At 17 I stood on the balcony of a beautifully appointed hotel room which I had all to myself, having climbed the steep and narrow staircase of the tower which held this single room atop the rest of the palace. On that balcony I watched the full moon rise, vast and laden to the Pimsoll line, above the rooftops of Venice. Nearby, church bells rang out the opening phrase of a hymn. They were answered by the bells of another church, farther off and to the left, picking up the melody. Then from far in the gold distance came the third phrase from yet another carillon, which was followed by the closing phrase from a fourth church, much closer and to my right.
As the first church again took its turn continuing the hymn, the moon floated slowly higher, shrinking and blanching to that purest, shining white with which she dazzles overhead. I stood in that moment knowing that the fullness of life itself was washing over me and through me. I held the moment as it held me. I knew that it would never end.
And it hasn’t
Soon I heard my mother’s voice. She and my father were slowly making their way up to my aerie, and I excitedly told them about the shifting serenade that I had just heard. And in the more than forty years since, I have told the story of that moonrise whenever I attempted to describe the wonder of that ancient town.
In my twenties and thirties I wore ties and suits and carried a briefcase to the rooms where I taught 18th-century British literature or, later, to the rooms where I would advise both hard-working and luxuriously idle Manhattanites to invest in this or that security. Through the ear-biting cold of winter mornings, the damp heat of summer morning, and the blustery mornings of spring and fall, I traversed the southwest corner of Central Park, walking from my condominium near Lincoln Center to my office on 57th Street at Fifth Avenue. And on every weekend I possibly could, from earliest spring through the fall, I took my morning coffee in hand and walked the 100 yards from my beach house over the last dune to the glittering sea, where I would sit naked, sipping my coffee, watching the eternal morning rise over the water.
And, being gay, in my early adulthood I buried all my friends.
Now, at sixty, I struggle along, an artist who if not starving is nevertheless often hungry, in a bare room in an SRO Hotel. My single window opens on the precise, 19th-century brickwork of an airshaft that is full of dirt and pigeons and rats. The floor of my room is scuffed linoleum that is probably the same age as I. The follies and foibles of youth -- tempestuous romance, addictions, brushes with the law, economic instability, a life with only the barest of foundations -- these have been reserved for my old age.
Lest you think that I mean only that the circumstances of my life have dwindled and that the inner I in fact grows richer and wiser in a corresponding and compensatory way, I instead find myself unsure of my self, wondering what happened to my life, wondering who I am or might have been, and wondering where it all is leading.
I cannot say much about my adolescence, that turbid medium through which I try to peer back to my childhood, for when I try to search those times, my mind’s eye meets little more than shadows. I do know that I felt perpetually unhappy and out of place. I was lost, without map or guidebook that could show me how to tread the path ahead.
Then, when I was 22, everything changed. Or rather I changed. The scales fell from my eyes. My bewilderment and fear vanished. The path ahead revealed itself, bathed in sunlight. I “came out.”
In a moment, all the despicable things about myself which I had hidden in shame and which I had hated in myself, immediately made sense and no longer troubled me. All the broken pieces of my life fell easily and comfortably into place. I knew who I was. I found my social, political, sexual, and moral identity all at once. No longer troubled and self-loathing, I blossomed with confidence, good humor, and even serenity. Like Minerva, I emerged full-grown, not from the forehead of Zeus, but from the forehead of my new understanding.
Let me here introduce the first of Dasman’s Laws of Human Being: Everyone Always Knows Exactly What Is Going On.
We may deceive ourselves or allow ourselves to be deceived, but the resultant “ignorance” is never fully convincing, and it is always temporary.
As an example, let me take the case in hand: I say that I became aware that I was gay, but in fact I knew it all along. I had been terrified of it, ashamed of it, disgusted by it and therefore by myself, but I cannot honestly say that I had no idea that I was gay. Lately, I have begun to think that this self-awareness might have been with me since my earliest consciousness of anything. One of my earliest memories is of a dream that I must have had at age four, if not earlier. I dreamed that in our entry hall, a group of witches, male and female, were gathered, performing their rites around an open fire. They saw me, and then I was in their midst, trembling with fear of painful death. “I want to join you,” I said, desperate to survive. “Make me one of you.” This is the only dream that I have ever had twice.
Throughout my childhood, I was fascinated by monsters. I subscribed to “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine. Other boys built model cars, planes, and ships. I bought and assembled plastic models of Frankenstein (sic), Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, et al. I painted them with painstaking care and displayed them in a diorama on the shelf that ran beneath my double windows. I had little plastic bats hanging from threads above them, gravestones and blasted trees, bits of gore here and there. I had a working model of the guillotine, with a hapless aristocrat tied to the table whose head came off when I let the blade fall.
