The Truth About Ted (an excerpt from CARMEN)
by Bruce Boone
published by exempli gratia, Berkeley, California, 1984
Bruce Boone recently turned seventy years old (Bon Anniversaire! Bruce!) and in celebration of that, I am pleased to repint here on xpoetics Bruce's 1984 chapbook, The Truth About Ted. Bruce has read this marvelous piece at recent readings in San Francisco and New York, but because the chapbook is difficult to get a hold of (though I think Kaplan Harris has the copy of it that used to belong to Robert Duncan) and because this particular piece has not been reprinted in the recent republication of My Walk with Bob and Century of Clouds, I offer it here, Dear Readers, for your pleasure. I've also posted my close reading of it below. Enjoy!
Ted didn’t turn out to be what I expected. He turned out to be quite nice. But may I add a bit odd? Easily embarrassed, he would stare in impassive silence for long periods and then, properly encouraged with a solicitous nod or smile and polite question or tow, become brightly loud and voluble. Earlier when I asked, Jonathan said Ted was straight, but Ted’s brand of sociability really suggested something more like camp. Later, as I came to see him often in Jonathan’s company, I wondered if Ted could be straight at all. Ted had the marked interests of a person who was gay, opera for instance. He hung out with gays almost exclusively. He looked gay and acted gay. He talked gay even. So why wasn’t he gay? That was my essential argument to Jonathan, and after some time Jonathan gradually came over to my viewpoint. Yes, Ted was gay, whether he knew it or not. But isn’t self-knowledge a matter of time? Let Ted do things at his own pace, Jonathan advised, he’ll come out when it’s time. Why be push? It’s his life, after all, not yours.
So about the matter of Ted’s sex life, Jonathan and I maintained a stance of polite non-inquiry vis-à-vis Ted. We limited ourselves to speculation. And in the meantime Jonathan and I broke up–we left our place on 18th St. In the city. I chose to go downtown, to what I have since recognized was a terrible little studio in the Tenderloin. Jonathan moved in with a group of musicians in the Fillmore, where he could practice and perform among kindred spirits.
We didn’t stop seeing each other though–and we didn’t stop speculating about Ted. Was he or wasn’t he?–that was the question. If he was, when would he...? and so on. I also discussed the matter with Bob. But at this point, since Bob had only met Ted once, and briefly, my discussions of the ‘Ted question’ with Bob became increasingly abstract and unreal– and began drifting further and further away from the real person Ted. For Bob and me, the issue of Ted’s sexuality challenged our ability to come up with the right interpretation of signs generally. Ted was a test case of our hermeneutic proficiencies. I’d say, Well, Bob, at the opera last night, according to what I heard from Jonathan (that blabbermouth!), apparently Roy had a hot new item about Richard Bonnyng’s boyfriend, and when he told Jonathan and Bernard about that, well, Ted just seemed all ears. So what do you think about that? And Bob would reply–sounds like he’s gay to me, Bruce! Or I could take the devil’s advocate position. Don’t you think it could be a form of politeness?–I’d ask. Straight men can be polite too! Finally our Te discussions became technical exercises, occasions for testing our skills as writers. We wanted to be able to verbalize our perceptions of life’s ordinary events accurately, elegantly and truthfully so t hat other people would applaud us for our socially useful talents. Whatever else it was, Ted’s ‘problem’ was grist for our writer’s mill.
Not that this wasn’t fun. The more complex and detailed (and superficial!!!) our discussion became, the more it seemed to draw out our deepest feelings. These feelings had to do with ourselves, with the community of gay men and in some odd way with the possibilities of human life, happiness generally. Talking about Ted became a way of talking about the things we cared about most–things we couldn’t have talked about honestly and satisfyingly except as gossip. I can’t begin to tell you how good I felt about this aspect of my life. It was wonderful in its own right. Yet I must also tell you this. I now believe that the good it represented was a limited one. Gossip and language–they do have their limitations. And I believe that even the gossiping we did about Ted was an illustration of this. Let me show you why I think so.
One favorite theme– because so incredibly rich– was Ted’s non-stop ability to be embarrassed. His susceptibility to blushing, his capacity to be ‘shocked’– over and over again. There were endless discussions of this. ‘But that proves...!’ I’d say. And Jonathan or Bob would reply, ‘Not at all, it doesn’t prove a thing. It proves the opposite. After all who’s more worldly, straight or gay?’ and so on. In the end each of these ‘proofs’ cut both ways and so didn’t mean much –until a non-language reality could intervene. As it properly did, a little later. How it did is the story of those few phone calls I mentioned earlier.
