Review of: Homosexuality and Literature by Jeffrey Meyers, London, The Athlone Press, 1977
Notes & Queries, April 1978, p. 181
"Homosexuality in Literature" would have been a better title. Dr. Meyers is not concerned with literary values, with style or impact, and very little even with the delineation of character. Instead he examines, with bibliography, notes and index, the way male homosexuality was depicted by novelists of the forty years at the turn of the century. He thinks that in the era when these novels were written the social taboo on homosexuality compelled the writers "to find a language of reticence and evasion, obliqueness and indirection ", thereby achieving "an eighth kind of literary ambiguity‑, i.e. an added excellence, denied to the explicit mode of a later more permissive generation. But his theme is psychopathological and not literary, the psychopathology of sexual inversion, as personified and dramatized in the interplay of character and destiny by writers both homosexual and normal, as understood and interpreted by Dr. Meyers. Despite its limitations, the theme is an interesting one.
The picture differs with the point of view, whether seen from the inside by authors who were themselves homosexual, Gide, Forster and T. E. Lawrence; or held up for examination by the sexually normally oriented, Mann, Musil and Conrad; or seen from inside and out by men with an ambiguous and ambivalent orientation, Wilde, D. H. Lawrence and Proust. Dr. Meyers narrates the critical incidents in the stories, supplying Freudian interpretations which the story‑tellers themselves had not remarked. He dissects the distortions both crude and subtle of the love‑relationships. He displays the manifestations of a Nietzschean will to power, the rejection of accepted ethical values and their substitution by others which lead to frustration, guilt and the erosion of personality and character. In all the works discussed the picture is a gloomy one. The homosexual writers see the path of fate in an even more pessimistic light than the normal ones. They have felt within themselves that the justifications provided by Plato or seen in the story of David and Jonathan give no protection against descent into an ever deepening corruption. With all the idealistic strivings, they tell us, no true love is possible and there is no escape from loneliness. In the ambisexual writer the homosexual element deflects the heterosexual one. D. H. Lawrence, for instance, with his phobia of domination by the female and his struggle against her sexuality, is driven to reducing her to a pathic role in which she is deprived of mutuality. Among them all Marcel Proust is unique in being able to see himself both from within and without, and to enter into both sides of homosexual and heterosexual relationships. He could use the woman within him to find perceptions of an extraordinary penetration and subtlety, with a comprehensiveness far outranging the others.
Biologists tell us that the basic human template is female. It needs a revolutionary change, initiated by the Y chromosome in the early weeks of embryonic life, to switch the female pattern of development to a male one. Failure here may be a cause, not only of physical hermaphroditism, but also perhaps of male homosexuality. Maybe it is for biological reasons that the male homosexual meets even greater difficulties of adjustment than does his female counterpart. It is a pity that Dr. Meyers does not examine the case of the female homosexual as writer and lover. Does an ingrained sexual inversion help or hinder the understanding of the psychology of the other sex? Are lesbians too so obsessed by guilt? Perhaps the sense of corruption and uncleanness afflicting the male is connected with the sodomy which plays no part for the female but seems to become the necessary final love act for the male homosexual. And the ineluctable tragedy which overtakes them all in the fiction of earlier years, does it still lie in wait in the "gay" literature of today?