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Sartre and sexual choice. (Essay).

IN A PUBLICITY NOTICE for Jean Genet's Miracle de la Rose (1946), Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, "Proust presented homosexuality as a destiny, Genet vindicates it as a choice." Few words grate on contemporary gay nerves like the word "choice." The idea of homosexuality as a deliberately chosen path runs counter to the personal experiences of gays and lesbians. The very terms of Sartre's invidious comparison between Proust and Genet would seem to confirm the opinion of Iris Murdoch and many others that the range of human freedom in Sartre's philosophy is simply implausible. The above quote also raises the broader questions of whether Sartre or any other philosopher has anything to tell us about the etiology of homosexuality or the meaning of gay identity.

These two questions--on the origin of same-sex desire and on what it means to be gay--should be kept distinct but are, in fact, often confused. This confusion creates the atmosphere for the debate between the so-called "essentialists" and "constructionists." Against the widely held view of academicians that homosexuality is socially constructed, essentialists argue for the universality of homosexual activity and same-sex love by adducing examples across cultures and historical periods. If the constructionist points out that sexual practices and attitudes vary widely across cultures, the essentialist might reach further and make a case by citing studies which purport to show that homosexuality has a genetic origin.

The various theoretical currents known under the name of postmodernism have given essentialism a bad name, at ]east in the academy. But long before postmodernism was even baptized, Sartre had targeted essentialism as a philosophical error. Still, nothing in all of Sartre's writings can help us to evaluate studies in today's scientific journals. Neither Sartre nor any other philosopher has anything useful to tell us about the etiology of same-sex desire.

Constructionism is usually linked with the name of another prominent French intellectual of the last century, Michel Foucault. In its extreme version, social constructionism supposedly holds that before the word "homosexual" and its cognates in other languages were coined in the late 19th century, the homosexual person did not exist. There were only isolated acts of sodomy, broadly defined, but no individuals with a permanent preference for members of their own sex. The ethnographer Stephen O. Murray in his book Homosexualities (2000) refers sardonically to "the Foucaultian notion of acts without actors." This extreme version of the constructionist thesis is based on a very simplistic reading of Foucault (or on second-hand sources). But to correct this misreading of Foucault is not the aim of this essay. Though Sartre's name is not typically associated with social constructionism, the existential psychoanalysis that he elaborated in Being and Nothingness (1956) and other texts can help us to understand a mor e plausible version of the constructionist thesis, one which will redeem the seemingly obtuse quote from Sartre with which I began. More importantly, Sartre's philosophical vocabulary can help us to get beyond the contemporary essentialist-constructionist face-off.

Husserl's phenomenology, which greatly influenced Sartre, privileges metaphors of seeing and looking. The "gaze" is one of the key tropes in Sartre's existential psychoanalysis. The metaphor of the gaze has become so ubiquitous in contemporary queer theory (where it is sometimes spelled "gayze") that we tend to forget its earlier importance in Sartre's philosophy. In Sartre the gaze is the primary basis of our relation to the Other, but it reveals much more. How does a gay man or lesbian first experience his or her same-sex desire? Not as a decision or a choice certainly, but not through introspection either. It is not something nebulous within that initially reveals same-sex desire; it is the Other. More specifically it is our attraction to another person of the same sex whom we see as desirable or beautiful.

Eventually I may reflect on my attraction to another person or other persons of the same sex and come to the conclusion that I am gay. The true but trivial part of the constructionist thesis is that, in order to describe myself as "gay" or "homosexual," I have to have such a word in my lexicon. But even if my language lacks such a word, I might come to understand that I have a fixed preference for others of the same sex. Whatever the terms of my self-understanding, self-reflection at this stage does not require that I analyze my feelings of attraction or ponder the causes of my preference. Sartre is very critical of the underlying psychology in Proust's novels, which encourages readers to analyze, through introspection, their feelings of love, desire, or jealousy. As he puts it in one essay, "if I love a woman, it is because she is lovable."

This is an aspect of our relation to others that Sartre calls "transcendence." It is not to be confused with the Platonic idea of transcendence that one finds, for example, in The Symposium, where Socrates says that contemplative love for another can carry one beyond the sensible world and its mundane forms of beauty all the way to the Eternal. For Sartre, my transcendence of myself toward the other remains an event in the world. Nor does the gaze have to remain contemplative. I may come to see the other as to-be-discreetly-stared-at, but also as to-be-approached, to-be-flirted-with, to-be-touched, to-be-kissed, to-be-seduced, etc. (Transcendence in Sartre's sense is clearly not limited to feelings of attraction and love. I may equally find another person amusing or tedious or repulsive.)

