Bright Lights Film Journal

Contagious Homosexuality: Cruising and Sodom and Gomorrah

“In both Sodom and Gomorrah and Cruising, homosexuality – and its alternate currents – is caught with a glance.”

In the aftermath of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s passing, any consideration of her impact must, to paraphrase her own famous formulation, concomitantly think of homosexuality and the homosocial in the many valences of Western civilization and its arts. How such lofty considerations impact the cinema and, more specifically, William Friedkin’s oft-maligned cult classic Cruising (1980), hinge on how we think of the gay subject, the gay author, and the intent of homophobia. Can a gay author benignly be homophobic? Conversely, can the work of straight filmmakers be responsible depictions of homosexuality? And, intersectionally, is homosexuality contagious? And is belief in such contagion a homophobic discourse? Marcel, our name for the ostensible narrator of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, witnesses the Baron de Charlus engaged with Jupien in intercourse at the beginning of Sodom and Gomorrah. This yields infection: an obsessive interest in both male and female homosexuality, as demonstrated in the signage of cruising, and an increasing interest in the Sapphic Albertine (and her many affairs) that is less consistent with an ardent heterosexual suitor than with a narcissistic identification (across both gender and sexuality). This is infection consistent with Albertus Magnus’s theories on contagion, and his classifications that include homosexuality among diseases. Parallel to this, we have the film Cruising, where a young detective is assigned to immerse himself in a homosexual lifestyle (and as a leather bar frequenter) in order to catch a serial killer preying on that community. While cruising the leather bars, he becomes infected by the exposure – night-sweats lead to thinking in peculiar ways; normative, missionary-position sex with his girlfriend stops being satisfying; and, ultimately, a cat-and-mouse with the killer threatens to transform Steve into a killer himself. These responses to infection, by Marcel and Steve, are not acquiescent but defiant, where the resistance still yields an “unnatural” result (one that emanates from homosexuality, if not constructed as such via conventional means). Ultimately, it’s not the homosexuality that is contagious; it’s the gaze that contaminates. In both Sodom and Gomorrah and Cruising, homosexuality – and its alternate currents – are caught with a glance.

Academics and writers alike are in constant recursion – looking backward to discover new stories, forgotten talents, and undiscovered themes in even the most famous work. Harold Pinter, in his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, distilled the compulsions behind any search: “Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it, but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavor. The search is your task.”1 Following Pinter’s terms, to find any elusive object – truth, beauty, love, or lovers – is to indulge in compulsive gazing, hoping to find a like-minded response in the receptor. Lawrence Schehr has anatomized the early interactions between Marcel and the “sodomite” Charlus with attention to the links between writing and queer notions of cruising: “[T]he mark of the homosexual is that he too sees, that he too remarks the other, that he gazes as intently at his other, his vis-à-vis, in this case Marcel, as the observing writer-to-be gazes at his prey.”2 Certainly Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past can be read as a written photograph, flattening images and characters into captured prey, or snapshots.3 In a similar vein, the detective Steve Burns, immersing himself in a world of bondage clubs and S/M gear to track a gay serial killer in Cruising, is stalking prey – but in “cruising” subcultural leather bars for his killer, he becomes prey himself, in the mutual act of cruising that has long existed in urban centers. Mark W. Turner, in his analysis of urban cruising, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London, offers that “the cruiser’s intention is to find in the passing glances in the streets that person whose gaze returns and validates his own.”4 Cruising can be the tool to an answer – a like-minded traveler, a trick, a glimpse of unrivalled beauty – but it can also be the indication of a compulsion that dominates the watcher. This paper will consider the valences of cruising evident in Proust’s masterwork and Friedkin’s controversial cult film: the gaze of the writer, the hunt of the detective, the desires of the would-be lover; it will also examine the roles of contagion and infection in the assimilations of knowledge gained while watching the prey as well as the historical antecedents for considering homosexuality as both contagious and infectious.

In his recent reconsideration of the film (in honor of its belated release on DVD), Andrew Holleran distills Cruising as distinctly about leather bars: their “essence . . . was their glacial stillness; the endless attenuation of time that produced the old joke that S/M stands not for sadomasochism but stand and model.”5 A survey of today’s “leather bar scene” produces similarly glib reactions and droll jokes, but sometimes the sidewalk wiseacre is not as urbane as Holleran. A recent episode outside the Chelsea leather establishment Rawhide illustrates this: a couple with Midwestern accents and sartorially akin to Duane Hanson’s Tourists emerged from the bar with ashen looks, presumably a reaction to entering an establishment diametrically opposed in spirit from the sightseer nirvana that is watching an Emeril Live! taping at Chelsea Market. After a moment of standing, stunned, outside the bar, as if the rest of the bustling sidewalk shared their shock and dismay, the man cried out, with the overdetermination of a man doing drag as John Wayne, “Freaking faggots!” The wife, appropriately fearful for her man, was overheard to say, “Thank the Lord you didn’t catch anything in there.” While this anecdote is adorably fish-out-of-water and demonstrates an anachronistic homophobia, it also demonstrates a persistent conventional wisdom about illness, homosexuality, and contagion: any upstanding, God-fearing couple, just blocks from a Pottery Barn Home store or around the corner from a police station, can wander into a den of iniquity and pick up some plague. Susan Sontag has distilled this phenomenon in AIDS and Its Metaphors, demonstrating how illness is often used in the service of social judgment and partition.6 Such doctrine serves not only to morally legislate the character of entire strata of people, but also to assert a fundamentally religious set of assumptions: homosexuality is ungodly, and plagues will emerge from it. John Boswell has noted, “Patristic and medieval writers on the subject rarely speculated on the provenance of homosexual feelings. Most limited themselves to phenomenological observations or moral commentary. Albertus Magnus, however, considered homosexuality a contagious disease, especially common among the wealthy and difficult to cure. Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle’s opinion on passivity, regarded it as a genetic defect.”7 It is perhaps because of the scarcity of comment that Boswell notes that Magnus’s theories and hypotheses have been so important in both scientific and Christian doctrines.

