Book Review: ECCENTRIC MODERNISMS by Tirza True Latimer

eccentric modernisms cover tirza true latimerTirza True Latimer’s most recent monograph is a slim yet substantial examination of a “network of enterprising outliers” that profoundly influenced art and culture making in the first half of the twentieth century, but have been generally been omitted from most accounts of modernism. But “why,” as she asks in the opening lines of the introduction, “do their names no longer strike a chord?”

Of course, this is a question and topic familiar to anybody who has spent any amount of time reading through this blog, so it is perhaps no surprise that Eccentric Modernisms deals with exactly the same type of material featured here: the communities of transatlantic queer modernist artists that established social networks to support their artistic endeavors.

Rather than launching a project of recuperation or attempting to “fix” established historical discourses, however, Latimer simply characterizes her book as “three case studies,” devoting a chapter each to Dix Portraits, a collaborative and lavishly produced publication which featured poems by Gertrude Stein and artwork by five of her then-current protégés, the mounting of the Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934, and View Magazine, the innovative art journal edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler during the 1940’s. The decision to direct all focus solely on three specific examples of “collectively produced art publications, performances, and ephemera” proves to be an elegant one in its dexterity and concision, with Latimer providing evocative details and minutiae to tacitly state the case for her larger arguments.

dix portraits ten portraits gertrude steinBut why eccentric modernisms, as opposed to any number of other modifiers—queer, bad, pop, improper, impossible, cosmopolitan, and so many others—that been attached to modernism in recent years? Latimer admits that “the distinction between queer and eccentric may not matter,” though it serves as a useful differentiation from other synonyms, such as marginality (4). In a conversation that aired on Yale University Radio, I was interested to find out that Latimer had actually started out using “queer modernisms,” but ultimately decided that for this project “queer” wasn’t intended to be “necessarily attached to a specific notion of sexuality,” but was instead a “more capacious term.” The distinction makes sense within the context of Latimer’s overall argument, even as it also reaffirms why I continue to use “queer modernisms” in my own work (I do want to retain some kind of basis in sexual orientation and/or behavior).

It was thrilling—and sometimes with a twinge of jealousy, I admit—to read through Latimer’s monograph, as she explores many of the exact same topics that I’m working through in my thesis: the difficulties of retrospectively applied terms and categories, the appeal of queer artistic networks, the motivation behind collaborative art making, the pleasures and perils of Gertrude Stein’s patronage, the nature of Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s artistic relationship, how and why so many things—even things which seem critically important—become “lost,” as well as the most effective strategies for recovering them. I suspect much that is here will find its way in one form or another in my own thesis, whether directly or conceptually. Latimer has been at the forefront of so much of the key scholarship of queer modernism (particularly her books dealing with lesbian expatriatism, the “modern woman,” and Stein’s enduring and multifaceted influence on modernism), and I suspect that Eccentric Modernisms is opening up space for a lot more work on these topics—which hopefully includes my own.

Eccentric Modernisms is available for purchase through the University of California Press.

View Magazine cover by Joseph Cornell, 1943

View cover designed by Joseph Cornell, January 1943

Works Cited:

Latimer, Tirza True. Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art. Berkeley: U of California, 2016. Print.

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Book Review: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

lolly-willowes-warner-nyrb-editionWarner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash of sharp acidity. Warner proves to be a most devious hostess, however: seemingly invited to a pleasantly amusing afternoon garden party, it’s only as the sun begins to set that it suddenly begins to dawn—this is actually a Witch’s Sabbath! What a marvelously devious sleight of hand.

And perhaps more than ever 2017 is the time for stories about waking up from the drowsiness of lives cocooned by social expectations and respectability politics and be pointed toward modes of being that are idiosyncratically imagined and intentionally pursued. Part 1 is all charming, “quintessentially” English eccentricities—a broad assortment of kooky extended family members, whimsical family heirlooms hoarded in drawing rooms, teatime and other daily rituals, and the like; this is the life of one Laura Willowes, quietly sloughed into a life of genteel spinsterhood, and cloistered in the tiny spare room in a brother’s family home in London. She slowly transforms into docile “Aunt Lolly” after being christened as such by a baby niece—her identity is so nondescript that even she doesn’t quite register her very name is no longer her own.

