Sunday, June 6, 2010


“I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him.”  --E.M. Forster, in his diaries
The Times published an article on E.M. Forster today, which I found by way of Towleroad.  I read everything by Forster I could get my hands on back in the 1980s, at the same time Merchant and Ivory were mining him and Henry James for everything they were worth.  Unlike James, Forster had an easy style, subversive of the starched middle-class manners of his characters.  I was particularly struck by the imperative "Only Connect" in Howards End, as terse and strong as Rilke's archaic Apollo: "You must change your life."

The article reveals that Forster stopped writing novels in his late thirties, after he had sex for the first time.  After that, he says in his diaries, he couldn't bring himself to write anymore about the tepid heterosexual lives he had built his reputation on.  Even Maurice, his homosexual romance, published only after his death at age 91 in 1970, was written long before he'd ever experienced actual sex with a man.  D.H. Lawrence read it in manuscript and wrote a heterosexualized version of it in the notorious Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928).

The idea of the erotic mixing of classes--Forster's longtime lover was a working-class policeman--was one Forster picked up from the social reformer Edward Carpenter.  It was an idea more radical in England, with its strict class boundaries, than in the ostensibly more egalitarian United States--though Walt Whitman's similar ideas were revolutionary for mid-century (slavery-era) America (and, frankly, even today Leaves of Grass strikes Americans' ears as faintly seditious, one more reason I love it so).

Coming from a working-class background, I find the idea of mixing classes less transgressive, and on bad days, I suspect that Forster might have been unconsciously "slumming it," for all his socialist airs. 

The quote above, however, I can totally relate to: "to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him."  If our desires are shaped in large part by our cultures, it seems odd to me that so little changed in the 74 years between me and E.M., especially when you think about how much the world changed in those 74 years.

I knew a young woman in graduate school, a jovial but strict Roman Catholic.  I was still in the closet, though sexually experienced, still professing a faith in Christ and the Republican Party.  Once, when the subject of homosexuality arose--perhaps the only time it did between us--she observed that, from what she had heard, it was all wrapped up in a lot of sado-masochism.

Mine was.  Is.  Well, I wouldn't say "a lot."  But the allure of being "hurt" by my "strong young" lover is something I could and still can understand.

My friend the Catholic certainly took the S&M thing to be proof of there being something wrong with the whole nasty business.  After I came out, I read articles in GLBT periodicals saying something quite similar:  that "rough trade" and the wrestling fantasies of the 1950s-60s era of the Athletic Model Guild were all vestiges of self-loathing internalized homophobia.


Maybe the younger gays, most of whom seem now to be striving for pseudo-hetero-quasi-normalcy--marriage, white picket fence, children--reflect the wholesome future of homosexuality.  I applaud and wholeheartedly support them.  They should have what they want.   I particularly admire their desire to raise special-needs children most heterosexuals do not care to adopt.

For me, though, the white picket fence sounds dismal.  Boring.  Homogenized, and neatly wrapped in cellophane.

Admittedly, what I desire is perhaps not very good for me ... or very good of me.  My desires were forged during a childhood and adolescence in a sexually repressed, economically hierarchic society and in a religion fueled by guilt and wrath.  And it probably did me no good at all to watch John Wayne spank Maureen O'Hara, or Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones shoot each other through the hearts.

Still, the idea that true love hurts--and that the hurt is delectable--so beautifully evoked by gay writers, not just Forster, but also Gide, Proust, Genet, Tennessee Williams ... and more currently, with less sentimentality, Dennis Cooper and Kevin Killian--that idea is not unique to the gay experience. 

It was an idea that Lawrence thought was easily translatable to the heterosexual experience in the 1920s.

But it is perhaps an aspect of romantic fantasies of love that is fading away ... as men and women become more comfortable with each other as equals, as homosexuality becomes normalized, as the evils of incest and sexual abuse become exposed and repudiated.

Fundamentally, though, there is a difference between what Forster speaks of as "hurt" in his diaries and the "hurt" caused by the inequalities, intolerance, and violence I just described.  The difference, I believe, is autonomy ... consent, privacy, freedom, along with the urge to feel and to cross boundaries.

It is perhaps the invitation to love and hurt me that makes the act something other than a fantasy of rape or a bashing.

I don't want to seem too certain about this, though.   E.M. and I may be sick puppies, our concepts of love soon to be washed away with a new wave of wholesomeness.

Honestly, I'm not sure why Forster's words still resonate with me, even now in the first glow of social toleration, acceptance, and assimilation.

But they do.  Still.

1 comment:

  1. See, Joe, that's what I mean: Nice theory but I don't buy the notion of 1950's/1960's era of AMG wrestling fantasies--an era in which I found myself and fully discovering wrestling--as reflective of "vestiges of self-loathing internalized homophobia." There's gotta be a better answer. And I agree, let the new have their homogenized quasi-heterosexual fantasies.




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