Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Very Queer"

I now have a comment [update: a few comments now] on D. G. Myers's latest attack on me, in which he criticizes me for not wishing to engage with him over my post on Willa Cather and Alice Walker. In my comment, I itemize some of the argumentative strategies he employs which make engaging with him often frustrating and counterproductive.

However, amidst those stratagems, I think I can draw out a distinction or difference of expectations between his view of what a queer reading is and my view on the matter.

Myers insists on calling my "reading" (it wasn't much of a reading, just a brief description of one aspect of my experience) of Death Comes for the Archbishop "very queer." Those are my words, and they come from this paragraph:
Death Comes for the Archbishop, to me, was an achingly beautiful love story about two men, Bishop LaTour and his vicar Father Vaillant. Yes, I know I'm not the first person to read it this way, and yes, I could cite many passages that don't really require much strain to read them as evidence of this love, and yes, I know that Cather is often assumed to have been queer herself. I think it's completely, 100% intellectually valid to read the novel as a very queer love story. But I also know that the novel doesn't make this reading necessary, and that arguing someone into a queer reading might be a self-defeating proposition: you haven't given them the experience of reading the novel this way, just the idea that it can be read this way. And I think being able to share the experience of reading a novel is sometimes much more important than being able to convince someone that your idea of a novel is possible or valid.
I stand by what I said: I think there are sections of the novel that display the archbishop and his vicar in a relationship that exceeds mere collegiality; they are committed in a way that to me more resembles the love of a couple than the camaraderie of co-workers.
Now, let's examine what I didn't say: I didn't say these men were engaged in sexual relations with one another. I didn't call them homosexuals or gays, terms which, for the place and time period involved, might even be somewhat anachronistic. I didn't call into question Cather's obvious sympathy "with Bishop Latour’s celibacy over Padre Martínez’s debauchery," which Myers correctly insists is crucial to the novel.

But Myers doesn't just insist that this sympathy with celibacy is crucial; he argues that it excludes the possibility that these two male characters were in love*. And it is between Myers's insistence on exclusivity and my insistence that these two readings are compatible—the sympathy with celibacy, the presence of love between the two men—that we can see where our basic notions of what a queer reading is turn in very different directions.

For me, reading the relationship of LaTour and Vaillant as a love story has very little effect on my opinion of them as dutiful servants of the Roman Catholic Church, which the novel absolutely defends them as. I don't see the possibility of a love relationship between them as one that necessitates the presumption that it is sexually active or even physically expressed. I don't even think it changes the way we read their actions within the wider scope of the archdiocese; I don't think, and never argued, for instance, that Bishop LaTour has sexual feelings for Kit Carson, or romantic feelings even, or that Father Vaillant's trip to Colorado to an all-male camp had anything to do with his feelings for LaTour. To me, the overlay of a love story on the relationship between LaTour and Vaillant alters the story negligibly from how I would read it without the love story.

For Myers, however, adding a love story is literally sacrilegious; assuming that the two priests have stronger feelings than camaraderie means assuming they're having sex, that they're breaking their vows of celibacy. Since Myers is very upfront about his conservative credentials, I don't think it's out of bounds to draw a connection between common conservative views on the "inherent" promiscuity of homosexuality and Myers's interpretation of the novel. For Myers, same-sex love can't stay unconsummated.

Furthermore, if a man does love another man, this interpretation requires that this love must in some sense control him, so that adding a same-sex love story to the novel requires that we re-interpret everything, because these men are now completely different characters from their normal heterosexual interpretations. Note that one of his arguments (a comical one, perhaps, but one he did make) about why these men could not have loved one another is a simple display of their portraits: whether Myers means they're too ugly to be in love (because, again, same-sex love is all sexually driven and only sexually expressed, and how could either one of those ugly men be sexually attracted to the other?) or too staid looking to be gay, in which case they can't be in love with one another because again, gays can't repress themselves, so if they're not flamboyant, they're probably not in love with another man. (Myers will probably say I'm missing a joke here. Nota bene: I usually miss jokes about stereotypes.)

In this mode of reading, there is no "queer," just "very queer," and maybe not even that—just very, very gay, intrusively gay, over-bearingly gay. And to be very gay is to do damage to this novel which he evidently can't bear to see misinterpreted.

*Edit: By "in love" I mean in the full spectrum of love, so including sexual attraction.


D. G. Myers said...

My ventriloquism is here.

Andrew Seal said...

All I can say is that it never occurred to me that someone might think that ecclesiastical garb is a barrier to same-sex attraction.

D. G. Myers said...

Perhaps it would never occur to a man who wears ecclesiastical garb that he is “attracted” to anyone.

Lady Z said...

Andrew: I share your understanding of "queer" as a category of love/sensual experience, and I also think (as one raised in the Roman Catholic church, and as one who practices the faith seriously though not necessarily devoutly) that one might call Catholic celibacy itself a "queer" love, as one that both struggles and is compelled to eschew normative heterosexual desire in favor of abstracted devotions to God and spiritual fraternity. I would even call Teresa of Avila's desire queer in that it jettisons female sexual experience into the transcendent realm of divine communion, divorcing it from any procreative purpose. I like your reading here; the conflation of "queer" with "gay" or "homosexual" (though both are arguably "queer") unfairly limits all of these terms to forms of carnality, in the interest of maintaining in them a pejorative quality.

David Murdoch said...

Love is about service to each other, and all people are called to love their neighbour, same sex or different sex. Priests would not be serving Christ correctly if they weren't 'in love' with each other in that sense. For Christ said, love one another as I have loved you.

God Bless,

SEK said...

Andrew, given my recent interaction with this "learned" soul, I say throw him in the "troll" bin and be done with it.