In Myra Breckenridge (1968) Gore Vidal writes in the first person as ‘Woman Triumphant’. I've already written about the possibility of crossover between the author and the protagonist in this example. Some parts of the book naturally stood out to me. As I've written about the issue of genital cutting in the past, the twenty-second chapter certainly stood out to me. The brief chapter is entirely a comment on circumcision after the narrator attends an orgy.
Just as I expected, seventy-two per cent of the male students are circumcised. At Clem's party I had been reminded of the promiscuous way in which American doctors circumcise males in childhood, a practice I highly disapprove of, agreeing with that publisher who is forever advertising in the New York Times Book Review a work which proves that circumcision is necessary for only a very few men. For the rest, it constitutes, in the advertiser's phrase, “a rape of the penis.” Until the Forties, only the upper or educated classes were circumcised in America. The real people were spared this humiliation. But during the affluent postwar years the operation became standard procedure, making money for doctors as well as allowing the American mother to mutilate her son in order that he might never forget her early power over him. Today only the poor Boston Irish, the Midwestern Poles and the Appalachian Southerners can be counted upon to be complete.
Myron never forgave Gertrude for her circumcision of him. In fact, he once denounced her in my presence for it. She defended herself by saying that the doctor had recommended it on hygienic grounds - which of course does not hold water since most foreskins are easily manipulated and kept clean. What is truly sinister is the fact that with the foreskin's removal, up to fifty per cent of sensation in the glans penis is reduced... a condition no doubt as pleasing to the puritan American mother as it is to her co-conspirator, the puritan Jewish doctor who delights in being able to mutilate the goyim in the same vivid way that his religion (and mother!) mutilated him.
I once had the subject out with Dr. Montag, who granted me every single point and yet, finally, turned dentist and confessed, “Whenever I hear the word ‘smegma’, I become physically ill.” I am sure Moses is roasting in hell, along with Jesus, Saint Paul, and Gertrude Percy Breckenridge.
We might read Myra as a partial satire of Vidal himself – the consummate gentleman-bitch. If we do so we’re faced with certain questions and in particular: what should we take away from this about the author? Some would describe Vidal as ‘anti-Semitic’ here. The section holds within it vulgar imagery, but that can be said of the entire novel. It’s a ‘masterpiece in bad taste’ after all. Breckenridge damns Moses to the same ranks as Jesus and St. Paul, as well as the “puritan American mother”. The grounds of the attacks are pro-hedonist. Vidal was an exponent of promiscuity, not of commitment and monogamy. He disapproved of marriage equality on this same basis.
We find this is the case, as he goes on to write “I prefer the penis intact... in order that it be raped not by impersonal survey but by me!” This is tongue-in-cheek comedy. It’s a self-caricature. Going by the extent Vidal parodies his own fears of overpopulation in the book this is not an implausible reading. He was promiscuous, experimented with drugs in the Sixties, enjoyed cinema, and claimed the advertisement was the only American art form. These things (and more) are all present in the book and taken to their own extremities.
This isn’t the only extract in the book worthy of notation. At one point, Myra remarks on Dr Montag, one of the Jewish characters of the novel, in the context of their disagreement over sexuality and womanhood.
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 unbearble the thought that the make 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.
So what should we make of the crude stereotyping and vulgar language around Jews? If we exclude the possibility that Gore Vidal was anti-Semitic (and I do, as I have already written) then we can only understand these passages in a handful of ways. If Myra is a partial parody of Vidal then it seems that this writing is at the extreme end of exaggeration of what Vidal actually thinks. Alternatively, Myra isn’t based on Vidal and in which case it can’t be said that these views represent those of the novelist. To paraphrase Houellebecq, when asked if his protagonists are really him, “Perhaps the mistake is to think of me at all.”
As tempting as the latter option would be, I think I’ve already clarified why I think it is too convenient an option. That isn’t to say that I accept the accusations of anti-Semitism levelled against Vidal in the Eighties. In a way we shouldn’t be too surprised by Gore Vidal’s views on religion. He was a man of the Enlightenment and he didn’t feel the need to hold his tongue. It’s not as if Vidal was known for resorting to gentle euphemisms. In his response to charges of prejudice, Gore Vidal was blunt “I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster to befall the human race.” He had plenty of time to romanticise polytheism and pre-Christian religions and Eastern philosophies.
So Vidal took the side of Athens over Jerusalem. Does this convict him of any offence? Only of leaving religionists offended. His politics were a snob cocktail of libertarian strains, where populism and leftism crossover. He admired the tradition of William Jennings Bryan, while he took charge against its descendants in the Creationist Right. The aggressive secularism in Vidal’s politics has to be understood in its American context. He lived through the revival of political Christianity in the Fifties and the rise of the ‘Moral Majority’ in the Eighties. Ever the provocateur, Vidal would take a swipe at anyone to prove his points.