Understanding the significance of Albertus Magnus and his religious-scientific inquiries is crucial to understanding the spread of “disease” in Sodom and Gomorrah and Cruising. In his introduction to the Magnus magnum opus, Man and the Beasts, Dr. James Scanlan documents the concomitantly invaluable Christian interpretations of Magnus and his accomplishments in the natural sciences: his systematic inventory of animals and the peculiarities of each species is given equal footing with the lionizing of Magnus’s partnership in Paris with Sir Thomas Aquinas that resulted in the latter’s still influential tracts, such as Summa Theologica (tracts that establish Thomistic natural laws that place homosexuality second on the list of mortal sins, just behind upset winner bestiality). Magnus’s text reveals not just a litany of explanations on the workings of animal bodies but also helpful justifications. We must refrain from too much copulation, for instance, because “it is possible for man to copulate so frequently that nature can no longer produce any semen and he discharges blood instead.”8 Additionally, if “he fails to exercise restraint over his body, he opens the door to rapid weakening and deterioration, especially through the imagination and passions which accelerate the process of bodily corruption.”9 Men’s bodies are governed by their morals: “In the animal kingdom, only man is able to discern the moral choice between good and evil. From this it follows that performing virtuous acts is the sole prerogative of man, whereas all brute animals seek only the useful and the pleasurable”10 If, as Schehr suggests, cruising is a vehicle toward annexing prey and indulging in “a focusing of desire,”11 then it is also in direct opposition to the moral governance that Magnus’s taxonomy makes clear is necessary to maintain healthy body and soul.

While Magnus also makes helpful suggestions on how to cure male homosexuals involving ground hyena hair smeared on the anus,12 it is in his descriptions of the three modes of contagion that he has most influenced popular conceptions of the acquisition of plagues. In describing stables of horses, he describes infection as being possible from simply biting (and/or exchanging saliva), or from being in a place formerly holding an infected horse, where the disease-free horse will “brush” against a post or object and “pick up the infection by direct contact with the corrupted discharge deposited on the object.” What Magnus notes as the third and principal form of contagion is also the most dangerous in its simplicity: environment. “The air in the stable becomes infected by the breath of the ailing horse; this, in turn, infects all the other occupants, since horses by nature are warm humid animals and such bodies are easily corrupted. Additional evidence of this mode of infection is provided by the necessity of isolating children, who also have a warm humid constitution, from persons suffering with an infection of the blood, lest they themselves contract the disease.”13

