Decades ago, a very young me was mightily impressed with what then appeared to be the unassailably cool cassette collection (yes, that’s how many decades ago it was) of a favorite aunt, my mother’s younger sister. Among them was The Eurythmics’ Savage, which we would play loudly on the car stereo of her Jeep Cherokee during road trips from Portland to Redmond, Oregon, the towns between which she divided her time.
A couple of years ago I picked up a very inexpensive CD copy of the album, and every once in a while I’ll put it on in hopes of getting a serene sense-memory of driving very late at night over Mt. Hood toward central Oregon, the two-lane highway illuminated by headlights, or of the steep, vast canyon in the backyard of the house in Redmond.
Of course, this practice also involves actually listening to the music. Objectively, most of it sounds very dated and effete, but it has a personal meaning that transcends the actual standards of my taste (in optimistic moments, surprisingly, I sometimes actually believe this to be possible, if so subjective as to apply only to individuals on a strictly separate basis). It’s easily the coldest, most academic album in the band’s oeuvre (the only one that comes close to sounding as avant-garde as their name implies: I can see how perhaps my future teenaged interest in the much darker synth-pop of Depeche Mode was prefigured by the stark, brittle, and icy sound of the album. Also, it’s a Reagan/Thatcher era album, and given that we’re going through an even more exaggerated right-wing nightmare in 2005, the kind of meaningless and absurd line about the “Texan girl” in the odd and creepy “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” tips us off that the song is resonant of a kind of genteel bourgeois materialism still applicable today. Two other songs in particular-- “Shame” and the title track-- are politically imbued recitations of despair. The accusatory “Savage,” in particular, makes for an apt soundtrack to, and chilly indictment of, George Bush’s American empire.
That last was a rare indulgence into the autobiographical, and I sometimes wonder, during the few idle moments when I have time to enter my wandering thoughts on a computer screen accessible to all, why the mostly external reflections and opinions provoked by the culture I expose myself to (and that which rudely exposes itself to me) seems so much more worthy of discussion than the usually quite mundane events of my day, and there’s a reason that the word “exposure” seems to spring so ready to my typing fingers as I describe that thought: I personally am suspicious and rather unforgiving about the impulse to exposing oneself that lead to the confession, the memoir, the autobiography. I know it sounds elitist, but I don’t care: The vulgarity of people who find the unfettered and minutely recounted daily details of their own mundane lives to be fascinating enough for public consumption is very nearly as vulgar as that portion of the public eager to consume them, and I don’t want anything to do with it.
It seems to me that everybody wants to grab their fifteen minutes, and since talent takes work and risk, a great many people vastly overestimate their own personal experiences, their joys and their pain, to be something very unique, precious, and worth the time and attention of the public. I would never claim that our personal feelings and experiences are ever less than deeply important and significant to our individual consciousness, and hopefully those of us who aspire to be humane have developed enough empathy to at least attempt to put ourselves in another’s shoes, but it is my feeling that personal experiences-- especially those of people like us bloggers, with the means and motivation to share them in some public forum-- are actually rather few and very similar, with only minor variations among them, and that any uniqueness to be had from them comes in the manner in which they might be effectively articulated. Some heroes of mine (such as Morrissey) are often very inaccurately described as “diary-entry keepers,” etc., when in fact their seemingly intimate or personal expressions could not have been more artfully considered, filtered, and honed, any real self-indulgence carefully avoided or removed, in order to have more of an impact on the unseen and unknowable listener/reader/spectator.
My skeptical take on the matter is based on my belief in the value of knowing precisely when and how best to express one’s own personal emotions and experiences, when to dress them up or leave them unadorned, when to be dismissive or indulgent of them, when the right moment for self-aggrandizement or self-effacement might be. Sadly, the number of people gifted with that particular instinct is much smaller than that of those who believe themselves to be (I can hardly claim the gift for myself, though it is one of my fondest dreams to possess it in some form). It is that instinct that separates art and style (art’s stern, many-faced master) from specifically personal reminiscence and blog entries. I find my life sometimes beautiful, sometimes difficult, sometimes kind of odd, but usually not specifically interesting enough-- not specifically interesting the way I find a great book or film or album specifically interesting, and sometimes even transporting-- to share with anyone who might happen to find themselves reading the words I sometimes feel the urge to put in this space.
On that same train of thought, some words, courtesy of the late Carol Shields, on the indispensability of the designed, willful, stubborn qualities of culture, with its chances to overcome or transfigure the dullness and mediocrity to which daily life is always an open invitation. From her story “Invitations”:
It happened that people passing her window on their way to various parties and public gatherings that night were moved to see her, a woman sitting calmly in an arc of lamplight, turning over-- one by one-- the soft pages of a thick book... Those who passed by and saw her were seized by a twist of pain, which was really a kind of nostalgia for their childhood and for a simplified time when they, too, had been bonded to the books they read and to certain golden rooms they remembered as being complete and as perfect as stage settings.
They felt resentment, too, at the cold rain and buffeting wind and the price of taxis and the hostility of their hosts. They felt embarrassed by their own small, proffered utterances and by the expanded social rubric they had come to inhabit.
As they moved to and fro in large, brightly lit rooms, so high up in glittering towers that they felt they were clinging to the sides of cliffs, their feet began to ache and exhaustion overcame them. Soon it was past midnight, no longer the same day, but the next and the next. New widths of time clamored to be filled, though something it seemed, some image of possibility, begged to be remembered.
