[Camp] is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.
-Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964
The LGBT community has developed a reputation for exalting extravagant, “larger than life” personas as icons. Gay men in particular have been known to celebrate what Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay calls the “Camp sensibility.” As a recent Metropolitan Museum exhibit documented, this decadent flare for artifice and the “unnatural” can be traced back to Classical times. In Ancient Greece, homoeroticism was distinct from opposite-sex relationships. The inability of two people of the same sex to procreate, which according to Camille Paglia, is nature’s “single relentless rule,” were a means to to transgress the standards of normalcy. Paglia correlates gay men’s “rebellion against nature” with their distinct cultural sensibility. In a 1995 interview with Paglia, Bill Andriette commented,
“Culture, she says, is an achievement made more in opposition to nature than in concert with it…Paglia contends that men, lacking women’s awesome power to create life, are driven to create culture. Male homosexuality is emblematic of this whole turn toward culture.”
She continues in her book Vamps and Tramps, “Gay activism has been naive in its belligerent confidence that homophobia will eventually disappear with proper education of the benighted…no truly masculine father would ever welcome an feminine or artistic son at the start, since the son’s lack of virility not only threatens but liquidates that father’s identity, dissolving husband into wife. Later there may be public rituals of acceptance, but the damage will already have been done. Gay men are aliens, cursed and gifted, the shamans of our time.” Paglia hints at the distinct spiritual sensitivity of gay men, which can be channeled toward pagan decadence as much as toward austere sanctity.
Though Paglia celebrates the greater freedom that LGBT people have to live without fear of persecution, she laments the direction that gay activism went post-Stonewall Riots. Clamoring for acceptance of homosexuality as a neutral form of self-expression and authenticity covers over the true nature of, and true genius implicated in, the homoerotic inclination.
The recent fanfare over Pope Francis’ comments on civil unions reflects the extent to which many Catholics ignore the pre-Stonewall narrative. Surely we can applaud Francis as a champion of LGBT rights. But if we’re going to recognize any Pope as a “gay icon,” Benedict XVI would be much more fitting. Lambasted in the media for his “homophobia,” it’s Benedict who has a real Camp sensibility.
The title of homophobe was bestowed upon Benedict back in his days as Prefect of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, when in 1986 he released his infamous “Halloween Letter.” Homosexual sex is “intrinsically disordered,” he proclaims. “To chose someone of the same sex for one’s sexual activity,” he continues,
“is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator’s sexual design. Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.”
Without self-indulgence, there would be none of the cultural contributions which Paglia attributes to queer men’s “abnormal” sensibilities. Benedict’s assertion about the relationship between the homoerotic inclination and Natural Law maintains its cultural charge, as compared to the neutralizing effect of Francis’ language of acceptance and tolerance (although Francis does ultimately concur with Benedict’s conclusions about Natural Law and homosexuality).
Between Benedict’s flare for the gothic and grandiose, his appreciation for aesthetic beauty and the arts, his taste for extravagant liturgical vestments and pageantry, his reputation for “reading” people’s logical fallacies and being outspoken without much concern for social conventions…the combination of his Augustinian anthropology and Thomistic metaphysical realism which gave way to his keen awareness of the tension between the finite and infinite, the sacred and profane, the natural and artificial…he has much more in common with the many icons queer people have celebrated throughout history than does Francis.
His persona sheds light on why so many queer people have been drawn to Catholicism throughout the ages. Works by Fred Roden and Ellis Hanson document the explosion of queer converts to Catholicism in turn of the century England and France. Catholic theology maintains that there is indeed something distinct about homoerotic inclinations. And unlike Protestantism, Catholicism creates a space where the pagan can be integrated, and the unnatural can be sublimated–thus queerness doesn’t have to be erased, but rather is uplifted to higher heights. The Church’s esteem for ritual, pageantry, and aesthetic beauty…its intellectual peculiarity and celebration of paradox, hearkened to queer people in a similar way that Camp culture does.
In his book Decadence and Catholicism, Hanson writes about the numerous French and British decadent artists and writers (most of whom engaged in gay sex) who converted to Catholicism. For them, this conversion implied neither a total renunciation of their decadent sensibilities, nor a heterodox synthesis between decadent morality and Catholicism. Instead, their conversion mirrored the swinging of a pendulum from one extreme to another.
Take Oscar Wilde, the dandy who indulged in pederastic “Greek-style” boy love before converting on his deathbed. According to biographer Joseph Pearce, Wilde toyed with the possibility of becoming Catholic in his Oxford days. Pearce notes how Wilde was drawn less to the “modern” theological orientation of intellectuals like Cardinal Newman, and more to the ultramontane, traditionalist theology of Pope Pius IX and Cardinal Manning. Newman’s writing was too dull for the “tempestuous and sensation-seeking Wilde.” He was enthralled by the Christocentric theology of Thomas a Kempis, which “struck an aesthetic chord, accentuating and inflaming Wilde’s love for Christ.” Wilde was not interested in watered-down, easily digestible doctrine. He wanted extreme decadence or extreme holiness, worship of the beauty of the male body or of the body of God-made-man. The middle road was too bland for someone with such a refined aesthetic sensibility.
The Pope’s words when read in context represent his commitment to both the Church’s teachings and to pastorally accompanying people with SSA. His comments will likely help LGBT youth who have to deal with homophobia and play a role in decreasing violence toward people with SSA. All of this is surely commendable.
What I mean to call into question is the wholesale adoption of the post-Stonewall narrative of homosexuality within the Church. Appeals to tolerance and acceptance, let alone the attempt to domesticate homoerotic desire with such a socially acceptable invention like civil unions, would have come off as irrelevant and unappealing to many pre-Stonewall queers. To uphold the secular post-Stonewall narrative as normative par excellence is runs the risk of scourging the rich and complicated history of homosexuality that dates back to antiquity.
A small minority of LGBT folk, from Paglia and Milo Yiannopoulos to Quentin Crisp and Andrea Long Chu have expressed the extent to which the language of “acceptance” and “self-authenticity” have made “abnormal” expressions of sexuality less culturally powerful. Drag shows that are no longer extravaganzas of decadence and feats of artifice, but rather mere performances of self-expression and authenticity, are lackluster and unremarkable, to say the least.
While it’s worth pointing out that not all people with SSA identify with Camp culture or the decadent sensibility, the homoerotic inclination by its very nature resists bourgeois narratives of happiness that attempt to constrict human desire within the confines of “normalcy.” Whether it’s directed toward “unnatural” or supernatural ends, homoerotic desire points to that which lies beyond the boundaries of Nature.
Ultimately, can we really say that civil unions are that much more fabulous than metaphysical realism?