Edmund White Featured October 12 in Psychoanalytic ‘Conversation’
BY PAUL SCHINDLER | As part of its “Conversations With…” series, the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute (NYPSI) plays host on October 12 to gay novelist, critic, and biographer Edmund White.
A New Yorker who teaches at Princeton, White, born in 1940, is the author of many novels, including “Forgetting Elena,” “Nocturnes for the King of Naples,” “The Married Man,” and, most recently, “Jack Holmes and His Friend”; an autobiographical trilogy –– “A Boys Own Story,” “The Beautiful Room Is Empty,” and “The Farewell Symphony” –– as well as several other memoirs; and biographies of Genet, Proust, and Rimbaud. With Charles Silverstein, he wrote 1977’s “The Joy of Gay Sex.”
His 1993 book on Genet won the National Book Critics Circle Award, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was named an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
Dr. Lois Oppenheim, a professor of French at Montclair State University, who also teaches psychoanalysis there and is an NYPSI scholar associate member, will appear in conversation with White.
“I was always well aware of him as a critic and essayist,” Oppenheim told Gay City News. “But I had not read his fiction,” with which she has since become “intrigued.”
“I think he is a fantastic writer, a brilliant writer,” she continued. “His work is so autobiographical. And so humble, in what he says and how he says it.”
White’s writing, Oppenheim said, is searing in dealing with shame and guilt, “but never sentimental.” It is marked by “a good deal of exhibitionism, but he doesn’t say, ‘Look at me and admire me.’ It is not an off-putting sort of exhibitionism.” Instead, it pulls the reader into his struggles as a young man with the shame that beset him.
Paraphrasing a review of White’s work some years back by critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Oppenheim referred to his often blunt sexual explicitness and said, “One is repelled by much in White’s work. But we are supposed to be repelled. He brings us into his self-loathing, his self-disgust so that we will be disgusted ourselves.” The result, she said, is that “you get inside him and feel how he makes his way in a world that does not accept him.”
Loss is a common theme in White’s writing, Oppenheim said, “loss on so many levels of his life.” In writing about his early years, readers find a “loss of his image of himself as the object of his own self-loathing growing up.” In dealing with “the extraordinary magnitude” of the AIDS epidemic, there is “the loss, in reality, of his friends and lovers, of so many that he felt so much guilt and shame over loving in the first place.”
How did White deal with loss? “He made it into an art,” Oppenheim said. “Violins are not playing in the background. Very much to his credit, you feel for him in the deepest way. He tells it like it is without being a reporter; he is a chronicler. He does show his very deep pain, but he doesn’t say, ‘Cry for me.’ And that is the big difference. ‘Don’t cry for me. Cry with me.’”
Oppenheim, noting the many years White lived in Paris, said he is something that is rare in America, but more common in France –– a public intellectual. “He is one of a handful of people who hold the position he does in this country,” she said. “He is a brilliant novelist and an extraordinary scholar. One is generally one or the other, but he is both.”
Oppenheim and White will have what she promises will be a “no holds barred” discussion for roughly 90 minutes followed by an audience Q&A and a book signing. The event takes place October 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the NYPSI’s Marianne & Nicholas Young Auditorium, 247 East 82nd Street. Admission is $25; $10 for students; reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org.