Bodies Collide With a Primal Violence: The City and The Pillar

In this criticism J.M. will discuss the denial of self and the oppression of American Society in Gore Vidal’s The City and The Pillar.

“Jim was overwhelmingly conscious of Bob’s body. For a moment they pretended to wrestle. Then both stopped. Yet each continued to cling to the other as though waiting for a signal to break or to begin again. For a long time neither moved. Smooth chests touching; sweat mingling, breathing fast in unison. Abruptly, Bob pulled away.” (pg 29 The City and The Pillar, Vidal)

At this early stage in the novel, even Jim has yet to admit, or rather, accept, who he is, and certainly Bob won’t accept it of himself. But the two share such a profound human connection, their bodies against each other and they become one, so readily and easily that they think and feel beyond the accepted norm. Jim readily accepts his affection for Bob, thinking of them as having more than a friendship, being ‘twins’ and this is displayed with both subtly dancing about their love by pretending to assert their masculinity through wrestling.
Throughout the novel, Jim sees himself as detached from the homosexuals he encounters. Seeing them either as womanly or as flamboyant figures of stereotype, he believes he is simply different from the culture’s accepted, and no so accepted, normality. Jim is a figure that stands alone, a man apart from men and women; feeling only for his ‘twin,’ refusing to accept that he is a part of a whole he doesn’t want and that certainly doesn’t want him. When Jim moves to Hollywood, he encounters what homosexuality has come to be, effeminate men that befriend graying widows and perform increasingly promiscuous and depraved acts of sexual deviancy.
Jim’s home life was a major factor of his denial of his true self, his father and mother and community constantly pushing him to be man-incarnate while he was in the midst of self-discovery and unconscious suppression of self. The southern setting is what, I believe, begins the struggle for identity that Jim faces. The traditionally less accepting and more intolerant region of the United States, is not the idea of a proper place to discover one’s homosexuality, or rather, the best place, as the most adversity is likely to be faced there. However, Jim and Bob, through seemingly harmless assertion of masculinity, end up finding there a deeper emotions at work to keep them holding each other tenderly, even in the summer’s heat, through a desire to be one, to join in an emotional union neither had felt before. Although Jim was indeed homosexual, attracted to other men both sexually and romantically, as with Bob, he refused to admit this to himself, preferring to remain detached from the ‘gay community’ in spirit while not in practice. Jim had several affairs throughout the novel, although they were mostly for pure sexual desire rather than any emotional involvement. Jim did so out of compulsion, as men seek women, as moths seek light, he sought release for his own denial of sexual identity, to expunge from his body the attraction to other men through conquering them as he had not been able to do to Bob, before he slipped through his fingers into the world, leaving Jim behind, alone, and loveless.
Jim’s infatuation with Bob leads him to follow Bob out to sea, in an attempt to find him and continue their love affair. Sadly Jim doesn’t find Bob immediately, for years, in fact, but his resolve remains, his unrelenting love retains its strength through all the years that Bob has seemingly vanished. Although e still clings to his love of Bob desperately, Jim never comes to declare to himself that he is a homosexual, he remains apart from such an idea, and he keeps himself separate from the world of raging ‘queens’ and promiscuity through his denial of his true nature, Jim finds haven in his denial, safety in his consistent lying to himself, sex is sex, but to admit that he was a homosexual like those he had encountered was ludicrous and often offensive, as he showed by reacting adversely to any such ‘queen’ who would suggest such a thing.
Jim lived in constant longing for Bob, his life built around the idea that he would see him again, hoping and dreaming of when they would finally be together and his brief promiscuity would fade and pale compared to the love they would share. But Jim is bitterly rebuked. When faced with Jim’s need to be with him, Bob is receptive, catching up with his old friend as he prepares to settle down with his wife and child, as Jim’s machinations for love and sex multiplied. Jim thought that his emotions were being returned, that Bob wanted him as badly as he needed him but he was mistaken. Bob responded to his advances violently, literally, and Jim, in a need to service his years long desire, brought himself onto Bob. As he had expressed his need for sex before, Jim now brought it to the extreme, his unwavering love was denied, his hopes dashed in a moment and his ego irreversibly bruised, Bob had to be conquered as he had easily conquered so many others. As with the opening, the ending is a subtle dance between male dominance and violence. Jim’s lust and love fueled by his rage as it had been fueled by desire. Love turned to hate.

“Suddenly overwhelmed equally with rage and desire, Jim threw himself at Bob. They grappled. They fell across the bed. Bob was strong but Jim was stronger. Grunting and grasping, they twisted and turned, struck out with arms, legs, but Bob was no match for Jim and, at the end, he lay facedown on the bed, arms bent behind him, sweating and groaning. Jim looked down at the helpless body, wanting to do murder. Deliberately he twisted the arm he held. Bob cried out. Jim was excited at the other’s pain. What to do? Jim frowned. Drink made concentration difficult. He looked at the heaving body beneath him, the broad back, ripped shorts, long muscled legs. One final humiliation: with his free hand, Jim pulled down the shorts, revealing the white, hard, hairless buttocks.
‘Jesus,’ Bob whispered, ‘Don’t. Don’t.’
Finished Jim lay on the still body, breathing hard, drained of emotion, conscious that the thing was done, the circle complete and finished.” (pg 203 The City and The Pillar, Vidal)

You Have Become the Enemies of Life: Messiah

In this essay J.M. will discuss the human fear of death and the power of religion to force humanity to accept the idea of a finite existence.

