Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Radetzky March

There are occasions when a queer character will barely announce his/her spectral presence in a modern novel—with a handful of standardised clues—before vanishing without trace of person or purpose. Lieutenant Kindermann in Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932) is one such. Carl Joseph, the novel’s central character, finds him ‘more reassuring than the rest’ of his fellow officers, because he is less obviously militaristic than they. Indeed, his presence is undemonstrative almost to the point of invisibility:

He consisted of a blond, rosy, transparent substance; one could almost have reached through him as through an airy haze in evening sunlight. Everything he said was airy and transparent and was breathed from his being without diminishing him.

He is a ‘cheerful nonentity’ with a ‘high voice’ which, in contrast with the baritone of one of his colleagues, ‘sounded like a gentle zephyr grazing a harp’. His equivocal way of speaking extends, also, to the unmilitary softness of his vocabulary and his gestures:

Kindermann, ever intent on making up for his scant interest in women by feigning a special attentiveness to them, announced, ‘And his wife—do you know her?—a charming creature, a delight!’ And at the word delight he raised his hand, his limp fingers capering in the air.

But when contact with women threatens to become too intimate he falters. Caught up in a drunken regimental visit to a brothel, he cannot hide his agitation, which extends to physical illness:

Kindermann felt faint whenever he smelled naked women; the female sex nauseated him. Major Prohaska had stood in the toilet, earnestly striving to thrust his stubby finger down Kindermann’s throat.

As the seductions begin, ‘Lieutenant Kindermann blanched. He was whiter than the powder on the girls’ shoulders’.
And that is just about it. He has hardly any further role to play in the novel. Just once, a couple of chapters later, when Carl Joseph is feeling ill while on the parade ground after witnissing a fatal duel, Kindermann takes out ‘a coquettish pocket mirror’ to hold up to his eyes so that he can see how pale he looks. If one can isolate any single narrative purpose in the brief existence of this character, it is to identify Carl Joseph, by contrast, as not being queer. Unimpressed by the militaristic bluster of his colleagues, a bit of a loner, and one who hardly associates with women at all, even in the brothel scene—although he does later have a rather sketchily outlined affair with an older woman—at least Carl Joseph is not the kind of man who carries a mirror about his person.

[Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March (London: Penguin, 2000), pp.68, 73-74, 75, 110.]

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Miss Lonelyhearts

One among many grotesque incidents in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) occurs in the chapter called ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the clean old man’. After getting drunk in a speakeasy, the book’s eponymous central character, who works as a newspaper’s agony aunt, staggers into a park with his friend Ned Gates to get some fresh air. In the park’s ‘comfort station’ they encounter an old man sitting on the closed lid of one of the toilets. Gates sings ‘If you can’t get a woman, get a clean old man’ and they drag him out into the park. His fear and passivity excite them: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts fought off a desire to hit him’. They now take him drinking and insist on his telling the story of his life. When he demurs, Gates says, ‘We’re scientists. He’s Havelock Ellis and I’m Krafft-Ebing. When did you first discover homosexualistic tendencies in yourself?’ The old man becomes indignantly defensive and tries to strike Miss Lonelyhearts with his cane, but Gates disarms him.
            This moment of violence appeals to Miss Lonelyhearts’ sadism: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts felt as he had felt years before, when he had accidentally stepped on a small frog. Its spilled guts had filled him with pity, but when its suffering had become real to its senses, his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead’. He now takes over the interrogation from Gates, going at it with fresh enthusiasm, and when Gates suggests they stop because ‘The old fag is going to cry’, Miss Lonelyhearts replies, ‘No, Krafft-Ebing, sentiment must never be permitted to interfere with the probings of science’. The old man does, indeed, start crying and when he refuses to tell his story, Miss Lonelyhearts begins violently twisting his arm. Only when somebody hits Miss Lonelyhearts with a chair does he desist from tormenting the man.
            To locate what ‘humour’ there is in this scene from a ‘comic novel’, one has to distinguish firstly between ‘jokes’ and then between the audiences which can plausibly be expected to find them ‘funny’. Gates and Miss Lonelyhearts are enjoying themselves at the expense of homosexuals and sexologists; even, perhaps, of science as a whole. It may be that the author is having the same laughs. There is no obvious indication of his distance from his characters here.

[Nathanael West, Miss Lonelihearts and A Cool Million (Harmondswoth: Penguin, 1961), pp.24-26.]

Monday, 9 September 2013


[This is an item I first published in Anon 2 (2004), pp.46-48.]

I sometimes think I should write every poem of mine as if it were an anonymous letter, deceitful and wounding, swift to the point, stark in message but in voice undependable: ventriloquistic, plagiaristic and synthetic.  It should arrive in the hands of the reader as if slipped under her door late at night by a malicious hand.  Anonymous never takes the blame.  The rest of us have to account for our failings.

Anonymous was a woman veiling her gender, a homosexual expressing his sexuality through the gag of social convention, a radical dissembling her dissidence, an aristocrat holding himself aloof from the sway, a libeller ducking responsibility for the forthrightness of his views, or just a shrinking violet, modest to the point of invisibility.  Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’.  Marilyn Hacker wrote in 1978, ‘Women and other radicals who choose / venerable vessels for subversive use / affirm what Sophomore Survey often fails / to note: God and Anonymous are not white males’.

As for me, I like to think it was the same Anonymous who wrote ‘Sumer is icumen in’ and ‘There was a young lady from Exeter’.  Prolific and haphazard, Anonymous’s genius is too mercurial to pin down.  Like Ariel, Anon can change his gender and finesse her way through the confining walls of definitions and categories.  How can we ever attack him, when she is invisible?   Yet how can we grant him more than the marginal status of her virtual absence?  It will never be possible to love his work as a whole, since we can never be sure she wrote it, or that his later work is by the same hand as her juvenilia.  Besides, isn’t there always something deceitful about Anonymous?  Does she really imagine we can trust him?

When I.A. Richards handed out poems to his students at Cambridge in the 1920s, but withheld the names of the poets, he was famously horrified by what he regarded as the ignorance of their responses.  They slated poems by John Donne, D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins, preferring the work of poetasters little known then, let alone now.  Richards wrote up his findings in Practical Criticism (1929), thereby initiating a whole new trend in university teaching and examining.  For decades it became common practice to withhold information about poets and their societies while discussing their poems.  The central plank of the New Criticism of the 1950s was that the poem must and does work in isolation.  Biography and social context were irrelevant, impertinent; as was the writer’s other work.  To read a poem without knowing the poet’s name was to see it in its purest condition.  And to be able to infer the poet’s name from nothing but the poem was the skill literature students were expected to acquire.

