Friday, November 25, 2005

Homosexuality and numbers

The following is a small section from a work of some length that has engaged me for several years. A study in historical semantics, this projected book illustrates and compares the tropes governing the terminology for same-sex persons and same-sex behavior in major West European languages. Among the tropes covered in this work in progress are some that are fairly abstract, such as Directionality (which yields the terms orientation, bent, proclivity, decadence, and so forth). Some are, to be sure, more graphic, as Food terms, based on the folk comparison of nutrition and sexual gratification illustrated by the expression "sexual appetites."

I confess that the following short text is somewhat scattered. I would welcome suggestions as to how to pull the piece together, as well as additional items. Write me directly at


At first glance numeration does not seem appropriate to the conceptualization of sex. Numbers imply separation. All sorts of things—-apartments, passports, lottery tickets-—bear specific numbers designed to differentiate them clearly and conclusively from other things in the same class. By contrast, sexual congress seeks the union or blending of two or more bodies, rather than their separation.

Numbers are also impersonal. Here is where we find our first link. Some enthusiasts think of each sexual partner as a link in a numerical chain. Heterosexuals are sometimes surprised by the totals some gay men report for sexual partners, which may amount to thousands or even tens of thousands. As most of these couplings are anonymous, the individuals encountered may be thought of impersonally--as numbers. This was the idea iinforming John Rechy’s 1969 novel entitled Numbers. Some sexual athletes keep diaries in which their partners are carefully recorded in sequence. All the same, it is rare for these partners to be recalled as specific numbers: "317 was unusually hot; 566, a disappointment." In peninsular Spanish the word número refers to a particular way of performing sex, rather than to a partner in a sequence.

Number symbolism may arise from the shapes of letters. In Roman letters V is thought to be a diagrammatic rendering of a human hand. Accordingly, X is two hands. Unrelated to the origins of our zero symbol, 0 is sometimes used for the vagina (though the letter 0 is a more usual interpretation for the form).

The conjunction of two particular numbers provides the clearest example of such direct or transparent symbolism. The interpretation of 69 as two individuals pleasuring one another side by side, head to toe, reflects the shape of the figures. Such an interpretation was theoretically possible as soon as Arabic numbers became common in Europe (perhaps the fifteenth century). However, the trope has not been traced before the middle of the nineteenth century in France. The French expression "soixante-neuf" was then adopted in other languages (sesenta y nueve, neun-und-sechzig, and so forth.). A hundred years ago some English-speaking travelers and servicemen were evidently unfamiliar with its interpretation; hence the garbled imitation "swaffunder." A rare usage is 66 for anal sex.

Some numbers imply a series. The idea of the third sex goes back to the third century C.E. in the Roman Empire (tertium genus). In the guise of "le troisième sexe," the notion was popular in France during the nineteenth century. Some hold that only male homosexuals form the third sex; lesbians should be called the fourth sex. However, this distinction is not generally observed and, to the extent that the term is used at all nowadays, it refers to both both male and female same-sex persons.

In his first Report (1948) Alfred Kinsey introduced his scale of sexual orientation, with 0 indicating a pattern of exclusive involvement with the opposite sex and 6 an exclusive involvement with the same sex. Today it is not uncommon to hear gay men ask: “Are you a Kinsey 6 or a 5?” A similar usage seems to be lacking among heterosexuals, still chary of acknowledging any dalliance with the same sex. Not so, obviously, with bisexuals, whose moniker by the way incorporates a Latin prefix meaning "two."

From the Kinsey Reports (1948; 1953) some have derived quantifying estimates for the incidence of homosexuality, including the well-known ascription of 10%. Such numbers are still a matter of discussion. There is also the rather melancholy calculation (still in dispute) of the numbers of homosexual persons murdered by the Nazis.

Some numbers apply only within particular national jurisdictions. Ein-hundert-fünf-und- siebziger (175er) is still widely understood in Germany. This interpretation stems from Article 175 in the Imperial German Penal Code (promulgated in 1872) that prohibited same-sex relations. (It has since been deleted for adults.) There are all sorts of variations. May 17 (17 Mai or 17.5) is thought to be a gay day. Well-healed homosexuals are said to prefer a Mercedes 175.

In Britain Clause 28 was the legal provision enacted in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s government that forbade local authorities "to intentionally promote homosexuality" or to "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." This clause became a symbol of attempts to roll back gay rights. Today a dead letter, it was for a time the focus of the “scrap the clause” movement.

