Among other things, I come to beg for donations. Once again, I am thisclose to being completely broke. The single credit card I use to purchase life's "necessities" is unusable for now; until I decrease the outstanding balance, credit is one attribute singularly absent from the card's capacities. No more groceries shall be delivered here; the food already on the premises will last for a week, perhaps two. (The cats have food for months and months; they live large, as cats must.) I have $80 in my wallet. Several August bills must be paid fairly soon. I managed the rent, just, and thanks only to the generosity of several of you.
I know the writing has been close to non-existent recently. One major reason for that has been two very bad health scares in the last month. I almost called 911 on both occasions; if the crises had continued for several more minutes, I almost certainly would have, despite the horrifying subjugations that followed my last such call. You do not ever want to go into a hospital without a personal physician to look out for your well-being as best she can. You truly don't. But if you might well die otherwise, well ... then we certainly don't grin, unless it is to make reception of our screams less likely to deliver us into the hands of psychiatric quacks, but we try to bear it. Strategically delivered screams (at least in the sense of a voice raised sufficiently to make the health sadists pause in their grisly work) offer some minimal protection in the absence of a personal physician; such, at least, has been my experience.
So, health scares. They unnerve me; when they're very bad (one episode was, the other episode a close runnerup), they unnerve me for a few weeks. Hence my silence here. I realize some writers are compelled to document experiences of this kind: "As I was unable to breathe, as I felt the irregular, racing beats of my weakening heart in my ears, I became again the humiliated child at the amusement park who was unable to navigate the spinning barrel, forcing the operator to shut it down so that he could escape..." Or, in a variant even less welcome in these precincts: "As the realization of death's possibly irresistible approach overcame me, I grasped the real evil of the criminals who rule us, who seek to deprive the undesirables of all possibilities for life and happiness, even of life itself..." A so-called writer who requires the real-life approach of a terminating personal event to understand that
suffers from a pathetically limited imaginative gift, at a minimum. And one wonders -- I
wonder -- if such a writer is capable of understanding anything at all.
The amusement park incident happened to me, but I remember it in the normal glare of any ordinary day. The possible arrival of a heart attack is not required to prompt the memory. The experience of what might prove to be a fatal crisis is not conducive to the scrabbling journey toward a glimpse of some shred of truth, perhaps one not seen before, at least not for me. In a similar way, even though I am now overly familiar with living on the edge of financial calamity, the approach of the final zeroing out of all financial resources tends to inhibit my cobbling together of mordant thought.
However. While I find extreme crisis inhibiting rather than freeing insofar as the act of writing is concerned, I conclude that fundamental dispossession in some form is necessary for good work. The dispossession need not be physical or financial, although it often takes those forms. It might be psychological: the writer (or more generally, the artist) stands apart from, outside of the culture in which he lives. In some basic way, he does not belong.
Those who succeed in being a part of the world, those who fit in, lack a reason for questioning too deeply, for examining too closely. Why would they engage in pursuits that are sure to be upsetting, to themselves as well as to others, and that are likely to be greeted with disfavor, if they are noticed at all? They are far too busy being comfortable.
In one sense, I do not criticize such people. Life is hard enough. If a person finds himself existing in comfort, the greatest incentive is not to move, not to upset the delicate balance that has granted him respite from the horrors that might lie beyond the door. (I do not refer here to those who live in excessive comfort. Excessive
comfort is never achieved innocently. Someone has paid for it; most commonly, many people have paid for it. Those who live in excessive comfort deserve nothing but
In certain respects, Gore Vidal lived in great comfort. A paradise such as a cliffside villa in Italy overlooking the sea hardly signifies a life of deprivation. Vidal lived amidst privilege and access. He frequently gloried in that privilege and access, an attribute I find enormously unattractive. And yet, in significant ways, he did not belong
Mr. Vidal attended St. Albans School in Washington, where he lopped off his Christian names and became simply Gore Vidal, which he considered more literary-sounding. Though he shunned sports himself, he formed an intense romantic and sexual friendship — the most important of his life, he later said — with Jimmie Trimble, one of the school’s best athletes.
Trimble was his “ideal brother,” his “other half,” Mr. Vidal said, the only person with whom he ever felt wholeness. Jimmie’s premature death at Iwo Jima in World War II at once sealed off their relationship in a glow of A. E. Housman-like early perfection, and seemingly made it impossible for Mr. Vidal ever to feel the same way about anyone else. ...
