Anna M. Klobucka
(Paper presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, Chicago, 28 December 2007)
The title of this paper echoes, tongue in cheek, the titles or opening lines of a couple of recent interventions pertaining to the matter at hand—queering of the Portuguese literary-historical canon—which, regardless of their sui generis referential framing, are in my view symptomatically illustrative of the structures of power and meaning that have shaped this ongoing process. In June 2002, a new Portuguese book-review magazine called Os Meus Livros published in its inaugural issue a review by Vasco Graça Moura of a just-released debut novel Pode um desejo imenso by Frederico Lourenço, a classical scholar and professor at the University of Lisbon. The review’s title, featured also on the magazine’s cover and doubtlessly meant to attract attention of prospective buyers, was “Não, Camões não era gay—obviamente não era” and the author took just a few short paragraphs to make it clear to the reader that this emphatic negation was not of his own making but rather a near-verbatim reproduction of the words of Lourenço’s protagonist, Nuno Galvão, a Camões scholar and professor at the University of Lisbon, who explains to a friend the main thesis of his conference paper on homoerotic echoes in the poetry of Portugal’s national bard: “O que me interessou foi . . . ponderar as ilações susceptíveis de serem extraídas da apropriação, por parte de Camões, de micro-enunciados retirados da poética clássica . . . referentes ao amor homoerótico: ponderar as ilações, percebes? Não dizer que Camões era gay, que obviamente não era” (Lourenço 2006, 190). The latest occurrence of the denial of the poet’s hypothetical gayness to be cited here is the preamble of a paper delivered by Lourenço himself at a recent (June 2007) conference at Oxford University, a gloss on his literary experiment in “queering Camões”: “It seems best to begin by saying quite clearly that, no, I don’t think Luís de Camões was gay. Quite apart from the difficulty in ascribing any objective meaning in sixteenth-century Portugal to what we now call ‘being gay,’ not the slightest shred of evidence (biographical or otherwise) suggests in any way that Camões might have been less keen on the opposite sex than on his own” (Lourenço 2007, 1).
I find it instructive to zoom in on these, as Lourenço’s protagonist would say, “micro-enunciados” of literary and critical discourse that contribute to the gradual articulation, on the contemporary Portuguese cultural scene, of a queering reading horizon (which is what I would call, summarily and no doubt reductively, any perspective that actively questions automatic attribution of normative heterosexuality to literary texts and subjects), because they highlight an important difference between this particular epistemological shift and other kinds of revisionary rereadings of literary canons and individual works from perspectives previously marginalized or excluded by literary history, most prominently those fostered by feminist and postcolonial criticism. These latter rereadings have not generally been perceived as being first and foremost ad hominem or, for that matter, ad feminam, that is, interested in saying something dramatically different about the author rather than about the work (notwithstanding the occasional incidental fallout in the form of questions such as “was X racist?” or “was Y a sexist pig?”). By contrast, queering interpretations, at least in the Portuguese context, are nearly without exception taken to be “really” about the author’s own sexuality, as illustrated perhaps most prominently by the many defensive comments seeking to prop up Fernando Pessoa’s heterosexual credentials that can be found dispersed throughout the critical literature on the poet. To give an example involving a different author, at a recent conference I had the opportunity to hear a paper on the influence of Walt Whitman on the poetry of Eugénio de Andrade. This very brief presentation, which focused on the themes of cosmic oneness with the universe and valorization of the body, was described as a small slice of a larger project, which prompted me to ask the speaker (João de Mancelos) whether Whitman’s well-attested function as a powerful literary role model for poets of homoerotic desire throughout the world played any part in his large-scale reading of this intertextual engagement. The answer was yes, but what I especially want to evoke here is that Mancelos began to formulate it by saying “Yes, it is believed that Eugénio de Andrade was homosexual” (my translation). Neither the speaker nor, I would be willing to bet, anyone else in the room with us at that time perceived this initial reply as the non sequitur it clearly was, so deeply naturalized remains the notion of assimilating all non-heteronormative assessments of literary works to the performative speech act of outing their authors.