NPG P183; Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton

Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton, 1930 (via National Portrait Gallery)

This all changes when an otherwise inauspicious guide book makes its way into Laura’s possession. Suddenly Part 2 sets off in an unforeseen direction as Laura announces she will be moving to the isolated rural village that is the subject of her book. Her family attempts all means at their disposal—including emotional blackmail and financial threats—to undermine her resolve; Laura nevertheless persists and promptly lets a room of her own, ready to begin a new life distinctly, if somewhat tentatively, her own.

If this was the story of Lolly Willowes, it would still be of note as a showcase for Warner’s remarkable facility with language and sinuous approach to syntax; it’s additionally exceptional as an early feminist fable making a persuasive and poignant case for female agency (Warner’s novel predates Woolf’s landmark A Room of One’s Own by several years). But the author envisions much, much more for her text and hurtles headlong into the utterly startling Part 3. While I suspect most readers will know, as I did, the general trajectory of the narrative, I think the less known the better so will leave it at that. What a lovely defense of demanding and then enacting a life lived fully and deliciously and—take the term in whatever sense you prefer—queerly too.

“Laura had brought her sensitive conscience into the country with her, just as she had brought her umbrella, though so far she had not remembered to use either.”

Book Review: TWO SERIOUS LADIES by Jane Bowles

two serious ladies cover jane bowlesBy the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make the acquaintance of these titular two ladies is to be initiated into a state of perpetual disorientation; I was not, I’ll frankly admit, adequately prepared, even if Bowles’s novel frequently brought to mind the work of her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Flannery O’Connor, two favorites of mine.

All three authors have an uncanny ability to distill unsettling visions of the world into terrifying portraits of individuals who, by simply defying the “natural” order of things, unleash an aura of chaos and existential anarchy around everything they do. Yet turmoil is often the source of humor, and I’d say the work of all three is funny—albeit in bleak, dark ways. But where Barnes and O’Connor employ violence (both emotional and physical) and grotesquerie to elicit the kind of laugh that transforms into a horrified gasp before it manages to escape the throat, Bowles’s approach is more akin to screwball comedy, a comedy of manners where the main players have decided to redefine what “manners” entail, upending the world around them (ie “until recently [Miss Goering] had never followed too dangerously far in action any course which she had decided upon as being the morally correct one”). That said, these forms of comedies depend on a sense of order and decorum reestablishing itself by the resolution, typically with a romantic pairing reinstating the “unruly” female safely back into the social order. Not so with Two Serious Ladies: it’s instead a whirligig of despair whose last words offer no sense of solace. Instead it feels like a temporary stopgap in an inevitably continuing story destined for misery and destruction.

janes bowles by carl van vechten

Bowles portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

But also, in the meantime, a sense of escape, even freedom. Perhaps?

Aware of the general outline of Bowles’s biography (sadly, an infamously tragic one), one of the things I was curious was if she would be working in the grand queer tradition of taking up a certain term to signify covert lifestyles and behaviors, and there does seem to be some evidence to support such a reading. In the novel’s first few pages Miss Gamelon inexplicably moves in with Miss Goering—indeed, I assumed these would be the two “serious” ladies—and immediately entwine themselves into an incredibly intense codependent relationship; Mrs. Copperfield has a similar impulse toward Pacifica, noting that the Panamanian prostitute “takes everyone quite seriously” as she takes “Pacifica’s hand in her own.” I’ll be paying closer attention to this on inevitable (at some point) repeat readings, but whatever inflection one wants to read into them, it is undeniable that there are not only more than just two serious ladies populating Bowles’s novel, and, furthermore, all take their relationships with other ladies very, very seriously.

Jane Bowles, Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton, Marruecos, 1949

Jane Bowles & Truman Capote (Marruecos, 1949) by Cecil Beaton

Barnes’s rueful observation the she was “the most famous unknown in the world” also resonates with Bowles’s own legacy, having long been regarded as one of the great, undersung prose stylists of the twentieth century, inspiring an almost cult-like veneration from writers who achieved a much larger degree of fame than she ever managed to (Tennessee Williams’s proclamation that Two Serious Ladies is “his favorite book” and that he “can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic” continues to adorn current reprints of the novel; Truman Capote, John Ashbery, and Bowles’s own husband Paul were vocal supporters). Millicent Dillon has more recently described how “one soon begins to know the sound of a Jane Bowles sentence, its odd jumps, the way in which it continuously confounds expectations, the way in which secrets are withheld and as suddenly revealed.”

