Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thoughts on Friendship (after reading Jack Holmes and his Friend)

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Plato and Aristotle, lifelong friends

Is it possible for a straight man and a gay man to be friends? The question sounds absurd, at first. Certainly in college or among young single men, the answer ought to be yes.  Edmund White's latest novel Jack Holmes and his Friend looks deeper into this seemingly easy question. Set in the time period from the Fifties up to the advent of HIV in the early Eighties, we find two men who are strangely unaffected by the Beat or Hippie movements, though they live in New York. They appear more like the characters in the T.V. drama Madmen. Though Jack Holmes starts out bisexual, he is soon bedding only men, none of whom can take the place of his true love, Will. Meanwhile, Will turns to Jack for women, first his wife, Alex, Jack's good friend, and later Pia, who becomes his mistress. Jack also provides Will with a place to bed his women. That Will produces a gay son is the only real comic relief to what I found to be a bleak and pessimistic answer to my first question. For all their confiding in one another, for all their meetings, and despite Will having not one other male friend, the two men never find love for each other. While Will is happily, or complacently married, there is no friendship at all. Make no mistake, this is a bitter view of friendship.

My personal experience supports the view of the novel. My beloved straight friends of the past, all of whom sought and promised life-long friendship, quickly disappeared when they married, one of whom emerged, exactly as Will did, years later after his divorce. He vanished all over again into his second marriage. Yet there is a caveat, in those relationships, there was sexual attraction, and sexual contact. In the case of my life long straight friend from my childhood, sexual attraction never entered the picture, and we are friends to this day, still managing to get together here and there, though he lives in another city, and has a wife and three grown sons.

White's novel raises many questions, besides the one about friendship between a gay man and a straight one. How ought we to live our lives, should we be promiscuous or monogamous? Neither choice produces happiness for the two men. Jack winds up settling down to avoid the new "gay plague." Will returns to his wife after getting the clap and crabs. The novel offers no moral about either man, but leaves me with a sense of emptiness. Why can't these two men who ought to share ideas and the ordinary qualities of friendship keep in touch, continue to be friends? Are Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, really the only forces that motivate us? My own novel deals with this dilemma, with the gay and straight friends ultimately parting ways, and the two gay characters coming to realize a life-long bond, regardless of their age difference.

It has always been my hope that Kinsey is correct, and for that matter, Freud, Jung, Sabina Spielrein, and Otto Gross, that we are all bisexual; that enlightenment means coming to accept that fact in our lives, however tilted they may be one way or the other. Beats and Hippies fought the pigeonholing, but our moralistic, religious, prudish society has won out, forcing the suppression of  much creativity and, yes, love, with it.There is no place for Aristotelian friendship, or an Epicurean Garden of like minded people in today's cut throat world of narcissism, self absorption, deception and raw materialism, is there?

Jack 4/12

Monday, April 09, 2012


More thoughts upon seeing Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

In the 1958 film version of Cat  Elizabeth Taylor gives a sharp performance as Maggie the Cat, Paul Newman portrays an anguished Brick, and Burl Ives is the wise, omnipotent, and fatally vulnerable Big Daddy.

Film censorship in the 50s cut the dialog between Big Daddy and Brick considerably, taking me back to the script that Joe gave me in 2010. Some things have changed greatly since  Tennessee Williams wrote this play; some things have not. The play is clearly about the lies we tell each other and, more importantly, the lies we tell ourselves. Williams exposes as well the gulf between those who are selfish and incapable of love, and those for whom love is essential, not only love for others, but love of life. One irony of the play is the sterility of Gooper and Mae despite all their children, and the potent fertility of Maggie despite being childless.

What interests me, as always, is the philosophical presentation of Eros and Thanatos, love and death. Brick is unable until the end of the play to love Maggie, again ironically, because he failed to love Skipper. He refuses to confront the truth of their love for each other until the key scenes between his father and himself. Big Daddy turns out to be more tolerant and understanding of homosexual love than Brick, who experienced it and ran from it, leaving Skipper to commit suicide. Only by confronting his own homophobia, by acknowledging the true nature of the love that existed between himself and his friend, can Brick finally forgive himself and accept the relationship he has with his wife.

The final irony of the play is that Big Daddy can live fully only by accepting his approaching death. In the dialogs with Brick he sees his own mistakes, he turns from the material wealth he has to the wealth of humanity around him, the love of his son, the loyalty of his servants and workers, appreciation for the value of the final days of his life. 

The play may be dated, and the film  inhibited, but the themes it explores are not. We are still influenced by the vast mendacity that surrounds us in the shallow mores of society, the hypocrisy of religion, and the materialism of many around us, often including our families. Conformity is as difficult as ever to escape, no less for those of us who are creative and artistic than those who are athletes and jocks like Brick. Originality and authenticity are mere words to most of us; achieving them requires us to risk being "Beaten down dark stairs" by people in authority, by those who are quick to judge by codes of conduct-- and worst of all by those we love and trust.

Whenever I see a play of this caliber, or see a profound film, or read a good novel, or  listen to certain songs and music, I wonder if it is possible that people experience such art without effect. My identity, my values, whatever authenticity I have, all grow and evolve thanks to the art and philosophy I encounter. What good is any art or philosophy that doesn't shape the way we live and the choices we make?