Monthly Archives: October 2012

40th Discussion: Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (18th Oct)

On Alexius’s recommendation, we read the book, a source of escape for Alexius. Javin and Glenn started the book club by saying that Vidal set out to debunk stereotypes–ie gay=effeminate–but he ended up reinforcing them, creating a hierarchy among gay people. Sean, on the other hand, argued that perhaps Vidal’s purpose is just to observe and tell the truth, nothing more.

To investigate the motive of writing the book, we read, “we have all stolen pears; the mystery is why so few of us rate halos” (1). Sean and Raj claimed that “stolen pears” is a metaphor for sinning, which is in turn linked to homosexuality.

From the motive, from the top, we move to the ending, to the bottom. Rape of Bob is more powerful than the original ending of killing of Bob but we deviated and never quite mentioned why rape is more powerful. Ernest saw the ending as a cautionary tale of Paradise Lost: characters in the novel use people, not love people; they objectify people. There is a utopia that they could work towards but they don’t. Javin said up to before the rape, Jim is an ok character but the rape makes Jim unsympathetic. Ernest saw the rape as a birthing process of Jim entering another phase of his life.

After the rape, the last image of the moving river is poignant. Alexius saw the structure of the book as a sex act, culminating the rape as climax, and the moving river as regrets of sex. Glenn mentioned that if Jim becomes friends with Bob, the river image would represent a new phase, a happy ending. But the rape destroys all hope. Sean linked the river image at the end to the beginning of the novel where Bon and Jim meet at the river, symbolizing a kind of journey.

Aaron asked if the hetero sex acts display heterophobia as the hetero-sex acts are described in revolting terms whereas the homo-sex acts are more clinical and noticeably less obscene. No one agreed with Aaron.

One ways to debunk stereotypes of homosexuality is to present different sides of homosexuality but to this end, Vidal doesn’t seem to be successful. For instance, Ronald Shaw’s and Jim’s homosexuality seem to stem from a Freudian theory of absent father-overly loving mother; Sullivan’s and the literati’s notion is that homosexuals are smart, sensitive, handsome and narcissistic (another stereotype).

Regarding the incident where Jim fails to seduce Ken but the effeminate sergeant Kervinski succeeds, Aaron called on the bullshit of Vidal but Sean came to Vidal’s defense: since Jim is shaped by his experiences in Hollywood, that looks come first, it is little wonder why Jim would fail to see that love can exist between Ken-Kervinski.

Raj asked about the significance of the title. Alexius assumed that the city means the city of men and the pillar is the cock that the men want to mount. Sean said that if we apply the parable of not looking backwards, always looking forward, then the novel acts as a cautionary tale for all of us: Jim should have never looked back to Bob; he would have been much happier trying to make his relationships work.

No one has any particular strong liking for any characters because the characters are all hateful and unloveable. Aaron said that the negativity exuding from the book shows what sort of person Vidal was. If made to choose, Raj liked Mrs Willard because she’s a long-suffering wife; Alexius liked Jim because he has the courage to rape while Sean sympathized with Jim but empathized with Sullivan.

At the end of the discussion, the group was split into two camps. Those in favor of the book said that it is a cautionary tale (Ernest); that Jim is relatable because he is handsome (Alexius); and the fact that the novel arouses strong emotions means it is successful (Sean). Those who dislike the book say that it has no value-added (Raj); strengthens gay stereotype especially the stereotype that you’re unlovable as you grow older (Glenn); the novel has not enough sex and is not 50 Shades of Gay (Javin) and there is no compassion and kindness in the book, showing Vidal as a vile person (Aaron.)

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Filed under Classics, Family, Gay, Gore Vidal, Love, USA, War

39th Discussion: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Notes written by the multi-talented Timmy. He can moderate discussions, he can write and he can kiss his boyfriend all over town. Hooray!

      

Foods served this week were fried chicken, chips, blue cheese dip, and an “indescribable” cake which turned out to be zucchini. “The selection of foods for this month is meant to be as confusing as the book,” explained Raj-ella Lawson.

