DESSAIX IN VENICE
The homotextual dissimulation of Robert Dessaix in
Till we be roten, kan we not be rypen
“ ‘It’s like a grand sickness,’ said Dudley, speaking of the Letter which he had at last begun. ‘I want to wash up my own life and literature too. The book opens with a nightmare, an evacuation, a complete waste of images.’ ”1 Night Letters, too, opens with a nightmare. In many ways, dreams — or nightmares — resemble letters: be they destined for a private drawer, publication or the waste-paper basket, letters constitute the least structured genre of writing, often the least professional; they are free-flowing, unformed, held together merely by a thread of arbitrary memories, thoughts and associations, full of non-sequiturs and blind alleys. In literature, however, all the non-alphabete idiosyncrasies — the loops, the curlicues, the dashes, the scrawls, the cross-outs, the exaggerated exclamations — are cancelled out on the printed page. For this reason, printed books of letters should be viewed with the same scepticism reserved for memoirs and diaries: that is to say, with utmost suspicion.
Two novels written in this confutable genre which immediately come to mind are Les Désenchantées by Pierre Loti and Alexis by Marguerite Yourcenar. There are, however, important differences between them. Yourcenar’s novella — in French, Alexis ou le Traité du Vain Combat (“Alexis, or the Treatise of Vain Struggle”), simply dedicated “For him” — is a long letter from a young husband to his wife, who has just given birth to their son; Alexis painfully confesses to her his homosexuality.2 Alexis, like Night Letters, was, in fact, a first novel, but by a young woman of twenty-four beginning her literary career. It was 1929, sixty-seven years before Dessaix’s book; a precocious and provocative study of homosexuality, in the form of an apologia for a persecuted way of living. It should be remembered that the Wilde Affair of 1895 had virtually silenced (homo)sexual desire in literature — if not in bed. It was 1925 before Gide’s seminal work on “uranism”, Corydon, was anonymously published as C.R.D.N. (homotextual cryptography); it greatly influenced Yourcenar. Just two years before, at a Dada performance, its only openly homosexual member, René Crevel, was physically assaulted by poet Paul Eluard, who concurred with Breton that the “entire movement had been polluted with homosexuals” (italics added).3 Yourcenar wrote her book “in isolation from the fashion … a spontaneous confession and an authentic testimony”, for she was, in John Ashbery’s words, “trying to get at … a general, all-purpose experience” through being representational (expressive), as opposed to personal (communicative).4
Pierre Loti, an Immortal of the French Academy and what we would call today a “best-selling” author, was on the other hand “always fascinated by disguises and masks such as he himself adopted”.5 Following on from the success of his semi-autobiographical Aziyadé, he published Les Désenchantées in 1906. The very first words of the novel proclaim that it is “une histoire entièrement imaginée”, as well it might have been, for the plaintive letters from a young sequestered Turkish woman were, in fact, a cruel hoax perpetrated on Loti. Here, fiction is a travesty of autobiography.
Loti, who scandalised society with his heavy scents, varnished fingernails and lavish makeup, was attempting, through transvestism, to understand his own sexual identity better. Isabelle Eberhardt dressed as a man in Morocco for the same reasons.
The “author” has a long tradition of appearing under the (dis)guise — a form of transvestism — of protagonist in literature, maintaining a cool distance between, on the one side, author and protagonist, and, on the other, author and reader. Dessaix, as author of a book of “anonymous” letters, is operating in complete reversal to, say Helen Demidenko, who wrote a fiction under the guise of confession and historical truth, and who reinforced that guise with not just a pseudonym but a complete peroxidised persona.
Night Letters, in trying to make of itself the most representative as possible for its projected general audience (this book is not gay fiction, not even a fictional “gay confession” along the lines of Alexis), is despite itself imbued with the personal; it is autobiography, a masquerade of the personal. It is the one-sided correspondence of two “unnamed” people: one “on holiday” in Venice; the other, of indeterminate sex and unknown views (namely, the reader, in literature’s “exclusion zone”). Let us give the homotextual appellation “R.” to the vacationing letter-writer, as he himself signs off at the very end of the book, on a postcard from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. (Dessaix could just have easily signed off as “X”, a device long employed by writers wishing to remain anonymous or unidentified; but he did not, and herein lies the author’s desire to be recognised.) “R.”, then, could perfunctorily stand for “Robert” (the author), or, more playfully, for “Romantic”, “rotten” (one of Dessaix’s leitmotivs) or even “queen” (regina); it could be a component of Gide’s encrypted Corydon, “C.R.D.N.”; perhaps “R.” is psychiatry’s shorthand for “response”, psychophysics’ “stimulus” (Reiz) or merely the druggists’ shorthand direction to “take” (Rx) one’s medicine; “R.”, in an Everyman Möbius strip, could be none other than Night Letters’ “readers”. What is without doubt is R.’s soul is self-masked. Our anonymous R. could be any of these things behind the mask. (“Anonymous”, by the way, means “nameless” as well as the wilful “unnamed”; it is no accident that most casual sex partners, or “pick-ups”, in bars, bath-houses and “beats” are not known to each other by name.) Yet Peter Timms, the “novel’s” dedicatee and Dessaix’s life partner, is mentioned by name within the text. Actual events from their lives are recorded, such as the death of their pet dog. No doubt, R.’s visit to the house of Patricia Highsmith is true, too, and the dinner conversation about Bruce Chatwin’s death. The laundry list of authors undoubtedly derives from Dessaix’s decade of interviewing authors on radio (Vikram Seth, Paul Auster, George Steiner, Salman Rushdie, et al. — some of whom are gay, whether publicly or not). From the outset, in fact, even before the novel begins, on the untitled Acknowledgements Page, Dessaix is acknowledging Night Letters as not a novel but a memoir, by thanking his friends for “their commitment to helping me find a voice to say the sometimes difficult things I wanted to say”.*
In the very opening lines of Night Letters, written in the form of an untitled preface by one “Igor Miazmov”, initial doubt on its authenticity is raised: “All these letters (if that is indeed what these documents are) …” (i; italics added). This misrepresentation continues:
Some passages of a deeply personal nature, as well as references to matters of no conceivable interest to anybody apart from close acquaintances (details of menus and railway timetables, complaints about the weather and the rates of exchange, amorous encounters and the like) have been omitted from this edited version. (i)
Night Letters is precisely a book made of up literary menus, timetables, complaints, exchanges and encounters (“thinking constantly about lunch, train timetables and the havoc in my veins” [264 — Venice, through word association, quickly transposes into “veins”; Venice, with its anfractuous canals, is a circulatory system, an anatomy]). Why speak of omissions, if not to compound the illusion that this is a real book of letters? But there will not be an unexpurgated version of Night Letters in the future. This Miazmovian device is a form of counterfeisance: the book opens with a revelation, where most books end, including the New Testament, and then remains resolutely and hermetically shut. (There is no eschatology in Night Letters — is it Apocalypse or Apocrypha?) Miazmov as “editor” or “case-history doctor” is reminiscent of Aleister Crowley’s anonymous “editor–doctor”, who prefaced neuropathic “George Archibald Bishop’s” literary remains, White Stains, in much the same way as Miazmov; the latter’s Notes “enlighten” the reader of these letters-as-novel/novel-as-letters on R.’s wide-ranging reading habits and character, often in the terms of a condescending academic or of a medico who despises his subject. As Miazmov is a creation of Dessaix’s, one can only speculate that his tongue is held firmly in cheek.
