The Decline of Wit into Camp
James J. O'Meara
Michael Nelson’s A Room in Chelsea Square
Anonymous (Michael Nelson)
A Room in Chelsea Square
Richmond: Valancourt Books, 2014
“Well,” said John,” I’m thought queer because I have more brains than most children. Some say I have more brains than I ought to have. You’re queer because you have more money than most people; and (some say) more than you ought to have.” — Olaf Stapledon, Odd John
I’ve long enjoyed reading almost exclusively Old Books; not “the classics” as such, but books from a recognizably modern period, but prior to the cultural upheaval of the ’60s — say, from 1920 to 1965. Although it’s a personal predilection, I think I can recommend it as an interesting and instructive exercise. Such books reveal, innocently and therefore reliably, a whole world in which PC attitudes were unknown — and everyone was perfectly OK with it. It’s a world alt-Rightists would do well to contemplate, if only for encouragement.
It’s a world where it was perfectly natural for James Gould Cozzens — a Gentile! — to write Guard of Honor, a novel not so much “pro-military” — since its dialectic opposite, the “anti-military” was unthinkable prior to the “black comedy” of Catch-22 or Dr. Strangelove — but simply realistic; a novel in which honest men — and women — try to do what’s necessary at a homeland base during wartime, with greater or lesser levels of competence, rather than cartoonish psychopathy; where running a minor military base in a segregated county is a problem for men of good will to work out more or less satisfactory arrangements, rather than a moral imperative to be shoved down the throats of inbred cracker colonels. And not only win the National Book Award, but get his picture on the cover of Time!
By the time you get deeper into the ’50s, even the Young Lions become problematic. These are the books that keep troubling the PC gatekeepers in the media and especially the academy; still “relevant” — i.e, anti-White — but loaded with land mines that keep springing up anew as the cultural goalposts keep changing — progressing ever onward to ever greater liberation! As the PC crowd grinds on relentlessly, one “radical” after another becomes a “cretinous reactionary” the embarrassed teacher needs to justify to the outraged student, and ripe for reclamation by the alt-Right.
We all know about Mark Twain and “the N-word” — as if Twain were a whip-cracking straw boss — but consider the way the Beats, like Kerouac or Burroughs, presented “Negro,” Mexican or Arab cultures with a fetishistic relish that was intended to “stick it to the Man“ but now appear to the cultural overseers as “racist,” “essentialist,” and “Orientalist.” Reading Burroughs’ letters makes him seem less Wise Old Junkie and more the embarrassing old fart at Thanksgiving who rants about the darkies stealing from him at the home. And yet this was the Avant Garde that scared all the old fogies!
Another aspect of this process: as a condition of their joining the Rainbow Coalition of the Left’s culture destroyers, homosexuals have accepted — clung to — their own version of the Judaic’s “lachrymose history,” in which a tiny, wholly innocent, constantly harassed but courageous little minority struggles against The Man. As I’ve pointed out for some time, the reality was quite different; asking only a little discretion, the Establishment was happy to welcome the talents of such men as Sir Noël Coward, J. Edgar Hoover, Whittaker Chambers, Roy Cohn, and Francis “Franny” Cardinal Spellman, who, in turn, became pillars of the Establishment. Conversely, it’s the in-your-face outrageousness of “camp” and other aspects of “liberation” that creates, now, violent homophobia that liberationists then anachronistically — and opportunistically (donate money to us or else the bad old days will return!) — read back into the past.
Apart from the Beats and a tiny selection of acceptably “modern“ works, most of these naively non-PC books are almost entirely forgotten, certainly not to be recommended for reading or reprinting by the PC academics. The internet, however, has made them easier to find; and some offbeat publishers are still to be found, operating under the radar of the New York cabal. One such, Valancourt Books, a plucky little outfit – a “specialty micropress,” if you will — gives us a rare chance to glimpse the normal life of the 1950 British homosexual world; it’s not a pretty picture, but not for the reasons you probably think. It’s a world in which not repression, but social dominance, has curdled the cream of Wilde’s wit into the sourness of “camp.”
