Thursday, December 31, 2015

All the Sade Young Men; or, Kill for the Love of Killing

I've been reading a bizarre novel from the late 1960s, The W.A.S.P. (Bantam, 1968) by Julius Horwitz.  "Bizarre" doesn't mean bad, mind you; it's a serious work about blacks and whites in mid-century America, perhaps all the more interesting because it was written by a white man.

Julius Horwitz (1920-1986) doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, but there is a Facebook page dedicated to him, maintained by his younger son.  He wrote eight novels, and The W.A.S.P. is the first I've read.  He was a welfare case worker for New York City between 1956 and 1962, and that experience probably informs The W.A.S.P.

The novel begins with the narrator, John Brooks, attending the funeral of a liberal white lawyer, Samuel T. West.  Brooks is an expert on the welfare system, and he (along with everyone else, it seems) anticipates the arrival at the funeral of Thomas Emerson, a black friend of West's, who dropped out of Yale Divinity School and plunged into the most impoverished parts of New York City.  At the time the novel begins Emerson is running a storefront church which mainly functions as an afters-school activity center for troubled Harlem Youth.

Emerson arrives and delivers a twelve-page eulogy of West, describing the blight of poverty in New York City and recounting the dead man's good works, which ended when he went to Harlem to inform the mothers of two young black boys that their sons were in jail for bludgeoning to death an elderly white couple in their apartment building.  He was only able to tell one mother about it, because when she heard the news she began to scream, and West had a heart attack and died in his tracks.  This was the first sign for me that The W.A.S.P. was something other than a realist expos√©.

Brooks tells the reader about his friendship with West, who introduced him to Emerson.  West, like the other white characters, was fascinated by Emerson; he saw him as one destined to become a murderer (another sign that the novel was moving into phantasmagoria) because as an aware black man in America, he could have no other destiny; and as an Ivy-League-trained minister, Emerson was in some obscure fashion the One, who by becoming a murder would being about some kind of apocalypse:
"Emerson knows murder," West said.  "He's seen murder in the children he works with. We need a murder. I mean America needs a murder. Not a Leopold-Loeb vase, which was sensational because it invoved money, murder and homosexuality.  We need a murder that will make us stand in awe of everything that we call justice.  We need a murder committed by a man who knows why he is killing, why he is taking a human life, why he chooses to kill a man at a particular point in his life.  A murder that threatens all of us, that alerts all of us at the same time.  The ancient human sacrifices were such murders.  The priest killed at an exact time to achieve an exact effect.  We need a murder to open our eyes.  The murder I might commit or that Brooks might commit or Emerson might commit if we believed that murder could accomplish what we couldn't accomplish by law or logic" [65].
This isn't just West talking; almost everyone in the novel talks like this, including Brooks, Emerson, and the professional participants at a conference on the welfare system that occupies pages 82 to 98, the junkie who rhapsodizes on heroin for three pages, the young Southern woman, Jenny Beal, who is fascinated by Emerson -- all are demented bullshit philosophers in love with their own nihilistic voices. It's often difficult to tell just which character is speechifying at any given moment. (Notice the reference to homosexuality in the passage I just quoted.  The novel is mildly obsessed with homosexuality.  As the Kirkus review blurbed on the back cover of the paperback kvells, "Atrocities, murder, addiction, rats, homosexuality, right down to black babies being tossed out of Harlem windows -- it's all here.")
".... I had one boy that I used to give a quarter to run out and buy me cigars.  He was picked up by a detective for hustling, selling his fourteen-year-old ass to the homosexuals on Riverside Drive.  The boy called me because I was the only person in the world whose telephone number he had.  I got him a lawyer and he beat the charges.  I gave him money to go to Cleveland, where he had an uncle.  He got a job with a cousin of mine and now he's making a down payment on a house within three minutes of Shaker Heights" [The W.A.S.P., 111-2].
West showed Brooks the long letters that Emerson had written to him, describing the horrors of poverty that he'd observed.  A sort of friendship grew up between Brooks and Emerson, and eventually, divining that Brooks was reading the letters, Emerson began directing them to Brooks instead.  Emerson shows Harlem to Brooks, and when the story circles back to West's death, eventually Emerson finds his victim.  More than that I won't say, in case the reader should want to find out personally how it turns out.

I don't believe it diminishes the enormity of poverty and racism in America to say that the horrors Horwitz describes and lists are not really important in the novel.  If anything, The W.A.S.P. diminishes them by using them to work through the author's apparent obsession with ultraviolence, sexual and otherwise.  I happened on a review of Horwitz's earlier novel, Can I Get There by Candlelight?, published in 1964. That one concerns an American soldier stationed in London toward the end of World War II, and according to the review it involves "alcohol (consumed with a relentless dedication), orgies (a few), and fornication (lots)."  (I'm tempted to read it to see what the "orgies" look like.)  It sounds as if Horwitz had his Big Theme and looked for settings that gave him an excuse to write about gang rapes, people thrown from the tops of buildings, old people clubbed to death by feral children, heroin, and so on, rather than being moved by a situation that needed to be addressed.

