Thursday, June 14, 2012

Words for What We Feel

Here's an example that shows why I keep up with Ruth Vanita's writing.  From the first page of her introduction to Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Desire in Indian Culture and Society (Routledge, 2002):
At a critical moment in Deepa Mehta's film Fire, Sita remarks to her lover Radha, "There is no word in our language to describe what we are or how we feel for each other."  To which language does she refer -- Punjabi, some variant of Hindi, Urdu, or, more likely, some combination of all three?  We do not know because on screen the characters speak English.  In this metonymic moment, two things happen: English is disowned as "our language" (even though Indians have been speaking English for two hundred years) and "our language" is framed as a catch-all unnamed Indian language that lacks any word for same-sex identities or relationships.

Sita's (Mehta's) comment reflects an idea dominant in academia today -- that prior to late-nineteenth-century European sexologists' and psychologists' inventions of labeled identity categories such as invert, homosexual, lesbian, and heterosexual, inchoate sexualities and sexual behaviors existed but were not perceived or named as defining individuals, groups, or relationships.  For those who accept this formula, it follows that in parts of the world where these categories are not yet widely known, people do not perceive even long-term sexual relations as significant markers of identity or personality.  Hence the tendency of queer theorists to avoid using words like homosexual to refer to persons or relationships in earlier periods of Euro-American history or in places other than the first world today.
... Except, that is, when they don't: I've shown before how people who accept this formula seem unable to use it consistently, talking about, for example, "homosexual subcultures" in times and places where by their own criteria, homosexual subcultures could not have existed.  Besides, as Vanita continues:
This formula has been challenged by several historians of Europe who have pointed to the use of terms like Ganymede, tribade, Sapphist, and even lesbian as early as (in one case) the tenth century, and certainly from the Renaissance onward, to mark individuals habitually given to same-sex sexual relations.  In the context of South Asia, Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling have demonstrated the formulation of sexual categories in Hindu and Jain texts as early as the sixth century B.C.E, it is evident that the Kama Sutra (fourth century C.E.), while mentioning casual sexual relations between "men," also classifieds men who prefer men as "the third nature"; and scholars of the medieval Islamicate have written both on male-male love and on the representation of female-female love by male writers.
The usual response to such pre-modern terms is that they don't correspond to homosexuality or gayness or  lesbian "as we think of it today."  This move fails because there is no single way of thinking about homosexuality today, even if the thinking is limited to the United States, and some current ways correspond reasonably well to pre-modern or non-Western conceptions.  Since the people who accept this formula never clarify what they mean by "homosexuality as we think of it today," and tend to assume that there is only one "modern," "Western," way of thinking about homosexuality, they end up confusing themselves and their readers.

On the following pages Vanita gives numerous examples of "words for what we feel for each other" in classical Indian literature, and remarks that she's convinced "that these and other such terms found by scholars represent the tip of the iceberg, and that further research in these and other languages will uncover many more such terms" (3).  She also points out that, contrary to faux traditionalists who try to represent homosexuality as a Western importation,
The rhetoric of modern Indian homophobia (with concepts and terms like unnatural and sinful) draws directly on a Victorian version of Judeo-Christian discourse; this borrowing is indicated in Fire when Radha's husband Ashok, having seen his wife and Sita in bed together, says, "What I saw is a sin in the eyes of God and man."  This is a direct quote from the Bible (the words of the prodigal son to this father, in Christ's parable of sin and repentance, in the Book of Luke).  This instance begins to explain why Mehta found it so hard to translate such phrases into Hindi, and decided to make the film in English; it would be almost impossible to literally translate Ashok's sentence into Hindi and have it sound convincing [3].
This indicates that the words Mehta wrote for Sita reflect her own ignorance, not the reality of Indian languages or cultures.  It's a common apologetic claim in gay/lesbian fiction in English, and I suppose its function is to deny that the speaker was influenced by other perverts (who presumably would have taught terms as well as practices), and to claim that his or her desires and practices sprang automatically from his or her inner nature.  Generally, the people I've encountered who say this are quite aware of the "words for what we feel for each other," but (understandably) recoil from them.

Anyway, that's why I like Ruth Vanita's work.  She's aware of the complexities of human sexuality, and she doesn't fall into the oversimplifications (or obfuscations) that dominate the field these days without falling into an equally oversimple essentialism or anti-anti-essentialism.  It was a great relief to me, when I first read her and Saleem Kidwai's Same-Sex Love in India (St. Martin's, 2000) to find that I wasn't the only person who had noticed these problems in the prevailing approach to queer theory.  Vanita's Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (Penguin, 2005), is also worth the attention of anyone interested in this subject.