Edmund White | Critical Review by Neil Powell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Edmund White.
This section contains 2,238 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Neil Powell

SOURCE: "From celebration to elegy," in Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 1994, p. 13.

In the following review, Powell complains that, "As so often in the book, [The Burning Library White's admirable capacity for sympathetic understanding not only inhibits his critical judgment but actually weakens the case being argued."]

"Like any agile debater," confesses the student narrator of Edmund White's second autobiographical novel, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, "I could defend either side of the question, but I was too immoral to wonder which side was right." Within limits it's an entertaining and an engaging quality which for White becomes the literary dandy's irrepressible urge to try on new clothes, but it makes for some maddening contradictions and for the odd queasy moment when, beneath the loudest suit, there seems to be nothing but a tailor's dummy. In fact, this new collection of his essays spanning twenty-five years would have been a complicated, fragmented sort of book in any case, partly because its chronological range straddles the emergence of the AIDS crisis, and partly because of its symbiotic relationship with White's other writing—in particular with States of Desire, from which several chunks resurface verbatim in their original journalistic contexts.

States of Desire, jauntily subtitled Travels in Gay America, is a marvellous, often euphoric set of variations on the theme of the Great American Journey. White doesn't spend much time actually travelling; he just arrives, weary and hungry in equal measure, in a succession of places, each of which (even, incredibly, Salt Lake City) turns out to possess at least some degree of gay social life. Every so often, he digresses, in earnestly naive terms, into sexual politics or—for a memorable few pages—his Texan ancestry, interestingly concluding that "in old Texas what could not be named was unknowingly tolerated—a far cry from the half-informed Baptist bigotry of today". Mostly, though, that book was based on conversations with men he met on his travels, embellished with typically baroque touches and a winsome way with similes; Ned in Seattle, for instance, is "about as self-conscious as a mountain waterfall", even if the same can't be said of White's prose. In New York, he ponders an evolution of cultural styles from decadence through camp to the "new gay arts" but "cannot imagine a gay writer imitating the gray and brown abnegations of Joseph Conrad or the patient, dogged grumbling of late Céline". His stance is unblushingly upbeat, but that was how things seemed in 1980.

And that is how things seem for roughly half of The Burning Library. The earliest piece here, "The Gay Philosopher", written in 1969 and previously unpublished, meshes both with States of Desire ("The nature of gay life is that it is philosophical") and with the adolescent recollections of A Boy's Own Story, but it is chiefly significant for recapturing that strangely distant moment in the year of the Stonewall riot when the case for creating a "militant gay group of activists" had still to be argued, when an end to police harassment and a ban on discriminatory laws could still strike White as "far-fetched" demands; his youthful hedonism, culminating in the suggestion that "the promiscuity of many gay men is a vanguard experiment, a sort of trial run for the rest of the society", seems touchingly absurd. In 1977, addressing a university audience in Washington, DC, on "The Joys of Gay Life", he was still more optimistic, stressing the importance of friendship between gay people (though a statement such as "My old lovers have become close friends" rather raises the question "What, all of them?"):

We gays derive spiritual sustenance and emotional continuity from our friendships—and that is what allows us to weather things so well. Some psychological studies have suggested that gays are, all in all, better adjusted than straights, and I think it is our gift for friendship that makes us so seaworthy.

Nothing in these earlier essays has been more cruelly transformed by time's ironies than that, for those who are most sustained by their enduring friendships must be those most devastated by loss.

White runs the risk of sounding, as he admits, "like a complete pollyanna", but his fulsomeness here is generous, sympathetic and forgivable—"silly like us", as Auden said. More questionable, if only because it depends on the kind of false equation which too often props up his shakier debating points, is his endorsement in "Fantasia on the Seventies" of the "gay leather scene" as "more honest—and because it is explicit less nasty—than more conventional sex, straight or gay": that attempt to foist an irrelevant moral value on to a simple preference is a stratagem altogether worthy of his student self. More convincing, temporarily at least, is the explanation of the respectable professional's leather alter ego proposed in a slightly later essay, "Sado Machismo":

The children of the middle class grew up without seeing any signs of sexuality emanating from their daddies, those corporation drudges in bulky suits who never whistled at women or scratched their deodorized crotches. The only bare chests were those of construction workers; the only images of male raunch were of Marlon Brando astride his bike or caterwauling for Stella. There is no middle-class sexual style for men. What would it be based on? Golfing? Discussing stock options? Attending church? Downing highballs?

That certainly makes sense, and White's prose here has the tang it always takes on when he taps into his own lived experience; yet he only sets up the argument in order to trade it in for an anodyne theory about re-enacting "not our own private troubles but rather our society's nightmarish preoccupations with power, with might". Must pleasure be thus encumbered with sociological special pleading?