The first phone call began like this. Jonathan had called me under a transparent pretext–information about a minor problem in the distribution of my book that he thought I should know about. So I knew Jonathan was up to something else. If any of you ever decides he or she wants to sail the inland sea of Jonathan’s mind, I’d counsel you this. Be wary and mind your p’s and q’s, remember to navigate carefully!–I’d say. Do you perchance want to get to point B, now being at point A? Then with Jonathan go by way of C! That’s my advice to you. With Jonathan directness isn’t a good idea. So the day Jonathan called, I correctly followed my own recommendations– deciding to be patient and wait until Jonathan judged it was safe to get to the point. He had been at Cody’s bookstore in Berkeley the other day, he said, with Ted, and had noticed copies of My Walk with Bob lying out on a display table. He decided I’d want to know how sales were doing and want over to take a look. All well and good, I thought to myself as Jonathan was telling me this, but what are you getting at? Jonathan continued. But one of the copies was definitely defective, he said. It had several missing pages, there might have been others. Jonathan thought I would want to know about this so I could replace the copies. I told Jonathan I was sincerely glad to hear that and would certainly make sure the damaged copies were replaced in short order, since Bob and I were planning to go over to Berkeley that weekend. I would replace the defective copies when I was there – but meanwhile, did Jonathan have any other news?
For reasons I couldn’t understand, he seemed to want to continue talking about his afternoon in Berkeley at Cody’s bookstore–with Ted. While they were there, Jonathan said, Ted started skimming my book in the hopes– he added– of finding some kind of gossip about people he knew. Like Aviva, Jonathan’s sister. Or Laurette, whom Ted remembered from Jonathan’s concerts and musical get-togethers. Basically, Ted just wanted to know what I would say about them. He finished looking through my story as Jonathan browsed in the Italian literature section. Later, when they had left, Ted told Jonathan he was a little shocked at the part in my story about the supposed new boyfriend that had come to Jonathan’s concert on Laurette’s arm. Did this mean, he asked Jonathan, that while Bruce and you were together you were seeing someone else– another man? Jonathan tried to explain things but Ted insisted on continuing this line of thought, resolute in knowing the facts whatever the cost. Now Ted hadn’t read the whole story while he was in the bookstore, so he hardly could have realized that my narration of my feelings about Jonathan and language took place in a period of time that followed my breakup with Jonathan. Ted expressed his fears of Jonathan’s potential ‘adultery.’ He became alarmed at the prospect that Jonathan might have been ‘unfaithful.’ Had Jonathan–Ted then asked directly– been seeing someone? The question surprised Jonathan. It didn’t make any sense. Though ignorant of the facts of the situation, Ted’s apprehensiveness remained genuine.
Illustrating his fears, Ted then told Jonathan an anecdote about a former room-mate of his, Ted’s, who had just gotten back from New York City. The room-mate told Ted about having the best seats in the house while seeing “Evita” with a friend. But there was something suspicious in his friend’s story, Ted pointed out. Ted attempted a roundabout way with Jonathan. The seats, he exclaimed, cost $50.00 each!–with the sense that this fact would speak volumes to Jonathan. When Jonathan remained clearly perplexed at this, Ted became more straightforward. By implication, he asked Jonathan, wouldn’t that mean the friend was really more like a patron? When Ted asked his friend how in the world he could manage something so expensive, the friend had winked broadly drawled– well, I just made sure to give him a real good time later on. When Jonathan came to this part of the story, I couldn’t help but laugh. Jonathan was laughing too, it was such a completely ludicrous picture of what evil in the world might really mean. But Ted’s own analysis was rather different from Jonathan’s and mine. Taking the story at face value, Ted insisted that the dilemma was a real one. He was completely crestfallen by the cynicism it represented. Was this, Ted wanted to know, how people really behaved once they leave the protective environment of family and friends, when they take up life on their own in the big city? Was this what it meant to be an adult?– to be mature? As Jonathan repeated this anecdote to me on the phone and described the anguish on Ted’s face, I felt waves of sympathy gushing up inside me. I felt a respect hard on its heels–then something like admiration. Didn’t the story show Ted’s first encounter with the Cash Nexus and his human horror before it? Didn’t it show, too, by implication, Ted’s high estimate of the opposite of this, a truly human and socialized way of behaving? For Ted’s sake, I wanted to think so. But I had to be candid with myself. It isn’t exactly, I thought, as though Ted has really been tested by life itself. And I persisted in this direction. Would Ted survive real trials? What would happen to Ted once he came out for instance? In gay life there would be two choices open to him. Forgetting idealism, he could become a shallow person and choose to live a life of fantasy. Or, deepening his experience of life with sex and the understanding of good and evil, he could become wise, strengthening his first idealism with power and adult comprehension. Which of the two paths would Ted take?–I asked. But until Ted actually did come out, wouldn’t these possibilities remain academic? And Ted was certainly taking his time about it. The coming out, that is. But as Jonathan pointed out, it was his life, wasn’t it?
As I told you, my expectations were for the best. But there was also the other side of the coin. What of Ted’s well-known passion for Sir Walter Scott for instance? Would literary romance take him to, can we say, the community function of love, friendship and sociality? Or – and this alternative was equally possible– would Ted’s Sir Walter Scott infatuation lead to a taste for superficiality, frivolity? To furbelows, to Offenbach for instance? (The prospects recede into infinity.) Well, history itself will be Ted’s judge, I remarked airily.
