Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Very queer, indeed

The post below, in a dark green sans-serif typeface, written in the spirit of mockery, may have been a mistake. I have decided not delete it, however, but to let it stand as literary evidence.

I originally wrote it because the arguments that Andrew Seal attributes to me in his latest post on Death Comes for the Archbishop are so illogical and extreme as to be beneath refutation. As a friend put it to me, something in the mode of “Swiftian satire” seemed the more appropriate response. Since some readers have objected, though, I have included both—a logical refutation and the original satire.

The logical first. Seal grants my assertion that the doctrine of celibacy is crucial to the novel, but then he goes on to put an argument into my mouth: “Myers doesn’t just insist that this sympathy with celibacy is crucial; he argues that it excludes the possibility that these two male characters were in love.”

This is a falsehood, of course. Nowhere have I said any such thing. What I would argue is that a Catholic priest’s vow of celibacy, especially on the part of a nineteenth-century priest like Latour, who was “[e]mpowered by long training” to blot himself out of his own consciousness and meditate “upon the anguish of his Lord,” excludes the possibility of same-sex attraction. I would add that love between two men does not necessary imply same-sex attraction. The connection must be argued for, and not merely—on the basis of current opinion—assumed.

Seal, however, assumes that friendship between two men and same-sex attraction are one and the same thing. If Latour and Vaillant had something more than “the camaraderie of co-workers,” they must have shared a “very queer love story.” He believes that he is being logical and intellectually scrupulous when he goes on to say that such a “love relationship” between them does not, however, necessitate “the presumption that it is sexually active or even physically expressed.” Yet somehow the relationship still deserves the epithet queer.

Now, I do not believe that all love relationships necessitate the presumption of sexual consummation either. I love my children, but I am not sexually active with them.

Somehow, though, the onus falls upon me. For me, “adding a love story is literally sacrilegious,” Seal says; “assuming that the two priests have stronger feelings than camaraderie means assuming they’re having sex, that they’re breaking their vows of celibacy.” Seal argues that the friendship between Latour and Vaillant is a same-sex attraction, but I am the one who holds that, if there is love between them, it must be sexual. Is there any basis for such an assumption?

Well, yes. And here is where it gets tricky. Bear with me: “Since Myers is very upfront about his conservative credentials, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to draw a connection between common conservative views on the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality and Myers’s interpretation of the novel.” If that connection is not out of bounds, there are no bounds. Notice that Seal does not even bother to corroborate his claim that “the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality” is a “common conservative view.” Even if it were, however—and even if Seal accepted the responsibility of providing evidence that it were—that I hold the view, simply because I hold “conservative credentials,” is valid only under the logic of McCarthyism.

Seal’s effort to connect me to “common conservative views on the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality” is a classic attempt to assign guilt by association. Thus he thinks that, for me, a queering of the relationship between Latour and Vaillant would entail a reinterpretation of the entire novel, “because these men are now completely different characters from their normal heterosexual interpretations.” But Seal understands priestly celibacy about as well as he understands male friendship and conservative thinking—that is, not at all. The celibate priest is neither heterosexual nor homosexual; he stands outside the sexual order altogether. The possibility of sexual attraction, to whatever sex, never arises, because he has decided not to respond to other human beings in that way.

My objection to a queer reading of Death Comes for the Archbishop is not that it is “literally sacrilegious,” but that it is an ignoratio elenchi. It is beside the question. It shoots eight or nine yards left of the mark.

On one point, though, Seal is correct. I cannot bear to see Cather’s novel, or any other novel for that matter, misinterpreted. I cannot bear to see error paraded as the truth.

And now the satire as originally written. I reproduce it verbatim.

Abandoning any defense of “experiencing” Death Comes for the Archbishop as a “very queer love story,” Andrew Seal goes on offense. My interpretation of the novel is the objectionable one.

His logic goes something like this:

Love between men is good. It is queer. The men are not gay, but they love each other. So their love is queer. Two men don’t have to go bed to have a very queer love story, even if they are not gay. But Myers is a conservative. Conservatives do not like gays. What do you mean, he favors gay marriage? He is a conservative and all conservatives hate gays. They think all gays are promiscuous. No, no: the men are not gay; I just said so. Don’t interrupt me again. For a conservative like Myers, two men in love cannot stay in love unless they go to bed. But queer love can still be queer love even if the men do not go to bed, although they are not gay and though conservatives think all gays are promiscuous, which is beside the question in their case since they are not gay. (Am I making sense?) Hey, look at their pictures. Myers thinks they cannot be in love because they are ugly. What? You are more immediately struck by their ecclesiastical garb? You think I am only revealing something about myself by calling them ugly? WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP INTERRUPTING ME! Myers thinks that ugly men cannot be attracted to each other, even though they are not gay. Myers is a conservative. He would call their love story a very queer love story, which says a lot about him when you think about it. Even though the phrase is mine.

For the record, I do think that Death Comes for the Archbishop is a terrific story of a friendship. I believe that’s what non-sexual love between two men is called.


R. T. said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph (but I hesitate to wade into the argument embraced--if that verb is permitted--by the opening paragraphs). More than what you have said though ought to be said about Cather's novel: it is a love story about a couple of good priests' love of God and the profound depth of their pastoral duties to their parishioners.

D. G. Myers said...


R. T. said...

To what extent, I wonder, does Andrew Seal see God as the prominent factor in Cather's novel? If he sees the relationship of the main characters as the center, how does he account for (or does he admit to) God's transcendent significance. However, I might be falling into the trap of transference wherein I transfer my subjective feelings about the novel into the substantive, objective core of the novel--i.e., I might be accused of reading something into it that is not there.

Trevor said...

I appreciate very much the critical discipline you bring to blogging, but this post seems undisciplined to me. I know you can say you're attacking reasoning here and showcasing an illogical argument so technically you are not attacking a person, but this post's flippancy is very much like the personal attack you earlier denied. Is the ventriloquism (very sarcastic here) now ironic because it has been brought up in the defense? And if so, does that excuse it? I thought your inquiries were meant to insert some theoretical and rational discipline into what appeared to you to be an errant blog entry.

For what it's worth, I agree with your argument and share your frustration with solipsism in interpretation (though I'm sure I'm guilty of it). But, asking in all seriousness, where is the place for a post like this in the robust, professional dialogue I thought you advocated? In my view, this serves only to chill any responses I thought you hoped to encourage. As I said, I'm asking in all seriousness and not as a form of condemnation.

D. G. Myers said...

Point taken, Trevor. Here is what I was thinking.

Seal made this really outrageous accusation: “Since Myers is very upfront about his conservative credentials, I don’t think it's out of bounds to draw a connection between common conservative views on the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality and Myers’s interpretation of the novel.”

To take such an absurd assertion seriously enough to refute it was silly, I thought. Do I really have to point out that there is no clear connection between my own conservatism and “common [but unquoted and unsubstantiated] conservative views on the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality”?

Although he denies making when-did-you-start-beating-your-wife charges against me, isn’t this assertion—that my interpretation of Death Comes for the Archbishop contains this homophobic nonsense—just such a charge?

Instead of crediting such a slur, the better part of valor, I thought, was to mock it.

Your reaction suggests my decision was a mistake.

Remember what I said in my first post earlier today? “To complain about how criticism is hurled at me, whether it is rude or aggressive, is to protect my personal dignity, not the validity of my thought.” Well, apparently I just illustrated the truth of that remark.