Saturday, September 6, 2008

Are You Born Homosocial, Or Is It A Lifestyle Choice?

You might think that people would get less worked up about fictional characters, but you'd be wrong. I read J. R. R. Tolkien's three-volume novel The Lord of the Rings for the first time in the summer of 2003, when I was 52. Coming to it so late deprived me of the fascination that grips so many adolescents, inspiring them to learn Elvish and so on, but it also allowed me to notice things that an adolescent might miss. My ears pricked up, so to speak, when I read in the prologue that among hobbits, "Bilbo and Frodo Baggins were as bachelors very exceptional as they were also in many other ways, such as their friendship with Elves" (The Fellowship of the Ring [De Luxe Edition, London: Allen and Unwin, 1969], 19). I noticed too their Dorian Gray-like extended youthfulness (35 and 55f), an effect of an evil magical ring instead of an evil magical portrait, but no less "unnatural", "peculiar," and "queer" for that.

Before I read the books I had already seen the first two parts of Peter Jackson's film adaptation. And even before seeing the movies I knew about the friendship between Frodo and Sam Gamgee, thanks to some remarks in interviews by the actors who played them, and thanks also to some overwrought reviewers, like one Nathan Shumate:

Fairly obligatory side note: You may be unlucky enough to hear a reviewer blather on about "homoerotic undertones," usually focusing on the Frodo/Sam relationship. (I heard it first from Steve Oldfield, whom I like well enough, though his tastes in film are a little too studiously plebeian for me.) I only have two things to say to these reviewers: 1) They should see the 1978 version, in which Sam seems only a short step from leaping into Frodo's lap; and 2) they should read the book (Oldfield admitted he hadn't). Tolkien is very obviously harking back to long-standing traditions of platonic same-gender devotion being the highest form of bond, and the fact that such things have to be seen through the modern lens, wherein every display of affection must be interpreted sexually, is unfortunate. I'm also a product of modern Western civilization, and I too can see how the modern sexual interpretation lends a level of meaning that Tolkien didn't mean in the slightest, but I think Oldfield's comments that "I expected Frodo and Sam to join hands and go skipping off in the end" only show that he's unqualified to professionally review this movie.
Peter Jackson's film version, as Shumate indicates, generally toned down the emotion between Frodo and Sam, though not enough to ward off uneasy tittering among many straightboy viewers and reviewers. The film shows Frodo reacting fondly to Sam's adoration, much more than in the books as I recall it, where he simply accepts the attention and service as if it were his due. The changes are more in details that might prompt boyish squirming and giggles: in the book Return of the King, for instance, after Sam and Frodo have been rescued, they wake up in the same bed, but in the film they've been put in separate rooms (!). Sharing a bed is one of those "innocent" platonic practices that might be "misunderstood."

Shumate does come close to making a point when he complains about reviewers "blathering on about 'homoerotic overtones'": "homoerotic" does get thrown around too freely by people who aren't clear on what they mean by it. But why does he bring up Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version? Does he think it does have "homoerotic undertones"? Does he believe that if it does, Jackson's version therefore has none? He seems to mean something like: If you thought Sean Astin and Elijah Wood were acting like a couple of fags, you should see this. Evidently he's also unaware that "homoerotic undertones" have been detected in Tolkien's trilogy, as in "platonic same-gender devotion" generally. All of which indicates Shumate's own lack of qualification to review this movie.

It might be useful to distinguish between what I'll call a homophobic (or gay-baiting) interpretation -- which detects eroticism in same-sex bonding in order to mock and discredit the people involved, while furiously denying the possibility of eroticism in pairs whom the homophobe does not want discredited -- and what I'll call a homoerotic (or gay) interpretation, which sees eroticism in same-sex bonds as positive and desirable. (An example of the latter is the ancient Greek reinterpretation of Homer's Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, a reminder that what Shumate calls "the modern sexual interpretation" is neither "modern" nor necessarily derogatory.) Granted it's not always clear whether a given reading is meant to be gay or gay-baiting, Shumate seems not to believe that a positive homoerotic reading is even possible.

Shumate is as homophobic, then, as the reviewer he's criticizing. For both of them, a man holding another's hand is a dirty joke about sissies jumping into each other's laps and skipping together into the sunset. Shumate agrees that sex between men is nasty; he just refuses to let Frodo and Sam be tainted with it. It all reminds me of a joke an old Hoosier lady once told me: "You know, I defended you the other day! Someone said, 'That Promiscuous Reader ain't fit to eat with the hogs!' And I said, 'He is so!'"

I sent e-mail about some of this to a lesbian friend I've known for thirty years, a professor of English lit and a Tolkien fan. "I disagree w. you about the homoerotic qualities of Frodo/Sam," she wrote.