Aaron moderated the discussion, which was joined by Raj, Alexius, Joshua, Alex, Glenn, Ernest and Timmy.

First Impressions

Alexius was up first, and said that the book was too descriptive, chunky, draggy and “not MRT friendly.” Joshua, however, thought the book was well-written, despite the plot being non-coherent. Raj was appreciative of Virginia’s writing style, though he did mention that this was a book that he would not like. Alex could not remember much about it, while Aaron had no opinion of the book except that it was “avant-garde.”

Themes

Plot

Joshua found the story itself as illogical; Alex described it as irrational and hysterical. As the book was written during the Second World War, Alexius jest that perhaps Virginia could not keep track of her writing. Aaron explained it could be so due to the limitations of a biography. Both Raj and Timmy joked that the author may have just randomly input things just so that it is compiled as the book.

Transition/Narrative styles

Raj felt that Virginia portrayed women well, and commented that the switching of writing styles went well with the sexes (males = action oriented; females = word oriented). Aaron, however, disagreed and thought that the changes in narrative styles were more in correlation with the time period as opposed to gender. Joshua felt that the transitions were jarring. Alexius thought that the transition as a whole was absurd and speculated that the author may have “an agenda.”

“How has Orlando changed throughout the course of the book?”

“Clothes,” said Alexius candidly. He also mentioned sexual preference, which led Alex to ask: “Was he always straight?” Raj highlighted Orlando’s preference for girls who look like guys when he was still a male.

Aaron, Raj, Alexius and Joshua perceived Orlando as an androgynous character – feminine male, then masculine female. Alexius found Orlando’s transformation as a male to be more interesting compared to when he/she was a woman.

Chapter 3 (aka the dancing goddesses/sex change scene)

Raj joked that the dancing women were akin to the three (good) witches of Macbeth.

According to the passage, the three ladies were representations of modesty, chastity and purity. Timmy asked if these are qualities that women of those times should attain. Raj replied that the three values were the epitome of womanhood. Aaron, however, countered that they seemed to be imposed limitations so that women of those times could be culturally accepted. Joshua agreed with Aaron’s sentiments. Alex quipped that these are the qualities that none of us have. We all laughed because this is legit information.

Cross-dressing

Alex speculated if Virginia had lesbian tendencies. Aaron clarified the book was written for her girlfriend. Raj found it to be a dramatic twist to the story. Alexius questioned if Virginia and Orlando could be the same person, as both shared the same personalities and liked poetry. Someone then joked that the oak tree symbolised the male appendage.

Marriage and child

“What’s the point (of including them)?” Aaron exasperatedly asked. Raj equated it to a marriage of convenience. The two of them noted that the sailor came out of nowhere, as well as the child (“magical child,” as Aaron put it).

“A lot of things in this book happened for Orlando’s benefit,” Raj highlighted.

Longevity

Besides Orlando, Aaron highlighted that Nick Green and Mr Dupper lived very long lives in the book. “Why them? Especially Nick Green, in particular?” asked Aaron. Joshua said this was done to show how Orlando has changed. Raj added on that Orlando needed the men, as writing was perceived as a man’s job at that point in time.

Foreigners

Aaron asked of their treatment in the book. Raj felt that it was barbaric, while Joshua surmised that the English have a superiority complex.

The ending

“She bares her breasts to the moon.”

Timmy quipped that she can’t do it to the sun as she may get sunburn. Joshua described the gesture as a mark of sexuality. Aaron and Alex believed it to mean femininity. Alex then joked that Orlando was turning into Chang Er.

Final say

Aaron liked the book even more after the discussion. Joshua concurred, even though he still found it confusing. Raj didn’t hate the book as much, though he hoped to go through some parts of the book quickly to finish it. Alexius didn’t like the book. The rest of us reserved our judgments.

We grew bored discussing the book through the middle of the discussion, so we decided to end it quickly to catch up with one another instead, which is more fun as compared to talking about Virginia Woolf and Orlando.

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Classics, Family, Love, Post-Colonialism, Queer, Transgender, Transvestism, UK, Virginia Woolf