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Erotica and Pornography  
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Modern Literatures

Although homosexuality is discussed openly but disparagingly in certain German works of the nineteenth century, the continuous history of modern, openly favorable treatment of homosexuality began in France with a relaxation of censorship during the Roaring Twenties, and a substantial amount of homoerotica appeared as part of this renaissance.

The cumulative effect of French homoerotica of this period was to present a countercultural picture of a gay subculture. It thus polarized the world into gay and straight, doing so perhaps precisely because it focuses for the first time on man-with-man sex in the middle class. The openness of France spread gradually to other Western nations.

In works like Our Lady of the Flowers (1944) and The Thief's Journal (1948), Jean Genet (1910-1986) was the breakthrough author who had brought explicit scenes of homosexual activity into the living rooms of middle-class society the world over by the end of this period. He did so by investing his use of obscene language and anatomical detail with a sense of existential determinism.

The isolation of prison is redeemed in self-love, which is realized as self-abuse. The unsatisfactory nature of this masturbation in the womanless confines of prison generates erotic encounters between men. And the hopelessness of prison is redeemed by the spirituality of the resulting romanticized orgy.

But by describing this etiology of homosexual activity, Genet of course marks it as aberrant, occasional, apart from the real world. This explicit demarcation of homosexuality as an activity from a world apart to a middle-class audience, a world of fantasy, is what legitimized him for high culture.

The fact that he is a beautifully poetic writer probably helped. Just because he was not arousing for the general public who made him fashionable, he made it possible for explicit sexual material to be included in mainstream fiction, and it soon became apparent that this meant explicit heterosexual material as well as homosexual.

The pornographic status of Genet for homosexual readers is ambiguous. Despite his reiterated theme of the opportunistic nature of homosexual activity, he is in fact still arousing.

Because of a sudden imposition of press censorship in France and a number of important rulings liberalizing freedom of the press from the U.S. Supreme Court, the 1950s saw the locus of publication for erotic literature shift from Paris to Copenhagen, New York, and other American cities.

Whereas the Parisian erotica had been largely the creation of Obelisk Press and its successor Olympia Press, American publication was from the beginning more diversified. In addition to Olympia, relocated in New York, numerous other publishers sprang up all over the country; the Guild Press in Washington was responsible for some of the most interesting gay titles.

The paperback revolution also made it easier for new publishers and new writers to emerge. Although many works released under these circumstances were undoubtedly badly written as well as poorly bound and inadequately edited and proofread, the wide diversity gave some excellent writers opportunities to experiment.

Although the vast majority of these pulp novels made unrealistic and inartistic use of the milieus they exploited, the occasional hot episode made the material useful for the intended purpose.

There were many imitators of Genet. Perhaps the best of these was John Rechy (b. 1934) in City of Night (1963) and later works. While recreating the milieu of the hustler in vivid and realistic detail, Rechy's works are marked by an atmosphere of distaste or uncleanness that is darker and less celebratory than anything in Genet and indicates the continuity of the legacy of guilt in homoerotica.

Other American authors of the Genet school like William Burroughs (1914-1997) and Hubert Selby (b. 1926) tend to be as angst-laden as Rechy, as are many lesser writers, who tend to be less vivid as well. The angst licensed mainstream readers to appreciate these works, but it did not deeroticize them for homosexual readers (and perhaps not for heterosexual readers either).

But not all American authors followed this model. Casimir Dukahz (ca 1899-1988) in The Asbestos Diary (1966) creates the entirely different world of the "boysexual." With witty and wildly inventive word play, he evokes in a fashion appropriately episodic both the bittersweet transience of boyhood and all the adolescent silliness and surprise encountered by a man constantly available for the entertainment of boys.

This subject matter, despite the obvious literary merit of the treatment, has given Dukahz greater difficulty with censors than more explicit authors. Acolyte Press in the Netherlands, not without some difficulty, has reissued Dukahz's masterpiece and publishes such later works of his as Vice Versa (1976), Growing Old Disgracefully (1986), and Shakespeare's Boy (1991).

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