Historically, as Nightwood amply confirms, both modernism and same-sex passion have relied upon the twentieth-century metropolis as a place sufficiently large and diverse to enable them to survive, and eventually to flourish. But this link between sexual dissidence and urban geography can be found throughout gay and lesbian writing and not only in its modernist forms. Thus in Radclyffe Hall’s distinctly non-modernist lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) it is in Paris that Stephen Gordon ultimately makes her home when she has been rejected by her mother Lady Anna and it is there that she most fully realizes her vocation as a writer. The novel requires that Stephen cannot find personal happiness since her tragic fate is to embody and articulate the crippling burden of social exclusion and denial that lesbians must bear, to use her literary gifts on behalf of the sexual pariah. Nevertheless, The Well of Loneliness does vouchsafe at least one positive glimpse of an alternative future via the gregarious and unbowed figure of Valerie Seymour, famed for her celebrated Parisian salon, who cheerfully predicts that Nature will soon redress the lesbian’s minority status by bringing ‘inverts’ into the world in ever increasing numbers.
Despite their evident stylistic differences, The Well of Loneliness and Nightwood have each been read as flawed anticipations of a new kind of community in process. As we have seen, Boone is careful to note the ways in which Barnes deliberately seeks to estrange her readers from the text, refusing them any comfortable points of identification in Nightwoods crepuscular narrative. Yet, at the same time, he argues that Barnes’s ‘perverse depiction of an entire universe of outcasts banded in solidarity under the sign of inversion’ is precisely what aligns the novel with ‘contemporary idioms of queer world-making’ (Boone 1998: 235). The key word in this sentence is of course ‘solidarity’, with its communal overtones of belonging, companionship and self-sacrifice.
This line of argument has recently come under sustained attack from Leo Bersani in his book Homos (1995), a polemic directed against some of the most cherished assumptions within gay and lesbian studies, including queer theory. Bersani suggests that there is a profound ambivalence about what it currently means to be gay, a doubt as to whether it is possible (or even justifiable) to speak any longer of a specifically gay identity. The call for social justice — the demand that gays or lesbians should be treated no differently than anyone else — might be said to have the aggregate effect of making them the same as everyone else, of reducing their cultural visibility or distinctiveness as a group by assimilating them into the general (straight) population. Or again, some commentators have questioned whether one’s choice of sexual partner should be regarded as the single most important index of who one is. In the words of Judith Butler’s forceful disclaimer:
The prospect of being anything, even for pay, has always produced in me a certain anxiety, for ‘to be’ gay, ‘to be’ lesbian seems to be more than a simple injunction to become who or what I already am. And in no way does it settle the anxiety for me to say that this is ‘part’ ofwhat I am. To write or speak as a lesbian appears a paradoxical appearance of this ‘I,’ one which feels neither true nor false. For it is a production, usually in response to a request, to come out or write in the name of an identity which, once produced, sometimes functions as a politically efficacious phantasm. I’m not at ease with ‘lesbian theories, gay theories,’ for as I’ve argued elsewhere, identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression. This is not to say that I will not appear at political occasions under the sign of lesbian, but that I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies.
(Butler 1991: 13-14)
The attractions of this position are considerable: it invites one to break free from the stigmatizing logic of gender differences, to stop thinking of one’s gender as some sort of fixed core or essence. Yet to refuse to be recognized as gay or lesbian is to abandon, or as Bersani puts it, to ‘de-gay’ gayness itself. Worse still, in practice it helps to make the homophobic dream become a reality by bringing about ‘the elimination of gays’ (Bersani
What alternative does Bersani offer? His title Homos is designed to mark a distinction between his own work and queer theory by insisting upon the value of homosexuality — or what he calls ‘homo-ness’ — rather than simply seeking to dismantle the hetero/ homo binary and replace it with an unconstrained and largely free-floating model of desire. ‘Homo-ness’ directs attention to what is unassimilable in gay life, an embracing of sameness that challenges conventional ideas about community, yet which is also ‘a mode of connectedness to the world that it would be absurd to reduce to sexual preference’ (Bersani 1995: 10). In Bersani’s view ‘homo-ness’ provides an indispensable opportunity for re-imagining both the self and the social by pushing them to their limits, by taking them beyond what we would ordinarily understand them to be.
In a way, Bersani’s position could be described as simultaneously pre – and post-Foucauldian. His work is post-Foucauldian insofar as he accepts the claim made in The History of Sexuality that homosexuality was a product of late-nineteenth-century medical and juridical thought, but believes that the lessons drawn from Foucault’s genealogy have typically been too negative or too restrictive in their implications. It is ‘almost as if homosexuality were nothing but a reaction, the responses of a social group to its own invention’ (Bersani 1995: 33). Bersani therefore puts aside the project of historicizing homosexuality and turns for inspiration to three modernist writers who have pursued their own obsessive explorations of ‘homo-ness’ or ‘desire for the same’: Andre Gide, Marcel Proust and Jean Genet. In its attempt to find a more utopian space for gay desire, stepping outside the confines of contemporary theoretical debates, Homos is primarily pre – Foucauldian in its sources and in its substance, particularly where it draws upon (and invariably revises) psychoanalytic insights.
