CALL FOR PAPERS – Journal of Popular Gaga Studies

Recently I’ve been having such fruitful conversations about Lady Gaga and her impact on issues like feminism, queer studies, celebrity and fame, and even irony and postmodernism that I think it’s about time we formalized and publicized some of those conversations. To that end, as follows is the call for papers for the first issue of a new journal in Gaga Studies, to which anyone and everyone is encouraged to submit:

CALL FOR PAPERS – Journal of Popular Gaga Studies

A new journal in Gaga Studies is seeking submissions for its first issue. Gaga Studies is the interdisciplinary examination of musician and performance artist Lady Gaga’s impact on the popular culture and on the worlds of music, performance, and art. We welcome submissions from all critical perspectives, though we are particularly interested in those which place Lady Gaga in the context of feminist, gender, and queer/LGBT politics and thought. We are also interested in criticism of and commentary on the growing body of secondary literature in Gaga Studies from both the academic and the popular press.

Although this is not the first online journal in Gaga Studies, it aims to occupy a niche distinct from its predecessors by writing consciously and cautiously for a general audience. While we respect the work done by our colleagues (and our academic betters!), submissions to the Journal of Popular Gaga Studies must be accessible to readers without a background in critical theory or other modes of academic thought and inquiry. We also look favorably upon submissions from writers who are not established academics, particularly undergraduate and graduate students or young people of similar age and experience. Part of this journal’s aim is to make serious cultural-studies criticism accessible and available to a wide audience, and we take doing so very seriously indeed.

To submit, please send a brief (1-2 paragraph) abstract/pitch/outline to the editor, Emily Rutherford, at populargagastudies at gmail dot com. Please include a short bio, listing your name and your institutional affiliation if you have one. Full-length submissions are also acceptable, and should be at least 1,200 but probably no more than 4,000 words. Initial abstract submissions for the first issue are due September 31, 2010. Please direct all further questions and comments to the editor.

What Do the Scissor Sisters, Grindr, and My Local Barnes and Noble Have in Common? or; Presumption and Gay History; or, A Rant Which Is a Little More Sarcastic Than Usual

Starting to overcome the jetlag and culture shock that greeted me upon my arrival back home in southern California, I ventured out of the house for the first time today. My mother drove me to the mall near our house and dropped me in front of Barnes&Noble, and before too long I was standing in front of the two shelves in a back corner labeled “gay and lesbian studies,” wondering what, in my first mainstream chain media emporium in a while (it’s been all independents, academics, and useds lately), those two shelves would hold. It turned out to be largely lesbian erotica (for reasons unbeknownst to me, only one volume for gay men amidst a sea of lesbian titles), but mixed in among every volume of “Best Lesbian Erotica” published in the past 15 years were—to my shock and awe—books and books about Stonewall. There was Martin Duberman’s classic text, and a new one by a local historian who lives on Christopher Street, and one specifically aimed at young adults, and a couple others too which I’ve now forgotten. And though the books I need which was half-hoping I might find on those shelves, like David Halperin and Jonathan Ned Katz, were absent, I did see a few classic texts of the work I do in Literary Gay Men Studies standing out amongst the erotica: Randy Shilts. Edmund White. It was strange, in a conservative suburban world which I imagine is everything that my academic world is not, to think that the Mira Mesa Barnes&Noble’s usual customers might care about gay history too, enough to buy one of five different books about Stonewall. I suppose it should have come as no surprise, really—I knew kids in high school energized into activism by the legend of Harvey Milk—but the incongruity was still jarring. I was so startled that I almost bought And the Band Played On—I mean, who knows whether anyone else would?

I think perhaps that I was attuned today to the extra-ivory tower understanding of gay history (and I use “gay” intentionally; I’m sorry to say I’m not going to be talking about LBT folks too much here) because I had a couple reasons in popular culture to believe that there isn’t much of that going around these days. Sure, everyone’s excited about Pride and stuff, but the Harvey Milk craze has more or less died out, the Frank Kameny craze was more or less confined to Washington, and none of the elders of the gay community are getting any younger when it comes to getting their stories out into the wider community. The increasing normalcy of same-sex marriage has supplanted the urgency of gay liberation; on a far more nerve-wracking note, HIV infection rates among men who have sex with men are sharply on the rise because men my age, born around 1990, don’t remember how awful the 1980s were. I worry that gay men and the LGBT community at large do not only take their history for granted, but are at serious risk of losing memory of it altogether—particularly as my generation, with its oh-so-very-different outlook on being gay in America, reaches maturity.

One event which has got me worried about this is the release of the new album from the very gay dance/pop/disco/thing band Scissor Sisters, Night Work. I saw the promotional posters all over Paris, and couldn’t wait to download the album; it turns out I love it, and have been listening to it a lot the past few days. And perhaps I am attuned to love it because it is an album steeped in gay history, from its Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo to its ’80s-style promotional video to band frontman Jake Shears’ bold declaration that the album’s concept is to carve out an alternative history for the past 25 years: “like AIDS never happened.”

And yet as much as I myself am at times consumed by a profound sense of loss from reading about a time and a virus I didn’t live through; and as much as I devour the history of the era just before, Shears’ explanation of his album makes me uncomfortable enough to sour me on the music. It is irresponsible history—verging on the point of moral wrong—to pretend that AIDS never happened. It (and I do not think strong language is out of place here) desecrates the memories of those who have died from it. I do not know that we owe it to our community to become steeped in the sadness and depression of the so-called “plague” to the exclusion of happier moments in gay history, but I think Shears—and all of us who listen to and love his band’s album—owe it to thousands of people, right down to the man whose ass graces Night Work‘s cover, to remember a history that does not sweep AIDS under the rug simply because it is as depressing as all hell. Rather, we can aim for a more cautious, forward-looking revival of musical genres and cultural aesthetics, which I think is something Night Work does. 2010 so far has been a year fatigued by marriage-equality battles and soured on gay civil rights heroes; it is a year that is perhaps more willing to embrace disco as it once was. Which is fine; I only ask that we turn ourselves to fashioning a disco of 2010 instead of trying to pretend as if it’s still 1978.

