Friday, 19 July 2013

Gay Literature: An Introduction

[I first wrote this item for Fedwa Malti-Douglas (ed), Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), Vol. III, pp.896-899]

In its broadest sense, gay literature is that which expresses, describes or otherwise represents a spectrum of intense friendship, love, erotic desire and sexual contact or relationship between male individuals, as well as engaging with the social context of how these matters are received by the broader society.  Such literature might be produced within any literate culture at any point in human history.  More narrowly, some commentators would argue that the concept of gay literature should be confined to a specific period since the late-nineteenth-century conceptualisation of sexual ‘identities’, whereby homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality are regarded as psychological states or conditions affecting the whole nature of the self and its social circumstances.  Finally, by its narrowest definition, gay literature dates from the mid-1960s in the West, and is written only by gay authors, especially by openly gay authors who subscribe to the aims and ethos of the gay liberation movement, which, following the models of the American civil rights and feminist movements, demanded equality of rights and treatment for gay people across the spectrum of social institutions.
Throughout the history of literacies, the predominant mode of male homo-erotic writing has been determined, not by some universal essence of homosexual love, but by broadly common social and cultural conditions, centring on sexual segregation and male privilege.  Wherever female virginity was prized above the education of girls, men made deeper alliances with each other than with women.  Honoured as a bearer of sons and strengthener of the bloodstock more often than as a soulmate, the high-born woman was protected against the acquiring of knowledge as much as she was protected against the eyes of the wrong men.  Relationships between men were built on common interests stemming from shared levels of education, and relationships between men and boys were pedagogical, educating the boy up to the level of the man.  Ideally, therefore, a meeting of bodies would eventually develop into a meeting of minds.  The Greek Anthology is an abundant repository of such celebrations of boy love in its different moods.  Most fully theorised in Plato’s Symposium, Greek pederasty was governed by strict conventions that protected the reputations of male citizens and the boys—future citizens themselves—they loved.  While not arguing against sexual relationships, or at least those tempered by rational self-control, Plato’s dialogue recommends the refinement of love that transcends bodily need.  Similar affirmations of institutionalised pederasty are to be found in the literatures of China, Japan, India, Persia, Turkey and the Arabian diaspora.
Much Greek poetry cites the precedence of the febrile passions of the gods when justifying humanity’s self-evident frailty in matters of the heart and lower organs.  Where Zeus and Ganymede, or Apollo and Hyacinth, went before, mortal men and boys were apt to follow.  Indeed, men’s taste for boys was meticulously traced backward to its origins in a moment of divine inspiration on the part of an individual man.  This candidate for the honour of being the first mortal man to desire his own sex was sometimes identified as Orpheus, sometimes as Thamyris, and sometimes as Laius.  Significantly, the first two of these were themselves poets.
Many Roman poets, similarly, wrote erotic verse about boys—Virgil, Martial, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius and Catullus being prominent examples—but they also wrote, and wrote more, about women.  The love of boys was never regarded as being incompatible with that of women.  Correspondingly, Roman literature is often insulting about men with an exclusive interest in the same sex, and all the more insulting if any adult man showed signs of sexual passivity.  Juvenal’s satires are exemplary in their contempt for such abdications of the manly duties of citizenship.
Of all the classical literature of male love, Plato’s Symposium, Theocritus’s Idylls, Virgil’s Eclogues and Ovid’s Metamorphoses had the most radical impact on man-loving and Man-loving, humanist poets of the Renaissance period.  In England, Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd and Richard Barnfield’s Ganymede come from writers obviously steeped in the homo-erotic classics.  Shakespeare’s sonnets, though relatively sparing in their classical references, are clearly derived from an ethos the poet had taken from his extensive reading of southern European literature and adapted to his own hyperborean emotional life.  The controversy of the sonnets is not a recent one—as is often claimed—imposed on them by the irrelevant obsessions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century homosexuals. As early as 1640, John Benson reissued the poems, cutting some of them altogether (19, 56, 75, 76, 96, 126), changing the gender of the pronouns in others (101, 108) and toning down such phrases as ‘sweet boy’ (108) and ‘fair friend’ (14) to ‘sweet love’ and ‘fair love’ respectively.  The publisher was concerned to avoid any impression of sinful practices.
            In Christian Europe, the condemnation of all sex but a narrow range of acts within the marital bed gave forbidden love a new status among the upper classes.  In literature, such diverse figures as Pietro Aretino, Théophile de Viau, John Wilmot (the Earl of Rochester) and the Marquis de Sade made a virtue of vice, boastfully expatiating on the ambisexuality of the libertine.  This tradition in its turn helped shape a particular kind of fictional character.  The Byronic hero and the Gothic novel’s anti-hero, perhaps themselves derived from such darkly seductive figures as Milton’s Satan, evolved, by way of major characters like Vautrin in Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine and the Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, into the gay villain of mid-twentieth-century fiction.  The demonisation of Oscar Wilde in 1895 added a fresh resonance to this stereotype of the sodomite as being criminally seductive and subversive.
Across cultures and eras, one of the most acceptable, and therefore common, ways of celebrating passionate friendships between adult men has been in circumstances, or through representations, of mourning.  In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh extravagantly mourns the death of Enkidu.  In the Bible, David laments the loss of Jonathan: ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (2 Samuel 1: 26).  In the Iliad, Achilles laments the loss of Patroclus.  In the Chanson de Roland, Roland laments the loss of Olivier.
The English pastoral elegy celebrated male love, usually in its most conventional guise as temperate friendship, all the way through literary history from Edmund Spenser to A.E. Housman and Wilfred Owen.  Again, the circumstance of mourning released writers from some of the restraints on intensity of expression where male love was concerned.  Spenser’s ‘Astrophel’ commemorated Sir Philip Sidney, who had died in 1586.  John Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ commemorated Edward King (d. 1637); Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard’ commemorated Richard West (d. 1742); Percy Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ commemorated John Keats (d. 1821) (Shelley’s own heart would be wrapped in a manuscript of the poem during his cremation on the beach at La Spezia); Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ commemorated Arthur Hallam (d. 1833); Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ commemorated Arthur Clough (d. 1861); and Walt Whitman’s poems from the American Civil War, culminating in the great elegy on Abraham Lincoln, ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,’ resonated with echoes of the same sources.
While it was often received by man-loving male readers in England as being ‘Greek’ in spirit, Whitman’s quintessentially American poetry was far more inclined to celebrate the adult male—and the working-class male at that—as something entirely new and particular to the physical geography and social structures of the United States.  In Whitman, spiritual refinement is derived not from education and class but from bodily health and liberty.
Heterosexuality and homosexuality, those new definitions of sexual identity that emerged through the popularisation of sexology and psychoanalysis in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, coincided with other major technological, aesthetic and social developments that have since come to be seen as having the common characteristics of Modernism.  In literature, the Modernist experiment was especially concerned to temper the objective focus of high realism with more subjectivist approaches to a reality increasingly assumed to be pluralist and fragmented.  The objective, omniscient narrator of the realist novel gave way to a stream of individual consciousnesses.
            Under these new conditions, writers seemed especially enabled to scrutinise the voluntary and involuntary bases of sexual desire in its protean manifestations.  Many of the great Modernist writers were homosexual or bisexual themselves and took same-sex desire as one of their major topics.  In France, Marcel Proust, André Gide and Jean Cocteau combined major technical innovations with penetrative explorations of the nature of desire.  In Germany, the novels of Thomas Mann and the poetry of Stefan George wrestled with the relationship between physical and spiritual desire as embodied in ethereal boys.  In Greece, Constantine Cavafy elaborated a comparison between classical pederasty and modern homosexuality in poems that gave modern urban cruising its finest early expression.  At opposite extremes of seriousness and frivolity, Henry James and Ronald Firbank approached the matter of love from an oblique angle that is identifiably ‘queer’ or even camp, subjecting heterosexuality to the distanced scrutiny of a discriminating aestheticism.  Indeed, there is so much gay writing in Modernism that one might even go so far as to describe that movement as being intrinsically queer.
The anti-homophobic novel of the twentieth century almost invariably suffered the consequences of its own inbuilt flaw.  Needing to argue, politically, the ordinariness of homosexuality and the moral neutrality of homosexual love, such novels were burdened with the necessity of a dull central character.  Hence the unremarkable suburbanism of the eponymous central character of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (first drafted in 1913).  Setting himself the task of countering prejudicial assumptions that the homosexual men must be decadent, effeminate and untrustworthy—a stereotype largely based on the version of Oscar Wilde that had been constructed in newspaper accounts of his trials—Forster had to contrast the dullness of the middle-class Maurice with the far more interesting figure of Risley, an aristocratic aesthete who is witty and seedy and ends up in jail.
            Much the same can be said of the protagonists of some of the best-known gay novels published in the middle of the century.  Many of these men are tediously self-absorbed.  In Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard is given a strong backhand at tennis so as not to be assumed to be effeminate by homophobic readers, but that is his only talent.  The literature informed by the post-war homosexual and gay movements was principally concerned with conveying what came to be called ‘positive images’, whereby the author was expected to counter negative public representations of homosexuals as (variously) untrustworthy, unpatriotic, unmanly, neurotic, immature and generally unlikeable.  Positive gay literature had to convey the possibility of homosexual happiness, broadly within the requirements of social convention.  Central characters of such novels would overcome the adversities of having to endure homophobia, would experience true love, and would eventually settle down to a solidly happy ending.  Subsequent literature has, by and large, been released from these restrictive imperatives.
Given the restrictive tendencies of politically-led literary texts, it is hardly surprising that much of the most striking fiction about male-male relationships was the most transgressive, often elaborating on the interplay between eroticism and violence.  In this respect, the towering figure of the mid-twentieth century was Jean Genet, whose work depended for one of its main effects, not on the idea that men who love men can be as decent and unobtrusive as your next-door neighbour, and that books about them can be similarly unexceptional, but on the idea that all love involves personal betrayal and that male bodies are the weapons with which both love and betrayal are to be effected. 
In Japan, Yukio Mishima superimposed the Samurai and ancient Greek traditions of homo-eroticism on the quotidian detail of modern life, enlivening a realist perspective with his own sado-masochistic interests.  In the United States, encouraged by younger Beat writers like Brion Gysin and Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs combined an aggressive social critique with the celebration of a taste for adolescent boys in heroin-fed fantasies of a womanless universe.  The technique of randomly cutting up his prose denies his characters any sentimental identification on the part of sympathetic readers.  In the Netherlands, Gerard Reve based his own radical aesthetic on an obsessive regard for the corporal punishment of socially deviant boys.  Similarly, in France, Tony Duvert wrote as if the nouveau roman had been hijacked for the purposes of a militant pederasty.
The changing possibilities for the more assimilationist gay writer might best be exemplified in the career of the post-war British poet Thom Gunn.  Gunn began as a poet of restraint, guarded and edgily ironic, his poems virtuosic in the application of seventeenth-century techniques and forms to decidedly modern topics (Elvis Presley, leather-clad bikers).  His tone of voice combined Cambridge refinement and erudition with a held-in masculinity derived from American movies.  But as the 1950s and 1960s progressed and he moved to San Francisco to live with his American lover, Gunn discovered a more flexible technique to accompany his newly relaxed, Californian lifestyle.  Adopting a syllabic line that owed much to the American models of William Carlos Williams and Yvor Winters, and associating the consequent lightening of tone with his own coming-out as a gay man.  The later collections were all openly and relaxedly gay.
            The elegiac tradition of earlier centuries offered a ready template for consolatory lamentation when the AIDS epidemic disproportionately affected gay men in Western cities in the 1980s.  In the face of intense hostility from the political classes and the mainstream media, gay men sought understanding voices within their own suffering communities and were answered in the USA by such poets as Thom Gunn and, more recently, Mark Doty and Rafael Campo.  What was distinctive about such writers was their capacity to turn personal involvement in the epidemic—and personal grief—into a reaffirmation of the highest principles of gay liberation, akin to the amor vincit omnia (love conquers all) of the ancients.
One of the commonest themes in contemporary gay fiction is the family: that is, the families from which young gay individuals emerge, the families that closeted individuals construct by marrying and having children, and the alternative families that ‘liberated’ individuals develop out of new social circumstances.  Informed by feminism’s critique of the coercive nuclear family, as well as by conservative retrenchments claiming the nuclear family as the only socially and morally responsible mode of living, gay novelists have sought to show both how oppressive and harmful the heterosexual family structure can become, and yet how protective and nurturing different structures, imaginatively constructed according to the needs of individuals, can be if the concept of family is allowed to expand and develop flexibly, encompassing fresh sexual and affectional arrangements.  Major late-twentieth-century gay novelists included, in Britain, Alan Hollinghurst and Patrick Gale; in the United States, Edmund White and Andrew Holleran; in France, Yves Navarre and Dominique Fernandez.


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