Four in a Bed

Wendy Doniger

  • Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life by Marjorie Garber
    Hamish Hamilton, 608 pp, £25.00, January 1996, ISBN 0 241 13448 X

Bisexuality frequently falls between two beds, not (as one might expect) male and female but hetero and homo: the concept is rejected both by heterosexuals (unwilling to accept the possibility that they may not be as straight as they think they are) and by homosexuals (outraged by the easy option offered to make them straighter). The very term is semantically ambiguous, vacillating between the original botanical meaning – ‘of two sexes’ or ‘having both sexes in the same individual’ – and the mythological meaning: ‘sexually attracted to members of both sexes’. When applied not to plants or gods but to people, the botanical definition, conceived in terms of the subject of desire, evokes the fantasy of unity, foreclosing desire because both sexes are already present; while the mythological definition validates multiple sexual objects of desire for one person. At stake in the argument between these two definitions is the larger question, in Marjorie Garber’s words, ‘of whether any sexuality has reference to subject or object’, whether gender entails not merely an identification with one sex but the desire for someone of the other sex.

The first, botanical sort of bisexuality is often conflated with androgyny, a term which itself ambiguously connotes both sexiness and sexlessness, splitting and fusing. The ‘splitting’ androgyne must come apart before it can come together again and be sexy; Aristophanes’ fable in Plato’s Symposium imagines that the three original creatures were a combined man and woman, a combined man and man, and a combined woman and woman, who were split in half; ever since, each half of each pair has been trying to get back together with the other half. The ‘fused’ androgyne became a static, sexless metaphor for ‘wholeness’ or the ‘integration’ of the personality in alchemical, Jungian and Eliadean parlance; Maurice Henry’s cartoon androgynes attempt a variety of ludicrous, unsuccessful positions until they are driven to saw themselves apart: to de-fuse in order to re-fuse.

Marjorie Garber, previously the author of Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, associates these two types of androgyne with the two mythological tropes of static bisexual essence (Hermaphroditus: the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, born half-man, half-woman) and active bisexual desire (the estranged halves in the Symposium). She then adds to this dialectic a mediating third trope: bisexual experience (the myth of the transsexual Greek sage Tiresias, first man, then woman, and the subject of a superb analysis by Garber). She also sorts out further ambiguities in our use of the term ‘bisexual marriage’, which can mean ‘marriage between bisexuals’, ‘marriage to a bisexual’, or ‘married to two people simultaneously, one of each sex’. But this papers over a crucial slippage between the serial experience of Tiresias (king for a day, queen for a day) and the simultaneous marriage (a.k.a. bigamy) of the person who has, and is, both a husband and a wife.

This tension between serial and simultaneous bisexuality is crucial to the argument about monogamy and promiscuity that runs through the book. Garber rails against the widespread ‘association of bisexuality with non-monogamy’, and insists that ‘the question of monogamy versus non-monogamy is completely separate from the question of monosexuality versus bisexuality.’ The question she sets herself to answer is: ‘If a marriage is defined as an exclusive and exclusionary sexual and social relationship between two people, with a strong economic basis and a public vow of fidelity (“forsaking all others”), then how can it be bisexual?’ How indeed? Simple addition would seem to make bisexual monogamy an oxymoron: bi plus me = three. Indeed, the three should ideally be four; Garber remarks that the marriage of Harold and Vita Nicolson ‘was a “bisexual marriage” in an unusually complete way, since both of them had same-sex partners’. But why is the Nicolson marriage ‘unusually complete’? Does it not present the only format for a marriage of equals? Isn’t it what all of us should have? Even Freud was able to get this much maths right in his famous remark to Fliess (cited by Lawrence Durrell at the start of The Alexandria Quartet and also here by Garber): ‘You are certainly right about bisexuality. I am also getting used to regarding every sexual act as one between four individuals.’ (Garber presents a lively history of the Freud-Fliess fight over the paternity of the theory of bisexuality.) Does this not make bisexual marriage, like bridge (that staple of old-fashioned monogamous marriages), a game for four players?

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