Monday, December 31, 2007

Odi Et Amo

Another of my book reviews for Gay Community News, published in 1984 or so.

Joseph Torchia had written one earlier novel, The Kryptonite Kid, about a possibly gay boy, Jerry Chariot, obsessed and fascinated with Superman. It was much more fun than As If After Sex, and its ambiguity about the protagonist's sexual orientation (reasonable enough, considering that he was just a kid) , made it possible for the book to draw a juvenile and young-adult audience. In 1982 Torchia published a short story in Gay Sunshine, a "postscript" in which the protagonist, now grown up, meets Superman in a gay bar. As If After Sex was Torchia's last novel as far as I can tell. A Google search turns up several Joseph Torchias; my bet is on the Dominican theologian / philosopher who writes on Augustine and Plotinus.

I'm still a resolute anti-Platonist, and what I say in this review about gay men's attitudes toward manhood still seems relevant to me. Gay male fiction, though I still encounter some death-obsessed stuff (which includes Brokeback Mountain, as both story and film), nowadays includes enough life-affirming work, complete with gratuitous happy endings, to keep me going.

Happy New Year!


As If After Sex
by Joseph Torchia
Holt, Rinehart & Winston
190 pp.
$13.95 hardcover

I once found myself listening to a gay man who was saying wistfully, “I wish there was someplace you could go, maybe a club, where only masculine men would be allowed in.” Like so many gay men, he harbored the fantasy of rubbing elbows with a room packed full of manly men in flannel shirts and mustaches, six ax handles across the shoulders, and nary a sissy in sight.

Ever tactful, I did not point out to him that if such a place existed, he probably would not have been allowed into it, for while he wasn’t a campy sort he was too much of a nerd to meet his own specifications; I did not point out that his lover, who was butch enough to achieve entry, made his life hell by his readiness to share his manliness with all comers; I did not point out that a roomful of such men would be excruciatingly boring – but then I have never shared his fantasy. The standard male images exalted by both gays and straights I find anti-erotic. Which isn’t to say I’m never attracted by muscular men, only that I am by temperament a resolute anti-Platonist; I am not at all interested in ideal types, but rather in individuals. This makes me feel at odds with other gay men most of the time, for I suspect that many of my brothers are more attracted to Manhood than to men. Or, worse, they think they ought to be.

For this reason I may be the wrong person to review As If After Sex, Joseph Torchia’s ambivalent novel about the Male Principle made flesh to come and dwell among us. When Seymour Kleinberg dared to question the new gay machismo in Christopher Street a few years back, some readers fumed that he wanted to turn us all into screaming queens, that he was a man-hater (!), and that they might be gay but they could still be Real Men. Dear Reader, spare me. I don’t hate men, I love ‘em; I eat ‘em for breakfast. But it seems to me that fussing about masculinity is intimately related to homophobia, misogyny – is, in short, if not the root of our difficulties as queers in this society, then at least one of them. It also seems to me that loving men doesn’t mean I have to be uncritical of them.

But each to his own. If you’re into Real Men, you will probably love As If After Sex, so just skip the rest of this review and go on to the next one (I think it’s either Nancy Walker’s Love Signs or The ADVOCATE Companion to the Works of Ayn Rand.)

For those who are still with me so far: Robert, the novel’s narrator, is a young writer who moves from Florida to San Francisco. After a brief tormented affair with a husband and wife, he proceeds to a longer tormented affair with a Divine Stud named Julian, whom he has seen regularly at the gym where they both work out. Julian attracts not only Robert but all the men at the gym because of his anchorite zeal for perfecting his maleness:

One look at his body heaving and sweating, crying and hurting, and there was no turning back to the mirrors. Those powerful men were powerless against his hard skin, his dark sounds, his flushed face, his fierce determination – and their own desire to have what they could not be. His pain seemed to speak to them. … He was building from within. He was making himself complete, almost Godlike in the way he could create himself, and yet he was so perfectly and utterly man. [3]

One night Julian leads Robert through the teeming streets to a dirty bookstore, where in a labyrinth of movie booths they tumble rapturously into each other’s mouths. “You’re not like the others,” Julian tells Robert. What others? There’s the rub: Julian, being the Divine Stud, feels (in Angelo D’Arcangelo’s words, which could stand as a review of this book) “that it was his duty as the incarnation of all that was beautiful in men, to put his cock like a sacred wafer or holy suppository into whomever desired or needed it.” This isn’t easy for Robert to adjust to, naturally, but then gods aren’t always kind – indeed they are prone to s/m relationships with their devotees – and anyhow, as Julian points out, Julian has to share Robert with his typewriter.

The two men go to Mexico together, where Robert grapples further with the mysteries of his deity. But back in San Francisco, after a sinister encounter with a symbolic figure named Phaedrus, they begin to drift apart. Julian ruins his perfect body with drugs, and ultimately dies. But though his dying god doesn’t rise again, Robert the faithful acolyte tends the Eternal Flame: “I am heartily sorry, Julian … For having offended …”.

“You’re not like the others,” Julian tells Robert. Oh, yes he is. But so is Julian. Good looks and muscular bodies count for nothing in a novel, but they may be taken on faith if the author supplies appropriate characterization. But Julian and Robert are ciphers, mere mouthpieces for Torchia’s meditations on the male sex. This might be forgivable if Torchia had anything of interest to say about men or being a man, but he doesn’t; he isn’t interested in men anyway, but in abstract manhood, so he ends up saying nothing about either men or manhood.

It might be possible to overlook even this if As If After Sex weren’t written in such an unbearably leaden, pretentious, and humorless style; if Catholic allusions and imagery didn’t abound; if Torchia didn’t use the word “sex” as leitmotif, playing on its various meaning – sexual activity, sexuality, gender, and above all genitalia: “a tug on my consciousness as well as my sex” (32), “my sex in his hand” (39), “wounded in more than my sex” (170), “some creature battered and wounded in its sex” (177). This last device might work if it were limited to Robert, but all the characters, including a street hustler and an elderly customer of Julian’s talk the same way. And then there’s this other thing.

The little piles of short sentences.

Piled on top of each other like this.

He does it a lot, every few pages sometimes.

I guess he think it’s poetic, or at any rate artistic.

But it gets old, really old, very soon.

That it’s so easy to parody helps matters not at all.

The cumulative effect is redolent of that other tedious and pompous book about a false god, the Gospel according to Saint John, which like the present volume only seems profound if one is a fellow-believer. Of course it may be that Torchia wrote As If After Sex to criticize the cult of gay machismo. But if so I feel certain that the men at whom it was aimed will not perceive the criticism; the blade of Torchia’s irony is just too dull. More likely the book will be read as what it probably really is anyhow: a lament of shattered faith, a cry from the depths against men who turn out to be not gods but only boys in carapaces of muscle and denim and leather. The hope will remain that somewhere the true incarnation of the god exists. But he doesn’t exist. This is not to say that we shouldn’t admire or lust after muscular bodies, only that muscular bodies have no meaning beyond themselves. They are not manifestations of some Platonic Idea of Maleness.

A word about the novel’s unhappy ending is also in order. Aside from its comparative sexual explicitness, As If After Sex could have been written and published in the 1950s: one sick pervert dies from too many drugs, the other is plunged into grief. It isn’t just this book I’m complaining about. The same is true of far too much recent gay fiction, whose authors seem to think that ending with misery and/or death proves they’re Serious. This is not a call for “gratuitous” happy endings – but on second thought, why not? The wretched endings we’re now getting in gay male fiction are also gratuitous, and what’s worse, they fit (consciously or not) into the homophobic tradition of pre-Stonewall gay fiction. Writers and readers may think that times have changed because the love scenes are steamier, but don’t you believe it.

I trust no one will say that unhappy endings are more “realistic.” When did gay men become so interested in realism? Anyhow, Armistead Maupin’s novels reflect more awareness of, and affection for, the texture of real life than As If After Sex. Maupin’s characters may get into cartoonlike adventures, but they are real people. Torchia’s characters do drearily familiar things, but they are ghosts. I suspect Torchia was trying to give cosmic overtones to hustling, jealousy, and machismo. If so, he failed. If you want art about hustling, etc., try reading the late Paul T. Rogers’s Saul’s Book, just out in paperback. Me, I’m gonna reread Babycakes.

P.S. May 2008: Nudged by an e-mail message, I did another Google search for Torchia and found his obituary: he died of liver cancer in 1996. Regardless of how I feel about As If After Sex, I felt sorry. It seemed so much more fitting that the author of this book should have become a Dominican theologian, still alive and flourishing in his field.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Only His Hairdresser Knows For Sure

I just realized that this blog would not be complete without this song. You know what we've been learning, this past year especially, about guys who go out of their way to make fag jokes, make a big deal of their manliness, etc. Look at Frank's cute little pony tail in this clip. Work it, girl!