Another aspect of the emergent queering discourse in Portuguese literary and cultural criticism is an insistent and widespread, albeit not universally shared, concern with defining and classifying its putative objects of interest. Some of the responsibility for this must go to Eduardo Pitta’s groundbreaking 2003 essay Fractura: A condição homossexual na literatura portuguesa contemporânea, whose goals are described as follows in its cover blurb: “Existe literatura gay em Portugal? Literatura gay e literatura homossexual são uma e a mesma coisa? Quais os parâmetros pelos quais podemos avaliar se determinado escritor português é um autor gay? Na literatura portuguesa contemporânea, que obras são susceptíveis de leitura gay? E de leitura homossexual? Podemos lê-las em clave camp, ou queer? Foi para equacionar estas questões que Eduardo Pitta escreveu Fractura.” It is important to recognize, with Ana Cristina Santos, the affirmative value inherent in such “classificação estratégica, visando criar espaços de visibilidade e legitimidade num contexto de exclusão”; as she argues further, “Em contextos em que as sexualidades que escapam à normatividade heterossexual são remetidas para a invisibilidade e marginalidade (como nos meios ‘mainstream’ portugueses) torna-se necessário reinvestir e consolidar categorias que lutem contra essa invisibilidade” (quoted in Coutinho 11). At the same time, however, at least if the no less troubled history of the gradual infiltration of Portuguese literary and cultural studies by feminist perspectives is any indication, such privileging of ontological imperatives over epistemological opportunities may ultimately prove counterproductive. I’m alluding here to the fact that over the past two decades most discussions of literary production by women in Portugal have tended to feature the mindlessly reiterated, worn-out question “Haverá mesmo escrita feminina?” Just as this unanswerable inquiry has typically preempted, instead of promoting, any in-depth critical engagement with differentially gendered writing, it may well be the case that aprioristic fixation on the desire to describe and determine the true nature of “literatura gay” can contribute to hindering, rather than fostering, the empirical (albeit theoretically informed) practice of rereading the Portuguese literary canon from a non-heteronormative perspective. (Not to mention, let me add parenthetically, the questionable validity of such insistence in the context of what Daniel Halperin, glossing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s analysis in Epistemology of the Closet, calls “the irreducible definitional uncertainty about what homosexuality itself really is” ). When Pitta points to Mário de Sá-Carneiro’s A Confissão de Lúcio as the foundational text of the “contemporary Portuguese homosexual canon” (12), he notes that in 1914—the year after its publication—“it couldn’t be read as it should be” [não pôde ser lida como devia]. While conditions of possibility for queer readings of Sá-Carneiro’s novella certainly exist in the Portuguese twenty-first century, to date the only interpretations of A Confissão de Lúcio I’m aware of that place homosexuality at the center of the text’s narrative scenario were written by a US-based, non-Portuguese scholar and published in Brazil (Arenas 2002; 2005).
While Frederico Lourenço has not been immune to typological concerns—in his Oxford paper he muses “I’m always a little wary of describing Pode um desejo imenso novel as a ‘gay novel’―simply because it’s not sexy enough. It’s a novel about gay characters written by a gay author; but does that make it a ‘gay’ novel?” (6)—his literary work has traced multiple pathways of a literary-historical “queering” revisionism that neither depends on nor foregrounds the ontological preoccupations of some of his fellow travelers and critical observers. The case of Pode um desejo imenso is of course unique, in that the novel blends fictional narrative with a perfectly serious—although, as the author himself admits, not quite watertight (2006, 462-63)—literary-critical argument concerning mainly the intertextual correspondence between Camões’s Eclogue I (“Que grande variedade vão fazendo”) and two Virgilian sources: the episode of Euryalus and Nisus in the Aeneid and “the most famous homoerotic poem in Antiquity” (Lourenço 2007, 4), Virgil’s Eclogue II. Limitations of time will not allow me to reproduce this argument for you, much less summarize the extensive critique to which it is subjected in Graça Moura’s review, but in any case my focus here is less the precise content of Lourenço’s (or rather Nuno Galvão’s) revisionist hypothesis than the way in which the entire novel—including, but not limited to, the embedded conference paper—becomes an enactment of various related strategies of queer representation and tradition-building in the context of Portuguese culture and literary history.
