The machines do not work as intended. They are always on the border of total breakdown, held together more by ingenuity than mechanical integrity. “As time goes by, one begins to have the impression that everything is already broken before it leaves the factory.” Even the handles of doors are chiefly decorative. This is the sketch with which Alfred Sohn-Rethel begins his essay “In Naples.”
Who needs a uniform? What does it mean to adopt one? And what connects people who dress the same? These questions were on the minds of entrants to the Swedish Royal Patriotic Society 1773 essay competition, which asked whether Swedes might benefit from sharing a costume, as well as a language and a territory.
I speak today of a secret vice. Rarely admitted, but relentlessly practiced. “The sin that everybody commits.”* No, not that one. A distinctly modern sin, made for (and perhaps made by) a modern consumer economy: envy.
How do buildings resist gravity? Or, for that matter, strong winds, weathering, tectonic shudders, and the seasonal heat and ice? The modern answer has two parts: a science of architecture and a craft of building. On one side, years studying drafting, structural theory, conservation science, and computer-aided design. On the other, years learning and refining the techniques of masonry or carpentry, plumbing or fitting.
Justice, when it comes, can be by act or omission. There are moments when the machinery of state moves to right inequity, and moments where it must relinquish power to do so. A case of the second kind occurred in May 1937, in Albany, seat of the New York Court of Appeals.
Just as the return leg of a journey seems shorter, as if the mental energy has already been spent on the outlay, and now you are being pulled magnetically back home, unpacking feels easier than packing. The difficult decisions are already made. Did I need that second whisk, or the book about Alexander von Humboldt? Either way, it’s too late.