Hottie of the Month: William Beckford Sunday, Apr 29 2007 

BeckfordApril’s hottie of the month is William Beckford (1760-1844), the eighteenth-century novelist, critic, and politician.

This portrait is of the 21-year-old Beckford. It is an engraving by T. A. Dean after a portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Like Rochester and Sedley, Beckford is a true hottie and not just an opportunity for me to spout off about some aspect of eighteenth-century studies.

Beckford is probably best known for writing Vathek, published in 1786. Vathek is a rather bizarre “Arabian tale,” as its subtitle tells us, that depicts its protagonist’s quest for supernatural power. It’s a crazy little novel; I taught it last year in my graduate course. My students seemed to find it really interesting, and several of them wrote their final papers on it.

Beckford is also of interest to scholars because of his eccentricities, which apparently included queer sexual interests. George Haggerty, for example, has a chapter on Beckford, called “Beckford’s Pederasty,” in his book Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. One of my graduate students last year couldn’t get beyond the title of this chapter to see what Haggerty was actually arguing. He seemed to think it was some sort of celebration of pedophilia, which isn’t at all what the chapter’s about.

I probably won’t be teaching Beckford again for quite some time. He’s not major enough to teach in my undergraduate courses, and the next time I teach a grad class on the late eighteenth century I will probably focus it on a different topic. While I don’t have a continuing professional interest in Beckford or his work at the moment, his portrait alone demonstrates why he’s this month’s hottie!

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Addictions; or, Teaching A Normal Heart Wednesday, Apr 25 2007 

Just to set the mood for this post, here’s a video from K’s Choice (PJ and I saw them open for Alanis Morrisette in Knoxville years ago, though that’s neither here nor there):

Today I taught Larry’s Kramer’s 1985 play, A Normal Heart, one of the first AIDS plays produced in the U.S. I’m a little surprised by the fact that a) I enjoyed reading and teaching it and b) my students seem to have a lot to say about it too. It’s not only an important play; it’s a thought-provoking one.

I decided to teach it as part of a unit on Kramer, AIDS, and their literary legacies. Next we’ll read Angels in America, and we’ll end the course with Wayne Hoffman’s Hard. I’ll be emphasizing these next two works as responses to The Normal Heart. Parenthetically, I wish that I had had time to show them The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, a dvd of David Drake’s one-man show about how Kramer inspired him to political activism.

One of the things that hit me about A Normal Heart today was a speech that Ned makes about gay men of the late 70s and early 80s. When a physician tries to get him to become a leader in the gay community and tell his fellow homosexuals to stop having sex as a preventative to spreading AIDS, he rejoins that this would be an impossible message since for gay men sex is an “addiction.”

My students responded to this by agreeing that people — all people, not just gay men — would find it impossible to give up sex but that it’s not quite right to see it as an addiction. Instead, they see it as a necessity, different but no less important than eating and drinking. (I should say that we read Dorothy Allison’s great story “A Lesbian Appetite” for Monday’s class; we talked some about the similarities and needs for food and sex in that piece, so we have comparisons between the two on our minds this week!)

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Broken Sky: A Review Saturday, Apr 21 2007 

Last weekend, PJ and I watched Broken Sky, writer-director Julián Hernández‘s sophomore effort. Here’s the trailer:

Broken Sky is about two college students, Gerardo and Jonás, played by Miguel Ángel Hoppe and Fernando Arroyo, respectively, who meet on campus and begin a relationship. Trouble arises, however, while the two are in a dance club and Jonás becomes attracted to another guy. As he pulls away from Gerardo, Gerardo tries to restore their erotic connection but ultimately gives up and looks for love with Sergio, played by the very sexy Alejandro Rojo, who has clearly been interested in Gerardo for some time. Seeing his former boyfriend in the arms of another, Jonás realizes his mistake (or is simply jealous) and tries to win Gerardo back. Will the two reconcile or will Gerardo stay with Sergio?

Broken Sky begins as a kind of erotic exploration of the two main characters’ love making. We see several scenes of the two men making love, both physically and emotionally. When they’re not in bed, they’re making out or playing hide and seek in the university library. Stuff like that.

It sounds good, and I can definitely respect this film as an experiment, but in reality this is one of the longest, most boring gay movies I’ve ever seen. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it’s about an hour too long. Its length is made even more tedious by the fact that there is almost no dialogue. Clearly, Hernández is experimenting with dialogue (or the lack thereof), camera angles, lighting, and pacing. Like I said, I can respect the experiment, but someone really should have reigned him in a bit.