In 1901 in Mexico City a famous police raid took place at a drag ball. Reportedly 41 persons were arrested. The term has survived in Mexico to this day (see the essays in Robert McKee Irwin [ed.], The Famous 41).

A three way or threesome is a sexual encounter involving three persons. Likewise, four way or foursome.

In the US the dated expression "queer as a three-dollar bill" overlaps with the older idea of "queer money" (that is, counterfeit).

For many years there was a bar in New York's Greenwich Village called The Ninth Circle. The somewhat recondite reference is to the circle in Dante's Inferno where sodomites were confined.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Arthur Koestler at 100

One of the twentieth century’s leading intellectuals, Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905. He was raised in an upper-middle-class Jewish family, whose fortunes were ruined by World War I. Then the young Arthur was cast on the turbulent waters of an uncertain world.

As the Chinese say he had "lucky eyes," having witnessed many of he century’s most memorable events, some of them quite dangerous. He attended the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918, and its succession, first by a democratic regime and then by the Communist experiment of Bela Kuhn. He undertook higher education in Austria in the 1920s, the creative era of the Vienna circle, Karl Kraus, the later days of Freud, and so forth. He interrupted this period with a Zionist interlude in mandate Palestine. A journalist in Berlin in the early thirties, he became a committed Communist--an experience that led to a year in the Soviet Union. With the Nazi rise to power, he fled to Paris where he joined the antifascist propaganda effort of the thuggish Communist Willy Muenzenberg. He then covered the Spanish civil war for several newspapers, gradually shedding his Communist allegiance. With the German occupation of France, he was briefly interned, but made his way to England. Like Karl Popper, Ernst Gombrich and other Central Europeans, he became truly British by choice.

Arthur Koestler documented his adventurous life in a number of autobiographical books, beginning with Arrow in the Blue (1952). He gained enormous credibility by his fortitude in times of trouble, through hunger in Haifa, jailing in Spain under a sentence of death, and internment in France.

Nowadays, most people, assuming that they recognize the name at all, will say that Koestler wrote a novel called Darkness at Noon, first published in England in 1940. This powerful work is indeed important, though it does not begin to exhaust the scope of Koestler’s contribution to his unhappy century, and indeed to the new one, whose character has not yet been established.

What is the background of Koestler’s novel? It is rooted in the Stalin’s Great Purge. In August 1935 the dictator’s henchmen arrested and the Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev. At their trials they confessed to crimes they could not possibly have committed. The following year the purge was massively renewed, with more victims and more smoothly managed procedures. This frightful development evoked two different responses. On the one hand, the fellow travelers, unwilling to give up their illusions about the Soviet Union, went along, playing their assigned role as useful idiots and saying that the victims of the trials must be guilty. Others, less gullible, began to harbor doubts and openly express them.

To be sure, Stalin’s persecutions were not without precedent. In 1917, under Lenin, Feliks Dzhershinsky had established the Cheka, a kind of Soviet gestapo to root out the "enemies of the state." In 1991 Dzherzhinsky’s statue was toppled from its pedestal. Now in 2005, the image of the persecutor is back, in the form of a bust. Some matters in Russia seem perennial.

Still Stalin’s purges posed questions that needed to be answered. Assuming that these notable Communist victims of the purges were not guilty, how had they been induced to offer abject confessions?

Except for occasional flashbacks, Darkness at Noon takes place entirely in a Soviet prison. Its hero is an Old Bolshevik named Rubashov, a fictional compound of Radek, Trotsky and one or two others. Rubashov is a convinced believer of the Communist theory of history, focused on the inevitable victory of the proletariat and the establishment of an earthly utopia. All this must be accomplished though with the guidance of the Party, which is infallible. Harried by sleep deprivation and relentless interrogation, Rubashov comes to accept the monstrous proposition that he must offer one last sacrifice for the Party. He signs the confession that has been drafted in his name, and is killed.

Encountering some criticisms, Koestler indicated that the psychological profile presented in his book was not intended to cover every instance of false confession—only those that were the most puzzling, the breakdown of the tough old Communists. When I first read Darkness at Noon in 1949, I was seeking a way out of the political leftism inculcated in me by my parents. The book was a powerful solvent. Today I find the book depressing, but in its time it accomplished important work.

