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?

Garber first attempts to defend bisexual marriage from accusations of promiscuity by invoking the serial monogamy of Tiresias: ‘If, as I think is the case, bisexuality is related to narrative as transvestism or hermaphroditism is to image ... it is not any one state or stage of life but the whole life, the whole life “story” as we like to call it, that is sexualised and eroticised. By its very nature bisexuality implies the acknowledgment of plural desires and change over time.’ All well and good, but ‘forsaking all others for the time being’ somehow just doesn’t have the same King James ring to it. That is, however, the point. Garber adroitly tacks back and forth between two complementary truths: that our sexuality is defined by the sum of our feelings and relationships at any single moment, and by actions and desires diffused throughout the length of a life: ‘More than one can play, but only one can be in this (or any other) position at a time.’

One way to chart this double play of simultaneity and seriality, to incorporate the fourth dimension of time into the three-dimensional graph of intersecting couples, is through the metaphor of the Möbius strip, which has only one side, not two, and, if split down the middle, remains in one piece, thus rendering moot the question of two-versus-one by incorporating the concepts of one continuous surface, two apparent sides and a third dimension in space: ‘That this is closer to a diagram of bisexuality – that is to say, sexuality – than any model of “the middle” (even, as one witty, and hostile, psychologist put it, the “Excluded Middle”) will be an important part of my argument here.’

Another defence of monogamous bisexuality involves an assault on the integrity of the original dyad itself, the assertion that all apparent twos are really threes. Against the romantic assumption that being ‘in love’ with someone involves exclusivity, pairing up ‘preferably in the heat of passion and for life’, Garber argues that ‘the basic unit of the couple is, paradoxically, not two but three.’ The lover must win (or try to win) the beloved from a rival; ‘this would explain the centrality of adultery in Western literature.’ (Here I was reminded of a Chicago student who once asked Saul Bellow, ‘Can’t you have a novel without adultery?’ to which Bellow replied: ‘Can you have a circus without elephants?’) As Garber nicely sums up the situation, ‘the shortest distance between two points is a triangle.’

And this romantic triangle is really a triangle, not the V that so often represents it (John loves Mary and Mary loves Bob), leaving one side open. The Freudians closed the triangle with the hypothesis of closet homosexuality: Bob loves John (or, better, John loves Bob), and following Garber’s reasoning, we might go on to double all of the sides (John loves Bob and Mary, Bob loves John and Mary, and Mary loves John and Bob). The third side of the triangle is made out of jealousy, which ‘can sometimes be a cover for a more complex passion, often a denial of same-sex attraction ... Triangulation is progressive and associative as well as mimetic or imitative. If we desire what the rival desires, we also sometimes desire the rival because of his or her desire.’ Again, the trio slides imperceptibly into a quartet in Garber’s musings: ‘Like the missing “fourth wall” in proscenium theatre, where the illusion is of an audience looking in on a reality that doesn’t look back, this third leg or side of the triangle is more active and more determinative than it may at first appear.’ For, if both of the two original partners are bisexual, we would indeed have not a third side but a fourth wall (Mary loves Sally and Sally loves Mary). This square (Freud’s four in the bed) presents an ironic counterpart to the ‘square’ (= ‘straight’) who would be shocked by the idea of bisexuality.

Yet another argument starts from the wise observation that ‘all marriages are unorthodox in their own ways,’ that ‘all marriages are bifurcated between the wild and the tame, between the adventurous and the routine, between passion and obligation.’ It goes on to suggest that ‘bisexual marriages only make explicit, literal and racy what is emotionally the case for any long-range commitment that is tied to a structure.’ Garber grants that the choice between a male and a female lover ‘seems more extreme, more extravagant, more transgressive, perhaps, than the other kinds of choice, fantasised and acted upon, that confront partners in every marriage’. But she insists that such a choice is no different in essence from the paradox that all marriages must confront, ‘the imperfect fit between the stability of marriage and the unruliness of sexual desire’. Yes and no. There is certainly something disingenuous about this argument, as there is in the argument that ‘some people are only attracted to redheads, or to people with muscular bodies, or to rich people. Do we call them roussophiles, or biceptophiles, or plutophiles?’ This line of reasoning wilfully ignores the rather special relationship between sexual attraction and those particular organs that we call sexual, as opposed to merely erogenous; it also ignores the long, if troubled marriage between human sexuality and reproduction, a privileged union that has been rightly qualified, but far from entirely dissolved, under pressure from advocates of gay rights.

