WG SEBALD:CRITICS’ RESPONSE/NON-RESPONSE TO THE LARGE AMOUNT OF HOMOSOCIALITY(CLOSE MALE FRIENDSHIPS)AND OF HOMOSEXUAL/BISEXUAL CHARACTERS IN HIS WORK, WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO THE CHARACTER OF HENRY SELWYN IN “THE EMMIGRANTS”

What are the reasons that most critics (not all-there are a few exceptions-see below) avoid the topic of how Sebald addresses a lot of his writing to the subjects(or abject subjects) of the title of this essay?The effect of this is a DOUBLE marginalisation  and invisibilization of the very same subject matter,and, more importantly PEOPLE, that Sebald himself was VERY obviously trying to say were ALREADY abject and put to the edges of society; and, whilst he is not as clear(albeit, famously, circuitously)as about the Holocaust links( as regards his Jewish characters), the links  are patently implicit in the texts.

I would posit these reasons:

1.”the Fear of a Queer planet”(the title is from the book, edited by  Michael Warner{1993}): GROSS societal homophobia and heterosexism, manifested, structurally, throughout the literary critical establishment. This is obvious(and, as I say, there are a few worthy exceptions). The fear is that gay and bisexual people will ONE day take over and outnumber heterosexual people; as if!; we just want equality; but it is the scapegoating/fear of differerence/the other that Sebald writes about , in “Rings of Saturn”, where he describes how Eire only took Roger Casement to its heart when they sidelined his homosexuality, one marginalization being replaced, ironically, by another. PLEASE DO NOT BE OFFENDED: lots of non-gay/bisexual people are NOT guilty of these “sins of omission”!and a lot of it is unthinking and just needs(GENTLE) education; but it is there in some circles, and, in this case, largely prevents a FULL anaysis of ALL of Sebald’s writings(with the usual rider that the great man was not “just” concerned with homosexuals, as he wasn’t “just” concerned with the decimation of the Jews in World War 2, but “The fear of a Queer Planet” means one is heavily pressurized into saying that there is this universality lest one be seen as a “one-issue” critic/person; and there actually IS, in the last analysis, a universality of representation, but a particularity to a grouping/”grouping”(depending on how that group/”group” chooses to be defined)of people at a particular historical moment(the evils of Hitler’s Germany); AND THAT IS WHAT SEBALD IS PRIMARILY WRITING ABOUT AT SOME JUNCTURES.. So,in other words, there needs to be a level playing field of representation before FULL, and non-homophobic and non-heterosexist, analysis can occur.I must also make a distinction(largely but not always because there is obviously some overlap) between homosexuality, as in the actualisation (or DESIRE/NEED to actualize) same-sex sexual acts, and homosociality(meaning close friendships between members of the same sex,{ “homo” meaning “same not “man”, as it does in “homosexual”}where there MAY be sexual yearning but there may NOT be, and it may also be one-sided(I have written another piece on “Romantic same sex friendships”-and the continuum that encompasses- on this blog).

2. Power relations propagated by hierarchical established religions  and by the hegemonic political status quo, especially the former because it has vested psycho-social interests in protecting its own employees, as there is a disproportionate(not as in “too many” but as in statististically disproportionate)number of gay people in the Christian church, in particular, vis-avis the rest of the population. So, Foucouldian control, perpetuated throughout all levels of sacred and secular society, which is internalized by individuals; and individuals include specific critics who will read Sebald,and who, along with everyone else,at least to a degree, form their often (but NOT ALWAYS-see later) heterosexist subectivity. So perhaps see this essay as an educative process! I hope you do (and only if you NEED educating!){So if any of my friends and the many other non-homophobic/heterosexist are reading this , I am NOT getting at YOU at all- I am looking at the reasons for why Sebald’s many homosexual/bisexual characters, so intrinsic to his oevre, have their sexual orientation sidelined and marginalized by hegemonic and unaware critics}. This is not an attack on gay-friendly critics OR friends!This is one heck of a delicate subject…. which is the very point Sebald and I are making!