In 1948 Mr. Vidal published “The City and the Pillar,” which was dedicated to J. T. (Jimmie Trimble). It is what would now be called a coming-out story, about a handsome, athletic young Virginia man who gradually discovers that he is homosexual. By today’s standards it is tame and discreet, but at the time it caused a scandal and was denounced as corrupt and pornographic. Mr. Vidal later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, The New York Times especially, had blacklisted him because of the book, and he may have been right. He had such trouble getting subsequent novels reviewed that he turned to writing mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box and then, for a time, gave up novel-writing altogether. To make a living he concentrated on writing for television, then for the stage and the movies.
admission that Vidal "may have been right" about the blacklisting that had been led by the Times
itself is, I suppose, about as much as one might have expected. Vidal was
right, of course. Not only did the Times
refuse to review Vidal's later novels -- until the quality of his work made that prohibition unworkable and, more importantly, until Vidal had been punished sufficiently in the view of our culture's guardians -- but, as one writer on an email list of mine recalled, the Times
would not even permit advertising
for Vidal's work to appear in its pages. The press in the United States has never been "free," except for those with the greatest power and wealth, and it was and is "free" only insofar as the information it provides (please let us not refer to it as "news") will not cause discomfort
to the powerful and wealthy.
Vidal was 23 when The City and the Pillar
was published. We know from our own lives the significance of events from that youthful period. Consider how that experience -- not only the blacklisting listing itself, as sickening as that is (and as frightening as it must have been for him, although he never spoke of such emotions to my knowledge), but the manner in which it forced Vidal to redirect his career (and Vidal has admitted to wondering, with gentle regret, how his work might have developed had he been able to continue writing novels of his choosing without interruption) -- must have imprinted itself on Vidal's mind and soul. Vidal was possessed of great talent, together with tremendous ambition and discipline, so he achieved immense success, even if not on the schedule and in the manner he had first intended. And he knew from a very early age that his sexual attitudes and behavior set him apart:
By the time he was 25, he had already had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women, he boasted in his memoir “Palimpsest.” Mr. Vidal tended toward what he called “same-sex sex,” but frequently declared that human beings were inherently bisexual, and that labels like gay (a term he disliked) or straight were arbitrary and unhelpful. For 53 years, he had a live-in companion, Howard Austen, a former advertising executive, but the secret of their relationship, he often said, was that they did not sleep together
In a significant sense, this perspective, especially when coupled with the events subsequent to publication of The City and the Pillar,
meant that Vidal did not belong.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Vidal's achievements in a cultural context is the astonishingly successful and lasting balance he was able to strike between his ambition and the determination to achieve success and his status as an outsider. He managed to wrest accolades from the critics, and find very sizable audiences for his work, while simultaneously pushing the limits farther and farther outward, with regard to sex, politics, religion and just about everything else. From the Times
obituary, following a discussion of the great enthusiasm that greeted Vidal's "historical fiction":
But Mr. Vidal also persisted in writing books like “Myron” (1974), a sequel to “Myra,” and “Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal” (1992), which were clearly meant as provocations. “Live From Golgotha,” for example, rewrites the Gospels, with Saint Paul as a huckster and pederast and Jesus a buffoon. John Rechy said of it in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, “If God exists and Jesus is his son, then Gore Vidal is going to hell."
I frequently imagine Vidal smiling wickedly, wonderfully, and thinking: "Let's see just how much I can get away with!" (Here's a minor example
of this phenomenon. It concerns Vidal's rewrites in an attempt to salvage the mess that was Ben-Hur
, and I find it side-splittingly funny.)
For an appreciation of Vidal's artistic achievement (as distinguished from that achievement specifically in the cultural setting discussed above), I direct you to Chris Floyd
-- and to Floyd's earlier piece as well
(which, among other things, sets the record straight with regard to one calumny still hurled at Vidal, that he "defended" Timothy McVeigh).
Those of you who are happily (or not) heterosexual or who are not of a certain age (as I am now) will probably have little understanding of what it was like to be gay or sexual in forbidden ways in the 1940s and 1950s -- or even in the 1960s. I've written about my own experiences in that last period here
. For my present purposes, I will mention only one specific from my essay. I dropped out of high school for the first time when I was 16. I couldn't express most of the reasons at the time, but I subsequently realized that I was overwhelmed by the towering mounds of bullshit that surrounded me on all sides: in my family, at school, in the general culture. I didn't understand many of the complicated lies that everyone told -- it took me until my mid-fifties finally to grasp many of them -- but I knew with absolute certainty that they were
lies. Why did everyone lie all the time, about everything? I couldn't answer that, and I couldn't stand it any longer. So I walked away, to the extent I could.
