QUEER SENSIBILITIES, QUEER THEORY
Just as Warhol’s deadpan swishiness helped to open up new aesthetic possibilities for Camp as a cultural practice, so ‘queer’ is also a term that has been virtually reinvented by gay critics and gay activists in recent years. Roughly speaking, ‘queer’ seems to have passed through three main phases. When the word first came into use in the United States it was not a mark of obloquy or disdain; as one respondent who had been part of New York’s gay world in the 1920s told George Chauncey: ‘It wasn’t like kike or nigger… It just meant you were different’ (Chauncey 1994: 101). In deliberate contrast with the fairy, to identify oneself as queer tended to indicate a quietly controlled, ‘manly’ demeanour and a desire for other queer, or perhaps straight men. According to Chauncey’s evidence, the queer/fairy opposition reflected the social class backgrounds from which these gendered styles typically originated. From the middle-class standpoint of the average queer man, the fairy represented a tasteless, undignified, and above all lower-class mode of self-presentation that brought same-sex relationships into disrepute. But, on the other hand, class was not always a source of antagonism; for many men class differences could also stimulate desire, E. M. Forster’s wish ‘to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him’ (and then to write ‘respectable novels’) being a famous case in point (Forster 1989: 16).
By the 1940s queer had ceased to be a relatively neutral term. Thus, when his publisher wanted to call his second book Fag instead of Queer, William Burroughs was appalled. ‘I don’t mind being called queer,’ he wrote to Allen Ginsberg, ‘but I’ll see him castrated before I’ll be called a Fag’ (Burroughs 1994: 119). The year was 1952 and Burroughs’ response reflects not only the habits of mind of an earlier generation (not to mention his privileged upbringing), but it also carries the clear implication that being called ‘queer’ was now something that one might well mind. For the letters repeatedly show how powerful a psychological and cultural norm heterosexuality had become. In the early 1950s Ginsberg was so distressed by his desire for men that he was seeing a psychoanalyst to help him ‘to get over being queer’ (85). So it is crucial to Burroughs’ defence of calling himself queer that sleeping with women does not make him heterosexual: ‘Laying a woman, so far as I am concerned is O. K. if I can’t score for a boy. But laying one woman or a thousand merely emphasizes the fact that a woman is not what I want’ (88).
Revealingly, ‘queer’ also had another meaning in the 1950s. When David in Giovanni’s Room tells one of his male companions in a gay bar that ‘I’m sort of queer for girls myself’ he is turning the word against a would-be lover and also using the word in a somewhat different sense to indicate both the source and the intensity of his desire. To say that you were ‘queer for someone’ meant that you felt passionately about that person, that you were head over heels in love with them, and was a phrase that could be used by men and women. In his autobiographical novel Junkie (1953), William Burroughs writes of ‘queer joints’ (gay bars) and the wealthy ‘international queer set’, but just a few pages later the word’s inflection changes when a prostitute named Mary says of her boyfriend ‘I’m queer for Jack’ — though she subsequently tells the narrator that she is mostly attracted to women (Burroughs 1966: 9, 25).
Mad for a man, yet preferring women: this figure of a passion that is aberrant precisely because it is uncontainable and uncontrollable, carries over into queer’s latest incarnation, a phase in which queer becomes a signifier of attitude, of a refusal to accept conventional sexual and gendered categories, of a defiant desire beyond the regular confines of ‘heteronormativity’. According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s marvellously eloquent and much-quoted definition:
Queer can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.
(Sedgwick 1993: 8)
This is desire in all its incalculable, inconvenient unboundedness and its corollary is, in Judith Butler’s celebrated phrase, gender ‘as trouble’ (Butler 1990: ix).
We should be careful therefore not to let the polymorphous accents of this more permissive version of queer eradicate either its radical edge or its unapologetically militant history. As Sedgwick herself adds in a crucial qualification, ‘to disavow’ the specific links between queerness and homosexuality or ‘to displace’ such associations ‘from the term’s definitional centre’ would be to rob it of its emancipatory potential (Sedgwick 1993: 8). For the first strategic redeployment of the word came in 1990 with the founding of the activist group Queer Nation in New York, a move that grew directly out of political work on behalf of people suffering from AIDS. By staging a series of daring affronts to contemporary civic culture, Queer Nation has sought to force the general public to face up to some of the unexamined lines of symbolic demarcation between gays and straights in everyday life. Queer Nation’s ‘visibility actions’ have combined the sardonic and the provocative, the theatrical and the confrontational to create vivid, highly charged moments of recognition: hence the surprise occupations of exclusively heterosexual bars or the organized ‘kiss-ins’ at city plazas and shopping malls, tactics designed to challenge the limits of the straight imagination. While these sorts of happenings are in one sense celebratory manifestations of a gay presence, they involve more than a simple transvaluation of ‘queer’ that turns it from a negative into a positive term. The popular slogan ‘We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!’ points a critical finger at existing institutions and articulates a far-reaching demand for change.
