"After all, nothing is harder to reflect than a mirror."
- Gore Vidal, in a review of Christopher Isherwood (1976)
Gore Vidal will be a very big challenge for me to put into words. This book is titled his "sexual writings", but as Gore Vidal would say, "Sex is politics." I found that I went into reading the book with some very false expectations. I assumed this would mostly be a collection of essays and interviews that would eloquently put forth the common opinions of the liberal intellect as collective hive mind. In other words... I was ready to read lots of essays on why porn is covered under free speech, how government shouldn't make sex laws, and about how the repressive sexual atmosphere in America is so counterproductive to leading happy lives. Also, because it was Gore Vidal, I assumed I'd hear some discussion about bisexuality and gay males. For, as he joked in an interview in 1974 with The Gay Sunshine, "Well, after all, I'm supposed to be the apostle of bisexuality because I said something in its favor once, and as we all know I invented homosexuality in 1948 with The City and the Pillar."
I have to say that I was rather stunned at what I did find, which was a page-turning politically and philosophically rich book that took a lot of risky opinions that I may not have agreed with entirely, but I found absolutely fascinating to read and turn over in my mind. It is one of those books that you put down reluctantly and find yourself arguing with in your mind while you have to go make dinner. Which is, if you haven't guessed, my very favorite kind of literature. Quite to the contrary of my assumptions, he is positively radical in his opinions and after reading him I doubt he'd ever dream of assuming a position just because it happened to be what the liberal hive mind is thinking at the time. I also doubt he'd dream of taking a position in opposition just to exercise his ability to be different. He is about a certain objective viewpoint on matters (sometimes to the point of feeling positively chilly to me) that crosses party lines and dualities and asks a person merely to think for them self. In fact, he seems to take a certain amount of delight in tweaking the common opinions and making a person think for him or herself. He tweaked me a few times, enough that a few spots bruised..haha. He seems to try very hard not to be categorized, and thus I will try not to do him a disservice by doing so. He is best understood through his own words and supports his positions in a way that I would be hard pressed to properly represent, but I will try to give some basic idea of the themes that I see ever present in his work.
The first reoccurring theme is that sex is politics. He consistently brings up that our sexuality is more of a political construct now than a natural state of affairs. He explores the opinion that governments find a populace that is shamed and hampered easier to control. One example he is fond of is that if the government endorses and indeed enforces heterosexual marriage than they find the people in that situation easier to control. For example, if the male in the household loses his job he knows it will impact his entire family negatively. Therefore, he is much more likely to stay in a job with unfair labor practices or be too busy working and not rocking the boat at work to fight the government if he disagrees. In fact, he may be so busy keeping his family from starving he won't even know what the government is up to at all. Therefore, it is in the governments interest to reward and encourage heterosexual marriage and lots of kids because those in office know that a populous kept busy or that has too much to lose, is one that won't bother with it. For that matter, a monogamous living situation is also in the political interest of government. The fewer moneymakers in a family per dependant make for more and more of an upstanding citizen that doesn't want government or an employer getting upset. Gore Vidal also mentions how sex is a wonderful hot button for the populous and how politicians constantly push it in order to put forth agendas, ideas, and to further political takeovers. This made me personally contemplate a lot in the wake of the Clinton impeachment trials. Vidal gives enough history in this book to make quite a case for the republicans historically being obsessed with sexual topics and sexually accusing people of one thing or another to get ahead. Regardless of personal opinion, I think that the history lesson will be interesting for anyone.
The second theme is that government drives religion, which drives "sin". Then government makes rules against "sin", which it can justify by saying it is upholding faith or protecting the family. I found one of his essays very funny indeed when he started listing different things that have been made into "family" or religious issues. For example, he quotes journalist Andrew Kopkind about what the Family Saviors support which is "death penalty, Laetrile, nuclear power, local police, Panama Canal, saccharin, FBI, CIA, defense budget, public prayer, and real-estate growth." Meanwhile he later states that Kopkind says the Family Saviors are against, "busing, welfare, public-employee unions, affirmative action, amnesty, marijuana, communes, gun control, pornography, the 55-mph speed limit, day-care centers, religious ecumenism, sex education, car pools, and the Environmental Protection Agency." Please bear in mind the year of those quotes was 1979. Vidal was wise in demanding that all the dates of his writing be included, so that people would have to consider the order he wrote things in and when he said what. For many of his essays the political context of the time is very important and the dates are very important if you read them and wish to see the growth and development of his theories and observations. It is also somewhat startling because you frequently see politics hasn't changed much!
