Category Archives: Week 5: Kuzmin, Radclyffe Hall

An Elevator, A Carriage, A Womb, A Train Station

One train pulled in as the other left, the arriving bullet carrying us and the departing betrayal carrying God knows what. It’s 5:39 and our next shot is 6:39 and it’s freezing, especially since the city saw fit to leave this train station without walls: two tracks, lots of stairs, a ticket machine, a trash can, and an elevator up to the street. It was a joke at first (well there’s one spot where the wind can’t touch us) (oh but how ridiculous) but we quickly made a button-press to beckon that same elevator. We stepped into its warmth, marveling at the highway running above the tracks. Who thought this was the place for a train station? 5:42.

The elevator, for whatever indiscernible machine reasons within its programmed brain, couldn’t stay still while we were inside of it: it crawled up and down with the beeps and the clicks of a robot ill maintained yet eager to please. To fill the time I initiated our favorite cocktail party game: of all the languages we knew (oh! how worldly!) which was best suited for poetry? As always we both began by explaining why our native tongues were the worst for it: my English, musically deficient and your Turkish, grammatically overwrought. I lacked ease of rhyming. You lacked range of vocabulary. I was a mutt. You were too close-minded. 5:54.

Locked inside our chrome and glass box we pivoted to our next well-oiled move, both praising French for its glides and its vowels. The elevator began to smell of cologne and I could hear a piano. No, dusty books and filtered sunlight. No, saxophone on street corner. No, a jewelry box. No, genealogical portraits. In our eyes we traded recognition of that conversion stirred only by rooms with the best-designed clutter and the most ornate icons. Cathedrals and mansions, libraries and studios: from our black and white cage we inhaled deep red and soft gold, the velvet of uncle’s coat, the wet of cousin’s paintbrush, the rock of literary carriage, the bite of black coffee. You blinked at our clichés but our mouths were unable to stop. 6:12.

Finally we got a bit closer to what we actually wanted, what structure we were clutching at underneath all the gold and the perfume. I said the word, and I thought you were going to pull your legs from under mine (us sitting all tangled up, still letting the elevator rise and fall with no destination) as your face processed how queer it all really was. Neither of us knew the word for queer in French. You said it didn’t really translate to Turkish, but you tried anyways. 6:15.

I got off on one of my monologues about space, mostly parroted from the lecture I had heard that morning, and you said, no it’s not the Sicilian rooftop or the seashell love nest that I’m getting at, it’s the womb. I said huh? You said, the only queer space I’ve ever really been in, the womb: a cave where what’s expected can never touch what’s coming, quiet like monastery and smothering like ocean. Pure loneliness despite tangible connection, all while floating, suspended like some sort of lab rat. Literally growing sideways, or diagonally, but never up and down. (The elevator dings.) You said, it’s the womb, and the ambulance, and the nursery: space for wailing, where to cry out is permissible because they know you’ll outgrow it, the wailing and the space. They know they can snip you right out of it. 6:27.

It’s not the bathhouse or the study. How much longer till the train? Far too long. I don’t think we’ll ever get out of this elevator. A metal womb. Due date a few minutes too late to still make our dinner plans. Did they just stop building the rest of this train station or did they mean for it to look like a post-apocalyptic crater? 6:30.

From our womb with a view we babbled about our summer plans, about deadlines we had just missed, about decades we wish we had been born into, about bodies we think would suit us better, about how we were tying ourselves together a little too tight, about whether we could make ourselves twins so late in the game, about how weird it is to only make eye contact with somebody’s reflection, about how it was a little too warm in our tiny elevator. You muttered something about maybe Turkish actually is suitable for poetry. 6:38.

Falling into the cold again, we left our tiny room and left our crater on the 6:39 train. We were back in time for dinner.

