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Reading Across Orientations  
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Pioneers of Modern Gay and Lesbian Cross-Reading

Many signs point to the mid-twentieth-century French existentialists and their structuralist heirs as the pioneers who gathered momentum for modern gay and lesbian cross-readings.

Probably the greatest testament to a heterosexual's ability to read a gay writer is Jean-Paul Sartre's massive 1952 study of Jean Genet, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr.

Indeed, Sartre, an exemplary cross-writer as well as cross-reader, also used gay themes and characters in his own works, notably the philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness (1943), the trilogy of novels The Roads to Freedom (1945-1950), the story "Childhood of a Leader" in The Wall and Other Stories (1939), and the play No Exit (1944).

For her part, his companion Simone de Beauvoir wrote insightfully about lesbians in The Second Sex (1949) and helped champion Violette Leduc, a novelist whose neurotic but strong lesbian voice paved the way for a generation of lesbian-feminists from the late 1960s onward.

This attention to sexual nonconformism did not come about by chance. The existentialists' exploration of gays and lesbians took place within their larger project to portray minorities and marginals (women, blacks, Third-World societies, Arabs, Jews, and communists) in their relationship to issues such as choice, freedom, authenticity, and political action.

The commitment of the existentialists to minority sexuality also suggests that tolerance, empathy, and curiosity can be more important than personal experience as conditions for successful cross-reading.

Even the more absurdist writers who never incorporated explicitly gay and lesbian themes or sociopolitical commentary--Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco--helped set the stage in Europe, much as the Beat movement did in the United States and the Angry Young Men did in England, for a rejection of the middle-class morality, including heterosexual assumptions, that accompanied so much reading and literary analysis.

It was a time when various expressions of "otherness" became metaphors for "self" and produced an era especially conducive to cross-reading. Male or female, white or black, straight or gay--for a while everyone dwelled in James Baldwin's "another county," shared the public inconsequentiality of Ralph Ellison's "invisible man," and mourned Langston Hughes's "dream deferred."

The Stonewall Generation

And it is no mere coincidence that the power of this generation of cross-readers informed the Stonewall generation, which in 1969, began the movement for gay liberation.

The irony is that for all their exemplary cross-readings, Sartre's and Beauvoir's allegiance to Marxist materialist theory, which dictated that culture follows social, political, and economic realities, got it wrong; the cultural stirrings of gay liberation came before the political ones did. Before it took to the streets, political activism was first rehearsed on the pages of novels and essays, poems and plays.

The quintessential action of bending the text--of "unstraightening" it, if you will--remains the way that many gays and lesbians first approach a consciousness of themselves and their minority sexuality. It is the way they make great writing great for them.

The difference now is that criticism has finally begun to catch up, to the point of acknowledging the importance of the reader's "subject position."

Certainly, the abundant insights of one of the twentieth century's most famous and pioneering readers, French critic Roland Barthes--the intellectual successor to Sartre who emphasized text over context--are linked directly to his homosexuality, to his early awareness of marginality and transgression, and especially to a lifelong questioning of his own reading habits, as exemplified by such analyses as Mythologies (1957), S/Z (1970), The Pleasure of the Text (1973), and A Lover's Discourse (1977).

If we read experimentally, sooner or later we read as Barthes does, eclectically and across categories, blending the historical with the contemporary, the factual with the fictitious.

Works that Most Give Rise to Cross-Reading

What kind of works most give rise to cross-reading? Transgression of all kinds always seems one of the hallmarks of writers who challenge received notions of social order and personal identity.

Transgressive Works

Like a bearded cheek receiving a bearded kiss, the grammatical transgressions of American poet Wallace Stevens--his "extremest book by the wisest man"--strike an immediately sympathetic note and appeal in the same odd way as the precious street slang spoken by fart-sniffing convicts in Genet or the profane patois and massacred sentences of the adventurers in Céline's grimly picaresque novels.

The synesthetic correspondences that Charles Baudelaire discerned, the parallelisms that Arthur Rimbaud found between vowels and colors, the "exquisite hour" of Paul Verlaine--such nineteenth-century poetic expressions of decadence and symbolism seemed preciously effeminate, a kind of linguistic or imagistic cross-dressing.

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