In Lieu Of A Preface


George Steiner

When I suggested this special issue to Robert and Peggy Boyers, my motive was straightforward. I am anxious to learn more about the interactions between homoeroticism and modern culture and society. It does look as if these interactions play a notable part at certain vital centres of energy and of attitude in recent developments in literature, the arts and the climate of articulate sensibility, particularly in highly developed western urban cultures. Or to put it another way: it has become difficult, almost artificial, to think of ‘modernism’ in arts and letters or of the new liberalities of social conduct and imagining as these characterize western and, more especially, American styles of being, without thinking, at the same time, about the new visibilities, expressive candour and moral-legal claims of the homosexual community.

No reader of the very diverse contributions to this issue will be altogether disappointed. The range of tonalities is as rich and complex as is the theme itself. It varies from severe abstraction to that “frankness as never before” which Ezra Pound foresaw as determinant of our age. Some of these articles derive from the arguable neutralities of sociological methods. Some are acute snapshots of this or that terrain in the homosexual world. A number of essayists have taken an historical approach so as to define some of the agencies of emancipation which have, over these recent decades, given an unprecedented public presence to the ‘gay’ and to the ‘Lesbian’. Among the most illuminating, moving documents published here, are confessions and acts of witness born of vehement privacies. Their mere publication points to a radical shift in the limits of socially-admissible sentiment and speech.

It would, nevertheless, be excessive to attribute to this collection of critiques, analyses, testimonials and reportage values other than purely ‘introductory’. Only the surface is scratched. Why this should (necessarily) be the case, is worth considering.

We know so little. Our sense of a homosexual presence in specific spheres of modern sensibility and intellect - in ballet, in the poetry and fiction of the twenties and thirties in Europe and, today, in the United States, in twentieth-century music, signally in America, in the sociology and practise of left-wing commitment and ‘treason’ (graphic in England), etc. - is emphatic. Lists of personae, from Proust to Gore Vidal, from Diaghilev to Benjamin Britten, from W.H. Auden to Anthony Blunt, can be cited in evidence. But what do we really know as to the statistical weight, as to the relative proportionalities of such casts of characters in relation to society as a whole? In other words: is the component of homoeroticism in the period from, say, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman to the present greater than, roughly equivalent to, smaller than it was in Periclean Athens, in Renaissance Florence and Venice or in the court and military worlds of the European ancien régime? Recent scholarship has done a great deal to elucidate the conventions and practises of homosexuality in ancient Greece. Our perceptions of the incidence and significance of the homoerotic ideal in certain centers of renaissance art and philosophy or in the Potsdam, Versailles and London of the later eighteenth century, remain sketchy at best. As to the present, guesses vary wildly. Recent estimates put at c. 10% the number of American males who have practised or who continue to practise throughout their erotic lives, one or another form of homosexuality. But even this almost helplessly approximate assessment has been queried or rejected entirely by rival experts.

Quite literally, moreover, we have only a blurred, highly simplified concept of what it is that we are attempting to know and talk about. As several of our contributors point out, definitions of ‘homosexuality’ are, at best, a conventional short-hand. The term is used to cover an immense and indeterminate assemblage of enactments and psychic possibilities. It encompasses, presumably, almost any nuance of feeling and carnal realisation all the way from those narcissistic and exploratory impulses which seem to be part of every ‘normal’ pubescence to sexual needs and acts so exclusively homoerotic as to make no other modes of libidinal contact and fulfilment tolerable. Wisdom and pragmatic notice have it, from Plato to Otto Weininger and the present, that every human individual is, in some degree, androgynous. There are masculine and feminine elements in each and every one of us. How, indeed, could genetics have proceeded otherwise? It follows that ‘homosexuality’ is one of the synapses, one of the more or less concentrated potentialities, along the psychosomatic axis and continuum of individuation itself. In the ‘heterosexual’, this potentiality is latent or occasional or sublimated or repressed. In the homosexual, it is allowed a greater or lesser dominance. Any rigorous definition would have to be statistical and probabilistic.

