Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 2, 2009

Robert Duncan’s “The Homosexual in Society”

Filed under: Gay,literature,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

In my review of Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar’s “The Beats”, I referred to Robert Duncan’s essay “The Homosexual in Society” that appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics in 1944. This seminal gay liberation document certainly deserves to be available on the Internet and so I have scanned it in from Duncan’s “A Selected Prose” that was published in 1990.

A word or two about Dwight Macdonald is in order. He was a Shachtmanite who eventually dropped any pretensions to Marxism and embraced a mixture of anarchism, liberalism and pacifism. He was also bitterly anti-Communist and even hooked up for a while with the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom. When the 60s radicalization began, Macdonald reverted to the radical politics of his youth to some extent and became part of a cadre of high-profile intellectuals who opposed the Vietnam War (Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy were two other notables.)

The inclusion of Duncan’s essay in Macdonald’s journal in 1944 opens up some interesting avenues for research. As far as I know, the Trotskyist movement was pretty bad on gay issues. Cannon’s group was worse than Shachtman’s—at least that is what I would suspect. If Macdonald was open-minded enough to challenge the prevailing homophobia on the left, you have to wonder what else was appearing in the pages of his magazine.

Leon Trotsky supposedly once said that “Everyone has the right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege”. This remark reportedly delighted Macdonald. I can only say that at least on the gay question, Macdonald holds up very well.

Duncan’s essay anticipates many of the gay liberation themes that would be articulated after the Stonewall rebellion, despite a certain defensiveness expressed in terms of his disapproval of the “homosexual cult” and “camp”.

The Homosexual in Society

INTRODUCTION

Originally appeared in Politics, I, 7 (August 1944). The revisions were made in 1959. The expanded version was first published in Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K,” 3 (January 1985).

Seymour Krim has urged me to reprint this early essay as “a pioneering piece,” assuring me “that it stands and will stand on its own feet.” At the time it was printed (Politics, August 1944) it had at least the pioneering gesture, as far as I know, of being the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved; but my view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to and share in the creation of a human community good—the recognition of fellow-manhood.

Blind lifeliness—what Darwin illuminates as evolution—has its creative design, and in that process a man’s sexuality is a natural factor in a biological economy larger and deeper than his own human will. What we create as human beings is a picture of the meaning and relation of life; we create perspectives of space and time or a universe; and we create ideas of “man” and of “person,” of gods and attendant powers—a drama wherein what, and who we are are manifest. And this creation governs our knowledge of good and evil.

For some, there are only the tribe and its covenant that are good, and all of mankind outside and their ways are evil; for many in America today good is progressive, their professional status determines their idea of “man” and to be genuinely respectable their highest concept of a good “person”—all other men are primitive, immature, or uneducated. Neither of these perspectives was acceptable to me. I had been encouraged by my parents, by certain teachers in high school, by friends, through Socialist and Anarchist associations, and through the evidence of all those artists, philosophers and mystics who have sought to give the truth of their feeling and thought to mankind, to believe that there was an entity in the imagination “mankind,” and that there was a community of thoughtful men and women concerned with the good of that totality to whom I was responsible. The magazine Politics represented for me during the Second World War an arena where intellectuals of that community were concerned, and I came to question myself in the light of the good they served.

It was not an easy essay to write. As a form an essay is a field in which we try ideas. In this piece I try to bring forward ideas of “homosexual,” “society,” “human” and, disguised but evident, my own guilt; and their lack of definition is involved with my own troubled information. Our sense of terms is built up from a constant renewed definition through shared information, and one of the urgencies of my essay was just that there was so little help here where other writers had concealed their own experience and avoided discussion.