-EE

So this is my attempt at a flash fiction response to my thoughts on “queer spaces” presented in Wings and The Well of Loneliness. Both texts put, I thought, a unique spin on the idea of queer spaces. When we were reading Wings and The Well of Loneliness I was finishing Aaron Betsky’s Queer Space. It’s an architectural genealogy of sorts, tracing from Oscar Wilde’s ornately decorated home to the post-AIDS gay chatroom a story of how queer desire can motivate the construction or co-optation of different spaces. So I saw particular relevance in the novels’ uses of space. Wings seemed to engage with many of the examples from Betsky’s account: a return to antiques that mimics gay men’s particular interest in Greco-Roman Antiquity (see p. 31, when Stroop begins to be interested in antiques) and extreme attention to sensory detail (see p.28, in the description of Stroop’s apartment’s olfactory, musical, and conversational extravagance). I tried to focus some of this attention to detail into my piece here, how space can be transformed through imagination and through material effort. Such efforts are missing in my story primarily because it is more about the experience of reading texts about queer spaces rather than actually creating them. But also I wanted to highlight a different concept of queer space, one I found in The Well of Loneliness: organically or uncontrollably queer spaces, spaces that queer their inhabitants without asking permission. I think specifically of the nursery, with Collins, and also of Stephen’s mother’s womb, rendered queer (in my eyes, at least) by the disjoint between her parents’ expectation that they would have a boy and her own sex (see pp. 12-13). The futility and enclosure of my elevator meant to gesture somewhat towards the mirror, a queer kind of space that pops up in Well (73) and Wings as well as in Foucault’s analysis of heterotopias (which are often pretty queer, or at least aligned with queerness). Lastly, the relationship between the story’s two characters is (naturally) a sexually queer one, but I tried to replace traditionally romantic language with the language of birth and family to “queer” this concept and also reference our class’ recurrent idea that queer people can form their own families later in life. Anyway, hope you enjoy!

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Two Complimentary Views

Poor Stephen.  This is what Hall continuously tried to invoke within the reader, a feeling of pity towards the heroine.  Stephen has a rough life, she was not liked by other kids, society, or even her mother.  She grew up not fitting in anywhere.  She had no place where she could be her completely realized self.  She grew up in a well of loneliness. Whether we enjoyed reading the book or not Hall makes her point clearly and multiple times: an inverts life is a difficult one and a lonely one.  This view of homosexuality is refuted and in a way looked down upon in Wings where Kuzmin posits that homosexual love is a love that should be rejoiced and celebrated.  Homosexuals, should thus not feel despair and pity from society for they are able to experience and different sort of love, which others cannot.

Are these two views opposing one another?  While Kuzmin hopes to show the beauty in homosexual love and the happiness of it he does not in fact present the reader with a societal view of it.  Meanwhile, Hall presents societies views of homosexuality throughout her book.  While she touches upon the individual aspects of it by showing us how alone Stephen in fact feels, she does so in a way that puts society at the root of Stephen’s loneliness.  All the while, Kuzmin remains in the individual.  We read the entire book as a journey alongside Vanya.  Vanya goes through an inner struggle, one however, that has little to do with societal views and more with the individual.

These authors goals, however, are completely different.  Hall’s book is meant to be more political in nature.  While monotonous and perhaps not as well written as Kuzmin’s her purpose was not to write the next great piece of literature.  She was actually demanding recognition from society and from God.  She wanted inverts to be recognized as people that could contribute to society and not simply degrade it.  Kuzmin on the other hand wanted to show the beauty of homosexuality.  Just like there was no book like The Well of Loneliness there too was no book like Wings that showed that the love that two men shared is not always tragic.  He wanted to show how homosexual love could be ideal in the Hellenic sense.  So while these two books are sharing two completely different stories, centered around different characters, plots and ideas, they are both attempting to accomplish something never before done.  They were attempting to show homosexuality in a different light.

