Great Moments in Flytrap Lit

First and foremost, of course, my colleague David Plotz’s review of three quickie Flytrap books. But after that, New York Times editorial writer Anthony Lewis’s column praising philosopher Thomas Nagel’s essay in the August 14 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, and the essay itself. In it, Nagel makes two obvious but overlooked points: 1. Civilization is impossible without distinctions drawn between private and public life, and between the inner and the outer self; and 2. A society governed by politicians without private lives or inner selves is a society governed by madmen or cretins.

Two caveats. In his column, Lewis uses the philosopher’s more finely-tuned prose as an occasion to bash everyone who, in Lewis’s words, “let[s] it all hang out.” By the time Lewis is through attacking everyone who exemplies this Sixties-ish phrase (Joyce Maynard, Paul Theroux, anyone who might have criticized JFK’s sexual escapades during his administration), you wonder whether any speech about the sexual behavior of public figures is worth protecting. Aren’t there some occasions (date rape, say, or wife-beating) where we’d want to niggle or quibble? The virtue of Nagel’s essay is precisely that he doesn’t go overboard the way Lewis does. He defends privacy without disparaging the gains of the past 30 years. He is for the sexual revolution–and who wants to go back to the days when the mention of private acts was so taboo we had no way to talk about domestic violence or flagrant abuses of power? Nagel’s more subtle complaint is that an increase in sexual tolerance has been transmogrified into an increase in sexual shaming: “What looked initially like a growth of freedom has culminated in the reinstitution of the public pillory.”

Second caveat, this time with Nagel. As often happens when intellectuals discuss Flytrap, Nagel lapses into a tone of world-weary, almost European snobbishness, declaring that America’s inability to respect the rules of civility reveals its immaturity as a society. But the immaturity of American papers is nothing next to the immaturity of the British tabloids, and not even our worst moments of national hysteria (this is definitely one of them) can be compared to the worst moments of European hysteria.

Speaking of the National Gossip State … Here are Culturebox’s contributions, stolen mostly from Variety: A new book is about to come out that seems likely to amount to a city-wide coming out: Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998. Tom Cruise has already threatened to sue, even though the author, David Ehrenstein, says the book only raises rumors of Cruise’s homosexuality in order to put them to rest. … The very latest in product placement: potentially, you. MGM will auction off a role in its remake of the 1968 Thomas Crown Affair to the highest bidder (the opening price is $10,000). The auction is advertised in MGM’s retail catalogue, but, the catalogue copy states, there is “no guarantee that [the role] will be included in the film’s final edited version.” … Now that Leonardo Di Caprio has spurned Lions Gate Films and American Psycho, the production company is trying to lure back the director it had rudely kicked off the project, Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol). Though the whole thing was her idea in the first place, she was dropped the minute Di Caprio expressed interest and turned an arty $10-million feature into a $40-million vehicle for himself. Sic transit gloria Hollywood.

Judith Shulevitz