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.


Bredbeck, Gregory W.  Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton.  Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.
Frantzen, Allen J.  1998.  Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America.  Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
Hammond, Paul.  1996.  Love Between Men in English Literature.  London: Macmillan.
Lilly, Mark.  1993.  Gay Men’s Literature in the Twentieth Century.  London: Macmillan.
Martin, Robert K.  1979.  The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry.  Austin: University of Texas Press.
Robinson, Christopher.  1995.  Scandal in the Ink: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century French Literature.  London: Cassell.
Smith, Bruce R.  1991.  Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Summers, Claude J.  1995.  The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader’s Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present.  New York: Holt.
Summers, Claude J.  1990.  Gay Fictions, Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition.  New York: Continuum.
Woods, Gregory.  1998.  A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition.  New Haven CT & London: Yale University Press.
Woods, Gregory.  1987.  Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry.  New Haven CT & London: Yale University Press.

Auden's Platonic Blow

“The Platonic Blow” (or “A Day for a Lay” or “The Gobble Poem” as it has also been called) is the best-known and most substantial of a small number of erotic poems Auden wrote, not for publication but for the private amusement of close friends. In a letter to Chester Kallman on 13 December 1948, Auden wrote: “Deciding that there ought to be one in the Auden Corpus, I am writing a purely pornographic poem, The Platonic Blow. You should do one on the other Major Act. Covici would print them together privately on rubber paper for dirty old millionaires at immense profit to us both. (Illustrations by [Paul] Cadmus?)” The poem was about Auden’s favourite sexual activity, fellatio; the “other Major Act” he refers to, more to Kallman’s taste, was anal intercourse. One reason for his writing it was to show Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale University, with whom he was about to co-edit a poetry anthology, the kind of person he was. In this sense, it is a clear statement not only of personal interest, but even of basic identity.
After the poem had been published, against his will, by the arts magazine Fuck You, in New York in 1965, Auden complained to Monroe Spears: “in depressed moods I feel it is the only poem by me which the Hippies have read” (18 November 1967). It was also published by a magazine more appropriately called Suck. Among friends, Auden openly acknowledged authorship of it. The British politician Tom Driberg recalled an occasion when, visiting the poet for lunch in New York, he was given a privileged reading. Auden also read part of it from a hot tub at a spa on Ischia to the visiting German student Peter Adam, later a distinguished broadcaster. Auden even, once, admitted to the mainstream press that the poem was his (Daily Telegraph Magazine, 9 August 1968). However, when Avant-Garde published it in March 1970, again without permission, and even had the courteous nerve to send the poet a fee, Auden returned the cheque and repudiated authorship.
Like so much of his verse, “The Platonic Blow” is a technical tour de force. It adopts a syncopated measure Auden found in the Arthurian cycle Taliessin through Logres (1938) by the British Roman Catholic poet Charles Williams. He made more polished use of the form, later, in the second section of “Memorial for the City” (1949), which is dedicated to the memory of Williams. As much of Auden’s obvious pleasure in the erotic poem derives from the wickedness of its sexually explicit parody of a deeply serious, spiritual book as from the sexual narrative itself.
The poem consists of thirty-four stanzas of four lines each, rhymed ABAB. The lines range in length from ten to sixteen syllables, but they all have five insistent stresses. The vocabulary combines unexpected archaisms (“lofty”, “beheld”) and apparently inappropriate formal expressions (“sutures”, “ineffably”, “capacious”, “indwelling”, “voluminous”) with the erotic demotic (“cock”, “arse”, “knob”, “hard-on”, “spunk”). The insistency of his internal rhymes (“fresh flesh”, “the charms of arms”, “the shock of his cock”, “quick to my licking”, “sluices of his juices”, “the notch of his crotch”, “spouted in gouts”) and half-rhymes (“slot of the spout”, “curls and whorls”) seems clumsy at first, but soon gathers momentum in vivid mimesis of the act they represent.
The narrative itself is entirely conventional, in a literal sense slavishly following pornographic precedent. Spoken from the point of view of the adoring cock-sucker, it follows a familiar route from the picking-up of an attractive stranger to consummation and ejaculation. Faced with the body of a young man, the speaker is at a rhapsodic pitch throughout. The object of his attention corresponds with Auden’s ideal image of the American dreamboat: “Present address: next door. / Half Polish, half Irish. The youngest [?] From Illinois. / Profession: mechanic. Name: Bud. Age: twenty-four.” He is blond. To an extent, it does not matter whether this boy is actually homosexual. Auden believed, in any case, that straight American men did not really care for sexual intercourse with women: they just wanted to get blown while reading the newspaper. His fantasy was to be the one who did that favour.
In this written version of the fantasy, however, the blown man reciprocates. Before the speaker can begin sucking him, without being asked, Bud undresses fully. When the speaker, too, has undressed, they kiss. He fucks the speaker intercrurally. The speaker then explores the whole of his body, including his armpits and arse. Bud even has a voice of his own: when the speaker finally gets round to sucking him he “hoarsely” says: “That’s lovely! … Go on!  Go on!” Later, he whimpers expressively, “Oh!”, and, as he is about to ejaculate, “O Jesus!” This man is, then, a co-operative version of Auden’s American stereotype, a young man who seems unashamed to involve himself in a mutual homosexual act, but one who ultimately submits to the imperative of the exploring mouth and becomes completely passive in the face of its unrelenting onslaught.
According to Harold Norse, who had first-hand experience, regardless of his enthusiasm for the act Auden was actually an inept fellator: ‘the more feverishly he labored, the less I responded’. There is no such discomfort in ‘The Platonic Blow’. Only the gay Japanese poet Mutsuo Takahashi’s long poem ‘Ode’ outdoes it in exuberant celebration of the cocksucker’s art.