Just as our friends from the Rawhide encounter realized that they (in Magnus’s terms) were endangered by their sudden change of environment, so, too, does Marcel Proust, with his Catholic upbringing and identification, recognize the laws of infection in “warm animals” – or any animals indulging in concupiscent satiety. In the first three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, Proust, or Marcel, narrates with omniscient bravado, rarely daring the reader to question the veracity of events or the narrator’s perspective on the events he painstakingly recreates. With the episode that starts Sodom and Gomorrah, it is clearly the narrator/character, Marcel, who allows the reader access to his own gaze – demarcating not only his own creation of snapshots and word images, but the reciprocated looks, their demystifying meanings, and his own awareness of new dimensions of meaning available in looks and words (which he becomes increasingly observant of). Describing the encounter between the aristocrat Charlus and the tailor Jupien, Marcel notes: “But (no doubt because he thought such a scene such as this could not be prolonged indefinitely in this place, either for reasons that will be understood in due course, or else out of that sense of the brevity of all things which means that we want every blow to strike home, and makes of any love affair a most affecting spectacle), each time M. de Charlus looked at Jupien, he saw to it that the look was accompanied by a word or two, which made it infinitely unlike the looks normally directed at someone whom we know or do not know; he gazed at Jupien.”14 Erin Carlson has noted that, regarding Marcel’s first encounter with Charlus in an earlier volume, “the protagonist metaphorically describes him as a spy because of the way Charlus is looking at him, with a singular expression that Marcel cannot yet interpret as homoerotic desire.”15 But Marcel is beginning to register the revelations about Charlus in Sodom and Gomorrah, and to declare the fallibility of his own vision.16 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has shown that this recognition is not necessarily one of a racinated “like to like,” but rather what we could contemporarily call “gaydar.”17 Of course, the ultimate irony in these descriptions of eye-opening and reciprocated visions is that Marcel himself never observes the grunting encounter between the two men with his eyes, bearing witness in an elaborately described set piece of eavesdropping and guesswork. Elisabeth Ladenson has noted that “the move from the visual presentation of the seduction of Charlus and Jupien to the auditory presentation of their lovemaking may well have taken its motivation from the author’s desire to escape censorship: he could not have included a visually explicit description of penetrative sex between men.”18 While this is a plausible explanation of Proust’s publishing motivations, it also enhances an understanding of the traumatic effect of this episode on the narrator, Marcel. This snapshot – and the ensuing, painstaking descriptions of the players contained within it – is one Marcel would rather we believe he never “saw,” although we can reasonably presume otherwise. Moreover, he has witnessed the seduction scene prior to intercourse, replete with coquettish flirtation and intense gazing, which is what he goes on repeating as the act of “seeing” exchanges between homosexuals that we’ll see within further examination of the text. Observing the intercourse between Charlus and Jupien would place Marcel in physical proximity to the act, a proximity that, following Magnus’s third rule on contagion, would not only contaminate Marcel, but force a self-awareness of his contamination. That Marcel does not want to believe in his own contamination is evident in his stringent definitions of homosexuality that place himself in an overdetermined, squarely masculine heterosexuality by dint of his (self-defined) opposition to the femininity of the invert (we will discuss Marcel’s definitions and the work of trauma later).19 Following the notions of contagion that Magnus set down, Marcel’s proximity to the act, and original observation of the steps leading to the sexual consummation, has still infected him, no matter his bargaining with the process. His resistance will ultimately yield to an alternate output – a mutation of the male homosexuality he has witnessed and that has now infected him.

The concept of “cruising” has been explored largely in terms of male homosexuality in the last century, mainly as it applied in urban spaces. Mark Turner defines cruising as “the moment of visual exchange that occurs on the streets and in other places in the city, which constitutes an act of mutual recognition amid the otherwise alienating effects of the anonymous crowd. It is a practice that exploits the fluidity and multiplicity of the modern city to its advantage. But cruising is not transhistorical – it is circumscribed by any number of social determinants and cultural and social specificities. And cruising is always site-specific.”20 Ernest Havemann’s exposé “Homosexuality in America,” commissioned for Life magazine in 1964, includes expectedly hysterical definitions of gay subculture of the time, but also makes perceptive observations about the mechanics of cruising: “Some bars, like the Jumpin’ Frog, are ‘cruising’ (pickup) bars, filled with coatless young men in tight khaki pants. They spend the evening standing around (there are few seats in ‘cruising’ bars), drinking inexpensive beer and waiting. As each new customer walks into the dimly lit room he will lock eyes with a half dozen young men before reaching his place at the bar.”21 John Elari’s recent reminiscence, “Upper West Side Story,” describes the sexual possibilities of cruising in the 1970s (before the emergence of AIDS): “At first I ventured out onto the strip slowly, but before long I was following men into the Park at the West 72nd and 77th Street entrances – and even further into the section called the Ramble, a 36-acre, thickly wooded area just north of the Lake that had become as legendary for gay cruising as it had for bird-watching. Some came from afar, but most came from the Upper West Side – hundreds of gay men who could be found there on a hot and sultry summer’s night, silently and seductively moving in the shadows of bushes and trees.”22 Cruising reflects both the membership in a subculture and the recognition of a set of signs that constitutes pervasive sexual possibilities. Turner’s work traces the “observational gaze” of a man “under the influence of the “wild effects of the light” who desperately seeks to both be “in” and “of” the crowd in Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”23; the mechanics of the gaze require a distancing from the object of attention while simultaneously marking your inclusion in a subculture by participating in this reciprocal activity. Cruising in a crowd-setting – as Turner observes in Poe – can yield feverish responses, and this effect is certainly seen in the text of Cruising.

A film titled Cruising, about a gay subculture, is bound to be governed by a voyeuristic gaze, and the viewer complicitly participates along with the characters. The film begins with a disclaimer[Q: Rob: This was forced on Friedkin via Rechy and not his original intention, q.v.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruising_(film)does this undermine Villanch? GM] to the effect that S/M activities pictured are not representative of gay life – which the comic Bruce Vilanch has commented means “we know we’re in for some real sensationalism.”24 The film signals that our own gazing – however prurient our interests – is socially acceptable by following along two cops as they “watch” (using shot/countershot to demonstrate the reciprocal gaze) two transvestite hookers in the Meatpacking District. It is when the cops begin a forced sexual engagement with the hookers that the viewer detects the askew social contract in the film. Following exposition setting up the plot (detective Steve Burns’ undercover work to unmask the gay serial killer), we see the protagonist enter his first leather bar. Using a POV shot where the point-of-view is not that of the protagonist, but rather of all the other patrons focused on a perambulating Steve, we see the camera pan to the gazes of the bar’s patrons on him, but countershot. He is resistant to these gazes, and does not return any of the expressed and voluminous interest in his body. But the virus is beginning to take hold.

