Memoirs: Chapter Twelve
As 1999 drew to a close, a great fear, amounting almost to panic, surfaced. It was thought that the end of the year would see massive disruptions of communications and travel because computers were not programmed to handle dates in the new millennium (the Y2K problem). This seemed hype, and Neal and I did not take the alarms very seriously. All the same, we huddled with some anxiety in my apartment to mark New Years Eve. And of course nothing happened.
Whew! That was a relief. Except that it wasn't. As we were to realize in fairly short order, the glories of the previous decade celebrated by Francis Fukuyama (who championed the fanciful notion of the "end of history") were to be short lived.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Neal and I were both drowsily trying to rouse ourselves from sleep when I received a call from Bill Percy in Boston. I must turn on the television. So I did, and witnessed the burning of the twin towers. We were far enough away from ground zero that there was no actual damage to our neighborhood. Still it was eerie going out in the evening for dinner in the deserted city.
After the shock of the attack wore off, there were loud demands for vengeance, as cries of “USA, USA” reverberated among the masses. George Bush decided to attack Afghanistan, a move that seemed to have some logic because the Taliban rulers of that country had been sheltering Bin Laden and refused to give him up. However, there was no justification at all for invading Iraq. In this way a disastrous decade ensued, sapping our blood, treasure, and self-confidence. In the run-up to the Iraq war I went to many rallies, and tried to persuade hawks I knew on the Internet. All, of course, to no
THE QUEER-THEORY FEVER
In Chapter Ten I reviewed the damage inflicted on gay scholarship by the Social Construction trend. In due course this fashion declined. Yet it was destined to make way for something worse: Queer Theory.
Queer Theory claims to rank as a branch of critical theory, The immediate sources of critical theory lie in Continental Europe, as reflected in the works of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. Some, however, emphasize older source strata stemming from Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and the Neo-Marxist thinkers associated with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research (Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and others). Ironically, the offices of the Frankfurt Institute in exile were once found in my apartment building, or so I have been told.
In some respects Queer Theory parts company with these forerunners because it tends to focus on “discourse” (often illustrated by literary texts) instead of behavior. With a strong input from feminism and gay/lesbian studies, it foregrounds such issues as identity, self-presentation, and sexual orientation. In its broadest sense, however, Queer Theory goes beyond sex, positing a world-view that enshrines the slipperiness and indeterminacy of consciousness and experience. The approach is deliberately "fuzzy."
In solidarity with the previous approach - Social Construction - Queer Theory challenges the idea that gender is part of the essential self, stressing the social origin of sexual acts and identities. To their cost, gay/lesbian studies had (in this view) been unable to overcome the traditional contrast of "natural" and "unnatural" behavior with respect to sexuality, For one thing, this opposition is a “binarism,” a kind of dichotomy that, following Jacques Derrida, Queer Theory must distrust and “problematize.” With some practitioners, the scope of Queer Theory is truly vast: it expands to challenge any kind of activity or identity that acknowledges either normative or deviant categories. Both are anathema.
Tentative as they are, these preliminary distinctions would elicit some demurral among adepts. In fact, it is notoriously hard to define Queer Theory. This difficulty may simply reflect the fact that it relatively new. Yet some adherents say that it must always be so, because the very essence of Queer Theory is instability. It compels us to recognize the centrality of uncertainty in issues of human significance.
The first use of the expression “Queer Theory” has been traced to the film critic Teresa de Lauretis, who proposed it at a working conference on theorizing lesbian and gay sexualities that was held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990. Barely three years later, Lauretis “jumped ship,” abandoning the term. Yet other academics, such as Judith Butler, the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael Warner, happily embraced it.
The prerequisite for Queer Theory was, of course, the attempt to rehabilitate the epithet "queer," which replaced "lesbian and gay" in some circles. Yet the real victor in the labeling contest, at least for the time being, is the acronym LGBTQ. In the unwieldy collocation, the dyad "lesbian and gay" is followed by "bisexual" and "trans." The final letter could be interpreted as "questioning" instead of "queer."
In contrast with this junk, the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality has stood up very well. In Boston my good friend Bill Percy found a way to reproduce it electronically, which he did on his site www.williamapercy.com. At the end of the decade I wrote my own interpretation of the history of gay scholarship or homostudies, which is available at http://www.sexarchive - a site hosted by the ever energetic and helpful Erwin Haeberle, whom I had met in San Francisco some years before.
