Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote extensively on the place of homosexuality in the literary canon, especially in the authors thereof. The evidence of this lifestyle is apparent in some cases quite clearly, in others more obscured, but in most cases, hidden from the public view due to prevailing sentiment that homosexual lifestyles were wrong by the majority rule of white, cis male, heterosexual literary elites.
Two novels referred to by Sedgwick, Dorian Gray and Billy Budd, provide “a durable and potent centerpiece of gay male intersexuality and indeed [have] provided a durable and potent physical icon for gay male desire,” (Sedgwick, Eve, pp 183). The stories follow people living in lifestyles of homosexual desire, and the struggles which erupted from the societies around them as a result. Recognizing the value of these literary works “must cease to be taken for granted and must instead become newly salient in the context of their startling erotic congruence,” (pp 184).
In the past, and even still today, the literary canon was not allowed to show homosexuality present in many of the writers. Socrates, along with many of his contemporaries, practiced homosexual relationships; this was considered normal for Greece at the time, but many arguments will claim that this normality nullifies its value in understanding it. “Passionate language of same sex attraction was extremely common during whatever period is under discussion—and therefore must have been completely meaningless,” (pp 186). This argument, however, is not extraordinarily strong. There are many things which are commonplace to the era which espouses them yet are not given any special recognition in the languages of those people.
For instance, Roman concrete was lost to modern science for centuries, because the recipe called for “water” to be used in mixing it. However, the water they were referring to was salt water (Irving, Michael, 2017). There was not the need to specify the difference, because why would someone use water that was not salt water? This does not trivialize the necessity of using salt water in the mixing process for Roman concrete. Yet because the distinction was not made, future people could not determine how to replicate it for centuries because they missed the hidden cue. This is like the cues of homosexuality in the literary canon, as Sedgwick points out.
The questions of “Has there ever been a gay Shakespeare… Proust?” (pp 186) could have clear answers when the canon is reviewed. That answer could very well be, “Not only have there been a gay… Shakespeare, and Proust but that their names were… Shakespeare, Proust.” Whether or not these individuals held relationships with members of the opposite sex does not remove the existence of homo erotic themes in their work, which provide if not a basis for their own homosexuality, one for an acceptance of the lifestyle and understanding that it had value even in their own time. The pressure to view all literature as that of the homophobic canon denies the humanity of those with same sex attraction and limits our own access to the robust and colorful culture around us. Denying these roots becomes a form of censorship.
“The most openly repressive projects of censorship, such as William Bennett’s literally murderous opposition to serious AIDS education in schools on the grounds that it would communicate a tolerance for the lives of homosexuals, are, through this mobilization of the powerful mechanism of the open secret, made perfectly congruent with the sooth, dismissive knowingness of the urbane and the pseudo-urbane,” (pp 187).
The current cultural norms are shifting. However, not even long-ago heterosexuality was doggedly supported as the only mode of normal human sexuality, with all other forms being viewed as toxic, deviant, even dangerous. The shifting mindset toward understanding brings greater enlightenment to everyone and shows that the canon as it is recognized can be more diverse than cis elitism in academia tends to allow. Homosexuality in literature is not only normal but has been for centuries; we’ve only forgotten in the face of cis dominance in existing media.
Irving, Michael. “Just add seawater: Ancient Roman concrete gets stronger over time.” Newsatlas.com. 2017. https://newatlas.com/roman-concrete-stronger-seawater/50343/
Sedgwick, Eve. “Epistemology of the Closet.” Taken from a Falling in Theory. 1996. Pp 186-189. Bedford/St. Martin’s Publishing.