Thursday, December 27, 2007


A few days ago I finally read John Okada’s groundbreaking 1957 novel No-No Boy (reprinted in 1979 by the University of Washington Press). I’d seen used copies around for years, then read about it in Elaine Kim’s Asian American Literature and realized it was something I should read. It was rediscovered in the 1970s by young Asian American writers looking for forebears, which led to its republication. The author, a Japanese American World War II veteran, died at the age of 47 in 1971 of a heart attack, without having published another book, which on the evidence of this one is indeed tragic.

No-No Boy is about Ichiro Yamada, who returns to Seattle after two years in prison for refusing to serve in the US army during WWII. He finds that his mother, along with some other older Japanese Americans, refuses to believe that Japan was defeated. Letters circulate like samizdat, promising the imminence of the Rapture; those who remained faithful will be rewarded, those who betrayed – by cooperating with the US during the war -- will be punished, if only by being Left Behind:

“To you who are a loyal and honorable Japanese, it is with humble and heartfelt joy that I relay this momentous message. Word has been brought to us that the victorious Japanese government is presently making preparations to send ships will return to Japan those residents in foreign countries who have steadfastly maintained their faith and loyalty to our Emperor. The Japanese government regrets that the responsibilities arising from the victory compels them to delay in the sending of the vessels. To be among the few who remain to receive this honor is a gratifying tribute. Heed not the propaganda of the radio and newspapers which endeavor to convince the people with lies about the allied victory. Especially, heed not the lies of your traitorous countrymen who have turned their backs on the country of their birth and who will suffer for their treasonous acts. The day of glory is close at hand. The rewards will be beyond our greatest expectations. What we have done, we have done only as Japanese, but the government is grateful. Hold your heads high and make ready for the journey, for the ships are coming.”

Ichiro’s family is torn nearly to pieces by his mother’s faith in Japan’s victory. (Ichiro blames his refusal to serve the US military on his mother’s fanaticism, but I can’t see his refusal as totally unreasonable: he had been drafted from the concentration [or “relocation”, if you want to be PC about it] camp in which his family, like so many other Japanese Americans, spent the war.) When she receives letters from relatives in Japan begging for help, she dismisses them as American fabrications, or coerced from her family by torture. Okada shows similar rifts elsewhere among Seattle’s Japanese American community, as unbelievers in the Emperor are shunned by their families, while the young Japanese Americans who served in the war shun those who refused.

This apocalyptic belief frames Ichiro’s struggle to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, as he moves among young Nisei veterans devastated by their war experiences, some of them former friends, and it undercuts somewhat the naturalist tone of the novel, adding an eerie sense of unreality at times: who really won? what really happened? how could it happen? It seems to me that Japanese Americans who’d been interned would feel just such a sense of dislocation and uncertainty.

As it happens, just a week earlier I had reread Philip K. Dick’s award-winning science fiction novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), which is set in a parallel universe where Japan and Germany won World War II. Japan occupied the West Coast and Germany the East, and the Rocky Mountain States maintain a fragile balance of quasi-independence between them. But a man called Hawthorne Abendsen has written a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, set in another universe where Japan and Germany were defeated. (Abendsen’s creation is still not our universe, though, in which FDR served four terms and led the US through most of the war.)

The Man in the High Castle also has a feeling of unreality about it, as the characters, some Japanese and some white, use the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, to guide them through their lives, to see through the confusion of their present. The popularity of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which everyone is reading (except in the Nazi-controlled East, where it’s banned), is a reminder of the fragility of history; the multiplication of universes undermines the priority of the one in which the reader of High Castle lives. (Of course the white American characters don’t want to believe that they were defeated; anyone who’s lived through the period since the US failure utterly to subjugate Vietnam, let alone since September 11, 2001, will recognize their punch-drunk reaction.) Some of the characters keep getting the response “Inner Truth” from the I Ching, hinting to them that the reality they know is not the ultimate reality. What really happened? Who really won the war? Further, to my inner ear the book’s style resembles Okada’s, which one reviewer praised for the “authenticity of the idioms Okada’s characters use.” Did Philip Dick perhaps know some Japanese Americans and use their voices for his novel?

The echoing resemblances I detect between No-No Boy and The Man in the High Castle are pure coincidence, of course, but reading them almost together, as I did, enriched both of them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Small, But Most Sympathetic

Another of my book reviews for Gay Community News, published in 1984 or 1985. I'm posting it out of chronological sequence (of course I've done that before anyway), but it seemed appropriate to put it here now since the author died recently. I'm pleased too that I could add a link to David Jackson's letter to the New York Review of Books, critical of Farnan's homophobia and of her conduct after Kallman's death.

Auden in Love
by Dorothy J. Farnan
Simon and Schuster

Dorothy Farnan became friends with Chester Kallman in New York City in 1943. She had met him at the University of Michigan a year or so before, but didn’t get to know him well until she and her friend Mary Valentine moved east to seek their fortunes. Mary had been part of Chester’s crowd in Ann Arbor during his time there as a graduate student, and when these two “midwestern girls who wanted to get out of the Middle West” ran into Chester in the old Waldorf Cafeteria on Sixth Avenue, he helped them begin to feel at home in the big city. Later he would refer to the years 1943-1946 as “my Dorothy and Mary period.” Indeed, according to Farnan, “Chester spent almost all his waking hours with May for at least two years”. Eventually Farnan fell in love with and married Chester’s father, which put her into a reasonably good position to observe the rest of Chester’s life.

The reason why all this is of interest, of course, is Chester Kallman’s association with the poet W. H. Auden. Kallman, a poet himself, had been the great love of Auden’s life almost since the two had met in 1939, and there was a sense in which the devotion was mutual. But Kallman was a butterfly, incapable of sexual fidelity for long, and his vagaries caused Auden much anguish, so much that many friends wondered why Auden put up with him.

Dorothy Farnan offers some explanations in her book on the Auden-Kallman relationship. For one thing, while Kallman was by no means in Auden’s league as a poet, he was bright enough to be a stimulating intellectual companion. For another, he possessed immense energy and charm. He was a good cook, a fanatic music lover (especially of opera), a scintillating gossip, with the capacity for making his enthusiasms contagious. He was also physically attractive, though Auden would doubtless have been happier had Chester been less attractive – or at least to fewer people.

Auden in Love will appeal perhaps to those who don’t feel like wading through Charles Osborne’s or Humphrey Carpenter’s longer, drier, and more detailed biographies of Auden. It will also interest those who have read these books but are curious to learn more about Kallman, who long has been a problematic figure. Many of Auden’s friends disliked Kallman, partly out of ordinary homophobia in a few cases, partly perhaps because they thought the boy (fourteen years Auden’s junior) insufficiently grateful for having chosen as a great poet’s consort. But there is no question that Kallman was generally irresponsible: he could not, would not, hold a job; he exploited Auden (and all his friends) financially; he may have compensated for his lack of literary success (due as much to lack of industry as to lack of talent) by exploiting the power he had over Auden’s feelings (though it seems he lacked the self-disciplined malice necessary to do so consistently). Besides, he knew well enough that in Auden he himself had an unparalleled intellectual companion. It must also be remembered that Auden did put up with Chester. He didn’t have to. To blame Kallman for Auden’s devotion to him, as some of Auden’s friends seem at times to have done, is absurd. Whether or not there was anything in the relationship for Auden, and it is most likely that there was, he chose to maintain it.

Farnan draws on conversations and letters from friends and relatives of Kallman’s as well as her own reminiscences, but it is not clear that she has used her vantage point on his life uniformly well. She cannot resist casting his later years in old-fashioned moralistic terms – an old fag must pay for sexual favors from handsome young trade, etc. – which seem to be at odds with the reality. The composer David Jackson, who knew Kallman well during that time, claims in a letter in the New York Review of Books (October 24, 1984) that Chester inspired great loyalty – even love? certainly affection – in the young Greeks he pursued with notable success in his middle age. The young soldier who was with him the night he died waited until the paramedics came, even though this meant being thrown into the stockade on his return to barracks, and he still managed to get permission to attend Chester’s funeral. Farnan has not quite outgrown her Midwestern Catholic girlhood, I fear.

