In January 1895, the writer Andre Gide was at a hotel in Algeria when he suddenly learned that his friend Oscar Wilde was to arrive at the hotel. Gide packed his bags and called the reception to say he wished to check out of the hotel. The reason was that he did not wish Wilde’s path to cross his.
Oscar Wilde was homosexual and so was Gide. If Gide then avoided Wilde, it was because their approach to homosexuality was different. Gide was a devout Protestant to whom sexuality was subsumed by religion. Gide had come to terms with his sexuality no doubt, but felt that it called upon him to create a new integral self in place of an existing one, where nothing other than sexual object choice was different. If an oppositional desire (in terms of gender) led to heteronormativity, then Gide’s conception of desire within the framework of Christianity took him in the direction of ‘homonormativity’.
This is exactly what Oscar Wilde was opposed to. To Wilde, the belief that homosexuality was the handiwork of the Devil needed to be foregrounded. If homosexuality was a sin and a perversion (as the Bible called it) that fact had to be worn on one’s sleeve rather than guiltily shunned. In other words, the homosexual had to be proud of the fact that he was a pervert. To Wilde, homosexuality was a transgression, nothing less, nothing more, and on this was founded his very aesthetic as a man of letters.
In spite of Gide’s attempts to avoid Wilde in Algeria they finally met. Wilde introduced Gide to a dark-skinned flute player named Mohammed, whom both of them were attracted to. Gide spent the night with Mohammed in a state of bliss and ecstasy, and came to the same conclusion that E M Forster later would in India: homosexuality was ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for him. But the conclusion, to Wilde, was an essentialist conclusion that led to “uniformity of type” and “conformity to rule.” On the other hand, Wilde believed in anti-essentialism and individualism in art and life that served to destabilize a conservative social order. The queer theorist Jonathan Dollimore summarizes this difference of perception of the two men in the following words: “For Gide, transgression is in the name of a desire and identity rooted in the natural, the sincere, the authentic. Wilde’s transgressive aesthetic is the reverse: insincerity, inauthenticity and unnaturalness become the liberating attributes of decentred identity and desire, and inversion becomes central to Wilde’s expression of this aesthetic…” (Dollimore, 14).
To Gide’s way of thinking, Wilde’s formulation was not just subversive, it was downright selfish because it did not take the moral values of civil society (in today’s terms) into account. Hence, in a letter to his mother, Gide described Wilde as “a most dangerous product of modern civilization.” (Dollimore, 5). However, to Wilde, selfishness consisted not in living as one desired to, but in asking others to live as one desired to. To ‘demoralize’, then, meant to liberate the soul from moral constraint.
To Foucault, the homosexuality of the ancient Greeks and Romans was no homosexuality. Instead, it was sodomy. While the former term implies gender transitivity, where the homosexual man may be both the penetrator and the penetrated (i.e. both active and passive in bed), the latter term implies gender intransitivity, where the sodomite is merely the penetrator. The penetrated, by this formulation, was not a man but a slave. He was usually a beardless boy (as opposed to a bearded man), and was consigned to play the passive role in bed. In Foucault’s words, “To be fucked is a necessity for a slave, a shame for a free man, and a favor returned for an emancipated slave.” (Lotringer, 364). Foucault frequently reiterates that “it is immoral for a free young man to be fucked.” If Oscar Wilde’s anti-essentialist theories of perversion and transgression are applied to Foucault’s slave, we see at once that ironically it is the slave rather than the free man who is given the onerous task of toppling a conservative social order and destabilizing normativity. The free man, then, emerges as not substantially different from the patriarchal heterosexual man, and leads us to conclude with Lucy Irigiray, Diana Fuss and other feminist critics that there is a deep connectedness between patriarchy and homosexuality. Foucault himself refers to the “return of monosexuality” where there is “a very clear separation between men and women.” The average homosexual of today is the sodomite of yesterday who has passed through the three stages of persecution, by the Church, the law, and the medical fraternity respectively.
Foucault intriguingly says: “To be gay is to be in a state of becoming…It is not necessary to be homosexual, but it is necessary to be set on being gay.” (Lotringer, 370). What does Foucault mean by the statement? To start with, Foucault is making a distinction between the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay’ which we tend to use synonymously today. He says: “Not to be gay is to say: ‘How am I going to be able to limit the effects of my sexual choice in such a way that my life doesn’t change (my emphasis) in any way?’” The question has to do with lifestyle choices, and it brings Foucault dangerously close to the views expressed by Oscar Wilde in the previous century.