I’m not the only one taking this attitude: it’s saturating Guardian writer Polly Vernon’s article about Grindr, the gay-men-meetup-and-hookup iPhone app. If the Scissor Sisters are stuck in some sort of irresponsible time warp before 1983, Vernon is all forward-thinking. Positing that we live in a “post-gay world,” and drawing attention to the apolitical nature of Grindr, Vernon is very much a part of this 2010 gay world I mentioned which is both non-radical and fatigued by politics. Not to mention the fact that Vernon is talking about that most 21st-century of cultural markers, an iPhone app—and one which, she is convinced, is on its way to revolutionizing gay culture and, in this aforementioned “post-gay world,” straight culture too.

But if Vernon does not deliberately erase key swathes of gay history, she certainly seems pretty ignorant of some of them. She thinks Grindr will change the ways that gay men meet each other, hook up, form social connections with each other, date, and understand each other as a mapped-out community. She threatens the downfall of monogamy, raising concerns about monogamous couples where one partner might cheat using Grindr… but Polly, honey, where the hell do you think American male homosexual culture has been for the last, I don’t know, 90 years? Not all gay men are alike, to be sure, or find sex partners in the same ways, but cruising is a long and storied tradition stretching back far before the invention of the iPhone or the GPS or the social networking site. Since homosexuality has existed in America, gay men have had varyingly covert ways of recognizing each other and soliciting each other. Furthermore, as Jake Shears could probably tell Vernon if he hasn’t blocked it out, non-monogamy was the norm in the urban gay culture which Grindr targets until AIDS hit. As Edmund White explains it in The Farewell Symphony (I’m paraphrasing, as the book is in a box in Princeton), the gay community in New York so much understood its identity to be based in non-monogamous values that it had serious difficulty adjusting to a world threatened by infection in which it was recommended that you know the names of your sex partners. And even in our current century, in this AIDS-ridden world, the character Jamie in Shortbus says, “Face it: monogamy’s for straight people.” For all Vernon’s insistence on “post-gay,” there is still a not-insignificant band of the rainbow flag which defines itself in opposition to the “straight” world.

Of course, straight people have never been wholly monogamous, either (ever seen a cheating Senator ‘fess up on TV? or, for a less morally-charged example, ever heard of swingers?), and so I’m not sure what Vernon thinks is so new about Grindr’s potential in the straight market. History and my academic knowledge of these things leads me to believe that a disproportionate number of users would still be gay men, but I see no reason to believe that Grindr will dramatically change how straight men and women conduct their business. Those who hook up will continue to hook up; those who might once have attracted each other’s attention by glances across a bar or perhaps by their own version of the handkerchief code (yes, I’ve seen heterosexual-geared color keys) will just be adding another tool to their repertoire. Despite the wide expert knowledge Vernon claims due to her many pseudonymous gay friends, I don’t see any reason to be as excited as she is about Grindr. Yes, I’m sure it’s a shiny toy. Yes, I think it would be hilarious to watch my friends try it out in a bar. And yes, I’m sure it’s helped a lot of men have a good time. But it seems to me as precisely much of an upgrade to old-fashioned cruising as email was to the penny post: faster and flashier, but not fundamentally altering how we use the English language. Or pick up boys. Or something.

I wish Vernon would not be so quick to assume that, just because she has some gay friends, she knows what it is like to be a gay man and to belong to the gay male community. And I wish Shears would not be so quick to assume that, just because he is gay, he can rewrite the history of his elders. But perhaps I should not either be so presumptuous as to tell a musician and a journalist what I think of what they do on the basis of having read a few books and (yes, I admit it) knowing a few gay men. For just as Vernon will never really understand what it is like to be on the gay cruising scene, and just as Shears will never really know what it was like to live in the Village in the ’80s, I will never have the full understanding of this community that my gay male friends can—and it would be wrong of me to pretend that I can too.

However, I believe that, given the particular mission I’ve carved out for myself, it would also be wrong of me to stop trying. By reading more history, and being judicious about how best to apply it, I can hopefully bring my own outsider’s perspective to the recording of this community’s life before we all forget too much of it. Perhaps, after all, I should have plucked And the Band Played On out of the sea of lesbian erotica and done my best to pay my respects, even all the way out here in the California suburbs.

QOTD (2010-05-15), “Whitman Is Not a Gay Poet” Edition

From Michael Robertson, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples:

Whitman was not suggesting that all men were repressing a supposedly shameful tendency; rather, he was celebrating the seeds of a politically powerful democratic affection that existed within every person and that only needed encouragement to blossom. Whitman’s poems of adhesiveness were intended not to set a few men apart but to bring all Americans together.

It is this inclusiveness that has made arguments about Whitman’s sexuality so intense. When Oscar Wilde said, years after his visit to the United States, that the kiss of Walt Whitman was still on his lips, he was claiming an artistic consecration, a mark of special favor. Symonds and Carpenter used Whitman to defend the rights of a persecuted minority, to suggest that same-sex passion was natural and innate in a certain portion of the population. But Walt Whitman refused to consider himself as special or different. He was not a minority but a kosmos. In depicting himself he was depicting you, any reader, every reader—the erms of adhesive love are in all people. It is a message that remains more radical and unsettling than any that Symonds, Carpenter, or Wilde—for all their transgressive courage—ever offered.

Ahistorical determination to claim Whitman for the cause of homosexuality usually tends to ignore the fairly obvious contextual point that no one aside from a few German sexologists and their British acolytes was really developing a framework in which to understand men’s sexual attraction to men (in contrast to a more romantic “manly love of comrades”). It goes without saying that American contemporaries of Whitman’s would not have read the “Calamus” poems as homosexual or even precisely homoerotic, simply because of the cultural context in which they all existed; this is in part why Whitman so enthusiastically rebuffed Symonds’ and Carpenter’s attempts to read “Calamus” love as “Uranian.” Homoerotic relationships and men who engaged in them as a distinct social category did not exist for Whitman or in his America. As Robertson points out earlier in this chapter, an allusion to (female) prostitution elsewhere in Whitman’s oeuvre generated the cultural concern—and censorship&mdash that the “Calamus” poems never did.

