Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"LOVE IN A DARK TIME" by Colm Toibin

Though I get entirely absorbed in this book collaboration with Tim Barrus, a person can only be perceptive and skillful at writing for a limited number of hours in a day. At least that’s the case for me. So there are other ongoing projects, one of which HAS to be the yard, just now emerging from a spring snowstorm that is making it leaping greenly as an ee cummings poem.

Another is reading with a specific goal, to try to get a grip on the concept and phenomena of “gay.” A hopeless project, sort of like trying to get a grip on, say, the concept and phenomena of India or even Native Americans. Because it’s a construct, imposed from both inside and outside so that all boundaries are controversial, and because it’s so multiple and morphing that one has to chase along with a butterfly net, hoping the mesh is strong enough to hold whatever one is pursuing.

My latest book is Colm Toibin’s “Love in a Dark Time and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature.” He’s a tough, clear writer as the best Irish always are, but more than that, he always has his underlying concepts under control and sharpened. So far I’m only a couple of chapters into the book, but already the ideas are thick and rich.

The first chapter, called “Roaming the Greenwood,” addresses writers who defended against being accused of homosexuality and the second, Oscar Wilde: Love in a Dark Time” gives a clear account of why they should do that. Maybe it’s clearer to start with the second.

Wilde was a frog in heating water, married with children, successful, gentry, popular -- all the good things. But his love affair with Lord Douglas (“Bosie”) made him vulnerable to extreme legal punishment for just that, though it was disguised as being a characteristic of his essential nature or un-nature. If he had simply cruised in the usual manner and quarters, the gentlemen’s agreement was that all would be overlooked. But when he took the relationship as seriously as, say, “gay marriage,” Bosie’s father made it publicly, crushingly, impossible. Things like property get involved, don’t they? Control, inheritance, allowances . . .

I had known that Wilde went to prison while Bosie skipped out, but I had imagined that prison meant something like Galileo’s house arrest or maybe the Marquis de Sade scribbling in a cell. In fact, Wilde was treated like a terrorist, which was pretty much the way all “criminals” were treated in those days, including those who were the victims of the criminalization of poverty. He had to sleep on a board, the food was so substandard that he couldn’t digest it, he was constantly a victim of diarrhea, and he was forced to march on a treadmill to satisfy the requirement of “hard labor.” (I hope the two female journalists just sentenced in North Korea are able to escape anything parallel.) The screaming and bellowing of whipped prisoners echoed through the place. Almost worse was the denial of reading and writing.

Wilde survived, only barely, and said his “mainspring had been broken.” Afterwards he tried to help prisoners he’d somehow grown to know, but with little success. He didn’t live much longer. It is clear to me that he was not punished for “buggery” but for being frank and self-determined, which are supposed to be characteristics of a proud and educated person. The homosexuality part only made him vulnerable to revenge for his real offenses, which were offenses to individuals (Bosie’s father) rather than to the state or to any religion.

The whole idea of homosexuality is a construct, because human sexuality is amorphous, situational, and varies in many dimensions. For instance, men who desire sex with other men is not the same as men who desire to be women or men who desire to be desired by men instead of women or men who are effeminate. Prison rapists of the weak desire power, not sex. Some have access to men they desire but no will to act on it. Some are confined by social mores. Some never realize that they desire men physically. Some displace physical desire into intellectual or even athletic channels. Some act out desire for men without feeling anything at all.

And that’s just men.

Toibin takes a look at writers who have been reverse diagnosed as repressed homosexuals, once that concept formed: people like Henry James or Kafka or George Orwell. As soon as the concept exists, it can be imposed on or drawn out of everywhere. It’s like “co-dependence” or “blaming the victim” -- as soon as you realize what the pattern is, you see it everywhere, including oneself. But then what do you do with it? It’s part of life, isn’t it?

Anyway, Toibin has this major insight: homosexuality, like anything that has to be hidden, becomes expressed in literature in many coded ways: spies, terrorists, underclasses, a life confined by convention (maybe racism) so that it is without love, a vulnerability to revulsion on the part of others (being a cockroach), being shut out, powerless. And, reversely, homosexuality -- which can be converted into all these other manifestations -- can become a coded version of them in turn. How do you know whether you are reading/writing about spies as gays or gays as spies or both?

Here’s the horror I can see coming and it has nothing to do with sex. A statistic going the rounds is that the USA has 6% of the world’s population but incarcerates more than 30%. We must be criminalizing something that the rest of the world is not. We are criminalizing minorities, mostly through maintaining the criminalization of marijuana possession in small amounts. (I support the criminalization of meth, the other poor person’s drug and a huge source of anti-social behavior.)

What I see coming is debtor’s prison: the re-criminalization of poverty, even among formerly respectable mainstream people. Forming just under the surface is a contempt for anyone who isn’t “making it” and the assertion that this is a choice. Pushing out the low-wage immigrants means that other people must be forced into their jobs, which are the equivalent of treadmills. Reforming health care means capping how much medical intervention you “deserve.” I predict that in a few decades no one will care how gay you are, so long as you’re rich. And when the costs of incarceration become too high, we will go “Chinese” and simply erase the poor, converting them into organ assets.

I’d better go back and read more Colm Toibin. If the Irish don’t know about this sort of thing, no one does.

1 comment:

Dona Stebbins said...

Mary, if you haven't read Gary Schmidgall's fine book about Walt Whitman, titled "Walt Whitman A Gay Life," I recommend it mostly highly. If you haven't access to a copy, I would be happy to lend you mine.