Then too, the writing of the essay was a personal agony. Where we bear public testimony we face not only the community of thoughtful men and women who are concerned with the good, but facing the open forum we face mean and stupid men too. The involved disturbed syntax that collects conditional clauses and often fails to arrive at a full statement suggests that I felt in writing the essay that I must gather forces and weight to override some adversary; I have to push certain words from adverse meanings which as a social creature I share with the public to new meanings which might allow for an enlarged good. In the polemics of the essay it is not always possible to find the ground of accusation unless we recognize that I was trying to rid myself of one persona in order to give birth to another, and at the same time to communicate the process and relate it to what I called “society,” a public responsibility. I was likely to find as little intellectual approval for the declaration of an idealistic morality as I was to find for the avowal of my homosexuality. The work often has value as evidence in itself of the conflict concerned and of the difficulty of statement then just where it is questionable as argument. I had a likeness to the public and shared its conflicts of attitude—an apprehension which shapes the course of the essay.

I feel today as I felt then that there is a service to the good in bringing even painful and garbled truth of the nature of our thought and feeling to the light of print, for what I only feel as an urgency and many men may condemn me for as an aberration, some man reading may render as an understanding and bring into the wholeness of human experience. Reading this essay some fifteen years later, I need courage to expose the unhappiness of my writing at that time, for I am not today without conflicting feelings and have the tendency still to play the adversary where I had meant only to explore ideas. In preparing the text then I have eliminated certain references that were topical at the time but would be obscure now and have cut where economy was possible without losing the character of the original; but I have not sought to rewrite or to remedy the effect.

[Robert Duncan's footnotes for the 1944 publication of this essay have been indicated by asterisks and set in a typeface different from the rest of the text. Duncan also added footnotes when he made revisions to the text in 1959. These notes have been indicated by numbers.]

THE TEXT

I propose to discuss a group whose only salvation is in the struggle of all humanity for freedom and individual integrity; who have suffered in modern society persecution, excommunication; and whose intellectuals, whose most articulate members, have been willing to desert that primary struggle, to beg, to gain at the price if need be of any sort of prostitution, privilege for themselves, however ephemeral; who have been willing rather than to struggle toward self-recognition, to sell their product, to convert their deepest feelings into marketable oddities and sentimentalities.

Although in private conversation, at every table, at every editorial board, one knows that a great body of modern art is cheated out by what amounts to a homosexual cult; although hostile critics have at times opened fire in attack as rabid as the attack of Southern senators upon “niggers”; critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said.1 Pressed to the point, they may either, as in the case of such an undeniable homosexual as Hart Crane, contend that he was great despite his “perversion”*—much as my mother used to say how much better a poet Poe would have been had he not taken dope; or where it is possible they have attempted to deny the role of the homosexual in modern art, defending the good repute of modern art against any evil repute of homosexuality.

(* Critics of Crane, for instance, consider that his homosexuality is the cause of his inability to adjust to society. Another school feels that inability to adjust to society causes homosexuality. What seems fairly obvious is that Crane’s effort to communicate his inner feelings, his duty as a poet, brought him into conflict with social opinion. He might well have adjusted his homosexual desires within society as many have done by “living a lie” and avoiding any unambiguous reference in his work.)

But one cannot, in face of the approach taken to their own problem by homosexuals, place any weight of criticism upon the liberal body of critics for avoiding the issue. For there are Negroes who have joined openly in the struggle for human freedom, made articulate that their struggle against racial prejudice is part of the struggle for all; there are Jews who have sought no special privilege or recognition for themselves as Jews but have fought for human rights, but there is in the modern American scene no homosexual who has been willing to take in his own persecution a battlefront toward human freedom. Almost coincident with the first declarations for homosexual rights was the growth of a cult of homosexual superiority to heterosexual values; the cultivation of a secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that are loaded with contempt for the uninitiated.

