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Les Murray farms in New South Wales. His Selected Poems were published by Carcanet last year. A new book of poems, The Daylight Moon, is coming out in 1988.
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SIR: Recently in your journal (LRB, 29 October) I read with many degrees of disgust ‘Aphrodite Street’ by Les A. Murray: a smug, holier-than-thou casting of the first stone. I have a number of homosexual friends who, whilst having neither Aids nor its antibodies, have given up much of their time to help and counsel those who have. I know a number of homosexuals who have the Aids antibodies. I certainly have a bisexual friend with the disease. Obviously Les A. Murray knows no one in these categories, for behind all the attempt at artifice (an attempt which I find collapses into doggerel) simply lies the stark vision of what we Australians term ‘poofter-bashing’. Faith, hope and love matter little with this man, it seems: for by ‘Aphrodite Street’s’ standards there’s nothing like kicking a person, group, race or nation when they’re down; or worse still, a poet attempting to play God, cheering on the kickers.
Many an obese glutton has died of a cardiac arrest, or related heart disease. Perhaps I should write a poem on this topic. Would you publish it?
I couldn’t say whether we would publish the poem described by Alan Wearne – author of a verse-novel, The Nightmarkets, about Australia’s experience of the freedoms of the Sixties and Seventies, together with its involvement in the Vietnam War. Les Murray’s poem is entitled ‘Liberated Plague’, a more ominous name than ‘Aphrodite Street’, from some points of view. But we did not read the poem as a persecution of homosexuals. Les Murray will respond to this letter in the next issue.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: Mr Wearne (Letters, 10 December 1987) has unfortunately got the name of my poem wrong. It is in fact titled ‘The Liberated Plague’. This turns out to be on a par with his eager misreading of the text. Literary feuds can be played pretty close to the knuckle in Australia, but I am sorry Mr Wearne has chosen to misrepresent me as having some bias against homosexuals. I have never had any such prejudice, and regard it as silly, as well as vicious. His own attitude of concern for victims or potential victims of Aids is entirely laudable, and I share it, but it is a pity that he seems to have swallowed the ugly myth that Aids is a specifically homosexual disease. I see it as a horrible disease which threatens us all.
I am certain that if the London Review of Books had imagined for a moment that I was out to denigrate any human group in the way Mr Wearne suggests, it would have rightly rejected my poem. Any sensible reading of the poem, though, makes it very clear that I was writing not primarily about Aids but about a different sort of plague. I was memorialising a certain demeaning sexual ethos which has been dominant in Western society for a generation, one which tends to destroy faith, hope and love, and families, and the lives of children. It is a sort of idolatry: Aphrodite as bully and sneering blackmailer, posing as the source of all human value. This ethos is now less seductive than it was, but efforts to keep it going still drive many unfortunates into the grip of Aids. There is nothing new in my attacking this: I have always opposed it quite openly.
Mr Wearne finds that my poem collapses into doggerel. How silly! It is deliberately written in doggerel from the outset, as are most nursery rhymes, most pop songs, as well as thousands of ‘serious’ poems and songs composed over the centuries. With his references to obese gluttons, though, Mr Wearne approaches prejudice himself, and indeed a prejudice which belongs to the ethos I oppose. I am fat, and have always been. It has nothing to do with eating: it is simply my metabolic sentence. It is interesting, though, that Mr Wearne shows us so clearly the sort of attitudes which really underlie the stereotype of the jovial Falstaffian figure.
Finally, Mr Wearne’s charge of incitement to hatred is a dodgy one for him to raise, given the tone of his own letter. My poem in fact does the opposite, in taking issue with an ethos that is full of such incitements. But really, on the matter of body fat and everything else in his letter, I can’t do better than relate my wife’s smiling response when she read it. She merely suggested that I congratulate Mr Wearne on his virtuous metabolism.
Bunyah, New South Wales
SIR: It is not necessary to know anything about Australian literary feuds, close as they may be to Mr Murray’s knuckle or any other portion of his anatomy, to recognise his poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ (LRB, 29 October 1987) for the classic piece of homophobia that it is. In self-defence (Letters, 7 January) Mr Murray disavows any anti-homosexual prejudice, so I suppose we must classify his poem as an instance of ‘liberal’ homophobia. He claims to share Alan Wearne’s concern for ‘victims of Aids’ (who through their own self-help organisations call themselves ‘persons with Aids’). He adds: ‘I was writing not primarily about Aids but about a different sort of plague.’ Intentions are slippery things, and it is really beside the point whether Mr Murray writes in bad faith or is merely self-deceived. We have his poem as a public text.
