Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault – Jonathan Dollimore

SD(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This is by no means an easy read (like any book that uses ‘problematic’ as a noun) but it looks at the way literature helps people to understand and define themselves. It traces the term “perverse” back to its etymological origins in Latin and its epistemological origins in Augustine. A second theoretical section places Freud and Foucault in dialogue on the subject of perversion, followed by a section on homophobia.

The book is topped and tailed by considerations of Oscar Wilde and Andrew Gide, which was mainly why I read it.

There are some who believe that we have progressed since the Renaissance but others think that we have regressed. This is literally a matter of life and death – some think that gay people are freer now yet there I probably more gay bashing and murder than before and research into AIDS has suffered setbacks owing to stigmatisation.

The essentialist, such as Gide, sees sexual orientation as part of one’s nature so one has to be ‘true to oneself’. Others see gays as going against human nature, a perversion, something to be tamed.

The gay scene has been a haven for many, a place of acceptance in a rejecting world. Yet for others, it reinforces a sense of self-alienation in revulsion against drag queens and camp men.

If someone engages in ‘sodomy’ it’s something that can be contained, repressed or transcended. It’s deviant behaviour. But if someone sees themselves as a gay person, rather than someone who does gay things, they are seen to threaten society because they lead, or are part of, a sub culture.

Are events like Pride a liberation or a tolerated and contained act?: First there is the anthropological version which sees allegedly trans­gressive practices like carnival as not at all disturbing of dominant values but rather their guarantor—a licensed release of social tension, a kind of safety-valve effect which, far from undermining the existing order, actually contributes to its survival. Second are the psychological versions to the effect that (1) true faith paradoxically lies in honest doubt; (z) it is the sacrilegious who, most knowing the true value of the sacred, are thereby most beholden unto it, even as they seek to destroy it; (3) there is nothing so bourgeois as the desire to scandalize the bourgeoisie. A further version of this argument is Richard Sennett’s theory of ‘disobedient dependence’. Transgression, says Sennett, is perhaps the most forceful element in disobedient dependence, since it involves a defiance based on depend­ence, a rebellion not against authority but within it: ‘the transgressor disobeys but authority relates the terms’.

On the other hand: times it involves a conceptual confusion: subversion, and transgression, necessarily presuppose the law, but they do not necessarily ratify the law.

Many assumed that by showing gays to be somehow ill, this would get sympathy instead of oppression. Not so. In the Nazi period, gays become a symptom of the sickness of society which needed rooting out. For others, it needed curing.

Those who pointed to gays as a third sex or some other sort of extra category, who otherwise functioned ‘normally’ led to some saying that gays were some sort of dangerous enemy within.

If being gay isn’t nature but nurture, the result of choices, then those choices can be unmade.

The ineptitude of the Church when Oscar Wilde was in prison: Wilde’s encounters with prison chaplains make dismal, farcical reading. One chaplain suggested that Wilde ended up in prison because he had omitted to conduct morning prayers in his household; another, suspecting Wilde of masturbation, wrote to the authorities that ‘perverse sexual practices are again getting the mastery over him’; to a third Wilde complained that he could not see the sky from his cell window. The chaplain replied that his mind should not ‘dwell on the clouds, but on Him who is above the clouds’. Wilde called him a damned fool and threw him out of the cell .

Cranmer’s confession, that ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’ has consequences for the way people thought – the: neutral notion of ‘wandering’ can be charged with a terrifying negativity, and its representation includes a long and violent history; in bur own time it has been most violently active in the way the Christian legend of the forever wandering Jew was reactivated in Nazi anti-Semitism, figuring notoriously in the film Der ewige Jude, which, in the words of the film’s commentary, compares ‘the Jewish wanderings through history’ with ‘the mass migrations of an equally restless animal, the rat’…In the sixteenth century, population growth and the commercialization of agriculture had helped to produce a redundant population of landless men and women. There was real alarm at the growth in unemployment, poverty, and crime. Vagrancy, A. L. Beier shows, became one of the most pressing social problems of the age; governments were terrified of it, reacted vigorously to suppress it, initiating major new developments in state control in the process. The masterless, without a fixed place, identity, or occupation, were perceived as a threat to the state and to social order. Social and economic dislocation was often refigured as the evil of aberrant movement. Beier remarks that it is difficult for us today to recover the meaning which attached to the masterless; today’s equi­valents ‘might be anarchist, terrorist, or (in some western societies) com­munist’. Supplementing actual legislation was what William Hunt has called ‘a culture of discipline’—in effect a wider strategy of social and ideological control conceived in ethical and religious terms.

I learned some new stuff about Freud: in Three Essays, first published in 1905. He says: ‘the abandonment of the reproductive function is the common feature of all perversions. We actually describe a sexual activity as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it…… city life is constantly becoming more sophisticated and more restless. The exhausted nerves seek recuperation in increased stimulation and in highly-spiced pleasures, only to become more exhausted than before.’. On this account, especially since arrival of the post-modern, we are presumably all perverts now, actual or aspiring.

For those who base their whole self-understanding on one ancient myth: At the heart of the Oedipus myth as inherited from Greek mythology is a homosexual encounter. That Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother is well known. Less so is the fact that the tragic sequence is initiated because Oedipus’ father, Laius, loved a beautiful youth, Chrysippus. Hera, the guardian of marriage, is angered by this and punishes the Thebans for not preventing that love. So the very myth which psychoanalysts appropriate to normalize heterosexuality already has homosexuality inscribed at its centre; that which normatively sanctions heterosexuality is rooted in what it would contain. Mythologically, the perverse dynamic was always already there.

