In the Book of Genesis, God delegates the naming of all the creatures to Adam, apparently as a kind of curiosity game, “to see what he would call them.” The sons of Adam have been naming things ever since, and sometimes dodging names that already exist for things they’ve done – a curious game with language that rock musician Thurston Moore took up last week in an interview with online magazine, The Fly.
Moore, a founding member of the celebrated art-rock band Sonic Youth, spoke for the first time about the affair that, in 2011, broke up his 25-year marriage with bandmate Kim Gordon. Moore made some fairly broad statements of regret, then said of his much younger new flame, “We’ve kinda been a couple for close to six years. A lot of those years nobody was very aware of it except us.”
Nobody was very aware of it except us. That’s certainly a novel way of alluding to a secret affair that must have been tricky to conceal, given Moore’s celebrity, and that went on for years. It kind of rejigs the affair as a free-standing thing that somehow no one else had noticed, as if Moore were ahead of the curve in recognizing some new social phenomenon. Always a pioneer, in life as in music. More importantly, perhaps, he uses the word “couple” retroactively, as if it were quite possible to be a couple with two women at once. The overall message seems to be that Moore, in his own mind, didn’t deceive his wife, he just became part of another simultaneous couple that wasn’t noticed for a while.
Jezebel blogger Erin Gloria Ryan considered Moore’s comments, and pronounced him “a dick.” Moore replied via Facebook that Jezebel was trading in “gender fascism,” promoting “hate by imperialist blather,” and giving feminism a bad name. If this trolling means anything at all, it’s that Moore, having found sympathetic language to describe what he had done, was furious that someone else wasn’t playing along.
Woody Allen practised something similar when talking with Reuters in 2011 about his affair, some 20 years earlier, with Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of his then-partner Mia Farrow. When reporter Christine Kearney asked about the “scandal,” Allen said, “What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. There was no scandal, but people refer to it all the time as a scandal – and I kind of like that in a way, because when I go, I would like to say I had one real juicy scandal in my life.” In Allen's view, as soon as he fell in love with Previn, she stopped being his partner’s daughter and became “this girl.” Therefore, no scandal, and no unpleasant language for a man who traded his quasi-parental status for that of lover and husband. It’s so not scandalous, in Allen’s eyes, that he can even joke about his mock-regret that he’s never done anything to cause “a real juicy scandal.”
Both Moore and Allen speak as if their previous partner somehow shrank from view as soon as the new one was sighted. In the new perspective, each man did what he did, but the consequences were muted because that other person, from before, was so less visible next to the radiant new love. They admit what they did while refusing the ordinary language for it, presumably because it’s inconsistent with their view of themselves as considerate people. It’s as if they’re saying, “Yeah, I did that, but I’m not the kind of guy who does that.”
Being seen as that kind of guy isn’t just an affront to one’s vanity. It’s also a blow to one’s social status, and one’s power in the world. It’s pretty clear that Bill Clinton was thinking about power when he decided that he could privately define “sexual relations” to exclude oral sex, so that he could deny having a sexual affair while in the White House.
Many other men have had sex with men but denied even to each other that they were gay, for fear of the social consequences. The cowboys in the film Brokeback Mountain assure each other that their first sexual encounter doesn’t change the fact that they’re both arrow-straight. In Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, the real-life red-baiting lawyer Roy Cohn says he has sex with men but isn’t a homosexual, because that word describes someone who has no power. Since Cohn is powerful and determined to stay that way, he won’t be a homosexual.
We feel sympathy for the real men and women who had to make that evasion, because there was no favourable or even socially neutral language to describe what they did and who they were. All the available words were like the flaming swords held by the cherubim who drove Adam and Eve from Eden. It’s different with successful celebrity artists like Moore and Allen, who simply can’t believe they’re not getting a pass this time. From what they’ve done in their works and careers, a lot of us imagined they had a clearer view of life, and of language.