With the 2012 election at its fever pitch, no doubt you’re urgently wondering: “What would Truman Capote think about it all?” This is where I can help you out. And you’ll thank me for it in the end.[i]
In a 1972 interview with himself, Capote asked himself, rather innocuously, “What are your political interests?” Capote tried to dodge the question, launching instead on a ramble about “a few politicians whom [he] liked.” But when T.C. got onto the topic of the Kennedys, T.C. finally interrupted himself—“Do we really have to hear any more about any Kennedy?”—and he made himself answer his original question. Glibly, he replied, “I have none. I’ve never voted. Though, if invited, I suppose I might join almost anyone’s protest parade: Anti-war, Free Angela, Gay Liberation, Ladies’ Lib, etc.”[ii]
You should never entirely believe what Capote said in interviews, but he wasn’t lying when he said he never voted. His biographer Gerald Clarke writes that both Capote and his lover Jack Dunphy boasted all the time about not voting.[iii] Yet Capote never thought voting was pointless. For all his patronizing language, he thoroughly believed in democracy, civil rights, personal freedom, and liberation. He said it enough times in public to mean it, and his writing backs it up.
Still, Capote was hardly a poster boy for the radical left. As he said four years earlier in an interview with Playboy, “I have never considered myself right, left or center. On some issues, such as law enforcement, I do sound like a Birchite: and on others, more like Fidel Castro after two quarts of Appleton’s rum.”[iv] He’s referring to the “Support Your Local Police” movement of the ultra-right, anti-civil-rights John Birch Society, the Tea Party before there was the Tea Party (now the two go on dates together all the time). Having worked so closely with law enforcement while researching In Cold Blood, Capote had a real sense of loyalty to the police. But note that he only “sounds like” a Birchite: he certainly didn’t subscribe to their crazy conspiracies about communists in the White House. Truman loved parties, but he never followed any party line.
Even today, let alone in the volatile years between 1968 and 1972, it is impossible to reconcile the fundamental contradiction between supporting the police and supporting the Free Angela movement. And I think this is exactly why Capote didn’t vote. He wasn’t ducking politics or surrendering to apathy and hedonism (though he did that plenty enough, too). Capote was a consummate newshound, and he was as finely attuned to politics at all levels as any major political pundit or PolySci professor, then or now. What he hated about voting was the way it arguably forced him, as indeed it forces anyone, to commit to a single ideology, to a finite way of thinking. In his mind, voting to support the police would betray his support for Free Angela, and vice versa.
He said as much in the Playboy interview:
I don’t believe there can be any genuinely intelligent approach to a given issue unless one has a great mental flexibility, and the trouble with all these far-right and far-left mentalities is that they can encompass only one side of an argument and are congenitally incapable of holding two opinions in their heads at the same time. Of course, the middle-of-the-roader isn’t always correct, either, because sometimes an extreme left- or right-wing opinion happens to be correct; you have to pick and choose. Anybody who is consistently middle-of-the-road is just another type of extremist; you can’t always straddle the fence.
I’d like to think his zinger at the end could also be aimed at the “undecided voter” today. Undecided voters are unconscionable extremists because politics is anything but a moderate enterprise. If you’re planning to step into the voting booth, then you have to pick a side. And if you’ve managed to avoid picking a side after a solid year of nonstop campaigning, then you’re a dick. But for Capote, picking a side meant endangering the “mental flexibility” that made him such a brilliant writer; it meant sacrificing the ability, or at least the luxury, to “hold two opinions in [his] head at the same time.”
Politics nestles up just fine with duplicity, hypocrisy, and lies, but it doesn’t like duality. Indeed, politics works best when it reduces what it touches to a single purpose or idea, even if that singularity constantly shifts and changes. Whenever we explicitly politicize a thing, or when that politicization is forced on us, we warp the process of signification. We distort the thing’s symbolic meaning and its outward relevance or value by lashing it tightly to the political context, like a hunted deer on the back of a truck. The thing’s moral, spiritual, and sometimes even aesthetic complexity begins to drain away as the political meaning takes over. When you go into a booth to cast a vote, you’re always voting for expediency, not complexity. The twelve-point-buck becomes nothing more than meat and a trophy.
Environmentalists know this all too well. A deer holds value beyond reckoning, but it doesn’t make a very useful political tool. And even when it does, it becomes something less than the whole deer itself. It is impossible to translate a transcendental understanding of life into a workable political platform without losing most of the magic of transcendence.
Some literary critics like Harold Bloom have also made this point. When feminist, queer, non-white, postcolonial, and other liberal-minded critics challenged the elitist notion of “great authors” and started explaining how all texts engage in cultural politics, people like Bloom accused them of cheapening the value of literature and ignoring the importance of style and aesthetics.