In recent years Valancourt has put us all in their debt with lovely little editions, some quite scholarly, of the most obscure sort of Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries (“Many of the titles in the series existed in fewer than five copies worldwide before our new editions; scholars and readers interested in reading these wonderful texts were forced to travel thousands of miles to a university rare book room or pay thousands of dollars to obtain a copy from an antiquarian bookseller”) and “decadent” or “weird” British and European literature from the turn of the last century, concentrating on either obscure authors or obscure works by the well-known, such as Ann Radcliffe’s posthumous Gaston de Blondeville (1826), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Round the Red Lamp (1894), and Forrest Reid’s The Garden God (1905).
[T]he first-ever scholarly edition of Le Fanu’s novella [Carmilla] follows the rare original text as it appeared serially in The Dark Blue in 1871-72 (including the original illustrations) and includes a new introduction and footnotes by Jamieson Ridenhour. Also featured in this edition is a wealth of contextual material, including texts by Yeats, Coleridge, Stoker, Padraig Pearse, and others, and the complete texts of Le Fanu’s “The Child that Went with the Fairies” and F. G. Loring’s “The Tomb of Sarah.”
More recently, they’ve been moving into the area of our topic by delving into British fiction from the 1950s, including “angry young men” that are more familiar to us stateside from films, authors such as Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar), John Braine (Room at the Top), John Wain (Hurry on Down, a somewhat more interesting book than Braine’s that takes take on reverse theme of deliberate downward mobility), and the late Colin Wilson (the Gerald Sorme trilogy as well as the Lovecraftian pastiches). It was the Wilson books that got my notice, but I confess I stayed to explore the others not only because of the vague sense of seeing the film or recalling Colin Wilson’s discussion in one of his many memoirs.
One book which they advertise as “coming soon” is one I already have: A Room in Chelsea Square, first recommended to me years ago by Jeremy Reed. I must confess I never found it engaging enough to finish years ago, but having kept it around — due to its vintage Edward Gorey dust jacket, of which more anon — I was inspired by Valancourt’s notice to give it another try. I found it to be rather dull and surprisingly unpleasant.
Valancourt tells us:
Patrick, the book’s opening line tells us, is ‘very, very rich’. He’s also single, and he has his sights set on Nicholas Milestone, a handsome young provincial journalist. Having lured Nicholas to London with the promise of a job on a tabloid magazine, Patrick moves the young man into his suite at a posh hotel, where he lavishes money and expensive gifts on him. Nicholas enjoys his luxurious new lifestyle and meeting Patrick’s amusing and fashionable friends, but he soon understands what Patrick’s really after. Knowing he won’t be able to resist the older man’s advances forever, the greedy Nicholas will have to choose between his conscience and his newly acquired love of money.
It’s the virtuous provincial girl plot, familiar since at least Richardson’s Pamela, continuing through the wolfish Mad Men salivating over a new secretary, given a twist by setting it amidst the metropolitan London branch of what Auden described as the Homintern. And therein lies the problem.
Valancourt adds that Nelson’s book, “was published anonymously both because of its frank gay content at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and because its characters were thinly veiled portrayals of prominent London literary figures.”
I rather suspect the latter was more important than the former. As for the “gay content,” it’s not really all that “frank.” I mean, it’s obvious what’s going on, but no one really does anything. That the traditional roles are all played by men is no more shocking than a school pantomime or “authentic” period production of Romeo and Juliet. The closest we get is Patrick telling a tired out Nicholas that, “An hour on your back with your legs up will do you the world of good.”
Otherwise, it’s about as offensive as Auntie Mame.
Moreover, the reviewers at the time were quite enthused, treating it more like, well, Auntie Mame than Last Exit to Brooklyn:
Consistently diverting, this may be the novel about homosexuality to end all novels on the subject . . . [W]ill make many a reader’s day.’ – Julian MacLaren-Ross, Punch
‘Talented, amusing … the story is told with sustained suspense: the various men in it are not merely types, but flesh and blood, even if one wishes that Patrick had never been born.’ – John Betjeman, Daily Telegraph
‘Odiously funny and delightfully unwholesome … a distinct relief after the ponderous treatment homosexuality has tended to get in some recent novels.’ – Sunday Times
Nor did it have any trouble finding a major American publisher, Doubleday, who assigned the dust jacket to it now-famous in-house illustrator, Edward Gorey.