But as fate would have it, the mystery of Ted’s sexuality cleared up sooner than anyone imagined. About a week after my conversation with Jonathan, Bob called to remind me of our projected trip to Berkeley. It was time to see how our books were doing in the bookstores there. How many Family Poems, how many My Walk With Bobs should we take to Serendipity for instance? What did I think? And how many copies to Cody’s? – our best outlet! There was Sand Dollar – but was it really worth going all the way to North Berkeley? Questions about the business end of our writing careers. Questions I didn’t particularly want to deal with. Neither of us did. By default we were distributors of our own books, as well as being our own publishers, publicists and critics, reviewers, etc. We had chosen to go our own way in writing, not becoming part of the various ‘schools’ in our area, and the understandable consequence was that none of these schools was anxious to publish us. What would have been their interest in promoting our writing? But meanwhile bob and I were pretty much on our own. If we wanted to be read, we would have to take on most of the drudgery of the business side of things ourselves. So we had become, in our own modest way, small time business men. I hastened to allay a guilty conscience with solacing precedents. Hadn’t Rimbaud become a first class business person n Ethiopia? –I’d ask –forgetting for the moment that that was when Rimbaud stopped writing. And who – I’d continue rhetorically – was more spiritual in their innermost self than Rimbaud! Even the Pope runs a Bank of the Holy Spirit, I’d remind Bob. Was this what we had to look forward to in the future? Trudging from store to store, selling literature– heart to heart chats, transcendental yearnings of human nature, edifying counsel on politics – at $3.50 a copy! Not very edifying, is it? – I told Bob skeptically. Bob responded by pointing out that it wasn’t very likely that this was what fate really had in store for us; we really did have better prospects that this ahead of us. And, anyway – didn’t I have items of interest for him from other fronts? What about Jonathan’s recent activities for instance? Bob had neatly segued us into another field of action.
If Bob was trying to steer our talk into less negative areas, I was certainly willing to go along with him. Our conversational energies were lagging. News of Jonathan might be a change for the better. Who could be sure anyhow? Maybe the ship of our changed fortunes was just out of sight over the horizon line, even now about to come in. How many literary committees and agents were at this very moment in furious competition to see which one could heap larger sums of money on us, shower us with high honors, traditional prizes, co-opt us with nationally distributed trade editions! To have continued our speculations about a future of poverty and lack of recognition would in fact, I realized, be tantamount to soliciting it. It would be the equivalent of declining another, better future –of rewards and recognition –substituting this one for the brighter one that we knew was actually to be ours. So why tempt fate, I thought, and turned to the subject at hand. Actually, I told him, there’s quite a lot of news about Jonathan. Bringing bob up to date on the topic of Jonathan’s successes, I mentioned the concerts, critical acclaim, reviews and notices –then Jonathan’s plans for the Bruges Competition. Then I mentioned Ted again. ‘Ted!’ – Bob said with alacrity. ‘How that fateful name keeps recurring!’
As indeed it did. I had from Jonathan, I told Bob, a wonderful story of sexual realization– or maybe non-realization? depending on how you took it. And if the story doesn’t improve you, I sad pertly– why, be sure, bob! – it will amuse and delight you with its many knotty dilemmas and rare paradoxes, etc. You will certainly know more about the human heart by the time you are done. ‘The human heart!– mused Bob –‘that dark and chambered place whose sere, ancient secrets. And what comes next...?’
Bernard comes next. He was a lover Jonathan had had some time after Jonathan and I broke up. They had a relationship that lasted maybe a month, if I remember correctly. Then there got to be difficulties. So the romance part stopped between Jonathan and Bernard, but they continued to be friends. “Sound like anybody else you know?’ – I asked Bob. ‘Sounds like everybody else I know,’ –he replied. The friendship continued on the basis of what they had in common, I told Bob. For instance – music! Here I paused. ‘Do you see? Do you begin to get the drift?’ Bob allowed as he didn’t. Would I be clearer please? Then –‘Opera!’ –I shouted triumphantly. You see, I proceeded to explain to Bob, Bernard naturally would begin to meet others in Jonathan’s circle of friends. And just as naturally, especially those wonderful musical evenings of coffee and pastries and watching Joan Sutherland TV specials, wouldn’t this group of friends include in a particular way, especially and above all – Roy? Don’t you see it yet, Bob? – I asked my friend querulously. But Bob was getting restless. He asked me to come to the point. I wanted to be modest, but the glories of the thing were beyond me. ‘The point!’ – I fairly shouted. ‘But it’s Ted, isn’t it?’ I could hear Bob’s heavy breathing on the phone, so I knew the first realization of the thing was already on him. It was all so truly wonderful! ‘Such a simple solution can scarcely be imagined’ – I commented. ‘What,’ I questioned candidly, at last beginning to be sure of myself, ‘can be more appropriate...’ Bob sighed, ‘Nu?’ Then he had it fully. ‘...than that Bernard, to put it simply for, Bob....will bring Ted out!’
