March 5, 2014
Certain lives also pass by like that


Yes, really, her face seemed familiar to me. That little smile for example. But it was only at that moment that I realised where that impression had come from. In fact, Mathilde looked like a girl who’d been at high school with me, in the lower or upper sixth, I can’t remember which. I took a little while to remember her name: she was called Astrid Gregoire.

Astrid wasn’t very pretty either. I think you might even say, without risk of exaggeration, that she was frankly hideous. At the time I knew her, her face was covered with a layer of red, granular tissue, and her teeth, unlike her, were particularly spoilt. What’s more—and this didn’t help matters—she was slightly simple. All this was enough to isolate her from the world and annihilated any hope of being loved by a boy one day. For the same reasons, she had no friends in the class. Nobody ever spoke to her. But this was doubtless not the first year of loneliness for her. I even think she must have always been the girl people could hardly remember and whose sea-monster face they noted in passing. A profound indifference reigned around her, and there was no reason to hope that it would one day be otherwise. Certain lives pass by like that, in silence. She arrived in the morning and didn’t say a word until evening. Basically, now that I think back, I might even have doubts about whether she really existed.

Obviously I don’t remember the day I saw her for the first time. All I’m saying is that she was in my class. She worked hard but wasn’t a good student. But she hung on. Doubtless she already knew she would have to fight harder than the rest in order to succeed. But for what purpose? What did she dream of achieving? At the time, I didn’t ask myself many questions about her. Like everyone else, I accepted her presence while feeling a little sorry for her, but not too sorry and above all, at a distance.

I began to take an interest in her, following an insignificant incident. One day, between two lessons, I went to the toilets, and as I was washing my hands, I heard someone sobbing behind a door. I approached, and almost said something. There was no doubt: it was a girl. And yet we were in a place reserved for boys. But what surprised me more than anything was the terrible intensity of her sobs. If it is possible, this person was physically dying of distress. I didn’t know what to do. In the end I went out, without making a sound. In the corridor, I encountered a guy and started talking to him. It wasn’t premeditated, but by so doing, I was able to see Astrid emerge discreetly from the toilets a moment later. So it was her. For the next hour, I was seated a few metres away from her and I observed her: there was no longer any trace of those sobs on her face. Her eyes seemed as dry as usual. And I told myself that this might not be the first time she had locked herself away like that to weep. I even told myself that she must cry like that every day. Amid general indifference. Certain lives also pass by like that.

A few days later, coming out of school, I followed her down the street. At first it wasn’t intentional, we were simply going in the same direction, then my curiosity took the upper hand, and at the point when I ought to have turned right, I continued along rue Saint-Andre. The weather was pretty good that day. I’d guess it was sometime in May. She walked as far as the boulevard. Then she went to have an ice cream in a brasserie. She watched the passers-by through the window. She had the look of a little girl, seated by her window. I don’t know why, but at that point I told myself there must be stuffed toys in her bedroom. From time to time she must embrace them forcefully. Basically, she was condemned to watch the others flying the next without uttering a word: bodies discovered pleasure, relationships were forged, the girls put on make-up, the boys chatted them up continually, and she…she was eating an ice cream in a lonely brasserie.

This went on for quite a while. Then she stood up and left. Even today, that is still the perfect image of loneliness to me: Astrid Gregoire sadly eating an ice cream whlie watching through the window as the people pass by.

Florian Zeller, the Fascination of Evil, 2004, 95-97

March 5, 2014
"He then had been an honest, unselfish lad, ready to sacrifice himself for any good cause; now he was depraved and selfish, and thought only of his own enjoyment. Then God`s world seemed a mystery which he tried enthusiastically and joyfully to solve; now everything in life seemed clear and simple, defined by the conditions of the life he was leading. Then he had felt the importance of, and had need of intercourse with, nature, and with those who had lived and thought and felt before him—philosophers and poets. What he now considered necessary and important were human institutions and intercourse with his comrades. Then women seemed mysterious and charming—charming by the very mystery that enveloped them; now the purpose of women, all women except those of his own family and the wives of his friends, was a very definite one: women were a familiar means of enjoyment . Then money was not needed, and he did not require even one-third of what his mother allowed him; but now this allowance of 1,500 roubles a month did not suffice, and he had already had some unpleasant talks about it with his mother. Then he had looked at his spiritual being as his real self; now his strong virile animal self was the real I."

— Tolstoy, Resurrection 

December 22, 2011
Nikolai Rostov and Idleness

The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor - idleness - was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class - the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.

