Friday, March 14, 2014

Is He a Euphemism-Friend, or Just a Friend?

The kind of erotic teleology I criticized in Susan Sontag turns up elsewhere in other forms, of course.  For example, in William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America (Harrington Park Press, 2006), Benemann declares, "Male friendship may content itself with handshakes and backslaps, but male love yearns to be eternal" (19).

To begin with, this is a false antithesis, between "friendship" and "love."  Part of the problem of course is the ambiguity of the word "love."  One would expect someone writing an ostensibly scholarly work of history to be more careful using a word that is applied to such a wide range of feelings and relationships.  On one hand, "love" has often been used between same-sex friends, in ways that confuse moderns but also confused and upset their contemporaries.  Benemann knows this, as he shows when he asks why, "If this discourse was common for the era … why did [Alexander] Hamilton’s literary editor irretrievably obliterate part of [Hamilton’s] letters to [John] Laurens?" (xii).

"Love" is very often the word used for erotic desire and for copulation in popular culture.  In the Doors' song "Love Me Two Times," "love" can't really mean anything but "fuck."  Even granting that it's partly euphemistic -- a song with the title "Fuck Me Two Times" would never have been released on a major label in the 1960s -- it also reflects common usage.  But at the same time, "love" in common usage also refers to feelings that have no erotic component, from loving ice cream to loving one's child to loving one's country.  Everyone knows this, I think, but everyone can be amazingly obtuse when parsing other people's use of the word "love," refusing to consider the possibility that those others could have loved someone without wanting to bone them.  And here I'm just talking about contemporary use of the word "love," not its use in centuries past, when (arguably) different expressions of love were permissible and conventional.

On the other hand, "friend" has been used, sometimes but not always as a euphemism, to refer to erotically involved same-sex partners.  For example, the American gay writer Paul Monette wrote in the late 1980s:
I always hesitate over the marriage word.  It's inexact and exactly right at the same time, but of course I don't have a legal leg to stand on.  The deed to the house on Kings Road says a single man after each of our names.  So much for the lies of the law.  There used to be gay marriages in the ancient world, even in the early Christian church, before the Paulist hate began to spew [sic] the boundaries of love.  And yet I never felt quite comfortable calling Rog my lover.  To me it smacked too much of the ephemeral, with a beaded sixties topspin.  Friend always seemed more intimate to me, more flush with feeling.  Ten years after we met, there would still be occasions when we'd find ourselves among strangers of the straight persuasion, and one of us would say, "This is my friend."  It never failed to quicken my heart, to say it or overhear it.  Little friend was the diminutive form we used in private, the phrase that is fired in bronze beneath his name on the hill [Borrowed Time, 24-25].
More relevant to Benemann's work, friendship has often been a passionately imagined and sought ideal, far from his trivializing caricature.  Many men have dreamed of finding an idealized male friend.  Friendship isn't something that just happens by itself, it's an ancient cultural phenomenon celebrated in literature and history.  In Alan Bray's The Friend (Chicago, 2003), he quotes a sixteenth-century English writer, William Cornwallis, who in an essay "On Loue" wrote:
I laugh, and wonder, at the straunge occasions that men take now a dayes to say they love: If they meete with a fellowe at a Feaste, or in a Potte, If their Delightes bee enye thing a kinne, or theyr Faces anye thing alike; If their Countries be one, or their lands neare adioyning; if they be both rich, or both poore, or indeed if their new-fangled inuentions can finde out any occasion, they are sworn brothers, they will liue and die together: but they scarce sleep in this mind, the one comes to make vse of the other; and that spoyles all; he entered this league not to impaire, but to profite himselfe [quoted by Bray, 122].
Bray's discussion of this passage goes off onto some odd tangents, but he does supply the useful information that Cornwallis, however "hostile" he is to friendship, is writing about something real:
The two officials in Chaucer’s Freres Tale swear brotherhood as spontaneously as in Cornwallis’s characterization (or as the future king Edward II and Piers Gaveston are said to have done) and the peasant farmers in Chaucer’s Pardoners Tale swear brotherhood in a tavern.  As Cornwallis implies, sworn brotherhood was indeed used to reinforce bonds of local friendship between men who were neighbors, and his description that “they will liue and die together” is an accurate account of the form that they vow of two sworn brothers recognizably took [123]. 
Bray was concerned to counter the notion that men entered into friendship and/or sworn brotherhood merely for material advantage. That seems an unlikely motive anyway, if both men were poor, but I don't think that Cornwallis was saying that all male friendship involved a desire to "profite himselfe."  What I took away from Cornwallis's animadversions is that some men were so eager to find a soul mate that they'd pledge eternal brotherhood simply because they had some trivial trait in common, led on by literary depictions of friendship at first sight.  Cornwallis comes across like the forerunner of a twentieth-century advice columnist, warning girls not to give their hearts too freely or quickly, because boys will just play with their feelings in hopes of getting laid.  Or the evangelical writer quoted in James Barr's Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1977, page 331), "To share a common interest in Sunday School work is not, in itself, a decisive indicator that you should get married."  But the warning that some smooth talker will play on your feelings for his own profit assumes that your feelings are involved.

