My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When last we left Gore Vidal, we were worried about his politics. He was long considered a lion of the left for his sexual dissidence and his resistance to the religious right and to neoconservative imperialism; but worldwide events since his death in 2012 have put his fiercely atheist-pagan religious outlook, as well as his endorsement of economic populism and military isolationism, in a different and more troubling light, just as his cynicism about sexual ethics (not to mention rumors about his behavior) “hasn’t aged well,” as the Twitterati invariably say, in #metoo times.
So it is an odd choice for Vintage Books in 2019 to re-release what is perhaps Vidal’s most incendiary novel, the rollicking Orlando-inspired 1968 satire and succès de scandale, Myra Breckinridge—and with an introduction by the provocateur Camille Paglia, no less, herself recently almost run out of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts by aggrieved students for whom her longstanding dissent from feminist and queer orthodoxy is a threat to campus well-being.
Myra Breckinridge is narrated by its eponymous heroine, a transgender woman who is obsessed with classic Hollywood and bent on taking over an L.A. acting school (and the land it sits on) run by her ludicrous uncle, Buck Loner, a former star of Western radio dramas and movies. The novel has a fragmentary structure comprised of Myra’s notebook entries; she often experiments with the precise notation of minute experience in a send-up of then-trendy theories about the death of the novel and its replacement by recursive, postmodern forms.
While all anyone knows now about Myra Breckinridge is its transgender theme, the revelations that Myra was once Myron, the supposedly dead husband she often recalls throughout the novel, is treated as a Crying-Game-like revelation in the novel’s final quarter. For most of the book, we experience Myra as an imperious woman (“I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man will ever possess,” her monologue begins) and militant feminist who hopes to destroy traditional masculinity through sexual aggression against males. But she also plans to write a book on the mythic resonance of classic Hollywood, proclaiming:
[T]he films of 1935 to 1945 inclusive were the high point of Western culture, completing what began that day in theatre of Dionysos when Aeschylus first spoke to the Athenians.
Myra mourns the American culture that was vanquished by the reign of television and suburban conformity after World War II, much as Vidal the political commentator dated the death of the American republic to the founding of the CIA in 1947; and she mocks what she sees as the ignorance and moralism of “totalitarian-minded” Boomer youth, much as a Paglia today censures Millennials in the same Vidalian vocabulary—whether this is because the old always react the same way to the young or because the now-aging Millennials really are an echo of the now-evanescing Boomers, I will leave you to decide.
Myra’s reactionary radicalism clearly echoes Vidal’s own, and of the novel’s autobiographical resonances, La Paglia writes in her introduction:
Myra is dedicated to Vidal’s friend Christopher Isherwood, author of the autobiographical Berlin Stories, which inspired the musical and movie Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar Germany. In his response to Vidal, Isherwood called Myra a “very subtle psychological self-portrait”—a remark that most critics have taken as a joke. But Isherwood was right: the more we have learned from Vidal’s biographers about his turbulent emotional history and hyperactive sex life, the clearer it is that Myra Breckinridge is a dreamlike distillation of Vidal’s aspirations, passions, compulsions, and fears.
And Myra registers her own mixed feelings about the increasingly late 20th-century world in which she finds herself. On the one hand, she longs for the lost republic as enshrined in cinema, and on the other, she wishes to hasten the death of culture at the hands of TV commercials and the death of the human subject by the destruction of traditional gender roles:
As usual, I am ambivalent. On the one hand, I am intellectually devoted to the idea of the old America. I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life—if such a thing exists—accessible to all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfill my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage. (Vidal’s italics)
Myra argues, as Vidal also did throughout his life, that normative heterosexuality and the nuclear family have been made obsolete by impending environmental catastrophe—not due to climate change, as we now believe, but because of the ’60s-era scientific consensus that overpopulation would fatally deplete the planet’s resources.
Myra predicts “famine for us all by 1974 or 1984,” and notes that, “The physically and mentally weak who ordinarily would have died at birth now grow up to be revolutionaries in Africa, Asia and Harlem,” an openly racist and eugenic argument for queer anti-natalism. Yet by the end of the novel, when physicians threaten to reverse Myra’s gender reassignment, she protests to her notebook, “They will do to me what they did to Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala,” now allying the queer gender warrior with anti-imperialism—another sign of Vidal’s and his heroine’s ambivalence. Whose side are they on? Is the insurgent queer an imperialist or a subaltern?
