Poor Alfred Taubman Is Getting a Big Shaft

On the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 17, with a convincing victory over Yale, Harvard concluded its first unbeaten season since 1913 and also won the Ivy League Championship. That is a considerable step forward, and an occasion for rejoicing among all those who love and care about the great institution on the bank of the Charles River and what it has meant, on balance, to American life. Despite being a Yale alumnus, I count myself one of those. Harvard has much to answer for, starting with the Business School, but many, too, are its undoubted glories, and I salute them.

But what the Crimson giveth, the Crimson taketh away. That very same morning, The New York Times practically gasped with orgasmic excitement in reporting at length on another Harvard triumph: the appointment to a tenured professorship of one Homi K. Bhabha, a well-known spouter of multiculturist twaddle, bunkum and flapdoodle, formerly of the (it figures!) University of Chicago. This is an appointment that henceforth obliges us to capitalize the “cant” in “Cantabrigian.” I have had my eye on this Bhabha for some time now, since I encountered him by chance on that invaluable Web site, Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com), and his stuff has to be read to be believed. He makes Derrida and Foucault sound like Orwell. Do you remember the ridiculous diction affected by the late Alec Guinness in the role of Professor Godbole in A Passage to India ? Mr. Bhabha to the life! And now Godbole’s back, and Harvard’s got him!

I would urge any Harvard alumnus tempted to write a generous check to the alma mater to reconsider, and replace pen in vest pocket without signing. I have noted in this space the leadership role Harvard graduates are playing in the dumbing down of America, which is perhaps the supreme irony of the Age of Irony. Professor Godbole/Bhabha’s addition to fair Harvard’s faculty burnishes the prospect that this trend will continue.

Now what else is going on?

First, a newspaper report about a screenwriter with the same name as I have attending the Alfred Taubman trial to gather material, and boasting that he’s there “to watch them squirm.” That’s not me. That Michael Thomas writes mediocre movies; I write mediocre novels. Besides, I’m on record as writing that I think my old friend Lord Tubman is being shafted. The government’s case is exactly the same as the one against the investment-banking companies that Judge Medina threw out some 50 years ago (see the Goldman Sachs–Lehman Brothers “treaty”). The auction industry is a business in which collusive but harmless behavior has been normal practice for the better part of a century-it is not by accident that the houses matched each others’ commission schedules and sweetheart deals for major consignors (none of whom seem to be suing)-but was only recently determined to be dangerous. Of course, in a civil action-which is where this should have stopped-damages have to be proved, whereas in a criminal proceeding, which this is, retribution will have its day.

Moving on, let me again urge you to go see John Koch: Painting A New York Life , at the New-York Historical Society until the end of January. This is a show whose “uncanny beauty” has been mentioned by New York , and which The New Yorker praised as a delight for viewers who are not strict modernists. In a full-length review, Newsday ‘s critic, Ariella Budick, emphasized the artist’s “poetic nostalgia,” which in these harried times is a quality many will rejoice in.

For some reason, although the show has been open for five weeks as of this writing, The Times has not seen fit to mention it. I suspect this omission may in some part reflect the paper’s kindly wish to protect the critical (sic) reputation of its veteran third-string art writer, Grace Glueck. When Ms. Glueck not long ago reviewed the Las Vegas exhibition of the collection of actor-writer Steve Martin, who is highly regarded in the art world for the astuteness of his “eye,” she attacked two Koch paintings owned by Mr. Martin with a rancor so out of proportion that it smacked of the personal, of an expression not of critical judgment but of payback for some slight, social or otherwise. Rather in the Balkan style, in the way that one Albanian will walk into another’s Queens tailor shop in 2001 and shoot the latter dead in revenge for an ancestor-to-ancestor insult supposedly tendered in Tirana back in 1886. John and Dora Koch led a busy, selective social life (documented in his impressive salon pictures), entertaining well and widely; invitations to their lunch and cocktail parties were avidly sought after, but not everyone can be invited to everything …. Well, it does make one wonder.

On the other hand, neglect of the Koch exhibition may simply be a consequence of The Times ‘ effort to remake itself as a “national” paper at the cost of some neglect of its local connections. Nowhere does one see this more than in its obituaries. Today, one may die after decades and decades of a productive or interesting New York life and receive no Times recognition at all, apart from a paid death notice inserted by family or philanthropic connection; but let someone die who attended a

human-rights rally in Kuala Lumpur in 1974 and-bingo!-three or four column inches. Whatever the reason, it will be a pity if an exhibition that many people have enjoyed, at one of the city’s most valuable cultural institutions, should be overlooked by thousands more who rely on the city’s “paper of record” to keep them abreast of events of either special artistic or “New York” interest and who would, I’m sure, enjoy the Koch show, which is both of these. Do go see and enjoy this exhibition. In its own right, it is satisfying in both an artistic and a documentary sense, and it makes a nice counterpoint to the Norman Rockwell show at the Guggenheim.

Finally, to end on a positive note, there are no words to express the authorial and paternal pride I feel at watching Time War-ner trumpet its Harry Potter “franchise.” After all, it was yours truly who first made Walter Isaacson aware of Harry’s very existence, in Canio’s book shop in Sag Harbor on a pleasant June morning in 1999. When I learned that Walter was looking for a book for his daughter, I immediately cried out, ” Harry Potter !” To which Walter replied, “Who?”-the sort of response one gives when one’s common-cultural nerve ends have been cauterized by a searing ambition to cut it with the Four Seasons crowd.

But two months later, Harry was on the cover of Time . The rest is “franchise.” Under the circumstances, it would be coarse to observe that Time Warner’s numerous publishing imprints must have been among the uncounted number of houses here that rejected J. K. Rowling’s first Harry book four years ago, leaving it to be picked up by my Exeter classmate Dick Robinson’s Scholastic publishing house for peanuts.

Speaking of which, I do have one interesting thought about Harry . Titanic ‘s record gross was achieved thanks to repeat viewings by teenage girls. But teenage girls can go to movie theaters by themselves, which Harry ‘s 9-12 core audience cannot; nor does the latter pay full price, which the over-13’s do. Even allowing for adult-supervised theater parties of five to 10 kids, how many grown-ups will suffer repeat visits to a 150-minute kids’ movie about which adult reviewers have been so-so? On the other hand, Tom King’s invaluable film-biz column in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal quoted a purported adult who stated, with the fierce, firm purpose of Lars Porsena (“By the Nine Gods he swore it,” etc.-go look it up), that he and his children, including a college-sophomore son, intend to see Harry twice or more-which is further cause to fear for the spiritual future of this great republic. Is Homi K. Bhabha perhaps involved?

Still, this suggests that Harry ‘s theatrical gross may come in slightly less than expected (the opening weekend, although the biggest ever for any film, surprised many by failing to crack $100 million), although obviously the video/DVD sell-through will be huge !

And that’s that. I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving. Including most, but not all, of those mentioned above.

Poor Alfred Taubman Is Getting a Big Shaft