An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Alain de Botton’s poor parties

Posted in Books by Frieda on May 28, 2010


Today in the Guardian the popular philosopher, Alain de Botton, was the subject of an aggressive attack. He was interviewed in the Times about his ideal dinner party, and revealed that he buys ready-meals to feed his guests. He also likes his guests to be vulnerable, and here things get complicated, or maybe just plain patronising. Without his oversight, he thinks that conversation would be boring, so he asks people questions: “What’s everyone afraid of at the moment?” or “Why have you come out tonight?” or “What’s the point in your life?”

Why not get straight to the point?

The Guardian’s food blogger rightly took him to task for serving up pre-prepared Marks & Spencers fodder, and for dividing up a measly two bottles of wine between eight people.

Infinitely more surprising to me, since I’m a former a classicist and de Botton is after all a philosopher, is his failure to note the dinner party’s philosophical pedigree. How could he forget! Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, Athenaeus and Aulus Gellius all staged symposia, using the dinner-party to showcase intellectual bickering, Socratic brilliance, discussion, and argument.

De Botton thinks everyone should contribute to conversation (an idea of Plato’s and of Plutarch). So far so good. But vulnerability shouldn’t be dragged from guests by questions, it should organically peep into life. Plutarch, my most beloved ancient sage, advised giving extra wine to shy people, and mixing water into the drinks of  rowdier guests. In Plutarch’s Table Talks (at nine books, it’s well worth a read) the questions for discussion arise from the spirited conversation itself.

My favourite Plutarchan question is Concerning the Suitable Time for Coition in book 3. It’s actually a group of young men that bring up the subject. They’re horrified because Epicurus introduced the “unseemly” topic in his Symposium (note, Mr. de Botton, Epicurus wrote about dinner-parties as well). A doctor called Zopyrus contradicts the modest youngsters, suggesting that it’s only right and proper for a philosopher to talk about such matters. “For my part,” he says, “I wish that Zeno had put his remarks on ‘thigh-spreading’ in the playful context of some dinner-party piece and not in his Government, a work which aims at such great seriousness.”

Philosophical conversation doesn’t have to be about deep subjects like life and death. Philosophers should not start tedious arguments (I paraphrase Plutarch) or make people uncomfortable. Plutarch prefers to sprinkle philosophy in with seriousness so he can teach his subject subtly. Even the imposing Plato makes the comic playwright Aristophanes a character at his Symposium, to brighten the narrative.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that de Botton’s parties don’t sound like that much fun. De B. doesn’t drink, he says; he likes to set friends up but often one person takes advantage of the other. And he ends with this: “I think the ideal note a dinner party should end on is everyone feeling that we should all live in a commune, or couples going away thinking: ‘It’s so much better to be in a big group than just us.’

Compare and contrast Xenophon, 4th century BC: at the end of his Symposium, an actor and actress perform a risque erotic scene, showing Dionysus making love to Ariadne, and mixing representation with reality. It’s so highly charged that afterwards the guests all rush off home: “Whilst those of them who were unmarried swore that they would wed, those who were wedded mounted their horses and galloped off to join their wives, in quest of married joys.”


Marilyn & a subway fire

Posted in Books by Frieda on March 11, 2010

Norma Jeane Mortensen, AKA Marilyn Monroe

I’ve always thought that February is the cruelest month, not April as TS Eliot suggested. When I began this blog I promised myself I’d write at least one post a week and last month I wrote just one in all. I put it down to turmoil — some romantic kerfuffles, and my first ever time getting laid off. My February was exciting, but frankly, a bit traumatizing. It’s amazing how in New York drama can happen before you’ve even gotten out of bed. My layoff came in the form of an email (I was still in my pyjamas) asking, “did you get the email saying I don’t need you to work any more?” I hadn’t.

But it really is spring now, so this month I’ll write more. I’ve just finished reading a book about Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates, called Blonde, and I’ve been thinking about how personal information is often so much more interesting than history. Or even than reality. Blonde is fictional, although Oates does draw on history. Her account’s a bit overdone at times – for instance, when Arthur Miller comes downstairs in the middle of the night to find Monroe, who was then his wife, munching on a bloody raw hamburger, her eyes gleaming like a cat’s; and the unlikely end, which I won’t spoil for you – but it’s also an entrancing story. It portrays the actress as a vulnerable, wounded creature who is destroyed by the world, and especially by men.

It was probably a bad book for me to read last month. Oates draws absolute boundaries between the sexes, and they never succeed in working anything out – men pursue Marilyn but also hate and despise her. She craves love and affection but when she has it at her fingertips, she blithely throws it away. Could there be something about this that’s cultural, an American phenomenon? I do think the sexes are more divided here.

Oates directs readers who want to know the truth towards historical accounts, so this portrayal of Marilyn is not necessarily fully accurate. But how precise can you be in a retrospective of a person’s life, whether it’s your own or someone else’s? Plutarch, the great ancient biographer, famously remarked in the prologue to his Life of Alexander, that anecdotes reveal more about a person than historical achievements. He often stretched time and inserted events of dubious veracity when it suited characterization or the moral of the tale.

March has seen the publication of my erstwhile boss’s memoir, “An Irish Voice” (note: the layoff was for financial reasons; and I still work freelance for his company). The book promises to reveal some of the secrets behind the Northern Irish peace-process, in which he was involved, and about my boss’s life as an Irish immigrant in the States in the 1980s. Most interesting to me, though, was news of “his private wrestling bouts with the demons of sex, loneliness, drink, depression and poverty.” Gosh!

Why does personal info. hold so much appeal for readers? Maybe it’s because intimate revelations arouse both voyeurism and schadenfreude. More edifyingly, Plutarch might say the lives of others give us examples, showing us how to live — and how not to.

And the subway fire: that was early March. One of my greatest fears is to perish by fire in a small, crowded space, so I was alarmed last week when, after a long delay stuck underground, the train conductor stepped out of his office to announce, “There’s a fire at Bergen Street station. I may have to switch on the XX [some technical thing] so that you all don’t start choking with the smoke.”

I looked anxiously at everyone around me, and kept doing that for a while. After another scary announcement, the conductor said we’d be continuing towards Bergen Street. This seemed like the wrong direction to me.

We trundled on through the tunnel and nothing happened. So the lesson is: subway fires may sound terrifying, but if you happen to be on the New York underground, don’t worry. As for personal details and public confidences: well, it turns out I feature in a fashion blog today in a piece on what bloggers wear when blogging, and I think that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go in showing or telling all. The pics are not too revealing, but you could say they’re a little personal. I’m hard at work! Ie. in a cafe, and in bed (You’ve to scroll down).

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