Jewish World Review August 30, 2001/ 11 Elul 5761
We'd need someone with the depth of perception of Nick Carraway, the narrator of "The Great Gatsby,'' to observe his rise and fall, who understands small characters on a large stage, to tell us what the story reveals about him and about us, writes novelist Susan Shreve in The New York Times. Dostoyevsky could do it, a writer drawn to "the enigma of the little man.'' The Russian knew how to follow the serious missteps that lead an ineffectual man into big trouble with a large effect.
Gary Condit, in his own voice, sounds more like a dull bit player, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in "Hamlet,'' a pawn of his own making who moves helplessly along with the action, pushed around by others, struggling to survive on an ethical spectrum made up of dreary shades of gray, neither tragic as lover nor titanic as villain, a six-term congressman who needed a young woman barely out of college to make anyone care about him.
Extending poetic metaphor (bear with me), he's Prufrock in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,'' a man who can only dare to eat a peach (or a grape), barely sensing his mundane visions and revisions, so frightened by human eye contact that he evaporates at center stage, powerless to give even a blind supporter reason to defend him.
Surely he is an odd figure to be the central focus in a sex scandal that ended in the disappearance of an innocent young woman. Or is he? Had Chandra Levy not disappeared, giving their tawdry affair a dimension of mystery and tragedy, the Gary Condit story would be little more than another tedious example of conventional sexual mores today, adultery as commonplace. No Count Vronsky or Anna Karenina here.
It makes you yearn for the more punitive morality of another day, rich with the passion that flows from prohibition, that defines character with bold strokes of right and wrong, virtue and vice, meaning that cries out of suffering, memory ripe with remorse, the loneliness of long distance pain.
But a girl is gone, and we cry with her parents. We weep for Chandra because she is missing. Without her disappearance the scenario is farce, comedy lower even than the tale of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky because the protagonist is a lesser figure on the world stage.
The president was caught when modern technology caught up with bedroom comedy. Detectives, once limited to magnifying glasses as they snooped for clues, now have high-tech labs to analyze family stains on a dress. The congressman was exposed (if not caught) in a more traditional way, because Chandra confided in an aunt. How deliciously retro, how wonderfully 1940s.
Without public exposure, Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy are commonplace moral reference points for a generation of women, old enough to enjoy sexual license without the ability to recognize the wrongness (and hopelessness) of a sexual liaison with a married man, the last taboo for the single woman.
Moral standards were not written by mean-spirited Puritans to determine punishments, but grew out of convictions that certain kinds of actions hurt others (as well as the self.) When the disappearance of a young girl, overcome with love for an abusive man of power, is reduced to a demand by public officials for a zone of privacy, we realize how far we have come down that socially acceptable road of male selfishness and female narcissism.
Has anyone considered how different the points of view would be if we had a novelist who could get inside the heads of both the man and the woman in these two sensationalized affairs? For all the feminist talk about equal rights between men and women, sexual emotions are not equal opportunity rites. In both these scandals we learn that each woman fantasized marriage with the cad, who merely demanded: "What's love got to do with it?''
If I could choose a novelist to narrate such postmodern sex stories, I would want someone with the razor-like insight and ironic observations of Jane Austen. Focusing on the relationships between men and women, the nineteenth-century novelist dissected an entire society, exposing its moral judgments for better and for worse, never forgetting that "character,'' in the most profound sense, is the only true measure of a man and a woman, no matter what circumstances they confront.
Elizabeth Bennet captured Jane Austen's characteristic response to the world in "Pride and
Prejudice'': "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at
them whenever I can.'' Would that we still