QOTD (2011-10-15)

Sometimes Symonds writes these poems that are so thick with pathos that it makes me want to say “oh, sweetie,” and give him a big hug. This is entitled “The Fall of a Soul,” and it’s from the “juvenilia” section of his Vagabunduli Libellus:

I sat unsphering Plato ere I slept:
Then through my dream the choir of gods was borne,
Swift as the wind and lustrous as the morn,
Fronting the night of stars; behind them swept
Tempestuous darkness o’er a drear descent,
Wherethrough I saw a crowd of charioteers
Urging their giddy steeds with cries and cheers
To join the choir that aye before them went:
But one there was who fell, with broken car
And horses swooning down the gulf of gloom;
Heavenward his eyes, though prescient of their doom,
Reflected glory like a falling star;
While with wild hair blown back and listless hands
Ruining he sank toward undiscovered lands.

Gay Greats: Questions of Canonicity; or, In Which I Am a Fuddy-Duddy

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.”

QOTD (2011-08-02)

Walt Whitman removed this verse from later editions of his “Calamus” cycle, but here it is, as it appeared in the first, 1860 edition:

Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me—O if I could but obtain knowledge!
Then my lands engrossed me—Lands of the prairies, Ohio’s land, the southern savannas, engrossed me—For them I would live—I would be their orator;
Then I met the examples of old and new heroes—I heard of warriors, sailors, and all dauntless persons—And it seemed to me that I too had it in me to be as dauntless as any—and would be so;
And then, to enclose all, it came to me to strike up the songs of the New World—And then I believed my life must be spent in singing;
But now take notice, land of the prairies, land of the south savannas, Ohio’s land,
Take notice, you Kanuck woods—and you Lake Huron—and all that with you roll toward Niagara—and you Niagara also,
And you, Californian mountains—That you each and all find somebody else to be your singer of songs,
For I can be your singer of songs no longer—One who loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all but love,
With the rest I dispense—I sever from what I thought would suffice me, for it does not—it is now empty and tasteless to me,
I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States, and the example of heroes, no more,
I am indifferent to my own songs—I will go with him I love,
It is to be enough for us that we are together—We never separate again.

Symonds first heard of Whitman when he went to visit FWH Myers (ODNB) in Cambridge in 1865. The two were sitting in Myers’ rooms at Trinity, and Myers read this verse aloud to Symonds. That moment changed the life of the 22-year-old budding scholar, who much later would write that, “had it not been for the contact of his fervent spirit with my own, the pyre ready to be lighted, the combustible materials of modern thought awaiting the touch of the fire- bringer, might never have leapt up into the flame of lifelong faith and consolation.”

Reading this poem again, it’s really not hard to see why.

l’amour de l’impossible; or, In Which a Sermon Is Attempted

What is a utopia?

When we ask such definitional questions, we often find ourselves starting with a definition. From the Greek, a ου-τοπος is literally a “no-place,” and it is a concept that has been deployed by countless writers and thinkers since Thomas More to describe places, ideas, societies, and conditions that are not. Utopias can be bad or good or morally ambiguous; however, they are often constructed in order to describe what could be, or what one wishes could be. They tend to be worlds in which people get on rather more harmoniously than they do in our own.

For John Addington Symonds, utopia was a world where l’amour de l’impossible was possible. It was a world where human relations were stretched into new permutations, and where the morality that governs such human relations could be bent ever so slightly to accommodate “an intense, jealous, throbbing, sensitive, expectant love of man for man.” Symonds described his impossible love in this way in an 1889 letter to Walt Whitman, and it was Whitman whose own utopic hymn to “the new City of Friends” did so much to shape Symonds’ sense of what could be. In his Memoirs, Symonds wrote that L’amour de l’impossible est la maladie de l’âme (the illness of the soul); in the margins of Whitman’s “Calamus,” he wrote that “Comradeship is… a need of the soul”—medicine for the illness. Through Whitman’s gospel above all else, Symonds kept alive his faith in the achievability of this new world where something crudely degenerate could be exalted, and where Symonds himself could find peace and satisfaction.

What is a utopia? That is one utopia: one where the word “love” is transfigured, and where sexual satisfaction may be glorified. And as Symonds found himself shaping it in his mind, he also found himself beset by doubt in the promise of a different utopia, the one promised by the devout, God-fearing, Low-Church tradition in which he was raised, in which the Kingdom of God awaited the good. Aside from a few exceptions—such as when his eldest daughter died—Symonds had by his late twenties largely moved away from the Christianity that dominated his youth. He fell into its familiar rhetorical strides when writing his sister or his aunt a Christmas letter, and he remained an active patron of the English Church at Davos, Switzerland, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. But it was in large part a habitual, cultural Christianity: after his undergraduate years, he did not write rapturously of epiphanies achieved while kneeling in chapels—nor even of choristers loved. In Symonds’ adulthood, as alternative gospels assumed priority in his worldview, even his sites of sexual attraction shifted from cathedrals to the secular spaces of schoolrooms, Swiss mountain slopes, and the banks of the Serpentine, as he proposed to live rather more pantheistically in “the Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful.”