Koestler had been a Communist since the beginning of the thirties. He had spent a year in the Soviet Union (1932-33). Later he indicated that Marxism appealed to him as a system; besides, he was in love with the Five Year Plan! Such enthusiasms were not unusual. At the beginning of the world Depression many intellectuals fell for the appeal of Communism. The menace of Nazism added another factor. Gradually, though, doubts began to accumulate, and by 1939 Koestler’s illusions had fallen away.

After World War II, Koestler threw himself into the anti-Communist movement. With R.H.S Crossman he edited The God That Failed, a collection of accounts of involvement with Communism and disillusionment by Louis Fischer, Andre Gide, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, Richard Wright, and Koestler himself.

Today, it is fashionable in some circles to decry the ex-Communists. Alger Hiss, whose espionage is thoroughly proved, is preferred to Whitaker Chambers. And for “progressives” the director Elia Kazan remains a figure of derision.

After the dust had settled in the Cold War, Koestler turned his attention to science, an old love dating back to his work as a science journalist in Berlin in the early 1930s. Of the dozen or so books he produced in this vein, the one that impressed me most is The Act of Creation, a 1964 work of some 750 pages which addresses the still mysterious theme of human creativity. In a nutshell Koestler shows how in some instances “two and two can make five.” That is, by bringing together two phenomena not previously linked, a new whole emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts. This process of conjunction is termed "bisociation."

The book also illuminates the even more mysterious problem of humor, which has been addressed by some major thinkers but without much success. Koestler holds that bisociation is the key. Here is a sample. Two Brooklyn housewives are talking over the fence. One confides, "I had to take Sammy to the psychiatrist yesterday." The other housewife: "What on earth for?" The mother: "Well it seems that Sammy has an unresolved Oedipus complex." The other: "Oedipus shmedipus! So long as he loves his mother." In this joke two realms meet with hilarious results—everyday wisdom, based on family solidarity, and the sophisticated theory of psychoanalysis.

In my view Koestler’s greatest work, The Act of Creation, has not yet received its due.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Fra Angelico

The following remarks reflect visits to the exhibition of the Florentine artist Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455) currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Fra Angelico is one of those rare artists whose appeal stands before and outside the rigors of art historical indoctrination. Limiting comparisons to the Old Masters, the names of El Greco and Vermeer come immediately to mind. The three artists are very different. Perhaps that is the point, for each stands for something precious and distinct. In the case of Fra Angelico it is the combination of mellifluous line with radiant color, the whole being infused by a kind of natural religious purity. For it is not necessary to share Fra Angelico’s specific faith to recognize that a special spiritual quality is being conveyed.

In the nineteenth century it was posited that art could be a substitute for religion. Many who are not religious nonetheless find that the work of Angelico, a professed Dominican monk, is inspiring. Does the appeal lie in part in this attenuated (and therefore accessible) religiosity? The religion of Angelico largely omits fire and brimstone, as well as stern moral choices—or so it seems. His wonderful colors and forms seem to offer pure bliss

For those with some knowledge of the period, it may seem that Angelico was an aesthetic reactionary in a good sense. Resisting the wave of innovation borne by Masaccio and his associates, the artist preserved something of the ethereal Middle Ages. Or more accurately, for those privileged to imbibe at the source (perhaps staying in one of those legendary pensiones offering "a room with a view"), Fra Angelico incarnates the essence of the Florentine spirit. As such, he bridging the gap between late Middle Ages of Giotto and Arnolfo di Cambio and the vernal Quattrocento of Uccello, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi.

Like M. Jourdain, surprised to learn that all his life he had been speaking prose, many of us had been natural pre-Raphaelites, cherishing the early Renaissance before the movement became massive and portentous in the Cinquecento.

At all events the exhibition ranks as the first major presentation of the artist’s work since 1955. In addition to providing an overview of the trajectory of Angelico’s oeuvre, it seeks to revise the conventional wisdom regarding Angelico’s career. The established view (based on Vasari’s biography) holds that he was born about 1387 and did not come to art until his early thirties. The creators of the Met exhibition hold that he was born some eight years later, and had a normal initiation as an artist in his late teens. In this concept he would have begun painting in the second decade of the quattrocento, when the International Gothic, especially in the person, of Lorenzo Monaco was still vital. In this way he would not have reverted to that aesthetic (as the “reactionary” proposal suggests), but would have come by it honestly, so to speak. In addition, the organizers find examples of Angelico’s measured reception of the new trends, showing that he was not averse to adopting them when it suited him. In the first room, displaying the enigmatic pilgrimage scrolls, the organizers claim to find evidence of actual collaboration with Lorenzo Monaco. I am sure that Angelico carefully studied the example of his older contemporary. But since Lorenzo was a Camaldolite friar and Angelico a Dominican, close collaboration seems unlikely.