Outside the ghetto the word “goy” disappears, wavers, and dwindles in the Jew’s vocabulary as he becomes a member of the larger community. But in what one would believe the most radical, the most enlightened “queer” circles, the word “jam” remains, designating all who are not wise to homosexual ways, filled with an unwavering hostility and fear, gathering an incredible force of exclusion and blindness. It is hard (for all the sympathy which I can bring to bear) to say that this cult plays any other than an evil role in society.2

But names cannot be named.3 There are critics whose cynical, backbiting joke upon their audience is no other than this secret special reference; there are poets whose nostalgic picture of special worth in suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality is no other than this intermediate “sixth sense”; there are new cult leaders whose special divinity, whose supernatural and visionary claim is no other than this mystery of sex.4 The law has declared homosexuality secret, inhuman, unnatural (and why not then supernatural?). The law itself sees in it a crime—not in the sense that murder, thievery, seduction of children, or rape are seen as human crimes—but as a crime against the way of nature.* It has been lit up and given an awful and lurid attraction such as witchcraft was given in the 17th century. Like early witches, the homosexuals, far from seeking to undermine the popular superstition, have accepted and even anticipated the charge of demonism. Sensing the fear in society that is generated in ignorance of their nature, they have sought not understanding but to live in terms of that ignorance, to become witch doctors in the modern chaos.

(* “Just as certain judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from original sin and racial predestination.” Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust.)

To go about this they have had to cover with mystery, to obscure the work of all those who have viewed homosexuality as but one of the many ways which human love may take and who have had primarily in mind as they wrote (as Melville, Proust, or Crane had) mankind and its liberation. For these great early artists their humanity was the source, the sole source, of their work. Thus in Remembrance of Things Past, Charlus is not seen as the special disintegration of a homosexual but as a human being in disintegration, and the forces that lead to that disintegration, the forces of pride, self-humiliation in love, jealousy, are not special forces but common to all men and women. Thus in Melville, though in Billy Budd it is clear that the conflict is homosexual, the forces that make for that conflict, the guilt in passion, the hostility rising from subconscious sources, and the sudden recognition of these forces as it comes to Vere in that story—these are forces which are universal, which rise in other contexts, which in Melville’s work have risen in other contexts.

It is, however, the body of Crane that has been most ravaged by these modern ghouls and, once ravaged, stuck up cult-wise in the mystic light of their special cemetery literature. The live body of Crane is there, inviolate in the work; but in the window display of modern poetry, in so many special critics’ and devotees’ interest, is a painted mummy, deep sea green. One may tiptoe by, as the visitors to Lenin’s tomb tiptoe by, and, once outside, find themselves in a world in his name that has celebrated the defeat of all that he was devoted to. One need only point out in all the homosexual imagery of Crane, in the longing and vision of love, the absence of the private sensibility that colors so much of modern writing. Where the Zionists of homosexuality have laid claim to a Palestine of their own—asserting in their miseries their nationality; Crane’s suffering, his rebellion and his love are sources of poetry for him, not because they are what makes him different from his fellow-men, but because he saw in them his link with mankind; he saw in them his share in universal human experience.5

What can one do in the face of this, both those critics and artists, not homosexual, who are, however, primarily concerned with dispelling all inhumanities, all forces of convention and law that impose a tyranny over man’s nature, and those critics and artists who, as homosexuals, must face in their own lives both the hostility of society in that they are “queer” and the hostility of the homosexual elite in that they are merely human?

For the first group the starting point is clear, that they must recognize homosexuals as equals, and, as equals, allow them neither more nor less than can be allowed any human being. There are no special rights. For the second group the starting point is more difficult, the problem more treacherous.

In the face of the hostility of society which I risk in making even the acknowledgment explicit in this statement, in the face of the “crime” of my own feelings, in the past I publicized those feelings as private and made no stand for their recognition but tried to sell them as disguised, for instance, as conflicts arising from mystical sources.6 I colored and perverted simple and direct emotions and realizations into a mysterious realm, a mysterious relation to society. Faced by the inhumanities of society I did not seek a solution in humanity but turned to a second outcast society as inhumane as the first. I joined those who, while they allowed for my sexual nature, allowed for so little of the moral, the sensible, and creative direction which all of living should reflect. They offered a family, outrageous as it was, a community in which one was not condemned for one’s homosexuality, but it was necessary there for one to desert one’s humanity, for which one would be suspect, “out of key.” In drawing rooms and in little magazines I celebrated the cult with a sense of sanctuary such as a medieval Jew must have found in the ghetto; my voice taking on the modulations which tell of the capitulation to snobbery and the removal from the “common sort”; my poetry exhibiting the objects made divine and tyrannical as the Catholic church has made bones of saints, and bread and wine tyrannical.7

