Mar 7, 2014

Edmund White's New 'Catholic' Gay Novel/Elizabeth Gilbert Eats in Catholic Rome

(This was originally part of a long posting two days ago, which I've divided into two)

I've just finished reading Edmund White's fine new novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend, which chronicles the twenty year relationship of a young gay man and the straight friend with whom he remains hopelessly in love. It's a fine novel and an interesting one, because White uses the format of the dual friendship to view gay culture and practice (particularly of the pre AIDS era of the 1970's)  through the eyes of a straight man, and the insights are revealing by way of contrast and comparison. 

The book also has a Catholic dimension, as the straight man, Will, was raised Catholic yet comes to bitterly regret the effects of his religious upbringing:

I despised Catholicism, but I'd been so thoroughly catechized that I still half crossed myself when I passed a church. I still felt abashed when Christmas came and went without my attending mass.

Again, I blamed the Catholic Church. It had  taught me sin was a regular part of my life, that sex was a sin I had best contain. Now I contested everything about the Catholic solution, starting with the idea that 'sex' was an identifiable unit of human and animal activity, rather than an abstract word flung over disparate feelings and motions with only a spurious unity....

I thought of a new reason to hate Catholicism. It had robbed me of sophisticated, sensual adventures I might have written about.

And yet, Will still speaks out in some defense of his childhood faith, offering this limited defense:

There were no Baptist Dantes or Michelangelos or Palestrinas. Catholicism retained all of the authority of its great art, even the contemporary work of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O' Connor, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It was hard to throw over a religion that had been defined by such gestures. 

Very interesting comments to be sure, and fair and accurate as far as they go. Unfortunately, because this central character has so many affairs of his own, betraying and eventually leaving his own wife and children behind, it's difficult to wholly accept his criticism of Catholic sexual morality, without some reservations. There is an enormous difference between Moral theology as practiced by the very best and most enlightened theologians of today and the 'official' position of the centralized Vatican hierarchy. The Church is not simply to be equated with its power structure, and any Christian (or Buddhist or Muslim) sexual moral theology will have much to say about the need to curb one's propensity to engage in 'sophisticated, sensual adventures,' when such adventures threatened the integrity of one's primary personal relationships. Will turns out to be a bit too much of a hedonist, but his comments do highlight the problem of all of the major religious traditions over the past two millennia - they tend to denigrate and undervalue the simple joys and pleasures of the sensual life, making it all too easy to denigrate and dismiss their moral strictures. Balance is required, careful, sensitive discernment and balance, something not well practiced by hedonists on one extreme and rigid ideologues in centralized power positions on the other. 

This brings me to the gay character in the novel. Jack Holmes is a fascinating character, but White has chosen to depict him as well as a typical young gay hedonist of the 70's, who has no wish to settle down with a single partner, but simply hops about from one 'trick' to another (or rather has them hopping in and out of his bed from one day to the next). Eventually, this left me with a rather empty feeling. All of this exclusive emphasis upon sexual, sensual experience as the epitome of ecstasy and personal fulfillment. As my writing mentor at San Francisco State, Charlotte Painter, used to say, "Where is the transcendence? Where is the spiritual joy and fulfillment?" 

It is an ideology of present day Western fiction and cinema that sex and its pleasures are 'all there is' to human fulfillment and joy. This is 'as good as it gets," whereas the mystical life, for those who follow its disciplines and experience its profound fulfillments, sex as a good in itself, hardly compares to the extraordinary richness of the most intimate contact with the  presence of the life giving Spirit within. There is simply no comparison. True, sexual and spiritual fulfillment often go hand in hand, with the one leading to the other. However, when one follows this lead, one discovers that sexual intimacy is merely the palest reflection of the far more profound intimacy with the divine spirit within the depths of one's being, a Spirit that lives and moves within every breath you take and every beating of your heart. It becomes the ultimate and most intimate life companion.  But one will rarely find this spiritual truth expressed in contemporary fiction and cinema. Sex as sensual fulfillment is a dead end street in contemporary culture and "that's all you get." It's all quite wearisome and exasperating,  and this is how I felt about the sexual escapades of these two characters. "Wake up," I wanted to say to them, there is so much more 'beyond the door,' if you can only open it. Unfortunately, Catholicism's official rigidity regarding the positives of sexual and sensual experience do indeed make this difficult for many cradle Catholics, leading to the temptation to spurn it all.