Religion has been the driving force of civilization from the beginning of history, from the ancient Egyptians to the televangelists, and the driving force behind religion has, almost always, been death. The Egyptians believed in the afterlife, a world ruled by Osiris where one could ‘live’ forever, and the modern Christians believe in a technical immortality after death if one accepts Jesus as the messiah. The Cavites of Vidal’s terrifying world of politics and corporation is no different. John Cave was a mortuary worker who had a power of persuasion, his speaking left those who heard him enthralled, his word captivating as a train wreck; no matter what, they couldn’t look away.
The Cavites claimed to be the end of religion, and to John Cave’s best efforts they were, for a time. The Cavites wanted to eradicate the monopoly religion held over the lives, and mostly deaths, of its followers, to let people see that death was not something to be feared or embraced, but accepted. But the later followers of Cavesword were not the intellectual, learned people who had both founded and propagated the institution, they were fanatics, as every religion at one time or another attains. This is obvious with the swift fall of Texas to the control of the Cavites, being as it’s traditionally regarded as the more zealously Christian states. The zealots of Cavesword come to regard death as something to be embraced, as the spread of the faith quickens, as does the rate of suicide, people’s desperate desire to leave the quick of life for the eternal, dark slumber of death.
John Cave was not a power-hungry man, when first introduced he was described as a face in a crowd, not even being noticed unless he was giving a pseudo-sermon and totally forgettable; unless you listened to him speak. Cave sought only to end the control that religion, attained over the millennia, had over the lives of the countless teeming millions of the earth. He was a nondescript man, but his vision was grand and humble simultaneously, his desire so noble. But religion has always been amorphous, shifting and changing with the will of the theocrats that sit at the top of the divine hierarchy. Paul Himmel was the man who brought Cavites into the world; his efforts changed them into Cavite Incorporated, a streamlined, modern church. A church of business and dollar signs, and his power-lust brought him to turn against the very founders of his business, and to pervert the ideas that John Cave had refined to meet his own ends. Himmel brought about the love of death, the desire to end life for the vast shadows of dying; Himmel had become a zealot himself.
Death was always been a part of Cavesword, abolishing the fear of it was the religion’s main goal, but the worship of death, as Himmel had plainly endorsed, was not in the vision of John Cave, death was not to be embraced, but respected, and life was meant to run its course and be respected as the step prior to the blissful relief of dying, not cast aside in an impatient desire to force one’s way into the relief of death. Religion’s constant control over the living and dying of its followers was not even relinquished with the religion to end religions; the same affliction was prevalent in the Cavites as their monopoly on faith spread and proliferated more and more. As the idea of death’s worship and appeal spread through the hierarchy, lines were drawn, the narrator on one side, against Himmel and the psychiatrist Stokharin. Stokharin attributed to the love of death by endorsing suicide, by providing the drugs necessary and birthing the science latter day Cavites would use to invent ever more pleasant ways to slip from reality.
As the institution grew ever more, ravenous for the zealots of the world, the original ideas of Cavesword became ever more distant from what the current ideas were. The modern, that is, the Cavites during the narrator’s descriptions from Egypt, are ever more crazed in their fanatical ideas of Cavesword, their tolerance for other religions slipping to zero, dissidents were drugged and lobotomized, and the radical side of the religion won out, creating a world state, united in their idea of death’s superiority to life and their superiority over the lesser religions. The Muslim near-east were the only ones clinging to their tradition, resisting the spread of merciless Cavesword into their lives and destroying any old ways there may have been for the undying present that marched ever forward without pity or remorse.
Cave’s vision was too grandiose and large for such a small and unassuming man, his life was a brief spark and too fragile to effect the greater scheme, but his ideas, in some form, were held and his influence changed the face of the earth, although in a far more insidious form rather than the peaceful nature of previous religions. But Vidal greatly exaggerates religion’s power with the latter-day Cavites, their will is, literally, enforced on any who oppose them and their control is nearly complete of the Western World, a feat even the Pope cannot claim. The Cavites forced any and all to believe as they believe, and to ingrain in the next generations the idea of death’s allure rather than its foreboding, to bring about a new race of humanity that would not fear the dark sleep that countless billions had before, to embrace dying and love the idea of dying, to follow in the footsteps of Cave (Although his suicide was actually a homicide) and emulate ‘his’ ideas of death’s loving, ashen arms waiting those who will gladly escape life and retreat to the shadows from whence life came.

“ ‘I never really believe it would come to this. That you, Cave, would speak for death and against life.’ I raised my eyes to his. To my astonishment he had lowered his lids, as though to hide from me, to shut me out. His head was shaking oddly from left to right and his lips were pressed tight together.
I struck again, without mercy. ‘But don’t stop now. You’ve got your wish. By all means, build palaces for those who choose to die in your name. but remember that you will be their victim, too. The victim of their passionate trust. They will force you to lead the way and you must be death’s passionate lover, Cave.’
He opened his eyes and I was shocked to see them full of tears. ‘I am not afraid,’ He said.” (pg 217-218 Messiah, Vidal.)