Today, the poems submitted to this magazine, Anon, are to be assessed under similar conditions, isolated from context.  In terms of the judging of merit, this means isolated from prejudice—which can only be a good thing.  The poem must speak for itself.

The benefits of this innovation are obvious to those of us who work in universities and routinely mark essays and exams with the names of the students concealed.  It is obvious that this helps us avoid prejudging the work, for whatever reason.  Yet in the refined world of poetry magazines, the principle of anonymous selection is considered revolutionary.  Perhaps it intimidates the famous, or others who imagine themselves famous enough—and therefore good enough as poets—never to be rejected.  If so, let them be intimidated; they need to be. The rest of us will take our chances alongside everyone else.  If the process scares us, perhaps it will force us to write better poems.  If that proves impossible, rejection is what we deserve.  Nothing is to be gained from a system that rewards poets for their names rather than the self-evident quality of their work.

Opportune Immunity

[This is the proposal for an essay I have been meaning to write, 'Opportune Immunity: AIDS and the American Canon'.]

There is no reference to AIDS in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990).  It does not ‘matter’ that there is none, but what, if anything, does it ‘mean’?  Some readers might be tempted to suggest that a novel set in 1984 with a major character who is a hooker ought to have registered in some way the existence of the epidemic or of safer sex; or, indeed, that a novel purporting to—or reviewed as if it did—look at the changing state of the Union since Vietnam should show some sign of knowledge that AIDS was an important, burgeoning event in the nation’s literal and figurative health.  Moreover, as a connoisseur of the conspiracy theory, Pynchon might have found theories of the origins of AIDS pertinent to the development of his typical interest in paranoid plots.
           Thinking along the same hypothetical lines, one could ask: what ever became of the scathing Gore Vidal essay about the Reagan state’s negligence?  Where was the Norman Mailer exposé of the same?  Where was the William Burroughs novel about AIDS being just another aspect of viral take-over?  As many have been asking for many years now, we might ask of the canonical American novelists, what did you do in the AIDS war, daddy?  Interviewing Vidal in 1992, Larry Kramer had the temerity to say: ‘You’ve not spoken too much about AIDS’.  Vidal replied: ‘I’m not a hand-wringer.  If I don’t have anything useful to say, what am I to say?  It’s a terrible thing.  Of course it is.  AIDS hasn’t come to me closely except in my own family’.  (His nephew, the painter Hugh Steers, had been diagnosed HIV-positive eight years previously.) [Larry Kramer, ‘The Sadness of Gore Vidal’, in Gore Vidal, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1999), pp.255-256.]
Ronald Reagan was justifiably much criticised for ignoring the AIDS epidemic, which began—and began to flourish—on his watch.  But what of the straight, white, male dinosaurs of the American fictional canon?  Given their secure reputations for accurate and wide-ranging portrayals of contemporary American society, it may be worth checking on their progress in this respect by considering how they responded, in their novels, to the first two decades of the AIDS epidemic.  In contrast with prominent gay writers (Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer, etc.), heterosexual male writers had a much more patchy record in even commenting on, let alone grappling with the detail of, a crisis which once threatened to wreak major demographic and cultural changes across the Republic.
Looking at both passing references to AIDS and much fuller developments of the epidemic’s effects on individuals as well as on the broader society, the essay will consider passages in the following nine major State-of the States novels: Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Joseph Heller, Closing Time (1994), John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), Saul Bellow, The Actual (1997), Don Delillo, Underworld (1997), Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997), Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (1998), Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (2000) and E.L. Doctorow, City of God (2000).
AIDS appears most often in these texts as a sign of the times, typically alongside such other social indicators as urban graffiti, soaring crime rates and visible homelessness.  The epidemic tends to be mentioned merely for the purposes of dating and locating a given narrative—dating it at the apocalyptic fin de siècle and locating it in the hellish city of postmodernity.  AIDS hardly exists in human terms in these novels, but functions instead as a symbolic indicator of the consequences of free-market Reaganomics; or else, as in Bellow’s Ravelstein, the personal account of a friend’s illness and death is almost completely divorced from the social context of the most social epidemic of recent times.

Other Avenues

An information pack entitled How to Get Your Poetry Published, circulated by the Poetry Society, contains the following gem of practical advice under the heading ‘Other Avenues’:

Alternative publishing.  If your work is all on one theme (e.g. gay or lesbian poetry, Christian poetry, Environment poetry) then you should look for publication in the relevant scene rather than in the poetry press, for instance Onlywomen Press or the SPCK.