But on the last day in July, 153 years after Symonds’ first date (if we may be so presentist to call it that) in the cloister of Bristol Cathedral, a rather old-fashioned sermon was preached in that self-same house of worship about poverty and humility and the Kingdom of God. It ended on R.S. Thomas’s oft-quoted-in-sermons poem “The Kingdom”:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

What is a utopia? Well, Thomas here offers us another one: the Kingdom of God, where admission is by faith alone, where the good are rewarded with more goodness, where no one covets either riches or each other. And this is the sticking point: a Doubting Symonds Scholar may find herself looking up at the pulpit and thinking, it’s no wonder that a man striving for a world where there are more ways to love and to be loved ceased to seek solace in those men who proposed to speak in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The love of God as delimited by such men can only go so far, then: pantheist and pagan, Symonds may have preferred Zeus, who at least had Ganymede going for him, than the Christian God.

But I think there is also more in the Thomas poem than meets the eye: for it is also promised us that in the Kingdom of God, “the consumptive is/Healed.” When I heard the preacher read this line out, I found myself hearing it as if “The Consumptive” was capitalized, as if it referred to one particular Consumptive: one particular member of this cathedral’s very diocese whose consumption led him away from England and away from its Church. It is a common trope in literature that the homosexual man is wasting away, and I don’t just mean from AIDS: the perceived moral degeneracy of his condition is figured in the metaphorical terms of a chronic illness. So it often seems with the real-life ill health of Symonds, whose consumption was assuredly compounded by the depression and anxiety visited upon him by the impossibilité of his amour. If Symonds were to be healed, it would not only mean restoring his lungs to their former robustness, but also transplanting him into a utopia where love of any kind is not a maladie.

The incredible, awe-inspiring thing about Symonds is that by the end of his too-short life he knew where to find this utopia, how to make it. He knew to look in Whitman, and in others who wrote in transcendent terms, like Goethe; in the newest advances of science, of evolution and psychology; in a canon of writers including Plato and Michelangelo and in the homoerotic, Hellenistic spirit they conveyed; and, yes, in the Hebraic spirit too. For despite all his very deep doubt, despite the clearness to him that the modern Christian world would not admit the possibility of his love (to the detriment of his and others’ mental health), Symonds never really left the faith into which he was born. To read his poetry, into which his tortured, impossible longings are intensely and intently sublimated, is to read, alongside dense references to classical mythology, a constant refrain of trinitarian imagery, and to hear the deliberate echoes of poets who negotiated the boundaries of Christian faith and reason, like Petrarch and Milton. I don’t think these are just the unconscious effects of being steeped in a Christian culture. As he did in so many other instances, I think Symonds is again working as hard as he can to stretch the fabric of the culture just wide enough to let l’amour de l’impossible slip in, allowing Platonic love to nestle neatly alongside Dantesque chivalric love. The Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful were Symonds’ Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—and he too, through the deployment of a doctrine of love, wanted to make utopia here on Earth.

To a devout Christian, Symonds, and indeed I writing (preaching?) here, have stretched and bent and twisted the paradigms and doctrines of Christianity beyond all recognition. In church, there is a line of metaphor and symbolism beyond which the language does not go (and this is why, out of all the bits and pieces of a given Anglican service, the one I the non-Christian do not say is the Creed). There is only so much one can do to bend before the framework shatters and falls to the ground. And yet I do not believe that Symonds thought he had done this, and here is the rub. For Symonds knew better than I that Jesus told His disciples to “Love one another,” and at the end of the day Symonds was all about love. Though he spoke as passionately as perhaps anyone has ever done about the need to repeal the Labouchere Amendment and decriminalize “gross indecency between males,” it was not so much in a literal sense, so that men would be free to have sex with each other. Rather, it was in a spiritual sense—as he wrote in his appendix to Sexual Inversion, it was so that men’s souls might not be destroyed as he felt his had been by the pressures of the double life. He was all about homosexual rights for the sake of making the double life whole—and good, and beautiful—and for the sake of letting us love one another.

And so here we come to the point in the sermon when the preacher, who has rambled incoherently about a few texts for a few minutes, tries desperately to leave her parishioners with the impression that she has half a brain and can tie all the threads together. We ask, again: what is a utopia?