What Auden in Love makes clear, thanks to its frequent quotations therefrom, is the need for an edition of Auden’s letters: funny, campy, opinionated, eloquent though they are, we aren’t likely to see them published in extenso soon for the obvious legal reasons: too many closet cases still won’t come out, even in such distinguished company. But even a bowdlerized selection of Auden’s letters to Kallman would be a welcome delight. Meanwhile, Farnan’s book, despite the limitations of its author’s sensibility, gives us a slightly closer look than we have had before at these two brilliant and fascinating men.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Of Relatives And Relativism

On Christmas Eve I listened to our community radio station’s weekly program on African-American affairs. This week the topic was Christmas, naturally, and the format was a roundtable on Christmas memories and traditions. One of the speakers, a man known on the station as the Deacon, interrupted his reminiscences of school Christmas parties to claim that you’d get a “phone call from the ACLU” if you did today the kinds of things they did in his youth. Well, of course: state-run public schools shouldn’t be fostering religious observances. (The irony of black folks attacking an organization dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and civil rights wasn’t lost on me either.)

But the moment passed, and soon everyone was laughing over memories of waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. About midway, though, one of the regular hosts of the program got serious and reminded everyone that the “reason for the season” was “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”, even though you can’t say that nowadays without getting “a phone call from the ACLU.” Considering that the station has a weekly gospel music program (the Deacon is one of its programmers, and also occasionally plays Christian disco/techno/hiphop on Saturday nights), it was a comical accusation. In a country whose President claims to be taking instructions from Yahweh, Christians still love to claim that they’re embattled and persecuted.

But then, the ambition to have total social penetration and control isn’t limited to religious believers. It seems to be a fairly typical outcome of social organization: many scientists and their allies (Al Gore, for example) would like you to believe there’s currently a War Against Science and Reason. (My personal favorite is sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s “Multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism” – Pat Robertson couldn’t have said it better.) There must be no corner where the light of faith, be it in Jesus or superstrings, shineth not.

Despite these infomercials for the Lord, and occasional efforts (mostly by the Deacon) to steer the focus back to religion, the overwhelming bulk of this Christmas program was devoted to food, gifts, shopping, competitive poverty (your family wasn’t as poor as my family!), and family. Leading the prayer over the Christmas ham, the Deacon declared bravely, that’s a tradition, and he is a man of tradition, tradition is important to him. But before long the others were teasing him for not having been as poor as he claimed, while he insisted that he was so.

I was especially amused by his appeal to tradition. We’re located in Southern Indiana, where the tradition of white supremacy has not yet been eliminated: tradition doesn’t, in itself, deserve respect.

For example, I recently read British philosopher Stephen Law’s The War For Children’s Minds (Routledge, 2006). Law is a nice middle of the road secularist liberal, grappling with the limits of religious freedom. He imagines a conservative religious parent (a father, no doubt) arguing for his right to keep his children out of secular schools, and perhaps too for government support of sectarian schools:

Surely, as a parent, I have a right to send my child to a school that will raise her in accordance with my own religious convictions. Surely, if I believe it’s in her best interests that she not be encouraged to think critically about her own religious tradition, that she mix only, or almost only, with children of the same faith, and that she not be exposed to other points of view (I feel they will only ‘corrupt’ her), then that is my right. The government has no business stopping me.

Law comments:

Of course, we can concede to the proponent of this objection that the state should respect parental freedom as much as it reasonably can. But there are limits. If a practice is physically or psychologically stunting children, surely we are justified in banning it.

Now, my first reaction to this is to ask how to determine that “a practice is physically or psychologically stunting children,” especially psychologically. I came out at a time when it was taken for granted that gay people were psychologically stunted, and unfit to be parents. To this day we defend ourselves by declaring that the children we raise will be as healthy as the children of heterosexuals, and no less likely to turn out heterosexual. We, you see, have no right to raise our children in our own image (even assuming that we’d succeed – almost all of us had heterosexual parents, after all). We can only be parents if we let the most bigoted heterosexuals decide what is good for our children. It’s as if Christians were allowed forcibly to baptize Jewish children, then to abduct them from their families and raise them as Christians … oops! They did do that, back in the good old days when people took their faith seriously.

Which brings me to my second reaction, which goes deeper. The idea that parents should have the right to choose their children’s religion, or their own for that matter, is a consequence of the Enlightenment, and is presented in relativist terms: I want my children to learn what other parents – and the Church of England! – believe to be false; but it’s my truth, and I’m entitled to impose it on my children. Relativism of this kind is very common among religious conservatives, and indeed might even be their invention, historically. In the good old pre-Enlightenment days, Englishmen belonged to the Church of England (or the Roman Catholic Church, before the heretic and schismatic Henry VIII rebelled against God). “Dissenting” churches (the adjective is significant) were those that refused to submit to duly constituted royal and Divine authority. That’s why these relativists fled to other European countries or to North America, to have a place where their private “truth” could pretend to be the truth.

Why should a benevolent but just Sovereign allow falsehood to be taught in the place of truth? Why permit “faith” schools even to non-Anglican Christians, let alone cattle worshiping heathen and Mahometan infidels? If these people really want to go back to the good old days, they should be allowed to do so: to the days when Catholics burned Protestants or vice versa, depending on who was in power at the moment, and it was always open season on Jews or Albigensians. Of course not many really want to go back to those days, even if they don’t remember that freedom of religion, in all its relativist splendor, was the product of religious believers who didn’t want to be tortured for their faith, and therefore had to forego the pleasure of torturing others for theirs.

If we’re not ready to go back that far, we could be moderate and merely deny full citizenship to dissenters and their children. As for the United States (as opposed to the original colonies with their patchwork of religious establishments), it was founded on the principle of religious freedom and pluralism – in a word, relativism as the word is used by religious and cultural reactionaries. These people cultivate a very convenient historical amnesia when it comes to these issues; they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

The core issue is authority, isn’t it? Like many secularists Law is defensive about the Holocaust, which absolutists love to blame on relativism: “In fact, it would be accurate to blame [Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution] on his Authoritarian mind-set.” I think we should be more aggressive, and challenge Authoritarians to specify just why, by their lights, they would condemn Eichmann. After all, he did what he was told without question, just as they want others to do – as long as they’re giving the orders. “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out!” is a hallowed Judeo-Christian value, so a better question is whether tradition can object to the Holocaust. Not only Christians (but not all of them!) but Communists, opposed Hitler. Let’s give credit where credit’s due.

Which brings up the popular “moral capital” argument, that atheists are somehow coasting along on the values of religion. Let it be remembered that valuable change occurred because people rebelled against duly constituted authority, for whatever reason. (Amartya Sen has written wisely on this point, especially in The Argumentative Indian [Allen Lane, 2005] and Identity and Violence [Norton, 2006]). If anyone is coasting on moral capital, it’s today’s reactionaries who accept and benefit from the results of the Enlightenment, or the antislavery movement, or the Civil Rights movement, which they opposed fiercely in the day but are perfectly willing to hide behind now.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Locking the Closet Door From Both Sides

Back in 1971, when I first began telling my straight friends that I was gay, I was prepared to deal with either hostility or acceptance from them. So I was surprised when my friends responded, first, by not believing me, and second, by explaining it away as something I was just saying to be different. Of course the years of hidden longings and crushes I’d struggled through were invisible to them. (I wasn’t sexually precocious, and didn’t even kiss another person of either sex until months after I came out, at the age of twenty. It was all in my head, but then, isn’t everything?) My friends’ reaction was partly reasonable, then, but it was also intended to deny what I was telling them, to deny the existence of real gay people. There was a bit of a Mom’s egotism in it too: You’re just doing this to drive me crazy.

I think that straight people have improved a little during the succeeding decades, and have begun to learn that we are gay for our own sake, not to annoy them; but the idea that we have inner lives independent of the Mysterious Twilight World Between the Sexes of Heterosexuality is still threatening to many. I still hear straights claiming that now it is “fashionable” to be gay; such claims have been made for at least a century. I suppose there must be a few scattered people who really do try out homosexuality because they think their gay friends are cool, but once again what’s going is an attempt to deny other people’s inner lives. If I didn’t know about it before, it wasn’t happening. They’re just pretending to be gay; they’re just doing it to annoy me. And why not, after all – it can be profoundly disturbing to consider what might be going on in the heads of all those people around you: what desires, what fantasies, what secret practices they harbor.

