The Uncomplaining Homosexuals, by Diana Trilling

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The Uncomplaining Homosexuals


J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself[*] is the simplest, most directly personal report of what it is like to be a homosexual that, to my knowledge, has yet been published. This in itself makes it sufficiently noteworthy. But it also appears in the same year as Philip Roth’s spectacularly popular Portnoy’s Complaint, a collocation which, although fortuitous; adds enormously to its interest. I am not suggesting that the two books, or their authors, have much in common. On the contrary. Mr. Roth is American, Ackerley is English. Mr. Roth’s book is fiction, a work of the imagination; Ackerley’s is half-memoir, half a reconstruction of his father’s life. Mr. Roth is a young man, from whom we can expect other books; Ackerley is dead — he was born in 1896 and died in 1967; until this posthumous publication his reputation rested on four books, in particular on two small volumes regarded in his own country as minor classics but little known in America: Hindoo Holiday, first published in 1932, a journal of his visit to India as secretary-companion to a Maharajah, and My Dog Tulip, published in 1956, a remarkable account of his relations with a beloved Alsatian.

[*] Coward-McCann, $5.00.

The two books are also located worlds apart: Portnoy’s Complaint deals with lower middle-class Jewish-American life whereas My Father and Myself is about life in the English middle middle class. This makes for very different social idioms. Mr. Roth’s protagonist is the son of a hard-working but unsuccessful insurance salesman. Anxious, inept, his spirit the slave of his recalcitrant bowels, the senior Portnoy is the familiar Jewish father-failure — we made his acquaintance a long time ago in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing. It also happens that constipation is a worry in the Ackerley family, but with this coincidence all resemblance between the two households ends. Ackerley’s father is neither anxious nor inept nor a failure. By his own efforts he has become a wealthy fruit importer, enough established to send his son to a public school and Cambridge. On the surface he appears to have always led the conventional life of his class: it is only when the son comes to maturity that he discovers that his father was an active homosexual as a young man and, later, so urgent a heterosexual that he was not content to produce a single family, the one into which the writer was born, but simultaneously and secretly fathered a second of equal size. As to the two mothers, the difference is even more striking. Whereas Mrs. Portnoy is one of those Jewish mothers so dear to the mythic imagining of their sons, a woman of wild humors and pulverizing energies, all of them preternaturally concentrated on molding her male offspring to her image of a proper Jewish-American boy and man, Ackerley’s mother was once an aspiring actress who steadily retreats into isolated eccentricity; she is offstage throughout most of her son’s story.

But there are books that should be brought together exactly because of the divergence in their approach to a common subject matter. Both Mr. Roth’s book and Ackerley’s are sexual “confessions.” In both, sexual honesty is a first premise: presumably, if we are honest about our sexual selves, we cannot be false to any man or woman, and we are on the way to saying something useful about the general life of feeling, perhaps even about the general life of humankind. It turns out, however, that strangely different enterprises can proceed from the same premise. Portnoy, full of complaint because of his sexual fate, is bent on tracking down the source of his grievances. He needs a culprit and he finds it, or them. The “myself” of My Father and Myself has no complaint against anyone or anything. He is innocent of all impulse to place blame for his sexual situation — unlike Portnoy, who thinks his parents took the id out of Yid, it never occurs to Ackerley to accuse his parents of putting the oy in Goy. And following his example, neither finally does it occur to us, even though the force of contemporary culture presses us toward Mr. Roth’s “position.”

And a “position” the author of Portnoy’s Complaint is indeed fortifying: his book is farce with a thesis. The burden of Portnoy’s fiercely funny self-revelation is that all his sexual difficulties derive from the guilt imposed on him in his upbringing. It is guilt that made Portnoy the athletic and ingenious masturbator that Mr. Roth shows him to have been in his boyhood, and it is guilt that makes him impotent with all except Gentile girls when he comes to manhood — after various amorous misadventures among the Wasps, his author leads Portnoy to ritual slaughter in Israel. The prime purveyor of this guilt is, we see, his Jewish mother, who has ladled out injunction and precept, sometimes at the point of a knife, with every mouthful of nourishment she inflicts on her defenseless child — Portnoy’s father is indictable chiefly as an example of male capitulation to the Jewish female principle. The clue to Portnoy’s rage at the pass to which he has been brought lies in the word “imposed.” Just as we have no choice in the selection of our parents, just so, according to Mr. Roth, we have no choice but to receive the guiltiness they inculcate in us. Portnoy has no responsibility for being the person he is. He has simply, inevitably, incorporated all the inhibiting lessons taught him in his early years. How, as the product of this death-dealing instruction, Mr. Roth’s protagonist has achieved his sexual freedom at least with Gentile girls — and it is considerable: there are Gentile readers who might envy him — Mr. Roth doesn’t tell us. He also doesn’t explain where, other than from his training in guilt, Portnoy learned the contempt for his own sexual behavior which makes the basis for his condemnation of his parents.

