Wednesday, July 25, 2007

He Do The Police in Different Voices; or, Cap'n Billy's Whizz-bang

Published in Gay Community News in 1981. I guess they liked it, because they sent me Burroughs's next book, Cities of the Red Night, to review later.

of Saints

by William S. Burroughs
Berkeley: Blue Wind Press
$15.95 cloth, $5.95 paper

In William S. Burroughs’s autobiographical first novel Junky, first published in 1953, there is a confrontation between the author-surrogate William Lee and a cop in a Mexican bar. Drunk out of his mind on tequila, Lee shoves a gun in the cop’s belly:

“Who asked you to put in your two cents?” I asked in English. I was not talking to a solid three-dimensional cop. I was talking to the recurrent cop of my dreams – an irritating, nondescript darkish man who would rush in when I was about to take a shot or go to bed with a boy.

Twenty-seven years later Burroughs has kicked junk, but he still hasn’t got rid of that cop. And all the technical devices he’s used to fragment narrative don’t quite obscure the fact that he is still obsessively writing and re-writing the same book. Port of Saints, his latest – written in 1973 but not published until 1980 – is a reworking and expansion of The Wild Boys (1969), which derived from Naked Lunch (1959), which derived from Junky. They all seem in part to be attempts to exorcise that cop in Burroughs’s head, who has changed from a “nondescript darkish man” with William Lee’s gun at his navel to a Lesbian policewoman held at bay by the eighteen-inch bowie knife of a Wild Boy, but still screaming, “What are you doing in front of decent people?”

Port of Saints begins with bits of a story about a young man lost at sea, bits of which are repeated but not resolved later – perhaps in Burroughs’s next book we’ll learn more. Interspersed with these fragments are pieces of two parallel stories: one of a sexual encounter between two teenaged boys (one of whom is apparently a fantasy-projection of Burroughs as a boy) and another made up of murky glimpses of “Audrey the ice boy.” The rest of the book is a collage of sex scenes between Burroughs’s various fictional alter egos and his usual subtly dominating initiator figures, and further adventures of the Wild Boys, those dashing young men in blue jockstraps who roller skate through the ruins of our collapsing civilization. Like most of Burroughs’s writing, it is readable and should present no difficulties once you realize that most of the characters are incarnations of Burroughs himself, zigzagging through time and space in search of a place where there are no women or policemen, just sharp-toothed Mexican boys who will slip an arm around his waist and then fuck him silly.

I was reminded as I read Port of Saints of Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground or of Mary Daly’s mythos of Crones, Harpies and Spinsters in Gyn/Ecology. Burroughs, like Daly and Gearhart, does not consider the other sex fully human, though he exceeds even Daly in virulence. He projects his infantile wish-fulfilment fantasies of omnipotence onto his Wild Boys and sends them armies of Lesbian policewomen and fat Southern senators to demolish effortlessly – compare “The Dissembly of Exorcism” in Gyn/Ecology, pp. 418-24. As in Gearhart, the good guys cultivate occult psychic powers against the urban technocratic enemy, but the Wild Boys, though they are inarticulate and indeed seem barely sentient, also command a complex technology which among other things enables them to clone themselves, thereby avoiding any contamination by contact with the other sex. Since they seem to spend most of their time fucking like monkeys and roller skating into Babylon to terrorize the masses, it isn’t clear how they manage this, but Burroughs is unconcerned here with the underpinnings of reality. That would be like asking why movie cowboys never have to reload their six-shooters. As utopian fantasies go, I prefer The Wonderground, whose Hill Women haven’t forgotten their sisters in the cities, and still maintain alliance, however uneasy, with men. Gearhart, unlike Burroughs and Daly, is at least trying to be human-hearted, even if her let’s-crawl-back-into-the-womb-of-Mother-Nature ethos is unconvincing to me.

I used to think that Burroughs was at times an astute social commentator, but now when I look through the interviews in The Job all I can find is nonsense like “Love is a con put down by the female sex” and America “is a matriarchal … country.” Sigh. No wonder Norman Mailer, that misogynist and homophobe, could call Burroughs “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Even that was said when Burroughs was scraping sludge off the soft underbelly of the American dream. Now he’s writing boys’ books, and in retrospect it can be seen that that is all he’s ever written: Erector-set science fiction out of Hugo Gernsback and Buck Rogers, you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine sexuality, no girls allowed, Fenimore-Cooper Indian torture and Arab boy with Huck Finn on the raft, all written by an elderly boy still mortally afraid that Aunt Sally is going to “sivilize” him. While I realize that such stuff speaks to many men, gay and straight, I am more interested in outgrowing it.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Arf! (Not To Be Confused With Woof!)

