- Hard to Swallow: Indigestible Narratives of Lesbian Sexuality
In these so-called multicultural times, gender, ethnicity, race, and class enjoy widespread recognition as significant categories in the construction of both private and public meanings. Sexuality, in contrast, is still commonly banished to the shadowy regions of the collective (un)consciousness. In Western culture, only “illegitimate sexualities” are, if not reduced to a question of personal preference, regarded as a (more or less problematic) social issue; at best, sexual deviations are tolerated as forms of cultural diversity. In current theoretical practice, sexuality is frequently overriden by other, more “urgent” issues such as (inter)ethnicity, postcolonialism, and, indeed, multiculturalism—if it is in fact acknowledged as an axis of exclusion at all. Even in otherwise “politically correct” critical practices, the ideological and epistemological implications of sexual differentiation still tend to go largely unnoticed.
It is perhaps ultimately impossible to do justice to all aspects of differentiation at once. Rather than attempting the impossible, I will therefore deliberately restrict my focus and, in what is to follow, concentrate on the mutually entwining operations of sexuality and textuality, of private preference and public privilege, in order to explore their joint significance in contemporary feminist theory and in the text [End Page 467] of Western culture as a whole. My starting point forms the relative absence of lesbian sexuality—and therewith of sexuality per se—as a political and hence epistemological category in mainstream feminist debates, an absence which stands in apparent contrast to the equally conspicuous presence of “lesbian” representations in some recent products of the cultural “malestream.”
An interesting example of the latter is Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), launched on the European market some two years ago but, I believe, only recently released in the US. Bitter Moon is very much a narrative film. It is also a film about sexuality. It is not, however, a narrative about sexuality. In fact, the conjunction of the two is such that sexuality, rather than being rendered in narrative form, is shown to be nothing but a story. It is the pictorial act of storytelling which informs the Oedipal tract that constitutes the film’s dynamic.
Narrative and narration jointly enact the “reality” of male sexuality. The conceptual framework that serves to maintain the natural order of things is exposed as a fiction, a neverending story. Neither the elusiveness of phallocratic “reality” nor the precarious nature of the dominant myth underlying Western culture will any longer come as a surprise to even a “mainstream” contemporary audience. That the ultimate unsustainability of the Oedipal scenario as the foundation of heteropatriarchy is explicitly and visibly linked to an otherwise still largely invisible deviant sexual scenario is nonetheless remarkable. For what the narrative tract of Bitter Moon eventually chokes on is lesbian sexuality. Lesbian sexuality functions at once as the indigestible and indispensable plotspace in this male fantasy, as simultaneously the sine qua non of the narrative and its vanishing point. My purpose is to explore briefly the critical function of lesbian sexuality in the perpetuation of the Oedipus myth, and at the same time, to show why this specific sexual scenario operates as an ultimately inassimilable configuration in an otherwise highly self-conscious and reflexive, if not parodic, cinematographic enactment of male sexuality.
Bitter Moon’s middle-aged protagonist/narrator Oscar (played by Peter Coyote) is an American-born would-be writer who has settled in Paris. Looking up from his desk, the expatriate artist admiringly stares at the masculine poses of his idealized heroes Ernest Hemingway [End Page 468] and Mark Twain, pictures of whom frame the walls of his characteristic Left Bank apartment. While frankly admitting that he himself projects a rather pale reflection of these notorious machoes, Oscar is apparently satisfied with self-consciously living off of his legendary predecessors’ dreams. But although the author manqué unabashedly mocks his megalomaniacal sexual fantasies, it is their myths of masculinity he aspires to emulate. In Oscar’s retrospectively related, passionate affair with a young French dance-student, Mimi (played by Emanuelle Seigner), everything hence turns on the power of the imagination.
In a series of lengthy flashbacks the unequal couple are...