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in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar
London: Picador, 2002.
£16.99, 284 pages, ISBN 0-330-49137-7.
Liverpool John Moores University
In 1993 the Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín,
refused a commission from the London Review of Books to write
'a long and serious...personal and polemical' pamphlet about his own
was a matter, I said, which I did not think that I could write about.
And there were so many others who could easily do so. I had, when
we spoke, written the first chapter of my novel, The Story of the
Night, in which I dealt with homosexuality directly for the first
time, but it was set in another country and it was not autobiographical,
or not obviously so. My sexuality, like Richard's in that novel, was
something about which part of me remained uneasy, timid and melancholy
[...] I had nothing polemical and personal, or even long and serious
to say on the subject.
It is worth noticing not only the honesty and self-deprecating tone
of this confession but also that triplet of adjectives, uneasy,
timid and melancholy, which seemingly indicate weaknesses, but
they were, and remain, disguised and complicated, Tóibín's
At one point in this collection of reviews Tóibín defends
Oscar Wilde against Yeats's criticism that Wilde's use of the word
melancholy (rather than sad) was an example of 'the vague impressiveness'
that spoiled Wilde as a writer. Yeats was wrong, Tóibín
because melancholy has four syllables and sad just one, and because
of the sound those four syllables make, there is something open and
suggestive about the word placed at the end of the sentence, a word
which could have influence, rather than a word which stops dead.
is a far more dour, more spare writer than Wilde was ever interested
in being. There is nothing 'vague' about Tóibín's prose
but, in its extraordinary precision and composure, it is just as concerned
with the 'open and the suggestive', in sentences that resonate, that
promote thought and not mere opinion. He is not a breezily confident
or playful writer but, rather, one who is quietly assured. It is his
tentativeness as a thinker, his delicacy as an observer and his fearless
interest in sadness and loss that most rewards attention.
At the time Tóibín was approached to write that pamphlet
he had written two poised if rather static novels, The South
and The Heather Blazing, and non-fiction work such as Bad
Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border and Signs of the Cross:
Travels in Catholic Europe in which the perplexities of race and
religion were presented with an insightful and even-tempered thoughtfulness.
He has also shown himself to be a generous and discerning anthologist
of contemporary Irish writing, but Tóibín's sexuality
was evidently more problematic. If the subject of his homosexuality
troubles him still, then he has grown bolder and considered it in
such a way as to produce works which transcend his early fine achievements.
In the past decade, however, he has produced not only The Story
of the Night but also the searing and compelling The Blackwater
Lightship and, most recently, this themed collection of reviews
of books on gay lives.
This collection of reviews stands in place of the pamphlet and is
a more oblique approach to the topic. Subtitled Gay Lives from
Wilde to Almodóvar, it begins with 'Roaming the Greenwood'
a review of Greg Woods's A History of Gay Literature and then
travels through the century to comment upon, in turn, the lives and
works of Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Thomas Mann, Elizabeth Bishop,
James Baldwin, Thom Gunn, Pedro Almodóvar and Mark Doty.
Tóibín was born in Ireland in 1955 and that matters
a great deal, I think. He is a member of one of the last generations
in Western Europe who were allowed to grow up without any positive
notion of homosexuality, boys whose role models were, in fact, warnings:
deviants, sissies and those dark gods of art adolescent homosexuals
discovered by accident or as if by some cultural gaydar.
The writers, I suspect, who mattered to the young Tóibín
are, some of them, represented here. Other gay men of his age and
type could make up a similar list of Tennessee Williams, Patrick White,
Truman Capote, André Gide, D.H. Lawrence or Jean Cocteau, writers
who displayedwhat seems now a curiously old-fashioned phrasea
gay sensibility. They would write most often of female characters
or as female characters and in styles that were allusive, decorative,
dandified. Homosexual characters haunted the margins of their workBlanche's
boy husband in A Streetcar Named Desireor took centre
stage as in Giovanni's Room but, whatever the space allotted
them, their assigned fate was death (suicide or murder), disease or
an arid, bitter loneliness: the Tragic Queer.