Originally published in Gay Community News, April 1981.

The Dog, and Other Stories

by Joseph Hansen
Santa Monica
: Momentum Press
64 pp
$3.50 paper

If you’ve enjoyed Joseph Hansen’s mystery novels, you will probably be interested in this collection of his short stories. All but one were published before 1970, the year Fadeout, the first Dave Brandstetter novel, was published, and none in my opinion is in the same league with his longer fiction, but they do share some of its virtues.

“The Dog,” the latest of the stories, is hurt by Hansen’s new sense of vocation as a crime writer. A fortyish man meets a twentyish man with whom he’d been unrequitedly in love some years before. The boy becomes responsive suddenly in an attempt to manipulate the older man into protecting him from an elderly former business partner who is also in love with him. The story lacks focus: Hansen’s sharp eye for detail gets in the way in a short story, where every word must be relevant, so his descriptions distracted rather than informed me. There is not enough room to develop the characters, and the boy in particular remains annoyingly ambiguous: exactly what does he want from the older man? On the other hand, the setting is well-observed, and Howard, the older man, is a character I’d like to know better.

Most of the earlier stories are less mature work. “Enking,” set in the late 1960s, tells of an encounter between a middle-aged English professor and a stylish young poet with an Allen-Ginsberglike penchant for taking off his clothes but an un-Ginsberglike seductive beauty. Nothing of note occurs. This story is the most dated one here. “The Bee” is about an again, perhaps elderly, woman stirred by a chance encounter to think of her lesbian daughter, whom she has not seen in many years. In “Getting Rid of Mr. Grainger” a young lesbian drives a possible fortune-hunter away from her wheelchair-bound mother, then has second thoughts. “The Legacy” is savagely tragicomic: the theme is the desolation of a young man whose older lover has died, inadvertently leaving him only a brutally inappropriate “legacy.” “The Mourner” would be an unremarkable story in any other context, but it takes on added meaning here: a young boy growing up during the Great Depression, whose mother has died, begins to study American Indian lore obsessively, and quixotically frees from a small-town jail cell a young Indian. The possibility that the boy will grow up to gay, raised by the fact that all the preceding stories have been about gay characters, adds poignancy to the overtones of confinement and alienation in the story.

The Dog and Other Stories would have been more useful had it been published in the early Seventies, when it would have stood out more. It will now I think be of interest mainly to fans of Hansen’s other work, though his talent for description, his sympathy for children and the aging, and the direct unapologetic way (in the later stories) he writes about gay characters, are still virtues and make this collection worth reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What Happened

Originally published in GCN around 1980. Since then I've read a few more of Miller's novels, and though I still like What Happened (his last novel), I can't quite see how he got a reputation as a novelist. Miller had a very distinct writing voice, and once I saw how consistently he'd used that voice in his earlier work,What Happened seemed less fresh. On the other hand, his 1971 coming-out in the New York Times Magazine, reprinted as On Being Different, freed him from the closet strategies that beset so many writers. It also, I think, unleashed a lot of anger (as feminism did for many women), and Miller's anger animated What Happened in ways that his more contained earlier fiction would have benefited from. It's too bad he wrote no more fiction -- even his nonfiction was on, as he noted, "another subject" -- but I remember a scathing piece he wrote in the early 1980s for Rolling Stone, attacking American Christianity (including Catholicism) for its role as a vehicle for anti-gay bigotry. He died at 67, from complications of abdominal surgery, and I suspect he hadn't said all he had to say.

The Ugly Duckling; or, Memoirs of a Survivor

What Happened
Merle Miller
St. Martin’s Press, $10.95

Merle Miller’s novel What Happened was first published in 1972, a year after his public coming-out in the New York Times Magazine. Perhaps because it was not about prison, discos, or psychopathic killers, Harper & Row seem not to have pushed it, it was not widely reviewed, and it sank from sight (and print) like a stone. A year or so later, Plain Speaking, Miller’s startlingly reactionary puff job on Harry Truman, appeared. “Thank God you’re on another subject,” Miller’s mother told him, and no doubt the book industry, publishers, and writers of book-chat, agreed.