This ignorant dismissal of gay or lesbian poetry as being ‘all on one theme’, and the relegation of such obsessively narrow writing to the margins, where writers cannot even expect to get published, let alone be received with respect, is not by any means an untypical approach.  The fact is that the British poetry scene is reactionary, nostalgic and prejudiced.  The reputations of many of its star turns depend on an exclusivity that maintains an embargo on true diversity.  Experimentalism is beyond the pale, as is pretty much anything that amounts to a conviction.  As for ‘Christian poetry’ and ‘Environment poetry’—so much for John Donne, so much for Wordsworth.  Let them peddle their narrow obsessions from the margins and be ignored. 
When gay poetry does make it on to a mainstream list, it continues to be reviewed as if it should not have been allowed there at all.  My own first collection, We Have the Melon (Carcanet, 1992), was reviewed in the February 1993 issue of Envoi by Eddie Wainwright.  Having described the book as consisting of ‘a certain brand of male homosexual sex poetry’, but without naming the brand or showing any sign that he knew of other brands, he speculated: ‘I suppose somebody will call this kind of writing a celebration of something or other’.  Even when conceding that I display ‘a good deal of skill with words and poetic forms’, he had to add that ‘what is in question is the cause which such skills serve’.
Quoting Thom Gunn—‘I recommend this book to everyone’—Wainwright disagrees: ‘I would have thought it was unlikely to stimulate the sympathies of those who do not share its narrow focus’.  The phrase ‘stimulate the sympathies’, with its suggestion of a diddling finger or masturbating hand, is Wainwright’s way of trivialising not only the writing but also the reading of gay poetry.  The suggestion is that a poet like me writes pornography, and that the only kind of reader who could possibly like my poetry is one who masturbates to it—necessarily, therefore, a gay man.  But not only that: a gay man with no interest in poetry itself.  The only way to appreciate this muck is with an ejaculation.  For my part, I have no objection to that mode of reading; I merely believe there are many other ways into my books.  Yes, there are even portals broad enough for the dull-witted heft of the heterosexual male.  (Or for that rare type represented by Wainwright, the only type of reader he seems to be reviewing for.)
A recent review of Robert Hamberger’s latest book begins: ‘The Smug Bridegroom is a collection of poems about the disintegration of a marriage and family life and the establishment of a new and entirely different relationship.’  At no point in the review that follows can the reviewer bring himself to mention that this new relationship is ‘entirely different’ (as opposed to just different?) because it is gay.  In poems of great subtlety and technical finesse, and without unneeded ostentation or concealment, Hamberger gives as clear an insight into love’s routines and surprises as I have recently seen in any British poetry.  Mind you, the back-cover blurb of the book itself does no better: it speaks only of ‘the break-up of marriage and renewal of hope’.  The publisher, Five Leaves Press, evidently feels no one will buy it if they know it is gay.  And perhaps he is right.  I am reminded of the blurbs on video/DVD boxes.  Even films with major gay themes are presented as if no such themes were there, lest nobody should want to buy or rent them.  Pink pound or not, queerness is still uncommercial.  (By today’s standards, that means immoral.)  Maybe the poetry market really is currently so depressed that one needs to pander to the prejudiced in order to survive.  In my experience, booksellers like Waterstone’s cannot decide which is going to be the greater turn-off for their customers: to put a book in the gay section (if they have one) or in the poetry section.
In a mad review of my last collection The District Commissioner’s Dreams (Carcanet, 2002) in the London Magazine, John Greening wrote, ‘I suppose a Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies has a professional obligation to write about these things, but I’d have welcomed a few poems about trees or fly-fishing’.  The information about my job does not appear in the book under review, so Greening has imported it from elsewhere in order to use it against my poetry.  Quite what he imagines my professional duties as consisting of is not clear—writing poetry is certainly not a part of them—but my job serves his purposes as a sign of incomprehensible apartness.  The idea that gay experience might have something to teach us all—indeed, the vast majority of my students are heterosexual—does not even remotely occur to him.  It is not his experience, so he is not interested.  (Presumably, he has never understood the point of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary or Hedda Gabler because he is not a suicidal adulteress.)  Yet his own hobbies—he being heterosexual and male—are so universal as to be a required topic in any decent literature.  (Presumably, he just skims through Tolstoy and Flaubert and Ibsen, sniffing for a whiff of fish.)  Complacently assuming the rank accorded to majority status, he cannot imagine that what interests him does not interest the world—and the topics he values are therefore those that are valuable.  This is the purely statistical version of how to measure literary worth.  The problem is, of course, that even his statistical understanding is suspect.  I am willing to bet you that far more men on this planet have sex with other men than fish for fish with flies.
I try to imagine myself reading John Greening’s very best poem about fly-fishing—if such a poem exists—and complaining that, well-crafted though it might be, it was no good because it lacked any gay sex.  What is the matter with such people?  Can they really not bear to read about things from beyond the narrow limits of their own experience?  Do their editors not care that this should disqualify them from reviewing at all?  It is as if the cosiness expected of English poetry cannot sustain the sheer seriousness—the problem—of queerness.  Imagine the cultural consequences—going back to How to Get Your Poetry Published—of a national poetry scene that routinely excludes lesbian/gay work, Christian work and environmentalist work, purely by identification of their topic.  The implications for our literature are serious, to say the least.
Given this atmosphere within the poetry market, it is hardly surprising that those who police the reputations of individual writers tend to try to prevent their being limited by the lesbian or gay label.  In 1988 Carl Morse and Joan Larkin failed to get permission to include Elizabeth Bishop in their monumental Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988).  In 1995 Faber & Faber refused David Laurents permission to print W.H. Auden’s poem ‘A Day for a Lay’ in The Badboy Book of Erotic Poetry  (New York: Badboy, 1995) and the Auden estate actually threatened to sue if he went ahead, even though the poem is readily available on the internet.  In 1997 Random House refused Neil Powell permission to use any Auden poems in Gay Love Poetry (London: Robinson, 1997).  And in 1998 the literary executor refused Gillian Spraggs permission to publish work by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland in Love Shook My Senses: Lesbian Love Poems (London: Women’s Press, 1998).
The point is that the owners of such literature do not want their property to be reduced in value.  And for a writer to be labelled ‘a gay writer’ or ‘a lesbian writer’ is almost always taken as a reduction in value.  John Lucas has said of the fact that, in Gay Times, Alan Sinfield once called me ‘the foremost gay poet working in Britain’, such labelling of writers ‘is to guarantee that they’re pushed to the shady side of the street, especially when … the description itself comes from a gay newspaper, so that the street may seem to lead straight to the ghetto’ (The Dark Horse, Winter 2001-2002).  As Susan Sontag once said to Edmund White, ‘Surely you don’t want to be just a gay writer.  Don’t you want to hit the big time?’
What I am addressing here is a question of the ownership of that tattered commodity the ‘universal’.  Is it universally available or not?  The case of Thom Gunn gives us a pretty clear answer.  Gunn’s reputation went into decline in the UK during the middle period of his career.  This was partly because he became too Californian in Moly (1971)—too much free verse, too many free attitudes—but also because he then became openly gay in Jack Straw’s Castle (1976) and The Passages of Joy (1982).  His gayness was treated in British reviews, when it was acknowledged at all, as just another Californian distraction from the serious business, and the serious topics, of poetry.  But his stock then rose dramatically when The Man with Night Sweats (1992) was published.  Now that it involved AIDS, his gayness was no longer trivial.  It became palatable at last: for, as I am constantly finding in literary criticism, gay deaths can be identified with by straight men, but gay love can not.
This tendency may also help to explain why Mark Doty’s openly gay poetry has been subjected to surprisingly little Greening-like resistance in Britain.  Doty’s is a world in which nothing is so earthy that it cannot be compared to a precious ornament.  His sensuousness is aestheticised to the verge of pure theory.  The fact that he writes so impressively about his relationship with his male lover is rendered acceptable by the context of AIDS and mourning.  The English poetic tradition finds elegy attractive, once the loved man is dying or dead and therefore rendered harmless.
How to Get Your Poetry Published refers to ‘other avenues’ available to lesbian and gay poets, but the fact is that no such avenues exist, other than on-line.  There is a lot of gay and lesbian poetry on the internet—more than we have ever seen before—but there are no consistently reliable sites showcasing the best of such work. The development of the net has both hindered and helped.  But, in truth, gay magazines and periodicals in Britain have not been publishing verse for many years.  The cultural journal perversions (1994-1996) could have carried poetry but never did.  The European Gay Review (1986-1992) only published work by anyone famous enough for its editor to have heard of them; this restricted the field.  I did once manage to infiltrate a poem, ‘The Fire Raiser’ into London’s gay newspaper Capital Gay, but only because it was about an arson attack on the premises of Capital Gay itself.  Before that, the editors of the much-lamented Square Peg did not appear to believe poetry could ever be trendy enough to fit in with their admirably experimentalist ethos, but they did occasionally overcome their scruples on this point.
There has not been a consistently enthusiastic outlet for gay and lesbian verse in Britain since Gay News, under the literary editorship of Alison Hennegan.  I remember, in particular, regularly seeing the work of Ivor Treby and James Kirkup.  Ironically, of course, it was poetry that more or less finished off Gay News when, in 1977, Mary Whitehouse took exception to Kirkup’s fatuous poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’ and made sure that the newspaper was prosecuted for ‘blasphemous libel’.  Sad to say, the poem was not worth the eventual effect of its publication—the killing off of the country’s main outlet for gay verse (and many other things besides).
            No gay poetry publishing houses have survived.  The Oscars Press came and went, publishing chapbooks by new poets and a sequence of impressive anthologies.  Oscars luminaries included Peter Daniels, Steve Anthony and Christina Dunhill.  (Brilliance Books flared up briefly, too, but although they were daring, they had never had the nerve to publish verse.  Nor did the short-lived Heretic Books and The Trouser Press.)  In the 1980s the Gay Men’s Press used to put out two-poet collections, under the poetry editorship of Martin Humphries, but the series was discontinued for economic reasons.  I remember being especially, enviously impressed by Steve Cranfield’s collection, which Humphries sensibly paired with his own in 1989.  For a while it seemed that there was a thriving gay poetry scene, if only in London.  Of course, some of our most promising writers have been lost to AIDS.  The very best of the Oscars poets was Adam Johnson.  His posthumous Collected Poems were published this year by Carcanet Press.
Yet there are still plenty of gay poets around.  Carcanet alone publishes a number of them, besides myself, including David Kinloch, John Gallas and Roger Finch; Edwin Morgan and John Ashbery; Edward Lucie-Smith and Neil Powell.  Elsewhere, Lee Harwood continues to produce some of the most impressively sidelong takes on both male relationships and on verse itself.  The most well-known of the new generation of Irish-language gay poets is Cathal Ó Searcaigh.  And there is always the venerable Thom Gunn.  His last collection, Boss Cupid (2000), struck me as more impressive, even, than The Man with Night Sweats.  The whole book crackles with disturbing splicings of the erotic and the deadly.  Who could forget Gunn’s grim variation on the carpe diem entreaty, expressed from the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s point of view: ‘love must be ensnared while on the run, / For later it will spoil’?
Before Andrew Motion was appointed Poet Laureate in 1999, two lesbian poets, U.A. Fanthorpe and Carol Ann Duffy, were spoken of as strong candidates.  Jackie Kay, too, was occasionally mentioned.  From its dedication (‘For Rosie as always’) onwards, Fanthorpe’s latest collection, Queueing for the Sun (Peterloo, 2000) wanders gently back and forth between the first persons singular and plural, with the effect of extending the refined subjectivity of an alert and sensitive poet’s mind to the shared experiences of loving togetherness.  In this respect, her ‘we’ reminds me of that of Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazil-based poems she dedicated to the woman she loved.
Gay poetry has been relatively under-researched by literary academics.  Although there have been books on individual authors, as far as I know there have been no accounts of Anglophone gay poetry in general since Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (University of Texas Press, 1979) and my own Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (Yale, 1987).  However, the Australian academic Paul Knobel is now writing a history of gay poetry.  Until that is finished, we have his Encyclopedia of Male Homosexual Poetry and Its Reception History (2002), a very wide-ranging CD-Rom (available from Homo Poetry, P.O. Box 672, Edgecliff, New South Wales, Australia 2027).