But I think it is worth noting that in this passage, Robertson seems to be suggesting that even if a cultural construction of homosexuality had existed in Whitman’s America, he wouldn’t have considered himself part of it. Sexual orientation is ever a question of self-identification, and Whitman would neither have understood himself to be writing on gay themes nor would have understood himself to be gay. Indeed, identity politics and the ensuing cultural divisiveness were exactly what concerned Whitman: remember that so much of his poetry comes directly out of the Civil War; remember the degree of patriotic concern with which he mourned the death of Lincoln and worried about what it would mean to the Union. I don’t understand the amative-adhesive dialectic nearly as well as I should, and it is possible that it has more in common with Carpenter’s gender-transgressive utopian vision than we might expect. But recent attempts to call upon Whitman in the name of an identity politics do a disservice to the poet’s own, I believe more complex, cosmology.

At the entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station in Washington, DC, there is a Whitman quote inscribed into the stone: it reads, “Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,/Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;/The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,/I sit by the restless all dark night – some are so young;/Some suffer so much – I recall the experience sweet and sad…” So, I assume, was Whitman’s experience as a Civil War nurse adopted for the cause of an AIDS memorial, and so, once again, was Whitman’s cultural status as the bard of homoeroticism brought to bear on this particular memory of a virus which claimed a generation of gay men. I like, however, to think that Whitman—despite his own rejection of the Uranian association, and despite the ahistoricity of labelling him with an identity which did not exist in his cultural context—would not have hesitated to minister to dying AIDS patients in the virus’s first couple decades, nor as it continues to ravage indiscriminately today. At risk of lapsing into my own particular brand of ahistoricity, I can only believe that Whitman would treat the young gay man of the 1980s, wasting away in a hospital bed before his time, with the same reverence which he did the young soldier of the 1860s dying a not-entirely-different, equally-undeserved death. Adhesive and amative love, after all, are not needlessly squeamish about whom they touch.

On the Influential Books Meme; or, Reading Memoirs

I would like to begin by pointing out the pun in the phrase “Reading Memoirs,” and then point you to Alyssa Rosenberg’s great take on the blogosphere’s recent “influential books” meme, in the new Atlantic culture section. Alyssa presents her titles not as a list but as a chronology, a life history, and I appreciate this: it demonstrates the organic way that texts influence us, and that the life—and not the texts—are the organizing factor here. We don’t live our lives in accordance with a literary canon; rather, we fixate on certain texts that seem to speak most directly to us at different points in our lives. Unlike some of my colleagues, I hesitated to compile a list, because I’m not sure if I’ve analyzed the past twenty years to a point where I could come up with a good understanding of which texts are the closest reflections of me at given, so to speak, historical moments. I would glance at my bookshelf, my eyes would light upon a text—like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or Chauncey’s Gay New York, and I would subsequently realize what little the texts that form the core of my literary personality now have to do with the sort of prelapsarian state of my intensely literary, inward-looking, shy, antisocial, alternately self-proclaiming and self-doubting childhood.

One of the biggest themes this academic year in my self-psychoanalysis has been revisiting a world I very much feel as if I left behind when I entered high school. I’ve spoken on this blog before—particularly last fall—about seeking to reclaim that particular romanticized-childhood version of myself, and only now coming to understand my first decade or so as highly relevant to my second. Last fall, for a class on biography and autobiography, in which we read many memoirs, I wrote a reading memoir about my first decade, and the degree to which it was shaped (in ways both within and outside of my control) by books. This spring, I am taking a class on children’s literature, revisiting other books which I haven’t touched since my fall from childhood innocence. I’ve dealt a lot with Alice in Wonderland in both these classes and in my own cogitations—it was the book that, as I wrote in my memoir, provoked my first visit to a university library, but it wasn’t until I read it again in one of the many times I’ve done so this year that I realized that the fact that Alice is also the child of a professor gives me a kinship with her I’d never identified when I was her age. Likewise, my increasingly complex relationship to gender norms as I’ve grown up caused me to identify much more strongly with Little Women‘s Jo March when I read the novel for my children’s lit class. Back when I was Jo’s age, I thought she was cool, but not as cool as the talking rodents in Brian Jacques’ Redwall books, or even as cool the seductive beauties of the Celtic-inspired romance novels I read in middle school, who represented a fantastically unattainable state of perfection to a clumsy, nerdy, unattractive girl confronting the awkwardness of puberty and teenagerhood. And it is largely retrospectively that I have come to appreciate my childhood in the romantically innocent sense I ascribed to it in my reading memoir: when I was in Montessori school and knew nothing else, it would not have occurred to me to think that my parents had done something special by raising me in an academic bubble with books and no television, encouraging my overactive imagination, and supporting me in my first forays to imitate my favorite children’s (and adult) literature and begin to produce my own creative writing. And so it is only now with the proper context—and having run the gauntlet of high school—that I feel calmly reflective enough to come back, and to begin to understand the literary tradition in which I was raised and to which I feel that I in some sense belong.

The greatest discovery I made in this arena came when I was working on my reading memoir in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Some of you may know that I was named Emily not because it was the most popular name for girls in 1990, but because one of the most influential texts in my mother’s girlhood and adolescence and young adulthood was a novel called Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, who also wrote the Anne of Green Gables books. I was unimpressed by Emily of New Moon when my mother read it to me 13 years ago, and didn’t revisit it until it occurred to me that the novel which gave me my name (and the accompanying sense that I by my very existence belong to a literary tradition) deserved to be included in any discussion of the books important to my childhood. Talk about the word “memoir”: as I wrote in my memoir, when rereading the novel, I saw moi-même reflected back at me:

I read Emily of New Moon when I was seven, but I may have been too young to appreciate it properly—at the time, Emily didn’t enter the inner circle of fictional girls whose worlds I recreated in backyard and playground. Rereading the book years later, though, I am bowled over by the similarities between her world and my own. Like Emily, whose father takes a Rousseauian approach to her education, and smiles to himself when she personifies the trees in front of her house, my parents encouraged me to construct a world constrained only by the limits of my imagination. Like Emily, I didn’t let less imaginative adults or children stop me, but I did recruit sympathetic peers to co-star in my fantasies. Like Emily, I wrote pseudo-Romantic poetry about the seasons; like Emily, I claimed to (or at least wished to) remember my own birth. Emily reads Alice in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lines from which (in addition to Macbeth and Hamlet) I would habitually recite to my parents from a precarious perch atop a red-and-yellow toy car. Montgomery wrote Emily of New Moon in 1923, after the First World War had tarnished the Romantic glow of childhood, but Emily’s innocent youth—like mine, perhaps—is a throwback to an earlier time. Twelve years after I put Warriorism [a set of religious rites I based on the Redwall books] to rest, I read Emily of New Moon again. When Emily’s father’s housekeeper says, “You talk queer—and you act queer—and at times you look queer. And you’re too old for your age—though that ain’t your fault. It comes of never mixing with other children,” I felt as if she were talking to me.