One current trend is to stress the role of the Dominican ethos of the Observance (the branch to which Angelico belonged). In a somewhat obscure, but beautifully illustrated monograph, William Hood has expounded this factor in great detail. As Hood is to speak at the Met on December 4, perhaps the connection will be clearer.

The exhibition displays a number of exquisite jewels. The organizers were not able to borrow any of the major altarpieces. Ditto the frescoes; thought these are represented by somewhat deceptive reproductions. So one must take these samples as tokens of the larger oeuvre, which doubtless can never be shown all at once. In fact, the exhibition includes less than 5% of the artist’s extant surviving work. The museum does not always help the viewer to integrate the fragments with the wholes from which they derive. For example, there is no diagram of the Fiesole altarpiece. Such a diagram would show that the two exquisite panels of the predella showing the Dominican blessed were in fact “book ends,” separated by three broad panels which remained in London.

The principle clearly is "pars pro toto." That is, from these samples from the whole range of his career one is supposed to be able to form an understanding of the whole career. With some effort one can do so. Still an irreverent comparison springs to mind: the show is like one of those CDs of "Mozart’s greatest hits" and other such, which present a series of snippets.

In some cases, especially with the early work, the attributions seem overly optimistic. Some of these works just do not look like Angelico. The attributions depend on intricate arguments in the catalogue that are hard for the layperson to decipher. We shall have to wait for authoritative reviews, say in the Burlington Magazine or one of the Italian journals, for a balanced appreciation.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lies and the selling of the Iraq war

It is generally accepted that there are two types of falsehood. In the first type, the utterer says something that is not so, but honestly believes it to be the case. In the second, the perpetrator knows that the statement is false but makes it anyway. The second case is what we commonly term lying. In the 18th century the claim that phlogiston is needed for burning was an error but not a lie; today such an assertion is in fact a lie.

Accusations of lying should be used sparingly, because they inevitably suggest bad faith. I confess that I am dismayed by the widely posted stickers stating "Bush lies, who dies?" as they imply that Bush habitually lies, and does so in order to procure unnecessary deaths. By overstatement, these stickers risk alienating centrists who might otherwise come to accept that the Iraq war was a mistake.

But are the stickers really an overstatement? The claim that the Bush administration was simply misinformed rather than lying in the run-up to the Iraq war will not hold up. The assertion that there were no deliberate lies stems from a number of observers. Some of them have, to their credit, revised their earlier wholehearted support of the war. Among those who are rightly critical of a number of aspects of the prosecution of the war, but still deny that the Bush administration engaged in deliberate lying, is Andrew Sullivan on his blog.

There has certainly been deliberate lying about Saddam Hussein’s purported involvement in 9/11. Cheney continued to repeat the canard of Mohammad Atta’s meeting with Iraqi operatives in Prague long after it had been shown to be without foundation. In a more general way—utilizing the dubious "unified field" concept of the war on terror-—Bush continues to promote the association. Both Osama ben Laden and Saddam Hussein are terrorists, so the claim goes, so they must be connected. Well, surely the Tamil Tigers are terrorists too, but no one alleges that they had anything to do with 9/11. As has been repeatedly pointed out “terror” is a technique, like blitzkrieg or sniping, and not some unified metaphysical entity.

Tony Blair was certainly lying when he claimed that Saddam had rockets that could deliver WMDs to Britain in a matter of hours.

The allegation that Saddam was seeking yellowcake from Niger was in all likelihood lying, though defenders of the administration still claim that there was a smidgen of evidence. It is curious, though, that they will not release the information they have on the forgery that led to this claim.

As regards the WMDs it is certainly not the case that
e v e r y expert believed in them. There was, it seems, a body of dissent within the CIA. In the rush to war, though, this opinion was swept aside. Now (November 14, 2005) Bush is claiming that Congress had the same information he had. That is surely untrue, as the administration presented the information selectively to Congress. That is the technique known as suppressio veri, where one offers some aspects of the truth, while deceptively omitting others.

