The Homophobic Imagination

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Part 2: Literature and Homophobia

Insofar as homosexual authors write for an audience that largely consists of hostile heterosexuals, they must somehow accommodate their work to the expectations of that audience. This is particularly true in the world of real-lettres in which every author desires a publisher and fears a censor. One can, of course, simply refrain from writing on the subject that is nearest one's heart, and continue to accumulate notes for the work-in-progress for when the time is ripe. . . . One can write and then eschew publication, as did E. M. Forster with Maurice. One can arrange for private printings, as did many of the writers from 1890 to 1920. One can reverse the pronouns prior to publication, with the result, for example, that "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City" is now read as one of Whitman's fine heterosexual love poems in spite of the male pronouns in the original manuscript discovered in 1925. One can call one's lover Narcissus and transform oneself into a simple country swain, with the result that critics find evidence herein of the narcissistic nature of homosexual literature. One can leave pointers via Greek mythology, resulting in a Ganymedic pederastic strain in homosexual poetry. One can talk about aesthetics and spiritual friendship, thereby providing evidence of homosexual effeteness. One can tell a tale of woe and kill off a major character in the last chapter, thereby providing evidence of redeeming social value. One can do just about everything — except utter the truth.

The inability to speak in one's authentic voice is a recurrent theme of homosexual literature — "I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs" (Whitman); "The word unsaid must stay unsaid, though there was much to say" (Housman); "There was just one thing amiss in Billy Budd — an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a stutter" (Melville) — a theme that could be profitably examined by heterosexuals in order to appreciate the homosexual's struggle against suffocation, and the nuances of indirection by which we cope with suppression and oppression. This theme contributes to the "shame" motif in homosexual literature (the word "shame" becoming a code word after Alfred Douglas's poem "Two Loves"), but although many homosexuals have indeed been ashamed and guilt-ridden and tormented by doubt, there also resides in this theme a substantial recognition of the hostility of society.

We very much suspect that many homosexuals have internalized the homophobia of society, and their literature can provide evidence not for "homosexual sickness" but for heterosexual sickness. As soon as Freud became popular, the psychiatrist became a fixture in the dramatis personae of every homosexual pulp novel and almost every serious homosexual novel, and a formula was established whereby one chapter was devoted to the hero's memories of how he related to his mother, followed somewhat later by a chapter showing his traumatic encounter with a woman. This process of incorporating a homophobic notion is admirably illustrated by the insertion of a scene showing a humiliating heterosexual failure at a brothel in Visconti's movie version of Mann's Death in Venice. In the days before Freud's psychological refinements, homosexual characters were always discovered to suffer from a physiological disease, usually tuberculosis, though this particular disease was brilliantly transformed into a metaphor for self-discovery in Gide's Immoralist. And in the days when the sin theory was prevalent, homosexual characters were always practicing black magic and reading de Sade, as in Huysmans' La Bas. The further back we go in the years A.D., the closer we come, not to the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but to Christians having nightmares about Sodom and Gomorrah.

One gay liberation political viewpoint (borrowed from the field of radical therapy) is that all homosexual negative self-concepts are entirely the result of unjustified guilt that has been internalized by the constant pressures of homophobic society. That this may be true is being increasingly documented by current sociological research. When we extend this to the field of literature, we deprive authors of creative autonomy. We nevertheless believe that it would be profitable to conduct extensive research along the lines of this hypothesis — which means, for example, that in the biographies of homosexual artists it is not so important to discover a Close Binding Intimate (CBI) mother (which is searched for along the lines of the Freudian hypothesis), as to discover a Roman Catholic priest who threatens with damnation a young child caught playing homosexual forbidden games. Such events have been recorded in the journals of modern homosexual authors, including many of those who converted or suffered a religious crisis in the days of Cardinal Newman, and we rather suspect that some sound corollaries can be established between the "tormented" type of homosexual imagination and a homophobic religious background. We would not suggest that such works should be dismissed for not being representative of the true homosexual imagination, but that they should be carefully examined within the context of a hostile reality in order to avoid perpetuating that homophobic reality.