The third theme is that sexual categorizations such as homosexual and heterosexual should never be thought of in terms of being nouns. In other words, they are adjectives not people. He seems to believe that if you allow someone on the outside of yourself to define you by an adjective that describes something you do, rather than who you are...you are allowing yourself to be ghettoized. If I understand him properly, it is that he believes at that point you have allowed society to define you as something that is different than human or at least something that is not wholly human. Instead it has picked you apart and merely told of a certain set of actions you might perform, and assumed inappropriately that makes you the same as anyone else that would perform those sets of actions that could be also similarly defined as "homosexual" or "heterosexual". Thus creating an imaginary "community" of sub-humans defined only by their sexual actions, with nothing more in common than if they all happened to enjoy cycling. He also has strong feelings about being pressured to write or express him self about things that others explain to be homosexual issues. As he says in the preface, "Is the gay condition so unique that in every aspect of life, particularly as shown in art, that other ways of living-loving must become marginal?" He also says, "I have tried, without much luck, to make the human declaration over the years." These two statements were made in 1999, and they made me hungry for more of his current writing.
The fourth theme of his writing seems to be that men and women are different and shouldn't be forced into acting unnaturally and putting up with each other so much. He does have a rather interesting rant in his essay The Birds and The Bees in which he kindly refers to men as "shootists" and women as "egg layers". Well, that irritated me and I wanted to call to his attention his major theme number three...haha. He makes statements such as, "But then a pair of egg-layers will have more in common (including a common genetic programming for nurturing) than they will ever have with a shootist, who wants to move on the second he's done his planting- no nurturing for him, no warm, mature, caring relationship. He isn't built for it." He also asserts that, "He can fake a caring relationship, of course, but at great cost to his own nature, not to mention battered wife and abused little ones." I think he is so incredibly off the mark here, and perhaps reveals more about himself than about any grand order of things. Gore Vidal has constantly said that he is radical in that he tries to get to the root cause of things, but I think that he certainly hasn't lived up to his own goal on this one. I know he could argue that biology is certainly at the root of our behavior, but I would remind him that if he makes too many assumptions about biology he ends up doing the same sort of blatant and erroneous ghettoizing of individuals that he claims to not want to be a part of.
There are many more issues tackled in these essays than I can possibly put across, each one of them could easily spin off into at least a dozen other essays on minor points made in his writing. As he has said about himself, he must be read line by line. I think this book would fascinate a wide variety of people, even those that are not normally interested in literature that deals with sexual themes. His book is rich in sexual history, and mentions many works of literature or figures in history that I know I'll end up researching now that he has brought them to my attention.
So, who would like this book?
This book is a MUST for anyone trying to get a sense of America's sexual history as it goes into everything from the famous queen Bunny Breckinridge to the relationship between the "beautiful boy" Alexander Hamilton and his "sugar daddy" George Washington. This book also gives one a wonderful sense of time; it brought words and scenes to my attention that would have never been known to me otherwise. Words like "jam", "trade", and "dirt" have taken on a whole new meaning now, and it has made me curious about researching the vernacular of sex (since it has changed so much even from Gore Vidal's generation to my own or in the very least seems to be concentrated in ways that one group seldom has the same language as another). I was aware of this before, but reading his work removed my confidence that I will catch historical references to things if I don't bother to learn the language of the people of those times. This book is also a treasure for anyone interested in the politics of sex or how sexual labels have been applied and if they reflect any greater truth than any other adjective can.
Who probably won't like his book?
If you are looking for something sexually titillating or that describes or educates you about the human body or any particular sex act this isn't your book. Also, if you don't like to read about how sex and politics interact and affect each other, run...don't walk. This book also spends an amazing amount of time discussing literature and history, so if that isn't an interest of yours this writing may not hold your attention for long. This would also be a good time for me to mention that if you are of a Judeo-Christian spiritual bent this book might really get under your skin. I'm not, and even I had moments of prickly horror (perhaps too strong a choice of words) when reading the tone he takes about religion and specifically about Jews. He suggests in this book that if he were in power he would take many steps to discourage religion. I found that a somewhat shallow concept, but he did make an interesting case for it. I feel compelled to be honest, however, about the fact that you will run into some passages such as, "Whatever the original reasons for the total subordination of woman to man, the result has been an unusually ugly religion that has caused a good deal of suffering not only in its original form but also through its later heresy, Christianity, which in due, and ironic, course was to spin off yet another heresy, Communism." If your spirituality is an integral part of your sexuality and you will be annoyed at such statements (and don't want to read them or challenge your own ways of thinking) this book will not be worth a look.
All in all, this book ended up with as many dog-ears and highlighter marks as Beneath the Skins did, and I heartily recommend it. I have found that it has caused many hours or rethinking on my part, not only about sexuality but about every other opinion I have that I may have accepted without taking the time to rationally look at the issue and who benefits by manipulating my beliefs. This book also caused me quite a bit of good humor because Gore Vidal is one of the most caustic wits it has ever been my pleasure (and sometimes pain) to read. I ended up talking about points he brought up with every poor soul that wandered by, and have even managed to talk a few into reading the book that normally wouldn't touch anything having to do with "sexual writing". Even though I do not agree with a lot of points in the book and find some of his apparent fixation on "manly" men and disbelief in love or spirituality rather gut wrenchingly irritating, I greatly enjoy this book and will personally think of it as a modern political treasure that I will read more than once and use as a stepping off point to a better collection of personal knowledge.
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