I was struck by the fact that the character, Will, in defending Catholicism's rich artistic heritage, fails to mention the great mystics of the Church, such as the great Spanish mystics, Teresa of Avila (who once said, when it's time to fast I fast, when it's time to feast, I feast - while greedily gnawing on a chicken bone) and the sublime, Saint John of the Cross, considered the greatest poet in all of Spanish history. The mystics of the church and the  spriitual journeys they chronicled far surpass the achievements of all of the Dantes and Michelangelos of the Church's rich artistic heritage. 

Finally, the gay character's escapades only serve to reinforce the stereotype of the hedonistic, promiscuous gay character, living greedily for sexual fulfillment with multiple partners, bouncing from bed to bed (or back room to back room) and, sadly,  nothing more. Wake up, please, wake up.

As an addendum, the cover of the US edition of the book shows a young man passionately embracing a woman, whose glamorous, barebacked figure is turned to us. This is a complete misrepresentation of the book, deflecting it's gay emphasis. No doubt this was done to boost book sales and suggest the story is open to heterosexual interests as well, since the straight character does have passionate affairs with a number of women, but it's not the main focus.  Boosting book sales should not be a worry with Edmund White's world wide readership. 

And this brings me full circle again to Rome, Catholicism and sensual experience. I'm currently re-reading Elizabeth Gilbert's classic memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. The focus of her entire book is the felt need of contemporary spiritual seekers to find some way to integrate spiritual joy with sensual experience, rather than see a dichotomy or conflict between them, the bane of so many spiritual traditions up to this point. Catholicism and even Buddhism lead the way, I'm afraid, with their traditional mistrust of sensual experience, with many wise warnings and cautions about the dangers of unbridled sensual experience and attachments, but little in the way of wise counsel as to how to find a harmonious balance between the two. 

So I find it amusing that Gilbert's first phase of her spiritual, sensual search takes her to Rome, the center of Catholicism, because Rome and the Italians are known as masters of sensual pleasure. Gilbert comes to Rome, not for great art or Romance, but to eat! This is charming, amusing and inspiring all at once, because it shows how breezingly the Romans have blithely ignored the most strident prohibitions and strictures of it's traditional religious institution at the heart of the city. The Romans live to eat (and love, though Gilbert takes a temporary vow of celibacy for her duration in the city, in order to restore some balance to her weary soul.) It's quite amusing and healthy, but also very informative. When a religious institution veers into fanaticism regarding the ordinary human pleasures of life, and fails to achieve balance in it's teachings, watch out. Ordinary human beings will simply ignore the teachings and follow their common sense and innate good wisdom. What a contrast between the sensual, life loving Romans and the dour patriarchs of Vatican City, spuming forth against uppity women, hedonistic gays and all those folks out there having fun eating and making love. A pox on them all! 

JULIA ROBERTS enjoying her pizza in the film version of Eat Pray Love. 

However, there is another cautionary note to make about reading the book. Gilbert's next destination after Italy, was India where she stayed at an Ashram of a famous woman guru of the time, whom the author chooses to keep anonymous. Both the guru and the ashram experience effect a salutary change within Gilbert's spiritual being, and that's all to the good, and I have no wish to disrespect any aspect of her spiritual journey. However, we now know that Gilbert's guru was the controversialGuru Mai, who has since retired from public view because of the controversy. I don't wish to rehash the troubling accusations, they can be found on line easily enough. But mention should be made that her own Guru, Muktananda, who declared her his successor (at the shocking age of 22), had been accused by numerous women of having sexually abused them, some of them when they were very young teens. There are simply too many of these acquisitions not to credit them. So, alas, this only highlights how difficult it is for young people to find reliable guides in their spiritual search. It is disheartening in the extreme, yet ultimately not discouraging. A bit of careful discernment and caution are needed, and the wonderful mystic, Andrew Harvey, who went through the hell of Guru addiction, provides a wonderful cautionary guide. 

Guru Mai a wonderful follow up to Gilbert's guru experience, she does run into a genuine spiritual guide in Bali, Indonesia. A toothless, obscure, unfamous and unrich, 'medicine man,' with genuine spiritual and psychic gifts, who proves to be her true spiritual guide and master - for the moment, until she is free enough to stand on her own feet, which is the way it should be. Beware of Guru's with vast followings and oodels of money at their disposal. Real spiritual wisdom often has no shining, gold teeth.

Elizabeth Gilbert's Indonesian Medicine Man, Ketut Liyer