During a follow-up visit to the bar, Steve is followed by a persistent admirer. Rather than return his gaze (or indulge the pursuer’s fantasies), Steve is able to shake him by instead following a third man himself, taking on the role of the chaser/gazer. While the admiration Steve is showing is meant to be a simulacrum, it is nonetheless an indication that his subjectivity is changing. The fever of Steve’s contagion becomes evident in the celluloid. Steve accidentally walks in on “Cop Night” at his favorite leather bar, and panics over being seen there. Sneaking out, with sweat beading on his brow, he goes to a new club, where his fever becomes raging – shot/countershots of Steve watching blowjobs, jock straps, and leathery bondage and discipline scenes establish his growing infection. He appears dizzy with the new awareness coursing through him. Finally, a few minutes later, he succumbs to the contagious energy of disco music – sniffing poppers off a doused hankie, he dances with abandon, oblivious to the constant gazes on his fevered, glistening body. He allows himself to go home with a potential suspect and finds himself – before the police barge in, pre-climax – bound, on his stomach, in a jockstrap on the bed, while the suspect plans to use his body. As the fever and contagion have infused his subjectivity, so has it now affected how he is viewed in his normal milieu, the police station. The interrogation scene of Steve’s would-be lover is most famous for the unexplained moment when a jockstrapped black detective enters the scene, bitch-slaps Steve, and leaves. The absurdity of the moment is perhaps meant to destabilize the suspect, but it also serves to reify Steve’s own growing insecurity in the department. Multiple detectives crowd the room and gaze disapprovingly at both Steve and the suspect. While Steve is meant to perceive it is part of the play-acting (as is the slap), he still complains to the jock-strapped detective, “You hit me hard.”

In the early moments of the film, we witness a tender love scene between Steve and his girlfriend, Nancy. The banality of the missionary-style sex is bearable only if to compare with the later sexual escapades. Following his experiences in the leather bar, Steve is aggressive, sweaty, and violent with Nancy (which she registers with a perplexed look). Since he is undercover, Steve cannot explain to Nancy about the circumstances that are changing him – and she looks suitably confused. By the 65-minute mark, the attempt at sexual intercourse renders Steve impotent and defensive, leaving Nancy to whimper, “Is it me?” Steve’s growing awareness of the changes in him (climaxing, so to speak, in his non-performance with Nancy) results in his demand to be reassigned: “What I am doing is affecting me!” he declares.

His request denied, a deus ex machina moves the plot along and into a new phase of Steve’s infection, when the contagion converts him into something less heteronormative than he had been. A random scan of Columbia students turns up a dossier on a suspect (who will be revealed to be the killer, Stuart Richards). The film then shows us the extent of Stuart’s derangement – believing himself to be in communication with his father, doing the world favors by eliminating impurities. While searching Stuart’s room, Steve sees a handwritten note on the wall referencing Augustine’s The City of God – a 5th-century Latin text in which the titular locale is populated by people who’ve forsaken earthly pleasures and dedicated themselves to a morally virtuous lifestyle. Steve’s identification with the killer takes on many guises here – he reads his letters to his father (filled with religious manias and deranged pronouncements), he follows him around, he tries on his clothes. Slowly Stuart begins to realize he is being gazed at and, in the famed Ramble of Central Park, they meet and begin a sexual dance in which each man demands yielding from the other. This dance is one of death – as Stuart goes to stab Steve (not at all following the ritualistic fashion of some prior killings), Steve kills him first. The detective catches his killer, and all ought to be set for a traditional happy ending . . . except for the final, ambiguous shots.

