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literature

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Bisexual Literature  
 
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And despite a tightening web of social discourses on sexuality during this period, erotic diversity was not confined to English pornography; continental and American works from many genres also demonstrate some rebellious expressions of bisexual desire.

In French literature of the era, one finds not only gender transgression, in the life and work of George Sand, for example, but also transgressive sexuality. Théophile Gautier's title character in Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) is explicitly bisexual, jumping from bed to bed with an abandon that many contemporary critics found scandalous. Similarly, the poet Paul Verlaine was well-known for his bisexual love affairs; indeed, his poetry portrays both heterosexual and homosexual erotic activity, including lesbian relationships.

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Across the Atlantic, the same polymorphous eroticism is evident in the works of Walt Whitman, whose poetry celebrates the physical beauty of both men and women; even those poems most often appropriated as singularly "gay," such as the "Calamus" series, do not focus solely on attraction between men. This clearly links his writings to those of Emily Dickinson, whose poetry also reveals an ambiguous sexuality, as Camille Paglia has explored at length in her controversial study Sexual Personae (1990).

Such fluidity stands in sharp contrast to the image we have of the entire nineteenth century as a time of static prudishness and anxious demarcation of rigid social and sexual boundaries.

But such an image is not wholly unwarranted, for even as key works from early- and mid-century seem to indicate a continuing freeplay that may appear unusual today, we can also locate during this time the origins of certain narrow classifications that would work to foreclose erotic options, both in literature and, no doubt, in some individuals' lives.

In the work of sexologists and psychologists such as Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Carl Ulrichs, Havelock Ellis, and Edward Carpenter, all of whom began their inquiries during the last decades of the nineteenth century, we find a medical colonization of sexuality and a general move toward the pathologization of same-sex desire. As Michel Foucault has charted in volume one of The History of Sexuality (1978), the rise of a medical/psychological discourse on sexual orientation clearly formed a means for social control.

Of course, such categorization and valuation also brought homosexuality into discourse, thereby providing an avenue for countering as well as enforcing social rules. But unlike homosexuality, bisexuality was practically erased from discourse; while the "homosexual" was often castigated, the "bisexual" was not even a legitimate "type" and therefore disappeared from much of literature except as a figure in transition.

Nowhere is this transition more usefully represented than in the works of Oscar Wilde. Wilde himself is most accurately termed a "bisexual" since he engaged in both heterosexual and homosexual activity. And certainly The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) remains one of the most polymorphously perverse texts ever written, as desire seems to flow between, in, and around all the characters regardless of their biological sex.

But another work attributed to Wilde, Teleny, demonstrates a far less fluid eroticism. Unlike pornographic works from earlier in the century, Teleny, written in the 1890s, portrays a clear pattern of sexual identification through binary opposition. Although sexual encounters between men and women are described in the novel, they are rendered horrific and "unnatural," given the specific sexual orientation of the main character, Des Grieux, who comes to define himself against heterosexuality. No longer was libertinism an identity encompassing numerous forms of nonprocreational sex; instead, as Foucault argues, the homosexual was a "type" created through a process of exclusion and a careful delimitation of desire.

The Twentieth Century

Thus numerous works from the early twentieth century revolve around this notion of a "true" identity, one that is either hetero- or homosexual. Although both E. M. Forster's Maurice (written 1914) and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) portray characters who appear bisexual, they are not allowed to occupy that "in between" space without derision. Both novels attempt to portray the naturalness of homosexual desire (in obvious response to the discourses of medicine and psychology that argued the opposite), but they do so by casting the bisexual as untrue to himself or herself, unwilling to take the brave step of acknowledging a fundamental homosexual identity.

Thus Clive in Maurice and Mary in The Well of Loneliness are portrayed as cowards, doomed to unhappiness because of their equivocation. Individuals who historically would have been celebrated for their ability to respond to both sexes came to be considered the truly unnatural ones, out-of-place and inconvenient in a literary and social war between homosexuals and their heterosexual oppressors.

This is not to say that bisexuality disappeared completely in terms of writers' lived experiences. Virginia Woolf was clearly bisexual, as was the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). But even Woolf, who explores gender transgression in such radical ways in Orlando (1928) (whose hero/heroine changes biological sex), never celebrates bisexuality in her works as a unified identity.

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