Filozofická fakulta Katedra anglistiky a amerikanistiky
Magisterská diplomová práce
2016 Tereza Hošková
Faculty of Arts Department of English
and American Studies English Language and Literature
Bc. Tereza Hošková
On Gay Memoirs: From Symonds to Monette
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: doc. Michael Matthew Kaylor, PhD.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
In the first place, I would like to thank my supervisor, doc. Michael Matthew Kalor, Ph.D, for his valuable advice and patient guidance.
Special thanks go to my best friends and soulmates Veronika Ederová, Jiří Hájek, Martina Nováková, Patrik Vidlák and Martin Zelinger for the provision of psychological support during my studies.
Table of Contents
"It was the yearning to be free to love that appeared to bond us as a people, a bond that turns out to be as strong as land or language."
Throughout the history of humankind, there have always been minor groups of people, whose social background, education, appearance, race, age, sex, conduct and manners, religious preferences, personal priorities and sexual proclivities have not been in compliance with the norms established in accord with the angle of view of the majority. Of course, cultural and national norms have varied in various aspects of considering what the norm should be and who may fall into the category of normalcy due to geographical, historical and ethical context of a given area and period of time. The long tradition of setting up categories and assessment of normative factors that can be applied to a human life has certainly done more harm than good. Nearly all categories have been artificially constructed to introduce a new hierarchical order in society – who is better or nobler than others; and have created and confirmed the notion of imperfection, perversion and stigma among groups which have been the most affected by the disapproval of disparity of human beings. In general, people tend to establish categories to measure or classify the spheres that reflect the unknown and uncertain to them. Segdwick’s definition of heterosexuality, for instance, consists in “a fear of male homosexuality that motivates men to route their desire for one another through women” (qtd. in Marcus 198). Berliner argues that “the rejection of homosexuals may be based in a popular mythology” or “it may stem from individuals’ problems of deep uncertainties about their own sexual identity” (141). The point is that there was “no period in history, not one nation, culture or race that was completely free of homo- or bisexuality” (Lang qtd. in Oosterhuis 191) but only an infinitesimal number of them “had a developed concept of the “homosexual” as a specific type of person different from the “normal” or “heterosexual” person and it the West it was essentially a creation of the nineteenth century” (Hocquenghen 34). Every period dealt with homosexuality in a different way according to local customs and social context – unfortunately, the way was mostly degrading and humiliating. Various kinds of homosexual behavior can also be found through the whole spectrum of animal species. “The only sexual attitude unique to humans, Bagemihl underscores, is homophobia” (qtd. in Marcus 203). I should also not neglect to mention the idea that homosexuality is such a strong notion of ‘other’ for the majority of “normal” people that it can become a connecting element between other departures from social norms. When one is sexually oriented to the same sex, their other non-standard life factors are suddenly lacking in significance. Robb presents the “unimportance of race, religion, and class” (169) as one of the significant features that accompanies homosexual community.
The chief purpose of this work is a comparison of three crucial memoirs written by homosexual authors – The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds – The Secret Homosexual Life of a Leading Nineteenth-Century Man of Letters (finished in 1893, published in 1984) by John Addington Symonds and edited by Phillis Grosskurth, Christopher and His Kind (written about his life in the 1930s, first published in 1976) by Christopher Isherwood and Borrowed Time (first published in 1988) by Paul Monette. Via this paper, I would like to become a voice of men who were during their lives repeatedly forced to be silent, even though there was “a great temptation to speak out” (Symonds qtd. in Grosskurth 16). The analysis of the memoirs embraces the following angles of view: the credibility of autobiographical genres competing with the writer’s own ego and the strong tendencies of an individual to give an impression of being a good personality, the proneness of society to categorize and establish norms and homosexuals split between own their sexual instincts and social rules - homosexuality as a strong, though not the strongest, pillar of the memoirs, modern and postmodern continuity of the Platonic concept of love and its interpretations, the upper class and intelligentsia as an inseparable feature of the authors – “I had become one of the privileges of the upper class” (Monette 12), the memoirists’ desire to live to the fullest, and other minor aspects which I consider significant for a complete comprehension of what the authors intended to convey.
