National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 99: Not Assimilationist, But Transformative

“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” This quote from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (4:16) in the Bible describes the exact opposite of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890), where the inward person wasted away while the outward one remained young and beautiful. The brilliant, gay Wilde’s reversal of order was clearly intentional, a harsh critique of the philosophy of hedonism raging in his day.

But the “Dorian Gray” ordering also describes modern urban gay culture to a tee. This culture’s fixation is on the “tyranny of hard bodies,” and its norm is to waste hours a day at a gym, working tirelessly to forestall aging and “love handles,” while any impulse to cultivate the mind and spirit are blurred by nightly intoxication and shallow obsession with acts of impersonal sex performed on the outward flesh of others.

Contrast this to the extensive record of Christopher Isherwood’s love for his lifelong partner Don Bachardy. As Isherwood “discovered” his homosexuality, so had he discovered his pacifist sentiment as World War II broke out. In an effort to make sense out of it all, he submitted to the teachings of Hinduism, or Vedanta, which called for the individual to experience “union with what is eternal within oneself” (Isherwood, “My Guru and His Disciple,” 1980).

Through this one learns, Isherwood wrote, that “to feel concern for others is the only realistic attitude, because it is a recognition of the real situation, our oneness with each other.”

He approached his new guru about his homosexuality, guarded against a negative response that would have disqualified the pursuit. “Can I lead a spiritual life as long as I’m having a sexual relationship with a young man?,” he asked. The guru, Swami, replied, “You must try to see him as the young Lord Krishna.”

To the Hindus, Isherwood wrote, Krishna was an avatar, an incarnation of the holy (Isherwood called that “this thing”) born on earth from time to time, described as having been extraordinarily beautiful in his youth. “I understood the Swami to mean that I should try to see Vernon’s (Isherwood’s lover at the time—ed.) beauty – the very aspect of him which attracted me to him sexually – as the beauty of Krishna, which attracts devotees to him spiritually. I should try to see and love what was Krishna-like in Vernon.”

From this point of view, one finds in Isherwood’s extensive diaries chronicling his relationship with Bachardy, which began about a decade later and lasted until Isherwood’s death in 1986, the influence of these teachings on his ability to sustain a genuine, veritably spiritual, love relationship with his much younger partner.

Bachardy told me that Isherwood never tried to convince him to join the faith, but that he was very happy when Bachardy announced on his own that he had become a practicing believer as Isherwood neared death.

This dedication to the inward renewal and development of the other is, to reiterate my point, in sharp contrast to the hedonism that dominates modern gay culture.

Gay academic David Halperin’s new book, “How to Be Gay” (2012), based on his course at the University of Michigan by the same name, is a shameless, wholesale tribute to this urban gay male culture. It suggests that anyone failing to comply with the accepted icons of this culture is somehow less than really gay.

Halperin’s 1995 book, “Saint Foucault,” was the take off point for my Gay Science series, with my first three installments entitled, “St. Foucault, Are You Kidding?” So it is apropos as I prepare to conclude this series next week that I address Halperin’s latest fiction.

I hold “sexologist” philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) in vile contempt. His influence in San Francisco in the 1970s as a lecturer at U.C. Berkeley not only contributed to the outbreak of AIDS, but made it impossible for me to realize my gay identity within the radical anarcho-hedonist gay culture he helped shape.

Ironically, I could realize my gay soul only by resisting that gay culture. I backed away from its descent into madness (such as its stubborn refusal to deter the spread of AIDS), and was fortunate to find sanctuary in a sequence of intimate, reciprocal loving relationships, my most important one persisting from 1983 to the present.

Halperin’s new book mentions nothing of the downsides of urban gay male culture, with no talk of alcoholism, career-stagnation, drug abuse, sexually-transmitted diseases or suicide. He goes so far as to contend that AIDS and the 600,000 gay male lives it took in the U.S. alone was “a terrible historical accident, and it had nothing to do with us.”

But who infected all those beautiful gay souls, even after, like Foucault, they knew they were killing their sex partners? To begin to honestly address our gay culture, we have to begin with fact, not convenient fiction.

(This series, soon to be published in a single volume, concludes next week.)