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The Truman Capote Syndrome

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Well, sort of.  This was at Arts and Letters Daily this morning:


As articles about this kind of thing–the craving some intellectuals have for power and celebrity, not necessarily for themselves,  but in other people–it’s rather standard stuff, not anything we haven’t noticed before.

I think the quoting from Rousseau on the utter vileness of the (professional or otherwise) “man of letters” is kind of funny, because it applies at least as much to himself as it ever has to anybody else.

Rousseau thought he was writing about Voltaire.

But the reason I linked to it today was that I have been thinking about a parallel problem–the problem of writers and intellectuals who suck up not to tyrants but to socialites, who spend themselves on the nearly endless flattery of people with lots of money and lots of fashionable “in.” 

Which is why I’ve been calling it the Capote Syndrome in my head.  As far as I know, Truman Capote was not political in any way.  He didn’t suck up to tyrants or champion socialism or do any of the other fashionable political things that were the public stock in trade of people like Noam Chomskey.

Capote sucked up to “ladies who lunch,” to people with very little to show for their lives except the money to spend on ridiculously priced handbags and overnight flights to parties in places the tourists hadn’t discovered yet.

They were, I suppose, the precursors of Paris Hilton.  They didn’t “do” anything, although some of them had husbands who did (and therefore made lots of money).  Instead, they went to lunch with each other, gave parties for each other, got invited to auctions at Park-Bernet and fashion shows at Mainbocher–and then, when that was over, went home and did it all again.

I don’t suppose there was anything terrifyingly wrong with these people.  They were just shallow and aimless and lacking in both character and distinction.  That made them like a lot of other people.  They just had more money than other people did, and they used that money to make a life that was all about who they didn’t want to know.

Who they kept out was always more important to them than who they let in.

There are, as I said, almost certainly people like that today, although Paris Hilton may not be one of them.  She seems sort of relaxed about who she lets in.

I was thinking about all this because I was reading a book, called The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, by Dominick Dunne.   It’s a book of a type I don’t really care for, but it’s tremendously well done, and I reread it every couple of years ago.

It’s a book about the lives of the kind of people Truman Capote spent his life desperately chasing from one party to the next, and there is a character in it that is a thinly disguised Capote to boot, probably because Dunne took the basic outlines of his story from the account of the same incident that appeared in Capote’s Answered Prayers.

The book itself would have been enough to remind me of all this, but I was also reminded that Dunne was a lot like Capote.  Reading his memoir, The Way We Lived Then, is enough to make your teeth hurt.

And, I’ll admit, it astonishes me. 

Truman Capote was an enormously talented man, no matter what else he was.  In Cold Blood is not just a very good book, it changed the world of writing nearly overnight, and it’s still the benchmark for true crime writing. 

He had things to offer that the people he chased after did not.  He drowned what should have been a very long and distinguished career in social climbing, parties, and substance abuse, and I can never figure out why. 

Dunne was not so talented, but he wasn’t untalented either, and he’d done quite a few things in his life.  He was something of a noise in television in the early Sixties, one of the producers of Bewitched.   He followed that with a series of best-selling novels, a popular true crime television show, and dozens of other accomplishments that most writers working freelance would have been proud.

And yet, somehow, somewhere, there was something in his head that just could never rest on that, that was always hungering after the right invitation to the right party by the right people.

Maybe it’s just the result of the fact that I am so spectacularly not a social person–I virtually never go to parties, I hate talking on the phone, I haven’t had a picture taken of me in a decade–but I remain completely and utterly mystified by the phenomenon.

I mean, even the dictators have done something with their lives.  It’s a bad something, but they’ve done it.  What is the point of Mrs. North Shore-and Sutton Place whose last really big accomplishment was giving a Marie Antoinette Party where all the guests were required to come looking as if they were headless?

I wonder sometimes what Capote would have written if he’d just, well, written, instead of doing what he did. 

And I wonder if it’s any accident that the people who do this–the artists and writers who do it, but also a lot of the non-artists in the core group who do it–require such huge reservoirs of chemicals to get through it.

There.  I’ve been depressing enough for the day.

Written by janeh

March 14th, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Truman Capote Syndrome'

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  1. There’s nothing especially artistic or intellectual about this sort of thing. People like to fit in with a group. We’re social monkeys by nature, but some of us have a greater need for social connections than others, and some get more anxious about the whole process. Some people get their entire opinion of their own worth tied up with other people’s opinions of whatever group they associate with. Others might innately have a low need for – or ability to handle – group life but be born into a group in which such things are extremely highly valued – ore vice versa. And if you think you’re playing what I think is called a zero sum game – there’s only so many in places and you NEED one – snarkiness about rivals who are allegedly trying in the wrong way to belong by saying things that will be popular with the nobility or tenure committees, well, that’s just human nature in action. It’s something I think we need to combat, but then, I’ve always been rather deficient in the ‘go along to get along’ gene, not to mention the ‘fight for your spot in the monkey equivalent of the pecking order’ one.

    Oh, and I did notice while skimming that article a tendency to believe that proper intellectual work is a worthy object of worship, with ‘proper’ apparently being defined by what lasts for ages, which sound a bit to me like The Lurkers Support Me In Email. I mean, if you’re attacking your enemies for saying what the rich and powerful want to hear, and implying that your own genius will be recognized in the future, you must surely have about as much chance of convincing your contemporaries of the value of your work as the people making the claim about the Lurkers have of getting their contemporaries to recognize the value of their arguments.

    That’s what people want, though. Someone to accept them and to consider you and your work to be of value, whether it’s writing a book for the ages or doing housework.

    Well, some people. I overheard a couple people discussing what you really need to make a good life at the bottom of the economic scale. Enough extra to pay for cable TV and maybe, just maybe, a small car, was the consensus, and the increasing cost of housing and heating the main barrier.

    Anyway, I think I’m giving up for the evening and going to bed. I’ve gotten to the point with my taxes at which I’ve come to two very different final figures, and discovered that although I can estimate the amounts, I still need two receipts which I should have, by law, received last month. And I just checked the forecast, and Sheila is being particularly vicious this year. Tommorow morning is likely to be nastier than tonight.

    (Sheila was allegedly an associate of St. Patrick who invariably causes a storm around St. Patrick’s day when she vigourously sweeps out her house in preparation for the big day.)


    14 Mar 11 at 6:50 pm

  2. Rand described the Dunne/Capote thing–being important–maybe being REAL–only as other people recognize you as such. The analysis seemed sound, but I never understood the condition. There are people whose recognition or praise would bean something to me, but it’s because I respect who and what they are, and the sort of people Dunne and Capote were interested in haven’t earned respect. They’ve just married or inherited money.

    But I’d be careful about changing one aspect of a person. Maybe a Capote without his societal obsession would have just been a really good reporter, and no one you heard of at all. Our ambitions and frustrations work out in odd ways, and Capote’s perhaps stranger than most.


    14 Mar 11 at 8:14 pm

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