Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar
” This, then, is a book in the main about gay figures for whom being gay seemed to come second in their public lives, either by choice or by necessity. But in their private lives, in their own spirit, the laws of desire changed everything for them and made all the difference. The struggle for gay sensibility began as an intensely private one, and slowly then, if the gay man or woman was a writer, or a painter or a filmmaker or a reformer, it seeped into language and images and politics in ways which were strange and fascinating. ” (Introduction, p.3)
Colm Tóibín, whose fictional works I have read and admired, may once have been uneasy about his sexuality, but this collection of essays suggests his critical faculties have always been assured. Love in a Dark Time is not a memoir, not is it polemics; and, to my relief, it is not a prescription of another queer theory. The figures who interest Tóibín are not gay writers whose works had “done so much to clear the air and make things easier for gay people,” but those from an earlier time, whose legacy was ambiguous, either by choice or by necessity.
Rather it is dictated by a narrative that is predetermined: any biography of a homosexual man who made no attempt to hide his sexuality must dwell at length on the untidiness of his personal life and the drama of his relationships. (Francis Bacon, p.146)
These essays, though in varying strengths in terms of details and profundity, while considering the influence of their sexuality, leaves readers a better understanding of these artists. Tóibín makes no secret of his fondness for Elizabeth Bishop and James Baldwin and his admiration of their works. He compares Bishop to Hemingway for her fierce simplicity: “A use of words in which the emotion appears to be hidden, to lurk mysteriously in the space between the words.” (Elizabeth Bishop, p.177) The calm surface of her poetry gives little indication that her life was troubled. Her literary métier became an outlet that allowed her to triumph over such familiar demons as emotional insecurity and alcoholism. Of Baldwin he also highly praises. Tóibín nails the root of the aura of intensity and seriousness that is James Baldwin. Not only the drama of his own life often echoed against the public drama, his being black and gay and an imaginative writer was such the triple burden he had to bear in that dark time. Only when he was full-hilt in the civil rights movement did he realize that the privilege did not extend to the gays. But like Tóibín notes, the adversity did not stop him. His works delve into the subject of flesh and sexual longing, and how the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind.
His intelligence, the energy of his wit and his longing for love hit up against history and the hardness of the world, hit up against the prejudices which people had about a man who was black and a man who was gay. (James Baldwin, p.212)
The collection also touches upon painter Francis Bacon, who put off any interview irrelevant to his art work; Thomas Mann, who sublimated his homosexual desires at his desk; Roger Casement, whose homosexuality antagonized him to the consular service; Mark Doty, who wrote poems about AIDS without naming the disease, and Oscar Wilde, who went to jail for sodomy. Love in a Dark Time is highly readable and important, for it is only when homosexuality is removed from the margins and placed at the very heart of the cultural canon that society shall be free of discrimination. The progression of these pieces shows we are heading the right direction at the least, though the battle is still a long one.
278 pp. Picador UK. Paper. [Read/
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