“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
—Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Sometimes, enlightenment, like confusion, can come from an unexpected source. Take the comedian, George Carlin, for example. I think that his broadcasting of dirty words is a bit less than profound, as is his hostility toward most civilized conventions; some years ago, however, he did say something brilliant, which I have never forgotten. He indicated that what is wrong with our country is that the institutions are incorrectly or misleadingly named. He offered “Bud’s Medical Center” and “The Presbyterian Memorial Bar & Grill” as examples of rectified labeling, and I think his insight must be applauded.
I wonder if we could extend the Carlin principle. Perhaps we should retire the term “the border” in favor of “the sieve.” “The border” would then become a useful term in the kitchen, as in the following example: “Would you please put those greens in the border and run some water through them?” The uniformed personnel of the rebadged Sieve Patrol could then resume their duties.
Speaking of misleading expressions, I was reading recently of the advocacy of “gay marriage” by David Brooks and William Safire and thought first that there had been some kind of mistake. But what kind of mistake? The term itself is some sort of oxymoron, and I am glad I could work the word moron in here somehow. The Carlin principle would suggest that, if the word marriage is used to sanction homosexual relations, as has already been done in the wedding announcements of the New York Times, then some other phrase should be substituted for a heterosexual commitment. I suggest the following usage: “Yes, I take my shack-job with tax breaks and visitation rights very seriously.” OK, I admit that “shack-job with tax breaks and visitation rights” is long and clumsy—the thing needs work.
Perhaps it is the expression “neoconservative” that is willfully misleading. Does this term have no relation at all to what it ostensibly denotes? Besides, as William Safire is a word maven, he must have some respect for the dictionary, for the plain meaning of words, surely? Manifest nonsense suggested then another possibility. I was indeed reading the New York Times, not the Village Voice. I was not dreaming or falling down a rabbit hole. Brooks and Safire were going to get married as a ménage à deux, because they could never be satisfied emotionally with a mere shack-up. Possibly—or maybe the two of them were planning to become, combined with the Zeitgeist, as a newly mysterious and blasphemous trinity, one Episcopal bishop? No? Yes? Maybe?
Wait a minute, I said to myself. Cool it with the lurid speculation. Brooks and Safire are basically political commentators who have columns in a “newspaper of record” that has become increasingly an instrument of advocacy for “gay rights.” When the politics of “gay rights” are identified, then we will understand the anomalous position of Brooks and Safire. It is a political position directly related to money and power, and, for that reason, it is masked as something else, a humane concern for others. Do not assume that, because Brooks and Safire take the same position that homosexual activists do, they are homosexual activists themselves, even though such an assumption would be logically justifiable. After all, Brooks and Safire do not have any trouble with the words money and power, any more than they do with words like invasion and bombing. They actually know what these words mean without any help from lexicographers. No, it is the hitherto familiar word marriage that has caused such a spot of bother.
Now suppose that we hold the baffling, problematic, and discriminatory word marriage in abeyance for a while. After all, the “problem” of “gay marriage” does not exist in a vacuum. If we look elsewhere, we will find other and related anomalies or examples of “semantic drift.” I do not mean mere lexical change here—I am referring to that disingenuous contrivance that marks not only the force of ideology as it distorts reality, but, even more tellingly, the will to deceive. I am thinking of the sartorial cues recently affected by that unblinking mannequin, “General” Wesley K. Clark—a man who has, in his life, sniffed a lot more toner from Xerox machines than he has cordite fumes from gunfire. Exchanging his blue suits for argyle sweaters, the intrepid general has sought to close the “gender gap.” General Clark declared on January 8, “I think there’s an impression [among women, he means] that the armed forces is a male-dominated, hierarchical, authoritarian institution. And I think they have to get to know me.” We might ask why a general would not know the definition of army and why one who affects a high military rank even in civilian life would have any “problem” with hierarchy, particularly since rank is directly tied to salary. We might indeed reflect that, if the armed services are not male-dominated, hierarchical, and authoritarian, then these services would be both dangerous and ineffective. Clark’s bizarre statement may explain why Bill and Hillary Clinton have promoted Clark’s candidacy, since the first major action of the first Clinton administration was to intervene about the policy concerning homosexuals in the military. Only a mind-set that regards national defense as a “civil-rights wedge” and night carrier landings (Eek! Crash! Splash!) as an opportunity for feminist demonstrations of equality could possibly entertain such an inversion, virtually schizophrenic in its delusions. If the former supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization does not know the denotation of the word army or of the phrase Armed Forces, or of the organization and ethos of soldiers as they have been known at least since the days of Louis XIV, then no wonder the word marriage is such a conundrum. We might remember, too, that this particular NATO commander thought that the obscure phrase North Atlantic referred to Southeastern Europe or Adriatic, and that the perplexing word treaty had much to do with the familiar bombing so dear to the schemes of William Safire. Perhaps a clarifying stay at the Betty Ford Clinic could resolve some of the general’s cognitive difficulties, but I do not really believe that Wesley Clark has a substance-abuse problem. I think he simply demonstrates what must happen when the corruption of language and logic by demented factions and identity groups is brought to bear upon public-policy discussions. The result is the higher nonsense that is the language of power in our country today, in which a general talks like Andrea Dworkin and is afraid to wear formal clothes because they are just too butch for soccer-mom focus groups. A general has to prove that he is a wimp who knows nothing about the Armed Forces in order to troll for votes from people that he obviously holds in contempt anyway. Yes, we are in the neighborhood of “homosexual marriage,” the zone of nonsense, after all.