I once had the intimidating but exciting privilege of interviewing Edmund White, the Genet/Proust biographer and all-around gay literary icon (he’s like a younger, more middle-class, much less severe Gore Vidal), for Just Out. White was to be in town for a Portland Arts & Lectures symposium on biography (along with Francine du Plessix Gray and someone else whose name I no longer recall), and Just Out wanted to run a preview/interview, which I was recruited to provide. White was gratifyingly forthcoming and engaged for the interview questions, and surprisingly self-deprecating and demure on the panel. Although I’ve only dipped into his rather large body of work (I’ve read A Boy’s Own Story, his most well-regarded novel; the Proust biography; topical articles for magazines like Out; and his small autobiography/travelogue/elegy, Our Paris). White’s writing is lucid and informative, and his persona is somehow simultaneously very worldly, eminently knowledgeable, and charmingly humble. He is firmly lodged in my personal canon of queer dignitaries, touchstones who have something singular to share about the gay experience and/or a unique perspective on the culture shared by us all.
Arts and Letters, which collects White’s various and sundry critical/journalistic pieces, is a mixed bag o' fan letters, but not really so much the worse for that. It’s predictable that White would be at his literary-culture best discussing the poetry and personality of James Merrill, or the pleasing and peculiar writings and personality of Grace Paley, or the transgressive photographs and intertwined personality of Mapplethorpe. Literature and the people who make it are clearly his overriding passion, and these kinds of exploratory-tribute pieces, which comprise the bulk of Arts and Letters, are all admiring yet revelatory, honest yet empathetic.
White was not, however, cut out to profile modern-day personality-magazine celebrities like Elton John and David Geffen. The direct, interested, and obliquely sweet approach he takes to all his subjects does not befit John and Geffen, both of whom come across as strictly yuppie/Velvet Mafia types who are capable of little more than raking in and counting money while spouting cultish-sounding New Age self-actualization gibberish. The Francophilic White does slightly better with Catherine Deneuve and Yves Saint Laurent (partly because they are infinitely more interesting personalities than the other two), but mostly these profiles come close to being mere run-of-the-mill magazine puff pieces and are saved only by White’s ever graceful and resourceful prose style.
Daniel Harris’s The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture could not be more remote from the kind of compromise necessitated by the command or impulse to depict a celebrity (even their “warts and all”), or one’s own minority status, in a less than rigorously critical light. Harris’s book was published in 1997, which seems at first to be exactly the right time in (recent) history for the kind of objective, even detached, analysis Harris offers; there was less of a need for defensiveness on the part of the gay community during the relative (and illusory?) liberated feel of the ‘90s-- certainly, I spend less energy now criticizing the failings of the subculture associated with my sexual orientation than the failings of a world that has regressed away from the liberation of an issue like sexual orientation from the entirely separate issue of morality, which is to say a world in which the meaning of morality has more to do with placation and control of a populace evidently all too eager to be placated, controlled, and misled.
But Harris doesn’t criticize failings so much as he brings a thorough, historically studied, and ultimately entirely nonjudgmental sensibility to a clear-eyed dissection American gay culture through the mid to late twentieth century, using as examples the paradoxical and rapid evolutionary changes in gay personal ads, pornographic literature and film, underwear, and camp to illustrate his overarching theme of loss of potency in the face of assimilation. Harris is hardly simplistic enough to divide the gay male subculture into periods of “integrity” and “selling out,” and he is appropriate in his acknowledgment of increased tolerance and actual political gains brought about by gay liberation in its various forms; but he comes across as honestly and rightly ambivalent in his description of how a community that has suffered varying degrees of beleaguering has adapted to shifting social, cultural, and political situations and attitudes, sometimes wisely and sometimes not. Has the courting of the statistically disposable income-laden gay male consumer by politically craven, indifferent, or bandwagon-hopping corporations led to the misconception that one can shop one’s way to political potency (or, in the case of AIDS, can one come to terms with AIDS by buying Quilt memorabilia, giving in to the manipulative deadening of one’s critical faculties effected by the propaganda of kindly, vague, non-militant philanthropists, or-- shades of Todd Haynes’s brilliant allegory in Safe-- drowning one’s justified sorrow and anger in ultimately self-lacerating psychobabble)? What do manufacturers of men’s underwear have to gain by adjusting cultural perceptions of what degree of masculinity and/or style might be signified by one’s undergarments? Is the death of “camp”-- that unmistakable, incomparably witty, sarcastic, and modern gay sensibility provoked by oppression-- worth losing in exchange for being disburdened of that oppression (Harris’s answer seems to be a regretful “of course, but still, we are giving up something of significant value”).
Upon further reflection, I decided that my first impression of Harris’s book-- that his line of questioning might be a luxury in today’s wearying, increasingly sink-or-swim political climate-- was off: the questions he brings up are at least as vital, if not more so, in a time when the “visibility” of gays overshadows the legal fact of our second-class citizenship, when our commercial viability is more highly valued by the men in power than our personal dignity or freedom, and we’re encouraged by all the prominent signifiers to believe that the former is equivalent to the latter, and worth paying a heavy personal and political price for. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture is an astute, sobering, invigorating, compelling, engaging, and politicizing work, the reading of which felt to me like a legitimate poke in the eye to those forces-- and, according to Harris, they are many-- that stand to benefit from the absence of astuteness, engagement, and politicization.
Subscribe to Posts [Atom]