There is, however, another aspect of our relation with others, which Sartre calls our being-for-others. This is an aspect of my being which is revealed when I catch others looking at me. Embarrassment is Sartre's example of a state that depends on my being-for-others. If I feel embarrassed, it is not just because I have done something foolish or vulgar, but because another person has seen me do something foolish or vulgar, and I know that the other person has seen me do something foolish and vulgar.

The simple declaration "I am gay," therefore, points to a necessary tension between my being-gay-for-myself and my being-gay-for-others. The tension between being-for-one's-self and being-for-others is a recurring theme in Sartre's novels and plays, where one finds many gay and lesbian characters. A more familiar and vivid illustration, however, is in the movie Trick by Jim Fall. In one of the film's most remarkable scenes, a young gay man named Gabriel is riding home on the subway. Another young man, the handsome and well-built Mark, enters the car, sits down on the bench across from Gabriel, and closes his eyes. While Mark is supposedly dozing, Gabriel's eyes run over his face and body, and the audience understands that he is sexually attracted to Mark. This is the moment of transcendence. Then Gabriel glances a few feet over and sees another passenger, a middle-aged woman, who is staring at him. The nature of Gabriel's interest in Mark is obvious to her too, and she has a look of disgust on her face. Withi n an instant Gabriel has gone from his desire for Mark to a disagreeable aspect of his being-gay-for-others.

Here the non-trivial part of the constructionist thesis kicks in. Our being-gay-for-others is inevitably socially constructed. Regardless of how others may react to an individual gay man or lesbian--whether with disgust, pity, tolerance, or delight-their attitudes are not purely spontaneous; they have a social history behind them. Histories of homosexuality are inevitably set against a background of socially constructed attitudes towards homosexuality. These attitudes, when run together, form what Nietzsche calls a "sign-chain": abomination--mortal sin--crime against nature--degenerate--perverse--virtually normal--queer. None of these terms designates a timeless "essence" of same-sex desire free of social context. Whatever its origin or origins, same-sex desire has no essence, except the tautological essence of being desire for members of one's own sex.

My being-gay-for-others and my being-gay-for-myself cannot be kept separated. No matter how Stoic my attitude, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to remain indifferent to others' attitudes. Social attitudes often infect the self-image of the gay or lesbian person, and those attitudes are most powerful, not when they are disclosed in abstract or general discourse, but when they are revealed by the gaze of a non-gay person toward the gay person. For it is the revealing gaze of the other that singles me out as perverted or pitiable. But Sartre is not content to describe a situation in which my being-for-myself is held hostage to my being-for-others. That is why he praises Genet for vindicating homosexuality as a choice. Sartre is not putting forward a cock-eyed theory of homosexuality. He celebrates Genet because, in his view, the famous bad boy of modem letters successfully revolts against the mawkish and familiar view that homosexuality is a tragic fate. Elsewhere he similarly praises another gay writ er, Andre Gide, who, despite his strong Protestant background, refused to consider himself as a "stray lamb."

Today the word "choice" has become anathema among GLBT people in the U.S. because it is generally used against us. This explains the interest some gay people have expressed over the last two decades in evidence for a genetic origin of homosexuality. Whether or not the evidence is conclusive, the attention of so many in the American GLBT community to genetic studies can hardly be attributed to disinterested curiosity. It is motivated by social attitudes, by our "being-gay-for-others."

Sartre's philosophy helps us to see not only that gay identity need not be a source of shame, but also that it does not require any scientific alibis. Even today, given what we know or think we know about the origins of homosexuality, it is not absurd to speak of homosexuality as a choice. Even the homosexual who attempts through therapy or other means to go straight has chosen his homosexuality: he has chosen it as a malediction or condition to be overcome, even if this choice is strongly influenced by social attitudes.

Vindicating homosexuality as a choice is obviously a different matter. That does not require that each of us must adopt Genet as a poster boy. It might mean saying with conviction, "Even if I could go straight, I would still be gay." But apart from that hypothetical statement, it also means that I choose a gay identity to the extent that I assume responsibility for what my desire for others of the same sex means for me.

Perry Moon is a member of the Modern Language faculty at Austin State University in Texas, where he teaches French.
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Title Annotation:Jean-Paul Sartre
Author:Moon, Perry
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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