Cruising the past

[This article was first published in print in issue 1 of sugarcane in July 2017, which was made possible by the generous financial support of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland; School of Communication and Arts, UQ; UQ Art Museum; and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, UQ.]

Michael Kretowicz


I walk into a museum–what do I see? Perhaps I see a glazed terracotta cup, wide and shallow, decorated with a scene of three bare-chested men reclined on couches. They talk amongst themselves while lithe, nude boys move between them to top up vessels just like this one. The atmosphere hums with sexual possibility. Surprise, relief, and fear collide in a kind of epiphany: this is not my time, I cannot go there, but I come to understand and identify with the past of the cup. Or, perhaps that past identifies itself with me.

Many galleries and museums now have queer or LGBTI “trails.” A trail is a selection of objects already on display, each chosen because it can tell a story about a form of beauty, presence, or sociability heretofore lost. These stories were occluded; they fell out of view. Now, they pierce through the insensate mass of History and are visible. History: it has failed queer culture; it is bonfires and dustbins–so much has been destroyed or overlooked; it assigns people, things, and feelings to their proper period, where each is said to belong. And what it does not categorise, it discards as mere facts about the past, not worth recording. History cuts time into pieces.

I can think of two responses to this violence. One, cross the line between past and present. This may take the form of a desire to escape–to get out of the present–or an attempt to pull standards from the past, by the neck if need be: use the past to describe the future one wants. Note that crossing a line matters so long as one accepts the line exists: this first response does not abolish the divisions of historical time. Two, reject the very division between past and present: stitch time back together. I follow the trail, read the stories, and re-member a past that has always belonged to me.

For a time, the first response prevailed. A man goes to the British Museum c.1875–what does he see? Perhaps he sees the past as a distinct place; its alterity gives him pause; he reflects; yes, it is different, but in a good way. Greek statues, fair and grand forms, have something to tell nineteenth century London, the money bag of England: exercise and outdoor activity toughen the body, fortify the mind, and set one down the path of self-possession and self-restraint. The present is mendicant: it can only be enriched from the outside.

There is a queer version of this response. John Addington Symonds insisted that Greek statues delivered a homo-erotic message. To admire the self-possession and self-restraint of the athlete’s body is to desire that body. Symonds celebrates this connection between virtue and desire in his prose poem “The Song of the Swimmer” (1867). The poet, walking in Hyde Park, gazes at bodies bathing in the Serpentine and the vaporous dawn:

A young rough passed before me. Uncouth he looked in his loose tattered clothes, soiled with labour and the sweat of many days. He threw his rags aside. Naked he stood there; like an athlete, like a Greek hero, like Heracles or Hermes in the dawn of noble deeds. His firm and vital flesh, white, rounded, radiant, shone upon the sward.

If one believes that Hellenic grace, hardiness, and camaraderie can ennoble English society, then the homo-erotic impulse must be loitering in one’s premises. The key point is this didactic relation to the past went hand in hand with the past as an escapist fantasy. The poem is plainly fantastical: it embellishes the distance between classes with the distance between times. Symonds desired the young rough’s body, made hard by toil; and, like a muse of bronze antiquity, he sang of this body’s noble shine. Desire across class lines was an indelible transgression whereas same-sexers felt able to exchange looks with fair and grand forms.

Many Victorians credited Plato with teaching them how to admire male beauty. At the same time, Plato spoke to them from an unreachable place, beheld by a wistful imagination. Sat at a window let open to the cool air of the May Term, Lytton Strachey told his diary:

I read for the first time, with a rush of mingled pleasure and pain the Symposium […] That day of surprise, relief, and fear to know what I feel now was felt 2000 years ago in Glorious Greece. Would I have lived then, would I had sat at the feet of Socrates, seen Alcibiades, the abused, but the great, felt with them all.

The Symposium was a totemic text for the same-sexer with an Oxbridge degree. Strachey knew he could not go to the past of Socrates and Alcibiades—“would I have lived then”—but, nevertheless, identified totally with what he thought those Greeks had felt as they reclined into one another’s company. A nod to the Symposium (“fellow drinker”) was how men might communicate a feeling or way of being together which the trustees of Victorian morals could barely describe—Parliament settled on the protean phrase, “gross indecency.”

The same held for fiction. Clive Durham, a country gent and the top Classics student in his year, falls for Maurice Hall, a boy from the suburbs; Hall is coarser and has fewer moving parts. Back from the Easter vacation, spring now in evidence, Clive pulls Maurice aside and spells things out:

“I knew you read the Symposium in the vac,” he said in a low voice.