I heard Bob whistling softly in tribute to my daring. Then together we checked off the list of possibilities. Common friends like Jonathan and Roy for instance? Yes! Many. Common interests then? Uh huh. Opera and more opera! Well, how about a common age? You could say this was true – on condition that Bernard, being older only slightly, would sometimes get to be in the ‘older and wiser’ role, just to add spice of life. At the other end of the line, 5 blocks away in his house on Clipper St., I heard Bob’s response. He weighed his words carefully. ‘It adds up, Bruce,’ Bob says to me calmly, ‘and I think you’ve hit paydirt this time.’ ‘Well, it’s darn nice of you to say it,’ says I sweetly in my most straightforward Cybill-Shepherd-in Taxi Driver voice. ‘But seriously, Bob’ – I continue–‘it figures all the way around except for one tiny thing. A possibility is one thing, a marriage something else. A whole nother ballgame. Everyone I talked to –Jonathan, everyone! –agreed my calculations were brilliant; it was so clear, Ted and Bernard were to be the couple of the season. Logical and necessary, no? So I thought too. But we all forgot one thing which is after all maybe the most important.’ Meaning what – asks Bob, still in synch with me, step by step in my argument. ‘Meaning love, meaning chemistry, meaning whatever you want to call it.’ Silence on Bob’s end. ‘When Bernard finally gets up his courage to ask Ted the big question, well, that’s exactly the moment Ted chooses to slam the door right in Bernard’s face.’ More silence, Bob’s breathing. ‘And naturally, Bob, the explanation of this involves a bit of a story....would you like to hear it?’ – I ask Bob. ‘I think I would, Bruce,’ says Bob.
Well, here’s the story I got from Jonathan I tell Bob. And the surprising thing is, it shows Ted isn’t gay after all. Or that’s the implication anyway. But the way things stand now, unfortunately, we may never know the truth. Remember Rashomon, that 50s Japanese movie where there were all these possible versions of the story and you couldn’t say any one of them was the right one? ‘Uh huh,’ says Bob, ‘it reminds me of Ed. You never know what version he would tell you. Ed was like the movies. Visual that way.’
‘Here’s the way this story goes, Bob. It seems several months ago Bernard and Ted meet for the first time, and – as Bernard later tells Jonathan – he, Bernard, was quite impressed with Ted, right off. Ted has the looks Bernard goes for in a big way. And too, Ted’s smart, and Bernard likes that too. Then another thing, as it turns out, there was also their consuming and mutual love of opera.’
‘That’s a lot, Bruce– but do you think it’s enough to build a relationship on?’
‘Well, let me tell you Bob, according to Jonathan, this Bernard is one of life’s go-getters. Every day, up at dawn with 100 chin-ups, that’s for starters! For breakfast he has yogurt, just plain yogurt, that’s all. Not even the kind with fruit on the bottom. Maybe a thin slice of bread, but never butter! Don’t you think that’s impressive?’ Bob grunts a non-committal, ‘un hun.’
On top of that, I continue, Bernard’s learning how to be a court reporter and will probably make a lot of money in the future. In other words, I explain, Bernard’s an eligible – a very, well, man-about-town. So Bernard has this bee in his bonnet – he just has to ask Ted out on a date. But first – as a kind of ‘permission’ is my guess – he decides to check in with Jonathan, he needs to see if the idea is viable in Jonathan’s view, he and Ted being such good friends. Jonathan the prudent! He doesn’t exactly tell Bernard yes, and he doesn’t exactly tell him no. He just gives Bernard Ted’s phone number, and that’s that – more or less. Bernard gets going on his project right away. He calls Ted up that night. ‘How would you like to get together after work sometime and have a drink or two with me?’ But imagine Ted’s consternation! Is this a formal invitation to go out with a man, just like women do? Ted’s taken aback. What can he say? Being a person of good breeding, he doesn’t know how to deal with Bernard’s brashness. All this time of course Ted’s supposed to be straight. But Bernard’s assumption to the contrary is getting to Ted. He has to say something. So what answer does Ted give Bernard? Here’s what he says, literally. ‘I think you and Jonathan have something in common you don’t share with me.’ It’s a strange answer, isn’t it? Ted implies he’s straight, not gay. But if it’s what he implies, it’s not what he says. So there Bernard is, right back where he started on square one– and Ted’s sexual direction remains as unclear as ever. Altogether an enigmatic situation, don’t you think? – I comment to Bob. We grow silent momentarily.
Bob deals well with silences. I think he supposes– correctly–that my silences have a life and meaning of their own, and if I drift off sooner or later I’ll return.
