Debauchery and other mental illnesses

I’m currently working on a new novel, very different from the ones that I’ve written and worked on up to this point. It feels as if I’m experimenting with some new kind of drug that makes one dizzy, I still need to get used to it. However, I don’t want to talk about that in this particular post because it would rather be a bore for you, my dear reader. What I do intend to discuss in this post is a novel I’m currently reading and, most importantly, my reaction to it, since it’s the kind of reaction that I’ve not yet experienced while reading gay-themed novels. To make the story short, the novel I’m talking about is Jamie O’Neill’s 2001 well-known novel (a gay classic, apparently) At Swim, Two Boys. Albeit rather difficult to read because of its difficult and cumbersome English mixed with Irish and odd sentence structures, O’Neill’s novel is, as The New York Times Book Review rightfully asserts, “a dangerous, glorious book”. Even more important than that, one of its accomplishments, I believe, is its capacity to get a good grip on the reader. Once you get into it, you’ll find it quite difficult to let go of the “there’s-a-war-going-on-out-there” type of romance between Jim and the pal of his heart, Doyler. Yet, I feel like the romance between the two starts to play a second part in the whole frame of things once MacMurrough is introduced the story. Now, MacMurrough is a very bizarre character to behold since he has a split personality, he’s gay, and, on top of everything, he’s suffered from the same fate as the beloved Oscar Wilde did: imprisoned for sodomy. I have not finished the novel yet, I’m still half-through it, but somehow, I’m afraid to say, MacMurrough’s madness seems more real than the rest of the novel, all that swimming, and all that boyish blush that we see in Jim every time Doyler gets too close. MacMurrough is even much more assertive when it comes to gayness. His discussions with his now imaginary friend Scrotes are illustrative in this sense. Scrotes’, and by extension MacMurrough’s, attacks against hypocrisy, are very juicy from this point of view:

Scrotes settled the papers before him, the papers restoring his donnish air. By tradition, he said, those of your station have been more than happy to conform, in public. In private, they debauched to their hearts’ content. What scruples arose they retained chaplains to resolve. Doubtless it is the way of all great families, all low families, too, in fine. The one to sink, the other to rise, and all to meet in the embracing middle. In time all will throb to the Daily Mail and all hands be raised in horror at hypocrisy.

I simply love this passage, I like it so much that I placed it as an epigraph for my newest novel, since it manages to portray the double life that we have to live in the day to day trenches of adult life. In public, we tend to conform and commit to the social order that others have prescribed for us, in private we let go and become different people, and we’re so accustomed to it that we no longer perceive it as hypocrisy. And then there the word “sodomy” repeatedly used in the novel. Somehow, it still manages to send a shiver through my spine every time I see it. Must be all that religious education taking its toll on me. Yet, MacMurrough is still gay and mentally ill. Is this association incidental?

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Anticipation and Retrospection (II)

I might have been too ironic in my previous post about White’s differentiation between anticipation and retrospection. Nonetheless, White’s distinction has given me for the past few days some food for thought. And so, I might reconsider the topic in the present post. A few nights ago I met a friend of mine, he is also gay and madly in love with a guy who’s much younger than him, a lot younger, twenty-something years younger by my calculations, and while we were discussing White’s dichotomy an idea came to my mind. My friend’s view of the matter is that in the case of gay couples it all starts with having some sort of sexual chemistry (“intesa sessuale”, as Italians call it), which then becomes the basis of a relationship. Without that sexual chemistry things start falling apart. My friend, for instance, is very much into younger boys, beardless, hairless, younger boys, which dramatically narrows his attention span to boys ranging from 19 to 26 years old. So, I wonder, taking all these things into consideration, will he still be madly in love with the younger guy when he turns 27? Most likely not, because they won’t have that sexual chemistry anymore, which then dramatically narrows the chances of a long-term relationship. The same happened to another friend of mine. At one point he fell in love with an older guy who eventually told him that at one point he, the older guy, will lose interest in him, just because he will grow older, and won’t qualify as a potential lover anymore. A similar case is that of those who have a fetish for chubby/ fat guys. Lose weight and you’re out of the equation. Simply because physical aspect and sexual chemistry play such an important role gay relationships are inherently limited to the constancy of particular physical traits. Your boyfriend likes hairy guys? Well, try to avoid shaving your chest because another hairy guy might already be on the radar by the time that hair grows back. However, this is not to say that the opposite is not true. Some relationships, most likely out of inertia, might go beyond physical aspect and sexual chemistry. We must reconsider the idea of living happily ever after.