Now, in the zone of nonsense or “Neo-World,” as we may call it, we must expect grotesque formulations in which one world of discourse contaminates another to bizarre effect. There have been many absurd announcements and releases from the Pentagon and the White House that have justified the bombing of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of feminist theory, which is not only left-wing agitprop for a seemingly right-wing action but a dangerously revealing concession that the present violence is a war on Islam, after all.
How absurd the military can be when it is directed by fanatics who are blinded by an obsession with social engineering! Back in 1999, Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig called the submarine segment of his own service a “white male preserve.” He seemed to be taking cues from Mary J. Wamsley, chairman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, and pushed for the redesign of the Navy’s new class of missile submarines so that women could serve in such restricted space. The cost of integrating sleeping space was estimated at $300,000 a bunk. “A recent Navy report noted that fewer women would share one bathroom, forcing more men to share the other and raising questions of equality.” If that is what equality means, then there is something to learn about the tyranny of abstractions and false ideals. But what about the pressing issue of equal facilities in missile submarines for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons? Let’s get our priorities straight!
In Neo-World, the “gay”-rights cause must be a justification of violence as well. A Log Cabin Republican was recently and prominently quoted as declaring, “The repressive regime in Iraq was so heinous towards gay rights.” We will soon hear more about “gay marriage,” and then we will hear about “gay marriage” in the Armed Forces. This will be justified by the usual logic and the additional argument that such an arrangement will promote the retention of the best people in uniform. Why should anyone object, when there has been so little objection to the arming of women in a mercenary army, many of whose soldiers are not yet American citizens? Besides, I think “gay marriage” in the military could reduce the cost of bunk space in missile submarines. “Gay marriage” could also be a positive value in our nation’s prisons. We have got to learn to be creative and think outside the box.
The support that “gay marriage” has received from the political, entertainment, educational, and corporate establishments is proof that it has arrived. Recently, in New Jersey, a radical new marriage law was passed with no opposition at all. This revolution shows three things, I believe. The first is that almost no one in America has been undamaged mentally by the confusion that has resulted from the mixing of various civil-rights discourses, from the movement for equal rights for blacks to the movement for women’s rights to the movement for “gay” rights. At the end of the day, disregarding the merits of any particular cause, we are simply unable to think clearly any more. We cannot distinguish between equality before the law as a principle and “equality” as a destructive and tyrannical abstraction that has become a pretext for the trashing of the culture and values that have formerly distinguished our heritage. To see the definition of marriage as a problem to be effaced by totalitarian obfuscation, and marriage itself as discriminatory, is to have abandoned mind and memory altogether. Brooks and Safire have declared for “gay marriage” as the inevitable result of turbocapitalist market-spinning. Marx declared that capitalism was the most revolutionary phenomenon in history, and Neo-World is basically Marxist. Don’t we always need newly defined groups to manipulate and to make the beneficiaries of preposterous laws?
Another conclusion that we can draw from the affirmation of “gay marriage” is that, besides being deceptive, manipulative, and related to demographic calculations and financial considerations, the “gay marriage” bandwagon is more a sign of weakness than of strength. In the future, the “gay marriage” phenomenon will reveal the splits in the “gay community.” There will naturally be, as there have been in the past, more lesbian “Boston marriages” than stable two-man relationships. There are individual exceptions, of course, but “cruising” and anonymous drug-boosted orgies are not the stuff of fidelity. There is not much point in telling pious lies about the matter. Syphilis is making a big comeback in New York, along with other sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. There was a time when the “gay community” was more honest. There was, for instance, one celebrated graffito at the wharf in Cherry Grove back in the early 80’s. As the crisis mounted, one poet in particular had no intention of settling down: “In your butt / He popped his nuts / Now life fades / You’ve got AIDS / Burma Shave.” It was whistling in the dark, but at least it was whistling, not whining. The documentary film The Gift (2003) shows that HIV infection is sometimes deliberately sought by “bug-chasers,” who attend ritualized initiations to the virus or gift at “conversion parties.” The gnostic/religious ring of such perversity is worthy of remark.