 [This essay was first published in Magma 27 (Autumn 2003), pp.22-26.]

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Queering the Modern

[My last gay studies course, Queering the Modern, ended in January 2013. I used this anthology of quotations to give students an idea of the context and potential scope of the course. I think it makes an interesting narrative in itself.] 

(All of these quotations are taken out of context.  They are included here, not as complete arguments in themselves, but to give a flavour of debates taking place within the period of this module.)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in The Descent of Man (1871):
‘Man with all his noble qualities ... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.’

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900):
‘God is dead: but considering the state the species Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown.’

Karl Marx (1818-1883):
‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’

Károly Mária Kertbeny (1824-1882), writing in 1869:
‘In addition to the normal sexual urge in men and women, Nature in her sovereign mood had endowed at birth certain male and female individuals with the homosexual urge, thus placing them in a sexual bondage which renders them physically and psychically incapable—even with the best intention—of normal erection.  This urge creates in advance a direct horror of the opposite sex, and the victim of this passion finds it impossible to suppress the feeling which individuals of his own sex exercise upon him.’
[This passage, translated from the German, contains the first published use of the term ‘homosexual’ (‘Homosexuel’).]

Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx (22 June 1869):
The paederasts are beginning to count themselves and find that they make up a power in the state.  Only the organization is lacking, but according to this [Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ booklet Incubus] it already exists in secret … It is only luck that we are personally too old to have to fear that on the victory of this party we must pay the victors bodily tribute.  But the young generation!’

John Addington Symonds, A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891):
‘If we cannot alter your laws, we will go on breaking them.’

Oscar Wilde, on trial in 1895, referring to letters he had written to Lord Alfred Douglas:
‘“The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare.  It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.  It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are.  It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now.  It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection.  There is nothing unnatural about it.  It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, where the elder has intellect and the younger has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.  That it should be so, the world does not understand.  The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’

Oscar Wilde:
‘The world is slowly growing more tolerant and one day men will be ashamed of their barbarous treatment of me, as they are now ashamed of the torturings of the Middle Ages.’

