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Michael McNamara: Into Something Rich and Strange
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"What the Punks Drink" – Heterosexual Men Feeling Gay

Ironically, the works that may most completely show Hemingway’s empathy for male homosexuals are two in which no male homosexuals appear – the short story "The Sea Change" and his novel The Garden of Eden. Both tell similar stories of a man’s response to his wife’s changing sexuality, and although they have different endings, each is an example of Hemingway’s sensitivity to homosexual issues.
"The Sea Change" opens after a wife has just confessed her lesbian relationship. The man has varying emotions during the conversation. He is angry – "I’ll kill her," he says of his wife’s female lover. He is also somewhat disgusted; when his wife tries to describe the sexual experience, he says he would rather not hear about it. Later, he calls the whole thing "Perversion." However, his strongest emotion is that of bitter sadness. He wishes she would have cheated on him with a man; at least he could have known how to feel about it all. He finally realizes, though, that he loves her and that she loves him, and sends her away to be with her lover, telling her to come back and tell him all about it later. After she leaves, he goes to the bar:

"‘I’m a different man, James,’ he said to the barman. ‘You see in me quite a different man.’

‘Yes, sir?’ said James.

‘Vice,’ said the brown young man, ‘is a very strange thing, James.’ He looked out the door. He saw her going down the street. As he looked in the glass, he saw he was really quite a different -looking man...

"You’re right there, sir," James said.

...The young man saw himself in the mirror behind the wall. "I said I was a different man, James, he said" (TSS, 401)

The man is upset when believes that he understands that his wife was not happy with him as a man. His sadness is caused as he calls his own masculinity and his wife’s feelings about it into question. In the end, although he really cannot understand what has happened, he knows that his wife’s choices were not caused by any sort of masculinity problem. The experience, nonetheless, has changed him. Comely and Scholes write, "The title of the story comes from Ariel’s speech in The Tempest about what happens to the bodies of drowned men, as every feature of their anatomies changes into ‘something rich and strange’" (88). Through his wife’s homosexual experience, the man is forced to think of himself in new gender and sexual roles. This initiation is what has changed him. In all reflective surfaces, he sees a new man. In an earlier manuscript of the story, at the end when he goes to the bar, the man asks James for "what the punks drink" (Comely and Scholes, 129). The man realizes that he is now like a homosexual man; no longer can he depend on the gender and sexual role the society has given to him because he was born as a man. He has to create new roles for himself. His wife has experienced a sea change, but he will now create something new, something rich and strange.

Similar occurrences happen in The Garden of Eden , though the end result is different. David and Catherine Bourne, a young newlywed couple are enjoying life in their simple Eden– eating, having "normal" (heterosexual, heteroerotic) sex, fishing, living the good life. However, things are complicated when Catherine starts to experiment with her own defined gender role both publicly by getting her hair cut short like a boy and privately during sex when their sexual roles start to undergo a metamorphosis. Instead of being strictly heteroerotic, their sexual acts take on characteristics of a male homoerotic experience as boy-Catherine penetrates David anally. This act of penetration changes their relationship forever and shakes David wholly because of how society has set up sexual roles. Frank Browning writes:

It hardly requires the learning of Freud or the bent of radical feminism to see that phallic penetration of women by men is inextricably linked to social positions of power and subordination... The point is simply that the act of being penetrated requires some release of power over the self. The penetration of the self... is, by almost any definition, an entry into the most private and sacred zones of individual identity. (86-7)

David, when put into this role, is forced to question not only his own masculine position but also his own sexuality:

But he was very worried now and he thought what will become of us if things have gone this wildly and this dangerously and this fast? What can there be that will not burn out in a fire that rages like that? We were happy and I am sure she was happy. But who ever knows? And who are you to judge and who participated and who accepted the change and lived it? If that is what she wants who are you not to wish her to have it? You’re lucky to have a wife like her and a sin is what you feel bad after and you don’t feel bad. (21)

Catherine’s own questioning of roles has forced David to question as well. He realizes, though, that there is nothing wrong with him, Catherine, or their actions. In fact, they help him; this thinking - his initiation into a new place - enables him to conquer his writer’s block. He lets down the societal-constructed walls between male and female, between heterosexuality and homosexuality. As their experimentation continues, they both engage in sexual acts with another woman, Marita. However, in the end, it all becomes too much for Catherine. She has a nervous breakdown. Her jealousy and insecurities force her, as David feared, to "burn out." Although she set the wheels in motion for the changes that took place, she has not fully thought about what she is doing. It was not enough for her to enter this world physically; she had to take her self there as well. Since she had not done this, she could not break down the walls that David did. When there is no rational system of division between male and female, when she is no longer able to say "You are my girl" or "I am your boy" because those terms seem to have little significance, she cannot deal with the situation. Catherine’s breakdown shows the difficulty of defining one’s self while still using society]s standard.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)In "The Sea Change" and The Garden of Eden, Hemingway shows that it is important for all people, whether society considers them male or female or homosexual or heterosexual, to define themselves in their own terms. David is only able to do this by ignoring what society has told him. Hemingway attempted to do this as well, but, like Catherine, could never get past what society told him. Hemingway empathized with homosexuals because, as the man’s comments to the barman in "The Sea Change" show, homosexuals had to get past society in these ways as well.