After an evening at one of those salons where the whole atmosphere was one of suggestion and celebration, I returned recently experiencing again the aftershock, the desolate feeling of wrongness, remembering in my own voice and gestures the rehearsal of unfeeling. Alone, not only I, but, I felt, the others who had appeared as I did so mocking, so superior in feeling, had known, knew still, those troubled emotions, the deep and integral longings that we as human beings feel, holding us from archaic actions by the powerful sense of humanity that is their source, longings that lead us to love, to envision a creative life. “Towards something far,” as Hart Crane wrote, “now farther away than ever.”

Among those who should understand those emotions which society condemned, one found that the group language did not allow for any feeling at all other than this self-ridicule, this “gaiety” (it is significant that the homosexual’s word for his own kind is “gay”), a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extends to oneself, to life itself. What then, disowning this career, can one turn to?

What I think can be asserted as a starting point is that only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance. To hold this devotion every written word, every spoken word, every action, every purpose must be examined and considered. The old fears, the old specialties will be there, mocking and tempting; the old protective associations will be there, offering for a surrender of one’s humanity congratulation upon one’s special nature and value. It must be always recognized that the others, those who have surrendered their humanity, are not less than oneself. It must be always remembered that one’s own honesty, one’s battle against the inhumanity of his own group (be it against patriotism, against bigotry, against—in this special case—the homosexual cult) is a battle that cannot be won in the immediate scene. The forces of inhumanity are overwhelming, but only one’s continued opposition can make any other order possible, will give an added strength for all those who desire freedom and equality to break at last those fetters that seem now so unbreakable.

REFLECTIONS 1959

In the fifteen years since the writing of “The Homosexual in Society,” my circumstances have much changed. Life and my work have brought me new friends, where the community of values is more openly defined, and even, in recent years, a companion who shares my concern for a creative life. Distressed where I have been distressed and happy where I have been happy, their sympathy has rendered absurd whatever apprehension I had concerning the high moral resolve and radical reformation of character needed before I would secure recognition and understanding. It is a kinship of concern and a sharing of experience that draws us together.

The phantasmic idea of a “society” that was somehow hostile, the sinister affiliation offered by groups with whom I had no common ground other than the specialized sexuality, the anxiety concerning the good opinion of the community—all this sense of danger remains, for I am not a person of reserved nature; and conventional morality, having its roots in Judaic tribal law and not in philosophy, holds homosexual relations to be a crime. Love, art, and thought are all social goods for me; and often I must come, where I would begin a friendship, to odd moments of trial and doubts when I must deliver account of my sexual nature that there be no mistake in our trust.

But the inspiration of the essay was toward something else, a public trust, larger and more demanding than the respect of friends. To be respected as a member of the political community for what one knew in one’s heart to be respectable! To insist, not upon tolerance for a divergent sexual practice, but upon concern for the virtues of a homosexual relationship! I was, I think, at the threshold of a critical concept: sexual love wherever it was taught and practiced was a single adventure, that troubadours sang in romance, that poets have kept as a traditional adherence, and that novelists have given scope. Love is dishonored where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust.

It is my sense that the fulfillment of man’s nature lies in the creation of that trust; and where the distrusting imagination sets up an image of “self against the desire for unity and mutual sympathy, the state called “Hell” is created. There we find the visceral agonies, sexual aversions and possessions, excitations and depressions, the omnipresent “I” that bears true witness to its condition in “Howl” or “Kaddish,” in McClure’s Hymns to St. Geryon or the depressive “realism” of Lowell’s Life Studies. “We are come to the place,” Virgil tells Dante as they enter Hell, “where I told thee thou shouldst see the wretched people, who have lost the good of the intellect.” In Hell, the homosexuals go, as Dante rightly saw them, as they still go often in the streets of our cities, looking “as in the evening men are wont to look at one another under a new moon,” running beneath the hail of a sharp torment, having wounds, recent and old, where the flames of experience have burned their bodies.