The problem must have been in that “not merely types, but flesh and blood” bit, given England’s famously generous libel laws. An Amazon reviewer clarifies matters for us:
“Patrick” is a thinly veiled portrait of Peter Watson: associated for a long while with Cecil Beaton, co-founder of the ICA and wealthy homosexual sponsor of Bacon, Colquhoun, MacBryde, Vaughan, Minton and other homosexual painters. Michael Nelson (the “Nicholas” of the book) was in reality pursued by Watson, who bought him Picassos and Sutherlands as part of his seduction technique. Nicholas — like the real life Nelson — is prevented from starting at his Tabloid newspaper by the dangling of a greater carrot, a job on a new arts magazine “Eleven” (which was “Horizon” in real life) together with his friend Michael, Christopher Pyre (Stephen Spender in reality) and a former protégé of Patrick’s: the bon-viveur Ronnie Gras (Cyril Connolly). It is Nicholas’ constant prevarication as to whether to succumb to Patrick’s gentle but lavish onslaught that eventually causes his downfall.
I suppose a modern equivalent would be one of those post-campaign romans a clef, like Primary Colors, since we no longer have public intellectuals (to use that ghastly neo-con term) or an intellectual public, to experience the frisson of scandal behind . . . founding a cultural magazine.
However, the problem is not just that everyone is long dead and forgotten and in another country anyway; it’s that the people are, frankly, bloody stupid.
William Burroughs, around the same time, wrote about meeting up with the Homintern a decade earlier at Harvard (“a fake English university for graduates of fake English public schools” as he called it):
By accident I met some rich homosexuals, of the international queer set who cruise around the world, bumping into each other in queer joints from New York to Cairo. I saw away of life, vocabulary, references, a whole symbol set as the sociologists say. But these people were jerks for the most part and, after an initial period of fascination, I cooled off on the setup.
So today’s reviewers, unless they’re personally interested in promoting “gay fiction” are a little harsher. Here’s an online bookseller on his own wares:
Unwholesome book deals with the complex contrivances by which Patrick, a very rich and inordinately nasty queer, seeks to break the will of a silly and rather greedy young man.
It’s not clear if he thinks these are selling points, or he just can’t control his rage and bile.
And on Amazon:
I do have a capacity to endure novels even if they bore me early on. I gave up on this one. It’s just too dated — a bit like trying to read Upstairs Downstairs without the drama. Quite grating on the nerves just reading about the wealthy and their day to day worries — which gold cigarette case they should purchase for a new beau.
The problem is not simply it being “dated.” Patrick is the central character, and it’s impossible to want to spend time with him since he’s so bloody awful and boring — unless, as in the book, you’re being paid for your services, which isn’t an option for the reader.
And it isn’t that he’s a predatory homosexual — unless you’re so dotty with homophobia that you can’t stand the very idea of one, even as a plumber — since, as I’ve said, we’ve seen his hetero version time and again. After all, Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer and a cannibal, yet the whole world seems to want to spend as much time with him as they can.
Lecter, unlike Patrick, is interesting, and that’s because, as our parents used to tell us, he is himself interested (not interested in himself); he’s interested in ideas. I don’t mean the way Patrick uses the set up of an new cultural journal as a mechanism to reward his friends and discomfort his enemies — who wouldn’t, that’s the whole point of having a journal, isn’t it? — but that he seems to have no notion of anything else to do with it.
Patrick exemplifies a certain type of urban homosexual — based on F. R. Leavis’s notion of the “metropolitan cultural clique” one might call him a “metrosexual” if that word hadn’t already been taken — in whom the genuine love of ideas, playfully expressed as “wit,” found in an Oscar Wilde has soured and curdled into the brittle bitchiness known as “camp.”
This shows itself on the micro level, in his conversations, which are meant, I suppose, as “camp” but actually, unlike the Wilde they ape, betray an utter philistinism; hence, they are profoundly wearying.
The conventional explanation for this conversational tic — a more politely British version of the poisonously brittle repartee immortalized in now-reviled The Boys in the Band — is to blame it on the conditions of “the closet,” but the openly though not explicitly sexual content, and the rapturous reviews quoted above make that unlikely.