With all due respect, that argument’s a load of malarkey. My whole career is about close-reading beautiful books in their social, cultural, and political contexts, works whose “greatness” is amplified, not diminished, by their aesthetic engagement with politics. Yet I do take the point that reducing a text to nothing more than its baseline political “message”—something nobody does anyway—would sell out the richness of any work of the imagination.
That’s the point Capote was trying to make in his interviews, which explains his clever performance of dodging his own question to himself. He could have avoided the issue of politics altogether. But instead, by raising the question and then failing to give an adequate answer, he reminds us of two things. First, politics is unavoidable and important, both in the world and in his writing. He spoke all the time about his opposition to the death penalty (though not for the reasons you’d expect), and you simply can’t ignore that if you want to understand In Cold Blood. Secondly, however, he’s also reminding us that we shouldn’t read his work solely by how it speaks to the issues of his time. Just as Capote could “hold two opinions in [his] mind at the same time,” his writing operates on more than just one level of meaning.
Personally, though, I can’t forgive Capote for not voting. Voting is important. So, to make up for all those elections he skipped, I think we should agree to vote for him. I don’t mean we should all put him down as a write-in candidate—don’t be silly. And I don’t mean we should necessarily vote for the issues he might have supported. Though if you don’t believe that rape babies are God’s gift to slutty women, you need to vote immediately for the closest thing to “Ladies’ Lib” that you can find!
No, I mean that we should all cast our votes on Capote’s behalf. We should vote for him. We should vote in the manner—in the style—in which Capote would have liked us to vote. We have to vote, and we have to vote with style.
Let me explain what I mean by this—and here’s where you’ll thank me. Style is the way we make meaning beyond the simple denotation of a word or symbol. As Capote wrote in a tiny essay entitled “Style: And the Japanese,” style is both the anticipation and the “dread of the explicit, the emphatic—hence the single blade of grass describing a whole universe of summer, the slightly lowered eyes left to suggest the deepest passion.”[v] Style is the way we imbue the smallest detail with a cosmos of meaning that, paradoxically, the detail can never fully contain. This essay is the closest Capote ever got to a frank declaration of his aesthetic and artistic philosophy, and it helps explain why some readers misunderstand his writing as totally superficial.[vi] As Holly Golightly said in her criticism of the narrator’s writing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “Trembling leaves. Description. It doesn’t mean anything.”[vii] Actually, style means everything; it just doesn’t tell you that meaning outright.
This definition of style is also a recipe for voting and living. Voting is nothing if not a foray into the domain of the explicit and emphatic. But if we vote with style, then we can think of our vote as something both smaller and larger than itself at the same time. A vote doesn’t have to be a dull capitulation to a single way of thinking. It can also be a blade of grass, a hint and suggestion of the larger, richer “universe of summer” we hope to live in every day. The trick is not to mistake the blade of grass for the universe itself. Be specific when you vote, but don’t be single-minded. Make sure you vote for the whole summer, not just the grass. Otherwise you’ll find yourself holding that little blade of grass on a prairie of scorched earth.
Like Capote’s “slightly lowered eyes,” your vote is, or ought to be a tiny glimpse into the “deepest passion” you feel for the world. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work and compromise involved, too. You can bat your eyes at the Green Party hunk standing over by the free magazines, but sometimes the closest you’ll get to the passion you want is the less-than-perfect Democrat slouched at the bar. The alternative might be four years with no passion whatsoever. Style is the way you make that passion better.
Style reminds us of value beyond reckoning. Style preserves transcendence and duality. Style is simultaneously moral, spiritual, aesthetic, and political, even—no, especially—when those things contradict each other. Politics without style is just an etch-a-sketch.
It’s pretty easy to guess whom Capote would have supported in the 2012 election. But asking that question misses the point completely. Capote couldn’t give a damn whom you vote for, as long as you vote with style. So when you walk into that polling station, do it with slightly lowered eyes and a blade of grass between your teeth. You can thank me when we win.
[i] If you’re reading this after the election, don’t worry: I’m still here for you.
[ii] Truman Capote, “Self-Portrait,” 1972, reprinted in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (New York: Modern Library, 2008), 303-304.
[iii] Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 310.
[iv] Truman Capote, Interview with Eric Nordan, Playboy 15 (March 1968), reprinted in Truman Capote: Conversations, edited by M. Thomas Inge (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), 143.
[v] Truman Capote, “Style: And the Japanese,” 1955, reprinted in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (New York: Modern Library, 2008), 73.
[vi] See Chris Anderson, “Truman Capote: A Ceremony of Style,” in Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 48-81.
[vii] Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s: A Short Novel and Three Stories, originally published 1958 (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 62.