It is just here, when he sees his beloved .teacher, Brunetto Latini, among the sodomites, that Dante has an inspired intuition that goes beyond the law of his church and reaches toward a higher ethic: “Were my desire all fulfilled,” he says to Brunetto, “you had not yet been banished from human nature: for in my memory is fixed . . . the dear and kind, paternal image of you, when in the world, hour by hour, you taught me how man makes himself eternal. .  . .”

“Were my desire all fulfilled …” springs from the natural heart in the confidence of its feelings that has often been more generous than conventions and institutions. I picture that fulfillment of desire as a human state of mutual volition and aid, a shared life.

Not only in sexual love, but in work and in play, we suffer from the dominant competitive ethos which gives rise to the struggle of interests to gain recognition or control, and discourages the recognition of the needs and interests which we all know we have in common. Working for money (and then, why not stealing or cheating for money?) is the “realistic” norm, and working for the common good is the “idealistic” exception. “I have always earned my living at manual labor,” an old friend writes. And his voice breaks through, like a shaft of sunlight through an industrial smog, the oppressive voices of junkies and pushers, petty thieves and remittance men of social security with their need and misery set adrift of itself. Oppressive, because these are sensitive young men and women I am thinking of, some of them the artists and poets of a new generation. The sense of this essay rests then upon the concept that sexual love between those of the same sex is one with sexual love between men and women; and that this love is one of the conditions of the fulfillment of the heart’s desire and the restoration of man’s free nature. Creative work for the common good is one of the conditions of that nature. And our hope lies still in the creative imagination wherever it unifies what had been thought divided, wherever it transforms the personal experience into a communal good, “that Brunetto Latini had not been banished from human nature.”

NOTES

1. 1959. At a round table on Modern Art held in San Francisco in 1949 a discussion emerged between Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Duchamp where both showed the courage of forthright statement, bringing the issue publicly forward, which I lamented the lack of in 1944. Wright (who had been challenged on his reference to modern art as “degenerate”): “Would you say homosexuality was degenerate?” Duchamp: “No, it is not degenerate.” Wright: “You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly or is greatly in debt to homosexual-ism?” Duchamp: “1 admit it, but not in your terms … I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual—so it happened, but it does not involve modern art itself.”

What makes comment complicated here is that, while I would like to answer as Duchamp does because I believe with him that art itself is an expression of vitality, in part I recognize the justice of Wright’s distaste, for there is a homosexual clique which patronizes certain kinds of modern art and even creates because, like Wright, they believe both homosexuality and the art they patronize and create to be decadent and even fashionably degenerate.

2. 1959. The alienation has not decreased but increased when the “Beat” cult projects its picture of themselves as saintly—junkies evoking an apocalyptic crisis in which behind the mask of liberal tolerance is revealed the face of the hated “square.” Their intuition is true, that tolerance is no substitute for concern; but their belief that intolerance is more true, dramatizes their own share in the disorder. “Goy,” “jam,” and “square” are all terms of a minority adherence where the imagination has denied fellow-feeling with the rest of mankind. Where the community of human experience is not kept alive, the burden of meaning falls back upon individual abilities. But the imagination depends upon an increment of associations.

Where being “queer” or a “junkie” means being a pariah (as it does in beat mythology), behavior may arise not from desire but from fear or even hatred of desire; dope-addiction may not be a search for an artificial paradise, an illusion of magical life, but an attack upon life, a poisoning of response; and sexual acts between men may not mean responses of love but violations of inner nature. Ginsberg (who believes the self is subject to society), Lamantia (who believes the self has authority from God), and McClure (who believes the self is an independent entity) have in common their paroxysms of self-loathing in which the measure of human failure and sickness is thought so true that the measure of human achievement and life is thought false.

But this attitude had already appeared in the work of urban sophisticates like Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy where there was an observable meanness of feeling. Robert Lowell’s “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed” expresses in the realism of neurotic inhibition what Allen Ginsberg’s “Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe” expresses in the surrealism of psychotic exuberance. “Mother your master-bedroom/looked away from the ocean” and “O Mother . . . with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the pickles of Newark” dramatizes with the difference of class the common belief in oedipal grievance.