Shortly before Emily’s father dies of consumption (another rather Victorian thing to do), he says to her, “Your mother thought Emily the prettiest name in the world,—it was quaint and arch and delightful, she said.” I can see, now, why my mother might have thought the same; why she might have wanted a child with the ability and the freedom to, like Emily, listen for the Wind Woman, feel “the flash,” and squint until she could see the wallpaper suspended in the air. Monastery Effect and all, my mother might just have wound up with an Emily to live up to the name.

I didn’t discuss this in my memoir, but one of the reasons I like the sentence I quote in that first paragraph is because of its use of the word “queer.” In high school and beyond, I began to make a professional persona out of what I like to facetiously call “saying ‘sodomy’ at the dinner table”—the academic study of sexuality and identities and communities which construct themselves on sexuality terms. In my life as 20-year-old Emily Rutherford, writer, activist, and proto-historian, “queer” means something supposedly so very removed from the sense that Montgomery ascribed to it in that sentence. There is little to tie together the work I am learning how to do now (a field, I should mention, which I first entered through the lens of Kinsey, Krafft-Ebing, and others with early scientific approaches to sexual practices and behavior, the most literal sense I’ve ever dealt with of actually “saying ‘sodomy’ at the dinner table”) with a childhood where “queer” meant any kind of misfit. But I like to think that, recently, as I’ve tried to synthesize a child who wore funny clothes and believed in fairies and had a penchant for historical romanticism with an adolescent who became practiced at bringing sex and sexuality out of furtive teenage internet forays and into the legitimate public discourse, I wind up with a young adult to whom “queer” can mean many things at once. I might even go so far as to say that my present academic passion, the emergence of homosexuality as a cultural identity, exists so very conveniently on the cusp of that change in meaning, when “queer” takes on such a specific sexual connotation that to subsequent generations it actually loses that original meaning of “aslant,” unidentifiably out of the ordinary. While I know that we are all much more than the work that we do, there is something appealing in the notion that my interest in a cultural moment in which “queer” could simultaneously contain both meanings mirrors my desire to revisit a time in my own life when I, like the girl who gave me my name, was “queer” without respect to my sexual identity or politics.

I have, I supposed, deviated (heheh, get it?) rather far from the initial germ of this post, but I’d like to end by noting that Alyssa’s post also ends on the cusp of sexual possibility, with an allusion to her first kiss. It is not wildly outlandish overreading, then, to suggest that our childhood ties to literary cultures prepare us for how we will engage with the world as adults, no matter whether that preparation lies in the physical first overtures of romance or in the intellectualized realm of semantics of identity.

On Reading Habits and the Information Superhighway

I once again fail at refraining from joining in the clusterfuck that is the left-wing DC-based blogosphere, because both Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to a third blog post, which fears that Twitter will bring about the demise of American literary culture, by discussing their own reading habits. And I, Millenial Twitterer Facebooker college student—a representative of an age group allegedly more networked and less able to stay focused on a whole novel than the age groups from which Yglesias and Coates hail—felt obliged to weigh in on my own reading habits as well.

Now, my perspective does come with some bias: over the weekend, I pressed the fatal command-Q on my Twitter client, aware that the little blue-glowing notification icon in the upper-right corner of my screen was distracting me from writing grant applications. It’s a terrible thing when you can’t get through a sentence because you feel like an icon is forcing you to switch windows and attend to some all-important piece of information that probably isn’t really that important after all, and is certainly no more important than applying for summer funding. If anything, this is the problem with the social-networking information superhighway: not that it is a non-literary or non-literate form of communicating, but that it creates for the user an obligation to make that icon stop glowing blue, or to keep the number of unread items in Google Reader down to zero. (Yes, I definitely did just look at my Google Reader tab, note that the tab read “Google Reader (8),” and clicked over to start reading the 8 unread items before I realized the irony of the situation.) These unread counts, and the immediacy they demand, are, I think, a problem—because they distract us from other things that surely deserve just as much of our time and attention. I feel as if I must read my new tweets because if I wait ten minutes to send my friend an @-reply, it will be too late—but then what does that do to the intellectual resources I’m devoting to understanding some aspect of my schoolwork?

It’s not as if I don’t read a lot: I am, after all, an undergrad history major with a more-than-passing interest in English literature. I read. A lot. Hundreds of pages a week, in fact, and I did that before I quit Twitter and I do it now, because I have to. I won’t do as well in my classes if I don’t read, and I won’t be as educated a person if I don’t read. Being well-read is in fact so vitally important to my sense of self-respect that reading is one of the most important things that I do. And while I must make time in my day for Google Reader, I must also make time in my day for Wilde and Marx and Milton. It’s a moral necessity, and in the long view a far more pressing one than whether I’ve read everything that the left-wing blogosphere has to say about the latest development in the 24-hour news cycle. In as much as I am a representative of my generation, fully wedded to the wonder that is the Internet, I couldn’t exist without the Western literary canon (though that is not to diminish the value of the non-Western canon) either.