Patrick’s problem is not that he is somehow “discriminated against” as one of today’s far from predatory, marriage yearning gays would loudly whine — but quite the opposite; he’s simply too rich to have developed a real personality.
The answer, as usual lies with one of those healthier-minded authors from the turn of the last century, one of the leading light of our native-born, manly Neoplatonism, our own two-fisted Traditionalism, the “New Thought” movement; in this case, William Walker Atkinson:
You must want a thing hard enough before you can get it. You must want it more than you do the things around you, and you must be prepared to pay the price for it. The price is the throwing overboard of certain lesser desires that stand in the way of the accomplishment of the greater one. Comfort, ease, leisure, amusements, and many other things may have to go (not always though). It depends on what you want. As a rule, the greater the thing desired, the greater the price to be paid for it. Nature believes in adequate compensation. But if you really Desire a thing in earnest, you will pay the price without question; for the Desire will dwarf the importance of other things.
Making things worse, Patrick’s money is inherited, putting him in the British equivalent of what Paul Fussell has identified, in America, as the real elite, the Top Out of Sight.
The way they have their money is largely what matters. . . . The main thing distinguishing the top three classes from each other is the amount of money inherited in relation to the amount currently earned. The top-out-of-sight class (Rockefellers, Pres, DuPonts, Mellons, Fords, Vanderbilts) lives on inherited capital entirely.
No one whose money, no matter how copious, comes from his own work — film stars are an example — can be a member of the top-out-of-sight class, even if the size of his income and the extravagance of his expenditure permit him to simulate identity with it. Inheritance — “old money” in the vulgar phrase — is the indispensable principle defining the top three classes, and it’s best if the money’s been in the family for three or four generations.
“When I think of a really rich man,” says a Boston blue-collar, “I think of one of those estates where you can’t see the house from the road.” Hence the name of the top class, which could just as well be called “the class in hiding.” Their houses are never seen from the street or road. They like to hide away deep in the hills or way off on Greek or Caribbean islands (which they tend to own), safe, for the moment, from envy and its ultimate attendants, confiscatory taxation and finally expropriation. It was the Great Depression, Vance Packard speculates, that badly frightened the very rich, teaching them to be “discreet, almost reticent, in exhibiting their wealth.” From the 1930s dates the flight of money from such exhibitionistic venues as the mansions of upper Fifth Avenue to hideaways in Virginia, upper New York State, Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey.
Now, the point of this detour becomes apparent when Fussell asks the reader, which class would he like to belong to, and it gets a little tricky. You see, he says, it might seem obvious that one would want to belong to the top out of sight — where you’d never have to worry about money, and have access to the best of everything — but there’s a catch: you must resign yourself to never hearing an interesting comment or idea ever again.
Like all aristocracies . . . ye shall know them by their imperviousness to ideas and their total lack of interest in them.
“We can say of [the very topmost classes’] expectations of their children what Douglas Sutherland says of the English gentleman’s: ‘his offspring are expected to conform in all things, and academic brilliance is not an acceptable deviation from the normal.'”
The top out of sight are not “closeted” so much as “immured” and even self-immured.
Ideas, for Patrick, as simply foibles of other people — Ronnie’s magazine, Nicky’s job, which he so tiresomely keeps reminding Patrick about — which enable him to manipulate them. If some silly person insists on talking about “ideas” then one just cracks a joke and hopes he gets the message. Otherwise, one calls the attendant and has the bounder ejected from ones club, doesn’t one?
Thus, the “action” of the novel, such as it is, is less Nicky’s seduction — he succumbs pretty quickly and easily, the whole action of the novel taking place in a week —
Nicholas had a thoroughly miserable bath. He knew that he couldn’t evade Patrick’s advances much longer. It was no good pretending that Patrick was going to support him from purely altruistic motives. Patrick wanted his pound of flesh, he was going to make sure he got it. What did sex matter anyway? It was a small price to pay for all the things that Patrick could offer him in exchange.
— but rather, a rather late-developing concern with his intellectual independence.