Steve’s sweet, effeminate neighbor/friend from his undercover days is found brutally murdered. Maybe his abusive boyfriend did it . . . or maybe not. The film is intentionally ambiguous about whether these are actually unsolved murders (a notion Friedkin suggests in the 2007 documentary The Making of Cruising, included on the DVD release). While Steve shaves, Nancy (still waiting to hear all about Steve’s experiences) finds his leather coat and Wayfarer sunglasses. As she tries them on, we can no longer see her gaze as she disappears behind the leather “uniform” of the scene Steve is presumably leaving behind. Is Nancy contagious? Can this form of infection be gendered? Schehr has noted on Proust that “[Marcel’s] grandmother’s point of view on sexuality and gender is essentialist. For her, Charlus thinks like a man and has feminine qualities. But since the unthinkable is precisely that, the position of essential masculinity has undergone a transfer of qualities. Thus Marcel and his grandmother agree that there has been a transfer of feminine qualities to Charlus from some woman.”25 Presumably, this is a fluid exchange, and thus, following Schehr’s notion, Nancy could acquire the hypermaculinized traits of the leather community that have been imparted to Steve.26 These gendered questions parallel concerns raised by Sedgwick in her analysis of Albertine and Marcel’s complicated desires: “If Albertine and the narrator are of the same gender, should the supposed outside loves of Albertine, which the narrator obsessively imagines as imaginatively inaccessible to himself, then, maintaining the female gender of their love object, be transposed in orientation into heterosexual desires? Or, maintaining the transgressive same-sex orientation, would they have to change the gender of their love-object and be transposed into male homosexual desires? Or, in a homosexual framework, would the heterosexual orientation after all be the more transgressive?”27 In a film filled with looks and desires both fulfilled and unreciprocated, the ending shows Steve staring into a mirror, looking intently at himself, and then at the audience, while Nancy is putting on sunglasses that will prevent us from receiving her gaze when she looks straight at us. Is she indicting our gaze, or perhaps letting us know that she has also been infected by this exposure to an unclean environment? The film can seem silly today,28 but that should not mitigate an understanding of the hysteria that can accompany the threat of disease and infection. As we saw during the first years of the AIDS pandemic (which follow Cruising‘s 1980 release), fear arose from any contact with patients who’d contracted the disease. Bodies were covered to prevent infection; special wards were designated to separate those carrying the illness; sympathies were extended to people who’d “innocently” come in contact with an AIDS carrier (actresses were particularly worthy of our concern if they’d known celebrities like Rock Hudson). The final shot of “innocent” Nancy clad in leather gear is meant to horrify its audience, even as it also carries a campy resonance today.29

A shared characteristic of Steve and Marcel is their repeated participation in the mechanics of cruising – both the giving and receiving of the gaze, and the awareness and documentation that such gazes exist between others. Such repetitious behaviors can be characterized using Silvan Tomkins’s notions of script theory – specifically, in these cases, addictive scripts. Tomkins considers addictive scripts to be a version of a “sedative power script,” in which the sedative becomes an exaggerated necessity for continued well-being – such as cigarettes for those addicted, or money for a miser. The significant note Tomkins makes relative to these situations we’ve been examining correlates to the intensity and paranoia inherent in such scripts: “The addictive script resembles the nuclear script in its magnification of vigilance and monitoring and in the radical increase in negative affect whenever the bad scene is re-experienced. The difference is that there is a specific scene or response which is a certain antidote for this poison. The cigarette delivers what it promises, at least for a while. The nuclear panic has no such quick fix.”30 Steve and Marcel both continue their magnified “monitoring” and both suffer – Steve with the feverish loss of his identity and Marcel through his obsessions with Charlus and Albertine. For Steve, the stated antidote would logically have been the capture of the (his) killer, which conceivably could break him from his addictive script. For Marcel, it would be to achieve a reciprocated, heterosexual love with Albertine. In Cruising it is unclear whether Steve will ever break free of the infection and the addictive script acquired in pursuit of a killer; indeed, the compulsions of the detective entwined with the corruption inherent in exposure to homosexuals seem to have created an impotent man whose reinvigorated sexuality may have come through the emergence of a potential killer within (as well as a corrupter of innocent girlfriends). Steve can never regain the ordinariness of his previous life; whether he is to become a practicing homosexual or leather daddy is up for debate (as is much in the ending of Cruising), but that his experiences and exposure to the sign/language of cruising have mutated the practices of his sexuality is clear.31

Lawrence Schehr has dexterously written about perceptions around Marcel’s sexuality – he perceives that he cannot be gay, cannot be perceived as gay, and must remain steadfast in his heterosexuality (even if heterosexuality does not yet exist), while Charlus perceives a gay man in the making. It is emanating from these perceptions that the events to come will emerge. Through many hard looks and penetrating glances, Marcel’s attention focuses and wavers, constantly in flux as it tries not only to make sense of the signs he becomes aware of but also to remain immune to the potential change in perceptions of him and by him. Schehr notes, “For what is gaydar exactly in this sense? Double, with two sensations that we have not distinguished. One, the belief that the one recognizes the other as another homosexual. It is a recognition of sexuality without necessarily a conscious engagement of sexuality as an object. Two, the recognition of the other as potential sex object, regardless of whether he is gay or not.”32 Marcel’s participation in these cruising encounters is predicated delicately on time- and site-specific comprehension of what is homosexuality, and how it effects change in his own persona. The concept of homosexuality as a race is one Marcel takes great pains to delineate in the aftermath of his witnessing of the Charlus/Jupien interlude. Whether Marcel is even aware of the notion of heterosexuality is, as Schehr suggests, less important than understanding his need to define himself in opposition to what he has witnessed. Charlus “belonged to that race of beings, less contradictory than they appear to be, whose ideal is virile, precisely because their temperament is feminine, and who are in life like other men in appearance only.”33 Later Marcel defines Jupien by declaring that “[t]he young man whom we have just tried to depict was so obviously a woman, that the women who looked longingly at him were doomed . . . The deception is the same, the invert knows it even, he can guess at the disillusionment the woman will experience once the travesty is removed, and senses how rich a source of poetic fancy it is, this mistake over gender.”34 The rhetorical move of Marcel, the narrator, becoming less omniscient in Sodom and Gomorrah allows Proust, the author, the opportunity to work through Marcel’s shock via narrative flourishes of defining the differences that beset Charlus and Jupien (and implicitly identify him in opposition). Christopher Bollas has shown us that “the ‘work’ of trauma will be to collect disturbing experiences into the network of a traumatic experience (now a memory and unconscious idea) while the play work of genera will be to collect units of received experience that interanimate toward a new way of perceiving things.”35 Marcel is simultaneously collecting his trauma into a network of memories while narrativizing the moments into what T.S. Eliot termed “dark embryos” of creativity borne of traumatic origin, but the resulting text resists a therapeutic effect on its creator. Eve Sedgwick has shown that “[s]eemingly, Charlus’s closet is specularized so that the erotics around Albertine (which is to say, around the narrator) may continue to resist visualization; it is from the inchoate space that will include Albertine, and to guarantee its privileged exemption from sight, that the narrator stages the presentation of Charlus.”36