Despite the mixed feelings and thoughts detectable in the margins of the text, the novel’s dominant note is a strutting amoralism, pagan and Nietzschean. Myra, after observing of a couple “the desire of each to exert power over the other,” claims, “That is the one human constant, to which all else is tributary.” This refusal to countenance morality leads Myra, as it led Vidal, to disparage monotheism, and especially its Judaic wellspring, as we see in this passage, where Myra mocks her Jewish dentist/analyst, Dr. Montag:
Being Jewish as well as neo-Freudian, he is not able to divest himself entirely of the Law of Moses. For the Jew, the family is everything; if it had not been, that religion which they so cherish (but happily do not practice) would have long since ended and with it their baleful sense of identity. As a result, the Jew finds literally demoralizing the normal human sexual drive toward promiscuity. Also, the Old Testament injunction not to look upon the father’s nakedness is the core to a puritanism which finds unbearable the thought that the male in himself might possess an intrinsic attractiveness, either aesthetically or sensually. In fact, they hate the male body and ritually tear the penis in order to remind the man so damaged that his sex is unlovely. It is, all in all, a religion even more dreadful than Christianity.
As Myra puts a queer spin on racism when she makes an anti-overpopulation argument for anti-natalism, she here queers anti-Semitism, a troubling gesture explained, though not justified, by the homophobia of the first wave of Jewish neoconservatives, and not only that of Joseph Epstein, who infamously wrote in 1970, “I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth,” but also in Cynthia Ozick’s response to E. M. Forster’s posthumously published gay novel, Maurice.
Ozick writes that Forster’s liberalism is compromised by his relativistic willingness to betray his country before he would betray his “friend”—a word Ozick construes as a gay code term for “lover.” Ozick responds to this erotic but not national fidelity with an Arnoldian advocacy for the Hellenic and the Hebraic: she contrasts what she sees as Forster’s queer relativism with the natural imperative to reproduce represented by Demeter and the foundation of universally-binding ethical law she locates in the Covenant.
Myra, by contrast, wishes to destroy these supposed “naturals” and “universals,” first by abolishing masculinity, at least in her own arena of Buck Loner’s school. She attempts to accomplish this aim by the long grooming of her manly student, Rusty Godowski (note the mockingly monotheistic surname—man made in the image of the Lord). This seduction and stalking climaxes in a slow, clinical, nightmarish scene of anal violation in the school’s infirmary. Following this “victory” over Rusty, Myra turns her predatory attention to his girlfriend, Mary-Ann, and, having penetrated to the inner sanctum of manhood, now wishes to enter into what she imagines are the female mysteries:
Ecstatically, I fingered the lovely shape whose secret I must know or die, whose maze I must thread as best I can or go mad for if I am to prevail I must soon come face to face with the Minotaur of dreams and confound him in his charneled lair, and in our heroic coupling know the last mystery: total power achieved not over man, not over woman but over the heraldic beast, the devouring monster, the maw of creation itself that spews us forth and sucks us back into the black oblivion where stars are made and energy waits to be born in order to begin once more the cycle of destruction and creation at whose apex now I stand, once man, now woman, and soon to be privy to what lies beyond the uterine door, the mystery of creation that I mean to shatter with the fierce thrust of a will that alone separates me from the nothing of eternity; and as I have conquered the male, absorbed and been absorbed by the female, I am at last outside the human scale, and so may render impotent even familiar banal ubiquitous death whose mouth I see smiling at me with moist coral lips between the legs of my beloved girl who is the unwitting instrument of victory, and the beautiful fact of my life’s vision made all too perfect flesh.
In this passage, which presages Paglia’s animadversions on the “womb/tomb” of “female nature” in Sexual Personae, Myra suggests that gender is a journey for the amoral soul: from vulnerable masculinity to predatory femininity to the dissolution of the ego in a return to uterine nature. Yet Vidal’s narrative has its masculine revenge on Myra’s feminist hubris, for the ultimate form her ego-death takes is traditional femininity on the suburban model: a tender longing for the gentle Mary-Ann. That this final transformation, at the novel’s end, issues in a conventional (if child-free) heterosexual marriage between Mary-Ann and the uxorious Myron is the novel’s crowning irony.
Other Goodreads reviewers, not having received Vidal’s Nietzschean memo about the non-existence of morality, pronounce Myra Breckinridge “misogynist,” “transphobic,” and “anti-Semitic.” And, if we can overlook some of the anachronism involved in these judgments, it is all those things: it’s aged poorly, as I suggested at the outset. Vidal is reactionary from the perspective of a readership that lives his most radical speculations as everyday life, as the substance of the quotidian, and is therefore affronted by the carapace of camp irony and violent outrageousness with which he guards the sincerity of his romping novel. His tone of sportive exaggeration, his plot that literalizes stereotype and glamorizes every moral transgression, makes Myra Breckinridge feel like a concession to the traditionalist’s fears, like some fever dream of Pat Buchanan’s or Rod Dreher’s.