In the new century Paul Knobel, an independent scholar residing in Sydney, Australia, emerged as an important gay-studies ally. In fact he has come to rank as my most important disciple, both as an encyclopedist and bibliographer. Much of Knobel's most significant work has become available through the kindness of Erwin Haeberle, whose site I mentioned in the previous paragraph. An indefatigable traveler, Paul Knobel has stayed with me four times in New York.
I turn to some aspects of my private life. For travel, 2003 typified my halcyon years. There were three foreign trips. The first, nine days in Panama in January, served mainly as a brief respite from the coldest New York City winter I can remember. Panama is mainly a nature-lover’s place, though they are restoring the old city of the capital, and it is quite attractive in a Joseph Conrad sort of way. As with some other countries we visited, I briefly toyed with buying retirement property in Panama, but fortunately thought better of it.
In April I went alone to London. There had been an amazing amount of new building since I had been there seven years before, including the new British Library; the vast, futuristic Docklands quarter; and the recycled power station that became Tate Modern, London's first true museum of modern art. But I got lost walking around my old neighborhood in Bloomsbury. And foolishly looking the wrong way at a street crossing like a typical “colonial,” I was nearly done in by a speeding bus.
In July Neal and I fulfilled a long-standing wish to see Angkor and the other Khmer monuments in Cambodia. This was truly a transcendental experience. Defying the SARS epidemic (actually not a serious problem in those countries) we stopped off in Laos (av visit too short) and in Vietnam. I had resisted going to Vietnam because of bad memories of the war period. Saigon is booming, and in the sense that it is an almost wild-west capitalist society, the Americans have actually won. English is widely spoken (little French) and the dollar is accepted everywhere.
All the southeast Asian countries were cheap and easy to get around in. Not so Japan, our final port of call. As I expected Japan is a polite, but highly regulated society. Getting the knack can be a challenge. For example, some lines on the Tokyo subway have no signs in English, so that one has to rely on counting the number of stops to know where to get off. To be sure, we saw the fabled temples and gardens of Kyoto. I found that outside of the high-rises, Tokyo is a city of many charming little neighborhoods, quite a surprise.
At the beginning of the year 2005 I formally retired from the Art Department at Hunter College. At first I experienced some disorientation, and asked to come back and teach an occasional course, which I did on three occasions. At home I fulfilled the promise to myself that I would do some serious catching up on my reading, so I tackled the major works of Aristotle, finished Dante's Divine Comedy at last, and forced my way through Montaigne’s interminable Essays. I tackled Alexis de Tocqueville and his famous book Democracy in America. At length, I realized that I did not want to turn into a reading machine, especially as my eyesight was not what it was. I decided to tackle some major book-length projects (of which this is the latest), to be made available on the Internet. The eyesight, by the way, has been considerably improved by two cataract operations. This is one of the rare dividends of getting older.
As I noted in the previous chapter, for several years I had been an active participant in an Internet discussion group, Beyond Queer Friends. One of the drawbacks of the group was that contributions--and some of mine were fairly substantial--were supposed to be confidential. Yet some members were journalists, and could air their opinions in the public prints. It seemed that those of us who did not have this access were in effect doing research for those who did. I also grew tired of the group's obsession with same-sex marriage. In my view this option should be available for any who wish it. But it is not a panacea. So I ended my connection with Beyond Queer Friends in 2004.
When Internet blogging came along I jumped on board, for this innovation meant that I could be my own publisher on the Internet, bypassing the oligopoly of the public prints. For a number of years now, my main blog has been www.dyneslines.blogspot.com. I have several subsidiary blogs, which can be accessed from that main one. I do not limit myself to gay topics, but cover a wide range of historical and political themes. Oddly enough, I have largely lost interest in art history and rarely write about it. I do often take comfort, though, in looking at my art books, of which I have a large number.
