Sunday, September 14, 2008

I'm Not a Sodomitical Brute, But My Wedded Brother Is!

Raymond Williams began his great book The Country and the City with a genealogy of nostalgia for a lost time when honest farmers could earn a living on their own land. Moving backward from the 19th century, he showed how each generation liked to imagine that it was uniquely corrupt and fallen; each poet celebrated the pure old yeomen of his childhood, who'd known freedom and justice in their day. But the poets of those yeomen's youth had written virtually the same laments, which Williams traced back to Vergil and beyond. I believe I could do the same with "innocent friendship": each generation believes that it invented sodomy and sapphism and smirking suspicion, imagining that its forebears celebrated spiritual comrades without having to defend them against accusations of such icky new practices.

One of the most astounding examples I’ve found of this was in an online review of the Disney animated feature The Fox and the Hound 2. Mike Pinsky of DVD Verdict wrote of the original cartoon, “In these post-Brokeback Mountain days, it is hard to see Copper and Tod's friendship—their playful wrestling, their longing looks at one another, their efforts to create satisfying relationships with other characters to substitute for their inability to be together—in a completely innocent fashion. But that is neither here nor there.” Is it? Pinsky was saying that because of Ang Lee’s successful film, he could no longer see the frolicking of two talking animals in a children’s animated cartoon as “completely innocent.” To quote Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, “That is – how you say – your neurosis.”

But it’s not just his neurosis. My guess, and right now it’s only a guess, is that a person’s ability to view same-sex affection as “innocent” depends on autobiographical and historical accidents, such as seeing a breakthrough queer film like Brokeback Mountain. But there doesn’t seem to have ever been a time when friends were safe from gay-baiting interpretations of their friendship. It’s well-known that the Oscar Wilde scandal of the 1890s and the increasing medicalization of sexuality, which happened at the same time, cast a pall on expressions of affection between persons of the same sex. Yet J. R. R. Tolkien was still able, in the middle of the twentieth century, to write about such affection while relying on his audience not to snicker and giggle too much. Maybe he could do so because he set his story in a galaxy long ago and far away.

But everywhere I looked in European history, I found suspicion (or the fear of suspicion) of “innocent” friendship. From Catullus’ enraged poem defending the innocence of his kisses with Juventius (expressed, typically enough, in a threat to rape, anally and orally, those who had teased him, whom he in turn accused of being fags) to the assassination of Edward II (was he killed with a red-hot poker in his rectum for being a sodomite, or is that all a later rumor?), to the Ladies of Llangollen (were they innocent romantic friends, as they worked very strenuously to establish -- or were they, as Hester Thrale grumbled, a couple of dirty Sapphists from whom no woman’s virtue was safe?) Margreta De Grazia has shown (Shakespeare verbatim: the reproduction of authenticity and the 1790 apparatus, Clarendon Press, 1991) how late 18th century editors of Shakespeare’s sonnets suddenly recognized with horror that the Bard had written love poems to, like, a guy. Robert Tobin notes (in O'Donnell, Katherine; O'Rourke, Michael (editors) Queer masculinities 1550-1800: siting same-sex desire in the early modern world, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 30):

But in fact eighteenth-century readers objected to the tone of the more demonstrative male-male letters, suggesting that they were not completely innocent in their own era. Ann Louise Karsch's critique of the effusive Briefe von den Herren Gleim und Jacobi [Letters of the Messieurs Gleim and Jacobi] shows that the language of friendship was provocative in its own day: ‘There are too many kisses in this work to avoid slander, suspicion and mockery.’ Similar concerns greeted Muller's letters to Karl Victor von Bonstetten, which are monuments to the cult of friendship. They were so tender and intimate that their editor had to reassure readers that this friendship was ‘of the strictest, purest virtue’ and was ‘in every other respect identical to that friendship that produced the best and greatest things in antiquity.’