3. What about the “we all come from our own subjectivity versus the universality of the close meaning/trying to get at what the author is saying” point of view?”Our “own subjectivity”, in this case, would refer to whether we identify as heterosexual/gay/lesbian/bisexual/bi-curious/transgender/queer/transexual/pansexual/genderqueer/psychologically androgynous as regards the purported set “traits” of the “male”v.”female” binary and the gay v. straight binary/are beyond, or AIM to be beyond, all such classifications(and remember, here, I am ONLY talking re sexual orientation identity: we are obviously MUCH much more than our sexual orientation identity but I am talking here of a matter relating to the persecution and invisibilization of Sebald’s homosexual{or non-sexually active-with each other- homosocial} characters; so am not “reducing” the debate to one issue;it is the RELEVANT issue; as for instance, a discussion of the history of slavery would be relevant for “The Beloved” by Toni Morrison.I can understand, or NOT understand, as little/as much of the execrable things done to the slaves in Africa and the United States; I can at least make an imaginative attempt at empathy(and an attempt it will ONLY be, because of the sheer horror of the atrocities). Similarly, I can attempt to relate to heterosexual/opposite-sex love stories; in fact, I CAN(largely; though there are differences around the hegemonic status of opposite-sex and same-sex relationships)relate to them  because love IS universal-we ALL feel it. But the point I am making is that it does not occur to me to accuse anyone of “heterosexualizing” a (non-heterosexually based) text, or “finding a straight subtext” in everything. This is, obviously, because, texts have more opposite-sex affect interest/relationships in them, statistically, than same-sex love affects/relationships, roughly mirroring the amount of same-sex attracted people in the population generally. So, what i am saying is there is NO NEED to find a straight subtext/parallel text in a book; because it is THERE, overtly; it just is(with varying degrees of sexual passion depending on the author’s taste and the censors of the time/place!).So there is absolutely no need for the opposite-sex affect narrative to be hidden, or coded.So these prejudiced, homophobic(or, at the very least, heterosexist) statements, conscious or unconscious,ARE just that; at least heterosexist, possibly homophobic. Then is the added irony of a lot of the great writers being homosexual/gay/bisexual/lesbian, whether they actually had sex or not(it is the emotional ATTRACTION to people of their own sex I am talking about.) So, I am safe saying Alan Hollinghurst is gay(and “out”) because he writes OVERTLY about same-sex relationships and sex; it is now FULLY documented(cf Maitland and Moffats’ biographies, as well as the earlier Furbank one, personally authorised by the author himself)that Forster was gay(though a lot of critics still marginalize this fact, even though his diaries speak of a nervous breakdown beacuse, even though “only connect” is the prefix to “Howards End”, he, ironically, had a nervous breakdown after writing it because he wrote, in his diaries, that he COULDNT connect through his prose because he couldn’t write directly and overtly of his homosexuality; and then went on to write “Maurice” with its majoring on same-sex affects; how more obvious do you have to get?!); Whitman, pretty safe  now, though probably not taught in U.S schools, being America’s national poet, that he was homosexual, but agreed by critics, though often bypassed; Henry James, pretty agreed homosexual in affect but probably no sexual experience, but not proved; Melville, beginning to get “contentious”-the existence of the sperm scene and the Ishmael and Queequeg “marriage bed” scene being particuarly risible proof of the ludicrousness of the homophobic and/or heterosexists’ critics’ stands; G M Hopkins-contested, though some of the poems are 100% EXLICITLY homoerotic(I have written about this on another post and poem), so blatant homophobia when his sexual orientation is marginalised, especially as he never got over the death of the man he loved, in ALL ways(whether they had sex or not), Arthur Dolben; Shakepeare-oooooh: BE CAREFUL Shakespeare pro-gay or pro-bisexual critics- we really have “fear of a queer planet”(on the literary stage) here!UK’s national bard. The odds are up!Anyway, you get my drift….

……………………………………………………………………………………………..

On to Henry Selwyn, the first of Sebald’s four emmigrants.. One writer said of Sebald, “Once you start looking for crypto{sic!)-homo-erotic desire in Sebald{start looking-possibly pejorative-why shouldnt we look if he is writing about it , usually very overtly, not crypically}, you find it everywhere. See for instance his portrait of Grunewald in ‘After Nature'”(Kaufmann, “Angels Visit the scene of Disgrace”,(“Cultural critique”, 2008). And that is it, except for a few cursory mentions earlier; and he is talking about “melancholy and trauma from Sebald to Benjamin and back”(Kaufmann’s own subtitle to his essay), so Cosmo’s and Adelwarth’s love isn’t trauma(because is marginalised and projected upon by hegemonic society); that isnt worthy of the Benjaminesque “trauerspiel”? If homoerotic desire is everywhere, and this essay does indeed deal with the feelings of trauma( in OTHER regards) where is the full discussion of

Ambros and Cosmo

Casement

Naegeli and Selwyn

Dr. K

Grunewald;

viz lovers and homosexual subjects

All alienated and abject by virtue of being homosexuals in a heterosexually hegemonic world; which is the very point Sebald is making!