Foucault is here suggesting that if one is in possession of a ‘deviant’ sexuality, one must use it to radicalize one’s ways of seeing. Such a radicalization would, for one, have to do with an inversion of received notions of morality that condemn all forms of sex other than monogamous vaginal sex between husband and wife for the purpose of procreation. There are a plethora of sexual behaviours and practices that Foucault’s position would validate, and these would include adultery, incest, bestiality, pedophilia, cunnilingus and fellatio, none of which can lead to the birth of ‘legitimate’ offspring. But rather than call them sexual behaviours or sexual practices, Foucault would call them “sexual choices” that are conducive to creative ways of living. Thus, Oscar Wilde’s transgressive aesthetic, and Foucault’s distinction between being homosexual and being set on being gay are both concerned with the destabilizing of normativity through the decentring of morality.
Several literary texts can be reinterpreted in the light of these views. To randomly name some of them: Dickens’ Great Expectations, Genet’s A Thief’s Journal, Laxman Gaikwad’s The Branded, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. And not all of them have to do with sexuality per se.
One faithful follower of Oscar Wilde and Michel Foucault is the York University professor of English, Terry Goldie. His book Queersexlife: Autobiographical Notes on Sexuality, Gender and Identity, contains an entire chapter on anal sex, entitled “I Never Took it Up the Ass.” In this chapter Goldie openly admits in print to being what he calls “anal passive” (Foucault’s slave) without any traces of guilt and shame, which implies, for one thing, that he has demolished for himself all received notions of sociality and morality. But Goldie is anything but ‘homonormative’. Confessing that he was born to be a parent, the book provides a photograph of him with his two latest babies on the last page. Incidentally, Goldie has had several other babies in the past, some of whom are now way into their thirties. This leads Goldie to point out that “receptive anal sex for me is not limited to homosexuality.” In this context he further explains that on occasion “I have had women use strap-ons and I have used a double-ended dildo, with one end in the woman’s vagina and the other in my anus.” (Goldie, 125). In a way, Goldie, in the manner of Roland Barthes, rejects the active/passive binary and attempts to get beyond it. If anal sex implies passivity and gender intransitivity, Goldie says that although he has never himself indulged in active sex, i.e. penetrated a man or woman with his penis, he is “overtly male” in another sense. He then goes on to explain what he means: “If the male desire to insert is simply to achieve orgasm, then that would reflect my choice: I have the most powerful orgasm when masturbating with a penis in my anus.” (Goldie, 120). Elsewhere in the chapter, Goldie talks about fantasy: “…I must admit a flirtation with the transsexual when being fucked by a man. I find that when I am being penetrated by a penis, I sometimes fantasize about being penetrated vaginally.” (Goldie, 129).
Queersexlife is a work of serious scholarship, and Terry Goldie is a respectable (and respected) professor of English at York University in Toronto. Yet the explicit vocabulary he employs in his book (as the above-quoted statements testify) subverts the very language of scholarship and verges on the pornographic. But that is what Wilde probably meant by a transgressive aesthetic, restricted to not just subject matter but inclusive of form, and to not just literature but inclusive of criticism. Queersexlife certainly invites us to defer our judgment on the value of the book, for we have nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.
Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, while deploying an alternative set of terminologies, endorses Wilde’s formulations of anti-essentialism and individualism. To Sedgwick, the polarization is between a “minoritizing” and a “universalizing” or “constructivist” view. Sedgwick defines a minoritizing view as one that sees “homo/heterosexual definition…as an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority.” On the other hand, she defines a universalizing or constructivist view as “an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities.” (Sedgwick, 1).
In the 20th and 21st centuries the gay community worldwide has opted to refer to itself as a minority community, or a sexual minority, to be more exact. In Sedgwick’s formulation, this is a minoritizing view that can lead its proponents to the antithetical states of ‘homonormativity’ (a term I have used earlier in connection with the authors Andre Gide and Terry Goldie), and ‘heterophobia’, derived obviously from the words heteronormativity and homophobia. Sedgwick’s own preference is for the constructivist view that takes into account a “spectrum of sexualities” that may be interpreted as not just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersexual, hijra, koti etc., but, more significantly, as that which inherently has within itself an in-built resisting mechanism that protects it from normativity in general.
