Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Two giants of gay scholarship

Two giants of gay scholarship, Louis Crompton and Simon Karlinsky, passed away last week in the Bay Area of California.

Louis Crompton died at age 84 in El Cerrito, California on July 11, 2009. Born in Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada, on April 5, 1925, he was the son of Clarence Crompton, Master Mariner, and Mabel Crompton. He graduated from the University of Toronto with an M.A. in mathematics in 1948, and from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in English in 1954. After teaching mathematics at the University of British Columbia and English at the University of Toronto, he joined the English department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1955, retiring in 1989.

Louis Crompton's work in the early days of the modern gay movement has been included in a soon-to-be released documentary film, Before Homosexuals, directed by John Scagliotti. Prior to his turn to gay studies, Crompton achieved an international reputation as a Bernard Shaw scholar. His book on Shaw's plays, Shaw the Dramatist, won the national Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism for 1969. In 1970 his pioneering interdisciplinary course in gay studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, reputedly the second in the nation, became an issue in that year's state elections; one legislator introduced a bill banning the teaching about homosexuality at any state college. The bill failed. Nonetheless, Professor Crompton concluded that it would be wise to cease giving the course. Undeterred, he decided to pursue scholarship in the field through articles and books.

In 1978 Crompton achieved a major “scoop” with his publication (in the Journal of Homosexuality) of Jeremy Bentham’s essay “Offenses against One’s Self: Pederasty,” which had languished since the British thinker first wrote it in 1785, Bentham also figures in his monograph Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-century England (1985).

In 1974 Crompton co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the Modern Language Association which attracted a large membership. In 1978 the Association began the Crompton-Noll award, administered through the gay and lesbian caucus of the MLA. The award pays tribute to Professors Crompton and Dolores Noll (the latter of Kent State University). I first met Lou through our common work in the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties, headed by Arthur C. Warner.

Homosexuality and Civilization (2003), his magnum opus, required 19 years in the writing, even more in the gestation. Working with the utmost patience through the records documenting same-sex love, Louis Crompton tackled the Herculean task of chronicling the history of homosexuality in Europe and parts of Asia from Homer to the eighteenth century. In a series of pithy accounts, the author detailed the "rich and terrible" stories of men and women who have been immortalized, celebrated, shunned or executed for the special attention they paid to members of their own sex. Two chapters on China and Japan are a welcome complement to the usual Eurocentric focus. In the context of world history, Crompton's comparative study reveals the anomaly of Judeo-Christian aversion to homosexuality.

Rejecting the social-construction approach that flourished under the aegis of Michel Foucault, Crompton went directly to the sources, showing how much could be accomplished by applying the well-established methodology of the historian. Defying the current fashion that holds that gay history began only about 1700--or even as late as 1869--this book triumphantly affirms the unity of gay history. Even in the West, which has seen a major affliction of antihomosexual sentiment, the pattern is one of affimation, retreat, and renewed affirmation.

Lou Crompton is survived by his husband of many years, Luis Diaz-Perdomo.

Simon Karlinsky died peacefully at home on July 5, 2009, at the age of 84. He is survived by his husband, Peter Carleton.

Simon was born in 1924 to a Russian-Jewish family living in Manchuria. He came to America when he was 14. His father, who was sympathetic to the Soviet Union, prudently decided not to return there. Simon and I sometimes compared notes about growing up in a far-Left family, finding our bearings to a saner view as young adults.

At first it seemed that Simon Karlinsky would make his mark as a composer. His “Five Piano Pieces” are still occasionally performed. But his superb language skills impelled him to become a professor of Russian philology, a topic he pursued in many years of teaching in the Department of Slavic Languages at the University of California, Berkeley.

Karlinsky’s masterpiece is his Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol of 1976. Through careful readings of the Ukrainian writer’s most famous works, Karlinsky argues that Gogol's homosexual orientation—which Gogol himself could not accept or forgive in himself—may provide the missing key to the riddle of Gogol's personality. This work is no simple excercise in “outing” but a subtle exploration of the possibility that sexual repression may be the key to understanding this tormented personality--a personality that is responsible for some of the most brilliant works of world literature.