Now St. Martin’s Press has re-issued the novel with a more appealing dust jacket (the original edition had plain lettering on a black background) and a rambling foreword by Miller. Ignore the foreword, and be warned that the cute blond on the cover is not the main character, but read the book.

If it matters, What Happened is partly autobiographical. Like Miller, the narrator George Lionel grew up during the Depression in Iowa, a four-eyed, limp-wristed, squeaky-voiced sissy, and fled to the outside world in search of fame, fortune, and love. (If Miller’s earlier non-fiction writing can be trusted, George’s parents have the same first names – Monte and Dora – as his creator’s.) Like Miller, George married briefly and unsuccessfully, and during the McCarthy era was blacklisted for political aberrance. Both are middle-aged gay men whose lives and attitudes were shaped by a society which actively and mercilessly oppressed gay people. Both are survivors.

The parallels between author and character are worth pointing out because many people, even gays, may want when confronted with George Lionel’s life to pretend that he exaggerates, that things weren’t that bad. Partly because George Lionel is a sissy, not the manly, stereotype-shattering kind of faggot beloved of the present gay movement and straight liberals alike, and many of us seem to think that it’s still okay to pick on sissies, that it’s only okay to be gay as long as you don’t fit the stereotype.

George Lionel fits the stereotype in several ways. He is a concert pianist. He is effeminate. He is promiscuous. He drinks a lot. He is something of a misogynist. He is much given to self-pity. He has attempted suicide several times. Doesn’t someone like that justify all the things our enemies say about us?

Well, no, since you ask. Stereotypes need love, too. And George Lionel is more than a walking assortment of pre-Stonewall stereotypes. He also possesses a great capacity for love, a passionate concern for social justice, a first-rate creative talent, and the courage and stubbornness to keep fighting against a society which has tried, literally, to destroy him. (Miller’s reference to Anita Bryant in his foreword misses the point of his novel. George Lionel’s tormentors were neighbors, relatives, decent Middle Americans – you know, jerks.) George Lionel should remind us that stereotypical gays are people too, and that stereotypes exist mainly in the eye of the beholder.

For those of us who find it easy to turn up our noses at pre-Stonewall gay life, it is good to be confronted by someone like George Lionel. “I will not go to the ovens quietly,” he says, and he hasn’t. What Happened reminds me of two other books: like E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, it is a passionately caring book, unashamed to be thought silly for feeling deeply, willing to sacrifice formal brilliance for the message of human connection; like Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, it is the story of a fighter since childhood (“the spunkiest little bastard on wheels,” another character calls George), and if George Lionel is less self-assured than Molly Bolt, he’s been beaten up more often. It doesn’t stop hm from fighting, though, and to me his ambivalence makes him more lifelike. What Happened is also as funny and quotable as Rubyfruit Jungle:

In school when they did A Christmas Carol … I was always Tiny Tim, that little faggot, that screaming, sanctimonious little faggot. I know where he ended up, hustling in Piccadilly Underground, undercutting the other boys. “I’ll show you a good time for tuppence, sir. God bless us every one.”

What Happened is the story of the lives of many of us. Don’t be put off by its occasional mawkishness, its roller-coaste swings of mood, its sometimes cartoonish characters. There is enough truth in this book that if you care about gay fiction – if you care about fiction – you can’t afford to miss it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ode On a Grecian Urning

Published in GCN in July 1980 (I remember working on it in their office while visiting Boston that summer). So far I haven't read any more of Patrick White's books, not even the memoir in which he wrote about his homosexuality.

The Twyborn Affair
by Patrick White
Viking Press, 1980

One reason writers must write to satisfy themselves is that they can't be sure of satisfying anyone else. This is nowhere more true than in fiction about gay men. Writers can expect attack from those like me who evaluate art according to the tenets of radical gay politics, and from those who are looking for a nice, respectable book (no fats, fems, or freaks) they can introduce without embarrassment to Mother. Both factions tend to worry how straights will react, though by now we ought to know that our enemies will accept unhappy endings (and middles and beginnings) as The Grim Truth About Gay Life and dismiss happy endings as biased fantasies, while our friends will ask us what we think about it.

