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The Way of All Flesh

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The success of any satire is gauged by the degree of offense it provokes at its initial appearance and by the durability of that offense. Larry Kramer’s novel “Faggots”--a tragedy within a comedy--was published in 1978 to mixed cries of praise, thanks and execration from the community it portrayed. These decades later, anyone who searches out present-day responses on the Internet will quickly find that the wounds inflicted by “Faggots” are burning still. The fact that The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times did not notice the novel at its publication is yet another clear sign of success--just or unjust, the book was truly outrageous; and the gray mechanics of popular culture were prepared to ignore its existence. It has, nonetheless, proven far too healthy to bow to contumely and oblivion; and it continues to be a stumbling block for many. That’s a distinction that very few serious novels, of any era, can claim.

In retrospect, what was even more remarkable about Kramer’s voice in 1978 was that his long yet astonishingly controlled cry--a cry that, to many, seemed puritan and self-loathing--was in fact a prophecy of a sort that’s virtually impossible to match in the prior history of satire in English. Certainly the most famous of 20th century satires--George Orwell’s widely known visions of universal totalitarianism and communism--have proved deceptive. Perhaps only the muffled Russian overtones of approaching social and spiritual disaster in Gogol’s “Lost Souls” or the late novels of Dostoevsky provide parallels, and even they were less precise than the vision which Kramer so relentlessly embodied in his crowded spectacle.

To glance at his subject first, however--anyone who experienced, or closely observed, the American and European male homosexual revolution of the 1970s and early ‘80s can confirm an all but incredible fact. Kramer’s account of American queer culture in those years is far more nearly literal history than heightened reality (the merely accurate and nonjudgmental word “queer” has always felt right to me, though the misleading and now appallingly ironic “gay” has triumphed). The book’s first extended set piece--the teeming party/orgy at Garfield Toye’s apartment--chimes with more than one episode which I knew of; and the climactic sequence at Fire Island only condenses into the arc of a single weekend the substance of straight-faced reports (with only minor stretches) that were available, in those days, from the soberest veterans and the hardest-core pornographic films.

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What central error in that world, then, did Kramer perceive; and what descending reality did he come to dread so ominously that it compelled him to write not a sermon or a sociological study but a novel as full of laughter as woe? It would be easy to say, as more than one of Kramer’s characters does, that the frenzied sexual activity which the male body so readily proved capable of performing made the stated goal of much of that activity literally impossible--if the goal, that is, was love or psychic intimacy between men of good sense and reasonable vigor.

It wouldn’t have taken a mind of Kramer’s quality to conclude that, whatever prodigies the male genitals can perform, the human mind is incapable of emotional focus when it’s asked to experience so much emotional intensity with so many different objects. And when orgasmic sex ceases to constitute emotional intensity for its participants, then what remains in the realm of sensory possibility for the deadened veteran--human torture, murder, the consumption of children? (The rise of female promiscuity in the same decades raises the question of whether heedless women can, by implication, be included in Kramer’s condemnation. My own sense is probably not. Very few women appear to have been psychically impelled toward such physical extravagance.) Beneath Kramer’s obvious denunciation of mindless male promiscuity, then, lies the seed of both his revulsion and his dread.

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He makes, and reiterates memorably, a claim as old as the ancient Hebrew and Greek poets. Yet it’s a claim not advanced by any character in “Faggots” nor by any other observer or participant of whom I was aware in that 15-year skin feast--all flesh is grass. The human body, however groomed and buffed in gymnasiums, is an unspeakably fragile organism. Depending on one’s genetic heritage, the body appears to perform like an uncomplaining workhorse through a fair amount of youthful excess; but in fact it neither forgets nor forgives that excess. Brain cells are destroyed or muted by alcohol and other toxic chemicals; and even without the sudden intervention of monster viruses, the magnificent web of the human immune system is subject to radical and quite early damage. Unchecked male sexual performance, once past the phenomenal power of adolescence, has now been proven to demand irreplaceable expenditures of mental and physical energy far past the warnings of the direst priest or evangelist.

What Kramer sensed and predicted subliminally in the closing pages of his novel was simply this--the sexual body is human, not immortal; and while it is only an appendage of an entire man, it is capable of destroying both itself and him. Burdened by numbers and by detachment from person-to-person attention and care, the sexual body will sooner or later turn against the mind that propels it and reduce that mind to some less than desirable thing. At the least, it reduces men to metallic click-off counters of sex acts experienced; at the worst, to subhuman predators of random flesh. What Kramer didn’t quite know was something that he might have suspected, though apparently no one did (and had anyone perceived and predicted a global epidemic caused by a hideously ingenious and merciless virus, avid for blood and semen, even the most conservative witness might have declined to listen).

