On Being Different
Years ago, after The Lost Weekend had become a best seller and a household word, Charles Jackson followed it up with The Fall of Valor, a novel about a professor who discovers in late middle age that he desires young men and falls in love with one in particular. His marriage dissolves almost as rapidly as a Bufferin tablet and he himself perishes shortly thereafter—of a heart attack, I think, though the convention of contemporary fiction would have called for suicide. It was a very dismal novel, and what I remember best about it was a comment by one reviewer that Jackson had done for homosexuality what he had earlier done for alcoholism: he had succeeded in making it middle-class.
It is better, as Saint Paul might have observed, to publish than to perish, and Mr. Miller has done a notable public service in choosing this alternative. He has also in this moving and in certain respects heroic little book made the subject of “homosexuality” more middle-class than Jackson could ever have dreamed of doing. I have put the word “homosexuality” in quotes because I know no other way to express the fact that writing about it is like writing about witchcraft. The phenomenon itself, whatever it may be, is not as important or nearly as interesting as the savagely repressive and sadistic response it arouses, while that response itself evokes confessions from people who preserve themselves from ultimate alienation from the society by consenting to play the victim’s role. But often these people are not the real thing at all. They may, however, be useful in taking some of the heat off the real witches who keep their cool; and who are surely indispensable to the operation of a society that is driving itself mad through its hysterical overcommitment to science and Christianity.
I do not at all mean to impugn Mr. Miller’s claim to be a homosexual. His credentials appear to be in order. But his book has very little to do with erotic experience, and that little seems bereft of joy. What it is primarily about is the process of stigmatization in society and his feelings of shame at having for forty years attempted to conceal—and thereby exaggerated the importance of—an aspect of his personality that had been defined as ignominious, followed by his great relief and sense of heightened human-hood after having blown his cover in The New York Times Magazine.
Behavior hardly comes into it. Mr. Miller does relate some experiences, and quite moving ones, of physical relations with young men, but it is clear that what he was attempting to disguise was not merely homosexuality but also lack of heterosexual interest. At the end of the book he observes, in an expression of something as close to triumph as he permits himself: “I for one will never again have to listen to and pretend to laugh at the latest ‘fag gag’; I will never again have to describe the airline stewardess who had the hots for me ‘…and so when we got to Chicago, we went to the hotel and….’ Never ever again.” The last line in his book is a single question, and it is, indeed, the most difficult question raised by the book: “Why was I always so bothered?”
Well, there was reason enough, in the actual sanctions to which persons deemed homosexual are subject, in the poverty and economic marginality in which Miller spent his boyhood, which must have made him reluctant indeed to jeopardize the successes he came to achieve. He mentions, as an example of the depth of degradation to which he felt he had sunk, that he was the most silent and acquiescent member of the board of directors of the ACLU when the question came up of defending alleged homosexuals who were being fired from their government posts during the McCarthy era. But a poor boy doesn’t reach such a post in his early thirties without some understandable residual feelings of vulnerability.
Finally, Marshalltown, Iowa, where Miller grew up, certainly presented few examples in the late 1920s and early 1930s of people firmly questioning any prevailing social norm, or even holding aloof from it. This Mr. Miller still doesn’t seem to know how to do with any ease. If one compares his statement with Ned Rorem’s equally frank and much more cheerful ones in his Paris Diary, or with Paul Goodman’s autobiographical piece in The New York Times Magazine which antedates Miller’s by a year or two, the most striking difference is the ease with which Rorem and Goodman accept themselves. Neither of these pieces is presented as marking the end of an epoch for their authors.
But they did not form their identities so wholly in America’s heartland, and among its lower middle class, where men are supposed to feel toward women the same passionate devotion as they do toward flag and country, though they are expected to express it somewhat differently and to avoid the use of the word “fuck” in connection with the last two. Any failure in this devotion is punishable by ostracism, social death, and sometimes real imprisonment and torture. That is oppression, certainly, and no mistake about it; but the meaning of oppression still depends a lot on whether you identify with your oppressor.
This, I think, is why homosexuality as a theme has been handled so differently, both in literature and in life, in the South. There, too, womanhood is as sacred as flag or country. But a funny thing happened to us in the South on the way to the twentieth century. In 1865 we were all defined as rebels and outlaws and ever since, in the Southern attitude toward the officially sacred, there has been an underlying element of burlesque, as well as terror. Southerners know better than any other Americans what they will do to you if they think you are un-American, politically or sexually—and many Southerners, particularly Texans, rejoice in outdoing them in chauvinism and phallic cruelty.
But Southerners seldom make the mistake, which by Mr. Miller’s account has wasted so much of his life, of wishing they were like their oppressors, or loved by them. And there has so far always been enough ambivalence in Southern attitudes toward official norms to ventilate the closet and allow the opposition to breathe and even allow its breathing to be heard, and enjoyed, in the next room. The Southern belle, surely, could only have been invented by men who felt at some level that they were being coerced into heterosexuality and wanted to show how absurd it was. Meanwhile, their affections often lay, quite consciously, elsewhere. This can hardly be regarded as an obscure fact about Southern life by anybody who has ever gone to high school or college there. Nevertheless, the proprieties were usually observed, not for purposes of defection but to avoid giving the adversary an advantage on his next move and thus get hung up playing his game.
I am not quite clear about what it is that Mr. Miller believes he has revealed. On Being Different often sounds like a confession, but is meant, I believe, and altogether admirably so, as a Declaration of Independence. Independence is nice if you can get it, and even nicer if you don’t have to think about it. But it seems perplexing that a professional writer should believe that this short, highly selective autobiographical essay—apart from the fact of having published it, which is momentous—should add so much to his public’s understanding. He writes:
A fellow writer said on national television, “I don’t think a writer should reveal that much of himself.”
I have always thought that one of the obligations of a writer is to expose as much of himself as possible, to be as open and honest as he can manage—among other reasons so that his readers can see in what he writes a reflection of themselves, weaknesses and strengths, courage and cowardice, good and evil. Isn’t that one of the reasons writing is perhaps the most painful of the arts?
From what I have heard in Beethoven or seen in the paintings of Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch I don’t know about writing being the most painful of the arts; but Miller has certainly stated here, and very clearly, the major reason for writing at all. Precisely; and that is also why, if the writer does not succeed in doing this in his work, he can hardly hope to add much of value by issuing affidavits. Unless he is writing technical manuals or gardening books—and perhaps not even then—a writer whose work is of any value cannot and probably would not wish to conceal whom he loves and what sort of body or relationship is beautiful to him.