The fruits of heresy
Lately I’ve been wondering how Queer Studies scholars feel about all the triumphalism over the gay marriage victories in the US and Europe. They are happy, I’m sure, but are they also a little worried about the future of their chosen field? Will students be as eager to get involved with Queer Studies once its activist energy dissipates? Will the scholarship now be forced to stand naked, deprived of its treasured cloak of the marginalized? Will queer culture remain interesting at all?
I recently stumbled across an Amazon listing for a book by Theodore Jennings, titled The Man Jesus Loved, which looks at the possibility that Jesus may have been involved in a homosexual relationship. (A clear and detailed critique of this line of argument by Robert Gagnon can be found here.) Jennings’ heretical reinterpretation of the Gospels is silly, but it points to an aspect of queer thinking and queer culture that has been overshadowed by queer activism and its recent successes. Although Jennings only seeks to alter our interpretation of one aspect of Jesus’ life (he leaves the rest of the Gospels untouched, or so I assume, because I admittedly haven’t bothered to find and read the book, given the offensiveness of its thesis), the queer Jesus he portrays is obviously not the Jesus that Christians know and love. He is an imposter, like the Jesus of the heretical writings of the Gnostics. Jennings’ attempted ‘queering’ of religion follows from the rarely-acknowledged truth that homosexuality itself is a cultural heresy, at least according to Hilaire Belloc’s definition of heresy: “Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein.” The queer heresy denies the universality of the male/female relationship within the orthodox understanding of sex, marriage and procreation that has dominated all of human history.
I do not mean to imply that because homosexuality is a heresy, homosexuals should be persecuted or forced to ‘convert.’ According to the Catholic Church, homosexual tendencies are not sinful, even if homosexual acts are. Furthermore, conversion must be a free act, so forced conversion is not conversion at all. Many of us are heretical in various ways, and our society, at least in theory, guarantees people the right to decide upon their own sexual path. I also do not mean to imply that the mainstreaming of homosexuality will, by itself, lead to the destruction of Western culture or any such hyperbole. Wanton destruction is not in the character of heresy. As Belloc explains, “The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain’.” A cultural heresy does not overthrow a cultural orthodoxy; rather, it warps, detunes, diverts, and casts new light and shadows. It adds unsettling sheens, slight distortions, subtle magnetisms and odd inflections. Such is the powerful allure of queer culture.
Much of what makes queer culture a potentially interesting object of scholarly analysis is its heretical character. Queer culture does not position itself as a radical social alternative; on the contrary, it often displays an almost fanatical attraction to orthodoxy. Consider Oscar Wilde’s fascination with the bourgeois culture he mocked, the novelist Ronald Firbank’s brand of flamboyantly queer Catholicism, or the filmmaker John Waters’ cozy relationship with the suburban America that he portrays in his films as a nightmare-world of upholstered filth. The jaundiced but often illuminating perspective on orthodoxy found in queer art offers paths of exploration for scholars–particularly those in literary studies, film studies, art history and related disciplines.
As Queer Studies becomes more focused on scholarship as political activism, it loses its appreciation of the qualitative aspects of the queer heresy. The relationship between the orthodox and the heretical is infinitely more rich and complex than the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, and many of the unique characteristics of queer culture are not simply the results of social marginalization. Queer parody (or ‘camp’) is not just a critique of ‘heteronormativity’ and ‘homophobia.’ It the expression of a heretical transformation of orthodoxy, the cultural fruits of which are unfortunately unanalyzable and unrecognizable for many scholars today, for the simple reason that it has become difficult to suggest that there could be anything unseemly, disordered or wrong about queer culture. Thanks to recent changes in the implicit definition of marriage in North America and Europe, the heresy has triumphed. For now, at least in mainstream discussion, the queer heresy will cast no dark shadows or noxious tints. Homosexuality is a protected subject of discussion, with social and financial pain awaiting those who dare to transgress. Thus, it has become almost worthless as an area of study, and that’s a shame.
Belloc, Hilaire. The Great Heresies. ewtn.com. First published 1938. http://www.ewtn.com/library/doctrine/heresy.htm