This past Sunday was the second in Advent, the one devoted to the voice that crieth in the wilderness. Being in that business myself, I knelt in Grace Church and prayed peace for the restless soul of William Hazlitt. I’ve been reading in and about the great English essayist recently. It all started when I was perusing the most grotesque site (sight?) on the web, David Patrick Columbia’s New York Social Diary (www.newyorksocialdiary.com), which daily presents (under the rubric “Party Pictures”) a Grand Guignol that calls itself “Society.” If character is, as they say, destiny, this is what the Bright Young Things will look like in 30-40 years.
It is a riveting physiognomic and sartorial argument for whatever one might call the tax-bracket equivalent of genocide: a ringing summons to all good persons to start sharpening the pikestaffs and oiling the wheels of the tumbrels.
Anyway, among the varicose curiosities on view, I spotted a photo of the former editorial director of an important publishing house, a face that reminded me that it had been far, far too long since I’d last reread Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” (in The Plain Speaker , 1826). Here is a passage that helps explain the behavior of the talking-head class in the wake of the election: “…meek Christian divines cast those who differ from them but a hair’s breadth, body and soul, into hell-fire, for the glory of God and the good of His creatures! It is well that the power of such persons is not co-ordinate with their wills: indeed, it is from the sense of their weakness and inability to control the opinions of others, that they thus ‘outdo termagant,’ and endeavor to frighten them into conformity by big words and monstrous denunciations.”
I suppose when we pray for others, we pray for ourselves, or parts thereof. Of Hazlitt, De Quincey wrote: “His inveterate misanthropy was constitutional. Exasperated it certainly had been by accidents of life, by disappointments, by mortifications, by insults and still more by having willfully placed himself in collision from the first with all the interests that were in the sunshine of the world, and of all the persons that were then powerful in England….”
Words at least in part applicable, in his own view as well as that of others, to the author of this column.
I prayed peace also for the shade of Joe DiMaggio, subject of a meaninglessly mean-spirited biography by Richard Ben Cramer. I don’t care what Joe D. did in his grown-up life, because this is what I once saw and never, ever–not to this day–have forgotten: It was 1946 or 1947, the first time I went to Yankee Stadium, a boy of 10 or 11. The pinstripers were playing I don’t know who, maybe the old Philadelphia A’s, with Connie Mack still managing in braces and boater.
In the bottom of the first, the Yankee Clipper hit the ball into the alley in left center. He rounded first in full stride, effortless, powerful, above all smooth (the way Robert Smith of the Vikings runs reminds me of Joe D.). Five yards from second, he began to slide, then–halfway into the slide–he must have realized that he had the throw beaten, and as his momentum continued, he began to come upright again, so that when his feet touched the bag, he was standing erect, not a speck of dust on his pinstripes. It was a single continuous move of a seamless grace and elegance whose like I have never seen anywhere since, not from Nureyev, or Jim Brown breaking a big one against the Giants, not even the perfection of style attained by Donovan Bailey in his world-record 100-meter triumph in the 1996 Olympics. In my mind’s eye, I see that moment still; it is a memory distillate for me with all the joy and expectation of boyhood, and I’m sure it will flash by at the last.
Joe D. was, in his chosen line of work, the most elegant performer, with the most absolute sense of where things stood at the instant, that I could ever hope to see. He deserves better than to have the likes of Richard Ben Cramer rooting around in his afterlife like a pig after crusts. Memories of the man on the field are a tonic for the fan at a time when the Heisman Trophy goes to a 28-year-old ex-professional-baseball player.
I prayed peace, and something more, for this nation, obviously. As this is being written, the Supreme Court has rejected the Florida re-counts 5-4 and awaits further arguments on the issue. The decision will presumably be published by the time this is. It is a despicable moment in our history.
The Court seems to be completely politicized, which is something no American can want, no matter where sympathies lie. By applying it nonstop to the meaningless and the marginal–as we have emptied out so many other useful terms and concepts–we have drained the word “partisan” of its bite, and therefore its utility. But this is partisanship of a sort I had hoped never to see: the Court exercising its power on behalf of a party, not of an ideal, less in the name of law than a claim to turf. In what the Bush-knockers can now, with some legitimacy, claim to validate their worst Supreme Court fears, Justice Scalia and his colleagues in the majority seem not only to have taken a view on the Florida situation, but to have cast their votes for a future Court composed entirely of their ilk. This is a terrible business, and it may just be the beginning of this nation’s end–as foretold by T.S. Eliot: not with a bang, but a whimper. This is why one prays, silently. What is needed at this season is more of God in our hearts and minds, less of Him in our mouths.
