QOTD (2010-08-12), Thesis Research and Queer Theory Edition

We normally think of J.A. Symonds as one of the pioneers of a modern theory of male homosexuality, and my thesis presently (that is, until I change my mind again next week) hopes to discuss how Symonds’ work and life prefigured the gay identities of the 20th and 21st centuries. He was in many ways an extraordinary pioneer, and I don’t believe the importance of his work to modern queer scholarship has been fully realized. Sometimes, however, he says things which mark him as far away indeed from the mainstream of modern queer thought. For example, from Chapter 4 of his short 1896 book A Problem in Modern Ethics:

… as is always the case in the analysis of hitherto neglected phenomena, [German doctor and sexologist Casper’s] classification [of “congenital” and “acquired” sexual inversion] falls far short of the necessities of the problem. While treating of acquired sexual inversion, he only thinks of debauchees. He does not seem to have considered a deeper question—deeper in its bearing upon the way in which society will have to deal with the whole problem—the question of how far these instincts are capable of being communicated by contagion to persons in their fullest exercise of sexual vigour. Taste, fashion, preference, as factors in the dissemination of anomalous passions, he has left out of his account. It is also, but this is a minor matter, singular that he should have restricted his observations on the freemasonry among pæderasts to those in whom the instinct is acquired. That exists quite as much or even more among those in whom it is congenital.

By “freemasonry,” Symonds means the tactics “pæderasts” use to recognize each other (dress, ways of looking at each other, linguistic cues, etc.), which so happen to be a major interest of mine, so that’s cool. But I’m actually far more intrigued here by Symonds’ endorsement of Casper’s inclination to break the population of men-loving men into those in whom the trait is inborn or developed in early childhood, and those in whom it is “acquired” and to a certain extent voluntary. To endorse such a taxonomy flies in the face of most of what we think of as standard in modern homosexuality, and it would be natural to dismiss it out-of-hand as late-Victorian wackiness. There are three reasons, however, why I think we actually ought to give Symonds’ raising of a “deeper question” more thought.

The first is a fairly straightforward historical-context point: it was commonly understood in 19th- and early-20th-century American and European culture that men not generally disposed to have sex with other men might do so in extraordinary circumstances when there were no women available—the best examples being sailors on long voyages, boys and young men at single-sex boarding schools and universities, and the still-common trope of the men’s prison. Hence the sense Casper and Symonds have that some men’s sex with men does not necessarily stem from any deep-seated physiological or psychological characteristic, even though–as Symonds says at the end of this chapter–“‘the majority of persons who are subject’ to sexual inversion come into the world, or issue from the cradle, with their inclination clearly marked.”

The second is a point of semantics and close-reading: at first glance the kookiest of Symonds’ suggestions in this paragraph is that “these instincts are capable of being communicated by contagion to persons in their fullest exercise of sexual vigour.” It’s a strange sentence, one which seems to embody all the worst quackery of Victorian medical “knowledge” and to bear a disconcerting resemblance to modern warnings about the “homosexual agenda.” But putting Symonds’ suggestion in a slightly different context changes its meaning: how many stories do we continue to hear day by day about adults who come out reasonably late in life? For every modern teenage boy who grows up watching Logo, attending Pride parades, and looking for porn on the Internet, there is a middle-aged man who takes half a lifetime to realize or to determine that he is gay–and sometimes, I would imagine, this is because he has a sexual experience which spurs him to connect feelings he’s had all his life to the larger concept of “homosexuality.” It seems this could be a modern way of phrasing the problem which Symonds raises: how will society taxonomize the man who, though heretofore “normal” (in 19th-century parlance), has sex with a man and determines himself an invert? How would someone’s identity and sense of self be reshaped by having a homosexual sexual experience? It does not strike me as surprising that Symonds, who is fundamentally concerned with ideas of identity and the parts of history, culture, medicine, language, etc. which compose an identity for the sexual invert, would find this question important.

The third point is larger in scope, involving broader implications to Symonds’ observations which I don’t have the queer theory to attack properly, but which I think enormously important to understanding homosexuality both in its natal decade and today. By invoking “Taste, fashion, preference, as factors in the dissemination of anomalous passions,” I like to think of Symonds as raising the point I am fond of making that there is an extricable division between physiological/psychological, immutable homosexual sexual orientation and the much more mutable entity commonly known as “gay culture.” I am fond of pointing out that not all (male) homosexuals are participants in “gay (male) culture” (we can quibble about what that means, but regardless of what “gay culture” is, I think the point stands), while not all participants in “gay (male) culture” are (male) homosexuals themselves–I count myself in this group. And I am tempted to think of a man from Los Angeles I met in a gay bar in Paris who seemed to be enjoying the efforts of a couple guys to hit on him before confessing that he wasn’t gay himself. I think Symonds is right to point to “taste” and “fashion” as elements which make up an identity and a culture as much as something immutable does, and I think this is something which all of us who consider ourselves interested in the matter of queer identities could do a little more thinking about.

I think I’ll end on the note that I personally would like to do a lot more thinking about this word “taste,” because it could represent the simple uncontrollable desire of sexual orientation, but also quite obviously seems to connote a desire colored by preference. After all, homosexuality may not be a choice, but how many people are given to couching their sexual preferences for partners of a specific race, partners who prefer to engage in specific sexual acts, etc. in this same language of non-choice? Sometimes orientational models of these things surface–the orientational model of dominance and submission is beginning to catch on in many circles, while we nearly always speak both historically and contemporarily of pedophilic desire as something uncontrollable, only condemning in criminal terms the acting-out of that desire. But I think the language of “taste” colors many discussions of sexuality beyond LGBT activists’ “being gay is not a choice” mantra, and considering it a factor “in the dissemination of anomalous passions” could help us develop still further our understandings of how queer identities are shaped. I would think that “taste” would be incredibly important to men like Symonds who came to construct a theory of homosexual identity out of an intellectual trajectory heavily influenced by the British aesthetic movement, who joined Wilde and Pater in the study of Greats and the Renaissance, and who had much to say about art and its criticism. That Symonds’ origins in and study of this tradition related directly to his theory of homosexuality is something I hope to weigh in on in my thesis, and I hope that doing so can help us to consider what bearing “taste” has on homosexuality today, removed as it seems from ancient philosophy or Renaissance art.


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