I continued. I told Bob Bernard had been palpably upset by Ted’s unfortunate remark, as much by the phrasing of it as by its substance. Could Ted possibly suppose he was being tactful with his dumb way of putting it? was the thing–whatever it was–that Jonathan and Bernard had in common a disease maybe? a joint checking account? a set of fine Lennox china? Bernard’s dander was up. To put it bluntly, if Ted was straight his answer was insulting. And if he wasn’t, well, why didn’t Ted just come out and say he didn’t want to go out with Bernard? Ted’s answer seemed evasive and–coquettish. So here comes Bernard’s counterattack. He’s not going to suffer in silence. Nor is he prepared to see Ted smirking at him in the future! – even if this is, given Ted’s sentimental character, a rather unlikely proposition. So here is what our Bernard then tells Ted. He tell him, ‘I’m not just interested in your body, you know, I’m also interested in your mind.’ It was as if Ted was, oh, I don’t know, a chorus girl, a starlet, anything. You get my drift– all the stereotypes of sexism coming out. Think of Marilyn Monroe reading Shakespeare. All the reporters crowd around thinking they gotta ask her opinions on the Bard or else they won’t get an interview ’cause they’re not taking her seriously. Does offense deserve counter-offense? Ted was certainly right to feel a little objectivized. So he just leaves Bernard dangling. Bernard extricates himself as he can. He makes a few more polite remarks for the record, hangs up. And that’s it, I tell Bob. That’s the story. Bernard and Ted are like most stories, they never really conclude. Just end.
Bob said that could be true all right because it reminded him the time he and Ed went to Murray Edleman’s workshop for gay couples. Wasn’t that in 1974 Bob asked me– checking out my memory– or was it later? I wasn’t sure, so I asked Bob if that was about the time I was in Berkeley with Jonathan. But Bob thought it was later. Anyway, he continued, this was a retreat– a time when you really face the issues of your life together. What happened was, each couple stood up and complained about this or that, whatever in their relationship. It was assumed you’d be better people for airing your dirty linen or nagging each other. When Ed’s turn came, he said that what he wanted most with Bob was to feel he could go out into the world and do what he wanted to do and always know that Bob would be his home. Bob says he was really moved by this statement of Ed’s. Bob told the group that this was one of the most beautiful things he had ever heard. ‘I noticed,’ says Bob, ‘that everybody’s jaws had dropped open when they heard me.’ Bob says he’s telling me this story to corroborate my own incomplete story of Ted and Bernard. ‘It took years to understand that story,’ says Bob. ‘One of the many hidden agendas in the weekend was for me to learn how to assert myself and make demands. First I had to understand how selfish Ed was. That’s when I realized what the open jaws meant.’
I thought Bob might be pulling my leg. Couldn’t he change his mind about Ed again? I told myself I’d shelve this issue. What did I know about whether life concluded or narrations did? Wasn’t it the same either way?
As events proved, it wasn’t actually. About two months later I get an unexpected call from Jonathan. He says there’ve been some new developments in the Ted situation. Do I want to hear them? Naturally. So I get the details from Jonathan and pass them on to Bob at the next opportunity. Recently, it seems, Ted had been feeling like a show in the city. Iolanthe, for instance– one of his favorites– and by the Lamplighters. He phones Jonathan–doesn’t everybody love Gilbert and Sullivan? How about going with me tonight? But, Jonathan can’t go with Ted that night, he’s got a rehearsal. Ted’s so, so, so disappointed. He’s been studying all week long and it’s a weekend! Doesn’t he deserve a break in his work-week as much as anyone? Jonathan considers this. Sly Jonathan! He admits Ted has a point. You know, Ted–says J.– Bernard just loves Gilbert and Sullivan. Why don’t you see whether he’s doing anything tonight? Maybe he’d want to go along with you. Besides–continues J.–he mentioned particularly wanting to see Iolanthe. Well, what do you know? Maybe I should call up Bernard. Maybe you should, replies Jonathan. Jonathan the wise. Ted one of life’s innocents.
So he does; they do. Go out, that is. Naturally it’s a set-up. But it’s in the best interests of all concerned. And a happy ending is predictable from the outset. So, after they see the show together, Ted and Bernard take a walk. What’s more ordinary? They find a park bench. They sit down. What do they talk about? Who knows. But in my own mind I give them completely conventional lines. I make them say what couples have said to each other in such circumstances from time immemorial. ‘I’ve admired you for a long time, you know, and I think you’re really very attractive. ‘I hope you’ll forgive my being so anxious the first time you phoned me.’ ‘Isn’t the park lovely tonight? There’s a full moon and you can see all the stars.’ Canzonetta sul aria. But you’ll come, won’t you?–says Mozart’s count. Does he know? Susanna’s as nervous as Almaviva. It’s a Marriage of Figaro– in the distance you can hear the plashing of fountains. Not far away is Bernard’s house, and that’s where they plan to go. ‘”Donne, vedete s’io l’ho nel cor.” Sound of violins, falling cadence. My only comment is this– God give them the night of happiness they deserve. People should get whatever happiness they can from life– because what else is the point. Of anything?–I conclude abruptly. That’s it, Bob. The story of Ted’s coming out.
On Bob’s end, a short silence. ‘I suppose that means Ted was gay all along....’
‘But the story still seems to lack something....you’re not keeping something back, are you, Bruce?’