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), speaking of his lover, George Merrill:
‘On one occasion he was standing at the door of our cottage, looking down the garden brilliant in the sun, when a missionary sort of man arrived with a tract and wanted to put it in his hand.  “Keep your tract,” said George.  “I don’t want it.”  “But don’t you wish to know the way to heaven?” said the man.  “No I don’t,” was the reply, “can you see that we’re in heaven here—we don’t want any better than this, so go away!”  And the man turned and fled.’

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935):
‘Beneath the duality of sex there is a oneness.  Every male is potentially a female and every female potentially a male.  If a man wants to understand a woman, he must discover the woman in himself, and if a woman would understand a man, she must dig in her own consciousness to discover her own masculine traits.’

Futurist Manifesto, written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1909):
‘We will destroy museums, libraries, and fight against moralism, feminism, and all utilitarian cowardice. […] We will glorify war—the only true hygiene of the world—[and] the beautiful ideas which kill.’

Henry Ford (1863-1947):
‘History is more or less bunk.  It’s tradition.  We don’t want tradition.  We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.’ (Chicago Tribune, 25 May 1916)

James Joyce (1882-1941), in Ulysses, referring to the character Stephen Dedalus, based on himself:
‘“History,” Stephen said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”’ 

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), volume one (1930):
‘From the moment Ulrich set foot in engineering school, he was feverishly partisan.  Who still needed the Apollo Belvedere when he had the new forms of a turbodynamo or the rhythmic movements of a steam engine’s pistons before his eyes!’

Le Corbusier (1887-1965):
‘A house is a machine for living in.’

Mina Loy, ‘Feminist Manifesto’ (November 1914):
‘Men & women are enemies, with the enmity of the exploited for the parasite, the parasite for the exploited ... [T]he first self-enforced law for the female sex, as a protection against the man made bogey of virtue, which is the principal instrument of her subjection, would be the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity throughout the female population at puberty ... For the harmony of the race, each individual should be the expression of an easy & ample interpenetration of the male & female temperaments—free of stress.’

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941):
‘Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.’

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965):
‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in Sodome et Gomorrhe I, 1921:
‘I have thought it as well to utter here a provisional warning against the lamentable error of proposing ... to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom.  For, no sooner had they arrived there than the Sodomites would leave the town so as not to have the appearance of belonging to it, would take wives, keep mistresses in other cities where they would find, incidentally, every diversion that appealed to them.  They would repair to Sodom only on days of supreme necessity, when their own town was empty, at those seasons when hunger drives the wolf from the woods; in other words, everything would go on very much as it does to-day in London, Berlin, Rome, Petrograd or Paris.’

René Crevel (1900-1935) in La Mort Difficile (1926):
‘As long as people think it’s a vice, as long as they are looking for an amusing spectacle or at the very least an assortment of strange quirks which it is their pleasure to judge reprehensible but rare, like Oscar Wilde’s orchids, then the reaction is one of respectful interest.  But let someone come along whose sufferings in love are not betrayed by comical eccentricities or increased either by social persecution or the threat of prison or the dictates of fashion, but a man whose sufferings are wordless and quietly eat him up inside, people who were hoping for outlandish scenes, spicy anecdotes, scandalous gossip, will never forgive the commonplace simplicity of such a passion.’

André Breton (1896-1966) in his magazine Surrealist Revolution in 1928:
‘I accuse the homosexuals of affronting human tolerance with a mental and moral defect that tends to advocate itself as a way of life and paralyze every enterprise I respect.  I make exceptions, one of which I grant to the incomparable Marquis de Sade.’

Colette (1873-1954) in The Pure and the Impure (1932, 1941):
‘The seduction emanating from a person of uncertain or dissimulated sex is powerful.’

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), on visiting an exhibition of children’s drawings:
‘When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.’

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971):
‘My music is best understood by children and animals.’  (October 1961)

Walt Disney (1901-1966):
‘Girls bored me—they still do.  I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I’ve ever known.’

Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937):
‘When we have found how the nucleus of atoms are built-up we shall have found the greatest secret of all—except life.  We shall have found the basis of everything—of the earth we walk on, of the air we breathe, of the sunshine, of our physical body itself, of everything in the world, however great or however small—except life.’

Albert Einstein (1879-1955):
‘When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second.  When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour.  That’s relativity.’

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973):
‘The genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima.’

Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948):
‘The world is not divided into sheep and goats.  Not all things are black nor all things white.  It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories.  Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes.  The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.  The sooner we learn this concerning sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.’

In a public discussion at the Western Round Table in 1949, arguing against Modernism in the visual arts, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright asked ‘if this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly, or is greatly, in debt to homosexualism’.  In response, the artist Marcel Duchamp agreed that this had probably been the case, but he clearly felt that modern art was all the better for it.  He added: ‘I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest [in] or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual.’

André Gide (1869-1951):
‘It is better to be hated for what one is than loved for what one is not.’

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953):
Wade says to Marlowe: ‘The queer is the artistic arbiter of our age, chum. The pervert is the top guy now.’

Friday, 19 July 2013

Gregory Woods: An Interview

[Andrés Lomeña, “Entrevista con Gregory Woods”, Cronopis (Barcelona: Universidad autónoma de Barcelona, May 2007). My History of Gay Literature was translated as Historia de la Literatura Gay (Madrid: Akal, 2001).]

1)   You develop a fascinating route across male homosexual literature with your History of Gay Literature. From Catullus, Virgil or Horace to Marcel Proust, we have a western gay tradition, hushed up, hidden. I guess your work has been controversial, but you fill a huge gap of literary studies. What other gaps should we cover? (For example: lesbian, post-colonial, black or mestizo literature.)

Canons are exclusive by definition (that is why they are useful) yet they are never beyond reproach, and they are never static.  But if there are gaps, how should we seek to fill them?  Socially or aesthetically?  Do we need literature that will encourage an egalitarian society, or do we need magnificent books?  (Some books, but few, can perform both these functions.)  People tend to complain about canons as if they were imposing impossible demands upon the reader, whereas, in fact, by being rigorously selective, they help the reader to avoid reading books that might be a waste of time.  In this sense, they are generous and sympathetic, rather than punitive, to the reader who has not read everything.