The main argument of the thesis is that the memoirists might be successfully considered successors of each other as the memoirs are exceptional for their fairly unexpected complementarity. There is a strong temporal, spatial and thematic link intersecting their lives. The time periods of their lives and the places where they were born and lived are connected to each other. Symonds was born in England in 1840. During his life, he traveled a lot, mostly throughout Europe, but he eventually died in England again. His memoir is one of the earliest self-reflective accounts of a homosexual. Shortly after Symonds’ death, Christopher Isherwood was born in England. He spent the 1930s, which are depicted in the memoir, in Germany, where he searched for more liberal social conditions. He also describes his travels to Greece, Spain, China, etc. during the period. Because of Nazi ideology and the imminence of war, he moved to the United States in 1939. He settled down in Los Angeles, California. Paul Monette was born in Massachusetts in 1945 and moved to Los Angeles in 1978. Monette had also a great passion for travelling; he especially loved France and Greece. Borrowed Time was one of the earliest extensive accounts of the impact of AIDS on both human lives and the gay community. The thematic link connecting the three memoirists is more complex and less detectable. The words and phrases they use in reference to gay men and homosexuality can indicate its root. Symonds uses the following expressions: “comrades”, “abnormal”, “morbid”, “psychological condition”, “abnormally constituted individual”, “sin”, “inborn insanity”, “abnormal inclinations”, “abnormal desire”, “the idea of evil”, “fellow sufferers”, “my deviation”, “people born like us”, “a misdemeanor punishable by the law and revolting to the majority of human beings”, and “deeply rooted perversion of the sexual instincts”. Isherwood uses the following expressions: “my tribe”, “one of us”, “the Third Sex”, “fellow tribesmen”, “the others” for straight people, and “the same sort”. And Monette uses the phrases such as “our brothers”, living “on the moon” for having AIDS, “our kind”, “our tribe”, “brotherhood”, and “our brother” in his memoir. However, their common topics and issues are not only focused on those reflecting their sexuality, prejudice and the narrow-mindedness of the times and places where they lived. They are in the first place intellectuals following the tradition of the greatest brains of our history, humanists, fighters for the idea that possessions are not enough to lead a fulfilled life, and metaphysical thinkers who are not afraid to consider controversial issues, such as the sense of life, what the soul is, the relevance of competition for success with other people, etc., which are sensitively depicted and can make their readership re-evaluate its own established life values. Another of their shared subjects is the formation of a humanist awareness on the basis of a kind of nasty premonition of the disastrous influence of events which occurred during the period of time they were born and had to live in on gayness. Paradoxically enough, the sense of an inevitability of a tragic fate for the gay community works as a cementing element. Symonds, Isherwood and Monette all experienced homosexual proclivities being labeled as sin, crime, mental disease or worse. They were frequently being deprived at least of their own dignity because of nonsensical moral laws, the Nazi idea of übermensch and AIDS. The three memoirs are proof enough of the fact that
the formation of generational consciousness […] is always derived from great historical events like wars, plague, famines, and economic crises because it is great historical events like these that supply the markers and signposts with which people impose order on their past and link their individual fates with those of the community in which they live. (Wohl qtd. in Bolton 156)
Perhaps, I should also clarify the fact that this paper focuses only on gay men and a brief history of gayness since the time around Symonds’ birth and completely excludes lesbians and their interests. Actually, I agree with the arguments of numerous scholars that the position of homosexual men has been harsher than the one of lesbians from historical and anthropological point of view; and I would like to become their advocate via this thesis. Tender relationships among women have been, to a considerable extend, more tolerated because of their natural predispositions to emotiveness and empathy acquired because of their inborn maternal instincts, while men’s supposed toughness and the role of a breadwinner has strictly disapproved of amorous conduct among male fellowship. In the past, many legal authorizes held such attitudes. Oosterhuis underlines that “it is clear that the Nazis considered homosexuality between males much more dangerous than that between females. In contrast to male homosexuality, for example, same-sex behavior between women was never criminalized” (188). Here, the policy of a male-dominated society, which has been enforced for long time, has failed, for men’s tenderness has become an equivalent to weakness. Moreover, a marked support has been lent to women in general during the feminist movement and subsequent emancipation efforts in the last several decades. “Sisterhood is powerful. Brotherhood is in danger of becoming just another boy’s club and reinventing the patriarchy. Lesbians have feminism but what do us sissy boys have to be the theory behind our practice?” (Roberts 65). Women’s fight for equal rights was different from gays’ because of a simple fact that people “who most contest women’s value, achievements, and rights do not contest that women exist” (Marcus 201), while the actual existence of homosexuality has been questioned many times.