The Internet offered the opportunity for reconnecting with some older friends, especially those I had met in my gay-liberation days. Going back to earlier phases was less certain. As with many others, I have wondered what happened to my high school friends. Some are no longer traceable, and with others I feel too shy to initiate a connection. Sadly, there was one major lost opportunity. In junior high I had been best friends with Edward Satchell. We went on to LA High School and UCLA together, but drifted apart, owing in part to what I perceived as his aggressive heterosexuality. How wrong I was! After graduation from college, Ed moved to the Bay Area. Speedily he formed an alliance with a man named Billy and they lived in a rewarding gay relationship for more than fifty years. Alas, I only learned about this history from reading Ed's obituary in 2011. I then called up Billy the survivor, and had a long and rewarding conversation about Ed. They lived in California, but we could still have seen each other from time to time. Dogged by misunderstanding, we did not.
As I advanced further in my blogging career, certain recurring themes emerged. One was the role of the Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - in Western Civilization. In my teaching career I had tended to emphasize the positive cultural role of these faiths, which have played a very important role in fostering the visual arts. Of course, they have also been significant in the fields of literature and music. My new critical stance reflected the impress of recent scholarship. In the study of the Hebrew Bible, the minimalists have proven to be influential iconoclasts in questioning the reality of the so-called Egyptian captivity and the Exodus. Such figures as Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, and Solomon may never have existed. Three thousand years ago, when Solomon's great empire supposedly flourished, Jerusalem was a village amounting to scarcely more than 1000 inhabitants. With regard to Christianity, I explored the likelihood that the Holy Trinity was not part of the original Gospel message, and the possibility that Jesus may have had a twin brother. With regard to Islam, I examined the revisionist school that questioned the standard litany of Muhammad's career in Mekka and the supposed origins of the Qur'an text. These points, and much else highly disturbing to believers, made their way into my manuscript www.abrahamica.blogspot.com. There is also a shorter version at www.incipitmed.blogspot. com.
One benefit of scholarship is the chance to revisit old undertakings and make them better. So it was with my small book Homolexis of 1985. In the new electronic version, known as Homolexis Glossary, I sought to find patterns in the generation of terminology for same-sex behavior. These I termed tropes. Here is how I accounted for this interest in the Introduction:
“What is a trope? In the sense used in Homolexis Glossary, a trope is a figure of speech embodying a comparison, metaphor, or cluster of meaning to designate a human group or concept. One of the tropes of youth, for example, is seasonal: it ranks as the springtime of human life. Other tropes for youth are germination or sprouting (of green plants) and embarkation (as on a voyage). More general qualities also come into play, as vigor, striving, promise, inexperience and so forth.
“As homosexuality is a richly varied modality of human life, its tropes are exceptionally productive. There is a second quality as well, which is shared with some other groups that have been for one reason or another proscribed or vilified in our society. That is to say, many of the tropes have taken on a negative coloration. The term stereotype comes to mind, except that tropes are more varied and ramifying.
“The main part of the book consists of several score chapters, from Abjection and Animals to Numbers and the Unmentionable. The examples stem mainly from US and British English, but there is also comparative material from Greek and Latin, and from French, German, Italian, and Spanish.”
PERSONAL CRISES AND ATTACHMENTS
In the summer of 2005 Neal was diagnosed in Tennessee with Parkinsons Disease. He panicked and tried to commit suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning. Neighbors saved him just in time, but he was left with serious, incurable brain damage. He stopped communicating, and in due course his brother Danny moved him to a nursing home in North Carolina, where he has stayed. I have not seen him since he went away. He is deaf and won't write. That disaster marked the end of a long, sometimes stormy commitment in my personal life. In his later years Neal had been an extraordinary companion on our trips. He proved to be irreplaceable.
I was left to deal with Charles S., an improvident young man with a serious drinking problem, who insisted on bunking with me in the Manhattan apartment. I tried several times to expel this parasite, but he kept coming back. Among other things, he was stealing books.
An unexpected disaster put paid to the Charles problem. In the summer of 2007 my apartment in Morningside Heights was found to be seriously infested with bedbugs. The landlord insisted that I leave the place, moving to a hotel (which they paid for). All my possessions were moved out as the apartment was thoroughly renovated. Sadly, the furniture and most of my clothes were destroyed as possibly infected. I insisted on saving the books and papers, though.
At the beginning of this crisis, Charles simply disappeared, finding shelter (or so I hoped) with some new protector. I trust that that was the right decision for this wayward young man, as I was unable to continue assisting him. To this day I do not know what has become of Charles, though I believe that he is living somewhere in the NYC metropolitan area.
