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Combining elements of incongruity, theatricality, and exaggeration, camp is a form of humor that helps homosexuals cope with a hostile environment.

The Difficulty of Definition

One of the few things that writers about camp agree on is that it cannot be adequately defined. Christopher Isherwood, the Anglo-American novelist who was the first person to discuss camp, wrote in The World in the Evening (1956), "it's terribly hard to define. You have to meditate on it and feel it intuitively, like Laotse's Tao."

Charles Ludlam, the playwright and actor and master of theatrical camp, simply stated "I don't think camp can be defined," and Susan Sontag argued that "to talk about Camp is . . . is to betray it." Every student of camp must contend with its indefinability, its elusiveness, and its changeability.

The Mystery of the Word's Origin

Even the origins of the word camp are shrouded in mystery. Bruce Rodgers in Gay Talk (1972) argues that camp's origins are in sixteenth-century English theatrical slang for a male actor dressed as a women, and refers to the French word for countryside, campagne, since French strolling players often dressed as woman in the country. Others see the origin as related to the French verb camper, to pose. Whatever its origins, the term seems to be quite old and related to theater.

Style of Performance or Mode of Perception

Camp can refer either to a style of performance or a mode of perception. For example, a person may regard an object that was not intended to be seen as camp as campy. Such narrative ballets as Swan Lake or Giselle have been viewed as camp although their choreographers had no such intentions. In such works, camp is in the eye of the beholder.

However, other artists have intended their works to be campy--the English novelist Ronald Firbank and the American playwright Tony Kushner are two examples.

But not all objects can be transformed by perception into camp, and not everyone in an audience will see camp even in the campiest performance. The camp effect requires a fit between performance and perception, between object and audience.

The Emergence of Camp

To understand this fit, we must understand the historical forces that made camp both possible and necessary. Camp emerged seemingly with the first evidence of a gay subculture, and camp is a way of coping with a hostile dominant culture.

Many subcultures have developed stylistic manners to cope with oppression. Jewish "gallows humor" and the street language of urban blacks are two examples. These subcultural modes function in at least two ways: First, they help cement solidarity between members of the subculture as any "secret" language helps bind those who share the "secret." Second, they help members of the subculture communicate with one another in the presence of those from outside the subculture.

Camp protects members of the gay and lesbian communities in situations in which they are at risk of being identified, stigmatized, and possibly abused.

Of course, one might say that camp also helps ghettoize the gay community by isolating it, and insofar as camp has helped reinforce gay identity, one might criticize camp for also reinforcing the binarisms of gay-straight that are part of the language of heterosexism.

Philip Core subtitled his book on camp The Lie That Tells the Truth (1984); camp seems elusive because it is built on a paradoxical relationship between performance and message. But one might also say that camp is the truth that tells a lie by suggesting that there is a separate gay or lesbian identity and by reinforcing that reified category.

A good example of how one homosexual signals his homosexuality to another can be found in Henry James's letter to John Addington Symonds. At the time of James's correspondence, homosexual activity was a felony, punishable with many years of hard labor. Letters could and were used as evidence in courts of law.

Thus, James, the American novelist, wrote Symonds, the English poet and historian, very cautiously. His letter could pass as merely a "friendly note" to an unsuspecting postal inspector who might come across it, but a gay reader would recognize its excessiveness as camp, and its author as a homosexual signaling his sexuality to another homosexual.

James reminds Symonds that he sent Symonds his article on Venice. (Venice, it should be noted, is a city especially associated with the homosexual underworld.)

I sent [my article] to you because it was a constructive way of expressing the good will I felt for you in consequence of what you had written about the land of Italy--and of intimating to you, somewhat dumbly, that I am a sympathetic reader. I nourish for the said Italy an unspeakably tender passion, and your pages always seemed to say to me that you were one of the small number of people who love it as much as I do . . . for it seemed to me that the victims of a common passion should exchange a look.

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Christopher Isherwood, the first writer to address camp in print.
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