In my view the WMD question has been oversimplified into a matter of false extremes. Before the war many of us accepted that Saddam might have retained small quantities of WMDs. If that was the problem, clearly the solution was to find and destroy them. Why not give the team of Hans Blix a chance to do just that? Yet in the rush to war the continued existence of the WMDs was a must for the Bush administration. They did not want to have them destroyed, or to be confronted with a finding that none existed.

Some antiwar commentators make a mistake in labeling exaggerations lies. One, for example, says that the administration claim that foreign fighters are playing a major role in the insurgency is a lie. In fact it is only an exaggeration. There are foreign fighters, and while the absolute numbers are apparently small, they are a major source for the suicide bombers.

Art historians sometimes distinguish between forgeries and falsifications. Forgeries are outright fakes, created with the sole intent to deceive. Falsifications occur when art works that are genuine in some context are passed off as belonging to another. Some version of this distinction would be useful in connection with the Iraq war.

Possibly relevant is a recent account of the concept of bullshit. As analyzed in a small book by Harry Frankfurt, bullshitting is not exactly lying, and bullshit remains bullshit whether it's true or false. The difference lies in the bullshitter's insouciant disregard for anything more than a semblance of facts in the physical world: he "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

The arguments of the Bush group are bullshit in that they combine true statements with dubious ones in a poorly blended mixture, which relies on an uncritical mindset on the part of its target audience to achieve a specious plausibility.

Still the concept of bullshit seems too casual to describe the enormous web of deception and exaggeration that has led to the Iraq war. It has been some years in the planning starting almost ten years ago with the efforts of the Project for the New American Century, headed by Richard Perle.

The following general pattern seems to have occurred. First, interest groups develop rationales for their own agenda, seeking to market them in governmental circles. If (from their point of view) they are lucky, they implant their rationales at the heights of the political establishment. Yet even after "the fix is in" it is necessary to create a set of arguments that will sway public opinion. This is where the higher bullshit comes in. Surely, such inventions have a long tradition. One might think of the Shakespeare play, in which king Henry V summons the archbishop of Canterbury to present a spurious legalistic argument authorizing his invasion of France. Or in France itself, three centuries later, Louis XIV incited his archivists and lawyers to turn up old evidence for French posessions in Alsace and other border regions, so that he could justify his invasion of these territories.

The rule seems to be as follows. First comes the decision to invade. Then the b.s. barrage, in its higher form if possible, but always an olla podrida of fact, half-fact, and outright lies.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Origins of the Serenity Prayer

One of several precepts championed by the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, the Serenity Prayer is a widely honored piece of wisdom. Let me recall the basic text: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

The New York Chapter of AA adopted the prayer in 1942, and it spread quickly to other chapters and to the society in general. The proximate source was a conclusion of several sermons delivered in New York City by protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the first occasion being apparently in 1932. Niebuhr did not claim to have originated the formula, but thought that it might come from the German pietist theologian Friedrich Oetinger (1702-82). Evidently, Oetinger did not originate it either. It has been traced back to Boethius or "some early Greek philosopher."

The basic idea of the Serenity Prayer does derive from a Greek philosopher, but not an early one. The originator of the idea is Epictetus, a Stoic thinker under the Roman Empire who died about 125 CE.

Born a slave in Asia Minor, Epictetus was freed by his master. He established a school, first in Rome and then in Greece. Like Socrates and Jesus, Epictetus did not write anything down. We know his ideas from his disciple Flavius Arrian, who composed a book-length version, The Discourses, and a pithy summary, The Manual (or Enchiridion).

The opening words of the Manual are as follows: "Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammeled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others. Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another’s is you own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another’s is indeed another’s, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you." (P. E. Matheson translation).

In short, beware of the category-mistake of treating things that are not within your power as if they were. Adhering to this essential separation, you can safely retire to your inner fortress, that happiest of redoubts where no one can touch you, unless you allow it.

Pierre Hadot, the leading modern Epictetus scholar, summarizes the consequences as follows. "Behind this seemingly banal distinction, between what depends on us and what does not, lies both a complete ontology and a complete ethics. A complete ontology which contrasts the sphere of the World, which is also that of Destiny ruled by universal reason ...with the sphere of our liberty and our free choice, that of our judgments, our penchants, and our desires. …. There is a complete ethics also, an existential movement whereby the moral person imposes his own limits by bracketing out the things that are not within one's power." Or in the words of Epictetus himself: "What troubles men is not things themselves, but the judgments we apply to them." (Apprendre à philosopher dans l’Antiquité, Paris, 2004, p. 101-—my translation).

