What better way to end the first month of the year than with the beginning of a queer literary journey through time from the 19th century to the present?
The world’s a mess. It’s a scary place for queer and trans folks. The Trump administration is hacking away at our hard-won gains in civil rights. And in November 2018 the FBI reported that incidents of hate crimes increased by 17% from 2016 to 2017 and 1,470 (17%) of the victims were targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity (Want the full story? Read “Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose 3 percent in ’17, FBI find” from NBC news). And that is in the US where things are relatively safe.
Why go back in time, when the present needs so much attention? Because it’s important to remind ourselves that queer folks have persevered, survived, and thrived throughout history. People managed to find and love each other when living an authentic life garnered you at best prison time and at worst the death sentence (and let’s be honest in places like Chechnya, Iran, and Sudan being LGBTQIA is still a death sentence). Authors and poets who could not explicitly explore their sexuality did so through encoding their art with cues. Those encoded cues became the foundation for shared language and a shared history.
It’s worth exploring the past to experience the strength of our forebearers and to remember that love, and life (I can’t believe I’m quoting Jurassic Park) will find a way.
Where to start? I’m starting approximately 200 hundred years ago in 1820 when Charles Maturin’s published the gothic horror novel, “Melmoth the Wanderer.” I could go further, Sappho, one of the foundational pillars of western poetics, wrote of her love for women in the 7th century BCE (Before Common Era). But I wanted to start in a more modern period, and explore the way that encoded cues transformed into explicit explorations of themes of love, sexuality, sexual expression, and gender identity.
Queering Time Travel
“Melmoth the Wanderer” is gothic horror at its most gothic-ness. It opens with a young John Melmoth, arriving at his dying uncle’s estate. The uncle is mean as a snake and as miserly as a dragon. He hoards his wealth, going as far as demanding a glass of wine, and then begrudging his nephew a drop for himself. Before he dies, John’s uncle discloses a family secret that sets John on the path of uncovering the truth surrounding a supposedly immortal ancestor.
There’s even an old witch sitting in a corner smoking a pipe in the first chapter. Does it get more gothic than that? But I didn’t choose Maturin’s book because it’s an example of the gothic romanticism. I chose it because:
- Rev. Charles Maturin was Oscar Wilde’s mother’s uncle. After Wilde was released from prison in 1897 he adopted the name “Melmoth” as a pseudonym so he might travel in obscurity (see The British Library – “Melmoth the Wanderer”);
- There is a direct line between the themes in “Melmoth” and the theme’s in Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray;”
- Studies of queer “other-ness” in gothic literature point to “Melmoth the Wanderer” as an example of the way explorations of complex sexuality and desires, beyond the heteronormative of the time, were given voice. (See, George Haggarty’s book “Queer Gothic,” available on Amazon).
- There is some support for the theory that our queer ancestors-of-old used books such as “Melmoth the Wanderer” and other works of literature and art as a sort of secret password. A way to begin a conversation with enough plausible deniability to avoid prison. (Curious? Check out the troublesomely worded, but still worthwhile exploration, of LGBTQIA linguistics in the article “From Closet Talk to PC Terminology: Gay Speech and the Politics of Visibility” by Pascale Smorag in TransAtlantica American Studies Journal).
Wish me well on my journey through the gothic darkness of “Melmoth the Wanderer.” I’ll send updates along the way and check in next week to let you know if I’ve spotted any secret codes.
Please remember that love, in and of itself, is a light during dark times.