Furthermore, I’ll go so far as to say that the problem with Luddite and anti-Luddite screeds is that they set up a binary prizing an increasingly minority print culture on the one hand versus a dynamic digital information culture on the other—but the two can, of course, coexist. Perhaps reading on your Kindle saves paper (I know I’ve stopped printing out my pdf readings as a way to be more environmentally friendly); perhaps you read and write blogs and Twitter feeds about literary culture. And perhaps you can learn to negotiate which aspects of the Internet will help you, and which won’t. Perhaps you just need to learn when to turn off the constant presence of the Twitter feed.

I think we should all read more. I think we should all be better humanists. I think we should all resist the increasing trend towards specialization that pervades both the academy and the real world. But that in the end has little to do with Twitter, and much more to do with how we use media like it. It has little to do with the existence of technology, and more to do with whether and how we can negotiate how and why we use it. As long as we’re thoughtful about it, and don’t let it eclipse entirely the necessities of cultural literacy and literary self-education, its role in our lives—whatever our age group—is an essentially unalarming one.

QOTD (2010-01-24); or, The Bloom of Youth and “all the joy, hope, and glamour of life”

Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford:

With this realization [that the “nonphysical eroticism of the Platonic doctrine of eros” was, basically, insufficient], Symonds comes to a bitter new assessment of his old teacher Jowett, as though Jowett’s Socratic “corruption” had somehow consisted in tempting suggestible young men down the delusive path to spiritual procreancy rather than fleshly excess. Writing from Davos in 1889, Symonds confronts his old tutor across a crevass of ancient and mutual misunderstanding into which the bitter sufferings of thirty years now pour. When young men in whom the homoerotic passion is innate come into contact with the writings of Plato, as Symonds now tells Jowett, “they discover that what they had been blindly groping after was once an admitted possibility—not in a mean hole or corner—but that the race whose literature forms the basis of their higher culture, lived in that way, aspired in that way…. derived courage, drew intellectual illumination, took their first step in the path which led to great achievements and the arduous pursuit of truth” (Letters 3:346). Symonds is making explicit here his sense of the cruel pedagogical contradiction within Oxford Hellenism which had harried him for so many years—his instruction in Platonic thought by the same teachers of Hellenism who denounced erotic relations between men as “unnatural”: “those very men who condemn him, have placed the most electrical literature of the world in his hands, pregnant with the stuff that damns him” (3:347).

And I mean, dude. Can you imagine being Symonds and discovering this? Well, maybe you can—maybe you, dear reader, have had realizations which are not dissimilar. But I am so, so very interested in this keen desire to, and profound experience of, discovering oneself in the classics—and then the notion that discovering oneself in the classics legitimates oneself. It could also work the other way around, though, as it did when Symonds and Edward Carpenter, among others, were just so eager to get Whitman to confess his own homosexuality (or whatever they would have called it)—knowing something about themselves, they were desperate to get some legitimation from respected authorities, regardless of whether the authorities themselves were likely to actually give it.

But, in the end, what I am most interested by is what an entirely different cultural moment we live in, because it is no longer a shock that idealized Platonic paiderastia should have a conceptual link to sexual practices, as it was (or so I understand) to some of those 19th-century intellectuals. In fact, in our time, it seems nearly impossible to unwind the two strands, and the only people who seem interested in doing so are those for whom the thought of “posing as a somdomite” is so terrifying that they work as desperately as they can to remove somdomy [sic for deliberate comic effect and the sake of allusion, obvs] from the picture. In our time, putting somdomy away in a proverbial closet such that it becomes mentally safe to conform to the Platonic ideal is something that comes from surely just as much a place of fear as that with which the young Symonds confronted his own sense of self reflected back at him from the pages of the “Greats”—only now the fear is called “homophobia,” and it’s a hard fear to pity when it acts to make some of our lives that much more difficult.

These are, of course, only absent thoughts, an entry in the 21st-century incarnation of a commonplace book, which is a segue into mentioning that I was glancing through Oscar Wilde’s own university commonplace book today, struck by how much more he knew and had read when he was just about my age. Never has the need to make room in my course schedule for Greek, for instance, seemed more pressing. At the end of an evening’s intentionally oxymoronic frenetic meander through the world of Victorian cultural history, and just a week before my twentieth birthday, what I am truly struck by is how young university-educated adults generation after generation, alumni class after alumni class, go through so many of the same thought processes, discoveries, adoptions and rejections of ideals, on the road to intellectual maturity. Some of us braid intellectual-cultural threads together, some of us undo the strands, and some of us step back and watch what happens. And all of us, I think, like the naïve young adults we are, are always surprised by the patterns that occur.

Methods of Mourning; or, Tying Together the Disparate Strands of a School Day

Today at lunch, a friend continued with me a conversation we had started to have online last night. To paraphrase, he was telling me about what he finds inspiring in the worldview of the Old-Testament prophets: these people, my friend said, believed that the smallest injustice was worthy of our attentions, and as valid a point of concern and moral attention as a large-scale conflict, or one to which society imparts greater weight and importance. Without having enough exposure to the Bible to know much about this school of thought, I told my friend I thought this was a morally valuable attitude, but a risky one. If we focus on every injustice, I told my friend, we risk self-annihilation. We risk becoming swallowed by a world of things to fix, and losing our identities and our senses of self in an avalanche of problems and traumas and tragedies. We risk not being able to function as productive members of society, because we can do nothing but be overwhelmed by how many of the reasons that the world is going to hell in a handbasket—and many of the problems which individual members of a society face on a daily basis—are outside of our control.

I didn’t explain this in the context of the conversation, but when I responded that way to my friend, I was of course coming from an intensely personal perspective. The past few months for me have been a struggle at balancing negatives and positives, at knowing when to celebrate and when to fight and when to mourn, at coming to terms with my decision that, in fact, it is important to be a cohesive individual with a set of ideals and principles and morals and desires and reasons for being—and that, what’s more, a person’s state of being is more than a collection of these things. I believe I have some experience with the dangers of being consumed by problems. At risk of being melodramatic, I’d argue that I grapple daily with whether it is as worth my time to better myself or to fulfill my own desires as it is to fight for some external cause. Now, I don’t believe in any sort of “virtue of selfishness.” That’s the farthest thing possible from my mind. But I do believe there is some value in self-preservation, in identity-preservation, in soul-preservation. I have to. I have to believe that I, as an individual, matter; that my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness matter in the same way as those of someone who is beset by far greater inequalities and injustices than I am. Ego humana sum, to make an emphatic point by butchering Latin—maybe this is just the voice of the latent conservative in me whom I always suspect is lying in wait, but altruism (and I mean “altruism” in a positive sense) is not always my direct route to pleasure and fulfillment. Isn’t it morally defensible to balance self-fulfillment and other-fulfillment? I would argue that it is, and I would further argue that it is impossible to do so without compartmentalizing. Compartmentalizing is an ugly thing, but it is a survival tactic. It’s a way to get through the day and a way to sleep at night, a way to survive until the next day so that you can continue to develop your own self and continue to take on projects and perform actions that will further the elimination of inequality and injustice. If that makes any sense, it was the subtext of how I responded to my friend at lunch today.

