Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pricked by the Violet Quill

‘I don’t belong here, I shouted at them silently’ intones the young narrator of Edmund White’s 1982 classic A Boy’s Own Story. What a hauntingly beautiful story it is, not just in the way its written (superbly) but in its emotional honesty. It could be any boy’s own story, but it so happens to be the story of a boy on the outside, a fledgling gay, coming of age in a world that doesn’t fit the worlds inside of him.
It’s not a book I should have read until now, because it wouldn’t have had the same impact without the benefit of the intervening years. It brought back feelings I had forgotten, or now (deliberately? Subconsciously?) deny or conceal. A time when innocence was not a contemptible weakness but rather wondrous, and lovely.
This is not my story, but much of it could have been - and much of it certainly informs the adult I've become.


I hypothesised a lover who’d take me away. He’d climb the fir tree outside my window, step into my room and gather me into his arms…
…His delay in coming went on so long that soon I’d passed from anticipation to nostalgia. One night I sat at my window and stared at the moon, toasting it with a champagne glass filled with grape juice.  I knew that immense light was falling on him as well, far away and just as lonely in a distant room. I expected him to be able to divine my existence and my need, to intuit that in this darkened room in this country house a fourteen-year-old was waiting for him.
The solace of the condemned is scorn, especially scorn of an aesthetic stripe.
No matter how despairing I might be I was implicitly counting on my eventual happiness.
The constant coupling of fear and desire
Would I become queer and never, never be like other people? To overcome my scruples, Ralph hypnotized me. He didn’t have to intone the words long to send me into a deep trance. Once I was under his spell he told me I’d obey him, and I did. He also said that when I awakened I’d remember nothing, but he was wrong there. I have remembered everything.
Religious doubt
When they’d talk of Original Sin or the Creation or the Devil they’d become agitated, their cheeks would flush and their eyes would sparkle, as though they were hypnotizing themselves into espousing this obvious nonsense. And the more vague and absurd the things they discussed (angels, the resurrection of the body), the more they used such words as precisely, undoubtedly, clearly and naturally.
But I also felt surging within me a fierce need to be independent. Of course I responded to the appeal of divine hydraulics, this system of souls damned or crowned or destroyed or held in suspense, these pulleys and platforms sinking and lifting on the great stage, and I recognized that my view of things seemed by contrast impoverished, lacking in degree and incident. But the charming intricacy of myth is not sufficient to compel belief. I found no good reason to assume that the ultimate nature of reality happens to resemble the backstage of an opera house.
At one point, the teenage hero goes on a date with a pretty, popular girl at school: Helen Paper. He was set up by his best friend, Tommy, who he's secretly head over heels in love with. He goes on this date with Helen and at the end of the date, walks her home and nearly kisses her in the street – he knows she prepared for it, “Had I not seen her a moment ago covertly pop some scented thing into her mouth to prepare for such an inevitability?” They hold hands, but… kissing Helen Paper doesn’t materialize:
This moment with Helen – our tallness on the moon-lashed porch, the cool winds that sent black clouds (lit by gold from within) caravelling past a pirate moon, a coolness that glided through opening fingers that now touched, linked, squeezed, slowly drew apart – this moment made me happy, hopeful. An oppression had been lifted. A long apprenticeship to danger had abruptly ended.
            After I left her I raced home through the deserted streets laughing and leaping.
I thought, reading, he was laughing and leaping – because he didn’t have to kiss her. I was so happy for him, having escaped this pressure to "perform" and be someone he wasn't. The oppression that had been lifted was his need to fit in, he had escaped unscathed!
On the following page I was jolted back to bitter truth - reading that the “apprenticeship to danger” that abruptly ended was… his own homosexual feelings. He was happy, leaping in the streets, at the possibility of now loving a girl, not of escaping her. He was not damned. He now had real hope to believe his attraction to Tommy would turn fraternal.

Of course, yes of course, sigh: that’s exactly what it’s like. 
You exalt in the hope of fitting in. How I had forgotten; how I'm painfully reminded. And how pathetic it is when I look around to see how many adults are still willing to do anything, frantically, fanatically, hypocritically, politically just to "fit in".
White effortlessly gets to the heart of the human matter, and though set in the 50's, I never read about Howdy Doody. How much more affecting and wise writing is, always, when banishing pop culture, pervasive as it is. Notice in the quote above with Helen Paper - she pops “a scented thing” into her mouth, not Wrigley’s spearmint or a Certs, it’s something bigger, universal and forever. Timelessness is a quality shared by all great works of art.
And a great book, like a great person, strives to make others feel less alone. There is no more worthwhile an accomplishment.

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