3. 1959. That even serious socio-sexual studies are curbed is shown by the following letter written by an eminent poet when I wrote in 1945 asking if I could attempt an essay on his work in the light of my concept that his language had been diverted to conceal the nature of his sexual life and that because he could never write directly he had failed to come to grips with immediacies of feeling:

“… I am very sorry but I must ask you not to publish the essay you propose. I’m sure you will realize that the better the essay you write, the more it will be reviewed and talked about, and the more likelihood there would be of it being brought publicly to my attention in a way where to ignore it would be taken as an admission of guilt.

“As you may know, I earn a good part of my livelihood by teaching, and in that profession one is particularly vulnerable. Further, both as a writer and as a human being, the occasion may always arise, particularly in these times, when it becomes one’s duty to take a stand on the unpopular side of some issue. Should that ever occur, your essay would be a very convenient red-herring for one’s opponents. (Think of what happened to Bertrand Russell in New York).

“I hope you will believe me when I say that for myself personally I wish I could let you publish it, and that anyway I hope the other essays will be as good as you would like them to be.”

My own conviction is that no public issue is more pressing than the one that would make a man guilty and endanger his livelihood for the open knowledge of his sexual nature; for the good of humanity lies in a common quest through shared experience toward the possibility of sexual love. Where we attend as best we can the volitions and fulfillments of the beloved in sexual acts we depend upon all those who in arts have portrayed openly the nature of love; and as we return ourselves through our writing to that commune of spirit we come close to the sharing in desire that underlies the dream of universal brotherhood. Undeclared desires and private sexuality feed the possibility of sexual lust which has many betrayals, empty cravings, violations, and wants to void the original desire.

That this eminent poet was not wrong in speaking of his professional vulnerability were his sexual nature openly avowed can be verified by the following passage from a letter of an eminent editor after reading “The Homosexual In Society” concerning my poem “Toward An African Elegy” which he had previously admired and accepted for publication:

“… I feel very sure we do not wish to print the poem, and I regret very much to decline it after an original acceptance. I must say for the record that the only right I feel in this action is that belatedly, and with your permission, I read the poem as an advertisement or a notice of overt homosexuality, and we are not in the market for literature of this type.

“I cannot agree with you that we should publish it nevertheless in the name of freedom of speech; because I cannot agree with your position that homosexuality is not abnormal. It is biologically abnormal in the most obvious sense. I am not sure whether or not state and federal law regard it so, but I think they do; I should not take the initiative in the matter, but if there are laws to this effect I concur in them entirely. There are certainly laws prohibiting incest and polygamy, with which I concur, though they are only abnormal conventionally and are not so damaging to a society biologically.”

Both these men are leaders in just that community of thoughtful men and women I imagined; both have had and deserved highest honors as literary figures; and, while I believe one to be mistaken in his belief that sexual forthrightness is not a primary issue for the social good; and the other to be as misled by the unhappy conventions of his thought as by the atmosphere of guilty confession that he gathered from my essay; both, like I, are concerned not with the minority in question but rightly with what they consider the public good, an intimation of the human good. Much understanding yet is needed before men of good intentions can stand together.

4. 1959.1 find myself in this passage accusing certain “critics,” “poets,” and “new cult leaders” of what I might be suspected of in my poetry myself. “Suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality” are constants of mood; divinities and cults, supernatural and visionary claims, and sexual mystery are all elements in subject matter that give rise to poetic inspiration for me. In recent years I have had an increased affinity with imaginative reaches of religious thought, searching gnostic and cabalistic speculation for a more diverse order.

The Demon of Moral Virtue exacts his dues wherever he is evoked. Where we seek the Good he urges us to substitute what will be men’s good opinion of us. I may have felt then that I might redeem my sexuality as righteous in the sight of certain critics, if I disavowed my heterodoxy in religious imagination as wicked or deluded.

