Past And Present In Art And Taste Selected Essays Of Gore

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From "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," The Nation, October 14,

Jews, blacks, and homosexuals are despised by the Christian…majorities of East and West. Also, as a result of the invention of Israel, Jews can now count on the hatred of the Islamic world. Since our own Christian majority looks to be getting ready for great adventures at home and abroad, I would suggest that the three despised minorities join forces in order not to be destroyed. This seems an obvious thing to do. Unfortunately, most Jews refuse to see any similarity between their special situations and that of the same-sexers.

At one level, the Jews are perfectly correct. A racial or religious or tribal identity is a kind of fact. Although sexual preference is an even more powerful fact, it is not one that creates any particular social or cultural or religious bond between those so-minded. Although Jews would doubtless be Jews is there was no anti-Semitism, same-sexers would think little or nothing at all about their preference if society ignored it. So there is a difference between the two estates. But there is no difference in the degree of hatred felt by the Christian majority for Christ-killers and Sodomites. In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexuals wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. "After all," said Isherwood, "Hitler killed six hundred thousand homosexuals." The young man was not impressed. "But Hitler killed six million Jews," he said sternly. "What are you?" asked Isherwood. "In real estate?"

…..

Mrs. Norman Podhoretz, also known as Midge Decter, [who writes for the conservative magazine Commentary]…. writes with the authority and easy confidence of someone who knows that she is very well known indeed to those few who know her.

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Decter was disturbed by "the slender, seamless, elegant and utterly chic" clothes of the fairies [she saw on Fire Island]. She also found it "a constant source of wonder" that when the fairies took off their clothes, "the largest number of homosexuals had hairless bodies…. We were never able to determine just why there should be so definite a connection between what is nowadays called their sexual preference…and their smooth feminine skin. Was it a matter of hormones?" Here Decter betrays her essential modesty and lack of experience. In the no doubt privileged environment of her Midwestern youth, she could not have seen very many gentile males without their clothes on. Is she had, she would have discovered that gentile men tend to be less hairy than Jews except, of course, when they are not. Because the Jews killed our Lord, they are forever marked with hair on their shoulders--something that no gentile man has on his shoulders except for John Travolta and a handful of other Italian-American from the Englewood, New Jersey, area.

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Every now and then, Decter does wonder if, perhaps, she is generalizing…. But the spirit is upon her, and she cannot stop because, "one cannot even begin to get at the truth about homosexuals without this kind of generalization. They are a group so readily distinguishable." Except of course, when they are not…. To begin to get at the truth about homosexuals, one must realize that the majority of those millions of Americans who prefer same-sex sex to other-sex sex are obliged, sometimes willingly and happily but often not, to marry and have children and to conform

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Decter says that once faggots have "ensconced" themselves in certain professions or arts, "they themselves have engaged in a good deal of discriminatory practices against others. There are businesses and professions" [which one? She is congenitally short of data] "in which it is less than easy for a straight, unless he makes the requisite gesture of propitiation to the homosexual in power, to get ahead." This, of course, was Hitler's original line about the Jews: they had taken over German medicine, teaching, law, journalism. Ruthlessly, they kept out gentiles; lecherously, they demanded favors. "I simply want to reduce their numbers in these fields," Hitler told Prince Philip of Hesse. "I want them proportionate to their overall number in the population." That was the early solution; the final solution followed with equal logic.

Copyright © by Gore Vidal

Selected Essays, by Gore Vidal (Abacus, £)

Gore Vidal might be a novelist, a (deliberately self-sabotaged) politician, and memoirist, but it is as an essayist that he really excels, and finds his true purpose. Stephen Spender noticed this more than 30 years ago, and cited it as a touchstone for Vidal's sincerity: "Certainly someone mad about success would not achieve his most genuine effects in a form so modest as the essay." One assents to the point being made, but, really, "modest" isn't exactly the mot juste when it comes to Vidal. That is a good part of his appeal. He does not, as it were, have much to be modest about.

There is a Collected Essays, covering 40 years of writing up to , but as the editor of this volume, Jay Parini, notes: "It should have come with little wheels and a retractable handle." (Actually, it's not that unwieldy, but we concede the general point.) As Vidal is arguably the single most important essayist of the past 50 years, a selection like this is necessary, although the decisions about what to leave out must have been hard.

As it is, there is nothing to grumble about, apart from the criminal lack of an index. His most famous pieces are all present: "The Top Ten Best-Sellers", in which he gamely ploughs through 's most popular books, so we don't have to; "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star", an unanswerable attack on the homophobia of the rightwing columnist Midge Decter and indeed on anyone's homophobia; "Pornography", a plea for liberal tolerance that raised quite a few eyebrows in ; and - beat this for an iconoclastic title - "Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy".

There are two great things about Vidal's essay-writing. (We will take the learning as read.) The first is his refusal to toe any lines. He will not say something he does not mean. When, in "Pornography", he denigrates Queneau's Zazie dans le métro, Donleavy's The Ginger Man and Beckett's Watt ("incapable of summoning up so much as the ghost of a rose, to appropriate Sir Thomas Browne's handsome phrase"), one might feel that his literary compass has gone awry - but at least he is being honest to his own feelings, and not falling into line with highbrow literary opinion just because that is what the done thing is. The thing about Vidal is that he is sincere. (When he was a Democratic candidate in , he was quoted thus: "I say 80% of what I think, a hell of a lot more than any politician I know." The essay form allows him to fill in that extra 20%.) And if I disagree with him about Watt, I can at least sigh with relief when I find that I am not the only person who finds Thomas Pynchon grossly overrated.

The second great thing, which anyone who has ever read him knows, is that he is devilishly funny. He makes his opponents look like fools, and revels in so doing. The tone might be de haut en bas, but that's what makes his attacks so appealing: from a position loftier than that of the powerful, he allies himself with the people; ordinary, oppressed people, ill-served by the mendacious pieties of the American ruling class. Coming from that class himself, his attacks carry more weight. There is a mischievous twinkle in his prose as he confronts the governing classes in language they are not quite classy enough to use themselves. Who else could describe Mount Rushmore as "that once beautiful Dakota cliff defaced by the somber Gutzon Borglum with the faces of dead pols"? And who else has been so centrally placed as to be able to tell uncappable anecdotes about the great and good? "Eleanor [Roosevelt]'s dislike of heterosexuality was lifelong. ('They think of nothing else,' she once said to me, grimly - and somewhat vaguely, for she never said exactly who 'they' were.)"

British readers may feel, on seeing titles here like "William Dean Howells" or "Dawn Powell: The American Writer", that this selection is weighted too much towards an American audience. Don't let this put you off. Vidal never writes a pedestrian or useless sentence; whatever he's talking about, you're going to pick up something memorable, informative, outrageous, or sometimes all three at once. No bookshelf is civilised without this.

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