At the simplest and most realistic, what sane observers have learned--or relearned--since the onslaught of AIDS late in the 1970s might be stated as a future certainty: barring further notice all unshielded sexual contact of whatever kind may rationally be assumed to be potentially lethal. Western humanity knew that fact for the nearly five centuries, from the arrival of syphilis till its partial control by penicillin in the mid-1940s (it’s worth recalling that the period of safe unshielded sex in America lasted no longer than 30 years). And while the HIV virus may now appear--for the affluent--to be yielding to newer and newer drugs, the wiliness of the vast and still-lurking world of microbes must never hereafter be ignored. Even the most phlegmatic virologists calmly tell us no less than that.

The purpose of satire is always peculiarly forked. It offers us oddly entertaining, generally exaggerated copies of foolish or evil behavior in order to provoke our ridicule. By implication at least, it also hopes that general ridicule will result in changed behavior--ideally, by an abandonment of the folly portrayed. Any reader of “Faggots” can easily identify the kind of male behavior which Kramer calls folly. He characterizes the nexus of failings, with arresting indirection, by imputing the male folly to a particular woman--”New York’s leading fag hag, Adriana la Chaise, disguised as a man, who, while a faggot to the extent that she evades the responsibilities that her brains, her abilities, and her energies, in a more enlightened age, would have channeled, via adult commitments, via more positive injections, into a needful society, was, nevertheless, by clitoral choice, straight, though it was her habit to enjoy slouching in dark corners, wearing military attire, sailor’s suits or soldier’s, and watch the boys do things to each other. . . .”

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Assuming, then, that the reader can at least consider the proposition that homosexual adventurousness on an epic and self-entrapped scale is foolish or wrong, could any reader have acted usefully on the dread which Kramer attempts to impart? It would be consoling to think that the answer might have been--and could still be--Yes, for a great many readers. Any such hope, though, fails badly when we admit the imperfect nature of satire and the final dilemma of all its creators.

Very little human behavior can have been changed by assaults from the greatest satirists--Aristophanes, Juvenal, Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Dickens, Waugh. And certainly the glare of Kramer hardly slowed the frantic momentum of the mindless and lethal coupling of certain men at a certain time (even today, almost 20 years after the surfacing of AIDS--in the face of ubiquitous warnings and lessons in the ease of avoiding the virus--the majority of those infected in the United States continue to be queer men). Though the objects of political satire have frequently jailed their satirists, the fact is that folly--political, sacred or secular--seldom recognizes itself in even the most accurate portrait.

What’s left, then, in the way of reward for a brilliant satire and its eagle-eyed creator when the men of Athens and Sparta refuse to cease murderous warfare and rejoin their wives in conjugal bliss, when the Irish refuse to boil and eat their excess babies, the assorted bourgeois vulgarians of Dickensian London fail to convert themselves into generous saints or the queers of urban America continue their inhuman spree?

Failing to reform urban Western queer customs in the late 1970s, Kramer absorbed the abuse his vision received and when--all too quickly--his dread began to realize itself in an epidemic that has proved far more ghastly than any critic could have imagined, he turned his unsleeping insight and energy into powerful social action, into the creation of eminently practical means of combating both the plague and society’s refusal to acknowledge the plain humanity of its victims. No prior satirist known to me has waded, blood-drenched, into such useful work. The fact that a mind with the observational and analytic powers of Kramer’s became the terrible and largely successful foe of federal, religious and private sustainers of the viciously passive witness of disaster is still as astonishing as it is admirable.

All the same, even the most sympathetic reader may wonder if Kramer’s public mission in the 1980s and ‘90s would have succeeded so well if the authorities whom he attacked had actually read “Faggots.” Wouldn’t the novel’s characters have only confirmed the self-justifying stereotypes held by presidents, cabinet members, bishops, ministers and private citizens and sealed them tighter in their loathing and neglect? And who, reading Kramer, could have foreseen that the ego-rapt community which he portrayed could have--for the better part of two decades--so memorably converted itself into a force for the most humbling kinds of nursing care and deathbed vigils (is there a historical precedent for another group which transformed itself so quickly)? But all live satire provokes such dilemmas, and the crackling presence of so many dark questions in “Faggots” should keep it alive for a great deal longer. Certainly the community it attacked--and all other communities of mindless sexual adventure, regardless of gender or aim--could continue to read it with baleful laughter and enduring profit.

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