But I was able to identify one source for an unhappiness that was so immense it terrified me. I had dutifully absorbed all the culture's messages about how perverted and disgusting homosexuality was -- and I was increasingly, horribly aware of my attraction to men. I wanted
to fit in, so I agreed to see a psychiatrist. I was so determined to be "good" and "happy" -- just like everyone else, at least that's what they said (was that another lie? of course, but I was unable to untangle all that as a teenager) -- that I told the psychiatrist of my homosexual feelings during our first session. And I emphasized that I wanted to change, I wanted to be "normal." And this psychiatrist -- who was well-known and respected, the author of several books -- could cure me, he said. How would you do that? I wondered aloud. And he circuitously, cautiously, trying very carefully not to frighten away the very sick boy in his office, indicated that electroshock therapy could make me as normal as apple pie, ready to settle down with Mary Jane and have the normal heap of children.
Make that real to yourself. There I was, a 16-year-old kid, an obviously upset, perhaps even "disturbed" high school dropout, in the very comfortable Manhattan office of a prominent psychiatrist, being invited to offer myself up for torture -- with the promise that the torture would make me "normal." I said no. I love that boy who said no, and I desperately wish I could take him in my arms and comfort him. There was no one to take me in their arms and comfort me. But I said no.
If I had to live apart, if I could never belong, if I would never fit in, that would have to be all right. I could survive that way, if I had to. Or rather, I
Late last night, I finished reading Thomas Mallon's Fellow Travelers
. I strongly recommend it to you. Mallon tells the story of two men in particular, caught up in the "Lavender Scare" that accompanied the Red Scare of the 1950s. (For a nonfiction treatment of this subject, see The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government
Mallon creates memorable, complex characters who linger in the imagination. And he writes very movingly about love, and about the heartrending pain experienced by the person who loves more than he is loved. (You may well have been there; I have. If you haven't, lucky you ... but perhaps not.) His understanding also encompasses the pain of the one who is adored, but who is unable to reciprocate in kind. (I've been there, too; if I had to choose, I'd choose the other role. A roughly equal balance may be preferable, but it's very rarely achieved, and then usually only for brief periods. I don't count here the first three to six months of an intense affair; that's like being on drugs. It's wonderful while it lasts, but it doesn't last. Vidal may have been onto something in his relationship with Austen.)
Surrounding all this are the double persecutions of the time: for disapproved political views, and for condemned sexual activities. The tale is one of people forced to live their most intense moments in shadow, in secret, always fearing discovery and punishment. To survive, you must surround yourself with lies and with what you hope is impenetrable protective armor. But the armor may never be enough, particularly if you have enemies, or even competitors -- or, occasionally, even lovers. (In addition to my essay about being gay in the 1960s, I also refer you to "We Are Not Freaks
," for a discussion of how these protective devices must still be utilized today.) Mallon includes many of the famous characters of the time: McCarthy, of course, more Kennedys than one would desire (a condition of apparently unending duration), Lyndon Johnson, many others, even Mary McGrory. The views into how government operates, and the stupidities and cruelties that are its everyday fare, are variously fascinating, hilarious, and horrifying.
is also very instructive with regard to one particular lesson from history, which is the extent to which nothing of importance in our politics changes. To be sure, the depredations of corporatism continue to increase in scope and destructiveness, as do the incursions into personal liberty. That is, everything that is bad continues to get worse -- but my point is that, at least in the last hundred years (and certainly in the last 50 or 60 years), everything that is bad has remained the same in terms of essentials. Here is a throwaway detail from late in Mallon's book, concerning a secondary character:
He was here on some money advanced to him by Harper & Row, for whom he was producing a book called Armed and Dangerous: America’s Permanent War Footing, an exposé of defense-contractor gluttons and their legislative ladles in both houses of Congress. It would be as strident, he promised, as the publisher would permit.