The term "the homosexual imagination" sounds like an erotic philosophy. Sex practices and metaphysical theory make strange bedfellows, and although anthropology demonstrates that they do indeed walk hand in hand, modern commentators and authors have been rather careless in how they align the two, and often do so without careful attention to the findings of the anthropologists (early anthropologists always overlooked the homosexual behavior of primitive people, which is why Gide's Corydon was an important contribution to the celebration of the homosexual imagination in spite of its naivety, but today we know — or should know — that homosexual love, transvestism, and same-sex marriage rites are not so bizarre or anomalous as were once believed). We learn from a marriage manual now current that man/woman face-to-face sex is "a complete unit" whereas man/man front-to-back sex is "an incomplete fragment in a daisy chain". Many people can read that statement straight-faced as if it were a profound truth (perhaps unaware that anal intercourse can be performed face-to-face, thank you). It is on the basis of such a metaphysic that literary themes of "complete" heterosexual love and "incomplete" homosexual love have been created and judged. The same metaphysic has been used, on the other hand, to create and judge literary themes concerning "closed" heterosexuality and "open" homosexuality, stifling monogamy versus democratic promiscuity. There probably is a metaphysic of homosexuality, and it probably has something to do with friendship as the physiological basis of democracy (which is why America is so embarrassed by Whitman), but thus far most critics and authors have busied themselves with an anti-homosexual metaphysic, i.e. homophobia. Sartre, using Genet's Thief's Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers, has constructed the homosexual maturbatory imagination, the emphasis being upon incompleteness and self-centeredness, but if we used Genet's Querelle of Brest we could construct a metaphysic of brother love, using the recurring images of the seaman's rope, chains, rosaries, pieces of clothing, blankets, and a whole series of repeated patterns by which Genet represents the binding together of men. It is amazing that Sartre has failed to see how thoroughly Genet is part of the homosexual humanistic tradition reaching back to Montaigne's Essays.

The heterosexual metaphysic of procreation is a rather hard nut to crack in spite of the obscurities with which it is propounded, both as critical interpretation and artistic creation. Margaret Crosland in Cocteau's World refers to "the realization that homosexual love cannot bring total happiness in ordinary human terms because it cannot perpetuate life." This may be entirely true for a particular character in a particular book by a particular author in a particular milieu, but it is the kind of critical interpretation of the homosexual imagination that does not take into account the fact that no author these days will suggest that any human relationship can bring total happiness in ordinary human terms, and that the common theme in heterosexual literature is not procreation but adultery without offspring. Nevertheless, "this sterile love" is a frequent enough theme in homosexual literature, from Proust's The Cities of the Plain to Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and may remain so until authors begin to appreciate the horrors of overpopulation. The right to the artificial reproduction and adoption of children may be as important to gay liberation as the right to abortion is to women's liberation.

Homosexual literature has not uniformly suffered from the homophobic environment, and this situation probably has contributed to the brio and brilliance of a recognizable homosexual style or manner, whether it be the trashy epithets and outrageous puns of a bitch fight or the unsurpassed wit of Oscar Wilde, and a host of satirical and comic techniques (a good number of us have written Restoration comedies) by which we have learned how to deflect ostracism. Unfortunately ethnic humor tends to turn inward, as illustrated in Charles Dyer's Staircase and, as in black and Jewish ethnic humor, what begins as a shield against oppression ends up merely as a safety valve which releases the pressure which would otherwise turn into anger (we laughed at Amos 'n' Andy for a very long time).

We do not wish to deprive any homosexual literature of its intrinsic worth by making a series of unsupported political hypotheses concerning the relationship of a homosexual author to a homophobic milieu, but we think it is very important to recognize the significance of documents such as the revised versions of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar and James Barr's Quatrefoil, and to note that homosexual literature B.C. is generally " happier" than homosexual literature A.D., and to note further that homosexual literature post-1969 (the year of the Stonewall Riots and "the birth of gay liberation") is recognizably different from homosexual literature ante-1969.

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SOURCE: Rictor Norton and Louie Crew, "The Homophobic Imagination: An Editorial", in Rictor Norton and Louie Crew (eds), The Homosexual Imagination, College English, Vol. 36, No. 3 (November 1974), pp. 272-90; copyright 1974 by The National Council of Teachers of English.


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Rictor Norton, "The Homophobic Imagination (1974)." Updated 18 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/college.htm>.


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