2)   You invite us to go over our cultural history. A new canon might redefine our conception about authors and masterpieces. For example, the feminist canon introduces new writers. However, when we construct a feminist canon, we are implicitly accepting the “Western” canon (as Harold Bloom showed us, for instance), the establishment. Would it not be better to reintroduce minority discourses (gay and lesbian studies) within the universal canon?

The smallest minority is that of the individual reader.  I have no objection to her being taught, or given access to, the ‘great books’ of the Western canon, so long as she is also taught that the canon always serves particular interests in society, and always occludes others.  The canon must be supplemented by guidance on its alternatives.  It may be that each reader needs several canons, sequentially or simultaneously: an aesthetic one, a social one, a traditional one, an experimental one...  Perhaps more than ever, now that the book is said to be under threat from screen-based visual cultures, the main use of a canon is to encourage selective and intelligent reading.  This may be conservative or it may be radical; but it is more likely to be the latter, since true intelligence always seeks to change things for the better, rather than to accept them as being unchangeable.

3)   You are explicit declaring your homosexuality in your book. As far as I am concerned, I think that is a honest proposal, splendidly managed by Adrienne Rich´s poetry. On the other hand, it seems a requirement (I should introduce myself as a heterosexual reader). I have the feeling that we mark people as a function of their sexual or economical condition (or whatever: I’m thinking about vegetarian people and their ideas). For example, thinkers cannot explain the work of Michel Foucault putting aside his homosexuality. How could we avoid this prejudicial approach? Is that impulse of transparency strictly necessary for sincere dialogues?

There can be no fixed rules about such matters.  At the present moment in the struggle, we can see that lesbian and gay visibility has been politically useful; but it has also taken its toll on those who have acted as representative homosexuals in the public eye.  We should not have to be advertisements for ourselves.  Today I want to be invisible, tomorrow I want to impose my queerness on a mass audience.  Today I want to be celibate, tomorrow I want to be a promiscuous slut.  As Walt Whitman said: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.

4)   Donna Haraway’s Queer Theory or Cyborg Manifesto talks about the abolition of binaries (masculine/feminine, and so on). I usually have trouble understanding this postmodern language. So, what does it mean to us in a real context? How can we live overcoming our biological and cultural barriers?

The main route to breaking down these crude systems is the treatment of other human beings as individuals rather than types.  This is much easier said than done—but then so were Chastity and Obedience, in a previous moral code.  It involves dedication and generosity, an openness to difference...

5)   Homosexual marriage is already possible in Spain. Also adoption. What achievement is still a Utopia at this moment?

I never believed that gay marriage was a desirable institution; nor did I think it was worth fighting for the right to join the army.  But if one believes in the principles of equality and freedom of choice, one has to accept, however reluctantly, that these are positive developments.  More important, though, is the development of rational sex education in schools, and subculturally supportive social care for elderly lesbians and gay men.  Also desirable would be a general recognition that romantic love is itself a product of, and subject to, historical forces.  Like any controlling ideology, it is coercive and exclusionary.  Being single is not such a bad thing as we are constantly being told.

6)   You have written about homo-eroticism. What do you think about the function of eroticism in our society? And about pornography?

Eroticism is to the mind what sex is to the body.  Its function is, like that of viniculture and haute cuisine, the generation of pleasure and (for its exploiters) profit.  Those of us who were brought up as Catholics know a lot about the veneration of icons.  The boys in my favourite porn magazines and websites are sources of great wonder and reassurance.  They remind me, not just that flesh is beautiful, but that it is all-important.  Its pleasures compensate for its pains.  Its youth compensates a little for mortality. 

7)   There are mothers who fathered their children and fathers who mothered their children. Are the familiar roles an artificial fabrication? Where are the theoretical limits of gender?

If it is true, as Judith Butler argues, that gender is performative, there is no reason to think of it as having limits, other than those exerted by social pressure.  Our new understanding of gender opens us up to limitless possibilities—if we could only stop parents and schools indoctrinating children into the narrow cells of traditional roles.  Imagine a school playground in which there were as many genders as there were individual children!

8)   As readers, what is the benefit of reading Billy Budd by Melville and other stories as a homosexual story (in a hermeneutical sense)?

Each era, each culture, reads a book in its own way, even if informed by previous readings.  I am not an evangelist.  I do not regard the ‘gay reading’ of such a classic text as the revealed truth, more authentic than any previous or alternative reading.  One of the benefits is to the book itself, giving it new layers of meaning, and new generations of readers.  The ‘queering’ of classic texts always reminds me of Borges’s Pierre Menard, independently writing his own Don Quixote, with all of the same words in exactly the same order, but ending up with a completely different book.

9)   You presuppose a gay reader for gay literature. Anyway, what “gay” novel or work of art do you recommend to us?

Since we should always be sceptical of fixed ‘identities’ based in areas as volatile as sexuality, the ‘gay reader’ may be little more than a convenient fiction.  In my own critical work, he is based on myself.  My gay reader has my own eclectic tastes, with little residual interest in the coming-out stories of teenage boys.  Having said that, I also have in mind the young reader, such as I was forty years ago, who needs to find in books the image of his or her own possible futures.  In my own reading practices, now, in my mid-fifties, I seek literatures that are ‘queer’ to the point of exhilarating complexity.  (I do not want to see queerness being made palatable to the bourgoisie.)  Although I no longer read him very often, Jean Genet is the great model of this kind of writer.  So, too, are Juan Goytisolo, William Burroughs, Pierre Guyotat, Monique Wittig...  It is not merely that they recognise the complexity of sexuality itself, and say surprising things about it, but that they do so in a literature that is itself radically innovative.

10)    Anything you would like to add?

There are dangers in the acceptability queer/gay studies have won in the academic world.  I would like to issue a warning against accepting queer theory too readily.  It was largely shaped around the needs and interests of Anglophone academics.  Even if it has its origins in the work of continental Europeans like Michel Foucault, their distinctive Europeanness tends to be resolutely ignored in the UK and the USA.  The desire for ‘queer’ to become a universal currency should be aggressively resisted.  Our own local theologies of sexuality should stand up to the evangelizing zeal of queer-theoretical Conquistadores.  They may be carrying something worse than syphilis: intellectual uniformity.