Homosocial, yes. Tolkien is writing in a time and place where the homosocial in Brit society, esp. of his social class, is dominant. You can see the same sort of thing in the relationship of the animals in "Wind in the Willows", in the relationship of Bunter and Lord Peter, etc ad nauseum. This is not to say that some of these homosocial relationships didn't have an erotic component--some of them did, of course--but they "read" culturally as homosocial. It's hard for us at this point in history to grasp the distinction, but there is one, and it's real.
Funny thing: I had not used the word "homoerotic" at all in the message I'd sent her, let alone about Frodo and Sam's friendship. What I wrote was that "the Frodo-Samwise coupling, in which a simple but competent younger man adores and devotes himself to a man in middle age, seemed like a wish-fulfillment fantasy on Tolkien's part." That description still seems to me not only fair, but obvious. My friend apparently jumped to the conclusion that by "adores" I meant a sexual bond; so who's seeing sex sex sex everywhere? (In all the critical writing I looked at, the focus was always on the friendship between Frodo and Sam: no one, that I noticed, addressed Tolkien's own descriptions of Bilbo and Frodo as oddball bachelors and loners.)

It isn't really hard at all "for us at this point in history" to grasp the distinction between "homoerotic" and "homosocial"; Nathan Shumate, for one, grasps it very well. Some version of that distinction is whipped out like a crucifix or sprig of garlic whenever someone gets nervous about male (or female) bonding, usually with the implication that the writer is able to grasp what the ignorant masses cannot. Other terms have been used at other times, but the specific words matter less than the crucial task of defending any same-sex pair against what is still seen as the accusation of the foul crime against nature not fit to be named among Christians, a task which unfortunately is still taken very seriously today. My friend's misreading shows that it isn't only insecure heterosexual males who are determined to defend the virtue of Hobbits. When people claim that something extremely common is extremely rare, critical attention is called for.

The "homosocial" move fails for several reasons. For one thing, "homosocial" doesn't describe relations between two people, nor the inner selves of the persons in a relationship. It denotes the structure of social relations in a given environment. To use it in this way is not only inaccurate, it is anachronistic, since "homosocial" was coined about a century after "homosexual," which we are not supposed to use of persons or relations before 1870, or outside of Europe and the United States. Despite Kinsey's attempt to de-essentialize "homosexual," the word's ambiguity led to the use of "homoerotic," and later “homosocial,” to defend various protagonists against imputations of sodomy and tribadism. "Homoerotic" was still ambiguous, so after Eve Sedgwick wrote of "homosocial desire" in Between Men, that phrase rapidly became essentialized, enabling homophobes to ward off implications of unnatural vice in their favorite historical and fictional characters.

For another, the "homosocial" and the "homoerotic" are not mutually exclusive. Gay bars are often homosocial environments, and homosocial institutions such as the military, prisons, and monasteries harbor a lot of homoeroticism. Nor does the erotic exclude the social: gay male cruising areas, for example, are homosocial spaces, used for gossip and seeing friends as much as for hunting sexual partners, and except for solitary masturbation, eroticism is a social relation.

Finally, this move begs the question: it assumes non-erotic bonds as the default, transparent and natural, while erotic bonds are brought in perversely to spoil everybody's innocence. But it ain't necessarily so. A Korean woman once told me that she felt more at home in San Francisco than in any other American city she knew, because there, as in Korea, she would see women (and men) holding hands and being affectionate with each other in public generally. So, although she eventually learned better, she "read" clearly "homoerotic" behavior as "homosocial."

Her misreading was innocent, however, compared to the agenda-driven misreadings that are still the norm in heterosexual culture. Most of the passionate same-sex friendships of history and literature have been "read", indeed rather shrilly postulated as devoid of eroticism. Homophobes have often accused gay and lesbian historians of trying to defame the historical figures they read as gay. Historical figures now widely accepted as having been gay, lesbian, or bisexual were, until fairly recently, "defended" against the allegation with absurd arguments that amused and annoyed me and my queer contemporaries. "The homosocial" has always been dominant, both in social interaction and as a means of erasing homoeroticism. Such homophobic reading is what gay and lesbian historians have called into question. While they may have been mistaken in specific cases, defamation was usually the opposite of what they were trying to do.

Tolkien's homophobic biographer Humphrey Carpenter wrote that "as to homosexuality Tolkien claimed that at nineteen he did not even know the word" (J. R. R. Tolkien: a Biography, Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 53; see also 148). Leaving aside the fact that one need not know the word to do (or depict) the deed, Tolkien didn't write LOTR at nineteen. He wrote it in his forties and fifties, mostly during the 1940s -- after "the homosexual," after the trials of Oscar Wilde, after The Well of Loneliness. Living and working in an elite British university, he must have known an invert or two. Whatever his personal views, Tolkien was a twentieth-century man, not a prehistoric Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings is a twentieth-century book, not a medieval romance.