This nervousness could be seen in many of the reactions to the recent revelation by his creatrix that Albus Dumbledore, late headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was gay. Many people, not just straight ones, complained that Rowling was cheating: if she meant Dumbledore to be gay, she should have said so in the books! Not that this would have made them less indignant. If Rowling had said so in the books, the fuss would have begun sooner. (Why did she have to tell us? She’s obsessive. She’s just trying to drive us crazy.) I saw enough fury in fan discussions years ago, when someone would raise the possibility that someone in the Potter universe might turn out to be gay. These are children’s books! people would fume. Harry’s just a child! Even Harry’s burgeoning heterosexuality made some of them queasy, in fact. They pretended that they were only concerned about The Children who would read the books, but I feel sure that they were angry on their own account, as adults: they wanted to escape into a presexual universe, without skin or pumping blood vessels or bodily fluids. Rowling’s very tame accounts of adolescent flirtations and crushes still threatened to burst the dikes and inundate their Nether-Netherlands with passion.

I’ve come to realize that heterosexuality makes many heterosexuals uncomfortable. They’re stuck with it, though, because of the need to make babies. (Thanks to artificial insemination, however, heterosex is no longer really necessary.) Homosexuality doesn’t have that excuse, and so it will always be embattled. Straights can project their hang-ups onto gays: we are all about sex, they are all about Love. Just ignore the man and woman screwing behind the curtain.

I often encounter phrases like “kicking in the closet doors” in connection with the post-Stonewall gay movement of the 70s. I’ve probably used such language myself. Surely, we believed, those closet doors would stay down once we’d kicked them in. The visibility we achieved would remain, and all we had to do was to extend it. But at some point I noticed that there was a very strong resistance to gay (and lesbian and bisexual) visibility. Straights who knew me would conveniently forget that I was gay. They wouldn’t want to mention that I was gay to other people, because it was not something one should gossip about. On one level, this discretion might be seen as commendable, since so many gay people do see their homosexuality as a dirty secret. But when it’s applied to openly gay people, it constitutes a quiet, determined attempt to push them back into the closet. Looking back, I found that those closet doors we’d kicked in had been quietly, firmly put back on their hinges and locked once more.

I’m not saying, and I don’t believe, that people who do this are evil. They’re just uncomfortable, and such avoidance is a common way of dealing with discomfort. Gay people are still anomalous and unpopular in this country. (Which is why I laugh bitterly when I talk to or read foreigners who talk as though we are totally accepted in America.) But what these people are doing is harmful. They don’t (consciously) want to eliminate gay people, not necessarily; but life would be so much simpler if we’d just … go away. Be gay somewhere else, okay?

Another place this resistance can be seen is academic discussion of homosexuality, especially under the influence of Queer theory. I think Queer theory offers a lot of important ideas and insights, but it is often used to make us … go away. The mantra that homosexuality is a modern concept, and that famous people of the past weren’t “gay as we know it today” – whatever that means; it’s seldom explained – is true enough; but too often it’s used to justify ignoring same-sex love and passion. It wasn’t homosexual, it was “homoerotic,” or better, “homosocial.” After all, Dumbledore was very old, and they didn’t have “the homosexual” when he was growing up. He was only infatuated with Grindelwald, they never did anything, so it was really just a normal schoolboy crush. And (so far at least) Rowling hasn’t mentioned any other, later loves of his. As long as she doesn’t tell us that he went to Judy’s Carnegie Hall concert, or that he collected Callas opera recordings, or that he was really the older guy with the wand who picked up Michael Tolliver at the tubs in Tales of the City – well, then, we can just define him out of existence. He wasn’t gay, in the modern sense, so we’ll just pretend he was straight. It would be narrow-minded to force Dumbledore into our modern categories. Delitrius. Evanesco. Obliviate.

Much has been made, by some gay writers, of the fact that the term “closet” doesn’t seem to have been used in gay and proto-gay society before the 1950s or so. But as Michel Foucault wrote on the first page of the second volume of his History of Sexuality:

The term [“sexuality”] itself did not appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century, a fact that should be neither underestimated nor overinterpreted. It does point to something other than a simple recasting of vocabulary, but obviously it does not mark the sudden emergence of that to which “sexuality” refers.

"Obviously" is funny here, since according to many people (including Foucault himself at times) the appearance of the word “homosexual” did “mark the sudden emergence of that to which [‘homosexual’] refers.” The same consideration applies to “closet”: we can see enforced secrecy affecting the lives of those who loved their own sex for centuries in the past, whether it was called “the closet” or not.

The closet door was locked from both sides. During the “outing” controversies of the early 1990s, gay writers pointed out that the same straight media which denounced outing as an awful violation of privacy, published the names and addresses of people arrested in gay bar raids. Yes, being arrested puts one on public record, but the costs to the ordinary citizens who were outed by the the police and the New York Times were very different than the costs to the celebrities outed by Queer Nation. The former often lost jobs, heterosexual spouses, children, and sometimes their lives. The latter were already out in most respects, often with partners of many years’ standing, and were known to the straight media, and their homosexuality was an open secret; none of them seem to have suffered from the controversy, and most later came out.

As Michael Bronski wrote, “A person’s homosexuality is often mentioned by the mainstream press when it wants to discredit a public figure.” Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and others had been smeared by innuendo and sometimes even outed in heterosexual media for decades. (Right now I’m reading Michael Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy [North Carolina, 2007], which gives plenty of examples, such as Philip Roth’s 1965 attack on Edward Albee in the New York Review of Books.) Contrariwise, even a fairly open homosexual like W. H. Auden would be ‘inned’: poet and anthologist Louis Untermeyer, in a biographical essay for his collection Modern American Poetry, mentioned Auden’s marriage of convenience to Erika Mann (which took place solely to get Mann out of Nazi Germany) but not his decades-long partnership with Chester Kallmann. Joan Acocella’s raving “defense” of Willa Cather, published in 2000, is a reminder that this strategy is still with us. So is the more recent reaction to the “outing” of Albus Dumbledore – a fictional character! -- which made it clear that the “privacy” being violated was not Dumbledore’s but that of the homophobes, both gay and straight, who didn’t want to know.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eighty Percent Of Americans Consider Themselves Above Average

I work as a dishwasher in a cafeteria, and we see a lot of wasted food on dirty dishes. One night my helper, a gay male student, was so outraged by the mess that he screamed, “This is retarded! I thought that was pretty funny, given how much yammering I hear in the gay community about hate speech, so I assumed my Old Hoosier Voice and said, “Now, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ retarded, I’m gonna be retard myself in a couple years.” (For any reader unacquainted with US English dialects, “retard” is how an Old Hoosier pronounces the word “retired.”)

I don’t remember what, if anything, he said to that. What I do remember is that about a week later, I overheard the same boy pontificating to some straight friends that “Nobody says ‘That’s so gay’ around me! I don’t allow anybody to get away with that kind of talk.”

Now, that was funny. (And now that I think about it, it was what inspired the title of this blog.) I’d already noticed that epithets like “bible-thumper” and “redneck” were acceptable among nice liberal folks. In fact using such words was virtually a declaration of one’s liberal credentials. Later on, “wingnut” (short for “right-wing nut”) spread like a radioactive virus over the liberal blogosphere, where it enjoys wide use. Don't call them "pwogs," though -- they'll get pissy about your incivility. And “retard,” along with its many spinoffs (fucktard, diptard, and many more) turns up on liberal blogs and websites, usually in the comments sections, where liberal dittoheads signal their contempt for Rethugs and the Chimp while deploring Republican hate speech like “the Democrat Party.”

Not that I have any objection to polemic, invective, or contumely. As anyone who reads this blog should know, I love ‘em. I’m not even surprised when people commit the same language offenses they deplore in others. I’m just sayin’.

But then, this morning, I was on a GLB panel speaking to a high-school class. One of the other speakers is much younger than I am (isn’t everybody, these days?), and is getting ready to be a teacher. So she’s highly alert to “hate speech,” and insisted that any hateful epithets should be corrected immediately by teachers. The thing was, she kept referring to various people (some family members, some of her students) as “morons,” “idiots,” and other similar terms. After the fourth or fifth time, I began watching the faces of the kids we were speaking to. This was an alternative high school, where kids often go to escape from the wonderful American mainstream. I wondered how many times they’d been called “morons,” “idiots,” and worse, not only by other kids, but by teachers?

Many years ago (you don’t want to know how many), I dated a slightly older man, a person of great sweetness and vulnerability, and not at all stupid. But he wasn’t an intellectual – by which I mean a person who likes to work with ideas the way that a mechanic works with cars, taking them apart and putting them back together for the sheer pleasure of seeing how they work – and he hadn’t done very well in school. He was impressed by my big collection of books and records, and kept deploring his inadequacy where the life of the mind was concerned. I was young and had my own issues to deal with, so when mere reassurance failed, I began putting distance between us. I still feel bad about that, but I still don’t know how I could have handled his neediness better. Since then I’ve dated other non-intellectual men who didn’t constantly apologize for themselves, and got along all right. If they don’t mind my inability to rebuild a carburetor or recite the complete starting rosters of the NBA, I don’t mind their ignorance of philosophy or poetry.