More recently there have been attempts to “defend” Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Willa Cather against suggestions that they had sexual feelings for their own sex. Whether or not they did so, the revealing thing is that the suggestions are seen as accusations.

The late Alan Bray's posthumously published The Friend (Cambridge, 2002) is a recent statement of the Great Homosocial Hope that bids fair to influence discussion of gay history for years to come. It's an account of sworn friendship or brotherhood in English history, structured around descriptions and discussions of the shared tombs of several pairs of sworn friends. Bray, a pioneering gay scholar, proposed to follow the evidence into the heart of same-sex love, boldly going where no modern historian had gone before, to try to solve one of the enduring puzzles of gay history: the amazingly effusive language and gestures that, in England a few centuries ago, could be used publicly to declare one's love for someone of one's own sex. Even with Henry VIII's draconian sodomy law fresh on the books, the Elizabethan period seems saturated with the public expression of men's passion for other men. Bray gave a great deal of attention to these flowery outpourings of love, which a few centuries later would be made only in secret, but were in their own day collected and proudly published.

Despite Bray's diligent efforts to minimize the importance of sworn brotherhood as a personal relation (as opposed to a social, religious, and political relation, which it is also – he’s much given to the false antithesis), his readings of his source material are generally sensitive; even when I disagree with him, his clarity makes it easier to spot where he went wrong, for the evidence he marshals virtually cries out against his interpretations.

Bray's opening salvo should evoke feelings of déjà vu by now: "The inability to conceive of relationships in other than sexual terms says something of contemporary poverty" (6). This is disingenuous, to put it gently. No one nowadays, as far as I know, conceives of all relationships -- not even all friendships -- "in sexual terms". Compare Nathan Shumate's equally hysterical "the modern lens, wherein every display of affection must be interpreted sexually," which I quoted a week ago. Bray's contemporaries and mine are quite capable of conceiving of non-sexual relationships, indeed of defending fiercely the chastity of the historical and fictional people involved in them, and of imputing the basest motives to those who read them erotically.

The fancy that Shakespeare and the Fair Youth were playing Hide-the-Weenie, however, was only part of what thrilled so many gay men who encountered these effusions. There was also the emotional aspect: not only did we have a history, but it encompassed more than mere furtive genital encounters. And then there was the public declaration of passionate love: not only did men love each other, they could declare that love aloud, publicly. They could even formalize their love with blessings and vows. These readings were often naive, mistaken, unhistorical -- but they were not malign.

Antigay readers, by contrast, want to separate sex and love in same-sex love. Not only must same-sex love be unaccompanied by genital contact, but same-sex genital contact must be unaccompanied by love, or by any kind of emotion at all. (Except perhaps for paralyzing guilt and suicidal self-loathing.) Those men (or women) who did commit 'sodomy' must have been the crazed degenerates they were declared to be by churchmen, cops, and judges, copulating brutally without any other human connection, because "homosexuality" hadn't been invented yet. (Bray, 186: "the conventions of friendship were set a world away from the wild sin of Sodom by the placid orderliness of the relationships they expressed.") This is made easier by the fact that so much of our information about sodomites comes from records of Church and secular courts, which focus on acts and ignore feelings, or from other hostile sources such as Juvenal's Satires and the caricatures of English mollies by freelance religious fanatics; but in some cases we possess love letters and diaries of those same sodomites, so we really do know better. It's understandable why bigots would prefer to ignore this material, but not why contemporary queers (let alone queer scholars) should wish to do so.

The issue is complicated by those who see a sexual relationship, especially between people of the same sex, as a dirty joke; but the proper response to such people is not to deny that sexual relationships occur -- to insist, as it were, that Frodo and Sam are so fit to eat with the hogs. The proper target for Bray's disapproval is not those folks who, however mistakenly, believe that Batman and Robin Did It, but rather those who deny that sexual love between two males or females can exist. I think Bray would have agreed with me on this point, but unfortunately in writing his book he fell back reflexively upon the bigotry of the Roman Catholic Church into whose vile and clammy embrace he had been "received" in 1985.