On the other hand, we can find some currents in contemporary intellectual and avant-garde culture that Vidal’s scandalous novel prefigures. Take, for instance, the more esoteric forms of gender theory—not the gay-marriage-like public liberal arguments for treating everyone equally regardless of gender identity, but rather the advocacy for trans experience as an anti-humanist vanguard. When Andrea Long Chu argues, in her celebrated essay, “On Liking Women,” that each transgender woman has wounded patriarchy by literally subtracting a man from the planet, motivated by desire’s anti-reproductive dysteleology, we hear an echo of Myra’s desire for the abolition of men and of her will to power—and it’s no surprise to find Chu praising the novel in 2018.
Likewise, the trans woman who writes under the nom de guerre n1x calls for gender accelerationism in the name of the “autonomy of objects,” a development portended by transgenderism’s technologically-enabled removal of femininity from any fiction of a biological base as imposed by masculine ideology going back, again, to Genesis. This decoupling of gender from nature makes the male obsolete, since reproduction will now occur machinically rather than biologically: artificial intelligences are “the only daughters that trans women will ever bear,” just as the novel we read is Myra’s only offspring. For this proposition, too, Myra would cheer, if only she could understand the theoretical jargon of n1x’s chilly manifesto—some of which admittedly defeated me as well; I am reminded of Vidal’s quip, in an essay on Montaigne, that he never read the French author’s philosophical piece, “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” on the grounds that he never thought Sebond needed any apology.
I would refer to Chu’s argument as “left-wing” and n1x’s as “right-wing,” but this is only to signal their respective literary statuses, not an actual political dispute: Chu is in humanities academe, publishes in the para-academic n+1, and puts things in the left-Hegelian register of the post-’60s social movements as canonized by academe; whereas n1x writes pseudonymously, seems to be a coder rather than a humanist, affiliates with the likes of Nick Land and Mencius Moldbug, and writes in the apocalyptic Lovecraftian and right-Deleuzean tones of the neoreactionary movement.
Yet there is little meaningful ideological difference between their twin proposals for the pursuit of desire and identity past all currently settled forms of order. Left-Hegelian and right-Deleuzean might be the same theoretical body outfitted in office-hour pastels and Goth club gear, respectively, but the vision of archaic Futurism, whether conveyed in melancholic or ecstatic tones, the sublime (even orgasmic) reduction of “man” to chthonic and primordial muck within the Moloch murder-machine of modernity, hasn’t changed much since Marinetti crashed his car into a muddy Milanese ditch, since Baudelaire picked his poison bouquet on Haussmann’s Paris boulevards.
And call them left or right—as we used to say in the ’90s, “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”—the Futurists appear to have won, or else why do the multinational corporations drape themselves in the rainbow flag if not to signal the final detachment of sex from reproduction and capital from production, as foreshadowed back in the last millennium by the Catholics’ placing the sodomites and usurers in the same circle of hell and the Marxists’ pronouncing homosexuality “bourgeois decadence” to be politically corrected by The Revolution?
There’s only one problem with this seeming mainstream triumph of the queer, though: it leaves profit intact, one last norm to be respected or worshipped. But neither Vidal nor his heroine-spokeswoman praised profit as such—only power. Myra is an aesthete, consummating her will in the flesh and in writing, without regard to rational self-interest. If all she wanted was to inherit the grounds of her uncle’s acting school, she would have been better off presenting herself to him as his nephew, Myron. Her attempt to swindle her uncle out of what he actually owes her is just another instance of her artistry, echoed by her author’s positioning this land-grab as the engine of the sometimes nouveau-roman‘s such-as-it-is plot. Even commercials for Myra are strictly artistic phenomena; their mass audience, by contrast, is too stupid to live. All celebrants of capitalism’s aesthetic sublimity, from Paglia herself to the neoreactionaries, must finally confront the lowest-common-denominator philistinism it inevitably enjoins.
The aesthete’s nihilism takes us well below the bottom line—to the grave, to the earth or sea where we were incubated and where we will molder. She takes us there to show us that art, whose value can’t be calculated and whose worth may be as endless as desire, is the only challenge we have to offer death, albeit perhaps just n1x’s “affirmative death drive.” If this is true—and I concede that the question remains open; I have my humanist days too—then the denouncers of good art might be more deadly than the most wicked of artists.
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