More convincing, I think, is Garber’s argument that the so-called ‘marriages of convenience’ undertaken by famous bisexuals were not mere Potemkin constructions, unconsummated heterosexual unions used to mask consummated homosexual liaisons. One of the most notorious of these, the marriage of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre, was widely recognised, as by the gossip columnist who referred to Bernstein as a ‘musical man of all trades’, which Garber glosses for us: ‘“Musical” is early slang for “homosexual”, and “man of all trades”, in a gay context, self-explanatory.’ (She does not cite the delightful, if apocryphal, story of the woman who had a crush on the handsome and multi-talented Bernstein and replied, on being told that he was gay: ‘Is there nothing that that man can’t do?’) She goes on to argue that these ‘marriages of convenience’ were, in any case, just as ‘real’ as conventional heterosexual marriages: ‘We might bear in mind that until fairly recently most marriages were in this sense “marriages of convenience” in that they were as much about property, inheritance and alliance as about romantic love.’ But, again, Garber here ignores the fact that property and inheritance have always been closely tied to biological, heterosexual reproduction.

Even the elastic boundaries of Garber’s sexual squares are crossed in favour of a literally all-embracing construction of erotic possibility: the assertion ‘that erotic life is all part of the same set of pleasures, that there is only one sexuality, of which the “sexualities” we have so effectively and efficiently defined are equally permissible and gratifying aspects.’ Thus she argues that ‘there is no “false” in erotic attraction, just as there is no “no” in the unconscious.’ (I was reminded of Kate Bornstein’s image of gender as a matter of personal choice from a constantly revolving lazy-Susan – I would have said a lazy-Sam-and-Susan – of sexual orientations.) This polymorphous permissiveness, with barriers dropping as fast as knickers, is precisely what inspires most people’s resistance to bisexuality, as Garber herself grants:

Bisexuality is linked in people’s minds with jealousy because it brings home the fact that no one can be considered safe. Everyone is a potential erotic rival. Under heterosexuality, or homosexuality, half the world, at least, seems unavailable for sexual betrayal. Now, every time your partner goes out with the boys (or girls), you have to begin to wonder what else might be going on. Paranoia here threatens to become pandemic.

Fear of freedom takes on a new and threatening meaning, as long as we cling to the double standard: the cup that becomes more than half full if we indulge our own bisexuality may become more than half empty if we grant equal freedom to our partner(s).

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Another, more subtle source of resistance to bisexuality is its tendency to erase the boundaries that people need – if only to breach them: ‘Much modern eroticism depends, in part, precisely upon transgression, upon the sensation or perception of daring, of breaking a law or flaunting a taboo. Like Robert Frost’s famous definition of free verse as “playing tennis with the net down”, what used to be called “free love” (extramarital, non-monogamous, ambisexual) needs rules to break.’ Thus, this part of the argument goes, we need to define bisexuality as off-limits in order to have the fun of going AWOL: ‘If heterosexuality were suddenly declared unlawful, there would without question spring up an underground of closet heterosexuals who found opposite-sex partners thrilling because forbidden.’ (A famous episode of Star Trek years ago imagined a planet peopled by just such fascist homosexuals and subversive heterosexuals, one of whom fell in love with a crewman from the star-ship Enterprise until she was caught and brainwashed.)