Perhaps Bowles does reveal some secrets throughout the tangled trajectories of the two serious ladies of Two Serious Ladies, but it seems more defined by its resolution to always remain something of an enigma, restless and on edge. And while I can’t say I actually much enjoyed the process of reading this novel, I nonetheless sense that it’s going to join the small cadre of texts I find myself returning to on occasion, almost inexplicably, trying to scratch some kind of deep itch it has created. To try and discover answers to some of the unnerving existential questions it poses—even if I never really expect to ever actually find them.

Works Cited

Bowles, Jane. Two Serious Ladies. 1943. New York City: Ecco, 2014.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Further Reading

 

Book Review: UTOPIA PARKWAY: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JOSEPH CORNELL by Deborah Solomon

utopia parkway solomon“Straight” biography (ha, ha) is something I very rarely take up in my reading—I prefer memoirs, personal diaries, and journals whenever possible—and it’s even more rare for me to actually read a bio all the way through, opting instead to read chapters or sections specific to my interests. I had fully expected this to be more or less my experience with Utopia Parkway, currently the only biography available on the life of nonconformist artist Joseph Cornell, but I quickly became so engrossed in the specifics of Cornell’s life that I ended up reading the whole thing. Oddly, it’s probably the closest I’ve experienced to a “page turner” in a good while, and frankly, I could hardly put it down.

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46

Art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon certainly had her work cut out for her by taking on this subject. All accounts and analyses of Cornell’s life I’ve otherwise encountered seem to struggle with accounting for his utter unconventionality, and in some accounts he can come off as a whimsical, almost child-like recluse under the domineering thumb of his “dear Mama,” others reify him as a kind of hermit willfully wandering on the fringes of art and society, and yet others emphasize the creepy, voyeuristic aspect of his life, a man whose largely repressed sexual urges were the engine behind his work as he struggled to dominate, at least representationally, the various female figures he venerated as muses. As Solomon demonstrates, Cornell was an extremely complex individual, and all of the above characterizations might contain elements of truth but nonetheless fail to capture the whole. Her portrait of the artist documents all of the individual facets of personality, and demonstrate how they shift and permutate with even the slightest alteration of perspective.

Cornell emerges as an endlessly baffling bundle of contradictions throughout Utopia Parkway, but to Solomon’s immense credit she does a remarkable job of not simply accounting for these “quirks” but regards them from an empathetic perspective that makes them understandable. This is largely achieved by continuously insisting on contextualizing Cornell’s life and the art that it inspired within larger social, cultural, and artistic movements, rather than even attempt to “figure him out,” pathologizing or even diagnosing such an enigmatic subject (though, perhaps inevitably, the study is not completely free from such impulses, especially in the later sections).

joseph cornellOne reviewer on Goodreads found this book “kind of a downer, about a sad and very limited life,” a description that rather took me aback, because as we find out through Utopia Parkway, Cornell’s life seems anything but—what is remarkable is how rich of a life he seemed capable of creating for himself, largely within the carefully controlled confines of his own home. Despite any reclusive tendencies, he managed to know just about everyone (from Duchamp to Breton to to Marianne Moore to Toumanova to Sontag to Yoko Ono and just about anybody who’s anybody in between). Which is ultimately what proves to be so inspiring: so many life stories of famous people and artists in particular seem to involve extensive travels, glittering parties, heartbreak and ecstasy in equal ,alternating measure, all of the glamorous, easily romanticized trappings of what many of us to constitute the stuff of “REAL living”—especially when it comes to those we consider geniuses or exceptional individuals in some way. Cornell points to possible alternatives, and how richness of the mind, creativity and great accomplishment can take other forms as well.*

This probably isn’t the ideal place to start one’s explorations of Cornell’s work—it’s much more enriching when one at least has some idea of some of the work Solomon constantly alludes to—but an essential resource for anybody who is already a fan.

*I wrote this review long before encountering Benjamin Kahan’s Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life (2013), but I suspect that this fascinating study would be a very productive place to start such a reevaluation, something I allude to in my thoughts on the book itself.

[This is a revision of a review that was originally posted on Goodreads.]

Works Cited

Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.

Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. Boston: MFA Publications, 2004. Print.