But Jerry’s pain, combined with what I learned from reading educational critics like John Holt, reminded me that kids who don’t do well in school are not only penalized with bad grades, they may be shamed and humiliated in the classroom by their teachers. They’ll probably suffer less from their peers, who may not be academic stars themselves and will prefer to torment bookworms and teachers’ pets instead. While some such kids may not really care that much, if schoolwork really doesn’t interest them, it still does no one any good to be told that they’re stupid, inadequate, and will never amount to anything.

It took me many years to get over the intellectual snobbery I learned in school. I was very lucky that in my junior high and high school I didn’t get picked on for being a bookworm and a sissy. For whatever reason, other kids respected my intelligence, which freed me from the need to be defensive, and made it a lot easier to get over myself. (I had more trouble with a few of the teachers.)

One of the things I learned from Noam Chomsky was how to treat non-intellectuals with respect, even when I don’t agree with their opinions, while taking the gloves off for the elites. I’ve often noticed that the smartest people I’ve encountered, like Chomsky, don’t feel that smart themselves. They are all too aware of their ignorance and the times they missed solutions that were staring them in the face. It reminds me of the time a graduate student I knew told me, sweetly and almost shyly, “I don’t say this to many people, but I think of you as my intellectual equal.” I thanked him, embarrassed, because I realized that though I hadn’t thought about it before, and don’t go around making such comparisons in the first place, I didn’t consider him my intellectual equal.

Even if the young teacher-to-be this morning learns to contain the insults while she’s in front of a classroom, they'll leak out through facial expression, body language, and her total attitude toward her students. I’ve heard horror stories from gay kids who were mocked by teachers for being sissies, and have long told education classes that they need to think about how they treat gender-nonconformist kids whether they’re gay or not. If I don’t accept the excuse, made by many, that “That’s so gay” doesn’t really have anything to do with sexual orientation, I’m sure not going to believe that “moron” and “idiot” have nothing to do with scholastic ability. A teacher who uses such terms so casually should not be given power over children.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Vin Audenaire

Another of my GCN book reviews, published in 1982 or early 1983. Turns out I was wrong about Chester Kallman's not rating his own biography: his friend and, later, stepmother Dorothy Farnan, published one in 1984. (I reviewed it and will eventually post that review here.) Thekla Clark's Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman (Faber and Faber, 1995; Columbia University Press, 1996) is a beautifully written tribute to both men.


W. H. Auden: a Biography
by Humphrey Carpenter
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981

During the week that I spent reading this book I carried it around with me, and I was surprised to discover how many of the college undergraduates I know had no idea W. H. Auden was; even those who had heard of him usually had never read any of his poetry. For the benefit, then, of those readers of this review to whom Auden is at best one more famous queer: during the 1930s Auden was a widely-read and influential poet, thanks largely to such poems on political subjects as “Spain 1937” and “September 1, 1939”. But many of his non-political lyrics also became famous, such as “Lullaby” (“Lay your sleeping head, my love”) and “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters”). When he died in 1973, he was arguably the greatest living poet in English. By then he had renounced “political” poetry and made himself irrelevant from that point of view, but he had never been an activist anyhow. He had been at most a journalist, and for those pre-television days a media star: when he and Christopher Isherwood decided to remain in the United States during World War II, there was controversy in the Daily Mail and confusion in Parliament (for details see page 291 of Carpenter's book). At about the same time he re-embraced the Anglican Christianity of his childhood, and religion became the ideology he expounded in his verse. Later he collaborated with his husband, Chester Kallman, on opera libretti -- most notably The Rake's Progress for Igor Stravinsky.

Humphrey Carpenter's biography is the second major life of Auden to see print in the past few years (the other is Charles Osborne's W. H. Auden: the Life of a Poet, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979). Auden was one of those people like W. Somerset Maugham who attempt to obstruct biographers by requesting friends to burn their letters – a request which was, naturally, for the most part disregarded in Auden's case as in Maugham's. “He was also (he said) opposed in principle to the publication of, or quotation from, a writer's letters after his death, which he declared was just as dishonourable as reading someone's private correspondence while he was out of the room” (Carpenter, page xv). In practice, Auden (like Maugham) loved gossip and didn't mind reading the biographies and published letters of other writers. For that matter, Neville Coghill, who tutored Auden in English literature at Oxford, once “arrived at his rooms to find Auden already there, reading one of Coghill's letters” (54). Auden looked up and said, “Ah, you're here. Good. What have you done with the second page of this letter?” (Osborne, 40). Later on, “Auden's friends found their drawers being rifled for any letters suitable for inclusion” in a projected three-volume study of schoolboy and collegiate homosexuality (Carpenter, 78). While Carpenter's is not an authorized biography, he did have access to Auden's papers, and got interviews and other help from Auden's family. If this makes voyeurs of the biographer and his readers, we are after all only following in the Master's footsteps.

The subject of our voyeurism, of course, is Auden's homosexuality, which was an open secret during most of Auden's life and about which he cautiously became more open in later years. The details Carpenter supplies should satisfy all but the most jaded: Auden's technical preferences (fellatio -- a word Carpenter inexplicably insists on italicizing -- and occasional light s&m) and Chester Kallman's (Chester liked to be fucked, preferably by trade), Auden's insecurities about his looks and the size of his cock, and the age at which Auden was circumcised (seven). There is also copious information about Auden's loves, including the relationship with Chester, which Auden himself considered a marriage “with all its boredoms and rewards” (258), as well as Auden's forays into the mysterious twilight world between the sexes of heterosexuality. (Happily, Carpenter -- unlike some reviewers of his book in the straight press -- is not inclined to crow overmuch about these latter; even the affair with Rhoda Jaffe in the late 1940s, after all, was essentially a digression.) Jade that I am, I'm less interested in the nitty-gritty trivia than in the relationships, and Carpenter chronicles Auden's love life pretty thoroughly, starting with Auden's unrequited love for Robert Medley in 1922, without too much heterosexual condescension. If Osborne is less gingerly in his handling of Auden's sexuality, he is also less informative.

The mass of detail with which Carpenter presents us is probably necessary in order to depict Auden with all his contradictions. He was enormously fastidious about poetic technique and became more so as he got older, at the same time that his personal sloppiness increased to outrageousness: “You pee in the toilet?” he once asked a houseguest. “Everyone I know does it in the sink. It's a male's privilege,” and his brother John noticed while visiting that “the basin stank horribly” (408 and note to 409) in Auden's New York City apartment. He was convinced he was ugly and unlovable, yet pursued prospective loves tenaciously. He was ambivalent about his homosexuality: while he seems to have had no doubt of the value of his love for Chester, he was capable of writing a primly disapproving preface to Rae Dalven's translation of the poems of Constantine Cavafy. He went through one ideology after another -- John Layard's mystical psychology, D. H. Lawrence's Leader-worship, Marxism – before settling on Anglicanism, leaving behind him a trail of cigarette ashes and empty wine bottles, always with the apparent zeal of a true believer, but in reality mainly in search of jargon with which to stuff his poems. While he claimed to take the Church seriously, it was really no different except that its childhood associations reminded him of his mother, whom he adored. He was capable of travestying both in later life, saying of himself, “Your mother is the resurrection and the life. If she be lifted up, she will lift up all men unto her.”

Chester seems to have been no less complicated, though he never quite emerges from the shadows of Carpenter's book. This is a pity, for he was certainly important in Auden's life, but probably doesn't rate a biography of his own. A poet himself, he found it difficult being married to one of the greatest poets in the English language; of course he never managed to establish an independent reputation. Cyril Connolly once asked him: “How does it feel to be Alice B. Toklas to Gertrude Stein?” Auden raged: “I shan't rest until Cyril Connolly is either dead or in a lunatic asylum” (316). Unfortunately, Chester lacked Alice's self-possession and strength. When Auden died, he drank himself to death in a year and a half.