I don't know if a book with that particular title appeared (given Mallon's attention to historical accuracy, I wouldn't be the least surprised if it did), but I'm absolutely certain that books of that general kind had
to have been published. Most of us prefer to believe that no one has thought exactly what we think today ever before in the vast expanse of human history; the belief is almost never justified. I've written about a phenomenon I call "The Obedient Dissenter" (see here
), and dissenters of this kind are particularly prone to this laughable limitation. They appear to think that no one has truly understood the evils that afflict us until they
came along. They need to get out more. Failing that, they need to read
more. Understanding more would also be of some use.
There has always
been dissent and criticism concerning the immense evils committed by the U.S. government. Sometimes, that dissent has come from individuals of notable position and power. You can read about Thomas Reed in this essay
, and about his profound opposition to U.S. policy in the Philippines and the government's decision to embark on an overseas empire -- and you can read about Robert La Follette here
. La Follette offered what amounted to a dissertation on the disasters that would ensue if the U.S. entered World War I, and he was tragically proved correct in every detail -- and he offered it on the floor of the Senate. For his pains, he was denounced, hounded and almost driven from office. The problem has never been that the truth was unavailable. The problem has always been what people are prepared to do about the truth -- and what they are not
prepared to do. That is the problem that faces us today, one to which I will return shortly.
Here's another example from Mallon about how things do not change, from an exchange between Tim (one of the two major characters) and Woodforde, the secondary character who is writing Armed and Dangerous
Tim narrowed the divide to the spectator sport of domestic politics, mentioning a wire-service story he’d seen about a televised debate between Stevenson and Kefauver.
“Two wet firecrackers,” declared Woodforde. “Amusing, though, to see the great liberal Stevenson allowing the voters of Florida to believe that, race-wise, Kefauver might as well be Paul Robeson. Wait until Kefauver’s people start spreading the story of the ‘pansy party’ Adlai’s supposed to have attended over here in Paris not long ago.”
“Is that true?”
“Does it matter? Besides, when it’s all over, Joe Alsop will have been proved right. Kefauver will take the number-two spot. And then they’ll both lose together.”
And Kefauver did take the number two spot, and he and Stevenson did lose together.
The vicious use of racism (and by Democrats! who would have thought!), and the vicious use of "pansy" hatred -- none of it has changed. We lie about it more, since we're all so much more enlightened today, but the fears and hatreds haven't gone away. Again, see "We Are Not Freaks
" for some examples of how homophobia continues (and from proud liberals; see the posts linked in my prefatory comments for the details of the foul emanations from one particularly awful liberal source).
I feel the need to continue my commentaries on "The Obedient Dissenter," so I will return to that subject, as well as completing the "Reflections
" series. Even though I've been largely out of commission as far as writing is concerned, I've continued to amass still more examples for these various topics. As I've said before, one of my major objections to most well-known "dissenters" today is that they are so goddamned comfortable.
As my title has it, to be comfortable is to die, at least in the most vital and significant intellectual sense.
Almost half a century ago, confronted by the polite but insistent demands of a successful, well-respected psychiatrist, a frightened, desperately unhappy 16-year-old boy managed to say no. The refusal saved his life. For now, I give the last word to Mr. Vidal, on the importance of saying yes. I came across this remembrance
of Vidal, which contains this remarkable passage:
Yet some of Vidal's most remarkable writing was about hope. A dully titled 1953 Esquire essay "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s" shows the hopeful Vidal at his finest, musing on the net pessimism of the universe and the courage and beauty of humans forging meaning in the face of such emptiness.
In each of these three writers man acts, through love, through hate, through despair. Though the act in each is different, the common emotion is sufficiently intense to dispel, for a time at least, the knowledge of that cold drowning which awaits us all.On the day following Vidal's death, what better way to recall a man so conscious of mortality than featuring a small sample of his "yes"? It takes a soulful 23-year-old to provide such a closing to a glorified book review:
The malady of civilized man is his knowledge of death. The good artist, like the wise man, addresses himself to life and invests with his private vision the deeds and thoughts of men. The creation of a work of art, like an act of love, is our one small 'yes' at the center of a vast 'no.'
The thought of heaven, a perennial state of mind, a cheerful conception of what might be in life, in art (if not death), may yet save our suicidally inclined race — if only because heaven is as various as there are men in the world who dream of it, and writers to evoke that dream. One recalls Constantine (to refer again to the image of the early church) when he teased a dissenting bishop at one of the synods: 'Ascesius, take a ladder and get up to heaven by yourself.' We are fortunate in our time to have so many ladders going up. Each ladder is raised in hope, which is heaven enough.