Such writers often disguised their homosexuality but the gay reader
found a way to identify it and to identify themselves. The gay reader
could 'move among texts which deal with forbidden subjects, secrecy,
fear' and so it isn't quite true to say that gay people grew up 'entirely
alone' as Tóibín has it or that, in Adrienne Rich's
phrase, 'you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.' There were mirrors
but one had to search for them and when they were found what they
reflected was not heartening and it was this that intensified one's
Henry James lived 'a life of pure coldness', Franz Kafka in fearful
concealment and Oscar Wilde ended in ignominy and shame. Aschenbach
in Death in Venice dies absurdly in clownish make-up, the victim
of a plague and an obsession that degrades his life's achievements
while his creator, Thomas Mann, felt compelled his whole life long
to save 'his desire, his secret sexuality for his work'. James Baldwin's
art and life was blighted by the public pressures of being black and
gay; in exile, his later work is 'rambling and undisciplined.'
[Francis Bacon] died in 1953, say, he would be the romantic hero of
twentieth-century British art, self-destructive rather than dangerous,
a strange genius who had burned with a gem-like flame for less than
a decade and then burned out. He would fulfil the classic narrative
of the tragic queer. He could paint, it might have been said, but
he could not love, and so he died.
Bacon was fortunate enough to survive into a more temperate times.
The closet door is open. The climate is more kind. Nowadays silence
equals death. The gay man or woman is compelled to speak. As has been
said before, the love that dare not speak its name now won't shut
upnor should itbut silence was once a form of cunning,
a necessary strategy. Not outspokenness but discretion was once the
homosexual's main imperativeand they were clever at it, too.
In 1944, Tóibín observes, Lionel Trilling could write
an entire book on Forster without realizing he was homosexual. Such
innocenceor ignoranceis not possible nowadays: The
gay past in writing is sometimes explicit and sometimes hidden, while
the gay present is, for the most part, only explicit.
Contemporary gay writing seeks to broaden the inherited vision of
the homosexual life as being one of tragedy and appalling lack. It
is not uninterested in shame but it is concerned with overcoming it
and, even, disowning it. What contemporary gay writing delights in,
Tóibín suggests, is 'desire, positive, artful, playful
and almost light'the desire represented in the first 126 Sonnets'the
positive light of Shakespeare and Twelfth Night in particular.
The work of Edmund White, Michael Cunningham, Alan Hollinghurst, David
Leavitt, Jeanette Winterson or Emma Donoghuewhile not without
sadness (nor is Twelfth Night) exemplify this tendency
and Tóibín praises their bravery and honesty but deals
with it too fleetingly.
Love in a Dark Time is a collection of reviews and so miscellaneous
in nature. It need not pursue a coherent argument. The collection
is themed and structured by an intention to trace how gay lives have
been represented. There is a line of argument in the book but Tóibín
need not follow it to the end nor unravel every knot and fray, but
it is frustrating that he does not deal with writers as Edmund White
or Michael Cunningham at any length or in any significant detail,
or consider lives that might disprove his assertions such as Ginsberg
or Isherwood, or refer to writers who are far more aggressive and
truculent in expressing gay sexuality such as Genet or Dennis Cooper.
What he has to say about such writers he says by implication (and
this is perhaps from a lingering timidity on his part) but what he
implies is worth greater elaboration. These writers are role models:
they are doing what gay writers ought to be doingor so a gay
writer not doing what they do might feel: they are showing the lives
of gay men and women need not be ones of misery, deceit and need but
they interest Tóibín less than those:
who have suffered for their homosexuality (Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement)
or had remained uneasy [sic] and secretive about it (Thomas Mann,
Elizabeth Bishop), who had allowed it to nourish rather than dominate
their work (James Baldwin) who had thrived in adverse conditions (Francis
Bacon, Pedro Almodóvar), and who had written the elegies and
memoirs during the AIDS catastrophe (Thom Gunn, Mark Doty).
That Tóibín does not enquire more deeply into the work
of, say, Edmund White (who could earn a place in each of these categories)
is what makes this book finally unsatisfying as polemic. White's autobiographical
novels (A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty)
indicate at least a level of suffering and do depict the adverse conditions
in which he and others came of age. The Farewell Symphony is
no small commentary on the experience of AIDS and Whites homosexuality
'nourishes rather than dominates' the less admired but still far from
negligible novels, Forgetting Elena and Caracole. Also,
like Tóibín but more consistently, coherently and at
greater length, White has been interested in the gay tradition as
his writings on Jean Genet and Marcel Proust and others testify. What
White seldom issignificantlyis 'uneasy, timid and melancholy'
on the subject. The novels of Michael Cunningham are also less light,
more problematic than this fleeting mention allows and it would have
been interesting to have Tóibín discuss the work of
his countryman and contemporary, the Gaelic poet, Cathal O Searcaigh,
Irish, Catholic and gaythe 'Donegal Cavafy'who comes from
a society where 'we were too poor to have closets'.
