Hamlet Debates Watching Donald Trump’s Speech

To watch or not to watch, that is the question.

Whether ’tis safer for the sanity and the blood pressure to ignore

The bigotry and nonsense of this outrageous circus,

Or to take arms against a sea of crass stupidity

And by laughing, end it.  To cry, to weep–

No more–and by guffawing to say we end

This absurd union of rednecks and greed-mad narcissists,

And the million certifiable lunatics the GOP is heir to.

‘Tis a consummation secularly to be wished. To cry, to sleep–

To sleep, perchance to dream, and find that this nightmare

Is nothing more than the fear and small-handedness

That tyrants are made on.

May the Myth Be with You

Star Wars is a summer movie if ever there was one. Or seven. Or nine. And yet, there’s something terribly appropriate about the fact that, this holiday season, The Force Awakens is all anyone can talk about. A December opening isn’t just about Oscar lust and box office. The winter solstice has been a time of mythic meaning from the pagans, through the Christians, to the Jedis.

When the Star Wars logo appeared on the screen at today’s matinee, and the plot summary in its familiar yellow font receded slowly into star-strewn space, I felt a catch in my throat. It’s the same reaction I have on Christmas Eve when I hear the story of the wise men, even though I’ve been a confirmed atheist for a long time in what seems like a galaxy far, far away.

In neither case is my reaction because the story is factual. In both cases, it’s because the story is true.

No spoilers, I promise. I’ll refer to only one aspect of the plot, and that’s revealed in those yellow words at the opening, when we’re told that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. Later, when Luke is mentioned, one of the characters dismissively says, “Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth.”

The line reminded me of the opening of another modern myth—Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—the sentence that serves as a catchphrase for hopelessness throughout the first part of the book: “Who is John Galt?” Well, after a few hundred pages, the world finds out who John Galt is, and hopeless is the last word to describe him.

When people say things like this—“I thought he was a myth”—the suggestion is that a myth is somehow less powerful than a flesh-and-blood person. In truth, men and women act upon their time in history. Myths live forever. The stories of the fictitious Odysseus still resonate for the world. Jesus was a man who became a myth, and as I write, people the world over are celebrating his birthday, or an approximation thereof.

Myths resonate so deeply in part because of their simplicity. There are a few common elements that each mythology seems to recycle. One such element is the absent hero, the hero who’s retreated from the world and is somehow coaxed back into it, toward his greatest triumph. Jesus wanders in the wilderness, John Galt creates a hidden community in the mountains. And Luke Skywalker … well, he does what Luke Skywalker does. (I promised: no spoilers.)

And then there’s the central concept that gives each myth its unifying structure, its raison d’être. I’d forgotten how cool the concept of the Force is, the idea that there’s an energy coursing through the universe that has both light and dark components. In Star Wars, it’s an almost tangible thing, external to people but still running through them. In religion, it’s pretty much the same—grace emanating from a god, granted to individuals. And in both cases, it’s a metaphor for free will. Light and dark, good and evil, lie before us all the time, and every moment of the day we choose one or the other. On some days, mostly good; on other days, not so much. In our own ways, we are all members of the Skywalker clan, tempted by warring forces within our own minds.

My favorite of all myths is the Nibelungenlied, as manifested in Wagner’s transcendent Ring cycle. There’s a force in that story, too, a force that can be used for good or for evil. And in the end, there is redemption. The most beautiful music I know is the leitmotif that pours through the orchestra at the end, when Brünnhilde sacrifices herself to save the world.   The theme is known as “redemption through love.”

There are two more movies before we reach the end of the Star Wars saga, before we find out what action saves that particular galaxy. But we know that something will. There’s a huge surprise near the end of episode 7, but the final moment of the film is completely predictable. That’s what happens in myth. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.


On Rediscovering Madame Bovary

(Warning: Spoilers abound.)

In my freshman year, I comped for the undergraduate literary magazine. (Comping: that’s Harvardspeak for “trying out.”) As I recall, the process had two major phases: first, we had to read submissions to the magazine and review them—pointing out flaws, recommending rewrites. I imagine I did pretty well at that, because it got me to phase two—the interview.