Book Review: WOMAN OF THE WOLF AND OTHER STORIES by Renée Vivien

renee vivien woman of the wolf coverDuring that great burst of feminist scholarship in the 1960’s and 70’s that set out to reevaluate the traditional literary canon there was a concerted effort to translate the work of obscure turn of the century author/poet Renée Vivien into English. And I’m glad they did. For if Vivien is remembered today, it is less for anything she wrote than for her lifestyle and the legends that sprung up around it: her turbulent affair with Natalie Clifford Barney, the flamboyantly androgynous dress immortalized in now-iconic photographs of the couple, as well as her death at the age of 32 that still remains somewhat of a mystery (though whatever the actual cause it was undeniably exacerbated by alcoholism and anorexia). Sadly, focusing solely on her admittedly fascinating life does a great disservice to legitimate literary accomplishment. 

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

And yet, despite the effort of several prominent scholars and the general interest in that time period and cultural milieu, Vivien has tended to remain a footnote of the period. A major footnote, but a footnote nonetheless. And frankly, it’s not hard to see why. Which is not a knock on Vivien or her writing in the least—I immensely enjoyed the various stories collected in this slim volume. But only several stories in it was obvious to me that Vivien is an author who resolutely resists canonization; despite Karla Jay’s resolute attempt in the introduction in spinning these as proto-feminist tales, even she must ultimately concede that “if judged from a contemporary lesbian/feminist perspective, some of Vivien’s work might appear embarrassing” for the reader in search of strong politically and socially progressive sentiments. Instead, these stories take their cues from the Decadent Movement, much more along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s hermetic Salomé (my review here) than The Yellow Wallpaper. Of her immediate peers, Djuna Barnes might be said to be exploring similar terrain—indeed, I was often reminded of Barnes’s own short story collection Spillway and Other Stories—but resolutely resisting literary modernism to an extent that exceeds even the ever-iconoclastic (and similarly underread) Barnes comes at a steep price: these are stories that refuse to slide neatly onto university syllabi. 

The vignettes that comprise Vivien’s various stories—most which strive for a mythic quality, often reworking actual Biblical and/or classical sources—are feverish, hallucinogenic, and, quite often, downright bizarre. The actions of her characters rarely act and react according to any obvious logic, and her setting are a surreal mishmash of Victorian cultural and imperial imagery and stereotypes (one story, for example, is supposedly set in the American wilderness, but revolves around a wild tiger). 

The unabashed irreality of these stories, however, are also their finest quality. They remind me of exotic tropical flowers that can only be cultivated in a hothouse—valued not for their longevity but for the spectacular effect of their short-lived blossoming.

Work Cited:

Vivien, Renée. The Woman of the Wolf, and Other Stories. Trans. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1983. 

Book Review: THE KISSING FISH by Monique Lange

cover of the kissing fish by monique langeUnjustly forgotten, or perhaps it just never managed to establish any kind of reputation in the first place in English translation. This is exactly the kind of text that would be ideal for New York Review Books to pluck out of obscurity: think of Bonjour Tristesse in style, brevity, and tone, only instead of wreaking havoc within her family, precocious, experience-hungry Cécile instead falls in with the queers—the “kissing fish” of the title.*

The novella came to my attention through an allusion to it made by the character of Max in Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, who describes it as “a strange trifle” that features “a woman’s obsessional love for a homosexual.” Intrigued—this is the type of obscure citation that immediately pushes all my buttons—the reference brings everything full circle, as Lange’s book was translated by Richard Howard, the eminent man of letters White’s Max is clearly based on.

Monique Lange portrait Image by © Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

Lange in 1994, by Sophie Bassouls

When she passed away in 1996 Lange had established herself as a novelist, screenwriter, and editor of some renown in France (similar acclaim appears to have eluded her outside of her native country); giving an almost prophetic inflection to her first novel, she had an open marriage with noted Spanish author Juan Goytisolo, allowing him to take male lovers. Set in 1946, The Kissing Fish is related in the first person by Anne, an eighteen year old who becomes helplessly (and rather inexplicably) infatuated with melancholic Bernard. After some coaxing Bernard agrees to take Anne out one evening, but it immediately proves to be a disaster, leading to a funny, sad little exchange:

“Poor gypsy. And I was counting on your to cure me.”
“Cure you of what?”
“Cure me of the world. But I must have been crazy.” (19)

It doesn’t take much imagination to infer other registers of meaning as well, but Anne resolutely attributes Bernard’s romantic disinterest to her youthful naiveté and sexual inexperience (she is a virgin when they first meet). So she settles for a platonic mentoring relationship instead, musing how “he taught me everything. Paris, painting, flamenco music, Monteverdi, dancing, and trees. He taught me everything—except love” (21). (And this is where the reader lets out a little sigh and a rueful “oh girl.”)