There is something to be said against the propagandising tendency
of contemporary gay writing and Tóibín says it somewhat
out of the side of his mouth and it is a pity that he does not say
more directly. What he identifiesand it needs to be identified
and critically appraisedis the burden that post-Stonewall gay
writing carries, a burden that can compromise it as art, that it is,
perhaps, less intent on pursuing a complex and contrary vision of
life but, rather, that it settles for being an advertisement for a
Tóibín would seem to prefer not the Shakespearean lightness
of desire but the 'much darker' version of homosexual love to be found
in Marlowe: 'A modern version of Edward II would have had Lightborn
handing Edward a box of Quality Street or a bottle of Calvin Klein
after shave at the end of the play' and not a red-hot poker up the
While Tóibín admits that a refusal to enforce the myth
of the tragic queer is 'admirable...somehow it isn't satisfying.'
Happy endings are 'heartening and hopeful and politically correct'
but do they 'fulfil another truth which has nothing to do with hope
or politics? In truth it is here that Tóibín's
book begins to fudge. As he notes of Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, the
best contemporary gay writing is stillif not finallyelegiac
in tone. He praises the work of Thom Gunn for several reasons but
also 'because they satisfy in me an urge to have gay lives represented
as tragic, an urge which I know I should suppress'.
This is as close as Tóibín comes to saying—and
it is not altogether surprising if he does not say it outright—that
the closet was a terrible prison for the individual but an exquisite
place for the making of an art: its dark was light enough.
There is no sense in which he wishes for a return to the closet but
his emphasis does suggest he is not unattracted by its confines or,
rather, by work written from inside it or in its shadow. The closet,
it is seldom admitted, could be a fine and private place and, alsoit
is less than fully acknowledgedan uncountable number of people
still live in it, men and women who remain in it out of fear and shame
or simple distaste, homosexuals who would never call themselves gay,
are more alienated by what they think being gay means than by the
straight world in which they are fellow-travellers (and gay is, after
all, not a sexual term but an economic one).
A variety of pressures may keep the homosexual in the closet but while
there he does learn to be devious about his deviancy: to transmute
his desires, to channel them and transcend them. It is indeed a prisonand
nowadays the lock is on the insidebut it is also, and this might
be what keeps so many in there still, a playground.
If James could have spoken clear and plain about his desires he might
have had no need to create those labyrinthine sentences but what would
we have lost? If Wilde had been 'out and proud' then there would have
been no need to parade his paradoxes and bamboozle his public, to
shock and to subvert. The closet provided a vantage point from which
he could look at social behaviour with the ironist's sharp eye. One
suffers in the closet but irony, as Musil observed, must contain an
element of suffering, 'otherwise it is the attitude of a know-it-all.'
Flannery O'Connor said that she loved the rule that corrects; it is
not liberty that makes an artist but imprisonment: there must always
be something to overcome. The closet made the homosexual artist resourceful.
It challenged him to tell truths more cunningly. It taught that it
is grit that makes the pearl, that beauty grows out of discomfort,
that truth is many layered, complex and contradictory, that how we
are in public can differ and give the lie to how we are alone. The
closeted man can holiday from that public selfhe can Bunburyand
he knows that if he is not always telling the truth then neither is
anyone else. There is power in this and the closeted man enjoys it;
this secret knowledge is his reward. The closet breeds terrible anxieties
but also, for an artist, a heartless confidence that only looks like
uneasiness, timidity and melancholy.
And writing the above paragraphs has made me feel uneasy, timid and
melancholy: expressing nostalgia for the closet seems reckless and
incorrect and that, for me, charts how much gay lives have changed.
I feel treacherous, ungrateful, reactionary. I feel, as Tóibín
does about wanting to have gay lives presented as tragic; that it
is 'an urge I must suppress.'
The first review, 'Roaming the Greenwood', concludes by considering
Henry James. James has become something of a whipping boy for academics
and readers in search of gay subtexts and especially when he is comparedas
writer and as manwith Oscar Wilde. Wilde is Saint Oscar, the
gay martyr: James is a closet queen and traitor, his work riddled
with and explained by shame, his fiction and his life blighted, 'frozen'
by sexual cowardice. Tóibín doesn't entirely dissent
from this view of James as a sexual coward and it is true that the
two late works in which he believes James's sexuality appears to be
most evident can be considered among his weakest and least satisfying.