That interview lives in my memory as one of the most intimidating moments of my life—more so than any job interview I’ve had since. I walked into a dimly lit room to face a tribunal of what in memory seems like a dozen people who tossed questions at me, designed to gauge my literary tastes and my ability to articulate them for the magazine. One editor, a blonde girl dressed all in white, asked what my favorite book was. The answer came quickly: Madame Bovary. But then came the hardest question of all.

“Why?” she asked. “Tell us what makes it your favorite.”

A simple enough question, but I was flummoxed. It was true that I had loved the book. It was also true, however, that I believed the mere fact that I had read it would impress them. It struck me as a rather mature choice for an 18-year-old.   But I stumbled over the why. I have no memory now of what I said, but I do know that it was inarticulate, unimpressive, and not enough to get me into the club.

Of course, I hadn’t yet learned how to explicate a text, how to explain how a particular work of literature makes its mark on a reader. That was what I was about to learn in class, years spent reading and discussing the work of writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Virginia Woolf. But at that point, still adjusting to college and figuring out where the libraries were, I did not yet have the tools.

There was, of course, another reason for my inarticulateness. I may have had a visceral reaction to the themes of Madame Bovary and an appreciation for Flaubert’s artistry, but I had no life experience to prepare me for the content. A person enraptured by fantasies of love, prey to the danger of romantic notions in an all-too-practical world, was as yet a completely foreign concept to me.

Now, more than 30 years later, I have finally reread Flaubert’s masterpiece, in the wonderful recent translation by American writer Lydia Davis. And this time was completely different. To see Emma’s story through the eyes of experience is to discover something almost entirely new.

Madame Bovary is the story of a naïve woman whose understanding of love is shaped entirely by novels, and when I first read it, so was mine. At the time of first reading, I grasped Flaubert’s point—that romance and reality are very distinct, and that a failure to appreciate the difference can be disastrous. But my understanding of even that theme was purely intellectual. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t protect me from later making mistakes very similar to Emma’s, albeit with far less tragic results.

In fact, despite what I should have learned from Flaubert, I spent most of my twenties and thirties in pursuit of romance. I cursed my loneliness, decried the imperfection of my lovers, and despaired of ever finding happiness. Along the way, I fell hard for a married man, another whose mental illness brought out every codependent nerve in my body, and a series of others who were unable to commit to a third date, let alone a white picket fence. All the while I seldom stopped to ask myself whether the problem lay less in the reality I was finding than in the expectations I brought to the process.

Flaubert famously said of his heroine, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” And now I know what he meant. I have been Emma Bovary, again and again. I have had my share of Charles Bovarys, men whose love for me couldn’t compete with the imaginary Mr. Right I kept stowed away in the back of my head. In my youth, I even shared Emma’s tendency to go into debt, thinking that pretty things (oh, the money spent on those “colourful” Alexander Julian shirts that were my fashion obsession in the 80s!) would compensate for what was missing inside.

In rereading the book all these years later, I found that my sympathy for the heroine had expanded into empathy: I could actually relate to her experience. Flaubert is judging her, of course, using her as an example of the dangers of not just romantic notions but commercialism and the forced conformity of provincial life. But he also demonstrates compassion for her. Emma’s mistakes are an indictment of society as much as of the woman herself. She is taught to depend upon men for everything, but she is never taught how to calibrate her dreams in relation to her circumstances. Most tragically, she comes to believe that love—that is, the romantic notion of love promulgated by fiction—can cure all ills, can in fact give her the identity she seems unable to grasp on her own. Because she is so desperate to find that soul-stirring love (essentially, nothing more than a mix of romance and lust), she never discovers the deeper love that actually can cure all ills: the kind of love that comes only with time, because only time can teach you patience, and only prolonged attachment can teach you true compassion.