Miazmov and R. serve up a banquet of sciolism: one or the other ranges from Sterne to Tao; from Dante (a cryptographers’ delight: “D” for Dante or Dessaix — a dittographically Dantesque Dessaix!) to Woody Allen (eponymous hypochondriac); from Bosch to Bop; from Casanova to Don Juan (perfumes, seduction); from Byron to Patricia Highsmith (code names for “bisexual” or “homosexual”); from Jesus to Tom Cruise; from Lucrezia Borgia to Susan Sontag (best known for her essay “Notes on Camp”); from the Assassins to the Sufis; from Stendhal, Freud and Jung to the United Colors of Benetton and Barthes (The Fashion System) — and for what reason? Pedantry for pedantry’s sake? For amusement? Cleverness? Few of the notes are as engaging as the psychoanalytical footnotes on almost every page of Kiss of the Spider Woman, for instance (Manuel Puig’s contrapuntal device for the internalised homophobia and stereotypy of jailed old-movie-queen misogynist Molina).
As Dessaix, an academic himself, is a Russophone, “Miazmov” will, like most Russian surnames, derive from a source word. Miazmov looks, even to the untrained eye, like “miasm(a)”, with the common Russian onomastic desinence -ov. Indeed, Alberto Manguel confirms that Miazmov “is the dative plural of the Russian word for ‘miasma’, a noxious escape of air”: namely, “Igor the Windbag”.6 Compare this with a quote from Dante on page 274: “a gust of wind / that blows about, shifting this way and that, / and as it changes quarter, changes name” (Purg., Canto XI, lines 94–96 [sic]).
Miazmov, a jactitation of erudition, could well be a personification of the Virus (HIV/AIDS) itself, which pervades the book as an invisible vapor. The Latin word virus possesses, in addition to its meaning as a poison or poisonous liquid, the tertiary meaning of “strong smell, pungency”. Venice, the site of the nocturnal writing, is initially described as a smelly cheese, “rotting in the night” (3). Perhaps R., considering his anxiety over his unnamed disease being detected (“I thought they must be able to sniff me rotting” ), is himself a biotectonic Venice.
Smell conjures up memories, the past, more evocatively, more directly, than any other of the human senses. The nose is our most sensitive organ. Dessaix is olfactory throughout his novel. Scent is probably the only genuine aphrodisiac. The multiple references to putrefaction and pollution throughout the text are his way of leading the reader, as it were, by the nose, to the Freudian binarism of Eros and Thanatos as life’s motivating forces. (R.’s erotically generated illness is invisible, but is it odorless? Is Dessaix subconsciously punning rut on rot; prurience on purulence?).
Journeys have beginnings and conclusions. (They also have a middle, like conventional fiction: R. takes a leaf out of Sterne’s book: “Begin with the first sentence … and trust to Almighty God for the second” .) Journeys bring the promise of discovery, even self-discovery; night, the promise of Eros (“sentimental travelling is probably always erotic” ; the “night look” of “young men with … perfect bodies, their singlets drawn tight against their nipples” ). Night Letters is a treatise on journeys most often taken at night; of soul-searchers making the most of their Eurail pass, in their search for a personal paradise. Travel may also be hurried, a flight from danger or dread, for one is under the illusion that it is a matter of “fight or flee” (79, Dessaix’s assonant variant of the “fight or flight” challenge of AIDS activists). The “geographic” of Alcoholics Anonymous (here is that word again!) is a psychologically arrested form of travel, whereby the “patient” merely changes location, when it is behavior or attitudes which should change. Travel is the invalids’ cure, even if the destination is merely a sanatorium. Travel should, as the grass is always greener yonder, bring one closer to the paradise one is looking for; so, naturally, it is envied by hale hitch-hikers and the illness-bound alike (“They were all going somewhere, you see, and that’s what I couldn’t bear to look at” ).
R.’s trip is in the mould of Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, which is “to observe the motion of [one’s] own sensibilities” (243), not Marco Polo’s mammoth trek across continents, without a murmur on how “he felt” (246): “[W]hat I’m saying is that Messer Marco Polo had not been anywhere.” (247 — a classic “geographic”.)
However, it is not travel but night which is of paramount importance to this book; it forms, after all, one half of the title. The Sontag epigraph (“Illness is the night-side of life …”) is poignant in its brevity; it illustrates R.’s deep psychological fear of — and loathing for — the night, for it was presumably due to his nocturnal “adventures” he was left with the all-pervasive unnamed disease. R., who has set off for Italy like a libertine nomad, is operating in the dark, for he — if not “Peter” — has in his ignorance linked promiscuity and permissiveness as causal agents of his AIDS–like disease.
Night is the dark side of our world, too (Rimbaud’s “Golfes d’ombre”). Darkness is also the primary characteristic of depression, melancholy, twilight emotions. Night is the time of illicitness, mystery, dissimulation, unknowingness, superstition, danger, evil. It possesses a malevolent “edge”. It is the time of rituals, secret rites, secret assignations; of dreams — and nightmares. After dark, in our world free of hobgoblins and demons, is a time synonymous with erotic explorations: namely, clubs, bars, discothèques, gymnasia, saunas and “beats”. (The American magazine After Dark promised more in its pages than the ballet, theatre and film!) It is fellow Hotel Arcadia guest Professor Eschenbaum’s pre–Gay Lib., secretive, dissimulatory night world: “He said he’d been to the Vivaldi concert … I was about to say that I’d been at the concert myself and hadn’t seen him in the audience … but I didn’t want to sound as if I was trying to catch him out.” (32) R. facetiously confesses that he “was prowling around the darkened alleyways of Venice because I thought, just for fun, I might tail the Professor and see where it is he scurries off to night after night on his supposed ‘constitutional’.” (56)
The subconscious remembers that it is also the time of vamps, vampires, succubi and incubi — all sucking out life (“Suck the living spirit from his beloved soul” ). Night is the arena of the dreamer, always susceptible to nightmares; it is the insomniac’s palimpsest, which anxiety keeps scrawling over and over. Night is the time of the patient’s night-fevers (Night Sweat was the first full-length AIDS play); it is — just before dawn — the most common hour of death. Night gives cover to the criminal and the attacker (the Nazis launched their violent offensive against homosexuals in prewar Berlin with the Night of the Long Knives). It is also the promise of passion — and peril: “Something awful happened to the Professor last night.” (198) Nox and Cupid are fraught with malice.
The night, then, was responsible for the noxious, incurable and, ultimately, fatal disease R. suffers. In a nightmare, first elaborated in the initial letter of the book, dated April 1st (an April Fool’s prank, or a homotextual reference to Bryce Courtenay’s moving account of the death of his son from AIDS, April Fool’s Day?), R. was pursued by a big cat which “stank of dead flesh” (80). The patient had taken coffee at an outdoor café at around the time of the nightmare — the first time he had appeared in public after his diagnosis; however, “I felt like a scaly bag of filth … I felt like an affront to [the café goers] and wondered why they hadn’t asked for me to be removed.” (79) R. suspected he was a corpse in disguise, smelling to high heaven.
But no one condemned him and contagion did not occur; neither on the street, nor in bed. “Peter turned to me and said: ‘I don’t in any way blame you. You chose to have adventures. You were unlucky. I wasn’t.…’ ” (15) R. is relieved that “Peter” has laid no blame at his feet for having one-night stands (“No blame, no pity” ), euphemistically referred to as “adventures” by the lovers. “No blame, no pity” sounds just like one of those neat slogans corporate “motivators” use to manipulate their charges into performing better (“no pain, no gain”), although their structure drills are grammatically different. Nevertheless, any comfort taken from this qualification is misplaced, in my view; in the two seemingly innocuous words you chose, there is much censure. The protagonist senses this, for having weighed Peter’s words, he adds: “A fair exchange — I think” (ibid.; italics added). Doubt has crept in. Choice is sometimes anti-choice; its individualism, antihumanist. Choice is almost always abused, as a snub or mortification of another; a mortifying washing of the hands: Don’t complain to me; you chose to have adventures — ergo, You deserve what you get in the language of the old school and You chose your disease in the glib language of the New Agers.
Sterne is the “warp”, or underlying principle, of Night Letters (Dante is the “weft” and, to complement the absurd metaphor, Thomas Mann, the “pile”). Sterne is an eighteenth-century fellow-traveller, priggish like R., clever, witty, and rather condescending (“Sterne lists all the different kinds of travellers he’s observed — you must have read it, it’s a delicious little burst of pseudo-scientific nonsense” ).
Furthermore, Miazmov tells us that Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a “novel posing as autobiography” (96), directly analogous to Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, which is subtitled “a novel in the form of a memoir”. In the Afterword of Vidal’s 1965 revision of The City and the Pillar, he wrote, “I decided to examine the homosexual underworld (which I knew less well than I pretended), and in the process show the ‘naturalness’ of homosexual relations, as well as making the point that there is of course no such thing as a homosexual.”7 Vidal, like Dessaix, is el jefe supremo of homotextual semantics. Throughout Vidal’s career, he has resolutely resisted publicly characterising himself as gay or homosexual — he is avoiding the issue like the plague. Is it any wonder when homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, and was only rescinded by the American Psychiatric Association in 1974? The very term “homosexual” was coined by Viennese Karoly Maria Benkert in the milieu of nineteenth-century sexology, as if it were a new “disease” that the medical profession had discovered and could treat. Vidal is making the point that “homosexual” can only be adjectival, not nominal — that is, not a pathology, not an agent, not a being, not an identity. Identity, you see, is ever-shifting. Even Casanova, heterosexuality’s byword, is “[i]n modern terms … at the very least bisexual and possibly even that word doesn’t adequately describe his sexual shape.” (251)
Homosexuality’s language and code (of conduct, honor, etc.), for too long kept in shadowy ellipsis, are at last being witnessed in the mainstream. Homosexuals, in order to protect ourselves from prejudice, repression, violence and death, have long had to communicate in codes, jargon, argot and semaphore (colored handkerchiefs in the left or right back pocket of a pair of jeans are sexual advertisements of manifold kind for “cruisers”; the same for bunches of keys hanging from one side or the other of a trouser-belt loop, etc.). In the sphere of language, Parlyaree, for instance, was a nineteenth-century theatrical langue close, a secret language based largely on Italian; “operaese” is spoken by opera queens; “Oprahese”, by drama queens; and the self-deprecating humor often found among the downtrodden is a campy “friends of Dorothese”, born of the canonisation of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (the “sissy” Cowardly Lion is, however, a triumph of Hollywood stereotyping). Idol-worshipping (Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, etc.), ghettoisation (“gay ghetto” subculture), “gaydar” (that is, “gay radar”, or the ability to recognise another anonymous, invisible or “closeted” member from the subculture’s suburbs) — all these things are representative of an exteriorising sense of identity. It is only in recent times gay signatures have become “fashionable”, which is to say, the free market economy has appropriated gay symbology (“Gay, lesbian, bi, straight — what’s in a label?”).8 Even some gay argot has been “normalised” for the dominant heterosexual group in society, such as “closet” or “queen” (“drama queen” was the answer to a question on a recent episode of the television quiz show “Sale of the Century”).
Although the disease pervading Night Letters is never named in relation to R., the spectre of recognition is always there. The closet has a mirror. The closeted individual hopes that anonymity will be a form of invisibility, of containment. The dissimulation of anonymity is its Jungian shadow, or dark side. Whether it is spoken or not, illness manages to strike down even the most sexually vigorous: “Casanova’s real fear was that prison had killed off his vital parts. That bits of him were dead.” (258) Is it the spectral disease which is diabolical, or R.’s insistent refusal to reveal himself?
AIDS — a kind of danse macabre in an era which inextricably links homosexuality with death — is printed as the anodyne homonym “Aids” in reference to another writer, a travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. “Harry started telling the story of Bruce Chatwin’s slow decline.… It was a long story — the illness in India, the two-hour struggles to get to the bathroom and back unaided, every tiny, ghastly detail. The consensus, of course, was that Chatwin had Aids, although the moment Harry mentioned the word on the telephone, the calls ceased. A taboo had been broken. Very English.” (104)
As the author of Night Letters is also ill, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion, if we haven’t already decoded his tropes, that Night Letters is his story. He blackens almost three hundred pages in the ink of his homotextuality, searching for the courage of Tristram Shandy’s “black page”, a solid block of chthonic despair upon the page. Night Letters is also an essay in despair, but without delving below the surface into psychological investigations. There is much movement in the novel, but it is enucleate, without a core. R. muses, “[O]nce you start peeling off the layers of desire, who knows where you might end up? Does the onion have a core?” (188) R. is on the verge of articulating the fear that he is rotten to the core for being gay and for having gay sex; he has internalised all the historical hatred directed toward homosexuals in Judaeo-Christian times. (One of the causes of suicide is internalised hatred, just as externalised hatred breeds agents of genocide.) The disease is mere confirmation of his putridity. Night Letters is a composition in decomposition.
R.’s homotextual timidity is due, in part, to his being “very English” himself, despite his Australian nationality. So long as he does not refer directly to himself as a person living with AIDS (PLWA) — just as he has demurred on identifying himself as gay — he shall possess apotropaic qualities. This not-saying is a kind of talisman, or amulet (that is, the brooch in Rachel Berg’s tale within the body of Night Letters — the author must not broach the subject homonymically).
We live in an age when truth is held up to us more poignantly in diaries, memoirs, biographies and real letters than in novels. Novels are corpses to be dissected in deconstructionist post-mortems. Dessaix has already written a real memoir, A Mother’s Disgrace. In it, he described a childhood fantasy which has survived into his adulthood, a Pure Land with its own langue close, or private language, which I referred to in my essay “A + B = Essence”: “[Y]ou said that syntax did not allow for any deviation in your language … the concept (or expression) of homosexuality was completely alien, forbidden, or whatever, in your Pure Land — and, presumably, in the language of your Pure Land”.9
Night Letters may exist because Dessaix wanted to write a novel before he died; a pons asinorum, as it were, just as many people with medical death sentences are inspired to commit “one-off” acts or activities. Perhaps, too, R. has fallen just a little in love with his disease, for at the time R. visits St Anthony’s tomb, in Padua, and is given the opportunity of curing himself, he refuses: “I’m terribly glad I didn’t kiss the sarcophagus.… I’d be the last person on earth he’d have bothered to bless.” (229) Here, internalised homophobia is a form of romanticised self-pity.
Perhaps Dessaix, or R., if I must separate the two and pretend the author and protagonist are not one and the same, agrees privately with the professor, when he calls the whole of Italy “degenerate”. However, it is dangerous territory, the slippery slope, as they say, for degeneracy in Europe immediately brings to mind Hitler’s Untermenschen, or “subhumans”, the minorities he had singled out for genocide.
For general (that is, heterosexual) readers unacquainted with divergent sexualities, the word “degenerate” inexorably “problematises” homosexuality. Degeneracy is synonymous with “perversion” in careless everyday layman’s language. The Church, the State and Science have variously stigmatised homosexuality as a perversion (Leviticus), a heinous crime, severe illness or even genetic defect — some or all of which involve penalising the “sufferer”, through incarceration, “aversion therapy”, drugs or even death (for example, the “constitutional” beheading of homosexuals, according to the interpretation of shari‘at law in Iran today). The law further confuses the notion of homosexuality by not differentiating the homosexuality of gays from what I designate “homosexuality of convenience”, as found practised by heterosexual men denied heterosexual outlet in prison. I think a study of “homosexual” rape in prisons would find that the rapist primarily identifies himself as heterosexual. While public consensus “recognises” paedophilia as an abhorrent crime, a great many people who repugn it confuse it with paederasty. Words such as “fellator/fellatrix” or “sodomite” are entrenched legal terms. (“Bugger” less so, for it has entered the lexicon as a mild reproof, even as a term of endearment; “buggery”, however, retains its obscene force as, say, “bestiality”.) The entire locus of homosexuality has been sullied and irrationalised to such an extent by its “nemesis”, heterosexuality, that any discussion of it soon degenerates into controversy and querelle.
Italy is not only the capital of Western Art, the home of Jove, all geniality, joviality and jouissance, it is also the site of the Rise — and the inevitable, “degenerate” Fall — of Empire and the birthplace of fascism. One cannot visit Italy in postwar Europe without being constantly reminded of its fascist past and, perhaps, present. The word fascista is daubed on walls in all the cities and towns of Italy, north and south; it appears in newspaper headlines; it is on people’s lips; it is Italy’s menacing orco, or spectre.
Can we postulate, obiter dictum, the interrelation of victim and oppressor in the observation that “fascism” and “faggot” derive from the same idea of bundling sticks? Faggots were the logs of wood piled under homosexuals burned at the stake in Medieval Europe. It is worth noting, too, that just as the Nazis performed sadistic live experiments on human victims in their concentration camps, Japanese scientists in the infamous Unit 731 were performing similar experiments on Koreans and Chinese in occupied China, whom they dehumanisingly labelled “logs”. Moreover, speaking of concentration camps has put me in mind of a novel by Thomas M. Disch, published in 1968. Camp Concentration appeared thirteen years before the emergence of AIDS, yet its parallels are striking: a deadly (homo)sexually communicated virus escapes into the “general community”; it had been developed in the laboratory, in top-secret scientific experiments performed on “voluntary” prisoners, who could expect their sentences to be shortened in more ways than one! (An early accounting for AIDS was that it was either a CIA laboratory experiment gone terribly wrong or a deliberate plot to “exterminate” society’s destabilising minorities.) The inversion of Disch’s title, by the way, is pure camp in Sontagian terms; a “reversal” of the natural order, and so a disease like AIDS is a posteriori linked with homosexuality, as though it were a manifestation of it.
The concentration camp is also the modern version of the ghetto, the first one of which was created in Venice: “In Venice at night the ghetto was a sealed-off island. Christians were safe from the polluting sensuality of the Jew. And the Jew, it must be said, was safe from the violence of the marauding Christian mobs.” (132). Anti-Semitism, like homophobia, is not repudiated in the text but merely given an asterisked note by Miazmov. The professor is free to express his anti-Semitism in Shylock’s old stamping-ground. Moreover, he feels secure enough to add an apologia, “But it wasn’t just Jews who were locked up at night.… The Germans fared even worse.” The second plague of our times, the Holocaust, a plague engineered by Germany’s Nazis, seems so remote and of no consequence to some people — even some people reading Dessaix’s novel — that whether or not it happened at all can seriously be discussed in the media. It is for this reason every articulate man and woman has a duty not only to remember but to repudiate.
Similarly, homosexual desire in Night Letters is shaded in sexual transgression, with always the hint of menace, and ineluctably connected with calamity: “I felt as if I’d had an accident, as if I’d stumbled into a pit.… The police made another dash … into the darkness … A punkish-looking man in a yellow singlet started to grind his crotch against the glass, barely smiling.… [I] couldn’t help wondering how many of us here tonight would fairly soon be dead. How many of the prancing, jiggling, cackling figures beyond the glass were already rotting away inside?” (184–185)
Post-industrial, technological Italy is “degenerate” to the romantic harking back to rustic innocence and disease-free, Arcadian times (think of Mestre’s tubercular refineries across the lagoon from Venice). The country’s major centres have parted company with their theocentric past and become a modern, unitarian, secular, industrialised society. (Although, the Vatican is verily another country: most Italians ignore the Church’s catechisms on abortion, premarital sex, etc., and increasingly, on homosexuality, as they witness the Pope’s anchylosis.) Italy is an entity composed of many elements, complex, rich, unfathomable, much like human consciousness; it is literally stratified, with many centuries overlaid and piled on top of each other like the leaves of a book — just as consciousness is superimposed upon the unconscious. Italy, however, is to all intents and purposes a unitary state and, as such, is a metaphor for a unified amour-propre.
Our letter-writer’s ponderment on the reasons for Professor Eschenbaum’s return every year to a country he designates “degenerate” (“It’s a bit of a mystery” ) is (dis)ingenuous; more likely, it is homotextual obfuscation. It is certainly not a mystery in the sense of a mystery novel, as penned by Patricia Highsmith, whom R. admires. Highsmith, R. tells us, is a “banal” writer, who prefers to accrete everyday activities (the “ins and outs” of quotidian — and erotic — life), so that at the end of the day, or book, the characters have become human beings. This is the very antithesis, say, of Anaïs Nin’s approach, who rejected everyday details and concentrated on essences, the peaks of experience, to create human beings in her fiction. When Dessaix’s Highsmith expresses the fear of all authors (“Well, I can only hope it isn’t tedious to read” ), he is perhaps seeking assurance through her, in typically “very English” self-deprecating terms, that Night Letters has also “accreted”, in its own guano of minutiae, a very real portrait of a suffering human being whose existence is worthy of a book.
Eschenbaum becomes an epithet for degeneracy, in the sense of an archetype previous to the Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP or Queer Nation. (The professor is surely calqued on Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, in Death in Venice; Aschenbach expires at dusk, after the day has sudoriferously “unmasked” him, all the while voyeuristically surveying the “talent”, Tadzio.) Eschenbaum is “tautly phallic” (32), the homologous trunk of an ash. He is foreshortened to mere genitalia — or, more accurately, pudenda, something to be ashamed of — which become imputed implements of “perversion” in sexology’s mind: coprophilia, necrophilia, fetishism, sadomasochism, exhibitionism and voyeurism — a veritable catalogue of depravity. Dessaix exemplifies Eschenbaum’s heterodox sexuality through a visit to an exhibition of medieval torture instruments: whips, impaling spikes, racks, an Iron Maiden, etc. Could the good professor, in his mind, be “revisiting” Hitler’s torture chambers in a kind of gruesome Heimweh? Torture instruments are not yet embalmed museum pieces, with names that no longer sound familiar (scarpines, strappados, pilliwinks, etc.); they are provocatively eidetic in this world where torture is still being carried on in repressive and “moderate” régimes alike. Only the names and methods have changed. (Naturally, most palaces and mansions open to the public nowadays in “civilised” countries keep their cobwebbed torture chambers away from the public’s gaze — much as actual torturers do in present-day Gehennas.)
R., who I suspect would not be seen dead, for reasons of style not theory, in an Istrumenti di tortura T-shirt, prefers to visit the representation, attributed to Giotto, of infernal torment: “Lucifer is sitting there, a blue-grey monster, surrounded by devils torturing the naked damned” (211). Dessaix is subtly brewing a cocktail of sexual and political degeneracy — I doubt if most readers would have noticed it — through implying the professor’s nationality somehow predisposes him toward Nazism. The libel that Nazi leaders were riddled with sadomasochistic homosexuals is resurrected: he is Aschenbach in ermine-trimmed jackboots; his forays into Venetian back streets, the jaded aristocratic’s nostalgie de la boue. Eschenbaum enhances his repressed homosexuality with hints of malevolence and violence, like an S&M devotee.
Degeneracy, or more precisely, decadence, is a by-product of guilt for following one’s desires. Aristocratic sexual adventurers, such as Baron von Gloeden and Lord Byron, romantics Shelley, Keats & Co., even the lumpenproletariat D. H. Lawrence and countless other Northerners, believed the warmer meridian climes were where one could let down one’s guard (or “hair”), allow oneself be “infected” with the brio there and ward off what Lawrence Durrell called “the English death”. W. H. Auden, who warded off his own “English death” by becoming an American citizen, wrote of such cardinal themes in his poetry, most notably in “In Time of War” and “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno”:10
But Locarno isn’t paradise simply because it’s beautiful. After all, the world is full of beautiful places. It’s paradise because of the balance: in Locarno the North and the South meet and neither has quite yet got the upper hand because, for a few miles between the St Gotthard Pass and the Italian border, you’re miraculously in both Switzerland and Italy at once. Here civilization seems tempered by Eros and Eros in turn is tautened and braced by contact with the Northern enemy. In other words, Arcadia with Swiss plumbing. (34–35)
Sunny Italy was the civilised edge of wild, uncontrollable, orgiastic Africa (the haunt of the homosexual Beat writers — and, ironically, the decades-long home of arch-homotextualist Paul Bowles), and so was the choice for all romantics. In describing Locarno (that is, Italy in Switzerland) as “Arcadia with Swiss plumbing”, however, Dessaix simultaneously summons to mind the Arcadia Hotel, where all these letters are supposed to have been written, and every nostalgic’s paradise, Arcady, a bucolic heaven of folk dancing and bagpipes. Homotextually, however, “Arcadia with Swiss plumbing”, far from suggesting an antiseptic paradise, reads as inveterate camp innuendo: tradesmen and their uniforms, pipes, plumbing, tools, jacks, faucets, cocks — a treasury of double entendre.
Venice is the place to die à la Aschenbach — perhaps also the place in which R. contemplated dying, committing suicide. It is a city historians have been saying for scores of years is dying, rotting, sinking. Despite the gloomy prognostications (prognoses), Venice is also undeniably full of life; it is the city of costume and masks, the capital of Carnival, the home of intrigue (it should be borne in mind that the mask is also an essential accoutrement of B&D). Although Night Letters is set after Carnival — these night letters, or for that matter, these “Love Letters”, are written in the tradition of the masque or noh (in Japanese, men means both “mask” and “page”).
Carnival is a pre-Lent carousal, literally meaning “farewell to meat” (carne vale; etymologically, sarcophagus, from the Greek sarx, “flesh”, and phagein, “to eat”, is another type of farewell to flesh). Carnevale is a masquerade, a masque, when citizens join in to become an immense theatrical troupe, which script is traditional (masks and costumes instantly recognisable, such as the beaked nose of the Plague Doctor) or anti-traditional (individualist, avant-garde). This huge street party dates back to the time of the Black Plague, the first plague. Masks are fashioned by artisans, just as humanity was said to have been fashioned out of clay by God. Dessaix, as author, works in much the same way. Night Letters is Dessaix’s mask, his costume, but he does not permit the reader to see behind it. What is there; a rotting skull? (R. is bidding farewell to his own flesh; he has ascribed rottenness to his own body, when it is the world, the body politic, which is thoroughly rotten.) A penis? (Gay man is often totemically represented as phallus in the mainstream. Moreover, the clothing of the penis, be it Highlander gourd, Bacchic nebris or Savile Row serge, is vehemently insisted upon in most societies. An uncovered penis is always viewed in an erotic or legal context, simply because we have not been conditioned otherwise; the law regards the naked penis, erect or flaccid, in scopophiliac terms: “indecent exposure”.)
The laws of prohibition, as enumerated by Dessaix, in an attempt to ward off the prurient, polluting influence of outsiders’ lust, were suspended at the time of wearing the mask, that is, at Carnival. However, Dessaix does not mention this, for he will not allow, as we have learned, for any deviation. His laws sound monolithic, unalterable, written in stone; whereas, the laws of Venice are actually written on water. (“Venice was long accustomed to … all those ritualized displays of licentiousness, the carnival, the respectable courtesans in their palazzi, the naked youths floating in gondolas on the canal.” [132–133])
Night Letters contains two other tales: “The Story of Antonietta, Baroness de St Léger, and the Golden Amulet”, as told by an acquaintance met on a train, Rachel Berg; and “The Disappearing Courtesan”, related by the professor. Storytelling, a kind of trompe-l’oeil, or “trompe-l’oreille”, postpones the “hour of our death” (the matsugo of noh; it is interesting to note that mitsugo means “lovers’ whispers” — Eros and Thanatos in the mere exchange of bodily fluids, that is, hard and soft vowels). In fact, Night Letters terminates on a succinctly postmodernist and curiously Japanese-style note, with touches of the via media of Zen: “I’m on the way” (273; italics added). — Not “I’m on my way”, as misquoted by Manguel — but predicatively on the way “out”, perhaps, the colloquialism for dying to which Manguel was alluding (Dessaix himself, however, actually alluded to the suicides’ way of speaking very early on, in R.’s second letter: “Today’s the day” ); or, more importantly, on the way to a higher consciousness, to a satori state.11
Dessaix has already stated how important storytelling is, in a passage on Salman Rushdie, who has a Damoclean “death sentence” of an altogether different sort hanging over his head: “[H]e tells this huge, rambling ‘shaggy-dog story’ as a way of inventing a meaning for his own life” (107). These tales serve as elaborate dreams and, as such, should be viewed as autobiographically homotextual. R. is hiding himself in affabulation.
First, we have the tale of the Indian brooch as life-force, an amulet depicted in a typically size-queen’s lexicon as a “hugely endowed male copulating with a large-limbed female” (23), a “chubby female figure, with upturned face and minutely beaded anklets, acrobatically entwined with an eager male figure, grasping his jutting penis” (39). We follow the history of this amulet, through the ages and across the continents, from owner to owner, until we meet it on the breast of its present owner, an Englishwoman who shows him “paradise” in the form of an island garden.
This fantastic tale was recast, in almost the same details, much earlier in the book, in a “factual” digression about a china plate: “I once saw a film … about a painted china plate. This plate, as I remember, sat through feuds and love-affairs and wars, was passed from family to family, from country to country, was dropped and chipped and lost and stolen — it just was, in the desiring eye of the film-maker. I loved that film.” (14) The mere existence (“just was”) of the plate evokes a Zen stillness in an otherwise frenetic world.
Film is evoked fondly and humorously throughout Night Letters, from the mention of Woody Allen to the throw-away line on Casanova (“I don’t know much about him. I don’t think I even saw the movie” ), as though the darkened cinema might have been a refuge of sorts. Perhaps the cinema was, as Frank O’Hara put it, a place where youth discovers sex, either on the screen or in the back row.)
Also, the Indian amulet is prefigured in an encounter with an Indian poet, Raju (another R.), just a few pages prior. Raju explains to R. how he “color-codes” his poems according to moods and topics. But why was Raju interposed in this story; for color? Not likely; Night Letters could hardly be more colorful. As a rhetorical figure? As counterpoint to the germ-free cleansing of Switzerland? As an “expurgated” lover? Raju (his name was hurriedly written on the back of a bus ticket — anyone familiar with “cruising” knows this scenario intimately) is introduced in terms of scent, aphrodisia: “a long-throated Indian leant over and spoke to me, it was like being sniffed at by an exotic animal. ‘I’m a poet,’ he said, breathing on me spicily.” (16) The “long-throated” animal is without question a gazelle, about as well-worn an Oriental metaphor for a boy lover, a catamite, as a rose is for love and beauty. There is an air of sexual menace or superiority in the Indian, contrary to one’s perception of the poet as passive, contemplative, for Raju is less poet than potential seducer. It is R., supine, who is being “imbued” with the Indian poet’s essence.
In Sanskrit, raj means “coloured”, “red”; “excited”; “charmed or delighted”; “attracted by”; even “fall in love with”. Raju reminds one of the homme rouge (“red man”), a tempestuous demon found in Europe, who casts the traveller into perdition should his solitude be interrupted. (It was said an homme rouge appeared before Napoleon and foretold his defeat.) Raju is an erotically charged Indian seer, a presager of erotic corruption, an exegete of homotextualities.
The key to the poetaster (see page 18 to find out what I mean!) Raju’s ominous presence is in his color theory, which is rather like Alexander Scriabin’s Music–Color Symbology. In Scriabin’s table, musical notes are assigned a color corresponding to a feeling or image. It is the same for Raju: “… Different colours have different energies, you see, and each colour sets up its own vibrations in the soul.… Red, for example, is always for love poems, green is for nature poems … and yellow is for poems about city life.… Blue is for the dreaming side.” (17)
No doubt Dessaix, a Russianist, was aware of Scriabin’s pioneering investigations into synaesthesia when he invented his Indian character with his idiosyncratic colored inks. The assigning of meaning to color or nature — the repository of color — is as old as literature itself, from Aristotle’s times to Rimbaud’s immortal “Voyelles”, where each vowel of the alphabet is assigned a hue. Today, for example, “pink” is irrevocably linked with “triangle” (the badge the Nazis forced homosexuals to wear); in Wilde’s time, green was the color of homosexuality (the “green carnation” — a floridity outside of nature; green ink, even today, raises eyebrows over a scribe’s proclivities!); during the Renaissance, prostitutes and Jewish women were “made quite early to wear yellow” (133) — the Nazis’ yellow star — to worn other people of their “polluting” influence.
Eventually, Raju’s raison d’être becomes clear in an exchange resembling a riddle. R. had found, he said, the poet’s hometown, Mysore (“my sore”?), “quite erotic” (19). Raju reasonably thought that by “erotic”, R. meant “sexy”, but R. pedantically corrected him: “No, not really. Almost the opposite.” (19) R. elaborated homotextually: “Well, the erotic, it seems to me, is always at one remove. Or two removes or even three … from the sexual act. Like dancing or hands or a certain way of talking.” (19). Remember, this is an exchange between two strangers, one of whom is presumably culturally reserved, and the other, conservative; rather, this is the homotextualist, past master at interpreting signs, flirting. Raju was not going to be outdone by the Occidental: “But perhaps the sexual act is also at one remove — or two or three — from something else?” (19). R. enquires from what, only to be told he would need to hear more of the Indian’s execrable poetry to become initiated, presumably, in the gnosis of the Kama Sutra.
This exchange is followed by a passage on sensuality (R.’s love of stationers’ shops), syncopated by lack of passion (“[s]omething was missing. It looked embalmed, no pulse” ). At every turn, the ill R. is reminded of the obverse nature of love and death. (Woody Allen, improbably summoned in Night Letters, was right to complement death with love.)
The second story is a long history of one Camilla Scamozzi (an encryption of “Aussie scum”?): her rise and fall as a courtesan in Renaissance Italy. Camilla has an impeccable pedigree in fiction: she was the virgin queen of the Volscians who, according to Virgil, was the first female warrior. (Virgil, the source for “Alexis” and “Corydon”, and constantly referred to as “father” by Dante, is penumbral in Night Letters.) Dessaix’s Camilla is a courtesan; she is courtly, yet she is a whore. Camilla could even be interpreted as Carnevale, or as Venice itself. The ritualistic debauchery of the city “may be a threat to virginity, but Venice, while not a whore, was by no means a virgin. In fact, I would say that this sort of sport confirmed Venice in her ultimate virtue.” (133) The architecture of Venice has long been associated with lovers’ arts; in 1499, a Venetian publisher brought out an intensely erotic, anonymous work titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which “[synthesised] love, geometry, and imagination through a vision of ancient architecture”.12 In Venice, the rigidity (on the one hand, non-deviating; on the other, phallocentric) of architecture was always tempered by its ever-moving, fluid reflection in water (uterine).
Camilla’s story reaches its pitch in a Venetian retribution called, so we are told, trentuno, or multiple rape (thirty-one violations), for which her avenging nobleman lover, Lorenzo, had arranged: a motley crew of fishermen, wine merchants, pastry cooks and butchers, grotesque Carnival maskers — a veritable cast of Peter Greenaway characters — paraded into her rented bedroom and mechanistically raped her until she was a mere compost of blood and semen.
This vendetta rape reduced Camilla to a nothing, a “tiny leaden ball, no bigger than a pinhead, floating in empty blackness. No clocks told the time where Camilla was. Camilla was no longer Camilla.” (168) This is the only time Dessaix speaks in symbolic, psychological language; until now, his abstractions have all been intellectual. He describes the aftermath of one of the worst forms of violence — rightly, a form of unacknowledged torture — in the language of the nightmare, the horrid nightmare without form, without shape, without identity, without any marks at all. And yet, this is the scene Dessaix has invested most of his sexually graphic writing, with inferences of enforced irrumatio and vaginal and anal penetration, so that sexual acts are hopelessly entwined in pathological algolagnia. Why did Dessaix put so much compacted imagery in a rape scene in a story within a story, arguably making of it the real climax of the book, when his alter-ego, Miazmov, undoubtedly “excised” mutually enjoyable “amorous encounters” from the letters? Perhaps this, one could say, archly sadomasochistic scene, along with its related travestied incest scene, is a revenge of sorts on heterosexuality, or on sexuality alone, a removal from sex which had brought R. to where he is today, an ill man with a feared, stigmatised and as yet incurable, disease. The stigma/stigmata duality is a strong leitmotiv of Night Letters. The rape is a form of stigmata of such gravitas that Camilla’s cross-dressing double-cross a dozen or so pages further on is not only an anticlimax but also a piece of mere burlesque theatre, a case of Camilla tricking her “tricks”, with limp, curiously out-of-place expressions like “sexually fondled” (176) in its writing. Carnival as ritualised adversity has been turned into a series of jokes and comedies. With costume, transvestism comes not far behind: the travesty-transvestism nexus which has long fascinated Dessaix.13
Camille is also “a man’s name in French” (252), we are told in Night Letters, but what old-movie queen would not be aware of Camille, the 1936 film starring the androgynous Greta Garbo? Camille owes its origins via Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata (a favorite of opera queens) to La Dame aux Camélias, a tale by Alexandre Dumas fils, about a “fallen woman”, a courtesan. Camilla/Camille is a powerful homotextual hieroglyphic.14
Night Letters, then, is a conventional love story, a complex love story written with much erudition and trivia alike, in which candor and camouflage perform an elaborate masque around each other. The protagonist projects the sexual trauma in the act of “crossing over” (Otto Rank called it “trauma of birth”; failed artists were primal traumatics):
The moment you cross the border into Italy, you realize something is deeply wrong. You coast down into Como on your expensively upholstered seat and suddenly, through the tinted glass, you see the First Circle of Hell. Crowded around the lake in a brownish haze are scores of tower-blocks, pitted with tiny, box-like balconies like a pox. High up above the car-choked streets you can see women leaning out from amongst their washing, staring dismally down at the garish jumble of concrete and glass hemming them in.… To say I had the sensation of being ‘upon the brink of grief’s abysmal valley’ is probably too melodramatic, but the line does come now into my head. (118)
It is Miazmov informs the reader that the above quotation, “upon the brink of grief’s abysmal valley”, is from Dante’s Inferno. Dante, introduced to R. by the professor, is a literary gift to Night Letters (as every postmodernist knows, “Gift” is German for poison; Dessaix tells us that Sterne is R.’s “marvellous antidote to Dante” [242; italics added] — Dante is the Virus), for R. admitted he had not read beyond Inferno. The professor recommends Paradise, although he “can’t stand it” (218) himself (the masochist’s paradise is unbearable). Dante is a monumental writer every cultivated person should have occasion to read but, more probably, is furtively consulted in footnotes or secondary sources. (Dessaix-as-Miazmov says as much, when he speculates that R. was more likely reading the “somewhat slight, highly impressionistic sketch Twilight in Italy” by D. H. Lawrence — the modern father of ambisexual, if not homotextual, texts.)
Dante’s Divina Commedia is a conflation of Dessaix’s own divine comedy (in its strictest sense), from Purgatory to Pop (Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” ). As Dante’s masterpiece was full of sex, so Dessaix’s minor work is full of often sublimated — or even thwarted — sexual life — a sexual life in others’ stories. And as Dante identified himself with Christ (the crucifix is central to leather-clad S&M spectacle), this epistoler is putting himself on the cross of the incurable, in the guise of the traveller who will return.
Hell, perhaps because it has been disembodied from the Church, is no longer awesome or greatly feared. In Giotto’s Chapel, in fact, R. found Hell rather disappointing: “[I]t all looks a bit half-hearted to me, not terrifying in the least” (211). Curiously, too, Dante symbolised Hell as the “evil” mother, the nemica: woman cannot be forgiven for being the original conduit into this world, and then the vessel of sexual pleasure; moreover, the homosexual must endure heterosexuality’s nemesis for circumventing the womb’s “vicious cycle”. The gate of hell is the vulva; the “proda … della valle d’abisso dolorosa” (Inf., Canto IV., lines 7–8 — the “grief” quotation from page 118) is the vaginal scissure; the entrata to the city of Dis, the cervix; and finally, the city of Dis itself, which Dante ventures into, is the womb.15
An “expensively upholstered seat” suffices as uterine symbolism for Dessaix: R. is thrust into a world which is traumatic, “deeply wrong”. But the maternal, Marian figure is never far away from the homosexual, it seems (cp, the various lines of “Ave Maria” by Frank O’Hara: “Mothers of America / let your kids go to the movies! / … but what about the soul / that grows in darkness … / they may even be grateful to you / for their first sexual experience”).16 It seems we never do leave the womb, or we return to it soon enough!
R. blames the death of passion and desire on technocracy and industrialisation, which sounds very Pasolinian at first; however, if we read his words closely, his sentiment belongs more to Rémy de Gourmont, whose Natural Philosophy of Love was taken seriously by those lamenting the seeming demise of nature, especially in ways of life contra naturam. “[T]his land has been macadamized and concreted over, ploughed and cropped, built on, sprayed, polluted and poisoned to the point where Nature has been entirely obliterated. Animality may still be alive and well in the Italian psyche, but actual animals and birds are nowhere to be seen” (120–121; italics added), he writes, with as Pasolini put it, linguistic nostalgia. The post-industrialised world has killed passion; no nightingale (the “night-singing bird”) warbles in his heart.
Venice, despite its watery, Piscean depths, is also the place full of ambages and divagations, where one can be frivolous and fritter away the hours writing or ambling along deep in thought. It is a city full of amorous promise, the streets teeming with handsome “pick-ups”. This fact is lost neither on R. nor the professor, nor any number of closeted or open gays, nor even straights who come to Venice for a “bit” of romance.
In A Mother’s Disgrace, we learned of the proscriptions in Dessaix’s life. Dessaix imbues his literature with sublimations which distort sexuality; he never declares himself in a frank manner but always in circumlocutions. Eschenbaum, then, is his reprobate alter ego, who suffers at the hands of “righteous” men, who have no compunction in meting out their punishment to the contaminated foreigner. The professor is repressed to the extent that he will not seek justice for the crime committed against him: “To [the police] I’d be just a contemptible old finocchio [a stick of fennel], a despicable foreign queer” (199).
Dessaix’s novel, at first sight, an unusual exploration into the mind of a presumably young(ish), gifted person who is living with a terminal illness, draws to a conclusion in a conventional — and secondary — climax (rightly, an anticlimax), with Eschenbaum’s attackers exposed as Arcadian employees Angelo, Emilio and Giorgio. They were objects of desire for Eschenbaum and the letter-writer. While the latter was content merely to note their beauty (passive), the professor made an excursion (active) into the nocturnal world of forbidden flesh, and paid for his sortie with the loss of possessions and personal injury (a metaphor for loss of innocence; lack of uterine protection). Disfigurement may be the price for following one’s desires in the chiaroscuro world of sadomasochistic sex, but it is “minor imperfections” which are most desirable to R. Dessaix puts it in aesthetic terms (that famous cracked tea-bowl in the tea ceremony!): “A minor imperfection is always so seductive, especially if it hints at a story — the faint trace of a scar, the most discreet of limps.” (131) R. remarks on the Arcadia’s waiter: “Emilio had a scorch mark from the iron on his otherwise spotless shirt. It made him look quite fetching.… Emilio may well have less appealing imperfections (less accidental ones — that is, more willed)” (131); “… Emilio … has one of those astonishing Venetian faces — pale, refined, drawn, pained. Almost like a mask.” (41) And elsewhere: “[Emilio’s] hand was still quite delicate, not yet a paw” (132; italics added) — the homophobic fear of ineluctable decline into bestiality.
R.’s “perversion” is thus less innocent than first imagined. One is not talking about over-bites or freckles here; imperfections such as limps or scars could only be desirable to the totalitarian sadomasochist who fantasises on their infliction, or preoccupy neo-Nazis, endeavoring to the cleanse the gene-pool. (It is ironic that evangelists and extremist conservatives, decrying their list of pet hates, in which homosexuality takes first place, live most of their waking hours utterly preoccupied with them, perhaps unconsciously, secretly, living out the object of their loathing.) The scorch mark is extrinsic to the body, while the scar and limp have become intrinsic. A scratch mark, common to vigorous lovemaking, is not part of R.’s binarism, for scratches heal and disappear.
For R., there are two sorts of seduction: benign ritual (Carnival, dance, etc.) and the more dangerous sort that “takes a hold on the affections and leads to betrayal.” (133) Non-heterosexual, non-Christian, seduction is what the powers that be, religious and secular, have been suppressing since the inception of Christian authority systems, through ritualised vilification or denigration (i.e., the blackening) of the Other: “And so the priests thundered and the Church called lewd anything that was not Catholic — Jews were lascivious and ridden with syphilis, Turks were fornicators and rapists, Orientals practised monstrous sexual rites and so on. The outsider is always in the final analysis a sexual threat because he is so desirable.” (134.)
