Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hey You - Into the Meme Pool!

This is weird.  Homo Superior posted this quotation:
We must declare ourselves, become known; allow the world to discover this subterranean life of ours which connects kings and farm boys, artists and clerks. Let them see that the important thing is not the object of love, but the emotion itself. ~ Gore Vidal
That doesn't sound like the Gore Vidal I've been reading for the past forty-odd years.  He's aggressively anti-sentimental about love and dismissive of writers who write about it.  So I looked for a source.

It was widely quoted on the Internet, but it took me some time to find a link for a source: to this NPR tumblr, which in turn linked to an NPR obituary of Vidal.  But the obituary didn't contain the quotation.  Nor do any of the extant comments.  (Some have been deleted by the moderator for violating NPR's community standards.)

My guess is that the speaker is a character in Vidal's early novel The City and the Pillar, first published in 1948 and revised in 1965.  Neither version seems to be fully searchable online, though, so I can't be sure.  There are worse offenses than confusing the author with his or her characters, and this one is merely ascribing gushy sentimentality that anybody could have written to a notoriously anti-sentimental writer.  It's no worse than the meme I saw on Facebook the other day which ascribed a remark about Paris to Audrey Hepburn, though the words were not hers but the words of whoever wrote the script for Sabrina.  (Not too surprising, since so many people seem to believe that actors make up their own lines on the fly.)

But sometimes it's not so innocent.  Leo Bersani, a distinguished literary theorist and author of the well-known paper "Is the Rectum a Grave?", quoted there a passage from Tony Kushner's play Angels in America: "For Kushner, to be gay in the 1980s was to be a metaphor not only for Reagan’s America but for the entire history of America, a country in which there are 'no gods…no ghosts and spirits…no angels…no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.'"  Kushner responded that while he didn't know whether the rectum is a grave, he did know that Bersani is an asshole:
Yes, obviously, though not a stupid asshole. A college sophomore should know better than to try to build a case that being gay is, in my plays, a “metaphor” for anything, and hopefully that sophomore would be warned against the literary malpractice of quoting a character in fiction as though he reliably speaks in the author’s voice….
Both passages are conveniently quoted in this blog post, whose author complains that both Bersani and Kushner are being "dickheads" and the exchange as a "catfight."  That seems to me like the mindset which, in elementary school principals, punishes both bullies and their victims; or in ordinary American discourse, claims that there are "extremists" on both sides of an issue.  While Kushner was being snotty, he was also no more than right.  A professional academic critic should be embarrassed to be caught making such an elementary mistake.

In the case of the Vidal quotation, it's not surprising that people should want to ascribe their vacuous inspirational sayings to famous sages of the distant past.  It still surprises me that the process works so quickly with the very recently dead.  Which is relevant to Christian apologists who claim that the gospels must be reliable because people are able to preserve oral traditions reliably for generations.  Hell, people can make up these legends in a few days.