Tóibín reflects on 'The Author of Beltraffio' and 'The
Pupil': in the first Mark Ambient's wife fears the influence her husband's
writing will have on their son and in the second a young man, Pemberton,
comes to tutor a sickly and precocious boy and stays on without pay,
so fascinated is he by the child and his condition. Both stories would
seem patiently to allow gay interpretations but it is their plots
that seem almost to demand it and not, as Tóibín acknowledges,
the texts. Tóibín rightly believes James could have
confirmed such a reading:
by adding a few sentences, or even a few words. But then he would
have had to start again. By choosing not to add these words, he left
himself with no opportunity to dramatize the scene he imagined since
he could not make it clear. He was, in his life and in his work, so
deliberate, so careful to control, that he could have left anything
he chose from his fiction. 'The Author of Beltraffio' and 'The Pupil'
are interesting in that he came close to losing that control, but
lost the stories instead.
This is nicely put and it is further true that it does seem that in
both stories a gay subtext is 'hinted at and then withdrawn'. The
'hints about Rome and Greece and Florence' might make it possible
for a reader to think Ambient writes on gay themes and, for a contemporary
reader, paedophilia is an obvious factor in Pemberton's relationship
with the young Moreen but when the reader is hungry for a definite
truth and the writer is Henry James then the hunger will go unsatisfied
for James has little interest in the easy way to truth. The reader
might want things dragged out of the closet and into the light but
James keeps us in the dark. Just as we might suspect the closeted
man of being gay but we cannot prove it until he gives himself away
James is reticent. He made an art out of reticence. He is reticent
because he is more sophisticated than we allow, and more generous.
In 'The Author of Beltraffio' Ambient's wife may fear the homosexuality
that isor is notimplicit in Ambients work or she
may object to decadence in general and her husband's work as an example
of it. Thomas Hardy's wife felt similarly about Tess of the D'Urbervilles
and Jude the Obscure and was far more vocalindeed publicin
her objections to her husband's late work than the wife in 'Beltraffio'
who fears her son will be corrupted by reading its fathers work.
The son is an infant and unlikely to be reading it for quite some
time and the story's premise is not well-wrought and that is
Tóibín relates the genesis of the story to James's visit
to 'the morally alienated wife' of John Addington Symonds whereas
Frank Kermode editing and introducing the story in The Figure in
the Carpet and Other Stories (Penguin 1986) also relates it to
James's essay 'The Art of Fiction', written in the same year, and
sees it as a creative restatement of the same topic: 'a narrow public
morality as the enemy of art'. It might be a story about homosexuality
and, again, it might not. Equally true is that there are also many
gay readings of 'The Pupil' but one of the best reflections upon that
story demolishes any gay reading of it1
Both stories presentor rather suggest they presentsomething
that is unutterable and shaming: it is their unutterability that preoccupies
James as an as artist. Mr. Croy in The Wings of the Dove is
often re-presented as the most explicit portrait of a homosexual man
in James's fiction and certainly it is possible to read into what
we are told of his downfall and the perilous and damnable nature of
his 'crime' something of Oscar Wilde's ordeal after his trial and
imprisonment. That said, the recent film version directed by Ian Softley
effectively depicted Croy not as a homosexual but as an opium addict.
The film felt it had to name Croys vice but it is not the vice
but the shame that accrues to it that is important to the story.
I wouldn't argue that both stories are James at his best but if they
fail to satisfy it is not because the closet restricted James and
refused him the elbow room to write honestly, nor do I want to dismiss
a gay reading of either story, but I do not want one imposed at the
risk of damaging what James throughout his career, and especially
in his latter years, sought to achieve: work that reveals a tentativeness
that is really an openness to the many-sided nature of human conduct;
an uneasiness that is, in fact, a bold acceptance of how darkly and
ambiguously we are motivated; and a melancholy that acknowledges that
this darkness and ambiguity is what we must finally accept rather
than the comfort of definite truths and clear explanations. Hence
his subject matter and his labyrinthine style. He did not pounce on
truths but walked about them, knowing that they existed and could
be observed but never captured.
