As an undergraduate in the heady atmosphere of mid-19th-century Oxford, John Addington Symonds studied something called “Literae humaniores,” or “Greats.” It was a curriculum of what we might today call western civ (indeed, Columbia still calls its western civ core curriculum “Lit. Hum.”): mostly classics, Greek and Latin literature and history, with some modern philosophy and ethics thrown in. It was the first secular course introduced to Oxford, a curriculum that, especially in Benjamin Jowett’s Balliol, hoped to prepare successful graduates to govern the empire. It prepared Symonds, recipient of one of the highest Firsts in his year and a variety of very prestigious university prizes, to write a sweepingly comprehensive cultural history of the Italian Renaissance, and then to formulate what I argue was the first academic theory of homosexual identity. It was a rigorous curriculum, and a curriculum that defined the education of individuals from Symonds (and Pater, Swinburne, Wilde, etc.) right down to some of my friends in Oxford today. Greats has changed from its 19th-century incarnation: a lot of knowledge has been added to classics and philosophy in the past 150 years; Oxford no longer (universally) wants its graduates to govern the empire or enter the clergy; and its students are no longer (universally) public-schoolboys who have been drilled relentlessly in Greek and Latin grammar from the age of seven onwards. But one of the facts that bowled me over when I was at Oxford—and that did much to sum up what was strange and otherworldly about that city of dreaming spires—is that I actually hung out with people who studied the same stuff Symonds did. Time moves slowly in Oxford. It’s conservative. It cares about canon.
Anyone with an inkling of a 21st-century liberal-arts education will have been trained to read that preceding paragraph for all the old-boyism, all the white male upper-class privilege, Greats enshrines. It’s the old wrinkled center of what Oxford is: academic conservatism all the way down. And yet, puzzlingly, I was well and truly seduced by that strange fairy city. Like Sue says in Jude the Obscure, Jude, and indeed, I, think “it is a great centre of high and fearless thought, instead of what it is, a nest of commonplace schoolmasters whose characteristic is timid obsequiousness to tradition.” And thus I sit here in my annual August exile far away in rural British Columbia: organizing my Symonds research, listening to my Oxford playlist, and throbbing with a dull ache of love for a city that is about nothing so much as it is about canon, about doing things because that is the way they have always been done.
The thing is, I grew up with canon. I was raised in the western humanist tradition, with Great Books and dead languages. I come from a family who decided it would be a fun bonding activity one Thanksgiving to read Paradise Lost out loud together, and my parents feared for my safety when I climbed on top of the toy car to recite monologues from Macbeth. Growing up, my favorite page in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language was the one that illustrated the Indo-European language family by listing the Lord’s Prayer in a variety of Indo-European languages. Growing up, I had a favorite page in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. I read Victorian novels because as a Victorianist, it’s my job, but also because, if you were raised in the western humanist tradition, that’s what you do. I was raised to think—despite everything that I know about the privilege the western civ narrative enjoys, and how problematic that is—that someone needs to study these books, to remember them, to cherish them (I keep telling people I’m really quite conservative, and no one believes me… well, guys, here’s the proof). And I was raised to follow my intellectual passions, so I have guiltily burrowed my way deep inside some American child’s version of Arnoldian Culture, and wormed my way out the other end only to find myself an adult writing a thesis about John Addington Symonds.
What I’m doing with Symonds doesn’t necessarily bespeak “Greats” on the face of it. I’m writing about the construction of male homosexuality, engaged enough with the world of queer theory to know that I am making an intercession into the scholarly literature by challenging the Foucauldian presumption that only regulating entities were interested in defining homosexuality, rather than just going with the flow. I know that this is something professional historians are interested in these days. I’m happy to get bogged down in deconstructive wordplay as much as the next person with a smattering of lit-crit background. But at the same time, this isn’t a project in gender studies or queer theory, as much as I respect those fields and the people who work in them. It’s a project for which I’ve started to learn Greek and dusted off my Latin. It’s a project that’s involved teaching myself Greek literature, Renaissance art, Victorian politics and culture, Anglo-American utopian socialist literature, and generally trying to get inside the mind of an Oxford-educated Victorian man of letters and to see the world through his eyes. I am trying to figure out why Symonds was as a young man unable to find words to express “l’amour de l’impossible,” and why later in his life he found those words and set out on a crusade to spread them, by understanding what he thought was important—and why his narrative of what homosexual identity is encompassed Plato and Michelangelo and Walt Whitman.