Drawing my answer not from the Bible—or at least, not only from the Bible—but rather from the humanist (what Philip Pullman, lo these many months ago, called the pagan) tradition, I can answer that a utopia is a land where there are many roads to goodness and to love. It is a land where we all toil alongside each other on the uphill climbs towards our own Celestial Cities, each person seeking the best of all possible paths (for this is, after all, utopia), the one that will best help her to make her life whole. It is a land where as well as loving one another we learn from each other, and we feel free to share with each other whatever we hope will help us to stretch the fabric and patch the holes of the belief systems that help us to wake up in the morning and to go to sleep at night having done something worthwhile with the day. It is a land where the impossible is possible, and where pagan humanist Doubting Symonds Scholars find themselves in church on Sundays, hearing (and perhaps even offering a few) prayers to the Christian God.

Adventures in the Archives; or, In Which Professional Homosexuality Takes a New Turn

The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (a particular interest of mine back when I was a teenage sexologist) was always delighted to lay claim to a rather queer familial lineage: he’d slept with his much-adored mostly-straight friend Neal Cassady, who had slept with a man named Gavin Arthur (a grandson of the U.S. President Chester Arthur—J.N. Katz has more about him in Love Stories), who had slept—or, rather, cuddled—with the great and good Gray Poet, Walt Whitman himself. Ginsberg, who saw himself as a poetic heir to Whitman, also saw himself as connected to his idol through the exchange of bodily fluids down the generations. He did the thing that many queer people have done and do, creating a family tree for himself despite the impossibility, in his era, of having a family of his own. And he also thereby connected sexuality and literature, intertwining sexual exchange with a canon of sexual free expression (both men’s vision was comprehensive enough to transcend the narrow band of “homosexual” or “gay,” if such an identity had even existed in Whitman’s time as it did in Ginsberg’s).

I’ve been fascinated for a long time by that story. I love the idea of making sense of yourself and your life and work by crafting a longue-durée narrative into which you can be seamlessly woven. It makes up for not being able to fit yourself into the world in your own time. It’s a different way of thinking about past and present, about similarity and difference, and it’s also the work of historical processes and historical scholarship, writ small.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that in my work on Symonds I have come to focus on Symonds’ role in how middle-class Anglo-American gay male culture creates a way to talk about itself and with that discourse a canon: high-cultural and low-cultural points of reference that provide evidence for the new ways of explaining homosexual identity and that self-identified homosexual men are expected to know. Many of the turn-of-the-century figures who anchor the gay male literary canon are connected by Symonds; some trace their own ways of thinking about homosexual identity directly back to his.

For those who did so, Whitman would therefore have assumed great importance. Though Whitman objected strenuously to Symonds’ appropriation of his universal cosmology as a way to talk about a very particular group of people with a very particular set of desires, he was arguably the biggest influence in Symonds’ eventual self-identification as an Urning, invert, and homosexual. Symonds wrote a lot about Whitman, in all literary forms: from private letters to his closest confidantes, to kind of terrible poetry inspired by him circulated among the same confidantes, to pamphlets circulated to small groups of men sympathetic to dangerous discussions about theories of sexuality, to popular reviews and criticism in the mainstream Victorian press—including a short book called Walt Whitman: A Study—in which the homoerotic subtext to Symonds’ rhapsodizing went unnoticed by all but a few readers. Whitman anchored not only Symonds’ sexual identity, but his sense of himself as a writer and as a human being, and his ideas about where the world was headed. Like Ginsberg, when Symonds speaks about Whitman it’s in mystical, mythological terms: Whitman is a prophet of a new world order, the bearer of a promise that there can be a world where the “love of comrades” is possible.

Today, I spent eight hours in a cluttered, windowless reading room air-conditioned to 18 degrees Celsius in the basement of the University of Bristol Arts and Sciences Library. Towards the end of the afternoon, I submitted a call slip for DM 1254/A400e, an entry listed in the finding aid as “Notes on Leaves of Grass in Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass 1884.” When the archivist reappeared five minutes later with a richly leather-bound volume bearing Symonds’ recognizable bookplate, my stomach flip-flopped, and I could barely keep my voice steady as I cheerily told the archivist I was on the lookout for marginalia. She wasn’t optimistic: “I think there’s a few underlinings.” In the first several pages—”Overtures,” “Starting from Paumanok”—she was right. But as I made my way through “Song of Myself,” the underlining got more frequent, and more excited and involved: there were double and triple outlines, crosses in the margins, all kinds of different ways of registering emotional response to text through pencil markings. And then, well—skipping over the ten missing pages of “Children of Adam” (a frequent target of censorship in the period because of its man-and-woman sexual explicitness)—I came to Calamus. And I caught my breath. And my stomach flip-flopped again. Because there, scribbled all over the pages, covering the margins and the gaps between the stanzas, was Symonds’ so-familiar hand. Not saying anything new, or brilliant, or controversial, or anything that conceptually is absent from his copious writing on Whitman, but words that show him reading the text: summarizing, marking things he doesn’t understand, keeping track of the narrative that the sequence of poems subtly develops, and, importantly, demonstrating evidence of his rather radical reinterpretation of Calamus, and how in his hands the poems took on a life of their own, and came to mean homosexuality in a way they never did in Whitman’s. If I hadn’t been in the reading room—and if I hadn’t been holding an incredibly valuable (and to me priceless) book, I would have cried tears of joy.