Maurice felt uneasy.

“Then you understand—without me saying more—”

“How do you mean?”

Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue he whispered, “I love you.”

Maurice is horrified at first but soon settles into the idea. He recognises the pleasure which Clive takes in his company and knows it is reciprocal. They cut lectures, kiss a little, sleep next to each other but not together. Their falling in love occupies the first half of Maurice, written by E.M. Forster between 1913 and 1914.

Plato may have spoken to young Clive but Greece turns out to be mute and inhospitable:

Clive sat in the theatre of Dionysus. The stage was empty, as it had been for many centuries, the auditorium empty […] Here dwelt his gods […] But he saw only dying light and a dead land. He uttered no prayer, believed in no deity and knew that the past was devoid of meaning like the present, and a refuge for cowards.

Clive turns to women. Greece recedes. But Maurice insists the possibility of love between men does not go with it. The pivotal chapter of the second half describes a meeting between Maurice and Alec, the Durhams’s gamekeeper, in the British Museum. Forster knew same-sexers visited these galleries to cruise, and be cruised by, the past. He had his own encounter with a wonderful boy who “throb[bed] like something under the sea,” stone turned to flesh. But now the building suggests a tomb. Old statutes totter. Maurice’s prep school teacher appears and pays tribute to the age of heroes. The lovers are unmoved. They stand out against the perfect and bloodless marble: “Maurice swerved and their muscles clipped. By now they were in love with one another consciously.” They leave, find a room, and spend their second night together.

Forster did not want this story published during his lifetime. Maurice waited until 1971, the year after its author’s death. In the meantime, the manuscript was passed around a handful of Forster’s queer peers and mentioned to a few more. Lytton Strachey read it in 1915. He thought Forster took the sex act too seriously. The second half of the book turns on it—Maurice’s fear of it, need of it, and pursuit of it. Strachey liked the combination of Cambridge boys until one came down with a case of lust and sentiment. Maurice fussed over his prick; he had a lot to learn—and not from Alec. What most alarmed Strachey was Forster seemed to think that sex with another man was justified by one falling in love with the other. He told his friend, “I really think the whole conception of male copulation in the book rather diseased.” Ultimately, Maurice is happy with Alec, happier than he was stroking Clive’s hair, and it looks like they will last (Strachey, however, gave them six months). Some fifty years later, Forster stood behind his ever after, “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise.” That was the author’s purpose but his point, the force of what he wrote, was that same-sexers should not model themselves on what they thought Socrates felt for Alcibiades.

Maurice and Alec could not escape to the Hellenic past, nor did this past say much about how to make a future that would accept them. And, for reasons of class as much as sexual difference, they could not stay in their present, early twentieth century London. So, Forster sent them to the greenwood. They disappear into the shade of an ancient bower:

Maurice pays Clive a final visit, repudiates him and then vanishes when the other is distracted, “leaving no trace of his presence except a little pile of the petals of the evening primrose, which mourned from the ground like an expiring fire.” Clive never figures out where Maurice went or what became of him. And with Greece out of the picture, there is no past where their relationship can rest. His friend beckons to him from “some eternal Cambridge,” but no window-side epiphany is possible here. The scents and sounds of the May Term settle on a closed book and an empty chair.

We, however, have notice as to Maurice’s direction of escape. He first encounters Alec on the grounds at Penge, the Durhams’s mouldering estate. That evening, looking out his window, he imagines a life lived in the open air, in “big spaces where passion clasped peace, spaces no science could reach, but they existed for ever, full of woods, some of them, and arched with majestic sky and a friend.” This is Forster’s pastoral fantasy. The greenwood is a zone which Society has not penetrated. Maurice and Alec escape to an other England; it is “an exile they gladly embrace.”

As to their future, Forster was ambivalent. Maurice and Alec may have got out, enjoyed a bit of peace, but he doubted they could evade the bureaucratic eye of post-war government, whose agents “stamped upon, built over, and patrolled” more and more of England. The greenwood was always a nostalgic conception. Fredric Jameson describes the nostalgia of moderns like Forster as the passionate longing for exile in time. It is the anticipation and fallout of a rupture between the present and the past. Talk of big spaces no science could reach had purchase for as long as people thought those spaces were coming to an end. Forster resented the total visibility which had come to characterise modern life, the sense that one is the object of constant examination and measurement from an unseen vantage. The attraction of the greenwood did not depend on whether Maurice and Alec could really go there. It was a fantasy which made up for a future that had not yet arrived: Forster dedicated Maurice “to a happier year.” Again, the present lacks; he fashioned an escape.

