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Books: Leslie Fiedler’s Monster Party

8 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

FREAKS by Leslie Fiedler; Simon & Schuster; 367pages; $12.95

A Peter De Vries character once described a literary intellectual as the sort who put his audience into a bathysphere and took them down three feet. He could not have met Leslie Fiedler, who, along with Norman Mailer, is one of the most daring skinny-dippers in U.S. literary and social criticism. Throughout a long career that includes some brilliant fiction (Nude Croquet, 1969), Fiedler has boldly led his readers down whirlpools of the national subconscious. In Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), he argued that the country’s literature was obsessed with death and therefore incapable of developing mature heterosexual themes. Such matey relationships as Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg and Huck Finn and Jim, said Fiedler, were bonded by an innocent and idealized homosexual sentiment. He never said these heroes were homosexuals, though he did use “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” as the titillating title of his essay.

Critics of the critic suggested that Fiedler was playing to the crowd with a limited script based on pop Freud and Jungian stereotypes. His enthusiasm for discovering mythic power in such popular arts as movies and comic books was not appreciated by the guardians of high culture. Yet Fiedler outflanked them by describing himself as a hybrid of chutzpah (Yiddish for nerve or gall) and pudeur (French for modesty or reserve).

This itself was an act of inspired chutzpah that cast Fiedler as a cultural freak, an outsider and kinsman to all the Chingachgooks and Queequegs whose “otherness” defines white America. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self is a natural extension of Fiedler’s concern with the “other.” Only now he confronts not society’s but nature’s own outsiders. He would prefer a term less offensive than freaks, though he defends it against such euphemisms as mistakes of nature and phenomènes on the grounds that they “lack the resonance necessary to represent the sense of quasi-religious awe which we experience first and most strongly as children: face to face with fellow humans more marginal than the poorest sharecroppers or black convicts on a Mississippi chain gang.”

At its most obvious, the book is a natural history of dwarfs, giants, hermaphrodites, Siamese twins, mutants, the monstrously fat, the grotesquely thin, dog-faced boys and zoophagous geeks. But the richly illustrated work is in fact a combination sideshow, meditation on human nature and medical textbook of the sort that librarians once kept locked away with scandalous volumes like Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.

Fiedler the barker has no trouble luring his readers with freakdom’s fabulous trivia. Royalty once kept dwarfs as pets, even sexual partners, though circus fat ladies rival dwarfs in subconscious erotic appeal. Chang and Eng, P.T. Barnum’s “Siamese Twins,” were temperamental opposites. Chang drank heavily and womanized; Eng teetotaled and sowed mild oats. Daisy and Violet Hilton, joined twins who appeared in Director Todd Browning’s classic film Freaks, ended their days working as a double checkout girl in a North Carolina supermarket. Frederick I of Prussia shanghaied males over seven feet tall for his elite guard; Catherine the Great of Russia sought them for her bedroom, but was reported to have been disappointed. Throughout history giants have shared a fear of being disinterred after death by curiosity brokers.

Fiedler is keenly aware of the sensational aspects of his book. “Nobody,” he admits, “can write about Freaks without somehow exploiting them for his own ends.” The author compensates by investing freaks with the power to reveal to gawking normals the fears and distortions of their own souls. Fiedler sees such revelations as psychological necessities: “What monsters men have needed to believe in they have created for themselves in words and pictures when they could not discover them in nature.” Velasquez painted them, Kings and Queens played with them, Abe Lincoln and Mark Twain swapped stories with them. But as Fiedler describes it, a combination of social consciousness, demythologizing science and “therapeutic abortions” has helped make the true freak a vanishing species. “Those of us now living,” he declares, “might well represent the last generations whose imaginations would be shaped by a live confrontation with nightmare distortions of the human body.”

Yet the need for freakishness is unending. It lives on in the mutants of literature—Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Giinter Grass’s dwarf in The Tin Drum, John Gardner’s monstrous Grendel —and in today’s science fiction. In addition Fiedler notes that counterculture youths of the ’60s proudly called themselves “freaks” and spent a good deal of their time “freaking out.” Their comic books grew freak filled, and their music more grotesque. “Rock stars of the moment,” says Fiedler, “have taken on the personage of two classic sideshow Freaks: the Geek and the morphodite. Or rather they have improbably combined the two to create a new Single O: the androgyne as cannibal, a zoophilous Half Man/Half Woman, who for the blow-off screams over the electronically magnified rhythms of what has come to be called ‘freak rock,’ ‘You could learn to dine on your friends.’ ”

Freaks is full of such provocative plunges. It is the style that put Fiedler high on the charts a generation ago, when literary intellectuals were making their play to become culture heroes. Many of those old knights in shining elbow patches have since retired on their pudeur, over taken by the very cultural upheavals and ambivalences on which Leslie Fiedler still thrives.

There is a running joke in the Fiedler family that its lively patriarch gets up each morning with new instructions for his epitaph. “My favorite,” says Fiedler, “is ‘He was nothing if not ambivalent!’ ” At 60, the cigar-smoking Fiedler resembles Karl Marx as portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss. The eyes are mirthful, the face bearded and benignly grizzled, the mouth fine and supple from years of pumping irony. There is no trace of the mashed vowels of his native Newark, N.J., that satellite of New York City that has produced writers as different as Stephen Crane and Philip Roth.

For his college education Fiedler commuted daily to New York University, nearly a four-hour round trip by bus, train, ferry and subway. “To this day,” he says, “I can read and write under any conditions except total peace and quiet. I once went to Yaddo [a privately endowed retreat for writers in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.] and ended up going to the races.”

After earning his Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin and teaching at the University of Montana, Fiedler found his career stalled at World War II. He joined the Navy, was taught Japanese and sent to the Pacific as an interpreter. On Guam, Saipan and Iwo Jima, he discovered the strange emotional mechanisms that spark affections between prisoners and their captors: “In a war situation that was tearing people apart, I was in the business of drawing people together.” In 1967 Fiedler saw things from the other side. The prestigious professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo was arrested on a charge of allowing his home to be used for marijuana smoking. His first wife, two of the couple’s six children and a number of their friends were also booked. Suspended sentences and fines were handed out, but the deeper cost was recounted in Fiedler’s book Being Busted (1970).

The critic and teacher still makes his academic base camp at the university in Buffalo, though he is frequently on the lecture circuit, where he prefers the informality of the West to the mannered East. “At Princeton,” he says, “they call you sir. In Montana they call you doc.”

Wherever he goes in the U.S., Doc Fiedler maintains his passion for talking and writing about society’s strangers—red men, black men, and now, the deformed. If the new book seems less academic and theoretical than many of the author’s earlier works, it is simply because, as Fiedler says, “you can’t talk about abstractions when you talk about freaks.” R.Z. SheppardExcerpt”Children who are born legless or armless, their limbs amputated by a tangled umbilical cord, are sometimes hard to tell from true phocomelics, or seal-children, with vestigial hands and feet attached directly to the torso. But once identified, they are primarily felt as objects not of awe but of pity. The true Freak, however, stirs both supernatural terror and natural sympathy, since, unlike the fabulous monsters, he is one of us, the human child of human parents, however altered by forces we do not quite understand into something mythic and mysterious, as no mere cripple ever is. Passing either on the street, we may be simultaneously tempted to avert our eyes and to stare; but in the latter case we feel no threat to those desperately maintained boundaries on which any definition of sanity ultimately depends. Only the true Freak challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other, and consequently between reality and illusion, experience and fantasy, fact and myth. “

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