Today was an appropriate day on which to raise this issue, subtext included. In my English class this morning, we discussed Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and if there is any art which is awash in the presentation and examination of particularized personal trauma, well, it’s Sylvia Plath’s poetry. I am not by any means qualified to discuss poetry; I feel in over my head in most of this class’s lectures and discussions. But I was enormously fascinated by my professor’s argument that Plath fundamentally altered the way we understand the genre of elegy—in fact, said my professor, she wreaked havoc upon it, smashed it, and turned it inside-out. By Plath’s later poetry, her elegies are not reverential, they are furious. She made it acceptable, said my professor, for successive poets—particularly women poets—to write elegiac poems that incorporated not the classical, reverential emotions of lamentation, praise, and consolation; but an anger and a frustration and even scarier actions like (to use my professor’s terminology again) desecration and annihilation.

My thought, in the context of developing my own juvenile philosophy, is that Plath’s smashing of the elegy, her pulverization of the memory of her father through that elegy-smashing, and, in the end, her own tragic self-annihilation, are some of the risks of being so fully consumed by mourning. My professor said that Plath characterized her reactions to her father’s death as a primary source of her poetic inspiration: what happens when your whole life revolves around mourning, revolves around confrontations with tragedy, trauma, and injustice? Again, I’m a rank amateur, but it seems to me as if Plath’s example suggests that you may be consumed—and destroyed—by the mourning.

Because of one of my chosen subfields of study, I find myself running up against elegies with some reasonable frequency. I am fascinated by how queer individuals have, over time, constructed community and culture, and how the values of community and culture interact in this historically marginalized group. There is perhaps no better example of these patterns than the outpouring of artistic expression that occurred at the onset of the AIDS crisis, as the decade turned from the 1970s to the 1980s—and continuing well into the 1990s. As far as I can understand it, for some gay writers and artists and musicians and theorists and other producers of cultural material, making art and culture that grappled with AIDS was a way of forming community around—collectivizing—uniting—a series of individual traumas and tragedies each important as the next, which, when taken together, became a grave human crisis. I look at this cultural outpouring and coming-together—represented in forms as diverse as Larry Kramer’s plays, Nelson Sullivan’s films, and dozens upon dozens of memoirs and indeed elegies—and I see an instantiation of the ideal which my friend raised. In this art (at least, when I read it), every death, every individual struggle, becomes both important in and of itself, and important as a constituent part of a historical and cultural moment. Another metaphor is Cleve Jones’ AIDS Memorial Quilt: each constituent part of that quilt is important in and of itself, no more or less important on the basis of why it is included in that quilt. These are all elegies, and they are all particular, though perhaps—it’s hard to say—they avoid the risks of subsumation which the Plath seems to illustrate.

I am fully aware of the fact that I have no right to talk about this kind of elegy. This particular genre of collective mourning is one of which I, who was born in 1990, have no possible conception. Today, of course, is World AIDS Day—and I have struggled for the past week to think about whether I have anything to say concerning a crisis which I tend to historicize and yet is fully contemporary; a crisis whose onset and whose particular tragedies I did not and have not witnessed. And yet I have chosen history as my path towards understanding these moments of crisis, and I believe that I do have a duty to understand them, and to do what I can to further the telling of these stories. If each injustice, each death, each singular struggle is a legitimate subject of our attention—and our elegies—it behooves me as someone who wishes to learn to be a historian (but it also behooves all of us) to try.

After the exchange with my friend about Prophets and particular problems, lunch passed without mention of mourning for the victims of life and death. Lunch passed in lightness and brightness, in the silliness that ensues when good friends share a table and a conversation, and when I finally tore myself away I hurried to class across a quad awash in sunlight. I caught myself suddenly joyful: excited for my class, delighted to be moving from one space I enjoyed to another, across the bright and beautiful and green quad. I slowed my pace for a few minutes (this, it should be noted, made me late to class, and earned a sarcastic comment from my professor), and I wondered: why am I seizing this joy? Why am I brushing aside the weight of undeserved deaths to be made happy by something so ridiculous—and so absurdly self-interested—as walking from point A to point B in nice weather?

Well, reader, I think I know why: it is because the task of elegy is an enormous one, a terrifying one, a profoundly disturbing and troubling one. It is because life is not worth living, and death is thus not worth confronting and mourning, without the promise of truth through beauty. And it is because somehow, in some way, we all have to take the threads of our work days, and the knowledge we have gained in them, and the conversations we have had throughout them, and braid all those threads together into a strand which is somehow strong enough to let us fall asleep tonight, so that we can wake up again tomorrow and go about making the world—and ourselves—worth continuing.

Armistice Day Art

H.D. (real name Hilda Doolittle) was an Imagist poet, an American transplant to London whose poetry is heavily influenced by Freud and is often inscrutable, but which deals very much with the tumultuous times in which she was writing, during both World Wars. When we talk about war poetry, especially in connection with November 11, we often tend to turn to men such as Wilfred Owen, whose poetry is written from the (male) soldier’s perspective. But we read H.D. in class this week, and I think her writing is as applicable to memorializing the War to End All Wars as any other. I’m particularly interested by how she addresses the theme of Paradise lost through images of Eve and the apple. The passages which follow are from “Tribute to the Angels,” part of her long poem Trilogy. “Tribute to the Angels” was written in 1944, shortly before D-Day (yeah, I know, not WWI, but still relevant, I think).