If Lange’s breezy and elegantly spare literary style is clearly indebted to Françoise Sagan, then the character of Anne sometimes calls to mind the half-adventurous/half-passive heroines that populate the work of Marguerite Duras (particularly The Lover). Quickly she is zipping through a series of interesting events, with things particularly picking up once she befriends “the Boys,” a young intellectual couple named Eric and Guy. Her description of their relationship remains startling in its clear-eyed frankness:

 After a passionate love affair lasting two days, they slept together in an extremely narrow bed with affectionate complicity, cruising separately. Their relation was a strange one: Eric loved Guy, Guy loved Eric, but they didn’t love each other.” (28)

monique lange cover poissons chatsThe pair invites Anne to join them in Rome, which gives her occasion to describe their sexual behavior and promiscuous sex lives with similarly unflinching acuity (“Guy often brought home for a day or two some stupid little piece of trade who was imitating the James Dean of the moment” (28); her increasingly wry observations also provide a fascinating glimpse into the mechanisms and mores of gay life in the immediate post-war era. As Anne’s friendship with “The Boys” develops she becomes increasingly imbricated into “the secret universe of homosexuals” (28), the gay subcultures of Paris and other parts of Europe she visits. If this all seems like classic “fag hag” behavior it most certainly is; however, Anne also views this connection as fundamentally based on a deeper congruity when she straightforwardly admits that it is “a world I enjoyed because it was as sad as mine and much more desperate than the other one” (28). Even in its brevity—it’s not a dynamic Lange explores in depth—The Kissing Fish nonetheless provides one of the best representations I’ve yet encountered of the deep kinship that can spring up between straight women and gay men (cf. my disappointment with Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Through it all Bernard continues to wander in and out of the narrative, the underlying impetus behind all of Anne’s behavior and questionable decisions. She is consistently disappointed, of course, for even after he invites her to move in with him she sleeps on the couch and above all is never allowed to enter his bedroom (oh girl). Mirroring the relationship between her and her “Boys,” a deep affection—or is it codependency?—springs up between the two even as sexual intimacy forever remains outside of the boundaries of their relationship.

In the end Anne comes home early and discovers the identity of Bernard’s “mistress,” and even as she is devastated she can admit “the wheel had come full circle” and that “it was a good ending to the story.” And it is: understated, undramatic—the stuff of the little, experience-based revelations of life that are often necessary to move us out of one phase of life and on to the next.

kissing fish kissing men

*A prefatory note explains that the breed of tropic fish known as “kissing fish” have “gained wide publicity from their kissing habits.” Among other things, they are known to”frequently change partners” before noting that “why they unite their lips is a mystery…” (ellipsis in the original).

Works Cited

Lange, Monique. The Kissing Fish. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Criterion, 1960.

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.

Book Review: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S by Truman Capote

Cover of Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman CapoteThe delicious little anecdote related by Christopher Bram in Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America that finally inspired me to pick this up in the first place:

“…he had taken the title from Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein liked to tell a story of a how he picked up a Marine one night and offered to take the man someplace fancy for breakfast. The only fancy place the Marine knew in New York was Tiffany’s” (64).

I’ve seen the Blake Edwards-directed film multiple times over the years, and for me it’s one of those films that lingers cheerfully in the memory but is startlingly mediocre in the process of actually watching (Hepburn’s electric, iconic vivacity the unexpected trump card that manages to carry everything through long rough stretches). Bram isn’t very enthusiastic about the novella either—musing that “it became a classic and it’s hard to say why”—but I was sufficiently intrigued with his hypothesis that “much of its charm comes from something left half-said: it’s the story of a romantic friendship between a straight woman and a gay man,” and that “since their affection cannot end in sex or marriage, the two must explore other, less obvious ways to be intimate” (of course this is excised in the film, with Peppard’s character instead played as a hunky—and strappingly heterosexual—kept man. The necessity for Pat Neal’s arch-eyebrowed amusement is the sole compensation for such a dull modification).