'The Author of Beltraffio' and 'The Pupil' do not satisfy in the way
of James's best works not because of sexual cowardice nor because
of his personal coldness: his letters suggest a delight in human relationships,
even a greed for them and he had many loyal friendships that were
rich and rewarding. And anyway, to argue that his work fails because
he fails in life is silly and untrueas if it were possible that
had he been a 'better' man then he would have been a better writer:
when is this ever true? These two stories fail for the reason why
other storiesany storymight fail: either the weird and
incalculable alchemy that makes a story 'happen' failed to occur or
the stories lack control and depth for a more practical reason: James
wrote them too quickly. As Kermode observes of James's writing method:
Sometimes what was planned first as a short story grew in treatment
and became a novel. James always felt the difficulty of keeping things
short and he had a particular affection for the intermediate length
of the novella or nouvelle. But circumstances often required him to
write short stories and the formal conditions of these were very different
from those governing other forms. It is noticeable that many of the
stories [...] were written quickly, and very shortly after the reception
of their donnée; their development terminated very early. They
lack the elaborate exfoliation we associate with the longer works
of the mature James, and are more obviously schematic, anecdotal and
Kermode exempts 'The Author of Beltraffio' from these charges whereas
I do not and the two stories for me betray these weaknesses but some
imagined re-drafting by a less harried James would not have produced
a greater transparency of intention nor a sharper focus on the characters
motivation but, rather, a further muddying.
Tóibín also refers to more successful James stories,
The Turn of the Screw and The Beast in the Jungle.
In both gay readings are possiblemore satisfying ones,
toobut they are not the only readings possible. As Tóibín
[...] several possibilities are allowed to breathe fully in the story.
In The Turn of the Screw; the narrator may be mad, utterly
unreliable or Peter Quint may have truly and even sexually corrupted
Miles, or both.
In 'The Beast in the Jungle' it might be the case that the 'secret'
that keeps John Marcher from truly living his life (and loving May
Bartram) might be his latent homosexuality and she might apprehend
that possibility sooner and more certainly than he doesand,
again, it might not. The story is about how hard it is to know oneself
and what might be the cost of this ignorance. It is a great story
about failure not because, as Tóibín and others suggest,
James himself failed in life but because he succeeded here in his
intention: to convey what it is, what it must be to fail in life,
and to convey that failure in a story that doesn't itself fail.
These stories date from the 1890s when James did become more openconsiderably
soin expressing affection for a series of young men. Lyndall
Gordon believes it was in part 'a hunger for response in the wake
of commercial failure' but also that his 'insatiate desire'
for them was not the love that dares not speak its name but 'a love
that has no name because it has no name even now.'2
These young men stirred him. In particular Moreton Fullerton eroticised
him ('as he,' she adds 'seems to have eroticised everyone he met')
and Gordon quotes from the same letter to Moreton Fullerton that Tóibín
quotes to show how strong was James's attraction:
are dazzling, my dear Fullerton; you are beautiful; you are tenderly,
magically tactile, but you're not kind. There it is. You are not kind.'
Tóibín leaves the quotation there but Gordon quotes
further to prove that what James wanted was 'not sex, but self':
you tell me [...] not a pitiful syllable about yourself. That's your
inhumanity [...] "What," you might say, "you want,
insatiate writer, that also?" Yes, I want that also. I
want fireyou see there's method in my madnesslittle common,
kind, correct words that will hang somehow together as a Light on
your Life. I can't help it if that's the way I'm made.
In the dark of his closet James wanted light not to warm himself but
to illuminate his work. Ultimately, continues Gordon:
it's not much to do with gender: sensuality is merely a route to the
appropriation of a "Life". Women, too, provide a Light on
their Lives. They were to surrender their Light, as Minny (Temple)
did when she told him "loads." [...] When intimates obliged
him this way, he would become "possessed" of themone
of those words that resonates in the James vocabulary. He was not
"possessed" of Gaillard Lapsley, a young American don at
Trinity College, Cambridge, and invited him down to Lamb House to
remedy thisto assume this was a sexual invitation would be to
underrate the strange nature of the James desire. its cover was a
playful benevolence, but behind it lay a terrible will to possess
the souls of certain people he had marked for use.3
If James was homosexualand I hope he wasthen the closet
complicated that sexuality, as it does and as it must. He was a user
but then the closeted gay man is also a user. He uses women as 'beards'
and he uses other men's bodies to relieve himself and then he slips
back under cover. James stole not bodies but souls. It isn't a flattering
attributeit is not admirable or honourablebut look at
what it produced. If James hid his true natureand who encouraged
him to reveal it and how could he have done in that time and at that
place and still worked as he wished to work?then the subterfuges
to which he resorted led to the best works of art his repressive century
witnessed. Write The Wings of the Dove or march under a rainbow
banner on a Mardi Gras: that wasn't even a choice he had but if he
had been given it, the choice he would have made is easy to determine.