In a cultural moment in which violent popular prejudice has been incited against gay men through the tabloid press’s designation of Aids as the ‘gay plague’, to entitle a poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ has one overriding effect. It takes the aspiration to being ‘liberated’ voiced by the gay movement and erases its emancipatory dimension by condensing it with the tabloid invention. ‘Liberation’ is a precious word for us, and represents an aspiration voiced also by the women’s movement and numerous national movements. Regardless of Mr Murray’s impeccable liberal professions, the conjoining of the two terms in his title equates gay liberation with gay plague, and adds the further connotation of fascism, as in the poem’s paranoid vision of embracing couples ‘like desperate swastikas’. The editor of LRB, for all his disclaimers, knows perfectly well the title’s target as his editorial comment indicates: ‘Les Murray’s poem is entitled “Liberated Plague”, a more ominous name than “Aphrodite Street” from some points of view.’
Ominous indeed, but what does his omen portend? Nothing less than the poem’s participation in that demonising mentality which converts the thousands killed by the disease into its causes, because of their sexual practices and ethics, of which Mr Murray, like the tabloid press, so violently disapproves. It is sad that it should be necessary to insist, in a journal such as LRB, that neither homosexual practices nor gay liberation cause Aids, as the millions of heterosexuals in Africa infected with the HIV virus, who know neither, tragically exist to testify. Mr Murray claims that his real target is another plague: ‘a certain demeaning sexual ethos which has been dominant in Western society for a generation’, and which threatens, he assures us, children, family life and the three cardinal virtues. His poem makes homosexual love represent this demeaning ethos or plague, not only by its title, but through a consistent pattern of allusion. We have caricatures such as ‘scholars Flaunt and Vaseline’ with their appeal to vulgar homophobic stereotypes.
We might guess that Mr Murray’s target is any sexuality not defined by family ties and the reproduction of children. Traditional moralistic thinking like his reduces the human capacities for desire, pleasure and love to the Manichaean polarities of ‘grace’ and ‘meat’. It persistently views sexuality outside familial constraints as a threat to them. The same unthinking movement that sees such sexualities as meat, plague and fascism is repeated in Mr Murray’s letter: ‘this ethos is now less seductive than it was, but efforts to keep it going still drive many unfortunates into the grip of Aids.’ The ideological reflex that condenses alternative sexual ethics and practices with disease is such a potent carrier of anxiety, fear and loathing that it blinds its ‘victims’ to the most obvious and repeatedly stated facts about the disease. The HIV virus is a blood-borne virus, not a venereal disease. It has no intrinsic connection with homosexual acts or any sexual acts. The virus knows no distinctions: neither homosexual, heterosexual, haemophiliac, married or unmarried. Faced with HIV, Mr Murray, there are indeed no virtuous metabolisms.
The author defends his deliberate choice of ‘doggerel’, but it is surely here, in its jaunty sing-song rhythms and self-congratulatory sneering tone, so close to gloating, that the poem’s real offensiveness is located, even more than in its borrowing of the tropes and images of a populist homophobic sentiment. I cannot help being struck both in poem and letter by the mechanism of projection, which classically characterises paranoid thought, and which constructs in the image of the hated Other a dark mirror of its own passions. For if it is ‘an ugliness of spirit’ that we are seeking, a spirit more bullying and sneering than any Aphrodite, can we find anything uglier than those opening and closing lines: ‘So it is back to window shopping on Aphrodite Street’? And what of the unforgivable sneering reference to the deaths of so many thousands of young gay men in their twenties and thirties, historically the first generation of homosexuals to have freed themselves collectively from the millennia-old hatreds and taboos on same-sex love? ‘When you look for that generation/half of it isn’t there,’ Mr Murray sings. By a perverse twist of thought, gay liberation is called to answer for the very ethos of commercialised and commodified sex that it has opposed and criticised from its beginning.
There are indeed moral signs to be read here, but they are not the HIV virus as the scourge of a permissive society. Rather they are the uses made of it to exact the old punishments, to inflict the old penalties: the activities of the moral ventriloquists like our poet – hanging about Aphrodite Street if only in imagination and waiting for the next one to drop – who seek to animate the tragic facts of Aids with their own hate-filled voices and visions.
Department of English, University of Warwick
SIR: John Fletcher’s interpretation of my poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ (Letters, 4 February) has given me some sleepless nights. If he thinks I meant to sneer at dead or dying victims of Aids, that is abominable, and the poem will clearly have to be changed to ensure that no one gets that impression of it in the future. I do think his interpretation is hasty and far-fetched, and have been cheered by several gay people telling me they think the same: he makes his case only with laborious effort, going by feel and fury and uncompelling association rather than by evidence. I would have thought, for instance, that there were more obvious readings for those lines about the generation of which half is missing, but I suppose the poem doesn’t exactly spell out the fact that I am concerned here at the destruction of children by the sensibility I’m on about, and not with what John Fletcher strangely calls their ‘reproduction’. All the same, if both he and Mr Wearne jump to the same wrong conclusion, that is the poem’s fault, and mine, and the fault can’t be allowed to persist. I think my sleepless nights have shown me how to change it and make their reading of it impossible to arrive at again. The present title will go, for a start.