‘Well, there is a detail. Though I don’t really know if I should add it since it’s so completely banal. It takes some of the magic out, I’m afraid. Anyway, here it is. A few months after Ted got out of college he went to the baths. One that was nearby. Does that interest you, Bob? And he got his first blow job. In the steamroom, it was. And for all I know gave one as well–though that wasn’t part of what I heard. I wanted this to be a romantic story,’ –I told Bob– ‘and here it is turning into a story about a quickie in a public bathhouse! How embarrassing! It’s the opposite of the ending I wanted. There goes courtship, nice and slow, and spiritual. There goes roses. And what do you have, instead? A college blow job!’
Bob laughs. ‘You have to let life define your stories, Bruce–instead of the other way around.’
I told Bob I’d think about this. And I did.
Posted by Robin Tremblay-McGaw at 12:26 PM
(photo: R. Tremblay-McGaw, Bruce Boone at Tartine, San Francisco)
“The Truth About Ted” is story about storytelling, desire, interpretation, reading and misreading. The narrator, “Bruce” tells a retrospective series of stories about a community of gay men who encounter Ted, a young man who is “straight, but [whose] brand of sociability really suggested something more like camp” (1 [unpaginated]). After cataloging a series of readings of Ted’s life–“He hung out with gays almost exclusively. He looked gay and acted gay. He talked gay even” – the narrator asks “So why wasn’t he gay?” (1). Ted becomes an object of gossip for the community as they try to interpret his conflicting messages and their conflicted readings of his sexuality. Speculation about Ted’s sexuality traverses a varied terrain from Gilbert and Sullivan’s nineteenth-century comic or opéra féerie, a French ballet-opera based on fairy tales, Iolanthe, and the Marriage of Figaro, to Rimbaud, Rashomon, Taxi Driver, Lenox china, Sir Walter Scott, the Pope, Offenbach, the local writing community and what Boone calls the “business end of our writing careers” (6). In the story, narrator “Bruce,” and his fellow writer “Bob,” the author of Family Poems, check on their book sales since “by default we were distributors of our own books, as well as being our own publishers, publicists and critics, reviewers, etc. We had chose to go our own way in writing, not becoming part of the various ‘schools’ in our area, and the understandable consequence was that none of these schools was anxious to publish us” (6). After this “confession” or exposure of the two writers’ explicit participation in the material production of their works and their availability and reception in the world, the story goes on to generate an orgy of illustrative misreadings and misinterpretations about Bob’s former relationship with his lover Ed, the function of gossip, and Ted’s sexuality. Ted’s situation also becomes an opportunity for literary exercise. The retelling, analysis and fabrication of Ted’s story produces a kind of truth in a fictional direction. Boone writes,
Finally our Ted discussions became technical exercises, occasions for testing our skills as writers. We wanted to be able to verbalize our perceptions of life’s ordinary events accurately, elegantly and truthfully so that other people would applaud us for our socially useful talents. Whatever else it was, Ted’s ‘problem’ was grist for our writer’s mill.
Not that this wasn’t fun. The more complex and detailed (and superficial!) Our discussions became, the more it seemed to draw out our deepest feelings. These feelings had to do with ourselves, with the community of gay men and in some odd way with the possibilities of human life, happiness generally. Talking about Ted became a way of talking about the things we cared about most–things we couldn’t have talked about honestly and satisfyingly except as gossip (2).
The reader is strung along in this text as are the community members. Is Ted gay? Straight? The relationship of epistemophilia to erotics, seduction, reading and interpretation is literalized in the text. All this talk about the truth of Ted’s sex is reminiscent of Jacques Diderot’s les bijoux indiscrets in which women’s vaginas speak an endless and excessive, garbled “truth’ that is a catalog of penetrations. If Diderot lacks the capacity for comprehending “the idea of mental sensual pleasure,” or truly imagining of what women’s sexuality might consist, Boone’s “Truth About Ted” takes its point of origin, not women’s, but gay sexuality, its signs and manifestations and imaginings, and its mystery too (Thomas 336). While Boone’s text contains little of Robert Glück’s sex as counter language, it does construct a story of multiple and contradictory perspectives, one that, in some ornate way, is a Duchampian “Nude Descending the Staircase,” laying bare its fragmentation and disparate, if momentary, syntheses.