At my age (thirty-two) I'm no longer looking for gay father-figures or role models, yet I have to admit that in the end Auden disappoints me. The drinking, the slovenliness, the ambivalence about his gayness, the retreat into religion are all depressing. There are of course the poems -- a fat collected volume -- the essays, and the libretti; and I suppose they ought to be enough to counterbalance the frequent dreariness of his life. Auden himself thought so, and said in 1965 that his life had, “so far, been unusually happy” (455). And Carpenter closes his acknowledgements, and the book, by thanking “Auden himself for living a life that has ben such a pleasure to write about” (482). I mustn't forget that most lives have their share of dreariness, and that Auden lived (as we still all do) in a society that insisted that homosexuals were degenerates. Like so many of our gay Elder Statesmen, Auden managed not only to survive but to succeed, and he emerges from Carpenter's pages defiantly, often exuberantly, human.

(Photo of Auden from "the BBC News website" via The National Library Board of Singapore.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Maybe Islands

The Stone Gods
by Jeanette Winterson
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007
(to be published in the US by Houghton on April Fools Day 2008)

I first encountered Jeanette Winterson through her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a fairly naturalistic account of growing up lesbian in a working-class Pentecostal family in northern England. After that I read her novels more or less as they appeared in the US. (So far I haven’t gotten to Boating For Beginners, her retelling of the story of Noah’s ark, which Winterson dismisses as a potboiler, and one or two others.) After Written on the Body, which dazzled me, I began to notice what seemed to me a loss of energy in her writing. This was confirmed for me by her collection of stories, The World and Other Places. The stories were arranged in order of writing, and the earlier ones gave me as much pleasure as I’d remembered her earlier fiction doing; like her later novels, the later stories became more distanced and abstracted. Her writing was as skillful as ever, but something was missing.

Then a comment on Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For blog linked to Ursula K. LeGuin’s review of Winterson’s new novel, The Stone Gods. As the commenter said, LeGuin was “critically enthusiastic” about the novel, though I can’t recall the novel’s “characters … repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction.” (Looking over the text, I found one such announcement, but I’m not sure it should be taken literally. If you read the book, you’ll see why.) LeGuin also complained that “to me, both the love stories in the book are distressingly sentimental”, though she conceded that sentimentality “is very much a matter of the reader's sensibility.” I disagree about the love stories in The Stone Gods, which I enjoyed, especially since similar criticisms could be (and have been) raised about the love stories in LeGuin’s fiction, as in science fiction generally. Ditto for the novel’s didacticism; SF has always had a didactic streak, as LeGuin knows, but I never found Winterson’s commentary intrusive. She’s sharp and witty, and her ideas are interesting. One word that never occurs in LeGuin’s review is satire, and like so much SF The Stone Gods is satire, the love child of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Female Man. The question about satire is not whether it’s subtle, or whether it’s didactic, or even whether it’s sentimental, but whether it hits its mark.

The Stone Gods
begins with the announcement of the discovery of Planet Blue, which except for a few dinosaurs is pristine and hospitable to human life. Since it is universally agreed that human beings have ruined the planet we have, Planet Blue looks like a great place to start over, learning from our mistakes and doing it right this time. (Are you done laughing? One reason I love Winterson is her disdain for this evergreen daydream.) Billie Crusoe, the narrator, works for Enhancement Services of the Central Power, one of three major power blocs on her planet of Orbus. "Enhancement" refers to the appearance modification that is practiced universally in the Central Power:
All men are hung like whales. All women are tight as clams below and inflated like lifebuoys above. Jaws are square, skin is tanned, muscles are toned, and no one gets turned on. It’s a global crisis. At least, it’s a crisis among the cities of the Central Power. The Eastern Caliphate has banned Genetic Fixing, and the SinoMosco pact does not make it available to all its citizens, only to members of the ruling party and their favourites. That way the leaders look like star-gods and the rest look like shit-shovellers. They never claimed to be a democracy.

The Central Power is a democracy. We look alike, except for rich people and celebrities, who look better. That’s what you’d expect in a democracy [19].
Somehow Billie is assigned to interview a Robo sapiens named Spike, a cosmetically female robot that has just returned from a survey mission to Planet Blue, and then is forced onto a spaceship taking the first human colonists to the new world.

Of course, Spike and Billie fall in love, and things go drastically wrong. There’s a brief interlude about Billy, a young English sailor left behind on Easter Island by Captain Cook’s expedition in 1774. He falls in love with Spikkers, a half-Dutch, half-Islander, “a man of forty years, yet wonderfully preserved, lean and strong, and with a cheerful, inquisitive face that reminded me of a good dog that never had a bad master” (105). Then we’re back with Billie, only on Earth this time, in a near-future Tech City after World War III. Spike is here too, “the world’s first Robo sapiens. She looks amazing – clear skin, green eyes, dark hair. She has no body because she won’t need one. She is a perfect head on a titanium plate” (132). Billie is her tutor, assigned to “teach a robot what it means to be human” (135); she smuggles Spike to Wreck City, the “No Zone” beyond the end of the tramlines, basically like the slums that circle today’s great cities except with residual radiation from the nuclear weapons that flattened the West in the war. In Wreck City they encounter a man Friday and a motley batch of post-punk dykes, mutants, and subversives, and things again get strange.

More than that I won’t say, because you should read it for yourself. The Stone Gods is more fun than any book of Winterson’s I can remember. Admittedly she’s not for all tastes – at her wildest she’s a bit dry – but she seems to have let loose here. If she hasn’t quite regained the energy of her earlier work, she’s acquired a new verve that is very encouraging to see. The satire is sharp and, I think, hits the mark. And oddly, The Stone Gods was published at about the same time as Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book, Making Money, which is also satirical and also features a female (though heterosexual) love interest named Spike.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I'm So Confused! The Whole World Is Spinning!

Oopsie! Tom Tomorrow is P.O.'d about the right-wing radio claim that Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign neglected to leave a tip to the Iowa waitress who served her at a Maid-Rite diner. "Well, big effing surprise," Tom huffs: "like pretty much everything else you might hear on right wing talk radio, it was not only untrue, it was demonstrably untrue." Of course I agree about the reliability of right wing talk radio, so I followed Tom's link to Steve Benen's The Carpetbagger Report, which huffed and puffed some more, and followed its link to this New York Times story, which included some information that neither Tom (maybe because he didn't click through to the Times story) nor Benen mentioned.

Clinton's people claimed that "the candidate and her aides had in fact left a tip: $100 on a $157 check at the diner. The restaurant manager, Brad Crawford, confirmed in interviews, including with The New York Times, that Mrs. Clinton, of New York, and her retinue had indeed left a tip, though he did not say how much." Interesting, but even more interesting was what the waitress herself had to say:
Reached at her home in Iowa, the waitress, Anita Esterday, said that neither she nor a colleague who helped serve Mrs. Clinton recalled seeing any tip.

She said a local staff member of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was in the restaurant on Thursday to tell them that the campaign had left a tip.

She said that when she and her colleague said they had not seen a tip, the staff member gave each of them $20.

Myself, I believe the waitress over her manager or the Clinton campaign. Especially since she had more to say:
“You people are really nuts,” she told a reporter during a phone interview. “There’s kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there’s better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn’t get a tip.”
Tom Tomorrow quoted that line, as did Jonathan Schwarz in a nice posting about the misuse of terms like "lunatic" in mainstream political discourse. It's a good'un. But suppose that the same story were to circulate about George W. Bush; the liberal blogosphere would have been up in arms over the Rethugs' attempt to rewrite Mrs. Esterday's memory with that paltry $20 bill. (More likely they'd have sent her to Guantanamo until she remembered better.) What I like is that Mrs. Esterday refused to be bought.

I must say I'm surprised that a well-oiled (and funded) machine like HRC's campaign would have forgotten to tip her waitress. And of course, the right-wing pundits don't care about waitresses any more than Clinton does. But "demonstrably untrue"? It doesn't sound like it to me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another!

Another of my GCN book reviews, from 1981 or 1982.

A Smile in His Lifetime

by Joseph Hansen
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $13.95 hardcover
292 pp.

Last summer Mike Peters of the Dayton News published an editorial cartoon of a woman who, though “underpaid, sexually harassed, passed over for promotion and stuck in a stereotyped role,” opposes the ERA. Why? “She likes being treated special.” Someday I intend to draw a cartoon of one of those neo-butch gay men who haunt the johns, the dirty-book stores, the backroom bars, but won’t have anything to do with the gay movement. Why? Because they believe in being discreet about their gayness.

Joseph Hansen is the author of a series of mystery novels starring a middle-aged gay male insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter. Brandstetter has his crotchets, but he’s a reasonably likable, competently functioning human being. Like many gay men of our parents’ generation, he has learned not to let hostile Society cramp his style much – a task made easier, no doubt, by the fact that he lives in Southern California. When gay activists do appear in The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, the most recent book in the series, they are depicted as crazy fairies completely out of touch with reality. This is a bit odd since Mr. Hansen himself, according to the dust jacket of his newest novel, “was a founder in 1965 of the pioneering homosexual journal Tangents.” Surely he knows better.