Let me throw down the gauntlet in response: It's entirely reasonable, given cultural mappings of the sexual and non-sexual in the contemporary US and Britain (which are no less valid than their counterparts in other times and places), for twenty-first century persons to be brought up short by accounts of men kissing each other, embracing, addressing passionate romantic language to each other, sharing a bed, getting jealous when one shows interest in a woman, and arranging to be buried in the same tomb. Such behavior, while not necessarily erotic in itself, is a marker of the erotic in US culture today. When a man and a woman behave like this, almost everyone would assume that their relationship is sexual. Everyone might be wrong, of course: a major part of the problem before us is the ambiguity of the erotic, both in life and in discourse.

Not only that, such behavior was a marker of the erotic in the past -- when it occurred between males and females. The inability to conceive of relationships between men and women in other than sexual terms is the historical, cross-cultural norm: hence chaperonage, purdah, and similar customs. In nineteenth-century England, an unrelated male and female of breeding age, left alone together for any length of time, invited gossip at least. No one seems to suppose that in the "Dark Lady" sonnets, Shakespeare was merely indulging in conventional rhetoric about a heterosexual passion that he didn't really feel. No, those poems are assumed to be transparently autobiographical, referring to a genital relationship replete with exchanged bodily fluids. It is the "Fair Youth" sonnets that are assumed to be "innocent", obviously intended to express no erotic feeling whatever -- unless they are appropriated for heterosexual use, in which case they are obviously erotic. (No one seems to have got in a snit over the [hetero]sexualizing of the "Fair Youth" sonnets in the movie Shakespeare in Love.)

Finally, this language and behavior also signified eroticism between persons of the same sex. Even in times and places where loving friendship was celebrated, it was also suspect and had to be defended, generally with indignant huffing about people who insist on seeing everything in terms of sex, sex, sex. What Bray called "the inability to conceive of relationships in other than sexual terms", what Nathan Shumate called "the modern lens, wherein every display of affection must be interpreted sexually," is not a specifically modern phenomenon at all. It is probably as old as sworn friendship (which means, very old indeed), and rears its head just when such friendship is ubiquitous.

The language and behavior of "sexual love" and "spiritual friendship" are not identical, but they overlap considerably. Friendship often uses the language and gestures of erotic love. (The reverse is also true, but since this fact is generally used to deny the erotic elements of friendship, it is necessary to stress the erotic here.) Erotic love often uses the language of kinship, referring to the beloved as a sibling; nowadays among English speakers parental language is the norm: "baby" and "mama / daddy." Friendship also uses the language and gestures of parental love, and religion often uses all of them, including the erotic. Look at orthodox "spiritualizing" interpretations of the biblical Song of Songs. No one really doubts that its imagery is erotic, but for centuries the official line was that it was 'really' an allegory of Christ's spiritual chubby for his bride the Church, or Yahweh's for his bride Israel. (Isn't Israel supposed to be a guy? Is that gay, or what? Hindu scholars, it should be noted, have tried to `spiritualize' the erotic exploits of the god Krishna in much the same way.)

So this is where Bray went wrong. It's not that eroticism has been placed at the center of all human relationships, but that erotophobes have tried to exclude the erotic completely. As Mark D. Jordan wrote in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, 1997, p. 175):

Most Christian moralists have regarded celibacy as the higher calling, the fullness of Christian response to God. Marriage was permitted, though not recommended, for the continuation of the species and as a concession to human weakness in the present day. But no such concession needed to be made for same-sex love, so the entire force of condemnation – including the surplus of force left over from the concession to marriage – could be brought to bear on it. The irrational force of the Christian condemnation of Sodomy is the remainder of Christian theology’s failure to think through the problem of the erotic.