George Peppard and Patricia Neal in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Fabulously beturbaned Patricia Neal provides some compensation for the de-gayification of George Peppard’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Long story short, by turning to Capote what I was hoping to access a queer foundation that could begin clarifying this most celebrated fairy tale (pun intended, of course), and if lucky discover in the process the first Great Depiction of the archetypal straight gal/gay male BFF relationship. Alas, I didn’t really find anything of the sort: the dynamic is undeniably is there, but despite Bram’s assessment it’s not only not meaningfully explored on any level—it’s just not really touched upon at all. And so I was inevitably disappointed, though I fully realize that it’s not really fair to judge the text by my outside expectations.

As such, I suspect I’ll find myself wanting to return at some point, much like the film, with vague but pleasant memories overriding initial misgivings. Hoping for better luck next time.

And finally, for a convergence of the textual and cinematic, two photobooth photos, circa 1956, of Capote, Hepburn, and Hepburn’s then-husband Mel Ferrer. Frankly, I find them more disarmingly effervescent than the book and film combined:

Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer Photobooth Photo Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer Photobooth Photo

Book Review: PHALLOS by Samuel R. Delany

cover of phallos by samuel delany“A tale of a tale,” to cite Delany’s own characterization, thus situating his text within the tradition of self-reflexive literature associated so closely with Borges; declaring it a phallus-obsessed Ficciones is inevitably reductive but sketches out the general textual landscape. Just like the Argentinian master, Delany unapologetically takes it as a given that literary esoterica and other epistemological pursuits can be just as thrilling as an adventure yarn or mystery story. For Phallos is indeed a mystery at heart, albeit unconventionally so.

A brief opening note outlines the experience of a young potential reader who, after failing to track down a copy of an obscure erotic novel called “Phallos” by an anonymous author, is forced to resign himself instead a lengthy synopsis posted on the internet by an obscure academic residing in Moscow, Idaho. This summary is what constitutes the main text of Phallos.

Thus two different intertwined narrative strands immediately come into play. The first is story (re)constructed via the synopsis, revolving around a man named Neoptolomus and his relentless pursuit across the ancient Roman world in search of a sacred statue of a phallus stolen from a temple he happened to be visiting on business. As it turns out, his ensuing journeying has the happy bonus of creating endless sexual opportunity, and with each new area ventured to Neoptolomus quickly and without fail manages to fall into bed with one or more of the (male) locals.

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany

But remember this all isn’t actually the story itself: it’s merely an approximation of another text, a framing device. Soon digressions, personal references, and especially footnotes soon begin appearing, the latter quickly taking on the life of their own as they record the feedback of two of the academic’s friends. Also fans and scholars of “Phallos,” they begin to describe what they think should be reported in the synopsis, and chide the author on what is omitted, which in turn relate additional micro-narratives… on and on, endlessly. Delightfully so, in my opinion.

Delany is celebrated for his extensive knowledge on a range of subjects, which he interjects into his writing. Phallos is no different, and operates as a clever dramatization of Lacan’s influential formulation of the phallus, where he located a differentiation between a (literal) penis and a symbol of power. What for the French psychoanalyst was psychological in nature, however, Delany renders tangible in the form of the phallic statue and all that it symbolizes for those who encounter it.

But if Lacan isn’t your thing—and in all honestly it’s not really mine either—no need to get tangled up in these aspects of the text, especially when there is so much else to savor and enjoy. For one, despite the fact that all of the explicit sexual material has been edited out (the author worries over issues of hosting sexually explicit material on a university website), I found much of Phallos to still be a surprisingly sexy read. Delany is masterful at conveying titillating solely through inference, and goes a long way in demonstrating how it’s not necessarily the explicitness of material that is inherently arousing, but all of the factors orbiting around it such as context, power dynamics, novelty, spontaneity, unexpectedness, and the particularities of a person, situation, etc, when encountered at a specific moment in time. I also ended up being quite touched by Neoptolomus’s constant discovery and affirmation of the polymorphous quality of love, sex, and desire: “with each of my adventures,” he muses at one point, “I had thought I’d learned a lesson about love, only to discover, with the next, I’d merely learned a lesson about a lover.” And to claims Neoptolomus as a democratic lover would be an understatement: his bedfellows encompass all races, ages, nationalities, and takes no mind of class status, level of education, sexual proclivities, or even orthodox standards of attractiveness.  It’s constantly a pleasure to encounter how our protagonist discovers beauty and sexual fulfillment simply by being open to their possibility.

