The Straight and the Bent

Elaine Showalter

  • Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault by Jonathan Dollimore
    Oxford, 388 pp, £35.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 19 811225 4
  • Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories by Diana Fuss
    Routledge, 432 pp, £40.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 415 90236 3

In 1895, at a café in Algiers, Oscar Wilde procured a young Arab musician for André Gide, and thereby launched the French writer into a new life. It probably wasn’t Gide’s first homosexual experience, but it was the one he credited in his journals with the initiation into his real sexual nature, the moment, he recalled, in which he began ‘to discover myself – and in myself the tables of a new law’. He felt that he had thrown off the suffocating constraints of a ‘worn-out ethical creed’, and joyfully embraced his true and liberated desire. In later books like Corydon (1924) and If I die (1926), he defended homosexuality as a mark of creative genius, a sexual nonconformity with affinities to other kinds of passionate rebellion.

Wilde’s role in this rebirth, however, was less that of the benevolent midwife than the demonic satyr. Gide remembered that at the moment of arranging the sexual transaction, Wilde burst into ‘an interminable, uncontrollable, insolent laugh ... it was the amusement of a child and a devil.’ Wilde’s laughter mocked Gide’s faith in self-affirmation, his belief in a sexual conversion experience. For Wilde, the notion of a fixed identity, a deeper nature, was a delusion, and the celebration of this ‘authentic’ self, even a defiant homosexual self was a snare. In his fiction and writing about sexuality, Gide appropriated the rhetoric of normality and sincerity to defend the naturalness of homosexual desire, but Wilde abhorred all such cultural clichés, insisting to the end that nothing was so superficial as ‘depth’, and nothing so profound as the pose. Sexuality was simply another style, another costume, another performance of art’s public self. As Wilde brilliantly remarked to Gide at their final meeting in Paris, one must never ‘write “I” any more,’ for ‘in art, don’t you see, there is no first person.’

Jonathan Dollimore sees in the conflict between Gide’s courageous ‘essentialist ethic’ and Wilde’s uncompromising ‘transgressive aesthetic’ a paradigm of the internal contradictions of homosexual theory and a preamble to ‘the modern history of transgression’ which Sexual Dissidence sets out to provide. He aligns Gide with one aspect of this history, that which endorses and affirms the existence of a gay sensibility, and sees homosexuality as central to, even constituitive of Modernism. He locates Wilde, on the other hand, with the Post-Modernists, committed to the playful and unpredictable in art and life. As Wilde writes in De Profundis, ‘What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought ... perversity became to me in the sphere of passion.’ Wilde’s paradoxical style has its own radical effect, serving always to invert and destabilise conventional thought, yet just as paradox is a rhetorical device which may be imitated and conventionally deployed, so, too, perverse sexuality is an assumed role rather than a revelation of authenticity.

Dollimore’s book is part of a movement in gay gender studies that questions the essential fixity of sexual oppositions and identity politics. Feminist theorists including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Marjorie Garber and Diana Fuss have called for more fluid work on questions of sexual difference which will address what Butler calls ‘gender trouble’. A number of recent studies focus on the radical potential of figures or practices at the borders of sexual deviance: S/M, the transvestite, the drag queen, the butch lesbian, the macho gay man. Do these marginal sexualities merely invert heterosexual conventions, or do they italicise and theatricalise sexual identity in a more subversive way? Indeed, in her new anthology Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories Diana Fuss suggests that ‘what we need most urgently in gay and lesbian theory right now is a theory of marginality, subversion, dissidence, and othering.’

Sexual Dissidence is an ambitious contribution towards such a theory. For Dollimore, sexual dissidence is the way gender upsets hierarchies. Going back to Augustine and Milton for the semantic and theological origins of the perverse, he shows how ‘perversion was (and remains) a concept bound up with insurrection,’ whether it applied to Elizabethan vagrants, female cross-dressers, religious apostates, or Shakespearian rebels and malcontents. It is a central tenet of Freudian theory that universal polymorphous perversity is overcome in the interests of civilisation; and in the work of Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, sexual desire reappeared as a potentially revolutionary force. Dollimore challenges both the underlying heterosexual biases of these sexual liberators, and the romanticising of an innately revolutionary gay sensibility, as in John Rechy’s Sexual Outlaw, but he sees radical possibilities in the ‘transgressive reinscription’ of such writers as Wilde, Genet or Orton, who undermine dominant structures of gender and class even as they appropriate and mimic them.

Although he makes some polite gestures in the direction of homosexual essentialism, granting its importance in liberation movements and political struggles, and noting its differentiated inflection in the lesbian fiction of Radclyffe Hall, Rita Mae Brown and Monique Wittig, Dollimore’s sympathies are with those artists and thinkers who blur the boundary between homosexuality and heterosexuality, the straight and the bent. He notes that despite centuries of homophobia, cultural prohibition and repression, heterosexuality defines itself in opposition to a feared (or desired) same-sex desire, and in our own time, ‘the negation of homosexuality has been in direct proportion to its symbolic centrality.’ The fascination with anal intercourse, and the over-stated horror of homosexuality in Lawrence and Mailer can be read as symptoms of homosexual panic; and for some gay theorists, such as Mario Mieli, homosexuality may conceal within itself a mirroring of heterosexual desire no less authentic for its political inconvenience.

These are convoluted, back-firing and tricky arguments, for if we are all basically bisexual, deplorable therapeutic efforts to ‘cure’ homosexuals are not quite so far away from homosexual experimentation with a spectrum of gender performances, including straight ones. Moreover, as Dollimore notes in his concluding chapters, Gide’s ‘liberation’ involved an act of racist exploitation and sexual commodification; one man’s radical gesture is another’s shameful prostitution. While he occasionally points to connections between the histories and theories of perversion, and those of other emancipatory movements, Dollimore could clarify his exceedingly complicated theories by emphasising these parallels. In his view, for example, Wilde’s martyrdom in prison created the idea of a gay Christ, both saviour and ‘supreme artist’, who might produce the most radical union of transgression and tradition, the vision of ‘an oppositional Christ for our time who would blast the pieties of the conservative religions into Kingdom come and rescue Christ from his adherents’. Wilde often imagined such heretical parables, but in De Profundis regressed instead into a pathetic coerced recantation of his aesthetics.

Both Wilde’s vision, and his failure to create the oppositional Christ, have striking parallels in other emergent groups. Nineteenth-century feminists like Margaret Fuller and Florence Nightingale imagined a feminist messiah, while black writers predicted the coming of a black redeemer-poet who would not only legitimise their struggle but also create a new order. The paradoxical conflicts over language, strategy, and theory within Dollimore’s ‘lost history of perversions’ also mark other lost histories, and Sexual Dissidence would be more accessible if it did not work so hard to reinvent every wheel.

Despite its learning and timeliness, Sexual Dissidence is too sprawling and dense to be readable outside a highly motivated theoretical community. Dollimore repeatedly stresses his admiration for camp, pastiche, playfulness and irony as subversive aesthetic modes, but his own prose is numbingly abstract (with regard to Lawrence, for example, ‘a metaphysic of absolute difference is desublimated into the cathected dialectic proximity of the perverse dynamic’). A strong editorial hand could have helped with structure as well. Baffling in its organisation, the book often goes beyond the difficult to the obstructive, like a car chase in a Bond film, in which a speeding vehicle dumps nails, smoke screens, oil slicks, broken glass, in the path of eager pursuers. For the readers who can survive this daunting intellectual course, Sexual Dissidence will provide a challenging workout.