Sunday, January 2, 2011

"The Question of Love Itself Still Stays Unresolved": Tatamkhulu Afrika on the Love Between Men

I spent new year's eve in flight across the Atlantic reading Tatamkhulu Afrika's novel Bitter Eden (London: Arcadia, 2002), which I had spotted in a London bookstore.  At first, I had to work to appreciate the novel, which is written from an allusive first-person perspective that didn't grab me immediately.  I'm glad, however, that I persisted, since this is a story that gets under the skin.  I continue thinking about it now that I've finished the book, and want to share a few thoughts here.

Afrika's novel explores a by now well-known phenomenon: men ("straight" ones)  falling in love under the out-of-the-ordinary conditions of war and prisoner of war camps.  In this case, the plot involves two soldiers held in prisoner of war camps in Italy and subsequently Germany (they're shifted to Germany after Italy falls to the Allies)--a South African and an English soldier.  Afrika himself was a South African born in Egypt to an Arabian father and a Turkish mother, and he spent three years as a POW in Italy and Germany.

In some respects, the plot is conventional: it shows the two men bonding at a deep level under the extreme conditions of the camps, gradually becoming aware of the homoerotic current running through the bonds of affection they share,  even as they deny that current and engage in various violent diversionary measures to suppress and divert attention from it.  Save for one quasi-accidental physical encounter, the sexual dimension of their relationship is never consummated, though its psychological ramifications are explored in the imaginations of both soldiers.  Ironically so, since they are well aware that many of their fellow prisoners who are, in fact, unquestionably straight men are having sex with each other on a routine basis in the POW camp . . . .

A conventional framework for understanding these kinds of relationships is to view them as manifestations of situational homosexuality, in which men who would otherwise be straight fall into gay affections and gay relationships out of necessity in confinement or in extraordinarily stressful circumstances.  According to the narrative line of that conventional framework, men resume their normal lives and normative heterosexuality once the stressful conditions or confinement that has provoked the situational homosexuality has been overcome.

That's not what happens in Bitter Eden, however.  Instead, the novel's protagonists Tom and Danny find that the bond that has held them together in the concentration camps, and which has, in fact, kept them both alive, is far more intractable and meaningful than the term "situational homosexuality" suggests.  They have fallen in love, and that love perdures throughout the rest of their lives, despite the fact that Danny had been married prior to joining the army (his wife leaves him during the war), and that Tom marries following the war.  Their love is the sole grand passion that links them ineluctably for the rest of their lives and gives their lives meaning--though they never see each other again after Tom is repatriated back to South Africa when the war ends.

It's on this point that Bitter Eden is particularly psychologically acute.  As Tom discovers that he is falling for Danny, he seeks to distance himself from what he actually feels, from what he knows, in his heart of hearts, is happening to him.  He seeks to deny that he is falling in love, even as he recognizes that love is precisely the name of the problem that causes him to employ the psychological mechanisms of distanciation that seek to disguise the nature of his real quandary, even (or especially) to himself:

Sometimes I try to face up to the amorphous beast of how I feel, lend it shape, substance, of which I can ask questions, have hope of a reply.  Already my mind, recalcitrant rebel that it is, has framed such unspeakable questions as, 'Am I one of them?  Am I in love with a man?'  But I beat these questions back with the desperateness of one under siege, then with a deliberate crudeness dwell on the mechanics of sex between males.  'Comes out all covered with shit!' I think and shudder with a quite genuine disgust, yet am none the less still uncomfortably aware that the question of love itself still stays unresolved, is being linked by me to the sexual act in the simplistic and grubby-minded manner of adolescents in order that I may frighten myself back into the cosy straitjacket into which I was born and raised (p. 95).

"Yet [I] am none the less still uncomfortably aware that the question of love itself still stays unresolved": there's the nub of the problem confronting everyone who wants to convince the rest of the world that the "cosy straitjacket" of gender stereotypes and heterosexist orthodoxies into which we are born and raised is the only possible, the only imaginable, paradigm for all of our lives.  There's the question of love, which stays unresolved with stubborn determination over and over again, no matter what psychological games we play in order to pretend it's not there and that gay people do not and cannot love.