A lot of us are looking for a book about Everygay, even though no one knows what the typical gay man is like. Generally, of course, what is wanted is everyone's idealized image of himself or his imagined Mr. Right. There is nothing wrong with this, but we had better realize that no one can write a book that everyone can identify with. Me, I love good sloppy Grade B romances (I've read The Front Runner eight or nine times), but I'd appreciate some well-written fiction about unlaundered but three-dimensional gay men, complete with feet of clay. They don't have to be all things to all men, and the endings don't always have to be happy, as long as some of them are.

That being said, let me advise you right now that Eddie Twyborn, the protagonist in Patrick White's The Twyborn Affair, is not Everygay, unless Everygay is the Australian-born former mistress of an elderly Greek who imagines himself an heir to the Byzantine throne; a decorated war hero; and the madam of a London brothel with an upperclass clientele. Can't identify, huh? Don't worry about it. Not many people are a young prince who discovers that the middle-aged Theban queen he married is really his mother, but that doesn't mean Oedipus Rex is irrelevant to the rest of us. What counts is whether the author can use an exotic character to say things about the general human condition, and whether the reader is honest and empathic enough to look for him- or herself in what seems at first glance to be a weirdo. (I remember a group of middle-class professional gay men discussing Dancer from the Dance who first complained that the book had nothing to do with their lives, and then said that they knew its descriptions of Fire Island, The Everard Baths, etc., were accurate because they'd been there. Repeatedly. Such hypocrisy abounds as well among gay male fiction's political critics, who may have radical rationales for being baths regulars but can't abide characters in fiction who are.)

When I first heard about The Twyborn Affair I was dubious. That the main character is a man who spends most of his life impersonating a woman (while relating sexually at various times to members of both sexes) was not encouraging. Gays as hermaphroditic figures are an old and tired symbolic device which fascinates those who can't conceptualize sexuality apart from a butch/femme, Jack-and-plug polarity, but which has little to do with the reality of gay life; it isn't even a useful model for understanding drag queens. From my perspective The Twyborn Affair sounded like, not a gay novel, but a straight novel which used a straight fantasy of homosexuality to affirm masculine/feminine polarity as the basis of sexual life.

However, the novel is set during a period beginning just before the First World War and ending just before the Second. Anyone who has read Jonathan Katz's Gay American History will recognize that a non-polar concept of homosexuality is a relatively recent development even among gays, and people like Eddie Twyborn who passed successfully as members of the other sex were probably more common than anyone, gay or straight, has thought. Most obviously, cross-dressing was a disguise for aliens in a hostile environment. But it was also one way of conceptualizing and identifying one's self in a society whose prevailing ideology of sex did not provide for one's existence. In those days, as now, the available sexual categories ("sodomite," "bugger," "invert," "urning," and so forth) were inadequate, and gays had hardly begun to work out an identity free from heterosexual influence. I think Eddie Twyborn should be comprehensible to anyone of any gender or orientation who has failed to fit perfectly into the Procrustean bed of masculine/feminine roles on which we are expected to lie - and surely that means virtually everyone.

I understand from people who have read Patrick White's other books that he treats Eddie Twyborn with more sympathy than he usually accords his protagonists. For the most part Eddie is treated kindly, and White does not seem to depend on straight folklore or reductive psychiatric theories in his exposition of his character. Indeed he doesn't seem concerned to explain Eddie Twyborn but simply to explore him. Eddie is a mystery to himself, but rather than seek his solution in himself, he seeks it in other people. Admittedly the self is bottomless, and I don't think Eddie is either unrealistic as a character or unique as a person because he uses other people as mirrors to find out who he is. He becomes a marionette, and what is nightmarish about the second part of the book, where he looks for simplicity on a ranch in Bogong in the Australian outback, is the way Eddie is jerked this way and that by his perceptions of the expectations, desires, and fantasies of the people around him. He feels that he knows who he is only in bed with someone else, but the identity he finds there varies with his partner. As in Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Teorema the young visitor arouses sexual confusion on his arrival, but instead of sexually dominating his environment Eddie is overwhelmed by it.