Nicholas Rostov experienced this blissful condition to the full when, after 1807, he continued to serve in the Pavlograd regiment, in which he already commanded the squadron he had taken over from Denisov.

Rostov had become a bluff, good-natured fellow, whom his Moscow acquaintances would have considered rather bad form, but who was liked and respected by his comrades, subordinates, and superiors, and was well contented with his life. Of late, in 1809, he found in letters from home more frequent complaints from his mother that their affairs were falling into greater and greater disorder, and that it was time for him to come back to gladden and comfort his old parents.

Reading these letters, Nicholas felt a dread of their wanting to take him away from surroundings in which, protected from all the entanglements of life, he was living so calmly and quietly. He felt that sooner or later he would have to re-enter that whirlpool of life, with its embarrassments and affairs to be straightened out, its accounts with stewards, quarrels, and intrigues, its ties, society, and with Sonya’s love and his promise to her. It was all dreadfully difficult and complicated; and he replied to his mother in cold, formal letters in French, beginning: “My dear Mamma,” and ending: “Your obedient son,” which said nothing of when he would return. In 1810 he received letters from his parents, in which they told him of Natasha’s engagement to Bolkonski, and that the wedding would be in a year’s time because the old prince made difficulties. This letter grieved and mortified Nicholas. In the first place he was sorry that Natasha, for whom he cared more than for anyone else in the family, should be lost to the home; and secondly, from his hussar point of view, he regretted not to have been there to show that fellow Bolkonski that connection with him was no such great honor after all, and that if he loved Natasha he might dispense with permission from his dotard father. For a moment he hesitated whether he should not apply for leave in order to see Natasha before she was married, but then came the maneuvers, and considerations about Sonya and about the confusion of their affairs, and Nicholas again put it off. But in the spring of that year, he received a letter from his mother, written without his father’s knowledge, and that letter persuaded him to return. She wrote that if he did not come and take matters in hand, their whole property would be sold by auction and they would all have to go begging. The count was so weak, and trusted Mitenka so much, and was so good-natured, that everybody took advantage of him and things were going from bad to worse. “For God’s sake, I implore you, come at once if you do not wish to make me and the whole family wretched,” wrote the countess.

This letter touched Nicholas. He had that common sense of a matter-of-fact man which showed him what he ought to do.

W&P, Tolstoy, Book 7, Ch. 1

July 28, 2011
"Page 270 of Superclass. “[At Davos], Another of the most interesting and respected dinners is hosted by Victor Halberstadt and his wife, Masha, who is an accomplished painter. Somes Halberstadt will have a chef flown in especially for dinners. He deftly runs it like a salon: At some point early in the dinner he interrupts and says, “let’s start this,” and welcomes everyone, describes with great humour who they are and what they have recently achieved, and then provokes an always fascinating discussion. So for example, he says, Jean Claude Trichet tell us, how do you see Europe’s main economic vulnerabilities? Or to Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, What do you think will happen to the Chinese currency? or You, Mr. Minister of Finance of Turkey, what are the repercussions of the Iraq war in your country? And so on. “The dinner has a strong European flavor, as it normally includes the CEOs of Heineken, Royal Dutch Shell, Phillips, and other major European firms. But Victor always managed to also attract the smartest Russians, Americans and Middle Easterners at the dinner, as well as some of the most interesting academics and media leaders. It is not just who goes to that dinner but the extraordinary way in which he managed to have everyone exchange very interesting information that you would not otherwise get just reading the newspapers or going to the formal sessions."