Because people of the same sex clearly do fall in love, and will risk almost anything to maintain that love and to build their lives around it, even when doing so exposes them to tremendous hardship, expulsion from family, credal community, society, etc.  Love is the intractable, undeniable, inconvenient problem of all those--notably, today, people of faith--who want to reduce gay human beings and gay relationships to crude adolescent fantasies of dirty sex. 

If Afrika is on the right track with this analysis, the psychological mechanism underlying this adolescent need, which dominates the imagination of so many people of faith today, is a mechanism that reveals the desperate need of people of faith to deny the love that clearly exists among gay human beings throughout the world--a love that exists everywhere gay people are to be found, even in societies that savagely repress homosexuality; a love that has existed in all cultures throughout history, despite draconian strictures and penalties designed to force that love to deny itself and to pretend that it does not exist.

It is love that is the problem--curiously so, for people of faith who profess love as their central value.  And so the desperate, dishonest, and crude tactic of speaking continuously--as influential spokespersons of the "Christian" right do constantly today in the U.S.--of dirty, dangerous anal sex between gay men.  Love, gay love, love between two men or two women, is the problem: it is evidently what many of these "Christians" can imagine very well, and what they must therefore invent psychological mechanisms of distanciation to avoid recognizing, perhaps in their own hearts.

And so this is the ideal that those "Christians" hold up to society as an alternative to gay love, in order to permit us to continue in our "cosy straitjackets": as the novel ends and Tom copes with news he has received of Danny's death at the opening of the narrative, he looks at his sleeping wife and thinks,

Then I am looking down at the sleeping Carina, the pallid, formal doll that I decreasingly, dutifully, seed, and I am wanting to be back in the bitter Eden, my hands beating on the postern of its skewed parameters, my heart calling out to the echoing emptiness beyond (p. 233). 

Tom's conventional marriage, his heterosexuality, revolves around an essentially loveless but dutiful "seeding" of his unfortunate wife (who is clearly aware that her husband is unable to love her as she needs to be loved), while his heart yearns for the forbidden fruit of the bitter Eden of the concentration camp, in which he experienced a happiness with his mate Danny that he has never been able to experience with his wife Carina.  These are the kind of loveless marriages to which the orthodoxy of many faith communities wants to consign those who are gay and lesbian, and anyone unfortunate enough to contract marriage with gay and lesbian human beings so propelled by self-denial that they are willing to engage in this sham.  So that the straitjackets can remain firmly in place . . . . 

As I say, there may not be much that is strikingly new in this perspective, or in the discovery that men serving in the military together often fall in love, and that this love becomes the sole and most powerful center of their lives after their service is ended.  But there is brilliant psychological acuity in this novel's telling of a rather conventional story--an acuity reinforced by the first-person narrative framework, with its lengthy flashback to Tom's war experiences.

There's one other thing that seems to me particularly noteworthy about this novel: by the time Afrika wrote it (he was eighty at the time, and died shortly after the novel's publication when a car ran him down), he had become a Muslim.  This insightful analysis of gay love was written by a person of Islamic faith, at a point in history in which Islam has become one of the primary religious vehicles of anti-gay sentiment around the world.

Novels such as this--or Tariq Ali's Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, which also contains valuable reminders of the strong and now suppressed tradition of celebration of homoerotic love in Islamic cultures represented most notably by Rumi's love for Shams--are important correctives of a fiercely destructive current in contemporary Islam that is every bit as reactionary as its counterpart in Christianity, currents that seek to eradicate all reminders of the strong alternative traditions in both religions, which have historically recognized that people of the same sex do, in fact, fall in love with each other.

And that love is good and to be nurtured, wherever it happens.  Despite the need of those who do not want to live outside their comfortable straitjackets to keep the rest of us in those same straitjackets to assure the comfort of people of faith who do not wish to come of age psychologically or spiritually.

No comments: