28 May 2008

McNally, Terrence. Corpus Christi. New York: Grove, 1998.

Here, McNally reimagines Jesus Christ as a gay man, and brings the story of his life up to date. Judas is written as his lover, moody, brooding, choosing to betray Jesus just for a spot in history. McNally's point in this exercise is to argue for a theology of inclusion:
Judas: What is His crime?

High Priest: Blasphemy.

Judas: Because He says He's the son of God?

High Priest: No, because He says you're the son of God as well.

Judas: We're all the son of God.

High Priest: Unless you're looking for trouble, I would keep that to myself. The son of God is a cocksucker? I don't think so. We need sinners. (65)
Something about the casting—all the roles except for Jesus and Judas are played varyingly by a "choir" of eleven other men—prevents the play from transcending beyond its central conceit. In other words, there are no real characters here we can attach ourselves to, just re-presentations of mythic figures. Kushner's approach at negotiating gay people within Judeo-Christian belief seems, perhaps only in its epic scope, a greater success.

Fielder, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion, 1960.*

That Bonds-star up there is to indicate I didn't actually Finish! this book—not all of it, at least. But if anyone important asks, I read every word.

At any rate, this is one of the most famous studies of the American novel, which Fiedler argues (looking most closely at Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain) is built on a foundation of sentimentality and escape. "[T]he typical male protagonist of our fiction has been the man on the run," he writes, "[. . .] anywhere to avoid 'civilization,' which is to say, the confrontation of a man and a woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility" (xx-xxi). As a result, one of the central tropes of U.S. literature is the image where "a white and a colored American male flee from civilization in each other's arms" (x).

Fiedler's analysis is very broad, going back to the beginnings of the novel in Richardson and Scott. Despite his central theory of comrades in arms, Fiedler's text doesn't lend itself much to the world of queer theory. He does a smart queering of The Scarlet Letter, in which Chillingworth becomes a seducer and dominant partner of Dimmesdale's. But queer literature in itself is written off as an inauthentic version of the southern gothic—Jamesian sensibility infesting Faulknerian terror. Capote's promise, Fiedler says, was "frittered away" by journalism and his own love of celebrity.

19 May 2008

Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980). New York: Penguin, 1986.

A novel written as theme-and-variations, in line with the musical genre. In seven parts, Kundera (as a very present, questioning narrator) posits various relationships among Czechs in the time of their country's ongoing fragility and strife. These relationships are often sexual, usually orgyistic. Sex is treated as a kind of performance of personal freedom and connectivity amid such national decay, even though in the end it never brings people fully together. Likewise, Kundera's seven parts don't ever intersect in that clever way that most novels-as-stories tend to do.

Instead, they each attempt an approach at theme in different ways. That theme is memory, pesonal and collective. Communist leader Gustáv Husák is called "the president of forgetting" (181), and much mining and revising of history is put into the book as mortar between all its little parts. What I found most interesting was its notions of laughter, and that there are two kinds:
Things deprived suddenly of their putative meaning, the place assigned to them in the ostensible order of things [. . .], make us laugh. Initially, therefore, laughter is the province of the Devil. it has a certain malice to it (things have turned out differently from the way they tried to seem), but a certain beneficent relief as well (things are looser than they seemed) [. . .]. (61)
Kundera contrasts this Devil-laughter with the laughter of Angels, which is endowed with contrary meaning, rejoicing in how good everything is, the pure divinity of creation. The Devil finds this laughing itself "infinitely laughable", and that "laughable laughter" is separate from the laughter we all know and love. That "we lack the words to distinguish them" (62) is, for Kundera, one of the tragedies of the contemporary era.

Ferris, Joshua. Then We Came to the End. New York: Little, Brown, 2007.

I read this book weeks ago and liked it. You should read it if you have some free time. The first-person plural thing is handled well, and when everything becomes monotonous and repetitive, the novel shifts gears and becomes pretty great.

It's also nothing like "Dilbert".

14 May 2008

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction (1978). New York: Vintage, 1990.

My first Foucault (and what a lousy cover, eh?). Here he takes a Marxist look at sexuality as it's been "invented" over the last three centuries. He sites sexuality's birth (so to speak) with the rise of the (Catholic) confession, where "[a]n imperative was established: Not only will you confess to acts contravening the law, but you will seek to transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse" (21). What was once biological (sex) became social (sexuality). Foucault urges readers not to think of sexuality as something natural or innate, but rather as "a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse [. . .] are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power" (105-6).

Power might be his actual subject here, and how sexuality has been deployed in order to increase or sustain power. This is the thing about much of the (admittedly very little) theory in general and Marxist theory in specific I've run across: this continuous use of the passive voice. I'm always curious: Well, who? Like when, exactly, did a certain someone or group of someones realize that an increased amount of discourse on sexuality can help them get the power they want or maintain the power they have? Can you give me a specific example?

Foucault can't, or maybe won't. I think specific examples are supposed to be self-evident, or maybe ubiquitous. At any rate, what I like about the theories in this book are the way they read the body as commodity. He contrasts two eras or phases that may or may not be subsequent (they may be concurrent is what I mean): the deployment of alliance (meaning, like, matrimony as social bond to reign in sexual desire) and the deployment of sexuality (a time when licit and illicit were a lot more amorphous, and personal desires were emphasized over the social good). The shift he labels as an economic one, when the monetary benefits of the marriage contract became less necessary for the accumulation of wealth. (Throughout the book I was amazed at how early Foucault grounds these shifts...early 1700s? Really?)

At any rate, while the deployment of alliance concerns itself with the social body, the deployment of sexuality concerns itself with "proliferating, innovating, annexing, creating, and penetrating bodies in an increasingly detailed way, and in controlling populations in an increasingly comprehensive way" (107).

The body then is seen as something that produces and consumes. And somehow (I'm not fully up on it yet), this ties in to certain post-gay theories of the commodification of gay identity—the idea that markets more fully (and more rapidly) than governments are the entities that can "accept" gay people, because markets read new identities as an opportunity (new demographics) as opposed to a problem (new populations). To say, "I am my sexuality" or "My sexuality is who I am" is not liberating, Foucault argues. It's the status quo. We "think we are affirming the rights of our sex against all power, when in fact we are fastened to the deployment of sexuality that has lifted up from deep within us a sort of mirage in which we think we see ourselves reflected" (157).