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Washington Diarist: Against the Plane

"Does the Magazine have an ideology?" This is the fine question that the editor of The New York Times Magazine attempted to answer last week. "At the risk of giving some of my colleagues hives," Gerald Marzorati wrote online, "I think it does." Good! A dissent, and a promise of seriousness. And then there followed this, which historians of culture may one day find useful:

Call it Urban Modern. That is, I think it reflects not a left-or-right POLITICAL ideology but a geographical one, the mentality of the place [sic] it is created: 21st Century Manhattan. So: the Magazine reflects a place where women have professional ambition, where immigrants are welcome, and where gays and lesbians can be themselves (if not marry, yet). The Magazine also reflects a place where being rich is not a bad thing, where fashion is not a sign of superficiality, and where individualism is embraced. Here, arguing is not bad manners. Here, a chief way of loving your hometown is criticizing it: For, say, not doing enough for those (children, the poor, the homeless) who are most vulnerable. Here, art is never spoken of in moral terms, and most aspects of everyday life--food and drink and bathroom fixtures--are mostly spoken of in aesthetic terms. And here, as E.B. White famously wrote, it tends to be those who come from elsewhere full of longing who make the place what it is. More generally, we reflect a place where change is not a threat, where doubt and complexity are more TRUE than certainty, and where most everything non-criminal is tolerated--except a bad haircut.

No dissent, then, and no seriousness. This anthropological jewel (which is an injustice to some of the magazine’s writers and editors) represents instead a flight from both. Urban Modern? That is not ideology, it is interior design. Marzorati’s credo is yet another expression of the adoration of Manhattan by Manhattan, though he does neglect to mention that if you can make it there you can make it anywhere; and it is also more Times happy talk about itself. (The good cheer of the paper’s managers is beginning to sound a little psychotic.) More interestingly, what is being celebrated here is the ideology of no ideology--the ascendancy of the Nora Ephron view of the world, which may be succinctly described as "food and drink and bathroom fixtures." What moves such a heart most (aside from children, the poor, and the homeless) are amenities and trivialities. The conferring of importance upon the unimportant, and of unimportance upon the important: this is a mark of decadence, the cognitive inversion of people who live "mostly in aesthetic terms" because they have secured themselves materially--or so they would like to believe—against philosophy and pain. They live for lightness and distraction. Their laughter is the sound of luck. They acquit themselves of their intellectual obligations with opinions. The anxiety that arguing may be bad manners is plausibly held by someone whose primary arena of political action may be the dinner party. (Darling, were we wrong about Obama?) And fashion, a sign of superficiality? Never! I saw how Malvin poured his soul into his hen-like maternity design. It was WRENCHING. Perhaps I am mistaking Manhattan for its media, which is of course a common Manhattan mistake; but neither the reality nor the representation seems able to acknowledge, for example, that Anna Wintour is the most boring person on earth.

I understand that The New York Times Magazine is not Mind, and it is certainly less pornographic about luxury than it used to be, though this may have more to do with budgets than with sensibilities; but all this jolly vacuity, this strident insistence upon silliness, this elevation of little things into big things, this insouciant defense of slackening (how else defend it?), gets me down. The pleasure of little things is owed in part to their littleness: ruin the scale and you ruin the experience. Real aesthetes know this. Marzorati’s manifesto has a quality of release about it, as if he has been given permission, and is passing the permission along, to free himself from an old ranking of values, from what used to matter but does no more. He is not alone in his feeling of relief. It is one of the characteristics of American culture now. It is sometimes mistaken for a freshness of perspective, a new critical standpoint, but there is nothing fresh about easing up and it is the antithesis of criticism, or the kind of criticism that discomfits powers and platitudes. For instance: when Marzorati jauntily protests that in Manhattan being rich is not a bad thing, it has the effect of concealing that in Manhattan being poor is a bad thing. That is how high spirits work in hard times. And what is so terrifying about seriousness, anyway? I like to think of it as nothing more than proof of consciousness. Happy is the man whose worst misfortune is a bad haircut, but no such man lives. There is only so much trivialization that a mind can withstand before it loses its capacity for judgment, its existential competence. Does Marzorati believe that America is suffering from a surfeit of seriousness? Is he fearful about the fate of fun? But it is possible, I swear, to be heavy and hilarious. Urban Modern is neither.

Why would one wish to be so completely saturated in one’s own society, so thoroughly absorbed into one’s own setting? In a small room at the National Gallery the other day, I had a lesson in the principle of standing out. Both of Tullio Lombardo’s uncanny double-portrait busts of mysterious and beautiful young people, a man and a woman, are there. The marble is carved in excitingly high relief--so high that, in the one called simply "A Couple," from around 1495, the necks are completely extracted from the ground, and light sneaks through some of the man’s wild curls. The figures seem almost to be free-standing, but of course they are not. They are merely asserting the greatest degree of autonomy consistent with what they are. The work is an unforgettable emblem of separation without severance. About this masterpiece, the catalog nicely observes that the figures "seem to strain against the plane from which they emerge." One should strain against the plane. We can do better, and be more, than low relief. The strain against the plane is one of the supreme achievements of the spirit, the one we call detachment.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

By Leon Wieseltier