And when I watched the movie on TV, and precociously read the novel at age nine, I identified with Frankenstein’s monster, who had not asked to be as he was created, and my heart went out to him. I shed tears when the monster found his sanctuary, his proper home, with the blind man. There he could find true happiness and acceptance because his host, thinking the inarticulate monster to be an ordinary deaf-mute, showed him all the kindness due to any defective child of God, such as he was himself. The monster never meant to harm anyone, and it was the prejudice, ignorance, and intolerance of the vicious townspeople that ultimately killed him in that burning mill.
Did I know, before I had any knowledge of sex, that I was a monster, something out of the natural order, who would be hunted down by the townspeople if they ever saw my deformity? Long before I had even a curiosity about the difference between boys and girls, before I could have had a thought that was touched by the original sin, my heart knew that I did not belong, and it was this bleak landscape inhabited by horrors that comprised my Eden.
Even as I write these words, I am excited about what I am saying. In particular, I am excited because I am approaching a paradox, and whenever I find myself in the presence of a paradox, I know that I am close, very close, to truth. So here it is: the confidence, good humor, and serenity I mentioned above, the relief of simply shedding all that shame and anguish like an old skin, came in the moment that I realized that I am a monster.
Once I knew that I was indeed the thing that I had so deeply feared I might be, the monster ceased to be monstrous. The Beast was revealed to have been a Prince all along.
It happened when I was listening to Linda Ronstadt sing “Heat Wave". In an instant, and then more and more with the unfolding of each word and each note, I understood that the song described the way I felt every day when I went to the gym and saw W.D., a young man whom I had first seen a number of weeks before and whom I had subsequently done everything I could to see and to talk to or to stand beside or to walk home with. Linda Ronstadt was singing to me about her experience of love, and I heard her telling me that I was in love too.
The great majority of you will be puzzled just now because I seem to be placing extraordinary weight on an emotional insight that you know to be quite mundane. But that is because the great majority of you have lived in a world where love has been real all your life. [Please note that I am using the word “love” to refer specifically to romantic love.]
Yours is not the world in which I grew up, however. In my world, social interactions with the opposite sex were unbearably awkward and trailed behind them the stabbing pains of shame and regret that lingered for months and years. Being both a smarty-pants and a contrarian, I had long said and had come to believe that “Romantic Love” was nothing more than a literary convention in which people believed for the same reason that they believe in any of the other opiates that Scripture, History, Science or Literature might foist on them.
You can probably remember moments in which you suddenly realized that you had a crush on someone. Those moments may even seem comical, showing a good-natured silliness in you. Those moments did not shatter the foundations of your understanding of yourself and at the same time sweep you into a new and bright and clean selfhood that, like a Palladian edifice as big as the world itself, gave order and meaning to everything. For you, realizing that you are in love is exciting and silly. For me, it was the salvation of my soul.
In those days I believed in God and believed that God was Love. The discovery that I was capable of loving meant that I did have a place in the Family of Man. I began to cry at movies and plays and good literature, all of which I had intellectually admired all my life but which I had never felt. I cried, and I loved that I did cry. Far from feeling any pseudo-masculine shame at crying, I felt stronger and more manly, indeed virtuous, when I cried. I became tender and sentimental, and for the first time in my life my melancholic humor gave way to joy, to what is called “the joy of being alive.”
For the first time in my life, I also knew that I was a man, as much a man and as true a man as any since Adam.
And like Adam, I was discovering the primordial magic, the power of names. Adam’s job in Paradise is to name the creatures great and small, flora and fauna, for the dominion that god has given him over them is one and the same thing as being given the power of naming. Jacob wrestles with the angel demanding that the angel tell him its name because knowing its name would give Jacob power over the angel. You raise demons by repeating their names, and the name of God is unutterable for that exact reason: to speak the name of God would be to assert power over Him.
If you consider yourself to realistic, too scientific, and too practical to believe seriously in magic, and especially in the magic of incantations and spells and the like, then consider what I have said. The world in which I live, as well as my self-understanding, my identity, and my soul, changed utterly once I spoke of myself using the word “gay.” Is not “magic” the most accurate term to describe my experience? I dare you to find another word that describes the scope of the change I experienced and expresses the depth of my emotional transformation as well. And do not think that the word is a metaphor or a sign or symbol for something other than itself : The Word is The Power; “The Word was with God, and The Word was God.”
