The great English novelist Kingsley Amis was antisemitic around the edges. His son, Martin, says he would watch the credits of TV shows, looking out for the names of Jews.
“There’s one,” he would say. “There’s another.”
In a moment of pique once, the younger Amis asked his dad what it was like to be “mildly antisemitic.”
I must confess to my own version of Amis’s Jew monitoring.
In my 20s, as I began to become persuaded that humanity’s most valuable lessons are to be found in great books, I couldn’t help but notice how many gays and bisexuals were knocking about in the top ranks of the belles lettres.
At first, it was a minor cultural inconvenience. Although I was not raised deliberately to be a bigot, I was, inescapably, I suppose, a product of straitened middle America where as recently as 20 years ago, homosexuality was considered a shameful lifestyle choice, which must at all costs be confined to the Closet.
I should emphasize that no one taught me to hate gays. It was an ambient attitude, much closer to a dull ignorance than active, focused animosity. We had our Bible verses that condemned “unnatural” acts, which—unlike so many atrocities endorsed by the Bible, such as the commandment to kill apostates—hadn’t yet been extinguished by more enlightened thought. “Fag” was the insult of choice for years. And, in our official silence about the existence of homosexuals, we helped form the great national coverup that condemned gays to shameful secrecy. It was a safe world, complacently satisfied that gay love dare not speak its name.
So, at college, when I found out Socrates, my new hero, attended Athens’s wrestling matches to scout out the most promising beauties or that he flirted with lovestruck youths at his lectures, I could not quite square his louche-seeming diversions with his towering philosophical wisdom. Didn’t his love life make him reprehensible? So I more or less looked the other way and concentrated on Socrates’ metaphysics, which was what I came to college to study anyway.
The “problem” came up again in grad school, when I wrote my thesis on Kant and Wittgenstein. The two men evinced fascinating parallels in their semantic approach to understanding basic knowledge claims (what me mean when we utter statements that seem true as much because they are linguistically indispensibile as because they are well evidenced). Simple mathematical propositions are paradigms of the case.
Although my paper addressed only philosophical technicalities, I came to know both men’s biographies. Kant was a lifelong bachelor who kept a close circle of male friends and lived with his manservant, whom he may have fired for having an affair. Historians are cagey about calling Kant’s sexuality, but he fits the profile of a highly repressed homosexual. And in his day, the late 18th century, there were not many other kinds of homosexual.
Wittgenstein was more or less openly gay, and miserable. While I am not suggesting his gayness made him miserable, it was one of several facets of his identity that put him at odds with the world around him, even at liberal Cambridge, where he studied.
Wittgenstein was an aristocrat among middle class students, a Jew among Christians (he longed to convert, but couldn’t quite), and most significantly, a genius who wrecked the very system of philosophical thought that sustained his climb to greatness and the career-making work of his less enlightened peers. In fact, he had no peers. When Bertrand Russell, perhaps the greatest mathematical genius of the 20th century, tried to draw the young Wittgenstein out in defense of his (Wittgenstein’s) doctoral thesis on mathematical logic, the young Austrian waved Russell off with the “explanation” that no one on the board would understand his argument. And he got away with it! And so half the philosophers of the 20th century literally set up Wittgenstein shops and made their livings trying to do what Wittgenstein himself would not—explain himself.
But I digress. My point is that my own philosophical obsessions had come to focus intently on the works of two more geniuses who happened to be gay (ok, one and a half, if we may allow for Kant’s ambiguity in this way). At that point in my life, when I wished to become a professor of philosophy, I had sound reasons to believe that my path was more or less destined to follow these two men. Things began to get personal. Anyone who has taken their studies toward the doctoral level (I was in a PhD program at the time) knows that this intensity of scholarship is indistinguishable from devotion. One commits, at this point, to a lifelong partnership.