Forster saw in the English countryside a past where he could imagine getting lost; the peripatetic narrator of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) sees an expansive and devastated present. He walks the county of Suffolk until rendered immobile by unnumbered confrontations with the “traces of destruction,” reaching far back into time. The narrator, a man who might be Sebald, has survived centuries; he can escape nothing. He wakes up in a Norfolk hospital and begins to write down what he can remember of his trail through the country.

Cinders and dust are the book’s keynotes. The bonfires of History appear early and their heat is felt throughout. Likewise, the narrator is drawn again and again to crumbling things. Somerleyton Hall, once an oriental palace more dazzling than anything Coleridge could imagine in an opium dream, is now a wedding venue. The aviary is empty but for a single demented quail, pacing its cage; and faded velvets line rooms filled with misplaced paraphernalia and furniture which has forgotten its intended uses. The narrator laments: “it takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.” History destroys or discards, and against this the past does not stand a chance.

Not safe with History, the past is driven into the arms of memory. Each of Sebald’s narrators embarks upon a journey in the character of a quest. The object of that quest is not always clear, but it usually involves investigations which lead him to grieve, hallucinate, evoke, and re-member a world irretrievably lost. He seeks out remnants of that world and, by the careful accumulation and exposition of each remnant’s details, lends a new fullness to the past. He makes his own trail through time. For example, the narrator of The Emigrants (1992) starts with the faint recollection of his great-uncle Ambrose at a family gathering some forty years ago and then traces Ambrose’s passage from Germany through the grand hotels of Europe, into the employment of the Solomons of Long Island, and, ultimately, to a sanatorium in Ithaca, New York. The narrator visits several of these places. At Ithaca, he locates Dr Abramsky, assistant to the psychiatrist who ran the sanatorium. Medical records have since rotted away. But Abramsky remembers Ambrose committed himself of his own free will and submitted to daily electric shock treatment. He recounts the last day of Ambrose’s life:

I see him lying before me […] the electrodes on his temples, the rubber bit between his teeth, buckled into the canvas wraps that were riveted to the treatment table like a man shrouded for burial at sea. The session proceeded without incident.

This is so close. But about another aspect of Ambrose’s life there is complete reticence: Ambrose’s nephew says his uncle, “was of the other persuasion.” The narrator never mentions this again, let alone investigates his great-uncle’s sexuality. We are told that Ambrose spent much of his life traveling with and waiting on the younger Solomon, Cosmo. They spent unnumbered summers together, including many in Normandy and at least one aboard a steam yacht, cruising from Venice to Greece and onto Constantinople. The narrator reads Ambrose’s diary from the latter holiday but passes no comment on the reference to “our bed,” and to Cosmo stirring at the diarist’s side early one morning. Ambrose’s sexuality and how it related to the rest of his life are not explained. The narrator cannot evoke the ordeals of this man who may have loved his employer’s son—for as long as they knew each other, for the course of their trip across the Mediterranean, or for a few hours that morning in Constantinople, before Cosmo woke up. Ambrose’s inner life is, in large part, beyond the reach of memory.

The Ambrose of The Emigrants is not the Ambrose who was known to his contemporaries, even to himself. Not his family, not his employers, not his doctors had so broad an understanding of where he came from and how he came to his end. James Wood, writing in the New Republic, observes that Sebald’s collection of these facts does not preserve the past as it really was but transforms the cinders and dust into something “newly real” which can exist only in Sebald’s fictions—that is to say, in memory. The past of The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn cannot exist independently of the narrator, who gathers up its remnants and then imbues them with a fullness which Wood calls “parasitical of, yet rivalrous to, the real world.” This appears to explain the epigraph which introduces The Emigrants, “And the last remnants / memory destroys.” Again, to remember is not to preserve the past but to transform its traces into something new, which exists in and belongs to the narrator’s memory.

Memory is the defeat of historical time–time as men like Symonds and Forster knew it (a pregnant past, a present which lacks, and an unresolved future). The narrator of The Rings of Saturn, walking toward an abandoned Cold War-era research facility set on a coastal promontory, describes the collapse of those categories into an expansive present:

The closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe.