Bersani’s readings are incisive and brilliantly creative, but they are not without their problems. Take, for example, Bersani’s account of Gide’s novel L’lmmoraliste (1902), a book described by its author as a gorgeous ‘fruit filled with bitter ashes’, offering only a ‘cruel fierceness’ to the thirsty reader (Gide 1960: 7). In it Michel, a bookish young man who once cared for nothing but scholarship, tells how his discovery that he is suffering from tuberculosis while on honeymoon in Tunisia transformed him into an uncompromising hedonist. Bersani picks out two features of this narrative: the obscurity of Michel’s transformation and the strangely contradictory nature of his pleasure-seeking. In Bersani’s view it is not the threat of illness that changes Michel’s life, but rather his ‘discovery that he is a pederast’ (Bersani 1995: 114). However, this apparently stark realization is not only something that Michel fails fully to understand, it is also complicated by his delight in other, less obviously sexual sensations. Which is perhaps why the closing lines of the novel strike such a curious note: Michel has returned to North Africa and begins to spend his nights with a beautiful young prostitute, but immediately gives her up when he finds out that his liaison is upsetting the woman’s younger brother. In response she tells Michel that he ‘prefer[s] the boy to her’ and Michel tentatively admits that maybe ‘she is not altogether wrong. . .’ (Gide
What is odd here is Michel’s belated, redundant admission of a preference that has been glaringly obvious all along and openly declared by Michel himself earlier in the book. How is it credible that Michel, in narrating his own transformation, did not know this? Bersani suggests that Michel’s desire is less transparent than it seems, that his homosexuality is both ‘unmistakable yet indefinable’ (Bersani 1995: 116). And in truth Michel’s epicurean sensuality really is peculiarly oblique, often solipsistic or remote. One of his most intense moments occurs on a visit to a lonely spot in Italy where, his body still exquisitely sensitive after the ravages of his illness, he takes off all his clothes and blissfully exposes himself to the sun. Bersani underlines the paradox at the heart of Michel’s desires, variously referring to them as ‘homosexuality without sexuality’, a ‘model for intimacies devoid of intimacy’, invoking ‘a community in which the other, no longer respected or violated as a person, would merely be cruised as another opportunity, at once insignificant and precious, for narcissistic pleasures’ (Bersani 1995: 121, 128—9). In short, an ‘anticommunitarian’ community in which relationships are fleeting, elusive, attenuated to the point of absence.
The kind of self that such a ‘chaste promiscuity’ presupposes is mapped out during Michel’s slow, solitary disrobing under the Italian sun (Bersani 1995: 125):
The air was almost sharp, but the sun was burning. I exposed my whole body to its flame. I sat down, lay down, turned myself about.
I felt the ground hard beneath me; the waving grass brushed me. Though I was sheltered from the wind, I shivered and thrilled at every breath. Soon a delicious burning enveloped me; my whole being surged up into my skin.
(Gide 1960: 55)
For Bersani it is the concentration of feeling upon the surfaces of the skin that is so remarkable and so instructive in this passage. What has been lost is the capacity for immediate or instantaneous pleasure, suffocating under the dead weight of cultured learning. It is therefore necessary for Michel to give himself up ‘to the luxurious enjoyment of my own self, of external things, of all existence, which seemed to me divine’ (Gide 1960: 52). There are no hidden depths here, no long-buried interior self waiting to be revealed to the world. Instead, in Bersani’s phrase, ‘the authentic is the superficial’ and Michel’s being is absorbed into ‘a desiring skin’, a ‘desire that is satisfied just by the proximity to the other, at the most by the other’s touch (analogous to the touch of the soil and the grass on Michel’s body)’ (Bersani
Born into a life of privilege Michel (L ’Immoraliste) has set his face against the values of modern civilization that formerly provided the raison d’etre of his scholarship. Even art comes to be seen as a life-denying force (since it opposes itself to the artistry of everyday living) while the stultifying necessity of manual work (together with marriage) is held responsible for destroying the beauty of young male bodies, as Michel discovers when he returns to the boys he left behind in North Africa. Bersani regards this as an invitation to imagine a new kind of erotic community freed from property relations in which bodies are, in the strictest sense, self-less: ‘shifting points of rest in a universal and mobile communication of being’ (Bersani 1995: 128). Yet to activate this interpretation Bersani has quickly to slide over the novel’s sacrificial logic through which the price exacted for a fortified male homosexuality is an enfeebled and displaced femininity. Thus, just as the young Arab whore must be exiled from Michel’s bed in order to release him into the company of boys, so his wife Marceline’s tubercular lungs must fatally haemorrhage to enable Michel to ‘feel the presence of happiness’ in ‘the midst of splendour and death’ and to allow him ‘to begin over again’ (Gide I960: 157—8). As Naomi Segal observes, this is precisely why ‘Marceline must be brought to her final haemorrhage at the site of Michel’s erstwhile rebirth’ (Segal 1998: 187).
However, it is certainly possible to argue that these reservations do not altogether detract from Homoss central point, namely that desire and pleasure are forces that have a devastating effect upon us and upon our ordinary social relationships. In fact, Bersani would probably want to claim that the perverse consequences of Michel’s immoralism actually reinforce his thesis. Borrowing from the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, Bersani refers to this experience of disruption as an effect of ebranlement (literally ‘shock’ or ‘commotion’) or what he calls ‘self-shattering’. In self-shattering the subject’s ego is thoroughly (if temporarily) undone and its boundaries begin to dissolve, loosening any clear sense of the difference between the self and others. Such ecstatic moments put at risk ‘the whole concept of identity’ and ‘even more fundamentally, the notion of relationality itself’ (Bersani 1995: 42, 52). Self-shattering offers us an intimation of what it might mean to speak of ‘an anti-identitarian identity’, an identity that would erase any trace of what identity once was (Bersani 1995: 101).
Obviously a lot is at stake here. Bersani claims, for example, that same-sex passion is transformed through self-shattering, since its ‘privileging of sameness’ now derives ‘from the perspective of a self already identified as different from itself’, that is from ‘a desiring subject for whom the antagonism between the different and the same no longer exists’ (Bersani 1995: 59—60). Sameness seems to have the capacity to absorb — or perhaps to neutralize — difference, disarming the threat of otherness. From this standpoint gender divisions appear to provide the occasion or the resources for their own supersession; for example, ‘the gay man’s deployment of signifiers of the feminine may be a powerful weapon in the defeat of those defensive maneuvers that have defined sexual difference’. Identifying with women or incorporating ‘woman’s otherness’ into himself is part of a complex trajectory of desire in which nothing is fixed in advance:
The gay man’s identification with women is countered by an imitation
ofthose desiring subjects with whom we have been officially identified:
other men. In a sense, then, the very maintaining of the couples man-woman, heterosexual-homosexual, serves to break down their oppositional distinctions. These binary divisions help to create the diversified desiring field across which we can move, thus reducing sexual difference itself – at least as far as desire is concerned – to a merely formal arrangement inviting us to transgress the very identity assigned to us within the couple.
(Bersani 1995: 61)
There are a number of points to make about this revealing passage. In the first place, one might question whether Bersani’s psychoanalytically inspired description of the restless volatility of the desiring imagination cannot be applied to all desire and not just to that of the gay man. In the next chapter we shall see that some of the recent work on how readers and viewers involve themselves in literary and film texts suggests that Bersani’s assumptions are less gay-specific than he tends to imply. For it may be that cross-identification provides the key to the intensest forms of visual and literary pleasure.
Indeed, the more Bersani stresses the mobility of subject positions and the instability and the inconvenience of desire, the more his argument begins to resemble the open-endedness of queer accounts of identity whose allegedly ‘de-gaying’ consequences he was at pains to critique. Part of his strategy for giving priority to sameness, while at the same time allowing free rein to difference, is to concentrate upon examples of gay texts that continue to confront the reader with their own provocative mode of ebranlement. But, as we saw in the case of Gide, attempts to move beyond gender divisions can sometimes merely strengthen them. For the violence and the pleasure of Michel’s trangressions surely depend upon a series of gendered binaries through which the untamed Mediterranean landscape is conceived as an all-male preserve so hostile to feminine domesticity that a figure like Marceline cannot survive there. And, as Mandy Merck has observed in one of the most acute discussions of Bersani’s work to date, to recognize this is to raise a far more difficult question for men and women, gay and straight alike: ‘How might the gendered opposition of wild and tame, savagery and domesticity, be thought otherwise?’ (Merck 1998: 235). That this question can even be asked may be one sign that Bersani’s argument is far less radical than he would have us believe.
Yet, caveats aside, it is undeniably the case that in Bersani’s work — as in the move from ‘gay’ to ‘queer’ more generally — we find the very notion of gendered identity placed under maximum pressure. Indeed, Homos, with its call for an experience of selfhood that is predicated upon its own dissolution, a mode of being that is at once ephemeral and episodic, a flux of pleasurable sensations and awesome intensities without an organizing centre, epitomizes the dilemmas faced by those who would seek an identity that does not simply mirror the alternatives offered by the straight world. Is such a search a contradiction in terms? Is the vocabulary in which we think about who we are so closely (and so damagingly) tied to the contrast between male and female subjects that, in order to do justice to the complexity of our desires, we need to abandon the lineaments of identity and begin to imagine a form of subjectivity that dispenses with the commonsense certainties of gender? For all its faults and incoherences, Bersani’s polemic shows why such a post-identity theory might be indispensable and what it might look like. Too militantly suspicious fully to endorse the label of ‘queer’, he nevertheless allows his readers a taste of a queer future.