So, going back to White’s distinction, we can easily assume that while for the straight couple sex is the coronation of a period of courtship and trial, for the gay couple sex is no longer a coronation but rather the starting point of a period of courtship and trial. If there is no sexual chemistry then things no longer evolve into something else. Of course, the opposite is also true. I guess it depends on the attitude that certain people have. If somebody you’ve had sex with tells you that he dislikes gay people, well, that’s pretty much a sign that things won’t go too well in the future. Good night and good luck.

Anticipation and Retrospection: Straight and Gay love

There’s this one episode from “Sex and the City” that I like watching again and again. Of course, the episode that I’m referring to here is called “All that glitters” (S04E14). Watching it repeatedly has become, I must admit, almost a guilty pleasure since I can’t tell anyone about it. One of the reasons why I like to do this is that there is this handsome gay guy, Oliver Spencer, whom Carrie meets at a gay discotheque. While having brunch one day their discussion shifts towards the differences that, supposedly, exist between gay and straight love. “I know monogamous gay couples”, Oliver explains at one point, “but I’m a realist, I don’t expect to get everything from one man.” I get scared every time I hear that, and I think every romantic person would get the same feeling, because it’s terrifying and it goes against everything that we’ve been taught about love and relationships. I think it’s also sad. Yet, on the other hand, maybe my reaction to it comes as a result of my education, and education is not necessarily a good thing. Every time I hear that line there’s this battle against myths and fairy tales going on inside me.

However, last night while reading aimlessly on the internet I stumbled upon an article from the Michigan Quarterly Review (Summer 2002), written by the acclaimed writer Edmund White (author of “A Boy’s Own Story”, a gay classic already). Entitled “Writing Gay”, the article is essentially about writing biographies and autobiographies, but that’s not the point here, I don’t want to discuss any of that. What I want to point out to you is White’s differentiation between gay and straight love. “Another French thinker”, White explains in his article, “once remarked that if courtship was the most romantic moment for the heterosexual couple, for a gay lover the most romantic moment was after sex and after one had put one’s brand-new partner in a taxi”. “Straight love”, White further explains, “is all about anticipation, whereas gay love is all retrospection. In straight life love, friendship, and sex are ideally all joined in the same person, whereas in gay life these drives can be separated out”. The French thinker White is referring to here is, of course, Michel Foucault (1926-1984, philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, philologist and literary critic). Gay love, such fleeting moment, don’t you think? Putting one’s brand-new partner in a taxi is not exactly promising, especially considering the fact that he’s “brand-new”. Yet, this also tells something about straight love. It’s all about building up this empire of love and then celebrating that empire with marriage, and maybe kids and stuff like that, and then losing everything because there’s no anticipation any more, the grand moment has been consumed, time to chill out. Gay love, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. It’s all about how you feel afterwards, take it or leave it. This must be what Oliver Spencer was referring to when he says that he does not expect to get everything from one man because, as opposed to straight love where love, friendship, and sex are united in one person, gay love is all about separating those aspects. Which means a threesome might do the trick.

On ideal versions of love

Ah love. I guess everyone has this idealized version of love in their minds mainly because we’re constantly fed with that kind of stories all the time. Boy meets girl, they fall in love with each other and after a while they live happily ever after. But the ending is always taken for granted. We just don’t care about the ending anymore because what comes before that is so much more interesting and good for the stomach and so on. Falling in love, that’s so sweet and pleasant, and extraordinary etc.

A few months ago I was reading André Aciman’s acclaimed novel Call Me By Your Name and I stumbled upon a couple of reviews of the book (those that did not contain any spoilers, of course). One furious reviewer wrote that, in real life, Aciman is actually happily married to a woman with whom he has kids and so on, which dramatically decreases the author’s authority in the field of imagining gay love stories. Another furious reviewer claimed that Aciman’s novel falls into one of the many clichés around which gay stories are built today. The cliché is, of course, the sad ending. Gay love stories just don’t seem to have a happy ending nowadays. In Aciman’s novel a guy meets another guy, they both fall in love, things “get difficult”, one of them has to go back home, and the novel turns into a sort of poetic countdown. They meet again and one of them is planning to get married…to a girl. Isn’t that sad?

Aciman’s novel is not the only one that falls into this category. Have a look at James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room: young American guy living in France falls in love with this Italian guy and they have an affair that ends badly. The affair appears to have been just a moment of confusion on the part of David, the American guy. Giovanni, the Italian guy, ends up dead (we don’t know for sure) while the American guy, well, he’s got a girlfriend. Very sad indeed.

Then, have a look at Alan Hollinghurst’s 2004 Booker Prize winning novel The Line of Beauty: white gay postgraduate student writing a thesis on Henry James (!) has all kinds of affairs with all sorts of guys and so on. I won’t go into too much detail here, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. I’m just going to say that there’s an emerging AIDS crisis there somewhere. Very sad indeed. The Swimming Pool Library (1988) by the same author goes in a similar direction. Will, the irresistible 25-year-old rich guy goes through a series of failed relationships AND gets beaten up at one point. Unresolved love story. Very sad indeed. Not to mention some other “dark” matters going on in there. I’ll leave the rest to you.