I do not live the kind of life that would enable me to craft the kind of sex-partnered lineage Ginsberg did, nor do I have any desire to do so. I am not a Beat poet—I am a historian. I am not a gay man—I try, as faithfully as I can, to tell their culture’s stories. Today I held a book that Symonds not only owned, but wrote in, invested with all the emotional intensity that an incredibly emotionally intense man could muster. If I can say this without doing anything to denigrate or discard those who prefer a lineage of physical contact, I think I am quite happy to be someone who knows the people around which I have built my intellectual world through a lens of intellectual history, in which marginalia have all the cathartic power of an orgasm.

We all make our own cultural compasses. I am profoundly grateful for mine.

Full of life, now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the Eighty-third Year of The States,
To one a century hence, or any number of centuries hence,
To you, yet unborn, these, seeking you.

When you read these, I, that was visible, am become invisible;
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me;
Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with you, and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)

“I’m Doing Research at the University”; or, In Which We Solemnly Contemplate the Prospect of Adulthood

“I’m doing research at the University” is what I told a well-meaning, very English, middle-aged priest who asked me what I was doing at Evening Prayer at Bristol Cathedral on a particularly sparsely-attended Sunday. Well, he didn’t put it like that; he said, “Are you visiting Bristol for the weekend?” But the subtext to the 21-year-old in jeans and sweater who had just spent the past hour realizing that she has managed to memorize an awful lot of Anglican liturgy in the past six months of church tourism and trying not to laugh at a sermon packed with unwitting phallic imagery was definitely, “What, in an age of declining church attendance, and on a day when there is not even a choir in residence, are you, casually-dressed young woman, doing in church?”

Well, “I’m doing research at the University” was my own delicate way of telling the priest, “I’m here for John Addington Symonds.” Because I have spent the past couple years knowing that the first boy with whom Symonds fell in love was a Bristol Cathedral chorister, and knowing that in his Memoirs he wrote that on one childhood visit to his local cathedral, “Some chord awoke in me then, which has gone on thrilling through my lifetime and has been connected with the deepest of my emotional experiences.” And here I am in Bristol for the next three weeks, preparing to dive in, tomorrow, to seventy boxes, ten linear feet, of the John Addington Symonds Papers, Department of Special Collections, Bristol University Library. And it was Sunday today, and so, absence of the choir and my complicated relationship to religious observances notwithstanding, of course I was going to the cathedral. Since there was no choir, the usher sat the dozen-strong congregation in their seats, and I found myself wondering if Willie Dyer, the teenager with whom Symonds, the spring before he went to Oxford, fell so deeply in love that for the rest of his life he gave his birthday as the date of their meeting, had ever sat in my seat—just as I always wondered, in Oxford, which luminaries had sat in the college pews from which I heard evening services there.

Symonds grew up, and sweet blossoming adolescent passion turned into a frustrated and often depressed life of failed attempts to sublimate his desire for Swiss peasants and Venetian gondoliers into Petrarchan sonnets or a biography of Michelangelo or problems in Greek ethics. But these efforts—although they did not extinguish impossible desires—took him deep into scholarship: in the British Museum; as the first foreigner granted access to the Buonarroti archives in Florence; writing to friends around Europe from his Swiss “exile” with plaintive requests for references and books. Isolated in Switzerland—and feeling himself, psychologically, even a world apart from the wife, daughters, and other English expats who populated the health resort of Davos—Symonds helped to shape the anglophone thread of modern cultural history.

One hundred and fifty years later, give or take a few, we come full circle: for here I sit in a dorm room at the University of Bristol, about a mile from the house where Symonds was born, and ready to walk down the road to the university library tomorrow morning and present myself on the strength of my Princeton ID as a visiting scholar. Here I sit, a professional historian on a grant-funded research trip, where the calming intonations of Radio 4 combined with the prospect of what I will find in 70 boxes of Symondsiana help to forestall the pressing sense of loneliness that must accompany this life. When I scramble, before I have so much as an undergraduate degree to my name, for a professional identity, it explains why I have consigned myself, alone, to a strange city for three weeks. I am a visiting scholar, a historian, on a research trip. What is there then so odd, so deviant, in living a monastic life in a beautiful English city where the sounds of seagulls and church bells mingle? After all—as I learned in the British Library last week—in eccentric academism, talking to yourself is the name of the game.