In the aftermath of witnessing Charlus and Jupien’s encounter, Marcel testifies to his new powers of sight – his skills at defining male homosexuals (“inverts”) and spotting the cruising that Charlus was so adept at.37 Concomitantly, his passion for Albertine rises; in her absence, he declares to us that “one part of me, which the other part was seeking to rejoin, was in Albertine. She had to come, but I did not tell her so at first; since we had made contact, I told myself I could always force her, at the last minute, either to come to me, or to let me hurry round to her.”38 Alas, Albertine resides in that “inchoate space” with Charlus, in a Gomorrah that he becomes transfixed with observing with the same acuity with which he watches Charlus’s cruising. Carlson, in an essay concerned with the entwinement of Judaism and homosexuality in the treatment of nationality and treason in the book, states plaintively: “[T]he most persistent characterization of homosexuality in Proust [is] the identification of homosexuals as a race. Both male homosexuals and lesbians constitute foreign races with their own distinct national languages, cultures, and sign systems. The nation of Gomorrah is in fact so essentially, ontologically foreign that Marcel never does learn to speak the language; lesbians are not so much another nation as a different species altogether.”39 While Marcel endeavors to read the signs between ladies as corollary to those he sees among the inverts, his attempts to read them as such reek of projective identification: he seeks to rid his infection by projecting his obsessive, script-driven observations of cruising onto the women, and seeking to identify with the softer, more emotion-driven looks he perceives in these women.40 Ladenson sees the breach as emanating from Marcel’s misapprehensions about the women he observes: “Logically, women cannot follow the book’s rules of inversion because they would not then present a mystery; this too being a necessary component of Proustian love, of which jealousy is both a precondition and entailment . . . Gomorrhean desire operates instead on a narcissistic principle of sameness, and represents for Proust, who depicted inversion as the essential form of male same-sex desire, a fantasy of true, reciprocal homosexuality.”41 Ladenson continues to make a distinction in the cruising – that there is an inherent exhibitionism in Gomorrhean desire that is diametrically opposed to the furtive cruising of Charlus, yet is consistently conflated by Marcel.42 Sedgwick observes that “while the Charlus who loves men is typical of ‘the invert’ as a species, the Albertine who loves women seems scarcely to come under a particular taxonomic heading on that account; it is as if the two successive stages of homosexual definition, the premedicalization one of same-sex and the postmedicalization one of homosexual types, coexisted in Albertine and Charlus as an anachronistic mutual blindness”43 Marcel’s desire for Albertine – far from an overdetermined, heteronormative performance – becomes for him a narcissistic identification; watching the cruising that the Charlus/Jupien encounter has spurred transfers into an obsessive script of watching both worlds: the Sodomite world that he defines himself in opposition to, and the Gomorrhean one that he wishes to be consonant in as half of Albertine, the radiant lighthouse at the center of that world. Marcel’s narrative – productive, therapeutic genera – also shows self-awareness at his addictive behaviors, and how he transfers them onto Albertine as both cause and cure of his blues, rather than admit to the infection from the witnessing of the Charlus/Jupien interlude: “And besides, however multiple the person that we love may be, they may in any case present two essential personalities to us, according to whether they appear as outs or as turning their desires elsewhere than towards us. The first of these personalities possesses the peculiar power which prevents us from believing in the reality of the second, the specific secret for allaying the suffering that the latter has caused. The loved one is by turns the sickness and the remedy that suspends and aggravates the sickness.”44 In a coda explaining the title of her incisive work, Proust’s Lesbianism, Ladenson analyzes that while Proust and his narrator Marcel are both fascinated by male homosexuality (even while Proust was rather openly homosexual in contrast to Marcel’s overperformed heterosexuality), Marcel’s consuming interest in lesbianism has no “counterpart” in the life of the author. She suggests then “that Gomorrah be read as the signpost of fictionality in the Recherche.45 Marcel, once Albertine is lost to him permanently, declares, “What a deceitful sense sight is!”46 The deceits contained by the bounty of signs he surreptitiously witnesses are not a question of seeing fictions, but rather of generating ambiguous, imprecise interpretations of scenes he neither has the vocabulary nor the subjectivity to properly digest. Sedgwick and Ladenson’s suggestions of anachronism and fictionality in the processing of Albertine also point to the addictive ways in which Marcel’s script is geared less toward an authentic, Bollasian therapeutic text but rather toward an obsessive, idealized set of snapshots, where the prey is not a compulsive heterosexuality but rather a narcissistic lesbian identification. If Cruising is an imagistic depiction of how the gaze can corrupt the uninitiated, then Sodom and Gomorrah is a textual account of how such corruption can be processed and projected.