And so I found myself at what would later appear to be an inflection point. While Kant’s and Wittgenstein’s gayness had nothing to do with my understanding of their philosophical significance, I couldn’t shake the idea that their dual status as geniuses and gays might be saying something of moral significance for my life.
The dissonnance caused a few years earlier by my encounter with Socrates’ gayness transmuted to open curiosity about “gay” genius and open skepticism about society’s received idea of the Closet. If it was so natural and so justified to expect gays to maintain a lifelong, polite silence, why had the realm of genius produced such accomplished gay champions of the human spirit? Why had it given us such giants who showed us our best part—our desire to know the world, to sift evidence and follow the line of reason even to its highest, most aetherial reaches?
The story of my liberation from ordinary homophobia is long but conventional. It needs no recounting. Suffice it to say that today, 20 years after my troubles with Socrates, I am a staunch ally of the Pride movement. I believe that one of my generation’s greatest, albeit unfinished, accomplishments has been the abolition of the Closet and all the suffering and alienation it entailed.
But there remains this curious fact. Even now, as I locate myself on the right side of humanity’s conscience, I still take special note of the gay writers who have inspired me and who continue to inspire me. I am still, so to speak, Kingsley Amis in the TV armchair, watching for their names: “There’s one. There’s another.” Why?
On one level, I know this is not the attitude of the bien pensant. Great writing should be appreciated independently of the sex lives of those who produced it. I know this. I subtract nothing, for example, from Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because of his occasional (heterosexual) debauches. Should I not keep the same critical distance between gay writers’ biographies and their texts? Should I even “notice” their gayness?
Still, I think of it like this: I spent so long benighted by bigotry, something tells me it is morally instructive for me as a recovering homophobe to pay particular attention to gay writers who have enlightened me. They helped bring me out of a contemptible mess, and now they are stuck with their status as heroes. It may be an awkward pose, but there it is.
I take refuge in the following defense: My attitude is only a waypoint, not an endpoint. My children will grow up—are growing up—in a different mental climate where no fuss is made over thinkers’ sex lives. If my kids ever read these words some day, they will likely be horrified at my cloddish adaption of the old, self-betraying canard, “Some of my best friends are . . . .” Good. But I am stuck with it. Confessions are no good if they bend the truth.
So it is with too much introduction and with no intent of paralyzing my gay comrades in cringes that I offer a short list of gay writers who have opened my eyes, nourished my soul, and helped me improve my pursuit of happiness.
At the top of the list is an author I would not and could not do without, E.M. Forster. While his whole catalog rewards study, two of his novels have made indelible impressions on me and are, in my opinion, among the most morally educating novels in the English language. In Howard’s End Forster gives a blistering, true-to-life picture of conventional moral callousness toward the poor, which I believe no reader can put down without serious self-reflection. A Room With A View splashes sunlight against this dark view and shows the reader just how available numinous happiness is, once we take seriously the mortal horizon and our capacity to offset it with love.
Gore Vidal has come to dominate and fill out my untutored view of politics over the last 10 years. He has also deepened my love of America. He stands very much alone as a self-taught man of letters.
Given the rolling capaciousness of his exquisite prose—I can spend hours at a time “catching up” on the leftist critique of power at almost any phase of American history thanks to his seven-book “novels-of-empire” series—Vidal’s most arresting insights are surprisingly succinct. The most memorable is that a politician’s main job is “never to give the game away.”
By the late part of his career Vidal delivered this quip with such a wink it could easily be dismissed as a mere slogan or partisan piffle. Far from it, though. If you scan the whole sordid spectrum of what politicians actually do, you can fill in all the horrific details of what Vidal meant by his observation: politicians do not govern or even debate governance with one another; they meet in private with fundraisers, lobbyists and regulators, where they arrange the barely-legal siphoning away of our wealth and the sharing of it among one another. Their job is to mask this defilement of politics with smiles, diversions and dissimulation. This deplorable, open secret is the game they must never give away. By the time I read Vidal in my forties, I knew instinctively that I could never be a politician. His words helped me understand why not: because I was allergic to the dishonesty and predation required by the job.