Yet even if we possessed far more and more reliable quantifications than are available, either across history or contemporaneously, the resulting mappings would lack an essential basis. Inescapably, the question is this: is homoeroticism primarily biological? Is it social in its aetiology? Is it anything more than an admission of essential ignorance to affirm that homosexuality is, of course, both biological and social in its origins and deployment?

An immediate difficulty arises. The terms in which the problem is posed are themselves semantically unstable. Different cultures, different historical epochs, different ‘codings’ of phenomenal experience, attach entirely different meanings and connotations to the ‘biological’ and the ‘social’. More specifically, the lines of demarcation between these two spheres are always fluid. Pathologies of body or mind which one culture and vocabulary assign to physiology, to organic lesions or malfunctions are, in another rhetoric and frame of recognition, assigned to psychology and the categories of mentality. Such shifts of perception and of diagnosis have been shown to be dramatic and determinant in the histories of ‘witchcraft’, of ‘insanity’ and even in such relatively empirical domains as the history and treatment of asthma. Hence recent attempts to reorganize our general understanding of health and of sickness, of ‘the normal’ and ‘the pathological’ under the syncretic concepts of the psycho-somatic and the ‘bio-social’.

These new catholicities of classification are meant to make our perceptions more sophisticated and liberal. But applied to a congeries such as ‘homosexuality’, they do not yield very much. There is some evidence (even this is preliminary and controversial) that certain hormonal imbalances can be traced in the homosexual. There is, on the other hand, abundant evidence that homosexual attitudes and practise can be generated and, indeed, made normative in a social, institutional milieu, such as that of the Spartan or Attic polis, the Prussian household cavalry or the Edwardian public school. The octave which divides the ‘biologically-determined’ pederast, homosexual or lesbian from an individual woken to the mere possibility of homoeroticism by the expectations, ideals or constraints of his/her caste, community, clan, contingent situation (jail, conscription, the villages of women created by the seasonal departure of migrant labour, etc.) is as wide as life itself. No monistic absolutes offer themselves for study. In no individual instance, in no social-historical taxonomy, can we say with any confidence what proportion of the homosexual fact is ‘biological’ or ‘genetic’ on the one hand and ‘environmental’ or ‘conventional’ on the other.

Homoeroticism, and this may be its true fascination, lies precisely in the border-areas, in the osmotic shadow-zones between the ‘psychic’ and the ‘physiological’. It shows up, radically, the total inadequacies, the inflections towards myopia and error, inherent in that Cartesian mind/body dualism which continues to tyrannize our logic and our habits of discourse. If I had to name the principal terra incognita for human thought, both analytic-experimental and poetic-and metaphoric, to explore, it would not be the mere suburbia of outer space, but the almost inconceivably alive and complex interiorities of interaction between consciousness and the organic. It is our lack of verifiable insight into this inward continent of communication and exchange, of entropy and renewal, which blocks our understanding of so much that is pivotal in man’s history and condition. Let me give only two examples.

Certain ‘final’ strengths of human plenitude, executive technique, existential charisma, seem to be associated with bi-sexuality. Certain human beings - they would appear to be exceedingly rare - are not only capable of hetero- and homosexual performance (this may be quite common), but can, in some ways, be both man and woman. They are capable, as in the myth of Teiresias, of polarizing their modes of apprehension and of response around either a masculine or a feminine axis. I suspect that Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Goethe belong to this privileged constellation, not of ambiguity, but of ‘hybrid totality’. The systematic articulation of the Platonic cosmology of eros, the bodying forth by a masculine voice of Juliet, Cordelia, Perdita, the awesome modelling of ‘male’ backs in the statues of Dawn and of Night in the Medici Chapel - the pas de deux of masculine and feminine in Goethe’s Roman Elegies - all these are radiant, uncanny denials of the primordial act of sexual division. Only, I conjecture, these ‘menwomen’ can attain certain ultimates of conceptual and formal creation.