How long a democracy–this democracy–can continue without a great cause to pull it together is always a question. We have disenfranchised war, apparently, as such a cause, and the loathsome Clintons have negated exemplarity as a guiding principle for the Presidency, unless your notion of “principle” is to lie to Congress, cheat on your spouse, and to step aside and let capital call all the shots, which not even my friends of The Wall Street Journal editorial page advocate.
I have no love for George W. Bush and his family. I didn’t vote for him. My Gore problem is with the sort of folks whose sort of folks Al Gore is. They are “superior” people–at least in the view of their mirrors and their publicists. Most are Clinton-lovers for whom Mr. Clinton’s “presence” and “charisma” and “charm” excuse the man’s strutting dishonor and dishonesty. I scorn their thinking. I spit on their belief that “If everyone’s cheating, no one is” is a viable theory of democratic government as long as it’s presented effectively: that is, with charm, with “presence.” William Jefferson Clinton is a lying, corrupt, cynical man, a golf cheat in the bargain, and the historical goodnight into which he will shortly go will not be gentle with him. His wife’s time is still to come–but if you believe that character is destiny, as I do, then, when her moment finally arrives (as it surely will), Hillary Agonistes will be a joy to behold.
But enough of Christmas cheer! Here endeth the goodwill part of this Yuletide sermon. Blessed it is to give, and a pleasure it is to receive a gift well-given–that is, a gift made with some awareness of who the recipient really is. I know a little bit about a couple of things. If you know someone to whom these things–the book life and golf–matter, here are some gift ideas on which I’ll wager house, car and boat.
For some time now, the best book critic in America has been Michael Dirda of The Washington Post . His essays make one want to jump up and read the books and authors he writes about; they are like haloes of insight and information. Indiana University Press has published a fine collection of his stuff: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments (available online; Madison Avenue Bookshop has copies). The book lover who will kiss your feet for Mr. Dirda will do so twice over if gifted with a subscription to Susan Hill’s delicious Books and Company , published quarterly in England (www.booksandcompany.co.uk, or call 011-44-01386-593352), the bibliophilic equivalent of a dazzling smorgasbord or antipasto. If you have a friend with a serious library, he or she simply must have one of the limited-edition photographs of books by Fawn Potash (published in editions of fifteen at $1,200 a print.) These are on show at Chartwell Booksellers (55 East 52nd Street, 308-0643), one of the town’s most interesting book shops. Potash’s photos have the qualities one looks for in painted still-lifes by American masters like Harnett and Peto, at 1,000th of the price.
At Chartwell, as well as online, you can find The Missing Links: America’s Greatest Lost Golf Courses & Holes by Daniel Wexler (Sleeping Bear Press). The title is self-explanatory. This is one of four titles unreservedly recommended for the stocking or tree of the person who really loves and understands golf. Such people do not want phony neo-Zen “motivational” crap knocked off from the execrable Golf in the Kingdom , “Six Sigma golf,” as it were; they find John Feinstein tiresome; they hope Bagger Vance falls in a canal and drowns as dead as he did at the box office. What they will appreciate are books about such stuff as golfers’ dreams are truly made on: books like Mr. Wexler’s, like Geoff Shackelford’s The Golden Age of Golf Design (Sleeping Bear Press), like Anthony Edgeworth’s Legendary Golf Clubs of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland (Edgeworth Editions), which takes the reader inside Swinley Forest, a club so exclusive its members can hardly find it, and–finally–like the absolutely hyper-splendid updated, re-illustrated The Story of American Golf 1888-1941 by Herbert Warren Wind, newly published by Callaway Editions. Mr. Wind’s great book, the closest our game has to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in sweep, eloquence and magnificence of subject, is in two volumes, of which the first has appeared and the second will come shortly. Give the first along with a certificate for the second. You will be kissed. You will be blessed. God help us, every one!