For James, the dark was light enough.
To read Tóibín on Oscar Wilde is to imagine that if
Wilde were given a similar choice, Wilde would have joined that Mardi
Gras paradebut he might not have led it with any true flourish.
Tóibín's own interest in love and loss, in the darker,
Marlovian notion of homosexual desire, is most evident in his review
of The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde and The Complete
Works of Oscar Wilde: Volume I. Poetry and Poems in Prose. The
longest piece in the book, it becomes, in effect, a brief life, eloquent
and neatly turned, offering a portrait of Wilde not as subversive
and ludic dandy but of a sadder, more penitent and engaged and engaging
artist. This is achieved by foregrounding, praising (and valuing more
highly than they merit) Wilde's post-trial works such as De Profundis
at the expense of the comedies that made his name. Tóibín
more tragic life is there than his! If only he were more carefulif
he were capable of being carefulhe would be a genius, a great
genius. But as he says himself, and knows: "I have put my genius
into my life; I have put only my talent into my works. I know it and
that is the great tragedy of my life."
prescience is remarkable for this was written only weeks before Wilde's
fall from grace but it reminds us that Henry James was capable of
just that carefulness that Gide here commends and it is seems almost
formulaic to say that if living was Wilde's tragedy, James's was in
not living. It is only when Wilde falls that Tóibín
truly admires him. It is his contention that Wilde's disgrace was
the making of him as an artist:
as the sombre, urgent tone of De Profundis was light years
from the flippant and amusing tone of The Decay of Lying [...]
The Ballad of Reading Gaol did everything the earlier poetry
refused to do. "The only beautiful things are the things that
do not concern us." Wilde discovered desperately that no aspect
of this sentence was true. For good reason, he ceased to care about
beautiful things and he developed a serious need to deal precisely
with what concerned him. And since De Profundis was his best
prose and The Ballad of Reading Gaol his best poetry, the story
of his downfall is not interesting simply for its own drama but for
what it did to him as an artist, how it forced him to abandon everything
he believed to find a new tone [...] prison and disgrace hurt him
into a new style, direct and confessional, serious and emotional.
His words now were arrows rather than feathers.
The revelation of Wilde's homosexuality, his 'outing' was a painful
affair. He was dragged from the closet only to discover in his work
not greater light but a deeper darkness, an idea of love as pained,
frustrating, insatiate and more paradoxical than any of the
witty inversions that glitter his plays. As he wrote of Douglas: 'He
has ruined my life, so I cant help loving himit is the
only thing to do.' This is what Tóibín means by 'love
in a dark time': it is not 'the love of domesticity, or mutual kindness
and respect' or 'desire, positive, artful, playful and almost light'
but the recognition that 'Hate was always stronger than Love.'
I wonder about this. It is not that I disbelieve Tóibín's
description of a sadder and wiser Wilde but was he a greater artist
than the writer of The Importance of Being Earnest, the closeted
artist who took pleasure in lying, in playful teasing, the slippery
and 'terrible man' who so frightened (and transformed) the young Gide?
As readers we can express a preference but we need not make a choice
between either Wildes. What is clear is that, inside or outside the
closet, speaking sideways or directly, Wilde remains unclubbable.
In his enforced honesty he found the way to express more difficult
truths but in the plays he says more damming things and in such a
way that the audience 'would not notice the poisoned arrows buried
in the feathers'
It is the sadness of the later Wilde that attracts Tóibín
but, to return again to James, their vision of love was remarkably
similar and James expressed his earlier, more consistently and problematically
throughout his career. Take those words of Wilde: 'He has ruined my
life, so I cant help loving himit is the only thing
to do.' This could be Isabel at the end of A Portrait of a Lady
and the same words adapted: 'I have ruined her life, so I cant
help loving herit is the only thing to do' could be given
to Densher at the end of The Wings of the Doveexcept,
in neither case would James have been so unsubtle as to declare them
outright. What Wilde and James sharedand what distinguishes
them from contemporary gay writingis a tragic vision.