Regarding Selwyn’s  overwhelming love for Naegeli,(which MAY be homoSOCIAL, but seems INORDINATELY passionate, as I shall show from the text, so this seems an unlikely exegesis),the Nepalese guide in the Swiss Oberland, the sebaldian narrator comments: “never in his life, neither before nor later,did  he {Selwyn] feel as good as he did then, in the company of that man”(p.14 English Vintage edition, translated Hulse); and “…nothing felt as hard…as saying goodbye to Johannes Naegeli. Even the seperation from Elli{his wife, from whom, later, for putatively vague reasons, he later becomes more and more estranged}.. did not cause  me REMOTELY{my capitals} as much pain as the SEPERATION{my capitals] from Naegeli”(p.14, op. cit). Selwyn continues:”Elli has come to seem a stranger to me over the years, whereas Naegeli seems closer whenever he comes to my mind,DESPITE THE FACT{my capitals} that I never saw him again after that farewell in Meiringen”. and, “when Naegeli was  killed, it plunged me into a deep depression…It was as if I was buried under snow and ice”(both p.15, op.cit). Significantly, because every detail is significant in Sebald, Naegeli, metaphorically frozen in time(as Selwyn is NOW frozen in his current belated state),the story ends with the mountain-guide being discovered LITERALLY frozen, many years later, as a skeleton, found in a glacier. And, again, meaningfully, the very last sentence refers to Naegeli again: the now famous line, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead”. By this stage Henry has shot himself, it being unclear whether he has actually read the newspaper report of the discovery of Naegeli’s frozen body or not. Whatever the immediate reason for the suicide of Selwyn, it is obvioulsy due to the abjectness of his state of having never felt a love so great; but Sebald makes this same-sex love affair, (whether consummated or reciprocated or not that is mainly irrelevant), the emotional HEART of this short piece of prose writing re mourning, , disassociation,  and loss.

So all this is in the language of a lost love object(I am reminded of Tennyson’s paean to his lost love Hallam, in “In Memoriam”).I know some  people will say, its (“only”) a very strong close homosocial friendship. But I rest my case: that is my argument from Sebald’s own text about Selwyn in particular , and, equally importantly, backed up by the preponderance of homoerotic/same-sex characters and narratives elsewhere in his prose writing(see list above).

………………………………………………………………………………………..

Looking at my notes, I see a couple more apologias, in the form of bullet points for why this isnt  just a homosocial narrative; but i can’t be bothered rehearsing EVEN MORE of them. No critic writing about an opposite-sex love interest would have to write all this self-justification, especially with the overt textual evidence AND the larger context of Sebald’s VAST concern for homosexual marginalisation, persecution, and the homosexual(man) as the abject/projected upon subject(or, actually, thus becoming an object, not a whole person).

And I must beg forgiveness in regard to  scholars like Helen Finch, and only one or two others, who are exloring , IN DETAIL, the issues of homosexuality, homosociality and the absolute importance of male-to-male relationships(of WHATEVER kind) in Sebald’s oevre. Thanks to them, myself, and, of course,principally  Sebald himself, his homosexual/bisexual characters can have some kind of (belated) redemption.

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About decayetude

ENTHUSIASMS: CLASSICAL MUSIC, ESPECIALLY OBSCURE ROMANTIC COMPOSERS; BACH/HANDEL LITERATURE, ESPECIALLY THOUGHTFUL, WELL-WRITTEN(STYLISTICALLY)NOVELS W G SEBALD WALTER BENJAMIN THEODOR ADORNO(JUST BEGINNING!) AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHY GAY MEN'S WRITING;QUEER THEORY STIMULATING DISCUSSIONS(EMOTIONALLY AND INTELLECTUALLY) GOOD RICH THICK ESPRESSO MICHAEL PONTI SPRITUALITY/LIFE'S "AURA"(BENJAMIN), WHATEVER TRANSCENDENTAL THING YOU WANT TO CALL THIS MEMORY-the elusiveness thereof. LOST TIME AND AN ATTEMPT AT ITS REDEMPTION(NON THEISTICALLY/RELIGIOUSLY)
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5 Responses to WG SEBALD:CRITICS’ RESPONSE/NON-RESPONSE TO THE LARGE AMOUNT OF HOMOSOCIALITY(CLOSE MALE FRIENDSHIPS)AND OF HOMOSEXUAL/BISEXUAL CHARACTERS IN HIS WORK, WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO THE CHARACTER OF HENRY SELWYN IN “THE EMMIGRANTS”

  1. Merry says:

    Steve, I agree that relationships between men are very important in the work of W. G. Sebald. As I said days ago in an email, I see in his writing a longing for the male that is striking. I see that longing as personal, particular to Sebald’s psyche. And beyond that, he surely has made a political commitment in pointing out the marginalization of homosexuals.

    In my reading of On the Natural History of Destruction this week I found his criticism of Albert Andersch’s depiction of sex between a man and woman interesting (though I have not read the texts Sebald refers to) and possibly relevant to this discussion. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

    Love, Merry

  2. decayetude says:

    This will be interesting for us to discuss if u like, Merry, on Facebook or PR tomorrow(Thurs); i havent energy for Skype; but would like to type-chat. Love Steve

  3. Pingback: THANKS TO ERIC L SANTNER:ON THE SEBALDIAN NARATOR’S REPRESSED HOMOEROTICISM, HOMOSEXUAL PANIC AND NATURAL CATASTROPHE/CATASTROPHIZATION « Decayetude's Blog

  4. decayetude says:

    Thanks, Helen; and for lovely email; i will email you back very soon:) Steve

  5. Pingback: Archiving Time (4) – Attic Fantasist

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