[30]

We see her hand in her lap,
smoothing the apple-green

or the apple-russet silk;
we see her hand at her throat,

fingering a talisman
brought by a crusader from Jerusalem;

we see her hand unknot a Syrian veil
or lay down a Venetian shawl

on a polished table that reflects
half a miniature broken column;

we see her stare past a mirror
through an open window,

where boat follows slow boat on the lagoon;
there are white flowers on the water.

[35]

Ah (you say), this is Holy Wisdom,
Santa Sophia, the SS of the Sanctus Spiritus,

so by facile reasoning, logically
the incarnate symbol of the Holy Ghost;
your Holy Ghost was an apple-tree
smouldering—or rather now bourgeoning

with flowers; the fruit of the Tree?
this is the new Eve who comes

clearly to return, to retrieve
what she lost the race,

given over to sin, to death;
she brings the Book of Life, obviously.

[37]

This is a symbol of beauty (you continue),
she is Our Lady universally,

I see her as you project her,
not out of lace

flanked by Corinthian capitals,
or in a Coptic nave,

or frozen above the centre door
of a Gothic cathedral;

you have done very well by her
(to repeat your own phrase),

you have carved her tall and unmistakable,
a hieratic figure, the veiled Goddess,

whether of the seven delights,
whether of the seven spear-points.

When reading this, I was reminded of a Pete Seeger song, “Letter to Eve”—much more accessible to the average reader, but equally hauntingly powerful. Listen here, and then remember—as you always should—that the war whose end we observe on November 11 was meant to be a type of action we would never have to repeat.

On Whitman and Wilde, Homosexuality and History… and some Meta Questions as well

I think that the first thing I ever read in which I recognized gay themes was Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” We read it in my Grade 10 English class, along with The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest (one of the best pieces of amateur dramatics I was ever involved in, if I do say so myself), but very little attention was paid in our class to the double-life themes in the novel and the play that I would later regard as common sense. As far as I can recall, I learned the story of the trial and two years’ hard labor, and used the 10th-grade version of biographical criticism to discover the tragedy of “Reading Gaol” for myself, particularly in its final stanza:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

We had to do a final, capstone project at the end of the year, and my friend and I put on a skit making fun of everything we’d read. The only texts I couldn’t find it in myself to write jokes for were Elie Wiesel’s Night, and “Reading Gaol.” I don’t think I could have expressed then in so many words what I found particularly awful about Wilde’s two years’ hard labor, and how the relentless meter of the poem represents to me how jail stripped the life out of Wilde. In 10th grade, I certainly didn’t know that there is a school of thought which understands Wilde as a watershed figure in gay literary history; I don’t think I knew that the trial of Oscar Wilde brought homosexuality—or something like it—into the public consciousness. If I did know it then, I certainly wouldn’t have thought it as important or as relevant as I do now. But three years ago (it seems like a lifetime ago, now), I figured (though I probably wouldn’t have said it in this way, either) that the three dozen cucumber sandwiches I made for our staging of Importance of Being Earnest were some sort of Edenic precursor to the fallen world of post-trial Reading Gaol.

I know, I know, there are dangers in telling the Wilde story this way. And I’d be the first person to argue that things are always more complex than the Wilde-is-a-martyr-for-the-gay-cause reading. I guess you could even say that, as I have learned more and more about gay culture and the history of gay culture and the history of the history of gay culture, I have proceeded from not understanding Wilde at all to memorizing a famous story to being able to complicate that famous story. That’s something, I think, to be proud of; in this world we have so little opportunity to learn queer literature and queer history that it’s an accomplishment to have any understanding of the genre even at the most basic level. Now, however, I’m reading Richard Ellman’s landmark biography of Wilde, and finding it tempting to fall back upon that romanticized narrative of decline and fall. Ellman makes it easy, I think (though maybe I just know the old story too well by now, and am superimposing it upon Ellman’s rendering); his Bosie captures the giant Oscar and enthralls him and pulls him down; the prose, moreover, is as ebullient in the chapters telling of Wilde’s travels in America as it is dull during the prison sentence. It’s really quite an incredible piece of scholarship, all the same; I can see why it has been so successful. (Incidentally, I wonder why the person who created the Wikipedia entry on Ellman copy-pasted only the first half of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Seems an odd choice.) But I can see how the 1997 Wilde film (with Stephen Fry, who must have gotten such a kick out of getting to play Wilde) was based so heavily on Ellman’s work—both portray unquestionably gay Wildes. This is what, I suppose, I’m finding unexpected, coming back to Wilde after months or even years of reading about gay stuff and drumming into my head that it’s dangerous to impose modern notions of sexual orientation upon historical figures. Ellman’s portrait of Wilde is all aestheticism, but also all rentboys and also all petulant Oscar-Bosie quarrels. The interesting thing that is actually quite surprising me is that if Ellman is to be believed, this “aesthetic” version of homosexuality wasn’t all Platonic pederasty; in fact, the London life which eventually resulted in Wilde’s downfall as he became blackmailable by Queensberry and others seems to me to adhere pretty damn closely to modern patterns of sexual and romantic behavior, casual sex interspersed with long-term relationships, Robbie Ross and rentboys and back and forth to Bosie (yes, the alliteration was intentional).

Ellman devotes a great section to the famous meeting between Wilde and Whitman in the course of Wilde’s grand tour of America. Wilde paid a visit to Camden (I said to my friend a little while ago, “Could you imagine Oscar Wilde paying a visit to Camden today?), where Whitman was living with his brother and sister-in-law; the two men drank elderberry wine and uttered many now-famous lines, Wilde questioning Whitman as to his views on all manner of poetics and aesthetics. Ellman concludes the passage about Whitman with these lines:

Wilde would later tell George Ives, a proselytizer for sexual deviation in the nineties, that Whitman had made no effort to conceal his homosexuality from him, as he would do with John Addington Symonds. ‘The kiss of Walt Whitman,’ Wilde said, ‘is still on my lips.’ He would expand upon this theme a little later when signing John Boyle O’Reilly’s autograph book in Boston. Under an inscription by Whitman, Wilde wrote of him, ‘The spirit who living blamelessly but dared to kiss the smitten mouth of his own century.’