What difference might queer theory make to literary or cultural criticism? These are still early days, but on the whole queer critics have been more interested in developing new modes of interpreting literary texts or in asking new questions of them, than in constructing a gay and lesbian counter-canon of great books, though it goes without saying that queer theorists certainly have strong views on what is worthy of their readers’ attention. The results have been extremely varied: ‘queer readings’ of such major writers as James Joyce and Henry James can be found side by side with discussions of less established figures like Vita Sackville – West, Audre Lorde or Neil Bartlett.
A sample from the recent critical history of Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood provides an instructive example of some of the ways in which queer theory departs from earlier approaches. Barnes was rated highly by her peers — T. S. Eliot and James Joyce both championed her work — yet her writings stand at an odd angle to canonical modernism. And Nightwood, a book widely acknowledged as Barnes’s chef-d’oeuvre, has proved particularly difficult to place. Not surprisingly, it resists easy summary. The novel begins with the birth of Felix Volkbein in Vienna at the turn of the century, but then swiftly backtracks into a family genealogy that shows the pomp of the Volkbein coat of arms to be nothing more than the pretence of a Jewish parvenu. As a grown man, Felix cultivates the eccentric company of circus artists and theatre players who live on the fringes of European high society and through whom he meets his young wife, Robin Vote. But no sooner are they married than the novel swerves off into what will become its central narrative, the story of Robin’s intense affair with the circus publicity agent Nora Flood, a relationship that is violently disrupted when Robin is seduced by the voracious Jenny Petherbridge. Much of the rest of the book chronicles Nora’s agonized and inconclusive efforts to repair this loss.
But to outline the plot as if it were a simple sequence of events is to seriously misrepresent the true nature of Barnes’s achievement.
For one thing, Nightwood is, above all else, a novel of talk, a book that dazzles through its wonderfully inventive use of language, its obsessive exploration of mood and metaphysics, rather than through its analysis of character and situation. Thus it is entirely appropriate that Dr Matthew O’Connor, arguably the most extraordinary figure in the book, speaks almost entirely in lofty yet racy monologues, even when he is engaged in conversation. And so dense and ornate is the verbal texture of the novel that the puzzling question of what is being said often pushes a character’s motives for speaking into the background.
If the main relationships in the book are between women, doesn’t it make sense to read Nightwood as ‘a narrative of lesbian desire and power’ (Allen 1993: 181)? Especially, one might add, since the novel relies heavily for its setting upon the Parisian gay community in which Barnes herself lived and worked during the 1920s. Carolyn Allen succeeds brilliantly in tracing the ‘complex dynamics between lesbian subjects’, in revealing the forces that draw Nora and Robin together and wrench them apart (180). But the problem with this optic is that it drastically reduces the scope of the book, sidelining the carnivalesque world of misfits and outsiders whose ‘ranting’ and ‘roaring’ provide Nightwood’s true ambience, irrespective of place. The antinomianism of this strangely hybrid ‘crew’ is well illustrated by the promiscuous gathering at Nora’s ‘“paupers” salon’ outside New York, a mecca ‘for poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love; for Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine’, as well as the performers from the Denckman circus (Barnes 1961: 50). Fittingly, Nora was ‘brought. . . into the world’ by none other than the transvestite Dr O’Connor, who subsequently fulfils the combined functions of Nora’s phallic mother and father confessor, her priest and analyst (49). Nevertheless, it is important for Allen’s reading to emphasize that Dr O’Connor’s ministrations must finally be seen to be defeated by Nora in order for lesbian passion to retain its integrity in the face of an unhappy ending.
O’Connor has also been described as a ‘witch doctor or medicine man’, an appellation which seems to position him as Nightwood’s principal shaman or magician. According to Sandra Gilbert,
O’Connor’s verbal magic bespeaks ‘the androgynous wholeness and holiness of prehistory’ that is ultimately invoked by the text in an attempt to escape from ‘the dis-order and dis-ease of gender’. There is, she argues, a sharp distinction to be made between the use of transvestism in the work of male modernists like Joyce and Eliot as compared to that of Djuna Barnes or Virginia Woolf. In the Nighttown episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, when the ‘massive’ brothelkeeper Bella Cohen makes Leopold Bloom ‘shed [his] male garments’ for a ‘punishment frock’ and ‘don the shot silk luxuriously rustling over head and shoulders’, this ritualized unmanning is in fact a prelude to the restoration of Bloom’s ‘proximate erection’ (Joyce 1964 : 647, 867). But in Nightwood — read by Gilbert as ‘a revisionary response’ to Joyce’s Nighttown — the inconstancy of gendered identities produces ‘a symbolic chaos’ whose sign is a ubiquitous androgyny which precludes any return to patriarchal certainties. And it is this ‘wild reality beyond gender’ that explains Nightwood’s strong affinity for the mythic and the transcendental. At the novel’s close Nora follows Robin to a remote country chapel where her former lover gets down on her hands and knees and starts to behave like an animal. In Gilbert’s view this curious final scene has an almost mystical significance, for ‘Robin actually does become a kind of sacred Dog, a reversed God (or Goddess) of the third sex, parodically barking before a conventional statuette of the Madonna’ (Gilbert 1980: 413—15).