There is a tradition, perhaps even an heroic tradition, of homosexual response to an embattled, alienated position and of the creation of art. Walt Whitman denied he was a homosexual, though, in his work, he implied, or more than implied, that he was. In “Respondez!” a coarse early effort that he later revised, he did not pull his punches.
Let marriage slip down among fools, and be for none but fools!
Let men among themselves talk and think forever obscenely of women! And let women among themselves talk and think obscenely of men!
Oscar Wilde did not create as much art as he pretended to, but Salome, bristling with a tension that is now hardly a memory, has the imagination of the Other. The Picture of Dorian Gray has something going for it, too, though not as much as “The Decay of Lying.” Wilde was married, had two children, and lost his family in self-inflicted calamity and divorce. It is hard to think of Dorian Gray wanting anything as suburban as marriage, or of Marcel Proust bothering about such a banal intrusion on his precious writing time and his exquisite self-absorption. Andre Gide was married—to a woman. E.M. Forster, who wrote much to show the necessity of imagination in sustaining civilization, was not. The varied brilliance and folly of such people seems a world removed from today’s flat cultural scene. Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, who could really write, seem to be giants when we consider them against today’s artless and witless crowd.
Never mind the obtuse television shows, the bad art exhibits, the ugly music, the lack of discipline and talent—what about writing and literary culture? David Leavitt having been rendered hors de combat by that embarrassing plagiarism scandal, we will just skip right past him, with only an admonition not to try to put one past those pesky lawyers ever again! So, moving right along: The hostile reviews that Dale Peck has brought together in Hatchet Job have put the burden on him to produce fiction of a quality that might justify his ire, but a glance at What We Lost (2003) suggests that Dale has problems as well as tendencies. What we lost is nothing if we have not read Dale Peck, but what we lost if we bought What We Lost was 23 smackers. He has no perceivable gift as a writer and, in fact, makes elementary errors all the time. His novel is inert, boring, and incompetent. His reviews seem to be nothing but self-serving rants. He particularly resents James Joyce, apparently because that writer tried to create new “langwedge” that is just so terribly challenging and difficult. I tried to reach Jimmy Joyce about all this, but he is absolutely buried in Zurich, and I could not get through to him.
Well, clutch my pearls! I almost forgot about that really hot novelist, E. Lynn Harris, and his new autobiography, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (2003). Sometimes E. Lynn can write, and he can build a scene and reach for the right word, the striking and simple thing. E. Lynn’s stock in trade, however, is to pick at the emotions of his clientele, exploiting clichés about race, sex, and orientation. A black writer mostly for sentimental white women, E. Lynn Harris has piled up the moolah with such novels as Abide With Me and A Love of My Own. There is a long tradition of erotic kitsch in American literature, and E. Lynn will take his place with Jacqueline Susann, Sidney Sheldon, and other purveyors of soap. E. Lynn has proved that a homosexual can be just as mediocre as any straight, but that does not make his memoir much better than his gushy fiction.
My survey has neglected such campy people as filmmaker John Waters and poet Edward Field, whose work I have sometimes enjoyed. The severity and icy perversity of a little masterpiece of S&M such as The Real Thing by William Carney (1968) seems remote now, so I think that I must draw the third conclusion about the sanction of sodomy by Neo-World and the powers that be. I sense a disguised religious motive in the intrusion upon the realm of religion, and particularly in the denial of that encroachment. We are talking about civil, not religious, unions, they say. I say, however, that the image of marriage is a profound cultural trope that cannot be twisted without immense damage, and it is just this damage that making sodomy a sacrament is designed to inflict. In the Old Testament, the erotically charged Song of Songs has long since been allegorized as a song about God’s love for His people. The Christians interpreted it in parallel, as a poem about the love of Christ for His Church. The image of cosmic marriage is fundamental or foundational to Judaism and Christianity, and that is the reason for the movement to replace this trope with the image of cosmic sodomy. The homosexual hatred of the Bible and of religious tradition does not square with today’s mealy-mouthed pseudospirituality, the cant of sinners who do not want to be saved but to be affirmed—to be justified without penitence. “Cheap grace” has no place either on the Day of Atonement or in another theology of atonement; sodomy is not marriage nor the consummation thereof; and neither is Christ the Bridegroom a sketch by Tom of Finland. The sacralization of sodomy is more than willful leveling: It is knowing blasphemy. Such is the determination of “faith-based” leadership in this “religious nation,” and such is the explicit logic of “equality”: The only fair distinction is none, with affirmative action for sodomy. The Jacobins and the Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet were more honest in their satanism than the proper little patriots of Neo-World; and they were better writers than the word-processors who now affect to inherit the tradition of inversion.
[What We Lost, by Dale Peck (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 229 pp., $23.00]
[What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, by E. Lynn Harris (New York: Doubleday) 288 pp., $22.95]
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