A Boy’s Own Story (Edmund White, 1982), another coming-of-age gay classic, describes a similar situation including falling in love with straight guys and eventually ending up doing a blow job to a teacher on drugs (or something like that). The protagonist, of course, emerges as a strong bastard in the end ready to take on whatever the future might have in store for him. No happy ending there, I assure you. Nonetheless, I cannot deny the fact that A Boy’s Own Story is just the first of a trilogy of novels, so maybe things do work out, in the end.

Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man. Death and tragedy. We do not share moments of happiness with the protagonist, only the memory of them. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993), AIDS, lovers abandoning each other when things get rough and tough, and so on. Very sad indeed.

And this is not happening only on the written page. Watch Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. The protagonists have a very good time and then one of them has to go very far away. All of these stories are so alike that it is almost disturbing. I wonder. Are we not capable of a happy ending?

Here are a few things that might shed some light on whatever answer you might come up with. You meet a guy that you like and you spend a few days with him, and the sex is great, and at the end of those few days you realize that you really like the guy. Yet, you have not met this guy while shopping in a supermarket, you met him online because if you don’t go to gay clubs and similar places there’s practically no way you’re going to meet a gay guy just like that (unless you tell everyone you’re gay). And he’s like 400 km away from you, still living with his parents. And you can’t hold hands, you can’t touch while having dinner at a restaurant, you can’t kiss in public because there’s always some homophobe around to ruin the fun for you. You’ll have to hide, use coded language, pretend, be silent sometimes, and slowly begin to hate the whole world. And worst of all, you’ll be afraid. And you’ll leave some things unsaid.

I think we really are capable of happy endings, but we are almost programed to believe there is no happy ending for us. Now, it’s not about obtaining gay marriage and other rights, it’s about “their” coming to terms with us.

Here, no longer there (on homophobia)

At one point in his Ethics Evil and Fiction (1999, if I remember well), Colin McGinn claims that “evil feeds off the notion of otherness.” In this sense, he further adds, “the pleasure of evil has the idea of the victim’s sharp distinctness from me built into it: what I relish is that it is not me that is suffering.” (66) Somehow, we always manage to demonize those who are “over there”, and it is this sense of distance that, in a way, justifies whatever atrocities we might inflict on those who are physically – if not spatially – distinct from ourselves. It’s not us, it’s them, we say, they have nothing to do with us, it’s not our fault, it’s theirs, and so on. It’s so easy to make decisions for those who are over there, and not here, with us. This is one of the reasons why I like books so much, because, besides being embodiments of ideal versions of ourselves, they also represent the perfect example of that distance that unfolds between us and the others. “He dies in the book, but not in real life.” You stop reading, and that’s it, you’re safe. This, of course, could never happen in real life. There is no switch off button in that case. But that’s not the point.

The point here is that my older brother, my only brother, is a homophobe.

And if there is one thing in this world that could stop me from coming out to my family that would be my brother. I have addressed the issue on many occasions, trying desperately to understand his view of the issue, and every time he bursts out cursing and saying ugly things about people. One time he told that if his son turned out to be gay he would drive him away telling him that he no longer is his son. And stuff like that. Once he even told me that “faggots” deserve to be burned. And I feel like there’s something going on inside his head, something bad, and I’m furious and angry, and I stop, and just let it go, say no more.

Homophobia is my brother cursing. Homophobia is a reaction to an inexistent threat, blinding faith.

For my brother, homosexuals are always “over there”, never here, inside his circle of friends and acquaintances and just because he can place that distance in between people like him and people like me, to his view, his reactions are always justified. To him we’re like that book, always there to be set aside and forgotten just because it deals with “sensitive” issues. I always tell my students, never to my brother, that whenever there is something they don’t understand they should just take it to the library, research, try to understand, read as many books as they can carry, every day, until they can finally get a grasp of that thing, until they get a glimpse of that demonized notion of otherness and see that it’s not that evil after all. There’s always a darker side to this. If no one is willing to do at least that, then I don’t think I want to live in this world anymore.

The Straight Issue

We were talking about Wentworth Miller, the leading actor from the acclaimed TV series Prison Break. Frankly, I’ve never even tried watching it simply because I’m never in the mood for Prison Break. But we were talking about Wentworth Miller and he’s kind of good-looking, and the guy I was talking with is one of my brother’s straight friends. I can’t deny the fact that I’ve been fantasizing about him for quite a while, especially since he’s shown me his tattoos (I had to touch them, just to be sure they’re real and have an excuse to touch the guy, of course). And while we were talking about Wentworth Miller he said something like “if Wentworth Miller would ever ask me to sleep with him, I would do it, because he’s really hot.” Now there’s something to think about and brood upon, especially when it comes to straight friends.