At the same time, Sedgwick’s universalizing spectrum of sexualities is simultaneously resistant to the idea of continuums and coalitions. Thus, a feminist-lesbian continuum, as Sedgwick herself, as well as influential queer theorists like Juidith Butler and Gayle Rubin have eloquently and painstakingly pointed out, is a myth. (In India, this was proved during the release of Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 1998, when, as Ashwini Sukthankar points out in her book Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India, lesbians who joined the protests against the Shiv Sena’s call to ban the film, were accused of hijacking the protests, since the film wasn’t a lesbian film per se).
Again, a gay-lesbian continuum or coalition is a myth. This has been proved, among others, by Adrienne Rich in her famous essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Commenting on Rich’s work, Eve Sedgwick writes: “In so far as lesbian object choice was viewed as epitomizing a specificity of female experience and resistance, in so far as a symmetrically opposite understanding of gay male object choice also obtained, and in so far also as feminism necessarily posited male and female experiences and interests as different and opposed, the implication was that an understanding of male homo/heterosexual definition could offer little or no affordance of interest for any lesbian theoretical project.” (Sedgwick, 37). Similarly, in her essay “The Lesbian Standpoint” in The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India, Ranjita Biswas suggests that lesbians, who generally uphold feminist arguments against patriarchy, come into conflict with gay men who interpret Foucault’s advocacy of lifestyle change as a carte blanche for promiscuity, which among other things has led to the AIDS epidemic of the 20th century.
Continuums and coalitions by this formulation come across as essentialist, rather than as constructivist and individualist. In my own case, my life and my work have been a continuous exploration of, and experiment with the destabilizing of normativity. My protagonists and I may be described as auto-erotic rather than allo-erotic, and gender transitive rather than gender intransitive, in terms of sexual behavior and identity. In The Boyfriend, Yudi invokes Aristotle to explain why masturbation to him is superior to allo-erotic sex: a masturbation fantasy belongs to the realm of representation that is a heightened version of reality. It is like the painter’s bed (in Aristotle’s formulation) as opposed to the carpenter’s bed. It thus exemplifies Oscar Wile’s transgressive aesthetic.
Ageist and classist sexual criteria recur in my life and work. In BomGay, The Boyfriend and other fictions and poems, the sexual object choice is always a man from the lower or working class (the great Indian underclass), much younger in age than the protagonist who is from the bourgeois middle class. In The Boyfriend, Yudi contrasts his relationship to Milind with a typical heteronormative relationship by pointing out that what must be same/similar (age, class) is different in their case; and what must be different (gender) is same in their case.
In both my life and work, my protagonists, though straight-acting and not camp, are Foucault’s slaves rather than Foucault’s free men, who, like Terry Goldie, are gender transitive and passive in the sex act. This voluntary embracing of sexual slavery and servitude may be a means of dismantling an oppressive moral and socio-political order. However, it is also a means of cancelling out a seeming class privilege that the bourgeois male protagonists in my life and work possess. This is an issue that Pramod K Nayar overlooks in his essay “Queering Culture Studies: Notes towards a Framework” in The Phobic and the Erotic (cited earlier), as he calls Yudi’s relationship with Milind in The Boyfriend “exploitative” (presumably in the Marxist sense). But Ruth Vanita, in her book Love’s Rite: Same Sex Marriage in India and the West, explains how Yudi’s seeming class privilege is neutralized in another sense: as the man who chooses not to marry on account of his gayness, it is he who remains excluded, as compared to the bisexual Milind who eventually gets married and becomes a part of mainstream heteronormative society.
R. RAJ RAO
WORKS CITED Bose Brinda and Bhattacharya Subhabrata eds., The phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2007. Dollimore Jonathan, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. Goldie Terry, Queersexlife: Autobiographical Notes on Sexuality, Gender and Identity. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008. Lotringer Sylvere ed., Foucault Live: Interviews 1961-1984. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996. Rao, R Raj, The Boyfriend. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2003. Sedgwick Eve Kosofsky, Epistemology of the Closet. Berkley: University of California Press, 1990. Sukthankar Ashwini, Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India. New Delhi: Penguin India, 1999. Vanita Ruth, Love’s Rite: Same Sex Marriage in India and the West. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2008.