“The Truth about Ted” ultimately reveals the complexities of narrative. About his relationship with Ed, in Boone’s story, Bob says, “‘It took years to understand that story,’ says Bob” (11), illustrating how meaning may be delayed and retroactive and understood through desire. Boone’s story also illustrates how point of view or narrative focalization may be multiple and contradictory. To Bob, Bruce says about Ted’s sexuality, “the way things stand now, unfortunately, we may never know the truth. Remember Rashomon, that 50s Japanese movie where there were all these possible versions of a the story and you couldn’t say any one of them was the right one?” (8). At the end of “The Truth About Ted” Bruce tells Bob that Bernard and Ted eventually go out on a date. Within the story, Bruce further fictionalizes this event in its description, blurring the boundaries between opera, the heterosexual romantic novel, and perhaps even Beaumarchais’s (the author of the play la folle journée, or le mariage de Figaro) social satire while he explicitly interweaves Ted’s story into a fiction of its own:
So, after they see a show together, Ted and Bernard take a walk. What’s more ordinary? They find a park bench. They sit down. What do they talk about? Who knows. But in my mind I give them completely conventional lines. I make them say what couples have said to each other in such circumstances from time immemorial. ‘I’ve admired you for a long time, you know, and I think you’re really attractive.’ ....There’s a full moon and you can see all the stars.’ Canzonetta sul aria. But you’ll come, won’t you?–says Mozart’s count. Does he know? Susanna’s as nervous as Almaviva. It’s a Marriage of Figaro –in the distance you can hear the plashing of fountains. Not far away is Bernard’s house, and that’s where they plan to go. ‘Donne, vedete s’io l’ho nel cor.’ Sound of violins, falling cadence. My only comment is this–God give them the night of happiness that they deserve. People should get whatever happiness they can from life–because what else is the point. Of anything?–I conclude abruptly. That’s it, Bob. The story of Ted’s coming out (12).
We begin with Bernard and Ted and then, suddenly, we are inside the Marriage of Figaro. In between the plashing of fountains and the Italian lyric, Bernard and Ted are on their way to Bernard’s house. And then the fabricator of the story of Bernard and Ted’s date, interjects his own moralizing summation or desire: “God give them the night of happiness that they deserve. People should get whatever happiness they can from life–because what else is the point.” But the story doesn’t end here. The narrator marks the narrative frame by breaking it again and recontextualizing and labeling it: “The story of Ted’s coming out.” His comment refers to a new and particularly queer genre–the coming out story. Simultaneously, by using Figaro, the narrative has mobilized all of the confused identities, promiscuous desires, cross dressings, illegal crossings of social station/class to illuminate the many conflicts of desire at the heart of “The Truth About Ted.” It also reveals, via a kind of Derridean rupture, the ideological investments in this new genre, the coming out story, which has its own set of narrative tropes, characters and structured plot lines.
However, the story of the story of Ted’s sex still is not yet finished. As it turns out, this ideological and romantic fantasy, isn’t the whole story. In their ensuing discussion about Ted, Bob pressures Bruce with his sense that something is missing. Bruce is forced to tell Bob that Ted had been to the baths a few months after college and gotten a blow job and “for all I know gave one as well–though that wasn’t part of what I heard” (13). Bruce explains that rather than this story “about a quickie in a public bathhouse” he’d wanted it to be “a romantic story” (13). Yet, even Bruce’s revelation of the “truth” about the blow job is interrupted by his compulsion to expand upon and fictionalize its elements, to make up for its insufficiencies, to submit, perhaps, to the lure of narrative desire and genre fiction. The piece closes with an enigmatic laugh of the Medusa: “Bob laughs. ‘You have to let life define your stories, Bruce–instead of the other way around.’ I told Bob I’d think about this. I did” (13). “The Truth About Ted” ends up being about the truth about Bruce, or the truth about stories and their relationship to life, or the truth of the self’s continual misrecognition of its own specular image, or the ways in which the subject is caught up in the cogs of narrative, language and desire. Here, the mirror of the story (as in Glück’s suggestion that writing “erect[ ] a hall of mirrors” “Counter 8), suddenly turns back on its author and readers. It reveals a reflection that isn’t so much Ted’s story, but is the community’s, Bruce’s, and the readers’. If at the close of the story’s first paragraph we read: “It’s his life, after all, not yours” (1), by the end of the piece, we discover that perhaps it is not Ted’s life, but Bruce’s and maybe not Bruce’s but ours.
Boone’s use of opera generally and Mozart’s the Marriage of Figaro in particular, enables us to see how this complex layering and dismantling works. In the story Bruce uses the Marriage of Figaro to recreate or fantasize one of the many stories within the larger story frame, the encounter between Bernard and Ted which will confirm that Ted is gay. He begins this fantasized re-creation with a reference to unmarked or ungendered “couples,” but because he writes about Figaro, he introduces the characters of Susanna and Count Almaviva, and references heterosexuality. At the same time, opera serves as a gay signifier: “ Ted had the marked interests of a person who was gay, opera for instance” (1). The question becomes how to read: “my discussions of the ‘Ted question’ with Bob became increasingly abstract and unreal– for Bob and me, the issue of Ted’s sexuality challenged our ability to come up with the right interpretation of signs generally” (2).
Simultaneously, the story reveals how its author, readers and its own production is fueled by the ideological and the hegemonic, suggesting that the making of meaning entails more than the reading and interpretation of signs. It is the story’s exposure of itself as a story, constructed out of a fragment of “truth” and elaborated on within the discourse of community that enables the piece to elucidate and partially deconstruct its own devices and the cultural frameworks within which it is located; it marks the failures and desires it produces and is produced by. In the end, the piece celebrates and illustrates the pleasures and dangers to be had in the communal, gossip, epistemophilia and the creation of literature, while it also makes legible and is critical of its own devices and their shortcomings (“I now believe that the good it [gossip] represented was a limited one. Gossip and language– they do have their limitations” 2), their effects on others, stories, relations.
