Vidal on sex, all in 280 pages. Here, surely, is the work of an editor with a sharp No. 2. If I were managing Cleis Press, publisher of Sexually Speaking, Vidal's "collected sex writings," I'd have allowed for ten times that length--and then fretted about what to take, what to leave. What about the fiction--and not just City but Julian or Myra, for instance and for starters? As Kaplan's book reminds us, Vidal on this subject is a rich lode. And not even in City, which makes its way as a cult novel now, did Vidal limit his purview to the same-sex encounter. Therein, of course, lies his wisdom on the subject.
Sexually Speaking, alas and alack, has no such round ambition. It seems, rather, quite a pointed production. It's nicely presented, with a jacket that gives a curious echo to the striking cover art that graces Palimpsest. But of its fourteen essays, thirteen are reprints from United States, the big, encompassing collection published in 1993. Only "J'accuse!"--a brief piece on the just-settled Matthew Shepard murder case--postdates it. So there's not much new here. Given the provenance, this collection looks like an act of generosity on Vidal's part.
Still, it is good to see these pieces under their own roof, so to say. There are several (including "J'accuse!") that map the intersection of sex, politics and the legal statutes. Vidal is surprisingly thorough on this subject, invoking John Stuart Mill, the published lectures of Oxford dons and old Mann Act cases to deliver his case. Among these essays we find the Vidal not so familiar to many readers, who used to publish in Partisan Review. "One postwar phenomenon," he wrote in Sex and the Law (1965), "has been the slowness of the liberal community to respond to those flaws in our society which might be corrected by concerted action." Hmmm. A little woody, I'd say. To me, the best pieces here are those about other writers: Wilde, Isherwood, Maugham, Henry Miller. And I can read as much Vidal on Tennessee Williams as Vidal will ever produce, as often as I get the excuse to do so.
Vidal has been salient on human sexuality from his earliest days in print. That we're all bisexual, all dwelling in different houses along the same long road, is a running theme. It's not a discovery, of course. There's Freud, and the old Kinsey Report, sensational stuff when Vidal was a young man conversing with Gide in Paris. Vidal has cited both--and then used the idea to change the way we see things (and ourselves). He has also driven us back--"I'm a radical, which means I go to the root of it," he says at one point in this book--to show us the world and the race when things were different: in Greece, in Rome, in Elizabethan England, the England before Cromwell.
It would have been rewarding to see him expand on such matters in this book. A few years ago, the social critic Richard Sennett published a volume called Flesh and Stone, in which he explained the ways and the place of the human body in Greece, Rome and onward through Western Civ. Fascinating stuff, and it would have been wonderful to see Vidal enter upon such a topic. Even though he seems to have no more to add to what he has already said, well-selected passages from some of the books, à la Kaplan's anthology, might have been illuminating. It would have given Sexually Speaking a better claim to its subtitle, certainly. As it is, it's a useful primer.
I could be misreading this book entirely, but the point of it seems to be to drive a flagpole into Vidal's chest cavity, as if he were a patch of public park, and fly the flag of "gay writer" above it. Vidal vigorously protests this impulse in his preface. "The confusion that there are two teams--one good, straight; one bad, gay--is not helped by reversing the adjectives," he writes. "It is the virtue of a great writer like Tennessee to know that there is only one team, the human, and that the rest is politics." It's eloquent. But doth the man protest too much?
You have to wonder. At the other end of Sexually Speaking we find an interview first published in 1992. It is the last of three included here, and it's called "The Sadness of Gore Vidal." It was conducted by Larry Kramer, the playwright and journalist, over dinner at the Plaza. And you have to wonder, too, whether it isn't a record of the worst meal Vidal has ever consumed there. It left a sour taste in my mouth, certainly. Here is a man who claims Vidal as "one of my all-time heroes and role models" and who displays a misunderstanding of everything Vidal has put on paper:
GV: Look, what I'm preaching is: don't be ghettoized, don't be categorized. Every state tries to categorize its citizens in order to assert control of them.
LK: But...many of us want to be ghettoized and categorized.
And on. It's a disheartening display, though it does reveal lakes of sympathy and patience in Vidal that one doesn't always see. It's easy to misread Gore Vidal, or mistreat him, or misuse him. It must be: People do it all the time--and that truly is sad.