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Teaching Curious Wine Thursday, Apr 19 2007 

This week, I taught Katherine Forrest’s Curious Wine in my GLBT lit course. It’s about a group of women who are staying in a cabin on Lake Tahoe over a long weekend. The main character, Diana Holland, becomes “drawn” to one of the other women, Lane Christianson, and the two soon take their love of Emily Dickinson’s poetry to new heights of mutual discovery.

For the most part, my students were unimpressed. I tried to talk about the novel as lesbian romance. We discussed its evocation of a specific time, 1978. And we talked about it in terms of second wave feminism. Still, they were mostly unimpressed.

I really like Curious Wine. I think it’s sweet and romantic. And it’s a good read. As we continued to discuss it, it became clear that one of the issues many of the students had with the novel is its description of lesbian sex. Here’s a brief example:

She gasped from fingers touching lightly, gently inside her thighs, and pleasure and desire came together and focused intensely, powerfully. Her body surged against Lane, her breath coming quickly, her body trembling as Lane’s hands began to pull down her pajamas.

While I think this language is fairly evocative, my students found it too flowery, euphemistic, and elliptical. As we talked more about it, the word that eventually summed up their reaction was “unrealistic.” They wanted a more realistic portrayal of how real people have sex.

Chrystos So, on Wednesday I brought in a poem that I thought that they would like, “I Suck” by Chrystos, pictured here. I love this poem. It graphically and playfully presents two women’s sex together. It’s a fun poem, a hot poem, and an artistic poem. Its language is both very concrete and very “poetic.” You know exactly what’s happening in the poem and exactly which body parts it’s happening to. But it’s also very much a poem — word choice, imagery, and rhythm all work together to create a desire representational effect. It is a fabulous poem.

Needless to say, my students loved it. This is apparently what they’ve been waiting for — explicit, realistic lesbian sex!

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April 15 Sunday, Apr 15 2007 

Today is a very special anniversary for me. It was 13 years ago today that my life was turned upside down by what, in effect, became an unintentional date. That evening permanently reshaped my life, my perspective on the world, and my understanding of my sexuality. I crossed a threshold into a world of academic conversation, queer cultural history, and adult romance.

To sum up, I had agreed to house-sit for someone for the month of June, and he invited me over for dinner that night to look around his house, receive instructions, and see if I had any questions.

While he made dinner — Cornish game hens for the main course — we chatted and listened to some of cds. He introduced me to Michael Callen and the Flirtations, a campy gay a cappella group. Their music wasn’t great, but it meant so much to me to hear this sort of campy, queer fun. Here’s a Youtube clip of Michael Callen, who died of AIDS in 1993, singing “Where the Boys Are” (it’s not a great clip — the image and the audio are out of sync — but I think it gives a taste of what he and the Flirts were like):

My introduction to this queer fun was therefore “always already” affected by the AIDS crisis. Now I’m struck by how much we’ve lost because of AIDS. How much talent, music, and plain ol’ queer fun we’ve lost. So many men who loved and were loved. So many men that those of us who came after will never know (of course we’ll never know them — that sounds so stupid — but I hope you get what I mean).

Near the end of Larry Kramer’s Faggots, the protagonist, Fred Lemish, is walking on the beach looking at the other gay men assembled there. He thinks:

The beach is filled with all my friends. All dressed in white. A huge white billowing tent awaits us. Someone is giving a Dawn Party. A Welcome the New Day Party. Strawberries and white wine and chocolate-chip cookies. All my friends. All sitting on the sand. Arms around each other. Touching. Holding. … Sharing this moment. No one speaking.

Yes, all my friends are here. … All this beauty. Such narcotic beauty. (361).

Whenever I teach this passage, I’m reminded of the end of Longtime Companion when Campbell Scott and some of the other characters are walking on the beach and see a parade of men who have died as a result of the AIDS virus. Maybe because I don’t personally know anyone who’s HIV+ or who’s died of AIDS that I have this particular response. But in remembering my first introduction to Callen and the Flirtations I’m struck by how much beauty has been lost. Such narcotic beauty.

