Graham Robb’s study of modern Western gay life ameliorates, then exonerates Foucault
I have been long inclined to up the Brophy ante. I loathe the Enlightenment (against which Mozart campaigned his whole short life long, making Beethoven and Berlioz, Schubert and Schumann—that crowd—possible) and so give me the 19th century every time, certainly every time it can be handled the way Graham Robb does in “Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century.”
Not since John Boswell and George Chauncey (in the late 20th century) have Queer Life and “gander-frolicks” been so forcefully owned up to. It makes an old queer proud, it does.
What makes a homosexual—and will his mother make me one if I send her the wool? Strict constructionists and loose ones (this girdle is killing me) vie in delving into the hermeneutics of them as they “light their cigarettes with unnecessary flamboyance.” If, according to the Kinsey Report, when the temperature starts to rise and the weather is sizzling hot, the marine for his Jean is not, then what of the cartography of Uranian Europe (no landmarks in Ireland; Oscar Wilde presumably embraced degenerate ways in London, tutored by more seasoned mollies and the Limehouse trash they favored)—or, if you prefer Havelock Ellis’ more refined take “by the exercise of intellectual curiosity and esthetic interest”; or of Richard Burton’s Sotadic zones. (Really, why all of Africa except… or have I got that backwards? And as for Greenland, even in Mercator projection…)
Yes, I’m sending “Strangers” up a little, because anything this authentic, in terms of both scholarly strategy and stylistic finesse, that engages a dead serious subject, one so relentlessly trivialized (not least by the portfolio holders of its own vested interests) in the mistaken notion that triviality is effective camouflage, can with confidence be sent sashaying down the runway into the concave-convex mirror hall of Camp irony—and if you don’t like long sentences, buy “Strangers” anyway and have a friend who does break it down for you and put whole passages, replete with telling emphases, on your voice mail. (Also I suppose because great criticism is often a salubrious corrective to the implacable incidence of one’s own feelings of vainglory—although I have not reacted with feelings of unmixed delight to the revelation that my own excursion into speculative taxonomy, the Orestes Complex, was anticipated two centuries ago by Heine’s acidly remarking “that Von Platen’s ‘Romantic Oedipus’ should have killed his mother and married his father.”)
Confusion in everything persists. Straight, gay, bi, queer, metro, retro, ambi, and that now well-established category of study that never fails to call to this mind a legendary mainstay New York sandwich (best on rye toast and with a side of mayo). Things have scarcely improved since the day (that of the joke concerning skeins of wool and mother-made homosexuals) in which present author heard declared, on the sidewalk in front of the Women’s House of Detention (that was) on Greenwich Avenue, the following (and heartfelt apologies to the exquisite sensibilities of the distressed genteel): “No, darling, a real girl who sucks cock and takes it up the ass is not a female homosexual—get a gay grip!” Things have barely improved since the days of the Rimbaud/Verlaine scandal (a significant moment in Graham’s earlier triumph, “Rimbaud”).
And now a few remarks on “Strangers,” the book (and yes, it certainly could and should be made into a motion picture—of the episodic Robert Altman kind, but by a director rather more attuned to the tenor of the argument.)
What is it with the queer male and measurements? Whatever, Robb makes it riveting, turning statistical elements, graphs, maps, etc. into a kind of periodic table of the elements. Well I was riveted in high school: all those combinations of nuclei and protons and electrons of hydrogen and oxygen—maybe earth, air fire, water and phlogiston were dreamier, as was alchemy, but one finally had to admit it, modern science is grand, and science. (Yes, dear, even sociology and anthropology: get this:
“As pioneer and anthropologists discovered, most societies sanction some form of homosexuality… Noble savages have even been seen doing needlework and washing dishes; missionaries and explorers were offered oral and anal intercourse by amiable transvestites.”)
And all of it delineated in eurhythmic and euphonious prose and applied to a more acute understanding of the human condition: something contemporary queers sorely need in order to put “our” trials and errors, our microcosmic tragedies and triumphs into perspective. (And when was the last time you marked the page while turning to the appendix, because the material you were reading was so absorbing you just had to see the statistics? Or were given to know in the same volume the fact that Oscar Wilde was the recipient of sympathy from “The Illustrated Police Budget” and that Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist’s father—assassinated by the Bolsheviks—campaigned in the Duma to have Russia’s repressive sodomy laws repealed? This is called being in love with one’s subject, and capturing the reader.)
And, in lauding “that precise, exciting conjugation of desire and intellect, of circumstance and predisposition,” ameliorating to a degree the baleful effects of Foucaultian social constructionism (although Robb exonerates Foucault himself, as I am disinclined to do).
A story. A kid astronomer having memorized all the major constellations in his hemisphere, and marveling how the star dots got connected and at the names they have, has only one question, “How did they find out the names?” No, don’t correct him, please: he’s been given a moment’s access to the greater truth. And in “Strangers,” Graham Robb has turned his telescope on the numberless points of informational light in the Uranian firmament, discerned configurations of the major constellations and numbered them, but rather than formulating the taxonomy (an endeavor he mistrusts) he has found out their names.
Do get this book.
James McCourt is the author of “Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985,” “Mawrdew Czgowchwz,” “Wayfaring at Waverly at Silver Lake” and “Delancey’s Way.” He has published stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Grand Street, and The Yale Review.