Emma is disappointed when marriage doesn’t bring her immediate pleasure and constant excitement. She is disappointed when Rodolphe proves unable to translate his lust into commitment. She is disappointed that Léon is unable to give her the luxurious life she craves. Emma’s life is a series of disappointments because her dreams get in the way. Despite my compassion for her, I can also say that she is rather narcissistic: the men in her life amount to little more than vehicles for her own pleasure.

The first time I read the book, I’m sure I was rooting for Rodolphe, the swarthy one. Or Léon, the serious, sensitive one. I’m sure I wasn’t rooting for Charles, the steadfast, earnest one.

Oh, what a difference a few decades make.

I can’t help thinking now that Charles does indeed love Emma in a mature, almost noble way—ironically, just the way she needs to be loved, the way anyone needs to be loved, really. His great flaw is that he is blind to her impractical desires and therefore can’t prevent her from giving heedlessly in to them. It never occurs to him that the comfortable life he offers her might not be enough to satisfy her. He never really understands just what she wants from life—nor does he really ask the question. That is his own tragic flaw, the source of his downfall.

Flaubert brilliantly draws a convincing portrait of Emma, far more psychologically nuanced than one would expect for a novel published in 1857. To my mind, the psychological depth of this novel would not occur in English literature until more than 30 years later, with the late novels of Thomas Hardy. And no doubt, this psychological realism is the true reason Flaubert was charged with obscenity: Madame Bovary not only deals with sexual desire, but does so sympathetically and credibly. It was one thing to depict a woman’s sexuality if you condemned her in the process, but to show compassion for her was, at the time, no doubt unforgivable.

Although Emma does die, of course—and it is one of the most agonizing deaths in all of literature—her fate cannot be read as the author’s attempt to punish her behavior. On the contrary, at the end, Emma finally understands that her life itself was the real agony. She isn’t suffering now because she did something wrong; she suffered all along, because she lived her life in terms of desire rather than reality.

I don’t remember the language of the translation I read 30 years ago well enough to tell you whether Davis’s is better, but it is certainly very, very good. The novel flows in beautiful English, but with a cadence and syntax that reveal its French roots.

Emma Bovary never had the chance to learn that time and experience are the greatest of all teachers. So the rest of us should be more grateful that we do. I know I’ll never again be so tongue-tied when someone asks why I love this novel so much.

In my senior year of college, with more experience as an English major under my belt, I comped for the Crimson, the campus newspaper. This time I succeeded, and got my first byline writing film reviews—which, I recently discovered, are now available online. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to reread those.

Happy Birthday to the American People

When I told a friend I was reading The American People, he immediately shut down the conversation with a dismissive, “I hate Larry Kramer!”

That’s what you get with Larry Kramer. His anger turns people off. His conviction that he knows what’s right turns people off. Despite the fact that he usually is right, and his anger is justified. In fact, his anger and his arrogance are two of the main reasons that AIDS is no longer the plague it once was. But that’s another story. Or is it?

For Kramer, the line between fact and fiction has always been fairly thin. He has admitted that the reason he could write The Normal Heart so quickly was that he was really just writing about what had actually happened. So when it comes to The American People, his long-awaited tome (clocking in at just under 800 pages—so far), are we talking about fiction or history? The answer, quite clearly, is a little of both.

The volume begins with a series of epigraphs, including this rather telling one from Joseph Conrad: “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.” For Kramer, too, art must have a social agenda. It must say something about our time, even be a call to action. I don’t know what he would say about the concept of art for art’s sake, but it has always seemed to me that even that dictum is a social statement. And it is well to remember that one of its greatest proponents, Oscar Wilde, always had a message up his subversive sleeve.

How fitting that I should finish this book in the week between Pride and the 4th of July—holidays that both honor, albeit in very different ways, revolution.

Kramer’s history begins in the pre-colonial Everglades and, at the end of Volume 1, brings us to the 1950s. Along the way we meet many of the major figures of American history, several identified by name, others disguised by pseudonyms. (The latter technique seems largely reserved for more modern figures, perhaps only because the living and heirs of the recently deceased are more likely to be litigious.) Thus, we have George Washington as George Washington, but Peter Ruester as Ronald Reagan.

