Thursday, December 22, 2005


Dr. Kinsey, I presume

Since the transit strike had nixed my social plans for last night, I stayed home and sulked and watched Kinsey on television. Very decent. Liam Neeson, with his dowdy sweaters and brush-cut hair (as if his very follicles were wrestling with repression) seems just right for the title role. The same thing goes for Laura Linney, pretending to be homely in that time-honored Hollywood fashion. What holds the movie back is director Bill Condon's tone, which veers between heroic and comical without ever quite fusing the two. Sure, there's something courageous about Kinsey, casting off the Puritan shackles for an entire nation. Condon is happy to hit those notes. Yet the professor's nerdish posse in Indiana--for whom a group grope is the highest form of scientific enterprise--is decidedly less heroic. The director flirts with farce, but can't really go there, since it would undermine Kinsey's Promethean status.

I liked it anyway. It also brought to mind this passage from Gore Vidal's Palimpsest (a book that reconciles the heroic and comic aspects of the author's life much more successfully than I would have expected). Vidal, as we all know, met every important American of the last century and bonked quite a few of them. When he encountered Kinsey, he was in the early phase of his career and may still have fallen short of the canonical mille-e-tre we keep hearing about in Don Giovanni. He certainly gets an A for effort, though. The year is 1948, and we're at the Astor Hotel:
I can now see Dr. Kinsey as he walks me to the steps that connected the mezzanine to lobby. He is a gray-faced man who always wears a polka-dot bow tie. He looks uncommonly tired and has not long to live. Yet he is only fifty-four. He never stops conducting his interviews, all questions and answers, in code. Mrs. Kinsey is concerned about his overworking. "Ever since he took up sex," she is quoted as saying, "I never see him."

Dr. Kinsey was intrigued by my lack of sexual guilt. I told him that it was probably a matter of class. As far as I can tell, none of my family ever suffered from that sort of guilt, a middle-class disorder from which power people seem exempt. We did whatever we wanted to do and thought nothing of it. Kinsey told me that I was not "homosexual".... Even so, I was setting world records for encounters with anonymous youths, nicely matching busy Jack Kennedy's girl-a-day routine. I would not have had it otherwise, since, even then, I did not believe in fixed sexual categories; and finally, Kinsey appears not to have believed in them either. But one's primary attraction (for the other half?) is innate and immutable and hardly a "choice," as the ignorant pretend. Of course, secondary attractions are possible; hence the tradition, in patriarchal societies, of a conventional marriage for Jonathan as well as one for David, though their love for each other is the primary fact of their lives. I tried to tell Kinsey about Jimmie. But I had not yet read Plato; I had no theory. Kinsey gave me a copy of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, with an inscription, complimenting me on my "work in the field." Thanks, Doc. But it wasn't all work.

When Dr. Kinsey had finished with my history (he liked to question you twice, with an interval between, to catch any inconsistencies), I asked, "If you didn't know who I was--what--who would you say I was, according to my history?"

"I'd rate you as a lower-middle-class Jew, with more heterosexual than homosexual interests." Curiously, I have lived most of my life with such a person.
Mrs. Kinsey's quip appears in the movie, as does the perpetual bow tie. Kinsey himself had eight more years to live, but his incessant paddling in the ocean of eros may well have given him a look of exhaustion. Water, water, everywhere... (To read my 2000 interview with Vidal, which pretty much steers clear of the boudoir, click here.)

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