Oppenheim Interviews Oppenheim on Edmund White

Tell me, Lois: Why interview yourself here?

That's easy! Because I have just resurfaced from a summer entrenched in the writings of Edmund White, in preparation for the NYPSI interview on Oct. 12, and I feel engaged with his work in an unusual way that I am trying to comprehend.

Those of us for whom psychoanalysis is of particular significance, whether we're on the couch or seated in the chair at its end, do tend to look for the function served by such "engagements," so tell me more.

I had long been aware of White as a public intellectual of the Sontag sort. There are relatively few in this country compared with France, where the literary and artistic figures I mostly focus on in my teaching now or once did reside. And, for me, White, as a cultural icon, was always one of those few. I knew him as an essayist, a thinker, a critic, not as a novelist, but only for lack of time. I delved into his novels this summer and have only just come up for air.

Why do you say "come up for air"?

Reading White's fiction is to enclose yourself within the struggle of an individual of exceptional courage. His fiction is largely autobiographical, and he tells his story with an openness that extends way beyond storytelling. It's true: He is a remarkable portraitist, and we very quickly feel that we know his family, friends, and lovers ourselves. What's more, his writing is, from the purely literary standpoint (whatever that may mean), exceptional. But that's not my point. What makes one feel "enclosed" is the brutal honesty with which he writes. This, in fact, is what prevents our categorizing him as a gay writer.

How so?

For sure, the "gay thing" is everywhere in his work, and for those of us uninformed about male homosexual practices, it is a bit of an eye opener. But sexuality (or homosexuality) is the subtext; it's extraneous to the search for the author's core self, his identity. What White is after throughout his writings is the truth about who he is, and that is a universal struggle; it's primary. Whether we frame it developmentally in terms of the infant, the toddler, the latency child, or the adolescent who repeats some of those earlier struggles, or we frame it existentially in terms of the fundamental freedom endemic to humankind and the responsibility for one's acts that freedom implies, how we view ourselves is what it's all about. The implications for self-esteem, self-other relationships, and one's relationship to the world at large are enormous. In that sense, the sexual focus is secondary to the courage to which White's reader bears witness.

Is this the principle source of what is clearly the great admiration you have for his work?

It is something I kept feeling as I read and something I needed to name. Integrity, honesty, courage, modesty -- they're all in there! They make the author very accessible and very likable, and they make the reader want to reach a similar point, that point where one says aloud to all, "This is what I fear saying," and, in so saying, say. Add to that articulation the aesthetic know-how and you have a recipe for writing that is truly important.

Does what you say here tie in with White's other writings, as well?

Very much so. His biographies (he has written three, on Genet, Proust, and Rimbaud) reveal a comprehension of his subjects that extends well beyond the identification with the struggle as specifically gay. Sensuality, compassion (particularly with regard to the isolation associated with any form of marginalization), and the ability to chronicle (a life, a movement, an era) such that there is far more than reportage -- all play a role in his essays and other nonfiction. There's also the utter lack of sentimentality. And then, of course, there is simply the erudition: How can one not be in awe of his intelligence? But it's this courage and honesty about himself that come through so clearly in everything he writes. They, or so it seems to me, are what take hold of us and transport us into his world.

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Lois Oppenheim, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures at Montclair State University, co-creator of the forthcoming documentary on mental health stigma The Madness Project, and author of Imagination from Fantasy to Delusion. She continues as host of NYPSI's popular "Conversations with..." series of discussions on creativity. "Conversations with... Edmund White" will take place at NYPSI on Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, at 7:30 p.m. RSVP to admdir@nypsi.org.