Even with lots of help from friends, much appreciated, it took me almost a year to get the apartment in shape again after the remodeling. I discarded about 6,000 of my 20,000 books. I concede that it is much pleasanter living here now.
As I have explained above, Neal, my True Love, took himself out of the picture with his botched effort at suicide. In 2007, rousing myself at length from my grief and torpor, I decided to try once again. This time it was with a charming gay actor I met on the Internet. For several years I didn’t realize that he had been maintaining a primary relationship with another man, who lived in a different city. For this reason he could not commit to a relationship with me.
The actor, the object of my renewed interest, was also half my age, For a while though my new innamorato was my guide to the more elegant pleasures of the city: fine dining, Broadway plays, and opera. These excursions were expensive, but I didn’t mind paying for us both.
We broke up for two reasons. First, was the age difference. This was an obstacle not just in the primary sense, but because we had, based on the different circumstances of our growing up, diverging tastes and expectations. In addition his quest to establish himself in the crowded field of New York actors failed, and he returned to his native city. Since I had no intention of following him there, it all ended, but I think with some real profit for us both.
In my life I have enjoyed the privilege of living in various places and doing various things. Hence the complexity - some might say waywardness - of the foregoing account. Yet three constants emerge.
1. Changing the world. This ambition was implanted in me at an early age when my parents inculcated in me the idea that society needed to be fundamentally transformed. The instrument of this change was to be Communist revolution. Luckily, I abandoned this particular illusion at the tender age of fourteen.
The larger aim of changing the world retreated for a good while, but not entirely. If I could not change the world for everyone I would change it for myself. I would flee the horror of crass, conformist, consumerist America by moving to Europe, that supremely cultured continent.
After my first experiment in expatriation in Italy I decided that this particular choice was not the answer. A few years later, though, I concluded that my new country was to be England. It was there that I acquired my second world-changing ambition, which stemmed from the philosophy of Karl Popper. Popper believed that one could change society incrementally by piecemeal planning. But for me that was not the most important point of his teaching. The goal was to arrive at a correct philosophy, and by so doing expose rival schools as the sources of error that they must be. There was to be a revolution of the mind. While I cheered on the Popperians and those fighting the good fight (in my judgment), I saw that I was not about to recycle myself as a philosopher.
My last effort at changing the world began in the 1970s when I rallied to gay liberation. My temperament didn’t suit me to undertake the direct action - the protests, marches, and zaps - wherein others thrived. Instead I would offer my scholarly talents and training to the cause. And so I created Homosexuality: A Research Guide and The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.
In the end, the effect of gay liberation and gay scholarship was less transformational than the militants had expected in the early days. Assimilation, symbolized by same-sex marriage, was the outcome. But a huge burden had been lifted from a large portion of humanity, at least in the advanced Western world.
2. Erotic dualism. My search for erotic fulfillment has oscillated between two poles. On the one hand, there was the quest for the perfect mate. On the other was my indulgence, if you will, in sexual pluralism.
The first goal, the quest for Mr. Right, began with the fixation on Larry in high school. Yet the great love of my life, stretching over decades, was with Neal, whom I met when he was a graduate student at Columbia, Its concluding episode was with the man I have termed the Arbiter Elegantiae, briefly described in Chapter 12, above. For some periods of my life I felt it prudent to do without sex.
As soon as I turned 21 though, I started going to gay bars and picking up guys. During the 1970s I was able to take advantage of an expanded range of venues, including the steambaths and the trucks. When the AIDS crisis appeared in 1981 I was fortunate in being able to summon the resolve to curtail this activity. I could resume the quest for Mr. Right.
3. Culture vulture. As a teenager I abandoned my predilection for natural science in favor of the humanities. I sought to annex for myself the major works of the Western tradition, starting with the Greeks.
This commitment had a missionary component. I had little luck in promoting the reading of Homer - in translation of course - and Mozart scarcely needed my support. Then I found my true calling, or so it seemed for many years: art history.
As a successful college teacher for forty years I did influence many students, thereby changing the world, at least a little. There is also, according to some, an erotic element in teaching. After I took up my main job, though, I resolved never to try to seduce a student. I kept this vow. It is, I believe, a mistake to try to merge every aspect of one's life into an artificial unity.