Portnoy has brought his complaint to the psychoanalyst’s couch, and this would seem to imply that he and his author acknowledge the Freudian unconscious, hidden from the conscious intelligence and beyond its control. But no: it turns out that nothing, really, is hidden from Portnoy. His unconscious is not only wholly visible, it is also peculiarly sponge-like, rejecting nothing in the parental teachings. Too, Portnoy has himself apparently contributed nothing to his unconscious life in terms of interpretation or distortion of parental doctrine. His parents’ victim, he is also their total creation on all levels of his psychic being — except, of course, the level on which he assesses and protests his victimization. We do have this one immunity to the process of personal determinism: we have the freedom to be angry at what has been done to us.

In the view of Mr. Roth, guilt is only and always an alien substance in the human composition, introduced for the destruction of our joy and the perpetuation of old sorrows. And because guilt intervenes so grossly between us and our full individual humanity, it necessarily incapacitates us in our relations with other people, especially the relation between the sexes. And this is of course why the Jewish condition, so supremely guilt-laden, is now thought to offer literature its best material for describing the whole modern human condition — the alienated Jew is our most cogent instance of alienated modern man. From a view such as this, it is logical that Mr. Roth doesn’t permit Portnoy’s doctor to speak throughout Portnoy’s analytical sessions until the last sentence of the book when he says, “Now vee may perhaps to begin.” A conclusion like this can be read as a comic gag, compliments of Nichols and May, or, more generously, as preparation for the doctor’s assault on Portnoy’s self-deceptions. But the story is finished at this point. Since no version of Portnoy’s grievance other than his own will be put on the record, it is fair to understand the last words of Mr. Roth’s novel as the QED to the book’s hypothesis. If guilt is what makes us inhuman and there are no guilts hidden from Portnoy’s consciousness; if, too, Jews are so guilty a people, what else is there for Portnoy’s physician to say except that for Jews their beginnings lie in their end? By extension we can take Mr. Roth to be telling us that for all of us, Jew or Gentile, social creatures all and the victims of the grotesque idealisms and ambitions imposed upon us from one generation to the next, our beginnings lie in the end of society as it has established itself and its proscriptions, perhaps especially those that masquerade as benevolences.

In other words, Mr. Roth’s funny book is the latest offensive in our escalating literary-political war upon society. And intuitively it has been welcomed as such by most of its reviewers — the popular success of a work often depends as much on its latent as on its overt content. In fact, it is not too difficult to trace the connection between Portnoy’s Complaint and Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death of a few years ago, the investigation into Freudian theory which made our present culture’s most scholarly attack upon civilization as we know it in the Western tradition and as Freud gave it his tragic acceptance. It is a nice irony, however, that while Mr. Brown’s book ensues in a call to the Eden of the polymorphous perversity of infancy, Mr. Roth’s book, after a colorful tour of the perversities, ensues in what is actually a call to Mental Health: “mature” genital heterosexuality-cum-love. No one could have a more hierarchical, more socially sanctified system of sexual values than Portnoy. He knows just what kind of sex is wholesome and life-enhancing and what kind is debasing — there is the moment in his story when he wonders how, with his upbringing, he sank only to the low status of a compulsive masturbator and of someone able to perform only, alas, with Gentile girls and never took the next step downward, that of becoming a homosexual. But Mr. Brown is of course not Jewish and Mr. Roth is. Perhaps the unconscious — the Jewish unconscious, at any rate — is more pertinaciously puritan and more hidden from us than the author of Portnoy’s Complaint realizes.

