This is not intended as a "gay book" -- rather, it is a shattering of tenacious myths about a wide variety of groups: gays, prostitutes, drug users, drug dealers, left-handers, math geniuses, neurotics, university physics teachers, heterosexual adulterers, civil libertarians, writers.... And how do I propose to tie all these oddities together? Because, at one time or another, I have been all of these things.
And I write of the parallels between these things. They are different ways of dancing on the cliff.
Think of this book as a meditation on vanity and immortality, and as a cautionary tale. It is. You'll see.
It's ironic that I should begin writing my memoirs after I've been told I'm losing my memory. I should have started earlier; I knew I'd write them some day; but it seemed arrogant to start before I was 40. For years I idly figured my memoirs would be my fifth or tenth book. Then I could capitalize on a fame I'd created in my 30s, 40s, and 50s to give value to the name-dropping and to my chronicle of sex, drugs, and classical music. I wanted to establish myself as an intellectual before I set out, like a Don Quixote of sensuality, to legitimize the scandalous aspects of my life, even as I capitalized on the scandal. I wanted to present my ideas before I presented the life from which they evolved.
But in the jaws of a disease that could take my eyes, my mind, my life, there's little alternative to that youthful arro- gance.
I've probably agonized more over the accuracy of my memory than most writers. After all, short-term memory goes first. Yesterday vanishes, while yesteryear remains. All the good old stuff -- the quotable dirt -- is as intact as it ever was, in the abstraction-mill that is my mind. I apologize that I never trained myself to notice the human details that should grace a memoir like this. What I trained myself to do was to abstract the moral latent in every story. It was the self-defense of an intellectual: moral incantation. But there is still enough skin of remembered experience on the bones and sinews of abstraction, to bring my life back to life.
Years ago I told a self-dissipated friend that he ought to make a living renting himself out as a bad example. Perhaps, gentle reader, you will allow me to do the same for you.
I hate the idea that the shadow of AIDS hangs over this book and might seem to invalidate my philosophy. It might suggest that libertarianism leads to a brush-fire of libertinism. This misses the point entirely.
What is wrong with my life is captured by the dictum of Lord Acton, who said, "All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Without meaning to overstate the force of the dictum, I once wrote that perhaps even intellectual power tends to corrupt. I used the example of Ayn Rand who surrounded herself with yes-men (and -women), much as the negative end of a polar molecule surrounds itself with the opposite poles of other such molecules. The result was to surrealize her surroundings.
Although I don't have the rhetorical force of Ayn Rand, I have an remarkable verbal and logical facility, and a wounded childhood that has left me coiled up like a spring. One difference is that I became good-looking. I still had a childhood identity as an ugly duckling intellectual to overcome, but being socially and sexually attractive defused a lot of my anger -- the sort of anger that remained bottled up in someone like Ayn Rand, who admired and perhaps envied physical beauty. Had I not had a release of that pressure in my twenties -- like the burnt exploding gases diffusing out of the silencer of a revolver -- I proba- bly would have buried myself in my career like she did. In other words, I would have been really pissed off.
As it was, I was pissed off enough to select the most difficult career I could imagine and make it look easy. While I was still nineteen, I was already teaching college physics to stu- dents years my senior. I was so touchy about my status that I insisted on their calling me "Mr. Dentinger". Only years later, after having some of the pretentiousness beat out of me at Caltech, did I encourage my physics students at U.S.C. to call me "John."
Of course, I was getting older. Now the scarce commodity was not presumed maturity but apparent youth. This was the fountain of esteem for one still coasting on boyish good looks and the sharp tongue of an enfant terrible. I had the good fortune to look younger than my true age by about ten years. But my thirties were approaching. Soon friends and editors would expect to cash in on the mere promise that had been sufficient in my twenties.
For years, I had gotten away with 'mere promise'. I was young, attractive, articulate, witty -- and, if suitably motivated, I could charm the pants off of... well, perhaps I'll get to names later. The point is: all these attributes represented a kind of power. And that power corrupted me. A few hours a week allowed me to produce prodigies of political writing and scientific consulting that others couldn't produce in a month. For years I fooled people into thinking I was doing my best, although I knew better.
In January 1985, I began to devote myself seriously to writing. Within half a year, I was asked to write a column for a national political magazine. Within a year after that, Playboy magazine asked me to write for them -- an offer most writers would kill for. It was exciting, but as years went by I began to feel disquieted that I had not written a book.
I made busy-work by searching for a literary agent. I wrote a few articles. I busied myself with answering the excellent question asked by a first-rate but lazy writer friend: what is wrong with being a dilettante? I was merely playing at my supposed profession: spending my time reading, listening to music, and indulging in fabulous marathons of sex and drugs.
I could impress old friends and new with far less than my best effort. I had the power to weave illusions with words, and instead of using it to write fiction, I was using it to live fiction. Well, you know what Acton said. I was starting to clean up my act as I watched my career slow to a crawl. And when I sped into the brick wall of AIDS, when I lost even the power to climb the stairs from my office to our bedroom without exhaustion -- that was the final impetus to return to work.
For years my powers had allowed me to slack off in my writing. To get me to buckle down and work hard took the loss of those powers. The loss of my health, my strength, and ninety percent of my remaining life expectancy. Did I have to be crip- pled -- like the novelist in Stephen King's story Misery -- to get me to stay put and write? I hope not. I cling to the escape clause in Acton's dictum: 'tends to corrupt'. I don't want to be corrupted. But I do want those powers back.
Writing about evolution in his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins draws an interesting parallel between ideas and viruses. The latter take over certain cells in the body and commandeer them for their own purposes. Now Dawkins analogizes like so: ideas commandeer your brain and make you work for them instead of for yourself. You go marching off to war for Church or State or Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.
Let's extend the analogy. Some viruses (like herpes) can remain dormant and non-infectious for years at a time; but on sensing the impending death of the host, the infection takes on a more contagious form, in order that its particular strain can survive the death of the host. So now we ask: what do ideas do when faced with the death of the host?
You would expect a person who has absorbed ideas all his life, and then suddenly faces death, would boil over with a desire to pass the ideas on, to keep them alive, to enlist others in their glorious causes. This is what my diagnosis did for me. (But don't be alarmed -- some ideas are good viruses.)
I hope I hold on long enough to get a cure -- and that regaining my powers will not return me to the lazy corruption of yesteryear. That the awful discipline of disease and the rewards of work will be remembered. That Acton's Loophole will work for me.
Or, simply, that reading this book will make it work for you.
Proceed to Part Two
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