The Proust Project II

Edmund White asks, addressing Proust’s discourse on the nature of homosexuality in Sodom and Gomorrah, was he himself a self-hating homosexual as well as a Jewish anti-Semite?

He starts out with the most extreme (and the most offensive) theory: that male homosexuals are inverts, i.e., women disguised as men. This whole initial disquisition on homosexuality is triggered by Marcel’s realization that Charlus’s face in repose is that of a woman since “he was one.” This the theory of “the soul of a woman enclosed in the body of a man,” first worked out by the German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1868. (81)

Proust in this passage has already employed the pseudomedical term “invert”; now in elaborate and venomous and confusing sentences he invokes the judge as well as God and Christ (law and religion). But these invocations are embedded in a comparison of inverts to Jews, disobliging to both….Proust sets out to show the similarities between the self-hating homosexual and the anti-Semitic Jew. Just as the Jew who has converted to Christianity must deny his original faith before the bar of justice (the Inquisition), in the same way the male homosexual can enjoy the love of his parents and the camaraderie of his friends only by denying “his very life,” i.e., his real desires. (82)

In his vast novel, which he began only after his parents’ death, he devotes hundreds of pages to the theme of male homosexuality and even more to lesbianism. Just as Vintueil’s daughter and her girlfriend profane her father’s photograph, in the same way Proust in real life installed his parents’ furniture in a male brothel (and gave his father’s clothes to a servant). Was this frankness about the shocking subject of homosexuality in his novel, were these acts of profanation in real life Proust’s ways of avenging himself on parents to whom he could never reveal the truth about his sexual identity? Is he one of those “sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie even in the hour when they close her dying eyes”? Perhaps to divert attention from his own parti pris, Proust rendered loathsome most of the male homosexual characters in his book while carefully preserving the heterosexuality of Marcel; it was this grotesquerie that André Gide complained about to Proust himself. (83)

Proust’s apparent homophobia is matched by his apparent anti-Semitism. Proust may have made fun of the Bloch family by showing how venal and vulgar its members were, but he was also the man who stood by Dreyfus and who would ask his friends to curb anti-Semitic jibes in his presence, because his mother was Jewish. Homosexuals, however, are even more self-hating in Proust’s account. He says that whereas Jews in an extreme case (the Dreyfus Affair) will band together, homosexuals are so self-hating they will not close ranks around one of their pariahs (Oscar Wilde). If these parallels and contrasts that Proust establishes are negative, they conceal a hidden suggestion that homosexuality is not really a sickness after all but that inverts constitute something like a minority. (83)

Homosexuality is a rich, ambiguous subject for Proust to investigate precisely because it is as open to interpretation as love (or life) itself. (85)


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