In an announcement his Berkeley department acknowledged that it "is difficult to imagine the contemporary study of early Russian drama, Gogol, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Diaghilev, Russia's gay literature and culture, Stravinsky, Nabokov, Tsvetaeva, and the Russian emigration in general without Simon's pioneering efforts." I am proud to have published his article on Russia in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.

Louis Crompton and Simon Karlinsky were beacons of sanity against the backdrop of the painful birth of gay studies. Yet the exemplary work of Crompton and Karlinsky points up two problems--two categories of growing pains, as it were--that have afflicted the emerging field of gay studies.

Here is the first of these issues. Not unlike ethnic groups who have suffered discrimination, gay and lesbian people have sought to bolster their collective self-esteem by compiling lists of famous homosexuals from various walks of life. This approach has the drawback of focusing on the elite to the neglect of the life circumstances of most gay men and lesbians across the centuries. Still, the effort has undoubtedly led to an increase in knowledge.

A serious methodological difficulty, though, transpires from the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia List of such persons. “This is a referenced overview list of notable gay, lesbian or bisexual people, who have either been open about their sexuality of for which reliable sources exist. Famous people who are simply rumored to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, are not listed.”

This distinction--between the ascertained cases and those who are merely rumored to be such--is not easy to establish. The reason is that in the past, and even today, many individuals have judged it wise to remain in the closet. The protective gear they donned was intended to thwart hostile efforts at outing. Later, these disguises proved an obstacle to friendly efforts.

In some instances gay scholars have been unable to resist the temptation to "out" historic figures who in actuality cannot be outed because they were not gay in the first place. Consider the matter of President Abraham Lincoln, the subject of an ingenious monograph by my late friend Clarence Tripp. This book has been available for four years now. The overwhelming consensus among Lincoln scholars is that Tripp did not prove his case, and Lincoln was not gay. Still, the allegation is believed by many gay and lesbian people. Such shanghaiing creates a gulf between “straight” (i.e. majority) scholarship and gay scholarship, tending to discredit the latter.

The other problem is the way in which Queer Theory has elbowed its way to the forefront of our studies. Regarded by some as a branch of gender studies, Queer Theory became prominent in the early 1990s. Heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, this approach claims to be a kind of hermeneutics fostering “queer readings” of all sorts of texts.

The word queer is itself problematic because its advocates have not succeeded in divesting the word of its negative charge. The reference is also unclear. Are “queers” simply gay, lesbian, and bisexual people? Or does the term embrace all sorts of groups and individuals who have been regarded as eccentric and deviant?

To judge from the work produced so far, most contributions to Queer Theory have been rhetorical. The method permits its practitioners to dispense with empirical research, and simply reprocess their often rather banal ideas in an arcane jargon that gives the appearance, but not the reality of novelty.

Under attack by Larry Kramer and others, Queer Theory is now fading. Yet the damage that this fad has done will not soon disappear.

The only peers that come to mind of Louis Crompton and Simon Karlinsky are scholars in their sixties and seventies. To be sure, HIV/AIDS has taken its toll. But devastating in their own way are the two pseudo-sciences I have just discussed: indiscriminate outing of past figures, and the bluster of Queer Theory.

I have said enough about Crompton and Karlinsky to demonstrate the enduring value of their work. Something else must be added, something that at one time we took for granted, but can no longer. Both of these scholars were superbly r e l i a b l e. When they ascertained that something was a fact, they certified that it was. When doubt remained, they indicated that as well.

Let us hope that the passing of Crompton and Karlinsky does not signal a fatal decline of the integrity of gay scholarship. In fact I think that we can recover from the two blights I have mentioned. From time to time I will review works that show that their authors have successfully eluded the lure of shoddy methodology. Going against the current, a growing number of younger scholars have shown that it is possible to persevere, with solid results. These successes, still relatively uncommon, do not absolve those of us who are rightly critical from exposing the excesses of Queer Theory.



Blogger Stephen said...