I’m doing this in part because I was already at least halfway there myself. I work easily within this kind of cultural narrative. Recently, I realized that although in my academic work I try to be distanced and critical and deconstruct my own narratives, what I call “the homoerotic literary tradition” is really just “gay Greats.” This idea that stretches throughout the late 19th, 20th, and now the 21st centuries of privileged white gay men finding out who they are through reading is nothing more than a recasting of the western canon, looking at the same core curriculum through, er, lavender-colored glasses. And if you like, the Wizard of Oz allusion there is even deliberate: now the gay canon extends on its own path from the gay liberation era onwards, encompassing modern literary figures reclaimed and the new phenomenon of cultural figures who are openly gay from the start of their careers; a musical narrative in which Lady Gaga is the heir to ’70s disco; gay places and gay spaces; and increased points of contact between the stereotypical gay male culture and the other multivalent queer cultures that now challenge and undermine its hegemony.
I have been wondering more or less since I became involved in queer politics, culture, and history about issues of canon and hegemonic cultural narratives: does it matter that many young queer people have never heard of or read anything by Oscar Wilde? do gay people have to support same-sex marriage? are allies allowed into gay parties? to what extent is Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” a problematic song? Making the queer-theoretical move of disengaging a homosexual sexual orientation that is in some sense intrinsic to one’s biology and/or psychology from a gay culture that treats these very specific cultural flashpoints as shibboleths solves some of the problems but not all of them. For me, my recourse to the gay canon as a woman—even as a woman scholar—is a fraught issue; that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of identity-politics questions about who has access to this narrative and whom it speaks to.
But I think it can help us if we treat this canon like we do the old Greats curriculum, or American western civ à la the Columbia or Chicago core curricula. Greats is one path of study among many at Oxford; Columbia and Chicago are two universities among many with different approaches to the idea of liberal-arts education. (C.f. Princeton, which offers an optional rigorous first-year western civ sequence, an option availed of by only a few freshmen exceptionally passionate about the concept.) And so is gay Greats only one route among many to a sense of self-worth and self-understanding. We all make our own cultural compasses.
But as something of an expert about this canon, I do have a couple caveats. At risk of sounding like the conservative elite that I am, I think we should respect this tradition, even if at a distance, for the breathtaking goodness it has done for those to whom it speaks. We need to destabilize its hegemony, yes, but that doesn’t mean disavowing the fact that a litany of lives have been saved by Plato’s Symposium. (And people repurpose the canon in unconventional ways: the avant-garde musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whose protagonist exhibits an ambivalent and complicated relationship to gender and to privilege, borrows the creation myth that Aristophanes relates in the Symposium, of two-person people cut in half by Zeus, as the show’s central motif.) I also think that the need to respect this tradition for what it is means that if you are going to do it, you should do it right. You don’t have to speak about Oscar Wilde as one of your heroes to be a member of the club. But if you are going to plant your lipsticked lips on his tomb in Père Lachaise, you should learn a little about his life and read Dorian Gray and some of his plays and essays. If you are going to play gay anthems in your bar, you should know what the lyrics are, and what meanings lie behind the messages-of-self-empowerment-set-to-disco-beats of the moment (or of yesteryear). We are fortunate today that there are many ways to be queer, and that many people don’t even feel the need to label their sexual identities at all. But while getting a degree in non-western area studies and shaking free of the expectation to care about dead white men is totally awesome, that doesn’t mean it’s right to actually misquote Shakespeare.
Canons are constructs. Symonds, who didn’t think his feelings for men were precisely sexual until he was in middle age, and who struggled in his later work theorizing about homosexual identities and communities to pinpoint a difference between “congenital” and “acquired sexual inversion,” could certainly have told you that “Born This Way” we aren’t. But I, for one, am still in guilty shamefaced love with Oxford, “timid obsequiousness to tradition” and all. After all (and here’s where the conservatism comes in again) you know what doesn’t crumble into dust at the slight prod of a deconstructive finger? “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular, to you; and here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met—maybe even someone long-dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”