While they certainly accomplished their goals the two books seem incomplete because they do not address what the other one does.  Kuzmin touches upon the happy, sunny side that can be homosexuality especially at the time and Hall the sad loneliness that was pat of homosexuality as well.  Yet, Kuzmin misses the impact society can have on the individual while Hall focuses primarily on it.  In the end readers are left with incomplete views.  Nonetheless, these two views are essential to the study of queer literature because they do address points which were overlooked before.

-Basil Hallward

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Radclyffe Hall – A Woman of Courage

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is a story that foretells the struggle of Stephen, a girl that is somewhat neglected by society for her ‘boyish’ tendencies and additionally her sexual inversion (homosexuality). The title itself seems to convey Stephens’s life quite accurately as it encapsulates the feelings of loneliness and longing that Stephen regularly demonstrates within the book. Hall provided a great account of the struggles and discrimination that the inverted experienced within the early 1900s and with this, used her fame to promote and inform the public of how biology can overrule choice amongst those that are homosexual.  

It is interesting, as I feel that once you are aware of Radclyffe Halls intentions for the story, The Well of Loneliness, you become aware of why the story itself is transcribed the way it is. Because the main issue in the book, inversion, was one that was highly controversial and disregarded within society at the time, the caution Hall had for writing such a novel was understandable. The uneasiness held towards inversion is even evident within the first three pages of the book under the heading ‘Commentary’. The commentary conveys a note from Havelock Ellis expressing his thoughts on Halls work. Although this note in majority is positive, conveying opinions like “… it possesses a notable psychological and sociological significance”, there is still the overshadow of discretion within his statements, “The relation of certain people- who, while different from their fellow human beings, are sometimes of the highest character and the finest aptitudes..”. This vigilance that Havelock Ellis asserts is also carried through within his other piece of work, “Studies in the Psychology of Sex” which seems to signify how delicate authors had to be when addressing their thoughts and opinions to a seemingly homophobic society. Hall is quoted to have said, “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world… So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction”. Thus the importance of The Well of Loneliness and its influence on the inverted was foreseen by Hall, foreseen as a voice for those that had little choice but to be mute within a society of discrimination and judgment. Therefore when you read this book, and view it from such a perspective of ‘informing’ rather than just a story with a plot, then the underlying ‘tactics’ of Halls writing seem exceedingly prominent. An example of this can be depicted by the amount of emphasis Hall placed toward the main character of the story, Stephen, and her childhood. Stephens childhood embodies confusion and distress, not just because of the anguish she feels for her own gender identity but Hall additionally pinpoints the adversity she faces from those that are closest around her for being ‘different’, “At seventeen Stephen was taller than Anna, who had used to be considered quite tall for a woman, but Stephen was nearly as tall as her father—not a beauty this, in the eyes of the neighbors” (P.72) . This notion of formulating an immense amount of concentration on Stephen’s childhood seems to convey Halls attempts at ‘humanizing’ inversion and informing readers that inversion is something that comes from a biological framework rather than something that is a choice. This Lady Gaga ‘I Was Born This Way’ attitude is additionally paralleled with a near non-existent focus on the physical intimacy of inversion and instead, highlights the issues of longing for a sense of acceptance and belonging. It is as if Hall is attempting to extract calculated emotions like empathy from the reader, and enable the reader to ‘experience’ the emotional roller coaster or have an understanding of the emotions that Stephen (and those within the ‘inverted’ society) have to deal with within themselves and their identity. 

As part of this ‘tactical’ plot outline it seems that Hall has pondered all of the ‘reasons’ and misconceptions society has cemented on inverted individuals as to why they are the way they are and slowly denounced each one within the succession of the plot. An illustration of this is depicted in how Stephen was born into a ‘normal’ family that was not from broken roots, and additionally how there was no one individual that swayed or convinced Stephen to be such a way, it was just how she was ‘made’. Although, The Well of Loneliness was considered obscene at the time of its release one can imagine how powerful it was to those who were inverted and had experienced the isolation and confusion that Stephen had within the story. Hall publicized a message that had not been broadcast before and if anything, provided inverts with a means of oneness that had probably rarely been experienced or offered to them.

 

–DA

 

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The Issue of Sin and Sexuality in Wings

In Mikhail Kuzmin’s Wings, homosexuality is celebrated and defended more explicitly than in any other Russian text of the time. The two arguments that Kuzmin most clearly addresses are the idea that homosexuality is “unnatural” and thus sinful, and the belief that the physical act of sex, when deprived of its productive function, is wrong and disgusting. In countering such beliefs, Kuzmin builds a worldview that is neither purely hedonistic or ascetic, and that rejects organized religion as it exists, but does not deny the possibility of religion or spirituality in general. This middle ground that Kuzmin appears to occupy in his beliefs explains Vanya’s final position on the problem of “base” physicality, that while the attitude toward an act is morally significant, the act itself is not.

An interesting feature of the novel is the overwhelming amount of dialogue, much of which has to do with the many different characters expressing their views directly or indirectly on the sinfulness of homosexuality. Throughout the novel, Daniil Ivanovich appears to take the voice of Kuzmin insofar as the beliefs that he voices are treated most favorably. At the beginning of the novel, Ivanovich, in conversation with the Russian language teacher, says that “military service, like a monastery, like almost any evolved dogma, has an immense attraction in the availability of ready and defined attitudes to all kinds of phenomena and concepts” (17). This is a clear call by Kuzmin to avoid dogma and to at least think carefully about one’s opinions and attitudes–a fitting start to Vanya’s coming-of-age story. Dogma based on ancient texts or traditions is particularly problematic because as Ivanovich explains to Vanya later when discussing different interpretations of the Greeks over time, “we see what we wish to see and understand just what we are seeking” in such texts (23).

This previews an argument in favor of homosexuality that Kuzmin uses, in which he writes that it is “as though it has been forgotten that it is according to Jewish legend that childbearing and toil are a punishment for sin, and not the aim of life” (29). Here Kuzmin rejects the notion that homosexuality is condemnable because homosesexuals cannot produce children, and he does so by using Jewish legend rather than rejecting it. He thus shows that the moral interpretations of ancient texts that are so often used to condemn homosexuality are in some ways arbitrary. Ascetism appears to be the prevailing view of the time, as Kuzmin expresses through the popularity of Wagner, and Kuzmin rejects this notion of excess vs. natural actions. As Kostya explains while relating Stroop’s views, “‘if you stick to the use of our bodies that’s considered natural, then with your hands you’ll have only to tear raw meat apart…et cetera” (36).

However, in the novel, Kuzmin does not fully argue for the satisfaction of all “natural” desires. He also rejects hedonism, as exemplified by the story of the artist who symbolically chooses pleasure over love, by choosing Chibo of Blonskaya. Instead, Kuzmin relies on an aesthetic view of love and beauty as the ultimate ideals. This distinction is made clear in a passage in which Maria discusses the issue with Vanya and says that “anyone who’s touched by the flaming spirit of love, whatever he’s done, it’s all forgiven him, because he’s no longer his own, in the spirit, in the rapture” (43).

The relationship of the physical act of sex to the ideals of love and beauty are finally made clear to Vanya during his trip to Italy. His realization at the end of the novel is that it is the attitude toward an action that matters, not the act itself. The distinction is made clear both to Vanya and the reader in one of the final scenes of the novel (though it has been mentioned many times before) by the Canon Mori, who references the sexual acts of Hadrian and Antinous as opposed to those of Tiberius. Vanya asks “but in essence, at any given moment, isn’t it one and the same thing?” to which the Canon Mori replies “You’re dreadfully deluded, my son. Important in every act is the attitude to it; the acts themselves are the mechanical movements of our bodies, incapable of offending anyone, still less the Lord God” (96). This final conclusion is perhaps the most powerful argument of Kuzmin’s, because unlike many of the arguments of the time which sometimes reject the notion of morality altogether, it fully reconciles homosexuality with religious and moral beliefs.

KS

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Wells and Wings

Moving away from The Picture of Dorian Gray, we read two novels with very clear queer content that isn’t hidden away between the lines and in metaphors. With the openness of these novels comes the opportunity to explore queer issues in ways that are much more specific. Both texts define homosexuality against heterosexuality and women in a way that is very interesting; concepts of queer futurity and the Bildungsroman nature of these novels also show how their authors were trying to portray inversion to society of the time. While Kuzmin tries to shine a positive light on homosexuality in Russian society, Hall raises awareness of inversion by evoking the empathy of the reader.

The characterization of homosexuality in contrast to heterosexuality in both novels serves different purposes, but in both cases the result is an alienation of homosexuals whether for better or for worse. Where the discourse of Hellenism in Wings puts homosexuality above heterosexuality – painting it as a nobler disposition because the tradition of procreation in Judaism and Christianity seems selfish and narrow-minded, Hall’s juxtaposition of Stephen’s homosexuality against the heterosexuality of her peers serves to emphasize her exclusion from the “sense of oneness” in heteronormative nature. In either text, heterosexuality is portrayed in a negative light, evident in the quote “men who link the concept of beauty with the beauty of a woman display only a vulgar lust, and are further, furthest of all from the true idea of beauty” (Kuzmin 29) and Hall’s description of men as oak trees and women as the ivy that cling to them. Both portrayals are problematic in their (excessively) negative treatment of heterosexuality and women, but they raise the interesting question of queer futurity. What is there in store for the queer, for whom procreation does not seem to be an option?

The answer seems to lie within the exploration of beauty and art – a channel through which one can create bits of oneself and the human condition to leave behind. The Hellenes pride themselves in being “lovers of the beautiful, bacchanals of the future life” (Kuzmin 29) and shun the obsession with procreation as being restrictive and selfish; there is so much more to do and to experience. Stephen, excluded from the sense of oneness epitomized by the swans and cygnets at the park, turns to channeling her uneasiness into writing – a form of creation through which she can express herself. But will this almost forced immersion in the arts ever be enough to satisfy the soul that naturally seeks a sense of belonging? For the Hellenes, being able to experience and appreciate the beauty in life seems more than satisfactory, but Stephen’s inability to find peace with nature gives the impression that art, though a form of creation that can be compared to procreation, leaves something to be desired. This combination of suffering and artistic creation is viewed differently across cultures, but it seems a common trend for humanity to view beauty, pain and death as intimately connected. For example, in Japan a cherry blossom flower is said to be at its most beautiful the moment it falls from the tree. It is with great irony then that the people who suffer the most for being viewed as ugly, grotesque and unnatural are capable of introducing and creating such beauty for posterity.

HSK

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The Well of Loneliness: Female Masculinity and Inversion

The Well of Loneliness: Female Masculinity and Inversion

In “Female Masculinity,” Halberstam asserts that “female masculinity is a specific gender with its own cultural history rather than simply a derivative of male masculinity.” In other words, she believes that “female masculinity” is its own marker in the gender spectrum, and those who have female masculinity are not simply “mannish lesbians” trying to impersonate heterosexual males but rather cultivate and develop their own unique gender identity and presentation. This assertion challenges the Sexologists’ theories of the time when Well of Loneliness was written such as Ellis and the idea of the “invert.” According to Ellis, an invert is someone who is born one sex but behaves and feels like the other sex. For example, a female invert is a biological woman who feels like a man trapped in a woman’s body, and is attracted to women.

In the Well of Loneliness, Hall actually supports Halberstam’s notion of “female masculinity” to some extent despite being heavily influenced by Sexology. One particular example is during Stephen’s childhood, in which she spends time with Violet and Roger.