Sommerset Maugham wrote the Bildungsroman, Of Human Bondage, that was definitive of my own coming of age, as well as his. As it happens, I broke upon the world—or perhaps vice versa—of sexual independence, free thought, stimulating friendships, professional discovery, and the overpowering experience of physical, earthly beauty—in Heidelberg, the same place it all happened to Maugham (and his proxy, Phillip Carey, the main character in Of Human Bondage). Heidelberg’s glowing greens and ruby reds still bewitch me and leave me vacant of the words to express their beauties, many of them blurred but not decreased by the tear-streaked lens of time. Unable to come up with my own words to vivify the springtime of my life in Heidelberg, I return again and again to Maugham’s.
Walt Whitman made gayness American, as he did with so many things. What can I possibly mean by this? Very briefly, Whitman put the cause of gay liberation in the unique context of our country’s founding project, to advance the individual’s pursuit of happiness. It is not a message we are quite yet comfortable with. Since our institutions no longer permit the imprisonment, torture or execution of gays, we have built the next best thing, the Closet, the place where gays can be peacefully interred in the plain light of day. And what is the Closet if not the most systematic constraint on the pursuit of happiness?
Whitman was first a nurse in the civil war, staunching the wounds of soldiers on the field. Then he was a deeply conscientious journalist, telling the unattractive truths of a fast-industrializing America. By the time he burst forth in song about the body electric, he had so clearly made himself into one of the better angels of our nature, it was nearly impossible to resist the force of his message. Through his prose and then his poetry, Whitman opened up a uniquely American perspective on the unspoken law that gays and straights could not enjoy full communion as equal citizens in a free nation. Were we not, Whitman insisted, the best country in the world at the principle of live-and- let-live? Did we not contain multitudes?
Whitman was truly a poetic force in the full, Socratic sense of the term. (Socrates believed poets were sometimes the recepients of direct infusions of wisdom, which philosophers and scientists had to acquire through slower, more deliberate means.) His Leaves of Grass beams atinic light on the receptive American soul. Who can refuse his invitation to look on poetc inspiration at its root:
“Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
The sunlight is so bright in Whitman’s America that, utlimately, no one can be closed off in a closet of any kind. All the walls of shame are bound to dissolve in a free society.
I shoud point out that not all my gay heroes hail from the realm of giants. Many are “ordinary” public intellectuals. They do the journeyman’s labor of speaking truth to power and illuminating contemporary problems from new angles, fighting the war against cliche, as Martin Amis once phrased it. There are too many to mention here conveniently, but two come readily to mind. Andrew Solomon wrote one of the most enlightening, and discomfiting books I have read in the last ten years, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. In it, he trains an unblinking gaze on a wide range of childhood conditions so “abnormal”—deafness, genius, schizophrenia—as to threaten to rupture the most durable, natural bond in the animal kingdom–the one between parent and child. Reading Solomon is a moving, intellectually enlightening experience that I don’t think could leave any parent unaffected.
Andrew Sullivan is a political scientist trained at Oxford and Harvard who, instead of choosing to wander the pleasant, chummy world of academia, where disagreements mean nothing but the promise of a new book or article, joined the knife-fight world of real political journalism. His 2009 article for The Atlantic Monthly in which he implores then-President Bush to stimulate national healing by taking responsibility for the worst misconduct of U.S. interrogators in the Iraq war, is a paradigm of clear thought, patriotism and intellectual courage.
My list is rather painfully incomplete. It leaves out, among others, Oscar Wilde, the last gay martyr in the liberal, democratic West. In a way, one’s attitude toward Wilde’s conviction and punishment is a clear indicator of which century one’s mind instinctively belongs in. But, life is short and reading is long, as Kundera says. I leave my awkward hymn as it stands for today.