The Johnston Letter, Volume 5, Number 1
Tant le Monde est Crédule
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2009 Jill Johnston
I was waiting during the Academy Awards to hear our new president's name mentioned. Watching the show mindlessly (always a mindless ritual, knowing nothing I like will ever win, and having seen almost nothing up for Oscars anyway), I might have missed it, but at the end Sean Penn slipped it into his acceptance speech for best male performance in "Milk," saying it almost as an aside, giving it no special inflection: "I'm proud to be part of a country that elected an elegant president." There was no applause, from what must have been practically a 100% pro-Obama crowd -- reflecting a sentiment at large or inability to respond quickly or reluctance to acknowledge Penn as claimant. The country must be holding its breath right now over our new president. No one wants to say anything, certainly not those of us who rabidly supported him. "For Chrissake," a fellow enthusiast said to me, "he's been in office only a month." I had been ranting somewhat over Afghanistan. But if elegance is all it takes, we're in good shape. And other things are happening. Liz Smith, who is only 86, lost her gossip job at the Post after 33 years. Luckily I lost my newspaper job at merely 51, leaving me free to get into lots more trouble over books. I wasn't canned by the paper. There was simply a tacit agreement to call it quits. The paper had long gone stupid, and all I had left to write about were things like how I had my hair cut. During my tenure at the paper, which began in the ancient time of 1959, I heard from people of the likes of Liz. Between 1971 and '72 I had four letters from her. I wonder what she said. Given those dates, I can actually imagine. The letters are buried in my archives with thousands of other invaluable papers. Ingrid can locate the dates from a big fat archive book she created. Everybody I know or hear from, excepting my family, and a couple of health care providers, who by now number in triple digits, is the result of my writing. Ingrid has long been family, but she found me on an Amsterdam newsstand in 1968. The power of paper is extraordinary and scary. Like baseball players and their bats, the trees I've used and thrown away or saved in my hall of fame must be a forest. My walls of course are lined with trees. From off their shelves, Ingrid has been reading my Virginia Woolf journals. You can't read mine because I won't give them away before I die, and I am never going to die. They have simply tons of paper and ink (where does ink come from?) dating from 1974. There are about two hundred and fifty of them. Each one is a bound and lined Boorum & Pease account book, 144 pages, 7 1/8" by 5 1/4". In 1974 I lost five years worth of them when I feared leaving them alone in my house in Massachusetts to drive to New York. Packing them in boxes in the trunk of my 2002 bmw, staying overnight in Manhattan, in the morning I found the car with its precious cargo missing. My insurance covered the loss of the car. Over the journals I lost my head. These journals are rarely Woolf-like. They function as memory banks, a research tool complete with indexes. I say wise things sometimes, as immortals can. I enter conversations verbatim, and quotes by friends or other immortals, like this by Woolf dated May 14, 1925 which Ingrid showed me: "The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial" -- quoted here not because I agree necessarily but because it can make me think about whether I agree or not. And in this case I identify with the first part of Woolf's thought, not the second. Whatever you do that absorbs you utterly, I call "profound." I have a couple of Buddhist friends, the kind who actually meditate. They live out West, one in New Mexico, the other in California, and I talk to them on the phone. They offer measures for improving my existence. Neither thinks of writing as "profound" particularly, unless the writer is unknown to them, like immortal, or the writing is fictional. One tells me what to do; the other can bring up the Buddha, implying I would benefit from meditation. The last time His Greatness came up, I said impulsively, with hubris aforethought, realizing my sacrilege, "Whenever I practice my craft, I am the Buddha." These good friends are not my best readers, though they came to me in different ways through my writing. Readers are very important to me, unlike Virginia (and I don't really believe her). Often, having written something, I read what I wrote to imagine how so-and-so will read it, or some other so-and-so. I am my own best so-and-so. There probably comes a moment in a writer's life when the writing they most prefer to read is their own. It may be our immortal moment. In which case, "being read" can indeed be "superficial," as Virginia said. One day Kenneth called me and said I was an "acclaimed writer." Being a realist, I shot back indignantly, "No I am not." He repeated himself. So did I. We went on like that. I must have been complaining about my foot. It seemed suddenly as if he were saying, "Your foot may be bad, but you're an acclaimed writer." Oh well hell then, why not. It could help me forget my foot. In this letter from Liz Smith, dated 11/25/72 (Ingrid became curious and exhumed them), she says, "Don't ask me how I can be in Gonzales, Texas reading about you in the London Times...." Clearly I was once acclaimed, otherwise Liz, who wrote at that time for Cosmo or the Cosmopolitan Magazine, and whom I never met, would not have written to me from Texas about seeing me in the London Times. So Kenneth must be living in the past. Unless he just wanted to make me feel better. Anyhow, back in Kenneth's time, the moment I realized how "acclaimed" I was I ran away as fast as I could, first in a VW camper, then to a half-renovated barn that harbored a legion of bees in its walls, until settling down for five years in a very remote region of southwestern Massachusetts. After many more moves, I have my ageless perspectives. One of them is that