Posts Tagged ‘gore vidal’

Natural if not Normal

May 20, 2012

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself.

—Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992 (37)

Sex.  What’s with the persistent human propensity to study, describe, imagine, define, categorize, restrict, denounce, regulate, prohibit, criminalize and constantly talk, talk, talk about what other people are doing in private with their naughty bits?

Sex is a basic human need, essential to the survival of the species. But this is only part of the answer.  Human beings require shelter, for example, yet the subject of housing barely elicits a fraction of the chatter that the Big Nasty generates amongst human interlocutors.

And as W.H. Auden pondered: Why should so much poetry be written about sexual love and so little about eating—which is just as pleasurable and never lets you down—or about family affection, or about the love of mathematics.

According to Gore Vidal, “the sexual attitudes of a given society are the result of political decisions” (539).  This explains why we see so many professional moralists and politicians “solemnly worshiping at the shrine of The Family” (601).  (Like when our president recently went out on a limb to courageously declare that Motherhood is the toughest job in the world.)

Barack Obama’s other recent bold pronouncement, that he has evolved to the point where the idea of gay marriage no longer gives him the willies, made much bigger headlines.

So why the big fuss?  To borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, regardless of my own prejudices or proclivities, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg if Adam wants to marry Steve.  (Yes, I know that Steve could be entitled to partake in Adam’s medical benefits, perhaps raising my health care premiums, but the two fellows will also be paying higher taxes, so I’d be willing to bet that the monetary consequences of their union would probably be a net gain for society at large.)

Gore Vidal contends that our political overseers ghettoize certain types of sexual behavior as a means of maintaining their hegemony over the populace: “In order for the ruling class to rule, there must be arbitrary prohibitions” (442).  Sexual preference is just one of the many divisions, such as  race, class, religion, age, region, gender, etc., which are exploited by los que mandan.  Thus we are informed, particularly from the pulpit, that when it comes to sexual preference, there are only two ways to be: “One team is good, godly, straight; the other is evil, sick, vicious” (442).

Like homosexuality, divorce is also dangerous to the status quo because “A woman who can support herself and her child is a threat to marriage, and marriage is the central institution whereby owners of the world control those who do the work” (540). Vidal notes with his characteristic wit that heterosexual couples are expected “to do their duty by one day getting married in order to bring forth new worker-consumers in obedience with God’s law, which tends to resemble with suspicious niceness the will of society’s owners” (540).  Of course, over the last four decades divorce has become so common that many of the leaders who rail in favor of “family values” are themselves divorced.  This helps explain the fury we hear from some quarters against the damage done to our sacred family unit by homosexuals. At any rate, “it does not suit our rulers to have the proles tomcatting around the way that our rulers do” (606).

The mechanisms which enforce such twisted mores are designed to produce citizens who “serve society as loyal workers and dutiful consumers” (540).  This is not an originally American arrangement; it is merely the machinery of power and profit in action.  And any “activity that might decrease the amount of coal mined, the number of pyramids built, the quantity of junk food confected will be proscribed through laws that, in turn, are based on divine revelations handed down by whatever god or gods happen to be in fashion at the moment” (339-340).

In 1948 Gore Vidal courageously published The City and the Pillar, a coming of age novel about homosexuality.  But Vidal is not celebrated as a hero for gay activists today largely because he rejects the “American passion for categorizing” which endeavors “to create two nonexistent categories—gay and straight” (606).  Vidal therefore scoffs at the notion that such a thing as the “gay community” could ever exist.  (“What in God’s name do Eleanor Roosevelt and Roy Cohn have in common?” he quipped.)

Experience has taught Vidal that “it is possible to have a mature sexual relationship with a woman on Monday, and a mature sexual relationship with a man on Tuesday, and perhaps on Wednesday have both together (admittedly you have to be in good condition for this)” (581).

by Richard W. Bray

Some Lines of Poetry and Topkis v Vidal

April 27, 2010

Gore Vidal

Some Random Lines of Poetry

And time should gurgle on,

Not lords of nature yet, but naked prey.

Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?

People who do things exceed my endurance;

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Man hands on misery to man.

It’s always a mistake to worship human beings

“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

as freedom is a breakfastfood

What kind of beast would turn its own life into words?

And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee.

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,


And because it’s a holiday
, one of my all-time favorites, Topkis v Vidal from the letters page of the New York Review.

by Richard W. Bray

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

March 23, 2010

Franz De Waal

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

#1 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber

…so far as any record shows or any story relates, no member of the United States Army ever shot a single Yana Indian, whose multiple murder remained a home and civilian and strictly extralegal operation. (62) There’s a line in the song Sun City by Steven Van Zandt reminding us that Apartheid “ain’t that far away.” Episodes in Extermination, the fourth chapter of Ishi, written in a beautifully plain and sober tone, makes our own proximity to the horrors of genocide painfully clear.

#2 Primates and Philosophers by Franz De Waal

Chimpanzees think by feeling, just like we do:

In my own experience, chimpanzees pursue power as relentlessly as some in Washington and keep track of given and received services in a marketplace of exchange. Their feelings may range from gratitude for political support to outrage if one of them violates a social rule. All of this goes far beyond mere fear, pain, and anger: the emotional life of these animals is much closer to ours than once held possible. (76)

#3 War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges

This indispensable book, which came out when our society was still very sick with war fever, tells us that war

Is peddled by mythmakers–historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state–all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it’s over (3)

 

#4 United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

This collection of essays proves that in addition to being a damn fine novelist, Vidal is simply our finest living essayist. From his essay Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy:

Give a sissy a gun and he will shoot everything in sight….There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even “real” life is moral. Although TR was often reckless and always domineering in politics, he never showed much real courage, and despite some trust-busting, he never took on the great ring of corruption that ruled and rules in this republic. But then, he was born part of it. (733)

#5 Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

A much underappreciated masterpiece. An earlier post demonstrated that Erdrich is a master of the simile. Some more examples:

Then the vest plunged down against her, so slick and plush that it was like being rubbed by an enormous tongue. (5)

My mother held out a heavy tin one (spoon) from the drawer and screwed her lips up like a coin purse to kiss me. (12)

On the much traveled, evil Sister Leopolda: Perhaps she was just sent around to test her Sisters’ faith, like a spot checker in a factory.(45)

She thought of everything so hard that her mind felt warped and sodden as a door that swells up in spring. (107)

Dot was a diligent producer of milk, however. Her breasts, like overfilled inner tubes, strained at her nylon blouses. (210)

#6 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The greatest and most important American novel published during the second half of the twentieth century. So it goes.

#7 The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Here’s Greene on innocence, which, as Arnold Rampersad wryly noted, is a famed American virtue:

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when it would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.(29)

#8 The Collected Poems of W. H Auden

The only artists who have made a comparable impression on my consciousness are Vonnegut, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. And I shall continue to revere Auden until the day when I surrender my smidge of nitrogen to the World Fund. (690) (btw, the collected poems are not the complete poems because Auden left out many with which he later became unsatisfied. A notable omission is September 1, 1939 which was excised because Auden eventually decided that the line We must love one another or die constitutes a false alternative.)

#9 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Perhaps foolishly, in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway’s notoriously silly aspiration to knock Mr. Shakespeare on his ass, I would argue that Dickinson is the first, and quite possibly the only, American poet capable of going toe-to-toe with the Bard.

#10 The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

I recoil somewhat at the realization that there exists a profound kindred empathy in the deepest recesses of my psyche for this sad, sad, angry, witty woman.

 

by Richard W. Bray

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Javier Marias

Lajos Egri

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies

(11-12)

Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.
(7)

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray