Friday, 19 July 2013

Gregory Woods: An Interview

[Andrés Lomeña, “Entrevista con Gregory Woods”, Cronopis (Barcelona: Universidad autónoma de Barcelona, May 2007). My History of Gay Literature was translated as Historia de la Literatura Gay (Madrid: Akal, 2001).]

1)   You develop a fascinating route across male homosexual literature with your History of Gay Literature. From Catullus, Virgil or Horace to Marcel Proust, we have a western gay tradition, hushed up, hidden. I guess your work has been controversial, but you fill a huge gap of literary studies. What other gaps should we cover? (For example: lesbian, post-colonial, black or mestizo literature.)

Canons are exclusive by definition (that is why they are useful) yet they are never beyond reproach, and they are never static.  But if there are gaps, how should we seek to fill them?  Socially or aesthetically?  Do we need literature that will encourage an egalitarian society, or do we need magnificent books?  (Some books, but few, can perform both these functions.)  People tend to complain about canons as if they were imposing impossible demands upon the reader, whereas, in fact, by being rigorously selective, they help the reader to avoid reading books that might be a waste of time.  In this sense, they are generous and sympathetic, rather than punitive, to the reader who has not read everything.

2)   You invite us to go over our cultural history. A new canon might redefine our conception about authors and masterpieces. For example, the feminist canon introduces new writers. However, when we construct a feminist canon, we are implicitly accepting the “Western” canon (as Harold Bloom showed us, for instance), the establishment. Would it not be better to reintroduce minority discourses (gay and lesbian studies) within the universal canon?

The smallest minority is that of the individual reader.  I have no objection to her being taught, or given access to, the ‘great books’ of the Western canon, so long as she is also taught that the canon always serves particular interests in society, and always occludes others.  The canon must be supplemented by guidance on its alternatives.  It may be that each reader needs several canons, sequentially or simultaneously: an aesthetic one, a social one, a traditional one, an experimental one...  Perhaps more than ever, now that the book is said to be under threat from screen-based visual cultures, the main use of a canon is to encourage selective and intelligent reading.  This may be conservative or it may be radical; but it is more likely to be the latter, since true intelligence always seeks to change things for the better, rather than to accept them as being unchangeable.

3)   You are explicit declaring your homosexuality in your book. As far as I am concerned, I think that is a honest proposal, splendidly managed by Adrienne Rich´s poetry. On the other hand, it seems a requirement (I should introduce myself as a heterosexual reader). I have the feeling that we mark people as a function of their sexual or economical condition (or whatever: I’m thinking about vegetarian people and their ideas). For example, thinkers cannot explain the work of Michel Foucault putting aside his homosexuality. How could we avoid this prejudicial approach? Is that impulse of transparency strictly necessary for sincere dialogues?

There can be no fixed rules about such matters.  At the present moment in the struggle, we can see that lesbian and gay visibility has been politically useful; but it has also taken its toll on those who have acted as representative homosexuals in the public eye.  We should not have to be advertisements for ourselves.  Today I want to be invisible, tomorrow I want to impose my queerness on a mass audience.  Today I want to be celibate, tomorrow I want to be a promiscuous slut.  As Walt Whitman said: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.

4)   Donna Haraway’s Queer Theory or Cyborg Manifesto talks about the abolition of binaries (masculine/feminine, and so on). I usually have trouble understanding this postmodern language. So, what does it mean to us in a real context? How can we live overcoming our biological and cultural barriers?

The main route to breaking down these crude systems is the treatment of other human beings as individuals rather than types.  This is much easier said than done—but then so were Chastity and Obedience, in a previous moral code.  It involves dedication and generosity, an openness to difference...

5)   Homosexual marriage is already possible in Spain. Also adoption. What achievement is still a Utopia at this moment?

I never believed that gay marriage was a desirable institution; nor did I think it was worth fighting for the right to join the army.  But if one believes in the principles of equality and freedom of choice, one has to accept, however reluctantly, that these are positive developments.  More important, though, is the development of rational sex education in schools, and subculturally supportive social care for elderly lesbians and gay men.  Also desirable would be a general recognition that romantic love is itself a product of, and subject to, historical forces.  Like any controlling ideology, it is coercive and exclusionary.  Being single is not such a bad thing as we are constantly being told.

6)   You have written about homo-eroticism. What do you think about the function of eroticism in our society? And about pornography?

Eroticism is to the mind what sex is to the body.  Its function is, like that of viniculture and haute cuisine, the generation of pleasure and (for its exploiters) profit.  Those of us who were brought up as Catholics know a lot about the veneration of icons.  The boys in my favourite porn magazines and websites are sources of great wonder and reassurance.  They remind me, not just that flesh is beautiful, but that it is all-important.  Its pleasures compensate for its pains.  Its youth compensates a little for mortality. 

7)   There are mothers who fathered their children and fathers who mothered their children. Are the familiar roles an artificial fabrication? Where are the theoretical limits of gender?

If it is true, as Judith Butler argues, that gender is performative, there is no reason to think of it as having limits, other than those exerted by social pressure.  Our new understanding of gender opens us up to limitless possibilities—if we could only stop parents and schools indoctrinating children into the narrow cells of traditional roles.  Imagine a school playground in which there were as many genders as there were individual children!

8)   As readers, what is the benefit of reading Billy Budd by Melville and other stories as a homosexual story (in a hermeneutical sense)?

Each era, each culture, reads a book in its own way, even if informed by previous readings.  I am not an evangelist.  I do not regard the ‘gay reading’ of such a classic text as the revealed truth, more authentic than any previous or alternative reading.  One of the benefits is to the book itself, giving it new layers of meaning, and new generations of readers.  The ‘queering’ of classic texts always reminds me of Borges’s Pierre Menard, independently writing his own Don Quixote, with all of the same words in exactly the same order, but ending up with a completely different book.

9)   You presuppose a gay reader for gay literature. Anyway, what “gay” novel or work of art do you recommend to us?

Since we should always be sceptical of fixed ‘identities’ based in areas as volatile as sexuality, the ‘gay reader’ may be little more than a convenient fiction.  In my own critical work, he is based on myself.  My gay reader has my own eclectic tastes, with little residual interest in the coming-out stories of teenage boys.  Having said that, I also have in mind the young reader, such as I was forty years ago, who needs to find in books the image of his or her own possible futures.  In my own reading practices, now, in my mid-fifties, I seek literatures that are ‘queer’ to the point of exhilarating complexity.  (I do not want to see queerness being made palatable to the bourgoisie.)  Although I no longer read him very often, Jean Genet is the great model of this kind of writer.  So, too, are Juan Goytisolo, William Burroughs, Pierre Guyotat, Monique Wittig...  It is not merely that they recognise the complexity of sexuality itself, and say surprising things about it, but that they do so in a literature that is itself radically innovative.

10)    Anything you would like to add?

There are dangers in the acceptability queer/gay studies have won in the academic world.  I would like to issue a warning against accepting queer theory too readily.  It was largely shaped around the needs and interests of Anglophone academics.  Even if it has its origins in the work of continental Europeans like Michel Foucault, their distinctive Europeanness tends to be resolutely ignored in the UK and the USA.  The desire for ‘queer’ to become a universal currency should be aggressively resisted.  Our own local theologies of sexuality should stand up to the evangelizing zeal of queer-theoretical Conquistadores.  They may be carrying something worse than syphilis: intellectual uniformity.

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