In a way, I suppose, any prose reading of a poem runs the risk of imprisoning the poem and restricting all its other possible readings and implications. Of course, this also tends to imprison the critic who does it. In this case, in order to convict me of homophobia, John Fletcher has to seem to accept the canard that Aids is a specifically homosexual disease, a calumny the media have pretty well abandoned and which I never held. So far from being a homophone, I have always vaguely thought that if people are born with a certain sexual orientation, then that fact in itself is as morally neutral as their being born with red hair. And I know that Aids is a virus from which none are immune. It is transmitted by all sorts of sad accidents – but also by Mellors and Lady Chatterley, by Dr Freud’s imperious Libido and a host of other modern literary myths. Any changes I make in my poem won’t be designed to spare the sensibility these represent. If the poem becomes the more effective through the stripping away of an irrelevance that had sheltered its proper target, it remains my perhaps fond hope that it may just save a life or two.
I have no real objections to John Fletcher’s reading of the poem as it stood, because I believe it is wholly sincere. I am sorry, though, that he had me sneaking down in my stuffy prurience to check out the action on Aphrodite Street. There’s no need, alas, for furtive expeditions. Aphrodite Street runs right past everyone’s door, and often enough gets bulldozed through our houses as well.
Bunyah, New South Wales
SIR: Mr Murray (Letters, 18 February) finds my reading of his poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ farfetched and characterised by ‘laborious effort’ and ‘uncompelling association’, and he goes on to affirm that the homophobic implications I attempt to point out are far from his intentions or his settled opinions and attitudes to homosexuality. There are ‘more obvious readings’, he contends, for his poem’s second stanza, than my reading of it as a sneering allusion to the thousands of deaths caused by Aids. ‘For just one generation/ The plate glass turned to air – /When you look for that generation/ Half of it isn’t there.’ Mr Murray reluctantly admits: ‘I suppose the poem doesn’t exactly spell out the fact that I am concerned here at the destruction of children by the sensibility I am on about.’ No, indeed it doesn’t, and Mr Murray’s own gloss (less on the lines in question than his own good intentions) doesn’t spell out ‘exactly’ either what he would be on about. In the light of your reviewer’s account of Mr Murray’s conservative Catholicism I suppose we must gloss Mr Murray’s gloss as an ideologically-loaded reference to abortion. However construed, it is hard to see how grammatically or logically ‘that generation’, half of which isn’t there, can refer to aborted embryos or foetuses (or perhaps to children ‘destroyed’ through presumed miseducation by the ‘sensibility’ Mr Murray would be on about?). The poem’s mode is one of allusion and insinuation rather than exact spelling-out. So my reading begins with the poem’s title, ‘The Liberated Plague’, which operates in a discursive field marked out by the existing usages, ‘gay liberation’, ‘gay plague’, which the title’s new signification condenses and so equates.
Mr Murray assures me that he intends to change the title, so presumably he accepts my account thus far. This frame of reference (homosexuality/Aids) is retrospectively confirmed by other details I have cited: e.g. the stereotypical figures of ‘scholars Flaunt and Vaseline’. ‘That generation’ of which half isn’t there refers back to the ‘one generation’ for whom the plate-glass windows of sexual inhibition disappeared, and who were able to enjoy Aphrodite’s apples/the forbidden fruit. These signifiers and their oppositions, ‘window shopping’ v. ‘death to eat’, construct a chain of signification – sexual desire, indulgence/transgression, plague, death – bound together by a retributive logic. The oblique gay allusions activate common frameworks of understanding loudly and gleefully announced by the born-again, resurgent moral Right, for whom Aids in an exact and rather grim sense is a ‘Godsend’, vindicating their opposition to the various changes in sexual mores and ethics lumped incoherently together as the products of the ‘permissive Sixties’. In the current conjuncture, what other ‘plague’ in the field of sexuality can the poem’s language be referring to?
If we were to go on medical realities alone, then a key candidate might well be the appalling rise in cervical cancer among heterosexual women, which claims more lives per year than Aids and which, in this country at least, has been so scandalously neglected due to inadequate government health policies. However, cervical cancer, the effect of penetration and ejaculation being at issue (i.e. heterosexual male pleasure), is not represented as plague, deadly apples etc in widely distributed and popular discourses. So also, where African Aids is reported, it is not its heterosexual modes of transmission that are problematised or demonised: rather, already existing and deeply racist paradigms of Africanness, primitiveness, animality, promiscuity are mobilised as forms of popular representation and understanding. Some phenomena are obsessively returned to (Aids), while others are rendered practically invisible (cervical cancer), as they are mapped by existing patterns of prejudice, anxiety and fantasy to do with gender and race.
