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The Beautiful Room Is Empty

October 19, 2006

“Ah! Do you have to be sensual to be human?”

“Certainly, Madame. Pity is in the guts, just as tenderness is on the skin.”

Anatole France, The Red Lily

When I was about fifteen, gay in an single-sex school and deeply unhappy, I discovered the works of Edmund White – more specifically the “A Boy’s Own Story” Trilogy (beginning with that book, followed by “The Beautiful Room Is Empty” and “The Farewell Symphony”). I remember sneaking off during PE, tormented by both the boys and their beauty, the telling pink cover of “A Boy’s Own Story” in my hand. I’d sit and read in the library. There was the illicit thrill of discovery – of realising that I was not the only one who had felt what I felt, and wanted what I wanted. And that was oddly comforting, in a way.

As I grew up the works of White began to languish on my shelf. Who needs White? How irrelevant he was, and is, and how dreary! How else could they be, as the autobiographical works of an unhappy closeted gay adolescent growing up in the dull Midwest, whose final coming out coincided with the onset of the AIDS epidemic? No – now we have counselling to blunt the edge of difference, drugs to help with our unhappiness and our disease. Better to leave White – depressingly ironic – on the shelf, back in the closet.

We gays have had, and have, a short lifespan. We place heavy emphasis on youth and beauty – how many years do we have before our societal clock runs out, before we become bitter old queens, or settle down into pairs as bitter old dykes? Likewise, from birth (the liberation of the Stonewall rebellion) to death (the cruel plague of AIDS), the halcyon days lasted barely 30 years. And so it goes – no time even for thought. We don’t look back on the past – instead we look forward to the future (to the next Sunday night, the next trick, the next text message from so-and-so) with our credit cards, industrial-strength lubricants and razor-thin handphones.

But has this brevity led to a levity with which we treat ourselves? In our high-speed world, made higher by drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, have we lost the ability to feel serious things? And is this loss, well, serious?

Yes, and yes. We blunt the edge of sorrow and loneliness by surrounding ourselves with the sedating influence of bright disco lights and comforting chemicals. But in the long run this can only do ourselves harm. We become caricatures of ourselves – smiling, bright, beautiful, happy things. But empty things. And empty things with dangerous tendencies. People who don’t feel pain eventually grow numb to it, and stop realising that something is wrong – frogs boiled alive not knowing that the temperature of the water has slowly increased.

There is nothing wrong with living an accelerated life. But it is essential that we stop, and feel. When I reread The Beautiful Room Is Empty, the epigram struck me as particularly relevant. We enjoy what is on our skin, but our guts are unfeeling. And certainly we need to feel our guts wrench, from time to time, in order to retain our humanity. And that is why I am now rereading the works of Edmund White, to feel that pity in my guts, to innoculate myself from states of unfeeling.

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