At first, the facility belongs to a distinct and inaccessible past. Indeed, for many years people were forbidden from approaching the site. But now, the narrator can go there and, as he makes his way across the island, the living merge with the dead. He sees his own civilisation alive and then remembers that time has already run out on it. Every memory is this catastrophe. Time is not a chain of discrete events but appears as one continuing disaster which heaps its remains around his feet. The narrator inhabits a future whose possibilities are now exhausted and so fills his days ruminating on a past that will not go down. He feels haunted by “ghosts of repetition.” Nothing new can happen: every gesture he might make or opinion he might utter feels somehow familiar, as if it has already been expressed, then catalogued and put on display in an imaginary museum. Those visitations can reduce him to a state of immobility, “as though, without being aware of it, one had suffered a stroke.” But these are never fatal. The narrator ultimately sees himself as one of the “survivors.”

In this way, Sebald takes a long second look at the violence of European modernity. Compare Forster: he tried to save Maurice from a hostile present by sending him to the imagined past of the greenwood. Sebald denies his narrators that escape. He challenges them to stitch time back together and comprehend the emotional and material change of the last few centuries as if each had lived through it. As a result, they mourn for the violence done to the newly real, for Ambrose or Somerleyton Hall; they mourn for the violence of historical time in general, its tendency to break up and discard; and, they mourn for what they cannot remember and must leave out of their account.

On his journey the narrator encounters fragments of time which he cannot evoke or explain, including from his own life: “At earlier times, in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air.” We do not know when those earlier times were or where that valley was; we cannot say why the swallows disappeared; but the narrator addresses us like we can help him make sense of these things. This reticence is, in Wood’s phrase, “the very stutter of mourning.” The text is full of such inexpressible gaps. Ambrose’s sexuality, which I have already discussed, is another example. It is raised on a handful of occasions and obliquely each time, in contrast to, say, the circumstances of his death: the narrator asks Dr Abramsky to describe the process of shock treatment and records the answers in unflinching detail. But when the psychiatrist mentions the diagnosis (senile depression) may have been incorrect, the narrator lets this revelation hang. The suggestion Ambrose’s despondency had something to do with his experience of the closet can only be conjectural. His inner life, like the world from which the swallows disappeared, cannot be evoked in memory and must remain unfamiliar.

Sebald’s fictions are devoid of nostalgia in the sense that the narrators do not long for exile in time. They see (almost) everything at once and from above. The vantage of memory is akin to that of a person who stands at the centre of a camera obscura: the narrator sees a panorama projected onto the walls around him; time is visible from every direction. He regards these images with degrees of unease though often looks closer: “In response to my request, Dr Abramsky described shock treatment in greater detail.” More unsettling is the abundance of time itself, which, as mentioned, can lead to a kind of immobility that feels like one is suffering a stroke. But none of this causes the narrator to give up his vantage. He does not contemplate a return to the linear perspective of History.

Likewise, nobody sincerely wants to live in the time when sex between men was illegal, let alone the time of Plato, when pederasty was the go. Mary Beard blinks at the proposal that a nice man from the BBC conduct sex education classes in the British Museum: we cannot look at Greek sexuality “head on,” she says; we need a less didactic approach. No one looks longingly back on the greenwood, either. Whereas Forster thought it was best for Maurice that he disappears, his life shaded from scrutiny and measurement, so many queer people now rejoice in being seen.

Total visibility is not just a pattern in contemporary culture but a principle which guides action. The primary concern of something like a museum trail is to make the queerness of other times visible to us: it identifies the traces of that queerness and invites the visitor to remember lives that were lived in ways never known to History. But the risk is that these memories of the newly real will flow a little too easily–ike a succession of floats at the pride parade. This is not to say every remembering must be a Sebaldian lament. We should rejoice in each story of a person who managed to tell someone else who they were. And I take it as read that there is plenty for which queer people can grieve. But we should allow ourselves to stutter, too. If the inner life of a person like Ambrose proves difficult to evoke, then perhaps we should not strain for it.

Our vantage, that of memory rather than History, may lead to a sense that other times can always be made visible and culturally familiar. We prefer the company of similar ghosts. Any gesture, any style, any sensibility–it can be reclaimed for now. Exploration of complexity or a spectrum of identities might restrain that impulse, but these can become mana words—plugs that adjust themselves to the size of the hole. My point is people are also defined by lacunae. Certain forms of beauty, presence, and sociability are now beyond apprehension. I do not mean the search for remnants is futile. The search is worth undertaking whether it yields another story for one’s trail or not: negative space is no less meaningful for the colour that surrounds it. Rather than trying to close these gaps, I suggest reticence is how we can mourn for queer ways to be which are now impossible to imagine.


About the author: Michael Kretowicz graduated from UQ in 2018 and is currently reading for the MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

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