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.