I've read that White writes out of his convicion of human isolation and aloneness, but The Twyborn Affair seems, on the contrary, to postulate a spiderweblike net of human interaction where the characters thrash around, tangled in their interconnectedness and interdependence. To an extent it's true that we humans are lonely, isolated, fearful creatures - babies really, squalling for our mothers to come change us, feed us, cuddle us. Most of us are like this some of the time, some of us are like this most of the time, but it would be a mistake to call such a vision either the whole truth of the human condition or wholly false. The feeling of connection, of relation, may be illusory, a delusion of those who cannot face solitude and death, but I doubt it is so simple. To dwell solely on human isolation strikes me as equally romantic and adolescent, a sour-grapes flight from the difficulty of drawing sustenance from relationships. I think it's to White's credit that he is not so simple. Whatever theories he draws on don't get in the way of his art. The Twyborn Affair felt real to me in its depiction of Eddie's (admittedly extreme) rootlessness and his quest for identity. His methods are not my methods, but his are, I suspect, somewhat more typical. A non-polar idea of sexuality is by no means universal even among gays, even in our supposedly more enlightened times.

I kept trying as I read the book to figure Eddie Twyborn out, in my terms. Is he supposed to be gay? Bisexual? Transsexual? Multiple personalities? On one hand I was asking what White thought he was doing as he wrote the book and created the character, but on the other I was trying to fit Eddie into a box, to find him an identity. It is also to White's credit that Eddie is not easily categorized, either by himself or by the reader.

Perhaps that is the point of what at first seemed to me the book's gratuitous ending: Eddie (as Eadith Trist, the London madam) encounters his mother in London and demands to be accepted by her, not as her son but as her daughter. Mrs. Twyborn accedes: "I've always wanted a daughter." Eddie/Eadith seems finally to have arrived at an identity, and almost immediately afterwards is killed in the German bombing of London, torn literally limb from limb. Is this meant to suggest that to define oneself is a kind of death? If so, I think it's an easy way out. Like many books, The Twyborn Affair deserves to be evaluated apart from its ending.

Apart from its ending, it is a fairly good book, though I wouldn't call it a great one. It isn't the kind of book I'm likely to return to repeatedly for news from inside, like Small Changes by Marge Piercy or The Cook and the Carpenter by June Arnold or A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. But if Patrick White isn't gay - his sexual orientation is unknown to me - he has done a good job of projecting himself into a gay character and describing what it feels like from inside: his portrait of Eddie Twyborn is complex and vivid and - yes - sympathetic. His prose is often labored but there are some wonderful flashes of imagery, such as one man's "red nipples as unblinking as foxes' eyes in the surrounding fuzz of orange fur." And anyone who describes love as "that great ambivalence" can play on my team any time.

A note of consumer interest: Viking is charging $14.95 for the hardcover edition of this book. The binding is flimsy - my review copy began to split apart as I reached the end of the book, and I am a gentle handler of books - the type is squintingly small, and the paper seems a grade above newsprint. I know production costs are soaring, but I feel sure a better job could have been done at this price, especially with a Nobel laureate's book. If you're not sure you want to read it - and I believe it should be read - I'd recommend you wait for the paperback, which is likely to be overpriced too but will probably be as well-made.

Monday, July 2, 2007

If Nobody Else Jumped Off a Bridge, Would You?

One of the pitfalls of promiscuous reading is the multiple contacts. You read one book, it leads you to another, and another. Thousands of contacts in a lifetime, Dr. Kinsey! And sometimes you feel cheap and used afterwards. I picked up Sandra Lipsitz Bem’s The lenses of gender: transforming the debate on sexual inequality (Yale University Press, 1993) because I’d seen it cited here and there, and it sounded interesting and useful. But from her opening pages Bem made some strange assumptions:
I was recently asked to write a brief essay for Feminism and Psychology on “how my heterosexuality has contributed to my feminist politics.” That essay turned out to be rather different from what the editors expected because, although I have lived monogamously with a man I love for over twenty-seven years, I am not now and never have been a “heterosexual.” But neither have I ever been a “lesbian” or a “bisexual.” What I am – and have been for as long as I can remember – is someone whose sexuality and gender have never seemed to mesh with the available cultural categories, and that – rather than my presumed heterosexuality – is what has most profoundly informed not only my feminist politics but also the theoretical analysis of this book.

When I say that my sexuality does not mesh with the available cultural categories, I mean that the sex-of-partner dimension implicit in the three categories of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual seems irrelevant to my own particular pattern of erotic attractions and sexual experiences.
Although some of the (very few) individuals to whom I have been attracted during my forty-eight years have been men and some have been women, what those individuals have in common has nothing to do with either their biological sex or mine – from which I conclude, not that I am attracted to both sexes, but that my sexuality is organized around dimensions other than sex [vii].