William Friedkin, the director and writer of Cruising, comports himself without any (intentional) bigotry or homophobia in the documentary The History of Cruising. Nonetheless, he states that he repeatedly passed on the source material when it was offered to him in the late 1970s because he felt it wasn’t “relevant”; it only became so when he became aware that gay people were being “murdered mysteriously” in the leather bars that become the backdrop of the film, and that he was attracted to making the murder weapon a knife because he “liked the idea that the knife was like a penis.” At that point, Friedkin set out to make a crime film (a la his earlier, lionized The French Connection) that depicted gay people being murdered ritually, a killer seeking to purify the world, and “innocent” heterosexual couples being corrupted by exposure to homosexuality (and, concomitantly, cruising). That homosexuality is infectious is a morality-based commentary, based in the hypothetical science of the 14th century, not the 21st. Nonetheless, these two works, however intended with degrees of beneficence or bigotry, do traffic in homophobic discourse regarding infection and sexual identity that has maintained transhistorical currency. If the mechanics of cruising engender exchanges of knowledge along with sexual possibility, then these two works demonstrate the infectious power of gazing to alter the subjectivity of those without apt desire to taste such forbidden fruit.

  1. Pinter, Harold, “Art, Truth, & Politics: The 2005 Nobel Lecture.” The Essential Pinter (New York: Grove Press, 2006). []
  2. Schehr, Lawrence R., “Gaydar: A Proustian Anatomy of Cruising,” in Proust in Perspective: Visions and Revisions, eds. Armine Kotin Mortimer and Katherine Kolb (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 174. []
  3. As we’ve learned from countless examinations of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the snapshot originated, per OED, as a “quick or hurried shot taken without deliberate aim, esp. one at a rising bird or quickly moving animal.” []
  4. Turner, Mark W., Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London (London: Reaktion, 2004), 59. []
  5. Holleran, Andrew, “Hell-bent for Leather.” Time Out New York September 6-12 2007, 153. []
  6. “The persistence of the belief that illness reveals, and is punishment for, moral laxity or turpitude can be seen in another way, by noting the persistence of descriptions of disorder or corruption as a disease. So indispensable has been the plague metaphor in bringing summary judgments about social crisis that its use hardly abated during the era when collective diseases were no longer treated so moralistically – the time between the influenza and encephalitis pandemics of the early and mid-1920s and the acknowledgement of a new mysterious epidemic illness in the early 1980s – and when great infectious epidemics were so often and confidently proclaimed a thing of the past.” Sontag, Susan, AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Collins, 1988, 1989), 57. []
  7. Boswell, John, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 53. []
  8. Magnus, Albertus, Man and the Beasts, trans. James J. Scanlan, M.D., (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1987), 64. []
  9. Ibid, 65. []
  10. Ibid, 66. []
  11. Schehr, “Gaydar,” 175. []
  12. “According to some sources, if hairs clipped from a hyena’s neck are burned and the ashes are ground to a powder and mixed with pitch, smearing this mixture on the anus of a homosexual who practices anal intercourse will cure him of his vice. An ounce of hyena bile taken as a drink with spikenard water helps relieve the hydrops [ydropisim] caused by flatulence.” Magnus, Man and the Beasts, 76-7. []
  13. Ibid, 107, emphasis mine. []
  14. Proust, Marcel, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. John Sturrock (London: Allen Lane, 2002, 1921), 9. []
  15. Carlson, Erin G. “Secret Dossiers: Sexuality, Race, and Treason in Proust and the Dreyfus Affair.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.4 (2002): 950. []
  16. “From the very beginning of this scene, a revolution had been effected in M. de Charlus in my newly opened eyes, as complete and as immediate as if he had been touched by a magic wand. Up until now, because I had not understood, I had not seen . . . [E]ach person’s vice accompanies him in the same fashion as the genie who was invisible to men for as long as they were unaware of his presence . . . But the gods are immediately perceptible to the gods, as like equally soon is to like, and as M. de Charlus had been to Jupien . . . It is reason that opens our eyes; an error dispelled lends us an extra sense.” Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 17. []
  17. “Without any comment or rationalization, Jupien’s love of Charlus is shown to be steadfast over decades and grounded in a completely secure knowledge of a fellow-creature who is neither his opposite nor his simulacrum.” Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 220. []
  18. Ladenson, Elisabeth, Proust’s Lesbianism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 74. []
  19. In the fifth volume, Finding Time Again, having reflected on the events of Sodom and Gomorrah, Marcel claims that he “regarded [Charlus’s] vice as a sickness,” which correlates with Marcel’s narrative strategies and reactions at this point in the narrative ((Proust, Marcel, Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson, [London: Allen Lane, 2002, 1927], 75); he’ll later state that Charlus’s sickness was given to progressive “stages” which “for as long as [Marcel] had been aware of it, judging by the different phases I had observed, had pursued its evolution with increasing rapidity” (146). []
