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.)