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English Literature: Twentieth-Century  
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Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

In his late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century writings about homosexuality, Jeremy Bentham weighs the pleasure of consensual homosexual relations against the pain or harm it causes the general public. Bentham concludes that, by causing no harm to others, homosexuality is justified by the pleasures of those who practice it.

In the course of his justification, no stories about homosexuality's spiritual, psychological, cultural, political, and aesthetic virtues or vices are appealed to by Bentham, who finds such narratives to be burdensome and irrelevant to the calculus of pleasure, which alone warrants homosexuality's "right" to be free.

For better or worse, however, at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, justifications of homosexuality (and condemnations as well) are caught up in elaborate stories about homosexuality's character and cultural impact.

In the wake of Oscar Wilde's trial, the rights of pleasure provide no court of appeal to homosexual men and women. Their sole recourse appears, first and foremost, to have been storytelling: narratives about homosexuality's legitimate place in biological, cultural, and political evolution. The storyteller who most fit the occasion is Edward Carpenter (1844-1929).

Edward Carpenter

Although Carpenter's work is intended to be read as psychology, sociology, and anthropology, it endures as a poetic fantasia on homosexual types and powers and as a repository of narratives about homosexuality that are, in relation to literary history, both dated and yet still influential.

In Love's Coming of Age (1896-1911) and The Intermediate Sex (1896-1912), Carpenter denies the universality of patriarchal heterosexuality, and argues that, in contrast to homosexuality, Western heterosexual norms instance a historically arrested state of psychosexual evolution.

Heterosexual conventions, especially when they are influenced by Judeo-Christian morality, are fixated on erotic, social, and economic possessiveness. They lag behind the progressive maturation whose vehicle is an alliance of feminism with the third, or intermediate, sex: homosexual men and women.

Carpenter assigns to homosexual desire an innate egalitarianism and communitarianism, no matter where or when it appears in history. For, Carpenter argues, homosexuality invariably subverts the crudely binary structure that constitutes society as an order of gendered, racial, or economic oppositions. The intermediate sex develops cultural forms, especially in religious, political, and aesthetic realms, that are alternative to oppositional ones.

Accordingly, Carpenter points to the cultural heroism, even the divinity, identified with intermediate types in cultures not stunted by Judeo-Christian censoriousness: prophets and priests, wizards and witches are mythic representations of the third sex.

Moreover, he claims that in pre-Christian and non-Western cultures male-male and female-female comradeships exemplify consummate citizenship, the public virtues required by the state rather than the private virtues required by family values. Whether they are priests, soldiers, or aesthetes, Carpenter's homosexual men and women are the heroes and heroines of a heroic history of democratic progress. And all forms of intermediacy--whether personal or abstract--partake, for Carpenter, of the heroism of homosexuality.

The century's first strictly literary analogs of Carpenter's gay heroism in cultural life are to be found in the novels and the careers of Frederick Rolfe (pseud. Baron Corvo) (1860-1913) and Ronald Firbank (1886-1926).

Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo)

Rolfe's novels embody a will to renew both sacred and secular orders by means of heroic intermediate types: the shaman-like Englishman who becomes Pope in Hadrian the Seventh (1904) or the priestly satirist Nicholas Crabbe who loves a prototype of the third sex in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1909; published posthumously).

Although overtly critical of Carpenter's democratic bias, Rolfe's work repeats Carpenter's conviction that goes hand in hand with an exalted calling to redress the world's wrongs, at both personal and institutional levels.

Ronald Firbank

No less intransigent than Rolfe, and far more open and flamboyant, Firbank enacts his homosexuality as a high vocation (simultaneously exalted and comic), and as a posthumous marriage with Wilde, in a way that emphasizes "intermediate" transvestism, shamanistic mysticism, and, above all, exacting devotion to art.

From Vainglory (1915), whose characters include a male composer and his male lover, to The Princess Zoubaroff (1920), a play about the founding of a lesbian convent, to The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), which is pervaded by lesbian longings, to Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926), whose bisexual hero-prelate dies during a nude chase after his favorite choirboy, Firbank's novels couple the representation of homosexual desires and liaisons with a revolutionary address to the aesthetics of novelistic form.

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