5. 1959. The principal point is that the creative genius of a writer lies in his communication of personal experience as a communal experience. He brings us to realize our own inner being in a new light through the sense of human being he creates, or he creates in us as we read a new sense of our being. And in Melville, Crane, and Proust I saw their genius awaken a common share in homosexual desire and love, in its suffering and hope, that worked to transform the communal image of man.

Professors of literature do not always have minds of the same inspiration as the minds of writers whose work they interpret and evaluate for consumption; and an age of criticism has grown up to keep great spirits cut down to size so as to be of use in the self-esteem of sophisticated pusillanimous men in a continual self-improvement course. Thus Freud’s courageous analysis of his motives and psychic dis-ease has furnished material for popular analysts like Fromm to be struck by how normal their psyches are compared to Freud’s, how much more capable of mature love they are.

Homosexuality affords a ready point at which a respectable reader disassociates himself from the work of genius and seeks to avoid any sense of realizing his own inner being there. Some years after my essay, Leslie Fiedler, whom I take to be heterosexual, was able to gain some notoriety by writing about homosexual undercurrents in American literature, playing, not without a sense of his advantage, upon the cultural ambivalence between the appreciation of literature as a commodity of education and the depreciation of genius as it involves a new sense of being, and upon the sexual ambivalence in which the urbane American male can entertain the idea of homosexuality providing he is not responsible, providing he preserves his contempt for or his disavowal of sexual love between males.

6. 1959. But there is no “explicit” statement here! What emerges is a “confession” (analyzed further below) instead of what was needed and what I was unable to say out. While I had found a certain acceptance in special circles of homosexuals and opportunities for what Kinsey calls “contacts,” this was a travesty of what the heart longed for. I could not say “I am homosexual,” because exactly this statement of minority identity was the lie. Our deepest sexuality is free and awakens toward both men and women where they are somehow akin to us. Perhaps the dawning realization that we are all exiles from paradise, and that somehow goods have their reality in that impossible dream where all men have come into their full nature, gave rise to and a thread of truth to the feeling of guilt that prompts this voice.

7. 1959. I am reminded in the foregoing passage of those confessions of duplicity, malice, and high treason made before the courts of Inquisition or the Moscow trials. “Society” appears as the merciless “hostile” judge; what I meant to avow—the profound good and even joyful life that might be realized in sexual love between men— becoming a confession that I had “disguised,” “colored,” “perverted,” “celebrated the cult” and even in my work exhibited objects of alienation from the common law. Some remnant of Protestant adherence suggests there was Holy Roman wickedness, “divine and tyrannical as the Catholic Church has made.”

Might there be a type of social reaction to which “confession” of “witches,” “Trotskyites,” and my confession as a “homosexual,” conform? In the prototype there is first the volunteered list of crimes one has committed that anticipates the condemnation of church or party or society. Then there is the fact that what one confesses as a social “crime” has been held somewhere as a hope and an ideal, contrary to convention. The heretic is guilty in his love or his righteousness because he has both the conventional common mind and the imagination of a new common mind; he holds in his own heart the adversary that he sees in the actual prosecutor. Often there was torture to bring on the confession, but it enacted the inner torture of divided mind. “Names cannot be named” I exclaim in this essay, and perhaps akin to that felt necessity is the third phase in which “witches” and “Trotskyites” eventually named their accomplices in heresy, throwing up their last allegiance to their complicity in hope.

The Jungian revival of alchemy with its doctrine of the nigredo and the related surrealist cult of black humor or bile has complicated the contemporary sense of a belief that in some phase the psyche must descend against its nature into its adversary. It is an exciting idea just as a great destruction of the world by war is an exciting idea. Part of the force which “Beat” poets have is the authority which we give after Freud and Jung to the potency of crime.