 

attic red figure kylix greek pottery displaying gay erotic scenes

Red-figured kylix adorned with scenes featuring activities and configurations of the type alluded to and celebrated throughout “Phallos.”

I’m not sure if the novella of Phallos is republished here in its original form, or has been altered in this “enhanced and revised edition,” which is essentially a scholarly edition of the text. Addended at the end is an “Afterward” as well as three scholarly essays—they’re all very academic in nature (that is, highly theoretical and employ the terminology of the academy), and I found lots of interest while perusing them without getting too caught up in the intricacies of their arguments. I’m glad they’re included as they affirm that a text like Phallos merits such close scholarly attention, though I also think it would have been nice to also include at least one analysis immediately accessible to the casual reader.

In the end what I found so wonderful about Phallos is that it essentially invites the reader to embrace the text as a kind of sophisticated variation on the “choose your own adventure” formula. Delany seems to intentionally avoid ever dictating how the text should be read or understood, placing that control (literally) into the reader’s hands. Skip over the extensive footnotes, or dig into the minutiae. Ponder over the broad philosophical questions that are slyly invoked, or simply be entertained by a quick-paced erotic adventure tale. Admire the intricate narrative construction, or marvel at the meticulous historical detail. It’s up to you.

Works Cited

Delany, Samuel R. Phallos: Enhanced and Revised Edition. Ed. Robert Reid-Pharr. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

Book Review: THE FAREWELL SYMPHONY by Edmund White

Farewell Symphony Edmund WhiteEvery year or so I dutifully find myself undertaking yet another Edmund White novel, even though I’m well aware it will likely prove to be a frustrating experience for me. What exactly compels this constant return? Mostly because I’m compelled by the manner in which White’s distinctive form of “autofiction” revels in the minute observations that capture the particularities of lived life. His writing is structured by a principle of accumulation as he amasses vast catalogs of the little thingshabits and objects and sounds and garments and slang words and bodies— that are individually experienced but in retrospect seem to become so many synecdoches standing in for an entire era. Thus when White writes that “no single song was long enough to sustain our drug-induced frenzy so the disc-jockey often went from one record to an identical cut in another copy of the same record, thereby doubling our pleasure,” he records the kind of vivid offhand details that are usually forgotten yet capture the unique texture of a particular moment in time. 

White explicitly makes this an integral aspect of his autofiction. In a passage toward the end of The Farewell Symphony that deeply resonated with me, the novel’s unnamed narrator admits that “official history—elections, battles, legal reforms—didn’t interest” him, and that he “didn’t want to be a historian but rather an archaeologist of gossip.” Major historical and cultural events commence at the peripheries of the narrative, but always seem to remain just out of sight, shifting emphasis instead upon interactions between intimates and friend groups and larger social communities, carefully enumerating all the private little stories and jokes we tell and retell to each other.

And yet such sumptuousness of details can become too decadent, even overindulgentI always reach a point, usually around the ¾ mark, when it feels like everything really should have been wrapped up already (it makes me empathize with the enervated partygoers in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, compelled to linger long after the fête has reached its end). Endless aggregation of detail, even when meticulously managed, inevitably comes at the cost of narrative momentum, and a sense of inertia and stasis sets in. Which is strange effect, considering how The Farewell Symphony is crammed with so much activity.

Alfred Corn, Edmund White, and David Kalstone in Venice, 1974

L to R: Alfred Corn, Edmund White, and David Kalstone in Venice, 1974. (Via Chroma Journal)

At the same time I appreciate how the unnamed narrator allows space for other individuals and personalities to temporarily “take over” the narrative for stretches, brandishing it for their own purposes. Like so many specters summoned via memory’s ability of conjuration, the novel often evokes something closer to a memoir of a community than an individual, and each lovingly-crafted portrait becomes a kind of (futile) attempt at keeping their eventual loss at abeyance.  

The novel, in the end, fashions itself into a lamentation for an entire generation of gay men that was quickly and brutally decimated by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. In the novel’s closing pages White alludes to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45—more commonly known as “The Farewell Symphony”—a piece famous for its unorthodox conclusion that entails musicians to “get up [and] leave the stage” one by one “blowing out their candles as they go.” “In the end,” he explains, “just one violinist is playing.” It turns out to be a remarkably poignant metaphor for the final third of the novel, when most of the vivid presences who had been wandering in and out of the narrative unexpectedly fall sick and pass away with a shocking, almost surreal celerity. But like Haydn, White opts for quiet exits, with the deaths of even the most significant characters announced in passing statements. Such a tactic might be accused of sidestepping the devastating gravity of the situation, but the effect ultimately effectively conveys the heavy weight of absence. And in the end it is White himself who is left alone on the stage, playing wistfully until, finally, all lapses into silence.