If late-twentieth century American males of my and Benemann's generation were intimidated by the threat of fag-baiting from expressing deep passionate friendship with more than a "handshake," they were outliers historically and cross-culturally.  The popularity of male-bonding stories in the notoriously homopohobic American midcentury indicates to me that many men at least fantasized about finding an Ideal Friend.  Of course one way to get around that fact is to interpret all the literature of friendship as covertly erotic, and that's as big a mistake as assuming that none of it is.

Consider, for instance, the letters Benemann mentions from Alexander Hamilton to John Laurens.  They're fairly famous among people interested in the subject ever since Jonathan Ned Katz published three pages of excerpts in his Gay American History (Thomas Y. Crowell) in 1976, with extended commentary on them.  (Notice that publication date.  I'm a bit baffled by Benemann's claim to an interviewer that "Most people have assumed that therefore it’s almost impossible to do research on early gay American history ... I just decided that probably was not the case."  Maybe "most people" assume that, but not queer historians -- a fair amount has been published on the subject, and Katz's book was a breakthrough thirty years before the publication of Male-Male Intimacy in Early America.  On Hamilton and Laurens, if not elsewhere, Benemann is retracing trails blazed by Katz.)  Katz wrote that Hamilton (yes, the Alexander Hamilton) and Laurens were "part of that close male circle surrounding General Washington -- his 'family,' as the general called them (453).  In April 1779 the twenty-two-year-old Hamilton wrote to the twenty-five-year-old Laurens:
Cold in my professions, warm in [my] friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you.  I shall only tell you that 'till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you.  Indeed, my friend, it was not well done.  You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others.  You sh[ould] not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste[al] into my affections without my consent.  But as you have done it and we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into [me] [quoted by Katz, 453-454].
As Benemann says, if Hamilton's effusiveness was conventional in its day, why did his literary editor obliterate parts of his letters to Laurens?  But on the other hand, what the editor published is unsettling to readers two centuries later; so maybe it was conventional after all.  I'm becoming suspicious of the word "conventional" in this kind of context, though: it usually seems to be used to dismiss the possibility of personal connection and emotion on the writer's part: Oh, he didn't really mean it, he was just saying that.  But why?  Convention is as likely to provide a way of expressing feelings where one might otherwise be inarticulate.  It also plays a role in situations governed by unequal status, as in petitions or declarations of fealty to those more powerful than we are.  It's one thing to close a letter with assurances that the writer is the recipient's humble and obedient servant, and another to run on and on as Hamilton did in these letters.