Christopher spoke slowly and with difficulty. “Nicholas, you must listen to me. Your’re an intelligent person. You’ve a mind of our own. You mustn’t sell it. That would be a crime for which later you’d never forgive yourself. There continually occur moments in one’s life when one has to choose between possessions and integrity. . . . But believe me, if you choose possessions today, you’ll regret it for ever after.”
So the turning point, Nicky’s redemption as it were, occurs when he resolves, not resist Patrick’s overtures — that ship, after only the most formal nod to Pamela-like hesitation, has sailed — but when he resolves to keep his own mind.
Of course, there’s not tiresome “happy ending” — how middle-class! — and Nicky ignores Christopher’s advice, only to find Patrick has already tired of his balkiness and moved one — literally, to Bermuda. Ronnie, however, has a more detailed and consequential epiphany:
He had dreamed all night about money . . . he was still thinking about money. It was money that had gradually destroyed his integrity. He should never have been a fashion designer. He had given up painting for a quick return. Yet he had never made enough money, probably because he was only capable of spending. It. He would have been far happier as a painter. Christopher, in spite of the incredible squalor in which he lived, would ultimately command greater respect. It was a galling thought. (pp. 204-5)
The other characters, all but one homosexual males, some married — to a woman! — or living together or single, most “protégés” that have escapee from Patrick’s clutches, all have to work to some degree for their living, and are the better for it; they are the ones who have freed themselves and have ideas.
Ronnie is apparently based on Cyril Connelly, and it’s interesting, in a sour way, to read that
According to the critics, [Noël] Coward should have faded away long ago. It was one of English theatre’s great mantras — his fame was built on gossamer-thin plots and diaphanous characters that doomed his legacy. Not even the slickest epigrams would survive. “One cannot read his plays now,” wrote Cyril Connelly, during the war. “For they are written in the most perishable way imaginable. The cream in them turns sour overnight.”
I dare say that the reputation of Noël Coward, a man of both wit and ideas, however “slick” his epigrams, has survived considerably longer than overnight, while most of my readers have already asked, “Who’s Cyril Connelly?”
1. This was indeed too much for the rising Judaic literary cabal, who commissioned their sabbos goy Dwight MacDonald to pen the most famous and effective literary smear in history, “By Cozzens Possessed” in Commentary. 25 years later, Commentary was now “neo-conservative” so they commissioned Joseph Epstein to do a half-assed reassessment. And last year, D. G. Meyers tried his hand there as well: “James Gould Cozzens at 109.” What is he, a Nazi “war criminal”? Never forget!
3. I realize it’s hard to believe such a Copernican idea. But take a look how this occurred in an entirely different context — the Arab world. As documented by John R. Bradley (see Behind the Veil of Vice, 2010), it was pushy Western “liberationists” that disrupted the discrete playground of Burroughs, Capote and others, creating the Puritan backlash wrongly attributed to “Medievalist Islam.” Even James Neill, though he accepts most of the lachrymose theory, agrees here, as I point out in my review of his The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, here.
4. Perhaps they might be encouraged to reprint Wilson pal Bill Hopkin’s fascist/Lawrencian The Leap?
5. Such as Wilson’s The Angry Years (Robson, 2007).
6. Whose own story of a young man from the provinces in search of London accommodations can be found in his first novel, The Lipstick Boys (London: Enitharmon Press, 1984)
7. A contemporary work (1955) although set earlier, where the ingénue is “Patrick” and the urban corrupter the nevertheless safely female Mame. Of course, “Auntie” Mame has no doubt been played by innumerable gay men, perhaps especially in the provinces. I actually only became acquainted with the book and move quite recently, and while loving the 50s Technicolor, was actually shocked at utterly how subversive both are: Jews are to be catered to as our betters, Southerners are racist rednecks, children should attend nudist schools in Greenwich Village and sing the “Internationale,” suburban couples are materialistic boobs; the whole New Left agenda.
8. See “Gorey Goes Gay” here.
9. Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader. Edited by James Grauerholz, Ira Silverberg; Grove, 1998, p. 48. The quote is from his 1953 Junky, another disguised autobiography full of libel, this time among the world of drug addicts; for its complex legal and publishing history, see Oliver Harris’s “Introduction” to Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” (Grove, 2003).