Each of these readings goes a long way towards illuminating the difficulties inherent in what is often an opaque and obscure text. But, if Allen’s specific focus on lesbian desire might be thought to leave too much out, Gilbert’s more inclusive claim that the novel finds its fulfilment in an all-encompassing androgyny could be said to overlook the extent to which Nightwood perversely refuses any such easy resolution. When Dr O’Connor suddenly exclaims ‘It’s my mother without argument I want!’ (Barnes 1961: 149) or when the anguished Nora cries out ‘I can’t live without my heart!’ (156), both characters are giving voice to their sense of desolation and incompleteness by naming the lost object that they cannot have. One of the many virtues of Joseph A. Boone’s excellent queer reading of Nightwood in his book Libidinal Currents (1998) is its alertness to precisely these moments of frustration and terror, its recognition that Barnes eschews any conclusion ‘that would impose final meaning on the queer desires of the sexually disenfranchised that this text so defiantly champions’ (Boone 1998: 242).
Though in no way seeking to diminish the force of lesbianism’s presence in Nightwood, Boone argues that the adoption of a queer perspective may have a special relevance here. In the first place, the world of the novel ‘transcends the limits of the hetero/ homo divide’ so completely that even those characters like Felix Volkbein who yearn for respectability and security find themselves utterly undone (Boone 1998: 234). Indeed, the ordinary categories of experience are repeatedly stretched to breaking-point: O’Connor, the suspect doctor, is simultaneously ‘a boy’, ‘the bearded lady’ and ‘the last woman left in this world’, while Robin is ‘a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin, monstrously alone, monstrously vain’ (Barnes 1961: 100, 146). As these examples suggest, the term ‘queer’ can also be applied to Barnes’s language and style since her words tend to operate ‘on the level of surface, sound, and combination with other wordimages, rather than serving as an index of rational meaning’. Moreover, Boone sees a close parallel between the condition of ‘permanent alienation’ in which ‘the narrative’s queer subjects’ live as social and sexual outcasts and the way in which the constant use of oxymorons, discordant metaphors and almost surreal juxtapositions in the novel tends to exile words from their established meanings (Boone 1998: 238—9). In its radical will to experiment, to re-make language, Nightwood surely qualifies as one of the founding texts of what we might now call ‘queer modernism’.
Barnes’s persistent denaturalization of language, her preference for the artificial and the baroque, has an important effect upon characterization for which the circus or the theatre provides the most apposite image. Felix Volkbein, ‘the wandering Jew’, is a man in search of the means of his own self-transformation and what draws him to these actresses, acrobats and sword-swallowers is their love of ‘pageantry’, ‘their splendid and reeking falsification’ (Barnes 1961: 7, 11). Just as language runs away with (and from) the novel’s characters, so any hope that we might gain access to their inner thoughts is seriously undermined:
Rather, the intensely psychodramatic material of Nightwood is projected outward onto the narrative plane, rendering interiority a textual theatre where sexuality and identity are self-consciously staged and performed. Even those narrative moments that the reader may think provide glimpses into the inner depths of these characters ultimately reveal that what lies ‘behind the surface’ is pure theatre, a facade of surface upon surface that underscores the secondariness and estrangement in all representation.
(Boone 1998: 248).
There is something close to the spirit of Camp in this stress upon performance and superficiality and in Nightwood it occurs in the most unlikely places. When Dr O’Connor is called to Robin Vote’s hotel bedroom after she has fainted his first act is lightly to use her perfume, powder and lipstick to make himself up while Felix voyeuristically looks on from behind a jungle of potted palms. What promised to be a privileged moment of insight has turned into a carefully orchestrated spectacle, another reminder that ‘the performative play of surfaces is all we ever get’ (Boone 1998: 249). Robin’s emergence from her trance is no less theatrical, her voice adopting ‘the pitch of one enchanted with the gift of postponed abandon’, or of ‘the actor who, in the soft usury of his speech, withholds a vocabulary until the profitable moment when he shall be facing his audience’. Barnes’s queer sensibility brings form and content into near perfect alignment in Nightwood, ‘as an image and its reflection in a lake seem parted only by the hesitation in the hour’ (Barnes 1961: 38).