NR Digital

City Desk

In the Know

by Richard Brookhiser

‘You are in the seat the cardinal sat in when we had dinner here.” We were three, expecting a fourth. The fourth would be a lady, so we had already started drinking. We were perched on a little mezzanine, almost a balcony, of a dark midtown restaurant, composed of descending levels. Our host sat in the corner against the wall: banker’s suit, crisply parted hair, sharp features, sharp voice. He looked to the friend seated at his left and said, “You are in the seat the cardinal sat in when we had dinner here.”

What could be a better opening? We already knew several things without being told: Any cleric our host knew would be of this city, hence a figure in the church nationwide, first, because the city is a media echo chamber and bandstand, second because its archdiocese is the historic preserve, no, property, of Irish-Americans (the ethnicity of our host), who know how to keep things humming. Franciscans might have been baptizing Indians under the cacti centuries ago, but ever since the Irish met the city, this is where it’s been at, church-wise. But this was all background, set-up: We were to be told something new, a story, not secret exactly, but special. A story about what? Religion? Politics? Political religion? Religious politics? Gossip (least likely, but possible)? Either the story was something the cardinal had told our host, or something our host had told the cardinal (seeking confirmation), or something the two of them were somehow involved in in some other way. We would learn. Our host offered me some red wine, then turned to his friend. “You are in the seat the cardinal sat in when we had dinner here.”

One of the things we cherish about the city is the opportunity of being in the know. Everyone knows his own life, more or less (usually less). What else can we know? We can know what we read in the papers or on the start-up menu, or what we hear on Jon Stewart. But can you be satisfied with that dirty dishwater? Assuming the answer is no, we can inquire of the Internet, the great brain that contains everything. There we will find tiny, brightly lit chambers, buzzing with relevant information, but also bias, attitude, and lies. The exasperated spirit spends hours, evenings, lifetimes linking from prison to prison, trying to pull it all together. There is an alternative to ignorance and futility: the conversation, face to face, tête-à-tête (or at most aux-trois-têtes) with the one who says what he says because he himself knows it, and now wants you to know it too. “You are in the seat the cardinal sat in . . .”

Being in the know is not the same as being in with the in-crowd. The in-crowd is defined by fashion or taste: by being a step ahead (if you are a time snob) or a step up (if you are a quality snob). In-crowds congeal around shared appreciations: I have seen the YouTube diva, I worship the great artist. Screw that, say the knowledgeable. Those who are in the know are joined by the currency of information they pass from one to the other. Sometimes only a dime, a farthing, a mite changes hands. But every bit however small is real, and handling it makes you richer than those who are outside the know.

Organizations are mines of knowledge/money. Washington, D.C., is the Comstock lode, but its riches are all extracted and circulated by politicians. The city, because it is a real city, offers more variety. Politicians exchange knowledge here too, often of far-flung places (since politicians from the outlands so often come here to raise money). The Catholic Church looks at these transactions as at Tom Sawyer and his friends whitewashing the fence; it has been an organization for two thousand years (beat that for patina). Judaism is not an organization exactly, but it is a big family, riven into dozens of clans, many of which can’t stand each other, yet all of which seem to be aware of each other, from atheist anti-Zionists to bearded rebbes, and word gets around. Media, entertainment, sports, law, Wall Street, gaylandia — the options wink off into the distance, like stops on the A train.

Historically one of the subjects most worth knowing was gossip — the personal business, erotic or financial, of someone behind whose back the knowledge was imparted. We live in inflationary times, however, when people who would once have been the victims of gossip have become the stars (and producers) of their own dramas of exposure. John Edwards is perhaps the last American who did not want something about himself to be known; anyone else would have filmed the whole saga on his iPhone and sent it straight to Facebook. The moment knowledge is common, it stops being of interest to those who are in the know.

The most knowing writer in history was probably Saint-Simon, the meticulous duke who recorded everything he saw and heard in the reign of Louis XIV and the regency of Louis XV, from the War of the Spanish Succession to the bowel movements of a fellow duke (it takes too long to explain, but you can find the episode early in the Memoirs). Next to Saint-Simon, Proust seems lazy and wordy — and he had the advantage of making it all up. Saint-Simon’s great predecessor in the ancient world was Plutarch. Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus feel obliged to hammer what they know into narratives; The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans just gives us the goods.

We believe what the knowers tell us because that is how we first learned anything: Mom put us on her lap, Dad sat beside the bed, and said: “In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk . . .”

Our host and the cardinal? I could tell you what they said to each other, but I am not sure they would want you to know.

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