Now Mr. Hansen has moved into “mainstream” fiction with A Smile in His Lifetime, his first non-mystery novel. Whit Miller, the book’s protagonist, is gay but unlike Dave Brandstetter, he is a psychic basket case. Whit is married to Dell Everett, a straight woman. As the novel begins, Whit and Dell are living in near-poverty in the hills back of Los Angeles. He is a struggling and unsuccessful writer, she is a former teacher turned antiwar activist. She takes care of him, since they both agree he can’t take care of himself. It is the mid-1960s. First Whit, who married Dell in full flight from his adolescent homosexuality (at 19 he had already had at least two intense relationships) tumbles ambivalently into bed with a neighbor boy. Then he reels from lover to lover trying to regain his lost balance. He finally publishes a best-selling novel; Dell leaves him; he becomes famous; falls desperately in love with a beautiful hippie youth named Jaime who moves in with him and goes mad after a bad acid trip; Whit’s house is burglarized by one of his subsequent tricks; his novel is turned into a film; he is nearly killed by a gang of queerbeaters. Throughout, Whit marinates in self-loathing seasoned with contemptuous remarks about “faggots,” and I suppose the reader is supposed to conclude that if you hate yourself, bad things will happen to you. By the end of the book Whit seems to have learned little or nothing from his suffering; presumably the reader, having read the cautionary tale, is expected to.

I keep reminding myself that Whit Miller’s distrust of politics (he can’t get interested in his wife’s antiwar activism either) and Dave Brandstetter’s contempt for radical fairies are probably far more common than my ideological commitment to militant gay pride. And I have to admit that there is a lot in Whit Miller that I can identify with: the rage turned inward against oneself, or outward at lovers, rather than at the real enemy, is something that ideology has only partially alleviated for me; Whit’s alienation and his flights from the intimacy he also craves come uncomfortably close to home for me. Yet there is a difference between us that I think is crucial: for me the rise of a militant gay movement in the late 1960s (part of the period the story includes) was exhilarating and liberating, but Whit is unaware or unconcerned that a new attitude toward being a faggot is being born. This might very well be exactly his problem, but if Mr. Hansen thinks so there is no hint in the texts. Nor is there any other positive alternative, it seems. Whit rejects the offer of at least one man to replace Dell as the nursemaid in his life, and I think he’s right, because Whit needs to learn to take care of himself. But it is clear that he can’t, at the close of the novel he seems to be withdrawing into hopelessness, unless the closing sequence (in which he rescues his cat Polk from his crumbling beach house) is meant to symbolize Whit’s new strength and courage. If so, I don’t believe a word of it, having watched Whit snatching defeat from the jaws of victory time after time for the past 290-odd pages. I’m not sure I’m asking for a happy ending; I’m not sure how I think the novel should end; but I’m pretty sure this ending resolves nothing – and if it wasn’t meant to, why bother to write at all?

Contrast, say, Daniel Curzon’s frankly propagandistic Something You Do in the Dark, first published ten years ago. Cole Ruffner, that book’s hero, never comes into contact with the gay movement either, but he does begin to learn to turn his rage outward, even if he does so too late. Or compare James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, first published in 1967, in which the theme of the consequences of turning away love is carried to more baroque extremes – which is the point: A Smile in His Lifetime say nothing, it seems to me, which Purdy didn’t say fourteen years ago. Or consider Dancer from the Dance, in which Sutherland squelches every “slightest sign of complaint, self-pity or sentimentality” by saying something like, “Perhaps what you need is a good facial.” Perhaps what Whit Miller needs is a Sutherland in his life, instead of solicitous friends eager to shelter his sensitive artist’s soul from the stormy realities of life.

Mr. Hansen writes a spare prose that is sometimes beautiful:

Whit likes driving freeways after midnight. It is one of the times when he lets himself feel a little bit romantic. The long trail of red taillights curving away from him is beautiful and mysterious. He wants to know where everyone is going. It is more than wanting. He sickens with yearning to know where they are going and to go with them. … He knows nothing about their lives, but they are all beautiful and terrible to him, boxed up in those dark, hurtling cars. That he can’t be with them makes him ache. (p. 222)

A Smile in His Lifetime reminds me of Woody Allen’s film Interiors, an equally bleak and hopeless “serious” work. Mr. Hansen can do better, I know. Now that he has shown he can write a real novel, maybe he can go back to writing fiction in which the gay characters aren’t relentlessly punished throughout. There is a tendency nowadays (actually it goes back to the beginnings of the gay movement, and probably beyond as well) to claim that we don’t need gay pride any more, that gay guilt is a thing of the past. I’ll believe it when we start getting some gay male fiction where homosexuality is a given, not a problem. Mr. Hansen has already taken steps in this direction with his mystery novels; I hope he will go further in his future novels, whatever the genre. But A Smile in His Lifetime, as far as I can see, is a step backward.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shall The Pot Contend With The Potter?

I started to write a paragraph or two as an update to the previous posting, but as usual it grew and grew into a separate post.

Jeffrey Weiss (who, I should mention, sent me a nice e-mail defending his case after I mentioned him in the previous post) commanded J. K. Rowling to shut up and recognize that “until those books were published, the characters and settings were yours to command and control.… Now they are ours.” (One of us, one of us! Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.) The meme spread like a radioactive virus, first to Rod Dreher (thanks to Roy Edroso for the link), then to one John Mark Reynolds (via a commenter on Dykes To Watch Out For). Dreher’s post, titled “Dumbledore, the Queen of Hogwarts”, was nothing if not succinct: “I’m with my Dallas Morning News colleague Jeff Weiss: J. K. Rowling really would do well to shut up.” (After all, if St. Paul would not suffer women to speak in church, why should Rod Dreher?) Reynolds was more verbose, rather like your own Promiscuous Reader: to show his evenhandedness despite his distaste for “disordered affections”, he wrote a second article to establish that he’d have objected if Rowling had declared Dumbledore a heterosexual. But he too agreed with Weiss: “Dumbledore no longer belongs only to Rowling. He also belongs to her readers who have been given a series of books in which Rowling was free to say what she wanted to say. … She wrote what she wrote and now it belongs to us.”

To borrow a word from Reynolds: nonsense. Just because the projected series is finished, that doesn’t mean Rowling is not allowed to revisit the Potterverse should she wish to. I imagine that she’s currently enjoying the freedom that comes from the end of her obligation to work on that massive project, but in years to come she might want to write about Harry again. Many authors have returned, for better or worse, to creations they thought they were done with: Ursula LeGuin to Earthsea, Roger Zelazny to Amber, Armistead Maupin to 28 Barbary Lane, Conan Doyle to Sherlock Holmes – hell, Shakespeare to Falstaff. If Reynolds believes that Harry Potter now belongs to him, he might try publishing a continuation of the Potter saga without Rowling’s permission. (Reportedly Rowling is more indulgent of fan fiction than some other writers, but even she draws the line at Potter “slash” erotica.) Harry Potter belongs to her until you pry him from her cold, dead fingers.

Echoing other objectors, Reynolds declares that Rowling “wrote about Christianity openly by Book Seven, but if Dumbledore was gay, she decided to hide it. She hid it so well that there is no evidence of it.” I wouldn’t go that far. In Deathly Hallows, tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter accuses Dumbledore of an “unnatural” relationship with Harry Potter. This is at least compatible with the way bigots have exploited homosexuality in the closeted, especially after they’re dead. Dumbledore’s was probably an open secret among wizards. Potter fans have also pointed to Dumbledore’s own account to Harry of his ambiguous fascination with Gellert Grindelwald.

“At this point it is too late for Rowling to change the text,” Reynolds declares. “She cannot decide to kill Harry now . . . or announce that Harry is actually a vampire, a member of the Tory party, or antidisestablishmentarian. She wrote what she wrote and now it belongs to us.” Again, nonsense. Rowling is not changing the text, though she could if she wanted to. Writers often do. In the days when popular fiction was serialized in newspapers or magazines, authors would often make changes, even of endings, for book publication. Rowling has her own constraints, grown in the construction of her massive project, which would prevent her from (say) declaring that Harry was a vampire all along.

It’s not surprising that People of the Book, a Book whose contents are supposedly set in stone, would want everything they read to be under similarly tight control. But if the Author of the Book wants to add some commentary, let alone some extra installments, those are authorized additions. Who are you, O Man, to reply against your Author? The vexed question is who owns the rights to the franchise.