The Bay Area was treated to two appearances of Harryette Mullen in one weekend. On Friday night Mullen was part of a group reading in Berkeley and on Saturday night, she ignited Timken Hall at CCA in San Francisco. Mullen began the evening by explaining that she wasn't going to be talking about poetry but would talk about what she's been working on for the last couple of years, a project that entails, as Mullen said, finding where the bodies are buried. Harryette Mullen has been engaged in a genealogical investigation to document her family history. This is a fraught project since many of Mullen's ancestors are not well documented. Often there were no birth or marriage records for blacks. Prior to 1870, blacks were not uniformly included in the U.S. Census. As a result, Mullen's project has extended beyond her family alone. She's let this investigation expand sideways, revising her idea of what family is, including ancestral cousins as well.
One of the things Mullen discovers through this process is that in the 19th century, particularly for blacks, it is possible to find documentation of a person's life through death records only. For example there are databases that contain information about black union (and a few confederate) soldiers involved in the Civil War. One such database is the National Graves Registration Project maintained by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Other sources of information include insurance company lists of insured slaves. Slave-owners would often take out an insurance policy on slaves who were expected to die within a year.
Witness the difficulty of tracing family history when a relative is never recorded as someone--someone who was born, married, had children. Officially, they exist only in their dying, and sometimes not even then.
Here the official records--or their absences and omissions--and family history and knowledge rub up against one another, revealing contradictions, social and political histories, and trauma. Mullen discovered that the causes of death listed for some of her ancestors include conditions related to malnutrition and starvation, such as Pellagra.
The complexities and construction of race as a category assert themselves.
A census record might one year record someone as black, at another time, mulatto. The category of "race" and who defines and names and records it is tessellated and troubled. One of Mullen's ancestors was said to be Mexican. While Mullen suggested that this might be true, it seemed more likely an intentional ambiguity for a black family living in a largely white part of town in the late 19th century. Mullen's family tree, like a good deal of American family trees, includes both black and white ancestors. While some white relatives discovered by Mullen in Texas have embraced her, her inquiries have not been met always with such interest. Trying to locate the burial ground of one relative, Mullen contacted a white family in Alabama whose 19th century ancestors owned slaves, including, I believe, one of Mullen's relatives. The family sold one of these slaves (one of Harryette's ancestors) so that one of their white sons could attend medical school. Once they understood Mullen's project--her search for her ancestor's burial site--this family promptly cut off communication.
Names. Starvation. Lives. People owning other People. Resting places.
Harryette said that her project had not produced any writing--poetry or prose--that really satisfied her and she is unclear where the project is going and whether or not it will be more than a family genealogical inquiry, when it will stop. I think many in the audience were hopeful that the project would continue and take a form that we might encounter again. It is heart-breaking and important work.
I find so much of Harryette Mullen's writing to be engaged with history in so many different ways. Mullen has investigated slave narratives in her dissertation and her poetry dives into history and language's troubled archives. In the work collected in Recyclopedia, Mullen enables the sort of “activity of thinking and imagination that open[s] out vast possibilities not just of memory but of counter-memory; the moral idiom and semiotic registers of remembering against the grain of the history of New World black deracination, subjection, and exclusion” that David Scott describes (vi).* Such a process entails both identifying and preserving histories and experiences elided and prohibited from official discourses and simultaneously exposing such discourses’ bad faith. Rather than placing them under lock and key in order to solidify, arrest, and exclude racist and sexist discourses, Mullen re-makes the encyclopedia—the discourse and its attendant pedagogies—through her recycling of its material alphabets, grammars, metaphors, and other tropes. She interrogates and improvises, and then re-uses them, stretching them to their utmost. In the process, these discursive investigations reveal the often unmarked and unnamed structurings of various internecine ideologies.
Past perfect food sticks in the craw. Curdles the pulse.
Coops up otherwise free ranging birds whose plucked
wings beat hearts over easy. Flapping aerobically, cocks
walk on brittle zeros. They make and break and scramble
to get ahead. Whisk the yokels into shape. Use their pecker
order to separate the whites (S*PeRM**K*T).
Harryette Mullen shows us how even "bad" or contaminated, and half-erased traumatic histories might be made to speak volubly and differently. A poetics of history and knowledges. Discrepant interdependencies, crimes, pleasures, sufferings. There are wounds. And words. There are names: Hannah Strange, Flemming Mullen, Horace Dangerfield, Granville Spangler....
While it comes from a different register entirely, a portion of Jacqes Ranciere's The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge, seems apt:
...this means nonhistory and history, the power of articulation of names and events that is tied to the ontological indeterminacy of the narrative, but that nevertheless is alone suited to preserving the specificity of a historical science in general. The revolution in historical study is the arrangement of a space for the conjunction of contradictories" (6-7).
I can't stop thinking about the evening.
*Scott, David. “Introduction: On the Archaeologies of Black Memory.” Small Axe 26 12.2 (June 2008): v-xvi.