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literature

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Reading Across Orientations  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  

From a gay viewpoint, it is not surprising that a Hermann Hesse revival took place in the androgynous hippie culture of the late 1960s. Many gay and bisexual men must have felt liberated by the unapologetically close male bonding in Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and attracted to the master-apprentice relationship in Magister Ludi (1943).

The point is not that these characters are gay--they aren't--but that they could be. In Hesse, men are placed close, physically and emotionally, to other men without the inevitable conflict and competition arising, and without a woman coming between them.

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Lesbians feel much the same way when they find a text in which women, even straight women, are allowed to negotiate the world without men.

Humor and Cross-Reading

Humor, particularly the irreverent verbal jousting that minority groups often use as a destigmatizing or desensitizing strategy, is also at the heart of some cross-reading.

Indeed, the verbal pyrotechnics of Falstaff, especially when he mocks Hal's king-father, amounts to mocking the patriarchal structure of both the family and the monarchy.

Of course, the plays and witticisms of Oscar Wilde remain the quintessential examples of serious camp and popular culture that would eventually find its way into modern literature and criticism.

Does anyone discern something pejoratively homosexual in Molière's Tartuffe, the kind of slippery righteousness and smoothly articulate hypocrisy--made more oily by rhymed couplets--that you find among some gay rightwingers and fundamentalists?

Apparently so, judging by even mainstream productions where the stagecraft reads between the lines of the text and brings to the surface the implications of Tartuffe's exploitative use of women, his foppish effeminacy, and his bonding with men. The stage, not the page, ends up "outing" one of the most famous characters in Western drama.

"Tendencies" and Censorship

Texts, too, exhibit "tendencies." That is how we come to suspect Willa Cather's and Marguerite Yourcenar's lesbianism through their gay male characters long before we know the biographical facts. Cross-reading is one of the best ways to penetrate the camouflage and transform those tendencies into a full-fledged interpretation.

Given the growing pressure to censor adult art by the uneasy coalition of religious fundamentalists on the right and children's advocates on the left, perhaps the most pertinent lesson of cross-reading provides a defense against would-be censors: Gay writing does not influence the reader's orientation so much as the reader's identity affects the text's.

Gay reading precedes gay writing and, in many cases, even gay behavior if we believe memoirs of writers such as Paul Monette and James Merrill. Censors may take away a gay text, but cross-reading remains.

An equally provocative conclusion is that the reality of explicit sex acts remains largely irrelevant to the establishment of gay and lesbian literary traditions, which depend much more on attributes such as character, theme, language, and structure. Cross-reading relies much more on potentiality, including the silence of self-repression, than on precision.

Calling Past Criticism into Question

Cross-reading also calls into question much of the best of past criticism and literary history. Until relatively recently, critics did not recognize gay writers as part of the mainstream of modern literature, let alone as perhaps the strongest current in that mainstream.

Whether those past critics were is beside the point; they were, at least in part, simply wrong. It is those critics, not gay or lesbian cross-readers, who stand most guilty of misreading individual works and misrepresenting their collective history.

It is difficult today to look at almost any literature and not see gay and lesbian writers squarely at the center of twentieth-century writing.

In French literature, one can cite Proust, Gide, Genet, Cocteau, Colette, Leduc, Yourcenar, and Monique Wittig; in English and American literature, the names are Whitman, Wilde, Forster, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg; in Russian, Mikhail Kuzmin, Sergei Esenin, Sophia Parnok, Anna Akhamatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Zinaida Gippius; in Japanese, Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata; in Spanish, García Lorca and Manuel Puig.

Even these few names show the closeness of the gay and lesbian literary tradition to the modern literary tradition, even as the list also shows how the modern gay and lesbian literary tradition has itself been established by gay and lesbian interpretations of apparently straight authors.

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