Which isn't to say that Hamilton was necessarily hoping to get into Laurens's breeches.  Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't; I can't tell from what he wrote, and I don't think anyone else can.  The passages blacked out by Hamilton's editor might settle the question, or they might not.  But Hamilton also told Laurens repeatedly that their fellow officers ("the lads"), including Washington, sent him their "love" (Katz, 455, 456).  It's fun to fantasize about orgies in the General's tent, but I see no reason to believe they happened.  On the other hand, if Hamilton wanted to be merely conventional, he could have written something other than "love" there.  "Their respects," maybe; or "their best regards."  There were surely warm personal bonds of affection, not just duty, between these men, as is common among men who've served together in wartime.  "Love" is, as I said, an ambiguous word, and a person will use it in different senses in rapid succession.  That's what makes it so difficult to tease out the times when erotic "love" is meant.

It now seems to me that we will never know for sure which declarations of same-sex love spoke for erotic desire and which didn't, except in those rare cases where the eroticism is explicit.  Benemann reluctantly acknowledges this, but I think he still hopes that someone someday will find a key that unlocks the hidden copulations, so that we can know who was having sex and who wasn't.  To say this is not to say that there weren't some people who were homosexual in the sense of desiring, loving, and copulating with persons of their own sex, and uninterested erotically in persons of the other sex.  But we're unlikely ever to know who they were.  To recognize this fact is not to refute Benemann's largely straw-man accusation (and category mistake) against social constructionists, but it doesn't help him much either.  All he succeeded in doing in this book was dredging up archival material about male friendship and, in a number of cases, some rather "flamboyant" types who were suspected (or taunted with suspicions) of sodomitical conduct in their own day, whether or not the suspicions were justified.  In most cases we can't even be sure they were, since fag-baiting was on Benemann's showing as popular a political and cultural pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries as it is now, and fag-baiters often don't even care if the men they attack are really queer or not.  (Sometimes, then as now, fag-baiters hope to distract attention from their own proclivities.) 

Incidentally, this might be the place to recall that Benemann began his book with the declaration that
I believe that men loving men in the early years of this country were aware of the concept we now label as "queer space," and that they took active steps to separate themselves from the heterosexual majority in order to join their brothers in an underground community based on a shared sexual response [xv].
When I first wrote about Male-Male Intimacy in Early America, I declared my skepticism about this passage.  Now that I've finished the book, I can say that he didn't make a case for it -- indeed, he seems to have forgotten about it.  He was making a profession of faith here, a credo, not drawing a defensible (let alone defended)  historical conclusion.  Which is okay, we all have convictions that matter to us despite a lack of evidence to back them up.  But it doesn't inspire confidence in Benemann's historical judgment.

So what can we do, we who are interested in our queer forerunners?  I think that the ongoing search for suggestive material in the archives is worthwhile and should continue (of course no one needs my permission or approval to do it); one thing that bothered me about Male-Male Intimacy is how much of Benemann's material is, like the Hamilton letters, quite old hat to anyone who's followed the gay historical quest, and Benemann doesn't seem to acknowledge this.  It may be, in fact it's likely, that previously unknown material will be uncovered.  But there's no reason to believe that great troves of accounts of explicitly erotic material will surface; mostly it will be more ambiguous romantic effusions, at least until the twentieth century or so.  Instead of (or in addition to) lamenting this, we should think about what it means and what it might mean to us.

I've been looking for a passage I remember from Katz's Gay American History (and if I find it I'll add it to this post), in which he argued that we should recognize the passionate male-male and female-female friendships as gay (or proto-gay, or gayish), even when we don't know whether they involved genital stimulation.  Sex is good, and important to acknowledge when we can document it, but I think we should stress the presence of love in these relationships, love that was intensely expressed enough to make many heterosexuals uncomfortable.  It should also be remembered that even when we do know that people in the past, or in non-Western societies, were engaged in same-sex copulation, the homophobic and heterosexual-supremacist response has been to deny its reality or significance.  Because of that it may be a waste of time to try to prove that Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens were doin' it; since both of them married, apologists for heterosexual supremacy will deny that any copulation they enjoyed with each other 'counted.'  So let's insist that Hamilton's love for Laurens, and all the other same-sex loves we know about, counted.  It may not have been "homosexuality as we know it today," but it sure wasn't heterosexuality as we know it today either.  These letters and all the other great love literature between males and between females are part of gay and lesbian and bisexual history, which is part of human history.