“Being a junkie in America today,” Ginsberg writes, “is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.” This leads to humorous comment, like the parody of Marx, that “Marijuana is the opium of the people,” or that “Opium is the religion of the people.” But the revelation of Ginsberg’s formula is that in taking to junk he is trying to become like a Jew in Germany. He cannot realize in his Jewishness a sufficient extreme of persecution (even he cannot quite believe in racial guilt—the American idea of the melting pot as virtue is too strong). The “fuzz” cannot live up to the projection of wrath that might externalize inhibition as rank and unjust punishment and satisfy his guilt without calling his need to account. So he takes up “the angry fix.” “Holy Burroughs” and heroin addiction will surely test the frustrating tolerance of a liberal state and reveal beneath the “Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo.”

9 Comments »

  1. Thank you for making this available. I really enjoyed reading it

    Comment by Michael Carden — May 3, 2009 @ 5:34 am

  2. This essay does deserve a wider audience. There is a painful honesty and insight to his essay, and a depth and complexity that is not readily found elsewhere in the intelligensia. I am also reminded of a gay friend’s comment after reading a book of Derek Jarman’s I lent him: “so little has changed”.

    Comment by marc — May 3, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  3. ‘a certain defensiveness expressed in terms of his disapproval of the “homosexual cult” and “camp”.’ Has anyone ever attributed understatement to you? I though Duncan’s ‘defensiveness’ was one of the two dominant themes here, and in certain regards the more important since he defines, however briefly, a conceptual and political foundation for the crique of and movement against the oppression of homosexuals. When he poses the strategy in terms of humanity and universalism, he proposes a politics antithetical to ‘identity’ and, in retroperspective, to post-modern notions. In that sense, very conventionally Old Left. And, accordingly, sympathetic to me. But perhaps easier said than done.

    Comment by Chuckie K — May 3, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  4. Good work, Louis!

    Comment by Kurt Hill — May 4, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

  5. Duncan’s prose is clotted and tongue-tied, understandably—-but shows huge courage and prescience.
    Duncan’s note on the 1949 debate between FL Wright and M Duchamp is interesting because the ungrateful, homophobic Wright was deeply indebted to Edgar Kaufmann Jr —Jewish and homosexual—-who orgainzed an exhibition on “Fallingwater” at MoMA in NYC circa 1948. Kaufmann Jr was also instrumental in having his father commission “Fallingwater”. Wright may also have borne a grudge against a second MoMA homosexual Phillip Johnson.Both Kaufmann and Johnson, though enemies, were leading members of just the sort of “homosexaul cult” to which Duncan objects.

    About Dwight MacDonald—-did he not make public, critical pronouncements in the 1950′s against the female characters in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Wm Inge et al as being male homosexual characters in disguise as women ?

    Comment by Giles Kotcher — May 4, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

  6. Dear Louis, One of my gay email friends brought this to my attention. Recent comment on your blog is by Giles Kotcher, a friend of mine from the NY Gay Liberation Front (early 1970s). When I tell friends about my childhood, I sometimes remark about your father’s store and especially the pickles. I think the last time we were in touch was around the time of the “Weatherman” film. Naomi Jaffe, whom you mentioned at that time because she is in the film, has recently joined a rather extreme pro-Palestinian group of Jews who reject the right of Israel to exist. My views are different from hers on this topic, and others. So life goes on. Stay in touch.

    Comment by Allen Young — May 5, 2009 @ 4:15 am

  7. [...] Louis Proyect’s place: Robert Duncan’s “The Homosexual in Society”, originally published in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics in [...]

    Pingback by Drawing clear lines « Poumista — May 8, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  8. In the first sentence of the second paragraph of the “The Text” above, there is an error in Bertholf’s text. Here is how Duncan corrected the text in POLITICS several months after the August 1944 printing.

    Although in private conversation, at every table, at every editorial board, one knows that a great body of modern art is perpetuated by what almost amounts to a homosexual cult; although hostile critics have opened fire in a constant attack as rabid as the attack of Southern Senators upon ‘niggers’; critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said.

    Your text follows Bertholf’s in error. It should be corrected. For more, see my essay in JACKET 26. Sincerely, Jeff Hamilton

    Comment by Jeff Hamilton — March 31, 2010 @ 2:33 am

  9. Thanks i’ll check out Jacket 26.

    Comment by Ezenwa — April 29, 2011 @ 3:44 am


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