to inquire into the evidence for something on which you have already decided is the unacknowledged premise of every personal inquiry, surely? "Personal" here is "public" in its source in Alan Bennett's "The Uncommon Reader" (for which thanks to Tony, who was a great reader of mine when the writing concerned art, but remains my friend anyway). Bennett's fictional Uncommon Reader is the Queen. Having learned to read (the classics, past and present), she has taken up writing. "Who knows," she says near the end of the book, "it [her writing] might stray into literature." The public inquiry of the Academy Awards group is pre-decided by the conviction that our people have no aesthetic intelligence. That the people want subjects, not art. That art is incompatible with entertainment. That what is beautiful must be a fantasy. Or that beauty and reality never mix. That films I like will never win. This year only "The Visitor" in my opinion deserved best picture, and it wasn't even nominated. Nor did I see the ones that were, except "Milk," a viewing of which seemed obligatory. Not for nothing did I once have a slanting relationship to its subject, becoming therefore an INUNNIAQ -- an Alaskan tribal word standing for "the serious business of staying alive." It was good to see that only men qualified finally for this extravaganza Hollywood coming out party street frenzy and assassination; men unable to predict that in another thirty years they would be living without consensus (except over marital rights) in a cozily don't ask don't tell world. Penn made the Academy laugh when he opened his address to the audience wryly, darkly, ironically, "So you commie homo sons of guns...." He left out "pinko." And was "guns" an essential euphemism for "bitches"? Penn's convincing virtuosity in the role of Harvey Milk may have caused Oprah in her morning-after interviews on the Oscar stage, now leased to her annually, to ask him why he didn't acknowledge "Robin" in his speech. I deduced from what came next -- his two children -- that Robin is Penn's wife. It was a rude question. You don't ask the winners why they left out whomever. Penn handled the question well in a few blurry words, trying to separate family from his job as actor. But Oprah was sticking her foot in her usually suave mouth. Having acknowledged Penn's award in his role as an outrageous gay man, she seemed too anxious to return him to his family wherein of course the whole world assumes he is straight. Did anyone else notice this? A better question might be does anyone I know look at Oprah? Would Joseph my linguist professor friend, who incidentally first came to me not through my writing but bells, have heard the indirect slur? A few years ago I went with Joseph to see "Brokeback Mountain" -- a movie that stood out at the Oscar show for being strictly unmentioned in context of a posthumous award to Heath Ledger for best supporting actor in "Black Knight." It is only by Ledger's brilliance in 'Brokeback,' and by his untimely death, linked speculatively with his homo role in 'Brokeback,' that we know of him. The sense was that the Academy's posthumous recognition of Ledger in a minor film was compensatory, and the front for a tragedy, seemingly confirmed by the appearance of Ledger's family, his parents and a sister flown in from Australia to accept the award. Ledger's daughter by Michelle Williams, his wife both in "Brokeback" and in reality afterwards, was surely not left out. What hath we wrought by the obliteration of such a singularly great film as 'Brokeback' in an industry that thrives on violence for its own sake and on throwaways? An industry with the means for educating the people to sublime acting and writing. For promoting the development of aesthetic intelligence. Or the same applied to social issues. Are we crazy or what? Why is Obama in all his elegance only talking about money and war? Why doesn't he netflix "The Visitor" and tell the people how great it is? He would recognize the elegant script. He could say that the film shows us how badly the U.S. government treats illegal immigrants, yet how art and love triumph nonetheless. My best sighting at the Awards was Richard Jenkins, the bored Connecticut professor of "The Visitor," a surprise nomination for best actor. Obama could fly him on Air Force One to Washington in compensation for not winning. It would only cost a billion or so. This airplane is more expensive than the World Trade Towers were. You can see where I'm going with this, so I want to return to Liz Smith, a marvelous find in recent days. I can tell from her letters that she's a very nice lady. I always liked her when she showed up on TV. At 86, she must be divine. In a letter she wrote to me on June 18, 1971, she fills out a story about one of my better known escapades -- diving topless into a pool at a serious feminist fund-raising party in East Hampton, scandalizing the cocktail company, endearing myself to the media, splashing into a deathless future. In her letter, Liz writes that she had interviewed Gloria for Vogue, and when that party came up, Gloria told her "I was thrown when Jill Johnston asked me to dance. But on the other hand I really liked her and she was the only person there I was interested in talking to." At the time, Gloria's "interest" could have fooled me, but today I'm willing to believe it. It's so too bad I lost all those journals, recording so many things of indestructible import. Here is one I entered recently from a goodbye speech by our latest ex-president. He was listing his disappointments, one of them being "not finding WMDs in Iraq." Imagine that! -- What would he have done had he found them? He never found them, but he kept saying they were there, his excuse for murdering thousands upon thousands of Iraqis and American soldiers! Now the Republicans, I read, have been searching for Obama's birth certificate. Unaccustomed to elegance, his origins must be located. Tant le monde est crédule.
©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com.
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