Now that the nights were so hot I went to bed late. At night this road is unlit, desolate, anonymous; it exists not on earth but as a path among clouds, miles from everywhere; an infinity separates it from the sleepers who snore in the small indistinguishable houses on either of its sides. Cars were rare and there were stars at night. The black cattle were grazing just beyond the fence; and the chains around the necks of the aristocrats among them tinkled in the darkness. Night music. Most of the houses on the back roads were inhabited by childless couples or old bachelors or widows living alone. But the people who thrive here—and there aren’t many of them—are an interesting species.
The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. 2:00 – 5:00 every day I shall set aside for writing and study outside in the sun, and whatever time in the evenings I can manage—I shall be quiet, courteous, and disinvolved!
The pen was cool to the touch. I wrote about women, hatefully, cruelly, I wrote about homosexuals and children lost in derelict railway stations. I could go on forever if I could. Every book is in a sense autobiographical. How deep-seated a habit it is: a lifetime of self-revelation, self-anatomization. Like an earnest woman in pregnancy, I have observed beautiful forms and colours, and listened carefully to harmonious sound, in the hope that such experiences might somehow become incorporate in me and pleasantly affect my issue. It is up to us to determine the meaning our life stories have. These are the much-celebrated Sebald’s abiding questions. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. What a difference there is between one book and another!
I am forever getting advice from well-meaning friends—and knowledgeable professional advisers—to “go commercial.” Silly seasons always are with us. Tinkering over sentences at my computer, I believed, really and truly, that a great cyclotron of art was at hand.
Lately, my sexual life has become very pure. Revenge fucking may not be the sweetest sex, nor the most satisfying, but it’s the most urgent. I felt excellent. Nonetheless my condition of feeling quite guilty continued for the longest time. Loners can be morbidly sensitive to this sort of thing.
It was all too good to be true.
Unending flights of screeching birds, which skimmed low over the water, from afar resembled drifting islands.
Other people see us in ways that we cannot anticipate; we cannot know ourselves because we cannot be everyone else in relation to ourselves; and so on.
I entered silently, sat beside the sleeping boy for a moment, then wandered about the other room. Then I stood in front of the mirror and stayed like that for so long that my reflection became a stranger and looked absurd. After that it was necessary to hold sadness at bay with a brandy, though not successfully.
Writers are a scourge to those they cohabit with. Our ears, our minds, our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. The better you try to be, the bigger mess you make. Yet I could not, would not, dismiss my beloved boy.
I am beginning to catch sight of what I might call the “deep-lying” subject of my book. I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man. And this must be where my mistake is.
My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. My mother was a faded old lady, sort of like the Queen of England. This was her only form of self-defense. And walking in vain, suddenly she would sit down on one of the circus chairs that stood by the long window overlooking the garden, bend forward, putting her hands between her legs, and begin to cry, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” repeated so often that it had the effect of all words spoken in vain. For nothing could stop my mother when she reentered the past and plunged back into her disastrous childhood. The dizziness and queer sensations that sometimes followed she took to be a proof of how much good it was doing her. Women baffled me, my mother in particular.
I was born between two miscarriages. It was an ill wind that blew nobody good. It was 1968. A sordid sexual event had occurred at some point.
From the beginning I sense that something is wrong. It’s something almost imperceptible. Grown-ups tried to sweeten the pill, but there was no hiding it, children were the most oppressed creatures on earth. I was a bastard child, I had no right to the social order.
My mother was completely out of my control; she was two women, and which of them would be seated on the porch when I got home from school I never knew beforehand. Days and nights were like verses of an infinitely harmonious dark song to us. After I had run away from school, no one knew what to do with me. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back from my failure in everyday life. I became a voracious reader; I was ambitious for an intellectual life I imagined belonging only to towers, gray cities, winter—to monks in cold cells, poets in scarves, women in furs, Edmund Wilson. Land of noble ideas. New York City rose out of the sea looking like nothing on earth. New York seemed like a mirage to me. Meanwhile, the possibility of the lone genius remained. Thank you, Proust. I was glad that I was going to be alone.
Then the amazing thing happened. My mother wanted me to be a homosexual. “My dear,” she cried, “I’m going to give you this dress as soon as I’m through with it.” My childhood was not, however, quite the gay whirl that one might imagine from the above statement. My mother has always been a heavy drinker. My father went crazy and became a cocaine fiend. Though long dead, he is very much alive in my dream.
Insanity, of course, runs in families; and it was, perhaps, too much to expect me to escape it.
We find our true nature writ small but clear in our childhood lives.
“I didn’t,” said Joe, “until to-night. My experience of life is that it’s very fragmented.”
Perhaps the least cheering statement ever made on the subject of art is that life imitates it. Yet any distinction between literature and life is misleading.