[My thoughts on White’s memoir Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014) can be found here.]

Works Cited

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.

Book Review: INCONGRUOUS ENTERTAINMENT by Steven Cohan

incongruous entertainment steven cohanIn Incongruous Entertainment Cohan directly takes on the fascinating paradoxes presented by studio-era, “classic” Hollywood musicals: how can they be considered both wholesome family fare and longtime objects of gay fetishization? Mainstream yet niche? Canonized yet marginalized? Primarily interested in those glossy MGM musicals of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s both major (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis) and much more minor (I Love Melvin, Esther Williams’s whole filmography), Cohan’s strategy in making sense of the “incongruity” of these mass “entertainments” is via that ever-amorphous concept of “camp.” What is interesting is that Cohan is interested in demonstrating that camp readings do not just apply to a consideration of the long-acknowledged relationship gay men have had with these films, but, rather counterintuitively, are also the source of their reputations for wholesome family-friendly fare.

Beyond my simple cinephilic interest in the films themselves (which was the reason I took this volume up in the first place), what is of particular value to me is Cohan’s deft overview of “camp as a historical practice,” which considers Sontag’s foundational 1964 short essay “Notes on Camp,” Esther Newton’s equally crucial ethnographic study Mother Camp (1979), Andrew Ross’s essay “Uses of Camp” (1988) as well as The Politics and Poetics of Camp, a collection edited by Moe Meyer (1994). Cohan notes how “the general currency of camp as a recognizable term” is its ability “for audiences to describe their pleasure in films so old they are bad and so bad they are good” (6). However, this has resulted in “the gradual erasure of [camp’s] materiality as a queer practice,” a dynamic Meyer attempts to recuperate by positing “the camp trace” which gives “an unthreatening ‘queer aura’” which in turn gives “special value straight tastes within the domain of heterosexuality (6, 7). [Personal Note: The concept of a “camp trace” seems an extremely productive and generative way of approaching the nuances of camp practice which I plan to investigate more fully.]

Cohan also takes pain to carefully historicize the term, noting how “from the 1920s through the 1960s, camp was the code and custom for the closet,” allowing homosexual men to necessarily pass as straight within the dominant culture while at the same time allowing for “a distinctly queer idiom through which to articulate their censored, usually precarious cultural location” (9). This inherent incongruity not only “defined camp as a practice,” but also constitutes “a style and strategy inexplicable from passing,” a dynamic which Cohan see as fundamental to the films, histories, and other cultural artifacts he subsequently considers (17).

judy garland get happy summer stock

Judy Garland and the chorus boys in the immortal “Get Happy” sequence from “Summer Stock”

Despite the deep theoretical engagement noted above, I appreciate how overall Cohan never loses sight of the fact that these films—and a camp sensibility in general—generally pivot upon pleasure, humor, and, in his own words, “fun, though not with the intent of trivializing” (11). Thankfully, this recognition is reflected in his writing and even analytical style (how many times have I sighed over theoretical readings of topics like “pleasure” and found the objects of scrutiny hopelessly wrung of any such thing? Too many).

gene Kelly and Jerry anchors aweigh

Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse dancing together in “Anchors Aweigh”

Each chapter centers a different facet of Cohan’s overarching thesis, ranging from the groups of “sissy” chorus boys always seeming to accompany glamorous female stars during their musical numbers, Judy Garland’s eternal but polyvalent persona and star appeal, the ambiguous “camp masculinity” of Gene Kelly, the non-heterosexual figures crucial to the storied “Freed Unit,” etc, etc. I was also particularly interested in his final chapters which consider the intricacies of nostalgia inherent in the That’s Entertainment! series, as well as the much more daunting task of making some kind of sense of Judy Garland internet tribute websites and message boards and the complexities that go along with the legacy of a beloved—and incredibly complicated figure. Certainly a diverse range of topics, but all, in the end, demonstrating how viewers are required to constantly “negotiate the incongruous cultural dualisms” deliberately embedded within these films, and the importance of considering camp when doing so.

Works Cited

Cohan, Steven. Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.