Monday, 12 December 2022
‘Twas a day meant to be at work and it was, mostly, although professional plans this week were slightly stirred by the news that one of our legal team was home with a case of this decade’s most talked about respiratory infection. What that means for the work scheduled for this week and my itinerary for the rest of the trip is unclear. I spent the morning clearing my work inbox and had a sushi lunch with another of the lawyers, a thirtyish Mainer, which provided me with my first opportunity to ask the consuming question of the trip – what does an intelligent and educated citizen of this country and observer of its national politics feel in his bowels when he contemplates the stability of its constitutional order? My colleague seems, indeed describes himself as, cautiously optimistic, which is some way short of the reflexive rejection of the notion of any real threat to democracy that many of us have taken for granted all of our lives, but perhaps it will have to do. My impression is that my interlocutor is, like his adoptive city, sensitive, engaged and fairly solidly Democratic, and he notes the solid response of even this Supreme Court to the legal challenges to the last election. One prays, or does whatever it is one does when one has no one to pray to, that he is right, of course, but then the last election was not close, and the real challenge in a future close one may not be, or may not exclusively be, brought by lawyers in courtrooms. It was from Masha Gessen that I first heard the phrase “your institutions will not save you”, although I doubt the thought was original to them.
After American politics, a short conversation on Australian ditto offered the perfect opportunity, immediately spurned, to keep my promise to myself that I will not, on this trip, offer any comments that might be construed as a comparison between the nations. I mentioned the beneficial effect, as I see it, of compulsory voting, in driving the political contest, and rhetoric, away from the extremes. We ruminated together on what a turnout of less than 50% says about the political health of any democracy.
After lunch, some more bits and professional pieces until I stole the last hour of the business day by nicking off to the Museum of Modern Art, as good a place as any to contemplate the end of the world. Not enough time, but no amount could be, and after a short stint behaving like every art gallery attendee ever – strolling at a leisurely pace between the various works, pausing at times to broadcast a suitable air of contemplation – I responded to the obvious absurdity of trying to take in the contents of a six storey display of challenging, at times radical, creativity by plonking myself down in front of a single piece, almost at random, and seeing what might be gained by ignoring the rest of the world for a while. The Charnel House by Picasso, as it happened, an artist I have not previously connected with, much. I chose well. Requiring no essay on its coded allegories or a detailed understanding of an alien time, place and social context with which the work might be in conversation (there being, in Paris in 1944/5, only one context worth a damn, the very edge and end of life and civilisation), I could contemplate the work as a work of visual art, consider its form, its bulk and mass, the naturalism hiding in its twisted figures, the depiction of the peace of death as well as its grotesqueness. Brutality contains its own end, for what is more peaceful than a graveyard? I was aided, too, no doubt, by its nearly monotone palette, comforted that I was (challenged as I am in that regard) not missing any subtlety of colour or message sought to be conveyed thereby. I sat for twenty minutes and left refreshed.
And went to scratch an itch. Enough flavourless sausages and bland Chinese. Either the United States has performed a miracle by accepting immigrants from every culinary tradition in the world and made the melting pot the lowest of common denominators or, surely far more likely, I had just made some completely crap decisions about where to eat so far. Tang must be out there and it would be found, and when desperate, one turns to the trustiest and most familiar of tools. I would find a curry and I would murder it. And I did. And it was delicious. I got tips from the youngsters at the neighbouring table about tipping appropriately, ate two enormous courses and walked out into the night, only a slight tickle in my throat as I breathed the cold air to mar a general feeling of goodwill towards the universe.