Gay Literature: An Introduction

[I first wrote this item for Fedwa Malti-Douglas (ed), Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), Vol. III, pp.896-899]

In its broadest sense, gay literature is that which expresses, describes or otherwise represents a spectrum of intense friendship, love, erotic desire and sexual contact or relationship between male individuals, as well as engaging with the social context of how these matters are received by the broader society.  Such literature might be produced within any literate culture at any point in human history.  More narrowly, some commentators would argue that the concept of gay literature should be confined to a specific period since the late-nineteenth-century conceptualisation of sexual ‘identities’, whereby homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality are regarded as psychological states or conditions affecting the whole nature of the self and its social circumstances.  Finally, by its narrowest definition, gay literature dates from the mid-1960s in the West, and is written only by gay authors, especially by openly gay authors who subscribe to the aims and ethos of the gay liberation movement, which, following the models of the American civil rights and feminist movements, demanded equality of rights and treatment for gay people across the spectrum of social institutions.
Throughout the history of literacies, the predominant mode of male homo-erotic writing has been determined, not by some universal essence of homosexual love, but by broadly common social and cultural conditions, centring on sexual segregation and male privilege.  Wherever female virginity was prized above the education of girls, men made deeper alliances with each other than with women.  Honoured as a bearer of sons and strengthener of the bloodstock more often than as a soulmate, the high-born woman was protected against the acquiring of knowledge as much as she was protected against the eyes of the wrong men.  Relationships between men were built on common interests stemming from shared levels of education, and relationships between men and boys were pedagogical, educating the boy up to the level of the man.  Ideally, therefore, a meeting of bodies would eventually develop into a meeting of minds.  The Greek Anthology is an abundant repository of such celebrations of boy love in its different moods.  Most fully theorised in Plato’s Symposium, Greek pederasty was governed by strict conventions that protected the reputations of male citizens and the boys—future citizens themselves—they loved.  While not arguing against sexual relationships, or at least those tempered by rational self-control, Plato’s dialogue recommends the refinement of love that transcends bodily need.  Similar affirmations of institutionalised pederasty are to be found in the literatures of China, Japan, India, Persia, Turkey and the Arabian diaspora.
Much Greek poetry cites the precedence of the febrile passions of the gods when justifying humanity’s self-evident frailty in matters of the heart and lower organs.  Where Zeus and Ganymede, or Apollo and Hyacinth, went before, mortal men and boys were apt to follow.  Indeed, men’s taste for boys was meticulously traced backward to its origins in a moment of divine inspiration on the part of an individual man.  This candidate for the honour of being the first mortal man to desire his own sex was sometimes identified as Orpheus, sometimes as Thamyris, and sometimes as Laius.  Significantly, the first two of these were themselves poets.
Many Roman poets, similarly, wrote erotic verse about boys—Virgil, Martial, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius and Catullus being prominent examples—but they also wrote, and wrote more, about women.  The love of boys was never regarded as being incompatible with that of women.  Correspondingly, Roman literature is often insulting about men with an exclusive interest in the same sex, and all the more insulting if any adult man showed signs of sexual passivity.  Juvenal’s satires are exemplary in their contempt for such abdications of the manly duties of citizenship.
Of all the classical literature of male love, Plato’s Symposium, Theocritus’s Idylls, Virgil’s Eclogues and Ovid’s Metamorphoses had the most radical impact on man-loving and Man-loving, humanist poets of the Renaissance period.  In England, Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd and Richard Barnfield’s Ganymede come from writers obviously steeped in the homo-erotic classics.  Shakespeare’s sonnets, though relatively sparing in their classical references, are clearly derived from an ethos the poet had taken from his extensive reading of southern European literature and adapted to his own hyperborean emotional life.  The controversy of the sonnets is not a recent one—as is often claimed—imposed on them by the irrelevant obsessions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century homosexuals. As early as 1640, John Benson reissued the poems, cutting some of them altogether (19, 56, 75, 76, 96, 126), changing the gender of the pronouns in others (101, 108) and toning down such phrases as ‘sweet boy’ (108) and ‘fair friend’ (14) to ‘sweet love’ and ‘fair love’ respectively.  The publisher was concerned to avoid any impression of sinful practices.
            In Christian Europe, the condemnation of all sex but a narrow range of acts within the marital bed gave forbidden love a new status among the upper classes.  In literature, such diverse figures as Pietro Aretino, Théophile de Viau, John Wilmot (the Earl of Rochester) and the Marquis de Sade made a virtue of vice, boastfully expatiating on the ambisexuality of the libertine.  This tradition in its turn helped shape a particular kind of fictional character.  The Byronic hero and the Gothic novel’s anti-hero, perhaps themselves derived from such darkly seductive figures as Milton’s Satan, evolved, by way of major characters like Vautrin in Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine and the Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, into the gay villain of mid-twentieth-century fiction.  The demonisation of Oscar Wilde in 1895 added a fresh resonance to this stereotype of the sodomite as being criminally seductive and subversive.
Across cultures and eras, one of the most acceptable, and therefore common, ways of celebrating passionate friendships between adult men has been in circumstances, or through representations, of mourning.  In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh extravagantly mourns the death of Enkidu.  In the Bible, David laments the loss of Jonathan: ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (2 Samuel 1: 26).  In the Iliad, Achilles laments the loss of Patroclus.  In the Chanson de Roland, Roland laments the loss of Olivier.
The English pastoral elegy celebrated male love, usually in its most conventional guise as temperate friendship, all the way through literary history from Edmund Spenser to A.E. Housman and Wilfred Owen.  Again, the circumstance of mourning released writers from some of the restraints on intensity of expression where male love was concerned.  Spenser’s ‘Astrophel’ commemorated Sir Philip Sidney, who had died in 1586.  John Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ commemorated Edward King (d. 1637); Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard’ commemorated Richard West (d. 1742); Percy Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ commemorated John Keats (d. 1821) (Shelley’s own heart would be wrapped in a manuscript of the poem during his cremation on the beach at La Spezia); Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ commemorated Arthur Hallam (d. 1833); Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ commemorated Arthur Clough (d. 1861); and Walt Whitman’s poems from the American Civil War, culminating in the great elegy on Abraham Lincoln, ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,’ resonated with echoes of the same sources.
While it was often received by man-loving male readers in England as being ‘Greek’ in spirit, Whitman’s quintessentially American poetry was far more inclined to celebrate the adult male—and the working-class male at that—as something entirely new and particular to the physical geography and social structures of the United States.  In Whitman, spiritual refinement is derived not from education and class but from bodily health and liberty.