Tolkien doubtless drew on "long-standing traditions of platonic same-gender devotion", but he himself was "a product of modern Western civilization", and consciously or not, he stirred in a dash of the "modern sexual interpretation" by depicting Frodo and Bilbo as inverts, to use the 19th-century term that was still current through the middle of the 20th century, when Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. (Anthropologist David Gilmore used it in print as late as 1990.) I would classify them as "inverts of the finer sort," the sort who would form clammy, repressed, intense friendships with (supposedly clueless) "normal" men, letting off steam (if they did at all) only with palace Guardsmen or hot-blooded gondoliers.

Tolkien put a number of anachronisms into his story, such as potatoes, tobacco ("pipe-weed"), bound books, domesticated horses, wheeled vehicles, and "in many cultural respects the society of the Hobbits, with its small towns, farms, inns, parties, letter-writing and clannishness, is closer to the experience of modern, even 'bourgeois' modern man than that glimpsed by Wells's Time Traveller" (Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: a cultural phenomenon, 2nd edition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 15). LOTR reflects its author's distaste for industrial modernity, but it is a modern book, even if not a modernist one. (Or is it? Tolkien's deliberate archaism is also a common device in literary high modernism -- see Eliot, Pound, Djuna Barnes, and Joyce, among others; so is satire of the supposed soullessness of modern life. And don't forget Tolkien's older contemporary D. H. Lawrence, who hated industrialized modernity as much as Tolkien did, and who was probably read by many of the same students who made a cult of LOTR. Maybe the category of literary modernism needs to be rethought.)

While the concept of the invert would be anachronistic in Middle-Earth (as it is today), there is no reason to suppose that eroticism between males (or females) would be. There is nothing "modern" about sexual love between persons of the same sex. Labeling homoerotic readings as imposing a "modern sexual interpretation" is lying, pure and tortuous. Too many people, including scholars, deny the eroticism even of unquestioned and overt genital contact between persons of the same sex. Accounts of sexual relations between fifth-century BC Athenian males, or oral copulation among New Guinea tribal males in the twentieth century AD, will be explained away with vague hand-waving to the effect that such behavior is not really "homosexual", or not "homosexuality as we know it today."

Who are "we", and what do we "know"? The criteria are rarely made explicit, but they seem to be stereotypical caricatures of 21st century urban American gay subcultures. Socrates and Alcibiades did not attend Judy's Carnegie Hall concert, and few if any Sambia males own the all-important Abercrombie and Fitch apparel. Ruth and Naomi never went to Michigan, as far as we know; nor did Emily Dickinson own a pair of Doc Martens. Frodo and Sam never danced shirtless in a Pride Parade. I'm being deliberately snotty here, but I'm not exaggerating: one online reviewer declared that the male lovers in Brokeback Mountain weren’t gay, because they’d never danced shirtless in a Pride Parade. (By that criterion, I’m not gay either.) Compare Gayle Rubin ("Thinking Sex", in Carole Vance [ed.], Pleasure and Danger, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 205): "The earl [of Castlehaven, executed for sodomy in 1631] did not slip into his tightest doublet and waltz down to the nearest gay tavern to mingle with his fellow sodomists." (The more I look at this, the battier it appears. Imagine someone arguing that a 17th century lord wasn't heterosexual because he didn't put on a gold medallion and cruise down to the nearest singles tavern to score babes.) Anyone who refers to "homosexuality as we know it today" or "gay in the sense we know it" needs to make it quite clear what they do mean.)

In the case of historical figures, questions of evidence can be debated, regarding real people who did or did not have sexual relations with each other, regardless of what later generations wish to believe. Where fictional characters are concerned, claims about their "real" sexuality are even more obviously a defense of heterosexual turf, which homophobes depict as embattled and diminished already to a tiny space, The Homosexuals having taken over everything else. Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Batman and Robin, Achilles and Patroclus, Ruth and Naomi, Captain James T Kirk and Mr. Spock -- these and many others have been seen as lovers by some of their fans. In the case of Kirk and Spock, there is even a rich lode of fiction by female fans depicting them as such. To insist that they really aren't gay, that they are certainly straight, isn't just homophobic, it's absurd. If it pleases a reader to imagine Frodo and Sam as lovers, if Tolkien depicted them in a way that makes it easy to think of them that way, who is harmed? It's clear from the indignant reactions that someone thinks someone is harmed, but it's not clear who, or why, or how.