I don’t mean to sound bleak, here—because I certainly don’t feel it. I wish, instead, to carve out alternative avenues of fulfillment, of personally-validating it-gets-bettering—to celebrate how, whether we are Victorian gentlemen or modern young women, we can find in books or in Bristol Cathedral unorthodox and unpredictable ways of giving our lives purpose and meaning and of making the impossible possible. I wish to smile with satisfaction to think how adulthood brings with it the freedom to realize the lives we seek to have, in which we propose “to live in steady purpose with the Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful.”

Here’s the thing: kids, when you’re a grown-up, you don’t get everything you want. It doesn’t get perfect: sometimes you grow tired of Radio 4 or conversations with Symonds, and wish you had an interlocutor who could answer back. But it gets better. It always gets better—as you realize what you need to make you happy, to help you muddle through, to feel as if you’re doing some good in the world. And it gets better as you find that there are people in your life who believe in you, and who will give you their time and their money to help you do the things you know that you need to do. “I’m doing research at the University”: I have a vocation. And with that sense of purpose comes—well, not so much the faith, but at least the hope—that other things will follow too.

Bristol Cathedral, 17 July 2011

QOTD (2011-07-15)

I like these lines that Symonds writes to Edmund Gosse in 1891, when he’s working feverishly at his biography of Michelangelo, because they kind of remind me of how I feel about working on Symonds himself:

With the man’s spirit I am intoxicated, and I have wrestled with his “psyche” so that I seem absorbed in him. But I cannot say that this close study makes me sympathetic to his artistic ideal. I think it has even dispelled some illusions I had formed.

One thing is certain, that if he had any sexual energy at all (which is doubtful) he was a U.[rning].

Tomorrow I am moving from London to Bristol: staying very near to the house where Symonds grew up, and where he lived until he moved to Switzerland; working in his archives at the university he helped to found, and which now owns said house; living in a place that was important to him becoming the person he became. My relationship with this long-dead man continues to walk a fine line between hagiographical admiration and scholarly disinterest. It is strange to think that these next three weeks will be—for the moment—my last three weeks in England, a country in which in the past several months I have come to feel very much at home. But I am excited to see what they will bring me Symonds-wise, and quite content to end this transatlantic sojourn as I began it seven months ago, when I jetlaggedly dragged three suitcases down Broad Street: feeling my way through the places that shaped the man whom I will, back in my old haunt in the basement of a university library in darkest New Jersey, spend the next year writing about.

QOTD (2011-07-13); or, “What Drew You to Symonds?”

When people ask me that question—as a colleague did, the other day, in the British Library café—I tell them the story chronologically: how years ago I won an essay competition and the prize was Michael Robertson’s book Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and how in that book I first read about Symonds and his poignant efforts to get Whitman to agree that his adhesive love and the Platonic eros were really one and the same. How it was just happenstance, and then I got hooked, and the rest is history. I leave out, when I tell that story, the hours spent wading through the immense paper trail Symonds left behind, the hundreds of pages of notes on Homer and the hundreds of pages of letters about how boring Davos Platz, Switzerland is and how tiresome the politicking of being the President of the Committee for the International Toboggan Race is. I leave out the moments when, slogging through heavy-handed Hegelian narratives of 16th-century Italian sculpture, or equally heavy-handed metaphors about desire strung through Petrarchan sonnet after Petrarchan sonnet, I come to doubt whether this guy I’m spending my life with actually matters, and whether the man who I first encountered in Robertson’s book ever existed at all.

But humanistic endeavor is a kind of religion, and through doubt we come again to faith. Here is a long letter that Symonds wrote in 1889 from his Swiss exile to his old tutor and lifelong friend, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol:

My dear Master,—I am glad to hear from the last letter you wrote me that you have abandoned the idea of an essay on Greek love. Little good could come of such a treatise in your book.

It surprises me to find you, with your knowledge of Greek history, speaking of this in Plato as “mainly a figure of speech.”—It surprises me as much as I seem to surprise you when I repeat that the study of Plato is injurious to a certain number of predisposed young men.—

Many forms of passion between males are matters of fact in English schools, colleges, cities, rural districts. Such passion is innate in some persons no less than the ordinary sexual appetite is innate in the majority. With the nobler of such predetermined temperaments the passion seeks a spiritual or ideal transfiguration. When, therefore, individuals of the indicated species come into contact with the reveries of Plato, (clothed in graceful diction, immersed in the peculiar emotion, presented with considerable dramatic force, gilt with a mystical philosophy, throbbing with the realism of actual Greek life), the effect upon them has the force of a revelation. They discover that what they had been blindly groping after was once an admitted possibility—not 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. For such students of Plato there is no question of “figures of speech,” but of concrete facts, facts in the social experience of Athens, from which men derived courage, drew intellectual illumination, took their fist step in the path which led to great achievements and the arduous pursuit of truth.

Greek history confirms, by a multitude of legends and of actual episodes, what Plato puts forth as a splendid vision, and subordinates to the higher philosophic life.