Or consider the undoubted paucity of major contributions to mathematics, musical composition and philosophy made by women over the millennia. The argument from environment is, largely, cant. Young women were, in fact, encouraged to compose and perform music in many ages and societies. A Pascal, a Gauss were making mathematical discoveries before puberty, under conditions either of ignorance or literal inhibition. No, the root of the difference lies much deeper. Musical composition, mathematical thought, metaphysical speculation, are concentrated ‘denials of the world’. They are disinterested, ultimately ‘playful’, constructs of ‘non-’ or ‘counter-reality’. They deny the weight, the omnipresence of immanence, of that which is already ‘there’. In women, in women’s physiological ‘in-dwelling’, there is a compelling realism. Women know, as composers, algebraic topologists and metaphysical dreamers do not that the world is and is there. It is my hunch that the organic correlative is that of masturbation. What evidence we have seems to show that masturbation is far more intensely experienced by, far more physically engaging and productive in, the male than in the female. This difference is, I suggest, directly proportional to the greater energies and autistic richness of fantasy, of ‘animated unreality’, expended and hoarded by men. That fine old phrase ‘solitary practises’, used to brand the onanist, is graphically applicable to those acrobats of eternity, the master metaphysicians, number theorists and spinners of counterpoint.

In both cases, we will approach some dawn of comprehension only when much more is known of the open frontiers between body and soul.

Only in some such perspective can we, I think, situate one of the most intriguing aspects of the interplay between homosexuality and the history of culture and society. I have alluded already to the salient, frequently pervasive, role played by homosexuals in modern literature and the performing arts, in the clandestine fortunes of certain partisan ideologies, in the determination of the life-styles of the contemporary city and suburb, notably on the American east and west coasts. There is every reason to assume that homosexuality played a comparable part in the creative and nervous ambience of centres of style during antiquity and the renaissance. But so far as we know, the homosexual presence in the history of the pure and applied sciences is almost nil. There is simply no counterpart in mathematics, or physics or astronomy or engineering to set beside the high catalogue of homosexual poets, novelists, plastic artists, composers, aesthetes and thinkers. It makes no sense to assume that homosexuality has, in the case of the sciences, been miraculously secret - though there may, of course, be individual cases of which we have no knowledge or even suspicion. Nor does any environmental model suggest a plausible explanation. In the twentieth century in particular, many great theoretical and applied physicists, mathematicians, cosmologists, have sprung from precisely those emancipated, urban, stylish circles which have been the background of homosexual assertion. But where is there a ‘Proust’ or a ‘Borges’ in the annals of modern science? What great laboratory, what ‘school’ of scientific style and thought (such connections being radically intimate and masculine) can be compared to ‘Bloomsbury’ or the homosexual covens which give to the modern theatre, to fashion and to certain provinces of the mass-media their characteristic flavour?

Again, I feel, we touch here on a crucial area of osmotic contact between functions, impulses, determinants of identity which we class as ‘cerebral’ or, in the large sense, ‘psychological’, and those which we ascribe more generally to the genetic-physiological factors of human existence. The ‘mental set’ externalized in the productive pursuit of first-class science may entail ‘neuro-physiological’ preferences or economies which reach, also, to eros. The border-zones of consciousness and the somatic are dynamic with reciprocities, with correspondences or conflicts of impulse, of whose intricacy, of whose shaping authority so far as our notions of self are concerned, we have only rudimentary intimations.

The ‘great book’ on homoeroticism, culture and society, is, so far, unwritten. It will have to start by re-thinking the very foundations of the crassly-deterministic and polarized vocabulary which constrains our perceptions of the whole mind/body question. Such re-thinking may well be a more difficult process than any Copernican ‘revolution’. It will demand a literal break out of the frozen carapace of our Cartesian and positivist concepts. The author of such a book will have to be something of a Centaur: part Machiavelli in his nose for the sinuous lives of motive, part de Tocqueville in his clairvoyance of the social fabric, part Freud in his unsparing mercy.

It would be reward enough if this issue of SALMAGUNDI were to become one of the discarded prefaces to such a text.