“…language, which is free and untouched by occupation?”: Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar

In the introduction to this set of elegant essays, Colm Toibin lays out his purpose. “Other communities who have been oppressed,” he says, “– Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland – have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. Gay people, on the other hand, grow up alone; there is no history. There are no ballads about the wrongs of the past, the martyrs are all forgotten.” He goes on to invoke Adrienne Rich’s famous saying – “as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” This is perhaps not entirely apposite. The whole quotation begins in the following way: “those who have the power to name and construct social reality choose not to see you or hear you…” Indeed, Rich’s concern is not merely with the construction of a canon, and what it excludes, but the construction of language itself. In The Burning of Paper instead of Children, she writes:

“knowledge of the oppressor
this is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

(the fracture of order
the repair of speech
to overcome this suffering)”

Interestingly, in his chapter on Thomas Mann, Toibin quotes the opposite sentiment. In his post-war visits to both West and East Germany, Mann writes: “Who ought to guarantee and represent the unity of Germany if not an independent writer whose true home, as I have said, is the language, which is free and untouched by occupation?” One feels that Rich might have had something to say about that last bit. After all, as Marina Warner writes, in a beautiful essay called Watch Your Tongues:

“The speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.”

Toibin, while appreciating the pervasive power of language and image to construct a world, is less pessimistic. In his essay on Thom Gunn, while remarking upon the frankness with which he addresses homosexuality in his poetry, he observes:

“The world from Shakespeare to contemporary advertising has been so full of images of heterosexuality that no one notices, but these images are nonetheless absorbed into the most secret and private part of the self. This hidden part of the gay self remains hungry for such ratifying images; it most fully recognizes this need when the need is satisfied, the silence broken, the words spelled out quite naturally, without a second thought.”

This assumes, of course, that words can be spelt out “quite naturally, without a second thought”, without the heaviness of a long, conflicted history. Toibin’s faith that language and culture can be reclaimed simply by virtue of their use is reflected in his wry observation, in his essay on Francis Bacon, about Bacon and Miro’s “denial that [they] made preparatory drawings… for the ears of the Surrealists, who viewed such a thought-out preparation for a painting as a sort of treachery, a betrayal of the power of the unconscious.” Surrealism’s commitment to breaking the hegemony of imposed structures through a method of spontaneity is, of course, well-known, but neither Bacon nor Toibin seem to consider it an urgent necessity. And in his essay on James Baldwin, Toibin chooses to quote the now-famous passage on appropriation:

“[I brought] a special attitude to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… these were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.”

So while it would have been interesting to have a critique of language from the point of view of sexuality, as Rich and Warner have done for gender, Toibin’s ambition in Love in a Dark Time is rather more modest. He takes nine famous 20th century artists, all of whom were admittedly homosexual, whose sexuality either brought them to grief, or is simply airbrushed out of memory – and tries to illuminate that ‘area of darkness’ – their sexuality – and its connection to their work. Yet, this is not to be dismissed as a crude attempt at creating – or re-creating – an artistic canon. Toibin’s pain at the ignorance about gay lives is matched only by his terror of caricature, of reducing an artist to his sexuality, of feeding the myth of the ‘tragic queer’. This gives Love in a Dark Time an ambiguous tone, that neatly dovetails with the ambiguous lives lead by most of its principal subjects.

Toibin must walk a tightrope. He must focus on the sexuality of his nine chosen artists, while rejecting simplistic explanations about the relationship between their sexuality and their art. He must illuminate sexuality and its inextricable connection with art, without casting so bright a glare that it overwhelms everything else. For the most part, he walks it well, and it gives the book – to use a description by Robert Lowell of Elizabeth Bishop’s work – “something in motion, weary but persistent.” 

Perhaps the key lies in his choice of subjects. Three of the nine (Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Francis Bacon) are Irish – a fraught identity in its own right (and one closest to Toibin’s heart – it is perhaps unsurprising that those three chapters are amongst the longest and most detailed, and their lives are the most lovingly excavated ones in the book). James Baldwin is at the intersection of race and sexuality (Toibin details his struggles to break out of the trope of the “black writer”), and Elizabeth Bishop at the intersection of gender and sexuality. Toibin seems to have paid special heed to Amartya Sen’s warnings against the totalising effects of a single identity, because even his other selections – Thom Gunn, Mark Doty and Thomas Mann (I discount the essay on Pedro Almodovar, which seems almost to be a hasty afterthought) resist easy categorisation, both of their work and their lives. Like Eliot’s observation about James, which he quotes, what Toibin is most concerned with is to prevent – both himself, and his account of his subjects – from being “penetrated by an idea.”

The realisation that his subjects evade easy or definite classifications pervades Toibin’s consideration of their work. The haunting, uncertain quality of the artists’ work leaks into the pages of the book. For instance, Toibin’s account of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is perhaps one of the finest passages in the book:

“There is a sense of overwhelming pain here, but experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the memory of a word.”

Many of the figures that Toibin writes about are “tragic”, in any sense of the word. Wilde was imprisoned and broken for his homosexuality, Casement was executed, Doty’s partner died of HIV. It would be easy to let tragedy overwhelm and define them, but Toibin is always on his guard against reductiveness. At the end of the book, we are left with a conflicted, ambiguous and uncertain sense of the many intersections of art and aesthetics, politics and sexuality, the individual and her circumstances. As in art, so in life, Toibin seems to be telling us: there are no easy conclusions.

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Filed under Colm Toibin, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

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