Thursday, February 21, 2013

Did She or Didn't She?

I thought we were over this kind of crap, but evidently not.

There's a review in the latest Nation of a biography of the nature and ecology writer Rachel Carson.  I just looked again and the author is Vivian Gornick, whom I thought better of: she's a longtime feminist activist, scholar, and writer.  But see for yourself.  Carson bought some land on Southport Island, Maine, where her nearest neighbors were a married couple, Dorothy and Stanley Freeman.  They became friends, and eventually Carson and Dorothy fell in love.  The Freemans remained married -- "neither [Dorothy] nor Rachel wanted it any other way," Gornick says omnisciently -- but they still got together "secretly throughout the year ... to cuddle and commune, I think (though who can ever know?), not actually make love."  She was right the first time: who can ever know?
Upon the publication in 1995 of a volume of the many letters Carson and Freeman wrote to each other, the case for Carson as a gay woman began to be made. I, however, cannot imagine the virginal Carson as an active lesbian; in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine her in a state of carnal desire at all. I would say rather that once in her life she fell in love with a person, and when she did the object of her love happened to be a woman. Carson was one of those people, oddly made, whose sublimation of the normal passions—in her case, through nature—was absolute. The letters she wrote to Freeman are intensely romantic, but they are not at all sexual.
Gornick's condescending tone here is infuriating.  I had to look again at the date of the review to make sure it wasn't written in the 1970s or 1980s, when this kind of soft homophobia was common in biographies and the reviews thereof.  It doesn't seem to occur to Gornick, when she writes that she "cannot imagine the virginal Carson as an active lesbian" (as opposed to a passive one, I suppose), and about what she finds "impossible to imagine," that the lack might lie in her own imagination, not in Carson's love life.  Does anyone ever write such nonsense about heterosexuals?

It's true that it's usually impossible to be certain whether any two historical persons had sex with each other, except on the rare occasions where they were caught in flagrante.  But this truth has often been used to deny the existence of same-sex desires and relations, on the assumption that to assert such things is a scurrilous accusation and that the denier is chief counsel for the defense.  Terry Castle wrote of Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel Summer Will Show (1936) that critics were apt to insist that the two female leads weren't lesbians because the novel nowhere described their sexual activity -- highly unlikely in an English novel published soon after The Well of Loneliness (1928) was banned simply for referring to Sapphism -- but everyone assumed that the woman who'd been heterosexually married was sexually active with her husband, even though their sexual activity was never described either.  If she'd run off and moved in with a man instead of a woman, there would have been no doubt they were lovers.

Whatever "lovers" means.  There's also the little matter that the definition of "sex" is hard to pin down, perhaps especially between women.  The standard, and indeed legal, definition requires penetration of a vagina by a penis.  If someone had asked her, Carson might have truthfully answered, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," even if she had regular multiple orgasms with her.  (I'm also reminded of the carnally rather unimaginative Gore Vidal's certainty that Eleanor Roosevelt wasn't a lesbian, because she'd made it clear to him that she didn't enjoy "sex.")  Maybe Dorothy Freeman was a stone untouchable butch with female partners, and Carson was a complaisant femme who was the beneficiary of her talents.  Who knows?  We'll never know.

Just as annoying, to my mind, is that bit about the one time in her life Carson fell in love, it just happened to be a woman.  You know -- one morning she flipped a coin: heads a boy, tails a girl.  But I kind of know what Gornick means: the hundred or so times in my life I've fallen in love with a person, it just happened to be men.  Every time.  Just lucky, I guess.  Since on Gornick's assumption Carson only fell in love once in her life, we can't say whether the sex of her love was happenstance or the single overt expression she ever managed of an inner pattern that might, with different luck, have manifested itself more than once.  Without a larger sample, we simply can't say, and Gornick ought to recognize and respect that.

I think we need to give more respect to "love": not just penetration, which is fine, not just to nonpenetrative methods of generating orgasms, but to cuddling, caressing, and kissing.  The reasons why people do or do not copulate with each other are many and complex, and sex doesn't begin or end with penetration.  Unless you want to define it that way, which has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.  The question then becomes who gets to make the definitions.  Heterosexuals no longer have the monopoly on that; Gornick's review shows once again why they can't be trusted to keep it to themselves.