It is futile by any evasion of the central difficulty, by any dexterity in the use of words, to escape from the stubborn fact that natures so exceptionally predisposed find in Plato the encouragement of their furtively cherished dreams. The Lysis, the Charmides, the Phaedrus, the Symposium—how many varied and unimaginative pictures these dialogues contain of what is only a sweet poison to such minds!

Meanwhile the temptations of the actual world surround them: friends of like temper, boys who respond to kindness, reckless creatures abroad upon the common ways of life. Eros Pandemos is everywhere. Plato lends the light, the gleam, that never was on sea or shore.

Thus Plato delays the damnation of these souls by ensnaring the noblest part of them—their intellectual imagination. And strong as custom may be, strong as piety, strong as the sense of duty, these restraints have always been found frail against the impulse of powerful inborn natural passion and the allurements of inspired art.

The contest in the Soul is terrible, and victory, if gained, is only won at the cost of a struggle which thwarts and embitters.

We do not know how many English youths have been injured in this way. More, I firmly believe, than is suspected. Educators, when they diagnose the disease, denounce it. That is easy enough, because low and social taste are with them, and because the person incriminated feels too terribly the weight of law and custom. He has nothing to urge in self-defence—except his inborn instinct, and the fact that 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. Convention rules us so strangely that the educators do all this only because it always has been done—in a blind dull confidence—fancying that the lads in question are as impervious as they themselves are to the magnetism of the books they bid them study and digest.

Put yourself in the place of someone to whom the aspect of Greek life which you ignore is personally and intensely interesting, who reads his Plato as you would wish him to read his Bible—i.e. with a vivid conviction that what he reads is the life-record of a masterful creative man—determining race, and the monument of a world-important epoch.

Can you pretend that a sympathetically constituted nature of the sort in question will desire nothing from the panegyric of paederastic love in the Phaedrus, from the personal grace of Charmides, from the mingled realism and rapture of the Symposium? What you call a figure of speech, is heaven in hell to him—maddening, because it is stimulating to the imagination; wholly out of accord with the world he has to live in; too deeply in accord with his own impossible desires.

Greek love was for Plato no “figure of speech,” but a present poignant reality. Greek love is for modern students of Plato no “figure of speech” and no anachronism, but a present poignant reality. The facts of Greek history and the facts of contemporary life demonstrate these propositions only too conclusively.

I will not trouble you again upon this topic. I could not, however, allow the following passage in your letter—”I do not understand how, what is in the main a figure of speech should have so great power over them”—to go unnoticed without throwing what light I can upon what you do not understand.

I feel strongly on the subject, and where there is strong feeling, there is usually the risk of over-statement. But I hope I have not spoken rudely. It is indeed impossible to exaggerate the anomaly of making Plato a text-book for students, and a household-book for readers, in a nation which repudiates Greek love, while the baser forms of Greek love have grown to serious proportions in the seminaries of youth and in great centres of social life belonging to that nation.

Ever most sincerely yours

J.A. Symonds

This is the man who a few short years before told the Harvard professor T.S. Perry that his “essay on Greek Morals” would never see the light of day, who shrouded his intense desire for sundry young men in dense overwritten spiritually-inflected metaphor, whose amour de l’impossible dogged his life and assuredly exacerbated his ill health. But the so totally cool thing about him—the reason why he is more than the repressed, tortured Victorian Phyllis Grosskurth claims—is that this is the man who, finally, almost thirty years after first reading the Symposium, finally writes to the tutor who coached him to his First and tells him that there is something that he doesn’t understand. I am writing a thesis about how one of the most amazing things that Symonds does is that he finds a way out of metaphor into literality, out of idealism into realism, whether in his own poetry or in Jowett’s lit crit. Despite the endless discussion of tobogganing, that’s why I keep on.

QOTD (2011-06-15); or, Symonds and Sexual Liberation

Here’s something nice and liberationist for Pride Month: In this footnote from the first edition of Symonds’ and Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (cut from ensuing editions that revised out more obvious Symondsiana), Symonds argues for the legalization of same-sex sexual relations:

In this case the strength of sin is the law. No passion, however natural, which is scouted, despised, tabooed, banned, punished, relegated to holes and corners, execrated as abominable and unmentionable, can be expected to show its good side to the world. The sense of sin and crime and danger, the humiliation and repression and distress to which the unfortunate Pariah of abnormal sexuality are daily and hourly exposed—and nobody but such a Pariah may comprehend what these are—inevitably deterioriate the best and noblest element in their emotion. It has been, I may say, the greatest sorrow of my life to watch the gradual declining and decay of emotions which started so purely and ideally, as well as passionately, for persons of my own sex in boyhood; to watch within myself, I repeat, the slow corrosion and corruption of a sentiment which might have been raised, under happier conditions, to such spiritual heights of love and devotion as chivalry is fabled to have reached—and at the same time to have been continually tormented by desires which no efforts would annihilate, which never slumbered except through during weeks of life-threatening illness, and which, instead of improving in quality with age, have tended to become coarser and more contented with trivial satisfaction. Give abnormal love the same chance as normal love, subject it to the wholesome control of public opinion, allow it to enjoy self-respect, draw it from dark places into the light of day, strike off its chains and make it free—and I am confident that it will develop analogous virtues, to those with which we are familiar in the mutual love of male and female. The slave has of necessity a slavish soul. The only way to elevate is to emancipate him. There is nothing more degrading to humanity in sexual acts between a man and a man than in similar acts between a man and a woman. In a certain sense all sex has an element which stirs our repulsion in our finer nature….

Nor would it be easy to maintain that the English curate begetting his fourteenth baby on the body of a worn-out wife is a more elevating object of mental contemplation than Harmodius in the embraces of his friend Aristogeiton—that a young man sleeping with a prostitute picked up in the Haymarket is cleaner than his brother sleeping with a soldier picked up in the Park.

Obviously, this was a radical and dangerous sentiment to express in 1897, when English scholars of sexuality (and homosexuals themselves) were still shaken from the Wilde trials. It’s no wonder that Ellis, Horatio Brown, and Catherine Symonds all wanted to see sentiments like this erased from subsequent editions of Sexual Inversion.

Doing the History of Sexuality: A Post for Pride Month

When I first became fascinated by Symonds, it was in the context of narratives and teleologies, of arcs of progress, of rights-driven activism at whose center was marriage equality. When I was first moved by Michael Robertson’s account of Symonds’ futile correspondence with Walt Whitman in his book about Whitman’s fans, I was the sort of person who organized protests against Proposition 8 and the National Organization for Marriage, who was there with my reporter’s notebook when Barney Frank introduced the 2009 version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act into the House, who was in the Rayburn Room with my voice recorder to ask Jared Polis what it was like to be the first openly gay member of Congress to have been elected when he was already out, who never missed a Pride parade or a National Coming Out Day. When I first became fascinated by Symonds, it was in the context of a worldview grounded in a rights-based teleology, an understanding of queer history as a concentric layering of closets grounded in the Harvey Milk craze of a few years ago, a particularly identity-political form of convincing by one’s presence. When I decided to be a history major, it was with the assumption that I would do history as if it were politics, telling stories about modern LGBT identity that related closely to the world I was beginning to inhabit as a professional gay.

But as I began to be embedded more deeply in my discipline, things began to change. Learning a bit more about what history is as a discipline caused me to begin to believe that while history may inform and help us to understand the present, it is not the present, nor is it necessarily always a guide to the future. The more I learned about Symonds and his historical context, the more I became aware that the complete foreignness of the way he and others in his time constructed sexual identity was at the root of what I needed to say about him. I was getting suspicious: of historians who say that they are writing “gay” or “LGBT” history when they are talking about the nineteenth century or earlier, before such categories existed; of historians who claim they can “out” figures such as Lincoln, Whitman, or Wilde; of really any form of interpretation that linked the sexual identities of the past too closely to those of the present. I started to conceive of Symonds not so much as a figure of liberation, but rather as a figure who illustrates the distance of nineteenth-century sexual identity from its twenty-first-century counterpart. And I attracted a fair amount of confusion, and at times ire, on the Internet when I stubbornly insisted that Walt Whitman was not a gay poet, that Tchaikovsky was not a gay composer, that thinking of an “uncensored” edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray (based on Wilde’s first draft, without editorial changes) as something that can bring the famous homoerotic novel out of the closet is desperately misguided. And as I did this, I started to get tired of modern LGBT politics, and to unpin my interest in the history of gay culture from marches for marriage equality and Pride parades. I was looking back at some of my old journal entries last night, reliving months of blushing as I read Edmund White on the bus, learning Allen Ginsberg off by heart, and watching my aspirations of professional homosexuality shift from dreaming of having Kerry Eleveld‘s job to understanding myself as someone who steps back and reads, writes, watches, concludes and synthesizes. I proposed and discarded idea after idea for my independent work—and as I look over my journals from that time, a couple years ago, I can see myself becoming less and less certain not only of the veracity of the identity categories I had taken for granted when I was angry about Prop. 8, but also about their importance. In the fall, at Princeton, I became the girl with the dining-hall catchphrase “Remember to always be suspicious of binaries,” and over the course of that semester a couple friends and I painstakingly worked out a theoretical paradigm that allowed us to separate identity politics—and culture—from LGBTQ essentialism, distinguishing sexual orientation and gender identity from culture in a way that allowed us to make sense of politically and culturally conservative gay people, or the straight people in our community who are always welcome at the queer parties. We started to recognize the limits of a construction of identity in which orientation mapped one-to-one onto culture, and in which both putting one’s sexual orientation in a box and seeing it as one of the most integral characteristics of one identity remained central. We started to see that if homosexuality is not a choice, gay culture certainly is. And I started to question my identity as a professional gay in a serious way.

