I’m re-reading American composer Ned Rorem’s diaries from Paris (1951-1955) and New York (1955-1961), after just finishing his jottings and meditations in Facing the Night (in which “Rorem finds himself alone after the death of Jim Holmes, his companion of thirty-two years. Grief-stricken, he struggles to find his way in the world, while seeing his eightieth birthday celebrated nationwide with concerts and programs befitting a celebrity.”).
Alex Ross, writing about Rorem in The New Yorker in Oct. 2003, pretty well sums up my impression of Rorem, whose diaries I’ve been reading since I was 16:
“The oddity of Rorem’s career is that ever since he made his literary début, in 1966, with Paris Diary, he has been known more for his writing than for his music. The writing has an insolence and a swagger that the music lacks. The spectacular self-absorption of the diaries — ‘A stranger asks, “Are you Ned Rorem?” I answer, “No,” adding, however, that I’ve heard of and would like to meet him”‘ — made the young Rorem famous for being famous in his mind. He was, at the same time, a pioneer of modern gay culture, speaking freely and fearlessly of his desires.”
Rorem’s underlying melancholy, which Ross identifies, also seems ubiquitous and sometimes verges into melodrama, the kind of superstitious melodrama I am very familiar with in my own journals, as when he predicts at age 27 that he won’t live long (he’s 84 now):
“Perhaps I write this from fear, knowing that what is written does not occur. I feel that I shall die ‘in a certain way’ before I grow old; I’m not sure of it and don’t want it but I feel it.”
His emphasis on his own aloneness, homelessness, and intactness — “I permit people to think they are ‘communicating’ with me, but they aren’t really ” — is also hauntingly familiar, especially as it’s immediately followed by the sheer honesty of “I need their love, not their complicity.”
In another place, he writes: “I am never with anyone, anyone — but nobody knows, because my barriers are made of glass.” Even now, I can hear this as a comment typical of a naïve youngster, unencumbered and heedless, and yet as the truth about us all.
Reading Rorem at age 16, what pierced my soul was his brash arrogance, feigned and true impatience with the company of others, and sense of himself as superior (in looks if in nothing else), coupled with his gigantic capacity for self-reflection, oftentimes harsh and searing. In the diaries, it seems that he had, and has, nowhere to hide from his own relentless observations. Even when drunk for days, engaging in hundreds of one-night stands, in the diverting throes of falling in love, travelling to and fro, attending numerous dinner parties, and so on, he can’t escape and he knows it. This reality of no-escape was something I had discovered by the time I was 10 but I had rarely heard anyone else speak so truthfully and unapologetically about it. It was and is a relief to read Rorem.
As a composer, although he’s written symphonies, concerti, and string quartets, he’s best known for his ‘art songs,’ in which he sets poems to music (including Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”); as Ross says, he has an “uncanny ability to breathe notes into words while leaving a poet’s thoughts intact.”
Some lines that strike me so far from this reading of his Paris diary:
“One New York evening long ago, at Virgil Thomson’s with Maurice Grosser and Lou Harrison, the four of us planned to dine in, and as the maid was absent, we proposed preparing the meal ourselves. So everyone bustled about. Everyone but me. I stood around inefficiently not knowing how to behave. (I’ve always disliked domestic cooperation.)” (Paris, 1951)
“Still, I’m capable of arguing any view or its opposite, depending on whom I’m trying to persuade what to.” (Paris, 1951)
“I feel he is drawn to me, and as I consider this a weakness, I become bored.” (Hyères, 1951)
“Later we had a long whimsical talk on the nature of family structure, with the kind of fresh and precipitating inspiration that comes after vomiting.” (Hyères, 1951)
“Julien [Green] says that his idea of Paradise is to be alone in a room full of nothing but beautiful statues. And I, being American, quite understand the fear of all that is flesh.” (Hyères, 1951)
“Last night we had a bouillabaisse which I couldn’t touch because of the terror in its preparation. The secret is to throw live sea creatures into a boiling pot. And we saw a lobster who, while turning red in his death, reached out a claw to snatch and gobble a dying crab. Thus in this hot stew of the near-dead and burning, one expiring fish swallows another expiring fish while the cook sprinkles saffron onto the squirming.” (Hyères, 1951)
“Being myself a coward, a cheat, a weak-kneed opportunist, stingy and dishonest — I despise these things. Yet I have scant respect for courage and find that nine times out of ten it’s the result of dullness or vanity.” (Hyères, 1951)
“When I was younger, I was scared by my loss of conversation at a party; that is still why I drink; though I find that if I begin discussing crime everyone becomes interested.” (Fez, Morocco, 1951)
He describes someone as “depressing all the same, since he would like to save the world, and this is something I generally try not to think about.” (Paris, 1951)
“My passivity was always stronger than other people’s aggression.” (Marrakech, Morocco, 1952)
“I suppose this is why I keep a diary (or let myself by painted, fornicated, led into foreign countries). Fear of being forgotten is so compulsive I’d like to be remembered for each time I go to the bathroom, and I’d even prefer not to go alone.” (Paris, 1952)
“I’ll always be the prodigal son as long as I live away from America, and landmarks, any arms I find along the way, are just substitute’s for Father’s. Unfortunately arms are a comfort only when they are being a comfort (that is the present); one cannot go about daily chores handicapped by a pair of open arms.” (Paris, 1952)
“The force of a dictator (as of a saint) lies in the absence of personal libido; not caring, he can focus equally on everyone.” (Germany, 1953 or 1954)
(Photo of Facing the Night book cover from official Ned Rorem website.)