the humility of creation, and something more: how to encourage and coax you into greater accuracy. What does your past look like, what does the present say, and what do your ghosts look like in the sunlight?
But enough about you. Actually, I can’t go on without you since, by now, we have become friends, and, like any friend, I am not ashamed to say that I am drawing on your confidence to admit that I loved studying art history here at Columbia because the field involved so many of the things that enthrall me, still, such as cultural production, politics, aesthetics, and words. There was an immediate benefit to this: it gave me a setting in which to understand the society that surrounded me during my time on campus in the early 1980s, a time when New York had, for all intents and purposes, been abandoned by the federal government, and the city felt strangely lawless—Andy Warhol called it a Wild West show.
It was a place where visual artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and theater directors like Elizabeth LeCompte and Andrei Serban and performers such as Steve Buscemi and Anna Kohler and filmmakers ranging from Bette Gordon to Jim Jarmusch to Charles Burnett and writers like Margo Jefferson, Susan Minot, Richard Howard, Elizabeth Hardwick—you will recognize some alumni and past and present professors from the School of the Arts in that list, I’m no fool—were making work that explored New York, which felt, then, like a small exploding Gotham filled with extreme sunsets and light, an intense universe shaped as much by poverty as it was by hope and creativity.
Columbia was part of that. East Campus had yet to be built, and the whole campus, in memory, feels as though it were lit by a thousand cigarettes in the dark. In fact, the first reading I ever gave was at Columbia, at night. I was a student; a friend who lived downtown came up to hear me. During the reading she sat in the front row, eating a hoagie. Afterward, she said I should have something behind me while I read. A video? Some slides?
I offer all of this not by way of aimless self-revelation, but as a way of provoking you to remember your stories about similar incidents in your life, stories about the night, and who smoked what and who was doing who mixed in with outside events, such as the politics of your time, mixed in with the books you were reading, the films you were seeing, the poems you were memorizing, because all of it is your source material. Stories like that girl with the hoagie will end up being the stories you end up telling, take it from me: memory is your greatest ally and your primary source material, because memory is your body as it was in the world and the world as it was and will be; memory is the people you have loved or wanted to love in the world, and what are we if not bodies filled with reminiscences about all those ghosts in the sunlight?
Now and then, the past and the present: didn’t Boris Pasternak teach us that there was no separating the two, not to mention Suzan-Lori Parks in her plays, not to mention William Faulkner, not to mention Billie Holiday in all her succulence and disaster, and didn’t Claude Lanzmann show in his extraordinary 1985 documentary, Shoah, how the past weighs the present down? And hasn’t Kara Walker told us how memory works in America, which she loves like no other place on earth because no other place on earth could have created Kara Walker?
All of these people—Pasternak, Parks, Faulkner, Holiday, Lanzmann—they are you, the you you are about to be. Making something out of remembering, giving yourself that chance—there is nothing like it. In the preface to her haunting poem “Requiem,” the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote of the accuracy one must employ when reporting and remembering:
INSTEAD OF A PREFACE


During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I 
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
 Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone “picked me out.”
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in 
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there)—“Could one ever describe this?” And I answered—“I can.” It was then that
 something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.
The artist’s memory is a dangerous, necessary thing. Never disavow what you see and remember—it’s your brilliant stock-in-trade: remembering, and making something out of it. Artists remember the world as it is, first, because you have to know what it is you’re reinventing; that’s a rule, perhaps the only one: being cognizant of your source material.
I’ve never believed, not for one second, that art is created out of avoiding the world and its various realities. If you avoid that, you avoid life, which is your source material, you dishonor all your ghosts in the sunlight, including the person you were when I began this speech, the Columbia boys I knew and loved long ago, the politically oppressed poet who changed a face, and you, dancing with my former self before we part, and you walk proudly into your sunlit hope, ghosts and all.