The Homophobic Imagination


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Part 4: Criticism and Homophobia

Even at the least unintentional level of homophobia, we can quite easily document how a failure to appreciate the validity of homosexual love can produce critical blindness of the most elementary sort. In one passage of his very scholarly biography of Nicholas Udall, William Edgerton says that Udall could not be homosexual because there is no evidence of this in his works; in a later passage, Edgerton critically appreciates the humor of the scene in Udall's Roister Doister in which Matthew Merrygreeke expresses a desire to be a woman so he can marry Ralph Roister Doister; Edgerton quite simply fails to make a connection between these, and proceeds with the argument that the word "buggery" in the transcript of Udall's trial before the Privy Council is merely a misspelling for "burglary" — whatever the scholarly fine points of this spelling theory may be, we are convinced that it is motivated by an assumption that it is better for an English Worthy to be a thief than to be a homosexual. This kind of failure to duly appreciate the evidence that is staring one in the face abounds in subliminally homophobic literary criticism. It is not that homosexuals have a special gift for detecting such evidence, but that homophobic critics tend to read with the eyes of Queen Victoria, under whose rule female homosexual behavior never became illegal because no one had the audacity to tell her that lesbians existed. The classic example of such blindness is the frequent assertion that the portrayal of the "spiritual comradeship" of Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad is proof positive that "in the beginning" homosexual love was non-sexual, a view achieved by ignoring the reference to the widespread practice of boy prostitution in Homer's Odyssey.

When the homosexual content of a work becomes so explicit and so frequent that no one can overlook it, critics are so startled that they allow themselves to strain towards some farfetched way of passing negative judgment. In his very scholarly critical biography of Richard Barnfield, Harry Morris expresses humorous surprise at the ironical situation in which a "self-confessed pederast" attempts to educate his beloved in the ways of becoming a Renaissance gentleman, a situation that is not at all strange for those who have read Plato's philosophy of pedagogy, and a situation that is not half as "pederastic" as the heterosexual pedophilia of all the tales of Venus and Adonis. Philip Thody has been respectably startled enough to say that "in spite of Genet's total inability to imagine men who are not homosexual, he does offer variety within his own particular range," though this of course is a "dubiously limited achievement" (Jean Genet, 1968). If we pause for a moment to consider the dubiously limited achievement of those thousands of writers who are totally unable to imagine people who are not heterosexual, we gain some inkling of the particular bias of the metaphysic upon which critical judgments about "incompleteness" are based. In his authoritative biography of Lord Hervey (1972), Robert Halsband says "How fortunate for Hervey that his wife should share, instead of resent, his fondness for Stephen!" — of course it is fortunate, but not so terribly surprising as to merit the full weight of an exclamatory transformation. It would be a useful and amusing dissertation project to document the rhetorical configurations by which critics inadvertently reveal their surprise and wonderment upon discovering the homosexual imagination.

Of far greater iniquity and far less humor are the host of critics who have articulately expounded the homophobic world view, expertly using the rhetorical strategies of degradation by which homosexual love, though not at all queer in the fact, is queered in the description. A classic example that contains virtually all of the techniques is Roger Asselineau's Evolution of Walt Whitman (1962). The first important step in homophobic criticism is to anomalize homosexuality: Asselineau achieves this easily at the outset by subtitling "Chapter V. Sex Life" with the quotation "The love that dare not speak its name" — when one opens the book to the Table of Contents, one immediately realizes that this chapter must be significantly different from all the others because it is the only chapter that has been set apart with a subtitle, and such a sinister subtitle at that. (Recorders ages hence: please note that we are weary of cute titles for books and articles and chapters such as L'Amour qui ne dit pas son nom, The Other Love, The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name, The Love That Dares Now Speak Its Name, Sexual Heretics: a spade is a spade, not a violet.)

The corollary step is to reinforce this sense of otherness by frequent use of anomalous terms of reference: Asselineau doesn't beat around the bush with synonyms, and simply repeats the phrase "the anomaly of the poet" at the rate of once every three pages. The next step is to emphasize that this is not a mere anomaly (in theory an anomaly can be extraordinarily fine), but a decidedly bad anomaly: Asselineau thus repeats the term "abnormal" with greater frequency than the word "anomaly," and counter-buttresses this by use of the term "normal" to refer to the heterosexual rutting instinct.

The next step, a very important one, is to place this abnormal anomaly within the context of irrationality: Asselineau catalogues in abundance terms such as "obsession," "preoccupation," "desires," "haunt," "satisfy abnormal instincts," "sensuality," "predilection," "passion," and "lack of control," and he even allows himself an appropriate metaphor such as "he gave free course to his passion and it broke forth with the violence of an explosion." However exuberant Whitman often is, this is not at all an accurate description of the relative placidness of many of his Calamus poems: it is a description of the reaction experienced by a homophobe confronted by homosexual love: Asselineau is the one whose lava runneth over.