See, I’ll confess I did something of a double-take on reading the word “homosexuality” there. I have spent a reasonable amout of time in my life advancing my belief that it’s erroneous to call Whitman a gay or even a homosexual poet, since I’m not persuaded that’s how Whitman would have understood his own sexuality, nor how his poetry suggests that he understood it. I’m of the opinion that it’s unwise to attribute labels to people posthumously that they wouldn’t have used or understood themselves, and moreover I think it’s important to recognize that Whitman really does extol the virtues of all humanity in his writing. People who read this post will know better than I do, certainly, but I’m disinclined to think that the countless times Whitman writes about the beauty and sexual allure of women are just a front to distract readers from the times he writes about the beauty and sexual allure of men. That seems a bit too contrived, and while apparently I lack the vocabulary to write about this issue properly, it just doesn’t seem right to talk about Whitman in terms of sexual object choice.

But what, I suppose, Ellman’s biography is making me question is whether maybe we can talk about Wilde in terms of sexual object choice. He certainly seems to want to. Is that a product of 1895 (the year of Wilde’s trial) versus 1882 (the year of Wilde’s trip to America)? Is it a product of the 19th century versus the 20th, and of 1987 (the year Ellman’s biography was published) in particular? 1987 seems like a not-unexpected year, zeitgeist-wise, to talk up the homosexuality of famous people. Or is it a reading which we can ever resolve as objectively accurate, whatever the historical context?

I have to confess that this idea that things might not be objective is really quite alarming to me. I’m used to being able to trust things that authors say when I’m not in possession of all the facts, and the idea (as obvious as it may seem) that even different people who have quite a lot of facts could arrive at different interpretations of historical events and characters is sort of earth-shattering. I’m still trying to figure out what that means—and, at the bottom line, whether I should trust what Ellman is saying. He cites an impressive array of sources, to be sure, but can I and should I take that as an indication that it is reasonable to think of Wilde as homosexual in modern sexual-object-choice terms? And then what about Whitman? If Ellman is right about Wilde, is he right about Whitman too? Or can anyone ever be right? What is objectivity, anyway?

Okay, okay, so I’m working myself up into a frenzy, and I know perfectly well that there are no answers to these questions. I also know that to a certain extent it is pointless to reconstruct the lives and motivations and desires of people whose social contexts could not have given us a clear picture of what those might have been (i.e. if we can’t prove homosexuality in Whitman’s case, we can’t rule it out, either). These are things you don’t get answers to, no matter how much more learned in Literary Gay Men Studies you become, no matter how many years of school you have. I suppose all I can really say is that I’ve known Wilde’s writing for years, but that—as with so many other cultural stalwarts I’ve rediscovered more recently—interpretations change so much with knowledge (for example, instead of writing 1,800 words ranting about Wilde and Whitman, I should really be writing 1,800 words analyzing Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass for a paper which has caused me to learn more about Victorian intellectuals than I’d thought possible).

I know, at some level, I should be able to accept the enormity of my new world after the provincialism of high school. I know that, just as I swallow and accept the bizarre-seeming premises on which Kant bases his metaphysics of morals, or just as I skim over the names of Victorian intellectuals with whom I know I’m supposed to be familiar (if only my secondary education hadn’t been a bit thin on Victorian intellectuals) and wait for context to make all clear, I should be able to accept the premise that knowledge and the universe which it touches upon are infinite, and wait for the context to slowly illuminate the ever-widening edges of the sphere of enlightenment. (That may have been a mixed metaphor.) But more often than not I find myself standing back, agape, dumbstruck, unable to believe how far the mental journey from high school has taken me, back from that first reading of “Reading Gaol” a lifetime ago.

QOTD (2009-10-14)

Edmund White, in an interview with Salon, says one of my favorite things ever about same-sex marriage:

In the past, when gays were very flamboyant as drag queens or as leather queens or whatever, that just amused people. And most of the people that come and watch the gay Halloween parade, where all those excesses are on display, those are straight families, and they think it’s funny. But what people don’t think is so funny is when two middle-aged lawyers who are married to each other move in next door to you and your wife and they have adopted a Korean girl and they want to send her to school with your children and they want to socialize with you and share a drink over the backyard fence. That creeps people out, especially Christians. So, I don’t think gay marriage is a conservative issue. I think it’s a radical issue.

I adore White’s books for so many reasons, and I think the fact that I read five of them this summer has influenced a lot of my thoughts about the history of gay men these past few months. He’s got some wonderful prose, and he writes candidly about gay culture and being gay—that’s a strikingly rare combination, and a risky undertaking in a literary world that tends to ghettoize gay writers. The last few pages of The Beautiful Room Is Empty, in which he has this sort of dadaesque description of Stonewall, are some of the best writing I can think of, for example—not only is the prose just glittering in its surreality (I find it really difficult to describe why good prose is good; you’ll just have to take my word for it), it’s a great way of turning the conventional riotous watershed OMG-Judy-Garland-died-and-now-we-have-a-revolution-on-our-hands kind of narrative on its head.

The NYT reviews of White’s two memoirs, My Lives and now City Boy (I’m still waiting for my copy of City Boy to arrive from Amazon; I’ll report back when I read it) seem profoundly on edge about the frank discussion of sex that pervades them. I mean, this is the Times we’re talking about, so it’s not too surprising; the paper hasn’t always been the most with-it on gay stuff. But even I, who am utterly unshockable, remember looking awkwardly around to see if anyone on the bus was looking over my shoulder while I read what the Times facetiously calls “that S-and-M chapter” in My Lives. Even I was glad that, unlike a lot of other books I’ve read with a lot of sex in them, this one’s cover was discreet.

But I think we have to be profoundly thankful to White for writing literary books in which the narrator acknowledges his sexuality with at least the mannerisms of honesty (even if he’s applying creative license to what actually goes/went on in his head and his life). It’s an increasingly common thing, but it still takes a high degree of courage and literary acumen.

Oh yeah, and he teaches fiction at Princeton. What could be better?