Yesterday, I turned in a junior paper that is as much about what I learned in the archives in the past several months, or in my classes before that, as it is about what I have learned about myself in the past three years of university. My JP makes an argument about Symonds’ intellectual sphere, about his own reading strategies and how his education and cultural milieu prepared him to synthesize material from all kinds of disciplines and outlooks into a cultural discourse within which it was possible to identify as “a homosexual man.” It’s a romp through the Oxford classical curriculum, the Aesthetic movement, Darwinism, scientific sexology and early pre-Freudian psychoanalysis, and the allure of democracy and other questions about the relationship to the individual to society. While I am aware that I am telling a story, like any historian is, I also try to take seriously (as Symonds himself did!) the traditional Rankean exhortation to “discover a sense of the past as it actually was.” I try to consider what it was like to think about homosexuality before you could think about homosexuality, when there literally were not English words to express issues of sexual identity and when, as teleological as nineteenth-century worldviews could be, no one would dream of a grand-scale teleology of “gay liberation” or a small-scale teleology of “coming out” (or, indeed, “it gets better”). And in so doing, I consider the mutability of ways to categorize identity, the importance of culture, the ways in which we can delude ourselves into thinking that a cultural framework signifies something essential when in reality it’s just another narrative we’ve constructed (as Symonds did when he misread Whitman). When I write in my JP that “the time is long past to consider [Symonds] an intellectual just as much as a homosexual,” it is because I have learned in the past three years that there is more than one route to identity politics, and also more than one route to self-bettering; and that to write about homosexuality is not always to adhere to the established expectations of the genre, or to consider one’s sexual orientation the most essential thing about oneself. Sometimes the orientation is the base, and the culture the superstructure. But sometimes—as when Symonds got from ancient Greece and the Renaissance and Whitman to a language of sexual object choice—sometimes it’s the other way round.

But lest I be accused of not being fair to a culture and a community I too claim as my own, or of ignoring what good the coming-out narrative and the essentializing of sexual identity can do for those who are struggling with it, I feel obliged to point out one more thing. As a scholar, a polemicist, and a very astutely introspective person, Symonds was always keen to have everything both ways, to make the impossible possible. Deconstruction hadn’t been invented yet, and rather than having neither one thing or the other, he was keen to have both. It was his relentless faith in dialectic that enabled him to construct an epistemological framework in which “ethical same-sex sexual behavior” was a conceivable idea, and so having it both ways is a strategy that I think is worth trying. If Symonds can be taken as a guide, it is to a strategy that can admit the refashioning of existing cultural elements into new identities—and that’s why I can have the greatest respect for Kerry Eleveld, and for Rachel Maddow, yet no longer want either of their jobs. Instead I am quite content to think that it is my funny old place in the world to read Edmund White on the bus, to memorize Housman like Robbie Ross did for Wilde when he was in Reading Gaol, to listen to the new Lady Gaga album all the way through the day it comes out, to have opinions on Facebook about “It Gets Better,” to go to Paris and make my pilgrimage to Wilde’s grave, to never miss a Pride parade. Symonds repurposed a Platonic understanding of virtue into something which made it possible to assert that, contra his teacher Benjamin Jowett’s belief to the contrary, the love of the Symposium was not “mainly a figure of speech.” I feel that I can repurpose his repurposing not into a coming-out narrative, but into a promise that we can understand our lives and our selves if we read closely enough, that even if we feel right now as if there are no words to describe our innermost longings, if we keep reading widely we will be able to pull some together. I don’t want to erase identity politics—but I want to suggest that, as I myself have discovered, their boundaries may be wider than we might at first imagine.

And so Symonds was an intellectual just as much as a homosexual, and so I do not need to be a professional gay to spend my days in the Bodleian, elbow-deep in the male side of the homoerotic literary tradition. And so it will be June, and like all the Junes since the June before I started university, I will celebrate Pride. But while I have the greatest respect for and sense of comradeship with those who celebrate with the minds on the present or the future, I will celebrate as a historian, with mine on the past: reminding merry-makers that Pride commemorates Stonewall; respecting our elders who were there when AIDS first hit thirty years ago, and remembering those who died in that first horrible wave and since; and asking myself what Symonds would have thought about flatbed trucks covered with the logos of corporations and filled with gyrating young men in very small underwear. Because I am an intellectual far more than I am a homosexual; because when orientation and culture are separate entities, assimilationism and political obligation alike become moot points; and because while the personal may frequently be political, it is often not quite in the ways that you’d expect.