Personally, I find the writings of Epictetus a trifle dry. Much more lively is a text that is greatly indebted to them, the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In this engrossing work, the contrast between things under our control and things that are not is presupposed by the whole system, but not stated directly (see, however, VI, 41).

The fascination of this perennial classic derives in part for what it reveals of a prominent figure, for the Meditations present the intimate side of a man otherwise best known from his public life (as depicted, for example, in the biographical Column in Rome). To exemplify his devotion to philosophy, the emperor wrote his book in Greek, as distinct from the Latin appropriate for public proclamations and rescripts. The Meditations does not proceed in the methodical sequence of a treatise, but rather adopts an interlacing form. In the manner of a musical composition, themes emerge, disappear, and return. The effect is surprising and altogether delightful. Since Marcus has carefully worked out his principles in advance, the ordering of topics doesn’t matter. Even if you hate philosophy, you will make an exception for this extraordinary gem.

The AA precept promises serenity. In reality, of course, that state is easier to aspire to than to attain. Yet the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius clearly show the possibility of achieving such bliss.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The end of gay culture?

Andrew Sullivan has published a scintillating, provocative essay entitled "The End of Gay Culture" in The New Republic, now conveniently accessible on his blog ( This piece combines perceptive personal observations with apt citations of statistical evidence.

Still, I find his main thesis unconvincing, for three reasons. The first has to do with chronocentrism, the second with topocentrism. The third offers a premature death-certificate.

1) Chronocentrism. Sullivan seems to assume that gay culture started in the disco era in the mid-seventies--that is, not long before he reached our shores. Prior to that ebullience there was only a gray, monotonous landscape of clandestinity.

As one of those inconvenient old-time guys, I can attest from personal experience that my hometown of Los Angeles harbored a lively and varied gay culture in the early fifties. Unless I could borrow an ID, I couldn't get into a gay bar--I was too young. But there were other scenes. At the edge of the Pacific was Muscle Beach, where an early version of the bodybuilding variant of gay culture flourished. In high school and college I belonged to gay circles, and we held private parties. There was always cruising in Pershing Square and other outdoor spots, and of course countless movie theaters, where one could do all sorts of things in the dark. Deliberately asexual in tone, the Mattachine Society held regular meetings. Various churches were known to be gay friendly. There were other circles less known to me, as the world of Hollywood stars like Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson (not to mention all sorts of set designers, hairdressers, make-up artists and the like), together with the black scene in South Central LA.

There was a corresponding variety of personality types, including the elegant (who liked to sport expensive clothes), the blasé, the salt-of-the-earth type, the body builder, the drag queen and so forth. Sullivan finds it remarkable that there is no single gay identity any more. Well, there never was, for we were always different from each other in lots of ways..

When I was still a child, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, Tennessee Williams, Jim Kepner and many others were taking advantage of the many opportunities offered by "gay LA."

In 1956 I moved to New York City, where I found a similarly complex and vibrant scene. Nor were things restricted to big cities. I had my first gay sexual experiences in San Bernardino, CA.

Ranging back through World War II, the Harlem Renaisance, and before, historians have taken much trouble to recover this evidence. Sullivan's presentation would benefit from consulting their works.

One can travel a long ways farther in the time machine. A century ago there were other, but often-similar scenes. See, e.g., the work of George Chauncey, Jim Levin and many others.

European historians have documented varied scenes of gay culture in 19th century London, 18th century Paris, 17th century Portugal, and 15th century Florence--to name four particularly well documented sites. The earliest such discovery known to me stems from my late mentor Warren Johansson, who excavated evidence of a gay-cultural scene, complete with "bohemian" trappings, in the London of the 12th century.

2) In addition to chronocentrism--the restriction to a single slice of history from ca. 1975 to the present--Sullivan's essay seems oddly localized. Many of the examples derive from observations at the Provincetown enclave. Of course P-town in not Massachusetts, and Massachusetts is not America--or the world. Elsewhere, as Sullivan acknowledges, gay culture is in retreat (as in the Netherlands) or struggling to emerge (in much of the Third World). It seems that there is an recurrent cycle of repression, emergence, flowering, and finally (to an unknown extent) mainstreaming. But as the Netherlands, and now apparently France and other advanced countries seem to be showing, one can go backwards as well as forwards.