In the second chapter, attention is drawn to the question of the credibility of autobiographical genres. The reader often tends to believe the whole story but we should not forget that every human being is prone to give a good impression to others, regardless of a device he/she uses. Isherwood, for instance, openly confesses the methods of manipulating the reader to a desired position using his ‘camera-style narration’. “In this kind of storytelling, the author is playing a game with the reader” (102). As far as his memoir is concerned, it would be very naive to suppose that he was easily willing to completely give up a writing style that poses a challenge to the reader’s interpretative ability. The chapter focuses on possible reasons that authors might have to share own private matters with the world and to specific aspects of a memoir written by a homosexual. More thought is given to Isherwood’s unique narrative style.
The third chapter of this paper, which carries the main arguments of the thesis, is divided into five subchapters. The first subchapter proposes sexuality as one of a series of artificially made categories to measure a degree of ‘normalcy’ of humans. It also analyzes the memoirs from the perspective of the authors’ sexual preferences in terms of the mentality of society during the periods when they lived, and the degree to which their lives were influenced by it. An effort is made to comprehend the living conditions of a homosexual living during the era of Victorian England, experiencing the pre-war horrors of Berlin and reconciling himself with the tragedy of AIDS, and therefore the chief trains of thoughts of the memoirists. General beliefs concerning homosexuality of the times are briefly introduced and applied to a primary story of each memoir. Drawing on the ideas of Ulrichs, Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfeld, Freud, Foucalt, Kinsey and others, a naturally developed link connecting both the theories of homosexuality and the memoirists is suggested.
The subchapter 3.2 analyzes the memoirists as the followers of the traditional Platonic concept of love in reference with Plato’s dialogues which are mentioned in them. Spiritual aspects of life, the sense of beauty and transience of life are highlighted. The subchapter is also devoted to the debate over spiritual vs. corporeal love, or higher vs. lower love. Plato’s works have been differently interpreted in these terms – some scholars have regarded the Platonic concept of love as completely deprived of matters of the flesh; some have taken sexual intercourse as an inevitable element of it. The interpretation of his dialogues which prevailed until the 1950s held the opinion that physical purity is Plato’s chief message. Since then, a variety of dissimilar theories have emerged with Dover as the leading protagonist of new ideas. The relationship between the lover and the beloved is not also a neglected topic.
The following subchapter addresses the issues of the intellectual background of the memoirists, which was both beneficial and detrimental to them at the same time. They had a passion for writing in their genes, their intellectual circles provided them with the incessant presence of inspirational thoughts and they used their renowned names or the names of their friends to get preferential treatment in various situations. Simultaneously, they must have felt obliged to fulfill the expectations of their family, famous friends and the public to write wittily, creatively and originally. Symonds, for instance, never forgave himself the fact that his father, the most influential figure of his life, had died sooner than his scholarly career properly developed. He was haunted by this thought for the rest of his life. He thought that his father “had resigned all expectation of [his] making a mark in the world” (234). Despite living in different periods of time, Symonds, Isherwood and Monette admired similar types of authors and dealt with similar layers of meaning of their texts. Their memoirs contain numerous references to them.
The fourth part of the chapter 3 provides a link of the memoirs to the notion of carpe diem. Actually, the authors did not lose their beliefs in the power of a moment, even though they had experienced horrific social climates and had been forced to be confronted with attitudes of homophobic, illiberal character. I present here the evidence of carpe diem derived from their memoirs and elaborate the topic in context of an omnipresent subconscious fear of death to which all human beings are sentenced. Symonds, Isherwood and Monette’s memoirs indicate the fact that personal happiness lies in the state of rapproachment. They all were able to reach it although the processes themselves had been progressive and slow.
The last subchapter considers other minor topics and ideas that the memoirists shared. It should complete the picture of their mutual mental interconnection. Under the force of circumstances, Symonds got married, but generally, they had the same opinion on marriage and children. According to them, it is a superfluous, institutional attempt to deprive people of their personal freedoms and to limit their rights. They also shared the opinion that their partners should be addressed as ‘a friend’ - they considered the term ‘lover’ fairly humiliating, as the position of a lover is easily won but the position of a friend must be deserved. I call this idea “the concept of a friend”. Section 3.5 also includes brief reflections on the question of religiosity – if it can at all correspond with homosexual proclivities, the memoirists’ strong inclinations to humanism, and their unsettled or, by contrast, surprisingly mature relationships with the members of the family.