But we resist the idea of bisexuality most of all, Vice Versa tells us, because we cannot accept our own bisexuality: ‘We edit out and rationalise away many of the erotic moments in our lives because they do not conform to our outward assessment of ourselves.’ Thus many straight men watching The Crying Game insisted that a body double was used in the scene which reveals the penis of the person previously presented as a woman. Garber explains this as an instance of what Freud calls ‘disavowal’: ‘They had come to desire that which, once they “knew” what it was, they “knew” they didn’t desire. Or did they? The split between mind and body, or knowledge and desire, was so extreme for these men that they preferred to believe that the trick was in the technology rather than in their own psyche and libido.’

One could invoke other paradigms besides Freud’s. The psychologist Jerome Bruner once asked a group of experimental volunteers to identify each card in a deck which contained a red ace of spades; some were puzzled and bothered, but most identified the trick card as an ace of hearts or an ace of spades. What this tells us is that people will willingly falsify the details, or ignore them and argue them away, to protect a cherished belief, and our sexual self-image is certainly one of the most fiercely guarded of all our beliefs. Such a cognitive dissonance is the most persuasive explanation for the success of the real-life sexual masquerade of a man as a woman dramatised in M. Butterfly. For most people, a bisexual – especially when that bisexual happens to be oneself – is a red ace of spades.

In arguing for bisexuality, and against what she calls ‘all these missionary positions’ that ‘seek to convert a bisexual life into a monosexual one’, Garber is arguing for the mirroring offered by a same-sex partner as a complement to, rather than a mirror image of, the complementarity offered by an opposite-sex partner. She also sees bisexuality as a chance of having the other’s pleasure as well as one’s own, the chance of ‘being the other, whether through explicit role-playing, memory, fantasy or the erotic effect of transgression’. All sorts of new horizons are opened up here, and not merely sexual ones: ‘When we say that we want to be loved “for ourselves”, what “selves” do we have in mind?’ Yogi Berra put it best: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’

Garber’s arguments are illuminated by a series of fascinating case histories, on three levels: literary analysis, high-class gossip and talk-show vignettes. The literary analysis ranges from the study of Tiresias to discussions of contemporary novelists (John Cheever, Stephen Spender and many more) and films. This category often blends into the second, since much of the gossip is about writers who have concealed-and-revealed their bisexuality in their fiction. Exhibit A here is the Bloomsbury saga of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, each of whom had affairs with same-sex partners in the course of their ‘long and happy marriage’, Harold with various unnamed lovers. Vita with Rosamund Grosvenor, Violet Keppel Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. (Vita’s one monogamous passion was for Knole, the Elizabethan house that she grew up in but lost; even in politics she was a Mugwump, remaining notoriously neutral during the Spanish Civil War.) And then there are the theatrical bisexuals, such as Marlene Dietrich (who went to a ‘come-as-the-person-you-most-admire’ costume party in Hollywood in 1935 dressed as Leda and the Swan) and Tallulah Bankhead (though Garber does not cite the throaty comment Tallulah is alleged to have made, audibly, as a bride and groom walked down the aisle: ‘I’ve slept with him, and I’ve slept with her, and they were both lousy’).

But hoi polloi get to tell their story, too. There is the man married to ‘Eve Diana’, a woman with many women lovers, who, when Phil Donahue said, ‘A lot of guys would have dropped the salad fork and been out of there,’ blandly replied: ‘I guess it’s my good fortune not to know which is the salad fork.’ And there is the bisexual couple who were too much even for a ‘swingers’ conference in 1978, whose confused director decided to describe them as Mormons.

Vice Versa abounds in high-spirited double entendres and good puns, words that swing both ways, appropriate in a book about swinging both ways. The writing is clear, elegant, playful and (as three out of the seven back-cover blurbs on the American edition promise) ‘witty’. More important, the book will change your mind (if not your life). Readers who pick it up with an assumption that ‘marriages of convenience’ are always unconsummated and/or unreal will no longer be so sure that this is the case. No one who reads it carefully will ever again be able to think, let alone say: ‘I wonder if he’s gay.’ If, as we are so often told, the idea of ‘homosexuality’ never occurred to anyone before the 19th century, the polarisation of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ will no longer make sense after the 20th century.