Let me reiterate the main point, though. Gay culture is not of recent origin. In fact that is what "culture" must mean--something handed down over many generations. For that reason gay culture, or more accurately gay subcultures, are unlikely to disappear, though they may be threatened and embattled from time to time, blunted by kindness as well as by repression..

3) The third problem in Sullivan's essay stems from the "end-of" meme. This tempting gambit is often more rhetorical than real. Almost two millennia ago Pliny the Elder opined that art had ceased in the 121st Olympiad (ca. 292 BCE), Yet as Pliny also notes (a salutary reminder) art revived again in the 156th Olympiad (ca. 156 BCE). Giorgio Vasari thought that art had gone into an irreversible decline after the death of Michelangelo in 1564. In the early 19th century Hegel thought that his own age had finally seen the end of art. A living art critic, Arthur Danto, has told us that art ceased in 1964. It is odd, though, that something that looks very much like art persists. The "end-of" template is in vogue. So it is that the death of all sorts of other things, from ideology to "intelligent writing," have been duly noted. Francis Fukuyama has informed us of the end of history itself--though one doesn't hear much about this purported demise nowadays.

It seems likely that the death of gay culture, together with that of art, ideology, history, and the rest, has been much exaggerated.

Concluding reflections. As has been noted, it would be more accurate to speak of subcultures, since gay and lesbian culture is not monolithic--and probably never has been. Sullivan assumes that pluralism emerged only ca. 1975. However, I observed it Los Angeles in the fifties. Magnus Hirschfeld depicted it in Berlin over a century ago.

The central problem, though, is that the word culture is used in two different senses (two at least that are relevant here; there are others). First, is the broad definition favored by anthropologists, who see culture as the complete ensemble of practices, beliefs, and artefacts that serve to constitute the special characteristics of any given human group. Over against this definition stands a narrower one: culture is essentially high culture, achievements in philosophy and poetry, art and music that register achievements in civilization. These are thought to be accompanied by refinements in sensibility, so that we speak of a "cultured" person, someone of "deep culture," and so forth. In common parlance someone who fixes obsessively (and often superficially) on these accomplishments is termed a "culture-vulture." Sullivan is taking gay culture in the broader, anthropological sense. However, when gays and lesbians recite lists of "greats," such as Michelangelo, Wilde, and Stein, they are honoring the narrower sense of culture.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pirandello, Rashomon, Derrida

Many years ago I promised myself that one day I would try to get a handle on the works of Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), Italy’s chief modernist writer. Now, thanks to a superb lecture at Columbia University by Richard Howard, a noted poet and literary scholar, I am starting to do so.

Howard began by acknowledging that few people read Pirandello nowadays. His plays are rarely produced. This is the opposite of the situation in the 1930s, when his plays were a mainstay of the little-theater movement in the United States. I will return to the question of Pirandello’s occultation at the end of this essay.

Wisely, Howard chose one of the Italian dramatist’s pivotal works, "Right You Are—If You Think So" [Così è (se vi pare)], as the centerpiece of his analysis. The play was first presented in 1917.

As the curtain rises the audience glimpses an upper-middle-class apartment in a small Italian town. The residents are unable to contain their curiosity about a newcomer in the building. Her son-in-law, Mr. Ponza, has installed Mrs. Frola, an elderly, reclusive lady. The old woman scarcely ever goes out, even apparently to visit her daughter. A social call by Mrs. Frola provides little elucidation. Later the son in law arrives. He says that they must be understanding. His mother-in-law is mad. Her daughter died several years before, and Ponza remarried. In order to assuage the old lady’s grief, Ponza allows her to believe that his second wife is really Lena, the ostensibly deceased first wife and daughter of Mrs. Frola. Visits must be restricted, so as not to dispell the illusion.

After he leaves Mrs. Frola returns, saying that, on the contrary, it is Ponza who is mad. Four years ago her daughter had to go away for a time for medical treatment. When she returned the husband refused to recognize her. Only by pretending that she was another woman could he be persuaded to resume relations. He married her—even though they already were married. Thus the second Mrs. Ponza is really the first Mrs. Ponza.

