Friday, January 23, 2009

Hell is Other Peeps

After plumbing the depths of Susan Sontag's psyche, I dove straight into those of John Cheever. I guess I'm a voyeur at heart. But the empathy that can arise from reading diaries of a famous intellectual, soon curdles into over-familiarity with another's diurnal habits. For Chrissakes, I got to know what Sontag had for lunch ! It's the same problem with today's memoirs, which are basically beefed up and fictionalized journals. Too much enumeration and description of bowel movements, etc. There's only so much exposure to another person's solipsism, unshaped by the revision process, one can take, until it tips over into resentment of The Other. For me, it's just another form of the dreaded Confessionalism. If I want to read about someone's menstrual cycle, I'll bloody well pick up Anne Sexton, something which has been distilled into "art". One puts down such a journal in relief, and breathes in the brisk fresh air again. I think most people are unsympathetic in some way (especially to a narcissistic misanthrope like me), and this is why authors choose to publish their journals posthumously. That said, these journals are valuable for the occasional nugget of truth, the odd diamond in the rough.

In the case of Cheever, according to his son's forward to the book, his image in the journals were so counter to his (apparently superficial) "Bard of Suburbia" sobriquet that it was a great relief, a huge albatross slung from the neck, for him to arrange for their publication before his death. The son was duly horrified but not unmoved by the revelations contained therein, as his father gloated while he pored over the journals, waiting for a reaction.

The book really stands as an argument against the insidious power of repression, and how it uglifies a personality. This is not a likable or attractive person, but what redeems him is his forthrightness about these traits. In his fiction Cheever had a nice grasp of the sublime. In reality, though, he was a hard-drinking, tormented man deeply conflicted about his sexuality (like his hero Hemingway), covertly judgmental of others, although he and his family were not spared his bile (in fact he reveals some nascent incestuous longings). He is also unflinchingly honest about the limitations of his own vocabulary and worldview. On the surface he reeked of Cotilion dresses, dance cards, a "pearl-handled revolver", crushed flowers and other symbols of the rarefied air of WASPy New England. Underneath, the smell of stale sperm and urinals. "I have seen the writing on the toilet walls" he says in one breath, while hypocritically excoriating "sinners" in the next. I can see how it would be a catharsis for this Larry Craig of the intelligentsia to show the world the true negativist, seedy self which lay at the heart of the personification of suburbia.

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