Thursday, April 3, 2008

Footnote Fetishism

Another book review for Gay Community News, published in 1989 or 1990. I really must reread Who Was That Man? soon. Morris B Kaplan's Sodom on the Thames: sex, love, and scandal in Wilde times (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2005) and Alan Sinfield's The Wilde Century (Columbia, 1994) have covered the same period and milieu interestingly. Kaplan misunderstands Foucault, as so many writers on queer history do, but fortunately it doesn't much affect his in-depth research into some obscure corners of fin-de-si├Ęcle England. Sinfield is a more interesting, deeper thinker, and I learned a lot more from him about how to think about the period.

Out of All Time: a Gay and Lesbian History
by Terry Boughner
with illustrations by Michael Willhoite
: Alyson Publications, 1988
208 pp.
$6.95 paperbound

Gay Men and Women Who Enriched the World
by Thomas Cowan
New Canaan CT: William Mulvey, Inc. 1989
270 pp.
$17.95 clothbound

Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde
by Neil Bartlett
London: Serpent's Tail, 1989
(Distributed in US by Consortium Book Sales,
213 East Fourth Street, St Paul MN 55101)
254 pages, illustrated
$14.95 paperbound

Our problem is that we don’t know who we are. We don’t even quite know how to ask the question, what kind of answer we're seeking, because the old answers we've rejected still manage to deform the way we pose new questions. The old-order names for us -- sodomite, tribade, ganymede, sapphist, molly, pathic, invert -- are the fossils of ideologies of what men and women and sex are. A gay man I know doesn’t like words like hetero- and homo-, he'd prefer to speak of “human-sexuals.” Fine with me, but what is a human being? For too many gay people human sexuality means some sanitized fantasy of heterosexuality, to which they want us to assimilate; but that fantasy is not even a workable model for heterosexuals. We don’t need to shrink ourselves to fit a model, but to expand the model till it includes us. But how far to expand it? That’s what we don’t know yet; that’s what we have only begun to explore.

When we turn to our history as gay men and lesbians, we don’t know how to read it: we look either for an Eden where we were accepted (in Greco-Roman antiquity, medieval Islam, or Renaissance Europe) or for the story of our victimization (burned by the Inquisition or by psychiatric shock treatment). I’m not sure which image is more pernicious. The gay/lesbian Utopias I’ve read are usually shallow and sexist (everyone is young and comely and no one is insecure), the popularized gay history is ahistorical (you can't get here from there) and -- well, utopian. Then there are the caricatures of pre-Stonewall life in which everyone is a promiscuous drag queen (or a wholesome lad who stalwartly refuses to become a drag queen) who commits suicide. These are essentially closeted fantasies: before we come out many of us dream of finding the Perfect Friend -- better yet, a club full of Perfect Friends -- yet we fear the Twisted Twilight World of the Homosexual, full of murky bars inhabited by neurotic and promiscuous creeps whose souls don’t yearn, as ours does, for True Love.

Now, I've yet to meet the neurotic and promiscuous creep, myself included, whose soul didn’t yearn for True Love. By insisting that we are different, by exalting our feelings to a higher, more spiritual plane, we can deny that we are sodomites, tribades, queers. As Terry Boughner writes in Out of All Time: a Gay and Lesbian History, “All the furor was over sex. The most powerful minds in Europe, for long centuries, seemed unable to grasp the idea that two men or two women might actually love each other.” But Boughner, playing fast and loose with the notoriously slippery word “love,” has it precisely backwards. Homophobes can generally cope with the pure and spiritual love of comrades -- what drives them up the wall is the thought of David and Jonathan sticking widget A into sprocket B, if you catch my meaning. And homophobes are often gay: embarrassed by gross sweaty reality, they try to remove the “sex” from “homosexual.” Not sex but love, they chorus, as though there were a clean clear line between the two, and as though sex between two men or two women were indeed a dirty and shameful thing.

But I’m not being fair to Boughner. He does include such luminaries as Rasputin, Ernst Roehm, and Joseph McCarthy in Out of All Time, and there’s a chapter on the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, in which British aristocrats were found to be having it off with British messenger boys; he is even critical of European disdain for “feminine traits . . . in men who loved men,” so I shouldn’t accuse him of presenting a wholly sanitized picture of our tribe. My real complaint about his book is its carelessness: he makes no effort to separate gossip from responsible testimony, and he even garbles firsthand accounts. Compare his version of this story about Christopher Isherwood --

Isherwood often spoke of finding an ideal companion. In 1938 he told the writer George Davis that this man would be eighteen, blond, intelligent, and would have sexy legs. In 1953, at the age of forty-seven, Isherwood met Don Bachardy, who seemed to fit this description perfectly.

-- with the original in Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind, which takes place in the 1930s, not 1953:

George also offered to make sexual introductions for [Isherwood and Auden]. “All right,” said Christopher, half in joke. “I want to meet a beautiful blond boy, about eighteen, intelligent, with very sexy legs.” Such a boy was instantly produced; he was almost too suitable to be true. I will call him Vernon.