John Rechy’s sexual outlaw: : ‘promiscuity, like the priesthood, requires total commitment and sacrifice’ …..’In the sex-moments pressurized into high intensity by life-crushing strictures challenged, the sexual outlaw experiences to the utmost the rush of soul, blood, cum through every channel of his being 1 into the physical and psychical discharge of the fully awakened, living, defiant body’ …….Rechy rages against oppression, and attributes extraordinary political potential to transgressive sexuality: Promiscuous homosexuals (outlaws with dual identities . . . ) are the shock troops of the sexual revolution. The streets are the battleground, the revolution is the sexhunt, a radical statement is made each time a man has sex with another on a street. . . .Cum instead of blood. Satisfied bodies instead of dead ones. Death versus orgasm. Would they bust everyone? With cum-smeared tanks would they crush all? … Rechy celebrates actually perpetuates an alienation between gay people… the supposed shock troops of the sexual revolution, will ‘tomorrow . . . go to offices and athletic fields, classrooms and construc­tion sites’ (Sexual Outlaw, 299). The perverse dynamic also suggests that the anthropologist’s boundary between the lawful and the illicit is not so much a dividing line as the visible manifestation of an overlap. Something like this is true of Rechy’s gay cruising grounds—derelict land, parks, parking lots, beaches—all public spaces and places where straight and gay both go without mixing or meeting, and where for the most part one of these groups is unaware of the other’s presence.

Ultimately, there seem to be four options:

i. Someone like Gide seeks to partake in the dominant term rather than the inferior one (‘we’re natural too’); this involves a struggle for inclusion within the very concepts which exclude the subordin­ate, a struggle which is simultaneously an appropriation and transformation of those concepts.

ii. In Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness the strategy is to transvalue the negative identity through (e.g.) assimilation with other more positive ones, medical, cultural, religious, and literary.

In Rubyfruit Jungle the effect is to reverse the respective dominant subordinate locations within the binary (‘we’re natural/superior; you’re unnatural/inferior’).

A different strategy is to destabilize, subvert, and displace the binary through inversion, or a turning back upon, a transgressive reinscription within, the dominant, to destroy at base the categor­ies responsible for one’s exclusion—as in Wilde’s transgressive aesthetic.

Those who advocate same-sex marriage seem to be in camp i. Those of us who oppose it, partly informed by feminist principles, would be in camp iv.

What causes homophobia: whereas once it was the homosexual who was viewed as sick, now it might be the heterosexual who is charged with pathology: ‘Whereas once the homosexual was identified by a long series of character traits, it is now possible to identify the traits of the homophobe: authoritarian, cognitively restricted, with gender anxieties’. Most provocatively, those gender anxieties are found to harbour a repressed homosexuality.

Britain fears the enemy within: In the UK in 1983 there was a by-election in Bermondsey, London. Its run-up included a homophobic attack on one of the candidates, Peter Tatchell, whose political ‘extremism’ was regarded as inseparable from his sexual ‘deviance’. It was largely mobilized by sections of the press, to a degree then unprecedented, but which heralded the onset of the intensified homophobia which has characterized that country ever since……there have been numerous similar press-provoked scandals in which the homosexual has kept turning up where he or she should not, especially at the ‘respectable’ centre of things: in MI5, the Houses of Parliament, as parliamentary candidate, school­teacher, council employee, prison chaplain, vicar, guard to the Queen Mother, film star, circuit judge, to cite only some (and some whose lives have been destroyed by homophobic media harassment). The same press represents homosexuals as the corrupters of public morals, of children, the family, and even the armed forces….

These enemies are seen as subversive: Himmler launched his attack on homosexuals on the basis that they, like the Jews, were involved in a conspiracy to undermine the German race. Such associations of sexual deviance and political threat a long history sedimented into our language and culture. The term ‘, for example, derives from the religious as well as sexual nonconformi­ty of an eleventh-century Bulgarian sect which practised the Manichaean heresy and refused to propagate the species; the OED tells is that it was later applied to other heretics, to whom abominable practices were also ascribed.

Are gays fearful of the other? Wilde’s anecdote about Narcissus and the river as related by Gide: When Narcissus died, the flowers of the field asked the river for some drops of water to weep for him. ‘Oh!’ answered the river, ‘if all my drops of water were tears, I should not have enough to weep for Narcissus myself. I loved him!’ ‘Oh!’ replied the flowers of the field, ‘how could you not have loved Narcissus? He was beautiful’. ‘Was he beautiful?’ said the river. ‘And who could know better than you? Each day, leaning over your bank, he beheld his beauty in your water . .Wilde paused for a moment . . .’If I loved him’, replied the river, ‘it was because, when he leaned over my water, I saw the reflection of my waters in his eyes.’

Cross-dressing gets some comment. I liked especially that man who fears than if a boy dresses as a girl this might bring out his (the viewer’s) latent homosexuality.

The cover is a photograph by Nigerian born Rotimi Fani-Kayode. It is entitled ‘Station of the Cross’ and I assume it is the one where ‘Jesus meets his mother’ since it depicts a young, probably gay, man and a nun (Holy Mother church?). The artist wrote: “My identity has been constructed from my own sense of otherness, whether cultural, racial or sexual. The three aspects are not separate within me. Photography is the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photography therefore — Black, African, homosexual photography — which I must use not just as an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms.”

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