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Teaching Libertinism Saturday, Apr 14 2007 

This week my honors tutorial students read three poems by John Wilmot, earl of Rochester (“Satire against Reason and Mankind,” “Love and Life,” and “The Imperfect Enjoyment”), William Wycherley’s play The Country Wife, and Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment,” making libertinism our theme for the week. Rochester

I’ve taught all of these texts fairly frequently in my regular eighteenth-century lit courses. The students in those classes almost always love Rochester’s use of explicit sexual language and frank discussion of sexuality. They are usually able to move beyond the language and sexuality to see something deeper. We can move to Wycherley and Behn to see how Rochester’s contemporaries responded to his poems.

WycherleyI was a little surprised, therefore, by my HTC students’ general responses to his poetry. Few, if any, expressed any real enthusiasm for his work, and the majority seem to want to dismiss him as simply a misogynist or a pervert. They generally had better things to say about Wycherley’s play and Behn’s poem. And I was definitely pleased that some of them were able to see the comedy of China scene and appreciate Wycherley’s genius. They all seemed to enjoy Behn’s poem, with many of them writing their papers on her this week.

BehnWhat struck me about this was the fact that these students generally feel more comfortable talking and writing about aesthetics than they do issues of gender and sexuality, which is the reverse of the students in my regular eighteenth-century classes. As long as we’re talking about Behn’s use of classical mythology or religious imagery, they can participate quite effectively, but as soon as I ask them about her (or, heaven forbid, Rochester’s) construction of the female body, they don’t have the experience to do so effectively.

I understand that this is largely a factor of their inexperience in discussing such frank representations of sexuality in the classroom — most of my students in this class are freshmen and sophomores and have not yet had the literary theory course or courses on gender and/or sexuality in literature, all of which would provide them with a critical vocabulary for approaching such works. So, I’m going to have to adjust a bit. This is my first time teaching in the program, so I’ll have to think about how and whether to continue pushing them to deal with issues of gender and sexuality. Next week we’re reading Oroonoko, Fantomina, and The Female Husband, so we won’t be able to escape these issues. But I will perhaps have to reframe the ways in which I talk about these texts.

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Teaching Stone Butch Blues Wednesday, Apr 11 2007 

Stone Butch BluesToday I finished teaching Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues in my Lesbian & Gay Lit class. I have to admit that I’m frustrated with teaching this novel. I’ve taught it 4 or 5 times in the past 6 years, and I seem to have the same issues each time I assign it.

It’s unquestionably one of the most important GLBT novels ever written, and I sincerely love it. Perhaps more than any other book I teach, it’s a wise novel and an educational novel. Students can’t possibly come away from reading it without learning a lot about transgender issues, gender issues, race issues, class issues, and just life in general.

But there are also problems with teaching it. My biggest gripe is that this novel always seems too difficult to get. This year, for example, I had wanted to start my class with Blues, since it provides such a rich sense of history; I thought it would be a great way to get into the subject matter of our course (post-Stonewall GLT lit — we’re not really doing any bi stuff). But several of my students couldn’t get a copy of the book during the first week or two of class because there weren’t enough copies at the bookstores. This is the second time in three years that my students have had trouble buying it. I assume this difficulty comes from the fact that everybody teaches it, making it difficult for the publisher to keep it stocked and for bookstores to get enough used copies. But it’s so frustrating to have to reorder the syllabus — and thus disrupt my perfectly arranged reading list — in order to give students enough time to get copies of the novel.

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Grindhouse: A Quick Review Monday, Apr 9 2007 

On Saturday, PJ and I saw Grindhouse, the new double feature directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Here’s the trailer:

The two films that make up Grindhouse, Planet Terror and Death Proof, are fun, roller-coaster-of-a-ride movies. Part camp, part slasher pic, part just about every other B genre you can think of, these movies are a great way to spend 3 hours during an unseasonably cold April afternoon in the Midwest! I don’t have time to write a full review this week, so I’ll just hit the highlights.

Planet Terror stars Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez. This feature is kind of like a zombie movie, but instead of zombies we have people suffering from a toxic chemical disaster. McGowan is amazing — she’s totally hot and does a great job in her role as Cherry, the go-go dancer with a heart of steel. And Rodriguez is as sexy as ever — I always thought his character in Six Feet Under was hot. Considering his height, he does a wonderful job as the mysterious action hero of the film. His character Wray definitely deserves an action figure!

