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April 7, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 25
Pop Goes Homosexual
By Vivian Gornick
Last August there appeared on the cover of the magazine One a photograph of a young man dressed as an ancient Roman warrior in a toga and thonged sandal-shoes; on the floor beside his chair there stand a sword, a helmet, a shield. His hair curls downward on his forehead, his eyes are dreamy and promising, his lips pout suggestively. He look as though only yesterday he was plucked from the sands of Fire Island or the doorways of Christopher Street, hustled into some uptown studio, dressed in this outfit, and photographed — to the general amused satisfaction of countless homosexuals and the equally general slightly dismayed amazement of as many heterosexuals. But no. That’s not the way it happened at all. Inside the magazine the cover photograph is identified as follows: “Youth, Oh Youth!”; cabinet photo circa 1880.” This is, of course, camp. High camp. Double camp. And this, on the cover of a magazine which purports to be the serious spokesman for the homosexual viewpoint in America, sounds perfectly the note of garish hysteria which, as of this writing, presides over the general confusion known as popular culture. What it all boils down to is; the queers have it.
Popular culture is now in the hands of the homosexuals.
It is homosexual taste that determines largely style, story, statement in painting, literature, dance, amusements, and acquisitions for a goodly proportion of the intellectual middle class. It is the homosexual temperament which is guiding the progress of Pop Art, producing novels like “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” making “underground” movies, selling cast-iron lamps shaped like roses to sophisticated schoolteachers, and declaring the Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds movies of the ’40s and ’50s a source of breathlessly amusing entertainment. It is the texture, the atmosphere, the ideals, the notions of “camp” (a term, from its beginnings, the private property of American and English homosexuals) which currently determines middle-class taste, directs its signs, and seems to nourish its simple-minded eagerness to grind the idea of “alienation” into yet another hopelessly ironic cliche.
It has been claimed (most notably by the critic Susan Sontag in a brilliant and now famous essay “Notes on Camp”) that camp is a sensibility, an aesthetic method of apprehending experience, and above all, a tender way of viewing the naive and the inconsequential. Nonsense. While it is true that camp does finally collect itself into a “way of looking at things,” there is nothing tender about it — at least there is nothing tender about the camp we in the mid-’60s are acquainted with; and I think it safe to say there never was; for camp was used originally by homosexuals as a private identification for a form of self-satire not especially notable for its gentle indulgence. No, camp is not tender. What it is is arch, sly, hysterical, schizophrenic. And what it most profoundly is, now, in its present role as arbiter of popular taste, is a malicious fairy’s joke whose point is its raging put-on of the middle classes; those very classes which have always denied the homosexual his existence.
The homosexual in modern Western society has, like the Jew and the Negro, always lived as an outsider, a spectator at the great heterosexual WASP banquet: you can look but you can’t touch. He walks in the shadow of Western privilege, unable to grasp its substance. He is denied his civil rights, driven from small towns, disowned by horrified families, fired from valuable jobs, forced by emotional need to live in ghettoes. He is a victim of blackmail, an object of ridicule, a man whose fundamental desires are contemptuously dismissed as constituting “an unnatural act”; and for him to attempt fulfillment is to risk arrest and imprisonment. In short, if one is a homosexual that characteristic is likely by far to be the most powerful and most influential factor in one’s life; more than the condition wealth or poverty, strength or weakness, stupidity or intelligence, more than the sharp influences of region, religion, or personality, does it determine the shape and color and essential direction of experience. It is a fact of existence, in essence, capable of producing a culture. Which it has. A culture most curious in its general characteristics, its aims, its accomplishments.
Victims in a society are drawn in masochistic fascination to their oppressors, seeking often to emulate and/or to appease them. This very often requires shameful disavowal of the self. His natural emotional integrity, however, makes very clear to the victim what he is doing, thus inflaming him with self-disgust and an appetite for dignity. Upon this unhappy polarization is strung the tension of a victims’ culture. Thus, the Jews on the one hand changed their names and (in affluent America) their noses; on the other hand they steeped themselves in an ethnic intellectuality and mysticism, concentrated on morality, guarded the secrets of the ghetto, and created an intensely Jewish idiom. Similarly, the Negroes on the one hand became Uncle Toms and then (in Adam Powell’s phrase) “Uncle Toms with a Harvard accent,” and on the other hand developed the richness of their religion, the depth of their music, the privateness of their humor, the agony of their lawlessness. And both Jews and Negroes have, through this body of literature, music, thought, and behavior, amounting to a “life style,” added immeasurably to the sum of humanity’s knowledge of the pain and deformity of castigation.
Homosexuals, however, in a bizarre psychological turnabout, seem to have avoided the desperate conflict previously described, and achieved a pivotal psychology and a “life style” that one can almost describe as weirdly “integrated”; or at any rate a demonstrable proof of the dictum: you become what you are. For the homosexual’s culture seems to be based on nothing more than a brutal caricature of the femaleness he so violently rejects; and the absolute craziness of it all is that — whatever the tangled psychic roots — he has become the women he despises, in a form grotesquely frivolous and vicious. Thus he has won by losing. In weird imitation his hair is dyed, his face is made up, his walk is mincing; he is neurotically lonely, weeply sentimental, sexually promiscuous. His mannerisms are painfully girlish: he sulks, he pouts, he flounces; he wrings his wrists and files down his spiteful humor. His interests are more often than not womanish: he becomes a hairdresser, an antique dealer, a haberdasher, a creator of “atmosphere” — in theatres, restaurants, boutiques, and, of course, the salon of the interior decorator. (All of which is not to say that there are not homosexuals among teachers, writers, soldiers, philosophers, and architects and who also happen to be homosexual are not men who are the makers of or the participants in the homosexual culture as such — and the men of whom I am speaking. The distinction is crucial and must be made at once.)
