Michel Foucault:

The experience of heterosexuality, at least since the Middle Ages, has always consisted of two panels: On the one hand, the panel of courtship in which the man seduces the woman: and, on the other, the panel of the sexual act itself. Now the great heterosexual literature of the West has had to do essentially with the panel of amorous courtship, that is, above all, with tha which precedes the sexual act. All the work of intellectual and cultural refinement, all the aesthetic elaboration of the West, were aimed at courtship. This is the reason for the relative poverty of literary, cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the sexual act as such.

In contrast, the modern homosexual experience has no relation at all to courtship. This was not the case in ancient Greece however.  For the Greeks, courtship between men was more important than courtship between men and women (Think of Socrates and Alcibiades). But in Western Christian culture homosexuality was banished and therefore had to concentrate all its energy on the act of sex itself. Homosexuals were not allowed to elaborate a system of courtship because the cultural expression necessary for such an elaboration was denied them. The wink on the street, the split-second decision to get it on, the speed w ith which homosexual relations are consummated: all these are products of an interdiction. So when a homosecual culture and literature began to develip it was natural for it to focuse on the most ardent and heated aspect of homosexual relations.


I’m reminded of Cassanova’s famous expression that ‘the best moment of love is when one is climing the stairs’. One can hardly imagine a homosexual today making that remark.

Michel Foucault:

Exactly. Rather, he would say something like: ‘the best moment of love is when the lover leaves in a taxi’… It is when the act is over and the boy is gone that one begins to fream about the warmth of his body, the quality of his smile, the tone of his voice. This is why the great homosexual writers of our culture (Cocteau, Genet, Burroughs) can write so elegantly about the sexual act itself, because the homosexual imagination is for the most part concerned with reminiscing about the act rather than anticipating it. And, as I said earlier, this is all due to very concrete and practical considerations and says nothing about the intrinsic nature of homosexuality.

I have been reminded of this passage in one of my favourite interviews with Foucault, recently. I think it sheds some light on two questions I asked. The first was about why homo literature often seems so ‘romantic’ about homo-sex, when homosex in reality tends to be  so ‘unromantic’: pragmatic, casual, ‘un-emotional’. Foucault’s response might be that this is because homo writers always seem to be looking back wistfully on the sexual act. The way it was conceived tends/tended to be rushed, illicit, snatched in a stolen moment, rather than the result of an elaborate and often public courtship, as a heterosexual sexual act might be.

The other question I asked, that it reminds me of, I didn’t actually ask. I am asking it now.  This relates to your stories of being a ‘straight-chaser’, of those men for whom ‘it is my first time, mate. I’m nervous’ might be a common refrain. About the questions you may ask yourself about why you are so intrigued by their nervousness, even more than the actual act of sex with them. If it arrives. I wonder, if straight chasers are in some way chasing that ‘courtship’ that in modern times has been denied gay men (who have had to spend some of their time skulking in bushes, quite literally, in order to have sex with other men). The way that maybe more ‘traditional’ gay men might also be chasing  courtly love, by chasing the ‘rights’ and rituals of straight people, such as dating, engagement, marriage (divorce).

I feel more sympathetic to those ‘straight’ gays after hearing you and reading this interview with Foucault. Though not to the fundamentalist verve with which they pursue their aims, at the expense of those whose version of ‘romance’ is a little more dark and mysterious, dappled as it is with the shadows of illicit sex and unexplored sexualities amongst seemingly straight men.

Just as Genet and Baldwin created and reported on the  romance of the sexual act that is gone, the warmth of his body and the memory of his smile, maybe you and other homo-romantics are trying to reclaim a romance that has been denied you, the  traditionally hetero-romance of ‘will she won’t she?’ the waiting, the hope, and sometimes the bittersweet disappointment of coitus not achieved.

Maybe the internet adds to and also takes away from that romance. It tends to in most situations, be both a promise of, and a desultory ruiner of all hope of anything resembling poetics.

I wish he was here, still, to look upon this world with wonder and horror and annoyance and laughter.  I wish I didn’t have to be always looking back at the memory of the warmth of his words.

2nd Image: Still from Genet’s Chant d’amour

  1. It’s funny to think of men being banished and therefore having to get right down to it. Then there’s the straight woman and her book of rules that basically asks her to remain in an eternal state of courtship.

    • yes they are two rather weird extremes if you think about it. and then they are self-perpetuating…

      The woman with her book of rules becomes a ‘symbol’ of hetero-women’s sexuality that is hard to shake off. And the gay men in the public toilets and on the heaths become a symbol of homo-men’s sexuality that is also hard to shake off. And some of what we do/write/say/feel, is more about ‘shaking off’ those symbolic versions of ourselves than our actual selves.

      and that is my wanky essay for the day. (I hope the original one didn’t seem so wanky)

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