The strategy of rereading—and, in doing so, becoming attentive to “further voices” (to cite the title of Oliver Lyne’s book Further Voices in Virgil’s Aeneid, an acknowledged inspiration for Nuno Galvão’s paper)—plays, of course, the most prominent role in Pode um desejo imenso and it is hardly limited to a single poem. This is how Galvão formulates his agenda for a comprehensive critical reassessment of Camões’s lyric poetry:
A Laura de Petrarca e o chavão do amor platónico por via ficiniana; a Vénus da sensualidade pagã: era apenas a essa dicotomia prosaica e enjoativamente repisada na bibliografia tanto salazarenta como pós-moderna que se reduzia aquilo a que Eduardo Lourenço chamou “o erotismo inquieto e ardente” da mais erótica, inquieta e ardente manifestação poética do Renascimento europeu: as Rimas de Camões? Resumia-se tudo a esse moteto medieval a duas vozes com o sujeito lírico—estilo Tannhäuser—lá no meio, dilacerado entre a castidade e o pecado? Não haveria outras vozes, further voices, mais romanas, mais polifonicamente maneiristas? (166)
Dispersed throughout the novel are several other hints at queering critical paths to follow, among them the mention of “amor nefando” in the Isle of Love episode of Os Lusíadas or the quotation of a homoerotic poem included in Garcia de Resende’s Cancioneiro Geral. But it is at the level of its fictional development that Pode um desejo imenso realizes another crucial strategy of queer representation, the interplay between a critical engagement with literary texts from the past and the coming-of-age of the novel’s protagonist as a gay man. Another sixteenth-century poem, “Elegia da Arrábida” by Frei Agostinho da Cruz, plays an instrumental role in this process, and in his Oxford paper Lourenço remarks on the fact that discussions of the novel have not generally given much attention to his “queerification” (5) of the elegy. I would venture that this is probably because the narrative argument in this case does not rely on the attribution of any discernibly homoerotic intentio auctoris or even intentio operis—to use Umberto Eco’s terms—to the poem itself, but merely on the projection upon it of a fully autonomous and willful intentio lectoris, the reader in question being the twenty-something Nuno Galvão and the epiphany brought on by the verse he singles out—“menos contradição, mais clara vista”—the realization “that henceforth being gay is going to be the defining characteristic of his existence” (Lourenço 2007, 6). In other words, this narrative move is in no way reducible to being read as posing the question “Was Frei Agostinho da Cruz gay?” and neither can it be said to ask whether “Elegia da Arrábida” is a homosexual poem. At the same time, it does stand in the novel as an example of a “queer fiction of the present”—to extend Scott Bravmann’s notion of “queer fictions of the past”—whose articulation depends, in however subjective terms, on an activist and denaturalizing reading of a historical text. The last strategic manoeuvre I want to mention before my time runs out is the recent republication of Pode um desejo imenso as a single three-part novel instead of the originally released trilogy of novellas (in fact, the abovementioned Arrábida episode belonged initially in O curso das estrelas, which traces Nuno Galvão’s early career as a young research assistant but was published as the second instalment in the series). Intentionally or not, due to this editorial choice various overlappings and continuities discernible in the narrative correlation between Nuno’s Bildung as a gay man and his activity as a reader and writer of literary and academic texts emerge much more clearly as the sustaining backbone of the work as a whole. In conclusion, by virtue of these and other aspects of the novel’s textual politics, which I’m unfortunately unable to describe more amply here, Pode um desejo imenso can be said to share with Pitta’s essay—notwithstanding its distinct (and self-consciously asserted) status as a work of fiction—the role of the pioneering contribution to the enterprise of queering rearticulation of the discourse of Portuguese literary criticism and literary history.
Arenas, Fernando. “A encruzilhada do desejo homoerótico na ficção de Mário de Sá-Carneiro.” A escrita de Adé: Perspectivas teóricas dos estudos gays e lésbicos no Brasil. Eds. Rick Santos e Wilton Garcia. São Paulo: Xamã; Nassau Community College/State University of New York, 2002.
—. “Onde Existir?: A (im)possibilidade excessiva do desejo homoerótico na ficção de Mário de Sá-Carneiro.” Metamorfoses 6 (2005), 159-68.
Bravmann, Scott. Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture and Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Coutinho, Isabel. “Diz-me com quem dormes e eu digo-te o que escreves?” Ípsilon (Público), 24 Agosto 2007, 4-11.
Halperin, Daniel M. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Lourenço, Frederico. Pode um desejo imenso. Lisboa: Cotovia, 2006.
—. “‘Queering’ Camões: a recent literary experiment.” Keynote address at Queer, Queerer, Queerest: Evolving Gender Identities in Portugal and Spain. Exeter College, Oxford University. 1-2 June 2007.
Moura, Vasco Graça. “Não, Camões não era gay—obviamente não era.” Os Meus Livros 1:1 (Junho 2002), 21-25.
Pitta, Eduardo. Fractura. A condição homossexual na literatura portuguesa contemporânea. Coimbra: Angelus Novus, 2003.