The last thing the general reader of books on sexual politics (if there is such a person) is likely to want, after the abominable crime not to be named among Christians, Uranianism, homosexuality, being gay and being capital Q Queer, is a new word for the condition all these words attempt to define, or to exempt from definition. Yet Leo Bersani’s coinage homo–ness, clumsy though it is, manages to earn its keep, not by displacing an existing term but by directing attention to an un expected quarter, as a way out of a cultural impasse.
Gay liberation, without having ceased to frighten the horses in the high street, now seems hopelessly fuddy-duddy to a generation that takes its little victories for granted. Queer culture, on the other hand, can seem smugly confrontational and intellectually underpowered. A Queer Reader, for instance, edited by Patrick Higgins and published by Fourth Estate in 1993, had no hesitation in dismissing the ‘charlatan’ Freud: ‘We now appreciate that most of his theories were the product of his overheated imagination, as his casebook has been exposed as extremely thin.’ The breezy ‘we’ of this sentence seems to rep resent the editor and Jeffrey Masson, the only authority offered against Freud. This first-person is plural, but not very plural.
Bersani sees gay and queer as colluding, with gay liberationists saying in effect, ‘We’re the same as you in everything but this private realm’, and queer nationalists saying, ‘We’re more other than you can possibly grasp, other other other, and you can’t reduce our otherness to a dreary category like orientation.’ Bersani sets out to claim meaning, literary, psychological and even philosophical, for what gay men actually get up to in bed.
By profession the author is a reader of texts (Professor of French at the University of California), and the odd construction of Homos charts his critical engagement with texts of increasing richness. So Chapter One, ‘The Gay Presence’, analyses the contemporary American media, and Chapter Two, ‘The Gay Absence’, describes the current state of gay and queer theory. Chapter Three, ‘The Gay Daddy’, locks horns with both Foucault and Freud, and incidentally tries to find a progressive way of repudiating sadomasochism. Finally, in ‘The Gay Outlaw’, his Chapter Four, Bersani returns to the home ground of his discipline, with readings of Gide, Proust and Genet. The deepening flow of the book, in other words, is away from the present and towards supremely stylised artistic productions.
The author’s own style is not by any means easy, and his logic is sometimes a little febrile. His objective may sound relatively down-to-earth, to base a theory of love on something other than ‘our assertions of how different and how much better we are than those who would do away with us’, but his way of achieving it can be hard going. He favours formulations that are fiercely paradoxical even when rewarding: ‘Homosexual desire is desire for the same from the perspective of a self already identified as different from itself’, for instance.
What is likeable about his approach is that he positively prefers sexual theorising when it converges on fiction. He treats Freud’s Oedipus Complex as a myth in its own right, which like any other myth doesn’t belong to an original teller, but can be retold indefinitely. Similarly, in his consideration of Monique Wittig’s thought he finds it poignant and even admirable, rather than proof of absurdity or insanity, that she should take her refusal of categories to the point of answering ‘No’ to a student’s hostile question, ‘Do you have a vagina?’ Bersani mistrusts utopias but has a soft spot for visionaries.
It is in the final chapter of the book, where he examines the sexual cosmology of French novelists, that Bersani comes into his own. He fastens on exactly the characteristic that modern gay taste dislikes in Gide, Proust and Genet and ascribes to self-hatred or cowardice the apparent coldness and refusal of any feeling of solidarity. (If this is a national characteristic, it dies hard: a disinclination to consider homosexuality as anything so lowly as a social issue certainly disadvantaged France in the early days of Aids, and cost lives.)
In Gide’s Immoralist, the hero’s absence of interest in the interiority of his love objects is not a human failure but a philosophical breakthrough, ‘a challenge to any sexual ideology of profundity’. Similarly with Proust, a seeming weakness – of equating homosexuality with a man’s soul in a woman’s body, or vice versa – becomes a latent strength: ‘There is … no same-sex desire in La Recherche; the appearance of same-sex desire, Proust implies, should merely alert us to a biological mistake in sexual identity. On the other hand … the dizzying intersections of essences in Proust’s work blur the boundaries that essences are designed to solidify…’
Genet is the toughest case, the hardest writer to rehabilitate politically for a post-Stonewall sensibility, since he makes homosexuality ‘the prototype of relations that break with humanity’. Bersani just about manages it, in pages that combine knotty abstraction and – a real and just about welcome surprise in a book of theory – something like raunch. Perhaps in his next book he will contrive a way of feeding these antinomian and distinctly literary insights more cogently back into the problematic communal world where Homos started out, but did not linger.