This is all a far cry from Ackerley, the farthest possible. Ackerley’s book has no such fashionable anti-societal doctrine to impart; in fact, it has no doctrinal intention whatever. Yet it, too, is about sexual deviation, and of the sort which, for Portnoy, represents the lowest rung in the scale of our dehumanization. It is the underlying assumption of My Father and Myself, though never argued, that homosexuality is simply one form of sexual expression like another; and it is only if we ask the question, Then why was Ackerley impelled to tell us his story, that we confront the possibility that he was driven to counteract some old torment of personal or social disapprobation. When, as a boy, Ackerley masturbates, no doubt to the accompaniment of homosexual phantasies, or when, as a man, he devotes all his nonworking hours to the pursuit of male sexual partners, he never wonders how he was spared that final degradation, of becoming a heterosexual — he is a witty man but not funny.

There are men who want women, and men who want men: the variation between the two is no more remarkable than the variations among the many ways in which a person exercises this primary sexual choice. Ackerley himself happened to be the kind of homosexual who wanted young, clean, healthy boys as nearly normal — heterosexual, that is — as could be consistent with their responding to his desires; this requirement, difficult to meet except transitorily, made his life lonely, barren of satisfaction of his affectional nature. But what he is describing is a personal disposition, it doesn’t refer to a system of moral and social values. It is not at all of the same order of accommodation to a social norm as is involved, say, in homosexual writers translating their homosexual emotions into the emotions of heterosexual love — Ackerley sought a lasting relationship because he thought it would make him happier and not because it more closely conforms to the heterosexual ideal. Indeed, for Ackerley the social norm is scarcely worth mention. It was never an option for him, therefore it cannot operate as a standard.

Although in his own fashion Ackerley is no less accomplished a craftsman than Philip Roth, his manner is as self-effacing as Mr. Roth’s is showy. Of course Ackerley was already an established figure in England when the author of Portnoy’s Complaint first opened his eyes on our cosmic modern disorder — it was as far back as the mid-Thirties that he joined The Listener, the much-respected magazine of the BBC. And in part this age difference could account for his more “classical” style. But surely more important in the formation of Ackerley’s modest literary manner is the fact that his father was able to secure for him a social position sufficiently privileged to send him straight from his public school to an officership in the first world war — social advantage is implicit in Ackerley’s literary style as in his homosexual style. Where Mr. Roth, child of an indiscriminative mass society, achieves his effects by the broadest possible strokes, the author of My Father and Myself can afford to scorn effect. His is the well-heeled presumption of understatement. No matter how redundant and unchaste the activities on which he reports, Ackerley writes the quiet economical prose of his class and nation.

But between 1932, when Hindoo Holiday was first published, and the completion of My Father and Myself, the English middle middle class had lost its old moorings in inherited privilege. The authority once vested in Ackerley by his superior schooling was no longer to be taken for granted. Ackerley’s memoir shows little awareness of these altered social circumstances. A comparison of the first edition of Hindoo Holiday with the reissue in 1952 discloses several additions to the text after the passage of twenty years; these new sections are all of them explicitly homosexual — in 1932 the kiss between men could not be published, the request that a boy take off his clothes for the pleasure of another man must be deleted. And obviously it was the cultural change dramatized in this new permissiveness that finally made possible the memoir on which Ackerley had apparently been brooding for some time. But the permission to publish explicit sexual statements and descriptions seems to be the only cultural change that bears in upon Ackerley. If there was no boldness of action which was not allowed someone of his class when Ackerley was young, in his older years there is no literary fashion which can seduce him into betraying his ingrained standards of taste. The laws of good taste always demanded that a gentleman speak directly and straightforwardly, without ostentation, without squeamishness or gentility. For Ackerley, contemporary democratic England would seem simply to have caught up to his own privileged rearing. But more than an aesthetic was pre- pared by Ackerley’s social situation, his sense of personal responsibility as well. When My Father and Myself refuses, as it does, the whole idea of personal victimization at the hands of the family, or society — and this is where it most significantly differs from Mr. Roth’s sexual investigation — it is in line with England’s continuing resistance to the idea of personal determinism of any kind and, in particular, the Freudian determinism. It has been and continues to be the belief of the dominant English literary culture that as individuals we are alone responsible for ourselves. While Ackerley has the old-fashioned distaste of his class for raging at the world, and especially at one’s parents, because one’s life is unsatisfactory, he has the distaste of even his present-day countrymen for searching out personal causalities. He is thus as representative of England’s pre-Freudian literary culture as Mr. Roth is of post-Freudian American literary culture.

