Friday, August 17, 2007

Born to be Wilde

A literary approach to Nature V. Nurture:

World-conquering Alexander the Great did not identify himself as a gay man. He simply loved his life-long companion, Hephaestion, and regularly penetrated the lovely Persian eunuch Bagoas. Women were for political alliances and heirs. So went the ancient world in varying degrees from Macedonia and Asia Minor to Japan . Gore Vidal appears correct in dismissing the idea of a gay identity, altogether, arguing that there are no homosexuals or heterosexuals, just homosexual and heterosexual acts.

Vidal may be right about history, but he is not right about being gay today. Even if we assume Kinsey was correct in attributing a continuum of desire in all humans from heterosexual to homosexual, making everyone, in effect, bisexual to a degree, people today do consider their sexual preference to be a key to their identity. Gay literature, including Vidal’s own The City and the Pillar, reveals how essential that identity is. Of what, if not a gay identity, were Andre Gide and Marcel Proust writing when they wrote Corydon and Cities of the Plain? One has only to read Jean Paul Sartre’s exhaustive study of Jean Genet (or, of course, Genet himself) to get the full meaning of gay existence. Whether or not you agree with Michel Foucault that the concept of “homosexuality” was born in the 19th Century as a construct of science and society, it is clear that being homosexual, today, goes to the heart of who we are.

Logically, Vidal (and followers of Foucault) must dismiss the nurture v. nature dispute as meaningless. If there is no gay identity, if there are no gay persons, then it makes no sense to ask if gays are born that way. Looking back at Alexander, we are tempted to say he was just a product of his culture, one in which women had a limited place, and bonding with men, especially on long, all-male military campaigns across the distant lands of what is today Iraq and Iran, left no choice but to engage in homosexual acts. Oliver Stone’s bold-- but failed-- attempt to uncover in Alexander a homosexual identity would have to be, for Foucault and Vidal, just plain wrong-headed.

Yet, anyone who has read Plato, Mary Renault, or Marguerite Yourcenar, knows that the great loves in many ancient Greek and Roman men’s lives were other men. Socrates literally swoons in the Charmides when he sees up the toga of that charming young man (who was Plato’s uncle):

I caught sight of the inwards of his garment, and took the flame.
Then, I could no longer contain myself. I thought how well Cydias
understood the nature of love, when, in speaking of a fair youth,
he warns someone, ‘not to bring the fawn in the sight of the lion
to be devoured by him,’ for I felt that I had been overcome by a sort
of wild beast appetite.

There aren’t just homosexual acts, there are also overpowering homosexual desires. It is this desire that makes us who we are. The question remains, are we born with it, or is it culturally induced? The character of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium (like Hedwig of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) presents us with a story clearly favoring the former. We are born looking for our other half, and the sex of that other is predetermined.

In literature, from Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde to Edmund White, David Sedaris, and Augusten Burroughs, the answer is also a resounding “born that way.” I dare say the same holds for women if one reads Sappho, Collette , Virginia Wolfe, Gertrude Stein and Rita Mae Brown. The gay protagonists know they are gay from the moment they have desire. White’s short story Cinnamon Skin reminds us of our own nebulous desires at the age of thirteen, wanting to sleep with a man, but having no idea what that would involve. In Mexico , he finds out:

He didn’t kiss me. He pulled my underpants down, spit on his wide,
stubby cock, and pushed it up my ass. He didn’t hold me in his arms.
My ass hurt like hell.

That the realization of his desire turns out to be full of pain and without romance does nothing to alter the boy’s identity as gay. The same is true of Augusten in Running with Scissors. His sexual initiation by Neil Bookman is equally void of joy or pleasure. Yet, it confirms Augusten’s gay identity.

Vidal is right that so-called straight men are capable of gay sex acts. Likewise, many gay men and lesbians have performed straight sex acts, sometimes for their entire lives. The film version of Kinsey’s life and work is an honest look at how prevalent bisexuality and sexual experimentation has always been among intellectuals. From Bloomsbury to the Beat generation, engaging in the whole spectrum of sexual exchange is essential to ones identity.

That is my point. How else can you “know thyself,” unless you do it all? Again, it is literature that is most revealing and goes deepest into the psyche. Think of all those descriptions of adolescent gay sex. One boy experiences only lust, preparing himself for the day he makes it with a girl. The other is wrecked by the love he feels, the understanding that this is who he is, a boy in love with another boy.

Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (as well as Greg Araki’s stunning film version of the story) reveals how deep this truth is. The reaction of the young boys to their molestation is all about identity. Neil does not become a gay hustler because he is molested. He is gay to begin with:

I focused on ‘Edward Cunningham’s’ series of pictures:
He nibbled a strawberry, poured champagne, relaxed in
A Jacuzzi, toweled off. He had tanned skin, feathered hair;
And, like almost all the other men, a moustache. Edward’s
Was the shade of my ‘goldenrod’ crayon in the Crayola
box. The camera had caught the gleamy water beads on his
belly button. I slipped my hand into my Fruit-of-the-Looms.

This is Neil, at age nine, looking at his mother’s Playgirl. As he matures, Neil’s ultimate struggle becomes how to reconcile being gay with the horrifying thing that the coach did to him.

I have no quarrel with the Kinsey Scale; it supports the view that being gay or straight is a given at birth. There may very well be those of us right in the middle, able to love either sex equally. For the rest of us, however, sexual preference is pronounced. At eighteen, I fell in love with my girlfriend’s brother. The experience was heartrending. It was 1965, and the terms “queer” and “gay” were both offensive to me. But I knew that I was homosexual. I engaged in, as Vidal says, heterosexual acts and homosexual acts. Despite the fact that the hetero acts were far more pleasant, and the homo acts with my friend humiliating and anything but satisfying, I knew to the core that I was a homosexual. Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, the novel that certainly changed the course of his professional and creative life, revealed to me the same truth. Only a man who is homosexual by nature can love and desire another man with all his heart. Vidal’s Jim Willard is as homosexual as a man can be; his love, Bob Ford, is as heterosexual. The sex acts or lack thereof don’t matter at all to their identities (Surely, Vidal knows this—which may indicate that his ongoing interview stance is a tad tongue in cheek).

To know the self is to know whom one is –or isn’t- capable of loving. We are born with a predisposition toward being gay or being straight, not altogether bisexual, as Freud suggested. The particulars of our romantic experience shape our sexual identity. Love becomes the nurture our nature requires to find our true identity, the kernel of our soul with which we are born, and must learn how to accept.

As Polonius in Hamlet says,

"To thine own self be true.."


No comments:

Post a Comment