Night Letters, as belles lettres, is a search for unity. The letter-writer, R., and the recipient of the letters are no doubt one and the same person (“R” for rebirth): Dessaix in Venice (Death in Venice); Dessaix as Venice; Venice as Miasm; Miazmov as Dessaix; Venice as Camilla; Camilla as Dessaix. Venice is “hypnerotomachic”, an architectural alterne. The spirit of the city is at once expansive and hermetic; extrovert and introvert; indulgent and spartan. Dante himself is Dessaix’s metaphor for double and invisible states: while he wrote in Vulgate Italian instead of literary Latin, it, in turn, became the precursor to a modern national language which, to many Italians, simply does not exist (echoes of Vidalianism).
Dessaix is thus writing to himself. Night Letters is an interior monologue dressed up as one side of a dialogue: the “letters” themselves are a travesty, for one genre is dressed in the garb of another. It is not a De Profundis or Infected Queer — nor even a Confessions of a Mask; it is not trying to be.17 Night Letters could be an extended telephone call, a literary sex-chatline with the world, in an age where letters have been largely displaced by pulse and digital technology. Or, one could regard Night Letters as a mantra or meditation on the “middle way”, eschewing Western dualisms (Platonic/Socratic, Apollonian/Dionysian, love and hate, anima versus animus, doing and being, etc.: “The other thing that was difficult was the illusion that you must either fight or flee … That’s the choice.” ). R. opts for the aurea mediocritas: “Why try to escape? … I don’t think I see my choices any more in quite that light” (80). He questions the wisdom of “either/or” (264) paradigms, proposing instead an Oriental advaita, that is, non-dualism. (However, dualism is not the sole province of the West; it can most clearly be seen in Oriental Yin and Yang symbology, which centralises gender and calls for “corrective” measures when imbalances are detected: put crudely, a gay man possesses too much of the yin essence, for example, and a lesbian, too much yang.) Here, we have echoes of Sexualwissenschaft, or nineteenth-century Teutonic sexology. The concept of a “third” sex was popular among nineteenth-century novelists and sexologists as a non-dualistic way of accounting for — if not homosexuality, then — the lack of heterosexuality (bisexuals, hermaphrodites, eunuchs, etc.). The nomenclature clearly fails when a person of the “third” sex is stripped bare; as there are no physiological differences, it is another matter of bad science. Non-Christian non-dualism, then, along with the non-ascription of meaning, contrary to theology’s “providence” and Jungian “synchronicity” (“it’s odd the patterns that appear in hindsight, although they mean nothing” [231; italics added]), is the crux of Night Letters.
As transcendent art, Dessaix’s Letters give expressive purpose in preference to a communicative one — Dessaix insists — not too convincingly — that he is telling a story, not communicating his story; he is neither preaching in a first-hand account nor indulging himself in writing his memoirs, or, in this case, a further instalment (final chapter?) of his memoirs. However, by fictionalising (a form of dissimulation) a convulsive event in his life, Dessaix’s roman à clef is effectively avoiding it, even when it can no longer be ignored.
Gadso!, a vaudeville expression of surprise (what did R. ejaculate upon hearing he tested seropositive?), is etymologically based on the Italian word for penis, cazzo (is it not tempting to see everything in purely phallocentric terms?). Night Letters is, then, a phallocentric work of art; it is not a “voyage of discovery” but a guided homotextual sex tour; not a Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre (“Journey Round My Room”) — a pseudonymous work published just on two hundred years before Night Letters by a Frenchman held captive in Italy. (Surely, an early “geographic” work, in which the imprisoned author’s theme was that happiness was to be found within, not in one’s surroundings. Dessaix would deny it, but his book is a “Voyage Autour de Mon Membre”, or “Journey Round My Plume”.) Night Letters is full of “artefactual” dissemblance; it is all closet queen and cotquean. And as such, this first novel by Robert Dessaix is a crepuscular and anaphrodisiac work of melancholy, of loss.
* All citations, given their page reference, are from Night Letters by Robert Dessaix (Sydney, 1996).
1 Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Vol. 1 (London, 1947), p. 153
2 Marguerite Yourcenar, Alexis (New York, [translation] 1984), p. xv
3 Martin Greif, The Gay Book of Days (London, 1982), p. 141
4 John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (Cambridge [USA] & London, 1994), p. 1. Apropos of the term “homotextual” in my essay, it should be understood that this is not a Shoptavianism. Although Shoptaw employed this term in his book on Ashbery, I had already employed it myself in 1993, in Pataphysics. Perhaps it would make an interesting study for a sociolinguist to determine the earliest use — and the various mercurial meanings — of this neologism.
5 Lesley Blanch, Pierre Loti: The Legendary Romantic (San Diego, New York & London, 1983), p. 275
6 Alberto Manguel, “Memento Mori: Reading Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters”, Heat # 4 (Sydney, 1996), p. 172
7 Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar Revised (New York, 1965), p. 155 (cited in Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, edited by Jay Parini)
8 Barbara Creed, “What’s so queer about a label?” (a review of Sexing the Label, directed by Anna Broinowski), The Age (Melbourne, July 10, 1997), p. C 5 (MetroArts)
9 Javant Biarujia, “A + B = Essence”, Heat # 4 (Sydney, 1996), p. 26
10 See W. H. Auden, Selected Poems (London, 1979). The first stanza of XXVII, “In Time of War”, reads:
Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice,
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth.
While the whole of “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno” is worth reading, let it suffice to reprint here the fourth stanza:
Nevertheless—some believing amore
Is better down South and much cheaper
(Which is doubtful), some persuaded exposure
To strong sunlight is lethal to germs
11 Alberto Manguel, “Memento Mori: Reading Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters”, Heat # 4 (Sydney, 1996), p. 179
12 Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Polyphilo, or, The Dark Forest Revisited: An Erotic Epiphany of Architecture (Massachusetts, 1992), p. xiii.
13 See Robert Dessaix, “En Travesti: On Travesty”, siglo # 3 (Hobart, 1994)
14 For a fuller analysis on the homotextual significance of Camille, see John M. Clum, Acting Gay: Male homosexuality in modern drama, Chapter Two: “AIDS Drama: Displacing Camille” (New York, 1992).
15 Walter Arensberg, The Cryptography of Dante (New York, 1921), pp 228–229
16 Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (New York, 1972), p. 371–372
17 Beatrice Faust, in her review “Gay rage in overkill mode”, The Weekend Australian (Sydney, July 16–17, 1994), wrote, “… [Infected Queer: Notes of an activist by Charles Roberts (Melbourne, 1994)] is … a memorable and disturbing personal statement of grief and rage.… [I]t belongs with Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and other gay classics.” Confessions of a Mask is by Yukio Mishima, another “gay classic”.
Dante Alighieri (a cura di Giovanni Fallani e Silvio Zennaro), Divina Commedia (Roma, 1993); Doré’s Dante (London, [translation] nd)
Robert Dessaix, A Mother’s Disgrace (Sydney, 1994)
Douglas Kahn & Gregory Whitehead (Editors), Wireless Imagination: Sound, radio, and the avant-garde (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, 1992)
F. I. Graham, “Sexology: The Case of the Pinned Penis”, siglo # 8 (Hobart, 1997)
Lawrence D. Mass, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite (London, 1994)
Anthony Arthur MacDonell, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary (London, 1929)
Otto Rank, The Trauma of Birth (London, 1929)
Adrian Room, Naming Names (London, 1981)
Parker Tyler, Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the movies (New York, 1972)