Never having seen Don Bachardy’s legs, I can’t evaluate Boughner’s accuracy on that point; but he certainly distorts the import of this anecdote. I found errors of fact and emphasis every time he covered a subject I’d read about elsewhere. Maybe I expect too much, but it has always seemed to me that the key to gay and lesbian history is accuracy. Come on, you’ve heard of it: it means that you make sure your information is as nearly correct as possible, and that your interpretations of that information are honest. I don’t imagine that this is an easy standard to live up to, but if we don’t try, even when writing for a non-academic audience as Boughner is doing in Out of All Time, we are no different from the homophobic historians and biographers who tried to write us out of existence to satisfy their own wishful thinking. That, in fact, is what worries me about Boughner's book. It's sort of a Reader’s Digest approach to gay and lesbian history -- and if that’s what the gay community is moving toward, then I want out, right now.

Thomas Cowan’s Gay Men and Women Who Enriched the World is much better. Cowan has at least done his homework, and lets you know when the evidence is shaky or unavailable. There isn’t, as far as I know, any really good collection of short biographies of gay men and women in history. That’s a serious lack, since people who are just coming out are often cheered to learn that we have a history. Jonathan Ned Katz’s massive documentary collections Gay American History and Gay/Lesbian Almanac are rather daunting, and ephemera like Martin Greif’s Gay Book of Days are too gossipy and unreliable. Gay Men and Women Who Enriched the World strikes a fair balance, and if it comes out in paperback might make a good gift.

Neil Bartlett didn’t set out to write academic history when he set out to write his brilliant book Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde. He seems to have aimed at a kind of literary time travel, projecting himself into the past and writing from within it, while remaining a post-Stonewall gay Englishman. He filled a massive scrapbook with information about Wilde’s time, studied in the British Museum, immersed himself in old newspapers, and asked questions.

It is worth asking what, since he had already gone so far in 1895, would he have written in 1896, if he had not been incarcerated in Reading. . . . What would our culture as gay men in this city have been like if Wilde had still been living and writing in London in the 1920s, if his career as a homosexual artist had been as long as, say, Andre Gide’s. If his example to us was not of how a man can be swiftly and violently silenced, but of how his work can endure, not as evidence of a disaster, but as witness, seducer, guide?

Bartlett shows us a Victorian era not so different from the end of the twentieth century as we might suppose: cities full of men and women without homes, without jobs, huddling together for warmth in the public parks, selling their bodies; the upper classes shaken by scandal, fearful of revolution. “In October 1887 [Trafalgar] Square was so crowded with people sleeping rough that they spilled into St James’s Park itself, almost within sight of the Palace. In South Audley Street, in Piccadilly and in the Pall Mall club you could hear the sound of breaking glass. In November three people died when the police cleared the Square again. In 1894 the West End heard the dim echoes of the Greenwich Park explosion, and everyone saw the gory pictures in the paper.” Bartlett holds up a Victorian mirror, and we see ourselves in it, everywhere.

Lord Alfred Douglas's brother, Viscount Drumlanrig, had been involved in a relationship with the prime minister, Rosebery. Rosebery had elevated him to the peerage, and had made him his private secretary so that he could keep him close by, in the Houses of Parliament. Then in October 1893 [1894, actually] Drumlanrig had died of what could have been interpreted as either a shooting accident or a suicide. There was a pressing threat of scandalous rumours, revelation if Douglas's choice of companions was scrutinized too carefully.

When you think about it, this is hardly surprising. If the historians of sexuality have produced one clear result, it’s that homosexuality wasn't invented yesterday. Considering that we were “things fearful to name”, that we were “amongst Christians not to be named”, that we weren't supposed to exist, we and our persecutors contrived to leave behind startling amounts of evidence that we did. But our history is also that of a peculiar uneasy conspiracy between ourselves and the heterosexual dictatorship: I won’t tell if you won’t.

It is important to remember that Wilde, throughout his three trials, was lying all the time. . . . He was a sodomite. Likewise, the prosecution’s pose of outraged, fascinated ignorance, its portrayal (amplified in the press) of homosexuality as something which had suddenly, shockingly appeared in the form of Oscar Wilde was precisely that -- a pose. The court was not entirely ignorant of twenty years of London’s culture and daily life; they read the papers. . . . Mr Charlie Gill, who appeared for the prosecution, had appeared for the defence in the Cleveland Street trial six years earlier, so he well knew about the lives of “such men.”

This helps to explain why homophobes have denounced the most dreary and hopeless depictions of homosexuality (The Well of Loneliness, The City and the Pillar, The Picture of Dorian Gray) as pro-homosexual propaganda. They insist that even to admit that we exist is to encourage us. And they’re right, of course; it does encourage us. People like Neil Bartlett dig through musty issues of the Illustrated London Police News for 1889, find accounts of men arrested for wearing frocks, and the next thing you know they’re writing books about it. Before long we start noticing that not only has homosexuality been misrepresented, but so has heterosexuality, and the respectability which had been denied us no longer looks as attractive. We are no longer willing to conduct the discussion in terms which Oscar Wilde’s persecutors found meaningful, to collude with them in lying about ourselves and about them.

But this is only one of the threads that Bartlett has woven into Who Was That Man? There are chapters on the selves that Wilde and other gay men have forged for themselves; on the eroticized catalogues of jewels, flowers, and food in the works of Wilde and other “decadent” writers; on gay men’s lives and history as text and pretext. Bartlett disassembles our dissembling past and reassembles it, pasting Wilde’s subversive paradoxes next to scraps from Victorian books of advice for young men and bits from his own diary and letters. Who Was That Man? is a present not just for Oscar Wilde but for the rest of us: a clear passionate look into the heart of our past and our present.