Various complications ensue as the inquisitive neighbors attempt to learn the real truth. Finally, the young woman in question appears on stage. She is heavily veiled, and announces that she can be either the first wife or the second, as you prefer. There is no resolution.

In this parable Pirandello is clearly saying that there is no final truth. Moreover (as the conventions of the theater themselves suggest) individuals may have no core personality. The personality that they appear to have is the result of its construction by the person and by others. The arbitrariness of personal identity was the subject of Pirendello's brilliant early novel, The Late Mattia Pascal. In this narrative Pascal "kills" himself, assuming a completely new identity. However, he does not like this persona, and returns to the earlier one.

The first collection of Pirandello's plays was called "Naked Masks." How can a mask be naked. Well it is a good phrase, and of course the interest in masks was widespread in the early twentieth century from Cubism to Pound and Yeats.

Pirandello's play embodies a type of relativism sometimes known as perspectivism. This is the idea that phenomena change depending on which viewpoint is chosen. Perspectivism is often referenced to Friedrich Nietzsche. However, it has been traced to the seventeenth-century philosopher Leibniz. Apparently, Leibniz was thinking of baroque prints of towns. One might show a bird’s eye view; another a frontal scene of the walls and main gate; yet another, the central square of the place with the cathedral and town hall. In addition there might be a map. In this conception the views are different, but in the end there is one town.

Returning to the twentieth century, some have invoked the Heisenberg Principle from atomic physics, which holds that the position of certain particles cannot be determined, because the act of determination creates a disturbance that shifts the position of the particle. Still, there is no doubt that the particle exists and that it has a definite position at all times, even though we may not be able to determine this with the means available.

Thus the views of Leibniz, Nietzsche, and Heisenberg offer interesting analogies. Perhaps the first two provided some precedent, as Pirandello had taken his Ph.D. in Germany. However, the indeterminancy in the play is more radical. It asserts that the interpretations are not just different views of the same thing. They are ultimately irreconcilable.

A true analogue comes from Japan. The Rashomon Effect is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it. The effect takes its name from a short story by the Japanese modernist Ryonosuke Akutagawa. In the story ("Rasho Gate") several witnesses give conflicting reports of a crime. The stories contradict one another, so that no single resolution is possible. By a curious synchronicity, Akutagawa’s story appeared in 19l5, two years prior to Pirandello’s play.

The popularity of the term Rashomon Effect is due to Akira Kurosawa’s splendid film of 1950. Unfortunately, the film fudges the short story's premise, by offering a solution at the end. The point of the story is that no resolution is possible.

Postmodernism produced a new version of the indeterminacy principle, especially in the deconstructionist writings of Jacques Derrida. While Derrida retains many admirers, clearly his influence has declined. From the foregoing, it would appear that he is less original than has been thought.

Let us return to the question posed at the outset-—the decline of Pirandello’s reputation. As Howard noted, his plays were perfectly suited for the little-theater movement. As that is now a thing of the past, the nurturing environment is gone. It must be confessed that the haute-bourgeois setting of Pirandello’s plays, with their servants and dated social conventions, seems off-putting. Of course such social conventions undergird Ibsen’s plays as well, but one of the major aims of the Norwegian writer is to reveal the harmful arbitrariness of accepted social practices. Pirandello does not offer such a critique. If anything, he implicitly fosters an acceptance of such rigidities. Since everything lies in the keeping of one's perspective, that of the upper bourgeoisie is as good as any other. As perspectives differ, there is no standpoint for any critique that would unassailably identify the right one. We might as well stick with what we have got.

There is also the broader question of the decline of interest in Italy. After World War II, the excellence of its films brought great prestige to contemporary Italy. But that era is over. Once the philosopher Benedetto Croce had a following in the US—but no more. F. T. Marinetti, though a considerable author in his own right, is known mainly as the impresario of the Futurist artists. Alas, Umberto Eco is the only living Italian author who is widely known nowadays outside the country.

Italy remains a tourist mecca. Yet too many routine tours have taken the gloss off visiting Italy, which is now much more expensive than it used to be.

Regrettably, Europe and the high culture we associated with it have lost prestige. For many young people such things doubtless seem stuffy and out of date. Still, the writings of Pirandello, which include short stories and novels, are always there for us. And perhaps with the decline of postmodernism there will be a space for the return of Pirandello’s earlier version, so lively and full of human interest.