Aside from the historian narrators who quibble among themselve about their own versions of the truth, the only character that remains a constant through the book is the Underlying Condition. This is one of Kramer’s most intriguing tropes. In a literal sense, the UC, as he calls it, is a virus that will eventually evolve into HIV. We see it mutating its way through America, changing its tactics and getting stronger with each generation of hosts. But in a metaphoric sense, it’s a great deal more than that: the Underlying Condition is the dark side of the American dream—the combination of hatred and greed that has followed us through history, the combination that has arguably made our history. As I suspect we will see in Volume 2, AIDS is the ultimate manifestation of that moral virus, the result of a culture that survives by targeting and destroying its own marginal elements.

The first 100 or so pages of the book are a bit hard to get through—lots of competing voices (scientists, historians, and various talking heads), lots of descriptions of violent and ugly episodes, and lots of shit—literal shit. But even in those early sections there are glimmers of brilliance. Indeed, the book is full of inspired moments and several extended passages that are quite insightful and even beautiful. I particularly like the depiction of ordinary people (as opposed to, say, Alexander Hamilton), such as the Jewish family that becomes the center of the story in the second half—allowing Kramer to demonstrate the effects of history on relatable human beings.

Much has been made about how Kramer deals with more historical figures, most of whom he depicts as gay or at least participating in homosexual activity: Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Lincoln, the list goes on. For many of them—e.g., Lincoln and J. Edgar Hoover, of course—there’s nothing surprising here. For others, one wonders how much Kramer’s imagination transformed his stated research. But even that isn’t the point. History doesn’t tell us much about people’s sex lives, other than whether they were married. So why, as Kramer has said elsewhere, presume they’re straight? Why not assume they were gay? By doing so, he provides another through-line, but also a commentary—that homosexuality is natural and therefore deserving of neither shame nor denial. He seems to be daring the reader to argue with him, but you have the sense that he has reams of research to back up everything (much of it actually cited in the text, while other titles and authors are clearly made up). History belongs to the historian, right? And in an age when memoir, with its avowed verisimilitude despite the fact that the human memory plays havoc with literally everything, is the new novel, why shouldn’t fiction be the new history?

And therein lies the genius of the book. Kramer plays with genre, calling into question our ordinary definitions of truth (and, of course, the pesky problem that fact and truth are seldom the same thing). At the same time, he creates a phantasmagoric landscape, complete with a talking virus. The novelist he most reminds me of is Salman Rushdie, and the book I would say this has the most in common with is The Satanic Verses. And we all know what kind of trouble that got Rushdie into.

In this book, as in every other phase of his life, Larry Kramer is fearless. He is 80 years old, living with HIV for decades. He founded both GMHC and ACT-UP, taking on everyone from Anthony Fauci to Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan. He is a force of nature, and a voice that not only demands to be heard, but needs to be heard.

The second volume promises to blow the lid off. If people are upset with what Kramer says about George Washington, just wait until we see what he does to Ronald Reagan.

First Comes Love

At this year’s Saints and Sinners literary festival, an annual gathering of LGBT writers and readers in New Orleans, I was asked to participate on a panel about love. The panel’s primary question was whether marriage equality would kill the gay romance novel. Romance, of course—in both literature and life—thrives on obstacles. Once you remove the obstacles, the panel was asked, what are you left with?

The question is a bit of a straw man. After all, straight people have been getting married for centuries, and that hasn’t afflicted Danielle Steel with writer’s block.

I felt like a bit of a ringer on the panel. I don’t write romance novels per se—where romance is defined as boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy in the end (well, maybe that last part). While my work does typically focus on love, I’m more interested in what happens after happily-ever-after. For me, Act 2 of Into the Woods offers the better music.

So, in preparing for the panel, I had to look beyond the question of the romance plot. It seemed to me that we were really engaging with a much larger question: how literature reflects the way we live at any given moment, and its responsibility to portray how we used to live, and how we should strive to live in the future.