I detect a note of smugness here, especially in the “(very few)” aside. How dreary for you, Professor Bem. But what bothers me is how stupid some of these statements are. To say that someone is “bisexual” is not to say that her sexuality (whatever that is) is organized around a sexual dimension, whatever that means. Rather, it means that someone, the person using the term, is looking at the sexual “dimension”, for lack of a better word, of a person’s life. It need not be supposed to define every aspect of the person, any more than height or weight or eye color does. If I say that I am five feet, eight inches tall, would Bem say that I am organized around a dimension of height? For that matter, if I were to say that I’m a Methodist, would I be saying that I was organized around a dimension of religion? I might be, but I would as likely be simply describing that dimension, one of many that could be adduced. If anything, Bem reveals here that she is thoroughly invested in essentializing these traits.

A “bisexual” is someone whose sexual experiences (which can include attractions not acted on) have encompassed people of both sexes. Bisexuals (which in this sense includes people who don’t identify themselves, even inwardly, by that term) respond erotically in a wide range of manners, or styles. Some want basically the same things from their partners regardless of their sex, others want one thing from males and another from females. Many say, as Bem does, that they are attracted to the person and not the sex. According to the usage of some self-identified “bisexuals,” then, Bem does fit into that category, so she’s either inexcusably ignorant for a psychologist writing on this topic, or she’s disingenuous.

Granted, many people ignore these differences, but a prominent psychologist should know better. Bem’s certainly not the only one who makes this mistake. What is really alarming is the way she adopts a very popular but dishonest defensive stance, defining her term narrowly and unrealistically so that it conveniently and oh so coincidentally doesn’t include her case. (I’m not gay, even though I’ve had sex with thousands of men and no women, because I don’t do drag, or see the same guy more than once, or because I believe in marriage and most gays are just a bunch of sluts, or because I am only a top [my partners are queer, not me!], or only a bottom [see, I never get an erection – men don’t turn me on!], or because I’ll do anything but kiss [kissing’s queer, cowboys don’t kiss!]. And so on, and on. You’re not fat, Eric – you’re big-boned!)

A monosexual will respond differently to different desired individuals of her own preferred sex. Identity doesn’t necessarily agree with practice: many people who consider themselves heterosexual (or, more likely, as not-gay or not-queer or not-that-way) or homosexuals have a considerable amount of erotic experiences with people of both sexes. I don’t experience my own sexuality as “organized around [the male] sex”, or as my being attracted to a “sex.” Rather, I find that my desires and emotions, and later practices, that are generally classified as sexual occur only in relation to males. I have had a good deal of interaction with women, including very dear friends, but never have been stirred erotically by them. I have no idea why this is, but to say that my “sexuality” is organized around sex would seem to me to be pretending to know more than I or anyone knows about the roots of sexual desire and practice. (More likely it’s circular, like saying that opium puts you to sleep because of its Dormative Quality.)

Many people assume that terms like “homosexual” and “heterosexual” and “bisexual” encode a particular model of sexual organization; but this assumption is usually made on the basis of little or no evidence. Despite the work of Kinsey and many others who resisted the siren call of essentialism, such things continue to be widely assumed, even by avowedly anti-essentialist writers and scholars. Bem seems to imply that maybe some other people are “attracted to both sexes” and their sexuality is organized purely around a sexual dimension or dimensions. Those people really are bisexuals, but not her! I’m not sure there is any good reason to believe so, but perhaps Bem will provide some evidence as I read further.

On the other hand, she speaks of these “categories” as though she doesn’t think they refer to real entities in the real world, so maybe there are no bisexuals; but in that case she’s as much a bisexual as anyone else. On the next page she writes:

In the early 1970s, I focused almost exclusively on the concept of androgyny … because that concept seemed to challenge the traditional categories of masculine and female as nothing before had ever done. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, I had begun to see that the concept of androgyny inevitably focuses so much more attention on the individual’s being both masculine and feminine than on the culture’s having created that concepts of masculinity and femininity in the first place that it can legitimately be said to reproduce precisely the gender polarization that it seeks to undercut. Accordingly, I moved on to the concept of gender schematicity because it enabled me to argue even more forcefully that masculinity and femininity are merely the construction of a cultural schema – or lens – that polarizes gender.