It is true that Wilde and James make an interesting comparative studyboth
immigrants, novelists, literary theorists (to some degree), playwrights
and lovers of young menbut they came from different countries,
differed radically in their ambitions as writers and loved significantly
different men and for significantly different reasons, and expressed
that love in significantly different ways.
There was, in James, undoubtedly a professional jealousy of Wilde:
His play, Guy Domville, failed disastrously only to be succeeded
in the same theatre by Wilde's greatest success. This would be galling
for anyone but more so if the writer was an example of everything
one wanted not to do oneself.
On the opening night of Guy Domville James escaped into another
theatre and watched An Ideal Husband:
and saw it played with every appearance [...] of success and that
gave me the most fearful apprehension. The thing seemed to me so helpless,
so crude, so bad, so clumsy, feeble and vulgar.
As a judgment of Wilde's work this more accurately serves to reveal
why, by James's standardshard earned and life-long defended
and developedWilde's writing was an anathema to him. James'
take on Wilde was not a personal onealthough no love was lost
between the twobut an aesthetic one and for Jamesmore
so than for Wilde - aesthetics mattered. Never once did James dismiss
his own artalthough Wilde did and did so often. For Wilde, James
wrote fiction as 'if it were a painful duty', and for James, in a
real sense, it was.
James did not come to Wilde's defence before or after the trial and
again thiswhile we may regret it in our sentimental desire to
see the two boys friendsis explicable. He did not sign the petition
for the mitigation of Wilde's sentence for the reasons that 'the petition
would not have the slightest effect on the authorities [...] and that
the document would only exist as a manifesto of personal loyalty to
Oscar Wilde by his friends, of which [James] was never one.'
Wilde as man, as writer, as sexual being was at variance with James's
own notions and behaviour. James did not name himself but nor did
he encourage others to name him easily, but in the early 1890s James
was 'devoured with curiosity' as to the work and life of John Addington
Symonds whose Problem in Modern Ethics argued the case for
homosexuality on the basis of 'its moral acceptability and aesthetic
values.' Symonds's discriminating, learned and earnest argument for
homosexuality was more personally appealing than the flamboyant street
theatre he took to be Wilde's behaviour. He was moved to write on
Symonds but failed to do so: 'I can't: but I should like to.' That
he did not write on Symonds is a loss but it serves to reveal that
for James there were other forms of male desire he found not only
more palatable but wiser and of more use. The possibility of living
ethically as a homosexual man was not open to himor to anyone
else at that time (even and especially after the post-trial Wilde)and
so James bided his time: what else was there to do and still be true
to his work?
Not all the pieces in this collection earn their place; the article
on Almodóvar seems to belong to some other book, some other
writer, and the inclusion of Elizabeth Bishop seems obligatory somehow,
and its comparative paleness is a surprise because, of all the writers
he discusses, in her precision, sobriety and grace her own prose is
most similar to Tóibín's.
Elsewhere Tóibíns book continues fitfully to trace
a line between those speaking in code from within the closet to those
uttering darkly from outside it. As the essays progress from Thomas
Mann to Francis Baconthe pivotal essay and another excellently
written brief lifeto the poetry of Thom Gunn and Mark Doty,
Tóibín envisions an art and a life in which sexuality
is secondary or, rather, as one more aspect of the individual. He
says this most clearly in his review of Thom Gunn's critical essays
and his Collected Poems:
Gunn's homosexuality has clearly guided his work; despite our urge
as gay readers to ask his poems to touch our hidden spirit [...] we
must acknowledge that his talent, his seriousness, his intelligence
and his generosity, if they can be separated from it, have been as
important as his homosexuality in the making of his poems.
It is, in fact, a request for greater freedom than simply liberation
from the closet, a request that, 'living in a less dark time' we live
those lives freely but also that the work of artists we cherish should
be allowed to be both other and more than expressions of their sexuality.
And also that light is nothing without darkness. Gay artists must
claim a great deal of ground that has been denied them through the
centuries but they must not sacrifice tragedy, a form which they have
practiced peerlessly. We have the rightand the necessity stillto
be tragic queers.
Philip Horne in Henry James: The Master and the Queer Affair of
'The Pupil' Critical Quarterly xxxvii:3 Autumn 1995 75-92
2 Lyndall Gordon A Private Life
of Henry James: Two women and His Art Chatto & Windus 1998
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