Diary

Frank Kermode

Tony Smith, reviewing J.K. Oates’s Penguin on herpes (LRB, Vol. 5, No 9), sounded, thank God, a cheerful rather than a holy note. Far from being a divine visitation on lechery, herpes is a manageable minor affliction. It may, however, be easier for the righteous to approve, and more difficult for doctors to demythologise, the condition Dr Smith called ‘the gay compromise syndrome’, better-known as AIDS. This may sound like a brand name for an indigestion tablet, but it is an acronym for Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Unlike herpes, this disease is a killer: the normal defences of the body fail, and the patient is vulnerable to rare forms of cancer and other disastrous infections. It is said that 80 per cent of those diagnosed three years ago are now dead. They were practically all male homosexuals, Haitian immigrants, heroin addicts or haemophiliacs. Some at least of the Haitians are now known to have histories of homosexuality. Since the number of sufferers doubles every six months, the gay community is not unreasonable in talking about an epidemic. Nobody knows what the agent is, and nobody knows why the more promiscuous are likelier victims than the less.

The topic comes up with increasing frequency in the papers and on television, where one sees gay men in the act of mourning their friends and expressing understandable fears on their own account. So long as the disease affected only the groups specified above it was easy for everybody else to feel only disinterested compassion or schadenfreude: but it has now turned up in women who have had sex with gay men, and there are speculations that the agent may get transmitted in other than sexual ways. The possibility of a major epidemic is mentioned more often. Homosexuals and addicts are asked not to give blood for fear that the blood bank may be contaminated. Mayor Koch is setting up emergency centres. One hears of gay men who have resolved to give up cruising, or even to give up sex altogether, and of a famous woman writer in terror of her indispensable but gay manservant. Relatively few are afflicted, but the rate of increase is alarming – over five years every hundred turns into a million. No doubt the doctors will find out how it works, or perhaps the disease will simply disappear as inexplicably as it arrived.

The cities most afflicted are New York and San Francisco: Sodom, as you might say, and Gomorrah. It seems to me an urgent priority not to get sick in New York, even in a minor way. Recently I had an unwelcome opportunity to observe what was presumably a typical emergency ward scene. My wife, crossing Upper Broadway en route for an evening lecture, twisted her foot in one of those potholes for which Manhattan is famous. (‘Sue the City!’ cried the bystanders.) The foot hurt badly, and might be broken, so we took ourselves to the nearest hospital. There we were boorishly received, required to fill in forms expressing willingness to pay, and then neglected for three hours. A young doctor, sullen and swaggering, then ordered an X-ray and refused a painkiller. When we left it was midnight, and a black woman we had chatted with was still waiting, though she had been there before us. The bill came to $180, which must be about one hundred and fifteen pounds. As we walked out there was a sudden blattering din that made everybody jump. We asked the radiologist, who happened to be leaving at the same moment, what this horrifying noise signified. ‘You wouldn’t want to know,’ she said. One more inexplicable noise to add to all the others, the ambulances, fire-engines and police sirens, the public service vehicles that now make warning noises when they reverse, the burglar alarms, the horns blasting at every changing light, the car alarms that go off in the night and can’t be stopped. Only this one sounded like death.

It is exactly forty years since I was first in New York, and to an eye habituated to the squalor of wartime London the city looked dazzlingly bright and clean, but also overwhelmingly strange. Now it is none of these things – but only, perhaps, because as one grows older it comes to matter much less where one is, provided one can go on doing whatever it is that satisfactorily fills one’s days. The place I teach at, in 1968 the very symbol of the student-beleaguered university, is now, like all the others, full of students so anxious about the future that they have no time for demonstrations, even against the Reaganite cuts in university funding. The President recently received a report on educational standards which confirmed what most people already believed: namely, that there has been a serious decline in standards, and that American education compares badly with that of almost all other advanced nations. The President at once attributed this state of affairs to Federal interference in the educational process, and wants to end it, substituting a scheme whereby parents who send their children to private schools will get Federal support. The New York Times has been pointing out the absurdity of this position, but it will take more than that to persuade this administration to vary it. Meanwhile at my institution the students are often aware that they are ill-prepared, and always aware of the cost of the tuition at private ‘Ivy League’ colleges – around thirteen thousand dollars a year. So they are, rightly, very demanding, though what they especially demand is good grades. And when you see some of them flowering in the graduate school you have to allow that the four undergraduate years have enabled them at least to catch up with their European counterparts.

In fact, the range of reading and intellectual liveliness of these graduates is a constant surprise to me. In Britain we tend to think of such students as oppressed by poverty and the solitariness of their condition, having little social or intellectual contact even with their peers. Here the graduate classes are often very collaborative, and that can be entertaining for everybody. In one such class discussion turned, I forget quite how, to Heidegger’s unheimlich essay on ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in which he has a lot to say about a pair of boots painted by Van Gogh: a peasant woman’s boots, shaped so by their contact with Earth coming into Being, into World, in the painting, and so on. One student then cited an article by Meyer Shapiro which establishes beyond doubt that these boots belonged not to a peasant but to Van Gogh, and had got their shape from contact with the Paris pavements. Another immediately offered to say what it might have occurred to Heidegger to adduce in his defence against this apparently rather devastating criticism: he did so with a ventriloquial accuracy that made his impromptu intervention just about the most remarkable (and amusing) I have heard on such an occasion.

There are other satisfactions of a donnish sort. A casual chat in the corridor raises the question: what is the history of Johnson’s term discordia concors? Horace? Then notes appear, pinned to one’s door or sent by post: Horace, sort of; more surprisingly, Manilius, where the expression relates not to metaphors but to stars. Is there a remoter origin in the Empedoclean pair, harmony and discord? Inquiry establishes that there is no exactly comparable term in Greek. Perhaps the Johnsonians would know how the expression became available for familiar use in the ‘Life of Cowley’? Perhaps somebody should write, perhaps somebody has written, a history of the words? Are they accounted for in Leo Spitzer’s huge series of articles, ‘Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word Stimmung’? My notes on those articles, made over thirty years ago, are certainly not here, and may be lost. And anyway the satisfaction is social, not scholarly. Not that these categories can confidently be thought distinct. When Richard Wollheim and I agreed to do a double act at a lunchtime university seminar we were surprised to find that a very large number of people had turned up with their sandwiches: but they hadn’t come just for the company, and there were plenty of acute participants, armed with microphones, to keep us at it.

Of course, the city affords more refined and elegant pleasures. May was Alfred Brendel month: he played his Beethoven sonata cycle in seven recitals spread over about three weeks. I was at the first and the last. In between, despite the habitual coolness of some reviewers, there had evidently been a triumph, and for the seventh evening Carnegie Hall was packed, and there was a crowd of people behind the performer on the stage. When Op. 111 came to an end amid great enthusiasm – Brendel quite rightly declined encores – it was obvious that it had become the real right thing to catch this series. During the interval I stood in line for the men’s room with the philosopher Tom Nagel, the sociologist Richard Sennett, the poet Fred Seidel and the conservative sage William Buckley. I suppose Brendel’s intellectual and technical mastery is about the only kind to which sensible people of almost every description want to pay tribute, even if to do so involves a degree of ostentation of which the pianist himself is as it were divinely free. Here the layman feels at one with the professional. ‘In a performance like that,’ one pianist said to me, ‘you make about ten thousand decisions, and they won’t all be right, but with Brendel most of them are. He is the greatest living performer.’ And New York was also pleased that although he had played all the sonatas previously in 11 European cities, it was only here that he did them straight, in uninterrupted sequence, within a few days.