The offensiveness of Mr Murray’s poem, I argued, was not just a question of the mystification wrought by its metaphors and assimilations, making one ‘plague’ stand for another, but in its tone. Its snappy and insistent rhythm, its air of knowingness and insinuation, constructs a particular relation to the spectacle it offers as ‘apples still swell, but more and more/ Are literal death to eat/ And it’s back to window shopping on Aphrodite Street.’ Mr Murray may consider this saeva indignatio, and himself the severe moralist, but schadenfreude is what it sounds like to me. The whiff of satisfaction in that ‘more and more’ is unmistakable. So it is not the relatively innocuous pleasures of voyeurism – ‘checking out the action’ in Aphrodite Street, as Mr Muray so pleasantly puts it – that I accused him of, but the graver matter of a retributive pleasure in fear and punishment, the pornography of a death rather than a sex that is ‘stacked and juicy’ and swelling.
The traditional moralist ought not perhaps to welcome quite so much a situation in which sexual abstinence is enforced merely by fear of disease and death. Even a traditional moralist might have qualms about the poisonous effects such fears are likely to have, especially for the young and inexperienced, on the very possibility of the sexual, the fulfilment of tenderness and desire (precarious enough in any circumstances, one might have thought). The traditional moralist with a feeling for metaphor might even feel disquiet at the way his leading trope, ‘window shopping’, would seem to commit him to a view of sexual indulgence as a kind of free-loading without payment (the plate-glass turned to air) and licensed (married?) sex as – proper buying and selling? Mr Murray might learn a thing or two from Christina Rossetti’s deft and imaginative criticism of the sexual marketplace and its forbidden fruit in Goblin Market.
I rub my eyes in astonishment to find Mr Murray claiming that I ‘seem to accept the canard that Aids is a specifically homosexual disease.’ when my letter makes some effort to specify the kind of connection that exists between homosexuality and Aids: extrinsic (one mode of transmission, not a cause) and geographically localised (the United States, Britain, Australia but not Africa and parts of Europe). The language that Mr Murray appears spontaneously to use both in poem and letters renders impossible a systematic and rational reflection on these issues: e.g. the distinctions between cause, modes of transmission and the moral judgments of sexual acts. Just as the poem establishes Aids by allusion as the ‘fleshly analogue’ of a heterogeneous sexual ethos he disapproves of, so also his letter makes the extraordinary statement: ‘it is transmitted by all sorts of sad accidents – but also by Mellors and Lady Chatterley, by Dr Freud’s imperious Libido and a host of other modern literary myths.’ It is crucial to insist that this is a mystified and mystifying way of speaking; a way of not understanding the nature of Aids by, once again, assimilating it to an existing ideological grid in which D.H. Lawrence, Freud and whoever else Mr Murray takes as ideological antagonist are transformed into disease-carrying, death-dealing agents.
Literary myths do not transmit diseases, just as the transmission of a virus cannot act as a moral sign of the value or worth of the sexual act in question. Nor can the Lawrentian or Freudian doctrines of sexuality without grave injustice be blithely assimilated to the imagery of what I have called ‘commercialised and commodified sex’ elaborated by the poem. Neither can they without incoherence be constituted as a ‘single sensibility’ to carry the responsibility for Mr Murray’s ‘plague’.
These modes of expression are not innocent forms of poetic licence. They construct a polarised and paranoid world in which Aphrodite Street is bulldozed through Mr Murray’s front door and Aids is transmitted through the unsound ideas of Lawrence and Freud. They are complicit, however unwittingly, with the larger ideological field in which sexuality and the family are publicly represented as a world under siege, ‘normality’ invaded by the ‘disease’ of homosexuality, caught by the slightest forms of contact. Ideas, texts and representations are deemed to have the malign complicity to ‘promote’ homosexuality and so disease, especially among the young. This is the kind of thinking that has justified the passage through Parliament of the notorious Clause 29 (and if Mr Murray doesn’t accept the affinities with his own language let him read in Hansard the Tory speeches supporting the clause in the Lords and Commons debates). The moral Right have tasted blood and have gained a famous victory. Already the Chief Constable of Manchester and the Chief Rabbi, newly elevated to the Lords, are calling loud and long for the re-criminalisation of homosexuality. The continued dominance of these mystified forms of thought, and the fears and fantasies they orchestrate, can only make the development of such a campaign more likely, and so the progressive disenfranchisement of lesbians and gays from our hard-won civil liberties and human rights.
English Department, University of Warwick