The Modalities of ‘Coming Out’

On April 18, 2011 by admin

T.P. Sabitha  

I propose to look at the dynamics of the production of two kinds of subjects, the autobiographical and the fictional, and attempt to see how a gay identity informs and transforms the two in sometimes similar and sometimes differing ways. Let me look at Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (subsequently to be referred to as SM in the course of this essay) and Christopher and His Kind (to be referred to as CK). What makes the “subject” a specifically Modernist one in these texts written in 1964 (SM) and 1964 (CK)? And what makes it specifically gay? The last question will of necessity imply a look at the notion of the subject –my proposed objective – in that both the texts are narratives informed by the gay identity of the subject, fictional or autobiographical. And lastly, what are the implications of looking for a gay narrative or gay subject in these texts? These are the questions I wish to explore in the course of this essay. It is, I confess, is only a pointer in the direction of possible answers.

So, how is the subject a “Modernist” one in these narratives? The novel, A Single Man, is not a first-person narrative, but it uses certain first-person narrative techniques like the Woolfian stream of consciousness and a certain Bergsonian idea of subjective time or durèe both of which are characteristic of what has come to be labeled “Modernist”. There is a certain interiority to the Modernist subject which comes from a self-awareness of this subject capable of objectivising itself and indeed reading itself. The fictional subject in A Single Man, George, is both the subject of this narrative and also the object. In the beginning as well as at the end of the novel, there is a pseudo-clinical objectivisation of the subject:

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve…But meanwhile the cortex, that grim disciplinarian, has takes its place at the central controls and has been testing them, one after another; the legs stretch, the lower back is arched… And now, over the entire inter-communication system is issued the first general order of the day: UP…It stares and stares. Its lips part…It knows its name. It is called George” (SM 7-8).

The novel here curiously resembles an autobiographical narrative in that there is an explicit rupture between the subject “George” and the George that this subject objectivises in the third person narrative of this novel.

The opening lines of the novel establish the subject as the subject in two principal ways: first through a self-recognition (“I am”) and through the recognition of itself as George in the eyes of others, in a dialectical cognitive process. Its existence is confirmed by its self-awareness and its recognition by others. The public affirmation that this self desperately needs in order to establish its identity is a persisting idea in the text. Look at these lines for example: “George slips his parking-card into the slot (thereby offering a piece of circumstantial evidence that he is George); the barrier rises in spastic mechanical jerks, and he drives in” (SM 34) and “[a] veteran, calm and assured, he pauses for a well-measured moment in the doorway of the office and then, boldly, clearly, with the subtly modulated British intonation which his public demands of him, speaks his opening line, ‘Good morning!’ And the three secretaries – each of them a charming and accomplished actress in her own chosen style – recognize him instantly, without even a flicker of doubt, and reply ‘Good morning!’ to him” (SM 35).

 However, the recognition by others is also a misrecognition. They fail to read in George his not-so-concealed secret: his queerness. All the characters in the novel – including those who know about his liking of men – either fail to read altogether or misread this essential constitutive of the subject called George. In a conversation with his married student, Dreyer, George learns that his wife has taken up a teaching job and teasingly asks him, “ ‘So you’re fixing your own breakfast?’ ” and Dreyer replies, “ ‘Oh, I can manage. Till she gets a job nearer in. Or I get her pregnant.’ ” The narrative continues, “[h]e visibly enjoys this man-to-man stuff with George. (Does he know about me, George wonders; do any of them?)” (SM 40-1). There is misrecognition even by friends who “know” he is gay: After a few drinks with Charlotte, a close friend, when George gets up to leave, we are told, “As they embrace, she kisses him full on the mouth. And suddenly sticks her tongue right in…It’s one of those drunken longshots which just might, at least theoretically, once in ten thousand tries, throw a relationship right out of its orbit and send it whizzing off another” (SM 122). Even the possibility of a true understanding – I am referring to the Kenny episode at the end – is shown to be impossible. This misrecognition is what makes George feel truly alienated. Indeed, the whole novel is marked by an acute feeling of alienation. And the only other self who will have understood this queer subject, Jim, is dead. Jim is an absent presence in the novel. Time, space and the alienated fictional subject – all bear markers of his absence. The absence of Jim is a signifier of a larger absence of understanding, sharing and desire – an absence of  the returning gaze of the queer subject. And since subjectivity is presented in the novel as constituted as much by others as by the self, the queer subject remains partly unconstituted.

However, the unreturned gaze of desire has been compensated through a fictional device in the text – that of making the subject the third person “he”, thus creating a rupture in the self (the self as observing and desiring subject and object that is observed and desired.) This fictional device of a fissure in the self creates a space for the acknowledgement of his homoerotic desire. This is further enacted in the masturbation scene towards the end of the novel. A homoerotic relationship with the self is explicitly performed in this episode. The novel in this way compensates for the misrecognition by others, through inventing fictional compensations for the absent gaze. Jim’s absence is compensated for by a doubling self.

Turning to Christopher and His Kind, what is of immediate interest is the title, which places the autobiographical self in relation to others. (Contrast this title with the novel’s title – A Single Man – which, one could argue, is more suited for an autobiographical narrative, the emphasis being on just a single man). The autobiographical subject is one whose identity is recognised and understood by others. It is not a solitary self, but one who can share his queerness – and all that it implies: joy, pain and even alienation – with others of his “kind”. There are feelings of alienation, hostility and terror that this self has to encounter, much like the fictional subject, but in the autobiography there are others whom he can share it with and feel understood by. The queer subject’s identity is affirmed by these others whose desire is of the same kind as his. This makes the act of writing the autobiography performative and equivalent to “coming out”.