In America we now take what we want from Freud and go on from there. For reasons which perhaps have to do with the more structured character of British society and even with the persisting desire of the English to regard the organization of their society as if it were the natural given of life, in England Freud is neither a point of rest nor of departure. The human malaises which we in this country are so ready to ascribe to personal determination, to society working upon the individual through the institution of the family, the English ascribe to personal idiosyncrasy and the mysterious workings of free will — and they have a large tolerance of the idiosyncratic. Certainly Ackerley has the largest possible tolerance of his father’s refusal to marry Ackerley’s mother until the children of this household were quite grown, and of the secret division of his paternal offices between two sets of offspring. Although Ackerley Senior, both for good and for bad, was no common instance of British fatherhood, in the view of his son he is accepted for the quirky, decent mystifier he is. As to his mother, who gradually, quietly, moved toward madness all her life, Ackerley’s attitude is one of gentle remoteness. Her life is her own and if she needs her privacy he gives it to her, makes no claim for more love than she was able to give her family. That it is solely the father and not the mother who piqued his biographical curiosity, so that he undertook a research into only his past and shares this memoir with him, no doubt has a double explanation: it is a response not only to the greater drama of his father’s life but also to the fact that his father was once a homosexual like himself.

The possibility that his father’s homosexuality influenced his own is not explored by Ackerley. Ackerley merely gives us the story of his father’s young manhood: his enlistment in the Royal Horse Guards, his connection with various men of station and means, his introduction to the business which eventually made him rich. He draws no conclusions from the parallel between his father’s early sexual proclivities and his own or from the divergence in their later sexual development. More interesting: although his own sexual preference was absolute, so that he was never tempted to even an experimental moment with women, he registers no surprise that his father was bisexual even in his earlier days and later centered the whole of his abundant erotic energies on women. The simplicity with which Ackerley accepts this move from one sex to another, as if it were routine and expectable, is likely to be bewildering to American readers, accustomed to the idea that, once a homosexual, always a homosexual. But for an English audience it can have no such startling impact: as recently as four years ago an American boy in an English public school could engage his schoolmates in a discussion that would be inconceivable in a school in this country; to his question, itself impermissible among American schoolboys, “Are all of you queer?”, the answer was that yes, there were some who accepted this mild impeachment but that the others were being homosexual pro tem, until they moved out into the world and met girls. Legally, homosexuality in England may be considered inimical to the public interest but socially, or culturally, at least among the educated classes, it is regarded as a possible phase in growth and no deterrent to heterosexual adulthood. Certainly, even where it is a ruling sexual persuasion, it is considered entirely consonant with manliness and the proper discharge of the manly duties of citizenship — it is a fair guess that among the “so few” to whom England owed “so much” in the Battle of Britain there was a good component of men whose homosexuality would have excluded them from military service in our own country. And indeed the American visitor in England is bound to be struck by the non-prevalence of the manifest signs of homosexual effeminacy — high-pitched voice, giggling, camping — we are familiar with here.

Whether this social and psychological, tolerance of male homosexuality plays a part in England’s unreceptivity to Freudian theory, it is hard to say. But it seems reasonable to suppose that a culture which believes that a man is exercising a free choice when he engages in homosexuality, and even that he is free to change his sexual direction at will, is likely to be resistant to a deterministic doctrine as strict as Freud’s — in our country, too, there is surely a connection between our present increase in tolerance of homosexuality and the decrease in our submission to Freudian doctrine. There are of course Freudian psychoanalysts in England — Anna Freud, her father’s powerful successor, has her residence in London — but the Freudian authority has always been weaker in England than here and the teachings of Freud have never penetrated the general culture as they have ours. While it may be that the English Freudians still hold to the orthodox analytical assumption that any male (not female) who has actively engaged in homosexuality is effectually debarred from making a successful transfer to the opposite sex, this opinion has not made itself felt in England as in America. Without formulating any principle that the move from homosexuality to heterosexuality is feasible, the English simply act on the belief that it is feasible — with the result that it becomes feasible; at least, England seems to produce enough examples of an apparently successful changeover to challenge the Freudian assumption that the transfer cannot be made. We have no way of knowing how satisfactory the senior Ackerley’s “adjustment” to women was — but we also have no way of knowing whether he did any worse than men who have never indulged their homosexuality. What we do know from his son’s biography is that, not alone among Englishmen, he moved from his own to the opposite sex without — so far as we can see — any of the guilt which in our own country would be bound to trail any man who attempted to leave his homosexuality behind him.