The next step, one which is usually suppressed by the time a critic has made the final revision for publication, is to invite the heterosexual reader to share in the critic's experience of disgust and loathing: thus Asselineau shudders over Whitman's "murky and unhealthy part of himself," "the impure elements which were in him," and its "noxiousness" (!). Oftentimes the religious base of homophobia is allowed to show through, as in Asselineau's invocation of concepts such as "impurity" and "temptation."

After establishing these homophobic ground rules, the critic can proceed with impunity to plead his special case, Asselineau's particular argument being that over a period of years Whitman variously "succeeded in regaining control" or "suffered relapses" with respect to his abnormal anomalous murky passions. This is known as the bubbling cauldron theory of the homosexual imagination. Asselineau — and most critics — has entirely missed the two important points: (1) a particular male writer loved men; (2) this particular writer's society hated men who loved men. Insofar as eroticism and mysticism are intimately connected, and insofar as Asselineau has so radically failed to objectively interpret "Chapter V. Sex Life," one suspects that his "mysticism" theory of Whitman's poetry, the theory whose expression was the substantive purpose of his entire two-volume work, the theory that is now current in most classroom discussions of Whitman, is sheer and utter nonsense. The frequency with which "spiritual" and "ideal" and "mystical" themes are attributed to the bulk of literature makes one suspect that critics have radically failed to interpret all literature. The subject for future study is still a balanced appraisal of "Homosexual Themes in Whitman's Poetry," and an equally important study will be "Homophobia in Whitman Criticism" (and "Homophobia in Shakespeare Criticism," and "Homophobia in Emily Dickinson Criticism," and so forth, and a two-volume study of "Homophobia in Western Literary Criticism."

Asselineau, and a great many other critics, teachers, and students, have merely skimmed the surface of psychoanalytical theory in order to acquire a terminology through which they can respectably utter their contempt for homosexuals. Many seldom go beyond the term "perverse," evincing no awareness that in psychoanalytical literature it is merely a synonym for "pregenital," and these critics have no awareness about what "pregenitality" is. The superficial and careless use of psychoanalytical tools has so profoundly discredited psychological literary criticism in all areas that serious Freudian critics are finding it difficult to approach an audience that doesn't smirk and chuckle. Insofar as psychoanalytical theory tends to become immediately popularized, and distorted and institutionalized in the process, we think it is politically wise to simply ignore the psychiatrists when we are not discrediting them. But insofar as there are still critics who believe that psychoanalysis is a useful critical tool, and who believe that it is not inherently homophobic, we would like to make two cautionary remarks.

(1) Because we live in a homophobic society, any critical statement about a particular homosexual character in a particular work will automatically be understood by the readers of such criticism to mean that all homosexuals resemble that character. One can point out an anal fixation in one of Chaucer's fabliaux, and readers will let it go at that because Chaucer is heterosexual; if a critic points out an anal fixation in a homosexual work, however, readers will say that all homosexuals tend to have an anal fixation. One of the effects of society having cast us out has been to cast us into a monolithic mode (all the better to excommunicate you, my dear), and any statement about a single one of us, within a homophobic culture, will be received as a generic truth. Within such a homophobic culture, double-think prevails and few people will bother to notice that homosexual stereotypes are often mutually exclusive: the self-centeredness of our narcissism doesn't go well with the other-centeredness of our pederasty; leather and lace may be two sides of the same coin, but in general our sadomasochism doesn't sit well with our effeminacy; our phallic fixation doesn't sit well with our return to the polymorphous perverse; and no statement about "homosexuality" is meaningful unless it refers to women as well as to men. Responsible psychoanalytical critics must become acutely aware that their criticism will be seized upon in the battle of homophobic politics, and they must take every possible precaution to ensure that they don't utter a single careless remark, that no remark can be lifted out of context without a trailing string of qualifiers, and that they simultaneously contribute something to the discussion that will undercut a homophobic reaction.

(2) It is not acceptable to begin a psychoanalytical critique with a brief outline of Freudian theory regarding the causes and nature of homosexuality, and then to proceed merrily with the analysis. The standard Freudian theory of homosexuality has been radically discredited by the American Psychiatric Association's 1974 ruling that homosexuality is not a pathology. Any psychological critic of homosexual literature who does not take cognizance of that ruling and the investigations that prompted it (such as the Hooker Report that concluded that there were no appreciable psychological differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals) will in effect be using a broken tool. Arthur Schlesinger's critique of Tennessee Williams and Leslie Fiedler's critiques of Twain and Melville are no longer (and never were) tenable.

Within strictly objective terms, it will be fairly easy to discredit virtually all traditional criticism by exposing its pro-heterosexual bias as a distorting prejudice. But such is the nature of the taboo that we will be operating within an irrational rather than an objective context, and perhaps our best strategy will be to keep on repeating such exposures until good sense gradually prevails. Hopefully many of us will relentlessly pursue this task of debunking "straight criticism" without succumbing to the typical liberal argument that we are tearing down one thing without building up something to take its place: it is useful and satisfying and critically important to serve in the function of a watchdog, to keep saying "Excuse me, sir, but that's rot" every time a critic who claims to be serious utters a nonsensical remark about either homosexuals or heterosexuals (such as the absurdity that the former are ipso facto adolescent while the latter are ipso fact mature). The important thing is for all of us to open our eyes a bit wider so that a more honest criticism can emerge of its own accord.