In Jesus’ day the canon of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t set. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and the Prophets (which included “historical books” like Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were pretty much agreed on, but the third division, the Scriptures (Psalms, Proverbs, Chronicles, and so on), had permeable boundaries. A lot of writings survive that didn’t make it into either the Jewish or the Christian lists. (The Christian “Old Testament” doesn’t quite match the Jewish Bible.) Some of them, like Jubilees, are retellings of stories from the Torah, often told from different perspectives, like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. (Even within the canon, Chronicles retells material from Samuel and Kings.) Or minor figures like Enoch get to be the stars of their own books, often with two or three sequels.

The Christians added a whole new cycle, which didn’t sit well with the original owners of the franchise. What are the gospels, after all, but Jesus fan fiction? (Son of Yahweh. Son of Yahweh Meets Satan. Son of Yahweh Meets Sons of Satan. Son of Yahweh Goes to Heaven.) Christians wrote more stories about Jesus and his family and friends, including the further adventures of Paul and other apostles, full of magic – I mean miracle, excuse me! – and other fun stuff. Then came the lives of the Saints, with gore, sexual threat (the virgin menaced by a slavering infidel is a perennial trope), miraculous escapes and martyrdoms galore. It continues to this day. Two From Galilee, anybody? Or, for the snuff crowd, The Passion of the Christ. (Personally, I prefer Paul Rudnick’s Adam-and-Steve play The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.)

Readers have always felt free to differ even with the official, published, canonical versions of the stories they loved. As a child, writer Jean Kerr (if I remember right) so disliked the unhappy ending of Gone With The Wind that she wrote her own happy one. There was a big fuss when Rowling made Harry's romance with Ginny Weasley canon: "On one message board, posters decided to unite against Spartz, Anelli and Rowling, writing that the new purpose of the forum was to 'express your views and show why the evidence was there for the [Harry/Hermione] ship, even if Ms. Rowling, unfortunately, did not see it,' and to 'let her know the way you feel about her comments, or point out how, why and where she went wrong in her development of the characters, or simply discuss how she will have missed a golden opportunity to tell one of the greatest love stories ever told.'" I pointed out before that conservative Christians aren't alone in their tizzy about the unfairness of Rowling’s revelation; at least one avowed atheist has complained in very similar terms, accusing Rowling of being “freakily obsessive about her characters.” As Rowling’s critics insist, Dumbledore’s gayness is not on that order; it’s a minor detail that is part of the backstory, and strictly speaking it's an addition, not a change – but if it’s so minor, why are they making such a fuss about it?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Unbearable Straightness of Harry

Last week in New York City, J. K. Rowling announced to an audience of fans that Albus Dumbledore, late headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay. Pardon me if I’m underwhelmed, and not very moved by Rowling’s generosity in giving the world one more deeply closeted gay character, and a solitary token at that, but the British gay movement response was predictable: “a spokesman for gay rights group Stonewall added: ‘It's great that JK has said this. It shows that there's no limit to what gay and lesbian people can do, even being a wizard headmaster.’” Peter Tatchell showed more sense, pointing out that a gay character who can be discerned to be gay in the book is more meaningful for readers, gay or straight. The American antigay-bigot response was predictable too; I won’t bother linking to the more blatant cases. Among human beings I liked best the blogger who titled her post “I Love My Dead Gay Dumbledore.” This was a reference to the great dark comedy Heathers, in which a weeping father expresses his love for his dead gay football-player son; a skeptic in the church murmurs, “Wonder how he'd react if his son had a limp wrist with a pulse.” I had the same thought about Dumbledore.

Then there were the straight liberals. PZ Myers is a scientist and an atheist who likes to twit Bible-thumping homophobes, but he was grumpy: “It's more fuss over nothing,” he harrumphed. “He's a fictional character, the author is getting a little too freakily obsessive over her characters, and it doesn't affect me one way or the other how the character swings. So Rowling says he's gay. Eh. Move on.” If only it were that simple. Some of his commenters promptly set him straight, so to speak, on authors and backstory. Me, I always get suspicious when a straight boy starts letting his imagination run too freakily free: “Dumbledore could have been written up as a flaming ponce who hung out in the Hogsmeade Bathhouse every weekend and did drag cabaret for fun”. I’ll bet he doesn’t care whether Dumbledore liked girls, boys, or Mackled Malaclaws! Someone has mild issues, I think, like the commenter on Blog@Newsarama who complained, “I didn’t really want to know this. Not that I care that a Harry Potter character could possibly be gay, but rather that it’s thinking of Dumbledore in a sexual way at all. It’s like seeing your grandparents doing it.”

Slinking further to the right, there’s this writer for the Dallas Morning News, who didn’t want to know it either, and apostrophized Rowling thusly:

Is Dumbledore gay? He is for you, apparently. But unless you said it in the actual books, must he be so for me? Your saying so now makes it harder for me to imagine anything different. Do you really want to limit your fictional world that way? …

For all of those years, until your books were published, the characters and settings were yours to command and control. But then you let them go.

And speaking for all of your happy readers I need to tell you: Now they are ours.

“Ours” evidently means “heterosexuals” here – it doesn’t occur to the writer that many of Rowlings’s happy readers are also gay, with opinions of their own on this subject. On Jeffrey Weiss’s planet, a gay character is somehow “limited” – can you imagine him making the same complaint about a heterosexual character? (Hey, Ms. Rowling, telling us that Harry got married to Ginny Weasley limits your fictional world!)

What surprised me a bit was the reaction among some gay men. When an article about Rowling’s announcement appeared on, the commercial gay chat and news site, many of the (presumably gay) commenters were hostile. Some accused Rowling of trying to exploit the gay male community to make more money, but some sounded just like homophobes: they didn’t want to know about it. One said he wouldn’t read the rest of the books because “this offends me”, but he didn’t explain why; nor did the one who wrote, “Like most fans around the world, I'm dismayed!!” Still another wrote: “Weather [sic] or not Dumpledore [sic] is gay has no bearing on the telling of the tale, it may be an interesting side note but the sexuality of his character has little to do with the story.” On the whole, the range of responses among these gay men was the same as on the straight sites I looked at, only with worse spelling.

Another ploy was the “They’re children’s books!” line. Strictly speaking, the Potter books are Young Adult fiction, which has always grappled with sexual and other social issues. There are a number of classic, if problematic YA novels that deal with homosexuality. Harry and his friends are adolescents, not children, and the series depicts their awakening heterosexuality (which was enough by itself to make some conservative commentators queasy). While it’s true that Dumbledore’s sexuality need not have been known to them, what about their fellow students? A Gay/Straight Alliance wouldn’t be out of place at Hogwarts, I’m sure. But that would raise the dread spectre of Politics, which was difficult enough when Hermione (no doubt thanks to her human background) tried to organize a movement to free the house elves. But Rowling’s world is one largely devoid of politics (except for the murky power struggles among the wizards); I think that’s one reason for its popularity, especially among adults of a certain age.

As Rowling herself said that night, “Oh, my god, the fan fiction!” Since the 1970s or so, there has been semi-underground erotica, known as slash fiction, depicting various manly couples as gay: Kirk and Spock of Star Trek, Starsky and Hutch, and more recently characters from the Harry Potter universe. Most of it is written by women, largely though probably not exclusively straight; SF writer and critic Joanna Russ wrote a famous paper about it, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love.” I haven’t seen any of this stuff myself, though I’ve looked at some of the Japanese yaoi and shonen ai comics, also about male love and also wildly popular among young women. What Rowling didn’t make explicit, her fans certainly will. As Jeffrey Weiss wrote with something different in mind, the characters belong to the fans now, and not all of them want Dumbledore or Harry to be straight.

Although I’ve read all seven of the Potter books, I don’t think I’d be considered a fan. I’ve never found Rowling’s wizards appealing; on the contrary, they are narrow and provincial at best, racist and homophobic at worst. In The Deathly Hallows a sensational writer accuses Dumbledore of an “unnatural” relationship with Harry. This supports Rowling’s claim that Dumbledore’s homosexuality had long been part of his backstory for her; it’s reasonable to guess that his enemies used his known queerness to smear him, just as Muggles do in the real world. That the ploy worked doesn’t indicate that the world of wizards is any more enlightened about sexuality than the Muggle world. There’s also the slavery of house-elves, and the common anti-Muggle prejudice that so many wizards indulge, from the crude gut racism of the Malfoys to the muddled, well-meaning liberalism of Arthur Weasley. Magical candies and Quidditch, which delight so many of Rowling’s fans, aren’t enough to make me wish I could have gone to Hogwarts.