Notice how she dwells on the word “concept”, as though concepts were unproblematically tied to words, and their ramifications were mystically packed into concept and word, so that they need only be unpacked by the intrepid theorist. This is, I think, precisely what is meant by “essentialism.” If I disagree with that notion strongly, it’s not because I believe that words can mean anything arbitrarily, and that the question is simply who is to be the master. Words do carry meanings with them, as historically and culturally shaped constructions, and of course the theorist brings her own baggage with her. But though words and concepts are culturally constructed (as is the theorist), it is impossible to find a word that by its nature stands outside of history and culture, enabling the theorist to take a Goddess’ eye view of humanity without reproducing the assumptions she seeks to undercut. (I’ll be looking soon at Thomas Nagel’s discussion of “objectivity,” The View from Nowhere. I expect it to be as entertaining as The Lens of Gender.)

In pursuit of this Holy Grail, people go from word to word, concept to concept, in quest of the one that will magically free them from the chains of culture. Queer came into use a few years after The Lens of Gender was published; I wonder if Bem jumped onto that bandwagon too. But a look at the succeeding literature showed that it too failed. Usually unaware of what they were doing, opponents of binary thinking fell into a queer / not-queer binary. Critical of the time-bound connotations of “homosexual,” queer theorists smeared the word over all times and cultures. Some thought it was preferable to the innocuous “gay,” relishing the supposed transgressive possibilities of “queer” as they sought advancement in the conformist halls of academe, as though the word itself could automatically turn their formulaic dissertations and papers into something dangerous. (If you get a Ph.D. by using it, dears, it can’t be too transgressive.) And while queer theorists weren’t watching, “gay” became a pejorative (as in “That Is So Gay”). Many younger gay people especially began to reject “gay” as something analogous to “nigger,” a nasty word that we shouldn’t use of ourselves. Words and concepts are inescapably unstable, slippery and indeterminate. A theorist’s job, it seems to me, is to try to tease out certain possibilities and implications of a word or concept, and for the length of an article or book, pin it down to one meaning. “Androgyny” will do as well for Bem’s project as any other term she can appropriate; the hard part is not to avoid being limited by it, but to avoid being sidetracked by all the other possibilities one has tried to exclude.

Another telling blunder is Bem’s dismissal of “masculinity and femininity” as “merely the constructions of a social schema”. (My italics.) It isn’t only opponents of social constructionism who think, mistakenly, that a social construction is something illusory and arbitrary, invented out of thin air to confuse and control people: far too many social constructionists believe it too. Theory is also one of the constructions of a social milieu, as are those concepts and terms in whose coils theorists struggle, Laocoon-like. A word is very much a social construction, but you cannot ignore or change its meaning arbitrarily. A text is a social construction, but not just any meaning can be assigned to it. A social construction is built partly from immaterial ideas, and partly from human bodies; “race” and “sex” are examples of such constructions.

The word “tree” has no inherent connection to the object it refers to. It could just as easily be “arbol” or “나무” or “mti”. The connection is socially constructed, but it’s not an arbitrary construction: if you want to be understood by a speaker of English, “tree” is the sound-meaning construction you must use. (The example of language generally shows that social constructions are not mere illusions that we could see through and overcome by an act of will. You can’t learn a new language by recognizing that your old one is merely a social construction; it takes long hard work.) “Bisexual” has its limitations as a description of people’s sexuality, but it’s more useful, In My Hubristic Opinion, to point out and clarify those limitations rather than to refuse to use it where it applies. People who claim they don’t like to use labels are usually strongly attached to the use of the label “label.”

It seems to me that many theorists and critics (mathematicians and scientists too) feel smothered by the world: by their gross material bodies, by the constraints of history and culture and sociality generally. They forget, or never learned, that these constraints are what give us the possibilities of thought and choice to begin with. In this they remind me of religious (not only Christian) ascetics who hoped to escape the illusions of Maya, the Cave, the Flesh, to fly free in a realm of pure asocial spirit. The very difficulty they have in getting free of those “mere” social constructions suggests how powerful social constructions are, how bound by them we are despite these folks' insistence that they are Not Of This World, or at least, of This Cultural Schema. Dismissing them so lightly is a sort of sleight of hand to distract the audience from the “mere” constructionism that is going on in the classroom or on the page. (Just as essentialists’ or absolutists’ appeal to Nature aims to distract you from the historical and cultural in their performance.)

Oh, well. Tomorrow is another day. Prefaces and introductions often don't connect well with what follows, and many writers theorize badly but do good research. Maybe the rest of The lenses of gender will be more useful.