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  • The Sexual Objects of “Parodistic” Camp
  • Scott Herring (bio)

Does the object of camp—particularly in its gay male idiom—necessarily extinguish the subject of sexual desire? The answer is affirmative according to one of our finest modernist critics. “Parody,” writes Leo Bersani, “is an erotic turn-off, and all gay men know this. Much campy talk is parodistic, and while that may be fun at a dinner party, if you’re out to make someone you turn off the camp.”16 Bersani offers these remarks in his classic 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” which was inspired, in large part, by the homophobic and misogynistic imaginaries that circulated at the height of the AIDS crisis in America. Countering fearful (to be even more precise, feverish) depictions of gay anal sex, he offers readers a useful corrective that describes commonplace and less histrionic amatory and social encounters between men.

Yet despite his intervention’s historical value, I grew hesitant about its universalism the further I mulled over his assessment of “campy talk” in particular and, by extension, gay male camp objects in general. Camp is the amuse-bouche to homosex in Bersani’s subcultural formula, and as I pondered the complexities of one long-standing genre of gay male eroticism—pornography—I became unsure about the definitiveness of his claim. While it is doubtless a truism that some gay men find parodic camp incompatible with sexualization, it seems that others have felt differently on this matter. To begin to confirm this hunch, I googled the search query “campy gay porn parody” and was immediately led to a treasure trove of titles such as Surelick Holmes (2007), Desperate House Gays (2012), and 21 Hump Street (2013). It made for interesting viewing, and I was struck by how campy formulae are repeatedly incorporated into this visual medium [End Page 5] of hardcore eroticism. At least on some downloads and websites, camp provides gay men with an entry into sexual desire rather than an exit.

It dawned on me that I was not the first to appreciate this productive mix of parodic comedy and dead-serious eroticism. Several queer male modernists had done so decades ago, and I’d like to consider what role modernist pornography plays in this complicated subject of gay male camp, parody, and desire that Bersani addresses. I am mindful that this connection seems historically dubious, yet there are interesting precursors to thinking through the erotic possibilities of camp that I want to link to queer American moderns and their encounters with sexual modernity. To start, we could cite Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s ribald 1933 novel The Young and Evil (which Alexander Howard discusses in this forum), Richard Bruce Nugent’s erotic ellipses in his cheeky 1926 short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” or Carl Van Vechten’s hardcore and hilarious scrapbooks, now housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Each is a fine example of campy queer male eroticism, but one neglected artist especially excelled at this genre throughout his long creative life. As detailed in Justin Spring’s exceptional biography Secret Historian, Samuel Steward was an ambitious modernist who engaged with transatlantic anglophone circles that included artists such as Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and Thornton Wilder. These literary intimacies were matched by extensive sexual explorations, such as trysts with the international silent film star Rudolph Valentino, Roy Fitzgerald (who would later call himself Rock Hudson), Wilder, and hundreds of other less famous males.

Steward, Spring details at great length, often blurred the distinction between homosex and camp when he archived these jaunts. After his 1926 hookup with Valentino, for example, he placed a “swatch of Valentino’s pubic hair” into a monstrance that remained “at his bedside until the end of his life.”17 As a Roman Catholic convert (however briefly), Steward was most likely aware that the monstrance appears in solemn ceremonies celebrating the Blessed Sacrament of Jesus Christ, especially during the Lenten season that leads up to Easter Sunday. With a move at once reverential and blasphemous, he turns the remnants of his Valentino tryst into a sustaining Eucharist. He also participates in an ingrained aesthetic tradition...


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