The July 14 republication of Moise and the World of Reason (the second of the two novels Tennessee Williams ever published, and certainly one of his lesser-known works) is, to an extent, a reminder that even the lesser work by this writer is, if not worth unmitigated praise and canonization, certainly worth reexamining. Its unwavering and explicit gayness was part of what seems to have turned critics off it, or at least — coupled with lightly indulgent and silly postmodern flourishes and a general sense of aimlessness — what sealed the hasty manner in which it was forgotten. Kirkus Reviews, for example, noted that the narrator’s own writing had been rejected as “‘not only filthy with prurience but reek[ing] of self-pity.'” The review went on to state that “it seems apodictically true here.”
Although that brief review prudishly takes issue with exactly what instills vitality into the book, it is not entirely incorrect in its implication of self-reflexivity in the work. Just about anyone who knows anything about Williams’ life, and particularly his family life in Mississippi/Missouri, can identify the autobiographical insinuations across his writing. But this novel seems to speak particularly to the place the author himself was in as a writer when it came out in 1975.
Moise and the World of Reason was penned at a time where critics and audiences had shifted from loving Williams’ work to ignoring it; in their obituary from 1983, the New York Times stated that his 1961 play The Night of the Iguana was his last success. A perceived decline in quality might be attributed to the playwright’s increased alcoholism, drug use and illness following the death of his (likewise substance abusing) lover of 14 years — or, the growing disinterest from audiences and critics could have something to do with the increasing openness about his queerness. If Moise doesn’t wholly satisfy as a book, it has great value as an biographically-adjacent artifact — a fascinating portrait of a writer in crisis portraying himself as two other writers in crisis.
It is also about marginality within an already marginalized group. For here, it seems that Williams examines his own relationship to age, queerness and authorship through two self-surrogate characters — one of whom is a 30-year-old gay man whose lover of 13 years recently died, and the other, closer to Williams’ actual age at the time of publication, embodies the other character’s fears of what he’ll become.
The unnamed narrator is an author who furiously takes notes of everything happening in his life, but anything he has finished has been rejected — he writes, too, on empty bits of rejection letters. The book centers around his relationships to Lance — a black figure skater who died two years ago, and Lance’s best friend (in front of whom they popped each other’s anal “cherries”), the eccentric painter, Moise. But it is his relationship to a man he meets at a party — an ill, older, washed-up, and desperately lonely fur coat-sporting gay playwright with a busted eye whom he comes to disdain — that’s most interesting if examining this work as a piece of auto-fiction. This is exactly how it should be examined: it seemingly sees Williams splitting himself in two and making the younger self horrified and repulsed by the older, whom that character sees as premonitory.
The story in itself is at once simple (in that its main “action” is really a series of arguments and discussions over the course of an evening) and convoluted (in that it’s rife with recollections that split the evening into fragments): the 30-year old writer narrator attends a party at Moise’s apartment with his newish (two years, as opposed to 13) boyfriend Charlie, finds out that Moise is destitute, at the end of her rope, and set on abandoning “the world of reason” to essentially become a cat-lady; he also finds out that the (younger) Charlie is opportunistic and unfaithful; he reminisces on his first love (Lance); and through all of that, he has a chance encounter with the aforementioned playwright. The narrator takes shelter by a theater from a seemingly violent homeless person. Then, the playwright of the show in rehearsal at the Off Broadway theater (the narrator later mercilessly describes him as both “a has-been ” and a “freakish old playwright attempting a comeback at the Truck and Warehouse” [a real place that now incidentally houses the New York Theatre Workshop]) comes storming out, and the sad young writer and the sad old writer end up drinking together.
The tragicness the narrator sees in the playwright is at first subconscious: when the playwright kisses him, the narrator (somewhat comically) immediately starts to cry. Like the narrator, and like Tennessee Williams himself, the playwright reveals that he’s a queer southerner who left home in his teens. He also starts to reveal his codependence on lovers and companions — something the narrator, who speaks of being the rare writer who prefers not writing alone, shares. (He asks the narrator if he might be convinced to become his “travel companion,” and the narrator ponders whether he’s enough of a desperate hustler to agree.) They take a cab together, and the playwright speaks of traveling with assorted companions, until his motivations become very clear when he asks, “You like to travel?” before beginning to “stroke [the narrator] here and there and god knows where…” The narrator rejects the come-on and hops from the cab when they reach the warehouse building in which he lives; the playwright sees his younger doppelgänger’s dilapidated home and says, “Baby, I didn’t know you were dead” — noting that he, too, feels that way, which only imbues the narrator with a greater sense of acrimony towards this flirtatious apparition of his later self.
Later that night — tellingly, just as he’s looking at himself in the mirror (he says, “a thing I do at times when I have a feeling of being unreal,”) — he leaves the bathroom to find the man has broken into his home and is thumbing through his writing on his bed.
The narrator describes the site, saying:
I saw that he was about my height and, Christ, yes, the Cyclops eye was about the same color as my eyes were… a sort of light lettuce green.
And the playwright, it turns out, once again pesters him about becoming his traveling pet, between long monologues about how his plays are being anthologized. The playwright whose old work is lionized enough to be committed to anthology — but as some kind of relic — is perhaps one of the most directly reflective nods to where Williams was at in 1975. Which is why it’s so interesting that the younger Williams surrogate’s response is:
I was rather shocked by the cruelty of my attitude toward this derelict…this icy revulsion I felt for the man who only had the enticements of luxurious foreign travel to offer me in exchange for his intrusion on what was an existence almost as derelict as his own, a difference only in years.
What Williams has done with this strange, messy book is not only mourn his own aging — and perceived diminishing appeal — as a writer, but also as a gay man, and the transition from one form of marginality to two. He suggests an inherent loneliness to the American gay condition of the era due to cultural isolation, and thereby a feeling of a greater, deeper need for love among these two characters. The ephemerality of the fulfillments of that need leads the younger Williams avatar to despise the older one because in him he embodies the vision of the unloved, older queer: a man first unloved by society, and then unloved by the micro-society that society-at-large shunned him for being a part of. Meanwhile, the older playwright — and it’s very worth noting that neither are given names ever in this book — is trying to fulfill a narcissistic fantasy through the young narrator, and the narrator’s cold refusal to play into it seems to be Williams himself penning what it’s like to succumb to isolation and societally-declared obsolescence.
Williams has always been interested in fabrication for survival. In Williams’ most famous works (The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire), Laura Wingfield has created herself an alternate world and Blanche Dubois, respectively, has created herself an alternate self — and one that is so frequently questioned and beaten that as a shield, it completely subsumes her in the world of unreason. Here, the young narrator, who stares into mirrors because he fears he isn’t real (he also says at one point that he fears suddenly seeing “Dorian Grey at the end of his transference from portrait to selfravaged flesh”), seems vaguely metafictionally aware of being a creation meant to embody a writer before (but fearfully on the precipice of) the downward spiral of all the things both age, ageism, and homophobia can do to a career and a life — things that seemed to have been done both to the older playwright character’s life and Tennessee Williams’ own.
Is he a figment of the unnamed older playwright’s imagination as much as the older playwright may be one of his own? The title references the swearing off of the “world of reason” — something that can be said is a choice that Dubois and Wingfield consistently made as survival mechanisms. Moise and the World of Reason entails the portrait of two men (and Moise, but she’s another story) who’ve also sworn off the world of reason and fabricated one another — and both are of course encompassed by Williams’ own fabrications. Authorship is Williams’ — and these characters’ — own glass menagerie.