J. L. Austin had long ago told us that a performative is different from a constative in that the former “does” the act it utters in the very instant that it is uttered whereas the latter, the constative, only describes. The instance he gives – that of saying “I do” by the bride or bridegroom in a heterosexual marriage ceremony – has come under severe criticism by queer theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. However, a lot of theorising by queer critics is indebted to Austin’s idea of the performative. How does the writing of a queer autobiography perform the act of “coming out”? The nature of autobiography is a concern with the self and making a public utterance about the self. When this public utterance is about a gay self which has so far suffered exclusion and silence, it takes on the dimension of a “coming out”. It is in this sense that Christopher and His Kind can be said to be performatively queer.

It is interesting to note that fiction does not permit this kind of performative aspect of “coming out” because of its status as fiction. In contrast, the autobiographical utterance is privileged because of the truth-effect that it produces, by its claim to truth in which both the writer and the reader participate (this is the “autobiographical pact” that Lejeune writes about). Autobiography is performative of the queer subject itself because it is through self-referential writing /utterance that the subject constitutes itself as a queer subject. In Christopher and His Kind, Christopher (the narrator, different from Isherwood the author) speaks with shame about instances in which he failed to own up to his gay identity. In fact the narrative begins with the declaration of his earlier autobiographical narrative (Lions and Shadows) as fiction because, “[t]he Author conceals important facts about himself” namely, his gay encounters, and it also declares that “[t]he book I am now going to write will be as frank and as factual as I can make it, as far as I myself am concerned” (CK 7). In this declaration lies the act of “coming out”. Declarations or utterances of this kind make autobiography constitutive of the gay identity of the subject.

Why is it that the writing of A Single Man does not amount to a “coming out” in the same sense as that of the autobiography? One reason as I stated earlier is its status as fiction as opposed to that of autobiography as “truth” (although the production of which is a pact between the writer and the reader); writing about the alienation of a gay man is possible, at least theoretically, by a straight person whereas writing about a gay self – when the writing requires a reading practice of it as producing truth – is possible only by a gay him/herself. The second reason why A Single Man does not perform coming out is that the fictional subject fails to create an identity for itself since it is constantly misrecognised by others, wherefore George’s constant feeling of alienation. If “subject” itself is a construct and a “gay subject” is constituted through language and desire, it needs others to participate in the reading of its language in order to bring itself to being (in an ontological continuum) and it also needs others to reciprocate the gaze of desire. It is here that fictional compensation through a doubling of the self comes into play in the novel, where the “coming out” is understood and read only by this doubled image of himself. However once we take readers of these two texts into account and think of them as participating in this reading of “coming out”, we can only talk of the novel and the autobiography as employing different modalities of coming out.

What A Single Man does is to employ narrative techniques we now read as peculiar to Modernism – the fragmented, yet coherent, subjective perspective in the stream of consciousness narrative, the Free Indirect Style which Gerard Genette sees as the narrative “taking on the speech of the character”, the breaking up of chronology and the idea of associative memory as opposed to voluntary, structured memory – and invest this narrative with the perspective of a gay subject. Mark Lilly, in Gay Men’s Literature in the Twentieth Century writes about A Single Man that in it “George’s viewpoint is, more or less, the one we are invited to adopt as readers…Gay values are taken for granted; they constitute the starting point; but heterosexuality is seen to threaten a life of tedious and inane conformity”(182). These gay values which give the text the performative function of coming out constitute the text as a gay text for Lilly. Lilly also goes on to say that “[t]he sexual orientation of George is not obsessively central to the narrator’s account, and this results in a matter-of-factness about homosexuality which is positive” (188). However, the sexual orientation of the fictional subject is an important constituent – perhaps  the most important – in the very definition of that self and the text, given that the text constantly grapples with questions of evasion or articulation of homoerotic desire as foundations for formal judgement.

Now to come to the last question in a series of questions I posed at the beginning of my essay: what are the implications of looking for identifiably “gay” texts? The imperative to produce a difference based on desire as an object of cognitive scrutiny is central to the project of queer theory and the lesbian and gay movements which are committed to the social necessity of ‘coming out’. However, Lee Edelman warns us in Homographesis:

[A]t just this point the liberationist project can easily echo, though in a different key, the homophobic insistence upon the social importance of codifying and registering sexual identities…I want to call attention to the formation of a category of homosexual person whose very condition of possibility is his relation to writing or textuality, his articulation of a “sexual” difference …that generates the necessity of reading certain bodies as visibly homosexual. (731-5).

Even as we continue to ask the question “what is a ‘gay text’?” we also need to bear in mind the dangers of classification and tropology we might be leading ourselves into that Edelman is quick to warn us about and we ought perhaps to be alert to where political agency is vested in the very articulation of a self based on disempowered difference.

Select References: 

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1962.

Edelman, Lee. “Homographesis.” Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Massachusetts, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: an Essay in Method. Trans. J. Ewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1980.

Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind: 1929 – 1939. London: Minerva, 1976.

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. London: Methuen, 1964.

Lejeune, Phillippe. On Autobiography. Trans. Katherine Leary. Minneapolis:Minnesota, 1989.

Lilly, Mark. Gay Men’s Literature in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York UP, 1993.


T. P. Sabitha is a well known poet. She teaches at Hansraj College, University of Delhi.

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