It takes time for art to catch up with life, at least on a wide scale. For a long time gay fiction was stuck in the adolescent phase of coming-out and cruising stories, even as gay people in the real world were assimilating more and more into mainstream culture.

The turning point, tragically, was AIDS. Nothing makes a person—or a people, or a literary canon—grow up faster than confronting mortality. While AIDS was and remains a horrible truth, it is also worth noting that the pandemic vastly increased the visibility of the gay community and paved the way for many of the gains we have seen since. The struggle against HIV humanized us in the eyes of the mainstream and forced them to look at us as people rather than just practitioners of sex acts they found distasteful.

It also gave us something new to write about. With deadly serious subject matter, gay literature could be deadly serious, too.

So at first, gay people fooled around in fiction. Then they died. And now they’re getting married.

Not that they weren’t doing that all along, albeit without the license and the matching rings from Tiffany. It’s possible—even likely, I daresay—that committed gay relationships are no more common now than they were 30 years ago. But now that legal recognition exists, people are talking about them a lot more. And, finally, writing and reading about them, as well.

As Stendahl said, literature holds up a mirror to society. And so gay literature reflects the current storyline. But it doesn’t have to condone it.

The real danger of the marriage plot (or should I say, the dangerous plot behind the marriage plot) is that our literature will become heteronormative, that gay novels will now posit marriage as the expected norm and marginalize other ways of living and thereby other plots. The role of art, however, is to challenge mainstream notions, not to surrender to them. This isn’t to say that marriage, or military service, or moving to the suburbs aren’t viable options. But they’re just options, among many.

Art is a powerful thing. It not only reflects society, but has the ability to influence it. We need to make sure that we have among us the gay equivalents of Emily Brontë and George Eliot, women who refused to give in to the straight marriage plot that dominated Victorian literature and life. So long as gay literature continues to show the full panoply of the LGBT world—the diversity of the community in terms of both essence and behavior—it will live up to that responsibility. Our job as writers is to remember that, as we embark upon a brave new world, we must also reflect the world from which we came and honor it with our words as well as our lives.

Vivian Maier and Me

I recently saw the Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier, a fascinating account of a brilliant photographer who kept her talent under a stroller for her entire life. Maier worked as an itinerant nanny, moving from one family to another to take care of children while silently pursuing her art. She would take her tiny charges on outings, most notably along the seedier streets of Chicago, a camera constantly around her neck. While the children played along the way, Maier would snap amazing photographs of the things and people that caught her eye.

The work is extraordinary, one part Diane Arbus, one part Ansel Adams. And apparently she never showed it to a soul.

When Maier died, she left behind thousands of unprinted negatives, hundreds more unprocessed rolls of film. The critical consensus is that if she had been discovered in her lifetime, if she had printed her work and brought it to galleries, she would have been a star.

And who doesn’t want to be a star?

Well, Vivian Maier, for one. But why, the filmmakers ask? Why didn’t she ever bother to get her work out to the world? They try to locate the reason in her personal life (or lack thereof), or to blame it on her clearly troubled mental state. But I think the answer is much simpler than that:

Vivian Maier was interested in the work itself, and only the work.

Maier epitomizes the concept of art for art’s sake. You can’t say that she did it for herself, because she hardly printed any of it. It wasn’t as if she were sitting in her attic room gazing for hours upon the fruits of her labor. The fruits of her labor were pretty much rolled up on untouched strips of celluloid inside plastic tubes. (For those of you who have never used anything but a digital camera, just trust me: that’s what we did way back in the 20th century.)

I saw Finding Vivian Maier in the midst of a funk of my own. For weeks now, I’ve been alternately depressed and anxious, and it wasn’t until I saw this film that I understood why.

The simple fact is that the thing that makes me happiest is writing. Doing the work. And that hasn’t been my priority lately. Instead of doing the real work of writing, I’ve been focused on selling. My latest novel is ready to be sent off—out into the world, where Vivian’s photographs never went until her death.   Instead of writing, I’ve been compiling lists of agents and editors, networking with writer friends, composing letters to strangers, imagining a marketing campaign, reducing years of work to an elevator pitch.

Making art is a joy. Painful at times, but only because it gets to the heart of life, because you go to those dark places to dig up something important, something you can then gloss to a shine. For the most part, the act of creation is a peak experience. Selling your art is a pain in the ass.

So Vivian Maier spent her life with a camera around her neck. She framed the world through a lens and saw beauty in it. And there was so much to see. Readying it for the world would only have distracted her from the work itself, from the thing that gave her life meaning. Maybe, as the filmmakers suggest, she didn’t have the constitution for it. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

A Book Lover’s Pilgrimage

Maybe November is the wrong time to visit Germany. The sky, on my recent vacation there, was relentlessly gray; the air, bitter cold. But climate is all relative: when I was living in Boston I would refer to such temperatures (hovering just above freezing) as brisk; 20 years of California’s disavowal of weather have spoiled me, or thinned my blood, as my mother would say. So, for me, Berlin was bitter cold.

Perhaps the weather predisposed me to find the city sad. The overcast sky seemed to bleach any color from the streets. I felt at times as if I were in a black-and-white movie, or living in another era. Berlin, to me, carried the full weight of history on its shoulders. Despite the vibrant nightlife, its role as the economic powerhouse of Europe, I had a hard time seeing beyond Germany’s tragic and nightmarish past.

Like any major city, of course, Berlin has its tourist attractions: the stunning antiquities collections at the Pergamon and the Neues Museum; the charming village of Nikolaiviertel; the imposing Brandenburg Gate. But the sights everyone most wants to see are remnants of a darker history: pieces of a city torn apart first by the Nazis, later by the wall that cut through it like a scythe.

So I took the requisite tour. I saw the pieces of the Wall that remain, ironically graffitied into emblems of protest and whimsy. I visited the Reichstag, which had been set on fire by Hitler as a ploy to blame the communists and solidify his own power, now gloriously transformed by a beautiful dome whose glass structure proclaims the promise of a transparent government. I passed by buildings that still bear the pockmarks of gunfire. I visited the Jewish Museum, an architectural triumph whose very walls can break your heart. And I went to Bebelplatz.

As a writer, as a lover of words, I had to visit Bebelplatz. It was a pilgrimage. On this spot, between Humboldt University and the State Opera House, in May 1933, Goebbels and his crew of thugs set fire to more than 20,000 books.

The memorial to that horrid event isn’t a statue hovering over you, or a tower you gaze up at. To see this memorial, you have to look down.

We were there at dusk, and I was a bit worried that I’d have trouble finding the spot in the encroaching darkness. But suddenly, my eyes were drawn to a light that came up through the ground, turning the surrounding cobblestone an almost cobalt blue. And there it was, a square of glass framed in white, a window to the underworld. Inside, like a basement apartment silently awaiting its next inhabitant, was an empty room—bright white and hollow, the walls covered with row upon row of empty bookshelves. Enough shelves to hold 20,000 books.

It’s one of the most elegant memorials I’ve ever seen—in its way as simple and devastating as the coffin-shaped pillars that take up a city block across town at the Holocaust Memorial. The books, of course, were a test run for a greater horror.

Not surprisingly, the first books on the pyre were pulled from the library at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institue for Sex Research. It was in those volumes that two of the Nazis’ greatest enemies could be found: homosexuals and intellectuals. They didn’t stop there, of course. Books, to a tyrant, are an enemy unto themselves. Books represent freedom of thought. That’s the last thing any tyrant wants to see.

Gazing down at those empty shelves, I tried to imagine a world without books—a world without Whitman and Woolf, without Morrison and Roth, without Homer and Joyce and Mishima. Books were my first friends. Books allowed me to escape the constraints of my world, and introduced me to new worlds where I could feel I belonged. Books are transgressive. Books save lives.

I took a photo of the memorial, that room as white and terrifying as Melville’s whale. It’s a talisman for me now, an inspiration. With each blog, each story, each novel, I’m reminded of those empty shelves. They need to be filled.