  20. Turner, Backward Glances, 9. []
  21. Havemann, Ernest, “Homosexuality in America.” Life, June 26, 1964, 68. []
  22. Elari, John, “Upper West Side Story,” The Gay & Lesbian Review, Nov-Dec 2004, 30. []
  23. Turner, Backward Glances, 29. []
  24. Vilanch, Bruce, “Cruising for a Bruising,” Advocate, Aug 17, 1999, 85. []
  25. Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 181. []
  26. Ladenson also references the possibility of lesbian acquisition of masculine traits in her analysis of Sodom and Gomorrah‘s theory of inversion: “[W]e are led to infer that a woman who desires women must herself be essentially masculine, and yet such a model appears nowhere in the novel other than in Albertine’s disingenuous protestation of innocence. The reason for this strange gap must have to do with the fact that Gomorrah represents impenetrability only to those who wish to penetrate, that is, to men who desire such women.” (Ladenson, Proust’s Lesbianism, 45). []
  27. Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 233, author’s emphasis. []
  28. Bruce Vilanch has weighed in on the film and its reception over the years: “No wonder the picture became a lightning rod for a generation that was ready to tell the world they’d had enough of being demonized. Added to this – and this was the part that bothered me then – Al spends a great deal of time questioning his own sexuality just because it’s ordinary. You know – get on, get off, get out. Even worse, he wonders if he’s being drawn into this brave new world because it appeals to his dark side! Eek! But just when you think you can take no more, Al meets the killer and, in answer to the question ‘Wanna do it?’ replies ‘Lips or hips?’ It’s hard to take anything seriously after that, but I’m sure glad those mad fairies of 1980 did.” Vilanch, “Cruising for a Bruising,” 85. []
  29. Davidson, Guy, “‘Contagious Relations’: Simulation, Paranoia, and the Postmodern Condition in Wiliam Friedkin’s Cruising and Felice Picano’s The Lure.GLQ: 11.1 (2005), 23-64. Davidson has perceptively written his own take on this sequence in his work on the film, and analyzed Robin Wood’s work to great effect in considering infection as both a sexual and murderous germ: “Wood points out that [the film’s] ambiguities do not end here and that the explanation for the earlier murders seems carefully laid out and indisputable . . . Cruising supplies a predictable psychological motivation for Stuart’s killings: he kills men to whom he is attracted because he is repressing his own desire for them” (32, and referencing Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 67]). []
  30. Tomkins, Silvan, Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 192, author’s emphasis. []
  31. Davidson, again echoing Wood, draws our attention to mimesis, proliferation, and cloning as factors in the film’s body doubling and simulacra; while differing mechanically from script theory, these notions ontologically are linked to our shared concerns on contagion and repetitions in consideration of gay sociality in these milieus (Wood, Hollywood, 67, Davidson, “Contagious Relations,” 46-7). []
  32. Schehr, “Gaydar,” 175. []
  33. Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 18. []
  34. Ibid, 25. []
  35. Bollas, Christopher, Being a Character (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), 78. []
  36. Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 231, author’s emphasis. []
  37. “The Baron, who was quick to find men of his own kind wherever he was, did not doubt that Cottard was one such and was giving him the eye. He at once displayed to the Professor the severity of the invert, as contemptuous of those who feel attracted by him as he is all ardour and attentiveness towards those for whom he feels an attraction.” Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 316. []
  38. Ibid, 134. []
  39. Carlson, “Secret Dossiers,” 951. []
  40. “Yet I had observed that prior to this movement, just as Mlle Bloch and her cousin had made their appearance, there had come into my loved one’s eyes that sudden and profound attentiveness that sometimes lent this mischievous girl’s face a serious, even solemn expression, and left her looking sad afterwards” (Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 203). []
  41. Ladenson, Proust’s Lesbianism, 46, 49. []
  42. “Another incident fixed my preoccupations even more firmly in the direction of Gomorrah. On the beach had seen a beautiful young woman, slender and pale, whose eyes disposed, around their centres, rays so geometrically luminous that, faced by her gaze, you thought of a constellation. I reflected on how much more beautiful this girl was than Albertine and how it would be more sensible to give the other up. At the very most, this beautiful young woman’s face had been subjected to an invisible planning by a life of great degradation, of the constant acceptance of coarse expedients, so that her eyes, though nobler than the rest of her face, had to radiate only appetite and list. But the next day, this young woman being sat some distance from us in the casino, I could see that she never stopped letting the alternating and revolving light from her glances rest on Albertine. You would have said she was signaling to her, as if with the aid of a lighthouse.” (Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 250). []
  43. Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 232, author’s emphasis. []
  44. Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 233. []
  45. Ladenson, Proust’s Lesbianism, 133. []
  46. Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 519. []