Auden, W.H., ‘The Platonic Blow’, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts 1 (March 1965)
Auden, W.H., ‘The Gobble Poem’, Suck: The First European Sex Paper 1 (October 1969)
Auden, W.H., ‘A Day for a Lay’, Avant Garde 11 (March 1970)
Auden, W.H., Collected Poems, London: Faber, 1976
Carpenter, Humphrey, W.H. Auden: A Biography, London: Allen & Unwin, 1981
Norse, Harold, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, London: Bloomsbury, 1990
Woods, Gregory, ‘W.H. Auden’, Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry, New Haven & London: Yale, 1987

Chaimowicz on Jean Genet

[I was asked to write this for the website of Nottingham Contemporary, but as far as I know it was never published there.]

When I conducted a walk-through tour of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s exhibition Jean Genet, Act 1, I did so from a position of astonished disappointment. For me, Jean Genet was the great queer writer of the Twentieth Century—making no compromise with either public taste or with the self-consciously ‘respectable’ subculture of a gay minority. I had been reading his novels since my late teens, thrilled by their rudeness, the power of their prose (even in translation), their celebration not of gay identity but of the sexiness of masculinity, their Chinese boxes of infinitely promising transgressions…
For sure, I felt, any exhibition based on the work of this man was going to frighten the horses. In the event, this one did carry a warning. Nottingham Contemporary had made a little notice saying:


Visitors passing beyond this notice will find material on display, which they may consider indecent. No admittance to people under 18 years old.

Sad to say, this was not at the main entrance to the gallery but guarded its innermost sanctum, the little windowless room off the study room at the back. On one wall there was a photograph of a naked young man with an erection. The drawers in the Cabinet of Curiosities also had some interesting photographs of tattooed Russian prisoners. A separate cabinet of objects extracted from the bodies of prisoners was rather coyly labelled as if they had all been swallowed, when it was quite clear that many of them were more likely to have been rectally smuggled.
            However, apart from some resonant photographs of the male body by Wolfgang Tilmans, the main body of the exhibition had more or less ignored the scandalous Genet. When Chaimowicz appeared at Nottingham Contemporary in person, I asked about the apparent erasure of male-male desire from his exhibition. Both he and his interlocutor Michael Bracewell seemed surprised I had raised the issue at all. They went on the defensive. Instead of just saying, ‘This is a personal show and that isn’t the aspect of Genet that interested me’, Chaimowicz said ‘I don’t think Genet would have been happy to be ghettoized.’ Well no, but nor would he have wanted to be sanitised. (I have spent all my working life fighting against this pernicious idea that the expression of same-sex desire must have the effect of diminishing any artist.)
So in my tour I tried to redress the balance. I asked that my audience be warned about ‘adult’ content, and that parents with children be steered away from us. But it was never going to be that easy. A Wednesday afternoon is not the best time to present ‘adult’ material in a free-access space. By the time we came we came to the last room, my impression was that there were children running about all over the place. But, as years of working in gay studies have taught me, despite constant pressures to censure oneself, there is always much that can be said.
Beginning the tour, I knelt on a pre-dieu to acknowledge Genet’s adversarial relationship with Roman Catholic culture and  read out my own poem ‘Jean Genet in Norwich’, in which the writer goes cottaging in that most genteel of English cities. Beside an executioner’s bell which Chaimowicz had borrowed from Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice, I read from Genet’s love elegy to a condemned man (just one of his many expressions of desire for murderers) and in front of Wolfgang Tilmans’ photograph ‘Anders Behind Leaves’ I described a passage from Genet’s novel Querelle of Brest in which, during a sexual act, Lieutenant Seblon is sacramentally humiliated by becoming smeared with excrement.
            In Jean Genet, Act 2, by various artists, among exhibits referencing the Maghreb and Palestine, I talked about famous occasions when Genet deliberately compromised his anti-imperialist politics with lusty expressions of desire for the uniformed men who police empires.
            Although I had to hold back from actually quoting some of Genet’s more forthright expressions, by the time we had made our circuit of the exhibition spaces I felt I had, at least, brought to a somewhat emasculated exhibition a whiff of Jean Genet’s rampant eros.