Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and Queer Malthusianism

One+One Godard Giveway
September 11, 2012
Saturday’s Victim
September 15, 2012
By Bradley Tuck
Since that exchange, Myra Breckenridge has been thought by some to be a Commie, not the worst thing to be known as at the Academy since the students are scared to death of Communism (like, man, they make you work!), and so regard any alleged conspirator with awe… which I like. As for the theory of Communism, they have not a clue. […] As usual, I am ambivalent. On the one hand, I am intellectually devoted to the idea of old America. I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life -if such exists- accessible for all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become a world dictator, if only to fulfil my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to re-align the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage. p. 37-8
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After the recent death of Gore Vidal, I thought it was worth taking a look at his novel Myra Breckenridge. A book littered with references to Hollywood Cinema of the 1940s, sexually explicit violent acts and an eccentric apocalyptic politics. In many respects the novel can be seen as responding to the sexual politics of the day (it was published in 1969) and in many ways captures the ambivalence of the times. It is never exactly clear if the sexual revolution is progress or regress, narcissistic or naive. There is also a film version of the book. I must admit I love it. Gore Vidal hated it, although he admits he never saw it. I can see where he is coming from. Viewed in terms of the book the film is an utter failure. It turns what is dark and uneasy into camp comedy, it replaces the books ending with the most cliché ending ever. The book has so much more to offer and could really have been turned into a dark, disturbing cutting edge film. I really think someone should consider remaking it, this time without losing sight of the dark undercurrent of the book.
But, yes, I do love the film all the same. It has been labelled the worst film of all time, but anyone who has seen the latest box office hits should have good reason to question this. This film is fun, exciting and creative despite its flaws. The film is like a piece of surgery, re-editing the history of Hollywood to create a monster: Myra Breckenridge. The film is a self-referential, parody that satirises Hollywood, Republicans and the hippy generation. What makes it especially interesting is its style. The fact it uses footage from old Hollywood films and revives the careers of Mae West and John Huston. This is camp comedy of the more inventive interesting kind and does deserve some kudos for the simple fact that it is quirky, experimental and fun. (For more on the film and other queer films see my article in Issue 4). Today however I do not wish to talk about the film, my main interest instead will be to discuss the book, especially one of my favourite chapters: 27.
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In this chapter, Myra Breckenridge, the central character and narrator of the story, meets with Mary Ann Pringle and Rusty Godowski, the typical heteronormative couple, in the Cock and Bull for dinner. As throughout the book Myra’s descriptions constantly evoke the cinema of the 40s. She tells us that “Rusty is a throwback to the stars of the forties, who themselves were simply shadows cast in the bright morning of the nation. Yet in the age of the television commercial he is sadly superfluous, an anachronism, acting out a masculine charade that has lost all meaning. That is why, to save him (and the world from his sort), I must change entirely his sense of himself.” p. 121. Her very point it seems is to transform the very image of masculinity in America. In a sense, to overcome classical Hollywood and its normalisation of the typical man. But even on this Myra is ambivalent. She loves 40s Cinema and would want to return to it, and yet at the same time she would like to transform it, to prepare humanity for its next stage. Her experiments in social transformation are played out on her unsuspecting guinea pigs: Mary Ann and Rusty. With a certain arrogance typical of Breckenridge, she imagines herself as an anthropologist investigating an inferior species.
“Also, the deliberate (on my part) manipulation of the conversation was curiously thrilling, affording me an opportunity to observe how something entirely alien behaves in its natural habitat: The never-fulfilled desire of the dedicated anthropologist who realises that the moment he arrives in the village to study its culture, that culture has already been subtly altered by the simple fact of his presence; just as the Earthly microbes our astronauts are certain to let loose upon other worlds is sure to kill or change those extraterrestrial forms of life we would like to preserve in order to understand.
[…]
Yet the presence of the anthropologist (me) at the end of the wooden table in the Cock and Bull did, eventually, alter significantly the behaviour of the two natives as they lost their self-consciousness to the degree that the conversation ceased to be particular and became general, something that almost never happens among the lower orders who are, to a man, walking autobiographers, reciting their dull memoirs at extraordinary length, oblivious to the extent they bore even others of their kind who, of course, wait impatiently to tell their stories.
[…]
Somehow the subject reverted to Rusty’s proud rejection of the Mexican’s advances, and Mary-Ann made it plain that for her part she could never consider making love to another woman. ‘It just…well, disgusts me,’ she said. ‘I mean I just couldn’t. I think, well, a woman should act like a woman and a man should act like a man and that’s that.’
‘But how should a man act?’ I was mild.
Rusty knew. ’He should ball chicks, that’s how he should act.’
‘But only if he really loves them.’ Mary-Ann was droll; both laughed at what was obviously a private joke.
‘And why should he ball chicks?’ I continued my gentle catechism.