Those of us who insist that the erotic has a legitimate place in human relationships are then, unsurprisingly, accused of being obsessed with sex. "To select one element as the substance -- or to discount others as mere rhetoric -- would be to fail to do justice to the plain insistence of these expressions, however confusing or conceptually difficult they may appear to us, half a thousand years later" (Bray, 83); but Bray himself selected the spiritual and social elements of sworn brotherhood as its substance, while discounting the erotic as mere rhetoric. Only erotophobes need to draw the line so sharply.

It won't work to claim that this language or rhetoric didn't signify (homo)eroticism at the time, because it did. We find the same poem by Shakespeare or Michelangelo, sometimes with troubling pronouns changed, used as an ode to same-sex friendship and as a heteroerotic lyric; or the attempted heterosexualization of Sappho, which included recasting her poems to girls as poems to boys; or, as with Walt Whitman, names blotted and pronouns changed in a private diary to make the object of his desire seem to be female. Perhaps this is merely a result of "the limits of language", as Bray says. But if it is, how interesting that those "limits" should be situated just here.

Some may wish to argue that context determined how these gestures were read: a man and woman kissing and embracing just naturally are erotic, while two men or two women doing the same just as naturally and obviously are not -- at least not in the innocent past, before modern sexual interpretations came along. If that were so, then we wouldn't get the misreadings and the expurgations. Indeed, the supposed "modern sexual interpretation" would never have arisen. But it is false, so obviously false that it constitutes further evidence of the erotophobic blinders through which Bray and others choose to peer at the world.

When someone assures you that a given passionate friendship was "of the strictest, purest virtue" and that the friends involved never even thought of sodomy or sapphism, the proper response is: How do you know? The burden of proof lies on the person who insists on universal exclusive heterosexuality against the evidence. Speculating that Edward II and Gaveston, or Frodo and Sam, or Bert and Ernie, might have been boyfriends, does not involve an "inability to conceive of relationships in other than sexual terms". Quite the opposite: it involves an ability to see same-sex erotic bonds as desirable. It also requires bucking the homophobic current and braving the righteous indignation, and vituperative fury, of straights and gays alike.

In his essay “‘My Beautiful Wickedness’: The Wizard of Oz as Lesbian Fantasy” (reprinted in Flaming classics: queering the film canon, Routledge, 2000) the film critic Alexander Doty wrote (52-3):

… after reading a draft of this essay, a feminist academic (speaking for herself as well as for a group of editors) was concerned that I “[did] not acknowledge that this is an appropriative reading – [a] move from a women-centered film to a lesbian film.” Well, (1) a lesbian film is also “women-centered,” just not straight women-centered, and (2) my move from reading Oz as straight-women-centered to understanding it as a lesbian narrative was an act of revelation, not of appropriation. I don’t see the process of queer interpretation as an act of “taking” texts from anyone. Just because straight interpretations have been allowed to flourish publicly doesn’t mean they are the most “true” or “real” ones. The Wizard of Oz is a straight narrative for those who wish it so. As I suggested earlier, if anything, I would now see straight understandings of Oz as appropriative.

Related to the issue of “appropriation,” the editor(s) also “would like [me] to discuss more directly the process of reading an externally ‘straight’ text as ‘queer’.” Oh yes, and while I’m at it, since my “reading will probably outrage many in the straight community,” could I “address that anger?” Well, I think I’ll address this kind of straight anger by suggesting that any offended straight address the heterocentrism (and yes, sometimes the homophobia) that is at the heart of much of the incomprehension, defensiveness or shock they register in the fact of gay, lesbian, and queer readings of popular culture. Oh, and they might also mull over the following, from Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian:

When it comes to lesbians … many people have trouble seeing what’s in front of them. The lesbian remains a kind of “ghost effect” in the cinema world of modern life: elusive, vaporous, difficult to spot – even when she is there, in plain view, mortal and magnificent at the center of the screen. … What we never expect is precisely this: to find her in the midst of things, as familiar and crucial as an old friend, as solid and sexy as the proverbial right-hand man, as intelligent and human and funny and real as Garbo.