To be fair to Horwitz, there was a lot of this kind of rhetoric in the air in America in the Sixties.  Horwitz's older contemporary William S. Burroughs loved to fantasize apocalyptic violence, for example, and I was reminded of Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream as well.  It has roots in American sensational fiction, such as George Lippard's 1845 best-seller The Quaker City, which in turn is descended from the apocalyptic works of antiquity.

It happened that I read a little further in Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton, 2002) today.  After discussing David Hume's demolition of natural religion and the Argument from Design, Neiman moved on to the Marquis de Sade.
Sade longed to be more criminal than he was.  Indeed, he longed to be more criminal than was conceivable.  For he often noted, with a mixture of rage and pleasure, that true crimes against nature are improbable.  If the impulse to crime is natural, mustn't nature cooperate in any urge to its own destruction?  There may be a way around this objection, and Sade sought it without rest [170].
Neiman noticed Sade's ambivalence, which probably had multiple functions.  It's a lot like Burroughs' ambivalence; as I wrote of him: "It is never clear to me whether Burroughs actually considers this debauchery noxious or not. Sometimes he seems to disapprove, even while he is cataloguing the practices in enthusiastic detail."  This fits with what I've read by Sade, and I think it also fits Horwitz's outraged yet voyeuristic catalogues of sex and violence.
"... The girl had a big belly filled with a baby.  She had the needle in her arm when I kicked open the door.  The needle dropped. She fell down on the toilet floor like an animal.  She started licking the stuff, licking it off that toilet floor.  Get out, I screamed at them.  Get out and kill yourselves."  Eaton said one day that I should get Harris up to the Foundation for a lunch [The W.A.S.P., 103-4].
In one of his letters Emerson tells of a visit to a police station, where a lawyer tells him this story.
He said, I've got to hang around this court because some white pig accused my client of rape.  One look at the pig would tell you that she couldn't be raped.  But my client is black and the pig is white.  He was driving home from work, the nut, when he stopped for a red light in Chelsea.  This pig opened the door to his car.  That should have been a cue for him to slam the door shut and take off against the light.  But the pig was white, young, looked attractive, at least in the time he had to see her while the light was changing, and she said it would only cost him twenty dollars.  He said, Move in.  When she got into the car they looked for a place where she could go to work.  He didn't want to take her to his apartment, for a very good reason -- he lives in a middle-class project with his wife and three children.  Finally he said to her, Maybe we'd better call this thing off.  He made the mistake of not giving her the twenty dollars or at least a five-dollar bill  The pig called the police, gave them a solid description of my man and the car and said she had been raped.  He has no defense unless the yellow sheet proves the pig is a whore [The W.A.S.P, 143-4].
Emerson "couldn't understand why he was telling me, a complete stranger, the details of his case, unless it was his way of telling me that the Part 1A court didn't exist, wasn't real and he had to confide in me to keep his sanity as he waited for the case to come up" (144).

Why did Horwitz tell his readers, complete strangers, the details of this fictional though perhaps not entirely unrealistic case?  He certainly told me something about himself -- that he didn't believe a "pig" could be raped (only hot babes can be raped) or that a whore could be raped (if she's selling it it's okay to steal it from her) or that in the world of white liberals the word of a john of any color is to believed over a whore of any color.  Perhaps he thought he was being extremely daring by making the whore white and the john black.  (If it had been the other way around, I wonder which one he would have sided with.)  Granted, the story is filtered through the words of the defense lawyer, but Horwitz invented the lawyer too.

Of course I don't know anything about Julius Horwitz as a person, and I'm not saying that he was a sadist who wanted to rape women or throw babies from a rooftop.  A writer, like anybody else really, is not his or her fantasies.  He was probably -- no sarcasm -- a nice person with a social conscience, and working in the welfare system surely must have given him good reason for anger and despair, which (being a nice person) he expressed through writing fiction and advocacy nonfiction instead of through violence.  Or something; I am not sure what he thought he was doing.

I don't think The W.A.S.P. works; the message gets shoved aside by the subtext.  The few quotations I've typed in here probably don't get across the cumulative effect of the descriptions of poverty and violence, which fails for me because Horwitz and his characters don't really seem to care about the victims.  Emerson is really the only black character in the book; the others -- children, gangbangers, mothers -- are disposable, extras, there to suffer and die.  All of Horwitz' spokespeople are hopeless about them: the children are feral, barely human, and it seems pointless to try to help them, unless you can get them away from the Homosexuals in time and send them to Cleveland.  As though there were no homosexuals or prostitutes or drugs in Cleveland.