Re-Reading the Past

Once the fallacy of his cultural legacy is overcome, Hemingway’s empathy for homosexuals can be found. Although it is hidden behind attacks fueled by his own insecurities concerning his manhood, it is these same insecurities that create the empathy.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)As addressed earlier, in The Sun Also Rises, the homosexuals at the bal musette are ridiculed; however, thinking of Hemingway’s empathy and remembering that like the narrator in "Mother of a Queen," fictional Jake is doing the ridiculing, the scene creates a strong statement if one wonders why Jake reacts this way. Jake feels threatened by the homosexuals. His "own masculinity [is] momentarily consolidated by the policeman near the door of the bar, who in a gesture that bonds the two "real" men and marginalizes the homosexuals as ‘other,’ looks at Jake and smiles" (Elliott, 79); in this action, emasculated Jake turns the tables and emasculates these other men in an attempt to make himself feel better.
This comfort is only temporary, however, and the question still remains— why is he threatened? They are surely not interlopers on his feelings for Brett. It is in this, though, that the answer lies. Brett comments that while in the company of the homosexuals, she can drink safely with no fear that someone will try to take advantage of her sexually. She can feel this safely with Jake as well. Elliott writes:

Although [Jake’s] desire is "normal," his body prevents him from actualizing his "manhood." Jake’s inability to perform sexually corresponds to the homosexual’s inability to perform his "correct’ gender. Jake’s sexual inadequacy and the homosexual’s gender transgression are therefore conjoined: neither can properly signify "masculinity" (82)

Jake does not want to be so conjoined but his wounds have forced it to happen. He has been forced into the same position that the young man in "The Sea Change" is in, and it, too, has angered him. Elliott writes:

The source of his rage is in part his frustration at being unable to categorize the homosexual within the male/female binary. That these men represent and enact gender nonconformity violates the cultural boundaries established to demarcate appropriate social and sexual behavior. Any attempted remapping of these culturally agreed upon borders exposes the arbitrariness of their frontiers, which in turn calls for a rethinking of the ontological groundwork of sex/gender itself. At the same time, his anger is self-hatred displaced onto the homosexual, for Jake has lost (physically and psychological his signifying phallus. What’s more, the tolerance he knows he should have for the homosexuals may also be the same tolerance he hopes Brett will have for him and his sexual failing (83).

What offends Jake then is not the men’s homosexuality. It is their rejection of masculinity that he himself wants but cannot have. Their bodies enable them to do what he desires most; however, they choose not to do it. In this scene, Hemingway has not just created a character’s offensive defamation of homosexuality but instead has shown an inner struggle between society’s standards and a man who cannot, despite his desire to, uphold them.

Furthermore, the scene with Jake and Bill is more than just locker-room talk. Bill tells Jake that he could not tell him that he was such a good man if they had been in New York without being labeled a homosexual; however, here, away from America’s societal constraints, they are able to speak freely. They are both aware enough of their own sexuality that they do not fear a false labeling from the other. Most telling of all is Bill’s mock history of the Civil War; though a joke, it reveals the truths that "sex explains it all" and that homosexuality is "under the skin." Bill realizes, in his humor, that sex is a part of everything; this, of course, is a fact of which Jake is all too painfully aware. Jake is aware of the gender and sexual roles that he is expected to uphold and how although sex is a part of him "under his skin," he cannot express it externally. Therefore, in such a sexually centered society, Jake becomes, in many ways, only an observer to what is happening.

It is obvious that the cultural legacy Hemingway has been given is quite unfair. Kriegel writes that he wishes Hemingway would have paused before he pulled the trigger "to frame in a sentence what he had learned...a single sentence into which he might have put all that he knew about the ambiguities of manhood" (110). Hemingway did this, but not even he could be that terse. What Hemingway knew about manhood, sexuality, and the connection between the two, exists in many of his works if one is willing to look. Hemingway was empathetic to homosexuals because they were examining and questioning gender and sexual roles as he did. As critics continue to study American literature in terms of gender and sexuality, they should not banish Hemingway into the realm of the enemy and ignore what he has to say because of his cultural legacy. It would be best, instead, to listen.

 

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