Physical Impairment as a Metaphor for Homoerotic Love


There are two classic examples in American literature of using physical impairment as a metaphor symbolizing homoerotic love: In Melville's Billy Budd, Billy suffers from a stutter; and in Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the symbolically named character Singer is a deaf mute, which symbolizes his homoerotic love for his friend Antonapoulos.

Physical disease, notably consumption (tuberculosis), is also a common trope for homosexuality in late 19th-century and early 20th-century European literature, e.g. Andre Gide's The Immoralist. On the surface the narrator is spitting up blood, but on the symbolic level he is discovering his inner homosexual identity. I have a lengthy analysis of this elsewhere on this website. Late 19th-/early 20th-century paintings often depict consumptive figures, often women, which is meant to suggest either "sin" or repressed (hetero)sexuality, so maybe it's not accurate to say it suggests homosexuality specifically. But the situation is complex: e.g. in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the central character's consumption represents his hopeless love for a woman who reminds him of a boy at school from whom he once borrowed a pencil – a catalytic event that no doubt possesses phallic symbolism. The beloved woman does not really possess an existence independent from the boy, for whom she is a substitute, or, more accurately, she is the container for repressed homosexual desire.

Some writers enjoy the paradox of this metaphor. In the first instance, physical impairment is the result of homosexual repression, i.e. it reflects the damage caused by distorting one's real nature. But in the second instance, physical impairment is the result of the "return of the repressed", i.e. the conventional/normative self is further damaged by the coming-to-the-surface of the alternative/deviant self. For example, Billy Budd's stutter gets worse as what he wants to say becomes more important, and something similar happens in McCullers' novel, which is unbearably poignant because of Singer's inability to speak the love that dare not speak its name. And in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice we can see that Aschenbach willingly succumbs to the plague (= Tadzio as Dionysus) and thereby kills himself, but in the closing scene he is transfigured by affirming his real self (= Tadzio as Apollo). Melville, McCullers and Gide develop their theme using obvious Christian symbols (e.g. crucifixion is followed by resurrection), and Mann uses obvious pagan symbols (descent into the underworld followed by rebirth).


I originally made these comments in a contribution to the discussion list Histsex: For historians of sexuality, on 28 August 2000. Copyright © 2000, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.


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