- Homosocial Desire and Erotic Communitas in Melville’s Imaginary:The Evidence of Van Buskirk
Desires for intimacy that bypass the couple or the life narrative it generates have no alternative plots, let alone few laws and stable spaces of culture in which to clarify and to cultivate them. What happens to the energy of attachment when it has no designated place? To the glances, gestures, encounters, collaborations, or fantasies that have no canon?. … To rethink intimacy is to appraise how we have been and how we live and how we might imagine lives that make more sense than the ones so many are living.—Lauren Berlant
[Kafka] knew … that there is no more effective way to break the spell of tradition than to cut out the “rich and strange,” coral and pearls, from what had been handed down in one solid piece.—Hannah Arendt
“You ‘out and proud’ gay men have ruined sex between men,” my older friend charged. Alan was a naval veteran, a retired Lutheran pastor, and a single, closeted man. Like the speaker of Melville’s poem “John Marr,” he missed the sailor life’s “shadowy fellowship”1—the erotic camaraderie between men that was common in the navy of his time. “What are you talking about,” I snapped back, “we legitimated sex between men!” I was flummoxed. He didn’t seem to appreciate the hard work of liberation. “Only for yourselves,” he countered. [End Page 355] “You poisoned it for everyone else.” Gay liberation, Alan believed, had foreclosed sex and curtailed intimacy between “regular guys,” establishing a binaristic polarity that clove desire from fraternity. The epithets “homo” and “queer” worked differently, Alan explained, as recently as the forties. It was not considered homo or queer, for instance, to receive mail in a standard envelope with a handwritten address—presumably from a “gal” back home—but to receive a larger envelope with a typed address, that would draw notice. The mailman would shrug and publicly announce “must be a homosexual” as he handed over the “queer”—wrongly sized and typed—envelope. It was not, however, considered queer or homo to stand in a queue waiting one’s turn to receive oral sex from another man tucked away inside an empty oil drum with a hole bored in the side. Without women present, it was assumed, any normal man would enjoy such a natural pleasure.
Historian George Chauncey has investigated the social world of same-sex desire in the navy of 1919, revealing how common it was for “normal” working-class men to have sex with other men without feeling limited by the foreclosures that structure modern heterosexual identity, and without experiencing shame, stigma, or persecution.2 His research describes how diverse sexual cultures coexisted within a small community and how class difference affected sexual thinking and behavior. His Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 extends his argument about sexuality and class, revealing how it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that a crisis in middle-class masculinity foreclosed on a world where men had sex with other men without feeling or being considered different.3 My friend Alan suggests that this foreclosure occurred even later, at least for men he knew in the navy. This essay explores how life at sea in Melville’s era allowed similar sexual freedoms and where his sea narratives depict that permissive environment. As Melville notes in [End Page 356] White-Jacket: “sailors, as a class, entertain the most liberal notions concerning morality … or rather, they take their own views of such matters, caring little for the theological or ethical definitions of others concerning what may be criminal, or wrong.”4
Recognizing that no critic has access to unmediated actualities, this essay seeks the forgotten and inadequately mapped historical context that populated Melville’s sexual imaginary, aiming to escape presentist assumptions, to think and to feel a then and there. Melville studies have long emphasized the stable formulations of friendship, marriage, and family that characterized the writer’s life. These projects, almost by definition, participate in the dynamic that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick identifies as heterosexuality “permitted to masquerade...