Last summer on the sands of one of the Fire Island beaches frequented by homosexuals I sat watching the incredible parade. Beside me sat a beautiful 25-year-old boy (offering friendship to the tune of “Do you prefer Helena Rubinstein to Elizabeth Arden?”) who the night before had frugged wildly, flirted madly, and subsequently nearly been raped in his bed by a muscular bartender he had drunkenly led on, and whose near-attack was made memorable by the fact that at precisely the “terrifying” instant the bartender had entered the bedroom, somewhere across the dunes someone was shrieking: “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it you can just take your sneakers and go!” Now, eight or ten frantic hours later, the sun blazed in the sky and my friend was feeling morose and decadent. He watched a powerful looking blonde on the next blanket plucking his eyebrows and, in a passion of unconscious double meanings, burst out: “You know, this is ridiculous. After all, you can’t be gay all your life! I mean this (pointing to the blonde’s makeup job) is all so adolescent.” (I was struck absolutely dumb.) But that is precisely the point. And that is precisely what homosexual culture is aiming at: the gruesome attempt to be gay all your life, to be professionally gay all your life. Which is, of course, what the preoccupation with trivia always amounts to. And again, of course, the parodic echo of the woman: the frantic female in a sweat over the loss of her youth.
It is the willful confusion between this “gay” homosexual ambience, this mindless grotesquerie of trivia and the aesthetic value of style, that accounts for the strange popularization of camp, the absolute distortion of its meaning, and the irony of its position as giver of the word to the educated middle classes…
The most directly stunning result of camp’s influence is, of course, the raucous Pop Art vogue…which has probably set the course of American art back some hundred years or so. One has the feeling that it all started one day when a bunch of the sweet young things got together after a mad, made day at the decorator’s…
From Pop Art to Rudi Gernreich’s topless bathing suit (an especially delicious example of a camper’s delight; one can see Gernreich outfitting some mindless blonde in his topless wonder. “Oh, Rudi, should I?” she breathes anxiously. “Oh honey,” deadpans Rudi? “It’s so you.) to Tiffany lamps to comic strip characters to flapper clothes to silent movies to Victorian furniture and threadbare Oriental rugs; to “atmosphere” and the dreadful insistent preoccupation with it; to the creation of a mystique and a genuine value surrounding it; to the fraudulent notion which claims that the trivial has the right to more than five minutes of our attention and proceeds to make a cult, a life-style out of it; to the claim that emptiness is substance; to a literature which has grown out of the homosexual temperament and which is frightening in its steely-eyed slickness, its language of surfaces, its heartlessness, its unbearable loathing of humanity and all its activities (I speak here of books like “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and most certainly not of books merely dealing with homosexual love, such as “Giovanni’s Room” or “Another Country,” in which the protagonists are men in passionate pursuit of their manhood; quite another matter altogether).
Why? Why camp? And why now? Why the eager bobbing plunge of yes by middle-class intellectuals — that plunge which is alone responsible for the phenomenal rise of camp in the world?
The answer lies in the fact that it is a time in which the spirit of self-belief is profoundly on the decline. For most men the gods are all dead: ideology, tradition, Christian morality — all gone, neatly knocked off by imperfectly understood and thoroughly indigestible doses of Einstein, Fermi, and Freud. We find very little beyond ourselves to believe in and thus we cannot take ourselves seriously. We have become disheartened, demoralized, and, finally, hysterical — so intolerable is our circumstance. The world thus must be declared a topsy-turvy place, the banners of renunciation must wave, and black must be declared white. And so, everywhere in the Western world men are involved in what the British novelist, John Fowles, speaking in his new novel, “The Magus,” refers to as “…this characteristically 20th century retreat from content into form, from meaning into appearance, from ethics into aesthetics…” Thus, an intellectual like Susan Sontag cultivates aesthetics and seeks to prove that an insignificant and rather nasty sensibility really has something legitimate to say; and round the world cowardly intellectuals everywhere become ardent camp-followers concentrating with myopic imbecility on “style”: “The envelope is the message, baby.” Meanwhile the swishes of America lean back, smile soothingly, croon “Oh sweetie, you are so-o-o right,” and spoon the cream right off the top.
It will not doubt all pass: it is too flimsy, too fraudulent, too distasteful not to. And the course of human life has a way of taking care of its cyclical demoralizations, anyway. The cynical ennui of the 1920s was soon replaced by the urgent events of the ’30s and ’40s. Who knows but that Vietnam may yet turn the trick for us. In the meantime wounds will be inflicted and scars left. One very real scar may be the result of the disservice being performed on the concept of style and the meaning of aesthetics in human life. For the discrepancy between the meaning of style as an enriching cloak of expression for vital content and the shallow, mean-spirited, empty-vesseled “style” of camp is so large that if it weren’t painful it would be absurd: Susan Sontag has dedicated her notes on camp to Oscar Wilde. In actuality they should have gone to Bosie Douglas, for not only is it decidedly more his spirit — spiteful, petulant, vain, trivial, untalented — than Wilde’s which informs camp, but it is the difference between the two that tells the entire story.
The meaning of camp and the “meaning” of camp require a hand as masterly as Nabokov’s to unravel the endless reverberations of self-parody in which this fantastic little con game are rooted. But the irony of the adoration of camp by the middle-class intellectual is obvious and of classic proportions: not only does the victim comply with circumstances oppressive to him but he also diligently searches for a victimizer hateful enough to effect his demise with the proper amount of imagination…and style.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]