On many occasions I’ve told myself that one of the biggest mistakes that we, gay people, do is think that every straight guy is inherently, and not surprisingly, gay, or, at least bisexual. Just the other day a friend of mine was telling me that all straight guys are straight until a gay guy gets on his knees…and does something to him. When it comes to pleasure there is no clear distinction between straight and gay, there are only degrees of straightness and gayness, I suppose. Pleasure cannot be bargained down, and sometimes it’s the only currency that we exchange with the elusive “otherness.”

And then, there is that other straight guy I met at a birthday party and who’s never mentioned sleeping with Wentworth Miller. We’ve been talking for about fifteen minutes and suddenly he’s paying my way in for this local concert held by a band I’ve never heard of before. At the end of the night he tells me that we should hang out again sometimes, spend some time together. After a few days, we meet again, at another concert and he’s so close to me that I can see his tongue moving inside his mouth, articulating every sound he makes. I can see his teeth, and eyes, and I can’t help but stare at his lips and succumb to the odor of his body. I never see him again after that. But before I know it I go home and write this very long page in my diary urging a future version of me to remember this guy. The page is still there. Today I find it pathetic as I read it again and again.

There’s also that guy who wears his Adonis belt with pride. I think he knows something that some of the others don’t. I wonder if he ever dreams of sleeping with Wentworth Miller. I will never know. The body is the limit.

On coming out

Every once in a while I take a look at the videos uploaded to the It Gets Better Project webpage feed and wonder, are you ever, really, out? “Hi, my name is [insert name here], and I’m gay. I came out three years ago. Things have changed since then.” Most of the confessional videos start like this. And you can see all kinds of people, both male and female, and you can see the struggle on their faces, as if, deep down, some sort of fighting is still going on. A friend of mine told me once that one of his so-called “sex-buddies” told him that most of the time he feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body. “Trapped?” I asked my friend fearing that he might be overreacting somehow. “Trapped.” He replied steadily. “That’s what he said, he used the exact same word.” How terrible language can be sometimes. Trapped, if I recall, implies that the situation in which one finds himself/herself is most likely not a very pleasant one. Imagine the fight that goes on every day as that woman tries to break loose from that trap. But that’s not the only trap that we find ourselves in. Right now, in my head, I’m trying to make a list of the things that stop me everyday from telling everyone that I’m actually into guys, and that I’ve been like that since, well, since the day I grew conscious of my sexual preferences, and so on and so forth. The list is rather long. I imagine the look on my mother’s face only at the thought of having a gay son. Then I imagine all those mornings she had to wake up and go to work so that I’ll have an expensive education. Suddenly she looks very old. Then I imagine the look on my father’s face, my brother’s face, my best friend’s face, and all those other people who at one point have met me. And I feel like there’s no way out. There is no way out, or, at least, there is no easy way out. You cannot simply avoid all those items on the above-mentioned list. You cannot zig-zag through them and live happily ever after. The only way out is breaking through them, as painful as that sounds. It doesn’t get better, because pain is a place we tend to revisit.

Of course, timing is important, as well as strategy. A few days ago I told my best friend that I’m gay, after having repeatedly hinted at my sexual preferences in his presence. I tried to tell him directly several times before that. One night we were in the car, alone, and I was about to tell him when this lump appeared in my throat out of the blue. That night I just told him that I did not have the courage to tell him, and I thought he understood. He did not, of course, it would have been too easy. On the other hand he told me that whatever it was he was okay with it. So a few nights ago I told him. Just like that. I told him that most of the things that I write (I’m also a writer every once in a while) are dedicated to Marco, this one Italian guy I fell in love with two years ago and whom I never got to kiss or hold hands with. It felt like I suddenly stopped breathing while I was waiting for his reaction. He asked me about Marco, about how I met him, and whether I was still in love with him. I said yes, I was still in love with him, but the most painful question coming from my best friend was “why are you not together?” Things are complicated, I replied and said nothing else in the hope that my friend would understand. And he did, because the next thing he said was “things don’t work like that”. Of course they don’t work like that, but what was I supposed to do. “Send him your writings, explain to him, tell him that you’re still in love with him.” Easier said than done. I chose to do none of that, instead I told my friend that I will try, and that I’m happy, and hopefully M’s happy too, without me.

He never mentioned it again since. I wonder, does he avoid it because he is uncomfortable with the idea of me being a homosexual or is it because he actually believes me when I say I’m happy?