Death Proof takes its name from Stuntman Mike’s stunt car, which is specially geared so that it’s driver is safe during movie stunts. Unfortunately, Stuntman Mike uses his death proof car as a homicidal weapon in his quest to prey upon beautiful young women. This is Tarantino’s contribution to the double feature and I like it the best. Zoe Bell‘s stunts in this movie are great, and I think Rosario Dawson is enjoyable in just about everything she’s in. Kurt Russell is also good as the grizzly and grizzled Stuntman Mike.

These movies aren’t the best ones I’ve seen, but they are fun in a extremely violent, gory, and ultimately feminist kind of way. How often can you say that?

ASECS: A Review Friday, Apr 6 2007 

Two weeks ago I was in Atlanta for the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. I presented a paper on the first day of the conference and chaired a session that I had put together on the last day. On the whole, I think it was a very good conference, professionally much better than GEMCS in February (though GEMCS was more fun).

My paper, which was entitled “Turks and the Exclusion Crisis: Revising Representation, Partisanship, and Political Culture in Aphra Behn’s The False Count,” analyzed Behn’s depictions of “Turks” in her 1681 comedy. (They’re not actually Turks; they’re Spanish men in disguise.) I think it went pretty well. In general, the most useful part of going to a conference is just that it forces you to write the paper, to get your thoughts down. I like it well enough to spend some more time on it and see if it goes anywhere. I received some very positive response from people who heard the paper. For a day or two, I kept running into people who had been in the audience and who continued to say good things about it. So that was nice.

I thought the most interesting paper on the panel (besides mine, of course) was Chris Gabbard’s “‘The wit may be somewhat trimmed’: Mental Disability in Thomas Willis’s The Soul of Brutes.” This paper demonstrated that at least one writer, Willis, offered an alternative vision of people with mental disabilities than that posed by Locke in the late seventeenth century. It was a fascinating paper and subject.

I heard a few other good papers. (I went to about 6 or 7 panels total over the course of the conference, which I’m pretty sure is a record for me. Usually, I just go sightseeing and drink too much.) I enjoyed Patricia Chapman’s “Laureate and Whore Debate Dramatic Theory: Shadwell, Behn, and the Poet’s Purpose.” Chapman compared these two playwrights’ theories of drama to (kind of) show that Behn’s was better (at least that’s what I got out of it, though I am admittedly reducing her argument to something she didn’t really intend).

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Teaching Faggots by Larry Kramer Wednesday, Apr 4 2007 

Today I taught excerpts from Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots in my Lesbian & Gay Lit course. For the past couple of years I have taught the entire novel in the class, but this time I decided to teach only a small section — mostly the first 30 pages or so — in order to make room for Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart and Wayne Hoffman’s 2006 novel Hard. I’m looking forward to teaching those works for the first time, but I definitely wish I had been able to keep all of Faggots on the reading list.

Faggots Faggots follows its “hero,” Fred Lemish, as he maneuvers his way through the gay scene of 1970s New York City. The novel is extremely graphic and includes detailed descriptions of felching, anal sex, water sports, rimming, douching, oral sex, incest, group sex, S/M, and fisting. Ultimately, Kramer’s point in this novel is to critique the endless and often anonymous sexual encounters of many gay men in the 70s, arguing that this lifestyle is destroying their chances of living more normal, fulfilling, and loving lives.

Not surprisingly, Kramer took a lot of heat for this critique. Here’s what one reviewer writes about the novel:

Kramer has attempted to write a comic sex novel; his model, it is clear, is Portnoy to Holleran’s Gatsby. However, combining intense, John Rechy-type sexual explicitness with broad, crack-timed humor requires the technique of an expert writer, and Kramer is anything but. So his jokes stiff, and his porn goes limp. In fact, he does almost everything wrong. He creates too many characters and gives them farcical names like Randy Dildough and Yootha Truth, so you don’t take them seriously; but then he keeps bringing them back and asking you to care about them when you can’t even remember who they are. He delivers his wit and wisdom in subtle, clever statements like this: “Of the 2,639,857 faggots in the New York City area, 2,639,857 think primarily with their cocks.” He rushes his characters from orgy to orgy with increasingly unfunny running gags in a way that suggests what might happen if Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw were made into a sitcom by Terrence (The Ritz) McNally.

I don’t really agree with this writer. While its true that Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance is a much more lyrical book, Faggots makes a much more pointed critique. It’s much more like eighteenth-century satire — think Jonathan Swift — than Dancer is. If we read it from this point of view, I think it has a lot to say to us about a certain portion of 1970s gay male NYC culture as well as about our own attitudes to that past and what’s happened since.

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