I'd add that the two were friends. In retirement, Lou lived only a few miles from Simon north of Berkeley. I last saw Simon at a delayed 84th birthday party for Lou (and Lou a few hours before his death last Saturday).

Each of them had a devoted partner dealing with the medical travails of old age: Lou, Luis; Simon, Peter.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Homosexuality and Civilization (2003) is among the greatest works on homophilia (other than the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality) to appear in a century. These towering giants will be missed.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Allen Young said...

In the 1970s, when I was writing regularly for The Advocate, I wrote about the persecution by the Soviet government of Sergei Paradzhanov -- an accomplished film maker who was gay. His situation, especially the fact that he was persecuted for his sexxual orientation, was pretty much ignored by the maintstream press. At that time, Simon Karlinsky and I had some contact because he was very aware of Paradzhanov and his plight, and wrote more about it. Here's the Wikipedia entry for Paradzhanov.
. Sergei Parajanov (Armenian: Սարգիս Հովսեփի Փարաջանյանց, Sargis Hovsepi Parajanyants; Georgian: სერგეი (სერგო) ფარაჯანოვი; Russian: Сергей Иосифович Параджанов, Sergej Iosifovich Paradzhanov; also spelled Paradzhanov or Paradjanov) (January 9, 1924 – July 20, 1990) was a Soviet Armenian film director and artist.

His oeuvre is extremely poetic, artistic and visionary, but his mature work was antipathetic to official socialist realism; his disfavoured stance and his imprisonment for homosexuality gave the authorities sufficient reason to deny him permission to make films.

Although he started professionally in 1954, he later disowned all of his pre-1964 works as "garbage". After directing Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (usually renamed Wild Horses of Fire in foreign distribution) Parajanov had become something of an international celebrity and simultaneously a target of attacks from the system. Nearly all of his film projects and plans from 1965-1973 were banned, scrapped or closed by film administration, both local (in Kiev and Yerevan) and federal (Goskino), almost without discussion until he was finally arrested in late 1973 on trumped-up charges of rape, homosexuality and bribery. He was imprisoned until 1977, despite plethora of pleas for pardon from various artists internationally.

Even after release (he was yet to be arrested for the third and last time in 1982) he was persona non grata in Soviet cinema. It was not until around 1984, when the repressive political climate started to loosen, that he could resume his career. Still, it required the help of influential Georgian actor David (Dodo) Abashidze and other friends for his last feature films to be permitted.

His health seriously weakened from the four years in labor camps and nine months in Tbilisi prison he endured, Parajanov died of lung cancer in 1990, at the time when, after almost twenty years of almost complete suppression, his films were finally again allowed to be featured in foreign film festivals.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The gay community has worked very hard to ensure that they are able to take care of their own. There is certainly no shortage of LGBT Scholarships for LGBT Students to choose from. A brief search on the Internet will deliver numerous scholarship opportunities for LGBT students looking to better their educational journey. These departed fellows would be very pleased about this.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Stephanie Hopkins Hughes said...

In my work on the Shakespeare Authorship question, no book has been more important than Crompton's Byron and Greek Love, which I had read earlier during the years I was studying Byron, and which resolved most of my questions about Byron and why he left England. Most helpful was Crompton's inclusion of the material on Jeremy Bentham and the anti-gay hysteria that drove the English during the late 19th century.

Since this was the period when England "discovered" Shakespeare, the dampening effect of the "wrong pronoun" in the Sonnets, was, I believe, the determining factor that caused the Shakespeare scholars to stick so religiously to the phony biography handed down from 16th century. When you know nothing, you know nothing bad.

However disconcerting Queer Theory may have been to the cause of gay rights, for academics it opened the door to a side of literary history that had never been properly included, including, believe it or not, theater history. (Goodness, what a shock! To think that the world's greatest theatrical genius was bi-sexual!)

What we could use is a well-written and researched book on the existence and nature of the homosexual underground, which has had such an effect on society throughout time, particularly on preparing it for democracy. Brought together by their shared sexual orientation, lords fraternized with commoners in ways that were impossible in the straight world. If there is such a book I'd be grateful to know of it. If not, it's long overdue.

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