— Also Klaus Schwab and Philippe Bourguignon

July 28, 2011

We “know” that there are two kinds of Etonian, Oppidan (those pedigreed lads who pay their own way) and Colleger (scholarship students, whose endowment carries over from King Henry’s original desire that the place be devoted to the education of the poor). That may seem like a laugh now, when the fees including “extras” come to about £30,000 a year (at current exchange rates about what it costs me to send my daughter to a day school in Washington), but the fact remains that Eton provides a number of scholarships and that, mad sports and bizarre practices to one side, it has long been celebrated for its academic rigor alone, and has had some famously fine teachers, not just Aldous Huxley, as above mentioned, but (as a visitor) Lionel Trilling. There is a legend that boys have their names “put down” for Eton at birth, but such a process is no guarantee of admission, and, for example, it seems improbable that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose son Yermolai attended the school, went through any such paternal ritual. If it had produced only sportsmen and soldiers and imperial proconsuls, like some other famous schools, it would not be so celebrated. But here is where one of the great reforming Liberal prime ministers, William Ewart Gladstone, received his grounding in the Greek and Latin classics, at which he so excelled. And here is where John Maynard Keynes, who revolutionized political and economic theory, acquired his academic sinews while, according to contemporary reports, doing some very serious sleeping around. The Etonian system is not designed to turn out a uniform product, in other words. “It also has one great virtue,” wrote the austere egalitarian George Orwell in 1948, “and that is a tolerant and civilized atmosphere which gives each boy a chance of developing a fair individuality.” Boys have their own rooms rather than sharing. Thus, though John le Carré—who taught there under his real name, David Cornwell—claims to be able to detect an Etonian in a crowded room 80 percent of the time, he told my Etonian friend Nick Fraser (author of The Importance of Being Eton) that the salient characteristic of his pupils was “cool impertinence.… The boys were adult, funny, a little removed from life even as they evolved effortlessly into the shrewdest operators. They were at once innocent and worldly.” This cultivated affect dovetails perfectly with the Niven-ish image of the deceptively polite and modest Englishman, outwardly unflappable and possessed of steely inward ruthlessness.And steely understatement is the mark of the man here. Let’s agree that things mustn’t be too strenuous either: one aims at the coolly effortless effect because anything else would run the appalling risk of seeming “boring.” This generalized diffidence extends to a number of “O.E.’s,” as alumni of Eton are called, who fail to mention the school on the dust jackets of their books.

July 27, 2011

On the face of it, there is nothing overwhelmingly stirring about Sen. Obama. There is a cerebral quality to him, and an air of detachment. He has eloquence, but within bounds. After nearly two years on the trail, the audience can pretty much anticipate and recite his lines. The political genius of the man is that he is a blank slate. The devotees can project onto him what they wish. The coalition that has propelled his quest — African-Americans and affluent white liberals — has no economic coherence. But for the moment, there is the illusion of a common undertaking — Canetti’s feeling of equality within the crowd. The day after, the crowd will of course discover its own fissures. The affluent will have to pay for the programs promised the poor. The redistribution agenda that runs through Mr. Obama’s vision is anathema to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the hedge-fund managers now smitten with him. Their ethos is one of competition and the justice of the rewards that come with risk and effort. All this is shelved, as the devotees sustain the candidacy of a man whose public career has been a steady advocacy of reining in the market and organizing those who believe in entitlement and redistribution.  

A creature of universities and churches and nonprofit institutions, the Illinois senator, with the blessing and acquiescence of his upscale supporters, has glided past these hard distinctions. On the face of it, it must be surmised that his affluent devotees are ready to foot the bill for the new order, or are convinced that after victory the old ways will endure, and that Mr. Obama will govern from the center. Ambiguity has been a powerful weapon of this gifted candidate:

July 27, 2011
"One insider has another guess—that the conversation had to do with Obama’s unrequited support of Lieberman in the 2006 Connecticut Senate race. “Obama, once you get beneath his patina of aloofness, is a real guy. He talks very directly in private conversation. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a conversation about that—‘Hey, bro, what’s the deal?’ ”"

July 26, 2011
"Obama was the most prominent minority student on a campus shaken by racial politics…. If he failed to use his office to criticize Harvard, Mr. Obama would anger black and liberal students; by speaking out, he would risk dragging himself and the review into the center of shrill debates. People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words…. According to Mr. Ogletree, students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side. “Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me,” he said…. Obama stayed away from the extremes… choosing safe topics for his speeches…. His speeches… were more memorable for style than substance…. Another of Mr. Obama’s techniques relied on his seemingly limitless appetite for hearing the opinions of others…. That could lead to endless debates… as well as some uncertainty about what Mr. Obama himself thought about… his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice…. “The things that make law school politics fractious are different from the things that make American politics fractious,” said Ron Klain, who preceded Mr. Obama at the law review and later served as Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff…. [Obama’s] “is that is a style of leadership more effective running a law review than running a country"

July 26, 2011
"“He then and now is very hard to pin down,” said Kenneth Mack, a classmate and now a professor at the law school, referring to the senator’s on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand style. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama, said, “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.”…"

July 25, 2011
Before the presidency

BARACK OBAMA: All my life, I have been stitching together a family, through stories or memories or friends or ideas. Michelle has had a very different background—very stable, two-parent family, mother at home, brother and dog, living in the same house all their lives. We represent two strands of family life in this country—the strand that is very stable and solid, and then the strand that is breaking out of the constraints of traditional families, travelling, separated, mobile. I think there was that strand in me of imagining what it would be like to have a stable, solid, secure family life.

Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she’s walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her. And then what sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.