The conclusion summarizes the findings of previous chapters, in which I advocate the idea that Symonds, Isherwood and Monette did not have only the fate of a homosexual living during a hostile period of time in common. The amount of other topics and ideas, which are both implicitly and explicitly expressed in their memoirs, and which they shared is incredible. Undoubtedly, the thesis is also a powerful testimony in defense of homophile love and courtship.
2. Credibility of autobiographical genre and its writing style
A memoir is a sub-genre of autobiography, and it ought to cover only a part of the author’s life or a single event. Symonds’ memoir is the exception that proves the rule. He covers all his life in his memoirs, which he had been writing for 4 years from 1889 to 1893 when he died. Phyllis Grosskurth, the editor of his memoir(s), herself maintains that “it is curious that Symonds should have chosen the term ‘memoirs’ for, strictly speaking, a memoir is a record of event whereas Symonds’ work is both an account and a justification of his life, and an interpretive analysis of his temperament” (13). Perhaps, the title had been meant as an interconnection of multiple events of Symonds’ life. Symonds was a gifted scholar, whose studies seem to be generally underestimated. His “perpetual discord between spontaneous appetite and acquired respect for social law” is masterfully depicted in the book. He was forced by father and own conscience to marry a woman to endeavor to adopt ‘normal’ sexual tastes. Despite having a loving wife and four daughters, his life was very unhappy and torn apart. The memoir was not intended to be made public until 1976, 50 years after Brown, his literary executor, died. However, the London Library, which inherited the document, decided to open it to Symonds’ daughter in 1949 and to a circle of literary scholars in 1954. The fact that nobody read the memoir in the 50 years which followed Symond’s death enabled Symonds to write fairly openly about his sexual proclivities and adventures, although the era in which he wrote was strictly conformist.
Isherwood’s memoir Christopher and His Kind depicts the 1930s, which he spent predominantly in Germany. Although the book follows a quest pattern, his life story is not a mere search for a sexually liberal country although it may seem so. He searches for a home, a place where people do not need to hear any excuses for him being himself. Despite writing about the pre-war period, the book was published in 1976. The narrator, therefore, knows what had happened to ‘Christopher’ before the 1930s as well as what took place during the following decades. This may evoke the image of God-like narrator in the readers’ minds. In the atmosphere of the 1970s, which meant relaxed attitudes towards sexual matters, he could dare not avoid the topics like promiscuity, which he calls “sexual colonialism” (Heilbrun 257), venereal diseases and relational games with German boys. Woods suggests that “the ‘ordinary’ heterosexual reader of the mid-1930s could not so easily have allowed the presence of homosexuality to pass without generating an acute anxiety” (336). Unlike in his previous semi-autobiographical works, in Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood uses real names and does not distort facts, events and time factors. He explains it by stating that “many of the characters are now dead or they have become such old friends that I’m sure they won’t mind” (Heilbrun 261). According to Schenk, it was “his lifelong trend to be less and less the fictionalist and more and more the memoirist” (477). Exposing his own faults and negative characteristic features, Isherwood seems to be very outspoken in his memoir; and his narrative style and devices contribute to its readability. “But here I am confronted by the reality of Christopher’s monster behavior – his tears followed by cold calculation – and it shocks me, it hurts my self-esteem even after all these years! The more reason for recording it” (81).
Monette’s Borrowed Time is a record of the AIDS calamity during the 1980s and its impact on the gay community. He can be labeled as one of the prophets because the memoir was one of the first books considering the topic to such a large measure. As he does not have any other choice, Monette proves an enormous mental fortitude and toughness when forcibly becoming reconciled with death, which surrounds him, and taking care of his dying friend, Roger. He gives an account of a relatively short period of time which dramatically changed the rest of his life in an exceptionally sensitive way, which simply cannot leave the reader indifferent. “Putting off as long I could the desolate waking to life alone – this calamity that is all mine, that will not end till I do” (Monette 342). Shock, confusion, anger, grief, the guilt of the survivor, depression and panic are counterweighted with indefatigable human determination not to give up own living and a discovery of eternity that can be hidden in one single moment.
We must not neglect to mention that the memoirs are not only the stories of a certain period of their lives; they give us also a powerful testimony to political, cultural and social events of a particular time. We learn about folk habits, popular books and plays, governmental strategies, foreign countries and many other topical issues. The memoirists attach great importance to the context of their living to let the reader merge with them and, together with them, experience their emotional turmoil - Symonds’ hardships caused by social limitations, Isherwood’s deep-seated disdain for nationalist ideology, and Monette’s fear of death and the notion of fatality.