Sunday, March 3, 2013

Samuel Steward, A Pornographic Montaigne

It's a truism that we live in a culture (Western culture? North American culture?) that's at once sex-phobic and sex-obsessed. This was illustrated for me recently when I successively read two biographies: Deborah Solomon's Utopia Parkway, about American artist Joseph Cornell; and Justin Spring's substantially subtitled Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade. Cornell and Steward have a couple of things in common at an initial glance: their dates (Cornell 1903-1972, Steward 1909-1993) overlapped to a great degree and they were both moving in avant-garde artistic circles and outre sexual circles during the 1930s-40s (Steward, already equating sex and literature as a young man, seduced the elderly Bosie Douglas and Andre Gide; he also befriended Stein and Toklas and had several sexual encounters with Thorton Wilder); and they were both reclusive, insular eccentrics with a mania for collecting, although Cornell collected materials on his fan-obsessions, some of which he used for his art, while Steward mainly collected gay erotica and materials related to tattooing, while also keeping a lifelong record of his sex life in the form of files, stats, photographs, and diaries, that he offered to Kinsey for examination and drew upon for his own pulp erotica.

The third thing they have in common is that they earn the disapproval of their biographers for their sex lives: Cornell because he didn't have enough sex, Steward because he had too much. To hear their biographers, Cornell and Steward lived tragic, lonely – and worse, ultimately pathetic – lives because they did not meet a nice woman or man and settle down for life. While Spring in particular is to be commended for bringing attention to a fascinating neglected figure, a writer-scholar-pornographer whose detailed records of and insightful reflections on his sexuality and sexual activity shed light not only on pre-Stonewall homosexuality in America but also on the intersection between sex and society in general, it almost seems as though both Cornell and Steward need biographers who rival them in unconventionality, and who might be able therefore to dig inside them a little further and help the reader understand what makes them tick – and do it wittily rather than hand-wringingly. I think, for example, of my friend Mark Simpson's excellent article on Steward's British contemporary Quentin Crisp, who was much less interested in sex than Steward but every bit as skeptical about relationships, and also ended up an isolated, untidy eccentric.

Due to his essential lack of sympathy with Steward combined with his need to make him into a sympathetic protagonist, at certain points Spring has no idea what to do with information about Steward. For example, while an air of disapproval of Steward's obsession with sex and lack of interest in relationships hovers around the biography, Spring remains neutral when Steward crosses moral lines than might give even a social libertarian pause, such as exchanging grades for sex with a student or having sex with the sexually and physically abusive uncle of a teenage hustler with whom Steward formed a long-term bond. In fact Spring relegates that latter entry in Steward's “Stud File” to a footnote and offers no psychological interpretation at all. Not only was Sam Steward not interested in loving, monogamous relationships (although he certainly had many emotional infatuations with men), of which any liberal now approves regardless of sexual orientation; and not only was he interested in BDSM practices, which are gaining acceptance when the parties are consenting adults; clearly, in his pursuit of a perverse sex life, Steward did not shy away from committing what he must have himself felt were ethical violations.

Ultimately Secret Historian, like Utopia Parkway, made for depressing reading, thanks in both cases to the biographers' perspective on their subjects. Here we have one man who was a pioneering, influential American avant-garde artist and, though not really famous even now, nevertheless a legend in his own time, and another who lived a positively fascinating life, exploring sexual psychology through self-examination like a pornographic Montaigne, as well as through observation of the underground world of hustlers and of the sexuality of working-class and criminal-class men. Yet Solomon insists on seeing Cornell as a failure at life because he was celibate, while Spring emphasizes Steward's literary failure – as though a life spent consciously pushing social and psychological boundaries in the interest of self-knowledge were somehow worth less than a respectable literary oeuvre.

I came away from Secret Historian with a picture of Steward as a deeply conflicted individual, who believed as a young man that he wanted love and to become a successful novelist and academic but acted in ways that directly contradicted these aims, putting all of his energy – his creative energy included – into sex. What Steward's career trajectory made me think about is how artificial “literary fiction” is, and not only now, when we know it as a distinct genre/marketing category. It has always been artificial, based on the genteel exclusion of certain subjects – not simply homosexual sex but sex in general. As ambitious as he may have been, Steward could not play that game, and so he ended up writing smart erotica, which is not of much interest to anyone – either literary or erotica readers. But perhaps Steward was such a perverse creature that he would have found a way to slip through the cracks of literary history no matter what. Readers of Secret Historian are only lucky that he was caught by the sieve of our present-day sociological interest in gay history. 

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