Heterosexuality and homosexuality, those new definitions of sexual identity that emerged through the popularisation of sexology and psychoanalysis in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, coincided with other major technological, aesthetic and social developments that have since come to be seen as having the common characteristics of Modernism.  In literature, the Modernist experiment was especially concerned to temper the objective focus of high realism with more subjectivist approaches to a reality increasingly assumed to be pluralist and fragmented.  The objective, omniscient narrator of the realist novel gave way to a stream of individual consciousnesses.
            Under these new conditions, writers seemed especially enabled to scrutinise the voluntary and involuntary bases of sexual desire in its protean manifestations.  Many of the great Modernist writers were homosexual or bisexual themselves and took same-sex desire as one of their major topics.  In France, Marcel Proust, André Gide and Jean Cocteau combined major technical innovations with penetrative explorations of the nature of desire.  In Germany, the novels of Thomas Mann and the poetry of Stefan George wrestled with the relationship between physical and spiritual desire as embodied in ethereal boys.  In Greece, Constantine Cavafy elaborated a comparison between classical pederasty and modern homosexuality in poems that gave modern urban cruising its finest early expression.  At opposite extremes of seriousness and frivolity, Henry James and Ronald Firbank approached the matter of love from an oblique angle that is identifiably ‘queer’ or even camp, subjecting heterosexuality to the distanced scrutiny of a discriminating aestheticism.  Indeed, there is so much gay writing in Modernism that one might even go so far as to describe that movement as being intrinsically queer.
The anti-homophobic novel of the twentieth century almost invariably suffered the consequences of its own inbuilt flaw.  Needing to argue, politically, the ordinariness of homosexuality and the moral neutrality of homosexual love, such novels were burdened with the necessity of a dull central character.  Hence the unremarkable suburbanism of the eponymous central character of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (first drafted in 1913).  Setting himself the task of countering prejudicial assumptions that the homosexual men must be decadent, effeminate and untrustworthy—a stereotype largely based on the version of Oscar Wilde that had been constructed in newspaper accounts of his trials—Forster had to contrast the dullness of the middle-class Maurice with the far more interesting figure of Risley, an aristocratic aesthete who is witty and seedy and ends up in jail.
            Much the same can be said of the protagonists of some of the best-known gay novels published in the middle of the century.  Many of these men are tediously self-absorbed.  In Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard is given a strong backhand at tennis so as not to be assumed to be effeminate by homophobic readers, but that is his only talent.  The literature informed by the post-war homosexual and gay movements was principally concerned with conveying what came to be called ‘positive images’, whereby the author was expected to counter negative public representations of homosexuals as (variously) untrustworthy, unpatriotic, unmanly, neurotic, immature and generally unlikeable.  Positive gay literature had to convey the possibility of homosexual happiness, broadly within the requirements of social convention.  Central characters of such novels would overcome the adversities of having to endure homophobia, would experience true love, and would eventually settle down to a solidly happy ending.  Subsequent literature has, by and large, been released from these restrictive imperatives.
Given the restrictive tendencies of politically-led literary texts, it is hardly surprising that much of the most striking fiction about male-male relationships was the most transgressive, often elaborating on the interplay between eroticism and violence.  In this respect, the towering figure of the mid-twentieth century was Jean Genet, whose work depended for one of its main effects, not on the idea that men who love men can be as decent and unobtrusive as your next-door neighbour, and that books about them can be similarly unexceptional, but on the idea that all love involves personal betrayal and that male bodies are the weapons with which both love and betrayal are to be effected. 
In Japan, Yukio Mishima superimposed the Samurai and ancient Greek traditions of homo-eroticism on the quotidian detail of modern life, enlivening a realist perspective with his own sado-masochistic interests.  In the United States, encouraged by younger Beat writers like Brion Gysin and Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs combined an aggressive social critique with the celebration of a taste for adolescent boys in heroin-fed fantasies of a womanless universe.  The technique of randomly cutting up his prose denies his characters any sentimental identification on the part of sympathetic readers.  In the Netherlands, Gerard Reve based his own radical aesthetic on an obsessive regard for the corporal punishment of socially deviant boys.  Similarly, in France, Tony Duvert wrote as if the nouveau roman had been hijacked for the purposes of a militant pederasty.
The changing possibilities for the more assimilationist gay writer might best be exemplified in the career of the post-war British poet Thom Gunn.  Gunn began as a poet of restraint, guarded and edgily ironic, his poems virtuosic in the application of seventeenth-century techniques and forms to decidedly modern topics (Elvis Presley, leather-clad bikers).  His tone of voice combined Cambridge refinement and erudition with a held-in masculinity derived from American movies.  But as the 1950s and 1960s progressed and he moved to San Francisco to live with his American lover, Gunn discovered a more flexible technique to accompany his newly relaxed, Californian lifestyle.  Adopting a syllabic line that owed much to the American models of William Carlos Williams and Yvor Winters, and associating the consequent lightening of tone with his own coming-out as a gay man.  The later collections were all openly and relaxedly gay.
            The elegiac tradition of earlier centuries offered a ready template for consolatory lamentation when the AIDS epidemic disproportionately affected gay men in Western cities in the 1980s.  In the face of intense hostility from the political classes and the mainstream media, gay men sought understanding voices within their own suffering communities and were answered in the USA by such poets as Thom Gunn and, more recently, Mark Doty and Rafael Campo.  What was distinctive about such writers was their capacity to turn personal involvement in the epidemic—and personal grief—into a reaffirmation of the highest principles of gay liberation, akin to the amor vincit omnia (love conquers all) of the ancients.
One of the commonest themes in contemporary gay fiction is the family: that is, the families from which young gay individuals emerge, the families that closeted individuals construct by marrying and having children, and the alternative families that ‘liberated’ individuals develop out of new social circumstances.  Informed by feminism’s critique of the coercive nuclear family, as well as by conservative retrenchments claiming the nuclear family as the only socially and morally responsible mode of living, gay novelists have sought to show both how oppressive and harmful the heterosexual family structure can become, and yet how protective and nurturing different structures, imaginatively constructed according to the needs of individuals, can be if the concept of family is allowed to expand and develop flexibly, encompassing fresh sexual and affectional arrangements.  Major late-twentieth-century gay novelists included, in Britain, Alan Hollinghurst and Patrick Gale; in the United States, Edmund White and Andrew Holleran; in France, Yves Navarre and Dominique Fernandez.


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