Monday, March 16, 2009

Some academia.

I've realized recently that this blog used to have a little more of a point. I started it as a place to publish the sex column I was writing for a campus magazine, and occasionally thereafter there were academic, or at least intellectual posts. I fear I've gotten away from that in favor of ranting about my ridiculous relationships. While that's certainly therapeutic for me, it isn't wholly representative of who I am, even just as a writer.

I'm also skating along the border of legitimacy, I feel, as far as blogs go. Certainly, the whole point of the "citizen journalist" and "push-button publishing" is that anyone can be a writer or a journalist, but as I consider myself both of those professionally as well as just a blogger, I think it's time to offer a little glimpse of a different side of me. I've long admired Roland Hulme's book reviews, and wished I was more of a pleasure-reader so I might have some decent content to review. What follows isn't quite that, as the essay was written for a writing class I'm taking at my university, but it does start delving into my academic voice. And it's about queer sexuality, and I'm proud of the final product. So I'm publishing it here. I was assigned to read and analyze Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms... It was my first time reading Capote, I'm a little ashamed to admit, but I think I tackled the material well, if I do say so myself.

Also, reading it over, I noticed the stark difference in voice between what I write in here and what I write in academically. I suppose that's a good thing, though, right?

If you'd like to buy the book to read for yourself, you can find it on Amazon.

Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, first published in 1948, was the author’s first commercially successful novel, and although he claims he was unaware of it while writing the book, is semi-autobiographical. The story focuses on Joel, a somewhat precocious 13-year-old boy who, after his mother’s death, is sent to live at his estranged father’s home outside Noon City, Alabama. Joel has no recollection nor knowledge of his father, as he was raised solely by his mother and then, for a short time after her passing, by his aunt. In this regard, the book is somewhat autobiographical. Capote did indeed spend many of his formative years in Alabama and, like Joel, lost his mother at a young age. Notably, Capote’s mother committed suicide, whereas Joel’s mother dies of a cause he does not entirely understand – she is simply always cold and then fades away. In fact, this vague description and the questions and details it leaves unresolved is characteristic of Other Voices, Other Rooms. It is a deeply emotional novel, with its sensitive protagonist constantly struggling with the societal imposition of impending manhood and with it, a heteronormative identity. Throughout the novel, Capote’s language relies almost entirely on pathos to move its story forward. Readers are often left wondering what is real and what is imagined, as Capote outright denies his readers a legitimating logos. Logic has little place in Joel’s world of half-truths and mysterious histories, and as such, Capote does not allow his reader more information than has his main character.

From the first introduction to Joel, Capote sets the boy apart from a perceived “normal.” When Sam Radclif, a local truck driver, first sees Joel,

He had his ideas about what a “real” boy should look like, and this kid somehow offended them. He was too pretty, too delicate and fair-skinned; each of his features was shaped with a sensitive accuracy, and a girlish tenderness softened his eyes, which were brown and very large. (10)

Immediately Capote sets apart his protagonist from the heteronormative yet widely accepted perception of the “typical man.” Given the kairos of the novel, and with the knowledge that although he never states the word, Joel (and Capote) eventually recognizes himself as gay, this description seems to immediately “out” Joel. Through the 1950’s and even much of the 1960’s, homosexuality was marked less by same-sex desire than by gender-deviant behavior or presentation. Gay men were considered to be those who were effeminate (regardless of a man’s actual orientation or sexual practices), just as lesbians were those women who were “too masculine.” Given the time period in which Capote was writing, this likely would have been an immediate sign to his readers that Joel might be queer.

But where Capote truly shines is, of course, in his prose. Capote was quoted as saying that his earliest works – those before Breakfast at Tiffany’s and including Other Voices – were a move verbose and, in some regards, indulgent exercise in prose. Nevertheless, it is through his prose in Other Voices that Capote allows the reader a window into Joel’s mind and heart, without once adopting a first-person approach. Perhaps the most striking instance of this comes when Joel, while at a makeshift church service with his friend and housekeeper (and maternal figure), Zoo. At this point in the story, although living in his house for almost a month, Joel still has not seen his father, and has instead fantasized about what he would be like, but those fantasies quickly bring out Joel’s own insecurities and desires. As Zoo demands that Joel pray at the conclusion of the service, Capote writes:

But there was no prayer in Joel’s mind; rather, nothing a net of words could capture, for, with one exception, all his prayers of the past had been simple, concrete requests: God, give me a bicycle, a knife with seven blades, a box of oil paints. Only how, how, could you say something so indefinite, so meaningless as this: God, let me be loved. (79)

This passage is so simple, yet the pain is quite palpable. Without even placing the reader directly in Joel’s shoes with first-person perspective, Capote has created such emotional resonance that the reader can actually feel Joel’s pain. And the simplicity of Joel’s desire, juxtaposed with the implication that he thinks such a notion is ridiculous to ask for all combines to create an incredibly effective sense of pathos. It is precisely this tactic that Capote employs throughout the novel to not only allow readers to identify with Joel, but also to evoke such strong pathos that readers cannot help but empathize with Joel.

It is this identification that likely encourages readers to rejoice, with Joel, when he finally accepts himself for who he is at the end of the novel. Although neither Capote nor Joel ever say the word “homosexual” or “gay,” (although, notably, Joel’s transgender cousin Randolph is openly gay, as readers discover through the course of the book), in the final pages, Joel begins to accept his surroundings. In some sense, his father’s home is a kind of prison – it is secluded, and its residents chastised even from the small town they live near. Yet simultaneously, Capote once again employs ethos to demonstrate to readers that perhaps this isolation was necessary for Joel to truly discover and come to terms with himself – his past, present, and future.

A crazy elation caught hold of Joel, he ran, he zigzagged, he sang, he was in love, he caught a little tree-toad because he loved it and because he loved it he set it free, watched it bounce, bound like the immense leaping of his heart; he hugged himself, alive and glad, and socked the air, butted like a goat, hid behind a bush, jumped out… “I am me,” Joel whooped. “I am Joel, we are the same people.” And he looked for a tree to climb: he would go right to the very top, and there, midway to heaven, he would spread his arms and claim the world… (230)

Joel slipped down from the tree; he had not made the top, but it did not matter, for he knew who he was and he knew that he was strong. (231)

At this precise moment, Capote allows the reader to celebrate in Joel’s revelation along with him. The stream-of-conscious tone associates the words with an adolescent too excited to be bothered with punctuation; with news too important and vital to be kept from anyone. That is exactly what Joel has just discovered in terms of himself. And once again, Capote has illustrated it not through a logical progression or moral revelation, but rather through the simple, honest feelings of his main character.

Capote relies so heavily upon pathos in Other Voices, it could be argued that he quite pointedly ignores logos and ethos. While he makes some reference to morality and appeals to society, these are always portrayed in the third-person and distanced from the protagonist, with whom the reader identifies and empathizes. The ethos of the town or even other members of Joel’s family is portrayed as misguided and often downright cruel and negligent. Similarly, logos has little place in the world Capote has created for Joel. Capote keeps his readers veiled in the same shroud of childlike confusion and half-explanation that the adults in Joel’s life keep him shrouded in. Joel and readers maintain illusions of supernatural happenings throughout, and even at the conclusion of the book, many questions are left unanswered. But, instead of leaving the reader confused or frustrated with so many loose ends, Capote has effectively created a pathos identifying the reader with Joel that the reader is simply happy for Joel to find some resolution and peace within himself and his world.


Amalthea said...

WOW. That was so well-written and wonderful.

I just added this book to my booksfree queue. Also, is it odd that I envisioned you in the sexy secretary outfit reading this to me? It was hot. Smexy! (As Roland would say!)

P.S. - I'll read whatever the hell you want to write. I adore it all.

Merlin said...

A blog is a place for you to write what you want. It doesn't have to follow a theme or any other structure. Just accept yourself as you are and tell us what you want to tell us. In the end, Joel did that. I think you have, too.

Roland Hulme said...

I think that's a wonderful examination - far more intelligent and academic than my rambling reviews! Further evidence that you are indeed a very smart cookie.

funny - I blogged about the same dilemma the other day - and how Militant Ginger wasn't exactly about anything.

But, then again, maybe it doesn't need to be. Our blogs are in some ways sort of self-published papers, but because we're not writing for anybody else, we can scribble whatever we want - which makes blogging far more rewarding for us and, I like to think, makes our writing far more 'true' than if we were writing articles.

Your blog has always been smart and thought provoking (you inspired my Big Sexy Brain award) and I think it's perfect and richly rewarding exactly as it is!