- Tantalizing Idylls:Nature and Unattainable Pleasures in Gay and Lesbian Literature
At the beginning of the twentieth century, homosexuality became a fulcrum of public debate in Western countries. Not only was it a topic of political, pedagogic, and medical discussion, but imaginative literature holding various degrees of seriousness also explored the living conditions of homosexuals, their guilt or lack thereof, and—not least—the possibilities of homoerotic fulfillment. Authors who sought to address these questions would often be compelled to hide their theme and allude to it in ambiguous ways—or, at least, to play down their potential subversive import by leaving the political norm open to interpretation. By reading five very different texts that span a period of 14 years, I discuss how they portray the homosexual's destiny by using a common trope: an allusion to the mythical king Tantalus. The aim of these readings is twofold. First, I wish to bring attention to uncanonized works of fiction that engage with modern discourses on homosexuality in interesting and sometimes innovative ways. Second, the transtextual use of the trope I identify sheds new light on the potential of imaginative literature to depict sexuality.
The starting point of these readings is a summary of the politics on homosexuality in Scandinavia and the West in the early twentieth century. Arguing that homosexuality is constructed as a taboo that must nevertheless be spoken of, I discuss how one might analyze the recoding of certain cultural elements as fundamental to establishing homosexual meaning in a text. I apply this to a comparative reading of the Austrian novella Verwirrung der Gefühle (Zweig 1927; Confusion ) [End Page 326] and the Norwegian novel Følelsers forvirring (Krane 1937; Confusion of Emotions), focusing on their differing value norms. The second set of readings involves the aesthetic and political current of vitalism and explores how the Danish novel Et Vildskud (Holk 1941; A Wild Shot) and the two Norwegian poems "Dagdraumen" (The Daydream) and "Draum" (Dream) (Sveen 1933; 1935) connect the Tantalus trope with nature imagery in a way that potentially subverts the idea of homosexuality as "unnatural." The article concludes with a summary of the differences between these works and a discussion of the various functions of the catachrestic Tantalus trope.
Catachresis and Connotation as Homocultural Language
In order to come to terms with the construction of homosexuality and homosexual culture in early twentieth-century Scandinavia, I employ Michel Foucault's concept of biopolitics. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that from the late 1700s, the power of the state focuses less on protecting the head of state and grows more concerned with controlling, governing, and ruling over life itself. The life of the nation is governed through defining and cultivating groups of valuable life at the possible expense of other groups that may be defined as a threat to national well-being (Foucault 1980, 138). These aspects of biopolitics overlap with what I refer to as vitalism below.
Sexuality is the core of biopolitics, according to Foucault (1980, 146). Homosexuality, as is well known, was invented as a concept in the 1800s, and the term was first used in a letter from the Hungarian writer Károly Mária Kertbeny (1824–1882) to the pioneering German gay activist Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895) in 1868. It was used publicly for the first time in a pamphlet published anonymously by Kertbeny the following year (Murat 2006, 133). The concept started dominating medical discourse in the early twentieth century, replacing the older concept of "sexual inversion," and the dichotomy between homo-and heterosexuality as the defining axis of human sexual behavior was established in sexology and psychiatry around 1900.1 [End Page 327]
However, the identity category "homosexual" did not gain a foothold in countries such as Norway and Sweden until the 1930s (cf. Jordåen 2010, 32; Björklund 2014, 19). The interwar years thus constitute a highly interesting time frame with respect to the discursive formation of homosexuality.
Male homosexual relations were legally prohibited in all the Scandinavian countries through much of the period until World War II.2 At the same time, the biopolitical...