‘Well, because that’s… well, Christ, it’s natural!’
‘And that’s how you get babies,’ said Mary-Ann sagely. ’I mean that’s how nature intended it.’
‘Do you think nature intended you to have a baby each time you make love?’
Mary-Ann looked like a lapsed Catholic trying to recall what she had been taught. But Rusty was a good Catholic Pole and knew right from wrong. ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do, yes. That’s what we’re told in Church.’
At this moment, you might imagine Breckenridge as your typical queer theorist, in Foucaultian fashion, problematising the very notion of normal. But Breckenridge is more extreme and darker. Not so much a leftist decrying the discrimination and inequality brought about by heteronormativity, but proposing a kind of social Darwinism more typical of the right and certainly far more critical of parenthood and reproduction than the peaceful all-too-tolerant liberal.
‘Then you basically believe that it’s right for more and more babies to be born, even though half the people ever born in the world are now alive, and that each day twelve thousand people starve to death in India and South America?’ Oh the sly Myra Breckenridge! Nothing can escape the fine net of her dialectic!
Mary-Ann responding to Myra’s provocations, by pointing out that child birth was still important because so many babies die in child birth.
‘They used to die,’ I said. ’And that kept the population in proper balance with the food supply. But now the children live. And starve. And all because their parents passionately believe that to be manly is to make babies and to be womanly is to bare them.’
Mary-Ann and Rusty reassure Myra that there is enough food to feed everyone.
‘Enough food,’ however, was all the cue I needed. I was brilliant. I quoted the best of the world’s food authorities (famine for us all by 1974 and forget about plankton and seaweed: not enough of it). I demonstrated that Malthus had been right, dispite errors of calculation.
[…]
My answer was simple enough: famine and war are now man’s only hope. To survive, human population must be drastically reduced. Happily, our leaders are working instinctively towards that end, and there is no doubt in my mind that nature intends Lyndon Johnson and Mao Tse-tung to be the agents of our salvation.
It is here that the almost proto-fascist element of Myra emerges. She draw upon the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, an 18th/19th Century scholar who criticised the poor law for keeping the poor alive and reproducing. In effect it if the poor starve it is their own fault for having too many pesky kids, an attitude that is common today with the right who complain about single mums. Of course Malthus saw this leading to apocalyptic conclusions and Myra seems to follow. Just as in last week’s blog we heard about Boyd Rices’ claim that anything that contributes to the depopulation of the Human race was good. Here we see Myra saying much the same thing. Myra’s response, however, has a strikingly queer theoretical twist.
‘But how do we stop all this from happening?’ Mary Ann was plainly alarmed.
‘Don’t have children. That is the best thing. A gesture of course, but better than nothing. And try to change your attitudes about what is normal.’ Then in quick succession, I delivered a number of anthropological haymakers. Proper womanly behavior for an Escimo wife is to go to bed with anyone her husband brings back to the igloo. Proper manly behaviour for the Spartan warrior was to make love to a boy while teaching him how to be a soldier. I gave a rapid review of what is constantly proper sexual behaviour in Polynesia and along the Amazon. Everything I said came as a revelation to Rusty and Mary-Ann, and they were obviously horrified by the unnaturalness of what was considered natural in other parts of the world.
[…]
Yet efforts must still be made to preserve life, to change the sexes, to re-create man.
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It is hard here not to think of the 70s radical Feminist Shalamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex where she says
So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality Freud’s ‘polymorphous perversity’ – would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would born to both sexes equally, or independently of. either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.
Certainly far from Myra’s Queer Malthusianism, Firestone’s pansexual Marxism certainly shares the ampition of the transformation of the sexes. Here I am ambivalent. I admire the potential to re-imagine the species via technology, to treat gender, not as the preserve of a conservative identity politics, but as a radical transformative project and to challenge gender norms. But Firestone is all to essentialist for my liking and too ready to fetishise a pansexual utopia as the only alternative. In contrast, Myra is all to ready to justify murder, death and destruction. But they certainly have some points. Liz Soden and Greg Scorzo have interestingly dealt with issues of motherhood, the contraceptive pill and the ethical issues around choosing to be a parent in their film The Medea Legacy. (An interview with them can be read in Issue 5.) Apocalyptic issues are still on the table. The environmental scientist James Lovelock has predicted that, due to the overpopulation of the planet we can expect 5/6 of the worlds population to be wiped out in this century. Similarly the marxist Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has talked of the coming ” apocalypse” ushered by the four horse men “the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions” and the need to reinvent a form or communism or commons to help us deal with it. It is precisely in this light that we should read Myra Breckenridge, drawing upon her ability to use classical hollywood as a method for reinventing the future. Myra Breckenridge may be as pathological as they come, but the book still touches upon themes that are worthy of attention.