10. That’s “Lecter” as in Anthony Hopkins’ Phantom of the Opera version, not Brian Cox’s much more interesting “Lecktor” who consequently makes Manhunter a vastly more interesting film. Cox’s outwardly schlubby Lecktor, who seems to have just gotten off a cross-town bus, seem to prefigure his role as an oddly sympathetic child molester in Michael Cuesta’s 2002 film L.I.E.
11. Unlike the Pet Shop Boys, Patrick is always being boring. This was the root of Colin Wilson’s disgust with English culture, and love of America; the British were uninterested in ideas — or at least, his ideas. For example: “When I saw Amis’s review of The Outsider in the Spectator, I was not surprised that it was entitled “The Legion of the Lost”, and began: “Here they come — tramp, tramp, tramp — all those characters you thought were discredited, or had never read, or (if you were like me) had never heard of: Barbusse, Sartre, Camus . . .” I took this for a tongue-in-cheek pose, Amis pretending to be the intellectual barbarian. . . . It was not until after his death, when I read his vitriolic comments on me to Larkin in his collected letters, that I realised that, where I was concerned, there was a genuine dislike tinged with alarm. It was then that I understood that the attitude he had expressed in the review was more than a flippant affectation.”
12. Readers who find it hard to take Wilde seriously, or who are surprised to learn that Wilde was the earliest intellectual influence Baron Evola deigns to acknowledge in his autobiography (The Path of Cinnabar; Arktos, 2009) might examine The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), an admittedly witty presentation of the viewpoint more ponderously expressed by Spengler’s “Prussian Socialism” or Yockey’s “Ethical Socialism,” and far more influential than either (ranging from Godwin to Zizek).
13. It is appropriate that the “Gay Men’s Classic” edition comes with an Introduction by one Philip Core, a British painter of the Bacony school whose literary efforts amounted to a rather silly book called Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth (1984). Oh, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Silly me!
14. Unlike Wilde, an arriviste and an Irishman to boot.
15. “The Transmutation of Negative Thought” in Thought Vibration: Or, The Law of Attraction in the Thought World by William Walker Atkinson (1906), p. 53.
16. Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (Summit, 1983) pp. 29-30.
17. Op. cit., p. 33 and p. 139.
18. Fritz Zorn’s Mars (German, 1977; English Knopf, 1982) is a devastating portrait of the similar class on Switzerland’s “Gold Coast.” Zorn’s family shuns all idea and discussion, since that might lead to disagreement, hence unpleasantness. Ideas are for “other people”; people who take ideas seriously are “funny,” like Russian novelists. “Funny” not because of wit, like Wilde, but because they are silly and amuse us. His father played only one game, Klondike, the most boring form of the most boring game, Solitaire.
19. This is paralleled by a disinterest in psychology as such; Patrick is “not interested in discovering what motivates [people]” (p. 108) while himself regarding Michael as having “a nasty habit of looking beyond one’s actions and putting his fingers on one’s motives.” Ironically, Patrick is ultimately defeated when Ronnie’s wife (the only woman in the book, other than Patrick’s dead aunt from which his fortune derives) points out that “the moment you tell Patrick you don’t want his money, he’ll be furious. He’ll go to any lengths to make you take it” (pp. 206-07). Patrick’s obsession with surfaces recalls the English decadent Fr. Rolfe (“Baron Corvo”) who was described by a former fellow student of the priesthood as being interested only in surfaces; he wanted to be a priest only because “he saw himself doing picturesque things in a picturesque manner.” See A. J. A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo (NYLB, 2001, p. 74).
20. Needless to say, several scenes take place in London clubs, which, at least in fiction, are usually set up with rules to prevent conversation about “tiresome” ideas — Wodehouse’s Drone’s Club, Sayer’s Bellona Club, etc.
21. Patrick at one point (p. 166) calls Nicholas “little one” which is what Demian (at least in one English translation) calls Sinclair as he bids him farewell, suggesting Patrick is a kind of anti-Demian, seducing the young from a truly independent life of ideas to the false “independence” of a kept boy. Nicholas later, after Christopher’s remonstrance, quotes Jesus on those who cause little ones to stumble as better to have millstones hung about their necks, hammering home the symbolism of his family name, Millstone (p. 210-11).
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