Hall utilizes Violet and Roger to represent the two extremes of the gender binary. The two children are essentially caricatures of femininity and masculinity. For example, she describes Violet as “intolerably silly” and at one point Violet says, “Can’t you knit? she would say, looking scornfully at Stephen, ‘I can–Mother called me a dear little housewife!” She also describes Roger as a caricature of masculinity when she writes, “Roger, who was ten years old, and already full to the neck of male arrogance…” and “…Roger strutting about in his Etons, and bragging, always bragging because he was a boy.” These exaggerated depictions highlight Stephen’s feelings of loneliness–she does not identify with Roger or Violet but rather feels stranded somewhere in-between.

While Stephen acknowledges that she envies Roger, Hall makes it clear that Stephen certainly doesn’t want to “be” Roger. For example, when Hall writes, “…She envied young Roger with his thick, clumping boots, his cropped hair and his Etons; envied his school and his masculine companions of whom he would speak grandly as ‘all the other fellows!’; envied his right to climb trees and play cricket and football–his right to be perfectly natural…” she emphasizes that Stephen does not envy to “be” Roger but rather envies his behavior and presentation as a man. However, Stephen does not want to completely invert and mimic or adopt all of Roger’s characteristics because she also “loathes” him and despises his “male arrogance.” Thus, Stephen’s repulsion to both Roger and Violet illustrates that her gender identity doesn’t quite invert perfectly across a gender binary. Rather, Stephen’s gender seems to be more complicated than simply explained by “inversion” and is actually, while influenced by the gender binary, something new and distinct.

-Ripley

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The Passion of Stephen

In Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Christianity takes a central role in the novel, which is not surprising considering the author’s lifelong affinity for the Catholic Church. It makes sense, then, that much of the novel is written to mimic the New Testament, especially the trajectory of a long-suffering Christ-like figure. Stephen herself is quite similar to the figure of Jesus Christ, representative of a messiah figure who is responsible for being a vessel through which her followers can find salvation. And just like the New Testament becomes a gospel of religious salvation, The Well of Loneliness becomes a gospel of inversion, almost giving legitimacy to the forsaken identity in the same way the Bible gave legitimacy to Christianity.

The beginning of the novel is written like the dawn of Christ’s life. Hall describes Stephen’s familial lineage and her birth which, like that of Christ, is on Christmas Eve. She goes on to describe Stephen’s early years. And just as in the New Testament, where the Christ child is characterized as wise beyond his years and therefore different from others, so too Stephen senses that she is not the same as others. One such way can be seen in the selfless devotion and need to save her beloved house servant Collins from her housemaid’s knees. Engaging in mortification, Stephen begins to force her knees to the ground, sometimes for hours, in order to prove her unmitigated devotion to Collins. She exclaims to Collins, “You see, I wanted to share your suffering. I’ve prayed quite a lot, but Jesus won’t listen, so I’ve got to get housemaid’s knee on my own way—I can’t wait any longer for Jesus!” (P. 23) The episode becomes a crucifixion of sorts; Stephen seeks to absolve Collins of suffering by transferring the pain of housemaid’s knees to her.

The theme of sacrifice is a significant and recurring one in the novel. Similar to her sacrificial dedication to Collins, Stephen goes on to sacrifice her relationship with Mary, even going so far as to drive her into a heterosexual relationship, in order to save her from a life of misery and pain. This sacrifice becomes the climax to an already lived life of martyrdom. This is supported by her friend Valerie, who, when confronted with Stephen’s sacrifice, declares, “Being what you are, I suppose you can’t—you were made for a martyr!” (P. 434)

After this sacrifice, the novel ends with Stephen acting as a vessel through which the damned—inverts, gays and lesbians—can supplicate mercy from an omnipotent God. Stephen is taken over by the speaking spirits of gays, lesbians, and inverts, some who have died and some who remain alive, and the spirits use her in order to call for an end to injustice and persecution. They holler, “God… we believe; we have told You we believe… We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” (P. 437)

–VCA

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