The books from which the entirety of “Our True Nature” was appropriated:
Now that the: Denton Welch Maiden Voyage 210
At night this: Alfred Chester Looking for Genet 172
Cars were rare: Justin Taylor Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever 3
The black cattle: Glenway Wescott Continual Lessons 175
Night music: Marlene Van Niekerk Agaat 2
Most of the: Clive Fisher Hart Crane 251
But the people: Elizabeth Gilbert Last American Man 215
The high cold: James Joyce Dubliners 33
2:00-5:00: Susan Sontag Reborn 17
The pen was: John Ashbery April Galleons 1
I could go: Joshua Mehigan The Optimist 58
I wrote about: Robert Bolaño By Night in Chile 84
Every book is: Helen Keller The World I Live In 14
How deep-seated: Glenway Wescott Continual Lessons 169
Like an earnest: Kenneth Burke Towards a Better Life 24
It is up: Charles Guignon On Being Authentic 130
These are the: Adam Phillips On Balance 236
They lived und: James Joyce Finnegans Wake 28
What a difference: Pascal Pensees 168
I am forever: John Francis Hunter The Gay Insider 78
Silly seasons: Harold Bloom Anatomy of Influence 13
Tinkering over sentences: David McConnell Firebrat 3
Lately, my sexual: Susan Sontag I, etcetera: Stories 45
Revenge fucking: Michael Herr Kubrick 88
I felt excellent: Walter Kirn My Hard Bargain 103
Nonetheless my condition: David Markson Wittgenstein’s Mistress 133
Loners can be: David McConnell Firebrat 3
It was all: Frederick Seidel Poems 1959-2009 9
Unending flights: W. G. Sebald After Nature 61
Other people see: Adam Phillips On Balance 224
I entered silently: Edmund White Noctures for the King of Naples 84
Then I stood: Daniel Kehlmann Me and Kaminsky 94
After that it: Graham Greene May We Borrow Your Husband 140
Writers are a: Justin O’Brien Camus 103
Our ears: Henry James Portrait of a Lady 311
The better you: D. H. Lawrence Studies in Classic American Literature 42
Yet I could: John Ashbery Flow Chart 178
I am beginning: Andre Gide The Counterfeiters 205
I have always: Elizabeth Hardwick Sleepless Nights 11
And this must: Ludwig Wittgenstein Notebooks 1914-1916 13
My mother’s femaleness: Elizabeth Hardwick Sleepless Nights 21
My mother was: Georges Bataille The Blue of Noon 12
This was her: Dezso Kosztalanyi Skylark 15
And walking in: Djuna Barnes Nightwood 61
For nothing could: Lydie Salvayre Company of Ghosts 18
The dizziness and: E. F. Benson The Freaks of Mayfair 53
Women baffled me: Andrew Holleran Nights in Aruba 33
I was born: Wayne Koestenbaum Moira Orfei in Aigues Mortes 6
It was an: Mary McCarthy The Group 292
It was 1968: Paul Griffiths Modern Music 173
A sordid sexual: David McConnell Firebrat 81
From the beginning: Mikis Theodorakis Journal of Resistance 29
It’s something almost: David Wojnarowicz Memories That Smell Like Gasoline 47
Grown-ups tried: Jean-Christophe Valtat 03 69
I was a: Jean Genet The Declared Enemy 8
My mother was: Andrew Holleran Nights in Aruba 33
Days and nights: Thomas Bernhard Prose 121
After I had: Denton Welch Maiden Voyage 7
I knew that: George Orwell An Age Like This 1
I became a: Richard Rodriguez Brown 147
Land of noble: Walicki A History of Russian Thought 75
New York City: Hart Crane Libray of America: Complete Poems and Selected Letters 306
New York seemed: James Blake The Joint 309
Meanwhile, the possibility: Paul Griffiths Modern Music 150
Thank you, Proust: Michael Cunningham By Nightfall 17
I was glad: Denton Welch Maiden Voyage 35
Then the amazing: E. F. Benson The Freaks of Mayfair 111
My mother wanted: John Cheever Stories 691
“My dear,” she: F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby 40
My childhood was: Fran Lebowitz Reader 38
My mother has: Susan Sontag I, etcetera: Stories 133
My father went: Teju Cole Open City 188
Though long dead: Gore Vidal Palimpsest 256
Insanity, of course: Mark Rowlands The Philosopher and the Wolf 18
We find our: Charles Guignon On Being Authentic 87
“I didn’t,” said Joe: O. Henry The Four Million 67
My experience of: John Cage Musicage 60
Perhaps the least: Fran Lebowitz Reader 88
Yet any distinction: Harold Bloom Anatomy of Influence 4
RICK WHITAKER is the author of An Honest Ghost, Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling, and The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: Reading Gay American Writers. He is Concerts and Theatre Manager of The Italian Academy at Columbia University, New York. His latest novel, An Honest Ghost, was just selected by John Ashbery for The Times Literary Supplement’s Best Books of 2013.
Excerpted from An Honest Ghost, by Rick Whitaker, copyright © 2013 by Rick Whitaker. With permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Productions.