The guiltlessness with which Ackerley reports his own homosexuality is thus a gift to him from a society whose cruel laws governing homosexual practices — and they were even crueler before the famous Wolfenden Report finally made its impress on the courts — constitute not only a peculiarly acute breach between culture and law but also a peculiarly ugly moral hypocrisy. But it is we who make this judgment, not Ackerley; the author of My Father and Myself no more calls his society to account than he does himself. Where the whole pedagogic point of Mr. Roth’s book lies in its insistence that our personal disorders are a consequence of our disordered civilization, the pedagogic point — and it is also its human point — of Ackerley’s book lies in its reminder that imperfect man makes for an imperfect world. In his actual conduct, Ackerley, like Portnoy, is of course a singularly free man, however conditioned we may take his sexual preferences to be. Both men go after what they want with some address and even with some degree of license. But unlike Portnoy, Ackerley is not concerned to deny that he has this freedom; nor does he call for a state of unconditioned bliss for all mankind. What his book is saying is that socially unconditioned man, if such a thing were imaginable, would still be man conditioned by his own human disposition, and prone to suffering.

And Ackerley’s life was, in fact, hell, such was the particular nature of his sexual needs. As far back as his school days, Ackerley was aware that it was boys, not girls, who excited him; but for some reason he was unable to avail himself of the sexual opportunities that were being offered him — this was probably an early announcement of the inhibition which in later life reappeared in the form of various disturbances to his full sexual enjoyment. Even as an officer in the first world war, he was sexually inactive; his induction into sex would seem to have waited until his Cambridge years and even then, instead of finding his partners in his own class, he had recourse to a London house of male prostitution. This choice of lovers outside his own social world was to be his continuing necessity — in India, it was the Maharajah’s own boys, his young servant-attendants, who attracted Ackerley; back in England again, it was among soldiers, sailors, the working class that he sought his partners. All his life he was in search of the Ideal Friend, the beautiful clean young boy on whom he could lavish his devotion, the innocent — as he thinks of it — partner of his dreams. He never found him. The search was a nightly compulsion, driving him into the London streets and bars, but he never satisfied the longing for a lasting relation, the longing to give love, requited in loyalty, affection, most of all in dependence, until at the age of fifty he got his dog Tulip and the quest ended. The indignities and dangers to which he so regularly submitted were undoubtedly as much a necessity in his life as the sating of his sexual desire. This hardly alters the fact of his frustration and suffering, It was more than helpful that he had money: Ackerley paid for the services rendered him. He records, as I recall, no instance in which his lover was as financially independent as himself — indeed, this too was apparently a requirement as important as the need for abasement, that the partner be someone in want of money. He played the paternal benefactor to his young men much as his own father played the benefactor to him; much, as well, as his father’s wealthy male friends had been his benefactors. Aware as he was of his good looks, this was not what he used in trade. Often his part- ners were bisexual, even married; once he was told that the money he paid for a boy’s services was to be used to underwrite the boy’s wedding. But the closer he got to “normal” sexuality, the better of course he liked the partnership — which is why he particularly favored the Guardsmen, members of his father’s old regiment. Young, handsomely uniformed, manly, always short of cash, and the company in which his father had deployed his homosexual resources, the Royal Horse Guard offered an attractive prospect. We can suppose that, all unconsciously, he was always looking to go to bed with his own father as a young man.

The fact that Ackerley Senior had by his own wits and charm been able to make the social leap from being among those who are used to having a son among those who do the using makes its own success story, of a specifically English variety — the author of My Father and Myself had much to appreciate in this self-made father who put him in the buying class. Still, his not-so-distant social origins may have colored his activities as a homosexual. Although literature and other social records provide us with some general notion of the sexual habits of the British working classes, it is only now, with books like Ackerley’s, that we can begin to learn the character of their private sexual behavior: the restrictiveness that went along with, perhaps still goes along with, their seeming laxity. Ackerley gives us a forthright report of his actual sexual practices with these lower-class men he went to so much trouble and expense to bring to his bed. In the main, the activity was limited to mutual masturbation, and this was not only because of his own disinclination for anal or oral intercourse but because of the almost universal reluctance of his partners to vary their exercise from this, the most permitted one, the one that can be thought least to commit a boy to the final homosexual choice, certainly the one that least outrages a conventional sense of the sexual decencies. On the single occasion, for example, when Ackerley thought he had at last found someone with whom he might establish a permanent relationship, the young sailor with whom he had set up house in Portsmouth disappeared forever after Ackerley had persuaded him to fellatio; and we have the feeling that the sailor’s disgust was met with a considerable sympathy on the part of his mentor, himself released to such “perversity” only by his love for the boy. We have not yet the evidence on which to conclude that Ackerley’s own prohibitions or those of his partners have their root in working-class morality, but it is clear enough that not only his own sexual freedom but that of his companions was streaked with puritanism. And surely it throws a new light on the relation between economic reality and sexual morality to discover, as we do from Ackerley’s book, that a class which can accommodate itself to male prostitution as a means of earning a bit of extra money will draw the line this firmly on what should or should not be done in bed.

Yet even when Ackerley speaks of his rare excursions into activities usually forbidden him, it is not guilt that he points to as a deterring factor but personal preference. Indeed guilt is not mentioned in this autobiography until its Appendix, where Ackerley at last deserts objective narration to comment, briefly, on the psychophysical difficulties that attended his lovemaking — it seems he was always liable to premature ejaculation and that in middle life he became entirely impotent, which was when he got his dog Tulip. Tulip was an Alsatian bitch and Ackerley loved her with a deep and lasting passion he had never managed with his human lovers; after he got Tulip he never sought another man. We leave it to the psychoanalysts to tell us why it was a female rather than a male animal that commanded Ackerley to this degree and why, other than because of her entire dependence on her master, Tulip was able to elicit and sustain a tenderness. Ackerley never directed to another person. Ackerley was himself never psychoanalyzed; in his Appendix he expresses regret for the fact that his knowledge of the psychoanalytical therapy for guilt came to him too labte for him to avail himself of it. But the guilt he speaks of is not the guilt of being a homosexual; he has no wish to be cured of that. What he is referring to is his perception that it must have been guilt that caused his insufficient self-control in lovemaking and his eventual impotence: of this he would have wished to be cured. The distinction strikes one as being clinicalIy sound: it may very well be that psychoanalysis, accepting his homosexuality, would have rid Ackerley of the hindrances to his sexual pleasure. It is also a usefuI distinction to apply in the case of Portnoy: had Portnoy accepted himself for the less than totally “normal” person of his imagination and not demanded that society be so perfect that all its children would also be perfect, probably his psychoanalyst would have spoken sooner and to plainer purpose.

The question is, then, which of these two sexual “confessions,” so radically different from each other, is closer to the truth of our human condition: Mr. Roth’s, which blames society for the fate we suffer as human individuals and, legitimately or not, invokes Freud on the side of his own grimly deterministic view of life, or Ackerley’s, which, in returning us to the working hypothesis of free will, suggests that society is no more than the context, the ambience, of personal misfortune. No doubt the answer is, neither: each aspires to truth, both are undertakings in honesty, neither finally attains to more than frankness. But on behalf of Ackerley’s old-fashioned nondeterministic view of life, it should at least be said that it proposes, as Mr. Roth’s more modern view does not, the not inconsiderable virtues of courage, kindliness, responsibility. Curiously, Ackerley’s homosexual memoir is the more masculine — if that word still has meaning — of the two books.

’s critical essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of magazines, among them The Nation, Partisan Review, Commentary, and, though not for many years, Harper’s. A volume of her writings, Clermont Papers, was brought out by Harcourt, Brace in 1964, and she has also edited a collection of D. H. Lawrence’s letters.

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