Insofar as we the editors and some of our contributors are gay and proud, we confront at the outset traditional critics' homophobic definition of credibility. We suspect that many of our readers irrationally believe that only heterosexuals have the proper credentials for objectively discussing homosexuality. A male critic whose book dealing with a homosexual theme is not dedicated "To My Wife" — a mere formality, but, like the title "Mrs.," a decidedly heterosexual formality — automatically becomes suspect. Reputable scholars have seriously contended that homosexual critics will argue a case, have ulterior motives, and are patriotic, subjective, and propagandistic — though the prima facie logic suggests that the same view should be taken of heterosexual critics of heterosexual literature. The most frequent argument is that homosexuals are eager to get authors into their camp, the classic form of this argument being raised in every discussion of Shakespeare's Sonnets. The fallacy of this argument can be rather easily demonstrated by a survey of Shakespeare criticism and by our taking due notice of the fact that the critics most frequently cited as proponents of the view that Shakespeare was not homosexual are preponderantly bachelors.

We deplore the academy's long-standing dogma concerning objectivity, for as a so-called professional standard it has been the most popular political strategy by which the voices of all minority groups have been effectively silenced. As a professional ideal, objectivity may be worth attaining, though we suspect that it is no more valid than the ideal of Universality that steadfastly excludes homosexuals from the human universe, or theories about Mankind that overlook womankind. In professional practice it is obvious that heterosexuals have no viable claim to such objectivity, for almost without exception they are quite subjectively prejudiced against homosexuality and in favour of heterosexuality, whether consciously or unintentionally. Whatever the far-off ideal may be, at this particular point in history, within a culture one of whose major characteristics is being recognized by sociologists as homophobia, we do not believe that heterosexuals have the best perspective from which to accurately view the gay experience — not because heterosexuals lack homosexual bedroom experience, but because they lack awareness of the non-erotic nuances of the daily, casual life of homosexuals in a hostile society, and have seldom or never been confronted with any challenges to their own heterosexual predilections and presumptions. Scholarly and critical health, wholeness, integrity, and true objectivity in this area can best be approached through an honest, thorough, and compassionate investigation from within the gay experience. The links between critical scholarship and experience are indeed tenuous, but while these links complacently go unquestioned by heterosexual scholars, homosexuals are very much critically aware of these links, and this sensitivity will contribute to a greater degree of insight. In spite of the aura of irrationality that has been falsely cast over homosexuals, we have a remarkably well developed "superego" and self-consciousness — we are nothing if not self-critical and self-evaluative, beginning at an early age when we searched through all the books for an explanation of our differentness. Homosexual bedroom activity is largely occupied by intimate discussions of psychoanalytical theory (Freudian quotation is a staple of our bedroom humour), and even young homosexuals are adept at handling eroto-philosophical premises that leave our heterosexual peers far behind. Vita Sackville-West noted in her diary that she, being homosexual, was more qualified to discuss homosexuality than any expert psychologist, for the empirical data was daily under her scrutiny by necessity, and the measures of the rightness or wrongness of her tentative conclusions were constantly at her side. By this sort of daily critical self-inquiry homosexuals have become the scientists of the self.

Quite frankly, we sometimes would like to urge heterosexuals to hush up and move aside: we do not look forward to a proliferation of gay studies courses taught by "objective" exclusive heterosexuals, and we wince at the prospect of well meaning teachers who may engage in curriculum innovation by hurriedly adding to the syllabus such works as The Catcher in The Rye, End as a Man, Tea and Sympathy, and The Boys in the Band. Of course it would not be proper to suggest that all heterosexual scholars and critics and teachers are incapable of participating in a responsible study of this area, but we believe that the first step towards achieving an objective forum of humanistic discourse will be for heterosexuals to critically appreciate the ways in which they unthinkingly espouse anti-gay/pro-straight cultural prejudice, and we condemn without reservation the kind of attitude that prompts them to consult doctors and churchmen as if they are the authorities, whereas, after all, homosexuals themselves are the experts on homosexuality.

An important specific responsibility for all intelligent members of the academy will be to eliminate the mere word "abnormal" and its synonyms from all critical and rational discourse that is meant to be taken seriously. This will parallel one of the more profound goals of gay liberation to eliminate the very concept of abnormality, and in so doing to eliminate the concept of normality. If this particular aim of a "gay criticism" is pursued with enough vigor, it will strike to the very heart of traditional literary judgment and its foundation in normative aesthetic standards and the comparative method for positing value judgments. Our most positive contribution to culture will always be an affirmation of the essential ambiguity of all human experience, achieved partly through our recognition that character types, stereotypes, behaviour patterns, plot patterns, and all the formulaic normatizations or topoi of literature are superimpositions which stifle the human spirit.

(continued on page 5)
Return to page 3

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.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Homophobic Imagination (1974)." Updated 18 June 2008 <>.

Return to The Queer Canon