Now I arrive at another paradox, one that I admit is comparatively trivial but which is nevertheless illuminating: I hate the word “gay.” I squirm when I hear it. I do everything to avoid it, and when I cannot, I pronounce it with an arch, stressed tone, the aural equivalent of “inverted commas.” The word sounds stupid, and I find it insulting.
To be “gay” means to be whimsical, giddy, and even silly. The phrase “gay man” means a man who is not serious, as one might assume a man without the responsibilities of wife and children to be. Like “queen,” a term for a prostitute, it is demeaning. Like “faggot”, which refers to a burning stick, or “punk,” which refers to a stick that has been lit and then blown out, so that a glowing tip is left with which to fire a fuse, the term describes a man as less than a man, as merely a penis. Similarly, we say that someone is “a dick” to mean that while he is anatomically male, he is not a man.
We know, or at least our language knows, that being a man is much more than having a penis. Consider the German “mensch”. The term is not just a descriptive; it is also an honorific. A man of integrity, a righteous man, a man who does what is right, not just what is natural or what is understandable, but what is right, is a mensch.
I have begun to see this meaning emerging again in a new usage over the past five or six years: I hear people say “man up”, by which they mean “do the right thing.” In particular I remember hearing a judge in Family court say in case after case that came before him that morning, to men who had failed to pay child support or had hit their wives or girl-friends or had tried to run them over with a car, “Man up.” Accept responsibility. Forget what you want or think you deserve and provide what another needs. Nurture and support, out of the strength of your own being give to the needs of another. Be a man.
Dasman’s Dictionary gives the following quote from Berthold Brecht as an example of the use of “man” in a sentence: “Why be a man when you can be a success?”
It is clear to me that now, as we begin the twenty-first century after the birth of Our Lord, that no one knows what a man is any more -- no, nor a woman either.
I am a student of the eighteenth century and know it to have been a period of social upheaval similar to our own. Economic and social conditions of life were changing so rapidly that no one could keep up. It was clear that the old feudal order no longer obtained, but no one knew what the new order would be.
Consider their experience of the break-down of the family as the basic unit of social order. For centuries, in fact for as far back as anyone could think, a family had been a multi-generational group of perhaps thirty people living together in an agricultural enterprise. That order disappeared as the enclosure of the commons drove people off the land and into the cities, making the industrial revolution possible.
[Note: it is labor not capital that makes economic progress possible. Labor creates capital. It is not capital that makes the productive use of labor possible. We will talk more about Henry George later.]
What followed the anxious, turbulent, revolutionary eighteenth century, the new order that emerged, was one of the strictest, most repressive, most unforgiving orders yet: it was Victorianism. The Victorians knew what a family was: a family was a man and a woman and their offspring living together under one roof and without any other mating pairs of adults under that same roof.
A woman knew who she was: she was in charge of the house, economically and artistically, and she had the responsibility for the moral and spiritual life of the family and the education of the children. A man was in charge of providing the material means of support for the family, and he went out into the world to procure the money necessary to support them all. At home, in the woman’s world, the morality was Christian; at work, in the man’s world, the morality was Darwinian.
This social order lasted through my parents’ generation. My father, born in 1911, left our house in Walnut Creek every weekday in the pre-dawn darkness to travel to San Francisco, where he worked in the same brokerage house from the time he was a student at U.C. Berkeley until his retirement. My mother, born in 1913, used the money he earned to feed and clothe us all, to keep up the house and garden, and to look after our educational and spiritual upbringing. When my mother expressed her desire to return to teaching, the job she had held before marriage, my father refused to allow it. “No wife of mine will ever work,” he said. End of discussion. And my mother allowed him the power to refuse her desire.
Today the herd would condemn my father, but I know that if his wife had worked, he would have been emasculated in the eyes of his peers, male and female. “That poor woman,” they would have said, “he obviously can’t make enough to support the family and she has to go back to work.”
So too, the herd today would say that my mother should have been stronger, more independent, and not have let my father keep her from doing what she wanted to do. The herd today would point to the tension that underlay their relationship, the repressed anger and resentment, the acting out, and say that they were wrong to do what they did.
But my mother and my father had something that the herd today cannot understand: their troth. They had vowed to endure life together and to support one another through anything -- anything -- that the years might bring. As for me, I can think of no higher standard for which to make my sacrifice, and I mourn for this world of self-realizing, self-actualizing Oprah an Phil dominated individuals who are following their passions, following their hearts, refusing to compromise themselves, and thus blindly wandering each of them alone into the dark forests where the hungry beasts await. One of the most beautiful sentences in English,two lines that encapsulate the truth, the troth, the paradox, of human being, words that make we weep, are the final words of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, describing Adam and Eve as they walk away from the Garden:
"They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”