This unresolved tension between celebration and apologia becomes especially troublesome in the critical and analytical pieces. The essay on William Burroughs, for instance, begins in White's best down-there-on-a-visit style of reportage with some wonderfully grisly scene-setting, but when it comes to declaring his critical stance, he ducks the issue: "Nor can I disagree with his esthetics. He is against realistic novels, which he dismisses as 'journalism'." That seems a preposterous evasion or a mere untruth, for such a consummately elegant realist as White. An essay on Truman Capote, not improved by dreadful scissors-and-paste editing which attempts to interweave two separate short articles, reads even more oddly; here some sensible comments on the work—"One can imagine this purist cutting down Proust's usual three adjectives to the single limpid one, with a predictable loss of chiaroscuro and gain in brightness and resolution"—find themselves marooned in a rhapsodic muddle about the New York heat, Capote's frequent comings and goings, the altogether more charismatic arrival and departure of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe, himself the subject of two other pieces, ensnares both White and his editor, David Bergman, as he has ensnared practically everyone who's dared to write about him. "What White values about Mapplethorpe's photographs", Bergman claims in his introduction, "is their obscenity—their refusal to submit themselves to domestication, to the social framework of the good and useful." But that is not what obscenity means; nor is it what White says. He admires Mapplethorpe's "irresponsibility", adding that "passion, like art, is always irresponsible, useless, an end in itself, regulated by its own impulses and nothing else"; yet this would equally support the notion of art's responsibility to ideals beyond the utilitarian, and the distant echo it so curiously seems to invoke is none other than E. M. Forster's eloquent case for the supreme uselessness of literature in Aspects of the Novel. Beyond White's masquerade of cultural iconoclasm lurks an endearingly conventional writer who reveres the "old model of communication" and who on two occasions records his admiration for Jane Austen (as well as for Barbara Pym, whom he regards as her modern counterpart). These are strange though actually not incomprehensible bedfellows for Mapplethorpe, whose cause might anyway be better served simply by noting that he was an extremely witty pornographer who also took some stunning pictures of flowers; White's subsequent "eulogy"—"All the time Robert seemed to be guarding a big secret, an amusing but tricky and intimate secret"—rather suggests that he wasn't remotely fooled by the grand theorizing prompted by his work.

The emergence of AIDS inescapably bisects the book and shadows the sunny assurance of its first half. In a way which now seems superficially shocking but which is in its chronological context wholly understandable, White's earliest reference to the "mysterious and usually fatal affliction" comes as a casual aside in a 1983 essay called, with grim retrospective irony, "Paradise Found", which also contains his blandest affirmations of an "easygoing fraternity of sex and sociability"; much more shrewdly prescient (and, in the same piece, starkly contrasting) is an analysis of the way gay liberation modulated, or became corrupted, into gay consumerism:

From the perspective of the present, we can now look back at the beginning of gay liberation and observe that it flowered exactly at the moment when gays became identified, by themselves and by their market, as a distinct group of affluent and avid consumers…. Unfortunately, today this rampant and ubiquitous consumerism not only characterises gay spending habits but also infects attitudes towards sexuality: gays rate each other quantitatively according to age, physical dimensions and income: and all too many gays consume and dispose of each other, as though the very act of possession brought about instant obsolescence.

It's a stern and uncharacteristically sour note for such a cheerful immoralist to strike.

But by the time we reach "Esthetics and Loss", the predominant tone has deepened from celebration into elegy, approaching just that Conradian darkness which White's younger self couldn't imagine in a gay writer. This essay is one of his finest, with raw personal experience and writerly eloquence in an exact creative balance, and it catches the puzzling essence of a moment when "I, for one, feel repatriated to my lonely adolescence, the time when I was alone with my writing and I felt weird about being queer". Human life had suddenly become mysteriously and incurably evanescent in a way which would have been unthinkable five years earlier: "It's just like the Middle Ages", says White, though we might equally recall the impact, at once traumatic and creative, of syphilis on Renaissance England, a psychological effect memorably compared by A. P. Rossiter to that of myxomatosis on a thinking rabbit. White argues that a "writer or visual artist responds to this fragility as both a theme and as a practical limitation—no more projects that require five years to finish", which is possibly an over-literal view: the proximity of AIDS might just as well spur the urgency which dissuades the artist from deferring the start of the magnum opus until tomorrow. Thus, when he writes (in "Out of the Closet, on to the Bookshelf"), "The grotesque irony is that at the very moment so many writers are threatened with extinction gay literature is healthy and flourishing as never before", he accurately records but inaccurately interprets a phenomenon which is less a "grotesque irony" than an exact instance, of a kind understood by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, of the way in which art invariably works—with the dance of love and death as its oldest, most enduring theme.

Strangely and perhaps heroically, White sustains his equable stance of urbane generosity almost to the end of The Burning Library, only rarely revealing the kind of helpless fury which is provoked by a partly self-inflicted injury:

In America gays have been ghettoized or so thoroughly identified with AIDS that their opinions on all other topics seem irrelevant to the public at large. Nor does such a public exist, since we're parceled out into so many special-interest, single-issue factions.

After so many well-tempered pages, this burst of impatience seems long overdue. Regrettably it doesn't spill over into the critical pieces, which end with an over indulgent essay on Hervé Guibert, who is mildly described as belonging to "a tough Continental line of writers": though he lacks the "charity and emotion" of Larry Kramer or Paul Monette and the "psychological realism and moral exactitude" of Adam Mars-Jones, he scrapes by on "rhetorical panache", which sounds like a poor third. As so often in the book, White's admirable capacity for sympathetic understanding not only inhibits his critical judgment but actually weakens the case being argued. Yet when he writes on a figure of unquestionable literary significance, such as Isherwood, he is reduced to tongue-tied reverence: A Single Man is indeed "one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement", but the claim is so blandly formulated that it reads curiously like an undervaluation. In taking his critical bearings from Arthur Symons—who, he says, "stood in an equally benign relationship to his subject and to his reader"—White runs the risk of his advocacy becoming indistinguishable from his goodwill.

Although the essays on literary subjects make up the weaker strand of The Burning Library, they nevertheless form an essential part of its untidy, intricate fabric. If the book seems unresolved, a patchwork of modulating and sometimes contradictory views, that indicates its fidelity to the peculiar quarter-century which it chronicles; it concludes with a typically passionate, ramshackle speech given in November 1993, in which White argues against "the whole concept of a canon" and for "the full implications of pluri-culturalism", upbeat to the end. It is a further measure of the age's strangeness that White's tolerant generosity should now seem so much more disquieting than his intermittent anger and despair.

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This section contains 2,238 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Neil Powell
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