The love that now dares speak its name

Monday Book Reviews

March 09, 1992|By John Goodspeed

GAIETY TRANSFIGURED. By David Bergman. University of Wisconsin Press. 237 pages. $24.95. MANY PEOPLE still believe that homosexuals are sick or sinful, contemptible or even comical, but a growing number, including some heterosexuals, are persuaded that being (and acting) gay is natural in about one in 10 persons, should not be shunned and certainly should not be made illegal.

David Bergman, author of this collection of essays about homosexual writers, is a gay man, a professor of English at Towson State University, frequent contributor to this page and -- not surprisingly -- definitely pro-homosexual.

He describes -- often brilliantly, if somewhat intricately -- the effect their homosexuality had on the work and behavior of Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Hart Crane, Francis Grierson, F.O. Matthiessen and many other famous American writers. He analyzes and weighs the thought and writing of such gays of yesteryear as Oscar Wilde, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust and Somerset Maugham.

He is critical -- pro and con -- of such modern gay writers and activists as Edmund White, Tennessee Williams and Larry Kramer (leader of the radical AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP).

And, although he apparently does not approve of "queer" jokes told by "straight" people, Professor Berman does seem to feel good about "camp" and female impersonators. And he snickers a little (I think) when he notes that Henry James was "dropping his beads" when that famous novelist sent a flirtatious note to another homosexual.

The book includes the most horrifying description of the blood and excrement produced in the last stages of AIDS that I've read. And in a discussion of another grim subject that has been associated with homosexuality, Professor Berman explains one of his principal points more succinctly than this straight reviewer could ever do, to wit:

"The chapter on cannibalism in many ways exemplifies one of the threads running throughout Gaiety Transfigured. In it, I demonstrate the genealogy of transformation that occurs as successive generations of gay writers work through each others' material, transfiguring a homophobic trope into a somewhat celebratory one . . . The end result is not a pure gay discourse (no such thing can exist) but a discourse made more sympathetic to the lives of gay men."

And paraphrasing Larry Kramer, who besides leading ACT UP also wrote the screenplay for "Women in Love," Professor Berman notes:

"Just as Jews have preserved their ethnic, cultural and spiritual difference, even as they have found a place within the American polity, so will homosexuals preserve their cultural and social identity; and just as Jews have had to remain vigilant against anti-Semitism, so, too, must gay people keep a sharp eye out for homophobia."

And Professor Berman interprets "Desire and the Black Masseur," a short story by Tennessee Williams, in part:

"For Williams, the homosexual is sainted in two ways: first, like Christ he suffers the scorn of society for the sake of the love he bears for man, and second, because he pursues love not for what it might produce, but for itself alone."

"Gaiety Transfigured" indicates that homosexuality is indeed transfigured, has indeed come a long way from the time not too long ago when it was still called "the love that dare not speak its name."

John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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