Pope Francis should meet Lebowitz and her friends
Published 17/03/2013 | 05:00
Late last Wednesday night, presumably after Pope Francis had gone to bed, a gay woman friend texted to ask: "If you could arrange it, what three women would you pick to give Pope Francis a fresh perspective on gays, feminists and allied matters?"
Almost by return I texted back my fantasy. Pope Francis, after the St Patrick's Day parade, would meet, over pastrami and rye, the three women thinkers I most admire, and who happen to be gay: Fran Lebowitz, Camille Paglia and the English writer, Jeanette Winterson.
You can take it I also admire Pope Francis because he took the name of St Francis of Assisi, who believed in deeds not words. Consider his gently ironic injunction to aspiring disciples, "Preach the gospel, even using words."
Let us hope Pope Francis shares St Francis's sense of humour when he meets my panel. At first he might be wary of their (incorrect) image as fanatical feminists, gay icons and sexual personae – to borrow the title of Paglia's brilliant first book.
But, with a little wine, my bet is that all four would find they felt much the same about the really important things: human nature, the dark side of erotic passion, and cutting through cant. Because scratch these three women ever so lightly and they turn out to be radical conservatives.
All three women are respectful of the West's Judeo-Christian heritage, sceptical of the possibility of any fundamental change in human nature, aware of the atavistic power of erotic desire, suspicious of perfecting prophets, and would agree with Edmund Burke that you can no more design a society than you can design a tree.
Let me give you a tasting tour of their complex yet consistent minds.
* * *
Fran Lebowitz was born into a Jewish New Jersey family, expelled from school, worked with Andy Warhol, and in 1978 published an abrasive collection of essays called Metropolitan Life which I read to bits.
Lebowitz is the original "rootless cosmopolitan Jew" the Nazis rightly suspected of subverting the Reich by rejecting rural Aryan idiocy. As Fran says: "Sitting in bars, smoking cigarettes, that's the history of art."
Unfashionably, she does not subscribe to the American dream that life is about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Asked if she's happy she says: "Happiness is a sensation not a condition."
She also rejects America's cherished mantra of undefined "change": "I'm not interested in changing my life, I'm not interesting in changing your life. I'm interested in changing your mind."
Martin Scorsese's loving tribute to her in his documentary Public Speaking (some bits on YouTube) shows Lebowitz's judgemental (Jesuitical?) joy in slapping down the kind of PC feminist student who harps on gender issues, her voice rising at the end of the sentence to clear the full stop.
Student: "Do you think there's a difference between a female voice and a male voice in literature? Lebowitz (crisply) "Even on the phone there's a difference between a female voice and a male voice."
I bet that would make Pope Francis smile. So would her politically incorrect theory – which she shared with her nervously laughing audience – on why there were so many bad books.
"It's because you have been taught to have self- esteem. And apparently you have so much self-esteem that you think, 'You know what, I shouldn't keep these thoughts to myself, I should share them with the world.'"
Pope Francis and Pope Fran would also agree about the evil side of human nature – which he would call Original Sin. Lebowitz says it's why Jane Austen has lasted. "Any writer who presents you with human nature in a true way will last. That doesn't have to do with how good a writer is, but how bad human beings can be."
* * *
Camille Paglia, also a New Yorker, born of Italian immigrants, caused a sensation with her first book, Sexual Personae. Basically it argued that Western Culture is torn between the two Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius, between order and anarchy, art and sex.
Like Lebowitz, Paglia, Austen (and of course Pope Francis), Winterson believes some things about human nature don't change. And Pope Francis would not disagree with her belief in the destructive attraction of Dionysian erotic passion.
But he might be surprised by Paglia's severe criticisms of feminism. "Feminism has betrayed women, alienated men and women, replaced dialogue with political correctness".
He would certainly sympathise with her working-class belief that rewards in life are not a right, but should be the result of hard work and hard beliefs. Paglia would not miss the connection between Katie Taylor's class, her evangelical beliefs and her success as a boxer.
Pope Francis might also agree with Paglia that all artists are not equal. "The trauma of the Sixties persuaded me that my generation's egalitarianism was a sentimental error." But not with her advice to both sexes: "To men I would say: get it up. To women I would say: deal with it."
But I have no doubt this down-to-earth man would enjoy the encounter.
* * *
Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester; banned from reading novels
by her adoptive mother, an extreme member of the Elim Pentecostal Church, whom she calls "Mrs W"; molested by Elim elders and thrown out of her home at 16 for falling in love with another girl. She published a moving memoir Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1985 which instantly made her a (still) famous gay icon.
Like Lebowitz and Paglia, she refuses to be contained by any such packaging. She rejects the fashionable role of feminist victim, remarking sardonically: "Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic."
Like Lebowitz and Paglia, she might at first strike Pope Francis as just another fiery feminist with PC politics. But he would soon realise she is a salty paragon of common sense. "If there's one thing I can't stand it's a hero without a cause. People like that just make trouble so that they can solve it."
Like the other two women, Winterston desires the Dionysian eruption of the erotic into everyday life, despite it's dialectically destructive results: "The truth is that love smashes into your life like an ice floe, and even if your heart is built like the 'Titanic' you go down."
Pope Francis would also appreciate the honesty of her revised 2012 memoir with its blackly comic title (courtesy of the compelling 'Mrs W'): Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
In this second memoir Winterson admits that her birth mother, whom she tracked down, while sweet, was also a bit of a girl's blouse. And acknowledges that it was 'Mrs W's' hard line which helped make her a writer.
How? As the teenage Jeanette watched her mother burn her few books she thought to herself: "Fuck it, I can write my own."
So can Pope Francis. Tough love from Roman Catholic gay men and women will help him write it better. Even with words.